Sunday, September 30, 2012

Revisitations: Living Poor

[This post is from April 9, 2008. I brought Moritz Thomsen's great book, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle with me to my Philippine island. I see parallels here to Thomsen's observations of Ecuador all the time. The biggest difference between Thomsen and me is the obvious fact that, unlike him, I haven't come to a poor country to teach people how to improve their lot. Thomsen served two tours (four years) in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, before he decided to live there for the rest of his life. I am "living poor" merely because, like so many other expats living in poor countries, I can live a great deal higher off the hog (and Thomson was a California pig farmer) on my tiny pension than I could back home. However much I love Thomsen's example and his writings, I know my limitations, both as a man and as a writer, and I respect them. But I derive little comfort from my knowledge, even as I derive comfort from such luxuries here in the Sticks as a refrigerator (necessity), my electric fan (necessity) and 50 channels of cable TV (absolute necessity). The condition of Living Poor, as I've learned, is quite relative.]

Living Poor Revisited

It might almost seem redundant for me to be reading Moritz Thomsen's "Peace Corps Chronicle" Living Poor here on a small island in the heart of the Philippine archipelago. Except that what Thomsen wrote about poverty is representatove of poor people everywhere. And in Ecuador and in poor places all over the world, in the forty years since the book's publication, nothing has changed. There is no River of Emeralds here, but the Pacific Ocean is there, as blue and as unforgiving as ever.

"Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he views it rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitably takes he would kill himself.

"In South America the poor man is an ignorant man, unaware of the forces that shape his destiny. The shattering truth - that he is kept poor and ignorant as the principal and unspoken component of national policy - escapes him. He cries for land reform, a system of farm loans that will carry him along between crops, unaware that the national economy in almost every country sustained by a one-crop export commodity depends for its success on an unlimited supply of cheap labor. Ecuador needs poor men to compete in the world banana market; Brazil needs poverty to sell its coffee; Chile, its tin; Colombia, its cacao and coffee, and so on. The way United States pressures shape the policies of the South American governments can make a Peace Corps volunteer who is involved and saddened by the poverty in his village tremble to his very roots."

In the Philippines, whose population has been exploding for more than a decade, children are everywhere - especially small children. Imbecile politicians point to this overpopulation as a good sign for the future of the Philippines. And yet no single factor practically guarantees that poverty will endure more than the servitude of women as little more than baby-making machines.

This problem is exacerbated in Roman Catholic countries (like the Philippines and every country in Central and South America) where Papal policy strongly discourages the use of contraceptives and where abortion is either strictly controlled or even banned. The church is always there to welcome the many millions of new souls, but never willing to fill their stomachs. This life is merely a proving ground for the next one, according to their reasoning (if you could call it that), so why bother prolonging it? Why, indeed.

"Death, of course, is the great release. I lay in my house one night trying to sleep, while up the hill a fiesta went on until dawn - drums in an endless and monotonous rhythm connecting a series of increasingly complicated songs, some chanted by women, some by men, some by mixed voices. It gradually became beautiful and moving, but I was puzzled because the celebration was just a week before the great Semana Santa, Holy Easter, a fiesta that everyone saves up for and that leaves everyone broke and exhausted.

"Why were they bombiendo all night on the hill? I asked someone.

"'They were celebrating the death of Crispin's first-born,' I was told. 'He was born dead, an angelito.' There wasn't a bit of sadness in the town; it was a real celebration. Crispin's son had struck it lucky; he was one of God's angels without all of that intervening crap."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why I Write

There is something magical about writing. It is only because he has to read so much flavorless, lifeless writing that the average person is wholly unaware of this. The simple power of black markings on a piece of paper that can convey not just information but thoughts and visions of other human beings is captured beautifully in a scene from the film Black Robe. In 17th century Canada, Father Laforge is being taken by Algonquin guides to a remote village where he is to become the new priest. One day, Chomina, the Algonquin leader of the party, sees Laforge scratching on something with a feather quill.

"Black Robe, what you do?" Chomina asks Laforge.
"Making words," Laforge replies.
"Words? You don't speak!"
"I will show you," Laforge tells him. "Tell me something."
"Tell what?"
"Something I do not know."

Chomina pauses to think, then tells Laforge,"My woman's mother die in snow last winter."
Laforge writes down Chomina's words in his book. Then, followed by Chomina, he walks over to his young assistant, Daniel, and hands him the book. Daniel opens the book and, puzzled, reads aloud what Laforge wrote: "Last winter, Chomina's wife's mother died in the snow."
Astonished, Chomina grabs the book from Daniel's hands and examines it, convinced he's just witnessed some kind of magic.

I listen to people - actors, musicians, scientists, academics - talk alot about how much they love what they do. "Find something you love doing," they all say, "and if you can get paid for it you will live a happy, fulfilling life." It has been precisely my inability to find a suitable, let alone a desirable, profession for myself that has steered me, all my life, toward writing.

At the beginning, it was the only way to make a living that seemed practicable, given my early and rather drastic conclusions about working a "job". I thought I could manage to become a writer, even though the only thing I had to recommend me was what I believed was a genuine taste for it. I knew what good writing was and I believed that I could manage it myself.

Then came the many years of looking for something to write about. I took as a kind of guiding principle an aphorism by E.M. Cioran: "One does not write because one has something to say but because one wants to say something." That may be so, but it helps immeasurably if by just saying something it also happens to be worth saying.

Then, of course, there is the gulf between the writing about real people in real situations and the writing that sells. There is the kind of writing that tries, before everything else, to be good as writing, and there is the kind of writing that is tailored to some market. (The people who write books about how to be a writer never mention this.) There is a narrow middle ground, a bridge between literature and writing for money, but it is extremely precarious. Graham Greene was, for many years, one such writer who managed to placate the two muses, to negotiate the narrow bridge. But there was always the nagging feeling, past the 1940s, that Greene was erring on the side of art, but still erring - that his popularity came at the expense of his talent. And the example he set has been followed by much lesser writers, who had not even one great novel in them. "But much of what made him Graham Greene," wrote Michael Levenson, "was that dogged daily duty of staying alive as a writer, and while others dried up or died, he published his way to fame." ("The Unquiet Englishman," The New Republic, 1995)

Greene claimed that he wrote 500 words a day. That isn't much compared to Jack London's 1,000 a day, or Trollope's 2,000 (and Trollope had a day job at the post office). Even if one writes with ease, setting for oneself a daily minimum is a discipline that I could never manage. Writing for a deadline, I have found, is often the only way to get to the end of a piece of writing. As Auden claimed, a poem "is never finished - it is abandoned." With a few exceptions, I have never heard of a serious writer who loved to write. People who love music but who can't play a musical instrument make the common mistake of assuming that the pleasure they feel when they listen to a musician perform is shared by the musician himself. For the person making the music, the experience is altogether different. Certainly writing well has its highly personal satisfactions, not least of which is the elusive, fleeting transcendence of self. But look at any writer's life and try to imagine them admitting that writing is anything but a chore - a kind of mental hard labor, sitting alone for hours of the day, filling page after page, struggling with words that never seem to quite catch what it was they meant to express, that have s spurious life of their own on publication, with nearly always an unsatisfying result. It answers a deeply neurotic need. One has only to observe the struggles of so many gifted writers to make a living entirely from their writing to see what a thankless profession it can be, once one has chosen to be more than a pen-for-hire.

The only attention I ever managed to attract to my writing in the past twelve years has been for my film criticism. But the most important event in my life as a writer occurred just eight years ago when I became, for the first time in my life, politically conscious. Of course, it came about entirely through reading. Ideas that I had always been aware of suddenly made powerful sense to me. And, strangely, it is only since I accepted the sense of them that I began to see greater possibilities in my writing. I quickly learned that there is an agenda behind every piece of writing.

When I started this blog five years ago today, my expressed intention was to gather all of my film writings together in one place, with my name on it, reflecting my own agenda. Since disembarking in the Philippines in November 2007, I have had a great deal more than films to observe and to write about. But having no fixed residence for my first several months here made it difficult to concentrate on the blog, and the number of posts dwindled to nearly nothing. Since the Fall of 2008 (a seasonal demarcation that doesn't exist here in the tropics), I have averaged close to two posts a week. I have avoided diaristic entries or occasionalia, and I never managed to compose a piece at a computer (I don't have one). I have written them with pen and paper in my home before transferring them to my blog in one of several internet cafés. In my [in]capacity as a retired man, this is the closest thing to going to work as I can get. I have commented on as wide a variety of subjects as I could. Looking over the posts from the past three years, I have commented on film (my touchstone), literature, politics, sexuality, religion, sports, history, and that most thorny of subjects, my own life.

I published 100 posts in 2009, 105 in 2010, and 132 last year. I am on track to publish another 100 this year. If I averaged 750 words per post, that's one good-sized novel I could've written every year for four years. At 80,000 words per year, that's 160 days' worth for Graham Greene, 80 for Jack London, and just 40 for Anthony Trollope. It's something to think about.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

As If

What better subject for a Sunday than faith? 

Forty years ago I saw a remarkable film called Catholics (1973) that addressed a quite timely problem for devout, church-going Catholics - the transition from the Latin mass to the mass in English, and every other language under the sun. It was an historic move for the church, tha had resisted surrendering the sole authority of its priests in the reading and interpretation of the Bible. Of course, thanks to the Protestants, there had always been translations of the Bible available, some of them in language so beautiful that their sensual glory quite eclipses their spiritual message.

In the film, directed by Jack Gold (The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Escape from Sobibor (1987)) and written by Brian Moore (1), Martin Sheen played a representative of the Vatican who is sent to a remote island off the coast of Ireland where a group of monks have defied the pope by refusing to give up the Latin mass. The Abbot, played beautifully by Trevor Howard, meets with Sheen and tells him, in a private moment, that he cannot pray, and that he has been unable to pray for many years - since a traumatic visit to Lourdes. Since then, he tries to pray, he goes through all of the motions of praying, but as his words fly up to heaven, he finds his thoughts stuck here below.

The other monks are belligerent, terrified of abandoning what for them has been their spiritual sustenance - the Latin mass. But the abbot assures Sheen that they will obey the Vatican's order. As Sheen's helicopter lifts off, there is an extraordinary shot of a part of Howard's robe, a long scarf, momentarily caught in the draft of the helicopter's blades, suspended and moving in the air as if it were alive.

The abbot then takes the weeping monks into the church to pray, and the film closes on a freeze-frame of the abbot's face, gazing beseechingly upward as he and the other monks say the Lord's Prayer.

I was reminded of this film, which was re-titled The Conflict for home video (so as not to upset some Catholics, I suppose), when I read about Mother Teresa's published letters, Come Be My Light, in which she admits to the same despair as the abbot in the film - her inability to pray, to feel the presence of God, for nearly fifty years. Of course, Mother Teresa's reaction to this crisis of faith was to throw herself into her work for the church, which consisted mostly of the construction of convents in Bengal and campaigning against birth control.

In his first book, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer wrote "Belief passes, but to never have believed never passes." I was never a believer in God. But like everyone else, I did what I was told when I was a child. I hadn't the vaguest idea who or what God was, but I went through all the motions of praying, trusting in the instruction that "Act as if ye had faith, and faith will be given to you."(2) I acted "as if" until my late teens, to no avail. So I stopped. Since then, nothing has happened to me to persuade me to try again. But I wonder how many people simply go on acting as if all their lives, without ever having faith given them?

(1) Brian Moore (1921-1999) was a marvelous novelist who wrote the books and screenplays for Catholics, as well as The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) and the magnificent Black Robe (1991).
(2) This instruction is nowhere to be found in the Bible.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Revisitations: A Dog's Life

[I have commented occasionally on the Philippines - the country in which I now live. The following is a post from March 2009. One of the points I tried to make, somewhat too mildly, is that the concept of "humane" treatment of animals only makes sense in a society that has a degree of faith in human dignity. The notion that "you can tell a lot about a people by how they treat their animals" is actually a quite dubious one. Some of the worst human beings in history were known to have a way with animals - in fact afforded animals more "humanity" than they extended to people. In an essay on Jack London, George Orwell wrote: "There seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude toward human beings."("Introduction to Love of Life and Other Stories by Jack London", 1945) In his essay "Misplaced Tenderness", the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy relates that

"Lord Lytton, quoting M. Georges Duval, tells us that fondness to animals was a distinguishing trait of the bloody heroes of the French Revolution. Couthon, we hear, was greatly attached to a spaniel which he invariably carried in his bosom even to the Convention...A propos of the spaniel of Couthon, Duval gives us an amusing anecdote of Sergent, not one of the least relentless agents of the massacre of September. A lady came to implore his protection for one of her relations confined in the Abbaye. He scarcely deigned to speak to her. As she retired in despair, she trod by accident on the paw of the favourite spaniel. Sergent, turning round, enraged and furious, exclaimed, “Madame, have you no humanity?”

Watching episodes of The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel, I am increasingly astonished, living in the boondocks as I do, at the lengths to which Americans will go to accommodate a dog in their lives. Clearly, Man is Dog's Best Friend.]

A Dog's Life

On Good Friday - Biyernes Santo - last year a 6 year old girl in my barangay was bitten in the face by a dog. It caused something of a stir, and since I knew the little girl, I fetched my machete, which is a standard tool in these parts, and went over to where a crowd had gathered, expecting to participate in the dog's destruction. The crowd had gathered merely to hear what was to be done about the rabies shots that the little girl would have to get, since the dog had not. The decision was made that the shots would be paid for by the dog's owner and that the dog was to be "watched" for fourteen days in case it showed any symptoms of rabies. Only then, I was told, would the dog be destroyed. I tried to explain to whomever would listen that it didn't matter if the dog was rabid or not, that it had bitten a child in the face and could no longer be trusted around people - let alone children - and should, therefore, be destroyed.(1) Even if anyone understood my tirade in broken Taglish, they could not see the sense in destroying a perfectly good dog, provided it didn't have rabies. I took my astonishment home with me along with my unused machete.

The experience taught me a curious lesson about the relative value placed on human and animal lives in the Philippines. It wasn't as if anyone had placed the welfare of the dog above the welfare of the little girl. The people who live on the barangay level "adopt" dogs in roughly the same way that the dogs themselves "adopt" fleas. Their purpose has always seemed undefined to me. They make noise at night - that is the only function I have seen them perform. Since they are allowed to roam freely, which is a blessing since they would certainly be killed by other dogs if they were restrained, whatever property protection they might provide is eliminated. There is never an avowed intention that the dog is to be cared for in any decent manner, i.e., fed regularly, sheltered against foul weather, and given rudimentary veterinary attention.

While it is true, as animal rights groups always claim, that you can tell a lot about a people by how they treat their animals, what it tells you is far more political than ethical. If even the minimum standards for the humane treatment of animals were enforced in the Philippines, at least half of all dog and cat owners would be cited for animal cruelty. But there is simply no way that the same standards for the treatment of animals being enforced in prosperous countries can sensibly be applied in countries whose economic status is classified as emerging."(2) Organizations like PETA or PAWS, the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, are looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. Countries with spotty human rights records cannot be held accountable for the rights of animals.

One of Charlie Chaplin's short films, A Dog's Life (1918) features a man (Charlie) and a dog leading virtually identical lives. Charlie obviously feels sympathy for "Scraps," who eats out of garbage cans and sleeps wherever she isn't chased out, because he recognizes himself in the dog. Rilke once wrote about dogs that we "help them up into a soul for which there is no heaven," but Chaplin isn't so much worried about souls when lives are in peril. Chaplin's message in A Dog's Life is clear: when the world is unfit for a dog to live in, how can it be fit for man?

(1) By "destroyed" I do not mean "euthanized." I mean killed with a sharp or a blunt instrument. There is no money provided for any kind of "humane" destruction of animals in this country, such as gassing or lethal injection, except in the higher reaches of wealth and privilege. And since human birth control is not sanctioned, except the ridiculous "natural" kind, by the Philippine government, animal birth control is not supported either.
(2) Many of those standards are long overdue for reassessment even in countries like the U.S., in which more than half a million dogs and cats have to be euthanized every year because too many pet owners will not spay or neuter their pets.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Better Life

Once again, a new movie (released last year) that relies on the short memory of filmgoers. The title, A Better Life is unintentionally ironic - the best kind of irony.(1) The plot is, for me at least, all-too familiar: Carlos, a gardener who lives alone with his teen-aged son, gets a chance to improve his meager circumstances when the man who employs him offers to sell him his gardening business, including his truck. He persuades his sister to loan him $12,000 with which he buys the gardening business. On his first day in business for himself, he hires an older man, Santiago, whom he had met days earlier to help him on a job that involves scaling tall palm trees. On reaching the top of one palm tree, Carlos looks down to see Santiago stealing his truck. By the time he gets down from the tree, the truck is gone. With his son, Carlos looks for Santiago. He finds him, only to learn that he has sold the truck and sent the money home to his family. When they finally find the truck in a chop shop junk yard, Carlos uses his spare key and drives it through the fence gate. On the way home with his son, Carlos is pulled over by a cop. Since he is an illegal Mexican immigrant in California, his lack of a driver's license gets him arrested and deported back to Mexico.

If this plot sounds familiar to some of you, you belong to a quickly diminishing minority. It certainly didn't sound familiar to most of the critics.(2) It is virtually identical to the plot of Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves (1948). Set in postwar Italy, it concerns Antonio's efforts to find a job. He is offered the job of paper-hanger but he needs a bicycle or the job will go to someone else. He and his wife agree to sell their nuptial linens for enough money to buy a bicycle, but on his first day, hanging posters of the Rita Hayworth movie Gilda, Antonio's bicycle is stolen. He spends the rest of the film searching for it with his young son, Bruno.

As soon as I heard about A Better Life, I was heartened. There is no better way, I thought, to reinvigorate the legacy of an "old" film like Bicycle Thieves than to make the claim that the dilemmas it illustrated so powerfully more than sixty years ago are still with us. But the differences between the two films are more telling than their similarities. For one thing, the hero of A Better Life, Carlos, is not an average working man pitted against the world. He is an illegal Mexican immigrant in California, most of whose misfortunes are the result of his immigration status. To a great extent, his ambitions for a better life, i.e., coming to America, bring all his misfortunes down on his own head. The tacit point, which most critics overlooked or were loath to make, is that Carlos's first mistake was wanting a better life in the first place, and not accepting the severe limitations of his life in a poor country that cannot manage - or doesn't care - to look after its own people.

The film's point is confused. Instead of a story about Everyman struggling against life's injustices, the struggle of people against the catastrophe of being poor, we have an insufficiently personalized story about the plight of illegal immigrants in California.

The political intent of Bicycle Thieves is made clear by its very title, which American distributors - and uninformed reviewers - tried to distort with their adjusted title The Bicycle Thief. I wrote about this issue before in a post about "spoilers". Perhaps the distributors didn't know the difference between the Italian words "ladro" and "ladri". Or else they didn't see De Sica's point. Or else, as I suspect, they didn't care for De Sica's point: how crippling economic conditions can make a bicycle thief of just about anyone. What Antonio was struggling against were the obstacles in his way to a decent life with his young family, the same obstacles confronting most Italians right after the war. It was what impelled a handful of courageous Italian filmmakers to take their cameras into the streets and rediscover the true ingredients of cinematic art - unvarnished truth. Carlos, in A Better Life, is also fighting poverty, but it is the poverty of Latino immigrants - many of them illegal - in an otherwise prosperous America. (And even an economic slump hasn't changed the overwhelming comparable prosperity of America - a fact that politicians never mention.)

Another irony about A Better Life: on winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1951 for his film Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa wished the award had gone to a Japanese film that showed conditions in contemporary Japan, like De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. And the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray was inspired by Bicycle Thieves to make his first film, Pather Panchali. Chris Weitz, director of A Better Life, must have seen the De Sica film, but whatever inspiration it gave him got muddled in the making. A Better Life's atypical story is quite typically told.

(1) The original title was The Gardener.
(2) In his favorable review of A Better Life, Roger Ebert saw the parallel, but made the common mistake of misnaming De Sica's film as The Bicycle Thief.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The List Itself

To continue where last month's post, Poll Position, left off . . .

But what about the latest list? Here are the Top Ten Films on the 2012 Critic's Poll:

1. Vertigo
2. Citizen Kane
3. La Règle du Jeu
4. Tokyo Story
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
6. The Man With a Movie Camera
7. Sunrise
8. The Searchers
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
10. 8½

Getting the nuts and bolts out of the way, seven films in 2002's Top Ten survived the decade since. In 2002's poll, six remained from 1992's. Only five remained in the 1992 poll from 1982. If nothing else, this trend reveals a kind of homogenization of taste over the intervening 30 years. If I don't find the trend all that comforting, it's because of my conviction that five of the films on the latest list have no business being there.

But there are enough winners and losers to provoke discussion, some big and some incremental. The biggest loser by far is The Godfather(s), falling precipitously in a decade from number 4 to numbers 21 (Part I) and 31 (Part II). Both films first appeared in the Top Ten in 2002. The only notable fact about their sudden - and inexplicable - appearance was that they were made in the 1970s - the first, and perhaps the last, time films more recent than the 1960s, which would seem to be regarded as the last great era of filmmaking, would appear in the polls .

Singin' in the Rain must be suffering from whiplash, having first appeared at #4 in 1982, dropping off the '92 poll, returning at #10 in 2002, and sinking to #20 on the latest poll. Like a monumental yo-yo, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc was #7 in '92, dropped to #14 in '02, and returns to #9 this year. Eisenstein's daunting cinematic achievement Battleship Potemkin was recognized in every Top Ten poll for fifty years as a model of great filmmaking. Another Russian film, this year's newcomer, Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, has displaced Potemkin (it fell to #11).(1)

Antonioni's L'Avventura, which sprang to #2 just two years after its release, fell to #5 in '72, to #7 in '82, has vanished from the precincts of the Top Ten ever since. It was #20 in '02 and tied (with The Godfather and Le mépris) for #21 in the latest poll. Its neglect in favor of trash like Vertigo, 2001, and The Searchers is indefensible.

As I pointed out last month, survival is the only real test of a work of art's greatness, even when, with film, we're talking only about mere decades. The Top Ten polls are intended, I suppose, to be Canonical. Yet where is there a consensus among critics brave enough to include a film newer than 1968 in their choices? Is the art of film actually receding further into the past at an accelerating speed, as these polls suggest?

Four of the films in the poll are genre films, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Man with a Movie Camera, and The Searchers. The American Film Institute, which has its own Top Ten Lists, segregates these films into genre categories: Vertigo is the number 1 "mystery", The Searchers is the number 1 western, 2001: A Space Odyssey the number 1 "sci-fi". This is a somewhat clumsy, but much more practical approach to a genre-driven industry. AFI doesn't have a category for mainstream films, whose subjects are recognizable human beings living in the real world, like Citizen Kane, La Règle du Jeu, Tokyo Story, etc. But at least they recognize, which Sight and Sound doesn't, the quite simple critical idea that calling Citizen Kane a great film and calling Vertigo a great mystery makes mincemeat of the word "great".

2001 is, as John Simon called it, a "shaggy god story". A few years ago, I counted it among the many "films I love to hate". Its director, Stanley Kubrick, made his masterpiece five years before it. Dr Strangelove is far more inventive and memorable. Since the end of the Cold War, however, a growing number of critics who never had to live under the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, apparently no longer understand it. Too bad for them.

Thanks to the law of averages, there are five worthy films in Sight and Sound's Top Ten: Citizen Kane, La Règle du Jeu, Tokyo Story (2), The Passion of Joan of Arc, and . The odd man out is Sunrise. F.W. Murnau was one of the most revered directors of the silent era who developed his own extremely rigorous style in Germany. He answered the siren call of Hollywood in 1926 and was, predictably, killed there in a car crash. But not before he could make one last silent film, Sunrise: A Poem of Two Humans. The film was lovingly restored (a new negative had to be created from an existing print), and amazed many audiences, finding for Murnau a new generation of admirers. I find the film stultifying because it is made in what I would call a dead language, a silent language, of film. Watching another silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, moved Vernon Young to write: "a silent movie (this, one hour after you've watched it, seems hard to believe)". Murnau would have insisted that the silence of his films was much more than just the absence of sound. But whereas the absence of sound is barely noticeable in Passion of Joan of Arc, so that emotions and ideas come across clearly and powerfully after 84 years years, in Sunrise I felt trapped in an old movie trying to make purity out of an impediment.

Now to the Poll's most controversial revelation, the awarding of the #1 position to Hitchcock's Vertigo. When the results of this new poll were announced by BFI, I was amazed at the amount of coverage it received from every news channel and news website, and at how the news that Hitchcock's film was now the greatest film of all time provoked puzzlement or amusement. There are any number of ways of proving in practical, dispassionate language that Citizen Kane, which held the position for forty years, is not only superior to Vertigo but that one is a work of art and the other does not even qualify as pseudo-art. But such proof would involve invoking standards that too few critics bother to recognize any more. (3)

My predictions for 2022 are ominous. Andrei Tarkovsky has three titles in the top fifty: Mirror at #19, Andrei Rublev tied for #26, and Stalker tied for #29. They combine qualities - obscurity and pretentiousness - that are irresistible to film buffs. I won't be surprised if one of them breaks into the Top Ten. Apocalypse Now, which is #6 on the Director's List is at #14 on the Critic's poll. Since poor old Coppola has lived to see his vastly overrated Godfather(s) decline, the critics may just throw him a bone in 2022. Dzigo Vertov will sink back into obscurity, I'm certain.

What will be #1 in 2022? I feel confident that Vertigo is a passing craze, like any number of turkeys in past polls (Louisiana Story in 1952, La terra trema in 1962, The Magnificent Ambersons in 1972 and 1982). However much I may wish to see Sunrise, 2001, and The Searchers vanish from the list in ten years, it's merely wishful thinking. BFI has published a list of every film that received a vote in its poll. Along with great films like The Battle of Algiers (3 votes), Viridiana (3 votes), and Miracle in Milan (1 vote), there is enough trash to warrant scrapping the silly poll altogether.

(1) Vertov's film owes its place in the Top Ten to the people who got it out of a vault, restored it and re-released it to theaters and DVDs. This is a capricious trend that can only get worse. If you ask me, the restorers are digging in the wrong vaults.
(2) Tokyo Story is moving and beautiful but also, I think, tendentious and inferior Ozu. Late Spring is a much finer example of his rarefied art, but less "accessible". Enough of the voters in the Critic's Poll were aware of this, and so ranked Late Spring at #15
(3) And Vertigo is not even Old Tubby's best effort. The 39 Steps or The Wrong Man are vastly superior.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Revisitations: Bresson

This was only the second post I published on this blog, which turns five years old on the 26th of this month. Bresson has been a favorite bone to pick, if only because he has made a few great films but is more widely celebrated for much lesser films, like Au hasard, Balthazar, which the latest Senses of Cinema Critic's Poll ranks as the 16th Greatest Film of All Time. No mention is made on the poll, of course, of his genuine masterpieces, Diary of a Country Priest or A Man Escaped.

Senses of Cinema was nice enough to publish something I wrote earlier in the year on Robert Bresson that I titled "Sins of Omission: A Dissenting View"

I wrote the piece in some haste and submitted it without a chance to edit it. Next thing I hear from Senses editor Rolando Caputo is that he'd sent it to the web designers for publication. I had already written a revised version of the piece, and sent it along to Rolando. But there was nothing he could do with it.

So here is the revised piece that I wrote. It's a much more strongly-argued and ultimately more critical view of Bresson. While admiring some of Bresson's films, I felt somehow compelled to publish a rejoinder when confronted by all of the intolerable (and nonsensical) cant that's been written about him for going on fifty years now.

Robert Bresson, Photography, and Cinematographie

“A film cannot be a stage show, because a stage show requires flesh-and-blood presence. But it can be, as photographed theater or CINEMA is, the photographic reproduction of a stage show. The photographic reproduction of a stage show is comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or a sculpture. But a photographic reproduction of Donatello’s Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer’s Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything.”[i]

“Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing.”[ii]

Robert Bresson liked to remember it otherwise, but his career in film began (even if we overlook the 1934 star vehicle for Beby the Clown, Public Affairs) in the conventional way. And though he later admitted that he learned from the beginning the underlying falsity of film “acting”,[iii] his first two films, Les Anges du Peche (Angels of Sin, 1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1946), employed professional actors, and Bresson managed to extract superb performances from them.[iv] But the experience of working under conditions that he believed were a betrayal of the true nature of film made him decide to follow his instincts and commit himself to a radical departure from conventional practice.

Exactly what elements of conventional filmmaking did Bresson regard as foreign to its esthetics? He has stated flatly that “For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument – the camera – things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.”[v] This would seem to be an insistence on documentary-like verism, if we are to take literally his notion of “real things”. But while eventually eschewing sets and actors, Bresson, with an odd exactitude, maintained the practice of placing people before a camera as proxies in a drama of his own invention. And his stories invariably reflect an implicit faith in the imperilment – and sometimes salvation – of souls.

Bresson’s first daring attempts at realizing his bold new thesis were dazzling. Working exclusively with non-professionals, Bresson accomplished an inimitable adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel Diary of a Country Priest, and one of the greatest of all French films, A Man Escaped. These two films are extraordinary for many reasons – the most significant of which is their dependence on the barest minimum of means. By strenuously controlling the impulse for effects, Bresson achieved much with very little, and earned the respect of critics and filmmakers everywhere.

Whatever cachet Bresson earned with those two films was seriously taxed, however, when he made Pickpocket (1959). What had been a perfectly apposite marriage of style and meaning had become a discordant conflict in which both seemed arbitrary, rather than right. Critics[vi] were quick to place the blame on Bresson’s choice of subject – exchanging the problems of a cancer-stricken priest and a condemned prisoner for those of a stodgy criminal with delusions of grandeur. Comparisons to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov were unhelpful, since a petty thief has little in common with an ax-murderer. Bresson failed to ennoble Martin Lasalle’s skill sufficiently to make his eventual arrest and spiritual awakening either interesting or convincing. [vii]

It was also about this time that the first studies of Bresson began to appear, containing his own remarks about film. Filmmakers, children of the modern age, have been especially susceptible to conflating errant arguments for their work[viii] (I won’t go into the effects of “film scholarship”). And few filmmakers survive what Stanley Kauffmann recently called the “Age of the Larynx.”[ix]

In 1975, Bresson finally published his Notes sur la cinematographie – in his own words, “a gathering of notes on little pieces of paper, on cigarette wrappers; things I wrote down while shooting or on some other occasion.”[x] It is a slim volume, only 72 pages in the Urizen edition, but it contains much that is essential to any complete understanding of Bresson’s intentions, if not always his results.[xi] It is also a corrective to all of the ideas and statements mistakenly attributed to him.[xii] One detail is made abundantly clear by the book: Bresson was a painter – of what school hasn’t been divilged, but it is easy to guess from his statements about art that he was decidedly post-expressionist. His contempt for the theater and for photography, the two stools between which Bresson believed nearly all films fall, derives from a modernist painter’s mistrust of representation of any sort, whether it is an actor’s pretense of real emotion and the “suspension of disbelief” that it requires, and a photographer’s stolen moments. The quotes at the beginning of this piece sum up Bresson’s notions on theater and photography.[xiii] What they reveal is a quite naïve confusion of a medium with what it conveys. A photograph of an object, whether it is a face, a landscape, or a sculpture by Donatello, is not intended to be a substitute for those things but simply a way of looking at the physical universe. The very same thing can be said of theater and of acting. Even Picasso admitted that "Art is not truth. Art is a lie that helps us to see the truth."

Painting and sculpture used to belong in this tradition – of transmuting objects and figures from nature in a manner that renders the objective subjective and that reaches the viewer by reversing the trajectory. The ultimate result is something that is neither nature nor the artist but a conjunction, an enjambment of realities. Andre Malraux could argue all he wanted about how modern art has destroyed what once connected the artist with his subject ("Cezanne did not wish to represent apples, he wished to paint pictures."[xiv]), but every work of art – even Cezanne’s – is as inseparable from nature as from the painter. Nature is not surmounted, destroyed or even supplanted by art: a distinct creation is born from the artist’s vision. And the object in nature becomes “something owned,” as Rilke put it. When Cezanne painted his mountain again and again, from every direction, in every light and season, he was approaching, approximating, the reality of the mountain.

By extension, photography is a realization of Blake’s admonition: “We ever must believe the lie/When we see with, not through, the eye.” Its dependence on a mechanical device does not make it any less creative. But in its faithful recording of the actual, photography has the ability to bring us closer to the things of the physical world. Intelligence intervenes every time the photographer aims his lens.
And all a filmmaker does is arrange real objects – people and places – before his camera. This may have become old-fashioned with the invention of CGI, but it is the art of filmmaking in a nutshell, whether it’s Cocteau’s Orpheus walking through mirrors into the underworld, or De Sica’s Umberto D nearly run over by a train. Bresson’s querulous rejection of these realities for one of his own devising may have been instrumental in the creation of his own crypt-like universe, in which everyone is a Caligari somnambulist who monophonically mutter the words of his idiosyncratic creed, but for everyone else it is a ridiculously limiting, arbitrarily exclusive, and ultimately pointless exercise.

[i] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, Johanathan Griffin, trans., New York: Urizen Books, 1977, p.3
[ii] Ibid., p. 59
[iii] “My first film was made with professional actors, and when we had our first rehearsal, I said, ‘If you go on acting and speaking like this, I am leaving.’” Bresson in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Paris, September 2, 1970.
[iv] Both films attracted the admiring attention of a university newspaper critic named Andre Bazin.
[v] Samuels interview, q.v.
[vi] The “critics” in the 1950s were those writing for major periodicals. They were rarely, if ever, interested in – or indeed knowledgeable of – theoretical interpretation, with the exception of the radical Cahiers du Cinema, which initially attracted little attention outside France.
[vii] Dostoevsky ended his tale with Raskolnikov confessing his crime – at precisely the point at which he stood the greatest chance of getting away with it. Raskolnikov had actually proved that he was superior to the laws governing other people – which is why his discovery of Sonia’s love and his admission of guilt are so powerful.
[viii] Some of the greatest artists have drawn their inspiration from entirely spurious ideas. Robert Graves was one of the 20th-century’s greatest lyric poets, who swore lifelong devotion to a deity whom he called The White Goddess.
[ix] “In this age, sheer talk – the interview – becomes as much a part of a director’s life as anything other than directing itself.” The New Republic, Nov 27, 2006. Curiously, Bresson addressed the problem himself (without a trace of irony): “I hate publicity. One should be known for what one does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years.” In Bresson’s case, his pronouncements on film got much wider circulation than his films, so that he was known by reputation in some cases years before his films were widely available.
[x] Samuels, q.v.
[xi] Mirella Jona Affron strains our credulity by comparing Bresson’s little book with Pascal’s Pensees. Feeble as philosophy, Bresson’s Notes have little application outside the strict confines of his work. (“Bresson and Pascal: Rhetorical Affinities”, Robert Bresson, James Quandt, editor, p.165).
[xii] “Most of what is said about me is wrong and is repeated incessantly.” Samuels, q.v.
[xiii] Bresson contradicted himself in the Samuels interview: “A book, a painting, or a piece of music – none of these things has an absolute value. The value is what the viewer, the reader, the listener bring to it.” Only a churl could not allow a photograph the same potential value.
[xiv] Andre Malraux, The Metamorphosis of the Gods, New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Vidal on Ayn Rand

One American writer who seems to be on every Republican's reading list, an author whom they might describe as a "formative influence" on their philosophy of conservatism, is Ayn Rand. Everything I have heard, and overheard, about this sometime novelist and self-styled "philosopher" has seemed to me negative, which is why I have made it a point to avoid her work.

In 1961, responding to Orville Prescott's favorable review of the book The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Gore Vidal defined, quite inadvertently, what I consider to be the contrary philosophies of the Left and Right, what used to be called Progressives and Reactionaries but are known in the U.S. as Liberals and Conservatives. He would probably hate my contextualizing his words like this, but rather than subject you to the typically awful layout of Esquire's web page, which is a painful reminder of the magazine, I present Vidal's "Comment" unadorned. Needless to say, I am on the side of morality.

Comment, July 1961
by Gore Vidal

Since what seems the original publication of The Scarlet Letter, the book reviews of Orville Prescott have made gaudy the otherwise impeccable greyness of The New York Times. Until now he has been spared criticism on the ground that, since few people seriously interested in writing read him, he can neither harm nor help a literary reputation. This is certainly true, but a great many people who don’t read books do read the Times. With a Prescott as view-finder, their picture of American literature is distorted, to say the least.

My own objection to Orville Prescott is not so much his style (J. Donald Adams’ words are winged by comparison) nor his ignorance of the more sophisticated critical strategies (he tells you the plot, anyway), but his identification with what he thinks to be his audience: the middle-aged, middle-class, moderately Affluent American woman who lives in Darien, New Canaan, Scarsdale, a region bounded on the south by the Theatre Guild, on the north by Womrath, on the west by Barry Goldwater and on the eats by…oh, well, you name it. Prescott knows these ladies are interested in sex; he also knows that they stand firmly united in condemning all sexual activity not associated with marriage. Grimly, they attend each Tennessee Williams play so that they can complain furiously in the lobby that this time Williams has gone too far! that this time they are thoroughly revolted by that diseased mind! and never again will they expose themselves to such filth! And of course the next play Williams writes they will all be back on deck, ready to be appalled again.

Now it is true that The Girls (as Helen Hokinson nicely called them) sound like this. It’s expected of them. They don’t want any trouble from one another and they have such an obvious vested interest in the Family that any work which seems to accept or, worse, celebrate non-Family sex presents them with a clear conflict of interest which they must resolve, at the very least, by certain ritual noises of dissent. But Prescott has missed the point to The Girls. Though they must flap when the Family as an idea seems endangered, they do read more books than anyone else; they try to educate themselves politically and aesthetically; they are remarkable open-minded to new ideas and, all in all, more tolerant of life than a great many of the husbands whose days are spent trying to make it up the ladder, lips pressed lovingly to the heel of the shoe on the next rung above. The Girls are O.K., but they have their hypocrisies and prejudices, and these Prescott tends to confirm.

Lately, after a decade’s abstinence, I have been reading Prescott again and in a changing world it is good to know that the Good Grey Goose of the Times is unchanged. He still gives marks to novels not for style nor insight nor wisdom nor art, but for “morality.” Are these nice people? Is this a nice author? Adultery, premarital intercourse, aberration, are wicked things nice people don’t do and if an author does not firmly put them down and opt for marriage and fidelity the offending work must go. Prescott’s favorite pejorative adjective is “dull.” Lolita, he declared with more than usual horror, was “dull, dull, dull!” Now Lolita was many things (there is even a case to be made against it morally, and on its own terms), but it was never dull. It was also literature, a category peculiarly mystifying to Prescott.

Recently he reviewed Alfred Duggan’s new historical novel Family Favorites, about Elagabalus. He tells us he admires Duggan. Now, watch the action: The novel is “artfully done and full of wit and irony,” but it won’t do since Elagabalus “was a degenerate. His depraved orgies make tiresome and depressing reading…. He is not an interesting subject for a full-length novel.” Well, for sixteen hundred years Elagabalus has been a fascinating subject for writers, from Cassius Dio to Gibbon, and if Duggan is really “artful,” “witty” and “ironic” I reckon he’s spun a right swell yarn which is resting at this very moment on many a maple whatnot out there in Darien.

Even dizzier (and the occasion for these corrective remarks) was Prescott’s review of William Brammer’s political novel, The Gay Place. After first admiring Brammer’s skill in recreating the political scene, Prescott starts that old familiar hissing noise. He expresses wonder that young politicians commit adultery, have premarital intercourse, get drunk and otherwise behave even as people did back when Albert the Good mounted Victoria glumly to birth the Age of Gilt. Then Prescott exclaims: “Men who never dream of being faithful to their wives, who enthusiastically seduce the wives and mistresses of their friends, are faithful to standards of political conduct.” He pretends to be stunned by this paradox, and that brings us to the main issue: To the average American the word “morality” means sex, period. If you don’t cheat on your wife, you’re moral. It is part of our national genus to have no tradition of public morality. We are pleased to dismiss politics as entirely corrupt, if not financially, intellectually. Cheating the government of its taxes, and one another in business, is not only natural but necessary to survival. Now I would suggest that a man’s relation to society is a matter of greater moral urgency than his sexual dealings which, after all, are a private and relative matter. When a writer convincingly shows us, as Brammer does, young politicians devoted to right action, I am profoundly moved and morally edified. Prescott misses the moral point, preferring to dig for sex.

Now, before I’m investigated for having taken the un-American stand that sex is a minor department of morality, let me try to show what I think is morally important. Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read. She has just published a book, For the New Intellectual, subtitled The Philosophy of Ayn Rand; it is a collection of pensées and arias from her novels and it must be read to be believed. Herewith, a few excerpts from the Rand collection.

• “It was the morality of altruism that undercut American and is now destroying her.”

• “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom…or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.”

• Then from one of her arias for heldentenor: “I am done with the monster of ‘we,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”

• “The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself.”

• “To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.”

• “The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral….”

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.

She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which ahs figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon “I” is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. Now the dictionary definition of “moral” is: “concerned with the distinction between right and wrong” as in “moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform.” Though Miss Rand’s grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms. Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night. Caesars are stirring in the Forum. There are storm warnings ahead. But to counter trolls and Caesars, we have such men as Lewis Mumford whose new book, The City in History, inspires. He traces the growth of communities from Neolithic to present times. He is wise. He is moral: that is, he favors right action and he believes it possible for us to make things better for us (not “me”!). He belongs to the currently unfashionable line of makers who believe that if something is wrong it can be made right, whether a faulty water main or a faulty idea. May he flourish!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Revisitations: Keaton Takes Us to College

On the 26th of this month, this blog will have been online for five years. In observance of the occasion, I've decided to revisit some of the best of my 444 posts thus far. Here is one from November of 2008.

In one of his last great silent comedies, College* (1927), Buster Keaton pokes rather pointed fun at the American worship of sports. Like Chaplin but with a much wider range of variations, Keaton was the eternal outsider trying to get in, having to compensate for his small stature and lack of social skills with acute resourcefulness and extraordinary guts. And he always wins - but in College it is a Pyrrhic victory, as the closing shots reveal.

On winning an "honor medal" at his high school graduation ceremony, Ronald (Keaton) gives an uproarious speech (via title cards, of course) against the "Curse of Athletics":

The secret of getting a medal like mine is - books not sports. The student who wastes his time on athletics rather than study shows only ignorance. Future generations depend upon brains and not upon jumping the discus or hurdling the javelin. What have Ty Ruth or Babe Dempsey done for Science? Where would I be without my books?

Needless to say, Ronald delivers his speech before an increasingly hostile audience - while struggling to keep his cheap suit from disintegrating. The last line is something of an appeal, as Ronald covers his crotch with a book when his flies come undone. By the time his speech is over the auditorium is empty - but a popular girl who happens to like him throws down a gauntlet that Ronald - unwisely one feels - picks up: "Your speech was ridiculous. Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak-knee'd teachers' pet. When you change your mind about athletics, then I'll change my mind about you."

Having no formal education, Keaton may himself have regarded college as a waste of time and college students as privileged parasites. But he saw the rich comedic potential of playing a college type enough to use it once again in his last great film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). As portrayed in the later film, college students are naive and completely unprepared for life in the real world.

That Ronald is too poor to afford college is perhaps more than a comedic ploy. It does not, of course, deter him from working his way through school - with disappointing results - as a soda jerk and as a "colored" waiter. Ronald loses both jobs rather than expose his identity (and the shame of having to work) to The Girl. Working in blackface may leave Keaton open to charges of racism today, but when some of his blackface rubs off in one of his patented pratfalls and his true "racial identity" is exposed, it is the black kitchen crew that comes after him - with meat cleavers! In pursuit of more than just cheap laughs, Keaton gives us a glimpse in this scene of the ugly face of Jim Crow.

Nothing, apparently, can stop Ronald from winning The Girl's heart - and social acceptance - by proving that he can excel at athletics. Despite the fact that, as his own stunts proved time and again, Keaton possessed considerable athletic abilities, all that Ronald can prove in College are his inabilities. In a prolonged and often painful scene, Ronald tries out for various track and field events and only manages to succeed at nearly breaking his own neck. One after another, he finds that he cannot run, cannot jump, cannot hurdle, hurl or vault. And the gags that he pulls off, some of them requiring precise balance and timing, soon become more pathetic than funny. Ronald's obvious disregard for his own safety makes his struggle to not fail take on an almost tragic quality. For if this scene of physical failure means anything, it is that trying to measure up to everyone else's standards is foolhardy, and that expecting it of everyone is cruel and terribly wrong. What gives the scene added punch is the presence - unseen by Ronald - of The Girl, who watches with mounting alarm and pity as Ronald risks life and limb to find his inner athlete.

By now the film has introduced us to the college dean - a diminutive (like Ronald) pinch-faced old man who at first welcomes Ronald for his academic achievements. But when Ronald's grades begin to suffer due to his experiments in sports (during which Ronald nearly takes the dean's head off with a misdirected discus), the dean calls him to his office where the following exchange takes place:

Dean: You have been a miserable failure in all your studies and I know the reason why.
Ronald: I took up athletics because the girl I love thinks I'm a weakling. I love her and would do anything to please her.
Dean: I understand, my boy. The same thing happened to me but I was stubborn. That's why I'm a bachelor.

Later we watch the dean, alone, gazing sorrowfully at an old photograph of a woman, presumably the girl who thought he was a "weakling". Whether the dean is meant to be pitied for being "stubborn" is questionable, particularly in light of the film's last few shots.

But College is, after all, a comedy, and by the last reel Buster wins the race and The Girl in his beautifully unorthodox way, discovering practical applications for his track and field experience as he rescues The Girl from the clutches of his adversary (who, significantly, had been expelled for his poor grades). Buster dashes at great speed, hurdles hedges, pole vaults into The Girl's dormitory room throws plates instead of discuses and nearly skewers the bad guy with a lamp pole as he tries to escape. Caught alone with Ronald in her room, The Girl announces to the Dean that they are paying the official penalty for such misconduct by getting married.

Happy ending, right? Then why does Keaton close the film with a montage that could hardly be mistaken for marital bliss? Neatly chronicling the rest of Ronald's life with The Girl, the montage dissolves from the church to a hectic household with three kids, to a quiet old age, finally to a shot of two graves, side by side and overgrown with weeds. In nearly all of his films (Go West being the hilarious exception) Keaton gets the girl. Only in College, near the end of his creative career as America's greatest silent clown, does Keaton show us what getting the girl ultimately means.

*It would be interesting to program Keaton's film with Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925). Lloyd's irrepressibly preppie image is a revealing contrast to Keaton's working student in College.