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.