Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Austrian Culture Committed Suicide in Brazil: A Largely Extra-Cinematic Reflection

Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian writer.
There’s a rather disturbing episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus’s employer says to him, “Do you know why Ireland is the only country in Europe never to have persecuted the Jews?” “Why?” asks Dedalus. “Because we never let them in!” He says with a smile. Now, this notion of an Ireland without Jews doesn’t correspond to reality, as the character of Leopold Bloom can attest, but there is something deeply sinister, and darkly prophetic, about this fellow’s fantasy of a culture without Jews.

Changing scenes from Ireland to Austria, here is a country whose culture was deprived of Jews, which was especially calamitous when we consider that Austrian literary culture of the pre-Anschluss period was largely the achievement of Austrian Jews.  There was Karl Kraus, the great polemicist and magazinist (who had the good fortune to die in 1936); Egon Friedel, who committed suicide during the Anschluss by jumping to his death (his last words were a warning to anyone passing by below to look out; Stefan Zweig, who successfully fled to Brazil, but who couldn’t stand the loss of the cultural milieu in which he’d lived for sixty years, and who thusly killed himself along in 1942.  Those are the prominent deaths, but then there are the writers who fled (Elias Canetti and an elderly Sigmund Freud) and those who never returned (Ludwig Wittgenstein).  There are also those whose careers had not yet started but who deliberately chose to remain outside of Austria and who abandoned the German language (Jean Amery and Jakov Lind, whose first works were in German but who later shifted to English).

What has Austrian culture been like since WWII? Certainly nothing like its former self.  It is defined more than anything else by a characteristic popularly known as “bleak chic.” Austria is a country whose writers know themselves to be wounded.  Hence the rant-as-literature-style of Thomas Bernhard, the misandry of Elfriede Jelenik, and the contrarian pro-Serb nationalism of Peter Handke.  As for film, they’ve contributed little of it to the international scene, and what they have given us is some of the most relentlessly depressing cinema out there: Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidel, the latter of whom recently released a trilogy with these premises: a woman who goes to Kenya for the purpose of sex tourism; a teenage girl at a weight-loss camp; and a woman who becomes a religious fanatic and flagellates herself in front of a crucifix.

Austria’s depressed post-war artistic culture presents perhaps the clearest picture of any European culture of the terrible cultural impact of the Holocaust (which is to say nothing of its obvious human impact, which I do not at all wish to trivialize).  I say all of this by way of observation.  I certainly don’t have any suggestions for Austria to rectify the situation.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Two Versions of One Film: Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid

Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960)
Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), perhaps the greatest Korean film ever made, appeared on the scene during a unique time in Korean cultural and political history.  This was the thaw that occurred between the 1960 overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Rhee Syng-man and the 1961 coup that brought Park Chung-hee to power (his daughter, Park Geun-hi, is South Korea’s current president).  There was a great artistic flowering during this brief liberal interlude and Korean cinema experienced something of a golden age, of which Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is perhaps the best representative.

The film follows a wicked young femme fatale as she insinuates herself into the middle-class household of an unassuming piano teacher, whom she sets about seducing.  The film is gloriously moody and atmospheric (and sexist as all fuck, but one has to look past that).  Its place in Korean cinema is so iconic that the challenge of remaking it—and remaking it well—would seem to be quite daunting (although this is really the challenge of all remakes, which so rarely justify themselves).  It would be comparable, in an American context, to remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which Gus Van Sant inexplicably did in 1998, to disastrous results.  But in 2010, on the fiftieth anniversary of Kim Ki-young’s film, Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo rose to the occasion.

Now, Im has a mixed track record, based on the three films of his that have been released in the United States.  There’s 2005’s controversial The President’s Last Bang, about the 1979 assassination of the abovementioned Park Chung-hee, which doesn’t know if it wants to play itself as dark comedy or political thriller and largely fails at both.  Then there’s 2010’s The Housemaid, which I’ll discuss in just a moment.  And finally there’s 2012 evil rich people sleaze-fest The Taste of Money, which was the big flop of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but which I enjoyed well enough.  The Taste of Money knows exactly what it wants to be: a vicious satire on 21st-century plutocratic capitalism, just as applicable in Korea as in the United States.
Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid (2010)
But back to Im’s version of The Housemaid, which is an excellent movie, perhaps the most successful remake I’ve ever seen.  Im’s first good decision was to cast Jeon Do-yeon in the title role; Jeon is one of the best actresses in Korean cinema (she won the best actress prize at Cannes in 2007 for her performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine) and she is captivating and mysterious in The Housemaid.  Im was also wise in the changes he made from Kim Ki-young’s original film.  When Gus Van Sant inexplicably remade Psycho, he basically did a shot-for-shot remake (as Michael Haneke did with his equally inexplicable and totally unnecessary English-language remake of Funny Games).  Im, by contrast, dramatically changes the parameters of his Housemaid.  In 2010, the employers aren’t middle class: they are obscenely wealthy.  And the housemaid is no longer the evil seductress, but rather she is an innocent and fundamentally decent person, part-seduced and part-coerced by her amoral employer.  Im stays true to the underlying theme of domestic evil explored in Kim’s film, but he makes its depiction distinctly his own while removing the sexism and classism that rankle in the 1960 film (not that older films need to be sanitized or bowdlerized, mind you; it’s merely a good idea to avoid transferring the archaic prejudices of these films into modern cinema).  In so doing, Im has carried out a remarkable feat: he has created a remake that stands on its own as a solid and satisfying work of art that also renews one’s appreciation of the original.  I heartily recommend both of these films; the first one especially is essential viewing to any fan of Korean cinema.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tartuffes Everywhere: Satyajit Ray’s The Holy Man

The world is awash in fake holy men, pious hypocrites, and snake-handling demagogues, and they’re all a litigious bunch, so I will confine my examples here to the dead, because the dead can’t be libeled and the dead can’t sue.  For every person who finds him or herself confused and afraid and drowning in the isolation of the human condition, there’s an asshole out there willing to exploit them with a mantra and a blessing in exchange for a check or credit card.  In America we have televangelists: ugly, bitter old white men who rant about the gays and the feminists and use your donations to build megachurches and megahouses for themselves; or charismatic black Baptists who call themselves “bishops” and who only interrupt their condemnations of homosexuality in order to engage in it.  India, by contrast, is a land of gurus, wonderworkers who have gone into the Himalayas and received special wisdom from immortal demigods and who have returned to civilization to spread the word and buy Rolls-Royces.  They dazzle rich and poor alike with their recollections of their past lives and their leger-de-main magic tricks, like the late Sai Baba, who could “materialize” coins and wrist-watches (but apparently not large quantities of food for poor people).  Or there was Pete Townshend’s guru of choice, Meher Baba, whose blessedness couldn’t prevent him from repeatedly getting into several terrible car accidents.
This all brings me around to Bengali master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s The Holy Man (Mahapurush) (1965), about a travelling huckster named Baba Birinchi who insinuates himself Tartuffe-like into a well-to-do family and begins exploiting their friends and neighbors.  Now, Birinchi doesn’t attempt the “miracles” of Sai Baba, but he instead dazzles with anecdotes from his lengthy life history (he claims to be well over two thousand years old): we hear how he taught Einstein the theory of relativity; how he intimidated Plato with is wisdom; how he knew the Gautama Buddha when the latter was a child; how Manu presented his laws to him for review; and how he knew Lord Vishnu when He was incarnated as a Boar.  His celebrity friends remind one of the late Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon, who claimed to have been visited by Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Confucius.

Now, Baba Birinchi’s arrival on the scene ends up seriously impeding the romantic plans of a young man named Satya, who is attempting to court the young lady of the house into which Birinchi has inserted himself.  It will be up to Satya’s older, less love-addled friends to unmask Birinchi for the hypocrite that he is and drive him from the scene. 

As a side-note, this movie has some of the loveliest black-and-white cinematography that I’ve ever seen, and serves as a reminder that black-and-white was at its best just as color film was about to supplant it.  I would also like to mention that I have seen lamentably few Indian movies, and about half of them were directed by Ray.  If anyone has suggestions for Indian films that I should see, please mention them in the comments.