Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Trigger Warnings

May 21, 2014

head-in-sand-2

Trigger warning: this article is about trigger warnings, which may be upsetting to some people if they have ever had a traumatic experience related to trigger warnings. If this is true of you, you had better stop reading this RIGHT NOW.

Okay, now we can proceed. The student senate at the University of California in Santa Barbara recently passed a resolution urging the school to “begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi”. These trigger warnings are meant to alert people who have had traumatic experiences that a text may contain something they will find upsetting. Similar demands have been made at other schools. One of the texts often cited as potentially upsetting is The Great Gatsby. (No, I’m not making this up.) According to a student at Rutgers University, a trigger warning for this novel might be: “suicide,” “domestic abuse” and “graphic violence”. According to an opinion piece in the Rutgers student newspaper, Gatsby “…possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” It’s been a while since I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel, but all I recall with regards to violent content is that a woman is struck and killed by a car, and later her father shoots and kills a man who he mistakenly believes was the one who killed her. If that’s enough to trigger somebody, that person’s head would probably explode if he were to read Treasure Island, or, for that matter, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oberlin College has taken this idea further. In a recent teachers guide, they advised professors that “anything could be a trigger”, and they should “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Triggering materials may relate to “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” So, to be safe, one should try to avoid almost the whole of world literature. In response to widespread criticism, Oberlin has tabled this policy.

This push for trigger warnings is really a form of feel good liberalism. Students who demand such policies can feel that they are “protecting” people who have been traumatized in some way. The real effect in the long run will to stymie free speech and academic inquiry. We live in a world full of disturbing ideas and events. It is not the job of the university to shield students from these things. It is, rather, to broaden their sense of the world, in all its good and bad aspects.

Hannah Arendt

March 1, 2014

Hannah_Arendt_Film_Poster

Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film, Hannah Arendt, deals with the writing of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ensuing controversy that it caused. The film is fictional, but it includes actual film footage of Eichmann’s trial. Arendt’s book was controversial because of its notion of the “banality of evil”, which many historians objected to (and still object to). This idea has remained in currency, however, perhaps because it doesn’t seem far-fetched to a generation that grew up under the cloud of a nuclear arms race. The book also angered people because of its criticism of Jewish Leaders in Eastern Europe during World War II.

This film is mostly sympathetic in its portrayal of Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa), but it does not portray her as flawless. She ignored pleadings that her comments about the Jewish leaders were insensitive and should be left out. (She felt she had to discuss it, because the issue came up during Eichmann’s trial.) Some of the characters accuse her of being arrogant, and the film subtly implies that there was some truth in this.

There is also a sub-plot about Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher, Heidegger, who was once her lover. This part of the film was unsatisfying because Trotta doesn’t seem to know what to say about this aspect of Arendt’s life.

Hannah Arendt is that rare type of film that deals with the life of the mind. It is also interesting portrayal of the German-Jewish emigre community in the U.S. following World War II.

Reds

December 24, 2012

Redsposter

Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, Reds, tells the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, two American journalists who were witnesses to the Russian Revolution. Beatty wrote the screenplay with Trevor Griffiths. Watching this film, one is impressed by the personal courageousness of Reed and Bryant, as well as by their commitment to social justice. They were interesting and inspiring people, so I wish I could give this film an unqualified endorsement, but unfortunately it has a number of problems with it.

At nearly three hours, Reds is too long, mainly because the first half largely consists of scenes of Reed (Warren Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton), who were married, bickering with each other, as well as scenes of Bryant having an affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson). The film doesn’t get interesting until about halfway through when Reed and Bryant go to Russia. Beatty and Griffiths seemed to have had trouble making convincing characters out of historical figures. O’Neil, for example, mostly just drinks a lot and glowers at people. It’s hard to see why Bryant is attracted to him.

Lenin and Trotsky appear only briefly. Zinoviev (Jery Kosinski) and Radek (Jan Triska) are the only Bolshevik leaders depicted in any detail. Reed’s feud with Zinoviev provides much of the drama in the second half of the film. Zinoviev comes across as a bit of a bully and somewhat dishonest, although personally brave. Reed, on the other hand, comes across as a bit ultra-left. He opposes the idea of communists trying to work within the American Federation of Labor, for example. Unfortunately for the film, their conflict is left unresolved because of Reed’s untimely death.

Reds does not romanticize the Russian Revolution. There are discussions about the collapse of the Russian economy and the high-handed methods of the Bolsheviks. Yet the film also points out that sixteen foreign armies (including the U.S. army) invaded Russia. This is a point that often gets conveniently ignored in discussions about the Russian Revolution.

Beatty does possess skill as a director. The scene in which Bryant’s home is raided by government agents, for example, is effectively done, as is the scene in which White Army soldiers attack a train on which Reed is traveling.

The film includes interviews with “witnesses”, people who knew Reed and Bryant. Most of their comments are unilluminating, and some are downright inane. (George Jessel is inexplicably allowed to sing.) They mostly serve as a distraction from the story. I think the film would actually have been better if these had been left out.

While we are on the topic of historical portrayals, I must say I always thought Patrick Stewart would make a good Lenin. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that Stewart actually did play Lenin in a BBC TV-series in the early 1970’s entitled The Fall of Eagles. Here is a clip from the series that depicts Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917:

Dr. Mabuse

November 11, 2012

Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.

The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.

The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)

It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.

Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?

In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.

In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

Gilad Atzmon, Peter Jenkins, and the “Just War”

November 3, 2012


Gilad Atzmon

Dissident Voice, which posts articles by Israel Shamir and Andre Fomine, continues to lower its bar by posting an article by Gilad Atzmon. Entitled Ex-British Envoy Told the Truth (for a change), the article begins:

    Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former representative on the International Atomic Energy Agency, has told the debating union at Warwick University that a “just war” is not a Jewish notion. Jenkins was obviously telling the truth but the Zionist Jewish Chronicle is not happy.

    The retired Foreign Office diplomat, speaking in a debate on nuclear proliferation in Iran, said: “Israelis don’t practise an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, they practise ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth.” He also added that “the idea that a just war requires the use of force to be proportionate seems to be a Christian notion and not a Jewish notion.”

So, does Jenkins believe that the Crusades, in which many Jews and Muslims were killed, were a “proportionate use of force” in response to the peaceful Muslim occupation of the Holy Land? Or how about the invasion and conquest of Mexico, done in the name of spreading Christianity? Was it a “proportionate use of force” in response to the mere existence of the Mexican people?

Jenkins’s argument is obviously nonsense – so, of course, Atzmon fully approves of it. Responding to criticism of Jenkins, he writes:

    Yet, I am slightly perplexed, why is telling the truth about Jewish culture anti-Semitic? Is not the Old Testament far more violent than any Quentin Tarantino film?

I can think of many things that are far more violent than a Quentin Tarantino film. Here are just a few: the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mabinogion, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. (I’m not kidding about the last. You should read them in the original German, or in a faithful translation.) The authors of the Old Testament certainly weren’t the only people who like to write about violence.

A little later, Atzmon comments:

    I would obviously argue that it is our intellectual duty to call a spade a spade and to criticise Jewish politics and Jewish culture for what they are.

What exactly does Atzmon mean by “Jewish politics”? Noam Chomsky? Norman Finkelstein? Alan Dershowitz? Joseph Lieberman? Binyamin Netanyahu? Amy Goodman? Your guess is as good as mine. Atzmon doesn’t seem aware that the term “Jewish politics” embraces quite a large spectrum of personalities, ranging from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand.

In response to one critic of Jenkins, Atzmon writes:

    Mr Sacerdoti is obviously a Hasbara spin master. He mentions that “this particular view, that Jews do not adhere to the concept of ‘just war’ implies that Jews are by nature bloodthirsty and unjust. I believe any such generalisation about the nature of Jews is racist.” But here is a slight problem, Mr Jenkins didn’t speak about Jews, the people, the ethnicity or the race, he was clearly referring to “Israel”, i.e., The Jewish State and to Jewish culture.

You see, Jenkins wasn’t referring to the Jews; he was actually referring to Jews. (“The Jewish State and Jewish culture” pretty much includes all Jews, does it not?)

Atzmon ends:

    The truth better be said. Mr Jenkins told the truth and actually used a moderate and careful language. I wish the BBC and The Guardian were as courageous as Mr Jenkins. I also do not think Zionist organisations should be the ones who moderate the critical discourse of the Jewish State and Jewish culture.

And, clearly, Atzmon shouldn’t be moderating that discourse either.

Cottage Grove, Oregon

October 18, 2012


During the six and a half years that I lived in Oregon, I always saw this sign along the I-5 whenever I was driving from Eugene to Cottage Grove. I’ve wondered if anyone ever satisfied this man’s tremendous need for fill dirt.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to delay my move to Los Angeles for a few days, so I decided to drive to Umpqua National Forest, which I had never been to before. It is a gorgeous wilderness that extends from the Willamette Valley up into the Cascade Mountains. I walked along a hiking trail that went alongside a creek. The forest was extremely dense. There were thick clumps of moss growing all over the tree branches. It was all a bit gloomy, albeit in a beautiful way. I kept thinking this place would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story.

On my way back home, I decided to swing by the funky little town of Cottage Grove. This place is most famous for the fact that Buster Keaton’s The General was filmed here. (Animal House was also filmed here, although, not surprisingly, nobody feels proud about that.) The town has an annual Buster Keaton Day. It also has a mural of Keaton located on its Main Street.

Keaton is not the only person honored by a mural in Cottage Grove. Another is Opal Whiteley, who is the most famous person to ever come from this town. In the early twentieth century, Whiteley published what she claimed was a diary that she kept as a child growing up in a lumber camp near Cottage Grove. In it, she claims, among other things, that animals could talk to her, and that she sometimes met “little people” in the woods. She also wrote a nature book titled The Fairyland Around Us. The title of this work is meant to be taken literally. It is a curious mixture of scientific facts, poetry, and just plain fruitiness. I’m told that only five copies of the first edition still exist. One of them is at the University of Oregon (which Opal attended for a couple of years, though she didn’t graduate). It is kept in a locked vacuum chamber that is surrounded by armed guards. Although I would like to think that this indicates a firm commitment to preserving Oregon’s literary history, I have, however, a dreadful foreboding that the university will one day sell it in order to pay for more uniforms for the football team. (Okay, I’m kidding about the armed guards. However, I’m not kidding about the uniforms.)


Opal Whiteley prominently featured in a mural honoring Cottage Grove.

I find it a bit ironic that Cottage Grove has chosen to honor Whiteley in this way, considering that Whiteley disdained her Oregon background and upbringing. She devoted a large amount of time and energy to claiming that she was the daughter of a French aristocrat, Henri, Prince of Orléans, and that she had been sent away to be raised in a lumber camp in Oregon. (I guess that this sort of thing happens all the time to the daughters of the French aristocracy.) She spent the last fifty years of her life in a nursing home in London, where the staff referred to her as “the Princess”. She was buried under the name, Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans. One of the reasons for the ongoing fascination with Opal’s life is that it is not clear whether or not she was a fraud. My guess is that she was probably suffering from a mild form of schizophrenia.


Mount David

Located near Main Street is a long narrow hill that Cottage Groveans (I don’t know what else to call them) call Mount David. This is the most striking physical feature of the area, and I assumed they would have made it into a public park. However, I was surprised to learn several years ago that there were plans to build houses on the hill. This struck me as a bad idea, because, among other things, the sides of Mount David are extremely steep and are almost like cliffs in some places. I once climbed this hill, and even though it’s not that tall, it was only with a great deal of effort that I managed to make it to the top. I was sweating profusely when I got there, even though the hill is not especially high. These plans have apparently been abandoned, which may have something to do with the fact that local residents formed a “Friends of Mt. David” society to preserve the hill. (I suspect that the recession may have been another factor.)

Mt.David is interesting in a number of ways. There is a pioneer cemetery at the foot of the hill. There were cougar sightings on the hill last year. And, according to this reputable website, the hill is haunted:

    Said to be a some kind [sic] of spirit that will chase you off of the hill at night time. Around the graveyards there are said to be many apperinces [sic] of the ghostly kind. Beware of the thing that will chase you off the mountain at night time.

When I climbed the hill, I did go back down at sunset, although I am not aware that I was being chased by anyone or anything. Besides, I think I would be more frightened to run into a mountain lion than into a ghost. One thing I did notice as I was walking along the ridge was an almost perfectly circular impression in the ground, about twenty feet across. I have since learned that there used to be an oil well on top of the hill, which perhaps explains that odd formation.


Another fine mural.


Another mural on a similar theme.


There used to be a gun store at this location. This is progress.


If I lived in Cottage Grove, I would definitely go to this place for all my automotive needs.


Public art, or a bench? You decide.


The Bohemia Mining Museum may be closed, but this would-be capitalist is determined to follow that fine old American tradition of trying to get rich quick and failing at it.


This sign is on a building which used to be Cottage Grove’s City Hall, but which now houses a ballet school and some small businesses. I used to see signs like this all over the place when I was growing up. Yes, this actually gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Cold War. Does that make me a bad person?

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal has died. I enjoyed reading his essays in the New York Review of Books, but I was never keen on his novels. (Although I did enjoy Julian.) Vidal’s acerbic criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and of this country’s plutocracy earned him an enthusiastic following among the left. However, Doug Henwood, who is generally an admirer of Vidal’s, reminds us that he had a “creepy nativist streak”. He recalls hearing Vidal express sympathy for the racist Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn. In the 1980’s, Vidal published an article titled The Empire Lovers Strike Back, in which he wrote:

    My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race with many well-deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.

The kindest thing one can say about this is that it shows that Vidal was completely ignorant about Asia. Vidal surely must have been aware of the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric that was common in the early twentieth century. And bear in mind that he was making this argument in a country with a history of discrimination against Asians, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In the same article, Vidal says that Norman Podhoretz is not an “assimilated American”. This comment provoked accusations of anti-Semitism. Vidal once said of Hilton Kramer that his name “sounds like a hotel in Tel-Aviv”.

Also problematic for the left are the disturbing implications of Vidal’s ham-fisted writings on population control. He once said:

    If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war then by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving… it may already be too late to save this ark of fools.

Vidal would perhaps have been pleased to know that the birth-rate in Japan has been falling.

Despite all his faults, I am saddened by Vidal’s passing. He was a public intellectual, a type of person that is becoming increasingly rare in the United States. Unfortunately, the media often saw him as a figure of entertainment rather than enlightenment. They could never get enough of his silly fight with Norman Mailer or his tiresome feud with Truman Capote. It seems the media must trivialize everything, including writers.

Pandora’s Box

July 20, 2012


Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.

G.W. Pabst’s 1929 German silent film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind’s plays were meant as attacks on sexual repression and moral hypocrisy. The star of this film, Louise Brooks, has become something of a cult figure. When I lived in New York, I knew a guy who had a tattoo of Brooks’s face on his arm. (I remember he insisted on showing it to everyone he met. It was actually a pretty good likeness of her, I must say.)

Lulu (Louise Brooks) is the mistress of Dr. Schoen (Fritz Kortner), a newspaper publisher. She lives with Schigolch (Carl Goetz), who appears to be her father, although the exact nature of his relationship to her is never made clear. Schoen tells Lulu that he is going to marry Charlotte (Daisy D’Ora), the daughter of a high government official. Lulu is not happy about this. Schoen is unaware that his son, Alwa (Francis Lederer) has fallen in love with Lulu. Alwa’s artist friend, Anna (Alice Roberts) is also in love with Lulu. (The film indicates her lesbianism by the fact that she sometimes wears men’s ties.) Schigolch wants Lulu to start a trapeze act with Rodrigo (Krafft-Raschig), but then Alwa, at his father’s urging, invites Lulu to join his musical revue. One night, as Lulu is about to go on stage, she sees Schoen with Charlotte. Lulu angrily announces that she will not perform in front of “that woman”. Schoen takes Lulu into a back room to plead with her. They argue for a time, and then they start making love. Alwa and Charlotte walk in on them. Charlotte angrily leaves. Schoen decides at that point that he has no choice but to marry Lulu, in order to maintain his respectability, although he does not relish this prospect. “This is my execution,” he tells Alwa.

On the night of the wedding, Alwa slips away from the reception and finds Lulu in the bridal chamber. He confesses his love for her, and he begs her to run away with him. Schoen walks in on them. He is horrified by what he sees. He tries to force a gun into Lulu’s hands, telling her that she must kill herself. As they struggle, the gun goes off, killing Schoen. Lulu is then put on trial for murder. The prosecutor demands the death penalty, even though Lulu flirts with him. The judges, however, find her guilty of manslaughter and sentence her to five years in prison. Schigolch and Rodrigo set off a fire alarm, and in the ensuing confusion, they whisk Lulu away. They take her to Schoen’s home, where Alwa finds her. At first, he is incensed at her being in the place where his father died, but he is still in love with her, so he eventually gives in to her demand that he run away with her. On board the train, Lulu is seen by Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael von Newlinsky), who recognizes her, knowing she is wanted by the police. He blackmails Alwa into giving him money. He then tells Alwa that he knows of a place where he and Lulu will be safe from the police.

We next see Lulu and Alwa on board a docked ship where people gather to gamble and drink. Schigolch, Rodrigo, Anna, and Casti-Piani have all followed them there. Casti-Piani “sells” Lulu to a pimp from Cairo. He tells her that if she doesn’t go along with it, he will turn her in to the police. At roughly the same time, Rodrigo demands that Lulu give him money so he can start a new trapeze act. He, too, threatens to go to the police. Lulu turns to Schigolch for help. He devises a plan. He gets Alwa to cheat at cards, so they can get enough money to pay off Casti-Piani. He then has Lulu persuade a reluctant Anna to pretend to be in love with Rodrigo. Anna lures Rodrigo to her cabin room, where Schigolch murders him. He then ties up Anna and leaves her there. (It’s not clear why he does this. Does he dislike Anna because she is a lesbian? I suspect some scenes may be missing from the version I saw, which was released by Janus Films in 1983.) Alwa is caught cheating, which results in a riot. Someone calls the police, who promptly show up. In the confusion, Casti-Piani grabs Lulu, but she manages to escape. She finds Alwa and Schigolch, and they get away in a row boat.

The three of them go to London, where they live in poverty. Desperate for money, Lulu, at Schigolch’s suggestion, turns to prostitution. Her first client turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl).

Wedekind’s Lulu plays are a study in how society’s ideas about sex and “respectability” ultimately victimize women from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lesser artist than Wedekind would have tried to make this point by making Lulu a saintly character, but Wedekind wants us to see life in all its rawness. (Wedekind makes the “hard argument”, as Troskyists would say.) Lulu is not a good person. She is deceitful, manipulative, and sometimes cruel. Yet one gradually realizes that the men around her are far worse. Lulu is one of the great tragic figures of world literature.

Pabst was able to get strong performances from all the actors in this film. This is particularly striking in the case of Alice Roberts, who, I’ve read, initially expressed horror at the idea of playing a lesbian. I’ve also read that when Pandora’s Box premiered in Germany, Brooks’s performance was harshly criticized. I can only assume that this was due to nationalism. (Brooks was American.) Brooks actually gives an amazing performance. She exudes so much energy, that her character actually seems like the “primal form of woman” that Wedekind melodramatically described her as. Brooks began her career as a dancer, which perhaps explains her striking feline gracefulness.

Pandora’s Box is one of the greatest films ever made. The current attacks on women’s rights have given it a renewed relevance.

The Trial

July 10, 2012


Anthony Perkins in The Trial.

Orson Welles’s 1962 film, The Trial, fairly accurately captures the claustrophobic and nightmarish feel of Kafka’s classic novel. Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins) wakes up one morning to find out that he is under arrest. The police refuse to tell him what he has been arrested for or who has accused him. K. remains free, but he is told that he must show up for his trial at some unspecified date. K. eventually turns to the advocate, Hastler (Orson Welles), for help. In the process, he becomes romantically involved with Hastler’s flirtatious nurse, Leni (Romy Schneider). K. eventually learns that if he retains Hastler as his lawyer, he will wind up as the latter’s slave. K. balks at this prospect. Not long after this, K. learns that he has been condemned to death.

Welles saw Kafka’s novel as a prophecy of fascism. The Trial depicts a world of arbitrary violence, in which an individual can be crushed for no apparent reason. There are references to the concentration camps scattered throughout the film. In one scene, for example, K. makes his way through a crowd of people who have signs around their necks with numbers on them – a clear reference to the practice of tattooing i.d. numbers on people in the camps.

Welles does depart from the novel in making K. a more aggressive character than the oddly passive person depicted in the book. He does, however, follow Kafka in having K. killed in the end. I must admit that I found this disappointing. I really wanted to see K. triumph over his oppressors. One change Welles did make was that instead of having K. stabbed to death, he is blown up by dynamite. The cloud forms the shape of a mushroom, an obvious reference to the Cold War.

The Trial has all of Welles’s visual earmarks: unusual camera angles and inventive uses of light and shadow. This film is a feast for the eyes. The bank that K. works in is an enormous hall filled with row upon row of people furiously and monotonously banging away on typewriters – a striking metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

I read that Welles originally offered the role of Hastler to Jackie Gleason, but the latter turned it down. And Gleason later chose to appear in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. Amazing.

Welles sometimes said that The Trial was his best work. Citizen Kane is still my favorite, but The Trial is nonetheless a great film.

Norwegian Wood

May 29, 2012

Norwegian Wood is a film by Tran Anh Hung, a Frenchman born in Vietnam, based upon the novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been told that this was the biggest selling novel in Japan during the twentieth century.

The film is set in Tokyo in the 1960’s. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a high school student, is friends with Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). One day, Kizuki kills himself without any explanation. Watanabe and Naoko are shocked by his death. Watanabe goes to a university and tries to forget his grief by burying himself in his studies. The school he is attending is being wracked by student demonstrations, but Watanabe refuses to get involved. One day he runs into Naoko. They begin seeing each other. On Naoko’s twentieth birthday, they make love. After that, however, Naoko disappears. Watanabe looks for her. He eventually learns that she has had a mental breakdown. She is now living in a sanitarium in a remote area. He goes to visit her, and he meets her roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a freindly but somewhat strange woman.

Naoko clearly has conflicted feelings towards Watanabe. At times, she is welcoming towards him, but at other times she tells him to go away. Her favorite song is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which is about a one-night stand that ends badly. The song speaks to her fear of emotional commitment. Clearly, she is still traumatized by the death of Kizuki. Watanabe can’t forget Kizuki either. He insists on asking Naoko intimate questions about her relationship with him.

Back in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes involved with Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a brash, outspoken woman who is in many ways Watanabe’s opposite. He also becomes friends with the womanizing Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and with his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune). Midori wants Watanabe to commit himself to her, but he can’t bring himself to let go of Naoko.

The student demonstrations figure prominently in some of the early scenes. This led me to believe that they would play an important role in the story, but they don’t. I haven’t read the Murakami novel on which this film is based, but the friend that I saw it with has. She told that in the book the demonstrators are portrayed in a highly critical manner. She also told me that some of the minor characters are more fleshed out in the novel than in the movie. I can only guess that Tran wanted to focus on Watanabe’s relationships with Naoko and with Midori. I think the film might have been more interesting if it showed the story’s political context. Surely, that must have been important to Murakami if he included it in the novel.

Even so, Norwegian Wood is a beautifully made and subtly erotic film. The music editor, Jonny Greenwood, has put together a soundtrack that perfectly complements the film and skillfully sets the mood for each scene.


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