Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dog Days

I have sometimes thought about adopting a dog here on my Philippine island.(1) The thought only lasts for a few moments, and then I dismiss it as impossible. I have also thought about getting a cat, since I have always preferred the feline emotional diffidence to canine dumb devotion.

Dogs and cats serve a purpose in this poor country that is not immediately apparent to a stranger. At first I thought their function was the defense of property or pest control. I soon realized that Filipinos pay as little heed to a barking dog as Americans pay to a sounding car alarm. (And the rats here are bigger than the cats.)

They actually function as garbage disposals in a place where waste disposal is left to people's imaginations. Whatever food is left over is usually horsed down by the animal who gets to it first. Since there is never enough to go around, nearly all the local dogs and cats are the scrawniest domestic pets I have ever seen. Many of them are afflicted by what looks like mange - a skin disease that results in large patches of hair falling out. Their growth is horribly stunted by malnutrition (2), and dogs in particular often bear the wounds of the fights I hear in the night.

But the only way I would consider having a dog or cat would be if I could keep it clean and healthy - in other words it would have to be confined inside my house. It's the only way I could protect the animal, and myself, from the wide variety of maladies and parasites with which it would come in contact. But how could I possibly keep it in my house? A dog would have to go out to do its business, and a cat would quickly discover a way out.

Whenever I consider adopting a dog or cat I have to remind myself that it would never work out. But lately I have had to face similar second thoughts about having a child in this place, and mostly for the same reasons. I say this despite the fact that, since my arrival, I have - so to speak - come up in the world and I now live in a barangay that is better off than some others, like the last two I lived in.

Recently I met an American who had come to this province to fetch a three-year-old boy whose mother had provided him with satisfactory evidence that the boy was his. He was staying at a nearby tourist hotel that as charging $25 a night. That sounds cheap until you calculate that he stayed there for about a hundred days. He was what was once called an "old Asia hand" had knocked around the Philippines many times since the 1980s, when he was in the Marines. I never asked him directly, but I figured he was going to all the expense and trouble with Philippine customs to get the boy and his mother out of the Philippines as soon as possible because he found the idea of his boy spending a minute in the Philippines longer than he had to unacceptable.

I won't make the analogy that many pet owners make between cherished family pets and their children, but it would require much imagination to look at the filthy, starving pets in my barangay without wondering what the place must do to children. I have written about the children I see every day on my island, an estimated fifteen million of whom aren't in school, playing in the streets because there are no playgrounds. I asked a question more than two years ago that needs asking again: when the world is unfit for a dog to live in, how can it be fit for a child?

(1) I call it "my island" for the same reason that the mad Irishman in Braveheart said of Ireland "it's mine".
(2) I watched a neighbor's puppy over the course of a few months not grow at all. It was the same size at six months that it was at one.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It Ain't Over 'Til the Goat Sings

"The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means." -Tom Stoppard

There is a very popular TV show here in the Philippines called Face to Face. Airing Monday through Friday at 10:30 AM, it presents us with real people and their real problems, but the setup is adversarial, like the American Jerry Springer show. It pits bickering neighbors and family members against one another: cheating husbands are confronted by their wives, opposing sides of a soured money transaction face off, an old man and his unsupportive children present their sides of the story.

There is much shouting, much name-calling, and the plastic chairs on which the people sit are frequently thrown across the stage. In between them is the show's host, an attractive, fashionably dressed woman named Amy Perez who spends most of her time fleeing from the fray or shouting "sandalilang!" ("hold on!") as the day's guests attack one another.

A panel of "experts" - a lawyer, a psychologist, and a priest - give their advice to the parties. My companion watches the show every day, and at the climactic moment when all is forgiven and the estranged parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors embrace one another in reconciliation, she always cries.

I always laugh, and she asked me why. I told her that it wasn't true, that people's problems can't be fixed like that, in the course of an hour. It could happen like that, I suggested, only after alot of coaching takes place. Besides, such problems are often never resolved. Only in a bad movie, or a scripted TV show, is life ever so easy.

I sympathize with people who want life to be like a bad movie - with problems solved, everlasting love, and virtue being victorious. But that isn't the function of art. I want a movie, or a novel or a play, to be true to life by capturing what I have found to be the qualities of life, which are not always cheerful or edifying. They don't improve on life by giving everyone a happy ending. They make life - however we may find it - a form that gives it meaning, that makes its meaning apprehensible, that shows us a pattern, a symmetry that we didn't see before.

That's the trouble with life: not that it's always sad or disappointing but that it makes no sense. When someone dies in an accident (or when, over this past weekend, people are murdered by a madman or a soul singer dies young), people call it tragic. But it isn't tragic.(1) What they mean to call it is "senseless". But to declare that Amy Winehouse's death was "senseless", or that all those Norwegian teenagers died "senselessly" would arouse anger and indignation.

So we say it's tragic without realizing that the word is only a euphemism - a painless lie disguising a painful truth. No other word quite fits because they are too brutally specific. Meanwhile the perfectly useful word tragic has become, through overuse, the catch-all word for everything from natural disasters to freak accidents. It's as if the only thing that people remember about tragedies from their high school literature studies is that "everybody dies".

Tragic has the advantage of being vague as well as somewhat grand. By definition, an accident can't be tragic simply because in a universe ruled by Fate, there is no such thing as an accident. Everything is foreordained and everything happens for a reason. This is a simple and comforting philosophy, but one that few people take seriously any more. The majority of people in the West, who only admit to faith in God when pressed, and have given up believing in the immortality of the soul, understand that nothing happens for a reason, that life and death have no meaning, and that once richly meaningful words like tragic no longer carry much weight, except as synonyms for awful, terrible, horrendous, sad, pitiful, or pathetic.

In his essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", George Orwell writes that

"It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God: at any rate, it is not compatible with disbelief in human dignity and with the kind of 'moral demand' which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph. A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him."

The word tragic has degenerated from its original meaning because our faith in human dignity has declined. Only art is left to redeem our lives from the meaninglessness in which our decadent civilization has stranded it.

(1) The Oxford English Dictionary is, of course, neutral on the subject: "tragic, adv. 1. extremely distressing or sad; 2. suffering extreme distress or sadness; 3. relating to tragedy in a literary work."

[The word tragedy means "goat song" in Greek.]

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I've Got a Name

It's often surprising to see just how far many people are prepared to go to assure others of their social availability. I watched the Casey Anthony trial on CNN here in my Philippine province with growing distaste. Not because the defendant was evidently such an appalling young woman, but because of the completely disproportionate attention that her trial was attracting from American media. Because it was televised, apparently millions of Americans were following every bit of testimony for the entirety of the last few weeks of the trial. Meanwhile pundits were interpreting every nod and blink by the defendant, reading an array of utterly bogus emotions and meanings into the look on her face, her tears or a smile.

Anthony's acquittal came as a shock to most viewers. I found it mildly surprising, but only because I didn't take part in the near-hysteria that gripped so many viewers in America. Because of the disgusting heavy-handedness of the television coverage, which every tabloid newspaper wallowed in, most people had made up their minds by the time the verdict was handed down that she was guilty. Screams against the not guilty accused were shrill and deafening. But nobody questioned the role of the media in the creation of the ridiculous and uninformed court of public opinion that pronounced the woman guilty without a trace of accountability. America's armchair trial judges have been questioning the wisdom of American jury trials, which seem to be devised to let the guilty go free. In fact, that is precisely what the American jury trial was created to do.

In the 1990s, it was the O.J. Simpson trial that aroused a similar amount of interest in the public, and level of outrage at the verdict. I remember when the Manson trial reached its climax, on January 25, 1971. One of my female classmates at a Catholic parochial school, a pretty girl from a rich family, burst into tears when she heard the verdict.

There have been numerous other "trials of the century" that have fascinated the public. There was one in 1922 that demonstrates, far more terribly than the Casey Anthony trial ever could, how public opinion can contradict a jury's verdict and how the media can so excite emotions in people who have no knowledge or understanding of the case to paroxysms of hate for the defendant. It was the trial, in three stages, of the film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Born March 24, 1887, he started as a singer on the west coast in 1904 (1), and began appearing in films in 1909 and finally moved to comedies in 1913. By 1914 he was directing his own films, often with his co-star Mabel Normand. Some have even suggested that Arbuckle's characteristic costume choices, like the over sized pants and too-small hat, were "borrowed" by Charlie Chaplin for his Tramp character.

By 1916, Arbuckle was so popular he created his own film company with Joseph Schenck. He gave a popular vaudeville performer named Buster Keaton his first chance in films in 1917, in the short,
The Butcher Boy. Under Arbuckle's tutelage, Keaton himself became such a successful star that in 1918 Arbuckle transferred controlling interest in his film company to Keaton, accepting an offer from Paramount for $3 million to produce eighteen feature films in three years.

He was always sensitive about his size, having weighed 187 lbs when he was only 12 years old. He resigned himself to his nickname, "Fatty", ("it was inevitable," he said) but would correct anyone who addressed him as "Fatty" with "I've got a name, you know."

He threw a party in San Francisco with two friends on September 5, 1921 at the St. Francis Hotel, inviting several women to join them. One of them, an aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe, became ill after drinking heavily, and was taken to an adjoining room. Two days after the party, was taken by a friend to a hospital where she died on September 9, apparently from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. The friend who brought her to the hospital told the doctor that Rappe, who was also a few weeks' pregnant, had been raped at the party by Arbuckle. She then told the police, who began an investigation.

Outrageous stories about what happened at the party began to appear in the press, which was dominated by William Randolph Hearst, who makes Rupert Murdoch look like an altar boy. Rappe's manager suggested that Arbuckle had used a piece of ice on her genitals, which became a bottle when it was reported in newspapers. The police concluded that it was Arbuckle's physical weight that had caused her bladder to rupture when he raped her.

Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter. The case first went to trial on November 14, 1921. Minta Durfee, Arbuckle's estranged wife, supported him in the first weeks of the trial, until public opinion turned so negative against him that someone fired a shot at her when she entered the courthouse. American morality groups called for the court to give Arbuckle the death penalty.

After evidence and testimony were presented, the jury was deadlocked, despite a 10-2 not guilty vote, and the judge ordered a mistrial. The second trial also ended in a mistrial, on a 9-3 guilty verdict. By the time the third trial was convened, the press was publishing incredibly derailed and salacious stories about Hollywood orgies. Arbuckle's films had been pulled from distribution. Religious leaders were using Arbuckle as an example of Hollywood's "immorality". The public had already made up its mind about Arbuckle's guilt.

But the third trial ended in a swift and unanimous acquittal of Arbuckle. His defense attorney had destroyed the prosecution's case and brought to light evidence of Virginia Rappe's extremely spotty history: besides being a heavy drinker, she had chronic cystitis that was exacerbated by her drinking. As an "aspiring actress", she had also been involved in several abortions in the space of only a few years and was evidently preparing for another when she died. During the six minutes it took to deliberate, the jury spent five of them drafting a letter of apology to Arbuckle, part of which ran:

Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him... there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.

Arbuckle, due to his admission of drinking alcohol at the party, was in violation of the Volstead Act and had to pay a $500 fine. His legal fees amounted to $700,000, causing him to sell a house and all his cars to pay it. His film career was destroyed by vindictive movie executives, particularly William H. Hays, creator of the infamous Hays Office, who initially banned Arbuckle from ever working in the U.S.

The trials had created a chill in Hollywood that caused many producers to adopt much stricter rules about the content of their films. For Arbuckle, despite his acquittal, it was already too late. A longtime drinker, he turned to it with renewed rigor. As his wife put it, "Roscoe only seemed to find solace and comfort in a bottle". Buster Keaton tried to help by giving him work in his films, behind the camera. Arbuckle finally took on the pseudonym William Goodrich (his father's name) and became a film director. Louise Brooks, made famous in G.W. Pabst's haunting silent film, Pandora's Box, worked with Arbuckle in 1931 and told Kevin Brownlow:

He made no attempt to direct this picture [Windy Riley Goes Hollywood]. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career.

Arbuckle appeared again in films in 1932 when Warner Brothers signed him for a series of two-reel comedies. Upon finishing the last in the series, he dropped dead of an apparent heart attack the following day, June 29, 1933. He was 46.

(1) When Enrico Caruso heard Arbuckle sing, he told him: "Give up this nonsense you do for a living, with training you could become the second greatest singer in the world"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

I have always believed, and have felt rather alone in believing, that, with the exception of his very last, the late, late films of Luis Buñuel - Belle de Jour (1967), The Milky Way (1969), Tristana (1970), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and The Phantom of Liberty (1974) - were pointless exercises in a dead aesthetic. The only thing that made any of them possible was that the man behind L'Age d'or, Los Olvidados, and Viridiana had made them. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) was both a comeback for Buñuel and a valediction. After calling his last few films "my last film", Obscure Object finally lived up to the promise.

Two things prevented Buñuel from joining the ranks of some of his contemporaries, which, because he kept working for almost fifty years, would have to include not only Renoir, Clair, and Carné, but De Sica, Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni: the first was beyond his control - the itinerant nature of his on-again, off-again career, the second was what supplied his work with its greatest distinction - surrealism.

In some respects, Buñuel was a commercial director in Mexico. One has the feeling with films like Mexican Bus Ride (1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) that he was determined to do whatever he could to triumph over the sometimes tawdry material. Too often he failed. Even with
Nazarin, which was clearly a cherished project for him, his intentions are sometimes hampered by the mildness with which he was forced to express them. This is not at all the case with Viridiana, which is fearlessly bold and, consequently, Buñuel's greatest achievement.

Surrealism has suffered from the same satiety of excess with which all the arts have had to contend. Buñuel never learned. When he attended the first screening of Un Chien Andalou with stones in his pocket to fend off attacks in the riot he expected would break out, the audience greeted the film with approval. And though his subsequent career had its ups and downs (the downs were mostly in Mexico), he was able to continue working.

Buñuel must have viewed his late refulgence in France as some kind of vindication. He evidently hated capitalist European society and delighted in puncturing its illusions. He also seemed fascinated with terrorists and their power as the ultimate disturbers of the peace. In the final moment of his last film, a terrorist bomb explodes, blowing everything up, including the film.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie got considerable attention in 1972, despite its taking obvious pride in being aggressively meaningless. Buñuel, who had been capable of being a disciplined artist when the spirit moved him, was reduced to telling feeble jokes about the rich and the religious. How does Buñuel expect us to react to seemingly genteel people with property and servants who smuggle cocaine? Or military officers smoking marijuana at dinner parties? Or bishops disguising themselves as gardeners? A bishop is asked to confess a dying gardener who turns out to be the murderer of his parents, confesses him, and on the way out picks up a handy shotgun and shoots him. Such jokes - even if you read them as "surrealistic" ones - are feeble and poorly timed. The fact that Buñuel's later films were so widely popular and celebrated was proof enough that his attempts to scandalize were failures.

In Discreet Charm, Buñuel's characters, three men and three women, do nothing but drift from one dinner party to another, making statements like, "Veal should only be carved while standing", or giving us the recipe for the best martini (the same one that Buñuel included in his autobiography, My Last Sigh). We repeatedly see them walking along a country road as if on an outing, while Edmond Richard's camera zooms and pans around them significantly. There are six dreams in the film, only two of which are announced as such. But the entire film could be nothing but a dream, with its free-associative structure and symbolism.

But now, nearly thirty years after Buñuel's death, simply watching the pleasure with which a genuine artist commanded resources he hadn't always enjoyed, even if his work had lost its reason foe being, is more absorbing than most of the latest films that stand on their own necks trying to be original. By the time he made Discreet Charm Buñuel had nothing left to prove, not even that he could make a film about having nothing left to prove.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Clarita's House

As has happened so often in my life, I decided a few months ago to move. Of the few places that were available for me to occupy here on my island, I briefly considered the same house I moved out of more than a year ago. I have written about that house in a prior post. It is a big house with plastered walls, a verandah, a small tiled bathroom, and polished cement floors. It stands near the highway about four kilometers from town, surrounded by shacks made of wood and whatever else was available. In this, as in most provincial barangays, big expensive houses stand side by side with plywood shacks or huts made from woven grass. How the house got there is explained by the owner having won the lottery or by a daughter marrying a foreigner.

Since I moved out of the house in April 2010, an old couple had taken up residence there. One of them, the old man, had since died. When I saw the house again, I thought it looked worse than when I first saw it, in July of 2009. At that time, I could see that the house had potential, despite it being incredibly dirty, what with the front door being always open during the day, allowing every neighborhood child, dog, cat, and chicken to traipse in and out as they pleased.

When I made up my mind to move in, I told Clarita, the woman who owned the house, the things that I wanted changed, like a new back door (there was no back door), and that I'd be back at the end of the month. When I returned as promised and walked through the house, it was evident that nothing had been done. I should also mention there was a pretty young girl following me through the house, holding a large dirty teddy bear, whom I never saw again. Later someone told me that she was an apparition - an aswang, but I couldn't be sure if they were kidding.

After moving in, the first thing I noticed was a thick layer of grime that ran along the walls about two to three feet from the floor. It was the cumulative mark of dozens of children's dirty hands. It was especially thick at the corners of the wall or right beside the doors. There was even a shiny purple spot that could only have been grape jam, deposited there who knows when. And I could see over the windows where someone not very tall had cleaned as high on the walls as he could reach and no farther, leaving a noticeable arch over each of the windows.

It took me some time, but I managed to make the house habitable. Every layer of the built-up grime was removed from the walls, which might have saddened the owner, as one by one the family's children grew up and left the house. One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my verandah looking at the large open space around it, filled with laughing children. The old man, in his eighties, stood by the fence by the highway and watched them play. Every one of them was a grand- or great-grandchild of his. Within months of this poignant scene, so fraught with meaning, the old man was dead.

On seeing the house again, after a year's absence, I could see that it was almost exactly as I had found it. The terrace was covered in muddy footprints, the doors wide open to nature, no curtains in the windows, just like, as my mother used to say, a cyclone had struck it. It was like a wild animal I had tamed that had been returned to nature. I thought that it must have something to do with their poverty and its degrading effects on their sensibilities - assuming that they had any. It was occupied now only by the old woman. She was afflicted with a kind of palsy, brought on by a powerful electric shock that, I was told, knocked her fifty feet clear across the highway.

I didn't move back into Clarita's house. I found mettle more attractive, just down the highway back among the copra. To adjust Thomas Wolfe's famous opening line, which has always cried out for adjustment, you can go home again. Just don't expect it to be the same home. Heraclitus beat him to it: you can't step into - or cross over - the same river twice.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Man is an Island Part 2

3. The effect of islands is almost wholly regressive.

Islands infantilize people even as people idealize islands. Those with appetites and no souls think they would be safe from the eyes of the world. Those with Soul and little appetite believe they can fall under an island's benign and teaching gaze.

The island repeats a fantasy of human beginnings. The fetus - castle of the ego and keep of the soul - is effectively an island for the first nine months of life, entirely surrounded by an amniotic moat and connected to the mainland only by an umbilicus. Soon afterward the playpen becomes an island, probably the most fabulous of all. Not only does the infant command its every square foot, he commands the world which his own supreme frontiers deign into being by marking off. His shores, his limen; and so by extension his ocean, his continents, his world.(1) Moreover, the fantasy of a private island always takes on that infantile characteristic of absolute flexibility in being able simultaneously to stand for almost any desire and to serve as the ideal locus for practically any fantasy. For islands are also sexual places because they have the air of being extralegal, extraterritorial, out of sight and censure.. Every so often a film appears depicting torrid intimacies among the conveniently marooned. For this cinematic purpose the island must be tropical and the state of undress constant. It would not be at all the same for two nubile castaways to find themselves stranded in the Bering Sea.

The island is thus the perfect territorial expression of the ego. As such, it is all too easily a metaphor for the individual. Sometimes the metaphor is used at one remove, so the island takes the place of a wise alter ego. The message here is that man learns by true experience of himself. The lessons may be practical and moral (as in The Swiss Family Robinson or the story of Alexander Selkirk) or spiritual (as in Richard Nelson's The Island Within).

The infinitely flexible nature of islands, of their being at once safe and adventurous, constraining and boundless, erotic and polemical, has made them ideal destinations in a long literary tradition of imaginary voyages. More than a thousand years before Homer there was a twelfth-dynasty Egyptian story about a castaway on a marvelous island, and Plato's account of Atlantis functions as a kind of blueprint on which he might later have constructed a more complete utopia. When Sir Thomas More produced his own original Utopia in 1516 he put fresh life into an ancient genre. The dignity of his Latin must have induced many a lesser writer to indulge his own intellectual fantasies under the disguise of gravity, for the literature of the next three centuries abounds with all kinds of utopias and ideal commonwealths, most of them sited on an imaginary islands. (At this point, and quite gratuitously, I wish to note an allegation that Sir Thomas More "used to thrash his grown-up daughters with a rod made from peacock-feathers." Without bothering to try and put a finger on it more precisely one feels this sort of behavior is not inconsistent with thought about islands and ideal societies.)

It is curious there was no discussion in English of the imaginary voyage as a genre before the nineteenth century. Indeed, there was not even any recognition that it was a literary type worth discussing. In France, on the other hand, there were all sorts of studies and by 1787, when Garnier's remarkable Voyages Imaginaires, songes, visions... was published, he was able to subdivide his classification of Allegory into a whole variety of islands, among them an île d'amour, an île de la félicité, an île taciturne, an île enjouée, an île imaginaire, and an île de portraiture. After Crusoe's great success in France, several imitative Robinsonades showed what man might be capable of when thrown entirely on his own resources, whereas adventures on an île inconnue tended to depict what happened to a domestic society cut off from the rest of the world. In this respect they constituted something of a counterpart interest to that in feral children (such as Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron), around which at that time all sorts of arguments revolved concerning what exactly constituted "the natural" and "the civilized".

The genre still exists. The French writer Georges Perec in a novel published in 1975 (2) uses an imaginary island off Cape Horn as the setting for a fascistic society obsessed with sports. And what else is one kind of science fiction but a convenient locating of utopias and dystopias off-Earth on imaginary planets which are, from our perspective and by any other name, islands in space?

4. An island's boundaries can never be fixed.

It is archipelagoes and chains of islands which are so often the geographical versions of displaced persons, holding at best a temporary passport. The Sulu Archipelago is a perfect example. One has only to sit on the wharf in Jolo to be prey to a literary sense of unreality. The waterfront of huts built on stilts over the sea, the lumps of islands at every distance, the decaying ferries and wooden launches full of fish and copra and red logs: allowing for a lack - but not complete absence - of sail, it is Conrad's horizon still, and filled as ever with the dreamy tropic energy which slops across all boundaries. Politically, Sulu is part of the Philippines right down to Tawitawi, at its closest reaching to within a few miles of Sabah in northern Borneo. However, it was recently declared an autonomous region with special barter-trade rights between it and Malaysia. This was in response to the long and bloody war waged by the Moro National Liberation Front against what they thought of as an attempt by Christian Manila to oust or dilute Islamic culture and greedily expropriate whatever it is that governments habitually do greedily expropriate.

On Jolo's jetty Conrad's azure map lies ahead, while immediately behind is a troubled, dark green backdrop of conspiracy and heavy weapons. Conrad would have recognized that, too, since men here have always gone over-armed. A drunken fight can lead within minutes to mortar rounds. The Republic of the Philippines, with its implied promise of centralized law and institutionalized order, covers Sulu with a cartographer's fiction. The islands of the archipelago are defined and individuated by language, usage, tribal politics, gangs, bandits, even pride. They are crisscrossed by the interests of disparate ethnic groups, trading links, smuggling, piracy, local tyrannies, fishing, seditious movements and intersecting anarchies. In such places official boundaries vanish entirely unless drawn fleetingly by the wakes of Navy patrol craft or coastguard cutters. I once went on a week's fishing trip in an open boat from Palawan southward. We fished for lobster off Bugsuk and Balabac islands, sleeping at irregular intervals wedged into the brows or on occasional dry land. I lost all sense of time and position. On the way back I discovered we must have spent one night on Borneo. The same thorns, mangroves and littoral clutter, it had seemed nowhere different.

There is one last kind of island, one whose elusive presence flickers at the edge of vision, quick as fish. This is the imaginary island faithfully mapped in every psyche, mostly unsuspected, infrequently discovered, even more rarely inhabited. An outcropping of the self, it lies across a treacherous strait which discourages acquisitiveness, and even on clear blue days may have vanished as if it were roaming the oceans in search of the one worthy inhabitant. Then on a rare day the rare person wakes and it has swum out of the corner of his eye and stands before him. On such a morning it takes no effort to cross over, paddle flashing in the sun, until the skiff's bows nudge grindingly into the shore.

And then what pleasure to set up a hut, a fish drier; to pare things back to water and light, to knives and spearpoints, to order and silence! All men have an island, Donne should have said, for a suspended wheel rim being beaten in a cement-block chapel on the distant mainland ought to tell us no more than the fish curling and flapping between our hands, bleeding rusty threads into the sea. That steely tolling from across the water brings no news, nothing we do not already know as later we climb the headland to watch soft dusk well up over the world's rim and efface the ocean below. It is not interesting to tot up the sunsets seen and perhaps to come. Those deaths, our deaths, are not plangent affairs but matters of geology. We are all at best marginalia in another era's fossil record. Go down to the hut instead through a drift of fireflies. Light the lamp, cook rice. there is nobody else on this island; there never was and never could be. Outside, the waves wring green flashes from plankton. The great mineral machine turns its fluid gears. the firefly in the thatch tugs us into gravitational field.

(1) Part of the island's haunting quality may be because its exclusivity reminds us of the family as we once saw it through infant eyes: self-contained and self-sufficient. A family's underlying sadness resides in its conspiracy of immortality. When decades later we come to look at it with an almost-stranger's eyes, a family relic such as an old tablecloth now stands poignantly revealed in its faded colors and moth holes as having always been both altar cloth and shroud.
(2) W ou le souvenir d'enfance.

from James Hamilton-Paterson's Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds.

I live on an island big enough to be a province but small enough to be the smallest province in the Philippines. The only way you could find it on a map is by first locating what it is adjacent to. It used to be a "compartment" of a much bigger island to which it is still connected by a bridge. So far it has attracted no foreign tourists and only a handful of expats who share the same desire, evidently, to fall off the edge of the world.

The island offers me plenty of solitude from the lunatic world far over the horizon, but not from humanity, from the sharp and quick emotions of a people cut off from the machinations of Manila and the global community, but never very far from what matters - family, friendship, and the embrace of a natural world that is as much inside them as all around them, taking pleasure in the moments that make up their lives. Just as Eliot said, another American on another island that he learned to love:

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

*"Little Gidding".

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Man is an Island

In the human imagination, an island represents many things, from a prison to its opposite, an escape hatch. Something strange happens to people who are shipwrecked on inaccessible islands, whether singly or in a group that novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have often explored.

In 1902, J.M. Barrie stranded an aristocratic family and their friends, along with a butler, on a deserted island in his play, "The Admirable Crichton". Ostensibly a satire on the English class system, Barrie safely ends up reinforcing the old standards. On the island, it is the butler, Crichton, who rises to the occasion and who proves he is the most resourceful and capable man in the group. He quickly becomes the dominant figure in the group, is addressed respectfully as "the Guv'", and even arouses the affection of Lady Mary, Lord Loam's daughter.

Once they are rescued and returned to England, the old distinctions reassert themselves and the events on the island are discounted as "sentimentalizing". The island may have exposed the injustice of the class system, but, happily, we all have to live in society, haven't we?

In Gerhard Hauptmann's extraordinary but forgotten 1928 novel, The Island of the Great Mother, a lifeboat filled with women and children, sole survivors of a sunken ship, come ashore on an unknown island. With no men in their company, the women set about establishing a gynocracy. Several years pass and as they mature, the male children are segregated to a remote corner of the island, from whence they cannot interfere in the society of women, which has eliminated social strife with the expulsion of the aggressive males. A crisis comes when the young women rebel against their elders, their mothers, and seek union, both physical and psychical, with men.

Barrie\s polite satire is given sharper teeth in Lina Wertmüller 's film Swept Away (1974 - aka Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), in which a snobbish young socialite finds herself alone on an island with a deckhand from her husband's luxury yacht. She suddenly has to depend on the boorish but resourceful man, who revels in the reversal of power. His dominance over her is complete when she discovers a passion for him and for her own submission to him.

But their inevitable rescue brings her back to her senses, causing him to curse her as, with perfect Marxist logic, an "industrial slut" as she is spirited out of his life by a private helicopter.

The 2000 Robert Zemeckis film, Cast Away (not to be confused with the much better film Castaway [one word], q.v.) excitingly showed how a FedEx apparatchik survives a plane crash only to find himself all alone on a tropical island. The details of his learning to make fire, of making tools out of things like ice skates and videotape (washed ashore in FedEx packages), and the astonishing arrival of a title that reads simply "Four years later" are gripping. The man finally finds a way to sail clear of the punishing surf surrounding the island and, for me, the most poignant moment in the film comes when he looks back at his island home of four years as it disappears behind a veil of rain. The film falls to pieces when the poor man returns to civilization, only to find bitter disappointment.

These various island experiments, and many others, all begin with the assumption that civilization, with its laws and rules of behavior, is nothing but a rather thin veneer that evaporates as soon as people discover that there are no policemen, that no one is watching and there is nothing to stop them from doing what they always wanted to do.

In a chapter from his book, Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton-Paterson explores our often contradictory ideas about islands.

Objects of Desire

Four things about small islands:

1. They look like objects, and hence like property.
2. The concept of the "private island" satisfies most people's major fantasies.
3. The effect of islands is almost wholly regressive.
4. An island's boundaries can never be fixed.

1. They look like objects, and hence like property.

Everyone looks at an island, whether consciously or not, much as a tyrant eyes a territory. It takes a long time to have any relationship with a land or a country, but the mere sight of an island from an aircraft's window or a ferry's deck mobilizes the beginnings of possessiveness. The place is small enough to treat with, to become familiar, to exhale an air of exclusivity, even if it is quite nondescript. A slight grammatical shift can mark either social desirability or small size - usually going together. Thus, one has a house in Malta, but a bungalow on Gozo. He lives in Jersey, she on Sark. (But they have a house on Long Island as well as one in Jamaica.)

This unit of land which fits within the retina of the approaching eye is a token of desire. The history of the Isle of Buss shows this desire working so strongly that successive mariners appropriated a portion of a long coastline and changed it into the island they would have preferred to discover. To have happened upon an unclaimed continent while lost in a small fishing smack would have been inconvenient, but to have found an unknown island was both manageable and enviable. How, then, could its discoverers have extrapolated a self-contained shape from a length of coastline? How were they able to draw the fictitious "back" of this "island" which remained forever as hidden and theoretical as the dark side of the Moon? Medieval cartographers often solved this problem by giving the Atlantic islands stylized shapes: circles, clover leaves, rectangles and crescents. The Isle of Mayda retained its crescent or indented circle shape on map after map, and eyewitness accounts of it seemed to conform to this outline with remarkable faithfulness. Quite possibly this reflected its rumored Islamic origin.

There for the taking... Ever mobile, for several hundred years the lost islands of the Atlantic might bob up anywhere from behind freezing mist, in a hurricane, or during a search for somewhere else entirely. The point was they could be possessed at the drop of an anchor, named for a vessel, claimed for a monarch. Even today, visitors and holidaymakers may "discover" an island which becomes "theirs" in respect to their friends, envious neighbors, peers.

2. The concept of the "private island" satisfies most people's major fantasies.

The "private island" remains the correlative of a particular dream. Islands are at once objects of desire and a locus for desires. The dream embodies fantasies of autonomy, independence, security, sex, grandeur, individuality and survival, in recognition that modern metropolitan and suburban life connotes powerlessness, dependence, defenselessness, frustration, lack of status, anonymity and a general feeling of expendability. In waiting rooms people eye color advertisements in Country Life, aerial views of yet another Scottish island about to come under the auctioneer's hammer, while an easily decoded dream crosses their mental retinas and glazes their eyes. Estimated price: $1,316,300. The same dream leaks into all sorts of stories and films set on private islands where the unities of time and place can be rigidly controlled. These may be tales of manhunts with the narrator-guest as the next quarry; reigns of terror; ghoulish experiments; masterminds plotting the world's overthrow from their flamboyant yet top-secret lairs; elaborate erotic baroqueries. Science fiction carries the dream on, being full of expansive futures in which the rich and powerful own private planets, while even the moderately wealthy may aspire to a humble asteroid as the site of a kingdom, retreat, hideout or love nest.

Nor is the dream confined to adults. In their coastlines, as in their potentiality, all lost islands go on reappearing in the maps which every powerless schoolchild draws.

(to be continued)

Monday, July 11, 2011

For Some Time

However needless it would be for me to admit that I paid little attention to the recent second anniversary, on June 25th, of Michael Jackson's death, I found myself watching some of his videos over the past weekend. The ones that attracted my attention the most were the first ones he made as a solo artist from the album, Off the Wall: "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You". The videos look cheaply made, since few people were putting much stock in music videos in 1979, two years before MTV was launched. But the music is still superb after thirty-plus years, thanks largely to the producer Quincy Jones, who found in the young Michael (he was 21 in 1979) an extremely accomplished and prepared performer.

But what struck me most in the videos was the appearance of Michael himself - a handsome young black man, confident in his looks and the effect of his looks. By the time he made the video for "You Are Not Alone" in 1995, in which he was shirtless for much of the time, his nose had been whittled away to a stub, his hair was straight and his skin was the color of snow.

Speculation abounds over what it was that drove Jackson to such lengths to efface every trace on his body of a black man. It's quite possible that he himself didn't know what it was. The earthquake that the success of Thriller album caused in his life was evidently overwhelming. It remains the biggest selling album in history, with somewhere between 65 and 110 million sold worldwide.

I remember listening to most of the songs from Thriller on the radio when they were new. I liked one song, "Human Nature" enough to go out and buy the single. It was not as popular as "Billie Jean", "Beat It", or "Thriller". Nobody bothered to make a video for the song, and I only heard Jackson sing it once in concert. It wasn't exactly Michael's singing that attracted me to it, but Quincy Jones' beautiful scoring of the song, especially the haunting downward spiralling synthesizer track at the beginning, at the chorus and at the end of the song, as it trails away to silence.

The only other song from the album that I liked was "The Lady in My Life". It was the 9th and last track on the album, and is, for me, the most unforgettable. Jones spoke years later of how Michael had to be left alone in the recording booth to come up with the vocals at the end of the song, in which he pours his heart out to a lady that never existed for him.

Having watched Michael Jackson throughout his life (he was born on August 29, 1958, three months after me), I felt somewhat personally invested in it, and was touched when he died because it reminded me of how old I myself was.

In 2007, a bonus track that was recorded for Thriller in 1982 but was omitted from the album was unearthed and released on the 25th anniversary of the album's first appearance. The bonus track, "For All Time" is almost as beautiful as "Human Nature" and "Lady in My Life". The truest test of any artist's worth is his survival of the evolutions and revolutions in popular taste. Certainly Michael Jackson deserves a modicum of such temporal immortality. I think the words of "For All Time" offer a fitting summation of his effect on popular music: "Maybe the walls will tumble. And the sun refuse to shine. When I say I love you, baby you gotta know that's for all time."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Princess X

The English monarchy, which is about 1,500 years old, has weathered tough times in the past. The Vikings, the Normans, the War of the Roses, Oliver Cromwell, Edward VIII, Princess Margaret, Fergie. The names in the line of succession have had to be changed several times, but a willing king or queen has always been available and "Long live the queen/king" is as safe and as comforting a phrase to Britons as "God's on His throne, all's right with the world".

Then came Diana Spencer. Newsweek's recent "imagining" of her at 50, with Kate Middleton walking beside her, has stirred the ashes enough to make many people reconsider her life and death, whom millions of people turned into a secular saint and victim of fame, like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson.* (Nobody has bothered to imagine what Marilyn would look like at 85, or Elvis at 76, which is illuminating in itself.)

I think that, for Diana, being a mere princess wasn't enough. She had little feeling for Charles or for his family, and she wanted to overcome her title and impose herself, her own personality, in its place. When she discovered that she couldn't do it, that the institution of which she was only a small part wouldn't allow it, she announced that she wanted out.

Her struggle to break free of her title absorbed the last four years of her life. It was ironic that she was allowed to keep the title "Princess of Wales" (since she clearly didn't want it), along with her jewelry and £17 million. But upon the finalization of her divorce from Charles, on August 28, 1996, she was no longer addressed as "royal highness". She was killed in a car crash almost exactly one year later, on August 31, 1997.

Diana precipitated the worst crisis the English monarchy had faced since 1649, because she wanted to eclipse its fame with her own. She very nearly accomplished in death what she couldn't do in life, when the Queen refused to mourn her death publicly and in the obscene terms that Diana's fans demanded. Diana didn't want to be adored and idolized for what she represented. She didn't want to be famous for being merely the Princess of Wales. She wanted to be famous for being Diana.

Evidently, even royalty can presume above their station. Diana's sons, by virtue of being the sons of Charles, remain heirs to the throne. Because of the media circus that surrounded his association with Diana, Charles, now 62 and the longest-serving heir apparent in English history, is so unpopular among his subjects that a recent poll suggested that William, his eldest son, should be king, when and if the Queen should ever die.

By the time he is finally King Charles III, Camilla, his hated wife, will have to endure more public disapproval upon becoming the "Queen Consort". And all this is the result of a peevish princess who forgot her place.

*Tina Brown's Newsweek article on Diana was not even interesting as fantasy. Diana was actually lucky to die at the age of 36. Living to 50 and beyond would be exactly what she deserved.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Parade's Gone By

I think it's safe to say that Americans are the most patriotic people in the world. Nowhere else will you find a country's flag flying proudly in front of a car dealership or a fast food restaurant. Patriotism has its function. In times of national peril, it brings people together for one purpose like nothing else can. But the last time the United States was in such a position - if one excepts some of the scarier moments of the Cold War - was in 1941. The thirteen million Americans who helped win World War II were fighting, in the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "not for the citizens of the United States, but for man, for human respect, for man's freedom and greatness."(1)

I don't have a flag and don't recall ever having one. Neither did my father, despite his thirty-one years in the army. He wasn't one of those military vets who grumble about how young people don't stand up when the flag goes by in a parade. He wasn't ashamed of being American. He just didn't feel like making a big deal about it. So on the national holidays like Flag Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the 4th of July, there was no flag hanging outside our door, assuring our neighbors that we were patriotic.

I had to salute the flag myself when I was in uniform. Now when I hear the national anthem in a public place, I stand up like everyone else, but the feeling I have is almost the same as the one I am overcome with when someone at a dinner table says grace - I wish I were somewhere else. I suppose that, if it means anything, it's that I'm not a believer, I'm not a patriot.

Nowadays in the States, some Americans find it necessary to brandish their nationality to other Americans, like it's some kind of badge, insisting that those who don't fly the flag or show obeisance to some patriotic demonstration, are less than American.

I live in a part of the world in which my national identity is obvious to everyone - I am a 'Cano. But so is every other foreigner here, whether they're American or Australian or German. It was the same in Japan when I lived there in the '90s. Identifying myself as an American any further would be not only redundant but ridiculous.

I prefer to return to the words of Saint-Exupéry, who travelled on an American troopship convoy carrying "fifty thousand soldiers" to North Africa. My father was aboard one of those ships, a thirty year old military policeman, on his way to Bizerte, Tunisia. The letter Saint-Exupéry wrote was as much for him as for anyone else.

Letter to an American

I left the United States in 1943 in order to rejoin my fellow flyers of "Flight to Arras". I traveled on board an American convoy. This convoy of thirty ships was carrying fifty thousand of your soldiers from the United States to North Africa. When, on waking, I went up on deck, I found myself surrounded by this city on the move. The thirty ships carved their way powerfully through the water. But I felt something else besides a sense of power. This convoy conveyed to me the joy of a crusade.

Friends in America, I would like to do you complete justice. Perhaps, someday, more or less serious disputes will arise between us. Every nation is selfish and every nation considers its selfishness sacred. Perhaps your feeling of power may, someday, lead you to seize advantages for yourselves that we consider unjust to us. Perhaps, sometime in the future, more or less violent disputes may occur between us. If it is true that wars are won by believers, it is also true that peace treaties are sometimes signed by businessmen. If therefore, at some future date, I were to inwardly reproach those American businessmen, I could never forget the high-minded war aims of your country. I shall always bear witness in the same way to your fundamental qualities. American mothers did not give their sons for the pursuit of material aims. Nor did these boys accept the idea of risking their lives for such material aims. I know - and will later tell my countrymen - that it was a spiritual crusade that led you into the war.

I have two specific proofs of this among others. Here is the first.

During this crossing in convoy, mingling as I did with your soldiers, I was inevitably a witness to the war propaganda they were fed. Any propaganda is by definition amoral, and in other to achieve its aim it makes use of any sentiment, whether noble, vulgar, or base. If the American soldiers had been sent to war merely in order to protect American interests, their propaganda would have insisted heavily on your oil wells, your rubber plantations, your threatened commercial markets. But such subjects were hardly mentioned. If war propaganda stressed other things, it was because your soldiers wanted to hear about other things. And what were they told to justify the sacrifice of their lives in their own eyes? They were told of the hostages hanged in Poland, the hostages shot in France. They were told of a new form of slavery that threatened to stifle part of humanity. Propaganda spoke to them not about themselves, but about others. They were made to feel solidarity with all humanity. The fifty thousand soldiers of this convoy were going to war, not for the citizens of the United States, but for man, for human respect, for man's freedom and greatness. The nobility of your countrymen dictated the same nobility where propaganda was concerned. If someday your peace-treaty technicians should, for material and political reasons, injure something of France, they would be betraying your true face. How could I forget the great cause for which the American people fought?

This faith in your country was strengthened in Tunis, where I flew war missions with one of your units in July 1943. One evening, a twenty-year-old American pilot invited me and my friends to dinner. He was tormented by a moral problem that seemed very important to him. But he was shy and couldn't make up his mind to confide his secret torment to us. We had to ply him with drink before he finally explained, blushing: "This morning I completed my twenty-fifth war mission. It was over Trieste. For an instant I was engaged with several Messerschmitt 109s. I'll do it again tomorrow and I may be shot down. You know why you are fighting. You have to save your country. But I have nothing to do with your problems in Europe. Our interests lie in the Pacific. And so if I accept the risk of being buried here, it is, I believe, in order to help you get back your country. Every man has a right to be free in his own country. But if and my compatriots help you to regain your country, will you help us in turn in the Pacific?"

We felt like hugging our young comrade! In the hour of danger, he needed reassurance for his faith in the solidarity of all humanity. I know that war is indivisible, and that a mission over Trieste indirectly serves American interests in the Pacific, but our comrade was unaware of these complications. And the next day he would accept the risks of war in order to restore our country to us. How could I forget such a testimony? How could I not be touched, even now, by the memory of this?

Friends in America, you see it seems that something new is emerging on our planet. It is true that technical progress in modern times has linked men together like a complex nervous system. The means of travel are numerous and communication is instantaneous - We are joined together materially like the cells of a single body, but this body has as yet no soul. This organism is not yet aware of its unity as a whole. The hand does not yet know that it is one with the eye . And yet it is this awareness of future unity which vaguely tormented this twenty-year-old pilot and which was already at work in him.

For the first time in the history of the world, your young men are dying in a war that - despite all its horrors - is for them an experience of love. Do not betray them. Let them dictate their peace when the time comes! Let that peace reassemble them! This war is honorable; may their spiritual faith make peace as honorable.

I am happy among my french and American comrades. After my first missions in the P-38s Lightnings, they discovered my age. 43 years! What a scandal! Your American rules are inhuman. At 43 years of age one does not fly a fast plane like the Lightnings. The long white beards might get entangled with the controls and cause accidents. I was therefore unemployed for a few months.

But how can one think about France unless one takes some of the risks? There they are suffering, fighting for survival-dying. How can one judge those - even the worst among them - who suffer bodily there, while one is oneself sitting comfortably in some propaganda office here? And how can one love the best among them? To love is to participate, to share. In the end, by virtue of a miraculous and generous decision by General Eaker. My white beard fell off and I was allowed back into my Lightning.

I rejoin Gavoille (French pilot), of "Flight to Arras", who is in charge of our Squadron in your reconnaissance Group. I also met up again with Hoched, also of "Flight to Arras", whom I had earlier called a Saint of WAR and who was then killed in war, in a Lightning. I rejoin all those of whom I had said that under the jackboot of the invader they were not defeated, but were merely seed buried in a silent earth. After the long winter of the Armistice, the seed sprouted. My squadron once again blossomed in the daylight like a tree. I once again experience the joy of those high-altitude missions that are like deep-sea diving. One plunges into forbidden territory equipped with barbaric instruments, surrounded by a multitude of dials. Above one's own country, one breathes oxygen produced in America. New York Air in a French sky. Isn't that amazing? One flies in that light monster of a Lightning, in which one has the impression not of moving in space but of being present simultaneously everywhere on a whole continent. One brings back photographs that are analyzed by stereoscope like growing organism under a microscope. Those analyzing your photographic material do the work of a bacteriologist. They seek on the surface of the body (France) the traces of the virus that is destroying it. The enemy forts, depots, convoys show up under the lens like minuscule bacilli. One can die of them.

And the poignant meditation while flying over France, so near and yet so far away! One is separated from her by centuries. All tenderness, all memories, all reasons for living are spread out 35,000 feet below, illuminated by sunlight, and nevertheless more inaccessible than any Egyptian treasures locked away in the glass cases of a museum.

(1) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "Letter to an American", 1943.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Going Too Far

"THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

The words quoted above appear in the opening credits of the Joel & Ethan Coen film Fargo (1996). They don't exactly mean anything, least of all that the film represents a true and accurate account of real events. In fact, the words, like the "events", are pure fancy. They simply mean that the Coens were trying their hand(s) at verisimilitude. The title, which is the place from which the killers come, could as easily have been Out of Their Depth.

The Coens, who grew up outside Minneapolis, have a gift for the particularities of regional American speech. They caught the West Texas twang beautifully in No Country for Old Men (2007). The "Minnesota nice" accent is captured in Fargo in all its broad oddness. Perhaps it was no accident that Scandinavians, accustomed to a landscape at least as inhospitable, and from whom the accent is derived, settled in Minnesota. Hearing men and women say things like "Thanks a bunch", and "You're darn tootin'" added an almost surreal dimension to the proceedings.

Fargo was a strange choice for the Coens, since it didn't allow them room for their customary non sequitur burlesque - the same burlesque that prevented all of their films from achieving anything more substantial than quirkiness. The Coens indulge themselves, if at all, in their unusual casting choices. Frances McDormand, whom Johnny Depp impersonated nicely in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004), is perfect as Marge Gunderson, seven months pregnant but already big as a house. (Her eating is a running gag.) She's a full time policewoman in Brainerd, cares for her husband (Harve Presnell) but still has enough compassion for a lovelorn old classmate, whom she meets in Minneapolis. (Steve Park's character, Mike Yanagita, is beautifully observed in just one brief scene.)

William H. Macy, whose meagre talents have been stretched rather thinly in the last five years, overacts egregiously as the car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, who comes up with the deceptively simple plan to hire two men (Steven Buscemi and Peter Storemare) to kidnap his wife so he can get money out of his tightwad father-in-law. Buscemi, a veteran of a gallery of film loonies, is perfectly cast as a hired killer whom witnesses invariably describe as "funny looking".

In my review of
No Country for Old Men, I mentioned its resemblances to Fargo - the law officer protagonist, the case full of cash, the psychopathic killer (the Peter Storemare character commits five of the seven murders in the film), the particularized regional landscape and accents. I thought then that No Country failed to hold the serious territory it had staked out because the Coens resorted to some tired thriller cliches that invalidated it. Fargo is more effective, not least because of its avoidance of cliches. Even the most violent scenes are treated with a brevity and lack of emphasis that gives them the feel of unpremeditated life. A potentially macabre moment, like Peter Storemare's character trying to force a man's - evidently Buscemi's - into the wood chipper, has enough arresting detail (all that blood on the snow) to make it almost comical. A heavier hand would've ruined it. The Coens' habitual carelessness with violence is actually a plus in Fargo, since the story, however "true", is about what happens when perfectly normal people think they have a good enough reason to commit serious crime.

Even if there was a similar case in 1986, in Connecticut, in which a man murdered his wife and tried to dispose of her body using a wood chipper, the Coens were employing creative license by calling their story "true". But, ultimately, no amount of sticking to facts can redeem a film if it exceeds the limits of truth. Fargo succeeds in being convincingly true despite its being based on a "true story".