Thursday, January 28, 2016

Two Cheers for Equality

Just when I was about to sink my teeth into the BBC's "100 Greatest British novels," I came across another, far more dubious list - "A Year With Women: 103 Essential Films By Female Filmmakers" published last August. In principle, I am all for women directing films. If they can manage to make films that are at least as good as the vast majority of films directed by men, that would certainly not be saying very much at all for "female filmmakers." Judging by the 103 films on this list compiled by the eponymous "cinemafanatic," a self-styled "cinephile to the max," women are more than capable of making films at least as bad as men.

While I will admit to seeing roughly half of the 103 films on the list, the admission doesn't give me much satisfaction. Wading through this field of weeds, I found a few actual flowers amongst them, like The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola), Vagabond (Agnes Varda), Away from Her (Sarah Polley), Frida (Julie Taymor), and The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko). As for the rest, does it matter that films as bad as Ishtar, The Night Porter, The Piano, You've Got Mail, and Wayne's World were directed by a man, a woman, or a moviola?

Last December 7, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari presented the results of a poll of 82 book critics that listed the 100 greatest British novels ever written. Here is the Top 25:

1. Middlemarch (George Eliot)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley)
10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)
14. Clarissa (Charlotte Bronte))
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf)
17. Howards End (E. M. Forster)
18. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
19. Emma (Jane Austen)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)
24. The Golden Notebooks (Doris Lessing)
25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)

The first noticeable problem with the BBC list is the insistence on ranking, which is an utterly philistine practice. The second problem is that three people were responsible for nine out of the twenty-five novels. Last summer I commented on another literature poll, the 100 Best Novels Written in English, sponsored by, that was conducted by one person, Robert McCrum, instead of a consortium. I expressed enough distaste for McCrum's list, and the general stupidity of such lists, but compared to the BBC's list, McCrum's now looks far more impressive and authoritative. McCrum refused to rank his 100 choices, presenting them - beginning with Pilgrim's Progress - in chronological order, and he limited each author to a single book, which now seems remarkably fair. If Jane Ciabattari had employed the rule, six of the titles on the list - Mrs. Dalloway, Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Waves, Emma, and Persuasion - would have to be replaced by others. The results would have been more challenging and less objectionable.

One more obvious problem is the definition of "British," which is not as narrow as the poll's guidelines pretend. If Heart of Darkness, The Good Soldier, and The Remains of the Day, novels written by men born - respectively - in Poland, Germany, and Japan, are British, what is Ulysses, especially since Ireland was British until 1946?

I won't bother you with the first 25 of the 103 Essential Films By Female Filmmakers, since you and me and everyone we know have never seen many of them. I've only seen half of them and, according to some websites, I am what is known as a "film scholar." Prominent among the 103 are the names of the better-known women directors like Elaine May, Agnes Varda, and Sofia Coppola. Just about every one of Coppola's films is on the list, which is a good indication of the sad dearth of women directors.

On the occasion of Kathryn Bigelow's win as Best Director at the Academy Awards a few years ago, I wrote a post for this blog devoted to the woman whom I still regard as the finest woman director to date - Lina Wertmuller. Even if they hated Wertmuller, it would be impossible for film critics to disregard the accomplishments of Wertmuller. After all, they included Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which is, however skillfully made, a loathsome film. While Wertmuller's politics are far to the Left of Riefenstahl's, I think that the reason she is now ignored has alot more to do with her treatment of women, which orthodox feminists long ago dismissed as reinforcing stereotypes.

In the "comments" section of the 103 Essential Films, someone pinted out Wertmuller's conspicuous absence from the list: "This is a great list, but really, no Lina Wertmueller? I realize it is hard for Americans to get a foreign vibe, but this woman is a genius and worth taking a look."

The comment moved "cinemafanatic" to respond - lamely: "I think the availability (aka lack thereof) of her work in the US on DVD/Blu has really lessened her impact on younger generations. It's a shame her films are [not] more accessible." Baloney. What about Chantal Akerman, Maya Deren, and Celine Sciamma, whose films are at least as hard to find as Wertmuller's?

I think Wertmuller is neglected because her films concentrate on often unsympathetic male characters and the women who are drawn to them. And because of Wertmuller's refusal to approve of their actions. The hero of Seven Beauties is a former pimp who survives a German concentration camp by summoning the strength to copulate (there is no better word for it) with the obese female camp commandant. The hero of Swept Away is a stupid Neapolitan deck hand whose superior strength and skill allows him to dominate a particularly useless rich woman with whom he is stranded alone on an island. The hero of Love and Anarchy is a foolish, spotty-faced provincial whose sole chance at being an anarchist hero is through an absurd and hare-brained plot to assassinate Mussolini. Because Wertmuller has a jaundiced view of human beings, men and women, her complex, powerful films are difficult for critics to pigeonhole. Her star rose and set in a painfully short arc in the mid-70s. No sooner had we been surprised by the appearance of The Seduction of Mimi in 1976 than we were disappointed by the big-budget, all-star Blood Feud in 1980. Until the invention of video, films were permitted very brief shelf-lives. If no one recalls Lina Wertmuller's films, it's the fault of film critics, not audiences.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Date Due

I do not know, and I have never claimed to know, anything about being an editor of creative or scholarly writing, but I think that uttering the word "plagiarism" in the precincts of a book or magazine (or ezine) publishing office must be like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.

Bored last week (the week between Christmas and New Year's, the quietest week of the year), I went on a Google search for my favorite plagiarist, Bert Cardullo. On page 2 I found something about a newly published book of his whose title made me nearly choke on my leftover eggnog. The link led me to the website of a small literary press - whose name I withhold out of what is probably misplaced fairness - where I found the book, Persistence of Vision: The 21st-Century Film Criticism of Stanley Kauffmann, edited by Cardullo, published last January. Accompanying a description of the book's contents was a blurb from Gary Bettison from a review of the book published at Senses of Cinema.

The article was like a perfect storm for me - a combination of benign climatic conditions that produce a destructive gale. The article combined the work of Stanley Kauffmann, the man who was for decades the doyen of American film criticism, with Cardullo, who is becoming a by-word for literary thievery, with Senses of Cinema, the very website at which I published in 2007 the first public notice of Cardullo's plagiarism.  

In the interests of the truth, that most elusive of chimeras, I contacted the director publishing house, expressing my outrage that Cardullo should bestow on himself the honor of editing the work of a man from whom he stole on repeated occasions. The director (who shall remain shameless) responded by saying that she doesn't plan on publishing a new book with Cardullo, but that I shouldn't make such formal accusations of plagiarism to a publisher "without solid proof." We went back and forth more than a dozen times about my proof before I realized that I was whipping a dead horse.

Her replies to my insistence that she had published the work of a well-known plagiarist were disingenuous, I think, of even a "small press" (her words) publisher. Evidently bothered by my use of the words "make money," the publisher defended herself by informing me that the pittance that such "academic books" earn is scant justification for plagiarism. Then she asked me if I had contacted Yale University Press and all the other publishers Cardullo has taken advantage of.

I explained that publications prior to the exposure of Cardullo's plagiarism were outside my reach, but that I regard it as open season for publications of books made since his exposure. I told her that "there is little I can do about the publishers over whose eyes Cardullo has already pulled the wool, so to speak."

Then she told me a little about her job as an editor and that there has to be "solid proof" of plagiarism "in the specific book" already published before they can withdraw the book from print. So even if someone proves that an author has committed plagiarism before, it doesn't disqualify all of his books from consideration for publication. I asked her, if she owned a gallery and someone had informed her that a painting on her wall was the work of a known forger, would she leave it hanging there? To this she wrote, "If I spent an enormous amount of time designing the frame and room etc. for a work by somebody that might have forged other works of art and after I hanged them up somebody said he might have forged stuff before and I hadn't made money for all my work - I'd do what I'm doing now and that's not get any more works from the artist but also not throw away all my work. My design etc. isn't a forgery and you should have some respect for a publisher's work."

So, to paraphrase, I shouldn't interfere with her work with such trivial information about the questionable integrity of an author's work that she has published and I should mind my own business. And to top everything off, she told me that only an author who is a victim of Cardullo's plagiarism has a legitimate grievance. If I spend $700 for an Apple i-phone, only to discover that it isn't a genuine i-phone but a cheap Chinese knock-off, it's only Apple that has a reason to complain?

My business, she then brought to my attention, was akin to an "obsession" with Bert Cardullo, that I was "on a mission" to destroy the man's career and that I might consider seeking therapy. In my last (I promise) email to her, I told her that, given the negligible results of my efforts to inform both publishers and the public of Cardullo's crimes, I wished I had left the Cardullo book I found so many years ago on the shelf at the Anchorage Public Library where I found it. Without realizing it, I was echoing that marvelous thown-away line spoken by Claude Rains near the end of Lawrence of Arabia. Playing the role of Mr. Dryden, he is asked what he thinks about the end of the war in the desert in which Lawrence had played such an important but thankless part. With classic airy resignation, Rains says, "Well, on the whole, I wish I'd stayed in Tunbridge Wells."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Penalty Box

"I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out."
(Rodney Dangerfield)

It is easily the most thankless task for an expatriate to have to explain to uncomprehending foreigners the behavior of some of his more exceptional countrymen. Not to come across as disloyal, yet doing his best not to misrepresent or excuse them, it too often becomes necessary for him to be dismissive or to downplay what is clearly objectionable or, in the eyes of a foreigner, intolerable.

I watched President Obama's "Town Hall Meeting," which aired on CNN on January 7 - except I watched in on Friday morning here in the East Asia. It reminded me, as all such cozying up to Americans in their living rooms by sitting presidents does, of FDR's "Fireside Chats," broadcast on American radio in the 1930s. Quite skilfully, Roosevelt tried to explain to Americans some of the extraordinary reforms that were being implemented that were intended to alleviate the hardships of the Great Depression.

Similarly, Barack Obama was attempting to calm some of the fears of Second Amendment proponents, who regard his executive actions on incremental gun control as direct assaults on their Constitutional right. I found the program impossible to watch, since I am extremely skeptical of the president's ability to change anyone's mind that he isn't trying to take away their guns or that he is not in favor of further tyrannical encroachments on their liberties.

I am in the habit of drinking my morning coffee(s) while catching up on whatever news events transpired overnight, and for the past few years I have watched events unfold in the States from what has become an increasingly uncomfortable distance. My Filipino housemates have by now grown inured to my exclamations of outrage at the announcement of sometimes heartbreaking "breaking news." They have routinely heard me, just moments after turning the television on, saying "holy shit!" or "Jesus Christ!" at yet another mass shooting, and have learned to gauge the extremity of the event when they hear the words, usually uttered gravely, "oh my god!"

Now that the shootings have become a terrible routine in America, attempts by my foreign friends to get some sastisfactory explanation for them out of me have waned as they saw how incapable I was of ever being able to do so. Nevertheless, I've tried to frame for them the kind of explanation that is somehow analogous to other comparable outrages.

I remember when, in 1990, I watched Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait and, as armies of a coalition opposing that invasion readied themselves to push him out of Kuwait, he threatened to use the foreigners stranded in Baghdad - mostly diplomats and reporters - as "human shields" when the imminent "Desert Storm" was unleashed. There was a terrible moment when, in front of television cameras, Saddam brought out an American family and tried as gently as he was capable to embrace a boy who was perhaps ten. The boy was obviously terrified of Saddam. When I first saw the video, it was on NBC's Today Show. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, was on the show and he was asked how he would explain that video to children. He surprised me, and took my breath away, when Rogers said simply, "I would tell the child that we do things differently here."

We do things differently in America. That's how I try to explain to my foreign friends why some Americans cling so tenaciously - and childishly - to a completely outdated amendment to their constitution. But when I'm in a generous mood I try to explain the actions of my countrymen like this -

In 1998-99 when the NBA Player's Association failed to reach an agreement with the team owners, there was a lock-out that drove many fans to despair and some others away from the sport in disgust. With no basketball games to be aired during prime time, the TV networks and cable sports channels looked around for a suitable alternative to basketball. The only other professional league sport that was available during that time of year (October to May) that was relatively familiar to American sports fans was the National Hockey League.

So the networks and sports channels aired professional hockey games for a few weeks, hoping that basketball fans would take to them. Hockey is the national sport in Canada, and there have been teams in American cities like Boston, New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh for decades. The popularity that hockey has enjoyed in the States, however, never presented the NBA or the NFL with serious competition.

When the initial reactions of fans to the introduction of hockey to prime time telecasts came in, it became clear that professional hockey simply wasn't ready for prime time. So television producers approached NHL owners and coaches and presented them with a suggestion: if they could somehow try to control or eliminate what they called the "Gonzo element" of pro hockey - i.e., the violence - they could attract (at least as long as the NBA lock-out lasted) a much broader audience.

The NHL owners and coaches politely considered the suggestion. Then they politely informed the TV producers that if they did anything to control the violence in hockey, they would drive away their diehard fans, the ones for whom the Gonzo element is what is most distinctive and vital about the sport.

America, I tell my foreign friends, wouldn't be the same country, for the better or the worse, without its Gonzo element.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Mutatis Mutandis

For my first post of the new year, I wanted to do more than make a fresh start. Going through some old emails recently that I'd saved to a gmail account back in 2005, I came across the following email that I sent to a friend nineteen years ago. I had been in touch with a mutual friend who gave my email address to him. He asked in his subject line, "Are you the Dan I used to know?" 

Subj: The Dan you used to know?
Date: 96-12-09 19:01:14 EST 
From: Asiahand 
To: J*********

I read your message the very day, in fact just two hours after, you sent it. This long it's taken me to frame a reply. What follows is everything I am prepared to divulge for now regarding your friend Dan Harper, who sometimes mentioned your name to me during my brief acquaintance with him. I last saw Dan Harper on May 31st 1995. My first meeting with him occurred just two months prior when I happened to attend his wedding in Balibago in the Philippines. He had arrived in the Philippines earlier in March after his detachment from the Navy in Okinawa. He had managed to separate overseas rather than return to the States, which he frequently assured me was unthinkable. I was one of only two other Americans at the wedding, which is probably why we wound up getting acquainted.

I had been living in Balibago with a girlfriend for more than a year, overstaying my visa by several months. This would eventually have resulted in an expensive fine and maybe a stay in jail if I ever decided to leave the country. I was totally broke, living off the generosity of my girlfriend,her family, and a handful of fellow expatriates - Australians - for whom I performed occasional business transactions which I won't specify here.

My prospects of ever leaving the country were remote, until I met Dan. He was "disaffected," to use his own word, with the States, and wished to remain in the Philippines for as long as he possibly could. He had some cash, but it was dwindling rather quickly what with the expense of his wedding and reception (food and drink for 100+, his wife's gown, etc.) and his wife's extravagances. He felt quite swept away by the whole experience.

We became drinking buddies as the weeks went by and his 90-day visa slowly elapsed. His wife wanted him to return to the States and apply for her own immigrant visa (every Filipinos' dream). Dan tried repeatedly to persuade her to let him stay and support himself on the GI Bill benefits he could draw by attending the local university in Angeles City. I knew many ex-servicemen who were doing this - $400 a month is a king's ransom in parts of the Philippines. But she stonewalled.

After another month of this, we came up with a plan to save both our skins. Dan and I were sitting in a bar called Margaritaville on Fields Avenue (sorry, but the details are significant) along what used to be the perimeter of Clark Air Force Base, abandoned since the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in '91. We had played a little pool and were just wasting the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the bar, sipping San Miguels and watching the traffic on Fields pick up as evening fell. This was a full-time activity for alot of expats.

Dan was staring at the barmaid when he started telling me how there was nothing more in the world he wanted right then than to climb aboard a banana boat and head south somewhere, to "disappear." He looked at me and I knew he wasn't joking. He pulled a scrap of paper out of his wallet and handed it to me. I unfolded it and found a handwriiten poem - "The Voyage to Secrecy" it was called. It had something to do with wanting to go to a place where you could never be found again. I asked Dan if he'd written it, but he said he only wished he had.

We spent the evening coming up with a plan: he and I would switch identities - he assuming my dead-end life in the Philippines, and I going back to the States. Though we were far from look-alikes, there was never any question of taking over each other's lives. Once the switch was made, he would cut all ties with whomever he and I knew in Balibago and "head south," just as he said. I would simply use his passport to get home on the cheapest flight available.

His wife wasn't to know, but I was to proceed with her immigrant visa anyway and get her to the States. She arrived here in Colorado last June 20th. She was surprised to see me and thought it was all a joke for the first few weeks. Now she doesn't seem to mind, and we've grown rather close. Filipinas are nothing if not practical.

The last time I saw Dan was the night of May 31st, as I said before. He had arranged a bus ticket to Manila for me and enough cash to get me to the airport, that's all. I made arrangements for my sister to collect me once I arrived Stateside. All he had was a rucksack with clothes and a few books - everything he figured he needed in his new life. He asked me if I wanted his dress blue Navy uniform, but I declined. I'll never forget his last words just before I boarded the Philippine Rabbit bus: just a simple "goodbye and good luck."

He smiled and walked off toward MacArthur Highway. I never saw or heard from him him again - unless it was a postcard I got on what was his 38th birthday last May. On the card was a typical tourist photo of a pretty young Filipina in native dress. The postmark was from Jolo on the island of Sulu way down where the Philippines meets Borneo. The message was a line from the Old testament: "And the Pharoah said unto Joseph: forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this..." Nothing else. It wasn't signed.

I know this must sound more than a little daft. I figure Dan would've wanted you to know the whole story. I still don't know if you're quite prepared to believe it. I'm alive and I'm here in the States thanks to Dan and I'm telling you now: Believe it!


What my friend couldn't have known was exactly how much I wanted this fantasy to be true. I was out of the Navy, living with my sister in Aurora, Colorado, and my wife, who had arrived from the Philippines in June, was living with me. From the day of my departure from the Philippines after I married her until her arrival in the States with a visa it had taken 385 days, due to two government shut-downs and my wife's indecision about abandoning everything she had known to come and live with a man she barely knew. Then there was the strain of three people living under the same roof of a small two bedroom apartment. I was working a dead-end job, facing the realization that I had committed to myself to a life I didn't want.

Four months after I sent this email I joined the Army. Clearly, I was looking for a way to regain what I had lost in the Navy, which was, believe it or not, a sense of freedom and a position of strength from which I could get a better look at my life. After six months of training, the Army sent me to Korea, unaccompanied. It was this second separation that broke what was left of my marriage.

I got out of the Army in 2000 and got out of my marriage in '01. Not knowing exactly what to do with my life, I drifted for the next five years until I hit on the idea of going back to the Philippines. After everything that had happened to me, there was still, it seemed to me, this parallel life of mine going on somewhere in the Philippines. I had found happiness there and expected (foolishly) to find it again. I went back in November 2007. In early 2008, I boarded a bus instead of a banana boat and went south. I didn't go as far as Sulu, "way down where the Philippines meets Borneo," but I came far enough to find myself, still there - here - after almost eight years, effectively lost.  The poem I used to carry in my wallet, written by Norman Cameron, asked the question, "How many days the voyage to secrecy?" The speaker of the poem wanted nothing more than to get lost. I accomplished it. But now I want to be found again.

I have led a hazardous life these eight years. I have lost nearly everything, and, in so doing, I have discovered precisely how much I possessed in my life in the States. What seemed directionless then seems amazingly purposeful to me now. And now I want it back. Before I can make a fresh start, I have to stop.