Friday, September 11, 2015

Good Intentions

Quite apart from its qualities as a film, and apart from the extraordinary performances of its two principal actors, Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988) is an exercise in cruelty. The film tells the story of Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, who is a callow, selfish California luxury car salesman who learns of an inheritance from his deceased wealthy father in Cincinnati. At the reading of the will, Charlie is informed that all he has been awarded are a classic Buick and some prize-winning rose bushes. The bulk of his father's fortune is left to a mental hospital where Charlie's older brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffmann, is a resident. Charlie, who never knew of Raymond's existence, discovers on meeting him at the hospital that he is an autistic savant and incapable of caring for himself. Raymond's life is a repetitive round of actions - like watching The People's Court on television every day - designed to maintain a predictable and comforting sameness in which his autism can be controlled and studied. Determined to get more of his father's fortune, Charlie Babbitt schemes to gain legal custody of Raymond, absconding with him from the hospital and taking him on an impromptu cross-country trip to California in his classic Buick. (When Charlie tries to get him on a plane, Raymond goes into a hysterical tantrum about plane crashes and they are kicked off the flight.)
The rest of the film relates how the worm turns - how Charlie Babbitt gradually comes to care about Raymond, how he realizes that he is better off in the hospital and reluctantly sends him back to Cincinatti. Surprisingly, Rain Man was the highest-grossing film of 1988 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffmann) and Best Director (Levinson). Hoffmann's performance is fascinating - a magisterial turn of method acting: how a talented, charismatic actor made himself into a cipher, a human black hole. He understood that Raymond, no matter how many scenes he's in, is only marginally there; other characters interact with him, or try to, but Raymond's presence in the room with them is incidental. His mental state effectively seals himself inside his own head. And because, to Charlie and to the instuitution that houses him, control of him means control of a lot of money, Raymond is used as a pawn by them to achieve their own ends. 

Hoffmann's performance was criticized by some who didn't seem to understand what he was up to. It was comparable to (though not as great as) Anthony Hopkins's performance of the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day. Hopkins studied with an experienced butler in preparing for the role who told him,"when you enter a room, it should feel more empty." Raymond is, at best, an unwitting player in his own drama. He is not even complicit in his own actions. By subsuming himself inside Raymond, Hoffmann reveals to us how defenseless Raymond is when he is let loose in the world. Knowing this exposes the underlying cruelty of the actions of the other characters in the film toward Raymond, who reflects whatever ideas or emotions that they project onto him.

I was reminded of Rain Man by a teenaged son of one of my neighbors here in a province of the Philippines. The boy is not like Raymond, but he is what one might call "cognitively challenged." He is what we used to call, more bluntly and less sensitivelty, "retarded." Every day - several times a day - I hear him bouncing his basketball past my house on his way to the basketball court across the highway. He is prob├ábly unable to count the number of times a day that he performs this seemingly obsessive ritual, walking back and forth bouncing his ball.

His parents put him in a nearby public school when he was six, but he quickly fell behind in his lessons and they withdrew him. They tried it again the next year - and the following four years - with the same result. He's now 14. There are no "special needs" public schools in the Philippines, but the family managed to find a private school in a nearby town and they enrolled him there last June. Yesterday, I heard someone bouncing a basketball past my house and I looked out to see who it was. It was the boy, who, I was told, couldn't make it in the private school, who dropped out and has returned to passing the time the only way he knows how to.

I can't get inside the boy's head, but I think that he wishes he could be like the other children that he watches going off to school every day, but only because he feels so alone all day, with no one around to play with him except toddlers. I used to see him in the mornings with a book bag on his back, as if he might convince everyone that he, too, was going off to school. 

I'm sure that his parents had his best interests at heart by enrolling him, year after year, in school. They're far too poor to afford any sort of assessment of the extent of the boy's autism, so they have no way of knowing the limitations of his intelligence. But they also have no inkling of the cruelty of their repeated attempts at getting him started in school. They are like the incessant importunities of a parent to push a child into one sport or another, only to see the child fail again and again. The boy must be aware that he doesn't measure up to the standards of other children, that he isn't as smart as them. But to keep pushing him as they have, for eight straight years by now, is, I think, unintentionally cruel. They have been setting their boy up for failure time after time, without knowing of the toll of so much failure on him. 

If I were to return to this place in a decade, I would probably notice the boy, fully grown, obeying his strange compulsion of bouncing his ball across the highway to the basketball court (asssuming it's still there), or all the way home when whatever it is in his mind tells him that it's time to go home.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Taking the Plunge

Jan Troell is a Swedish film director for whom the word "filmmaker" was invented. He not only directs his films; he writes them, photographs and edits most of them himself. In 1971, Svensk Filmindustri spent more money than they had ever spent on a single film until then to produce Troell's film diptych, Utvandrarna (Emigrants) and Invandrarna (Immigrants). Based on the epic novels of novelist Vilhelm Moberg, the films featured Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in the lead roles. They played the characters Karl-Oskar and Kristina, farmers in 19th century Sweden forced to choose between impossibly tough conditions for them in their homeland and the chance for a fresh start in America.

Though epic in scope, the film gives us intimate details of the hazards of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a sailing ship: the seasickness of people utterly unaccustomed to a life at sea, living in close quarters below decks - so close that everyone is afflicted with body lice -, the duration of the voyage that seems never to end, and the sweetness of reaching land and of standing on solid ground again.

Troell told a familiar American story of poor people risking everything - including their lives - to travel by ship to a faraway land that held out to them nothing but the promise of a life that might be better than the intolerable lives they had always known and for which there was never an alternative.

When film critic Vernon Young reviewed Troell's film for The Hudson Review in 1972, he opened his essay with the sentence, "The great American film has now been made - in Sweden."(1) The film is so great that, when Warner Brothers bought the rights to distribute it in the US, releasing them as The Emigrants and The New Land, not even their brutal editing of both films could diminish their impact.(2)

The history of America is, of course, the history of immigrants. Even the Native Americans crossed the frozen Bering Strait to North America more than ten thousand years ago from Siberia during the last Ice Age. Their progress over the millennia from North America to the farthest reaches of Patagonia in South America, establishing settlements everywhere in between, is one of the most amazing testaments to humanity's endless longing for greener pastures, for the lands of milk and honey that always lie just over the next horizon.     

At the end of The Great Gatsby, with Gatsby dead and his great house on Long Island falling into neglect, the narrator goes for a walk along the shore:

"I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

In his essay on Fitzgerald, Lionel Trilling wrote that "Ours is the only nation that prides itself upon a dream and gives its name to one. To the world it is anomalous in America that so much raw power should be haunted by envisioned romance. Yet in that anomaly lies, for good or bad, much of the truth of our national life."(3)

In the summer of 2001, upon going to live in Des Moines, Iowa, I saw a local news report of a railway car that was discovered that contained the dead bodies of numerous people. It was learned that they were Hispanic immigrants, left to die in the locked railway car by the people - now known as people smugglers or human traffickers - who had transported them all the way from the border to Iowa. Some people, including myself, wondered how and why they had come so far. But, of course, they wouldn't have come so far without some assurance that there would be jobs waiting for them.

Then, just last week, I saw another television report about the seventy-one refugees, all Syrians, found suffocated in the back of an impossibly small truck in Austria.(4) The people who had been quickly arrested were Bulgarian and Hungarian people smugglers, who provide the desperate refugees with means of transportation, at a prohibitive price, farther into the European Union. Most of the refugees who preceded them - the ones who arrived alive at their destinations - ended up in Germany and Sweden.

When I see on television the immigrants to Europe and the US crossing the waters and the borders that lie between them and safety, between them and a good life for themselves and for their families, I remember some of the people, trapped in the upper floors of the Twin Towers on September 11, who stood in the windows with smoke billowing from behind them, waving to whomever was watching, facing the choice of burning to death or jumping. To us, such a choice is unimaginable - unthinkable. But it is the choice that every immigrant to Europe and the US is now facing.

(1) Vernon Young, "Hands Across the Sea," The Hudson Review, 25, No. 2 (Summer 1972).
(2) The Emigrants was released in the US with 40 minutes trimmed from its original length. The New Land had 102 minutes cut out.
(3) Lionel Trilling, "F. Scott Fitzgerald," The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: The Viking Press, Inc.)

(4) The small truck filled with dead bodies made me think of the gas vans that the Nazis used to gas the Jews before the gas chambers were built.