Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Spirit of Halloween

My favorite time of the year starts today. It doesn't even bother me too much any more that I'm several thousand miles away from where everything that I find so special about the sixty-one days between Halloween and New Year's Eve occurs - the last half of Autumn (no such season in the tropics), the falling leaves, the chill in the air, Thanksgiving and Christmas, food, football, and family.

In a post from last Christmas, "Deck the Halls With Boughs of Nutty", on his own blog at the New York Times, Dick Cavett expressed a certain skepticism of people who try to cultivate what is known as the "Christmas Spirit": "In my case, some affection for the hallowed time has returned markedly, after at least 20 Christmases spent on Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands, happily far from the familiar list of horrors that are part and parcel of Noël in Gotham, my favorite city."

Escaping from the cold and drear of New York City to bask on a Caribbean beach might sound alluring to many readers in a temperate climate in the Northern Hemisphere during the next two months. But to me, looking forward (hyperbole) to my fifth straight Christmas in the Philippines, where everything is evergreen and where a snowflake is only slightly likelier to be seen than in what the locals call "Impiyerno" (a corruption of the Spanish "inferno"), it seems almost sacrilegious. Even if I have no religion , it seems like a contradiction of everything I associate with the season, and completely counterproductive to locating anything close to the Spirit of Christmas. Many people gave up on it when they realized they were no longer children. I hung on to it, as to a piece of flotsam after my life sustained yet another shipwreck.*

What about the Halloween Spirit? I'm old enough to remember when kids went trick-or-treating without their parents, in genuine neighborhoods where everyone knew who lived next door to them, even when some families were what are now known as "dysfunctional". (And they would've been considered creepy if they weren't. We would avoid knocking on their doors Halloween night.)

Since it was the 1960s, there were a few rumors even then about candy laced with LSD. But I never got a candied apple with needles or razor blades in them, even if landing one would get my name in the local newspapers the next day. We used brown paper grocery bags and I waited until mine was at least half-full before I decided it was enough and turned to head for home.

Sure, it was one of those occasions when I learned it was a disadvantage to have a big brother. Easter was another. (I also blame my lack of interest in playing sports on his kicking my arse at every opportunity. He's three years older, and you simply can't allow your kid brother to beat you, even (or especially) at Monopoly. He would steal my chocolate and hand me all his candy corn in one of the worst trade-offs of life.**

And I watched The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown every year since it was first broadcast in 1966. Like Linus, I had an almost mystical reverence for Halloween. Unlike him, I never squandered the big night waiting in some pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to appear and ascend into the heavens. But the night has a holiness about it for me that has lasted until now - my fifty-fourth Halloween. It probably comes from my Irish Catholic blood. It's an Irish tradition after all.

*Though there have also been some train-wrecks and car-crashes over the years, I've managed to avoid the one plane crash from which no traveler returns.
**Another big one is "age brings wisdom".

Tropical Depression Revisited

[As an addendum to last Saturday's post, "Living in the Dark", I am quite prepared to eat crow for my claim that, after a few days without electricity, Americans would go completely berserk, and riot. I underestimated my fellow Americans' ability to endure hardship. Americans are lucky to have their mettle go so untested for so long. But their resilience this time makes me homesick all the more.

What better moment, then, to revisit the following post from June 2009, relating my experiences during and after a major typhoon here in the Philippines. Watching on CNN the past few days as Hurricane Sandy, with Halloween arriving dubbed a "Frankenstorm", sharpened my memories of four years ago. It was the first time in my life that I had to endure such a long period without electricity (nine days!) and, despite my own intense feelings of isolation and frustration, I was struck by the people all around me, who had only recently seen the electrification of their island, virtually unaffected.

I remember from that time an old woman who lived in a grass hut right in front of my cinder block house, who asked me a few days after I moved in if she could reach an extension cord through my window to the nearest electrical plug, just so she could switch on a bare light bulb in her sala at night. The old woman remained in her hut until its timber supports grew too rotten and her family decided to move her into their house. She was standing there, watching them as they pulled the house down and harvested its wood. I will always remember hearing her tremulous singing at night, sitting on the floor under a suspended light bulb.]

Tropical Depression

For Americans, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a national disaster whose reverberations one can still detect in some of the unlikeliest places across the country. The scale of the physical destruction was daunting enough, with shoddy levees failing in New Orleans, putting the Ninth Ward of the city under so much water that the few residents who wouldn't, or couldn't, evacuate had to clamber onto their rooftops to escape it. The natural disaster was accompanied by human blunders, like the plodding response of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which exacerbated the damage and the suffering, and called into question the philosophy of a federal government that refused to accept responsibility when nobody else would.

On the morning of June 20, 2008, the passenger ferry Princess of the Stars sailed out of Manila bound for Cebu on what was expected to be just another routine trip. Such ferries sail back and forth between the Philippine islands carrying passengers who cannot reach Manila by bus. On the ferry there is leisure to walk the decks, take in the scenery of passing islands and islets and the placid tropical sea. Except that on the morning of June 20, Typhoon Frank was bearing down on eastern Samar on a course that would place the Princess of the Stars directly in its path. The ship capsized in relatively shallow waters just off the island of Romblon.(1)

Tropical cyclones (called typhoons rather than hurricanes here in Asia) the size of Katrina are rare, but the effects of much smaller cyclones wreak havoc in the Philippines on such a routine basis that it makes one wonder why governments aren't toppled and radical reforms implemented as a result. That fact that nothing happens is just another sad commentary on the fatalism of the Filipino and his failure to understand what government is supposed to do for him, not to mention the cynicism and indifference of those in power.

I was living in the Philippine central Visayas region a year ago when typhoon Frank struck. The power failed in the entire region at about 10 AM on June 20, and it wasn't restored to my remote barangay until the afternoon of the 29th. I didn't hear about the ferry disaster until I managed to go online and check my email, when I learned how worried my sister was that I may have been one of the passengers aboard the Princess of the Stars.

Some of the worst maritime disasters in history have occurred in the Philippines. If you look at the latest list of the top ten for the last twenty years (2), the Doña Paz disaster heads the list, with 4,375 casualties. The Princess of the Stars would rank 6th on the list, with 694 casualties.(3) Whomever it was who decided that it should sail (the captain, who was one of the casualties, was held liable by the official inquiry), there was clearly no oversight authority to stop her. To have been so utterly oblivious of such an enormous storm, or to have accepted the risk of sailing straight into its maw with 862 people aboard shows, if nothing else, a total disregard for the rules of seafaring. Of course, it emerged upon inspection that the wreck was carrying an undisclosed cargo: ten metric tons of the pesticide endosulfan. It suggested a possible reason for the ship's sailing in such haste.

For a race of islanders, Filipinos have a strange, suspicious and mistrustful relationship with the sea. Only a minority, apparently, can swim. There are frequent "accidental" downings reported in the news, such as when poor children scale the walls around a private pool and are discovered floating face down the next morning. Growing up so close to an ocean as warm as bathwater would've been a dream for me as a boy, but I never see Filipino children swimming, except when they are involved in some capacity with fishing. Watching children play where I live, within a few hundred yards of the Pacific Ocean, they might just as well be in Kansas.

How I managed to maintain my sanity during those nine days without power and no contact with the world beyond my occluded horizon would, now that a year has passed, require an act of imagination. I spent the daylight hours reading and writing, and the dark nights defending my house against invading vermin while here was no light to scare them away. The darkness also emboldened some of my more desperate neighbors to try and get their hands on the stacks of cash that they were all told we foreigners have lying around the house. And there were nights when, my doors barricaded with furniture, I slept uneasily. Then there was the night, with a piece of my bathroom (called a CR or "comfort room" here) roof missing - the piece right over the toilet - and rain coming down, when I had to open an umbrella to stay dry while I did my business.

But I will never forget the elation I felt when I saw the light bulb over my sala first flicker with life and then shine brightly at about 4:30 PM on the ninth day. It was like emerging from a long escape tunnel beyond the wire, with the unmistakable smell of freedom in the air. But then the first thing the neighbors decided to do was crank up their karaoke microphones and engage in the socialized screaming that has become such a ubiquitous tradition here. I wonder, if they had the chance, how many of the lost on the Princess of the Stars would be doing the same?

(1) Update October 2012: It's still there.
(2) See "10 Worst Maritime Disasters".
(3) The official numbers are : 751 passengers, 111 crew, with 57 survivors.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Living in the Dark

Poverty is the most merciless oppressor that human society has devised. Its products are suffering and ignorance. Or, worse, suffering whose cause is ignorance.

There is a typical scene in Dumb and Dumber that epitomizes the quality of every other gag in the Farrelly Brothers' movie. In the scene, Lloyd (Jim Carrey) is leaving a hotel bar when he notices a newspaper clipping framed on the wall. The clipping reports Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon. Lloyd, blissfully ignorant of the event, believing that it must have just happened, says, "No way!" and heads into the hotel lobby yelling, "We put a man on the moon!"

The movie is genuinely funny, I think, because it manages to demonstrate how some people can be so dumb. I can laugh at Lloyd not knowing about the moon landing, but what that scene couldn't prepare me for was being confronted by a room full of people on my Philippine island who were just as surprised as Lloyd was when, at the news announcement of Neil Armstrong's death at the end of August, asked me what the strange black and white images accompanying the report were, and I told them it was TV footage (which was "live" in 1969) of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon's surface. At first I believed that they had simply never seen the TV clip. I could not honestly say who was the more astonished in that room, the Filipinos who had been kept in the dark about one of the greatest events in history for forty-three years, or I at their mouths agape at the news I was delivering so late.

Of course, the difference between Lloyd, the dumb American, and the Filipinos in my sala, who are deliberately kept in the dark, was a matter of choice. The American man in the street is ignorant because he chooses to be, while far too many Filipinos are given no choice in the matter. American culture produces ignoramuses out of laziness or cowardice, while the Filipino ruling class produces them as an act of policy.

Once, a few years before, in the middle of the day, the skies grew dark on this same island and I noticed that within an hour, all my neighbors were scrambling around - the men going into the nearby town to buy essential supplies, the women all washing clothes - because the local trike drivers had repeated a rumor of an impending "bagyo" (typhoon). Since I have cable TV and access to international news (and weather), I knew that nothing but an LPA ("low-pressure area") was causing the clouds to gather. I knew that it was useless trying to disinform my neighbors, since they are living in the dark. Like the sky above them, their horizons were perpetually occluded.

This past week, my entire island was deprived of electricity for two days because of a passing tropical storm, blowing down trees that severed power lines (politically, of course, these people are without power all their lives). I was once again amazed at the behavior of the people around me, unbothered by the lack of electricity, outside their houses all day, cheerily chatting with one another, playing cards, gossiping - in fact doing everything that they usually do even when the power is working.

I thought to myself how Americans would behave if they were deprived of electricity for two whole days. They would probably be rioting, looting, and generally losing their minds. What the Filipinos I live among could teach them is that it's a mistake for us to depend so much on our technology. No one has pondered the effect of a cyber-attack on America that shut down all cellphones and computers. Many people are already claiming that they couldn't live without their Blackberry or their iPhone. They trust too much in the dependability of their devices, and place far too much importance on their function. People in developing countries, where electrification is hit or miss, know too well that their provider/suppliers (i.e., pushers/fixers) can't always be relied on. As I have learned the hard way, there is nothing more useless that a cellphone with a dead battery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Revisitations: Nevers My Love

[Originally published in March 2009, this film review demonstrated to me how long-held opinions occasionally require reexamination.]

Nevers My Love

In the late 1970s, Denver was blessed with four full-time commercial art houses: the Flick in Larimer Square, which was actually twin theaters, the Esquire, the Vogue, and the Ogden. It was at the Ogden, in Capitol Hill, that I first saw Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) on a double bill with Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

The Bergman film had what I thought was a quite unearned emotional impact. Directing the then 77-year-old Victor Sjostrom, whom Bergman revered, as Professor Borg left poor Ingmar unable to pull the trigger on his character. His efforts to make old Borg seem undeserving of our sympathy were overwhelmed by Bergman's obvious love for Sjostrom. The film's ending is almost laughably out of keeping with everything that comes before it. Alas, a considerable number of critics still regard it as a Bergman masterpiece.

Perhaps it was watching Resnais's film first that made Wild Strawberries seem such a come down. I must admit that I found everything about Hiroshima Mon Amour fascinating. Its unremitting seriousness was certainly part of its appeal to me. Though Resnais became somewhat stigmatized by his manner of fractionating narrative and so completely displacing temporality, it works beautifully in Hiroshima Mon Amour. And I found myself taking strong exception to the way the film was received by three critics I esteemed highly. Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and Vernon Young all argued that the film failed to hold the ground it had so boldly staked out, namely that there was common ground between the experience of the catastrophe of Hiroshima and the experience of a Frenchwoman's unhappy affair with a German soldier.

Twenty years later, having seen the film a few more times and holding firm to my conviction that Resnais had resolved the thorny problem of Marguerite Duras's apparent equation of the experiences of the man from Hiroshima and the woman from Nevers, I watched the film again with a friend who was at least as impressed with it as I had been. I found myself drawn again into Resnais's extraordinary mastery of interweaving time frames and locales, making the absolute most of Duras's fixated and obsessive dialogue. But cracks began to appear in the edifice of my admiration for the film.

At first, I tried to deny that Duras and Resnais had actually intended to equate the two people's experiences, that the drama was really about how the woman convinces the man that she is capable of understanding the suffering of Hiroshima because she, too, had known suffering. But however great her suffering (and Resnais certainly makes a case for it), the suggestion that it somehow made it easier for her to grasp, even in personal terms, what happened in Hiroshima is sheer effrontery. What if Duras had decided to write a story about the Holocaust and had told it in the terms of a love story involving a Frenchwoman (since Duras was a Frenchwoman) and a Polish Jew, set in the town of Brzezinka, aka Birkenau? Would anyone have warmed to such a film if Duras had decided to devote three-quarters of the film to the Frenchwoman's attempts to persuade the Polish Jew that she had suffered?

I still think highly of the film. Resnais had already been an accomplished documentary filmmaker when he made Hiroshima Mon Amour. He was admittedly* reluctant to make any kind of film about Hiroshima. Francoise Sagan was approached to write a treatment but she declined because she felt inadequate to the task of using Hiroshima as her subject. Duras, obviously, had no such compunctions, and her script is the weakest element of Resnais's film. The facile uplift of the film's finale, in which the two characters, by now exemplars of Hiroshima and Nevers, appear to have accepted each other's likenesses, rather than their differences, is as phony as that of Wild Strawberries, where Professor Borg appears to have made peace with his past. When peace comes at so high a price, can war have been all that bad?

*In a 1986 interview for Le Cinema des cineastes, Resnais restates his original claim that "Of course, what has to be filmed is the impossibility of filming it."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

All's Well That Ends

In February I published an article titled "On Being Childless". Of the many reasons why having no children doesn't bother me, I failed to mention what is perhaps the most significant reason.

In last month's post, "Why I Write" I described how unnatural the physical process of writing is and how it probably appeases some deeply pathological impulse. It is one of the most solitary pursuits, requiring seclusion and stillness, which also requires the people with whom the writer lives a measure of consideration. And the lengths to which most writers sometimes have to go to acquire and defend the solitude necessary for the practice of his craft can make him a difficult companion.

Companionship is as vital for the writer as it is for everyone else, but it isn't always such a good idea. If a writer bothers to marry, as many do, there may arise some confusion in distinguishing exactly which mistress he honors above the other. And children deepen the confusion. Only someone familiar with the biography of Charles Dickens knows the names of his wife and children, for whose welfare he was compelled to write himself into an early grave (at 58). But anyone can name at least a few of his novels.

In a brilliant essay in a July issue of The New Republic (1), Adam Kirsch demolishes some recent attempts to prove the evolutionary roots of art. Artistic expression, the new argument asserts, is as much a result of evolutionary adaptation, a component of our fitness for survival, as our opposable thumbs. Kirsch argues, cogently, what most artists have learned the hard way, that they are "unfit for life". How can the Darwinians explain away the blasted, tormented lives of so many artists if, as they maintain, their talent fits them out for survival? How do they align their legendary addictions, their afflictions, their calamitous sex lives, and heartbreaking friendships with the survival of the fittest? Why are artists, writers, musicians, comics commonly said to have "demons" that are so often self-destructive?

Kirsch uses Thomas Mann's story "Tonio Kröger" to illustrate what is actually a time-honored understanding. Everything about the young Tonio sets him apart from everyone around him - his name (half-Spanish), his dark hair and complexion, his disposition, as well as the "chosen" vocation that is more likely to have chosen him, writing. But, of course, all he really wants is to live as simply and contentedly as all his fellows, which includes reciprocal love from Ingeborg, who can only love Tonio's uncomplicated friend Hans. But Tonio reaches the conclusion: "For some go of necessity astray, because for them there is no such thing as a right path."

One of Willa Cather's best stories was "Paul's Case", in which a young high school boy who hates the commonness of his world (Pittsburgh) is suspended from school and eventually steals a thousand dollars from an employer and takes a train to New York City. He buys expensive clothes, checks into the Waldorf Astoria (the year was 1905!), and spends a night on the town. After eight days, with his money running out, Paul reads in a newspaper that the money was reported stolen, that his father repaid it and is proceeding to New York to fetch his son. Unwilling to face a return to his old drab existence, Paul jumps in front of a train.

What makes the story memorable is that Cather tells Paul's story dispassionately, avoiding the artstruck glorification of his final moments of life or the clinical, psychological analysis of them. Of course, we know whose side Cather is on. Her story makes one think of how many potential artists, with the artist's sensibility, manage to survive their suicidal thoughts, which spring from an innate sense of incompatibility with the world, outgrow their artistic phase, and become normal, harmless, contributing citizens?

Kirsch also quotes Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human: "When art seizes an individual powerfully, it draws him back to the views of those times when art flowered most vigorously.... The artist comes more and more to revere sudden excitements, believes in gods and demons, imbues nature with a soul, hates science, becomes unchangeable in his moods like the men of antiquity, and desires the overthrow of all conditions that are not favorable to art.... Thus between him and the other men of his period who are the same age a vehement antagonism is finally generated, and a sad end - just as, according to the tales of the ancients, both Homer and Aeschylus finally lived and died in melancholy."

We don't know whether Homer or Aeschylus had wives or children. But such information is, after all, beside the point. For a time, Shakespeare found in fathering children a solution to the inescapable problem of mortality. If we are to trust his sonnets, he eventually found such a solution inadequate. It was well that he did, as Kirsch points out, "Shakespeare had three children, one surviving grandchild, and no great-grandchildren: he singularly failed to perpetuate his genes."

Shakespeare comes around to the conclusion that the only immortality for an artist is through his work and its - rather than his - longevity: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." (Although it was ostensibly the object of his love that attains such immortality through Shakespeare's words, since it was such love that inspired them. But it can be taken either way: "My love shall in my verse ever live young.")

Kirsch points out the development of a fairly recent prevailing attitude - the artist's (and intellectual's) contempt for what used to be regarded as "bourgeois" values: "prosperity, family, worldly success, and happiness."

The most withering - and honest - criticism of such values underlies so mch of the poetry of Philip Larkin. One senses that Larkin's neglect of the acquisition of a wife and any resulting offspring was neither a failure on his part nor a conscious choice. His life simply turned out that way. He hilariously recommends "opting out" of what Eliot called the "birth, copulation, and death" process (even if the second part was prominent in his thoughts) in his late (1971) poem "This Be the Verse":

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself."

But his most telling poem on the subject is "Dockery and Son", from The Whitsun Weddings:

‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with—’ Or remember how
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight
We used to stand before that desk, to give
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?
I try the door of where I used to live:

Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.
Canal and clouds and colleges subside
Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,
Anyone up today must have been born
In ’43, when I was twenty-one.
If he was younger, did he get this son
At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows
How much ... How little ... Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,
And ate an awful pie, and walked along
The platform to its end to see the ranged
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,
No house or land still seemed quite natural.
Only a numbness registered the shock
Of finding out how much had gone of life,
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of ... No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.

(1) Adam Kirsch, "Art Over Biology", The New Republic, July 12, 2012.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Revisitations: My Night at Eric's

[Since the publication of this post three years ago, Eric Rohmer died (11 January 2010) at the age of 89. The post captures what must be one of the most magical qualities of filmgoing - the fleeting emotions that one carries away from watching a film in a cinema, that linger all the way home and into one's dreams.]

My Night at Eric's

I have always found the work of Eric Rohmer, who turned 89 this year, more than a little boring. Except for The Marquise of O... (1976), which is his masterpiece and quite unlike all his other films, his foremost quality is an intellectualized sensuality, where the one invariably nullifies the other. Since he is a somewhat lightweight intellectual, Rohmer is much better when he lets sensuality get the upper hand, as he did in La Collectionneuse (1967), Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), Pauline at the Beach (1983) (thanks to the beautiful Arielle Dombasle), and My Night at Maud's (1969)

Another quality of Rohmer's work is irony: how knowledge is often withheld from the most knowledgeable; how the truth is most elusive to those who pride themselves on their honesty; and how happiness is sometimes the product of self-deception. Rohmer knows that it is good not to be wise in the ways of others or in one's own.

Jean-Louis, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, works for Michelin in Clermont, but is not adapting well to his new surroundings since his return from Vancouver and Valparaiso. He notices a pretty blonde in church (Marie-Christine Barrault), who also notices him. Then he runs into Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a friend he hasn't seen in fourteen years. Through Vidal he meets Maud (Francoise Fabian), a beautiful divorcee who, after an evening of banter on love and marriage, impulsively invites Jean-Louis, after the tipsy Vidal has gone home, to her bed. How Jean-Louis responds to her invitation sets in motion events that will change the lives of three people.

In one sense, the film is an argument against Catholicism. Rohmer's lengthy church scenes, while they made me squirm nearly as much as I did every Sunday when I was a boy, cleverly illuminate the drama of looks and gestures going on between Jean-Louis and the blonde, Francoise. And other looks and gestures between Francoise and her co-conspirators, Vidal and Maud, provide glimpses of a much broader drama that Rohmer leaves unspoken.

It is, after all, that unspoken drama that contributes an intriguing dimension to My Night at Maud's - the intersection of disparate lives, libidos, and egos, their reactions, and the resumption of their personal trajectories. Something happened at Maud's. Even Maud talks about that night with unabashed nostalgia. Near the end of the film, Jean-Louis refers to it as "that evening," and Maud corrects him: "Evening? Night, you mean. Our night." By so italicizing that wintry night in Clermont, in which two people attract, but ultimately fail, each other, Rohmer comes close to the rueful, fate-streaked universe of the Alexandrian poet Cavafy:

The Afternoon Sun

This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window was the bed;
the afternoon sun fell across half of it.

...One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only... And then—
that week became forever.

Rohmer makes that moment between Maud and Jean-Louis into a legend, making My Night at Maud's such a moving and personal experience, one of those lovely films that are fixed for us in a moment of time, the first time we saw it, but which grows on subsequent viewings.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Revisitations: Two Cheers for the Nobel Prize

[This is a post from 2008, made right after the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Jean-Marie Gustave (or J.M.G. for short) Le Clézio. I don't claim to be as well-read as the members of the Nobel committee, but I did read some stories by Le Clezio when I was in college. Like most educated readers, I was taken by surprise by the Nobel choice for 2012, announced today, Mo Yan. I've seen the film Zhang Yimou made of his novel Red Sorghum in 1987, which was visually striking (the film, that is). I haven't read any of Tomas Tranströmer's poetry, the Swedish poet who won the Prize last year. English is my first language, and I try to avoid attempts to translate poetry anyway. I received a curious comment awhile after this post was published about my raising only two cheers, "shouldn't it be three cheers?" Like E.M. Forster in his essay "Two Cheers for Democracy", two was all I could manage for the Nobel Prize.]

Two Cheers for the Nobel Prize

In the balance, Alfred Nobel turned to philanthropy far too late. His invention of dynamite in 1867 will forever outweigh the millions in cash awards distributed annually since 1901 to physicists, chemists, physicians, economists, statesmen and writers. (1) That literature is still considered, at least by the Nobel foundation, to be as important to civilization as science, medicine, peace and the world economy is heartening. Except that some of their choices have been counter-intuitive.

Since 2001, the cash award has amounted to 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million). But aside from this considerable sum, what has this award done for literature? For publishers it means prestige, but it also means revenue. For individual writers it means a career-confirming windfall that can set them up for the rest of their lives and finally free them from the necessity of living by their wits. But when one is confronted with the list of Nobel laureates, one sees the real cost of this prestige and all the cash. Where are James Joyce, Robert Musil, Nabokov, Borges, Schnitzler, Robert Frost, Anna Akhmatova, Colette, Rilke, Paul Celan, Yannis Ritsos, Pavese, Flannery O'Connor an D.H. Lawrence, to name only the most obvious? Instead we find John Galsworthy, Pearl Buck, Mikhail Sholokhov, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre (who, true to form, refused the prize), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M.G. LeClezio (this year's winner and the author of stubbornly unreadable texts), and a host of others who would be forgotten by now, had they not won the Nobel prize. Gosh thanks, Alfred.

The last American writer to win the Nobel Prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. Apparently there was a great deal of lobbying for Morrison done by Oprah Winfrey, Inc. But Morrison was the first American to win since Saul Bellow in 1976, whence one can only remark, "what a falling off was there" in those seventeen years!

To further confuse matters, the Nobel foundation has occasionally flirted rather shamelessly with politics.(2) Certainly awarding Harold Pinter the prize in 2005 was a political act. His best work was far behind him, but he was a vocal opponent of Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq. Swedes, you see, haven't fought in a real war for centuries, so they are preoccupied with other people's wars. Elfrieda Jelinek was the first woman to win the prize (2004) since Toni Morrison, and a more unattractive writer of either gender would be hard to find. Dario Fo is far more a radical agit-prop prankster than a writer.

But then, one has to remind oneself, they gave the award to V.S. Naipaul in 2001, to Gunter Grass in 1999 (before his Wehrmacht war record became public knowledge), to Jose Saramago in 1998, Kenzaburo Oe in 1994, Joseph Brodsky in 1987, Czeslaw Milosz in 1980, Pablo Neruda in 1971. The contribution these writers have made to our collective humanity is equal to, if not greater than, the discoveries in medicine, economics, physics and chemistry - which improve our material lives while neglecting our souls.

(1) "My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace." Alfred Nobel
(2) Politics has made a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize. While ignoring Gandhi - for whom such an award was surely invented - the Nobel foundation has seen fit to give it to murderers like Yassir Arafat and Henry Kissinger and to religious fanatics like Mother Teresa.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Goodbye Columbus

Last February, two planeloads of gold and silver (593,000 coins) were transported to Spain from the United States after the government of Spain convinced a Florida court that the cache was the rightful property of Spain, and not the property of Portugal, in whose territorial waters the treasure, and the remains of a sunken galleon that carried it, had been located by an American salvage company. An emergency claim to the Supreme Court by the government of Peru, from whence the gold and silver had been mined, that the treasure actually belonged to their country was dismissed. The galleon sank in 1804, and Peru wasn't an independent state until 1821.Somewhere in hell, Francisco Pizarro must have smiled. 

An agent of Spain, and the first freebooter to land in the New World, Christopher Columbus - Cristoforo Colombo - is honored on October 12, in a country he never visited, but which feels a debt of gratitude for his stumbling on an island in the Bahamas while on a course for Japan. The natives of the island, and all the other islands of the region, as well as the natives inhabiting the mainland of North America, were subsequently called "indians" based on the explorers' mistaking the islands for Asian islands, or "Indies". Feebly, the mistake was corrected by the eventual adoption of the term "West Indies".

We all know, or should know, what happened to the natives next. The same thing happened to all the natives of North America, unless they were lucky enough to be wiped out by European diseases before European muskets could. Stories of explorations into the interior of America tell of villages being found deserted of life. Only the dead were found, victims of microorganisms that had been carried into their midst, to which their immune systems had no defenses. In exchange, Europeans got corn, tobacco, and syphilis. And gold.

Columbus Day is a holiday in the U.S. I learned the jingle, "In fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue" in the first grade. I found out later that it was the same year in which Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. I never minded Columbus Day when I was in the military, since I got the day off. But wherever Italian-Americans gather to parade down city streets on Columbus Day, they are often met by protesting natives, who would rather that the genocide committed on their people be more prominent in American public school history books. The problem of what to do with the native people displaced by European exploration and settlement has never been properly solved - unless one accepts William Tecumseh Sherman's solution: "the only good indian is a dead indian."  

Of course, Columbus's voyages introduced more than just smallpox and slavery to the New World. They introduced God and Jesus Christ (unless you believe the Mormon fables), along with all the other fruits of western civilization - science, literature, philosophy. 

The photo above is what's left of the memorial to Columbus in Caracas, Venezuela. The statue of the Italian explorer was knocked off its pedestal during a protest in which the holiday was re-dedicated as the "Day of the Indigenous Resistance". I currently abide in the Philippines, another former colony of Spain, where some of the most indelible signs of Spanish rule still visible are the many old churches, the same medieval strain of Catholicism in evidence in Mexico (in which, every year during Holy Week, people volunteer to be nailed to crosses), and the same stupid machismo culture that afflicts Latin America. And we owe it all to an ambitious Italian marriner who misjudged the circumference of the earth - or the size of the Atlantic Ocean -  by several thousand miles and got lost on his way to Japan.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Critical Condition

In his marvelous, totally discursive film Caro Diario, Nanni Moretti goes to see an American film some critic had recommended. It was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It's a fictionalized account of a real-life serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders. Moretti sits in his theater seat, while some typically gratuitous murder scenes from the film make him squirm and look away from the screen. He walks out on the film:

"I wander around the city for hours trying to remember who it was that said good things about this film. I read a review. I read something positive about Henry. Suddenly, I remember. I find the review, and I copy it in my diary. Here it is: 'Henry kills people, but he's a kind of good guy. Only facts count for him. Otis is the real scum. Henry has a mad solidarity with his victims. A prince of annihilation, promising a merciful death. The director awakens the public to its worst nightmare: a shower of gore, impaled eyes, martyred flesh, abomination. Henry, the first to dismember the criminal philosophy of the Hollywood racists.'

"I wonder if, whoever wrote this, before falling asleep, has a moment of remorse? When did it begin? When did all this begin? I don't know."

In the next shot, Moretti is sitting at the bedside of the critic who wrote those words, who lies with his sheet pulled up to his face.

"Maybe when you wrote: 'This Korean film was a costume melodrama, demented clothes and hats, super-feminist, flamboyant and diabolical, shot like Spielberg on acid, in futuristic rhythms and spaces." [The critic cringes and whimpers at every word.] Then there's also Cronenberg's Naked Lunch: 'Pure high-budget underground pus, a real cult movie.' [The critic tries to hide his face but Moretti pulls the sheet down.] 'It's not that Jonathan Demme's women are superior. Nor are they what the proletarians and lumpen of three circling worlds were for Lin Piao. But only his women have the gumption to uphold the righteous side of the war of the Imaginary Scalpel in hand.'"

Moretti relentlessly reads on: "'Before Sailor and Lula join for the happy ending murmuring "Love Me Tender", Sailor will spend years in the pen. Shattered human heads will fly. Dogs will grab severed hands, hundreds of Kools and Marlboros will be smoked . . . .'"

The critic that Moretti singled out for ridicule was deserving of such torture - having to listen to the logorrhea he spews out for a living. But critics have never been much liked, by artists or audiences. The artist doesn't like them for the bad things (and possibly the good things) they write about their work. The audience doesn't like them because they are so negative most of the time. What artists and audiences don't understand is that few films (or plays or books) require or deserve comment. But a critic would starve if he only wrote about what was worthy of comment.

In his essay, "Confessions of a Book Reviewer", George Orwell epitomized a typical film critic, circa 1946:

"Everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on, and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honors for a glass of inferior sherry."

Orwell's one or two notable exceptions among film critics is a good average at any given time or place. The same number of exceptional film critics were at work in America in 1946 and in every decade since, despite the exponential expansion of the number of people who think they're qualified to write film criticism. John Simon, who wrote illuminatingly about film for forty years, once told an interviewer*:

"Sometimes, sitting at a film or drama critic's voting meeting, I feel surrounded by creatures from the black lagoon or from twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea. We don't speak the same language. A great Russian film meant nothing to them, whereas a cheap American shoot-'em-up or cowboy movie is a masterpiece. They look at me as if I were some sort of strange comic monster; I look at them and think, What do I have in common with these people? Why am I sitting here? I think press agents would be much nicer to sit with. They know much more about what we're talking about. Perhaps even cab drivers do."

Vernon Young, another exceptional critic, once dubbed Bosley Crowther, longtime movie critic - for 27 years - for the New York Times, a "fogey without portfolio". What exactly are the proper credentials for a film critic? Are there any? 

To be continued . . .

* Davi Napoleon at The Paris Review.