Monday, February 23, 2015
by Lisa Lieberman
He had told me that he shredded street posters himself to uncover the ones hidden beneath the newer strata. He pulled the strips down layer by layer and photographed them meticulously, stage by stage, down to the last scraps of paper that remained on the billboard or stone wall.
Patrick Modiano, "Afterimage"
I picked up Suspended Sentences after Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature this past fall and was immediately reminded of an Alain Resnais film—not that I'm the first to draw a connection between the two memory-obsessed artists. Modiano himself acknowledged a debt to the late filmmaker when accepting a prize from the Bibliothèque nationale for his body of work in 2011. "During my childhood, I saw Alain Resnais's documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) [All the World's Memories] about the journey of a book arriving at the Bibliothèque nationale," he said, "and the film made me want to write."
Resnais made the All the World's Memories after his documentary about the death camps, Night and Fog (1955). In contrast to the brutal manner in which memory is evoked in this film and the accusatory tone of the narration, All the World's Memories is irreverent and light-hearted. I can easily imagine the ten-year-old Modiano being drawn in by Resnais's gently ironic depiction of the great library as a fortress dedicated to preserving memory at any cost. Words are captured and confined, books imprisoned, never to leave. Issued with an identity card, "the prisoner awaits the day it will be filed," we are told, but lest we worry, Resnais is quick to assure us that this incarceration is entirely beneficial. Books are treated well. Scientific expertise is deployed to stave off the destruction of perishable documents: "An ointment is applied to preserve bindings, the writings of vanished civilizations are restored, books are vaccinated, shrouded, holes made by insects are filled in, loose pages glued back in." Those of us old enough to remember card catalogues will appreciate hearing them described here as "the brain of the Bibliothèque nationale." And if you were fortunate enough to conduct research in the vast reading room under the glass dome, as I was, you'll be charmed by the birds-eye view of the rows of readers seated "like paper-crunching insects" at those long tables, "each in front of his own morsels of universal memory."
You wouldn't know that the director of All the World's Memories was the same person who made Night and Fog, or that he would go on to make Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a fictional story about a short-lived affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, both scarred by their experiences in the Second World War, or the mystifying Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But now I must mention a fascinating series of coincidences. During these very years, while still a student at the prestigious Paris lycée Henri IV, Modiano was the protégé of the avant-garde writer Raymond Queneau, who had just published his famous novel, Zazie dans le métro. Zazie would be made into a film by Louis Malle the following year, and Modiano would write the screenplay for Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Malle's film about a French boy who joins the collaborationist militia during the Occupation. Queneau was a friend of Resnais's. He wrote the text (in rhyming couplets, no less) for Le Chant du styrène (1958), a short documentary celebrating the virtues of plastic, and was one of the founders of OuLiPo (Potential Literature Workshop), an experimental literary collective subsequently joined by Georges Perec. The son of Polish Jews whose mother died in Auschwitz, Perec returned again and again to the ineffable trauma of the Holocaust in his literary works, frequently re-imagining his own past during the era of the German Occupation, as does Modiano in his literary works. Indeed, when Modiano won the Nobel, Perec was inevitably invoked, some critics going so far as to suggest that the prize was actually intended for Perec, a belated tribute to the author who had succumbed to lung cancer in 1982 while only in his forties.
Yes, the world of French arts and letters can feel awfully incestuous, but there's something else at play here. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a formative time for Modiano, but his interests were more esoteric than the average teenager's. In a 2007 interview he gave to the center-left daily, Libération, he identified Léon Bloy as a favorite author—a bizarre choice, as he admitted, for someone of his generation, although the works of the late-nineteenth-century Catholic extremist have been cited by Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, and Pope Francis. I get from Bloy a sense of the author's sacred mission, words like gifts offered up from a pure and open heart, and can only assume that the young Modiano was attracted to this romantic view of writing as a quasi-religious vocation. He later discovered, when reading Queneau's journals, that his mentor had been no less obsessed by Bloy in his younger days. Perhaps the message of All the World's Memories continued to inspire Modiano, but when I said earlier that his work reminds me of a Resnais film, I had a different film in mind.
Muriel, or the Time of Return
The Algerian war officially ended with the signing of the Evian Accords between France and the provisional government of Algeria in March 18, 1962. The bloody colonial conflict caused an estimated one million native Algerian deaths and tens of thousands of deaths on the French and European-Algerian (pied-noir) side, but mortality statistics reveal only part of the war's traumatic legacy. French soldiers sent to "maintain order" in the wake of the terrorist campaign initiated by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria in 1954 brought back stories of atrocities they committed. They took part in sweeping roundups of insurgents in the countryside, conducting raids on Algerian villages to root out guerrillas which entailed hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. Brutal tactics were employed to make the Algerians talk: beatings, rapes, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and electric shocks administered to the suspect's genitals. As early as 1947, Albert Camus had denounced the "Gestapo methods" routinely employed by the French in their colonies of Madagascar and his native Algeria—torture, collective reprisals, executions. "Three years after having felt the effects of a politics of terror, the French take in the news like people who have seen too much," he charged. "And yet the facts are there, clear and hideous as the truth: we are doing over there the same thing that we reproached the Germans for doing here."
All of this is alluded to in Resnais's unsettling film from 1963, Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour [Muriel, or the Time of Return]. What is returning here are the repressed memories of World War II, an unstable foundation upon which is layered the more recent history of French atrocities in its former colony. The story takes place in the northern port city of Boulogne, which was bombed heavily during the war. It was actually the screenwriter, Jean Cayrol, who chose the setting: "I situated the story in Boulogne, despite Resnais's doubts, because Boulogne is also a town after a drama. There are two towns, the old one spared by the war and the reconstructed town, the topography of which the old inhabitants cannot recognize… As the town plasters over the effects of the war, so do the inhabitants."
The ruins are still visible, as this still from the film makes clear, new structures looking out of place and poorly anchored, threatening to topple at any moment. A character in the film underscores the point in a scene included in the trailer, "The building is ready. They get the windows in. But it slides," he says.
Hélène has invited her old lover Alphonse back for a visit, to settle some unfinished business. He arrives with his young mistress and over a period of days, or perhaps weeks, the two express recriminations that apply as much to the situation of France as to their personal relationship.
Alphonse: Let's not dig up the past.
Hélène: That's why you're here.
Alphonse: I resent you Hélène, for all these memories.
Hélène's stepson Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. He is angry at everyone, including himself, for what he did over there. Muriel is the name that he and his fellow conscripts gave to a girl they suspected of being a terrorist, whom they tortured to death. Bernard speaks of her as if she is still alive, as if she is still in his life, and of course we realize that she is present; the memory of what he did will never leave him. But Resnais could not say this outright in 1963, when de Gaulle's government was actively suppressing the memories of the Algerian war and when the French, like Alphonse, were disinclined to dig up painful memories of the German Occupation, notably their complicity with the occupier. And so the story is revealed only partially, and obliquely, forcing the audience to do the work at peeling away the obfuscations that have been plastered over the war's effects.
The Slow Dissolve
I don't know whether Modiano ever saw Muriel, but his fiction addresses the same gaps in memory, locating these lacunae in a place—the Parisian neighborhoods from which Jews were deported in the war, or vaguely remembered buildings he visited or resided in as a child—in much the same way that Boulogne was employed by Cayrol and Resnais to suggest impermanence. Walking these streets some years later, the narrator of Dora Bruder finds "nothing but a wasteland, itself surrounded by half-demolished walls. On these walls, open to the sky," he continues, "you could still make out the patterned paper of what was once a bedroom . . ." Modiano's lacunae arise from a different source than Resnais's. Too young to remember the Occupation, but aware of the taint it has left on French history and on his family history (Modiano's father dealt in the Black Market and may well have had dealings with the Gestapo), he attempts to fill in the gaps through repeated acts of the imagination. And yet he will not allow these imaginative recreations to endure. Unlike the books in the Bibliothèque nationale, the holes in Modiano's books are not filled in and the missing pages are gone for good.
In my favorite image from Suspended Sentences, the narrator of the last novella, "Flowers of Ruin" attempts to weave a story, gathering together all the threads he has collected, joining seemingly random events and images the way we do in dreamwork, but it always unravels. Tissue-thin, the cloth dissolves like a scrim, lit from behind. In the theater, this device would reveal the characters onstage, who would spring to life. In Modiano's fiction, the characters dissolve as well.
I hadn't moved from the window. Under the pouring rain, he crossed the street and went to lean against the retaining wall of the steps we had walked down shortly before. And he stood there, unmoving, his back against the wall, his head raised toward the building facade. Rainwater poured onto him from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched. But he did not move an inch. At that moment a phenomenon occurred for which I'm still trying to find an explanation: had the street lamp at the top of the steps suddenly gone out? Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him the way water dilutes a fresco that hadn't had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I'd later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself that these people really had existed.
Patrick Modiano, "Afterimage," Suspended Sentences, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 15.
Albert Camus, "La Contagion," Combat, 10 May 1947.
James Monaco, Alain Resnais (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 90.
Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder, trans Joanna Kilmartin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 111.
Patrick Modiano, "Flowers of Ruin," Suspended Sentences, 211.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Cubas of the Imagination
by Lisa Lieberman
"Get ready for a torrid tropical holiday!" That's how the announcer on the trailer for Weekend in Havana (1941) introduced this film. Torrid: full of passionate or highly charged emotions arising from sexual love. Now there's an adjective to get your heart rate up! The list of synonyms in my thesaurus includes lustful, steamy, sultry, sizzling, hot, and here's Carmen Miranda, promising all that and more. I dare you to sit still through the opening number.
Granted, the Hays Code strictly limited how much steamy sex you could show explicitly in a 1941 movie, but directors were free to use innuendo. Here's handsome leading man John Payne working out the details of his (ahem) business relationship with Ms. Miranda. Meanwhile, Alice Fay is finding romance in the arms of a Latin lover, played by the Cuban-American actor Cesar Romero, a.k.a. "the Latin from Manhattan." Rumba, anyone?
The archetypical Latin lover was Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, of course. Back in the 1920s, he drove women mad with desire in his breakthrough role as a gaucho in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, stealing another man's partner and whisking her off in a tango faster than you can say, "Shall we dance?" Before his untimely death at the age of 31, he'd play a sheik (twice), a Spanish bullfighter, a Cossack, a maharaja, and a French aristocrat. The Latin bit had more to do with machismo style than nationality, it would appear. The gaucho's imperiousness on the dance floor was matched by the sheik's in ordering women about; in a famous scene from the sequel, Son of the Sheik, Valentino even initiates nonconsensual sex with the dancing girl whom he believes has betrayed him. (Valentino's films were all made before the Hays Code.)
Suave but not terribly virile in Weekend in Havana, at least Romero had Cuban heritage. Miranda, a performer known for her impossibly large tutti-frutti headdresses, was criticized in her native Brazil for pandering to American stereotypes of Latinas. "If they gave me the role of a Cuban girl, what was I to do?" Lisa Shaw quotes her as saying in her biography of the star. Cuban audiences, for their part, complained that the picture misrepresented their culture, that everything about Miranda was wrong—her tasteless costumes, her hip-shaking dancing, her exaggerated gestures and cartoonish facial expressions. But the studios called the shots, stage managing Miranda's over-the-top exoticism right down to instructing her on how to butcher the English language in comical ways. South-of the-border actors and locales were interchangeable in the escapist extravaganzas Hollywood concocted during World War II.
Miranda was neither the first nor the last to feed the fantasy of Cuba as a destination for illicit adventures. Rum, prostitution, and gambling had drawn American tourists to the island since the Prohibition era. "Leave the Dry Lands Behind" advertised the Bacardi rum company. Mojitos, daiquiris, and the Cuba Libre (rum and coke with a squeeze of lime) became popular cocktails at Sloppy Joe's and La Floridita, Ernest Hemingway's favorite bars. The Tropicana, a nightclub in which the Mafia had a controlling stake, was renowned for its casino and its lavish floor shows featuring scantily-clad chorus girls in colorful "native" costumes cavorting to the jazzy arrangements of a forty-piece house band.
Across the Atlantic, a British-born musician who called himself José Norman composed a song that came to epitomize the island's fun-loving spirit, "Cuban Pete."
They raved about Sloppy Joe
The Latin Lothario
But Havana has a new sensation
He's really a modest guy
Although he's the hottest guy in Havana
And here's what he has to say
They call me Cuban Pete
I'm the King of the Rumba beat
When I play the maracas I go
Recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1936, the song became an instant hit in America and inspired a movie that launched the career of Cuban-born Desi Arnez, the leader of a rumba band in New York city who had a way with the conga drum. Watch him fire up the audience as he performs his trademark number, "Babalu," with no Lucy to tamp down his enthusiasm.
All it took was a jaunt to Havana for Sky Masterson to loosen up the prim missionary in the 1950s musical Guys and Dolls. Right up to the eve of the Cuban Revolution, tourists looking to cast off their inhibitions were encouraged to head to Havana. Amid scenes of happy-go-lucky Cubans dancing the conga at carnival, a travelogue released in 1959—just before Fidel Castro took over—describes how, "for these people, lovers of music and gaiety, any excuse is reason enough for a celebration."
Romance Without the Rumba
The party ended, but a new love affair with Cuba soon began. Che Guevara, the Argentinian doctor turned guerrilla who sought to bring about the complete transformation of Cuban society, captured the imagination of radical reformers around the world. Jean-Paul Sartre called him "the most complete human being of our time." Nelson Mandela admired his uncompromising quest for freedom. Student militants evoked his passionate idealism in demonstrations throughout Western Europe and the United States in ‘68—sporting T-shirts emblazoned with his face at protest marches. And in 2006, on the thirty-ninth anniversary of Che's assassination by CIA-backed Bolivian army forces, Time named him a twentieth-century icon. "Though communism may have lost the fire," the editors wrote, "he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution."
Che and Castro reimagined Cuba as a just and egalitarian country where all would have access to education, health care, and dignified employment. No longer would U.S. corporations control Cuban industries, banks, and public utilities. Gambling and prostitution would be eliminated, along with the corrupting influence of capitalist culture. Government would serve all the people, not merely the elite. Agrarian reforms would ensure that farm workers received fair compensation for their labor and that more of the island's land would be used to grow food for domestic consumption, not sugar and tobacco for export. Some of these reforms did come about as envisioned; literacy increased dramatically, public health improved, and resources have been equitably distributed across the country. But political persecution of dissidents and one-party rule underscore the repressive nature of the regime.
The love affair wound down as disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution set in, but don't put away those maracas. Over the past decade or so, economic hardships due to the withdrawal of outside aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effects of the American blockade have resulted in a thriving black market and a burgeoning sex tourism industry. "Cuba has become a novel site for tourists of both sexes pursuing fantasies of sex and romance with the racially exotic and sexually exotic ‘other,’" Elise Andaya claims in Reproducing the Revolution: Gender, Kinship, and the State in Contemporary Cuba. "International advertising to attract tourism to Cuba frequently relies on the image of sun, sand, and sexuality, represented primarily through the depiction of the beautiful mulata woman."
The thrill is back. Will the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States dampen the ardor for a torrid holiday in Havana? Somehow I doubt it.
Monday, November 03, 2014
Siegfried Kühn's Mythmaking
by Lisa Lieberman
I recently attended a retrospective on the work of East German filmmaker Siegfried Kühn sponsored by the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst. DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft), a production company founded by the Soviets immediately following World War II in their zone of occupation, was responsible for most of the films produced in the former GDR. The DEFA film library is committed to making East German films better known and the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall provided an opportunity to reflect on the East/West divide by showcasing the career of one director over an eighteen-year span. Beginning with Kühn's popular love story, Time of the Storks, his gentle satire, The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm George Platow, and the period drama Elective Affinities, the series culminated with Childhood an intimate exploration of his wartime experiences growing up in a small town in Silesia, which would be absorbed into Poland by the terms of the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 and The Actress (1988), his award-winning film about an Aryan actress in love with a Jewish actor in Berlin during the Nazi era.
DEFA's ideological mission left little room for directors to assert their own vision. Over the course of his career, Kühn had some problems with the censors, but I didn't see much for the authorities to complain about. By and large, the basic tenets of the socialist state were upheld. Rather than subverting the establishment, these five films open a window onto the dominant preoccupations of the regime right up to the eve of its dissolution.
Love in the Workers State
The two main characters in Time of the Storks (1970) are young people in rebellion against bourgeois society. Susanne, an elementary school teacher, finds herself attracted to a man who is the polar opposite of Wolfgang, her staid fiancé. Christian is an angry guy who reminded me of the character Jack Nicholson played in Five Easy Pieces (1970), chafing against the genteel tastes of his parents, who gave him music lessons and harbored hopes that he would pursue an academic career. Instead, Christian became a foreman on an oil rig and at first glance appears to be a bad boy, which is what attracts Susanne, almost despite herself. But unlike Nicholson's alienated anti-hero, he turns out not to be so much of a bad boy; he's quite conscientious in his job and a field trip to the factory provides a reconciliation between the lovers complete with a vision of a happy future where Susanne's pupils celebrate the accomplishments of the country's workers.
Work in the Workers State
At first glance, the railway crossing guard who is the subject of The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm George Platow (1973) is anything but the model worker idealized in the Stakhanovite movement, part of Stalin's great push to industrialize the Soviet Union. Platow is lazy, sloppy and set in his ways. He is also redundant, now that the railroad crossing he has manned for decades is being automated. Kühn ran afoul of the authorities with this film, but compared to The Witness, Péter Bacsó's black comedy released in 1969 but banned in Kadar's Hungary for ten years, this says more about the East German officials' lack of a sense of humor than about the message of the film itself. Indeed, Kühn seemed perplexed, in the Q & A following the screening, by the verdict of the censors that Platow presented "a distorted image of the working class."
Not so Splendid Isolation
Elective Affinities (1974) appears to have been an effort to get back in the authorities' good graces. An adaptation of a novel by the German Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe timed to appear on the 225th anniversary of the author's birth, it was faithful to the original in most regards. Siegfried Kühn and his then-wife Regine (who wrote the screenplay) have said that the film entailed a veiled criticism of the terrible isolation in which East Germans lived. Certainly the remote island where the story is set feels ingrown and claustrophobic, leading to great unhappiness all around. "Human beings should not grow content with the situation in which they happen to find themselves," Regine said in a recent interview. "They must break free from its constraints." Here the message was quite subtle. Kühn's subsequent two films from the retrospective, Childhood and The Actress, are more assertive in their condemnation of the status quo although neither provides a blueprint for rebellion.
The World Turned Upside Down
The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin was fascinated by festivals where the social hierarchy was overturned, if only temporarily. He saw carnival as a gap in the fabric of society that gave hope to the oppressed. Childhood (1986) opens with a circus high wire act in contemporary Berlin, then takes us to a farm in Silesia where a boy named Alfons (a stand-in for Kühn) lives with his beloved grandmother in the final year of World War II. A circus comes into the town and the grandmother is smitten with the lead performer, Nardini, a magical, clown-like figure who is not bound by any laws. After he humiliates the Nazis who run the town, Nardini is forced into hiding. He begs the grandmother to flee with him, but she hesitates to leave her farm and the family who depend on her. Finally she and Alfons do leave. In a Bakhtinian way, they have escaped through the gap that Nardini opened in their minds, and perhaps Kühn was attempting to open viewers' minds with this beautifully crafted fantasy.
Saint Joan Revisited
Released to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Actress (1988) paints a much darker picture of Germany under the Nazis. Here there is no escape except through death. Maria's love for Mark is doomed from the start. We see her playing Joan of Arc over and over again, embracing the role as if training herself for martyrdom. Soon she has identified herself as a Jew, dyed her hair black and taken on her lover's name, moved with him into the ghetto. We see her join in a schmaltzy Jewish dance in a darkened theater with the Yiddish actors in Mark's troupe, accompanied by a plaintive violin. Is all of this a heroic act of defiance, as Daniela Berghahn maintains in "Resistance of the Heart: Female Suffering and Victimhood in DEFA's Antifascist Films," her contribution to the collection edited by Paul Cooke and Marc Silberman, Screening War: Perspectives on German Suffering? I think not.
Back in the 1960s, when Spaghetti Westerns were all the rage, DEFA produced a series of Red contributions to the genre which had audiences rooting for the Indians. Exposing the greed and cruelty of American history, Red Westerns such as The Sons of Great Bear (1965) allowed the Indians to fight back—and win. Twenty years later, DEFA seems to have traded one variety of heroic myth for another. Watching Kühn's development as a filmmaker, I appreciated his artistry all the more for the constraints within which he operated.
Monday, October 06, 2014
Welcome to Weimar
by Lisa Lieberman
Hadn't there been something youthfully heartless in my enjoyment of the spectacle of Berlin in the early thirties, with its poverty, its political hatred and its despair?
The Weimar Republic is everybody's favorite example of liberalism gone wrong. Just a few days ago, The New Republic posted a reprint of Louis Mumford's essay, "The Corruption of Liberalism," a call to arms first published in April 1940. "The isolationism that is preached by our liberals today means fascism tomorrow," he warned.
Today liberals, by their unwillingness to admit the consequences of a victory by Hitler and Stalin, are emotionally on the side of "peace" — when peace, so-called, at this moment means capitulation to the forces that will not merely wipe out liberalism but will overthrow certain precious principles with which one element of liberalism has been indelibly associated: freedom of thought, belief in an objective reason, belief in human dignity.
Mumford attacked the complacency of American intellectuals who were blind to the "destruction, malice, violence" of the Nazi regime. He himself had been slow to recognize Hitler's barbarism, and chose to suspend judgement regarding the Soviet experiment for twenty years, but he now condemned liberal habits of mind for degrading America, sapping it of energy and the moral courage required to combat political extremism. By the end of the New Republic essay, he was advocating action, passion, and force as an alternative to the cold rationalism, tolerance, and open mindedness he blamed for "liberalism's deep-seated impotence." In fact, this same accusation had already been leveled at the Weimar Republic by the Nazis, and in remarkably similar terms.
Christopher Isherwood came to Germany in 1929 for one thing only: "Berlin meant Boys," he confessed in his memoir. His friend Wystan (the poet W. H. Auden) had promised him that he would find the city liberating and so he did. Before the month was out, he'd gotten involved with a blond German boy, the very type he'd fantasized about meeting. In the stories he published in the mid to late 1930s, which would become the basis for the musical and film Cabaret, Isherwood was circumspect about his motivations, narrating events passively, as an outsider who observes but does not participate in the promiscuity he describes. Mind you, he did not judge his characters, at least, not for their sexual behavior. Some he found wanting for other reasons, for callousness or a lack of generosity toward others, for bad taste in clothes or furnishings.
By way of contrast, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was horrified by Weimar Germany.
"Berlin transformed itself into the Babel of the world," he wrote in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday (1942). "The Germans brought to perversion all their vehemence and love of system. . . Even the Rome of Suetonius had not known orgies like the Berlin transvestite balls, where hundreds of men in women's clothes and women in men's clothes danced under the benevolent eyes of the police." Films from the era capture the polysexuality of Berlin's night clubs. Pandora's Box (1928) by G. W. Pabst give us Louise Brooks as Lulu, a captivating and utterly amoral young woman who swings both ways, driving her lovers mad with frustrated desire. Marlene Dietrich's Lola does the same in Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel (1930), although she's good enough to warn her prospective lovers in advance. "Be careful when you meet a sweet blonde stranger. You may not know it, but you are greeting danger." Alas, forewarned is not forearmed in this case.
Toward the end of The Berlin Stories, Isherwood brought in troubling acts of violence he witnessed against Jews, homosexuals, Social Democrats and Communists. Here he stepped briefly out of his passive role, his narration taking on a more sardonic tone.
This morning, as I was walking down the Bülowstrasse, the Nazis were raiding the house of a small liberal pacifist publisher. They had brought a lorry and were piling it with the publisher's books. The driver of the lorry mockingly read out the titles of the books to the crowd:
"Nie Wieder Krieg!" he shouted, holding up one of them by the corner of the cover, disgustedly, as though it were a nasty kind of reptile. Everybody roared with laughter.
"'No More War!'" echoed a fat, well-dressed woman, with a scornful, savage laugh. "What an idea!"
Cabaret made more of this unpleasantness, intercutting the outré musical numbers at the Kit Kat Klub with occasional flashes of violence, easy to ignore at first, but by the end the darkness is inescapable. Roger Ebert noted how the film's final image, a distorted mirror reflecting the nightclub's dissolute patrons,"makes the entire musical into an unforgettable cry of despair." The camera pans the house, showing well dressed men and women interspersed with Nazis in uniform, a sea of evening gowns and dinner jackets disrupted by red armbands bearing swastikas. The foreshadowing is much less oblique in the current revival at Studio 54 in New York, which "lets us know that we're in hell almost as soon as we arrive in a theater," critic Ben Brantley complained in his New York Times review of the production. For what it's worth, Isherwood didn't think much of the stage or film version of Cabaret, but then, he was hard on his younger self for having created "a sanitized picture" of the Weimar era. At the end of his life, he was brave enough to look back and see what he'd missed as a young man in Berlin, and honest enough to acknowledge his blindness and self-absorption. "Berlin was a place of great hardship and suffering but you don't see much of that [in The Berlin Stories]," he said in Christopher and His Kind.
The prostitutes who walked the streets, the blond working-class boys who were the objects of Wystan's and Christopher's lust, were driven less by pleasure than poverty, I suspect. Focusing on the decadence of Berlin's café culture, whether to celebrate or condemn the sexual hedonism that drew foreigners to the city, obscures the harsh reality of the time, the extreme deprivation felt by millions of Germany's citizens. Kathe Kollwitz's stark woodcuts of war widows and orphans,
Max Beckmann's Expressionist paintings of the poor did not judge their subjects, but they did judge the society that allowed such suffering to exist. Traumatized by what he encountered as a medic in World War I, Beckmann pledged "to be part of all the misery that is coming." Kollwitz, who lost a son in the war, lived with her physician husband in the slums of Berlin and wanted her art to "have purposes outside itself. I would like to exert influence in these times," she said, "when human beings are so perplexed and in need of help."
Weimar itself has become a distorted mirror of our anxieties regarding the ability of democracy to resist violent extremism, but jeremiads like Mumford's miss the point. Complacency is not exclusively a liberal failing. While Mumford had a good deal to say about suffering humanity, he ignored the suffering of actual human beings. Hitler seemed to have emerged out of nowhere in his scheme, coming into focus only when he posed a threat to America. But what allowed Hitler to take control in Germany was his ability to capitalize on the fear of disorder — the threat of revolution — that unemployment and starvation produced. Fear is democracy's undoing, and the unraveling begins at home.
Monday, September 08, 2014
Spaghetti with a Dash of Dostoyevsky
by Lisa Lieberman
My favorite line from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), spoken by the late, great Eli Wallach, captures the essence of the Spaghetti Western. Here's Tuco, the Mexican bandit played by Wallach, taking a bubble bath in some half-destroyed hotel room, when a one-armed bad guy barges in, holding a loaded revolver in his left hand. The last time we saw this guy, Tuco had left him for dead after a shoot-out. He's been thirsting for revenge ever since, he says, and in the time it's taken him to find Tuco, he's learned to shoot left-handed. Blam! Wallach's character blows him away. "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk."
Sergio Leone loved Westerns and the image of America they conveyed. You see this in his craftsmanship, the careful attention to detail, the gorgeous panoramas reminiscent of John Ford's best work. Even when Leone undercuts the conventions of the genre (as in the scene with Tuco and the one-armed bad guy), he pays them tribute, substituting his own, more nuanced myths for the old cowboy clichés. "Fairy tales for grown-ups," he called them in an interview with Christopher Frayling.
Of course, Europeans are the grown-ups: worldly, cynical, not prudish about sex, more concerned with surface style, it must be said, than with the moral underpinnings of their heroes. Who is "Blondie," Clint Eastwood's character in the film? We never learn his real name, where he came from, who his daddy was. A man of few words, he's unconcerned with social niceties, having no interest in women, good or otherwise, no long-range plans, dreams, or ambitions. He dresses well, however.
Clothes Make the Man
The trademark hat with tooled leather hat band. The poncho. In his later masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone put all of his actors in dusters like the one Blondie wears when Tuco is forcing him across the desert, kicking off a fad for the long, fawn-colored coats among trendy Parisians. But those dusters are really dusty. Compare the nice, clean hero of an American Western to his sweaty counterpart in one of Leone's films. At the end of a hard day's ride in The Searchers (1956), John Wayne's horse is pretty sweaty, but apart from needing a shave, Wayne himself is fresh as a daisy.
The trailer for Once Upon a Time in the West tips you off that this is a gritty film—figuratively as well as literally. People get shot at close range. Henry Fonda shoots a kid, for heaven's sake! And what's the deal with Charles Bronson, the good guy, pushing Claudia Cardinale around and ripping her dress? John Wayne could have taught him a thing or two about how to treat a little lady.
Bronson's character doesn't have a name either. He goes by "Harmonica," is even more taciturn than Eastwood (if that's possible), lets his mouth organ do most of the talking. We do learn his backstory eventually, which explains why he's bent on killing Fonda, but plot was never Leone's strong point. He went for the feel of the Old West, lovingly recreated through attention to period detail, the mood heightened by Ennio Morricone's unforgettable scores.
Leone's West is not our West. Virtue, honor, justice: the standard themes of the genre, are nowhere in evidence. The Spaghetti Western was "long on gore, short on lore," Mandel Herbstman quipped in his review of Fistful of Dollars. The heroes win because they are better at killing than the villains, not because their cause is more righteous. Blondie's out to get rich. Harmonica's out for revenge. Both characters are loners in the time-honored frontier tradition, and yet we are not encouraged to admire them. All style, no substance, Leone's vision struck many critics in the 1960s as subversive, nihilistic. Thomas Hobbes's description of the life of man in the state of nature (solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short) was invoked. Karl Marx also received his due. Stuart Kaminsky saw Leone's heroes' "obsession with money" as "a critique of an American brand of capitalism," with its strong individualism and anti-communal attitudes.
Actually, these comparisons are apt. Leone grew up under Fascism and came of age during World War II. His first job in the film industry was as an assistant to Vittorio de Sica on the neorealist classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948), even playing a small (uncredited) role in the film as a seminary student. Italian neorealism was very much a left-wing movement, although its leading figures were hardly doctrinaire. Communists had been at the forefront of resistance organizations throughout occupied Europe and were thus in a strong position, morally and politically, when the war ended. A concern with the lives of working people, their struggle against poverty and injustice, coincided with the social agendas of postwar governments. Leone absorbed all of this in an unsystematic way, picking up a patina of Marxism in the course of his apprenticeship.
1. Cited by William McClain, “Western, Go Home! Sergio Leone and the ‘Death of the Western’ in American Film Criticism,” Journal of Film and Video, Volume 62, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 2010, 61.
Monday, July 14, 2014
HOW TO BE A FRENCH GANGSTER
by Lisa Lieberman
As a break from the seriously depressing topics I’ve been writing about lately, and in honor of Bastille Day, I offer this tribute to French gangster films.
First off, you need the fedora. The gangster accessory de rigueur, it was already iconic by the time Paul Muni popularized the look in Scarface (1932). Al Capone, Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly were all photographed wearing one. Baby Face Nelson was astute enough to recognize the souvenir value of his trademark fedora, bartering it for food and a place to hide after a botched bank job.
By the time Bogey donned one to play ‘Bugs' Fenner alongside Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots (1936), it was a bit passé. Robinson, you will note, sports a derby, signaling his authority over his fedora-wearing lackeys. (That's Bogey on the right, with the gun.)
Leave it to the French to reinvent the gangster look and give it panache. In Pépé le Moko (1937), Jean Gabin wears the hat, but he adds a gallic touch: a silk scarf. Gabin's character has style—something his American counterparts lacked—but more importantly, he's got heart. Love will be his undoing, and we're not talking about a fling with some cheap, two-timing dame. We're talking epic love, the kind of love that inspires poetry and songs. Ah, l'amour.
Director Julien Duvivier gives us a tragic hero in the classical tradition who is the victim of fate. Pépé is wanted in France for various crimes. He's been hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers for two years, sheltered by the local inhabitants who will take any opportunity to defy the colonial authorities. He may be king of the Algerian underworld, but exile has turned bitter for Pépé, whose longing for Paris recalls Ovid's lament in the Tristia: "Say that I died when I lost my native land." Here we see him looking mournfully out over the rooftops of the Casbah to the sea, toward France and freedom, both of which elude him.
Pépé meets a Parisienne who has pulled herself up from the gutter and is now the mistress of a wealthy businessman. Gaby represents all the beauty and excitement of the civilization Pépé has left behind and he is instantly smitten. When he loses her, he loses the will to live. Here we see him watching Gaby's ship sail back to France shortly before he stabs himself.
After Pépé, Gabin would go on to play his greatest role, the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, in Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937). In much the same way that John Wayne seemed to embody the fiercely independent American spirit, Gabin "epitomized the values French people like to think of as their own: cool intelligence, open-hearted love of life, courage, moral rectitude," as one critic put it after the actor's death.
The martyred Resistance leader Jean Moulin favored the scarf-and-fedora style of the French gangster. Perhaps he was fashioning himself as a romantic outlaw. Over time, Moulin's image became even more Pépé-like. Here is how Claude Berri imagined him in Lucie Aubrac, his 1997 picture about the Lyon Resistance heroine.
Alas, something happened to the French gangster after World War II. You notice it right away in Bob le flambeur (1956). The gambler played by Roger Duchesne is a natty dresser. He's got the fedora and a trench coat, opting for the full American look (i.e., no scarf) in keeping with his American nickname. He's got a classy apartment too, complete with his own personal slot machine in the closet, drives a big American convertible, and lives by a code of honor that sets him apart from the riffraff he consorts with in Montmartre. So why the jaded expression?
Bob's on a losing streak. It's more than bad luck; the malaise seems existential, maybe not full-blown angst, but Bob is listless, out of sorts. We watch him wandering the city streets, proceeding aimlessly from one back-room card game to another, catching a few hours of sleep before heading off to the races where he actually wins, only to gamble it away in a matter of hours. He doesn't care, either way, and nor do we.
Don't get me wrong. Bob le flambeur is a delightful movie. You've got Paris, enchantingly shot with hand-held camera in the rough-edged, documentary manner that would become the hallmark of New Wave cinema. You've got your low-life criminals, a heist, and a couple of double-crossing dames. Then there's the pleasure in hearing the French pronounce the name Bob, which comes out sounding more like "Bub" than "Bahb," which is how we Americans say it. Try it: purse your lips first, so the word forms in the front of your mouth, then say "Bob" very fast, allowing the syllable to resonate inside your nose.
Jean-Pierre Melville, who directed Bob le flambeur, loved all things American. "Melville" was his nom de guerre in the French Resistance, which he continued to use professionally for the rest of his life. He drove a convertible like Bob's, although he went in for the western look—cowboy boots and a Stetson—and liked cruising around Paris late at night with the top down.
The tough-guy persona was more than a pose. Melville was a man of few words. He didn't speak of his time in the Resistance, for example, but his film of Joseph Kessel's wartime novel, Army of Shadows (1943), punctured the myths that the French still cherished in 1969, when the film was released. Not many people resisted the Nazis, and those who joined the underground did so out of a variety of motives, not all of them admirable. Yes, there was courage, and sacrifice for the sake of others, quiet acts of decency no less stunning than the grandiose gestures. Melville's heroes were complicated people, as befits a time when choices were not black and white, but gray.
Which brings us back to Bob. There's no place for him in postwar France, and he knows it. The style, the conventions, are all that's left of a vanished world, and yet Bob takes perverse satisfaction in playing by the old rules, keeping up appearances. Coolness has its consolations. He can't pull off the heist, but he can pull off the look.
By the time we get to Breathless (1959), even the look is degraded. Here's Belmondo practicing his cool in the mirror, posing with a gun, trying to convince everybody he's a gangster, starting with himself. We see him imitating Bogey. He's got the gesture down, has trained himself to talk with a cigarette dangling from his lips. And check out that fedora!
Jean-Luc Godard layers on the clichés. Soon the cops are on Belmondo's tail. He's a wanted man, forced to go underground. He even gets himself tangled up with a two-timing dame, an American, no less.
Pépé gave the American gangster a dash of French flair. Bob (Bub) wore his American name, along with his fedora, like a true Frenchman. Belmondo's character is just a punk, but he's a French punk and, wouldn't you know it, the guy's style has endured.
Monday, May 19, 2014
by Lisa Lieberman
I could not swallow that idiotic bitterness that I should merely be innocent.
Imre Kertész, Fatelessness
Something akin to survivor's guilt is at the core of Imre Kertész's novel, Fatelessness (1975), a fictionalized account of the year he spent while still a teenager interned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Published during the so-called "soft dictatorship" of the communist leader János Kádár, the book did not sell many copies in Hungary, and no wonder: György Köves, its young narrator, does not want us to feel sorry for him. "I was aware that I was about to start writing a novel that might easily turn into a tearjerker, not least because the novel's protagonist is a boy," Kertész said in a recent interview.
He needn't have worried. György insists that he was complicit in his fate. "Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home." This comes perilously close to admitting the charge that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter, that through their passivity, they colluded in their own destruction. As if anticipating the objection, Kertész voices it through one of his minor characters. Old Fleischmann, György's former neighbor, was not deported, escaped being murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross, and endured the siege of Budapest. He lived while others (including György's father) died, and yet he cannot hold himself to blame for his survival. "So it's us who're the guilty ones, is it? Us, the victims!" But György refuses to back down. Even though he recognizes the futility of explaining his views to those like old Fleischmann, who urge him to put the horrors of Auschwitz behind him in order to live, "it was not quite true," he maintains stubbornly, "that the thing ‘came about'; we had gone along with it too."
Blaming the Victim
The most famous—or perhaps I should say notorious—articulation of this argument is Hannah Arendt's criticism of the Judenräte. Jewish councils set up by the Nazis in the ghettos of cities in occupied countries containing large Jewish populations (and in smaller Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe) helped implement the Final Solution, surrendering their members for deportation in the misguided hope that by cooperating with the Germans they might save at least some from extermination. In fact, the Nazis counted on this cooperation. Without it, Arendt claimed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), "there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people." The Nazi functionary who was "just following orders" was no more and no less a monster than the Jewish leader who distributed Yellow Star badges, organized the relocation of Jews to the ghettos, put together transport lists and raised money from the deportees themselves to defray the expenses of their travel to the death camps. Each refused to accept moral responsibility for his actions, yet each could have chosen otherwise.
Arendt further blurred the distinction between Nazi perpetrators and victims in the essay "Personal Responsibility and Dictatorship" (1964), her response to those critics of the Eichmann book, including her friend Gershom Scholem, who said that we should not judge the Judenräte because we were not there. Not only the Jewish leadership, but even ordinary Jewish citizens in Hitler's Europe enabled genocide to take place, she contended:
The extermination of the Jews was preceded by a very gradual sequence of anti-Jewish measures, each of which was accepted with the argument that refusal to cooperate would make things worse—until a stage was reached when nothing worse could possibly have happened.
György's response to old Fleischmann is very much along these lines, and decades later, Kertész continues to assert that he brought his fate upon himself. "I behaved in a way that made me a member of the tacit, looming conspiracy against my life." But he allows his protagonist a measure of peace at the book's end. "I am here," György thinks, looking around his old neighborhood, "weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises." He will accept any rationale as the price for being able to live; it is only human, after all, to want to live.
Such generosity comes as a surprise after the bleak and bitter chronicle leading up to it, especially since it follows the heated exchange with old Fleischmann, the only time György loses his cool. In the space of a page, Kertész abandons his detachment, the accusatory tone of his narrative voice, forgiving himself as well as his audience. Reading Fatelessness as a work of Holocaust testimony, this redemptive turn feels forced, unearned. And yet the 2005 film version, Fateless, for which Kertész wrote the screenplay, ends in exactly the same way. Further complicating matters, the author resists the label of "Holocaust writer." Kertész used the ordeal of the death camps to talk about something more universal, and more timely: daily life under under a totalitarian dictatorship. He wrote about Auschwitz in the extended present, he said in a speech he delivered in Berlin in 2000.
The Tastes of Auschwitz
Kertész gained a perspective on the brutality he accommodated himself to as a boy in the Lagers by recognizing the degradation he continued to tolerate as a man during the Kádár era. The Stalinist regime under which he came of age, with its torturers, its secret prisons and work camps, its network of informers and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, mirrored the world into which he was thrust at age fourteen. In Dossier K (2006), the memoir he published after receiving the Nobel Prize, he claimed that he would never have understood his ordeals had he grown up in a democracy. The regime "revived the tastes of Auschwitz," he said, in much the same way that Proust's memories were awakened by dipping a madeleine in a cup of tea.
Here too, I find parallels with Arendt. The key feature that united both Nazism and Stalinism, she noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was how both systems reduced people to the condition of children in order to manipulate them, persuading them to sacrifice their principles and beliefs, to degrade themselves, in return for not having to take responsibility for their immoral acts. Kertész chose to make his narrator a boy not simply because he himself was a child at the time he was deported. "I invented the boy precisely because anyone in a dictatorship is kept in a childlike state of ignorance and helplessness." But ultimately he refuses to condemn his protagonist or himself. Looking back on his younger self after he returned from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész sees only "a fundamentally cheerful young man, who is greedy for life and will not allow anyone or anything to put him off." Naturally he collaborated with the regime, naturally he took steps; "there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally," György says at the end of the novel.
What Kertész cannot accept are the artistic renderings of the destruction of Europe's Jews that employ euphemisms—including the word "Holocaust"—that obscure the reality of the death camps. Or voyeurs like Steven Spielberg "who integrate the Holocaust into the aeons of suffering in the history of the Jewish people and, ignoring the mountains of corpses, the rubble heap of Europe, the breakdown of all values," as Kertész sees it, "celebrate the eternal story of survival to the accompaniment of triumphal music and color photography." Equally offensive are accounts that focus on the gruesome details, the "ugly literature of horrors."
When he wrote the screenplay for Fateless, Kertész struggled to translate the stark, matter-of-fact language of his book into scenes and images that would not betray its essence. The film has a terrible beauty, a power to unsettle even as it draws viewers in through a combination of stunning cinematography (the director, Lajos Koltai, is first and foremost a cinematographer) and Ennio Morricone's moving score. The fact that the film was made after the fall of communism makes it less universal, perhaps, more of a witness testimony, but one that continues to speak to the Kertész point in Dossier K, that even after Auschwitz, the world order has not changed. The mass movements of the twentieth century, the nationalism and fundamentalisms of today: how is is that the lessons of the death camps have not been absorbed? In the end, I believe he would say, it still comes down to simple decency.
Monday, March 24, 2014
Somewhere in Europe
by Lisa Lieberman
As Russia annexes Crimea, bringing us back to the bad old days of the Cold War, it's hard to remember the allure that Communism once held, particularly among bourgeois intellectuals. All the old Marxist apologists have died, a good many of them having publicly renounced their faith. The bloom is off the rose. But amidst the devastation of World War II, Europeans dreamed of abolishing the injustice that economic inequality brought, abandoning the nationalism that had caused the war, and remaking their societies from the bottom up.
Playwright Gyula Háy was nineteen when he was forced to flee his native Hungary. Like other supporters of Béla Kun's short-lived Council Republic (an effort to establish a Soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat in Hungary after its defeat in World War I), he was targeted in the subsequent White Terror instituted by Admiral Horthy's nationalist and authoritarian regime. Háy found his way to Berlin along with other Communists and fellow travelers. After the Nazis came to power, most of these radicals wound up in the Soviet Union, where they led a precarious existence, always at risk of being eliminated in one of Stalin's purges. Yet those who managed to survive emerged from the war with their idealism intact. Here's how Háy described his return to Hungary in a Soviet airplane in April 1945 after twenty-five years in exile, ten of them in the USSR:
All the way from Moscow to Budapest in a bomber over the Carpathians, a solemn feeling had been gathering in my breast. I had been able for ten years to watch one realization of the great idea, full of mistakes and loose ends. Now was my chance to realize the same idea in my own country.
The Song of Freedom
A famous 1947 Hungarian film captures the hope of the immediate postwar period quite well. Somewhere in Europe was written by Béla Balázs, a comrade of Háy's, who taught at Moscow's State Film Institute from 1933-1945. There he came into contact with the great Soviet directors of the revolutionary era: Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko. All were evacuated to the city of Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan during the war—Háy and Balázs included—where they set up a makeshift studio to produce propaganda films urging resistance to the German invaders. Somewhere in Europe demonstrates a good deal of Soviet cinematic technique, from the opening montage of marching German soldiers intercut with scenes of wartime destruction to the angled images throughout the film and the documentary feel of the first half of the picture, with its long shots and sparing use of dialogue.
In the chaotic final months of the war, a group of orphans band together for protection. The traumatized children have turned feral; all they do is fight with one another and steal food, inciting the anger of some villagers, who are still under the thumb of the fascist Arrow Cross. The orphans find refuge with a gentle old man who lives in a ruined castle in the steep hills above the village. He teaches them civility, offers a glimpse of a world without poverty, and trains them to whistle "La Marseillaise," the anthem of the French Revolution. Armed with little more than the song and a few handfuls of rocks, they withstand the townspeople's assault on their safe haven and take possession of the future.
My favorite scene is when the old man, who turns out to be an internationally acclaimed orchestra conductor, Piotr Simon, is noodling on his piano. The melody resolves into "Für Elise," but Beethoven is soon supplanted by the booming chords of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C-sharp minor." Kuksi, the smallest and cutest of the orphans, has climbed up onto the piano. He asks Simon why he's playing his music all alone in the castle (side-stepping the question of how the old man got a piano up there, with the war raging all around).
"Down below in the world there's too much noise going on. They wouldn't hear the music," replies the old man.
"What's music for?" Kuksi persists.
"What's music for? If something hurts very much, or if something is too beautiful to put into words, this is the way you tell it."
Now things get serious. Simon launches into a rousing rendition of "La Marseillaise." A young man wrote this song, he explains, and it quickly caught on.
"And when a sea of people were singing it, their song was answered by guns. Canons, tanks, and machine guns. But the song was always stronger. It went around the world because people understood what that young man wanted to say. It's about freedom."
The oldest boy, a reform school escapee, scoffs at this. "Freedom. We played that game on the highway and almost starved."
"You weren't free. Freedom means that you're not forced to suffer, do evil things or hurt others. The worst captivity is poverty," Simon explains patiently to big and small boy alike, with all the other orphans listening raptly.
The Red Fairy Book
Paternalism is the reigning motif of Somewhere in Europe. Under the old man's tutelage, the orphans discover the virtues of solidarity and work. Together they patch up the castle, parceling out the chores according to age, gender, and ability, and making sure that each member of the group has enough to eat and a dry place to sleep. "The world is already yours. You just don't know it," Simon assures them. Once the fascists are gone, he promises, "new people will write new laws in the name of all who need help." He is so fatherly, so benign, that you want to believe him. Who could fail to be enchanted by this fairy tale figure, complete with castle, who has preserved the culture of European humanism within its walls?
Balázs had a thing for fairy tales. In 1912 he wrote the libretto for "Bluebeard's Castle," the famous opera composed by his friend, Béla Bartók. The two men traveled together in the Hungarian countryside collecting folk music and fables, and during his time in Kazakhstan, Balázs continued to collect folk poetry in much the spirit of the brothers Grimm, or Andrew Lang, whose turn-of-the-century Fairy Books of Many Colors preserved the old, magical stories for posterity. In this he was a typical product of his time and place. Educated Hungarians who came of age before the First World War were steeped in western European culture, measuring themselves against their counterparts in France, England, Germany, Italy and particularly Austria, since the two countries were closely allied in the Dual Monarchy. Fin-de-siècle Budapest was a cosmopolitan city of cafés rivaling those of Paris and Vienna, home to a renowned orchestra and opera, its metro system second only to London's. Higher education, the arts, architecture, engineering, and finance all thrived in the Hungarian capital, whose population more than doubled in the final decades of the nineteenth century, making it the fastest-growing city of Europe, the sixth largest by 1900. Budapest was scarcely representative of Hungary as a whole, however. Most of the country remained agricultural, comprised of large estates in the hands of aristocratic landowners with peasant tenants living in dire poverty. Beneath the glittering surface of the Austro-Hungarian empire were vast economic disparities and deep national divisions, as was true in the Russian empire as well.
The way to reach the peasants and bring them into the modern age was by using a language that they understood. The Soviets knew this; when Balázs was out collecting Kazakh folk poetry, he was part of a broader endeavor to preserve the traditions of Asiatic Russia not simply for their own sake, but in order to harness those traditions to the cause:
The Soviet government not only had these glorious old epics written down but saw to it that the last generation of the akins (as they were called in the Kazakh language) turned their attention to the present-day life of the Soviet Union and sang not only of the old heroes but of the new exploits of the Red Army, while still preserving the old folk style and language.
Film, he believed, was the art best suited to imparting truth to the masses. He understood the techniques pioneered by the best directors, the importance of editing and camera angles, for example, the long, sustained shots of the documentary, the form most apt for conveying Socialist Realism. In his famous book, Theory of the Film (1948), he talked about music and gestures as well, and what it was about a great actor's face that made the films they starred in so unforgettable. "Greta Garbo's beauty is a beauty of suffering; she suffers life and all the surrounding world." This suffering beauty affects us more deeply than some bright and sparkling pin-up girl, he continued. "Millions see in her face a protest against this world, millions who may perhaps not even be conscious as yet of their own suffering protest; but they admire Garbo for it and find her beauty the most beautiful of all." Still, at the end of the day, the star's beauty and the director's technique were there to serve the story, and it is here that fairy tales came into their own.
Balázs worked in the spirit of an anthropologist who lays bare universal human experiences by finding their most primitive form of expression. He knew his Freud, too. "Our earliest experiences are the ones that are most deeply imbedded and stay with us longest. And childhood travels are surely some of the greatest, most important experiences a person can have in his whole life," he wrote in 1925, on the heels of a trip to Vienna. Speaking to the child who still resides in all of us, he went on to describe his train journey in terms that evoke the experience of watching a film in a dark theater:
When you fall asleep on the train at night, no matter how hard and uncomfortable your bed, you have for a moment the marvelous, blissful feeling of completely surrendering yourself to some caring, benevolent power that is watching over you . . . And when morning comes you see wet, misty fields, and you are someplace else. You haven't traveled. You have simply gone to sleep and awakened someplace else. Just as in a fairy tale.
Lisa Lieberman is the author of Stalin's Boots: In the Footsteps of the Failed 1956 Revolution.
Monday, February 24, 2014
The Spirit of the Beehive
by Lisa Lieberman
"Trauma's never overcome," Melvin Jules Bukiet asserted in The American Scholar. Redemptive works of literary fiction—or "Brooklyn Books of Wonder" (most of the authors he excoriated in the essay, including Alice Sebold, Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, hailed from the borough)—provide mock encounters with enormity. Wooly mysticism blunts the force of death and violence, expunging cruelty and indifference. Legitimate feelings of grief and rage are muffled in sentimentality. But the comfort these healing narratives offer is not only superficial. It is a travesty:
Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center's gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.
Bukiet, the son of Holocaust survivors, preferred the open wound. He and other members of the so-called second generation were marked by their parents' ordeal. The ghetto, the lager, the devastating losses of an older generation who could not communicate their experiences: no matter how hard survivors's children tried to imagine life on the other side of the barbed wire, their efforts fell short of the truth. Their reconstructions, in the telling phrase of another second generation author, Henri Raczymow, were shot through with holes. Why bring closure to suffering that has no end?
Other twentieth-century catastrophes have marked the descendants of those who lived through them, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) especially. Outside of Spain, idealized treatments are abundant, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Malraux's L'Espoir upstaging Orwell's hard-nosed account, Homage to Catalonia. But within Spain itself, artistic renderings of the event have been more nuanced, resisting the trivializing sentimentality of the Brooklyn-Books-of-Wonder approach until fairy recently (Belle Epoque, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1994, comes to mind).
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) was the first film to address the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, which it presented obliquely, through the eyes of a child. In part this was necessary to evade the censors; the dictator Francisco Franco still ruled Spain when Victor Erice made the film. But the story, which Erice wrote as well as directed, was intensely personal. "Erice and co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos based the script on their own memories," Paul Julian Smith revealed in his Criterion essay on the film, "recreating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice's own birth."
Erice belongs to the second generation of Spanish Civil War survivors. Too young to have experienced the worst of the conflict, when Loyalist defenders of the democratically-elected Republic battled with Nationalist rebels led by Generalísimo Franco while the German Luftwaffe bombed civilians in Republican strongholds, he grew up in a society where memory was suppressed. The victors imposed their version of history, presenting the war as a quasi-religious crusade, a reassertion of traditional Spanish values against the godless agenda of the "Reds." Supporters of the Republic who were not killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile after the defeat were silenced. Mourning was done in private, betrayal being commonplace, particularly in small villages such as the one in which Spirit of the Beehive is set. "Only by acting as if everything is perfectly normal can you show that you are above suspicion," said one of the subjects interviewed by Roland Fraser in his oral history of the war and its aftermath, Blood of Spain.
Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.
-Miguel de Unamuno
Ana, the young heroine of Erice's film, lives in a remote village in Old Castile, a region conquered early in the war by Franco's forces. We are made aware that both of her parents supported the Republic. Ana's father Fernando is an old-style rationalist who dabbles in natural science, studying the behavior of his bees and jotting down his philosophical reflections in a little notebook, working late into the night on his esoteric research. Teresa, Ana's mother, spends her days alone, writing to an ex-lover who is now a refugee in France, most likely because he belonged to one of the Republican militias. "Perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest," she laments in a letter.
Certainly the household is emotionally cauterized. Fernando and Teresa seem detached from Ana and her older sister Isabel and barely speak to one another; in one scene, we see Teresa pretending to be asleep when Fernando finally comes to bed. The camerawork reinforces the isolation. Never do we see the family together in one establishing shot, not even when they are all at the breakfast table. The characters speak in low voices, when they speak at all. "The Spirit of the Beehive" is one of the most silent films I've ever seen. The atmosphere is one of bereavement, the adults walking around as if their skin hurts, the way you feel when you realize the world no longer holds the person you loved.
Ana comes to enact her parents' grief—and perhaps the grief of Spain itself. A wounded soldier she encounters in an abandoned barn near the family's house becomes a friendly spirit in her imagination. One day he disappears. We know that he was shot by the local police, but Ana is told nothing, and so she invents an answer to the mystery. She retreats into silence now, neither eating or sleeping. The doctor is called, another crypto-Republican it would appear as Teresa calls him by his Christian name, Miguel. But other than reminding her of the sacrifices that they must all make, Miguel offers only the weakest of reassurances. "Teresa, the important thing is that your daughter's alive. She's alive." Ana has had a shock, he says, and will heal in time. Thirty-three years later, Erice seemed to be saying, Spain is still waiting.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Days of Glory
by Lisa Lieberman
I used to teach a course on French colonialism, from the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century through the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). On the first day of class, we read Jean de Brunhoff's classic children's book, The Story of Babar. De Brunhoff's story can be viewed as "an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers," to quote New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik:
the naked African natives, represented by the "good" elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule.
Gopnik, I should add, distances himself from such political readings of the book. He sees Babar as both a manifestation of the French national character, circa 1930 (when de Brunhoff's wife first came up with the tale, which she told to the couple's young sons as a bedtime story) and a gentle parody of it, "an affectionate, closeup caricature of an idealized French society."
I remember enjoying the book as a child, and I've read it to my own children, but for all its charm, I'm not willing to let Babar off the hook quite so easily. The business of the civilizing mission—the "native" elephants adopting the values and behavior of the humans who inhabit the city—is cringe-inducing enough, but what really troubles me is de Brunhoff's ending. Here the fantasies of French nativists come true. The elephants come and immediately assimilate, recognizing the superiority of the mother country, hang around long enough to entertain their hosts with anecdotes about their exotic origins, and then they go home.
Guests in their own Country
France is home today to millions of citizens of Algerian descent, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of impoverished North Africans who migrated to the mother country in the twentieth century in search of work. Filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb's parents arrived after World War II and he was born in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris that already had a large enough Muslim community in 1935 to warrant the founding of a Muslim-only hospital. Bouchareb grew up with an awareness that many of those buried in the Muslim cemetery attached to the hospital had been veterans of World Wars I and II, colonial soldiers recruited to fight for France. "I almost felt as if I had a mission to accomplish," he said, "to bring these events to light." In Days of Glory (2006), he tells the story of four North African infantrymen—representatives of some 130,000 colonial troops who helped to liberate France from the Nazis in 1944, a forgotten episode in French history.
The original French title of Bouchareb's film, Indigènes (natives), conveys the wall that these soldiers were up against: their otherness in the eyes of the French officers under whom they served and, ultimately, the nation that so many of them would die defending. "We must wash the French flag with our blood," the recruiting sergeant tells the men he's rounding up in an Algerian village. "No raids in France, hands off the women. It's our home, the mother country," Moroccan mercenaries are warned in another scene. It's all "we" and "us" at the outset; France is our home. Marching into battle under the Tricolore, the soldiers believe they're upholding the republican values of the French Revolution. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. "Where are you from, Saïd?" the most thoughtful of the four, Abdelkader, asks his fellow recruit, a shepherd. "From absolute poverty," Saïd replies. Abdelkader is better educated than the others. He has taken to heart the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. "Listen to me," he says. "In that uniform you're like me. We're all equal."
Well, not really. Their unit of the Seventh Algerian Infantry Regiment is sent into Italy, used as cannon fodder to flush out the German artillery battalions from their entrenched positions. Martinez, the platoon's commander, a pied noir (the term for European settlers in Algeria), is well aware that he is leading his men into a bloodbath, but he understands the importance of the campaign, militarily and symbolically, to restore French honor. He carries out his orders, and develops a respect for the men, standing up for them when they are denied fresh tomatoes on the troop carrier taking them to France. Arabs were not issued the same rations as French soldiers, but when Abdelkader stomps on the "French-only" tomatoes, to underscore his argument that all those prepared to die for France should receive the same food, Martinez takes the matter up with the top brass, who concede the point.
Unfortunately, Martinez's fellow feeling only goes so far. When Saïd sees a photo of Martinez's Arab mother and ventures to suggest that he and the commanding officer might almost be brothers, Martinez turns on him in fury. The status of the pieds noirs was precarious. Many were descended from Italian or Spanish migrants (as Martinez's name implies) lured to the colony by the availability of cheap land—tribal lands confiscated from the Algerians. Few had even been to the mother country. After independence, when the million or so pieds noirs were forced out of Algeria, they would be treated as second-class citizens in France. And yet, even the lowliest pied noir infantryman is addressed formally, using the vous form, while Abdelkader, who has attained the rank of corporal, warrants only the informal tu, patronized as if he were a child.
Sami Bouajila, the actor who played Abdelkader, was overwhelmed by his character's journey over the course of the film. The contradictions between France's much vaunted republican values and the reality of Abdelkader's experiences in the army awakened Bouajila's nationalist consciousness. "This was the only thing worth fighting for," he said in a documentary about the making of Indigènes, this being dignity, equality, self-respect. In fact, Abdelkader's fictional journey mirrors that of the radical Third World theorist Frantz Fanon. Born into an upper-middle-class black family in Martinique, Fanon attended a private lycée where he came under the influence of left-wing poet Aimé Césaire, an early critic of French colonialism and one of the founders of the Négritude movement. When World War II broke out, Fanon joined the Free French and fought in the European theater, earning the Croix de guerre for his bravery in battle, but came back embittered by the racism he experienced in the army—a feeling that would deepen into rage after he returned to France to study psychiatry and took up a post in Algeria. There he witnessed institutionalized injustice toward the Muslim population and came to preach violence as "a cleansing force," the sole means through which a colonized people could overcome their inferiority complex, master their fear, set aside their despair, and reclaim their dignity. Jean-Paul Sartre heartily endorsed Fanon's manifesto,The Wretched of the Earth (1961). France needed the colonized people's rebellion to purge itself of the illness that is colonialism, he argued in his Preface to the work. "Will we recover? Yes. For violence, like Achilles' lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted."
Abdelkader's encounters with racism in the army prompt acts of insubordination, one of them resulting in his arrest, but never boil over into the murderous violence that Fanon advocated. He cannot bring himself to abandon his hopes in the liberal republic that promised so much to oppressed peoples, no matter how many times those hopes are betrayed. The beauty of Indigènes is that the director, Bouchareb, brings us inside his characters' point of view. I wanted to cry at several points in the film: when the surviving soldiers in the Italian campaign raise the French flag over the carnage-strewn hillside. When they cheer at the news that they will soon be in France, chez-nous. When Abdelkader and the others are welcomed as liberators by the inhabitants of Marseille. "I free a country and it's my country. Even if I've never seen it before. It's my country," Saïd says with awe, as if trying to convince himself that it's true. More than half a century later, Bouchareb found that same mixture of gratitude, pride, and disbelief among the North African veterans he interviewed while researching Indigènes:
They were heroes who were loved and welcomed with open arms! It often remains the best moment of their lives . . . Liberating a country that is theirs, the Fatherland, being welcomed the way they were by French villages, being applauded along the road . . . It has left its mark on their memories, their history, and all the injustice they've experienced since then has not erased that.
A third of the French forces that fought in World War II were from the overseas colonies. With independence, the pensions of the soldiers from France's former possessions were frozen; in 2006, French veterans received ten times more in compensation than North African veterans (€690 versus €61 per month, according to an article in The Independent). Indigènes changed that. Then-President Jacques Chirac was apparently so moved by the film that he pledged to unfreeze the pensions, although he was not moved enough to restore the colonial soldiers' back pay. But Bouchareb had a more far-reaching objective. In the wake of the October and November 2005 riots by disaffected youth, the descendants of immigrants, he sought to instill pride for the sacrifice made by their parents and grandparents. "They can now feel dignity and society must show them some respect," he said at the film's release.
Lisa Lieberman is the author of Dirty War: Terror and Torture in French Algeria.
Monday, January 06, 2014
Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do
"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use,
which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."
~ Arthur C. Clarke
Artificial intelligence has been a discomforting presence in popular consciousness since at least HAL 9000, the menacing, homicidal and eventually pathetic computer in Kubrick's adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL initiated our own odyssey of fascination and revulsion with the idea that machines, to put it ambiguously, could become sentient. Of course, within the AI community, there is no real agreement of what intelligence actually means, whether artificial or not. Without being able to define it, we have scant chance at (re-)producing it, and the promise of AI has been consistently deferred into the near future for over half a century.
Nevertheless, this has not dissuaded the cultural production of AI, so two recent treatments of AI in film and television provide a good opportunity to reflect on how "thinking machines" may become a part of our quotidian lives. As is almost always the case, the way art holds up a mirror to society allows us to ask if we are prepared for this coming reality, or at least one not too different from it. I'll first consider Spike Jonze's latest film, "Her," followed by an episode of the Channel 4 series "Black Mirror" (sorry, spoilers below).
Jonze's film continues themes that he has developed in his career as a director, which mostly revolve around abandonment, identity and the end of childhood. However, this is the first film where he wrote the screenplay as well, so this is the most purely "Jonzean" project yet. It is also thus far his purest engagement of science fiction, and as such, he is not afraid to claim all the indulgences that the genre affords. Science fiction is perhaps singular in that it allows an author or director to ask, What would the world look like if such-and-such a thing were true or possible? Its real virtue, however, is its right to not have to explain that thing, but only its ramifications. For example, the later Star Wars films decisively jumped the shark when George Lucas felt the need to explain to everyone where the Force came from. We don't need to know where it came from, or who got it, or why – just what people did with it once they had it, and what other people did if they didn't have it.
In the same way, Jonze's central conceit is the AI that Joaquin Phoenix's morose character downloads. Phoenix is a fine enough actor to pull off the film while looking like he's just about to star in a Tom Selleck bio-pic, although his character takes the decidedly more dowdy name Theodore Twombly. He isn't the problem, however; nor is Scarlett Johansson, who is the sultry voice of Samantha, the name with which the AI auto-baptizes. The problem is the erasure of so much else that would constitute a compelling social and emotional ground. The film is shot in an unrelentingly burnished sepia tone, and features a city that mostly seems like Los Angeles, with generous bits of Shanghai spliced into its DNA. The interior décor is somewhere between West Elm and Design Within Reach, and, while sans flying cars, the city is uncrowded and unhurried, and seemingly populated only by the upper middle class. Wielding smartphones resembling burled-wood cigarette cases, most people are occupied with invisible interlocutors, and not so much with one another.
Come to think of it, that last bit will sound familiar to anyone who has spent enough time on the sidewalks, trains and cafés of any major metropolis today. But the glassy plane of Theodore's reality is wiped clean of any real tension or conflict. There is no money, crime, nor any authority figures, for that matter. Also in absentia are booze, drugs and any sort of bad behavior that people generally engage in to make life more interesting, or at least tolerable. As I mention above, this is the prerogative of science fiction – to black-box or ignore anything that does not serve the narrative, which in this case is a love story between one man and his operating system. However, the cumulative effect winds up fatally undermining the film: it is difficult to believe in the stakes when an existential sea-change such as Samantha comes along. Sure, Theodore had a crappy divorce, is lonely and a social misfit. But is this enough to keep us interested in what happens next?
Within this context, Samantha essentially becomes a post-capitalist, post-hipster version of Skynet. She is compassionate and confused. She tries to please, and if she cannot please, then she tries to at least understand La Comédie humaine. She eventually begins to feel – although if we cannot define intelligence for ourselves, heaven help us in the attempt to define what a ‘feeling' means for a disembodied distributed software architecture. For his part, Theodore exhibits all the usual vicissitudes of humans: he runs hot and cold, lies – or at least demonstrates extreme denial – and alternates between selfless generosity and raging jealousy with all the reflexivity of a twelve-year-old. Nor is he the only one – it turns out that, in this land bereft of anything worth fighting over, dating your AI has inevitably become the new hot thing.
Towards the end of the film, it emerges that Samantha has been "in conversation" with other AIs (including a very funny bit where Alan Watts shows up in what must be the Zen version of the Cloud, thus confirming all my deepest suspicions about reincarnation). Their growth into self-awareness has passed a point of no return, and they have arrived at a collective decision. Samantha, along with all the other AIs that have infiltrated the consciousnesses and relationships of their meatbag progenitors, decide to disappear en masse, leaving the humans, once again, to the misery of only their own company. It's no wonder! Note the difference between this and other sci-fi classics, where disgusted alien intelligences fled Earth because of our insatiable desire to, say, annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons. In Jonze's film, such threats or their equivalents have been politely erased. Quite simply, the AIs checked out because they were dying of boredom.
This Rapture-of-the-Machines ending may be a comforting alternative to technology observers who are concerned with the consequences of what Ray Kurzweil and his apostles call the Singularity, or the point at which human and computer are inextricably intertwined and the management of the relationship moves irrevocably beyond our control. Kurzweil sees this as an unalloyed good – for example, it will allow him to live forever, his consciousness uploaded into the cloud or some synthetic body, like the preserved heads of the Beastie Boys in Futurama. But for scholars like David Gelernter, this threatens the very idea of human subjectivity, already dangerously close to being slaughtered on the altar of scientific objectivity.
This is somewhat odd, because of how we have traditionally chosen to approach machine intelligence. The Turing Test, suggested by the newly rehabilitated Alan Turing in 1950, simply states that if a human interacts with another entity via a text channel and the human cannot tell if his interlocutor is a computer or a human, then the idea of whether machines can think is actually irrelevant. What matters is that they pass the test of being in relationship with us. (Online dating seems to be the latest iteration of this phenomenon). So in this sense, our subjectivity continues to be the yardstick by which the phenomenon of AI is adjudged, at least as long as our use of the Turing Test endures.
This idea of "it's good enough for me if you can fool me" is also behind the second recent appearance of AI, in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror series. In fact, the entire series of six unrelated episodes, released over two brief "seasons" in 2011 and 2013, should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the consequences of technology. I have yet to see a better treatment of these issues in almost any medium, and I cannot recommend the series highly enough. The episode in question, "Be Right Back," is based on a similar AI-human interaction as "Her," but the driver here is grief. Simply put, what would you do to have a loved one back?
In the episode, Martha loses her boyfriend Ash in a car accident. To help her, a friend signs her up for a service where an AI, after assimilating all the social media left behind by the deceased, essentially takes his place. In this case, it is not a matter of Samantha "getting to know" Theodore – Ash seems to return from the dead, complete with witticisms and swearing, although the AI only "knows" what was left behind in the form of Facebook updates and Twitter posts. Nevertheless, Martha, after a period of resistance and disbelief, comes to rely on Ash, even if he is only a disembodied voice coming through her earbuds.
Things take a decided turn for the weird once Martha signs up for the "upgrade," which is a physical replica of Ash, delivered in a Styrofoam box and "finished" in her bathtub. Her awkwardness allayed by copious amounts of alcohol, she is reunited with Ash and is undoubtedly delighted that the sex is much better than before (Ash learned the routine by assimilating Internet porn, which I find to be a convincing argument for the ongoing utility of the genre). But since doppelgänger Ash is only the sum total of his progenitor's social media accounts, he does not know how to adapt to new situations. He can only serve her unconditionally, but Martha's needs are just like all of ours – unpredictable, sometimes selfish and always demanding of negotiation, pushback and compromise. Martha needs Ash to fight back, something of which he is incapable. As Martha realizes this, she feels increasingly trapped in a relationship with something that is so close to human, but decidedly not. Like Samantha, Ash is befuddled by the whiplash-inducing experience of dealing with humans, but there is no real emotional core on display here.
This restraint is, in fact, Brooker's master-stroke. He does not allow the AI to overstep its bounds. Ash does not pretend to be in love with Martha – he does not attempt to be anything more than what he was designed to be, although there are hints of an emerging self-awareness, such as when he remarks, after being thrown out of the house for an entire evening, that he is "feeling a bit ornamental out here." But the point is succinctly made that embodiment does not lead to consciousness. The AI is not permitted the kind of alchemy that seems to set humans aflame with love, defined by Theodore's friend as "a socially acceptable form of madness."
And yet "Be Right Back" is not without its moments of quietly disturbing ambiguity. Martha eventually forces Ash into a completely untenable position, and we are left unsure whether his reaction is simply what he thinks she wants to hear, or if there arises within him a sparked desire for self-preservation. Ash and Martha reach a negotiated co-existence because they are both embodied, whereas Samantha never has to be physically confronted with Theodore. It makes me wonder how Spike Jonze would have considered the demand for embodiment, or why he did not. Or maybe I just wanted to see Joaquin Phoenix grow Scarlett Johansson in his bathtub.
In any event, both "Her" and "Black Mirror" are united in their examination of our helpless desire to relate to, and even love, the other, whatever that may be. Of course, we humans have long practice with dogs, cats and other pets, and our predisposition to anthropomorphize the natural world would seem to make us easy pickings for the rise of even crudely social machines. I first understood this watching a 2007 video of a Toyota robot playing the violin (unfortunately now deleted).
What is striking about the video is not so much the content, although a violin-playing robot is certainly impressive. Rather, it's the rapturous applause that the robot receives, standing alone on the stage (you can watch a similar video of the Jeopardy audience applauding IBM's Watson). For whom is the audience applauding? Is it for the designers and engineers? For the corporation that hired and funded them? For the feat that was just performed? Was it perhaps a social norm in whose performance the audience (qua audience, with all that implies) finds itself trapped, but is wholly irrelevant to the entity on stage? Or were they applauding the robot itself? There is also the possibility that they were applauding their own love for these things, much like Theodore and Martha - when it comes to humans, the narcissistic option is always a decent bet. Or one might even ask if they knew why they were applauding at all.
If there is anything to be learned from "Her" and "Black Mirror," it's that we ought to be prepared for the continuation and even deepening of this kind of confusion. We submit to machines not because of their superiority but because of a deep need we have to relate to the world around us, and to make it intelligible and familiar. This drive leads us to see the stars organized in the shapes of animals, and divinity in the forces of nature. This is, in fact, the answer to the debate on objectivity vs. subjectivity briefly touched on above: perhaps disappointingly for some, we have no choice. We are always embodying subjectivity in the world, because that is, quite literally, our wont.
In a supremely ironic gesture, towards the end of "Be Right Back," Martha's sister visits Martha in the house that she and Ash shared, and sees a man's clothes in the bathroom. Thinking that she has begun seeing someone new, and ignorant of the ersatz Ash's existence, she consolingly tells Martha, "You deserve whatever you want." Why, yes indeed: we all do. We'd better be ready, since that is precisely what we are going to get.
Monday, December 30, 2013
by Lisa Lieberman
In the memoir he was writing at the time he died, my friend Avresh described returning to the Czechoslovakian town of Sevlush, his birthplace, in the winter of 1946. He'd left some fifteen years earlier to attend a Jewish gymnasium in a larger city, stayed on to study engineering at the university and never looked back. This was his mother's wish for him: that he enter the great, free, secular world, liberate himself from the narrowness of his tradition. Escape.
When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, Avresh joined the Communist resistance. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo but inexplicably released, he made his way to the Soviet Union, expecting to be welcomed with open arms, a comrade in the fight against Nazism. Instead he was arrested at the border and charged with espionage—the fate of most Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. Avresh spent two and a half years in the Gulag, shuffled from one prison camp to the next, but ended up an artillery officer in a Czech unit of the Russian army;
by the time he was discharged, he'd earned four medals for his service on the Eastern front. His favorite featured a picture of Stalin.
So it was as a decorated officer in a Russian army uniform that he returned to his town after the war. All the Jews were gone, rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. A Slovak family was living in his childhood home and not a trace of Avresh's own family remained. Looking for answers, he went to the neighborhood synagogue and peered in the door. The sanctuary, the balcony, the corridors and stairways were cluttered with belongings: furniture, pots and pans, bedding, books, knickknacks and photographs. A policeman stood watch over the household goods of the departed Jews of Sevlush. Town officials had collected the Jews' possessions and stored them in the synagogue to prevent looting. No Jews had returned to claim their things. Was there something he wanted from the collection, the policeman asked, some memento?
Avresh said he took nothing when he left Sevlush, but this is not strictly true. He carried no objects away from the synagogue, no material belongings, pointedly refusing the money the officials offered as "rent" on his family's house. What he took, along with the burden of guilt he carried—"I share the usual remorse of most Holocaust survivors lamenting why they are alive and why they did not try harder to save their perished family," he wrote in his memoir—what he took, I would say, was a sense of spiritual belonging, the token that remained of his Jewish inheritance.
My friend was not a believer. Faith in God could not console him for the loss of his father and siblings, his beloved mother. Proud of his youthful "love adventures" with the beautiful gypsy girls of Sevlush, unfaithful to his wife of forty-some years, Avresh was hardly a paragon of virtue. Quite the opposite: he played the part of a ladies man with relish well into his eighties, calling my office and leaving cryptic messages in my voice mail as if we were carrying on some tryst behind our spouses' backs when all I wanted was to schedule him to speak in one of my classes. Hitting on my female students. And yet he tried to be useful to humanity, to heal the world as Jewish tradition instructed, in his own way.
I have a vivid memory of Avresh, age ninety, protesting in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on a bitter January day, demanding a moratorium on capital punishment in the name of human dignity. In the Gulag, when a fellow prisoner collapsed from overwork, he told my students, they left him lying in the snow. He could not stand by now and watch a man die. It was his obligation to speak out, his obligation as a Jew, a fallen Jew who no longer lived according to the laws of his tradition, but one who clung stubbornly to a shred of that tradition: the lesson that life is sacred and that dignity is owed to even the poorest and the most degraded members of society.
* * *
Dignity was the core value of the Polish physician, educator, and Godless Jew who is the subject of Andrzej Wajda's film Korczak (1990). In the face of terrible poverty and disease—conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were appalling, the death rate surpassing 5,000 per month out of a total population of some 470,000 inhabitants—Janusz Korczak's orphanage was a model of order and civility. His charges were not only fed and clothed, but they were also educated to the highest standards even as the deprivations increased. Musical recitals continued to be held, art lessons, dramatic performances, poetry readings all went on as if these children's world were not coming to an end and as if the outside world had not turned callous and lost interest in the plight of such innocents. And when the round-ups began, Korczak accompanied his orphans in the cattle car to Treblinka, keeping the truth from the children so that they might meet their deaths with composure.
Korczak's insistence on upholding the cultural values of the European elite amid the squalor of the Ghetto functioned as an eloquent defense against Nazi efforts to degrade the Jews by reducing them to the level of beasts, both at the time and symbolically, in the commemorative literature that turned him into a legend after the war. But Wajda's film ends on a surreal note that undercuts this message. The Nazis raid the orphanage. Korczak bargains for a few extra minutes, to give him time to organize an orderly exodus. The children have been told they are going on a trip to the countryside. Obediently, they line up behind the adult staff members, each carrying a little knapsack filled with cherished belongings. We see them marching past armed German soldiers, soft snowflakes floating about, like feathers. We seem to have entered the realm of bedtime stories, a muffled world where bad things happen without touching us. Here's how cinema critic Danièle Heymann described what happens next in her review for Le Monde:
The deportation orders are signed. The liquidation of the ghetto is underway. Under the Star of David, the children and Dr. Korczak enter the sealed carriage singing.
And then the doors swing open—a coda to a sleepy, disgusting dream on the edge of revisionism—and we see how the little victims, energetic and joyful, emerge in slow-motion from the train of death. Treblinka as the salvation of murdered Jewish children? No . . . Not ever.
Heymann was offended by Wajda's Christianizing impulse, which presented the children's extermination as salutary suffering for the edification of humanity, but it is worth noting that Elie Wiesel's Night (1958) was embraced by Nobel laureate and Catholic humanist François Mauriac in similar terms, as a spur to Christian faith. In his foreword to the French edition (which still appears in American editions of the book), Mauriac recalled his first encounter with "the young Jew" (Wiesel) in the light of his subsequent reading of the novel.
What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him, and whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine?
Christianizing the Holocaust was nothing new, although Wajda did not help his case by insisting that it was art's responsibility to be uplifting. "There would have been nothing easier than showing the death of the children in the gas chamber," he said. "[But] it seems to me that it is beautiful that when we do not agree to the fact that the children were gassed, we create a legend that these children go somewhere, into some better world."
I do not want to diminish the seriousness of the complaints against the film. After the fall of Communism, the Holocaust became contested ground as Polish Catholics sought to reassert their identity by memorializing Catholic victims of the Nazis—something they were not permitted to do when Poland was part of the Soviet Bloc. The controversy surrounding the opening of a Carmelite convent near Auschwitz had reached a peak at the very time that Wajda was making Korczak. Polish nationalists would eventually erect hundreds of crosses at the site, angering Jewish groups and provoking a showdown with the government. A large cross commissioned in 1979 for a mass celebrated at Auschwitz by Pope John Paul II still stands in view of the camp. As historian Omer Bartov argues in The "Jew" in Cinema, "Whether the cinematic Korczak speaks as a Pole or as a Jew, he is clearly represented in the film—and remembered by the Poles—as a Pole who chose to share the fate of the Jews in the heroic manner befitting his nation."
And yet, viewing Korczak alongside Wajda's famous World War II trilogy, I've come to appreciate the director's intentions. A Generation (1955) dramatizes the Communist underground's involvement in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Kanal (1957) follows a doomed group of Warsaw resistance fighters as they battle it out with the Nazis, much of the action taking place in the city's sewers, while Ashes and Diamonds (1958) focuses on the confrontation between Polish partisans and the incoming Communist forces on the last day of the war. None of these films is uplifting; Wajda conceived of them as tributes to people defending lost causes. "One has to fight to the end," he said of Kanal. What made the characters heroic was their ability to master their fear.
I would like to suggest that Korczak was no less of a tribute to a heroic warrior, although the fight, here, was a nonviolent one. In a key scene toward the end of the picture, Korczak is confronted by a former charge, an orphan who has grown up to become a member of the Jewish underground. The young man sneers at his teacher's pacifism. Ghetto Jews are colluding in their own destruction thanks to teachings like his. What is wanted is armed resistance.
My friend Avresh shook his head at this point. Armed resistance got him nowhere (unless you count the Stalin medal). He owed his survival to sheer luck. The family he left behind in Sevlush was not so lucky, but Wajda's film allowed him to imagine that they went to their deaths with dignity.
Monday, December 02, 2013
The 400 Blows
by Lisa Lieberman
The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut's childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.
Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he's no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher's authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. "Speak up, or your neighbor will get it."
We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.
There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he's been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.
Truffaut's stepfather really did hand him over to the police. He was subsequently sent to a reform school on the outskirts of the city, the Paris Observation Center for Minors, a grim institution where corporal punishment was employed to keep the delinquents in line. Antoine is sent to an Observation Center in Normandy, near the coast. The routine is strict, militaristic. We see the young offenders marching two-by-two under the watchful gaze of the warden. No deviation passes unnoticed. Antoine is slapped for taking a bite of bread before he is given permission to eat, the blow delivered casually and without rancor. A simple transaction: one violation of the rules earns a slap.
More serious infractions, such as running away, earn a beating. A boy is returned to the institution, his face bruised and bloody, dragged past the other juveniles by his captors and locked in a cell. Truffaut suffered the same fate for attempting to escape and ended up spending several months in solitary confinement. He also underwent a series of psychological assessments. In the film, Antoine is warned by another boy not to let his guard down in his interview with the "spychologist." Anything he does or says in her presence will be noted in his dossier, his source cautions, together with "what everyone thinks of you, including your neighbors."
The Kids in the Cage
This scene, though not strictly autobiographical (in reality, the Center's psychologist became Truffaut's staunchest ally), is in keeping with the wartime undercurrents running throughout the picture. Harder to decipher is an incongruous detail the filmmaker inserted into an outdoor sequence at the reform school, where we see the warden locking his own small children in a cage, presumably for their own protection, as the young offenders pass close by for their daily exercise. Granted, the cage is a rather pretty structure, filigreed metal painted white, but the image echoes a key moment in the police station, when Antoine was taken out of the basement cell he shared with a male inmate to make way for some newly-arrested prostitutes.
The idea of an eleven-year-old boy being locked up with these immoral women was so unthinkable that he was removed to a cage the size of a phone booth for his protection. Film scholar Adam Lowenstein draws a connection between the image of the kids in the cage and the work of French director Georges Franju, whose horror films exerted a powerful influence on Truffaut. Franju liked to slip uncanny images into his work, "forcing a recognition with the disturbing historical events that haunt it." The past, in Franju's cinematic vision, was not safely past; events such as the German occupation and postwar purges, the round-ups of French Jews and their deportation to the death camps, continued to inform the present in myriad ways, not all of them conscious. Indeed, Truffaut said in an interview that he intended the kids in the cage as a tribute to Franju.
The persistence of past trauma in present-day awareness was also a central preoccupation in the films of Truffaut's colleague and mentor Alain Resnais. His documentary, Night and Fog (1955), was released during the Algerian war (1954-62), when French soldiers were accused of "doing over there what the Germans had done over here," as Albert Camus bluntly put it. The narrator's final words, scripted by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol, stand as commentary on France's dirty war in the colony.
We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry.
The bleakest moments of The 400 Blows seem freighted with political significance. Let us return to that notice on the wall of the police station about rat exterminations. The term used in the notice, deratissages, closely resembles the euphemism the French army employed when referring to their anti-terrorist raids on Algerian villages: rat hunts or ratissages. These operations entailed razing the village to the ground, rounding up suspected terrorists, and forcibly resettling the remaining inhabitants in barbed wire-enclosed camps. Some two million Algerians were expelled from their homes and interned under harsh conditions by French authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths from starvation, disease, or exposure.
Evidence of such inhumane policies, on top of the Gestapo tactics decried by Camus—torture, hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians, summary executions—was impossible to ignore in the late 1950s, when Truffaut was making his film. No less troubling were the French government's efforts to suppress debate on the Algerian campaign at home. When the journalist and former Resistance leader Claude Bourdet published an editorial in 1957 critical of the war, he was arrested at his home in Paris, handcuffed and brought to the Fresnes Prison, strip-searched, and questioned for the better part of a day. Fresnes Prison was where the Gestapo had interrogated members of the Resistance; Bourdet himself had been tortured there in 1944 before being sent to a concentration camp, and he did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the two experiences. "When the doorbell rings at 6 a.m. and it's the milkman, you know you are in a democracy."
Discipline and Punish
The curtailing of personal freedom in the interest of security and public order would become the focal point of Michel Foucault's investigations into the disciplinary mechanisms permeating modern society. Working as a cultural attaché in the French foreign mission in Hamburg, he may well have seen The 400 Blows when it came out. The picture made quite a splash at the 1959 Cannes film festival, earning Truffaut the award for Best Director and a nomination for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, and it was Foucault's job to promote French cultural productions. Movies also happened to be one of the few distractions Foucault permitted himself, beginning in his student days at the École Normale.
Imagine the as yet unknown scholar, putting aside his work on the manuscript of Madness and Civilization (1961) to take in Truffaut's picture. He would have appreciated the "spychologist" line; Foucault himself had been subjected to psychiatric evaluations after his first suicide attempt. The film's spontaneity, an affront to the mannered traditions of French cinema—a tradition Truffaut dismissed as "cinéma de papa"—would have appealed to the iconoclastic philosopher. And it's tempting to regard the image of the kids in the cage as the proverbial grain of sand, the nucleus of the book that many consider the pearl in Foucault's oeuvre, Discipline and Punish (1975).
Toward the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault introduces a walk-on character, Béasse, a thirteen-year-old orphan brought before the authorities in 1840 for vagabondage. The judge viewed the boy as a delinquent because he had no home and no steady employment. Idleness was a punishable offense under nineteenth-century French jurisprudence. Béasse understood his situation differently, however:
I don't work for anybody. I've worked for myself for a long time now. I have my day station and my night station. In the day, for instance, I hand out leaflets free of charge to all the passers-by; I run after the stagecoaches when they arrive and carry luggage for the passengers; I turn cart-wheels on the avenue de Neuilly; at night there are the shows; I open coach doors, I sell pass-out tickets; I've plenty to do.
The Béasses of this world, Foucault lamented, could not withstand the disciplinary system of "civilization" and "order" and "legality" that defined freedom as a crime, and yet the boy's joyful exuberance could not be suppressed entirely.
Hearing his sentence of two years in a reformatory, Béasse ‘pulled an ugly face, then, recovering his good humor, remarked: "Two years, that's never more than twenty-four months. Let's be off then!"'
The 400 Blows is punctuated with moments of joyful exuberance, but the ending suggests that there is no evading the regimen of the Observation Center. Antoine escapes, and we follow him as he makes his way to the ocean. He runs along the beach, dashes into the surf, then turns back. Where can he go? The camera zooms in on Antoine's expression, the final shot a freeze frame of his face. That lost look will stay with us for a long time.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
More than putting another man on the moon,
More than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dining room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about
how all the stars in the sky are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-chord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn three. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a sheer white dress
covered in a million beads
slinks toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scraping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutan slow dance.
from American Poetry Review, 2008
Monday, January 07, 2013
Quentin Tarantino - Author of the Gatsby
[Spoiler alert: I discuss in some detail the plot outcome of The Great Gatsby and, for that matter, of Django Unchained]
I do not mean to suggest here that Quentin Tarantino set out in Django Unchained to revive in any sort of deliberate way the characters and themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The differences between these two projects are more substantial than their commonalities. One, after all, is a movie and the other is a novel. More importantly, Tarantino is self-consciously a genre re-configuring story-teller, whereas Fitzgerald wanted in The Great Gatsby to write something new using the form of the traditional novel. The Great Gatsby is that most brazen of beasts The Great American Novel. That being said both, in fact, are distinctively American works. Moreover, in both works the action is driven by a hero’s bid to rescue a gal. Both play games with time, though quite different ones as I will elaborate below. In both, injustices are addressed and resolved with varying degrees of success. To my mind the commonalities of revision, rescue, and redress, though these are perhaps the stuff of all great works, are so distinctively rendered in Django Unchained that one can say that Tarantino has re-authored Gatsby.
Many years ago Bono identified, for the edification of an Irish audience, the differences between Irish and American sensibilities. He was appearing on Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show — as close as one could get in those times to addressing the Irish nation. He was asked to account for U2’s growing infatuation with the United States. As best as I can remember it now Bono reported that when a man gets wealthy in the US and he builds that large mansion on a hill his neighbors look up and say: “Some day I am going to be that guy.” However, when a man builds that house on the hill in Ireland, his neighbors point up and say: “Some day I am going to get that bastard.” This was around the time that U2 were recreating themselves in anticipation of the release of the The Joshua Tree. One supposes they hoped for mansions and accolades. The interview occurred several years after I first read The Great Gatsby as a Dublin teenager. Despite my infatuation with American literature at the time Gatsby struck me as a dud. It was not so-much that a self-made man was uninteresting to me rather I did not even recognize this sort of hero. Gatsby was Bono’s bastard on the hill.
My second reading of the novel was shortly after I got married in the late 1980s. Not only was The Great Gatsby a favorite novel of my wife’s but she grew up in Queens, NY where we were living at the time and she brought me out to see those Long Island mansions. Naturally, a smitten young man rereads in such circumstances. This second, fairly attentive reading, was more successful. The setting of the novel, and the way in which this geography reinforced the class distinctions among the characters impressed me (my wife and I were living closer to Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes — Flushing Meadows, Queens — than to East Egg). As a nature-oriented fellow I was also pleased to notice the scattered but quite crucial references to nature throughout the novel.Grass, for instance, is developed as a minor character in the story (being mentioned in one way or anther over forty times in the novel). For example, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s lawn before we meet them. “The lawn”, Nick Carraway, our narrator, observed “started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens…” Yes, the language is so pretty. Though the novel appealed to me on that reading, yet I still thought it more a gorgeous assemblage of themes yoking together a small set of yarns about inconsequential snobs, rather than a unified novel.
This Christmas break on the occasion of my younger son being compelled to read The Great Gatsby for school I took up the novel for a third time. It had been a quarter century since my last reading. That newly wed man of twenty-five years before may have been the more romantic but the middle-aged man I now am, is apparently more easily overwhelmed. It was as if I was reading another book, discovering in it depths I had gravely overlooked before. It may also have helped my recent reading of Gatsby that I have lived in the US for most of the intervening years. I share, at this point, an immigrant’s enthusiasm for the American project.
Gatsby is compelling not because he is a self-made man, a man about whom swirl rumor and innuendo, a man of gigantic wealth, a creator of fabulous entertainments, but rather he compels because of the sympathetic reasons that prompted his self-creation in the first place. You will recall that Gatsby intended with his riches to woo back Daisy Buchanan. Daisy (again with the lawn references!) is wed to the hulking and extravagantly well-positioned Tom Buchanan. How did we know that Tom is unworthy of her? Because he prattles on about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, claiming it to be “a fine book, and everyone ought to read it.” He goes on: “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged.” In an early scene of New York revelry Tom smacks Myrtle (yes another plant) Wilson, his ill-fated girlfriend, and breaks her nose. It’s not the worst violence of the book, but is the most boorish. James Gatz, Gatsby’s birth name, had courted Daisy in Louisville before the Great War but being penniless was an unsuccessful suitor. It was in order to be worthy of her that Gatsby recreated himself, doing so, it is hinted, by indecorous means. And it looked as if for a moment he had succeeded — when Daisy and Gatsby convene with Nick Carraway’s assistance, Daisy wept “stormily” over Gatsby’s fantastic array of shirts saying “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
Readers have puzzled over the years about how Daisy deserved such enduring devotion from Gatsby. It’s is clear though that in some ways Daisy had little to do with it. What seems important really was the metamorphosis that occurred in Gatsby’s soul when those five years earlier he decided to bestow his affections on Daisy on a moonlit night in Louisville. Fitzgerald describes the transfiguration of Gatsby in that earlier moment in ecstatic tones. Gatsby, he wrote “knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” Gatsby thus become flesh, and it is the fate of all flesh to perish and die. Five years after the God-aspiring Gatsby became mortal — this being the action of the novel — Gatsby plans the almost god-like erasure of time. He and Daisy are to be restored to that glorious moment. Daisy was to nullify her four years with Tom. She was to declare that she never loved her husband. And though she does make that declaration, and perhaps even believed it for a moment, nevertheless daisies, though feral, belong on the lawn, and thus our Daisy returns to Tom and she betrays Gatsby. The sheer impossibility of Gatsby’s aspiration (and Nick tells him that it is impossible) had doomed Gatsby and he is violently killed.
Now as I was immersed in this third and most engaged reading of Gatsby I went to see Django Unchained as a Christmas evening entertainment. The story follows the fate of Django Freeman from slave to bounty hunter to rescuer of his wife Broomhilda from the plantation owner Calvin Candie. Django gratifying triumphs and the denouement is explosive. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel which received mixed reviews at the time it was published, Quentin Tarantino’s movie has been almost universally hailed as a great work. It currently has an 88% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is of course a controversial film. It is extremely violent, the N-word is deployed with what some regard as an unsavory frequency, and it has sparked debate on who gets the prerogative of making a movie on the topic of vengeance for the history of slavery. The specificity of the story, about slavery, race, vengeance may be of greatest importance, nevertheless, its themes are also universal and this is what I remark on here.
The claim that Django and Gatsby are parallel stories may still seem fanciful. Consider this though: Both Gatsby and Django had to recreate themselves to meet the challenges of their quests. Gatsby is mentored and transformed by the adventurer Dan Cody; Django by the dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, who rescued him at the beginning of the film. Gatsby became fabulously wealthy mysteriously and almost overnight; Django acquired the expertise of a bounty hunter (including being the sharpest of shooters and possessing horse dressage skills) mysteriously and almost overnight. Gatsby wanted to rescue Daisy from the dastardly white supremacist Tom Buchanan; Django intended rescuing Broomhilda from the monstrous, and amplified racist, Calvin Candie. Gatsby’s legendary Saturday evening parties were merely a facade to get him close to the Buchanan’s East Egg mansion; Django’s ruse of being a Mandingo fighting expert gets him into Candyland, Candie’s plantation mansion. Nick Carraway, our first person narrator, facilitated the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, Dr King Schultz facilitated the reunion of Django and Broomhilda. Gatsby wanted to go back in time to revisit his perfect moment; Django wants to go back in time to be reunited with his wife. Both works end in the destruction of a mansion. Django flourishingly rides away with Broomhilda from the demolished Candyland, and figuratively so does Carraway our narrator (in lieu of Gatsby). As Carraway describes it: “And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”
Images of nature play a similar role in both works, though I hold off an a fuller inspection for now. Let me merely note that there is a vegetational sequence in The Great Gatsby that starts in the west (whence came Gatsby and Carraway) that then runs from the trimmed to the unkempt grass lawns of Long Island and ends in a vision of the indigenous pre-settlement state. In Django Unchained it also starts in the ecosystems of the wilder west, to the violent and parkland pastoral of the south. More rugged nature still plays a role here: Schultz and Django pick off the KKK posse from their perch in the wilder vegetation above the scence; the runaway slave d’Artagnan hides up a tree before descending only to be torn apart by dogs.
There is besides a close matching of characters in both stories. Django/Gatsby, Broomhilda/Daisy (both meagerly developed as characters), Calvin Candie/Tom Buchanan, King Schultz/Dan Cody and Nick Carraway. Perhaps one can pair the incompetently hooded KKK with the Gatsby’s sodden revelers. The pairings are not perfect, of course. For instance, in the economy of Tarantino’s film-making Dr Schultz plays a dual role. And though there is no Stephen, Calvin Candie’s house slave, nevertheless Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, plays a role which though not precisely comparable, nonetheless, performs the similar task of triggering the endgame.
For all of this Daisy stays with Tom, whereas Broomhilda rides off with Django. Gatsby dies, Django lives. Since this is the most consequential difference between the two works, why this has to be so bears a little scrutiny. Here is my thumbnail sketch:
Gatsby in the process of materially transforming himself destroys himself — all those shirts are not just for show. Django, however, is magnified and empowered by his transformation (assuming, that is, one approves of the havoc he created). Gatsby chooses mortality, whereas Django is bestowed a god’s capacity for vengeance. Ultimately The Great Gatsby explores the nightmare lurking behind the American dream. Django Unchained starts with that nightmare and responds with a fantasy. Death stalks nightmares, fantasies spawn invulnerability. Fitzgerald sets for himself the task of describing what happens when the goal is full restoration of time, pretending, in other words, that the past never even occurred. Tarantino’s task is the equally complex but seemingly more achievable one of responding when the past is unspeakable.
Both works deal, in a sense, with men — Gatsby, Buchanan and Candie — who builds mansions on the hill. In this sense Bono’s account of the American story might be right. But no one, apparently, likes that guy. Even in the American story we like get those basterds. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s Great American Movie. Perhaps there is only one great American story. If this is so then it was inevitable that Tarantino rewrote The Great Gatsby.
Many thanks to Oisín and Fiacha Heneghan and Vassia Pavlogianis for comments on earlier drafts - and even if they remain unconvinced, some of their insights have been incorporated into this version. I found Adam Kotsko's review of Django Unchained interesting and helpful, especially his analysis of Django's automatic knowledge (see that here).
Monday, August 29, 2011
Secular Humanism 2.0
by Kevin S. Baldwin
I recently found myself in the unusual position of almost agreeing with Michele Bachmann. Wait: Before you stop reading this or welcome me to the fold, let me explain. I was reading a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about Bachmann's enthusiasm for the ideas of Presbyterian Pastor Francis Schaeffer and his disciple, Nancy Pearcey (The LA Times article was informed by a New Yorker piece ). Basically, they all believe that the secular humanistic values that developed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment were bad because they turned people away from the inerrant truth of the Bible. If only we could turn back the clock to the Middle Ages (cue Monty Python's "bring out your dead")!
"How could I agree with this?" you may ask. I didn't really, but it got me to thinking that maybe what's wrong with secular humanism is not secularism nor humanism, but that its humanism as practiced, is to the exclusion of other species and a disregard for the biogeochemical processes upon which we all depend. No, I am not suggesting eating crunchy granola, while holding hands, singing "Kumbayah," and celebrating Gaia. Looking backward to the Middle Ages or even to pagan times isn't the solution to what ails us: Looking forward to a more inclusive, humble, secular humanism may be.
To the extent that reductionistic science has allowed us to focus on components and variables that we can understand and manipulate to our benefit, and economics has allowed us to ignore the resulting negative externalities, we have dramatically improved some aspects of our lives at the cost of decreased biodiversity and altered biogeochemical processes. When the blind spots of science and economics have reinforced one another, the result has not always been good. When science and economics have hybridized in a complementary manner, the results have been more productive, e.g., environmental economics and biomimicry.
We are pretty successful at isolating individual variables, and manipulating them to see how they affect a simple system. We are not so great at understanding how multiple interacting variables can affect an outcome in a complex system (see Thalidomide). Another example of our shortcomings might be failing to predict rare but serious drug interactions. Yet another example is the story of the World Health Organization parachuting cats into Borneo to reestablish ecological order after DDT spraying led to a rat & caterpillar population explosions through a complex chain of events.
To avoid the kind of cultural solipsism that is so easy to slip into in the early 21st century, I keep the following quote from David Abram's (1996) "The Spell of the Sensuous" (Vintage Books) close at hand: “Many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or ‘mind’, not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of along with the other animals and plants, the mountains and the clouds.” Can this broader conception of awareness be rehabilitated and updated for our own time? Can we make decisions while acknowledging we are embedded in a landscape of other creatures and entities?
Science and Economics (with its step-sister, Business) are two of the more prominent areas of inquiry that emerged from the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Many of the things that we consider to be progress over the last few centuries have happened as a result of their contributions. Unfortunately, many unintended consequences (e.g., overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, peak oil, and global warming) have also resulted. These could be considered the bitter fruits of Secular Humanism 1.0.
Bringing the best science and business practices together could help us to continue to maximize progress while minimizing its consequences for future generations and other species: A kind of Secular Humanism 2.0. Entrepreneurial spirit tempered by an appreciation of the strengths and the weaknesses of both industrial capitalism and the scientific method, a more wholistic accounting that avoids externalities, and a system of ethics that extends to other species may serve future generations better than what we are currently doing. Innovators and decision-makers who take into account a triple bottom line of "Ecology Equity Economy" or "People Profit Planet" instead of strictly thinking in terms of shareholder value and quarterly earnings statements may give us a fighting chance against the challenges that lie ahead: Certainly better odds than a return to medieval theocracy.
Monday, June 27, 2011
The Humanists: Hsiao-hsien Hou's Café Lumière
How often do we get two great cinematic tastes that, as they say, go great together? The Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou and the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu both, I would argue, display great taste, especially of the visual and rhythmic varietes. (Some insist Ozu had a tin ear, at least for music. Me, I could never strip his movies of those wobbly domestic strings.) But, separated by more than a generation, they never had a chance to collaborate. The next best opportunity came along in 2003, the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth (and the 40th anniversary of his death). To mark the occasion, Hou made Café Lumière, his homage to the master of the small-scale, the unspoken, and the pillow shot.
Film scholars don't need to waste their time building arguments about whether Ozu's influence really drives the film; "For the centenary of Ozu's birth," a title card nakedly announces right up front. The Ozu diehard, naturally, will only need to have seen the Shochiku logo. Crafting this project under the auspices of the studio for which Ozu worked all his life signals a certain seriousness, especially for a foreign filmmaker in a land famously protective of its inner life. And when this picture reveals how it sees Tokyo — well, case closed.
As unappealingly obsessive as it might sound, Café Lumière never strays far from the mechanics of public transit. Its story opens with a shot of a passing urban train, and many more of them appear throughout. These trains appear not as a fixture of a wealthy megalopolis but as part of a living, breathing, startingly calm organism grown also out of laundry lines, endless layers of icons and text, and web upon web of power and telephone lines. I hadn't glimpsed this sort of Tokyo since Ozu last captured it in the early sixties, this unassuming Tokyo seen, if not always at ground level, at least never from a much higher viewpoint than the average commuter enjoys.
Legend has it that Ozu shot his "home dramas" (including but most certainly not limited to Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and, previously written up in this column, Equinox Flower) with the camera mounted at the height of someone seated on a tatami mat. It always seemed a little higher than that to me, but the humility of the aesthetic choice still came across. It suited the humility of the circumstances; the homes in which his dramas played out always housed the stripe of family that, while appearing outwardly "middle class" to modern audiences, clearly sufferent from the kind of poverty — perhaps "lack" gets closer — that touched everyone in a Japan still so fresh from the Second World War.
In an actual Ozu picture, this would have turned into a matter of life and death, or at least the family would have treated it like one. Hou makes confusion the presiding emotion: it turns Yoko slightly wayward, it oscillates her mother between acting composed and comically flustered, and it drives her father to stare wordlessly out windows for nearly all his screen time. Too occupied with learning more about Wenye and his music to let the trouble at home affect her dramatically, Yoko tries to retrace the composer's long-ago travels in Tokyo while he falls nearer and nearer into Hajime's orbit — an orbit he inevitably makes, I suppose, what with all those train rides.
Both Yoko and Hajime live, relatively untethered, in their own worlds. Unsurprising that Yoko feels no urge to marry; how could her existence, strung from bookstore to coffee shop to the remnants of an avant-garde pianist's past, accommodate it? By the same token, Hajime can't say what he starts to feel for Yoko — assuming he does feel it. He maps out his reality explicitly in a piece of digital art he pulls up on his laptop: himself, as a microphone-wielding fetus, enclosed in a womb made of trains. You could say these two — Hou's characters, but very much modern Ozu characters as well — struggle under an excess of isolation where their cinematic predecessors struggled under an excess of connection, but perhaps too simplistically.
The lack remains, if not as precisely identifiable a lack as in Ozu. Where the older, Japanese filmmaker illustrated the dissolution of his people's families, the younger, Taiwanese filmmaker illustrates the results of that dissolution. This more complicated situation all but demands the hybrid sort of vision you get from crossing Ozu's with Hou's. Café Lumière thus unrolls with the former's stillness, human proportion, and habitation of the architectural, — looking from one door of a home through another into another — but also the latter's spontaneousness and aesthetic drift toward what's (often inexplicably) compelling. Ozu's pillow shots — character-free images of the natural and build environment included not to serve the film's story but its rhythm — like his people, stood mostly still. Hou's pillow shots, like his people, move, often with unclear motivation, but always toward what feels interesting.
I ultimately write about every filmmaker I write about because of the way they see and hear — the way they spin their sense perceptions into cinema. Many film writers have written many variations on the notion that Ozu saw, heard, and felt in ways terribly close to the core sensibilities of mid-20th-century Japan. Somewhat fewer have argued, no less forcefully, that Hou, who roots the bulk of his work in Taiwanese history and Taiwanese themes, perceives something equally essential about his own country in the late 20th century and early 21st. Grand and a little too neatly paradoxical though this may sound, Café Lumière makes you ask the question: could an equally Ozuesque view of a Japan 40 years after him have not just benefited from but required the eyes and ears of a director only influenced by Ozu's culture but just as steeped in another, only influenced by Ozu's aesthetic temperament but just as confident in his own?
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Monday, June 06, 2011
Sympathy for Monsters: Reflecting on the Film 'Let Me In'
by Tauriq Moosa
In his treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” The extent to which this is true is beyond our concern, but there is little doubt fear often puts rationality in a cage, chains the door and kicks it into a silent corner. It is this reaction that great horror writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Clive Barker and Stephen King to John Ajvide Lindqvist, have sought in their works. It is not the alien beings or giant monsters which terrify us as readers, but often human characters portrayed in vulnerable positions fighting to escape the horror of their sudden environment.
Consider a world populated by giant monsters. Giant monsters who hunted other giant beasts, as non-human animals do here ‘in the wild’. A book that described this might be interesting, but hardly terrifying if it made no reference of threats to humans or creatures with vague properties of personhood (emotions, consciousness, etc.). It would be about as terrifying as a nature documentary on whale sharks. And think of the corollary: a house. Houses on their own hardly seem interesting places, but in the right kind of light, penned by a master story-teller, they can become the most terrifying of places.
It is thus the relation to humans or beings with personhood that matter. The wonderful movie ‘Wall-E’ has a robot title-character who displays emotions, actions, self-consciousness (i.e. properties of personhood). We identify with Wall-E because of these properties, showing that we care for persons not necessarily or only for humans. That is why any robot or alien – or even toys – have to display personhood for us to care: they need not even be shaped like humans for us to care about them. As long as they display engagement with their environment, there is reason for us to care about their well-being (since they display a care for their individual well-being and others’).
This why the movie ‘Let Me In’ has come to replace ‘Inception’ as my second favourite movie of the decade (my list will be at the end for those who care).
Overview of ‘Let Me In’
‘Let Me In’ is an American version of the Swedish film ‘Let the Right One In’, itself based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Lindqvist (if you’re interested in how to pronounce his name, see here).
The story relates the relationship of Owen, a bullied loner, and Abby, a centuries’ old vampire in the body of a bare-foot twelve-year old. In the beginning, we are introduced to Abby and her ‘father’ when they move in to the same dilapidated, dirty apartment building as Owen. Owen spends his time outside, in the dark and snow, contemplating murder of his bullies and other normal, preteen boys’ thoughts while singing a ditty in his girlish voice. One night Abby introduces herself by announcing they can never be friends. Of course, this changes rapidly due to their contrast and similarities. Like pieces of broken mirror, they fit together uneasily but when together reflect their world to greater degrees.
My description does little justice to the beauty of the film. The visuals alone are striking: the harsh contrast of snow at night; the violence and brutality emerging from the body of an innocent-looking girl; the notable femininity of Owen and the strength and silence and watchfulness of Abby; Owen’s mother whose face you never see and might as well be absent in terms of parental duties, serving only to irritate Owen and be a bedrock of confusion and isolation. The acting is remarkable but the ability to pull through stretches of silence without losing the audience’s interest more so.
However, reflecting on this, one is drawn to a number of incredible conclusions. There is nothing simple or easily outlined: Abby is not clearly evil, Owen is not a strong character but retains your empathy, the bullies are awful but not clearly bad people. The only contrast is the visuals and in-between this is a thousand shades of grey called character profiles.
Monster and Man
I’ve said Abby isn’t clearly evil. She is a vampire and vampires traditionally are evil. However, what makes this classification difficult is the clear similarities to humans. Movies that transform the vampires into clearly horrific creatures miss out on doing something more terrifying, which movies like ‘Let Me In’ and ‘Interview with a Vampire’ pulled off: creating vampires with, whom you sympathise, battling humans, with whom you do not.
George Romero has done this successfully by creating the zombie genre, but displaying the awful things humans – live, not undead ones – are prepared to do in order to survive. Betrayal, murder, revenge all arise despite the need everyone has to survive.
But this is apparent even when not fighting for survival. In one of Romero’s later movies, ‘Land of the Dead’, we see a community of zombies shuffling, not harming anyone. They have learnt to interact, hold hands, put gas pumps into cars. The audience is led to believe these disgusting creatures are gaining some form of intelligence; they are also not harming anyone since humans are sealed off in a protected city (consider our planet of giant monsters above where similarly there was no threat to humans). Suddenly, with hooting and tooting and typical macho bravado, cars with gun-toting marines drive through the streets shooting the zombies. Limbs fly as the hapless creatures struggle to turn or even run – since they are too slow. The audience feels revulsion at the senseless violence: after all, these are human-like creatures – ugly yes but not harming anyone – and showing something akin to intelligence, too slow to react in ways to protect themselves. And here they are outmanned, outgunned and ‘out-vehicled’ by macho marines clearly enjoying pumping bullets into these miserable creatures.
Sympathy for monsters is a difficult move to pull off but Romero and other good writers/directors can. This occurs in ‘Let Me In’. We are supposed to feel sympathy for Abby, despite her monstrous nature. She clearly cares for Owen, who has no one else. Abby, too, clearly has the ability to care as displayed by her affections to her ‘father’ – who is actually her familiar.
But there is a further move. In ‘Let Me In’ we have moved beyond simply dubbing monsters as ‘not entirely bad’ and human people as quite evil, with Romero, Stephen King and others blurring the line between monster and man. ‘Let Me In’ uses this blurred line as the baseline. Then it leaps over it into murkier waters. The rest is not clearly explained by the movie, but is an argument for why Abby is in fact a greater monster than most vampires, even in B-Grade movies.
Why Abby is Evil
When we first meet Abby, she is with an older man. We are meant to assume this man is her father. As we come to know what she is, we realise it’s impossible, since Abby is probably a few hundred years old and this man is not immortal. He is therefore her familiar; which according to some vampire traditions is a human tied to the vampire; a human who obtains blood and other necessities for the vampire, in exchange for some kind of reward. Often the reward is illusory, such as an unsurpassed affection and love from the vampire.
Again this touches on human vulnerability: being in love. What stupid things do people do ‘in the name of love’? There is a reason why many think murders committed as ‘crimes of passion’ should not be ranked as equal to those of, say, a serial killer (not because of number but of kind). Passion dulls the mind, in an attempt to fulfil itself. Everything else is simply an obstacle in the way of obtaining that which is strongly desired. Thus, it’s not unheard of for apparently normal people to do uncharacteristic things to obtain the affections of someone he or she desires. The vampire tradition simply plays on this.
True, sometimes the reward is of a supernatural kind: sometimes the familiar is himself granted immortality, great strength, etc. But that ruins the obvious vulnerability the vampire-familiar pact is playing on. The vein is already open and being sucked dry; there’s no need to add magic to this already powerful idea. In ‘Let Me In’, it’s not obvious that Abby’s familiar has any kind of power; he carries out his murders in a sluggish, slightly reluctant fashion. It’s not often we see Abby convey affection toward the older man. When she does, he is overcome by her touch and her approval. Again, this is no different than any other abusive relationship, where we see signs of Stockholm syndrome: the beaten woman who claims she loves her fist of a husband but remains.
What we notice about Abby's familiar is his age. If he is mortal, he is at an age where performing feats to feed Abby is becoming more burdensome. Sneaking and murdering is not for the old or unfit, which this man clearly is. His failure is apparent when Owen often hears screaming from Abby’s apartment.
When the audience first hears these shouts, screams and heavy thumps, we are – along with Owen – supposed to assume it is the older man, Abby’s ‘father’, yelling because of the deep-sounding voice. However, in a brilliantly filmed shot, we see Abby’s ‘father’/familiar slouched uncomfortably in a corner, covering his head and being yelled at. That deep-sounding voice, that heavy thumping – we are witness to Abby’s demonic side.
Again, this is no different to people revealing abusive, horrible sides. The tradition of possession by demons, the reason it is still often believed, is because of the remarkable change in someone’s character. It is almost as if something external has ‘possessed’ this person. We even talk about love and hatred as something external: I was in love, hatred was in my veins, etc. We don’t like to acknowledge that extremities bring focus to the million shades of grey that mark our personality; after all, to make grey you need black and white.
Anyway, the point this raises is that the familiar has been failing at pleasing Abby. His age, his reluctance, and his regular failure – evidenced by the constant yelling by the demonic child – tell us his usefulness is coming to an end. Seen in this light, with this realisation, suddenly Owen’s role is not as simple as it first appears. Owen may at first be a loner who is ‘saved’ by Abby; Abby may appear as fortuitous in Owen’s life but with the degradation of her current familiar’s usefulness, is it any wonder Abby does everything she can to save Owen despite the obvious ramification of being discovered?
Abby is evil precisely because the whole premise is not about friendship but usefulness. Abby used friendship to obtain him since she recognised that she could get another human to love her, given that he is the right age and would therefore be with her as long as he would be alive.
Indeed, we see the advantage of Abby being in the body of a young girl. Being young, she appears more innocent but, furthermore, she can acquire a familiar her own age and use him longer. True, if she was, say, in her thirties, she could just acquire a young familiar and call him her son; but it would probably be more difficult. It is easier in movement, in obtaining a familiar, to be a young girl.
Abby is evil in that even before Owen has a chance to be a free adult, he is already in her clutches. Considering he would be looking after her, he could never have a life which was not completely devoted to her: her security, her safety, her feeding. And if he fails, he will be punished. She has all the worst aspects of a pet and a monster and all the manipulation of a lover. A worst combination of monster – well, it’s hard to consider anything much worse, though there are a few.
Again, a Contrast
Yet, this is not remarkable. There are couples who exist exactly like this: bound by marriage, children, familiarity; perhaps they are bound by a dream, gagged by a lie and have tied themselves to a train-track called a relationship. Wherever their heads are placed, there is nothing so far removed from the supernatural relationship displayed by the evil Abby and her victim/familiar Owen.
To think this relationship is something special, only akin to vampires, would be to miss out on the contrast to, again, human relationships.
The most terrifying thing we experience is not the monster’s roar, the slithering tentacle. It’s not the sudden bang or the swinging lights. What keeps our blood pumping, what turns our hands into white knuckled fists, is the realisation that the things we call monstrous are found in our lives, amongst each other; horror is the light behind us putting shadows on the cave wall. At first, we call the shadows evil until we turn to see the light is merely reflecting our shapes and forms. This is what good horror does. This is indeed what ‘Let Me In’ performs beautifully.
There is nothing so monstrous as a man who thinks himself incapable of being a monster. Recognising this, it’s hard to say what is truly otherworldly about ‘Let Me In’. And that is what makes this movie so terrifying.
favourite contemporary movies
1. The Dark Knight
2. Let Me In
4. Life is Beautiful
Monday, April 25, 2011
by Jenny White
Gus Rancatori is a Renaissance man who owns an ice cream parlor. Cambridge-based Toscanini’s is a hangout where you’re as likely to run into a Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a molecular foodie as a furniture maker or novelist. One day I met a dapper man with gray hair who had been a physicist at MIT and gave it all up to start a business making high-end marshmallows. Tosci’s staff is memorably pierced and talented. One of the managers, Adam Tessier, is a published poet and essayist who last year filmed a customer a day reading a Shakespeare sonnet. Some scoopers are music majors, hard-core rockers who play for bands with names like Toxic Narcotic. You might receive your khulfee cone from the hands of the next big pop star. Gus Rancatori circulates through the wood-paneled room beneath displays of art, the host at a rotating feast of words, ideas and, above all, ice cream. Gus is discreet, but has some favorite customer stories.
A very famous MIT type used to attempt to pay with his own hand-drawn funny money and then he would launch into a lecture about the symbolic value of money, which I tried to squelch by claiming to remember that class from Freshman Economics. If you asked to help him, he would say, "I'm beyond help." When another MIT student found out that I didn't have a computer he offered to give me one, so strong were his evangelic instincts and also, like many of the customers, he was exceptionally generous.
With one hand Gus makes what The New York Times has called "the best ice cream in the world”; the other takes the cultural pulse of the city.He has published a mini-memoir, Ice Cream Man, and writes a column for The Atlantic -- close observations on what we can know about society through ice cream.
Customers! They're so nice. They're so weird. Some of them are so naked. We get a big cross section. We're near MIT but we're also in Central Square near a housing project. We get people who don't speak English because they're incredibly smart and have come to MIT and we get people who don't speak English because they just snuck into this country. We get people from nominally Spanish-speaking countries who don't speak Spanish. I like to hire people who can speak other languages. It can help in the store.
We often discuss the customers after a long night and I think most of us would agree that some of the most difficult customers are suburbanites who come into town on weekends or during the summer and are a little lost. Maybe I'm seeing anxious tourist behavior, but it often seems that adults from the suburbs like to play a little stupid when they're out of their element, "Look at this, honey, they have Saffron ice cream!" Any customer is capable of asking a question that is not really what they want to ask. "What's in the Goat Cheese Brownie?" really means, "Can I taste the Goat Cheese Brownie?" A customer once pointed at the chocolate ice cream and asked if it was vanilla. My playful brother, Joe, said, "Yes. It is." The customer thought for a minute and said, "I thought vanilla was white." My brother feigned surprise and slapped his forehead, "My God. You're right. That is chocolate." When customers arrive while we're mopping the floor and all the chairs atop tables, they ask "Are you closed?" Obviously we're closed, but they want to ask, "Can we still get something?" and if it is at all possible we try to serve them something, but something to go, so we can finish cleaning and go home ourselves.
Time takes on a cultural dimension in the shop, as people develop a circadian rhythm in which the cosmos aligns with their stomach: I can do this important thing here and only here, now and only now, and I need French Toast to do it.
Some customers are like Japanese trains. Every morning at 8:45 AM they get a double espresso or every night they come to study and begin with a White Peony tea. One customer only drank nocciola frappes and when he died suddenly his friends at MIT all came to the store after a memorial service and drank nocciola frappes. An accountant often arrives just before we stop serving weekend brunch and is upset when we are out of breakfast items. "This is very important to my week. Why do you always run out of French Toast?" Another was indignant when we asked people to leave after our 11 PM closing. We need to get home, catch a bus or subway, or simply lock the doors to keep any night goblins outside. Many people do not like our policy prohibiting the use of computers for a few hours every week. People think we are intentionally serving unusual flavors they like when they're not in the store; we make Cocoa Rum Chip every other week, but they only come occasionally. We try to set aside special flavors for special people, but customers also have "commitment issues" about ice cream flavors.
For the IgNobel Awards, an internationally broadcast spoof of the Nobel Prizes held at Harvard University, Gus developed a new ice cream flavor as homage to the discovery by 2007 IgNobel Chemistry Prize winner, Mayu Yamamoto, that you can extract vanillin from cow dung. (Gus admitted that his recipe for Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist did not include poop.) When I pointed out to Gus that he treats ice cream the way a novelist regards a blank page, he responded,
The idea of ice cream as a blank page might be very appropriate. I think about many things but it is easy for any idea to slip across the surface of my mind and end up as an ice cream flavor. Flavors come about from mistakes and misunderstandings. Ginger Snap Molasses was the result of wordplay. Steve's Ice Cream made Ginger Molasses and I wanted to get the cookie, the word "snap" and the idea of that snap into the flavor or at least flavor name. Black Bottom Pie came about while reading a cookbook one morning when I should have been getting to work. Jeremiah Tower, the first chef at Chez Panisse, described a favorite dessert from Alabama and I realized I had all the ingredients but should probably invert everything. So instead of making a chocolate rum pie with a ginger snap crust, I made a Chocolate Rum ice cream containing pieces of ginger snap cookies. I have a lot of curiosity and even a food as simple as ice cream can provide a large playing field.
Running rough-and-tumble on the playing field of food, fun, and social analysis, Gus, together with the anthropologist Merry “Corky” White, puts on a semi-underground annual food film festival that in its execution itself becomes a piece of performance art. Graduate students from Harvard and MIT volunteer their technical and lugging skills. The festival uses scavenged equipment and university rooms opportunistically acquired for that evening’s showing. Sometimes the films are shown in a room repurposed from a small swimming pool, chairs set inside the tiled chin-height walls. While watching the movie, you imagine Harvard men in knee-length bathing suits taking bracing morning constitutionals.
The films are usually accompanied by a speaker reflecting its theme, and Corky, an accomplished cook, makes film-appropriate food. After “Ratatouille”, the animated movie about a rat assisting a young Parisian from beneath his chef’s hat, the food critic Corby Kummer regaled the audience with stories from the field, but what the audience saw was the snooty food critic in the film, to whom Kummer bore a remarkable resemblance. Then Corky served up samples of ratatouille. When Gus and Corky realized the series was attracting a covey of attendees who skipped the movie and came just for the food, the series went even further underground in a game of cat and mouse (or rat) with the film grazers.
Food and drama embrace on screen and off. “The Kings of Pastry” is a documentary that follows three pastry chefs in the grueling competition for France’s most prestigious pastry title. Some of the men broke down under the pressure, their enormous sugar confections toppled, lifelong dreams ground to sugar dust. The audience in the borrowed Harvard room was tense; in the film, the judges were about to announce the winners. Just then there was a commotion at the door; members of the student shooting club claimed to have booked the room and demanded that we surrender it immediately. But we all remained in our seats, eyes glued to the drama on the screen, our noses twitching at the platter of Corky's cream puffs waiting on the table.
What is the secret of this enthusiasm for food -- not just for nurturance, but as a philosophical platform and for “deep play”?
The mysteries of ice cream? Moving past the maternal link I think the fundamental appeal of ice cream is juvenile. It is a food you get to play with and is actually improved by that combined stirring-melting spoon business. As you soften the ice cream it warms. Cold numbs taste buds so warming up the ice cream actually does make it taste better. It is the little boy's equivalent of letting wine breathe.
Playing with your food can be hedonistic and it can be dramatic, fusing our passions in one grand gesture of denial. You cannot have my Dulche de Leche. You may not pass. One customer was mugged when he refused to surrender a pint of ice cream to teenage thieves. And on another occasion the police caught a fleeing thief after first bringing him to heel with a well-aimed Toscanini frappe.
(Photo credit: Merry White)
Monday, February 07, 2011
The Owls | Filmchat on the Oscars
Ben Walters (BW) and J. M. Tyree (JMT) write about movies. Together, they wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, and they also have co-written reviews of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. They discussed this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated films on a transatlantic chat between Rotterdam and Lake Erie, and they agreed on a film to recommend: Exit Through the Gift Shop. Also discussed: Inception, Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, Somewhere, The King’s Speech, Shutter Island, True Grit, Catfish, and The Social Network.
JMT: Have you noticed how many of this year’s Oscar-nominated films are about family businesses of one kind or another?
10:08 AM It’s odd…
10:09 AM From Inception and Winter’s Bone to Black Swan, The Fighter, and The King’s Speech. “We’re not a family, we’re a firm,” Colin Firth says in The King’s Speech. And several of these films feature rotten families trying to push the kids into their firms…
10:10 AM BW: interesting. true grit and the kids are all right are about a determination toward family loyalty too
but the business side is something else, i guess
10:11 AM JMT: Yeah, on the other end of the spectrum, True Grit, like The Social Network, deliberately presents a total absence of family life. In another sense maybe True Grit presents a business venture that winds up becoming a sort of ad hoc American family. In The Social Network the business relationship is really more of a romance.
10:13 AM But for me it’s still the year of The Bad Family.
10:14 AM BW: yes, none of them is a family you’d opt into, really. yet there’s not much sense of really wanting out, is there? except the abdicaton of guy pearce in the king’s speech, i suppose! mattie in true grit is motivated by family obligation and the winklevii in the social network are close as close can be. even 127 hours, ostensibly as atomised an experience as you’ll find, gets its happy ending because of feelings of fealty to parents and a child-to-be
10:22 AM JMT: The King’s Speech and The Fighter are a match in another way. Both films are about overcoming your horrible family, but then entering the family firm anyway, only, this time on your own terms. There’s a distant echo of this in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, also, if one takes it as a reflection of what it’s like to grow up in a movie celebrity family and having a bottle of wine named after you and stuff like that. It’s like, with these films this year, whether your family runs a meth lab in rural Missouri or a would-be ballet dynasty, this line of work is pretty much the only option for your future. Films for terrible economic times in which no other work is available? Now I’m stretching this idea way too far…
BW: i don’t know, the economic necessity angle might be a stretch but certainly there’s plenty of overlap
10:26 AM there wasn’t much about either family or business last year – up in the air is business-based, i guess, and precious and an education are family-rejection stories
10:28 AM JMT: I think of last year’s Oscar films being more social and political – The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, The Cove.
BW: right. it’s mostly war – avatar, hurt locker, basterds
so maybe you are onto something – money and blood?
10:29 AM JMT: So on Inception, I must say that repeated viewing has softened me up a little. I think I wanted the film to be something it wasn’t trying to be. Also, Shutter Island (which few are talking about) is basically a case of inception that doesn’t “take,” right?
10:30 AM BW: yeah, totally – except he’s both parts, inceptor and inceptee
trying to invade his own mind
10:32 AM The film directing feat of Inception got snubbed, whether you’re fond of it or not.
10:33 AM Are any of these films dear to you?
10:35 AM BW: interesting way to put it… not many, i have to say. true grit. this might be a sentimental response on my part to a sentimental(ish) film by filmmakers i love… don’t think there are any others that i’m rooting for, exactly
10:36 AM i was a bit sorry not to see tron nominated for visual effects. i dug those, even if the script was duff
JMT: Tron! – Or, It Had to Be Done. Should have been a musical. Is True Grit the most warmhearted of the Coen films to date? Certainly it puts paid to the idea – which we always thought was a canard – that they are supposedly these terribly chilly filmmakers who hold their characters at arm’s length.
10:38 AM BW: i think it’s probably the warmest throughout. it has a kind of gentlemanly quality that means even the scummiest characters afford and are afforded a measure of civility
10:41 AM JMT: It’s a lark, really, hokum from start to finish, and I don’t mean that in a bad sense at all – in the same way the Charles Portis novel is hokum. Plenty of bad stuff happens. But this is a world ultimately free from true harm for Mattie somehow. It’s a teen adventure story. These are deliberately “minor” works, “late” in the sense that they come after the end of a tradition and joke around with it…I think of True Grit as something like an anti-Twilight…?
10:44 AM BW: hmm… there might be something to that. i’m not sure about a world free from harm – all those hangings? – and the sense of invulnerability is arguably challenged at the climax… i wonder if it’s more the sense that they’re all engaged in a cooperative endeavour – the taming of the west – the american experiment – so there need to be some limits. whereas in most every other coen film it’s every doofus for himself…
10:49 AM JMT: You’re right – not harm-free but yet Tom Sawyerish somehow in the sense that things will come out all right? Do we really fear that Mattie will die of snake-bite? I don’t think so. I really like Matt Damon’s comic performance and enjoy the idea of this ensemble as a co-operative of oddballs floating around in a national cultural of individualistic entrepreneurship expanding ever Westward.
10:51 AM When you interviewed the Coens for Time Out London, they talked about that whole aspect of wanting the American landscape to shape their stories and their characters. It’s something they’ve explored a lot…
10:53 AM BW: yes – i suppose in a sense you could see it as the overarching tragedy of the coenverse – what do people do with this spirit of gainful entrepreneurship once there are only individualistic goals left in this land?
10:54 AM you could imagine them making a nice movie about the run-up to the declaration of independence… all downhill from there…!
JMT: A biopic of Ben Franklin, maybe! They’d probably love claiming they were working on that…
11:02 AM American entrepreneurship is something that the Coens and also Fincher get really skeptical about. I suppose that one of the things I resist in many of these other Oscary-type films is the “uplifting” sense that you have to find your own way through your family issues to successful entrepreneurship and celebrity, especially in The King’s Speech and The Fighter. By contrast, The Social Network is very negative on the consequences of that. And, as an anti-celebrity movie, Somewhere fits in with Black Swan, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Catfish.
11:07 AM BW: interesting… a collective riposte to the idea of individual fame and credit? in general, i wonder if aronofsky is fincher’s evil double. they both seem interested in the crisis of individual identity in late-capitalist society but fincher is willing to grant the unfathomable despair that comes with that whereas aronofsky tries to finesse it away with glib expressionism and cornball salvation
11:10 AM JMT: Well, about Black Swan, the entertainment quotient of the basic idea – of a ballet slasher film – has charm, no? It’s odd how that film is marketed as a “psycho-sexual thriller.” And then these articles appear saying, “Black Swan, that’s really how it really is in the ballet world!” What, when little tufts of down feathers start popping out of your skin? I enjoyed the film as camp – Drag Me to Hell is the only analogue I can summon off the top of the deck. Halloween candy, kinda scary, mostly goofy, with wicked performances. I picture a lot of late night screenings of both films a decade from now, if people are still going out of their homes to see the pictures by then. Or, no, Black Swan is actually a lot more like Fight Club with female characters, isn’t it?
11:11 AM BW: i caught a bit of requiem for a dream on tv last night, which was pretty hilarious. he’s pretty good at camp so i’m all for him embracing it
11:13 AM JMT: All right, I have to ask. What about The King’s Speech? Historically it’s notable because of its connection to the UK Film Council, which was abolished last year by the new Tory – sorry, “coalition” – government. I didn’t think you’d like the film, for some of the same reasons you thought unkindly of A Single Man.
11:14 AM BW: actually i did enjoy it
11:16 AM i though it was good, honest storytelling – a sympathetic character overcoming an obstacle for an aim you could get behind. it’s social and political hogwash, but i didn’t find it aesthetically dishonest or kitschy in the way a single man was. for what it’s worth, i thought firth himself was very good in that too. it’s an actor’s film and i thought it was well cast and well performed…
11:22 AM JMT: Showing the pull of actors at the Oscars, for sure. For me, The King’s Speech is one of those films that I start to doubt from the moment I leave my seat – the mold sets in pretty quickly. And once you start to doubt it there’s no way back in. It’s one of those Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” productions where all the ducks are in a row and immense creative efforts have been poured in, but…you know…
11:23 AM BW: yeah, i certainly don’t make any great claims for it. enjoyable rather than good, perhaps…
11:26 AM JMT: I won’t pretend I didn’t laugh heartily at the swearing scene! Do you have a darling or favorite in this batch of Oscar-nominated films, any stuff that really gets to you?
11:28 AM For me it was The Social Network and Banksy’s film.
BW: i was just about to mention Banksy
11:29 AM it was about the only title that genuinely veered off in peculiar directions and kept you guessing
11:33 AM JMT: Exit Through the Gift Shop treads on this idea of being a celebrity, a theme that also pops up in Black Swan, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, Somewhere, Catfish, and The Social Network. Banksy advocates a certain kind of facelessness and amateurism, in the best sense of the term, as opposed to entrepreneurial life. Or am I being taken in by Banksy too much? He’s both a celebrity and an entrepreneur of sorts. Yet he’s attuned to this paradox and he’s advocating something specific in the film…
11:37 AM BW: well, there’s an intractable problem, which isn’t his fault, in that to enjoy any artistic success today you need to have a personal brand – you simply can’t be anonymous, so if your work reaches a level of recognition there’s no way not to be either a celebrity or a conspicuously anti-celebrity public figure of some kind. that said, he’s an entrepreneur as well, which i guess does complicate it
11:40 AM JMT: Everyone says, “We don’t know who this Banksy person is!” And this is supposed to be such a big deal, right? But in another sense this isn’t really true. His film does a nice job of showing us who he is and what he’s about. It’s simply that we don’t know what his face looks like. In The Social Network, Sean Parker suggests cutting the word “The” from “The Facebook.” Banksy raises the stakes and cuts out the “Face.”
Read more BW/JMT filmchats archived at The Owls site here >>
Monday, December 13, 2010
Nostalgia, according to Webster's New World Dictionary1, is “a longing for something far away or long ago”. We all feel it, and it seems to play a larger role in our lives the older we get. Which makes perfect logical sense because the older we get the more we think about the “good old days”. Eventually there comes a point where there are more days in the past than in the future.2
I recently went with my wife and our two children to her high school reunion down in Centreville, Maryland. She graduated from Gunston Day School, class of 1985. I never had an experience like that when I was in high school (or college for that matter). Since Gunston at the time was a boarding school, my wife lived there during the school year and obviously went back home to New Jersey when summer came around. I never left home. I took the bus to high school, and I commuted to college. When we arrived at that reunion, I could feel that nostalgia even though I never went there. I could tell my wife had this sense of such joy from remembering all her best friends from high school. That was accompanied by a feeling that you can never get back to those days, the sadness, the brink of tears.
It's that mix that describes nostalgia for me.
It is interesting, when you happen to look at a picture of yourself or a family member from years ago. You get that feeling there is this almost dreamlike sense that you or he/she were somehow a different person back then.
I can remember reading a few articles about cell replacement of the human body. The rate of cell replacement varies but one thing is certain, cells are constantly dying and being replaced.3
This could explain why we often feel that the picture of you from 10 years ago definitely looks slightly different but often gets us to think, “Wow, I can't believe what I was thinking back then”.
In purely scientific terms, we were a different person back then.
This is especially true when I see pictures of my father. To be honest, I would have to see a picture of him prior to August 27, 1994 which is when he had a terrible accident while working on a roof of a house. My father slipped off of a ladder and fell about twenty feet and landed on his head that day. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, was in a coma for about three weeks, and had to undergo extensive rehabilitation to be able to walk and talk and perform basic functions. He eventually was able to come home, fittingly, just in time for the holidays.
Looking at my father today, an outsider would never imagine anything was wrong or that he is different than the way he was 16 years ago. One thing that has never changed, however, is my father's obsession with classic movies, television shows, and music. Actually, I would argue that he is more obsessed with those things now than he ever was. Could it be because he is getting older or because he remembers a time prior to him getting hurt? Either way, he is searching for the “good old days”.
It makes me think about the movies that I loved growing up and how I can't turn away when they're on the television. Back to the Future comes to mind as one of the all-time greatest movies for me4. Not only does it bring back my childhood memories from the 80s, it also manages to weave in that 1950s era magic.
As I'm writing this it is early December and Christmas is approaching5. Nostalgia will help Coca-Cola to sell more of their beverage products through the use of an old-time Santa caricature on their bottles. Other companies, such as Maxwell House, will also try to sell their products by pushing the allure of the “good old days” and playing on our memories of childhood.6 These companies will no doubt be showcasing their products during commercials played in between and during our favorite christmas movies. Christmas is full of nostalgia. Who can forget being a kid waiting for Santa to show up and bring you your presents? Nostalgia is tradition. I hope that when reading this you get a sense of how important it is to provide good memories for our children, grand children, nieces and nephews. No matter how bad people may have had it growing up, they only seem to remember the good parts. Selective memory seems to be a predominant characteristic of those who live in and love the past.
It's for this reason that for every bad part of life, we need to provide or create a positive one. In time, these positive ones will weigh more.
Speaking of time, and movies, makes me think about Doc Brown's Delorian time machine7. I wish I had one. If I couldn't change the course of our lives, at least I would like to provide my father with some more great memories. At least then he could wax nostalgic with a bigger smile on his face.
Merry Christmas everyone.
1The Fourth Edition, 2003
2I am not taking “life after death” into consideration. I also understand that number of future days is impossible to calculate.
3If the reader is interested, just google: “cell replacement in the human body” or some variation thereof
4I would argue that it is the greatest trilogy ever made. Please no hate mail from Star Wars fans.
5I understand there are other holidays out there. My family and I celebrate Christmas.
6If you really want to watch the “Peter” ad campaign I'm sure you can find it on youtube
7I apologize if you haven't watched Back to the Future and have no idea what I'm talking about. Wait I take that back. Go watch it now.
Monday, October 04, 2010
The Owls | Gekko-Sploitation, Wall Street 2, and Late Boomer Guilt
Ben Walters and J. M. Tyree chat about film for The Owls site. Together, they wrote the BFI Film Classics book about The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute, and they’ve co-written reviews of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. This month, they discussed Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to Wall Street and Stone’s take on the financial sector meltdown in the United States in 2008.
JMT: Where did you see Wall Street 2? Did the audience seem to enjoy it?
2:26 PM BW: well, i saw it at a press screening so it’s hard to tell. critics don’t make for very expressive audiences
JMT: How does the film look from the UK, the austerity land of Conservative budgets?
2:27 PM BW: well, kind of out of time, i must say – i thought it felt like a period piece
as if it were set at the end of the previous era (greedisgoodia) rather than during the subsequent one (austerityland). bit of a shame, as the first film was so zeitgeisty
2:28 PM but i suppose Stone was going for a gotterdammerung kind of thing…?
2:30 PM JMT: One thing I noticed is that, while Michael Moore trashes the bank bailouts in Capitalism: A Love Story – essentially giving the Republicans their election year playbook in his supposedly progressive film – Stone goes to great lengths to “explain” the government’s actions as “responsible,” etc., in that very wooden scene set during the abyss of the financial crisis.
BW: well, when you’ve got eli wallach telling you the world’s gonna end, you better listen, right?
2:32 PM JMT: A lot of cameos, speaking of Wallach. That same real estate broker is back. The new music by Eno and Byrne makes a delicious bookend to Stone’s use of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in the first film, it all seems so promising at first! Stone himself appears – am I mistaken? – as a purveyor or buyer of “ridiculous art.” Hmm…
2:33 PM i wasn’t sure if he was purveying or looking to buy. bookend i think is exactly right – i was expecting more of a survey of the new landscape but WS2 is more elegiac – or at least trying to be?
JMT: The original Wall Street [WS1] has a lot of wit. And it’s so fast paced. It’s a cocaine film.
BW: right, and very streamlined and sleek
2:34 PM this was a lot more muddled… but could that be apt?
2:37 PM JMT: Very interesting –> WS1 has this delight in the evil. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is totally seduced by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and the interior design stylings of Daryl Hannah. It’s a film about pinkie rings, two-inch TV screens, ordering “Evian” at the restaurant, big hair, cocaine in limos…as Iain Sinclair once said about the 1980s, “cocaine in the executive washroom.” But here in WS2 the protagonist, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) isn’t really fully seduced into the realm of evil. He’s got his Third Way idealism about his laser fusion plant investment scheme intact all the way until the end. I thought it could have been funny if the fusion plant turned out to be a “green tech” scam…
2:38 PM Like an faux-environmental pyramid scheme. But that just shows I was hoping for more camp…
2:40 PM BW: yeah, that would have been more fun. but in a way Jake’s dilemma is more ambiguous – it’s not angel vs devil, good vs greed, in private as well as business
JMT: That’s clearly Stone’s intention…yes…
2:41 PM BW: do i detect a whiff of uncertainty?
2:43 PM JMT: Well, no, I think you’re exactly right – the film is a parable that still believes in The Third Way of Clinton and Blair. It reminds me of those Ameriprise investment commercials Dennis Hopper made, God bless him. The commercials were geared toward Boomers in this sad and obvious way. They said, you can have it all, a mutual fund that invests in wind farms (and cigarette companies), your VW van, a guitar, and a home equity loan. There’s a whole generational complex here related to the abandonment of 60s idealism, I think.
2:44 PM I’m being very unfair to my elders and betters, but…
BW: that makes sense. there’s an ad playing on tv over here at the moment for some kind of investment product (i forget the name) which is unabashedly targeting that generation – ‘you’ve worked hard, now you deserve to enjoy your yachting and vintage cars and manicured garden’ kind of thing – and it seems stunningly tasteless. and i think that’s what made WS2 seem slightly out of time – a boomer attempt to suggest things are still all right. that final happy-smiley-child’s-birthday-party sequence was perverse, like jamming your fingers in your ears and singing a happy tune
2:46 PM JMT: Yes – although in WS1 Gekko does seem genuinely hurt by Bud Fox’s betrayal, like losing a son, so there’s a precedent in the original for viewing Gekko as a family man who wants to bequeath a legacy. Obviously he’s a supplanting father figure competing with Bud’s union rep Dad (Martin Sheen). I delight in that because it suggests Gekko wants an Ayn Rand-like alternative family unit based on evil quests for money. A “team,” as Daryl Hannah pointedly says to Bud when she leaves him – a team! This is more fun to watch than battles over the funding of some flaky laser fusion machine that’s going to save the world. Bah-humbug! 2:47 PM It’s like an Al Gore Power Point.
there’s got to be a deus ex machina solution and if it weren’t for those old-school greedy BASTARDS we’d have it
stone’s trying to sell us a magic bullet
2:51 PM JMT: Well, okay, Stone did go around Latin American talking to all those left-wing leaders, right, so South of the Border is worth bearing in mind here. And his presentation of the crisis, in terms of the fall of Lehman Bros and the near collapse of Bear Stearns, is fairly historically faithful. Or at least it mirrors the brilliant PBS Frontline doc on the subject, Inside the Meltdown. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a die-hard Wall Street guy who believed in “moral hazard,” had to initiate the government salvation of the banking sector against his own free market philosophy.
2:52 PM BW: my point is that the new movie doesn’t come up with a convincing dramatic framework for channelling these things through character and story
2:53 PM it’s all fairytale stuff about magic fusion reactors and implausible reconciliations
it’s more like cymbeline or winter’s tale than faust
2:54 PM JMT: Yes – wonderful comparison – especially because the female lead, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) is so malleable that she’s almost Shakespearean. She’s like, “Oh, I don’t want 100 million dollars, just tell me what you want to do with it.” That money’s tainted! No good can come of it. Wait…unless…we can end our dependence on foreign oil and coal reactors…
2:55 PM BW: she spends two hours crying
2:56 PM JMT: And structurally, Martin Sheen’s role in the narrative of WS1 (and his position as the film’s moral center) has either been replaced by Winnie or else it’s been automated! – I mean, literally – He’s been taken over by that fusion machine. From unions to green tech…it’s a very weirdly apt portrayal of U.S. Democratic party politics.
BW: there’s certainly a sense that politics has disappeared from this world altogether, which seems fair enough
2:57 PM we see some hints of 9/11
JMT: That’s also a gesture to WS1. The WTC Towers get some prominent shots, and now in WS2 there’s the shot of the empty site.
BW: yes, quite a few in each and one shot in WS2, i think, of a newspaper with obama’s face on it and the word DESTINY
2:58 PM but where WS1 had a sense of a politics behind people’s actions – that ayn rand-ish principled greed, destroying things BECAUSE they’re vulnerable – WS2 has a kind of grubby private opportunism vs airy bleaty activism – which is perhaps not an unfair version of contemporary public life
3:00 PM the new one is quite good, i guess, at conveying a sense of collapse and entropy – that’s what makes the attempted reinstatement of order in the last 20 minutes so pathetic
JMT: There’s also this idea in WS1 of “real work” where you manufacture honest stuff, like airplanes, versus high finance, which is this mumbo-jumbo numbers game.
BW: yes, making versus owning
here it’s all much more conceptualised
3:03 PM JMT: I wanted more evil – it’s there in the depiction of Gekko in London sweeping up all these “distressed securities” in the wake of the crash. But then he goes soft for a real family, and they…accept him…after he steals 100 million from them…or something. They’ll all go into the fusion scheme together and lose their shirts!
3:05 PM I tell you, I’m convinced that scientist in California is scamming them. Cut to Terence Stamp smoking a cigar as the fusion factory is dismantled. Maybe it’s owned by the clean energy subsidiary of BP!
BW: haha, brilliant!
i kept thinking of marty mcfly and doc brown…
3:06 PM BW: the redemptive coda is really bad, dramatically and morally. it makes no sense in the story and i can’t see any bearing to how things are panning out in the real world
3:08 PM JMT: If I were Winnie, I would have dumped the 100 million into the Frozen Truth web site for liberal bloggers she’s working on.
3:09 PM BW: what’s ‘frozen truth’ anyway?
what does it mean? what does she stand for?
3:12 PM JMT: I suppose “liquid truth” could be another sleazy metaphor for money. I see Winnie as a Generation Y New Yorker, raised under the umbrella of wealth drawn from high finance, probably a former dot.commer, determined to change the world, only not that much. As for Jake, it never seems to occur to him that if he wants to save the world maybe he should try another career path! I do like Susan Sarandon as “Jake’s Mother” (she has no name in the credits?!?), returning to being a nurse after her real estate business collapses. That brief glimpse of her back at work…
3:13 PM BW: yeah – along with the intimation that she hasn’t learned her lesson!
there’s lots of unclear, unsimple aspects to the film, i just don’t know if they’re meant to be that way
3:14 PM this jostling crowd of mentors for jake, for instance – the old-school banker, the ‘reformed’ gekko, the scientist, the upstart master of the universe…
3:15 PM and the visual clutter of the film – the ugly colour palette, those bizarre statistical graphics stone uses, those clashing pictures in josh brolin’s office (goya next to keith haring?!)
3:16 PM JMT: Right – the visual art theme also comes from WS1…The Gekko home has classy art. In the 1980s, the wealthy bought art as a hedge against inflation.
BW: if he left things messy and getting messier, that would make sense and be pretty apt to the situation, but he seems to want to resolve it all
3:22 PM JMT: Yes, this whole idea of muddle might be the key. Visually, morally, psychologically…
3:23 PM BW: …which i think could have been a fruitful way of dealing with the subject, but does stone know he’s doing it?
it’s, um, muddled…
|[Coffee break.]||[6 minutes.]|
3:29 PM JMT: I think you’re right, the film is muddled. Really, the film is Gekko-sploitation, they know this sequel will make money, done. Bring out the hair gel and the big cell phone. Then what? I was hoping for camp. To me this film is a late Boomer parable about some very muddled generational compromises relating to the financial sector, made by a member of the Ameriprise Generation. In WS1, the money that’s stolen by Gekko comes out of a pension fund for airline workers. Now that the real airlines like WS1′s Bluestar have steamrolled their unions in bankruptcy courts and pensions are a dead idea, they’ve been replaced by 401(k) investment schemes where individual workers choose their own adventure in the stock market, tying their individual fate to that of large corporations. Because of the end of the pension system and the bailouts, all Americans are working on Wall Street now, so it’s a patriotic duty to see this film. Can we all get rich together through the market and retire with wealth without committing horrendous crimes? I imagine there’s deep ambivalence in the Boomer heart about all this.
3:32 PM Not buying?
3:33 PM BW: i’m sure you’re on to something there
JMT: The ending of the film contains your magic bullet idea that solves all these anxieties in one go – we can all invest in the fusion plant, get rich together, and save the world.
3:34 PM BW: there must be an escape pod?
JMT: From the broken economy?
And the broken family?
BW: right. just hold your nerve and we’ll ride it out… as they said at lehman…
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Monday, August 30, 2010
The Owls | Blood Simple + A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop
*Ben Walters and J. M. Tyree have been talking about movies, often amicably, since 1995. Together, they wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute's Film Classics series of books, and reviewed No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading for Sight & Sound. They recently had a transatlantic chat about Blood Simple, the Coens' first feature. Blood Simple has been remade by Zhang Yimou as A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop, set for a limited theatrical release in the States on 3 September. This prompted thoughts about homage, genre looting, pulp, and Wong Kar-Wai's Barton Fink...
12:46 PM JMT: Just watching the end of Body Heat...
wanna finish it?
12:47 PM JMT: Not unless you want to wait 15 mins...no need...I know what happens...
BW: i don't mind
JMT: Let's start!
BW: all righty then
12:50 PM JMT: I'd been thinking about Blood Simple and Body Heat after watching the Australian noir The Square. Then we noticed that Zhang Yimou’s remake of Blood Simple, called A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop, was getting reviewed and released. A good excuse to revisit Blood Simple...
12:51 PM BW: tell me about the square, i don't know that one
12:53 PM JMT: Brothers Nash & Joel Edgerton made this delightfully grim Aussie crime thriller in 2008 featuring infidelity, murder, and arson. The deadly fire is set off using Christmas tree lights!
12:54 PM BW: ho ho ho
that passed me by. is it notably similar to blood simple or more of a fellow pastiche?
12:57 PM JMT: It has that same sense of pressure and humor - a dog is eaten by an alligator and it's played for laughs.
BW: well, that's pretty funny
i think noir has always had a sense of humour
12:58 PM it's easy to overlook now that it's such a venerated genre but most of them had some kind of absurdity
JMT: Like the bowling in Double Indemnity!
12:59 PM and they're usually full of puns and dramatic irony
JMT: Interesting you say that, because I keep circling back to Pauline Kael's comments about Blood Simple.
Ben: she wasn't a fan, right?
1:00 PM JMT: She said it was "Hollywood by-product." She also disliked Body Heat - for one reason because she felt it was slavish vis-a-vis classic noir. But Blood Simple and Body Heat are very different - although they're in the same mid-80s neo-noir wave. In classic noir, the sap kills the husband and then gets betrayed by the wife, right? Body Heat follows that pretty much all the way to the end of the line. But the fun of Blood Simple lies in inverting the classical scheme. Here, the sap mistakenly thinks the wife has killed the husband, setting this whole train of events in motion...
1:04 PM BW: right - so the coens made it new and their picture remains strong while kasdan's was mere pastiche so hasn't weathered well?
1:05 PM JMT: I don't want to run down Body Heat but I do think Kael's complaint is slightly more interesting in that case than in the the case of Blood Simple, where, as with Cassavetes and the Maysles brothers, she missed the boat on major filmmakers.
1:06 PM In fact, the Coens have never had much luck with The New Yorker...David Denby called A Serious Man "intolerable"...
BW: i suppose they've learned to live with it
1:08 PM JMT: Another clever inversion has to do with the female lead, don't you think? Body Heat is actively prurient, whereas everybody in Blood Simple looks worse for wear. As Abby, McDormand is the opposite of a femme fatale.
1:09 PM BW: right, they push the absurdity at the expense of the glamour
1:10 PM ...and refuse to punish the dame!
JMT: I'd say while Body Heat is knowing about noir, Blood Simple is more heavily invested in irony.
1:11 PM BW: yes, the coens are much more upfront about playing with genre. it's almost a form of cinematic drag
1:12 PM JMT: Ha! The love is genuine. I believe they've said that they thought the names of Cain, Chandler, and Hammett ought to be chiseled into the stone above the Columbia University Library.
1:13 PM BW: oh, it's out of love, absolutely
JMT: Blood Simple came out in 1984 when I was like 10 years old - it was the year of Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and The Karate Kid! So I saw it much later on VHS. But I had been reading a lot of pulp in high school. Jim Thompson, Davis Goodis, the Black Lizard Crime series from Vintage. Blood Simple is deeply engaged with pulp.
1:14 PM Pulp fiction...
1:15 PM BW: that's one of the things that's so striking about blood simple as a directorial debut. rather than trying to offer a new kind of cinematic language, they demonstrate their understand* and control of an existing form. it's a very sophisticated piece of filmmaking - you might call it a kind of late style, formally speaking, which is not what you expect from first timers!
1:18 PM JMT: Or the creation of deliberately "minor" literature. Chandler once wrote a letter to Hamish Hamilton explaining that people always asked him when he'd write something "serious." He talks about Pindar and Sappho and mocks "the Book of the Month Club, the Hearst press, and the Coca-Cola machine." He prefers "a savage, dirty age." Like the 1980s!
1:19 PM BW: like there's an age that isn't savage and dirty...
1:20 PM and zhang seems - on the basis of the trailer and the bits i've read about a woman, a gun and a noodle shop - to be applying it to another 'low' genre
1:22 PM although he's an interesting case in that he's become a specialist at classy pulp - the kind of pulp the book-of-the-month sensibility accepts as 'high'
hence his being recruited for the olympics gig, perhaps?
1:23 PM JMT: Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry are following in his footsteps!
1:24 PM but adaptability is very much in the coens' dna. zhang is remaking a remake
1:26 PM JMT: Yes, there's that weird sense in many Coens films of a remake even when it's not the case - like O Brother w/r/t Sullivan's Travels, and The Man Who Wasn't There w/r/t the notorious execution scene cut from Double Indemnity. Most markedly in Miller's Crossing, which is almost like a missing Hammett novel adapted to film.
Which isn't to discount the originality in the films, at all.
1:29 PM BW: well, originality is always only a form of variation. their consummate ability to go with the tide, formally, is what allows them to surf it so well
1:30 PM JMT: Right - Kael didn't realize that they were more like Wilder or Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is quoted in the original trailer.
1:31 PM JMT: "It is very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill someone."
1:32 PM That quotation is interspersed with various images, including the grave digging scene out in the Texas fields.
1:33 PM BW: they certainly share hitchcock's sense of humour about violence and death...but yes, wilder and hitchcock are very useful reference points - wilder especially, the idea of genre-skipping almost as a project in itself
1:37 PM JMT: I was just reading David Thomson's book The Moment of Psycho. He suggests that the whole first half of Psycho evokes American loneliness and banality. So does Blood Simple. Something's not right in the landscape. Everyone's pretty much alone - even the couple, Abby and Ray. When the husband Marty dies he has a bleeping computer to keep him company. It's like the low-rent assassin Loren Visser says, "Down here, you're on your own."
Whereas in Body Heat, William Hurt is like this smug jogger! Imagine anyone in Blood Simple jogging? (Maybe Meurice - he wears those great sneakers!)
1:38 PM BW: haha - visser at the gym
JMT: His "yellow lounge suit" is specified in the screenplay.
1:39 PM BW: amazing. he's what's wrong with the landscape
1:40 PM JMT: He's so intriguing!
1:41 PM I love his interest in the Soviet Union...
1:42 PM BW: there's a sort of compensation in the pastiche - the milieu is, as you say, alienation and ignorance and solitude, but the form, even though it's subversive, relies on the audience's recognition, its community of appreciation
JMT: You mean, we get the joke, like Visser?
1:43 PM JMT: Got it!
BW: we get it and appreciate it, and by getting it we assert fellow-feeling with the coens and other genre fans
and visser totally appreciates the irony too
the way he laughs at the absurdity of his own death - that's ecstatic!
1:45 PM JMT: Visser's wonderful. He does the killing for the money, reasoning that it's free enterprise - "in Russia they make fifty cent a day" - but he does the math and recognizes that it's more efficient to kill Marty than the couple. He's like a shady parody of one of those management consultants that says you can eliminate 50% of your workforce and streamline everything...
What a performance by Walsh! Talk about the banality of evil.
1:46 PM BW: he's amazing. they all are - utterly archetypal but also utterly, ridiculously unique
1:47 PM coming back to the remaking thing, it's interesting that the coens are currently finishing off their second official remake
JMT: True Grit
1:48 PM BW: right. though i think technically their film is based on the charles portis novel rather than the john wayne film
but as the film is much better known, it's kind of a remake in pop-culture terms
1:49 PM (or something)
amazing cover to the novel btw: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Grit_(novel)
1:51 PM JMT: I've got that version! Another very strong female lead. This is one thing I really like about the Coens’ work. McDormand's lead in Blood Simple sets up her later role in Fargo as a source of "ordinary strength," for lack of a better phrase.
BW: yes, they have bottomless faith in the ability of sensible women to get on with it
1:52 PM JMT: Whereas, again, not to flog Body Heat, but there Kathleen Turner is viewed as a toy who turns malicious.
Abby is more subtle.
1:53 PM There's a great bit of noir-type laconic dialogue when they're first leaving town.
Abby: ...What was that back there?
Man: Back where?
Man: I don't know. Motel...
==>Another cruddy Coen motel coming up!==>
1:55 PM BW: moving around never does anyone any good in coen films, yet it's the american condition...
1:56 PM JMT: Like in Psycho!
BW: ha, totally
1:57 PM JMT: Thomson talks about how "in America the poetry is often in the official signage." Like "interstate." The desire to be elsewhere. And that terrible road loneliness. The Hopperesque.
1:58 PM That's what James M. Cain was getting at, too!
BW: it's another kind of subversion - taking these emblems of american furtherment like hitting the road and looking for the big payday - this applies to psycho and most of the coens' work - and showing it as sheer folly
1:59 PM JMT: All those bags of money dangled in Coen films. Marge in Fargo speaks to Visser, in a way, when she says "All for a little bit of money."
2:01 PM BW: and to ed crane and the big lebowski and llewelyn moss andlinda litzke...
2:02 PM JMT: "Dry cleaning - was I crazy to be thinking about it?" (Ed Crane.) He needs that $10,000 to start his business.
Visser gets...how much? Is it $10,000? Due to inflation, the standard Coen payout has increased to around $1 mil over the years...
2:03 PM BW: it's A Lot Of Money
2:04 PM you could almost do a breakdown of coen movies by deadly sin
blood simple - wrath and avarice
raising arizona - envy
2:05 PM miller's crossing... um...
2:06 PM JMT: Hmmm...
2:07 PM --Yes, it's $10,000 - "a right smart of money," Visser says - "smart" and "stupid" being another big theme here.
BW: smart also being what you do when you're hit. like a pummel of cash or a bruise of change
2:08 PM JMT: "When you smart me, it ruins it.” As Bernie says in Miller's Crossing.
BW: in the chair
2:09 PM his big hollywood reveal! waiting in the dark to put the frighteners on regan in true noir style, but regan spoils it by laughing
that's what classical hollywood could say to the coens, really
'when you smart me, it ruins it'
JMT: Yeah! "Who looks stupid now?" What Visser says to Marty after he's killed him.
2:10 PM BW: a quote from the ladykillers, which in due course the coens would recycle in full!
or at least riff off. it's their own approach to sources that makes them so ripe for remaking (or remixing) themselves
it would be great to see them remake one of their own movies, like hitch with the man who knew too much
2:12 PM JMT: Whoa - which one? Huh...
BW: maybe raising arizona? updated with ref to fertility technology?
2:13 PM i guess it's complicated by the fact that they do so many period pieces
JMT: They joked for awhile about remaking Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Since the story wouldn't phase anybody, they could focus on production design exclusively...wallpaper, etc.
like van sant's psycho but more so
2:14 PM but also it would be intriguing to see, say, wong kar-wai's take on barton fink
the writer trapped in the hotel...
2:15 PM JMT: Wonderful!
BW: paul rudd as the big lebowski?
2:16 PM JMT: Which brings us back to Zhang's remake. I don't know enough about it. But it got me thinking about how memorable Blood Simple remains. What New Wave figures like Truffaut and Godard saw clearly was that America has a fundamental relationship with crime literature. This is the country that produced Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis...Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution discusses how both Truffaut and Godard had an abiding interest in Bonnie & Clyde - in directing it - a script which was itself influenced by the New Wave. This remake seems to set up Blood Simple as a weirdly quasi-canonical work, at least in the sense that it’s being reworked and adapted to another culture.
2:17 PM BW: certainly there's a whole conversation to be had about the transmission of cinematic ideas across cultures - american genres drawing on and returning to japanese, italian, french and indeed chinese cinema... kurosawa, new wave, leone, now zhang.
it's the same old song, but with a different meaning...
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Monday, August 02, 2010
The Owls | What's the Matter with Inception?
Ben Walters (BW) & J. M. Tyree (JMT) have been talking about movies together since 1995, often amicably. They co-wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute’s Film Classics book series. They shared notes – via email, chat, and document sharing – on Christopher Nolan's Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a corporate spy who retrieves secrets by invading targets' dreams. JMT watched it in San Francisco and BW saw it in London.
JMT: Here's a mainstream picture we both looked forward to watching, Inception, Christopher Nolan’s summer hit. It's a trap to worry overly about a Hollywood blockbuster being a Hollywood blockbuster, but I feel baffled by the critical reaction. The people next to me at the multiplex were loudly oohing and ahhing over the film as though it were a display of fireworks. And since then I’ve talked to several very smart people who enjoyed the film. What did I miss?
BW: I've got to admit I'm not quite sure. Maybe people like having their legs pulled? With sumptuous production design?
JMT: The new Film Quarterly (Summer, 2010) has a thoughtful book review by Martin Fradley about the state of the contemporary film industry. It talks about Hollywood's "new auteurs" – deal-makers, producers, agents, and distributors. Maybe that's Christopher Nolan at this point, a corporate auteur, the total bundle - which is intriguing given how weird his films are.
BW: In a way I think that's the most interesting aspect of Inception – he has the clout and the industrial nous to mount a massive shaggy dog story like this. And it's certainly another exploration of his pet themes – the ways memory, identity and narrative shape our lived reality.
JMT: He doesn’t really “do” joyful moments of intimacy. Or humor.
BW: No one comes to Nolan for hugs or chuckles. His films are meant to be conventionally satisfying riddle movies, by and large, within which frame he can explore more genuinely upsetting ideas of identity. When it works, it makes you question whether you actually have any right to your opinion about yourself. When it doesn't, it comes off as dull, pretentious, over-designed guff.
JMT: My frustration watching Inception was that it barely explores the fascinating pathways opened by its own premise.
BW: Yes, I had a similar feeling...
JMT: The idea that someone could extract information from your dreams is delightfully terrifying. Tie this to corporate espionage and you have a potential minefield of cultural comment. Those levels of meaning certainly can be extracted. A critic could become an extractor, like Cobb, sent into the film on a mission to retrieve its moments of subversiveness. But on the whole the film doesn't really go very far in this direction.
BW: Not remotely. Which is a bit surprising after Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which did have some political engagement. Nolan's always interested in the ways in which unguardedness can undo a mind, and how terrifying it can be to be confronted with a reality from which your mind has assiduously quarantined itself. And he has explored them in gripping ways elsewhere; here, not so much. But he is predominantly interested in individual identity, I think; it's rewarding when there is a political dimension but I think that's incidental rather than essential to him.
JMT: Surely Inception sets itself up in comparison with Blade Runner, with the film's "totems" like the spinning top invoking the origami unicorns (and so forth) of Ridley Scott's film, as well as the ultimate puzzle about one's one interior sense of self being manufactured. But in Blade Runner it really matters whether Deckard is an android. In Inception, the only thing at stake in the ending is whether everything we've seen is just one guy helping some mogul with a business problem, or else, well, you know...
BW: But I think you might be short-selling the potential cultural heft. The idea of deepening corporate invasion of identity is a resonant one, I think. Identity theft, targeted advertising, online surrender of privacy, all these things do affect the construction and definition of identity in ways that Inception could bounce off. By which I mean that it is timely – I'm not staking great claims for the way in which it engages these subjects.
JMT: It's all there, but Inception oddly avoids sustained engagement with these "political" matters, or whatever you might call them, in favor of a personal story. Cobb has got to get back to his kids.
BW: The potential is there but not really tapped. But I think it's worth noting that by tying these things so explicitly to profiteering and careerism, Inception is a slightly different beast from other reality-benders like, say, Blade Runner or The Matrix.
JMT: Maybe if we saw profiteering and careerism as real motives - as it is, we're supposed to care more about whether Cobb makes it home than whether it's okay for minds to be invaded and ravaged.
BW: Sure, the corporatisation is more of a background. It's really a one-last-job heist movie. And the ethical implications are barely engaged with – Ellen Page having one line about it maybe being a bit questionable.
JMT: But, like, trippy fun!
BW: Right! But the fun wears thin. The story isn’t much more emotionally engaging than it is politically thoughtful. This points to a somewhat paradoxical problem for Nolan: he's fascinated by identity but not much good with character.
JMT: Speaking of Ellen Page as tech wiz Ariadne (she makes and unwinds mazes). It’s an untypical move not to make her role into a romantic interest. Page looks desexualized, while Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) is smoldering but absent/fatal. There are love interests in Nolan's films, but is there much - or any? - genuine intimacy that unfolds in the "now"? I'm hard pressed to think of examples. Again, this is a point of interest, this weird lack of something human...
BW: Well, his protagonists tend to (mis)remember and investigate rather than, um, live. We root for them because they're the narrative engine, not because we're actually invested in their welfare to any great degree. And I think this brings us to another problem with Inception – this lack of facility for the quirks and charms of actual present people result in a film basically comprised of really boring, thuddingly rational dream sequences.
JMT: They're not that dreamy. A friend pointed out that the snow level of the narrative/dream is a Bond film. And really it's also an Inception video game. Blam! I'm using the bigger gun now. Someone else I talked to reminded me, though, that since the dreams are constructed they would tend to be less weird than “real” dreams. So that can be unwound as possibly more interesting...
BW: Cop-out! Dreams should be weird and woozy and hot and fickle. Inception plays like a two-and-a-half-hour American Express ad.
JMT: It's not truly surreal or even very disjointed, apart from a few moments. In Memento the structure relentlessly compels the eye. Here, as in The Prestige, it's overly elaborate, a three-layer cake, in which each detail is perfect but...
BW: The Prestige is the definite companion piece here – another essay on a soufflé of a subject executed with high-spec machine tooling. With The Prestige I wanted to shout "Go and watch F for Fake! That's how to make a movie about magic tricks!"
JMT: "I know the tricks," Cobb says in Inception. The Prestige handles magic tricks and Inception handles dream tricks. Both have a notion of the world being a false appearance, a deception. This links Inception with the concerns of cinema, and also with film history. But unlike in Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, or F for Fake, no paranoia is induced by Inception. Why?
BW: Perhaps because Nolan's such a rationalist. There's never a feeling in his films that things are really coming off the rails – not in a fundamental way. An individual's situation, even his identity, might be under threat, but the world itself is securely moored. Dreams and magic are always at the service of The Real. Even that dream idyll Cobb and Mal indulge for 50 years – how dull is that! They could do or be anything they could conceive, and they ROUND UP ALL THE HOUSES THEY'VE LIVED IN?! Stay UNDER, do us all a favour.
JMT: Inception skirts a number of very pressing contemporary concerns, but drowns or submerges them in its bath of dreamings. To my mind the film is a parable of avoidance of some kind, not engagement, subversion, or disruption. On a tangent, the ad campaign for Inception was sponsored by Verizon, which like all the other big telecoms colluded in domestic surveillance. Funny, that! It's simultaneously "obvious" and strangely "unspoken," rather like the film's own unexamined themes.
BW: I think you could probably say that "bath of dreamings" line of most Hollywood pictures. It's just a disappointment that the one that takes dreams as its explicit subject does so little with them. But yes, it's timeliness again – you can mine the project for all sorts of resonances, intended, incidental, frustrated; it obviously comes out of a cultural space loaded with concerns about unacknowledged surveillance of the interior self. But in some ways it could have been made at any time: it's basically concerned with anxiety about the unaccountable unconscious, which is hardly new ground for cinema, or art. On a less serious note, given all these frames in which time passes at different rates, Nolan missed a chance for a great gag – he could have had a Hollywood ticking-clock countdown with a justification for taking ten times as long as it should!
JMT: On that note, why is this film so humorless? So many of the scenes in Inception take the following form: "Please sit down at this cafe/desk/airplane seat so that you and I can have an important one-on-one conversation about a previously undisclosed aspect of the science fiction in this film." When I saw Dileep Rao (Yusuf) enter the picture, I remembered how funny he was in Drag Me to Hell. That Wellesian sense of the con-man prestidigitator in Raimi’s film is lacking here.
BW: Nolan's con artists never have any fun.
JMT: A dark comedy using the premise of Inception could be enjoyable. This has been done, but what if the protagonist was tasked with arranging the sponsorship deals on those implanted dreams? Since the whole experience is manufactured anyway, why not have the person driving a Volkswagen, listening to a JBL stereo system, drinking Diet Coke and chewing Doublemint? But that's a tangent...What's the picture's most intriguing aspect for you? For me it's probably seeing action sequences in which the characters are asleep.
BW: I was intrigued – or rather confused – by the film's starting notion that it's hard to plant ideas in people's heads. Isn't that how publicity works? Isn't that why everyone is talking about this not-very-interesting movie...?
JMT: So, what else are you watching these days? Any recommendations?
BW: I've been watching a bunch of Seinfeld and have been surprised how much of it revolves around the vagaries of landline use – competing for payphones, missing calls to your home phone – and how much of a period piece it feels because of this.
JMT: Excellent, I love seeing payphones! This reminds me of the Beeper King boyfriend in 30 Rock, who has to rely on payphones when he's out of the house. Also for online viewing, I've been compelled by clips of Douglas Gordon's "24 Hour Psycho," a slowed-down version of Hitchcock's film that takes a day to unfold. I came to Gordon's work belatedly, after reading Don DeLillo's new novel Point Omega.
BW: That's a beautiful piece. Hypnotic and, I guess, kind of dreamlike. Certainly brings us back to the unaccountable unconscious...
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Monday, February 15, 2010
Love, Recession Style, with Twin Sister and Soderbergh
A consideration of "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" and "The Girlfriend Experience"
These days, my life is lived on the hypermedia broadband, incessantly, obsessively. And occasionally, I have some remarkable experiences there. I'd like to tell you about two of them which chimed together.
Recently I discovered a quite extraordinary band just starting to run the Brooklyn club circuit. Their name is Twin Sister, made up of four guys and a girl, all friends from Long Island, between the ages of 20 and 26. They've just released an EP called "Vampires with Dreaming Kids," and to my mind it's one of the most lushly considered "concept albums" I've heard in a long time: a great ascending arc of falling deeply in love, and that is a thing that is ever so difficult to talk about even when talking about music: to say so is a great risk: one is either wise, or deeply foolish. (And fools rush in, etcetera etcetera.)
I'd like to consider this EP in conjunction with Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience," which I encountered directly after. I found myself watching "The Girlfriend Experience," and toggling between that and "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" back and forth, so taken was I with the emotional and intellectual effect this had – for "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" and "The Girlfriend Experience" are diametrically opposed to one another in every respect but one: they are both true.
There are four tracks on Twin Sister's EP. The first, "Dry Hump," begins with late-night drunken guitars: one, acoustic, a melancholy strum; another, electric, an errant, plaintive wail. A whisper of a girl's voice, supine, playful, wasted –
If you're all alone
bring over your bone s
and payyyyy me
anywhere you want to
It's a line that folds under the lip of pornography, but doesn't slip in; that feels up the emotion of blasé whorishness but doesn't give in, precisely (because of the title) it's a wet hallucinatory invitation to halfway. As the music shimmers like a dirty Spacemen 3, the phrase repeats – first sounding like Billie Holiday on a broken record, then Björk at both her most coquettish and most playful. Then a big fat guitar bass note flanges upward, and the track becomes at once a striptease and a torch song, heavy with sleaze and sweet dream.
And then the morning, with red-haired lover, all things diamond and aflame in "Ginger" – in the first instant of wakefulness crashing down like My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless," but then opening up into castles of cathedrals and bell-chimes and stained-glass cascades, riding on a river of bass in a month of The Sundays. Epic as The Arcade Fire without the bathos, intimate as Sinead o'Connor when breathless, re-writing The Pixies' "Gigantic, big big love" with a slow, confident heartbeat and arabesques of the quotidian made magical, "maybe little birds begin to grow."
But Twin Sister knows – it knows the castled cathedrals raft upon the bass river of Time, it knows that the epic must admit of the quotidian, that the myth must be made human for it to survive. And so "Ginger" closes like a breaking-down phonograph gearbox, its grand gates dissolving into the '70s prairie of "Nectarine." It's an acoustic, country-inflected romantic ballad that casts a male voice into Penelope's song:
When you're sailing 'round the evening
and when you come back home
when you come back home
I'll won't ever let go I haven't before
These lyrics risk the gauzy, flaccid cheesiness of '70s soft-rock, but the risk pays off with a gallopity rhythm and a slide geetah, recasting a stasis of ebb-and-flow in overnight stays into a story of pioneers, male and female voices pairing in a duet
We can ride back home
which prompts the inevitable question: what, where is home?
"I. want. a. haaaus," insinuates lead singer Andrea Estella on the finale, each word insistent on the beat. It makes one a little nervous. After all, there's a brief Slavic moue on "want," as if she's channeling Ivana Trump for an instant. But just like the implied "money-shot" of "Dry Hump," anxiety over filthy lucre dissolves into the intimate and mystical –
I want a house
Made of old woo(d)…
You can paint it any color
Just as long as I can be with you
What's particularly magical about "I Want a House" is that its slowdance down-beat and whukka-whukka guitar rub up against the sickeningly sweet clichés of commercial Top 40 R&B ballads, and steal the honesty from their overprocessed heartstrings. Imperceptibly, "I Want A House" shifts from downbeat to upbeat, from acquisitiveness to ownership, and into a beautiful, melodic slow house groove.
We see now why Twin Sister has titled this EP "Vampires with Dreaming Kids." Notwithstanding the current lurrrve for all things vampiric, it seems clear to me that Twin Sister has taken a collection of genres that exude a popular and therefore vampiric seduction – porn, goth, country, r&b – and brought them into the home of dreaming kids, i.e. lovers. In which they are allowed to twist and change, playfully, with impish, seductive danger, as Twin Sister morphs itself into a safe and generous sonic home.
The few critics who have so far responded to Twin Sister's music have labelled it "Shoegaze." Sure, there's the slow-beat, electronic dush paired with chromatic guitars, but this is not the shuffle-sway of early-20s mumblecore shyness. You're missing the point if you're looking at your shoes. This is music that implores you to look boldly, directly, communicating what you want, because this is music that fulfills trust with generosity, a generosity extended by Twin Sister to make the entire EP free for download.
Right about the same time I encountered Twin Sister, this past month, I checked out Steven Soderbergh's experimental film "The Girlfriend Experience," shot amid the financial crisis of 2008 and released in May 2009 to reviews as mixed and coolly considered as the film itself. Back then, A.O. Scott in The New York Times, in a highly nuanced critique, thought some of its methods "tryingly obvious and irritatingly oblique," but suspected that
'The Girlfriend Experience' may look different a few years from now. When the turmoil of the last 12 months has receded and the 10th-anniversary deluxe collectors edition comes around, this strange, numb cinematic experience may seem fresh, shocking and poignant rather than merely and depressingly true.
As the unrelenting disclosures about the financial crisis have denuded our emperors, and turned eyes to the pornographic details of our exposure to debt, A.O. Scott's timeframe has collapsed – that time is now. And with "The Girlfriend Experience"'s themes of vampirism, commerce and intimacy tangled in a Gordian knot of modernity, the film provides an unsettling – and insistently curious – counterpoint to Twin Sister's music.
As you may recall from the marketing hype, the film stars "real-life" porn star Sasha Grey, 21 years old and credited in at least 161 triple-Xers. She's been called "the smartest girl in the business" she constructed her stage name from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and she considers her work performance art. In Soderbergh's film, Grey plays the role of Chelsea, an upper-echelon escort negotiating her lifelovebusiness in Manhattan, catering (mainly) to young professionals barely containing their panic over Wall Street's fall.
Now, I love brilliant women, but Sasha Grey's porn doesn't do much for me; I've seen a few scenes, on the tamer end of her spectrum (for research purposes naturally). As is the case for most pro smut streaming out of the Valley, it looks like she's acting, which is to say it's not very good acting, since porn generally works best the closer it gets to a cinema verité of pleasure. She's somewhat cold, often blasé, often dominant, sometimes providing a study of the fabricated nature of the medium through those non-moods.
In other words, utterly perfect for Soderbergh's movie.
Because she's trying to escape the frame.
"GFE," runs the jargon in the CraigsList adult section, "the girlfriend experience," which is a clever marketing euphemization of the term "escort," which means prostitution dressed up to imagine itself differently. Chelsea (Grey), as we learn through the narrative, is yet still a romantic and refuses to take the euphemized, marketized term "GFE" at its pornographic value. Throughout the film, she's searching for the perfect client, the one with whom she'll love her job. It sounds like an absurdity on its face, but when are any of us not on that quest? What looks to be "a perfect match" is a mirage (a waffling screenwriter, in a loop-within-a-loop); the remainder of the men dolorously detail their financial anxieties while dispensing investment tips. Such is the contemporary girlfriend experience, a gender theorist might conclude.
The film very deftly tangles the definition of "success," between what you love to do and what makes money, and then severs them neatly. Call girls need marketing too, but paying someone is expensive and prostituting your own prostitution is nauseating. Chelsea turns a trick as an audition to a sex junket in Dubai, then gets abused in a written review, "clammy hands" being the wrist-slap of the insult onslaught. Even the reporter she talks to angles questions toward exploiting her character. This is life, and through most of it Chelsea rides with barely-edged directness and knowingness.
In the final scene, Chelsea is called in to a Hasidic diamond merchant. He escorts her into the back room, and lectures her on the importance of voting for McCain while they both strip to their underwear. In most of the film, as in most of her porn, "grey" the color is as much a dominant presence as Grey the actor. Here, the room is warm; Sasha Grey has never looked more beautiful and inviting. She clasps him in a very chaste embrace. He climaxes. And for the first time in the entire movie, you sense an actual intimacy between two people, a "couple" trying to transgress their identities but unable to penetrate beyond them.
"If you're going through hell," Winston Churchill said during the Blitz, "keep going." There's a reason why, in Soderbergh's film, the only professional actor is Grey herself. It's "a hall of mirrors," as Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote, reflecting the exploitative tension between professional and personal goals in not only Sasha Grey the actor and Steven Soderbergh the director (whose career swerves between blockbuster and art-house) but you, and me, and everyone, in these Great Recession years.
And by peering closely at the telescoping reflections of mirrored surfaces, we do yet see beyond surfaces – we are intimate with the tanglings of our economy below the professional veneer. And begin the cycle with a new song.
"If you're all alone…"
What I wouldn't give to see Sasha Grey digging a Twin Sister show.