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.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Farmers and Prostitutes vs. Fascists: On Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy

What do we, as human beings, owe each other?  Good will and kindness, certainly.  But are we obligated to suffer terribly for each other? To die for each other? Under what circumstances? Does it depend on whom we’re dying for?
These are some of the questions raised in Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy (1973), in which a simple farmer-turned-anarchist hides out at a brothel in Rome while preparing to assassinate Benito Mussolini.  Now, this is no simple task, as Mussolini had a number of people try to kill him over the years and he survived all the way until 1945, when the partisans finally shot him at the end of the war.  The exact time period during which the events in Wertmüller’s film transpire isn’t specified, but it’s made clear that several attempts on Mussolini’s life have already taken place.

What really struck me about this film was the deep, convincing humanity of the protagonist, poor, ill-starred Tunin (played by an excellent Giancarlo Giannini).  Tunin does not look the part of a hero.  He’s painfully shy (which probably won’t serve you well at a whorehouse), he’s soft-spoken, he’s out of place in the big city, and he’s clearly—in his own words—scared shitless by the prospect of shooting Mussolini.  He knows that his chances of success are slim and he knows that he may very well be captured, brutally tortured, and murdered.  In fact, he’s not even the top choice for the anarchists who hire him; he only takes over from his friend, a real anarchist-assassin, after the latter gets killed by the fascist police.

As the film progresses and Tunin tries to keep his fear under control, the few people he lets into his confidence (two prostitutes, one of whom is an anarchist agent, the other of whom he falls in love with) try to convince him that he is under no obligation to do what he’s planning to do.  And surely they’re right.  Surely we don’t expect everyone to throw their lives away in a desperate act of violence.  Let’s consider good old Kant’s categorical imperative, which posits that we should act in such a manner as we would want everyone else to act in the same circumstances.  Well, do we want everyone shooting Mussolini? (Or, to put it more plausibly, do we want everyone going out and getting tortured and killed while trying to kill fascists?)  Hell, even the most fanatical rebel movement doesn’t expect that; guerillas are dependent on the support of the civilian population (consider another Italian movie, Rossellini’s Rome Open City).  If everyone went out and became a militant, there would be no civilians to support them.

Do human beings not have a right to escape from history entirely, if they can? If someone tries to get the hell out of a warzone, can we blame him or her? They’re just following the strongest of human instincts: the will to survive.  And this will is coupled with the general inclination to not shoot and kill people.  Perhaps the fear afflicting Tunin and his ilk is generation upon generation of historical memory telling us, “Don’t kill and don’t get killed.” It’s hardly irrational if one submits to this command.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Reckless Young People Go Boating: Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika

*With spoilers*
One of the worst tragedies—I should imagine—would be to subscribe to a system of values that you know is screwing you over, but to be unable to conceive of life through any other framework.  This is a tragedy that the late great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman explored in a number of contexts: the knight trapped within medieval Christianity in The Virgin Spring; the couple trapped within the institution of bourgeois marriage in Scenes from a Marriage; and the rebellious young couple who foolishly seek to establish a normal, respectable life for themselves in Bergman’s 1953 film, Summer with Monika.

First, a word about the nudity.  Summer with Monika is one of the first feature films ever to feature real live naked people.  The five seconds or so that the titular Monika (Harriet Anderson) appears nude are remarkably tame by modern standards, but at the time it was downright scandalous.  American distributors released an edited version of the film called Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, and this contributed in no small part to Sweden’s reputation as a sexually permissive country (and it also led to the production of a lot of trashy sexploitation films with “Swedish” settings).  But times have changed and we’re now much more civilized (heavy sarcasm), and we can look past the titillation to see Summer with Monika for the visceral tragedy that it is.

Monika is a young working-class woman living with her parents and (too many) siblings in a cramped apartment.  She falls in love with Harry, a young man with a lousy job and a dysfunctional relationship with his chronically ill father.  Having had enough of their respective families and jobs and the generally shitty way they’ve been treated, they steal Harry’s father’s boat and run away together and have a series of sexy, romantic adventures.  And then Monika becomes pregnant.  And suddenly, the two young rebels decide that the really cool thing to do would be to get married, and Monika can become a housewife while Harry gets a job and goes to night school to eventually become an engineer.  And so they come back to the lives they fled and end up living a miserable and impoverished existence together.

Idiotic young people.  What were you thinking? How did you think this would work out? They saw how miserable their parents were and they fled from it, only to return to set up the exact same kind of lives for themselves.  And in a way their fate is just as tragic as that of Max von Sydow’s vengeful knight in The Virgin Spring.  They all lack the intellectual equipment to conceive of alternative ways of living, even though the current system is totally inadequate to meet their needs.  In the end, Summer with Monika isn’t about sex, but rather it’s about drudgery and resentment and regret.