Thursday, February 25, 2016

Indecision 2016

I took part in my first presidential election race in 1964. I was six and my dad was a Republican, so he taught me a jingle: "Goldwater, Goldwater, he's our man! Johnson belongs in the garbage can!" He even dropped me off on election day on the side of some road in Albany, Georgia with a Goldwater sign and told me to hold it up and yell whenever a car went by. Goldwater lost. And Johnson, against McNamara's - JFK's appointed Secretary of State - advice, got the country mired in Vietnam. I learned early that Americans don't always make the right choice when they vote.

For a progressive like me, the rise and rise (followed by, I can only hope, an eventual fall) of Donald Trump has been a little terrifying. He is clearly going all-in for the presidency, not in terms of the money he intends to spend to get there, but because he is making a greater number of enemies the longer he stays in the race. He probably knows this (I'll give him that much credit), but he probably considers that it's a small price to pay for becoming president. I can't for the life of me imagine what President Donald Trump will be like, but I also can't see anything positive coming from a Trump presidency.

This past week, Pope Francis said that Trump isn't a true Christian. Of course he isn't. He's a typical capitalist bully. And if all human relationships are based on either love or power, it obviously wasn't love that made Trump a billionaire, and it also explains why he wants to be president.

Many pundits are watching this loathsome man's advance with rapt disbelief, like they're watching an unfolding disaster in a movie (a fully loaded dump truck has lost it's brakes and is hurtling toward a schoolyard filled with children) and are powerless to intervene. Knowing the outcomes of some previous presidential elections, how could they not be fearful? In 2004, George W. Bush, who led us into a war on utterly mistaken, or possibly manufactured, evidence of WMDs - a war that resulted in the ascendence of ISIL - was nominated by his party and beat John Kerry in the general election. By the time he left office, the nation was on the verge of economic collapse. How can anyone trust in the judgement of the American voter any more?

I kind of understood Dubya's appeal to a majority of Americans. I think that he won the election in 2000 because, after eight years of Slick Willy, the great equivocator, what they wanted more than anything else was a president who was not subtle, who always said what he meant. But how he managed to win re-election is a deep mystery to me.

But there have been other examples of voter culpability in presidential elections that are even more mysterious. There was a bumper sticker that was popular in the years following Nixon's re-election in '72 that read: "Don't blame me, I voted for McGovern." But is it enough to oppose, to accept the defeat of one's candidate and watch as the guy who won drags the country into a grossly unnecessary war and subjects prisoners-of-war to illegal imprisonment and torture? Some faint-hearted Liberals were talking of moving to Canada after the results of 2004's election. I can't say I blame them, but whose country is it anyway, and do they think it might be worth the trouble to try and take it back?

While the followers of Trump don't give me much confidence in their intelligence, there used to be an implicit trust is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The old saying is, "I'd rather the country were run by the first hundred names in the white pages than the deans of all the Ivy League schools." The reason was that, while the deans are more knowledgable, those one hundred nobodies in any big American city probably possessed more wisdom, more practical experience of solving problems and making decisions.

That formula doesn't inspire much confidence any more, if it ever did. The Republican candidates are uninanimously attacking President Obama, without convincing anyone with eyes in his or her head that America is worse off than it was four or eight years ago. They tried to pull the same wool over voters' eyes in 2000. How could anyone seriously believe that the policies of Bill Clinton made America a worse place than he found it in 1993? So, too, only the incurably stupid would suppose that the country has not recovered from a near-meltdown of the economy, restored from the brink of another Great Depression.

Trump's emphasis on immigration is a typical red herring to distract voters from an unemployment rate below five per cent and gas prices under two dollars. What I would like to ask Trump is why all those Mexicans (and other Latinos) are streaming across our border? Could it be because America is successful and that there are jobs for the taking? If Trump spent a week with an undocumented immigrant, from the border to Anywhere, USA, he might be forced to reassess his low opinion of the American economy, not to mention his opinion of immigrants. The working people who support him say they want a president like him because he's a "job-maker." What none of them seems to realize is that Trump only creates jobs - making other people work for him - to make himself richer.

The word "electability" is being tossed around by people of both political persuasions. It shows that alot of voters are less concerned that their favorite candidate should get their party's nomination than that their party wins. The reason why exit polls aren't allowed to be broadcast until the last polls close is that projecting a winner will discourage people from voting if they know that their candidate is projected to lose. This is somewhat surprising, but American life, it seems, is all about winning.

The few people who were smart enough to vote for George McGovern in 1972 and Al Gore in 2000 had at least the satisfaction of being proved right. Whatever they might have accomplished as presidents, we might at least have been spared the national disgraces of Watergate, the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing disgrace of Gitmo.

Easily the best candidate in the race this year is Bernie Sanders, who was all but ignored by the media because he is so beautifully unpresentable. Makeup artists preparing him for a television appearance must be in despair. A bespectacled, white-haired septegenarian with a Brooklyn accent, and a lifelong socialist, is definitely not ready for prime time. But Hillary Clinton seems to be propelled by a kind of manifest destiny - a destiny promised her some time ago by the DNC. If Sanders somehow confounds all of the back-room wheeling and dealing and wins enough delegates, this might turn into an election worth taking seriously.

Occasionally in American elections a candidate comes along who is worthy of my vote, but in most cases the best candidate is the lesser of two evils - the one who is the least likely to lie to us, to get us into or more deeply involve us in a war, or make us look like a bunch of fools to the rest of the world for having elected him.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hollow Man

Film didn't invent the star player. They existed in the theater from its beginnings in Greece, even when the actors were masked. But film has made it possible for an actor to be in many places at the same time, reaching incalculably more people, if only in effigy. "But why," asked Siegfried Kracauer "is anyone chosen for stardom while others are not? Evidently, something about the gait of the star, the form of his face, his manner of reacting and speaking, ingratiates itself so deeply with the masses of moviegoers that they want to see him again and again, often for a considerable stretch of time. It is logical that the roles of a star should be made to order. The spell he casts over the audience cannot be explained unless one assumes that his screen appearance satisfies widespread desires of the moment — desires connected, somehow, with the patterns of living here presents or suggests."(1)

Often, an actor will do his best work for one director, even becoming a director's muse or inspiration. For instance, in Japan, actor Toshiro Mifune made several films, containing his best performances, with director Akira Kurosawa. In Sweden, Liv Ullmann appeared in several films made by Ingmar Bergman. In Italy, Giancarlo Giannini became an international star through the films of Lina Wertmuller.

In Hollywood, directors often create stars and shape their careers. Josef von Sternberg made Marlene Dietrich a star in a series of films. John Ford worked repeatedly with John Wayne, mostly in Westerns, contributing to his outsized, larger-than-life image. More recently, Martin Scorsese gave Robert de Niro opportunities to excel in several of his films. There are, however, some examples of actor-director partnerships that have not been as fruitful.

In Hollywood, at any given moment, there are twenty to thirty people - stars - who have the power to "open" a film. Their names on a contract, their agreement to appear in a film, is a guarantee that a film will get made. Because of this, these people are inundated with scripts, with offers, with pitches, from producers, directors, and script-writers who want them in their films not because they are the best choices for the parts, but because, without them, their films are unlikely to ever reach the big (or the little) screen. It is often a perilous bargain. So many of the people on the "A-List" didn't get there through great acting. They got there out of luck most of the time - the lucky accident of being in the right place at the right time - or the right role in the right film. The result is that films get made that are no better or worse than they have ever been.

For the people fortunate enough to arrive on the A-List, salaries are peaking at somewhere around twenty million dollars per film. This means that when the film's budget is determined, the salary for the person whose agreement to make the film has mobilized the small army of technicians who, together, put all the pieces together, is one of the first expenses to be factored in. Currently, there are some genuine actors among the people on the A-List, but acting talent is not at all a prerequisite. The general inability of critics to judge actors' performances, which exposes their ignorance of what it takes to be an actor, often accounts for the success and lengthy careers of some A-listers. The sometimes inexplicable choices of AMPAS, the organization that annually hands out Oscars, contributes to the shelf-life of many incompetent and unworthy actors.

A single case in point. I first noticed Leonardo DiCaprio in the Lasse Hallstrom film What's Eating Gilbert Grape? in the early 90s. He played the role of a mentally disabled boy so convincingly that, never having seen him before, I took him for a genuine idiot. The role was a lucky break, as it would've been for any fledgling actor. The only people who called it a great performance don't know what acting is. As any real actor can tell you, playing the part of a disabled person is easy.

But in the next few roles I saw him in, which seemed to arrive like the morning paper, DiCaprio played, in a scarily invariable manner: an overconfident young gunslinger, an Irish stowaway aboard a doomed passenger liner, the man in the iron mask, a luckless Western tourist in Thailand, and Arthur Rimbaud. He was equally terrible in each terrible film. And the films each made a boodle, largely due to the phenomenal boodle pulled in by one of them - Titanic. This made DiCaprio, before he was even able to shave, one of the most sought-after stars in the world. Miscasting him has become a lucrative profession.

But, as any moderately intelligent artist knows, box office success isn't enough. Probably needing desperately to justify his success, DiCaprio wanted also to be taken seriously. In my review of Revolutionary Road from 2011, I wrote: "He has struggled so valiantly, hasn't he, to convince us these past ten years that he can play a man. He is getting there." After what he decided was a sufficient length of time to grow - physically at least - into mature roles, he approached the man who is - or was - widely regarded as the best American film director, Martin Scorsese, and in 1999 Gangs of New York, which was a long-cherished project for Scorsese, came into being.

Without knowing the details of his struggles with Harvey Weinstein, of all the fine actors that Scorsese got to appear in Gangs of New York (Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson and Jim Broadbent, to name the finest), it was DiCaprio's name in a lead role that probably got the film green-lighted. The finished film has some great touches in it, most of which are directorial, and no one could argue that it should not have been made, that a director as great as Scorsese should not have been provided with the wherewithal to realize it. But, like so many other vanity projects, there is always a gap between design and conception and the film that ends up on the screen. That DiCaprio, who manages to be far less amateurish than he might have been in less capable hands, used his clout to help Scorsese realize his dream is nothing but laudable. But that it should inspire Scorsese, both out of gratitude and monetary need, to cast DiCaprio in his next three films is gratitude run amok. Every director has to make a living, but surely things like Shutter Island (2010) disqualifies Scorsese from making an honest living?

It was 2004's The Aviator, which actually cost more to make than Gangs of New York, that best reveals the inadequacy of DiCaprio and the impact of that inadequacy on Scorsese's legacy. Whatever Howard Hughes had been to his friends, his business partners and competitors, he was manifestly a man. His wealth may have been a major part of Hughes's appeal, but casting DiCaprio in the role of such an outsized personality made Scorsese's film seem hollow.

It was equally painful to find DiCaprio cast as Jay Gatsby in the fourth (but not the worst) screen adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel. Baz Luhrmann's insistence on DiCaprio in the role reminded me of Richard Burton's insistence that his wife Elizabeth Taylor should be cast as Helen of Troy in his low-budget production of Doctor Faustus in the 1960s. When critic Vernon Young saw the film and heard Burton intone the famous line, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Young was moved to shout (in a crowded theater) "Not bloody likely!"

Currently, DiCaprio is in the running again for the Best Actor Oscar. His performance this time, in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant in the role of the legendary trapper Hugh Glass, made me wonder why no one but me remembers a 1971 Richard Harris film called Man in the Wilderness, in which he plays Zachary Bass, a character based loosely on Glass, who is mauled almost to death by a bear and then left for dead by members of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Bass survives and tracks down the expedition to wreak vengeance, only to find, at the film's conclusion, that his hunger for revenge was what saved his life and that, with his chance for revenge at last in sight, he walks past the men who left him for dead and heads in the direction of civilization, where a son he never knew is perhaps waiting for him. After reading a synopsis of the story of The Revenant, Bass's tale sounds far more edifying.

Richard Harris, in full Man Called Horse mettle, was memorably moving in the role. His bear-mauling was, for a 1971 film, when CGI was no more than a distant dream, equally difficult to watch. Who cares if the exteriors, meant to evoke an American wilderness, were shot in Spain, when The Revenant was shot in Argentina? And Harris had the further advantage over DiCaprio in being unarguably a man; not just a star with enough glued-on hair and painted-on wounds to make him look like one. Harris's film, directed by Michael C. Sarafian, goes in for some blatant "revisionist" effects, not the least of which is its unflinching portrayal of human - and animal - brutality. Iñárritu, who relies heavily on close-in handheld camerawork (just as he did in Birdman), is working in the same vein, trying to burrow underneath the surface of a conventional Western whose elements are all there: the dirt, the horses, the natives, the bears and buffaloes, and the knife's-edge separation of life and death. But at the center of his drama is Leo DiCaprio, physically beefier than he once was, but just as slight an acting presence as ever.

Will someone worthier supplant DiCaprio on the A-List? (This as an appeal, not a rhetorical question.)

(1) Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film, Oxford University Press, 1960.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Kitchen Stories

Can a film about a sociologist's efforts to observe the movements of an aging farmer in his kitchen be described as a love story? Yet, by the end of the 2003 Norwegian film Kitchen Stories, that is just about the only explanation that makes sense of what we have watched for an hour and thirty-five minutes.

Beginning in 1944, a study was conducted by a group of Swedish sociologists that sought to track the movements of housewives in their kitchens so that future homes could be designed in such a way that their movements, puttering around the kitchen, could be minimized. (And if such a study sounds ridiculous, try to imagine what Google and Facebook are doing with all the data they're collecting about your online likes and dislikes, dear reader.)

Through an agreement with Norway (according to Bent Hamer's fictional screenplay), the sociologists proposed to extend their study to the kitchen traffic of ordinary Norwegian men. The film opens by informing us that there are subtle but significant differences between Norway and Sweden, as we watch a small convoy of identical cars with identical tiny trailers hitched to them advance toward us on the left side of the road. A sign in three languages (one of them is English) tells them that upon crossing the frontier they must drive on the right.

One of the field researchers, Folke, follows a tractor driven by a farmer named Grant to the house of Isak, who has agreed to take part in the study. But Isak won't answer the door. Folke waits. Hours pass. Folke's boss Malmberg climbs a ladder to reach an upper window and knocks. The next day they bring the local doctor to reason with him. Another day elapses with no sign of Isak. Folke climbs the ladder alone to the upstairs window. Isak opens the blind and is confronted with Folke's face outside. Isak draws the blind and Folke climbs down. He relaxes inside his trailer, listening to music on the radio. I should mention that it's the dead of winter and everything is covered in snow. In the morning Folke notices Isak emerge from the barn (how did he get there?) and he leaves the door of the house open for Folke. These scenes of inaction introduce us to what will be the pace for the rest of the film, a pace like one might expect the life of a bachelor farmer to be --- slow. It isn't often that a film asks us (and so soon after it has begun) not to expect any of the things that most films promise (but so rarely deliver): thrills, sex, and violence. The late E. L. Doctorow, who regarded film as "the enemy" of writing, once said that films are usually about faces or explosions. Kitchen Stories is about faces.

Folke erects a tall chair, like the ones used by tennis judges, in a corner of Isak's spartan kitchen, and takes up his post. We've not heard them speak a word to each other. Days pass with Folke watching and tracing Isak's kitchen putterings on a diagram of his kitchen. Whenever Isak leaves the kitchen he turns off the light. Days go by. Overnight, Isak has cut a hole in the kitchen ceiling above Folke's chair and he quietly spies on him. Folke presents his initial "findings" to his boss and asks for a different "host." His request is denied.

Because it's a scientific study, Folke is not supposed to interfere with his subject. Until one morning when he gives Isak some tobacco to fill his pipe. Isak follows by pouring Folke a cup of coffee, and Folke climbs down to drink it. He speaks his first word, "thanks," to Isak. The ice broken, they begin to have conversations in the kitchen. Late one evening, Isak finds Folke asleep in his chair and he covers him with a coat. Folke gives Isak some of the provisions he gets in the mail from his aunt, like canned herring (Isak eats nothing but porridge). Folke's boss arrives to inform him that one of the researchers and his host have become drinking buddies.

There is nowhere a suggestion of sexual interest between the men, even when Folke watches Isak bathe, and, in a beautiful moment, Isak claims that the fillings in his teeth allow him to receive distant radio signals and puts his open mouth next to Folke's wondering ear. But the closeness they develop is something more than merely friendly. It's a fondness, an affection, brought on by their unacknowledged loneliness (no surprise - Folke is also a bachelor) and their need for companionship. (It should be noted that, except for a woman accompanying the eccentric head of the firm, there are no other women in the film.)

But when Folke throws (if that is the word) Isak a birthday party and they get drunk together, Grant, an old friend of Isak, who has been spying on them and is, perhaps, jealous of their closeness, reports Folke to his boss for such brazen fraternization. In a jealous rage, Grant takes his tractor and tows Folke's trailer, with Folke asleep inside, to a railroad crossing and leaves it on the tracks. Isak sees him and gets out his ancient horse to quietly return the trailer. Throughout the scene, Folke never wakes.

But Isak's horse is dying. And Malmberg, Folke's boss, orders that everyone pack up their equipment - the project is cancelled. When Folke tells him he resigns, that he's staying, Malmberg reminds him of his "contractural obligations." And so we see the little convoy of cars and trailers returning to the border - except this time, Folke pulls off the road right before the checkpoint and unhitches his trailer and tells Malmberg he quits. Malmberg is left struggling to hitch the trailer behind his own car as the border guard watches him.

But Folke returns to Isak's house at night in time to see his horse being loaded into a truck and an ambulance in front of the house. Grant approaches Folke with news he can't bring himself to speak. Despite this apparent end to the story, the film gives us one last scene that leaves us with an airy and sweet ambiguity. We see Isak's house, but everything around it is green. Inside, Folke is alone but the telephone rings three times - just as it had when Grant let Isak know he was coming over for a haircut - and he smiles broadly. On the table is a pipe and tobacco and two coffee cups.

Is the film a sendup of the so-called detachment of sociologists? It certainly gives Swedes a gentle ribbing. By the end we've been introduced to a group of human beings who discover a little of their own humanity. Very gently and without much of a fuss, Bent Hamer evokes the loneliness of life in a tiny community where winter lasts half the year.

The acting from a cast heretofore unknown to me (except for the splendid Sverre Anker Ousdal as the head of the firm sponsoring the study) is flawless. Joachim Calmeyer plays - inhabits - Isak, a man who finds himself rather defenseless against advancing age. And Tomas Norstrom gives us Folke, a dedicated scientist at first who gently bends the rules set for him with interjections of gentleness. How he goes about winning the trust and friendship of Isak - seemingly without even trying - is quietly beautiful. But it is the time and especially the place that are brought to breathing life by Hamer and his cameraman, Philip Ogaard. The film's luminous imagery matches the beauty of its illuminated lives.

The film suggests immeasurably more than it shows us. For instance, Isak's life through the years, alone in his farmhouse, reminded me of Frost's "An Old Man's Winter Night":

A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man - one man - can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Lovely Woods

In 1943, fifty thousand copies of a poem were printed and sent by the Council on Books in Wartime to U.S. troops fighting overseas - as a "morale-builder." Here is the poem:


I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music - hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went -
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn't been.

Try to imagine a soldier on the move with his unit in Italy or North Africa, or a marine on some Pacific island he never heard of, opening the envelope containing this poem by Robert Frost, and reading it during some pause in the fighting, sitting against the blown-out wall of a house or against a palm tree in the sun. What would they have made of Frost's poem? Would they have found it "optimistic," as the people who chose it believed Frost intended? "What's this?" I can hear them querelously asking. "A bird telling some guy to come in?" I can see my father, an Army MP in Bizerte, Tunisia in 1943, wondering why the hell somebody thought to send him a poem in the middle of a war.

Or would my father, or some of the other soldiers and marines who got the poem, have noticed that Frost is walking alone at dusk, the gathering shadows at end of the day, and would he have known what that unseen thrush was doing in the seductive dark of the woods? Wouldn't he have heard that thrush - or something like it - himself sometimes? And how many of the men who stuffed the envelope containing the poem into their pockets were found dead, having once said yes to the call?

There is something within the woods - something other than a thrush - that calls out to Frost walking at the edge. The thrush's song was a last thrilling tribute to the light, before the night falls. The man knows this, but acknowledges the invitation to come in from the dusk to the dark. "But no," he demurs, "I would not come in." And he shrugs the moment off, saying that he wasn't really asked to come in, but wouldn't have done it even if he had been.

Frost never tried to correct the popular image that most readers had of him as "the poet of the countryside, of rural settings - as a folksy, crusty, wisecracking old gentleman farmer, generally of positive disposition."(1) So, when the people at the Council on Books in Wartime in 1943 chose "Come In," because they saw it as an "optimistic" poem, optimistic because the poet said "no" to the invitation, Frost didn't try to disabuse them of the what the thrush's invitation implies.

The poem is directly reminiscent, although he wrote it much earlier, of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", from his fourth collection New Hampshire:

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Along with the darkness of the wood in "Come In," there is the cold that gives the void an extra dimension. It's probably Frost's most famous poem. It is famous for being delicately simple. Only the strange repetition of the rhyme (DDDD) in the last stanza, and the ultimate line repeating the penultimate, makes ripples in its delicate surface. And yet, like some of Frost's better-known poems, as well as many of his lesser-known poems, it is deceptively simple. It's simplicity is actually a surface effect. When examined closely, it betrays depths that are both ambiguous and, to use Lionel Trilling's characterization of Frost, "terrifying."

It may come as a surprise to all those who admire the poem for its "picture postcard" prettiness that what Frost is alluding to in his imagery, if one looks just a little bit closer, is death. In his close examination of "Come In," the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky certainly knew what Frost was talking about in the poem. "The twenty lines of the poem constitute the title's translation. And in this translation, I am afraid, the expression 'come in' means 'die.'"

"Stopping by Woods" was John F. Kennedy's favorite poem, by his favorite poet. I wonder if he, too, was beguiled by the seductive loveliness of the dark and deep woods. The many miles he had to go before he slept didn't let him forget that moment by the woods.

(1) Joseph Brodsky, "On Grief and Reason," The New Yorker, 26 September 1994.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

In Shoah's Shadow

"Writing history is an imaginative act. Few people would deny this, but not everyone agrees on what it means. It doesn’t mean, obviously,  that historians may alter or suppress the facts, because that is not being imaginative; it’s being dishonest. The role of imagination in writing history isn’t  to make up things that aren’t there; it’s to make sensible the things that are there." (Louis Menand, Introduction to To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson)

It does not happen - thankfully - very often, but every time a filmmaker attempts to deal with the Holocaust he comes up against two imposing, yet contradictory, obstacles. The first is the objection that any film, especially a fiction film, should touch the subject. This is not just because it is considered sacred by some - by survivors, by Jews, but also (and perhaps more stridently) by artists.

This is an argument that originates in disorganized remarks made by Theodor Adorno in the early 1950s: "After Auschwitz," he insisted, "to write a poem is barbaric," if writing it is intended "to squeeze aesthetic pleasure out of artistic representation of the naked bodily pain of those who have been knocked down by rifle butts. ... Through aesthetic principles or stylization ... the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose. It is transfigured and stripped of some of its horror, and with this, injustice is already done to the victims."

In his essay, "Writing and the Holocaust," Irving Howe examined Adorno's prohibition:

"... The representation of a horrible event, especially if in drawing upon literary skills it achieves a certain graphic power, could serve to domesticate it, rendering it familiar and in some sense even tolerable, and thereby shearing away part of the horror. The comeliness of even the loosest literary forms is likely to soften the impact of what is being rendered, and in most renderings of imaginary situations we tacitly expect and welcome this. But with an historical event such as the Holocaust - an event regarding which the phrase 'such as' cannot really be employed - the chastening aspects of literary mimesis can be felt to be misleading, a questionable way of reconciling us with the irreconcilable or of projecting a symbolic 'transcendence' that in actuality is no more than a reflex of our baffled will."

There have been great literary works by Holocaust survivors like Paul Celan, Primo Levi, and Istvan Kertesz. There have also been great works by filmmakers whose visits to the camps were purely imaginative. And there have been great documentary films as aesthetically distinct as Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (with narration written by survivor Jean Cayrol) and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

Now that the last generation of Holocaust survivors is dying out, the importance of recording every one of their individual testimonies is - for history and humanity - especially urgent. As if in response to this sense of urgency has come the work of Lanzmann and something of a direct offshoot of the monumental film Shoah, Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. While they appear to be engaged in the same pursuit, somewhat curiously (if not inexplicably), both Lanzmann and Istvan Kertesz, Holocaust survivor and author of Fateless (also made into an excellent film) have taken extreme exception to Spielberg and his foundation.

The impact and importance of Shoah is indisputable. Watching it - experiencing it - is unforgettable. It challenges us, like all great art does, to take account for our own lives. In the 70s, Lanzmann had what was probably the last chance to record the eyewitness accounts of so many survivors, and he had the good judgement - and artistic sense - to limit his film exclusively to what his own cameras recorded, avoiding the use of newsreel footage that Marcel Ophuls had done - brilliantly - in The Sorrow and the Pity, The Memory of Justice, and Hotel Terminus.

I use the words "artistic sense" purposely because, on top of all the other things Shoah achieves, it is great art as well. Lanzmann would probably deny this, but if documentary were simply a matter of turning on the camera and the tape recorder (two instruments that Bresson believed had almost incantatory power), every one of the moral choices that a filmmaker makes - like where to point the camera and why - would be eliminated and documentaries would have nothing to tell us.

No one would dream of questioning the enormity of Lanzmann's contribution to the conversation about the treatment of the Holocaust on film. He never intended to, but he set the bar for every subsequent treatment of the Holocaust, documentary or fictional. His insistence, however, that there is no other justifiable way to represent the Holocaust except his way, is not simply disingenuous, but it would lead inevitably to silence. Perhaps silence is the most respectful reaction to the Holocaust,(1) but it doesn't increase our understanding of it, which every new generation greatly needs. That understanding may only ever be incomplete and unsatisfying, but this doesn't make it any less necessary.

Now comes a new film from Hungary, Son of Saul, by a fledgling (38-year-old) director, Laszlo Nemes. And as if in direct response to Lanzmann's challenge to fiction films about the Holocaust, Richard Brody of The New Yorker, while seeming to praise the film because it dramatizes specific events mentioned in Shoah - the use by the Germans of Jewish Sonderkommandos ("special units") who assisted them, under threat of death of course - practically dismisses the film as being "virtually superfluous."

Part of the importance of Shoah is its sheer scope, its encirclement of the inner and outer workings of the Nazi Final Solution, based entirely on the testimonies of people directly involved. But as broad and detailed as Shoah is, it does not - cannot - encompass the entirety of the Holocaust. As similar as all of the stories of Holocaust survivors are, every one of them is a story unto itself, an ineluctable perspective on the unfolding of the event.

Contrary to Western practices, filmmakers in Eastern Europe did not avoid the subject of the Holocaust in the decades immediately after the war. Approaching the subject in explicitly political terms, it was considered as just another chapter in the struggle between communism and fascism. As soon as film production returned in Poland, Wanda Jakubowska, a survivor of Auschwitz, made The Last Stage (Estatni Etap), her attempt to create a film record of her own experiences. Made in a matter of months after the liberation of the death camp, the film is remarkable for its directness and its demands, above all, for authenticity. It makes one wonder what Jakubowska would have made of Lanzmann's somewhat puritanical prohibition of any fictional portrayals of the Holocaust.

Richard Brody mentions how, in Son of Saul, "[Laszlo] Nemes renounces the act of total and transparent representation - he films Saul's experiences and observations as if he can't fully represent them dramatically by actors on sets." Such reticence to show the audience an unprecedented horror is both an old trick of the trade (think of how, in the original The Mummy [1931], Karl Freund creates a heightened atmosphere of terror by never showing us the risen Imhotep - Boris Karloff - but only the actors' terrified reactions to seeing him) as well as a quite telling admission of the limits that filmmakers set for themselves when they touch so sensitive a subject.  

Anyone familiar with former Sonderkommando Filip Muller's powerful testimony in Shoah knows that it is one of the most riveting scenes ever recorded of a man sitting in what appears to be his living room describing things that are all the more incomprehensible for having actually occurred. But are filmmakers who choose to re-create such scenes in danger of making such horrors as Filip Muller witnessed too familiar, almost commonplace?  

In the past twenty years we have been subjected in films to every imaginable horror in every horrible realistic detail. The very existence of a line that some people insist should never be crossed is an invitation to filmmakers to cross it. In the newly released film The Revenant, all every critic can talk about, it seems, is the moment when Leo DiCaprio is mauled by a bear in such graphic detail that some critics found themselves at a loss for words.

Movie mayhem has been a fact of filmgoing life at least since Bonnie and Clyde. But no one, as far as I know, has attempted to exploit cinematic tricks, including CGI, in the detailed representation of the gas chambers. It would be regarded as "going too far." If the representation of a man being shot to death is somehow acceptable realism - even if everyone accepts that no such act has actually occurred - why would an attempt at representing the moment, inside one of Auschwitz's gas chambers, when the Zyklon cyanide pellets are dropped through the air vent and the naked people inside are shown perishing in unimaginable ways, be unacceptable? When Muller, in Shoah, describes how, removing the bodies from a gas chamber, he saw blood and excrement and vomit everywhere, that he saw how the bodies of some of the women showed signs of menstrual bleeding - why are such terrible details acceptable when they are spoken, but would be considered an outrageous violation of propriety, not to mention taste (in his opening paragraph Brody calls Son of Saul "daring but tasteless") if a filmmaker tried to show them to us?

Irving Howe went further in his examination of Adorno's remarks on representing the Holocaust:

"Adorno might have had in mind the possibility of an insidious relation between the represented (or even the merely evoked) Holocaust and the spectator enthralled precisely as, or perhaps even because, he is appalled - a relation carrying a good share of voyeuristic sadomasochism. Can we really say that in reading a memoir or novel about the Holocaust, or in seeing a film such as Shoah, we gain the pleasure, or catharsis, that is customarily associated with the aesthetic transaction? More disquieting, can we be sure that we do not gain a sort of illicit pleasure from our pained submission to such works?"

There is, of course, an enormous difference between the spoken testimonies of Holocaust survivors in Shoah and a fiction film's dramatic representation of such events. The difference is not just a simple matter of form. In his 2003 review of Susan Sontag's book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Tzvetan Todorov wrote:

"One of the great platitudes of our epoch is that images, in particular photographic or filmed images, transmit messages that are much clearer and stronger than words, which disguise the truth more than they reveal it. But in truth nothing could be less certain: a photograph can stun us, but taken out of context it may not convey any significant meaning. You see a mutilated corpse, you are moved and overcome by shock or pity; but you do not yet know who this corpse is, nor why this person has been killed, nor by whom; nor whether this is a case that warrants an appeal to vengeance, or on the contrary an appeal for peace, or whether it is only an incitement to meditate on the fragility of human existence. Sentences have a subject and a predicate, a part that delimits what is being discussed and another part that says something about it. But images are subjects without predicates: they evoke the world intensely, but they do not tell us, of themselves, what we should think about it." (Tzvetan Todorov, "Exposures," The New Republic, April 21, 2003)

When the sexual revolution was upon us in the 1970s, Charles Thomas Samuels called for a retreat, arguing that "sex needs words in order to be creative." The presentation of sex in a film is virtually invariable. Like a childbirth scene, it is made up of the same props, sounds and gestures. Any creator of images has to work hard to avoid visual cliches; and yet the particularization of human experience is limited by a finite number of repetitious gestures.

Richard Brody argues that, in Son of Saul, Nemes is referring us to the words spoken by survivors in Shoah by choosing to avoid representing events chronicled in his film directly: "The enormity of the events defies dramatization without utterly eluding it. Yet the muffling of the image suggests another mode of transmission - the word, in the future tense. The events that Saul sees and the actions that he takes will survive, if they survive at all, through Saul's eventual verbal testimony. The fullest access to what Nemes doesn't and won't show clearly will be through the culled word - will be when Saul, or other members of a Sonderkommando, speaks with Lanzmann, and when Lanzmann composes a film on the basis of that word."

As I mentioned earlier, there are two obstacles that every film about the holocaust must overcome. The second is how to avoid being - or seeming to be - crassly exploitative. Of course, there are obvious examples of how a filmmaker should not approach the Holocaust. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, while it was quite popular and it got Benigni some awards (and an excuse to be his insufferble self in accepting them), was a misguided and dishonest attempt to inject humor, however emotional, into the least funny subject imaginable. And there is some speculation over a film Jerry Lewis made more than forty years ago that he called The Day The Clown Cried that no one has seen because Lewis himself knew that people would have found it too objectionable.

So, too, when Hollywood took a rather good East German film called Jakob the Liar, made in 1975 by Frank Beyer, and remade it into a star vehicle for Robin Williams in the lead role of a compulsive liar who momentarily relieves the suffering of his fellow inmates in a Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Poland with false (or fantastical) reports about the progress of the war and the imminence of their liberation - in every way except commercially the remake was a mistake. In "Writing and the Holocaust, Irving Howe delivers a funny aside:

"(I think here of a story that I have on the highest authority. The producers of the television serial called Holocaust first approached Leo Tolstoy with a tempting offer to write the script, for they had heard he was the author of some good books. After listening to them politely, the Russian writer turned pale and mumbled, 'No, no, there are some things that even I cannot do. For what you want, you should turn to Gerald Green.')"

The very real danger that the Holocaust can be used as a by-word for a traumatic experience that misguided filmmakers might use to prop up a character was borne out by the spectacularly stupid X-Men films, in which one character, named Magneto, is shown to have discovered his powers when he was a boy in a Nazi death camp. When he is separated from his parents and they are herded, in the usual driving rain, towards an ominously smoke-belching chimney (the imagery is reduced to mere emotional cues) he cries out and the barbed-wire gates that separate them are pulled apart by invisible forces. I find it difficult to believe that all those people - actors and technicians - who made the film were put through the motions of re-creating in minute detail a moment in history's biggest human catastrophe to add some depth to a comic book movie without one of them questioning its propriety. But it illustrates the extent to which the Holocaust has become, to some of the more crass producers in Hollywood, a kind of thematic punch line.

When the film Schindler's List was released in late 1993, it was attacked in some quarters because it was made by Hollywood's P.T. Barnum, Steven Spielberg. Viewed as another "Hollywoodization" of the Holocaust, Stanley Kauffmann was one of the first to come to its defense. While he wondered if there was a need for "another film about the Holocaust . . . especially after Shoah," he argued that "presumably there are at least some people who have never seen a Holocaust film and may see this one because it's by Spielberg and will have mainstream promotion. Let's hope there are many such." (The New Republic, December 13, 1993)

In a piece written for the New York Review of Books, John Gross agreed:

"As a contribution to popular culture, it [Schindler's List] can only do good. Holocaust denial may or may not be a major problem in future, but Holocaust ignorance, Holocaust forgetfulness, and Holocaust indifference are bound to be and Schindler's List is likely to do as much as any single work can to dispel them." (John Gross, "Hollywood and the Holocaust," New York Review of Books, February 3, 1994)

Richard Brody claims that the spoken testimonies in Shoah make the dramatized events in Son of Saul - and virtually every other film depicting the Holocaust - "superfluous." According to Kauffmann, "Claude Lanzmann, who made Shoah, believes that re-creating the Holocaust is impermissible, 'is tantamount to fabricating archives.'" But if it is a duty, and I think it is, to revisit, if only occasionally, the Holocaust in memorials, in novels and films, and even in silence, I think it is also a duty to look at it anew, with new eyes and from new angles. As Primo Levi said in 1979, "If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again."

(1) In the words of the Yiddish poet Aaron Tsaytlin: "Were Jeremiah to sit by the ashes of Israel today, he would not cry out a lamentation. ... The Almighty Himself would be powerless to open His well of tears. He would maintain a deep silence. For even an outcry is now a lie, even tears are mere literature, even prayers are false."