Monday, December 28, 2009

In Rama was there a voice heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Films I Love to Hate

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

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

2001: A Space Odyssey

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Belatedly Posthumous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Is Science?

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

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

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

What is Science?
Tribune, 26 October 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mouthing Off

Give Back the Prize

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

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

Pershing Was a Prick

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

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

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

Roman Holiday

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Le Beau Serge

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

Le Beau Serge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Comic Book Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Notes on the Way

The Ampatuan Massacre

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

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


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

15 Minutes

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

Films Into Movies

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

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

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

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