Saturday, December 31, 2011

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

When I watched the crowds of mourners screaming at Kim Jong Il's grotesque funeral, I thought of a scene from the Vincent Price horror flick Cry of the Banshee in which a group of women are loudly mourning some dead royalty and Price asks a servant, "How much did you pay the keeners?" When the servant tells him the amount, Price says, "Make sure they mourn until dawn."

On 19 December I noted the coincidence of the deaths of two world leaders who couldn't have been more different, the "glorious leader" of North Korea and Václav Havel, poet, playwright, dissident, and the first president of the Czech Republic. If their deaths had their different meanings, their funerals, while on a comparable scale and having some superficial resemblances, were utterly different.

I heard one North Korea expert on the BBC comment that the hysterics of the mourners in Pyongyang (a singularly sad city) were probably genuine. But the official video footage of the event shown around the world gave away the game: one cameraman on the street approached the crowd and the front row surged towards him. The following shot, from the cameraman's vantage point, showed the crowd up close, with every one of them wailing on cue in perfect unison. Their faces bore a striking resemblance to those of the damned in medieval illustrations of hell.

I no longer try to imagine what those people must be thinking. They have been told all their lives that they are in heaven, which is in fact much closer to being hell. At the time of Kim Il-Sung's death, I recall listening to a U.S. Navy admiral say that the people of North Korea were going to be very angry when they found out how they've been lied to all this time. But are they really, living in their self-generated twilight zone, unaware of the extent of the lies?

A genuinely solemn occasion was the funeral for Havel in Prague. Watching the cortège as it advanced slowly past the thousands of ordinary people who had come voluntarily to pay their last respects to a genuinely great and sincerely beloved leader brought tears to my eyes, rather than the horrible compulsory grief on parade in Pyongyang. In a typically bizarre twist, the North Korean news agency released video of people shedding tears for Havel. Perhaps they needed warming up for the funeral of their dear (feared) leader?

At least Havel's funeral made me recall the beautiful (if overexposed) words from the Auden poem the first of "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson". The photo above, of an old Czech man playing his violin on a Prague street, speaks volumes more of genuine grief than the tens of thousands of North Koreans keening in chorus.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Road Not Taken

"London had an aspect of a proletarian Byron: illegitimate, handsome, wildly romantic, casting himself as the rebel and revolutionary, admired by Leon Trotsky for his anti-capitalist polemics. He was the archetypal early burn-out, dead at 40 from the excesses that he lived and wrote about....How he could write!... [London's] perfervid rhetoric matches the great narrative force of his stories, long and short. He is fascinating to read, about beast and man, in fact or fiction."
The Wall Street Journal

"As a boy, the first heroes that I put into my Pantheon were Napoleon and Alexander the Great. Later on I destroyed this Pantheon and built a new Pantheon in which I began inscribing names such as David Starr Jordan, as Herbert Spencer, as Huxley, as Darwin, as Tyndall." - Jack London in a letter of 1915

I wonder how many readers familiar with White Fang and Call of the Wild are aware that Jack London was a committed socialist, or that he was convinced - at the turn of the 20th century - of an impending world revolution.

About six years ago, when I was living in Des Moines, I went to the public library downtown when it occupied an elegant old classical-style building by the river. The library has since been moved to a ridiculously expensive, ultra-modern monstrosity that snakes through downtown Des Moines. I located a volume of the Library of America edition of the collected writings of London, the Novels and Social Writings, that included The People of the Abyss (his reportage of the slums of East London), The Road, and a prophetic novel, The Iron Heel.

I suppose that I should've examined the book before I checked it out, because when I got it home and sat down to read it, I opened it to the section that, according to the table of contents, contained London's socialist journalism, I found that the entire section, a few hundred pages' worth, was missing. The pages must have been removed during the binding stage, since the book was otherwise intact. So it hadn't been a disgruntled reader who had found London's socialist writings objectionable but someone involved in the manufacture of the book itself.

I was a little astonished that no one had noticed the missing pages or hadn't brought them to someone's attention at the library. Evidently, someone was made uncomfortable with the idea that Jack London, outdoorsman, adventurer, and all-American, has been a committed and passionate enemy of capitalism I had to wonder if there were any more books in the Library of America's edition of London's writings in a similar condition.

To understand London's attraction to socialism, you have to know the bare facts, which were especially bare, of his early life. The circumstances surrounding his birth in 1876 read like one of his stories. His father and mother were unmarried, and when his mother became pregnant, his father demanded she get an abortion. When she refused, he abandoned her and she attempted suicide.

At the age of 13, London began working in a cannery, his first of many grueling jobs. After the labor unrest known as the "Panic of '93" in Oakland, he joined "Kelly's Army" of tramps that made a march, along with "Coxey's Army" of Ohio, all the way to Washington to protest unemployment. 6,000 of them made it to Washington, only to see the leaders of the protest arrested for walking on the grass. London only got as far as the Ohio River, where he was arrested for vagrancy and jailed 30 days in Buffalo at the Erie County Penitentiary.

On his release, he turned hobo, was a sailor for a short time, and eventually returned to Oakland to attend Oakland High School. It was his experiences on the road as a bum that he immortalized in his extraordinary book The Road, published in 1907.

John Law was up and out after the early worm. I was a worm. Had I been richer by the experiences that were to be fall me in the next several months, I should have turned and run like the very devil. He might have shot at me, but he'd have had to hit me to get me. He'd have never run after me, for two hoboes in the hand are worth more than one on the get-away. But like a dummy I stood still when he halted me. Our conversation was brief.

"What hotel are you stopping at?" he queried.

He had me. I wasn't stopping at any hotel, and, since I did not know the name of a hotel in the place, I could not claim residence in any of them. Also, I was up too early in the morning. Everything was against me.

"I just arrived," I said.

"Well, you turn around and walk in front of me, and not too far in front. There's somebody wants to see you."

Arrested, London was taken, with a group of other hoboes, before a judge, who listened just long enough for the charges against each one ("Vagrancy, your honor")before delivering the invariable verdict "Thirty days". London saw how each hobo was given exactly fifteen seconds, from charge to sentence. He waited his turn, thinking of the words for his defense,

. . . my American blood was up. Behind me were the many generations of my American ancestry. One of the kinds of liberty those ancestors of mine had fought and died for was the right of trial by jury. This was my heritage, stained sacred by their blood, and it devolved upon me to stand up for it. All right, I threatened to myself; just wait till he gets to me.

He got to me. My name, whatever it was, was called, and I stood up. The bailiff said, "Vagrancy, your Honor," and I began to talk. But the judge began talking at the same time, and he said, "Thirty days." I started to protest, but at that moment his Honor was calling the name of the next hobo on the list. His Honor paused long enough to say to me, "Shut up!" The bailiff forced me to sit down. And the next moment that next hobo had received thirty days and the succeeding hobo was just in process of getting his.

London was an erratic writer who wrote far too much. His 1,000 words a day is half of Trollope's daily output but twice that of Graham Greene. But he possesses a powerful, if simplistic, view of life that he managed to convey in his best writing, like the stories "Love of Life," "Make Westing," "The Francis Spaight", and "A Piece of Steak," and the books The People of the Abyss and The Road.

London led an interesting life that, after he had made himself rich from writing on an industrial model, had about it a rather driven zeal for adventure and physical risk-taking. London placed his characters in situations that provoked the response he was trying to illustrate, like the starving man and wolf in "Love of Life," or the crew of the sinking ship "The Francis Spaight". London's prose is blunt and does not suggest depths. There probably weren't any depths that he wished to explore. But his political convictions, while they may have stood in contrast to his brutal understanding of life, were genuine and determined by his life experience.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Meet John Doe

"Below is a letter which reached my desk this morning. It's a commentary on what we laughingly call a civilized world. 'Dear Miss Mitchell: Four years ago I was fired out of my job. Since then I haven't been able to get another one. At first I was sore at the state administration because it's on account of the slimy politics here we have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world's going to pot, so in protest I'm going to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof!' Signed, A disgusted American citizen, John Doe.'
Editor's note: If you ask this column, the wrong people are jumping off roofs."

It was 1941. Europe was locked in the second year of the most terrible war in history, while most Americans were thinking that they might just sit this one out. FDR was serving his third term as president. And Frank Capra, son of Sicilian immigrants, set out to make a movie that had no suitable ending.

A seventy year old movie that flopped when it was first released, that tried to warn Americans of a hidden menace: a group of powerful businessmen clandestinely manipulate a grassroots populist movement whose expanding membership has the potential to sweep a candidate of their choosing into the White House.

If this story sounds familiar, it might have something to do with a perceptible change in the moral atmosphere of America that resembles the one in 1941. Fascism was a reality in American politics, and popular figures like Charles Lindbergh argued for isolationism. Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America directly examines the consequences for America of Lindbergh becoming president in 1940. Lindbergh persuades Americans to stay out of a war in Europe, and the consequences - for Europe and for the world - are dire.

Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which I wrote about at length a few years ago, is probably the most recognizable Christmas movie in America, even if it only touches on Christmas in its final scene. What still strikes me about that fulsome movie is how Frank Capra could've gone through the Second World War just so he could retreat into a fantasy America when the war was over. His nightmare vision of Pottersville, with its disillusion, its bars, strip clubs, and prostitution, was much closer to the real America than hokey old Grovers Corners.

The final scene of Meet John Doe takes place on Christmas Eve. It was one of several scenes that Capra shot and tested with preview audiences. In one of the discarded scenes, the hero actually jumps to his death, and the Colonel (Walter Brennan) is last scene holding the dead man in his arms in a kind of impious Pietà. That ending worked, dramatically at least, but audiences weren't at all ready in 1941 for Gary Cooper committing suicide.

Earlier in film, Cooper gave a speech that is riddled with hokey sentiments, but is still powerful in its simple appeal to human decency.

Meet John Doe, despite its unevenness, is my favorite Christmas movie because it reminds us of what the holiday is supposed to be about. It is also, at the end of a year of populist movements, of peaceful and belligerent protests, a movie molotov cocktail aimed at Wall Street and all the D.B. Norton's of the world who want to take control of a democracy out of the hands of its people.

Here is the best contemporary review of the film by Otis Ferguson. I wonder what Ferguson would make of the fact that there is now a musical
of Capra's movie?

Democracy at the Box Office
Otis Ferguson
The New Republic, March 24, 1941

Though Frank Capra is still right in the formula he has been holding to for five years now, Meet John Doe is at least a promise that he may be coming back to pictures. It is almost a point-for-point replica of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but some of the old felicity is there again and there are actually comedy sequences in it. I am not holding out too much hope, for today there is nothing Americans so like to be told from the screen as that they are Americans. So why should anybody with a formula and a credit line like skywriting bother with making a swell simple movie as his "production for 1941"?

The John Doe of the story is Capra's familiar and favorite American type, the easy shambling young man, shrewd and confused, rugged, a lovable innocent but don't tread on him - the uncommon common man, in short, with a heart of gold and a limestone fist, and integrity in long fibers. Eyewash, of course, but there is something in it, for a national hero is some sort of national index after all, and it is not so much how miserably short we fall of being an ideal as what ideal we choose to dream of. Anyhow, this young man, a bush-league baseball player with a glass arm, is caught up in a freak stunt for tabloid circulation-building which turns out to be dynamite both ways. As J. Doe, he is supposed to be a social reformer with a deadline for a suicide of protest; as a national news personality, he becomes so arresting and eloquent in his plea for love and understanding - the Sermon on the Mount with a drawl - that miracles are passed and John Doe clubs are formed, and it is presently worth someone's while to own him as political property. It started as fraud but eventually led to the young man's believing his own spiel and wrecking the sinister plans when he found out their antidemocratic aim. Love was a part of it, of course, and there are various clever wrinkles; but the outline is enough.

The fascination of gossip and the awe of prestige make it impossible that the question of what makes a picture should ever have a chance against the question of who. But while the names of Robert Riskin and Frank Capra are behind the production and writing and direction of John Doe, I think we can see even behind the names to what is under our noses. The message is that since it is all the little men who truly make the big world, they should live together and hang together, doing away with hate and suspicion and bad-neighborliness. Fine. Ringing. Of course there are present among us oppression and injustice and scorn for all unsung heroes whose names are Moe Million. Too bad; an outrage; something should be done. So the lift of the story comes in the doing, in the rallying to a new simple faith, as people and as Americans, through homely things but as a mighty army under the flag. In this story the powers of darkness are able to check the advance, but the victory in defeat is that there will be advance again.

I have no doubt the authors of such theses believe in them, just as it is easy for a songwriter to believe that God should bless America after he has glanced over the recent sheet-music sales. But sifted in with any such half-thought-out hoorah must be the true motivating conviction that the box office is out there and will be terrific. And that is where the thing begins to crack like Parson Weems's Liberty Bell, for in art there is a certain terrible exaction upon those who would carry their show by arousing people to believe, and it is that any such show must be made out of belief, in good faith and pure earnest, in the whole of belief itself. This rhetoric and mortising of sure-fire device of a success today is its sure betrayal by tomorrow - the flag in a game of charades, the mock prayer at a picnic.

As a picture, it does well the things which have proved highlights before: the tender concern over the little fellers with great faith; the underdog finally getting on his hind legs to tell them off; the regeneration of even a hard-boiled newspaper gal; the final blow-off scene with the nation as audience. But it talks too much to no purpose and in the same spot. The musical score is both arch and heavy (the most undeveloped department in all Hollywood anyway). And one of the saddest things is to find Capra so preoccupied with getting over a message of holy-hokum that he lets in half a dozen of the worst montage transitions - mumming faces, headlines, wheels and whorls - that have been seen in a major effort since the trick first turned stale.

Whether this much of hollowness and prefabrication will spoil the picture for you, I wouldn't know. There are things in it to see. The business of promoting a thesis has distracted Frank Capra's attention from much that he was superb at doing, and he still skips over many of the little fitted pieces which make a story inevitable. But now and then he lingers and you can see the hand of the loving workman bringing out the fine grain - as in the direction of the little crowd around the local mayor when Joe Doe is apprehended, with its naturalness and light spontaneous humor; as in the edge of satire in the management of the radio broadcast; as in the bringing out of homely humorous quirks in John Doe himself; and as always in the timing of a line, its cause and effect, so that it comes out with just force and clarity among the shifting images. But Capra and Riskin now seem content to let good actors fill out a stock part and stop at that, so Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart, J. Farrell McDonald, and several others have nothing more incisive to do than they would in any B picture. Barbara Stanwyck has always needed managing, and apparently got it here, though her idea of a passion is still that it is something to tear to firecrackers. But one man the director did give a chance to and smooth the way for, and that is James Gleason, who made more of this chance than there was in the lines and their meaning. The one scene which came through all these stream- lined Fourth of July exercises with true sincerity and eloquence was Gleason's drunken talk in the bar, the one that starts, "I like you, you're gentle. Take me, I've always been hard. Hard. Don't like hard people, you hear?" It was just talk, with business, but he made it his, and it will remain one of the magnificent scenes in pictures.

That leaves only the star, who is so much an American John Doe type you could never say whether he was cast in a part or vice versa - Gary Cooper. It is he who has the human dignity which this two hours of talk is talking about, and talking about; and it seems impossible for him to be quite foolish even in the midst of foolishness. His is the kind of stage presence which needs no special lighting or camera magic; he makes an entrance by opening a door, and immediately you know that someone is in the room. Meet John Doe has its humor, inspiration, and interest in uneven degrees; but whether you find it good, fair, or merely endurable depends more on Cooper than on what we know as sound moviemaking.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gunpowder and Atom Bombs

While reading the Essays of George Orwell, which is an obligatory activity for me, I found what I think is the most carefully reasoned argument against the Second Amendment that I know. Of course, Orwell wasn't addressing it directly, and the essay is deceptively topical. It was published just two months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic explosions, so the subject foremost on everyone's minds was who's next?

One of the most cherished myths of the NRA is that a populace that is in possession of firearms, as Americans are, thanks to the Second Amendment, is unlikely to become victims of a police state, that the threat of armed resistance would dissuade any government from trying to violate civil liberties. The lesson of Libya is obvious: the revolt was successful only because of outside intervention on behalf of the rebels. This has nothing to do with what is right and whose side is in possession of it. It has to do with who has the bigger guns, the tanks, the fighter planes, etc. I remember hearing supporters of the Second Amendment, when martial law was declared in Poland, saying that such a thing could never happen in America because Americans have the right to bear arms. The image of a Russian tank bearing down on a crowd of civilians with handguns and hunting rifles sprang to mind. Paragraphs three, four, and five of Orwell's essay make mincemeat of this argument.

You and the Atom Bomb
Tribune, 19 October 1945

Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as might have been expected. The newspapers have published numerous diagrams, not very helpful to the average man, of protons and neutrons doing their stuff, and there has been much reiteration of the useless statement that the bomb ‘ought to be put under international control.’ But curiously little has been said, at any rate in print, about the question that is of most urgent interest to all of us, namely: ‘How difficult are these things to manufacture?’

Such information as we — that is, the big public — possess on this subject has come to us in a rather indirect way, apropos of President Truman’s decision not to hand over certain secrets to the USSR. Some months ago, when the bomb was still only a rumour, there was a widespread belief that splitting the atom was merely a problem for the physicists, and that when they had solved it a new and devastating weapon would be within reach of almost everybody. (At any moment, so the rumour went, some lonely lunatic in a laboratory might blow civilisation to smithereens, as easily as touching off a firework.)

Had that been true, the whole trend of history would have been abruptly altered. The distinction between great states and small states would have been wiped out, and the power of the State over the individual would have been greatly weakened. However, it appears from President Truman’s remarks, and various comments that have been made on them, that the bomb is fantastically expensive and that its manufacture demands an enormous industrial effort, such as only three or four countries in the world are capable of making. This point is of cardinal importance, because it may mean that the discovery of the atomic bomb, so far from reversing history, will simply intensify the trends which have been apparent for a dozen years past.

It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, thanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon — so long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak.

The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle. After the invention of the flintlock, and before the invention of the percussion cap, the musket was a fairly efficient weapon, and at the same time so simple that it could be produced almost anywhere. Its combination of qualities made possible the success of the American and French revolutions, and made a popular insurrection a more serious business than it could be in our own day. After the musket came the breech-loading rifle. This was a comparatively complex thing, but it could still be produced in scores of countries, and it was cheap, easily smuggled and economical of ammunition. Even the most backward nation could always get hold of rifles from one source or another, so that Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans — even Tibetans — could put up a fight for their independence, sometimes with success. But thereafter every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialised country as against the backward one. There are fewer and fewer foci of power. Already, in 1939, there were only five states capable of waging war on the grand scale, and now there are only three — ultimately, perhaps, only two. This trend has been obvious for years, and was pointed out by a few observers even before 1914. The one thing that might reverse it is the discovery of a weapon — or, to put it more broadly, of a method of fighting — not dependent on huge concentrations of industrial plant.

From various symptoms one can infer that the Russians do not yet possess the secret of making the atomic bomb; on the other hand, the consensus of opinion seems to be that they will possess it within a few years. So we have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them. It has been rather hastily assumed that this means bigger and bloodier wars, and perhaps an actual end to the machine civilisation. But suppose — and really this the likeliest development — that the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another? Suppose they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless.

When James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution it seemed probable to many Americans that the Germans would win the European end of the war, and it was therefore natural to assume that Germany and not Russia would dominate the Eurasian land mass, while Japan would remain master of East Asia. This was a miscalculation, but it does not affect the main argument. For Burnham’s geographical picture of the new world has turned out to be correct. More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parceled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-elected oligarchy. The haggling as to where the frontiers are to be drawn is still going on, and will continue for some years, and the third of the three super-states — East Asia, dominated by China — is still potential rather than actual. But the general drift is unmistakable, and every scientific discovery of recent years has accelerated it.

We were once told that the aeroplane had ‘abolished frontiers’; actually it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that frontiers have become definitely impassable. The radio was once expected to promote international understanding and co-operation; it has turned out to be a means of insulating one nation from another. The atomic bomb may complete the process by robbing the exploited classes and peoples of all power to revolt, and at the same time putting the possessors of the bomb on a basis of military equality. Unable to conquer one another, they are likely to continue ruling the world between them, and it is difficult to see how the balance can be upset except by slow and unpredictable demographic changes.

For forty or fifty years past, Mr. H. G. Wells and others have been warning us that man is in danger of destroying himself with his own weapons, leaving the ants or some other gregarious species to take over. Anyone who has seen the ruined cities of Germany will find this notion at least thinkable. Nevertheless, looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once UNCONQUERABLE and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.

Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter in Prague

"The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the "dissident" attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest "dissent" could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life."

Václav Havel, "Power of the Powerless"

The coincidence of the death of Václav Havel and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il could not have been more pleasing, despite his being dead, to Havel, who resisted totalitarianism for two-thirds of his life.

Before the so-called Arab Spring there was the Prague Spring in 1968. I remember watching on television as Russian tanks rolled into Prague on 21 August 1968. I was unaware, at the age of ten, of its wider implications, but I was very aware of its terrible aspect, which Walter Cronkite, or whomever it was I was watching that day, reinforced. On 8 December I wrote that the world during the Cold War "was a world in which the sun never shone, a spiritual ice age, a low intensity nightmare". Of course, it wasn't anything like that for me, living safely in the West.

For the people of Eastern Europe, however, it was that and much worse. For the people who resisted, like Václav Havel, it was either a time of imprisonment or the threat of imprisonment, since he refused to cooperate and play his part in the charade of a "people's republic". He was a celebrated playwright, for five years, before the tanks squashed the Prague Spring and the subsequent regime became, because of Czechoslovakia's brief flirtation with "communism with a human face" one of the most repressive in Eastern Europe. He practiced non-violence, which got him comparisons to Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

But it also got him imprisoned until, in 1989, with the reforms in the Soviet Union loosening its hold on the Warsaw Pact nations, a non-violent, Velvet, revolution swept Havel into power. He eventually became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. Three years later, when his country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he became the first president of the Czech Republic.

He was embarrassed by all the ceremony of office. He wasn't even comfortable wearing a suit. He was the son of privilege, who saw the injustice of that privilege and revolted against it. But he never forgot the feeling he first encountered as a child that he was an outsider. "I longed for equality with others," he wrote, "not because I was some kind of infant social revolutionary, but because I felt separate and excluded ... alone, inferior, ridiculed."

In 1990, he was invited to address the United States Congress. The speech (mostly in Czech) betrayed his genius with the written - and spoken - word:

"We playwrights, who have to cram a whole human life or an entire historical era in a two-hour play, can scarcely understand this rapidity ourselves. And if it gives us trouble, think of the trouble it must give to political scientists who spend their whole life studying the realm of the probable and have less experience with the realm of the improbable than us, the playwrights.

"Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed –be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization –will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitively won. We are, in fact, far from the final victory.

"We are still a long way from that "family of man." In fact, we seem to be receding from the ideal rather than growing closer to it. Interests of all kinds–personal, selfish, state, nation, group, and, if you like, company interests–still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it and that therefore everything is permitted.

"There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they are demonstrably out for themselves and not for the cause at all. We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time, we say that the anonymous mega-machinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it.

"In other words, we still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility.

"Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success–responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.

"The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience.

[speaking English]: "When Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,' it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well."

It still amazes me that Czechs thought so highly of this great writer that they elected him president of their nation. But he was, as everything he said and did attests, a great man of conscience.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Chic Radical

There are very few political writers worth taking seriously who have been able to put their faces in front of their words. That was one of Christopher Hitchens' achievements. I can't think of one American political thinker who was capable of going toe to toe with him without looking ridiculous. He was used sparingly, almost charitably, on American TV. And since debates over here are far more polite than they are in Britain, he was regarded as much too brutal and unfair, especially when he won.

He was a radical leftist for a long time and claimed to remain one in his last interviews. He was outspoken in his support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And he was "unapologetic" when it became clear that the justification for the invasion had been at worst a concoction and at best a terrible mistake. In this, there was rueful irony in the coincidence of the American military presence in Iraq officially coming to an end the day before Hitchens died, at 62, in a Houston hospital. (I wonder if he pronounced it "Hooston" to the last?)

Somehow, the quaint word dashing summed up his looks - until chemotherapy deprived him of his bountiful hair - and fearless summed up his writing, especially when it came to standing up for a cause, the more unpopular, the better. Despite his mellifluous British accent, which he seemed to cultivate after his move to the U.S. in the '80s and which greatly intimidated his stupider American opponents, he grew to love America. He was passionate about what matters: truth, justice, life.

One of his lifelong heroes was George Orwell. In fact, Hitchens was born nine months before Orwell died of his own terminal illness. Perhaps it would be unfair to compare them, but Eric Blair was by no mean s a saint. They both wrote voluminously, obsessively. "I am a writer. It's what I am, not what I do." Though written by Hitchens, Orwell could as well have said so. Hitchens admired Orwell because he was the most engaged with his own age.

I think that Hitchens' move to America and his eventual backing of Bush and the Iraq War were due to his fear of becoming marginal or irrelevant. Perhaps he saw socialism as Orwell saw it near the end of his own life at the age of 46 - as a Utopian ideal with, at best, remote prospects of ever being realized anywhere in the world.

More charitable Christians probably prayed that he be converted in his last moments. Of course they would. But Hitchens, I am confident, came to the same conclusion that Primo Levi came to when he was in Auschwitz. Hitchens said that, in a Christian universe, "we are born sick but must make ourselves well." Levi describes a crucial moment in the Lager:

I too entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated
and have lived to this day; actually, the experience of the Lager with its
frightful iniquity has confirmed me in my laity. It has prevented me, and still
prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice .
. . I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the
temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in the October of
1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death.
Naked and compressed among my naked companions with my index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the "commission" that with one glance would decide whether I should immediately go into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.
(The Drowned and the Saved)

Always seeming to look the part, not even a makeover for Vanity Fair could diminish his stature as one of his generation's best debaters and polemical writers. What a beautiful expression "He passed away" is, even if it is only a euphemism.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

One Below

On the centenary - 14 December - of Roald Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole, I recommend a brilliant book by an unconventional historian, Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford. The book first came to my attention by way of the 1985 television series The Last Place on Earth, which was itself a remarkable achievement.

Huntford was highly critical of Amundsen's competitor in the race for the pole, Robert Scott, who reached the pole on 17 January 1912. On finding that Amundsen had already been there more than a month before, Scott and his four companions died on their way back. The discovery of their bodies eight months later confirmed Scott, at least in the minds of Britons, as the real hero of the race for the pole. In a "Message to the Public" found with his remains, Scott wrote:

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

Amundsen, a true hero and certainly the more able explorer, never lived it down. In that strange age of exploration, in which people were more important for their courage than for their abilities, Scott was indeed a hero. Huntford's book, by presenting the facts of his expedition, revealed how egoistic and foolhardy Scott was. In an interview with The Guardian, Huntford asserted that

"In as much as I had an agenda, it wasn't to run down Scott; rather, it was to rehabilitate Amundsen, who I felt had never been given the credit he deserved outside Norway. No previous English-language biographer had even worked from the original Norwegian sources. It was only when I started reading both Scott and Amundsen's diaries that I became aware of the discrepancies. I found Scott almost incomprehensible, while Amundsen spoke a language to which I could relate. But then I've long felt an affinity with the Scandinavian psyche."

Yesterday, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, whose country has had a very tough year, said in a ceremony you can watch
here, "We are here today to honour these five brave men. We are here today to celebrate one of the most outstanding achievements of mankind and we are here to highlight the importance of this cold continent for the warming of the globe."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fly Me to the Moon

Just yesterday I was given a reminder of how far from everything I am now. I heard a commotion outside my house in the late afternoon and I stepped outside to see what was going on. A bunch of children were screaming in their dialect, "look there!" and "hello!" at something in the sky. I expected to see a rainbow or some other natural wonder, but when I looked up toward what they were pointing and waving at, I saw a tiny silver object - a jet plane - heading away toward the northwest. The setting sun glinted off its metal body and there was no vapor trail, indicating that it wasn't flying at a high altitude.

It occurred to me that, in all the time I've been living on this island, it was only the third time I had seen a plane in the sky. The last time had been during the election campaign last year when a presidential candidate (Joseph Estrada) paid the island a visit in his private helicopter. The helicopter caused near-pandemonium among the barangay kids, who had likely never seen a one before in their lives except on TV.

Yesterday, the children caused a commotion over something that no longer even registers in people's minds everywhere else. In cities, air traffic is boringly and even annoyingly familiar. Strangely, even the total lunar eclipse the night before, visible in the Philippines, got little or no attention here. Lunar eclipses are more frequent occurrences than jet planes.

But the sight of a plane to the children, and perhaps to many of the adults, who live out their lives here is more than just an infrequent event. To them, it is probably an enticement to leaving. Like the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that I remember reading - and totally understanding - when I was a boy:


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I had a chance to see the film Creation (2009) last week and I found it a surprisingly beautiful dramatization of the central conflict in the life of Charles Darwin: the devout religious faith of his beloved wife, Emma, to which the scientific discoveries that he wrote about in his great book, On the Origin of Species, was a direct challenge. Darwin's book, which is as much a masterpiece of imaginative thinking as of scientific discovery, was a bomb dropped on Christianity from which it hasn't recovered since.

The film is based on Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution, a novel by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. He wrote it after discovering in 2000 a box in which Charles and Emma Darwin had collected mementos of Annie, their eldest daughter. It concentrates on the close relationship between Darwin and Annie, whose death at the age of ten haunted him and his wife for the rest of their lives. At the time of her death, Darwin wrote: "We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age.... Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face." (1) Annie's health had been seriously weakened by scarlet fever, but some believe it was tuberculosis that eventually killed her.

Darwin himself submitted Annie to some horrific treatments such as "Gully's Water Cure", which included excruciating cold water hoseings and "spine-scrubbings" that, if anything, deprived the poor girl of what strength she had left to resist the disease that killed her. Her death drove Charles and Emma apart - he, repulsed by the prospect of his daughter's salvation or damnation by an implacable God in an utterly cruel cosmology (2), she into deeper and deeper religious neurosis.

Yet on behalf of Emma's religious convictions, Charles delayed the submission of his manuscript nearly twenty years, fearing it would drive Emma away entirely. As the film shows us, however, it was she who, after reading his manuscript, at last allowed him to publish it. Worriedly waiting for her verdict, she hands him a parcel wrapped in brown paper, addressed to the publisher John Murray.

Paul Bettany plays Darwin as he appeared in 1859, the year of On the Origin of Species' publication. I have seen him in several films, most of them, of course, dreadful. In Creation, however, he is graceful and sensitively intelligent, which is precisely how the filmmakers wanted us to see Darwin. Jennifer Connolly, as Emma, makes Charles devotion to her quite believable. I've been infatuated with her since her days as a child star. She, too, has had to endure a careerful of awful scripts. It is good to see her talent matched with a substantive script. The girl who plays Annie, Martha West, is quite moving, as she endures the hardships of health with which nature saddled Annie.

Some critics fussed over the film's title, thinking it was a sop to placate the stupid "creationists". I think it had more to do with Darwin's act of creating his magnificent book, which is a work of splendid prose as much as it is of scientific research. The "creation" of that book occupied him for fifteen years after his return from his voyages on HMS Beagle. The film reminds us that scientists are also human beings.

Not surprising me in the least were the claims of the film's producer, Jeremy Thomas, that he had trouble finding an American distributor. The effects of Charles Darwin's book are still troubling to a majority of Americans.

(1) Quoted by Janet Browne in her book, Charles Darwin: A Biography, Volume 1, Voyaging (New York: Alfred A Knopf).
(2) In a now-famous passage from his autobiography, Charles stated: "I hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Global Thawing

"Communism. Capitalism. It's the innocents who get slaughtered."*

If a poll were conducted asking people to name the most important historical event in their lifetimes, I don't think the event that took place twenty years ago today would even be among the top five. History pushes the past out of our consciousness much more quickly than we think. Significant events also seem to shrink in importance as they move away from us in time. Natural disasters, wars, or terror attacks superimpose on one another, and the past ten years has certainly seen enough of all three.

I was in the Navy when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved on December 8, 1991. We didn't know it at the time, but the event, which appeared to be extraordinarily good news for just about everyone in the world, was a catastrophe for us.

When I joined the Navy in 1988, Ronald Reagan's hubristic 600 ship fleet was close to being realized. The end of Desert Storm and of the Soviet Union three years later were back-to-back shocks from which the Pentagon has yet to really recover. By the time I left the Navy in 1995, the word "downsizing" was on everyone's mind, if not on their lips. While the Army was simply handing out pink slips, the Navy was forcing people out with stricter retention standards. George W. Bush's dubious "War on Terror" has merely emphasized the perception that the U.S. military is spoiling for a fight with an enemy that is simply no longer out there.

I recall seeing a political cartoon at the time Gorbachev was initiating the last great thaw of the Soviet era. It depicted Gorbachev shaking hands with Fidel Castro, saying "Glasnost!" To which Castro replies, "Gesundheit!" Clearly, Gorbachev believed that he could keep the Soviet Union intact, but he, like everyone else, was overtaken by events. He resigned on Christmas Day, 1991, and communist rule came to an ignominious close.

You would have to be at least as old as I am to really remember what the world was like during the Cold War. It wasn't simply the threat of nuclear annihilation that made the period so gloomy. While most people were contentedly getting on with their materialistic lives, for Cold Warriors it was a world in which it seemed the sun never shone, a spiritual ice age, a low intensity nightmare from which we suddenly awoke twenty years ago. Many people in the West began to crow "victory", including some historians who committed the historic error of believing that it was the end of history as we know it, that our way of life had vanquished theirs, that our values had prevailed. In actuality, economies had fallen, not ideologies. The arms race had bankrupted the Great Enemy, not their Five Year Plans.

Nothing captures the Cold War era more powerfully than one of the most probing and sad reflections on the East/West stand-off, the grimly beautiful film adaptation of John le Carré's espionage classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, directed by Martin Ritt in 1965 and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. The world it explores seems to be under an interminable blackout, as if a Third World War were actually being waged somewhere. It's almost the same atmosphere as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - betrayal, deceit, suspicion are all around the protagonist, Alec Leamas. He is instructed by his superiors to behave like he's had it with being a spy, like he's lost faith in the righteousness of his side, so that agents for the other side will try to contact him and he can infiltrate their ranks and discredit one of their most powerful agents. But they get their hands on Liz, his girlfriend, who is a professed communist but entirely innocent. They arrange for Leamas to escape, but when Liz is killed as they are climbing over the Berlin Wall, Leamas decides to die with her rather than climb down on the other side to safety.

Surely, no one had more mixed emotions about the end of the Cold War than John le Carré. It had been his bread and butter, the catalyst for nearly all of his novels. Though he has managed, in the twenty years since, to write successful novels, and even incurred a little controversy (he was charged with anti-semitism for his Jewish protagonist in The Tailor of Panama), Le Carré has clearly lost his métier. But then, so has the Pentagon.

* Leamas's line to Liz in the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Crowded Loneliness

I was sitting in the living room of my rented trailer 22 years ago, watching MTV, when the band Mötley Crüe appeared on the screen. After I proudly named all four members of the band, a charming young woman, who was sitting there with a few other friends, looked at me and asked, "Why do you know that?"

It was the tone of her voice that suggested to me what she meant by the question: why had I bothered to learn the names of the members of a useless rock band when I knew the names of the principal conductors of every major symphonic and philharmonic orchestra in the world?

I just laughed and said, under the cacophony that the band was producing on the TV, "I don't know." It was sweet of her to ask, though. She knew something of the distance I had come since I joined the Navy. I made a conscious decision to neglect the things that I loved in favor of what everyone else loved. My tastes were lonely ones, exclusive. If, after I joined the Navy, I was to keep listening to Mahler and Debussy, watching Antonioni and Bergman, reading Camus and Bellow, I wouldn't have had any friends. I felt that I needed to change my life, and assure others, my fellow sailors, that I was one of them, no better and no worse. For the next eleven years I avoided the music and films and literature that I loved and followed the crowd.

I believe it was a better, richer experience because of it. I noticed that my journals grew thinner, that the things I chose to set down in them were spreading further apart in time. Entire years were chronicled in only a few pages. It wasn't that I had nothing to apostrophize - it's that I was being borne aloft on the crest of a wave and I didn't have a moment's spare time to stop to analyze my thoughts or my feelings. I was alive.

But now, these many years since returning to my private life, I find that I no longer have the time or a proper occasion to listen to Das Lied von der Erde or to Pelléas and Mélisande. The music I now hear all around me hardly qualifies as music in my estimation. A part of me is screaming. I am almost never alone, either, here in my house among the coconut trees. But I miss those lonely places I once knew but never visit any more, where I was accompanied by Meursault and Augie March, Albert Vogler and Umberto D., and Claudio Abbado and Neville Mariner.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Anniversary

Today is an anniversary. Four years ago, a particularly awful woman - a methamphetamine addict, freelance hooker, and part-time police informer (I learned all this only later) - introduced the woman in the picture to me. I was technically still a tourist in a Philippine city that has catered to male tourists ever since the closure of a large American air force base in 1991. I was staying in a cheap hotel owned by a New Zealander and I had been drinking steadily for a few days when I asked the dreadful girl who was with me (she was endowed with beautiful brown skin and breasts that defied gravity) to go and find me a masseuse. I can't speak too badly of that girl because the masseuse she brought back with her has been my constant companion ever since.

It was she who suggested that I leave the resort town and come to the provinces, where my meagre pension would go quite a lot further. She has saved my skin several times, saved me incalculable amounts of money. She is my translator and my protector. Through her this place has become somehow less incomprehensible. Through her I am somehow made somewhat more human to the Filipinos we encounter.

Wherever we have chosen to live, the neighbors are struck by so many things about us. I always stick close to home, close to her, and they marvel at my uncharacteristic faithfulness. What little they know of foreigners here is contradicted by my abstemiousness and my lack of a string of other girlfriends. Why haven't I taken up with another, younger and more nubile girl? They are puzzled by the fact that she has not been jettisoning one baby after another, since that's what every other woman does and we foreigners are alleged to be so oversexed. If you saw her standing in the sunlight with the other neighbor women, you could identify her by the absence of a baby stapled to her breast.

She has also given me her family - or, rather, given me to her family. They have shown such acceptance, even when I was reluctant to be anyone's "daddy". (Freud would've noticed that the boys are more aloof, since in their minds I am a feeble replacement for the man they know as their "tatay".) Despite occasional frustrations, I thank her for the daughter, who turns 10 next month, who says "good night daddy" to me every night. I am a failure as a father, I know. But only because I am so dubious of fatherhood in the first place.

I cannot marry her here, since I married here once before, and the marriage is registered. (The Philippines is now the only country in the world with no divorce law.) Only some amount of cash and a lawyer could make it possible to marry her here. Yet she has been immeasurably more a wife to me than either of my former wives put together. I tell her this, but she wants to be married to me. I make promises that are of their nature feeble, since I have no way of knowing how or when I can get myself home. Only there can I hope to make an "honest" woman of her. But who will make me an honest man?

Happy Anniversary, my angel.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Juvenile Offenders

The Yukio Mishima novel translated as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1) concerns a group of boys in Yokohama who carry out the murder of a merchant mariner because he has forsaken his life at sea - a life the boys see as elemental and beautiful - for the mother of one of the group. They also commit the crime knowing that, as minors, they will not be charged with murder by the Japanese justice system.

Mishima's use of the legal status of minors in the novel was certainly political, even if such a status is not unique to Japan. In law, the "age of majority" separates children from adults and is usually (and arbitrarily) the age of 18 (in Japan it's 20). But under criminal law, such a standard is not consistently observed or enforced. In the U.S., individual states can decide, depending on the severity of the crime committed, whether an offender can be tried as a "juvenile" under the Juvenile Justice System, or as an "adult".

How can one be considered a child at every moment of one's life until the age of 18 (or 17 or 16, depending on the U.S. state) except at the moment one commits a crime? The Juvenile Justice System in the U.S. exists simply because a juvenile boy or girl is not (I wouldn't insist cannot) be considered responsible for his or her actions. This explains the existence of legal concepts like "age of consent", which prevents, for example, addictive products like tobacco and alcohol from being sold to minors. Strangely enough, the age was increased twenty or so years ago from 18 to 21, which suggests that, at least when it comes to cigarettes and booze, it is taking longer to arrive at maturity.

When prosecutors are the ones who decide when a crime committed by a child or a juvenile is "heinous" (a word popular with prosecutors) enough to justify putting an offender on trial as an adult, who or what gives them the authority to apply such a blatantly arbitrary standard? There seems to be some foolish notion at work in the American justice system that contends that someone, no matter what their age or degree of mental competence, must pay for a crime, especially the most serious ones. But when a prosecutor decides to selectively disregard the legal status of minors by reclassifying them as adults when it suits his political purpose, he is compromising not just the juvenile justice system but the whole system of justice.

In England, a particularly unspeakable crime was committed in 1993 by two boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged 10. They abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old boy named James Bulger. They were the youngest convicted murderers in English legal history. But, despite the severity of their crime, they were not tried as adults. They were sentenced to custody until they reached the age of 18, and then they were "returned to society". Their names were changed and they were relocated to other places in England to protect their identities.

A film, called Boy A was released in 2007 that was based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, fictitiously telling a story similar to the Bulger case. The film perceptively and sensitively explores the life of one of the boys who is returned to society at the age of 18. My initial reaction to seeing the film, after my surprise that it was made at all, was that such an uninsistent, scrupulously neutral film could never have been made in the U.S. - for one thing, since Americans are not nearly as convinced of the rock-bottom decency of human beings, they would never assume that anyone who committed a crime such as the one committed by the two boys in the film, could be redeemable in a million years. Or that a minor should be protected by certain rights that make him immune to prosecution as an adult no matter what the crime was. Revenge is never very far from an American's understanding of justice. So when a heinous crime is committed, someone, no matter if they're children or mentally incompetent, has to pay.

(1) The Japanese title, Gogo no Eikō, translates literally as The Afternoon Towing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Remastering the Film: François Truffaut

"What is your greatest ambition in life?"
"To become immortal, and then die."

(Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless.)

As David Thomson correctly suggested last year when Godard's Breathless turned 50, if you want to locate the heart of the French Nouvelle Vague, you would have found it beating in the breast of François Truffaut:

"There is a temptation to see Breathless (or A Bout de Souffle) as the epitome of the New Wave. In this reading, it was the emblematic film for a group of young critics and cineastes who had longed to make films themselves and who suddenly found the chance. But if you want the right emblem, you’d be better off going to Truffaut (with Les 400 Coups or Tirez sur la Pianiste)."(1)

Truffaut was the embodiment of the cinephile, so in love with film that it shaped his personality. More than his love of books, which often led him very far astray, (2) his judgement of films was a guiding and abiding passion. But because they gave him such a consistent and gratifying escape from the circumstances of his adolescence, he developed an irrational love for American films that clouded his judgement. The auteur notion that Truffaut introduced has been so abused that it is almost meaningless by now. Just because Edgar Wallace was an author did not make him the equal of Kipling, any more than it makes John Ford the equal of Ozu.

Those first three films, Les 400 Coups (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962), are for the ages. But it is impossible to properly examine Truffaut's work without at some point facing up to the fact of its precipitous decline. One can actually watch it happen in his fourth feature film, The Soft Skin, about which I wrote at length for .

One theory is that he was not content to be the avant-garde creator of small budget art films and wanted to live a more comfortable life. Godard, who revelled in being the struggling artist, took a dim view of Truffaut's transformation and made this abundantly clear. To him, Truffaut was turning into the same kind of director he had attacked in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema.

The New Wave was long over by the time Truffaut died of a brain tumor in 1984. By the mid-1960s, Chabrol was making a string of oh-so-stylish thrillers, and Truffaut was deep into his own noir period, having, I suppose, forgotten that he once made the greatest send-up of film noir, Shoot the Piano Player. Godard just went on twiddling, drifting from Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism to Maoism - to no avail. While occasionally trying to stay in touch with his sources, with further Antoine Doinel films (3) and a retelling of Jules and Jim with the sexes reversed (Two English Girls), Truffaut had lost alot of his passion, and the ecstatic reason for being that his first three feature films exuded was missing. He "squandered his talents", as they say. But, as George Orwell wrote about H.G. Wells, "But how much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander." (4)

(1) The full article can be found here.
(2) His love of fiction that can only be called trash was pronounced, but the French have generally overestimated the value of American pulp fiction.
(3) As often happens to child actors, Jean-Pierre Léaud grew into a surprisingly bad actor.
(4) Orwell, "Wells, Hitler and the World State", Horizon, August 1941.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mourning with Marilyn

By now, nearly fifty years after her self-inflicted death, Marilyn Monroe is beginning to resemble Jesus Christ. As the people who knew the actual woman underneath the image, who saw her "in the flesh", are dying off, the real Marilyn is becoming more insubstantial.

As the new movie, My Week with Marilyn suggests, Marilyn was an invention of Norma Jean herself. This is not quite a revelation. Others who knew her much better than Colin Clark, upon whose diaries the script of My Week with Marilyn is based, always insisted that Marilyn was just a mask that Norma Jean could put on or take off as the spirit moved her. Billy Wilder, who evidently hated her (because of her notorious antics on and off his movie sets), claimed that she hadn't a thought in her pretty head and had no inkling of the effect she had upon men. That effect was powerful, as her many marriages, affairs, and flirtations attest. Like Rita Hayworth, however, who was another pin-up girl, the various men in her life took Marilyn to bed, but woke up beside Norma Jean, leading to confusion and frustration for all concerned.

Thanks to Andy Warhol and a ravenous and revolting popular culture, Marilyn has become a quite monstrous icon. Even serious and pseudo-serious people like Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer were captivated by her persona. However close they may have got - or indeed however much they were interested in knowing - the real woman beneath, is, by now, as unknowable as she was.

The trouble with this kind of movie is that it isn't in the least interested in who she was, either. Marilyn was perfect for film, which is in love with the surfaces of things. Marilyn was all surface. Nobody is really interested in her depths, assuming she had any. Her devoted fans across the generations, who have seen every photograph and film of her, are fascinated by potentially new angles, new perspectives of her - but only her epidermis. Images are all that survives, really, thanks to her death at the age of 36. Had she not taken a fatal dose of sleeping pills (the official cause of her death), she would've been 85 today. And I think she would be as little remembered as Jane Russell, who co-starred with her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The story, which claimed to be "true" (a word, like "reality", that makes no sense any more outside inverted commas), suggests that Marilyn had an affair with a 24-year-old assistant director from the set of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) in the middle of her honeymoon with Arthur Miller. I don't suppose that this less than flattering imputation surprises anyone, and one of the preconditions for being a sex goddess is that you should have an inexhaustible libido. Whether it's true or not, Clark is just another fantasist who slept with Marilyn. But taking an interest in such things is just another example of the tawdriness of our celebrity-slobbering, grave-robbing culture, that wants to resurrect some people just so they can screw them all over again.

When Alma Mahler left the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka in the lurch, he created a life-sized doll that resembled his lost love, which he took with him to the theater, dined with and - ostensibly - slept with. When I saw film clips of Michelle Williams made up to look like Marilyn for this movie, I thought of that beautiful but lifeless doll - except that Williams is a living, breathing woman and Marilyn is the beautiful simulacrum.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Putting Things Straight

Needless to say, but what Tolstoy wrote about families at the beginning of Anna Karenina is true. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This Thanksgiving Day, I thought it might be timely to write about a film that takes family as its subject.

No other subject, except perhaps "America", makes Americans reach for a tissue more quickly than family. Part of the reason must surely be because no other subject touches such a sore spot.

Based on real people and events, the 1999 film The Straight Story is about family - a typically fractured American family. Alvin Straight is retired and living in Laurens, Iowa when he learns that his only brother Lyle, who lives in Wisconsin, has suffered a stroke. The two haven't spoken to each other in ten years because of some unexplained argument. But Alvin determines to go and see Lyle, despite his lack of a driver's license, a car, and even the ability to walk without two canes. He does have a riding mower, for which a driver's license isn't needed. So he sets out on the mower, at slightly greater than a walking pace, with a small trailer hitched behind it.

When Alvin embarks on his journey, the film subtly adapts its pace to the riding mower's. As it putters away from us down the highway, the camera uses a crane shot to pan up to the sky. But instead of giving us the usual segue to the next scene, the camera pans back down to the highway, showing Alvin and the mower only a few yards farther on its way. I burst out laughing when I first watched it, because it tells the audience to settle in their seats. It's going to be a long ride.

If I were to call The Straight Story a great American film, I'd be selling it short. It features the final performance of Richard Farnsworth, playing Alvin with tangible integrity. Freddie Francis did the cinematography. A few weeks ago I watched Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961) and when I saw Francis' name in the credits, I made the surprised connection with The Straight Story. He makes Iowa look a great deal more beautiful than I remember it, but who can complain about beauty?

But David Lynch's film is not without it's flaws. He overindulges in aerial shots of the golden Iowa landscape at harvest time, with giant tractors cutting swathes through the corn fields. (Talk about product placement - the film is a huge commercial for John Deere.) It breaks up the monotony - which is precisely what Lynch needn't have done. Enduring every mile of Alvin's long journey was the point of the film.

And Lynch uses Alvin as a font of wisdom a few times too many. He tells a runaway teen aged girl a story: "When my kids were real little, I used to play a game with 'em. I'd give each one of 'em a stick and - one for each one of 'em. Then I'd say, 'You break that.' Course they could, real easy. Then I'd say, 'Tie them sticks in a bundle and try to break that.' Course they couldn't. Then I'd say 'that bundle - that's family.'"

When a young biker asks him, "What's the worst thing about getting old?" he replies, "Rememberin' when you was young."

But the clincher is something he says to the twin mechanics (played by Chris Farley's brothers, Kevin and John): "There's no one knows your life better than a brother that's near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. . . . A brother's a brother."

Alvin completed his journey, and David Lynch allowed us to complete it with him in his marvelous film. It was shot in the actual places, and along the actual route that Alvin took from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin to be with his brother again, to sit on the porch and look up at the stars with him, just as they did when they were boys.

This Thanksgiving Day, I won't have a chance to do as I habitually did when I lived in the States. I won't watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. I won't be watching the football games. And I won't be eating turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie or pecan pie and feeling stuffed by evening. I could ask the people I live with to celebrate this old American holiday with me, but I'm too broke to afford any of those things - even if I could find a turkey or a cranberry or a pumpkin or a pecan.

What I will be doing is thinking of home, and what's left of my own family - my brother and my sister, and wishing I could see them both again if only for the duration of a hug. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Up All Night: La Notte

Antonioni's films form organic wholes rather arbitrarily. The three films that have been lumped together into a "trilogy" - L'Avventura, The Night (La Notte) and L'Eclisse - are formally similar but individually unique. My favorite Antonioni film is not his best, which is certainly L'Avventura, but the one he made after it, which he called, perhaps a little too apocalyptically, The Night. Some critics even remarked that, while agreeing that The Night was not as good as L'Avventura, it would've been called a masterpiece had anyone but Antonioni made it.

L'Avventura got off to a fast start with a wild goose chase - the search for a missing woman. The search itself is never resolved, but it invests the film with a kind of aimless impetus, since the lead characters know what they are looking for but haven't the slightest idea of where to start looking. By the end of the film they have found something else, which sort of explains why the woman went missing in the first place. (1)

When I watched the beautiful film Marcello Mastroinanni: I Remember, I was a little puzzled that Mastroianni made no mention of his working with Antonioni on the film The Night (1961). Having seen the film again, I can now understand why. Some critics blamed Jeanne Moreau for The Night's being something of a let-down after L'Avventura. But the real problem was Mastroianni. Antonioni's men are invariably uninteresting, two-dimensional, and weak. What they do is more important than who they are: Claudio in L'Avventura is an architect, Giovanni in The Night is an acclaimed novelist, Piero in Eclipse is a stock broker, Thomas in Blow-Up is a photographer. Antonioni was too absorbed with his women to spend enough time giving his male characters much depth.

When Antonioni got him to do The Night, Mastroianni was in the middle of an unbelievable streak of great roles in some of the greatest Italian films of the era: Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), Bolognini's Bell'Antonio (1960), Germi's Divorce, Italian Style (1961), and Zurlini's Family Diary (1962). Antonioni was not what is known as an "actor's director". I think it was because of the way he wanted to make films, by eliminating plot from his stories. Causality wasn't one of his considerations. Since actors need motivation - some explanation for their actions - and because Antonioni had none to give them, they found his direction aloof and unhelpful. Mastroianni's character was diffident, proud of his accomplishments but incapable of accepting praise.

The Night goes much further toward total plotlessness, except that virtually everyone is dissatisfied with life, despite their being extravagantly wealthy. The women in particular have nothing to do, apparently, but wander through the ugly fringes of modern (i.e., 1961) Milan, always with a car and driver waiting somewhere, use beautiful parqueted floors to play hockey with their compacts or otherwise adorn the more directed and purposeful lives of their men. Valentina, an affected, dilettantish young woman, says "My hobbies are golf, tennis, cars and parties." Giovanni tells her, "I know what to write, but not how to write it. It's called a crisis; very common among writers today. But in my case it's affecting my whole life."

Giovanni is indifferent to money and his would-be patrons are contemptuous of him. When he and Lidia arrive at the sumptuous house of Gherardini, he finds a book someone had left near a side door. "Who here would read The Sleepwalkers?" he asks Lidia. (2) They join a party already in full swing that goes on all night. I suppose there is always a party just like the one in The Night going on all the time somewhere. The rich are always with us. They say fantastic things like "I'm going to Sweden - on my boat, of course." Gherardini offers Giovanni a job writing a history of the firm. He tells him, drawing a line of zeros on a page, that he will make enough money to become "independent". Independent of writing, of course. Another rich man uses Hemingway as an example of a "real artist". Except that Hemingway hadn't written a worthy novel since 1945.

How refreshing to watch a film in which every single shot is carefully planned, set up, and flawlessly executed. Antonioni wanted us to look at the world, not just at actors passing in front of an arbitrary backdrop. His images are powerful because they are composed. When Lidia takes off in the rain with Roberto, there is a wonderful moment when he slows his sports car down and we see them talking and smiling inside but hear nothing but the sound of the rain and the windshield wipers.

The party over, Giovanni and Lidia walk out of the palatial house, past a jazz band still playing in them dawn light. "Do they think the music will improve the day?" Lidia asks. They walk onto a golf course and sit at the edge of a sand-trap. Lidia takes a typewritten letter from her purse and reads it to Giovanni, a long and emotional love letter. When she's done, Giovanni asks her who wrote it. "You did," she tells him. One critic complained that a real writer wouldn't not recognize his own writing. I disagree. Estranged from his feelings for her, Giovanni no longer knows what to say. Guilt-stricken, he kisses her hand and then passionately embraces her, pushing her down into the sand. "No. I don't love you any more. You don't love me, either."

"It's not true."
"Say it!"
"No, I won't say it."

The camera tracks away from them, lying in the sand-trap among some trees. Antonioni had a knack for beautifying everything merely by looking at it.

(1) John Simon correctly pointed out that the wrong woman disappeared in L'Avventura. Lea Massari is a much better actress than Monica Vitti.
(2) 1931 novel by Hermann Broch.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Undue Credit

Until the 1950s, credits at the end of a movie were usually limited to the words The End or some other foreign language equivalent. Occasionally the credits would repeat the cast.

Nowadays, when the convention of ending a movie with the superfluous words The End has been abandoned and when even opening credit sequences can go on for several minutes, end credit sequences typically crawl on for an unconscionable time, giving credit to everyone involved in the smallest capacity in the production, as well as numerous people who have nothing at all to do with the movie, except as a provider of some service to the cast or crew.

End credits also contain disclaimers that read things like "any resemblance between the people and situations you have just witnessed and actuality is completely unintentional" or "no animals were mistreated during the making of this movie merely to increase its entertainment potential." Information like the actual locations where the movie were shot are helpful, even when they sometimes put me in mind of Gene Shalit's comment that "The Blue Bird was shot in Russia, and it should've been buried there." Since filmgoers rarely stick around to watch end credits, filmmakers sometimes indulge in additional scenes and outtakes to get them to sit through them.

For no particular reason I watched the end credits for the 50 Cent movie Setup (2011) and noticed a credit for the "Honeywagon".* I realize that a credit like this could have been included out of respect or gratitude for the people who kept the location port-o-potties clean. Or it could have been put there because of some kind of union requirement. Since too many films treat end credits as a joke, it's probably a mistake to take them seriously. But including people like personal assistants, caterers, drivers, and honeywagon operators in a movie's end credits is a discredit to the movie and to all the people who are directly involved in its making.

But why is it that many classic films, particularly from abroad, eschew end credits altogether? Breathless, for example, has only three titles at the beginning: "Visa de contrôle cinématographique Nr 22275", "Ce film est dédié a la Monogram Pictures", and A bout de souffle; and the word "FIN" at the end. And yet we know it was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, written by him from a story by François Truffaut, photographed by the great Raoul Coutard, and has delightful acting by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Even if we didn't know all this from the dozens of reference books published since 1960, anyone can find it at Setup, which was instantly forgettable, has 28 producers and (coincidentally?) 28 stunt people, lists 42 actors in its credits, 35 camera and electrical technicians, 14 drivers, and 39 "other crew", which includes a set medic, animal trainer, payroll accountant, chef, and various interns. Maybe this is nothing more than a side-effect of democracy?

*Chris Musick drove the honeywagon.

Monday, November 14, 2011


"I have felt with even greater force, the same feelings - this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits - thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding - is a great evil, as is every untruth." Leo Tolstoy, "Shakespeare and the Drama", 1906

"Was Shakespeare a fraud?" [Tagline for the film Anonymous]

Ever since the man who wrote "Hamlet", "King Lear", and "The Tempest" was recognized as perhaps the greatest writer of English, some people have been trying to prove that he was not William Shakespeare. This is probably due to the adulation that began to be heaped on him by scholars in the 19th century, attributing qualities to him that he did not possess, like a well-developed philosophy. Over the years, various theories have been put forward about who else might have written the plays, like Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, and Edward de Vere. Now comes a film, Anonymous, directed by the German Roland Emmerich, that dramatizes one such theory.

It seems to me there are two kinds of Shakespeare dissenters: people with an educated, informed hunch, brilliant laymen not attached to conventional scholarship who have a unique perspective on a wide variety of subjects; and literary outsiders who latch on to such theories because they somehow resent Shakespeare's overinflated reputation.

Leo Tolstoy evidently hated Shakespeare, so much so that he wrote a notorious pamphlet about it. George Orwell wrote a fascinating review of Tolstoy's essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", which pretty much demolishes Tolstoy's argument. But there have been plenty of dissenters over the years who haven't changed anyone's mind about Shakespeare's importance. Even some of his admirers had reservations. As Jacques Barzun wrote, "From Shakespeare’s time to ours — that is, from Ben Jonson to John Crowe Ransom—competent judges of literature have not ceased to point out Shakespeare’s singular combination of mastery and ineptitude. He is said to be transcendent and also crude, careless, vulgar, incoherent, rhetorical, exaggerated, naive, cheap, obscure, unphilosophical, and addicted to bad puns and revolting horrors. Dryden, who admired Shakespeare just as Wagner admired Berlioz, found his master’s phrases 'scarcely intelligible; and of those which we understand some are ungrammatical, others coarse; and his whole style is so pestered with figurative expressions that it is as affected as it is obscure.'"

The movie Anonymous doesn't attack the common perception of the greatness of the plays, but it attacks the man we're used to thinking of as the writer of the plays, which is only a roundabout way of attacking the plays. It's no accident that for Roland Emmerich English is, at best, a second language. Many native English speakers find Shakespeare "difficult", for the same reason they find the King James Bible rough going.

Emmerich is the maker of hypertrophied trash like 2012 which wants us to believe, if only for the sake of the movie, in a Mayan myth that the world will come to end in December 2012. Anonymous is rich in its own mythology, but it's about as worth taking seriously as Mayan astrology. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Goldblatt goes further:

"The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the “authorship controversy” be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that “intelligent design” be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time. The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?"

Emmerich should stick to destroying the world.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ce n'est pas la guerre

Gamblers the world over are placing their bets today, 11/11/11. Here in the Philippines there are low-odds lotto games of only two and three digits. The bet is ten pesos and can win you up to 4,500 pesos ($100). By yesterday, all bets for 11-11 and 1-1-1 were sold out. They're sold out to make sure that if too many people bet on the same number and it wins, the national lotto doesn't go broke.

If you were a soldier in the British, American, French or German armies on this day in 1918 - and you were alive - you would have considered yourself extremely lucky, since an estimated ten million soldiers died in the First World War. This day used to be known as Armistice Day in the States, but they changed it to Veterans Day in 1954.

On this Veterans Day, I want to simply say hello to all my former buddies, shipmates, and comrades-in-arms with whom I served from 1988 to 2000. And to all those with whom, mysteriously, I continue to serve nightly in my dreams. In a very real and very satisfying sense, I never really left the service. But I'm too old and out of shape to keep up with the men who haven't aged a day since I last saw them. The ones who are dead are ageless.

And the dreams are progressive, adding one onto the other. So instead of enlisting again with twelve years under my belt, as the years have passed it's fifteen years and seventeen years, until I'm just one more enlistment away from my twenty year retirement. Perhaps when I'm on my deathbed I can be honorably discharged, the way they let my father go at the age of fifty-five. They told him he'd had a heart attack, and showed him the scar tissue on his x-ray. But he was unaware of any heart attack, and after thirty-one years in the army, was totally unfit for civilian life.

He lived another twenty years not knowing what to do with himself. I wonder if his dreams were like mine, still in the service to his last gasp. (Or was it a yawn?)


When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.

But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
and silence; and the faces of my friends.

Siegfried Sassoon, Limerick, 1 February 1918