Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Martin's Lists

What is the role of the critic? This is a question that demands an answer today more than ever before. The vast majority of readers, concert-, theater- and movie-goers couldn't care less, since they obviously have no use for criticism. Their likes and dislikes are matters of entirely personal importance. They're never exactly sure why, but they certainly don't want a professional type like a critic explaining to them why they're right or wrong. Since they lead unexamined lives, why should they bother to examine their tastes?

But a few people, including artists, actually pay attention to what critics say, whether they put it into practical application or not. Last week I singled out one artist who thought so much of a critic's remarks about his latest work that he took the time not only to comment on them but to rebut them in a rather passionate essay of his own. Such a reaction from an artist to address his critics personally is always unwise. The reasons are quite straightforward, as I will try to explain.

Everyone should know by now that, aside from being one of the two or three best American filmmakers of the past 50 years, Martin Scorsese is also an avid student of film whose knowledge of the medium rivals that of any film scholar. He has been directly involved in various film restoration projects and is a tireless advocate of film preservation. 

For the past five years Scorsese has been a quite vocal critic of the current state of the motion picture medium, of the manner with which his own films, as well as the films of the past, are being mistreated and trivialized by a critical establishment that only seems to care about blockbusters and box office returns. Scorsese, who turns 75 in November, clearly loves the best that film has to offer, even if his career has had its share of commercial work.

In 2012, Scorsese was asked by the British Film Institute through its venerable film magazine Sight & Sound to participate in a poll by contributing a list of what he considered to be the Top Ten Films Of All Time. Scorsese was among hundreds of film directors to submit a list and the results of the poll were published as an adjunct to another poll compiled from lists submitted by hundreds of contemporary film critics. 

There has been a critics' poll every ten years since 1952 and a directors' poll since 1962. The first poll I became acquainted with was the 1972 poll. The results of the seventh and latest poll were published in 2012. I had my say about the polls in my blog pieces "Sight Unsound" in 2008 and "Poll Position" in 2012. I'm not altogether sure why the poll is conducted once a decade, but the results don't hold out much hope for the future of the medium since, as I've pointed out, the newest film on the list was made in 1968. I can't blame the majority of film critics who submitted their choices for having conservative, "safe" standards, but film art appears to be increasingly a thing of the past.

It's the critics' poll that gets all the publicity, with the directors' poll appearing as a kind of dutiful afterthought, leaving some readers wondering which one is more authoritative. Obviously, the fact that the polls are so different should signify something? For instance, why is La Régle du Jeu ranked the 4th greatest film on the critics' poll but tied for 22nd on the directors' poll? Why is Scorsese's own Taxi Driver ranked #5 on the directors' poll and #31 on the critics' poll? The biggest lapse is Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, #11 for the critics, but tied with fifteen other films (including There Will Be Blood, The Shining, and Jaws!) for #75 for the directors (this is especially unforgivable coming from a group of so-called filmmakers). The Directors' Poll is a Tale of the Ties: 7 films are tied for #30, 7 tied for #37, 11 tied for #48, and 16 films tied for #75 as well as #91.  

Since 2012, Martin Scorsese has been in a list-making mood of his own. After publishing the essay, "The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema" in The New York Review in 2013, Scorsese published a list of his twelve favorite films on the Miramax website, "The 85 Films You Need to See to Know Anything About Film" in Fastcompany Magazine, and, in response to a request from a film student, "39 Essential Foreign Films."

Though there is some unavoidable overlap in these three lists, they each seem shaped to a quite different purpose. Of the films on Scorsese's "85 films" list, which are, we are told, the "films that most influenced" him, only 13 are foreign films, and they're all directed by either Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti. It's an odd, idiosyncratic list, dominated by B-movie film noir like Gun Crazy and T Men, films by Robert Altman, Vincente Minelli and his contemporary Francis Ford Copolla.  

While the list made it clear that Scorsese was never much influenced by foriegn films (with the exception of Rossellini), he responded to a letter from a young filmmaker named Colin Levy with a list of "39 Essential Foreign Films" that partially compensates for the lacunaes in the 85 Films list. Scorsese's "85 Films" list is a revealing glimpse not just into the origins of his taste in films but how it shaped his choices in subject matter. It is a far better tool for understanding his approach to filmmaking than a critical guide. The same can be said for Sight & Sound's Directors' Poll. It provides us with the background from which contemporary film emerged. It tells us what films inspired a generation of directors, while making us wonder where the new Ozu, the new Welles, or the new Fellini may be hiding.

Some observers, including the directors themselves, believe that the Directors' Poll is more authoritative, since it is an insider's view. But what qualifies Scorsese to be an artist disqualifies him from being an effective critic. In his essay, "The Persisting Vision," Scorsese paints an illuminating picture of the time when he caught the film "disease":

My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.

And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives.

And that’s actually part of the wonder. Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as “fantasy” and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.

Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother.

Whenever I'm asked to provide a film ezine with a list of the top films of the past year, of the decade, of the 21st Century or whatever, I always decline. I'm simply not in the position to have access to the dozens of films worth viewing every year. The best I could manage would be a list of favorites. This is in no way a capitulation - allowing pleasure precedence over principle. 

George Orwell touched on the problem in his essay on Jonathan Swift, "Politics vs. Literature":

If one is capable of intellectual detachment, one can perceive merit in a writer whom one deeply disagrees with, but enjoyment is a different matter. Supposing that there is such a thing as good or bad art, then the goodness or badness must reside in the work of art itself - not independently of the observer, indeed, but independently of the mood of the observer. In one sense, therefore, it cannot be true that a poem is good on Monday and bad on Tuesday. But if one judges the poem by the appreciation it arouses, then it can certainly be true, because appreciation, or enjoyment, is a subjective condition which cannot be commanded.

This is precisely the problem with so much of what passes for criticism today. Many critics - certainly many of those consulted for the Sight & Sound Critics Poll - are closer to what I have called fans - unable to distinguish between what they like and what they know (or perhaps don't know) is good. No one would argue with the notion that every critical judgement starts out as a subjective emotional response. But even subjectivities can sometimes agree. This is how we have managed to arrive at the general consensus that Shakespeare is the greatest poet in English, that Rembrandt is a great painter, and that Schubert is a great composer. These agreements may only be starting points for a critic, but they are the foundation of critical thought - appealing to objective aesthetic standards. 

It's fine for a filmmaker of Scorsese's stature to write about how pleasure is his guide, but it's a disaster for a critic. It's the only way I can account for the steady rise of Hitchock's Vertigo to the #1 slot on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Or 2001: A Space Odyssey at #6, or The Searchers at #7.    

Spinoza wrote (italics mine): "Love is the feeling of pleasure accompanied by our knowledge of its cause." Who knew that love and criticism were synonymous? If only the critics who voted for Vertigo in the 2012 poll investigated the cause of the pleasure that the film gave them, they would've realized it was nothing but a boyhood crush and not true love. In one of his last statements on the subject of film criticism, a profession he helped to make respectable in the 1960s, John Simon wrote, "Reviewing has become largely simplistic consumer guidance, with the broader, more speculative view rarely in evidence and decreasingly in demand." 

The Sight & Sound Directors' Poll provides a unique window into what inspires current cinema. Whether they manage to measure up to it or not, the poll represents to directors an ideal cinema. The trend for the Critics' Poll is clearly away from an acceptance of principle - that, far from all of our pleasure-seeking, some films will endure as examples of film art, whether anyone still likes it or not. Who knows but that Citizen Kane, which is, to so many of the younger critics, a very old and complicated movie, may disappear from the precincts of the Top Ten, to be replaced by who knows what aberration?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Suffering in 'Silence'

In keeping with one of American cinema's oldest traditions, Martin Scorsese is responsible for some of the bloodiest films ever made. Unlike the blood spilt in the films of his contemporaries, like Coppola and De Palma, it isn't Kensington Gore - the trademark artificial blood that most closely resembles, in Technicolor, the real thing. In many, if not most, of Scorsese's films, blood is in abundant evidence, flowing stanchlessly from wounds either sustained or inflicted by his protagonists.

For at least the past thirty years, Scorsese has also informed us, through his choice of subject matter, that he is a devout Catholic. He turned Nikos Kazantzakis' guilt-streaked novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, into a vividly re-imagined, intensely personal film. Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul showed off Scorsese's down-to-earth casting choices and his efforts to bring the story home to his viewers. But Scorsese took some hits from the Roman Catholic establishment, including the Church's official banning of the film - which merely demonstrated that they never even bothered to watch it. Throughout a long career that includes much commercial work, work intended to appease producers who would not otherwise let him realize his most personal projects, a few of Scorsese's films have become monuments to his tenacity and to his integrity - ungainly, difficult projects practically guaranteed to lose money.

Scorsese has found it necessary, every decade or so, to scratch an old itch, to give in to his need to concentrate on subjects touching on America's rich culture, either the written (The Age of Innocence) or unwritten (Gangs of New York) or on matters of his Christian faith. His latest film, Silence, is the finished product of a thirty year fixation to realize his vision of 17th-century Japan after the Tokugawa Shogunate outlawed Christianity. In the story movingly told by Shusaku Endo (published in English translation in 1969), only certain individuals - captured Catholic priests - are spared immolation or crucifixion by being offered the choice of apostasy - renouncing their faith through some ritual like stamping on a sacred image of Christ and by abandoning celibacy by marrying a Japanese woman.

In his Times Literary Supplement piece, "Standing Up for Cinema," that I quoted from in my last post, Scorsese singled out two statements made by Adam Mars-Jones, the TLS film critic, in his review of Silence. I have since had a chance to read the review and it's clear to me that Scorsese misinterpreted and misrepresented Mars-Jones remarks.

Scorsese writes: "Near the end of his review, Mr Mars-Jones contends that 'even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration', and that the 'transposition' from novel to film 'can only amount to a distortion'. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form."(1)

I don't know exactly why Scorsese found these remarks objectionable, since they are an accurate assessment of how we experience a novel and a film. Mars-Jones's use of the word "duration" is important, since a film, just like music or theater but unlike literature, exists in time. Once a public screening of a film has begun, it continues inexorably until it is finished. When we read a book, we can stop, bookmark the page, continue with our lives, and return to the book later, starting where we left off. It becomes interwoven, as it were, in the fabric of our lives so that it becomes a part of it. Whenever I think of a great novel that I read many years ago, the characters and the action in the novel seem to be inextricably mixed up with events in my life that occurred while I was reading it. In contrast, we interrupt our lives to watch a film and we give our full attention to whatever is unfolding on the screen. Unless we walk out on the film, we cannot look away without missing something. Almost like a roller-coaster ride, we are committed to seeing a film through to the end once it has begun.

As for calling a film adaptation of a novel a "distortion," I think Scorsese interpreted the word in an exclusively negative sense. Most critics would agree that every translation of a poem or a novel from one language to another is a distortion. "Poetry," wrote Robert Frost, "is that which gets lost in translation." A film translates the novelist's words into images, which is an even more precarious distortion. This doesn't mean that translating a poem or a novel into another language or another medium is necessarily a mistake. Some translations, like Gérard de Nerval's translation of Goethe's "Faust" and Baudelaire's translations of Poe, are prized as great works of literature in themselves.

Many years ago, theater and film critic John Simon came up with a rule of thumb about adapting a work of literature to film (I'm quoting from memory): if it's worth doing, it can't be done; if it can be done, it wasn't worth doing. This seems like a somewhat draconian rule, but the evidence suggests that it actually isn't far from the mark. While there are a handful of quality film adaptations of estimable literary works (I think of something like Josef Heifitz near-miraculous film version of Chekhov's short story "The Lady with the Little Dog"), the vast majority of successful adaptations have been of inferior literary works (Carol Reed made a brilliant film of Conrad's minor second novel, An Outcast of the Islands). But in his "thoughtful" - Scorsese's word - review of the film Silence, Adam Mars-Jones was making another point about the differences between a novel and a film. Restored to their context, his judgement makes perfect sense:

"Even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for its duration. The transposition of a novel like Endo’s Silence into film, however 'faithful', can only amount to a distortion, an exaggeration overall however many elements of the book are represented. In the same way, Jonathan Demme’s film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, though full of imagination and craft, was so crushingly sad as to be oppressive beyond the possibility of entertainment. In a book, too, reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down. It’s not that those images can’t be richly inhabited by an audience, but their predetermined progress in a darkened space imposes mood insistently. Martin Scorsese’s version of Silence can’t fairly be called a failure, more a success in a key close to desolation."(2)

The ultimate point that Mars-Jones was trying to make was specific to Silence, both the novel and the film, and not intended as general statements about film. He was pointing out the way that the novel handled the very dark material and how Scorsese (mis)handled it. According to Mars-Jones, Scorsese's film succeeds in transposing Shusaku Endo's bleak history of the suppression of Christianity in 17th-century Japan, but in doing so it is in its final moments relentlessly, unbearably terrible to watch.

I'm not sure that Endo intended his tale to be edifying, to offer the reader some catharsis, no matter how conditional. It is an historical novel, reminiscent of Graham Greene's great novel The Power and the Glory, about a demoralized "whisky priest" in post-revolutionary Mexico. Roman Catholic Greene was telling a story about spiritual redemption, under circumstances of abject suffering. After the practice of Christianity was outlawed in 17th-century Japan, Catholic priests were smuggled in, despite the risks, because it was concluded that to abandon their Christian converts without any recourse to the sacraments would condemn them, as a consequence of their conversion, to a worse fate than they would've endured had they never been converted at all. By the end of the story, all outward evidence of the Christian religion is eradicated. Converts unwilling to renounce their faith, even after being brutally tortured, are killed. The ones who are left are forced to commit some sacrilege or other to prove their apostasy. The priests' defeat is shown to be complete. For the following three hundred years, isolated pockets of Christian believers survived, concentrated on the southern Japanese island of Kagoshima where, ironically, the second atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S., a predominantly Christian country, on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

In his fidelity to Endo's novel, Mars-Jones argues, Scorsese failed to offer the relief, however incremental, that Endo's novel provides from the "desolation" with which the story ends. It is almost as if Scorsese, like another devout Catholic filmmaker - Mel Gibson - was intent on creating his own Passion, a somber and brutal reminder of the man who, so the story goes, sacrificed himself so that our sins would be forgiven. Endo's novel ends with Father Rodrigues, have renounced his faith by putting his foot on an icon of Jesus, given a Japanese name and a wife, searching for some meaning to his defeat:

"I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. 'Trample!' said those compassionate eyes. 'Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.'"(3)

According to Mars-Jones, Scorsese failed to properly estheticize the suffering depicted in Endo's novel - suffering that Endo presented without leaving the reader in a state of distress. Another novelist, Hungarian Imre Kertész, survivor of a Nazi Death Camp, addressed the problem of approaching a relentlessly somber subject:

"I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon's head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can't ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors."(4)

I can't say for certain if Scorsese actually intended the experience of watching his film to cause discomfort. Quite disingenuously, Mel Gibson defended the unrelenting cruelty he depicted in The Passion of the Christ by insisting he was merely telling the story as St. Matthew presented it in his Gospel. But shouldn't an artist, like Martin Scorsese, find a way to distance the viewer from such brutalities? Isn't that the function of art, to avoid graphic, documentary-like realism in the representation of human suffering, to depict violence without doing violence to the viewer? Given Scorsese's apparent penchant for violence, on the infliction of pain and the spilling of blood, despite the fact that Silence is clearly meant to be taken more seriously, I have my doubts.

(1) Martin Scorsese, "'Silence,'" Letters to the Editor, The Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 2017.
(2) Adam Mars-Jones, "Subtle Absolutisms," The Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 2017.
(3) Shusaku Endo, Silence, William Johnston, translator (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
(4) "The Art of Fiction No. 220," The Paris Review No. 205, Summer 2013, Luisa Zielinski, interviewer.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Stand Up Guy

In 1944 W. H  Auden wrote to the editors of the magazine The Nation praising the weekly column by James Agee, calling it "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today," and that he "looked forward all week to reading him again." Agee was the film critic for The Nation, and Auden praised the "astonishing excellence" of his writing, regardless of the fact that, he found it necessary to point out, it "transcends its ostensible subject." For him, the film medium was "rather unimportant."

Seventy years ago, such an opinion of film as Auden was showing off was unfortunately all too common among artists and intellectuals. No one today, or indeed for the past fifty years, would be so obtuse as to question the artistic legitimacy of the film medium. You can disparage the sorry condition of the medium or the concentration of its resources and popular attention on trash, but no one would dream of being as dismissive as Auden was in 1944.

Last January, in the (London) Times Literary Supplement, Adam Mars-Jones reviewed Martin Scorsese's latest film, Silence. Scorsese found the review significant enough to respond in a letter to the TLS editors:

"Sir, – I wanted to write a brief letter to address a couple of points raised in Adam Mars-Jones’s review of my film adaptation of Shùsaku Endò’s Silence (January 6)."

After correcting a few factual errors made by Mars-Jones, Scorsese gets to the point:

"Near the end of his review, Mr Mars-Jones contends that 'even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration', and that the 'transposition' from novel to film 'can only amount to a distortion'. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form.

New York 10019."(1)

The Times Literary Supplement, doubtless intent on attracting readers who weren't necessarily interested in purely literary matters, asked Scorsese if he might wish to expand on his short remark about "the cinema as an art form," and Scorsese complied with an essay remarkable both for its passion and its insight into the mechanical process behind a film's ability to implant ideas in the heads of viewers and the similarities, not the differences, between the reader of a book and the viewer of a film. 

In an essay titled "Standing Up for Cinema," the examples Scorsese chooses to illustrate his thesis may be questionable (The Shining?), but his points are made neatly and effectively. He quite rightly expresses his distaste for the singling out of single images from a film, like we do with melodies from a symphony or an operatic aria, because that image alone, isolated from the images that preceded it and that follow it, is a misleading indication of the film's ultimate meaning. He explains how the language of film works:

"One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone . . .  This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making."(2)

Scorsese quotes from the otherwise "thoughtful" review of Silence by Mars-Jones some points that I've heard before and that represent what a quite disingenuous novelist might think of a film:

"'In a book', writes Mr Mars-Jones, 'reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down.' I disagree. The greatest filmmakers, like the greatest novelists and poets, are trying to create a sense of communion with the viewer. They’re not trying to seduce them or overtake them, but, I think, to engage with them on as intimate a level as possible. The viewer also “collaborates” with the filmmaker, or the painter. No two viewings of Raphael’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints” will be the same: every new viewing will be different. The same is true of readings of The Divine Comedy or Middlemarch, or viewings of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or 2001: A Space Odyssey. We return at different moments in our lives and we see things differently."

Scorsese's valiant defense of his art is heartfelt. I'm not sure that Mars-Jones' views are accurately represented by Scorsese, but if they are, Mars-Jones is being just as obtuse as Auden was seventy years ago. Scorsese makes an admission that I find a little hard to believe:

"Over the years, I’ve grown used to seeing the cinema dismissed as an art form for a whole range of reasons: it’s tainted by commercial considerations; it can’t possibly be an art because there are too many people involved in its creation; it’s inferior to other art forms because it “leaves nothing to the imagination” and simply casts a temporary spell over the viewer (the same is never said of theatre or dance or opera, each of which require the viewer to experience the work within a given span of time). Oddly enough, I’ve found myself in many situations where these beliefs are taken for granted, and where it’s assumed that even I, in my heart of hearts, must agree."

Avoiding, for the moment, the thorny subject of literary adaptation to film, film as art has come to us in many forms and from many sources. To name the titles alone is as much a pleasure as it is an absolute refutation of every insinuation of the medium's ephemerality or its unimportance. Though repugnant, Auden's comments about film are somewhat defensible when they are seen from a historical perspective. I think that what Auden was trying to say makes perfect sense in the context of 1940s American cinema: that James Agee's writing was too often far superior to the films that inspired it. I have often noticed that America has been far luckier in the quality of its film critics than in the quality of its films. 

Martin Scorsese is, I think, in a unique position as an American filmmaker. Ever since the appearance of his first messy, edgy films (Mean Streets being the best example) he has struggled to achieve and to maintain his creative independence. His struggle involved some compromises. If you look at his filmography, these compromises stick out like the sore thumbs that they are (Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, Shutter Island, q.v.). And it became clear to critics whenever Scorsese made a film to satisfy producers, and when he followed it with a long-cherished project like The Last Temptation of ChristGangs of New York or, lately, Silence. Stanley Kauffmann wrote what I think is the most accurate portrayal of Scorsese in 2003: "Patently his films are the work of a man who lives in cinema as a bird lives in the sky. He has invested himself with the history of the art in a way that empowers him without making him an imitator."(3) But Kauffmann also believed that Scorsese's reach was a little in excess of his grasp. In more than forty years of filmmaking, he has failed to make the one film that one could accurately call a masterpiece. 

And there is the larger context of American film that probably accounts for Scorsese's experience of prejudice against film as an art form. The vast majority of examples of American film art that I can name with great pride also give me a proprietary feeling. This is because there simply aren't that many American films since The Birth of a Nation that I regard as works of art. Notably, Scorsese is a student of Andrew Sarris, who is largely responsible for the elevation of dozens of American films (and their heretofore nameless makers) to a status comparable to the best films from abroad. Thanks to Sarris (and Manny Farber), Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, and William Wellman became filmmakers - or auteurs - as great as Renoir and De Sica. When I read somewhere that filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was "the Japanese John Ford," I realized that Sarris's influence - however odious - had come full circle. It's no wonder to me that so many of the people involved in American film production reportedly have such a low opinion of the medium. If they had their way, it wouldn't have become an art at all.

Since Scorsese answered Sight & Sound's request to supply them with his list of Top Ten Films in 2012, he has gone on a listing spree. I will comment on the content of Scorsese's lists and about how they are contradictory of one another in my next post.

Stay tuned.

(1) "Silence," Letters to the Editor, Times Literary Supplement, March 17, 2017. 
(2) "Standing Up for Cinema," Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 2017. 
(3) "Meaner Streets," The New Republic, January 20, 2003.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dying is Easy

Reading Theodore Huff's monograph on Charlie Chaplin, the existence of which evidently depended greatly on Chaplin's approval of Huff's generous assessment of his work, you come across paragraphs like this one:

"A Woman of Paris is the straight dramatic picture which Chaplin directed but did not star in, is a milestone in the history of the screen and appears on almost every list of ten best pictures of all time. It did not matter to Chaplin that it was not a financial success. It fulfilled an old ambition and brought him further prestige. A Woman of Paris initiated a new school of film art — sophisticated, intimate drama — and exerted a great influence on motion-picture style in general."

Such a statement would almost make sense if it had been written in 1931, when "film art" was still a rather nebulous concept. But it was written in 1951. Huff later declares Chaplin's biggest misstep The Great Dictator a total success, and even quotes Chaplin's defense of the film (which he certainly regretted later on): "I had to do it. They had their laughs and it was fun, wasn't it? Now I wanted them to listen. . . . I did this picture for the Jews of the world. . . . I wanted to see the return of decency and kindness. I'm no communist . . . just a human being who wants to see this country a real democracy and freedom from this infernal regimentation which is crawling over the rest of the world."

What the hell is he talking about? And why is he so dismissive of his own work - City Lights, The Circus, The Gold Rush, The Kid with "They had their laughs and it was fun, wasn't it?" Chaplin later admitted that, if he had known about the Death Camps, he would never have made The Great Dictator.(1) But it was the most profitable film he ever made.

As early as 1915, when Chaplin started making a "serious film 'Life,' which he had never completed because if the demand for comedies," Chaplin first expressed his desire to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Remember that 1915 was the year The Birth of a Nation was introduced to an incredulous world, a moment in film history when the medium took a giant leap toward artistic legitimacy. Chaplin, who had quickly become a master of the medium, clearly wanted to do something more with his mastery than elicit laughs. "It was his ambition," Huff states, "to do at least one big dramatic feature to show the world that he could be something else besides a clown." But Chaplin wasn't just a clown - he was the greatest film clown. Edmund Kean's famous last words were, "Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult." Chaplin's desire to make "one big dramatic feature" makes about as much sense as if we discovered that Sophocles had wanted to write a comedy.

Saying that this meticulously-made film has dated horrendously is stating only a part of the problem. Its subject must've seemed dated even in 1923 - by perhaps a century. The same can be said of D. W. Griffith's films. Although he was a true master of the film medium, a modern technology, Griffith's stories were all derived from the mentality of 19th-century theater. A Woman of Paris is much more literary, more like a novel than a play. But it is an early - and not very good - 19th century novel, and an American early 19th century novel at that, on about the same level as Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Within weeks of his appearance in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies, Chaplin became the master of his medium. He was given the freedom to direct his own films and he quickly learned the intricacies of film language - like the quite basic spatial idea of an object being thrown in one direction out of the frame and, in a cut to the next frame, entering from the same direction and smashing into something. As rudimentary as this may sound, it was an incredibly important discovery in early filmmaking. A Woman of Paris shows the extent to which Chaplin, as a director, was as much a master as Murnau or Lubitsch.

The problem is the same as it was with Griffith: while his technique was superb, Chaplin's ideas were as old hat as the Tramp's ubiquitous derby. For one thing, why is it A Woman of Paris? Why didn't Chaplin locate the story in a more familiar place, like London or New York? Obviously because the place name Paris is streaked with far more romanticism. London and New York are too prosaic, too down to earth, too workaday and mundane - too real for Chaplin's purposes.

CA Lejeune, in her 1925 review of A Woman of Paris, wrote that "He [Chaplin] selected the oldest and most hackneyed theme in the kinema, and determined to give it, for the first, and only time, life. (Whether it is worth vivifying is beside the point. Chaplin at least thought that it was.) A stock formula has arisen for treating the story of the country lovers, parted by misunderstanding, the lure of the city, the seductive villain with a flat at any lady’s disposal, the reappearance of the country lover, and his forgiveness of the girl’s indiscretion."(2)

Look at Chaplin's tramp. When he first appeared, the character was a somewhat devilish mischief-maker, always a few steps ahead of the police. Chaplin made the character more complex a year later by injecting "pathos," or sadness, to his stories, in the films The Tramp (1915) and The Vagabond (1916).(3) This more deeply emotional dimension of Chaplin's character was nearly always due to the appearance of a "love interest," invariably played by Edna Purviance, from her first appearance in 1915 in A Night Out until her last appearance with the Tramp in 1923 in The Pilgrim, Chaplin's last two-reeler. In all, she made 34 films with Chaplin, although she was never under contract.

With their personal relationship over and their professional relationship about to end, Chaplin wanted to give Edna something lasting, to create her post-Chaplin career: a star vehicle. But the film's failure at launching her as a star was complete. Chaplin based his story on the early life of American socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Born Margaret Upton in a town now a part of Norfolk, Virginia 1893, Hopkins-Joyce was, by the age of 30, one of the first people in America to become famous for being infamous, marrying three millionaires and having numerous well-publicized affairs. Her name appears in song lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In
Theodore Huff's book on Chaplin,  he makes the surprising disclosure that after Hopkins-Joyce paid a surprise visit at his studio,

"Chaplin was fascinated by this woman of the world, a type so removed from his previous loves. For two weeks, which included a trip to Catalina Island, they were inseparable. Then she departed for a New York stage engagement, Peggy with pleasant memories and Chaplin, in addition, with the idea for his next picture."

Chaplin's working titles for the film were Destiny and Public Opinion (its European title). Its original release title was A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate. But not even fate would've been as obvious as Chaplin's plot. Coincidences are presented, I suppose, as ironies. It worked for Thomas Hardy, but not for Chaplin. Chaplin handles the narrative with a remarkably light touch, making each cliché (and there are a great many) seem newly devised. The film is burdened with an atmosphere that, by now, is overwhelmingly heavy. We know to what extent Chaplin's tramp was a creature of the silent film. But his genius as a performer transcended his medium. A Woman of Paris makes demands on the viewer, and the rewards are genuine. But few moviegoers have the faculties necessary to fully appreciate Chaplin's vision.   

As everyone who ever worked with Chaplin discovered, including such accomplished actors as Henry Daniell, Marlon Brando, and Sophia Loren, his approach to directing was to simply demonstrate to his actors how to move, how to look, and how to deliver their lines; he would just act out the scene himself, all the way down to the subtlest gesture and voice inflection. The professional actors he worked with always chafed at his directing style. The reason why he directed like this is because he wanted to play all the parts himself, including the female parts.(4) Edna Purviance's performance was probably coached intensely by Chaplin, especially since she's the center of the film. But therein lies the problem. Purviance, without the onscreen support of Chaplin, is something of a cipher. She ultimately lacked the commanding screen presence that the role required. 

After the film's financial failure, Chaplin wisely returned to comedies. The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) each jockey for a place on nearly everyone's Greatest Films lists.

Interestingly, scoring the film for re-release in 1976 turned out to be the last creative project that Chaplin undertook. Purviance, who died in 1958, gave up screen acting after Chaplin's last attempt to make her a star, Josef von Sternberg's The Woman of the Sea (1926), was so clearly muddled that Chaplin, who financed the film, never released it. She spent the rest of her life under salary from Chaplin. Theirs was one of the most rewarding relationships in Chaplin's life, both personally and professionally. Since A Woman of Paris was never successful or widely understood, he needn't have bothered about reissuing it. That he devoted the time to carefully prepare it for new generations to discover shows how much Purviance meant to him and how proud he was of the last fruit of their partnership. Seen in this light, it is one of the most moving love letters a great artist has ever written.

(1) "Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis." Chaplin, My Autobiography.
(2) "Charlie Chaplin's A Woman of Paris reviewed," The Guardian, 1 March 1925.
(3) Looking at these two films, separated by just a year, the development of Chaplin's subtlety is striking. The Tramp seems unbelievably crude by Chaplin's later standards. He hadn't quite shaken off Sennett's knockabout style.
(4) "No other filmmaker ever so completely dominated every aspect of the work, did every job. If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role and ... sewn every costume." (David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, 1985.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Jesting Palate

At the end of his book Down and Out in Paris and London, his exploration of the underbelly - the "dirty handkerchief" side - of two great cities, George Orwell was able to sum up his experience: "Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."

I didn't have to be hard up, or quite as hard up as Orwell was, to arrive at the same conclusion about a "smart restaurant." I've eaten in some high end restaurants in my life, but always at someone else's invitation. It was never my idea to spend an extraordinary sum of money for a meal. I confess to having a quite undeveloped palate when it comes to "fine dining." I find that pub grub is far more a8ppetizing. But I am not a fool. I can eat at an Old Spaghetti Factory without suffering a loss of prestige or self esteem. Taco Bell is always an option.

I don't pretend to know much about fine dining. I know why the fork is always on the right and exactly how the knife is held. But that is practically it. I do know enough about esthetics, however, to know why food should be arranged on a plate to maximize the satisfaction of a person's hunger. Fine dining establishments, however, aren't known to attract hungry patrons.

For many reasons, some less clear than others, Japanese food is becoming the new haute cuisine. The French term means literally "high cooking", and was developed in the French royal court as a deliberate effort to differentiate food that was eaten by commoners from food eaten at court, simply because only someone in the highest circles of French society could afford to eat something like caviar. Since the 17th century, it has become a cuisine with special ingredients, prepared by highly trained chefs, presented to the diner in high end restaurants. As much attention is paid to the presentation of the food, the way in which it's arranged on a plate, according to aesthetic principles intended to appeal as much to the eyes as the nose. Such meals are also intended to cost an amount of cash that puts it out of the reach of the average diner. If you have to ask the price of the dish, the saying goes, then you probably can't afford it.

But the current interest being lavished on Japanese food is especially surprising to me because, while I have been enthusiastic about various aspects of Japanese culture, their literature and films, since I was in my teens, their food has always defied my appreciative abilities. To me Japanese cuisine is like their music, played with the biwa, the kotō or a bamboo flute, which is interesting but only tenuously recognizable as music. No one can accuse me of ignorance in these matters, after reading Japanese literature (in translation) voluminously, from Akutagawa Ryunosuke to Oe Kenzaburo, and championing Japanese films from the more "Western," extroverted Kurosawa to the more refined and "distinctly Japanese" Ozu. I lived in Japan, thanks to the U.S. Navy, for three years in the 1990s and I have absorbed the highly individual - and loving - observations of Japanese culture from fellow transplanted Westerners like Alan Bloom and Donald Richie.

Unlike some other national cuisines, like Italian or Mexican, or even Chinese, Japanese food does not, when it sees you coming, jump out of it's chair and run forward to embrace you in greeting. Japanese food is alot like the Japanese themselves. It is reticent and standoffish. Its flavors don't jump out at you. It is subtle. It is, to use a worn out phrase, an acquired taste - which only means that you won't like it on a first or second tasting. You will have to be patient and work on liking it.

And this is precisely where I leave the room. First, anyone with sense should reconsider trying to like something that he didn't like on the first go. Second, while there is a number of Japanese dishes that I enjoy, like katsudon (or pork donburi), soba noodles, and yakitori (barbecue chicken), and while the Japanese have perfected the art of brewing beer so that Kirin is one of the finest lagers in the world, I don't enjoy much of Japanese cuisine and I have never found saké to be a palatable tipple, served warm or cold.

A discriminating gastronome can find enough in Japanese food to tantalize his taste buds, as long as he is selective. Arguments promoting its appeal to more refined palates are, I think, counterproductive, not to mention snobbish. But there is more to it than this. If an American unacquainted with Asian culture were to travel to Japan or Korea or to Hong Kong, probably one of the first things he will notice is that the people aren't all shorter than he is, or nearly as short as he expected them to be. As anyone who has visited Asia for a few decades can tell him, there is a definite trend among Asians for taller and more muscular young people. Asians in their twenties are taller and heavier than their parents, just as their parents are also bigger than their grandparents. When I was in Japan, I heard reports of schools having to supply 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders on up to high schoolers with bigger desks. This trend can be traced all the way back to the end of World War II when Japanese people first began to be exposed to Western varieties of food and Western lifestyles. A more prosperous Japan meant a higher demand for protein in the diets of average people.

Statistics keeping track of the average height of 17-year-old Japanese men reveal that, in 1948, just after the war when Japan was occupied by the U.S. military, the average height was recorded at 160.6 centimeters, or 5'3". By 2013, after several generations of Japanese had been exposed to foods other than traditional Japanese cuisine, i.e., rice, fish, and vegetables, the average height was recorded at 170.7 centimeters, or 5'7". In 65 years, the height of the average 17-year-old Japanese man increased ten centimeters, or four inches.(1) Clearly, this has to do with a much higher intake of protein in the Japanese diet, which is a reflection of the greater prosperity of Japanese society. These statistics are also surprising in light of the fact that Japanese people are longer-lived than any other indigenous population.

Sirloin steaks used to be served in restaurants with a slice of bacon wrapped around them. The bacon is there to heighten the flavor of the beef, which is so lean that it's difficult to distinguish it as meat. Japanese beef, as always at a premium price from your butcher, is deliciously marbled and melts in your mouth. Anyone can find interesting pleasures in a national cuisine that is as unique as Japan's. But I find its pleasures attenuated, conditional, and its nutritive value dubious, at best. Pushing it at fine dining establishments is sensible, but I don't see average diners in great numbers lining up for raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed. Eat as much sushi (or sashimi) as you like, but don't forget the wasabi.

(1) See "Trend of the average height of Japanese Men." .

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Then He Shot Her

"His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after  day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel."

I came across a digital version of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men and, with the movie fresh in my mind (it's aired on one or another cable movie channel routinely), I decided to read it.

First of all, the widely celebrated Coen Brothers film, though it possesses a few virtues (mostly from its brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins), is crippled by what I would call a conflict of intent. It has elements of a thriller, with a quite monstrous antagonist, what I called in my review of the film, "a kind of serial killer for hire," and the elements of a chase, with the hero trying to get away clean with a satchel full of money. There are gun battles and plenty of graphic violence.

McCarthy has had more than one brush with Hollywood. His Border Trilogy started its life as a movie script. Billy Bob Thornton, with every good intention, tried to make a decent adaptation of All the Pretty Horses and failed, presumably because of interference from the film's producers. Having seen the film, it would've been hard, even without interference, to make a creditable film out of the material. What you find in McCarthy is an exclusively male ethos. So whatever conviction the individual novels have relies on the relationships among their male characters. I agree with James Wood that while he is capable of writing beautiful prose, especially in his descriptions of nature, McCarthy has a tendency toward grandiose - and often theatrical - flights of language. Within a page of No Country, for instance, the philosophical murderer Anton Chigurh steals a sheriff's cruiser and pulls over another vehicle. Asking the driver to step out of the car, Chigurh kills him with a pneumatic gun used to kill steers in a slaughter house. "The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see." I don't imagine the "uncoupling" happened slowly. And "visible to see" is not only redundant but meaningless.

Quoting James Wood, "The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense." And although he called McCarthy's No Country for Old Men "an unimportant, stripped-down thriller," the Coen Brothers' movie adaptation leaves far too many loose ends dangling, as if they were trying to improve on McCarthy with an artiness the book scrupulously avoids. "Everything is tight, reduced, simple, and very violent. McCarthy’s idea for the Border Trilogy (which comprises All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) began life as a film script, and No Country for Old Men has already been sold to the producer Scott Rudin, so perhaps it is easier to think of it as a script than as a novel. That is to say, the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar."(1) But what the Coen Brothers ended up with, despite it winning accolades including an Oscar for Best Picture of 2008, is a flawed film, crying out for clarity as it hurtles toward a muddy conclusion. There are at least three places in the last ten minutes of the film that could've been made a lot clearer if the Coens had wanted to be more honest and more faithful to McCarthy's novel.

In the movie, when Moss checks into his last motel, a woman by the pool flirts with him and offers him a beer. Next we see them after a shootout and they're both dead. We never learn the circumstances of either's death, which is one of the glaring loose ends the Coens just leave dangling. In the book Moss picks up a 15-year-old girl hitchhiking. In a lengthy exchange between them, Moss tries to set her on the straight and narrow and even gives her some money. Then a Mexican in a black Barracuda shows up, takes the girl hostage, and Moss comes out of his room with a machine gun. Seeing the Mexican's gun at her head, Moss puts his gun down, prompting the Mexican to shoot them both dead. But not before Moss shoots down the Mexican. I suppose the Coens believed all this was unnecessary, so they cut it. What they forgot is that the audience that has followed Moss with great interest for the length of the film might want to know the circumstances of his death.

The Coens' next big misstep occurs when Sheriff Bell returns to the motel where Moss was killed. In the movie, Chigurh is still in the room when the sheriff returns. I watched the scene several times trying to figure out where Chigurh was hiding but I could never figure it out. A friend who admires the movie a lot more than I do told me Chigurh was hiding in the closet. But what closet?  If there was a closet in that room, I'm going blind betimes. In the book, Chigurh, having already retrieved the case of money from the airduct (another detail omitted from the movie), is sitting in his truck when Bell returns. Bell realizes this and calls for backup. But Chigurh gets away again.

The third dangling loose end in the movie comes when Carla Jean finds Chigurh waiting for her in her house. He's there to kill her in fulfillment of a promise he made to her husband. But he gives her the option of a coin toss. She loses. Next we see Chigurh driving away before his truck is t-boned by a car running a stop sign. What became of Carla Jean? The Coens doubtless believed her fate could be inferred. In the novel there is no such deliberate vagueness, or what you might also call pussyfooting:

"She looked at him a final time. You dont have to, she said. You dont. You dont.

He shook his head. You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesnt allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people dont believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say  the world. Do  you see?

Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do.

Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her.

At least you could say that McCarthy, like Chigurh, had the courage of his convictions. The Coens had not.

The Coens' discretion at choosing not to show us how Moss and Carla Jean die is not as admirable as they perhaps thought it would be. It is utterly inconsistent with every other detail they chose to show us. And it is certainly far from Cormac McCarthy's cruel intentions.

There are other differences between the book and the movie that are minor, but that sacrifice realism for the picturesque. Moss finds the "ultima hombre" from the Mexican shootout dead among some rocks, not under a completely incongruous shady tree. When Moss returns to the scene of the shootout, Mexicans pursue him. In the movie, they set a dog on him and Moss shoots it just as it is lunging at him. There's no dog in McCarthy's account. And, inexplicably, in the movie Chigurh kills the business executive in his office. In the book he simply delivers the satchel of money and departs. Chigurh is a man of his word, for what it's worth.

Worse than all these little objections to the film's violation of the novel is the obvious pains the Coens took to replicate the violence, down to the smallest detail. This sort of thing is relatively easy for any decent filmmaker. It goes back to what James Wood wrote about how "the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films." But just thinking of the care with which the filmmakers planned and staged Chigurh's killing of the three Mexicans in the motel, with the different calibured guns, the squibs - exploding pockets of blood attached to the actors who get shot - the careful sound effects, points to a grisly kind of pedantry. And all McCarthy did was write down a few hundred words.

So I suppose that James Wood's opinion that the book was ready-made for a screen adaptation was incorrect. Even as attenuated and discreet as the novel is, compared to McCarthy's other work, his pen can go where a camera cannot always follow - even when it's the camera of Roger Deakins. Despite his obvious efforts at a stripped-down style, like the best - or the worst - of Hemingway, there is evidently no such thing as a text that is "ready-made" for the screen. I wasn't surprised when the movie got so much praise and won some awards.  For the first time in their careers (always with the exception of Fargo), the Coens were depicting people who were more than caricatures and events that weren't whopping contrivances. McCarthy's novel is emphatic about fate, even as Sheriff Bell awaits his inevitable meeting with Chigurh, who seems to be Fate personified, at the story's end. Everything that happens was bound to happen, which is the opposite of the Coens' usual philosophy. But their faithful adaptation could've been more faithful if they had disregarded the presumed sensitivities of their audience. Their movie would've impressed them more, and would've been worthier of all it's awards.

(1) James Wood, "Red Planet," The New Yorker, July 25, 2005.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Birthday Prayer

Today is the 10th birthday I have celebrated on this blog, even though I didn't take the time last year to do so. But then, last year was so terrible for so many - and for so many reasons - that it's no wonder I neglected to apostrophize it.

The first birthday I observed, in 2008, I was turning 50 and the post got the attention of a friend I hadn't seen in fourteen years. I quoted Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin in the post. The following year, in "And Where Could I Marvel My Birthday Away?", I wrote about all the different places in the world, from 1987 until 2009, where I celebrated my birthday. I concluded with a poem by the Alexandrian poet Cavafy, "Ithaka."

In 2010, in "Sunday Morning, May 16," I chose Wallace Stevens to quote at length. In 2011, in "Wish You Were Here," I once again wrote about the itinerant nature of my life, quoting the song from Paint Your Wagon,

Do I know where hell is, hell is in hell-o.
Heaven is good-bye forever it's time for me to go.
I was born under a wand'rin' star, 
A wand'rin', wand'rin' star.

I was being wistful, quoting this time from poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Graves, and concluding: "Here on my Philippine island for another birthday, already having lived in four different houses, I don't know where I will be next year. There is wonder in that speculation, but also some rue. I've stopped here, for the time being, but where I will be in a year I wish I could say, but can't."

In 2012, in "The Ghost of a Birthday Present," I concluded: "All these numbers, ages, and calendar dates are only so many arbitrary conceits. Or so I keep telling myself every time my birthday rolls around. I agree with Oscar Wilde, who died at the comparatively tender age of 46, but who had the foresight to discover that "the tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young."

2013 had me in a speculative mood, offerering "A Question and an Answer." The question was from W. H. Auden, the answer from Mary Oliver. In 2014, in "There Is Something I Can Do," I celebrated the optimistic humanity of Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru.

In 2015, in the long post "The Voyage In," I felt I'd had enough and wanted out, or at least off my Philippine island. I quoted Homer, Tennyson, Wallace Stevens, and said at the end, "No more, gods. Let me go home." They weren't listening.

Last year my sister, who had waited for my return home for nine years, died. Today is my very first birthday without her somewhere in the world. But there is always the terrible neccessity of saying something, of giving utterance even if it is only of despair of utterances.I looked around me in my ebooks for something to give meaning to my present existence. I struggled. And then, just this morning, I was reading from George Herbert's Poems and I found this:


Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

Herbert, like most of the men of his age, had a personal relationship with a very real God. The word "prayer" itself has only a rhetorical meaning for me. Yet the beauty of Herbert's words is substantial. 

And so I offer you this prayer, dear reader, as my proof of life.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Leave 'Em Laughing

When Don Rickles died earlier this month and I read some of the tributes to him, kept brief by the limitations that social media imposes on users, I thought for a moment how awful it must've been to be him. His schtick was insulting people, about pushing his insults as far beyond the pale as possible so that they seemed grossly, blatantly unfair. But what if Rickles simply wanted to tell someone - anyone - an uncomfortable truth? Everyone would laugh. It reminded me of a 1971 Rod Serling Night Gallery episode in which a comic (played by Godfrey Cambridge) finds a genie who will grant his wish that people will laugh at his bad jokes. The unfortunate result for the comic is that people laugh at everything he says, even when he is having a heart attack onstage and asks for a doctor.(1)

Adam Sandler has a schtick that has made him unaccountably rich and famous. Since 1995, the former comic and SNL cast member Adam Sandler has made a string of film comedies that have been consistently popular with moviegoers and nearly unanimously unpopular with movie critics. While some observers find in this phenomenon an illustration of some sort of general rule that popular success and critical acclaim exist in opposition to each other, the facts tell us it is more complicated than this simplistic model implies. There is breathtaking proof that Sandler is critic-proof on his Wikipedia page, where you can read this: "In 2015, Sandler starred in the Western comedy film The Ridiculous 6, distributed by Netflix. Despite being universally panned by critics, it was announced on January 6, 2016, by Netflix that the film had been viewed more times in 30 days than any other movie in Netflix history." Sandler has gone on record that he doesn't make his movies for the critics or for the fans. He uses them, he says, as a pretext to have good times with his friends.

In virtually every one of his comedies, except for the ones in which he's trying out a funny voice (The Waterboy, Little Nicky), Sandler plays the same schlemiel. This "character" - if you can call it that - is nothing like the nebbish persona that Woody Allen cultivated for fifty years. Allen had the advantage of being a genuine filmmaker, not to mention being genuinely funny. Sandler's typical role is more average, less identifiably Jewish, and brazenly stupid.(2)

Sandler's movies elicit plenty of laughs, but there is a problem at the heart of his comedy that makes it very hard for a discerning viewer to laugh. The issue, I think, that most critics take with Sandler's movies is more complex than it appears to be. It isn't that Sandler resorts to low humor - even though he does. Low humor has a long and rich tradition in American comedy. There is something democratic about its ability to show us that we are all equals - in our weaknesses, our foibles and petty obsessions. Low humor appeals to our common humanity. So what if it's so often sexual or scatological?

Some movie comedians became famous for the extreme lengths to which they would go for a laugh. Harold Lloyd was famous for the physical hazards he sometimes staged, like scaling the outside of a tall building in the aptly-titled Safety Last (1923). In Our Hospitality (also 1923), Buster Keaton, who got his name from a fall he experienced when he was a baby,(3) appears to risk his neck in several scenes. Some time later, behind-the-scenes photos revealed that the stunts in both films weren't quite as hazardous as they appear to be.

But there are famous examples of humor that is so overwrought that it dwarfs our impulse to laugh at it. Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) brought together in one movie some of the funniest comics alive. But the gags they were frequently called on to perform (like the climactic scene in which several of them dangle precariously from a teetering rain gutter) were so elaborately staged and so expensive that they made audiences wonder if they were worth the few laughs that they were intended to provoke. Steven Spielberg went even further in 1941 (1979), his expensive foray into blockbuster comedy. It was an embarrassing flop for the fledgling director, who has wisely avoided making comedies ever since.

Sandler, however, has erred in the opposite direction. He has been called "lazy" by several critics because he obviously doesn't bother to even try. He puts forth as little effort as possible, expecting audiences to laugh at throwaway scenes and lines dropped like crumbs from a stale sandwich. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David successfully managed to draw comedy from thin air in their hit series Seinfeld. David continues in the same vein for HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. But what makes Seinfeld and David funny is their success with the extreme risks they take with the apparent thinness of their material. Sandler risks nothing - not even his reputation, which suffers with each successive movie. Three of his films have been ranked on the movie critic website Rotten Tomatoes (to which I am an unsolicited contributor) as among the worst ever made. More than a decade ago I was convinced that Sandler was determined to make the most abysmal movie comedy of all time, as each new release plumbed ever greater depths.(4) I am now convinced that he succeeded, but that he has taken up residence there.

In a discussion of Akira Kurosawa's last film Madadayo (1993), Donald Richie remarked that its failure was due to sentimentality, which he defined as "unearned emotion." In his early masterpiece, Ikiru (1952), Kurosawa indulged in the extremely emotional situation of its protagonist dying of stomach cancer and his search for one last meaningful act in his meaningless life as a paper-pushing bureaucrat. But Ikiru is an overpowering emotional experience, its emotion is terrifically earned, because of Kurosawa's unflinching determination to be true to his subject. Truth (redeemed by great beauty) saves Ikiru from sentimentality.

The absolute worst that can be said of a comedy is that it is unfunny. The laughs that Sandler's movies elicit are unearned. But he is not without a few diehard supporters. Some of them have mistakenly called Sandler a talented actor, which doesn't do anyone a favor, least of all Sandler himself. While I thought he was effective opposite the wonderful Tea Leoni in Richard A. Brooks's Spanglish (2004), I wondered what a genuine actor could've done with the role. His performances in the highly touted Punch Drunk Love (2002) and in Reign Over Me (2007) are impossible to properly assess since in both films Sandler is playing emotionally disturbed characters, which, as any good actor can tell you, is easy. In Funny People he played himself, which must've been tough for him.

A recent Guardian article foolishly attempted to parse Sandler's movies and categorize them as "The stone cold classics" (among which is the incredibly cruel 50 First Dates), "The surprisingly solid," "The bad but tolerable," and "The unwatchables."(5) There simply cannot be a best or worst Adam Sandler movie. There is too little space between the best and the worst.

When Jonathan Winters died four long years ago, I wrote that "He likened the entertainment industry to the Olympics, with actors standing on a platform to be handed their gold, silver or bronze medals. Except that 'I think my place is inside the box, underneath the guy receiving the gold medal. They're playing the national anthem and I'm fondling a platinum medallion.' Earlier in the same blog post I singled out Adam Sandler as a comic who is the opposite of Winters. "With every new release Sandler proves that, instead of regarding film comedy as an Olympic event in which the bar is always raised, he thinks he's doing the limbo, and is always lowering the bar."

(1) Wikipedia: 'Cambridge gave an acclaimed performance alongside Tom Bosley in the episode "Make Me Laugh" of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, a story about a failed comedian who looks to a genie for a quick fix to success; the episode was directed by Steven Spielberg."
(2) Only in his perrennial rendition of the "Hannukah Song" does Sandler remind us of his Jewishness. I have always thought the song was the cry of pain of a Jew trapped in a Gentile world.
(3) According to Keaton himself, Harry Houdini saw Keaton when he was a baby fall down some stairs and remarked, "That sure was a buster!" The name stuck. Keaton, who performed all his own stunts, broke his neck without realizing it shooting a scene in Sherlock Jr. (1924) when a blast of water from a railroad water tank knocked his head against the train track. He only found out about it when, months later, his doctor examined an x-ray of his skull and told him that a fracture in his cervical spine was healed nicely.
(4) The 2014 film The Cobbler was so awful that even Sandler's Wikipedia page failed to mention it.
(5) "Which Adam Sandler films to watch, and which to avoid," Gwilym Mumford, The Guardian, 18 April 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

I Just Can't

On the death of Fidel Castro last November, I read a story published in The Paris Review about George Plimpton that shed new light on an old subject - the atrocities attributed to Ernesto "Ché" Guevara in Cuba after the revolution in 1959. Written by James Scott Linville, who worked on Plimpton's staff of editors at the magazine in the 1990s, it reveals a sore spot in Plimpton, and about how being allowed a glimpse of the unadorned truth at the right moment in one's life can permanently affect one's views of certain subjects.

Linville described how he first came across Diarios de Motociclete (The Motorcycle Diaries), a piece of autobiography ostensibly written by Guevara describing his trans-continental journey by motorcycle from the home of his parents in Buenos Aires to Venezuela. Since the book concerned itself with a time in Guevara's life long before his political convictions inspired him to join Castro's band of revolutionaries in the mountains of Cuba, it allows one to assume a degree of neutrality about its content. Of course, its publication relied on the legendary image of Ché as an enemy of tyranny and a hero of the downtrodden. The book hadn't yet been published in translation when Linville saw its potential for interest in the pages of The Paris Review. But when he took the completed manuscript to George Plimpton, he was surprised at his refusal to even look at it.

'A sad look overtook his face, and he began to explain: “Years ago, after we’d done the interview, Papa invited me down again to visit him in Cuba.” (In the fifties, George had interviewed Hemingway for the magazine on the Art of Fiction, and now he always referred to him as Papa, as Hemingway encouraged his young friends to do.) “It was right after the revolution,” George continued. After he arrived in Havana, he settled in at a hotel room above a bar. One afternoon, at the end of the day, Hemingway told him, “There’s something you should see,” and to come by the house.

'When he arrived at Hemingway’s house he saw they were preparing for some sort of expedition. Before they ventured forth, the elder writer made shakers of drinks, daiquiris or whatever, and packed them up. This group, including a few others, got in the car and drove for some time to the outside of town. Arriving at their destination, they got out, set up chairs, brought out the drinks, and arranged themselves as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon enough, a truck came, and that, explained George to me, was what they’d been waiting for. It came, as Hemingway explained to them, the same time each day. The truck stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners. The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck and lined them up. And then they shot them. They put the bodies back in the truck and drove off.'(1)

At first expressing his disbelief in the story, Linville repeatedly asked Plimpton to at least read the piece on The Motorcycle Diaries. “James," Plimpton wearily protested, "I’m sorry, I just can’t.” Linville concluded that "In the twenty years I knew him, this remained the only time George refused to look at a piece of writing."

The Motorcycle Diaries went on to become an international bestseller and was made into an excellent film by Walter Salles in 2004. I mentioned the film and the controversy it provoked when it was released in a piece I published on this blog in 2009 called "A Pound of Flesh." I argued in the film's defense against the howls of execration heaped upon it by people who were eager to remind us of Ché's later incarnation as a revolutionary whose commitment to the cause gave him no qualms about killing members of the former Batista regime en masse. It all seems to hinge on which idealogue one consults on the subject. While I am perfectly prepared to accept Plimpton's story as factual, I wonder how people who disagree with Ché's tactics expect such a revolution as that in which he participated to be prosecuted?

But just as George Plimpton was rendered incapable of appreciating the story of Ché Guevara's youthful journey across South America on a motorcycle by his witnessing an act of brutality carried out on his orders, I have been rendered incapable of appreciating any story about dogs that attempts to portray them in a favorable light, especially in a manner that tries to justify their elevated status as animals in our midst, by an incident that took place in 2010.

Having lived in a small island province of the Philippines for two years, I was visited by Marcelina, the mother of my girlfriend, at a house among the swaying palms that I was renting. Then in her seventies, she was a quite indomitable woman, not least because she was the mother of twenty-five children, eighteen of whom, I was told, survived infancy. Staying in the nearby house of an older son, the old woman got up early one morning and went for a walk. I was sitting in the living room of my house later that morning when there was an unexpected knock at my front door. When I opened it I discovered Marcelina was standing barefoot in a puddle of what could only have been piss in the middle of my terrace with a puzzled look on her face. Realizing that something was seriously wrong with her, I called out to my girlfriend and together we helped the old woman back to her son's house, which was only a stone's toss away.

By that afternoon my girlfriend told me that her mother couldn't speak nor control her bowels. With some experience of these symptoms, I guessed that she must be having a stroke and I explained that we needed to get her to a hospital. Once at the nearby provincial hospital Marcelina was examined by a doctor as she listened to us describe what had happened. As I feared, the doctor diagnosed a possible stroke, but she told us that she couldn't make a proper diagnosis without the results of a catscan. Unfortunately, the provincial hospital wasn't equipped with any such sophisticated machinery. Marcelina would have to be taken by ambulance to a bigger hospital in the city of Tacloban for the procedure. When asked the price tag for such a long (two hour) trip by ambulance and the catscan procedure, it became obvious to Marcelina's two children who were present that it was well beyond the family's resources, even if distant relatives were contacted. My girlfriend's brother, as the acting head of the family, after learning from the doctor the grim prospects for his mother if her stroke were to go untreated, made the decision that she should simply be taken home and cared for as best the family could. In the following months, my girlfriend and I were told of her steady decline and her eventual demise.

A few months after Marcelina's stroke, I happened to be watching a television program on Animal Planet in which a woman in California had taken her young dog to an animal hospital because it had been having seizures. A veterinarian examined the dog but found nothing wrong that would explain the seizures. So he recommended to the woman that the dog be given a catscan to determine if there was perhaps something wrong with the dog's brain. The woman was told the cost of the procedure and thought it was acceptable as long as it resulted in a positive diagnosis. Sadly, the catscan showed that half the dog's brain was missing. The vet explained that, in such an extreme condition, the dog's seizures would worsen until it finally died. He recommended that the dog be euthanized. The woman, evidently more upset by the cost of the catscan than the condition of her dog, agreed to have it put down. I was, to put it mildly, bemused by the woman's reaction to the catscan results. It made me wonder if anyone would've considered it "humane" to euthanize Marcelina if we had somehow come up with the money for her catscan.

But because of Marcelina's stroke and her family's inability to pay for proper medical treatment that might have prolonged her life, I simply cannot countenance television programs or news reports that display the altogether privileged position that so many Americans bestow on their dogs. Nor can I bear to look at the "cute" photos of their dogs that people routinely post on social media. As I have said before, people who repeat the old saying that dog is man's best friend have clearly got it backwards: man is obviously dog's best friend.

I, however, am not a friend of dogs. I'm not presenting my view of dogs as a kind of dogma that I think everyone should share. It's clear to me that dogs occupy a space in many people's lives that would otherwise be a void that nothing else can fill. Just as George Plimpton did nothing to prevent another publisher from handling The Motorcycle Diaries and made no objections to its publication and its success among readers who were perhaps oblivious of Ché Guevara's brutalities, I don't seek to disabuse dog lovers of the pursuit of their passion or deprive them of even a moment's pleasure or to prevent them from expressing their love by posting cute photos or videos on social media. I simply won't share it or take any part in it. I just can't.

(1) "Plimpton, Papa, and Cuba" by James Scott Linville, The Paris Review, November 28, 2016.