Category Archives: Film & TV

Despite my misery, let me finish dinner

Into the Wild

“There is no such thing as society”, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared. This was a cry of capitalist individualism – polemical, to be sure, but true to her outlook. Others have found the opposite: that society is all too real, an oppressive nest of deceits and compromises best kept at arms length. The hermits of early Christianity sat upon columns in the desert for months on end, or retreated to caves far up in the mountains, to accomplish this. For many young people in modern times, freedom has been found in a similar (if less painful) isolation, in cutting the umbilical cord of civilization and all of its responsibilities and duties, and venturing across country in search of new experiences.

One such was Chris McCandless – compellingly played by Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, John Krakauer’s recounting of McCandless’s two-year adventure hitch-hiking and camping across early 1990s America. In his diary and his letters, as well as in conversations with the people he met on his travels, McCandless portrayed his adventure as an idealistic search for authenticity, a rejection of the shallow materialism of his parents and the hypocrisy and lies of contemporary society. Yet his romantic odyssey ended brutally in his death by starvation, brought on by mistakenly eating a poisonous root. He had spent a season camping in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan back country; his body was found two weeks later by moose hunters.

This marks the second recent biopic involving death in the Alaskan wilderness – the other being Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which focused on Timothy Treadwell and his doomed attempt to live among and commune with Kodiak grizzly bears. After spending several summers creating self-narrated documentaries about the bears he shadowed, Treadwell and his girlfriend were torn to pieces and partially consumed by one of his subjects. There is a certain amount of consumer demand, it seems, for stories that depict the awesome beauty of nature, and its equally awesome ability to kill us. And while for Canadians almost any place more than one hundred miles north of one of our cities serves as our own potentially lethal wilderness (black bears wander across the doorsteps of Canadian summer cottages with some frequency), for Americans – whose continental states seem almost completely interlaced with roads and railways, a town occupying every grid square on the map – it is the state of Alaska that has assumed the lonely role of High Representative of the Untouched American Wild.

As Penn’s film shows, finding true solitude and complete independence isn’t easy in modern America. McCandless starts out in a battered Datsun, which he soon loses to a flash flood in the desert. He burns all the money in his pocket, and starts hitch-hiking instead, becoming a “leather tramp” – as Catherine Keener’s sad and soulful hippie dubs him. Yet while he manages to acquire enough meals from the people he meets, the need for money doesn’t vanish, and he finds himself working odd jobs: driving a combine harvester owned by a farmer/entrepreneur played enthusiastically by Vince Vaughan, or flipping burgers at MacDonalds. He even hovers, momentarily tempted, at a Los Angeles welfare hotel, but when finally assigned a bed senses the psychological trap and breaks free again, returning to the road. Yet civilization doesn’t seem to want to let him go. Kayaking down the Colorado River, he finds its end in an artificial delta of concrete canals. More than once, he looks up at a clear blue sky marred by a commerial airliner blazing contrails behind itself.

When he finally reaches Alaska, keen to start his “great Alaskan adventure”, he bums a ride to the end of a remote road and accepts the effectively permanent loan of a pair of sturdy rubber boots from the truck driver. McCandless plods through the back country, fords a river, and discovers a “magic bus” abandoned on a bluff. He moves in, and promptly begins civilizing the nearby wilderness, carving hunting trails to and from the bus and building an outdoor shower for himself. The human instinct to impose order on nature’s anarchy is strong within him – he may be escaping civilization, but he’s bringing it with him, too.

In Alaska, McCandless comes face to face with an authenticity of the most physical kind. Only modestly successful as a hunter – he manages to shoot a moose once, then loses all of is meat to putrescence and maggots – he steadily eats his way through his supply of rice. With the coming of spring he is trapped by rising waters that make his winter ford impassable. Meanwhile, large game vanishes in its migratory way, and he is reduced to stamping his feet in frustration and yelling at the empty landscape, “Where are all the fucking animals!? I’m fucking hungry!!!”

This is authenticity. Stripped to our essence, we are animals, and we need to eat. At the most savage level of existence, our hunger is what drives our waking lives and fills our dreams. It is authenticity, but it is not nobility, nor is it philosophy or poetry. These things require surpluses, enough food and shelter to see us through many days of life, to allow us to devote time to thinking, reading, conversation. This is the trade that civililization offers: hypocrisy and compromise in exchange for culture and comfort and time to be fully human, rather than merely animal.

In the ancient world, men knew this truth, perhaps better than we. After being shipwrecked in the sea for days, Homer’s Odysseus describes the overwhelming power of hunger as he dines with the gracious Phaeacian king:

… I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget –
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”
– The Odyssey, Book 7 (trans. Robert Fagles)

Like Into the Wild, the Odyssey is a picaresque of a lone hero’s wanderings, and of the ways he is helped or harmed by the people he meets along the way. But while McCandless with his wanderings is trying to escape society, Odysseus is trying desperately to return to it, to his home and family, to his rightful kingdom, to comfort and peace. Of course, while Odysseus is the wiser of the two, he learned this wisdom the hard way: by going off to war as a younger man and spending two decades fighting it and then trying to complete his journey home. Who’s to say that when Odysseus first boarded his ship to Troy, that his mind and heart weren’t more than a little like Chris McCandless’s? Odysseus was lucky to survive his war, and to have time to grow wise. McCandless died just as his own adventure, cruel as it had become, had begun to teach him something.

Chris McCandless and his bus

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The honeymoon is over

Waterboarding a prisoner 

Apparently U.S. attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey is having trouble figuring out if water boarding is a form of torture. As he recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee:

I don’t think that I can responsibly talk about any technique here because — (pause) — of the very — I’m not going to discuss and I should not — I’m sorry I can’t discuss, and I think it would be irresponsible of me to discuss particular techniques with which I am not familiar when there are people who are using coercive techniques and who are being authorized to use coercive techniques. And for me to say something that is going to put their careers or freedom at risk simply because I want to be congenial, I don’t think it would be responsible of me to do that.

Like the nominee, are you “not familiar with” water boarding as a coercive technique? It’s the sixth of a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques” instituted by the CIA in early 2002. As described to ABC News in 2005 by current and former intelligence officers, these are:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

To clarify his thinking, Mukasey should read Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman at Balkinization, who writes:

Waterboarding is a paradigmatic example of torture. It is inconceivable that anyone involved in drafting, negotiating, signing, ratifying or enacting the Torture Act or Common Article 3 would have thought otherwise. Naturally, then, the U.S. itself has long considered waterboarding to be torture and a war crime — there was no dispute about this from at least 1901 until 2002 — and if our enemies used such a technique on U.S. military personnel, no one would, in public debate, deny that such a technique is a form of unlawful torture.

As the U.S. administration and its cabinet nominees retreat into the most hair-splitting forms of legalism and moral relativism in order to preserve the use of these techniques, and thus too the country’s growing international profile as a torture state, both the American news media and consumer television are starting to acknowledge that there is a serious issue to be dealt with here. To focus on TV, the most recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,Harm“, grapples with the issue of U.S. military torture in Iraq, including the long-term psychological and physiological damage caused by “enhanced interrogation” techniques like hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and hypothermia. A remarkably timely bonus is that the plot also revolves around an ethically-challenged private military company (that’s “mercenary outfit” to you).

For its part, ER last season (in “The Honeymoon is Over“) introduced a patient who suffers badly from post-traumatic stress disorder and is addicted to codeine. It emerges that he was a translator for Army intelligence in Iraq, and that he has witnessed countless acts of torture; he is now haunted by the detainees’ cries of innocence which he was required to translate.

Kyle: “‘Please don’t hurt me. I’ve done nothing wrong. God have mercy.’ I must have translated that a million times in Iraq, man. It didn’t matter. They didn’t listen to me any more than they listened to prisoners.”

There’s something good, something hopeful, in this as yet small trend — an expression of the civilized part of the American soul, perhaps, stirring itself after a long and fevered sleep. I desperately hope it continues to grow, because the more the American public is confronted with the reality of government-administered torture, the less it will be able to avoid choosing sides in the debate.

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Tesseractia

On the never-aging topic of From Here to Eternity (see longer post below), a quick pointer to a superb essay on “the manliness of Montgomery Clift” by Self-Styled Siren, who writes:

It’s often observed that the post-war Method actors redefined masculinity. It is more precise to say that Montgomery Clift (who was not entirely a Method actor anyway) expanded the definition. Forever afterward, a man on screen would seem half-formed if the actor could not suggest some sort of inner life, no matter how much derring-do was shown. And exposing that inner life takes nerve, nerve that Clift had in abundance.

Once you’ve read that and have developed an enlarged understanding of what real acting’s all about, here’s a posting of mine on Stephen Fry’s recent contribution to the world of blogging. The post is over on sans everything, a blog that’s been on the roll here for weeks now, but which I’ve never formally introduced to readers. Well, I’m introducing it now: sans everything covers subjects ranging from politics to philosophy to comics to animal rights to the media, and it’s written, more importantly, by three superb Canadian journalist/authors: John Haffner, Jeet Heer, and A. M. Lamey — oh, and me. Do drop by, and leave behind lots of incisive comments.

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Be quiet, Prew

Deborah Kerr 

British actress Deborah Kerr, dead at 86 — a sad fact which gives me an excuse to write not about Kerr but about From Here to Eternity (yes, this is how writers think about the death of people they don’t know personally — as a wonderful opportunity to write more). Its 1953 release date marked the end of the Korean War and the first year of the Eisenhower era, a time that American culture now mythologizes as a kind of uncorrupted and naive utopia of family values and patriotism, the Greatest Generation having settled down to raise their children (who would soon ungratefully grow up into the flower children of the late 1960s) and enjoy prosperous middle-management careers at large manufacturing concerns, thin-tied and grey-suited to a man.

Dealing with themes of adultery, brutality, drunkenness, prostitution, and murder, all of them set in and around a Hawaiian military base in 1941, From Here to Eternity reminds us that the past is just as complex — and just as real— a country as the present. This was no avant garde production intended to dissent from mainstream American life. Winning eight Academy Awards, the most for any film since Gone With the Wind, this was mainstream American life. In its sense of disillusion and of the difficulties faced by ordinary soldiers, it stands alongside films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which focused on the psychological and familial troubles of veterans returning from the war.

A few scenes in particular come to mind. When Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) struggles to explain to a warm-hearted prostitute (Donna Reed) why he plans to stay in the Army for life, despite the mental and physical battering he is receiving from his barracks for refusing to box for the regimental team, he sounds like someone trapped in a violent marriage. His eyes are open, he knows his devotion is a one-way street, but he cannot conceive of an alternative.

Alma: Gee, you must hate the Army.
Prewitt: No, I don’t hate the Army.
Alma: Yeah, but look what it’s doing to you.
Prewitt: I love the Army.
Alma: But it sure doesn’t love you.
Prewitt: A man loves a thing. That don’t mean it’s gotta love him back.

Private Angelo Maggio (a young and scrawny Frank Sinatra), by contrast, is a scrapper — but all the same he is doomed. Picked on and abused by the thuggish stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine), Maggio faces him down in a bar fight. Humiliated, Fatso warns him: “Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Someday you’ll walk in. I’ll be waitin’. I’ll show you a couple of things.”

Ernest Borgnine

An undisciplined soldier, Maggio is eventually sentenced to six months in the stockade for being AWOL on guard duty. As Maggio enters the sergeant’s office, Fatso sees him and is flushed with a gloating victory. “Hello, tough monkey,” he says. As the scene ends, Fatso picks up his billy club.

After a month of beatings, Maggio escapes the stockade and finds Prewitt, only to die in his arms. As he fades, he gasps out:

Fatso done it, Prew. He likes to whack me in the gut. He asked me if it hurts and I spit at him like always. Only yesterday it was bad. He hit me. He hit me. He hit me. Then I-I had to get out, Prew. I had to get out…They’re gonna send me to the stockade, Prew? Watch out for Fatso. Watch out for Fatso. He’ll try to crack ya. And if they put ya in a hole, don’t yell. Don’t make a sound. You’ll still be yellin’ when they come to take ya out. Just lay there. Just lay there. And be quiet, Prew.

As the film ends, what many Americans now call “The Good War” is reaching Pearl Harbor in the form of Japanese planes, itself spawning another myth about good and evil which would rapidly sand down all the hard edges of the time as it really was, leaving it, like the Eisenhower era, a shiny caricature of itself.

A final note. The movie’s title comes from a book by James Jones, which in turn got its title from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “Gentlemen-Rankers”; the poem, appropriately, depicts the dissolute and jaded military life of another era.

Gentlemen-Rankers 

TO the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
Yes, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Baa–aa–aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop,
And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy living cleanly
Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”.

If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Baa–aa–aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

– Rudyard Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads (1895)

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Our slimy aquarium

I do not want to live in the London of 2027. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which came out in the waning months of 2006, the city is presented as a drab, wire-meshed, half-empty capital that would look dour even in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe – though it might do as a modernized version of the gray brutalist London of Michael Radford’s 1984. Of course, London has a long history as the ugly backdrop to works of art; in The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad described it as looking like “a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off”. Cuarón’s London seems partly descended from Conrad’s, not least insofar as both versions of the city serve as backdrops to stories about terrorism and state repression, and both are only slight exaggerations of the real world of their times.

The premise of Children of Men, that an unknown disease has rendered all women infertile – thus condemning the human race to gradual but inevitable extinction – is the only deus ex machina to be found. Every other aspect of the film is a direct outgrowth of our own world. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and placed into camps; open-air cages filled with desperate “fugees” awaiting shipment are found at every train station. Heavily-armed soldiers and police guard public buildings and transit points. Coffee shops are blown up without warning, whether by terrorists or by the security services is difficult to tell. MI5 tortures dissident photojournalists. Meanwhile, the UK’s political system remains democratic, the press carries on broadcasting (mostly maudlin human interest stories), and the trains continue to run.

The political subtext of this movie is so much in the foreground that “subtext” seems a misnomer. The armoured police vans are labelled “Homeland Security”, and the holding cages look like they’ve been shipped over from Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray. An uprising in the refugee camp that the town of Bexhill has been turned into provokes a destructive incursion by the regular army, followed-up by air force bombardment – a scenario playing out all too frequently in today’s Gaza Strip. What Cuarón shows us, in fact, is what a Western country would look like if the awful conditions we’re used to seeing in the rest of the world, and that we’ve played our part in creating, were to find a home here. The United Kingdom of 2027 is in the throes of becoming Gaza, Mogadishu, Grozny, Baghdad. It is the savage exposure of the lie we tell ourselves, that such things can’t happen here, that we’re different and better.

In a December interview with Cinematical, Cuarón explained his purpose:

It’s not about imagining and being creative, it is about referencing reality. So — the cinematographer, he said that not a single frame of this film can go by making a comment about the state of things. So everything became about reference — and not reference about what is around, like, oh, I’m walking around, and this is what I saw on the street, but about how this has relevance in the context of the state of things, of the reality that we are living today.

The most interesting aspect of Cuarón’s vision is his insistence on portraying the British state as a democratic one, and thus its heavy-handed security regime as one chosen and legitimized by the will of the people. As he points out, in such an environment the old 20th century template of bad dictator/innocent citizens no longer applies; this new template is one in which citizens bear their own share of the guilt for the policies put in place.

I think it is something that is so important, to be very aware of the direction in which the 21st century is going with all this blind faith in democracy. And by the way, I am not against democracy — I am against the blind faith that is being put in democracy. And any tyranny now can have the makeup of a democracy, and then in a way, you can start to justify all the elements of a tyranny. And suddenly a democracy starts to lose its meaning. Democracy used to be a point of departure – to challenge these things! To challenge tyranny!

This descent into illiberal or authoritarian democracy is the great risk we all face today. Democracy was meant as a necessary method to ensure our freedom, but one which required modifications and constraints to ensure its respect for humanity and liberty. But our indefinite War on Terror takes democracy and makes it, as Cuarón says, a sufficient end in itself – while the state frees itself from all constraints (all but the democratic right of the vote) and thus turns freedom, the original goal, into little more than an expendable luxury.

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