Monday, September 29, 2014

Soldiers in the Land of the Buddha: Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp


As a person who enjoys classifying people and things, I am always happy to place filmmakers within specific categories and movements.  In the Japanese context, there are the Golden Age directors (stretching from the thirties through the late fifties/early sixties): these are filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi.  Then there are the members of the Japanese New Wave (the Nuberu Bagu) of the early sixties: Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Yoshishige Yoshida.  But there are certain filmmakers who fall somewhere in between these neat categorizations: filmmakers like Masaki Kobayashi and the subject of today’s post, Kon Ichikawa.  Too late on the scene to belong fully to the Golden Age (in my more or less arbitrary definition, a Golden Ager has to have begun making films before or at least during WWII) but maintaining too much of the technique and the aesthetic of the Golden Age to qualify as New Wave, Ichikawa and the filmmakers of his generation occupy a transitional period in Japanese cinema.
Ichikawa, like many Japanese filmmakers, is unfortunately only spottily represented on DVD in the United States.  Criterion has released two of his WWII films, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain (more on these presently), Tokyo Olympiad, a well-regarded documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which now appears to be out of print, and The Makioka Sisters, an adaptation of the Tanizaki novel of the same name.  Criterion has also made available on Hulu Odd Obsession—another Tanizaki adaptation, this time of his late novel The Key, which hints at the more explicit sexual concerns of the New Wave—It Isn’t Easy Being Two, a film about early childhood, and Princess from the Moon, which, as far as I can tell, narrates a Close Encounters-style version of the classic Japanese tale of “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter.” I haven’t seen these last two because they don’t appeal to me, I haven’t seen The Makioka Sisters because I want to read the novel first, and I haven’t seen Tokyo Olympiad because I can’t find it.  This means that my entire experience of Ichikawa’s cinema is confined to The Burmese Harp, Odd Obsession, and Fires on the Plain.
In his prime—the late fifties and early sixties—Ichikawa’s films were all scripted by his wife, Natto Wada, who became disillusioned with Japanese cinema in 1965 and retired, allegedly triggering a marked decline in the quality of Ichikawa’s films.  However, in 1956, when The Burmese Harp was released, the Ichikawa-Wada partnership was still going strong and the result is one of the most enigmatic war movies you’re ever likely to see.  Set in Burma at the end of WWII, the film depicts a close-knit Japanese army unit as they surrender to British forces.  The unit’s captain is a musician and he’s turned his force into a choir and they frequently raise morale by joining together in song, all to the accompaniment of the titular Burmese harp, played by a soldier named Mizushima.  For reference purposes, a Burmese harp looks like this:

Upon discovering that Japan has surrendered, Mizushima’s unit promptly surrenders as well.  However, there is another Japanese army unit nearby holed up in the mountains and intent on fighting to the death.  The British send Mizushima, armed only with his harp, to try to negotiate the surrender of the hold-outs, while the rest of his unit is sent down south to an internment camp.  Now, one of the striking things about this movie is how little we really know about our Japanese protagonists.  We have no idea what their experience of the war has been like prior to the opening of the film.  How long have they been in Burma?  Have they been in other theaters? What horrible things have they seen?  What horrible things have the y done? This all remains a mystery.  But what happens next to Mizushima, regardless of whatever came before, is a psychic catastrophe.  Because Mizushima fails to convince the Japanese hold-outs to surrender, and they are promptly massacred by the British, their bodies left to rot.  Mizushima, injured but alive, is discovered by a Burmese monk, who nurses him back to health; Mizushima repays him by stealing his robes.  He shaves his head and wanders the land as a mendicant monk.  His initial intention is just to head south to rejoin his unit in captivity, but as he travels, he is repeatedly confronted by the unburied, decomposing bodies of Japanese soldiers, and they exert a strange spell on him, and he finds himself unable to rejoin his comrades.
Now, the exact nature of Mizushima’s problem is left unclear for most of the movie.  But he seems to have been cast in the role of an everyman confronted with the violence of historical forces beyond his control.  And, one drop of water in a sea of human suffering though he may be, he takes it upon himself to try to restore peace to the world, or at least to the little patch of Burma where he finds himself.  One is reminded of the naïve/idiot character played by Jim Caviezel in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line who, in an unlikely poetic outburst, asks, “What is this war within nature? Why must the land contend with the sea? [etc., etc., typical Malick pseudo-philosphy.]” But Mizushima is asking the same questions and Ichikawa’s film is similar to Malick’s in that it places its human drama within a broader landscape of great natural beauty (although they’re both tropical, Burma possesses an austerity lacking in the unimpeded fecundity of Guadalcanal).

The Burmese Harp
climaxes with Mizushima asking why such suffering has to exist in the world and concluding that it is not for humans to know the answers to such questions, but merely to do their best to alleviate that suffering.  And this is where they lose me.  Because the suffering experienced by millions upon millions of people in the Second World War was not inexplicable; it was the product of concrete, readily understandable historical processes; first and foremost—in the Asia-Pacific theater—the rise of Japanese militarism and imperialism.  To ascribe the war to unknowable mystical forces is a cop-out and it undermines the deeply felt humaneness that animates much of Ichikawa’s film.  There is great compassion and even optimism on display here, in marked contrast to Fires on the Plain (1959), an unrelenting nightmare about the few survivors of a Japanese army unit trying hopelessly to evacuate from a Filipino island while being picked off by unseen American forces and ravaged by starvation.  In The Burmese Harp, Mizushima’s comrades want to survive the war in part so that they can return home and rebuild Japan.  In Fires on the Plain, nobody is thinking that far ahead.  There will be no recourse to mysticism in this film, nor will there we be any trace of hope.  Perhaps, if one were to sit down to watch the two movies, it would be good to watch The Burmese Harp last, so that one might retain greater hope for humanity.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rehabilitating Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling.
Poor Rudyard Kipling—winner of one of the first Nobel Prizes for literature and once one of the most popular writers in the world—has long since seen his reputation fall into eclipse (which can’t trouble him terribly much, as he’s been dead for seventy-eight years).  His reputation first foundered on aesthetic grounds, then political, and we shall address each of these issues in turn.
Rudyard Kipling was born in British India in 1865, wrote his best work in the 1890’s and 1900’s, and had the misfortune to live until 1936, by which point his colorful Victorian narratives seemed woefully out of date.  As Robert Gottlieb points out in his introduction to Everyman’s Collected Stories of Kipling, the Nobel Laureate lived to see the publication of Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and other pioneers of modernism.  Kipling, a contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard (of whom the latter was his close friend), outlived his own era.  And so, when he died, the general feeling amongst the literati was one of “oh, he was still alive?” He’s reminiscent in this respect of E. M. Forster, who published in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, starting in the Edwardian period, and who then lived a largely idle existence until his death in 1970, by which point people like Pynchon and Beckett had taken the novel in directions he could never have conceived of.
So, Kipling did not fit in well with his time.  For those who are hung up on literary movements and “zeitgeistiness” (to coin a phrase), that might be troubling, but it’s fundamentally not an aesthetic criticism.  If one is willing to look at Kipling’s work for what it is—and particularly the short stories, the form at which he excelled—one finds that Kipling is one of the greatest writers that the English language has ever produced.  To Kipling we owe such varied and thrilling stories as: “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “On a City Wall,” “Without Benefit of Clergy,” “The Mark of the Beast,” “Dray Wara Yow Dee,” and “Mary Postgate,” among many others.  Borges loved the stories, and Borges was rarely wrong when it came to questions of taste.  And Irving Howe says of Kipling’s novel Kim that it contains the most colorful English prose prior to the publication of Ulysses, which isn’t bad for someone who so many of the modernists dismissed.  Howe also points out that Kipling’s poems—of which, I must admit, I am not as fond—were a profound influence on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht who never failed “to be absolutely modern.” Kipling was a pioneer of writing vernacular dialogue, and his stories of soldiers and colonial administrators and Anglo-Indian boys who couldn’t distinguish between Hindi and English in many ways anticipate the works of Joyce and Faulkner.
Having established his aesthetic bona fides, let’s move onto Kipling’s more pressing problem, namely his appalling political incorrectness.  Because the fact of the matter is that Kipling was a racist and an enthusiastic supporter of British imperialism (he is, after all, the author of “The White Man’s Burden.”) So, ok, he was an asshole.  That’s not an aesthetic consideration.  I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of his British and American literary contemporaries were also racists and imperialists (and anti-Semites and sexists and homophobes, while we’re at it).  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his “Sir” for propagandizing on behalf of the British effort in the Boer War; Virginia Woolf’s correspondence is peppered with casual anti-Semitism, despite the fact that her husband was Jewish (!).  Jack London believed that there were too many Chinese people and that they should be wiped out with biological weapons (the ostensibly left-wing London, who would say that “I’m a white man first and a socialist second.”) Graham Greene would in later years go back and replace some of the more egregiously racist and anti-Semitic epithets in his earlier novels (such that niggers became negroes and Jewesses just became women, although the opening line of dialogue in Our Man in Havana is still, “You see that nigger over there?”)

Jack London, who, for the record, was pro-genocide.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is all appalling.  But the fact of the matter is that these are non-aesthetic concerns.  Plenty of writers have been bad people.  That has no bearing on the merit of their work.  William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake; it has no effect on the quality of Naked Lunch.  But unfortunately, in academia today, the approach to literature (and all the other arts) is rarely aesthetic.  The post-structuralist theories are all about racial and ethnic and sexual and colonial resentments.  Works of literature are artifacts to be mined to illustrate sociopolitical points and “reclaim” suppressed histories.  And so I once had an English professor tell us with a straight face that the reason we weren’t reading Kipling was because he wasn’t “politically correct.” And this professor didn’t think there was a problem with that.  But my God, if we were to weed out the classics that weren’t politically correct, what would be left?  We’d have Olaudah Equiano and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and that would be about it.

But for those of us who value literature as art (and art as art in general), that’s not enough.  We seek out works of quality literature because they are beautiful and we find them entertaining and aesthetically gratifying (I don’t like to make the distinction between the artistic and the merely entertaining, but that’s another argument).  So, to my fellow lovers of literature—and fellow lefties, for that matter—there is nothing wrong with embracing Kipling’s
work.  It doesn’t mean you endorse his abhorrent opinions, which should be self-evident to any reasonably intelligent adult.  And again, Borges signed off on it, and he wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Found it at the Movies: On Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture

Rithy Panh.
Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh must have an inordinate faith in the power of cinema.  In bringing it to bear on the subject of the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, he is trusting to film to engage with one of the most appalling episodes in human history.  Cinema is not only capable of documenting history, it can also, when necessary, supplant it.  This is the case in Panh’s latest documentary, The Missing Picture (2013), in which Panh declares that “there is no truth.  There is only cinema.” This is a sweeping statement, comparable to Godard’s famous assertion that cinema is “truth at twenty-four frames per second.” But for Panh, cinema is something that can surpass truth itself.
A little background on The Missing Picture: it is a documentary about Panh’s experiences as an adolescent in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime and about that regime in general.  In instances where documentary evidence (film, photographs) of a particular scene does not exist—and this is often the case—then Panh replaces the “missing pictures” with static tableaux made out of carved clay figures.  The clay figures are simple but, as Alfred Kazin says of William Blake, not simplistic.  They have the paradoxically wide range of depth and expressiveness that one finds in Noh masks.  Through them, Panh provides a heartbreaking narrative of Pol Pot’s “Democratic Kampuchea,” under which his life was destroyed and his father, mother, and brothers and sisters all died.  Where possible, we are presented with photographs of them, but when these are not available, they are each represented by a little clay figurine which carries with it all the pathos of the human capacity for suffering.

This highly idiosyncratic approach to documentary filmmaking works remarkably well, both in terms of its emotional power and its educational impact.  I would compare it favorably to Michel Gondry’s similarly weird documentary, the squiggle-vision-animated Is the Man who is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, which is predicated on a gimmick that never really pays off.  Which brings me circuitously to one of the many fine points raised in Panh’s film (which is eminently quotable): Panh wonders if the fashionable left-wing intellectuals in Paris who were so taken with Khmer Rouge slogans were “missing a picture” of the starving and enslaved children of Cambodia.  He could just as well have been speaking of the American Chomsky, who in 1977 notoriously declared that “the so-called slaughter in Kampuchea is nothing but an invention of the New York Times.” With all due respect to Professor Chomsky: idiot.
The Missing Picture presents a challenge not just to the orthodoxies of the far left but to the concept of orthodoxy in general.  Panh says of Khmer Rouge propaganda: “Words change meanings.  We speak in slogans.” And when you speak in slogans, or clichés, it typically means that you’ve stopped thinking.  This is a threat posed not just by extreme cases like the Khmer Rouge but orthodoxies left and right, from academic liberalism, which its mindless recitation of post-structuralist jargon, to the idiocies of the extreme right, with their talk of personhood for zygotes and “job-creators.”  One of the signs that the Isla Vista shooter wasn’t thinking straight—and I admit that there were many of them—but one of them was his tendency to talk in clichés.  He complained about girls taunting him with their “cascading blonde hair.” He claimed the day before the massacre that “tomorrow, I will be a god.” First off, hair doesn’t cascade in real life.  You’re not talking about anybody’s actual hair, you’re talking about the abstract idea of hair, and abstractions rarely correspond to reality.  As for becoming a god, you can tell by the way he says it that he doesn’t believe it.  He just says it because he thinks it’s the sort of thing one says under those circumstances.  Abstraction has replaced real life and cliché has replaced actual thought.

But to return to Rithy Panh’s film.  It is the third film of his that I’ve seen, after
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012).  As the titles suggest, these are grim explorations of grim subjects, but in these films, and especially in The Missing Picture, Panh maintains a moral courage and a deep human compassion that make them essential viewing for anyone seeking to engage with the problem of the human capacity for evil.  The Missing Picture is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Bromance—Italian Style: Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso

Road movies, like the picaresque novels from which we can trace their origins, all have basically the same plot.  A group of people—and a simple duo is best—jump in the car (or hop on their horses) and have episodic mini-adventures, meeting strange people and learning about life.  At the end, the travelers are theoretically wiser to the ways of the world and are hopefully better people.
Dino Risi’s delightful 1962 road film Il Sorpasso, recently made available on Region 1 DVD by the Criterion people, follows in this grand tradition.  It depicts Kerouackian bon-vivant Bruno (Vittorio Gassman, in a volcanic performance) and straight-laced student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as they drive around central Italy.  Bruno and Roberto have met by chance and Roberto, yielding to impulse as he rarely does, accepts Bruno’s invitation to go out to eat with him.  This simple goal evolves into a two-day escapade during which they will flirt with women, drive recklessly, and deal with family issues, all animated by Bruno’s great appetite for fast living, which carries along everyone and everything in its wake.
Il Sorpasso is distinguished by dazzling black-and-white cinematography and consistently elegant compositions.  The Italy of the film is hot and sun-blasted; Rome itself is especially white and glare-y and seemingly abandoned, as we see in the opening shots of the movie, when Bruno drives solo through a deserted city.  There’s a great sequence midway through the film where Bruno and Roberto visit the latter’s aunt and uncle at their rural estate.  Roberto has fond childhood memories of the place and is eager to re-explore it.  As he does so, the camera captures the open, almost Japanese-style architecture of the house, and all the places where the sunshine penetrates inside and reflects off the bright white walls.  This is in contrast to sanctuaries of shade within the house, which seem to convey the melancholy that Roberto encounters upon realizing that the place “looked a lot bigger” when he was a child.
This sequence also provides us with a good comparison of Bruno and Roberto’s ways of perceiving the world.  Roberto, for all his intelligence—the beginning of the film finds him studying some very dry legal formulae and we gather swiftly that his is a serious, studious mindset—fails to grasp things that Bruno understands swiftly and intuitively.  When the travel companions are greeted by the house’s caretaker, a man whom Roberto has known for years and Bruno for seconds, Bruno immediately concludes that the man is gay.  When he calls Roberto’s attention to this—“I’ve never seen a country queen before,” because in the era before political correctness, people were just free to say terrible things—Roberto is initially taken aback, but then realizes that Bruno is right.  Bruno carries out a similar deductive performance later on in their visit, concluding that Roberto’s cousin’s father is not his uncle, but rather the overseer.  Again, Roberto has known these people intimately for years, and this has never occurred to him.  It took Bruno’s more intuitive way of seeing things to enlighten him.

While the first half of the film is fairly cheerful and lighthearted, it takes an interesting, more melancholy turn as things progress.  We meet Bruno’s estranged wife and his daughter whom he rarely gets to see, and it becomes evidence that his high living has come at a high personal cost for him.  He’s not the type to let it show how much it’s hurt him, but it certainly puts things in perspective.  If the film thus far has been telling us—as Roberto’s real-world counterparts—to “loosen up, goddam it!”, it has now added the qualifier, “But not without some restraint!” Which is good, because I like my comedy served up with a dash of contemplative sadness.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

And Just What Does Noriko Have to Smile About? Observations on Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer

 
In his essay film Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders says of Yasujiro Ozu (and I’m paraphrasing) that he “captures all of human life in his films.” And as I am in agreement with this assessment, I have recently come to the firm conclusion—and I’m sure you were all eagerly anticipating this announcement—that Ozu is the greatest filmmaker of all time.  He put everything into his films, all of family life and everything that radiates out from it.  There is not a subject he didn’t touch on, however obliquely, which brings me to my first point of inquiry, which is Ozu’s treatment of WWII.

Now, one of the high points of Ozu’s career is the “Noriko trilogy”—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953)—so-called because in each film Setsuko Hara plays a woman named Noriko, although they are different Norikos, as there is no continuity between the films.  They all take place amidst the aftermath of WWII, and Ozu’s treatment of the subject is subtle but devastating.  Unlike other Japanese filmmakers, like Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi, Ozu never directly depicts soldiers in combat.  Rather, they become notable by their absence.  In Early Summer and Tokyo Story, the families at the center of the film are each missing a son.  And their loss is especially agonizing, because their sons are not dead, or at least not confirmed dead, but have simply disappeared in the chaos of the war, and as the years go on and time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they’re still alive.  But their families can never know definitively; there will always be uncertainty.  In Early Summer, which I just watched this evening, there’s a scene in which the mother and father of the Mamiya family are speaking with a neighbor about their missing son Shoji.  And the father says of the mother, “She thinks he could still be alive somewhere.  But there is no hope.” But there is no hope.  This quiet, Dantesque fatalism is just as tragic as anything in the bloodiest war movie.  There is no hope.  That’s Ozu’s pronouncement on war.

Another theme running through Ozu’s work is the terrible sadness of “normal,” everyday life.  At the beginning of Early Summer, Noriko lives happily with her extended family: mother, father, brother (the one who survived the war, played by Chishu Ryu), sister-in-law, and nephews.  By the end of the film, she’s engaged to be married, which has prompted her parents to decide to move off to Yamato with her elderly uncle, while her brother and sister-in-law will raise their kids in a more American-style, nuclear family.  And the tragedy of this situation, which has developed through the normal, socially-acceptable course of family life, leads Noriko to dissolve into tears and say, “I’m sorry.  I’ve broken up the family.” To which her father responds, “It’s not your fault.  It was inevitable.” Yes, but isn’t it sad that something like that has to be inevitable? Is it any less tragic for being normal?

Noriko smiling.
Which brings us to Noriko’s smile.  Setsuko Hara has one of the most memorable smiles in all of cinema, and she spends much of the Noriko trilogy beaming, regardless of the sadness of her situation or the human condition in general.  In fact, everybody in these movies insists on being happy.  They’re always telling themselves, “We’ve been very happy, haven’t we?” “We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?” Because what else can you say? When you’ve reached old age, can you really admit to yourself that you haven’t been happy, and that it’s too late to change that? No, that would be unbearable.  We must persist in smiling like Noriko, whether or not the situation justifies it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

She Bears an Uncanny Resemblance to Herself: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love

Among other things, Iranian cinema is remarkable for the number of meta-films that get made.  There is Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, which depicts a child actor’s refusal to cooperate and incorporates it into the narrative; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, which are both about filming the participants of real events as they re-enact them; and Kiarostami’s (again) A Taste of Cherry, with its famous on-screen revelation of the presence of the filmmakers.  So the Iranians are keen to let us know that there films are not depictions of reality, but are quite consciously performances. 

Another way that filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami emphasize this point is through the extensive use of non-professional actors (well, Kiarostami at least is using non-professional actors; I’m not sure what the deal is with Makhmalbaf; sometimes I suspect that he’s just using actors who aren’t particularly good at what they do).  These actors conduct themselves in a Brechtian manner, in that it is more like they’re reciting their lines than acting them out.

But in recent years, Kiarostami has for the first time started making use of professional actors.  He and Makhmalbaf have both found themselves exiled from their native Iran following the abortive 2009 protests.  Although I don’t know that either of them have officially sought asylum in France, where they now reside, Makhmalbaf declared himself to be failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s overseas representative, so he certainly can’t go back; and Kiarostami has advocated on behalf of Jafar Panahi, who has been persecuted by the Iranian government along with other filmmakers.  Kiarostami certainly could not make films in Iran with the liberty that he can overseas, although that was pretty much always the case, and it didn’t stop him from making excellent films like Life and Nothing But, Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us, and the politically charged Ten.
Certified Copy (2010).
But, as I was saying, Kiarostami, in making films outside of Iran, has started to use professional actors, which is a marked change for him (I should note that he had made some films outside of Iran prior to 2009, but one, ABC Africa, was a documentary, and the other, Five Dedicated to Ozu, was an avant-garde piece with no actors).  His first international feature was the masterful 2010 film Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche (who’s about as professional as they come) and William Shimell, a British opera singer who is most certainly not a professional actor, so it can be said of Certified Copy that Kiarostami blends professional and non-professional acting together quite seamlessly.  One does not come away from the movie with the impression that Shimell has not acted before.  In the film, Binoche is an antiques dealer and Shimell a writer who go on a drive together through Tuscany.  They have apparently never met before, but as their journey progresses, they pretend to be married, until they carry the performance so far that it becomes increasingly unclear what the true nature of their relationship is.  It is a deeply subtle and mysterious film.
Which brings us to Kiarostami’s latest outing, Like Someone in Love (2012).  Set in Japan and cast with professional actors, it follows a young college student/call-girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and her evolving relationship with an elderly john/professor of sociology name of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), which leads to potential trouble with her jealous fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase).  This film raises identity issue similar to those encountered in Certified Copy, but this time with diminishing returns.  Akiko is always being told she looks like other people, and a recurring problem is her resemblance to a woman in an ad for sexual services (the joke being that it’s not just a resemblance, but rather that it’s actually her in the ad).  When Takashi meets Noriaki, he has to conceal the true nature of his relationship with Akiko, and so he claims to be her grandfather, or rather, let’s Noriaki assume that he’s her grandfather.  All of this unfolds in leisurely Kiarostami fashion, and while it’s not unpleasant, one doesn’t gain from it the sense of a layered and mysterious profundity that one finds in Certified Copy.  Either Kiarostami has exhausted his theme, or he needs to be prepared to take a dramatic new approach to it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Largest Crowd is Composed of the Dead: On the Horror of Crowds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger

When asked why he had never performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz replied that he didn’t like crowds.  Which sounds like a reasonable answer, although it likely contributed to the assassination attempt on him that took place several years later, when a Muslim militant stabbed the octogenarian man of letters in the neck.  Luckily, Mahfouz (a) was in the presence of a doctor friend when the assault took place and (b) happened to live across the street from a hospital, so he survived, albeit with permanent injuries.  But when I think of crowds, poor, irreverent Mahfouz is one of the first people who come to mind.

I also think of Elias Canetti, whose study Crowds and Power seems to be the last word on the subject.  For Canetti, crowds are more than the sum of the people that compose them.  They take on a mind of their own, and not a particularly reasonable mind.  Crowds of people, like swarms of insects, are a source of horror, and he grimly points out that the largest crowd must surely be that of the dead, who vastly outnumber us.

Elias Canetti, wondering what the fuck is wrong with you people.
This horror of crowds is on full display in Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a scene of which I would like to explore without giving away major plot details, because it’s the sort of film whose plot twists should be appreciated fresh by first-time viewers.  The movie revolves around a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer plaguing the streets of London, and in one critical scene, a man, who may be innocent, is already handcuffed and on the run from the police.  He ducks into a bar for a quick drink, then leaves, and shortly thereafter the police show up and describe their suspect.  The patrons of the bar recognize the man who just left and, taking the initiative from the police, they flood into the streets to lynch him themselves.  The man comes to a fence and hoists himself over it, but his handcuffs becomes entangled in the spikes that top the fence, and he hangs there helplessly as the crowd amasses above and below and begins to assault him.  It’s a deeply disturbing sight.

Victim of the crowd's fury.
Canetti prided himself on never joining groups, even benign-seeming groups, because all groups had within them the seeds of the crowd dynamic, the dissolution of individual will and individual moral responsibility.  It’s hardly an original point to observe that people do horrible/idiotic things when they succumb to the mob mentality, but it’s a point that gets proven time and again.  Just a few days ago, a crowd at my old alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, rioted because the school hockey team lost.  Somehow they got it into their heads that: a team affiliated with our school has lost a game, ergo: we should start tipping over cars and assaulting police officers.  Idiots.  The sort of people who would do that can’t be trusted with important decisions that require the valuing of human life.  Because they’re the sort of people who form lynch mobs.  So, take a lesson from Hitchcock (or Canetti) and stay the hell away from crowds.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Falangist Vampires! Notes on Pere Portabella’s Umbracle

Christopher Lee in Umbracle (1972).
In 1969, English thespian Christopher Lee—whose career followed a largely Vincent Pricey trajectory—travelled to Francisco Franco’s Spain to appear in a schlocky Eurotrash adaptation of Dracula.  This was the beginning of the heyday of the shitty European exploitation horror film; Italy would make the most contributions to the genre, but Spain gave the Italians a run for their money.  Lee was in country to star in Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula, but while he was there, he ended up making unexpected appearances in two films by Catalan avant-gardist Pere Portabella.  These films, both dating from 1970, are Cuadecuc, vampir and Umbracle.
Portabella has made a number of very strange films in a career that stretches from the 60’s to the present day.  His films that I’ve seen tend be plotless, expressionistic mindfucks, shot in high-contrast black-and-white.  They call to mind the movies of Guy Maddin and Philippe Garrel, minus any pretense of having a story or characters or anything like that.  Cuadecuc, vampir consists of shots filmed between takes on the set of Franco’s Count Dracula.  Somewhere on the internet I saw it described as a “film beneath a film.” Umbracle, which I watched this evening, has largely severed its ties to Franco’s film, and instead follows Lee as he wanders through Barcelona (I think it’s Barcelona).  These scenes are punctuated with several sequences that have the character of cultural artifacts and which are far more grounded in conventionality than what one became used to in Portabella films (for one thing, they have synchronized sound; Portabella’s soundtracks are usually just silence, or sound effects and audio scraps that don’t correspond to the action on screen).  These cultural sequences include: Spanish filmmakers discussing the censorship of film in late Francoist Spain; extensive clips from a fascist-Catholic propaganda film called Infinite Front (1955); and portions of the act of two musical clowns.  We also see Christopher Lee singing in German and French and reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Now, I said that these movies don’t have a plot but it would be more accurate to say they don’t have a story.  In terms of plotting, or narrative coherence, they follow their own internal logic, but it’s the logic of dreams rather than reality, or the logic of freewheeling erudition, as we might see with Jean-Luc Godard or, why not, James Joyce.  The films rely on the juxtaposition of their various sequences to generate meaning; I suppose all films do this, but Portabella’s films rely upon this method exclusively.  It’s sort of like the Qatsi films of Godfrey Reggio, except more localized.  Because what are the Qatsi movies about, if not everything? Whereas Portabella’s films, dreamy though they may be, have some recurring themes that they address, namely: fascism/Francoism and the peregrinations of recent Spanish history.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, Portabella sounds cool, I’m gonna go check out his movies! Where can I find them?” Well, if you’re resident in the United States (as I am), you’re going to have a real hassle tracking these things down legally.  MUBI used to have a bunch of them, but now they only have one (Umbracle).  I saw Cuadeduc, vampir on Youtube, but movies on Youtube come and go.  I don’t believe Portabella has ever had any DVD releases in the U.S.  So, I’m not going to tell you what to do; follow the dictates of your conscience.  Or hope that MUBI streams more of these films, and maybe they will.  They’ve done so in the past.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Yasujiro Ozu


There’s a video—and I have no idea where it comes from, nor can I provide any context for it, although, like most youtube videos, I’m sure it’s infringing on somebody’s copyright—of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki talking about (or rather to) Yasujiro Ozu.  And Kaurismäki says something quite interesting: he says that he deeply admires Ozu because the Japanese director managed to capture all of human life in his films without depicting violence.  Which is a nice sentiment, but it happens to be untrue.  First, here’s a link to the video, which for some reason I can't embed in this post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZPpnd4hTVw
Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen certain Ozu movies, and so I can’t recall for certain whether or not they depict violence (was there violence in Equinox Flower (1958)? I have no idea), but there are several that I’ve seen more recently that I can say with certitude do in fact depict violence.  First, there’s What did the Lady Forget? (1937), which I profiled in a previous blog post.  This “comedy” features a man slapping his wife in order to put her in her place.  And there’s the film I blogged about in my last post, Floating Weeds (1959), in which the protagonist repeatedly slaps: his girlfriend, his son, and his son’s girlfriend.  And then, perhaps the most violent of Ozu's films—or at least of those that I’ve seen—comes A Hen in the Wind (1948), in which a man strikes a woman in the face and knocks her down a flight of stairs upon finding out that she prostituted herself in order to pay for medical treatment for their sick child while he was away awaiting repatriation to Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

As Ozu is a master of the domestic film, it is perhaps no surprise that these are all examples of domestic violence.  But also, if they do not sound particularly Ozu-esque, then perhaps the time has come for us to reexamine what constitutes a “typical” Ozu film.  Now, if I were to ask someone to describe the “typical Ozu movie,” they would probably say: “Parents run in to difficulties while trying to marry off their adult children, who often have different, more modern values than their parents.” And this would generally be true of Ozu’s works from Late Spring (1949) onward through An Autumn Afternoon (1962), but that period of time only encompasses a fraction of Ozu’s work.  By my count, Ozu made approximately forty films prior to Late Spring.  Now, many of these are silent films that are unfortunately no longer extant, but even if we just consider his surviving films, a good half of them are pre-Late Spring and thusly pre-“Parents-marrying-off-their-children.” Before he settled on the theme that would occupy him for the rest of his life, Ozu made all kinds of films: romantic comedies, “salaryman” comedy-dramas, crime films, films about poverty, college comedies.  He was a profoundly versatile director. And so, to say that the “typical” Ozu film is a domestic drama in the Late Spring mold is to ignore a significant portion of his oeuvre.  And to deny the presence of violence in a number of his films, as Kaurismäki does, is to paint a false picture of his work and the varieties of human experience that he explored.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Preserve the Buds, Model Good Behavior for the Kids: Some Reflections Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds


I have just had the great pleasure of watching Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), a remake of his 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds.  Now, normally I’m skeptical about remakes (typically only justified if the original film was a seriously botched literary adaptation that can be improved upon), but Ozu’s films, in a way, are all remakes of the same basic family drama.  Also, Floating Weeds belongs to that small privileged class of Ozu films that are in color; he made only six color films at the end of his career (and life) after decades of working in black-and-white, but they are some of the most beautifully composed color films ever made.  Floating Weeds is especially distinctive in that Ozu uses a bright palette of rich reds and blues; most of his other color films, by contrast, draw on a more muted, pastel palette.

I have a theory—which I don’t hold strongly, but I entertain it nonetheless—which asserts that the late films of Ozu represent the apotheosis of cinema.  They are perfect and they represent the logical conclusion of the progress of cinematic history.  From a technical perspective, and from their engagement with the major issues that make us human—what Matthew Arnold would call “high seriousness”—they are flawless and unsurpassable.  Now, of course that’s bullshit: there are plenty of great films post-Ozu, and cinema continues to evolve in new directions.  But with Ozu, we see, for instance, the conclusion of one of the main trajectories of the evolution of camera-work.  At the beginning of cinema, from the Lumières to Feuillade and Sjöström, the camera remains stationary.  Then Griffith comes along and—one giant leap for cinema—the camera moves.   And soon it moves all over the place, from the sweeping pans of Murnau’s The Last Laugh to the hand-held camera-work of Godard’s Breathless.  But Ozu brings about the second great innovation in terms of camera-work: as his career progresses, the camera becomes increasingly immobile, until almost every shot is a static shot in films like Floating Weeds and An Autumn Afternoon.  It’s really quite striking: the idea of moving the camera was revolutionary and the idea of returning it to stasis was equally so.  And now Tsai Ming-liang does it and it’s positively avant-garde.
Now, as for the theme that obsessed Ozu throughout his later work: families, and more specifically: the conflict between the values and aspirations of the younger generation and those of their parents.  The technology may have changed dramatically between A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, but the basic plot remains the same: a travelling Kabuki troop arrives in a town where their leader tries to cultivate his relationship with the illegitimate son he fathered many years ago, and who thinks that his real father is dead, and that the actor who visits from time to time is his uncle.  The love and the rancor between father and son constitute a universal story.  Universal as well is the melancholy that comes with the inevitable passing of time and the changes that time works in society.  And in the end, the parents’ generation find out, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that their sons and their daughters are beyond their command.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Romantic Idea of the Artist in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum


*Contains spoilers*

There is a certain conception of the artist which, at least in the Western context, originates during the Romantic period.  It is the idea of the artist as being distinctly apart from the rest of human society, as being isolated and alienated and consumed by his or her (probably just “his,” originally) art.  And this isolation brings with it a tragic beauty and often a tragic fate, as we see in the aesthetically pleasing deaths of the second generation British Romantic poets: Shelly (drowned), Keats (tuberculosis), Byron (some complicated infection, sustained while fighting in someone else’s independence war).  We see it in Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Krueger, in which the protagonist leads a lonely, one might even say icy, life in service to his art.  The ice metaphor is best asserted by Graham Greene, who said, “A writer [or artist] must have a splinter of ice in his heart.”  Now, this is all in sharp contrast to the way the artist worked during the Renaissance and the Baroque (forgive the Eurocentrism on display here): in these contexts, the artist was a craftsman who worked for money, often to be had from a wealthy patron.  In the 21st  century, they would all be seen as sell-outs.  Can’t you picture it? Can’t you picture the hipster dismissing Michelangelo as a “sell-out?”

But anyway, this Romantic, splinter-of-ice business lies at the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum.  It narrates the tale of Kikunosuke, a young Kabuki actor whose love for a lower-class woman, Otoku, leads him to fall out with his father, leave his family’s company, and go on the road, seeking to perfect his craft while performing in increasingly dismal and disreputable settings.  The relationship with Otoku is complex, because although one could argue that his love for Otoku is what brings him down in the world, it is also Otoku who makes him into a true artist.  When he was with his father’s company, his acting was hammy and inelegant, but because he had his father’s name and was surrounded by flatterers, he wasn’t aware of it.  Otoku was the only one who had the honesty to tell him that he wasn’t a good actor and it is Otoku who supports him at every step of the way as seeks to hone his craft while in exile from his father.  Without Otoku, it is true that he wouldn’t have had his crisis, but he probably also would never have amounted to anything artistically.

But after years of suffering, Kikunosuke has the opportunity to reunite with his father’s company.  They give him the opportunity to appear on stage with them and he gives a brilliant performance.  All of his trials and suffering have paid off and he is now a good actor, worthy to reconcile with his family.  All he has to do, the company tells him, is leave Otoku and apologize to his father.  Now, Kikunosuke is not an asshole, and he at first refuses to even consider leaving Otoku, to whom he owes everything.  But Otoku also wants him to return to his father’s company, even if it means leaving her.  All of the privation and misery that she underwent with Kikunosuke was done in the service of advancing his career and his art, with the logical outcome being a return to a reputable Kabuki company like that of his father’s.  If he doesn’t leave her, all her sacrifices will have been in vain.  It is his art that matters above all other considerations.  And so, despite his misgivings, Kikunosuke, with a splinter of ice in his heart, leaves Otoku and returns to his father’s company.

It’s just one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a number of devastating Mizoguchi films, including Sansho the Bailiff, upon the viewing of which the critic Anthony Lane said, “I left the theater a broken man”).  It’s somewhat surprising to me, because the version of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum that I saw, the one that Criterion has on Hulu, is in a state of advanced decay: it’s faded and scratched and the soundtrack is full of hissing and distortion, but one quickly forgets it as one becomes absorbed in the happenings on the screen and in Mizoguchi’s lovely mise-en-scène, for which he was renowned.  The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one of the great tragic stories in world cinema, just as spiritually moving as Bicycle Thieves or Tokyo Story.  If it is not as internationally well-known as those films, it is only because it was made at a time when Japanese cinema had not yet made its appearance on the international scene (and what a lack that must have been, a world cinema that didn’t take Japanese cinema into account).  Let us hope that a restoration of Mizoguchi’s pre-war masterpiece will be undertaken, so that it might appear with as much pristine clarity as other Criterion releases of great Mizoguchi films, like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dodes’ka-den! On the Film that Almost Destroyed Akira Kurosawa’s Career


Akira Kurosawa is held in such nearly universal high esteem that it is almost impossible to believe that there was a time when it looked like his career was over and that his moment had long since passed.  In the early to mid-1960’s, he directed some of his most beloved films: The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard.  But even as these films were released to widespread critical and popular acclaim, the film world was changing dramatically, both on the Japanese scene and internationally.  In Japan, the ‘60’s saw the rise of New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, who had little patience for the humanism and classicism of older directors like Kurosawa (and similar trends were afoot in France and Italy and elsewhere).  The films of the New Wave were gritty, violent, alienating, and overtly political.  Although Kurosawa and Oshima were both communists (or, if Oshima was not a communist, he was at least a radical leftist), Kurosawa would never explicitly foreground a political agenda in the way that Oshima does in films like Death by Hanging or The Man Who Left His Will on Film.
Following the completion of Red Beard in 1966, Kurosawa began a new stage in his career.  He had a falling out with long-time collaborator Toshiro Mifune, with whom he would never work again.  He also decided that for his next film, he would work in color for the first time.  (It’s always interesting to see what great directors make of their first color films).  After a period of long gestation, Kurosawa returned in 1970 with Dodes’ka-den.  The film was conceived in collaboration with fellow filmmakers Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi, all giants of the golden age of Japanese cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and all of whom were marginalized by the New Wave.  Set in a community of social outcasts who have erected a shantytown within a Tokyo junk yard, Dodes’ka-den presents a kaleidoscopic picture of life on the margins, following alcoholics, the chronically unemployed, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other misfits as they experience the small victories and often bigger tragedies of their day-to-day lives.  This is largely new subject matter for Kurosawa, who had built his reputation on samurai epics (Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress) and masterful crime films (Stray Dog, High and Low).  Although he had treated the theme of poverty before (most extensively in Drunken Angel and especially in his adaptation of Gorky’s The Lower Depths), the degree of deprivation and despair on display in Dodes’ka-den is without precedent in his oeuvre.
Two of Kurosawa's slum-dwellers.

Now, having said all this, it is noteworthy that Dodes’ka-den is not a particularly depressing movie.  First off, it is a work of great visual beauty.  Kurosawa’s compositions are as elegant and striking as ever, and his use of dazzling primary colors is reminiscent of Godard’s in films like Pierrot le Fou and Made in USA.  Secondly, Kurosawa, even at his darkest, always infuses his films with compassion and hope.  And this is something that you won’t find in the New Wavers.  In the films of Oshima and Imamura—and both of them have depicted life in the slums—hope is a bourgeois vice.  They approach their subject matter with viciousness and a sense of the grotesque unredeemed by any trace of warmth or any sense of indulgence for human frailty.  This is why Kurosawa is a humanist and Oshima, even when he’s advocating for the persecuted and the marginalized, is not.

So, what was the reaction to Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den?  Near universal revulsion and contempt.  Critics were baffled and audiences hated it (or at least, the few people who actually saw it hated it).  In modern parlance, it tanked at the box office.  Kurosawa, the Japanese critics said, was finished.  He was out of his depth.  Film had changed and Kurosawa had failed to change with it.  And most troublingly, the producers who put up the money for these things agreed with them, and Kurosawa found himself, really for the first time in his directorial career, struggling to raise funds to make more films.  He fell into despair.  He attempted to commit suicide by slashing his arms (his brother had committed suicide in the 1930’s when the advent of sound films rendered silent film narrators like him obsolete).  Luckily he survived and in 1975 he made something of a comeback with the Soviet film Dersu Uzala.  And in 1980, with financial assistance from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, he returned to the samurai epic, the genre that made him famous, with Kagemusha.  In 1985 he made another samurai epic, Ran, an adaptation of King Lear which proved to be one of his greatest masterpieces.  He then made several smaller films as his health declined and he died in 1998. 
 
So Dodes’ka-den wasn’t the end of him, but it’s lamentable that anyone ever thought it was.  Criterion released it on Region 1 DVD a few years ago and the time is now ripe for a critical re-evaluation of this strange and beautiful work which marks a transitional period in Kurosawa’s career but which hardly signals the decline in quality that reviewers perceived upon its initial release.  It is just as shocking and new and distinctly contemporary as anything that Oshima and Imamura and the other New Wavers came out with.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Dziga Vertov

Vertov, evidently embracing the leatherman look.
A few weeks ago, as I was learning to appreciate the sport of ice dancing, it could not have occurred to me that Russia would so shortly be invading one of its neighbors.  Or rather, it could have, and it did, but I thought that the neighbor in question would be Georgia, as Russia had extended its border security checkpoints into Abkhazia for the duration of the Sochi Olympics.  But instead Russia invaded Ukraine, and this evening I found myself watching Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Ukrainian film Enthusiasm: A Song of the Donbass.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Vertov and his cinematic project.  On the one hand, he was a devout communist, both politically and artistically.  For Vertov, art was politics by other means and it principle purpose was didactic.  This is an ideology that I find absolutely abhorrent.  However, even at his most propagandistic (which was pretty much always), Vertov’s artistry always shined through.  His cinematic montages—and he was one of the pioneers of the montage technique—are consistently fascinating and often beautiful.   One does not have to subscribe to his worldview to appreciate the aesthetics of his films, even if they’re films with titles like Stride, Soviet and Three Songs about Lenin.  He can almost be forgiven for the pernicious influence he had on Jean-Luc Godard, who in the late 1960’s began making Maoist propaganda films with a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group.  Almost.
 
Vertov, born in 1896 to Jewish parents in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Poland, and who worked for much of his career in Ukraine, is to a certain extent emblematic of the way that these countries, so often at odds with each other politically, are nonetheless deeply and inextricably linked to each other.  We can all certainly hope for a future in which they regard each other with mutual respect and with a shared notion of the importance of human dignity and liberty, and I mean that not in the jingoistic American sense of the word, but in a universal sense.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anguish is Caused by the Failure to Dominate a Situation: Henri Laborit and Alain Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amérique

 
I don’t know much about the field of ethology, which is the study of behaviors, both in humans and in other organisms (ethos and ethnos share the same route; they deal with ways of acting and being).  And so I can’t tell you much about the French ethologist Henri Laborit, other than that he appears as himself in Alain Resnais’s 1980 film, Mon Oncle d’Amérique, where he offers some very intriguing insights into how poorly adapted the human animal is for modern social life.
The film presents us with three protagonists (or case studies): René Ragueneau (Gerard Depardieu), a Catholic office worker in a textile company; Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), a Jacqueline-of-all-trades who is variously a communist agitator, stage actress, and higher-up at the company where René works; and Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre, who looks vaguely like Jean-Pierre Léaud), a teacher turned civil servant turned writer.  We follow them through the various twists and turns of their lives while Henri Laborit offers commentary about the basic (and primitive) behaviors that they engage in.  As Laborit tells it, there are four primary behaviors: consumption (eating, drinking, fucking), combat, flight, and anguish.  Anguish doesn’t really sound like a behavior; it is rather the inability to do anything to control a situation and prevent an undesirable outcome.  Laborit states that “anguish is caused by the failure to dominate a situation.” In a state of anguish, a subject suffers not just from an unpleasant circumstance, but from the knowledge of his or her own impotence.

He illustrates this with an experiment on a lab rat (and I think it is safe to say that animals were harmed in the making of this film).  In the experiment, a rat is placed in a cage with a partition down the middle.  A buzzer goes off and, after a few seconds, a mild electrical shock will strike the rat if it doesn’t flee through a little doorway in the partition to the other side of the cage.  In the first stage of the experiment, the rat rapidly figures out how the system works and learns to flee in a timely fashion.  This is the flight behavior.  In the second stage, the door in the partition is locked and the rat, upon hearing the buzzer, goes into a frenzy of impotent panic before experiencing the shock.  After a while, it stops reacting and just lies there, getting shocked and presumably hating itself.  In stage three, a second rat is introduced into the cage, and when the buzzer goes off and the first rat finds the door closed, he vents his fury by attacking the second rat.  And in this scenario, even though the rat can’t avoid the shock, he does not fall into a state of motionless anguish, because he can vent his fury through combat with the other rat.

Henri Laborit.
We humans, Laborit tells us, often find ourselves in situations of impotence and anguish.  Maybe—and this is illustrated by our three protagonists—we are stuck in a romantic relationship that frustrates us; maybe we are harassed by a coworker whom we can’t avoid.  Whatever the case, we don’t have the options open to the rat: combat and flight.  If we assault our coworker, we’ll go to prison.  If we stop going to work, we won’t be able to support ourselves.  And so we vent our fury on our own bodies, either through psychosomatic illness (René has an ulcer; Jean has kidney stones) or, more destructively, suicide.  It’s a rather bleak picture of the human condition, to suggest that the frustration of these basic animal drives is making us miserable.  But Laborit asserts that until we understand that these are the drives we have to deal with, we will not be able to prevent outbreaks of catastrophic aggression and violence (and he’s thinking big picture: he means war and genocide), let alone illness and suicide.

Post-script: Although Laborit did not know this at the time (1980), peptic and duodenal ulcers are caused by the h. pylori virus.  While stress can exacerbate the condition, recent medical findings suggest that it probably doesn’t cause it.