Monday, May 30, 2011

Monsieur Ripley

Most books should never be made into films. None should be made twice. The late Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is proof of this axiom. The 1955 Patricia Highsmith potboiler was first adapted to film in 1960 by René Clément. Plein Soleil, as the film was called, (known as Purple Noon in the U.S. because the title High Noon was already taken [1]), is far superior to any other adaptation of a Highsmith novel.

Minghella had a thirty year career in which he directed only nine films, because he had the unfortunate habit of spending years in their preparation, and because he obviously didn't know he would die at the age of fifty four. His choice of the Highsmith book is strange, but he had the advantage of American actors (except for Jude Law) and faithfulness to the plot (Ripley gets away with his crimes, else how could he re-appear in four subsequent books?).

But the disadvantages of Minghella's remake, once one has seen the wonderfully restored (thanks to Martin Scorsese, among others) Plein Soleil, are glaring. His casting, for one thing, is bad. I always believed that Jude Law's greatest impediment as an actor was his beauty. Because we always demand more, rightly or wrongly, of beautiful people, they can be solid actors, like Law, and still fail to satisfy. In Ripley he does little more, really, than look good in his chic wardrobe. As Tom, Matt Damon is unconvincing as an Ivy League grad. Since I wasn't taken in by him, his taking in of Dickie and his father are even more unconvincing. Gwyneth Paltrow, for an Oscar-winning actress, is extremely erratic in her performances. As Marge in The Talented Mr. Ripley, she hasn't even the advantage of desirability, which would have been enough for her role. Only Philip Seymour Hoffmann, as the intolerable snob Freddie, is totally convincing.

Clément's 1960 film is so much more original, and not least because it came first. It's beautiful Italian locations were not nearly the postcard clichés they were when John Seale (Minghella's cinematographer) tried in vain to make them look fresh in 1999. It was Alain Delon's first significant role, and if he seems to be posing sometimes, it's only fitting for such an arch-poseur as Tom Ripley. (The Highsmith book is called Monsieur Ripley in the credits, designed by Maurice Binder.) Maurice Ronet is splendid, as usual, as Philippe (Dickie). Marie Laforêt as Marge is at least not out of place, unlike the diaphanous Paltrow.

I especially liked how Tom, in Clément's film, goes to the window after killing Freddie, and distractedly watches a group of children playing on the sunlit sidewalk. And the stately piano solo (Nino Rota composed the music) as he lugs the guts down the stairs.

The irony of all the ink spilled by Chabrol and Truffaut and Rohmer about Alfred Hitchcock is that French filmmakers, with considerably smaller means, had been outdoing old Tubby all along. Not only is Purple Noon superior to Minghella's stab at Highsmith, it is better than Hitchcock's highly-touted Strangers on a Train (1951).

(Incidentally, the scenes on the sailboat (the two men and one woman, the knife, an experienced sailor and an inexperienced one) were probably the inspiration for Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water.)

(1) The French title has been variously translated as Full Sun or Blazing Sun. The fact that Tom (Alain Delon) murders Philippe (Maurice Ronet) at exactly noon (his beautiful old watch is conspicuously present in the scene) suggests the idiomatic French title is closer to High Noon.

Friday, May 27, 2011

No, Not One

On his blog, The Tarpeian Rock, "Tyler" recently published his views of Gandhi and of pacifism. Using a quote from George Orwell's essay, "Reflections on Gandhi", he stated that Gandhi's philosophy was "literally and by definition insane, by which I mean not in touch with the real physical world."

I added a comment to "Tyler's" post, sticking up for Gandhi, even if, as I stated in the comment "Tyler" published, that I personally didn't like Gandhi's "saintly" ambitions. "Tyler" replied that his point wasn't that Gandhi wasn't worth taking seriously but that pacifism itself was unworthy of serious attention.

It should be noted that Orwell, whom "Tyler" appears to like, was initially, until as late as 1939, a pacifist, but he changed his mind when he realized that England was in what is now being called "existential" peril - specifically when Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact. I believe that one of the points that Orwell was trying to make in his remarks on Gandhi was that, while he couldn't share his belief that a strict adherence to non-violence is of any use to a society as a whole, it was because, in 1948, England was no nearer to becoming the "good society" Orwell thought it would become than it had been before the war.

Orwell admired Gandhi's courage for not simply saying what be believed in but living up to his beliefs. It gave Orwell no thrill to have to refute pacifism, even though it needed to be. I believe that Orwell was somewhat sympathetic to pacifism precisely because he saw that it was Utopian. As long as human beings were unwilling to abandon violence as a means to its ends, pacifism would be impracticable. "Let us admit we are savages," Orwell might have said, "but what possible satisfaction or comfort can be gained from such an admission?"

In 1941, when England had its back to the wall (while America was still trying to make up its mind whose side it should be on), Orwell stated the argument against pacifism most succinctly in a review of Alex Comfort's [yes, the same man who wrote The Joy of Sex thirty years later] novel No Such Liberty called "No, Not One":

"Now, before considering the implications of this story, just consider one or two facts which underlie the structure of modern society and which it is necessary to ignore if the pacifist "message" is to be accepted uncritically.

"(i) Civilisation rests ultimately on coercion. What holds society together is not the policeman but the good will of common men, and yet that good will is powerless unless the policeman is there to back it up. Any government which refused to use violence in its own defence would cease almost immediately to exist, because it could be overthrown by any body of men, or even any individual, that was less scrupulous. Objectively, whoever is not on the side of the policeman is on the side of the criminal, and vice versa. In so far as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the U.S.S.R. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi.

"(ii) Since coercion can never be altogether dispensed with, the only difference is between degrees of violence. During the last twenty years there has been less violence and less militarism inside the English-speaking world than outside it, because there has been more money and more security. The hatred of wear which undoubtedly characterises the English-speaking peoples is a reflection of their favoured position. Pacifism is only a considerable force in places where people feel themselves very safe, chiefly maritime states. Even in such places, turn-of-the-other-cheek pacifism only flourishes among the more prosperous classes, or among workers who have in some way escaped from their own class. The real working class, though they hate war and are immune to jingoism, are never really pacifist, because their life teaches them something different. To abjure violence it is necessary to have no experience of it. . . .

"The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. As I have said, it is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality. But why should they want to make this flight, in any case? Because, rightly hating violence, they do not wish to recognise that it is integral to modern society and that their own fine feelings and noble attitudes are all the fruit of injustice backed up by force. They do not want to learn where their incomes come from. Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands. It seems to me that the text for our time is not 'Woe to him through whom the evil cometh' but the one from which I took the title of this article, 'There is not one that is righteous, no, not one.' We have all touched pitch, we are all perishing by the sword. We do not have the chance, in a time like this, to say 'Tomorrow we can all start being good'. That is moonshine. We only have the chance of choosing the lesser evil and of working for the establishment of a new kind of society in which common decency will again be possible."

Orwell knew that it isn't the least bit encouraging or edifying to debunk the teachings, or the personal example, of people like Gandhi as long as you are convinced you are taking some kind of moral or philosophical high ground. There is no high ground anywhere, except atop a pile of dead bodies.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Unkindest Cut

In the Navy I knew a man who, at the age of twenty, chose to get himself circumcised. A guy I worked with - let's call him Dave - wondered why. "I thought only Jews got circumcised," he said.

"Anybody can get one," the man told him. He then explained what he believed were the advantages of being circumcised. So Dave made an appointment for a circumcision. But when the nurse saw Dave's penis and found that he was already circumcised, he is reported to have asked if Dave wanted some skin taken "off the sides". The theory going around the office was that, because he was a devout Christian, Dave had possibly never looked at his own penis and didn't know that he was already circumcised. Or else he simply wanted to show his penis to a total stranger.

The practice of male circumcision is a widespread medical procedure in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Here in the Philippines, medical missions visit the poorer and more remote provinces to perform the procedure on boys whose parents couldn't otherwise afford it. It is purely voluntary, requiring the consent of the boys' parents. Medical professionals convince them of its presumed benefits. A few days ago, in a suburb of Manila called Marikina, there was a marathon circumcision drive, trying to break the world record for the most circumcisions carried out at a single location in a day. When it was shown on TV, the boys were paraded by the camera holding the front of their shorts away from their bodies.

This is an obviously unnecessary practice, little more than a medical nuisance, when you discover how few countries around the world practice circumcision on the general public. There are probably billions of men who live in ignorance of its alleged benefits. Some of the arguments in favor of the continuation of the practice resort to hysterically graphic and disgusting falsehoods in their description of all the nasty things that are supposed to happen to uncircumcised penises. The arguments are just as uninformed as those against the consumption of pork - because a pig is "unclean", its meat shouldn't be eaten.

Male circumcision is not nearly as invasive or as barbaric as female circumcision, the sole purpose of which is to eliminate all sensations in women's genitals. It is rather like a sexual lobotomy. But the intention of male circumcision, though often given questionable justification, is exactly the same - to minimize genital sensation.

Currently, there are medical reports that suggest - without proving - that male circumcision can prevent the contraction of HIV during heterosexual sex. There are also a wide variety of anecdotal claims about its hygienic advantages, particularly in hot climates. The simple fact is that the foreskin, like every other specialized part of the human body, evolved into its current, untampered-with state. Dr. Benjamin Spock, America's "Baby Doctor", repudiated his earlier advocacy of circumcision in a widely-read 1989 article published in Redbook. The title of the essay was "Circumcision - It's Not Necessary." He that stated that "My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone." Dr. Spock even commented on how much more ill-advised was the circumcision of boys past infancy - such as the ones being circumcised wholesale, it seems, here in the Philippines: "when an older boy is circumcised, even though the body of the penis remains, the circumcision suggests to the child that an attempt has been made to cut his penis off and, in fact, the attempt has been partially successful. It is understandable, then, that a young boy would become deeply upset by the operation."(1)

It is clear that, like every other cultural and religious justification for the practice (sacrifice to a god, a boy's rite of passage, distinguishing ethnic difference, symbolic castration, discouraging masturbation), the latest medical arguments are just as insupportable and irrational. The disadvantages of circumcision are nothing compared to its incomprehensible fetishistic prolongation. Hiding behind hygiene, it is an abuse of children, both in the momentary pain it causes its victims and the shame and stigma it casts on boys whose foreskins are intact.

(1) Benjamin Spock, Redbook, April 1989.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Goodbye Kiss

In a 1971 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Robert Bresson made a curious confession: "I am not at all against nudity so long as the body is beautiful; only when the body is ugly is its nudity obscene. It is like kissing. I can't bear to see people kissing on the screen."

Bresson certainly had a genius for aphorisms, as his interviews, and his little book Notes on Cinematography, show. This aversion to screen kisses, however, came as a bit of a surprise to some critics, especially those who were hostile to his fill-in-the-blanks style of filmmaking. Given his aversion to acting and to fakery of any kind, however, it is perfectly in keeping with his aesthetic principles. While I don't have much use for most of Bresson's ideas, to a certain extent I happen to share his distaste for screen kisses.

For the Japanese, kissing in public used to be regarded as somewhat obscene, since for them it is a sexual overture. Customarily, the only people who kiss one another are lovers. The sight of parents and children kissing in the West is disturbing. And Frenchmen and Russians kissing everyone is just scary.

When General MacArthur was in command of the U.S. occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, he approved the production of a film that featured a kissing scene at its climax. It was intended to further the acceptance of democratic values and the emancipation of women. Released in 1946, Japanese audiences flocked to see the otherwise mediocre film, but the scandalous kiss was obscured by a strategically placed umbrella.

Attitudes in the West toward kissing on stage and film have changed considerably since the release of the forty-seven second long Thomas Edison film The Kiss in 1896. It was meant to cause a scandal, and succeeded in provoking calls for an immediate ban on further screenings. It was actually the kiss given by John Rice to May Irwin that had already been staged at the end of the musical The Widow Jones. On film, the impact of that kiss was somewhat different. A reporter wrote: "The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting."

The voyeuristic nature of the film - of the viewer spying vicariously on the characters' assumed privacy - was significantly noted at the time and made the representation of all kinds of behavior on film somehow more acceptable. This reached its nadir just prior to the invention of internet porn with people gathering together in adult movie houses to watch explicit sex acts performed by professional "actors".

Like Bresson, I have no problem with nudity on film. And I don't even require that the bodies should be beautiful, though that would be nice. An actor's buttocks or breasts (the line is usually drawn just this side of the genitals) are just as important tools as their arms and legs. All manner of physical acts are represented on film - punching and kicking and biting. But it is artificial: nobody is getting hurt, thanks to the angle of the shot or careful lighting or editing. Actors must make the appropriate adjustments to avoid injury.

A kiss presents the same kind of problem for actors and filmmakers - how to make pretending look real. The big difference, however, is that it is an act of intimacy that usually requires the camera to be close to the action. This requires that lips should at least appear to be touching, even if they actually miss by a mile.

But nearly all film kisses are misses. Even when the actors are romantically involved off-camera, a kiss is considered such a private act that they will often not actually kiss on-camera, for the same reason that one doesn't kiss a hooker - it is considered an act of intimacy that is reserved only for private moments. Maybe I've seen too many of them, but nothing restores my disbelief in a film's verity more than a kiss.

It is naïvely - though generally - assumed that when actors are in a "love scene" onscreen that they are getting it on offscreen as well. It's only because people refuse to believe that love can be faked. It's fascinating to watch great actors, so concentratedly absorbed in their roles, suddenly lower their masks in order to plant an utterly unconvincing kiss of their onscreen lovers' faces. They, better than anyone else, prove that a kiss - like sex - is a private gesture.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seven Syllables

Vernon Young once said that the names of some Italian filmmakers - Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Mario Monicelli - had an incantatory magic for him. That was in the 1950s, when the Italian film was arguably the most vital national industry in the world. By the early 1960s, when the French New Wave burst onto the scene, film had clearly come into its own as the art of the 20th century.

But it may well go down as exclusively a 20th century art. In his premonitory 1999 essay, "The Death of Film, The Decay of Cinema", Godfrey Cheshire mourned the physical death of the celluloid medium (being gradually replaced by digital) and the disappearance of films that were formally comparable to the best films of the fifties and sixties, to the sophisticated mastery of Smiles of a Summer Night, L'Avventura, and Red Beard.

All the old masters, who had been young in the fifties, are either dead or incapacitated by age. Kurosawa died in 1998. Bergman and Antonioni died on the same day, July 30, 2007. All three had won a few Golden Palms and Lions and Bears along the way. Antonioni and Kurosawa got an honorary Oscar, or what I like to call the Golden Bowling Trophy.

I have gone back over this old ground because of the presentation last week at the 64th Annual Cannes Film Festival of an honorary Palm d'Or to Bernardo Bertolucci. Seven syllables as well. But no more magic. His film The Last Emperor won nine Oscars in 1987. Gaining "unprecedented" access to Beijing's Forbidden City during filming, it is a fair representation of Bertolucci's mind - filled with extravagant nic-nacs but uninhabited by ideas.

Looking back at the twenty-three films with which he is credited, the only thing that distinguishes most of them is how egregiously silly they are. Thank goodness that giving Bertolucci such a prestigious award doesn't mean there is a paucity of Old Masters still living. There are, of course, several that fit the bill far better than Bertolucci, such as Ermanno Olmi (b.1931), Bertrand Tavernier (b.1941), Ken Loach (b.1936), and Jan Troell ((b.1931). Their works aren't merely pretty or flashy or facetious. Their only weakness is that they aren't nearly as well-publicized. They require intelligence and discrimination to be appreciated - qualities that are conspicuously scarce in places like Cannes.

At the end of his review of Stealing Beauty (1996), Stanley Kauffmann wrote: "Something else becomes clear about Bertolucci. When a career is so heavily
laden with vacuous artiness, so full of inadequately examined choices, so emptily assumptive of superiority, a hard fact looms. Fundamentally, under the chi-chi, Bertolucci is stupid."* Giving Bertolucci an honorary Palm d'Or shows how even mistaken judgements can sometimes be written in stone (or, in this case, chiseled on crystal) rather than on the wind.

*Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, 24 June 1996.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wish You Were Here

Do I know where hell is, hell is in hell-o.
Heaven is good-bye forever it's time for me to go.
I was born under a wand'rin' star,
A wand'rin', wand'rin' star.

Alan J. Lerner, from the musical "Paint Your Wagon".

My father was a career soldier, so by the time he retired when I was ten, I had lived in Virginia, West Germany, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. In my first six years of school I attended five different schools. I never had a hometown, let alone the same home for more than a few years.

The difficulty of making friends, especially difficult for me, was compounded by the knowledge that I would probably have to say goodbye to every one of them. Places I got to know, the names of streets, a particular view from a window - they all passed by me as I grew up like so many stops on a bus route.

I have lived the same way since becoming an adult. Serving in the military made it easier. Or should I say it made serving in the military easier? Just after I joined the Navy, I went to see the Tom Hanks movie Big with a girl. She said it made her homesick. I said it made me homesick for places I've never been.

I have found many of those places in the twenty-two years since then. Places like the high desert in Nevada, or a quiet cove overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa. Hong Kong. A squalid resort in Thailand called Pattaya. The other city of angels, Angeles City. Sapporo. Seoul. Downtown Des Moines. Anchorage. And one small island connected by a bridge to a bigger island in the Philippine archipelago that I now tenuously call "home" - for want of another word.

I was there to take in all those places one by one. And, so far, all but one I let go. Like Elizabeth Bishop, I have learned the art of losing.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

("One Art")

In Des Moines I met a friend about my age at the time - 43 - who had lived there all his life. Wherever he went, people who'd known him since grade school would stop and greet him. I couldn't imagine it, since I hadn't seen any of the places I grew up in or the people I'd known there for decades. It seemed to me a kind of curse. My friend's life seemed hemmed in by the well-known dimensions of that town. And I shared with him the Cavafy poem, "The City".

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Cavafy's city was Alexandria, but as much as he loved it, he had probably grown weary of its familiarity, its stultifying sameness, year in and year out.

But the sense of belonging, of staying in one place and finding meaning for one's life there, is enticing to me now that I'm no longer young, and so far from my native country. I used to play a game with my friends in Japan or Korea. We would be standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change, and I would tell them to imagine they were living on that same street, had grown up there and gone to school close by, fallen in love for the first time there. Then the light would change and, laughing, we crossed the street.

Every Sunday after church, my mother would take my brother and I to visit open houses she had read about in the newspapers - big, beautiful empty houses where she could dream of another life, a new life. In the years since then, I have found myself distracted by the glimpse of a house somewhere, standing out among trees or at the top of a hill or the end of a long, tree-lined driveway. Robert Graves wrote of seeing such a place in "Here Live Your Life Out!"

Window-gazing, at one time or another
In the course of travel, you must have startled at
Some coign of true felicity. "Stay!" it beckoned.
"Here live your life out!" If you were simplehearted,
The village rose, perhaps, from a broad stream
Lined with alders and gold-flowering flags -
Hills, mills, hayfields, orchards - and, plain to see,
The very house behind its mulberry tree
Stood, by a miracle, untenanted!

Alas, you could not alight, found yourself jolted
Viciously on. Public conveyances
Are not amenable to casual halts
Except in sternly drawn emergencies -
Bandits, floods, landslides, earthquakes, or the like -
Nor could you muster resolution enough
To shout, "This is emergency. Let me out!,"
Rushing to grasp the brakes; so the whole scene
Withdrew forever. Once at the terminus
(As your internal mentor will have told you),
It would have been pure folly to engage
A private car, drive back, sue for possession.
Too far, too late -
Already bolder tenants were at the gate.

Here on my Philippine island for another birthday, already having lived in four different houses, I don't know where I will be next year. There is wonder in that speculation, but also some rue. I've stopped here, for the time being, but where I will be in a year I wish I could say, but can't.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Notional Anthem

Growing up an army brat, I couldn't begin to count the number of times I had to stand up in a movie theater on a military base while the national anthem was played. I thought then that it was all the more annoying for being so obligatory. I had gone in there to watch a movie and suddenly I was being compelled to attest to my patriotism.

When watching a baseball game or a boxing match on TV, my father always used to grumble whenever some singer made mincemeat out of the national anthem. Having been a professional soldier for thirty-one years made it a matter of simple respect for him that it should be sung note for note as it was written.

Jimi Hendrix's rendition at Woodstock drove my father to near apoplexy. It did me no good to tell him that Hendrix had served in the army, too.* By far the worst offender was Roseanne, who had evidently taken leave of her senses when she was asked to sing the national anthem at a baseball game. Unable to carry a tune, she screamed the words and, when she was done, spat on the ground and grabbed her crotch.

Last Sunday, every Filipino was watching the satellite TV broadcast of the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley fight from Las Vegas. A Filipino recording star and a regular on the American TV show Glee named Charice sang the Philippine national anthem. Charice is noted for the power of her voice, despite her diminutive size (4'11" is a generous estimate), and for her interpretive talents. But she sang her national anthem, "Lupang Hinirang", note perfect. She was followed by Tyrese, who sang the American national anthem with a great many vocal embellishments - what my father called "yodelling".

Without knowing the song, I doubt that most Americans noticed how restrained Charice's singing was. They would be surprised to know that there is a Philippine National Historical Institute that has managed to get a law passed enforcing the proper way in which the song is to be sung. Any interpretation that varies from the official one is subject to the censure of the NHI.

While I don't believe that any such law could or should be passed in America, it would be nice if American singers called upon to sing the national anthem would remember that, to so many Americans, it is more than just a song.

*A recent biography of Hendrix revealed that he had faked being gay to get a discharge from the army.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

John Barry

"I was brought up with movies. They've always been extremely special to me. It wasn't like I wanted to write a piano concerto, I wanted to write a symphony, or whatever. I've always been a movie composer. That's what I like doing more than anything else." (John Barry from a 2006 interview)

While preparing my tribute to John Barry a few days after the announcement of his death, I was sidetracked by something I felt was more pressing and never got around to paying my respects. Since such things always seem to come too late, I feel it wouldn't hurt to offer my valediction this late to the late Barry. Recording artists and movie stars are never really gone, if they're any good. Small comfort for the ones who knew them, but a comfort to all the rest of us who only knew their work.

The best way to remember John Barry's music is to simply look at a list of his credits. IMDB lists 110 titles, among which are eleven James Bond theme songs (my favorite is You Only Live Twice), Born Free, The Appointment, Midnight Cowboy, The Glass Menagerie (the Katharine Hepburn version), Body Heat, The Cotton Club, Out of Africa, and Indecent Proposal. I suppose the worst you could say about Barry's characteristically lush film music is that it added too much sail for the films' hulls.

He also composed music for six films directed by the shamefully underrated Bryan Forbes, among which is my favorite, Deadfall (1968). When it was released, it was probably called "stylish noir", which means it was filmed in Europe with picturesque locations, beautiful clothes and cars. A British Thomas Crown Affair without "The Windmills of Your Mind".

For Deadfall, Barry wrote a theme song, "My Love Has Two Faces", with Jack Lawrence, sung by Shirley Bassey, the English Ethel Merman. The perils of an ambitious burglar, played by Michael Caine in his post-Alfie prime, are given a depth of fate and feeling by Barry's music that was a little unearned by the potboiler plot, in which an old man's beautiful wife, played by Giovanna Ralli, turns out to be his daughter. A hidden Nazi past makes the old man (played by the great Eric Portman) less sympathetic, if that were possible. But Caine's thief is clearly in it for the sport, and not the money, and preys on people who are so ridiculously wealthy they barely feel the loss.

Barry proved that he could compose a concert piece when Forbes asked him to come up with an original composition for orchestra that would be used, as in Jules Dassin's Topkapi, to coincide with the scene of an elaborate robbery. The result, a "Romance for Guitar and Orchestra" (you can see and hear it here), is intentionally programmatic, but it could stand on its own in any orchestra repertoire. The concert, conducted by Barry himself, features Renata Tarrago on guitar and the London Philharmonic.

On a personal note, the film contained a mystery for me until I found an explanation for it in Michael Caine's marvelous autobiography, What's It All About?. There is a fancy dress ball in the film and there is an old man sitting at the table with the rich man who is the target of Caine's last attempted theft. When I first saw the film in the late 1970s, I recognized the old man as the English poet and author of the novel I, Claudius, Robert Graves. But his name was nowhere in the credits.

It remained a mystery for me for the next twenty years, when I finally read Caine's autobiography. In it, he describes the shooting of the film in Spain and a cameo appearance at the fancy dress ball by Graves. Graves approached him between takes and introduced himself as a fellow veteran of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Regarding Henry

The Chilean government recently ordered the exhumation of the body of President Allende to possibly determine if he committed suicide or not. A few weeks ago I watched a TV program about Henry Kissinger, unafraid to refresh my memory of this frightful man and the American age of which he was an integral part.

The interviewer wasn't exactly asking tough questions, which was probably one of Kissinger's conditions for granting it. But I didn't catch the old man in an out and out lie. He failed, as I expected, to tell the whole truth about Chile, blaming Allende's death on its out-of-control army. He artfully washed his hands of the Vietnam debacle, which was inherited from Johnson and passed on to Gerald Ford.

But I watched him relate how his parents had brought him to the States before World War Two, and how he served proudly in the U.S. Army, even of his arrival with the army at a concentration camp, and it made me wonder. Kissinger is one of many first-generation Americans who became ultra-conservative apologists for the American Way - the kind who believe that America is worth defending to the last drop of foreigners' blood.

But he, along with Nixon and Rumsfeld and Cheney, also embodies a chilling truism: that by making it possible for Americans to sleep more soundly, and making insomniacs of everyone else, he qualifies as an American patriot. He succeeded in making the public servant into a public menace because there is clearly nothing he wouldn't stoop to do for his country.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ten Years Gone

Who can forget that morning? I was at work on the morning of September 11, 2001 at an insurance company in Des Moines called Rain & Hail, that insures farmers against crop failure. Since I was in the central time zone, all the events unfolded one hour behind New York, so it was just after I arrived at work at eight that the canned music in my office was interrupted by the report of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I shook it off, like most people did, as a freak accident. When the report of the second plane came over the speaker, I looked over at a co-worker and saw on his face the same incredulous look that must have been stamped on mine. We stopped what we were doing and went to the break room where the TV was on. The strange thing was that there was no more work to do that day, and when I came in to work on the following days that week, I only worked a few hours and was released.

I must've experienced the same series of emotions that everyone else did, including two that were, I think, unavoidable: astonishment at the scale of the destruction and at the audacity of the men who caused it. Such events have a galvanizing effect on everyone who witness them. They partake of a national tragedy but also feel a personal sense of loss. It may be the loss of someone they knew who perished in the event or a loss, to some extent, of their faith in humanity.

The trouble with such events, however, is that not long after they occur, when most people are still feeling helpless about what sort of response is possible in the face of such savagery, some very unsubtle minds - at a time when subtlety would be interpreted as weakness - are already at work devising a single, exclusive response, which quickly becomes the Official Response. And any variation from it, to the extent of the variation, soon becomes a dissenting and unwelcome response, and is stifled.

In a matter of a few days, President George W. Bush, ineffectual in his first eight months, became a resolute president of war. His advisers saw 9/11 as an opportunity to put into practice their vision of a new world order - starting with the Middle East. And they relied heavily on those who were hesitant and unsure.

Every day thereafter, I had to listen to people who wanted U.S. forces to exterminate all Muslims, regardless of the simple logistical absurdity of it. And there were others who wanted a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from foreign soil. Luckily, neither of these sorts of people was in charge of anything bigger than a 7-11. And while they were jockeying to be heard, decisions were being made, armies were on the march, and the dice were thrown.

Too many people act as if the death of Bin Laden is the end of the story that began for us almost ten years ago. If killing him was revenge, as many Muslims see it, then it is indeed the end. We clearly made two big mistakes after 9/11. The very scale of the destruction reinforced the belief that it was unprecedented, rather than the culmination of a series of attacks. And we saw it as an act of war, rather than an atrocity, however colossal. I believe that we overreacted outrageously. It was one thing to underestimate Al Qaeda's determination and ability to carry out the attack. But to react as we did, to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq, killing innumerable civilians and spending huge sums of our money, was a terrible mistake.

I am by no means a pacifist. I believe that war, however regrettable, is sometimes necessary and that it can accomplish a multitude of things - most of them unforeseeable. But responding to a shot in the dark, to the unaccountable acts of bloodthirsty lunatics with invading and occupying armies was not justice. It took a small team of special forces, after all, to get Bin Laden. And they didn't have to invade Pakistan to do it.

If you were Rip Van Winkle and had fallen asleep on September 10, 2001, only to awake today, and someone explained to you what had happened in the intervening years, one of the first questions out of your mouth would surely be "What the hell are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oil and Water

Picking through the Andrew Motion biography of Larkin. In “Forty” he writes to Monica (one of the ton of letters not published in his Selected Letters): “It’s curious, isn’t it, the way that characters like mine and perhaps yours prove gradually to have a kind of oil and water relation to life – it isn’t apparent at first, but as time goes on we assimilate nothing and adopt nothing, remaining stuck at where we started – is it that we, or I, never threw the six to get off the base, or are ordinary lives a succession of trunks and hatboxes gaily piled in on the frantic stowaway in the unlit cabin? I mean, I often think that the conventional accoutrements of house, car and kiddies must seem less like additional limbs than dreadful mistakes there is no escaping, leaving the person feeling in Hugh Kingsmill’s words ‘my heart’s in the right place, but I am not’. But then it’s ‘a bit late to think of that’. I’m sure my father felt like that – it was a mistake, his own, but none the less irrevocable for that.” (12 August 1962)