Friday, August 28, 2009

Too Late the Hero

At the funeral ceremony for his brother Robert, Edward Kennedy quoted at some length a speech that Robert had given to students in South Africa:

"For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort."

There must have been moments when Edward Kennedy wished he had gone out like his illustrious brothers John and Robert. Who can say what John would have amounted to if he had chosen to remain a Massachusetts senator instead of running for president in 1960? He would certainly not have had to live and work under a shadow all his life, as Edward did. Or if Bobby had chosen to remain the senator for New York rather than seek his party's nomination as candidate for president in 1968?

As imprudent as it may seem, one may as well ask the same question of everyone we have lost too soon. Had they lived long enough, would they have been as maligned as Edward was? And yet, by not running for president and by living to a ripe enough old age, Ted Kennedy took the toughest road that a Kennedy has ever taken. His accomplishment was performing the thankless task of administering the ideals that his brothers died for, day after day for nine consecutive terms. His critics would never let us forget the "accident" at Chappaquiddick. It was certainly a factor in his conspicuous lack of presidential ambitions. As an Irish-American, he was mistakenly quick to blame the British for the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, and his views were certainly altered over the years.

John and Bobby were like soldiers fallen in battle, who will forever remain as they were. But there is always a temptation to overvalue what we have lost. The battlefield to which Ted was consigned for 43 years - the floor of the Senate - had its own way of trivializing principles and slowly degrading resolve, assuming that Ted had either. But after seeing his more brilliant and forthright brothers give their last measure of devotion to the Republic, Ted took up his post down in the trenches of the Senate for a much smaller constituency, who alone can tell us how well he served them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Winter Light

Watching an Ingmar Bergman film from the '50s or '60s today is like listening to John Coltrane - a thrilling display of virtuosity that simply has no equal today. This is a piece I wrote for Senses of Cinema's CTEQ Annotations in 2005.

Winter Light

Bergman is the only practising director who can make an eloquent film from a rag, a bone and a hank of hair.
– Vernon Young (1)

Ingmar Bergman's most engrossing and challenging films of the 1950s and '60s invariably explored the ultimately disappointing conflicts between men and women. And yet, the most emblematic image from his entire work is that of the medieval Knight, Blok, confronting the figure of Death on a deserted beach in The Seventh Seal (1957). The international success of that film contributed to Bergman's substantial – and somewhat unwelcome – reputation as a troubled Believer in God and as an artist searching for some meaning to life.

At a deeper level, this agitated groping after an undisclosed Truth was actually closer to a philosophical inquiry for Bergman, however clumsy, toward a compromise with the irreconcilable aspects of experience – the gratifications and frustrations of desire, happiness and despair, pleasure and pain. And if Bergman's compromises seem more than a little bleak, it is thanks to his troubled faith that we have a few of the greatest films ever made.

In Swedish, Winter Light is known as Nattvardsgasterna (The Communicants). The reason for this is made explicit by the first 12 minutes of the film, which presents us with a Holy Communion service in its entirety (2). Bergman uses the service, which is the ritual sharing of the body and blood of Christ, to reveal subtleties of character. In an extremely plain, stark church, made even more remote in place and time by shots of the slate-grey weather outside, we are introduced to the “communicants”: an average-looking young couple (a very pregnant woman who looks straight ahead at us and a tall man beside her who stares nervously at the stones in the church floor); a hunchback who sings the hymns quietly but who follows the service word for word in his prayer book; a rather frumpish, bespectacled woman gazing distractedly at the pastor. One by one they come forward to partake of the bread and wine, stand-ins for the body and blood of Christ supposedly sacrificed for their sins – devoutly, anxiously or greedily, further elaborating Bergman's emphasis that each of these people derives something different from the service.

As subsequent scenes reveal to us, the pastor is Tomas Ericsson, suffering from the flu and a sudden, devastating loss of faith. The young couple are fisherman Jonas Persson and his wife Karin. The hunchback is Algot Frovik, living on his disability cheques and a small stipend from the church. The frumpish woman is Marta, who has been Tomas' mistress for two years. Each of them wants a piece of Tomas, either for solace or encouragement or love. And poor Tomas, who cannot break through “God's silence”, has nothing left to give to any of them.
The remainder of the film represents three hours in the lives of these people, as Tomas tries to fend off their demands on his time and faith and journeys to an even smaller and more remote church for the three o'clock service. And along the course of Tomas' passage through his dark day of the soul, he somehow finds a reason to continue, to intone the same words of his presiding ritual to a church empty but for his mistress, who is only there to worship him and not the symbols on the altar. At the last, Bergman offers no consolation for Tomas' troubled faith, except perhaps the persistence of habit, of a ritual devoid of meaning except as a simple enunciation of pain.

Winter Light was the second part of what became known as a trilogy of “chamber films”, along with Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963). Of the three, Winter Light comes closest to the description – a true chamber piece for two or three instruments, Pastor Tomas, Marta, Jonas. And though drastically drained of tangible human content, it at least puts us in the company of people instead of symbols in a dramatic exercise. Vernon Young summed up the film succinctly: “Winter Light concerns the faith problem of a visibly human and fully dimensional pastor in north Sweden involved in a despairing struggle not only with his belief but with a woman he can't love who loves him” (3).

The exterior shots of a bitterly cold, lifeless world reinforce the sense that these people live in an uninhabitable world, not hospitable even to a bird. Sven Nykvist experimented with much low-angle direct lighting to capture the peculiarly northern look of daylight that is actually a prolonged twilight between a late dawn and an early dusk – the sun unable to reach far enough above the horizon to illuminate latitudes that have effectively “gone under” for a prolonged sleep.

Technically, the film is flawless – no single shot could be removed without damaging the overall effect. It is as if Bergman assembled the raw materials to tell his story, as raw as he could make them, then placed them in front of Sven Nykvist's camera with as little emphasis as possible. That said, the film contains three powerful performances – Gunnar Björnstrand's lost and frail Tomas, Ingrid Thulin's frustratedly loving Marta and Max von Sydow's tormented Jonas. Bergman himself admitted in an interview:

I think I have made just one picture that I really like, and that is Winter Light. That is my only picture about which I feel that I have started here and ended there and that everything along the way has obeyed me. Everything is exactly as I wanted to have it, in every second of this picture. (4)

(1) Vernon Young, Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos, David Lewis, New York, 1971, p. 210.

(2) Though I'm more familiar with the Roman Catholic liturgy, Bergman's High Lutheran liturgy is verbatim with the one I remember from countless childhood Sundays.

(3) Vernon Young, p. 203.

(4) Cited in John Simon, Ingmar Bergman Directs, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1972, p. 17.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bring On the Empty Orchestras

Though the word karaoke (literally "empty orchestra") is Japanese, and a drummer named Daisuke Inoue is generally credited with its invention, it was a Filipino who patented a machine which he called Minus One, which Filipino musical performers carried with them throughout Asia. Although the Japanese disputed it, Roberto Del Rosario was granted a patent for his karaoke machine in 1983. So, when the first time machine is invented and we are at last allowed to travel back in time, remember that it is Mr. Rosario, and not Inoue, who should be shot in the cradle.

Until that eventuality, karaoke will remain immensely popular here in the Philippines. For Filipinos, the object of karaoke is not to sing well, although they enjoy good singing as much as anyone else. Once anyone gets his hands on a microphone and performs the usual sound test by saying "hello hello", the object of karaoke is to sing one's heart out. If it often sounds like screaming to an unaccustomed listener, it is only because of all the force of pent-up emotion, electrically amplified to several decibels above eardrum-splitting, that has no other outlet.

And so, what you hear when a Filipino picks up the microphone is a week's - or a lifetime's - worth of forbearance, unexpressed feelings, and swallowed replies, all coming out in the words and approximated music of some platitudinous popular song. The singer might not hit a single note squarely, but if his heart is in his throat, as it will be when the tuba or Red Horse or ginebra kicks in, you will not hear as much passion in La Scala, the Paris Opera and The Met rolled into one overloaded karaoke player.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Keeping Up With the Joneses

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, color TV was the latest thing, but my family only had a black & white set. We were living in an upper-lower-middle income neighborhood in Albany, Georgia on Waddell Avenue, and my mother could not keep me at home in the evenings because I was watching color TV in a neighbor's house. I didn't realize it, but I was causing my mother embarrassment for not possessing the latest appliance. My father said it was because she had "a champagne appetite on a beer income." So, in classic keeping up with the Joneses fashion, my mother thought she had no other choice but to buy a color TV. As I grew up, I saw her make many more such "choices" - without knowing that, living as we did always on the frontier of prosperity, there were really no choices in the matter.

Here in my Philippine barangay, there is a shack just across a small clearing in front of my house that sits at an odd angle not five feet away from the side of a cinder block house with the words Sanosa's Family in large white letters on the front wall. From the size and the look of this shack, one could easily mistake it for a tool shed. Except that five people call this shack home - a young couple, Serena and Roque, and their three children, ages six months to eight years.

Until last March the shack was made of grass. Now only the grass roof remains and the walls have changed into cinder block and wood, with windows and a sturdy door. In May a television arrived, to sit on a small table, the only furniture the one-room house will allow. The family sleeps on a mat on the dirt floor. At the end of July, electricity was connected to the shack. And a few days later a karaoke player was a finishing touch.

Serena, does nothing but care for the children, cook and clean. Roque makes everything possible - the shack, the electricity, the TV and karaoke - by pedalling a pedicab for five pesos a ride around the port town five kilometers away.

To discover what started all this hard work and sacrifice for these incremental home improvements, one would have to go back a year, when the shack was grass, and when the Sanosa household made their unhappiness at its proximity to their more imposing home with a garden and a gate. This unhappiness would bubble abruptly to the surface and confrontations occurred. When I first witnessed one I was astonished. Whenever there are such shouting matches in the barangay, people gather around at a safe distance to watch. Three Sanosa sisters, imperious in their mid teens, would stand in front of Serena'a house and scream at her, that she was poor and that her house was an eyesore. Serena would look at them with bewilderment and rage until she would shout back at them "Yes! We are poor! But we are not proud!" The Sanosa daughters, not comprehending her noble words, simply laughed at her. At nights, I could hear Serena crying to her husband, behind her closed grass door.

Thanks to the windfall of a few thousand pesos, a modest lotto jackpot, the Sanosas spent every centavo acquiring a dependably loud karaoke player and a large TV, paid for in installments. And they would play music loudly late into the night, with Serena's husband and children trying to sleep five feet away in their shack. So I was not altogether surprised, and even heartened, to see the recent improvements to Serena's household. That is until I discovered the true reason for them. As incredible as it may sound, last year Serena and her husband started to save money just so they could prove the Sanosas wrong. I don't believe the Sanosas themselves are even aware of it. Their cruel words to Serena had a lasting effect that they could not have foreseen. And every one of the additions to Serena's house came about as a consequence of her family subsisting on a diet of nothing but dried fish and rice. Every day, week in and week out. Some believe it is because Serena doesn't know how to cook anything else.

Now there is loud karaoke emanating from the shack in front of the Sanosa house until late in the night. The Sanosa's have fallen on meagre times. Their electricity has been shut off three times because they haven't been able to pay their bill on time. And their TV was repossessed because they couldn't pay the installments.

Serena must have been gratified, but she didn't show it. How much longer this sad contest will go on depends on the endurance of Roque's legs, the limits of a pedicab's range and how much greater their appetite for noise-making appliances becomes on their dried fish and rice income. But like everyone else in the world, subject to the same demands of consumerism, they too may be without much of a choice any more.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

As He Pleased

As I wrote in my February 25 post, from 3 December 1943 until 4 April 1947, George Orwell contributed a weekly column called As I Please to the Tribune newspaper. He was allowed ample space to comment on, as you can guess, whatever he wished. His column appeared in eight editions of the paper and shortly before his abrupt departure from the post - to enter a hospital in Glasgow - he wrote a summation of his relationship with Tribune, which had gone through a few changes since the end of the war and the election of a Labour government in England, in a column he called "As I Pleased." On a cheerily optimistic note, he wrote: "I hope that in 1957 I shall be writing another anniversary article." He was writing, of course, as much about his own survival as the paper's.

The following is from his 20th column, dated 14 April 1944.

Attacking Mr. C.A. Smith and myself in the Malvern Torch for various remarks about the Christian religion, Mr. Sidney Dark grows very angry because I have suggested that the belief in personal immortality is decaying. "I would wager," he says, "that if a Gallup poll were taken seventy-five per cent [of the British population] would confess to a vague belief in survival." Writing elsewhere during the same week, Mr. Dark puts it at eighty-five per cent.

Now, I find it very rare to meet anyone, of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in his hands, a fairly large number (I am not so free with my percentages as Mr. Dark) would admit the possibility that after death there might be "something." The point Mr. Dark has missed is that the belief, such as it is, hasn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia. Belief in the next world does not influence conduct as it would if it were genuine. With that endless existence beyond death to look forward to, how trivial our lives here would seem! Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer? Ever very devout Christians will make jokes about Hell. They wouldn't make jokes about leprosy, or R.A.F. pilots with their faces burnt away: the subject is too painful. Here there springs into my mind a little triolet by the late G.K. Chesterton:

It's a pity that Poppa has sold his soul,
It makes him sizzle at breakfast so.
The money was useful, but still on the whole
It's a pity that Poppa has sold his soul
When he might have held on like the Baron de Coal,
And not cleared out when the price was low.
It's a pity that Poppa has sold his soul,
It makes him sizzle at breakfast so.

Chesterton, a Catholic, would presumably have said that he believed in Hell. If his next-door neighbour had been burnt to death he would not have written a comic poem about it, yet he can make jokes about somebody being fried for millions of years. I say that such belief has no reality. It is a sham currency, like the money in Samuel Butler's Musical Banks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Revolutionary Road

"Tell me the truth, Frank. Remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what's so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is however long they've lived without it. No one forgets the truth, Frank. They just get better at lying." - Kate Winslet, as April Wheeler

The "truth" in the case of Frank and April Wheeler, whose drama is the subject of Revolutionary Road (2008), is that they haven't found happiness, and the prospects of finding it in the suburbs of Connecticut in 1955 will only get worse. Based on the first novel (1961) by Richard Yates, who was a kind of latter-day (and lesser) George Gissing, a chronicler of civilization's discontents, the film handicaps itself from the start by glossing over April's failure as an actress, which is the best explanation available for her subsequent actions, and which is made much of in the novel. All the director, Sam Mendes (who also happens to be Mr. Kate Winslet), allows us to see of this central disappointment in April's life is the look of chagrin on Frank's (Leo Di Caprio's) face at the curtain call of April's performance in a high school auditorium (1), everyone's polite avoidance of the subject backstage, and April's private tears in the dressing room. Driving home, Frank's words of consolation make matters worse and the couple pull off the road for an argument that reveals more resentment than either of them knew was there.

From that moment the couple begin to drift apart. April is the catalyst because she is so purposeful. Frank, unfortunately, has grown comfortable with his morning commute. (One of the first indications that we are glimpsing a lost world comes early in the film on Frank's train trip to the city. When all the passengers disembark at Grand Central, everyone in the shot, mostly men, is wearing a hat.) April must stay at home, and the shot of her standing at the end of her driveway gazing forlornly down the empty street - incidentally called Revolutionary Road -, every driveway with its silver garbage can, is a potent illustration of how lost she is in that prosperous perfection, where everything has its place, even hopelessness.

There is plenty of alcohol in the film, from hungover co-workers to martinis at lunch and scotch after dinner. And the cigarettes are ubiquitous. Dreamworks actually placed a disclaimer in the end credits, stating that they "did not receive any payment or other consideration . . . for the depiction of tobacco products in the film". That anyone would suspect, in 2008 that they had set out to represent smokers in a favorable or even glamorous light is somewhat astonishing.

What is it exactly that makes the Wheeler's life in the suburbs such a nightmare? The paucity of intellectual pursuits? As photographed by the incomparable Roger Deakins (Pascali's Island, The Village, No Country For Old Men), designed by Kristi Zea (Goodfellas, Beloved), and costumed by Albert Wolsky (Sophie's Choice, Bugsy, Road to Perdition) I didn't see anything about their lives that was particularly terrible. Perhaps their early days in bohemian Greenwich Village made them make the mistake of thinking they were cut out for intellectual or artistic success, and not the materialist trap they find themselves in ten years later? But that they should agree that their lives are empty and that they must abandon everything - the boring good job, the boring beautiful house - and traipse off to Paris comes as a completely unconvincing surprise, to us and to everyone they know. The only other person who approves of their plan is a self-proclaimed certified lunatic. John Givings (Michael Shannon), who has undergone numerous electro-shock treatments, is like the Fool in King Lear (or so we are expected to think), who speaks the truth but whom nobody takes seriously. His schizophrenia, as the book specifies, was the result of his own hopelessness in the suburbs.

In his sensitive essay on Yates's novel (2), Christopher Hitchens outlines why he now finds the book "dated": "How can people bear to suffer so much, one keeps wanting to ask, when no great cause is at stake? . . . The proposed move [to Paris] is so central to the action of the book that one regrets to find it unconvincing." The film compounds the problem by recreating suburban life in Connecticut in all its 1950s freshness and its well-groomed glory. Yates used this surface beauty as a kind of mocking contrast to the hopelessness at its heart. But it was so much easier for him to capture it in words. All we get in the film are those perfectly clipped lawns and beautiful cars constructed like tanks (when the Wheeler's have their side-of-the-road argument, Frank injures his hand when he punches the unyielding roof of his car, and later April has sex with Shep Campbell in his front seat!). Yates gives the period setting an all-too convincing reality and a poignance, even when it cannot commiserate with the lives playing themselves out thereagainst: "The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves … A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place."

Since this is April's story, the film appropriately belongs to Kate Winslet. She is something of a wonder in contemporary film. The splendid roles which she is routinely offered now are only there because someone like her is around to play them. One could not say as much even for Meryl Streep in her heyday. She manages to communicate something of what Hitchens attributes to Yates: "If [he] had one talent above all, it was for conveying the feeling of disappointment and anticlimax, heavily infused with the sort of embarrassment that amounts to humiliation."

Beside Winslet, Leo DiCaprio is merely competent as Frank. He has struggled so valiantly, hasn't he, to convince us these past ten years that he can play a man. He is getting there. Kathy Bates is wonderful as Helen Givings, the Wheeler's ultimately silly neighbor and mother of John, who had such high hopes that the Wheelers would bring a touch of class to Revolutionary Road. The film closes with her husband (Richard Easton) listening, but not listening, to her prate on and on about how the new residents of the Wheeler's house are such a perfect couple and the "right" people.

Sam Mendes has such a sterling reputation as a theater director that it is a shame he cannot make a good film. I never blamed him, as some critics did, for American Beauty (1999). That film's great weakness was its script by Alan Ball, who has returned to television where he obviously belongs. For giving us another chance to marvel at his wife, we can be thankful to Mendes. Perhaps it would've been too much to ask for a better film?

(1) The play was The Petrified Forest.
(2) Hitchens' article can be found here:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Burden of Dreams

If only because Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is a better, though flawed, film than Francis Ford Coppola's elephantine pipe dream, Apocalypse Now, the film documenting its arduous creation, Burden of Dreams (1982) is more rewarding than Hearts of Darkness, which chronicled the making of Coppola's film, which was then the most expensive film ever made.

In Les Blank's film, Herzog describes how he came up with the story:

"It's a strange story, a little bit Sisyphus-like . . .The title is derived from an Irish name, Fitzgerald, the leading character's name is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald. And since nobody could pronounce his name in the Amazon here, he calls himself "Fitzcarraldo" and he also founds a town with the name Fitzcarraldo.There was a historical figure whose name was Carlos Fermin Fitzcarraldo, a caucho baron. I must say, the story of this caucho baron didn't interest me so much. What interested me more was one thing he did, that he crossed an isthmus from one river system into another with a boat. They disassembled the boat and put it together again on the other river. And that intrigued me to write a story about big opera in the jungle and about a man who wants to bring Caruso into Iquitos [Peru] and build a huge opera house."

Originally cast with Jason Robards in the title role and Mick Jagger as a half-demented sidekick, shooting in the Amazon was 40% complete when Robards came down with amoebic dysentery so severe that, under doctor's orders, he had to withdraw from the project. And while Herzog was back in Germany reassuring investors and looking for a replacement for Robards, Jagger himself announced that Rolling Stones commitments made it impossible for him to continue his participation in the project. So Herzog decided to simply eliminate Jagger's character from his script and told his backers, who cannot have found his words very encouraging, "If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project."

Is there a good reason why risking more than just one's investors' money and one's reputation in the making of a film - especially a film that exists almost entirely in it exteriors - important? Most viewers, unaware (and uncaring) of Herzog's gargantuan labor, will see only what is presented to their eyes by the finished film. But is it important that Herzog chose not to shoot the film on a quiet, well-explored and accessible tributary of the Amazon? There was one, in fact, near his base cape in Iquitos, Peru. Is it important that he chose to shoot a real ship being hauled up a real mountain, instead of a scale model on a string sliding up an ant hill? Herzog explained that his choice of remote locations would bring something special out of his actors. But does it ultimately matter a damn what his cast and crew went through to get his film finished? Does it make Fitzcarraldo a better film?

Sadly, the answer must be no. Even knowing all of the perils the cast and crew endured cannot improve the work itself, the film we see. But one of the signal glories of film is catching within its frame images of the real. And what could be more real than Herzog's Amazon, fraught with perils that would make Indiana Jones soil his cargo pants? The ecology of the Amazon basin has been threatened with the destructive invasion of settlers and loggers (not to mention missionaries) for many decades. Early in Burden of Dreams, the narrator states matter-of-factly that "The Amazon jungle is disappearing fast. Every month, 8,000 square miles are cut down. At the present rate, by the year 2010 the entire Amazon Basin will be cleared." Mathematical probabilities are sometimes a little mistaken, I suppose. That the Amazon Basin is still relatively intact in 2009, despite the continuing destruction, is something of a wonder in itself. In a burst of his own hyperbole, Herzog boasted that "In this case we will probably have one of the last feature films with authentic natives in it. They are fading away very quickly. And it's a catastrophe and a tragedy that going on and we lose cultures and individualities and languages and mythologies and we'll be stark naked at the end. We'll end up like all the cities in the world now, with skyscrapers and a universal kind of culture like the American culture."

Fans who are acquainted with his ecological work might find some of Herzog's comments, in the middle of the jungle, surprising:

"Of course we are challenging nature itself, and it hits back. Kinski always says it's full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain. It's an unfinished country, it's still prehistorical. The only thing that is lacking is the dinosaurs here. It's like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It's a land that God, if He exists has created in anger. It's the only land where creation is unfinished. Taking a close look at what's around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation - we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."

One of the impossible tasks Herzog set for himself in the making of the film was the hauling of a ship up a grade so steep that his first engineer only gives him a 30% chance of succeeding. And he warns him of the risk to life and limb. Herzog tells him in Blank's documentary: "The central image of my film is that they haul a ship over what's essentially an impossibly steep hill. If I lose that by using a level terrain, like the Panama Canal, I lose the central metaphor of my film. For this reason, I'd like to take a bit greater risk than what you advise." The engineer quit.

At one point in Blank's film, he deliberately confuses fact with fiction. While filming Kinski as Fitzcarraldo dancing joyously as his ship is being pulled up the mountain, a steel coupling is sheared off and the ship slides all the way back to where it started. Blank intercuts shots of bodies being pulled out of the mud and for a moment it looks like they are dead. But then they open their eyes and smile. Blank was using action from Herzog's film. The mix-up of fantasy and reality was, of course, Herzog's biggest problem. He was becoming Fitzcarraldo. The only difference was that Herzog succeeded in finishing his film, nearly four years after preproduction began. But that success was itself spoiled for Herzog - if we are to believe him - by the human cost: "If I believed in the Devil, I would say the Devil was right here and is still right here. It becomes very questionable because people have lost their lives, people have been in a plane crash and five of them in critical condition, one of them paralyzed. And those are all the costs that you have to pay. It could have hit me, or anyone. And one starts to question the profession itself. Even if I get that boat over the mountain and somehow I finish that film, you can congratulate me and talk me into finding it marvelous. Nobody on this earth will convince me to be happy about all that. Not until the end of my days."

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Ghost of Henri Langlois

"Since like everybody else, I was full of silly prejudices I missed out on incredible things. Salome with Theda Bara was for sale. I thought, 'Fox, Theda Bara, American spectacle...who needs it?' Now the film is lost forever. It was probably quite good. From that point on, through trial and error, I saw that people, intent on triage, who think they have taste, me included, are idiots. One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what's of value." -Henri Langlois

Obviously, film archivists (and Langlois was one of the first) are the opposite of film critics. Whatever faculties the critic uses to discriminate good from bad, the archivist must ignore. The result, for the Cinematheque Francaise, was an archive of over 50,000 films. It is simply incredible that Langlois could've watched them all. (1) That he probably did is one measure of the man's devotion to the medium. In my own lifetime, I would guess that 10,000 is the most I could've seen, but that number is probably too high. And the thought of all the horrors I had to sit through before I had seen something that made all that wasted time worthwhile makes me shudder. The problem is, unlike every other medium except music, slumming is too often a necessary part of filmgoing, especially for a critic.

Though it is a little surprising that the idea of preserving films took so many years to take shape, it is not at all surprising that so few people cared about the fate of films that were no longer in circulation. For the vast majority of films, then and now, there was a kind of planned obsolescence, at least in the positive print, just like any other manufactured goods. Because there were so many films in circulation, and a limited number of venues to exhibit them, they were allowed a limited run in which they could be viewed, and then they were either destroyed or shelved with the intention of eventual destruction.

Starting with a film club in 1936, Langlois met plenty of people who saw the need for preserving films but none of them, especially those in government, had a practical appreciation of the logistical problems or were forthcoming with funding. Unperturbed, Langlois managed to convince the right people to help, and his collection was born. During the war years, when the Germans were seeking out and destroying certain significant films, like Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1931), Langlois used ingenious subterfuges to acquire them and then hide them. He used a tiny 80-seat theater to screen three films a day from 1948 on, attracting young people who would eventually become critics for a film magazine founded by Andre Bazin (2) in 1951 that transformed French film criticism, Cahiers du Cinema. And many of these critics, Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, would go on to transform French film itself in the Nouvelle Vague.

What made Langlois so appealing to the Cahiers group was the obvious fact that, like them, he was a fan - a devoted lover not of the art of film but of films - all films whether good or bad. The Cahiers crowd proved that the only thing a bad film needed to be good was a good review. So between them, Langlois and Cahiers du Cinema, they made artists out of time clock punchers like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman and spent entire weeks and months of their lives devouring every film directed by Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway. Langlois helped create not a way of seeing films but a way of consuming them. He told his young followers (according to Jean Rouch) that, if they wished to become filmmakers, they should "eat 300 films" a year, sitting smack in front of the screen.

Max Tessier claims "I went nearly every night [to Langlois' screenings] and subsisted on sandwiches. Real life vanished and reel life took over." Raphael Bassan, journalist and director, who, the credits assure us, has seen more than 30,000 films states: "It's always ruled my life, to the exclusion of all else. I've tried to step back the past three or four years to absorb a bit. It was an all-consuming passion. Even if you were with a girl, if a rare film was on at half-past midnight, then you'd leave that woman's bed to see it."

The ideas outlined by Francois Truffaut in his 1954 essay "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français", aren't half bad. But even Andre Bazin saw its excesses, and pointed them out in his own essay "On the Auteur Theory" (1957). It was Truffaut who coined the term "la politique des auteurs" which became the "Auteur Theory" thanks to Andrew Sarris' clumsy translation. Serge Toubiana, current director of the Cinematheque Francaise, put it this way: "The notion of authorship certainly took on visibility [in Langlois' screenings] and became obvious to Truffaut as a critic in the 1950s because Langlois reinforced the auteur theory by showing everything an auteur made, even long-ago artists. The idea was afoot that each individual film contributes to an auteur's body of work. Which differs from the now-current, somewhat mistaken notion of 'the director'. That's not quite right. An auteur isn't a director. It's someone who has a vision for each film, but also from film to film."

Corpulent, epicene, Langlois was a strange sort of midwife at the birth of the New Wave. As Rohmer explained, Langlois "taught us nearly everything we know". So it was only fitting that they should have come to his defense in the absurd events of '68, when the French government tried to pull his creation, the Cinematheque, out from under him. With the most amorphous convictions, aimed at nothing more but those in power, the demonstrations that followed, the tussles with riot police, the passionate and ludicrous public statements, proved just how committed French cineastes could be when their vanity was threatened. Langlois refused to comment - or, rather, stated he wouldn't comment: "I never wanted to talk about the "Langlois Affair". I don't want to go into the subject as long as I live, I'll come back as a ghost and I'll talk about it." Hence, Jacques Richard's title for his film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois (2005).

Considering how many enemies Langlois made in government agencies that he had fought with for so many years to help him run his utterly unmanageable collection, it is surprising to see how peevish his supporters are about the manner of the government's assistance. But it was, after all, such a uniquely French idea - collecting films out of purely personal zeal until the collection becomes too enormous to handle oneself, and then expecting the government to get involved in something it had never considered worthwhile.

Langlois was at work, as usual, when he died, without a sou, at the age of 62 on January 13, 1977. His coffin, since he was by then heavier than ever, was enormous. And at the funeral his widow, the formidable Mary Meerson (3) showed grief to some while arranging to evacuate films from the Cinematheque with others. There was an obscene tug-of-war over his Musee du Cinema until a fire in '97 conveniently settled the dispute. It was moved, its elements intact but without Langlois' spatial design. With Langlois gone, there was no one to stand in the government's way any more.

Jacques Richard closes his film on a sad note: "The 40-year saga of Henri Langlois was carried along by the unchained, voracious and unlimited passion of one man. Will the secret recipe that drew several generations be found one day like the lost alchemy of Jean Vigo? How will tomorrow's youth learn about cinema, its history and essence? Perhaps Langlois' ghost will visit them one day like Nosferatu reconciled with Sunrise. Like a program imagined by Henri Langlois."

(1) 50,000 films would require one to watch three every day for more than 45 years.
(2) Strangely, Jacques Richard's film never mentions Bazin.
(3) Meerson died in 1993.

Friday, August 7, 2009

John Hughes

I cannot think of anything especially nice to say about John Hughes, who died Thursday of a heart attack in Manhattan. Except that I enjoyed, over the years, some of the company I kept when I watched his films. He had nothing to do with the good memories that Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), or Home Alone (1990) engendered and which they still conjure up for me when I happen to see them again. But that is the trouble with popular culture (pace Michael Jackson): it's always there in the background of our lives whether we like it or not - providing an always innocuous but not entirely welcome accompaniment. One song, one movie will fit just as aptly as any other. We often have no say in what happens to be playing at our most memorable moments. Chance is the only guide (or what my father would've called luck). There is never any choice, unless one lives far enough away, or is insulated in a cork-lined room, from popular culture that one can program one's accompaniments. But who can honestly say they want to live like that? Or only occasionally? So thank you, John Hughes, for the memories. Maybe I should've been watching Antonioni or Ozu. But then there would've been fewer friends with whom to share the films again. And again.

Monday, August 3, 2009

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The Japanese city of Hiroshima is invariably associated in people's minds with the atom bomb that was dropped there on August 6, 1945. It will probably be a very long time before it becomes just another place name, like Osaka or Indianapolis. But not if the Japanese have anything to say about it. While the average Japanese probably could not tell you the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor, despite its living "in infamy", he could without hesitation tell you the date on which Hiroshima was destroyed.

In Japan there are no war memorials - only peace memorials. (1) That is why they refused to join in the many commemorative celebrations that took place all across the Pacific in 1994-95 on the 50th anniversary of the many battles of liberation that gradually pushed the Empire of Japan back within its own borders. (2) But every year on August 6, the city of Hiroshima remembers, and reminds the world, that they were the victims of the first atomic bomb dropped on a populated city, on human beings. And every year American tourists visit Hiroshima and some of them are moved to apologize, tears in their eyes, for dropping the Bomb on such an evidently peace-loving people.

Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Germany, expressed his view that the Bomb was a blatant act of "genocide". He even likened it to the Nazi's Final Solution, calling the Bomb a portable gas chamber. Vonnegut was almost right, except that the Bomb was intended to prevent a genocide - which would've been a possibility if it had become necessary to invade the main Japanese islands.

You cannot make sense of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima (or even the second bomb on Nagasaki) if you isolate the event from its historical context. Japan was beaten in August 1945, but its leaders were preparing to repulse a direct assault on the Japanese heartland - the islands of Honshu and Kyushu - instead of looking for terms of surrender. We now know that the eventual Japanese surrender was not unconditional, that one of the terms was the immunity of the Emperor (Hirohito) from prosecution for war crimes.

The position that the Bomb should never have been dropped becomes indefensible when its alternative is considered. It wasn't simply the Japanese military - its armies, tanks, and warplanes - that had to be defeated, but the government that commanded it, which had already informed the Japanese population to prepare itself for invasion and was clearly prepared to fight to the last man, woman, and child. If you have read Masuji Ibuse's great novel about Hiroshima, Black Rain, or if you have consulted other sources, you would know about the training of Japanese civilian "self defense" forces with bamboo spears for the inevitable hand-to-hand fighting against the Allied invaders.

Paul Fussell, author of the compelling book The Great War and Modern Memory, was convinced that the Bomb probably saved his own life and possibly millions of others by convincing the Japanese that they were facing extinction if they did not capitulate. Fussell expressed this conviction, which has since been reinforced by declassified war documents, in an essay first published in 1981 called "Thank God for the Atom Bomb". He wrote that "The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the war." Fussell was in the 45th Infantry Division in 1945, which was being prepared for the invasion of Honshu when news of the atom bombs was announced: "When the bombs dropped and news began to circulate that 'Operation Olympic' would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all. When the Enola Gay dropped its package, 'There were cheers,' says John Toland, 'over the intercom; it meant the end of the war.'” (3)

The suggestion that there is simply no justification whatsoever for using the Bomb ignores every historical event from the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 right up to the morning the Bomb was released over Hiroshima. (4) As Fussell concluded: "The predictable stupidity, parochialism, and greed in the postwar international mismanagement of the whole nuclear problem should not tempt us to mis-imagine the circumstances of the bomb’s first “use.” Nor should our well-justified fears and suspicions occasioned by the capture of the nuclear business by the mendacious classes (cf. Three Mile Island) tempt us to infer retrospectively extraordinary corruption, cruelty, and swinishness in those who decided to drop the bomb. Times change. Harry Truman was not a fascist, but a democrat. He was as close to a real egalitarian as we’ve seen in high office for a very long time. He is the only president in my lifetime who ever had the experience of commanding a small unit of ground troops obliged to kill people. He knew better than his subsequent critics what he was doing. The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even before they are simplified."

The only conceivable argument against the Bomb, is the same argument against war itself, that only when war is eliminated as an option in international relations can people at last discover the true meaning of peace. That was the intention of the United Nations, which failed from the outset because, in 1945, neither superpower was prepared to give up any of its sovereignty. As long as war remains an instrument of national policy by other means, nuclear arms will be with us. George Orwell wrote in 1946: "It is obvious that any Government that is unwilling to use force must be at the mercy of any other Government, or even of any individual, that is less scrupulous - so that the refusal to use force simply tends to make civilized life impossible."(5)

So when Americans shed tears in Hiroshima this Thursday, which they certainly will, they should be crying for humanity and not for their nation's shame in dropping the Bomb. And however much the Japanese might wish to keep the Bomb all to themselves, and preserve their status as guiltless victims, it belongs to us all, to mankind, that brought itself to such a place in events that it decided that it couldn't end a war without resorting to the most terrible weapon yet devised. But what Hiroshima stands for is not the fact that the ultimate obscenity of war is that it makes the use of such a weapon possible, but that it sometimes makes them necessary.

(The photograph I placed at the beginning of this piece is of the body of Ernie Pyle, famed newspaper reporter, who had been with the U.S. Army throughout the war and had reported on the experiences of front-line soldiers. He was killed by a Japanese bullet on April 16, 1945, on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa. In an unpublished article written shortly before his death, he wrote: "There are so many of the living who have burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world. Dead men by mass production -- in one country after another-month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. Those are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a dear one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him. Saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference." (6))

(1) I visited one such memorial in Okinawa, near the site of what became known as Suicide Cliff. The Japanese army had so terrified the Okinawans with stories of the Americans butchering children and raping women that hundreds of them fled from the advancing enemy and threw first their children and then themselves off the cliff in southern Okinawa. There is even a film showing American soldiers pleading with them through interpreters not to jump, only to see them step off the edge.
(2) I was in Okinawa on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. I suggested to my unit commander in the U.S. Navy that one fitting way to commemorate the anniversary would be to raise the legendary Japanese battleship, the Yamato, which was sunk in the battle, to the surface and then sink it again.
(3) Paul Fussell, "Thank God For the Atom Bomb. Hiroshima: A Soldier's View", The New Republic, August 26 & 29, 1981.
(4) The first time that civilians became targets of aerial bombing was in 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that they bombed an American Naval base ten years later, and not San Francisco.
(5) George Orwell, "Pacifism and Progress", 1946.
(6) from James Tobin, Ernie Pyle's War, 2001.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Two Cheers for Democracy

I wouldn't dream of butting in on the Filipinos' period of mourning for Cory Aquino. As an outsider in this country, after sixteen years of visiting and two years of living here, I am not a disinterested observer of its history. Too many foreign residents, especially those conducting business, have the attitude that as long as there is a minimum of stability and at least some semblance of order, it doesn't matter how the country is run. Other expats, finding comfort in their detachment from events, see the chaotic struggle of the forces of liberalism and an almost feudal despotism - the opposing legacies of four hundred years of Spanish and American colonialism - diverting. I, however, feel somehow involved with what is happening, and what has happened, here.

First, and above all, Cory Aquino had incredible courage, and not just morally or spiritually. The source of her physical courage was probably her hatred for her husband's murderers and her determination to chase them out of power and, if possible, into prison. She showed that courage again in her last days.

Unlike other great Asian woman leaders, like Indira Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Benazir Bhutto, who all followed their fathers into politics, she followed her husband, and only after his own political mission was cut short. But like them (except of course for Indira), she became a symbol and an instrument of peace and freedom.

If I am dubious of her "icon of democracy" tag, it is only because "People Power" is not the shining example of democratic rule that everyone here thinks it is. It was a revolution - mob rule, whether the mob, in this case, happened to be right or not. But it was the Philippine Army that made her election to president in 1985-86 possible. The current president understood this better than anyone.

Deep down, her motives on assuming power may not have been noble. So many of her reforms had vengeance written all over them.

Unlike the current woman in the presidential palace, she had a genial, confident relationship with her public. And their love for her has been pouring out again since the announcement of her cancer. She was fallible, but she never pretended to be an expert, again unlike the current president.

As Stanley Karnow pointed out in his history of the Philippines, In Our Image, she put back in power the oligarchs whom Marcos had kicked out, and of which her own family was a part. But "in fairness" (a popular expression among Filipinos), they were the only ones around after she cleaned house who knew anything about running the country.

She was admired and respected internationally, which cannot be said of any Philippine president since.

She honored her murdered husband in many ways, not least for his having lived up to - and died for - his famous words.*

It took a "change of heart" to convince President Reagan to stop his support of Ferdinand Marcos and accept the results of the 1985 "Snap Election" (the election was in November '85 and the results were announced February '86), to Reagan's - and America's - shame.

Despite all of these quibblings, it was as much for what she represented as what she actually accomplished that she has gone down in history. What she represented was hope - for real democracy in the Philippines.

*Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino is on the Philippine 500 peso bill, with his words, "The Filipino is worth dying for" on the right hand side. I have often wondered at this famous quote because it doesn't sound the least bit exceptional. Nobody would think of saying that "The Italian is worth dying for", or the Egyptian or the Japanese. Everyone would think such statements were self-evident and didn't warrant stating. But it is only because Aquino's words are not self-evident that they were considered remarkable, even revolutionary - because Ferdinand Marcos was convinced, and tried to convince his followers, that the Filipino was not worth dying for. It was finally Aquino that made the words true. I wonder how many others in the Philippine government really believe in them?