Sunday, May 31, 2009

Children's Games

Reading some passages from Moritz Thomsen's Living Poor more critically, I can see differences between the people living in Rio Verde, Ecuador, and those living here in my Philippine barangay, that have tempered and solidified both my understanding of poverty and of Thomsen's Peace Corps experience. He wrote that he "began to be aware that in the town there was scarcely a moment when a baby's crying didn't fill the air. . . . Like a revelation, I suddenly realized that these screams were the screams of human beings learning about poverty. They were learning about sickness and about hunger; they were learning in a hard school what they could expect from life, learning to accept their destiny and the futility of revolting against it. They were being twisted and maimed. They were being turned from normal human beings into The Poor." After growing somewhat inured to the sound of screaming children here, I am more convinced that screaming is what children do - it's their only means of communicating anything. I hear laughter, too, and screams of pleasure from children as young as two and as old as ten. But there is sometimes an occasional forced note, as if they were trying too hard to have fun.

My experience of poverty here has been more varied than Thomsen's. The Peace Corps would never send a volunteer to my barangay. It simply isn't that far gone for such assistance. Thomsen wrote about the children of Rio Verde: "After the age of six they are ready for life, and as for being poor, they know all about it; there isn't a thing they don't know. There are no more tears. They play quietly, gravely in the dirt before their houses, and there is something terrible in their eyes, a kind of blindness."

Part of the sadness of childhood, for the children that I see every day, is how they notice what life has done to their mothers and - when they are still around - their fathers, and how they begin to realize that the same life is waiting for them as well. But there is still time for them to be children.

Watching poor children play is a revelation, not of the desperate shortage of toys, but of how necessity is the mother of invention. For all those Americans who contribute to the U.S. Marine Corps' annual Toys for Tots campaign, I would like them to see how these children create games out of nothing, out of thin air, out of cupped hands, out of rubber bands, aluminum cans, whatever they can lay their hands on. I have watched them find a flat surface, dirt, cement or stone, place an object like a scrap of paper or plastic in front of them, cup their hands together, palms down, and slap the ground beside the object so that the displaced air blows it a few inches away from them. The children gather in groups of two or three and slap the ground in unison to see who can move the object the farthest. The sound of their hands slapping the ground can be heard from twenty or thirty yards away.

Or they will put stones inside an aluminum can and make it into a percussive instrument. Making noise becomes a game. But seeing how rusted the cans are, and the jagged edges of their open lids, I wonder sometimes if the object of their play is to see which of them will contract tetanus first. Some children have actual toys, like hula hoops, plastic guns that make clicking noises when you squeeze the trigger, and toy trucks. But since there are too few to go around, and since these children always play in groups, the toys are soon broken or abandoned.

Around the age of ten, something happens to the children. They are halfway between childhood and adulthood, and they pause, as if on a brink. They grow more serious, more aloof from the others, less spontaneously joyous, but also less prone to tears or cries. If they are boys, they play basketball or work more with their fathers, fishing or chopping firewood. Their play becomes rougher, more violent. But mostly they act as if nothing in the world could possibly relieve their boredom. They have lost the faculty of discovering wonder all around them. It is painful to watch.

But if they are girls, they will spend more time with their mothers and sisters, cleaning, cooking and washing clothes. There is always work for women to do here. And you will never see them with a doll. What use are they when there are real babies that need to be fed and washed and loved everywhere you look? And unless the girls are lucky enough to find something else to occupy them like school or a job as a maid in the city, they too will be having babies soon enough - as soon as some boy, who cannot even afford a condom, in a country that should be airlifting them to these provinces by the millions, can overcome their fear and fill their ears with lies and their minds with fantasies of love. The worst thing about it is that every girl knows there really isn't much of a choice.

But their childhood is still there, and will always be something so much more for them than what it was for some of us from more privileged circumstances (even if it may not have felt so privileged when we were living it) - a time of heedless days, of endless play, and games that are never so serious that the rules cannot be changed so that even the losers can sometimes win.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Tale of Springtime

[Since 2000, I have had the pleasure of contributing to the Melbourne Cinematheque's Annotations on Film. I would volunteer to write about a film that they were scheduling, as long as I had access to it on DVD, sometimes without having seen it yet. This put me in the precarious position of being committed to write about a film whether I liked it or not. Since I was writing a "scholarly" piece rather than a critical one, I could keep my opinion to myself and simply introduce the film to an unsuspecting audience. Or so I thought. Luckily, this happened to me only once, when I had to write about Eric Rohmer's 1990 film A Tale of Springtime. Rohmer had always interested me because his films were never easy to like. So I wrote my annotation without ever having to admit that I thought little of the film. It did, however, teach me something more about Rohmer.]

A Tale of Springtime

If someone could've witnessed, since earlier this afternoon, everything I've done and said, even they wouldn't understand the meaning of the situation.
– Jeanne in A Tale of Springtime

Eric Rohmer (b. 1920) has been making films for more than 50 years, but he is known internationally for the films he has made since 1967. Shot with a 16mm camera, La Collectionneuse (1967) was the third of his “Six Moral Tales” (the first two were short films), a series that established him as one of the most distinctive voices of the French New Wave. His style has been called “lapidary” by the late Pauline Kael, and he definitely has an eye for the minutiae of things and an ear for the ironies and double-meanings of the French language (1).

The critical and commercial success of his completely unostentatious little films has enabled him – through the auspices of his own production company Les Films du Losange – to experiment with two extraordinary literary adaptations (of Heinrich von Kleist's The Marquise of O… [1976] and Chretien de Troyes' Perceval le Gallois [1978]) as well as launch two more series of his inimitable and elegant films in the 1980s and 1990s – the “Comedies and Proverbs” and the “Tales of the Four Seasons”.

A Tale of Springtime is, appropriately enough, the first of Rohmer's “Tales of the Four Seasons”, and bears out its title with a portrayal of incipient love. It also reveals, somewhat playfully, how impossible it is to force love to conform to our designs. Jeanne is a high school philosophy teacher who meets Natacha at a party in Montmorency. Since neither of them knows anyone else at the party, they strike up a conversation.

Jeanne shares an apartment in Paris with her boyfriend, who is out of town. But he's left the apartment in a shambles and Jeanne stays just long enough to take some clothes and two books with her – Plato and Kant. She then stops at her own apartment, but her cousin Gaelle is using it with her boyfriend, who is on furlough from the military.

Natacha lives with her father, Igor, a 40-year-old reluctant bureaucrat. But he rarely turns up – or so she assures Jeanne – since he lives with his 20-year-old girlfriend, Eve. Since Jeanne has no other preferable place to stay the night, she gives Natacha a ride home and stays at her place. Whether by accident or design (and even Rohmer's accidents are part of his pattern), Igor comes home the following morning while Jeanne is in the shower. Complications ensue, which form the crux of Rohmer's tale.

A subplot is introduced when Natacha tells Jeanne the story of her missing necklace, implicating both her father and his girlfriend in its disappearance. This little mystery is solved near the film's end when Jeanne finds the necklace by accident, and Natacha's explanation for its sudden reappearance absolves both her father and Eve. But only such solvable mysteries find such easy resolutions in Rohmer's universe.

With his very first shot – of Jeanne walking out of the Lycee Jacques Brel – Rohmer informs us that we are going to spend some time in the company of cultivated people. But by making Jeanne a philosophy teacher, Rohmer elicits most of the film's conflicts, along with some interesting dialogue. Jeanne tells Natacha that, instead of pedantically preaching about absolute truths, for her philosophy is the art of “thinking about thought”, that what she tries to instill in her students is the ability to “think about thinking”. Over dinner, she assures Igor and Eve that most of her students are from the working class, and yet they find it embarrassing to get a bad grade in philosophy. “It's like saying they're unable to think”, Jeanne insists. “We can brag about being bad at math, but not philosophy.” Yet all of Jeanne's thinking can't protect her from her own self-deception.

One of Rohmer's themes in A Tale of Springtime is that nobody wants to allow anything to run its natural course – they're always trying to force things to happen. Consequently there is a disconnection between his characters' thoughts and their feelings. They seem too aloof to surrender to a powerful emotion. When Igor asks Jeanne if she is madly in love with her boyfriend, she answers quite directly, “How could I be? I'm not mad.”

This exchange occurs in Igor's house when he and Jeanne are left alone by Natacha's sudden departure with her boyfriend. Jeanne and Igor play a rather silly game that quickly turns serious – Jeanne grants Igor three wishes, to sit beside her, to hold her hand and to kiss her. It all seems so mechanical until Jeanne decides things have gone too far and insists on leaving.
Against the intensity of his dialogue, Rohmer plays out his tale in wondrous locations. The places themselves are exquisite – Parisian rooms from some displaced ancien régime converted none too carefully into functional homes (2). And they are invariably lined with overstuffed bookshelves – masterpieces of bookbinding, if nothing else. But Rohmer's people don't keep ideas like pets. For them, ideas are to be contested, at every opportunity.

Rohmer's people suffer personal spasms that don't cause ripples beyond their immediate vicinity. But within the framework Rohmer has made for them, his microcosm, every spark – the slightest word or gesture – can change the course of their lives. Rohmer's dramatic strategy is to bring a group of disparate characters together, watch them react to one another, and have them splinter off again in different directions. He watches as fates intersect and then alter their courses accordingly - such is Rohmer's own dialectic.

(1) From his carefully wrought dialogue you could conclude that Rohmer's twin fixations are philosophy and eroticism. These fixations are often surprisingly juxtaposed.

(2) As usual, there is no set designer listed in the film's credits, suggesting that Rohmer used real people's homes, with “real” décor.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Night at Eric's

I have always found the work of Eric Rohmer, who turned 89 this year, more than a little boring. Except for The Marquise of O... (1976), which is his masterpiece and quite unlike all his other films, his foremost quality is an intellectualized sensuality, where the one invariably nullifies the other. Since he is a somewhat lightweight intellectual, Rohmer is much better when he lets sensuality get the upper hand, as he did in La Collectionneuse (1967), Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), Pauline at the Beach (1983) (thanks to the beautiful Arielle Dombasle), and My Night at Maud's (1969)

Another quality of Rohmer's work is irony: how knowledge is often withheld from the most knowledgeable; how the truth is most elusive to those who pride themselves on their honesty; and how happiness is sometimes the product of self-deception. Rohmer knows that it is good not to be wise in the ways of others or in one's own.

Jean-Louis, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, works for Michelin in Clermont, but is not adapting well to his new surroundings since his return from Vancouver and Valparaiso. He notices a pretty blonde in church (Marie-Christine Barrault), who also notices him. Then he runs into Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a friend he hasn't seen in fourteen years. Through Vidal he meets Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful divorcee who, after an evening of banter on love and marriage, impulsively invites Jean-Louis, after the tipsy Vidal has gone home, to her bed. How Jean-Louis responds to her invitation sets in motion events that will change the lives of three people.

In one sense, the film is an argument against Catholicism. Rohmer's lengthy church scenes, while they made me squirm nearly as much as I did every Sunday when I was a boy, cleverly illuminate the drama of looks and gestures going on between Jean-Louis and the blonde, Francoise. And other looks and gestures between Francoise and her co-conspirators, Vidal and Maud, provide glimpses of a much broader drama that Rohmer leaves unspoken.

It is, after all, that unspoken drama that contributes an intriguing dimension to My Night at Maud's - the intersection of disparate lives, libidos, and egos, their reactions, and the resumption of their personal trajectories. Something happened at Maud's. Even Maud talks about that night with unabashed nostalgia. Near the end of the film, Jean-Louis refers to it as "that evening," and Maud corrects him: "Evening? Night, you mean. Our night." By so italicizing that wintry night in Clermont, in which two people attract, but ultimately fail, each other, Rohmer comes close to the rueful, fate-streaked universe of the Alexandrian poet Cavafy:

The Afternoon Sun

This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window was the bed;
the afternoon sun fell across half of it.

...One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only... And then—
that week became forever.

Rohmer makes that moment between Maud and Jean-Louis into a legend, making My Night at Maud's such a moving and personal experience, one of those lovely films that are fixed for us in a moment of time, the first time we saw it, but which grows on subsequent viewings.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


[I have written far too many product reviews over the years, in the somewhat safe capacity of a consumer advocate. (It is, after all, the role that film reviewer's fulfill most of the time - informing the public of films that will give them the most for their money.) I got my hands on a copy of Colin MacCabe's Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, and I was immediately struck by the book's unbelievably reverential tone. One of the reasons I have never taken "film scholars" seriously is because their standards are all over the place. Jean-Luc Godard was an influential critic and a founding member of the French Nouvelle Vague. He is also one of the most overrated filmmakers "of all time," as film scholars like to put it.]

The Viewer Over My Shoulder

For anyone who is only marginally curious about the vacillating fortunes of Jean-Luc Godard, which has dimmed to virtual darkness since the 1960s, Colin MacCabe's book Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy contains very little that is useful and a great deal that is both confusing and misleading. MacCabe is blessed with intimate knowledge both personally and professionally of Godard, and doesn't hesitate to demonstrate this. What he fails to demonstrate to this non-convert to Godard is precisely anything that might sway me from the conviction, cultivated over 30 years, that - at best - Godard was politically stupid,* technically incompetent and artistically bankrupt from beginning to end - an end which MacCabe is anxious to prove is as much the end of European culture as Dante's Divine Comedy was its beginning (he even cavils that this "is no exaggeration.").

Such admiration as this would be charming if it were to any degree justified. A little objective discrimination, presuming Mr MacCabe still believes in such things, would've been far more welcome. This book, however, is founded on the premise that Jean-Luc Godard (a co-founder of the French New Wave) is a film artist of unprecedented importance. That this premise is sheer flapdoodle tends to deflate most of the points Mr MacCabe attempts to make about Godard, or Film, or European culture for that matter.

*For example, Vernon Young reported at the time that, in organizing the protest that led to the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, Godard did so not in the name of Marxism, Leninism, or Maoism, as expected, but Stalinism!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

And Where Could I Marvel My Birthday Away?

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks of months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. - Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

I turned 51 today here on my Philippine island. Looking back on the way marks behind me as I zigzagged across continents and oceans, I am like the traveller who knows where he has been but cannot tell where he is going.

In 1987, I celebrated my 29th birthday in Columbia, South Carolina, with my mother and father. I mention it only as a starting point. In 1988 I was in Orlando, Florida, turning 30 in Navy Basic Training. Of course, I didn't plan it. It just turned out that way. By the next birthday, I was already settled in at my first "permanent" duty station (which, thank goodness, was not permanent) in the small town of Fallon, Nevada. So settled, in fact, that I would celebrate my next two birthdays there.

By '92, I had been transferred to White Beach, Okinawa, and celebrated my 34th birthday in the nearby fishing village of Heshikiya with my Navy buddy Carlos, getting acquainted with a barmaid whom we called Lost Boys, because of her badly aligned teeth. In '93, I found myself in Phitsanulok, Thailand on the occasion of my 35th birthday, and I finished the day in the company of a girl whose name I couldn't pronounce but whose breasts were as redoubtable as Mount Rushmore. So taken was I by Thailand, in fact, that I spent all of my advance TAD* money and had to pay it back over the following months back in Okinawa.

The next year I was back in Thailand for my 36th birthday, this time in Sri Racha, a half hour north of Pattaya Beach. Even there, in a small fishing town, there was a strip of bars just outside my hotel that my fellow sailors were calling the "Honch," after the entertainment district outside the Navy base at Yokosuka, Japan. They were hostess bars whose clientele were usually Japanese businessmen, for whom the hotel had been built so that they could play golf on a nearby "Japanese Only" golf course. The hostesses were used to big spenders and were not at all prepared to entertain a gang of rude and underpaid American sailors. I shared an elevator once with a Japanese man in the hotel and, having come from Okinawa myself, his thoughts were probably identical to mine: "there's no escape from these people!"

By 1995, I was out of the Navy but still in Asia. I was in Angeles City, Philippines, where I had just married (in March) a girl I had met there in '93. I was broke, my prospects were dim, and I was just about to leave the Philippines to go home and begin the lengthy and heartless process of getting my wife a visa. "Home" was Aurora, Colorado. And it was there, the following year, that I turned 38 in Aurora Presbyterian Hospital, under observation for a heart condition diagnosed that very day.

I was fully recovered from the heart condition, but apparently suffering from a mental condition, by my next birthday, in '97, in basic training once again - except it was the Army this time, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Turning 39 in the company of 17- and 18-year-olds made me feel quite a bit older. And I made the further sobering discovery that, in the nine years since my Navy basic training, the level of maturity in young men had plummeted. I was made a squad leader in my platoon because of my prior service, and there were times when I felt more like a baby sitter. Of course, I didn't reckon then that it probably had more to do with my simply being nine years older.

It was in South Korea that I turned 40. I was with some friends "downrange" in a town outside Camp Casey's main gate, and they were obliged, according to military custom, to get me as drunk as physically possible. We were playing "quarters," a unique game in which the object is to lose (and the loser drinks a full mug of beer). Lose enough times, as I did, and the game is over sooner than planned. I recall only that I became rather cross that I had lost ten straight rounds, in the space of about five minutes, and I could feel my competitive skills collapsing rapidly. So I stood up and shouted "Stop this game!" The Korean waitresses were so startled that had to give them a reassuring smile. Then, as if in response to a warning light going on inside my head, I left my friends in the bar and hailed a taxi to take me back to my barracks. That is all I remember of my 40th birthday.

A year later, home at last with my wife in Colorado, I observed my birthday resentful of the knowledge that the Army had turned us into strangers. It didn't help matters, of course, that she was capitalizing on it. The following year, on my first birthday of the new millennium, matters between us were considerably worse. So it should come as no surprise that I celebrated my 43rd birthday without my wife right back in the place where we had met, in Angeles City, Philippines. It had been six years since I was last there, but I bumped into someone who had been at my wedding every day of my month-long stay. I wasn't alone on my birthday. I made sure of that. But it an odd sort of revenge, and sour.

I wish I could gloss over my next four birthdays, from 2002 to 2005. I was alone in Des Moines, Iowa, a city known better to some of its natives as Death Moans. When, in the summer of '05, a close friend breezed through town on his way to Seattle, he wondered what pleasure, if any, I was getting out of my life. My ultimate response was to leave Des Moines for the Last Frontier.

My next two birthdays were spent in the bosom of my family, or what there was left of it, in Anchorage, Alaska. It was the time of year, late Spring, when the days were sixteen hours long , when tourists were arriving in Homer, down the coast, by the shipload, and when my sister, with whom I was living, was making good money selling her hand-crafted jewelry at the local bazaars.
But because of promises I made to myself, or perhaps to my former self, that ageless, invulnerable, fearless, and incorrigible self that it is probably better to ignore, I came back here to the Philippines to take up once again the dream I had in 1995 of making a go of living here.

And, after once again finding it a bad idea, and resolving to have been home in Alaska by now, here I remain on my Philippine island. A long time ago, after seeing the Tom Hanks movie Big with a woman who had the novel virtue of being nearly as old as me, I asked her what she thought of it. "It made me feel homesick," she said. "I'm homesick for places I've never been," I responded. I was at the beginning of my stint in the Navy, and looking forward to the outward voyage. At 51, my islands explored, their pleasures tasted, I can think of nothing now but the homeward voyage. The Constantine Cavafy poem, "Ithaka" puts it more succinctly:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, trans.)

* "Temporary Additional Duty," or what we sailors called it, "Travelling Around Drunk."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Speed Kills

Get yourself a sweet Madonna
Dressed up all in lace upon a
Pedestal of abalone shell.

Goin' 90, I ain't scary
'Cause I got the Virgin Mary
Assurin' me that I won't go to hell.

(sung by Paul Newman in the film Cool Hand Luke)

The death of J.G. Ballard on 19 April put me in mind of many things, like his excellent short stories in a genre I have never liked - science fiction, his memoir Empire of the Sun, which is so much better than the mediocre film that Steven Spielberg made of it, and the subjects of his often extraordinarily unpleasant novels. One of them, Crash, published in 1973, was also made into a film by David Cronenberg. The main problem with the film was not that it was creepy and distasteful, but that it wasn't nearly creepy and distasteful enough to do the novel justice. Ballard had a talent for submerging the reader in alternative, often particularly unwelcome, experience. In Crash, he explored the experience of people who derive sexual excitement from car accidents, both vicariously and directly. And the more spectacular the crash, and the more crippling the injuries, the greater the sexual excitement.

In a sense, Ballard's characters had finally found a practical use - titillation - for one of the most routinely savage fixtures of modern life, which is brought home to us every year when the latest figures of roadway fatalities is released. Those statistics always scream for a solution, and every year there is a knee-jerk response from governments looking for ways to bring the numbers down. And every year the numbers remain the same, simply because the real reason for the carnage is never addressed.

When the first automobiles were sold to the public, their engines were too small and poorly designed for them to move much faster than the horse-drawn carriages they were meant to replace. But as the size of their engines grew and their numbers on public roadways increased, the first roadway accidents, with property damage and fatalities, began to show up on police blotters. And along with them, the first demands for preventive measures were made. What needed to be done was clear to manufacturers and legislators from the beginning: speed would have to be controlled - in other words, severely limited. (Inside city limits, for example, speed limits were equivalent to those in our school zones today, or around 25 miles per hour.) But when the first speed limit signs appeared, with what was deemed to be acceptably safe standards, another outcry arose - this time from the drivers themselves. Their objections were that the speed limits were far too low for their vehicles to manage even in high gear and that it was taking them too long to reach their destinations. So automobile manufacturers, drivers, legislators, and police came to an agreement (while necessarily avoiding the exact words): speed is more important than human life.

So the next time you go for a joy ride, remember all those brave citizens who paid the ultimate price for your right to put your pedal to the metal. Our age shows no signs of wanting to repeal its preference of velocity over humanity.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Pound of Flesh

In 2005, a rather good film was released to wide acclaim called Diarios de Motocicleta, or The Motorcycle Diaries. It was a dramatization of a journey across the length of South America by Ernesto Guevara, better known to history as "Che" Guevara. This trip helped to shape Guevara into the Marxist revolutionary we all know, or think we know. Many observers, appalled by the popular cult of Che, attacked the film for contributing to the widespread misconception of him as a lover of freedom and hero of the downtrodden; when, in fact, he happened to commit and to inspire various atrocities in the name of Karl Marx. In the film's defense, it makes no attempt to whitewash Che, since his political activism was still many years off when the film's action takes place. And I am a little puzzled at critics of Che who point at his actions during the Castro revolution in Cuba as proof of his bad character. Exactly how do they expect revolutionaries to behave - especially the ones who are committed to radical social change? As the saying goes, you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

I can sympathize with the critics of the Che cult in one respect when I look at the persistent cult of Ezra Pound. Put in historical perspective, Pound (1885-1972) was an important member of the vers libre movement in early 20th-century English poetry - a movement that included T.S. Eliot. Of Pound's poems themselves, Randall Jarrell pondered if a knowledge of all of the obscure languages and references in them would make them any better as poetry. (1)

Whatever the answer, if anything contributed most to the general hatred and suspicion of modern poetry, it was the work of Pound and his minions. As George Orwell put it, "poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of 'Sunday-on-a-weekday.'"(2) In his long career, Pound veered from poetry that is ultimately impenetrable (intentionally, since their meaninglessness is less obvious) to poetry that sounds like Carl Sandburg on hash.

It may sound strange, but I feel certain that Pound's reputation would have a more honest appraisal today had he not been confined to a mental ward for twelve years for his support of fascist Italy during World War II. One indication of my certainty came on 14 February 1949 when Pound was awarded the very first Bollingen Prize for Poetry. The judges who awarded the prize to Pound included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell. They issued the following statement on the occasion:

"To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would in destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest."

The Bollingen judges' objectivity was admirable, I suppose. No mention is made of Pound's guilt or innocence. Aware that their choice of the Pisan Cantos as the finest book of poetry for 1948 would cause controversy, they merely side-stepped the issue by appealing to the perception by which a scoundrel's work can be deemed inviolate.

In 1945, when U.S. military leadership were threatening to shoot Pound if they should capture him, George Orwell, who never cared for Pound's poetry either, observed: "If Ezra Pound is caught and shot by the American authorities, it will have the effect of establishing his reputation as a poet for hundreds of years." (3) The authorities thought better of shooting Pound, but declaring him "insane" at his treason trial not only excused his pro-fascist stunts but had the unfortunate effect of turning him into a victim and thereby arousing sympathetic interest in his poetry.

On the occasion of the Bollingen Prize, the periodical Partisan Review published a number of remarks about Pound, among which was one from Orwell:

"I think the Bollingen Foundation were quite right to award Pound the prize, if they believed his poems to be the best of the year, but I think also that one ought to keep Pound's career in memory and not feel that his ideas are made respectable by the mere fact of winning a literary prize.

Because of the general revulsion against Allied war propaganda, there has been - indeed there was, even before the war was over - a tendency to claim that Pound was 'not really' a fascist and an antisemite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years. Some time ago I saw it stated in an American periodical that Pound only broadcast on the Rome radio when 'the balance of his mind was upset,' and later (I think in the same periodical) that the Italian government had blackmailed him into broadcasting by threats to relatives. All this is plain falsehood. Pound was an ardent follower of Mussolini as far back as the nineteen-twenties, and never concealed it. He was a contributor to Mosley's review, the British Union Quarterly, and accepted a professorship from the Rome government before the war started. I should say that his enthusiasm was essentially for the Italian form of fascism. He did not seem to be very strongly pro-Nazi or anti-Russian, his real underlying motive being hatred of Britain, America and 'the Jews.' His broadcasts were disgusting. I remember at least one in which he approved the massacre of East European Jews and 'warned' the American Jews that their turn was coming presently. These broadcasts - I did not hear them, but only read them in the BBC monitoring report - did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic. Incidentally I am told that in delivering them Pound used to put on a pronounced American accent which he did not normally have, no doubt with the idea of appealing to the isolationists and playing on anti-British sentiment.

None of this is a reason against giving Pound the Bollingen Prize. There are times when such a thing might be undesirable - it would have been undesirable when the Jews were actually being killed in the gas vans, for instance - but I do not think this is one of them. But since the judges have taken what amounts to the 'art for art's sake' position,that is, the position that aesthetic integrity and common decency are two separate things, then at least let us keep them separate and not excuse Pound's political career on the ground that he is a good writer. He may be a good writer (I must admit that I personally have always regarded him as an entirely spurious writer), but the opinions that he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil, ones, and I think that the judges should have said so more firmly when awarding him the prize."

While it is perfectly possible for a great poet to be a contemptible human being (Bertolt Brecht is a good example), it does not do poetry or humanity any good to pretend that the one cancels out the other. Now that Pound has been dead for more than three decades and readers can encounter his work in ignorance of his political antics and his "hospitalization," perhaps his work will find its proper position in anthologies and History of Literature surveys.

(1) Jarrell's views on the "Pound Affair" can be found here:

(2) "Poetry and the Microphone," 1943

(3) "In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse," 1945

Friday, May 8, 2009

Ban This Sport

[Earlier this week I made some remarks about the Manny Pacquiao phenomenon here in the Philippines. What I wrote had little bearing on what I argue below, except perhaps the primal and nationalistic aspects of the sport. This is merely to head off accusations of my having contradicted myself. Filipinos need only be reminded that what makes Pacquiao such a hero to them is his ability to incapacitate his opponents with his fists. People cheering while Ricky Hatton was on his back, breathing spasmodically after having been knocked unconscious, is my whole point.]

Boxing is a savage sport. It is the only sport in which the objective is for one competitor to injure his opponent sufficiently to neutralize his ability to continue. Every boxer's record tells us his wins, losses, and draws. And it also numbers how many of his wins came as a result of a "knockout." But a "body shot" can injure a boxer as much, if not more, as a "head shot," and can halt his ability to continue. And even a particularly bad cut above a boxer's eyes can cause bleeding into his eyes that effectively blinds him. When a match is stopped under these circumstances, the decision is called "technical knockout," or "TKO."

Boxing purists would deny all this and insist that it is really about one boxer outscoring his opponent by landing the greater number of punches, that the punches needn't have any force behind them as long as they land above the boxer's belt. They would point to the fact that many boxing matches are not decided by a knockout or any other debilitating injury, but by a preponderance of points. In Olympic boxing competition, for example, padded headgear is worn to guard against blows to the head.

But other boxing proponents would accept the argument that its object is physical injury. They would even argue that this is boxing's greatest appeal, and that it is the last surviving gladiatorial sport (even if boxers do not fight "to the death," except by accident). Perhaps some observer with a stronger stomach can tell us what primal emotion boxing, like bullfighting, appeals to in us. It must certainly be sadistic, watching men so strong rendered so helpless by the blows they inflict on one another. Boxing is certainly a blood sport, as anyone can tell you who has sat close enough to the ring to have been anointed with the blood from a boxer's open wounds.

When a boxer is knocked out, he has actually suffered a concussion, which is caused by the brain colliding with the inside of the skull. It can lead to convulsions, seizures, and eventually to brain damage. Some prominent American football players, like Steve Young and Troy Aiken, have had to cut short their careers because of the number of concussions they sustained, despite their padded helmets. One of the telltale characteristics of a veteran boxer is the condition commonly known as "punch drunk," in which the subject speaks and acts as if they were intoxicated. (1) And Rocky Graziano, considered a "knockout artist" in his day, had been punched in the throat so hard it gave him his trademark wheezing voice for the rest of his life.

Arguably the greatest and most recognizable heavyweight boxer of the 1960s and '70s was Muhammed Ali. Aside from his boxing abilities, he was a beautiful and graceful athlete. Now he suffers from Parkinson's Disease, a neural disorder that many believe was brought on by head injuries sustained during his long boxing career. Like too many boxers, past and present, Ali kept on boxing long after he should've retired.

Some sociologically-minded observers claim that, in every era of boxing, there is a single ethnic group that dominates the championship ranks, and that it is a reflection of society's minorities struggling to be assimilated. The first champion boxers were Irish, since the Irish were the dominant minority in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were gradually pushed out by black boxers, who were in turn replaced by Italians, etc. Since the 1970s, Hispanic boxers have dominated the sport.

In other words, once an ethnic group has been assimilated into society, like the Irish and Italians, fewer of them turn to boxing for their livelihood - leaving the next up and coming ethnic group to put on the gloves. For a long time, boxing was largely a contest between two black fighters, watched by an almost exclusively white audience. The ethnic groups may have changed, but boxing remains a matter of ethnic minorities beating one another up for the diversion of white people. Ring Magazine's latest Top Ten Pound for Pound boxers is a veritable cross-section of ethnic minorities: Manny Pacquiao (Filipino), Juan Manuel Marquez (Mexican), Bernard Hopkins (African-American), Shane Mosley (African-American), Israel Vasquez (Mexican), Rafael Marquez (Mexican), Miguel Cotto (Puerto Rican), Nonito Donaire (Filipino), Vic Darchinyan (Armenian), Celestino Caballero (Panamanian). Or they are proud representatives of what are currently labeled as emerging nations. And now that boxing has become more of an international competition, it is appealing to nationalistic sentiments.(2)

However you look at it, boxing remains a competition among men who came from nothing to stand up against one another, prepared to inflict serious injuries for a cash prize. Even if it were not for cash but for pride, such a sport should be banned, at least in the United States. Let Spaniards and Mexicans butcher bulls in the ring in front of cheering crowds. Let Filipinos go on pitting fighting cocks against one another and bet on which is the winner. But Americans should know better than to take pleasure in watching half-educated men, who clearly have few other options for a livelihood but beating one another with their fists until the fight is stopped by the final bell, by the referee, or by a knockout punch.

In a satirical vein, Macaulay wrote that "The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." Would that we were all such Puritans.

(1) Manny Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, suffers most noticeably from this condition.
(2) The day after Manny Pacquiao's victory over the Briton Ricky Hatton, I was on my way back to my house from a nearby town here in provincial Philippines, and I noticed a few boys squaring off as if to hit me when they saw my white face.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


The day of the Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton fight in Las Vegas was actually the following day, last Sunday, here in the Philippines. I somehow knew that Pacquiao would win, without having followed any of the particulars of the fight, without knowing how either of the fighters had trained to make the Light Welterweight limit of 140lbs. I knew that Hatton had a following of fans, many of whom had some all the way from Manchester, England to watch the fight. But Hatton couldn't possibly have behind him the honor of his nation and all the prayers of his race. Hatton couldn't have had every Englishman glued to his TV set, assembled in arenas, movie theaters, gyms, bars, and in every neighborhood assembly hall just to cheer him on.

The Philippine National Police announced that the national crime rate was at absolute zero for several hours before, during, and after the fight. There were two fatal heart attacks during the fight, but it can be said with some confidence that both men died happy.

Manny Pacquiao won the fight not because he was the "pound for pound" greatest fighter in the world, or because he was the better trained or better coached fighter, or because, as he himself said so humbly and beautifully after the fight, that he landed a lucky punch. Pacquiao won because of everything and everyone that was behind him - an almost cosmic force emanating not just from his motherland but from everywhere Filipinos are living and working all over the world. Knowing and feeling this force made me feel sorry for Ricky Hatton when he was knocked down by Pacquiao twice in the first round and when he was lying on his back on the canvas at the end of the second round, convulsing after Pacquiao's "lucky" knockout punch. Hatton felt the force behind Pacquiao's left fist, and he is probably feeling it still.

Years from now when the fight is remembered, people will ask if I was there to see it with my own eyes. "Yes," I can proudly say. "I was in the Philippines."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Diary of a Country Priest

[Just to show my readers (all two of you) that I am not entirely insensitive to the delicacy and beauty of which Robert Bresson was sometimes capable, I offer a piece I published at Senses of Cinema in 2003. Even if I still think that Bresson's too-convincing portrait of our soulless world makes nonsense of his priest's dying words ("all is grace"), perhaps it was merely Bernanos' point in the novel, which I haven't read. Peter Cowie claimed that Bresson was "agnostic," which must be the silliest claim ever made for him. Bresson was about as agnostic as Pascal or Dostoevsky. Besides, agnostics don't say things like "there are no real atheists." Maybe Cowie was trying to say that Bresson was not a practising Catholic. Allowing for Bresson being French (notoriously wayward Catholics), the most I would credit him with would be something more akin to a skeptical Catholicism.]

For the uninitiated (somehow, the ecclesiastical word novitiate springs to mind), Robert Bresson must certainly seem the most demanding filmmaker who ever lived. "Austerely Roman Catholic," as he has so often been characterized, he sought after effects in his work that cannot properly be quantified. Bresson operated under the assumption that there was such a thing as a "soul," and that, through extreme concentration of style, it could be revealed to the camera and the tape recorder – instruments that, to him, had an almost incantatory power. His films, from the 1943 Les Anges du péché until L'Argent in 1983, were testaments to the austerity of his faith and his equally austere technique. Refusing to yield to anything resembling audience appeal or entertainment values, he managed to create for himself a quiet, unostentatious niche in the history of French cinema, earning the grudging respect of critics and slowly acquiring an audience of acolytes.

The Diary of a Country Priest (1950) was first a celebrated novel published in 1936 by the prominent Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, who died in 1948. Bresson managed to get the rights to a film adaptation from Bernanos' estate and turned it into his first masterpiece. As he admitted, in a highly rewarding interview with Charles Thomas Samuels:

I don't share Bernanos' faith and style. But in every book of his there are sparks, remarkable insights, that are very peculiar and that you do not find in other writers. In The Diary of a Country Priest there are many such sparks…. In [my film] I wasn't faithful to the style of Bernanos, and I omitted details which I disliked. But I was faithful to the spirit of the book and to what it inspired in me as I read it. (1)

Although the film's theme is religious, it is in no way a strictly religious film. The suffering that the priest endures, and the pettiness and intolerance he witnesses all around are for him simply evidence of the "grace" promised by his faith. And what prevents the priest from seeming like a creeping Jesus is that, from the moment we see his face, it is obvious that he is stricken.

Bresson's concentration of the gentle and poetic face of his non-actor Claude Laydu – who plays the priest – and his use of the somewhat quaint narrative device of the priest's entries in his diary, give the film an impetus and a very telling window on the deterioration of his health and mind. In the film's greatest scene – and one of the most magnificent scenes of spiritual transformation on film – the priest manages to help a woman overcome her grief for her dead child and her hatred of God for his death. Although professedly chary of using symbols, Bresson placed a groundskeeper outside the Countess' chateau raking leaves throughout the scene – and the sound of the dead leaves being gathered as the Countess at last releases her grief is a powerful metaphor. But even this act of kindness from the priest results in disaster – the Countess dies in her sleep that very night and the priest is held responsible, even by his fellow Priest of Torcy.

Bresson is relentless in capturing the squalid daily routines of the provincial setting. Though often regarded as the dramatization of a spiritual journey, the film is remarkably sensuous in its details. Bresson enlisted Abel Gance's cinematographer, Léonce-Henry Burel, to give the exterior shots (especially the somewhat fantastic night scenes) an especially startling realism. And Bresson's choice of his non-professional 'non-actors' is almost perfect, even down to the casting of the children who themselves cannot resist taunting the priest. Especially noteworthy is Marie-Monique Arkell as the Countess, who would never make another film.

But there is also irony in the priest's last line in the film, related to us by a friend who witnesses his last moments. The world through which this sickly priest wanders so purposefully is proof that indeed all is not grace; that, while one may make spiritual contact with another human being and make it past the obstacles of his own pain and sorrow, the world continues to be what it is – not a fit place for someone who can summarise existence with the final aphorism “All is grace.”

Surely no other filmmaker – and certainly no great filmmaker – demands as much close reading and is as well known for his comments on his work as Bresson. In fact, his artistic approach would practically be incomprehensible without his wonderfully strange and uncompromising view of Film. (2)

The following, significant exchange from an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, provides an appropriate summation of Bresson's views:

Samuels: I think that many of your ideas are a consequence of your Christianity. Am I right in saying that you pursue mystery without worrying that the audience will be baffled because you believe that we all partake of one essential soul?
Bresson: Of course. Of course.
S: So that every viewer is fundamentally the same viewer.
B: Of course. What I am very pretentiously trying to capture is this essential soul, as you call it.
S: Do you believe that there is anybody that does not partake in this essential soul. For example, is an atheist outside your audience?
B: No, he is not. Besides, there are no real atheists.

(1) Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1972).
(2) Bresson collected his writings in Notes on Cinematography (New York: Urizen Books, 1975).

The Passion of the Joan or The Emperor's New Nudity

When Robert Bresson's curious pronouncements on his highly individual art first began to appear in the 1950s, critics were fascinated because his results were so dazzling. What he subsequently proved was that it didn't matter what his working practices were as long as they worked, as they did in Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and A Man Escaped (1956). When they didn't work, those same ideas weren't exactly invalidated, but it called Bresson's application of them into question. What critics noticed was that Bresson's minimalist mania was not so noticeable when it suited the subject, when his elimination of everything but the essential elements of expression seemed totally apposite to the material. A priest slowly dying in a soulless world or a condemned prisoner of war carefully plotting and executing his escape needed precisely the approach that Bresson brought to them.

One wonders what, if any, style could have redeemed the story of a petty thief with a Raskolnikov complex. (1) With Pickpocket (1959), Bresson seemed to follow his principles straight off a cliff. It was the first proof that his style was extremely limited. But if Pickpocket was cause for concern, his next film was cause for grief. Late in his life, Chuck Jones, animator of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, and Tom & Jerry, among many others, complained that most of the "animation" being practiced on children's cartoons was little more than "illustrated radio." Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc is not even good radio. And the Madame Tussaud wax exhibit is more animate than Bresson's Joan.

Depending on which axe one chooses to grind, Joan of Arc was wither a saint, a witch or a madwoman at one time or another in her brief life. I think it is safe to say that she was neither a saint or a witch, however much she may have tried to be either. And her testimony from her trial, which is a fascinating historical document in itself, is proof against insanity. I think that she believed in her voices and visions, but only because she was living in the 15th century, when such things were not uncommon. The difference, of course, is that Joan's voices were pro-French and anti-English, which is why her captors (the English) found it necessary to burn her at the stake. She quickly became a legend to the French, and many of them still believe in the stories of her military exploits. (2) To the British, she was the object of obscene rumors for centuries. She was canonized in 1920, and an astonishing film was made about her trial and execution, Carl-Theodore-Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, in 1928. Bresson thought so little of Dreyer's accomplishment that he thought he could top it. I cannot imagine anyone is his right mind who would think so. Obviously, when one claims, as Bresson did, that one's films have nothing in common with any others, it makes comparisons impossible. If I were to insists that, frame by frame, Dreyer's film is superior to Bresson's, he would have accused me of being so inured to theatrical films that use sets and actors that I was unqualified to properly judge his work. Too many critics have gone for this bait and insisted on treating Bresson's work as if it existed in a vacuum, leaving them nothing with which to compare it. The fact is, Bresson made two films that are undeniably excellent, that provide a standard with which to compare all his other films.

Trial of Joan of Arc uses the very same text that Dreyer used, the words spoken by Joan and her judges, transcribed from the trial itself. Bresson, always avoiding dramatic devices like the plague, shot his film invariably at middle distance from the "action," with utterly flat, television lighting. A typical shot features several people, all looking in the same direction (except Florence Carrez, who is usually staring at the floor), with one person doing all the talking and the others sitting stock-still as if petrified, their only concession to nature being the occasional involuntary blinking of their eyes. Bresson always insisted that this isn't the least bit stylized and that this is how human beings really behave. Since none of his non-actors has an interesting face, Bresson often concentrates on their backs and is as fixated on feet and shoes as Bunuel. (3)

At one point, Bresson uses a single shot of Joan lying supine on a table, surrounded by priests, which is supposed to suggest that she had been tortured. Bresson shot it that way in order to avoid the fakery of having to stage Joan's torture. But what about the fakery of Florence Carrez got up like Joan of Arc in men's clothing and a bunch of talentless French people re-enacting her trial and execution? Bresson was merely being selective with his fakery.

Bresson utilizes one shot, though from a different angle, that directly recalls the Dreyer film: when a white-clad priest extends a cross to Joan on the stake. In the Dreyer film it was Antonin Artaud who performs this beautiful gesture, which in the Bresson is reduced to the barest minimum of feeling and meaning.

In his superb 2003 commentary for the Criterion DVD edition of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, Peter Cowie states that "Poor Bresson has been tarred with many a brush. So many film buffs assume that one has to be an ardent Catholic believer in order to appreciate his cinema." But being a religious believer is not what Bresson's cinema requires of one. What his work requires is a conversion to Robert Bresson and his exhaustively exclusive theories on the art of film. It requires one to become a subject of Hans Christian Andersen's naked emperor - in reverse. Bresson's emperor knows that he is naked - in fact his nakedness is a matter of principle. And his subjects, who reject every other emperor who wears even the most glorious and shimmering raiment, cheer their emperor's pallid and emaciated body in self-flagellating ecstasy.

(1) Bresson had an unrequited passion for Dostoevsky.
(2) As Luc Besson's ludicrous The Messenger (1999) demonstrates.
(3) On her way to the stake, Bresson shows us only Joan's bare feet and the feet of the crowd, and he even stoops to having one of them try to trip Joan as she shuffles past.