Saturday, February 28, 2015

American Sniper

I served eleven and a half years in the military and I am a disabled veteran. I met nearly all of my friends in the military, but none of us spend much time dwelling on it. Though I consider myself patriotic, I have never been pushy about it, like so many patriots who are really nationalists. Clemenceau distinguished patriots - people who love their country - from nationalists - people who hate everyone else's country. 

Unlike a lot of people, many of whom are proving to be liars, I don't have any war stories. I guess I'm lucky that I don't. The people I know who have real war stories don't go around telling them to just anybody. When I was released from active military service, I took my uniform off. I keep my dress uniform in a closet at home, but even if I wanted to put it on, it no longer fits. Even David, the warrior king, advised us, in Psalm 67, to "rebuke the company of spearmen" and to "scatter thou the people that delight in war." Most Americans seem to be doing just this, despite all their attestations of "thank you for your service." They've lost their appetite for war, which is fine by me.

In the 1851 preface to his great book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from Marathon to Waterloo, Sir Edward Creasy wrote: "It is an honorable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age, that projects of violence and warfare are regarded among civilized states with gradually increasing aversion." So, why is it that, 164 years later, Clint Eastwood's new film, American Sniper, has become so popular, even becoming the highest-grossing war film ever? I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on its virtues - if any - as a piece of filmmaking, but from what I've heard, American Sniper is a response to Oliver Stone's film Born On the Fourth of July (1989). Both films tell so-called "true" stories about veterans of war. Stone's film, which I admire, is concerned with Ron Kovic, who went to Vietnam in 1967 as a marine . When he came under enemy fire, Kovic mistakenly shoots and kills a fellow marine. On another patrol, Kovic is critically wounded. Paralyzed from the chest down, in a dilapidated Veterans Hospital, he suffers from such ill-treatment from the overworked, drug-abusing doctors and nurses that he suffers a compound fracture of his femur and nearly loses his leg. The rest of the film chronicles Kovic's difficult return to civilian life and his political awakening in a country that wanted only to forget the war in Vietnam and to forget the sacrifices of Kovic and the millions of other veterans who served there.

The American war in Iraq, which was really the second war in Iraq, ended - so to speak - without a clear victory. Like Vietnam vets, the thousands of veterans who served there have had to get on with their lives without an understanding of what their sacrifices accomplished, if anything - especially now that a third war in Iraq is looming. It seems to me, from what I've been able to learn about American Sniper, that Clint Eastwood's film is about the altogether unique experience of war as a crucible that creates such close bonds among the men who serve in it that nothing can sever them, not even death. When thrown together into situations of extreme adversity, in which men have to depend on one another for their very survival, the degree of brotherhood is so intense that, ultimately, what every soldier fights for isn't abstractions like "liberty" or "country," but for the lives of every fellow soldier.* 

While there is no way to satisfactorily explain the popularity of American Sniper, perhaps it's because it's a way for Americans, drunk from the comforts and safety of their lives, to do their patriotic duty and do right by the men and women who perform the too often thankless job of serving their country.

Vietnam was the last American war that was fought by draftees, but at least the draft meant that a much broader cross-section of the population participated in the national nightmare. Now, after the end of two wars fought simultaneously, the percentage of Americans that volunteer to serve in the military is one per cent. That the other ninety-nine per cent of Americans likely can't comprehend what the one per cent have had to endure may explain some of the fascination that American Sniper holds for them. It may also go a long way to explain why our victory in Iraq (and Afghanistan) was unattainable. When the commitment of Americans to our "war effort" is so minuscule, when the day to day hazards of war are so remote from the lives of the vast majority of Americans, how can they be relied on to elect governments that prosecute such wars?

Many people who never served in the military still want to be a part, no matter how insignificant, of the narrative. Even TV news anchors have fabricated stories about their experiences of war. If we can believe what Creasy wrote about the public's appetite for war, not to mention accounts and depictions of war, then it is a positive step for our civilization. But our appetite foe experiencing war vicariously, if the popularity of American Sniper is any indication, then warfare, at least as a concept, is as real and as resonant as ever. 

There is a moment from the film The Truce (1997), based on a memoir by Primo Levi, in which a prisoner liberated from Auschwitz (played by John Turturro) tells a fellow prisoner that the war is over. The fellow prisoner corrects him. "War is always," he says. Let war stay on our movie and television screens and in our imaginations, and not in our lives.

*When marine PFC Lee Marvin was wounded in the battle for Saipan in 1944 and regained consciousness on a hospital ship bound for home, he realized that for him the war was over, and yet he wept bitterly because he was leaving behind all his buddies, for whom the war was far from over. After a long career as an actor, Marvin died in 1987, and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Prediction

With the 87th annual Academy Awards ceremony airing tomorrow night, the media is abuzz with predictions of who will win in each category. I have predictions of my own, based not on quality but on the Academy's reliable unreliability. But rather than add my two cents' worth to the pot, I'd rather repeat something Stanley Kauffmann wrote a decade ago. [the italics are mine]

I watch the Oscars every year, and every year, regular as a sort of intellectual clockwork, knowledgeable critics are ready to scorn: to disclose the industrial ogre beneath the artistic hoopla, to rip open the pretensions, to excoriate the lengthy and unexciting familial tributes and embraces. Each year I wonder what these critics expected. A coronation by the Muses on the slopes of Olympus, perhaps?

The super-lavish hall where the Oscars now take place, the unsurpassable grossness of the settings and the stage machinery - well, of course. Who would want anything Doric? The Oscars are out to supply once a year what ornate movie palaces of the past used to give viewers every week. The prizewinners are not worth discussing as artistic decisions: they are what an industry wants for its industrial well-being. Some people are still roiled by the injustice and neglect trumpeted by most of those prizes, but can they have thought that the film world would spend copious time and money to blazon worthy films, independent or not, that may have disappeared months ago?

I'm not suggesting the easing of critical rigor about the Oscars: I'm proposing a sense of the ridiculous. Our own taste and minds ought not to occlude what this bejeweled trade show is for. To judge it by the best standards at our command would be to debase those standards. For the most part, the Oscar broadcast is a glitzy attempt to attract and please the largest segment of the film audience.

-"Different Weights," The New Republic, March 21, 2005.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Getting it Wrong, all the way to the bank

So much of the time, people misuse metaphors and misquote famous phrases, oblivious that they've put their foot in it unless someone points it out to them. Once again, just yesterday morning, a news reader on CNN (Amara Walker) reporting the recent computer hacking of banks to the tune of $1B, said "talk about laughing all the way to the bank," and once again I cried. 

Just about every time people repeat that line, they get it wrong. What is "laughing all the way to the bank" supposed to mean, anyway? It isn't even funny. The phrase, in its correct form, has a story behind it.

Liberace was a popular American entertainer, but a mediocre classical pianist. When a recording of his playing classical piano pieces was released in the 1950s, music critics lambasted it. Liberace was hurt by the criticism, but he got rich on the sales of the record. When he was asked his reaction to what the critics said about his playing, Liberace said "I cried all the way to the bank."

Whenever you hear someone misquote this famous line, please correct them.

Promises, Promises

On 13 February the 70th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden was commemorated. The German president, Joachim Gauck, spoke of the people who started the war, but also spoke of the thousands who perished in the firestorms ignited by the incendiary bombs as "victims," that they were as much victims of the Nazis as everyone else, and that they, too, suffered at their hands:

"We know who started the murderous war... we know. And that is why we don't and we will never forget the victims of German warfare. We don't forget when, today, we remember the German victims."

This has become, I'm afraid, the new mantra among Germans, their new way of coming to terms with their monstrous past. Unfortunately it doesn't wash. If they bothered to fact check their own history, they would learn that Adolf Hitler did not come to power because of a putsch or a coup d'etat. He and his National Socialist Party were handed power by the German electorate.

Fascism was nothing new when, in 1928, the Nazis got 800,000 votes in the Reichstag elections. Fascism originated in Italy and was a clear reaction against communism and socialism and the power of labor. In the 1930 election, the Nazis won six and a half million votes. The failure of the communists and socialists, who between them still held a majority of seats in the Reichstag, to see Nazism as a legitimate threat and to form an alliance against it made Hitler's rise to power all the easier. When he was named Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, he was actually the head of a coalition government. But at that late stage, it was easy for him to neutralize his coalition partners because he knew he had a mandate from the people. True to all his promises, since Hitler had never tried to conceal or disguise his intentions from anyone, one of his first acts upon seizing emergency powers was to take steps to crush the German labor movement altogether. What Hitler promised to Germans has always intrigued me, and should stand as a great lesson to anyone seeking to attain political power. As early in the war as March 1940, George Orwell understood Hitler's success:

"[Hitler had] grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all Western thought since the last war, certainly all 'progressive' thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. . . Hitler, because in in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general. common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades. . . All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people, 'I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them 'I offer you struggle, danger and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation 'Greatest happiness of the greatest number' is a good slogan, but at the moment 'Better an end with horror than a horror without end' is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal." (Review of Mein Kampf, New English Weekly, 21 March 1940)

Removing the destruction of Dresden from its context is a stupid exercise. We have to stop engaging in retroactive pity. We need to remember what Auden wrote:

History to the defeated.
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

("Spain," 1937)

In the terminal months of the war, the German people knew struggle and self-sacrifice, danger and death. They faced and end with horror, and on February 13, 1945, the citizens of Dresden got exactly what Hitler promised them.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Port of Shadows

Just as 50 Shades of Grey is out in theaters, stirring up another storm of noxious fumes, I'm going back to a love story written by a poet and made into a film worth remembering.

One scene from Joe Wright's film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel
Atonement comes close to the heft of McEwan's prose. The disaster of Dunkirk - the shocking "strategic withdrawal" of the British Expeditionary Force from France - is captured in what seems like one long (five minute) take. Somehow, Robbie, the hero of the novel, ends up in a cinema and watches, behind the screen, as Jean Gabin kisses Michele Morgan in a scene from Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes). The choice of the film could have been random, but Port of Shadows, released in 1938, was probably the most popular French film to be released before the war. Of course, the intensely romantic moment between Gabin and Morgan reminds Robbie of Cecilia and the happiness that, he hopes, awaits him back in England.

Port of Shadows is an intensely atmospheric love story about Jean (Gabin), a soldier who arrives in the port of Le Havre trying to escape the Army by booking passage on a cargo ship bound for Venezuela.* By chance, he meets Nelly (Morgan) and falls in love with her. Gabin was expert at playing characters on the downward slope of their fortunes; men who have seen too much to stand on ceremony with women or bother about the quaint niceties of love, the flowers and sweet nothings of a romance. With no illusions of himself, he insists on calling tings like he sees them. When he first meets Michele Morgan, he accuses her of being out "hustling." When she acts insulted, he continues: "Don't tell me you're here to bring Grandma some cake. You're not Little Red Riding Hood. And that's too bad, 'cause I'm the Big Bad Wolf." (In the scene, Morgan is wearing a see-through raincoat, and when she turns to face Gabin, she slides one hand into a see-through pocket - a gesture I found strangely erotic.)

The film was directed by Marcel Carné and the script was written by Jacques Prévert, the same team who would make the monumentally great The Children of Paradise seven years later. Prévert was also a poet, and much of his dialogue in Port of Shadows attains the level of poetry. A painter he meets called Michel asks Jean, "Do you love life?"

Jean: "It has its moments."
Michel: "Does life love you?"
Jean: "She's been rotten to me so far, but maybe she'll change, since I love her."

Jean and Nelly talk about love in one scene:

Jean: "When a girl's young and beautiful and wants to live, it's like a man who wants to be free - everyone gangs up on them. Like a pack of dogs.
Nelly: "Life is hard."
Jean: "Yes, you're all alone, every one of us. But sometimes you meet someone you hardly know, someone you might never see again, and they help you. You don't know why It's funny."
Nelly: "It's because people love each other."
Jean: "No, they don't. They don't have time."

Seventy-five years ago, when he had a chance to see the film in New York, Otis Ferguson was moved to write:

"As a film that neither attempts more than it can do nor is satisfied with the trivial, Port of Shadows is a pleasure.

Port of Shadows is a love story, one of the best. The plot is lively but soon told. In less than forty-eight hours the different forces have got mixed up, and write your own conclusion. The conclusion of the picture is that there is a little kindness in the world — not enough to go around and never where you would expect to find it — too often unrecognized, but genuine, and when felt as such, beautiful to see. The beauty of this picture is partly in this quiet statement of non-spectacular truth, but even more in the steadfast allegiance of each character to his own strength and weakness. When goodness gets to this surface, it has been a pitched battle, and worth it. Because virtue did not triumph by some flick of the wrist in the scenario department, the majority will find the picture depressing — though with the world as it is, you’d think any story proving there is virtue in it at all would be a token of joy and welcome. Times change, as it is only right they should, but I will take this treatment of love as the sudden hope of heaven, between a roughened man and a scared young woman, before any Romeos or Juliets, even at played in double exposure by Orson Welles.

As the girl, Michele Morgan was both lovely and secure in the meaning of the part, a little too old for the given age, but one of the few who could establish the fact that a death for love might not be so fantastic after all. The picture’s mainspring is of course Jean Gabin, who is a true stalwart — indeed, it would be difficult to imagine the effect of this picture if he had not been there through all its minutes with his projection of strength in immobility, his command of the illusion that crossing a room even to get to the men’s room has its meaning and that if he kicks a dog it will be because he loves the mutt. There is something we know no more about than magnets, some inner command, some emanation of qualities that would be destroyed if talked about. There is a feeling of dignity that is more than his own—the dignity of all men—who are after all men and have dignity in some decree whether their surface foibles make fools of them or not. Gabin and all the qualities of the film around him have that perfect eloquence of the thing as perceived, marked down and brought across to all who have an interest in and hope for the processes of life, as lived."

*In a scene from the next film Carne and Prevert made together, the very different Le Jour se Leve, Gabin, holed up in his garrett under police siege, absent-mindedly reads the shipping news: "Ship schedules. Boulogne. the Veendam arrives from New York on the 6th...."  

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Second Coming

I recently watched an interview with the German author Matthias Politycki, who spoke about the sharp decline of religious observance in Europe. While researching a novel, he said that he tried in vain to find one church - Protestant or Catholic - in a German city that rang its bells, either at the quarter-hour, the hour, or ever. People would simply complain, he said, because they regard it as just noise. "How can a vibrant religion," Politycki asked, "not ring the bells?"

Every bell in the Philippines must've been pealing non-stop wherever Pope Francis (or "Santo Papa" - Holy Father - as he is called here) went during his five day visit from the 15th to the 19th. Some observers said that he was afforded "rock star" status. But no rock star who ever lived would have received such a reception as the Pope did during those five days. Every television station - broadcast or cable - followed his every movement live, from the touchdown of his plane from Sri Lanka to the takeoff of his plane to Rome.Platoons of police were deployed to escort his Popemobile, traffic was diverted, and tens of thousands of people lined the routes of his scheduled motorcade to wave or to get a smartphone photo as he sped past.

On the 17th, he flew to Tacloban, a city that was destroyed by super typhoon Haiyan on November 8, 2013, even as another typhoon was nearing the city. About 150,000 people had gathered in yellow raincoats [the Vatican's colors are yellow and white] on the spit of land once occupied by the city's airport. Amidst steady rain and gusting winds, the Pope's plane landed successfully and he proceeded to perform a miracle. The typhoon changed course and headed north.

He had to cut short his visit in Tacloban and returned to Manila to preside over a Sunday mass that attracted hordes of worshippers - an estimated six million. By the time his plane took off on Monday morning, Filipinos were talking about the "Pope Francis Effect" on the country's eighty million Catholics - the third-largest Catholic nation in the world.* In the weeks since, there have even been excited hints of a papal visit in 2016.

During the Philippine president's audience with the Pope, Benigno Aquino III complained to Pope Francis about the interference of the powerful Philippine Catholic Bishops' Conference in national politics, actively sabotaging measures to provide free family planning and contraceptives to Filipinos, in a country that is ranked 72nd in land area among the world's nations, but 12th in population. The Bishops, in turn, expressed dismay that the president should exploit such an august occasion to express such petty political concerns. The Pope made no comment. How could he when an enture nation had thrown itself at his feet like he was Christ incarnate?

*After Brazil and Mexico.