Abe Rotstein

Abraham Rotstein

1929 -2015

by

Howard Adelman

Tomorrow morning I will be attending the funeral of my very good friend Abe Rotstein. In the evening, I will attend the shiva at his house on Admiral Rd where he has lived for over half a century. I only received notice late afternoon yesterday that he died. The message came from Massey College where we both are Senior Fellows. (I have attached the notice.)

I was taken totally aback. We were to have lunch this month in what we all called “Abe’s Group”. I was looking forward to attending as I had been away since 21 September of last year and had missed our monthly gab sessions over lunch in the UofT Faculty Club. The lunch was cancelled because most of the participants were out of town and could not attend. (Late April and May are the times when most Canadian faculty travel to international conferences.) Abe planned to reschedule for May.

I did not at first know the cause of Abe’s death. I thought it could have been from the prostate cancer he has had for years but kept a closely guarded secret from most who knew him. However, just before midnight last night, a very old friend sent me a note that Abe had died of heart failure. Though Abe moved much more slowly lately than his customary graceful walking style, though his puns came less frequently and no longer had their previous acerbic acuity, he could still deliver puns better than the rest of us put together.

When I sent my eldest son, who is a professor of history at Princeton University, the notice of Abe’s death, he sent a brief reply: “It made me cry.” Abe was at Jeremy’s Bar Mitzvah. Abe organized the weekly meetings at Hillel that allowed our children to get some semblance of a Jewish education. Jeremy was the first to have a Bar Mitzvah at that Hillel group.

But my relations with Abe go back further, to the period when I was an activist graduate student at the University of Toronto. Actually, even further back. For Abe had attended when my play was put on at Hart House. He was a junior faculty member then and we had not yet met. He sent me a brief note applauding the play. I was very flattered.

Abe sat on the first Board of Directors of Rochdale College and continued on after I left. Together we helped organize Praxis, a research institute on applied democracy in the seventies. That was torched by the Mounties. Abe was part of our bi-weekly Hegel discussion group in the seventies. He was the one who showed me that Hegel had lifted sections from Martin Luther holus bolus into the Phenomenology of Spirit (Then, scholars had a different view of what we now call plagiarism.) This gave me my breakthrough in totally re-interpreting Hegel in a radically different way than the interpretation I and many others had inherited from Alexandre Kojève. (Incidentally, Abe resembled Kojève physically in many ways.) In September before I left, Abe told me that his final version of his manuscript on Hegel had been accepted for publication. I do hope it will still appear.

Abe edited Canadian Forum. He was an old style political economist belonging to a radically different camp than modern economists who differentiate themselves radically from political scientists. But he passed through radical changes and upheavals with a remarkable equanimity.

When he was younger, he was a heavy smoker. But he smoked cigarettes with a long elegant holder somewhere between a theatre and a dinner length, that is, slightly longer than the cigarette holder used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Noel Coward or Hans van Bűlow. I never asked him whether he used a cigarette holder for practical reasons to filter out carcinogens or simply to keep tobacco flakes out of his mouth and the smoke further away from his eyes. I know he detested the idea of having nicotine stained fingers so I suspected he used a cigarette holder primarily as a statement of style.

For Abe was unusual for an academic. He had a high sense of elegance. And he was always a gentleman – certainly not in the sense of belonging to the landed gentry or of being of noble birth. For Abe came from Montreal as a son of a Jewish worker. He had been a member of Habonim, a leftist Zionist movement. This was not a background that usually produced gentlemen. But Abe was a gentleman in the much larger sense – courteous, kind and considerate of others. He had gracious manners that never failed to amaze me. If chivalry had been a modern virtue, he would have exemplified it. Pithily, he was a noble spirit and an honourable individual.

In the last few years he has tried to convince me to write a certain type of book that he insisted only I could write. A year ago, he renewed the effort. I even made a stab at it. I am convinced, but never succeeded in convincing him, that a memoir from me about the last sixty years was beyond my capabilities.

Perhaps I will try again. I will miss him.

Notice from Massey College follows.

Professor Abraham Rotstein

1929 – 2015

 

We are very saddened by the news of the death of Senior Fellow and renowned Canadian Political Economist, Abraham Rotstein. Prof. Rotstein died on April 27 in Toronto. His association with the Massey College goes back to 1973 as Senior Resident and soon after graduating to Senior Fellow (Continuing). For decades he had an office in House 1 while holding the title of Senior Southam Fellow. Known by all as Abe, he advised scores of mid-career journalists as they took up their positions as Southam Fellows and had a reputation for first of all, asking the most challenging questions in their interviews but following up during the year with sound advice on their courses interspersed with unforgettable puns. Tribute was paid to Prof. Rotstein in the 2008-09 MasseyNews on his third and final attempt to retire from the position. Quipping quotable quotes such as “Every dogma has its day” and “Much will have to change in Canada if the country is to stay the same”, Prof. Rotstein claimed to have ‘tried to retire on three separate occasions, but no one seemed to listen’. He held the Southam Program together so wonderfully that his efforts to retire were certainly ignored until a High Table in his honour in 2008. He continued to come by the College frequently after that and was often seen in Ondaatje Hall at lunch.

 

Prof. Rotstein was a courageous economist and compelling nationalist. He was a wondrous intellectual and leading force in Canada.

 

We send our deepest sympathy to his family, close friends and colleagues.

The flag on the College bell tower has been lowered to half-mast in his memory.

Funeral details:

Thursday, April 30 at 11:30 a.m. at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, 2401 Steeles Ave. West.

See the website of the Chapel for more details:

http://www.benjaminsparkmemorialchapel.ca/Home.aspx

 

Shiva address: 102 Admiral Road, evening services at 8.00 p.m.; Shiva concludes on Monday evening, May 4.

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Iran Again

Iran Again

by

Howard Adelman

Will the framework agreement between the P5+1 with Iran be followed up with a full agreement on nuclear arms? How will that deal be evaluated by history? Further, how will the deal affect Israel? I am going to take a one month sabbatical from my blog in order to complete three academic articles that are overdue. However, before I do, I want to write two more blogs to deal with two different responses I received on my writings on the Middle East, one on Iran and Obama, and a second on Israel’s relations with the United States. Since the response to the challenge to my views on Iran is the older one, since I started to write a personal response as I try to do but never completed it, and since the Iran deal and the differences over it between the U.S. Office of the President and Israel has been the most important factor in muddying the relations between Israel and the United States, I will write my second last blog for a month on that topic first.

My reader wrote:

“I’ve not had the chance to read all of your blogs on the Iran nuclear deal…though this is the second one I’ve read, and I’m always appreciative at the wealth of knowledge you possess on every topic. Though, I wonder whether your position shifted at all after Obama’s NPR interview when he admitted that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will be minimal and it will be another president’s responsibility to prevent Iran from nuclear weapon capabilities? My layman view is that Obama is trying to build his own legacy as international peacemaker (perhaps so he won’t have to give back his Nobel peace prize?); but in doing so, he is recklessly taking a huge gamble. Knowing this, he is already setting up his ‘legal defense’ to insulate himself from fault, despite outlining and admitting the possible consequences of his deal: he says that in 2015, this deal is absolutely necessary (e.g., he could not take any other course of action, so if anything goes wrong like Iran not living up to its promises in the next 13 years, he cannot be blamed…he did all he could and had he not made the deal, they would have gone nuclear anyways); and in 2028, when Iran’s breakout time will be minimal because of his deal, the then elected president of the United States will be responsible for stopping Iran from producing a nuclear arsenal (once again shielding Obama from the crux of the blame…it was, or will be, his successors’ fault(s)). It seems unfair to refer to those opposing this deal as hawks (the Israeli left is now strongly opposing the deal as well, and the media reports that the French – who are historically on the dovish side of international conflict – are not keen for the deal either). On the contrary, the western countries and leftist politicians in favor of Obama’s deal are kicking the can down the road for an unavoidable – and presumably much more dangerous – war for the next generation to fight.”

Let me repeat the paragraph, but break it into the ten separate points being made:

On Obama’s Actions and his Alleged Motives

  1. He (Obama) admitted that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will be minimal
  2. It will be another president’s responsibility to prevent Iran from nuclear weapon capabilities?
  3. This deal is absolutely necessary (e.g., he could not take any other course of action)
  4. If anything goes wrong, like Iran not living up to its promises in the next 13 years, he (Obama) cannot be blamed

The Consequences of Obama’s Action

  1. Obama is trying to build his own legacy as international peacemaker (perhaps so he won’t have to give back his Nobel peace prize?)
  2. In doing so, he is recklessly taking a huge gamble.
  3. Thus, he is setting up his ‘legal defense’ to insulate himself from fault
  4. He did all he could and, had he not made the deal, Iran would have gone nuclear anyways

On My Characterization of the Opponents to and the Defenders of the Deal

  1. It seems unfair to refer to those opposing this deal as hawks (the Israeli left is now strongly opposing the deal as well, and the media reports that the French – who are historically on the dovish side of international conflict – are not keen for the deal either).
  2. The western countries and leftist politicians in favor [a clue that the writer is American] of Obama’s deal [presumably, including myself] are kicking the can down the road for an unavoidable – and presumably much more dangerous – war for the next generation to fight.
  1. The factual and interpretive claim re the situation in thirteen years.

Did Obama admit that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will be minimal? For the record, I have not changed my mind since Obama’s speech. One reason is, as I interpreted the speech and as subsequently clarified by the White House, Obama neither said nor intended to say any such thing. Secondly, this interpretation of what Obama said comes largely from critics who themselves believe that the deal will leave Iran with an enhanced ability to enrich uranium and hence a capability of resurrecting nuclear weapons production in a relatively short time because the agreement will leave a good portion of Iran’s known centrifuges intact. Further, the deal permits and gives Iran the financial ability to develop its arsenal of ballistic missiles, which could carry these nuclear warheads.

That interpretation is largely incorrect.

Let me deal with the three points in turn. What was Obama’s statement and what is a reasonable interpretation of that statement?

Three weeks ago, a few days after the framework deal was announced, Obama was widely reported as having given a speech in which he admitted that Iran could be able to obtain a nuclear weapon much more quickly after the first 13 years of any nuclear deal, but that, without a deal, the world would be even less equipped to stop it. The reasoning is as follows: The deal would provide for extending the breakout period for Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon for the first ten years.  However, when the restrictions on Iran are lifted. Iran would then be able to resurrect its nuclear enrichment capabilities and be in a position once again to produce a nuclear weapon in 2-3 months.

What did Obama say in that NPR interview? “Essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year. And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter. But at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves.” Note that Obama did not say that the breakout period after ten years will be much shorter, but that it would have been. Oversimplified and without all the subtle qualifications, note the difference, crucial to the interpretation. “Will be” implies a high degree of certainty about a future outcome. “Could be” implies a degree of uncertainty about a future outcome. “Should be” refers to a subjective expectation. “Would be” implies an expectation based on some evidence offered. In this case, presumably to the removal of the restrictions on Iran after ten years. “Would have been,” however, refers to a possible world, an outcome that would be in place had the deal not been in effect at all.

Obama speaks like a former editor of a prestigious Harvard law journal. These subtleties in English grammar go over the heads of most American and Canadian listeners to the speech, and most journalists as it turned out. Admittedly, the statement could have been stated more clearly. However, it is reasonably clear that Obama was not making a statement about the future but about an alternate future that would have been in place if the deal had not been made. This was clear to many who heard his words, but evidently not to most since the White House was forced to clarify Obama’s meaning. The majority of people never heard or read the words of the speech directly but only the widespread interpretation – really misinterpretation – offered in the media. The lesson: do no trust newspaper journalists to understand even the basic grammar of conditionals.

Obama was not saying that with the nuclear deal, Iran could shrink its breakout period down to 2-3 months once again, but that whatever the breakout period is following ten years, it would be much longer that the alternative had the deal not been in place. Conclusion: Obama did not admit that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will or even would be minimal, but, quite the reverse, that the breakout time would be much greater than with an alternative scenario in which there had been no deal.

This, of course, leads back to comprehending the misinterpretation. For the interpretation projected onto Obama’s statement was what the critics were asserting, not what he said. The critics were saying that even Obama agreed with them and was finally owning up to what the agreement said. But, of course, he said no such thing. For, based on the framework agreement, assuming it gets translated into a full agreement – an outcome far from certain – this would not come close to being the case.

Though it is accurate to say that the deal offers Iran the financial ability to develop its arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying and delivering nuclear warheads, it would definitely not have the capability of immediately using its arsenal of stored centrifuges to resurrect its nuclear enrichment program, Existing international nuclear treaties and procedures would kick in and, even if Iran ignored these, there would be far more time than the West has at the present to respond.

What I find so disturbing is that although there are legitimate and understandable qualms about the deal, as with any deal between former and, especially, continuing enemies, the real question is why the critics do not concentrate on these rather than on misinterpretations of both statements and reasonable expectations. My interpretation, and here I may be wrong, is that they are offering those criticisms in bad faith. For although they will often say that they are not opposed to a deal but only a bad deal, their words and actions seem to indicate that they are opposed to any deal whatsoever.

  1. The responsibility of a Future President in 10-15 years

Of course, it will be another president’s responsibility to prevent Iran from nuclear weapon capabilities, not in ten years, but in less than two years. For that will be a continuing responsibility of any president, to ensure that Iran does not break any agreement and, that after some terms of the deal expire, that the remaining conditions continue to prevent Iran from restarting its nuclear program, and, failing that, for the American president at the time to lead a union of the willing to stop Iran in its tracks.

  1. The Necessity of the Deal

My reader and correspondent also interpreted Obama as saying that this deal is absolutely necessary (e.g., he could not take any other course of action), but Obama and members of his administration have never said that. Of course, they could take other courses of action. However, the administration determined that, given the alternatives, a prudent deal, not a bad deal, would be better than the alternatives. It would be the least risky option. Though many variations can be articulated, there are basically two other prime alternatives. Those alternatives can be simply stated. Continue and even enhance the economic sanctions. Alternatively, bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Maintaining let alone increasing sanctions against Iran is even posing difficulties, including the unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. alone. Only the multilateral sanctions are affected by the agreement. And even with all of these in place, Iran has managed to produce enough enriched uranium to manufacture one nuclear-armed warhead within 2-3 months.

  1. Obama Free from Blame

Finally, in the initial attack directed against the Obama administration, my reader claims that if anything goes wrong, like Iran not living up to its promises in the next 13 years, Obama would feel relieved of any responsibility and further, that he could not be held responsible by others. Surely, this is not the case either objectively or subjectively. Obama would be held responsible, not only by his critics, but by many of his supporters unless there emerges an explanation for the failure that was totally exogenous.  He will not only be blamed but, I believe, will assume a great deal of the blame himself if the deal turns out to inadequate to its task. Whatever Obama is, he is not a leader who shuns his responsibilities.

TO BE CONTINUED

TO BE CONTINUED

Unbroken

Unbroken

by

Howard Adelman

This is the fourth review in my series on biopic movies. I reviewed The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything which I saw last week. Though very different, those films both used the structure of a summer romance almost to a “T”. They were both films about the will of humans to become gods, intellectual gods in the cases of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking. Women were crucial intermediaries in the film to enable ordinary humans to gain access to heroes who transcend ordinary human endeavours.

Saturday evening I saw Wild. In my blog review of Wild with Reese Witherspoon, I explained that the movie about an indomitable human will as well was, however, structured as a spring comedy rather than a summer romance. The emergence of a hero – in this case, a heroine – who revives from a long night of sinking into hell to emerge triumphant is inspiring. She is resurrected, not as a god, but as a living human being with whom we can identify. This movie had a fatal weakness in not adequately portraying the period in which the heroine succumbed to the powers of darkness.

The movie Unbroken, directed impressively by Angelina Jolie, that we saw last evening belongs to a very different third category adapted also from a book about an indomitable human will. It is an autumn elegy, however, rather than a summer romance or a spring comedy. The film is an arduous tale of descent into darkness, but begins in a gradual process of the hero becoming triumphant. The story presented is of the birth and rise of the hero from youthful “innocence”, spiced up with a degree of high spirited delinquency and insubordination. Instead of being portrayed as the “Terror of Torrance”, the town in California where he grew up, he is pictured as a pre-teen troublesome delinquent of sorts. Louie Zamperini comes across as an Italian Huck Finn, as American as can be, but born to an Italian mother and father living in California. Watching the movie, it is difficult to reconcile what you see with the fact that Louie Zamperini was already fifteen when he took up running. Though we are told by his brother that he was headed for a life of crime, I personally was never convinced about the claim. The film was never structured to make that portrait credible.

However, straying from the “true” story both at the beginning and at the end, except for condensation, is the exception. The story is told with realistic exactitude. To convey how it is done while conforming to a particular aesthetic trope, I have to describe the plot. SPOILER ALERT. If you have not seen the film, cut out now and read only the last line of this review.

Louie Zamperini grows from a young high-spirited boy into a small town hero in spite of the prejudice in the California town against Italians. He does this because he is an extremely fast runner. His career as a runner really takes off when, in his junior year in high school when he competed in the national interscholastic athletic games, he ran the mile in 4 minutes and 21.2 seconds, then a record that stood for almost two decades. Thus began the third phase of his rise to become an Olympic gold medal winner. He was instantly placed on the 1936 Olympic team where he came from behind to win the 5,000 metre XI Olympiad in Munich, Germany, running the last lap in a record time of 56 seconds, a record I believe that has never been surpassed. At the time, Louie was only overshadowed by Jesse Owens, the Black American athlete who captured four gold medals.  But those three phases of the movie only took the first 15-20 minutes of the film.

The descent into hell then begins, first in a B-24 Liberator on which Louie was a bombardier. A B-24 was the same plane that Jimmy Stewart flew in WWII in the European theatre. The portrait of the plane itself with its .50 caliber machine guns sticking out of its tail, both its sides, the nose and the top of the airplane is alone worth the price of admission to the movie. The plane is literally shot to hell by Japanese fighters as it flies through flak alley. It manages to return to base full of bullet, anti-aircraft and shrapnel holes and has to crash land because the plane has lost its braking system. The scenes are all harrowing, but they are only appetizers for what is yet to come.

In what I thought was the same resurrected plane, but evidently was not, the derelict they do fly fails. One engine failed on the left side, but the flight was doomed only when the engineer accidentally killed the other engine on the left side. Because of the chaos and terror inspired by the condition of the flight, I cannot tell you for sure how this incident was portrayed. In any case, the crash was NOT due to any error by Louie, a fact “true to life,” but deficient in terms of an autumn elegy. I would have made a change here rather than at the beginning or end of the film for aesthetic reasons. For narrative purposes, though certainly not for historical verity, it would have been helpful to suggest that the crash might have been the result of the bombardier’s error.

The crew crashes into the sea. There is little emphasis on the long flights the B-24 crews had to fly from Hawaii to bomb Wake Island captured by the Japanese, except by Louis describing the ocean as large. It is an understatement. Further, instead of the normal trope in which the fall is in some part due to a failing of our hero – after all, many if not most planes in the Pacific theatre were lost because of pilot or navigator errors  –  the implicit implication projected is that a superior officer sent the crew aloft in a faulty aircraft, not at all uncommon in WWII. Serving on a B-24 Liberator was considered to be a sentence to flying in a coffin.

Except for three of them, the other crew members all died in the crash. Louie survives even though for a period he was trapped as the planes fuselage sunk by what I believe was a strap, but the sequence was unclear. The scene of his swimming tens of feet upwards to the surface is visually beautiful as well as allowing the viewer as well as Louie to breathe once he reaches the surface. The three survivors locate two rafts and climb aboard, but the search aircraft flying overhead fails to spot them.

In the next period of his trial, now at sea rather than in the heavens, the three survivors of the aircraft lie in their raft in the blistering sun. They drift for days and lack food and water after their initial rations are gone, relieved periodically by a caught fish and some captured rainfall. The bait for catching the fish is an albatross they grabbed that had used their craft as a resting place. They kill and eat the albatross only to end up sick and vomiting over the sides of the raft. They do use the remainder as bait to catch fish. They are then threatened by different kinds of sharks that circle their raft, but they manage to capture one and it provides an important source of food. As they lie burnt and blistered from the sun, at one point, their rafts are shot up by a Japanese fighter plane who strafes the inflated dinghies so they are forced to dive overboard and swim among the sharks. There is even a violent storm at sea. So we progress rapidly from one terrifying scene to the next, one trial to the next, all guaranteed to give the viewer nightmares for nights to come. One of the airmen does not survive, the one who initially stole extra rations for himself. The remaining two Americans give him a burial at sea. Louie is one of the two.

Our hero contrasts with the two others, one who succumbs to temptation and eats the rations and is the first to die, and the second, the pilot of the aircraft, who is injured but survives with the help of our hero. Will the hero survive the forces of nature? We know he will. The only interest is how and the tension produced at each challenge. But far worse is about to come. In retrospect, the ordeal of surviving at sea begins to appear as a picnic compared to the suffering they would endure as prisoners of war. How the actors became so thin with their ribs showing had to be the result of a combination of self-sacrifice for their art on their part and camera tricks. However, in spite of this obvious effort, Louie never appeared bone-thin or skeletal enough for me.

After 47 days at sea, the two survivors are finally found and rescued. But it is by a Japanese naval vessel. The third phase of the fall into hell takes place first in a prisoner-of-war camp for allied soldiers near Tokyo. This is purgatory. However, before they arrive there, they are thrown into pits the size of a dog kennel and apparently only given some mush to eat. It is difficult to know how long they were confined to those small spaces, but if the viewer is at all claustrophobic, they should close their eyes during this scene. The trip to purgatory makes purgatory itself seem in part as a relief.

However, what makes purgatory worse is not the dreadful conditions of their captivity. The camp is certainly totally inhumane, unprotected by the laws of war and unrelieved by Red Cross supervision and parcels and letters from home. The prisoners seem not to be able to wash, take showers or obtain a change of clothes. One has to imagine the stench. However, even worse than these conditions is the commander of the camp, “Bird” as he is dubbed, a real person (Mutsuhiro Watanabe) but merely an exemplification of the different interrogators and guards Louie had to endure.

This camp commander conforms perfectly to the stereotype of a prisoner-of-war Japanese “officer” – in fact, the story makes clear that he was never recognized as an officer commander. He is cruel, sadistic, insecure but determined through the use of force to exact respect. He zeroes in on Louie, especially when he learns that Louie was an Olympic gold medallist. We watch and believe we are now really viewing the living hell Louie had to endure, but the situation becomes even worse. There is an interruption in the suffering as Louie is transferred to Tokyo in the hopes that his Japanese captors could induce him to become a radio propagandist for the Japanese. They fail. Louie as a true hero refuses to trade his filthy camp enslavement for good food and housing in exchange for becoming a Japanese propagandist. This merely sets up the contrasting aftermath of the final descent into real hell itself.

The worst scene in purgatory takes place when the officers in the camp are forced to line up and punch Louie in the face. This was, in fact, a ritual ordered by Bird, but in actuality non-coms were forced to punch allied officers in the face. Though dubbed “a true story” and conforming mostly to the real story, the script writers and director did take some liberties. I applaud the liberty taken here but believe they should have taken more.

The prisoners have to wait for a period until they are moved to even worse conditions as slave labourers for the Japanese. The commander had been transferred first. The prisoners had some hope of relief. However, they are subsequently transferred over the mountains to a place we know not where in a descent into hell where the captives are forced to be mules for carrying coal to load on waiting carriers. Even worse, it is Bird who is in charge. The descent into hell is even deeper than we could imagine and that is without Angelina Jolie choosing to depict the camp overrun with legions of vermin and bugs. I am not sure the viewer could have stomached that.

The third phase of purgatory and the fourth phase of hell take up the bulk of the film. If you think being shot up in a flying fortress is the height of terror, if you think being lost at sea on a life raft for seven weeks surrounded by sharks is a horrific experience, the viewer does not know what purgatory and hell really are until we watch our hero being beaten by a Japanese commander determined to break his spirit. As we watch the demonic ritual of torture and punishment grow worse with the passing of time, even though we believe surely nothing can be worse than this, our fears, our pains, our resentment and our anger grow with these shifts.

The war is clearly almost over. With the announcement of the end, the prisoners are marched to the river and told they could finally bathe. One suspects a trick and that they are being marched towards their slaughter, for rumours abounded that the Japanese would have to kill them all to keep their inhumane treatment a secret and prevent the prosecution of the Japanese officers as war criminals. I myself expected to see the film end with a mushroom cloud where the film shows how the Japanese also suffered from hell. Instead, after the war ends, the prisoners simply march through a bombed out city with unkempt Japanese in a terrible state collecting the dead and searching for food.

The film could have gone on to depict the worst hell of all, Louie’s triumphant return and then descent into the pains of a post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, we viewers presumably had enough. Besides, such a view might spoil the vision of ultimate evil set off against the will and endurance of good and valiant Americans. For me, the ending was a let down just as the reference to the past was in the movie, Wild. If Jolie had been half as brave as she seems in real life or even a quarter as brave as Louie Zamperini seemed to be, a much stronger and more aesthetically honest ending might have turned the film into a classic.

A great film of its genre, but one that falls short in the end!

Wild

Wild

by

Howard Adelman

Wild is the third biopic I missed last fall and watched last week after I had seen The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. It too is an adaptation from a book and, like The Theory of Everything, from a biography written by a woman, Cheryl Stayer wrote Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012); the biography documents the author’s flashback memories from her past and her current experiences as she travels in 1996 from the Mojave Desert in California to the Cascade Mountains in the northwest of the U.S. However, in this film, the total focus is on the heroine who is definitely not in the same intellectual league as Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking. She does make a journey, but not to uncover some great mystery in our world and thereby transform it. She just wants and needs to find herself.

One of the great benefits of writing a review well after a movie first appears on the screens of North America is that the writer of the review is not limited by an implicit agreement to avoid spoilers. In writing a review, the understood moral is that I must not give the plot away lest the movie be partially spoiled for the patron. In this case, I am not only writing a review months after the film was screened, and months after most of my readers will have seen the film, but the movie has very little plot. It is episodic and not plot-driven. It is much more of a character study. Further, the outcome, in the sense of her completing the trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, is known.  The focus is on the journey, not the end. Finally, I could and did read other reviews, and it became clearer to me why I write reviews. For even the best of those other reviews disappoint me.

Some of them are written exceptionally well and have numerous insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. But I am still left dissatisfied because I want to read, and, hence write, a different kind of review. Paradoxically, movies are images and music, but I want to offer a lesson in anatomy and physiology rather than repeat what can be seen on the screen and heard while watching the movie. I want to read and write about the bones of a movie and how the body of the work of art functions. As I scratch below the surface, I feel that I am just beginning to understand how movies really work and why I either love them, am indifferent to or hate them. This was a movie I liked and enjoyed, but never fell in love with. Why?

One terrific scene from the movie illustrates the point. The film opens sometime well into the trek. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Cheryl Stayer, and does so with great brilliance – I think we are in a golden era of great acting, directing and cinematography – is not gazing at the spectacular panoramic scene that surrounds her from her mountain perch. That scene is in view for us. But Cheryl Stayer is preoccupied with her bleeding feet, particularly one toenail on her big toe that she has obviously damaged and that is black, blue, bloody and obviously loose. Like a loose tooth, she pulls it off by herself and screams in pain to the wilderness around her. It is clearly not just the pain of an extraction, but a primal scream that goes far beyond the agony and acute pain that she had been suffering and that increased tenfold when she tore her nail off by herself.

In the process of her self-surgery, she inadvertently kicks one of her boots that she had taken off and it cascades down the mountain cliff. Instead of considering whether it is feasible to go after it, in frustration and fury at herself, she heaves the other boot down after the first. Then, without ever attempting to search for the boots, defiantly and unforgiving of these items that betrayed her, she fashions a set of clogs from duck tape and rubber flip flops she happened to have in her back pack. Who carries flip flops in a backpack while hiking through deserts and mountains? Who throws her boot away in a temper tantrum? Who is so careless in placing her boot after she takes it off on a rocky mountain perch that she could inadvertently kick it down the side of a mountain? At the same time, who has both the ingenuity and the grit to continue at that point?

It becomes clear that the boots were the source of the problem. They were too small. But why is she hiking eleven hundred miles with boots that are too small for her feet? It is very clear that the single scene is a metaphor for her whole character – she is responsible for inflicting most of the pain and suffering she endures on her own self. She over-prepares by acquisitions that she insists on carrying with her, but under-prepares in terms of training and making prudent and reasonable choices. She has a short fuse and has a pattern of self-defeating gestures that only make matters worse. But we never learn what her deeper hamartia, in Aristotle’s phrase, is. What is the fundamental frailty that brings about her misfortune and descent into hell? On the one hand, it seems like personal circumstances. On the other hand, she holds herself responsible for her own fall, but we never get to the core of that weakness.

She is clearly on a journey to understand and rein in that part of herself. And she has some great tools to do the job. She is blessed with grit and determination. What would and did defeat far more experienced hikers is but grist for her confrontation with the hardships the world throws at us and her. Just as she is willing to tear away her torn toenail by herself, the trip is an exercise in self-therapy. She will not set aside the ugliness she finds in or about herself, or displace what she discovers onto others, but confronts what she remembers and what she experiences directly and functionally – but only after she has her temper tantrum.

Of course, there are other problems. Her backpack is far too heavy as soon revealed in another delightfully comic sight gag when she tries to heft it up on her back. She is carrying too much physical baggage as well as the baggage of memories from her past that she needs to leave behind. Why would she bring along a portable saw? Why is she carrying a backpack that has been dubbed the monster by other hikers she comes across? But she receives therapy from her psychological illness by the practical advice of a station master along the way. He encourages her to leave many items behind in the free box from which other trekkers can help themselves. She should only carry what she needs to allow her to move on.

Thus the movie is not just episodic. It offers a series of metaphors for living. It is a movie that is neither about facts, on the one hand, or theories and ideas on the other hand. It is a movie about symbols – to reveal through what is seen that which cannot otherwise be seen. The symbols are not pre-selected, but simply emerge along the way from the world around that accompanies us all on our journey through life. Further, there are two sides to each symbol, the revelations of a prudent and practical person who is, at the very same time, very irrational and troubled.

Everyone who watches the movie gets the symbolism either directly or subliminally. The dialectical conflict is not between good and bad, but between functional and dysfunctional. For the issue is not uncovering some deep secret, but facing oneself and learning to get on in life. It is not about desire to produce something extraordinary, but is about survival. Cheryl Stayer learns to be true to the self-chosen surname of her mother Bobbi – she can stick it out. For her mother, played with verve and passion by Laura Dern, gave her children her unstinting love though married to an abusive alcoholic man.

Of course, the psychological motivation of why she falls apart when her mother dies is left unexplored. Shit just happens. Similarly, we never learn why her marriage to a seemingly caring man (Tomas Sadowski) falls apart, why she becomes totally dissolute sexually and eventually a heroin addict. These flashbacks in her memory are juxtaposed with the challenges she encounters and overcomes in three months of walking on the Pacific Crest Trail. She is reversing her fall. Cheryl literally and figuratively crosses a desert and climbs a mountain range. The three terrible “d”s – death, divorce and drugs – can do that to a person, but why this person?

There is another scene that occurs later in the film when she runs across a grandmother taking a stroll with her grandson. The grandson asks Cheryl if she wants to hear him sing. She welcomes the idea. The boy of about six immediately begins singing the first verses of Red River Valley in a beautiful voice. Red River Valley is an adorable Canadian folksong from Métis country that my folklorist academic colleague, Edith Fowke, traced to its nineteenth century roots. The scene warms the cockles of one’s heart. Is Cheryl the cowboy? Is the song an indication that the pain at her mother’s loss has metamorphosed through the trek into sweet nostalgia? Is the message that the exorcism has been successful? In the Woody Guthrie version, the first three verses are:

From this valley they say you are going

We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

For they say you are taking the sunshine

That has brightened our pathways awhile.

Come and sit by my side, if you love me

Do not hasten to bid me adieu

Just remember the Red River Valley

And the cowboy who loved you so true.

I’ve been thinking a long time, my darling

Of the sweet words you never would say

Now, alas, must my fond hopes all vanish

For they say you are going away

Perhaps that’s the alternative life – a life of commitment and true love rather than wasting one’s life away. For the film ends with a note that Cheryl marries again, settles down and has two children. But in the interim, she is a hobo, even though she insists and reiterates to a reporter from The Hobo Times that, “I am not a hobo.” Mo McRae, the reporter, responds, “you sound like a feminist.” Thou protesteth too much. After all, Cheryl is currently homeless and is tramping across the country. On the other hand, she is no longer a down-and-out derelict. So the designation and the protest at that classification are both true. This is another moment of self-revelation and discovery on her path to self-healing, though this time the transformation come though a humorous rather than touching scene. And so Cheryl in this self-imposed trial of endurance does walk her way back to the woman her mother thought she was.

The scary scenes do not come from her encounters with a rattlesnake or a fox, but from men, some who appear predatory and turn out to be kind and considerate, and some who self-evidently are but through an act of fate are unable to act out their role as animals who prey on other members of their species. Through it all, Reese Witherspoon shivers in the rain and shakes in the snow, sweats in the heat and swears at the tasteless and almost inedible cold oatmeal she ends up eating. When she takes a step out of her trek to put on lipstick and enjoy the world and the men in it, the cosmetic saleswoman advises her to first take care of her body odour.

All of these experiences and encounters in an arduous journey pale into insignificance when compared to the life she led after her mother died and before she set out on her trek. The problem is that we as viewers were allowed to glimpse the self-inflicted wounds of that previous life, but were neither permitted to experience or truly understand that prior life. So the memories are somewhat surreal, detached from the character we are watching on the screen. This is not because the acting is unconvincing, but because the structure of the film chosen by the Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée, and the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, does not allow the 38-year-old actor convincingly playing a 26-year-old woman to do her work. Thus, although the flashbacks arise naturally from the memories of Cheryl during the trek, they are sufficient for us only to weakly grasp the horror of the previous life, not taste or feel it as we do with her trek. Though perfectly plausible, we certainly never come to comprehend it.

“In the way of beauty” is a homily of Cheryl’s mother. It is not a reference to the cinematographer’s landscape. Yves Belanger’s natural, even rapturous and rugged portrait of sweeping untamed beauty, stands in stark contrast with Cheryl’s life from its early beginnings with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather that turns into a monumental mess when her mother dies and she descends into a precarious world of perilous influences. Her mother’s dominant norm may sound like a guiding Leibnizian principle of the best of all possible worlds, but it is really about finding the best in this godawful world, not simply accepting it as the best. Though you can quit this life and its perambulations anytime, should you?

Life is a journey, not a destination; we can only make it alone as much as we can be helped along the way by strangers as well as family and friends. But those encounters may be dangerous and we must be wary. Thus, although the Augustinian trip from sin to salvation is an interior journey, it can enjoy the assist of the external and turn into an uplifting tale of recovery helped along enormously by the rough but serene landscape of America. The jagged interruptions of Cheryl’s misery memoir with montages of memory and reminiscences never deflect from the uplifting tale of grit and determination, of self-healing resurrection. The narrative transition between the two worlds relying upon visual analogies works, but not the portrait of horror of the early years and the period after her mother’s death. As snippets of memory to inform the viewer, yes, but insufficient to identify with the experience.

Hence the guiding quotes from America’s classic and contemporary writers that Cheryl Stayer as an aspiring writer inscribes along her journey. Ralph Waldo Emerson taught her that progress is an unfolding. Two roads may diverge in a wood for Robert Frost, but you can retrace your steps and take another route. As Emily Dickenson wrote, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” Cheryl is a woman of today struggling with yesterday as she moves towards tomorrow and thus as much of a feminist as Adrienne Rich. Even James Michener, whose writing she dissed even though loved by her mother as they attended college together, has some redeeming qualities. Though he pushed encounters with people for experience rather than the solace of a lonely journey, he, after all, also loved the swirl and flight that words provide as they struggle with human emotions.

This film is a spring comedy, not a summer romance. The film is about self-transformation, not a transformation of society. That society always remains the same. That does not mean that it does not have its faults and is immune to criticism. The film, after all, is a reveal-all movie. But any miserable existence in that society can be replaced by a happier one. But akin to a summer romance, that society resists change and transcendental transformation. But instead of confronting it head on as Stephen Hawking and, much more so, Alan Turing do, escape and reflection in rather than of an idyllic world, an immersion rather than a search for one, can provide an answer. But for all three, life is life when it is lived in reflection.

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything

by

Howard Adelman

My last blog claimed that The Imitation Game was a summer romance and a few readers thought I was belittling the film. I was not. I really enjoyed the movie and thought it was terrific. However, if a viewer allows the deformations from reality – and there are too many to ignore – to spoil the pleasure of a biopic movie, then that is a pity. For the movie is a very well-made parable and is structured like the mythos of a fairy tale. Northrop Frye taught us that, whatever the variations, fictional structures fell into four archetypes. He dubbed one type “summer romances”. The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turing fell perfectly into such a structure. So does another film that we watched the next evening and also missed when it first came out, The Theory of Everything. Understanding a movie’s structure greatly enriches the experience of watching it.

A summer romance has one key characteristic – there is always a search. The search is for some idyllic entity associated with a particular space. In the case of the movie about Alan Turing, the search is for a universal thinking machine as a means of unlocking the codes of the Nazi enigma machine.  What makes The Theory of Everything perhaps even more interesting is that the search is not just for an idyllic tool as a method for breaking through a mystery that we are faced with – an encrypted code – but the quest by one of the greatest mathematician’s and theorists, Stephen Hawking (played with brilliance by Eddie Redmayne), to understand all of space itself as he searches for and writes about the nature of time itself. Stephen Hawking wants to find the perfect single equation that will explain everything.

Note the characteristics of both films. The effort is persistent, driven even. No scepticism will inhibit the quest however impossible the task seems at first. The object of the quest always has a sense of the idyllic about it. Further, the central characters in the story are a virtuous hero and a beautiful heroine – not just physically beautiful, though she is usually that. She must be spiritually beautiful. In The Imitation Game, Jane Clarke is without a doubt such a heroine. In The Theory of Everything, Jane (yes, another Jane) Wilde played by Felicity Jones, again with exceptional mastery of her craft, is a heroine that falls into the same category. She loves Stephen Hawking and sacrifices her own career and vision to be married to him and to have his children (three in the end) even though Stephen suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and the onset is quite swift just as the romance is budding.

Like The Imitation Game, the story is, in Stephen Hawking’s words, only “broadly true”. The distortion from reality is not simply to please a broader audience as some condescending critics aver, but because fiction has its own demands and without fitting into one structure or another, it is difficult to enjoy a movie or a play or a novel. So the hard times that Stephen and his wife Jane went through are alluded to without becoming the focus of the film. As with The Imitation Game, the script is an adaptation from a book, this time an autobiography rather than a biography, Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen which, helpfully, had the same romantic structure.

If Alan Turing had to succeed in spite of his homosexuality in a society that deemed such activities as not only morally corrupt but illegal, Stephen Hawking had to deal with a very different but also naturally endowed enormous challenge, his disease. Unlike The Imitation Game where the disability is a socio-political one rather than a natural one, in The Theory of Everything, the movie has to spend the first 15-30 minutes establishing the main character as a physically healthy being who will be crippled by his disease but never brought low. So, as the credits role, we watch a young Stephen Hawking cavorting about when he is with his parents in the most formal of settings. And the film begins with him and his friend on bicycles racing through the streets of Cambridge often at great risk to themselves and those around. These are not befuddled, introverted geeks who are odd ducks, but good-looking and virile young men who happen to be brilliant.

The film may progress as Stephen loses one physical faculty after another, eventually even his ability to speak, but it is as perilous a journey as Alan Turing took, but the adventures and the challenges are not in overcoming social obstacles, though there is a hint at some initial intellectual objections to Stephen Hawking’s radical reconceptualising of our cosmos, but the perilous journey he takes is a fight against a disease that ravages his body and not his mind and that placed a death sentence upon him in which he was sentenced to a life expectancy of only two more years. Though his body gradually “dies” and fails him, his mind stalwartly goes on so that the hero’s indomitable spirit overcomes the challenges he faces. In the biopic of Alan Turing, Alan actually dies, first from chemical castration and then, subsequently, by taking his own life. But whatever the various paths each take towards the demise that faces us all, both emerge and are exalted as great heroes of human history.

At the beginning it is made clear that the space in which they live is occupied and controlled by those who not only lack the hero’s vision, but are unalterably opposed to it. In The Theory of Everything, this landscape is controlled by obstreperous villains, some who redeem themselves along the way, but this aspect of the mythos is minimized in this film as Stephen is strongly supported at Cambridge in his audacious thinking while Alan Turing is portrayed as meeting opposition along the way until one by one his enemies are slain and left by the wayside. In the case of Stephen Hawking, the enemy, however, is far more formidable, for the real foe is not simply those in intellectual disagreement, but the very nature of the world that Stephen has set out to understand. Nature in the form of ALS anthropomorphically conspires to prevent him achieving his breakthrough.

In each case, the heroine is a princess in her own right, but her life must be sacrificed when she becomes involved with the hero – Jane Clarke with Alan Turing and Jane (Wilde) Hawking. The Theory of Everything spends a great deal more time on the heroine’s sacrifice than The Imitation Game, for without that sacrifice, there is the message that Stephen could not have survived more than two years. This message becomes completely explicit when Jane Hawking resists the entreaty of the French doctor (he would have to be French in a film about a British hero) who recommends pulling the life support system from Stephen and allowing him to succumb to the killer that has been stalking him.

This is but one of the many adventures along the way, but these adventures have a totally different character in The Theory of Everything versus The Imitation Game. For the dragon that must be tied up and debilitated in the Stephen Hawking film is not embodied in an old misguided social forces and norms but in his own body. It is his own flesh that conspires to defeat his brain. But Hawking, with the help of the sacrificial heroine, wins in the end and Stephen goes on, however wounded and debilitated he became, to become an intellectual hero for the whole world. Alan Turing, however, had to wait for his resurrection until well after he actually died.

Thus, the disease is the demon, not elements in society. That demon, even though never slain, must be stopped in its tracks even if disempowering that demon goes against the very laws of nature. Hence, like all heroes in summer romances, the hero will evince a sense of divinity, a sense of the divine spirit which he himself only comes to acknowledge near the end of the movie, whereas faith in a divine spirit, including within Stephen, who was constantly prompted to espouse such a belief by Jane Wilde both before and after her marriage to him.

We in the audience have difficulty in identifying with geniuses like Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking, but, like the heroine, we can gain proximity through identifying with the heroine who will become the mediating element between the demonic and the divine. For the hero comes from an upper world, a remote intellectual mountain top, that ordinary mortals cannot experience or aspire to experiencing. At the same time, the divine spirit is embodied in the hero so his body and its passions and weaknesses are crucial to the story. So the hero must unequivocally evince youth and energy, vigour and determination in the spring of the life of each individual. In the case of Stephen Turing, his ability to be fertile in spite of ALS, to be able to propagate is critical, for his body, as well as his mind in his case, must achieve immortality in spite of the weaknesses of the flesh.

So both movies are about battles, different kinds of battle in each case and different again from the battles portrayed in the fairy tales we were all told when we grew up. But there is always a dragon, a dark enemy that stands for what is moribund, that is proven through the tale to be sterile in spite of the initial fire power and apparent strength the dragon first evinces. In contrast, whatever the idiosyncrasies of the character of the hero, he is ultimately a man of great virtue in every classical sense of that term. Ultimately, he is the wisest of them all, though he may be helped by other wise men who recognize the extraordinary qualities of the young hero. Further, there is always the underlying message that the heroine is a sibylline figure who sees what no one else can see nearly as clearly and is the true oracular voice that maintains without doubt or hesitation her faith in the divine qualities of the hero. There is also a subliminal quest that the great deed is really performed on her behalf and because of her faith and support.

The enemies, usually all around as in the Turing film, but in the Stephen Hawking film, live at the sub-atomic level of quarks within Stephen Hawking’s own body. They are the keepers of the gold at the end of the rainbow Those keepers must be passed by the hero to get that gold.  As in The Imitation Game, the monsters are horrific, but in this case are even more formidable because they are completely hidden and invisible to the naked eye, making that world even more mysterious, especially when Stephen can thwart its will in spite of all predictions and the obstacles he encounters. The monster may have their aides (Turing’s fellow mathematicians until they are won over, pneumonia as a partner of ALS in the Hawking film), but they too will meet defeat. However, without such aides for the monster, the conflict would not develop in such an intense and focused way.

In the end, both films have a dialectical structure as the forces of good do battle with the forces of evil. Evil in the form of ASL or obstreperous stubborn old men may be overcome this time, but they are never exterminated. They continue on in this world to manifest in another context and for another hero is the making. There is no subtlety is this battle. The competing forces are clearly demarcated and the message of the parable is always very simple and straightforward. The characters around are either for or against this evil, but may shift roles over the course of the tale.  It is, in the end, a tale of virtue out to defeat sinister forces.

As I indicated in my blog on The Imitation Game, the sequence followed is very rigid in a summer romance. We begin with idealistic innocence that characterizes the “birth” of the hero, in these two cases, the intellectual birth, and the role he will adopt. In the second stage, the inexperience of the hero is made evident, in the case of Alan Turing, in facing the social/political forces allied against him while Stephen Hawking has to take into account the new experience of his own body effectively attacking him. Only then does the third stage take centre stage when the hero musters the force and the will to overcome the obstacles and fight to realize his vision and dream, for the ideal must be completed and brought to fruition. The fourth stage focuses on the resistances encountered along the way and, depending on the circumstances set out in the different expressions of this mythos, the resistances and steps in overcoming them will occupy the central bulk of the movie. It is here that the moral message of the narrative is played out, in the case of The Theory of Everything, a moral message about the indomitable spirit of man against all odds to overcome the oppositional forces the hero faces.

So in the fifth stage, the hero and the heroine each comes to a self-realization that neither possessed at the beginning of the tale. In effect, each goes through a similar metamorphosis as when the initial innocent first counters and engages in the world, but this time, near the end of the journey, and at a much more mature level. In the Hawking film, there is the recognition that human love is itself not divine but has its limits. There is nothing wrong in coming to recognize those limits and give up on the romanticized idealistic vision of that love. In the final stage, the audience is taken out of history and into the realm of contemplation beyond the ordinary world. The movies work, using exquisite acting and directing skills and all the other relevant appurtenances to come to completion with a sense that we ourselves have been transported and put on a higher plain compared to the period before we even watched the movie.

Too much reality, and the film does not work. It functions by discarding any elements of the “true” story that will interfere with this progression. So enjoy the films and set aside any carping about the failures of the movie to deal adequately with the experience. In the case of the Stephen Hawking biopic, there is even less attempt to make sense of the science at stake, for the makers of these movies recognize in some core of their being that any fictional representation must obey the laws governing fiction just as the natural world is governed by the laws of mathematics and physics.

Next Blog: Wild

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

by

Howard Adelman

The Imitation Game won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in 2014. I missed seeing it there. When we were in Victoria, the film arrived in movie houses the week after we left. The movie was unavailable in Mexico, but we did watch the Oscars and noted that the movie was nominated in eight categories for best motion picture, best leading actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), best supporting actress (Keira Knightley), direction, music score, editing and production design. It won one Oscar for Graham Moore’s best adaptation as a screenplay I thought the brilliant musical score by Alexandre Desplat that interweaves gravity with suspense should have won. Desplat did win, but for The Grand Budapest Hotel. To add to our frustration, the movie was no longer on screens in Victoria when we returned. Finally, last evening we had a breather and rented the film on Netflix.

What a terrific movie! A spy thriller without the chase, with very little about betrayal, but an enormous overload about secrecy and deception, the movie was as engaging as any action suspense film. It was not a complicated symbolic allegory in the guise of a comic thriller like one of my favourite all-time films, North by Northwest, but a straightforward moral parable. One moral – respect differences. Simple and almost trite, the message was in your face for the line was repeated three times: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Those differences include brilliance, homosexuality, and even misogyny in the name of decorous behaviour.

The latter was expressed in the role of Joan Clarke played with consummate skill by Keira Knightley. The moral includes defying prejudice based on gender. “I’m a woman in a man’s job. I don’t have the luxury of being an ass,” declares Joan Clarke to Alan Turing’s astonishment, an individual who is brilliant but also both arrogant and socially awkward, characteristics often twinned in mass perceptions of genius and carried off with consummate skill in the interpretation of the lead character played magnificently by Benedict Cumberbatch. He speaks sometimes with pursed and at other times with furled lips. He carries his body with slightly hunched shoulders and arms held closely to his sides. So his body language conveys both repression and a passion for expression just waiting to explode as in the scene played, not by Cumberbatch, but by Alex Lawther portraying Turing as a young man when he first hears of his friend Christopher’s death over the school holidays and is adamant in denying that they were close friends.

Thus a movie about unveiling secrets begins with a suave secret service intelligence chief (Mark Strong) lurking in the wings supporting the application of Alan Turing to work at Bletchley’s Park’s code-breaking unit in the famous Hut 8 and running interference for Turing in his dealings with his rule and proper order and discipline commandant, Commander Denniston, played incidentally as a terrific caricature by Charles Dance. Secrets abound and overflow in the movie. The enterprise at Bletchley Park was so secret according to the film that no one knew about the intelligence operation until fifty years later – sheer nonsense of course. In the creative area alone, excluding scholarship, Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code was produced in 1986, and that play was based on earlier released or uncovered information about code-breaking at Bletchley Park; Sekret Enigmy, a Polish film, came out in 1979. The film was full of many more secrets: the German secret codes that the British were trying to decrypt, Alan Turing’s homosexuality, the presence of a Soviet spy among those working on the decoding effort, Alan Turing’s deep love for his friend at his private school when he was a schoolboy, and on and on.

What is not so secret is that this biopic using real events is but a parable with less rather than more imitation of what historically took place. However, it has wonderful characteristics as a superb parable – simple, straightforward and, also, utterly wrong when tested with actual particulars. Though an adult parable based on history, one set of events focuses on a group of brilliant British mathematicians gathered at Bletchley Park in Great Britain to break the enigma code during WWII. They did it. Breaking the code played a significant role in winning the war. In the parable, these geniuses did so by themselves, even inventing a machine to do the job called initially the Turing machine and subsequently a computer and even building the machine themselves though initially Turing does the construction by himself. Actually, Gordon Welchman built the machine.

Further, they allegedly not only invented the computer and built it, but invented the system for keeping their discovery a secret. The movie suggests that these geniuses had the fortitude and stiff upper lip to allow some of their fellow Brits, including a brother of one of the team members, to be killed by the Germans lest the fact reach the Germans that the allies could read all the German signals intelligence sent via enigma through the rest of the war. By hard-headed withholding their information for a time, they saved countless more lives over the long run.

This provides the second moral message of the film to counter-balance the first. It focuses on the leader of the team, Alan Turing. Instead of insisting on sensitivity and respect for differences, the second moral demanded hard heartedness in order to produce better results – self-preservation or more lives saved over the long run or, in the case of one interpersonal scene, a better quality of life for another whom one loved in one’s own way. That moral was in keeping with Alan Turing’s alleged response in private school described above when he learned that his best friend at school, Christopher, had died and he refused to admit that Christopher was his close friend. The lesson he had learned when he was being bullied and entombed under floorboards at school was that if you prevented the bully from getting any satisfaction from your suffering, that is, if you keep your suffering secret, the motivation of the bully would be undermined. Carry a stiff upper lip as a top British value is celebrated in this film at the same time as the British state is heavily criticized for its anti-homosexual laws and punishments. Tolerance and self-repression can be celebrated as twins for, in a parable, there is no need to sort out contradictions.

The title of the film, The Imitation Game, was a phrase Alan Turing used for a test to see whether machines could imitate, not human minds, but a certain part of the mind dealing with reasoning, what he and we now call artificial intelligence, though it is no more artificial than our human reasoning. The paradox, however, was that in order to make a machine that imitated human reasoning one needed to use creative artifice in the first place to create the machine. The Imitation Game also had a second meaning in the film. Alan Turing was a man capable of stupendous decrypting of complicated codes but seemingly incapable of decoding ordinary human discourse and modes of social interaction. He was both a homosexual and an odd duck. Alan had to learn to imitate ordinary human behaviour to get by in the world. Thus, Joan Clarke allegedly teaches him to engage in ordinary human games by bringing his fellow workers – quite awkwardly at first – a present of apples, a scarce commodity in war time Britain.

The second set of events focused on Alan Turing’s personal life both before the war when he was attending a private school at what we would call the secondary level. Snippets of his past were interwoven through the film along with Alan Turing’s arrest in 1952 after the war for being a poof – a homosexual in British slang. The investigation of his possibility of being a spy was set off by a break-in of his apartment by his on-and-off lover, Arnold Murray, but the break-in is left as a random mysterious event. He was caught in the act and, given the unjust laws at the time that made homosexual practices illegal, he was sentenced to two years in prison or, alternatively, a regimen of drugs intended to kill his libido – chemical castration. He chose the latter, but the movie suggests that the medical regimen also began to destroy his mind. He did not have enough of a stiff upper lip to endure being separated from his thinking machine, which he had named Christopher. Two years after he was arrested, he committed suicide.

There is a third level of imitation going on. The film is ostensibly a biopic of Alan Turing as well as the story of the invention of the nascent computer. The imitation in both cases is helped by interspersing real scenes of suffering and destruction from WWII news stories to reinforce verisimilitude and build up the importance and the degree of risk to both Britain and its citizens if the enigma codes were not broken. But The Imitation Game is an enjoyable artifice and only uses the outline from reality to gain a sense of verisimilitude as the movie is structured as a parable, though in virtually anthropomorphizing the Turing machine, the parable almost becomes a fable in which an inanimate object is made into a human figure as in a Star Wars episode.

I do not believe I am breaking the reviewer’s code by giving away secrets revealed as the film unfolds because the interpretation of Alan Turing’s life and the events at Bletchley Park are taken to be widely known. Even if they were not, most viewers who would love this movie have already seen it. Further, the revelations do nothing to undermine our interest as the narrative unfolds. But one secret that is never really explained is why the film had to be a parable in the form of a summer romance set in the darkest days of British history rather than a more realistic biopic.

Let me deal with the summer romance first. This is a story of unrequited love between a gay man, Alan Turing, and his brilliant mathematical partner, Joan Clarke. As a summer romance, it had to star a complete innocent who emerges into his teens as retaining that youthful innocence in the face of inexplicable and arbitrary cruelty, but soon learns to hide his true feelings and identity. In the process of maturation, he grasps the vision of creating an ideal, a universal thinking machine that can be programmed to break the most complicated codes, a dream that perfectly matches the needs of Britain at the time. However, to realize his vision, he has to counter and fight against a system that resists his creativity, including his own partners in the project. But, in the end, we have an idyll and a reflection and acknowledgement of true genius and, more particularly, the role of Alan Turing in creating victory for the British people. Finally and most surreptitiously, the film envisions as an ideal, a society is which there can be complete harmony if there were as much understanding as an intelligence machine without the repression brought about by inherited prejudices and repression.

One of the advantages I had as a graduate student was sitting in on a graduate course by Northrop Frye in which I learned of a summer romance as a form of mythos. Frye stressed the archetypal characteristics of this form in which The Imitation Game fits almost perfectly. What Frye left out in his focus on the architectonics of fiction construction was the distortion of reality necessary to accomplish such a creation. I have come to believe that such distortion or, more bluntly, repression of the truth, is almost a necessary ingredient to the art form. Knowing that secret allows one to enjoy the film enormously without being too upset by the deformation of history. And there are many, beginning with the Platonic love affair between Turing and Clarke.

Look at the enormous number of distortions and misrepresentations of history in the movie:

  • The members of the intelligence team in the film are made up of a typical collective for a film – Matthew Goode playing the caddish chess grandmaster, Hugh Alexander, who finally comes to recognize Turing’s genius after first resisting his solitary efforts, John Cairncross as the easy-going Soviet spy, Alan Leech, with a friendly manner and a Scottish burr, and, most importantly, the charming, cheerful and wise beyond her years and ever loyal and warm self-sacrificing friend and true love at a far deeper level than sexual attraction, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. However, there is no effort to represent the team that actually figured out how to decrypt enigma. That team included several women and the man who actually built the machine who is not even included in the film
  • The Bletchley Park team was not the first to break the enigma code, a process started well before WWII
  • There were other code-breaking teams and the allies had their own system of codes as was wonderfully explored in the movie, A Man Called  Intrepid, the story of the Canadian super-spy, William Stephenson, accurately retold in Bill Macdonald’s account in his 1998 book, The True Intrepid
  • Turing, in spite of his genius, or perhaps because of it, was never put in charge
  • Using puzzle-solving expertise to recruit additional members of the team was a cute device, but this never happened
  • The Bomba made at Bletchley Park was not constructed by Turing by himself using wires and parts he had ordered, but was constructed by British manufacturers who supplied the parts that were assembled by a technical genius who was part of the team, Gordon Welchman, not by Turing
  • The invention of the “eureka” moment in the bar when the insight comes to Turing that if he paid attention just to a repeated syllable instead of the whole message, the breakthrough in decrypting messages would come almost as fast as that eureka moment; in truth, there was no such eureka moment since this was known from the start
  • There was no deadline or extension of deadlines by the bosses at Bletchley Park in reality, but the delay was used to great effect in creating suspense in the movie
  • The film leads one to believe that Turing invented the machine used for cryptography, though Alan Turing in an almost stage whisper in the movie lets the secret out that it was the Poles who originally created the idea of such a machine; Marian Rejewski and a group of his fellow Polish mathematicians had been breaking enigma codes for five or six years before the war even started
  • In reality, early versions of enigma, commercially available, were around since shortly after the first world war
  • The Polish Cipher Bureau led by the mathematician and cryptologist, Marian Rejewski, along with Jerzy Róžycki and Henryk Zygalski, created the first system of decoding enigma machines by using the principle of imitation and re-creating a reverse machine to invert the enigma process
  • The Poles even built the first machine to break codes, “the bomba”, in the year I was born in 1938, so that Turing, however great a pioneer, was not the first on the block and did not claim to be so
  • Denniston was not initially an obstreperous and condescending commander for he was the head of the British military unit that first received the Poles when they handed over their “bomba” to the British when the war began
  • After the war started, the real difficulty in decoding began with the most recent version of the enigma machines, ironically used first by the German admiralty which was actually the centre of opposition to Hitler. Their use of an enigma machine was programmed to change codes every twenty-four hours, a fact certainly stressed in the movie, but without explaining how it worked or its importance, and simply stressing that the decoders would require a machine even more than before to do the decoding. In the film, the team only gradually comes to that realization in the second year of working together; the new innovation allowed the machine on its own through repeated changes in the electrical path via a scrambler to create a variable alphabetic substitution cipher so that each key depression actually changed the electrical pathway of a message
  • The working of the machine was never explained in the movie, perhaps because such an explanation might detract from the parable, but may also have been left out to keep the audience entranced and puzzled by the plugboard, entry wheel, rotors, reflector as well as electrical contraction pins and electrical contacts that together made up the alphabet; when the rotors stepped by one twenty-sixth each time, changing the substitution alphabet at each turn, as you add rotors or increase notches, the probability of deciphering declines enormously
  • The movie refers to the 150 million millionth chance of decoding; in fact, Enigma has 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 (almost 159 quintillion) different settings
  • The creation of “Ultra,” the decoding system, as well as the entire system of spies and counter-spies, theft of code tables and other machines, German procedural flaws and failure to use random start positions by German operators, and operator errors alluded to were critical, but none as ludicrous and incredulous as the simplistic one used in the movie
  • Alan Turing did not surreptitiously on his own get his secret service handler to deliver a personal letter to Churchill pleading for the money to build the machine, but was brought on board specifically for that purpose with funding already in place, the effort initially supported by Commander Denniston
  • When Denniston had become too obstreperous, the letter sent to Churchill in 1941 was co-signed by all the senior code-breakers on the team, including Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander
  • The issue was neither the idea of the machine nor the funds to build it, but a critical shortage of staff and more funding for additional parts
  • As a response to that shortage, Cairncross, the Soviet spy, became part of the team only in 1942
  • The idea that the decoding team was charged with or even had the capability of working out the plans and strategies of a U-boat attack on a convoy was simply balderdash
  • Neither Turing nor his team worked out how to use the information strategically to both hide their discovery and maximize its effectiveness
  • The scene of the team burning their papers at the end of the war and ordered to do so by the secret service makes a great orgiastic colourful ending to the process, but such an action was both illegal and took credulity over Niagara Falls
  • The structure of the film using a detective who suspected Turing was a Soviet spy and inadvertently discovered he was a closet gay after his arrest in 1952 and then becomes the cipher to whom Turing told his whole tale is both unbelievable and pure nonsense, but as a parable, it works

I loved the movie as a superb parable, well told and brilliantly acted, but it was far off the mark in imitating and representing history.

Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest

Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest

by

Howard Adelman

I am home, but not entirely in one piece. I had developed an abscess in one tooth and on Thursday obtained an immediate appointment with my dentist because of my aching gums on my left side. The result: two abscesses and two root canals. I am now on antibiotics. Much better than a toothache. Actually, it was not a toothache, but a tenderness in my upper gum on the left side. I thought I had a gum infection. But that is the nature of pain. It often misdirects as it diffuses.

Since I knew I would be writing about Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I was reminded of his mastery of the techniques of misdirection. The Wrong Man (1956), created three years before North by Northwest (1959), opens with a scene in a posh nightclub as we watch couples dancing as the credits roll. Gradually, the dancers thin out and all the couples eventually disappear from the dance floor. When the credits end, the camera focuses on the bass player, Manny, played by Henry Fonda. The band had heretofore been vaguely in the background, but suddenly ordinariness is in the foreground. So in the usual trope which leads us first to believe we are going to watch a gangster movie, we are jolted by the focus on something other. Presumably, we are moving from the usual highly stylized Alfred Hitchcock movie to a realistic docudrama.

After all, the film advertised itself as based on the true story of an ordinary bloke who went to borrow money from his insurance company using his insurance policy as collateral. He had a wife, Rose (Vera Miles), and two sons. He needed the money to pay for Rose’s dentist bill. (After last week’s experience, the latter is absolutely true to reality.) But Manny is identified as a robber who held up that branch a few weeks earlier. He is arrested. Hitchcock’s usual obsession with mistaken identity can then proceed. But only after we are misdirected again and again as when Manny is shown to be totally familiar with the doorman at The Stork Club, as he marks a page on the daily racing form and as he is stared at suspiciously by a police officer only to reveal his ordinariness after we are led to believe he is somewhat sinister. When he returns to a dark house, gropes through the rooms and stumbles into what turns out to be his bedroom, to our surprise, instead of being up to something nefarious, he is confronted by his wife in bed nursing a toothache. What appeared so menacing turns into an unfamiliar, for Hitchcock, domestic drama with an experience familiar to everyone. But the movie soon quickly reverses itself once again.

The toothache is a central symbol in the movie, at once totally familiar while, at the same time, totally destabilizing. You cannot eat. You cannot sleep. North by Northwest also relies on constant misdirection, but it is really about the monumental rather than an ordinary toothache and ordinary humans, though the movie also begins with the hotel band playing, but the music is “It’s a most unusual day.” The film, as I will try to demonstrate, that is ostensibly an ironic comic spy thriller, is really about idolatry.

The movie begins with a sharply-dressed man in a gray flannel suit, a man in advertising, a field described in the film, as not about lies but just “expedient exaggeration.” Are the faces of the presidents on Mount Rushmore not inflated visages and both outsized and mis-directed tributes to the American spirit? This motif would be extensively elaborated upon in the television series The Mad Men. Cary Grant plays the role of a man without even an ordinary identity, for he has no identity whatsoever. He is the archetype of the advertising executive with two divorces behind him as he fails to learn repeatedly what is behind it all as he pursues the only identity he knows, his role as a sexual seducer – James Bond Predux.

The movie is about foreign agents and the American intelligence service as parodies. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) heads the unit of the intelligence service. The spies are led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). They target the unrecognizable Christ figure or sacrificial lamb, Roger O. Thornhill because they mistake him for an invented counter-intelligence agent named George Kaplan who is really a decoy created by the American intelligence agency. Thornhill effectively becomes Kaplan and, in temporarily suspending what he believes is his real identity, in the romantic comedy, he discovers what it really is. He plays along to “clear his name’ and gains clarity in the process.

Though I have no intention of exploring the psychic and interpersonal dimensions of the film, I cannot help referring to the relationship between Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) with his mother (Jesse Royce Landis) in the context of America’s and Hitchcock’s love affair with Freudianism at the time. The film opens with Thornhill snapping his fingers at a bellboy to send his mother a telegram just when the bellhop is paging for George Kaplan. Two nefarious characters, who turn out to be U.S. security agents, mistake Thornhill for George Kaplan, another character who really does not exist, thereby setting the plot in motion. The metaphorical larger plot is ostensibly set in motion by the hard-headed hard-drinking men of America who are at heart just mothers’ boys.

Thornhill as a heavy drinker refers to his mother as sniffing his breath like a bloodhound. In a very comic scene in an elevator, Roger Thornhill whispers to her that the two men in the elevator are trying to kill him, and she blurts out loudly that no one would want to kill my son. Thornhill calls his mother at Grand Central Station and insists, “there is no place to hide.” However, everything is revealed in spite of the repression, the intrigue and the conspiratorial proceedings.

The picture quickly drawn is of an overprotected and smothered son of a mother who refuses to recognize who her own son really is. So he never matures to develop an adult identity but, instead, becomes an advertising executive wallowing in the projection of appearances, a person who tries to drown his misbegotten soul in alcoholic spirits, and who pursues women as possessions and seems incapable of the sacrifice required of true love. However, this is a romantic comedy. So, at the end of the movie, the hero and the heroine enter a tunnel of love. Is the hero really a symbol of America at the time?

I owe most of my knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock and his films to my former colleague at York University in the film department, Robin Wood, though I take full responsibility for this interpretation. North by Northwest is an allegory and a statement about the politics of place. Mount Rushmore is located, not in a particular place, but “north by northwest,” a direction that has no location, for north by northwest is an invented direction with no grounding in reality. No such direction exists. Northwest north does. So does west by north or north by west. But not north by northwest. So the film is about giving content and meaning where there is none and, at the same time, revealing the flatulence of claimed meaning.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act II, Scene II), before Polonius enters when we hear the repartee about men being great babies “not yet out of his swaddling clothes,” and Rosencrantz refers to man as “twice a child,” Hamlet tells Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern that, “I am not mad north-north-west.” Hamlet knows a “hawk from a handsaw.” When the wind is north-north-west in the morning in Britain, the sun is in the hunter’s eyes and the hunter cannot distinguish between two different kinds of birds – birds of prey and birds preyed upon. Hamlet is insisting that most times he is not mad and can distinguish true friends from traitors – like Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern. North by Northwest goes one step further in alluding to a time when one cannot even distinguish one direction from another and a person is flying in a fictional direction that does not even exist so one can never distinguish the predator from the victim.

North by Northwest is not just a comic thriller full of both suspense and witticisms, it is not just a comedy about spies and a love tryst, but is and was an allegory for its age. After visiting Mount Rushmore, I understood the film much better, and having watched the movie a number of times (I was unable to get the movie on Netflix to watch it once again to make sure my recall was accurate), the film is not just a play on mistaken identity, misplaced trust and betrayal – themes I have written about previously. The movie is an allegory about the U.S.A.

There are at least three levels of the allegory in the film: the personal and the interpersonal (that I referred to above); the social and the political; and the metaphysical and mythological. I will focus primarily on the latter two sets of categories. I do so to enhance the understanding of the monument at Mount Rushmore. The mistaken identity and the shifts in the virtues each of the presidents is claimed to embody when their bodies were never carved in stone. (To this day, the sculptures remain unfinished.) These disembodied, abstract and displaced identities on Mount Rushmore are so evident that they cannot be ignored. Rushmore is a symbol of 1920’s American crass materialism and the film is an allegory about that materialism. The film is about a man in a gray flannel suit, the Mad Men in advertising in the fifties, a field dedicated not simply to advertising the virtues of this or that product, but to consumerism, to the vision that if you consume this or that product, your identity as a sexual being will be enhanced.

In the 1959 movie, Cary Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive caught up in an identity confusion, or really a series of identity confusions – beginning when he raises his hand just when a bellboy in a hotel lobby is calling out the name of someone with a Jewish name called George Kaplan. Henceforth, the two American government agents will be fixated in the belief that Thornhill is Kaplan. After all, this is very suitable since the O as the ostensible initial for Thornhill’s middle name, as we are told in the movie, stands for nothing – both in the sense that he has no middle name and in the sense at the centre of this man’s character there is nothing. Is this an underhanded dig at Hitchcock’s partner/producer, David O. Selznick, at M.G.M. whose middle initial also stood for nothing?

Thornhill is obviously a reference to the crown of thorns on Christ’s head that he wore when he was crucified on Mount Calvary (Golgotha). The mad rationalist “professor” who has created Kaplan as an invented figure to draw away suspicion from his counterspy, Eve Kendall, played with such magnificence by Eva Marie Saint, is quite willing to sacrifice Roger Thornhill to advance the goals of America. He is even willing to sacrifice his own agent, Eve Kendall. I have never been able to sort out what the name “Roger” symbolized, but I did speculate that it stood for the famous Roger II, the Count of Sicily and the Duke of Paglia in the twelfth century who had been a dramatic icon of idolatry, for he embodied the doctrine of both being God’s representative on earth and an embodiment of absolute sovereignty.

The play on names extends to women, more in this film than in any of his other movies – Eve for the woman who is both the slave of men – Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with both portraying women under the control of men and his insatiable need to do so in real life  (see Hitchcock and The Girl) – at the same time as he portrayed them and actually pictured each blonde as a femme fatale, a person  with only a sexual identity, both as an agent of seduction and an instrument of manipulation. The film is about humans whose individual personal identity has been lost for iconic purposes in service to abstract ideas and dreams rather than self-expression and self-realization.

The movie is an allegory about a story driven by capturing space without finding a real place or centre of gravity. America has been a quest for space and for place by resettled immigrants who have fled the old world. Thus, the iconography of chase scenes and flight so well captured in the pursuit of permanence by a people with no grounded sense of place and placement. America evinces a vertiginous sensibility as its inhabitants never can find a place that is then really one’s own.

When Cary Grant utters those weirdly hilarious, but very ironic words, as he and Eve are climbing down Mount Rushmore, “I do not like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me,” we get some glimpse into the sense of American identity as a negotiation between an unachievable ideal and everyday reality that on the surface seems so practical and grounded, but in truth is so abstract, displaced and misplaced. As Cary Grant is located in the crossroads among those same cornfields that Nancy and I just drove through, a crop dusting plane flies overhead when there are no crops to dust. The pilot tries to shoot Cary Grant.

The move is an allegory of mistaken identity and of identity that needs to be created, and of an ostensible struggle between good and evil but in practice, it is difficult to distinguish the difference. In the Cold War between the arch villain spy, Phillip Vandamm and the defender against those spies, The Professor, the domestic “evil” upholder of America with the corresponding determination to use whatever means necessary and to sacrifice whomever in service of American preservation. In this allegory, the war between these two Cold War icons is really a war between two evil twins both domestically and in foreign affairs.

Who supposedly held those ideals? If the movie is taken seriously as an allegory and not just as a suspense spy thriller, then, on one side, it is the foundation of American consumerism. In the area of foreign affairs rather than domestic policy, the film is an allegory about the foundations of American imperialism, but without making any coherent critique of the relationship between consumerism at home and imperialism abroad. Certainly, it is at the very least an indictment of both. The combination is embodied in the hero as the benign and stumbling anti-hero in the figure of Thornhill played by Cary Grant. Whatever else he is, Thornhill is a survivor par excellence. The Professor, who uses both Grant and Eva Marie Saint to advance American global interests in its war, against communists, is the strongest embodiment of the American spirit. Lest humanitarian universalism be seen as a solution to international conflict,. Townsend, the diplomat in the UN, is killed at the very beginning of the film. Townsend’s death really sets Cary Grant off in full flight as he is considered the suspected killer. The UN is also a place that is no place, where the town ends.

The film is, in addition, a critique of a surveillance culture that over fifty years later has become so much more invasive. It is a critique of the uninhibited exercise of power.  But mostly in the imagery and use of Mount Rushmore, the movie is a critique of misplaced trust in some forms of authority that embody vices projected as virtues. As Cary Grant ironically remarks as he and Eva climb down a face on Mount Rushmore, “I don’t like the way Teddy is looking at me.”

In the other iconic scene in the movie, the attack by the crop duster airplane against Cary Grant’s Thornhill stranded at a crossroads in the American prairies, possibly Nebraska or more likely South Dakota, is where America is. When Thornhill is placed in the heartland of the real America, and not in an office in Manhattan promoting consumption to American citizens based on the misuse and abuse of the creative impulse, at the crossroads of the international and the domestic, we are presented with an adumbration of the use of agent orange in the Vietnam War to kill innocents on the ground. The airplane in the picture is equipped with machine guns of a warplane as well as poisonous pesticides. The crop duster, or, as it is more commonly referred to in agricultural areas as top dresser, is also a play on words about the superficialities of the top and the surface presentation in juxtaposition to true reality revealed by the action versus the static presentation.

North by Northwest is a film about no place and no body, about Manhattan that is not the antithesis to the heartland of America, but is its most publicized expression, about propaganda as the presentation of disembodied faces turned into iconic idols of vices presented as virtues. And all of this is founded on a misogyny in which women in the form of Eve are reduced to the dialectical interplay of erotic seduction and women reduced to pure instrumentality.  In the face of this assault, Cary Grant, as the master actor conveying befuddlement in a character that is the exemplar of attenuated maturation, is presented as incredulous and naïve in the extreme, as one who is oblivious to what is really going on all around yet will insist, “I get the message.”

Do the viewers?