Thursday, January 31, 2013

Alien Genesis

By the time Ridley Scott's film Prometheus was over, I could make sense of the beginning sequence, which takes place just after the credits, in which a hypertrophied humanoid with an ashen complexion and black eyes appears on the brink of a raging cataract. He (I'm guessing it's a guy - or else it's an incredibly buff girl) opens a vial containing a black liquid substance and pours it down his throat. Within seconds, he begins to convulse in apparent agony, while black streaks appear on his body and face. By the time he falls into the water, his body has begun to break apart. Under the water, his body breaks down all the way to his DNA chain.

This short scene is the movie's suggestion of the origin of life on earth, bringing to mind the words from Genesis, "And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." But the memory of those words is about as close as the movie ever gets to any human mythology (never mind Darwinism). In the year 2089, researchers, played by Noomi Rapace (The Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Logan Marshall-Green, find cave drawings on the Scottish Isle of Skye (where else?) that include human-looking figures pointing at a group of orbs above them. The number and configuration of the orbs corresponds to similar depictions from several other ancient civilizations. In 2092 an expedition, financed by an old gazillionaire (making adjustments for inflation), sets out for a constellation in space that corresponds to the cave drawing.

Alien wasn't purely science fiction, although it was closer to it than James Cameron's moronic sequel.(1) (And Prometheus makes Cameron's Avatar look childish.) In 2122, an inter-galactic commercial vessel, the Nostromo, is drawn off-course to investigate a distress beacon from a planetoid. Travelling down to its surface, they discover an alien spacecraft (an identical-looking craft appears in Prometheus), its long-dead crew and a whole deck full of pod-like objects, one of which opens and releases a creature that looks like a cross between an octopus and a crab. The creature attacks one of the crew (John Hurt), attaching itself to his face . Crucially (to the plot anyway), his fellow crew members bring the injured man aboard the mother ship, against the objections of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

Prometheus seems like a prequel to Alien, but also another exploration, or revisitation of the themes and several scenes in the original. Scott said that his new film has "certain strands of Alien's DNA, so to speak". Visually, however, the differences between the two films are incredible. If the action of Prometheus occurs prior to that of Alien, why is the technology on display in the prequel so far in advance of its successor? It isn't simply a matter of budgets. And it has much more to do, I think, with the development of movie technology than the advancement of our understanding of space travel.

The IDEA behind Scott's re-visitation of Alien is one that has been making the rounds for decades - what if humans aren't earthlings but the progeny of ancient aliens? Finding this out, or believing that they've found it out, makes some people in Scott's account ask the all too human question, "Why?" If aliens created human beings, why did they do it?

Evidently, the two erstwhile researchers (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who are caught up in the quest to meet their maker never heard or heeded the advice Stephen Hawking gave last year, to be careful in our attempts to contact intelligent aliens, since they could possibly be so far in advance of our species that they would regard us as little more than vermin or, worse, as potential slaves or fodder.(2) Undeterred, the two take risks that seem incredible even to those familiar with science fiction films. Fools rush in where brave men would kill the suspense. The presence in the expedition of a sinisterly anodyne android (Michael Fassbaender) that is having a Peter O'Toole episode, complicates matters considerably.

To its credit, Prometheus addresses the issue of the existence of God more brazenly than any other science fiction movie. A dialogue exchange between Fassbaender (the android) and Marshall-Green is crucial, if utterly glib: "Have you ever thought why humans created us?" "Because they could, I guess." "What if God gave you the same answer?" The android has a hard time gaining the respect of the humans, despite his intellectual and survival advantages (he survives decapitation toward the end of the film). He, as a machine among distrustful creators, perhaps has no illusions about deities he needs to be divested of.

But when a member of the alien race is awakened from a multi-millennial sleep, he turns out to be a miserable disappointment as God.(3) There is only one conception of God that is free from philosophical problems - that God is not a loving father at all, but a cruel or, at best, indifferent creator. His obvious lack of attention to our mostly self-inflicted sufferings makes sense if God doesn't love us or doesn't care.

But what would Boethius say of Scott's alien creator? "If there be a God, whence cometh so many evils? And if there be no God, whence cometh any good?" I may not agree with such theological speculation, but I wouldn't just sweep it away with an ultimately silly science fiction movie.

Prometheus isn't the first science fiction movie that monkeys with evolution. 2001: A Space Odyssey suggested that human evolution was given a boost by alien visitors. By suggesting that the human race mightn't be as terrestrial as it thinks, is this an attempt to prepare us for our eventual migration away from earth? The chilling future that Prometheus shows us convinces me all the more of the truth in Robert Frost's lines,

Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.(4)

(1) The alien in Alien is what Hitchcock called a "McGuffin" - an unimportant element in (2) "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the native Americans.
(3) Scott's title suggests that the figure we see in the opening scene is an alien Prometheus, creating life on earth in an act of defiance.
(4) "Birches".

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Django Unhinged

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to include a tutorial in his new movie. For anyone sitting in the audience who thought they had come to see "Duh-Jango Unchanied," a few minutes into Django Unchained Tarantino shows his hero, played by Jamie Foxx, confronted by a white man who wonders if, reading Django's written name, the black man knows how to spell. "The 'D' is silent," Django explains.

It doesn't matter what inspires a film, as long as the inspiration results in a good one. Filmmakers have based great films in the past on dreams, visions, significant or trivial events, conversations, a determination to set the record straight, memories, hope, ambitious ideas, life, books, music, and even on other films. If a film is inspired by historical events or on an existing book, play or film, part of our assessment of the success of that inspiration will derive from the extent to which the filmmaker was true to it.

By now it is no secret that Quentin Tarantino gets his inspiration exclusively from movies. He isn't simply a movie buff. Like the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol, for Tarantino Movieland is practically a locale. But when style is based on other styles, and when fictions are based on fictions, if their underlying ideas aren't at least refreshed by re-examination, the results can seem lifeless and hermetic.

With Tarantino, whose "cut & paste" technique has attracted critical as well as popular acclaim, the distillation process comes in multiple stages. His last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, are dimly inspired by history, and by the films of quasi-Hollywood genre, Italian Spaghetti Western directors. One could almost say that, with Tarantino, the Hollywood pulp movies that inspired European filmmakers in the 1960s have come home to roost.

In his two movies, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's success at revitalizing stale genres was more successful because of his investment of sheer energy. He made his love for such movies painfully obvious. He obviously loved the whopping clichés he was playing with. If it ultimately doesn't matter from what angle you look at a cliché, Tarantino knew how to play the game so well that watching (and listening to) Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was fun.

Jackie Brown, based on an Elmore Leonard potboiler, was a change of gears for Tarantino that caught his fans off-guard. At least he proved he had more up his t-shirt sleeve. I liked Jackie Brown because of the strength of its characters and the performances of two resurrected actors (Tarantino has a penchant for rediscovering forgotten talent.) Some of it was sheer brutal nonsense (Robert De Niro was utterly wasted in an empty role). At times it looked too much like Tarantino's noirish answer to Steven Soderbergh glossier Out of Sight, which was also based on an Elmore Leonard book.

Kill Bill was an obvious attempt by Tarantino to return to the multi-layered style of Pulp Fiction. Its failure to do so was complete. His detour, with Robert Rodriguez, into Grindhouse movies was a self-indulgent stunt that impressed only Tarantino's purblind fans. Inglourious Basterds was no way to make a comeback. I expressed my disdain for it a few years ago (q.v.).

What I find most deplorable about Tarantino's rise and his current slide is how much too many serious critics have invested in it. It's as if Tarantino is some kind of Great White Hope for American film, a reason (or an excuse) to get excited about it, at long last. Never mind the low-budget stabs at art from the American Independent Film movement, a few of which drew real blood. Critics want their cake and eat it too. They don't want personal little films whose reach was well within the limits of their grasp. They want - and found in Tarantino - someone who reinforces all of Hollywood's hoariest clichés, a grave-robber who could put flesh on old bones.

Django Unchained is, as always, based on several otherwise mindless but harmless sources. In Tarantino's hands, they are transformed into fresh outrages. Inglourious Basterds wasn't simply an attempt to refresh old B-movies. It tried to pour chili sauce into old wounds and old prejudices. Frighteningly, Tarantino tried to make us hate Nazis all over again. He failed terribly, only because he didn't dare make the Nazis seem real. Instead, he made them into hysterical idiots, making their ultimate destruction seem grossly excessive.

Now Tarantino tackles slavery in America. But this time he commits the error of making its evil tangibly and terribly real. There are plenty of films that make the exploits of people who stood up to Hitler look heroic. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino wasn't interested in heroes. Why else would he go to such lengths to make them so two-dimensional?

In Django Unchained, he gives his heroes more depth (played by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz), but his villains (Leo DiCaprio looking juvenile as ever) are so far over the top, it's once again impossible to believe in them. Historical truth is terrible enough that all a filmmaker has to do to make it real is be truthful in its representation. Like Nazis, the slave-traders were rotten enough human beings that simply by giving us a clear picture of them would make us despise them.

When Dino De Laurentiis produced Mandingo and Drum in the 1970s (movies that Tarantino also cribs in Django), they certainly outraged a lot of people. But because both movies were so stupidly and intentionally exploitative (the salubrious promise of interracial sex was probably their biggest attraction), their outrages were partially excusable.

When I watched the scenes from X-Men and X-Men First Class that were set in an unnamed, but easily construable, Nazi death camp in Poland, I raised the objection that the use of one of history's most horrible events simply to add depth to comic book movies was putting it mildly, reprehensible.

Django Unchained was attacked by Spike Lee for being "disrespectful to my ancestors." On Twitter, Lee tweeted: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."

I think that Lee's objections are valid, if only because Tarantino was obviously aiming at making a movie somewhat more serious than Mandingo. He certainly spent a great deal more money doing it. But he didn't spend it on getting the period right or not stinting on accuracy. He spent it on ever more ingenious ways of spilling and sprouting and spraying gore.

I recall an interview with Charles Bronson in which he objected (in 1975!) to the ever-expanding glorification of gore in films. Where before all you had to see to believe in a gunfight was a man pointing a gun at another man, shooting off a blank, and watching the other man grab his stomach and fall on the ground, filmmakers now find it necessary to show you, with heightened inaccuracy, blood escaping from wounds like water from a ruptured water main, with accompanying bits of flesh and brain tissue. More than fifty years ago, Ernie Kovacs parodied this same zeal for graphic gunfights in a sketch in which one gunfighter fires a shot and, in mock slow-motion, we watch as it slides out of the pistol barrel toward another gunfighter (the bullet is on a quite visible string). When it reaches the second gunfighter's chest, Kovacs makes it look like it comes out of his back, and then swings his camera around behind him and peeps through the hole the bullet made. We see the first gunfighter (Kovacs, of course) thirty feet away, doubling up with laughter.

In the ever-expanding catalog of movie gore, Tarantino evidently relishes acquiring citations. But the worst thing about Django Unchained isn't its sadistic cruelty or its turning history into a punchline. It's an expensive, ambitious, and perfectly idiotic movie - which is up for five Oscars. Every year the Oscars give the retort "So what?" a new lease on life.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Quiet City

When I was living in Des Moines, Iowa (specifying the state is hardly necessary) ten years ago, I found it a terribly lonely place. I had gone there on the suggestion and encouragement of an Army buddy, but when he left town a year later, I found myself alone without family and friends. Why or how I wound up staying there for nearly four more years is one of life's mysteries that isn't worth going into.

For most of my time in Des Moines I lived in a one-room apartment downtown on Cherry Street, in a renovated building that once housed the National Biscuit Company, overlooking the vast expanse of parking lots on the city's south side.

I worked for a private security company in the skywalks - elevated sidewalks that connected nearly all the downtown hotels, the convention centers, and the parking ramps. Since I worked graveyard shifts, I was alone for most of the time, patrolling the close to five miles of skywalks, chasing out the occasional drunks and homeless people, taking my breaks in deserted food courts, and gazing out over the sleeping buildings from the roofs of the parking ramps. The pay was ok, for doing little more than staying awake, forty hours a week.

On Fridays and Saturday nights, the town's young people, the ones who hadn't yet managed to escape to Chicago or Omaha or Minneapolis, drove their cars around the downtown one-way streets, a time-honored activity known as "looping the loop." From where I stood, looking down on it from six or eight storeys above, I thought it was a vision of hell, driving in circles for hours on end in a city with a forgotten past and a displaced future.

On some particularly dead nights, the words of Robert Frost's poem "Acquainted With the Night" would sneak up on me, stepping as I stepped, breathing out as I breathed in:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

I was the watchman on his beat.
My favorite mornings were Sundays, when the streets remained as deserted by day as they had been by night, when the sun glinted off the windows of the empty buildings as I walked the four or five blocks home. I had been familiar with Aaron Copland's tone poem, Quiet City for decades, but the still morning cityscape of Des Moines evoked it for me beautifully.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Les Miz

Victor Hugo's sprawling novel, Les Miserables, is one of the very few literary works that managed to retain its original title in its English editions. (Somehow, I doubt that The Miserables, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims would've attracted many readers, especially given the book's inordinate length - more than twice the length of Joyce's Ulysses.) Despite its length, it's something of a pièce à thèse. It's a fantastically long slog - a gauntlet of orchestrated human suffering pointing in a single direction: at Christian forgiveness. Valjean is the ultimate prodigal son, lost as a condemned criminal at the beginning, but found by a single act of forgiveness - that literally saves his neck. Reformed, he becomes a pillar of his community and his acts of kindness and generosity make him wealthy and beloved. But it is Javert who, according to Hugo's design, must also see the light, even if his final act of contrition is suicide. In the wrong (or right) hands, Les Miserables could easily have lapsed into satire. Like Jesus, Hugo tells a parable to demonstrate the central importance of the forgiveness of sins.

Most English readers know Hugo only as a novelist, but it was for his poetry that Hugo was most celebrated in France. In fact, his novels, though wildly popular, were controversial among French critics and writers. Les Miserables was attacked as both immoral and politically motivated. Flaubert, who knew a thing or two about writing, hated it. For him, Hugo's novel had "neither truth nor granduer." His own novel L'education sentimentale can be seen as an answer to Hugo.

I have encountered Les Miserables in many forms: in Isabel Hapgood's 1887 English translation, in American and French movie adaptations, and even a British radio adaptation that was, in many ways, better than any of the film versions. I've known about the musical since it first attracted attention in the 1980s. I never sought to see it. If the novel never really appealed to me, and if none of the films were all that compelling, I doubted that a stage musical version was an improvement on the novel.

Now Les Miz, as bi-lingual illiterates are calling it, is a musical movie. My problem with movie musicals in general is that the genre isn't compatible with the realism of film. From the looks of the previews for Les Miserables the movie, its makers resorted to a great deal of realism in the depiction of the blood and the grime of Hugo's book. The trouble with using such realism is, the second Hugh Jackman or Anne Hathaway break into song (with orchestral accompaniment), the realism is destroyed.

In his wonderful collection, Books and Persons: Being Comments on a Past Epoch
1908-1911, Arnold Bennett devoted some space to the peculiar manner in which the French celebrate their poets.


[_14 Oct. '09_]

I did not go to Paris to witness the fêtes in celebration of the fiftieth
anniversary of Victor Hugo's "La Légende des Siècles," but I happened to
be in Paris while they were afoot. I might have seen one of Hugo's dramas
at the Théâtre Français, but I avoided this experience, my admiration for
Hugo being tempered after the manner of M. André Gide's. M. Gide, asked
with a number of other authors to say who was still the greatest modern
French poet, replied: "Victor Hugo--alas!" So I chose Brieux instead of
Hugo, and saw "La Robe Rouge" at the Français. Brieux is now not only an
Academician, but one of the stars of the Français. A bad sign! A bad play,
studded with good things, like all Brieux's plays. (The importance
attached to Brieux by certain of the elect in England is absurd. Bernard
Shaw could simply eat him up--for he belongs to the vegetable kingdom.) A
thoroughly bad performance, studded with fine acting! A great popular
success! Whenever I go to the Français I tremble at the prospect of a
national theatre in England. The Français is hopeless--corrupt, feeble,
tedious, reactionary, fraudulent, and the laughing-stock of artists.
However, we have not got a national theatre yet.

* * * * *

Immediately after its unveiling I gazed in the garden of the Palais Royal
at Rodin's statue of Victor Hugo. I thought it rather fine, shadowed on
the north and on the south by two famous serpentine trees. Hugo, in a
state of nudity, reclines meditating on a pile of rocks. The likeness is
good, but you would not guess from the statue that for many years Hugo
travelled daily on the top of the Clichy-Odéon omnibus and was never
recognized by the public. Heaven knows what he is meditating about!
Perhaps about that gushing biography of himself which apparently he penned
with his own hand and published under another name! For he was a weird
admixture of qualities--like most of us. I could not help meditating,
myself, upon the really extraordinary differences between France and
England. Imagine a nude statue of Tennyson in St. James's Park! You
cannot! But, assuming that some creative wit had contrived to get a nude
statue of Tennyson into St. James's Park, imagine the enormous shindy that
would occur, the horror-stricken Press of London, the deep pain and
resentment of a mighty race! And can you conceive London officially
devoting a week to the recognition of the fact that fifty years had
elapsed since the publication of a work of poetic genius! Yet I think we
know quite as much about poetry in England as they do in France. Still
less conceivable is the participation of an English Government in such an
anniversary. In Paris last Thursday a French Minister stood in front of
the Hugo statue and thus began: "The Government of the Republic could not
allow the fiftieth anniversary of the 'Legend of the Centuries' to be
celebrated without associating itself with the events." My fancy views Mr.
Herbert John Gladstone--yes, him!--standing discreetly in front of an
indiscreet marble Wordsworth and asserting that the British Government had
no intention of being left out of the national rejoicings about the
immortality of "The Prelude"! A spectacle that surely Americans would pay
to see! On Sunday, at the Français, Hugo was being declaimed from one
o'clock in the afternoon till midnight, with only an hour's interval. And
it rained violently nearly all the time.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

In the Shadow of the Gun

If there is yet any positive result to the Newtown Massacre, gun rights activists have at least made it abundantly clear to the rest of us the real reason why they cling so passionately to the Second Amendment to the Constitution. While some claim that the Second Amendment is a guarantee of their right to self-defense, others have been arguing it isn't to provide them with the right to protect themselves from criminals but to protect them from a tyrannical government. For those of us in America who don't belong to the gun culture, who see no reason to possess a lethal weapon, we are already living under a tyranny - the NRA is tyrannizing and terrorizing America. It is coercing our government into doing its bidding. And if gun hoarders think that, when martial law is declared in America, an assault rifle is going to stop a SWAT team or a tank, they are even more delusional than I thought they were.  

In some states, there are laws that expand on the definition of self-defense, to include what can be interpreted as cold blooded murder. In the classic recounting of his Travels in Arabia Deserta, Victorian adventurer Charles Doughty described his encounter with "the treacherous Rafiqs" who kidnapped him and whom he feared would kill him at any moment. Hands tied by his captors and forced to walk, tethered to a camel's tail, through several miles of desert, Doughty watched them and discovered an opportunity to seize one of their pistols and shoot his way out. But after profound self-examination, Doughty decided that "a man should forsake his own life rather than stain his soul with the outrage of murder." Doughty came to the desperate conclusion that the taking of another man's life, even in self-defense, was unjustified. All these years later, has murder, under any conditions, ceased being an outrage and become merely disagreeable, so commonplace that people speak of it as lightly as if it were the extermination of a rat or a cockroach?

In 2010, on the 4th of July, I published a post on this blog that examined the funny kind of patriotism of so many gun owners who claim they need to arm themselves to the teeth to defend themselves against their own government. I wrote it in response to a Supreme Court ruling just days before that struck down a gun control law in Chicago as unconstitutional. I present it again unedited.

The Show Goes On

In 1927, while on a world tour, Aldous Huxley attended the screening of an American silent film in the outreaches of the British colony of Malaya. He did not mention the title of the film, but from his description of marital infidelity, jealousy and revenge, it is probably best forgotten. Huxley wondered what the Malayans must have thought of such Americans in their world of unimaginable prosperity and mechanical advancement being represented by such a preposterous movie.

Living in Asia today, very near where Huxley passed through 80 years ago, I notice the number of American television shows that are available to Asian cable TV viewers, and I wonder, as Huxley did, what people must think of Americans when every one of the dramatic shows being presented to them is a "crime drama" - CSI, NCIS, 24, Close, Leverage, and a few others. Practically all that Asian viewers see of American television - which is mistaken by some for American life - is crime, guns, and violent death.

But I begin to wonder, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on 28 June that a long-standing gun control law in Chicago is unconstitutional, in a nation where some have estimated that 200 million guns are in circulation,* in which it is now legal to carry a gun into a restaurant in some states and into a bar in others, if all the crime and guns is all that far from the reality of American life.

I accept the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution. I am dubious of its ability to do so. The Second Amendment to the Constitution made perfect sense at a time when America consisted of backwoods and frontiers. In the absence of any authority greater than that of an overworked lawman, citizens had to defend themselves against threats to their lives and their property. Hollywood has re-created this period of American history in loving detail in countless films.

But today, the 4th of July, I have to question the patriotism of my fellow Americans who feel the need to own guns, who do not feel safe in their homes behind locked doors without a lethal weapon under the bed, who (unbelievably) do not even feel safe in restaurants or in bars without a gun on their belts. What kind of patriot is it who does not trust in their own government or their municipal police department to keep them safe? Or is the widespread ownership of guns, which always seems to be a politically conservative activity, something more insidious than simply the exercise of a Constitutional right?

I have expressed elsewhere my contention that if I felt unsafe in a particular neighborhood or in a particular town anywhere in America, I would simply move somewhere else where I did feel safe. I have friends living in parts of America in which locking one's front door is considered unnecessary. (I assure you that my front door would, nonetheless, always be locked.) I have even said that if there were nowhere in my country where I believed I was safe, I would emigrate. What is the use of a country where I had to live in fear? Buying a gun would definitely not make it all better.

There seems to be a kind of siege mentality behind gun possession and gun culture, a somebody-is-out-to-get-you belief that runs very deep. As a cinephile, I have perhaps seen far too many movies in my lifetime. I know for a fact that I have seen too many bad movies. It seems to me that Americans have seen only the bad ones, and all the crime-ridden television shows, and think they are living in them, like they're John Wayne or Dirty Harry. Why does Oliver Stone's film, Natural Born Killers seem more prophetic the older I get?

*2013 Update: the number of guns in America is now estimated at over 300 million.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Conditional Love

Just before Christmas, corpulent French film star Gérard Depardieu turned in his French passport and announced he was forthwith a citizen of Belgium. He did so as a protest to French president François Hollande's new wealth tax, which requires people who earn more than €1m ($1.3m) to pay 75% tax. Depardieu insisted that he has paid 145m in taxes in 45 years at pre-existing tax rates, and that he felt that France was now punishing people for being creative and successful. The French are bracing themselves for a mass exodus of the rich for tax-friendlier places.

A similar exodus took place in England in the 1970s when two successive Labour Party prime ministers, inspired by Denis Healey, enacted even stiffer penalties on the rich. Rather than give up their millions, many English actors, pop stars and run-of-the-mill tycoons emigrated elsewhere. It makes me wonder how many American millionaires - actors, athletes, and business execs - would leave if taxes were returned to their pre-Reagan era level (75%). Would we regard them as traitors or as savvy businessmen?

Fifty years ago, the rich in America lived without hardship under a 90% tax rate. Of course, it wasn't called a "wealth tax" - it was simply what the government decided was a fair share of the wealth, earned or unearned, in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population. It seems today that the commitment of the rich to their respective countries has become conditional. Evidently, as long as societies decide that the wealthy should bear more of the burden of taxation than everyone else, wealthy people will look for - and find - ways to evade being taxed.

Depardieu, now 64, is a great actor - when he wants to be (The Return of Martin Guerre, Danton, Under the Sun of Satan, Cyrano de Bergerac, Le Colonel Chabert). But he seems to have identified himself too closely with the character he played in Bertrand Blier's Going Places, whose French title, Les Valseuses (the testicles) more accurately identifies the type. His try for a Hollywood career went badly after he told an interviewer that, when he was a teenager, he had committed rape on an unspecified number of women. Like Marlon Brando, who ballooned to elephantine proportions in his later years, Depardieu has allowed his appetites to rule his life, and he doesn't seem willing to trim down. Consequently, his physical grossness restricts the kinds of roles he can even consider playing.

Evidently, Depardieu is ungrateful that France made him the most famous French actor since Jean-Paul Belmondo. His attitude is typical of wealthy people who think that they made money all by themselves, that no one else was involved in its acquisition. Film director Claude Lelouch tried to remind Depardieu that his higher tax rate was an indication that he was lucky and successful. I think that if an American actor who is as comparably famous as Depardieu is in France decided to renounce his citizenship just to avoid paying stiffer taxes, he would find himself becoming very unpopular very quickly.

A few days ago, the French Constitutional Council overturned Hollande's wealth tax measure, accusing it of "breaching the principle of fiscal equality between households." The simple fact that there is an enormous fiscal inequality between households in France makes nonsense of the Council's ruling. And Hollande says he is determined to "restructure" his proposal and get it passed. Will Depardieu take up Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's offer of Russian citizenship, where the top tax is merely 13%? Perhaps Depardieu would fit in well in such a hooligan state as Russia.

Now what if France were in actual peril, from a foreign attack, and what if Depardieu were a young man called upon to defend his country? Would he scarper off to Belgium (or Russia) to save his miserable hide? Would he claim that he did it because he's an artist and that the rules that apply to ordinary citizens of France didn't apply to him?

There is an old joke about the fighting mettle of Frenchmen:

"How many men does it take to defend Paris?"

"Nobody knows." 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Awake in the Middle of the Night

I found out the hard way that one of the biggest differences between the Navy and the Army - and one that betrays the particularly "anal" qualities of the latter - is the time at which I signed out on leave.

Since leave was counted in days, and since every day starts, in military lingo, at 0001 hours (0000 or 2400 hours isn't recognized), all that the Navy required of me was that I sign out on leave at COB, "close of business." I was allowed to officially sign out on leave when I normally got off work, at 4pm.

In the Army there is no such understanding. If my leave started at 0001 hours on a Saturday, then I had to show up at the duty desk at precisely that hour to sign out on leave. This often required that I wake up in the middle of the night, put on my uniform, walk from my barracks over to the CQ ("charge of quarters") desk, where my leave papers were supposed to be waiting, sign out, and then walk back to my barracks and go back to bed, catching a bus bound for home later in the morning.

When I was stationed at Fort Carson, in Colorado Springs, I lived in Denver (I was married at the time). So whenever I had to sign out on leave, I had to get up at around 1030pm, put on my uniform (even though I'd been off duty since 5pm or so), get in my car and drive seventy-five miles to Fort Carson, sign out at midnight (or, to be precise, at 0001 hours), and drive seventy-five miles home.

I considered this to be ridiculously pedantic. But what was an E-4 like me going to do about it?

Since my semi-retirement here in the Tropics, I don't stay up much past 10 in the evening (I get up at 7am). I don't celebrate (get drunk) like I used to. Staying up until midnight is lacking in appeal to me. So, last night, I went to bed at my usual hour and awoke just past 1130pm. At midnight (my timepiece synchronized with the BBC), I played some loud music, kissed my asawa several times, waved at passing neighbors from my verandah, and went back to bed sometime around 1230am.

At 1pm today I watched the ball drop "live" in New York City, while recordings of Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles sang "New York New York" and "America the Beautiful." I kissed my asawa again and wept. I'll be phoning my brother in Denver at 3pm, a friend in Seattle at 4pm, and - if I have any load left by then on my long-distance card - my sister in Anchorage at 5pm to wish them (assuming they're still awake)  a . . .