Thursday, September 29, 2011

Remastering the Film: Louis Malle

Having for various reasons conspicuously passed over some of the big names of the nouvelle vague on my list of Masters of Film, I hope that it doesn't appear spiteful of me to put Louis Malle in place of them. He was too often associated in people's minds with the movement, despite having nothing to do with Cahiers du Cinéma. He learned from them, as everyone did, but he would eventually surpass their accomplishments - even though he made the Big Mistake (answering the call of Hollywood) that Truffaut and Chabrol were smart enough to resist.

Malle began in documentary film, co-directing Le Monde du Silence, with Jacques Cousteau in 1956. It won a Palm d'or at Cannes. His first fiction film was Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud (1958), known as Lift to the Scaffold in Britain and Elevator to the Gallows in the States. Fantastically cool (Malle persuaded Miles Davis to do the music), Vernon Young called it an improvement on Hitchcock. I call it "definitive".

Elevator starred Jeanne Moreau. Malle cast her again in his next film, The Lovers (1958), a huge hit in France and abroad, due to its Gallic honesty about sex. Moreau was never more alluring. Feeling the tide of the New Wave, Malle next tried his hand at a Marienbad-like experimental film, Zazie in the Metro (1960), based on the Raymond Queneau novel. It was spirited but ultimately unsatisfying. Malle tried to recoup some of the commercial success and notoriety (in the States) of The Lovers with A Very Private Affair (1962) (simply Vie privée in French), starring Brigitte Bardot.

Just when he seemed to have gone commercial, out of nowhere Malle made his masterpiece, Le Feu Follet (1963)(1). Though its subject was forbidding, the film's beauty is indisputable. Maurice Ronet's performance as a man who's run out of time was unsurpassed. For the next five years, Malle seemed to enjoy being a successful professional director (evidently something that Truffaut enjoyed tremendously - the the detriment of his art) without having much to say. In 1968 he took off for India with a small crew and returned with more than thirty hours of film. He managed to reduce it to a feature film released the following year, Calcutta. If the film seems rather lost, it certainly reflected Malle's reaction to the phantasmagoria he found in India. More footage was put together and shown on British TV in seven episodes as Phantom India (1969). The Indian government objected to Malle's completely open-eyed look at their country, and banned the BBC from filming there for several years.

Malle's next feature film was a return to his stride. Le Souffle au Coeur (1971) was known - slightly inaccurately - as Murmur of the Heart in the States. Set in Dijon in 1954, the film has everything going for it, including the return of Lea Massari, the girl who disappeared in Antonioni's L'Avventura. The film gets more than a little flippant, however, when it suggests that a boy's sex with his mother is no big deal ("It'll be our secret. I'll remember it without remorse, tenderly. Promise you'll do the same."). And the actor at the center of the film, Benoît Ferreux, is not very good. The soundtrack, however, is all Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet.

Malle had helped produced the Marcel Ophuls documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1968), and his fiction film, Lacombe Lucien is a beautiful counterpart to it. It examines some of the confusion and collusion of the French during the occupation. Pauline Kael used Hannah Arendt's line about the "banality of evil" to describe the film's titular character. Malle later wondered at his choice for the lead, Pierre Blaise, who became a star but was killed in a car accident a the following year. The film is an beautiful tribute to him and it was Malle's last great film.

After a few documentaries (Human, Too Human, 1974, stands out in my memory, suggesting that industrial robotics are extensions of our bodies), and a forgettable foray into surrealism, Black Moon (1975), Malle departed France for Hollywood in 1975. The move was not unlike those of many other artists, and the results were the same. Some of his American films were successful, but none of them are the equal of Le Feu Follet or Lacombe Lucien. In fact, it is often hard to believe that the puerile Pretty Baby or Atlantic City were the product of the same intelligence that gave us Elevator to the Gallows or Calcutta. Not even a return to France in the late '80s (Au Revoir les Enfants and Milou en Mai) could resuscitate Malle's deceased muse. Malle told interviewers that he left France because he didn't want to end up like Truffaut, who made Day for Night in 1973, a film about the making of a film. What Malle failed to notice was that his last film, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) is a film about the rehearsal of a play.

(1) Based on the novel by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, the title is an idiomatic term that corresponds to the English "will-o-the-wisp".

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sensitivity Training

I watched Morgan Freeman on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight last Friday (Saturday morning here). I think Freeman is a fine actor when the part calls on him to be, as in Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, and Seven. At one point in the interview he said that the Tea Party were being racist when they claim they will do whatever it takes to ensure that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.

"[The Tea Party's] stated policy, publicly stated, is to do whatever it takes to see to it that Obama only serves one term. What’s, what does that, what underlines that? Screw the country. We’re going to do whatever we do to get this black man, we can, we’re going to do whatever we can to get this black man outta here."

While I might be satisfied with the interpretation of the Tea Party's avowed goal that it is nothing but the usual election rhetoric, and that perhaps Freeman, like other black Americans of his generation, might be seeing and hearing racism where none was intended, I am inclined this time to agree with him, with one distinction.

I have examined this subject before, and I believe that, while some white Americans are often surprised when a black American makes the charge of racism against speech and behavior that appears to them to be quite innocent and innocuous, it is due to the fact that white Americans are oblivious to racism simply because it is never directed at them and because they have never lived under the cloud of racism all their lives.

When I lived in Des Moines several years ago, I worked for awhile for a private security company that was contracted by the city to patrol the downtown skywalks. My uniform made me look more like a cop than those worn by the city cops, since my shirt and pants were navy blue rather than dark blue, and the patch on my arm was a shield, while theirs was a circle. My job was to walk the skywalk, all five miles of it, and make sure that no one was there between the hours of midnight and 4 AM. If I found anyone there, I had to help them along to the nearest exit or call for police backup if they refused.

One night I was walking through a bank building when it was about five minutes 'til midnight and a black man was walking toward me. As soon as he was within about ten yards from me, I asked "Do you have somewhere to go, sir?" That was my line. When the answer was "yes", my next question was "Well you had better get there before midnight because the skywalk is closing."

But the black man didn't answer me. He didn't even look at me. When I asked him the question a second time as he passed by me, he didn't respond then either. Finally I turned around and raised my voice, asking the question for a third time. The black man spun around and hissed the word "yes", and gave me a look, a look that said, "I am holding you personally responsible for 350 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation." Then he went on his way.

How did I know that look? Where had I seen it before? Or was I simply reading all that into the black man's expression because I have a guilty conscience about all those things? I could've just attributed it, like white people always do, to the racial chip that some black people have placed precariously on their shoulders, quick to respond whenever the slightest contact makes it fall. My co-workers, all white people like me (1), certainly assured me that it was the black man's problem, not mine.

I was only doing my pinchey job, even if the uniform I was wearing, the badge and the duty belt, stood for something the black man instinctively hated. Since it was me in that uniform, standing behind that badge, all his contempt was directed straight at me. And I wanted nothing more at that moment, as I turned and, suddenly exhausted, walked away, was to tear that uniform off and never put it on again.

Wasn't the Tea Party created some time in 2009? And wasn't Barack Obama sworn in as the first black American president in January of that year? Is there some connection between an extremely conservative political group declaring its existence a few months after the inauguration of Barack Obama? If it is merely a coincidence, it is one of the most unfortunate coincidences in history. While I often get the feeling that some of the Tea Party's loudest voices, who have been calling Obama a socialist, a fascist, and questioning the validity of his nationality ever since he took office, are simply using all those words and tactics because they can't bring themselves to use another word, a word that is also a slur (and to them, calling someone a socialist is one of the worst insults they can imagine) but which is no longer acceptable for use by white people, I think Morgan Freeman may be confusing the words "racial" and "racist". Is alot of the Tea Party's rhetoric racially motivated? Probably. Does that also make it racist?

(1) Latest statistics show that Des Moines is 82.3% white. The Tea Party is estimated to be 79% white.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Taking Sides

Given that the former Palestinian Liberation Organization is closer, politically, to the militant Irish Republican Army (indeed, the PLO and IRA once trained together in Syrian and Libyan terrorist training camps), I feel somewhat qualified to comment on the imminent bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Until quite recently, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland seemed at least as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long ago as the 16th century, when Henry VIII reformed the Church of England, Protestants have been settling in Northern Ireland. When the Republic of Ireland was created in 1949 (Israel was established only a year before), six counties in the north were retained as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Radical Irish Republicans, who wanted the island united under the Republic, saw the protestant loyalists in the north as invaders and eventually formed the Provisional IRA in 1969 (the Arab-Israeli War was in 1967), which conducted acts of sabotage at first, which increased in frequency and savagery when the "Troubles" began in Northern Ireland after the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, provoking the British government to deploy its army two days later to prevent rioting from escalating into outright civil war.

For many years some Irish-Americans supported the IRA either openly or covertly, believing that the cause of the Troubles was a war of occupation being carried out by the British Army, and that the only solution was to convince the British government to withdraw their troops. More astute observers, however, understood that if the British Army were to suddenly withdraw, a brief but bloody civil war would take place, causing thousands of refugees to flee the violence into the Irish Republic or to nearby Scotland.

I came of age during the Troubles and was dimly aware of their implications. I had a copy of the 1916 Irish Rebellion Declaration tacked to the back of my bedroom door, and I listened to Irish rebel songs, foremost of which was Paul McCartney's stridently obtuse anthem "Give Ireland Back to the Irish". After several years of watching the ups and - mostly - the downs of the Troubles from the safety of America, I had to simply quit and accept that nothing was as simple as I once thought. I endured too many Irish-Americans who talk about the "old country" as if there were any such place, drinking their black-and-tans on St. Patrick's Day. I once believed there was enough hatred between the Protestants and Catholics to fuel the conflict for another five hundred years. I began to be thankful that my maternal great-grandfather got on that boat and left Ireland behind for good. When he arrived, he told the immigration official his name, which sounded to the man like "Cassiday". He had the good sense to drop the "O" as well.

But sometimes even revolutionaries want nothing more than to live a normal life. A new generation in Northern Ireland, fed up with the violence, has decided that they are ready to accept some form of coexistence, even if some of the old inequalities persist. In a move that would've been thought inconceivable even in the mid-1990s, the IRA announced they were renouncing violence altogether, and the "Good Friday" Agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998. That agreement still stands as of today. The Irish are united in their rejection of violence and their commitment to coexistence. For me, it has been an almost incredible blast of fresh air from a country whose history has been a litany of doom and gloom for too long.

Coexistence in Israel is by now an impossible dream. A separate state for Palestinians is the only conceivable solution at the moment. Along with disappointment, this state of affairs leaves me feeling quite a bit resentful toward both sides in the conflict, since successive American governments have made such a big deal out of it for so long. I am sick and tired of the same news year-in and year-out from Israel. The U.S. has invested so much in Israel (not to mention Mubarak's Egypt, Assad's Syria, and Gaddafi's Libya) that it's a shame they cannot occasionally do what we ask them to do. I also feel that, if the Irish in Ulster can get over everything they've been through in the last forty years and get along with one another, so can the Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis seem to be saying, with some justification, "since you couldn't coexist with us for two thousand years, we will not coexist with anyone either!" But, try as they will, they can't make the Palestinians go away.

Recently, Israeli citizens took part in a mass (nude) demonstration on the shores of the Dead Sea to make a point about the environmental problems facing the body of water. A few weeks ago, they protested in much greater numbers, fully clothed, against the rise in the cost of living in Israel. If that many Israelis were protesting the existence of the biggest open air prison in the world - Gaza - perhaps their leaders would be more willing to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Up All Night: American Graffiti

First films made by some fledgling American directors have been about the pain but also the necessity of leaving home. Think of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), and George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973). The origin of all these films is usually overlooked. It was Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953).

After successfully transposing his student short, THX-1138, to a more sizable budget feature film in 1971, George Lucas turned away from the future to the past. While some may think that it can't have been all that hard in 1973 to recreate one summer night in 1962, it must've seemed like ancient history to Lucas. While redolent of the period, American Graffiti also contains sad hints of the obsequious time in which it was made. The rueful end titles announce that Terry ("Toad") Fields was reported MIA in Vietnam, and "Curt Henderson is now a writer living in Canada".(1) During the Vietnam years, ROTC meant "Run Off to Canada".

American Graffiti (2) dramatizes twelve hours in the life of a California town (Modesto) at the end of summer, 1962. The tagline was "Where were you in '62?" I was four years old in Albany, Georgia. The film is not just another plunge into treacly nostalgia. It brings the time and the place to life with subtlety and imagination. For me, it remains George Lucas' best film.

"Cruising" is the activity in which every young person in the film engages. And nearly all the film's action, after the "sock hop" at the high school is over, takes place on the nocturnal streets of the town. The beauty of the passing old Chevys, Buicks and Lincolns, as they seem to revolve around a center like a record on a spindle, is a fascinating and enduring image.

But the genuine stroke of genius for the film was hiring Walter Murch, who created, with Lucas, a soundscape as rich and detailed as the imagery. In interviews, Murch spoke of "worldizing" the soundtrack:

The acoustic treatment of worldizing it, so that it seemed to be something that existed in real space. The idea was that every teenage car in this town was turned to the same station, and, therefore, anywhere you went in the town, you heard this sound echoing off the buildings and passing by in cars.(3)

Lucas' fascination with Wolfman Jack and his large collection of vintage records gave him an opportunity to create with Murch a radio show that was typical of the ones he heard at the time. They hired Wolfman Jack and recorded a two hour show, and interspersed the music, along with the dialogue scenes and incidental sounds. Purchasing the rights to all the songs was a large portion of the film's $775,000 budget.

As the night deepens, the action slows and the songs on the soundtrack become ballads. Just as the dawn is breaking, John Milner wins the long-anticipated race, Carl talks with his blonde dream girl on a pay phone for the first and last time, and Steve and Laurie are reunited as Steve resolves never to leave her and go off to college. The end titles tell us that John was killed by a drunk driver the following years and Steve became an insurance salesman in Modesto.

The hero of Fellini's film, Moraldo, spends the film coming to the difficult decision, and awaiting the right opportunity, to leave his friends and family behind in his small town. When he finally does so, he gazes from a window of the train at the passing town and images of his friends, asleep and oblivious of his leaving, pass before him. American Graffiti ends with Curt boarding a plane and leaving Modesto for college. He listens to a radio as Wolfman Jack signs off, and notices far below on a deserted highway the white Thunderbird.

(1) Because he didn't want to prolong the titles, Lucas left out the names and fates of his female characters, prompting Pauling Kael to accuse him of "chauvinism".
(2) Among the titles that the studio (Universal) flirted with in post-production was Another Slow Night in Modesto.
(3) The entire Murch interview can be found

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Up All Night

"Until you've faced the dawn with sleepless eyes, you don't know what love is." (1)

Just about everyone I know, on hearing the words spoken by Falstaff to his drinking buddy Prince Hal, "we have heard the chimes at midnight", would say, "Big deal!"

Midnight in Shakespeare's day was, with a total absence of public lighting, when going out of doors was ill-advised and travel had to be conducted by the light of torches, a much bigger deal than it is today. Hearing the chimes at 3 or 4 in the morning is not even such a big deal any more. But few people have the stamina, unless their work requires it, to stay up until dawn. It's disturbing to watch the night expire and the new day begin when one has been awake for 24 hours straight. It's one thing to awake to watch the dawn, busying oneself for the labors of the coming day. It's a quite different thing to watch the sun come up after being up all night.

I defined the magic hour last week as the period that lasts only about twenty minutes when the sun sets and the earth is illuminated by light coming from the sky but not from a direct source, eliminating shadows and giving everything a glowing, magic quality.

But there is another magic hour in the day, just before the sun rises and the day, as it were, commences. The light at that hour may be identical to the light after dusk, but because it arrives at the end of the night, bringing warmth rather than removing it, a harbinger of what is to come rather than what is past, its qualities are altogether different.

A number of great films have taken us from dusk til dawn, using the sun's arrival as a climax, or anti-climax, a moment of truth or reckoning, when the dramas that have unfolded achieve some resolution. La Notte, Hiroshima Mon Amour, American Graffiti, Le Jour se lève, La Dolce Vita, Smiles of a Summer Night, Melvin and Howard, Elevator to the Gallows. I will be writing about these films, and others, in the coming weeks.

Vernon Young wrote that "the film is in nothing more wonderful than this: it brings us not simply a world we never made but worlds we would not otherwise glimpse. It compensates us for all those lovely dawns we slept away, the sycamore trees under which we never awakened, the rivers we never crossed, the fugitive friendships that never ripened, the Southwest canyons or Bavarian churches we never reached."(2)

(1) Jazz standard "You Don't Know What Love Is", words and music by Gene De Paul and Don Raye.
(2) Vernon Young, "Our Local Idioms", On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Remastering the Film: Hirokazu Koreeda

Hirokazu Koreeda (his patronym is also transliterated as Kore-eda) is, at 49, the youngest filmmaker on my list of Masters of Film. Starting out as a director of documentaries, his first fiction film, Maborosi (1995), is predictably straightforward. But it is constructed around a mystery: was the death of the charming young man we observe in the early scenes an accident or a suicide?

Koreeda is so keen on finding the truth that he leaves the question unanswered, even when the young man's wife learns of the sometimes jealous spirit - "maborosi" - that presides over the perilous lives of fishermen. And she has to live with the mystery. The film has an almost uncanny feel for the quotidian, ordinariness of life that it's as if we are seeing it in this film for the first time. Koreeda's camera explores the quiet corners of the backstreets of a Japanese city (Osaka), as well as the natural splendors around a remote fishing village, with an eye for the strangeness and wonder of the world that we shape to accommodate us but that shapes us in return.

For his next film, Wadafuru Raifu (1998) - known as After Life in the States - Koreeda resorted to the documentary device of interviewing the principal subjects of the film, who have arrived at an unexceptional-looking old building where they are calmly informed that they have died and that they have until the end of one week to choose from among a lifetime's memories the one in which they will spend eternity.

This fanciful premise, which is one of the most attractive notions of the afterlife that I've ever encountered, is brought down to earth by Koreeda's observations of his characters as they try to decide what was most important about their lives. The memories that they choose, with the help of case workers whose status is undetermined, are entirely personal and show us their secret lives. At just the moment when their choices seem most predictable, some detail that they overlooked makes them change their minds. There is even one subject, a young man, who refuses to choose - precisely because he is told that he must. He joins the staff of caseworkers after one of them finally makes his own choice and vanishes on the last day into a memory he hadn't known was the one most cherished by a woman who secretly loved him.

Koreeda makes the old building and its surroundings, in late winter weather, substantially real. Drafty, with a leaking roof and wheezing radiators, it is the most lovely limbo ever conceived.

His next film, Distance (2001), explores a controversial subject: an apocalyptic religious cult similar to the "Aum Shinrikyo" which used Sarin poison gas to kill thirteen people in a Tokyo subway in 1995. In Koreeda's film, some members of the cult carry out the poisoning of a city's water supply and then commit mass suicide. Three years after the event, family members of the dead cult members gather at the lake's shore to observe the anniversary. They meet a survivor of the cult, who disappeared the night before the attack, and together they spend a night in a cabin the cult had used, sharing their memories of the dead. Because of its proximity to the September 11 terrorist attack in New York, and perhaps because of its honest exploration of the reasons for such attacks, Distance was never given theatrical release in the U.S.

Nobody Knows (2004) uses a news report that astonished the Japanese: a group of children were found living on their own in the most shocking conditions. Koreeda constructed a fictional story from the news item. The film is not an indictment of Japanese society. The hardships that the children endure in the film are quite avoidable. The only thing that keeps the oldest child, Akira, from contacting child services is the knowledge that he and his siblings would be separated from one another. Even Yuki's death wasn't exactly preventable, even if she had been taken to a hospital. Being abandoned by their mother is terrible, and her infrequent messages containing cash (but never enough) are feeble attempts to assuage her own guilt.

I suppose if anyone is to blame for the events in the film it is a world that doesn't realize that it could happen, even in the most prosperous country. Enough people get to know Akira and his situation. Yet they can't even make the one phone call that could save the children, or at least lessen their hardships. As soon as Akira makes up his mind that his mother will never return, he is responsible, at the age of 12, for whatever happens next.

Hana (2006) was a complete change of pace and direction for Koreeda. It is a period film, set in 1702 (the same year as the loyal 47 ronin's rebellion), and it is a comedy about a samurai with unaccountable scruples about killing.

Still Walking (2008) is a return to contemporary Japan, and is so masterly it gained Koreeda comparisons to Ozu. Comparing Koreeda to any of the old masters of Japanese film raises difficulties since his films have none of the plot-driven structure one finds in Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi. Nor does Koreeda, like Kurosawa and Imamura, try to impose a vision or an overriding attitude toward people and society in his choice of subjects or characterization. He isn't interested in manipulating life to illustrate a point. He doesn't even seem to be much interested in telling a story.

Koreeda's style might be called "incidentalism" because of its reliance on the subtle accumulation of detail to elicit meaning. His films are closer to life than any other Japanese filmmaker since Susumu Hani. The strongest element of his art is his attachment to actuality. In fact, his films exude the same feeling for life as it is lived that is found in the great films of Ermanno Olmi - The Fiancés (1963) and One Fine Day (1969).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Magic Hour

For the purposes of a post I am working on, I looked up the definition of the "magic hour", which is also known as the "golden hour" and wound up scratching my head. There is some confusion about the meaning of the term.

Wikipedia defines it thus: "In photography, the golden hour (sometimes known as magic hour, especially in cinematography) is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day, when a specific photographic effect is achieved due to the quality of the light."

At the website, the definition is more exact: "In photography the Magic Hour is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day."

At another website,, some photographers give their responses to the question "When is the magic hour?" One of them states:

"The term refers to the time when the sun is low in the sky. The exact time depends on geography, time of year, and weather conditions. It may only be a couple of minutes long, or the good lighting conditions may stretch for several hours (in the far northern summer, for example). There's a magic hour in the morning, too, but not as many people are awake and out taking pictures during that one."

Another response states:

"In a nutshell, when the term 'Magic Hour' is used, it is generally referring to the 1st hour of daylight and the last hour of daylight."

As I always understood it, the magic hour is actually the short period after the sun has already set, when the sky illuminates the earth. But since the light doesn't come from a single source, it is diffuse and creates no shadows. Everything seems lit as if from within.

In my DVD collection, I unearthed (almost literally, since the case has been mouldering in a corner for years) the disc of a documentary called Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography. Made in 1992 for NHK, the Japanese PBS, it is a splendid exploration of the history and art of cinematography. It contains numerous invaluable interviews with great cinematographers from all over the world, including one with Néstor Almendros, the Spanish-born Cuban genius who photographed some of Truffaut's and many of Eric Rohmer's best films.

The story goes that after seeing Truffaut's The Wild Child (1970), Terrence Malick wanted Almendros to be his cameraman for Days of Heaven (1978).* Many of the outdoor scenes in the film were shot during the "magic hour", which was defined by Almendros himself in the film Visions of Light:

Magic hour is a euphemism because it's not an hour. It's about 20 or 25 minutes at most. It's the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets. Before it is night. The skies have light, but there's no actual sun. And the light is very, very soft. And there's something, as you say, magic. It limited us to 20 useful minutes a day. But it paid on the screen.

All this is tempered by the knowledge that, while making Days of Heaven, Almendros was going blind.

*The still at the top is from Days of Heaven.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Day America Stopped

Clearly, 9/11 was an atrocity waiting to happen. On that day, America was wide open. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, I commented on the day of the attacks and the aftermath. In observance of the 10th anniversary of those attacks, here are a few more thoughts.

In my military career, whenever the "defcon" level was low, I couldn't begin to count the number of times when I drove through the main gate of a military facility completely unimpeded. Often, there was no one there in the guard shack to check my identification or inspect my vehicle. I felt then that a determined terrorist would've had every opportunity to carry out an attack on that or any other military base.

Since 9/11, I have sometimes wondered about the security screeners at Logan Int'l Airport in Boston who saw all those box cutters in the carry on luggage of the men who hijacked the planes, and how they must still feel about that day. They did their job exactly as described in their training. Box cutters were not on their list of impermissible items. They weren't considered weapons. Who could have imagined to what use those murderers would put them?

Looking back at the United States of America of ten years ago leads inevitably, I think, to compiling a list of all the things it has lost. For one thing, the War on Terror has realized one of George Orwell's most grim predictions - that war would some day become permanent.

We have lost a good deal of whatever privacy we had left, what with Homeland Security's authority to listen in on our phone conversations and to read our emails. A year or so after 9/11, I watched a TV program about some of the people who lost family members in the attacks that concentrated on the loss or degradation of their religious faith. But how seriously can we take someone's faith when it was willing to accept the Holocaust but unwilling to accept 9/11?

Airport security has, of course, "improved" - by making air travel an even greater pain in the arse than it was. It is no longer possible to see our loved ones off at the gate or to greet them as they emerge from it. Flight attendants have become more rude and aggressive because they're under so much more pressure. We get x-rayed and scanned and patted down just so there can be a semblance of safety. But all this security won't stop a determined terrorist when we already know some of the lengths to which they will go to kill us.

Then there was our response to the attacks. I say "our" only because the government acted on my behalf, even if I was never consulted, nor were, evidently, any others who had an ounce of objectivity. So the voices that were heard were not only the loudest but the most shrill. President Bush started a war that we can't seem to finish, and two years later invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. I had the inescapable feeling that an opportunity was missed. Aside from doing nothing with the outpouring of goodwill for America from everyone in the world for what happened in Manhattan, the president did nothing with the American people's resolve to follow him anywhere he wished to take them. Instead he told us to go to Disney World.

And then came the decision from very high up to use those despicable "rendition" tactics of which we're only just beginning to learn the details. "Enemy combatants," were stripped of their universally accepted Geneva Convention rights as prisoners of war, flown around on secret CIA flights to secret locations and secretly tortured, before being shipped off to Guantanamo Bay, where they still wait to be told what they're charged with. Senator John McCain, who endured torture in North Vietnamese prisons, has insisted that the use of torture is not only ineffective, but something that, when used by a nation that stands as a shining symbol for human rights, compromises our moral authority.

I was in Des Moines ten years ago. At the time I took some comfort in the conviction that the city was probably the unlikeliest target of a terrorist attack. Des Moines has no symbolic value, like New York City or Washington, D.C. But I felt the same chilling effect, which was as much spiritual as economic, that every other American felt in the ensuing days and weeks.

Ten years later, I am amazed at the willingness of Americans to relinquish their privacy and their rights every time another attack is foiled. The notion that we are safer is completely cancelled out by the common perception that we are actually under siege. It will probably take a few more decades to get back to the sense of security we had before 9/11, even if it was false. As Orwell noted about Fascism in 1941: "Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them."*

*George Orwell, "Wells, Hitler and The World State", Horizon, August 1941.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Playing With Fire

Captain America is out. Last month it was The Green Lantern, and Thor the month before. Marvel Entertainment is rolling out its second-string properties, with their built-in potential for a franchise of computer games, toys, collectibles, and possible sequelae. The producers of the films have attracted real talent: Kenneth Branagh directed Thor and, awhile ago, Ang Lee made Hulk. But instead of using all their art and imagination creating three-dimensional, believably human characters, such talented filmmakers commit all their energies to making inhuman characters believable in 3-D. The essential silliness of these characters can be measured by the color and cut of their outfits. The Hulk's magic shorts are particularly silly, since, no matter how gigantic he becomes (along with, presumably, gigantic naughty bits), his shorts remain discreetly in place.

After seeing some of these films, I was forced to conclude that I could not disqualify myself, however much I tried, from criticizing them. The best that could be said against my presuming to have an opinion about them came from Chris Rock who once told white people who criticized rap music for its aggressive ugliness to keep their mouths shut because, as he put it, "it ain't for you!" Whom, then, is rap for?

I recently watched the first few scenes from the new X-Men: First Class and I saw how they once again exploited the Nazi death camps to lend something - what? depth? credibility? - to the comic book character Magneto's discovery of his mutant powers. If you haven't seen the film, perhaps you will recall the opening scene from the very first X-Men (2000), in which, in a few shots, the terrible reality of a Nazi death camp is evoked: "Poland 1944", in a driving rain prisoners are being herded by soldiers. One of the prisoners, a boy, notices other prisoners toiling behind the fence, with numbers tattooed on their forearms. The boy is separated from what we can assume are his parents, amid angry shouting and screams, underscored by prodding music. As the guards restrain the boy and his parents are marched away, the boy reaches out and the barbed-wire fence separating him from his parents is pried open by an unseen force. This force, which also pulls the boy, restrained by guards, toward the metal fence, suddenly ceases the moment thatone of the guards knocks the boy unconscious with the butt of his rifle.

This scene is repeated in the new X-Men shot for shot. (I haven't looked closely enough to determine if they were the same scenes. I think it would've required a particularly crass producer to simply re-stage the whole thing and re-shoot it.) In the new film, it is followed by a scene in which the boy is standing in front of the desk of a Mengele-like doctor, played by Kevin Bacon. He rings abell and a woman prisoner is brought into the room by helmeted guards. Bacon puts a coin on the edge of his desk and tells the boy to move it with his "powers". Then Bacon points a pistol at the woman and begins counting down from ten. The boy holds out his hands toward the coin, but fails to move it before Bacon shoots the woman. The boy, enraged by the act, begins to scream and metal objects in the room react - the bell, the guards' helmets, the zinc tables in the examining room, etc.*

I mentioned that the first scene evoked the reality of the camps. But it was evoked in order to enhance the story of Magneto. I was so disgusted by these scenes, and by the filmmakers' insane belief that they could get away with using the Holocaust in such a distasteful and vulgarizing manner, that I stopped watching the film.

The first Iron Man (2008) includes a scene in which American soldiers escorting Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in Afghanistan are killed in an ambush. Their deaths are used as a pretext for Stark to be captured by Taliban-like thugs, who force him to use his weapons expertise to create a new weapon for them. But that single scene of soldiers being killed, which was, I suppose, an attempt to add topicality to the movie as well as contribute to its schizophrenic anti-militarist message, came too close to home. I have served in the army. I wasn't deployed to Afghanistan, but I have friends who were in Iraq. I can't speak for them, but I found it outrageous that their experience could have been appropriated by a group of obviously cynical people as a plot device in a comic book movie.

In his essay, "Inside the Whale", George Orwell looked at the Auden poem "Spain 1937", which he singled out as "one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war." He took exception, however, to the lines that read:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;

Orwell noted that these lines "could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word." He went on to state that

Mr. Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.

If Auden's liberal conscience moved him to write something about the Spanish Civil War at the time, a little more personal commitment to the event, such as Orwell experienced, would perhaps have only made the poem greater. But Auden would have to have been a different person. He was so stung, however, by Orwell's words that he changed the line in the poem and suppressed it in his collected poems.

The makers of these movies seem motivated by something other than conscience in their determination to graft historical fact onto their fantasies. They are playing with fire in the foolish belief that fantasy makes them fireproof.

*Postscript: I had a chance to double check the scenes from X-Men: First Class, and the initial scenes in the death camp do appear to be new. The woman prisoner whom Kevin Bacon summons, speaking German atrociously (to add a little authenticity, you see) is, in fact, the boy's mother. Bacon points his gun at her and counts to three ("ein, zwei, drei"). The men who make these crass movies (notice how women consistently absent themselves from the making of these male juvenile fantasies) believe that nothing is sacred.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Who Let the Dog Out?

While some observers, including President Obama, are delighted at the new deal that football quarterback and convicted felon Michael Vick just signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for $100M, which includes a guarantee of $40M (not taking any chances this time), I for one am bemused.

Vick signed a remarkably similar deal in 2003 with the Atlanta Falcons (1), but it was nullified by his criminal conviction in 2007 for engaging in dog fighting.(2) He was released from his contract by Atlanta at the end of his two year sentence. The Philadelphia Eagles signed him in 2009. Last December, the president took time out of his Hawaiian vacation to telephone the Eagles's owner and personally thank him for giving Vick a "second chance".

The latest contract is further proof of Vick's worth, if not exactly his worthiness. But is it, as so many are calling it, really Michael Vick's second chance? Or should we be calling it his one thousand and second? Vick's athletic career followed a predictable pattern: as soon as it was ascertained that he had what is called "athletic ability", Vick was given a free pass through high school and college (even though he revoked his athletic scgholarship to Virginia Tech after his sophomore year).(3) Evidently, the only thing his talent couldn't get him was a get out of jail free card.

Our culture is so enamored of people who can routinely throw and hit baseballs hard, toss basketballs through hoops and throw and catch footballs that it is now prepared to pay them millions of dollars to do it. George Plimpton famously tried to explain our strange fixation on athletes by saying it's because they can accomplish certain tasks with apparent ease that are exceptionally difficult for the rest of us. The trouble with this explanation, like so many of Plimpton's remarks, is that it is insupportable. Anyone who can juggle four balls or balance spinning plates on sticks with their noses belongs in a circus. The talents of many athletes are not much different.

Now 31, with another year of probation to serve, Michael Vick had his many chances long before he squandered every one of them by taking part in the barbaric hobby that landed him in jail. But really, how else should he have behaved since our culture made it unnecessary for him to waste his time learning how to become a decent human being? If athletes sometimes misbehave, who can blame them? They have been mollycoddled all their lives because of their silly athletic skills and as professional players are being paid ridiculously disproportionate sums of money. How can they not be deluded enough to think they're above the law and common morality?

(I am amazed when Americans complain that our education suystem is a shambles when our culture pays a teacher an average salary of $55,693 and a football player $770,000 [4].)

Will Vick keep his nose clean this time? Or will the easy money he's once again getting and the forgiveness of the president continue to twist his underfed mind? If Vick deserved a second chance, he should've used it to get as far from football as possible.

(1) $62M for six years.
(2) His activities included betting on dogs fighting to the death and the destruction of dogs who wouldn't fight by strangulation, drowning, and electrocution.
(3) A warning on the "welcome" page of his official website reveals something of what Vick relinquished when he dropped out of college: "Any person who comes to this site and make abusive comments or statements to Mr.Vick and or his fans and supporters, the comments will be deleted and the person responsible for making such comments and statements will be immediately banned and all comments will be deleted. There will be no acceptions or reinstatements." (His name should be Michael [Sic].)
(4) 2009 statistics.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Last Action Hero

Everybody ought to have a maid,
Everybody ought to have a working girl,
Everybody ought to have a lurking girl
To putter around the house.

Everybody ought to have a maid,
Everybody ought to have a menial
Consistently congenial
And quieter than a mouse.

Oh, oh, wouldn't she be delicious,
Tidying up the dishes,
Neat as a pin.

Oh, oh, wouldn't she be delightful,
Sweeping out,
Sleeping in.

Everybody ought to have a maid,
Someone who you hire when you're short of help
To offer you the sort of help
You never get from a spouse:

Fluttering up the stairway,
Shuttering up the windows,
Cluttering up the bedroom,
Buttering up the master,
Puttering all around the house!

-Stephen Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum

Donald Trump delivered one of his most revealing statements during a phone conversation with Piers Morgan during a broadcast of Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN. When asked what he thought about the revelation of Arnold Schwarzenegger's having a son by his Hispanic housemaid, Trump said that he thought the worst thing about it was that Arnold had done it with a maid. It wasn't his infidelity to Maria Shriver or his having kept it a secret for so long, but the fact that the former Guvernator had stooped to having an affair - and a child - with the hired help.

If I hadn't already made up my mind about Trump as a rich clown with a clown's hair, that loathsome statement of his would have done it. All the statement actually did was confirm for me the strong suspicion that this ultimately silly person obviously has disdain for everyone who isn't wealthy or well-off. And it came from a man who briefly entertained intentions of running for president. Evidently, it would never have occurred to Trump, as it obviously occurred to Schwarzenegger, that even a house servant is a human being.

Quite honestly, the news of the affair made Arnold Schwarzenegger immeasurably more likable to me. Having attained at least one of his stated goals in life - marrying a Kennedy* - he at least showed that it wasn't beneath him to be attracted to a woman who wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and who had something to offer him besides money and prestige. Apparently, Donald Trump can buy any woman he wants. The circumstances of Arnold's affair are probably not the stuff of a Hollywood movie, but the suggestion that it was something to be ashamed of is funny coming from a clown like Trump.

*Shriver's mother was sister to JFK and RFK. Arnold's other ambition was to be president, which he can't as the rules now dictate.