Friday, December 31, 2010

Being There

In 1990, a film was released called Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Paul Verhoeven. It employed a narrative device - or "gimmick" - around which the action of the film revolved. In a world of the future,(1) trips to Mars are so routine that people can travel there for their vacations. So a company, calling itself Total Recall, introduces an invention that can implant memories of an experience directly into a person's mind so that, for example, instead of going to all the expense of time and money for a trip to Mars, he could simply pay for a whole series of memories of the experience without ever leaving earth or missing a day of work. When the process is complete, the person would remember having made a trip to Mars in person, with selected details involving everything from sight seeing to sexual partners.

This gimmick had one serious philosophical flaw that, for me, compromised the film completely. It is the notion, which I don't think anyone would agree with, that a memory of an experience is of equal value to the actual experience - that simply remembering an event in one's past is as important as having lived through it. In other words, the film lamely argues, remembering having visited an extraordinary place, or tasted some marvelous fruit or made love to an exquisite woman, is as good as actually being there - seeing the place for the first time, eating the fruit, making passionate love. It assumes that experience is not so much the moment to moment direct sensations and direct reactions to life, but what we remember.

How dull it must be to have nothing but memories, nothing but past experience, to remind oneself of what being alive was like, of what it could be like again if one would simply open oneself to life, to the surprises and frustrations of the moment. Being caught between the two is where most of us live. Robert Frost addressed the dilemma directly in his poem "Carpe Diem":

Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited, (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
"Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure."
The age-long theme is Age's.
'Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing -
Too present to imagine.

A much more compelling film, called After Life in the U.S., could as easily, but for copyright laws, have been called Total Recall.(2) The film's central creative concept is that, upon one's death, one arrives at a nondescript place in which people, like guidance counselors, inform newcomers that they are dead and that the task before them, which lasts one week, is to choose from among all the memories of their lives the one in which they will spend eternity.

One old man, who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of sexual exploits with strange women, chooses the memory of his daughter's wedding to dwell in for eternity. A teenage girl at first chooses a trip to Disney World, but changes her mind for a memory of being with her mother in her infancy. One young man refuses to choose, and winds up staying on as a case worker in the afterlife way station.

On the final day, once they have all made their choices, one by one each dead person disappears into their memories. In a statement accompanying the film, the film's director, Hirokazu Koreeda, stated that

"My grandfather became senile when I was six. the word Alzheimer's did not yet exist and no one in my family or in our community understood what happened to him. His forgetfulness began with pestering my mother to serve meals we had just finished eating. Gradually he began to lose his way on familiar streets and had to be escorted home by the local police. One day, he no longer recognized our faces. Finally he could not recognize his own. As a child, I comprehended little of what I saw, but I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died. I now understand how critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self. . . . Our memories are not fixed or static. They are dynamic, reflecting selves that are constantly changing. So the act of remembering, of looking back at the past, is by no means redundant or negative. Rather, it challenges us to evolve and mature. The recreation of memories allow the dead to come to terms with the past, affirming and accepting their lives in the process. It offers respite to those who couldn't find meaning in their past."

If I could choose one memory, one day of my life to relive for eternity, I wouldn't make an obvious choice, like one special birthday, or a Christmas from my childhood, or the day I met a certain girl, or my wedding day. I think I would choose a last day - the last day of a precious vacation, or the day before I was to leave home for a tour of duty in Korea, or indeed the day before I came here to the Philippines. I would awake on the morning of that day with the knowledge that it was the last day. And I would lie down at night knowing that when I awoke I would have to say goodbye and leave someone behind, a beloved place or a lovely time in my life, for an unknown stretch of months or years - or forever. But when I awoke, it would be the same day rewound to the beginning, the last day to live all over again.

It wouldn't be hard to discover what memory Alun Lewis, the Welsh poet, would have chosen. He captured it in a poem - his last night alone with his wife before embarking on a troopship in the Second World War - a journey from which he did not return. It is a familiar scene, repeated every time a soldier is deployed far from home, but it has never been as beautifully expressed:

So we must say Goodbye, my darling,
And go, as lovers go, for ever;
Tonight remains, to pack and fix on labels
And make an end of lying down together.

I put a final shilling in the gas,
And watch you slip your dress below your knees
And lie so still I hear your rustling comb
Modulate the autumn in the trees.

And all the countless things I shall remember
Lay mummy-cloths of silence round my head;
I fill the carafe with a drink of water;
You say 'We paid a guinea for this bed,'

And then, 'We'll leave some gas, a little warmth
For the next resident, and these dry flowers,'
And turn your face away, afraid to speak
The big word, that Eternity is ours.

Your kisses close my eyes and yet you stare
As though god struck a child with nameless fears;
Perhaps the water glitters and discloses
Time's chalice and its limpid useless tears.

Everything we renounce except our selves;
Selfishness is the last of all to go;
Our sighs are exhalations of the earth,
Our footprints leave a track across the snow.

We made the universe to be our home,
Our nostrils took the wind to be our breath,
Our hearts are massive towers of delight,
We stride across the seven seas of death.

Yet when all's done you'll keep the emerald
I placed upon your finger in the street;
And I will keep the patches that you sewed
On my old battledress tonight, my sweet.

(1) Just as in RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven makes this world seem remarkably unpleasant.
(2) The Japanese title is from the kana for "Wonderful Life" - Wandafuru Raifu.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Can Socialists Be Happy?

by George Orwell
[Tribune, 24 December 1943]

The thought of Christmas raises almost automatically the thought of Charles Dickens, and for two very good reasons. To begin with, Dickens is one of the few English writers who have actually written about Christmas. Christmas is the most popular of English festivals, and yet it has produced astonishingly little literature. There are the carols, mostly medieval in origin; there is a tiny handful of poems by Robert Bridges, T.S. Eliot, and some others, and there is Dickens; but there is very little else. Secondly, Dickens is remarkable, indeed almost unique, among modern writers in being able to give a convincing picture of happiness. Dickens dealt successfully with Christmas twice in a chapter of The Pickwick Papers and in A Christmas Carol. The latter story was read to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its 'bourgeois sentimentality' completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications. To begin with, however thick Dickens may lay on the paint, however disgusting the 'pathos' of Tiny Tim may be, the Cratchit family give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance, the citizens of William Morris's News From Nowhere don't sound happy. Moreover and Dickens's understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat. The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail. The steam of the Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour, and in a double sense the ghost of Scrooge stands beside the dinner table. Bob Cratchit even wants to drink to Scrooge's health, which Mrs Cratchit rightly refuses. The Cratchits are able to enjoy Christmas precisely because it only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.

All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn't mean 'a good place', it means merely a 'non-existent place') have been common in literature of the past three or four hundred years but the 'favourable' ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well. By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H.G. Wells. Wells's vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too- comfortable world. All 'favourable' Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness. News From Nowhere is a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty's, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy. But it is more impressive that Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest imaginative writers who have ever lived, is no more successful in constructing a 'favourable' Utopia than the others. The earlier parts of Gulliver's Travels are probably the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written. Every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time. Where Swift fails, however, is in trying to describe a race of beings whom he admires. In the last part, in contrast with disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the inhabitants of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, 'reasonable' lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from 'passion', including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principles, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the earlier parts of the book Swift has shown where man's folly and scoundrelism lead him: but take away the folly and scoundrelism, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

Attempts at describing a definitely other-worldly happiness have been no more successful. Heaven is as great a flop as Utopia though Hell occupies a respectable place in literature, and has often been described most minutely and convincingly.

It is a commonplace that the Christian Heaven, as usually portrayed, would attract nobody. Almost all Christian writers dealing with Heaven either say frankly that it is indescribable or conjure up a vague picture of gold, precious stones, and the endless singing of hymns. This has, it is true, inspired some of the best poems in the world: Thy walls are of chalcedony, Thy bulwarks diamonds square, Thy gates are of right orient pearl Exceeding rich and rare! But what it could not do was to describe a condition in which the ordinary human being actively wanted to be. Many a revivalist minister, many a Jesuit priest (see, for instance, the terrific sermon in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist) has frightened his congregation almost out of their skins with his word-pictures of Hell. But as soon as it comes to Heaven, there is a prompt falling-back on words like 'ecstasy' and 'bliss', with little attempt to say what they consist in. Perhaps the most vital bit of writing on this subject is the famous passage in which Tertullian explains that one of the chief joys of Heaven is watching the tortures of the damned.

The pagan versions of Paradise are little better, if at all. One has the feeling it is always twilight in the Elysian fields. Olympus, where the gods lived, with their nectar and ambrosia, and their nymphs and Hebes, the 'immortal tarts' as D.H. Lawrence called them, might be a bit more homelike than the Christian Heaven, but you would not want to spend a long time there. As for the Muslim Paradise, with its 77 houris per man, all presumably clamouring for attention at the same moment, it is just a nightmare. Nor are the spiritualists, though constantly assuring us that 'all is bright and beautiful', able to describe any next-world activity which a thinking person would find endurable, let alone attractive. It is the same with attempted descriptions of perfect happiness which are neither Utopian nor other-worldly, but merely sensual. They always give an impression of emptiness or vulgarity, or both. At the beginning of La Pucelle Voltaire describes the life of Charles IX with his mistress, Agnes Sorel. They were 'always happy', he says. And what did their happiness consist in? An endless round of feasting, drinking, hunting and love-making. Who would not sicken of such an existence after a few weeks? Rabelais describes the fortunate spirits who have a good time in the next world to console them for having had a bad time in this one. They sing a song which can be roughly translated: 'To leap, to dance, to play tricks, to drink the wine both white and red, and to do nothing all day long except count gold crowns.' How boring it sounds, after all! The emptiness of the whole notion of an everlasting 'good time' is shown up in Breughel's picture The Land of the Sluggard, where the three great lumps of fat lie asleep, head to head, with the boiled eggs and roast legs of pork coming up to be eaten of their own accord.

It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast. That is why the conception of Heaven or Utopia varies from age to age. In pre-industrial society Heaven was described as a place of endless rest, and as being paved with gold, because the experience of the average human being was overwork and poverty. The houris of the Muslim Paradise reflected a polygamous society where most of the women disappeared into the harems of the rich. But these pictures of 'eternal bliss' always failed because as the bliss became eternal (eternity being thought of as endless time), the contrast ceased to operate. Some of the conventions embedded in our literature first arose from physical conditions which have now ceased to exist. The cult of spring is an example. In the Middle Ages spring did not primarily mean swallows and wild flowers. It meant green vegetables, milk and fresh meat after several months of living on salt pork in smoky windowless huts. The spring songs were gay

Do nothing but eat and make good cheer,
And thank Heaven for the merry year
When flesh is cheap and females dear,
And lusty lads roam here and there
So merrily, And ever among so merrily!

because there was something to be so gay about. The winter was over, that was the great thing. Christmas itself, a pre-Christian festival, probably started because there had to be an occasional outburst of overeating and drinking to make a break in the unbearable northern winter. The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem. Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain. But clearly we are not aiming at the kind of world Dickens described, nor, probably, at any world he was capable of imagining. The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. What are we aiming at, if not a society in which 'charity' would be unnecessary? We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia? At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue. Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed. The world wants something which it is dimly aware could exist, but cannot accurately define. This Christmas Day, thousands of men will be bleeding to death in the Russian snows, or drowning in icy waters, or blowing one another to pieces on swampy islands of the Pacific; homeless children will be scrabbling for food among the wreckage of German cities. To make that kind of thing impossible is a good objective. But to say in detail what a peaceful world would be like is a different matter.

Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness. This is the case even with a great writer like Swift, who can flay a bishop or a politician so neatly, but who, when he tries to create a superman, merely leaves one with the impression the very last he can have intended that the stinking Yahoos had in them more possibility of development than the enlightened Houyhnhnms.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

There has been a political fight going on in America over the custody of Christmas. Because of the insistence of liberals that the First Amendment to the Constitution should be enforced, courts have been ordering that Nativity scenes be removed from the front of public buildings, and that the religion-specific greeting "Merry Christmas" should be replace with the generic and inclusive "Happy Holidays."

Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the holiday belongs to Christians and that the efforts to secularize the holiday are assaults not just on religion but on American cultural heritage.

But does December 25th really belong to Christians? Or is "Christmas" just the latest name for a much older, pre-Christian festival? It was the Roman Emperor Constantine who established December 25th for the celebration of Christ's birth, because it was his favorite holiday in honor of the sun god. But there is also the tradition of "Yuletide," which was a festival among Germanic people that took place, according to their lunar calendar, in late December or early January.

Like so many pagan traditions, gods, and myths, the early Christian church appropriated them in order to attract followers who would otherwise have remained happily pagan. Pagan holy sites were consecrated as Christian sanctuaries, some pagan gods became Christian saints, and certain pagan festivals were incorporated into the Christian calendar as "holy days."

A pagan feast of life and light that was celebrated on the darkest day of the year - the Winter Solstice - as a momentary relief from the cold and gloom was the likeliest origin of what we celebrate on December 25th.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Brother in Arms

"And when Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said unto Abner, the captain of the host, Abner, whose son is this youth? And Abner said, As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell." I Samuel 17:55

On December 22, 2005, the day before I left town, Josh Omvig put on his Army BDUs, climbed into the cab of his truck, put the barrel of a beretta into his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 22. His obituary was published in the Des Moines Register on Christmas Day. Because I had gone to Alaska, I didn't hear about it until a month later.

Josh, whom I always called Omvig (and he always called me Harper) had returned from Iraq about a year before and gone through his own PTSD by going on a six month bender. Then, as unceremoniously as he had begun, he stopped drinking and went back to the job that he left when he deployed, for a private security company. And that was where we met.

I was twice his age, but he rose quickly up the ranks in the company and became a watch commander. In early 2005, when I was going through the terminal stages of an abortive engagement, I went off a deep end of my own. Because of his friendship, which he gave without question, his integrity, which was unmistakable, and his powers of persuasion, he kept me from getting fired when I committed the normally unpardonable offense of a "no call, no show."

I last met him in November when I was hiking past his office in Urbandale because my car had once again broken down. I had finally quit the company by then, and was on my way to an appointment for another job. He saw me across the road and before I knew it his truck pulled up to the sidewalk and he told me to get in. He not only gave me a ride to my appointment, but he waited until I was done and gave me a ride all the way home. A few weeks later he called me to announce that he, too, had quit the company. My last words to him were in a message I left on his voicemail, telling him that I was leaving Des Moines and going to live with my sister in Alaska.

As I would have expected, he gave me no indication of his emotional travail. All I heard was that a fellow soldier back in Iraq had died. One of the things that civilians can't understand is that however much a soldier longs to be home, half of him wants to return to combat with his brothers-in-arms. I can only guess that this was part of what drove Josh to his deadly decision.

His family created a
website and a foundation in his name to help other soldiers with their readjustment to civilian - to a civil - life, and to give them a place to tell their own stories. Because of the outpouring of responses, and the realization of the enormity of the problem, an Iowa representative introduced the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act. It was passed and signed into law in 2007.

One of the untold accomplishments of the two wars Americans are fighting simultaneously on the other side of the world and at great expense of dollars and lives has been to further alienate the experience of soldiers from the undisturbed lives of the rest of us. A few well-intentioned movies have tried to bring it closer, but the pictures could as well have been captured on Mars.

Returning soldiers have always had to deal with the unreality of a home front that is untouched by the horrors they were subjected to. In a sense, the soldiers endured the horrors just so the homeliness of hometown America would remain intact, exactly as if one of them was real and the other a nightmare from which they have suddenly awakened.

A film that confronts the disconnect between the experience of soldiers in combat and the strip malls and strip joints of home is The Valley of Elah. (The title refers to the scene of an ancient battle between the Israelites and the Philistines chronicled in the first book of Samuel.) A man (Tommy Lee Jones) whose son was murdered upon his return from Iraq recites the Bible story to a boy whose mother (Charlize Theron) is investigating the murder.

The outcome of the investigation reveals the full extent of the war's impact on the soldiers. The film allows us to infer the identity of its David and its Goliath. But as America's wars dwindle towards their close, I am left to wonder that maybe Goliath has slain David this time, and that the Philistine is us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Confessions of a Film Hater

I first encountered the writings of David Thomson in the occasional pieces he wrote for British and American periodicals like The New Republic and The Manchester Guardian. Because he chose to limit himself in those pieces to popular culture, his writing on film was almost invariably restricted to Hollywood, movie stars, and the so-called "Golden Age" of the big movie studios. A list of the titles to his credit is revealing: America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality, Showman: A Life of David O. Selznick, Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts, Hollywood: A Celebration, Marlon Brando, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, Nicole Kidman, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman.

I didn't consider taking him seriously until I got hold of the fourth edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, which I reviewed for Senses of Cinema in 2003 and reprint below with minor corrections, and in which he wrote about not just James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, but Fellini and Bergman - Ingmar, not Ingrid - not illuminatingly, of course, but with one foot planted squarely in showbiz and the other on a banana peel.

Thomson never really seems interested in film for art's sake. He knows that a film can be as rich as anything in the other, older arts. But he would really prefer something like Some Like It Hot, which offers graven images and false idols - wisecracks instead of wisdom and poseurs rather than poets.

Confessions of a Film Hater

As an artistic medium, which is a distinction lost on most filmgoers, film is particularly needy of critical clarity. If this has been slowly, often painfully, realized over the years – at the expense of too many fortunes and reputations – it is no thanks to the hangers-on of the medium, who are in it for ephemeral fame or simply the vicarious thrill of rubbing up against, even in effigy, the likes of Jack Nicholson and Nicole Kidman. It is these particular people who are always there to remind us that it's only a movie. Whether chastening or maddening, every film enthusiast must contend with the prevailing uninformed attitude that L'Avventura and Tokyo Story and Smiles of a Summer Night are only movies. And Herman Melville was a fishmonger.

In 1971, the University of California Press published Georges Sadoul's by no means comprehensive Dictionary of Films. It was just about all that Sadoul, then a pre-eminent film critic, could handle. And he pulled it off splendidly. The following year, his Dictionary of Filmmakers was published. Alas, both books were “updated” by the often antithetical remarks of a Canadian writer named Peter Morris. If nothing else, Sadoul proved that it could be done and that it was worth doing.

After 30 years and four editions, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film (or Cinema in Britain) at least demonstrates that perseverance has its rewards. It was an audacious undertaking when Thomson began it – an assemblage of what appeared to have been innumerable jottings, many of them doubtless written in the dark. Which is why they often seem disjointed and discontinuous, as if the person who wrote them had to pass through several sensibilities before finding the wherewithal to put them together in one volume.

A second edition followed five years later. 14 years had to elapse before the third edition hit the bookshelves, requiring extensive revising and expanding, not to mention shelf re-enforcement. The fourth edition may as well be the last, even if it probably won't. It has not grown in erudition or in taste. It has merely grown heavier (1). But its size makes it the perfect coffee table book. And if it is far less informative that Leslie Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, which contents itself with the compiling of data rather than prickly opinions, it is incomparably more entertaining – in ways that Thomson surely hadn't intended.

For, indeed, “unintentional” would seem to be the overall effect that Thomson has on this reader – either unintentionally funny or unintentionally unfunny. As for his outrageousness (one of the book's biggest selling points), I'm afraid that Thomson was being quite deliberate. No other critic, attempting to cover as much territory, is so erratic in his opinions. He is off the mark when it matters the most and when it matters the least. And he is so wildly inaccurate with his opprobrium that his approval quickly develops into a kiss of death.

Of the numerous examples I could cite, I will limit myself to the ones that do the most undeserved damage to genuinely deserving work (2). Fellini: “This quartet [I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone, Nights of Cabiria] needs to be put firmly in its place. They are slick, mechanical stories, feeding on superficial feelings and uncritical of sentimentality or grand effects. As to style or creative intelligence, they do not begin to intrude upon the achievement of La Signora Senza Camelie, Le Amiche, much less the films Rossellini was making at the same time.” (3) That last sentence represents a favorite tactic of Thomson's – the snobbish dismissal of one critical reputation in favor of another. For instance, Kurosawa – according to Thomson – is good, but not as good as Mizoguchi: “Rashomon is a simpleminded proof of an idea that informs many films . . . whereas Ugetsu simply incorporates the principle that people see events differently.” That Mizoguchi could not even have conceived a film as strikingly dynamic as Rashomon is, I guess, beside the point.

De Sica: “He stands now as a minor director.” No wonder, since Shoeshine, Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D are, for Thomson – if for no one else – “schematically contrived.” On Claude Autant-Lara, surely the most underrated French director of its Golden Age, he is unnecessarily snide: “He is the sort of director to film classic novels for educational television, adept at glossing meaning and arranging furniture.” And there go, at one unfair swipe, priceless film adaptations of Radiguet, Colette, even of Stendhal.

Of Julien Duvivier: “During the 1930s he was very successful commercially: Poil de Carotte, Pepe le Moko, and Un Carnet de Bal are all blandly proficient works.” Need I point out that these three films became instant classics and have made countless “favorites” lists ever since? Or is that the reason Thomson hates them? He adds, petulantly, that “It is hard to feel warmly toward a director reluctant to celebrate beautiful women.” Whatever on earth that is supposed to mean, Duvivier's films are often monuments to earthy, genuine women – Vivian Romance, Mireille Balin, Marie Bell.

Further in, Thomson upbraids too many filmmakers for their ignorance and/or mistreatment of women. He has a special circle of hell reserved for Lina Wertmuller and her fabulous films of the '70s, and takes up the altogether safe argument that she was a woman-hater. Then he pokes fun at her politics. Once more, he points out, her success – as if anyone put her up to it – would have better served the likes of Chantal Akerman, Stephanie Rothman, or Yvonne Rainer. Brave of Thomson to drag such names out of obscurity, except none of these presumably more deserving women filmmakers is otherwise mentioned in his Dictionary.

There are further howlers. “Les Enfants du Paradis is a lesser film than The Golden Coach, which balances stage and reality.” Whatever Thomson means by reality, the Carne/Prevert masterpiece is a deliberate celebration of the artificiality of the theater and the impossibility of reconciling its artifice with life. Truly the unhappiest of men is the dreamer, Baptiste, who worships his ideal Garance, even as several other men make love to her.

There is also a pervasive enmity against Charlie Chaplin that arises throughout Thomson's writing. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate why he detests Chaplin, only to make one wonder why on earth anyone else should. He even wonders at one point (and I am not making this up) if there is perhaps more than a coincidental resemblance between Chaplin and Hitler.

Lately, Thomson is even including some well-known critics, only to misinterpret both their lives (the proper subject for a Biographical Dictionary) and their work. For Thomson, James Agee – a marvelous writer and “amateur critic” (his own words) – is “far from reliable.” Yet Agee is a perfect antidote to Thomson: “Black Narcissus is that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.” For Agee, the same film provoked this response: “Barring perhaps one in any hundred who willingly practice it, I think celibacy is of itself faintly obscene, so I admire still less the dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an opportunity for titillation in the best of taste” (4).

Thomson continually expresses contempt for the international “arthouse” circuit, without acknowledging that it managed, for a few decades, to help sustain film art and expose audiences that would never otherwise have seen a film by Bergman or Fellini or Godard to some of the more challenging – if salacious – films of the 50s and 60s. Hilariously, Bergman's magnificent Sawdust and Tinsel was renamed The Naked Night for the American art-house audience. As more than one critic has since observed, the latter actually a better title for that harrowing film, which – true to form – Thomson doesn't even mention.

On more than one occasion, Thomson even outrageously belittles cinematography: “The image is so fundamental and so wonderful in and of itself, but it is a given: every day, all over the world, millions of people take wonderful or useful pictures. Is it so remarkable that a few hundred people do it for movies?” His impertinent question begs an inescapable answer – “indeed it is.” Assuming Thomsen has eyes in his head, he must be capable of distinguishing a Ford from a Ferrari (or a Fellini). But if he thinks Raoul Coutard and Winton C. Hoch are equals at taking pictures, then Thomson has never read Blake: "We ever must believe a lie/When we see with, not through the eye."

And he quixotically insists that films can only be fully experienced in the original context of a darkened, big screen movie theater. Not having the connections that Thomson has had, I can say wholeheartedly that the advent of video and DVD has been a godsend, after spending most of my teens and twenties chasing after films from theaters to auditoriums to classrooms (and even a few operating theaters now and then). It was an impossible task, in those days, to take in every film worth seeing. If you had told me then that it would be possible some day to own a pristine copy of Fellini's Il Bidone or Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (5) I'd have said you were crazy.

But there are sins of omission as well. Again, to cite only the worst transgressions, how to account for the conspicuous absence of people such as Emilio Fernandez (1903– 1986), who, aside from his unforgettable portrayal of the Federalista Mapache in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, directed some of the most luminously beautiful Mexican films of the 1940s? (6) Or the unequalled scenarist Jacques Prevert (1900–1977), who was at least as responsible for the “poetic realism” of 1930s French Cinema as the rather commonplace director Marcel Carne? Or Jan Troell (1931–), the Swedish director, writer, cinematographer and editor of masterpieces of epic naturalism (7) and the only true heir to the legacy of Victor Sjostrom? Or Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927–2001), whose modernist fables of the '60s are among the defining works of latter-day Japanese film? And, just to include my short list, what about Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jiri Trnka, Jean Epstein, Mario Monicelli, Claude Goretta, Kaneto Shindo, Pietro Germi, Bernhard Wicki, Yves Robert, Shohei Imamura? Then there are those splendid shooting stars – all the "homo unius libri" who made a single film worthy of immortality and then disappeared, such as the Frenchmen Serge Bourguignon and Alain Jessua, the Italians Vittorio De Seta and Mauro Bolognini, the Russian Joseph Heifitz, the Czech Ivan Passer? Any cineaste worth his weight in celluloid knows full well who these people are and how integral they are to any recognizable overview of the medium. Surely Mr. Thomson, fastidious buff that he is, has heard of them? But such omissions are glaring, and perhaps attest to some of the severe holes in Thomson's necessarily selective moviegoing experience. Against Thomson's experience of sheer numbers of films, I am just as happy with my own haphazard, parochial and entirely leisured exploration of the phantasmagoria of film history. It has, at the very least, allowed for some experience of life to sneak in during the intermissions.

Of course, the law of averages being what it is, no single critic could possibly be wrong all of the time. In this respect, Thomson sometimes emerges as a usable critic when his idiosyncratic prejudices somehow converge on a justifiable opinion. I applauded, for instance, his refreshing disrespect for Sergei Eisenstein – that purveyor of Socialist propaganda in the name of montage. He manages to defuse the current specious adulation of John Ford, who rivals D.W. Griffith for sheer pious stupidity. And he is a perceptive (if troubled) Antonioni fan. He also manages to do a few other worthy filmmakers similar justice: Marcel Ophuls, Carol Reed, Sam Peckinpah, Jerzy Skolimowski (even if he neglects to mention his splendid adaptation of the Robert Graves story The Shout), and one of my international film heroes, Dusan Makavejev.

But there is one further flaw in Thomson's book – his prose. It should become obvious to anyone thumbing through this Dictionary that it is when he is at his most passionate that Thomson is most embarrassingly bad as a writer. Here is on Juliette Binoche: “How many ways are there of watching her grave face? Are the cheeks carved by love's gaze? Did that hair fall on her head like night? And the eyes . . . are they part of her life, or their own living creatures? And yet . . . if only this magnificent, melancholy, and nearly stunned woman had just a touch of . . . Debbie Reynolds.” (The ellipses are Thomson's.) His metaphors are at best far-fetched and at worst meaningless. When he writes that Warren Oates “has a face like prison bread,” he is obviously assuming that the reader, like him, has no idea what prison bread is like. Harry Dean Stanton “is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann's trees or 'Mexico' in a Peckinpah film.” (I'll just leave that one alone.) And, occasionally, Thomson baffles even himself: “The Shop Around the Corner may be as sweet and light as an Esterhazy honey ball – whatever that is.” Then you come across this gem, embedded in his paean to Howard Hawks: “The dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture are Utopian procrastinations to avert the paraphernalia of released love that can only expend itself.” Thomson describes a paper written by Pasolini in 1965 as “esoterically argued and barbarously worded”. He could as easily have been describing his own book.

I have called this essay "Confessions of a Film Hater" for many reasons – some less obvious than others. There has been a conspiracy afoot for decades which suggests that there is no such thing as high art and low art, and it is usually invoked to the disadvantage of only one thing: art itself. Beauty cannot be redefined by accommodating its opposite – it can only be cheapened, vulgarised. And art can only be made meaningless when it is equated with nonart, with lower forms. Thomson insists that melodrama is where film is at its best. When he obliquely praises Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) (so obliquely that he nearly breaks his neck), Thomson gives the game away: “it helps persuade this viewer that cinema – or American film – is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.” Never mind the fuss, the Ten Best lists, the Golden Palms, Golden Lions and Hollywood's own Golden Bowling Trophies. There is a wind – and Thomson has done nothing to dissipate it – that howls that same, tired, stupid phrase, It's only a movie.

(1) Much of the expansion, which has become unfortunately necessary for Thomson by now, is actually unwelcome. Surely Thomson would have been pardoned for not giving Ben Affleck a nod.
(2) I write this mindful of the case of Charles Thomas Samuels, an academic, but challenging, film critic, who committed suicide in 1974 – partly because “he thought he had 'killed' others in his reviews”(John Simon, “Foreword”, Mastering the Film and Other Essays by Charles Thomas Samuels, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1977, p. ix). Thomson is in a far better position to “kill,” but he obviously derives some satisfaction from it.
(3) I found Thomson's panning of La Strada particularly inexplicable, since it was the very film that demonstrated to me, at the age of 13, that film was capable of being an art.
(4) James Agee, Agee on Film, Modern Library, New York, 2000.
(5) It wasn't until its release on DVD that I had my first opportunity to see Dreyer's wonderful film.
(6) Thomson dwells (which is his wont) on the beauty of Dolores Del Rio without even noticing her career in Mexican films – Flor Silvestre, Maria Candelaria, etc.
(7) Here Is Your Life , The Emigrants, The Flight of the Eagle, et al.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

As He Pleased

[One of the qualities that distinguishes the writing of George Orwell is his ability to show how direct experience shaped his ideas about politics and society. He arrived at a deep understanding of the workings of capitalism not from theory, but from the brutal reality of life among the poor. At the age of nineteen he took the first extraordinary step of his adult life by joining the Indian Imperial Police. Orwell related an incident he witnessed on the outward passage to Burma in his column "As I Please" in the 3 January 1947 issue of Tribune.]

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I was travelling on a liner to Burma. Though not a big ship, it was a comfortable and even a luxurious one, and when one was not asleep or playing deck games one usually seemed to be eating. The meals were of that stupendous kind that steamship companies used to vie with one another in producing, and in between times there were snacks such as apples, ices, biscuits and cups of soup, lest anyone should find himself fainting from hunger. Moreover, the bars opened at ten in the morning and, since we were at sea, alcohol was relatively cheap.

The ships of this line were mostly manner by Indians, but apart from the officers and the stewards they carried four European quartermasters whose job was to take the wheel. One of these quartermasters, though I suppose he was only aged forty or so, was one of those old sailors on whose back you almost expect to see barnacles growing. He was a short, powerful, rather ape-like man, with enormous forearms covered by a mat of golden hair. A blond moustache which might have belonged to Charlemagne completely hid his mouth. I was only twenty years old and very conscious of my parasitic status as a mere passenger, and I looked up to the quartermasters, especially the fair-haired one, as godlike beings on a par with the officers. It would not have occurred to me to speak to one of them without being spoken to first.

One day, for some reason, I came up from lunch early. The deck was empty except for the fair-haired quartermaster, who was scurrying like a rat along the side of the deck-houses, with something partially concealed between his enormous hands. I had just time to see what it was before he shot past me and vanished into a doorway. It was a pie dish containing a half-eaten baked custard pudding.

At one glance I took in the situation - indeed, the man's air of guilt made it unmistakable. The pudding was a left-over from one of the passengers' tables. It had been illicitly given to him by a steward, and he was carrying it off to the seamen's quarters to devour it at leisure. Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the shock of astonishment that I felt at that moment. It took me some time to see the incident in all its bearings: but do I seem to exaggerate when I say that this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward - the revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table - taught me more than I could have learned from half a dozen Socialist pamphlets?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

[Unfinished Business - One of the disadvantages of not writing for a deadline is that I sometimes get sidetracked by other ideas and wind up with notebooks full of the pieces I never finished. Since some of the films I write about are fairly new, publishing my reviews of them becomes a priority. But if I fail to complete the review within a few months of the film's release (in the U.S.), its timeliness (or topicality) expires and my justification for reviewing the film dissipates. If the film is any good, timeliness doesn't matter. but if it is a waste of time, like the film I reviewed below, the only satisfaction I get from publishing my opinion is dissenting from the reviews of everyone else - a perennial pleasure.]

Quentin Tarantino was sitting in a biergarten in Berlin one evening, feeling irritated. Noticing the look on his face, a waiter asked him, "wass ist los?"
"You Germans killed six million Jews!" Tarantino growled.
"But that was 65 years ago, in my grandfather's time," the waiter exclaimed.
"Yeah," Tarantino retorted, "but I just found out about it!"

There is something to be said for the brand of humor that makes jokes of a frightening reality. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove made the threat of nuclear war funny by taking its basic concepts to their absurd conclusions. It helped that the idea of such self-annihilation was itself more than a little absurd. Hitler was a frightening reality for millions of people, and though he may have looked and seemed ridiculous to some at the time (he stole Charlie Chaplin's mustache), nothing he did was the least bit funny. Audiences may have laughed at scenes from The Great Dictator, the film Chaplin felt compelled to make in 1940, or To Be or Not To Be, made by Ernst Lubitsch, an Austrian Jew, in 1942, but it was either at a safe distance from a battlefield or once Hitler was safely dead. Dr. Strangelove was made when nuclear war was still a very real possibility, so its propositions had power. Anyone watching it now who missed the Cold War must wonder what point Stanley Kubrick was trying to make. It is a little late in the day to be going after Hitler and "gnatsies."

Despite it being his highest-grossing film, Chaplin later admitted that he would never have made The Great Dictator if he had known of the death camps. Lubitsch, however, rather than regret having made To Be or Not To Be, actually defended it when a critic questioned his choice of comedic subject: "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless of how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do [sic] the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be; but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view, but it is certainly a far cry from the Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw."

I have always found attempts to satirize or make fun of Hitler and Nazism to be feeble and unfunny. Even when made during the war, their effectiveness, even in producing laughter, is dubious. The defeat of Hitler was an obvious necessity, but the prospect of doing so, which would involve wholesale destruction, was not an attractive one.

Since the war, the number of comedies that have taken on the subject has been small. Mel Brooks seems to be fixated by Hitler. In his first film, The Producers (1968), he introduced an evidently psychotic playwright, Franz Liebkind, who had written "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." The trouble with Brooks's use of this preposterous play as the centerpiece of his film (and his 2001 musical) is that, while he tries to represent it to us as the worst play ever written, his satire shifts from Hitler to the audience, which laughs uncontrollably at every gag and turns the play into a hit.

Lately there has been a number of dramatic films that have tried to amend history by depicting how some Germans resisted the Nazis - and were crushed in the process. These films, two of which are the excellent Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (2005) and the entertaining Valkyrie (2008), don't rewrite history, as some critics have argued. They simply try to alter an oversimplified view of the German people that incriminates them all in the crimes of the Third Reich. Sophie Scholl was a student at the University of Munich who belonged to a resistance group called Weiße Rose.(1) She was arrested, along with other members of the group, after dropping hundreds of anti-Nazi leaflets down corridors and stairwells at the school, and was tried and executed.

Valkyrie is a highly sensationalized dramatization of a plot to assassinate Hitler led by Claus von Stauffenberg.(2) It makes for an excellent show. That the plot failed spectacularly, with the plotters either summarily shot or hanged from meat hooks with piano wire (Hitler even had their executions filmed so that he could watch them die over and over again) undermines the film's erstwhile attempts at entertainment. But how else could Tom Cruise have got away with playing a Nazi if he hadn't at least tried to kill Hitler?

All this seems excessive as an introduction to my comments on Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I watched an interview with him on Charlie Rose subsequent to the film's release in the U.S., and I wondered how long it might have taken Rose to realize he was talking to an idiot. There are moments in his film that are borderline imbecile - like the "Bear Jew" speech given by Hitler, not to mention the whole "Bear Jew" concept. Notice how Tarantino safely calls his bad guys "Nazis" (or, as pronounced by Brad Pitt, "Gnatsies") rather than Germans.

The film is so chock-full of references to other films that it would take a team of deranged film scholars (redundancy intended) to identify them all. Tarantino repeats his habit of stupidly throwing in music from other films, which only made me wish I were watching them instead of Inglourious Basterds. We know he has seen countless movies, but why did they all have to be the wrong movies? Tarantino's production company is called "A Band Apart," after the Jean-Luc Godard film Bande à part. Godard should sue.

The concept of the film seems to have come from a deservedly obscure Italian 1978 film called The Inglorious Bastards, which had the advantage of being unassuming trash (not to mention proper spelling). And Tarantino apparently saw the documentary on film archivist Henri Langlois that I
reviewed last year.

It's difficult to single out any of the actors for scorn, but certainly the worst offender is the one who was singled out for awards, Christoph Waltz. Only Diane Kruger manages to provide an honorable performance, despite all the inanities around her. The rest of the cast in merely unmentionable.

What possible satisfaction could be derived any more from machine-gunning and blowing to pieces a theater-full of "gnatsies"? Who can laugh at the depiction of Hitler and Goebbels as semi-hysterical fools? The condition of our being able to laugh at Hitler at all is that he should be dead and the Third Reich a distant memory.

(1) Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film Die Weiße Rose is even better than Sophie Scholl.
(2) Recently discovered evidence proves that there were at least 42 plots to assassinate Hitler.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Accidental Heroes

"Hero: 2. A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior. 3. A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities. 4. The man who forms the subject of an epic; the chief male personage in a poem, play, or story; he in whom the interest of the story or plot is centred." -Oxford English Dictionary

The history of mining is a history of disasters. Our haste to extract precious minerals from ever increasing depths underground has cost inestimable numbers of lives over the millennia. Ancient civilizations, including classical Greece, employed slaves to dig their mines, simply because it was not considered to be suitable labor for a free man.

I was reminded of the famous lines from Brecht's Life of Galileo last month when the 33 men trapped for 69 days in a mine in Chile were finally brought to the surface. When Andrea remarks to him, "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero," Galileo replies, "No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."(1)

I watched some - not all - of the incessant coverage of the miners' ordeal. I knew that they must have been terrified during those first days when they were presumed to be dead or dying beyond reach, while the world barely noticed. It was only when they were discovered to be alive and their rescue possible that the media (and the Chilean president) decided to pay attention. All the miners had to do at that point was wait.

I fail to see how they became heroes. Being a hero involves the element of choice. In perilous, challenging situations some people choose to be heroes, just as others choose to be cowards. Surviving a disaster that should have killed them is in no way heroic. What were the 29 miners who died recently in New Zealand? Bums? The OED definition above allows for heroes who do "brave or noble deeds," but what bravery or nobility was there in this event?

All those Chileans did was survive, thanks to factors utterly beyond their control. The only choice involved was going down the mine, which most people nowadays regard as foolhardy, given the risks. What compelled them to choose such a profession is what everyone should be talking about, including Sebastián Piñera, who so shamelessly superimposed his stupid face on international television screens during the rescue.

Throughout the television coverage of the rescue operation, I was reminded of D.H. Lawrence's short story, "The Odour of Chrysanthemums," in which a young woman learns that her husband has been killed in a mine accident. Despite their unhappy marriage, the woman only notices the beauty of the man she barely knew as she is washing and dressing his corpse to ready him for burial.

"She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.

At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame."

As miners, the 33 Chileans must know that the only thing they did that was exceptional was survive when they should not have. I'm pleased for them that there is a movie about the event already in the works, and many of them are signing book deals and contracts to appear the reality television shows. Their real happy ending is that they will never again have to go underground - until they are lowered into their graves.

(1) Scene 12. Howard Brenton translation.
(2) Lawrence's story can be found here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


A few weeks ago I commented on the death of Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was ninety one and deserving of a footnote in film history for his involvement in the production of De Santis' Bitter Rice (1948), and two of Fellini's greatest films, La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1958). He died in Beverly Hills, from what are mysteriously known as "natural causes."

One of the most important details that an autopsy establishes is the cause of a person's death - whether by homicide, suicide, or natural causes. The first and second causes of death require - and cry out for - explanation. If a homicide, a perpetrator has to be found. If a suicide, the cause, the triggering factor, needs to be known, even if, in many cases, it never will.

When I heard the other evening that the wonderful Italian film director Mario Monicelli had apparently committed suicide by jumping from a hospital window, I was as much bewildered as I was saddened. At the age of ninety five, he was admitted to the hospital a few days earlier for treatment of prostate cancer. His suicide reminded me instantly of that of Primo Levi, who fell from a third-storey landing to his death. Levi's family tried to portray his death as an accident.

He was five years older than Fellini, and three years younger than Antonioni. Between those two giants of Italian film, he still managed to be noticed for three films, Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti Ignoti - 1958), The Great War (La Grande Guerra - 1959), and The Organizer (I Compagni - 1963).

The Organizer is the best title that American distributors could come up with, since the Italian title, "Comrades," probably would not have attracted large audiences in the U.S. in the '60s. The script was written by Monicelli with the prolific duo of Age and Scarpelli and is about idealistic socialist Professor Sinigaglia's efforts to help organize textile workers in Turin at the turn of the century to fight for better wages and working conditions. Played by Marcello Mastroianni in one of his greatest roles, the professor's motives are misunderstood by just about everyone, including the people whose lives he is trying to improve.

It is a great but practically forgotten film. In one scene, in a posh restaurant, the Sinigaglia stands up and begins to play the Internationale on his piccolo. A waiter approaches him and says, "You can't play here. Please leave." As he is leaving, a woman, gaudily dressed, named Niobe (played by Annie Girardot), follows him into the street. She is a prostitute, but she has heard of this mad professor who is helping to organize one of the first strikes in the Piedmont.

When she catches up to him, she gives him two lira. He accepts them.

Niobe (Girardot): Are you from the factory?
Sinigaglia (Mastroianni): No. I'm a teacher.
Niobe: A music teacher?
Sinigaglia: No. A school teacher.
Niobe: Forgive me for . . .
Sinigaglia: The money? I played for that.
Niobe: You accept? Unlike that down and out!
Sinigaglia: Who? I know so many.
Niobe: He hates my money. Always going on about honest work.
Sinigaglia: Who?
Niobe: My father. He wanted to send me to the factory. 16 hours a day, my hands in water, to end up in a hospice like so many others. I changed trades. Have I done any harm? What have I done wrong?
Sinigaglia: You did right.
Niobe: Is that true?
Sinigaglia: Certainly. I've changed trades too, see.
Niobe: Why get involved?
Sinigaglia: I'm selfish.
Niobe: I don't understand.
Sinigaglia: I like it. Therefore, it's not a sacrifice. And maybe so that one day, girls like you . . .
Niobe: What?
Sinigaglia: . . . won't have to do what you did.

Niobe says nothing and goes back inside the restaurant. The professor puts his hat back on and walks away down the street.

Ciao, professore.