The Blog Without A Name
ON THE SCREEN
Rhapsody in August
by Akira Kurosawa (1991). When I watched this recently for the second time, I had forgotten much about this rather sentimental film. It's not surprising why; of Kurosawa's films, this must be one of the least polished.
In brief: It follows an old grandmother as she takes care of her four grandchildren in her small home outside Nagasaki, relating her experiences, and through her other Japanese's experiences, of the Second World War generally and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki specifically. The children tour Nagasaki and its monuments to the war, with some maudlin and gratuitous commentary at each site, and go about their daily lives hearing every once in a while about their parents' trip to Hawaii where they are visiting one of Grandma's brothers and his family (starring Richard Gere as Clark, her nephew). The children eventually convince Grandma to go to Hawaii to visit her dying brother, one of 11 or so, but only after performing her rituals of remembrance for her husband, who was killed in the 1945 atomic bombing. This culminates in a moving final scene following his death.
Like many of Kurosawa's films -- his samurai-epics being obvious exceptions -- this film uses the mundane for expository material, to bring out the universal in one's everyday experience of the world. It is thus more of a character study and a piece of social criticism than a drama as such, but the latter is drawn in such broad strokes and without almost any serious regard for the complexity of the issue that it tends to drown out the viewer's feelings for the characters at times. This is not to say that Kurosawa has just dropped down a few people on stage to serve, Michael-Moore-style, as a platform for political pontification; the Grandmother, above all, is a real person, who is caught up in a living history she finds difficult to escape. Her ultimate regret at not having visited her brother also cleverly serves both as an intimate view of an otherwise austere woman's conflicted feelings, and as a political metaphor for Japan's need to move beyond the harsh feelings of the past. (This despite the fact she had said she no longer feels anger towards the Americans.)
All of this makes the movie something more than just a screed against nuclear weapons. And yet apostrophes on the wretchedness of war do not really constitute an argument about whether the actual use of nuclear weapons was justified. Most of us will agree that war is something to be avoided, and that the bombing of civilians in urban areas even more so. Yet one never hears in this film about alternatives to the bombings, or whether there was any difference between this particular act, and the one that preceded it in Hiroshima or, perhaps more pointedly, the leveling of Tokyo with conventional weapons earlier in the war. Would an invasion of the Japanese mainland have cost even more
lives, Japanese and American than the bombings? For that matter, were the cluster bombings of German cities half a world away, such as in Dresden, justified? Kurosawa not only suggests no answers to such questions, he does not even acknowledge the questions' existence. The whole debate is very simple in this film: war is bad. Given that most of us would also agree other values were at stake in the war (democracy, human rights, etc.), providing this kind of answer is simplistic, and discredits the very points that Kurosawa wants to raise. From such a respected director, this is a shame.
ON THE SCREEN
, by Pier-Paolo Pasolini (1969). This is probably one of the most abstract films ever produced by Pasolini. Although in broad outline
it follows the plot laid down by centuries of oral tradition and specifically the version given in Euripides' synonymous play, the film is in many ways concerned more what it means to be a myth, and how myth becomes a vehicle for people in a given culture to understand and deal with their own life experiences.
The myth in brief: Jason was born the son of Aeson, king of Iolkos, who was driven out of power by his half-brother Pelias. He was raised unaware of this by Khiron the Centaur, who later revealed to him it was his destiny to go to Pelias and demand his throne back. Pelias would then send him on the (presumably impossible) mission to find and bring back the Golden Fleece of Kolkhis. In Kolkhis, Jason meets Medea, a sorceress and daughter of Aietes, owner of the Fleece. They fall in love, she helps him steal the Fleece, and they escape back to Iolkos in Greece where Medea contrives to kill Pelias. They then flee to Corinth, where Jason deserts Medea for the daughter of of King Creon (of Antigone
fame). Betrayed, Medea wreaks a terrible vengeance, killing Kreon, his daughter Jason's new bride, and Jason's and her own children.
In many respects, the movie glosses over a lot of these details. Pasolini's purpose is not simply to retell the myth, but to explore why the myth is structured the way it is, and why the ancients found myths so compelling. This comes up explicitly at times. Pasolini elevates the character of Khiron the Centaur from being a minor character charged with raising and educating Jason to major expository plot device, if not always actually on screen. The ancients, Khiron says, saw myths and rituals not something "other", but as profound parts of reality: "For him, the reality he experiences in the stillness of a silent sky is equal to the most profound personal experience of modern man." Khiron is thus also in some way implicitly raising and educating Pasolini's audience. The bizarre rituals, of human sacrifice and exotic chanting and smearing blood on grain in the fields, and the extended stretches of empty lands which we see in the preceding and following scenes, make no sense and are highly disorienting unless we see them in precisely this sense. They force the modern audience watching Pasolini's film to step back and look at ancient life from the perspective of the ancients, and not as we moderns might want. This kind of Verfremdungeffekt
paradoxically heightens our awareness of the action so as to put in its appropriate context.
These then set the stage for an even more abstract delving into human realities. Jason has a dual nature throughout: the ancient man, stuck in
the "sacred centaur" of antiquity and the "desecrated centaur" of modernity, though the sacredness of the former remains in the desecration of the latter. It is not altogether clear what the two centaurs stand for. Do they represent the way in which civilization has aged, acquiring new sophistication of skepticism around a youthful faith in itself? Or ar they metaphors for progressive views of the world as ages? Or do they represent something specifically personal for Pasolini, his youthful faith in sacred Catholicism and his later Communism? It's possible all are at work here, and maybe other shades of interpretation I haven't picked up on.
What is clear, though, is that Jason has advanced in the world in a way that Medea has not. She attempted to make the transition from Kolkhis (the land of mythical entities and magic and sorcery) to that of Greece, which is modern and unbelieving. When she becomes deserted by Jason, she tries to reassert her magical old ways, but this conflicts with the realities of the new world in which she lives, and she does not know how to reconcile the two. That this is for Pasolini one of the basic questions of myth then becomes explicit, for Medea says, speaking to her attendant maids: "I suppose you are right... I am a vessel for other people's experiences." That is, humanity and all humans have had to deal with conflicts of experiences, of the worlds whose realities they understood and felt comfortable with, and unknown worlds where they must now go. Medea, then, is a type for the human race.
is not his easiest film to watch, for all the reasons I have already discussed. But it is probably one of his most penetrating and most universal in ultimate appeal. This universality is made implicit by the use of Noh
theater music, whose underlying Buddhist inspiration was meant to separate one from the mundane and the particular and elevate one into the universal. This the film achieves wonderfully.
(No, this blog has not, in fact, gone into permanent abeyance!)
ON THE SCREEN
, by Pier-Paolo Pasolini (1961). For the last several months, my movie-watching activities have mostly consisted of movies I'd seen before, and didn't want to, or didn't have the time to, write on. But Accatone
is so engrossing, in a weird way, I had to break away from my academic career for a while.
Like so many Italian films from the 50's and 60's, it's strongly influenced by the Neo-Realist school: star actors are shunned in favor of common men in many cases literally pulled off the street, and action is carried forward in a blunt highly unsentimental way. Like many of these films, the problems and difficulties associated with chronically impoverished communities of post-war Italy form an essential part of the narrative, often almost to the exclusion of other issues. (In this case, not just because Pasolini was a committed Communist, but because it's pretty easy to be blunt about issues like poverty. .. sybarites are harder to characterize.)
As for plot: Accatone
follows the life of the eponymous lead character, a pimp for Maddalena, his girlfriend-cum-prostitute, and spends most of his free time lounging around with his equally unemployed friends.
Maddalena is arrested for her activities, throwing Accatone into a financial and emotional crisis. After seeking relief from the Church, and then from the family of his children's mother, he meets a beautiful, innocent woman named Stella. As their romance flares, he cannot bring himself to reduce her to just another prostitute as he has all the other women he's loved, and starts working for the first time in his life, but fails. A climactic final scene leads to his tragic death.
The movie is thus not one about redemption so much as the difficulty in actually achieving redemption under trying circumstances. At times this is actually made more or less explicit, as when Accatone swears he'll regain his earlier good luck even if Christ himself is against it. Interspersed throughout the dialogue are long stretches of various pieces by Bach (mostly but not exclusively the St. Matthew Passion
-- again, an allusion to the redemptive process at work), which lend a beautifully heightened sense of tragedy to the film, forcing viewers to withdraw from the narrow details of the storyline and consider the story as a universal type of sorts: the struggles of the proletariat to make an honest living. In comparison to Pasolini's other later great movies, Accatone
has less of the rigidity of The Gospel According to St. Matthew
 (which is, granted, more or less demanded by that story) and more cogency than Hawks and Sparrows
It's a shame the DVD version has not been edited, it seems, virtually at all, to remove the greater parts of the effects of age. The film is very grainy, and it appears to have been sloppily transferred not from the original film, but from a VHS version, and sometimes you can actually see the "tape" skip as on VHS recorders. Because the movie is often shot outdoors in very bright and sunny landscapes, the white type-faced subtitling is frequently difficult to read unless close to the television. Here's hoping that the Criterion Collection will come out with a new improved version that removes these defects. Despite these problems, it's a wonderful film and should not be missed.
So, I haven't been able to able to blog much, what with CLS and classes and all. In the meantime, enjoy the following comment I read on a chopstick wrapper at a restaurant today:
"Welcome to Chinese Restaurant [sic
]. please [sic
] try your Nice Chinese Food [sic
] With [sic
] Chopsticks [sic
] the traditional and typical [sic
] of Chinese glonous [sic
] history and cultual [sic
I particularly like "glonous". (Clearly, they aimed for "glorious", but equally clearly there's an "n" there.) I wonder if they actually do this for effect, as there are millions of Chinese quite competent in English.
That the Spanish collectively caved in to pressure last week is often explained on the grounds that they felt like the bombings in Madrid would not have occurred had Aznar maintained a more distant relationship with the Bush administration and its Iraq policies. The implication is that the Islamist radicals were motivated not by ideological hatred of the West or racism or ultrapuritanicalism, but solely by the behavior of the Bush administration. When you see news like this
("Muslim group threatens France"), however, that kind of reasoning seems less easy to maintain. This group, which explicitly claims some kind of relationship to Al Qaida (precisely what we are not sure), shows how Muslim fundamentalist groups of their ilk are motivated not just by the particular American policy decisions, but also by a larger agenda about what the proper human society should look like. How else to explain their comments about the general permissiveness of French society? Thus, even if we grant that American policies are exacerbating tensions in the Muslim world and beyond, it is not at all clear that simply changing those policies will stop the underlying politicocultural conflict.
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
Saddam: King of Terror
, by Con Coughlin (Harper Collins 2002). What with the US now being the de facto colonial power in Iraq -- yes, for good or ill, colonial power -- I decided that I needed to know a little more about the man whom we have just dethroned. (That, and they were selling the book at Amazon for $0.25, so it was practically free.) Coughlin is a journalist working for London's Daily Telegraph
, so that should tell you something about his biases and general take on homicidal dictators.
But that fact alone doesn't really capture what Coughlin is trying to do with the book. Coughlin is, like all good biographers, basically interested in understanding Saddam as a person, and the political forces that gave rise to him as a political agent and the way in which he used his power. It is not a book for the squeamish; Coughlin practically revels in the individuals Saddam and his apparatchiks had killed, and how they were killed, and what (real or flippant) motivations these people had for killing them. As for the hundreds of thousands whom Saddam sent to their deaths on the battle-field, Coughlin pays less attention, except when they play into his Great-Man view of history. It is, for example, hard not to sympathize with the Iranians in the infamous yet little known incident at the Majnun islands near Basra, when the Iraqi military dropped canisters filled with Tabun that caused the Iranians defending the islands to begin "vomiting a yellowish liquid, and their skin turned red"; most died almost immediately. Coughlin can't resist comparing Saddam to Hitler: "[a]lthough Tabun had been developed by the Nazis, Hitler himself had refrained from using it on the battlefield". That is, Iranian suffering is not the real point: the real point is that Saddam was determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and he was willing to use them.
The book reads like one horrific tragedy like this after another, every time escalating in scale and amorality. Saddam is born into a mud hut, not knowing his own day or year of birth or even his real father, and the stepfather who replaced him beats him incessantly. Quite naturally, Saddam seeks as quickly as possible to escape these circumstances and is mostly raised by his Nazi-worshipping uncle Khairallah who allows him to get a semblance of an education while he delves further into a life of petty crime and political bullying. Coup after coup are recounted, each usually getting bloodier than the last, culminating in Saddam's own ascendancy to the Presidency. After a spectacular purge (which Saddam had videotaped for him to look back on fondly), within a year Iraq is at war with Iran over a small strip of land near the gulf. Due to Saddam's mistrust of his army officers and gross tactical and strategic incompetence, Iraq's initial advantage -- surprise, and chaos in Iran due to the recent revolution -- tens upon tens of thousands die. The hundreds and thousands of people jailed for the slightest offenses -- being sexual competitors for the affection of a woman Uday or Saddam happened to like, getting too near the presidential palace compound (not the palace itself -- that was punishable by death). And I needn't go into many details of the torture cells: just mentioning "woodchip grinder" should be sufficient.
So, Coughlin portrays a very convincing portrait of the pathological nature of the regime. The fact not just that human rights violations were being perpetrated on a nearly unprecedented scale (nowadays only North Korea compares well), but that they were perpetrated in such grotesque and ingenious ways gives the whole book a kind of Shakespearean unrealness to it: are we really meant to believe these things could happen? It's so foreign to our experience, but the Iraqi state obsessively documented its crimes for all to see. In the early 90s, e.g., the UN authorities responsible for ensuring Iraq was complying with the weapons development regime staged a surprise raid on the central agency responsible for Iraq's nuclear weapons development program and found millions of documents explicitly stating it was still seeking such weapons. But many would rather believe such are the propagandistic fabrications of the CIA or the Whitehouse seeking its own narrow ends. To be sure: Bush had a number of mixed selfish motives for going to war, but the humanitarian realities in Iraq certainly were not his fabrication.
It would be easy to draw from my precis so far that Couhglin sees in Saddam only a wicked monster who must be purged for humanity's sake. There's much truth to that, but Coughlin is careful to point out both Saddam originally had some good intentions mixed in with his narrow power-centered ones. Iraq's school system, for one, was greatly improved under his de facto rule during the 70s as Bakr's deputy, and until funding was largely cut off because of the war. The status of women, too, was considerably better than many other places in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia or Iran. Likewise, much of the politics that went on had deep roots in Iraq's tribal structure and culture of 'face'; this fact is something that most other commentators miss.
So, Coughlin is not an absolutist: Saddam is not absolutely evil. But nor are countries of the West absolutely good. Coughlin is very ready to document how every country -- with the possible exception of Israel -- at one time or another directly or indirectly aided and abetted Saddam's crimes. The Germans (both West and East) helped Saddam more or less openly to develop large stocks of chemical and biological weapons. The French, when they discovered that Saddam was clearly going to use the Osirak (later Tammuz) nuclear reactors to develop fissile materials for nuclear weapons, merely doubled the price. Indeed, so close were the French and Iraqis that they were according to reports in 2003 selling weapons to Iraq as late as a month or two before the war. The Soviets provided Saddam with a relatively modern airforce, while the Italians provided him with his navy. And then there're the Americans. One would think from all the reports of Americans' dealings with Iraq that we were the worst, but Coughlin seems to suggest that most of America's aid was in the form of intelligence during the war against Iran. But this relationship went way
back for him, for we learn on page 37 that during Saddam's exile in Egypt he was serving as some kind of operative for the CIA. Thus just about everyone comes away with blood on their hands.
However, that just raises the question: when does choosing to aid a person who was seen by most of the West, and indeed by the Soviet Union for a time, as the lesser of two evils (Henry Kissinger once lamented the fact that one side had to win in the Iran-Iraq war) become unacceptable for the world community? It was a real moral dilemma, because if either side won decisively, it would lead to the literal conquest of the other (those were Iran's aims, anyway; Iraq initially just wanted a large chunk of Iran). That was unacceptable in everyone's eyes, because it would just empower that country to perpetrate crimes on a far wider scale. Iraq and Iran both, certainly, had been eyeing the Gulf States lustfully for decades, so it's not obvious that in such a circumstance the entire West would not get involved anyway in one much more bloody and destructive war. To put it another way: was it right or wrong to send Stalin loads of munitions and aid even while he perfecting the art of the concentration camp and killing his own people on a massive scale? Most people will say that Hitler was the greater evil, but isn't that something of a slippery slope? Many of the same questions arise in the Iran-Iraq War, save that we had considerably more freedom to maneuver. These are moral questions which seem easy until you dig down into the morass of probabilities and eventualities. I, for one, would not have wanted to be the person to make that decision.
Saddam's reign is now over. That is probably going to be the longest standing flaw of the book: it was published just before he was overthrown, and so has almost no details about the diplomatic rows that lead up to the war, or how the war was fought, and what Saddam's future out of power will be like. Indeed, we do not ever know now what lays in wait for him, whether permanent imprisonment, exile, execution, or what. So, the real biography of Saddam is something for future writers to accomplish.
ON THE SCREEN
I usually like to do all my commentary on timeless movies (good or bad ones), but what with all the hullabaloo about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
, I had to check this beautiful/evil/[insert prejudice here] movie out for myself, so I saw it last weekend. I must say that I think most of the controversy is completely misplaced, but that's to be expected from the genre aimed at anything like a general audience.
So, just a brief description before I get into why I thought there were enjoyable moments in the film, and where the film is less than adequate. The first crucial point is that this movie was never even intended to be a movie about the entire life of Jesus of Nazareth -- just as the title implies, only the events immediately leading up to his crucifixion and burial. Thus it has an extremely narrow scope. The film fairly brutally portrays Jesus' arrest, his torture before Pontius Pilate, his procession to Golgotha and then his execution by crucifixion. The movie is mostly in a reconstructed form of Western Aramaic, with bits of Latin thrown in, with English subtitles.
So, isn't this just another anti-Semitic screed, like Passion Plays for centuries?
It's complicated. The problem is the way Gibson portrays the Jewish temple priests, Caiaphas and others. These are shown in probably the worst light possible: they're vain, they're pitiless, they're blood-thirsty and they're obsessed with power. The crowd, at the key moment before Pilate, does cry out loudly, but the key line that constituted the blood libel -- "Let his blood be on us and on our children!
" -- was not included. The movie does not, as it should, inform you that the Biblical texts say the priests had incited (or "persuaded" or "stirred up") the crowd to demand Jesus' crucifixion. But otherwise, the Jewish population is either left without a general opinion, or they're sympathetic to Jesus' plight. Indeed, this agrees with the Biblical text: Matthew says the priests plan so as to avoid "a riot among the people", suggesting the Jewish population as a whole did not see eye to eye with the priestly elites. Gibson could have done a better job of portraying Jews who were not followers of Jesus and yet who were opposed to what amounted to an extrajudicial killing. But if he had treated Caiaphas and his ilk more kindly, he would have been ahistorical: Caiaphas was
, afterall, a pitiless, bloodthirsty, powermonger (so far as we can tell, anyway, with what few historical sources remain to us). The problem with portraying Palestine in the first century is that, like the Popes of Renaissance Italy, all religious questions become political questions, and all political questions become religious. To steer the audience away from this fact is to avoid a central point of the story.
So, what about Pilate? Wasn't he basically a thug in real life?
More or less. The Pilate that one sees in this movie -- sympathetic and worried about moral abiguities about his duty to Rome versus his duty to uphold justice and legal procedure -- pretty much gives precisely the wrong impression about the nature of Roman colonial rule in the first century.
Isn't the use of language less than ideal here?
Yes and no, but mostly yes. The fact that Gibson insisted on using ancient languages is a credit to his desire for realism, but that was a problematic proposition to start out with. The particular form of Aramaic used in Judea in Jesus time was Western Aramaic, but this died out some centuries later. Its closest relative, Eastern Aramaic, is still spoken in a few villages in rural Syria, but this is little help with reconstructing how elites might have used the language two millennia ago. Then there's the fact that Aramaic may have been the language of Jesus and the common people, but the Temple priests would certainly have not spoken it, as they do in the movie, to Pilate during Jesus' trial -- they would have used Greek for that, the language the Romans used for administration in general throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Pilate would also surely have not spoken Latin to anyone but other Romans. The nature of this Latin is also likely ahistorical: Gibson basically used the pronunciation that the Roman Catholic Church uses today, which basically applies a number of sound changes from Italian onto Latin. Thus, the movie has "Chay-zahr", rather than "Kye-ssahr" for Caesar
. These sound-changes didn't take place until centuries after the setting of the movie.
Do we really need all this gore?
This is a matter of taste. For me, it was refreshing to see a movie not
gloss over the violence of Roman colonial rule. Other movies often try to pretend that the central point of the narrative -- God's redemption of man -- was simply a string of magic tricks to entertain the audience, with a sad but ultimately triumphant ending. This movie honestly accepts the vileness of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, facts which many people even outside the context of the genre generally want to avoid.
Doesn't the movie basically ignore that central point, though? Shouldn't it focus on redemption rather than suffering?
Again, this is a matter of perspective. Both facts were true: Jesus as redeemer and healer, and Jesus as sufferer. This movie is indeed quite lopsided, but I think most people have been so overwhelmed with the torture scenes that they miss point that Gibson was trying to make. The manner in which he counterpoises the images of suffering with flashbacks to the Last Supper, and with images of Mary caring for Jesus as a child, are extremely powerful juxtapositions: violence and hate is being contrasted with love and faith. Thus, the movie does not simply ignore
divine redemption, but merely looks at it squarely through the lens of divine suffering. William Safire's claim
that the movie "is the bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen" is, besides being simply wrong, revealing of a person unwilling to face brutal realities of human existence.
On the whole, the movie is probably worth seeing if you can brace yourself for it. It's not the best or the most insightful one out there, but can be very enjoyable if you're in the right mood.