Friday, December 26, 2008

It's a Wonderful Life: The Remake

"Thibaw, the last King of Burma, was a drunkard, he had five hundred wives - he seems to have kept them chiefly for show, however - and when he came to the throne his first act was to decapitate seventy or eighty of his brothers. Yet he did posterity a good turn by planting the dusty streets of Mandalay with tamarind trees which cast a pleasant shade until the Japanese incendiary bombs burned them down in 1942." George Orwell, "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray", 1946

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

Fateless But Fallible

From an informed and intelligent source comes another attack on Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, and his Shoah Foundation. Imre Kertesz, Holocaust survivor and award-winning novelist, wrote the script and apparently had "veto" control over Lajos Koltai's film adaptation of his novel Fateless. In an interview included in the Fateless DVD "special features", Kertesz makes his opinion of Schindler's List, Spielberg, and the Shoah Foundation unapologetically clear:

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?
Gyorgy: Buchenwald.
Man: From Buchenwald.
Gyorgy: Yes.
Man: So you heard about the gas chambers, but you didn't see them with your own eyes, right?
Gyorgy: 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

A Christmas Memory

At Christmas time in 1966, my brother and I were at St. Joseph's Home for Boys in Washington, Georgia. We were not there as orphans - I cannot speak for my brother, but for me it was more like a year at summer camp. Run with an iron fist by a group of Catholic nuns, in their old-style habits that exposed only their faces and their hands, the home was situated on an enormous (or so it seemed to an eight-year-old) estate in an old manor house. The year after my brother and I left the home, it was moved to a new premises in Atlanta.

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

I'll Be Home For Christmas (if only in my dreams)

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Psalm 137:4

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

Recovered Memory

The last time I was in Korea I experienced something so strange that it left me puzzling over it for days. In 1998 I was stationed at Camp Casey, a U.S. Army post adjacent to the city of Tongduchon. Along with an official Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that dictated matters of jurisdiction and the limitations of U.S.-Korean relations, there was an unofficial policy that would send American servicemen into the local community for brief periods, to give the Americans a glimpse of down-home Korean life, and give Koreans some assurance that we were not all drunken vandals.

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

Let Rome in Tiber Melt

Using the Paul Theroux yardstick: "A traveller doesn't know where he is going. A tourist doesn't know where he has been", Norman Lewis (1908-2003) was one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century. In his early book Golden Earth: Travels in Burma, he had the last word on expats, a strange breed of homo sapiens that has been around as long as our discontent with civilization. It was Mark Antony who uttered the title of this post, in Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra. He was with Cleopatra in Egypt, and wished never to see Rome again.

“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

Two Cheers for the Nobel Prize

In the balance, Alfred Nobel turned to philanthropy far too late. His invention of dynamite in 1867 will forever outweigh the millions in cash awards distributed annually since 1901 to physicists, chemists, physicians, economists, statesmen and writers. (1) That literature is still considered, at least by the Nobel foundation, to be as important to civilization as science, medicine, peace and the world economy is heartening. Except that some of their choices have been counter-intuitive.

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

Worst Cliches of Movieland #2: The Bad Guy

"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

Critical Cretinisms: Top Tens

Sight & Sound, the longest-running film periodical in English, started a poll in 1952 naming, by a majority vote of film critics, the Top Ten Films of All Time.(1) Every ten years since then the poll has been repeated, with often surprising inconsistencies. Only two films, La Regle du Jeu and Potemkin have made every poll, all six, since 1952. One point is made clear by the three latest polls, 1982, 1992, and 2002: the best films are receding swiftly into the past. The most recent film on the 1982 poll is 8 1/2, which was twenty years old at the time. In 1992, it is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was twenty-five years old. And in 2002, it is The Godfather, nearly thirty years old.

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:

2. viz:

3. Try naming the Top Ten Symphonies or the Top Ten Novels, and you immediately see the absurdity of this practice.

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.