Sunday, April 29, 2012

Extreme Close-Ups of August Strindberg’s Face and then Maybe the Face of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Final Two Episodes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Episode 5 of Scenes from a Marriage is entitled “The Illiterates,” but it could just as easily be called “How not to sign your divorce papers.” First off, there should be no alcohol involved.  Second, you probably shouldn’t have sex just before signing.  And then, you certainly shouldn’t drink even more, to the point of drunkenness.

Episode 5 consists entirely of Marianne and Johann (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) together in Johann’s office, putting off signing their divorce papers.  Once again, these people still clearly love each other, but it becomes increasingly evident that they also hate each other.  I see no reason why these two emotions have to be mutually exclusive.  As Marianne and Johann trade hysterical recriminations, I am reminded of the plays of Bergman’s countryman, August Strindberg, so many of which involve a man and a woman emotionally and psychologically destroying each other; typically it’s the woman who has the upper hand; to say that Strindberg had “issues” with women is likely a polite understatement.  Now, if Strindberg was an out and out misogynist, then I have no desire to apologize for him, but I feel like his male characters are rarely outstanding personalities themselves.  No, often the main thrust of a Strindberg play is that everyone, male and female, is really pretty awful, at least sometimes.  Everybody can and will undermine and seriously fuck up everybody else.

If Strindberg has a counterpart in Scenes from a Marriage, it is certainly Johann, because as the miniseries progresses, it becomes evident that Johann’s drama is not just marital, but is also one of personal failure and disappointment.  Throughout the series, Johann’s pronouncements on himself and on the rest of humanity become increasingly dire and pessimistic.  Marianne, by contrast, becomes increasingly self-assured and confident.  It reminds me of the way Annie Hall unfolds, with Alvy (Woody Allen, a well-known Bergman enthusiast) mired in the self-defeating pessimism that he’s spent years cultivating, while Annie (Diane Keaton) grows and flourishes as a person.  By the end of the film, Alvy needs her in a way that she really doesn’t need him.  In Scenes from a Marriage, this question of who needs whom isn’t as one-sided as it is in Annie Hall.  Although I would say that Johann is clearly the weaker of the two, Marianne is not without her vulnerabilities. Her new-found self-assurance is fragile, and it often seems like she wants—or perhaps even needs—Johann to prop it up for her, even though, at least superficially, she built this self-assurance out of her emancipation from him.

People, people, people.  This is probably one of the best “relationship movies” I’ve ever seen.  Bergman approaches the titular marriage with a firm understanding of the human condition.  When two people set out two negotiate a relationship, they generally don’t really know what they want.  Or, perhaps more precisely, they want any number of things, some of which undermine each other, some of which are blatantly contradictory, and some of which are probably just self-destructive.  Being human is (not always, but sometimes) a terrible burden.  How awful, to have so much, to have our hopes for happiness, riding on the fulfillment of poorly articulated and poorly understood desires.  No wonder most people fuck it up to varying degrees.

Now, personally, I think it is important to engage in what I call “cautious pessimism.” This outlook necessitates being prepared for the worst while hoping for—and actively pursuing—the best.  Full-blown pessimism, pessimism which is honest with itself and clear-eyed in its view of the world, would likely just lead to giving up.  Pure optimism, by contrast, is almost always going to lead to disappointment, and you’re not going to be prepared for it when it comes.  But cautious pessimism, this middle way, allows us to pursue the good while not being caught off-guard by the bad.  Cautious pessimism is perhaps an ideal survival method, at least from an emotional perspective.

So, spoiler alert, but here’s how Scenes from a Marriage ends (this is the Guanyin/Kannon/Avolikotesvara portion of the title of this post).  We find Marianne and Johann, seven years after their initial break, now each married to a new spouse, sneaking off to the countryside for a weekend tryst.  And both of them are emotionally vulnerable, especially Johann, who lacks the equipment for dealing with disappointments and reversals that Marianne seems to have been cultivating.  Neither of their new marriages is particularly happy.  Marianne is vulnerable too, because she feels the melancholy weight of what could have been, had they made different decisions years ago.  How sad, to find, years down the line, when it can no longer be rectified, that you’ve made a series of colossal mistakes.  And so they come together in this cottage in the countryside and night falls and they hold each other and console each other and their love for each other is made abundantly clear, and they both radiate compassion.  And we see what fundamentally decent human beings they are.  And for all the misery to which they’ve been subjected throughout the six episodes of Scenes from a Marriage, this scene of the two of them together is one of pure warmth and even love.  Love persists despite all the squandered opportunities, all the shit they’ve been through, all the shit they’ve put themselves through.  And this is why we mustn’t give into pure pessimism, which is so easily translated into despair, because love and warmth and compassion are still possible, in spite of everything.

How unexpectedly uplifting!  Ingmar Bergman is important for me not just as an artist, but for the role he played in my own discovery of cinema.  It was Bergman who first showed me (as an adolescent, and let’s not harp on that, because who wants to remember their adolescence?) that films could be works of art and that cinema was therefore an art form.  Not all cinema, mind you—the quasi-filmic abortions of, say, Adam Sandler, are only films in the technical sense, just like James Patterson is “technically” a novelist (well not even that; at least Adam Sandler actually makes his movies; I’ve never read a James Patterson novel, of course, but judging by the rate at which they’re pumped out, and by the fact that there’s pretty much always a co-author on them, I highly doubt that he’s actually writing them anymore.  So James Patterson is such a shitty writer that he doesn’t actually write.  Shit.)

But let’s not think about people like them.  I hold them both in contempt and would be happy to just drive them from my mind.  I’ll conclude this post by reiterating my great respect for Ingmar Bergman, as well as by declaring the high esteem in which I hold Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.  There, respectable people for a respectable conclusion.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Extreme Close-Ups of Erland Josephson’s Face: Watching the third and fourth episodes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Well, Marianne and Johann (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) have broken up now.  That’s not a spoiler, mind you, but rather the basic premise of the movie (or miniseries or whatever you’d like to call it).  Johann initiated the break.  He had taken a lover, a college student half his age, and the two of them decided to run off to Paris together.  But they’re both foolish to throw away what they have (Johann and Marianne, that is).  Marianne says, vis-à-vis being a living human person, “you have to have somebody’s hand to hold.” And surely she’s right, surely it helps to have someone’s hand to hold as you go about the business of being alive and being in the world and eventually dying.  I think of Ashitaka and San facing what seems like imminent death near the end of Princess Mononoke, as they restore the Forest Spirit’s head; they did it together, and that must have made it less frightening.

By getting married and sustaining their marriage for ten years, Marianne and Johann were well on their way to having the kind of lifelong companionship and support that makes life more livable and death (if ever so slightly) less a matter of fear.  But then Johann was struck by a different kind of fear; he was afraid that he had fallen into domestic complacency, and that he was wasting his life by staying with Marianne.  And he felt this way for a long time (“Do you know how long I’ve wanted to be rid of you?” He asks with sadistic glee. “Four years!”) and he should have said something sooner, because they seem to get on together well enough, so why not fix it rather than risk being alone again? 

The scene where Johann tells Marianne that he’s been cheating on her and the he’s going to leave her is painful to watch.  Johann vents all his pent up frustrations, which he could have aired over the years, and he takes pleasure in it, the kind of perverse pleasure that comes with doing irreparable damage to something or someone you love.  Inflicting this damage gives one a sense of freedom, much like the dangerous sense of freedom which I suspect accompanies the feeling of despair if it is not suppressed quickly enough.

While watching this scene, I was initially tempted to say, “Well, I’ve found the problem with their marriage: Johann is an asshole with no self-awareness and no shame.” But he approaches the matter so lucidly—he’s so well aware of how likely it is that he’s irreversibly fucking up his life—that one feels compassion for him.  He knows that his relationship with the college student, Paula, isn’t likely to go anywhere.  And he knows he still loves Marianne.  He knows he’s probably going to make himself terribly unhappy.  It’s like he’s stepped outside himself, and is going to watch as he becomes the architect of his own doom.

On an architectural note, Johann asks Marianne at one point, “Have you seen where I put my copy of Speer’s memoirs?” This is Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, convicted at Nuremburg, imprisoned at Spandau, and released in 1966.  This miniseries was made in 1973, when Speer was still very much alive.  I don’t know what, if any, significance the reference to Speer carries with it, although it is interesting to see the specter of Nazism and, by extension, the Holocaust, intruding into this resolutely domestic drama.  No, but I take that back, this is hardly just a domestic drama; we find in it signs of that great and overblown concept, the human condition.  We find in it fear, loneliness, love, the irrational desire to destroy love, the gratuitous infliction of suffering—of cruelty—on other people.  Perhaps the reference to Speer is meant to remind us that domesticity does not exist in isolation, but is just one of the many fields of play in which we act out the “human drama” (or the “human farce,” depending on the actors and the setting).

Before I finish this post, I want to mention, more as an aside than anything else, that the scene in which Johann abruptly confronts Marianne and tells her all about his affair was based very closely on something that Ingmar Bergman actually did to one of his wives (he had five of them, and he had a total of nine children).  This (the scene and the family issues) was discussed in the documentary Bergman Island, which was composed of interviews with an elderly Ingmar Bergman in his home on his beloved Fårö island and broadcast on Swedish television in 2006.  Bergman was aware that he was neither a good husband nor a good father to most of his wives and children, and God, imagine the masochism that must have gone into recreating in Scenes from a Marriage that painful scene from one of his own marriages.  Because Johann looks like an absolute asshole (Josephson plays the narcissistic asshole well, in a way that I don’t think Max von Sydow could have done; von Sydow’s characters tend to be too sensitive, too compassionate, to act in such a manner).  In Bergman’s defense, his final marriage lasted about twenty years (the earlier four tended to last about five years a piece) and he never remarried after his last wife died.  In Bergman Island, he says that he can feel her spirit around him and that he hopes to see her in some sort of afterlife (sentiments that are rather surprising coming from the director of a “Silence of God” trilogy).
So, that’s my take on episodes three and four of Scenes from a Marriage.  Keep a lookout for my review of the final two episodes, which will likely be up soon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

“And Then The Red Guards Ate Ice Cream”: Another Record of Human Cruelty: Hu Jie’s Though I am Gone (Wo Sui Si Qu)


I warn you in advance, this post is full of heavy, depressing, and potentially disturbing shit.

It has been several days since I last saw a cheerful movie.  Last night I watched the Czech filmmaker Evald Schorm’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, about a man trying and largely failing to recover from a suicide attempt.  I didn’t know what I would have to say about that, so I didn’t say anything about it.  Tonight I watched Hu Jie’s 2006, mostly black-and-white documentary, Though I am Gone, about the efforts of Wang Jingyao, a Chinese professor of history, to preserve the memory of his wife, Biang Zhongyun, a secondary school teacher who was tortured and murdered by her students during the Cultural Revolution.

Oh God, where to start with the Cultural Revolution?  Such a strange and almost unique event in history, in which the establishment incites a revolt against the establishment.  But of course, that’s a gross simplification.  More accurately, Mao Zedong used the Cultural Revolution to secure his position within the party and to secure the position of his ideology within the communist “culture” of the China of the time.  So Mao encouraged people to revolt against reactionaries and “capitalist roaders” wherever they could be found.  Students were encouraged to form “Red Guard” units and attack their teachers should they suspect the teachers of being reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, capitalist roaders, or of harboring “bourgeois thoughts,” as one of their victims described it.  And so they did attack their teachers.  And they’d subject them to so-called “struggle sessions,” in which the victim would be dragged out in front of a seething mob, forced to denounce him or herself, and then insulted and beaten and humiliated and, if the vengeful spirit of the crowd deemed it necessary, tortured and killed.

That’s what happened to Wang Jingyao’s wife.  She was accused by a fellow teacher sympathetic to the Red Guards of being a reactionary.  She was harassed and beaten and then one day they beat her to death.  And she knew it was coming.  She took a shower before going out to the struggle session, stating that if they were going to kill her, she wanted her body to be clean first.  On the day his wife was killed, Wang was called and told that she had been badly beaten and was in the hospital.  He gathered his four children and they went to see her there, only to find that she was already dead.  Her face was swollen and, as her daughter describes it in the documentary, she had a bloody hole in her head and another hole in her arm.  She had been beaten to death with spiked clubs.  At some point during the process, she had voided her bowels and bladder.  Forty years later, Wang still keeps the clothes that his wife was wearing when she died, and he shows us a feces-stained garment.  At this point in the movie, I remember thinking, “Ah, maybe this is why it’s in black-and-white, so we can’t see the blood and the feces.” And then the movie switched to color.  And we could see the feces, faded over forty years, but still there.  Jesus Christ.  What is there to say to this? Well something, of course.  I always hate it when somebody says of the Holocaust (for example), “It defies explanation.  We can only face it with silence.” I beg to differ.  It was Theodor Adorno who famously and sententiously said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” and it was Paul Celan who said, “Fuck you, Adorno,” or at least conveyed that message by surviving the Holocaust and writing really good, really important poetry, if people still believe that poetry is important.  We can always say something, even if it’s something along the predictable lines of, “That’s horrible!” or, what I said just now, “Jesus Christ.”

And speaking of Jesus Christ, we find that Wang, despite being a confirmed atheist (he goes to pains to make this very clear), is nonetheless captivated by Christian art and iconography.  We see a Russian-style picture of the Virgin and Child and he says of it (and I’m paraphrasing slightly): “It’s the eyes, so full of love for humanity.” And on his wall he has a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and he says something to the effect of, “And there’s Jesus, about to be betrayed” (this apropos of his wife being betrayed by her colleagues and students).  And he opens an art book and shows us a picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà and then he discusses the crucifixion, and the bearing of crosses, and says that his wife’s death is the cross he has had to bear for forty years.  Because he wants to remember it and because he documented it. When she died, he took pictures.  He took pictures of her mutilated body, which are hard to look at.  He took pictures of his children in morning.  And, as I’ve mentioned, he preserved the clothing she was wearing at the time.  He says he wants these things to be displayed in a Cultural Revolution Museum, should one ever be created.

I don’t want to talk about this anymore, I’m not in the right mindset for it.  There’s the horror of the feces (if we want to throw in a little Barthes—and we probably don’t—the feces is horrible because it is the sign of Bian’s abject humiliation and degradation), and there’s the horror that comes from knowing she was killed by her owns students, and that they were given free license to do so.  In a future blog post, I’d like to talk about the religious structures that can be found in the most fanatical communisms.  Specifically in the notion of a “struggle session,” in the killing of heretics and heathens, in the brutal self-critiques and self-flagellations that often accompanied them.  All of this is displayed with great, penetrating insight and understanding in Koji Wakamatsu’s 2008 docudrama, United Red Army, especially the psychotic extent to which “self-critique” and the almost religious notion of cultivating a “revolutionary mindset” can be taken.  I would also like to investigate why the hell people outside of China who really should have known better could have been taken in by the Cultural Revolution and by Maoism in general (looking at you, Jean-Luc Godard).  Wakamatsu was himself a supporter of the Japanese Red Army when they first came into being, but United Red Army shows that he was clearly disillusioned with them, and in his depictions of their viciousness, he spares no one, least of all, I suspect, his younger self.  But, once again, I digress.  I’ll save United Red Army for another post.  For my next post, I should write something happy, like “a post-colonial exegesis of Kittens on a Slide (or whatever they wanted me to do in college).  Speaking of Kittens on a Slide, here’s a link to Kittens on a Slide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gppbrYIcR80
This should brighten your spirits.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Robert Bresson's Mouchette (and how it can make you feel really bad about life) *possibly with "spoilers"*

I just watched Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) and my initial response was something along the lines of, “What the fuck, humanity? What the fuck?”

God, and I said my next blog post was going to be cheerful! A lie, I see now, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Mouchette is like Precious, except with French people, and a sense of restraint (I’m assuming; I haven’t seen Precious, although my understanding is that it’s a Grand Guignol festival of horrors and degradation and that the titular Precious suffers more than even the most put-upon of Dickens characters). 

But back to Mouchette.  Who is Mouchette and what are her problems? Mouchette lives in a small, rural-ish backwater in France circa-196…5, let’s say.  Her mother is dying of cancer.  Her father may or may not be a lush, but he’s certainly an asshole and he slaps her around for flirting with a boy while driving the bumper cars at a visiting carnival.  One of Mouchette’s problems is that she’s an adolescent (fourteen, maybe fifteen, I don’t know) and, as a matter of course, it seems, everyone thinks she’s a debauched slut and they tell her so.  In fact, right after her mother dies, her father calls her a hussy, apropos of nothing.  So she has all these problems.  Her classmates at school bully and mock her and so do her teachers.  It reminded me of the line in the John Lennon song, “Working Class Hero,” where he says, “They hurt you at home / and they hit you at school,” although this trend seems to be reversed in Mouchette’s case.  They don’t hit her at school, they just treat her like shit.

But this kind of treatment in a French school is to be expected.  French schools are awful, according to every French movie I’ve ever seen that had a school setting.  This movie was released in 1967.  1968 saw the student uprisings in Paris, which came to nothing, of course, but at least the students let it be known that they were pissed.  One must always be cautious when it comes to revolutions; even those that seem to be the most justified and the most necessary can yield terrible results. As a contemporary example, let’s take a look at Libya, where certain revolutionary militias persecuted and imprisoned black Africans and ethnically cleansed entire towns of Touaregs and other darkly complected Libyans (hm, Microsoft Word seems not to recognize “complected” as a word.  But it’s in Shakespeare, so I don’t see why I can’t use it.  Besides, Microsoft Word also doesn’t recognize “Touareg.”) And speaking of Touaregs, the Touaregs who left Mali to fight for Gaddafi subsequently returned to Mali, armed with shiny new weapons, and launched an uprising which precipitated a coup which overthrew Mali’s twenty-year-old democratic government.  So the overthrow of a tyrant in Libya has led to the overthrow of a democratic government in Mali.  At best, the changes of government balance each other out on some moral scale of “barely acceptable situations.” But that’s only if Libya becomes a democracy, and if the people who murdered the captured and disarmed Kaddafi and then put his body on public display are any indicators of what’s to come, then it probably won’t.

So revolution is a tricky business at best and it often just makes things worse.  Mouchette engages in small-scale acts of rebellion against her tormenters, but she doesn’t get anything out of it.  And I won’t reveal the ending of the movie, but you won’t be surprised to learn that Mouchette is doomed.  This isn’t an American movie.  This isn’t Precious.  Mariah Carey will not show up at the end and do whatever it is she does in Precious.  And that’s probably for the best.  We don’t need to sugarcoat this kind of situation.  Mouchette can either be doomed or she can go Straw Dogs, but she’s a small, teenage girl in the rural 1960’s France.  She is in no position to go Straw Dogs on anyone. (And again, if she did, if she followed the “revolutionary” path of Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, would she be happy in the long term? Probably not.  Probably she’d still be fucked).

This movie was kind of soul-crushing, but it didn’t destroy me, which is nice, I suppose.  If you want to be destroyed, watch Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954).  The critic Anthony Lane stated, “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the theater a broken man.” A detailed examination of Sansho the Bailiff can wait for another blog post, but I do want to quote the famous line from it which should serve as a warning and a moral prescription to everyone: “Without mercy, man is a beast.” So remember that before you set about torturing the Mouchettes in your life.

Friday, April 20, 2012

How James "You're Beautiful" Blunt Saved Humanity from a Nuclear Holocaust (with reflections on the bombing of German and Japanese cities during WWII, and on the depiction of nuclear dread and nuclear war in several exemplary films)

Writing from the current “American scene”—here, in the declining Imperial US, in the apocalyptic year of 2012—I would like to hearken back to the halcyon days of the Bush administration, and specifically to the year 2006, and I want to ask the reader: Do you remember James Blunt?  He of “You’re Beautiful” fame?  I heard it on the radio today for the first time in a long time, and it got me thinking about the handsome Briton and his legacy.  And I remembered that James Blunt did far more than just write that song about the pretty girl he looked at on the subway; it turns out that James Blunt also averted World War III.

This story came out a year or two ago, and for those who missed it, here’s a “rehash.” As we all know, James Blunt was a tank commander in the British army and his unit was deployed to Kosovo as part of the NATO mission there in 1999.  As Serbian troops were withdrawing from Kosovo, NATO sought to occupy key positions in the country, including the airport in Pristina (which is the capital of Kosovo, and which Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize as a word).  As the Serbian war effort fell apart, they called upon their Russian allies to assist them.  The Russians already had a peace-keeping unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they transferred two hundred soldiers to Kosovo; these soldiers occupied the Pristina airport before NATO forces could do so.  NATO forces, under the command of American General Wesley Clark (who ran for president in 2004, received an endorsement from Madonna, failed miserably, and now occasionally pops up to offer commentary on CNN),  told the Russians to—in the modern parlance—GTFO.  The Russians said NFW (no fucking way; that’s my own coinage).  Wesley Clark decided that he wanted to drive the Russians out by force, and directed a unit of British and French soldiers, under the command of Captain James Blunt, to attack the Russians.  James Blunt—that guy who sang “You’re Beautiful”—realizing that a NATO attack on Russian soldiers was a psychotically stupid decision and could easily spark World War III and a nuclear holocaust (my phrasing, not his), refused to carry out the order.  Instead, he called up British General Mike Jackson and told him what Clarke had ordered his unit to do, and Jackson said something to the effect of, “Good call, chap, good call,” and ordered Blunt’s unit to encircle the airport rather than attacking it.  A period of tense negotiations ensued, the end result of which was that NATO and the Russians were each given their own sections of Kosovo to “peace-keep” and we didn’t have World War III.  So James Blunt saved the human race.  That sure was thoughtful of him.  So next time you hear “You’re Beautiful” and you’re about to come out with some snide and cutting joke at James Blunt’s expense, just remember that you owe him your life.

Now, this whole “avoiding-a-nuclear-war-thanks-to-James-Blunt” thing got me thinking about nuclear war.  Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I oppose nuclear war.  Nuclear weapons in general, in fact.  I am downright indignant about nuclear weapons.  What a catastrophic failure of the imagination, on the part of Oppenheimer and his crew; did they not realize what nuclear weapons would mean for humanity? (Yes, I’m aware of Oppenheimer’s “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” shtick).  Did they not realize that they were ushering in an era in which human civilization could be obliterated in a matter of seconds? And what that would do to people? That it might be rather upsetting?

India tested a long range intercontinental ballistic missile yesterday, so now they can fire nuclear weapons at Shanghai and Beijing.  Manmohan Singh’s government isn’t saying that they’re going to do that, but they could.  That’s the implicit message in the launch.  I cannot conceive of a situation in which they would be justified in doing so.

But James, what if China launched a nuclear attack on India? A. Why would they do that? B. Even if they did—and it would be a great crime—an Indian counterattack with nuclear weapons would be just as criminal.  Dead civilians are dead civilians regardless of their nationality.  That’s why the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be forever unjustifiable; the same goes for the non-nuclear but still devastating bombing of German and Japanese cities. 

But James, it was necessary to end the war!
And the Holocaust!
And Unit 731!

Yes, please, tell that to the mothers of the incinerated children of Dresden and Hiroshima, tell that to the young women whose faces were mutilated with keloid scars, tell that to the old people whose hair was falling out, whose skin was falling off.  Tell that to the young people who would live in fear for decades with the knowledge that leukemia could strike them down at any moment.

In John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, he recounts the anecdote of a woman who refused to part with the charred corpse of her dead infant.  She could not be made to believe that it was dead.  And whenever I hear someone defending the dropping of the atomic bomb, for political or strategic or even humanitarian reasons (“The Japanese wouldn’t have surrendered otherwise! Getting nuked was actually in their interests too!”), I always want to ask them, “Could you say that to the woman with the dead infant? Could you convince her?”

In W. G. Sebald’s essay Air War and Literature, he narrates a similarly affecting anecdote.  Following the destruction of a German city (I don’t remember if it was Hamburg or Dresden) a flood of refugees arrive by train in a city that has been comparatively less damaged.  A woman gets out of the train lugging a heavy suitcase behind her.  She trips on the platform and drops the suitcase, which springs open to reveal—you guessed it—the charred corpse of her child.  Again, could you justify this to her?  Was the child guilty for the crimes of the Nazis? Was the child guilty for the Holocaust?  Of course not.  It’s a child; it was as innocent as Anne Frank, if I may put it provocatively.

Again, dead civilians are dead civilians.  If your military response to an attack that killed (your) civilians is going to kill more civilians (albeit their civilians), then your response probably isn’t justified.  You are killing civilians in response to the killing of civilians.  Not only is that immoral, it’s illogical.

Now, as this is supposed to be primarily a film blog (“first and foremost,” I said) I want to offer a few cinematic examples of the effect of the existence of nuclear weapons on the human psyche.

There is Akira Kurosawa’s underrated 1954 drama I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being, in which Toshiro Mifune plays an aging industrialist who becomes so overwhelmingly afraid of nuclear war (and in a country that just nine years before had suffered a nuclear attack, this isn’t entirely irrational) that he wants to sell of his factory and uproot his family, resettling them in the Brazilian jungle, where he thinks they’d be safer in the event of WWIII.  His family thinks he’s insane, and they go to court to try to get him declared incompetent so he won’t be able to mismanage their money.  The subtitle is great: Record of a Living Being.  Because this is not just a Japanese story, it’s a universal story about the reality inflicted upon us—all of humanity—by the architects of nuclear weaponry.

(Kurosawa would directly confront the legacy of the bombing of Nagasaki in his 1991 film Rhapsody in August.  Apparently some American critics at the time were perplexed that Kurosawa, who depicted the atomic bombing in a negative light, didn’t understand why it was necessary).

Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 The Communicants (released in the US as Winter Light, but Nattvardsgästerna means The Communicants) is principally about a pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) who has lost his faith in God, but it features a subplot in which Max von Sydow (maybe you saw him in Rush Hour 3) suffers a mental breakdown as a result of nuclear dread.

Peter Watkins’ 45 minute The War Game (1965), sometimes called a “mockumentary” but which could be more accurately described as a speculative documentary, seeks to depict realistically, through enactments, what would happen in the United Kingdom in the event of nuclear war.  It shows devastated British cities, charred corpses, mutilated children, radiation sickness, the whole panoply of nuclear horror.  The most effective aspect of the movie is that the narrator will sometimes describe something nightmarish (like a bucketful of wedding rings, which civil defense authorities will sift through to try to identify the disfigured corpses from which they came) and then tell us, “This really happened in [Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki].” The movie was originally made for the BBC, but they ended up not airing it because it was—and I’m paraphrasing—“disturbing as all fuck.” It won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1966.  I generally don’t put much stock in Oscars, but I’m surprised that a movie like this could win one, so I thought it worth noting.

I want to conclude with a comment on Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, 1985’s Bergmanesque The Sacrifice.  In the film, an intellectual (played by Erland Josephson, who died just a few months ago) gathers his family and a few friends at his house on a Swedish island to celebrate his birthday.  Midway through the gathering—wouldn’t you know it!—WWIII breaks out.  There’s a scene where the revelers sit paralyzed before a flickering TV screen as someone from the local government explains the situation.  He tells them that because their island hosts a military installation, they will likely be a prime target for nuclear attack.  This government official, even in this moment of final catastrophe, takes the time to point out the irony of this.  I paraphrase: “The rationale for having a military installation was that it would provide for our defense.  We would be safer as a result of its presence here.  But look: its presence will actually prove to be our undoing.”

The Sacrifice was originally supposed to be filmed on the Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and where he had made a number of his films.  But just like in the movie, it hosted a Swedish military installation, and it was off-limits to foreigners.  This meant that Tarkovsky, a Soviet citizen at the time, was unable to film there, and the movie was made instead on the island of Gotland, which still conveys the Bergmanesque flavor of Fårö (austerely beautiful, bleak, cold, “island-y”).

I have digressed and meandered through this essay as it suited me.  I said in a previous post that I didn’t have a central thesis, but here I did: nuclear weapons are an unjustifiable threat to all mankind and we should be indignant that they exist.  With the end of the Cold War, we are somewhat less likely to get annihilated (in the US, anyway) but the James-Blunt-saves-the-world incident should be enough to remind us that the threat is still very real.

I’ll try to make my next post about something more cheerful.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being a Korean Filmmaker: Watching Hong Sang-soo's "The Day He Arrives" at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival

Well, I made my way down to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival tonight.  I’d never been to a film festival before, but I figured, “Hey, I’m a film bloggist now, this is the sort of thing I should be doing.” Furthermore, they were showing the new (or relatively new; he really pumps them out) Hong Sang-soo movie, The Day He Arrives, and who knows if or when that will ever get a DVD release in the US, so this looked like it could be my only opportunity to see it.

Prior to this, I had seen four other Hong Sang-soo movies (from least favorite to favorite): The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (the original Korean title of which is just Oh! Soo-jung!), Woman is the Future of Man, Woman on the Beach, and Night and Day.  All of these movies—and from what I’ve heard, all the other movies in Hong’s oeuvre—have the same basic premise: an artist (usually a filmmaker) goes to a beach/bar/hotel to reunite with old friends.  They drink heavily, and then they start airing old resentments and soon everyone is raging and weeping.  They’re wonderful fun.
The Day He Arrives follows the same formula.  Director Yoo Sung-joon has returned to Seoul to visit his friend Young-ho.  They both really want to like each other, but the awkwardness between them is palpable (the awkwardness between Sung-joon and pretty much everyone is palpable).  They repeatedly go to a bar (called the “Novel”) with Young-ho’s colleague/maybe girlfriend, Bo-ram, and they all drink, and they discuss Sung-joon’s troubled love life, and they pontificate, and they all puff each other up.  The film is structured around these visits to the Novel, which always play out the same way.
At the beginning of the movie, Sung-joon looks up an old girlfriend, arriving unannounced at her apartment.  They both get themselves emotionally worked up, he weeps, she weeps, they roll around in bed (they probably have sex, but it isn’t made clear).  They agree not to see each other again, but she insists on texting him from time to time, and will send him emotionally troubling texts throughout the rest of the evening.
If someone thinks I’ve just delivered “spoilers,” let me assure you, I haven’t.  First, as I’ve said before, all Hong movies basically have the same plot, and there is usually nothing unexpected in that plot.  Second, even within that plot, there’s not much in the way of “suspense.” Your experience won’t be tarnished by knowing in advance that Sung-joon will cry when he sees his ex-girlfriend.  Or maybe it will be.  These are beautiful movies.  I feel like they’re hermetically sealed little slices of reality, unchanging and perfect now that they’ve been filmed (perhaps this is the case, to varying degrees, with all movies, or at least good ones).  And if this is the case, then the unfolding of a movie’s plot, however “predictable” or lacking in suspense, has an element of mystery to it, and that mystery is part of the experience of watching the movie.  I’m not sure.  I’ll be more cautious about “spoilers” in the future, once I’ve become more certain as to what constitutes them.
I saw this movie at the St. Anthony and Main theater.  About midway through, a DVD menu suddenly displayed itself on the right side of the screen, taking up about a third of it.  I had never had this experience at a movie theater before.  I guess I sort of assumed that movies were generally still projected from reels of film.  How naïve of me.  Especially with a movie like this, which isn’t going to have a wide release in the United States; of course they’re not sending reels of film from festival to festival.  They have it on a DVD and they pop it into their projector and that’s how they play it.
It was an exercise in group psychology to see how this situation was going to resolve itself.  Should someone get up and go tell “them” (whoever was projecting it) that there was a problem?  Would this problem just fix itself? If someone does need to get up, who should it be? Not me, certainly, I’m still watching the movie, I refuse to miss any part of it, even though a third of the screen is obscured (or partially obscured, you could still make out a bit of what was happening behind the DVD menu, which was semi-transparent).  Eventually, the guy closest to the door got up, and I’m assuming he took action.  Shortly thereafter, the movie was stopped entirely and the screen went black (also the first time I’ve ever experienced this at a theater).  But within a minute or so, the movie was back up and running again, at the point where it had left off, purged of the DVD menu.
I’d don’t want to denigrate the fine people at St. Anthony and Main; these things happen.  It was generally a quite positive experience, and I was grateful for the opportunity to get to see a Hong movie in a theater.  It was also nice that I was apparently one of the few people who wished to do so, because there were very few people in the theater and so my friend and I were able to choose good seats, away from other people, and we didn’t have to deal with those insufferable late-comers who fuck up your perfect seat selection by sitting directly in front of you with their poofy heads of hair, right when the movie’s about to start and it’s too late to change seats.  They know who they are.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival continues through May 3rd, and I hope to make my way out there at least one more time this season.  For more information on the festival, you can visit their website at: http://www.mspfilmfest.org/2012/

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Despite Your University Education, You're A Decent Man": A Few Thoughts on Shohei Imamura's "Stolen Desire"

I've just finished watching Shohei Imamura's first film, 1958's Stolen Desire (Nusumareta yokujô), and I want to offer a few observations on it.

The movie follows the adventures of an itinerant acting troupe in post-war Japan.  Down on their luck, they leave Osaka for a rural engagement, where they encounter all the earthy exuberance and lustiness of a population not far removed from being "peasants."  The film's emotional heart is focalized around Shinkichi, a young man with a college degree who's presence as director of the troupe is somewhat incongruous (from a socio-economic standpoint), and we can see in embryo the class consciousness that would become so characteristic of Imamura's work.

But I don't want to give a plot summary.  I only wanted to introduce Shinkichi so I could get to the line that is the title of this piece.  Near the end of the movie, the aged leader of the troupe (and apparently being the troupe leader is different from being the director) wants to convey to Shinkichi what an unexplected pleasure it's been to work with him, and so he says, "Despite your university education, you're a decent man." And oh, how I, with my college degree-- which has so far been of little use to me-- oh how I laughed.  The world must be full of bastards with college degrees.  To take a recent example (and one that's already been harped on extensively, so I guess it's not an original example), let's look at the 2008 financial crisis.  The bigwigs at Lehmann Brothers, at Bear Stearns, at Goldman Sachs, all of them had college degrees.  The whole American moneyed elite is full of bastards with college degrees and in 2008 they decided to wreck the global economy.  In light of this, it makes sense that someone would be downright startled to meet a degree-holder who wasn't a bastard.

Mind you, now, there are different types of degrees and they do different types of damage.  I, for instance, have a BA in English literature, and let me assure you, it is hard to wreck the planet with a degree in English literature.  Really, any degree in the humanities in general must have a neutralizing effect; it's like an innoculation, and it renders its bearer incapable of doing any serious damage to society at large.  I'm not saying that history majors or English majors can't be assholes as individuals; I'm just saying it's going to be hard for them to take the skills they learned in college and harness them for evil ends on a large scale.  I doubt Bernie Madoff got himself a degree in film theory (I also doubt that such a degree existed back when he was in college, but my point still stands).

Oh, and back to Imamura, who rebelled so enthusiastically against "traditional" Japanese cinema and Japanese social conventions in general; it's amazing to think that he got his start as an assistant on Yasujiro Ozu movies.  And touches of Ozu can be seen in Stolen Desire.  The score is full of the swelling string sections that one expects from Ozu (and a number of other Japanese filmmakers of his era), strings that wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood melodrama.

And there's one scene near the end of the movie where Shinkichi and his love interest are having a back and forth and the editing is distinctly Ozu-esque.  The camera faces Shinkichi almost head-on, and you feel like you were sitting at a table directly across from him, and then we cut to his love interest, and the camera approaches her from the same angle, and back and forth, just as you'll find throughout Ozu's corpus.  Now this must be a vestigial Ozuism for Imamura, because in the other, later Imamura movies that I've seen (and I need to see more) I haven't noticed this technique.  I will have to keep a lookout for more tell-tale signs of Ozu as I explore the rest of Imamura's work.  Good material for a future blog post.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Two Ways of Looking at Darkness: A Comparison of Scenes from REC and ABC Africa

Few movies have the balls to plunge the viewer into darkness for any extended period.  Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium, as it was exclusively for the three-plus decades before science allowed us to see and hear Al Jolson’s blackface hijinks in all their sickening glory.  When a movie kills the lights, it undermines the primacy of the image and asks that we “watch” the unfolding soundtrack.

Why would one do this and what is the effect?  I want to compare two very different movies: Jaume Balagueró’s and Paco Plaza’s 2007 film REC (or [●REC], if you want to insist on it) and Abbas Kiarostami’s 2001 documentary ABC Africa.  By now I suspect that most people are already familiar with REC (although I only just saw it yesterday), but here’s the premise: Spain, Barcelona, apartment building, firefighters, with a two-person television film crew in tow (attractive journalist, cameraman), are called to the apartment, the apartment has a zombie problem, the Spanish authorities have quarantined the building, now the people inside have to contend with the zombies.  Everything we see and hear in the movie comes from the cameraman’s camera, so if the camera has problems (and if your camera is getting attacked by zombies, it probably will) this is reflected in the film.  Now, I won’t go into too much detail here, because I do not approve of “spoilers,” but there’s a scene where the cameraman and the journalist are in a room together, terrified, having just witnessed some fresh zombie atrocities, when the light on the camera breaks.  Suddenly, complete darkness.  Now, I asked why would one do this and what is the effect, and the answer here is pretty straightforward: because it’s fucking terrifying.  Being chased by zombies is bad enough, but God help you if you can’t see them, if you can’t see anything.  And so the screen is completely black and all we have is the soundtrack, which consists of the journalist screaming something to the effect of, “Holy shit, turn it on, turn it on!” and the cameraman screaming, “The light’s fucking broken, holy shit, holy shit!” We can also hear them bumping into things and stumbling around and everything sounds like chaos, and this continues until the cameraman turns on the camera’s night-vision.  So here we can say (and I guess we’re probably stating the obvious) that the darkness is meant to ratchet up the horror and that it does so quite effectively.

Darkness serves quite a different purpose in Kiarostami’s ABC Africa.  As this movie is probably less well known than REC, I’ll expend a little more detail on its premise.  The documentary has Kiarostami and his cameraman, Seyfolah Samadian, travelling to Uganda to profile the work of activists trying to improve the lives of HIV-positive orphans.  The film has little in the way of structure.  Kiarostami and Samadian film the children while letting the aid workers of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans give their spiel.  Kiarostami says very little.  He seems to want to let the Ugandans speak for themselves (so it’s kind of like Kony 2012, except with black people).

There’s one scene, however, which breaks from this pattern, and my attention was called to it by Slant.com’s Keith Uhlich, who, in his review of ABC Africa, mentions “a mid-movie section that[…] takes place in total darkness, Kiarostami is on as much of a journey as his audience, each of us engaging—in our own inimitable ways—with a world shrouded in divine mystery.” I read this before I saw the movie, and I was wondering what the scene would look like and whether there would be a hint of divine mystery in it.  The scene takes place at night, and aside from the beginning of the scene, when a match is lit, proceeds in darkness.  Maybe there was nothing to film.  It consists of a conversation between Kiarostami and Samadian, but eventually they fall silent and we just listen to the sounds of a thunderstorm outside.  Then they cut and it’s the next day.

What was the point? Despite the similarities between this scene and the one in REC (two people, one of them a cameraman), the scene in ABC Africa doesn’t seem to do particularly much.  It certainly isn’t meant to horrify (Kiarostami has yet to make a zombie movie; give him time).  It would appear to have little do with the AIDS orphans who are ostensibly the subjects of the film.  But I think it actually serves a distinct purpose; it serves as a respite, for Kiarostami and Samadian as much as for the viewer.  These two have been travelling all day, in a country they’ve never been to before, listening to the Ugandans speaking in English, which is not their first language (definitely not Kiarostami’s and Samadian’s, probably not the Ugandans’ either), meeting with a large number of AIDS orphans (which can hardly be uplifting), and they must have felt their senses under assault.  So how much of a difference, then, to see just blackness and the sounds of the night.  No noise, no demands on one’s attention.  It is the only portion of the movie where we hear Persian spoken; Kiarostami and Samadian can speak without engaging in any mental translation.  And the whole effect is very tranquil.  It’s the sort of thing that one could excerpt from the larger film and watch in isolation.  I’m reminded of a short film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul called Phantoms of Nabua, which takes place at night and which shows a group of young people kicking around a flaming soccer ball.  I remember watching it and not understanding how no one was getting hurt.  I suppose the whole thing must have looked very safe.  It must have conveyed the feeling of “safety” (I was going to say “security,” but I associate that word with war and bloodshed).

One can disappear into the darkness of the night.  It takes the world and turns it into one big hiding place.  Perhaps that’s why Kiarostami or Samadian (I’m not sure who it was) just let his match go out.  He probably felt safer that way.

So is Keith Uhlich right? Is this scene shrouded in “divine mystery?” Probably not.  But in the absence of divinity, it conveys something comparable.  Poets describe night as a cloak, and that implies that you can wrap yourself up in it.  There is something eminently human about the desire to sit in the dark and listen to a thunderstorm and feel safe while doing so.  So I can say that Kiarostami’s night scene conveys a great warmth and a great humanity.

I feel like I’ve digressed here more than I originally intended to.  REC and ABC Africa are just two examples of movies that play with darkness.  I have no desire to advance a grand thesis based on them.

***

I notice that my blog so far has been pretty “Kiarostami-centric.” I didn’t intend for this to be the case, it just happened of its own accord.  So if you’re not a big Kiarostami fan, don’t worry, I’ll write about plenty of other filmmakers in the future.