Monday, October 31, 2011


[An edited version of the following essay was published in Issue 59 of Senses of Cinema last summer. Adrian Danks, the editor of the pieces published for the Melbourne Cinémathèque Annotations on Film has always been a cooperative guy. But when I submitted the essay below he removed some things, a sentence here, a paragraph there, and rearranged other things, that lessened the essay's impact as a piece of writing. Danks even quibbled at my use of the Vernon Young quote which, coming from Young, was meant as high praise. Perhaps despair was too strong for a Japan still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami. Indulging my own vanity, here is the unedited version I submitted.]

“I would like to be able to take hold of the past and make it stand still so that I can examine it from different angles.” Masahiro Shinoda (1)

In the long history of Japan, few eras were as volatile and violent as the Meiji restoration in 1868. Two hundred and fifty years of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) had resulted in cultural and economic stagnation. After the American Commodore Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his “four black ships”, a power struggle erupted between the forces loyal to the Shogunate and those wanting to restore the emperor as the head of state.

In the midst of this turmoil, powerful individuals emerged whose allegiances changed direction with the prevailing winds. One of them, Hachiro Kiyokawa, rose from a lowly position as the son of farmers to become one of the most respected and feared samurai of his age. He is at the center of Masahiro Shinoda’s extraordinary historical film
Assassination. Donald Richie, the doyen of critics of Japanese film, called it Shinoda’s best film, as did fellow director Kon Ichikawa.

The historical context of the film is extremely complex, and Shinoda further complicates matters by recounting events in Kiyokawa’s life from the perspective of several different characters and shuttles us backwards and forwards in time. The result is a little confusing but makes it that much harder to take one’s eyes off the screen.

After two minutes of expository history, the film opens on a map of Edo (old Tokyo) with the Chrysanthemum seal, representing the emperor, at its center. We first see Kiyokawa crouched before a Shogunate official, the same seal on the wall behind him, who reads out his official pardon of the murder of a policeman. Next we see two prominent Shogunate players who figure prominently throughout the film, commenting on Kiyokawa’s exploits. One of them smokes a cigar, a sign of his corruption by Western customs and ideas.

Kiyokawa’s antagonist in the film is the samurai Tadasaburo Sasaki. Early in the film we are shown the grounds for Sasaki’s enmity toward Kiyokawa. Priding himself on his own fencing prowess, he faces off against Kiyokawa in a kendo match and is roundly beaten. Sasaki was also the name of Musashi Miyamoto’s nemesis, Kojiro Sasaki, dramatized in legend, literature, and film, the most popular being Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of films starring Toshiro Mifune as Musashi.

Kiyokawa is presented by the film as a powerful, larger-than-life character. Shinoda is so evidently enamored of him that he is willing to forgive him his sometimes unsettling brutality. One of the best scenes in the film shows us Kiyokawa’s savage murder of a Shogunate policeman in broad daylight on a crowded street. After beheading the man in the blink of an eye (Shinoda freezes the shot of the man’s head launching into the air), Kiyokawa is chased by the angry mob of witnesses. As Kiyokawa flees from the stone-throwing mob, his sword still drawn, Shinoda eliminates all sound except for Takemitsu’s percussive score. The image of a lone samurai being chased down the road, as onlookers scurry out of his way, is unforgettable.

Of all the angles from which we are shown insights into the life of Kiyokawa, the most complex is from the perspective of his mistress, Oren, elegantly played by Shinoda’s wife Shima Iwashita. She recounts in her diary - which Sasaki grudgingly reads - her first night with Kiyokawa (he is her first customer) and their intimacy when she becomes the mistress of his house. When a warrant for his arrest is issued after his murder of the policeman, Oren is tortured by Shogunate officials, but does not divulge his whereabouts. In tribute to her, Kiyokawa tells his parents to pray for her.

By the end of the film, Kiyokawa remains an enigma. Oren’s death and, perhaps, the death of his idealism, have driven him to a dissolute life of sake and prostitutes. The final sequence of the film is shown entirely from the perspective of Sasaki, who stalks Kiyokawa, even spying on his intimacy with a prostitute whom he calls “Oren”. Sasaki is waiting for his chance to attack, and he sees his opportunity in a chance meeting he witnesses from a safe distance. Shinoda freezes the frame as Kiyokawa, in greeting an acquaintance in the street, stops to remove his straw hat, his hands clear of his white-handled sword.

Our efforts to understand Kiyokawa are driven by Sasaki’s efforts to find a point of weakness in his character, a chink in his samurai armor. A problem arises when we realize that a lot of Kiyokawa’s behavior isn’t exactly explicable. For instance, he organizes his own army to defend the Shogunate but interrupts its march on Kyoto with the sudden announcement that he is waiting on orders from the emperor. Or at one point he is obviously shaken by his impulsive beheading of a policeman but later unhesitatingly steps up to behead a group of captured “traitors”.

As Kiyokawa, Tetsuro Tanba is riveting. He exudes an intelligence and strength that makes the other characters fascination with him understandable. There are two actors in the cast whose faces are probably familiar to filmgoers. Eiji Okada, who plays Lord Matsudaira, played opposite Emmanuelle Riva in Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and was the captive of Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964). And Isao Kimura plays Sasaki, Kiyokawa’s sworn enemy. Japanese cinephiles might not recognize him as the actor who played the novice samurai, Katsushiro, in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). In that film, he was a devoted admirer of a master swordsman. In Assassination, Katsushiro has grown up, admiring Kiyokawa’s swordsmanship while hating the man and his reputation, determined to beat him when he finds the chance.

The music of Toru Takemitsu is so closely integrated with the action that it becomes a protagonist. A superb modernist composer, Takemitsu actually preferred to compose film music, and he did so for Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, Kwaidan), Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes, Rikyu), Kurosawa (Ran) and particularly for thirteen of Shinoda’s films. For Assassination, he composed a spare but powerful score, making liberal use of traditional Japanese instruments, particularly the biwa.

A companion piece of sorts to Shinoda’s film is Kazuo Kuroki’s The Assassination of Ryoma (1974), which follows the last days of Ryoma Sakamoto, who figures prominently in Kiyokawa’s story. Kuroki’s film is markedly different in style from Shinoda’s, much looser and avant garde. (It was made for the independent Art Theater Guild.) Its anarchic imprecision reveals the extent to which Shinoda was still working within a filmmaking tradition in 1964. Assassination is a late but brilliant example of that tradition.

Assassination comes close to being a paradigm of Japanese esthetics, which Vernon Young described as "despair, reconciled by formal beauty - the Japanese answer to life resembles that of the ancient Greeks, or of Nietzsche." (2)

(1) Told to Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha, 1978.
(2) Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art, Quadrangle Books, 1972.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Captain Murderer

In 1983, Welsh writer and actor Emlyn Williams appeared in a made-for-tv movie called Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, which was nothing more (or less) than a recording of a one-man show that he'd been performing onstage for thirty years. It was itself a re-creation of public appearances made by Dickens himself, standing at a lectern and reciting passages from his best-known works.

The film closed with a bedtime story that Dickens claimed was told him by a nurse when he was a boy. I include it here in gruesome observance of Halloween.


If we all knew our own minds (in a more enlarged sense than the popular acceptation of that phrase), I suspect we should find our nurses responsible for most of the dark corners we are forced to go back to, against our wills.

The first diabolical character who intruded himself on my peaceful youth was a certain Captain Murderer. This wretch must have been an offshoot of the Blue Beard family, but I had no suspicion of the consanguinity in those times. His warning name would seem to have awakened no general prejudice against him, for he was admitted into the best society and possessed immense wealth. Captain Murderer's mission was matrimony, and the gratification of a cannibal appetite with tender brides. On his marriage morning, he always caused both sides of the way to church to be planted with curious flowers; and when his bride said, "Dear Captain Murderer, I never saw flowers like these before: what are they called?" he answered, "They are called Garnish for house-lamb," and laughed at his ferocious practical joke in a horrid manner, disquieting the minds of the noble bridal company, with a very sharp show of teeth, then displayed for the first time. He made love in a coach and six, and married in a coach and twelve, and all his horses were milk-white horses with one red spot on the back which he caused to be hidden by the harness. For, the spot would come there, though every horse was milk-white when Captain Murderer bought him. And the spot was young bride's blood. (To this terrific point I am indebted for my personal experience of a shudder and cold beads on the forehead.) When Captain Murderer had made an end of feasting and revelry, and had dismissed the noble guests, and was alone with his wife on the day month after their marriage, it was his whimsical custom to produce a golden rolling-pin and a silver pie-board. Now, there was this special feature in the Captain's courtships, that he always asked if the young lady could make pie-crust; and if she couldn't by nature or education, she was taught. Well. When the bride saw Captain Murderer produce the golden rolling-pin and silver pie-board, she remembered this, and turned up her laced-silk sleeves to make a pie. The Captain brought out a silver pie-dish of immense capacity, and the Captain brought out flour and butter and eggs and all things needful, except the inside of the pie; of materials for the staple of the pie itself, the Captain brought out none. Then said the lovely bride, "Dear Captain Murderer, what pie is this to be?" He replied, "A meat pie." Then said the lovely bride, "Dear Captain Murderer, I see no meat." The Captain humorously retorted, "Look in the glass." She looked in the glass, but still she saw no meat, and then the Captain roared with laughter, and suddenly frowning and drawing his sword, bade her roll out the crust. So she rolled out the crust, dropping large tears upon it all the time because he was so cross, and when she had lined the dish with crust and had cut the crust all ready to fit the top, the Captain called out, "I see the meat in the glass!" And the bride looked up at the glass, just in time to see the Captain cutting her head off; and he chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones.

Captain Murderer went on in this way, prospering exceedingly, until he came to choose a bride from two twin sisters, and at first didn't know which to choose. For, though one was fair and the other dark, they were both equally beautiful. But the fair twin loved him, and the dark twin hated him, so he chose the fair one. The dark twin would have prevented the marriage if she could, but she couldn't; however, on the night before it, much suspecting Captain Murderer, she stole out and climbed his garden wall, and looked in at his window through a chink in the shutter, and saw him having his teeth filed sharp. Next day she listened all day, and heard him make his joke about the house-lamb. And that day month, he had the paste rolled out, and cut the fair twin's head off, and chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones.

Now, the dark twin had had her suspicions much increased by the filing of the Captain's teeth, and again by the house-lamb joke. Putting all things together when he gave out that her sister was dead, she divined the truth, and determined to be revenged. So, she went up to Captain Murderer's house, and knocked at the knocker and pulled at the bell, and when the Captain came to the door, said: "Dear Captain Murderer, marry me next for I always loved you and was jealous of my sister." The Captain took it as a compliment, and made a polite answer, and the marriage was quickly arranged. On the night before it, the bride again climbed to his window, and again saw him having his teeth filed sharp. At this sight she laughed such a terrible laugh at the chink in the shutter, that the Captain's blood curdled, and he said: "I hope nothing has disagreed with me!" At that, she laughed again, a still more terrible laugh, and the shutter was opened and search made, but she was nimbly gone, and there was no one. Next day they went to church in a coach and twelve, and were married. And that day month, she rolled the pie-crust out, and Captain Murderer cut her head off, and chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones.

But before she began to roll out the paste she had taken a deadly poison of a most awful character, distilled from toads' eyes and spiders' knees; and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer, and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o'clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion. At the sound of it, all the milk-white horses in the stables broke their halters and went mad, and then they galloped over everybody in Captain Murderer's house (beginning with the family blacksmith who had filed his teeth) until the whole were dead, and then they galloped away.

Goodnight, child.

Reprinted from All the Year Round, September 8, 1860.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Watching the awful cellphone videos of Gaddafi's last moments as a mob of rebel fighters pressed in on him to get a good look or throw a sucker punch, or after five days of his body lying in a meat locker while men bring their families inside to show them that the monster is dead, some people have been bothered at the brutality of killing a 69-year-old man and not burying his body expeditiously.

I was surprised that they didn't tear him limb from limb. His dead body is certainly quite a bit more decorous-looking than Mussolini's was, or Ceauşescu's, or, reportedly, Bin Laden's. Of course, they had to take care that no one damaged his face too severely that he would be unrecognizable. But DNA could take care of a positive ID, even if there had been nothing left of him but a scrap of tissue.

What the hell did anyone expect Gaddafi's death would be like after all these months? The men who caught him hiding in a culvert had been fighting from house to house, watching their friends and brothers get wounded or killed. And before the revolution, they had all been convinced, all their lives, that they weren't worth the dirt that they stood on, when any day the police could arrive and, for no reason, take one of them away to be tortured and murdered in some dungeon, or to simply disappear - buried in a mass grave somewhere in the desert. One of the reasons that some people wanted Gaddafi taken alive was so he could tell Libyans exactly where their loved ones had disappeared.

There was some concern when the revolution started about the fighting mettle of ordinary Libyan men, with no military training, in the daily prosecution of a guerrilla war. But they were probably the most well-prepared populace imaginable for such a war. Life and death were meaningless already, thanks to nearly forty-two years
of Gaddafi.

The brutalization that is unavoidable in the training of special warfare recruits has had to be made more extreme as prosperous societies have grown accustomed to peace and stability. Human beings have a natural compunction against taking a life. To overcome this compunction, the training of fighting men must involve teaching them to kill almost as a matter of reflex, with rifle or knife or whatever weapon is at hand. And this is a price that every society has to pay for its security. Libyans have had no need of such training, since brutalization was a part of their daily lives.

According to international law, every prisoner of war is entitled to be treated humanely, and it is the duty of his captors to protect him from further harm. But such a law is only binding on exceptional days, when the sun shines gently, when a cool breeze blows softly, when no storm is threatening and when the rains have all passed. Such a law wasn't made for a day like last Thursday. It wasn't a great day for humanity or for justice. But nobody can argue that it wasn't a great day for Libyans.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

America's Most Wanted

"I learned I had to stand for something so I could stand to be me."

Some Americans seem to have an unshakable belief that a degree of resistance to authority is OK, but vocal, active resistance is not OK. In the 1960s, the historic protest movements against race segregation and the war in Vietnam seemed to divide America along strong political lines. The protesters saw something that was seriously wrong with their country and their government and wanted to do something to change it, taking part in marches, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, even if it resulted in their arrest and a momentary loss of their liberty.

But other Americans saw the protesters as traitors, criminals, anarchists, or communists who threatened the American way of life. They mistook the outcries against injustice as cries of anti-American hate. They came up with the slogan, addressed to the protesters, "America - love it or leave it." This slogan was based on the assumption that anyone who thinks something is wrong with America - and says so - must hate America as well, and wants America to be more like Canada or France or maybe even communist China. All they really want, I think, is for America to be what it so often only seems, to live up to its lofty ideals, and to stop saying one thing and doing another.

For most Americans there is probably nothing worse than having a police record, than being arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed and placed inside a jail cell. But to some Americans, it is almost an occupational hazard for citizenship. For one American, named Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez by his parents but known to everyone else as Martin Sheen, being arrested would seem to be a habit. With sixty-six arrests on his rap sheet, in forty-six years of social activism, Sheen is a tireless advocate for many causes, including peace, immigrant rights, and the environment. He claims that he never tries to get arrested, but that it just seems to happen very often. "I don't look forward to being arrested and I don't go anywhere to get arrested," he told Robert Lipton. "I really don't. I never know what's gonna happen at the time and sometimes . . . you have to do it because you cannot not do it and be honest with yourself."

He is often overshadowed these days by the antics of his bad boy son, Charlie. But Martin Sheen takes his nationality seriously, despite the fact that his Irish mother qualifies him to be president of the Irish Republic. He is a devout Catholic, and an advocate against abortion, since he regards taking a stand against the death penalty and for abortion to be "inconsistent". He has played the president on TV, which has given some people the idea that he would make a good president, and have asked him to run. His response was typically forthright and self-effacing: "I'm just not qualified. You're mistaking celebrity for credibility." Unlike them, Sheen is able to distinguish between appearances and reality.

Sheen can't be accused of using his celebrity as a shield in his activism, to protect him from doing serious time for his minor offenses. His first taste of activism was in 1965, long before he became a successful screen actor, taking part in Cesar Chavez's migrant workers' protests.

In 2003, at that horrible moment in American history when odious men questioned the loyalty of Americans who opposed the invasion Iraq, Sheen was resolute in his opposition. He even wrote a poem for the occasion.

There Can Be No Victory

In order to prepare for war,
You must not be sensitive or poetic or humorous.
You must not be self effacing,
Or reflective, or forgiving.

You must not be sentimental or compassionate or lighthearted.
On the contrary, to prepare for war,
You must be clear, uncompromising, and confident.

You must look life square in the eye...

And choose death.

Sheen aggressively opposed the war - so much so that large numbers of people were calling for him to be fired from his NBC show The West Wing in which he played the president. Sheen's pacifism was, for once, perfectly timed in 2003. The war was nothing but a horrific boondoggle, an historic blunder. The intellectuals who were suckered into it, like John Keegan and Christopher Hitchens, should've known better, but they still refuse to eat crow. Sheen's arguments against the war may have sounded simplistic and unsophisticated beside theirs. But that, I think, is the point: finding an argument for an unprovoked war led too many bright people to mistake power for righteousness. Having the power to do some things is never a proper justification for doing them.

One of my first encounters of Sheen in a movie role was in The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) that I saw on television. It was the story of Eddie Slovik, a soldier in the Second World War who was the only American soldier sentenced to death and executed for desertion since the American Civil War.(1) I will never forget Sheen's performance, nominated for an Emmy, as the hapless victim of circumstance. His actions, which were confused with cowardice, were presented in the film with utmost simplicity and honesty. His execution in the snow was graphic - the soldiers in the firing squad were so unnerved by their thankless job that none of their bullets pierced Slovik's heart. His death was therefore neither painless nor quick. The film was a perfect illustration of the ultimate ugliness of war, and one that perfectly suited Sheen's convictions.

(1) Dwight Eisenhower, who authorized the execution, tried to stop the publication of the nonfiction account of the execution, written by William Bradford Huie, in 1954 when he was president. The rights to the book were bought by Frank Sinatra, who tried to get backing for a film adaptation in 1960. He was accused of being a communist sympathizer and had to cancel the project because of his ties to the campaign of JFK.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I watched a new Thai film, The Unborn Child (Sop Dek 2002)(1) last weekend, knowing nothing more about it than that it was a horror film. Asian cinema abounds in these kinds of films, ever since the surprising worldwide success of the Japanese film The Ring in 1998. Since Asians are mostly non-Christian, their concepts of death, good and evil are refreshingly different. For a Western audience, an audience whose own ideas about those subjects have been shaken up in the last few generations, it seems that the old phrase "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know" has been turned on its head.

The films are all ultimately silly, and many talented Asian filmmakers have turned to them only because they are more likely to have a chance of making them than a film about ordinary people living their ordinary lives. But some of the films are interesting for their imaginative, low-budget solutions to technical problems.

Unborn Child, directed by Poj Arnon, resembles other Asian horror films in its predictably slow pacing and its fetishistic emphasis on specific body parts. The emphasis in Unborn is on vaginas and fetuses. The story is about a young couple whose little daughter befriends an invisible playmate that the father eventually realizes is the ghost of a child he paid to have aborted. Subplots involve young women who become pregnant and seek abortions, which are carried out under the most ludicrous conditions. (The subtitles further complicate matters by referring to "illegal" abortions, which suggests there are also "legal" ones in Thailand. Abortion is illegal in Thailand except in special circumstances.(2)) The woman who carries out the abortions is continually taking drags from a cigarette during the procedure, getting what is presumably placental blood all over her cigarette. The film indulges in this imagery to deliver a political message against abortion. It even tacks on a title at the end that reads (in the English subtitles): "This film is dedicated to all baby souls in the world and hope [sic] there will be no more losses."

The Unborn Child is so disgusting that, even though I watched it in my living room, I wanted to walk out on it. It spends seemingly half of its running time showing us characters who walk around looking for someone who isn't there. But even if it were a masterpiece, the film is a piece of propaganda representing abortion as a terrible, gruesome crime against the fetus. It suggests, with thudding stupidity, that women who have abortions, and men who make them necessary, will be visited by the ghosts of the unborn babies.

The woman abortionist in the film actually presents an argument that is informed by Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation. She says that she is doing a service for unwanted children whose souls will be able to find another life in another body, with parents who genuinely want them. But the action of the film - with the ghosts of the aborted fetuses attacking the abortionist en masse and forcing her to mutilate herself with the same instrument she uses to kill them - shows how little the director takes the Buddhist explanation seriously. The real villain in the film, the one who's responsible for all the trouble, is an incompetent undertaker who, instead of cremating them and releasing their souls, has to stockpile the bodies of aborted fetuses in his (un-refrigerated) morgue. After a few hundred end up being stuffed into the storage locker, the stench alone would've been enough to raise the dead.

(1) The number in the Thai title refers to the number of fetuses discovered buried near a temple crematorium in Bangkok. A trailer for the film can be seen
(2) An excellent article on the subject can be found on the Manchester Guardian

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Legacy of the Shoes

"I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty."
Imelda Marcos (The number was officially placed at 2,700.)

History is, or used to be, based on something called objective truth - an implicit belief that what is written down is a fairly accurate account of what actually happened. But it's been said that if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth. This would appear to be the case with Imelda Marcos and her children, Ferdinand Jr. (nicknamed "Bongbong") and Imee. The fact that they have been living, despite attempts to divest them of some of their wealth, in palaces for the last forty-odd years may have had the effect of reinforcing their own delusions. Bongbong was elected a senator and Imelda elected a representative to the Philippine Congress. Imee is now governor of Ilocos Norte.

These uncommonly wealthy but quite mediocre people no longer have any reason to lie. Ferdinand's children could have simply said "I am not my father" and let themselves off the hook. Instead they go on repeating the same scabrous song and dance that Imelda has performed for twenty years - that Ferdinand Marcos left the Philippines a safer, richer, and prouder nation than he found it. What they can't seem to grasp is the simple fact that it doesn't even matter if a man acts like a saint 364 days out of a year if he acts like a demon on the last. Ferdinand Marcos didn't have to be a saint or a demon. He simply needed to be a good president.

Current Philippine president Benigno Aquino III was asked in a recent conference with the foreign press if he would consider granting a request from the Marcos family that he be given a state funeral. Aquino, whose father was assassinated either by direct order of Marcos or by Marcos supporters in 1983, and whose mother beat Marcos in a now-famous "snap election" and subsequent People Power Revolution, replied unequivocally "not on my watch".

That means the Marcos family will have to wait until 2016 when Aquino leaves office and another president, perhaps more sympathetic, may give them a hearing. Or they will have to bury the body of their patriarch, dead since 1989 and lying in a state of perfect preservation in a glass case, in his native province of Ilocos Norte.

Henry Sy, the wealthiest man in the Philippines, had a dream when he opened his first shoe mart in 1948, that one day every Filipino would own a pair of shoes. Sixty-three years and 41 SM Malls later, I can say from experience that Mr. Sy's dream hasn't yet been realized. When I got married in Balibago, Pampanga in 1995, I had to buy my bride's father a pair of shoes so he could attend the wedding.

When the Marcos family was whisked away by the U.S. military in February 1986,* when it looked like the presidential Malacañang Palace would be overrun. President Reagan himself offered the Marcoses asylum in the U.S. Witnesses claimed they saw diaper bags filled with gold objects and pallets of freshly printed Philippine Pesos loaded onto the C-141. But most of the money that Marcos stole from the Philippine treasury and in various scams was already safely hidden in overseas banks accounts and in real estate investments. The city of New York seized the Marcos properties. According to one account, Imelda considered buying the Empire State Building, but thought it would be too ostentatious even for her.

When Malacañang was finally searched, the stashes of artworks, nick-nacks and doodads that were found there included 2,700 pairs of shoes belonging to Imelda. A month after the Marcoses fled the Philippines, Lance Morrow wrote an essay, "
The Shoes of Imelda Marcos" for Time.

"The parable of Imelda's shoes has something to teach. She could never wear them all. Nor could the Marcos family, one suspects, manage to spend the billions of dollars they plundered from the Philippines. . . . The Marcos plundering seems ultimately a cheerless affair, covert though sometimes ostentatious, avaricious though often prodigal. Christ said, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.' Marcos did not wish to wait. He turned Christianity upside down. He took nourishment from the mouths of the poor and transformed it into his treasure on earth. Such venality is not a matter of either Freud or metaphysics. It is just a brutal habit, the crocodile reflex of a man too long in power. It is a subdivision of the banality of evil."

What makes the image of those 5,400 shoes especially obscene for Filipinos is that owning one pair is a status symbol when so many will either never own them or will never have a life in which shoes would be practical. Instead, the majority of Filipinos wear flip-flops, or "tsinelas" (a word, like so many others in Tagalog, borrowed from the Spanish).

But in a world that rewards excessive greed, that allows a tiny handful of people to own almost everything and that can impoverish everyone else in the world by impetuously trying to increase their wealth, Imelda is perfectly at home. If those shoes could walk, they'd be marching over the bodies of the protesters who are trying to "occupy" Wall Street.

*Ferdinand was carried aboard a C-9 on a stretcher, while his family and their belongings, along with some 49 "supporters" were loaded aboard a C-141.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Remastering the Film: Yasujiro Ozu

"For me, never before and never again since has the cinema been so close to its essence and its purpose: to present an image of man in our century, a usable, true, and valid image in which he not only recognizes himself, but from which, above all, he may learn about himself."
Wim Wenders, Tokyo-Ga (1985)

The general admiration of the films of Yasujiro Ozu in the West is a direct refutation of the idea, astonishing to us but common among many Asian scholars and artists, that there is a distinct sensibility that only members of a certain race or culture are able to perceive. The titles of some of his films are certainly addressed to viewers with a distinctive palate, like The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) or The Taste of Mackerel (1962). The latter title was changed to An Autumn Afternoon for Western audiences.

Because of this cultural prejudice, Ozu was probably the most inaccessible genius of international film for more than two decades. Treasured in Japan, for the length of his career and for nearly a decade after his death in 1963, one day before his 60th birthday, Ozu's films were regarded as too idiosyncratically Japanese for Western audiences to fully apprehend. The moment New Yorker Films decided to ignore this prohibition and show a selection of Ozu's films in New York in 1972, the response of audiences and critics was unanimously positive.

Ozu's films lack the exoticism that fans of the Japanese film had come to expect in the 1950s from films like Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Gate of Hell. Like Naruse, whose work had been neglected in the West for much longer, Ozu sought out dramas that took place in ordinary contemporary settings, among people whose ordinariness was irreproachable. Rather than the larger-than-life stories found in the films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Ozu's uncommon artistry looked into the commonest of places - a middle class home, an office, a provincial town, a suburban street.

Ozu's most overt statement on his favorite subject - the decline of the family - can be found in what is regarded by many as his greatest film, Tokyo Story (1953). An elderly couple set out on a trip to Tokyo to visit their grown children. They are shocked to find they have become selfish, disrespectful, and greedy. Only the former wife of their dead son, who hasn't remarried, is everything their own children are not: kind, loving, and considerate. Without warning, on the way home, the old woman breaks down and dies. After the funeral, the children leave their widower father alone in his house. Ozu closes the film with the image of the old man (Chishu Ryu, who was 49 when the film was made) smoke from the mosquito coil floating around him like incense, gazing forlornly at the view.

Ozu represented families before and after Tokyo Story, but never so purposefully. In fact, it makes Ozu's message come across much more explicitly and, for me, forcedly. Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoonare far more moving because they don't elicit emotions so easily. Their trajectory is similar to Tokyo Story's but they are more complex because they allow their stories to unfold without Setsuko Hara delivering the line "Isn't life disappointing?"

Occasionally Ozu concentrated on subjects other than the family, most interestingly in one of my favorites of his films, Floating Weeds (1959), which follows a troupe of itinerant actors to a small seaside town. The leader of the troupe, played by the great Ganjiro Nakamura, has a young mistress who is the troupe's leading lady. But the small town is home to another woman, who has borne him a son. The old man thinks about quitting his vagabond life, but he returns to his mistress when he learns that there is really no place for him in his grown son's and former girlfriend's world. (The plot of this film is virtually identical to Ingmar Bergman's masterful film Sawdust and Tinsel [1953].)

And Ozu's camera. It's the most noticeable part of his filmmaking, and it is the most profound element of his art. Antonioni once remarked that camera placement is a moral decision. He meant that where the director places his camera determines how he wants the audience to feel about his subject. By the same token, it tells the audience what the director thinks about himself. While many filmmakers have lately decided to abandon the fixed perspective required by traditional camera placement, if only because cameras have gotten smaller and lighter, Ozu takes advantage of the fact that the viewer has to be seated in order to watch his films by sitting down his camera in the room with his actors, on the floor where, in Japan, they sit, eat, and sleep.

Wim Wenders visited Tokyo wanting to get closer to the places that Ozu depicted in his films. The result was Tokyo-Ga, which is invaluable for its interviews with Chishu Ryu, the actor who played the father in so many of his films, and with Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu's cameraman, who showed Wenders the famous squatting camera position. The rest of the film inadvertently shows the extent to which Ozu's world has disappeared almost completely from 1985 Tokyo. The only surviving setting is the labyrinthine bar district, with innumerable cozy, inviting bars. (In one such bar, called La Jetée, Wenders finds Chris Marker!)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dog Gone

When I recently moved farther from the port town on my island into another house, a feral dog who liked to take shelter on my porch had just had puppies. I didn't see them at first but I could hear them sheltering under my back stoop, whining from the cold when it rained at night. These dogs eat only what they can scrounge from people's trash and the leftovers from their meals. (There is no waste disposal that I know of anywhere in this province.) This diet somehow manages to keep a surprising number of dogs alive, but there is constant fighting among them and they all carry the scars of survival.

The dog that had the puppies started bringing them, one at a time, onto my porch as soon as she and I became friends. Having a dog around your door is always a good idea when you're a stranger and people are convinced that you have stacks of cash inside your house. Given the fact that the dogs' survival depends on whatever they can scavenge, the puppies' survival was especially precarious. In fact, within a week or so, I never saw the puppies again.

Life went on for the mother, and about six wees ago, without my knowing she was carrying one, she had another litter, amounting to four this time. As the weeks have gone by since then, I watched as they survived or, one by one, did not. One of them felt safe enough on my porch to lie down next to one of my tsinelas (flip-flops) and die. Half-starving, it had eaten something it shouldn't have, spent the morning throwing up and only when I began to smell that unmistakable stench waft into my sala sis IO look outside and find it lying there, with flies around its eyes and mouth. I put my hand inside a plastic bag, picked up its cold little body (none of the puppies had noticeably grown for weeks) and pulled the bag inside out around it. My neighbor, a retired cop, buried it somewhere for me.

The one puppy that is left is still nursing - when the mother lets him. When I can, I make sure that she gets the first go at my leftovers, even when the alpha male makes threatening noises as he watches her wolf down the fatback and fish bones. When she looks at me now, I see a calm, contended look in her brown eyes. Just how many more times her well-worn body can stand the strain of a litter I shall have to see.

Friday, October 7, 2011


One of the most telling details that has emerged from what people are calling the Michael Jackson Death Trial is how many people depended on Jackson as a source of income and to what extent he was an idol as well as a cash cow.

The accused Dr Conrad Murray's witnessed behavior during the moments when he found that Jackson had expired betrayed the near-frantic reactions of a man who was trying to resuscitate a corpse, not because he cared about the vital human being who had given up the ghost quite unexpectedly under his care, but because of what he was figuring that he had to gain by keeping Michael's heart beating and what he stood to lose if he did not. The image of Murray whipping a dead horse sprang to mind as accounts from EMS crews and emergency room doctors were certain that Jackson was clinically dead while Murray was insisting that they keep trying to resuscitate him.

Viewers of the concert movie This Is It (an ironically crass title) were spared, through careful editing, the recorded moments when Jackson betrayed how actually fragile his health was while he put himself through rehearsals for a concert tour he himself announced would be his last.

Another inadvertent revelation of Murray's trial is that his obvious incompetence and unscrupulousness were the conditions of his employment as Michael Jackson's personal physician. A more competent and scrupulous doctor simply wouldn't have prescribed all the drugs that Jackson insisted on having, no matter how much Jackson offered to pay him.

I watched an incredible interview the other day with one of Jackson's business advisers who, while claiming to have been a close friend of his, spoke with unconcealed and unrestrained pride about the dead man's ongoing Net Worth. Despite the expiration of the mortal Michael Jackson, the Estate of Michael Jackson lives on, and even grows, continuing to enrich all the people named in his will but also the many employed in the management of his legacy.

In his final days, Jackson wasn't much different from Elvis - a drug-addicted wreck. At least Jackson wasn't found dead on the toilet. When the Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde became an unexpected hit in 1967, cartoon appeared in a popular magazine that depicted two prison inmates, one of whom says to the other "Bonnie and Clyde! Bonnie and Clyde! All I hear is Bonnie and Clyde. The saying is true, you're never appreciated until after you're dead!" In Jackson's case, he has appreciated in more than one sense.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stuffed Animals

The news last week that a remake of Sam Peckinpah's powerful film Straw Dogs (1971) was in release infuriated me so much that I decided to revisit the original, if only in memory. "Why not rewrite The Sun Also Rises while you're at it?" I thought. The same people who say they revere certain classic films, while engaged in remaking them, are showing a funny kind of reverence. It shows just how little they take film seriously. Remake a piece of skilled trash like Psycho, as Gus Van Sant did, by all means. Or simply admit that you're only doing it for the money and because you can't come up with an original idea of your own. The truly sad part is that a majority of people aren't likely to seek out the original, simply because the remake just isn't compelling enough. Score one for the philistines.

I noticed from the preview that the remake is set in good old Hicksville, USA rather than the English village in the original. This perhaps gives the story an unfortunate Deliverance-like bias against red state rednecks ("Squeal like a pig!"), small towns and farmers. It would certainly give the new film an unintended political slant. But Peckinpah was trying to tell us what he thought about men and women. He wasn't giving us a travel advisory. I never had the feeling that he was making a general statement about English people, even if the censors may have taken it that way.

In Peckinpah's film, the hero, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a pacifist university mathematician who has come to a small English village (called Wakely, but the film was shot in St Buryan, Cornwall) for some peace and quiet while he works on a new theorem. With him is his newlywed wife (Susan George) who is a native of the village. Hoffman hires some local men to help renovate parts of his old farmhouse. Unbeknownst to Hoffman, his wife and one of the men are former lovers. The film becomes a contest of wills, with Peckinpah imposing a quite primitive view of men and women. (Peckinpah had been reading books by Robert Ardrey on human behavior when he wrote the script.)

The hired hands devise a scheme in which they take Hoffman out hunting while his wife's former boyfriend reclaims her in the film's most objectionable scene. Peckinpah depicts how the wife shows pleasure as she is being raped. The scene caused an uproar precisely because it was presented so powerfully. Pauline Kael called the film a "fascist work of art" - supposedly because it tries to impose its own lurid views of human sexuality on the viewer.

I remember the telling moment when a clash of cultures takes place in a single image: Hoffman kills a bird but comes close to tears when he sees it lying dead before him. The symbolism was made all the more moving by Hoffman's unexpected access of emotion, while cross-cutting shows us his wife being brutalized back at his farm.

The trailer for the remake shows how much of the original was retained: the bear trap, the pots of hot oil, Hoffman beating one of the men with a poker like he's teeing off at St Andrews while mad bagpipe music blares from his stereo.

Dustin Hoffman was excellent as the timid hero, whom Peckinpah helps discover the animal within. Susan George, like many another daughter of Albion, had imperfect teeth that made her seem all the sexier. But one of the best elements of Peckinpah's film was the extraordinary music of Jerry Fielding (he won an Oscar for it - but big deal). He had worked with Peckinpah since his days on the television show The Rifleman and wrote excellent scores for many of his films, including The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. John Simon noted that his music for Straw Dogs was influenced by Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto". I found it worthy of Stravinsky himself.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Great Divide

Since the 2000 presidential election, in which Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote, but Republican candidate George W. Bush won the most electoral college votes (and won the election), the fact that there are two Americas has become obvious.

Several issues make the divide between the two Americas seem particularly unbridgeable, and, appropriately I suppose, have to do with matters of life and death. Abortion, with supporters calling themselves "Pro-Choice" and opponents calling themselves "Pro-Life", has inspired its more extreme opponents to murdering abortion doctors and blowing up abortion clinics.

Currently, abortion is legal in every state of the U.S. since the Supreme Court decision of Roe v Wade in 1973. Whatever its legal status, abortion is carried out everywhere and all the time by women who, for whatever reason, do not wish that their lives should be changed permanently by an unplanned pregnancy. I suppose that if it were to be banned in the U.S., its opponents would have the strange satisfaction of knowing that they will have succeeded in making abortion so risky that it could potentially cause the deaths of the mothers as well as the fetuses.

In a bizarre twist, many of the people who are against abortion are also enthusiastically for capital punishment. They continue to believe that it is a deterrent, despite proof to the contrary. People simply don't commit crimes in the belief that they will be caught and punished.

Capital punishment has its supporters in tyrannies like China and North Korea, but also in the United States, which is alone in the Western Hemisphere in its observance of the practice. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976, but 16 states have abolished the practice.

Last week, it seemed that the whole world was watching as Troy Davis became the latest victim of the moral turpitude of some Americans. Our sudden knowledge of the existence of this man was quickly upset by the state of Georgia's determination to expedite his nonexistence. If the cruelty of the event wasn't already obvious, it was delayed for three hours while a last minute appeal to the Supreme Court was being considered. Since the execution was by lethal injection, Troy Davis likely laid there on the table with the i.v. in his arm the whole time. That's like if he'd been hanged, he'd have had the noose around his neck and been standing on the trap door for 3 hours.

I have made my feelings on this subject abundantly clear before now. People who despair of their countrymen ever coming around to their thinking on the subject have to persevere. I recall when some avowed liberals moved to Canada when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 because they found the political and moral atmosphere in America to be poisonous. Certainly their departure gratified those on the other side of the divide. But America is my country. And my side is winning.