Thursday, August 13. 2015
Immense disappointment -- for me, but I left Unity (the successor of Earthlings after a decade) after 20 minutes when I couldn't take anymore. Horror upon horror, accompanied by exalted banalities solemnly voiced in sound clips by assorted celebrities.
Earthlings had been - and still is - immensely powerful and effective in awakening the world to the otherwise unimaginable agony inflicted on (other) animals by humans, the agony that ag-gag laws strive to hide from us. I hadn't been able to bear watching Earthlings either, but I recognize that its graphic evidence is essential for sensitizing that vast majority of humankind who are ignorant of and insulated from the fact that such horrors are being committed, being committed everywhere, and being committed in our name, so as to feed those who crave meat and to clothe those who crave leather and fur. Earthlings was not a movie for vegans. It was a movie for creating vegans.
In the twenty minutes that I could bear of Unity, the horrors were mostly inflicted by humans on humans, in the context of war, but there were also Earthlings moments in Unity, where the human aggression was on animalls - and we could already sense that there would be more later in the film.
I left before they came. There will probably still be extracts from Unity that activists can use to inspire people to become vegan. But skip the human/human aggression. There is no horror we have inflicted on animals that we have not inflicted on humans too. The “rules” of war allow it all. But in peacetime, it is illegal to do that to people.
For animals, it's always wartime, and they are always the helpless victims. They are all in the state of terror and despair of that indelibly soul-tormenting first scene of the calf facing and frantically, hopelessly, struggling to escape that all too narrow passageway to merciless slaughter.
The film brings us no new solution for ending human/human war, just the banal cliches we already know.
And for animals, apart from the new supply of episodes to add to the heart-convulsing Earthlings excerpts of ten years ago, this new film adds only a miscegenation of wickedness and words that form no unity: a congeries of horrors and homilies.
For me what was missing in this call for ecumenical unity among molecules, organisms, earth, planets, galaxies, and universe was the one property that distinguishes the trivial from the tragic — the property that unifies humans with the (other) animals and distinguishes both from molecules, earth, planets, galaxies - and even trees: That property is sentience, the susceptibility to suffering.
Towards other humans, we violate this property in times of war (and crime). But towards other animals we violate it at all times.
Maybe a miracle awaited those who stayed until the end. If so, maybe someone can tell me about it...
[Afterword: Friends later told me that the punchline turned out to be "Homo spiritus." But (apart from the pedantic fact that it should have been "Homo spirans," since the notion of "spirit" is inspired by divine incoming breath, and Homo is not the only breathing organism) even the more relevant taxonomic tag -- Homo sensibilis -- would have been a misnomer, because all other organisms with nervous systems are sentient, not just us. And our potential for sensitivity to their sensitivity is useless if we don't use it.)]
Immense déception — pour moi, mais je me suis sauvé après 20 minutes lorsque je n’en pouvais plus. Horreurs suivies d’horreurs, accompagnées de banalités exaltées et insipides prononcées solennellement par des vedettes en clip sonore.
Sunday, December 22. 2013
Liv & Ingmar: Painfully Connected is a moving documentary about the relationship between Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman. But although it takes the form of a spontaneous interview-like monologue spoken by Ullman, interspersed with very short excerpts from her Bergman films and a little prior documentary footage with Bergman, it is actually a scripted theatrical performance, and a remarkable one, because it is reality, dramatized, with the actress playing herself.
And the metaphor is apt, and doubly self-referental, because so many of the unforgettable roles Ullman had played for Bergman in their films were in fact reflections of their intense but troubled relationship and their respective demons.
The more troubled one was clearly Ingmar. But he remains the revered eminence in the wings. Only Ullman has her say, which is affectionate, loyal and admiring throughout.
Yet one has the occasional feeling during Ullman's extremely insightful and moving performance, that some of it may be art rather than actuality: high art, creative, going beyond merely being "my Stradivarius," the instrumental role her 'Pingmar' accorded her, as she relates with apparent pride and gratitude.
But perhaps they both understood their symbiosis best. Maybe Ullman's roles and scripts -- she refused many that did not fit -- inspired her performances the way Schiller's poems inspired Schubert's songs.
Yet surely she was both the player and the instrument, even if Bergman composed the score. What he might have meant was something closer to the way knowing he has such a "Stradivarius" to play on inspires the playwright too.
The playwright/film-maker is left mostly to our imagination in this film, apart from letting us know that he was a tormented genius, driven to seclusiveness, jealousy, and even psychological and physical violence. But we cannot discern what made him that way. Unlike Ullman, Bergman was far too private ever to make such a "documentary" about himself. What he had to say, he said in his own films, much of it through his "Stradivarius."
Her art was cathartic for her, but perhaps his was less so, for him. Yes, they were painfully connected; but one has a feeling that despite her unquestionable loyalty and lifelong devotion, most of the pain was his (though probably little or no fault of hers).
Friday, September 28. 2012
The Words: Clichés about being and wanting to be a writer. Unsuccessful would-be writer publishes as his own a manuscript that he found. Original author, now an old man (Jeremy Irons, dreadful American accent attempt, but the wonderful voice and speech impediment is there) tracks him down to reproach him. All extremely superficial about what it is to write and how and why one writes. Movie is just right for the mediocre non-talents that write books and make movies today. No, writers don't re-type the manuscripts of others to feel what it's like to write well. No, it's not all about figuring out what's fiction and what's biography. No, real talent (or art) is not about being able to write a tear-jerker. Not the slightest sign in any of this that "writers" have minds (or ought to). The plot within a plot of having yet another writer tell the poacher's tale is pretty pointless, as is the aspiring, admiring grad student (a standard Woody-Allen prop) who alternately drools over and dominates this supernumerary writer (weak shades of "Misery" here), played by Dennis Quaid, a mediocre actor who can only play superficial, learing lechers -- but is, ironically, well cast for personifying this whole reduction of the art of writing (and movie-making) to whatever sells today.
Sunday, December 11. 2011
There seem to be three reasons why directors tamper with operas today: (1) To try to freshen them up and make them more "relevant". (2) To try to put more (paying) bums on today's (declining) seats. (3) To allow scope for the "creative" contribution of the director.
That's all fine, for minor works. But when it comes to the masterworks, let them speak and sing for themselves.
Gounod's Faust is not Goethe's masterpiece, but it's far from a minor work either. Gounod/Barbier/Carré reduce most of the depth and dimensionality of Goethe's Faust to just the seduction and redemption of Marguerite. Faust himself is downsized to a somewhat ambivalent libertine. No sign of the doctor fallen from the heights of scholarly inquiry with which he had become disillusioned to try his hand at the ordinary layman's love-making that he felt he may have missed. Not much trace of the bargain of pawning his soul for the second chance. And a lot more exalted Christian prudery sanctified as virtue in the devout Gounod's version than in the more worldly and universalist Goethe's.
Yet there is more than enough of the universal in Gounod's Faust to make it unnecessary to strain to make it more "relevant." Believers or non-believers, we can still understand that many once considered it a big deal to seduce, inseminate and abandon a naive girl. And even more immediate today is our horror at how cruelly she was treated for her "crime" by others, especially her beloved brother. We can even still understand -- though we cannot endorse or condone -- the brother's anguish at his sister's "fall." (And, no, we need not view this portrayed en travesti as islamic honor killings in order to get the point.)
Fortunately, most of this manages to get through in the Met's current Faust, directed by Des McAnuff. The way he chose to obtrude with a new "premise" (inspired by Dr. Jacob Bronowski's renunciation of physics upon seeing Nagasaki) was in recasting Doctor Faust's learned inquiries as 20th century atomic bomb-making rather than medieval alchemy and magic.
Well, yes, that certainly makes it more current and relevant, but does it make sense? The destruction wrought on Nagasaki was real enough, and horror at having contributed to it is certainly universally understandable. But what does it mean to renounce this destruction in favour of the goading of the gonads? Goethe's Faust abandons airy scholarship because it has not brought him the satisfaction he had sought; Gounod's Faust turns instead to seeking it in earthly seduction. But what, exactly, is the deal with McAnuff's Dr. Strangelove? Is he trying to make amends for Nagasaki, or to make matters worse?
We don't have to worry about these superadded fine points during most of the opera, however; they are obtruded only at the very beginning (where they puzzle, but otherwise do not matter, nor meddle) and at the very end -- but there they do pose a bit of a problem. For when Marguerite eludes the long haul in Club Mephistopheles, because she is forgiven by the Almighty both for her original "sin" and for the madness and infanticide to which she was driven by all her pious unforgiving friends and family (with the exception of the youth who loved and lost but never condemned her) -- the chorus of angels that cheer her up to the heavens is sung by legions of the lab-coated scientists that kept appearing here and there during the entire performance.
So it's not forgiveness (whether Christian or generic) that triumphs and redeeems, but what? And why? And how does Nagasaki and disenchantment with research fit in all this?
Go figure. As long as it has that note of "relevance," filled the seats, and brought due attention to the director, who cares?
Especially since (apart from the arbitrary atheistic irony of the ascent at the end) Gounod and the wonderful performers and conductor were nevertheless able to successfully reanimate this 19th century magic and alchemy yet again in the 21st.
Tuesday, August 23. 2011
Yes, the commentator in the Khodorkhvsky movie who said "Kh was the best of the worst" (the worst being all the oligarchs, including Kh) seems to have captured the essence of the puzzle.
There is no question that Kh's enormous business success was due in part to the government selling him public assets at a low price (partly to keep them in Russian hands, partly because of insider wheeling and dealing and self-interest). There were no doubt dirty tricks and gangsterism on both sides (oligarchs and government) along with collusion. There is also little doubt who the worst of the worst was and is (VVP).
How did Kh become the best of the worst? It looks as if his motives for acquiring wealth never came from those lowest depths of sociopathic cupidity that drove so many others; his motives seem to have been more technical than materialistic: it was a skill he was obsessed with developing. There may even have been some self-serving belief in its "trickle-down" benefits for the rest of the world too. But he clearly had a first round of remorse and rethinking that led to his support of the political opposition to Putin (possibly because of conflicts and conflicts of interest with Putin), and this is what led to his arrest (by which time he had already developed a sense of fatalism, if not martyrdom; probably his wealth and influence also gave him some illusion of immunity, so far only partly confirmed).
But what about now? In prison, having lost (almost) all, he had a second round of second-thoughts about wealth acquisition, and he seems to think he is now fighting for a principle (though it is not at all evident what that principle is).
Probably Kh would have made (and might still make) a better president than Putin. But that just means the best of the worst would be better than the worst of the worst.
Human character is capable of remorse and reform, but I think Russia's chances would be better in the hands of Politkovskaya (compassionate, intelligent, funny, and equally obsessive and fatalistic -- surely closer to the best of the best) if the worst of the worst (or some of his competitors) had not already done their worst with her.
Tuesday, December 28. 2010
Apart from not capturing the King's English -- either then or now -- The King's Speech does rather simplify and even trivialize speech defects, speech therapy, and, no doubt, George VI's struggle. But the two principal male (and female) roles are well (if inauthentically) played. (Colin Firth mastered the royal mispronunciation of "r," but not the Windsor accent.) Derek Jacobi, however, is simply dreadful as the A of C, and Timothy Spall's face and facial expressions were terrible as Churchill. The anachronisms -- e.g., I rather doubt that the royal family's locution "the firm" dated as early as the 1930's, but the urge to slip it in prevailed -- are sometimes intrusive, and I'd certainly hate to be one of the portrayed parties having to view this. Nevertheless, overall, the film works.
But two obvious strategies to make the task of public speaking (and especially public broadcasting) easier for the king were never tried. And leaving us to wonder why cannot but reduce the drama of the struggle:
(1) Why insist that broadcasts be done live, rather than recorded in advance (with multiple takes and edits)?
(2) If playing loud music in headphones while reading a speech inhibited the stammer, why not use that during the speech-making, rather than only as therapy?
Monday, November 1. 2010
Inside Job is a documentary film written and directed by Charles H. Ferguson. It tries to illustrate through narration and interviews how the global financial crisis of 2008 was the result of deregulation of banking and the resulting unregulated growth of "derivatives" in which bad debts are packaged together and repeatedly resold in what amounts to a massive pyramid scheme, with investment banks hedging their bets by encouraging bad loans, receiving high fees, offloading them on other lenders, and then betting that they will default.
Complicit in this are banking executives, credit rating agencies, politicians (lobbied by the extremely wealthy financial industry), presidential appointees (often former and future banking executives), corporate lawyers, and economists (often likewise drawing large consultant fees from the financial industry), greatly weakened regulatory agencies and regulatory laws, and legions of greedy, risk-prone traders.
The 2008 financial crash in Iceland is presented as a harbinger and microcosm for the phenomenon.
Reminiscent of the film The Corporation, Inside Job's premise is that enormous incentives together with lack of controls and answerability create an industry that behaves like a sociopath, pursuing its interests relentlessly, at the expense of that vast majority of poor people who end up having paid for it.
The most worrisome conclusion is that even after the evidence of the global financial crash that such unregulated trading has induced, many of the very same people who brought it on are still in power and perpetuating the same system, despite minor cosmetic reforms, because of the undiminished resources and lobbying power of the financial industry.
The sociopathy seems to be scale-invariant: It is present at the level of the banking industry, which is not an individual sentient human being but a virtual entity created by human laws and individual human actions, at the level of individual corporations, likewise not sentient, but also at the level of sentient financial industry executives and the other individuals involved, and they appear to be genuine sociopaths, blinded by their greed and their addiction to the system that allows its uncontrolled indulgence, still perpetuating the same system without the slightest admission of guilt, remorse, or any genuine commitment to reform.
Monday, August 9. 2010
How did Radu Mihaileanu's recent farce/tear-jerker, "The Concert," still manage to be a movie that one does not regret having gone to see? And why does it manage to elicit some sobs even from a seasoned cynic? It is not because of any great depth:
No, music is not about attaining that "ultimate harmony." No, violinists that are sent to their deaths in a Siberian penal colony do not keep playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto obsessively in their heads and fingers till the last. No, they do not establish posthumous psychic contact with their progeny that way either. The treatment of discrimination against Jews in Russia does sound a few true notes (even though it's mostly the historic doctor's plot conspiracy theory transformed into a (mostly) fictional musicians' plot) despite the slap-stick caricatures of both Jewish and Gypsy stereotypes. It's certainly not Aleksei Guskov's inept imitation of conducting, nor the almost as inauthentic mash-up of Mélanie Laurent's faux solo, edited into a composite duo with whoever was actually playing the fiddle.
But the Tchaikovsky really is beautiful, Mélanie really is pretty, and acts fairly well -- if not always like a real musician. And the longing for lost loved ones resonates despite the superficiality and artificiality of the particulars.
And one of the only two bits of subtlety in this crowd-pleaser (the other being a moment of Mahler), is the Gypsy subtheme (subliminal for most, who will not know when it is Romanian Gypsy music that the Romanian director of this Russian/French farce, Radu Mihaileanu, uses to herald and accompany the action), both as a metaphor for it all, and as a light counterpoint to the Tchaikovsky theme.
There is even the (no doubt unintended) irony of the fact that Tchaikovsky's music was for a time perversely undervalued -- by snobs and pedants, mostly in the West, perhaps not in Russia -- as being too sentimental, something of a tear-jerker, playing for popularity rather than for "ultimate harmony."
Justice has long since been done, fortunately, for this genius of the first rank (P.I.Tch.).
Monday, September 1. 2008
Eszter Hagyatéka. A good portrait of a psychopath (con-man) and how their manipulative charm does not wear off even when their falseness and emptiness is transparent. The only thing that is not perfectly repulsive about them (for those who, unlike Eszter, are not otherwise in their thrall) is their almost touchingly naive conviction that everyone else is a psychopath too, "righteousness" being just another con. In this film, Lajos even effects to want to co-opt Eszter's haplessly unvindictive righteousness to complement his own "insufficiently talented" M.O.
Eszter's Lajos is unlike Mann's Felix Krull, whose manipulative skills are grounded in a capacity for empathic mind-reading that is then used for exploitation. But there is still the same sense of an inescapable superficiality always yearning (but only, of course, superficially) for depth, while addicted only to the allures of the surface. Perhaps it's a mistake to say that psychopaths have no feelings: They do, but they are faint and fleeting. They need to use method acting to simulate a soul -- a soul that they know so well to be false, that they cannot conceive it to be otherwise in anyone else.
Sunday, September 16. 2007
A late-comer's appreciation of John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge, based on Pierre La Mure's novel about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:
Although the French wikipedia states that HT-L's contemporaries said he was not bitter or inhibited because of his hereditary deformity (dwarfism and disfigurement, exacerbated by a childhood accident; his parents were first cousins), but rather an ebullient bon vivant, and even something of an exhibitionist, the novel and movie portray him as deeply wounded and stigmatized by his condition, hypersensitive about it, yet prone to make cruelly ironic, self-deprecating allusions to it in his communication and interactions with others.
The idea is that HT-L, who would naturally have been a horseman, athlete, dancer and lady's man, instead withdraws into painting and a perceptive but passive observation of life, certain that he is repulsive, especially to women, as a man (and the film has ample actual confirmations of this conviction, with people finding him repulsive and saying so).
HT-L falls in love with a prostitute who had sought his help, and he dares to get into a physical relationship with her only because he perceives that in her profession there is indifference to his condition. But she is indeed a prostitute, and it is never quite clear whether she is really just as repulsed by him as anyone else, or perhaps less so because she too feels a stigma. At any rate, she, ex officio, "betrays" him and his only carnal relationship (according to the movie -- in real life HT-L had many prostitutes and mistresses too) ends, leaving him overwhelmed by despair and drink. But again his art, and his sardonic view of life draw him back from despair, if not from drink. He continues to frequent the Paris demi-monde and to paint it affectionately, unjudgmentally. He interacts with its denizens the same way -- sympathetic, but unengaged. The implication is that the conviction has now been definitively confirmed that he cannot be loved physically, and that he will never again expose himself to the added torment of inspiring disgust by seeking love.
His sense of being repulsive overflows only occasionally to his work or his words. It is mostly his body's inability to inspire anything other than disgust that prevents him from daring to hope or to respond when another woman, far better born than the prostitute, and deeply responsive to both his art and his character, may or may not have fallen in love with him. She may love him, or she may just identify with him in a deeper way than the prostitute did; but she seeks a sign whether he will ever be able to allow himself to reciprocate or even acknowledge her feelings, and he is unable to allow himself to dare to show her -- and perhaps even himself -- that he loves her (although he does, having secretly followed her, jealously, exactly as he had the prostitute). So she -- not a prostitute, but, like a prostitute, needing a provider -- accepts to marry someone she does not love. As with the prostitute, his last-minute impulse to call her back comes too late.
What is most universal about this film is that the sense of stigma that generates such a sense of being incapable of being loved, especially carnally, is not reserved for the physically disfigured. Or perhaps "appearance" is subtler than just bodily form.
Saturday, September 3. 2005
The irony of "A Temetetlen Halott" ("Unburied Remains" or "The Uninterred Corpse," woodenly translated "The Unburied Man") is buried in its one good metaphor: that what tormented Imre Nagy (the abettor of the ill-fated and short-lived Hungarian uprising of 1956) the most at the end was that his (inevitable) posthumous rehabilitation would be at the hands of his own assassins (rehabilitating themselves).
The film ends on the note that Imre Nagy's exhumation and reburial with honours was not done until 1989, after the remains of the post-1956 regime had faded out (and on the very day his successor/executioner János Kádár died). But it seems to be lost on the film-makers and the nation that the internecine squabbles among the true-believers (few) and the opportunists (many) about whether 1956 was a revolution or a counter-revolution had itself been just another incarnation of Hungary's unburied cycle of red/white -- previously black-yellow/red-white-green) oscillation and carnage. The same archetypes keep re-emerging, out of the self-same mother-soil and blood-types that the film is here whitewashing (in accordance with the current cycle), if not beatifying.
But Hungary is perhaps no worse than the rest of the planet in this regard, and certainly not the worst.
The film itself, apart from a few moments of good character acting, is dead dialogue and dreary docudrama throughout.
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