Thursday, December 31, 2015


So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you’d spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,

In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.

Philip Larkin, "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" 18 September 1953

Regarding film, which is my eternal return, an event has taken place this month - appropriately at the year's end - that has signaled a sad transition. It was the announcement of the death, at the age of 95, of Japanese actress Setsuko Hara. The sadness that the event awoke in me is part of a very long and, for film, very arduous journey.

Hara, whom the late Donald Richie adopted as "our Setsuko," was the last of a generation, a very great generation, of people whose enrichment of their culture through their work in film is inestimable. Although I lived for awhile in Japan and for a time immersed myself in Japanese literature, from Lady Murasaki to Kenzaburo Oe, it is primarily and most powerfully through its films that, over the years, I have got to know Japan. 

I wrote about Hara, who became known as the "Eternal Virgin," more than a decade ago for Senses of Cinema. She appeared in her first films during the war, even becoming a pin-up girl for Japanese soldiers, and emerged after the war as a favorite actress of both the veteran Ozu and the young Kurosawa, although she represented for the two masters quite different types of Japanese heroines. For Kurosawa she was, in his initially overlooked but now treasured film, No Regrets for Our Youth, a new Japanese woman, emancipated and headstrong. But it was for Ozu, in what are regarded as his late masterpieces, Late Spring (remade a decade later, also with Hara but in the role of the abandoned parent, as Late Autumn) and especially Tokyo Story, that she played the perfect daughter, the loving and long-suffering object of Ozu's paternal adoration. 

Ozu died in 1963, and shortly after that Hara unceremoniously withdrew behind a veil for the last fifty years of her life. She became a curiosity, the subject of wild rumors - as anyone might become who revokes all the fame and glamor that so many others seek and can only dream of. She silently retired at a time when Japanese film was in a crisis, when filmmakers like Shinoda, Oshima and Imamura were finding new ways to see a new Japan. But Hara would live long enough to witness an end, but not - I hope - the end, of Japanese film as we once knew it, and film production in Japan given over almost exclusively to anime, a peculiarly Japanese brand of animated films.

I remember an essay from the Seventies by Richie that was inspired by something he witnessed in a Tokyo subway. Commuting in a typically jam-packed subway car, Richie saw a young man standing, with one hand on an overhead strap to keep himself from falling to the floor as the train hurtled to its destination and the other hand gripping a thick paperback manga - a hugely popular Japanese comic book. The young man was holding the manga within six inches of his face and he was wearing headphones. So here, Richie commented, was the new Japanese citizen: completely cut off from the world around him, absorbed by the music blasting in his ears and a quasi-pornographic comic book in his face. 

Hara must have looked at the anime phenomenon in Japanese film as Donald Richie did, as an incalculably lamentable moment in which the Japanese chose to stop looking at themselves, to avoid clear and honest representations of themselves and their lives in films and to turn instead to an entirely manufactured, artificial place, some of which reveals great artistry, but which also asks us to look away from life, away from an image of ourselves that we can give to succeeding generations.

Watching as the Japan that Ozu, Kurosawa, Kinoshita, Naruse, Toyoda, Kobayashi, and Yamada brought to such vivid life walk so determinedly into the sunset has been intensely sad - and even sadder for Donald Richie and Setsuko Hara who belonged to that world and knew every square kilometer of it.

The people who loved their world enough to have created such an imposing monument to it - Tokyo Story, Ikiru, Repast, Kaseki, and The Eel, among so many others - are now all gone and there is no one prepared to take their place. It isn't just people we have lost, it's the world - a real world and not a pretend universe of idealized fantasy figures - they, or someone like them, might have showed us that is also lost. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Past

So often, through the years, my Christmas Spirit arrives too late. I'm all set for the Big Day, or so it seems, but whatever it is I'm supposed to feel - that I'm ready to feel - doesn't arrive on time. Days later, as if my internal clock or calendar is slow, I will hear a particularly wistful Christmas carol or some cable network repeats a Christmas movie, and I will find myself wishing I could bring it all back. 

But I can't. And then there is the last week of the year to be faced, the strange limbo between Merry Christmas and Happy New Year that someone has aptly named Twixtmas. And I'm made painfully aware that I will have to wait for next year's holidays to try again to align myself with the prevailing spirit of the time.

There is an especially harsh story by Hans Christian Andersen called "The Fir Tree" in which a tree is enjoying his young life in the forest when he is suddenly cut down and taken into a big house where he is propped up and decorated with cakes and candles and a golden tinsel star. He is now a Christmas tree, and he is delighted and amazed at the people dancing around him on Christmas Eve. But afterward he is taken up into a dark loft and thrown in a corner. There he entertains some rats with the story - the only story he knows - of Humpy-Dumpy. But then the rats leave him there and never return. He waits there in the dark for what seems to him a long while.

'"I will take good care to enjoy myself when I am brought out again." But when was that to be? Why, one morning there came a quantity of people and set to work in the loft. The trunks were moved, the tree was  pulled out and thrown — rather hard, it is true — down on the floor, but  a man drew him towards the stairs, where the daylight shone. "Now a merry life will begin again," thought the Tree. He felt the fresh air, the first sunbeam — and now he was out in the courtyard. All passed so  quickly, there was so much going on around him, the Tree quite forgot to  look to himself. The court adjoined a garden, and all was in flower; the  roses hung so fresh and odorous over the balustrade, the lindens were  in blossom, the Swallows flew by, and said, "Quirre-vit! My husband is come!" but it was not the Fir Tree that they meant. "Now, then, I shall really enjoy life," said he exultingly, and spread out his branches; but, alas, they were all withered and yellow! It was in a corner that he lay, among weeds and nettles. The golden star of tinsel was still on the  top of the Tree, and glittered in the sunshine. In the court-yard some of the merry children were playing who had danced at Christmas round the  Fir Tree, and were so glad at the sight of him. One of the youngest ran and tore off the golden star. "Only look what is still on the ugly old Christmas tree!" said he, trampling on the branches, so that they all cracked beneath his feet. And the Tree beheld all the beauty of the flowers, and the freshness in the garden; he beheld himself, and wished he had remained in his dark corner in the loft; he thought of his first youth in the wood, of the merry Christmas-eve, and of the little Mice who had listened with so much pleasure to the story of Humpy-Dumpy. "'Tis over — ’tis past!" said the poor Tree. "Had I but rejoiced when I had reason to do so! But now ‘tis past, ‘tis past!" And the gardener’s boy chopped the Tree into small pieces; there was a whole heap lying there. The wood flamed up splendidly under the large brewing copper, and  it sighed so deeply! Each sigh was like a shot. The boys played about in  the court, and the youngest wore the gold star on his breast which the Tree had had on the happiest evening of his life. However, that was over now — the Tree gone, the story at an end. All, all was over — every tale must end at last.'

The tree, torn from the forest, has known the happiness of Christmas Eve, only to expire in flames when Christmas is past. The sorrow of the end is contained within the happiness of the beginning. It is a cycle that pagans celebrated with their winter festival, the cycle of life, death, and re-birth - an idea that Christianity borrowed from them and which is celebrated, though altered and muddled, at Christmas.   

Nature is so abstracted in us today that, although we harvest forests of trees to be dragged into our cities and into our homes at Christmas, we no longer understand what they mean.

Robert Frost knew:

(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods––the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,
I said, “There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

“You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north.

He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!––at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

I am an atheist, but I am not so bigoted that I would deprive others of what religion obviously gives them. As the one-time longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer put it, "Belief passes. Having once believed never passes." Although I can't say I ever actually believed (I simply went along with what my parents wanted), I can recollect something that I felt when I prayed, and when I sang hymns along with others in church, or when I simply sat quietly (how else does one sit in a church?), while my mother lit candles and prayed or went to confession. The last time I attended a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was with my mother and sister in 1996. I was in Korea for Christmas in '97, and my mother died in '98.

I watched a recent interview on the BBC with the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín , who also lost his religion somewhere along the way. He claimed that he finds it impossible to listen to Bach without feeling something other than his reaction to the beautiful notes, something that, he said, can only be called "spiritual." 

This is funny to me, because what I hear when I listen to Bach is math - a wondrously beautiful mathematical equation swirling around me. Since I was not much good at math, Bach - and every other baroque composer - isn't one of my favorites. Perhaps when I listen to Mahler or to John Coltrane I get closer to the feeling Tóibín mentioned. But isn't he talking about aesthetic "beauty"? Certainly the symmetry of a great work of art, of a great poem, can put one in mind of the divine - but the divine what? 

Whatever spirituality may be or from wherever it may come, I think that it has something to do with a desire for some kind of self-transcendence, for belonging to something more, something greater than ourselves or greater than the sum of all our separate selves. Christmas seems (or used to seem) like an immense communal celebration. But there were always people who felt left out of the festivities, either because they weren't married or had no family. Just think of poor Charlie, the elevator operator in John Cheever's story "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor." After telling all of the tenants whom he meets in the elevator on Christmas Day "I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year," he explains:

"It isn't that people around here ain't generous - I mean, I got plenty of tips - but, you see, I live alone in a furnished room and I don't have any family or anything, and Christmas isn't much of a holiday for me."

The tenants in Charlie's Manhattan apartment building feel so sorry for him that, one by one all that morning, they ring for him to come by and get some of their food and drink - every conceivable food and alcohol. And Charlie takes all the dishes and glasses and bottles downstairs to the locker room and eats and drinks so much on his breaks that, by that afternoon, he is so drunk that he terrifies one of his elevator passengers ("Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We're going to make a loop-the-loop!") and she complains to the superintendent and gets Charlie fired on Christmas Day.

A hundred years ago, Thomas Hardy, a deeply pessimistic poet and novelist, expressed the strange longing that I sometimes feel at Christmas in his poem "The Oxen":

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Faith was something that Hardy probably once felt, but in 1915, and for a long time, it was missing from his life. Yet, in this poem, Hardy feels that, especially at Christmas, something is lacking in him, something he once felt, if only when he was a child. 

In the first verse in chapter 11 of Hebrews, Saint Paul writes that "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." For many, faith is all the evidence they need. For others, it's the hope that inspires it that falsifies faith. Ah, if only wanting and having were the same thing! Then I would be home with my sister in snowy Alaska, instead of where I am - an uprooted fir tree, lost among the tinkling palms for yet another tropical Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Paths of Glory

There is a curious history to Paths of Glory. The film that Stanley Kubrick made in 1957 was adapted from a novel by Humphrey Cobb. Cobb (1899-1944) was an American who enlisted in the Canadian army in 1916 and fought in France in the First World War. His novel, published in 1935, was based on an actual incident. The novel had no title when it was submitted for publication, so the publisher held a contest to find an appropriate title and the winner suggested the words from Gray's elegy.

Another book about the First World War called Paths Of Glory existed before 1935, a collection of journalism written for the Saturday Evening Post by an American named Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944). The earlier book, published in 1915, makes no mention of the incident on which Humphrey Cobb's novel concentrates. The two Cobbs were not related, although both of them wrote for Hollywood films - Irvin wrote titles for silent films and some of his Judge Priest stories were adapted to the screen by John Ford, and Humphrey wrote the script for the Humphrey (!) Bogart film, San Quentin - and both men died in New York City in 1944 within 45 days of each other.

In 1957, when Stanley Kubrick was hired by Dore Schary at MGM to work on film scripts, Kubrick remembered reading Humphrey Cobb's novel and he suggested it to Schary. When Schary showed no enthusiasm for it, Kubrick bought the rights to the book from (Humphrey) Cobb's widow. After writing a script with Calder Willingham, Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris showed it to Kirk Douglas, who saw its potential for his own company Bryna Productions. Douglas got distribution backing from United Artists, and shooting of the film Paths of Glory was scheduled for locations in Bavaria. According to Douglas, when Kubrick arrived in Munich at the Bavaria Filmkunst Studios for the shoot, he showed Douglas changes he had made in the script. Douglas told him to stick to the script he approved.

Being an American film director in the 1950s presented Kubrick with two problems - how could he be successful and keep himself independent of the Hollywood system, and how could he avoid becoming just another exception - like Orson Welles - that proved the rule? Kubrick did the opposite, quietly making a name for himself in America before finding a way, with Lolita (1962), of getting himself out of America altogether. Establishing his production company, Hawk, Ltd., in the UK, it was there that Kubrick produced his best work and where he resided until his death in 1999.

During the making of his film version of War and Peace, King Vidor claimed that he had an advantage over Napoleon when he staged the battle of Borodino for the film, since he was in command of both the French and Russian armies. Battle scenes have occupied the creative resources of some of the greatest filmmakers, quite understandably because of their extreme visual impact. Shots of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people doing violence to one another are unlikely to leave any viewer feeling ambivalent about them. Film is a kinetic art - hence the word cinema. Our eyes are attracted irresistibly to movement. And what could possibly be more kinetic in a film than a battle scene?

The trouble with battle scenes for the filmmaker is precisely their ability to thrill. Even when, as in Apocalypse Now, a filmmaker tries to show that war is of its nature insane, he often succumbs to the spectacular qualities of combat. If one were to ask viewers of Apocalypse Now to name their favorite scene, I doubt that many would fail to name the famous morning helicopter raid, with speakers on board the helicopters blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and a deranged Colonel telling us how the napalm smells like victory.

While he wasn't exactly a pacifist, Kubrick was avowedly anti-war. He tackled the subject of war head-on in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, both set amidst two conspicuously futile wars. The First World War had been tackled before in American films, most notably in King Vidor's The Big Parade and Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. Kubrick used a German military adviser, a Baron no less, to help him re-create the trench warfare depicted so vividly in Paths of Glory. The trenchworks and the terrain of No Man's Land (the cratered, barb-wired stretch of land between the enemy trenches) that the production constructed reminded me of Siegfried Sassoon's lines from his poem "Aftermath":

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

The scenes also make one aware of how immobile and unchanging the war had been for two years. Having been a soldier myself (although I never saw combat), watching the battle scenes in Paths of Glory is tough going, even after watching it for the fourth time.

But what makes the scenes most effective is Kubrick's avoidance of the worst mistake that so many directors make in such scenes: momentary departures from the perspective of the soldiers to a panoramic, or bird's eye, view. Even Steven Spielberg committed this error in Saving Private Ryan during the landing scene when he cut away to show us the view of the beach from a German pill box. Kubrick twice shows us a periscopic view of the French lines during his battle scene, but it was used to show us what General Murot sees from the safety of his command post in the rear.

It is 1916. After two years of fighting that has resulted in staggering casualties and a virtual strategic stalemate along a front stretching from Belgium to Switzerland, two French generals conceive yet another offensive to take a position known as the "Ant-Hill." General Murot, who sees it as an opportunity for promotion, goes directly to the front line to inform Colonel Dax, commander of a battalion holding the position closest to the objective of the plan. Dax objects to the plan but assures the General that he will lead the attack himself. When the attack takes place, and the Ant-Hill is not reached by the French soldiers, Dax discovers that many of the men in his battalion never left their trenches. When Murot learns of this, he orders the artillery battery to open fire on their own lines, but a radio operator refuses to relay the order to the guns. Murot demands that a hundred men from the battalion be shot for cowardice, but he settles for just three. Colonel Dax, a former defense attorney, volunteers to defend the three soldiers, who are chosen at random. But the trial is a sham and the men are sentenced to death. When Dax is offered General Murot's position, he angrily refuses it and he is told that the men of his battalion are being ordered back to the front.

The film has serious weaknesses. The acting is uneven because there were two different kinds of actors in the film. George Macready and Adolphe Menjou, crusty old Hollywood veterans, do their best with their roles. They were both expert at playing villains, except that their roles in Paths of Glory were based on actual people in actual situations. Their performances make this a little hard to believe. When they are onscreen with actors whose concentration is on their characters rather than the camera, they seem unreal.

But the two generals they play are quite good at reminding the viewer of what every soldier knows: that they are being commanded by old men who have neither knowledge nor interest in the hazards they endure daily. When it is agreed that some of the men will be court martialled for cowardice, General Murot wants a hundred men shot. He's talked down to twelve before he then proposes just three. The numbers are a clear reminder of Genesis, in which Abraham talks to the Lord, who "sat in the tent door in the heat of the day." He tells Abraham that Sodom and its inhabitants is to be destroyed, but Abraham asks him if within the city he can find fifty righteous would He "spare the place." The Lord agrees. Then Abraham talks him down to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, until he gets to ten.

Watching Kirk Douglas, who celebrated his 99th birthday on December 9, it's easy to see what attracted him to the role of Colonel Dax. We're reminded that it's his film when we see him for the first time, shirtless, showing off a physique he was evidently proud of. His impressive pecs are almost as famous as his cleft chin.

Paths of Glory is a powerful indictment of the stupidity and ambition of the commanders who were prosecuting the war, but it does not go easy on the common soldiers, either, who are represented as sometimes courageous but also incredibly thick, even sheepish when ordered to go "over the top" to almost certain death. Some of the soldiers are played by actors whom Kubrick directed before and since, like Joseph Turkel and Timothy Carey (despite Carey's being fired during the shoot). They're familiar faces to Kubrick fans, but their acting is noticeably off. When Carey starts bawling when he learns he is to be executed, I wondered what kept Kubrick from firing him sooner. 

Some of the film's irony is unnecessarily pointed. The music under the opening credits is the Marseillaise. I remember reading a review by Truffaut that contemptuously mentioned an inaccuracy in the comportment of the soldiers (Truffaut served in the French army). What Truffaut didn't know was that, by law, the uniforms and comportment of soldiers in a film cannot be a hundred per cent accurate. And I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a firing squad would have been conducted smack in front of a chateau in which the general staff in headquartered.

Then there is the ending, which occupies the final six minutes of the film. There was, according to Kubrick's producer, James Harris, to be a "happy ending" that was actually in the novel and was put in the script. The ending that was shot wasn't exactly happy, but was so oddly inconsistent with the grim tone of the rest of the film that some critics (correctly, I think) regarded it as a cop out.  Many others, however, think the scene is some kind of affirmation of humanity. 

In the closing scene, a crowd of French soldiers from Colonel Dax's regiment is drinking noisily in a tavern. Dax stops outside the tavern and looks inside. The owner of the tavern appears on an improvised stage above the tables and introduces a pretty young girl. The men react predictably with whistles and jeers. Calling for quiet, the man explains to the soldiers that the girl is German. The tavern owner tells the girl to sing, so she sings the only song she can think of - a sentimental song about a German "hussar." The effect of her quiet, amateurish singing brings tears to many of the soldiers eyes and many of them join her, humming the tune. Dax looks at the ground, knowing that the men are soon to return to the front, tells his adjutant to let them alone for a little longer, then turns and walks away.

The scene is so inconsistent with everything that comes before it that it almost seems transplanted from another film. The only excuse for its existence is the fact that the German girl, identified as Susanne Christian in the credits, became Christiane Kubrick, Kubrick's wife, shortly after shooting was completed, and they remained married for the rest of Kubrick's life.

Paths of Glory is much more than just an above-average Hollywood film. It is an achingly vivid, nervy, and highly original look at war. And Kubrick would expand on what he learned about shooting combat scenes in the assault on Burpleson Air Force Base in his masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, the ultimate statement about the madness of Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

It's Not Mine, But It's Real

[It seems like only yesterday, but was actually four years ago, that I castigated Donald Trump in a piece I posted on this blog on September 2, 2011, which I consider timely enough to repost below. Whenever questions about his hair arise, I remember something John Wayne said to the Harvard Lampoon in 1974. When some smart-ass asked him if his hair was real, he replied, "Of course it's real. It's not mine but it's real." People have been predicting Trump's exit from the Republican field ever since he announced he was in the race. If I had to make a prediction, I think he will probably bow out when it becomes clear to him that he has a good chance to lose, shortly before or after the Iowa Caucus.]

Donald Trump delivered one of his most revealing statements during a phone conversation with Piers Morgan during a broadcast of Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN. When asked what he thought about the revelation of Arnold Schwarzenegger's having a son by his Hispanic housemaid, Trump said that he thought the worst thing about it was that Arnold had done it with a maid. It wasn't his infidelity to Maria Shriver or his having kept it a secret for so long, but the fact that the former Guvernator had stooped to having an affair - and a child - with the hired help.

If I hadn't already made up my mind about Trump as a rich clown with a clown's hair, that loathsome statement of his would have done it. All the statement actually did was confirm for me the strong suspicion that this ultimately silly person obviously has disdain for everyone who isn't wealthy or well-off. And it came from a man who briefly entertained intentions of running for president. Evidently, it would never have occurred to Trump, as it obviously occurred to Schwarzenegger, that even a house servant is a human being.

Quite honestly, the news of the affair made Arnold Schwarzenegger immeasurably more likable to me. Having attained at least one of his stated goals in life - marrying a Kennedy* - he at least showed that it wasn't beneath him to be attracted to a woman who wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and who had something to offer him besides money and prestige. Apparently, Donald Trump can buy any woman he wants. The circumstances of Arnold's affair are probably not the stuff of a Hollywood movie, but the suggestion that it was something to be ashamed of is funny coming from a clown like Trump.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Star Wars

Why did you lure us on like this,
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building (as though we cared for size!)
Empires that cover galaxies
If, at the journey's end we find
The same old stuff we left behind,
Well-worn Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmartre, or Bedinal Green?

C. S. Lewis, "An Expostulation (Against too many writers of science fiction)" 

George Lucas's film Star Wars was released in the summer of 1977. I was 19 and I had just finished my first year of college. And I hated everything about it. What I knew about George Lucas really didn't prepare me for this magnum opus. I had seen American Graffiti in '75, and I liked it very much.(1) It remains an intricately crafted re-creation of a moment in time - a late summer night and early morning in a town much like Bakersfield, California in 1962. Later I saw his first feature film, the experimental THX 1138, starring Robert Duvall. What I found strange about it was that it was idea-driven, rather than effects-driven, science fiction - virtually the opposite of Star Wars.

I never liked science fiction, since its visions of the future - even if it isn't necessarily our future - are so erratically inaccurate. Some agenda or other is always being foisted on tomorrow, some idea shaping things to come. The worst science fiction, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in the poem above, is the sort that simply transposes common everyday human experience to outer space. Peter Hyams's Outland (1981), for instance, was little more than High Noon in space. And so many of these forecasts of future living conditions always get too far ahead of themselves. Technology develops more slowly than our imaginings do. And very little science fiction, whether in print or on film, manages to escape the eras in which they were created. 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, now looks and feels quaintly redolent of the 1960s. 

I didn't - wouldn't - actually look at Star Wars until some years after it was released, when my hatred for it had cooled down. By the time I watched it, with a bunch of friends who all thought highly of it (many of whom won't like what I'm writing here), I knew all about how Lucas had patterned his story on Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958), which was about how a princess in 17th century Japan, the last of her clan, is helped to escape through enemy territory by an unemployed general and two incompetent thieves. Like Lucas, I, too, was a Kurosawa fan - although I took a dim view of all the remakes (The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars) much lesser directors had made of his films.(2) For Kurosawa, and his newly formed Kurosawa production company, The Hidden Fortress was supposed to be, in his own words, "good, old-fashioned entertainment."(3) Whatever Lucas intended Star Wars to be, I seriously doubt that what he got was quite what he had in mind.

What made me hate Star Wars in 1977 was everything it represented, some of which Lucas himself hated prior to making the film. Lucas had fought strenuously against corporate Hollywood and becoming one of its employees. He met Steven Spielberg at the USC film school in the 60s, and when both of them embarked on film careers in the 70s, they would transform Hollywood productions for the worse, without exactly meaning to. 

Although produced by Lucas's own company (Lucasfilm), Star Wars needed the production facilities and distribution network of a major studio, 20th Century-Fox. This gave Lucas the freedom to make the film the way he wanted, but it also showed him the severe limitations of conventional studio technical resources. He was in almost constant despair of the rushes - the results of each day's shooting - that were so far below his "vision," how he imagined his film should look. Once he managed to bring the shooting in on schedule, he hired two extra editors to assist him in what turned out to be the most involved stage, the post-production. 

It's clear to me that Lucas gave up directing after Star Wars because movie technology was too cumbersome, too primitive in the 70s.(4) Rather than deal with the dissatisfaction of the day to day compromises of technical limitations that could only approximate his vision, the direction of the next two installments in the Star Wars franchise, The Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back were delegated to Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, dependable journeymen who could could do all the dirty work for Lucas while he pulled the strings from a comfortable distance. There is a sad paradox here from which new filmmakers can learn: in his efforts to keep his independence as a filmmaker by creating his own production companies, George Lucas effectively ended his filmmaking career with the insurmountable workload of running them. 

The box office success of Star Wars was - in more than one sense - phenomenal. The film quickly developed a "cult" following of fans, mostly teenagers, who returned again and again to see the film and its two sequels. It started a deplorable trend in Hollywood productions toward bigger budgeted "blockbusters" that effectively forced out interest in small-budgeted, less ambitious films. Every conscientious filmmaker and filmgoer has felt the impact of this trend and we're still feeling it. 

The overwhelming dependence of these effects-driven movies on the advances of movie technology is revealed by the curious way that Lucas revisited his trilogy in the 90s, making "improvements" on the originals that some of his fans found objectionable. There is even a bustling trade in copies of the original films in their pristine, unimproved condition. I've seen enough "director's cuts" of classic films restored to something closer to what their directors intended to know what a dubious procedure this tampering can sometimes be. 

Many critics and fans were disappointed by Lucas's return to directing three more installments of his Star Wars saga in the 90s (A New Hope, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones). The last installments, directed by J. J. Abrams (who also gave new life - if you want to call it that - to Star Trek), will begin release this month. For weeks, even here in Asia, the hype for The Force Awakens has been ramping up. Over the decades, I have watched the extraordinary success of the Star Wars franchise with mixed emotions. Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars franchise were sold to Disney in 2012. On the George Lucas page on Wikipedia, it matter-of-factly states:

"In January 2012, Lucas announced his retirement from producing large scale blockbuster films and instead re-focusing his career on smaller, independently budgeted features."

With no knowledge of the plots of the Star Wars films, I still can't steel myself sufficiently to sit through any one of them for very long. For me, watching them is like trying to make sense of a cricket match. Millions of people around the world are passionate about cricket, but knowing everything about the game would not account for all that passion. Perhaps looking for a hero (or a "role model"), I was an avid sports fan - baseball and football - when I was a boy. Some time in my late teens, however, my avidity for sports vanished.(5) It's fairly easy to see why. American popular culture has a strong infantilizing influence, in films, television, books and music. How else does one explain the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books and films, and comic books, graphic novels and super-hero films? It certainly wasn't just children that made J. K. Rowling the wealthiest writer on earth, or that filled theater seats every time DC or Marvel released a movie. In 2003, some readers of The New Republic wrote in asking why Stanley Kauffmann, the magazine's resident film critic, hadn't commented on The Matrix films. In a "note" in his column, Kauffmann saw fit to write:

"Several readers have asked why I have not reviewed either the first Matrix film or its sequel, especially since the theme has evoked so much serious comment. But serious themes are hardly new in science fiction. In the 1950s, when I was a book editor, I dealt with, among other sorts of books, some science fiction, including novels by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and C. M. Kornbluth, most of which were built on serious ideas and were really readable, not mere aggrandized juvenilia a la The Matrix. Intellectuals comparable to those who are now discussing the Matrix films might just as easily have examined back then the core themes of Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury and The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. In any case this quite familiar utilization of serious thought does not in itself make the Matrix films more than the adolescent fodder that they are."(6)

The "themes" in Star Wars, for all the talk of them being a "morality play" about good versus evil, make the Wachowski brothers look like Stephen Hawking. 

But there is another explanation for the Star Wars phenomenon that makes it more analogous to sports: it's a social pursuit. No one wants to be left out of the conversation. We all want - need - to belong to something. Another reason why I avoided Star Wars when I was 19 was because of its obvious appeal to nerds - to belatedly precocious, overgrown kids. Star Wars provides millions of people with a sense of belonging. They are provided with a whole jargon, a folklore, a mythology of sorts, and a cosmos of their own. And, more significantly, they are members of a social group. Like "Trekkies," but far more extensively, there are Star Wars fans everywhere, and social media provides them with full time access to one another. And the lengths to which many people will go to assure their social availability - to let everyone know that they're no better than them - is practically immeasurable.

George Lucas has made so much money from the Star Wars franchise that he is giving much of it away to charity and has even pledged, along with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, that half of his personal fortune - by now in the billions - will be given to charity on his death. The notion that an individual has the right (never mind the skill) to control sums that beggar the GNPs of some small nations has become a peculiar feature of our age, and these deceptively generous pledges from Buffett, Gates, and Lucas are a tacit acknowledgement of the fundamental injustice of the trend. (And, while I'm at it, why just half? The inheritors of a fraction of these fortunes would still be among the richest people on earth.)

Lucas is now 71 years old. Looking back on it all, I wonder how much of it was what he had in mind, and how much he wishes he could've committed more time to just being a filmmaker.

(1) See Up All Night: American Graffiti.
(2) Perhaps in return for borrowing the Star Wars plot from Kurosawa, Lucas helped to finance Kurosawa's production of Kagemusha (1980). A funny show of respect, since he then found it necessary to cut the film by twenty one minutes for its American release.
(3) As quoted by Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa.
(4) This also explains Lucas's close involvement in the creation of the special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, and the sound recording services THX and Skywalker Sound.
(5) Coincidentally, whatever religious faith I had (and I can't have had much) vanished shortly thereafter. 
(6) Stanley Kauffmann, "Differing Lives and Places," The New Republic, June 16, 2003.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Man Who Would Be Kipling

The Son of Man goes forth to war
A golden crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar -
Who follows in his train?

Rudyard Kipling is a great writer whose admirers often feel obliged to qualify their praise for him. As George Orwell wrote in 1942: "Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a by-word for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there." (1)

Even Arnold Bennett, an "enlightened" critic, could write in 1909:

"Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Plain Tales from the Hills delighted first Anglo-Indian, and then English society. There was nothing of permanent value in that book, and in my extremest youth I never imagined otherwise." (2)

Does anyone still read Bennett's novels? I mean, with pleasure? Yet those "Plain Tales" of Kipling's present to us a natural artist before he knew he was one. And long before critics discovered literary value in those tales, countless readers found wonder and excitement in them. 

For me, what makes Kipling's early stories both brilliant and eminently readable are all the telling details with which they are infused: the seemingly offhand observations of the weather, of speech and manners that give life to otherwise ordinary people or commonplace moments.

Appearing first in the newspaper The Allahabad Pioneer that Kipling edited between 1887-89, the earliest stories were collected and published in some of the first paperback books, Wheeler's Indian Railway Library, at one rupee apiece. Kipling was paid an advance of $500 for six volumes of his stories, the first of which was Plain Tales from the Hills. One story from that collection, "The Man Who Would Be King," was made into an excellent film by Hollywood veteran John Huston in 1975.  

Every time a gifted film director adapts a great work of literature to film, what he is attempting is the impossible: to re-create the unique feeling that the writer's prose has inspired in him, while dispensing with the prose itself.

For a former Hollywood director, John Huston was exceptional in many respects. I once watched him explain why a film uses editing to an interviewer. He told the interviewer to look at something to his left and then to look at something on his right. "There!" Huston said. "You blinked! You already knew what's between the two points and you didn't have to see it. So you blinked. You made a cut."

But in one respect Huston was as philistine as they come. Too often, he attempted to adapt pre-existing texts - novels and stories - to the screen. Moby Dick, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, and The Dead are all works of varying literary distinction that Huston turned into films of wildly varying cinematic quality. One proof that this is not such a good idea is that, the greater the literary value of the work (Melville, Joyce), the more unsuccessful the results.

Huston acquired the rights to "The Man Who Would Be King" in 1950 and planned to cast Humphrey Bogart and Clark Cable as Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravout, the two British soldiers whose exploits Kipling captures in his story. Huston had to shelve his project and by the time he found he could at last make his film, Bogart and Gable were dead, and other actors had to be cast in the roles.

Kipling's story is so much more than just a tall tale. Carnehan and Dravout, one feels, know every square mile of India, its cities, its highways and railways, and have seen the farthest reaches of its frontiers and beyond. Better than that, they are extremely knowledgable of Indian customs and its people. They are also expert con-artists, and are always involved in one extortion scheme or another, and know how to barter and bribe their way around the country.

Their story is a near-tragedy on an epic scale: how two men venture forth to find - and attain - fantastic glory, to rule and be worshipped as gods, only to be defeated by their very human failings, with one of them killed and the other - Peachy - crucified "between two trees." Peachy somehow survives, and is set free, and shares his tale with the story's narrator, the very man who witnessed the "contrack" between Peachy and Daniel at the outset of their adventure. The scene in which Carnehan returns, little left of him but a rag, to the narrator's office and tells him the whole of his story, before he wanders off again, only to die a few days later, repeatedly singing through his nose the words of the song quoted above, is unforgettable.

"'I ain't mad—yet, but I shall be that way soon. Keep looking at me, or maybe my words will go all to pieces. Keep looking at me in my eyes and don't say anything.'"

Huston changes Carnehan's speech slightly: "Keep looking at me. It helps to keep my soul from flying off."

It is to John Huston's credit that he managed to get as much of Carnehan's story right in his retelling. In the story, Peachy and Daniel's exploits are all related in extraordinary words. Huston had the advantage of images with which he could bring them to life. Shot on over thirty different locations in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, with the gorges Du Todra, at Tinghir, doubling for the Khyber Pass and the holy city of Sikandergul constructed on a hilltop an hour's drive from Marrakech, Huston got the scenery perfectly right. 

The story has two weaknesses, both of which derived from a British colonialist mentality, which was Kipling's strongest trait and greatest failing as a writer: a faith in Freemasonry that is ridiculous and a quite brazen racism - the British "gorasahibs" conquering an entire region. Since the story is told by an ignorant reject from the British Army, the weaknesses are understandable and somewhat excusable. But when a barbaric Afghan holy city is revealed to be replete with Masonic symbols and when Daniel argues that the Caucasoid inhabitants of Kafiristan are "Englishmen," one feels the intrusion of the authors true prejudices. (3)

But where Huston does an ultimate disservice to Kipling is in his shrinking of the tragic elements of the story to the more domestic dimensions of a whopping great yarn. For instance, he fails to show us Peachy's sad end. Kipling is concise in his summation:

Two days later I inquired after his welfare of the Superintendent of the Asylum.

"He was admitted suffering from sunstroke. He died early yesterday morning," said the Superintendent. "Is it true that he was half an hour bareheaded in the sun at midday?"

"Yes," said I, "but do you happen to know if he had anything upon him by any chance when he died?"

"Not to my knowledge," said the Superintendent.

And there the matter rests.

The two actors that Huston had to settle on in 1975, Michael Caine and Sean Connery, were capable of embodying Kipling's pair of "loafers" (unlike Bogart and Gable, they're British!). Christopher Plummer, who capably plays the narrator, is obviously modeled on Kipling himself. Saeed Jaffrey, a marvelous Indian actor in his own right, does what he can with the role of the Gurkha, Billy Fish.

Huston's cinematographer was Oswald Morris, who tried to do for Morocco what Freddie Young did for the deserts of Jordan in Lawrence of Arabia. His results are spectacular enough but, like Huston's (and Gladys Hill's) script, it lacks the dimension of greatness that Kipling gave to Carnehan's story in his telling. Legendary French designer Alexander Trauner (The Children of Paradise, et al) created a city - Sikandergul - lost since Alexander the Great that is both primitive and strangely classical.

In his memoir, What's It All About?, Michael Caine describes how, after the film was finished, he and Sean Connery were summoned by Huston to a hospital bedside where he appeared to be gravely ill. Seemingly delirious, Huston addressed Caine and Connery by their characters' names in The Man Who Would Be King, as Peachy and Daniel, and bade them farewell. Caine came away convinced that Huston would shortly be dead, but saw in the papers a few months later that he was preparing to make another film. It was like something out of Kipling.

(1) George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling," Horizon, February 1942.
(2) Arnold Bennett, Books and Persons, Being Comments on a Past Epoch 1908-1911 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1917).
(3) Even if Kipling intended the masonic details as an inside joke, it is a feeble joke.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Good Kill, Bad Kill

I feel no pressing need to append my comments of November 11 in the light of the Paris attacks. It seems to me that the Islamists don't like President Obama, especially now that he is keeping a cool head about the terror attacks when everyone else in Washington is losing theirs. What Fox News, ISIS's favorite channel, cannot understand is that history didn't have to be what it is, that the United States didn't have to react to 9/11 the way it did.

In the following excerpts from his column "As I Please" for Tribune, George Orwell addressed the subject of terrorism at the height of the war against fascism.

"So far as it goes, the distinction between an atrocity and an act of war is valid. An atrocity means an act of terrorism which ha no genuine military purpose. One must accept such distinctions if one accepts war at all, which in practice everyone does. Nevertheless, a world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a looney-bin made use of by some other planet." ("As I Please," Tribune, 31 December 1943)

"Apropos of saturation bombing, a correspondent who agreed with me strongly added that he was by no means a pacifist. He recognized, he said, that 'the Hun had got to be beaten.' He merely objected to the barbarous methods that we are now using.

"Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them 'Huns.' Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as 'natural death.' The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilisation not by the destruction it causes, nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you re not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself. ("As I Please," 4 August 1944)

I recently watched the American movie Good Kill (2014), that depicts the everyday lives of U.S. Air Force personnel engaged in drone strike operations seven thousand miles away in Waziristan, Pakistan. The scenes of officers (fighter pilots) and enlisted airmen performing their duties conducting drone attacks were technically convincing. Where the film failed miserably was in the conversations they have in between. I have no problem at all believing that such people have genuine conflicts of conscience and have marital problems as a result. The central character, an Air Force pilot, played by Ethan Hawke. requests to be transferred to a combat unit in Africa, supposedly because it would be morally easier to bomb people when he's just a few thousand feet above them rather than several thousand miles, well out of harm's way. I fail to see the significance of the distinction, unless it bothers the pilot to be able to drive home to the wife and kids at the end of the day after he has destroyed a few houses - and everyone inside them. Does it matter to the ones being bombed if the bomb - or Hellfire missile - is dropped on them by a human pilot in a plane or by a remotely piloted drone?

I can say with some authority that active duty service-men and -women never engage in the kind of right versus wrong conversations that are shown in Good Kill. By the time they get around to pulling the trigger on the drone, an abundance of briefings will have made such considerations moot. And if the use of these drones from a desert air base in Nevada is the future of war, I can't imagine anyone - on our side or theirs - who has experienced combat in Iraq or Afghanistan who wouldn't rather fight a war in such a manner.

[Note: I mistakenly called the Pakistani region mentioned in the film "Wajiristan." As Steve Allen used to say, "I stand corrected. I should be, I'm wearing surgical hose."]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Filming the World

To a considerable extent, and increasingly, many of the films of the past two decades have been a betrayal of the medium's origins.  Films today take the world for granted. Fewer and fewer films are being shot on location or on elaborate sets. But in more subtle ways, filmmakers - pressed for time, as always - are uninterested in showing us anything more of a specific locale than they need to get a story moving. If a film is set in New York City, for example, it would be established by an opening shot of the familiar skyline. Afterward, the setting needs no more reason to be evoked or explored. In fact, an audience's belief in the reality of a setting is expected to be manipulated, but in ways significantly different from theater's suspension of disbelief.

Eighty years ago, if a film wanted to show us an office worker going to work, it would be cut in such a way that would show us the worker getting off the bus or the trolley on the street and walking into a building. Then a cut to inside the building would show him coming through the door and walking to the stairs. Then another cut would show him reaching the first landing and walking up another flight of steps, and so on until he reaches a certain floor and walks through the door of his office. Critics like to argue that this is simply unnecessary today, that we no longer have to see the man walking through all that scenery, and that a simple jump-cut would eliminate all that useless footage.

Anyone who has seen Godard's breakthrough film, A Bout de Souffle, will remember how Godard used jump cuts to surprising effect. What they don't know is that Godard, novice filmmaker, shot a great deal more footage that he then had to eliminate because the producer told him to shorten the film's running time to ninety minutes. So the famous scene in which Jean-Paul Belmondo is on the phone with a girlfriend, tells her he wants to see her, and in an instant is there standing beside her was not the result of Godard's design but of the producer's demand for a shorter film.

Many film critics and filmmakers argue that audiences have changed since the 1950s, that, having long since been familiar with the language of film, they're sophisticated enough to know that Belmondo wasn't just teleported miraculously from a phone booth to his girlfriend's room; and that they know that Belmondo must have walked the intervening distance and that they didn't need to see Belmondo covering all that ground.

I think, however, that when Werner Herzog made up his mind that the best way to represent the life of Fizcarraldo (a visionary or a madman with whom Herzog seemed to identify), who employed an army of Amazon natives to haul a huge riverboat over a mountain in his quest to build an opera house in the jungle, was to stage virtually the same stunt in front of his cameras, he performed a service to realism that went largely unappreciated.

There is a marvelous scene in the Buster Keaton film The Cameraman in which Buster is talking on the telephone with Sally, a young woman he wants to go out with him. When she tells him that her date with another man is off, before she can hang up the phone, Buster runs at top speed the several blocks between his boarding house and hers. When, startled, she turns to find him standing right behind her, he says, "I'm sorry if I'm a little late."

The scene is very funny and charming, and it shows off Keaton's superb athleticism. But its comedic impact relies on the film showing us as much of the intervening landscape between those two boarding houses as time and comedic timing allowed. But Keaton was also expecting viewers of his film to appreciate the views of the real world that he included in his gags - a lost world of real weight and dimensions that is practically forgotten today.

If one were to ask an audience of virtually any movie today if they could tell you whether a scene took place in the morning or the afternoon, or even what season it was, they probably could not. The time of day or the season, they might suggest, didn't matter. These details obviously don't matter to most filmmakers. This is possibly due to a belated modernist indifference to the world and to experience. It's commonplace for any contemporary visual artist to avoid references to what he actually sees, let alone indicating whatever feelings he might have for it, lest he be accused of being in the rear guard rather than avant. This would certainly explain the growing preponderance of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in films.(1) Why spend money on actors or wait for the right light to shoot a scene when a computer can do it all for you? I've noticed a common trick filmmakers now use to create the illusion of cold weather: computer generated steam emerging from actors' mouths.

But what if images of specific locales and particular weather that may seem to be incidental to a film's construction were, in fact, intended to be an essential part of its attempt to establish not just certain aspects of reality but the verity of the film's story and its characters? Very early in its development, film acquired a close relationship with the world. We know, for example, that the the detail that most fascinated the first audiences of the Lumiere Brothers' film Feeding the Baby in 1895 [see photo above] was the wind stirring the trees in the background. It surprised them because the trees in the scenery of theater performances had always been painted on backdrops. They were astonished to notice that the trees in the film were moving because they were looking at real trees, that the films existed in a reality that a theater production could only suggest.

We have also learned to think about film actors differently. Although we know they are actors playing parts in a made up story, we believe sufficiently in the world that they inhabit for the duration of the film to believe that, unlike stage actors who drop the pretense of acting when they walk offstage, film actors, when they leave a scene, go on living their made up lives, unseen by the camera or by us. It's possible to imagine a filmmaker following a character out of a scene on a tangent that takes the film in a totally different direction. In his film, Shoot the Piano Player, Francois Truffaut introduces us to a piano student leaving Charles Aznavour's flat and his camera follows her for a few minutes for no other reason than to introduce us to the possibility of the film going somewhere else entirely. After following the girl for awhile, Truffaut returns us to the film's central story.

Some of the greatest filmmakers demonstrate to us their love of the world by paying attention to seemingly minor - but actually major - details. When Erich von Stroheim adapted Frank Norris's novel Greed to the screen in 1924, he was encouraged by the big budget provided by his producers at MGM to go to some absurd extremes for the sake of the novel's reality. For example, when a character is sitting inside a house and Harris mentions that a particular car was parked in the street outside, Stroheim took the liberty of actually having a car of the exact same make parked in the street outside the house. Even though we never see the car in the scene, Stroheim believed that its presence there outside the house was somehow essential to the reality he was trying to re-create. I've written before about how Stroheim insisted on taking his cast and crew down an actual mineshaft to shoot a scene, rather than just re-create the mineshaft on a studio set. Viewers of the film in 1924 may never have known that Stroheim had gone to such lengths for the sake of realism, but, like Werner Herzog taking his cast and crew up a remote Amazon tributary rather than using some placid backwater for his scenes in Fitzcarraldo, but going to such lengths derived from a faith in verity, in truth, that is being forgotten.

Robert Bresson announced at the start of his extraordinary 1970 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels that "For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of REAL things in an order that makes them effective. Later on in the same interview, Samuels pointed out to Bresson how, in many of his films, he dwells on a setting a few beats longer than anyone else:

Samuels: "Before a character enters a place or after he exits from it, the camera holds on a set. . . In Diary of a Country Priest he rides his bicycle to the house of the Bishop of Torcy. He enters the house, and you hold outside the house. It happens repeatedly in Pickpocket. . . In Une Femme douce the couple comes into the house, and the camera remains on the door. Then they walk upstairs and the camera holds on the landing. We see the door to their apartment before they open it and after they close it etc. You weren't conscious of this?"

Bresson: "Of course I was conscious. Let me tell you something about doors. Critics say, 'Bresson is impossible: he shows fifty doors opening and closing;' but you must understand that the door of the apartment is where all the drama occurs. The door either says, 'I am going away or I am coming to you.' When I made Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I was also accused of showing too many doors. And Cocteau said I was criticized for being too precise: 'In other films you see a door because it just happens to be there,' he said 'whereas in your films it is there on purpose. For that reason each door is seen, whereas in other films the door is scarcely noticed.'"

Despite being known for his "transcendental" style, Bresson knew how important it was that a film should, in Auden's words, "be before it seems" - how it should establish itself in reality before attempting to be metaphorical. In his masterpiece, A Man Escaped (whose literal title is A Man Condemned to Death Escapes), Bresson carefully captures the experience of his protagonist, a Frenchman imprisoned during the German Occupation (an experience Bresson knew first-hand), through the smallest physical details, because he knew that it was only through such details that the experience could come alive for the viewer.

In his audio commentary of the DVD edition of his film, The Tailor of Panama, the film's director, John Boorman, stated that he would like to see a disclaimer in the end credits of some films that informs viewers that "no CGI was used in the making of this film." I don't think that Boorman's disclaimer is likely to catch on, or attract much interest among filmmakers, especially young ones who seem far more interested in creating fantasy worlds rather than looking closely at the world in which they live. The trend today is away from the aesthetic origins of film, away from images of the real world into images of digitally manufactured worlds. The people who fled from their seats when the Lumiere Brothers' train entered the station in 1895 - because they believed that it was a real train entering the room where the film was being screened - have been replaced by people who no longer expect that what they are being shown on the screen has much to do with reality, and are no longer amazed or moved by the truth.

(1) Like everyone else, I was appalled when I learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead of a heroin overdose early in 2014. Recently, I was further saddened to discover that the makers of the final Hunger Games film resorted to using a digital mock up of Hoffman so that they could complete scenes left unfinished at his death. At least there is some consolation in the knowledge that Hoffman will be remembered for much more than just those colossally useless movies.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


In one of the most memorable poems from his collection The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin wrote about August 1914, when the Great War began:


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

17 May 1960

From the perspective of 1960, Larkin knew that an enormous, impassable gulf separates us from the world before the Great War. He looks at a photograph of men lined up to enlist in the Army, who know nothing of the hell into which they are about to be plunged. Siegfried Sassoon, in his poem "Prelude: The Troops," made it clear:

They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin . . .

But they look like they're embarking on a "bank holiday lark." The very everyday quality of the scene - of a world that "changed itself to past" with unprecedented speed, as if it couldn't wait another moment to throw itself away - is haunting. Everyone (except the very few who already knew the truth) expected it all to be over by Christmas. By the time it was finally over, on this day in 1918, the world that existed before the war had not just vanished without a trace, it was regarded with some distaste. How could they have been so willing, so eager to throw their generations of men away? No one seemed to recall their own innocence.

As James Wood pointed out, this poem is "an acute examination of nostalgia, a poem which sees that our loss of innocence is that we can no longer see their loss of innocence without nostalgia. When the poem tries to see that lost Edwardian world, it deliberately distances and pictorialises its blurry subjects:

The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark . . .

The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens . . ."(1)

I can only wonder what Larkin, who died in 1985, would have made of September 11, and how carelessly Americans kissed the past - that turned to past so suddenly - goodbye. By now, a mere fourteen years later, America on September 10 seems like a long-gone, faraway country. 

Another terror attack, the blowing up of a Russian commercial jet in flight, and all the old boogey men have once again emerged from our closets. The term "boogey man" derived from "bogey-man," which itself originated in "boney-man," who was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Parents in early 19th century Britain would frighten their children with warnings that, if they didn't behave, the "boney-man" would get them. Today, we're being frightened again with a shadowy threat that is as remote and as insubstantial as Napoleon was to British children.

On the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR, I wrote on this blog about why I believed it was the most important historical event (so far) of my lifetime. One of the effects of the end of the Cold War was that the one great superpower left in the world - the U.S.A. - was left without a suitable enemy, an opposing power that represented its opposite in every way. Since then, what Dwight Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex" has been busy trying to locate another reason for being. One was found, apparently, on 9/11. We are once again engaged in a war of indeterminate length, except that instead of a Cold War, it's now a Hide 'n' Seek War.

The Great War changed the world irrevocably and left its terrible mark on the 20th century. November 11 is memorialized by the wearing of the "remembrance poppy" in the UK. In the U.S., the end of the war is commemorated as Veterans Day.

The extent to which September 11 changed the world and marked the 21st century will only be known when the century nears its end. Based on how it has changed America in just fourteen years makes me wonder how much worse things will get in what's left of my lifetime. I remember the freedoms we enjoyed before 9/11, living in an open society. I miss them. Of course, that very openness made us vulnerable. But that is the price to be paid - that we seemed willing to pay - for living in such a society. What is more surprising is how willingly people are surrendering their freedoms, one after another, out of fear.

Men and women whose job it is to predict the actions of terrorists, based on the information gathered from a multitude of sources, managed to conclude a short time prior to 9/11 that Al Qaeda was planning to hijack planes and crash them. They also managed to present their conclusions to the President Bush. But the president disregarded the warning. Unlike the rest of us, he can't have been surprised when their forecasts came true. Bush's efforts to keep us safe, that have resulted in nothing but further loss for everyone, were a little late. Oops. Caught napping, he made sure he'd never be caught napping again - while telling the rest of us that, under the rest of his "watch," we could sleep soundly.

Who wants to sleep any more? Never such innocence again.

(1) James Wood, "The Slightest Sardine," London Review of Books, Volume 26 No. 10, May 20, 2004.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Putting Words to Music

In one of his shimmering short stories, John Updike described being fascinated when he was a boy by the light emanating from the radio in his father's truck, and the music lilting from it while he was riding around in 1940s rural Pennsylvania. He claimed that it inspired in him a lifelong fascination with popular music, defined as the musical noise always being piped in from somewhere at every strategic moment of our lives.

For reasons of my own, this is precisely why I have always hated popular music: it is unsolicited and inescapable. Like everyone else, alas, there are occasions in my life that are inextricably linked to whatever pop song happened to be playing at the time. Of course, the songs were never the ones I would've wanted to hear at the time - songs of beauty and meaning quite beyond the emotion with which such moments were freighted. I learned quickly enough in my youth that I was born out of my time when I learned that the song that my mother and father called "our song" was Nat King Cole's "Stay As Sweet As You Are"(1) while I was forced to settle for one or another fatuous rock anthem. (Although, I must admit, there was a particular party from the 8th grade that will always be evoked by the mellifluous Love Unlimited song, "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love.")

Most of the time, the words of a popular song are its least memorable part. Normally, they are nothing but words strung together that make merely platitudinous sense. When Rolling Stone recently published its list of the "100 Greatest Songwriters" (Bob Dylan was number 1), what they failed to make clear was that the "songwriters" to which they were referring were only those that their readers would have known - writers of pop songs for the past fifty-odd years. Those readers grew up (well, some of them anyway) listening to songs whose lyrics were either too silly or forgettable - or both - for them to make their writers' names worth remembering. There were occasionally pop or rock songs from the last half of the 20th century that had something to say, but practically no one expected or required them to do so. Songs normally overheard on the radio, the musical equivalent of wallpaper, were rarely credited as anything more than bubblegum for the brain.   

When I was married in 1995 in the Philippines, a reception was held in a local Chinese restaurant. Since I had a video camera, but was otherwise occupied, the occasion was videotaped by one of my bride's neighbors, named Pia. The music that was playing in the background wasn't of my choosing. I'm not sure if the person who chose it knew that it was supposed to accompany a wedding reception. They were suitably generic and innocuous. Sometimes, an English-language song would become popular in the Philippines without anyone making any sense out of the song's lyrics. I often heard Philippine radio stations playing rap songs in the '90s that contained some of the most scabrous and obscene language without the slightest attempt at censorship.

There was one particular song that stands out in my memory of the wedding reception, Matt Monro singing "Walk On." I remember it because it wasn't just another stupid pop ballad, but a torch song, an older "standard" that might've been sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I'd heard the song before, oddly enough on a dinner date more than a year before with my future (now my ex-) wife, but I never listened closely to the words until this past week when I heard it being played on a radio show that the woman I now live with listens to almost every day. Here are the words to the song - and bear in mind that it was offered up as muzak at a wedding reception:

Walk away, please go
Before you throw your life away
A life that I could share for just a day
We should have met some years ago
For your sake I say
Walk away, just go.

Walk away, and live
A life that's full
With no regret,
Don't look back at me.
Just try to forget.
Why build a dream that cannot come true?
So be strong, reach the stars now.
Walk away, walk on.

If I heard your voice,
I'd beg you to stay.
So don't say a word.
Just run, run away.

Goodbye my love.
My tears will fall.
Now that you've gone,
I can't help but cry.
But I must go on.
I'm sad that I, after searching so long,

Knew I loved you, but I told you
Walk away, walk on, walk on.

Not very distinguished as song lyrics go, but to the point.

As chance would have it, my marriage didn't work out as planned. The name of this blog is something of a giveaway on the subject of my marital status. (I'm not, in fact, a widower. The woman in question didn't die, at least not in any physical sense.) Just think, I said to myself when I understood those words for the first time, of all the time and emotion and ultimate disappointment I could've spared myself if she or I had just hearkened to the words Matt Monro was singing - to the two of us - on that day twenty years ago. No matter how many times my sister, who believes that everything happens for a reason, would've told me that it had to be so, that I had to go through with marrying that woman just so that everything that has happened in my life subsequently - including my meeting the woman who now lives with me, a meeting that took place on December 4, 2007 precisely five years after my divorce was finalized by  judge back in Colorado - could've happened, I can't resist wondering where I would be now if I hadn't, in the words from Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," so "sentimentalized" my pleasant time with her that I made the mistake of thinking that I could make it last for the rest of my life. The rest of one's life is a very long time, after all.

The words of another old torch song, "One for My Baby," come to mind, sung by a man telling a familiar story to a bartender (named Joe):

"Well, that's how it goes
And Joe, I know you're getting
Anxious to close.
And thanks for the beer.
I hope you didn't mind
My bending your ear.

But this torch that I found,
It's got to be drowned,
Or it soon might explode.

Make it one for my baby,
And one more for the road."

1. While I won't call it poetry, such lyrics as "Like a song of love that clings to me,/How the thought of you does things to me" from another Nat Cole song, "Unforgettable" is almost worthy of Keats.