Friday, February 24, 2017

Revisitations: Ballad of a Soldier

[From April 8, 2015. Oliver Stone went to some lengths a few years ago to convince us of the USSR's contribution to the war against Fascism. No one should doubt the magnitude of the price Russians paid to expel the Germans once they invaded their motherland. But if you were to visit cemeteries of World War II dead in North Africa or across the Pacific islands, you won't find any Russian names there - unless it was the name of a Russian/American. Russians fought to liberate Russia. Americans fought to liberate the world.]

Ballad of a Soldier

This remarkable Soviet film from 1959 tells of a country boy who, like millions of his countrymen, were enlisted in the superhuman effort to drive the army of the Wehrmacht, the most advanced and well-equipped in the world, out of Russia. The efforts of a number of people in the West, including American filmmaker Oliver Stone, to inform us of the terrible cost of winning World War II to Russia, and the enormous debt we all owe to ordinary Russian soldiers, has done much to correct our understanding of exactly who won the war. What's very curious to me is why there are so few Russian films from the period just after the war that were anxious to tell such a terrific story. Curious because the Great Patriotic War, as it became known to Russians, provided filmmakers with a golden opportunity for avoiding politics altogether and simply getting the story right.

Grigori Chukrai (1921-2001), a decorated Red Army veteran (like Alyosha, he was a signalman), got the story right by telling us the story of one soldier. He begins the film with a bucolic scene of a country road, down which a woman in black walks, past chickens and young people, and stops to look wanly down a road that stretches to the horizon. A narrator begins: "This is the road to town. Those who leave our village, and those who later return to their birthplace, walk along this road. She's not waiting for anyone. The one she used to wait for, her son Alyosha, did not return from the war. He's buried far from his birthplace, near a town with a foreign name. Strangers bring flowers to his grave. They call him a Russian soldier, a hero, a liberator. But to her he was simply a son, about whom she knew everything, from the day he was born to the day he left along this road for the front." A dissolve shows us the same woman, somewhat younger, looking with alarm down the same road. Then we see a helmeted soldier in a trench, as a tank bears directly down on him. (I don't know tanks very well, but the ones in Ballad of a Soldier looked like German Panzers to me - probably captured in the war.) He starts running away, but it follows him in every direction he turns. This could be mistaken for symbolism, but the tanks's single-minded pursuit of one soldier is just absurd enough to be real. Alyosha jumps into a trench, finds an anti-tank gun and fires it at the pursuing tank just in time. The tank slumps away from him lifelessly.  He sees another tank approaching and fires the same gun at it and scores another hit. For this act of heroism, Alyosha is told to report to his Comrade General, who tells him he is to be awarded a decoration. He boldly asks for leave instead of the decoration. He tells the general that he got a letter from his mother telling him that her roof is leaking. So the general grants him six days' leave - two to get to his village, two to fix the roof, and two to get back to the front.

The rest of the film is occupied by the six days leave that Alyosha (played by 19-year-old Vladimir Ivashov) earns and his long journey from the front to his village. Along the way, he encounters various people, farmers and laborers, and a beautiful girl named Shura (played by 19-year-old Zhanna Prokhorenko) who happens to be a stowaway in the same train car he occupies. There is a surfeit of socialist realism in so many scenes - every one of them trying to convince us that there are no bad Russians, that they are the salt of the earth, that there are no unfaithful wives, no inconstant loves, that officers are tough but fair, that friendship is everlasting and love isn't something to be entered into frivolously. After awhile, scenes come to resemble vignettes (the lighting is especially emphatic.)

I took a week's leave from the Army in 1997, and travelled from Lawton, Oklahoma to Denver by bus. The whole trip took nineteen hours, and all the way I was thinking that the journey was chewing into my leave time - time I could've been spending with my family instead of sitting on a TMN&O (Texas, New Mexico & Oklahoma) bus that seemed to stop every dozen miles or so. For the return trip I had to leave a day early to avoid being AWOL.

I wish I could say that most of the scenes in Ballad of a Soldier come across as achingly true. The content of treacle in them is quite a bit higher than one would find in a comparable Hollywood production. Ballad of a Soldier makes William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives look like stark realism, instead of intelligent hokum. It's clear that Chukrai loved his subject, and loved every character in the film. But he didn't love them enough to simply let them behave naturally. It's a far better technique for allowing an audience to make up its own mind whether characters are worthy of love or not.(1)

One scene is particularly unconvincing - when Alyosha stands with a group of laborers listening to news from the front. The news is bad. I have a hard time believing there was any such news delivered over the radio to the Russian people during the war. Whether they were losing on all fronts or not, the news was probably pure propaganda, all glorious victories and valiant resistance. That there was plenty of glory and valor to be found in Russia, especially after the fall of Stalingrad, there is no denying. But the cost in lives was horrific. To adapt Winston Churchill's famous tribute to the men who won the Battle of Britain, never have so many owed so much to so many. It doesn't have a much of a ring to it, but there was no one on our side at the time to pay such a tribute. By the end of the war, Russia had gone from a much-needed ally against the Germans to our next probable enemy. 

Through it all, however, Chukrai gives an impression of an overwhelming human catastrophe, with everyone clamoring to board the next train, when individuals have no time to express what is in their hearts, or even say goodbye to one another. Alyosha'a eventual arrival in his village, which gives him barely a few minutes to be with his mother before he has to begin the long journey back to the front, is effectively moving, with the prodding music shutting off just as they embrace in a long, silent moment.

Regardless of the monumental brutality inflicted by him on his own countrymen and on the revolution, it's doubtful that anyone other than Stalin could have brought so many people to bear on the single objective of driving the enemy out of Russia, even all the way to Berlin. The narrator mentions that Alyosha died near a town "with a foreign name," and that people (non-Russians) "bring flowers to his grave." The Russian army may have initially been seen as "liberators" by Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, but as soon as they realized that the Russians weren't going to leave, and, as Churchill put it, the "iron curtain" descended in the middle of Europe, Russian soldiers, whatever their sacrifices in driving out the Germans, became occupiers.   

(1) Chukrai was half Jewish and half Ukrainian, so he probably knew the word "schmaltz."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Revisitations: Night at the Crossroads

[From January 7, 2015. Little moments like this are typical of life in the military.]

There have been moments in every war since the beginning of time in which soldiers, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from home, asked the same question, in every language living or dead, that unites them all in spirit: "What the hell am I doing here?"

In my case it happened when I was in the Army stationed in South Korea. It was January in 1998, and a cold wave had struck the peninsula with freezing rain. My unit, 1/15th Field Artillery, was in the field when the cold weather arrived. We had been there, somewhere near the DMZ (we were never told exactly where), for a week with all of our combat track vehicles, three huge 155mm self-propelled howitzers, known as "Paladins," ammunition vehicles, and two old 577s - Vietnam-era personnel carriers converted to fire-direction centers.

At our designated firing point, we were all preparing for our return to garrison at Camp Casey farther to the south, but the ice on the roads delayed us for two crucial days. Finally, after two days or waiting, we were told that we could move, but we had to wait until after midnight. This was because there were no tank trails anywhere for our track vehicles to travel on, so we had to drive on the available public roads when there was a minimum of traffic. 

Five of us were "volunteered" to act as road guards at different intersections through which our convoy would be passing, on the outside chance that anyone would be driving the roads at that hour. So just after midnight, I donned my gortex jacket and gloves, got into "full battle rattle" - kevlar helmet & LBE (load-bearing equipment) - grabbed my M16, and climbed into the back of a waiting humvee. As we drove through the night, at intervals one of us would be deposited on the pavement at an intersection. 

I was the first to climb out of the humvee, and after collecting my gear, I watched the humvee drive out of sight. What struck me immediately was the stillness of the place where I was left standing. The chill in the air meant that I would not even hear the sound of an insect. I turned around and looked at the crossroads I was put there to guard. On one corner stood a two-storey house with a streetlight beside it. Across the road was another light pole and a traffic light was suspended by a cable above the road. There were people living in there, somewhere, but they were evidently fast asleep. They were unaware that an American soldier was standing on their street with an M16. My rifle wasn't loaded, and they hadn't given me any live ammo, so if someone threatened me with a loaded .22 pistol - or even a sharp stick - I would've surrender my M16, or anything else they wanted from me.

On the other corners of the crossroads stood what looked like shops with their metal shutters pulled down. Not wearing a watch, which would only have made the long wait seem that much more interminable, I tried to dole out the time in small measures by counting the number of my steps on the road, with each step equal to one second, from the end of the two-storey house down to the corner opposite the streetlight. The distance was almost exactly sixty steps, so rather than counting steps, all I had to do was count the minutes every time I had to turn around. This exercise of mine grew tedious after ten minutes, so I let my thoughts drift for the rest of the time I waited for the convoy to arrive.

I thought about the moment, the cold January night (I didn't know the exact date), and what I would do when we got back to our motor pool in Camp Casey and I was released in the morning. I stopped when I reached the corner and instead of turning around I walked to the middle of the road and looked into the air above me. So there I was, in the middle of Nowhere, South Korea, wondering with whom - if anyone - I could ever share such an odd moment. The few stars I could see beyond the streetlights would've seemed unfamiliar even I had recognized them. I was 39 years old, not knowing what I would make of the Army, or what it would make of me. Of course, there were plenty of places I'd rather have been, especially on that night. 

My wife, my mother, brother and sister were in Colorado, probably making the most of their freedom to go and do as they pleased. Was I, a soldier armed with an unloaded rifle, standing alone in the middle of a road I couldn't find on a map - even if I had one - really making that freedom possible? Of course, the task I was performing had to be done by someone, so what did it matter if it was performed by me, just another soldier in uniform, rather than someone else? 

After what seemed an eternity, an eternity in which I reminded myself several times that it was taking forever for my unit's convoy to show up, it arrived at the crossroads where I stood, fending off nonexistent traffic, and I quit my post and climbed into the back of a humvee for the long ride back to the motorpool, our barracks, civilian clothes, hot food and cold beer. These 17 years and an overabundance of living later, I think of that cold night and write down these words as if I were telling of an encounter with extraterrestrials. Who would believe me if I told them?

Friday, February 17, 2017

Revisitations: Legends versus Facts

[From August 13, 2013. I think the argument is still a sound one, but I'm slightly revising the original post to make it more clear.]

Little Bill: The Real Hero of Unforgiven

In one of John Ford's most mythopoeic Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a newspaper reporter interviews a senator (Jimmy Stewart) whose fame rests on the shooting of a notorious outlaw many years before. The senator tells the reporter the truth about the shooting, that Liberty Valance was really done in by a forgotten rancher named Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne). At the end of the movie, instead of revealing the real name of the "man who shot Liberty Valance," the reporter destroys his notes and says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

When Gore Verbinsky's The Lone Ranger became one of the biggest box office flops of all time a few years ago (1), it seemed as good a time as any to pronounce the Western dead as a doornail. The last Western - that made money - was the unsightly Cowboys & Aliens (2011), a bit of silliness comparable to 1966's Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Clint Eastwood's last Western, Unforgiven (1992), which he waited almost twenty years to make so he would look the part of William Munny, was widely hailed as his greatest, and one of the best of the genre. But I have always been puzzled by what Eastwood was trying to impart in the movie.

The plot is fairly complicated, for a Western: In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a group of prostitutes employed by Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) in a saloon called Greeley's, put together a $1,000 reward for the killing of two cowboys who attacked Delilah (Anna Levine) with a knife and scarred her for life. The town's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), refused to arrest the two men, and knows that gunmen from Kansas and Cheyenne will be coming to Little Whiskey to collect the reward. Little Bill enforces a curious and draconian law in his small town that obliges everyone within the town limits to surrender their firearms. If anyone declines to give up their guns, Little Bill's policy is to take them by force and beat the living daylights out of the transgressor.

When Little Bill enforces this policy on an old gunman named English Bob (Richard Harris), he locks him in jail overnight and adopts a writer named W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who has been writing colorful tales about Bob and other outlaws for the delectation of readers back East. Little Bill proceeds to debunk every story that Beauchamp has heard from English Bob and others, and tells him the ugly truth about the Wild West. At first, Beauchamp doesn't want to believe Little Bill, but he realizes he's telling the truth when English Bob says nothing to contradict him.

(Throughout the movie, we see Little Bill struggle to construct a house. It's a kind of symbol of the feeble impact Bill is having on his little corner of the West.)

Then William Munny, played at first by Eastwood with almost exaggerated clumsiness, slipping in a muddy pigsty and falling off his horse, arrives in Little Whiskey, along with an old compatriot named Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a wet-behind-the-ears upstart named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), on account of the Schofield revolver he carries. The long ride in the rain has left Will feverish, and when Ned and the Kid adjourn upstairs in Greeley's with the girls, Little Bill shows up to relieve Will of his firearm. The usual savage beating ensues, leaving Will nearly as scarred as Delilah. The three men escape to a shack outside Little Whiskey to nurse Will's wounds.

The rest of the movie plods along predictably, until the final scene, which stands everything that came before it on its head. Will Munny is, at best, the anti-hero of this story. It emerges that he was one of the cruelest murderers of the West in his bad old drunken days, killing "everything that walks or crawls at one time or another" (his own words). But when Ned is captured by Little Bill's posse and whipped by Little Bill until he gives up the identities of his cohorts, Ned suddenly dies. One of the prostitutes, Little Sue (Tara Frederick), who gives Will and the Kid the $1,000 reward, informs them of Ned's "accidental" death and of his body being put "in a box in front of Greeley's" with a sign on him reading "This is what happens to assassins." Will starts drinking his liquid courage (whiskey) and is instantly transformed into the William Munny of old.

It's at this point that critics should've unanimously cried foul: Eastwood spends four-fifths of his movie debunking Western mythology, revealing the exaggeration and lies behind all the stories of gunfights and outlaws, only to turn 180 degrees in the last scene and create a brand new myth. I remember when I watched Unforgiven the first time with a group of fellow sailors in 1992, and how they cheered when Eastwood enters Greeley's saloon with a shotgun and asks, "Who's the owner of this shithole?" Like the storyteller W.W. Beauchamp, they want the exaggeration, the distortions, the lies, as long as they're as violent as possible.

What nobody noticed about Unforgiven is that, from an historical and contemporary perspective, the real hero of Eastwood's movie is Little Bill Daggett. Although Eastwood doesn't make this conclusion clear, it certainly makes the movie far more relevant. Virtually alone among the region's law-enforcers, he knows the destructiveness of guns and seeks, within the confines of his small town, to curb their destructiveness. Not by banning guns, but by having them removed for the time being. Just before Munny shoots him the last time, Little Bill mutters pathetically, "I don't deserve this. I was building a house." All he wanted was a quiet place where he could smoke his pipe and watch the sun set. Not in Little Whiskey, alas.

Otherwise, Unforgiven is just one more simplistic Western yarn - one that, true or made up, W.W. Beauchamp might have written. There is a curious shot near the end of the movie. As Munny is riding out of Little Whiskey, he stops in front of Greeley's and shouts to whomever is listening, "You'd better bury Ned right, and don't be cutting up any more whores, or I'll come back and kill every one of you sons-of-bitches!" As he shouts those last words, there is an American flag over Will's left shoulder. Is it another of Eastwood's signals that he wants to lift his conventional story into another national myth? Even if you consider there is more meaning behind the movie's title, that Will Munny, who tried living a civilized life of his own, cannot escape his bloody past, Unforgiven is just another example of John Ford's "print the legend."

(1) According to reports, its losses reached $200M.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I have always admired the sweet dignity in Robert Frost's short definition of "Devotion":

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean
Holding the curve of one position
Counting an endless repetition.

The film Amour (2012), however, explores the indignities that befall us when we find that our repetitions are not endless - when the countdown to death begins. But it also asks us if it is truly the end of love or only a transition. It seems to answer that age-old question of the poets: what becomes of the beloved?

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has made a substantial reputation for
creating works that combine a preoccupation with often brutal subjects and a formal coolness. In The Piano Teacher, the surface quietude of a woman's life is torn apart by a sado-masochistic affair with a much younger man. In Caché, a successful television host becomes the object of blackmail by a figure from his less than innocent childhood. In The White Ribbon, the serenity of a typically jewel-like German village before the First World War is ruffled by a series of increasingly disturbing incidents.

Amour (2012) involves us in the lives of Georges and Anne, both retired music teachers, enjoying what have come to be known as their "declining years." They live in a lovely old Paris apartment, of which we are given a brief tour when the film opens by the police, who have responded to complaints of a foul odor emanating from inside. They break down the doors and find the body of a dead woman lying on a bed, her head surrounded with flower petals. There is no one else, alive or dead, in the apartment, which leads us into one of the film's unexplained mysteries.

In the following scenes we are introduced to Georges and Anne, played by the venerable Jean-Louis Trintingnant and Emmanuelle Riva, who return from a concert one evening to find evidence of an attempted break-in to their apartment. Although the attempt is evidently unsuccessful, Anne is so disturbed by the event that it brings on a stroke, evidence of which appears the following morning when she goes "blank" at the breakfast table. Jumping forward in time, Georges discusses an unsuccessful operation on Anne with their daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert (who was formerly Haneke's Piano Teacher), and Anne is brought back to their apartment in a wheelchair.

These two people, proud of their accomplishments in life and of their place in the world, have nonetheless reached a tacit pact with each other, should their advancing years place either of them in a position of unavoidable and inescapable difficulty. Out of either shame or pride, Anne arrives at the decision to allow no one - not even her daughter - to see her deteriorating condition. Finally, when she is unable or, more likely, unwilling, to swallow some water that Georges tries to get her to drink, he reacts by slapping her. Can this possibly be looked upon as an access of tenderness? Even though he is ambulatory and is free to leave their apartment, he behaves as if he knows that her fate is his as well. He is as incapacitated as she. And because he is still marginally in control, he commits an act, in gently suffocating her with her pillow, that could be viewed (certainly from a legal perspective) harshly.

Haneke has been accused of being brutal by showing us the details of Anne's steady decline - how, for example, Georges helps her get off the toilet, pulling up her panties and, in a kind of broken pas de deux, moving her through the narrow bathroom door. Or when Anne pees the bed, and is overcome with the humiliation. It isn't Haneke's brutality but life's that he shows us. His film reminded me of the last scenes of Iris (2001), in which John Bayley (Jim Broadbent) endures the torments of the final stages of Iris Murdoch's (Judi Dench) alzheimer's.

I mentioned Haneke's formal coolness. His are the most meticulously composed films since Antonioni. His camera takes up a witness point that is only as engaged as Georges and Anne's apartment will allow. It is such a comfortable and lived-in space for the couple, who eventually, as the solitude of Anne's illness progresses, are the only people onscreen, that it becomes a kind of echo chamber. Anne looks through an album at photographs of herself, Georges and their daughter from half a century ago and remarks on their long, beautiful life - a life that is coming to a close.

We are shown Georges's dreams, some suffocating, others nostalgic, all of which are confined, like him, within his apartment. Finally, with Anne's body arranged in her bed among flower petals, Georges dreams she is there again, alive, and they depart together through the door that their daughter enters, seconds later, but after the apartment has been cleared. We are left to presume that Georges has died, too - although it is only Anne's body the police find. We see him carefully writing a long letter. Is it a suicide note? To whom is it addressed?

Haneke's camera (Darius Khondji was his DP) observes carefully but selectively, knowing when to be clinical and when to make the viewer guess at what is happening. The decor is uncluttered but apposite, but two things - a television and a computer - are conspicuously absent. In the salon, there are only a piano, books, and recorded music. The only music we hear in the film is played on a piano or on a music system.

Then there are the two actors. It would be very hard to find two who wear their age so beautifully. Unlike Hollywood actors, who undergo cosmetic surgeries to disguise themselves as younger people, these storied French actors are also human beings. I saw a recent photo of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon last week. Both men are pushing 80 and they look it. Look at Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda. It's rather terrible that our superficial culture has forbidden them to grow old. I have recently seen Trintingnant in two films - Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso and a very minor French film from 1964, Les Pas Perdus, with Michèle Morgan. Trintingnant was the perfect foil to Vittorio Gassman in the former, and surpringly affecting as a gigolo with a heart in the latter. (Michèle Morgan, the siren of French poetic realism, died at the end of last year at the age of 96.) In Amour Trintingnant is the same quiet, intelligent presence. Emmanuelle Riva was one of the reasons that Hiroshima Mon Amour was - and remains - worth watching. Although the equation of the suffering of her character with the suffering of Hiroshima was insubstantially argued (in Marguerite Duras's script), Riva gave it all the heft and gravity it would've needed. It is she, not the Japanese gentleman (played by the late Eiji Okada), who insists on dredging up the past, which further invalidates Duras's labored point. Riva, still beautiful, is quite affecting in Amour. Her decline is all the more saddening for being so honestly presented.

In one of his characteristically brilliant but rather slanted essays, "Bourgeois Nightmares," the late Gilberto Perez wondered about Haneke's "happy ending":

"Earlier in the film a pigeon flies in through the window in the entrance hall, and Georges helps it fly out. After he kills Anne, it flies in again, but this time Georges gets up from his writing, shuts the window and captures the pigeon in a blanket. He writes that he let the pigeon go, but we never see him do it. He stays alone in the apartment. From his bed he hears the sound of water off-screen: Anne is there, washing the dishes in the kitchen. I’m almost finished, she says, put on your shoes if you want. She puts on her coat and reminds him to take his as she opens the door of the apartment and they go out for the evening. The shot is held after they leave. No doubt this is a dream, but it suggests something like their entering the afterlife together. Asked to comment on the pigeon, Haneke has observed that they often fly into Parisian apartments. But this one might represent the freedom from confinement that Georges refuses following his wife’s death, then accepts in his dream. Perhaps he flew out of the window, now open again, as the police noticed when they broke in."(1)

Haneke is certainly one of those directors who forces one to concentrate. But in support of his argument, Perez indulges in a somewhat creative solution to Georges' mysterious absence. But if his explanation is unacceptable, what other explanation is there? Where did Georges go, if not with Anne in his dream?

If we are left with questions at the film's conclusion, perhaps they are in accordance with Haneke's poetry. As another poet, Alun Lewis, put it another way:

Time upon the heart can break,
But love survives the venom of the snake.

("In Hospital: Poona")

(1) London Review of Books, 6 December 2012.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Revisitations: Domestic Cruelty

[From October 29, 2013. This is one of my pet peeves.] Cruelty

A "symbiosis" is defined in the OED as

noun (plural symbioses /-ˌsēz/)
interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.

An example of such a phenomenon is a plant that has brilliantly colored flowers and nectar that attracts hummingbirds who, while feasting on the nectar with their long, thin beaks, pollenate the plant. The plant and the hummingbird depend on each other for survival.

Humans have no such symbiotic relationship with animals or plants. We exploit nature for our own benefit. Livestock animals depend for their survival on us, but not vice-versa. Over the millennia, animals have been enlisted to provide us with fodder and hides, and also to bear our burdens.

Our relationship with dogs - easily the most privileged animals among us - has gone through numerous permutations. Originally, it is likely that wild dogs were captured and kept in human settlements, fed leftovers (giving the dog a bone), used to pull sleds across the ice and snow, and to guard against intruders. This dependence on humans brought about - in an animal more intelligent than any other domesticated animal (even if pigs are reportedly smarter) - a much closer relationship, a devotion or loyalty to an individual's family, or to a group. But the limitations of the relationship have always been clearly defined, since, for one thing, the lifespan of dogs is not even as long as one human generation.

People have shown a profound love for dogs from the beginning, but lately, and perhaps only in the most technically developed societies, dog loving has reached unprecedented proportions. As an adjunct, I suppose, to veterinary medicine, people calling themselves "dog psychologists" are popping up everywhere, and it has become a big business since the success of the "reality" TV program "The Dog Whisperer," and its star, Cesar Milan. Milan's show demonstrates - powerfully - how little dog owners understand how dog's think. It also shows the incredible amount of room that some people are prepared to set aside in their lives for their dogs.

This remarkable accommodation of dogs in people's lives is relatively new, and I think it can be traced to the fall in birthrates in the most developed countries. Single men and women and older couples whose children have grown up and left home adopt dogs for obvious reasons. Some even admit that they prefer their dogs to husbands, live-in partners, or children.(1) It's clear that an exaggerated love for animals goes hand in hand with a certain amount of misanthropy.

Probably nothing else illuminates the true dimensions of the accommodation of dogs in people's lives than a pet cemetery. There is a scene in the unforgettable 1962 Italian "documentary" Mondo Cane (Bestial World) in which images of old ladies visiting a pet cemetery in the U.S., with old women tearfully placing flowers on the graves of their departed poodles, were juxtaposed with shots from a Singapore restaurant yelping puppies crammed into cages were on the menu, like live lobsters in aquariums at the supermarket.

The helpless, instinctive devotion of dogs to people is exploited in some extreme instances. The superiority of a dog's senses of smell and hearing are routinely employed by police and rescue personnel. When dogs are used in law enforcement or combat situations, in so-called K-9 units, the situations are potentially lethal. When these units award medals to their dogs for "valor" or "courage under fire", whether or not the animals are still alive, their handlers are being downright obtuse. Such ceremonies make it hard to determine who is more oblivious that the use of dogs in K-9 units is exploitation - the dogs themselves or their handlers. It's no different, really, from the use of dogs in scientific experiments. When the first American astronauts were asked by a reporter how they differed from the chimpanzee that NASA had shot into space, they had to point out that the chimps had no idea they were sitting on top of a rocket about to be shot into space. Before the chimp could comprehend his hazardous situation, he would have to understand how a rocket ship works and what outer space is. Similarly, dogs in K-9 units are doing nothing more than following the commands of their handlers, with no comprehension of explosives or ballistics.

When American movie productions use animals, there is usually a disclaimer from the American Humane Association stating that no animals were harmed during the making of the film. They make no mention of the occasional harm to people during the filming, like injuries to stunt-people, simply because the people are involved in the production voluntarily and the animals are not. Recently, the hit HBO series Luck was cancelled because three horses (the film is centered on a race track) were killed during the shooting.

But the exploitation of dogs goes much further than most people realize. In 2011, a documentary called Project Nim was released that was an account of a Columbia University experiment in the 1970s in which a baby chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky, who has claimed that humans are the only animals that use language), was raised among humans just like a human child. Problems started to arise as the chimp grew in size and strength. In the middle of the experiment, funding dried up and Nim's handlers were told they would have to give hand him over to an animal shelter. When one of the handlers, a young woman, started to leave the protective compound in which the experiment was being conducted, Nim turned violent and savagely beat the handler's head against the pavement. With no serious injuries, the woman later observed, "You can't give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you."

In his review of the documentary, Michael Wood, film critic for the London Review of Books, wondered:

"We can refuse to recognize the otherness of other animals by pretending they are like us, versions of us; and we can, it seems, understand their otherness only by a more refined use of the same method. But what constitutes the refinement? ... But then what I really want to know is not what a chimpanzee would feel if he was human but what I would feel if I was a chimpanzee."

But what dog owners practice all over the world is a kind of rehearsal of the experiment in Project Nim - they invite animals into their homes and treat them like family members, without for a moment comprehending what it must mean to the animal. When the chimp Nim was finally settled into a wildlife ranch where several other chimps were kept, it took him awhile to grasp the fact that he was a chimpanzee himself and that he belonged with other chimps and not with people. When one of Nim's handlers visited him years after his "resettlement" among chimps, she made the mistake of entering his enclosure. Nim, who apparently recognized her, went berserk and threw the woman around his cage like a rag doll. The woman was rescued and survived the attack.

Animal shelters reveal a great deal about what people really think and feel about dogs and what the actual status of dogs is in human society. According to American Humane Association calculations, "56 percent of dogs ... that enter animal shelters are euthanized." Actual numbers aren't available, but it's estimated that "approximately 3.7 million animals were euthanized in the nation’s shelters in 2008. This number represents a generally accepted statistic that is widely used by many animal welfare organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)." Only about one-quarter of dogs that enter shelters end up adopted. This is a direct result of dog-owners' refusal to get their pets spayed or neutered.

Animal shelters use the word "adoption" when people remove a dog, for a small fee. there is never any real confusion about the nature of a dog owner's ownership of the animal. The dogs are property, pure and simple. They wear collars identifying the names of their owners. They don't "run away" from their owners so much as they escape their captivity. To facilitate their recovery, many dog owners are having microchips implanted in their animals.

More and more in prosperous countries, people are bestowing on dogs a status far above all other animals, while never quite redeeming them from their condition as animals. In his inimitable way, Rilke caught the heartbreaking poignancy of our relationship with dogs, and the full extent of the crime we unwittingly, and repeatedly, commit on them: "We help them up into a soul," he wrote, "for which there is no heaven."

(1) When I left home for the Navy, and after my father died, my mother, who always called me "Danny Boy," adopted a West Highland Terrier that she named "Donny Boy." She could've been more subtle, but I suppose that might have ruined the symbolism.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Revisitations: Restricted Viewing

[From June 29, 2013. I still think this is an excellent idea.] 

Restricted Viewing

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is a powerful and much-maligned organization that practices "voluntary" censorship on movies made and released in the United States. Of course, it continually denies that it is involved in censorship and claims only that it is performing a service to moviegoers - particularly those with children. It provides guidance to parents about a movie's content that is supposed to help them choose which ones are suitable for exposure to their children. A rating caveat is assigned to every movie, from G for "General" audiences, "all ages admitted", to NC-17 for "no one 17 and under admitted".

Nowadays, movie producers tolerate such blatant censorship for liability reasons: if a parent tries to bring legal action against them because the content of a movie was unsuitable for a child, a producer can always use the MPAA rating caveat in his defense. The sheer paucity of films designed for adults cries out for a revamp of this necklace of skeletons that hangs around the industry's neck.

Over the years, as violence and sexuality have grown increasingly graphic in their representation in movies, the MPAA has reserved its hardest ratings, "R" and "NC-17" for movies that are - supposedly - off limits to under-17-year-olds. While the majority of movies manage to land a PG or a PG-13 rating, even when, in some cases, they are extremely violent, many adults - moviegoers and critics - have sought out movie material that is suitable for grown-ups, that don't cater to a juvenile audience or to a juvenile mentality or morality. Since most Hollywood products have the combined intelligence quotient of a flea, this has often been a lonely hunt for grown-up moviegoers.

Since the majority of the blockbuster movies in release are derived from comic books or their euphemistic equivalent, "graphic novels," movie producers have tried to tailor them to teenage audiences (even when so many comic book fans are old enough to have teenaged children of their own), and have to persuade the MPAA to refrain from applying a rating stronger than a PG-13. As anyone who watched the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado unfold on TV (I was able to do it from the opposite side of the earth), The Dark Knight Rises, which was having a midnight showing that night, was rated PG-13. It was so violent that, when James Holmes entered the theater - filled with children and teenagers - firing his weapons, most audience members believed it was a stunt staged for the special screening.

Since I am not a parent and I don't have to worry about finding anything but stupidity objectionable, the ratings are pointless to me. If they are going to persist, however, why not have one that cuts both ways, that serves families with children that need protection from sexuality and violence as well as adults who want protection from infantilism? I would like the MPAA to do me a small favor. If a movie is tailored to appeal to children, like the Harry Potters and Hobbits that stink up the multiplexes, they could put some teeth in the rating system by restricting the audience to people under 17. No adults should be admitted without the accompaniment of a child. If nothing else, such a rating system would remind some people that they're too old to bother with such childish things any more. And it might even give them an appetite for more "adult" fare at the movies. Wishful thinking, I know.