Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Reader

"What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to make the horrors an object of inquiry is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt? To what purpose?" - Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

"If ever a film is to be made about Auschwitz, it will have to be from the point of view of the guards." - Jean-Luc Godard

In February 1944, George Orwell pondered the possible impact the outcome of the war (that was far from over) would have on historical accounts: "A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them gets into the history books will be decided not be evidential methods but on the battlefield." (1) But with the destruction of Germany looming, the Nazis went to great lengths and diverted valuable manpower to destroy as much evidence as they could of their crimes.

The Bernhard Schlink novel The Reader (Der Vorleser) is an unusual contribution to Holocaust literature in that it is only indirectly about a German woman's actions as an SS guard at a satellite camp of Auschwitz. It is really about the woman's illiteracy and the remarkable lengths to which she goes to conceal it from everyone. The novel also expands our understanding of what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote about the "banality of evil."(2) Evil is so banal, in fact, that in this particular case it cannot even read.

The novel has had its share of detractors, most of whom evidently disapproved of Schlink's trying to distract the reader's attention away from what should have been its subject - Hanna's SS past. The 2008 film has clouded the subject further by presenting us with a Hanna played by Kate Winslet, which has led some viewers to believe that her presence in the role makes Hanna somehow more sympathetic. But on our third meeting with Hanna, she is seducing a 15-year-old boy. (3)

Stephen Daldry's film of Schlink's novel is so beautifully made that it is almost a shame that it is so unaffecting. It ends where Michael's story begins, with a middle-aged Michael, played rather diffidently by Ralph Fiennes, telling his story to his daughter: "I was fifteen. I was coming home from school. I was feeling ill, and a woman helped me." (4) Looking out of his window in Berlin one morning, he sees a tram pass by. And he sees himself, at fifteen (now played by David Kross), riding the tram in Neustadt in 1958. Michael leaves the tram, walks into the entranceway of a building and throws up. A woman finds him there and quickly realizes that he is quite ill. She cleans up the vomit, wipes his face and asks him where he lives so that she can take him home. The woman is Hanna Schmitz, a thirty-five-year-old tram conductor, played with solid conviction by Kate Winslet.

After his recovery from scarlet fever, Michael returns a month later to thank her for helping him. She tells him to wait while she gets dressed, and he watches her. When she notices this, she looks at him with a look so accusatory and provocative that he flees. When he returns a second time, under the most innocent of circumstances, Hanna seduces Michael, and they begin an affair.

It is at this juncture in the story that our perception of the situation is altered radically. It forces us to wonder who this woman might be who so casually introduces a boy (5) to an adult world - a world for which he is physically prepared but emotionally ill-equipped to handle.

After their second love-making, he asks Hanna her name. She asks him why he wants to know, with a look that even Michael calls "suspicious." In order to fill the gap left by her unwillingness to engage in small talk during their frequent encounters - encounters that Michael tells no one about - Hanna suggests that he read to her from the texts he is studying. Our assumption is that she is just uneducated, as someone must be who has never heard of The Odyssey. And their relationship deepens for them both because they have become roughly equals - Hanna matches Michael's physical innocence with her ignorance of books. And as Michael is transformed by Hanna's revelations to his body and hers, Hanna is given a guided tour of, among others, Lawrence, Homer, and Chekhov. (6)

"The notion of secrecy," Michael's literature teacher says to his class, "is central to Western literature. You may say the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information which, for various reasons, sometimes perverse, sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose." Then, with no explanation to Michael, although we are informed about her possible job promotion, Hanna packs everything up and leaves Neustadt. Michael is left with nothing but a secret he will always keep hidden, which will make him into a distant and difficult husband and father, that will hurt those who try to love him.

Five years later, Michael is enrolled at Heidelberg University as a law student. His professor takes his handful of students to the trial of six women accused of involvement in a war crime that has only come to light because of a book written by one of the survivors. One of the atrocities recounted in the book is the incineration of 300 women and children in a locked church. Hanna is one of the accused. And Michael watches the trial with intense fascination, revulsion, and guilt. During her testimony, he deduces Hanna's secret, but he fears exposure as much as she, and he does nothing to help her case. He mentions to his law professor at Heidelberg that he has information important to the outcome of the trial. His professor, played by Bruno Ganz, tells him that he must give the information to the court, but he does not. "What you feel," the professor tells him emphatically, "isn't important. It is utterly unimportant. The only question is what we do. If people like you can't learn from what happened to people like me, then what the hell is the point of anything?"

Ron Rosenbaum, in a passionate but wrong-headed attack on the Daldry film,(7) suggests that it was attempting to equate the burning shame of illiteracy with the burning alive of 300 women and children. The criticism expands on this contention by damning Germans as a race for their stupidity in not at the very least questioning the orders of their superiors, and for not disobeying them. "This is a film," Rosenbaum wrote, "whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution." In fact, in the film, during Hanna's trial, one of Michael's fellow law students directly addresses this issue: "People go on about how much did everyone know. Who knew? What did they know? Everyone knew! Our parents, our teachers. That isn't the question. The question is how could you let this happen? And, better, why didn't you kill yourself when you found out?"

In her trial, Hanna, under questioning from the judge, presents the only conceivable defense for the charge against her: What would you have done? The judge does the only thing he could do for someone in his position - he ignores the question. E.M. Cioran rightly remarked that it is only because we cannot put ourselves in another person's place that judgement is possible.

Hanna is sentenced to life in prison. Michael goes into a successful career as a lawyer. When his father dies, he returns to Neustadt and while going through his old things he finds the books that he read to Hanna. Knowing she is still in prison, he decides to read them to her again - this time into a tape recorder, and he sends her the tapes. With the use of Michael's tapes, and the books that she finds in the prison library, Hanna teaches herself how to read. The meaning of Michael's gesture has inspired many theories, some of which suggest that it is some kind of tacit forgiveness. When, in 1988, Michael and Hanna finally meet again on the occasion of her imminent release from prison, she reads from his body language and the tone of his voice that he has not forgiven her. It was perhaps her last hope, and its loss is so devastating to her that she resolves to end her life.

In a piece written for The Manchester Guardian, David Hare, who wrote the script for The Reader, mentioned the quote by Jean-Luc Godard I placed at the beginning of this piece.(8) I can only guess what Godard was getting at in that statement. I suspect that he was merely trying to be consistent in his contrariness. That the story of Auschwitz from the point of view of the guards has never been told is, I think, one of the reasons why humanity still has such a hard time grasping how it could have happened. The story of the Holocaust has been told exclusively by the victims. Our only means of coming to terms with the event has been through the testimony of surviving prisoners. The many war crimes trials that have taken place since the end of the war have given us scant information about how such a catastrophe could have been perpetrated in the middle of Europe. All we are told by the criminals who carried out their orders was that it happened or it did not, that their plea is guilty or not guilty. Nobody bothers to ask them why. And the only conclusion we can hope to come to as they are taken off to prison is that they are monsters. It is precisely because we do not see them as human beings that hating the Nazis is so easy, and so superficial.(9)

When, near the end of the film, Michael goes to visit the woman, played with cold exactitude by Lena Olin, who wrote the book that exposed Hanna's war crimes, she tells him, "People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren't therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn't go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. My advice: go to the theater if you want catharsis. Please go to literature. Don't go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps."

But none of this makes The Reader anything more than an intelligent, carefully made failure. It engages its subject so brilliantly, in fact, that it is almost a shame that I was not similarly engaged. It is an unpleasant story that might have been harrowing were it not for the manner of its telling. The wide range of reactions to the film attest to its honesty. It shows us Germans living with the knowledge of their past, right alongside the abiding problems of their daily lives.

Kate Winslet does once again what only she can do, subsuming herself, her beauty and glamor, into Hanna Schmitz. During her trial scenes, her look of terror is almost alarming in its intensity. And the gravity of her testimony, quietly admitting to charges that her co-defendants have all denied, and her admission of something she did not do, leads us swiftly to the same conclusion that Michael comes, hiding in the back of the courtroom. Ralph Fiennes plays the mature Michael, a German who is quite different from Amon Goeth, the Nazi camp commandant he played in Spielberg's Schindler's List. I thought David Kross, however, as the youthful Michael seduced by Hanna, was insufficiently interesting.

(1) "As I Please," Tribune, 4 February 1944.
(2) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).
(3) In transposing the fictional story of Michael's account of Hanna's - and his own - secret, Daldry committed a significant misstep. In the novel, the first person narrator (Michael) clearly intended his telling of the story to be a matter of public knowledge, for his own but also for the benefit, if any, of Hanna's memory. In the film, Michael is simply telling the story to his daughter.
(4) I will not go so far as an American critic did, by trumpeting that the love scenes between Hanna and Michael are not merely representative of abuse but actually constituted child pornography. In order to avoid just such accusations, the sex scenes in the film were reportedly shot last after David Kross, who plays Michael, turned 18.
(5) Hanna calls him "kid," even after they meet again many years later.
(6) A quibble: their encounters must have been either fantastically long or very frequent for Michael to get through reading so many, and such long, texts to Hanna.
(7) Rosenbaum's article can be found here.
(8) Hare's article is here.
(9) The trial of John Demyanyuk continues in Munich as I write.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remastering the Film: Bruce Beresford

Even if, for so much of the time, fellow English speakers around the world have been, to adapt Shaw's adage, various people "divided by a common language," it has been fortunate for an American like myself that films in English do not originate exclusively from Hollywood. Because of this, I think it is high time to declare that Bruce Beresford is the best filmmaker in the English-speaking world. He has made five great films and at least three others that are otherwise extraordinary - a fact that few other filmmakers called "great" can claim. He is the greatest director to emerge from the Australian naissance of the 1970s, which included such other notable directors as Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi. And he is also the best of a rare breed of itinerant filmmakers who has managed to make superb films in several countries. (1)

After the uproarious Don's Party (1976) introduced him to international audiences, he made his first great film, Breaker Morant (1980). It helped establish Australia as the source of extraordinary films that is has enjoyed, if not exactly earned, ever since. After two successful but minor films, The Club (1980) and Puberty Blues (1981), Beresford answered the inevitable call of Hollywood. So many great filmmakers who do so seem to come apart and produce work that is markedly inferior to their work in their home countries. (2) Beresford, however, is one of the few exceptions to this rule. On his arrival in America, he eventually took on a project that had been rejected by several other directors, and made one of the greatest American films of the '80s, Tender Mercies (1983). “I wanted to do it,” Beresford said. “It is a fascinating story about people who go to church on Sunday and don’t go round killing each other. Most films about American small towns in the South show a brutal, murderous America that never rang true to me.”

Thanks to its success, Beresford embarked on the ambitious King David (1985), which is at least far better than anyone expected. The casting of Richard Gere is questionable, if understandable. Beresford was beginning to experience the negative side of international film production, in which so much of a director's time is occupied in pre-production haggling over this or that minor detail that can make or break a deal.

His return to Australia came as no surprise, to make the excellent The Fringe Dwellers (1986), about aboriginals living between the two worlds of their native life and modern Australian society. Three years later, back in the U.S., Beresford directed the film of Alfred Uhry's play, Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and did such a splendid job (even getting Dan Ackroyd to act) that the film won the Best Picture Academy Award. He followed this success with two of the most extraordinary films of the '90s, Mister Johnson (1990) and Black Robe (1991). (3) The first, based on the novel by Joyce Cary, addressed the inept and ultimately tragic attempts of a Nigerian clerk to be accepted by his English colonial bosses. The second is set in 17th-century French Canada and follows a Catholic priest's efforts to bring Christianity to the native tribes. These films were sufficiently entertaining (despite their downbeat endings) to earn them sufficient commercial attention.

But Beresford would not make anoher film as good as Black Robe, despite his success with actors in much subsequent work, including Rich in Love (1993), Last Dance (1996). His work became much more commercial and much less interesting. In 2007, he published a memoir, Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants To Do This...True Stories From A Life In The Screen Trade, derived from diaries he kept throughout his career.

The simple fact that a filmmaker as great as Beresford has to waste so much of his precious time (he is now 69) trying to convince producers and movie stars to allow him to work demonstrates, once again, how film is being run by people who would not know a good film if it jumped up and bit them in the neck.

(1) Jean-Jacques Annaud is another such migrant filmmaker, having made Black and White in Color (1976) in his native France, and films like Quest for Fire (1981), The Lover (1992), and Seven Years in Tibet (1997) in international productions.
(2) i.e., Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Max Ophüls, Antonioni, Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Kadar, Bill Forsythe, Jerzy Skolimowski, Louis Malle, Jan Troell, Lina Wertmüller, Lasse Hallström, the list is depressingly long...
(3) When I watched Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), my admiration for Black Robe, which was already considerable, grew deeper and greater. Malick even used the same actor, August Schellenberg, who is half Mohawk, to play Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Meet Me in Montauk

"Random thoughts for Valentine's Day, 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap." - Joel Barish (Jim Carrey)

Valentine's Day is as good an excuse as any to write about one of the best films of the past decade. I cannot think of another film that so directly addresses how and why we love as we do as thoughtfully and compellingly as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Orwell must have had a film like this in mind when he wrote, "If one thinks of it, there is very little in the mind that could not somehow be represented by the strange distorting powers of the film." (1)

Prior to this film, Michel Gondry was a successful director of commercials and music videos for recording artists like Björk, the queen of twee, and he had worked with the script-writer Charlie Kaufman once before on the film Human Nature (2001), which was, like its title, a whopping banality. I was one of the few who cared little for Being John Malkovich (1999), and even less for Adaptation (2002), both directed by the irritatingly clever Spike Jonez. (2) What made the difference with Eternal Sunshine, I believe, was that the story was written by Kaufman, Gondry and Pierre Bismuth.

The title is unusual, but it does not quite fit the film. Alexander Pope was writing enviously about people who lead unexamined lives - which Plato claimed are not worth living. But Plato did not notice the paradox: how could you know that your life is not worth living if it is unexamined? Pope was, through the imprisoned Eloise, trying to be ironic by wishing he were an imbecile, "the world forgetting, by the world forgot." Certainly, in the film, the two lovers learn that forgetting is fraught with unforeseeable perils.

And it is here that Gondry's film becomes most tellingly beautiful. Told in linear terms, the story concerns Joel and Clementine (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet), who meet on Valentine's Day in wintry Montauk, Long Island. They quickly fall in love, but after two years together they not only want to go their separate ways, but first Clementine, and then Joel decide to undergo a treatment that erases all their memories of each other. We are given a guided tour of the process (which is presented with a wink and a nod) when we enter Joel's mind as, one by one, his memories of Clementine are wiped away. But when Joel changes his mind and wants out of the memory-erasing process - but is paralyzed and unable to stop it - he resists it within his mind, by secreting Clementine away deeper in his memories.

I will not go into the ingenious, and very simple, tricks which Gondry used to create his magic. (3) Singling out just one: at the moment when Joel awakes at the beginning of the film, just as he does on the very same morning near the end of the film, it is one of the most beautiful evocations of awakening that I have ever seen on film. Gondry is such an artist down to his fingertips that, although he uses surroundings that are utterly familiar, he somehow makes them seem completely new.

Tom Wilkinson lends conviction to a rather slight role, as do Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood. But the film belongs, of course, to Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Carrey is marvelous, making me forget some of his prior painful attempts as seriousness (The Majestic). And of Winslet all I will say is that when she repeats her line to Joel that she is "just a fucked-up girl who's looking for [her] peace of mind," I believed her enough to know just how much Clementine did not mean it.

This is one of those films that demands to be seen more than once. I would not have "got" the ending, in fact, if I had stopped at one viewing. I thought, after the first viewing, that Joel and Clem had agreed to end it, that they would only make the same mistakes again, that it was futile. But, of course, the film says the opposite. It tells us that no matter how hard we try to alter our course, we will always find ourselves drawn down the same paths to the same people. By the time the last memory of Clem is erased from Joel's mind, just before she whispers the words, "meet me in Montauk," the enormity of Gondry's poetic vision is all but complete. All that remains is for his two ex-lovers to learn the true lengths to which they have gone to find each other all over again.

(1) "New Words," 1940
(2) Jonez has lately done well by Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which I, like everyone else on earth, read and loved as a child.
(3) My sister refuses to watch any "behind the scenes" look at how films are made. I believe she is right - why should filmmakers tolerate such an intrusion on their most creative moments?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Trying to wash the bad taste of Slumdog Millionaire from my mind, what a relief to turn to the India of classic Satyajit Ray. Ray's work has been highly regarded ever since the release in the West of Pather Panchali (1955), the first film of the Apu Trilogy, I think because it was the first time audiences had seen Indians in a film in which they were not singing and dancing like lunatics. Aside from their novelty (beautiful women in saris, adorned with bracelets and anklets, and dots on their foreheads), Ray's films were informed with what can only be called - for a Westerner - an alien understanding of pacing and rhythm, which is also reflected in traditional Indian music.(1) I would not go so far as John Simon and blame Indian culture itself for the sense of unrelenting lassitude in Ray's films. Ray was evidently making no effort to be authentic - he did not have to. The problem, which Ray understood too well, was in trying to be too authentic, too idiosyncratic, which puts a film in danger of being parochial.

The theme of so many of Ray's films is one person's, man or woman, wishing to escape the confines of a village, a family or a narrow circle of friends into the broader world of opportunity and recognition. Charulata (1964) is based on a novel by Tagore that has the feel of a story by Turgenev or Henry James, about trapped lives and unspoken love. It concerns the neglected young wife of a Calcutta newspaper publisher who, without meaning to, falls for her brother-in-law. Set in the late 19th century, Ray manages to subtly capture the setting of the story, a society that Tagore knew well - educated merchants and entrepreneurs, of scholars and poets who are familiar with their rich culture and with the anti-British political sentiments in The Sentinel, Charlulata's husband's small-circulation newspaper. They speak a Bengali that is liberally sprinkled with English.

There is a garden scene which is justly famous whose beauty may only have been the consequence of the rest of the film being so cooped up in what must have been a stifling house. (2) Charu, as she is called by her husband, sits on a swing in the garden and Ray indulges in an exquisite shot with the camera rocking to a fro with her.(3) When she stops and studies the garden and the world beyond through opera glasses, she spies a woman and child on a distant balcony and is reminded of her childless marriage. The relationship, as always in Indian cinema, is left to be inferred. There is one tearful embrace between Charu and Amal, but it amounts to nothing. Everything is left to the actors' eyes and their gestures, which is handled surprisingly well by Ray.

The acting is excellent from the two male principle actors, Soumitra Chatterjee, who was Ray's alter-ego in fifteen of his films, as Amal and Shailen Mukherjee as Bhupati. Madhabi Mukherjee, however, is merely competent as Charulata, which is unfortunate but does not hurt the film overmuch. The ending is indelible: Bhupati, Charu's husband, has come back after discovering her feelings for his brother. When Charu opens the door, she holds out her hand and tells him to come in. But when he holds out his own hand, Ray freezes the shot. We then see the couple, frozen in a tentative gesture of reconciliation, from other angles - of Charulata beckoning to her husband to come in the door. It has a startling and somewhat terrifying aspect, of being suspended in a moment in time in which characters hang in indecision, that could have different outcomes if only the film were permitted to advance just a few more seconds further.

But the film has, I think, dated drastically - not so much because it is in black-and-white or because of its technical shortcomings. What has dated Charulata is its very qualities as a work of art - its boldness and its confidence, not just in its own creative power, but in an audience, now long gone, that will fully and appreciatively comprehend it. I once compared it to listening to John Coltrane. Such filmmaking required a degree of fearlessness that is by now as dead as a doornail.

(1) The great Ravi Shankar often composed the music for Ray's films. Incidentally, Shankar is the father of Nora Jones. For Charulata, Ray himself composed an effective, understated score.
(2) I live in the Philippines, and I have visited Thailand - neither of which, I am assured, is as hot as India.
(3) Memorably, Jan Troell uses the same camera shot in The Emigrants (1971).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Notes on the Way

Going once, going twice, Sold!

As Avatar continues to show the full extent to which film has been given over to commerce, the art world had 104.3 million volts pulsed through its rotting corpse on February 4 when Giacometti's Walking Man was bought at auction by an anonymous buyer. How the champions of avarice think they can lay claim to the loftiest creations of the human spirit just by throwing down enough cash is just another illustration of how ugly our culture has become. Seeing so many auction house employees taking bids via telephone from buyers too ashamed or just too busy making indecent proposals to show their faces was, perhaps, intentionally funny .

But such spectacles are now commonplace. In 1987, Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto bought Van Gogh's Sunflowers for the then record price of $40million. On his death, Goto left instructions in his will that the canvas would be cremated along with his body. I suppose we should be thankful that whomever saved it from the flames probably did so not because of its beauty but because of its obvious resale value?


Going out on a limb, The Hurt Locker may yet turn out to be the theme for the 2010 Academy Awards. Last year's was Slumdog. The year before, No Country for Old Men. The unavoidable response is always, We know this!


My recent acquisition of cable TV here in my Philippine province, after having to live with an aerial antenna for a year-and-a-half that only managed to receive the two major network channels (both insufferable) from Manila, has demonstrated to me that, for an American living abroad who needs to stay in contact with the world beyond his occluded horizon, it is something of a necessity rather than a luxury. The curiosity of watching alive football game or even Conan O'Brien's recent tearful farewell to NBC among the palms and poverty here has become a welcome daily disorientation.

Cable TV has many movie channels to choose from (even here in the back of beyond). But for the past decade, the best of them has without question been Turner Classic Movies. It is not even what is known as a "premium" channel in the States that you have to pay an extra ten dollars to subscribe to, like HBO or Showtime.

TCM's programming is dominated by classic Hollywood films, which is far from my favorite movie fare. But the manner in which the channel presents the films is a model that I wish every other movie channel would copy. I am sure that everyone has seen the disclaimer that comes before most of the movies being shown on television, "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen." In plain English, it means that the movie was not made with a television screen in mind. Since the 1950s, anamorphic lenses have been in use to make a 35mm film image look like something closer to a 70mm image. It does this by distorting the image with a horizontally convex lens, and the resulting "aspect ratio" (width divided by height) is expressed as 1.85:1 or some other ratio higher than the "full screen" 35mm image of 1.33:1.

To make this even more explicit to their viewers, TCM regularly airs a short demonstration of the difference between the "letterbox" screen image, which recreates a film's original aspect ratio, and "full screen," which cuts off a substantial portion of the original image and must resort to a spurious digital "pan-and-scan" device to compensate for the loss of the picture.

While the HBO and Showtime channels nearly always show films in full screen, and even the Independent Film Channel (IFC) and The Sundance Channel occasionally resort to it, only TCM invariably shows films in their original format.

Stranger Than Fiction

The "novels" on which the films Twilight (2008) and its much-touted sequel New Moon (2009) are based were written by Stephenie Meyer, who has invested both of them with a sexual chasteness not seen since 1950s American television. Both films reflect this chasteness unapologetically, since the audience for them is, in more ways than one, juvenile. Although meant to appeal to the sexually inexperienced (or guilt-ridden), the people behind the film have expressly chosen to avoid any reference to the troubling fact that adolescents are having sex.

The reason for this, publicity for the films has revealed, is that Meyer is a devout Mormon. But why this should inspire her to promote abstinence (and the unsubtle metaphor for losing one's virginity is being bitten by a vampire) rather than the bigamy and child-marriage that her religion used to take pride in is a mystery. But, then again, even a tongue-in-cheek belief in vampires is tame compared to a belief that two lost tribes of Israel somehow found their way to North America where, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to them and passed onto them his revelations.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Show and Tell

As Dick Cheney struggles single-handedly to preserve what is left of George W. Bush's legacy, Barack Obama has resurrected a shibboleth from Bill Clinton's term of office. The notorious "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that was finally adopted by the U.S. military was a compromise agreed to by Clinton after his campaign promise of reversing the military's outright ban on homosexuals. Clinton wanted gays to be able to serve in the military without having to keep their sexual preference a secret.

One of the most serious arguments for allowing homosexuals to bring their orientation out into the open derives from the possibility of blackmail. If a gay serviceman holds a security clearance and is trying to keep his sexuality a secret, like any other skeleton in the closet, he can be subject to blackmail, which could potentially compromise whatever classified material he has access to. Clinton's compromise was made only after what I can only guess was heated discussion with his military advisors. The don't ask, don't tell policy was nothing but an official name for the same old practice that had been going on in the military - acceptance through denial. A serviceman could be as queer as a $3 bill as long as he kept it a secret.(1)

I have a pretty good idea why Clinton arrived at his compromise, and what his military advisors told him to help him make up his mind. The argument against allowing gays to serve "openly" (to use the dreaded jargon) in the military has to begin with an understanding of the environment in which military men must live. A microcosm of that environment can be found aboard any U.S. Navy ship. Enlisted personnel on a ship live in what is called open bay berthing - as many as eighty people sleep, shower, and dress in a cramped space where there can be no privacy whatever. The beds, or racks, are often stacked three deep. They are affectionately called coffin racks because of a thin mattress covering the steel lid of a locker about eight inches deep. The racks are separated by standing lockers and a small space about five feet wide in which sailors can get dressed, iron their clothes, etc. This is their whole world while the ship is at sea. The only breaks from this confined space are visits to the weather deck.(2) More than one observer has likened this environment to a prison.

When I was in the Navy, women were just beginning to serve aboard combatant ships. On support ships, like oilers, tenders and supply ships, where women served in greater numbers, the sexes were segregated into male and female berthing. (3) As long as their sexual orientation was never in question - i.e., straight - this segregation was considered acceptable. When and if that sexual orientation became optional, that segregation would become problematic. Where would "openly" gay men and women be berthed aboard a ship? I can tell you from experience that the very last thing that a sailor wants to worry about as he is going to the shower or getting dressed beside his locker is another sailor "checking him out."

In the mid-1990s, the easiest way that any sailor could get himself off a ship would be for him to publicly declare that he was gay. His removal from the ship would be as swift as possible, and it would have been carried out for his own safety. If he were not removed from the ship, such a sailor would almost certainly have been seriously injured or killed by fellow sailors. While not forgiving or excusing such violence, I am perfectly capable, having lived for a time aboard a ship, of understanding it.

Think about this: would gay men be berthed among straight men, as realpolitik suggests? Among one another? Among women? Or should they be given individual staterooms, which are reserved for officers? There are physical as well as moral objections to every one of these solutions. For many reasons, civilians have a tough time understanding men in the military. Questions about their masculinity, their machismo, and their sexuality get responses that are direct and unambiguous. One reason for this is their training, which places great emphasis on values that are rather antiquated for civilians: things like honor, integrity, and discipline. As women have been allowed closer to combat in the army and marines, there has been criticism, some of which is plausible. One such criticism is that men will expose themselves to greater risk under fire to protect a woman, which suggests instinctive forces are at play.

I was serving in the Navy when the Tailhook incident occurred. (4) Shortly thereafter, every serviceman, even those without a single female in his unit, was obliged to attend day-long briefings about sexual harassment. An entry was then made in his service record showing that he had attended the briefs, for liability reasons. This was how the military dealt with the problem. The Navy let every serviceman know that it had "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment, just as it had for drug use or - at the time - open homosexuality.

All this said, the U.S. military is an authoritarian system and sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines will all obey whatever orders they are given, no matter how unpopular they are. I have lately heard some pundits refer to a "generational shift," a new breed of servicemen who have more relaxed sexual mores and are less resistant to serving alongside men who are "openly" gay. Whether or not this shift is genuine, unless it has also affected the men in the middle and senior enlisted ranks, the military careerists for whom junior enlisted men are not much more than transient nonconformists, the new show and tell policy will be just another bitter pill for them to swallow, like the increases in deployments and optempos that destroy their marriages and make them strangers to their own children. The whole point - and the whole problem - of the military is the absorption of the individual into the group. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," they are told in one form or another. Their only real identity is in relation to the men around them, superior or inferior to them. It is the position that he momentarily fills that matters. He is as replaceable as any other part in a machine. So what does it matter if any part of that functioning machine is gay? It would be like wondering if the fruit in a Cézanne still-life is sweet or sour.

(1) I have spoken to women in the military who told me that homosexual behavior among women was far less likely to be reported. Whether or not this suggests that women are more tolerant of homosexuals is inconclusive.
(2) I do not smoke, but I used to accompany sailors on their smoke breaks on the weather deck, just so I could, ironically, get some fresh air.
(3) The most outspoken opponents of women serving on combatant ships were the wives of the sailors, who knew enough about the long time they spent away from home.
(4) Paula Coughlin, an admiral's aide and one of the 83 victims of the sexual harassment at the 1991 Tailhook convention, resigned her commission in 1992 because she claimed justice had not been done by the U.S. Navy. Because of Ms. Coughlin, hundreds of officers implicated in the Tailhook incident had their careers cut short or side-tracked. Coughlin was awarded $5.2 million by the jury in her court case against the Hilton Hotel Corporation, which hosted the Tailhook Convention, and used it to open a business in Florida.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hiroshi Teshigahara

[ A 2003 article I wrote for Senses of Cinema's Great Directors database, this is one of my few attempts at real film scholarship. And it perhaps illustrates what I consider to be the biggest problem with scholarhsip, rather than criticism, in the first place. You may have noticed that I did not include Teshigahara on my recent Remastering the Film list of great directors, even though the following article might lead you to think he was great. When immersed in the study of any artist, everything else tends to be reduced in size. What is lacking in Donald Richie's excellent monograph on The Films of Akira Kurosawa is the slightest critical information that could distinguish the good films from the bad. The result is that Richie gives you the impression that every film that Kurosawa made was of equal value. This may or may not have been Richie's intention, but I have tried to demonstrate how an artist, however great, was capable of failure.]

Hiroshi Teshigahara

b. January 28, 1927, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan
d. April 14, 2001, Tokyo, Japan

“What were you looking at?
“A window.
“No, no. I mean what were you looking at through the window?
“Windows…lots of windows. One by one the lights are going off. That's the only instant you really know somebody's there.”

The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe, 1967

Hiroshi Teshigahara was only incidentally a filmmaker. For decades recognized for his work in various classical Japanese art forms, he was a master and a modern trailblazer all at once. Son of the founder and grand master (Iemoto) of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana (more moribundly known as flower-arranging), he turned to film as an extension of his aesthetic explorations in other media. A graduate of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he was a painter and sculptor, designed gardens and tea rooms, directed operas and Noh plays for the stage. And he made 21 films, most of them short documentaries on subjects as varied as Hokusai and Hispanic boxers. But he is widely known only for the eight feature-length films he made over a period of 30 years, films as unique in form and function as anything else in his creative life—except that they use the most immediate and direct medium for the communication of ideas in the same arresting way.

Always within close reach of the avant-garde, one of whom he of course counted himself, Teshigahara had shown canny judgement in his choice of collaborators when he turned to feature films in 1962. The writer Kobo Abe (1924–1993) had been sending shivers of recognition down the spines of Japanese literati ever since he had won the famed Akutagawa Prize for his novel The Crime of S. Karuma in 1951. His masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes, was published in 1960 and won the Yomiuri Prize. Teshigahara longed to film it, but decided, for his first feature effort, to film an original script that Abe had prepared called The Pitfall.

Also accompanying Teshigahara in his first production was a close friend named Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996). They had collaborated once before, in 1959, on a short film about the boxer Jose Torres. Takemitsu, who loved film and preferred writing film scores to composing concert works, would quickly become the most sought after and certainly the most brilliant modernist Japanese composer. While writing music for all of Teshigahara's subsequent films, he would also work closely with virtually every notable Japanese filmmaker of the 1960s, including Masaki Kobayashi, Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima. And he would later compose the score for Akira Kurosawa's formidable Ran (1985).

The Pitfall (Otoshiana, 1962) is nominally concerned with a series of unexplained murders in a poor mining community (hence, the title's double entendre). The murders are perpetrated by a man wearing sunglasses, dressed in an immaculate white suit and hat. His victims reappear throughout the film in intact physical form (no special effects here, so much the better), and observe the action like a mute and ineffectual Greek chorus, asking, “Why was I killed? What was it for? Where was the meaning in my life?”—to which they get no response.

Described by Teshigahara as a documentary–fantasy, the film is all the more unsettling for its matter-of-fact illogic. Typical of Abe's other works, The Pitfall also employs a pulp-fiction framework—a ghost story—but only to throw into relief both our preconceptions of the genre and the underlying truths that it unearths (in this case, literally). Antonioni had already exploited a similar approach in L'avventura (1960), which spends much of its time engaged in a futile search for a missing person. For his efforts with The Pitfall, Teshigahara won the NHK Best New Director award and the film earned the rare honor—for a novice director—of being released abroad. Vernon Young said of it:

"Teshigahara's The Case [an alternate release title] may be thought to exhibit the oblique time-sense of Alain Resnais and a form of moral relativism fetched from Kafka and French existentialism, yet what is more Japanese than a palpable ghost? And the landscape depicted is indelibly of the Japanese persuasion, as clean as a pebble garden or a print by Hiroshige." (1)

Perhaps the most famous postmodern tale of a person who went missing is Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, which Teshigahara took on for his next project, once again with Abe writing the script. It is the story of Jumpei Niki, an entomologist and family man who innocently seeks shelter for the night in a remote village situated among ever-encroaching sand dunes. What Niki finds there is so fraught with implications about the human predicament, and written with such obsessive detail, that few people believed anyone could pull it off as a film. That Teshigahara does, with moviegoers worldwide leaving theaters brushing imaginary sand from their clothing, attests to his genius at finding the most vivid equivalents to Abe's odd universe of words. And Teshigahara's success with actors (his wife was the film actress Toshiko Kobayashi) was never more obvious, as Eiji Okada and Keiko Kishida become veritable epitomes in their roles, at first resisting and then relenting to the cruel dictates of the village and the pit in which they find themselves together and from which they can never escape. “Both Okada and Kishida got into their roles so deeply,” Teshigahara later wrote, “that the look on their faces changed during the four-month shooting.” (2) Teshigahara's wonderful abstract compositions of sand dunes constantly shifting bestow on geology an alarming presence.

The film was originally 147 minutes, but when Teshigahara was invited to bring his film to the Cannes Festival, he cut it to 124 minutes. Although the cuts do no harm to continuity, and actually make the film seem tighter, it is easy to miss the deleted 23 minutes, since the world that Teshigahara made so palpably real is yet harder to leave at the film's conclusion.

The Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna, 1964) won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Award by the American Academy. It became Teshigahara's most highly praised and best-known film, which is just as well. Although he would make two more films with Kobo Abe, The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao , 1966) and The Man Without a Map (Moetsukita Chizu, 1968), both of them based on a published Abe novel, neither was as successful as adaptations or as compelling as films. Abe's abstractions seemed to expand exponentially with each new book. Their increasingly hermetic ideas, pushing meaning to impenetrable extremes, drew progressively narrower interest from readers. And although Teshigahara, equal to the challenge, would often find splendid cinematic solutions to Abe's prose (doubtless with the author's considerable help), one could argue that, because of his obdurate devotion, Teshigahara's work followed Abe's into obscurity.

The Face of Another is 'about' the mysteries of identity and how it is shaped by one's relation to others. It is also part horror, part science-fiction film, with unavoidable ties to Frankenstein (both the book and the movie), Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1934) and The Beast With Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946), (3) which were 'about' the perils of interchangeable body parts and the chaos they can lead to.

The big difference in Teshigahara's film is that he isn't trying to be campy. The film's fascination derives from its belief in its own ideas and Teshigahara's unerring poise in his constructing the bizarre but utterly convincing world where a man named Okuyama tries to reconstruct his life after a lab explosion leaves him without a face. Forced to encase his head with bandages (which are functional and cleverly cut to allow the actor underneath [the splendid Tatsuya Nakadai] to look as if he is frowning and smiling at the same time), he watches with dismay as everyone—even his wife (played by the eternally exquisite Machiko Kyo) behave differently, coldly, toward him. A subplot is introduced involving a young woman who works as a nurse in a military mental hospital. Otherwise pretty, the young woman bears terrible scars on the right side of her face from the war (“No full explanation was given, but the name 'Hiroshima' was constantly repeated in the following dialogue.” (4)). But unlike Okuyama, she makes no attempt to hide her face, and deals with people's predictable reactions with a stoical grace.

Okuyama persuades his psychiatrist to create a mask, “another face” that will cover his scars so seamlessly that he can pass himself off as another man, with the identity as fabricated and assumed as the mask. Grown cynical by his wife's revulsion for his scarred face, Okuyama plots to entrap her by masquerading as this other man and seducing her. Teshigahara cleverly juxtaposes Okuyama's intrigues—which both delight and destroy him—with the despair of the scarred young woman, whose own destruction seems almost guaranteed by a world that will not look beyond appearances.

Whether it was because of slow pacing, the almost psychotic mental state of Okuyama, or its failure to fulfill audience expectations of a horror film, The Face of Another was met with mostly unpleasant surprise. Again, Vernon Young had to comment: “The result is somewhat antiseptic; it has the attraction of a nude you might appreciate without desiring.” (5) Takemitsu composed a beautiful waltz for the credit sequence and a cabaret song introduced in a bar scene (in which Takemitsu himself is seen sitting in the crowd—according to Oshima, he looked like Jean-Louis Barrault with diarrhea). Notwithstanding respectful reservations, The Face of Another is an indelibly powerful film that never found its audience.

Teshigahara's fourth and last adaptation from Abe was The Man Without a Map. For the first time Teshigahara sought the backing of a major Japanese studio, ShinToho. Consequently the film was in color and wide screen. Whether or not these were Teshigahara's choices, the film sometimes seems unsure what to do with the wider frame. And Shintaro Katsu—infamous for his Zatoichi, Blind Swordsman series (26 installments as of this writing)—is an odd choice for the lead role.

Also for the first time, Teshigahara's film suffers in comparison with Abe's novel. The private detective hired by a woman whose husband has gone missing is a rather unprepossessing intellectual narrator in the novel. Perhaps out of deference to Shintaro Katsu, the narration is dispensed with in the film, with the detective portrayed as a more conventional, hard-as-nails type, which diminishes sympathy for him and emphasizes the absence of any real 'action'.

As the story progresses, the detective finds himself being subsumed in the life of the man he is trailing, until there is a kind of character transferal—the detective becomes the man who disappeared. Abe's novel ends with an inexplicable plunge into chaos. Whether meant as the detective's descent into madness or not, Abe's ending is somehow more convincing than the film's, which is once again conventional and unsatisfying.

Not knowing if Teshigahara sensed this, or noticed Abe's own descent into expressionist meaninglessness, The Man Without a Map represents the end of their collaboration as artists. His next feature-length project, four years later, was written by the American translator and biographer of Yukio Mishima, John Nathan. With the Vietnam War close by, Summer Soldiers (1972) tells the stories of two AWOL American GIs, adrift in the inhospitable refuge of a Japan committed to supporting the U.S. “war effort”. Shunted to and fro among host families of anti-war sympathizers, both men seek some natural haven and an end to being fugitives. At first encouraged by what they see as acceptance and understanding from the people they meet, they soon realize that they are political pawns being used to gratify anti-war sentiments of radical groups, as well as, paradoxically, their anti-Americanism. The GIs discover that there is no real place for them in Japan, except as fringe dwellers.

One would think from this synopsis that the film is intended as an anti-war statement. But Teshigahara is more interested in observing the dysfunctional relationship often experienced by foreigners in Japan. The American deserters are portrayed sympathetically, but their decision to desert, while perhaps saving their necks, introduces more problems for them than it solves.

For the first time, Teshigahara photographed the film himself, and resorted to a much more raw spontaneity in his choice and direction of the actors. There is an almost documentary feel to the film. It is also redolent of its times, which dates the film somewhat. But after the increasingly claustrophobic, and ultimately suffocating world of his Abe films, Summer Soldiers is a refreshing change of air.

After Summer Soldiers was completed, Teshigahara turned to his duties with the Sogetsu Foundation, of which his father had been master. On his father's death, he became the third generation iemoto of the school in 1980, which was so involving it prevented him from pursuing other projects. Finally, 12 years after Summer Soldiers, he had the opportunity to realize his long cherished ambition to devote a film entirely to the work of the architect Antonio Gaudi. The resulting 72-minute documentary is yet so limpid and lovely that it easily rivals his fiction films in artfulness.

As early as 1959 he had written of the impact of his first glimpse of Gaudi's cathedral:

"Shortly after entering Barcelona, four grotesque steeples appeared before me. Their peaks seemed to domineer over the city shining with gold. I was struck with a sense of conviction. As I approached, the holes pierced in those four tense conical structures, just like a tremendously appealing demonic whisper, clutched me with force. What I was looking at was Gaudi's last masterpiece Sagrada Familia." (6)

For his next feature film, Rikyu (1989), Teshigahara turned to history, to the conflict between the Zen monk Sen no Rikyu and the warlord Hideyoshi. Though eventually resulting in a violent end for Rikyu, the conflict was over nothing more—and nothing less—than cultural taste. As Donald Richie observed, the whole fracas could be summed up by one event, and it is beautifully and simply re-created in the film: “A paradigm for the new attitude was Hideyoshi's visit to see Rikyu's celebrated garden of morning glories. When he arrived he discovered that they had all been uprooted. The disgruntled warrior repaired to the tearoom. There, in the alcove, in a common clay container, was one perfect morning glory.” (7)

Hideyoshi went to the opposite extreme in style—eventually performing tea ceremonies in solid gold tearooms. Rikyu, in utter contrast, established the popularity of plain clay cups and bowls and the simple arrangement of flowers before a starkly bare space (something that must have been close to Teshigahara's heart). (8)

Rikyu was Teshigahara's first international success since Woman in the Dunes 25 years earlier. It re-established him as a world-class filmmaker, even if he would have only one more film in him. After the splendors of Rikyu, Princess Gohime (Gohime, 1992), is, in interesting contrast, somewhat of a commercial vehicle for the reigning Japanese beauty of the day, Rie Miyazawa—who, though ravishing, cannot act. Though ostensibly a sequel to Rikyu, concerned with the period immediately following the death of Rikyu and the power struggle amongst lords loyal to him and others aligned with Hideyoshi, the film is actually more interested in the illicit love between the Princess and a hulking retainer who loses an ear in her service (in recompense, perhaps, halfway through the film, he takes the Princess' virginity). The scene wherein he has his ear shot off while overcoming vastly superior numbers in defense of the Princess is—I presume—supposed to be erotic rather than comical. The Princess licks the man's wound clean and bandages it with scraps that she tears from her undergarments.

Though dramatically shaky, the film looks extraordinary, with costumes and sets that are among the most gorgeous color compositions in a Japanese film since Kinugasa's Gate of Hell. And Teshigahara constructed another of his bamboo creations for the final scene in which the Princess finally (!) returns to her hairy protector's bed. As the shot of the horizontal lovers dissolves to a gibbous moon while the reticent strains of Takemitsu's music take us through the end credits, there is some slight satisfaction in the certainty that, though lovely in its way, Teshigahara won't be remembered for only this.

For the last decade of his life Teshigahara made no more films. Perhaps mobilizing a small army of cast and crew at such an expense of time and money took much of the pleasure out of filmmaking for him. His work in other media, however, continued unabated. He produced and designed operas in Europe and mounted numerous exhibitions of his own and other artists' work. In 1996 he was awarded the title of National Chevalier by the Legion of France, and the following year was given the National Order of the Sacred Treasure in Japan—a quite unique title which declares certain cherished artists (Kurosawa among them) a National Living Treasure. He created bamboo “installations” in halls and galleries (one can be seen in the closing minutes of Princess Gohime), and he honored his old friend Takemitsu by directing a tribute to him at the shrine where his funeral service was held.

By now his name is virtually synonymous with Ikebana, which his Sogetsu Institute has sustained into the 21st century. It is essentially a Japanese art form that utilizes fragile, perishable material to express and induce a meditative state. To some, Teshigahara's devotion to flower-arranging may seem antithetical to his efforts at filmmaking. And yet, how can a plucked and dying blossom seem less ephemeral than a play of shadows on a screen?

(1) Vernon Young, On Film, Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1972, p. 6
(2) This and all Teshigahara quotes are to be found on the official Teshigahara web site at [this website is now gone]
(3) Incidentally, worked on extensively (though uncredited) by Luis Buñuel.
(4) Kobo Abe, The Face of Another, Tokyo, Tuttle, 1966, trans. E. Dale Saunders, p. 230
(5) Young, ibid
(6) It is instructive to contrast Teshigahara's comments with those of George Orwell when he visited the cathedral while he was in Spain during the Civil War: “For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral—a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It had four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution—it was spared because of its 'artistic value', people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance, though they did hang a red and black banner between its spires.” Homage to Catalonia, London, Penguin Books, 1962, pp. 179-180.
(7) Donald Richie, “A Vocabulary of Taste” in A Lateral View: Essays on Contemporary Japan, Tokyo, The Japan Times Ltd., 1987, p. 83
(8) This historical conflict was strikingly similar to that enacted in Robert Bolt's equally historical play A Man For All Seasons, in which the ostentatious and tyrannical Henry VIII tries to bully his one-time teacher Thomas More, a sober, unostentatious but brilliant scholar, into authorizing his choice of a new wife (after the foundation of the protestant Church of England made it suddenly possible for him to divorce Catherine of Aragon). In both cases, the tyrant wears down and eventually destroys the stubborn man of learning. But history—and art in this case—have sided for the arbiters of simplicity and of principle.