Monday, August 15, 2016

The Film Till Then

Ever since the beginnings of the film medium, certain cinephiles, committed to its progress, have periodically felt a chill. A promising start, a fresh approach, and it somehow takes a wrong turn, causing some observers to despair of the medium's chances of survival as a serious, vital endeavor for the exploration of the human soul. Sometimes it's a catastrophic economic slump or a world war that is the cause of collapse. At others, it's success itself that isolates artists from their sources of inspiration.

Just after I was born in 1958 there appeared such a large number and variety of brilliant and challenging films that a new audience for them came of age. Stanley Kauffmann was moved to announce the arrival of a Film Generation. Within a few years, however, something happened to persuade most of that audience to move on to other things. It was largely due to a shift in world film toward more commercialized productions, but it was also because of the short lifespans of most filmmakers' originality and creativity. No sooner had Antonioni arrived with his extraordinary trilogy than he signed a three-picture contract with MGM and disappeared into Death Valley. Truffaut, who had made three of the most ebullient films of the New Wave in succession, fell to making lifeless thrillers or poor sequelae for his alter-ego Antoine Doinel. Two great filmmakers of the 50s, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, went into sharp nose-dives halfway through the 60s. Some critics, noticing this rather abrupt decline of one of the most heartening periods in film history, commented on it, with one of them (Dwight Macdonald) abandoning film criticism altogether.

Since then we have seen great directors appear, from Italy (Moretti, Amelio), Sweden (Troell), France (Tavernier), Belgium (the Dardenne brothers), Japan (Kore-eda), and Taiwain (Tsai Ming-Liang) whose films seemed all the more impressive in their very isolation. But no movements worth mentioning, no groundswells of talent. Susan Sontag wrote about the death of a certain taste in films, while Godfrey Cheshire commented on the actual death of celluloid. Neither seems to have been terminal as of yet.

This past week, in the midst of consulting one of the oldest books of film theory ever written, on Tuesday I was confronted by BBC Culture's The 21st Century's 100 greatest films. While such lists are evidence that enthusiasm for film is alive and well, they also demonstrate the extent to which clear judgement is virtually extinct. Fifteen and a half years is not nearly enough time to make a hundred "great" films. It made me wonder what a list would look like of the 20th Century's 100 greatest films if it had been compiled in 1916.

Needing a restorative (if not a chronic), I turned to Paul Rotha's monumental book, The Film Till Now, which I first encountered in the early 70s. Published in 1930 when the silent film was breathing its last, Rotha allowed it to be re-published in 1949, with additional material ("The Film Since Then") supplied by the American film scholar Richard Griffith. In his preface to the new edition, Rotha wrote:

"Films recollected in memory, says Richard Griffith, are apt to be biased by nostalgia. How right he is! When I was fortunate enough to spend some months at the Film Library in New York in 1937 and '38, I found that out only too well. On the other hand seeing old films again brings pleasant surprises; things you never saw and certainly implications which you were too inexperienced to observe. In general, however, films of the past usually live in our mind as being better than they really were, especially fiction films. Memory adds values to them that were never there. Yet divorcing technique from view-point, one realises now how much one missed by not understanding fully a director's aim at the time, or not knowing the conditions under which a film was made, or the purpose indeed for which the film was made at all. Since the manuscript of this book was first written, I have at least found out that the more you become involved in making films the less you know about them. Sometimes I have sat in a cutting-room with film draped round the walls and overflowing the bins and realised just how little one does know about the infinite possibilities of this wonderful medium, with its magic property of joining image to image and mixing sound with sound. Certainly I would not again have the audacity to try and write a survey of the world's cinema now that I know not only how difficult it is to make a film but how much more difficult it is to find the economic conditions in which you can use the medium with honesty and sincerity. It is always tragic to me that a film-director must spend some three-quarters of his time negotiating the ways and means to make the film he wants to make and only a quarter in actually making the film itself. To the director with something he thinks it important to say the means of production are so hard to come by that much creative time is spent in merely getting access to the expensive materials of film production. These past thirty years have seen a steady concentration of all means of film production in Western Europe and the United States. With the possibility of making very large returns both from a home-market and from audiences overseas, the film industries of most countries have now become more than ever before a matter of financial investment and international trade bargaining at the highest level. The film is no longer the happy-go-lucky investment of small-time entrepreneurs. It is gambling in public taste on the grand scale and has tended inevitably to be restricted to those controlling the other great international manufactures.

"The screen's reflection of a people's character and ideals and traditions, its unlimited power to create goodwill and promote understanding, its unequalled importance as a medium for public communication are motives which have been largely overlooked in the scramble to monopolise this universal show-business. Governments, banks, insurance companies, electrical cartels and other holders of big capital guide the destiny of the motion picture medium rather than the creative artists who seek to use it as an outlet for their ideas and imaginations. Almost the whole potential of the cinema as an instrument of public education has been neglected by the Industry's controllers in their pursuit of big returns. Little attempt, except in the field of documentary films, has as yet been made to use this powerful medium as a contribution to world thought. It has been characteristic of the Industry always to aim to produce its films for the largest possible number of people, and hence stand to gain the biggest revenue. Seldom have the serious social responsibilities attached to such an undertaking been recognised by the executives of the Industry. If the same disregard for responsibility were to obtain in the publishing or broadcasting worlds, public alarm would be at once expressed. The cinema has grown up as a cheap and convenient form of community amusement causing experiment in its artistic potentialities to be scarce and difficult to achieve. Only recently has it aroused the attention of educationalists and those concerned with social progress and moral welfare. Up till lately the interest of capitalist governments has been mainly confined to the film's commodity value and its vast yield in taxes. The showmen and promoters have been left to do what they liked with their adolescent Industry. To-day, they not illogically resent interference from the outside. The fact that the head of a Government department or a member of Parliament can have made himself knowledgeable about the complex internal affairs of the Industry has come as rather a shock. But the making of sincere films by men who have something valuable and not necessarily unentertaining to say in the world has become a dim prospect when viewed in relation to the constant need to keep screen-space and studio-space filled, the call to save dollars, the spread of trade and what are hypocritically called 'ways of life' by film exploitation, the need not only to relate box-office revenue to production cost but perhaps to adjust this picture to make money and that one to lose it in order to satisfy an accountant's balance-sheet. To produce a good fiction film to-day is often a matter of luck, or the stern insistence of a director having the guts and faith to stick by his intentions. When I see a Crossfire, a Miracle or an Overlanders, I give thanks to someone somewhere who has broken through the defences."

Rotha continues in some destail to assess the condition of the film medium in 1949. But what is striking about the comments quoted so far is the extraordinary passion that Rotha expresses. His words on film are those of a BELIEVER. Like the poets prior to Milton who believed implacably in a life after death, Rotha's faith in the medium was unshakable. He was convinced not only of the persistence of serious filmmaking in the future but in its preeminence as the most vital artistic medium.

But Rotha's words were also a warning against the growing difficulties of "adult" contributions to film. He could see powerful financial interests trying to control what they regarded as nothing more than a profitable market. What Rotha could not have foreseen was the disintegration of the once-impregnable Hollywood studio system and the breakup of its monopoly on filmmaking in America. It is sad to speculate what Rotha would make of BBC Culture's list of the 21st Century's 100 greatest films. Not only would he see the extraordinary alteration of the medium itself, but how the arbiters of taste have been transformed into fashion-following fanboys, as immature and ignorant as the average consumer.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Restoration Blues

In the small collection of digital films I have on my tablet, I have a copy of Jean Renoir's early sound film, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). When I watched it with my girlfriend, I was astonished. It was a Criterion print, made from the best available materials - perhaps from a brand new positive print struck from the original negative made especially for the transfer. It looked like so many such restorations: like it must have looked when it was first released eighty-fiur years ago. There's a scene in which Boudu, played by the irreplaceable Michel Simon, goes begging in a park. The sunshine is startlingly bright and clear and the women's clothes and hair, that are the only visible indication of the period, look like the latest haute couture. All I could think of when I watched the scene was what a beautiful day it was - a day in the past that is otherwise forever lost. As a cinephile, to have such things in my possession is a quite special kind of collector's pride.

When I first saw Boudu, it was probably at the Ogden Theater in Denver in the late '70s. It was a print in general circulation with all of the marks of its history: big reels of celluloid film passed from city to city in metal cans, handled by projectionists who sometimes have to make repairs to the film if it breaks or is otherwise damaged in the projector. Foreign objects - grease, dirt, hairs - are deposited on the film as it jerks through the aperture through which the intense light is directed. A chain of custody report informs the distributor or the next projectionist of problems encountered during the film's presentation to the public.

The Boudu I saw in Denver all those years ago was much like the one Wilfrid Sheed saw in New York a decade earlier, whose qualities, he wrote in his Esquire column, could not be accurately assessed because of what he called the thick "period fuzz" that permeated and obscured it. There were unaccountable lapses in continuity, sudden inexplicable jump cuts (long before the technique had been invented) and an overall dark pall seemed to envelop every scene, both indoors and out. This was all due to the total lack of care taken by the owner of the film's copyright and by the careless distribution to which the film was subjected. A great many films of the period in which Boudu was made, and before and after it, suffered from the same neglect.

To single out the history of just one (great) film, what many - including me - consider to be Charlie Chaplin's greatest film, The Gold Rush, was released to great success and critical acclaim in 1925. In 1942, Chaplin decided to re-release it, but removed all the intertitles and added his own spoken narration, along with an original musical score. Chaplin had possession of all of the material shot in 1925, in mint condition, and the re-release, seventeen years later, revealed more evidence of Chaplin's genius to a whole new audience. In 1953, however, Chaplin, who was living in Switzerland by then (his return visa was revoked because of the Red Scare witch hunts), neglected to renew the copyright of the original silent version of The Gold Rush, and the rights lapsed into public domain. By the time I first saw the film, it had been a victim of more than a decade of public domain ill-treatment, in which anyone could distribute a copy of the film, no matter how horrible its condition. Even when the 1925 version of The Gold Rush was rescued by copyright and its original negative salvaged and restored, it revealed noticeable differences from Chaplin's 1942 version, missing frames and generally degraded images. It's a tribute to Chaplin's genius that a film in such a sorry condition ever survived in people's memories as anything other than a faded, murky shadow of its former self, one of the innumerable films that millennials call "gray" rather than black and white.

In a recent essay on Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (which he didn't think much of), Richard Brody writes that "There are two main reasons to restore a film: one is artistic merit; the other is historical significance."(1) These are perfectly sound guidelines for the preservation and restoration of films. Henri Langlois, pioneer of the Cinematheque Francaise, discovered the hard way that any attempts at "triage" - the application of aesthetic standards in the pickng and choosing stage - was ultimately impossible and actually detrimental to the process of film preservation. Restoration, which is a proactive singling out of certain films for a painstaking and expensive reconstruction - and sometimes resurrection, is too often a matter of judgement. Which films, among the thousands rotting away in vaults around the world, are worthy of the loving attention of restorers? And which ones will have to wait until the next round? Clearly, sometimes such decisions are left up to the wrong people. While I was exceedingly pleased to see David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia restored to its original director's cut glory twenty-five years ago, I was much less pleased by the lavishing of the same loving attention on expertly made trash like Hitchcock's Vertigo.

All this said about the loving kindness of film restoration, about the joy of seeing a film in its most optimum condition, sometimes for the first time since it was first shown in theaters, I have to express a certain degree of nostalgia for the bad old days when a distributor like Peppercorn-Wormser bought the rights to an obscure film from Poland or Brazil or South Korea (and there must be hundreds of such films by now that lie forgotten in some storage room in New York or L.A.), make copies at as low an expense as possible, apply clumsily-translated English subtitles to it (much of which are unreadable) and screened in decrepit art houses across America, a number of which I visited in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In the early days of home video, there were companies like Blackhawk Films that slowly realeased its extensive catalog of silent films, like the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad and Video Yesteryear that unhurriedly released its unusual selection of foreign films, like Susumu Hani's Nanami - aka Inferno of First Love. Long before it was released in a more acceptable condition, Video Yesteryear released a video version of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water that was so dark that the night scene on that beautiful lake looked like it was shot on a moonless night with no artificial lighting whatever. Even the subtitles were illegible. But watching it was a fairly accurate reconstruction of the experience of sitting in a cavernous movie theater (or auditorium) on some forgotten evening in the 70s when I was full-time college student dreaming of futures that never came to pass. Such cheap, careless reproductions are reminders of how far we have come to finally sanctify cherished filmgoing experiences.

(1) "Louis Malle's 'Elevator to the Gallows,' and its historic Miles Davis Soundtrack," The New Yorker, August 3, 2016.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Poison of Hope

By sheer coincidence, or happy accident, I was listening to a James Taylor album, Walking Man, while everyone at the DNC was waiting to hear Hillary Clinton give what they were touting was going to be the "most important speech of her life", accepting the nomination of her party as the first woman candidate for president in American history. I admit that, even though I am a proud Leftist, I saw and heard about as little of the DNC as I had of the RNC. I find such spectacles to be unbearably effusive. As one of the converted, why do so many if the homilies of the Democrats sound so fulsome and sometimes hollow? So, rather than wait for any of the speakers who preceded Hillary's historic speech to "play the other side" and say something original, something I haven't heard a hundred times, I pushed the "mute" button on my TV remote control and put on some music.

James Taylor's album Walking Man starts off with the title track, which has always been one of my favorite songs: "Well the leaves have come to turnin'/And the goose has gone to fly/And bridges are for burnin'/So don't you let that yearnin' pass you by . . ." But the first track is the only song on the album that became a hit, even making it to Taylor's Greatest Hits album.

But after that, what caught my ear was track #3, the song called "Let It All Fall Down." Taylor wrote it in response to Richard Nixon and Watergate, which was one of the lowest points in U.S. history. Nixon's crimes, his cocksure confidence that he was above the law, and the necessity of forcing him to resign, which saved the country further upheaval, made many Americans (like Taylor) doubtful that politics was fair or that it could bring about positive change.

The song starts, sarcastically, with the opening bars of "Hail to the Chief" and then launches into some of Taylor's most biting lyrics:

Sing a song for the wrong and the wicked and the strong and the sick, as thick as thieves.
For the faceless fear that was never so near, too clear to misbelieve.
Well the sea is jumping salty and the porpoise has the blues,
my recollection's faulty and I cannot find my shoes.
And my wiring is misfiring due to cigarettes and booze,
I'm behind in my dues, I just now got the news.
He seems to tell us lies and still we will believe him,
then together he will lead us into darkness, my friends.

Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.
Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.

The man says stand to one side, son, we got to keep this big ball rolling.
It's just a question of controlling for whom the bell is tolling.
Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.
Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.

There'll be suffering and starvation in the streets, young man.
Just where have you been, old man? Just look out of your window, man.
Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.
Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.

Well, it ain't nobody's fault but our own,
still, at least we might could show the good sense
To know when we've been wrong, and it's already taken too long.
So we bring it to a stop then we take it from the top,
we let it settle on down softly like your gently falling snow
or let it tumble down and topple like the temple long ago.

Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.
Let it fall down, let it fall down, let it all fall down.

Gerald Ford, Nixon's successor, finally brought an end to the Vietnam conflict in 1975 by simply pulling the plug. Our clear defeat in Vietnam, despite the degree of destruction we wrought on the tiny country and neighboring countries, and the cost in both American lives and American dollars, was a double failure because we so swiftly turned our backs on it and neglected to try and learn something from it. Even the rash of Vietnam War movies, good and bad, that ensued failed to teach Americans anything about American power and its catatrophic misuses.

This coming November 8, American voters will be faced with what is easily the worst choice of candidates ever. Donald Trump is far too ridiculous to take seriously. His attitudes toward people - everyone who isn't in his tax bracket (whatever it may be) - are loathsome and detestable. He is clearly in it for the power that the office of president will bestow on him, not being satisfied with ruining other people with his rapacious acquisition of money, by any means necessary. Despite the amount and degree of personal attacks that his candidacy has provoked, he is obviously all-in.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is the other half of the biggest power couple in modern history. They seem to have arrived at a secret pact that keeps them together no matter what scandals, past, present and future, come down the pike. Whatever progressive ideals she may ascribe to, it seems to me that the White House has been her ultimate goal for at least the last fifteen years - since she had to move out of the White House in 2001. She was certainly one of the most active - and strident - First Ladies in history, even if her activities seemed to be a distraction - for her at least - from the incessant scandals that swirled around her husband. The result is that separating herself from him and from the bad smell he left in the room (regardless of what he accomplished as the president) was surprisingly effortless.

I had an image of Hillary in 2008, gliding calmly down a long red carpet toward the Democratic nomination, her eyes fixed ahead of her, when suddenly she was overtaken by Barack Obama and watched, transfixed, as he snatched the prize away from her. Despite her support for Obama throughout his two terms, and even her promises to continue some of his reforms, nobody has been mistaken about her intention to replace him. Her procession down the red carpet this time, despite the surprising noise of Old Bernie Sanders coming up behind her, was uneventful. She is now the first woman to be nominated by a major political party to run for president.

I couldn't bring myself to listen to Hillary's historic acceptance speech on Thursday night (Friday morning where I write this). Whatever she had to say about the great cracks appearing in the "glass ceiling," she seems to be exploiting the history of the moment. And why shouldn't she? I just don't think she would've got this far, or nearly as far as this, if her name wasn't Clinton.

Both sides in this presidential race are telling their supporters to vote for their candidate because victory for the other candidate will be a disaster for our country. The two parties are asking us to overcome whatever misgivings we may have against their candidate because, no matter how grave those misgivings may be, allowing the other candidate to win will bring about the end of America as we know it. And not voting - or voting for a third-party candidate - will certainly precipitate the election of the more loathsome candidate. The Devil or the Deep Blue Sea.

Searching online for material about Saul Bellow's Herzog, I came upon several pages in PDF format of what appear to be Bellow's typewritten notes to the novel. One note stood out:

"p.4 He now sat down, Not that long disease my life, but that long convalescence, my life. The liberal-bourgeois revision, the illusion of improvement, the poison of hope."

To this, all I can say is,

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!*

*Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 3.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Window Washing

One of the most boring ceremonies ever invented by the U.S. Navy is the Change of Command, in which one unit commander, the incoming one, is "piped aboard" by a boatswain's mate and the outgoing commander is "piped ashore," and in between the assembled sailors belonging to the unit stand in ranks at attention or at "parade rest" for the duration - which can be hours.

My last unit was stationed not aboard a ship but ashore on the Japanese island of Okinawa - a small admiral's staff consisting of about fifty officers and enlisted. Despite the fact that we had no dining facility, there were three Mess Specialists (cooks) assigned to the unit to serve the admiral and chief of staff on the rare occasions when we embarked on a ship.

For the change of command ceremony, held inside of an empty warehouse set aside for the occasion, these Mess Specialists, a Senior Chief Petty Officer and two seamen, were employed setting up tables and, because there was a formal dinner afterwards for the officers, arranging all the place settings. Since it was a Saturday and there were only three of them, they were at work late into the afternoon. At one point, probably resentful that he was obliged to work on a Saturday (yes, we had weekends off ashore in the Navy), one of the seamen began to complain.

"I ain't nothin' but a slave," he said. The Senior Chief, who was a Filipino, told him to "stop using that word."

"What word, Senior Chief?" the seaman (who was black) asked. "You mean 'slave'?"

"Yes," the Senior Chief replied. "Stop using that word."

"Don't you tell me I can't use that word," the seaman argued. "That's my word! I'll say it as many times as I want. Slave slave slave slave slave!"

I was reminded of this anecdote when I read in The Atlantic about Corey Menafee, a dishwasher at Yale Uniersity's Calhoun College dining hall. Last June 13, having worked at Calhoun for nine years, Menafee quietly climbed a ladder and shattered a stained-glass window that had been staring down at him all the time the 38-year-old had been working there. The scene that the offending stained glass window depicted included the figures of two slaves, a man and a woman, who were balancing bales of cotton on their heads. The college was named for John C. Calhoun, who is lately remembered as an outspoken proponent of slavery.

In April 2015, Yale president Peter Salovey answered requests from student activists to remove some of Calhoun College's more politically questionable monuments to a museum, not to obscure the facts of the College's history but to restore the monuments to their historical context, i.e., the distant past.

Menafee told the New Haven Independent that he found the particular image of black slaves "racist, very degrading." Asked if he knew about John C. Calhoun, Menafee said, "When I walked into this job, I wasn't aware of none of that. And then, you know, being there, you start hearing different things. I took a broomstick, and it was kind of high, and I climbed up and reached up and broke it. It's 2016, I shouldn't have to come to work and see things like that."

Menafee performed his act of "civil disobedience" (his words) not after hours when no one was watching, but in front of a room full of dining students. He then went to a rest room and shaved, making himself presentable for when "the authorities" arrived. He was taken away by police in handcuffs.

Menafee later apologized and "resigned" from his job. On July 14, Yale announced that it was not pursuing charges against Menafee and were not seeking any financial restitution.

The trouble with this story - as reported - is that it doesn't really add up. Clearly, there must have been something that set Menafee off, something unusual. If not, why did it take him nine years to make up his mind to carry out his act of destruction? (It doesn't really qualify as civil disobedience, unless Menafee had been a window washer, dutifully cleaning and clarifying an offensive image.) Having worked as a dishwasher once, for only a few weeks, I have nothing but respect for someone who could do it for nine years. There was no mention of how much Yale University pays a dishwasher, but it was enough to keep Mr. Menafee gainfully employed for nine years and enough to make him want to come back, if the university trusts him around windows.

The Atlantic article concluded with the folowing subtly-worded paragraph:

"For the past year, student activists at Yale have campaigned for the university to change the name of Calhoun College because of its links to slavery. But in April, Yale said it would keep the name. The former vice president and former student of Yale once said of slavery: 'I hold, then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.'"

Even at the height of its democracy, Ancient Greece had a sizeable population of slaves. How could the same men who invented democracy and philosphy, who gave us Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, have found a way to justify slavery? Certainly it wasn't enough for them to argue that every other preceding and contemporary civilization had slaves, so why can't we? They practiced self-rule, the principle of one man, one vote, and not some form of autocratic tyranny practiced by their neighbors. In one of his essays collected in The Dyer's Hand, W. H. Auden reasoned that “In accepting and defending the social institution of slavery, the Greeks were harder-hearted than we but clearer-headed; they knew that labor as such is slavery, and that no man can feel a personal pride in being a laborer. A man can be proud of being a worker – someone, that is, who fabricates enduring objects, but in our society, the process of fabrication has been so rationalized in the interests of speed, economy and quantity that the part played by the individual factory employee has become too small for it to be meaningful to him as work, and practically all workers have been reduced to laborers."

In the quotation cited by The Atlantic, John C. Calhoun was correct, even if his use of human history to justify an inhuman injustice was opportunistic. While history has certainly judged him for his defense of slavery, it has proved his thesis. Call it slavery or call it gainful employment, every society values some forms of labor over others. Even if you were to inform the average American that the starting pay for a garbage collector in many American cities is higher than that of a teacher, he might try to argue that garbage collection is more important than teaching. And that admission alone would tell you everything you need to know about what's wrong with America.

George Orwell said of dishwashing that "Like sweeping, scrubbing and dusting, it is of its nature an uncreative and life-wasting job."(2) It is one of those tasks that should be - and eventually will be - done by robots. We can then justify our enslavement of machines however we wish, as long as we never forget our enslavement of one another.

(1) "A Shattering Act of Civil Disobedience," by J. Weston Phippen, The Atlantic, July 14, 2016.
(2) "As I Please," Tribune, 9 February 1945.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Confessions of a Sepulturero

Twenty-six days after arriving in the Philippines, I met the woman who has been my constant companion, my asawa, ever since - a Filipina who was born in the province of Leyte, an island an hour's flight from Manila by plane, but more than a day by bus or by ferry. I was introduced to her family - to her mother, her brothers and sisters, and her four children. Over the years since then I have met uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and neices, and - so far - her one grandchild.

One morning in our second house there was a knock on the door. Marcelina, my asawa's mother, was standing on my terrace, having just finished a walk along the highway. Something was wrong. There was a puddle of urine at her feet and a puzzled look on her face. I called out to my asawa to come quickly. Together we helped her mother down the terrace steps and a short distance to her brother's house, where she laid down. By evening, she couldn't speak coherently and could no longer control her bowels. She was taken to the provincial hospital. They told my asawa that she was probably having a stroke, but that they hadn't the proper equipment to make a diagnosis, and recommended she be carried by ambulance to Tacloban, the nearest big city. The cost of transporting her, of the catscan, and further treatment, however, far exceeded everyone's resources, even if we were to ask everyone, far and wide, to chip in. So a decision was made to simply take Marcelina home to her village, for everyone to provide whatever they could for her upkeep, and to keep her as comfortable as possible. The old woman finally died six months later. My asawa screamed when she got the call. I think of Marcelina whenever I hear of how much Americans spend every year for veterinary care of their pets, including surgical procedures and the very catscan that might have prolonged Marcelina's life, if only for another few years.

Jaime, my asawa's older brother (he was a year older than I), was a feared and respected titan of a man. I had already heard stories about some of his violent exploits when I heard another knock on my door one evening and went onto my terrace to meet him. He had a presence that was almost palpable, standing in a corner against the concrete railing. He smiled at me and shook my hand. His grip was beefy and rough. I could tell that he liked foreigners, and I suppose that I had my asawa to thank for whatever she had told him about me to inspire such friendliness. He had come to our island province to escape from some trouble he had gotten into up north. He was with his wife and he lived for awhile very close to my house, until after Marcelina's stroke, when he moved to an adjacent barangay, into a bamboo house on the ocean shore. He soon began to have problems with his weight, since he had changed from a very active to an almost totally sedentary life. There was nothing to do in the province, and rumors began to circulate about he and another woman in the barangay. Over the following years, I saw him on the rare occasions when I would go with my asawa to his house, a festival here and a festival there, an open-air disco.

Jaime had a daughter who was married to a German man, and an adopted son who lived with them in Germany. This young man came to visit him every so many years, and bought him a motorcycle and sent money every month for his parents' support. Jaime started to exercise with his wife, got himself back in shape and applied for a job as a bodyguard for the provincial governor. He gave up being a "babaero" (playboy) and went to church for what was probably the first time in decades. And only a week later, having eaten his dinner, he confessed to his wife that he wasn't feeling well. He laid down to wait for it to pass, but got up feeling worse. On the way to the hospital he lost consciousness. He was pronounced DOA. He had a massive heart attack.

His nephew delivered the news to us, coming in the door in tears in the late afternoon. My asawa screamed. That was at the end of last February. On Friday morning, July 1st, her youngest son came in the door to tell her that her daughter Jenelyn was dead.

I first met Jenelyn Dalde Adriano, aka Jenelyn Mirabete, when her mother brought her around to my hotel room in a Philippine resort town just before Christmas 2007. She was 17, and delightfully pretty. And I could tell how proud her mother was of her, who told me how many people loved her and would watch out for her through the years as she was growing up.

Here is what I know about her. She was born in Barangay Ul-Ug, in the town of Calubian, Leyte Province, on April 15, 1990. Her father, named Mirabete, was an engineer. When he learned that she was pregnant, he took Jenelyn's mother back to Calubian to be with her family. He made some promises, said goodbye, and was never seen again.

Two years later, Jenelyn's mother was with another man named Mendoza, with whom she had four more children over the following twelve years, one of whom died in early childhood. When she was 8, Jenelyn was already vivacious, always laughing, the darling of everyone who knew her. The fact that she wasn't his child must have been all the excuse that her step-father needed to rape her.

When her uncle Jaime heard about it, he started beating Mendoza to death. The police stopped him, arrested Mendoza and put him behind bars. A few weeks later, Jenelyn's two brothers, ages 6 and 4, who couldn't have known what their father had done to their sister, went to their mother in tears and begged her to get Mendoza out of jail. Without a bread winner, there was no other way she could support her three children, so she dropped the charges against Mendoza.

A year or so ago, Jenelyn started using her father's last name and expressed some interest in finding him. She called me "daddy" every time we spoke or texted each other, which gave me a strange thrill. I was looking forward to her coming to live with us next month, for her mother's and her little sister's sakes, but also for perfectly selfish reasons. Her coffin was carried to the cemetery today. I couldn't be there. I was left behind here in the province to look after her little sister, who is in school.

Above it all - the rumors, the bother about money, the time needed to travel there (which is something around thirty hours) - there she laid in the cooler until the undertaker (sepulturero) was given permission to remove her and prepare her for her coffin. And there was the inescapable thought, no matter how unnaturally perfect the undertaker made her look under the glass lid, of the final moments of her life, that were spent in terror and pain. And the knowing this, that no matter how many people loved her along her twenty-six years of life, and everything she had seen and known, there was that terror and pain, the last things she felt or knew before the light went out of her eyes. How could anyone face the vigil, the hours of the nights staying awake, talking, playing cards, sitting out the long wait to ensure that the dead were really dead and that her soul had a little company before it escaped her body. I remember my older sister at our father's funeral in 1988. She knelt beside our mother with her head in her lap, silently grieving. She would be dead, too, in less than a year.

Since the day we met in December 2007, my asawa has buried her mother Marcelina, her brother Jaime, and now her daughter Jenelyn. It is only natural that a country that has so much life in it should have as much death. In my country death is hidden away from us. I was given just enough time, in 1988 and 1998, to see the bodies of my dead father and mother before they were spirited away. In the Philippines, coffins are carried into people's homes and the dead are displayed for everyone to come and see. For days, everyone gathers in the evenings to eat, drink, and reminisce about the person who died. Then the funeral procession to the cemetery takes place, where an above-ground sepulchre waits to be filled. Forty days after the person's death, a pig is killed and barbequed and the family feasts one last time. Some people fear the end of the world, but worlds are going out of existence all around us, every day.

What now? As Paul wrote to the Hebrews, "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."

Monday, July 4, 2016

Taking It All In

[Time to remind myself of my exceptional Americanness on American Independence Day.]

I spent my last three years in the Navy stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I had loved Japanese culture, its literature and especially its splendid films, since I was in my teens. Since my unit was the command of amphibious forces for the Seventh Fleet, and since the vast majority of the Fleet's marines were on the island of Okinawa, my unit's headquarters was situated on a remote promontory of the west coast of the island called White Beach, from which we embarked on ships or on aircraft to locations throughout east Asia. In three years I visited South Korea three times, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Guam twice, and the main islands of Japan.

It's no wonder, then, that I look back on it as the time of my life. I was so taken with the experience that, when my tour of duty was over and I was released to civilian life, I couldn't bring myself to go back to the States. Instead, I went directly to the Philippines on my first, albeit abortive, attempt to live there. But that, as they say, is another story.

The last supervisor, or LPO (Lead Petty Officer), with whom I worked in Okinawa was one of those characters I sometimes encountered in the military who was, both physically and intellectually, a genuinely self-made man. He had been stocky all his life, but he managed to transform himself from a tubby young man into a impressive, if somewhat muscle-bound physical specimen. He was fanatical about avoiding fatty foods, and introduced me to a sandwich made with nothing more than a flour tortilla, sliced turkey or ham, and a slice of cheese, rolled up and heated in a microwave oven. Cover it with salsa when it's done, and it's a cheap, neat alternative to a cold bread sandwich.

His ideas were just as lean. He had come to an understanding with the world, based on his ten-year exploration of it in the Navy, and whatever reading he could squeeze in between port calls. He had arrived at the conclusion that the United States was not only exceptional as a nation, but that its values were the best that could be found anywhere in the world, superior to all others. America was a standard against which he measured the whole world - and found it wanting. He was uncurious about Japanese culture, and of every other Eastern culture, and lived comfortably inside his certainties.  

In Okinawa there was a fantastic English-language bookstore on the main thoroughfare outside Kadena Air Force Base where I found irreplaceable copies of books by my two favorite authors, Orwell and Camus. And I found a paperback copy of a book first published in 1926 by Aldous Huxley called Jesting Pilate. By then, Huxley had already become famous with the publication of the novels Crome Yellow and Those Barren Leaves. With his wife, he set out in 1925 on what was then called a World Tour, an around-the-world journey. Jesting Pilate is his account of that journey. At the end of the book, Huxley arrived at some tentative conclusions about travel.


So the journey is over and I am back again where - I started, richer by much experience and poorer by many exploded convictions, many perished certainties. For convictions and certainties are too often the concomitants of ignorance. Of knowledge and experience the fruit is generally doubt. It is a doubt that grows profounder as knowledge more deeply burrows into the underlying mystery, that spreads in exact proportion as experience is widened and the perceptions of the experiencing individual are refined. A fish's convictions, we may be sure, are unshakeable. A dog is as full of certainty as the Veteran Liberal who has held the same opinions for forty years. You might implore a cat, as Cromwell by the bowels of Christ once implored a parliament, to bethink it that it might be mistaken; the beast would never doubt but that it was right.

I set out on my travels knowing, or thinking that I knew, how men should live, how be governed, how educated, what they should believe. I knew which was the best form of social organisation and to what end societies had been created. I had my views on every activity of human life. Now, on my return, I find myself without any of these pleasing certainties. Before I started, you could have asked me almost any question about the human species and I should glibly have returned an answer. Ask a profoundly ignorant man how the electric light works; he finds the question absurdly simple. "You just press the button," he explains. The working electrician would give you a rather more technical account of the matter in terms of currents, resistances, conductivity. But the philosophical physicist would modestly confess his ignorance. Electrical phenomena, he would say, can be described and classified. But as for saying what electricity maybe ... And he would throw up his hands. The better you understand the significance of any question, the more difficult it becomes to answer it. Those who like to feel that they are always right and who attach a high importance to their own opinions should stay at home. When one is travelling, convictions are mislaid as easily as spectacles; but unlike spectacles, they are not easily replaced.

My own losses, as I have said, were numerous. But in compensation for what I lost, I acquired two important new convictions: that it takes all sorts to make a world and that the established spiritual values are fundamentally correct and should be maintained. I call these opinions "new," though both are at least as old as civilisation and though I was fully convinced of their truth before I started. But truths the most ancient, the most habitually believed, maybe endowed for us as the result of new experience with an appearance of apocalyptic novelty. There is all the difference in the world between believing academically, with the intellect, and believing personally, intimately, with the whole living self. A deaf man who had read a book about music might be convinced, theoretically, that Mozart was a good composer. But cure his deafness, take him to listen to the G minor Symphony; his conviction of Mozart's greatness would become something altogether new.

Of the fact that it takes all sorts to make a world I have been aware ever since I could read. But proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them. The newly arrested thief knows that honesty is the best policy with an intensity of conviction which the rest of us can never experience. And to realise that it takes all sorts to make a world one must have seen a certain number of the sorts with one's own eyes. Having seen them and having in this way acquired an intimate realisation of the truth of the proverb, one finds it hard to go on complacently believing that one's own opinions, one's own way of life are alone rational and right. This conviction of man's diversity must find its moral expression in the practice of the completest possible tolerance.

But if travel brings a conviction of human diversity, it brings an equally strong conviction of human unity. It inculcates tolerance, but it also shows what are the limits of possible toleration. Religions and moral codes, forms of government and of society are almost endlessly varied, and each has a right to its separate existence. But a oneness underlies this diversity. All men, whatever their beliefs, their habits, their way of life, have a sense of values. And the values are everywhere and in all kinds of society broadly the same. Goodness, beauty, wisdom and knowledge, with the human possessors of these qualities, the human creators of things and thoughts endowed with them, have always and everywhere been honoured.

Our sense of values is intuitive. There is no proving the real existence of values in any way that will satisfy the logical intellect. Our standards can be demolished by argumentation; but we are nonetheless right to cling to them. Not blindly, of course, not uncritically. Convinced by practical experience of man's diversity, the traveller will not be tempted to cling to his own inherited national standard, as though it were necessarily the only true and unperverted one. He will compare standards; he will search for what is common to all; he will observe the ways in which each standard is perverted, he will try to create a standard of his own that shall be as far as possible free from distortion. In one country, he will perceive the true, fundamental standard is distorted by an excessive emphasising of hierarchic and aristocratic principles; in another by an excess of democracy. Here, too much is made of work and energy for their own sakes; there, too much of mere being. In certain parts of the world he will find spirituality run wild; in others a stupid materialism that would deny the very existence of values. The traveller will observe these various distortions and will create for himself a standard that shall be, as far as possible, free from them — a standard of values that shall be as timeless, as uncontingent on circumstances, as nearly absolute as he can make them. Understanding diversity and allowing for it, he will tolerate, but not without limit. He will distinguish between harmless perversions and those which tend actually to deny or stultify the fundamental values. Towards the first he will be tolerant. There can be no compromise with the second.

In Okinawa, I respectfully presented Huxley's conclusions to my supervisor. I hoped, perhaps a little naively, that it might change his mind about the world, and that he might perhaps exploit it in order to gain something from the irreplaceable experience that the Navy was granting him. In his own defense, he denied that he was closed-minded about other cultures, but that everything he had learned from his experience, which he knew was impossible to refute, had confirmed what he suspected from the beginning - that he was supremely lucky to have been born an American, and that it was cause for celebration, not skepticism.

I had to agree with him that being born in America was an extreme stroke of luck, given the alternative of being born in so many of the places in which we disembarked. But such luck has not prevented me from becoming an expatriate, a transplanted American. My Americanness is something that I cherish, and that is impossible for me to hide, even if I could be mistaken for an Aussie, a German, a Swede, or any of the other expats who call the Philippines their home away from home. When we encounter one another in the street, all that is necessary for us to acknowledge our shared enthusiasms is a nod or a smile, in which volumes of astonishment are encapsulated.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Isles of Unwisdom

According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a "hick" is a "disapproving" noun defined as follows:

American English: "a person from a rural area who has little knowledge of culture and city life".
British English: "a person from the countryside who is considered to be stupid and without experience".

I live on a tiny island - one if the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines. You cannot get very much more remote from what is commonly called civilization unless you were in an Amazonian backwater, sub-Saharan Africa, or Antarctica. The Bounty mutineers chose an island called Pitcairn as their ultimate hideout because it had a latitude on the maritime navigational charts of the time (probably those made by Captain Cook), but no accurate longitude. To find it, they had to reach the north-south line and sail east until they finally reached it in 1790. Knowing there was nowhere else to go without being discovered and certainly hanged, they burned the ship. In 1808, an American sealer called the "Topaz" found the sole survivor of the mutineers, John Adams, living amongst a small population of Anglo-Tahitians, the most that the tiny wild island could support.

I didn't burn my ship when I reached my island, but I might just as well have. Census takers have visited my house a few times over the years, making sure not to count me among its inhabitants because I was a "porriner" and proud of it. The islanders among whom I live are, strictly speaking, hicks. They were born here, raised here, and, even if they are lucky enough to find a job somewhere else, they will most likely die here, since Filipinos traditionally seek out their place of birth when they feel the approach of death.

These islanders are somewhat less isolated than they were before the bridge connecting their island to a much bigger one to the south was constructed, and they have certainly become interconnected by the insidious proliferation of cellphone communications. But they retain their status as hicks, in my opinion, because they remain "probincianos" - provincials in a physical as well as a psychological sense. All they know or care to know is the extent of their tiny island, its volcanoes and surrounding waters, and the limited view of the world that their horizon presents to them.

These people live in a kind of darkness that I have written of before. Instead of hearing a rumor about an impending tropical storm and checking the internet, which is available here (how else am I writing this to you, dear reader?), or perhaps checking a weather channel on cable TV (which I regard as a necessity), they will join everyone else they know and hurry into the nearest town to stock up on provisions like rice and canned goods. The source of the rumors along what we porriners call the "bamboo telegraph" is never divulged.

So these islanders cannot be blamed if their view of the rest of the wide world beyond their horizon is a little distorted or downright false. Their very isolation from the outside world exonerates them from the responsibility of making sense of it. For example, most of my neighbors call all expats, whether they are European, American, or Australian, "Canos" (short for Americanos) and believe that Berlin and Toronto and Sydney are all cities in America.

I have been writing film criticism since my first year of college, when I submitted examples of my critical acumen, such as it was at the age of eighteen, for extra credit in my English 101 class. The kinds of films that I chose to write about (exclusively at the time) exposed me to the charge of reverse-provincialism - a term Stanley Kauffmann coined in reference to writers like Graham Greene, who deliberately sought out the most exotic locations for their stories to attract readers in humdrum places like Des Moines. I wrote about what were once known, somewhat contemptuously, as "foreign films," but now fall under the equally contemptuous moniker "art films."

The reason why I wrote about films from places other than Hollywood was because of the resentment that was aroused in me, and that I still feel somewhat, when I discovered Federico Fellini's La Strada at the age of thirteen and learned something that no American film I had seen by then had taught me: that film was an art, that it could be a medium as profound and as rich and as deeply moving as a Hardy novel or a Mahler symphony. In the years following this discovery, I found many other films of equal value - a whole world of films that I had not known existed. And it was these films that inspired me to write criticism.

I suppose that I am guilty of the late Mr. Kauffmann's accusation of reverse provincialism. He was guilty of a provincialism of his own - a New Yorker who looked out of the world, and on the rest of America, with a sense of superiority, whether or not it was earned. But I am rather happy that this attitude has also affected my politics. My understanding of both Liberalism and Conservatism - Progressives and Reactionaries - is broader and more complex than the attenuated versions practiced in America. This is both an advantage for Americans and a disadvantage. While Americans have never faced the extremes of the Left and the Right - Communism and Fascism - they are ignorant of politics any more extreme than Walter Mondale or Ronald Reagan.

This election year, however, Americans have been treated to greater political extremes - a bonafide Socialist who has come in second for the Democratic nomination and a anti-immigration, isolationist neo-fascist who has won, or so it seems, the Republican nomination. If this means that the average American voter is better educated than he once was, it has done nothing to quiet the nerves of many observers (including myself) who fear a victory in November for the presumptive Republican who is prepared to do what America has never done in its history - pull back from its international commitments, put the brakes on legal immigration, deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and build a BIG wall all along the border with Mexico. All these things are indications of a serious withdrawal from the world back inside well-demarcated and well-enforced borders - the borders of an insular and isolationist America. It looks to many Americans like the party of Abraham Lincoln is about to hand over its nomination to a man who would bring back slavery if he could.

Yesterday, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted by a small majority in a referendum for exiting from the European Union for alot of the same reasons why the American presumptive Republican nominee is running for president. A new provincialism, resistance to immigration, a reversal of globalization (which many voters, mostly working class, feel has betrayed their interests) is driving this political trend. In a real sense, they are right to feel betrayed because their governments have failed to push forward fiscal reforms that can counterbalance the loss of jobs. As politicians have let go of their control of their economies, they somehow believe that, by relegating their authority, they can also relegate their responsibility. None of this is a reason for abandoning or dismantling the process of globalization, if using the money and power of developed nations to help lift backward countries (like the Philippines) onto their feet is what it is really about. But the motive behind globalization may not be entirely noble. I don't believe for a second that it's altruism that wants to lift people out of abject poverty. It may be nothing more than an attempt to create markets where they didn't exist before. But ending poverty, for whatever reason, is a positive good from which every one of us on the planet can benefit.

The people I live among on my island are genuine provincials. Their view of the world is severely limited. But they have an excuse for living in the dark. No one who lives in Europe or the U.S. - not even residents of the remotest Romania or in backwardest Mississippi has such an excuse. The people who voted for Brexit and who support Donald Trump are too sophisticated to pretend that they're as stupid as they seem. Something else motivates them. A hatred of politics, of the responsibilities of citizenship, of people who don't look like them or think like them. They feel extreme nostalgia for simpler times, when it was acceptable to be uninformed and excusable to be wrong. Most of them, we're told, have never voted before. But if they care so little for being right, for doing what they know in their guts is the right thing, then the right to vote and every other right of citizenship in an advanced, successful nation is wasted on them. They should be exiled, as ancient Rome once did, to an island such as mine, far from the pleasures and advantages of their culture.

The Isles of Unwisdom (stupidly retitled The Islands of Unwisdom for those Americans who maybe weren't aware that an "isle" is an "island") is an historical novel by Robert Graves, published in 1949 - a highly fictionalized account of an ill-fated Spanish expedition that sailed from Peru in 1595 bound for the Solomon Islands and the diamond fields rumored to be there, ripe for the stealing. After sundry misadventures, the expedition, sans its captain and most of its conquistadors, makes it only as far as the Philippines, not far from where I write this.