Monday, December 28, 2009

In Rama was there a voice heard

December 28, is a designated holy day on the Roman Catholic calendar known as The Feast of the Massacre of the Innocents, commemorating the event recounted by Matthew in which Herod, hearing from the three wise men of the birth of a child in Bethlehem who would fulfill the prophesies, "sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under." Though Matthew's text is regarded by scholars as hagiography, the event is also mentioned by Macrobius in his Saturnalia and in a Syrian text which numbers the innocents at 64,000. Byzantine liturgy counted 14,000.

Matthew also tells of how "an angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him." So Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus into Egypt. According to Matthew, the massacre was the fulfillment of a prophesy of Jeremiah, which Matthew recounts as: "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because the are not." (Matthew 2:18, see also Jeremiah 31-15).

It is clear that Matthew was straining to fulfill prophesies, and this curious anecdote, which is not mentioned in the other Gospels, may simply be another of Matthew's strained tie-ins. In chapter 1 of his Gospel, he devotes the first seventeen verses to proving that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham. But in the very next verse he quite obliviously informs us that Jesus was, in fact, begat by the Holy Ghost.

But if Matthew's account is true, an an angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream of Herod's plans and he escaped with Mary and Jesus from Bethlehem during he night, a serious question arises. Why did Joseph fail to warn everyone else of the impending massacre? Was it merely because all those children had to die so that some obscure prophesy could be fulfilled? Did they have to die simply to cover Jesus's escape? Joseph could not have saved all the children from slaughter, but he certainly could have saved many of them. In a hurry to escape, he could have told one person, who could have spread the word or sounded an alarm that Herod's soldiers were on their way.

The figure of Joseph is nebulous in the Gospels. Cuckolded by the Holy Ghost, he is nonetheless instrumental, if Matthew is to be believed, in saving his step-child's life. Angels of the Lord do not appear to just anyone. In Jose Saramago's novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Jesus is the son of Joseph, not God. God calls upon him to sacrifice himself for man. Instead of learning in a dream of Herod's treachery, Joseph overhears two Roman soldiers talking about the plan to slaughter all the newborn children of Bethlehem. He hastily gathers up Jesus and Mary and they escape. Joseph and his family live, but he feels guilty for not helping any others to escape from Herod's soldiers. He suffers nightmares, and cries out in his sleep. Jesus asks Mary why his father should cry out. When Mary tells him why, Jesus is outraged, and says of his father: "Father murdered the children of Bethlehem." In Saramago's novel, God condemns Joseph for this "sin of omission" and he, too, is crucified. But Jesus, too, accepts the blame, and Saramago reverses his last entreaty from the Cross: "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." Jesus, in Saramago's version, is sent to die for the sins of his father. But the use of the word "father" is deliberately ambiguous. Was it Joseph who murdered the children, or God? If God created evil, is not God evil?

For the believer, the only conclusion that Matthew's text allows is that the innocents had to die so that Jesus might live. So within hours of his birth, a great crime tainted the Nativity. And the Church has set aside a day to feast their slaughter, reinforcing the interpretation that they died to fulfill a prophesy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Films I Love to Hate

Too often, some of the best critics are asked by their readers if there is anything they actually like, since their reviews are so often negative. Some of the greatest critics - like Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, George Jean Nathan, and John Simon - were notably negative most of the time. Their reasons were the same - called on to review whatever is available every week, month or quarter means being forced to write bad reviews, since the notion that everything - every book, play or film - is worth reviewing is simply ridiculous. The result is that, out of several volumes of criticism, the critics mentioned above end up with only a handful of truly positive opinions. But having to spend most of their time tearing something to shreds must have given them a genuine taste for it.

Hereafter are some of my favorite films "I love to hate." Often they are films that I single out to deplore because they have earned a great deal of praise from a lot of very misguided people. My only advice to them, or to anyone who may still have an unformed opinion of the films, is: Look again.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is by far the most intelligent science fiction film ever made. And therein lies the problem. After Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick was American film's great hope in the 1960s. And, after Welles, he was its biggest disappointment. For some mysterious reason, he lost interest in portraying human beings in his films after Lolita. It was not a problem in Dr. Strangelove, since he was creating a satire. It is, however, an insurmountable impediment in every film thereafter. In 2001, nearly everything is convincing except the two principal (human) characters. And Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood do not help matters by being such miserable actors. Kubrick's ape men are interesting, but only because they are proto-hominids with little resemblance to human beings. The super-computer HAL is a fascinating creation, thanks largely to the euphonious voice of Douglas Rain.

But the fundamental flaw of 2001 is its central proposition - that man has been helped along in his evolution by an alien intelligence that appears from time to time in the form of a black obelisk, accompanied by György Ligeti's spooky music. This supposition is no better or worse than every other UFO or ET fantasy. It could have been lifted, in fact, straight from the pages of the notorious Erich von Däniken book Chariots of the Gods?, which is full of wild theories about the origins of the Egyptian pyramids, Mayan and Incan structures and inscriptions. While not quite as foolish as Däniken's, Arthur C. Clarke's and Kubrick's obelisk is equally insupportable.

Kubrick's otherwise elegant depictions of space travel (the use of the "Blue Danube" waltz is inspired) are wasted on Clarke's ludicrous deus ex machina, which transports one of the astronauts into a psychedelic mystery tour so redolent of the '60s that it inadvertently dates all of Kubrick's visions of the world and outer space. And the appropriation of the overture to Richard Strauss' long Zarathustra tone poem is sheer effrontery.

Has anyone tried to relate Kubrick's choice of the year 2001 to what actually happened that year?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Belatedly Posthumous

"If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little." -George Carlin

Last February I complained on this blog that the news of John Updike's death took two weeks to filter through the grapevine here (they call it the "bamboo telegraph"). Those two weeks were nothing compared to the eighteen months it took for the news of George Carlin's death to reach me. I was astonished and more than a little puzzled that I could have missed it. But then I saw the date of his death: June 22, 2008. It happened to coincide with a catastrophe in the Philippines - Typhoon Frank, which killed thousands on land and at sea. I apostrophized the event in another post I called Tropical Depression. During the 9-day "brownout" that hit the Visayan province in which I live, all news was cut off, including the news of a ferry disaster that claimed hundreds of lives.

While the news of a psychotic like Michael Jackson rockets around the world within moments of his death and was known to every Filipino, the passing of a stand-up comic who made people think while they were laughing was passed off with a whisper. Because Carlin liked to talk so much about the English language, his humor was probably incomprehensible in a country that likes to pretend that English is a second language. And so I would like to impart a few words in that same language that I was not given a chance to write eighteen months ago.

Just prior to leaving the States in late 2007, I saw George Carlin in a brief clip from a recent concert and I noticed how his delivery sounded rather winded. He was beginning to sound as old as he looked, even though he was just 70.

I remember listening to his routines in the mid-1970s on Little David records* that my sister brought home. I identified completely with his jokes about growing up an Irish-Catholic and going to Catholic school, since I had done the same. I even saw how that same upbringing could have made him an atheist. He lived long enough to see some of his "seven words you can't say on television" become permissible, even if he cannot have been much impressed with their context.

He was constantly defending the English language from the insidious attack of euphemisms - those little white lies that are invented to disguise ugly truths. He demonstrated how they had been used to muffle the meaning of a condition that was originally known as "shell shock." Two syllables became four, with "battle fatigue" - but the meaning was disfigured. By now the meaning has been completely obscured by the term "post traumatic stress disorder," even if those who suffer from it feel the shock of the original term as terribly as ever.

He was kicked out of the Air Force in 1957 because of his irreverent insubordination on an armed forces radio show. Like me, it was difficult for Carlin to take the military seriously. I was just better at hiding it. He was pessimistic, even misanthropic, about man, about how he was capable of feeding everyone in the world but chose instead to put lights in the soles on toddler's shoes. The fact that he expressed that pessimism in his humor made his later routines somewhat disturbing. When he spoke about God, he reminded me of Robert Frost's "Forgive, oh Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I'll forgive Thy great big one on me."

The loss of a celebrity, especially one who appeared so often in recordings and television, is a strange experience. I never met Carlin, but his many recordings and television appearances will survive. So the Carlin I knew is still around, to provide laughs for the rest of my life. Even if he is no longer around to continue his commentary on the American scene, that commentary will continue to resonate as long as laughter is precious in a world that provides precious few occasions for laughter.

*I remember when he hosted The Tonight Show once in the '70s and introduced a fellow artist from his label, Kenny Rankin, whose career I have also followed closely through the years.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Is Science?

"All our discoveries are due to our violences." -E.M. Cioran

The poet and novelist Robert Graves once likened scientists to silkworms that are kept in perforated cigar boxes and fed mulberry leaves in order to produce their magical thread. His point was that much of scientific research since at least the beginning of the atomic age has been tailored to produce specific results for the people providing the mulberry leaves.

When George Orwell wrote his essay "What is Science?" in 1945, the subject had just been foisted onto the public by the atom bomb. The theoretical physics of atomic fission in the 1930s happened to coincide with the rise of German militarism. Knowing of the destructive potential of atomic fission, and fearing the consequences if that knowledge should be exploited by the Germans first, led some of the leading physicists of the day to bring their research to the attention of politicians. It was not the first time that scientists had volunteered their services to a political power. Today, what many observers fear is that scientists may be twisting the results of their research into climate change to suit one or another political agenda. With apparently no one in agreement following the abortive Copenhagen Summit, and scepticism over the scientific evidence mounting, the future looks murkier than ever. In 1945, however, it looked rather more dire.

What is Science?
Tribune, 26 October 1945

In last week's Tribune, there was an interesting letter from Mr. J. Stewart Cook, in which he suggested that the best way of avoiding the danger of a "scientific hierarchy" would be to see to it that every member of the general public was, as far as possible, scientifically educated. At the same time, scientists should be brought out of their isolation and encouraged to rake a greater part in politics and administration.

As a general statement, I think most of us would agree with this, but I notice that, as usual, Mr. Cook does not define Science, and merely implies in passing that it means certain exact sciences whose experiments can be made under laboratory conditions. Thus, adult education tends, "to neglect scientific studies in favour of literary, economic and social subjects," economics and sociology not being regarded as branches of Science, apparently. This point is of great importance. For the word Science is at present used in at least two meanings, and the whole question of scientific education is obscured by the current tendency to dodge from one meaning to the other.

Science is generally taken as meaning either (a) the exact sciences, such as chemistry, physics, &c., or (b) a method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact.

If you ask any scientists, or indeed almost any educated person, "What is Science?" you are likely to get an answer approximating to (b). In everyday life, however, both in speaking and in writing, when people say "Science" they mean (a). Science means something that happens in a laboratory: the very word calls up a picture of graphs, test tubes, balances, Bunsen burners, microscopes. A biologist, an astronomer, perhaps a psychologist or a mathematician, is described as a "man of science": no one would think of applying this term to a statesman, a poet, a journalist or even a philosopher. And those who tell us that the young must be scientifically educated mean, almost invariably, that they should be taught more about radioactivity, or the stars, or the physiology of their own bodies, rather than that they should be taught to think more exactly.

This confusion of meaning, which is partly deliberate, has in it a great danger. Implied in the demand for more scientific education is the claim that if one has been scientifically trained one's approach to all subjects will be more intelligent than if one had had no such training. A scientist's political opinions, it is assumed, his opinions on sociological questions, on morals, on philosophy, perhaps even on the arts, will be more valuable than those of a layman. The world, in other words, would be a better place if the scientists were in control of it. But a "scientist," as we have just seen, means in practice a specialist in one of the exact sciences. It follows that a chemist or a physicist, as such, is politically more intelligent than a poet or a lawyer, as such. And, in fact, there are already millions of people who do believe this.

But is it really true that a "scientist," in this narrower sense, is any likelier than other people to approach non-scientific problems in an objective way? There is not much reason for thinking so. Take one simple test - the ability to withstand nationalism. It is often loosely said that "Science is international," but in practice the scientific workers of all countries line up behind their own governments with fewer scruples than are felt by the writers and the artists. The German scientific community, as a whole, made no resistance to Hitler. Hitler may have ruined the long-term prospects of German Science, but there were still plenty of gifted men to do the necessary research on such things as synthetic oil, jet planes, rocket projectiles and the atomic bomb. Without them the German war machine could never have been built up.

On the other hand, what happened to German literature when the Nazis came to power? I believe no exhaustive lists have been published, but I imagine that the number of German scientists - Jews apart - who voluntarily exiled themselves or were persecuted by the regime was much smaller than the number of writers and journalists. More sinister than this, a number of German scientists swallowed the monstrosity of "racial Science." You can find some of the statements to which they set their names in Professor Brady's The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism.

But, in slightly different forms, it is the same picture everywhere. In England, a large proportion of our leading scientists accept the structure of capitalist society, as can be seen from the comparative freedom with which they are given knighthoods, baronetcies and even peerages. Since Tennyson, no English writer worth reading - one might, perhaps make an exception of Sir Max Beerbohm - has been given a title. And those English scientists who do not simply accept the status quo are frequently Communists, which means that, however intellectually scrupulous they may be in their own line of work, they are ready to be uncritical and even dishonest on certain subjects. The fact is that a mere training in one or more of the exact sciences, even combined with very high gifts, is no guarantee of a humane or sceptical outlook. The physicists of half a dozen great nations, all feverishly and secretly working away at the atomic bomb, are a demonstration of this.

But does all this mean that the general public should not be more scientifically educated? On the contrary! All it means is that scientific education for the masses will do little good, and probably a lot of harm, if it simply boils down to more physics, more chemistry, more biology, etc., to the detriment of literature and history. Its probable effect on the average human being would be to narrow the range of his thoughts and make him more than ever contemptuous of such knowledge as he did not possess: and his political reactions would probably be somewhat less intelligent than those of an illiterate peasant who retained a few historical memories and a fairly sound aesthetic sense.

Clearly, scientific education ought to mean the implanting of a rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind. It ought to mean acquiring a method - a method that can be used on any problem that one meets - and not simply piling up a lot of facts. Put it in those words, and the apologist of scientific education will usually agree. Press him further, ask him to particularise, and somehow it always turns out that scientific education means more attention to the exact sciences, in other words - more facts. The idea that Science means a way of looking at the world, and not simply a body of knowledge, is in practice strongly resisted. I think sheer professional jealousy is part of the reason for this. For if Science is simply a method or an attitude, so that anyone whose thought-processes are sufficiently rational can in some sense be described as a scientist - what then becomes of the enormous prestige now enjoyed by the chemist, the physicist, etc., and his claim to be somehow wiser than the rest of us?

A hundred years ago, Charles Kingsley described Science as "making nasty smells in a laboratory." A year or two ago a young industrial chemist informed me, smugly, that he "could not see what was the use of poetry." So the pendulum swings to and fro, but it does not seem to me that one attitude is any better than the other. At the moment, Science is on the upgrade, and so we hear, quite rightly, the claim that the masses should be scientifically educated: we do not hear, as we ought, the counter claim that the scientists themselves would benefit by a little education. Just before writing this, I saw in an American magazine the statement that a number of British and American physicists refused from the start to do research on the atomic bomb, well knowing what use would be made of it. Here you have a group of sane men in the middle of a world of lunatics. And though no names were published, I think it would be a safe guess that all of them were people with some kind of general cultural background, some acquaintance with history or literature or the arts - in short, people whose interests were not, in the current sense of the word, purely scientific.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mouthing Off

Give Back the Prize

I have already said enough about the Nobel Prize for Literature (see Two Cheers for the Nobel Prize). I would only add that it has been awarded occasionally more for political reasons than for literary ones. Judging from the list of its laureates, the Nobel Peace Prize is a rather dubious honor. Gandhi, easily the greatest activist for peace in the 20th century, was nominated five times, including just a few days before his assassination, but he never won. Martin Luther King, whose non-violent philosophy was borrowed from Gandhi, won the prize in 1964, and paid tribute to Gandhi in his Nobel lecture. Others who never won the award include Corazon Aquino, Liu Xiaobo, Václav Havel, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Meanwhile, some of the people who actually won the award have extremely spotty records regarding the promotion of peace, like Charles G. Dawes, Henry Kissinger, Yassir Arafat, and Mother Teresa.

Since U.S. president Barack Obama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, critics at home and abroad have questioned the award. The protests that Obama was undeserving of the prize, which Obama dignified by responding to, assume that it is a sacrosanct honor. There was even a sign telling Obama to "earn" the award that he did not deserve. Listening to Obama trying to justify himself to that grotesque audience in Oslo made my stomach turn. If Obama really wanted to take the moral high ground in this controversy, he should give back the award. Giving back the $1.4 million might be a bit harder to do.

Pershing Was a Prick

Some of my ex-military friends have spread stories, mostly apocryphal, about the American general John J. Pershing. While he was merely "a man of his time," which is one of the most commonly-used alibis of all time, Pershing participated in and carried out acts that should have forever besmirched his historical reputation. He took part in the massacre at Wounded Knee while a 1st Lieutenant. He is rumored to have committed acts during his service in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, including the execution of Muslim prisoners in Mindanao with bullets dipped in pig's blood. (This anecdote is often used in praise of Pershing nowadays.) When appointed commander of the U.S. expeditionary force in World War I, he banned the service of black soldiers alongside, or anywhere near, white soldiers, and sent them to bivouac with the French army, which had no such racist compunctions. On Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, he showed his contempt for the treaty by ordering his soldiers to keep fighting (and dying) all the way up to the eleventh hour, when the ceasefire went into effect. Pershing made no secret of his conviction that the Germans should have been fought all the way to Berlin.

In 1871, when Prussia defeated France and terms of peace were being argued, French General de Wympffen is reported to have said to the Prussian leaders, "It is to your interest, from a political standpoint, to grant us honorable conditions . . . A peace based on conditions which would flatter the amour-propre of the Army would be durable, whereas rigorous measures would awaken bad passions, and perhaps bring on an endless war between France and Prussia."

Whereat Otto von Bismarck disagreed: "I said to him," he recorded in his memoirs, "that we might build on the gratitude of a prince, but certainly not on the gratitude of a people - least of all on the gratitude of the French. That is France neither institutions nor circumstances were enduring; that governments and dynasties were constantly changing, and one need not carry out what the other had bound itself to do. . . . As things stood it would be folly if we did not make full use of our success." Thus, the peace terms were such that the French would remember them when they forced far bitterer terms on the Germans in 1918. And those terms in their turn would give Hitler sufficient grounds to justify the most savage war in history.

Roman Holiday

I am afraid that the Swiss authorities who have the Polish film director Roman Polanski under house arrest at his Gstaad chalet may agree to extradite him to the United States to face thirty-year-old charges of forcing sex on a thirteen-year-old girl. What makes me afraid is not that that I am an admirer of Polanski's work, but that his trial in the U.S. and his possible imprisonment may turn the 76-year-old into yet another martyr for his art, like Ezra Pound, and will lead many to overestimate the value of his work. Polanski has made, in his fifty year career, two fine films, three good ones, and a pile of quite bad ones. His personal history is filled with sadness - losing his mother in a Nazi concentration camp, his wife and unborn child to the Manson family, and his somewhat forced exile from a lucrative career in Hollywood. Of course, such a history is no excuse for pedophilia - something for which Polanski seems to have a penchant. If he is imprisoned, I can foresee his jail becoming a site of pilgrimage, as the rich and famous stop there to offer consolation and encouragement. But I wonder what Jack Nicholson thinks of all this, since it was in his hot tub that the underage seduction took place?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Le Beau Serge

[A piece I wrote for Senses of Cinema in 2001. With Truffaut long dead, Godard and Chabrol both turning 79, the French New Wave would appear to have already broken on the beach. Except that Godard is at work in postproduction of his new film Socialisme, and Chabrol's latest, Bellamy, had its premiere in February of this year. While it was heartening to see the French film industry make way for these fledgling filmmakers in the late 1950s, watching them trundling on well past the age when most others are resting comfortably on their laurels (or just six feet under), is encouraging. I think Chabrol turned out to be the best of his generation, with many splendid films (La femme infidèle, Une affaire de femmes) to his credit.]

Le Beau Serge

"New Wave? Old Wave? It's all the same ocean."
- Claude Chabrol (1)

As unceremonious as it may sound, Claude Chabrol started the New Wave in 1958 with the release of his first film, Le Beau Serge (2). They were heady times. Though it was inevitable that the handful of cineastes who had been re-shaping film criticism in France with their publication Cahiers du Cinéma since the early '50s would have turned to filmmaking, it was probably just as inevitable that their first films would have turned French cinema, as it was then known, on its head. In the broadest terms, after 1959, the cinema would never be the same.

By now, when it is possible to see the accomplishments of the Nouvelle Vague in the broader context of French cinema, it is clear that what most of them were up to (with the possible exception of Godard) was principally a purification and revitalization of what had always been latent in past work. They (Chabrol and Truffaut in particular) knew what antecedents to reference in their own work, as well as what standards at which to aim. As Vernon Young saw in 1965, "What should seem obvious to any filmgoer who is old enough to have a memory is that the similarities between this generation of film-makers in France and the preceding ones are more numerous than the discrepancies. However exuberant, experimental, informal, or even disorderly the new contingent has insisted on being, with whatever degree of seriousness its members have tried out audacities of narration and cutting, it has been working for the most part in what might be called the classical tradition of French cinema. This is to say that the new young men have rarely abandoned the intellectual schemata available to them and they have seldom operated outside the milieux of their predecessors." (3)

Le Beau Serge is, of course, an ironic title. Serge (Gérard Blain) turns out to be anything but beau when François (Jean-Claude Brialy), his old friend, returns from Paris to his hometown in France's Creuse region (the actual village is called Sardent, whose citizens and authorities are thanked for their cooperation at the beginning of the film - another irony?). Quickly, François discovers that ten years have not been kind to the people he left behind. On his arrival - a splendid, prolonged opening sequence - he recognizes his old friend walking away from him and calls out his name. Serge turns, but shows no sign of recognition. "He never notices people when he's drunk," Michel (Michel Creuze), his guide, tells him.

François has come back to his native village to convalesce. He has been suffering a near-fatal illness and hopes to find some peace and quiet. That he finds neither is largely his own fault. The life of his friend has degenerated to a shocking degree. Serge is married to Yvonne (Michele Meritz), who adores him, but whom he treats with disdain since their first - stillborn - child was deformed. He drinks almost incessantly with an older man named Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp), who may or may not be the father of Marie, the local siren. As the proprietress of François' pension tells him, Marie goes with a different man every day. That François turns out to be one of them is perhaps a happy accident in casting. Marie is played by Bernadette Lafont with a kind of predatory allure. She manages to be almost completely sexual, though her character is only aged seventeen. (Mlle Lafont herself was just nineteen during filming.)

François decides, thanks to Chabrol's professed Catholicism, to make a difference in his friend's life. Serge implores François to leave town. Even the local priest, somewhat less of a crusader than Bresson's, (4) advises him that he is probably doing mare harm than good.

One afternoon, Glomaud sees François in the hotel tavern. He tells him to buy him a drink, but François refuses. "You won't drink with me, but you'll sleep with my daughter?" Glomaud yells. All François can repeat in his defense is the unsubstantiated rumor that Marie is not his daughter. Glomaud calls witnesses to attest to François' statement, then stumbles off to rape Marie, whom he has reputedly lusted after for three years. François, finding Marie in tears ("he entered like a serpent," she tells him), chases down Glomaud who is trying to escape through the local cemetery and throws him to the ground. Bewildered, François flees to his hotel room. Serge visits him there and the following exchange occurs:

François: "Everything's so different here."
Serge: "You've seen how they live, François."
François: "Why are you like this?"
Serge: "Everyone's like this."
François: "That's not true. You're like animals, as though you had no reason for living."
Serge: "We haven't. How could we? The earth's like granite; they can barely scrape a living. They work because they've no choice."
Serge looks out of the hotel window at children being dismissed from school.
Serge: "Come and look. Miles to walk home, often in deep snow. Still, they want to learn. We're animals, but who cares? Everyone can't simply leave. You understand? It's like a baby couldn't walk if there were no one to show him how."

Every event adds to François' complete incomprehension of the villagers. At a local dance, he suddenly objects to Serge's callous treatment of Yvonne. He follows Serge into the street and gets a beating for his troubles. The villagers watch, exhorting Serge to "teach the Parisian a lesson." Stubbornly, François stays in the village to perform what he believes will be some transformative act.

It begins to snow. One night, with Serge unconscious in some "chicken run," François hurries to the aid of Yvonne, who is in labor. He manages to locate the town doctor, who is nursing Glomaud through one of his withdrawal episodes. Marie is there to taunt François. Our last look at her, as the door closes, is of Marie, sitting beside the bedridden Glomaud, his hand on hers.

The doctor is pessimistic of the child's survival. They get to Yvonne in time, but all she can do is cry out Serge's name. Already coughing, apparently weakened by the cold, François goes out once more to locate Serge. Finally, he finds him in a barn and literally has to drag him through the snow. Once arrived, he awakens Serge with a handful of snow in his face, just as his son's first cries break the silence. François, perhaps fainting (or collapsing?), utters his last words, "I believed." Serge, hearing his healthy son's cries, weeps from joy.

Chabrol made his first film in a raw, unadorned style, using real locations, a handful of professional actors and a multitude of "non-professionals." With his cinematographer Henri Decae (and the camera operator Jean Rabier, who would soon become Chabrol's third eye), he succeeded in capturing the detestable conditions of a particular backwater of regional France. We've all seen such places, even if it may seem we sometimes live in them: the squalor; the quite unbelievably casual attitude toward such imponderables as incest; the occluded horizons. Chabrol's characteristic themes were already evident in Le Beau Serge. Clearly, he was another of those filmmakers who spent a long time thinking about films before he had a chance to make one. This explains the astonishing completeness of the New Wave's first films. Whereas Antonioni and Bergman, to name just two of their generation, needed several years of apprentice work before finding their mature voices, Chabrol, Truffaut, Resnais, and Godard had, before they ever set foot behind a camera, arrived at an understanding of exactly where they wanted to go.

Le Beau Serge is also far less schematic than Chabrol's later, "Hitchockian" work. Its allegorical levels are, consequently, far more accessible. And, unlike much of his work in the '60s, one has the definite feeling that Chabrol actually cares for the people in his film, as much as he detests the village in which so many of them seem to be trapped. His subsequent work would show greater technical proficiency, at the expense of human content.

(1)Quoted by Vernon Young in his 1965 essay "Some Obiter Dicta on Recent French Films," from On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972), p. 253
(2)This fact is contested with nauseating frequency. Often, filmmakers quite peripheral to the movement such as Jean-Pierre Melville are put forth as the true originators. But with an official release date of January 10, 1959, Le Beau Serge predates the release of Truffaut's Les 400 Coups by nearly four months, and Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour by six. Godard's A Bout du Souffle wasn't released until March 1960.
(3)Vernon Young, On Film, pp. 253-254.
(4) I mean, of course, the Curé of Ambricourt, in Diary of a Country Priest (q.v.).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Comic Book Movies

Fewer people than ever are showing interest in the elements that used to define the medium of film, like creating images of real people in real settings and situations. New films are made from all manner of things - not just books and plays, but TV shows, popular songs, amusement park rides, and the most dubious source of all, other films.

Comic books were first adapted to animated films, which was not much of a creative leap. They made it to radio and television with poor results, since radio had to forsake the graphic element of the source material, and because early television was severely limited in its special effects department. Few producers showed confidence in going to the expense of effectively adapting comic books to film until the 1970s, when George Lucas started his phenomenal Star Wars franchise.

I knew an avid collector of comic books who was acutely intelligent. I accompanied him to a hobby shop that sold comics. While he searched for the ones that he did not possess, I browsed through the racks of comics. I was impressed by some of the draughtsmanship in them, but when I read some of the captions I began to feel like Chesterton when he was first confronted with the spectacle of Times Square at night: “How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read.”

The stories that comic books and so-called graphic novels tell are almost invariably lurid, fraught with the most brazen power worship, inhumanly cynical, fascinated by crime, inspired by childish fantasies of invulnerability and immortality, and, worst of all, sadistic. When good is represented by either obvious psychotics or inhuman freaks, it becomes impossible to conceive of an evil that could be worse. Strength is admired for its own sake, no matter to what end it is used.

At the 2007 Golden Globes ceremony, somebody commented on the neglect of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in the "Best Motion Picture - Drama" category by calling it "more than just a comic book movie." The words were meant, of course, as praise. And yet it was probably the most, short of hyperbole, that could be said in praise of a film that owed its existence to a comic book. But the same question arises, as it must have to the Golden Globe judges: are any of these films any good as films?

In the past year or so, I have seen several of the latest comic book movies, most of which were part of a series: the first two X-Men, Superman Returns, the three Spidermans, and the two new Batmans. These eight films were directed by three men: Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, and Christopher Nolan. The devotion that comic book fans have shown these eight films, making them some of the highest grossing films of all time, (1) shows the extent to which they are being taken seriously by their makers. But how seriously are we to take these films, when the opening scene in the first X-Men takes place in Auschwitz? (2) The scene is used merely to introduce the character who later becomes known as "Magneto." This outrageously self-serving attitude, which appropriates one of the most terrible periods of human history merely to introduce a level of seriousness to its subject shows how these films cannot even touch seriousness without falling to pieces.

Christopher Nolan acquired a quite bogus reputation with Memento, which makes its hackneyed story seem less so by telling it backwards, and The Prestige, which would have us believe that professional envy would drive two magicians to tacitly resort to murder rather than reveal the secret to their magic tricks. But Nolan's two Batman films offer sufficiently imaginative plots that provide motivation for some of the hero's otherwise ludicrous actions. The Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batmans were campy jokes by comparison to Nolan's. Christian Bale pulls off the role with a commanding physical presence - something none of his predecessors possessed. And Heath Ledger is mesmerizing as The Joker, granting us tantalizing glimpses of the genius we all lost to his accidental death.

The Nolan Batman films rely on some quite plausible special effects, and at least they go to the trouble of setting them up. Bryan Singer's X-Men and X-Men 2 play heavily with our credulity for their effects. Their powerhouse acting casts seem quite pointless when they are mere fodder for CGI. Singer's Superman Returns is spectacularly bound to its effects. But without Christopher Reeve, it was too painful for me to watch. Reeve's personal strength and heroism made the Superman persona into a joke.

Sam Raimi is a veteran director of low-budget films. He was skillful enough to exploit the schlock element of his films, as in The Evil Dead, for laughs. When he was named to direct the first Spiderman film, it was a vindication of his years in B-movies. Unfortunately, the first Spiderman unfolds like its scripts was the winner of a Spiderman scriptwriting contest. The second and third installments in the series (a fourth is in pre-production) are better, but the character, if you could call it that, of Peter Parker, and the way that he acquires and exploits his powers are preposterous. And Tobey Maguire is an utterly callow actor who, like Casey Affleck, is a graduate of the Andy Devine school of elocution. The films' portrayal of scientists, millionaires and generals as all megalomaniacs was a cliché when Stan Lee created Spiderman in the 1950s. (3) Together, these three films have grossed more than two-and-a-half billion dollars. What that statistic illustrates about the majority of filmgoers is not entirely surprising.

(1) The latest list places The Dark Knight as the 4th highest grosser ($1,030,418,342), Spiderman 3 as the 14th ($890,871,626), Spiderman as the 21st ($821,708,551), and Spiderman 2 as the 28th ($783,766,341).
(2) The fact that the name "Auschwitz" is not given in the scene is a gauge of the director's (Bryan Singer's) lack of nerve.
(3) Lee puts in an appearance in all three films.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Notes on the Way

The Ampatuan Massacre

What is being called in the Philippines the Ampatuan Massacre, in which 57 people in the southern province of Maguindanao were taken by gunmen to a secluded spot where a backhoe had already prepared a deep pit for their interment, and were summarily executed, continues to inspire expressions of rage and revulsion locally and internationally. The provincial governor/warlord of the province, who is holed up in his mansion, offered up his son as a scapegoat to the "authorities" and he has since been charged with multiple counts of murder. He is claiming his innocence and is sticking with his story that members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front did it.

Never mind that terrorists, no strangers to brutality, are being blamed for all manner of brutal acts perpetrated by elected officials all over the world, what I found most disturbing about the Maguindanao murders is that they appear to have been carried out with some confidence that its perpetrators would get away with it. That the men who paid for the hired guns might yet get away scot-free will not, of course, spare them the judgement of those - everyone, that is - who know exactly who did it. The scene of the massacre has been shown on the local news incessantly, with many shots that would not be shown in international broadcasts. But the scenes reminded me of similar scenes of mass execution, similar pits that had been dug, often by the victims themselves, when Nazi SS death squads dispatched thousands of enemies of the Reich, most of them Jews, during the German invasions of Eastern Europe and Russia. That the Germans sometimes filmed these executions quite openly revealed not only the degree of their barbarity but their complete confidence in the victory of the Reich and the vindication of their acts. I would not be surprised if someone shot video of the Ampatuan massacre.


I wonder if there was anyone who was surprised when it was discovered that Saddam Hussein's great hero was Joseph Stalin. The two men even looked alike. Even if Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo looks nothing like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, I would not be surprised to learn that he is PGMA's hero. Not only has the diminutive president, who perhaps has a Napoleon Complex, been accused, like Putin, of election fraud and the murders of numerous journalists - what are called extra-judicial murders hereabouts - she is rumored to be plotting a change of the Philippine constitutional charter in order to create the office of prime minister. When Putin's term as Russian president ran out, he engineered a change in Russian govermental structure, creating the office of Prime Minister. The Philippine president has a flinty reputation for never responding to her critics and when asked by the press what her intentions are after her presidential term ends next year either ignores the question or treats it as a joke. Instead she has announced her candidacy for a congressional seat, becoming the first sitting president (presumably a full-time job) to do so. Perhaps when her party, which holds a majority of those seats, votes to transform the Congress into a Parliament and elects Arroyo the Philippines' first Prime Minister, the extra-judicial murders will become just plain judicial ones, and the Philippines will become what it has sometimes only seemed to be in the past, a hooligan state like Burma and North Korea.

15 Minutes

The infamous couple causing a stir in the States over their alleged "crashing" of a White House state dinner gave further credence to Andy Warhol's quote, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Warhol made the statement, which is typical of his offhand stabs at profundity, at an exhibition in Stockholm in 1968. What nobody remembers is that Warhol was seriously wounded on June 3rd of that same year when a former member of his "factory" shot him. Warhol, who was more than a little reclusive to begin with, withdrew further into the background, enduring health problems for the rest of his life. Warhol learned, and so will the Salahis, that there is a price for fame.

Films Into Movies

Alot of people are commending Quentin Tarantino for dispensing, in his latest film Inglourious Basterds, with the convention of having everyone in the film speak English when they should be speaking German or French. This dubious practice is as old as the sound film, when Hollywood had to find a way to portray foreign-speaking characters to an exclusively English-speaking audience. If they had the misfortune of having thick accents, many excellent foreign actors were relegated to bad guy roles in Hollywood films for decades. When America was at war with Germany and Japan, German and Japanese actors were either employed as villains or otherwise unemployed.

But the practice of having everyone speak English is not so dubious when you recall that Shakespeare had his Greeks and Romans and Italians and Danes speaking in English blank verse. And never mind that there is a whole world of film, unknown to Tarantino fans, in which people speak no English at all. Come to think of it, I recently watched the animated film Kung Fu Panda, in which all manner of animals were speaking English. Perhaps Tarantino might have had them make animal noises, with accompanying English subtitles?

But the very title of Tarantino's film reveals what little confidence he has in his own language. At the film's premiere in Cannes, he told a press conference, "I’m never going to explain that. When you do an artistic flourish like that, to describe it, to explain it, would just...invalidate the whole stroke in the first place."

Tarantino's film was loosely based on a 1978 schlock spaghetti action film called Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato, or The Inglorious Bastards in the States. It was a rip-off of The Dirty Dozen. Speaking of rip-offs, I have seen news reports of two films in current release, Jim Sheridan's Brothers, and Bob Marshall's Nine. Neither report made mention of the fact that Sheridan's film was derived almost bodily from Susanne Brier's superb Danish film Brødre (2004), and that the Marshall film was ultimately inspired by Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). Granted, the Marshall musical is directly derived from the Broadway musical Nine, but while there may be no honor among thieves, liabilities should be sufficient to keep Hollywood honest. The Marshall film features 75-year-old Sophia Loren, who never appeared in a Fellini film, but the script credits make no mention of Fellini, or Fellini's co-writers Flaiano, Pinelli, or Rondi. What with its theft of other people's good ideas, and its expectation that nobody will notice, Hollywood is apparently still committed to the maxim, "Nothing alien is human to me."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Films I Love to Hate

Some films seem too easy to hate - so easy that it feels unfair and takes all the fun out if it. They make righteous indignation seem self-righteous. But then one reads how some others - critics, historians, scholars - have found reasons to admire the films and to recommend them. Hating them then becomes a duty, and whipping the dead horse not so futile as it seems.

The Birth of a Nation

Slavery has been called one of America's "original sins," and it is one that is still being expiated. It is only fitting, then, that the very first feature-length film to be made in America should have been one that is not only about the Civil War that sought to end slavery (1), but that is on the side of the slave owners. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was made in a quiet, godforsaken locality called Hollywood in 1915, and its success helped make Hollywood into what Griffith later called "a Detroit of the mind."

Based on the trash novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (2), the film is replete with heroic white Southerners and villainous Northerners, noble and obedient slaves and lecherous, ape-like former slaves. And, of course, the Ku Klux Klan, which rides to the rescue in the film's climactic scene. If The Birth of a Nation were nothing more than an embarrassing relic of primitive filmmaking, it would have been mothballed long ago and put away in a nice dark vault.(3) Most of the so-called innovations attributed to Griffith have been systematically proven to be borrowings from Danish or French films either lost or forgotten. These reservations aside, The Birth of a Nation does possess a crude but undeniable power, a negative energy, that gives some scenes an emotional punch, regardless of the stupidity of their message.

When it was released it was a sensational hit, and made Griffith a fortune. This was due largely to the riots the film's screening provoked and the refusal of some major cities to show it simply in the interests of public order. It also inspired lynchings, an activity that usually needed no provocation in many places in America. It was attacked in the press and Griffith was labelled as a racist. In response, Griffith was inspired to make his next blockbuster, the extravagant and simple-minded Intolerance (1916). Lillian Gish continually defended "Mister Griffith," as she called him against the charge of racism.(4) But the film tells a very different story.

It is difficult to imagine the screening of The Birth of a Nation to an audience, particularly a black audience, that has not been given ample advance warning of its content. I have read tributes to Griffith, most notably by fellow Southerner James Agee, that practically have to stand on their own necks in his defense. But while some have argued that the film's outrageously stupid views on the Civil War and slavery are beside the point and that the film is justifiably ranked as one of the greatest American films, I would compare it with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which is itself a formidable cinematic achievement. On the occasion of Riefenstahl's death in 2003, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

When questioned about her work for the Nazis, she always responded that she had
never actually joined the Nazi Party and that she had changed her views in 1944
(as did other Nazi supporters when they saw that Hitler was going to lose). She
made her own subsequent attempts to separate art from politics. She would often
say, "I didn't do any harm to anyone. What have I ever done? What am I guilty
of?" I haven't yet read the response that could have been made: "Your work--in
fact, your best work--helped inspire millions to do enormous harm."

(1) Some historians deny that the Civil War was about the abolition of slavery. It was indeed about states' rights - but the most contentious right that the Southern states wanted to defend was the right to buy and sell black human beings. When the issue went unsettled at the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave-owner, admitted that "We have the wolf by the ears and we dare not let it go." The issue had to be shelved in 1776, but it was inevitable that it had to be settled in a nation that announced to the world that "all men are created equal."
(2) Griffith gave Dixon a percentage of the film's profits when he couldn't pay his original fee ($10,000) in full. The film's extraordinary success made Dixon a millionaire.
(3) Unlike Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted his life to unearthing and restoring ancient films - and written such beautiful books on the subject, like The Parade's Gone By - I have no great nostalgia for them. I am indebted to the people who restored Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to something close to its original glory. I am in no way indebted to those who restored Erich von Stroheim's Greed to four hours, less than half of its original 9-hour "director's cut." It is interminable at any length.
(4) Griffith was a perfect unthinking racist. Here is his response to the accusation that he was "anti-negro": "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."
(5) The New Republic, October 6, 2003.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Iraq Inquiry

The British government has begun an inquiry into its involvement in the Iraq war. Former Prime Minister Tony Brown will be questioned, among others. The general tenor of the inquiry is curiously accusatory, as if it is admitting the war was lost, or at least not worth the expense of men and money. It reminded me of Philip Larkin's poem, "Homage to a Government":

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

10 January 1969

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ecology of Man

Man has always believed that his fate and the planet's were somehow inextricably linked. Prophesies of the end of the world never suggest that, after mankind has been called to its maker, the planet will remain, uncontaminated by man. Even the "worst-case scenarios" of nuclear war or the recent prophesies of asteroid impacts with the earth pretend that the earth will enjoy no posterity when man becomes extinct. An old friend once expressed his view to me that the very idea that man could pose a threat to the life of the planet was ridiculous and that it was far more likely that one day the earth might decide that it had had enough of man and bring about his extinction. The evidence of escalating global temperatures, the very existence of which - true to form - some people are trying to deny or downplay, indicates that we may be witnessing the initial stages of the planet's wrath. This idea seems to me at least as likely as the one posited by the "disaster porn" flicks like 2012.

Whatever the end may be, the feeling that it is somehow unavoidable and that it is too late to stop it, even if it were in our power to do so, is widespread. This feeling, of course, inadvertently hastens the outcome. Whether man is the cause of his own extinction or not, it is commonly believed that he cannot save himself. In his book, The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton Paterson puts it succinctly (and beautifully):

Conservation is only ever a rearguard action, fought from a position of loss. It is ultimately unwinnable, and not least because there are no recorded victories over population increase, nor over the grander strategies of genetic behaviour such as the laws of demand, political expediency, sheer truancy and a refusal to relinquish a standard of living once it has been attained. There can only be stalemates, holding actions and truces uneasily policed. A few affecting species will be saved, a few million hectares of forest, a few tribes of Indians; but the world will never return to how it was when this sentence was written, still less to how it was when reader and writer were born. This has always been true and will continue to be so. The mistake is to extend this sequence backward in time and imagine it leads to a lost paradise. It is a safe bet that as soon as the earliest protohominid could think, it invented a legend to account for its sense of loss.

I have the feeling, however, that our quietus may not come as soon as, or quite in the manner that, we expect. The people who expected the world to end at midnight on December 31, 1999, or the ones who expect it on December 21, 2012, are just like the befuddled ancients in Cavafy's great poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" on the following day:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Desert Island Dregs

When I packed my bags two years ago at the start of this journey I am on, I went through my books and set aside around thirty of them to bring along with me. The rest I left with my sister to safekeep until I am done with this place, or it has done with me.

The books I gathered for thirty years are only the ones I thought that I needed to have with me as I moved around the country or across an ocean, picked up in book stores in places like Columbia, Denver, Reno, Virginia Beach, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Des Moines, and Anchorage. In every one of them I wrote down the date and the place. They were too many to bring with me on the plane. I had no other possessions but them for a long time - no furniture, no appliances. Some keepsakes, some photographs. The vinyl records I had, hundreds of them, were finally abandoned in 2005. I regret giving them up, but to save them would have cost me more money than I had at the time. A poor excuse, but a lack of money at crucial moments in my life would seem to be a kind of dominant theme.

The books I packed in my bags included a few novels: one by V.S. Naipaul called A Way in the World; one by Arthur Schnitzler called A Way Into the Open. Emblematic titles, I know. I brought the Primo Levi memoir called The Periodic Table. And the three-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. Two marvelous books on Japan by Alan Booth. Three books by Charles Nicholl, including Somebody Else, about Rimbaud's last years in Africa, and The Creature in the Map, a latter-day exploration of the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, where Walter Raleigh searched but never found El Dorado. There were three books by Norman Lewis, whom I regard as the greatest travel writer of the 20th century. But the majority of the books in my bag were written by three men: Albert Camus, Moritz Thomsen, and George Orwell.

Shortlly after my arrival in the Philippines, a run of bad luck, precipitated by the treachery of a fellow American, forced a change of plans on me at a moment when, once again, a lack of money narrowed my options down to only one. And that option made it necessary for me to abandon all but seven of those books, the seven I had casually singled out for what I believed would be a few days' outing. Those seven books are all that I have left of the thirty or so that came with me on the plane two years ago, and they have survived my exile with me thus far: the last volume of the Deutscher biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, which chronicles his banishment from Russia and his flight from one safe haven to another, until his assassination in Mexico in 1940; Moritz Thomsen's first splendid book, Living Poor, about his Peace Corps experience in Ecuador; James Hamilton Paterson's The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds; George Orwell's one thousand three hundred and sixty nine page Essays. Camus' novel The Plague, in which a group of people contend with their exile to the quarantined city of Oran, Algeria during an outbreak of bubonic plague; Drieu La Rochell's novel, The Fire Within, about the final hours of Alain, who has condemned himself to death; and the King James Bible.

Over the past several months, I have quoted from these texts extensively - so much so that I fear some readers may think I am fixated on them. It so happens that I have grown fixated to the extent that I am no longer certain if I chose those books or they chose me.

On the island where I now spend my days, there is no library. They very notion of a lending-library is outlandish in a country where newly recruited soldiers cannot be counted on not to sell their M16s, and where if you are going to mail a pair of shoes, you had better mail them one at a time.

So a few times a week, my Filipino neighbors watch with curiosity as I stand on the side of the highway with a thick blue notebook under my arm, waiting for a ride into the nearby town. They suspect that I am conducting mysterious business transactions that I record in my notebook. But the only transactions I have conducted have been without remuneration, translating into my own language the things that I have witnessed. I have learned the hard way that an unpleasantness can be rendered less unpleasant by writing about it. I am not so annoyed by the incessant brownouts, the heat, the crowing of roosters and the baying of hounds as I once was. And when I open any one of those seven books, I am transported to another realm, more familiar, more agreeable, and less outlandish. Something like what Wallace Stevens felt on his "Arrival at the Waldorf":

Home from Guatemala, back at the Waldorf.
This arrival in the wild country of the soul,
All approaches gone, being completely there,
Where the wild poem is a substitute
For the woman one loves or ought to love,
One wild rhapsody a fake for another.

You touch the hotel the way you touch moonlight
Or sunlight and you hum and the orchestra
Hums and you say
"The world in a verse,

A generation sealed, men remoter than mountains,
Women invisible in music and motion and color,"
After that alien, point-blank, green and actual Guatemala.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pandora's Box

Just when I was considering writing a piece on G.W. Pabst's 1928 film Pandora's Box, I remembered the piece I had written for Senses of Cinema five years ago. How time flies, and my memory with it! Silent films are receding so quickly into the past that I wonder how many impartial viewers could tolerate sitting through them today. A restored version of Pandora's Box is now in wide circulation, at 133 minutes.

Pandora's Box

"Lulu's story is as near as you'll get to mine." – Louise Brooks (1)

"There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" – Henri Langlois (2)

It is easy to see the great films of the short-lived Weimar Republic (1919–33) as haunted and spectral – the artistic expression of a society on its last legs. Their very brilliance seems inseparable from a brittle fragility, as if the extremes toward which they were reaching with an almost breathtaking speed would inevitably result in the backlash that followed, and the flight of their makers into exile or silence.

What makes G W Pabst's 1929 film Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) so astonishing is the candour of its ambiguous sexuality and the electrifying presence of a 22-year-old American actress named Louise Brooks. Based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (1864–1918),(3) the film is a completely modern creation, not the mélange of music hall and tragedy that Wedekind wrote (only later to be labelled “expressionist”); concentrating on the amorous exploits of Lulu, available to seemingly everyone but possessed by no-one, who manages to bring all of her suitors, male or female, to grief.

Pabst was an acutely intelligent director who, in 1928, was already famous for his handling of actors. He had cast a virtually unknown Greta Garbo in his 1925 film The Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse), which convinced Hollywood of her star potential. For the role of Lulu, he reportedly tested and turned down every available actress until he saw Louise Brooks in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port (1928) and asked to borrow her from Paramount Pictures (4). He clearly saw something in Brooks that matched his vision of Lulu, but her casting proved more apt that probably either of them could have anticipated. During filming in Berlin, Pabst gave her a chilling warning: “Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way.”(5)

Encapsulating the plot of the film makes it sound unbelievably lurid (which, of course, it is): when the wealthy Peter Schön attempts to break off his affair with a young dancer named Lulu so that he can wed a respectable socialite, his plan is foiled when he is caught by his fiancée in a compromising position with Lulu. Deciding to marry Lulu instead, Schön discovers on their wedding night that she has seduced his son, Alwa. He gives her a pistol and orders her to shoot herself. She refuses to take the gun from him but in an ensuing struggle Schön is shot dead. Lulu is tried and convicted of murder but escapes the courthouse during a riot when one of her friends activates the fire alarm. Together with Alwa, a lesbian countess and a circus strong man, Lulu escapes by ship and eventually lands in England's East End where she must resort to prostitution. It is there, on a foggy Christmas Eve, that Lulu meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

What prevents all of this from teetering over into burlesque is Louise Brooks, who delivers what is surely one of the greatest examples of naturalist acting on film. As Brooks explained to Kenneth Tynan: “I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do – if you know that it's hard. I didn't, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn.” (6) Brooks was also a trained dancer and her every movement in the film, from her swoon in the courtroom to her languid, tired last walk up the stairs to her London garret, is sensuously balletic.

The film was photographed by Günther Krampf, who had filmed Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922. Through his subtle use of filters and key lights, he gives Brooks' startling beauty an iridescence, her lacquered black hair starkly contrasted with the shimmering whiteness of her costumes, as if she were nothing more than a gem-like surface to reflect or refract the light around her.

The film wasn't received in Germany with much sympathy, which puzzled Brooks. In her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, published near the end of her life in 1985, she pondered:

"Berlin had rejected its reality when we made Pandora's Box and sex was the
business of the town. At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar
was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the streets
outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation.
Actors' agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian
Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of
sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals
dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie
lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theater. In the revue
Chocolate Kiddies, when Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of
bananas, it was precisely as Lulu's stage entrance was described by Wedekind:
“They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.” (7)

(1) Quoted in Kenneth Tynan, “The Girl in the Black Helmet”, Show People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979, p. 294.
(2) Tynan, 1979, p. 303.
(3) Wedekind's American mother actually named him Benjamin Franklin!
(4) Recounted by Paul Falkenberg, one of Pabst's assistants, to Brooks in 1955. Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 95.
(5) Brooks, 1982, p. 105.
(6) Tynan, 1979, p. 276.
(7) Brooks, 1982, p. 97.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Critical Cretinisms: Spoilers

In a conversation with my brother in 2000, he mentioned that he had just seen the Wolfgang Petersen film The Perfect Storm, adding that "it was pretty good. Too bad everybody dies." Realizing his mistake in disclosing the film's ending to me, which was no secret to anyone familiar with the actual incident that the film dramatizes, he quickly apologized for his "spoiler." I told him not to worry and that I was not planning to go see the film anyway. When I did manage to see it months later on DVD, my brother's divulging the ending had not "spoiled" it for me at all.

Though unhappy, the ending of The Perfect Storm was not particularly surprising. Films that utilize "twist" or surprise endings depend for their full impact on that ending not being leaked to the audience. Two fairly recent examples spring to mind: The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Game (1998). Both of those films would have been far less effective and, I will admit, enjoyable, if their endings were known to me before I watched them. The popular prohibition of the leaking of surprise endings is comparable to the suppression of so-called "exit polls" during national elections until the last polling stations are closed. The rationale behind this is that no one wants to bet on a losing horse, and that some people will not bother to cast their votes if the outcome of the election has already been determined.

Aside from the films for which a surprise ending is everything, many classic films make use of them, and they contribute to their overall effect. One of the most luminous examples is Renoir's The Rules of the Game, which ends with the shooting death of André Jurieux, who was mistaken for Octave as he was running into the arms of Christine, who was mistaken for Lisette. Though surprising, the ending is perfectly congruous with everything that had come before it. Another great use of a surprise ending is in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, in which Catherine and Jim plunge to their deaths from a disused bridge. This ending, too, is initially shocking, but it feels utterly right in the film's continuity because Truffaut's artistry made it so.

Some surprise endings actually backfire, and Truffaut's very next film, The Soft Skin illustrates this disturbingly. His tale of the marital infidelity of a scholarly writer with an air hostess ends with his wife's discovering his affair and then methodically murdering him in a crowded restaurant. This ending cast a melodramatic pall over the entire film, almost ruining it. I noted before that the ending is an excellent illustration of the meaning of "melodrama." In the course of our lives, most of us have had to deal with infidelity, but few of us, thankfully, choose to deal with it as violently as the wife in Truffaut's film.

Citizen Kane ends with the revelation of the meaning of "Rosebud," the word uttered by Kane with his dying breath. But if it explains the mystery of Charles Foster Kane's last word, it does not in any way explain the mystery of Kane himself, which is the film's point. The RKO publicists for Citizen Kane sought to maintain the secrecy of Rosebud's identity, and contemporary film critics were instructed to do the same in their reviews. But such instructions, whether or not they are obeyed, run counter to the efforts of art and of criticism, which are to inform and illuminate.

Often, the efforts of publicists to suppress information from the public distorts the filmmaker's message. For instance, when Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves was released in the U.S., a subtle alteration of the title to The Bicycle Thief not only misrepresented the original Italian, Ladri di Biciclette, it misrepresented De Sica's whole point. In the film, the hero has his bicycle stolen on his first day on the job. By the end of the film, with no hope of retrieving his bicycle and keeping his job, he resorts to stealing someone else's bicycle. De Sica was simply trying to tell us that, under the horrific conditions of postwar Italy, even an honest man can become a thief. But the idea, and the original title, was considered a "spoiler" by American distributors who feared that De Sica's title would give away the ending.

By now, when most filmgoers depend on films to provide them with the vicarious thrills of an amusement park ride or the mental challenge of a crossword puzzle, spoilers have become anathema. Whenever a critic makes the mistake of providing his readers with information that producers would rather they did not have, he is liable to come under fire. But requiring him to deliberately keep his readers in the dark and to stop short of a full evaluation is quite unacceptable editorializing, not to mention an infringement of free speech. It is also founded on the assumption that films are not to be taken seriously or handled at the same level of respect as any other creative media.

What if you were a critic discussing Moby Dick with strict instructions to avoid mentioning that, by the end of the book, the Pequod is sunk by the whale with the loss of all hands but one? Or even that you might be prohibited from recommending King Lear to a prospective reader or theatergoer by telling him "it's a great play. Too bad everybody dies"?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Soft Skin

This is an older piece that I wrote for Senses of Cinema in March 2004. François Truffaut's train left the tracks with this film, with his use of a completely preposterous melodramatic ending. In fact, the last scene of the film is a good illustration of what "melodrama" is - an intrusion of unreality, artificiality, into an otherwise subtle and illuminating tale of marital infidelity.

La Peau Douce

François Truffaut had been a brilliant – and often acerbic - critic of French cinema before he became a director. He went to great lengths demolishing the received wisdom of what constituted classic French cinema, as well as doing his best to end the careers of a number of people otherwise ensconced as its classicists.(1) Ironically, Truffaut often criticised French films for being bland remakes of Hollywood films.(2) Truffaut himself turned to American film and literature for many of his projects in the 1960s, including Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), The Bride Wore Black (1967) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969).

The subject of La Peau douce is adultery and its difficulties: for the husband who deceives his wife; for the wife who is, at first, unknowingly deceived; and for the other woman who is attracted to the married man but only as long as he remains married.(3) Pierre Lachenay is a celebrated man of letters, with a loving wife and daughter. On a trip to Portugal, he meets a young air hostess, Nicole, and begins an impromptu affair with her. His busy schedule of lectures on Balzac make it necessary for him to be away from home, creating convenient excuses for the two to be together. Gradually, however, Pierre's feelings for the girl develop beyond infatuation and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hide the affair from his wife. It is out of this 'difficulty' that the film derives its dramatic impetus. At the last, and in a final twist, Nicole decides that she doesn't belong in Pierre's world, but it is already too late for Pierre.

The setting is a world of timetables, schedules to be followed, and signs and signals regulating the frenetic ebb and flow of people who are no less part of the machine – as long as they observe the rules. Within the confines of this mechanism, they are still permitted some freedom of movement. But, as sure as Fate, once they attempt to circumvent the unwritten but universally accepted laws governing their lives, which could alter the grand design of which they are the minutest parts, invisible forces swiftly intervene to restore order – even if order can only be restored by violence.(4)

All of this could be construed as a genuine 'plot', were it not for Truffaut's obvious concern for his characters. Certainly, the film has some of the aspects of a suspense story, but it is far too subtle to be categorised as such. Without perhaps intending to, Truffaut's film exposes the hollowness of Hitchcock's formulae by concentrating not on the devices of suspense (ponderous music, an emphasis on 'clues') but on the characters' foibles and their subjection to the terrible randomness of chance.

Truffaut's film is so splendidly alive with observed details, translating the inner workings of Pierre's fumbling psyche into visual terms. To single out one memorable example: after his first encounter with Nicole in the elevator, Pierre walks down the hotel hallway, gazing down at the shoes placed outside every door – a man's here, a woman's there, or, tantalizingly, a man and a woman's side by side. On entering his room, Pierre automatically turns on the light in the foyer. Then he turns it off. Emboldened, he enters his bedroom and sits on the bed. He turns on the lamp beside it, phones Nicole's room and asks her to meet him for a drink. Nicole reminds him of the lateness of the hour and demurs. Pierre apologises and politely hangs up. Moments later, Nicole calls him back and agrees to meet him the following afternoon. Now that the staged ambience of his darkened room is superfluous, Pierre walks around his suite flipping on all the lights before lying down on his bed.

Jean Desailly is perfect as the fumbling husband.(5) Truffaut is gentle enough in his portrayal to show us Pierre's genuine enthusiasm for literature.(6) Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, is captivating as Nicole, exhibiting many of the qualities in her performance – sensuality, and a remarkable range of emotions – that were considered lacking in her sister.(7) And Nelly Benedetti is so convincing as the betrayed wife, and so tragically passionate by turns, that one wonders what could've driven Pierre to stray in the first place. The spareness and delicacy of Raoul Coutard's cinematography are matched by Georges Delerue's music, used by Truffaut with extreme care and precision – never blatant or over-emphatic.

La Peau douce was first shown at Cannes in 1964. Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg received all the attention, winning both the Prix Louis Delluc and the Palme d'Or. Truffaut's film is no less dazzling, but it represented a radical departure for the director. After the daring stylistic accomplishments of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim, La Peau douce at first seemed a step back for Truffaut, a step all the way back to the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot or Henri Cayatte. That Truffaut had been busy with his Hitchcock book at the time is considered to be one explanation for this change in style – perhaps also because of the film's concentration on the coolly functional details of the world which the characters inhabit rather complacently.(8) The difference is that Truffaut's concentration is never as emotionless or clinical as Hitchcock's. It is manifestly clear in frame after frame of this carefully wrought film that Truffaut cares about his characters, even as the mechanised world they inhabit conspires to destroy them. It makes watching Pierre's fall all the more fascinating and sad.

(1) Sometimes quite unfairly. Truffaut nearly ended the careers of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, until Bertrand Tavernier coaxed them out of retirement in the early 1970s.
(2) “Ironically” if only because Hollywood has made a practice of re-making popular French films since at least the 1930s.
(3) One of Truffaut's most brilliant insights in this film is to show how content the other woman is with her otherness – and how quickly she loses interest in the man who seeks to ruin the liberty of their arrangement by offering to desert his wife.
(4) Notice the beatific smile on the wife's face in the closing freeze-frame.
(5) Though it is hard to imagine that Desailly was cast as Chéri in Pierre Billon's 1950 film adaptation of Colette's novel.
(6) Truffaut himself was a voracious reader. Remember Antoine Doinel making a shrine to Balzac in The 400 Blows (1959).
(7) Dorléac's career was, of course, cut short by her death in a road accident in 1967.
(8) Truffaut's book was first published in 1967. See François Truffaut, Hitchcock, ed. Helen G. Scott, rev. ed. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Films I Love To Hate

Too often, some of the best critics are asked by their readers if there is anything they actually like, since their reviews are so often negative. Some of the greatest critics - like Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, George Jean Nathan, and John Simon - were notably negative most of the time. Their reasons were the same - called on to review whatever is available every week, month or quarter means being forced to write bad reviews, since the notion that everything - every book, play or film - is worth reviewing is simply ridiculous. The result is that, out of several volumes of criticism, the critics mentioned above end up with only a handful of truly positive opinions. But having to spend most of their time tearing something to shreds must have given them a genuine taste for it.

Hereafter are some of my favorite films "I love to hate." Often they are films that I single out to deplore because they have earned a great deal of praise from a lot of very misguided people. My only advice to them, or to anyone who may still have an unformed opinion of the films, is: Look again.

The Godfather(s)

If there is one thing that Italian-Americans are in desperate need of it is an organization like the Jewish B'nai B'rith - an anti-defamation league that safeguards them against racial discrimination and their stereotypical portrayal in popular media. At the very least, such an organization would have protected Italians from their almost invariable portrayal in American films and television as murderous mafiosi.

More than two hours into Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather (1972), whose complete title is actually Mario Puzo's The Godfather, there is a scene in which a group of Mafia bosses has gathered to discuss the terms of a truce, and the subject of narcotics trafficking comes up. One of the bosses stands up and says, "I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don't want it near schools. I don't want it sold to children . . . In my city we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway, so let them, lose their souls." That such an obviously despicable person as a Mafia don should make the distinction between human beings and animals, in a film in which every Italian, with a few exceptions (most of them women), is manifestly sub-human, is unintentionally funny.

The Godfather was not the first edition of the genre, but it is by far the most egregious. It is also not the first time that a gang of murderers had been portrayed as Just Plain Folks, but it is reponsible for an avalanche of mob movies and TV series, each of them more spurious than the last. Far from being an honest examination of the workings of a Mafia family, or an attempt to understand them, the film is an obscene love letter to them. Every act of brutality depicted in the film - every shooting, knifing, strangling, bombing - is lit, decorated, costumed and photographed with magisterial care, all the way down to the color of the blood and the contortions the victims make in their death throes.

Even Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather, who is initially innocent of murder and happily cut off from the uglier aspects of his family's business, soon descends to their level, and for reasons that are not satisfactorily revealed or explained. The attempted murder of his father, the murder of his brother and of his pretty Sicilian bride are supposed to be sufficient grounds for Michael taking his share in the slaughter of countless others and the assumption of his father's position as the head of his murderous clan. His transformation from a recognizable human being into a werewolf would have been more convincing.

And yet the American Film Institute, which has its work cut out for it, has ranked The Godfather as the second greatest American film ever made, and the number one "gangster film." Under the auspices (if you could call it that) of Sight & Sound magazine, the British Film Insitute ranked it, and its sequel The Godfather Part II, the fourth greatest film(s) "of all time." It is yet another example of how genre and mainstream films often get mixed up in some people's muddled minds, and how this shuttling back and forth between two sets of standards makes nonsense of criticism itself.

. . . more to come

Thursday, November 5, 2009

As He Pleased

George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia is one of the most valuable first-hand accounts of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) ever written. It is an impassioned, highly emotional work of reportage that relates the amazing social conditions of Republican Spain. "It was the first time," he wrote in the first chapter, "that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle." In 1944, for his weekly "As I Please" column in Tribune, he wrote nostalgically of that time, which had already seemed to recede into the distant past. He writes about the feeling of solidarity that he felt then with everyone around him on his journey from France to Spain. I believe that that feeling, which I have never felt and which Orwell perhaps only felt momentarily, is worth remembering.

About the end of 1936, as I was passing through Paris on the way to Spain. I had to visit somebody at an address I did not know, and I thought that the quickest way of getting there would probably be to take a taxi. The taxi-driver did not know the address either. However, we drove up the street and asked the nearest policeman, whereupon it turned out that the address I was looking for was only about a hundred yards away. So I had taken the taxi-driver off the rank for a fare which in English money was about threepence.

The taxi-driver was furiously angry. He began accusing me, in a roaring voice and with the maximum of offensiveness, of having "done it on purpose." I protested that I had not known where the place was, and that I obviously would not have taken a taxi if I had known. "You knew very well!" he yelled back at me. He was an old, grey, thick-set man, with ragged grey moustaches and a face of quite unusual malignity. In the end I lost my temper, and, my command of French coming back to me in my rage, I shouted at him, "You think you're too old for me to smash your face in. Don't be too sure!" He backed up against the taxi, snarling and full of fight, in spite of his sixty years.

Then the moment came to pay. I had taken out a ten-franc note. "I've no change!" he yelled as soon as he saw the money. "Go and change it yourself!"

"Where can I get change?"

"How should I know? That's your business."

So I had to cross the street, find a tobacconist's shop and get change. When I came back I gave the taxi-driver the exact fare, telling him that after his behaviour I saw no reason for giving him anything extra; and after exchanging a few more insults we parted.

This sordid squabble left me at the moment violently angry, and a little later saddened and disgusted. "Why do people have to behave like that?" I thought.

But that night I left for Spain. The train, a slow one, was packed with Czechs, Germans, Frenchmen, all bound on the same mission. Up and down the train you could hear one phrase repeated over and over again, in the accents of all the languages of Europe - là-bas (down there). My third-class carriage was full of very young, fair-haired, underfed Germans in suits of incredible shoddiness - the first ersatz cloth I had seen - who rushed out at every stopping place to buy bottles of cheap wine and later fell asleep in a sort of pyramid on the floor of the carriage. About halfway down France the ordinary passengers dropped off. There might still be a few nondescript journalists like myself, but the train was practically a troop train, and the countryside knew it. In the morning, as we crawled across southern France, every peasant working in the fields turned round, stood solemnly upright and gave the anti-fascist salute. They were like a guard of honour, greeting the train mile after mile.

As I watched this, the behaviour of the old taxi-driver gradually fell into perspective. I saw now what had made him so unnecessarily offensive. This was 1936, the years of the great strikes, and the Blum government was still in office. The wave of revolutionary feeling which had swept across France had affected people like taxi-drivers as well as factory workers. With my English accent I had appeared to him as a symbol of the idle, patronizing foreign tourists who had done their best to turn France into something midway between a museum and a brothel. In his eyes an English tourist meant a bourgeois. he was getting a bit of his own back on the parasites who were normally his employers. And it struck me that the motives of the polyglot army that filled the train, and of the peasants with raised fists out there in the fields, and my own motive in going to Spain, and the motive of the old taxi-driver in insulting me, were at bottom all the same.