Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sam Peckinpah: Watching People Die

The final shootout in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch has been marvelled at for forty years. Peckinpah's singular use of slow-motion - invariably involving an explosion, a gunshot, or a falling body - was considerably abetted by his stunt-coordination. It isn't simply the manner in which Peckinpah's violence is shot, but how it is staged that gives it an extraordinarily vivid quality.

In few other films does the moment of violent death appear as balletic and simultaneously as brutally realistic. His capturing of the physical effects of bullets tearing into flesh, and often from more than one direction, is unparalleled. The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde were singled out for attack because of this. It may not have been the first nauseating argument about film violence, but it was the most intense.

Because most of the violence in films is cartoon violence - inconceivable and therefore harmless - the argument has been blunted in forty years. But because Peckinpah, unlike his contemporaries, was an artist, his interest in the representation of violence is clearly derived from an ultimate interest in truth.

So conceiving a shootout in which four men oppose possibly hundreds was not, for Peckinpah, merely an exercise in romantic heroism. Stanley Kauffmann called it the closest realization of Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. However else these four might have met their ends is inconceivable. They were at the end of their tethers as outlaws, but more importantly, they recognized a distinction in the cause for which they would die. That they chose friendship and loyalty was Peckinpah's ultimate irony. The same men who used the participants of a temperance march as cover for their getaway in the film's first sequence (another of Peckinpah's jokes) would choose a suicidal rescue of a friend from a corrupt Mexican "general" as their last act.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Lost in Translation

Somewhat miraculously still in the Philippines, I have had a tough time adjusting to being a resident rather than a tourist. It's easy being a tourist. You're here for a fixed number of days and you have a certain amount of money to spend. So you know exactly how much you can get away with spending every day. And even if you screw up, there's always the return ticket.

It's completely different when you come here to live. Since your stay is "indefinite," whatever amount of money you bring can never be properly budgeted. You know when it will run out, of course, and you know when and how much will be coming in next month. But you'll never know how much it will take to get you to the other side of that great divide called "indefinite." There is, in fact, no other side out there to be reached. You're already there - it's right under your feet.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

So There I Was

I've been using this blog as a pseudo-diary, so I may as well admit the latest event in my life at mid-way. I have transported myself from Alaska to the Philippines in an attempt to "retire early". As my earlier entry "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" attested, I have always held the workaday world in enmity. Given the Plutocracy into which I was born, the choices were actually severely few and my chances of success haphazard.

Needless to say, I failed to succeed by the standards of my own world. I never saw the necessity of any of the wondrous things that it held out as some kind of promise. "Job Security" was nothing more than a guarantor of safe slavery until you are ready for Social Security, which "promise" is being slowly eroded by a rabid government in control of 40% of the world's largest economy.

I brought one of many books with me. Moritz Thomsen's Living Poor can at least give me the consolation that at least I am not living in an Ecuadoran jungle. Cheers.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Cinephilia or Cinephobia?

The term cinephilia has always made me squirm. Though meant to denote a "love of cinema," it has uneasy sexual overtones. And it also leaves one little room for negative criticism - something that is inevitable for a critic of film.

I'm old enough to know that hatred is too special a feeling to squander on someone or something I don't like. But I can at least specify my dislikes: too many film fans are masquerading as critics these days. It was possible, from the very beginning, to distinguish them. It was quite easy to figure out how Harry Alan Potamkin wasn't a film fan. And Otis Ferguson. And Robert Warshow. But then came Manny Farber and Bosley Crowther (redubbed "Crosley Bother" by Vernon Young, another non-film fan). Since very few people had the patience to find anything worth taking seriously in movies - in America at any rate - serious film discussion was limited to the little magazines. It was only in the 1960s that enough people were exposed to films with more than diverting ambitions. And film discussion blossomed accordingly.

Forty years later serious films are still around, still being made. But they exist almost despite the level of commensurate criticism. Glitterati have obscured what is essential to serious discussion. The unfortunate impact of this is that many so-called critics have assumed the mantle of seriousness, while their writing belies something frivolous.

One such critic is David Thomson, who is less a critic than a fan. His pseudo-serious Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition, has been overestimated in some surprising circles. I expressed my own opinion in 2003 in a Senses of Cinema number. Dedicated to that curious concept Cinephilia, I had the feeling that Senses had to squirm a bit to publish my piece. I present it here, with editorial corrections that Senses missed.

Confessions of a Film Hater
by Dan Harper

As an artistic medium, which is a distinction lost on most filmgoers, film is particularly needy of critical clarity. If this has been slowly, often painfully, realized over the years – at the expense of too many fortunes and reputations – it is no thanks to the hangers-on of the medium, who are in it for ephemeral fame or simply the vicarious thrill of rubbing up against, even in effigy, the likes of Jack Nicholson and Nicole Kidman. It is these particular people who are always there to remind us that it's only a movie. Whether chastening or maddening, every film enthusiast must contend with the prevailing uninformed attitude that L'Avventura and Tokyo Story and Smiles of a Summer Night are only movies. Yeah, and Herman Melville was a fishmonger.

In 1971, the University of California Press published Georges Sadoul's by-no-means-comprehensive Dictionary of Films. It was just about all that Sadoul, then a pre-eminent film critic, could handle. And he pulled it off splendidly. The following year, his Dictionary of Filmmakers was published. (Alas, both books were “updated” by the often antithetical remarks of a Canadian writer named Peter Morris.) If nothing else, Sadoul proved that it could be done and that it was worth doing.

After 30 years and four editions, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film (or Cinema in Britain) at least demonstrates that perseverance has its rewards. It was an audacious undertaking when Thomson began it – an assemblage of what appeared to have been innumerable jottings, many of them doubtless written in the dark. Which is why they often seem disjointed and discontinuous, as if the person who wrote them had to pass through several sensibilities before finding the wherewithal to put them together in one volume.

A second edition followed five years later. 14 years had to elapse before the third edition hit the bookshelves, requiring extensive revising and expanding (not to mention shelf re-enforcement). The fourth edition may as well be the last, even if it probably won't. It has not grown in erudition or in taste. It has merely grown heavier (1). But its size makes it the perfect coffee table book. And if it is far less informative that Leslie Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion (which contents itself with the compiling of data rather than prickly opinions), it is incomparably more entertaining – in ways that Thomson surely hadn't intended.

For, indeed, “unintentional” would seem to be the overall effect that Thomson has on this reader. As for his outrageousness (one of the book's biggest selling points), I'm afraid that Thomson was being quite deliberate. No other critic, attempting to cover as much territory, is so erratic in his opinions. He is off the mark when it matters the most and when it matters the least. And he is so wildly inaccurate with his opprobrium that his approval quickly develops into a kiss of death.

Of the numerous examples I could cite, I will limit myself to the ones that do the most undeserved damage to genuinely deserving work (2). Fellini: “This quartet [I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone, Cabiria] needs to be put firmly in its place. They are slick, mechanical stories, feeding on superficial feelings and uncritical of sentimentality or grand effects. As to style or creative intelligence, they do not begin to intrude upon the achievement of La Signora Senza Camelie, Le Amiche, much less the films Rossellini was making at the same time.” (3) That last sentence represents a favorite tactic of Thomson's – the snobbish dismissal of one critical reputation in favor of another. For instance, Kurosawa – according to Thomson – is good, but not as good as Mizoguchi: “Rashomon is a simpleminded proof of an idea that informs many films . . . whereas Ugetsu simply incorporates the principle that people see events differently.” That Mizoguchi could not even have conceived a film as strikingly dynamic as Rashomon is, I guess, beside the point.

De Sica: “He stands now as a minor director.” No wonder, since Shoeshine, Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D are, for Thomson – if for no one else – “schematically contrived.” On Claude Autant-Lara (surely the most underrated French director of its Golden Age), he is unnecessarily snide: “He is the sort of director to film classic novels for educational television, adept at glossing meaning and arranging furniture.” And there go, at one unfair swipe, priceless film adaptations of Radiguet, Colette, even of Stendhal.

Of Julien Duvivier: “During the 1930s he was very successful commercially: Poil de Carotte, Pepe le Moko, and Un Carnet de Bal are all blandly proficient works.” Need I point out that these three films became instant classics and have made countless “favorites” lists ever since? Or is that the reason Thomson hates them? He adds, petulantly, that “It is hard to feel warmly toward a director reluctant to celebrate beautiful women.” Whatever on earth that is supposed to mean, Duvivier's films are often monuments to earthy, genuine women – Vivian Romance, Mireille Balin, Marie Bell.

Further in, Thomson upbraids too many filmmakers for their ignorance and/or maltreatment of women. He has a special circle of hell reserved for Lina Wertmuller and her fabulous films of the '70s, and takes up the altogether safe argument that she was a woman-hater. Then he pokes fun at her politics. Once more, he points out, her success – as if anyone put her up to it – would have better served the likes of Chantal Akerman, Stephanie Rothman, or Yvonne Rainer. Brave of Thomson to drag such names out of obscurity, except none of these presumably more deserving women filmmakers is otherwise mentioned in his Dictionary.

There are further howlers. “Les Enfants du Paradis is a lesser film than The Golden Coach, which balances stage and reality.” Whatever Thomson means by reality, the Carne/Prevert masterpiece is a deliberate celebration of the artificiality of the theater and the impossibility of reconciling its artifice with life. Truly the unhappiest of men is the dreamer, Baptiste, who worships his ideal Garance, even as several other men make love to her.

There is also a pervasive enmity against Charlie Chaplin that arises throughout Thomson's writing. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate why he detests Chaplin, only to make one wonder why on earth anyone else should. He even wonders at one point (and I am not making this up) if there is perhaps more than a coincidental resemblance between Chaplin and Hitler.

Lately, Thomson is even including some well-known critics, only to misinterpret both their lives (the proper subject for a Biographical Dictionary) and their work. For Thomson, James Agee – a marvelous writer and “amateur critic” (his own words) – is “far from reliable.” Yet Agee is a perfect antidote to Thomson: “Black Narcissus is that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.” For Agee, the same film provoked this response: “Barring perhaps one in any hundred who willingly practice it, I think celibacy is of itself faintly obscene, so I admire still less the dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an opportunity for titillation in the best of taste” (4).

Thomson continually expresses contempt for the international “arthouse” circuit, without acknowledging that it managed, for a few decades, to help sustain film art and expose audiences that would never otherwise have seen a film by Bergman or Fellini or Godard to some of the more challenging – if salacious – films of the 50s and 60s. (Hilariously, Bergman's magnificent Gycklarnas Afton [The Clown's Evening/Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953] was renamed The Naked Night for the American art-house audience. As more than one critic has since observed, the latter actually a better title for that harrowing film, which – true to form – Thomson doesn't even mention.)

On more than one occasion, Thomson even outrageously belittles cinematography: “The image is so fundamental and so wonderful in and of itself, but it is a given: every day, all over the world, millions of people take wonderful or useful pictures. Is it so remarkable that a few hundred people do it for movies?” So much for Gianni Di Venanzo, Kazuo Miyagawa, and Raoul Coutard. His impertinent question begs an inescapable answer – “indeed it is.”

And he quixotically insists that films can only be fully experienced in the original context of a darkened, big screen movie theater. Not having the connections that Thomson has had, I can say wholeheartedly that the advent of video and DVD has been a godsend, after spending most of my teens and twenties chasing after films from theaters to auditoriums to classrooms (and even a few operating theaters now and then). It was an impossible task, in those days, to take in every film worth seeing. If you had told me then that it would be possible some day to own a pristine copy of Fellini's Il Bidone (1955) or Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1929) (5) I'd have said you were crazy.

But there are sins of omission as well. Again, to cite only the worst transgressions, how to account for the conspicuous absence of people such as Emilio Fernandez (1903–1986), who, aside from his unforgettable portrayal of the Federalista Mapache in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, directed some of the most luminously beautiful Mexican films of the 1940s? (6) Or the unequalled scenarist Jacques Prevert (1900–1977), who was at least as responsible for the “poetic realism” of 1930s French Cinema as the rather commonplace director Marcel Carne? Or Jan Troell (1931–), the Swedish director, writer, cinematographer and editor of masterpieces of epic naturalism (7) and the only true heir to the legacy of Victor Sjostrom? Or Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927–2001), whose modernist fables of the '60s are among the defining works of latter-day Japanese film? And, just to include my short list, what about Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jiri Trnka, Jean Epstein, Mario Monicelli, Claude Goretta, Kaneto Shindo, Pietro Germi, Bernhard Wicki, Yves Robert, Shohei Imamura? Then there are those splendid shooting stars – all the homo unius libri who made a single film worthy of immortality and then disappeared, such as the Frenchmen Serge Bourguignon and Alain Jessua, the Italians Vittorio De Seta and Mauro Bolognini, the Russian Joseph Heifitz, the Czech Ivan Passer? Any cineaste worth his weight in celluloid knows full well who these people are and how integral they are to any recognizable overview of the medium. Surely Mr Thomson, fastidious buff that he is, has heard of them? But such omissions are glaring, and perhaps attest to some of the severe holes in Thomson's necessarily selective moviegoing experience. Against Thomson's experience of sheer numbers of films, I am just as happy with my own haphazard, parochial and entirely leisured exploration of the phantasmagoria of film history. It has, at the very least, allowed for some experience of life to sneak in during the intermissions.

Of course, the law of averages being what it is, no single critic could possibly be wrong all of the time. In this respect, Thomson sometimes emerges as a usable critic when his idiosyncratic prejudices somehow converge on a justifiable opinion. I applauded, for instance, his refreshing disrespect for Sergei Eisenstein – that purveyor of Socialist propaganda in the name of montage. He manages to defuse the current specious adulation of John Ford, who rivals D.W. Griffith for sheer pious stupidity. And he is a perceptive (if troubled) Antonioni fan. He also manages to do a few other worthy filmmakers similar justice: Marcel Ophuls, Carol Reed, Sam Peckinpah, Jerzy Skolimowski (even if he neglects to mention his splendid adaptation of the Robert Graves story The Shout [1978]), and one of my international film heroes, Dusan Makavejev.

But there is one further flaw in Thomson's book – his prose. It should become obvious to anyone thumbing through this Dictionary that it is when he is at his most passionate that Thomson is most embarrassingly bad as a writer. Here is on Juliette Binoche: “How many ways are there of watching her grave face? Are the cheeks carved by love's gaze? Did that hair fall on her head like night? And the eyes…are they part of her life, or their own living creatures? And yet…if only this magnificent, melancholy, and nearly stunned woman had just a touch of…Debbie Reynolds.” (The ellipses are Thomson's.) His metaphors are at best far-fetched and at worst meaningless. When he writes that Warren Oates “has a face like prison bread,” he is obviously assuming that the reader, like him, has no idea what prison bread looks like. Harry Dean Stanton “is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann's trees or 'Mexico' in a Peckinpah film.” (I'll just leave that one alone.) And, occasionally, Thomson baffles even himself: “The Shop Around the Corner may be as sweet and light as an Esterhazy honey ball – whatever that is.” Then you come across this gem, embedded in his paean to Howard Hawks: “The dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture are Utopian procrastinations to avert the paraphernalia of released love that can only expend itself.” Thomson describes a paper written by Pasolini in 1965 as “esoterically argued and barbarously worded”. He could as easily have been describing his own book.

I have called this essay Confessions of a Film Hater for many reasons – some less obvious than others. There has been a conspiracy afoot for decades which suggests that there is no such thing as high art and low art, and it is usually invoked to the disadvantage of only one thing: art itself. Beauty cannot be redefined by accommodating its opposite – it can only be cheapened, vulgarised. And art can only be made meaningless when it is equated with nonart, with lower forms. Thomson insists that melodrama is where film is at its best. When he obliquely praises Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) (so obliquely that he nearly breaks his neck), Thomson gives the game away: “it helps persuade this viewer that cinema – or American film – is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.” Never mind the fuss, the Ten Best lists, the Golden Palms, Golden Lions and Hollywood's own Golden Bowling Trophies. There is a wind – and Thomson has done nothing to dissipate it – that howls that same, tired, stupid phrase, It's only a movie.

1) Much of the expansion, which has become unfortunately necessary for Thomson by now, is actually unwelcome. Surely Thomson would have been pardoned for not giving Ben Affleck a nod.
2) I write this mindful of the case of Charles Thomas Samuels, an academic, but challenging, film critic, who committed suicide in 1974 – partly because “he thought he had 'killed' others in his reviews”(John Simon, “Foreword”, Mastering the Film and Other Essays by Charles Thomas Samuels, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1977, p. ix). Thomson is in a far better position to “kill,” but he obviously derives some satisfaction from it.
3) I found Thomson's panning of La Strada particularly inexplicable, since it was the very film that demonstrated to me, at the age of 13, that film was capable of being an art.
4) James Agee, Agee on Film, Modern Library, New York, 2000.
5) It wasn't until its release on DVD that I had my first opportunity to see Dreyer's wonderful film.
6) Thomson dwells (which is his wont) on the beauty of Dolores Del Rio without even noticing her career in Mexican films – Flor Silvestre (1943), Maria Candelaria (1944), etc.
7) Here Is Your Life (1966), The Emigrants (1971), The Flight of the Eagle (1982), et al.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Style as Meaning (Part I)

While I must admit to having found Jun Ichikawa's 2004 film Tony Takitani strangely beautiful, it is additionally remarkable for having so little that is edifying to say about its characters or the world it glances at - the word explores simply doesn't fit. It moved Stanley Kauffmann to write: "The effect is strange: it makes the director the protagonist of his picture. We cannot be much moved or amused by the leading characters: we are held only by the way the picture is made, thus by the intelligence that created this style. Not many of us, I think, would want to see many films made this way, possibly not one more, but this one is an intriguing glance at the director-as-god, deigning to treat human frailty with imperial sway, assuming that his art justifies this slender material." (8.15.05)

What struck me about the comment was how Kauffmann could have been writing about the entire oeuvre of Robert Bresson. To be fair, I found Ichikawa's film more moving for its use of genuine actors.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Vittorio de Sica

My list of favorite directors must immediately give one a sense of my concept of film art, since all of them are realists of some kind. One of the most important realists was the neo-realist Vittorio De Sica. He was a consummate artist who used his gift for visual storytelling with an unprecedented talent with, to use that clumsy term, amateur actors. And he was one of the greatest directors of children. Several years ago I published an item for Senses of Cinema called A Noble Ruin: Remembering De Sica.

After recently noticing that De Sica is conspicuously absent from Senses' Great Directors Database, I volunteered to write an entirely new piece on De Sica. My request may have been lost in the shuffle of department reassignments. I won't go banging on their door. But just to remind them of my request, I'm reprinting my old essay (2000) here.


In a 1971 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Vittorio De Sica made a sad summation of his career in film: "All my good films, which I financed myself, made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin." (1)

Good films. Bad films. In De Sica's filmography, it is relatively easy to distinguish them. It seems almost as if they were directed by two different men. For how could the man who made Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948)(2) have made Woman Times Seven (1967), a showcase for Shirley MacLaine's dubious talents in seven equally moribund roles? Or, A Place for Lovers (Gli Amanti, 1968), wherein Mastroianni pursues Faye Dunaway, who is dying from a brain tumor (or was it the other way around)? Or, The Voyage (Il Viaggio, 1974), his posthumous film, a turgid romance with the unlikeliest pairing of Sophia Loren and Richard Burton?

If we look closer, however, it becomes obvious that De Sica's career did not follow so simple a trajectory. It would be perilous, in fact, to uphold his criterion in the face of some glorious exceptions. For, in which category would De Sica have placed The Gold of Naples (L'oro di Napoli, 1954), which he didn't produce and which made money? Or the film that represented his comeback, Two Women (La Ciociara, 1961), which was produced by Joseph E. Levine and starred Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo (and which, incidentally, won a few Oscars)? Or, Filumena Marturano (1964), produced by Carlo Ponti and distributed in the U.S. by Joseph Levine, who doubtless gave it the asinine American title Marriage Italian-Style?

The Gold of Naples was originally a six-part film, derived from a Giuseppe Marotta novel depicting the picaresque lives of Neapolitans. Two of the episodes were cut for its American release, presumably because they were considered too esoterically Italian. Of the four remaining parts, two stand as monuments to De Sica's ability to regenerate the sometimes forgotten art of film acting. They both climax at momentary character epiphanies that required the actors to undergo emotional transformations before our very eyes. Yet De Sica and his actors make the transformations so understated that the effect is altogether astonishing. The first of these two parts depicts a local hood who tyrannizes a family, until, having finally had enough, the family stands in unison against him. The hood stands there, in the family's kitchen, ready to tear them limb from limb, when he suddenly sees the desperate determination in their faces, even on the face of their little boy. He looks down, fiddles with his hat, and backs away, quietly closing the front door behind him.

The second great episode shows us Teresa, a prostitute approached with a marriage proposal from a wealthy young man. Never once questioning the unlikelihood of her good fortune, Teresa is informed by her new husband on her wedding night that he only married her in order to atone for the suicide of a virtuous young girl whose affections he had ignored. He assures her that she will enjoy the comfort of her new social position, but the whole town is to know of his marriage to a streetwalker so that he might spend the rest of his life paying for his unthinking cruelty to the dead girl. Tearfully fleeing from her humiliation, Teresa leaves the house and hurries down the dark street. But before getting more than a few blocks away she suddenly stops, gazing at the night and the inevitable return to her old life. Silvana Mangano gives the performance of her life as she communicates, with a few sobs and the stamp of a lifetime of hard choices on her face, how wealth and comfort can render the unthinkable somehow preferable to a hell she knows only too well. She goes back to the house - her house, and raps entreatingly on the huge wooden door.

Two Women was based on an Alberto Moravia story named after its heroine, Cesira, "la Ciociara" (i.e., woman from Ciociara). The Gold of Naples introduced a voluptuous young actress to the world named Sophia Loren. By the time Loren's producer-boyfriend Carlo Ponti approached De Sica with the project of adapting the Moravia story to film, she was on the verge of international stardom. De Sica had made only two films in the seven years after The Gold of Naples. He had produced The Roof (Il Tetto, 1956) with his own money - again addressing social concerns, this time a young couple's attempts to put a roof over their heads. True to De Sica's dictum, it made no money. Two years later, he made Gina Lollobrigida a star in Anna of Brooklyn (Anna di Brooklyn, 1958), without managing to contribute a tincture of luster to his own reputation. With Two Women, De Sica returned to familiar terrain, in a thoroughly neo-realist mode. The other woman in Two Women is Cesira's daughter, Rosetta. Together they leave war-ravaged Rome for the relative safety of the countryside - eventually returning to Cesira's village. Along the way, they encounter various instances of war's ultimate obscenity. Spared in their encounters with Germans and fascist Italians, both mother and daughter are ultimately raped by the Allies - a truckload of leering Moroccans - within the presumed sanctuary of a derelict church. Nothing and no one is spared the indiscriminate barbarity. De Sica, by concentrating less on events than on the effects they elicit in his characters, managed once again to humanize his material, to subsume history in the life of his heroine.

By the time De Sica made Filumena Marturano in 1964, neo-realism was quite belatedly dead, and no one but its inveterate hardliners were lamenting its passing. Nonetheless, De Sica managed to discover, in widescreen Eastmancolor, a style to suit the Eduardo De Filippo play he had chosen to adapt - a dramatic approach to life embracing both the glorious and the ridiculous. Here we are once again introduced to a familiar acting pair, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. But we are quickly convinced through superb acting and a genuine feeling for the city of Naples that this is to be something more than yet another bathetic love story. Sure, the flashbacks are handled rather quaintly, and the music is awful, but the film embraces so much that it would be useless to complain that its embrace is sometimes clumsy. De Sica takes us well past the usual melodramatic conclusions in his characters' lives to an ending that is neither final nor quite fulfilling. It may be the cheeriest ending to any of his films: Filumena/Sophia marries Domenico/Marcello. But why is Filumena crying as the camera tracks discreetly away from her?

In 1952, after his last "good" film - Umberto D - flopped (read: "made no money"), De Sica answered the call of David O. Selznick and directed Stazioni Termini (1952), clumsily renamed Indiscretion of an American Wife in the U.S., starring Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones. Living up to her reputation as a notorious pain in the neck, Jones was required to wear a Christian Dior hat that she hated so intensely she attempted to flush it down a toilet. De Sica explained to her morosely that he could have made another Bicycle Thieves with what her hat was worth.

De Sica never made another Bicycle Thieves. He became the pampered captive of the likes of Joe Levine and Carlo Ponti. Even his old comrade, Cesare Zavattini, with whom he first found his authentic voice in I Bambini ci Guardano, (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943), would follow him into obscurity. Their commitment to examining the lives of the poor was derived from their devotion to Communism, which Mussolini helped arouse, and which a crippled economy after the war allowed to blossom into what is probably the single most important movement in film - only later to be codified by the term neo-realism.

Neo-realism would quickly become a political, as well as an artistic, creed. Every Italian film was scrutinized for its fidelity to an inviolate code. What saved De Sica from becoming merely doctrinaire, and what would arouse the disfavor of doctrinaire Italian critics, was his unflinching honesty and his unwavering compassion for what most of us have since forgotten - the "invisible ones" who unwittingly fell through the cracks in our universe: the shoeshine boys of Rome; a paper-hanger who has to sell his nuptial linen to buy a bicycle; an orphan boy whose only escape from a Milanese shanty town is with an enchanted dove; an old man driven to beg for a few lire so that his dog can have a saucer of milk. It is the measure of the humanity of any age if it can sometimes find its heroes in such company.

© Dan Harper, December 2000


1. Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, G.P. Putnams's Sons, New York, 1972, p.187

2. I insist on calling the film Bicycle Thieves, instead of the usual The Bicycle Thief - since that was De Sica's point. The conditions in which we live, namely capitalism, have forced everyone to steal bicycles to survive.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thoughts on Seeing Seven Samurai Again

I watched the Kurosawa film Seven Samurai these past two nights with my sister. I still have no idea how she could've been my sister and not been subjected to this 3-hour film by me (exactly 3 hours and 23 minutes, and with intermission it's closer to 3 1/2 hours). People sometimes exaggerate in these matters, but I can fairly accurately estimate that I watched the film, from beginning to end, possibly 15 times in the last 35 years. (I regret to admit that I've read Moby Dick only once.)

Again I was enthralled by Kurosawa's boldness and genius. Once again I wept at certain scenes - Watanabe's learning how the farmers had been eating millet instead of rice, Kikuchiyo's showing off of the samurai armor, the bloody and wet penultimate scene, which shows the merciless cruelty of war more effectively than any other film. In fact, Kurosawa's film once again demonstrated how ridicuously lacking are American films of any comparable depth and gravity. The John Sturges Western remake, The Magnificent Seven is stupid and stolid next to the original. In fact, it exists, as Vernon Young once put it, in another world - one divorced from art and even intelligence.

So, what did my sister think of the experience? I believe in her heart of hearts she saw the greatness of it. But she would probably never admit it to me.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Spinoza wrote that "Love is the feeling of pleasure, accompanied by our knowledge of its cause." The mystery of love, the magnificent enigma of love, is simply that - our realization that another human soul has brought us this feeling, this completely transcendent emotion. And that we must seek to know this other soul. And to make that seeking our life's work.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Film Lover in a Hick Town

Practically all my life, except for a few years when I lived in Denver, I have been living in hick towns. Towns like Albany, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina. Des Moines, Iowa and currently in Anchorage, Alaska. For a film-lover, this has meant that my personal history of mentionable filmgoing experiences has been extremely limited. Even in college towns like Columbia and Des Moines, the pickings were always slim. Knowing what was worth seeing, and never having an opportunity to see it, was a presiding frustration. There was always chance - that impartial arbiter of life - to blunder into, as I did in 1971 when one of the nuns at Saint Peter's Parochial School screened a 16mm print of Federico Fellini's La Strada. She found some overt Christian message in the film, along with whatever else, and convinced her fellow nuns that it was worthy of foisting onto an unsuspecting PTA meeting. That film changed everything I knew about movies and eventually made it impossible for me to watch one for nothing but its entertainment value. Hollywood, as I knew it, was doomed.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Poet

Some people wonder where the "poetic sense" kicks in - if it is simply an intellectual faculty, an ideology imposed from without. Randall Jarrell insisted that there was a broader understanding of poetry, that could make Freud and Einstein poets in everything but form. Philip Larkin was a poet in virtually everything he wrote.

The Pleasure Principle

It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects of things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance; the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.

What a description of this basic tripartite structure shows is that poetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in operation, a skilled re-creation of emotion in other people, and that, conversely, a bad poem is one that never succeeds in doing this. All modes of critical derogation are no more than different ways of saying this, whatever literary , philosophical or moral terminology they employ, and it would not be necessary to point out anything so obvious if present-day poetry did not suggest that it had been forgotten. We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry , not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try. Repeatedly he is confronted with pieces that cannot be understood without reference beyond their own limits or whose contented insipidity argues that their authors are merely reminding themselves of what they know already, rather than re-creating it for a third party. The reader, in fact, seems no longer present in the poet's mind as he used to be, as someone who must understand and enjoy the finished product if it is to be a success at all; the assumption now is that no one will read it, and wouldn't understand or enjoy it if they did. Why should this be so? It is not sufficient to say that poetry has lost its audience, and so need no longer consider it: lots of people still read and even buy poetry. More accurately, poetry has lost its old audience, and gained a new one. This has been caused by the consequences of a cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic (three classes now notoriously indistinguishable): it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the poet has gained the happy position wherein he can praise his own poetry in the press and explain it in the class-room, and the reader has been bullied into giving up the consumer's power to say 'I don't like this, bring me something different.' Let him now so much as breathe a word about not liking a poem, and he is in the dock before he can say Edwin Arlington Robinson. And the charge is a grave one: flabby sensibility, insufficient or inadequate critical tools, and inability to meet new verbal and emotional situations. Verdict: guilty, plus a few riders on the prisoner’s mental upbringing, addiction to mass amusements, and enfeebled responses. It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case.

The cash customers of poetry, therefore, who used to put down their money in the sure and certain hope of enjoyment as if at a theatre or concert hall, were quick to move elsewhere. Poetry was no longer a pleasure. They have been replaced by a humbler squad, whose aim is not pleasure but self-improvement, and who have uncritically accepted the contention that they cannot appreciate poetry without preliminary investment in the intellectual equipment which, by the merest chance, their tutor happens to have about him. In short, the modem poetic audience, when it is not taking in its own washing, is a student audience, pure and simple. At first sight this may not seem a bad thing. The poet has at last a moral ascendancy, and his new clientele not only pay for the poetry but pay to have it explained afterwards. Again, if the poet has only himself to please, he is no longer handicapped by the limitations of his audience. And in any case nobody nowadays believes that a worthwhile artist can rely on anything but his own judgement: public taste is always twenty-five years behind, and picks up a style only when it is exploited by the second-rate. All this is true enough. But at bottom poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having, for which the dutiful mob that signs on every September is no substitute. And the effect will be felt throughout his work. He will forget that even if he finds what he has to say interesting, others may not. He will concentrate on moral worth or semantic intricacy. Worst of all, his poems will no longer be born of the tension between what he non-verbally feels and what can be got over in common word-usage to someone who hasn't had his experience or education or travel grant, and once the other end of the rope is dropped what results will not be so much obscure or piffling (though it may be both) as an unrealized, 'undramatized' slackness, because he will have lost the habit of testing what he writes by this particular standard. Hence, no pleasure. Hence, no poetry.

What can be done about this? Who wants anything done about it? Certainly not the poet, who is in the unprecedented position of peddling both his work and the standard by which it is judged. Certainly not the new reader, who, like a partner of some unconsummated marriage, has no idea of anything better. Certainly not the old reader, who has simply replaced one pleasure with another. Only the romantic loiterer who recalls the days when poetry was condemned as sinful might wish things different. But if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on. And I use' enjoy' in the commonest of senses, the sense in which we leave a radio on or off. Those interested might like to read David Daiches's essay 'The New Criticism: Some Qualifications' (in Literary Essays, 1956); in the meantime, the following note by Samuel Butler may reawaken a furtive itch for freedom: 'I should like to like Schumann's music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all' (Notebooks, 1919).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Amores: Josie Bliss (I)

Neruda told the story of Josie Bliss in his memoirs, Isla Negra, then he composed a book of poems inspired by his memorias.

Loves: Josie Bliss (I)

What became of the furious one?
It was war
the gilded city
that drowned her, so that neither
her written threats
nor her electric blasphemies could get out
to find me again, to persecute me
as they did so many days, in that faraway place,
so many hours
that time and oblivion
took care of, one by one,
until, at last, she can be named as death,
death, bad word, black earth
in which Josie Bliss
will rest in her rage.

She would add up
my absent years
wrinkle by wrinkle, as they probably gathered
on her face from the grief I gave her;
because she was waiting for me on the other side of the world.
I never came, but in the empty
in the dead dining room,
maybe my silence wasted away,
my faraway footsteps,
and maybe until death she saw me
as if through water,
as if I were swimming in glass,
slow of movement,
and she couldn't take hold of me
and would lose me
every day, in the pale lagoon
on which her gaze was fixed.
Until she finally closed her eyes -
when was that?
Until time and death covered her over -
when was that?
Until hate and love bore her away -
Until she who loved me in rage,
in blood, in revenge,
in jasmines,
couldn't go on talking to herself,
gazing at the lagoon of my absence.

Now, maybe,
she rests restlessly
in the great cemetery in Rangoon,
or maybe on the banks
of the Irrawaddy they burned her body
all afternoon, while
the river murmured
things that I might have said to her in tears.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hallelujah I'm a Bum

I finished my final day of work yesterday, but the momentousness of the occasion has yet to sink in. Maybe I'll be ready to celebrate when I fly out on the 23rd.

To my sorrow, I saw through the necessity of work at a very young age. I had gone with my parents to a Shoney's restaurant every Sunday for years, and the manager would always be there with his hellos and smiles. My sister once worked there as a waitress (where she developed her insatiable taste for maraschino cherries) and recommended me to the manager as a prospective busboy. I was all of fifteen, and I was hired practically on the spot and reported for work on a Saturday afternoon to find that I was the only busboy on hand for the night. Instead of smiles, the manager was suddenly a complete asshole to me - snapping his fingers when I didn't move fast enough, constantly telling me what I was doing wrong, and even accusing me of stealing the waitresses' tips. I quickly learned the lesson - the Golden Rule, who has the gold rules. I told the manager to fuck off and walked out.

This was the beginning of my very rocky job history that ended with a whimper yesterday. I don't have a red cent to show for 30-plus years of work. I spent nearly half of it in the military, which I wasn't cut out for either. The only time I even came close to being sold on the American Dream was when I was married (to a Filipina) and I wanted to have what everyone else wants. But I wasn't good at it. I suppose my heart wasn't in it. I simply could never forget the sight of that Shoney's manager bussing tables as I walked away from the restaurant on that fateful Saturday night.

I can still see him there, the poor asshole. I'll never work again. Hallelujah, I'm a bum.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Neruda Part Two

I'll let Neruda relate the rest of his adventures in the Far East. Upon his arrival in Columbo, Ceylon, after abandoning his life and his mistress in Burma:

"Something came to throw a cloud over those days literally burned away by the sun. Without warning, my Burmese love, the tempestuous Josie Bliss, pitched camp in front of my house. She had come all the way from her far-off country. Believing that rice was not grown anywhere except in Rangoon, she arrived with a sack of it on her back, with our favorite Paul Robeson records, and a long, rolled-up mat. She spent all her time posted at the front door, looking out for anyone who came to visit me, and she would pounce on them and insult them. I can see her now, consumed by her overwhelming jealousy, threatening to burn down my house, and attacking a sweet Eurasian girl who had come to pay a call.

"The colonial police considered her uncontrollable behavior a focus of disruption in the quiet street, and I was warned that she would be thrown out of the country if I didn't take her in. I felt wretched for days, racked between the tenderness her unhappy love stirred in me and the terror I had of her. I didn't dare let her set foot in my house. She was a love-smitten terrorist, capable of anything.

"One day, at last, she made up her mind to go away. She begged me to go with her to the ship. When it was time to weigh anchor and I had to go ashore, she wrenched away from the passengers around her, and seized by a gust of grief and love, she covered my face with kisses and bathed me with her tears. She kissed my arms, my suit, in a kind of ritual, and suddenly slipped down to my shoes, before I could stop her. When she stood up again, the chalk polish of my white shoes was smeared like flour all over her face. I couldn't ask her to give up her trip, to leave the ship with me instead of going away forever. My better judgement prevented me from doing that, but my heart received a great scar which is still part of me. That unrestrained grief, those terrible tears rolling down her chalky face, are still fresh in my memory."

note: The official name for Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, which is merely a different transliteration of the word "Ceylon."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Burma and Neruda

The events in Burma (the Generals now want us to call it Myanmar, so I call it Burma) this past week reminded me of Pablo Neruda and his lonely stay there in the late 1920s. Appointed an Honorary Consul to Burma by the government of Chile, Neruda found himself in direct conflict with the British ruling establishment there, and found himself embroiled in a passionate affair with a Burmese panther who called herself "Josie Bliss." Only later did Neruda tell us who exactly he was addressing as "Oh Maligna" in his poem "Tango del Viudo" (Widower's Tango), published at the beginning of Part III of his Residencia en la Tierra, and relate the strange story of his involvement with her.

I have often wondered that no one has tried to make a film of this story - of the insensate jealousy of Josie Bliss, of how Neruda would be awakened by a movement and see her pacing around his mosquito netted bed with a glinting knife, torn between her love and her jealousy which wanted to kill him rather than endure it any more. Then Neruda received his orders of transfer to Ceylon, and he withheld the news from Josie Bliss, and, when the day of his departure arrived, dressed as he always did to go off to work and instead boarded the ship that would carry him away from her - leaving behind everything he had collected during his stay: every book and photograph, only so she wouldn't suspect.

On the ship the first lines of "Widower's Tango" came to him:

"Oh evil one, you must by now have found the letter, you must
have wept with fury,
and you must have insulted my mother's memory,
calling her rotten bitch and mother of dogs,
you must have drunk, all by yourself, your twilight tea,
looking at my old shoes forever empty,...

Friday, October 5, 2007

Happy Days Are There Again

Several years ago I submitted the following piece to Senses of Cinema for them to include in their festival report section. Fiona Villella [sp?], then editor-in-chief of the e-zine politely turned it down. I present it here, just for the hell of it.

Happy Days are There Again

Ten years after the second most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th-century buried it under as much as four meters of pumice, ash, and a cement-like mixture called lahar, Angeles City, Philippines announced its resurrection to what it hoped would be a world audience in the unlikely form of an international film festival.

Optimistically called the "Golden Phoenix," the grand prize was never awarded, since the festival ended prematurely with the armed robbery of the box office receipts and the gilded trophy itself. The chronically underpaid Philippine police have yet to trace a lead.

No matter. The purpose of the festival was to assure foreign investors that Angeles City, contrary to popular belief, is back on the map, awaiting recognition as central Luzon's premier tourist attraction. That wait may be longer than city developers expect, but it won't deter Angeleans from pretending that the dark days following the desertion of the United States armed forces from Clark Air Base are finally over. The sun shines as brightly and as relentlessly as ever on the dusty outpost, a rest stop on the highway from Manila to Baguio, and it seems to be just as good a reason as any to celebrate - something Filipinos seem to have an endless capacity for.

Home to a motley collection of expats from Australia, America and Europe, Angeles is easily the unlikeliest place you'd expect to find a resort - even a nebulous one like this. But, for better or worse, the expats are the backbone of this revival - the ones who hung on to their property during the first bleak months after Mt Pinatubo so overwhelmingly devalued it, as well as those who bought up the property when it was worthless, somehow believing that one day there would be a whopping return on their investments.

No one could have foreseen such a turn of events - not just the inevitable revival of Angeles City as the commercial hub for Pampanga province, something Filipinos could handle by themselves; but the return of the girlie bars which once skirted Clark Air base, a phenomenon unintentionally abetted by Mayor Lim's crackdown on the trade in Manila. But the clientele of the bars has aged considerably since the U.S. Air Force unceremoniously flew away to more hospitable bases in Guam and Okinawa. Balibago, the Angeles suburb in which most of the bars are situated, resembles more than ever a retirement community with girls.

The bar girls seem to be at least as likely as bar owners to seek a haven in Angeles. The hundreds of bars which once lined Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo and the dozens more which lit up Manila in a somewhat garish light have long since closed for an interminable off season, leaving thousands of women, many of them not so young any more, to seek gainful employment elsewhere. For most of them, as for so many Filipinos, such employment is nonexistent. Some of the girls could have done worse, surely, than follow the bar owners to Angeles.

But girlie bars weren't supposed to be the main attraction in Angeles last March. The event organizers promised as "The Last Ever Angeles City International Film Festival" advertised an impressive list of world famous celebrity attendees: Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, and Gerard Depardieu. Only later, when these megastars were conspicuous in their absence, was it explained that they had merely been sent invitations. They were otherwise not obligated to attend. And if that weren't disappointing enough (I'd actually looked forward to meeting Depardieu), even the handful of Filipino celebrities who could presumably have been counted on to show up either just popped in to say "hi" or excused themselves with prior commitments.

Such are the vagaries of this somewhat insular country, which always seems more than a little oblivious of what's good for it. Despite this show of national and international disinterest, the festival was kicked off with the world premier of Little Shaolin, Part 5, which had to change venues due to a momentary (three hour) blackout (which Filipinos, optimistically as ever, call a "brownout"). And a Lifetime Achievement Award was given to an American director from Hollywood's Golden Age who looked as if he'd been disinterred for the occasion. No one I spoke to had ever heard of him, and the old man was gracious - or cantankerous - enough to discount the significance of the event with a self-effacing and uproarious speech.

Most of the other screenings, I soon discovered, were of what are known hereabouts as "bold" movies - X-rated even in the absence of a rating system. And when a "Miss Phoenix" beauty contest climaxed with the contestants shedding their bikini tops - the winner, naked except for her crown and a smile, having given the male judges the most stimulating lap dance - I realized that I was far from Cannes, and even farther from the other City of Angels - L.A.

By the time the thieves struck, terrorizing the poor ticket girls with their automatic weapons, just about everyone had seen quite enough. Stealing the Golden Phoenix was probably an afterthought when only a few thousand pesos turned up in the theater's safe. But it was a sorry consolation prize, since it had nothing gold about it except a thin coat of paint. The thieves, bunglers of an already bungled event, would probably have taken little pleasure in the knowledge that they had spared us the last days of this dubious festival. The only objections came from some disgruntled residents who were obliged to clean up the considerable mess a week early, without further assurances that they were to paid for their labors.

With the remaining days on my return ticket, I had just enough time to take a sentimental journey, carefully retracing the steps of a prior visit, reacquainting myself with old companions, and once again learning to forgive this place its little absurdities. Mount Pinatubo, still very much an active volcano, can do little more to Angeles than it already has, except maybe enrich the soil for the local sugar cane growers with its occasional effluences of ash or force the bar owners to hire otherwise indigent men and women to sweep the ash off their doorsteps. They've all learned in the last four years, as I learned in just three weeks, that there are worse things than volcanic eruptions. There are film festivals.

Dahan Dahan

I was in Thailand for my birthday in 1993. In my hotel, I saw a music video on tv on a Hong Kong-based channel. It was by a Philippine artist named Viktoria, "Dahan Dahan," sung entirely in Tagalog, a language with which I was only just becoming acquainted.

Later that same year I was in the Philippines, and I saw the video again, and I went out and bought the tape. Some of the lines from the song "Dahan Dahan" stay with me: "Di kita iiwan" (I'll love you forever) and "Puso ko ibibigay sa iyo" (I give you my heart). But the title, which means step by step or gradually, became a sort of title for a great love affair that began at about the time I bought the tape, and hasn't as yet ended. When I told the girl that as long as I lived "Dahan Dahan" would be "our song," a serious, almost frightened look came over her face.

I recently found the video on You Tube. Here it is.

Charles Nicholl: In Love With Being Lost

There is a magnificent poem by a 20th-century Scots poet named Norman Cameron called "The Voyage to Secrecy":

The morn of his departure, men could say
‘Either by such a way or such a way,’
And, a week later, still, by plotting out
The course of all the roadways round about,
‘In these some score of places he may be.’
How many days the voyage to secrecy?
Always the milestones by the road hark back
To whence he came, and those in idleness
Can bound his range with map and compasses.

When shall their compasses strain wide and crack,
And alien milestones, with strange figures,
Baffle the sagest of geographers?

The poem, virtually forgotten but for some out-of-print anthologies, is a marvelous evocation of a common desire: to lose oneself. Great novels like Pirandello's The Late Mattia Pascal and films like Antonioni's The Passenger explore much the same territory - the flight beyond the boundaries of selfhood, of identity.

Where could such a journey begin? And where could it possibly lead? Charles Nicholl, who has written several splendid books (about Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, Walter Raleigh's last voyage and his own strange visit to Thailand), also reviews books on similar themes. Christians in a Pagan Place is a book review on a woman's visit to Pitcairn Island, the refuge of the Bounty mutineers. To circumvent the popups and ads, I reprint it here.

Serpent in Paradise by Dea Birkett, Picador, pounds 16.99

Though her destination was not notably dangerous, Dea Birkett's journey to Pitcairn Island strikes me as remarkably intrepid. Known to historians as the last resting-place of the Bounty mutineers, to philatelists as a much-prized postmark and to nostalgic imperialists as a last remnant of the British Empire, Pitcairn is a mere speck in the South Pacific, a mile long by a mile and a half wide. Its 18th-century discoverer, Captain Philip Carteret, described it as "scarce better than a large rock in the ocean".

It is 1,000 miles from the nearest large island, Tahiti, and more than 3,000 miles from New Zealand, whence it is nominally governed by a British High Commissioner who has never visited it. The 1991 census gave the population as 40; by the time Birkett arrived it was down to 38. The island's telephone system consists of one party line, its school has nine pupils, its fleet a pair of longboats named Tug and Tin. Herein lies the intrepidity, in this mix of remoteness and claustrophobia. It is like being stuck in a small village several weeks' journey from anywhere. Add to this the ascetic rule-book of Seventh Day Adventism - drinking and smoking are illegal, dancing and cards frowned upon - and you have a destination more forbidding than the deepest jungle or the iciest pole.

This sort of assignment is Birkett's forte. Her book Jella described a journey on a cargo ship from Lagos to Liverpool. She is one of a tough new breed of woman writers, like the Antarctic traveller Sara Wheeler. She feigned a tenuous research project on the Pitcairn postal service, and packed a trunk with writing equipment, mosquito repellent, a copy of Return to Laughter by the anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen, a large tin of instant coffee, and "enough tampons to last until my menopause". After many false starts, she got passage on a Norwegian cargo ship plying out of Houston, Texas. Nearing Pitcairn the captain used a chart compiled in 1825 - the most recent available. Arriving, she is immersed in the rough, awkward intimacy of this remote and inbred community. She is disappointed to find that the "home in paradise" she has dreamed of "resembles a second-hand electrical appliance shop". She is warmed, puzzled and sometimes seared by her hosts, Irma and Ben, and their son Dennis - who is asserting his independence by moving 50 yards up the street - and the large spider which lives in the "duncan", or privy. Her story is told with candour and humour. She is spikily observant, but there is a deep background note of tenderness for these hardy people.

She has some tough trips aboard the longboats, but the deeper dangers are personal - flickerings of sexual attraction, old feuds, loneliness. "There was a pattern to Pitcairn which I could not see, a rhythm which I could not hear, like a dog's whistle when I wasn't a dog." At times she almost buckles under the pressure and longs to say, "I'm off for the weekend. See you soon!" "But there was nowhere to go . . . It was the same heavy air, the same tangled weed and trees, the same clawing mud on every corner of the island." And behind it hovers the ghost-ship Bounty, a true but fantastic story in which "what had happened and what we wanted to have happened were from the very beginning confused".

Little is known about the lives of the nine mutineers who settled on the uninhabited island in January 1790, with assorted Tahitians, under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. Most, including Christian, were killed by Tahitians in 1793, but one John Adams lived until 1829. Mystery surrounds his identity: there is no John Adams on the Bounty's muster-list. There are reasons to believe he was Able-Seaman Aleck Smith, but a more colourful theory suggests he was Christian. Birkett visits Adams's grave, but later learns it was a fake. The original is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, as is his blond pigtail, catalogued blandly, length 190mm, width 16mm: "The length and width of a garden worm."

Most of today's Pitcairners are direct descendants of the mutineers. The surname Christian still flourishes, and confers power and status. In the last pages Birkett writes that "We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength . . . My mistake was to go there." It was certainly not a mistake in terms of good copy. Whatever her regrets, she has written a charming and perceptive account of life in this curiously dour tropical paradise.

(Charles Nicholl "Books: Christians in a pagan place". Independent, The (London). May 31, 1997.)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Critical Kudos

First things second, a word about my critical leanings. A long time ago I "liberated" a book from a library merely because it was one that I found myself consulting frequently and because it was a "reference" book not in circulation. It was a hardback copy of Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films, published by the University of Califoria Press. Later I paid for a paperback copy of Sadoul's Dictionary of Filmmakers. In them I learned about films that I, stuck at the time in a middlebrow Southern city (Columbia, South Carolina), could only dream of some day seeing. Some of them I still haven't seen.

Sadoul was a sensible, usable film critic. At the time I discovered his writings, I was also reading all of the American critics I could locate - James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, Stanley Kauffmann (who, amazingly, still writes his column for The New Republic), and John Simon. I knew about Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris but I never read them avidly. The one critic who became - and remains - my personal favorite was Vernon Young, who wrote for the literary quarterly The Hudson Review for thirty years.

Among my contemporaries, the best film critic writing in English in America is Bert Cardullo. I recently unearthed a bit of plagiarism on his part in my Senses of Cinema piece A Hard Act to Follow. Despite this as yet unexplained (and unaccountable) lapse, he is a worthy successor to Agee, Macdonald, Kauffmann, Simon, and Young.

I read a few others infrequently, if only because, while I sometimes disagree with them, I never seem to learn anything from the disagreement - which is never so with a great critic. Also, Jonathan Rosenbaum, J Hoberman, and Godfrey Cheshire have the unfortunate habit of foisting their politics alongside their aesthetic judgements, a practice that is distracting because it is ultimately unedifying. Granted, I would find it more irritating if their politics weren't progressive, so I suppose I should probably count my blessings. To his credit (as a critic, not as a person), John Simon admitted in 1993 that "I have always sympathized with the autobiographical hero of Anatole France's Le Lys rouge who declares, 'I am not so devoid of all talents as to occupy myself with politics.' Yet this credo, which makes some sense coming from a French artist and intellectual, would foul the breath of an American speaker. For if politics has been one of the two enervating preoccupations in France (need I name the other?), it has trailed just about everything, notably sports, in this country."

I should point out that, after Vernon Young, John Simon is a close second among my favorite film critics.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Quentin Tarantino and the Aesthetes

Watching the terminal moments of Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus Pulp Fiction once again made me wonder at the excuse he has given many intelligent film critics to, in Stanley Kauffmann's words, "go slumming". Not just for watching the film - for how can anyone keep in touch with trends in international film without at least risking a departure from critical standards? The actual slumming comes from the effusive praise Tarantino got - and sometimes still gets - for his clever but vacuous and vulgar extravaganzas.

But it also made me wonder at how little I allow myself comparable descents from my standards when I read. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk commented on how fewer people are reading "literature", and about how the world of literature is a closed one. The world of film, however, is still very much at large, and very much open. This is not altogether a good thing, and many fine critics are guilty of seriously muddying the issue - by seriously failing in their duties to both establish standards and abide by them. Too many of them seem to approach each new film with a sliding scale capable of accommodating a great deal of questionable work, not to mention much that is outright trash.

The reasons for this are likely too many to enumerate or extrapolate, but what is most obvious to me is that it stems from what I would call self-assured social availability, i.e., a kind of deliberate appeal to the lowest common denominator that guarantees immunity from charges of snobbery or - most cursed of all terms - elitism. Unfortunately, it also leaves them open to accusations of something worse: triviality. The problem was put most succinctly by George Orwell in his essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer": "For if one says - and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week - that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word 'good'?"

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Senses of Cinema was nice enough to publish something I wrote earlier in the year on Robert Bresson that I titled "Sins of Omission: A Dissenting View"

I wrote the piece in some haste and submitted it without a chance to edit it. Next thing I hear from Senses editor Rolando Caputo is that he'd sent it to the web designers for publication. I had already written a revised version of the piece, and sent it along to Rolando. But there was nothing he could do with it.

So here is the revised piece that I wrote. It's a much more strongly-argued and ultimately more devastating view of Bresson. While admiring many of Bresson's films, I felt somehow compelled to publish a rejoinder when confronted by all of the intolerable (and nonsensical) cant that's been written about him for going on fifty years now.

Robert Bresson, Photography, and Cinematographie

“A film cannot be a stage show, because a stage show requires flesh-and-blood presence. But it can be, as photographed theater or CINEMA is, the photographic reproduction of a stage show. The photographic reproduction of a stage show is comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or a sculpture. But a photographic reproduction of Donatello’s Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer’s Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything.”[i]

“Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing.”[ii]

Robert Bresson liked to remember it otherwise, but his career in film began (even if we overlook the 1934 star vehicle for Beby the Clown, Public Affairs) in the conventional way. And though he later admitted that he learned from the beginning the underlying falsity of film “acting”,[iii] his first two films, Les Anges du Peche (Angels of Sin, 1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1946), employed professional actors, and Bresson managed to extract superb performances from them.[iv] But the experience of working under conditions that he believed were a betrayal of the true nature of film made him decide to follow his instincts and commit himself to a radical departure from conventional practice.

Exactly what elements of conventional filmmaking did Bresson regard as foreign to its esthetics? He has stated flatly that “For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument – the camera – things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.”[v] This would seem to be an insistence on documentary-like verism, if we are to take literally his notion of “real things”. But while eventually eschewing sets and actors, Bresson, with an odd exactitude, maintained the practice of placing people before a camera as proxies in a drama of his own invention. And his stories invariably reflect an implicit faith in the imperilment – and sometimes salvation – of souls.

Bresson’s first daring attempts at realizing his bold new thesis were dazzling. Working exclusively with non-professionals, Bresson accomplished an inimitable adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel The Diary of a Country Priest (Le Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,1950), and one of the greatest of all French films, A Man Escaped (Un Condamne a Mort s’est Echappe, 1956). These two films are extraordinary for many reasons – the most significant of which is their dependence on the barest minimum of means. By strenuously controlling the impulse for effects, Bresson achieved much with very little, and earned the respect of critics and filmmakers everywhere.

Whatever cachet Bresson earned with those two films was seriously taxed, however, when he made Pickpocket (1959). What had been a perfectly apposite marriage of style and meaning had become a discordant conflict in which both seemed arbitrary, rather than right. Critics[vi] were quick to place the blame on Bresson’s choice of subject – exchanging the problems of a cancer-stricken priest and a condemned prisoner for those of a stodgy criminal with delusions of grandeur. Comparisons to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov were unhelpful, since a petty thief has little in common with an ax-murderer. Bresson failed to ennoble Martin Lasalle’s skill sufficiently to make his eventual arrest and spiritual awakening either interesting or convincing. [vii]

It was also about this time that the first studies of Bresson began to appear, containing his own remarks about film. Filmmakers, children of the modern age, have been especially susceptible to conflating errant arguments for their work[viii] (I won’t go into the effects of “film scholarship”). And few filmmakers survive what Stanley Kauffmann recently called the “Age of the Larynx.”[ix]

In 1975, Bresson finally published his Notes sur la cinematographie – in his own words, “a gathering of notes on little pieces of paper, on cigarette wrappers; things I wrote down while shooting or on some other occasion.”[x] It is a slim volume, only 72 pages in the Urizen edition, but it contains much that is essential to any complete understanding of Bresson’s intentions, if not always his results.[xi] It is also a corrective to all of the ideas and statements mistakenly attributed to him.[xii] One detail is made abundantly clear by the book: Bresson was a painter – of what school hasn’t been divilged, but it is easy to guess from his statements about art that he was decidedly post-expressionist. His contempt for the theater and for photography, the two stools between which Bresson believed nearly all films fall, derives from a modernist painter’s mistrust of representation of any sort, whether it is an actor’s pretense of real emotion and the “suspension of disbelief” that it requires, and a photographer’s stolen moments. The quotes at the beginning of this piece sum up Bresson’s notions on theater and photography.[xiii] What they reveal is a quite na├»ve confusion of a medium with what it conveys. A photograph of an object, whether it is a face, a landscape, or a sculpture by Donatello, is not intended to be a substitute for those things but simply a way of looking at the physical universe. The very same thing can be said of theater and of acting. Even Picasso admitted that "Art is not truth. Art is a lie that helps us to see the truth."

Painting and sculpture used to belong in this tradition – of transmuting objects and figures from nature in a manner that renders the objective subjective and that reaches the viewer by reversing the trajectory. The ultimate result is something that is neither nature nor the artist but a conjunction, an enjambment of realities. Andre Malraux could argue all he wanted about how modern art has destroyed what once connected the artist with his subject ("Cezanne did not wish to represent apples, he wished to paint pictures."[xiv]), but every work of art – even Cezanne’s – is as inseparable from nature as from the painter. Nature is not surmounted, destroyed or even supplanted by art: a distinct creation is born from the artist’s vision. And the object in nature becomes “something owned,” as Rilke put it. When Cezanne painted his mountain again and again, from every direction, in every light and season, he was approaching, approximating, the reality of the mountain.

By extension, photography is a realization of Blake’s admonition: “We ever must believe the lie/When we see with, not through, the eye.” Its dependence on a mechanical device does not make it any less creative. But in its faithful recording of the actual, photography has the ability to bring us closer to the things of the physical world. Intelligence intervenes every time the photographer aims his lens.
And all a filmmaker does is arrange real objects – people and places – before his camera. This may have become old-fashioned with the invention of CGI, but it is the art of filmmaking in a nutshell, whether it’s Cocteau’s Orpheus walking through mirrors into the underworld, or De Sica’s Umberto D nearly run over by a train. Bresson’s querulous rejection of these realities for one of his own devising may have been instrumental in the creation of his own crypt-like universe, in which everyone is a Caligari somnambulist who monophonically mutter the words of his idiosyncratic creed, but for everyone else it is a ridiculously limiting, arbitrarily exclusive, and ultimately pointless exercise.

[i] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, Johanathan Griffin, trans., New York: Urizen Books, 1977, p.3
[ii] Ibid., p. 59
[iii] “My first film was made with professional actors, and when we had our first rehearsal, I said, ‘If you go on acting and speaking like this, I am leaving.’” Bresson in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Paris, September 2, 1970.
[iv] Both films attracted the admiring attention of a university newspaper critic named Andre Bazin.
[v] Samuels interview, q.v.
[vi] The “critics” in the 1950s were those writing for major periodicals. They were rarely, if ever, interested in – or indeed knowledgeable of – theoretical interpretation, with the exception of the radical Cahiers du Cinema, which initially attracted little attention outside France.
[vii] Dostoevsky ended his tale with Raskolnikov confessing his crime – at precisely the point at which he stood the greatest chance of getting away with it. Raskolnikov had actually proved that he was superior to the laws governing other people – which is why his discovery of Sonia’s love and his admission of guilt are so powerful.
[viii] Some of the greatest artists have drawn their inspiration from entirely spurious ideas. Robert Graves was one of the 20th-century’s greatest lyric poets, who swore lifelong devotion to a deity whom he called The White Goddess.
[ix] “In this age, sheer talk – the interview – becomes as much a part of a director’s life as anything other than directing itself.” The New Republic, Nov 27, 2006. Curiously, Bresson addressed the problem himself (without a trace of irony): “I hate publicity. One should be known for what one does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years.” In Bresson’s case, his pronouncements on film got much wider circulation than his films, so that he was known by reputation in some cases years before his films were widely available.
[x] Samuels, q.v.
[xi] Mirella Jona Affron strains our credulity by comparing Bresson’s little book with Pascal’s Pensees. Feeble as philosophy, Bresson’s Notes have little application outside the strict confines of his work. (“Bresson and Pascal: Rhetorical Affinities”, Robert Bresson, James Quandt, editor, p.165).
[xii] “Most of what is said about me is wrong and is repeated incessantly.” Samuels, q.v.
[xiii] Bresson contradicted himself in the Samuels interview: “A book, a painting, or a piece of music – none of these things has an absolute value. The value is what the viewer, the reader, the listener bring to it.” Only a churl could not allow a photograph the same potential value.
[xiv] Andre Malraux, The Metamorphosis of the Gods, New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tired of seeing my words scattered on the web, in some unlikely places, I thought it might be wise to collect some of them in one place, my own place.