Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Boy Who Wasn't There

On July 22, a birthday was quietly celebrated in my house for a boy who turned 16. He has been living in my house since he was 12. His mother has been my constant companion, translator, and protector since late 2007. And after three years of living under the same roof, the boy and I remain almost total strangers.

I am willing to take some of the blame for this, but the boy is no day at the beach, either. He was always, I am told, quiet and self-effacing. I would often fail to notice that he was there. Walking around the house on a cool afternoon, I would be convinced I was alone until I saw his feet sticking out from behind a door, sitting there reading his bible.

His older brother, then 14, lived with us at first, until some of his actions around my remote barangay - like stealing fish out of a nearby fish farm - persuaded his mother to send him to live with his older sister. He was a far more interesting boy, to say the least. Tall, and light-skinned, he possessed that unmistakable but mysterious something that makes the opposite sex do double-takes. Five of them would come to the window of his room every morning to whisper him awake. Sitting in a friend's sala one evening, I heard a commotion outside the door when a girl proclaimed her love for him and then burst into tears. He just sat on the floor in front of the TV, paying no attention to the poor girl outside.

After his older brother's departure, the boy settled into a routine of doing nothing. When he arrived in my house he was, at the age of 12, a second grade drop-out. He gave no indications of what he intended to do with the rest of his life until I had had enough of his sullenness, his sneaking comings and goings, and proposed to him that he return to school with an allowance of five hundred pesos (a little more than $10) every month. I only did it to get him out of my house during the day, five days a week.

This change of outlook apparently had such an immeasurable impact on his life that he somehow found Jesus - with a vengeance. In fact, he couldn't have devised a better revenge on the man who usurped his good for nothing father. I couldn't have been less pleased if he'd announced he was a Republican. And he couldn't have opted for the gentle Roman Catholic Jesus, whose worship is conducted once a week in church. No, he had to be "born again" - a boisterous, exclamatory worship of Jesus, conducted everywhere: in their hole in the wall church, at the dinner table, before bed, in fact just about every time it occurs to them to emit their passionate cries of devotion to their savior. The boy was made aware of my utter disdain for his new found faith when I told his mother to tell him to shut his trap one night when his bed time prayers were beginning to drown out the comforting drone of my electric fan.

Since I have a bible of my own, in the King James text, I found a passage in the Matthew gospel that might persuade him to hold it down. The passage seemed to be addressed directly to him and his born again crowd:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:5-6)

This strategy seemed to work. Or else it was his mother translating to him all the things I told her I would do to him if he didn't shut the hell up.

For awhile, I began to suspect that the boy was gay. It was only little clues, like when he got a cellphone and the only thing he photographed with the built-in camera was his own face, in painfully simpering, precious poses. Then there were the deeply homoerotic messages to Jesus that he left on the covers of his school notebooks - "Jesus Lover of My Soul" being the most obvious. Or when the neighbors' girls would parade past my verandah in their pink high school skirts, and he would duck inside until they were out of sight. It bothered me because it was one less thing - sexuality - that we had in common, one more possible obstruction to our ever communicating.

By the time he turned 15, cutting an odd figure in the third grade, he went to all the bother of taking a placement test, and waited six months to be informed that, while he had already achieved the level of Grade Three (with honors, I should add), his score had met the basic requirements for Grade Two. I took no satisfaction from the fact that he had scored highest in "communication arts" (English). The test was irrefutable proof, that could not have been encouraging to his teachers, that getting perfect grades the hard way, year in and year out, wasn't good enough for the Philippine Department of Education.

So, unless he is willing to take the test again this November and wait until next June to get the results, he will have to face graduating high school at the age of 22. Since a proposal is now being considered to lengthen the current K-10 school program to the American K-12 model, he will have another two years of his life to postpone. And because there are no dependable jobs here in the provinces even for a high school graduate, the boy will probably be living with his mother, who lives with me, long after he becomes a man.

If he doesn't advance to a higher grade soon and has to attend the fifth grade next year, and if he doesn't get discouraged by the prospect of his life passing him by while he hangs around a bunch of kids, (and if the proposal before DepEd passes) he will be ready for college when he is 24. I honestly can't see him wasting his time for much longer. Whatever choice he makes, his mother seems to believe - whether I do or not - that there will always be a place for him in my house.

But I suppose the real reason why I find this silent boy so insufferable is because he reminds me too much of me. I was just as much a loner when I was a boy, and rather more so. My father probably thought I was gay for awhile. I was a living exemplar of the Confucian saying, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." I learned from a very early age how to make myself invisible. This probably explains why I never found God, because I made it so impossible for Him to find me.

I am confident enough, and saddened, that he will perhaps never read these words or comprehend how much it pains me to know what a failure I have been as a step-father. If I had more influence over him, I would try to get him away from the people in his church, where he spends so much of his time. I should thank them, perhaps, for giving him the ego-gratification that he found nowhere else. But I have serious misgivings about a religion that makes it impossible for a 14 year old boy to act like any other normal boy, that instructs him to act like a lunatic at every opportunity and that makes living in the same world as everyone else harder than it already is. Never mind my doubts about its setting its flock apart, of turning them into suspicious-looking strangers who associate only with one another, who act as if they are special, set apart, exceptional, different. Occasionally, when his mother got drunk on tuba (coconut wine), he would scold her. I simply told him in untranslated English to get the hell out, taste life for ten years and then come back and judge his mother. This boy was different enough without Jesus making it easier for him to be weird. His faith may indeed bring some joy to him, but only at great cost. It's hard enough to figure out how to be a man without getting Jesus mixed up in the process.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Felicidade

Tristeza não tem fim
Felicidade sim

Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound
Of your voice, your piano, your flute, you are found,
And the music within you continues to flow
Sadly, lost Antonio.

-Michael Franks, "Abandoned Garden"

Nothing has more power to restore me to myself than music. Yet the origin of this power is a mystery. E.M. Cioran, whom one critic called the "last philosopher of Europe" (one can only hope) wondered if we will ever discover what music appeals to in each of us, since even the insane respond to it. It has even been suggested - somewhat unconvincingly - that music has an effect on fetuses in their mothers' wombs. The popular Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has composed works exclusively for them, filling concert halls with pregnant women. Of course, Sakamoto may only be taking advantage of his listeners' inability to vote with their feet. So I suppose it is fortunate that there is enough music around to make one feel more sophisticated than a lunatic or a fetus. There is more than enough to make me wish sometimes that I were deaf as a post.

Twenty years ago a friend of mine, who didn't share my taste in music, labelled what I was listening to "lite" music. I listened to jazz, even though I also listened (because there was no escape from it) to what he liked. He listened to hard rock - Kiss, AC/DC, Guns & Roses. Brought up in a world in which "lite" music distinguished itself as music without singing, or what David Sanborn called "instrumental pop", he told me that the music I listened to gave him the feeling that he was riding in an elevator. When I asked him to define it for me, he said that music was "lite" if it didn't threaten the listener. I didn't bother him at the time with my own definition of rock and roll. But even if I had, it wouldn't have mattered.

Music always raises problems for anyone who wants to belong to his own age. There is always what is generally - and mistakenly - called "classical" music, but nearly all of it, glorious as it is, was created long before one's birth. There is the all-American idiom of jazz, which is sometimes splendid, and much of it created in one's lifetime. But, as I mentioned before, jazz is more about the musicians than the music. It is brilliant when the horn or piano player is inspired and his improvisations give new life to old standards. This has happened often enough, and luckily in front of a microphone. But since the 1980s, jazz has got itself stuck in a bop or post-bop rut.

Rock was originally called rhythm and blues, and since the 1950s has become - for better or worse - the music of rebellion. Part of the rebellion was against music and musicianship itself, against established norms of beauty and virtuosity. For listeners (teenagers) it was a rebellion against one's parents, against society and the status quo, against all the rules with which life is riddled. The disorder of rock is its greatest strength - its jagged edges and avoidance of structure and proportion. But it becomes a problem as soon as one is past the rebellious stage, what sociologists call the "age of maximum risk". One simply cannot go on rebelling indefinitely. It's like being decadent: "decadence means falling and one can only be said to be falling if one is going to reach the bottom reasonably soon."(1) Most of the people still living who helped to create rock in the 50s and 60s are old men. Unless one is simply expressing nostalgia for one's youth, watching these withered rockers perform provokes either laughter or sorrow, in equal portion. Once one has lived a little, the clumsy and forced emotions of rock music no longer satisfy. What is left then for someone who wants to hear the voice of a musical intelligence that responds to the same age in which he lives? Searching for such a voice can be a lonely pastime.

Visiting Brazil in 1949, Albert Camus attended a party at which a popular singer performed. Never far from the sensualism that pervaded his writings, Camus was moved to write in his journal of "Kaimi" and of the songs he heard that evening: "Of all songs, these are the most beautiful, songs of love and the sea."(2) The singer was Dorival Caymmi, and the music he performed was the samba, a Brazilian form based on both African and Native South American rhythms.(3) That same rhythm became the foundation of a popular musical form called bossa nova, whose greatest practitioner was the composer and performer Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994).

In 1959, Sacha Gordine produced the film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), based on the play Orfeu da conceição by the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Shot in glorious Eastmancolor entirely in Rio de Janeiro during that city's legendary Carnaval, the film featured an all-black Brazilian cast and a soundtrack with original music and songs by Luiz Bonfa and Jobim. The film caused a sensation, but not because it was a good film. It is watchable today for the beautiful photography of the Rio locations and for the music that it introduced to the world. While there have been other songwriters in Brazil and quite a number of great singers and musicians, Jobim was the reason that bossa nova captured the world's imagination.

With Vinicius de Moraes, Jobim wrote some of his most famous songs, including "Girl from Ipanema", "Insensitive", "Chega de Saudade", and "A Felicidade". Innumerable American jazz performers wanted to perform and record these and other songs, "Agua de Beber", "
One Note Samba", "Desafinado", "Dindi", "Corcovado", "Dreamer", etc. In 1962 guitarist Charlie Byrd released the album Jazz Samba, along with saxophonist Stan Getz. Getz enjoyed performing on the album so much that he invited Jobim himself and singer/guitarist João Gilberto to New York in 1963 to record Getz/Gilberto. On the recording of "Girl from Ipanema", Getz persuaded Gilberto's wife Astrud to sing the lyrics in English. The song was such a hit in America as a single that it sold over one million copies.

Jobim then recorded an album of his own in 1963 on the legendary Verve label, The Composer of Desafinado, Plays, with orchestrations by Claus Ogerman, of many of his songs. Jobim performed on guitar, piano, and flute on the album. He recorded with Frank Sinatra four times, and Ella Fitzgerald recorded the Jobim songbook, Ella Abraça Jobim, in 1981. If this is elevator music, the elevator is on its way to heaven.

Probably my favorite of all his songs is called "Fotografia", whose English lyrics were written by Ray Gilbert:

You and I, we two, alone here
In this terrace by the sea.
The sun is going down
And in your eyes
I see the changing colors of the sea.
It's time for you to go,
The day is done.
And shadows stretch their arms to bring the night.
The sun falls in the sea
And down below a window light we see,
Just you and me.
You and I, we two, alone
Here in this bar with dimming lights.
A full and rising moon comes from the sea,
And soon the bar will close for you and me.
But there will always be a song
To tell, a story you and I cannot dismiss,
The same old simple story of desire
And suddenly that kiss, that kiss.

Jobim loved the world and his place in it, and I am quite certain that the portion of it that he enjoyed was not enough. Some people say that too much of anything can kill you. Jobim's music asks how much is too much?

The circumstances of Jobim's death were shockingly sad. He was diagnosed in 1994 with a bladder tumor, but for several months sought spiritual healing. Finally requesting surgery in December 1994, he died four days later of a heart attack brought on by a pulmonary embolism. Three days later, his last album, Antonio Brasileiro, was released.(4) He was 67.

One of his first recorded songs, "A Felicidade", which was featured in Black Orpheus, begins with the words quoted above. In English, they mean, "Sadness has no end. Happiness please." Joy was Jobim's greatest legacy.

(1) George Orwell, "T.S. Eliot", October 1942.
(2) Albert Camus, American Journals, Hugh Levick, translator, New York: Spear Marlowe & Company, 1995.
(3) New York Times
Obit of Dorival Caymmi.
(4) Jobim's full name is Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sink or Swim

I have always believed that it is foolish to argue that there is any such thing as a distinct Japanese sensibility. Even when great Japanese artists, like the late composer Toru Takemitsu, make such a claim, I am just as incredulous. A Japanese mystique, maybe. It is far more likely that the Japanese are incapable of recognizing faculties in the rest of us that may only be latent but which make us perfectly capable of appreciating qualities in Japanese poetry, art, music, and film that are supposed to make them peculiarly Japanese.

On the subject of suicide, however, the Japanese would seem to be well ahead of the Western perception of it as the act of an unbalanced mind. The number of Japanese writers, for example, who have taken their own lives is a veritable Who's Who. Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, four of the most illustrious Japanese authors of the 20th century, all killed themselves. The Japanese filmmaker of wry comedies, Juzo Itami, threw himself off a tall building to protest a tabloid story alleging his affair with a woman other than his wife. Kurosawa attempted suicide. And Takeshi Kitano, popular Japanese television personality, called his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1994, an "unconscious suicide attempt."

It would be convenient if his filmmaking career were divisible into the two periods, before and after the accident. Except that there is no appreciable difference between the films he made in either period. He appears to enjoy alternating between films involving cops and yakuza and films about ordinary men and women. It is in the latter, needless to say, that I am interested.

Curiously, one of the connecting threads in Kitano's films is suicide. Whether he is personally preoccupied with it or it is just a dramatic device in unclear. But three of his first six films end with a protagonist committing suicide.

A Scene at the Sea (1991) is a badly Englished title for Kitano's third directorial effort. "That Summer, the Calmest Ocean" is closer to the title Kitano came up with, Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi. It is an idyllic film about a young man named Shigeru who works as a garbage man in a coastal city. One day he finds a broken surfboard in somebody's trash. (The words "Sink or Swim" are printed in English on the edge of the Blue Bunny surfboard.) He takes it home and repairs it with a chunk of styrofoam, chopsticks and some box tape. With his girlfriend - or simply a friend who happens to be a girl - he takes up surfing, with sometimes funny, often wry results. And incidentally, Shigeru is a deaf-mute, as is his friend.

Japanese filmmakers have always walked a fine line between pure sentiment and treacly sentimentality - a difference that Donald Richie characterized as earned and unearned emotion. Kitano's use of the silence of his principle characters doesn't exactly exonerate him from the charge of sentimentality, but it spares his film alot of the mawkishness that mars his later Kikujiro. You can tell it's a dramatic device simply because the two actors who play Shigeru and Takako - Claude Maki and Hiroko Oshima - are not deaf-mutes.

Pervading the film is a placidity that makes it, if nothing else, a rather pleasant viewing experience. The placidity is, however, ultimately impenetrable, like the dumbness of its hero and heroine. The necessarily unspoken feelings between Shigeru and Takako remain a mystery until Kitano sweetens their relationship with two scenes. Deciding to catch a bus after a day of surfing, the driver won't admit Shigeru, carrying is serfboard, because the bus is crowded. Takako boards the bus alone, gazing forlornly at Shigeru, abandoned on the sidewalk. As the bus drives away, Shigeru starts to run home, the surfboard under one arm, but gives up after a few blocks. Meanwhile Takako stands holding onto a pole, refusing to sit even when ample seats become available. When she gets off the bus, she runs back to meet Shigeru, as Joe Hisaishi's music rises to an emotional climax, most of which we must infer.

The other scene takes place after Takako has seen Shigeru on the beach with a strange girl (who isn't aware that he's deaf). When Takako fails to show up the next day, Shigeru has to go to her house and, to get her attention in her upstairs room, he tosses his shoe in front of her window. When this doesn't work, he throws stones until he breaks the window. He runs away, but she catches up with him and, a tear running down her cheek, hands him the stone that broke her window. I would be reaching, I think, if I were to call this symbolism, but there is really little else to go on.

Shigeru enters a surfing competition in Chikura and, after an initial blunder, places high enough in the judges' estimation to win a small trophy. He and Takako return home and one day Shigeru goes alone to the beach where he learned to surf. He takes off his street clothes, folds them neatly on the beach, and enters the surf. By the time Takako arrives and finds Shigeru's clothes, only his surfboard returns from the sea.

What if a device could be implanted in everyone's heart at birth. When each person reaches his peak in life, the moment until which his life presents to him only rising ground toward a high point he cannot foresee but which existence itself promises. At the exact moment of attaining that point, the device activates and stops his heart.

There are some gifted souls who have no need of such a device. When Shigeru ventures out on his surfboard for the last time and only his empty surfboard comes back, we are left to infer that, in discovering a degree of success and fulfillment in surfing, he decided that it was a good time to quit, so to speak, while he was ahead. In the film's closing coda, Takako takes Shigeru's surfboard all the way back to Chikura, the scene of his triumph, and releases it to the outgoing tide.

How very Japanese. But saying so doesn't make it any more explicable or satisfying.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Remastering the Film: Shohei Imamura

In the process of choosing which Japanese filmmakers to place on my list of Masters of Film, it was difficult to limit myself to just four. Japan seems to have an abundance of filmmakers who have not only gone on working well into their seventies, eighties, and sometimes nineties, but have made viable, distinguished works long after most directors in the west have either retired or found their quietus.(1) Kon Ichikawa, who died in 2008 aged 92, made his last film in 2006. (Ashamedly, I had to omit Ichikawa only because I haven't seen enough of his films.) Yoji Yamada, now 79, still directs. Kaneto Shindo, who is 99, just released a new film. And Shohei Imamura (1926-2006), made his last film at 74.

Rather than a radical political agenda like other directors of his generation, who became known as the Japanese Nouvelle Vague (nuberu bagu), or a perfect technique, Imamura had a life-view and a highly un-Japanese disregard for formal beauty.

His first great film, The Insect Woman (1963), follows Tome, played by Sachiko Hidari, who survives the poverty and abuse of her childhood to become a factory worker, a housemaid, and, finally (it would seem) a prostitute. Imamura, who worked as assistant to Ozu, couldn't resist the irony of his portrayal of a fragmented Japanese family.

But what is most striking about Imamura is his apparent ambivalence toward his characters and his refusal to pronounce judgement on them, particularly when judgements come ready-made. Given his record, trying to imagine what Oshima would've made of Nosaka Akiyuki's satiric novel The Pornographers (1966) is illustrative of just how truthful Imamura was trying to be. When the hero of the film floats out to sea in a rowboat with his specially-designed sex doll, there is as little room for laughter as for tears.

Perhaps Imamura's masterpiece is Vengeance is Mine (1979), easily the most disturbing portrayal of a mass murderer on film, if only because Imamura shows us what an inexpert killer he is and how impossible it becomes for him to escape the consequences of his terrible crimes. Ken Ogata plays Enokizu, whose crime spree is based on the actual case of serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. The film is rivetingly told, while managing to avoid any of the cliches of a thriller.

Imamura's remake of The Ballad of Narayama (1983) is a far cry from Kinoshita's 1958 classic. Typically, Imamura emphasizes his characters' bestial traits, since they alone can guarantee survival in an imperiously severe environment. Japanese audiences took exception with certain moments - for instance when the villagers resolve to kill a family that hoards precious food by throwing them into a pit and burying them alive. Or when, near the end of the film, a young man carries his helpless old father, kicking and screaming, into the mountains to be left there to die. The young man finally has to push the old man, tied to a bamboo chair, off a cliff to his death. But these scenes are contrasted with those of Tatsuhei's mother breaking her own teeth to convince him to carry her into the mountains.

Shot in black-and-white, the story of Black Rain (1989) is all too familiar. That Imamura, following the Inoue novel, makes it once again engaging for its human content, the fates of individuals caught up in a genocidal experiment, is a tribute to his artistry and his engagement with his subject. The imaginative challenge of representing the scale as well as the human impact of the destruction of Hiroshima is remarkable in itself. The ordeal of returning to life, of recovering from the concerted insanity of war, that affected both sides, was never more movingly recounted. Black Rain is a film for the ages that documents one of our most unpardonable acts.

In his early seventies, Imamura made two brilliant films, The Eel (1997), a strangely beautiful story of a man who murders his wife but finds redemption through a young woman he saves from suicide and his unlikely relationship with a pet eel, and Dr. Akagi (1998), about an indomitable doctor in wartime Japan who seems to run everywhere he goes.

His last film was incorporated into the predictably uneven omnibus film 11'09"01 September 11 (2002). Like Black Rain, but far less effectively, it tells of the days immediately following the war in Japan and a soldier's descent into insanity. Imamura intended it as an answer to the folly of a "holy war" like that declared by Al Qaeda on America on September 11, and the undeclared one by George W. Bush on "terror".

(1) I write this mindful of the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira who is now 102 and persists in his usual mediocrity.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Holy Virgin of the Assassins

Medellín, according to Fernando, was named after a pigsty in Estremadura, Spain. Alexis, who was born there, calls Medellín Medallo or Metrallo, as in metralleta (machine gun). When they meet, Fernando tells Alexis that he has come back to Medellín to die: "Life is short and ends when you least expect it". In the course of the film La Virgen de los Sicarios (2000), based on Fernando Vallejo's 1994 novel, both men learn the truth of these words.

There are films that fail to reach a large audience because they take us to places to which most of us would rather not go. Violent places, unpleasant people, or offensive ideas can drive the faint of heart or the unadventurous mind away. Fernando Vallejo, who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel on which the film is based, knows this. But so does the film's director, Barbet Schroeder.

Schroeder's place in film history is assured by his long association with Eric Rohmer. He has also occasionally directed a few quite unusual films, the best of which is the documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974), which is no less effective today thanks to The Last King of Scotland. His other films include More (1968), about heroin addicts, Maîtresse (1976), a documentary about a dominatrix, Barfly (1987), adapted from one of Charles Bukowski's typically revolting novels about the daily lives of alcoholics. He also made a few commercially successful films, like Reversal of Fortune (1990), which is excellent, Single White Female (1992), and the unrelievedly awful Kiss of Death (1995), which made one wonder which actor, Nicolas Cage or David Caruso, was the worse candidate for movie stardom. Schroeder even directed an episode of the popular television series Mad Men.

La Virgen de los Sicarios concerns Fernando, a gay man who has returned to Medellín after many years to find that what was once "a big farm with a bishop" has become a lawless city where sicarios, of whom Alexis is one, form gangs for lack of employment (Pablo Escobar is dead) and kill one another in broad daylight.

Fernando has inherited an apartment with a high terrace overlooking Medellín. When fireworks go off, he asks "What's that for? It's not a holiday."

"Means they got a shipment of coke into the U.S." Alexis explains. He asks Fernando "You said you came back to die?"

"It's true," he replies, "I don't want to live any more. I've lived more than enough. This is borrowed time." And later he says "What I had to do in life I already did. Like a gust of wind peeling lime off the walls." Fernando shows Alexis the Medellín he remembers, or what's left of it. They find a bar that's still standing, and there is a beautiful scene in which Fernando finds a song on the jukebox that he remembers and sits down. Overcome with memories, he lays his head on the table.

"You're crying," Alexis says. "What happened?"

"Time caught up with me," Fernando says. "In this same bar, when I was a kid, on a day like this, I heard this record. Then my parents, my brothers and sisters and grandparents were alive. They're all dead. How can I not cry?"

Like Malle's Le Feu Follet, we follow a man planning to kill himself, although the agent of Fernando's death (by his own hand) is only implied. But unlike Alain in Malle's film, Fernando's despair is full of contempt - for everything. God: "I told that old creep to fuck off a long time ago." Sex: "You can't live without sex. People go crazy without sex. Look how nutty the Pope's become. Spouting crap everywhere and kissing floors. Saying that homosexuals, and all that, is a sin. That's a sin? Having kids is a sin. There's no space left, the planet'll explode!" The Poor: "Put two wretches together in 15 minutes they'll breed. 10 more poor wretches. I hate poverty. The way to get rid of it is to get rid of those who spread it." Simón Bolívar: (looking at his statue) "Coward. The only time you had to fight, you fled! And jumped off a balcony three feet off the ground! The pigeons will shit on you. Hide under yours wife's skirts! Glory is a statue that gets shit on by birds." Fútbol: "When people sit on their asses watching 22 childish adults kicking a ball, we're screwed." Whistling: "Man has no business stealing the sacred language of birds!" (So much for Messiaen.)

In one scene, Schroeder indulges in what must be one of the worst clichés about gays by having Fernando introduce Alexis to the voice of Maria Callas: "That's the finest aria ever written [Rossini's "Una Voce Poco Fa" from The Barber of Seville]. Her incredible voice is piercing my heart." Callas was also used in the pushy Jonathan Demme movie, Philadelphia, when Tom Hanks's character insinuates that one had to be gay to fully enjoy Callas. (There may be some truth in this. I always thought she was overrated.)

Though he has given up hope for humanity, Fernando is nonetheless shocked at the mayhem he witnesses: a man shot down in front of him, Alexis killing a taxi driver and three others on a train. "All these killings are encouraging my own self-destructive urges", Fernando tells Alexis. "Think twice before you shoot. Count to ten. If we killed everyone we kill in our heads, life would be butchery! Can't you distinguish between thought and action? What separates the two is called 'civilization'."

The killings pile up, almost literally, until they become meaningless. Schroeder's film, shot on extremely immediate digital video, is not very cinematic, despite all the blazing guns and falling bodies. If the film fails it's because of how impossible it quickly becomes to care for people who shoot one another and die like dogs. I don't have the advantage of Fernando's sexual attraction to Alexis and the other sicarios. When they die, and Fernando goes home and closes the curtains for perhaps the last time, it wasn't so much sadness I felt as relief. At least the end of the film, for me at least, was an end to the mindless destruction.

Schroeder's film is nonetheless revelatory of the soft underbelly of a macho Latin American culture. It effectively exposes the impotence of a society in which murder is so commonplace that signs have to be posted to prohibit the dumping of bodies. The author of the novel revoked his Colombian citizenship and now calls Mexico his home. I wonder if Vallejo now sees the Mexican drug war, in which more than 40,000 people have died since 2006, as a familiar nightmare.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Browning Versions

I must have seen Anthony Asquith's (1) beautiful film of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version (1951) when I was not much older than Taplow, the boy in the "lower fifth" whose school master is the formidable Andrew (the "Croc") Crocker-Harris. It reminded me then, as it reminded everyone, of Goodbye Mr. Chips, without Petula Clark or the London Blitz. It featured what I still regard as one of the finest film performances, Michael Redgrave's in the role he introduced to the London stage in 1948.

The rest of the film was somewhat limited by the respectability of the production, with Rattigan himself writing the film treatment, and by Rattigan's plotting. Crocker-Harris comes off as a trifle stodgy and dull, but hardly worthy of the nickname "Himmler of the Lower Fifth".

The most memorable scene was written expressly for the film (the play ends the night before when Crocker-Harris announces to his termagant wife Millie that they are separating). It is Crocker-Harris's
valedictory address to the assembled students and school faculty.(2) I find the scene exquisitely moving every time I see it, even if it is a far too melodramatic finish to the film.

The Rattigan play was remade by Mike Figgis in 1994, with Albert Finney playing Crocker-Harris. Figgis is an idiosyncratic director, who was clearly infatuated with the model and actress Saffron Burrowes for awhile. He is an actor's director, but he is always better with his actresses, making Elizabeth Shue's performance in Leaving Las Vegas a splendid consolation for the dreadful Nicolas Cage (Cage won the Oscar, of course).

Figgis couldn't resist updating the old-fashioned play, mostly by peppering the student population with the sons of rich foreigners (Arabs), by giving the role of Frank Hunter to an American actor, Matthew Modine, and by greatly improving the role of Millie, played by the eternally toothsome Greta Scacchi.

Despite these "improvements" on the original, the film belongs to Finney. A fine actor himself, it was brave of him to attempt the role that Redgrave made famous. He is a bit too precious at times, and overdoes his mannerisms (he sometimes sounds like he's imitating Redgrave). His emotional outburst at Taplow giving him a copy of the Browning translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is more emphatic, in keeping with Finney's more expansive performance. Though moving, it is far less dramatically effective than Redgrave's, which is so reticent that it barely registers to a modern audience. Figgis actually cheats a little by showing how Crocker-Harris warms to a reading from Aeschylus in front of his students (with obvious parallels to his own Clytemnestra). It makes his reputation as the "Hitler [not Himmler] of the Lower Fifth" inexplicable.

Figgis keeps the climactic scene of Crocker-Harris's final address, changing a word here and there. But the scene, even with an anxious Millie standing in the back, is not nearly as moving as the original.

In an interview on the DVD, Finney criticizes Redgrave's performance for its reliance on flimsy details, like distractedly dusting off his robes while delivering his lines. Unlike Redgrave's, Finney's performance lacks a center cohesion.

But the biggest liberty that Figgis takes with Rattigan's play is in making Millie far more human. In the play and the Asquith film, she is portrayed as monstrously cruel. For example, when Frank asks Crocker-Harris how long he has known about the affair with his wife, he tells him "from the beginning" and that his informant was none other than Millie. Figgis omits this terrible exchange.

In Rattigan's version, Crocker-Harris's marriage is almost unimaginably horrible, like an airless crypt. Figgis makes the marriage simply unhappy and Millie somewhat snide but still passionately human. Figgis casting of Greta Scacchi as Millie also helps rehabilitate the role. Scacchi has always been an unsung heroine of mine, ever since I saw her in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV version of Camille in 1984. Aside from great beauty and a voluptuous body that she generously unveiled now and then (The Coca-Cola Kid springs to mind), she is a splendid actress.

Near the end of the film, after she is supposed to have gone and Albert Finney gives his parting speech, she returns to watch him from the back of the hall, and weeps with heartbroken happiness at his triumph. In the last shot, outdoors, they exchange gazes, each perhaps recalling what they once felt for the other. It is perhaps the most significant improvement on the original Browning Version.

(1) Asquith was an occasionally superb director: Pygmalion (1938), The Way to the Stars (1945), The Winslow Boy (1948), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).
(2) The name of the school isn't mentioned, but Rattigan's own Harrow School was the model.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Despite my not quite knowing what to do with them, I have a Facebook and a Twitter account. I gave up on the latter about a year ago, if only because I was unable to reduce what I wanted to say on any given occasion to a trite formula in the abbreviated telegraphese required by the "network". (I was taken by surprise once by a tweet from Martin Amis, whose criticism I read avidly.)

Facebook is better, but only slightly. I have found it to be a source of both wonder and frustration - wonder at its ability to reconnect me with people I'd lost touch with, frustration at my inability to find anything to say to them after all these years. It's strange, to put it mildly, to have them back with no other frame of reference than a brief shared history, however ancient.

Like attending a 20th high school reunion, we can see that the intervening years haven't been kind to any of us. Some of us are essentially the same. But others are utterly changed. Some remember what I remember with a sense of humor. Others have forgotten or would like to forget the past.

All these people are classified by Facebook as "friends". But are they? They may have been, once upon a time, fifteen or twenty years ago. Now they arouse somewhat embarrassed, awkward feelings, almost like looking at old photographs or video of oneself. It's really you in the picture, but there is no longer any way you can account for him. You have long since washed your hands of that person, of everything he may have said or done.

The big difference is that I am more than a decade older than most of my friends. That age difference grows less important as the years pass, but I can never escape it. So at the same time I was thirty-two or thirty-five, they were nineteen or twenty-one. What they might regard as the sins of their youth today was the time of my life.

Last June, sitting in an internet cafe here in a backwater of the Philippines while my Facebook friends were getting along in their lives somewhere in the contiguous United States, or somewhere a lot closer, I felt moved to write something that exceeded the maximum number of characters and had to be posted as a "note":


I check up on friends and family here, which is one of the few ways left to me from the distance at which I find myself. And I wonder at how much my being an icon on their computer screens is an act of faith. It's just about the closest I come any more to prayer when I open my facebook page. How insubstantial it is. And yet it's as beautiful as those paper streamers that once stretched between passengers on a ship and their loved ones on the pier. Only mine is several thousand miles long.

I got no replies - no "comments" - and no one liked it enough to click on "Like". I wasn't surprised, but still disappointed. I'm sure what I wrote made them feel the same awkward embarrassment that they always feel when they look at my profile photo and think of all the distance that time and experience have stretched between us.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Stranger

Who better than Albert Camus has written of the instinctive stranger, l'étranger, who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral (because he doesn't feel much like crying), who takes up with an old girlfriend the very next day, who notices the black band of mourning still on his coat sleeve, who is noncommittal when she asks him, after they make love, if he loves her, or who tells a judge that that he shot an Arab on a beach "because of the sun"? Meursault, the protagonist of L'Étranger, is a man who refuses to lie.

Camus knew the bitterness of exile during the war years (1940-44) that he was forced to spend in France, far from his beloved Algeria. He wrote at length of what it was like for him in Nazi-occupied Paris, of the loss of liberty, of the suspicion, the intolerable checking of one's papers by police, of the rumors and lies, of the incremental little victories and sudden catastrophic defeats, of the Resistance. It was a darkness that lasted too long, and its lessons were bitter and unedifying.

In his 1947 novel, The Plague, Camus wrote about people trapped in the quarantined city of Oran during an outbreak of the plague. But the novel was also an allegory for living under the Nazis. At the onset of the quarantine, Camus described the perambulation of the people trapped in the city, the interminable walking around its outskirts, silent and alone.

"In the general exile they [the travelers] were the most exiled... These were the people whom one often saw wandering forlornly in the dusty town at all hours of the day, silently invoking nightfalls known to them alone and the daysprings of their happier land. And they fed their despondency with fleeting intimations, messages as disconcerting as a flight of swallows, a dew-fall at sundown, or those queer glints the sun sometimes dapples on empty streets. As for that outside world, which can always offer an escape from everything, they shut their eyes to it, bent as they were on cherishing the all-too-real phantoms of their imagination and conjuring up with all their might pictures of a land where a special play of light, two or three hills, a favorite tree, a woman's smile, composed for them a world that nothing could replace." (1)

I have written so much about exile only because my own has lasted too long. It is especially here, in the provinces of a backward Asian country, that a foreigner feels his foreignness most acutely. He cannot walk down the street without being gawked at, attracting looks of surprise, pleasure or hostility. Philip Larkin, home from his life in Belfast, missed being the stranger:

The Importance of Elsewhere

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

13 June 1955

Perhaps that is the fate of the preternatural stranger, always wanting to be elsewhere. But what eventually overcomes the traveler is the desire to be a stranger no longer, to cease being gawked at by children, to hearing whispers when he walks by, to always standing out in a crowd, to being an obligatory fifth wheel or thirteenth man at table. After so many years abroad, what he longs for most is to be invisible again, to disappear in a crowd, to be a nobody. Even if in his heart he knows he doesn't belong anywhere.

(1) Albert Camus, The Plague, Stuart Gilbert translation. (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).
(2) Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber, 1964).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Remastering the Film: Federico Fellini

Love is predicated on the belief in the integrity of another human being's existence. That is why love is the ruling principle of art. Going to all the trouble of painting a portrait or a landscape, of putting layer upon layer of detail in a novel so that a character "comes to life", of a filmmaker pursuing an actor with his camera, alone with him across a piece of the earth we have never seen until we are compelled to care what happens to him - these are all acts of love, and Federico Fellini's best films, The White Sheik (1952), I Vitelloni (1953), La Strada (1954), Il Bidone (1955), The Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), and 8 1/2 (1963) are shining examples of this.

The White Sheik is a beautiful and engaging satire of the provincial dreams of Wanda, a newlywed in Rome who secretly plans to meet her fotoromanza idol, "The White Sheik", while her husband scrambles to cover up his wife's misconduct. It was a flop in Italy, but Fellini's next film, I Vitelloni, is a dramatic account of his life in Rimini, his family and friends whom he left behind, just like Moraldo does, to pursue his dreams in Rome.

The international success of La Strada made Fellini famous, and it's a mixture of realism and fantasy (Gelsomina, played by Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina, is half-moron, half-angel), beautiful and compelling. Il Bidone, which is his most misunderstood film, is also my personal favorite. Like La Strada, it's oddness is mitigated by the presence of a Hollywood star, in this case Broderick Crawford, as the leader of a trio of con men.

Nights of Cabiria followed a character that Fellini introduced briefly in The White Sheik, an eternally optimistic prostitute, played by Masina. The film became the inspiration of the Broadway musical and Hollywood film Sweet Charity.

La Dolce Vita originated in a script that Fellini intended to be a follow-up to I Vitelloni, called Moraldo in the City. But Fellini expanded the script considerably (the uncut version is three hours) and the film ultimately became what Vernon Young called a "flawed epic" - but an epic all the same.

After La Dolce Vita, Fellini was arguably the most famous film director in the world. For the next thirty years he was certainly one of the most famous people in Italy. Even people who knew little or cared less about film recognized his genius. His next film, 8 1/2, is about a film director who has run out of ideas and who tries everything to rekindle his inspiration. It is filled with dreams of suffocation, of people - actors, producers, and women, women, and more women - who demand from him results instead of excuses. Dwight Macdonald, who got into a famous published argument with John Simon over the film's value, called it Fellini's "obvious masterpiece". I agree.

Perhaps because of his unprecedented rise, Fellini's decline was precipitous. After 8 1/2 his Midas touch suddenly became a minus touch. It's difficult to overestimate the magnitude of Fellini's wrong turn. I have already
mentioned the chasm that divides his first seven feature films from the rest. Coming from the artist who made I Vitelloni and The Nights of Cabiria, self-parodic rubbish like Amarcord (1974) or labored nonsense like And the Ship Sails On (1983) were painful disappointments. Rather than diminish the importance of those first films, his subsequent work has enhanced it - for no other reason than that they were inimitable, no matter how many times Fellini tried.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Remastering the Film: Vittorio De Sica

As sometimes happens at certain moments in history (the Bolzhevic Revolution, for example), politics and art can become enmeshed to produce works that are socially as well as artistically important. As the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov were a direct and powerful reflection of the revolutionary fervor of Soviet society in the 1920s, so the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica were both inspired by (and inspiring to) an Italy that had finally got rid of fascism.

With films like Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D (1952), De Sica was the greatest practitioner of a mode that quickly became known as neo-realism. De Sica's art, of course, was far more sophisticated than it looked. He imposed a subtle design on his subjects, while maintaining a simplicity of means, like his preferred use of non-professional actors, that created the illusion of artlessness. His films are as structured, in fact, as some of the more rigid stylists, like Antonioni. As Vernon Young wrote, in his review of Umberto D,

"Sociological film criticism is forever mistaken because it is forever misled – on humanitarian principles or by self-righteousness or from color-blindness – into confusing ends with means. Asserting that importance lies in subject matter, it fails to recognize that no subject is important until awakened by art; assuming (to give its charity the benefit of the doubt) that love is greater than art, it fails to acknowledge that the art is the love... To praise the film for its human appeal is as needless and as miserly as to praise a beautiful woman for her conspicuous virtue." (1)

Despite the acclaim that De Sica's masterworks earned, they did not make enough money for him to continue working independently. Besides directing, he was a beloved film actor, appearing in 157 films. But he managed to create a few distinctive films after Umberto D, like Gold of Naples (1954), La Ciociara (Two Women-1960), Marriage Italian Style (1964), and the two late flourishes of his long career, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and A Brief Vacation (1973), even if they were worlds apart from the struggles of the poor in his early films.

In the documentary,
Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, Mastroianni describes a confrontation with De Sica, whom he revered, over the script for the film, A Place for Lovers (1968). Mastroianni hated the script so much that he felt he had to tell De Sica, "Signor De Sica, the script is shit!" When he discovered that De Sica knew this, but had gambling debts he had to settle, he agreed to do the film.

De Sica was a lifelong gambler, and in what is perhaps a self-portrait, he played an inveterate gambler, Count Prospero B, in an episode, "I giocatori", from his beautiful omnibus film, The Gold of Naples. He is such a compulsive gambler that he resorts to forcing the little son of his concierge to play cards with him - and always loses. In his best films, De Sica gambled - and always won.

As Vernon Young concluded:

"De Sica’s films in the naturalist vein have been accusations of the fascist aftermath; they take their place with the most profound cinematic achievements by sounding vibrations in a dimension larger than the political. . . . When Umberto D. twirls down the path under the trees with the jumping dog, we recall not only the other De Sica “conclusions” – Pasquale, in Shoeshine, facing a lifetime of expiation; the frustrated “bicycle thief” and his son renewing the life-circuit by joining hands; the poor, of Miracle in Milan, flying away on their brooms to an unlikely heaven – but also perhaps Baptiste, in Les Enfants du Paradis, striving against the tide of revelers cutting him off from Truth, the woodchopper in Rashomon, undaunted by fearful disclosures of moral ambiguity, deciding to adopt the abandoned baby – and Chaplin disappearing into a California horizon (the first time!)."

(1) Vernon Young, "Umberto D.: Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Super’-naturalism", The Hudson Review, Vol. VIII, No. 4 [Winter, 1956].

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Remastering the Film: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

[At the beginning of last year, I announced a project that I called Remastering the Film, which (I hoped) would constitute a more critical continuation of a scholarly project left unfinished by Charles Thomas Samuels at his death in 1974. Using Samuels' criterion of including in the study only those filmmakers who have made at least three great films, I came up with my own list that both (humbly) corrects and updates Samuels' list. Without grouping them, as Samuels did, according to style, my list was, in alphabetical order:

Gianni Amelio
Michelangelo Antonioni
Bruce Beresford
Ingmar Bergman
Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Federico Fellini
Shohei Imamura
Hirokazu Koreeda
Akira Kurosawa
Louis Malle
Yasujiro Ozu
Jean Renoir
Vittorio De Sica
Bertrand Tavernier
Francois Truffaut
Jan Troell
Zhang Yimou

I then started to write, every few weeks, a brief overview of the contribution of each filmmaker. But I only got as far as Akira Kurosawa, jumping over several others on the list. Let's see if I can complete my project by the end of 2011!]

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

There are many people who would rather that film - and everything else for that matter - stayed clear of politics. That this is in itself a political attitude is by now abundantly clear. Of course, a political agenda can be found in the unlikeliest places. Bresson's art was medieval in more than just design. His films, inadvertently I am sure, come close to enunciating Marx's "sigh of the soul in a soulless world." And Joan Mellen cannot have been the first to point out how Ozu's sympathies were always with the traditional patriarchal Japanese family, eroded to the extent that only the father is left standing, with adoring daughters tearfully departing.

Vernon Young once observed that the French filmmaker André Cayatte had "domesticated the pièce à thèse." Cayatte was a former lawyer who made films with overtly political themes, like Justice Is Done (1950), We Are All Murderers (1952) (about capital punishment), and An Eye for an Eye (1957). Without being as blatant and possessing much greater artistry than Cayatte, the brothers Jean-Pierre (b. 21 April 1951) and Luc (b. 10 March 1954) Dardenne have gone much further in domesticating the political film.

Born in Seraing, an industrial sector of the medieval city of Liège, Belgium, the Dardennes are among the most highly acclaimed filmmakers in the world. All of their films have used Seraing as their setting. They draw their characters from the working classes, and in some cases from a classless, virtually homeless "demographic" group, which they themselves claim comprises 15% of consumer society.

Gaining their first international attention in 1996 with the film La Promesse, about a 15-year-old boy who must fulfill a promise to look out for a dead man's wife and child, despite a world that tells him not to, the Dardennes's next three films, Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005), are masterworks of their edgy, passionately involved approach to humanity.

The stories they tell are about people whom the rest of us have passed by, the exceptions to our ruling principles of gain and expend, of consume and discard, of throw away values and disposable gods. When I wrote a tribute to
Vittorio De Sica several years ago, I mentioned how, in his best films, he always went looking for his heroes in the most overlooked places - among the homeless shoeshine boys of postwar Rome, the unemployed, who have to sell wedding gifts (bed linen) to get the money to buy a bicycle, an old man to whom people give charity more out of pity for his little dog than for him, whose pension puts him at the mercy of a grasping landlady.

The Dardennes' uniqueness has led some critics on a wide-ranging search for comparisons. Even the shadow of Bresson (Mouchette and Pickpocket) has fallen on the Dardennes. Strangely, as if the moral and political urgency of their films were not urgent enough, some critics claim to have found "spiritual" themes in them. Bresson is only interested in his characters' souls, not their skins. When your belly is empty, you will find there is not much time to bother about your soul. Rosetta, for example, is hedged in by so many insuperable problems, like the nightmare of unemployment, that she must hurry at everything that engages her. Trying to determine exactly when or why she could find the time to cultivate a spiritual life, or any inner life at all, is, to me, a fool's errand. If, as in The Child, the child's father eventually discovers enough humanity to regret his actions, he does so at the cost of his liberty.

What is remarkable about the Dardennes' films is their proof that these people are still with us, still the subjects of discussion, even of debate. One of the implicit messages of all these films - and of Bicycle Thieves, Il Posto, Vagabond and The Dreamlife of Angels - is that our ideas about progress are figments so long as people such as these live and breathe. "They are disregarded," Jean-Pierre Dardenne has said, "left to the side, left to rot. These are the people we are interested in, that we film."*

* Interview included in the bonus features of the L'Enfant DVD.