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.