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.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Their Local Idioms

While there have been moments in the history of film when the American film industry did not have dominion over worldwide film distribution, since the end of the Second World War, when European film production had to start again from scratch and European film markets were taken over piecemeal by American production companies, Hollywood has been the dream factory for the world.

The monopolization of foreign film markets by Hollywood has advanced apace since then, with American films taking a greater share of the available markets for exhibition all over Europe. The cream of European filmmaking has far outdistanced American film in terms of maturity and aesthetic quality,(1) but American films at their best are designed to attract a larger audience. Consequently, films made in Europe have often had to be protected by government subsidy, since they cannot hope to compete with American films in ticket sales. 

Some people are profoundly disturbed by this trend, while others see it purely in terms of survival of the fittest. If more people, all over the world, want to spend their money to watch an American film rather than a film made in their own country, in their local languages, then foreign films should be allowed to compete - and perish - in an open market free from protectionist controls. Whether or not a nation has the right to preserve its culture at whatever cost doesn't appear to be a matter for consideration.

So why is it, everywhere in the world where English isn't spoken, and where Hollywood stars are as well known as they are in the U.S., that there are enough French people who want to watch French films, Italians who want to watch Italian films, Japanese who want to watch Japanese films, despite the debatable belief that the American films on offer at any given time offer more entertainment potential?  

For more than a century - in fact, ever since its invention - Film has been called a "universal" medium. Primarily employing images to communicate, it ostensibly transcends every spoken language barrier. But this is only superficially correct. There are cultural barriers that transcend even images that are sometimes stubbornly insurmountable.

In my experience of filmgoing I have seen films from virtually everywhere in the world and I have found that there is no language barrier that cannot be overcome. In fact, there is no language barrier. If it takes me a little while longer to adjust to the rhythm of a film - as it took me, for example, to adjust to the measured pace, like that of traditional Indian music, of the films of Satyajit Ray - then so much the better for me. The rewards that the adjustment have brought me over the years far outweighed my initial maladjustment. Or if I have to adjust to a different manner of acting, which is probably closer to a different manner of being, then I have made the adjustment and come out of the encounter with a different culture - to the greatest extent of the difference - victorious.

In an article published on the Film School Rejects website, "Why Can’t We Accept Foreign Films on Their Own Terms? A simple plea for less remakes and more appreciation for global cinema," Jamie Righetti wonders why Hollywood finds it necessary to remake the wonderful 2016 German film Tony Erdmann, even if it brings Jack Nicholson out of retirement to play the lead role.

"The remake, like so many others, begs the question: why can’t we just appreciate the original? ... Cinema is a vital tool in allowing audiences to learn about, empathize with and understand other cultures. Film is in a unique position to allow viewers to traverse thousands of miles, speak a multitude of languages and uncover the universal similarities at the root of humanity, all while sitting in a theater. With American politics all too often being defined by xenophobia and exclusion these days, global cinema is needed more than ever. Rather than well-intentioned remakes, we should be celebrating and promoting cinema from around the world to help us tear down walls and insure that the voices all too often diminished or ignored finally find a larger audience and get to share their story with the world."(1)

By now, Righetti's question sounds more than a little disingenuous. Remakes have been an important part of Hollywood film production since the silent era. There are famous - and just as many infamous - examples of this practice, like remaking Julian Duvivier's Pepé le Moko shot by shot and calling it Casbah, or suppressing Thorold Dickinson's excellent suspense film Gaslight and turning it into a vehicle for the young new star, newly stolen from Sweden, Ingrid Bergman. 

Sometimes, a foreign director who has scored a success in his home country will be called upon to direct the American remake of his own film, with almost invariably deplorable results. Dutch director George Sluizer made the superb film whose English title was The Vanishing. For reasons that are still unclear, he accepted the offer to direct the Hollywood remake, replete with American stars like Jeff Bridges. Despite changing the ending to an upbeat one, the Hollywood replica of Sluizer's clever thriller was a complete disaster. 

The Roman playwright Terence wrote that "Nothing human is alien to me." Movie audiences tacitly proclaim, "Nothing alien is human to me" by refusing to accept foreign films on their own terms. The simple fact that the Oscars continue to award foreign films in a separate category demonstrates Hollywood's unwillingness to accept that they are of equal quality and value to American films.

With all of this in mind, let me examine the foreign film industry in the Philippines as an example of how their films have managed to survive for decades, despite the inroads of Hollywood film distribution both within the country and throughout the rest of East Asia. At the very outset I feel obliged to point out that the foreign films that Americans see every year are the exceptional few that are considered good enough for export. The run-of-the-mill films produced in France, Italy, Mexico, etc. are rarely, if ever, seen abroad, which is probably just as well.

The first thing you should know is that the language spoken in Filipino movies - Tagalog - is one that is actually spoken by a small minority of the population. Yet it is the official language of the country. Everyone else speaks some other dialect, like Visayan, Pampangan, Cebuano, etc., or a hybrid argot called "Taglish," in which the speakers shift effortlessly - and inexplicably - between Tagalog and English.

I have long contemplated (or, more accurately, threatened) a personal account of my encounters with the Filipino movie. Every time I got started, I gave up after a few paragraphs. The vast majority of Filipino movies, which are not intended for export except to Filipino communities all over the planet, are probably no more execrable than the majority of movies, intended for export or not, made anywhere else. Yet for reasons hard to explain but simple to show, Filipino movies are beyond my powers of appreciation. I simply cannot like them. Having lived in the Philippines now for almost a decade, I must admit that the run-of-the-mill Filipino movies are perhaps not as bad as I have found them to be. It is just that they definitely seem to be. 

In the 1960s, John Simon expressed his observation that all Japanese films have a beginning, a middle, and five endings. Just when you reach the point where you think the film is going to end, it continues for another reel (or two, or three). I have found this to be just as true of Filipino films, except that I don't think it has anything to do with cultural differences as much as they are the consequence of draconian budget constraints and skimpy technical skill.

But I have noticed how invariably Filipinos, when offered a choice of films to watch between a technically perfect American or Chinese film - even one dubbed in Tagalog (3) - and a Filipino film with its shaky structure and cheesy effects, its mirthless humor and childish sentimentality, they will choose the latter. I am not the ideal ambassador for Hollywood, but when I make suggestions to my Filipino housemates on what movies might provide them with the biggest bang for their buck (the best potential for mindless entertainment), they pay no attention to me. And they are right. Every place in the world off the beaten track, Hollywood takes a back seat to native cinema. And all their efforts to monopolize the market in the boondocks have failed.(4)

(1) I am not one of the proliferating number of critics (who are closer to being fans) who rate solid entertainment like Vertigo and The Searchers as high - or higher - than The Rules of the Game, L'Avventura, and Persona.  
(2) Jamie Righetti, "Why Can't We Accept Foreign Films on Their Own Terms?", Filmschoolrejects.com, Feb 9, 2017.
(3) The appetite of Filipinos for American films and films made in the rest of Asia is nonetheless considerable, and there is a thriving demand for films dubbed into Tagalog (but, significantly, none that I am aware of for dubbing Filipino films into English, Cantonese, Korean, et al).
(4) Boondock (bundok) is a Filipino word that literally means "mountain," or a distant, unreachable place.

Friday, March 31, 2017

No Safety in Numbers

Why are there so many lists being published lately? Even respectable news publications have found it necessary to publish lists - of not just great but the "greatest" books and films, the 25 greatest British novels, the top 10 American films of the 21st century, David Lynch's films ranked from his worst to his best, etc. I have expressed my own reservations about such lists on this blog and elsewhere, but the worst I could say about them here is that they're an idiot's delight - they don't inspire critical discussion (which is, of course, the whole point). You can watch all ten of Sight and Sound's Top Ten Films of All Time without having an inkling of what makes a film great, since there is a world of difference between #1 (Vertigo) and #2 (Citizen Kane). It is the difference between the work of a clever technician and the work of a genius. And whether you agree or not that Eliot's Middlemarch is the "greatest novel written in English," it doesn't excuse you from reading Silas Marner or Daniel Derronda.

Far worse than all of the standard texts one was required to read in school are the texts one is somehow obliged to read in order to be considered "well read". There are the Desert Island lists, demanding of us a horrifically drastic elimination of everything but the absolutely essential books or music discs to have with us should we ever find ourselves shipwrecked on a desert island. (Given that a "desert" island is so-called because it has no source of fresh water, whatever books or music one brings won't matter when one is dying of thirst.) Then there are the fatalists who can always be depended on to make up lists of Things To Do Before You Die. Places to visit, food to eat, cocktails to drink. Bucket lists are everywhere.

George Orwell, who kicked his bucket at 46, once reminisced:

"When the Caliph Omar destroyed the libraries of Alexandria he is supposed to have kept the public baths warm for eighteen days with burning manuscripts, and great numbers of tragedies by Euripides and others are said to have perished, quite irrecoverably. I remember that when I read about this as a boy it simply filled me with enthusiastic approval. It was so many less words to look up in the dictionary - that was how I saw it. For, though I am only forty-one, I am old enough to have been educated at a time when Latin and Greek were only escapable with great difficulty, while 'English' was hardly regarded as a school subject at all."

Though Orwell didn't follow his classmates at Eton (like Cyril Connolly) to Cambridge or Oxford, he makes it clear that the emphasis on English texts in school curriculae is relatively new. He makes the surprising revelation that among educated British adults in the first half of the 20th century, "there must be far more who have been flogged through the entire extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Virgil, Horace and various other Latin and Greek authors, than have read the English masterpieces of the eighteenth century. People pay lip service to Fielding and the rest of them, of course, but they don't read them, as you can discover by making a few inquiries among your friends. How many people have ever read Tom Jones, for instance? Not so many have even read the later books of Gulliver's Travels. Robinson Crusoe has a sort of popularity in nursery versions, but the book as a whole is so little known that few people are even aware that the second part (the journey through Tartary) exists. Smollett, I imagine, is the least read of all."(2)

But readers, always eager for grist to their mills, seem to find safety in numbers. Earlier this month I read this: "Every good bibliophile lives in a hamster wheel of literary pressure: There have always been, and will always be, more great books to read than there is time to read them. Not just in the workaday sense - the job stuff, family stuff, and “ooh a new episode of The Americans” stuff that gets in the way of reading on the regular - but in an existential sense. In the sense that every passing day brings us 24 hours closer to our eventual and unavoidable death. Because who knows if there’s a Barnes & Noble in heaven?

"Over at Literary Hub, writer Emily Temple took it upon herself to quantify this ever-shortening window between the book we’re reading now and the last book we’ll read... ever. By combining data from the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator with US reading-pattern data from the Pew Research Center, Temple was able to calculate the number of books any given age group can expect to finish before shuffling off the mortal coil. She even provides calculations for each of three reading types: average US readers (12 books a year, per Pew), voracious readers (50 books a year) and super readers (80).

"The results aren’t scary per se—I’m a 31-year-old “voracious reader” and 2,800 books does sound like a lot–but they are illuminating, and worth remembering the next time you’re perusing a bookstore. Sure, War and Peace is a classic, but it may cost you five page-turners in the long run."(2)

First of all, they are talking about "readers" - people who read habitually, which is an activity in which the vast majority of people don't engage. A recent Pew study shows that only 88% of Americans under 30 read "a book" (i.e., one book) last year, while 79% of Americans over 30 read a book. The Lit Hub study defines an "average reader" as someone who reads only a book a month. But how many readers are comfortable with the picture of themselves in a hamster wheel? And what reader would sacrifice War and Peace for any number of "page-turners?" Isn't a book like War and Peace the ultimate in page-turners?

According to this statistical abstract, since I will be 59 in a few months, I should have somewhere between 288 to 1,920 books to read before I snuff it. But I should have to know which books. Are the nameless, faceless - and brainless - readers in this survey interested in the books they read having literary value? This is what really separates the sheep from the goats. 

I calculate that about 95% of my contact with great works of literature has taken place well beyond - thank god - the bare minimum academic requirements. I am thankful that I encountered (to name but a few) War and Peace (I thought it was too short, not too long), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and King Lear in a classroom. But I am happy that I was free to absorb Moby Dick, The Lily of the Valley, and The Idiot entirely at my own behest in all the years since dropping out of college. A degree would've made a lifetime's employment experience considerably rosier for me, but it wouldn't have changed the fact that, when it comes to books, I am virtually an autodidact.

But I have never been a big reader. Even now, in semi-retirement, with all the time in the world to devote to reading all of the essential literary texts that, for all manner of reasons, I haven't got to, I have to admit that I haven't read a novel in weeks, even when I have probably hundreds of them in ebook form. The last book made of paper that I looked into was, as you have already seen, the 1,369-page Everyman edition of George Orwell's Essays. I have read more poetry and short stories in the last few years than novels. The last novel I read, for something like the fourth time, was Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which is a classified as a novella.

Literature is something qualitative, not quantitative. A true bibliophile, or book lover, is like a food lover - a gastronome. He doesn't stuff himself with hotdogs and pizza all the time. He seeks out foods that heighten, not dull, his sense of taste, that maximize the pleasure of eating - not to the point of feeling full, but always leaving room for greater pleasure. In the same way, a book lover wants to read literature. He wants the quality of the writing itself to appeal to him, as a means to the attainment of beauty, that wondrous by-product of great writing.

What bestows literary value on any piece of writing? I recently came across something written by Maxim Gorky in a letter to Konstantin Fedin:

"You say you are worried by the question, 'How to write?' I have been watching for twenty-five years how this question worries people. . . . Yes, yes, this is a serious question and I was, am and shall be worried by it to the end of my days. To me this question presents itself in the form: 'How must I write to have a man, whoever he may be, emerge from the pages of a story written about him with that almost physical tangibility of his being, with that convincing, ALL BUT FANTASTIC reality, with which I see and feel him?' That is the core of the matter for me, that is the secret of the problem. . . ."

How many readers seek out serious writing about real people? The American historian Oliver Lee Bateman recently bewailed the years he wasted in his teens reading "escapist" fiction: "As a child, I devoured fantasy fiction because I believed that it could transport me to a new world. Losing one’s mind because J.K. Rowling was ignorant of the rudiments of African geopolitics gave folks something to do, but it also made me wonder what we should expect from Rowling, Martin, or anyone else earning their keep by fashioning fantastic worlds for commercial consumption... I wish that some of my previous efforts spent memorizing the niceties of these imagined pasts could now be reapplied toward more constructive ends. For history, always being seized from the past in a moment of desperation by those of us stuck in the present, edifies even as it terrifies. Unlike these make-believe lands where nothing really happens and all the best rulers end up benevolent dictators, our world’s vast gap between the then and the now should remind us that, much as things weren’t always like they are now, they needn’t remain that way in the future, either."(3)

"We read to know we're not alone." So says Jack Lewis, aka C. S. Lewis in the dramatization of an episode in his life by William Nicholson called Shadowlands. As with everything else, before you start reading a book, you must first identify your reason for doing so. What is it you hope to get out of it? A few precious hours of self-forgetting? What is the object of reading books? Is there a goal? If I had to give an answer to the question it probably wouldn't make much sense to most of the people who read. I want to learn something that I didn't know before - about myself, other people, life in the world.

The critic John Simon once likened reading to radar. Determining the range and course of an object merely from one's own perspective has enormous shortcomings. But if you can triangulate your perspective on an object with another person's perspective, you get a much better view of it - a three-dimensional view - that gives you a better understanding of its real shape and distance, it's true bearing on your life. Reading offers us a release from our solitude, a transcendence of the self into something greater and higher than our hopelessly limited lives. And if our guide is Tolstoy or Shakespeare, even the worst that they reveal to us, the very worst that time can do to us becomes bearable. Literature, like all great art, redeems us from experience.

(1) George Orwell, "As I Please," Tribune, 7 July 1944.
(2) Kira Bindrim, "The Big Sleep: The number of books you’ll read before you die, charted," Quartz, March 22, 2017.
(3) Oliver Lee Bateman, "Chasing the (Literal) Dragon," The Paris Review, January 10, 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

Death and Decay

Martin Scorsese made some rather oblique remarks about the ongoing decline of cinema in an Associated Press interview featured in an article in Quartz:

“Cinema is gone,” Scorsese said. “The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone. The theater will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is [cinema] going to be? Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia to the special experience of 2001 in 1968. The experience of seeing Vertigo and The Searchers in VistaVision."(1)

Scorsese went on to blame the widespread use of CGI and the pall of Superhero movies, using the now-familiar complaint that studios are averse to taking risks of any kind. The trouble is, we've been listening to filmmakers make the same complaint that Scorsese makes for almost a century.

But is Scorsese talking about the technical innovations that have changed the way we experience films today or is he talking about the quality of the films themselves? In his essay, "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," Godfrey Cheshire pointed out that all the while the physical medium of celluloid film, the tangible reels of film that one could hold in one's hands, was disappearing, a certain kind of filmmaking was disappearing with it - the kind of filmmaking that flourished for about forty years in the middle of the 20th century, that produced everything from Fritz Lang's M to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers.(2)

If Cheshire was right, and several other observers have come to the same conclusion, it is intensely sad. But the advances in film technology seem to me to be of secondary - even incidental - importance. I have always believed it was a little conceited to complain that fewer people go to the movies any more. The films that I was drawn to watch when I was a teenager weren't being screened in first-run movie houses. I found them in mostly run down art houses in the seedier parts of the city, or on college campus auditoriums - wherever I could find them in the lost years before home video. When I watch films now on DVD or on a tablet, at least I'm in complete control of the experience, which is far more conducive than leaving it to the whims and all of the inconveniences of an art house screening.

There is an unforgettable scene in Jean-Jacques Annaud's otherwise disappointing film adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in which a monk (played by Sean Connery) is scrambling inside a labyrinthine medieval monastery to save as many ancient books, most of which exist in only one copy, from a fire. The scene made me mindful of the fact that we owe it to a bunch of religious hysterics that we now possess as much of classical Greek and Roman texts. Countless other texts exist only in the form of tantalizing rumors. We know, for example, the stories of Odysseus's and Agamemnon's return from the Trojan War. But there were probably several other "returns" that haven't come down to us, simply because no one during the well-named Dark Ages thought enough of them to copy them down.

A millennium or two later, a somewhat similar fate awaits another medium - that of the motion picture. And it is happening not over many centuries but in only a few lifetimes. The statistic may sound alarming, but it is a fact that nearly half of all the films made since 1894 until now have been lost. As I explained in a previous blog post about Henri Langlois, "Though it is a little surprising that the idea of preserving films took so many years to take shape, it is not at all surprising that so few people cared about the fate of films that were no longer in circulation. For the vast majority of films, then and now, there was a kind of planned obsolescence, at least in the positive print, just like any other manufactured goods. Because there were so many films in circulation, and a limited number of venues to exhibit them, they were allowed a limited run in which they could be viewed, and then they were either destroyed or shelved with the intention of eventual destruction."

The real problem arises when you try to apply some valuative measure of what is worth preserving and what is not, simply because you cannot hope to preserve everything. Langlois could make statements like:

"Since like everybody else, I was full of silly prejudices I missed out on incredible things. Salome with Theda Bara was for sale. I thought, 'Fox, Theda Bara, American spectacle...who needs it?' Now the film is lost forever. It was probably quite good. From that point on, through trial and error, I saw that people, intent on triage, who think they have taste, me included, are idiots. One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what's of value."

But by now triage is unavoidable, even if it is anathema for a scholar that someone should be there to decide which films, based on aesthetic criteria, should be preserved. While I have serious doubts that Fox's Salome was worth preserving (even for its historical value), there is no consensus among film critics about what is deserving of preservation.

In a 2015 essay written for Harper's, David Thomson ingeniously intertwines the fates of four films either mutilated by producers or cleverly unreleased or unfinished to illustrate how films and their makers become legendary and how much of the legend is nothing but fantasy.

The problem is, the four films that Thomson uses to illustrate his thesis - Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, Vertigo and The Other Side of the Wind - are either fragmentary shadows of what-might-have-been masterpieces or victims of misplaced critical overkill. The first two were hacked to pieces by producers, with only rumors left to remind us of how great they were, while Vertigo wasn't in circulation for decades and The Other Side of the Wind neither finished nor released.

Having seen Vertigo more than forty years ago, I read the news of its expensive and painstaking restoration with mixed emotions. It was done by the same team - Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz - that restored Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and My Fair Lady. These four particular films, for me, beg the question: who decides what old films crying out for restoration get restored? They obviously aren't critics, since the choices are of a surprisingly uneven worthiness. It resurrects the image of a tonsured monk choosing one centuries-old parchment from a pile of ancient texts and copying it down before it crumbles into dust or is consumed by vermin.

In his Harper's essay, Thomson wrote:

During his last fifteen years, Welles was making a feature film, The Other Side of the Wind, about a movie director, played by John Huston. When Welles died, the shooting was close to complete, but the ownership of the film was as dismayingly confused as most of his affairs. In the three decades since, there have been several attempts to resolve rights and to finish the film as Welles would have wanted. It has become another legend, by virtue of being lost.

But now we may be closer than ever before. The labyrinthine legal issues are said to be resolved. The picture needs to be cut and finished. There was a dream of opening it at the Cannes Film Festival this May [2015] — Welles would have been a hundred on May 6, 2015. Still, as of April, there was no editor on the project, substantial funds were required for postproduction work, and no one had yet agreed to release the picture. How good could the film be? The script is very long; the fragments shown so far do not cohere; most of the actors are gone, so reshoots are impossible. More than ten years ago, I saw a couple of passages, completely out of context. One was a sex scene, more candid and arousing than anything else Welles ever put on film. It was striking, but it didn’t seem to be from a Welles movie.

Welles did leave some instructions behind, but he also said the subject might be dated and that he had thought of turning it into an “essay film.” Yet our anticipation demands something complete and impressive. Or could this great rumor remain unreleased — not exactly lost, but magic still, an attraction that is forever coming but never quite here?

A few weeks ago it was announced that Netflix was going to finance the completion of Welles's The Other Side of the Wind. An editor has been appointed and it will be supervised by, among others, Peter Bogdanovich. Finally, movie savants who have fantasized about this unfinished "masterpiece" will have a chance to be vindicated. Or not. “Like so many others who grew up worshipping the craft and vision of Orson Welles, this is a dream come true,” said Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix. “The promise of being able to bring to the world this unfinished work of Welles with his true artistic intention intact, is a point of pride for me and for Netflix. Cinephiles and film enthusiasts around the world will experience the magic of Orson Welles once again or for the very first time.”(4)

It is a good thing that we will at last be able to see a great artist's last work. But what can we expect? We've all been waiting for decades to see it and have been subjected to rumors that are tantalizing but frustratingly vague. The Welles fan will no doubt find much in it that will reaffirm their faith in the man's genius. The Welles skeptic will probably be affirmed in his skepticism. One thing is clear: there is no way The Other Side of the Wind as a finished project can ever live up to its hype as an intangible, fleetingly-glimpsed legend. As David Thomson concluded "Could it be that the best way to preserve film culture is to make sure that at least a few great movies stay on the other side of the wind?" There is a reason why it has never been finished, and I think the reason is obvious: it isn't any good.

Stanley Kauffmann, who was only one year younger than Orson Welles, followed his career as it unfolded, and had this to say on the occasion of Welles's death in 1985: "To have watched Welles through the years, to have seen his career as it happened, bit by bit, instead of in retrospect, was to become dourly aware of the Heraclitus tag: character is destiny. He was a man for whom everything was possible, absolutely everything, in the worlds of theater, radio, film, television. He could have been a major changer and shaper of our performing arts. But in the middle 1940s the spoiled child took over. He had overcome plenty of difficulties before then, but about that time he seemed to assume that the world now owed him a smooth path and that he would pay the world back for its refusal to pamper him by giving it only virtuosic arrogance."(5)

Kauffmann's longevity (he was 97 when his last review was (posthumously) published in The New Republic) gave him the authority to tell us that there are more superb films being made in any given year than we know about, that if you asked the makers of these films why they made them, they would tell you that if they hadn't they would've died. With this kind of compulsive creative drive in people all over the world, how can anyone who tells us that cinema is dead be taken seriously?

(1) "That's a Wrap: The movies are dead, according to two distinguished moviemakers," by Adam Epstein, Quartz, January 04, 2017.
(2) Godfrey Cheshire, "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," The New York Press, December 30,1999.
(3) David Thomson, "Legends of the Lost," Harper's Magazine, June 2015.
(4) "Netflix to restore and release unfinished Orson Welles film," The Guardian, 14 March 2017.
(5) Stanley Kauffmann, "How Orson Welles Survived Hollywood," The New Republic, November 12, 1985.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Union or Reunion?


OUT-WORN heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is aways young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

(W. B. Yeats)

I think I have devoted more than enough space on this blog to a subject that is not exactly near and dear to my heart -- my Irish-Americanness. To me, there is no subject hoarier than the centuries-old story of Ireland's struggle for independence from England. Yet every year I have devoted a post on this date - St. Patrick's Day - to some matter touching on Ireland or Northern Ireland, whether it is a film (The Quiet Man, The Luck of the Irish, Omagh) or an item from the news. This time last year I commented on Gerry Adams, former IRA chief and current head of the Irish political party Sinn Fein (pronounced "Shin Fain"[1]) being denied entry to the White House St. Patrick's Day celebration. I don't recall that there was any follow-up to the story. Was it just an oversight? Or was Adams's name deliberately left off the guest list? I'd like to think it was the latter. But Gerry Adams is once again in the news, just in time for another St. Patrick's Day post.

Last summer I watched the referendum over Great Britain's membership in the European Union with disbelief. Like the Scottish Independence referendum before it, the outcome seemed to me utterly counterintuitive. No to gaining self-rule for the first time since 1707? And No to being a part of the same body that has managed to keep Europe at peace for seventy years?

But when Brexit became a reality the following day, and not a bad dream caused by an undigested "bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato", some people who were part of Great Britain, like the same Scotsmen who voted to remain in it, as well as the Northern Irish who suddenly realized it was no longer such a good thing not to belong in the Irish Republic (which, as a state independent of Great Britain since 1921, shall remain in the EU), began to visit - or re-visit - the advantages of breaking away from Great Britain. Who knows, but that Queen Elizabeth, who last year became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, might live to see not just the cross of St. Andrew struck from the Union Jack, but Orangemen of the six counties of Ulster making quite sure that the exit door doesn't hit them in the arse?

It appears that there is a slight chance that Irish nationalists may finally get through plebecite what they once thought could only be realized through violence: the reunion of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, with one government in Dublin. Avoidance of the economic downturn forecast for a Britain standing alone again outside of the EU may be incentive enough to persuade the Protestant Unionists in the North to exit Britain and remain in the EU. Unlike Scotland, who would have to apply for EU membership should they decide on independence, Ireland is already a member.

On Monday, Reuters reported the following: 

'Northern Ireland's largest Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein on Monday said it wanted a referendum on splitting from the United Kingdom "as soon as possible", hours after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded a new independence vote. Sinn Fein has been regularly calling for a vote for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and unite with the Republic of Ireland since Britain voted to leave the European Union last June while most voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain. 

Under a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of sectarian violence in the province, the British government can call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland. 

But Northern Ireland's Secretary of State James Brokenshire said in July last year that he did not believe the conditions for calling a referendum had been met. Opinion polls in the past have shown a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom - in an IPSOS-MORI poll in September, only 22 percent of 1,000 voters questioned said they would support a united Ireland while 63 percent said they would prefer to remain part of the UK. 

However, there has been no poll in recent months and Sinn Fein saw a surge in its support at assembly elections a week ago. 

"Brexit will be a disaster for the economy, and a disaster for the people of Ireland. A referendum on Irish unity has to happen as soon a possible," Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill told reporters in Belfast ... Fifty-six percent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union in June last year, but 52 percent of the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave. The British government "are continuing to refuse to listen to the majority view and they are refusing to honour their commitments and agreements," O'Neill said ... O'Neill's comments come as British Prime Minister Theresa May is poised to launch the Brexit process, which is expected to have major implications for the economy of Northern Ireland which has close trade links to the Irish Republic, an EU member.'(2)

Could this possibly be the end of the long and (mostly) tedious history of British interference/influence in Ireland? Like most national struggles that have gone on for centuries, in which the goal has become indistinct, exhaustion may well be the deciding factor for the future of a united Ireland.

(1) Why are Irish names - that is, names written in the Irish language (a language I do not speak), like the writer Sean O'Faolain (pronounced O-Fay-lawn), transliterated into English so unsatisfactorily?
(2) "Sinn Fein wants vote on Northern Ireland leaving UK 'as soon as
possible'," by Ian Graham and Conor Humphries, Reuters March 13, 2017.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Twenty Seventeen

Last week, after one of the latest false claims from Donald Trump, Nebraska Republican senator Ben Sasse remarked, “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust." Why is it that, at the very moment when the public are starving for facts, President Trump is challenging the importance of science in establishing those facts? And when the truth is becoming harder to find, why is he calling the press the enemy of the people?

In a recent Guardian article, Jill Abramson writes: "Fake news has morphed into something far more egregious, fake history." Abramson used as examples of the Trump administration's falsification of history Ben Carson's calling Africans brought to America as slaves "immigrants," Betsy DeVos's assertion that black colleges, which were until fifty or sixty years ago the only places where blacks could get college educations, were examples of the importance of students having the freedom to choose where they are schooled, and Stephen Bannon's claims that Joseph McCarthy was an American hero.(1)

In another article from Politifact, Joshua Gillin reported on "James McDaniel, a 28-year-old Clearwater native, said he created a fake news website last month as a joke to see just how naive Internet readers could be." In less than two weeks, his website received got one million views.(2)

It appears that the very consumption habits of the public contributes to the loss of historical memory. In the Authors' Note to their splendid book, The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote about a quite strange phenomenon:

"We have done what we could to verify the facts contained in this short history. A number of errors must still remain, if only because the sources that we chiefly rely on - memoirs and contemporary newspapers - are themselves far from trustworthy. For example, we have lately been interested to find widespread disagreement in the Press about even so recent and important an event as the German re-occupation of the Rhineland: according to a large body of opinion it took place in March 1934, not 1936. We cannot explain this."

Further into their book, Graves and Hodge suggest that "The more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory; yet most people read little else. Any sudden overwhelming public event - such as the outbreak of war, the coming of peace, a general election, a large-scale strike, a ruinous financial crisis - that engrosses the headlines for days or weeks, is a sponge for all that immediately preceded it."(3)

Unfortunately, this sort of thing - the deliberate lying of political demagogues - is nothing new. As long ago as 1942, George Orwell, who had witnessed how nearly all the accounts of the Spanish Civil War in the British press were distortions of the facts, worried that unbiased historical accounts were becoming a thing of the past: 

"This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the  feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written? If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books. But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written? What kind of records will Franco have left behind him?  Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written? For, as I have pointed out already, the Government also dealt extensively in lies. From the anti-Fascist angle one could write a broadly truthful history of the war, but it would be a partisan history, unreliable on every minor point. Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. 

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is  peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed  and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone. If you look up the history of the [First World] war in, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will find  that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some  ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement."(4)

Two years later, Orwell observed: 

"A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don't like it. Even as late as the last war it was possible for the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, to compile its articles on the various campaigns partly from German sources. Some of the facts - the casualty figures, for instance - were regarded as neutral and in substance accepted by everybody. No such thing would be possible now. A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield. 

During the Spanish civil war I found myself feeling very strongly that a  true history of this war never would or could be written. Accurate figures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist. And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now? Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon?  And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of "facts" which millions of people now living know to be lies. So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth. This kind of thing is happening all the time. In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the  winners. 

The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits "atrocities" but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future."

And yet Orwell remained optimistic: "There is some hope . . . that the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive. But I still don't envy the future historian's job."(5)

Not unexpectedly, but still at enormous cost, Orwell's side won the war. Still unconvinced that his fellow citizens of Europe had lost their appetite for totalitarianism, he devoted his last years, until his death in January 1950, to its satirization (in Animal Farm) and its chilling future manifestation (1984). While Orwell's prognosis was sound, his timing was off. The year 1984, though chosen arbitrarily, just thirty-five years after the novel's publication, wasn't especially auspicious for totalitarianism. What Orwell and his publishers could not have foreseen was that it would be in 2017 that the slogans
would become so frighteningly relevant, and that his prescient novel would become an international best seller all over again.

(1) Jill Abramson, "Alternative history: the dangerous byproduct of fake facts," The Guardian, 8 March 2017.
(2) Joshua Gillin, "Fake news website starts as joke, gains 1 million views within 2 weeks," Politifact, March 9, 2017.
(3) Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, London: Faber & Faber, 1941.
(4) George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War," 1942.
(5) George Orwell, "As I Please," Tribune, 4 February 1944.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stanley and Bert

"Is there no by-law in America to prevent dogs from entering cemeteries?" (Charles Baudelaire, commenting on the scabrous notices in the American press on the death of Edgar Allan Poe.)


When Stanley Kauffmann died on October 9, 2013, it was an almost seismic event in my life, as if I had lost a great teacher and mentor. His film column had been a fixture of The New Republic for fifty-five years and he had been my film guide for more than forty of them. I started reading Kauffmann at the same moment in my life that I began to discover the wider world of film, a world whose existence had been carefully kept from me by my own native film industry. It was no accident, then, that the first collection of his reviews was called A World on Film.

Kauffmann had been an informal member of a group of critics that included Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. It was these critics who ushered in what became known as the Golden Age of film criticism in America. Of these critics, however, only John Simon is still with us, but he gave up writing about film more than a decade ago. Consequently, I have always been on the lookout for good film critics to replace the ones I have lost. When I started to read the essays of Bert Cardullo in The Hudson Review in the 1990s, I believed that I had found one.

But something was wrong. It's one thing to recognize when a critic is in agreement not just with one's own judgements, but also with those of one's other favorite critics. It's quite another thing to discover that the likeness is more than coincidental. When I discovered that the published articles that Cardullo produced resembled - verbatim - the writings of Vernon Young and Kauffmann, my emotions ran a gamut from puzzlement to sadness, and eventually to outrage.

An Australian online film journal known as Senses of Cinema published my review of Cardullo's book, In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art in 2007. In the review I supplied direct evidence that Cardullo had stolen, for two of his articles in the book, the entirety of an essay written by Vernon Young. The Senses editor was reluctant at first to publish the piece because, she told me, it had been a few years since the book was published. She very bravely went ahead with publishing it. As far as I can tell, it was the first editorial notice of Bert Cardullo's theft of another writer's work.

Cardullo is an admirer of both Vernon Young and Stanley Kauffmann. So much so that he edited collections of their writings. This is especially worrisome when you consider that these two writers - Kauffmann in particular - seem to have been singled out by Cardullo for plagiaization.

Then, in 2010, New Yorker critic Richard Brody took the time to publish what he called, "Truffaut's Last Interview," which was reportedly conducted by Cardullo just before Truffaut's death from a cancerous brain tumor. The interview had been stolen, as I soon discovered, from various interviews that Brody later found readily available on YouTube. Brody questioned Cardullo about this by phone (Cardullo was teaching in Turkey at the time) and got a quite feeble explanation from him: that Truffaut was very ill and, in lieu of an interview, told him to glean what he wanted from other recorded interviews.

I published a blog post called François & Bert at the time, and have published several posts since then based on further information I received as comments to these posts. Cardullo has since then turned to capitalizing on the work of Stanley Kauffmann by publishing, with two different publishers, collections of the writings of Stanley Kauffmann. Last year I wrote the director of one of these publishing houses, Anaphora Press, informing her of Cardullo's widely-held reputation as a plagiarist. This resulted in my blog post "Date Due" from January 2016.   

Last week, I received an anonymous comment on that post that I have since published. It reads in part:

"A few years ago I posted on your blog some of the more blatant examples of Cardullo's cut and paste jobs, hoping they might alert publishers to his shady name and game. I also contacted many of the publishers of Cardullo's stolen work, and, like you, had a very strange exchange with Anaphora Press, whose director defended publishing Cardullo by saying that even the "Harry Potter" books contained plagiarisms. So, I shared both your obsession with exposing Cardullo as a plagiarist, and your disheartening feeling that, in spite of some very public retractions of his literary thefts, he was going to continue ransacking the work of good writers simply because publishers were not carefully checking either his dubious record or the purloined work he submitted. [...] Happy endings are so are rare in any strand of my life, that I really wanted to share this one with you. The following recent articles indicate that Cardullo has (probably) finally been stopped:

RIT faces suit over book of film critic's essays

RIT sued over book of late movie critic Stanley Kauffmann's columns

It's wonderful that Kauffmann's estate is very determined to make public, through the courts and the press, the extent of Cardullo's fraud. For me, your blog played an early and important part in the long campaign to expose him as a serial plagiarist."


One of the links the author of the comment supplied reads as follows:

'RIT sued over book of late movie critic Stanley Kauffmann's columns

Gary Craig Jan. 31, 2017

The Rochester Institute of Technology was duped by a serial plagiarist when it published a book of the works of the renowned film critic Stanley Kauffmann, a lawsuit alleges.

The RIT Press has halted publication of the book, The Millennial Critic, and tried to recall copies it has sold, court papers show. But the estate of Kauffmann, who died at the age of 97 in 2013 , is continuing with a federal lawsuit that seeks damages.

The lawsuit was originally filed in a federal court in New York City but was transferred this week, over the objections of an attorney for the estate, to a Rochester-based federal court.

Kauffmann was the lead film critic at The New Republic for five decades. Upon his death, The New York Times wrote that his reviews "set a standard for critical ease and erudition."

At the center of the controversy is Robert "Bert" Cardullo, who represented to RIT that he had the rights to Kauffmann essays and writings. Cardullo, who has taught film and theatre courses at different universities, has been accused of plagiarism in academic circles.
A letter presented to RIT Press which showed he had the rights to Kauffmann's work was a forgery, the lawsuit alleges.

Cardullo's current location appears to be a mystery. Records show he was recently teaching in Turkey, though the university there does not now list him on its website. The whereabouts of Cardullo could be important for lawyers for RIT, who are considering suing him for his representations.

The Democrat and Chronicle has unsuccessfully attempted to reach Cardullo via an email he used in late 2015.

In court papers, Kenneth Norwick, an attorney for Kauffmann's estate, argues that a simple Google search should have alerted RIT Press to many questions about Cardullo's veracity.

"If RIT made even a rudimentary first-page only Google search for 'Bert Cardullo' before relying on, if it did, any representations by him, it would have readily discovered his history and reputation as a plagiarist," Norwick wrote in the lawsuit.

RIT officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Other Institutions Also Taken In

In a telephone interview, Norwick, who is based in New York City, said Cardullo also bamboozled others into publishing Kauffmann-connected works. The estate is pursuing action with those also, he said.

With the lawsuit against RIT, "there is the issue of damages and there is the issue of making an official acknowledgment of what's going on here," he said. "The lawsuit will establish that RIT infringed (on the copyright for Kauffmann's works) and Cardullo is responsible for those infringements."

After Kauffmann's death, his estate learned of the RIT Press book through an Amazon search, Norwick said.

"Once the executor ... learned about the RIT book he did some further research and found numerous other examples of Cardullo-perpetrated infringements," Norwick said. "We've settled with some and we're in contact with others."

The lawsuit was first filed in April 2016. Months before that, representatives of the estate reached out to RIT Press about the possible copyright violations.

Those contacts prompted an angry email from Cardullo, who threatened to "upload (the book) to multiple Internet sites" if RIT Press was not told it could continue to sell the book.

"I am not in this for the money," Cardullo wrote. "RIT Press and I have performed a service for the late Mr. Kauffmann, in his memory. Please honor that memory by desisting. If you do not, I have spelled out the consequences."

According to the lawsuit, Cardullo did post a copy of the book on the Internet.'


Like Cardullo, I am not in this - exposing his outrageous career as a plagiarist - for the money. As you, dear reader, can affirm, I opted against including ads on my blog. The number of views that my posts manage to attract doesn't enrich me in any way, except in the knowledge that one more reader knows who and what Bert Cardullo is. That is my only reward, and it is enough.