Friday, December 26, 2008
When it comes to hokum, something for which Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite, few movies can top Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. At the time of its release (1946), few people took to its odd mixture of A Christmas Carol and Our Town, and the movie bombed, carrying Capra's and William Wyler's fledgling company, Liberty Films, with it. After all, who could have lived through World War II only to face this fulsome fairy tale?
But thanks to the efforts of some of its more vocal admirers, including James Stewart who kept telling everyone that it was his favorite, the movie has been ensconced as a classic and can be seen every Christmas on American TV - just as John Ford's godawful The Quiet Man is virtually inescapable around St. Patrick's Day. Saccharine may not be fattening, but it is still carcinogenic.
By now the plot should be familiar to everyone: after a particularly hard day at the office, George Bailey - played by Stewart - suddenly (and quite unconvincingly) wishes that he had never been born. Before he has a chance to throw himself off a bridge, an angel appears and proceeds to give George a guided tour of what his small town would be like without him. Of course (this is Hollywood) everything has changed: people get divorced, or never married, his brother is long dead, a pretty girl he grew up with has become a hooker, there are neon signs and dance halls everywhere, and even the name of the town has changed. With such a resounding demonstration of how crucial his measly life has been to his small town, of course George changes his mind and wants to go back.
Allowing for some charming incidental details, mostly thanks to Stewart at his most achingly genuine, this is where the movie stands or falls: that every human life touches every other to such an extent that the removal of one has a catastrophic effect on all the others. This is definitely a Western concept. Nobody east of Suez would buy it. Far east of Suez, I cannot say that I buy it either. Even if Capra had not stacked the deck so blatantly in his favor, I still would not have bought it. The trouble with the message that Capra drives home with a sledgehammer is that it cries out for a counter-argument.
Though It's a Wonderful Life was remade - quite pointlessly - by Marlo Thomas in 1977, (1) I would like to see it re-invented entirely, without changing one salient point: George Bailey is constantly looking for a way out of his miserable home town. When he becomes convinced, for no particular reason, that he should never have been born, I, too, would show him what his town would be like without him. But if there is any difference at all in his town, with or without him, it is too subtle for George to see. Instead of a child named George, his mother bears another child by another name. Instead of marrying George, his wife has married someone else. When he witnesses the apparent inconsequence of his never having been alive, instead of being confirmed in his conviction that he should never have been born, he finds that he cannot believe it, and goes on a near-frantic search for some proof that his life left a mark on the town and on the lives of its inhabitants.
When I tried to explain my remake of It's a Wonderful Life to a friend many years ago, he remarked contemptuously that the illustration of my thesis - that one human life counts for so little - would drive people to suicide. But if I had turned Capra's film on its head, George Bailey's small town would have, indeed, been improved by his absence. My remake remains neutral. But I would not leave George standing there, alone in the street, with the certainty that his life had no meaning. I would give him a reprieve in the form of one proof, heretofore overlooked, that he had left a mark - a mark that is tellingly missing in the world that never knew him. He sees it in a children's park in the middle of town. So moved is he by what he sees - something only he would have noticed - that he changes his mind and begs to be returned to his life.
My remake doesn't reveal what it was that George saw - or did not see - in the park until the film's last moments. The nightmare over, George resumes his life in his home town as if nothing had disturbed its placid surface. But he returns to the park every day, at the hottest hour, to marvel at a mature oak tree spreading its shade over the grass - the same oak that had grown from the acorn that George had pushed into the dirt without a thought one spring morning when he was a boy.
(1) It Happened One Christmas. Thomas plays "Mary Bailey Hatch".
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Kertesz: "Spielberg I dislike very much. Schindler's List is a mistake for a person who knows exactly what happened. Schindler's List is unacceptable for those people. It's unacceptable because all this horror is pictured like it's about the victory of humanity. But humanity will never get over the Holocaust. So it's a totally fake interpretation, it's a lie."
Interviewer: "This is your opinion of Spielberg's Foundation, too?"
Kertesz: "It is. It's not the right way to interview survivors, 500 old ladies who tell the same thing: 'we were deported, put in a wagon, we were thirsty, we were hungry, dogs were barking, there was yelling. . . .' We know that. I respect the survivors, I am one of them too. If somebody wants something to remain in the audience's mind, the stories of 500 survivors is not the way. The story of only one, that's the way, like in [Claude Lanzmann's documentary] Shoah. That's a film. When Muller, survivor of the Sonderkommando, starts to speak, everybody cries, although he himself is not even moved. Just tells the facts. . . . Look, lots of directors tried to reconstruct concentration camps. [In Schindler's List] they are speaking from the Auschwitz camp to Schindler. So they say 'Hello Boss!' through the barbed wire to a civilian passerby. That's ridiculous. But that's not the biggest problem, although it's a problem. The biggest problem is that it's inauthentic, that he has no idea of the whole thing."
This argument is an old one, going back to the first attempts to represent the Holocaust on stage and on film. Whenever a playwright or filmmaker attempted a mimetic approach to the subject - trying to re-create the camps realistically - there were predictable, and quite natural, objections, largely from the survivors themselves. (1) Some of them argued, as Kertesz does, that there cannot possibly be a re-creation of the Holocaust, that the subject is not "reduceable" in any linear, literal way. The only way to touch the subject through art, they argued, is in a non-linear, allusive way, as in Paul Celan's poem "Totesfuge" and in Alain Resnais' film Night and Fog.
But some of Kertesz's comments are disingenuous, as when he attacks the Shoah Foundation for recording the stories of "500 old ladies" and praises Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah for being "the story of only one". Shoah is more than nine hours of the stories of dozens of Holocaust witnesses, in their own words, carefully intertwined by Lanzmann to form a fascinating, comprehensive whole. When Kertesz claims that Filip Muller, survivor of five liquidations of the "special detail" at Auschwitz, "is not even moved" when he speaks, he is simply distorting the truth. If "everyone cries" when Muller speaks, it is because of his highly emotional delivery. In fact, Muller is so "unmoved" that he even breaks down in tears when he relates the moment when he knew that his life had no more meaning. And when Kertesz singles out a specific scene from Schindler's List for attack, he says that it is from "Auschwitz" where prisoners speak to Schindler through the "barbed wire". The scene is actually at Plaszow, not Auschwitz, and it is Stern, Schindler's bookkeeper, who motions to him through the fence. For someone who insists on the importance of getting the facts straight, and who claims that Spielberg got it all wrong, these factual errors are rather sad.
It is clear that Kertesz is so resentful of Spielberg and of Schindler's List that he was determined to hate them for having the presumption to trespass on a subject that he regards as his private preserve. Kertesz has conveniently forgotten a scene in his novel, and in the film, Fateless, that should be a warning to those who take on the responsibility of caretakers of history. When the war is over and Gyorgy and his compatriots are on their way back to Hungary, he is approached by a man in a railway station where the following exchange occurs:
Man: Did you see the gas chambers?
Gyorgy: We wouldn't be speaking now if I had.
Man: Did they exist?
Gyorgy: It depends. They definitely did in Auschwitz. But I've come from Buchenwald.
Man: From where?
Man: From Buchenwald.
Man: So you heard about the gas chambers, but you didn't see them with your own eyes, right?
Man: Thank you, that's all I wanted to know.
No single Holocaust survivor can speak for them all, since no single personal account of the Holocaust (which the film Shoah most definitely is not) can lay claim either to the entirety of the event or to all the ways in which it can be remembered. Kertesz may be a gifted novelist, but his account of his Holocaust is just one of thousands. The whole point of Spielberg's Foundation is that every account, regardless of its consistencies with other accounts (or perhaps because of them) contributes to our understanding of the Holocaust - despite some people's insistence that we cannot hope to understand it. And I have news for Kertesz: humanity has already "got over" the Holocaust. And that is the biggest problem.
(1) Bruno Bettelheim attacked Lina Wertmuller's use of a concentration camp in her film Seven Beauties (1976). In the film, an Italian prisoner decides that the only way to survive the camp is to seduce the camp commandant, who is a woman.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Some of the nuns provided elementary school instruction for the boys, and for children from the nearby town of Washington. I was then in the third grade, and my brother in the sixth. One of the nuns, younger than the others, taught us music. Some time before Christmas we were singing Christmas carols, and we were good enough to persuade a man who had connections in Augusta to arrange a taping of us for possible television broadcast. I should add that nobody at the home thought to consult any of the boys' parents or guardians (those of us who had them) about this boondoggle. On the appointed day, we were loaded onto a bus and taken to Augusta, about a half-hour's drive east on Interstate 20.
At the studio we were shown into a large room with high ceilings from which big lights were suspended. The boys were arranged in bleachers, the "little" ones on one side and the "big" ones on the other. (This segregation of the boys was also enforced at the home. My brother was placed with the other big boys, and I rarely saw him.) Time being money in television, we were given no time to rehearse and, once we were all in our places, the taping commenced. I don't recall how long the taping lasted but it was stopped prematurely. Someone had made the miscalculation of using a large monitor TV that , unfortunately it turned out, was facing us. What happened next depended on the age of the boys and their degree of self-discipline. The big boys kept their composure on seeing themselves - for the first time in their lives - on television, despite their sometimes fixated staring at the monitor.
The Christmas carols continued unabated until the camera reached the little boys' faces, when there was an instantaneous breakdown in discipline. Concentrating their full attention on the faces they were pulling for the camera, caroling was quickly replaced by laughter and screams from the little boys section. A few minutes later the taping was halted, and without explanation everyone was shown out of the studio and back onto the bus.
Without formally reprimanding us on the way back to Washington, those of us who had momentarily forgotten the reason why we had gone to the TV studio, and I was one of them, were given an earful of the nuns' extreme displeasure over the next several days. The nuns had studied the video tape and had made note of the boys who had disrupted their plans to use our singing talents, such as they were, to publicize themselves and their boys' home.
We were told that some of the boys were going into town for Christmas caroling, but many of us whom the nuns had singled out were not allowed to go. I remember feeling pleased that I was not required to go hiking around in the cold, singing for strangers. Whoever it was that made the decision to use the TV monitor during the taping in Augusta had made a big mistake, but he had spared me, thanks to a bunch of spiteful nuns denied a chance at stardom, an otherwise disagreeable evening exploring the back streets of a small Southern town in December.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
This month I will be celebrating, if that is the word, my eighth Christmas overseas. The first two were in Germany when I was a toddler, so I have nothing to recollect. (1) I was in Japan for Christmas in 1992, '93 and '94, Korea in '97, and here in the Philippines last year, though in a different region.
My three Christmases in Japan were rather disorienting (no pun intended), since the Japanese, non-Christian, observe Christmas as a purely commercial holiday. As I discovered, many Japanese believe that Jesus is Santa Claus as a young man. (2) They cannot seem to reconcile our juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular, and exactly what does St. Nick and all his elves and reindeer have to do with a child's birth in Roman Judea some two thousand years ago anyway?
In Japan, in my mid-thirties, I was hardly a feckless youth, but, making up for lost time, I was trying my damnedest to be. here never seemed to be enough shit to stir or brain cells to destroy. One of the peculiarities of military life is that it inspires alcohol abuse. One astute observer (3) suggested that it had something to do with "unrealized potential" - the frustration of always being somewhere other than where one wants to be, performing one's patriotic but soul-destroying duty. One extra frustration for me in Japan was watching as all of my admiration for Japanese culture - its literature and its films - was returned by the Japanese themselves with their flawlessly polite but no less devastating hostility for a gaijin like me.
In South Korea, I was with the U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division in what they called "Area One" between Seoul and the DMZ. A constant condition of readiness for war made Christmas and Peace on Earth a rather a moot subject. (4) South Korea, a nation supposedly under siege since the cease-fire with the North in 1953, had just seen its currency - the won - devalued by about half when, a week or so before Christmas, I first visited Seoul, a shining, vibrant city with - thanks to the 1988 Olympics, a superb subway system. Koreans themselves did not seem all that worried about their commie cousins to the north. Unlike us soldiers, they were not preoccupied by an impending invasion.
I spent last Christmas in a hotel at a so-called "resort" on the northern island of Luzon, scurrying from ATMs (which I called "Auntie Em's" when I was in Korea) to Western Union offices trying to scrape together the money to get myself out of a predicament I had got myself into, and wondering if I should ever see home again. That I am here for another Christmas, albeit on a different island, means that - needless to say - I have not seen it yet.
Of the many lies and half-truths that expats here have shared with me, one of the most untrue is that, around this time of year, I would only miss the snow "for a few moments" at most. And they invariably named the most unpleasant things to do with snowy weather - scraping ice from one's windshield or shovelling it off one's driveway. But what of the delicate beauty of falling snow? And the marvelous feeling of being inside when it is snowing, however heavily, outside? Or parting the curtains in the morning to find that the snow has transformed the world while one was sleeping?
Irving Berlin wrote the song "White Christmas" when he was living in Southern California, where snow is a freak accident at best. Having grown up in the American South, where snow is a rare occurrence, it has always had a magical quality for me. Maybe this is why my home in the States is now in Alaska, where the snows come early and stay late, and where a White Christmas is inevitable.
In the Philippines, Christmas is called Pasko, which is a Spanish word derived from "Pascua de Navidad" or, literally, "Nativity of Easter". Traditionally, instead of a Christmas tree, most homes display a star, or parol (from the Spanish word "farol" - "lantern") representing the star of Bethlehem. Children go door to door singing carols - the same Christmas carols I used to sing. But without snow so many of the songs don't make much sense. Even Christmas trees are out of place here, since there is not much point to an evergreen where everything is always green. And a snowball would have a better chance in hell than here.
This December, walking the streets of the town near where I live, regardless of the heat and the glare of the sun, my thoughts are never far from other scenes in other places. And why not? In my dreams I am nearly always still in the military, in the company of people lost to me in time and space. How well I have learned, over the years, the depth of meaning in these words from Albert Camus' novel The Plague:
[Doctor Rieux and Joseph Grand are trapped in the modern city of Oran by a quarantine when it becomes clear that there has been an outbreak of bubonic plague. After months of fighting the disease and watching how capriciously it takes some lives while sparing others, Grand, long since deserted by his wife Jeanne, whom he still loves, has gone missing, last seen wandering the streets aimlessly] "At noon Rieux stepped out of his car into the frozen air; he had just caught sight of rand some distance away, his face glued to a shop-window full of crudely carved wooden toys. Tears were steadily flowing down the old fellow's cheeks, and they wrung the doctor's heart, for he could understand them, and he felt his own tears welling up in sympathy. A picture rose before him of that scene of long ago - the youth standing in front of another shop-window, like this one dressed for Christmas, and Jeanne turning toward him in a sudden access of emotion and saying how happy she was. He could guess that through the mists of the past years, from the depth of his fond despair, Jeanne's young voice was rising, echoing in Grand's ears. And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one's work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart."
(1) My brother took his one-year-old to Disney World. "He won't remember any of it," I told him. "It doesn't matter," he replied. "He'll have the video."
(2) They also believe that, on Thanksgiving, Americans celebrate Noah landing the ark at Plymouth Rock; and that, at Easter, Jesus comes out of his tomb and if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.
(3) James Earl Jones in a TV interview.
(4) I sometimes wonder how many American GIs brought home with them the disgusting and ignorant ball cap or jacket with the slogan "I'm sure to go to heaven 'cause I've done my time in hell" on it?
Saturday, December 13, 2008
One day in early September I was "volunteered" to take part in one such excursion. A group of about ten of us were taken to a rice farm and we were quickly put to work harvesting the rice. We removed our troop boots, rolled our BDU trousers up to our knees and stepped into the cold mud of the rice paddy. We were each given a sickle and shown how to cut the rice plants and place them in a pile at the end of each row.
Once I had begun to work, something other than the cold mud sent a chill through me. I suddenly had the distinct impression that I had harvested rice some time and somewhere in exactly the same way. I was not particularly expert with the sickle, which needed sharpening, but I was moving quickly and rhythmically, unlike the other soldiers who were doing what soldiers always did - appearing to be working while not working at all.
For the rest of that day and for several days after, I wondered about that strange feeling I had experienced in the rice paddy. I knew with some degree of certainty that I had never set foot in a rice paddy before in my life. So where had that feeling come from? My mother had once told me how she had been walking with a friend down a street in Stuttgart, Germany in the 1950s, and she had experienced something like what I had done in the rice paddy. Nearing the corner of the street, my mother stopped and told her friend that she had been there before and to prove it she described in detail what was around the corner. Despite aerial bombing only a decade before, what she and her friend saw when they rounded the corner was close enough to how she described it that she came to believe that it must have been a memory from a "former life".
Not at all prepared to accept that my experience had no logical explanation,* I simply left the experience unresolved and went on with my daily duties. Then, on September 6, I was in a bar on Camp Casey when I saw a picture of a familiar face on the TV screen halfway across the room. I could not hear the sound for the loud music in the bar, so I walked quickly over to the TV. The man in the picture was Akira Kurosawa and the news was reporting his death at the age of eighty-eight.
And then I made the connection in my head - that I had not physically harvested rice myself, but I had seen barley harvested in the same way in Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai. It was the scene, just after the film's intermission, in which the character Kikuchiyo, played magnificently by Toshiro Mifune, flirts with a young girl who, along with many other villagers, is harvesting the barley. Kikuchiyo hands the girl his sword, which seems enormous in her hands, takes the sickle from her and starts cutting a row of barley, laying the cut plants at the end of the row. The scene takes place at a point in the film when we have already learned that Kikuchiyo is a farmer's son, so his handling of the sickle attests to this revelation.
Somehow this scene had sunk into my memory only to resurface years later as an actual experience. Such is the power of art, in which fictional characters are as real as living people and events in their fictional lives mingle with our own memories. For a whole morning, up to my knees in cold mud in a Korean rice paddy, I was Kikuchiyo, the son of a farmer who wanted to be a samurai so much that he gave his life defending a village that was not his own against a band of bandits.
* It has always amused me when people come forward to report UFO sightings. When they think they have exhausted every possible explanation for what they have seen, they resort to an impossible one.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
“There was something of a party on the Menam that night. A couple of tin-miners came aboard and were entertained by friends. The Captain made his first appearance, and later came over to my table. He had heard that I was a writer, and would like to know what I proposed to write about. Burma, I told him, knowing infallibly what was to come. And what were my qualifications? . . . How long had I lived, or would live in the country? I had arrived a week before, and might stay a few months.
The Captain found it hard to conceal his exasperation. For twenty-eight years he had knocked about these coasts, and he seemed to feel that anyone who had spent less time in the Far East than he, had no right to write about it. The things he had seen in his days! The stories he could tell if he felt like it! And what did this rare information amount to, when finally after a few more double whiskies the process of unburdening began? A little smuggling; a little gun-running; repetitive descriptions of homeric drinking bouts in which the Captain had justified his manhood and his race against all comers; fun with Burmese ‘bits of stuff’. Of this material were his Burmese memories composed.
And this was the common, almost the invariable attitude. The old hands seem to feel that they possess a kind of reluctant, vested interest in the place of their exile. Without having suffered with them the long, boring years of expatriation, it was an impertinence to have an opinion. And yet when questioned they would often boastfully display their ignorance, their contempt and distaste for everything about the country. As soon as the central streets of Rangoon were left behind there was never another European to be seen.
It has always been the same. Of all the Europeans who visited Burma, from earliest times down to the days of Symes’ Embassy at the beginning of the last century, only eight troubled to give any account of the country, however brief. Hundreds of factors of the East India Company resided in Syriam, Pegu or at Ava, yet none of them in his letters shows any evidence of curiosity about the strange life that went on around them, or that he ever thought of Burma other than in terms of ‘Ellephants teeth, Pegue Plancks, Tynn, Oyle, and Mortavan jars’.”
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Since 2001, the cash award has amounted to $10 million. But aside from this considerable sum, what has this award done for literature? For publishers it means prestige, but it also means revenue. For individual writers it means a career-confirming windfall that can set them up for the rest of their lives and finally free them from the necessity of living by their wits. But when one is confronted with the list of Nobel laureates, one sees the real cost of this prestige and all the cash. Where are James Joyce, Robert Musil, Nabokov, Borges, Schnitzler, Robert Frost, Anna Akhmatova, Colette, Rilke, Paul Celan, Yannis Ritsos, Pavese, Flannery O'Connor an D.H. Lawrence, to name only the most obvious? Instead we find John Galsworthy, Pearl Buck, Mikhail Sholokhov, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre (who, true to form, refused the prize), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M.G. LeClezio (this year's winner and the author of stubbornly unreadable texts), and a host of others who would be forgotten by now, had they not won the Nobel prize. Gosh thanks, Alfred.
The last American writer to win the Nobel Prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. Apparently there was a great deal of lobbying for Morrison by Oprah Winfrey & company. What Ms Winfrey knows about literature could be printed on a Bazooka bubble gum wrapper. But Morrison was the first American to win since Saul Bellow in 1976, whence one can only remark, "what a falling off was there" in those seventeen years!
To further confuse matters, the Nobel foundation has occasionally flirted rather shamelessly with politics. (2) Certainly awarding Harold Pinter the prize in 2005 was a political act. His best work was far behind him, but he was a vocal opponent of Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq. Swedes, you see, haven't fought in a real war for centuries, so they are preoccupied with other people's wars. Elfrieda Jelinek was the first woman to win the prize (2004) since Toni Morrison, and a more unattractive writer of either gender would be hard to find. Dario Fo is far more a radical agit-prop prankster than a writer.
But then, one has to remind oneself, they gave the award to V.S. Naipaul in 2001, to Gunter Grass in 1999 (before his Wehrmacht war record became public knowledge), to Jose Saramago in 1998, Kenzaburo Oe in 1994, Joseph Brodsky in 1987, Czeslaw Milosz in 1980, Pablo Neruda in 1971. The contribution these writers have made to our collective humanity is equal to, if not greater than, the discoveries in medicine, economics, physics and chemistry - which improve our material lives while neglecting our souls.
(1) "My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace." Alfred Nobel
(2) Politics has made a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize. While ignoring Gandhi - for whom such an award was surely invented - the Nobel foundation has seen fit to give it to murderers like Yassir Arafat and Henry Kissinger and to religious fanatics like Mother Teresa.
Friday, December 5, 2008
"In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is successful, is very much more marked. It is, indeed, ultimately this attitude that has made it possible for crime to flourish upon so huge a scale. Books have been written about Al Capone that are hardly different in tone from the books written about Henry Ford, Stalin, Lord Northcliffe and all the rest of the 'log cabin to White House' brigade. And switching back eighty years, one finds Mark Twain adopting much the same attitude towards the disgusting bandit Slade, hero of twenty-eight murders, and towards the Western desperadoes generally. They were successful, they 'made good,' therefore he admired them." (George Orwell, "Raffles and Miss Blandish", 1944)
One of the earliest and most recognizable images of French cinema is from the Lumiere Brothers' L'Arrivee d'un train a La Ciotat (1896). Matter-of-factly, it shows us, as the title makes clear, an everyday train arriving at an everyday station in Lyon. Early audiences, as yet unaccustomed to the illusion of film's realism, reportedly fled from their seats as the train approached when they saw - or thought they saw - that they were directly in its path. The film epitomized a way of looking at the world - by embracing it - that can be traced through the films of Antoine, Delluc, Vigo, Renoir, De Sica, Olmi, virtually all the Nouvelle Vague and beyond.
Not to be outdone, Thomas Edison produced a film in 1903 that also featured a train, except it was called The Great Train Robbery, with Wild West bandits shooting off their guns. And this film, too, epitomized an approach to the world - or a retreat from it - that can be traced through the whole history of American cinema. At the end of The Great Train Robbery, shot entirely in the wilds of New Jersey, a bandit appears, looks straight into the camera, draws his pistol and fires it directly at - us.
From the very beginning, American cinema seems to have been preoccupied with criminals and criminality. Whether it is derived from a strong anti-authoritarian streak or, indeed, its opposite (what Orwell called power worship), it is clearly inspired by the conviction that crime does pay and that might makes right. Because of its purely kinetic qualities, it is probably no accident that filmmakers have found violence in whatever form, but particularly that practiced by those with the power to practice it with impunity, to be mesmerizing.
One hundred years of technical development has made violence in film not only more literal but also more commonplace. And periodic expert studies on the de-sensitizing effects of screen violence on the spectator are invariably debunked by film industry-sponsored expert studies - just as the tobacco industry routinely sought to disprove the harmful effects of smoking, until the evidence against them was too overwhelming to refute.
The careers of some of the most beloved American actors have consistently depended on bad guy roles, from James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart to Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino. While the attitude behind the creation of these bad guys has not always been equivocal, thanks to the powerful Hayes Office, until the 1960s the bad guys were expected to get their comeuppance by the film's conclusion - and were not thereupon exalted by it. Soon after, however, filmmakers found they could dispense with the moralizing and let the bag guys prevail. By now it is commonplace to see them rubbing out one another. The police, as arbiters of justice, are commonly represented as ineffectual at best and corrupt at worst. Precisely who or what is holding society together in film after film is difficult to divine, which is perhaps why the rest of the world (and George Orwell) suspects that America is a chaotic, crime-ridden place where everyone has to carry a gun.
In the past decade, a spate or films and a cable TV series have actually attempted to humanize murder, by presenting to us the psychological problems suffered by career murderers. The extent to which these productions rely on the ready cliches from bad guys going back to D.W. Griffith is a par of the comfortable familiarity in which they deal. But the fine line they walk, and invariably cross, is always a moral one. And pretending that murderers are pitiable or even funny is surely one of the most brazen miscalculations of American cinema. It is one thing for filmmakers to convince themselves that the average American has a streak of larceny in his heart, but it is quite another for them to appeal to that streak or attempt to cultivate it. Perhaps it is merely the Walter Mitty in him struggling with his powerlessness, without for once wondering that there is good reason for him to be powerless. Certainly the popularity of The Sopranos and Analyze This would suggest something of the sort. But even as a joke, the exploration of such cartoon evil puts enough of a strain on one's credulity that one turns with relief to Conan Doyle or even Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - a fictional universe in which the good guys, however neurotic or cynical, always outwit the bad guys. At least it takes more intelligence - not to mention talent - to create villains with enough complexity to be convincing, and thereby all the more terrifying. Even if the balance of the universe is invariably - if sometimes precariously - preserved in the penultimate chapter, its preservation is an important reminder of exactly whose side we are on.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Having succumbed to this "silly editorial game" myself, on two occasions for Senses of Cinema(2), I am more than willing to eat crow. Looking at just about anyone's list of Top Ten Films - of the year, the decade, or even "of all time"(3) - inspires expressions of incredulity, like sez you, what was he smoking? or pull the other one. My own favorite is and then you wake up. Some of the lists include films that are so obscure it can only mean that the critic either has a very narrow range of films to choose from or that he is trying to foist his agenda on us. I will not argue that any agendum that is not an aesthetic one has no business in criticism, but I would insist that a critic state his agenda beforehand, assuming he is aware of them.
I have already made it clear in a prior post that I have a blind spot when it comes to American films. But because it is deliberate on my part, as a consequence of how long it took me to discover that a film could attain the stature of art (which blame I place squarely at the feet of Hollywood), it has not prevented me from considering American films individually, even while condemning them collectively. Citizen Kane was an historical event and not just a miraculous film achievement. It was also almost wholly unappreciated (even by the great Otis Ferguson) when it was released . It is utterly anomalous among Hollywood films of the period, and it took fifty years for an American film to even approach it in stature, despite a comparable amount of controversy.(4)
Most critics are little more than fans - incapable of distinguishing between what they like and what is good, which requires intellectual detachment. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, author of a "definitive" study of Luchino Visconti (and who has the stomach to challenge him?), wrote recently in a letter to Sight & Sound: "Acts of judgement (in the sense of 'this is' not in that of 'this is better/worse than that') are intrinsic to the encounter with a work of art and equally intrinsically subjective. There is no court of appeal against them, except at the notoriously fickle bar of public opinion. No amount of ancillary fact (about budgets, or on set love affairs) or theorizing (about genre or gender or the Unconscious or whatever) can substitute for the encounter of subjectivities around a shared aesthetic object."
Even subjectivities can agree. And trusting in the power of one's aesthetic judgement is as important, if not more so, than trusting in one's subjective reactions. However much the former may be "learned" and the latter "instinctive", for a critic the one is useless without the other.
1. The latest Sight & Sound poll can be found here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/
4. I mean Schindler's List, which several academics refused to take seriously because it was made by one of Hollywood's greatest showmen: Steven Spielberg. Dr. Strangelove, another film to rival Citizen Kane, is really a British film.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
This is precisely at which all descriptions of paradise fail to engage the imagination - let alone the libido. And not simply because eternity can only be grasped in the abstract. One of the peculiarities of human imagination is its inability to represent perfect happiness except in terms of contrast - in other words as a condition that is a temporary respite from suffering, if not exactly a reward for it. Leisure has value only in contrast with labor, plenty with want, feast with famine, etc. If one looks at some of the more specific descriptions of paradise, the Muslim one, for instance, with its promise of 77 virgins, it only makes sense if one is living in a culture in which women are largely invisible and untouchable.
Perhaps to its credit, the Christian paradise is so preposterous as to be completely unbelievable. Why is it that some of the most primitive visions of paradise are so much more attractive? This was summed up in a brief exchange between Daniel and Father Laforge in that splendid film Black Robe:
Daniel: They (the Algonquins) believe that in the forest at night the dead can see. The souls of men hunt the souls of animals.
Laforge: It is childish, Daniel.
Daniel: Is it harder to believe in than a paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?
The very concept of an earthly paradise is a political - and a heretical - one, born not only with the French Revolution but with the discovery, in 1768, by a French ship no less, of an island in the South Pacific called Tahiti. A society in which the fruits of the earth and the sea were so plentiful as to make labor unnecessary, in which "marriage" was exogamic and non-binding, and in which a pleasant - though constant - climate made clothing optional must surely have seemed like heaven on earth to 18th-century Europeans, particularly ones who had spent several months at sea. But, of course, it only took a few decades for Christian missionaries to utterly spoil Tahiti forever - their revenge for the presumption of realizing a paradise without God.
But having lived in one for a year, without the advantage, I confess, of nude Tahitian girls, a tropical paradise leaves much to be desired. Just now, the never-ending heat (a characteristic of the other final destination) is relieved by daily rainfall. But the dry season, which locals regard as their summer, is only a few months away. The very constancy of the heat is enough to disqualify the tropics from any such status as paradise. And for all the expats who were so quick to assure me that after several months of living here I should become acclimated to the point where I wouldn't sweat so much, I have some bad news: unless you have had your sweat glands surgically removed, your body and mine responds to the heat the same way it always did. The only thing that has changed after several months of sweating is that by now we've grown accustomed to it and now we aren't so annoyed by the runnels of sweat behind our knees or having our shirts permanently glued to our backs.
It is now late autumn in what's known as the Norther Temperate Zone, where the hardwood trees like oaks, birches and maples have already shed their leaves, and the days are perceptibly shorter. In Alaska, where I came from, it has been snowing already for a month. From now until March the temperatures will rarely rise above freezing. And it is a measure of how ultimately enervating the climate in the tropics can be that I miss the snow and the darkness almost like I miss my youth. It is too bad that I can't retrieve my youth as easily with a one-way plane ticket.
* Hinduism and Buddhism have simply replaced paradise with transmigration: a return trip to another life.
** Tertullian explained that one of the pastimes in heaven is watching the torments of the damned.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
A little man, known simply as The Lone Prospector, has invited a girl named Georgia and a few of her friends who work in the local saloon to a New Year's Eve party in his cabin. He is 'cabin-sitting' for the cabin's owner, who has left town to do business elsewhere. It is Klondike, Alaska, at the time of the gold rush. The little man – the poorest of the poor, but adventurous, always hopeful – has come to the Klondike, along with thousands of others, to try his luck. He has raised a little money shoveling snow from local storefronts, just enough for a roast chicken and trifles for the girls. He has carefully decorated the cabin and set a small table for the party.
It is still very early, so the little man sits down at the table and irresistibly falls asleep. He dreams that his party is in full swing. They are all there, Georgia and her friends, and he is delighting them with little gifts and jokes. As a finale, he takes two forks, jabs them into dinner rolls, and performs an impromptu dance – the lighting and framing creating the wondrous illusion of the rolls becoming his tiny feet on the table, doing ballet moves, soft-shoe and sideshow dances. The girls cheer the little man when he is done and he pretends to swoon . . . only to awake at the same table, unoccupied, alone in his cabin. It is nearing midnight and his guests have forgotten his party.
Hearing noises of revelry from the town, the little man, his aloneness complete, walks the short distance from his cabin, halts outside the brightly lit windows of the saloon and gazes within just as the crowd of townspeople – mountain men, miners and bar girls – all join hands at the stroke of midnight, maudlinly singing “Auld Lang Syne.” When the song is done, shots are fired into the air, and the celebration is renewed. The little man turns toward us, casts a shatteringly sad look at the frozen night and then wanders off.
The scene, the little man's dream and sad awakening, is the centerpiece of Chaplin's The Gold Rush and evokes, in only a few short minutes, the breadth of his genius – the inimitable quality of laughter in the face of pain, the whole bittersweet invention of how and why this peerless film artist could have made a pathetic tramp into a figure of fun. Chaplin admitted in his autobiography (which he titled, with – for once – unintentional humor, My Autobiography) that no matter how famous or prosperous he had become, he could never forget the poverty, the want and the humiliation, of his childhood.
At first impish, often violent in the knockabout style of his Mack Sennett two-reelers, Chaplin's Little Tramp matured as he gradually acquired total control over his work. Once he had fulfilled the terms of his contract with First National, he was free to explore the character more deeply, giving him a romantic, even tragic, side. Until, in the final scene from City Lights (1931), the comic mask is shockingly lowered: Chaplin becomes an actual tramp – broken and shambling, but still oddly (beautifully) capable of dignity. But The Gold Rush presents us with this unique mixture of heartbreaking comedy in its most perfect balance.
The shoot became legendary, with Chaplin taking full cast and crew by train to Truckee, California in the Sierra Nevada mountains (where one of the first inspirations for the film – the 'Donner Party' episode – took place) with the intention of filming entirely on location. His young wife, Lita Grey, was cast as his leading lady and the shoot went smoothly (except for Chaplin's usual long pauses for inspiration) until Grey became visibly pregnant. Chaplin removed her from the picture and cast one of Grey's friends, Georgia Hale, in the part. He then took everyone back to Los Angeles to re-take most of the scenes on back-lot sets. Very little of Chaplin's location shooting remains in the finished film.
In 1942, Chaplin re-released the film with all the title cards removed and music, sound effects and narration (all by Chaplin, of course) added. Chaplin did this in order to regain copyright of The Gold Rush, which had fallen to the public domain, for his own production company. When it was released, in the middle of World War II, audiences and critics were delighted, most of them agreeing that Chaplin had improved his masterpiece.
But there are subtle differences in the re-release version. Chaplin often used two cameras during shooting, and some of the scenes are framed differently, suggesting he used some of the footage from the second camera. And one significant cut takes place at the very end of the film. In the original cut, The Lone Prospector (Charlie) and Georgia are having their picture taken by some reporters and Charlie gives Georgia a prolonged kiss. In the re-release the scene is gone, the film ending with Charlie and Georgia simply disappearing up some stairs, with Chaplin comically alluding in his narration to their future together. Perhaps Chaplin felt that the kiss was a too-happy ending for the Tramp.
Since the appearance of the re-release version, a preference for the original has developed among Chaplin purists. Many still find Chaplin's narration, though often discreet, to be too unsubtle for the film, sometimes belittling the action. For instance, Chaplin playfully mocks the (obviously intentional) overacting of Mack Swain – which is unnecessary editorializing. It was as if Chaplin were making excuses for a new audience unaccustomed to silent film.
But the original film, untampered with and unimproved, still resonates with audiences whenever or wherever it is shown. Chaplin's Little Tramp was so entirely a creature of the silent film that he never allowed him to speak – except the gibberish song he sings in Modern Times (1936). Chaplin is one of the very few film artists who, having made silence his métier, so prolonged the life of silent film that its persistence was guaranteed by his genius. The silent film lives through Chaplin.
[This article can be found at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/02/22/gold_rush.html]
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Instead of pandering to these poor people with insuperable problems for the stupid misfortune of having more children than they can possibly account for, the Philippine goverment should declare a National Family Planning Month. They would first have to re-educate the population - for whom the number of children has always been a desperate and foolish measure of bounty - that as long as there are births in such numbers, not only are women enslaved but the ranks of the unemployed will continue to expand, crime will flourish prodigiously, and politicians, faced with so many consequential social ills that simply cannot be fixed, will have a whopping excuse to continue their habitual misappropriation of funds - a problem that exists even at the highest levels of government and which goes unpunished even when proven.
Behind my kitchen is a one room shack that houses nine people. The mother is obviously - to anyone with ears - suffering from some mental imbalance. In the mornings, when her seven children, with their seven empty stomachs, are clamoring for their breakfast, she screams at them. She screams the word hoy! most of the time just to get their attention. But she can sometimes he heard - it's impossible not to hear her - screaming in Visayan dialect gosto ko mamatay!, which simply means I want to die! During the day she often has to go searching for a stray child, and her screams of hoy! are heard throughout the barangay, from the highway on down the hill to the sea. But the evenings are the worst, when her children have to be told that there is nothing for them to eat. The older children, perhaps inured to going to bed hungry, take it stoically. But the youngest can be heard crying well into the night. Occasionally one of them, the slow eldest daughter, will cry out hysterically in the night, and the mother will just shout her down, leaving the child wimpering sporadically until she falls asleep. The only thing that muffles all this terrible noise coming from next door is the constant whirr of my electric fan.
On winning an "honor medal" at his high school graduation ceremony, Ronald (Keaton) gives an uproarious speech (via title cards, of course) against the "Curse of Athletics":
The secret of getting a medal like mine is - books not sports. The student who wastes his time on athletics rather than study shows only ignorance. Future generations depend upon brains and not upon jumping the discus or hurdling the javelin. What have Ty Ruth or Babe Dempsey done for Science? Where would I be without my books?
Needless to say, Ronald delivers his speech before an increasingly hostile audience - while struggling to keep his cheap suit from disintegrating. The last line is something of an appeal, as Ronald covers his crotch with a book when his flies come undone. By the time his speech is over the auditorium is empty - but a popular girl who happens to like him throws down a gauntlet that Ronald - unwisely one feels - picks up: "Your speech was ridiculous. Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak-knee'd teachers' pet. When you change your mind about athletics, then I'll change my mind about you."
Having no formal education, Keaton may himself have regarded college as a waste of time and college students as privileged parasites. But he saw the rich comedic potential of playing a college type enough to use it once again in his last great film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). As portrayed in the later film, college students are naive and completely unprepared for life in the real world.
That Ronald is too poor to afford college is perhaps more than a comedic ploy. It does not, of course, deter him from working his way through school - with disappointing results - as a soda jerk and as a "colored" waiter. Ronald loses both jobs rather than expose his identity (and the shame of having to work) to The Girl. Working in blackface may leave Keaton open to charges of racism today, but when some of his blackface rubs off in one of his patented pratfalls and his true "racial identity" is exposed, it is the black kitchen crew that comes after him - with meat cleavers! In pursuit of more than just cheap laughs, Keaton gives us a glimpse in this scene of the ugly face of Jim Crow.
Nothing, apparently, can stop Ronald from winning The Girl's heart - and social acceptance - by proving that he can excel at athletics. Despite the fact that, as his own stunts proved time and again, Keaton possessed considerable athletic abilities, all that Ronald can prove in College are his inabilities. In a prolonged and often painful scene, Ronald tries out for various track and field events and only manages to succeed at nearly breaking his own neck. One after another, he finds that he cannot run, cannot jump, cannot hurdle, hurl or vault. And the gags that he pulls off, some of them requiring precise balance and timing, soon become more pathetic than funny. Ronald's obvious disregard for his own safety makes his struggle to not fail take on an almost tragic quality. For if this scene of physical failure means anything, it is that trying to measure up to everyone else's standards is foolhardy, and that expecting it of everyone is cruel and terribly wrong. What gives the scene added punch is the presence - unseen by Ronald - of The Girl, who watches with mounting alarm and pity as Ronald risks life and limb to find his inner athlete.
By now the film has introduced us to the college dean - a diminutive (like Ronald) pinch-faced old man who at first welcomes Ronald for his academic achievements. But when Ronald's grades begin to suffer due to his experiments in sports (during which Ronald nearly takes the dean's head off with a misdirected discus), the dean calls him to his office where the following exchange takes place:
Dean: You have been a miserable failure in all your studies and I know the reason why.
Ronald: I took up athletics because the girl I love thinks I'm a weakling. I love her and would do anything to please her.
Dean: I understand, my boy. The same thing happened to me but I was stubborn. That's why I'm a bachelor.
Later we watch the dean, alone, gazing sorrowfully at an old photograph of a woman, presumably the girl who thought he was a "weakling". Whether the dean is meant to be pitied for being "stubborn" is questionable, particularly in light of the film's last few shots.
But College is, after all, a comedy, and by the last reel Buster wins the race and The Girl in his beautifully unorthodox way, discovering practical applications for his track and field experience as he rescues The Girl from the clutches of his adversary (who, significantly, had been expelled for his poor grades). Buster dashes at great speed, hurdles hedges, pole vaults into The Girl's dormitory room throws plates instead of discuses and nearly skewers the bad guy with a lamp pole as he tries to escape. Caught alone with Ronald in her room, The Girl announces to the Dean that they are paying the official penalty for such misconduct by getting married.
Happy ending, right? Then why does Keaton close the film with a montage that could hardly be mistaken for marital bliss? Neatly chronicling the rest of Ronald's life with The Girl, the montage dissolves from the church to a hectic household with three kids, to a quiet old age, finally to a shot of two graves, side by side and overgrown with weeds. In nearly all of his films (Go West being the hilarious exception) Keaton gets the girl. Only in College, near the end of his creative career as America's greatest silent clown, does Keaton show us what getting the girl ultimately means.
*It would be interesting to program Keaton's film with Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925). Lloyd's irrepressibly preppie image is a revealing contrast to Keaton's working student in College.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The actress known as Setsuko Hara was born Masae Aida, June 17 1920 in Yokohama, Japan. Her filmography begins in 1935 with Don't Hesitate, Young Folks (Tamarau nakare wakodo yo, Tetsu Taguchi) and ends abruptly in 1962 with Hiroshi Inagaki's rendition of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chushingura). In between are films that made her – and which she helped to make – unforgettable: No Regrets For Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, Akira Kurosawa, 1946), Late Spring (Banshun, Yasujiro Ozu, 1949), Repast (Meshi, Mikio Naruse, 1951), Early Summer (Bakushu, Ozu, 1951), Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, Ozu, 1953), The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, Naruse, 1954), and Late Autumn (Akibiyori, Ozu, 1960), to name but the most illustrious.
As it turned out, the name Setsuko Hara wasn't much different from any of the other names that Masae Aida answered to in her films, like Yukie or Noriko or Akiko – people who existed only within the context that Kurosawa or Ozu or Naruse gave them. Shocking everyone except her family and closest friends, who alone had intimations of her true self, Masae/Setsuko announced her sudden retirement in 1963. “And then there was what she said,” writes Donald Richie of the event, "the reasons she gave. She implied that she had never enjoyed making films, that she had only done so merely to make enough money to support her large family, that she hadn't thought well of anything she had done in the films, and now that the family was provided for she saw no reason to continue in something she didn't care for." Setsuko Hara was never seen again. Masae Aida, nearly 30 years older than her debut in films but still unmarried and childless, retreated into a genteel obscurity. Her private life had been pried into before, during her reign as Japanese cinema's Eternal Virgin, but nothing was found there to satisfy the tabloids, nothing to disturb the popular mythology surrounding her. And nothing more would be found out, in the nearly 40 intervening years in which Masae has lived her unassailably private life “in a small house in Kamakura,” adamantly refusing to appear or speak on behalf of her former self.
Masae has seen to it that we will never find out who she is. And even if we know quite a bit more about Setsuko, some of it is frustratingly inconsistent – in perfect keeping, perhaps, for the Woman Who Never Was. Her first appearance on film was at the age of 15 with Shochiku Studios, founded in the 1920s. And Shochiku became her contracted studio for the rest of her life. But it was a particularly troubled time in Japan, with the war in China raging and Japan's entry into World War II looming. Still, Setsuko quickly became a star.
Though considered, like her sensei Ozu, quintessentially Japanese, she was singled out by Arnold Fanck in 1936 as representative of a European-style young woman, probably due to her expressively large eyes. Fanck, famous in Europe for his Alpinist films – hyperventilated mountain melodramas, often starring the young Leni Riefenstahl – got her top billing in his German-Japanese production called The New Earth (Atarashiki tsuchi) in Japan and Die Tochter des Samurai in Germany.
Hara then appeared in a string of wartime propaganda films with such emblematic titles as War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai mare oki kaisen, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1942) and Watchtower Suicide Squad (Boro no kesshitai, Tadashi Imai, 1943) – films that were more illustrative of Japan's national peril than of its jingoism. Their poor quality did not prevent Setsuko from becoming a “pin-up girl” for wartime Japanese soldiers.
The war lost and Japan in ruins, a novice director named Akira Kurosawa, on loan to Shochiku from a newly formed studio that would later call itself “Toho,” cast Setsuko in the meaty role of the heroine of his beautiful but uncharacteristic “feminist” (and transparently socialist) No Regrets for Our Youth, which addressed the consequences that the generation that came of age during the War had had to face for their political activism. Setsuko was magnificent as a “woman of the people,” and it is one of the performances that have become the bedrock of her – by now – international reputation. Five years later at Shochiku, Kurosawa cast her in the impossible Nastasya Filippovna role in his fascinating adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), transforming her into a woman who fascinates virtually every male character in the cast with her striking beauty and erratic behavior. With her severely coiffed hair and accentuated eyelashes (like Marlene Dietrich, she is invariably lit from above), her performance was severely damaged, along with the film, by the studio's demands for draconian cuts, leaving it, laborious explanatory inter-titles and all, at less than one-third its intended length.
But it was Ozu who noticed certain qualities in Setsuko and cast her in the first of his late, great masterpieces, Late Spring. She was 29, but still 'virginal' in at least one sense, and totally convincing as Ozu's iconic devoted daughter Noriko. Like her, Ozu never married, choosing instead to devote his remaining years to erecting an indestructible monument to the fragile, disintegrating Japanese family. And Setsuko played an irreplaceable part, in five more Ozu films: Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957), Late Autumn, and The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961).
Meanwhile she would also make four films with Mikio Naruse, who was somewhat less reverential toward the Japanese family than Ozu, and much more interested in the constricted roles that women were required to play in Japanese society. For Naruse, Setsuko was allowed to approximate a more realistic, postwar young woman, in two films based on Fumiko Hayashi stories and two on Yasunari Kawabata – equally delicate but very different writers. Hayashi was one of the first postwar writers to devote herself exclusively to depicting the plight of women. In Repast, Setsuko played a wife trapped in a childless and loveless marriage in the lower middle class suburbs of Osaka. Setsuko, ever the refracting prism of the lives of Japanese women, was both totally convincing and deeply moving.
In The Sound of the Mountain (which, incidentally, was Yasunari Kawabata's own favorite of all his screen adaptations), Setsuko was again involved in an unhappy marriage, this time to a husband who has a child by a mistress. Setsuko's character has an abortion (quite an advanced detail for a 1954 film). The only comfort she receives is from her father-in-law, who quite obviously adores her and helps her to cope.
With so much sensitive and intelligent work in the service of a handful of some of the greatest films ever made, it is all the more puzzling that Setsuko/Masae could not only suspend it forever but even renounce it. It was one thing for Greta Garbo to confess to David Niven that she retired from films because she was bored with always playing “bad women.” (Niven) What Garbo perhaps lacked was an Ozu, a Naruse, or a Kurosawa. But even these stalwarts of Film Art were apparently not enough to keep Masae from her secret life in Kamakura as the Eternal Virgin, alone and, by society's standards, unfulfilled. It was as if Garbo had shorn her hair and entered a nunnery.
E. M. Forster once complained that he had to give up novel writing because he had grown tired of granting his characters the happy ending that he himself had been denied in life – heterosexual love and marriage. Although some sexual motivation often has the effect of humanizing an otherwise superhuman subject, I am not suggesting that Masae Aida was homosexual. Assigning sexual preference to people based on completely innocent statements, writings or other evidence has become one of the more tiresome commonplaces of revisionist criticism. I am perfectly satisfied to leave Masae's virginity intact – even now that she is 80, when such distinctions are subtle, at best.
But would it be going too far to suggest that Masae, having defined Japanese women in their various social roles, spurned those roles in her own life because she was unable to find fulfillment in them? In Japan, a woman unmarried past the age of 25 used to be called “Christmas cake” – stale and unappealing after the 25th. In a country that remains so male-dominated, perhaps Masae's decision to remain unmarried and childless was less a “failure” than a conscious decision? A protest? Donald Richie seemed to think so:
It now seems, particularly to young women, that this actress truly reconciled her life. Truly, in that though she played all social roles – daughter, wife, and mother – she only played them in her films. They were inventions, these roles. They did not eclipse that individual self, our Setsuko. And in this way she exposed them for the fictions that they are.
While seeming to codify the separate parts she played in the fictional world of her films, subsuming her own life – her own dreams – in theirs, Masae Aida proved herself to be far greater than the sum of these parts. Her choice of anonymity after such fame grew into the ultimate rebuke to the culture who sought to worship her, but only in the terms it defined.
Though some sources report that she made over 100 films, the Internet Movie Data Base (http://www.imdb.com/) lists only 44.
The tabloid press in Japan is at least as prying and libelous as anywhere else in the world. Kurosawa attacked it in his 1950 film Scandal, in which a bohemian painter gives a beautiful socialite an innocent lift on his motorcycle, only to find within days that the tabloids have embroiled them in a turgid affair. A more recent example of tabloid excesses occurred in December of 1997, when one publication, called Flash, drove the filmmaker Juzo Itami (Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) to commit suicide over a rumored extra-marital affair.
Niven, David, Bring on the Empty Horses, New York: Putnam, 1975
Richie, Donald, Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1988
Monday, October 20, 2008
In 1947 Kazan made a film called Gentleman's Agreement, about a newspaper reporter who poses as a Jew in order to find out if there is any anti-Semitism in America. As incredible as this premise may sound, the film ends on an unfortunate false note of triumph. The reporter, having found anti-Semitism everywhere he goes, comes out from under his Jewish alias as a born-again Gentile. The unintentionally (it is to be hoped) ridiculous moral of the film was Thank God I'm a goy!
Everyone, whether on volunteer work or professional assignment, who observes and reports on the conditions of ordinary life in the poorest places of the world carries around with him his own diplomatic immunity in the form of a foreign passport and a return ticket to places where injustice is merely a gentleman's agreement rather than national policy. No matter how hellish the lives of the people he lives among may be, for him there is at least the promise that it is not his life, that sooner or later he can go home to the comforts of his developed world, to the conveniences and orderliness of an up-to-date post-industrial consumer society.
Then there was Moritz Thomsen. After his four year stint in the Peace Corps was over, he, too, went home to the States. But what he had seen and endured in Ecuador with the handful of people he had befriended and immortalized in his great book Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, was too much for him to simply put away like so many photographs into an album. Personal disappointments, such as his dying father bequeathing his entire fortune to the Humane Society, helped to make up Thomsen's mind to sell off what little was left that bound him to his homeland and return to Ecuador, to Ramon and his family and to the farm on the River of Emeralds.
In 1976, Joseph Losey, himself a former blacklisted Hollywood director, made a film called Mr. Klein, which is a kind of anti-Gentleman's Agreement. Set during the German occupation of France, it is about a wealthy art dealer named Robert Klein who becomes confused with a Jew who goes by the same name. He spends the duration of the film searching for the other Mr Klein and clear his name. The film concludes when, having pursued his Jewish doppelganger into a stadium where Jews are being herded onto trains for transport to a concentration camp, Klein follows the Jew, swept by the crush of the crowd, into one of the train cars. It is only when the door closes on him and the train begins to move that Klein realizes where he is and where he is going. Surprised, perhaps, by the determination with which the "authorities" were seeking to destroy him - the Jew - Klein decides to join him, to subsume his fate with the Jew's.
In effect, that is what Moritz Thomsen did on returning to Ecuador. After many misadventures, triumphs and disasters, he died there in 1991, of cholera.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Also, I have no children to mark the passing of the years with their growth, reminding me of when I was their age and generally italicizing my own age with theirs. A good friend of mine has a 16-year-old son who sometimes makes me think he's his father when he answers the phone. This is difficult for me to even imagine, let alone experience.
But I should also add that I never set out to live a conventional life, being satisfied with any of the props or rewards that such a life bestows on one. I have paid a price for this choice, but I believe - so far anyway - that it was worth it. I can agree wholeheartedly with Constantine Cavafy's poem "Addition":
I do not question whether I am happy or unhappy.
Yet there is one thing that I keep gladly in mind -
that in the great addition (their addition that I abhor)
that has so many numbers, I am not one
of the many units there. In the final sum
I have not been calculated. And this joy suffices me.
But rather than base my whole life on a negation, a rejection, I would rather say, with Randall Jarrell:
Star, that looked so long among the stones
And picked from them, half iron and half dirt,
One: and bent and put it to her lips
And breathed upon it till at last it burned
Uncertainly, among the stars its sisters -
Breathe on me still, star, sister.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
When the late George Plimpton was asked why popular culture idolizes athletes, his explanation has always puzzled me: he said that athletes are worthy of our admiration because they can do things with apparent ease that we cannot begin to do. But what can they do? Stuff a ball through a hoop? Move their streamlined bodies through arbitrarily defined space? At least the first marathon runner brought news of a decisive battle, before dropping dead.Our marathoners sometimes drop dead, but the message they bring (from Nike or Reebok) is hardly worth the effort.
This latest event in Beijing simply demonstrates how spineless the West has become. The U.S., few people seem to recall, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
The Chinese continue their brutal occupation of Tibet, as well as generally suppressing physical and intellectual liberties at home. But, never mind. The Games are above such things, aren't they? Meanwhile China is using all the attention the Games generate to reassure the world that it is a kinder, gentler totalitarian state, that we can go on buying their crummy products by the boatload without guilt.
Late in 1945, the Soviet Union sent a football (soccer) team - the Dynamos - to play in England. The matches were overshadowed by brawling between the players and - decades before the "football hooligans" - among the spectators. A contemporary of these events, George Orwell, was moved to comment on them in his customarily corrective manner, and in his essay "The Sporting Spirit" he is quick to point out that "serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
"I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples(the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
"At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe - at any rate for short periods - that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
"Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern cult of sport arose. . . . There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.
"I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will 'lose face'.
"There are quite enough real causes of trouble already and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators."
At the end of his magnificent documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1964), Kon Ichikawa poses the question What have they won? He might just as well have asked What have they lost?
Saturday, May 17, 2008
When I admit to not having anticipated living to 50, then what alternative did I expect? My sister Virginia, whom I always called Dea, certainly didn't expect to die at 40 of cancer. And two of my favorite 20th-century authors, George Orwell and Albert Camus, were both four birthdays short of 50 when they died at the height of their powers. Yukio Mishima decided to publicly disembowel himself at 45 before he would allow his body, that he had worked so hard to beautify, know anything of the decay or betrayal of age. Since physical beauty eluded me during the crucial years when it could've made a difference, I have been spared the spectacle of watching my body sag and fail. When Barbara Walters told Robert Redford after The Way We Were was released that he could have any woman he wanted, he said "Where were they when I needed them?"
The author of one of the most moving birthday poems in English, Dylan Thomas, keeled over just shy of his 40th year:
POEM IN OCTOBER
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.
A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
Away but the weather turned around.
It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
And the legends of the green chapels
And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Still in the water and singing birds.
And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning.
What more could any of us wish for, that we should still be singing our heart's truth next year on Llareggub (Buggerall) Hill? Then why do I prefer Philip Larkin's reading of the gentle exhortation of trees?
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread;
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
But that was Larkin on a good day. One is never far from the mood you find in these other lines by Larkin:
I Have Started to Say
I have started to say
"A quarter of a century"
Or "thirty years back"
About my own life.
It makes me breathless
It's like falling and recovering
In huge gesturing loops
Through an empty sky.
All that's left to happen
Is some deaths (my own included).
Their order, and their manner,
Remain to be learnt.
Perhaps this is why all of my friends and wives are at least a decade younger than me?
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
"Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he views it rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitably takes he would kill himself.
"In South America the poor man is an ignorant man, unaware of the forces that shape his destiny. The shattering truth - that he is kept poor and ignorant as the principal and unspoken component of national policy - escapes him. He cries for land reform, a system of farm loans that will carry him along between crops, unaware that the national economy in almost every country sustained by a one-crop export commodity depends for its success on an unlimited supply of cheap labor. Ecuador needs poor men to compete in the world banana market; Brazil needs poverty to sell its coffee; Chile, its tin; Colombia, its cacao and coffee, and so on. The way United States pressures shape the policies of the South American governments can make a Peace Corps volunteer who is involved and saddened by the poverty in his village tremble to his very roots."
In the Philippines, whose population has been exploding for more than a decade, children are everywhere - especially small children. Imbecile politicians point to this overpopulation as a good sign for the future of the Philippines. And yet no single factor practically guarantees that poverty will endure more than the servitude of women as little more than baby-making machines.
This problem is exacerbated in Roman Catholic countries (like the Philippines and every country in Central and South America) where Papal policy strongly discourages the use of contraceptives and where abortion is either strictly controlled or even banned. The church is always there to welcome the many millions of new souls, but never willing to fill their stomachs. This life is merely a proving ground for the next one, according to their reasoning (if you could call it that), so why bother prolonging it? Why, indeed.
"Death, of course, is the great release. I lay in my house one night trying to sleep, while up the hill a fiesta went on until dawn - drums in an endless and monotonous rhythm connecting a series of increasingly complicated songs, some chanted by women, some by men, some by mixed voices. It gradually became beautiful and moving, but I was puzzled because the celebration was just a week before the great Semana Santa, Holy Easter, a fiesta that everyone saves up for and that leaves everyone broke and exhausted.
"Why were they bombiendo all night on the hill? I asked someone.
"'They were celebrating the death of Crispin's first-born,' I was told. 'He was born dead, an angelito.' There wasn't a bit of sadness in the town; it was a real celebration. Crispin's son had struck it lucky; he was one of God's angels without all of that intervening crap."
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Americans would've recognized the line and would've sent the young man to the gallows (or else had him fried in an electric chair) regardless. Long ago, James Agee was reviewing a British film and commented on how something comes across in British films that he never saw in American films - a higher regard for the sanctity of life and a high seriousness about killing. The film revealed something about the British - a respect or love for one another - that he didn't find in American films. Medak's film has the same effect: an attention that an American viewer would regard as sentimental or inconsequential - a loving attention to people and to their fates.
It is an ongoing, and probably endless, argument: does the violence in American films merely reflect the violence of the culture or does it somehow influence it? If mainstream American films (I won't even mention typically abysmal American television) are anything to go by, Americans are a gun-happy, unruly mob always just on the brink of exploding into violence. And you would think the same after watching or reading the news.
Never mind the influence it has had on American society, the Gun is virtually ubiquitous in American film, and by now synonymous with it. Take away the Gun and you barely even have American film. The careers of filmmakers like Coppolla, Scorsese and Tarantino would be inconceivable without the Gun. For me, this reflects the extent to which American film has distanced itself from life. When Francois Truffaut tried to justify the melodramatic conclusion of his film La Peau Douce by stating he got the idea from reading stories in French newspapers, he merely demonstrated how desperate he had by then become as an artist - gleaning ideas from yellow journalism. He had, in fact, betrayed everything else he had accomplished in an otherwise fine film - he had resorted to melodrama, the infusion of a blatant violation of his realistic art.
And 100 years of American filmmaking has done nothing to escape from its original roots in Victorian theater - the roots so plainly visible in D.W. Griffith's tawdry melodramas. If done well, and some American films have almost domesticated the Gun through sheer dumb bravado, it is acceptable on the grounds that even an "entertainment" is difficult enough to pull off successfuly. But if it is relied on merely as a prop for poor material - as it is in 99% of what passes for entertainment in Movieland - the Gun is the ultimate interloper, an intruder in the midst of life, and a whopping excuse for Movieland's worst examples of its trade.