Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hour Without Power

I saw a Doris Day movie when I was a boy called Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, which was a takeoff on the 1965 power blackout that affected the entire northeast of the U.S. The mayhem that ensued in New York City made many people wonder if civilization was nothing but a thin veneer on society. But the film turned it into a stupid sexual tease, with people feeling obliged by the absence of electricity to play musical beds. The theme song, written by Dave Grusin, is still stuck in my head these forty-odd years later: "Where were you when the lights went out?/Were you only a dream that I only dreamed about?"

Earth Hour 2011 has come and gone. Begun inauspiciously in Australia five years ago, it has caught on to become a worldwide event. On the last Saturday in March, participating groups ask people to turn off their lights at 8:30 PM and leave them off for one hour. This is the third year in which the Philippines has participated. Last year I
commented on this blog about Earth Hour. It seemed to me then that it was absurd to participate in such a silly event when the electrification of these islands is a work-in-progress. And what are know locally as "brownouts", but are usually nothing but "blackouts" (power outages caused by overloading), are routine even in metropolitan Manila, which is one of the biggest cities in the world.

But Earth Hour is just one more illustration, as if another was needed, of the failure of globalization. While there are millions of people every year in successful economies who are freed from the nightmare of poverty, many others living in less successful countries, in a competitive world economy, have found themselves joining the ranks of the poor. People in developed countries are only beginning to become aware of the existence of these people. Filipinos, too, seem to suffer from an inability to comprehend the absurdity of a country with a jerry-built infrastructure asking its predominantly poor citizens to turn off their lights for one hour. They are only pretending to live in the 21st century, doing their best to delude themselves and the rest of the world that they have arrived. Whether they know it or not, they are living in an "effortlessly green" world of their own. If they leave any carbon footprint on the sands of their beautiful beaches, it's nothing to kvetch about.

One-quarter to one-third of the world's population - that's about two billion people - are living without electricity. What do the citizens of the West have to say to them? That they are better off without electricity? That they should go on living without it? The industrial revolution that started in the 19th century and that transformed the lives of everyone in the developed countries is by now almost over. It has shifted to developing countries where it is now in full swing. There remain all the undeveloped countries in which the industrial revolution has just begun or perhaps never shall. What right have we to tell these countries to put the brakes on their development?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Spanish Earth

When I watch coverage of the fighting going in Libya, I know who they're talking about when they mention "pro-government forces" and "rebels". It's interesting how quickly such labels as these are assigned to contending sides in a conflict, which make it clear which side we happen to be on. The classic example of this practice was the use of the words "guerrillas" and "commandos" to differentiate Palestinians and Israelis in the 1970s. Is such brazen editorializing out of favor today?

There was another war, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in which it was easy to distinguish the right side from the wrong one, in which the names of the fighting sides were the opposite of those in Libya today. When watching the Joris Ivens documentary The Spanish Earth (1937), it is clear that the "pro-government forces" are the ones we're supposed to root for, and the "rebels" are the villains.

The historical background for the film remains, more than seventy years later, unclear. Basically, a liberal government elected to end the rule of the monarchy and the military in Spain was - eventually - overthrown by an army led by General Franco, a fascist who had the backing of Spanish hacenderos and industrialists as well as fascist Italy and Germany. Based on what he found was being written about the war after he fought in Spain, was wounded and returned to England in 1937, George Orwell was concerned that the actual events of the Spanish Civil War would possibly never be known. "The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and the forces of reaction all over the world. It is doubtful whether more than that will ever be established." ("Looking Back on the Spanish War", 1942)

Ivens was working for Pare Lorenz in the U.S. when the war broke out in Spain. An organization calling itself "Contemporary Historians", made up of a motley group of American writers and movie stars, put up the money for Ivens to make a film about the war on the Republican side. Orson Welles was the original English narrator (Jean Renoir narrated the French version), but his voice was determined by Ivens to be too theatrical. Ernest Hemingway wrote the commentary and was eventually persuaded to read it himself. The words, as usual, are laconic and matter-of-fact:

Spanish earth is dry and hard, and the faces of the men who work that earth are hard and dry from the sun. This worthless land with water would yield much. For 50 years we've wanted to irrigate but they held us back. Now we will bring water to it to raise food for the defenders of Madrid.

The "story" of the film, since Ivens decided to impose a framework on the raw footage he and his photographer, John Ferno, had shot, concerns a small farming village near Madrid, on the Republican side of the front. It opens and closes in this village. But the rest of the film is about the fighting in and around Republican-held Madrid. The government has moved to Valencia to escape the bombing by German and Italian planes. One of the planes is shot down and we are shown its strewn contents, all labelled in German. Hemingway says defiantly, "I don't read German, either."

The foreign participants got out of Spain when it became painfully apparent, as it must have been even while making the film, that their side in the conflict was going to lose. The Spaniards in the film were killed or imprisoned, emigrated to France, or lived out their lives under the rule of a regime that was the enemy of everything they understood was just and true.

Ivens includes some evidently staged scenes, and even a few self-consciously "arty" shots, like the shattered mirror in which a shattered building outside the window is reflected. Hemingway states that "men cannot act before the camera in the presence of death." There is even a trick shot of bombs falling through a plane's bomb bay doors, but in reverse so that it looks like they're coming back at us, falling on us.

When the film was shown back in the States, Ivens was asked to screen it at the White House. Franklin Roosevelt, who was one of the leaders of the Free World who did nothing to stop Franco, told Ivens that he liked the film, but that it needed more propaganda.

The Spanish Earth has had the fate of becoming an important document quite beyond its qualities as a documentary. But because it was so completely obscured by a world war that followed hard upon it, involving tens of millions instead of thousands, it was regarded as a sideshow, a kind of dress rehearsal of what was to come. The people in the film, and the cause they fought for, are all long gone.

There is a beautiful song called "Los Mozos de Monleón" that was composed by Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca (1898-1936) was a brilliant poet who supported the Republican cause in the war. He was singled out by the fascist rebels for assassination. Because he was homosexual, his assassins killed him by shoving a rifle barrel into his rectum and pulling the trigger.

In the song, "The Youths of Monleón", a group of young bloods follow the exploits of their favorite bullfighters. When one of them gets a chance to enter the ring himself, he is mortally wounded by the bull and the song ends with narration by the guitarist of the boy's dying words. The plaintive guitar at the end of the song, which can be found
here, seems to capture the sadness and tragic heroism of the Spanish Civil War.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shadowlands


The allegorical children's books of C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, are enjoying an unexpected vogue since the release of the films The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2008), Prince Caspian (2008), and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). Like J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Lewis's books have been the beneficiary of advances in CGI that enable filmmakers to realize, in ways that neither writer could have imagined, all the fantasy elements that, for Lewis, were integral to the religious messages in the books. I'm not at all confident that those Christian messages are getting across to the audience of infants, big and small, who have flocked to watch these films. But perhaps it is enough of a miracle, even for an unbeliever, that the films were made at all.

Perhaps even more unexpected was the brief interest in Lewis's private life that was inspired by William Nicholson's 1985 TV drama, Shadowlands, with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, subsequently rewritten by Nicholson for the stage in 1989, and adapted to film (again by Nicholson) in 1993. The film, directed by Richard Attenborough, is a splendid achievement, easily Attenborough's best film, despite the much bigger splashes made by some of his other films, like Gandhi (1982).

In the 1940s, Lewis was a quite popular lecturer on theology, so much so that his lectures were broadcast on radio, transcribed and published. Based on the writing and thinking to be found in these lectures, I was not at all enthusiastic about seeing Shadowlands. Lewis was one of those Christian apologists who apparently found pleasure in baiting atheism and debunking its philosophical and political foundations. There is a long tradition for this kind of reactionary thinking, going back to the intellectual ferment provoked by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The film concentrates on a period in Lewis's life during which his religious faith was severely tested by his love for - and loss of - Joy Gresham. The film, to be sure, takes liberties with the play to which some critics, who knew far more about Lewis's religious life than I care to, took exception. Richard Alleva, in Commonweal, commented at the time of the release of Attenborough's film:

The stage version is made of sterner stuff than the new film. In the play's first scene, Jack Lewis, delivering a lecture, addresses the question of why God makes or lets us suffer. His answer, "the blows of God's chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect," is something that Lewis believes intellectually but doesn't feel with his entire being. By the final curtain, because of the suffering he has undergone, Lewis faces the audience as a transfigured man, prepared, even longing to undergo his own death because only death can release him from the "shadowlands" of earthly life into the higher reality of heaven where he will be reunited with Joy. Head knowledge has become heart knowledge. The stage play, when well performed (as it certainly was on Broadway with Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne), provides a deeply spiritual experience. . . . This movie indicates how a spiritual experience has been yanked sharply down to earth. [It] is no longer the story of the romantic union of two equally life-perplexed, God-seeking individuals, perfectly matched in intellect and mettlesome high spirits. It is now the story of an overgrown teddy bear, lovably bookish and unworldly, who is rescued from emotional suffocation and his own virginity by a warmhearted, tough-tender earth mother who shatters his routine, skewers his narrow-minded colleagues, and takes him on a motor tour of the English countryside. Let's face it: this Shadowlands is really the latest rendition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

I have mentioned before how recent adaptations of two English novels, The End of the Affair and Brideshead Revisited, betrayed their sources by refusing to honor the religious plot elements that Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh evidently thought were vital enough to their stories. While Shadowlands, Alleva argues, avoids much of the overtly religious content of the play, I, for one, am delighted at the outcome. Lewis was a minor theologian who liked to demolish ideas that refused to accommodate his narrow theories about life and death. As played by Anthony Hopkins in the film, Lewis is not so sure of himself or his faith. and all the more sympathetic for it. He would rather that his insular life were not disturbed, and who can blame him? But he finds himself drawn to a brash American woman whose son loves The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I suppose it would be too easy to suggest that Lewis was attracted to her precisely because he saw in her opportunities not for happiness but for suffering - that terrible Christian justification for human experience? Pablo Neruda summed it up as "the religion of suffering, as sin and you'll suffer, don't sin and you'll suffer, live and you'll suffer, leaving you no possible way out."

Joy Gresham comes from a place that is foreign to Lewis, since it is fraught with direct experience of living, rather than abstract theories about it. Lewis doesn't seem capable of resisting the humanizing process that being close to Joy offers him. After her death, Lewis says to his brother, "So afraid, never seeing her again, thinking that suffering is just suffering, after all. No cause. No purpose. No pattern. Nothing. There's nothing to say. I know that now. I've just come up against a bit of experience. Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, you learn."

A colleague tells him: "Life must go on." To which Lewis replies:
"I don't know that it must, but it certainly does."
"Only God knows why these things have to happen," his colleague says.
"God knows but does God care?"
"Of course. We see so little here. We're not the creator."
"No. We're the creatures, aren't we? We're the rats in the cosmic laboratory. I've no doubt the experiment is for our own good, but that still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn't it?"

Anthony Hopkins plays Lewis as a fully realized man replete with conflicts and contradictions. He may not represent an accurate portrayal of the real C.S. Lewis, but I think he is more interesting for that. But Debra Winger, as Joy, steals the show. She is completely there, substantial and utterly convincing. The real Joy was an atheist (later repented), a Communist (also repented), poet and literary editor. A little of this is mentioned in the film (Winger recites a short poem to Lewis), and Winger appears to contain all that living and exude it in her performance.

Alleva concludes his review of Shadowlands rather peevishly: "So, by all means, go see Shadowlands but be prepared to take it on its own terms. This is a C.S. Lewis biopic for secular humanists in search of a good cry. I believe they constitute a sizable audience." Too bad such a sizeable audience would rather not know all the details of Lewis's inner life. Perhaps the audiences for The Chronicles of Narnia films are being similarly short-shrifted of the religious significance that Lewis tried to give them. But I found myself moved by this fictional Lewis far more than I am by the real one. Further proof that art doesn't imitate life, it improves on it. "Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sonatine


The Japanese gangster - or yakuza - film has a tradition long enough to give it a degree of respectability. Unfortunately, gangsterism in Japan, while legendary, isn't anywhere near as powerful or pervasive as the Sicilian-American mafia, simply because the Japanese, like the British (who have a modest gangster film tradition of their own), have an innate respect for the law and a natural repugnance for violence that Americans seem to lack.

The Japanese do, however, have a highly developed popular culture of sometimes extremely violent entertainment, from comic books to films. The TV personality who calls himself "Beat" Takeshi found himself in 1989 in the middle of a run-of-the-mill action film, Violent Cop, when the director had to drop out and Takeshi Kitano, as he credited himself, took over. Whether he ever intended to have a career as a filmmaker or not, he was evidently taken with the creative possibilities of the medium, and its potential for his self-promotion.

He followed Violent Cop with Boiling Point in 1990, a yakuza film that was partially shot in Okinawa. Kitano then experimented with a film in which there is practically no dialogue, since his two lead characters are deaf-mutes. Known in the States as A Scene at the Sea (1991), it had a sentimental, wistful quality that can also be found, in smaller amounts, in all his subsequent films.

Sonatine, a film released in 1993, got some retroactive attention in the States after the success of Fireworks in 1997. It was filmed almost entirely on location in Okinawa in 1992, at the same time I was stationed there in the Navy. Although the only place I can directly recognize in the film is the airport in Naha, the landscapes and the architecture all seemed familiar to me when I first saw the film.

When I learned in 2000 that the internet film site Senses of Cinema was looking for contributions on Kitano's work, I submitted the following piece on Sonatine and it was accepted. It was the first piece of writing that I published online, and it encouraged me to write several more for Senses for Cinema, whose editors were kind enough to publish. I have since published most of them here on this blog, with some slight alterations that time and vanity required.

I have hesitated to publish my review of Sonatine for entirely personal reasons. I find now that my opinion of the film has changed in the decade since I wrote it. It is, in fact, a good illustration of how pleasure can cloud judgement. I spoke favorably of it until, in the last sentence, I effectively disqualified myself from further comment, because of all the pleasant memories of Okinawa that the film evoked for me - for which Kitano could not, of course, be given credit. I was at a point in my life in 2000, nearing the end of an enlistment in the Army, and trapped in an unhappy marriage, when my time in Okinawa, single and at totally loose ends, was particularly missed. It's no wonder, then, that I was as taken with Sonatine as I was. Ten years later, however, I can see it for what it is - an offbeat, clever but rather insubstantial action film.


SONATINE

"It is the fate of the yakuza hero to live and die in a closed space."
-Watanabe Takenobu (1)


In certain professions, one is known as much for what one does as for what one refrains from doing. And having all your fingers past the age of 40 is always a plus. Kitano Takeshi, Japan's premier talento (i.e., actor, director, poet, painter, et al), has learned the hard way that this is as true for filmmakers as for gangsters. So it was perhaps inevitable that he should have turned to playing a gangster - a yakuza - in his fourth film.

In Kitano's Violent Cop (1989) and Fireworks (1997), the police act as border guards between the criminal world and us. In Sonatine (1993), the police are nowhere to be seen - as if, in the most ordered and well-behaved nation on earth, they no longer serve a purpose. Even the yakuza, that other Honoured Society (2), respect their own imperatives and follow their own rules.

Murakawa (Kitano) has become too successful running the streets in his designated area of underworld Tokyo. His boss decides to get rid of him by sending him to Okinawa on a sleeveless errand. He and a small selection of his henchmen are to mediate between two warring factions of Okinawa's yakuza clans. The feud between the two clans turns out to be insignificant, and while Murakawa dawdles, wondering why he was sent to Okinawa at all, his headquarters is bombed and he and his gang are ambushed in a bar. Fleeing to the seaside, they hole up in a remote beach house to wait for the storm to pass and perhaps get a few explanations from higher up.

It is here, when the action comes to a complete halt, that Sonatine proves to have far less to do with violence than with the lulls between violent acts, the doldrums in which violent men engage in child's play that reduces violence to harmless fun. Watching as another of Murakawa's henchmen falls into a well concealed sand-trap on the beach, one of them asks, "Boss, isn't it too childish?" To which Murakawa replies, "What else can I do?"

From this point on, every event in this seemingly aimless film is fraught with a grave significance, a significance that only becomes fully apparent at the film's conclusion. On its cool surface, Sonatine is oddly leisured, made up of juvenile pranks and punctuated by sporadic gun battles in closed spaces (a bar, an elevator, a car). But the film is, in fact, quite methodical in providing clues for what is actually going on.

While his enemies are hunting for him somewhere in the distance, Murakawa and his associates play with cut-out sumo wrestlers until, bored with the cut-outs, they wrestle one another on the beach. But the wrestlers move just like the cut-out figures, their actions manipulated by others outside the ring. They fight mock-battles at night with roman candles, until Murakawa pulls out his .45. They target practice with a revolver and a beer can, until Murakawa turns it into a Russian roulette match - and loses. He puts the revolver to his head and pulls the trigger on the last chamber. Nothing happens - the bullet he apparently loaded was merely sleight of hand.

That night, Murakawa dreams of the match, only this time the pistol is loaded and he puts a bullet in his head. He awakes and, restless, walks down to the shore. A car pulls up to the beach and a man drags a squealing woman into the sand and proceeds to rape her. Murakawa waits for the moment when he's seen enough and steps past them toward the house. The stranger stops him. "You've been watching all this time? You're a pervert, aren't you?" he demands. Murakawa head-butts him and he falls to the ground. Regaining his feet, the stranger pulls a knife and growls a threat only to have two bullets fired into his belly. "This is a bad joke." he stammers, and falls dead. Murakawa notices the cowering woman, puzzled by his nonchalance at killing her attacker.

The woman becomes a fixture at the beach house, drifting into the group almost unnoticeably. The days float by with the ocean clouds. The woman seems fascinated by Murakawa. She tells him he must be a tough guy since he's not afraid to kill. She proposes that "not being afraid of killing people means not being afraid of killing yourself, right?" He tells her that he carries a gun in order to avoid a fight. "When you're scared all the time, you almost wish you were dead."

An hour into the film, when events take over and the film swirls toward its climax, a stranger appears who says nothing, wears a straw hat and carries fishing tackle. He appears in scene after scene, pumping bullets into people, including one of Murakawa's men, in the middle of a Frisbee match. Murakawa realizes he must return to the fray, if only to avenge his fallen comrades. The woman promises to wait for him as he drives off to his uncertain destiny. But their wayward, seemingly casual games have already rehearsed the outcome.

Kitano has made a film so deceptively careless that its deeper qualities can be easily overlooked. The dialogue is either emphatic or deflective - take your pick. Kitano concentrates so much on faces, but they never show us much, at least not what we expect. His characters react to violence - even when it is inflicted on them - with an ironic stoicism, not at all surprised to find a pistol pointing their direction. And the way he has of holding a shot a few beats after a scene has ended, leaving us to stare at a blank alley or an empty beach.

Kitano directs, writes and edits the film. And he stars. His face has been called "granitic" in its avoidance of facile expression. But the face expresses the same deadpan ferocity as the film. Joe Hisaishi composed an unostentatious, Tangerine Dream-like musical score. But as for the quality of the photography of Okinawa, I must happily disqualify myself. You see, I was living in Okinawa when Sonatine was filmed, and those resplendent, pellucid days, which Kitano captures so vividly, are almost too lovely to recall.

October 2000

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Travelling Around Drunk


Taking a quotation from Hamlet to heart ("the readiness is all"), the U.S. Navy spends much of its time preparing for war. It spends the rest of its waking time drinking. I was a sailor in 1993, serving with a unit in Okinawa. When I was sent with other members of my unit to take part in military exercises outside Okinawa, it was called "TAD" or Temporary Additional Duty. Always fond of our own acronyms, we sailors called it Travelling Around Drunk.

On one such occasion we were obliged to travel to South Korea to participate in an exercise that was officially known as Ulchi Focus Lens. Unofficially, it was called Ultra Fucking Long, since it lasted two hot weeks in late summer. The ship on which our part of the exercise was conducted was tied to a pier in the naval port of Chinhae. We were flown to Kimhae Air Base, near Pusan, and travelled by bus to Chinhae, a little more than 20 kilometers away. Unbeknownst to any of us, an accident occurred on the pier just before our arrival. The driver of the bus was told by radio not to approach the pier, so one of the ranking officers on board the bus told the driver to turn around and take us to the base's enlisted club, called Duffy's.

It was mid-afternoon when we pulled up to the club. As we filed off the bus we were given strict orders to stay together and not stray from the group. Once inside Duffy's, we sat down at the tables, without knowing how long we would have to wait before we could get to the pier and board the ship. We hadn't even settled into our seats before some of us were lining up at the bar, tended by the venerable Mr. Lee, to buy pitchers of beer. We were in uniform, on duty status.

We were in Duffy's until after dusk, drinking beer the whole afternoon. When the time finally came for us to leave, some of us were already three sheets to the wind. We got back on the bus and made our way to the pier. We offloaded our gear and carried it up the ship's ramp. To the unpleasant surprise of some of us, work commenced immediately on the overnight shift that lasted until zero eight hundred (8 AM).

The next day we learned that a Korean crane operator was lifting the ships's ramp off the deck and lowering it into position when he extended the crane too far and the ramp crashed down on his booth. He was halfway out of the window when he was cut in half.

The exercise proceeded to its conclusion according to schedule, a simulated war whose outcome was never in doubt. We worked aboard the ship during the day and spent the evenings drinking at Duffy's or off base in a whorehouse called Donna's Greenhouse. A dark red stain on the pier next to the ship was a reminder to us throughout the exercise of the unforeseen cost of all our war games.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Under the Volcano


"Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine."

If all port would be claret if it could, every drunk would be Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of Malcolm Lowry's "semi-autobiographical" novel - and John Huston's film - Under the Volcano. As doomed and as ghastly as Firmin may seem, to anyone who has been what I would call a serious drinker, his story is rather the opposite of a cautionary tale.

First, the novel. I am not one of those who believe that it is a literary masterpiece. It is the best of a genre known as "drunk literature." Lowry was an admirer of Joyce, and Under the Volcano was his own attempt at some of the cumulative verbal effects of Ulysses. His problem was that Geoffrey Firmin is in the terminal stages of drink and is so utterly unreliable that it is next to impossible to sort out the action of some scenes in the novel from the phantasmagoria of Firmin's alcoholic delirium.

Clearly, Lowry suffered from delusions similar to Geoffrey's (the "semi-autobiographical" tag is fitting), and his novel suffers from the superhuman task of grafting a Joycean piling on layers of physical detail as a kind of rival universe of words onto the delirious ravings of a booze-sodden brain. The degree to which language can tolerate abstraction was Lowry's biggest impediment. Then there is the quite natural reaction against the unpleasantness of being witness to the disintegration of a man's mind (we are well beyond considerations for his poor body). All this militates against whatever literary value Lowry's novel has, which is considerable. Ultimately, his contribution was to have strained to its very limits the tolerance of words for communicating alcohol's assault on the cerebral cortex.

Some tantalizing rumors about possible film projects circulated over the years, one of them with Luis Buñuel directing and another with Sam Peckinpah. That John Huston finally got around to making Under the Volcano into a film was disappointing but not all that surprising, given his well-known love for Mexico and his love for drink. Huston's love for literature must have been at least as great as his faith in the art of film adaptation. I cannot share his faith, even if a few of Huston's own adaptations - B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King," and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood - were excellent. He came up woefully short on a few occasions, and it is no wonder that, while satisfactory as films, Moby Dick and The Dead failed to capture more than the shallow surface of the literary depths of Melville and Joyce. With Under the Volcano, Huston's success derived from his salvaging the story of Geoffrey Firmin's fall from Malcolm Lowry's woozy prose.

Twenty-seven years ago, John Simon wrote: "Yet why does this man drink? The novel offers only a few feeble, disingenuous, and misleading hints, the foremost of which is: 'Even almost bad poetry is better than life, the muddle of voices might have been saying, as, now, he drank half his drink.' In other words, this is yet another of those tiresome works (e.g., Morgan!, King of Hearts, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) in which craziness, drug addiction, or alcoholism is made out to be braver, truer, finer than sober, sane adherence to an allegedly corrupt world drained of all decency and nobility. Tendentious rubbish!"

That may indeed have been the case with the novel, but with Huston’s film Firmin is a terrifying sot, screaming at the sight of a cockroach and sneaking away into the garden to dig up hidden bottles. The greatest scene in the entire film, and one that could stand as its epitome, is where Yvonne arrives exhausted very early in the morning in the Mexican town only to find Geoffrey regaling a bartender in a cantina with his war story. Geoffrey turns and notices Yvonne standing there three times (or was it four?) before he realizes it is she. The rest of the film is a sad account of Firmin’s realization that he is undeserving of a second chance and that, despite her coming back to him, he has lost Yvonne forever. Firmin’s drunkenness forces at least this truth out of him.

What the film shows us is the near-tragic downfall of a once loving, generous human being, worthy of love and friendship. The only thing that keeps me from condemning Albert Finney's performance as Geoffrey is the knowledge that all dipsomaniacs are not created equal. Certainly Huston, a lifelong drinker, knew this. There are some drunks who can appear reasonably sober, walking and speaking normally, and yet can have a blood-alcohol level of 25% or more. I have seen this myself. But there are others who react dramatically to even small doses of alcohol, staggering around and slurring their speech. Since Firmin, in the novel, undergoes gradations of intoxication and can function reasonably well in society (even when his BAC was probably through the roof), Albert Finney had to find a way of showing those gradations in his performance. That he manages all this is a stupendous achievement.

To drunks, the idea that Firmin would reform, go to AA, and be abstemious for the remainder of his life is unthinkable. It would mean the difference between tragedy and melodrama - between Aeschylus and As the World Turns. Firmin's fate doesn't open their eyes, it closes them in profound reassurance. They may not meet an end as magnificent as Firmin's, but they can dream of one. While most people are happily ignorant of the meaning of the word "withdrawals," drunks know that the only sure-fire way to avoid the terrors and the shakes is with another drink - and another and another.

Huston's film makes it abundantly clear that Firmin is determinedly self-destructive. His love for a woman and a brother, neither of whom he can forgive for betraying him, doesn't restrain him from punishing them by allowing them to watch him destroy himself. Perhaps it would outrage some of Lowry's fans if I were to suggest that one of the weakest passages in the novel, and in the film, is the last, in which a white horse branded with the number seven appears outside the bar in which Geoffrey has been steadily drinking mezcal. Policemen grow suspicious of his interest in the horse and question him. When they search him, they find a packet of Yvonne's letters and confiscate them. They accuse him of being a spy. When Geoffrey becomes angry and demands the return of the letters, one of the policemen shoots him. He falls in the mud and mutters, "Christ, this is a dingy way to die." Huston, or his scenarist Guy Gallo, invents the death of Yvonne, trampled by the fleeing white horse. Hugh holds her in his arms. Then the camera rises above this scene of destruction to give us one last look at the volcano, Popocatepetl. It is the best that they could've made of Geoffrey's last thoughts, as he lay dying.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unpublished Reviews: Le Samouraï


An old friend was watching a Japanese film with me one day - Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress - when he saw Toshiro Mifune brandishing a sword and accurately identified it as a "katana." I was in a mischievous mood that day, so I asked him where he got the information. When he said he got it from his role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, I asked him how he could be sure that it was indeed a katana if he got the information from such a source.

I was just fucking with him, but it would've been far more gratifying if I had had the chance to fuck with Jean-Pierre Melville, whose film, Le Samouraï, is a particularly unreliable attempt to give depth to an otherwise humdrum story of the travails of a hired gun.(1)

There is something rather sad about a Frenchman who goes nuts for all things
American, down to changing his name to Melville, then devoting his energies (besides adapting – rather well – Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles) to making gangster flicks (Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Cercle rouge) – with his own money no less.

I found Le Samouraï as phony as a French $3 bill. The English title was Cop Out, which just about sums up this sterile exercise in Franglish "le style".(2) Adopting American stereotypes to foreign films is a terrible process that has since spread to Asia.

That silliness of quoting from "le Bushido" at the beginning should’ve tipped me
off. Watching the angelic Delon (Alain, not Nathalie) proceed from killing to killing reminded me of a better film he made in America with Burt Lancaster – Scorpio, which was evocative enough for me not to forget it in all this time. That film was about competing assassins on either side of the cold war front (with neither side winning – a cherished pacifist pipe dream). Only the director, Michael Winner, didn’t insist on Delon wearing a mackintosh and fedora.

The title, Le Samouraï, and the quote at the beginning, are nothing but red herrings. Stanley Kauffmann, who liked the film much more than I did, wrote in 1997 on the film's re-release, "The original title is wrong. A samurai did not accept commissions to kill merely for money: honor and ethics were involved. But Delon's character is simply a technician with no criterion except efficiency and no purpose except cash."(3) Like Jim Jarmusch's ridiculous Ghost Dog (1999), whose protagonist, played by an obese Forest Whitaker, works out with a katana, Jef Costello (Delon) is not a contract killer but a warrior, a knight.

There is one thing other than cool that Delon's performance evokes: sterility. It's what happens when you introduce elements from American gangster films to a patently French setting. The result is bereft of life and of verity, and exercise in form alone, artificial to the core, like Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Melville's love for Hollywood staple is misplaced, but it wouldn't matter if he had the talent to invest his characters and situations with requisite truth. And the reduction of Alain Delon, so frightening in René Clément's Plein Soleil (1960), to a suspiciously effete assassin belies Melville's macho credentials.

More artistry went into the design of The Criterion Collection’s DVD, on which is a shadowy profile of Delon with a little bird perched in the center – the bird Jef Costello keeps in a cage in his suitably spartan hideaway.

In the end credits, "le jeune fille au chewing-gum" appears. There is no corresponding word in French for that deplorable American invention. Just as there is no real equivalent in French for Public Enemy, Little Caesar or Scarface. The French should’ve counted themselves lucky.

2-10-06


(1) Now they've gone and remade one of my favorite Charles Bronson films, The Mechanic (1972). Not having seen it, the remake (with Jason Statham in Bronson's role) probably makes the Bronson film look like a masterpiece.
(2) When the film was released in America in the '70s, its release title was The Godson, to capitalize, in the purest sense, on its mafia content.
(3) Kauffmann, The New Republic, 17 March 1997.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Unpublished Reviews: Kadosh

[In observance of International Women's Day, now celebrating its centenary, some fleeting remarks about a film first seen by me on the Independent Film Channel in 2006 that seriously explores the lives of women in an ultra-conservative Jewish community.]


Culture lag being what it is here in the Sticks,* I just got around to seeing an Israeli film called Kadosh (1999). I was attracted to it because I read a review by a Jewish critic who wondered if the film might be incomprehensible to non-Jews. Always scoffing at such warnings, and abiding by the precept that "nothing human is alien to me", I watched it.

Set in a quarter of Jerusalem inhabited by the Hassidim - ultra-conservative Jews - it's about two women, sisters, who resist age-old traditions that seem designed to make them unhappy. The older sister has been married for ten years and has never been pregnant. Since "a barren woman is no woman at all" according to her rabbi, the husband, who loves her, dissolves the marriage contract and marries another woman.

The younger sister is in love with a very Un-Orthodox man who wears modern clothes and sings in a rock band. She is married, however, to a man of her family's choosing - an especially devout man who performs his husbandly duties as quickly and pleasurelessly as possible. Leaving the younger sister asking the inevitable "Is that all there is?"

The Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai confronts obstacles that are very nearly self-defeating: in showing us how the Hassidim live in all their strict orthodoxy, he inevitably makes identification with the characters tougher than it already is. The Hassidim do things like hurl stones at Jewish women who wear short-sleeved blouses in the street. The sisters in the film suffer as a direct consequence of their social status - which will never change to accomodate their feelings. Even when the childless woman learns from a gynocologist (female of course) that it is her husband who is infertile, she tells no one. Her barrenness is actually blamed on some ritualistic uncleanliness utterly beyond her control.

The only saving grace of the film is the filmmaker's clear allegiance to the women and to their suffering. But the film stops short of an indictment of the Hassidism. In the comparable film Osama (2003), the Afghani filmmaker Siddiq Barmak was clearly condemning the Taliban's barbaric treatment of women, and the film was a harrowing picture of what women endured under their rule.

The Hassidim are somewhat like the Amish among Christians - utterly traditional, rigidly custom-bound people who reject certain aspects of modern life, if not modern life altogether (one of the male characters in Kadosh drives around Jerusalem exhorting Jews on a loudspeaker to attend prayers). The Amish, however, don't throw stones at less orthodox Christians for not keeping the Sabbath holy by driving farther than the Bible allows or watching movies in which other people ignore the Sabbath altogether.

Showing us glimpses into the lives of different cultures is always eye-opening. In some cases, however, one is glad to be able to close one's eyes again.

13 December 2006


* I was living in Anchorage when I wrote this.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Zinc Bed


"Don't we most of all resent the person who helps?" (Victor Quinn)

It seems to me no accident that, while Americans didn't invent alcoholism, they had to invent its demonology. I don't know to what extent David Hare was speaking from experience, but his script for the film (aka "TV Drama")My Zinc Bed,(1) adapted from his stage play, does mention some of the horrors of alcoholism. But he also brings up one of the best arguments against AA: that it does little more than replace one addiction with another, trading alcohol for a methadone of misery.

Almost twenty years ago, I accompanied a friend to an AA meeting. Listening to the stories people were telling that night about their lowest lows made me realize that I would have to go a very long way into drink before it became anywhere near the problem it had become for them. But the first time I heard one of those people speak about how many years or months or days it had been since his last drink, it was clear to me that he was really counting down to his next drink.

The best definition - and best narration of the nightmare - of addiction that I know was written by the Frenchman Pierre Drieu La Rochelle in his novel Le Feu Follet:

"And, having reached the abstract and illusory point of the cure, that is, when his [Alain's] intake was down to zero, he finally realized what the habit meant. Although he seemed to be physically separated from drugs, all their effects remained within his being. Narcotics had changed the color of his life, and though they seemed to have gone, that color persisted. Whatever life drugs had left now seemed impregnated with them and drew him back to them. He could not make a gesture, pronounce a word, go somewhere, meet someone, without an association of ideas leading him back to drugs. All of his gestures resembled that of injecting himself (for he had taken heroin in solution): the very sound of his own voice could no longer awaken anything within him but his fate. He had been touched by death, drugs were death, he could not, from death, return to life. He could only plunge deeper into death, and so back into drugs. This is the sophistry drugs inspire to justify relapse: I am lost, therefore I can take drugs again."(2)

This is the diagnosis of a man who has already resolved to end his own life. And yet look at how easily this passage can be used to describe the condition of anyone who is in the thrall of desire. That would appear to be what Victor Quinn, in My Zinc Bed, has learned from life, and he tries to pass his knowledge on to two people, Elsa, the woman he marries, and Paul Peplow, a writer he employs. Both of them are "recovered" addicts - she of cocaine, he of alcohol. What Victor ultimately imparts to the two of them is that being cured of addiction may be good for their bodies but not at all for their emotional or creative selves.

This may seem like a repellent idea on the surface, but for Hare, a writer - one of the most neurotic endeavors imaginable - the practice of self-transcendence is fraught with hazards. Why are so many writers alcoholics? Walker Percy once asked why William Faulkner went on a bender right after he finished Light in August. His answer, somewhat arguable, was that it was the only way that Faulkner could return to earth without being injured by the fall.

John Cheever, a lifelong drinker, wrote in his journal of 1968: "I must convince myself that writing is not for a man of my disposition, a self-destructive vocation. I hope and think it is not, but I am not genuinely sure. It has given me money and renown, but I suspect that it may have something to do with my drinking habits. The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar."

As for My Zinc Bed, I'm afraid that I didn't have to be informed in the end credits that it was based on a play. After all these years of adapting plays to the screen, why did it have to be so obvious to me that a film with just three actors and just two principal locations - both indoors - was originally conceived for the stage? A film doesn't have to be spectacular to be a good film. It isn't always obliged to show us everything that a play would have to tell us. It needn't take place in a real street or a real park, even if such real places could help establish the reality of the people who're doing all the talking.

The ultimate model for this sort of thing is one or another of Bergman's great "chamber films": - intense dramas involving three or four people (or just two in Persona). Bergman had a visual sense that made these potentially claustrophobic films satisfying as films.

If the actors are good enough, the proximity of the camera to them is an improvement over the stage. In My Zinc Bed, there is Jonathan Pryce, who is a great actor and does beautifully as manipulative business tycoon Victor Quinn. There is Paddy Considine, who is suitably hangdog as a blocked, reformed drunk. And there is Uma Thurman, who is quite good - at last - as Elsa, Quinn's wife, always teetering on the brink of a relapse into who knows what. Thurman gets top billing in the opening credits, and is enough of a star, I suppose, to deserve it.

At one point in the film, Pryce looks out of a window and says, "summer's end." I suppose it would have seemed trite for the director to give us a shot of something outside that would have made those evocative words more substantial. Some directors would have at least run the camera around the block a few times just to break the monotony of three people yammering away.

Closer (2004) was a film in a similar vein that took a successful stage play and transformed it into a satisfactory film. Mike Nichols, the director, had enough experience of both media to know how to translate the less than scintillating play, by Patrick Marber, into a film that is as good as it could have been. Hare's play is better as written, but he needed someone like Nichols to bring it to life on the screen. Hare has directed a few good films himself, like Wetherby (1985), but entrusts his own script of My Zinc Bed to Anthony Page on this occasion, who is a respected stage director but a mediocre filmmaker.

When we last see Paul walking along a sunlit street, narrating the death of Victor and the fate of Elsa, and asking Victor's ultimately rhetorical question, "Who wants to be cured of desire?", the sense of relief is too great for a film that only lasts an hour and nine minutes.


(1) The title refers to one of the last lines in the film, when Elsa identifies the body of her husband, Victor: '"At last," she said, "Victor lay on his zinc bed."'
(2) The Fire Within, Richard Howard translation. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fritz Lang's M: A Message for Islam


By now it is a familiar nightmare: a child-murderer is on the loose in a modern city. He writes to the press, taunting the police. There are nightly raids on known criminal establishments, but day by day every lead goes nowhere. A fifth victim has been found and the populace follow the press reports with nervous anticipation. In the city streets, men showing the slightest interest in children are accosted by angry mobs.

Finally the criminal syndicates organize for a meeting. Their dilemma is clear, as their leader expounds: "The police seek the murderer in our fold. Gentlemen, when I run head-on into an officer from the squad, he knows the potential risks, and so do I. If either dies in the line of duty, fine. Occupational hazard. But we must draw a firm line between ourselves and this man they're looking for. We conduct our business in order to survive, but this monster has no right to survive! He must be killed, eliminated, exterminated! Without mercy or compassion!

"We have our connections. What if we put an article in the papers that our syndicates - I mean, our organization - doesn't wish to be lumped in together with this pig, and that the cops should look for this guy somewhere else. He's not even a real crook! We have to catch him . . . ourselves."

In 1931, Berlin's Vereinigte Star-Film released Fritz Lang's first sound film, and one of the most brilliant and disturbing films about crime and society, called M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (a city is looking for a murderer), known simply as M everywhere else. Based loosely on an actual case, the plot concerns a German city (unnamed, but maps shown in the film are of Berlin) terrorized by the crimes of a child murderer. The police, conscientious but incompetent, have to resort to extraordinary tactics to catch him, like putting extreme pressure on organized crime activities. This leads to such a disruption of underworld business that crime bosses decide to find the child murderer. They send out an army of beggars to watch out for any potential suspect. When one of them, a blind balloon seller, recognizes the murderer's compulsive whistling of a sinister tune from Grieg's Peer Gynt, he alerts another man who sees him and manages to put a big letter M on his back with chalk without the murderer noticing until it is too late. When they catch him, the criminals put the murderer on trial as his judge, jury, and, eventually, his executioner. The police arrive in the nick of time (Lang could not get away with pulling the trigger), and the murderer is arrested "in the name of the law." The film closes on a group of tearful women, dressed in black, awaiting the verdict. One of them, addressing the camera directly, says, "One has to keep closer watch over the children. All of you."


They will probably resent the analogy that they are criminals, but it would not be too great a stretch if I were to seek a metaphor in M for Islamist terrorism in the world, from which all Muslim countries might learn. The police in M stand for the erstwhile but bungling U.S. military, making life difficult for ordinary Muslims in their hunt for terrorists. The murderer is, of course, Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the latest radical Islamist sect.

Rather than wait for an end to this manhunt, which will probably never come, Muslims could do themselves and their religion an enormous service by cleaning their own houses. Of course, one of the reasons they do not is because they want to avoid becoming targets of terrorism themselves. They are, in fact, so careful that this should not happen that they are terrorizing their own fundamentalists.

Now that there appears to be a surge in political activism on what is glibly known as the "Arab street," from Tunisia to Iran (even if Iranians aren't Arabs), it seems to me as good a time as any for Muslims to face up to the problem of Islamic extremism - which is affecting non-Muslim countries as well.

The choice before the Muslim world is clear: are they to persist in tolerating the existence of a small number of extremists, so extreme that they will commit acts in the name of their faith that rival the worst medieval barbarities, or will they do as they should have done from the beginning and tell their mullahs to turn down their rhetoric and preach the true message of human brotherhood that Islam once stood for?