Monday, August 29, 2016

Loved to Death

This month dog-loving Americans, among whom are most of my friends, celebrated National Dog Day by posting "selfies" of their dogs on Facebook and by sharing their stories about their four-legged family members. For too many reasons to enumerate, I cannot share that love. In fact, I am critical of it. When a friend posted a photo of his dog on his Facebook page, I commented, a little mischievously, that "Man is dog's best friend." My friend, who knows about my skepticism on the subject, relied, "A 50,000 year marriage made in heaven."

It's a funny kind of marriage. Awhile ago, I wrote on this blog about the quite special relationship between humans and dogs. In some isolated cases, it can be said to be a true symbiosis - two species depending on one another for survival. But in the vast majority of cases, the relationship is completely one-sided. Dogs depend on us for their survival, not vice-versa. Whatever it is that dog-lovers claim that their dogs provide them, they are an ornament in people's lives. There is never any question that they are their property. They wear tags identifying them as such, and when they escape from their homes, "Lost Dog" notices are posted around the neighborhood or online informing everyone that, if found, the owners should be contacted.

In the U.S., dogs are confined in people's homes and yards, and restrained on a leash when they are taken for a walk, or left in the car when they're taken for a ride-along. In many other, poor, countries, however, dogs are practically feral, allowed to roam the streets unrestrained and undisturbed, sometimes travelling in packs, scavenging for whatever they can scrounge from people's garbage. They spread diseases, like rabies, cause car accidents when they wander through traffic, and menace or bite passersby. Last month in Karachi, Pakistan, tens of thousands of feral dogs, that had become a serious threat to tourists in the city, had to be caught and exterminated. Photos were published of the dead animals spread out on what appeared to be a parade ground.

In the U.S., municipalities employ animal control units that collect stray dogs and, when owners can't be identified, they are placed in animal shelters. The animal shelters are operated by humane societies, like the ASPCA. Animals are kept for a limited time and, if they aren't "adopted" within a fixed period, they have to be euthanized.

I went to the bother of researching the unpleasant statistic of the number of dogs that are euthanized annually in the U.S. According to the ASPCA, 1.2 million dogs are put to death every year in animal shelters.(1) It's a statistic that dog lovers don't want to hear. But why? Shouldn't the people who are responsible for the deaths of so many dogs be apprized of the cost of their love? In the U.S., many people, not all of them vegetarians or Vegans, are clamoring for a humane model for industrial animal farming, for the welfare of the cattle, chickens and pigs that are raised to feed us. Of course, they are only alive so that they will eventually be "harvested," but there is no reason, except for a purely financial one, why the animals cannot be provided with a better life, however shortened it is.

There is more than one reason why so many dogs have to be euthanized (a euphemism preferable to "put down" or "put to sleep," intended to dull the uncomfortable fact of extermination) in the U.S. every year. One reason is that there remain, despite rigorously enforced animal control, large populations of stray dogs and cats. Since these animals breed freely (one litter per female dog per year and three litters per female cat), most of the animals collected in animal shelters come from the stray population. But another reason is because some dog-lovers refuse to spay or neuter their pets. Some refuse to go to the expense, but others refuse to do it because they want their pets to enjoy full lives. Despite these actions taken by dog owners oblivious if their implications for all dogs, many Americans insist of interring their dead pets, the ones lucky enough to die the natural way, in Pet Cemeteries. But what becomes of all the dogs that are euthanized?

(1) Additionally, 1.4 million cats are euthanized. For this and other statistics that pet owners should know, see ASPCA Pet Statistics.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Memory Loss

[Like a foul smell that refuses to dissipate, the surviving family of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos has been pressing successive governments in Manila for a state funeral, replete with honor-guarded cort├Ęge through the streets of Manila, a hero's burial of the deposed tyrant in keeping with his status as a president, however illegal his term of office (1965-1986) and oblivious of the five to ten billion dollars he pilfered from the nation's treasury. The current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has given the go-ahead for the long-contested burial at a national cemetery reserved for former presidents and officially-recognized national heroes. The last time the proposal was broached was after the election of Benigno Aquino III as president in 2010. Aquino, son of the man who was murdered on the tarmac of Manila International Airport upon his return to the Philippines at the invitation of Ferdinand Marcos, which sparked protests that eventually led to the People Power revolution, a bloodless coup supported by the Philippine army, forcing Marcos and his family to flee the country in 1986 and paving the way for Aquino's widow, Cory Aquino, to replace him as president, informed the Marcos family through official channels that a state burial of the former dictator would never take place on his watch.

Duterte, who wants the old wounds inflicted by Marcos to heal, has also admitted that he regards Marcos as the best president in the short history of the Philippine Republic. He has been in office only two months, but the violence that has erupted in the country makes it appear that Duterte is picking up where Marcos left off. There is even talk of the imposition of Martial Law if the other branches of the Philippine government won't cooperate with him.

The occasion of Marcos's belated burial, thirty years after his ignominious flight from the country (facilitated by the U.S. Air Force), is as good a time as any, I suppose, to revisit the following six-year-old post.]

Friday, April 9, 2010

A report on Imelda Marcos was aired on the BBC on March 26 which honestly assessed her continuing role, at the age of 80, in the politics of her husband Ferdinand's far northern Philippine province of Ilocos Norte. Though she showed plenty of public contrition at the death of Ferdinand's nemesis, Cory Aquino, from cancer last year, she has since returned to her old unapologetic self.

She is running, if that is the word, for a seat in the lower Philippine Congress, vacated by her son, Ferdinand Jr., who is running for an upper house Senate seat. Typical of such provincial politics, one family has been in power for forty years. Imelda's daughter is running for governor of the province only because Imelda was not as prodigious a baby-maker as her poor Filipina sisters.

When they filmed the body of Ferdinand, now lying, like Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chih Minh, in an air-tight, climate-controlled glass case, Imelda could not restrain herself from planting a gooey kiss on the glass next to the dead man's face. It was the closest she will get, this side of perdition, to her martyred spouse. She then muttered, "this is one of our major injustices," leaving it to the observer to guess exactly what the "injustice" was. The glass case? Marcos himself? His death from multiple organ failure in Hawaii?

But Imelda's presence on the political scene proves how power is passed around by the ruling elite like a private toy, and how a powerful family may endure public disgrace for a short time but are never very far from a position of power.

In the BBC report, a Filipino trike driver was asked for his thoughts on the Marcos's chances in the May election. With a scarcely concealed smirk, he said that it might be "good for the people" if all of them won. Of course, he did not say whom he was for, even if he knows too well the election is practically an unnecessary formality. Like everything else in his life, everything seems to have been decided upon before he was born, and long before he even heard of such things as elections or having a vote or more arcane conceptions like freedom or free will.

Some things never change, and more than twenty-three years after the People Power genie was let out of his bottle, and just as quickly put back in, some Filipinos might have been surprised by the prevailing tone of the piece, which was derisive - the view that most foreign observers take of a system that only serves a tiny minority. Before coming to the Philippines, nearly everyone would respond to the question: who committed plunder? with pirates. After coming here, they would have to include former president Joseph Estrada, who was convicted of that very charge, which is a capital offense, and summarily pardoned by the sitting president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Apparently unperturbed by his conviction, Joseph Estrada is running for president again, and is currently running third in the polls.(1)

Postscript 2016: Estrada lost his presidential bid but won in the race for Mayor of Manila three years later.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Film Till Then

Ever since the beginnings of the film medium, certain cinephiles, committed to its progress, have periodically felt a chill. A promising start, a fresh approach, and it somehow takes a wrong turn, causing some observers to despair of the medium's chances of survival as a serious, vital endeavor for the exploration of the human soul. Sometimes it's a catastrophic economic slump or a world war that is the cause of collapse. At others, it's success itself that isolates artists from their sources of inspiration.

Just after I was born in 1958 there appeared such a large number and variety of brilliant and challenging films that a new audience for them came of age. Stanley Kauffmann was moved to announce the arrival of a Film Generation. Within a few years, however, something happened to persuade most of that audience to move on to other things. It was largely due to a shift in world film toward more commercialized productions, but it was also because of the short lifespans of most filmmakers' originality and creativity. No sooner had Antonioni arrived with his extraordinary trilogy than he signed a three-picture contract with MGM and disappeared into Death Valley. Truffaut, who had made three of the most ebullient films of the New Wave in succession, fell to making lifeless thrillers or poor sequelae for his alter-ego Antoine Doinel. Two great filmmakers of the 50s, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, went into sharp nose-dives halfway through the 60s. Some critics, noticing this rather abrupt decline of one of the most heartening periods in film history, commented on it, with one of them (Dwight Macdonald) abandoning film criticism altogether.

Since then we have seen great directors appear, from Italy (Moretti, Amelio), Sweden (Troell), France (Tavernier), Belgium (the Dardenne brothers), Japan (Kore-eda), and Taiwain (Tsai Ming-Liang) whose films seemed all the more impressive in their very isolation. But no movements worth mentioning, no groundswells of talent. Susan Sontag wrote about the death of a certain taste in films, while Godfrey Cheshire commented on the actual death of celluloid. Neither seems to have been terminal as of yet.

This past week, in the midst of consulting one of the oldest books of film theory ever written, on Tuesday I was confronted by BBC Culture's The 21st Century's 100 greatest films. While such lists are evidence that enthusiasm for film is alive and well, they also demonstrate the extent to which clear judgement is virtually extinct. Fifteen and a half years is not nearly enough time to make a hundred "great" films. It made me wonder what a list would look like of the 20th Century's 100 greatest films if it had been compiled in 1916.

Needing a restorative (if not a chronic), I turned to Paul Rotha's monumental book, The Film Till Now, which I first encountered in the early 70s. Published in 1930 when the silent film was breathing its last, Rotha allowed it to be re-published in 1949, with additional material ("The Film Since Then") supplied by the American film scholar Richard Griffith. In his preface to the new edition, Rotha wrote:

"Films recollected in memory, says Richard Griffith, are apt to be biased by nostalgia. How right he is! When I was fortunate enough to spend some months at the Film Library in New York in 1937 and '38, I found that out only too well. On the other hand seeing old films again brings pleasant surprises; things you never saw and certainly implications which you were too inexperienced to observe. In general, however, films of the past usually live in our mind as being better than they really were, especially fiction films. Memory adds values to them that were never there. Yet divorcing technique from view-point, one realises now how much one missed by not understanding fully a director's aim at the time, or not knowing the conditions under which a film was made, or the purpose indeed for which the film was made at all. Since the manuscript of this book was first written, I have at least found out that the more you become involved in making films the less you know about them. Sometimes I have sat in a cutting-room with film draped round the walls and overflowing the bins and realised just how little one does know about the infinite possibilities of this wonderful medium, with its magic property of joining image to image and mixing sound with sound. Certainly I would not again have the audacity to try and write a survey of the world's cinema now that I know not only how difficult it is to make a film but how much more difficult it is to find the economic conditions in which you can use the medium with honesty and sincerity. It is always tragic to me that a film-director must spend some three-quarters of his time negotiating the ways and means to make the film he wants to make and only a quarter in actually making the film itself. To the director with something he thinks it important to say the means of production are so hard to come by that much creative time is spent in merely getting access to the expensive materials of film production. These past thirty years have seen a steady concentration of all means of film production in Western Europe and the United States. With the possibility of making very large returns both from a home-market and from audiences overseas, the film industries of most countries have now become more than ever before a matter of financial investment and international trade bargaining at the highest level. The film is no longer the happy-go-lucky investment of small-time entrepreneurs. It is gambling in public taste on the grand scale and has tended inevitably to be restricted to those controlling the other great international manufactures.

"The screen's reflection of a people's character and ideals and traditions, its unlimited power to create goodwill and promote understanding, its unequalled importance as a medium for public communication are motives which have been largely overlooked in the scramble to monopolise this universal show-business. Governments, banks, insurance companies, electrical cartels and other holders of big capital guide the destiny of the motion picture medium rather than the creative artists who seek to use it as an outlet for their ideas and imaginations. Almost the whole potential of the cinema as an instrument of public education has been neglected by the Industry's controllers in their pursuit of big returns. Little attempt, except in the field of documentary films, has as yet been made to use this powerful medium as a contribution to world thought. It has been characteristic of the Industry always to aim to produce its films for the largest possible number of people, and hence stand to gain the biggest revenue. Seldom have the serious social responsibilities attached to such an undertaking been recognised by the executives of the Industry. If the same disregard for responsibility were to obtain in the publishing or broadcasting worlds, public alarm would be at once expressed. The cinema has grown up as a cheap and convenient form of community amusement causing experiment in its artistic potentialities to be scarce and difficult to achieve. Only recently has it aroused the attention of educationalists and those concerned with social progress and moral welfare. Up till lately the interest of capitalist governments has been mainly confined to the film's commodity value and its vast yield in taxes. The showmen and promoters have been left to do what they liked with their adolescent Industry. To-day, they not illogically resent interference from the outside. The fact that the head of a Government department or a member of Parliament can have made himself knowledgeable about the complex internal affairs of the Industry has come as rather a shock. But the making of sincere films by men who have something valuable and not necessarily unentertaining to say in the world has become a dim prospect when viewed in relation to the constant need to keep screen-space and studio-space filled, the call to save dollars, the spread of trade and what are hypocritically called 'ways of life' by film exploitation, the need not only to relate box-office revenue to production cost but perhaps to adjust this picture to make money and that one to lose it in order to satisfy an accountant's balance-sheet. To produce a good fiction film to-day is often a matter of luck, or the stern insistence of a director having the guts and faith to stick by his intentions. When I see a Crossfire, a Miracle or an Overlanders, I give thanks to someone somewhere who has broken through the defences."

Rotha continues in some destail to assess the condition of the film medium in 1949. But what is striking about the comments quoted so far is the extraordinary passion that Rotha expresses. His words on film are those of a believer. Like the poets prior to Milton who believed implacably in a life after death, Rotha's faith in the medium was unshakable. He was convinced not only of the persistence of serious filmmaking in the future but in its preeminence as the most vital artistic medium.

But Rotha's words were also a warning against the growing difficulties of "adult" contributions to film. He could see powerful financial interests trying to control what they regarded as nothing more than a profitable market. What Rotha could not have foreseen was the disintegration of the once-impregnable Hollywood studio system and the breakup of its monopoly on filmmaking in America. It is sad to speculate what Rotha would make of BBC Culture's list of the 21st Century's 100 greatest films. Not only would he see the extraordinary alteration of the medium itself, but how the arbiters of taste have been transformed into fashion-following fanboys, as immature and ignorant as the average consumer.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Restoration Blues

In the small collection of digital films I have on my tablet, I have a copy of Jean Renoir's early sound film, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). When I watched it with my girlfriend, I was astonished. It was a Criterion print, made from the best available materials - perhaps from a brand new positive print struck from the original negative made especially for the transfer. It looked like so many such restorations: like it must have looked when it was first released eighty-fiur years ago. There's a scene in which Boudu, played by the irreplaceable Michel Simon, goes begging in a park. The sunshine is startlingly bright and clear and the women's clothes and hair, that are the only visible indication of the period, look like the latest haute couture. All I could think of when I watched the scene was what a beautiful day it was - a day in the past that is otherwise forever lost. As a cinephile, to have such things in my possession is a quite special kind of collector's pride.

When I first saw Boudu, it was probably at the Ogden Theater in Denver in the late '70s. It was a print in general circulation with all of the marks of its history: big reels of celluloid film passed from city to city in metal cans, handled by projectionists who sometimes have to make repairs to the film if it breaks or is otherwise damaged in the projector. Foreign objects - grease, dirt, hairs - are deposited on the film as it jerks through the aperture through which the intense light is directed. A chain of custody report informs the distributor or the next projectionist of problems encountered during the film's presentation to the public.

The Boudu I saw in Denver all those years ago was much like the one Wilfrid Sheed saw in New York a decade earlier, whose qualities, he wrote in his Esquire column, could not be accurately assessed because of what he called the thick "period fuzz" that permeated and obscured it. There were unaccountable lapses in continuity, sudden inexplicable jump cuts (long before the technique had been invented) and an overall dark pall seemed to envelop every scene, both indoors and out. This was all due to the total lack of care taken by the owner of the film's copyright and by the careless distribution to which the film was subjected. A great many films of the period in which Boudu was made, and before and after it, suffered from the same neglect.

To single out the history of just one (great) film, what many - including me - consider to be Charlie Chaplin's greatest film, The Gold Rush, was released to great success and critical acclaim in 1925. In 1942, Chaplin decided to re-release it, but removed all the intertitles and added his own spoken narration, along with an original musical score. Chaplin had possession of all of the material shot in 1925, in mint condition, and the re-release, seventeen years later, revealed more evidence of Chaplin's genius to a whole new audience. In 1953, however, Chaplin, who was living in Switzerland by then (his return visa was revoked because of the Red Scare witch hunts), neglected to renew the copyright of the original silent version of The Gold Rush, and the rights lapsed into public domain. By the time I first saw the film, it had been a victim of more than a decade of public domain ill-treatment, in which anyone could distribute a copy of the film, no matter how horrible its condition. Even when the 1925 version of The Gold Rush was rescued by copyright and its original negative salvaged and restored, it revealed noticeable differences from Chaplin's 1942 version, missing frames and generally degraded images. It's a tribute to Chaplin's genius that a film in such a sorry condition ever survived in people's memories as anything other than a faded, murky shadow of its former self, one of the innumerable films that millennials call "gray" rather than black and white.

In a recent essay on Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (which he didn't think much of), Richard Brody writes that "There are two main reasons to restore a film: one is artistic merit; the other is historical significance."(1) These are perfectly sound guidelines for the preservation and restoration of films. Henri Langlois, pioneer of the Cinematheque Francaise, discovered the hard way that any attempts at "triage" - the application of aesthetic standards in the pickng and choosing stage - was ultimately impossible and actually detrimental to the process of film preservation. Restoration, which is a proactive singling out of certain films for a painstaking and expensive reconstruction - and sometimes resurrection, is too often a matter of judgement. Which films, among the thousands rotting away in vaults around the world, are worthy of the loving attention of restorers? And which ones will have to wait until the next round? Clearly, sometimes such decisions are left up to the wrong people. While I was exceedingly pleased to see David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia restored to its original director's cut glory twenty-five years ago, I was much less pleased by the lavishing of the same loving attention on expertly made trash like Hitchcock's Vertigo.

All this said about the loving kindness of film restoration, about the joy of seeing a film in its most optimum condition, sometimes for the first time since it was first shown in theaters, I have to express a certain degree of nostalgia for the bad old days when a distributor like Peppercorn-Wormser bought the rights to an obscure film from Poland or Brazil or South Korea (and there must be hundreds of such films by now that lie forgotten in some storage room in New York or L.A.), make copies at as low an expense as possible, apply clumsily-translated English subtitles to it (much of which are unreadable) and screened in decrepit art houses across America, a number of which I visited in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In the early days of home video, there were companies like Blackhawk Films that slowly realeased its extensive catalog of silent films, like the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad and Video Yesteryear that unhurriedly released its unusual selection of foreign films, like Susumu Hani's Nanami - aka Inferno of First Love. Long before it was released in a more acceptable condition, Video Yesteryear released a video version of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water that was so dark that the night scene on that beautiful lake looked like it was shot on a moonless night with no artificial lighting whatever. Even the subtitles were illegible. But watching it was a fairly accurate reconstruction of the experience of sitting in a cavernous movie theater (or auditorium) on some forgotten evening in the 70s when I was full-time college student dreaming of futures that never came to pass. Such cheap, careless reproductions are reminders of how far we have come to finally sanctify cherished filmgoing experiences.

(1) "Louis Malle's 'Elevator to the Gallows,' and its historic Miles Davis Soundtrack," The New Yorker, August 3, 2016.