Saturday, December 20, 2014

Credulity

In his review of a documentary about famed physicist Stephen Hawking, film critic Stanley Kauffmann addressed the ever-expanding distance between the knowledge of laymen like himself and people like Hawking: "Bernard Shaw says somewhere that there is a law of the conservation of credulity. At one time, people believed that a million angels could dance on the head of a pin. We scoff at them, yet we believe that the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. Most of us have as much reason of our own to believe one proposition as the other: We take the word of experts."(1)

Here is what Shaw said:

"I have pointed out on a former occasion that there is just as much evidence for a law of the Conservation of Credulity as of the Conservation of Energy.  When we refuse to believe in the miracles of religion for no better reason fundamentally than that we are no longer in the humor for them we refill our minds with the miracles of science, most of which the authors of the Bible would have refused to believe.  The humans who have lost their simple childish faith in a flat earth and in Joshua's feat of stopping the sun until he had finished his battle with the Amalekites, find no difficulty in swallowing an expanding boomerang universe."(2)

The intellect of Stephen Hawking is dauntingly bigger than the average person's, but I think that Kauffmann was being coy. He was perfectly capable of understanding the fact of the distance from the Earth to the Sun from an explanation of how hundreds of years of observation allowed us to measure the distance. If the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to look down a well and extrapolate from the reflection in the water a remarkably exact measure of the circumference of the earth, then certainly Eratosthenes's method can be repeated and his findings confirmed. The same certainly cannot be said of belief in divine beings and miraculous events.(3)

But Kauffmann's point brings up a much broader issue. To what extent should we take the word of experts, and to what extent is this a kind of cop out? In another article from The New Republic, art critic Jed Perl wrote:

"I don't know enough. When a discussion about classical music demands even a rudimentary understanding of music theory, I am lost. And I lack the skills necessary to follow even a moderately demanding newspaper or magazine account of developments in science . . . I wish this were otherwise. I doubt there is much I can do about it. But there is one thing that consoles me. I know there are people who know about these things - who can speak about classical music in technical terms who can make judgements about the latest developments in microbiology or astrophysics . . . And I do not need to understand exactly what they are saying or thinking to know that it matters."

Perl goes on to criticize the current condition of the media, which seems to cater and contribute to the general shallowness of contemporary culture. "When did people become so unwilling to get in a little over their heads?" he asks. And he concludes that "It is always good to be reminded that I don't know enough." But isn't it also frustrating and disappointing? 

It was said of Leonardo da Vinci that he came closer than any other human being to knowing almost everything that his age had to know. Obviously, to Leonardo da Vinci, knowing everything - or as much as it was possible to know in the 16th century - was paramount. In 2014, such comprehensive knowledge is no longer within reach for a single human being. Our greatest polyglots can only glimpse the totality of the knowledge of our age. And yet this should neither trouble nor surprise us. There are people who are experts in their various fields whom we can consult when there is something we need to know about physics or music or mathematics or history. But, unlike religious mystics or mullahs or bishops, we don't have to simply take our experts' word for it. 


What Bernard Shaw said was placed comfortably into the mouth of a fictional character. Ordinary people can't be expected to understand the most complex theories of advanced physics, but they can understand it, if they wished, by educating themselves. It is quite true that "we take the word of experts" when it comes to knowledge as refined as Hawking's, but the fact that the "experts" became so knowledgeable from years of concentrated study in their fields demonstrates to us laymen that such knowledge as they possess is quantifiable and attainable. People wanting answers to the Big Questions never get the answers they wanted from science because it either simply can't answer them or wasn't designed to do so. Many people, though not nearly the majority that one might expect, now reject such religious notions as angels, without necessarily rejecting notions of the divine. But we no longer have to take the word of experts. If the distance from earth to the sun is 93 million miles (which really isn't very far), all one has to do to verify it is read about how people - not all of them astronomers (4) - arrived at that figure.


(1) "State of Mind," The New Republic, 28 September 1992.
(2) George Bernard Shaw, "The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: A Vision of Judgment."
(3) Eratosthenes was also said to have measured the distance of the earth to the sun.

(4) In 1769, while in Tahiti, Captain James Cook saw the planet Venus cross the face of the sun through a telescope (see photo).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dive In

This past week or so, when yet another monstrous typhoon, Hagupit (aka Ruby) - not quite as powerful as Haiyan (aka Yolanda) of late last year - came ashore very near where I live here in the Visayas Region of the Philippines, killing a number of people and threatening to kill everyone else, I realized that living in this country is rather like an old joke that I know. The joke goes something like this (and I've added some embellishments of my own):

A young man dies suddenly of a massive coronary, and before he knows what has happened he finds himself at the entrance to Hell where he is greeted by none other than Sam Kinison. Kinison tells him, "It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that you are DEAD!!! and that you're in HELL!!!"  


Frightened, the young man cries out, "Oh my God! What did I do?" Kinison answers, "It doesn't matter. But, cheer up, there's more than one hell to choose from!" And he shows the young man three versions of hell. 

He looks through a window at Hell Version 101. It's the old vision of hell from the painting by Hieronymus Bosch, with everything burning in eternal flames and people roasting on spits. Then he looks through a second window at Hell Version 2.0. It's even worse than the old hell, with people being perpetually pursued by terrifying creatures that are always trying to devour them.

When the young man looks through the third window, all he sees are laughing naked people with full wine glasses in their hands up to their waists in liquid excrement. This is Hell Version 3.2.1 and the young man tells Kinison that he chooses this one. With a flash, the young man is naked, standing up to his waist in liquid excrement. But there's an enternally full glass of wine in his hand and he's just starting to get used to the stink, joining in the general conviviality, when a booming voice is heard, saying: 


LUNCH BREAK'S OVER! DIVE IN!

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Rock and a Hard Place


Chris Rock is a very successful black comedian. He's hosted some of the biggest award shows, like the Oscars. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson used to host the Oscars. Chris Rock may not be the equal of either of them, but he has something that neither Hope nor Carson had - quasi-seriousness. "Quasi" because no matter how serious Rock tries to be, his comedic credentials both prevent and protect him from being wholly serious or being taken quite seriously.

He's a funny guy. Get him on the subject of race and he can be bitingly funny - as funny, in his own way, as Richard Pryor. But there was an edge to Pryor's humor that Rock's lacks. Pryor made us laugh at things like race without trivializing them or diminishing their force in people's lives. He contributed something to the discussion of race by pointing out its rock-bottom absurdities. He made us laugh at racism and softened its blows. His target was racism itself.

Chris Rock targets racists, not racism. He makes us laugh at one another, not at what afflicts us. Some of what he says is controversial, but he is immune from prosecution because, no matter how closely he comes to seriousness, he's a comedian. Pryor was a satirist.

People who are interested in Rock's opinions about race get plenty to contemplate from him. But he can be terribly glib at times. When the DNC was on the verge of nominating either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate in 2008, he remarked on SNL that Obama was preferable to Hillary because black men have suffered more than women throughout history. (I presume that he includes black women in his calculation.) The history of man's inhumanity to man has had only one constant: man's inhumanity to woman. The suffering of black men is a brief episode in comparison. Pointing this out to Rock would probably be pointless.

Not to be countermanded, Rock had something to say recently about the police killings of blacks and the failure of the justice system to bring charges against their killers. "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress," he told Time Magazine's Frank Rich, "it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before."

Wow. There are no race relations? Really? What about Rock's humor, which has a lot to do with race? Can't white people relate to it, or are they closed off from ever really getting it by the color - or lack thereof - of their skin? Is there no humanity common to everyone, or is humanity (like the humanity that it took to create the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to end slavery in America) forever limited by race? Would Martin Luther King have agreed with Rock? Many of King's most effective tactics in fighting against racism were borrowed from Gandhi. Would Gandhi have agreed with Rock's remarks? If there are no race relations, then what are all the white protesters across America doing in the streets?


I get Rock's point that it's white people who have had to progress over the centuries, not blacks. It was whites who had to get used to the idea that blacks were their equals before progress could be made. But didn't Chris Rock once point out something else to us? In a concert of more than a decade ago, he made these controversial remarks:

"Who is more racist - white people or black people? Black people! Because black people hate black people, too!" 

Certainly the self-image of black people has improved since the times when they were deemed sub-human or second-class citizens? Wouldn't this account for the black self-hatred we encounter in Rock's performances?

Or was Chris Rock just trying to be funny?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

One Trick Python

About a decade ago, when I loaded my DVD player with the Criterion edition of Marcel Carne's classic film The Children of Paradise, I was surprised to see that it was introduced by Terry Gilliam. I know Gilliam's work well, ever since Monty Python, but I wondered what on earth Criterion thought would qualify him to introduce a French film from 1945. The introduction itself is innocuous enough (only five minutes long), and at least Gilliam doesn't try to misrepresent the film. But then it hit me. Gilliam spoke about how the film is "poetic" and "like a dream" and how it depicts a world that never existed and how that kind of filmmaking is banished from today's cinemas. "Watching it," he says, "I'm amazed at how much I've stolen from it." Gilliam was chosen, apparently, because he makes the same kind of film of which The Children of Paradise is an optimum example.

Gilliam is what I would call a "one hit wonder." In the music industry, the term refers to a band or a singer that enjoys one unprecedented commercial success, only to sink back into obscurity for the remainder of their career. Gilliam has, in fact, enjoyed intermittent success throughout his forty year career as a filmmaker, but he has always seemed to me to be making the same film over and over again.

He was "the American" member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, contributing small, intermittently funny, animated films to their shows on the BBC. When the show went off the air in 1977, Gilliam persuaded Michael Palin to play the lead in his first feature film, Jabberwocky, which, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with Terry Jones) presented a refreshingly inconoclastic view of medieval England, along with an insistent fascination with scatology. In one scene, Dennis (Palin) woos Griselda whilst his prospective father-in-law is defecating loudly into the river from a nearby window. If Gilliam's intention was to show the dirty, smelly underside of our fantasies of Camelot, he succeeded to a fault.

But the film that really got Gilliam going was Time Bandits, about a boy whose overactive imagination launches him into real adventures with historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), accompanied by a band of annoying dwarves. For some reason, dwarves appear again and again in Gilliam's films, along with an overriding theme: that dreams and fantasies are more real and more important and that altered states of consciousness are more conducive to living happily and healthily than living soberly and sensibly in the factual universe.

This is certainly a valid jumping off point for an artist - as long as his fantasies have a beauty and logic all their own. For example, H.G. Wells wrote a beautiful story called "The Door in the Wall," about a man who confesses to an old friend that he is haunted by an experience from his childhood in which he got lost in the streets of London and went through a green door in a white wall. Once inside, he found himself in a fantastical garden, with tame leopards and a beautiful woman who sat him down and showed him the pages of a book that were alive and that told the story of his finding the door in the wall and what he found inside. But when he insisted that the woman show him the last page he suddenly found himself back outside on the street. All through the rest of his life, he tries to find that white wall and green door. And he catches sight of it at various moments, but he never stops to explore it further, and regrets it all his life.(1)

Gilliam seems to have found his door in the wall and has taken up residence there. He has set himself up as The Doorman in the Wall. But the manner in which Gilliam chooses to show us his private garden with its babbling madmen, smart ass dwarfs and animatronic monsters is feeble and - by now - grown hopelessly repetitive. Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, all put forward the very same thesis and are all wheezily representative of Gilliam's penchant for repeating himself. Worse, most of them are contaminated by his bizarre obsessions with little people and lunatics.

I thought that Brazil, which so many have called "Orwellian," was fumbling in conception and execution. The famous story of the producer's reluctance to release the film and Gilliam taking out a full-page ad in Variety exhorting him to release it is justly famous and just another sad illustration of filmmakers' subjection to the whims of the "suits."

I found The Fisher King insufferable, with characters either contemptible or pitiable. I would've walked out on it if I hadn't been in the theater with friends. Jeff Bridges' character was such an asshole that his redemption was an altogether moot problem for me. And casting Robin Williams as someone unhinged was simply asking for trouble. Gilliam's "message" - that we all need to question our standards of sanity and commit acts of misbehavior, like going nude in Central Park (at night, of course) - is simply preposterous.

12 Monkeys was supposedly inspired by Chris Marker's short sci-fi film Ja Jetee. If Marker's film, made up entirely of still photos, was bad enough, Gilliam's extension of its ideas seemed immeasurably worse. Trying to blur the lines between sanity and insanity - even in the context of a work of art (which 12 Monkeys assuredly is not) is an enormous mistake. Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest played the same stupid card - that our looney bins are populated with the wrong people. Playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator is fine if you're Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan. This was the same problem with so much of Brazil - trying to figure out what is real and what is delusional fantasy. And when you can't decide who is crazy and who is sane, you end up thinking that no one is entirely in charge of his senses.

On the day I saw The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, I won a big jackpot in a Reno casino. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. The character Baron Munchhausen was a legendary liar, despite Gilliam's attempt to transform him into a great truth-teller. The significance of the character derives from the curious extent to which people were prepared to believe in his lies. I could say almost as much of Gilliam. 

I didn't see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, simply because it was one of many films that make it conveniently unnecessary to see. I disliked it in advance.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was the last film of Heath Ledger, who died before all his scenes were finished shooting. Ledger's death left Gilliam's film in limbo, but with so much money and time already expended on the project, Gilliam decided to finish it with other actors standing in for Ledger, as a kind of tribute to him. Bunuel did kind of the same thing in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. When the actress who played Conchita quit, or was otherwise indisposed, Bunuel suggested to his producer that, instead of reshooting the film with another actress (which wasn't feasible), they should simply finish the film with a second actress without explanation. Critics concluded that the surrealist Bunuel was having yet another joke on them.

If Gilliam's Parnassus weren't such a mess - with several different planes of time and place being hopelessly (or purposely) jumbled - his tribute to Ledger would've been endearing. Instead, it comes off as desperate and opportunistic. I'm not sure what role the film's insurers played in the completion of the film, but I think Gilliam should've shelved the project, as he did later when another leading actor was physically unable to continue.     

The Brothers Grimm was, we're told, taken away from Gilliam and finished without his approval. I may sound naive, but artistic control is something that every director should have, and the fact that, even after more than thirty years as a filmmaker, Gilliam isn't afforded approval of the final cut simply demonstrates how much power the money men still wield. While some of the CGI effects in The Brothers Grimm are interesting, the portrayal of the brothers as traveling charlatans ridding people of fake witches and goblins, only to see them confronted with a genuine witch (played by a bewitching Monica Bellucci) is sheer nonsense.

I am probably one of the few people who was glad that Gilliam's production of Don Quixote was brought to an end by the accidental incapacitating injury of Jean Rochefort, the marvelous actor whom Gilliam had cast as the Don. I'm happy that Rochefort's injuries weren't permanent, but I'm also pleased that the project was permanently shelved. Given Gilliam's proclivities, I seriously doubt that his interpretation of Cervantes's picaresque novel would've contributed anything new. The latest news, however, indicates that a new production of Gilliam's script may be in development.(2)

Gilliam, now 74, is still working. I suppose it's a good thing that he hasn't grown so accustomed to the luxe lifestyle of a successful filmmaker that he succumbed to the apparently overwhelming temptation to sell out and direct X-Men or Avengers sequelae. I just wish he would stop insisting that I'd be happier if only I ignored science and spent all my time searching for the secret door that leads me into my own fateful fantasy world.


(1) At the end of Wells's tale, the man who relates the story of the door in the wall falls to his death when he mistakes a door cut in some white hoardings hiding a railway shaft for the entryway to his secret garden.  
(2) Literary scholars and critics have been telling us for decades that we are probably wrong to see the old Don as a romantic or pathetic figure. It is probable that Cervantes wanted us to laugh at his depiction of the delusional misadventures of an old fart.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

MediCARE


Here on my Philippine island, I live in a solid, cinder block house in an outlying barangay of a nearby port town. On either side of my house stand houses made from more traditional materials - a wood-plank house on one side, raised on rotting wood posts a meter or so off the ground, and a grass, or "nipa," shack on the other. Inside each of these houses, an old person lies, slowly dying - a family matriarch in her eighties in the wooden house, and her sixty-ish son-in-law in the grass shack. The son-in-law was taken ill about a year ago, in the middle of the night. He was rushed to the hospital, where the staff did what they could to stabilize him.(1) Because his diagnosis was a probable stroke, his family was advised to take him to Tacloban, the nearest sizeable city, where a catscan could help doctors give him a proper diagnosis. With no money to pay for such a costly procedure, the family brought the old man home. I saw him walking around the next day, physically unchanged except for the absence of the white ballcap he always wore. He had another attack of the same symptoms (incontinence and disorientation) that day, and the family decided to confine him to a room in the grass shack where he continues, I'm told, to steadily decline into dementia.

His wife, the matriarch's daughter, cares for him the best she can. She has become expert at caring for the dying by caring for her invalid mother in the wooden house. The woman, who has been dying for three years, sustained a powerful electric shock that, I was told, knocked her twenty yards through the air. She developed a kind of palsy after that, evident in an uncontrollable trembling of her head, and fell into a slow decline. For more than a year, the only sign of her presence in the old house is her cries of pain, which have grown perceptibly weaker as the months have gone by.

The cries can happen at any time, in the middle of a quiet night or during the day, and they can be heard as much as fifty yards away. Her cries have become so commonplace that they are almost unnoticeable, like the crows of roosters or the barks of dogs. But when children file past the house on their way to school and they hear her cries, sometimes they imitate them, and laugh. I've even seen grown men mock the sound, smiling stupidly. Her family is poor, but surely they have enough money that they can afford to buy generic painkillers for their matriarch.

I saw the recent film 12 Years a Slave a few weeks ago. There is a powerful scene in the film in which the protagonist Solomon Northrup is on the verge of being lynched by three men when they are stopped by a caretaker who works for the owner of the plantation. The three men leave, but instead of untying Solomon's hands and taking the noose from around his neck, he is left dangling precariously, just close enough to the ground to stand on his tiptoes. And he is left there for several minutes while someone fetches the master. Dangling there, half choking, while he struggles to keep his toes on the ground, other slaves emerge from their cabins and begin to go about their work. After a dissolve, children are shown playing. The scene attests to the amount of cruelty that the slaves must have witnessed all their lives, that they can go on with their lives as if it were commonplace for there to be a man close by, slowly strangling at the end of a rope. The scene ends when the master arrives by horse and immediately cuts Solomon down.

I think of that scene every time I hear the old woman next door crying out in pain, and witness the members of her family stroll by her house without paying the slightest attention to her. What suffering and cruelty must these people have known, and grown callous to, during the course of their lives that the cries of an old woman in pain would not inspire them to do something - anything - to make them stop?


(1) I feel compelled to say something about the disastrous healthcare system in the Philippines. By law, as in the U.S., a hospital cannot refuse treatment of a patient if they don't have the money to pay for it. But I've heard of cases, and seen surveillance camera footage, in which security guards have thrown patients and their families out of emergency rooms when their inability to pay becomes evident. In a country where a third of the population lives on $2 a day, a tiny minority have health insurance. The rest have to pay in cash, which they manage to do only by pooling the resources of the entire family. When a patient has to be "confined" (admitted) to a hospital ward, a family member has to stay with them in order to fetch food if and when they need to eat (hospitals don't serve meals), and to accept "receipts" from the nurse for the many charges that the patient's treatment incurs. Meanwhile, the rest of the family scrambles to raise enough money to pay the hospital bill. If, when the patient is ready to be discharged, the family cannot pay the bill in full, the hospital's rules oblige them to keep the patient until they are paid. If the patient dies and the family cannot pay, the patient's corpse is held in the hospital morgue.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Migrations





Because he decided from the beginning to go his own way, and continues to work, at 82, as a writer, director, cinematographer, and editor of his films, ignoring what nearly every one of his contemporaries thought was some kind of ultimate goal, and because he had the intelligence and the grace to return to his native country after a brief encounter with Hollywood, Jan Troell (1) is, in my unreserved opinion, the greatest living filmmaker. If he is known to anyone who isn't a cinephile, it's probably because of one film - actually two films - that got some, though not nearly enough, attention from critics and audiences in Europe and North America in the mid-1970s. The Emigrant Saga, as it was known in the U.S., incorporating The Emigrants and The New Land, told the story of a family of farmers who find living conditions too harsh in their native Sweden in the mid-1800s, and take the terribly risky but extraordinary opportunity to cross the Atlantic to America and seek a new life in what is now Minnesota. The fact that Troell had two great actors, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, playing the leads in both films helped tremendously. It did not, however, stop Warner Brothers, which had bought the rights to distribute the films in the U.S., from chopping huge chunks out of both films, reducing the running time of The Emigrants by 40 minutes and The New Land by 102 minutes.


Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time a film of Troell's had been so savagely butchered. Here Is Your Life, Troell's very first feature-length film, was released in Europe at a length of nearly three hours (169 minutes). Despite its having won numerous awards at European film festivals, the American distributor, fearful that exhibitors would balk at screening such a long film in their cinemas, promptly hacked it down to a length of less than two hours (110 minutes).(2) That missing hour of Here Is Your Life has never been shown on American cinema screens, nor have the scenes eliminated from The Emigrants and The New Land.

The son of a dentist, Troell was an elementary school teacher for nine years, an experience that he exploited in his second feature film (not shown in the U.S.), Ole Dole Doff.(3) He always had a keen interest in photography and briefly worked as a cinematographer (on Bo Widerberg's The Pram, among others), while directing his own short films for television. He asked for Max von Sydow to play in his short film, Stopover in the Marshlands, without ever expecting him to accept the role. When he did, it established a long-standing relationship between Troell and Von Sydow that has lasted the length of both of their subsequent careers. Von Sydow had just finished playing Jesus in George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told and was in the middle of making a Western. Contractural agreements promised Troell a daily fee if Sydow's participation in the Western went over schedule, and, when it did, Troell earned a fee worth more than the entire budget of Stopover in the Marshlands.

Stopover is a modest twenty nine minutes in length, but its style is characteristically and refreshingly direct. Based on one of Eyvind Johnson's leisurely anecdotal stories, the action of the film is limited to a railroad surveyor's brief expedition to dislodge a giant rock perched precariously on a hilltop that threatens the rails below. The film is alive in the story's details: the surveyor's (Max von Sydow) sunburned face, his cigarette holder which he momentarily converts into a whistle when he smilingly imitates a train while strolling down the tracks, or sucks on a lump of sugar while he sips coffee from a saucer. The task completed, he returns to the station and sits down on the edge of the platform, waiting for the next freight train that happens by.

Troell took this same fascinating naturalistic approach to his subject and expanded it to epic dimensions in his first feature film, Here Is Your Life, based on a series of Eyvind Johnson's "Olof" stories, following a young man's adventures upon leaving home and working at various labors, eventually becoming a projectionist at a cinema. By "epic" I don't mean the scale of Troell's productions, their sheer size. By Hollywood standards, Troell's most expensive film, The Emigrants (which was also the most expensive Swedish film to date), had a remarkably low budget and the number of people it took to make it was miniscule.(4)

In his review of Troell's 2009 film Everlasting Moments, Stanley Kauffmann caught the "peculiar" quality of Troell's work:

"Troell's screenplay, as has often been the case with him, exists for the fullness of its texture, not for dramatic growth and resolution. We spend two hours-plus in a thoroughly plumbed environment, with its complications of sex, family love, accustomed stratification, possible social change. Conditioned as we are by expectations of form, we anticipate - perhaps unawares - certain developments. But a peculiar truth holds about a Troell film: it is not necessarily a cumulative drama with an organic resolution. Certainly Troell has a sense of the dramatic moment, but he sees it as a moment in a life that has other moments before and after - not as an element in a growing structure. Principally, with a Troell film, the viewer relishes some richly comprehended characters, marvelously presented."(5)          

Troell's next project was even more ambitious.(6) The Emigrants Saga, based on novels by Vilhelm Moberg, was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Foreign Film (it lost to ), and its success prompted Warner Brothers to offer Troell a script called Zandy's Bride. With the script rewritten, Troell was promised that he could also operate the camera, but the American cinematographers' union threatened to fine the appointed director of photography (Jordan Cronenweth) $500 every time Troell touched the camera. The result of depriving Troell of access to the camera, which introduced more cooks to the kitchen, prevented Zandy's Bride from getting off the ground.

In 1978, when Roman Polanski was relieved of his duties as the director of Hurricane, the film's producer, Dino De Laurentiis, hired Troell to take over.(7) Even with a ballooning budget, Max von Sydow to work with and Sven Nykvist as his cinematographer, Troell confessed that "I didn't feel I was doing a good job."(8) The only positive result of the experience was the large amount of money he earned, which helped him finance his next project - back in Sweden - Flight of the Eagle (1982).

The most significant reason for Troell's failure in Hollywood was much more fundamental: a filmmaker's nationality is essential to his work. Remove him from his native soil and native language - his ethos - and he is more than simply uprooted. He has lost his frame of reference, his ability to navigate the strange new world around him. Time and again, talented filmmakers leave their homelands (Fritz Lang, Renoir, Clair, Ophuls, Antonioni, Wertmuller, Malle, and even two other Swedes, Sjostrom and Stiller) for lucrative offers from Hollywood - for a film artist, the Land of No Return. None of them discovered a way to make a film in America that came close to their best work in their native lands. Some filmmakers had the good sense to go back home, but in most cases their creative lives were effectively over. 

Somewhat miraculously, Troell's brush with Hollywood wasn't fatal, as his very next film, Flight of the Eagle, proved. Based on a book by Per Olof Sundman, it chronicles the disastrous 1897 exepedition of Swedish engineer - and adventurer - Salomon A. Andree and his two companions to fly a hydrogen balloon over the North Pole. After its takeoff from Spitzbergen, when its crucial guide-ropes were lost, rendering the balloon utterly unnavigable, the ultimate fate of the balloon or its occupants was a complete mystery until the 1930s, when the remains of two of them, including Andree, were discovered on an Arctic island along with numerous photographic plates. Some of these were incorporated by Sundman in his book and also cleverly interspersed by Troell in the action of the film. Troell would take up the story again in his documentary A Frozen Dream (1997), which showcases many more of the photographs taken during the doomed balloon expedition.(9)

Flight of the Eagle was shown in the States, with enthusiastic praise from John Simon, Pauline Kael, and Vernon Young.(10) The movie reviewers for the dailies, however (including Chicago's Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert), gave it a lukewarm reception or cruelly ridiculed the film, insuring its swift disappearance from American cinema screens.(11)

Undeterred, and living in a country (Sweden) that already recognized his greatness, Troell has been working ever since, scoring an occasional international hit with Hamsun in 1996 and most recently with Everlasting Moments in 2008. Amazingly, his work remains both challenging and rewarding for those intrepid filmgoers who have to go so far out of their way to find him. He has made three films that represent his extraordinarily personal style best: Here Is Your Life, The Emigrants, and The New Land

Vernon Young called Troell "poetic naturalist":

"To watch a Troell film is to regain one's eye,not simply for the object in itself - that alone is reassurance - but for the sense of mystery in all the related things we daily refuse to relate, the living interdependence we fail to perceive or wantonly dissociate."(12)



(1) Born 1931. His last name is pronounced "Troh-well."
(2) Commercial film producers and distributors must be sensitive to the problems of exhibitors - cinema owners who screen their films - regarding the length of films, since films that are longer than usual (like most of Troell's films) can't be screened as many times a day,and can't make as much money in ticket sales for them.
(3) The title is an idiomatic Swedish version of "eeny meeny miney moe."
(4) Eddie Axberg, who also played the lead in Here Is Your Life, acted in The Emigrants and was also credited as a sound recordist.
(5) "Changes," The New Republic, April 1, 2009.
(6) Vernon Young announced in his review of The Emigrants that "The great American film has now been made - in Sweden." ("Hands Across the Sea," The Hudson Review 25, No.2 (Summer 1972).
(7) In his memoir, Roman, Polanski stupidly misspelled Troell's name as "Troller."
(8) To Michael Dwyer, "A Life Calling the Shots," The Irish Times, May 21, 2009.
(9) How and why the members of the expedition died remains a mystery, although Sundman theorizes that it could've been the trichinosis-riddled polar bear meat that they were eating that did them in.
(10) Young wrote: "This film is touched by greatness; it confirms my insistence, for seventeen years now, that Jan Troell (in this case director, co-writer, cinematographer and editor) is unsurpassed by any film-maker of our time.” The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, p.125.
(11) I will never forget them - Siskel and Ebert - laughing at a scene from the film on their syndicated TV show At the Movies.
(12) "Jan Troell: A Portrait," Jan Troell, edited by Lars-Olof Lothwall (Stockholm: The Swedish Film Institute, 1975).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols (1931-2014). He was engaged in every dramatic medium - even in radio, since his first award, a Grammy, was for his comedy recordings with Elaine May. The Graduate, which I saw when I was just 15, was so emotionally insidious that it put me under the radar for weeks. I still cannot hear several of Simon & Garfunkel's songs (especially "Scarborough Fair") without being instantly reminded of Benjamin Braddock's misadventures. Critics at the time called him "the new Orson Welles." When he followed The Graduate with the stupendously ambitious Catch-22, it spawned the story of "The Green Awning," about a bankable young movie director who convinces his producer to back his idea of a feature-length film about nothing but an awning overhanging the street. Catch-22 was one of the most resounding flops in Hollywood history. It was an expensive, all-star, hugely overweening nice try. It's critical failure seemed to take the Orson Welles out of him. 

It turned out that he made many more films than I wish he had, by which I mean that Regarding Henry (1991) and Wolf (1994) could've been made by anyone but Nichols, who failed to make them seem any better than they were. But he could also make some less than brilliant stage plays (Closer, Biloxi Blues) seem more worthy of attention than they were. His movie comeback - The Birdcage (1996) - was so over the top that I needed a telescope to find what was left of Francis Veber's hilarious La Cage aux folles (not much). Putting Robin Williams and Nathan Lane onscreen at the same time was far too much sail for the film's shaky hull.

I was in no position, living my life off-off-off Broadway, to know anything about his fabled theater work. Since I am more than willing to take the words of the handful of great theater critics who were spectators of his work on (to name but a few) Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Death of a Salesman (the revival with Kevin Spacey) for Nichols's theatrical virtuosity, at least I know something of what I missed.

I will never forget the spectacle of Benjamin Braddock doodling the name Elaine again and again, or his stalking her to Berkeley, to spy on her from not so afar, or his taking a room in a boarding house on her campus to which Elaine tracks him down one night to confront him with the lies that her mother told her about him, then returning later in the night to ask him to kiss her. And the last scene of The Graduate, in which Ben rescues Elaine from her wedding, escaping with her by bus to an undisclosed future, is indelibly etched in my memory.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pissed Off

When I arrived in Okinawa in 1992, which was to be my final duty station in the Navy, I attended "Island Indoc" - a week-long series of lectures about the island that was to be my home for the next three years. I was instructed about the geography and history of the island, learning curious facts like the occupation of Okinawa by the U.S. military until 1972. Overnight, I was told, traffic was redirected to the left side of the road and all the road signs in English were swapped out with ones in Japanese.

Of the many peculiarly Japanese customs of which I was informed, one of them caught me by surprise. Despite Okinawa - like the rest of Japan -  being one of the most resplendently modern places in the whole of Asia, urinating in public is still tolerated. This practice has all but died out in Europe and the U.S. Doing so nowadays - and getting caught - would get you ticketed for indecent exposure anywhere north of the Alps and east or west of the Mississippi.(1) The only people who continue to do it are either outdoorsmen or the homeless, for whom the whole wide world is their potential toilet. But in Japan, as long as he isn't waving his John Thomas at passing traffic, a man can piss just about anywhere he pleases.(2)

In the twenty-two years since then, I have learned that the same - publicly urinating - goes for the rest of Asia. In the Philippines, the practice is so ubiquitous that it's inescapable. You cannot drive down a highway or walk along a street anywhere - or look out of your kitchen window - without seeing some Pinoy up against a tree or a wall taking a leak. I have attended parties where the men will walk around the closest corner and pee whilst carrying on a conversation with me.

But however many times I have seen it (and if I had an American dollar for every time I have I could buy a return plane ticket home), I can never - will never - get used to it or do it myself. When I was in the Army conducting a "field problem" in the middle of nowhere, I would have no choice but to urinate and defecate behind some shrubs. But such extraordinary circumstances in my life are over, thank god. I have lived in four different houses since I came to live in the Philippine provinces, and every one of them have had - as one precondition for my living there - a functioning indoor toilet. But, just when I thought I'd seen everything in this outlandish place, I will look out of one of my windows and see things like a grown man who also has an indoor toilet walk out of his front door and piss on his outside wall. Or watch his little boys pull out their willies and piss directly on the ground where they play. It takes my breath away, especially when the stench of the sun-dried piss wafts through my windows and hits my nostrils. If dogs can do it, why can't men?

There have been quite token attempts in Manila to construct public urinals and to persuade men to use them. Having found myself occasionally in the wrong place at the wrong time, I can attest to the fact that such public toilets are a nightmare. I have also noticed some "pay" toilets that charge two pesos for their use - which makes them that much more of a hollow gesture.

Why does it seem like such a compulsion for these men to stop whatever they're doing in a public place and piss on something - a mango tree or a highway guard rail - that isn't supposed to be peed on? I'm certain that Freud addressed this curious phenomenon somewhere in his voluminous writings on human psychology. It must be the manifestation of some male sexual fetish - exposing his shortcomings and leaving his pheromone-rich waste wherever he happens to find himself. Since no apparent effort is made to conceal the act, there must also be some male-bonding element to it. I give Filipinos the benefit of the doubt by assuming that it's an unthinking, practically unconscious act - which makes it seem - to me - that much more unconscionable. Just because one CAN do something does not always mean that one SHOULD do it. And just because something is not illegal does not mean that it's right.


(1) A friend who has lived in Rome tells me that Italians are still as relaxed as ever about pissing in public.
(2) Unless she has developed the talent of pissing without dropping her shorts, a woman in Asia isn't free to do the same as men. Although I have seen, despite all attempts to UNSEE it, an old woman defecating on a street in Okinawa.


Postscript 2 December 2014. I should, I suppose, count myself lucky. When reading V.S. Naipaul's impressions of India, he writes that “They defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks; they defecate on the streets.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Monsieur Klein


France under the German Occupation, which Albert Camus, on the day of Paris' liberation, described as "four years of a monstrous history and an unspeakable struggle that saw France at grips with its shame and its fury," was a nightmare from which the French were lucky to awake. Much of the interest and controversy aroused by Marcel Ophuls' documentary The Sorrow and the Pity was due to the refusal of most Frenchmen to talk about the era. That film confirmed what most people already suspected, that the French Resistance, while heroic, was carried out in the midst of a population that collaborated either actively or passively.  

Not surprisingly, most French films that deal with the period, like The Battle of the Rails, and the recent Silence of the Sea, Shadow Women and Lucie Aubrac, are concerned with some aspects of the Resistance, and not with the everyday lives of ordinary French people during the Occupation. Shortly after the release of The Sorrow and the Pity, Louis Malle (who, it turned out, had a guilt complex about the subject, as Au Revoir les Enfants exposed), made Lacombe Lucien, a brilliant film about a young hick who joins the enforcers of the Occupation. 

The recent discovery of hundreds of artworks once considered lost - many of which have been missing since they were confiscated from their Jewish owners by the Nazis - in the house of an Austrian citizen named Cornelius Gorling has made Joseph Losey's film M Klein (1976) seem much more timely. The plot of the film concerns a black market dealer in German-occupied France in 1942, who buys up artworks that Jews have to sell for cash. 

A title at the opening of the film states, with deliberate vagueness:

"Mr. Klein is a fictitious character, a composite of the experiences of many individuals. The facts are a matter of history. They took place in France in 1942."

Which leaves the viewer to decide what is fact or fiction. Robert Klein, played with cool confidence by Alain Delon, cheats his clientele. "It's easy for you when a man is forced to sell," a desperate owner of a painting by Adriaen van Ostade tells him. 

"But I'm not forced to buy." Klein replies. "I'm not a collector. For me it's just a job." He expresses regret for having to buy from those who are compelled to sell. "I've seen many clients like you, urgently needing to sell. And I assure you it's most unpleasant for me. Embarrassing. Very often I'd rather not buy."

"Then don't buy," the client (Jean Bouise) tells him. 

Showing the client out of his chic Paris apartment, Klein finds a small newspaper, "Informations Juives," on the floor outside his door. Thinking his client must've dropped it, he tries to hand it to him. His client assures him that the newspaper isn't his. The paper is addressed to a Robert Klein, and Klein spends the rest of the film trying to prove that there must be some other Robert Klein - a Frenchman, but also a Jew. His sense of urgency increases when the "authorities" (all Frenchmen) begin rounding up Jews for their eventual deportation to camps in the east.

Visiting the newspaper's offices, the editor admits to Klein that "It's strange" that Klein's name turned up on a list of subscribers: "Unless someone else, perhaps a friend of yours, as a gift . . ."

"That's impossible," Klein insists. "No one would play that sort of joke on me." 

"You think we make a good subject for jokes?" the editor asks. Of course, the authorities permitted the publication of the journal so that it can keep track of Jews. I will call the two Kleins Klein 1 and Klein 2 to avoid confusion. Klein 2 has a different address from Klein 1's. Klein 2's landlady claims, "I never saw much of him," but saw enough of to recognize Klein 1. "I'm not YOUR Mr. Klein," Klein 1 insists. "I thought you were him," she says. "Same height, same hair, just as slim. The same look." 

Both Kleins own a copy of Moby Dick. In the only photograph of Klein 2, his face is hidden. When Klein 1 takes it to a developer, the man calls the hidden face "your face" to Klein 1. Is it a plot to incriminate Klein 1 because he takes advantage of Jews who need money? The film never arrives at an explanation. 

It is Klein's own obsession with the other Robert Klein, presuming he exists, that brings destruction down on him. Even with the proof he needs to clear himself, he pursues his Jewish "double" all the way to a train platform where Jews are being called by name to board freight cars bound for the camps. When Klein hears his name called, and his double fails to step forward, he stoically boards the train himself. At that point, where the film turns completely soupy, Klein perhaps becomes a symbol rather than a man or even a Jew. But a symbol of what? France's war guilt? Its acquiescence to Nazism? Its collaboration in the destruction of the Jews? The only sensible conclusion to make, to which the script offers numerous clues, is that there is only one Robert Klein - that the black market art dealer whose family has been French and Catholic since Louis XIV and the Jew who rented the apartment in Pigalle are one and the same person. 

M. Klein is one of a surprising number of works made by non-Jews that is fixated on the Holocaust. Despite the somewhat loaded seriousness of some of these works, mere reference to subject is regarded by many as some kind of stamp of authenticity. Even the loathsome X-Men movies feature a character ("Magneto") who is a survivor of the death camps. The fascination of non-Jews with the subject of Jewishness was satirized by Cynthia Ozick in her short story "Levitation." In his essay "The Imaginary Jew," Adam Kirsch examined the problem. He begins with a brief synopsis of Cynthia Ozick's short story:


". . . first published in 1976, [it] deals with a pair of married writers - the husband Jewish, the wife Christian - who throw a party for their literary friends. . . . the star attraction turns out to be a professor who is a Holocaust survivor. The Jewish guests all congregate in the living room to hear him relate the horrors he lived through. Then, in a moment poised between satire and magical realism, the room full of Jews begins to float into the air, leaving the Gentile host behind."  

For Kirsch, many non-Jewish writers and intellectuals express feelings of inadequacy before the overpowering magnitude of Jewish suffering and tend to overcompensate in various ways but only end up invalidating themselves and their work. Kirsch claims that "The Holocaust, in this sardonic fable, is an obsession and a badge of authenticity that the Jews, despite themselves, hold over the non-Jews; Jewishness and Jewish suffering become a kind of club to which outsiders would not necessarily want to belong, except for the nagging realization that they never can."


In another essay, Kirsch wrote:

" . . . people do not have to be Nazis, or anti-Semites, in order to slaughter their neighbors. Yet nobody looks into his heart and sees an Eichmann lurking there. And this inability to match up our self-knowledge with our historical knowledge is the most disconcerting thing of all. Are we genuinely different from those millions of people, in the past and in other places, who did and do engage in mass murder?" ("Can You Learn Anything From a Void?")



M. Klein examines this very question. The titular hero of the film is driven by an earnest desire to clear his name as well as to discover the lengths to which the "authorities" will go to exterminate his Jewish namesake.  

Joseph Losey, the director of M. Klein, is himself something of an enigma. One could argue that a man who was accused of being "Un-American" (whatever that means), blacklisted, exiled, working clandestinely for awhile - could speak with some authority for a case like Robert Klein's. But what Losey did was refuse to name names to an illegal government committee. The circumstances of his livelihood were changed radically, but his life was never at risk. 

There was one member of the crew of M. Klein who could attest to the difference between risking one's career in film for a principle and risking one's life for an accident of birth. The lovely decor of M. Klein was created by Alexander Trauner, who was a Jew and who had worked clandestinely in France during the Occupation. He wasn't, like Losey (or Robert Klein) denounced and wrongly accused. He faced the same fate as every other Jew in France, but he managed to evade it. Now that would make for a good film. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Regress Report

It has been exactly a year since Typhoon Haiyan, a.k.a. Yolanda, collided with the east coast of the Philippines at the northeast corner of Leyte. The city of Tacloban - situated just to the north of the spot where, in 1944, another gargantuan invasion took place, the Leyte landings of the U.S. Marines, who were followed ashore by General Douglas MacArthur - was called the "ground zero" of the storm, and it was devastated. Witnesses described the storm surge as a veritable tsunami that invaded the land, sweeping everything ahead of it. By the time the storm had passed, dead bodies were everywhere - lying in the streets, inside their collapsed homes, and even washed out to sea. Estimates of the dead or missing in the region surpassed ten thousand, but the final number of the dead and presumed dead (their bodies never recovered) remains unknown a year later because bodies are still being recovered (or uncovered). The official figure is in excess of 6,300.

When I visited the city last April, five months after the typhoon, much of it looked as if the storm had occurred only a week before. Despite promises of aid from all over the world, the destruction of Tacloban remained stubbornly and brazenly evident. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN just five days after the storm hit, Philippine President Aquino expressed skepticism about the "10,000 dead" reported by the Red Cross, stating that “there was emotional trauma involved with that particular estimate quoting both a police official and a local government official.” The Philippine Office of Civil Defense stated that they have not been given any "deadline" for announcing the official figures.

Recently, addressing students at Georgetown University, Aquino stated that his government has tried "to minimize the effects of natural disasters." Having lived through the storm and the dead calm that has settled in since, I get the feeling that Aquino was referring to the minimize button at the upper right corner of his computer screen.

(A year later, the fishing boat in the photo remains right where the typhoon deposited it.) 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Coming Up for Air



My favorite writer, as anyone who has done more than glance at this blog will know, is George Orwell. Although he wrote novels, a few of which are of considerable literary importance, I prefer to read his essays and journalism, in which Orwell speaks in his own voice, even though he hid behind a pseudonym. At the close of his wonderful essay on Charles Dickens, he wrote that "When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. . . . What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have."

The face that I see behind the pages of Orwell's writing is not Eric Blair's (which was one of the reasons why he assumed another name), one that endured five years as a subdivisional officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, living in extreme poverty for awhile in England and France, and otherwise straightened circumstances once he had chosen to live by his writing alone, was shot in the throat while fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and suffered tubercular hemorrhages for the last fourteen years of his life. It is a sour face, pushed inward like so many English faces, but particularly withdrawn like a stubbed-out cigarette - of which Blair smoked his share, even after being diagnosed with TB.

But the face of George Orwell, the pen name he adopted in 1933, is that of an utterly fearless and tireless pamphleteer - a compassionate, knowing but never mocking or pompous face, an unwavering realist whose gaze is often on the horizon where he can plainly see the just society, in which not only rubber truncheons (a term he repeated almost compulsively) and secret police are things of the past but in which private property and personal gain are no longer the primary motives of life.

If I were to choose from his writings one line that comes closest to a testament of his political faith, I would use this, from his 1944 essay on Arthur Koestler: "It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable!"(1) Orwell had little patience for lazy thinkers, for reactionary thought in general, that pretended that progress was an illusion, that there are no new ideas, or that, if a Golden Age is real, it existed some time in the past, and that we have degenerated from it. For Orwell, progress is a matter of demonstrable fact, and society itself is evolving, bettering itself. The goal is not a perfect society, which Orwell rightly asserted is a figment, but that there is plenty of room for improvement - which humanity is slowly making.

He was bitterly disappointed that, when they returned from the war, the millions of British soldiers who had seen what their guns could accomplish didn't use them to demand immediate and sweeping changes to British society. In fact, Orwell struggled with the realization that socialism was becoming a Utopia that might never be established in what was left of his lifetime:

"A socialist today is in the position of a doctor treating an all but hopeless case. As a doctor, it is his duty to keep the patient alive, and therefore to assume that the patient has at least a chance of recovery. As a scientist, it is his duty to face the facts, and therefore to admit that the patient will probably die. Our activities as socialists only have meaning if we assume that socialism can be established, but if we stop to consider what probably will happen, then we must admit, I think, that the chances are against us."(2)

In 1942, when "Looking Back on the Spanish War," Orwell speculated:

"Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight, sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later - some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years."

The biggest problem with predicting the future is, almost every prediction gets way ahead of itself. Advances that are predicted to take twenty or forty years take a century to come to pass. Look at Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It predicted that, in thirty-five years, we would be flying on commercial spacecraft to vast - and beautiful - space stations, colonizing and mining the moon and exploring one of the moons of Saturn. Almost fifty years later, we have one relatively tiny space station, the moon remains unvisited since the last Apollo mission, and the first manned mission to Mars is still years away.

Orwell spent what he perhaps couldn't have known were his last years writing feverishly. In 1948, his health failing on an island in the Hebrides, he couldn't find someone to type his manuscript for Nineteen Eighty-Four, so he typed it himself. He spent most of 1949 in hospital, but visitors found him, despite his skeletal appearance, hopeful of his future and bursting with ideas for future essays and novels. It wasn't so much political advancement that let him down as medical advancement. D. J. Taylor takes up the narrative:

"He believed that a writer who has a book left in him to write will not die. The new American wonder drug streptomycin had been tried on him the year before, and Fred Warburg [of Secker and Warburg] had petitioned his U.S. publishers to help in speeding up a delivery of auromycin, but these were early days for TB cures." (3)

The determination of Orwell's doctor to treat him was that of a physician who administers his treatments with an expectation of positive results. When all the treatments failed, early on the morning of 21 January 1950, and Orwell succumbed to a final, massive hemorrhage, his doctor didn't resign his post and take down his shingle. He applied the experience of treating - and losing - his patient to every one of his subsequent cases. Every physician believes in progress, in the slow but steady advancement of learning.

Within a year of Orwell's death, tuberculosis was curable. The prognosis for socialism remains guardedly optimistic.


(1) "Arthur Koestler," 11 September 1944.
(2) "Toward European Unity," Partisan Review, July-August 1947.
(3) D. J. Taylor "Last Days of Orwell," The Guardian, 15 January 2000.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Frighteners

I don't have much use for horror movies. The number of times in which I was scared by something in a movie is very low. (The overabundance of stupid movies is, if nothing else, scarier.) I am immune to the vast majority of horror movies - whose utility is - presumably - to horrify. I find them utterly ineffective. The Exorcist worked - it was effectively frightening. After years of Catholic school, William Friedkin's film finally made me think - momentarily of course - that Satan was real. But it was 1974 and I was just 15, even if I've heard a lot of grown ups admit that it scared them, too. (I jumped out of my seat in the scene when Father Karas listens to the tape recording of the demon speaking and the phone rings.)

This doesn't mean that I am incapable of being scared. If I were to mention some of the things that have frightened me over the years, most people would either laugh or wouldn't understand what I was afraid of. I don't mean the fear of dying, which I have felt on a few occasions, whether or not it was justified. (I agree with Woody Allen: "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be around when it happens.")

Even if there is no proof whatsoever for the existence of ghosts, innumerable  serious-minded people have seen them and spoken or written of their experiences. Even George Orwell, who was one of the most clear-headed people of his age, mentioned in a letter that he saw a ghost; though he immediately discounted it as "probably a hallucination." I believe that I met a ghost when I was a sailor stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The base where I was living, called White Beach, had many small caves that had been dug out of the coral cliffs in which Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than face capture. One evening I was walking the winding road that led up a hill to the main gate, catching up with my buddies whom I couldn't see but were only a hundred yards or so ahead of me. I met a young Japanese man wearing a cap coming towards me down the hill. He stopped in front of me and, without saying a word, asked me for a cigarette by putting two fingers to his lips. I shook my head and mentioned that I didn't smoke, and he just continued on his way down the hill. When I caught up with my friends, all of whom had lit cigarettes, I asked them why they hadn't given one to the man. "What man?" they all asked. Although the man couldn't have come down the hill without passing my friends, they claimed to have seen no one. I blew it off but later I guessed that it might have been the ghost of a Japanese soldier from the caves.

Being scared, genuinely frightened, isn't an experience that I enjoy or try to cultivate, but many people seem to. This time of year people are going to costume parties dressed as zombies, vampires, and various other monsters (or wearing hazmat suits) - not necessarily to scare anyone but to amuse one another with the stereotypes of terror, having fun with what's supposed to be frightening. It's also an opportunity to watch horror films, old and new - everything from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2.
At the end of 1999, when I was in the last year of my service in the Army, someone very dear to me suffered a terrible personal loss when a man who was in love with her shot himself to death. I never met the man, but I knew he was an Army Green Beret. They had argued the day before and he had cut his wrist so deeply that the nerves were severed. He was patched up in a local emergency room, but knowing full well that news of what he had done would be the end of his special forces career, he bought several bottles of all varieties of booze (he didn't drink, she told me) and then set about getting drunk. She left his apartment - which was only about a block away from hers - that evening and returned in the morning to check on him. She claimed that she hadn't seen the body, but when she described to me how she found his door unlocked and, upon pushing the door open, someone - or something, she said - had pushed back, making her panic and run away, she made me believe that she had probably found the body. The police told me that the evidence made suicide virtually unmistakable.

Along with another of her friends, I did what I could for the length of a weekend to console her. Simply to distract her from the situation, she and I watched a lot of television. We were in the basement of her friend's house, watching cable TV for most of the day and night. I decided to dictate what we watched, which meant that I tried to steer clear of programs depicting violence, people shooting off guns, or people dying. But as I very quickly discovered, it was nearly impossible for me to find a movie or a show on channel after channel that wasn't about guns and killing.

Because she liked Michael J.Fox, we settled on watching a movie called The Frighteners. Believe it or not, it turned out to be one of the least violent programs on the air. It's about a man - Fox - who is mistakenly suspected of being a serial murderer. He has the ability to see a number on the next victim of the serial killer's forehead, but every time he tries to prevent their deaths, he winds up being implicated. Peter Jackson was the director, and he overindulged in the digital effect of superimposing ghosts in many scenes along with the "live" action. This movie special effect is as old as film itself - and almost as old as photography. Originally it required simple double exposures, so that it appeared that two planes of reality existed in the same image.

But Jackson, not content with such analog tricks, used his own brand of digital double exposure that placed the living and the dead side by side in the same frame. The result isn't at all frightening, except when Michael J. goes undercover, so to speak, by deliberately dying so that he can interact more directly with the dead. His death is only temporary, but when it threatens to become permanent, and the film touches on actual mortality, the plot comes to life.

But sitting on a sofa with someone whose friend had killed himself just a few days before made watching The Frighteners far more than merely frightening. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Scowls of a Summer Night



In the opening credits of Smiles of a Summer Night, a title announces that it as "en romantish komedi av Ingmar Bergman." By the end of the film, however, it's fairly obvious that we have not been watching a "romantic comedy" in anything close to the conventional sense. Every time I see the film aired or read a review of it or any reference to it, I get the feeling that it's being misrepresented. Even the works inspired by it fail to capture its unique tone. Few people seem to notice how Bergman's film barely lives up to its title - there's very little smiling in this summer night. 

Not that this disqualifies the film from greatness. It is justly identified as a masterpiece, one that occupies a place among the few dozen greatest films ever. Its uniqueness, in fact, derives from its exquisite blend of elements, its fine control over a surprisingly wide range of sometimes violent emotions, from jealousy to bereavement, from the murderous to the suicidal to the pinnacle of true love's fulfillment. All the while we wait for the romantic comedy to appear, we are subjected to something that is deceptively romantic and deceptively comic. Bergman, who would become famous for a quite acrid view of the interplay of men and women, is subtly and brilliantly criticizing our notions of love, sexuality, and the truth.

Frederik Egerman has a very young wife, Anne, who thinks of him as a darling uncle. And he has a very young son who thinks he loves no one but God. Fredrik has a former mistress, Desiree, a successful actress, whom he forsook for his utterly chaste marriage. He thinks he doesn't love her - cannot love her - because her low social status disqualifies her as proper marriage material. Desiree - who comes closest to a master/mistress of ceremonies in the film - has a young son whom she named Fredrik, but doesn't think the man respects her enough to make an "honest woman" of her. Desiree is also the mistress of Count Malcolm, who has a contemptuous view of both wives and mistresses. His wife, Charlotte, loves him painfully - since he cheats on her openly.

On a visit to her old mother in the country, Desiree conspires to bring everyone's latent feelings into the magical light of a midsummer night. She tells her mother to invite everyone to her house for a soiree - an evening that will last until morning. By the time it is over, truth has prevailed over delusion, old relationships end or are renewed, and new ones begin. The film ends a bit far from happily. Bergman clearly had scant use for what is conventionally known as happiness. his characters are all either pitiable or contemptible, despite the thoroughly neat tying up of all the story's loose ends. The only characters that are neither sadists nor masochists are the servants, Frid and Petra.

And Bergman indulges in the hoary old saw that bestows mastery on the mistress, the literary and theatrical conceit of women's superiority over men. Throughout Smiles of a Summer Night there is the suggestion that only women know what's best for men. At one point, Desiree delivers the line,"Men never know what's right for them. We have to set them on the right track." There are even a few hints that loving a man is beneath a woman. There is this exchange between Desiree and her ancient mother when she has the idea of inviting everyone to her summer house:

Desiree: How could a woman ever love a man? Can you tell me that?
Mother: A woman's view is seldom based on aesthetics. And one can always turn out the light." 

And when Charlotte visits Anne, she suddenly launches into one of the most painful admissions of her enslavement by love:

"[referring to Count Malcolm] I hate him. I hate him, hate him, hate him, hate him! Men are horrid, vain, and conceited. And they have hair all over their bodies. He smiles at me, kisses me, he comes to me at night, driving me insane with his caresses. He speaks kindly to me and brings me flowers, always yellow roses. He talks about his horses, his women and duels, about his soldiers and his hunting - talks and talks and talks! Love is a loathsome business. In spite of everything, I still love him. I would do anything for him. Anything, do you understand? Just so he'll pat me on the head and say,'That's a good dog.'"

None of this is in the least convincing as an argument, except for the fact that the film - as with nearly all of Bergman's films - is dominated by the powerful actresses at his disposal. Smiles of a Summer Night belongs to Eva Dahlbeck, who plays Desiree like she was poured into the role. Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow and Erland Josefsson are splendid actors, but Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson are the gist - and the grist - of Bergman's films. 

By the time the summer night - and the film - is over, we have the feeling that we've been up all night, but we can't go to bed when the sun, which had never set, cannot rise. It's too late for breakfast, and far too early for a midnight snack. The film leaves us in a quandary: where do we go from here?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Blue Angel


I was moved to watch The Blue Angel (1930) last week, after reading one of Stanley Kauffmann's reviews - something I do almost daily, it seems, ever since his death last October.(1) The film has never been on my list of favorites. Josef von Sternberg, who adopted the "von" to give himself prestige that impressed the hicks in Hollywood sufficiently to land him a career, is responsible for catapulting Marlene Dietrich to a stardom she would've been better off without. Sternberg is also responsible for the irritating Danish director Lars von Trier adopting the "von" in his honor. 

Having read Lotte Eisner's wonderful books on the subject, German film was leading the way in Europe before the Nazis took over, with producer Erich Pommer, Ufa, Fritz Lang, and G.W. Pabst making up for the loss of F.W. Murnau to Hollywood. Having written before about Pabst's spectral silent film, Pandora's Box, which was adapted from two plays by Wedekind, The Blue Angel comes closer to capturing something of the Berlin cabaret life that Christopher Isherwood wrote about in Berlin Stories and I Am a Camera. Carefully restored from elements that owe their existence to luck, accident, and the erstwhile efforts of Henri Langlois, to whom a cinephile Nazi entrusted the original negative, even as Hitler's agents were busy destroying all evidence of the film and of anyone who appeared in it, it's an example of what Goebbels called "decadent" art, because it showed us a Germany that bore no resemblance to the Nazi fantasies of a master race. So it was condemned, along with other priceless works of art and literature, to the bonfire. Freud, who was safe in England, remarked on the wholesale destruction of German culture with an oddly forboding joke: "This is progress. In the Middle Ages, they'd have burned the artists, too."(2) 

The role of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, in the preservation of The Blue Angel is widely acknowledged. In the film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, Serge Losique, of the World Film Festival Montreal, tells the story of how, during the German Occupation of France, Langlois had to resort to elaborate efforts to rescue certain of the films in his possession from confiscation and destruction by the Nazis. In particular, Hitler was bent of destroying all the negatives of The Blue Angel. Losique explains:

"The Blue Angel was, as you know, very rare, and Langlois saved the negative. . . . An SS officer who loved the film and loved Marlene Dietrich, he phoned Langlois to propose a trade: in exchange for a documentary on the Maginot Line, Langlois would get the Dietrich negative, which was smuggled to safety in Switzerland. Henri found a documentary of no military pertinence and gave that to the Germans. And that's how he saved The Blue Angel negative." 

In the aforementioned review, Stanley Kauffmann discussed a documentary called Prisoner of Paradise, made by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender, which examined the fate of Kurt Gerron:

"Those who have seen Sternberg's The Blue Angel have seen Gerron. He plays Kiepert, the manager of the cabaret troupe that features Marlene Dietrich - a heavy man, with jowls and a gruff yet humorous voice - with accessible compassion. Kiepert is also the magician of the troupe, and at the wedding party of Dietrich and Emil Jannings he pulls eggs from the groom's nose. In the climactic cabaret scene, he breaks eggs on Jannings's clown-wigged head. . . . Gerron and some of the rest of The Blue Angel cast were prominent in the Berlin entertainment world of 1930. (Hans Albers, the strongman who tempts Dietrich, was a popular star who not only survived the war but later even had his face on a German postage stamp.) The fate under Hitler for some of the others was as black as Gerron's . . . When we pick up any German or Austrian artwork that was made in the decade before Hitler's rule, we almost always pick up at least one tragedy with it. The Blue Angel has more than one, but Gerron's strikes hardest." 


Marlene Dietrich made good her escape to Hollywood, as did her idolater Sternberg, whose subsequent films with her helped to create an image that made "smut," as Vernon Young once put it, "divine." She also transformed herself from the fleshy, winningly genuine young woman in The Blue Angel into an emaciated Hollywod goddess; and Sternberg was changed from a risk-taking artist into an obedient factory employee. Dietrich and he parted company after the string of films they made together - six more in just five years - degenerated into ludicrous, fetishistic trash.


For me the most fascinating aspect of this film, from the perspective of eight-four years later, are the shots of the crowd at the nightclub The Blue Angel, the faces of the audience, laughing and heckling at the extraordinary goings-on on stage. Sternberg caught a moment in history in those faces, and as a representation of the lower strata of German society that would've frequented a dive such as The Blue Angel, it's no wonder Hitler wanted the existence of the film effaced, since the Germans Sternberg shows us look far too human.    

Looking at Dietrich, in her bloomers and gartered stockings, it's amazing what our grandfathers once found titillating. After all the hoopla over Dietrich and Sternberg and, by now, the memory of the hoopla, The Blue Angel simply isn't all that satisfying as a film. Professor Rath's downfall, as acted by Emil Jannings, looks like a slow-motion train wreck. The Heinrich Mann novel on which the script was based, like others of his novels that were eventually made into films, demonstrates why his brother Thomas won all the awards.(3) 


(1) "The Berliner," The New Republic, December 22, 2003.
(2) Freud was dead by the time the death camps were discovered.
(3) The Hungarian director Istvan Szabo succeeded in making one of Heinrich's novels into the intriguing film Mephisto.