Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Fairest of Them All

It was perhaps inevitable that folk tales should have been exiled to the nursery. before we renamed them fairy tales and heavily censored them, they were a kind of cultural subconscious. The original tales, like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, are filled with strange imagery and associations that only an ethnographer would understand.

One of their tales, called "Snow White" in English, is essentially about a contest between two women over which one is the fairest. Though the word fair is most often interpreted to mean "beautiful" by modern readers of the tale, its very title suggests another meaning. For who could possibly be fairer than snow? "Fairest" in the context of this tale must certainly mean "lighter-complected."

Originally, "beautiful" and "lighter-skinned" were probably interchangeable terms. And in many places in the world they still are. The Philippines is one such place, where the conflict between Snow White and the wicked queen is still being played out. A mixed-race society with a brown-skinned, racially Malay population accounting for a majority in numbers but occupying the bottom social stratum, the Philippines also has a taller, lighter-skinned mestizo, or half-breed, group that occupies the middle and the top. (1) While they are invariably part-Filipino, they are distinctively part American or part Australian or part what-have-you. It is this group that is by far the most visible in Philippine advertisements, television and film. The Binibining Filipinas Foundation is a rather august organization which chooses the women who will represent the country in international beauty pageants like Miss Universe and Miss World. The minimum requirements for contestants include being a Philippine citizen, between seventeen and twenty-five years old, and at least five feet five inches tall. While there are no strictly racial requirements, the height requirement alone disqualifies most of the women who call themselves Filipinas, particularly those who are not mestizas.

So completely is the Philippines dominated by the half-breed minority that many internationally-known skin-product companies, like Ponds, Garnier, and Vaseline, are marketing skin-lightening creams, soaps and solutions here with names like Flawless White, Healthy White, White Beauty, and Clear Fairness. Though sometimes quite innocently intended to provide women with skin protection from the harmful effects of exposure to the sun - a sun that is especially bright in these seven thousand islands - the explicit purpose of these products is impossible to mistake: they are intended to turn darker-skinned women into fairer-skinned women.

Ponds recently presided over a contest called The Pinkish-White Dream Date. Contestants were required to use Ponds' White Beauty cream on their faces, photograph the results and submit the photo along with their entry form. The winner of the contest, who had the most noticeable pinkish-white complexion, was awarded a dream date with a Filipino celebrity nobody like Piolo Pascual or Dingdong Dantes. (2)

Certainly some of these skin products are available in the U.S., but just as certainly they are marketed differently, even in a country with a majority Caucasian population. It is almost as if in the Philippines there is a master race and a subject race with both groups taking their respective social positions for granted and neither group seriously questioning them. Much of this is due to the "colonial mentality" - the widespread and quite irrational conviction, created by four hundred years of Spanish and American domination, that everything "made in the Philippines" (including its people) is never as good as "made in the USA" or in Japan or Taiwan or just about anywhere else.

After watching this incessant emphasis on whitening and lightening in Philippine media, I wondered if perhaps it was nothing but a fashion fetish, like white American women going to tanning salons. But there is nothing like the degree of emphasis on a single, most desirable skin color in the States. For many reasons, not least of which are legal ones, there simply could not be.

I have heard, every now and then, a single dissenting voice in the chorus of hosannas for these products in the form of a TV commercial sponsored by the Philippine Dermatological Society. It depicts a pretty young woman in her coffin, put there by excessive use of whitening products. There are warnings printed on the products' labels that are there to circumvent liability for their misuse. But, like cigarettes, if anyone buys a product they are probably not afraid of its hazardous effects.

If there is any other serious questioning of this brazenly racist phenomenon it is certainly being successfully suppressed by Filipino popular culture. It is in the nature of whatever is popular to also be essentially brainless, but such brainlessness as that being shoved down the throats of Philippine women would require a radical change of attitudes and a re-examination of prevailing prejudices that may never come.

(1) Not to mention an ethnically Chinese minority that keeps a low profile but is believed to own everything.
(2) In fairness, Dingdong was recently voted the "3rd sexiest" man in the world by the American "E" Entertainment Network. His name may have had something to do with it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Joy of Objectification

"Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love." -Woody Allen

I was twenty-nine when I began my military service, and turned thirty during Navy basic training in Orlando, Florida. Eight years and two enlistments later I got out of the Navy, only to join the Army after a short break. Because I was older than the other servicemen of equal rank, and because sharing the experience of hardship with them forever defined for me the word comrade, even now that I am out of the service and for the rest of my life, I will always feel somehow proprietary of them.

The U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division (1) used to boast - before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq commenced - that it was the "most forward deployed" of any other unit in the American military. Occupying what is known as Area One, the region of South Korea from the DMZ to just north of Seoul, Division leadership determined that it was potentially too dangerous a place for soldiers to have their dependents with them. So the married men and women stationed there had to leave their spouses and children behind in the States. (2) Consequently the length of a tour in Area One was limited to one interminable year. On arrival in country, the date was recorded and one's DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas) determined. I was stationed there, on Camp Casey (3), from November 1997 to November 1998. Regardless of marital status, married and single soldiers occupied the same barracks. Though I was married at the time, I was appointed my unit's BOSS (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers) representative because, I was quickly informed, "every soldier is single in Area One." That single status was reinforced by the prohibition of female soldiers in combat arms units such as mine.

Of course, there was a thriving trade in prostitution off post, which was affectionately called down range by us artillerymen, where, for just twenty dollars a soldier could temporarily assuage his isolation from the opposite sex. I speak from personal experience only because the men I caroused with in Tongduchon, the Korean town adjacent to Camp Casey, were all single, not to mention half my age. Since I made a little more money than they did, once or twice I found myself loaning them the requisite twenty bucks and wait outside the nookie factory while they conducted their transactions.

The only other outlet for a soldier's pent-up sexual energy could be found in the PX, where all manner of printed pornography was for sale, in rank and file on shelves ten deep and twenty wide, a veritable onanist's paradise, catering to almost every fetish. When soldiers conducted a field exercise, these magazines would always surface a certain number of days in the field, as if responding to some signal. (4) Some time, about halfway through my tour in Korea, every single magazine, except for the sexually tame Playboy, was removed from the shelves of every PX in the world, thanks to the efforts of a group of politicians' wives who managed to convince Congress that such magazines objectified women and were responsible for acts of violence directed at them. Perhaps to drive the message home to hapless servicemen, the magazine racks on Camp Casey stood empty for several weeks before they were tentatively filled in with less offensive reading material devoted to monster trucks and tattoos.

Whatever clinical evidence those women may have produced in support of their ridiculous and puritanical argument, they had effectively deprived thousands of soldiers of one of the few products available for them to expend their sexual energies. And as for that barbarism objectify, it is nothing but a clumsy attempt to turn the noun object - as in sex object - into a verb. But sex object is itself derived from the fancier term object of desire, which refers, generally, to the other person whom one desires. Since sex is pointless, not to mention heartless, without desire, such a thing as objectification (ugh) is unavoidable and even necessary. Every time two people (or three or thirty) have sex, there had better be plenty - the more the better - of objectifying going on. Only if those politicians' wives managed to go without sex entirely, which was probably the real source of the issue in the first place, will they be spared the indignity - and the glory - of being a sex object.

(1) Their motto is Second to None. In my irreverent manner, sometimes I could not resist effacing that big N from signposts when nobody was watching.
(2) They could bring their spouses over and put them up in off-post housing, but the Army would not compensate them for it.
(3) Named for a Korean War pilot who was shot down on a hill that overlooked my unit's motor pool.
(4) When I was in the Navy, the degree of raunchiness of these magazines seemed to correspond to the length of a ship's deployment at sea.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

George Orwell's Ready Reckoner

It must have come to your attention, dear reader, that I have frequently quoted George Orwell in my posts. I am, in fact, often looking for an excuse to quote him. Even when I am not actually doing so, I find myself quoting him in my head. He sometimes resembles the Shakespeare he describes in his 1947 essay "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool":

"If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way."

Thirty years ago a dear old college professor (everyone can remember the type) recommended a book to me called Bernard Shaw's Ready-Reckoner edited by N.H. Leigh-Taylor. Long out of print, this rather slim book featured quotes from Shaw's voluminous writings on many subjects, like Love, Marriage, Religion and Money. Most of what Shaw wrote was sensible and often funny. Shaw lived long enough to become what Robert Graves called an "archetypal wise old man," and I often found myself agreeing with his opinions before I even realized what he was trying to say.

I lost the book long ago and I cannot say that I have missed it. How much more rewarding it would be, I think, to compile a selection of quotes from the writings of George Orwell than from a celibate vegetarian with a strong sado-masochistic streak. At the very least, they would represent Orwell speaking his own mind, in his own voice rather than that of an Shotover or an Undershaft.

Here, in no order whatever, is my first selection. All the following quotes are taken from the Everyman edition of Orwell's essays, with the name of the essay after each quote.

It is the dream of a just society which seems to haunt the human imagination ineradicably and in all ages, whether it is called the Kingdom of Heaven or the classless society, or whether it is thought of as a Golden Age which once existed in the past and from which we have degenerated. ("Arthur Koestler")

War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle. ("The Lion and the Unicorn")

Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself merely an index to majority opinion. ("Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool")

It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! ("Arthur Koestler")

In so far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be something blazingly silly. ("Politics vs Literature")

If one says - and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week - that "King Lear" is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word "good"? ("Confessions of a Book Reviewer")

Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness. ("Arthur Koestler")

One must choose between God and Man, and all "radicals" and "progressives," from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man. ("Reflections on Gandhi")

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. ("Why I Write")

All art is propaganda. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. ("Charles Dickens")

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ("Politics and the English Language")

Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and to oppose. ("The Prevention of Literature")

There seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude towards human beings. ("Introduction to Love of Life and Other Stories by Jack London")

The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also. ("Revenge is Sour")

Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday. ("Poetry and the Microphone")

Leaders who offer blood, toil and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. ("The Art of Donald McGill")

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. ("Rudyard Kipling")

Revolutionary activity is the result of personal maladjustment. Those who struggle against society are, on the whole, those who have reason to dislike it, and normal healthy people are no more attracted by violence and illegality than they are by war. ("Arthur Koestler")

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. ("What is Science?")

There can be no such thing as good novel-criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing. To apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants. ("In Defense of the Novel")

There are families in which the father will say to his child, 'You'll get a thick ear if you do that again,' while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, 'Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?' And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first? ("Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool")

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. ("Reflections on Gandhi")

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Joel and Ethan Fink

"It's just goddam beyond everything. What's it mean? What's it leadin' to?" -El Paso Sheriff (Rodger Boyce) in No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men won an Academy Award for Best Picture last year. Additional awards went to Joel and Ethan Coen for Best Screenplay and Best Direction. I have seen nine of their films by now, including Blood Simple (1984), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). But until Fargo I never thought much of their work. Since Fargo, however, the Coens have returned, as it says in Proverbs, (1) to their vomit.

Fargo and No Country for Old Men have quite a few things in common: the central characters are officers of the law; there are large amounts of cash that characters attempt to keep for themselves and hide where only they can find it; and there are psychopaths who murder people without reason or feeling. Both films rely heavily on specific landscapes - Fargo on a frozen north and No Country on a gold and russet desert southwest. (2) But Fargo was dominated by a whimsical approach to its characters and the messes they get themselves into. No Country is dead serious throughout, with occasional gallows humor for relief, supplied by the wry, inventive West Texan speech, in which you find this here and that there and killed becomes killt.

I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel on which No Country was based. But on the evidence of this and other films based on his writings (All the Pretty Horses), I have no sense of urgency to do so. Having read a sample of his writing, I found it an unhappy marriage of Don Delillo and Louis Lamour. No Country is a messy story of senseless murder and growing old in a place where such a thing has become commonplace. For awhile, it is an effective thriller, but the Coens, alas, were aiming at something more serious. This explains all the aggravating loose ends left dangling at the film's conclusion.

Javier Bardem won the Academy Award for best Supporting Actor (and wherefore could I not pronounce So What?) for his portrayal of a kind of serial killer for hire. He is not given a whole lot of screen time to construct anything like a real character, and is merely a creepy cipher. Perhaps as compensation, he is given an awful lot of hair, since the film is set in 1980 for no intrinsic reason except the Coens were being needlessly faithful to the book. The sheriff, played with trademark fatigue by Tommy Lee Jones never meets the killer, although he anticipates an appointment with him at the end of the film.

Josh Brolin plays a luckless Vietnam veteran who stumbles on a satchelful of cash and, seeing it as his one big break, tries to keep it. Brolin, who gets up in the middle of the night because a gut-shot Mexican asked him for some water, injects the film with an authenticity it obviously did not know how to handle. His violent death, though predictable, comes as an unpleasant surprise. (3) For the remainder of the film the Coens (and McCarthy) owe more to Phillip Larkin than they do to Yeats:

All that's left to happen
Is some deaths (my own included).
Their order, and their manner,
Remain to be learnt.

(1) Proverbs 26:11

(2) Though shot mostly in New Mexico (by the splendid Roger Deakins), parts of No Country were shot where George Stevens used the same locations for Giant, near Marfa, Texas.

(3) The Coens also owe a little to Sam Peckinpah for The Getaway (1972) for the Eagle Hotel scenes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Two Fellinis

I watched the film The Magic of Fellini (2002) recently. The title (1) nearly kept me away. What is generally regarded as Fellini's "magic" is exactly what I most dislike about his work. But it was fun to put faces on so many of Fellini's long-time collaborators, like Tullio Pinelli, Piero Gherardi, Giuseppe Rotunno and Nino Rota. And how sad it was to see Anita Ekberg and especially Claudia Cardinale wearing their age so helplessly and acting as if they were slightly drunk.

If the film ultimately fails to shed any new light on its subject, it is because its creator, Carmen Piccini made a simple but fatal error. Whenever someone mentions Fellini in whatever context, the degree of the person's engagement with his subject can be gauged only when they make it clear exactly which Fellini he is talking about. It is impossible to do justice to Fellini the artist without first acknowledging that there were two of him. The first Fellini was a wonderful poet of the ordinary who was clearly uncomfortable with the rules of storytelling but who, almost despite himself, told stories exquisitely when he was true to his experience of human beings and when he showed us how much he loved them by making them true.

The second Fellini was an exasperatingly erratic and irascible caricaturist who, having exhausted his creative powers - and having the honesty, in 8 1/2, to admit it - turned away from life to his thoroughly juvenile and utterly unedifying dreams, in which all women were surrogate mothers and all men were proxy Federicos. The two Fellinis are so easily distinguishable in their work that it is all the more heartbreaking. The first Fellini hit the ground running with The White Sheik (1952) and didn't break his stride until he had finished 8 1/2. (2) Then the other Fellini took over with the pointless Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and expanded on its pointlessness all the way through La Voce del Luna (1990). Somewhat neatly, the films of the first Fellini are all black-and-white, the films of the second, all color. (3)

Il Bidone (1955) (4) is the least known and least appreciated of the first Fellini's films. Made just after La Strada (1954), it has none of that film's strange poetry, due largely to the absence - in this case beneficial - of his wife Giulietta Masina. But Il Bidone does carry forward La Strada's tenuous metaphysical position, except that Augusto, the foremost bidone, is not left, as in La Strada, writhing on a deserted beach after discovering the existence of his own imperiled soul.

Augusto's (5) last act, once he is done with robbing a poor family of every lira they possess, is to try to rob his fellow swindlers of their share of the spoils. As he is leaving the poor family's farm, Augusto is asked, in his capacity as a (bogus) Catholic Monsignor, to bless a crippled girl. The way that Fellini stages and shoots this excruciating scene - from the shabby grace of the girl (whose very sweetness is almost unbearable) to the fake glory of the Monsignor; from the pain of the girl's aching truth to the pain of Augusto's faltering lies - is more moving than anything else in his work.

And the sense of place that the film projects, the beautiful particularization of the locales in which the initial three bidone carry out their crimes - from the shanty town in which everyone hovers in limbo while the government keeps promising them a place to live, to the empty nightscape of the town where everyone is sleeping except for the ones up to no good - shows us just how much Fellini was still engaged with his origins and with his age. In fact, Il Bidone exposes the extent to which Fellini deserted them both.

(1) Originally simply Federico Fellini
(2) John Simon always insisted it was 8 1/2 that started Fellini's decline. But who else so artfully dramatized his own artistic bankruptcy?
(3) Perhaps to assist puzzled fans, Fellini's name was often part of the titles of his later, considerably lesser, work, viz: Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini Roma (1972) and Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (1976)
(4) The original version is 20 minutes longer than the one on DVD in the U.S.
(5) Played beautifully by jowly Broderick Crawford.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Otis and Art

Otis Ferguson was one of the first of a long line of great American film critics that includes James Agee, Robert Warshow, Dwight Macdonald, and Stanley Kauffmann. Along with his brilliant writing on jazz, he wrote on film for The New Republic from 1934 until he left the post to enlist in the Merchant Marines when America entered the war in Europe. He was killed at Salerno on September 14, 1943 at the age of 36.

He loved film for many reasons, not least of which was because it was - like jazz - a popular medium, at a time when "popular" was not a dirty word and when it was still possible to call oneself a populist with unapologetic pride. Because of this he was always wary of films that wore their art of their sleeves or that gave advance notice of their high seriousness. This aesthetic squint led Ferguson into some perilous territory, as when he swam with all his might against the swift critical current that was sweeping Citizen Kane into history.

Ferguson's objections to Kane were well-defended, but wrong. But when he sat through Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin, he wrote a review that dismantled the film with such expert skill that it still stands as an object lesson for filmmakers and film critics on the often elusive art of film.

By Otis Ferguson

In Vertov’s Three Songs about Lenin the Soviets come forward to bury the great leader in Westminster Abbey, with something of the atmosphere of Patriots’ Day. Objectively, it is an attempt to idolize, not so much a man as his concepts; it is thus rather limited in appeal. Washington in boats with his ragged army, Lincoln freeing the slaves – these things could be dramatized in some fashion. But when Lenin tots up a column of figures to give some of the Eastern peoples economic freedom, what are you going to do about it in terms of pictures? Near the end of the film there is a moving section of Lenin’s Russia today, with men working, tractors, forges, the dams, etc.; but on the whole it seems poorly melted newsreel material with a poetic cast. I would not have brought it up except that it has gone the way of many foreign films in its reception here, and got its most honorable citation on the grounds of its being pure cinema.

And this suggests the subject of film criticism in general, which is really the subject of this piece. The appreciation of pictures is much like all other forms; but there is the sad fact of its having thus far got so little intelligent consideration that intelligence, when it appears, tends to become the high priest guarding marvels. Everyone goes to the movies, to laugh or to delight his heart; they are a part of common experience – and very common at that, usually. Now and then one is good, but in thinking of it we do not think of art. It’s just a movie; we only went for the fun. So when someone comes along and says down his nose, Art in the cinema is largely in the hands of artists in cinematographic experimentation, we think, Mm, fancy such a thing, I wonder what that is like. When someone, almost holding his breath, says, Well, there is surely no better montage (or regisseur) than this montage (or regisseur), we are apt to be discouraged: Oh damn, I missed it again, all I saw was a story with people and action. And when someone says of Three Songs About Lenin, This is pure cinema, implying that you couldn’t say more for it, we think, Well, well, can’t miss that surely.

The pay-off is that regisseurs are in ordinary life directors, that montage is simply the day-in-day-out (in Hollywood) business of cutting: all you need, except for the higher technical reaches, is a pair of shears and a good sense of timing. As for pure cinema, we would not praise a novel (in which field by this time you must, to be intelligent, be intelligible, or perish) by saying merely that it was pure roman. I do not wish to pull rabbits out of the hat, but here is a fact: you too can make pure cinema.

Given the proper facilities and scientific advice, anyone can, me for instance. Out of my window I can see a rather mean-looking tenement. Doors, windows, a sidewalk. Just above it, rising over it, is a tall very recent building, elevator apts, electrolux, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 rooms, etc., but wait, we’ll not open there. We will catch the meanness of the mean street by opening on pages 18-19 of The New York Times for last week, dirty and blowing along the mean sidewalk in the morning wind. Dust, desolation. The paper blowing and on the sound-track a high piccolo note – wheeeeeeee – and the street empty, deserted, it is morning. Now (take the shots separately; cut and paste them together afterward): the sky (gray), the house (sleeping), the paper, the sky, the house, the paper (whee). Follow the paper down to, suddenly, the wheel of a milk truck (Ha! Truck – life, the city stirs; throw in a tympani under the piccolo for the city stirring) which goes down to the mean house, stops, the driver gets out: follow him with one bottle of Grade B up three flights of mean stairs to a mean door where – stop.

Down in the street the driver comes out, yawns. Up the house front slowly to a top-floor window where a man, touseled, yawns. As the truck drives off its wheels turn, gain speed, and suddenly there are other wheels (the city awakes): trucks pounding down the Concourse, the subway, the “El,” streetcars and the trucks pounding, the “Els,” the subways, and now (on the sound-track, the piccolo goes a fifth higher) you cut in the big dynamo wheels, all the wheels, all the power houses, wheels and wheels, Rah, montage. Then from the dynamo out (space, motion, speed) to – what do you think? An electric grill in the big stinking apartment house, with a colored servant in white, frying bacon and looking at the dumbwaiter. Title: WHERE ALL IS THAT MILKMAN NOHOW. Now down to the milkman, taking in a bottle of heavy cream (flash: SERVANTS’ ENTRANCE) to the dumbwaiter; now back to the poor house, and out over the city and up over the high, proud bulge of the apartment house to the high gray clouds, over the city, over the rich and poor getting up, getting their separate service from the milkman. And on into a great dither of wheels, clouds, gaping windows, yawns, men walking – into plush elevators, on the hard, mean sidewalk, faster, faster, everybody getting into motion, the same city, the same sky, the two remote worlds rich and poor. For special effect, let us say, a kid coming out of the door of the mean house, with pennies for a loaf of whole-wheat, and running past the feet and in front of the wheels, and tripping on the broken cement, falling, smack. Close-up of the head showing a splash of blood spreading on the mean stones, and flash to the apartment house, up, up, to a window, in through the window to the cream being poured into the coffee, being drunk in bed, in silk pyjamas, spilling, a splash of coffee spreading on the silk pyjamas.

Any good? I’m afraid not. But it is pure cinema. Pure cinema can be anything: the important thing always is whether it is done well, whether you can pile one thing on another in a clear beautiful moving line. The wonderful and humbling thing about the movies in general is the skill and sure judgement behind this mechanical transfer of images to strips of celluloid, of a certain number of feet of celluloid into a moving series of images that will have a certain effect on those who watch. It doesn’t matter whether the result is a story of a Significant Experiment: what we have got to single out is the difference between a picture that catches you up in its own movement, and a picture that stammers, stands doubtfully, hammers at a few obvious meanings, and leaves you with a feeling of all the mechanism used to capture emotion, without the emotion. Three Songs about Lenin may have been attacked with a new attack, may be an awesome experiment. My point is that it is not a good picture, and my quarrel with movie criticism is simply that if it was, those who thought so have not done one thing to show why, in so many simple honest words.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dream a Little Dream

When I was in college in the 1970s, the only film schools I knew of were in New York and California. There were film courses available at my school (1), taught by disaffected English professors. But because the courses were part of the English curriculum, there had to be some literary tie-in. Thus there were courses with titles like Novels into Film, in which students would read The Grapes of Wrath or For Whom the Bell Tolls and then watch the movies that Hollywood had made from them. Or else some less scrupulous professor would grope for resemblances between a medieval romance, like The Song of Roland, and a Hollywood western like Shane. (2)

At twenty, midway through college, I found myself talking about my future with Nestor Moreno, former member of the Batista government in Cuba and respected professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. After calling me a "dilettante," he broke down for me, in pitilessly practical terms, all of the obstacles that stood in the way of my dream of becoming a film director. (My respect for the man was somewhat compromised by his constant ridicule of his wife.)

I do not know for certain at what age I came up with the notion of being a film director, but it must have been when my elder sister gave me a super-8mm film camera and projector for my sixteenth birthday. I must have seen the potential for making films almost immediately because, within a week or so, I was enlisting the help of some high school friends in my first efforts as an auteur. Doing all the editing "in the camera," I set about making three-minute mini-movies at a necessarily simple level of sophistication. The first, with hand-written titles, was called The Magic Wand, and showed off my skills at rudimentary special effects using stop motion and other camera tricks. These little masterpieces (3) were intended, predictably, to boost my popularity at school. But as interest in them proved to be nil, and since I dropped out of high school the following year, the films mouldered in a strong box along with whatever other home movies I had shot in the intervening years. Until I lost the strong box in one of my many cross-country moves.

In 1991, I was well into my first enlistment in the U.S. Navy, stationed in, of all places, Fallon, Nevada. A local girl had invited me to a party for her younger brother, and when I arrived everyone was assembled in front of a big screen TV. I took one of the available chairs in the back and sat down to watch what was obviously an amateur, shot-on-video thriller involving a mad scientist, a secret formula, and some government agents. It reminded me, in its clumsiness and lack of technical "production values" of my own efforts at filmmaking nearly two decades earlier, except that the particular film I was watching was not, I soon realized, made exclusively for home consumption. The party I was attending was a celebration of the 18-year-old's winning a scholarship, on the strength of that film, to a California film school. When I heard this, I grew so despondent that I made some excuses and left the party.

In fairness, the film showed an obvious understanding of how to edit and line up individual shots, which is probably what the films school had noticed. But it was no better - or worse - than the 8mm films I had made in my teens. Not that I realistically believed that I could have used those 8mm films to vault myself into a film school and thence into a career in films. It was not even that this lucky kid in Nevada had never been lectured by a contemptuous political science professor.

What got to me at a gut level that evening was that my dreams of becoming a film director, as unrealistic as they may indeed have been, were obviously not good enough to withstand the slightest discouragement. My congenital lack of ambition had done the rest. "So much for that dream," I thought at the time, and later on in Nevada, and once again today, so many years, misdirected careers and disappointed dreams later.

(1) Which was then UCD, or University of Colorado at Denver. It has since been renamed, sadly, CUD, or Colorado University at Denver.
(2) I once asked one such professor if it was too great a stretch to compare a chivalrous knight with a cowpoke who knows how to handle a pistol. He was unbending: "Shane is a knight," he insisted.
(3) In Oscar Wilde's words, "What a simplicity of means. And what a simplicity of ends!"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sins of Omission: Addendum

At the beginning of the film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, Francois Truffaut states forthrightly: "To gauge the Cinematheque Francaise's importance, imagine what it would be like in literature if after an author died, you couldn't bring their book home, but had to go to the National Library to read Madame Bovary. Which, I think, may make the Cinematheque even greater than the National Library. Because it was the only place to see or re-see films no longer in commercial theaters."

That statement was made in 1968, and although Truffaut lived to see home video catch on, I have grave doubts that he approved of it or indeed would approve of my contention that his statement is a powerful endorsement of home video, at least in principle.

Langlois, in the above-mentioned film, makes a distinction: "There are cinephiles and cinephages. Truffaut is a cinephile. A cinephage - a 'film nerd' - sits in the front row and writes down the credits." I do not quite see the distinction Langlois was trying to make, since Truffaut and his friends, critics at Cahiers du Cinema and many of them future directors, habitually laid on the floor in front of the screen at the Cinematheque, because the small theater was always packed. And his long-time friend Robert Lachenay recently reported (1) that "around '46, '47, we [he and Truffaut] started keeping files on film directors. Francois started it, and I imitated him. We cut articles out of newspapers we found in the trash everywhere. Articles on Hathaway, William Wellman, etc."

Now anyone who would devote that much time and effort, rummaging through trash cans, "keeping files" on the likes of Henry Hathaway or William Wellman is alot closer to Langlois' definition of a cinephage - what used to be called a "film buff," or what I would simply call a film fan (the word "fan" being short for "fanatic"). I believe I am qualified to point this out because I was once one myself. Although I was keeping files on Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman, like any good reverse parochial would.

But what would Truffaut have done if it were possible as far back as the 1940s to "bring a film home" with him, like a copy of Madame Bovary? Of course, "home" was an unhappy place for Truffaut, from which he found escape at the movies. Was his defense of Langlois, a surrogate father, in the streets of Paris in '68 the act of a cinephile or a cinephage? Or was it the act of a fanatic?

(1) In the commentary he supplied to the Criterion DVD of Les 400 Coups.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sins of Omission

Having come of age as a filmgoer long before the appearance of home video, I can appreciate the argument that films belong on a big screen in a movie theater. I was lucky enough to have seen nearly all of the great films of world cinema before I saw the point of getting my first VCR. And some of my most precious filmgoing memories are suspended in that wistful feeling I was left with upon leaving a theater.

But for many reasons, not least of which are the prohibitive price of a movie ticket and the dearth of viewing choices in the hick towns I have lived in over the years,(1) I now find this argument to be snobbish and a little silly. Without home video, to use just one example, I would not have had a chance to see La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928),(2) which is one of the half-dozen or so greatest films ever made. And even if I had had a chance to see it in a theater prior to its restoration in the 1980s, I would have been subjected to one of the many extant bastardized versions. With home video, we are no longer subject to the tyrannous problem that Francois Truffaut posed so poetically in his films La Nuit Americaine (1973): that a film is like a train passing in the night - if one were not there to see it pass by, there is no proof it ever happened. In thirty-five years of filmgoing I have missed too many trains to count. Home video is like owning the train.

Now that the DVD is being phased out and being replaced by the Blu Ray Disc, (3) production companies owning the rights to films will have to redouble their efforts to make many of the hard-to-find titles available to the collector. But it will more likely have the opposite effect and convince them to drop many titles that did not sell on DVD, which would inevitably include most serious films.

But there remains a number of films that either never made it to DVD or quickly fell out of circulation.(4) The reasons were probably legal ones, like copyright ownership. Some of the titles might surprise cinephiles, since they are recognized classics. But many other missing titles are not so surprising, having been overlooked when they were released or forgotten ever since.

The first list would include recognized classics like Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950) and Nazarin (1958), Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942), Bolognini's Il Bel'Antonio (1960), De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1951) and Gold of Naples (1954), Ichikawa's Conflagration (1958), Tavernier's The Judge and the Murderer (1973), Jan Troell's half-forgotten masterpiece The Emigrants (1973), Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (1952), Carlos Saura's masterpiece The Garden of Delights (1970), Alain Jessua's Life Upside Down (1964), Yanagimachi's Himatsuri (1985), Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybele (1962).

But an alternate list, of lesser-known but tantalizing titles, would include: Bresson's Une Femme Douce (1969) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Gianni Amelio's brilliant Open Doors (1990) and Stolen Children (1992), a number of middle-period Bergman films, such as Waiting Women (1952), A Lesson in Love (1954), and Dreams (1955), Troell's Here is Your Life (1966) and Flight of the Eagle (1982) (5), Monicelli's The Organizer (1963), David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952), Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange (1936), Goretta's The Wonderful Crook (974), Jean-Jacques Annaud's Coup de Tete (1979), Olmi's One Fine Day (1969), any number of films by the Japanese masters Susumu Hani (Inferno of First Love - 1968), Mikio Naruse (Repast -1951), Shiro Toyoda (Wild Geese - 1953), Imamura (The Insect Woman - 1966) or Kon Ichikawa (Bonchi - 1960), Emilio Fernandez (Maria Candelaria - 1944), Juan Antonio Bardem (Calle Mayor - 1956), or Claude Autant-Lara (Le Ble en Herbe - 1954).

If I were to add to this the innumerable East European films of the 1950s and '60s and I could go on indefinitely. I fully intend, however, to add further titles as they occur to me. Stay tuned.

(1) Including Denver, which must be the biggest hick town west of the Pecos.

(2) On the brilliant Criterion DVD, of course.

(3) Which will itself be replaced by some other new technology, which is probably already in the works.

(4) Of course, I am referring to DVDs available in the U.S.

(5) Troell has been either completely mishandled or ignored - I don't which is worse - by U.S. distributors.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

An Old Resolution

Lying abed on New Year's morning, I will make a valiant attempt to call these words to mind:

"In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present - I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm? - But this is more pleasant - Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?"

Marcus Aurelius wrote these words while prosecuting his military campaign against the Germanic tribes in the 2nd century AD, which occupied his last years. Imagining the man forming these thoughts one morning in his tent near the Danube, as the trumpets woke the legionaries in his camp, with the weight of the world pressing down on him - how much easier it is for me to climb out of bed!