Friday, July 24, 2009

The King of Pap

1. "Cardiac arrest" may be a meaningful and useful term for coroners as a cause of death, but to a layman it means nothing more than that Michael Jackson died because his heart stopped.

2. Hyperbole is permissible in eulogies. Some people's lives would seem awfully pointless without it. But just because Michel Jackson was probably the most popular entertainer of his era does not make him the "greatest who ever lived". For the record, Georg Solti personally won 31 Grammy Awards, 12 more than Jackson.

3. The Reverend Al Sharpton should know by now that dying doesn't absolve sins. All it does is bring an end to sinning. And Jackson was strange. Only his fame made it acceptable or excusable.

4. Diana Ross, whose absence from the Staples Center event was conspicuous, paid her respects more respectfully than anyone that day by grieving in private.

5. We don't know when we're going to die. But one of the ways we can measure our distance from that eventuality is when people our own age die. Jackson was three months younger than me.

6. He complained that his childhood was stolen from him. He found his revenge by refusing ever to become an adult. His Neverland Ranch was an obvious nod to Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.

7. My respect for the man grew unexpectedly (I am not a fan) when Brooke Shields pointed out that Jackson's favorite song was "Smile", a song written by my candidate for the greatest entertainer who ever lived, Charlie Chaplin.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Street of Shame

[A five year old piece first written for Senses of Cinema.]

Any serious film director is concerned not only with meticulous representation but also with a kind of drama which must, by its nature, question the ethical rightness of things as they are…. Usually, a director is drawn to situations with maximum dramatic potential. Invariably that potential is provided by strife and friction between the individual and his environment. In the Japanese woman, Japanese directors have discovered the perfect protagonist. This does not mean that Japanese directors are feminists – even Kenji Mizoguchi, though he is often so described. It means rather that these directors in seeking objectivity as well as dramatic revelation have, naturally, shown Japanese women as they are.
– Donald Richie (1)

Kenji Mizoguchi's Akasen Chitai (Red-Light District, 1956) had the misfortune of being tagged with the silly title Street of Shame on its first American release, and it has stuck. Doubtless meant to imply a far more salacious treatment of its subject than Mizoguchi intended, the title has also promoted the prevailing view that he was making a political statement about the class of women he had so tenderly treated through more than 30 years of filmmaking. And while it was probably inevitable that Mizoguchi should return to his favourite subject in his last film (2) – courtesans and their floating world – Street of Shame is one last, devastating look at how life's cruelties are especially hard on women in Japan.

Certainly the image of the Japanese courtesan (even the word is antiquated) had degenerated considerably by the time Street of Shame was made, partly due to the democratic reforms enforced on Japan by the American Occupation Force (3), which imposed a morality alien to the Japanese, but also because the very presence of tens of thousands of American GIs in Tokyo led to the development of a highly lucrative trade in human flesh on a scale previously unheard of even in Tokyo's 300-year-old Yoshiwara district (4).

Made during yet another of the Japanese Diet's debates over its “Anti-Prostitution Bill”, Street of Shame scathingly presents both sides of the bitterly contested argument (5). In the film's first scene, the Mamasan (Sadako Sawamura) of a bar called Dreamland tells a policeman, “Yoshiwara has been here 300 years. Does an unnecessary business last so long?” And her husband, Mr Taya (Eitaro Shindo), who owns the bar, tells the women more than once that “It's we owners who are really protecting you. We run these establishments so you won't starve or commit suicide. We make up for the insufficient welfare policy. We're social workers!” Yet each time he lectures them thus, the women look away pensively.

There is no doubt whose side Mizoguchi is on. One by one, in interwoven detail, he shows us how each of these women live. When Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) finds her husband about to hang himself in their tiny apartment, she scolds him: “Why have we struggled along? We haven't stolen. We haven't committed any crime! But we couldn't live unless I sold myself.” Yet knowing the difficulties of her life (her baby and tubercular husband), the Mamasan reminds her, “Please don't become too haggard. You are for sale.”

Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) has a grown son for whom she has made the sacrifices of her life. She goes to the country to visit him, only to learn that he, too, has gone to Tokyo to find work. A shopkeeper along the bus route tells her, “You can wipe off your rouge but not the make-up of your trade.” When Yumeko finally meets her son outside the toy factory where he works, he disgustedly condemns and disowns her. That night, back in Dreamland, Yumeko breaks down in hysteria and is taken off to hospital.

Yorie (Hiroko Machida) manages to marry and leave Dreamland. The other girls throw her a party and give her the usual wedding gifts. Hanae's husband even exhorts her to never return to her old life, to which she tearfully agrees. But Yorie soon discovers that her husband expects her to be nothing more than an unpaid servant, and she returns to Dreamland humiliated, bitterly exclaiming that “at least we get to spend what we make.”

Then there is the lovely Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), who makes more money than all the others and is always ready to loan them money – as long as it is paid back with interest. She saves everything she earns, bilking two men to the point of their ruin in the process (one of them nearly kills her when she rejects his proposal of marriage). She seems entirely preoccupied with money, until we learn why: her father is in prison and she has ruined her life to bail him out.

Throughout the film, Mickey (Machiko Kyo) tells everyone the brutal truth and is totally cynical about her profession. When her father shows up and demands that she come home, she kicks him out, upbraiding him for his treatment of her dead mother. Divested of her illusions of a rosy future, she takes her life as it comes without the promises of the future or the burden of the past.

The film closes on a note of hope and of heartbreak. Yasumi has used her money to open a bedding and quilting shop that does business with Dreamland. Mr Taya and the Mamasan wonder at her success, without for a moment grasping the cost to her life. Yasumi stops in to greet the other girls “for old time's sake” and glibly tells them that she is also available for loans.

But Mizoguchi doesn't end there. A new girl, Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami) is having her “debut” in Dreamland and the Mamasan gives her advice as she performs the ritual of applying white powder to her face and neck. Shizuko only sits there with her eyes downcast. And it is her anxious face we see in the film's final shot, cowering at the doors of Dreamland, calling out in a crushed voice to men passing in the street.

Mizoguchi returned to Daiei Studios for this film, after intermittent work for Toho, and gathered around him many of his old friends – the production designer Hiroshi Mizutani (who had worked with him since 1933), the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and actresses Michiyo Kogure and Ayako Wakao. After making his inimitable mark as the premiere director of period dramas (jidai geki), he went to some lengths to alter his customary production design in Street of Shame, evoking the squalidness of his setting with a heightened realism not often seen in Japanese films at the time. The brief final scene, in which a young girl must take her first tentative steps into a life that has ruined nearly everyone in the film, is a mark of Mizoguchi's genius – the bar abutting onto the cramped street, innumerable men strolling through it in their oblivious freedom, the girl dressed in her unaccustomed finery, the cries of entreaty (“Come inside, sir!”), all combine to evoke a heartbreaking vision of hell. Except it was only sprawling, labyrinthine Tokyo, circa 1956.

© August 2004

(1) Donald Richie, A Lateral View: Essays on Contemporary Japan, Japan Times, 1987.
(2) Leukemia killed the director shortly after completing the film.
(3) The US occupation officially ended in 1952. The surrender of Okinawa by US Marines didn't occur until 1972. And thousands of US forces still “occupy” Japan to this day.
(4) The very origin of the Japanese word for “foreigner” – gaijin – is often traced to “GI”.
(5) On its release, Street of Shame was a hit in Japan, and it is commonly believed to have been instrumental in the ultimate passing of the Anti-Prostitution Bill.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Groundhog Day

Phil (Bill Murray): "Do you ever have deja vu, Mrs. Lancaster?"
Mrs. Lancaster (Angela Paton): "I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen."

Whatever Sonny Bono and Cher were paid in royalties for the use of their song "I Got You, Babe" in the film Groundhog Day (1993), it couldn't possibly have been enough, since no one who has seen the film can ever hear the song without thinking of Phil Conners being awakened by it a few hundred times at 6 am in his bed & breakfast in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Since its release, this Harold Ramis film has inspired a cottage industry of pseudo-metaphysical speculation among film critics, scholars, and buffs, based on what the film suggests when a clever but misanthropic Pittsburgh weatherman finds himself trapped in a time loop in the small town of Punxsutawney on the day, February 2nd, that local lore says that a groundhog emerges from its burrow and the following six weeks of weather are prognosticated from its seeing its shadow or not. In farmer's almanac terms, fair weather on that day augurs foul weather to come. A meteorologist would explain it in terms of a high pressure system from Canada. But exactly how six more weeks of weather is extrapolated from the weather data of a particular day is still a mystery. So the groundhog's prediction is probably as trustworthy as the National Weather Service's, which still cannot predict with an acceptable degree of accuracy what the weather will be like in the next 24 hours. But that is the curious conflict at the heart of the film - the cocksure scientist (Phil Conners) pitted against a rodent and the townsfolk who celebrate its control over their imaginations.

Who has done this to Phil? And why? Even Phil, after innumerable Groundhog Days, doesn't have an answer: "Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He's not omnipotent. He's been around so long He knows everything." Well, maybe. Rita, Phil's pretty producer (Andie Macdowell, who is just one year older than I), has her own theories: "Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don't know, Phil. Maybe it's not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it." But it's only after he fails, for the umpteenth time, to seduce Rita and fails to kill himself after several attempts (1) and fails to save the old beggar (Les Podewell) from dying because it's "just his time" that Phil decides to find a better use for his never ending day, by reading every book about music he can find and taking piano lessons. Again, Ramis won't specify exactly what turned this worm, but his glib metaphysics is just enough for the purposes of a comedy - even one with such a pseudo-serious subtext.

If anyone isn't convinced of the cruelty of Phil being stranded on a perpetual February 2nd (2), they need only imagine what it must be like for everyone else in Punxsutawney, not knowing that they're just as stuck in groundhog hell as Phil. Sitting in a bowling alley with a pair of the town's heavy drinkers, Gus (Rick Ducommon) and Ralph (Rick Overton), Phil asks them "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing that you did mattered?" To which Ralph wearily replies, "That about sums it up for me."

As a funny man, Bill Murray was always a little too good for laughs alone. Since his Oscar nomination for his semi-serious performance in Sofia Coppola's semi-serious Lost in Translation (2003), he has embarked on a new career as an "actor". Groundhog Day is probably the best of his comedy roles, and he is certainly more likable than usual. Andie Macdowell is pretty and wholesome as Rita, but it would've been nice to see what an actress might have done with the role.

Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin fashioned an excellent script from Rubin's story, and Phil's wisecracks are sufficiently funny to keep the film from taking itself too seriously. But some critics seem determined to turn this effective comedy into something it isn't - into some kind of existentialist statement.(3) Effective, truly funny comedies are rare enough without having to sacrifice one to bogus metaphysics. Woody Allen is one of the most gifted comic writers of his generation, but because he never took his gift seriously - the gift of laughter - he took a questionable detour into territory where his gifts forsook him (Interiors, Stardust Memories, et al). Groundhog Day is a fantasy-comedy that avoids pretension by playing for laughs. And it wins.

(1) Phil tells Rita: "I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. And every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender."
(2) A fun parlor game is estimating how many times Phil relives Groundhog Day. The film supplies a few clues. For example, he tells his "date" before entering a movie theater that he loves the film Heidi II [there is no such film] and that he's seen it "over a hundred times".
(3) As Phil learns with the honey pot Nancy Taylor (Marita Geraghty), some people will believe anything when they want to.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember

Because he knew he probably hadn't much time left, Marcello Mastroianni held nothing back from his companion, Anna Maria Tato, who made the film, Marcello Mastroianni: Mi ricordo, si, io mi ricordo (1997). The result is one of the most moving personal testaments on film - so wistful and thoughtful, yet so unrepentent and proud of a life that he wouldn't have lived any other way, even if it had granted him another few hours or even a few more years of life. So enriched by a life that he chose to live a certain way, as a sensualist devoted to pleasures that sometimes weren't very good for him, Mastroianni refused to shirk the blame. "Let people live and die as they choose," he says at one point, as he puffs away at a cigarette, knowing well enough that they have cut short his life. (He died of pancreatic cancer before the film was released.)

He was not the greatest Italian screen actor, but for more than twenty years everyone wanted him in their films. And because he was Mastroianni, everyone wanted to see them. He was so contemptuous of his Latin Lover image, but he was a strikingly handsome man (even though he complained that his nose was too small).(1) And he was not afraid of either playing old men or of growing old. He mentions how he got the idea of reprising his role of Domenico Soriano, the Eduardo De Filippo character in Marriage Italian Style, but as an old man. And he phoned Sophia Loren to ask her if she would like to play Filumena opposite him again. "But Marcello," she replied, "I'm still young!"

He became Fellini's surrogate in La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), but he was also in the best films of so many other directors, like Bolognini's Il Bel'Antonio (1960), Germi's Divorce, Italian Style (1961), Zurlini's Family Diary (1962), and Monicelli's The Organizer (1963). He was one of Antonioni's few sympathetic male leads in La Notte (1961). He was a marvelous Meursault in Visconti's excellent but near-forgotten adaptation of Camus' The Stranger (1967). And he gave De Sica his greatest commercial successes opposite Sophia Loren in three films, the best of which is the splendid Marriage Italian Style (1964).

He played a homosexual persecuted in fascist Italy (once again opposite Sophia Loren) in Scola's A Special Day (1977). He was funny as an Italian actor struggling to make it in Paris in Yves Robert's undervalued Salut l'Artiste (1973). He was so subtle and dignified as an aging Casanova in Scola's La Nuit de Varennes (1982). He managed to keep his head above the ugliness of Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (1973). And he was great as Pirandello's Henry IV in Bellocchio's otherwise disappointing film.

He wasn't an intellectual, thank goodness. But he was an extremely intelligent man. The best moments in I Remember are when he doesn't talk about films, but when he becomes philosophical, when he speaks about life, and its brevity. "It's ridiculous, when you think about it, around 50 cigarettes a day for 50 years makes almost one million cigarettes. It's enough to cover the sky over Rome. But why? You know it's harmful, and yet you continue. Does it help fill a gap? Even though I admit that it's harmful, I'm sick of Americans. They go too far. What do they want? To put smokers in a ghetto? Let people live and die as they choose."

He is haunted by an old memory of a train ride during the war. The lights had to be extinguished because of possible enemy planes. The train he was on was crowded with people. He lit a cigarette, and for a moment his face was illuminated by the flame. Suddenly someone kissed him passionately in the darkness. "I never saw who she was, if she was young or old. I never saw her. At the first stop, still in the darkness, the whole group got off. I never knew whom I kissed. I'm sure it was a woman, but was she pretty or ugly? In any case, the kiss was beautiful.It lent a romantic aura to my ridiculous journey. How many years have passed? Yet that moment is still present. It's one of my most vivid memories.

He speaks about his life as a "luxury tourist" - choosing roles in films because it will take him to a place (Greece, Russia, Argentina) he had never been before. He knew Proust, but he was also wise enough to expand on him: "Proust said: 'The only true paradises are those we have lost'. Those words are justifiably famous. I should like to add that there may be paradises even more pleasant than lost ones: those we have never seen, the places and adventures that we can sense. Not behind us like lost paradises that fill us with nostalgia, but ahead of us, in a future that one day, like a dream coming true, we shall be able to attain. Maybe the appeal of travel lies in this charm, in this nostalgia for the future. This force makes us fantasize, or fool ourselves, about travelling and finding, in an unknown station, something to change our lives. Perhaps you are no longer young when you are able to regret and love only the lost paradises. . . . As young men, the countries we don't know and dream about seem beautiful and mysterious compared to the places we live in. Perhaps the love of travel in linked to this dream that makes distant places more mysterious and more real than the ones we know."

The film is beautifully photographed by Giuseppe Rontunno, who worked with Mastroianni several times, on some of his best films. Anna Maria Tato had the good sense to place Mastroianni against beautiful landscapes, rivers and mountains, as he speaks of his past. In a strange way, it makes the past almost present in the film. In the last sequence of this very long (198 minutes), but never boring film, Mastroianni is standing with the mountains of Portugal behind him (where he was making his last film). He seems unusually frail, and is wearing a cape over his shoulders. And it is only until the last moment, when he points, that we see he is using a cane. "There's a wonderful tale by Kafka called The Next Village: 'My grandfather used to say that life is amazingly short. When I look back, it is all so condensed in my mind, I can't understand how a young man can ride to the next village without being afraid that the span of time in which a happy life unfolds is far too inadequate for such a ride.'

"When I was young, life seemed long and endless to me. Now, though, when I look back, I sometimes say: 'When did I make that film? Five years ago?' 'Fifteen years ago, you mean!' 'Fifteen tears ago?'

"When a young man mounts a horse for this ride, he thinks it will be an endless, eternal journey. Then, on reaching a certain age, he realizes that the next village wasn't that far away. That it really was a very short ride indeed. Life, at a certain age, you realize it has gone by. And the village is there, so close."

(1) In a famous 1977 interview with Dick Cavett, he confessed that he couldn't possibly be a Latin Lover because he was not "a tremendous fucker." Sophia Loren, who was sitting beside him, tried to excuse his remark because he didn't speak very good English, but Mastroianni defended his choice of words.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Millennium Mambo

The Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1) seems determined to realize on film Nietzsche's famous aphorism, "If thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee." The three films of his that I have seen, Millennium Mambo (2001), Cafe Lumiere (2003), and Three Times (2005), are fascinated, but not fascinating, contemplations of the lives of beautiful nullities. It may be Hou's point that contemporary society provides no opportunities for the cultivation of an inner life, which would certainly account for its conspicuous absence from his films. Or he may simply have chosen his characters for photogenic qualities, which accounts for Shu Qi's appearance at the center of two of the films. Or else Hou is only interested in the formal aspects of filmmaking, regardless of his subjects. In any case, his work has caught quite alot of international attention, along with that of his more interesting countryman, Tsai Ming-Liang.

Millennium Mambo is the story of Vicky, a pretty bar hostess, played with graceful brainlessness by Shu Qi. But the film's ancillary characters, the boyfriend Hao-hao (Chun-hao Tuan), and a mafioso named Jack (Jack Kao). Not to mention Takeuchi Jun and Takeuchi Ko, half-Japanese brothers who take Vicky with them to Hokkaido in February, played by - you guessed right - Takeuchi Jun and Takeuchi Ko. Much is made of the customary moronic behavior in bars, the drunken brawls, the wretched sexual fumbling, and the aggressive, awful music. There is also some care paid in observing the proper way of smoking crack cocaine.

Chu Tien-wen wrote the script, and also co-produced the film. But much of the action and dialogue is apparently improvised. A narrator, who may be none other than Shu Qi, is used to distance the film from the present - our present, that is, since the narrator is speaking from the year 2011: "This happened ten years ago in the year 2001. The world was greeting the 21st century and celebrating the new millennium." Other than a New Year's party at the beginning of the film,(2) this is the one and only reference, directly or indirectly, to the millennium. The narrator tells us of something that happened between Vicky and Hao-hao or Vicky and Jack, and moments later we watch it happen. Tony Rayns translated it all with noteworthy care. It isn't every day that a subtitlist is mentioned in a film's credits. But Rayns is also one of Hou's biggest fans in the West.

The cinematography, by Mark Lee Ping-bing, a.k.a., Pin Bing Lee, is superb. So strange and yet so familiar, he gives the backstreets of Taipei and the snowy town of Yabari, Hokkaido, a fetching beauty. The last shot of the film shows us a snowbound, nocturnal Yabari, with squabbling ravens standing out against the piles of snow. Having visited Hokkaido in January and February 1994, and having lived for awhile in a quite similar landscape of snow and ravens, I couldn't complain when Hou held the shot a few beats longer than necessary as a quiet farewell to Vicky's otherwise frenetic life.

Hou's presence in all this is difficult to detect. Such discretion is usually an indication of the delicacy of the subject - where the slightest intrusion on the material would bruise it. Then again, Hou's infatuation with Shu Qi would also explain how doggedly his camera follows her around. But viewers looking for a point to the expense of one hour and forty-five minutes of their lives (and that's the edited version) will have to look much closer at Millennium Mambo than I was prepared to do.

We see Vicky drinking (too much), Vicky passing out, Vicky throwing up (although we aren't treated to an actual shot of Shu Qi vomiting), etc. I'm not sure how we're supposed to avoid the conclusion that Vicky is a hopeless mess. She goes to Tokyo at Jack's invitation, but Jack never turns up. So Vicky simply hangs around Jack's room in Shinjuku. The narrator points out once again at the end of the film that these events "took place in 2001". The only reason the script needed the narrator speaking to us from the future was to perhaps surprise us with the suggestion that Vicky would still be alive by then. While surprising, the suggestion doesn't bode well for 2011.

(1) Apparently the same practical jokers who transliterate Irish into the Roman alphabet, wherein the name O'Faolain is pronounced Oh-Fay-Lawn, are also responsible for the transliteration of Chinese names.
(2) A magician at the party sets off a noisemaker that produces a pathetically weak pop. He says he got it in China, "a great thing, with not much inside".

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Europa '51

"I do not want to make beautiful films. I want to make useful films." -Roberto Rossellini

In a way, Europa '51, which has enjoyed an upsurge in interest since it was praised by Martin Scorsese in his tribute to Italian film, My Voyage to Italy (1999), is an allegory of Ingrid Bergman's life, before and after she met Roberto Rossellini. According to legend, Bergman had seen the film Rome, Open City (1945) and was so overwhelmed by it that she dropped everything to go all the way to Italy to meet the man who made it. The rest, as they say, is show business history. What that history doesn't tell us is how completely Ingrid Bergman sidetracked Rossellini's filmmaking career. He made six films with Bergman, each one more preposterous than the last. Only when both of their careers were at their nadir did Bergman return to her senses and go back to Hollywood, leaving Rossellini to pick up the pieces of a once committed, if not always rewarding, body of work. The best example of the near-schizophrenic Rossellini-Bergman collaboration was released in 1952 and called, for no apparent reason, Europa '51.

I should point out that, while I accept the historical importance of Open City and, to a lesser extent, Paisan (1946), I found them both unsatisfactory as works of art. And I found Germany, Year Zero (1948), with its German amateurs dubbed with Italian voices, morally urgent but hopelessly confused. The boy's suicide at the film's conclusion was certainly shocking, but otherwise unconvincing. Far from being revelatory of child psychology, Rossellini was simply making a dramatic point at the child's expense. He does it again in Europa '51, and it is a major catalyst of the film's action. But the act is just as unbelievable.

In Europa '51, Ingrid Bergman plays Irene, a glamorous socialite who comes home to a dinner party only to have her young son throw himself down a stairwell. The boy survives the fall but dies soon after of a "blood clot". Understandably grief-stricken, Irene suffers what her husband and friends assume is a mental breakdown when she forsakes her glamorous life and descends into the slums of Rome. Irene and her husband, who works for an "important" American company in Italy (despite being played by the thoroughly English Alexander Knox), have a radical friend who writes for a Communist newspaper. He tells Irene that her son was the victim of their society, a society that allows children to die because their families cannot afford the medicine that would cure them. At his suggestion, she visits the home of one such family with an ailing boy, living six to a room in a housing block, and she gives them the money they need for the boy's treatment. That single visit reveals to Irene a world she never gave a thought to before, but which she returns to, irresistibly, for reasons she cannot even explain to herself. Andre, who obviously wants to do more with Irene than discuss politics, tells her of the socialist paradise on earth, but she tells him she cannot imagine such a paradise that excludes the spiritual dimension, and the souls of all those we have lost. What Rossellini seems to be criticizing in Irene's speech is Socialism's failure to offer a spiritual alternative to the absence of God.

The film doesn't supply us with answers, but it is commendable for asking, however clumsily, the right questions. By following her heart, Irene learns that she can only make herself happy, even if making herself happy isn't her expressed motivation, by making others happy. Her speeches to Andre and to the priest in the asylum where her husband has her committed after she helps a criminal escape, weren't meant to sound dogmatic, but their very vagueness make them seem half-baked. She tells her judge, who alone has the power to set her free, that she doesn't want to join either a religious order or a political party, but that she has no other plans for what to do for the rest of her life except to help those most in need of it. She only knows that she cannot return to her old life. Faced with no other choice, or so the film informs us, she is sent back to her asylum. Her incarceration, like the madwoman in Jane Eyre, so as not to further embarrass her family or the important American company for which her husband works, suggests that her actions are incomprehensible to the society she comes from.

Irene reminded me of the woman (Edna Purviance) in Chaplin's The Kid (1921), who abandons her baby in someone's limousine, only to learn when she has a change of heart that the car was stolen and her baby lost. Years later, the woman is a successful actress and goes to the slums to give away toys to the children (Chaplin had a Dickensian understanding of wealth). So Rossellini's socialite, forsaking her wealth, visits Rome's slums and befriends Passerotto, a poor woman - none other than Giulietta Masina, two years before La Strada would make her world famous, coincidentally as the "Chaplinesque" Gelsomina*, and her brood of children. The last shot of the film shows us Irene looking helplessly through the bars of her asylum at Passerotto and many others she tried to help, standing below in tears, unable to understand why she hasn't been freed.

Whether intentional or not, this film is a kind of primer for political radicalism. Rossellini was trying to show how impossible it is for a rich woman to enter the Kingdom of Heaven on earth that Socialism wants to realize. But looked at coldly, Irene, in her wealth, was in a far better position to help the poor than she would have been even if she had been freed from the asylum. Even if hypocritical, it was only from that position that she was able to help them in the first place. What the man who told us to love our neighbor as ourselves didn't comprehend was that he had uttered a paradox. Such love is a selfless love, a love that wants nothing in return, it is a self-forgetting love, a love oblivious of itself. That is why He said of charity that we should never let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. But Irene tells the priest in the asylum that it isn't love at all that motivates her, but hate - hatred of what she once was.

It is the fact that Rossellini was clearly being serious in making this film, serious about the questions it raises about society, that makes it an ultimate failure. It is far too self-contradictory, too self-absorbed, to be a truly serious statement about the obscene contrast of wealth and poverty. Rossellini leaves his heroine, just as society does, locked away like a lunatic - unable to explain herself or her answers to the insuperable problems of her world. Her fate is not a resolution, but a suspension - the film doesn't end so much as it simply stops in mid-sentence.

*The film was shot in English and Masina was dubbed with a terrible Brooklyn accent. They made her sound like Alice Kramden from The Honeymooners.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Knife in the Water

From the late 1950s, when the first films of Wajda and Munk were exported from Poland, until the late '60s, when the last films of the Czech New Wave were smuggled to the West after they had been banned, filmgoers were fascinated by what was then known as East European Cinema. (1) So many talented filmmakers, like Petrovic and Makavejev in Yugoslavia, Fabri, Jancso and Makk in Hungary, and Menzel and Jires in Czechoslovakia, whose careers were made possible by a thaw in Soviet policies after the death of Stalin, saw those same policies suffer a terrible freeze after Dubcek's fall in 1968 and the crackdown on his "socialism with a human face". It was as if a barred door that had been opened had suddenly been slammed shut again, and the directors who were lucky enough, if you wish to call it luck, to escape, like Forman, Passer, Makavejev and Skolimowski, managed to continue their careers in the West.

Roman Polanski's emigration to the West was due to the success of his very first feature film, in Poland, a cool examination of sexual warfare called Knife in the Water (1962). Never mind that it's still his best film. With a tiny budget and only three actors, Polanski worked a minor miracle. Some of the subtle details of this remarkably subtle film include: Andrzej and Krzystina boarding the boat after they remove their shoes - the hitchhiker simply steps onto the boat without removing his own; Andrzej and Krzystina continually use nautical terms that puzzle the hitchhiker, but emphasize - to him and to us - that he has entered another realm on boarding the ship; the last exchange between Krzystina and the hitchhiker is appropriately impersonal:

She: Ready?
He: Fend off?
She: Yes.
He: Aye, aye. Fend off.

The hitchhiker is allowed one last triumph. When Andrzej leaves his car at the pier on Sunday morning, the hitchhiker asks him, "You leave the windshield wipers?" To which Andrzej replies cocksuredly: "No one will steal them here." When Krzystina returns to the pier on Monday morning, Andrzej tells her morosely "The windshield wipers are gone." Surely, the hitchhiker wouldn't have stolen them, and risk being seen by Andrzej. But one of his like stole them.

I found two references in the film. Polanski and his co-scenarists, Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg probably got the idea for the script from the yacht scenes in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil (1960), in which two men - Maurice Ronet, Alain Delon - one an experienced sailor, the other not, compete for the affections of a woman, Marie Laforet. The woman belongs to the owner of the boat, who christened it after her (Marge - the boat in Knife in the Water is called Cristina). There is even a knife with which Delon is skillful.

The other reference is purely visual: the last shot of Knife in the Water, of the married couple's car stopped undecidedly at the wet crossroads, recalls the opening shot from Juan Antonio Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (1955), in which, after the credits, an old man cycles down a wet road toward a collision with the illicit couple's car.

Polanski's choice of music, a jazz score composed by his friend Krzysztof Komeda, is superb - a lilting blues motif underpinning the lyrical scenes of the boat on the lake.(2)

Everyone loses on this Sunday outing: the hitchhiker loses his precious knife and is beaten, in more than one sense, by Andrzej; Andrzej loses face with Krzystina by trying too hard to humiliate, and believes he has killed, the hitchhiker; and Krzystina, who cuckolds Andrzej with the hitchhiker and teases him with the truth about his fate, remains stuck with him. The long shot of them sitting in their car, going nowhere on a miserably wet Monday morning, says it all.

(1) One of the curious effects of the Iron Curtain was to transform Central Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia. Hungary) into Eastern Europe.
(2) Komeda was a brilliant film composer whose life and career were abruptly cut short. He worked with Polanski, Wajda, Skolimowski, and most notably with the Swedish director Henning Carlsen. Alas, after following Polanski to Hollywood, he suffered head injuries in a road accident there, and died shortly after in Warsaw.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Day of the Parade

In 1991, Carson City, Nevada wanted some Desert Storm veterans to be in their 4th of July parade. A buddy in my Navy unit in Fallon, about an hour's drive east, had been aboard the USS LaSalle in the Persian Gulf, so he was issued desert BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform) for the occasion and three of us accompanied him to Carson City on the day of the parade. There was Mike, who was driving, despite his case-of-beer-a-day habit. There was John, who had been my roommate in a trailer on what had become known as the Rattlesnake Ranch. There was Willie, who was in the parade. And there was me, 33 years old and loving my life more than anyone could ever have known.

The state of Nevada consists of two gambling meccas, Las Vegas and Reno, and open range desert so empty that the U.S. Navy's air warfare ranges, with enough air space for pilots to go supersonic, are located there, in Fallon, which was my excuse for being there. The capitol of Nevada, Carson City, isn't exactly a one-horse town, but it's one of those places where men can be seen wearing cowboy hats because they actually raise cattle and horses. The 4th of July parade route was about ten blocks long, so it was only supposed to last about an hour.

We ate breakfast at Wendy's, only because Fallon didn't have one. Willie used the restroom to change into his desert BDUs. Since the weather was cool on that summer morning, he didn't bother to roll up his sleeves. They put him on a float with some other men and women in uniform, but he stood at the front and was the star attraction. The crowd seemed sparse, but I supposed it was average for Carson City. There was enough pride, though, to make us feel like we were all in the parade.

Later in the afternoon we attended a picnic in the local park, where the fireworks display was going to be staged after dark. It didn't get dark in the high desert until after 9, so we weren't intending to stay. There was the usual barbecue food and plenty of beer. It was early for us, and we had that hour's drive back to Fallon to think about, but we helped ourselves to the offerings anyway. Willie was still wearing the borrowed BDUs. The rest of us were in street clothes, but our haircuts must've given us away.

Some men came over to us, dressed in blue jeans and jean jackets or vests, their hair long and gray, along with their beards. They all had medals on their chests from another, older war. It didn't take me long to guess that they were Vietnam vets who had been in the parade, not up front on the float with Willie, but walking together behind it. They smiled at us and reached out to shake our hands. And one of them said, "Thanks for getting us back in the parade!"

A short time later we were back on U.S. Highway 50, known as the Loneliest Road in America, heading east to Fallon. Mike had just installed a multi-disc changer in the trunk of his new Mustang and I took over the wheel when he crashed in the back seat. The high desert is alkali instead of sand and resembles, in places, the same landscape I'd seen in so many American road movies. As we entered a particularly long stretch of open road, the first unmistakable guitar chords of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" came over the car speakers. It was the perfect music for the moment, just the sound of the music and the desert all around us. Except instead of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding their hogs into America's heartland, with their fuel tanks lined with dope, we were four sailors heading back to a hick town to enjoy the rest of our long weekend.

Some months later, my unit was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for its training of carrier airwings before the war. We dubbed it "nothing done in '91".

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Beware of God

[If road accidents occur more often in a certain place along Philippine highways, instead of erecting a sign warning drivers of a Dangerous Curve or Populated Area, they put up a sign that explains their entire philosophy of life and their relationship with an unforgiving God: Accident Prone Area. Given the number and variety of natural disasters - or "acts of God" - that the Philippines is prone to, I was reminded of an article on the subject by James Wood, former literary editor at The New Republic and author of the novel The Book Against God. When Cebu City's very own Cardinal Vidal (no relation to our own Gore Vidal, apparently) was asked to comment on the A(H1N1) scare, he said with a smile, "God is reminding us that He's still there."]

By James Wood

In April, two people, one in Northern Ireland and one in Alabama, professed a familiarity with the devil. In Northern Ireland, the Rev. Paul Symonds, a Catholic priest, admitted that the new peace agreement might falter because, "Where the spirit of God is at work, the spirit of evil will try to destroy. Satan is still at work in the hearts of some people." Meanwhile, in Alabama, Rick Cooper, a pastor in Tuscaloosa, surveyed the spoliation wrought by a powerful tornado: houses razed, several killed. He told his congregation that their survival was an act of God: "We're not here because we're better.... We're here because he's great. God poured out his grace on us Wednesday night, his kindness and his goodness. When people look around and said, `Well, is God responsible for this?'--by no means, by no means."

Both responses offer awkward and moving testimony to the unpliability of the ancient question: Why does God permit evil and suffering to exist? Both men could hardly avoid falling into the illogicalities and near-heresies that are inherent in what is called theodicy, or the justification of God's relation to human and natural evil. Thus the Rev. Symonds posits a Satan, a force of evil apparently equivalent to God's force of good. And Pastor Cooper verges on the same explanation. After all, if, as Pastor Cooper suggests, God has saved the worshipers of his church, then either God must have decided to abandon those who died when the twister came through, or God simply could not do battle with the superior force of the twister.

Though neither Cooper nor Symonds would admit it, this is close to Manicheanism, named after a third century heretical sect that believed that the force of good is opposed by a force of evil that good cannot control but can merely fight. This idea of two rival principles--God, as it were, resembling a decent but somewhat ineffectual firefighter--predates Christianity and perhaps has its roots in Egyptian paganism. Plato essentially believed in the two principles, as did Zoroaster, Plutarch, and (more complicatedly) the Gnostics.

All these people were struggling, like the Reverends Symonds and Cooper, with the question of why we suffer. The existence of pain and suffering seems either to limit God's power or to qualify his goodness. Either he cannot control this evil (and then he is not all-powerful), or, in some way, he wants it to exist (and then he is not good). David Hume puts it tartly in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"

I was raised in a formidably Christian household. An antique evangelical language (more Matthew Arnold than Billy Graham) sternly governed my childhood: activities were "edifying" or "worthy" (or their opposites). A breach was perhaps inevitable. When it came, at the age of 15 or so, it arose out of the problem of God and evil. Though doubtless philosophically naive, I could find no satisfactory answer to David Hume's negative algebra: it all added up to nothing, to no God. Even then, I could see that Manicheanism was only plausible at the cost of so reducing God's status that "belief" in him would be meaningless.

But, if we cannot be Manicheans, and posit a satanic force at work, then how do we explain a fatal tornado, or fatal terrorists in Northern Ireland? Theology has few responses. The most enduring is that God's ways are incomprehensible. This is Job's lesson. To any thinking person, this answer is an affront and also smacks of a certain pagan stoicism. Another is that we will be rewarded in heaven for our suffering on earth. But most people find this idea unacceptable, if not repulsive, because it is not clear why happiness must be only approached belatedly by the path of suffering rather than tasted originally.

The most sophisticated defense of God's relation to evil is that a world in which we could do no harm to one another would have to be a world without free will and that this would be intolerable. For us to act as moral agents at all, we must have the choice to act immorally. A mindless utopia watched over by an absolutely controlling God would be a repulsive and pointless world. Thus God awarded us free will, knowing that we might misuse it as a very necessity of human life.

Augustine abandoned Manicheanism for the free will argument and developed it into the most powerful of theodicy's weapons. But it crumbles as soon as you squeeze it. First, as the seventeenth-century skeptic Pierre Bayle has put it, why would God bestow a gift that he knows in advance will be abused in such a manner that it will only serve to bring about the ruin of the person to whom it is given? Bayle is very penetrating, but one can go further. All free will arguments rest on the assumption that free will is the greatest good we can possibly have. The best example of this assumption is to be seen in the work of Richard Swinburne, an especially monstrous theologian at Oxford, who argues that physical pain exists to offer the sufferer the great good of choice--"Whether to endure it with patience, or to bemoan his lot."

All free will arguments posit that a world without free will would be a more awful place than the world as we know it, which is merely full of pain. But how can we possibly know this? Suppose that for all of recorded history humans had never known pain or evil, that we had always lived in precisely the utopian prison that the free will arguers fear. If we had only ever lived in such a place, would it seem pointless and colorless to us? Naturally, we would not experience it as such because we would never have known its opposite (a world full of pain, suffering, and free will). Likewise, if no human being had ever been born with hands, we would all have very developed legs, and we could not miss something we had never had. God, presumably, could have created such a world, and it would be the ideal laboratory to observe Jesus's first two commandments: "Love thy God, and love thy neighbor." In other words, free will is clearly important for humans, but why is it important for God?

So, if we are not Manicheans, then we have few available responses to the Alabama tornado or to Ulster terrorism: Either God omnipotently presides over these happenings in some way, or there is no God. But if God omnipotently presides over them, then he presides over our suffering. He watches us drown in our own incomprehension. I'm afraid that I must choose the latter explanation, even if it is not very "edifying."