Monday, November 28, 2011

Remastering the Film: François Truffaut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mourning with Marilyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Putting Things Straight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Up All Night: La Notte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Undue Credit

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

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

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

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

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

*Chris Musick drove the honeywagon.

Monday, November 14, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emmerich should stick to destroying the world.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ce n'est pas la guerre

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Siegfried Sassoon, Limerick, 1 February 1918

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Andy Rooney

"If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it."

Fifty years ago, it seemed that America and other Western democracies were moving toward a society with greater equality and justice. By now, however, it's obvious that we've been going in the opposite direction for quite some time, toward extreme inequality and injustice. We the people have taken a backseat in our own country.

For the last forty years, Andy Rooney was a rare commodity in American broadcast news. By the time the Ronald Reagan era, which included the term of his vice president, was over, the word "liberal" had become so dirty that few Democrats would dare to call themselves one. Bill Clinton, we are told, was a "moderate", a "centrist", which is the only reason why he managed to serve two terms. After eight years of George W. Bush's bungling, Americans expressed their exasperation by electing the first black president. Despite cretinous suggestions the he is a socialist, Obama's liberal credentials are impeccable.

So were Andy Rooney's, even when, for a terribly long time, it was unpopular to insist on pushing liberal values in his newspaper columns and his 60 Minutes segments. He was a curmudgeon whose heart was always in the right place. He was an American. In an age of equivocation, we always knew what he stood for - and why. When his friends try to flatter his late father's memory, Hamlet silenced them by speaking the most moving words I can think of at the moment: "He was a man. Take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again."

No Smokin'

I recently had a chance to watch the documentaries, Thriller in Manila (2008) and Facing Ali (2009), both of which showed Joe Frazier as he looked in his prime against Muhammad Ali and as he looked only a few years before he succumbed to liver cancer on November 7. He was living in the building that houses the old gym where he trained in Philadelphia, still very much himself - quiet, proud, but embittered over what Ali said about him before their three fights, calling him an "Uncle Tom"* and a "gorilla".

It would be hard to name two great boxers who were less alike than Ali and Frazier. When they fought for the first time, in March 1971, I was twelve and I didn't like Ali because he was a braggart. I thought it was too much to be so successful at what one does and to brag about it. Of course, Ali's "trash talk" was as much for Ali's benefit as for his opponents'. Frazier was so hurt by Ali's remarks that, late in his life, he derived some satisfaction at Ali's being stricken with Parkinson's Disease. Ali's words to Frazier were clearly absurd, since they were both victims of racism. The film Facing Ali recounts how, when Frazier visited his mother in South Carolina in 1970, he went to a local bank to cash a check. The bank wouldn't cash it, despite Frazier being the heavyweight champion of the world.

When they fought for the first time, the fight was billed as "The Fight of the Century". My mother and big brother were routing for Ali. I bet them both $5 that Frazier would win. Thank you, Joe, for making me the winner that time.

*In Facing Ali, a Frazier friend comments that Joe didn't know what an "Uncle Tom" was. He thought Ali was saying he peeped in people's windows.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's Nice to Go Trav'ling

Four years ago today, I arrived in the Philippines for an indefinite stay. The indefiniteness has deepened to the point that, even though I've had more than enough of this place, it evidently hasn't had enough of me. Four years of living like an ordinary Filipino, even if my per capita income is more than twice the national average of $2,000, and I could live a lot better if I weren't supporting three other castaways who happened to wind up in my lifeboat.

I alluded some time ago in this blog to the misadventure that landed me here in the Sticks - a small island tied by a bridge to a bigger island. Someone once said that freedom is like air conditioning - once you've experienced it you find that you can't live without it. It's a funny line, but I've learned that freedom isn't at all like air conditioning, since I've lived comfortably without the latter all this time. For half of that time I have somehow lived without cable TV. So I missed the entire 2008 presidential primaries, all the debates, the conventions and the most remarkable election of my lifetime. I feel a deep sense of regret that I wasn't home participating in my country taking those enormous steps.

I was preoccupied with the daily challenges of maintaining my composure while I was afflicted with typhoons, swarming tropical insects, power failures, screaming roosters, full-volume karaoke, and the alarming day by day spectacle of poor people struggle against a full-fledged oligarchy for the last ounce of liberty they can cajole out of them. Compared with all this, the economic crisis in America is like distant thunder or watching the track of a super typhoon as it veers to the north toward Taiwan or Okinawa. Not a disaster averted but one diverted. I tell myself that I'll deal with the scarcity of jobs, the reluctance of banks to provide credit to small businesses or ordinary people, or the prospect of a Republican winning the 2012 election when I get home.

There are moments when a cold wind will swoop down from somewhere high in the atmosphere and slip through my window, making me wonder from what compass point or what altitude it came and remind me of fairer climes and better times. Like the lyricist who wrote the song "It's Nice to Go Trav'ling",* I've learned that the best part of a journey may well be its end.

It's very nice to go trav'ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It's oh, so nice to go trav'ling
But it's so much nicer
Yes, it's so much nicer to come home

It's very nice to just wander
The camel route to Iraq
It's oh, so nice to just wander
But it's so much nicer
Yes, it's oh so nice to wander back

The mam'selles and frauleins and the senoritas are sweet
But they can't compete 'cause they just don't have
What the models have on Madison Ave

It's very nice to be footloose
With just a toothbrush and comb
It's oh so nice to be footloose
But your heart starts singin'
When you're homeward wingin' across the foam

And you know your fate is
Where the Empire State is
All you contemplate is
The view from Miss Liberty's dome
It's very nice to go trav'ling
But it's oh so nice to come home

You will find the madchen and the gay muchachas are rare
But they can't compare with that sexy line
That parades each day at Sunset and Vine

It's quite the life to play gypsy
And roam as gypsies will roam
It's quite the life to play gypsy
But your heart starts singin'
When you're homeward wingin' across the foam

And the Hudson River
Makes you start to quiver
Like the latest flivver
That's simply drippin' with chrome
It's very nice to go trav'ling
But it's oh so nice to come home

No more customs
Burn the passport
No more packing and unpacking
Light the home fires
Get my slippers
Make a pizza

(Frank Sinatra sings the song

*The lyricist was Sammy Cahn.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Good Climates are Worst

Just before Halloween, what was identified as an "unseasonable" snow storm hit the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Watching the BBC's video shot in New Jersey of the heavy snow coming down, a Filipino friend who has never experienced snow in his life asked me if it was cold this time of year in the States. "Yes," I told him. It's mid-autumn." Then I had to explain to him what autumn was, since he had no notion of it.

George Orwell wrote the following essay for the 2 February 1946 edition of the Evening Standard. What he meant by a "bad" climate is one that causes discomfort when exposed to it, in the cold, the rain, or even in a gale. He suggests that the "good" climates - like the one I'm living in - are actually worse than bad because they are so unvarying. The heat is unending, it even rains more than in England, and there are typhoons instead of gales. There are really only two seasons here - the wet and the dry. Some years they are exactly divisible as such, but in others, thanks to the El Niño/La Niña effect, there are long dry spells in the rainy season and plenty of rain in the middle of the dry.

Orwell may have been unfair toward tropical fruits and flowers (rambutans are delicious) and flowers (I see daffodils every day here), but he knew that happiness can only be based on variety, not on sameness; that hot weather is not just the price to be paid for the cold, the two are faces of the same coin.

Bad Climates are Best

The time was when I used to say that what the English climate needed was a minor operation, comparable to the removal of tonsils in a human being.

Just cut out January and February, and we should have nothing to complain about.

Now, however, I feel that I would not remove even those two months, supposing that I had the power.

This is not entirely an academic question, for, if our popular scientific writers are to be believed, we are within sight of being able to control the climate. By the use of atomic energy, it seems, we could melt the polar ice caps, irrigate the Sahara, divert the Gulf Stream, move chains of mountains from one place to another, and, in short, alter the planet out of recognition.

And if the day ever comes when Britain has to decide what kind of climate it is to have (it will be done by plebiscite, I suppose, or on the basis of a Gallup Poll), I hope we opt for what is called a "bad" climate and not what is miscalled a "perfect" one.

The great thing about the English climate is its variation. It is not merely that you never know what the weather is going to do to-morrow, but that each season of the year, and indeed each month, has its own clear-cut personality, like an old friend - or, in the case of two or three months, an old enemy.

In very many parts of the world this is not so. In most Eastern lands there are only three seasons, the hot weather, the cold weather and the rains, and in each of those three periods one day is just like another day.

In very hot climates there is not even anything corresponding to spring or autumn; there are always flowers in bloom, the trees are evergreen, the birds are nesting all the year round. Down near the Equator even the length of the day barely alters, so that you never have the pleasure of a long summer evening or of breakfasting by artificial light.

I am going to try the experiment of running through the months of the year and seeing what associations they automatically call up.

They will not all be pleasant ones, but I think it will be found that they are sharply differentiated from one another. I will start off with March.

March. - Wallflowers (especially the old-fashioned brown ones). Icy winds sweeping round the corners and blowing grit into your eyes. Hares having boxing matches in the young corn.

April. - The smell of the earth after a shower. The pleasure of hearing the cuckoo punctually on the fourteenth; also of seeing the first swallow - which, in fact, is usually a sand-martin.

May. - Stewed rhubarb. The pleasure of not wearing underclothes.

June. - Cloud-bursts. The smell of hay, Going for walks after supper. The back-breaking labour of earthing up potatoes.

July. - Going to the office in shirt sleeves. The endless pop=pop-pop of cherry stones as one treads the London pavements.

August. - Midges. Plums. Sea bathing. Beds of geraniums, painful to look at. The dusty smell of water-carts.

September. - Blackberries. The first leaves turning. Heavy dew in the early mornings. The pleasure of seeing a fire in the grate again.

October. - Utterly windless days. Yellow elm trees looming up out of the mist, with all their leaves dead and none fallen.

November. - Raging gales. The smell of rubbish fires.

December. - Owls hooting. Cat ice on the piddles. Roast chestnuts. The sun hanging over the roof-tops like a crimson ball which one can study with the naked eye.

Those are merely my own associations. Anyone else's, I suppose, would be different, but they would probably be just as varied.

I cannot believe that in, say, California or New Zealand, or in the pleasure resorts of the Riviera, the months have so individual a flavour.

But how about January and February? February, I admit, is a particularly detestable month, with no virtue except its shortness. But in fairness to our climate one ought to remember that if we did not have this period of damp and cold, the rest of the year would be quite different.

The flavour of our fruits and vegetables depends on the rain-sodden soil and the slow coming of spring. With the doubtful exception of the banana and the pineapple, no fruit worth eating grows in a hot country. Even the orange and the lemon come from fairly temperate lands like Spain or Palestine, and the characteristic tropical fruits - mangoes, paw-paws, custard apples - are watery, tasteless things.

Fruits like apples and strawberries all need a period of frost and heavy rain, and never attain their best flavour in countries where the summer is really hot. The most attractive flowers also need a cold winter. In the plains of India, for instance, it is easy enough to grow zinnias or petunias, but the most skilful gardener alive could not grow a primrose or a wallflower or a daffodil.

If we want to make January and February less unpleasant than they are, we might start by building our houses more intelligently.

For instance, it would not be a bad idea to arrange the water pipes so that they do not burst every time there is a hard frost.

But that is a different question. What we shall have to decide, if this notion of changing the climate ever becomes practicable, is whether we want a dead level of continuous sunshine, or a few exquisite days paid for with fog, mud and sleet. When Shakespeare, describing this time of year, wrote:

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw

he was describing rather disagreeable phenomena, and yet there is a kind of affection in the lines, a perception that everything has its place.

There is a time to sit in the garden in a deck chair, and there is a time to have chilblains and a dripping nose. Perhaps five days out of seven our climate gives us cause to curse it, but there are also days, especially in spring and autumn, when even the streets of London take on a beauty that is not found in sunnier lands.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wake Up John Doe

When the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began, I watched how the major American news networks scratched their heads trying to figure it out and take it seriously. They saw its potential as a news item but couldn't decide what to do with it. Unlike the demonstrations of the Arab Spring, which the networks were anxious to own and, in some cases, to physically take part in, there is no single, clear agenda in the Wall Street protests (aside from the obvious one - it isn't called Occupy 42nd Street).

Consequently, the American media have tried to portray the protesters to fit their own unofficial ideological agenda. Fox News, for instance, has denounced them as nothing but anarchist hippies. Other media networks are being more cautious, just in case the movement amounts to something. Politicians are taking sides as well, with the 2012 presidential race looming. Republicans are calling Occupy Wall Street - at best - a pointless distraction, while Democrats are tentatively supportive or noncommittal.

I, for one, think it is encouraging that there doesn't seem to be a unified, monolithic message towering above these messy and shambling demonstrations. Some observers have tried to make the various conservative movements that seemed to spring up spontaneously in 2009 - that eventually coalesced into the Koch Brothers' Tea Party - analogous to the multifarious origins of the protests on Wall Street.

One thing is clear: Occupy Wall Street is a movement of the left. So often with such movements, there is a tendency for unaffiliated leftist groups to be hijacked by extremists like the anarchists who always seem to appear on the fringes to scare away liberal or libertarian elements. Certainly the enemies of the movement must be hoping that it turns violent. It is a maddening habit of leftist groups to refuse to compromise and cooperate with one another for a common cause.

Conservatives argue that Wall Street isn't responsible for the worldwide economic crisis. Barack Obama, who took office four months after the Crash of '08 and three months after the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 that saved the American banking system, is responsible. The banks, conservative reasoning suggests, should've been left alone to fail.

However much I somewhat agree with that disaster scenario, the bailout of the banks was not a Get Out of Jail Free card, inviting them to continue the same practices that brought about the crash. However much the banks do not seem to have learned their lesson, it was eminently necessary that their misdeeds didn't completely shatter the world economy. The cries of outrage at the evident money madness infecting the 1% of the American population that controls 40% of the American Pie may sound shrill but they are genuine. It has shaken alot of people's faith in capitalism - a system that relies on that 1% to behave themselves. Too many Americans know that they cannot rely on them any more.

I think the moment someone comes forward to give Occupy Wall Street one face and one voice and one message, it is finished.