Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nebraska

There are places in America, whole regions, that exist almost exclusively in our imaginations - until a filmmaker comes along and reminds us that they have substance, that they are actual places with specific dimensions. American film, even now, is almost always located in California or New York City. To filmgoers around the world, the Hollywood hills and the Brooklyn Bridge are as familiar as the places they call home. Only occasionally have filmmakers ventured into that undiscovered country that lies between - to the Nevada desert or the Susquehana Valley, the Great Plains or the Mississippi River. Cities and towns in the Deep South or the Rust Belt, in the Midwest or Southwest, have largely been terra incognita. If you looked for them on the American film map, you would find a great blank zone, with the warning, "Here there be dragons."

While I wasn't exactlt waiting with bated breath to see another film by Alexander Payne, his works is certainly much closer to what I think should be a film's greatest concern: the faces and fates of real people in a world that closely resembles our own. Payne is what one might call a "niche" director. American film has had them before - ones who find a personal subject (aka style) early in their careers and have the good sense to stay there. Woody Allen, despite his once vaunted ambition of becoming an American Ingmar Bergman, is another of the type.

Payne is a native of Omaha, and has placed the action of many of his films there, including - most memorably - About Schmidt. So it didn't surprise me when he made the film Nebraska (2013), which starts out in Montana, where an old man named Woody Grant gets a publisher's sweepstakes letter - as we all have - with his name on it informing him that he has won a million dollars. The attention-getting promise of a fortune in cash is intended to entice the uninformed to purchase magazine subscriptions. But old Woody (played by old Bruce Dern) is convinced that he won the million dollars and all he has to do is go to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect it. When no one offers to drive him there, he decides to walk. It's him we see in the opening shot of the film, stubbornly trudging down a highway. He reminded me of Alvin Straight, who was so determined to visit an ailing brother in Wisconsin that he drove a riding mower all the way there from his home in Iowa. His journey, based on fact, was dramatized beautifully in David Lynch's The Straight Story (2000). In Nebraska Woody is reunited with his brothers in their hometown of Hawthorne.

Eventually, Woody's younger son, David (played by SNL alumnus Will Forte), decides to appease Woody, and they make the long drive from Montana to Nebraska via Wyoming. Distances in these huge states are made to seem worse by the almost total absence of people. I drove across Nebraska in 2001, and, not knowing any of the local radio stations, I had to push the "scan" button several times on my car radio whenever one of them faded out of range. At one stretch, in the middle of the state, I pushed the scan button and got nothing from one end of the band to the other. The radio just kept scanning for - without finding - a single radio station with a strong enough signal. This went on for an unaccountable distance, making me wonder if I'd fallen off the map. 

On arriving in Hawthorne, news of Woody's good fortune gets around the small town. (The film was shot in Plainview, a town whose name says it all.) The local paper, run by an old girlfriend of Woody's, wants to run a story on him. An old drinking buddy (played by Stacy Keach) suddenly remembers a sum of money that Woody owes him and threateningly tries to collect it. When Woody visits his brothers, their two grown sons - who seem to do nothing but claim to drive great distances in unlikely time - conspire to steal the winning ticket from him.   
    
My sister related to me how our mother, in her late seventies, had been so taken in by a similar letter from Publisher's Clearing House that she was convinced she had won a cash fortune. When my sister told her that it wasn't true, that identical letters are sent to millions of people, my mother broke down in tears. For awhile, a few hours perhaps, she had been swept up in an exquisite dream that, at long last, all her problems, and all the problems of her children, were over. Late in Nebraska, Woody is asked by his two sons what he planned to do with his fortune. "Buy a new truck," he tells them, "so I'll have something to leave you." 

When Woody and David finally arrive at the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, and learn that the ticket is worthless (the woman gives him a hat as consolation prize), David allows him a triumphal return to Hawthorne in a (almost) new pickup truck. It's a muted victory, but the only one this muted film could bear.

Payne's choice of a black-and-white palette puzzled me. Everyone asked Peter Bogdanovich why he used it in 1971 for The Last Picture Show. I don't recall how he responded, but I doubt that his response was good enough. I suppose he was trying to make the film into an automatic artefact, already a thing of the past like the town's old cinema. I seriously doubt that the landscapes in Nebraska would've been enhanced by color cinematography, but neither would it have lessened the film's impact.

But what is the impact of Nebraska? Payne gives us a somewhat painfully accurate portrait of an American family, spread across two or three states, whose members only ever sees one another every decade or so. But About Schmidt did it better. Payne avoids the predictable poignancy of Woody re-visiting his deserted boyhood home. Woody's very reticence precludes any possible poignancy. And the shots of the family all facing an unseen TV screen are, by now, too true to be painful.

Bruce Dern, who made a name for himself playing wackos, was nominated for an Oscar last year for his performance as Woody. He is less of a presence in the film than an absence - like his vacant boyhood home. Will Forte suffers from the same problem that most comics suffer from when they play a serious role (including the late Robin Williams). Everything that came to their aid when they tried to be funny forsakes them when they reach for seriousness. I was surprised, though, when he got up the gumption to punch Stacy Keach in the mouth. The sad element of the film is that David doesn't even know his own father. His long drive to Nebraska with Woody may have brought them closer, but it failed, I think, to contribute to our understanding of fathers and sons.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Killing Fields


There seems to be an unusually large number of sad anniversaries this year. Over last weekend, the anniversary of beginning of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 was marked, which led me back to Roland Joffé's film, The Killing Fields (1984), which is the "true" story of New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg and his Cambodian go-between, Dith Pran. Our obligation to watch such films is, thankfully, not just a historical one. The Killing Fields is a bristling, challenging - if slightly flawed - work of art.

No single film can hope to encompass the human calamity that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the people of Cambodia. Only estimates can tell us the number of those who perished under Pol Pot's regime. 1.7 million people, something like one-third of the population, died in what became known as Cambodia's "Killing Fields" - an enormous and unprecedented genocide, that started as yet another Communist social experiment, carried out by an ethnic group on itself. American culpability in the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge is plain: Nixon's massive bombing campaign on alleged Vietcong supply lines succeeded in destabilizing the already shaky regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

But Joffé's film, which was his first feature film, manages to encompass a great deal of Cambodia's murderous past by limiting itself the fates of two people, Schanberg and Pran. It begins with a picture of what an idyllic backwater Cambodia was before hell broke loose, with news reporters basking by the pool of their Phnom Penh hotel (the film was shot in Thailand) as the war in Vietnam raged across the border. The only reminders of that war that the foreign correspondents encounter are occasional exploding bombs in the cafes in which they breakfast. But then Pran hears about an "accident" - the dumping of a B-52's entire payload on a village called Neak Luong. Schanberg sees in it the potential for a scoop. Using Pran's connections, Schanberg risks both their necks getting there.

From this scene forward, events are telescoped a little, as it seems that the bombing somehow let the Khmer Rouge genie out of its bottle. In the space of just a few scenes, they are in Phnom Penh, and the American Consul (played by Spalding Gray) is shredding documents and preparing to leave. Pran manages to get his wife and children to safety in the States, but opts to stay with Schanberg in Cambodia. It's this decision, which Pran made from loyalty to Schanberg, that some would later use against Schanberg. Within days (or so it seems in the film), everyone, and especially the Cambodian people, learn something of the Khmer Rouge's real intentions, as everyone in Phnom Penh is ordered out of the city. Foreigners hole up in the French embassy, the only remaining foreign agency still open, and wait for their evacuation. Any Cambodian nationals among them are ordered to give themselves up. Schanberg and photographer Al Rockoff (played by John Malkovich) try to create a fake foreign identity for Pran - a British subject named Ankertill Brewer - replete with a passport, but the poor developing conditions make his passport photo fade. Schanberg and Pran say goodbye in April 1975. It takes Pran four and a half years to escape to Thailand.  

Watching the film, as I did recently, with Roland Joffé's commentary for the DVD enriched my experience, without necessarily making the film seem better than it is. Joffé spends most of his time talking about the time and the place he was trying to evoke, but his comments don't exactly help with the experience of watching the film, which is remarkable enough without commentary. Apparently, he felt that his film was fulfilling some historical purpose, even though he insists that it is a love story he's telling, and not a story of war. In a sense, I think the film would've been more effective if it didn't try so hard to establish its historical context. All the events in the film happened to Schanberg and Pran, and they were responsible for Pran being unable to escape Cambodia, but the complexity of emotions that the actors reveal to us are inevitably dwarfed by history.

The ending of the film, the reunion of Schanberg and Pran at a refugee camp in Thailand (which was still there when the film was made), is somewhat shaky. Pran's purposeful walk to the Thai border looks longer and more far more circuitous than it probably was (Cambodia borders Thailand on the west and south). When he finally reaches the crest of a hill from which he can see the large tent with the big, beautiful red cross emblazoned on it, the film is, for dramatic purposes, virtually over. The final shots of Schanberg and Pran, accompanied by John Lennon's song "Imagine," are rather unnecessary, and more than a little mawkish. What was Lennon singing about if it wasn't a socialist paradise on earth - a paradise that Pol Pot somehow mistook for hell on earth? (One of Pol Pot's favorite books was Mein Kampf.)

Sam Waterston, despite Joffé's praise, was an unfortunate casting choice as Schanberg. He is generally awful, and this happens to be one of his finer performances. So much of the emotion he shows us seems worked up. When John Malkovich confronts him in the rest room at an award ceremony, accusing him of coercing Pran to stay with him in Cambodia, Waterston's reaction is so forced and unbelievable that it gives credence to Malkovich's argument. This is not as damaging to the film as one might think, simply because the film belongs to Haing Ngor, credited by the film as "Dr. Haing S. Ngor," who had never acted before this film. (He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.)

It's important, I think, to remember that the story related in the film ended just five years before the film was made. How terrible it must've been for Haing Ngor to have to relive something that was still fresh in his memory. Joffé explains how reluctant Ngor was to do these scenes, and how he persuaded him to it for his countrymen.

At the end of his commentary, as we watch the closing scene of the film, Joffé gives a brief tribute to Ngor. The story of his life after The Killing Fields is one of both great triumph and ultimate catastrophe. After appearing in a handful of other, lesser films, including Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, Ngor wrote a moving memoir that he called A Cambodian Odyssey. In it, he told the story of his wife, Chang My Huoy, who was also a doctor, trapped with him in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. She was pregnant, and since the Khmer Rouge would've killed them both if they'd known they were doctors, Ngor, who was an Obstetrician and Gynecologist, could do nothing to save her when she miscarried and died. Haing placed a picture of her inside a gold locket and swore to always wear it. A photo of the open locket is on the dust cover of the book. Because Ngor refused to surrender the locket to some Asian gang members who held him up in a parking garage near his home in Chinatown in Los Angeles in 1996, they murdered him. Joffé said that it was perhaps fitting that Ngor should've died violently, like so many of the people he loved.

So many factors contributed to the success of the film. David Putnam, the head of Goldcrest, produced the film and hand picked Joffé to direct it. Bruce Robinson wrote a workable script from quite unwieldy material. Chris Menges contributed superb cinematography, making Southeast Asia look quite different from Francis Ford Coppola's or Oliver Stone's (they shot their films in the Philippines, which incidentally doesn't look anything like Vietnam.) And Mike Oldfield, of "Tubular Bells" fame, wrote a very nervy, arresting and sometimes uplifting musical score. Because it's such a superbly made film, thirty years after it was made The Killing Fields has become an indelible part of how we think about Cambodia's tragic history.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The 47 Ronin


When the Kenji Mizoguchi production of The 47 Ronin was begun in 1941, Imperial Japan was at the height of its power in Asia. But by the time the two-part film was finished in 1942, the United States had declared war on Japan after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Tokyo had been bombed by Doolittle's daring raid, and the Battle of Midway had turned the tide of Japanese expansion in the Pacific against them. It might seem strange to us that, at a time of foreseeable national peril, such a major film production should've been undertaken, telling the story of a feudal lord in 1701 being forced to commit suicide (seppuku) and the suicidal revenge of his masterless samurai (ronin). But, as anyone who has read Ivan Morris's splendid book, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan knows, the Japanese often found great victories in catastrophic defeat. How else can one explain the kamikaze attacks later in the war, when young pilots crashed planes loaded with explosives into American ships? They were intended to inspire such awe in the hearts of Americans that it would provoke us to sue for peace terms. Instead, we called them "baka bombs" (idiot bombs). Americans, with no emperor but FDR, didn't see the point of killing themselves if defeat was already a foreseen.(1)

Mizoguchi's film, Genroku Chushingura, has an imposing stateliness and elegiac tone about it that becomes overpowering as the drama moves to its inevitable conclusion. Mizoguchi was making no attempt to make the past live again. To audiences of the film, that past was still very much alive in 1942 - although not, thank God, for much longer. Loving the Japanese film as I do, though, I found watching this film a perplexing experience.

For fans of the latest 47 Ronin, for whom a Japanese tale of honor and loyalty can be palatable only when the lead is played by a Caucasian actor (after all, wasn't Tom Cruise supposed to be the Last Samurai?), Mizoguchi's two-part version must seem thoroughly deracinating. Having seen several of Mizoguchi's films, I didn't watch his 47 Ronin expecting great action scenes. It isn't really about action. But I didn't need to know that the film is based on a play, since the climactic revenge on Kira takes place off-screen, as does the finale, in which all forty-seven of Lord Asano's loyal samurai commit seppuku, one at a time. Mizoguchi was wise to use tracking shots frequently. Otherwise, this seventy year old film would seem, even to the initiated, as unbelievably static as one of Carl Theodore Dreyer's late, late films.

The story is one of the best known and most beloved in Japan, as The Song of Roland once was among educated Westerners. It tells of Lord Asano, who is so thoroughly insulted in the opening scene, set within the Shogun'sprecincts, by Kira, the Shogun's Master of Ceremonies, that he feels impelled by outraged honor to attack him with his sword.(2) Lord Asano only manages to wound Kira before bystanders restrain him. Whether provoked or not, Lord Asano's attack is condemned by the Shogun and he is ordered to commit seppuku as punishment. Later, when Asano's house is abolished as well, all of his samurai begin to plot their revenge on Kira. But in feudal Japan, even revenge must obey the rules, so Asano's masterless samurai Have to wait more than a year to carry out their plan.

Mizoguchi's production (designed by Hiroshi Mizutani) is splendid and obviously costly. It reminds one of the expensive productions that were mounted in Nazi Germany in the middle of the war intended to boost the public's morale while bombs were falling on their heads. But this 47 Ronin is not escapist entertainment. It was a celebration and reinforcement of the same feudalism that got Japan into the war, that induced the Japanese people to follow their emperor all the way to the near-total destruction of their country, and that the postwar occupation authorities, headed by Douglas MacArthur, sought to eradicate. The Japanese learned their lessons. Within a few years of the war's end, filmmakers as diverse as Kurosawa, Kobayashi, and Okamoto were inspired to create scathing satires and bitter denunciations of the samurai spirit. Simply compare Mizoguchi's stately glorification of medieval Japan to Kobayashi's overpowering attack on it in his film Seppuku, containing a harrowing scene in which a young ronin whose poverty has forced him to sell his steel sword and replace it with a bamboo one, is forced to commit harakiri with it.

Mizoguchi continued to make films after the war, and contributed much to a certain mystique in the West for historical dramas illustrating what was considered a uniquely Japanese fatalism - The Life of Oharu, The Crucified Lovers, Sansho the Bailiff, and especially Ugetsu. Watching The 47 Ronin, with its wondrously detailed sets and costumes - period settings that represent Tokugawa-era culture in full flower, a world of custom and comportment, of rigid structure and refined aestheticism, capable of extreme delicacy and savagery simultaneously - with Japan living under what is now known as "existential threat," one feels that, if such a threat had been realized, if Japan hadn't surrendered after the atomic bombs, and if the Japanese had followed their emperor (as everyone feared) and fought to the last Japanese, perhaps this film could stand as a memorial to the history and traditions that inspired it and the people who thought so much of it that they went to such pains to make it live again.


(1) We now know that Hitler scrapped plans to launch manned V1 rockets against England, and that, late in the war, there were German "self-sacrifice" pilots who flew suicide missions. 
(2) Kira's insult is to say of Lord Asano loudly enough for him to hear that "Reception Committee member in name only. I doubt he can carry out his various functions. There was no one so ignorant or so rude." I think the point to be taken is that the substance of the insult isn't important.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Priceless



The word "Art" inspires two things in people's minds today: a somewhat sickened respect for something they do not understand or a desire to share in the prestige that comes from its sometimes exorbitant monetary value. For both groups, it simply doesn't matter whether the art has any aesthetic value or not, since this has been a matter of a very few at least since the fall of representational art - painting and sculpture that is inspired by what the artist sees. Since we all have eyes, too, the enjoyment of art used to be a communion between the artist's vision and ours. That world was abandoned when the expressionist movement gave way to abstract and abstract expressionist art, even if such labels have long since become meaningless. In the theater, belief is suspended - as long as the playwright and actors have done their job. In contemporary art, meaning itself is suspended.

But what does it mean when something is deemed to be "priceless"? It's supposed to mean that its value is incalculable - beyond any conceivable price. But to most people it simply means that its value is astronomical but still calculable, a number with six or seven zeroes after it. The values of precious metals and stones may fluctuate, but they are predictable. Art objects like paintings and sculptures, however, are as valuable as a buyer is prepared to pay for them. An art object's value has little or nothing to do with aesthetics any more. This is a deplorable state of affairs that raises a number of unsettling questions about our culture.

One interesting question that it raises is To Whom does art belong? I have always regarded art galleries as necessary evils, rather like zoos. Some zoos are much better than others, but the prospect of looking at wild animals being held captive in cages or "enclosures" is not an attractive one. The fact that, before very long, a zoo is the only place these creatures will be found is incredibly sad. 

Similarly, looking at a painting slapped on a wall in rooms filled with other paintings from different periods by different artists is just as unattractive. Rilke's tragic Panther could as likely have been a Bonnard or Miro, pacing compulsively behind the bars of a museum. But where else are we to put them and still have access to them? (And I believe that we have the right to see them.) If the inevitable fate of wild animal species is to be deprived of all natural habitat, the only place left for works of art, alas, are galleries.

But as the value of art - in dollars, that is - is driven ever upward, artworks become increasingly endangered by the poaching of art thieves. When famous artowkrs are stolen, their fates represent a problem to thieves. Surreptitious buyers, people willing to purchase stolen artworks, may derive satisfaction from the possession of such objects, of keeping them all to themselves and depriving everyione else of ever seeing them again. Artworks have disappeared before for long periods, only to turn up in unlikely places. Art stolen by the Nazis, like the Amber Room from Moscow's Hermitage Museum, have yet to be found. Depending on the time and place, cultural treasures belonging to undeveloped countries have been stolen literally en bloc, like the Elgin Marbles, marble friezes once adorning the entableture of the Parthenon. Greece wants them back, but is unlikely to get them. Andre Malraux, world renowned author and the French Minister of Culture for De Gaulle, was involved in the theft of pieces of Ankor Wat and other Khmer temples in the 1930s, when Cambodia was part of the French colony of Indochina.

I won't go so far as John Simon does in his blog post "Whither Art?": "Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don't know what to do with their money, and all the people who don't know anything about art." This brings up a more serious issue to do with the flight of artists from the world everyone else lives in. I have to admit that it's hard to deny that "art today" is hardly more than an elaborate hoax. The simple fact that there is so much money in it is one big giveaway. It's one thing that canvases by painters long dead should fetch boodles of cash at auctions, since the artists' demise insures that there will be no more Monets or Balthuses. But a remarkable number of living, even young, artists are now pulling down huge sums for their most recent dawbs, their sculptures and installations. Most of it suffers from what the late Stanley Kauffmann called "John Cage-ism": "Cage's 4'33" is a piece in which a pianist sits at a piano motionless for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, during which all we hear is what the pianist is not doing, whatever that may be." ("Style as Meaning," 15 August 2005) Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Emperor's New Clothes" has grown to be more prophetic than Nostradamus. But Andersen's story doesn't warn of what's to come. Being an artist used to mean a road straight to poverty and struggle. Now it's like winning the lottery every time he takes up a brush - or when his team of assistants do. We are now surrounded by naked emperors who call themselves artists.

But every now and then, somewhere in the world, a super rich man adjourns to a secret vault (it could as easily be a panic room or a secret toilet) and sits down to gaze in stupefied satisfaction at a stolen Cezanne or Klimt that he acquired at a clandestine auction of stolen art masterpieces, via Skype.  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

False & Infuriating

As any reasonably clear-eyed observer can tell you, movies turn into franchises when their titles (in English) become easily recognizable even to non-English speakers. Since foreign ticket sales often outscale domestic sales, producers have come to rely on filmgoers in countries where a different alphabet is used recognizing the words "X-Men," "Spiderman," and "Ice Age." 

Another such franchise is The Fast and the Furious, the 7th installment of which has just been released. Since I haven't seen any of the previous six, it's unlikely I will see number seven. It's probably no better or worse than the others. The only reason I'm mentioning this one is because I happened to read Richard Brody's curious review of it in The New Yorker.

In his essay "The Simple Joy and Sincere Wonder of 'Furious 7'", Brody argues that the film, while "baldly commercial," has "artistic merit." 

"It exhibits simple joy in its intricate cleverness, and sincere wonder in physical action, the primal heat of family bonds, and hearty humor under pressure."(1) 

This is just the kind of review I would've expected from the late Roger Ebert - the kind of praise for an item that was not at all his cup of tea, but that surprised him when it turned out to be not quite as mind-numbing as he expected.

It's almost impossible to pin Brody down. Just when you think he's grading the film a D Minus, with lines like "it's a brazen caricature of passions and virtues" or "At its best, it's like a song that's meant for driving; at its worst, it's like one that belongs in a car commercial," he comes back with "Yet its virtues are brought out by contrast with certain etiolated art-house productions that mistake ambiguity for complexity, gentility for virtue, solemnity for honesty, and plainness for authenticity." I don't know what "art-house productions" he's referring to, or even what he means by "art-house." Near the end of the essay, he can't resist looking back to "Classic-era Hollywood" with tremulous nostalgia. There's something to be said, I think he is saying, for films that don't presume above their station. But what about films that presume to be art? And why such hostility toward them?

I am a slow reader. It takes me a few days to get through even a moderate-length novel. Fortunately, the long history of literature, and the wide variety of literary works being written in several languages, means that I can never keep up with everything worth reading. In my forty years' experience as a filmgoer, however, I have often found it necessary to go slumming. As long as I recognize it as such, and avoid slumming habitually, it's nothing more serious than a waste of an hour or two. As I grow older, however, I am growing less willing to part with that hour or two that I could've spent enriching myself with my family and friends or revisiting a favorite piece of music or seeking out online a far better film that I never had the chance to see - like the forgotten Bandits of Orgosolo or the virtually unknown Two Half-Times in Hell.

Movie reviewers of the sort that Ebert embodied for the Chicago Sun-Times have no such options. They attend specially-arranged press-screenings of films whose box-office life can sometimes be made or broken by what he writes about them. If he is honest (and Ebert was at least that), he will face the fact that most of the films he is called on to review are trash, but that the ten percent or so that he singles out for praise (anything higher than that, in my opinion, makes the reviewer unworthy of serious consideration) is the sole reason he writes about film in the first place. Everything else is beneath comment.

There are some critics, however, who refuse to write a movie off if it has even a single virtue - a scene, a piece of dialogue that somehow (don't ask me) redeems the whole ridiculous show. Henri Langlois was famous for teaching his protegees this technique for film-watching. It's the only possible explanation for the Cahiers du Cinema critics, most of whom worshipped Langlois, discovering merit in literally hundreds of films made in Hollywood, and dozens of workaday directors who never in their wildest dreams believed they were artists.(2)

Cahiers created a "Politique des Auteurs" that insisted that people like Howard Hawks weren't simply craftsmen who employed the rudimentary language of film in productions that would otherwise have been numbered instead of titled, like "20th Century Fox production #17 for 1952." Langlois wasn't just the first person to suggest that some films, as works of art, should be preserved - he insisted that all films, the vast majority of which served no other purpose than to make as much money in wide release as possible and then be destroyed, should be saved for posterity. This is how The Cinematheque Francaise, under Langlois, wound up with a collection exceeding fifty thousand titles.  

The Cahiers message spread to England and then to the U.S. The American practitioner of what he called the "auteur theory" was Andrew Sarris. While the majority of American critics balked at applying a theory to their approach to every film, Sarris used it exclusively, and wrote extensively about films to which mainstream critics paid little or no attention. Pauline Kael wrote a vociferous, and rather effective, deconstruction of Sarris's theory, called "Circles and Squares" in 1963:

"These critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products - the kind of action movies that the restless men who wander on Forty-Second Street and in the Tenderloin of all our big cities have always preferred just because they could respond to them without thought. These movies soak up your time. . . Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence - that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types?"(3)

The Kael-Sarris battle was, for a time, great theater. For some reason, possibly because it was true, Sarris took Kael's words personally and never forgave her, not even when she was dead. In his obituary of her, "Pauline and Me: Farewell My Lovely," he wrote:

"Long ago, Pauline and I were once a virtual figure of speech, like Cain and Abel, as our critical feuding began back in 1963 and never really ended - if not between the two of us personally, then between the people who supported her and those who supported me. Yet truth to tell, we never much liked each other, though we managed to co-exist in the embarrassingly voyeuristic world of movie-reviewing."(4)

Richard Brody is an acolyte, if you will, of Sarris and his Auteur Theory. He confirmed this in his review of a biography of Kael and in his own obituary of Sarris, which opens with a statement about as bold (and as insupoportable) as anything Sarris wrote:    

"Andrew Sarris is the one indispensable American film critic. He brought to American film criticism its crucial idea, its crucial word ("auteur"), and the crucial taste that its signifies: the recognition that the best of Hollywood directors are the equals of great directors anywhere in the world, and that they are the equals of painters, writers, and composers of genius."(5)

Never mind the hyperbole (Howard Hawks is the equal of Fellini, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and Schubert), and Kael's attacks on Sarris, but I have always found the kind of reasoning in this very old argument anti-intellectual in the finest American tradition. It comes from a deep dislike of everything that makes demands, that requires concentration and discernment - that is, to use the hated "E"-word, elitist. In the great levelling process that auteurism attempted, trash isn't elevated so much as art is degraded; John Ford isn't hoisted to the level of Ingmar Bergman, Smiles of a Summer Night and Persona are dragged down to the level of Fort Apache and The Searchers. In a Freudian sense, weren't the Cahiers critics - Rohmer, Truffait, Rivette,and Godard - merely killing the father, personified by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Rene Clement, so that they could one day supplant him? And didn't most of them come to resemble the very established French directors that they sought to depose?

When I was a kid, I cheered the cavalry charges in John Ford's Westerns, just as I loved homeruns hit by Hank Aaron, touchdowns thrown by Fran Tarkenton, and dunks by Wilt Chamberlain. I loved Superman and Fantastic Four comic books. I will always cherish my memories of them. But I am happy I grew up and learned to distinguish between now and then, good and bad, high and low, true and false. Sometimes I can't avoid the bad, the low and the false, but at least I know what they are. The best argument in the world can't redefine art by accommodating trash. 

The truly sad thing about Richard Brody's wasted words isn't so much that Furious 7 doesn't deserve them, but that, after already earning more than $300M, it doesn't need them.


(1) Richard Brody, "The Simple Joy and Sincere Wonder of 'Furious 7' The New Yorker, April 4, 2015.
(2) I had my say about Langlois in "The Ghost of Henri Langlois."
(3) Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares," Film Quarterly 16, no.3 (Spring 1963).
(4) Andrew Sarris, "Pauline and Me: Farewell, My Lovely," New York Observer, September 17, 2001.
(5) Richard Brody, "Andrew Sarris and the 'A' Word," The New Yorker, June 20,2012. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ballad of a Soldier

This remarkable Soviet film from 1959 tells of a country boy who, like millions of his countrymen, were enlisted in the superhuman effort to drive the army of the Wehrmacht, the most advanced and well-equipped in the world, out of Russia. The efforts of a number of people in the West, including American filmmaker Oliver Stone, to inform us of the terrible cost of winning World War II to Russia, and the enormous debt we all owe to ordinary Russian soldiers, has done much to correct our understanding of exactly who won the war. What's very curious to me is why there are so few Russian films from the period just after the war that were anxious to tell such a terrific story. Curious because the Great Patriotic War, as it became known to Russians, provided filmmakers with a golden opportunity for avoiding politics altogether and simply getting the story right.

Grigori Chukrai (1921-2001), a decorated Red Army veteran (like Alyosha, he was a signalman), got the story right by telling us the story of one soldier. He begins the film with a bucolic scene of a country road, down which a woman in black walks, past chickens and young people, and stops to look wanly down a road that stretches to the horizon. A narrator begins: "This is the road to town. Those who leave our village, and those who later return to their birthplace, walk along this road. She's not waiting for anyone. The one she used to wait for, her son Alyosha, did not return from the war. He's buried far from his birthplace, near a town with a foreign name. Strangers bring flowers to his grave. They call him a Russian soldier, a hero, a liberator. But to her he was simply a son, about whom she knew everything, from the day he was born to the day he left along this road for the front." A dissolve shows us the same woman, somewhat younger, looking with alarm down the same road. Then we see a helmeted soldier in a trench, as a tank bears directly down on him. (I don't know tanks very well, but the ones in Ballad of a Soldier looked like German Panzers to me - probably captured in the war.) He starts running away, but it follows him in every direction he turns. This could be mistaken for symbolism, but the tanks's single-minded pursuit of one soldier is just absurd enough to be real. Alyosha jumps into a trench, finds an anti-tank gun and fires it at the pursuing tank just in time. The tank slumps away from him lifelessly.  He sees another tank approaching and fires the same gun at it and scores another hit. For this act of heroism, Alyosha is told to report to his Comrade General, who tells him he is to be awarded a decoration. He boldly asks for leave instead of the decoration. He tells the general that he got a letter from his mother telling him that her roof is leaking. So the general grants him six days' leave - two to get to his village, two to fix the roof, and two to get back to the front.

The rest of the film is occupied by the six days leave that Alyosha (played by 19-year-old Vladimir Ivashov) earns and his long journey from the front to his village. Along the way, he encounters various people, farmers and laborers, and a beautiful girl named Shura (played by 19-year-old Zhanna Prokhorenko) who happens to be a stowaway in the same train car he occupies. There is a surfeit of socialist realism in so many scenes - every one of them trying to convince us that there are no bad Russians, that they are the salt of the earth, that there are no unfaithful wives, no inconstant loves, that officers are tough but fair, that friendship is everlasting and love isn't something to be entered into frivolously. After awhile, scenes come to resemble vignettes (the lighting is especially emphatic.)

I took a week's leave from the Army in 1997, and travelled from Lawton, Oklahoma to Denver by bus. The whole trip took nineteen hours, and all the way I was thinking that the journey was chewing into my leave time - time I could've been spending with my family instead of sitting on a TMN&O (Texas, New Mexico & Oklahoma) bus that seemed to stop every dozen miles or so. For the return trip I had to leave a day early to avoid being AWOL.

I wish I could say that most of the scenes in Ballad of a Soldier come across as achingly true. The content of treacle in them is quite a bit higher than one would find in a comparable Hollywood production. Ballad of a Soldier makes William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives look like stark realism, instead of intelligent hokum. It's clear that Chukrai loved his subject, and loved every character in the film. But he didn't love them enough to simply let them behave naturally. It's a far better technique for allowing an audience to make up its own mind whether characters are worthy of love or not.(1)

One scene is particularly unconvincing - when Alyosha stands with a group of laborers listening to news from the front. The news is bad. I have a hard time believing there was any such news delivered over the radio to the Russian people during the war. Whether they were losing on all fronts or not, the news was probably pure propaganda, all glorious victories and valiant resistance. That there was plenty of glory and valor to be found in Russia, especially after the fall of Stalingrad, there is no denying. But the cost in lives was horrific. To adapt Winston Churchill's famous tribute to the men who won the Battle of Britain, never have so many owed so much to so many. It doesn't have a much of a ring to it, but there was no one on our side at the time to pay such a tribute. By the end of the war, Russia had gone from a much-needed ally against the Germans to our next probable enemy. 

Through it all, however, Chukrai gives an impression of an overwhelming human catastrophe, with everyone clamoring to board the next train, when individuals have no time to express what is in their hearts, or even say goodbye to one another. Alyosha'a eventual arrival in his village, which gives him barely a few minutes to be with his mother before he has to begin the long journey back to the front, is effectively moving, with the prodding music shutting off just as they embrace in a long, silent moment.

Regardless of the monumental brutality inflicted by him on his own countrymen and on the revolution, it's doubtful that anyone other than Stalin could have brought so many people to bear on the single objective of driving the enemy out of Russia, even all the way to Berlin. The narrator mentions that Alyosha died near a town "with a foreign name," and that people (non-Russians) "bring flowers to his grave." The Russian army may have initially been seen as "liberators" by Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, but as soon as they realized that the Russians weren't going to leave, and, as Churchill put it, the "iron curtain" descended in the middle of Europe, Russian soldiers, whatever their sacrifices in driving out the Germans, became occupiers.   


(1) Chukrai was half Jewish and half Ukrainian, so he probably knew the word "schmaltz."

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Fake is a Fake

From time to time, without expecting much, I follow the fate of Bert Cardullo, once respected film and theater scholar, whose voluminous plagiarisms have been exposed to the eyes of an unsuspecting - and mostly uncaring - public since Senses of Cinema published my article "A Hard Act to Follow" in 2006. Despite further exposure of his pilfering by Richard Brody in The New Yorker in 2010, as well as other reports sent to this blog, many of Cardullo's suspect texts remain in print and for sale on Amazon, and he himself remains a faculty member at a university in Izmir, Turkey.

This is disappointing, to put it mildly. While I have encountered a few persistent and pseudonymous personal attacks on this blog and on my Twitter account, which a source better acquainted with Cardullo tells me are unmistakably his handiwork, I have heard nothing from him directly. What I've managed to learn of him indirectly isn't encouraging, either.

A Google search last week of the words "Bert Cardullo plagiarism" turned up two particular items, one from a website called "Retraction Watch" and another from The Penn, website of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The mission statement of "Retraction Watch" is "Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process." The article on Cardullo, "Film review by noted critic a rerun, retracted," discusses a book by Cardullo on French film scholar Andre Bazin that was shown to be substantially stolen from another work and was retracted by its publisher. The author of the piece mentions me and several posts on this blog, as well as the retraction statement at website of The Cambridge Quarterly.

But the article at The Penn reports on a recent debate that took place at the start of what they called "Banned Book Week," in which it was proposed that, since the writings of Bert Cardullo have been proven to be spurious at worst and suspect at best, his books, that are carried by the IUP library, should be removed from its shelves. An associate professor of English pointed out that anyone consulting Cardullo's books "for scholarly purposes" would not only put his own work in critical jeopardy but would "compound" the error that publishers made and further enrich Cardullo with their citations.

This is an entirely sound argument, but it was countered by another speaker who insisted that it was not the policy of the IUP library to ban books, in accordance with what she called the "library bill of rights," and that it was the publisher's fault in creating the problem in the first place by not examining the material submitted to them more closely.

I see. So, since they didn't create the problem, it's not for librarians to pull books from their shelves simply because they've been proven to be works of plagiarism. That's like an art gallery refusing to remove a Manet painting from its wall just because someone has proved it's a forgery. The gallery wasn't at fault for hanging the painting. It was the art dealer who passed the forgery on to them.

And there are plenty of intellectual property laws around to prevent the library from passing around someone else's work as Cardullo's. Does the publisher have to recall every copy of every book by Cardullo to correct their mistake? That would be an ideal solution but an utterly impractical one. 

If the library isn't prepared to pull the books, shouldn't it place a proviso inside them warning readers that their contents have been proven to be plagiarized, citing the texts from which Cardullo stole the material? The very lack of urgency demonstrated by professionals involved in the promulgation of these spurious texts shows how little anyone is prepared to take responsibility for them. The one person who could - Cardullo himself - will probably go to his grave denying he did anything wrong, as long as sales of his books and his tenure at a Turkish university remain seriously unchallenged.