Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Swimmer part nine

But the swimmer . . .

The hypocrite swimmer has himself lost all interest in these arguments. He is intently reaching the shore in his little boat paddling carefully among familiar corals, following the narrow channel in toward the beach. He has already forgotten his panic and is merely tired as from a long journey. Cool in the bilges lie half a dozen mackerel: two for supper, two to smoke for tomorrow and two to give away. He looks up as the prow grinds into the sand. There in the palms' ragged shade is his lopsided hut, there the tangle of thorn shrubs concealing a mahogany-colored brackish lagoon, in the distance the spit of mangroves walking on water. He sees it all not through the eyes of an oceanographer, still less of a conservationist. Only in a nomad's or a wanderer's gaze is the sea not lost to him, nor any less wild. So affectionately does the scene bound toward him and leap into his eye that he knows this private way of looking reveals a landscape he must have inherited, or which was somehow fixed for him as a child, before he ever saw it for the first time.

For this is his ocean, and at last he knows he has always seen it thus, toward the end of afternoon: the great white clouds heaping themselves out of nothing against the blue, their tall reflections falling on a glassy sea whose tide lies stilled at low. Reef tops knobble the surface, the kelps and grasses float as rough brown patches among which the white clouds lie in fragments. Children stand a hundred yards out, up to their ankles, legs angular as wading birds', filling coconut shells and tins with winkles. They dabble among the white clouds. Clear voices drift ashore, tatters of a heedless present.

It is the moment of being aghast at the sad miracle of having condensed from nothing, of watching white clouds, of dispersing again. But how beautiful it is; and how pierced by it we always are as it leaps through us, and leaping, vanishes.

Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton-Paterson

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quotable Orwell 3

[I saw the Australian Broadcasting Company's (a kind of Down Under BBC) rebroadcast of the PBS documentary on My Lai on the 19 September, and it brought up some of the issues addressed in the Orwell quote below. But Orwell would've had something else to say, surely, about My Lai. Is it possible to commit an "atrocity" even in war? Near the end of the film, one of the soldiers of "Charlie" Company insisted that there is no such thing in war as an "unlawful order" that a soldier might be duty-bound to disobey. In my own experience, soldiers were told to obey questionable orders (including, presumably, shooting children) and bring up their reservations about it with the chain of command later. In this way, however, a soldier can be relied on to commit every conceivable horror, whether it prinked his conscience or not.]

So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which has no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does. Nevertheless, a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a looney-bin made use of by some other planet.

-"As I Please," Tribune, 31 December 1943

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another September 11

September 11 is a date consecrated for Americans as the date of the Twin Towers' destruction in New York in 2001. But there was another crucial event on September 11, in Chile in 1973. It is the date when Salvador Allende, the first Marxist president ever elected in a popular election in the Americas, was assassinated* in a coup carried out by the Chilean military and police, who were backed to the hilt by Henry Kissinger and the CIA. Augusto Pinochet, leader of the coup, was publicly tried for various crimes against the people when he was 90 years old, but died without serving a minute in jail.

Pablo Neruda had been a communist all his life, which posed a problem for him when communism was outlawed in Chile in 1948. After living in exile for several years, in recognition of his genius and his country's debt to him, he was coaxed back to Chile. He was heartened that Allende, a true champion of the common people, had been elected president in 1970. And he followed the reforms that took place, which outraged the ruling elite and the nabobs in Washington, who were then preoccupied with visions of communist dominoes tumbling everywhere.

When the coup took place, Neruda was in hospital with cancer. Twelve days after it was over, on 23 September, he suffered sudden heart failure. He had time, however, to write one last, embittered poem.

Las satrapías

Nixon, Frei, Pinochet
hasta hoy, hasta este amargo
mes de setiembre
de 1973,
con Bordaberry, Garrastazú y Banzer
hienas voraces
de nuestra historia, roedores
de las banderas conquistadas
con tanta sangre y tanto fuego,
encharcados en sus haciendas,
depredadores infernales,
sátrapas mil veces vendidos
y vendedores, azuzados
por los lobos de Nueva York.
Máquinas hambrientas de dólares,
manchadas en el sacrificio
de sus pueblos martirizados,
prostituidos mercaderes
del pan y el aire americanos,
cenagales verdugos, piara
de prostibularios caciques,
sin otra ley que la tortura
y el hambre azotada del pueblo.

15 de Septiembre de 1973.

Nixon, Frei and Pinochet
Until today, until this bitter
Month of September
Of the year 1973.
With Boardoberry, Garrastazu and Banzer
Voracious hyenas
Of our history, rodents gnawing the banners conquered
With so much blood and so much fire,
Muddied on the estates,
Infernal depredators,
Satraps a thousand times sold
And sellers, incited
By the wolves of New York.
Machines hungry for dollars,
Stained in the sacrifice
Of their martyred peoples,
Prostituted merchants
Of the American bread and air,
Murdering quagmires, herd
Of whore mongering chiefs,
With no other law but torture
And hunger whipping the people.

*The official cause of Allende's death was suicide, in which case he was suicided.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Remastering the Film: Akira Kurosawa

Few societies are as well mapped-out on film as Japan. Japanese filmmakers are at least as widely known outside Japan as its authors: just as Tanizaki, Kawabata and Oe have been celebrated abroad for their writing (with the last two winning the Nobel prize), so Ozu, Oshima and Kitano have given Japan’s faces, its landscapes and its history to the rest of the world. And no other Japanese filmmaker did this as well or for as long as Akira Kurosawa. For 40 years, between the awestruck surprise that greeted Rashomon (1950) in the West (1) to the almost accustomed pleasure with which Dreams (1990) was embraced, Kurosawa seemed to move from strength to strength. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Thanks to the ever-suspicious bias of Japanese producers (who, after all, deprived us of Ozu’s genius for decades because they believed he was "too Japanese"), Kurosawa’s success in the West was regarded suspiciously as some sort of fluke. Despite his unarguable success, Kurosawa was, in fact, one of the greatest risk-taking filmmakers in the history of international film (many of those risks, I might add, didn’t pay off). Every one of his world-renowned films was either preceded or followed by a film more experimental in form or more difficult. You can even argue that some of his greatest successes (Rashomon, Ikiru [1952], Seven Samurai [1954]) were enormous risks for Kurosawa’s career – the ones that did pay off. This may sound strange, given that Kurosawa is now often remembered as something of a reactionary, rear-guard director (especially in Japan). But aside from the uncanny sense of what audiences wanted, there is a persistent experimental thread running throughout Kurosawa’s work.

If one discounts his first films, with which he sought to establish his career, Kurosawa’s first recognizable masterwork, Drunken Angel (1948), was also a daring (for the postwar "Red Scare" era) social document, foreshadowing Ikiru in its portrayal of the often futile efforts of a crusading (dipsomaniac) doctor – played by Takashi Shimura, who also played Watanabe in Ikiru. That was followed by a melodrama, The Quiet Duel (1949). Then Kurosawa made Stray Dog (1949), an edgy, brilliant portrait of a cop’s search for his stolen pistol one hot Tokyo summer. That was followed by a rather mawkish expose of Japanese tabloids, Scandal (1950). But his next film, Rashomon, cemented his reputation, with audiences and critics, if not with producers. And Kurosawa never had to look back.

Fifteen years and eleven films later, Kurosawa was both a critical and commercial god, thanks to one or two "greatest films of all time" in the interim (one of which is the quite humbling macho film of all time – and who am I to argue? –, Seven Samurai.) Once ensconced, however, he entered the darkest and most difficult period of his career. Not caring to be categorized as the superannuated director of samurai satires, such as Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), all of his films from 1965 to 1985 (of which, amazingly, there are only five) were potential career-ending gambles, and the Japanese film industry, which was undergoing the first of several transitional periods, was particularly unforgiving toward them.

Red Beard (1965) was a drastic investment of time and money for Kurosawa (the production was such a strain to his customary hero – for 16 films – Toshiro Mifune, that he had a falling out with Kurosawa and would never again appear in one of his films ). (2) Despite the film’s critical acclaim, Kurosawa spent the next five years trying to get a project – any project – off the ground. Dodes’ ka-den (1970) – Kurosawa’s first color film and a daring stylistic reach for the artist – had the unfortunate fate of being jeered at by most Japanese critics. Kurosawa was so shaken by the film’s reception that he attempted suicide. (3)

Due to the freshly remembered excesses of Red Beard (like deliberately taking two years to produce so that his actors and sets had the necessary lived-in effect that he wanted) and the off-beat unpleasantness of Dodes’ ka-den (whose eccentric characters inhabit a garbage dump) Kurosawa was considered so "un-bankable" by Japanese producers that he had to go to Soviet Russia to make his next film, Dersu Uzala (1974). Despite more awards and accolades, which were coming so thick and fast to Kurosawa that it must have exasperated producers who saw him only as a spendthrift maverick, Dersu was followed by another six years of drought. Finally, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, longtime Kurosawa fans, (4) approached him with an offer to finance a film. Kurosawa characteristically suggested a long-cherished project – Kagemusha (1980) – and got backing for it. Oddly enough, when the film was finished, Coppola and Lucas asked for cuts from their oft-admired master, thinking the esoteric story, set in pre-Tokugawa Japan, would swamp an American film audience. To appease these quizzical admirers, Kurosawa snipped 20 minutes from the film and it was released in the West to more fanfare than had accompanied any Kurosawa film since the early ‘60s.

Nevertheless, the cost of the production was so withering to Japanese producers (5) that Kurosawa had to resort to further foreign investment – this time from France’s Serge Silberman – for what is certainly his ultimate statement as an artist, the dauntingly grave transposition of Shakespeare’s King Lear to medieval Japan, Ran (1985). This film stands in Kurosawa’s work as Otello stands in Verdi’s – a final, magnificent statement of his philosophy and one of the most stirringly grand films in recent memory.

Once Kurosawa earned his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1989 (another back-handed award from the "Academy" – they had never awarded a Kurosawa film one of their golden bowling trophies), the Japanese realized that he was, indeed, a National Living Treasure (an honor bestowed by the Japanese government on certain [elderly] artists whose work is thereafter subsidized but whose earnings are also the sole property of the government). He managed to make three more films before old age and ill health forced him into grudging retirement. Dreams, Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993) – the last having never been released theatrically in the U.S. – were personal, meditative films, artistically free but controlled, somehow chastened.

One Kurosawa film, The Lower Depths (1957) is by far the most consistently underrated. (Some of the more obtuse film reference guides have even labelled Kurosawa’s film a "remake" of Jean Renoir’s Les Bas-fonds [1936].) (6) After his first Shakespeare adaptation, Throne of Blood (1957), Kurosawa felt emboldened to attempt an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play, and it is a major achievement.

Of all Kurosawa’s "transpositions" (which include The Idiot [1951], Throne of Blood, High and Low [1963] and Ran), The Lower Depths is the most effective. The reason for this is simple: it is not nearly as ambitious in scope.. The Idiot is misguidedly over-literal; High and Low ultimately (but brilliantly) fails to turn a potboiler into an apocalyptic modern parable; the Shakespeare adaptations (Throne of Blood and Ran) – though strikingly grand – sometimes teeter from the daunting effort of replacing the missing poetry with suitably vivid imagery. (7)

With The Lower Depths, Kurosawa found a way to accomplish what had defeated many distinguished filmmakers – namely, how to transpose a stage play to film without betraying either medium. Set entirely within the narrow precincts of a hovel at the bottom of a ravine, with only fleeting glimpses of the world of light above (from the opening shots, he seems determined to illustrate the title literally), Kurosawa fearlessly confounds the charge of "staginess" by constantly shifting perspectives, by exploiting his customary use of multiple cameras with a seamless encirclement of the action, subtly intercutting alternating views of a clearly continuous dramatic tableau. Shooting in just three days after 40 days of rehearsals, Kurosawa challenged his splendid ensemble of actors not only with prolonged takes but with an engagement of the action, an unpredictable shuttling between camera angles, which kept them all off balance as to exactly where to focus their performance.

Gorky’s play presents a Dostoevskian milieu of downtrodden humanity in a deceptive Chekhovian style. The characters spend all their time either longing for escape – for an undefined, far away "better life" – or else deriding such longing as futile and illusory. Alcohol, which the Actor admits has "poisoned" him, is the only escape for them, and the last scene, in which the remaining tenants (denizens) drink sake and perform an exhuberant musical number without instruments – only their voices –, ends abruptly with the news of the Actor’s suicide. "Idiot!" the gambler grumbles. "He did it to spoil the fun!"

Not surprisingly, the film’s general reception was nearly unanimously one of incomprehension. And although its reputation has improved through the decades, thanks largely to Donald Richie, (8) it remains underappreciated. Critics who are anxious to pigeonhole a filmmaker’s work have a hard time finding the right slot for The Lower Depths. Like its maker, it defies categorization.

1. Such was the sensation caused by Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 (where it won the Golden Lion) that, although individual films by Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse had been seen and acclaimed in selected cities in the West before WWII, apparently few filmgoers had remembered them or indeed could conceive of a Japanese film industry surviving the conquest of Imperial Japan.
2. A detailed – and fascinating – examination of the relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune can be found in Stuart Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf.
3. Stephen Prince uses the suicide attempt as a jumping-off point for his study of Kurosawa, The Warrior’s Camera.
4. Lucas even admitted that his first Star Wars was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
5. For instance, the film demanded the importation of herds of horses from Korea, since such a large number were no longer available in Japan.
6. Donald Richie, in his essay A Definition of the Japanese Film (collected in his book of essays A Lateral View), compares the two films: "Though Kurosawa is not considered by the Japanese to be particularly representative of Japanese culture, compare his The Lower Depths (Donzoko) with that of Jean Renoir (Les Basfonds). Kurosawa’s film is made of so much less – a house, the people living in it, the yard outside, the sky above. Renoir is most interested in character, in closeups of Louis Jouvet, of Jean Gabin. Kurosawa uses few closeups in his film. Rather we see his characters in groups of two or three, and always framed by the house, which is in every scene. Renoir takes us outside, Kurosawa keeps us inside. In all, Kurosawa shows us less, but his film implies more and demands more." (p.162)
7. Some of Kurosawa’s adaptations have seemed disingenuous to some. When Throne of Blood was released in the West, more than one critic questioned the wisdom of dispensing with Shakespeare’s blank verse, leaving little more than an obscure power struggle among medieval kilted Scottish tribesmen. Of course, Kurosawa’s "transposition" - to an obscure power struggle among medieval samurai lords - was sufficiently fascinating to grip audiences ever since.
8. Richie, who was also a student of Japanese theater, admires the film (in his ground-breaking study The Films of Akira Kurosawa), for its ingenious use of a constricted space. He also saw how the ending may have alienated some viewers: "The ending is very shocking. It certainly shocked the Japanese, the majority of whom disliked the film; the critics were particularly strong on what they innocently called Kurosawa’s ‘negative’ attitude." (p.90)

[This piece appeared originally in Senses of Cinema in 2002.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quotable Orwell 2

It is difficult to think of any politician who has lived to be eighty and still been regarded as a success. What we call a 'great' statesman normally means one who dies before his policy has had time to take effect. If Cromwell had lived a few years longer he would probably have fallen from power, in which case we should now regard him as a failure. If Pétain had died in 1930, France would have venerated him as a hero and patriot. Napoleon remarked once that if only a cannon ball had happened to hit him when he was riding into Moscow, he would have gone down in history as the greatest man who ever lived.

"James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution," 1946.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Swimmer part eight

I was reading of James Hamilton-Paterson's lost swimmer long before my latest arrival in the Philippines. But not long after that, on rereading his beautiful book Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds (which is one of the abiding joys of owning books), I was struck by the feeling that the swimmer was myself.

Hamilton-Paterson and I are similarly obsessed with the Philippines, its beauty and its sadness. Its beauty and sadness temper each other in fascinating ways. It was he who was swimming one day in the ocean close to his island of "Tiwarik", locatable off the north coast of Negros Oriental, a few hundred miles from where I write this, when he found himself separated from his outrigger. I have spread out his narrative just as he did throughout his book.

Meanwhile, what of the swimmer who lost his boat at the beginning of this book and was left all alone with his panic in the middle of the ocean? That he is here to write the question means the sharks did not get him. Nor pirates, nor fishermen. The engine he heard was another figment. After a long, long time his sights cleared or light rays unkinked and there, no more than eighty yards away, sat the boat. It was solid and unmistakable. It had the air of never having moved, of being practically nailed to the sea, while the swimmer immediately felt his limbs achingly heavy as though he had been on a long and willful excursion and had returned to his senses in the nick of time.

More mysterious still, regaining the boat was like putting on a pair of spectacles, for the low palm-fringed coast became visible exactly where it ought to have been. Ever since that day the swimmer has been unable to account for what happened other than by using a cryptic phrase such as that he fell out of one gaze and into another. He has made the visible a little too hard to see, even though his life depended on it.

Later, he decided the sensation had been less of being lost in the sea, or lost to the sea, than of the sea's being lost to him. He was surrounded by water which could have engulfed him; yet at the same time it was a sea which had receded in a way not immediately obvious, taking with it whatever was essential - knowledge, perhaps - for survival. For a long moment there was a boundary fixed around him, an exclusive zone of taint, while perhaps monsters did swim up unseen from the deep, sadly, to gaze at a pair of tiny white limbs cycling high in their skies on the very edge of space. Even had they eaten him the time of their dominion was past. Eventually the legs vanished and the swimmer made off, leaving silvery paddle pocks like fading footprints. The long subsequent journey, of think about the sea and the oceans, showed him he was treating them as something which had already been lost.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Operation Iraqi Freedom

When the war in Iraq began, the lines for and against it were drawn rather hastily, and as it dragged on, as all modern wars do, it has become a diverting pastime to watch as the people on both sides stood on their own necks to hold their positions. Seven years ago, it seemed to many people of various political persuasions that the high ground in the debate was in favor of the war, and not at all because of the mysterious WMDs that fooled - or appeared to fool - alot of people. Cheney and Rumsfeld clearly had designs on Iraq whether there were WMDs or not. They knew damned well there were none, but they also knew that by the time this became public knowledge, it would be too late.

But people who would not ordinarily have spoken out about the war were coming forward to insist that America should assume an imperial role in world affairs. They often sounded like the Rudyard Kipling who wrote of America taking up "the white man's burden" in 1899 with its colonization of the Philippines. (1)

Most of those imperial power worshippers have softened their views, after the slaughter of somewhere between 150,000 and over a million (depending on whom you want to believe) civilians, 4,734 coalition troops (2), the disgraceful hanging of Saddam Hussein, and the expense of three-quarters of a trillion dollars. But most of them continue to argue that the result has left everyone (except the dead) better off.

But the reason for this preemptive war is still hard to take for many people, even if it had been a total success. "A preventive war," Orwell wrote in 1947, "is a crime not easily committed by a country that retains any traces of democracy." (3) Meanwhile Osama Bin Laden is still at large, and the Taliban are still in Afghanistan.

Thirty years ago, the Mujahideen, as they called themselves then (one of whom was Bin Laden), got the mighty Soviet army stuck in a war they couldn't win. When it became obvious to even the stupidest general, various exit strategies were concocted, ending in the final withdrawal in 1989. Afghanistan became the Soviet Union's Vietnam, and the Russian economy never recovered.

Once the U.S. announced its impending withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, attacks on troops and their civilian replacements are on the rise. The invariable interpretation of these attacks is that they are a direct response to our flagging commitment and our imminent departure. I believe this is true, but I don't believe it shows that the terrorists are very keen on our leaving. On the contrary, to me it appears that they are stepping up their attacks to persuade the U.S. that they should reconsider withdrawing its troops altogether.

Military leaders are always cautioning against "playing into the hands" of the terrorists when discussing an endgame to either war. But what does the enemy really want? Wouldn't they rather that American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan so that they can target them on Muslim soil? Isn't it in the interests of Al Qaeda to keep U.S. forces there for as long as possible, at a further expense of American lives and millions more American dollars? Aren't the generals themselves playing into the hands of our enemies by advocating a withdrawal only after absolute victory? (4)

(1) Kipling had three appalling weaknesses as a writer: his mysogyny ("A woman is a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke"), his racism ("new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child") and imperialism ("Take up the White Man's burden!/Have done with childish days--/The lightly-proffered laurel,/The easy ungrudged praise:/Comes now, to search your manhood/Through all the thankless years,/Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,/The judgment of your peers.")
(2) As of this writing.
(3) Partisan Review, July-August 1947.
(4) "A phrase much used in political circles in this country is 'playing into the hands of.' It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are 'playing into the hands of' some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately." Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune 2 June 1944.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quotable Orwell

Since I posted George Orwell's Ready Reckoner early in 2009, I have found myself quoting him in so many of my posts that I've decided to offer up one quotation a week. As he wrote in his essay "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool": "If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way."

Here is something he wrote in a review of Cyril Connolly's novel The Rock Pool for the New English Weekly, 23 July 1936. (Connolly was a fellow student of Orwell's at Eton.)

The awful thraldom of money is upon everyone and there are only three immediately obvious escapes. One is religion, another is unending work, the third is the kind of sluttish antinomianism - lying in bed till four in the afternoon, drinking Pernod - that Mr. Connolly seems to admire. The third is certainly the worst, but in any case the essential evil is to think in terms of escape. The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet be fully alive.