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?",, 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.