Thursday, July 30, 2015

Listing to Starboard

Not content to be one of the world's most venerated sources of news reporting, The BBC conducted its own survey to determine the "100 Greatest American Films." They published the results online last week. This is how they introduced them:  

"In recognition of the astounding influence of the US on what remains the most popular art-form worldwide, BBC Culture has polled 62 international film critics to determine the 100 greatest American films of all time. . . . Each critic who participated submitted a list of 10 films, with their pick for the greatest film receiving 10 points and their number 10 pick receiving one point . . . Critics were encouraged to submit lists of the 10 films they feel, on an emotional level, are the greatest in American cinema - not necessarily the most important, just the best."

That last sentence is rather vague,and may have caused some confusion. If one "feels" ("on an emotional level" no less) that something is great, what should one do if one knows (on a rational level) that it is not? I feel that La Notte is Antonioni's greatest film, but I know that L'Avventura is. See what I mean?

BBC Culture posted their list backwards, counting down from 100 to 1. Here are the films in their proper order.  

1. Citizen Kane (1941-Orson Welles)   
2. The Godfather (1972-Francis Ford Coppolla)   
3. Vertigo (1958-Alfred Hitchcock)   
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968-Stanley Kubrick)   
5. The Searchers (1956-John Ford)  
6. Sunrise (1927-F. W. Murnau)
7. Singing' in the Rain (1952-Stanley Donen)
8. Psycho (1960-Alfred Hitchcock)
9. Casablanca (1942-Michael Curtiz)
10. The Godfather, Part II (1974-Francis Ford Coppolla)
11. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942-Orson Welles)
12. Chinatown (1974-Roman Polanski)
13. North by Northwest (1959-Alfred Hitchcock)
14. Nashville (1975-Robert Altman)
15. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946-William Wyler) 
16. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971-Robert Altman)
17. The Gold Rush (1925-Charles Chaplin)
18. City Lights (1931-Charles Chaplin)
19. Taxi Driver (1976-Martin Scorsese)
20. Goodfellas (1990-Martin Scorsese)
21. Mulholland Drive (2001-David Lynch)
22. Greed (1924-Erich von Stroheim)
23. Annie Hall (1977-Woody Allen)
24. The Apartment (1960-Billy Wilder)
25. Do the Right Thing (1989-Spike Lee)
26. Killer of Sheep (1978-Charles Burnett)
27. Barry Lyndon (1975-Stanley Kubrick)
28. Pulp Fiction (1994-Quentin Tarantino)
29. Raging Bull (1980-Martin Scorsese)
30. Some Like It Hot (1959-Billy Wilder)
31. A Woman Under the Influence (1974-John Cassavetes)
32. The Lady Eve (1941-Preston Sturges)
33. The Conversation (1974-Francis Ford Coppolla)
34. The Wizard of Oz (1939-Victor Fleming)
35. Double Indemnity (1944-Billy Wilder)
36. Star Wars (1977-George Lucas)
37. Imitation of Life (1959-Douglas Sirk)
38. Jaws (1975-Steven Spielberg)
39. The Birth of a Nation (1915-D. W. Griffith)
40. Meshes in the Afternoon (1943-Maya Deren)
41. Rio Bravo (1959-Howard Hawks)
42. Dr. Strangelove (1964-Stanley Kubrick)
43. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948-Max Ophuls)
44. Sherlock Jr (1924-Buster Keaton) 
45. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962-John Ford)
46. It's a Wonderful Life (1946-Frank Capra)
47. Marnie (1964-Alfred Hitchcock)
48. A Place in the Sun (1951-George Stevens)
49. Days of Heaven (1978-Terrence Malick)
50. His Girl Friday (1940-Howard Hawks)
51. Touch of Evil (1958-Orson Welles)
52. The Wild Bunch (1969-Sam Peckinpah)
53. Grey Gardens (1975-Albert & David Maysles)
54. Sunset Boulevard (1950-Billy Wilder)
55. The Graduate (1967-Mike Nichols)
56. Back to the Future (1985-Robert Zemeckis)
57. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989-Woody Allen)
58. The Shop Around the Corner (1940-Ernst Lubitsch)
59. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975-Milos Forman)
60. Blue Velvet (1986-David Lynch)
61. Eyes Wide Shut (1999-Stanley Kubrick)
62. The Shining (1980-Stanley Kubrick)
63. Love Streams (1984-John Cassavetes)
64. Johnny Guitar (1954-Nicholas Ray)
65. The Right Stuff (1983-Phillip Kaufman)
66. Red River (1948-Howard Hawks)
67. Modern Times (1936-Charles Chaplin)
68. Notorious (1946-Alfred Hitchcock)
69. Koyannisqatsi (1982-Godfrey Reggio)
70. The Band Wagon (1953-Vincente Minelli)
71. Groundhog Day (1993-Harold Ramis)
72. The Shanghai Gesture (1941-Josef von Sternberg)
73. Network (1976-Sidney Lumet)
74. Forrest Gump (1994-Robert Zemeckis)
75. Close Encounters of the First Kind (1977-Steven Spielberg)
76. The Empire Strikes Back (1980-Irvin Kershner)
77. Stagecoach (1939-John Ford)
78. Schindler's List (1993-Steven Spielberg)
79. The Tree of Life (2011-Terrence Malick)
80. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944-Vincente Minelli)
81. Thelma & Louise (1991-Ridley Scott)
82. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981-Steven Spielberg)
83. Bringing Up Baby (1938-Howard Hawks)
84. Deliverance (1972-John Boorman)
85. Night of the Living Dead (1968-George A. Romero)
86. The Lion King (1994-Roger Allers)
87. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004-Michel Gondry)
88. West Side Story (1961-Robert Wise)
89. In a Lonely Place (1950-Nicholas Ray)
90. Apocalypse Now (1979-Francis Ford Coppolla)
91. E.T. (1982-Steven Spielberg)
92. The Night of the Hunter (1955-Charles Laughton)
93. Mean Streets (1973-Martin Scorsese)
94. The 25th Hour (2002-Spike Lee)
95. Duck Soup (1933-Leo McCarey)
96. The Dark Knight (2008-Christopher Nolan)
97. Gone With the Wind (1939-Victor Fleming)
98. Heaven's Gate (1980-Michael Cimino)
99. 12 Years a Slave (2013-Steve McQueen)
100. An Ace in the Hole (1951-Billy Wilder)

Believe me, typing out this list was as dispiriting to me as it was tiresome. While I don't regard any list as truly authoritative, I've certainly seen better lists than the BBC's. It is, in fact, something of a disgrace. Where do I begin to tear it apart?

There are too many reasons to list to not take Top Ten Lists seriously. I have already had my say about the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound Top Ten Lists., published every ten years since 1952. All I will reiterate is that such exercises are a dubious gauge of any film's ultimate importance, precisely because, in their strenuous attempts to be comprehensive, the more people you include in every poll, the less authoritative it inevitably becomes. The reason why every Oxford Book of English Poetry is edited by one person is to give authority over what to include and what to leave out to one guiding intelligence. The results are never greeted with universal approval, but they are preferable to throwing out a broad net and pulling in everything, including the kitchen sink. 

And what is the standard? In his book, Private Screenings, John Simon wrote: 

"Concerning film, almost everyone has some Procrustean axe to grind: It is merely an entertainment, it must be purely filmic, it has got to be avant-garde, it cannot depend on words, it must not resemble theatre, it cannot come out of a major studio, it must be the product of a single creative mind, it should not be merely an entertainment, and so on. The fact is that some of the best films have defied any or all rules that have ever been set down for them, and even the safest of generalizations does not entirely stand up under scrutiny."

Jonathan Rosenbaum could come up with one thousand films that belong in the canon of great films. If I were to be brutally honest, I would probably (if I tried) have a difficult time coming up with fifty. Remember, the BBC told the 62 critics it consulted that they had to number their choices. And they only had to come up with ten. (And it is rather unfair to take a film that critic #37 ranked at #10 and place it at #100 merely because he was alone in his love for a particular film.) There is no way I could number what I consider to be the best Ingmar Bergman film. I could narrow it down to perhaps three. But where would I place them in a Top Ten list? If Sawdust and Tinsel and Smiles of a Summer Night and Winter Light are about as equally great as I'm able to estimate, how would I fit them in a Top Ten. Is Bergman better than Fellini? Because I could easily come up with about three great Fellini films.

American film specializes in genre films, and in the BBC's top ten you have a two gangster films, two suspense films, a science-fiction film, a western, a silent film, and a musical. And - oh yeah - Citizen Kane, which is a film without a genre. To its credit, the American Film Institute's top ten lists segregate films into categories: Best Suspense Film (Vertigo), Best Western (The Searchers), Best Sci-Fi (2001), and Best Musical (Singin' in the Rain). This makes much better sense, since the terrific singing and dancing that makes Singin' in the Rain great is entirely missing from The Godfather(s). All the tricks in Alfred Hitchcock's bag that give Vertigo its reason for being wouldn't have been any use to John Ford when he made The Searchers. And there are experimental films on the BBC's list, an animated film and a documentary. It's comparing apples and oranges (and peaches and pears). 

Whether they intended it or not, the BBC's list resembles the British Film Institute's in some places - perhaps not enough. In their 2002 Critics' Poll, BFI gave Coppolla's Godfather films extraordinary importance by placing both of them at #4 in their top ten. By 2012, however, the critics had returned to their senses, and both films were sleeping with the fishes. Like BFI's, the BBC's critics think enough of Hitchcock to give him #2, #8, #13, #47 and #68. I'm not a Hitchcock fan by any means (and aren't most of these poll contributors fans rather than critics?), but even I know that Strangers on a Train and The Wrong Man are more representative of his best work than any on the BBC's list.

I could feel the shadow of auteurism casting a pall over the BBC list, just as it has over BFI's. There are five films on their list by four filmmakers: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Wilder, and Spielberg. There are four by Coppolla, Scorsese, and Hawks. Three by Welles and Ford. "Auteurs," by their definition. And there are evidently enough of their minions still out there to ensure that a few of their darlings (including Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk) score enough places on the list. But quite a few titles on the list are what I and anyone else would call - regardless of their popularity - cult films, like Night of the Living Dead, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Blue Velvet, Touch of Evil, Meshes in the Afternoon, Nashville, and a few others.(1)    

As usual, the List's sins of omission often outweigh the ones committed. How could anyone acquainted with the history of American film dare to ignore Bonnie and Clyde? And who in his right mind could name five films by Stanley Kubrick and none by John Huston? Is it really because Andrew Sarris didn't like him? Has anyone heard of The Maltese Falcon? The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? The African Queen

Terrence Malick made the list with two films, but his best film, Badlands, is, evidently, unknown or forgotten. Frank Capra's Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, is unbearably hokey outside its holiday context, like just now in July. Why not the much better It Happened One Night instead? And I noticed that no one thought enough (or anything at all) of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, but why should that cause them to neglect his marvelous Melvin and Howard? Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors made the cut, but everyone obviously forgot Zelig, which is his masterpiece. A few years ago, before his death of course, I was calling Sidney Lumet the greatest living American director. He's represented on the list by one film that isn't his best. How could the BBC's contributors have ignored Dog Day Afternoon or The Verdict or Prince of the City? I love David Lynch's The Straight Story. The rest of his work leaves me indifferent.

Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate, which is credited with bringing about the demise of United Artists, made the list, but his much better Deer Hunter, which presented to us what is probably the most challenging metaphor of America's involvement in Vietnam - Christopher Walken drugged out of his mind playing Russian roulette in a Vietnamese gambling den - didn't. (To this day, I still can't sit still through the film's last scene.)

There are a few surprises, some pleasant, some not. Seeing Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at #87 was cheering. And Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is just as scary and relevant more than twenty-five years after its premier. Forrest Gump made a lot of people wish they were idiots. The critics who voted for it certainly were. 

Four years ago on this blog, I succumbed to the temptation to make a list of what I think are thirty great American films. The only way I could have come up with a hundred is if a gun had been pressed against the back of my skull. I don't believe that a hundred Great American films exist. But at least I managed to resist the stupid urge to rank the thirty I found worthy of the word "great," even if I have to admit to using the word rather flexibly. Here's what I came up with, in alphabetical order (and any list of great American films is obliged to include Citizen Kane, which is still the greatest American film I can think of):

Badlands (Terrence Malick)                                                            
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)                                         
Born On the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone)                          
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)                                     
Chinatown (Roman Polanski)                                             
Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)                                                        
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer)                                             
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)                                     
Donnie Brascoe (Mike Newell)                                                    
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick)                                    
Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford)                                   
Fight Club (David Fincher)                                      
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)                                           
Hard Times (Arthur Hill)                                           
Jeremiah Johnson (Sidney Pollock)                                      
King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)                                        
The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)                             
M*A*S*H (Robert Altman)                                             
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)                                      
The Pledge (Sean Penn)                                                
Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet)                                 
Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)                                  
Smoke (Wayne Wang)                                                       
The Straight Story (David Lynch)                                   
Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard)                                           
Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah)                                          
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford)                                         
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)                                     
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sidney Pollack)                          
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)    

Too subjective? Of course it is. What's on your list? 

(1) In revenge, Empire Magazine's readers' poll ranked Citizen Kane #33, with The Empire Strikes Back at #1.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Calling the Shots

I recently had the unexpected chance to see a brief interview from Spanish television of the American actress Betsy Blair, who is remembered for, among other things, her performance in Juan Antonio Bardem's film Calle Mayor (1956). Bardem is best known today for a handful of superb films he directed in the 1950s and '60s, notably Death of a Cyclist (1955), Calle Mayor and Nunca Pasa Nada (1963). Blair commented on Bardem's commitment to his work, and how that commitment helped everyone working on the film. And she mentioned something I didn't know: that Bardem had been arrested during the filming of Calle Mayor by the Spanish authorities of the Franco regime. Production was suspended for several days while the film's producer, who was losing money every day that the film was held up, negotiated Bardem's release. Blair consulted Jorge Semprun in Paris about what she should do, and he empahtically told her not to work with anyone but Bardem, to wait for his return to the production.

Her comments reminded me of a point I once made about the - to my mind mistaken - application of the so-called "auteur theory" to American film. While I am not an advocate of dead horse whipping, where's the harm in it? The horse, in this case, Andrew Sarris's Cahiers du Cinema-inspired Auteur Theory, isn't quite dead, even if the critical discourse that engendered it is practically forgotten. That, in itself, may be the best argument against the auteur theory - that most film critics aren't idealogues and aren't interested in orthodoxies. There remain the stalwart few, however, for whom it is second nature.

One of the most entrenched opponents of the auteur theory was Pauline Kael, who wrote a lengthy treatise attempting to debunk it called "Raising Kane." The greatness of Citizen Kane is, by now, without question. Until its latest international critic's poll in 2012, which is really no more or less spurious than any of the others going all the way back to 1952, BFI's Top Ten Films list was always topped with Kane. Choosing Orson Welles's first film to illustrate her thesis was unfortunate simply because Kane is a work of art.

In "Raising Kane," Kael strained credulity by arguing that Herman Mankiewicz, and not Orson Welles, was a likelier "auteur" of Citizen Kane. The only thing Kael actually proved, which was news to no one, was that Mankiewicz wrote a substantial part of the screenplay, with Welles giving himself co-writing credit. Kael might as well have argued that Gregg Toland, the film's cinematographer, and Van Nest Polglase, its production designer, were the film's auteurs, since they were responsible for the extraordinary look of the film. Obviously, Welles made everything happen. He didn't - of course, he couldn't - do everything himself, but nothing would've been done without him calling the shots. Despite RKO's advance hype for Kane, to which William Randolph Hearst contributed by threatening to sue the studio for libel, Citizen Kane was a box office disappointment.

The notion that a director, who is there to tell everyone what to do, is the author of a film, the guiding intelligence that realizes what eventually turns up on the screen, is theoretically a sound one. It didn't always work out that way in practice. Two of MGM's major productions of 1939, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, give directing credit to Victor Fleming. We now know that, due to MGM's formidable shooting schedules, several directors worked on both movies, including George Cukor and King Vidor. So who was the author of these two movies? Since neither film is all that good, does it really matter?

To a reliable extent, any number of Hollywood's auteurs were replaceable. The simplest way to prove this is to imagine what would've happened if Howard Hawks or William Wellman or Raoul Walsh had been incapacitated by an unforeseen accident while shooting one of their masterworks. Obviously, an assistant would have completed the movie without anyone noticing the slightest rupture in the authorial signature. Even Alfred Hitchcock regarded the physical process of making a movie as almost redundant, since, he often said, he had already made the movie in his head and had made such detailed storyboards for the framing of shots and the blocking of actors that someone else could've made them.

But trying to imagine an assistant finishing L'Avventura or Late Spring or Winter Light when Antonioni or Ozu or Bergman had been sidelined by an illness or injury is impossible. Even when a great director was assisted by someone of talent, it's still unthinkable that, for instance, Jacques Becker would've completed La Grande Illusion if Renoir had broken his back, or that Volker Schlondorff could've realized Le Feu Follet if Louis Malle had come down with severe dysentery.

Another reason why it becomes more than a little ridiculous to attribute the authorship of numerous movies to the likes of Hawks, Wellman, or Walsh (I just picked these names at random. I could as easily have used the names Mann, Wyler or Minnelli) is that making their movies wasn't their idea - they were almost always assignments, products of an inexorable process. If a producer didn't like the work that one of these directors was giving him, the producer could simply replace him, as Kirk Douglas did when he fired Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick.

There are rare instances of the shooting of a film being halted by the death or injury of one of its leading actors. Alexander Korda's now-legendary production of I, Claudius, directed by Josef von Sternberg, was scuttled a month into shooting when the film's star, Merle Oberon, was badly injured in a car accident. In the fascinating documentary, The Epic That Never Was (1965), Emlyn Williams, who was cast as Caligula, speculated that, had he or any of the other actors in the cast been hospitalized, they would've been replaced. Von Sternberg morosely said that "my film had been truncated by an actor." When Williams heard of Sternberg's (excuse me - Von Sternberg's) verdict, he pointed out that it was Merle Oberon who had been truncated. He might as easily have pointed out that if Sternberg had been thrown through the windshield instead of Merle Oberon, he, too, would've been replaced.

Whatever the reputation of any American director of Hollywood's Golden Age, none of them, not even John Ford, had contractural control over the final cut. Ford avoided drastic cutting of his films by so carefully tightening his scripts and his shooting schedules that his producers would have had little to work with if they wanted to change anything. The term "artistic control" was practically nonexistent in Hollywood until the Sixties and Seventies.

The interference of the producer Irving Thalberg in the career of Erich von Stroheim is legendary. Stroheim may have been something of a genius, but he was also an elephantine pedant. When a scene in his film Greed - that was taken out of Stroheim's hands and hacked to a small fraction of its original size - was set deep in a gold mine, Stroheim insisted that his cast and crew descend into an actual mine shaft to shoot the scene rather than simply create a set of the mineshaft in the studio.

But if one were to compare Welles's first two films, Citizen Kane, of which he had contracturally guaranteed final cut approval, and The Magnificent Ambersons, of which he obviously did not, it would demonstrate one of the fundamental flaws in the importance placed on the auteur of a film. Considerations of control aside, what most distinguishes Welles's first two films is the quality of their precises. Kane was an original work, from an idea by Herman Mankiewicz, borrowing some of its ideas from the life of flamboyant newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Ambersons was based, astonishingly, on a third-rate novel by Booth Tarkington. I can imagine reading Tarkington's novel if only to get some idea of what Welles saw in it.

With one of the most talented cinematographers in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, and a large budget, Welles set out in Citizen Kane to make what is easily the best film that could have been made by anyone in Hollywood at the time. Most contemporary critics - including one of the best, Otis Ferguson - didn't comprehend the extent of Welles's accomplishment and claimed that, far from being revolutionary, Citizen Kane was nothing but a catalog of visual effects that had been used before.

By the time Welles started working on The Magnificent Ambersons, the honeymoon was over at RKO. Kane had been a commercial disappointment, and a new head of production at RKO decreed that films released by the studio should not exceed ninety minutes in length, so as to capitalize on the war-time craze for double-features. When Welles completed shooting of Ambersons and it was handed to the producer (while Welles himself flew off to South America to make the abortive It's All True), its length was far beyond ninety minutes. Robert Wise, who also edited Kane for Welles, was told to trim the film down to size. His cuts were so ruinous to Tarkington's already shaky continuity that Wise had to shoot a different ending without Stanley Cortez, Welles's hand-picked cinematographer. (Welles famously said that it looked like it had been cut "with a lawnmower.") What's left of Ambersons is at times tantalizing but frustrating at others. It would be unfair to judge the film, in my opinion, in the condition the producers left it. Despite the obvious tampering by RKO, many critics - auteurists to the last gasp - claim that Ambersons is very nearly as great as Kane.

In an interview with Dick Cavett in the early '70s, Ingmar Bergman spoke about what happened to Orson Welles when RKO took The Magnificent Ambersons out of his hands. Bergman said that if a producer had come on the set of one of his films and told him how to make it, he would've told the producer "to go to hell." But Bergman was working under utterly different circumstances from those that Welles ever knew. Bergman never had to worry that a producer would even dream of removing a frame of The Seventh Seal or Persona. There was a world of difference in attitudes toward a director's place in the making of a film in Sweden, as there was in France, Italy, Japan and elsewhere. When Andrzej Munk was killed in a car crash during the shooting of The Passenger, the film was released with the unfinished scenes represented in still photos, out of respect to the dead filmmaker. 

Such respect for a filmmaker's intentions would be unthinkable in America. Since there is so much money involved, and since a movie's investors don't want their money to be wasted, insurance companies are involved in contract negotiations that provide them with guarantees of a film's completion, whether the contracted director completes it or not. If a director is reputed to be "difficult" and is notorious for going over-budget and over-schedule, the insurance company is empowered to step in when necessary and take the film out of his hands and give it to someone else to complete. It is impossible to imagine someone like Bertrand Tavernier or Hirozaki Koreeda being bound by such a contract.

Richard Brody, who has staked his critical reputation on the auteur theory (or, as he corrects it, the "auteur policy"), has tried to clarify what the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (Rohmer, Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette) were intending to do in the 1950s. Because they still felt the deep sense of betrayal by their parents' generation that resulted in the four-year German occupation of France, these young critics wanted to use whatever influence they could bring to bear to discredit the established film directors of France (with the exception of Renoir, of course). Godard told Brody in 2000, "We saw that we had to continue the Resistance against a certain type of occupations of the cinema by people who had no business being there. Including, at times, three-quarters of the French [directors]." This pretty much explains the antagonism of the Cahiers gang toward French cinema and its love of American cinema. The Americans liberated France, after all.

The adaptation of this parochial and highly political approach to film by Andrew Sarris became suspect the moment Sarris failed to notice the importance of the word "politique." For Sarris, auteurism was a purely aesthetic dogma - which is why he made it seem - to me - ridiculous. The auteurist orthodoxy becomes unmistakably political when it attempts to cross the line - indeed, to obscure the line - between art and non-art. Many critics and filmmakers have remarked at how they warmed to Sarris precisely because he re-introduced them to a pantheon of films - by American directors. Suddenly, thanks to Sarris's efforts, films that had never before been taken seriously, whose directors had never been mistaken for artists, were - abra-cadabra - welcomed into the winner's circle. American films were no longer mere "entertainment" (genre musicals, westerns, thrillers, etc.), but were the worthy objects of serious discussion.

One of the reasons why I have never taken Sarris seriously is simply because films that I had seen with my own eyes, that had made no deeper impression on me than a circus performance or a comic book, were somehow as deep as Dostoevsky or Debussy. I had by then (by my mid-teens, that is) encountered enough of literature and so-called "classical" music to have felt the tug on my intellect and my soul of great art. I knew that Sarris's argument was baloney because I experienced an opposite trajectory. I had not been given the slightest indication from my moviegoing that American films, with singular exceptions, were worthy of any serious consideration. I saw them as nothing but commercial products, and their makers as nothing but studio employees. I wasn't even aware of the wider world of film art until - in 1971 - I was shown Fellini's La Strada and was so deeply disturbed by it that it led me to investigate how the film came about, seventeen years before I was given a chance to see it. Not only did the experience introduce me to other films, and the artists who created them, it made me turn against every other film I had seen until then - and a movie industry that had actively worked to deprive me of them.

The appropriation of the American film industry of film markets - theater venues - in Europe and everywhere else in the world is a different, and ongoing phenomenon. But few film critics have bothered to address how the American industry has so pervasively monopolized movie theaters in the U.S. that only independently-owned - and independently-minded - theaters have provided a space for films from abroad.

The only reason why I had the opportunity to see La Strada was because a Roman Catholic nun, who was a teacher at the elementary school I was attending at the time, had seen the film and had found a Christian "message" in Fellini's story of the carnival strong man Zampano and the waif Gelsomina. What bowled me over was the film's streaks of poetry that seemed to come out of nowhere, like the Fool's toy violin that was made to sound like a full-sized one, or the strange and inexplicable appearance of a rag-tag marching band in the middle of nowhere. I had never known that a film could do what Fellini was doing in La Strada and it both delighted and depressed me. I was in love with something that was totally new to me - cinema. But where had it been all my life?  

That it had always been there, beyond my horizon, just waiting for me to make the effort of discovering it for myself, soon made me resent American films in general. At last seeing what films could do, through Fellini, Bergman, De Sica, Kurosawa, etc., it became an exclusive standard to which I compared every film I encountered. When I encountered Sarris's book, The American Cinema, I already knew that its propositions were foolish - and that I was not alone.     

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Life in the Balance

My companion has a son who will be twenty years old on the 22nd of this month. Just to give you a better idea of who he is and what he has meant to me, I refer you to something I wrote about him four years ago called The Boy Who Wasn't There. I confess that I have never liked him, but at the moment - the most crucial moment in his life - I feel intensely sorry for him.

I had been anxious for him to leave my house until last August, when, after pulling the latest in a very long line of stupid stunts (like breaking into my house when I wasn't there), I told him to start looking for another place to live. I expected that it would take him weeks and perhaps months to accomplish the task. Imagine my surprise when he moved out the very next day, pouring forth as he did so what must've been a reservoir of pent-up resentment toward me. The only thing that bothered me about it was that it broke his mother's heart.

I am poor by any standard you care to apply - including my living for seven years in a backward province of a very poor country and having to support four people on a miniscule pension. I knew from the beginning that the woman I was living with had four children. Her ex-husband, and father of three of her children, had been last seen more than a year before I met her. Because there is no divorce law in the Philippines and because, by my own reckoning, at least half of the population is poor, many of them are never legally married. This has the unfortunate side-effect of absolving deadbeat dads of any legal responsibility to support their abandoned families. It is just one more of the disastrous effects of Roman Catholicism on the poor.

When she and I decided to live together, she left her two oldest children in the resort town where we met, and with the two youngest, a boy and a girl, we came to live on a tiny island where her sister's family was living. The boy was twelve when we got here and the four of us settled into a life that has been a constant struggle with severely straightened circumstances - the everyday life of poor Filipinos.

Since he moved out of my house last August, the boy was contacted by a cousin who has been living in Germany for several years. This cousin had previously offered to pay for the boy's college tuition, once he graduates high school (he is now in the eighth grade). Within a few months of leaving my house, however, I learned that his cousin had told him to acquire a passport and that he was going to come to the Philippines in March of this year, take him to the German embassy in Manila and sponsor a student visa for him. I took this extraordinary news at face value and told his mother that it was my kicking him out of my house that made it all happen. (She doesn't quite see it this way, and I can understand why.)

It is now July. The boy lives in a boarding house not far from my house. His mother still cooks meals for him and does his laundry, so I see him every day. He has been relying on an allowance that his cousin sends him every month. He got his NBI (the Filipino FBI) clearance and his passport after several visits to Tacloban and many delays.

When the cousin failed to show up in March as promised, he told the boy that he would wait for the results of the ALS test (Alternate Learning System - a Philippine version of the GED) for which the boy sat last December - before coming here. The condition was, of course, that the boy passed the test and got a high school diploma. Already hopping mad at the boy's cousin, I watched and waited, knowing that the boy's anticipation must've been overwhelming. On the day the results were published, the Philippine Department of Education website was so inundated with visitors that it crashed. The boy, however, managed to see the list. His name wasn't on it. When he arrived at my house later in the day, the look on his face betrayed the enormity of his disappointment. I asked him if the list was a publication of all the test results, whether the candidates passed or not. I guessed that there must've been some mistake, but when I managed to see the list myself, I saw that it was a list of the "passers" only. He had failed the test. 

I didn't see the boy for a few days, and wondered what he was going through. Having the wind knocked out of one's sails at such an age is terrible. The same thing happened to me, when, in 1978, I applied to a university in Ireland. I was sent a notice by the school that my application was "pending" and that I would be notified of the final decision. After waiting six months without a notification, I phoned the school long distance from South Carolina. In an sympathetic voice, the woman I spoke to told me that my application had been denied. Without realizing this goal, this dream of attending school in Ireland, I half-heartedly returned to college in Colorado for another two years, and eventually dropped out without taking a degree.

For the boy, going to Germany is like divine intervention. He would have opportunities in Germany, innumerable ones. Here in the Philippines, he would have very few. His best hope, were his chances of going to Germany to be lost, would be for him to get some kind of medical or engineering degree and apply for work somewhere overseas. Eleven million Filipinos are OFWs - Overseas Filipino Workers. Most of them are women - housemaids or nurses, spread all over the world. Most of the men work in construction in the Middle East, and often find themselves in precarious positions as the "Arab Spring" revolts have spread across the region. Thousands have had to be evacuated from Libya, Syria, and other countries embroiled in conflict. They suffer sometimes unspeakable abuse at the hands of their employers, who apparently regard them as less than human.

Needless to say, I am quite angry at his cousin for breaking his promise of getting the boy a visa. I am told that the cousin, who works as a graphic designer, is having problems with his boss and is looking for another place to live. He told the boy that he was coming to the Philippines this month. If he does, I want to have a talk with him. I want to tell him what I've witnessed from the boy for the six years he lived with me, how he went back to school - to the 2nd grade - at the age of fourteen, twice the age of his classmates. I would tell him what the boy told me, that the other kids in his class always asked him why he is there. He tells them that he has to get his education, regardless of his age. He swallows his pride every day that he goes to school. By now, he has swallowed enough pride to sink a hundred Titanics.

He has also kept himself aloof from his fellows, from the boys and girls his own age. He had a girlfriend once, but she left the province a few years ago. He was even in love once, but for reasons I can only imagine, the girl rebuffed him. He sat in my living room one day and told me in tears that his heart was broken. He's a handsome kid. I can take a little credit, I think, for the fact that he has grown up in my house hale and hearty, as has his little sister. It is my intention, my determined ambition, to get the girl out of this benighted country, along with her mother, before she turns eighteen. It's the least I can do for the ones I have come to love.

I wish I could help the boy, but I am in no position to do so. I wanted to get him out of my house precisely because I couldn't take care of him any more. Despite this, I continue to feed him three times a day. He still depends on his mother for some things. I made a joke to her that, after he goes to Germany, she will get a package from him once a week containing his laundry.

He knows how hopeless his life would be if he had no other choice but to stay in the Philippines. The young people here seem to live foreshortened, doomed lives. And they always seem to make the same mistakes. Their fates seem to be aligned for them from birth - the same fate that their parents suffered - to meet a girl, experiment with intimacy (what little intimacy they can find in these overcrowded islands), get her pregnant inadvertently, or as inadvertently as the complete absence of contraceptive choices allows, and be forced to provide for her and her child. By the time they're 21, their lives are as good as over.

The boy sees this happening around him, and he knows the finality of such a fate. It happened, after all, to his older brother and sister, who live a few hundred miles from here. Unlike him, neither of them has an education. Their horizons are drawn in on them. Looking to their futures, they know that there isn't much more for them to look forward to. They will look for happiness in small increments, taking each day, each one of them like every other, one at a time. A long time ago I noticed a difference between myself and these poor people: why does it take so little to make them happy and so very much to keep me from being unhappy?

I wish with all my heart that the boy can go to Germany. He's done everything right. He deserves it. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

I Surfed With Chinese Pirates*

Probably the most widely known caveat in the world is the one to be found at the start of every video, DVD, and Blu-ray disc sold in the U.S.: "FBI WARNING Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution or exhibition of copyrighted motion pictures, video tapes or video discs. Criminal copyright infringement is investigated by the FBI and may constitute a felony with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine." It also happens to be the caveat that is most widely violated.

Despite the popularity of the movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, in some parts of the world like the seas off the Horn of Africa, pirates are as real a threat to commercial shipping as ever. But you don't need to set foot on a ship any more to be regarded as a pirate. In fact, a new form of piracy, costing record producers, recording artists, and film and television producers billions in lost revenues annually, has easily eclipsed maritime piracy as a criminal enterprise. In the Philippines, where I happen to be living, a wide variety of pirated media is easily accessible just about everywhere.

East Asia is, among other things, the land of the knock-off. Pirate CDs and DVDs exist primarily because, in the poorer places of a developing Asia, there is an enormous demand for them. Representatives of the American music and movie industries would have a stroke if they were to pay a visit to just about any local market here in the Philippines. Unlike stores in the the supermalls, that have to keep their merchandise more or less above board and where prices for CDs, VCDs, and DVDs are controlled by their legitimate distributors, the markets are populated by unlicensed vendors selling whatever they please. Since the people shopping in these markets simply cannot afford most of what is sold in the malls, the prices the vendors charge for their merchandise are always subject to haggling. Music discs, which can be CDs but are usually CD-Rs, are loaded with MP3s, and the DVDs are almost invariably DVD-9s.

There are periodic well-publicized raids conducted by the OMB (Optical Media Board) on places in Manila where pirate CDs and DVDs are manufactured. The TV networks are notified well in advance and their camera crews are dispatched to cover them. The raids, led by Ronnie Ricketts, former action movie star and current director of OMB, collect the discs in canvas bags along with the machines, called tower burners, that make them. They are taken to a place close to the OMB offices and put in a big pile and, always with cameras present, run over with a steamroller. It's nothing but theater- the steamroller doesn't quite flatten the pile of discs and tower burners. Of course, no one bothers to ask if these high-profile raids might be anything more than a show staged for the media to demonstrate to legitimate foreign movie and music producers that the Philippines is doing something to address the enormous problem of piracy.

Meanwhile, just down the street and around every corner in the open air markets in Manila and everywhere else, identical CDs and DVDs in incalculable numbers are on sale for a few dollars. The police and the OMB evidently know this, and do nothing, either because there is no genuine political will (i.e., funding) to eradicate the trade or else they're getting a piece of the action.

Local recording artists and movie actors, who are by no means getting rich in this poor country, appear on TV exhorting ordinary Filipinos to "buy original," and pay ten times what they would pay for a pirate disc. Another problem is that anywhere but in Manila, or in a large provincial city like Cebu or Davao, original discs are unavailable, simply because the stores and the malls that sell them don't exist. The province where I live has no movie theaters and only one radio station. (There is also not a single library, since, in a country this poor, no one who borrows a book can be trusted to bring it back.) CDs and DVDs are the only show in town. And if the average Joe can get a dozen or more movies or sixty songs on one disc, why on earth would he buy an original disc, except to keep Ronnie Ricketts happy?

When I arrived here with my own collection of DVDs purchased in the States, a Filipino friend wondered why there was only one movie on each of my discs. He showed me a pile of pirate DVDs that, in his somewhat surprised innocence, he was not aware were pirated. I examined one of his DVDs; it was professionally packaged and labelled and it contained sixteen movies. Every one of the discs featured a hodgepodge of movies under a somewhat shaky theme, like "Matt Damon Versus George Clooney," which contained eight movies starring Damon pitted against eight starring Clooney. Curious, I played the disc on my machine and it started with a generic "Blu-ray Disc" logo (it was not a blu-ray disc), followed by an interactive menu listing all the movies. I clicked on one of them and, as soon as it started, I noticed that the original widescreen aspect ratio was reproduced but the sound quality was poor and the disc, though apparently clean, was riddled with digital flaws that caused the laser to skip. Evidently, the discs are made quickly and in such numbers that quality control is impossible. The data is also so compressed that the size of each movie file is considerably reduced. The simple fact that the optional subtitles on the copied movies are in English and Chinese gives a fair indication of their country of origin. Like nearly all other consumer products for sale in these islands, they are made in China.

Some of the copied discs contain various interesting caveats that expose their origins. For example, the copy of Stuck On You that I watched featured the message (repeated every ten minutes): "Promotional DVD only. Sale or rental prohibited. If you rented or purchased this disc, please call (888) 223-4FOX." Another movie (Appaloosa) I watched contained the message: "YOU ARE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS DISC AND ITS CONTENT. This disc is digitally watermarked to identify you the member. Do not loan, rent, sell, give away or otherwise transfer to any third party for any reason." The discs were apparently screening copies sent to judges when the movies were under consideration for an award.

You may have noticed that, when new movies open all over Asia, they open last in the Philippines. Quite often, pirate discs arrive in the markets within hours after some movies have premiered in China. And whenever the Philippines' national hero, boxer Manny Pacquiao, fights in Las Vegas or in Macao, a DVD recording of the pay-per-view event will be on sale everywhere within hours. The island I live on is only accessible via one highway bridge and by ferry boats, so the discs are likely produced locally or shipped here at breakneck speed.

Most of the time, a pirate disc contains copies of original material acquired goodness knows how, but occasionally I would watch one and notice the sound of someone coughing and realize that it wasn't coming from the movie. Obviously, rather than being copied from original DVDs, some of the movies on the pirate discs were recorded by some intrepid person in a movie theater with a digital camcorder. These movies are unintentionally hilarious to watch, but give one a very distorted idea of the movie's intrinsic qualities. Since the camera had to be concealed, sometimes an approaching patron will result in the movie picture being blocked by the operator's hand or some other object. Sometimes the shadow of a viewer who nonchalantly walks between the camera and the screen momentarily obscures the movie. On one occasion, during a screening of the latest Thor movie, I heard a cellphone ringtone and a voice telling the person calling, "I'm watching a movie!" in English. Almost invariably, the recordings come to an abrupt stop before the end credits, when audience members get out of their seats and the surreptitious camera operator fumbles to hide the camera. If nothing else, one could program a movie marathon at home just for laughs.

*I owe the title of this piece to an obscure book called I Sailed With Chinese Pirates by a Finnish writer named Aleko Lilius, first published in English in 1931.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Putting Her Legacy in Order

Today is Imelda Marcos's 86th birthday. In observance, I'm reposting an item I first published in October 2011.  Here's wishing the old battle-axe the justice she deserves.

The Legacy of the Shoes

"I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty."
Imelda Marcos (The number was officially placed at 2,700.)

History is, or used to be, based on something called objective truth - an implicit belief that what is written down is a fairly accurate account of what actually happened. But it's been said that if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth. This would appear to be the case with Imelda Marcos and her children, Ferdinand Jr. (nicknamed "Bongbong") and Imee. The fact that they have been living, despite attempts to divest them of some of their wealth, in palaces for the last forty-odd years may have had the effect of reinforcing their own delusions. Bongbong was elected a senator and Imelda elected a representative to the Philippine Congress. Imee is now governor of Ilocos Norte.

These uncommonly wealthy but quite mediocre people no longer have any reason to lie. Ferdinand's children could have simply said "I am not my father" and let themselves off the hook. Instead they go on repeating the same scabrous song and dance that Imelda has performed for twenty years - that Ferdinand Marcos left the Philippines a safer, richer, and prouder nation than he found it. What they can't seem to grasp is the simple fact that it doesn't even matter if a man acts like a saint 364 days out of a year if he acts like a demon on the last. Ferdinand Marcos didn't have to be a saint or a demon. He simply needed to be a good president.

Current Philippine president Benigno Aquino III was asked in a recent conference with the foreign press if he would consider granting a request from the Marcos family that Ferdinand be given a state funeral. Aquino, whose father was assassinated either by direct order of Marcos or by Marcos supporters in 1983, and whose mother beat Marcos in a now-famous "snap election" and subsequent People Power Revolution, replied unequivocally "not on my watch".

That means the Marcos family will have to wait until 2016 when Aquino leaves office and another president, perhaps more sympathetic, may give them a hearing. Or they will have to bury the body of their patriarch, dead since 1989 and lying in a state of perfect preservation in a glass case, in his native province of Ilocos Norte.

Henry Sy, the wealthiest man in the Philippines, had a dream when he opened his first shoe mart in 1948, that one day every Filipino would own a pair of shoes. Sixty-three years and 41 SM Malls later, I can say from experience that Mr. Sy's dream hasn't yet been realized. When I got married in Balibago, Pampanga in 1995, I had to buy my bride's father a pair of shoes so he could attend the wedding.

When the Marcos family was whisked away by the U.S. military in February 1986,* when it looked like the presidential MalacaƱang Palace would be overrun. President Reagan himself offered the Marcoses asylum in the U.S. Witnesses claimed they saw diaper bags filled with gold objects and pallets of freshly printed Philippine Pesos loaded onto the C-141. But most of the money that Marcos stole from the Philippine treasury and in various scams was already safely hidden in overseas banks accounts and in real estate investments. The city of New York seized the Marcos properties. According to one account, Imelda considered buying the Empire State Building, but thought it would be too ostentatious even for her.

When MalacaƱang was finally searched, the stashes of artworks, nick-nacks and doodads that were found there included 2,700 pairs of shoes belonging to Imelda. A month after the Marcoses fled the Philippines, Lance Morrow wrote an essay, "
The Shoes of Imelda Marcos" for Time.

"The parable of Imelda's shoes has something to teach. She could never wear them all. Nor could the Marcos family, one suspects, manage to spend the billions of dollars they plundered from the Philippines. . . . The Marcos plundering seems ultimately a cheerless affair, covert though sometimes ostentatious, avaricious though often prodigal. Christ said, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.' Marcos did not wish to wait. He turned Christianity upside down. He took nourishment from the mouths of the poor and transformed it into his treasure on earth. Such venality is not a matter of either Freud or metaphysics. It is just a brutal habit, the crocodile reflex of a man too long in power. It is a subdivision of the banality of evil."

What makes the image of those 5,400 shoes especially obscene for Filipinos is that owning one pair is a status symbol when so many will either never own them or will never have a life in which shoes would be practical. Instead, the majority of Filipinos wear flip-flops, or "tsinelas" (a word, like so many others in Tagalog, borrowed from the Spanish).

But in a world that rewards excessive greed, that allows a tiny handful of people to own almost everything and that can impoverish everyone else in the world by impetuously trying to increase their wealth, Imelda is perfectly at home. If those shoes could walk, they'd be marching over the bodies of the protesters who are trying to "occupy" Wall Street.

*Ferdinand was carried aboard a C-9 on a stretcher, while his family and their belongings, along with some 49 "supporters" were loaded aboard a C-141.