Friday, September 30, 2016

What Follows

Subsequent to the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (which Clinton clearly won, but I doubt that it helped to make up anyone's mind), I thought that it might be illuminating to visit the topic of Elites and Elitists. Here is the Merriam Webster English dictionary definition of the word "elite":

"Noun. Simple definition: the people who have the most wealth and status in a society: the most successful or powerful group of people. Full definition: 1a. the choice part; b. the best of a class; c. the socially superior part of society; d. a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence; e. a member of such an elite."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump likes to use the word elite in the speeches he gives at his rallies. He uses it as a buzz word or - especially as it pertains to his audience - a dog whistle. By its simple definition, however, he definitely belongs in the elite. How this clownish billionaire became a populist hero of the American middle class is another of history's mysteries. Michael Reagan, son of the late president, has speculated that Trump has been listening to alot of conservative talk radio, knows what's on the minds of its listeners and has cleverly shoveled it back at them.

But what Trump is referring to in his speeches is probably the elite in part 1d of the full definition - the "political" elite or the "Washington" elite, which he is campaigning to unseat and supplant. These are the people who failed the American middle class, who work only in the interests of the wealthiest Americans, who sold American industry, and with it the blue collar worker, down the river to Mexico. These are the people who have turned their backs on ordinary white Americans, who are systematically handing America over to immigrants, to Hispanics and Muslims. These are the people who are undermining the Constitution, specifically its First and Second Amendments, that guarantee their freedom to worship whomever and however they please and to bear arms.

But what Trump represents, the movement of which he is the figurehead, is an aspect of a much older cultural trend - a trend away from centers of power or influence and away from paradigms and standards defined and long upheld by a cultural elite. Canons are being deconstructed, old masters (most of them dead white men) are being replaced by new ones (women and people of color). In some respects, this trend is a welcome adjustment to a culture that has moved away from Europe and into the world it once colonized. However much culture used to be based on tradition, to the extent that a greater part of tradition has been exclusive to European ones, such a tradition is necessarily exclusive. T.S. Eliot insisted that tradition does not worship the past, but that it is alive only while it is growing. Eliot, however, was a cultural elitist in the sense that he believed that a society devoid of classes would be the death of culture.

Merriam-Webster offers a quite different definition of the word "elitism":

"Elitism. Noun. 1. leadership or rule by an elite; 2. the selectivity of the elite especially snobbery; 3. consciousness of being or belonging to an elite. Elitist. Noun or adjective. being or characteristic of a person who has an offensive air of superiority and tends to ignore or disdain anyone regarded as inferior."

One of the antonyms of elitist is "democratic," which certainly makes it plain that a cultural elitist is not inclusive or egalitarian.

The demography of the people who are most likely to support Donald Trump is quite telling. He or she is more likely to be white, middle class, over the age of 35 and not having a college degree. The last part is the most sticky. The better-educated a person is, it appears, the less likely he is to follow Trump. The people who support Trump claim to feel left out, passed over by the Great Recovery. As outsiders, they would like nothing more than to see the system that excluded them demolished. And more than one observer has likened Donald Trump to a "wrecking ball."

As a critic, I have acquired a rather different understanding of - and attitude toward - the word "elitist." To me, an elitist is someone who holds everything to the highest standard. If the purpose of art is to illuminate the souls of human beings, the best art is the kind that is most effective in its illuminations. But critics - the good ones anyway - aren't well-liked by the public because it doesn't seem to them that critics admit to liking very many books, plays or films. Recently, the fans of the film Suicide Squad, which is the latest run of the comic book movie mill, tried to access the movie review website called Rotten Tomatoes innumerable times in an attempt to shut it down. The fans were upset that a majority of film critics reviewed Suicide Squad negatively. Unfortunately, such films as Suicide Squad are proof against the influence - and the very existence - of criticism. Fans make the common mistake of confusing what they like and what is good. This is why I've often accused so many critics of being little more than fans themselves.

As T.S. Eliot went on to point out: "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago [this was written in 1948]; and that the evidence of this decline is visible in every department of human activity."(1)

The appearance of Donald Trump as a candidate for president is certainly indicative of the decline about which Eliot was writing. I've written before about Barack Obama's unfavorable image with many Americans, who think he is too "professorial." In other words, they don't seem to want a president who is - or seems to be - smarter than they are. American presidents have sometimes had to simplify, or coarsen, their oratory so that the stupidest spectator or listener won't be reminded of their stupidity. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, always told his advisors and speech-writers to limit themselves to one or two syllable words. Johnson, who was evidently more intelligent than his southern fried image made him out to be, took pains to assure his public that he was as dumb as they were.

Trump has taken Johnson's practice to a new depth. It's probable that he isn't nearly as stupid as his outrageous slogans, that the target of his rabble-rousing is an actual rabble of ill-educated middle class whites, fearful that their country is slipping out of their grasp. What they don't seem to grasp is that it slipped away ages ago.

I remember being harangued in 1992 by a silent type Navy first-class draughtsman (his rate - or MOS) about how elections should be about character, not personality. That's why Bill Clinton, of zero character but heaps of personality, could have defeated George H. W. Bush. History would have a different story to tell if character were the considering factor in elections. Jimmy Carter, for example, would've been re-elected in 1980. Bill Clinton would never have been elected, which would've spared us the unavailing spectacle of Hillary's will to power. Trump would still have television.

(1) T.S. Eliot, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Driving Through the Past

Since literature lives in an eternal and ever-expanding present, it is logical that a writer should take up residence there, among his fellow occupiers of the present. A literary intelligence reacting to his own age has always been one of the great pleasures of art.

But exploring past lives inspires great works of literature as well, whether it is Tolstoy's breathing life into an heroic era of the Russian past just prior to his birth or Flaubert reaching all the way back to the fall of Carthage, holding a mirror up to history can be just as timely and telling as any contemporary account impacting directly on our lives.

These musings have been prompted by an intentionally offhanded dismissal by a prominent American critic of what I believe is a great American film. Reviewing Bruce Beresford's (or Eddie Murphy's) new film Mr. Church in The New Yorker, Richard Brody, who calls the film "repugnant" for quite unconvincing reasons, attacks Beresford in the following terms:

'... it was directed by Bruce Beresford, whose only excuse is that he was (ir)responsible for making "Driving Miss Daisy," in 1989, and his ideas about race are stuck in 1948.'

As often occurs with one of Brody's pieces, I'm not at all sure where he's coming from. He speaks from a view of film - of American film especially - that is foriegn to mine. He finds film masters and masterpieces in the unlikeliest places. Nothing could possibly illustrate this better than what Brody writes a few paragraphs later about Jerry Lewis (surely the most repugnant American comic of the 20th Century's second half):

'Lewis may have been despised and reviled by sniffy intellectuals [what a giveaway!] in the United States, but, well, he always had Paris. As the director and star of his own films, he was recognized as the genius he is by the people who understood more about the art of movies than anyone in the world, France's cinephilic critics and filmmakers.'

The (French) joke, I'm afraid, is on Richard Brody - and on all Americans. The America-hating French see Jerry Lewis as the quintessential American buffoon, who can't even walk straight and is always bumbling and crashing into things.

But Brody's singling out Bruce Beresford, who is Australian, and Driving Miss Daisy for ridicule caught me off-guard. As a longtime fan and follower of the now 76-year-old filmmaker, I followed the online link to Brody's piece in anticipation of discovering what Beresford has been up to lately, surprised that he's been up to anything. Reading as Brody lowered his ax, in a piece dedicated to the largely unsung talents of Eddie Murphy, made me wonder if he resented Beresford precisely for having the audacity of showing Americans how to make great films like Tender Mercies and, yes, Driving Miss Daisy.

Daisy was adapted by Alfred Uhry from his own award-winning play (he won an Oscar for it, but Big Deal). Despite the attraction of its stars (even though Morgan Freeman wasn't quite there yet), the film almost didn't get made. It was the last minute casting of Dan Ackroyd as Miss Daisy's son Boolie that finally got the project rolling. But, interestingly, it was the first Best Picture Oscar winner since 1932's Grand Hotel that didn't give a nomination to its director. As anyone who knows anything about filmmaking can tell you, it was Bruce Beresford who made Miss Daisy as beautiful as it is. His directorial choices, often unnoticeable touches, are all over the film and propel it into art.

It was met with almost unanimous praise, except for a specific quarter: some African-American viewers objected strongly and stridently to Morgan Freeman's performance as Hoke, Miss Daisy's driver. They bristled at the existence, onscreen or off, of such a fawning, subservient "Uncle Tom," bowing and scraping before his white employers, not showing the slightest resistance to the injustices of the white world around him, but lying down and taking it like, well, like an obedient slave.

When I first heard these objections, I was surprised at the denial of Hoke's detractors, who could neither believe that any such man existed nor accept his fictional existence. In his piece on Mr. Church, Brody ridicules the racism behind the character whom Spike Lee called the "Magic Negro," who conforms to white fantasies about the comportment of black men, even down to what must be their vitiated, blighted inner lives.

I haven't read what Morgan Freeman had to say, if anything, about these objections to his performance, but it seems to me that his accomplishment as an actor, both in the stage role and on film - always in the service of Alfred Uhry's play - owed as much to archaeology as aesthetics. The model for the character of Hoke didn't exist by the 1980s, but Freeman, who had perhaps met his type, resurrected him for the play. It may not be in keeping with our reformed, post-Civil Rights view of African-Americans, but it is still historically valid. It challenges our conventional wisdom that it was only the white man that had to evolve and that the black man never changed as the world changed around him. Hoke's acceptance, however grudgingly, of the circumstances of his bondage, of his relationship with the imperious Miss Daisy, outraged some viewers. They wanted to see a fully realized black man, fully emancipated even before the emancipation was a social reality. They refused to accept the past on its own, albeit terrible, terms.

Saying that Driving Miss Daisy is racist is like saying Open City is fascist. Evidently, the only way one can make a film concerning race relations in the America of the 1940s and '50s (and avoid the charge of racism) is to look at everything monochromatically, to make all white people cold and cruel (and stupid) and all black people warm and feeling (and ever so wise). In other words, a work of propaganda.

For the purposes of his film, Bruce Beresford's "ideas about race" ran the gamut of his characters' lives. The relationship of Hoke and Miss Daisy didn't folow the trajectory of history but that of human compassion and love. So that, by the time we see them together in Miss Daisy's nursing home, she a half-demented old white woman and he a retired old black man sharing a piece of pumpkin pie and each other's company, after the upheavals that had overtaken the South in the intervening twenty-odd years, their closeness and sympathy is recognizable and, for me anyway, immensely moving - even as we glimpse an image of Miss Daisy's old Hudson driving into the distance.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Ugly Australian

I've written before on this blog about how expats behave around one another in Asia. I have learned a very hard way to avoid them as much as possible. They aren't partucularly exceptional people, wherever it may be that they come from. Back home they are nondescript, unassuming, and probably plain boring. But abroad, especially in places where there aren't very many of them, they stand out like big purple sore thumbs. Since the heat turns whatever they're wearing to rags in a very short time, most of them have never learned how to dress for the tropics, and wander the streets in t-shirts and shorts. And since they are almost invariably old and obese, they cut a quite unsightly figure among Asians, particularly when they have an Asian girlfriend in tow.

On the 1st of this month, I violated one of my own cardinal rules as an expat here in the Philippines. Standing in line at an ATM, waiting for it to open (!), I noticed a big Caucasian man a few heads behind me in the line. My cardinal rule is to acknowledge the presence of a fellow expat with a nod or by raising my eyebrows but to never ever engage them in conversation. He just walked up to me, ignoring the people in line between us and started talking. Before he could finish his question, I knew he was an Aussie.

"So what's going on, mate?" he asked. We were waiting for the ATM to open, I explained.

"Only in the Philippines," he said loudly enough for everyone to hear, "would they close an ATM." Leaving it open, I figured, would necessitate the hiring of a security guard to discourage vandals. But this never occurred to the Aussie.

He then began to go down his list of complaints against Filipinos, in the same loud voice. Before the arrival of the Aussie, I had asked the Filipino ahead of me in line what we were waiting for. I asked him in Tagalog, but he replied in perfect English that the ATM was still "loading." So I cringed when my fellow expat launched into his anti-Filipino tirade, knowing that at least one Filipino in line understood every word he was saying. I wanted nothing more than to flee the scene. I could always say it was attack of diarrhea. At least it would discourage the Aussie from following me.

Instead, I told him that I couldn't hang around all morning and that I would try the ATM down the street on my way out of town. But the Aussie followed me. Ever since my first visit to the Philippines in 1993, I have encountered these horrible people. All they seemed to do was complain about everything. Were their lives so miserable, I wondered? If they were so unhappy, what could it possibly be that held them here, that kept them from going home? I always came back to what I mentioned above: that these men, nobodies at home, are somebodies here - incredibly rude and ugly somebodies, but still somebodies. Later I read the poem, "Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno," in which W. H. Auden wrote:

"... though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was."

It was, perhaps, the memory of some distant, half-remembered happiness that kept these horrible people here.
Norman Lewis, the 20th Century's finest travel writer, had the final word on expats more than half a century ago. In his irreplaceable book, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Burma, he wrote of his encounter with expatriates coming aboard the ship on which he arrived in Burma:

“There was something of a party on the Menam that night. A couple of tin-miners came aboard and were entertained by friends. The Captain made his first appearance, and later came over to my table. He had heard that I was a writer, and would like to know what I proposed to write about. Burma, I told him, knowing infallibly what was to come. And what were my qualifications? . . . How long had I lived, or would live in the country? I had arrived a week before, and might stay a few months.

The Captain found it hard to conceal his exasperation. For twenty-eight years he had knocked about these coasts, and he seemed to feel that anyone who had spent less time in the Far East than he, had no right to write about it. The things he had seen in his days! The stories he could tell if he felt like it! And what did this rare information amount to, when finally after a few more double whiskies the process of unburdening began? A little smuggling; a little gun-running; repetitive descriptions of homeric drinking bouts in which the Captain had justified his manhood and his race against all comers; fun with Burmese ‘bits of stuff’. Of this material were his Burmese memories composed.

And this was the common, almost the invariable attitude. The old hands seem to feel that they possess a kind of reluctant, vested interest in the place of their exile. Without having suffered with them the long, boring years of expatriation, it was an impertinence to have an opinion. And yet when questioned they would often boastfully display their ignorance, their contempt and distaste for everything about the country. As soon as the central streets of Rangoon were left behind there was never another European to be seen.

It has always been the same. Of all the Europeans who visited Burma, from earliest times down to the days of Symes’ Embassy at the beginning of the last century, only eight troubled to give any account of the country, however brief. Hundreds of factors of the East India Company resided in Syriam, Pegu or at Ava, yet none of them in his letters shows any evidence of curiosity about the strange life that went on around them, or that he ever thought of Burma other than in terms of ‘Ellephants teeth, Pegue Plancks, Tynn, Oyle, and Mortavan jars’.”

Sooner or later, what every expat must accept is that he is burdened with a reputation that every expat who preceded him formed in the minds of the locals, and that it is an unflattering one: a reputation for offensiveness, ugliness, heavy drinking and womanizing. An expat may be exceedingly polite, well-dressed, abstemious and faithful to one woman, but he will be exceptional.

The funny thing about my encounter with the Australian that day was how it ended: his ATM card failed and mine worked. Sometimes decency pays.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Destinations Revisited

[Rather than having to repeat myself, which is kind of a duty for an intellectual (like repeatedly having to point out the obvious), I'm taking the liberty - which I couldn't do if I were getting paid to write this - of re-posting a piece I published on this blog two years ago.

Immigration has become such an enormous shibboleth in Donald Trump's campaign for president that, like so much of this loathsome man's run, his insistence on its importance has become a problem in itself. If you asked me to make a list of the problems that I think the next president should address in order of their priority, immigration would not even be in the top ten. But if I could ask Trump one question on the issue it would be, If America is in the deplorable condition that you say it is, why do you think all of these people from Mexico and points farther south are coming to the U.S.? Could it be simply because our country is successful and that there are jobs here for the taking?]

July 14, 2014


Once again immigration is making headlines in the American media as thousands of children - most of them from Guatemala - have been apprehended crossing into Texas from Mexico. To deal with the astonishing volume of these unaccompanied children, attempts have been made by the Federal government to transfer some of them to other states while their individual cases await processing. This has provoked protests from people - all descendants of immigrants (unless they're native Americans) - in some communities who fear that the children will simply be let loose on their streets, rather than processed for eventual deportation back to their home countries. They're afraid that the children will become tax burdens by attending their public schools and will - eventually - take away jobs from its legal citizens.

In 2001 I was living in Des Moines and that summer I read in the news about the discovery of a railway car that was filled with the bodies of undocumented alien immigrants, who had been suffocated in the overheated car. An investigation failed to find enough information about where the immigrants had come from, how they got all the way to Iowa, or where on earth they were going. In the nearly five years I lived in Des Moines (If you could call it living) I had three dead-end jobs, one of which was with a private security company. My duties included the patrolling of Des Moines' downtown skywalks - a public network of elevated passageways that passed over streets and through office buildings. Since they were heated during the winter months and air-conditioned during the summer, the skywalks attracted the city's many homeless people, looking for shelter from the elements. My uniform resembled a policeman's, with the subtle difference that the patches on my shoulders were shaped like shields rather than the circular patches worn by the Des Moines P.D. So I actually looked more like a cop than the cops. The skywalks were closed between midnight and six a.m., so I had to roust them out if they were sleeping in some hiding place, which were sometimes easy to find, sometimes not. With nothing but time on their hands, the homeless could be surprisingly creative when they had to be. But what surprised me the most about them was that they were relatively young, and almost all of them were white. I should add that, for various reasons, most of them suffered from some form of mental illness.

The only people who were permitted in the skywalks after midnight - besides my fellow "officers" and I - were the cleaning crews, who usually paid me no notice as they went about their work. Their jobs ranged from mopping floors to vacuuming carpets to emptying innumerable waste baskets floor by floor in the office buildings. One night on duty, a co-worker and I decided to visit the break room in one of the many buildings through which we were walking. It was on a floor below the skywalks, so we took an elevator down. The moment we entered the break room, a group of cleaning women - all Hispanic - who were sitting around a table, jumped up and fled from the room, despite my attempts to reassure them. They mistook us for cops, and, for mysterious but suspicious reasons, ran from us. Whether they were in the U.S. illegally or were simply wary of policemen, I will never know.(1)

A few years later, living in Anchorage, Alaska, I got a similar job and I came across other office cleaning people, all Hispanic, all presumably holding green cards (permanent resident visas). What always struck me was the obvious fact that these people from Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and Nicaragua had come all the way to America - all the way to Des Moines and Anchorage and every other American city,(2) and that they must've known there was work waiting for them when they arrived. Why, indeed, would they have come so far if they weren't convinced that work was waiting for them? And the work that was waiting for them is tailor-made for immigrants: an army of men and women to clean office buildings, no qualifications required, no education, with little or no knowledge of English, unafraid of hard physical work, probably earning a minimum wage and, obviously, no questions asked about their immigration status.

Feeble attempts are sometimes made to penalize the companies that hire illegals, but nothing changes. And what about the office building managements who contract the companies that hire illegals? Aren't they also culpable? The people on the right of the immigration issue always argue that these immigrants are taking away much-needed jobs from Americans, at a time when unemployment is high. I can't claim to know how these undocumented aliens live, but I know where and how they work. Most of the jobs that these immigrants get when they arrive at their destinations are the kind that few Americans are either capable or willing to perform for a minimum wage. Only people for whom a job that pays far more than they could possibly earn in their home countries would take these jobs. Yes, their employers are exploiting them by paying them the merest minimum the law requires them to pay. Americans would be more amenable to accepting such jobs if the wage were higher. Americans could probably be persuaded to pick fruit if the wage were commensurate with the labor. Americans may be lazy, but they're understanding of quid pro quo is, by now, quite sophisticated. But, for now, who else but these immigrants, documented or undocumented, will do the work?

(1) I also noticed, whenever I stopped at a convenience store on my way home from work, how everyone shopping in the store began to act suspicious the moment they saw me in uniform.
(2) I knew a man who got a job as a deputy sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas, who told me that more than half the population of the city, home to a huge meat-packing industry, was Hispanic.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Second Century

Since my departure from the U.S. in 2007 and my self-exile in a country that seems to be transforming itself rapidly into Venezuela, I must confess, as a self-respecting film critic, to being out of circulation. Everything that has happened in the film world subsequent to 2007, with notable exceptions, is terra incognita to me. So I should disqualify myself from commenting on BBC Culture's recently published list of the 21st Century's 100 greatest films.

But I won't, simply because, from what little sense I can make of it (I have seen less than half of the films in the rankings), it is easily the most ill-advised list since someone once asked me to rank the Star Wars episodes from the best to the worst. For handy reference, here is the list:

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010)
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. ​Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
17. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

I have seen forty-seven of them, including seven of the top ten, and I will limit my comments to them.

First of all, ranking the films is rank philistinism. Art, like life, isn't some kind of stupid competitive event. But I'll start at the top of the list, without naming titles, and work my way down to number one.

Tied for 100, listed second, I remember just enough of it to wish I didn't. 98 A hodge-podge by a great filmmaker is still a hodge-podge - tantalizing but not a cohesive whole. 96 As bad as Disney at its worst. 94 Beautifully-shot, matter-of-factual vampire movie, and better than the American remake. 93 Call an exterminator. 92 Really a Roger Deakins film, startlingly photographed - almost a historical artifact unto itself. 90 Could've been harrowing, but Polanski wasn't up to it. 87 Achingly twee. 83 Unhappy marriage of a Kubrick concept with a Spielberg execution. 80 Beautiful. 79 A history of music I hate, that launched Kate Hudson on an unsuspecting world. 77 An uncomfortable attempt to actually alter perception according to an extraordinary disability. 76 "Von" being typically obtuse. 73 Ethan Hawke at his best, Julie Delpy at her usual - in Paris. 68 Insufferable. 67 An Iraq War film, about as good as they got. 66 Uniquely beautiful. 62 Borderline imbecile. 59 Damned Silly. 57 Women are brutes, too. 53 Unbearable. 51 A film with a big hole (Leo) in it. 44 Unexpectedly shocking, historically important. 42 Intensely moving. 40 Utterly brilliant. 39 Beautiful and boring. 38 A kind of new world 400 Blows. 35 Alluringly beautiful fantasy. 33 An ultimately vacuous vision of a world full of psychos - including its hero. 29 Fun for kids. 27 A spiteful portrait of the youngest billionaire in the world. 26 Well-meaning miss. 25 A unedifying tale told backwards is still unedifying. 23 French guilt, flawlessly depicted. 22 Stupidly condescending outsider's tour. 21 Annoying. 17 Bizarrely creative. 13 Bergman did it better with much less. 12 Another surprisingly dull "true story". 11 Pointless. 10 Not even a good thriller. 6 Exquisite. 5 Remarkably made. 4 One of the reasons the Japanese film practically no longer exists. 3 Brilliant actor but nothing else. 2 Two people encircling nothing. 1 Purposefully meaningless.

The late Stanley Kauffmann pointed out that the decline of film is no cause for wonder. The history of drama started with a flourish - Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Then it declined. English drama began with the Elizabethans - Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and others. Then it, too, declined. The first century of film gave us Chaplin, Keaton, Renoir, De Sica, Ozu, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Troell, Truffaut and some others. An impressive flowering of creativity. Then it declined. It doesn't mean that film is dead. There will be a renaissance, but there's this little dark age to get through first.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Their Lady of the Slums

A good friend who is a member of a Baptist church in Des Moines, knowing I was a (lapsed) Catholic, asked me one day to explain to him what a "saint" was. I gave him the definition I had been given: a saint is someone who is deemed by the Catholic church to be a very holy person who performs miracles and who, upon sainthood, is believed to be very close to God and, when called on in prayer, can intercede with God on one's behalf. My friend's next question was, "so Catholics pray to saints?" Yes, and certain saints have specialties - a good example being St. Christopher who used to be the patron saint of travelers. If one were embarking on a long journey, a St. Christopher's medal would be worn on a chain around one's neck, or suspended from the rear-view mirror of one's car. My explanations did nothing but reinforce my friend's dubious opinion of the Catholic church.

Although sainthood is rather ridiculous in the 21st century, saintliness is something we can all recognize to some extent. Mohandas Gandhi was Hindu and was in no way eligible for canonization. But his saintliness was unmistakable. George Orwell recognized it, even if he, too, was extremely dubious of saints. In his late essay, "Reflections on Gandhi," he began by writing, "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases."

The former Mother Teresa, who was herself the former Albanian woman Agnes Bojaxhiu, was formally canonized in the first week of September. I couldn't get over the amount and the reverence of the CNN coverage of the event. I am puzzled that anyone other than a Catholic would be engrossed by such inherently stupid rituals. But then, it was a stupid ritual - a Latin High Mass for the Dead, the funeral for JFK in 1963 - that filled my mother with such awe at its medieval splendor that she got us all (including my Southern Baptist father) converted to Roman Catholicism.

While I am not as prejudiced about Mother - er, Saint - Teresa as Christopher Hitchens was, who called her (in his book The Missionary Position) "a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers," I can't help thinking of the peculiar odor she must have exuded, how she must have smelled, in the invariable garb, the uniform "habit" of her order of nuns in Calcutta, and the un-Christian-like pride she must have taken in that smell. In fact, she reminds me of Gandhi in his invariable loincloth in the presence of Western heads of state, wearing his poverty and humility like a giant badge (or shield).

Hitchens was correct, I think, about the cult of suffering that Teresa created around her, the ritualized assuming of the suffering endured by the poorest of Calcutta's poor. But, just as Orwell wanted to know "to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity - by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power - and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?" I want to know to what extent and to what end did Teresa cultivate her celebrity, seeking out photo opportunities with millionaires and pop stars (like Diana, who died just five days before Teresa's death on September 5, 1997)?

One of the things that characterizes Roman Catholicism is its sanctification of suffering. Christ suffered, so when circumstances in life cause suffering, we take some small share in Christ's suffering, and it somehow makes us better people. This is an institutional problem with the Catholic church, this insistence that suffering in life is not only inescapable but a means of bringing one closer to Christ. Pablo Neruda speculated about these "canons of pain" when he wrote about his confrontation with the great Buddhist shrines that he found in Burma:

"Statues of Buddha everywhere, of Lord Buddha ... The severe, upright, worm-eaten statues, with a golden patina like an animal's sheen, deteriorating as if the air were wearing them away ... In their cheeks, in the folds of their tunics, at elbows and navel and mouth and smile, tiny blemishes: fungi, pockmarks, traces of jungle excrement ... Or the recumbent, the immense, recumbent statues, forty meters of stone, of sand granite, pale, stretched out among the rustling fronds, emerging suddenly from some corner of the jungle, from its surrounding site ... Asleep or not asleep, they have been there a hundred years, a thousand, one thousand times a thousand years ... Yet there is something soft about them and they are known for an other-worldly air of indecisions, longing to stay or go away ... And that very soft stone smile, that imponderable majesty which is nevertheless made of hard, everlasting stone - at whom, at how many, on the bloodstained planet are they smiling ...?  The fleeing peasant women passed, the men from the fire, the visored warriors, the false high priests, the tourists who devour everything ... And the statue remained in place, the immense stone with knees, inhuman and also in some way human, in some form or contradiction a statue, god and not god, stone and not stone, under the screeching of black birds, surrounded by the wing beats of red birds, of the birds of the forest ... We are reminded of the terrible Spanish Christs we inherited wounds and all, pustules and all, scars and all, with that odor given off by churches, of wax candles, of mustiness, of a closed room ... Those Christs had second thoughts about being men or gods ... To make them human beings, to bring them closer to those who suffer, midwives and beheaded men, cripples and avaricious men, the inner circles of churches and those outside the churches, to make them human, the sculptors gave them the most gruesome wounds, and all this ended up as the religion of suffering, as sin and you'll suffer, don't sin and you'll suffer, live and you'll suffer, leaving you no possible way out ... Not here, here the stone found peace ... The sculptors rebelled against the canons of pain, and these colossal Buddhas, with the feet of giant gods, have a smile on their stone faces that is beatifically human, without all that pain ... And they give off an odor, not of a dead room, not of sacristies and cobwebs, but an odor of vegetable space, of sudden gusts of wind swooping down in wild swirls of feathers, leaves, pollen from the infinite forest ...."

I think that one of the reasons why Christianity has been in decline for more than a hundred years is precisely because the amount of pleasure that people are getting out of life has increased considerably. The Church's message of suffering has grown steadily meaningless as the materialist approach to life has been embraced by world populations. Figures like Teresa have become not just less meaningful to people but more distasteful. It's what Orwell rejected in his portrait of Gandhi: 

"One should, I think, realize that Gandhi's teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from ... Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others ... The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that 'non-attachment' is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is 'higher'. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all 'radicals' and 'progressives', from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man."

Mother Teresa - the tiny, ugly woman whose image was always superimposed on the people, the poor, for whom she ostensibly devoted her life - is now a saint. The Catholic Church was in something of a hurry to canonize her - a fact that aroused suspicion from some quarters. Why this great rush to sainthood, since the Church, which has been around for awhile, has always insisted on taking the long view? It gives me the impression that, as its congregation is dwindling, at least in the developed world, the Church's actions reveal a certain sense of urgency.  

Monday, September 5, 2016

Enop op Erap*

Looking at the last fifty years of the history of the Philippines, I think it must be very difficult for Filipinos to avoid being conservative, since the days before the election of Ferdinand Marcos as president in 1965 look like a lost Golden Age. It was a time when one Philippine peso was equal to one dollar. It was a time when the population of the small country (with a total land area the size of New Mexico) was half what it is today. It was a time of surprising prosperity for what was then known as a Third World Country.

Even if progress is defined as two steps up, one step back, for the Philippines every step forward seems to be nullified by another backward. Since the Marcos presidency degenerated into dictatorship in the '70s, the Philippines has always seemed to teeter between genuine democracy and authoritarianism.

Provincial politics in the Philippines has always been about one province being ruled by one family. Challenges to the ruling family were usually met with violence. And since all of it has gone on far from the center of power in Manila and far from the eyes of the press and the world, no one really cared.

The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was previously the mayor of a sprawling city on the southern coast of the southernmost island of Mindinao. He ruled the town like Judge Roy Bean ruled Texas west of the Pecos. There was a smoking ban. A fireworks ban. And a ban on illegal drugs so absolute that organized death squads were reportedly patrolling the city's streets. But because Davao is very far from Manila, no one bothered to do anything about Duterte's reign of terror on his town.

President Duterte has been in office just shy of two months and has already turned this small, poor nation on its ear. This is just about what he promised he would do when he campaigned for the job - what his supporters hoped he would do and everyone else doubted or feared. He is seventy-one years old and walks with a shambling, unsteady gait. Whether he survives his six-year term, given the high mortality rate of Filipino men his age (and younger) may or may not surprise anyone. What will become of the country when he has finished his "mission" is in even greater doubt. With the number of "extra-judicial killings" (a Filipino-coined term for summary citizen executions) approaching two thousand and the already shaky economy showing signs of unease, the next several months will certainly be a very bumpy road to the "drug-free" Philippines that Duterte has promised to deliver by Christmas.

Duterte stated recently that of all the Philippine presidents since independence first from Spanish colonial rule and then American territorial administration, Ferdinand Marcos, according to his way of thinking, was the best. However much such a bold claim might shock and dismay most foreign onlookers, it makes perfect sense if you recall that Marcos was the first so-called Man of the People to be elected Philippine president. Winning the election last May by a near-landslide, Duterte is decidedly in the Marcos tradition, defying the privileged class of oligarchs who have ruled these islands so selfishly.

It was those oligarchs who were restored to power when Marcos was succeeded by Corazon Aquino, wife of the murdered Benigno Aquino, Jr. (murdered by Marcos), and daughter of the wealthy and powerful Cojuanco family. Aquino was followed in 1992 by former general Fidel Ramos, whose term was, if nothing else, without incident. Then came the election of Joseph Estrada, a Philippine movie star, in 1998. The facts of his abortive term as president are now shrouded in a cloud of legal silence. No one now speaks about what happened just two years into his term since, by the rules, they can't. Philippine history books will always have to gloss over the years 2000-2001, despite the historical facts that a Second People Power bloodless coup swept Estrada out of power and inserted a tiny woman, his vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in his place.

Joseph Ejercito Estrada, affectionately known as "Erap" ("Pare" - or "father" spelled backwards) to his devoted fans, was the surprising victor of the 1998 presidential election. In his action films he played heavies, when he was the villain, and a tough but suave "babaero" (ladies man) when he was the hero. In real life he was married but enjoyed the company of mistresses, as is customary in this macho country. When he announced his candidacy, the Roman Catholic church would not endorse him because he had four children by women other than his wife. He also enjoyed gambling, but wasn't very lucky, as his debts would later prove. He had an obsession wih a popular but illegal game called "jueteng," which still goes on despite its prohibition.

Two years after assuming office, reports began to surface indicating an enormous surge, around 1000%, in Estrada's personal assets.(1) People close to him were talking about the many houses that had been built around Manila - at public expense - for Estrada's many mistresses. When the Philippine Supreme Court finally discovered there was actual fire where before there was only smoke, and the value of the peso against the U.S. dollar sank to a record low, a motion to impeach Estrada gathered momentum.

When the Supreme Court declared itself "hung," failing to produce the proper majority to impeach Estrada, protestors in great numbers took to the streets and demanded Estrada's removal from office. Only when the Philippine Army changed their allegiance to the side of the protestors was Estrada convinced it was time to step down. While he never actually resigned, he quietly ceded his title to his vice-president.

A trial was begun, charging Estrada with perjury (lying about his total assets) and the curious crime of "plunder" (of which, heretofore, only 18th Century pirates were guilty). When the trial got underway, the death penalty in the Philippines was the penalty for several capitol offenses, one of which was plunder. Signalling that some behind-the-scenes deals had been made, one of the new President Arroyo's first actions upon taking office was to repeal the country's death penalty. This made it possible, it seems obvious to me, for the Philippine Congress to find Estrada guilty as charged. After serving six years under house arrest in one of his palatial vacation homes, President Arroyo then did what no one really expected, except for the most cynical observers: she granted Estrada an Executive Pardon.

What exactly does such a pardon signify? It means that the crimes Estrada was conviction of committing, the amassing of stolen wealth, never happened. It meant that Estrada was not only a free man again, but that every one of his rights as a citizen were restored to him - including the right to run for public office.(2) Since a Philippine president is only allowed to serve one six-year term, and because his term was mysteriously interrupted, Estrada entered his name once again in the presidential race of 2010. He came in 3rd. But he ran for the office of Mayor of Manila in 2013 - and won. How frustrating it must have been to run against him without being legally able to mention the facts of his impeachment, his departure from office, and his conviction for plunder, an offense once punishable by death.

Two steps up. Two steps back.

*"Enop op Erap" was scrawled on a protestor's placard in 2001. "Enough of Erap".

(1) According to the 2004 Global Transparency Report, Estrada is ranked 10th on the list of the world's most corrupt leaders, having embezzled between $78M to $80M - and in only two years. Ferdinand Marcos is ranked 2nd on the list, and is credited with stealing five to ten billion dollars in his twenty-one years in office.
(2) Even if he tacitly promised on his release not to run for public office again.