Holy Motors II – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part II: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I wrote about one film called Youth which was about youth in old age. Yesterday I introduced you to Carax’s movie, Holy Motors, which is about youth even in death, about energetic, creative vigour even when the objects of study are long dead but unburied creatures of cinema that are resurrected for the occasion. How can a movie take you on such a dizzying ride through the imagination, delivering electric shock after electric shock? How can a movie so deliberately disorderly actually offer a sense of order? How can a film that re-imagines the imagination itself with such wild exuberance, how can we be taken on a such a wild ride through both the psyche and cinematic lore, how can a movie with such aesthetic abandon be so mesmerizing, yet make me regret going on the ride?

The answer, in a phrase, is that it is the wildest, most terrifying amusement park ride I have ever been on or could even imagine when even the simplest amusement park ride makes me ill and dizzy. I do not drink alcohol. I do not take drugs. Intoxication scares the death out of me. As does weirdness. As do most dreams. But if you can go along for the trip (in its various senses) of a lifetime, if you love chameleon shape-shifting, watch this film on Netflix. If you have already taken the ride, or if you fear wild and terrifying playing with your imagination and will not see this movie, then you can read on as I explore the details of that ride as best I can recreate them in the relatively serene medium of print. On the other hand, if you are a zombie looking for resurrection, if you want to experience a wide range of human experience within one day compressed into two hours, then see the movie and do not bother with this review.

I begin with the ordering of the episodes.

Sequence         Appointment               My Title

Number

I                                                           Theatre Sequence

II                                                         Banker Leaving Mansion

III                    1.                                 Beggar

IV                    2.                                 Diode Dance

V                      3.                                Green Man and the Model

VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car

VII                  Musical Interlude        Accordion

VIII                 5.                                 Chinese Gangster Mirror Killing

IX                                                        Limo Scene with man with the Port Wine stain

X                     6.                                 Balaclava Assassin

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene

XII                  8.                                 Eva and the Air Hostess

XIII                 9.                                 Family Man and Chimpanzees

XIV                                                     Chauffeur with mask;

Limos Going to Sleep

I have already discussed the first two sequences above in my previous blog as Carax re-emerges from his hermetic withdrawal from the cinema to re-enter the world of theatricality, and then introduced you to a classic scene of wealth and opulence, privilege and serenity before taking you outside the safety of the fantasy life of a stretch limo into the underworld of the imagination. So I begin, not with the wild parts of the ride, but with those sections that are no less imaginative, but which are more akin to the lower and level parts of a roller coaster before the cars climb another steep incline. The rest of the trip will be totally harrowing so we must first stare rawest sex and death, eros and thanatos, directly in the face, with only the relief of self-deprecating humour and an ounce of whimsy to water down the strong drink. So we have the so-called “realist” sequences:

VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene

and

XIII                 9.                                 Family Man and Chimpanzees.

The latter begins in a naturalist or realist narrative and ends in fantasy.

The father-daughter vignette in the red car is a seemingly simple tale in which Monsieur Oscar (M. O) dons the persona of a father who picks up his daughter from a party and then remonstrates her for her unwillingness to socialize. He promises her that she will be punished for her failure. Just keep in mind that in the third scene above, near the end of the movie, that begins in naturalism, a father returns home to a domestic scene, but one in which the daughter as well as the mother turn out in one last wry animistic antic joke to be chimpanzees. But before we reach the final incline upwards of a restoration to the Planet of the Apes as a domestic scene, we must be carried at rocket speed through the past. In writing, it is best to begin that ride when the roller coaster cars are moving relatively slowly.

One psychoanalytic interpretation of the social practice of producing nuns for the Catholic Church is that this is a device for a father to keep and effectively “marry” his virgin daughter. The girl in the father-daughter sequence is pre-puberty. However, the father is NOT evidently trying to keep his daughter Angèle (Jeanne Disson), for himself, but to get her out into the world, in spite of the portrayal of the world out there as one of poverty, murder and mayhem, and, even more worrying, a reality totally captured and transformed by cinema. In a classic tempo of interruption that allows the anticipation and excitement to be more intense, as we travel through a most basic form of love, that between a father and a daughter, just when an adolescent girl must first face her fears of love and lust, of intimacy and being dumped down a side of a cliff, instead of finding a father trying to inhibit the experience, slow the motion of the film in a futile effort to protect his daughter, we have an inversion. It is the father who pushes the daughter to scream and become hysterical and the daughter who cringes in a bathroom in understandable enormous fear of the terrors of the world outside she is about to face.

I take this scene as the first appointment to dissect, because the young pre-teen playing the girl is Carax’s daughter. The movie is a reversal because the daughter fears and rebels against being a sacrificial lamb for the purpose of advancing the imagined life of cinema. Further, rather than the father desiring to keep his daughter a virgin, it is the daughter who tries to freeze her relationship with her father. But the costs are perhaps even greater than in the alternative surrealist scenario.

Is this Monsieur Oscar (M. O) momentarily out of character? In this scene where he collects his daughter from a party and drives her home, is he taking a break from his assignments to perform a family task? He does tell her that he’s been working on assignments all day, and this is the only time we see him driving a car instead of being driven. On the other hand, he’s wearing a wig, so this is probably just another performance, albeit one that is considerably more down-to-earth than some of his others. His daughter initially claims that she enjoyed the party, danced with some boys, drank and smoked. Her father forces the confession that in reality she hid in the bathroom while her friend had all the fun. In the process of interrogation, the father reduces his daughter to tears that fall into her lap.

His vicious and withering punishment is to tell her that “she will have to live with herself” after shoving a cream bun in her face. This use of a sweet offers a bitter twist on the rebellious teenager trope, with a father disgusted at his child’s failure to misbehave. The focus on faces, and the darkness around them, helps to keep the compositions uncluttered, uncomfortably close and intimate. For me, this was the most emotional scene in the whole movie. Other segments show full bodies and some grotesque or dramatic transformations. This domestic drama plays out with each conversant facing forward. We can pick out their inner thoughts from their nuanced expressions: he lets rip with his disdain; she stoically bears the burden of his disappointment.

It’s a heartbreaking moment that could have been sliced out of an entirely separate film. It’s also about performance at some level – the daughter tries and fails to put on an act for her dad. He sees right through it and mocks its inadequacy. Meanwhile, we have to presume that this is M. O in character again, but more than ever, we wonder for what audience this might be. Is anyone watching this intimate scene play out in close-up? M. O says he wants the truth, but his daughter is wiser and more cynical: she agrees that she would lie to him again if she knew he wouldn’t find out. “We’d both be happier.” What started as a stock scene between father and daughter has ended as a lesson in deception. Next time, she will improve her performance, and maybe succeed in fooling her father.

The previous two scenes had been first a rich performance off impoverishment and then an even more surrealist scene of absurdist dance of sexuality and violence in which the effort is to consume and destroy beauty, not to enact it. Suddenly, in the father-daughter scene, we are in a situation depicting a real bond of love, but one, as it were, perceived through an inverted lens. For, on the one hand, the actress playing the daughter, who in reality is the daughter of the director, acts as if M. O is really her father. But the performance in the car reveals a father devoted to a daughter, but in a way opposite to anything we would expect.

Things are there, but only cinema can see them for what they are. In other words, it measures itself to their unstable, disorderly, relative, and unintelligible nature. Real presence requires shifting toward the figurative; the phenomenon – a face, a river, a speed – must be recovered from the perspective of its strangeness. And this strangeness does not refer to a mystery, to something dark and shameful […] but to an essential alteration, to the profoundly unidentifiable and impure dimension of things that cinema detects, welcomes, and develops. Strangeness does not stem from an enigmatic lining of the real but from an “excess of obvious facts.” (Nicole Brenez in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, p. 236)

The other realist scene in the movie is the one where M. O plays a man in a hotel room lying on his death bed. He is being tended/attended by his niece, Léa (Élise L’Homeau). The scene is very emotional in a different way than the scene depicted above because we know we are watching a performance. When the uncle dies, the niece breaks down into uncontrollable sobs. But surprise. M. O gets out of bed to get dressed and go to another appointment.  Léa, who has stopped crying and is totally composed, introduces herself to M. O as Élise and informs him that she too has to run to her own next appointment. The scene ends with a quip.

If the father-daughter scene in the red car was an inversion of the incest trope, of the dedication of a father to the chastity of his daughter, this scene takes us to the end of life as itself a performance, an acting out of the pain of the other as one dies and one’s own eagerness to welcome death as a relief. The one who is dying wants only an escape from life; the bereaved experience its suffering as pain. But it is a niece, not a daughter lest we confuse the emotions involved in the controls put on incest with the asexual experience of death itself.

The first harrowing scene is tolerable for it only deals with an upright wealthy man of position and posture transformed via makeup and costuming within the stretch limo into a bent-over old beggar woman dressed in rags with a cup held out, but with not one of the dressed-up burghers dropping a coin into her tin cup. This is followed by a diode dance of delight and sexuality, of grace and motion, of simulation and symmetry, where the dancers are not so much under a spotlight as centres of light themselves as they are dressed in motion-arresting suits with reflective sensors that lock in beams of light. The energy of light, the source of becoming rather than being, dynamism itself, is captured and trapped in various frames. What are those frames? They are ones that adumbrate the movie as a whole.

Only then are we transformed with hurricane force from the vignette of class difference and of sexual bonding into the wildest exhibition and expression of the exuberance of physical energy that marries the grotesque to grace and carries the film onto a whole new plane at a much lower subterranean level in which a satyr-like figure in green, a wild leprechaun that reminds me of Donald Sutherland as a student playing Stephano in a Hart House student production at the University of Toronto of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Whereas Stephano was a boisterous buffoon who is both naïve and wily when he partners with a court jester and Caliban to commit murder, the subterranean bare-footed and bare-chested red-headed half-blind leprechaun with wild, red hair and long filthy fingernails that emerges from the sewers (see Léos Carax’s short portmanteau film Merde in Tokyo! 2008) is a figure not raised up to be a lord, but raises himself up out of the lower depths to attack everything, particularly beauty in the world, consuming flowers that he has snatched as he runs wild through the streets and arrives at a cemetery where an advertising photographic shoot is underway.

The beautiful supermodel, Eva Mendes, as a Kate Moss, is posing, with a totally expressionless face that never loses its mask-like emotionless qualities, against a tombstone. Harry T. Bone, a hairy t-bone in white shorts and white ankle socks, is repeating, “Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful,” but when the goddess Kay is grabbed by the satyr-like figure, Bone can only utter “Weird! Weird! Weird!” as he obsessively keeps snapping one picture after another with an old fashioned camera that replaced the modern one with which he was photographing the model against the tombstone. The leprechaun carries her off on his shoulders back to his underground lair.

As in Antonini’s Blow-Up, advertising photography turns into art, but only when the weird devours the beautiful and the focus shifts from fashion to the freak. In the underground world, statuesque beauty is undressed and redressed as a Muslim in a burka as the gnome removes all her notions – her purse and her jewels, her money and even her hair, which he eats. Who needs a hajib then! The naked gnome with an erection lies across the prostrate former model as the two are romantically showered with the petals of snatched and stolen flowers. The beauty of the act has replaced the face of beauty.

The memory of Donald Sutherland in that role almost sixty years ago was reproduced not simply because Stephano and the green figure in Holy Motors even look similar, for their only similarity seems to be their satyr-like characteristics, but because in each production the actor we see on stage or on the screen transforms himself right before our eyes. Stephano becomes a lord and master in his bearing and his posture. M. O becomes an underground figure of rage. Shakespeare’s Stephano, as interpreted by Donald Sutherland, grew in front of us in the audience from a bent-over quirky and shy fellow into a persona posturing like a ruling aristocrat. Perhaps his own experience as a sickly child with not only rheumatic fever and hepatitis, but polio, allowed him to understand how to transform oneself from an object of sympathy to a reigning actor. I suspect, but cannot recall for certain, whether in that 1957-58 season at Hart House, Donald Sutherland also played John, the witch boy in the Howard Richardson and William Berney play, Dark of the Moon who falls in love with Barbara Allen (“The Ballad of Barbara Allen”) and then is transformed into a human. The gnarled and deformed creature from the sewers with his voracious appetite in Holy Motors ends up going in the other direction, both devouring and abducting the world of beauty.

By this third appointment anyone watching the film has to become mesmerized by the freewheeling but very precise execution and magical, even acrobatic, performance of Denis Lavant, though, if like me, also almost nauseous from the wild romantic ride. The combination of poetry and precociousness with hideous repulsiveness, executed with all the artistry of a professional, steeped in the tradition of Teatro del Arte combining mime, movement and magic, stood in sharp contrast to either the verbiage of the theatre of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde or that of the angry young playwrights of post-war Britain and my own writing at the time.

After the more measured and conversational tone, even as the content was inverted, of the father-daughter conversation in the red car, we are offered a formal interlude of accordion players led by M. O playing the Mississippi guitarist R. L. Burnside’s blues song, “Let My Baby Ride” with its repetitious refrain of love as a form of evil and horror::

Love be the devil but it won’t get me
Let my baby ride
Gonna, let my baby ride.

It is the counterpoint to the earlier tune, O.V. Wright’s mischievous, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride,” for instead of stopping his daughter, instead of being trapped by love into a death embrace, M. O lets his daughter go, insists she must go, that she must ride out life on her own just as he, having been so many men and having no identity himself, knows he must release her from the deadly embrace of fatherly love.

Immediately after, we are thrust once more into a House of Mirrors, first with M. O as a Chinese gangster who goes to murder a man identical to himself and, in the process, after stabbing the man in the neck and carving up his face, he in turn is stabbed in the neck and then drags himself back to the limo. In the next mirror appointment, number 6, M. O dons a balaklava and this time shoots a banker that looks identical to himself and is a reprise of the banker at the beginning of the film and then is himself killed by the banker’s bodyguards that we saw in that early segment. He manages to get back to the limo with the help of Céline. This leads into the next appointment, the niece-uncle deathbed scene described above. Between the two mirror murders, a man with a port wine birthmark, sits in the passenger seat of the limo and urges M.O to continue his work even though M. O insists he is very tired. Further, M. O can no longer understand the business of movie acting when the cameras have disappeared from view and he only acts because of his enchantment with the beauty of the act itself.

At the end of the second mirror killing and the third death of M. O as an old uncle in a death bed, there is only one appointment left before the final appointment when the father returns to his ordinary home where his wife and daughter turn out to be chimpanzees when we are back from the human world of performance to the more basic foundation of humanity in the animal kingdom. In that second to last appointment, M. O meets an air stewardess, Eva Grace/Jean (Kylie Minogue) dressed in a trench coat borrowed from a film noir in a closed and empty department store, La Samaritaine, not only preserved and reproduced from one in an earlier film, Lovers on the Bridge, but where M. O acts as anything but a Samaritan, for the world of good deeds has nothing more to give but emptiness, hollowness and death. The air stewardess travels from the roof on her last flight with her lover to the street below as M. O whisks past the corpses.

The film at one level is a revelation of cinema as a copycat craft, empty of all meaning, as merely an arbitrary exercise in Theatre of the Absurd and an assemblage of performative art pieces focused on the actor’s body. After all, a character, a persona, was once, in Latin, the name of a theatrical mask. That persona accompanied with makeup and costumes set in a specific time and place are all used to establish the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Recall the ending of Part I in which, in the last segment, Céline dons a light purple plastic smooth mask in which only the eyes can be seen. (Recall also Georges Franju’s 1960 film Les yeux sans visage.) The face of the film becomes the mask, the masque, the masca, the nightmare, spectre and even witch. The result is an illogical work in which existence appears to be only a performance without meaning or purpose based on scenes which seemingly lack any sense of order. I will try to show on Sunday that the movie Holy Motors is not merely that, in fact, but a replay, one viewed through Carax’s inverted vision, of a divine plot viewed through devilish eyes. I believe the film has a very definite order and interpretation of the most basic elements of existence. After all, it is no accident that the song in La Samaritaine produced as if we were in a Broadway show is sung by the group, The Divine Comedy.

 

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Holy Motors: Part I – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part I: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

WARNING: This review consists of recounting images that may spoil the movie for you.

For a film that is so full of cinematic precedents, this 2012 movie that I saw on Netflix is unprecedented and unclassifiable. Horror, comedy, sentimental, social commentary, drama, romance, gangland, aesthetic – one can go on and on. It is truly a movie about Holy Rollers – oh, I meant to type Holy Motors, or did I? For what is obsolete is preserved, raised up and put away (aufgehobt, from the verb aufgehoben) and placed on sacred mount. The stretch limousines in Holy Motors are put to sleep for the night in the Holy Motors garage for limousines just after they have a conversation about their obsolescence and even extinction. The film is about one day and evening in the life of one specific stretch limousine with one specific chauffeur and one actor.

A stretch limousine is used as a hearse to carry bodies to the cemetery or crematorium and to transport the family of the deceased to the side of the grave. So it is a vehicle closely associated with death. But it is also the transportation of choice for the super-rich and those with high status – movie stars. Look at the use of the stretch limo in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis where the hyper-kinetic life of the wealthy fantasy makers of Wall Street reveals itself to be the flip side of the coin where that life is associated with mortality, with what is well past its due date.

Literally, a stretch limousine is a holy roller, not a sacred holy of holies with a fixed place marking the centre of the civilized universe, but a vehicle in constant movement from the early morning hours to late in the evening. While we are awake, we are in the realm of movement, of activity, of a divine presence that reeks of both elegance and mystery. For the windows are always tinted, enabling those inside to see out, but not the reverse. The inner sanctum is a place of power and status. When a couple on their first prom date or a couple just married emerge from a stretch limo, they descend from the realm of romance to everyday life. Stretch limos smell of wealth, of luxury, of ostentation, of power. The chauffeur, the bondsman in the symbiotic relation, is in a separate compartment from the master. However, in the stretch limo in Holy Motors, it is the chauffeur who gives the passenger his assignments and keeps him on schedule.

Holy Motors came out in 2012, the same year as Cosmopolis, so the two films could not have influenced one another. While the stretch limo is a central feature in both movies, each film uses the vehicle in opposite ways. In Cosmopolis, various individuals throughout the film enter the vehicle. In Holy Motors, one individual emerges from the vehicle in various guises. Cosmopolis is about that power and wealth and control that the limo symbolizes. Holy Motors is about a wide variety of challenges to this worship of power through letting the imagination run wild in a variety of different creations. In Cosmopolis, the hero/villain is out to command the future as well as everything current. Holy Motors is about the past, for the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk. In Holy Motors, the main protagonist engages in a dance of death as he gradually exhausts himself in an array of shape shifting forms. Cosmopolis is about unmasking the metaphysical foundations of the Great Crash of 2008; Holy Motors is about what it means to don a mask.

If Cosmopolis is about an individual’s quest for power, the scenes in Holy Motors are themselves almost always very powerful as each in turn drains the energy of the protagonist. I awoke this morning with one image after the other battling each another for attention inside my head and not just from the movie. For a film about precedents, the director insisted that he didn’t “see it as a film about references.” And, of course, it isn’t. For although packed with reverberations of cinematic memories, that is NOT what the film is about. So rather than hunt down the sources for the myriad number of images, I will only refer to some when they throw light on the meaning of an episode and I cannot get the associated image out of my mind anymore than the original from this movie.

film begins, according to many reviewers, when a very well-dressed older gentleman comes out of his mansion, says goodbye to his young daughter and, instead of entering the black SUV parked in his circular driveway, walks past it. The men standing beside the black SUV in dark suits get in and that car starts to follow him. As we see other men on the rooftop of his mansion, we wonder if this is a very rich man going for a walk, but being followed by guards just as his large home is being protected by armed men on its roof. Is he a very wealthy gangland boss? But he is dressed impeccably, like a Parisian banker. But perhaps the director intended that we in the audience perceive the two roles as one.

Then we are introduced to a very long white stretch limousine. The rear door is opened by the chauffeur and our well-dressed financial czar (or mobster?) steps into the back. But we have already been taken aback. This is not what was supposed to happen. For the person who greets the gentleman as Mister Oscar (played by Denis Lavant, pretty well a constant in all the director’s films and, obviously, an enormous talent), the chauffeur who opens the door, is a well-dressed uniformed woman, Céline (Édith Scob). But why any surprise? After all, this is 2015.

When Mr. Oscar settles into the back seat, he engages in a number of phone calls so seemingly confirming he is a wealthy banker or business man. But then everything changes. He opens a folder and asks his chauffeur/assistant the location of his first appointment. Suddenly, the back of the limousine turns into a make-up room, and, as we soon learn, a costume change room. Mr. Oscar emerges from the stretch limo in the next sequence is a radically changed form.

This is a movie that in one scene after another recalls cinematic history by a director, Leos Carax, an anagram of Oscar and Alex, the first name of the Director, Alex Christophe Dupont. Carax is an amalgam of the real person with a real name and a construct of the movie world, Alex. Carax insists that he is not a cinephile. But the references are recognizable, and there are too many of them that we easily recognize. In this movie, we keep being jarred to attention as each vignette – termed “appointments” in the movie – contains one or more divergence that distract us as well as shake our memories to attention. In fact, the whole movie could be said to be an exercise in distraction and redirection. That is, if anything at all can be said about the film as a whole.

But that is not even how the movie begins. The “real” beginning acts as a prolegomena to tell us that this movie is not just about one day and evening in the life of the chauffeur, Céline and the man she drives around Paris, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) – or, as we are led to question later in the movie, was that beginning not just another vignette in the film, a pre-appointment as it were? For the movie started before that scene of the mansion, the guards, the banker entering the stretch limo, the female chauffeur borrowed as an extra from a James Bond film, and certainly any of the appointments.

The actual movie begins in a hotel room, and not a very fancy one, but one that reeks of age and nostalgia. Or is it a hotel – perhaps only an old apartment? What hotel permits a dog to sleep on the bed? The Sleeper (played by Carax himself) wakes up and the viewer doesn’t know whether he is really awake or walking in his sleep or dreaming that he is walking in his sleep. But he does appear to be awake. Since the character is played by Carax himself, is the movie about himself, a director/actor who has been, like Rip Van Winkle, the paradigm of the imagination colonizing everyday life? Carax was asleep for thirteen years, not twenty, put perhaps he regarded his last productions as products of an imagination that had gone to sleep. Stupefied, he suddenly wakes up to once again re-enter the magical imaginative world of the cinema in which enormous changes have taken place over the past decade or two. Are we going to watch an updated version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story I repeatedly told my children when there was thunder and lightning outside.

But it is a lonely return. Carax, as he looks down on the audience from an upper balcony, is totally alone even though the theatre is packed. The audience is totally passive, reversing the situation of Sleepy Hollow where the phlegmatic Dutch had turned into activist Yankees. This will not be Cosmopolis, a movie about the Yankee preference for change and wealth and power, and their loss, but about the costs of the transformation. The dozing dog in the hotel room or the apartment, like Rip Van Winkle’s Wolf, is left behind as the main character will now be replaced by an actor like Joseph Jefferson who performed Rip Van Winkle for 45 years.

Why is Carax so tentative, so hesitant, seemingly so lacking in confidence, since his movies of the late eighties and nineties were significant artistic successes? There is a hidden door in the wallpapered wall of trees. Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in a birch forest in the Catskills. The Sleeper magically finds the hidden door, just as magically comes up with the key and opens the door. He is in a passageway and enters a theatre where we see the uniform frozen audience looking as if it is waiting for the movie or play or opera to start. I noticed that not one member of the audience had popcorn.

Then a very large dog, a black bull mastiff, the size of a small pony, meanders down the aisle. A mastiff, one of the oldest breeds of dogs, is rarely seen around anymore. Is cinema, at least movies made on film, as obsolete as the old non-digital projection of celluloid films, as obsolete as the old comedic silent films of Buster Keaton who went from being a janitor and a projectionist and entered the screen itself in a memorable dream sequence to become a character in the film? Now it has all been reversed. The characters on screen leave the celluloid world to become part of real life that they have now colonized. Or is this a rebirth of the new life of the cinema in which everyday life in Paris has become a colony of the imagination? Has the man in the balcony metamorphosed into the toddler in the aisle? Who is the child who cannot walk through the mirror but is already on the other side looking out through a porthole?

But perhaps the movie is not about these wild exercises of the imagination – not nearly so wild when you recall the precedents – but a commentary on movies as a genre of art, as a genre of watching images reflected on the cave wall. Or, at least, not merely about the images as about what imaging and viewing images is itself about in an age when the camera can be hidden, when the spectator can remain unseen and remote. Humans have reverted from being active but damned Yankee citizens of a new Republic and have become passive subjects once again, but of a new empire of the imagination. Has Carax taken us back into Plato’s cave where immobilized people captured and tied to a log on which they sit watch shadows projected on the wall with a concentrated gaze and unable to take their eyes off the screen to see the wider world? Or is the movie really about a cinema reborn where everyone in the audience is his or her own director, where the real movie is not the one you watch on the screen, but the one you replay with your mind’s eye? We are no longer passive witnesses but active consumers.

In a next-to-final scene, Edith Scob, the chauffeur, when she is leaving the parking garage (Holy Motors) for stretch limousines before they all go to sleep, puts on a mask replicating the same scene she played in George Franjin’s Eyes Without a Mask. This is a very appropriate ending, even though the director insisted the choice was totally arbitrary. As she puts on the mask, Edith says, “I’m coming home.” How can the choice of that scene be arbitrary when the movie is all about unmasking the masks and roles we act out? Is it not appropriate that a movie about unmasking of masks ends with the only continuing actor playing a single part now putting on her mask just before she presumably resumes her real life?

And we know the director is being playful, is playing with us and suggesting that all of life is indeed a play because, when Edith leaves the parking garage, Holy Motors Parking Garage, that is such a standard setting for so many films because a parking garage is not made for people to live in, but does exist as a place in which people will die. Or, at the very least, secrets will be revealed as in Pakula’s 1976 cinematic take in All the President’s Men of the Watergate Affair in Washington. In the parking garage, when Bob Woodward, The Washington Post journalist, meets the mysterious Deep Throat, his informant, later revealed to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI, leaks the secrets and unmasks the nefarious activities that President Nixon had been up to while Felt himself remained a great secret for decades. Thus, does art imitate life and life imitate art?

But this isn’t a snuff movie or a spy movie or a gangland action thriller, but a playful comedy. Nor is it an action movie – envision Fast and Furious  or Steve McQueen in Bullitt – with car chases and crashes as automobiles race through the streets of Paris as in Ronin. Numerous cars are not destroyed in this movie. They are just parked for the night safely in a garage and engage in small talk before they go to sleep. These huge gas guzzlers fear they will be sent to a limo cemetery. As the stretch limos talk, their lights flash on and off in synch with their words. They are finally going to sleep for the night and this dormitory for limos finally goes silent when someone calls, “Lights out!” or the equivalent. A world has come to an end.

What a contrast with the movie itself that goes from one surprise to another as the main character shapeshifts from one episode to the next, using the back of the limo as his dressing room. Cinema is a form of popular entertainment that allows each viewer to slip into the skin of one of the characters in the movie. In this film, the main character himself slips into the skin and the costume of the character he will play in that episode.

My son, the filmmaker, the one who highly recommended Holy Motors, wrestles with the question of whether audiences and viewers spending their time creating and imagining themselves as different characters, an exercise exacerbated by the internet and social media, are not surrendering the possibility of self-determination, the possibility of determining how we act, on what basis and for what purpose. This mirrors Carax’s concern with freedom and self-determination and his conviction that, in the contemporary era of videogames, TV series, and action and hero films, we are not all falling into the trap of playing a role at the cost of our individual freedom of self determination.

Is there an alternative to becoming the post-modernist message of that media? Does a filmmaker not contribute to the problem of the media serving to enable people to shed one skin and assume another, and to do this even more so on the internet and on social media? Are we being reduced to passive actors in a globalized play? Or are we re-experiencing life as youngsters with playful imaginations, thereby bringing joy to the world through a wide variety of exercises of the imagination?

Instead of distracting, but mesmerizing car chases, which provide a stretch to our imagination that takes it in the direction of destruction. Leos Carax throughout the film takes us back to our lives as children when we imagine ourselves as anyone, even as any thing. One large mechanical instrument is both the carrier of death and the vehicle for recreating ourselves into the fictions of our own imagination. That is the only way I could make sense of the child in the aisle of the theatre at the beginning of the movie, even though making sense is counter-intuitive to the experience of the film. And in the end, these all have been children’s stories about, “Where the wild (and not so wild) things are” before we become the stretch limos who talk a bit before being hushed and sent off to the world of sleep.

In The Premature Burial, Edgar Allen Poe’s ode to the phantasmagoria, he wrote that when themes are too horrible even for the purposes of legitimate fiction, when we are living through a period in which audiences thrill with intense pleasurable pain as they are abandoned in space, cast adrift in a frozen earth, left abandoned on an island, and, even worse, subjected to a catalogue of human misery replete with human suffering and disaster and partially forced to live through a segment of the Holocaust or of the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, when we are thrust into apocalyptic calamities or thrown into world wars on a galactic scale, when truth is far worse than the imagination can ever portray, to what purpose can we put the imagination? Must our inventive imagination be cast into the dustbin of history?

 

Youth – a movie review

Youth – A Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

My eldest daughter told me that I do not write movie reviews. Rather, I write ruminations about a few of the films I see that especially intrigue me. She is absolutely correct. To prove I am not a proper movie reviewer, when we went to see Youth directed by Paolo Sorrentino last evening with a group of friends, I did not even know who had directed the movie or anything about it. I did know that Michael Caine was in it. That was all!

What is worse, when, before entering the theatre, I saw that Paolo Sorrentino was the director, I wondered who he was. And I should have known once the film began because the cinematography and structure so reminded me of another film I had seen. When I got home, I looked Sorrentino up. I realized that he had directed The Great Beauty. I also learned that I had never seen any of his other first rate Italian films: One Man Up (2001); The Consequences of Love (2004); The Family Friend (2006); Il Divo (2008); and This Must Be the Place (2011). I now have an additional list of foreign films that I must see.

In my blog in March of 2014, I reviewed his first film in English, The Great Beauty, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in the 2014 Academy Awards. I interpreted it as a remake of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita which I had seen a half century earlier. The Great Beauty, as I described it, was packed with frenzy and inanity. Youth, which one might expect to be a frenetic film, was anything but. There is no revelry. There is absolutely no orgy of dancing. There is no pulsating beat, except, tellingly, the first opening song sung by a retro pop singer, “You’ve Got the Love.”

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands in the air

I know I can count on you

Sometimes I feel like saying, “Lord I just don’t care.”

But you’ve got the love to see me through.

 

Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough

And things go wrong no matter what I do

Now and then it seems that life is just too much

But you’ve got the love I need to see me through.

 

When food is gone you are my daily meal

When friends are gone I know my Saviour’s love is real

You know it’s real

 

You got the love [repeated 8 times]

 

Time after time I think, “Oh, Lord, what’s the use?”

Time after time I think it’s just no good

“Cause sooner and later in life, the things you love you lose

But you got the love to see me through

 

You got the love [repeated 6 times]

 

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air

‘Cause I know I can count on you

Sometimes I feel like saying, “Lord, I just don’t care.”

But you’ve got the love to see me through.

I did not recall most of the lyrics except to wonder whether the film was going to be about old men with a nostalgia for a long lost youth. (I knew Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel were both a few years older than me, and, therefore, in their early eighties.) I thought I first saw Michael Caine in Alfie, but one of my friends who was with me at the movie said that The Ipcress File was first and she was correct. Michael Caine has appeared in over one hundred movies in a film career spanning sixty years and I probably saw half of them. As Michael Caine himself has cracked, “I am in so many movies that are on TV at 2:00 a.m. that people think that I am dead.”

But Alfie came first to mind when I saw the opening of Youth because I thought the film might be about an old man who was once a young hedonistic womanizer who, as an old man, wonders what it was all about. The poster promoting the film does suggest, at least in part, that the movie is about two elderly males in a hot tub watching a nude Miss Universe enter and observing what they’ve lost and, further, what they will never get again.

But, of course, the movie was not just about nostalgia for a lost youth, and certainly not about something as mundane and banal as relying on your love to be your saviour. If anything, the film is a direct challenge to the latter thesis. So why the opening song? After all, what can be more hackneyed that a love song that says that, with all the troubles and tribulations of life, the love of one’s life is one’s saviour.

We very quickly learn otherwise. For what appears to be a camera shot fixated on the singer as the audience moves around her in a circle, is soon revealed, when the camera moves back, to be a singer on a revolving stage. So what something first appears to be will certainly not be what the movie is about. More specifically, it will not be about one’s true love being the source of one’s salvation. And the film will come full circle like the rotating stage from the opening pop melody and empty pop thought to a final song that is so radically different. Though we travel somewhat in a circle, we do not end up where the film starts. Except in the most ironic manner.

The use of the camera is ironic, not only in the first scene, but throughout the film. The Buddhist monk, who appears and reappears as attempting, unsuccessfully, to levitate, is portrayed by the camera in his last appearance. The film over and over again seems to be laughing at us as we are so easily taken in by the tricks of filming and videotaping. So the movie is doubly ironic. For the meaning of the words spoken by the actors may have one meaning for us unknown to that character spouting them. However, when we first see a scene and hear the words spoken, the movie gradually reveals that we are as blind and deaf as the characters themselves in interpreting what is set down before us.

Look at another character, the different shots of a thin masseuse with braces on her teeth practicing moves that are as smooth and silky as the massages she offers to the patrons of the hotel. Watching her as she appears and reappears, we speculate about whether she is simply a star struck teenager with a fantasy of appearing on stage or an object of attention for a dirty old man. In the last short scene, the thought or thoughts we had in our heads are pricked like an inflated balloon.

Take another of the myriad of characters in the movie. In The Great Beauty, a Japanese tourist takes pictures of Rome to preserve what he sees on film, though it is clear that the only thing of Rome he actually sees is what he views through his camera. But then he suddenly drops dead, presumably overwhelmed by the beauty of Rome that he never even sees directly so anxious is he to preserve visuals for eternity. In Youth, in various scenes, we see what could be a sumo wrestler gone to seed who became enormously fat, or else an Italian mafia billionaire with a huge pot belly, or else one of those opera singers of huge proportions who has grown even larger. He is so fat and so out of breath that, like the Japanese tourist in The Great Beauty, we expect him to suddenly drop dead of a heart attack. It turns out not to be even one of the characters we thought he was. See for yourself. I promise; this will not be the only surprise that the audience will experience in watching the movie. There are many.

One of those surprises is to learn that a film about old men is also a movie really about youth. For the wisest words in the movie are spoken by a young girl about ten years old. In contrast to the expectations of an actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who believes people only see him for his role as a robot, Mr. Q, in a sci-fi flic, he is surprised that the young girls sees him as a performer who can act with skill and conviction in another role than Mr. Q. Out of the mouths of babes… One wonders whether Jimmy Tree is just another side of Michael Caine who resented, though humorously, being recognized by young people only as the butler in The Batman movie. Only whisper my name.

Thus, like The Great Beauty, Youth is also packed with a whole roster of great mini-portraits. Unlike The Great Beauty, in Youth there is no wild or uncontrolled behaviour, except in the wonderful bit part of an aging actress, Brenda Morel, played with terrific panache by Jane Fonda. Fonda, so well recognized for the preservation of her youthful beauty, plays the role of an aged actress of exquisite ugliness ravaged not only by the passage of time, but even more cruelly from a series of attempts to preserve her beauty. In the end, she is the only character in the film who loses total control in a wonderful scene shot in the first class section of a passenger jet.

Yet it is she in an earlier scene who, as a foul-mouthed fireball, finally confronts Harvey Keitel, who plays Mick Boyce, a fading director still trying to make a final movie. Fonda tells him his time has come and passed. He is well past his “Best By Due-Date.” After her direct and humiliating scathing critique of Mick, Brenda (Fonda) ends up exploding like a volcano in her final scene. In so doing, she proves her own words of so-called truth to Keitel were as false as everything else about her had become, just when we recognize the real truth of what she told Keitel  – that the future is television just as the future for the stage had once been movies. Fonda’s confrontation with Keitel filled with recrimination and regret stands in stark contrast to the loving way in which Lena (Rachel Weisz) tells her father, Michael Caine, about his past shortcomings. Lena needs the services of a sensitive mountain climber to restore her ego.

But the focus of the movie is on two pals. This, in a way, is a road movie, but the two never travel on the road together. They just see one another at a hotel spa where they both holiday once a year. Harvey Keitel as Mick Boyce, the has-been movie director, is one of the pals and the parallel to the sidekick of Marcello in The Great Beauty who is trapped in a relationship of unrequited love for an aging actress. Keitel’s character is very different. He only wants to use his aging actress to revive his own career and crawl out of the trap he is in because his creativity now fails him. The Great Beauty was clearly about emptiness and lack of substance, but only the Harvey Keitel character (Mick) exhibits that absence of a soul. For he lives in and for the sake of a fictional universe that has always been far more important to him than living in the real world. Mick is intent, with the help of a team of four writers working on the script of Life’s Last Day, to resurrect his career, but the resurrection now depends on the older actress whom he once turned into a star.

Michael Caine plays the other pal, the main character, Fred Ballinger, a retired famous conductor and composer who is the epitome of control and self-imposed serenity. He talks deliberately and slowly, is a man of few words, and they are pitched at a lower register so one thinks of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. Unlike his friend, Mick, he has truly retired and no longer pursues the dreams and goals of his youth. Moreover, he says that he does not miss it. What saves him from becoming a total depressive is his wry sensitivity, a quality in Michael Caine that probably fixated Paolo Sorrentino on writing the script specifically with Caine in mind. And Caine has that precise very dry sense of humour required for the role. Caine recently quipped that since, for himself, the only alternative to playing an older person is playing a dead one, he thought the former alternative was a better idea.

What is identical in the two movies is that they are both absolutely gorgeous. They are also mesmerizing, though there is virtually no plot and minimal development in Youth. It should be no surprise that the scenes were so fantastically beautiful. Both movies had the same cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi. This is what I wrote in my 2014 review: “the fabulous shots… were transfixing even when the images were of aging and world-weary sybarites. The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is outstanding and deserved more awards and nominations than the Silver Ribbon, the Italian Golden Globe and the Chiotrudis… We end up at the end of the film as intoxicated by the visuals as the celebrants who have left the scene.”

There are no sybarites in Youth. There are no celebrants. There is no intoxication. Except for Jane Fonda’s character, and one other totally unexpected mute rutting couple who become the objects of bets between the two pals. When the couple finally speak, it is with the body language of enormous rage that appears so authentic, and then of its opposite. Otherwise, there is virtually no out of control behaviour. Everything in the movie is about control, about organized serenity. Yet we are, in my estimation, even more intoxicated by the visuals.

Intoxicated is, however, not the right term. Entranced! Enchanted! Puzzled! Intrigued!  Both movies are about males in their post-career periods, in The Great Beauty, about the “hero” who follows all the norms of what is expected of a famous libertine. Neither Michael Caine nor Harvey Keitel play the role of a cynical misanthrope and hedonist. Both are very different studies in minimalism rather than extravagance, one resigned, the other, an artist who refuses to resign. Many may claim that the chemistry between a Brooklyn boy and a Cockney make the film. I, in contrast, deplored that lack of any real chemistry or deep love between the two, and wondered whether this was not the intention on Paolo Sorrentino’s part.

Youth is a montage of scenes, but there is no helter skelter jumping about, just radical shifts as each totally unexpected scene follows after another. And there are so many. Whereas The Great Beauty had marvellous shots of statues and exquisite portraits, in Youth, the humans become the statues. The snow-capped mountain scenery of the German-Swiss Alps with its green vales replaces the decayed frozen beauty of Rome. So the flesh that is vibrant in The Great Beauty is now frozen in Youth. In this film, there are no orgies. But both films are phenomenal odes to beauty, to what one sees, and, eventually, what one hears, whether it is of cow bells or the crinkling of cellophane in Michael Caine’s fingers. Paolo Sorrentino takes us through the ripples of water, through the stillness of the mountains, and through a multitude of visuals that allow our imaginations to travel on a tour of exquisite beauty, though for 95% of the film we are in one location.

There are plenty of nudes in Youth, but instead of a bacchanalia or Dionysian saturnalia, the characters appear to be living in a luxurious retirement home rather than an opulent spa resort. But both films are odes to visual and, in the end, oral sensibility. Youth is an even greater paean to beauty than The Great Beauty, precisely because of the deliberate contrast with aged men who live with their decrepitude rather than fight against it as Marcello Mastroianni playing a gossip columnist did in La Dolce Vita. In Youth, the running shaggy dog joke repeated through much of the film is the discussion between Caine and Keitel about the amount of urine they passed that day.

While Marcello in The Great Beauty was searching for love and happiness, both Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel had given up that quest long before the beginning of the film. Caine, as Fred, is resigned to his old age. So the sense of nostalgia, of melancholia, of sadness and loss is even greater than in The Great Beauty. Michael Caine lives with the loss of his wife hanging like a black cloud over his life. How had she died? Had she died? Yes she had? No she had not. The film teases us and plays with us with every character and every relationship introduced.

The Great Beauty was full of acerbic wit. Youth is full of irony, a great deal even though the characters rarely if ever crack a smile. Even though there is not an ounce of frivolity, the film eventually does levitate the audience in a way broad farce never could. For the levitation operates through that irony. Youth is a film about old age, about old mountains against a background of beauty, including a wondrous Miss Universe that would awaken any male’s droopiest member. But the film works by way of a double irony, for the movie is really about youth, not the youth of 18-28-year-olds, not about callow youth, but the eternal youth of humans whatever their age, a youth we can recover, especially when we are not so desperate to try, the youth we can find once again even in old age. The film is also a critique of the film industry and its reverence for fiction rather than truth and beauty. Harvey Keitel as Mick plays a parallel role to the aged boastful writer in The Great Beauty and serves as a superb foil for Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine).

The comedy is all very dry – so suited to Michael Caine that you clearly understand why Paolo Sorrentino not only sought him out to play the part of a retired composer and conductor, but insisted that he had written the role specifically for Caine and that he would not make the film unless Michael Caine agreed to play the principal character. Whatever excuse there is for a sub-plot begins when an emissary of the Queen, wanting a birthday present for Prince Phillip, invites Fred Ballinger to conduct a command performance of his composition, “A Simple Song.” Caine refuses, but under pressure from the emissary who will not take no for an answer, reveals his reason, which provokes a very moving outpouring of emotion in his daughter Lena, played by Rachel Weisz.

At the end, we finally hear Simple Song No. 3 composed by David Lang and sung by Sumi Jo. That song that ends the film is so touching, and the performance of the orchestra and artists so visually entrancing, that the scene is worth the price of admission alone. The lyrics of “Simple Song No. 3” are as follows:

I feel complete

I lose all control

I lose all control

I respond

I feel chills

I break

I know all those lonely nights

I know all those lonely nights

I know everything

I lose all control

I get a chill

I know all those lonely nights

I die

I hear all that is left to be heard

I wish you would never stop

I’ve got a feeling

I live there

I live for you now I leave no sense behind

I feel complete

I’ve got a feeling

I wish you’re moving like rain

I’ll be there

I’ll be there

I lose all control

When you whisper my name

When you whisper my name

When you whisper my name, whisper my name

When you whisper my name Ooooooooh Whisper Whisper Whisper…

When you… Whisper… When you…

 

So a film that is so much about controlled feelings ends up being complete when control is surrendered, not when someone else who has love saves you from your own despair, but when you overcome your loss and once again live, live to whisper the name of the one you once loved.

Making of a Murderer

To Be Accused Is To Be Condemned:

Making of a Murderer: a TV Series Review

by

Howard Adelman

This ten-part series (about ten hours; a distillation from almost 700 hours of videotape) first appeared on Netflix the week before Christmas. Netflix has posted all ten episodes of the series so you can binge watch it. We did so over two nights. This is a must see series. It is absolutely extraordinary! I never saw either Jinx or heard Serial, two crime dramas that preceded Making of a Murderer (MofM), but, not to make too fine a point about it, this series is much more of a courtroom drama about truth and justice rather than the actual commission of a crime. I suggest it is not a crime series as conventionally understood because there is never any exploration of the life of the victim and how a crime was committed, just the presentation of the evidence how two persons were convicted of a crime of rape and murder.

What is really on trial for the two documentalists, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who collected and videotaped footage over ten years, is the justice system itself. Though there is some genuflecting to the possibility that the accused are actually guilty, almost all the evidence assembled and edited in the documentary point to a justice system that is on trial. This is accomplished by means of videotaping, acquiring actual videotapes of courtroom scenes and of interrogation sessions, editing and producing an outstanding piece of work. DO NOT watch it over ten weeks. Your stomach cannot endure such pain. Prepare to binge over two or three nights. It is more than worth it.

But first let me confess a bias. I begin, not with the series, but with an incident in the life of my family. The day after one Halloween when one of my sons was fourteen, he was arrested, handcuffed, taken to a police station for interrogation all night and then charged the next day with assault and robbery. We got him out on bail. He was accused of assaulting a boy his own age and stealing his candy.

My son knew the accuser. They had been together in grade school and had a fight about two years earlier. They had not been in contact for the last two years. The boy identified my son as the one who assaulted him. Though the description fit how my son looked two years earlier when he had been much shorter, the description of his height and haircut in no way resembled my son of the night of the alleged assault. But we only had access to that material much later in the proceedings of discovery. Further, my son had been wearing a costume that evening that did not resemble in any way the costume described by the accuser. Finally, my son had five witnesses, boys he was with who could and would testify that my son was nine blocks from the location of the alleged offence. But the police laid the charges without attending to the contradictions between the description of the alleged assailant and my son, without interviewing the boys who could testify that my son was nowhere near the scene of the alleged attack, and without even asking to see the costume my son had worn on Halloween night.

Several weeks later, the accuser was confronted by another friend of my son and the accuser confessed to him that he did not really know whether it was my son who assaulted him but he would not go to the police to tell that lest he get in trouble. Ten months later, four hearings later, and $10,000 in lawyer’s fees later, just before going to trial, the prosecution decided to withdraw the charges. There was never an apology for the false arrest. There was never an explanation of why the police charged my son when the description bore no resemblance to my son on the evening of the alleged assault. When we discussed with the defence attorney we had hired whether we should take the police to court for false arrest, we were advised to just forget it. Otherwise, we would bring our family into the headlights of the police and what could or possibly might follow was unpredictable.

What was lost that night and the following year by the accusation was not my son’s reputation. No one we knew gave any credence to the charges even before we ever heard the description of the alleged assailant given by the accuser to the police that never came close to matching that of my son. The casualties of those events were the psychological effect the whole episode had on my son and our whole family. Much more serious, we lost trust in the professionalism of either the police and, to a small degree, the court system. And, in contrast to what happens in this documentary, the charges against my son were dropped.

What happens to you if you spend eighteen years in prison until evidence finally emerges that pointed to another individual and completely exonerates you? What is worse, what happens when you launch a lawsuit against the police (in Wisconsin, it was the office of the sheriff) and the county for false arrest and imprisonment for $36 million? What happens when, three days after the initial depositions are heard in the suit, the very person who was exonerated, the very person who brought forth the suit, is arrested again and this time charged not only with rape but also with murder?

It is the initial exoneration and then the subsequent charges and court cases that are put in the eye of the camera. In this documentary, except when reporters are asking questions of the attorneys from both sides, the news reporters with their video-cameras are not treated very sympathetically much of the time. They are often portrayed as rude, insensitive and intrusive. In contrast, the filmmakers are of a totally different breed. In this documentary, the video is never staged. It never seems truncated to the size of a sound bite. The filmmakers never intrude. Their perspective comes across clearly and unequivocally through the editing.

Is the documentary biased? As structured, it reveals a police investigatory process in Manitowoc County in Wisconsin that is inadequate and incompetent. It reveals a legal system dedicated to getting a conviction and neither truth nor justice. It reveals a class system in which the good burghers of the town coalesce and effectively try, not just one person, or one person and his nephew, but a whole family from the other side of the tracks who speak and have a very inadequate comprehension of the English language. “They said what one the defendants said was inconsistent. What does that mean?” the son asks his mother.” “I dunno,” she replies.

The average viewer will become enraged watching the documentary. It is hard to imagine obtaining a conviction on the basis of such flimsy and very flawed evidence. It is hard to understand, not intellectually, but in reality, how the judge could have made many of the rulings that he did. It is hard to imagine the state-provided public defence attorney and an investigator who are so deeply in collusion, not necessarily overtly, with s determination to convict the accused rather than provide the best defence possible. However, it is not hard to imagine a system where the presumption of innocence is so easily discarded like the wrecked automobiles in the Avery Auto Body yard that plays such a prominent part in the documentary. Most of all, it is hard to understand why, after convicting someone for what he did not do and then exonerating him, trying him for another crime and then sending him back to prison without arousing significant suspicion about a miscarriage of justice in the second trial by the legislative authorities and those in charge of the system of justice.

In the court of public opinion, the whole system of justice in Wisconsin is put on trial. That system does not have a defence attorney. That system is not given the opportunity to examine and rebut the overwhelming evidence, mostly coming out of the mouths of those purportedly dedicated to defending the system as much if not more than prosecuting criminals. For it is their own words, the words of those in charge of the system itself, that indict that system. So in this trial by public opinion as viewed through the eyes of the filmmakers, we could be watching a total distortion, an exoneration through the process of film selection and editing. But according to the filmmakers, those who seemed to fail the system so badly, or, perhaps, and much more seriously, to serve a questionable system so well, were invited for interviews but declined.

There is a distinct possibility that the representatives of law enforcement and of the formal court system have been subjected to an unfair trial in the realm of wider public opinion. However, given the exposure to a fraction of what actually occurred in the investigation and the court case, the members of the sheriff’s office, the members of the district attorney’s office, especially the district attorney himself, in spite of their cool and collected presentations, or, perhaps because of them, come across as guilty as hell, guilty of incompetence, unfairness, tunnel vision and, one suspects, possibly much more.

The heroes are the different members of the subsequent defence teams, not because they win in the courtroom, but because of the way they conduct themselves. This is documentary, not a docudrama. I have never seen anything like it before as we watch everyone age over the ten years. Characters disappear from the narrative, but one understands taking flight from a system where there are so few real defences.

Over the holidays, we were invited to the house of a friend. There was a man at the table where I was having soup that was opining on how the Syrian refugees would arrive and kill Canadians, on how all Muslims cannot be trusted. Venom and hatred spewed forth from this man. When asked questions, he offered no evidence for what he said. He knew. Donald Trump was his hero. Because Trump pointed out what was true. Refugees were not his only target. Climate change exponents were accused of being a total fraud perpetrated because scientists were only interested in padding their own pockets. A medical doctor seemed to agree with this opinionated, ignorant and very rude man.

I left the event with a horrible taste in my mouth. Because the documentary we were watching was not just about the specifics of one case. The documentary seemed to be about how those presumably in charge of fairness and reasonable detachment, of justice and truth, have been part of a process now dedicated to the denial of truth and the subversion of justice. The infection of the supremacy of dogmatic conviction over impartiality, of intolerance over compassion, is much more widespread than suggested by the documentary. Otherwise, how does one explain Donald Trump becoming the leading contender of the Republican Party?

I fear we are in an era somehow much worse than the McCarthy period. I fear we are in an era where educated people, where supposedly trained professionals, not only abuse the oaths they were sworn to uphold, but do so with a righteousness and a hypocritical mien that belies who they are. In the documentary, just watch the statements of the very clean cut brother of the victim who was horribly killed and her body mutilated. He absolutely trusts the system. He absolutely trusts the prosecution. He absolutely trusts the officers in the sheriff’s department.

If this film has significantly distorted what happened – and we are bound to hear much more on this – then the filmmakers should be charged with a hate crime, for it is hard not to end up totally disgusted and upset with the upright burghers of Manitowoc County Wisconsin, with the establishment in charge of the police work, with the courts, with the purported system of justice in this part of the United States, with the way so-called “white trash” are treated in a way that you believed was totally unjustly reserved for parts of the Black community in some areas of the United States.

The undisputed facts are that:

  • Steve Avery was charged with the crime of rape and served eighteen years in prison for a crime which he clearly and unequivocally did not commit, but from the evidence of some people in the justice system, they were unconvinced that they had the wrong man even though he was totally exonerated
  • Teresa Halbach who was supposedly brutally raped but without doubt murdered and her body burned, but was it really burned twenty feet from Steve Avery’s bedroom or did that occur elsewhere and the bone fragments transported to the fire pit?
  • Teresa Halbach’s car was found on the Avery lot, not crushed in the autocrusher machine, but intact behind some branches that did more to draw suspicion to the car than hide it
  • Brendan Dassey, Steve Avery’s nephew, had an IQ of 69, a mental age of a fourth year grade school pupil when he was in high school, and was not initially assigned an attorney dedicated to providing the best defence he could
  • Barb Tadych, Stephen Avery’s sister, who for a short period turns against her brother, but proves in the end to be a steadfast good and dedicated mother and sister
  • Allan and Delores Avery, Steve Avery’s long-suffering parents and the grandparents of Brendan Dassey, who are always steadfast, but whose lives are ruined by the whole process

This amazing documentary is a paean to criminal defence attorneys the world over, except for Len Kachinsky who comes across as an absolute sleaze ball with a supercilious and totally inappropriate laugh. Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, the two lawyers for Steve Avery, are presented as modest and highly professional heroes. So are the post-conviction lawyers. But the hero of the whole documentary is Steve Avery himself, the Job of the story, not an upright man who has suffered when “he di’n do nothin,” but just a young man with poor judgement and a more mature man able to keep his spirits up through a whole ordeal that would break most of us.

Other than Len Kachinsky, the biggest villain is Ken Kratz, the special prosecutor and district attorney for Calumet County, Wisconsin, who displaces Denis Vogel the original Manitowoc County District Attorney who prosecuted Steve Avery in the original miscarriage of justice. The prosecutors are followed closely by Judge Patrick Willis who was the trial judge in both the Steve Avery and Brendan Dassey trials. Perhaps, in the lineup of villains, the judge stood behind James Lenk and Andrew Colborn, respectively a Lieutenant and Sergeant with the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, Tom Fassbinder, an investigator with the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, and Mark Wiegart, a Sergeant with the Calumet County’s Sheriff’s Department. The latter two were perhaps only doing well what they were trained to do, but the documentary raises very serious questions about that training, for that form of education perhaps serves to obtain a conviction, but leaves little room for considerations of fairness, justice and a respect for truth and the importance of attempting to falsify one’s own beliefs if one is truly following the protocols of establishing evidence in either ordinary life or in science.

It is hard to see how the Manitowoc legal system will be able to recover from the indictment in this documentary. We will have to watch for the counter-attack to determine the fairness and truth-value of the documentary itself.

Republican Candidates for President

Republican Candidates for President

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening, I listened to the fifth Republican debate focused on foreign affairs. I first heard the four fourth tier candidates for the Republican nomination for the United States presidency. (A sixth and final debate will be held in mid-January.) I then divided the top tier of candidates appearing in the main card into three groupings, those above 10%, the two candidates between 3 and 5%, and then the three trailers below 3% according to an average of seven top polls in the United States conducted during December. I tended to focus most on the top four candidates.                                                            Seven  Fifteen

Polls      Polls

                                                                                              15 day average

First Tier                                                                          %            %

Donald Trump         Billionaire real estate mogul    33.0     35.30

Ted Cruz                     Texas Senator                                16.1     13.38

Marco Rubio               Florida Senator                             12.6     12.00

Ben Carson                 Retired neurosurgeon                  12.0     11.76

Second Tier

 Jeb Bush                      Former Florida Governor              4.0       5.48

Chris Christie              Former New Jersey Governor      2.9       3.08

Third Tier

John Kasich                   Ohio Governor                                  2.3       2.21

Carly Fiorina                 Former High Tech CEO                  2.3       2.01

Rand Paul                        Kentucky Senator                           2.1       2.42

Fourth Tier

Mike Huckabee               Former Arkansas Governor         2.0       2.16

Lindsey Graham             South Carolina Senator                 0.3       1.04

George Pataki                  Former New York Governor         0.2       1.03

Rick Santorum                ex-Pennsylvania Senator              0.2       0.87

In one sense, the polls do not count. The Republican presidential primaries do, for the state caucuses choose their respective delegates for the national convention of over 2,200 delegates in accordance with different state rules – elected at local conventions, selected from candidate’s slates, by committees or directly elected in caucuses and primaries. In another sense, the polls do count for they indicate to delegates which candidate might be a winning one, while at the same time, popularity might – and I say might – provide some indication of the divisions within a state caucus. We will have a better idea in the primaries, especially the one on the first Tuesday in March, March 1st, when ten states select their delegates. The polls are a slice of popularity in a moment in time. Senator Ted Cruz is now leading Donald Trump by a full ten points (31% to 21%) in the all-important Iowa caucus scheduled as the first in early February. The New Hampshire primary takes place later in February, but before Super Tuesday.

In this election, there is a third reason that the polls count. Donald Trump holds the threat of bolting the Republican Party, taking with him most of his supporters, if he feels he is being treated unfairly by the Republican Party establishment, an action which, if taken, is almost certain to doom the Republican chances of winning back the presidency. Last night, Trump seemed to withdraw that threat, insisting that he was “totally committed to the Republican Party.”

In the foreign affairs debate, three themes dominated. On all three, Donald Trump had proposed the most radical proposals:

  1. Temporarily stopping all Muslim entry into the United States;
  2. Increasing the intelligence services access to private and community bodies – especially mosques with suspected radical Imams;
  3. Focusing primarily, and even exclusively, on destroying ISIS or ISIL or Da’esh.

Donald Trump had also made three radical proposals on immigration that could be considered, to some degree, foreign policy issues:

  1. Build a fence along the southern border for which Mexico would be forced to pay;
  2. Deport all illegal immigrants in the United States;
  3. Refuse to take Syrian refugees of any religious stripe.

Not one of the competitors for higher office for the Republican Party thought that climate change was an important foreign policy issue, and some went out of their way to insist that proper foreign policy built on the foundation of keeping Americans safe had been sacrificed on the altar of a misguided concern with global warming. Last night, they did not debate the important international agreement on trade policy. What they concentrated on was Americans’ fears, on the perception that America was failing as a leader in the world, particularly a military leader, that the American government had over-indulged human rights protections and provided great scope for terrorists to exploit these openings and spread terror.

Climate change was not the only issue of foreign policy that was avoided. So was China as an increasing threat. So was Turkey as, under Erdoğan, it has increasingly tried to exercise its admittedly relatively weak muscles. Further, every one of the candidates seemed to agree with strengthening America’s armed forces, already larger than the rest of the armed forces in the world combined. More specifically, Senator Marco Rubio took on Senator Ted Cruz, the two real rivals for second place in the polls behind Donald Trump.

Rubio insisted that Ted Cruz had supported reductions for the American air force. Without capacity, Cruz argued, you cannot advocate increasing air strikes against ISIL or Da’esh. Rubio insisted that, “as a result of budget cuts… we are going to be left with the oldest and the smallest air force we have ever had.” Now it is true that the USAF has been gradually reducing its air capacity to the smallest since WWII, and long before Obama. But the United States can still put into the air over 5,000 aircraft. It has almost 320,000 servicemen in the USAF with another almost 8,000 reservists. The USA has 40 squadrons of fighter aircraft, though it is scheduled to have only 26. As policy, the USAF decided long ago to emphasize quality over quantity, capability over capacity, particularly given the shift to unmanned aircraft, but America has no shortage of capacity and quantity in launching as many strikes as it wants against ISIL or Da’esh.

All the candidates seemed to be running against a parody of President Obama’s and, by extension, Hilary Clinton’s foreign policy, particularly his program of destroying ISIL. That consisted of four planks:

  1. Hunting down and destroying ISIL militant training camps in Iraq and Syria;
  2. Training and equipping Iraqi and Syrian oppositional forces to combat both Assad and ISIL, but no American boots on the ground to engage the enemy in direct battles;
  3. Disrupt ISIL’s source of financing and ability to engage in recruitment and propaganda;
  4. Use diplomacy to get allies, particularly Muslim countries, on side.

Some of the candidates supported specific aspects of these four policy planks. For example, Jeb Bush insisted that Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from America would undercut America’s ability to line up the 32 Muslim states organized as an alliance by Saudi Arabia. Jeb Bush dubbed Trump the “chaos candidate.” (In the undercard debate earlier, George Pataki compared Donald Trump as the 21st century candidate for the Know-Nothing Party of the 1840s.) Bush to Trump. “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.”

But Trump may very well insult his way to secure the Republican nomination. Jeb Bush running on a program of judgment to complement strength seemed to have chosen a losing path given the Republican party members’ widespread absence of good judgment. In fact, a major difference seemed to be over whether America was to be the leader of the free world – loosely so-called – or whether America was to take on extremist bullies as if the U.S. was a lone gunslinger at the Old Corral. But the major difference was whether American troops should be on the ground engaged in the fight.

The other enemy that was still casting a long shadow was Iran, with many candidates attacking any discussions let alone cooperation or, God forbid, an agreement with Iran. And what did Trump answer in reply to the issue at the centre of the Iran debate. “Nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” That comment alone should have ruled him out as a candidate. But remember, he is running to be the candidate of the Republican Party when he calls the Iran deal “horrible, disgusting, absolutely incompetent,” handing Iran $150 billion to sign. It proved that The Donald had

not lost his ability at invention and hyperbole. For a realistic estimate is that $50 billion in frozen assets will be released to Iran; it is likely that only a small portion of that will be available to Iran to foster and support its terrorist proxies. The Donald’s last line of the evening was his best and most hilarious: “Our country doesn’t win anymore…Nothing works in our country. If I’m elected president we will win again and we’re going to have a great great country, greater than ever before.”

If you listen to the Republican debate, except perhaps for Lindsey Graham in the undercard, you would not know that there are 3,500 Muslims in the American armed forces. You would not know that U.S. General Austin was leading special forces operations on the ground in Iraq. You would not know, as President Obama announced, that the U.S. had ramped up the fight against ISIL, increasing the pace of airstrikes and using precision takeouts to kill ISIL commanders – Abu Sayyaf, Haji Mutazz, ISIL’s second-in command; Junaid Hussain, a top online recruiter; Mohamed Emwazi, the well-publicized murderer of foreigners, finance chief Abu Saleh; senior extortionist Abu Maryam; weapons trafficker Abu Rahman al-Tunisi. Listening to the Republican debate, you would come away believing that America had withdrawn from the fight and that America has been led by a feckless and cowardly president. What happened to the idea of a bipartisan American foreign policy?

You would never know that ISIL or Da’esh had been suffering defeat after defeat – in Kirkuk, at Sinjar, at Baiji, at Kabani, at Tal Abyad – losing 40% of the territory it controlled at its peak. You would not know that John Kerry had spent the day in discussions with Putin and Russia’s foreign ministry to coordinate the attacks against Da’esh. In fact, if you came away from the debate believing that Obama was the real traitor and a secret partner of Da’esh, I would not be surprised. John Kasich (or was it George Pataki?) even said that he would punch Putin in the nose.

But the greatest focus of the debate over foreign policy, spurred clearly by the San Bernadino terrorist attack, was over the alleged policy of restricting surveillance of Americans. I lost track of the number of candidates who thought the American security apparatus had its hands tied and was not legally allowed to follow the two San Bernadino terrorists on the internet. (One was born and raised in the U.S.) Even Ted Cruz, a leading candidate, complained that the U.S., in the name of political correctness, had not monitored the Facebook account of the female San Bernadino terrorist who had called for a jihad on her Facebook page.

This is such nonsense, and the Republican candidates have to know it. The issue has not, and never has been, restricting the American security apparatus, but the efficacy of monitoring the Facebook accounts of everyone when it is so easy to disguise the person posting on Facebook and when encryption is so widely and easily available. The issue is efficacy, not legally hand tying the security apparatus. Even former Hewlett Packard C.E.O., Carly Fiorina, who should certainly have known this when she appealed for a partnership between government and the private sector in conducting surveillance, made the same accusations. For the issue is not known terrorists, but unknown ones. The problem has never been restrictions on invading someone’s privacy. But if you expect leading candidates for the Presidential office from the Republican Party to have a high regard for truth, think again. Look at Donald Trump’s absolutely mad proposal that the U.S. should shut down “our internet” in ISIS controlled areas of Iraq and Syria, as if America owned the servers and relay towers there. America could jam satellite feeds, But America would be the most to suffer.

The good news for Trump is that his support held fairly steady throughout the debate, dipping only significantly, but still only slightly, three times over the evening in spite of, or perhaps because of his insistence that America should repossess the international internet as if it was in mortgage default, and to do so to prevent extremist Islamicists using “our internet.” In spite of such silly musings, he had played it relatively safe and sane as he does periodically. And, after all, he has Conrad Black’s support, for Black is honoured to be Trump’s friend.  But Conrad would have been better off supporting Ben Carson since Ben wants the National Guard to be deployed along the Canadian border.

Ted Cruz was far more uneven than Rubio, reaching above Trump at only one point when Trump dipped. Rubio took an even wilder ride, but in the latter half of the debate more than held his own.  Rubio and Cruz seemed to be concentrating on each other as each of these Cuban-American candidates largely focused on one another to secure second place rather than directly take on Donald Trump. In fact, Cruz continued his campaign of buttering up to Trump and would, as one pundit said it, have agreed, or at least refused to disagree, if Trump pronounced that 2+2 = 5. Cruz attacked Rubio’s support for immigration reform and suggested that he was even a secret backer of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy. Rubio attacked Cruz for supporting limits on intelligence surveillance.

Ben Carson seemed to finally bury his candidacy as his meandering and foreign policy weaknesses showed glaringly when the debate focused on that topic. He really did say, “I do a lot of doing.” Trump, recognizing that Carson was dead in the water, now pronounced him a fine man as in a funeral service oratory after first knifing him in the back like a mafia operator and declaring that he had died of a “pathological disease.” Carly Fiorina piled the last shovel of dirt on her campaign when she accused Obama of forcefully retiring General Jack Keane early because he disagreed with Obama’s Middle east policy when Jack Keane had been retired early in 2003 by George W. Bush.

So what was I left with? Was I exhilarated by the misguided and misdirected attacks on Obama’s foreign and security policies? No, I was appalled. I prefer a more intelligent debate among those aspiring to be leaders of the most powerful country in the world today. And I am not talking about Chris Christie’s slip up in calling King Abdullah King Hussein. He knew the difference; he had been a guest of King Abdullah. Such minor slips are irrelevant. However, candidates most dedicated to truth seemed to be continually slipping in the polls as the politics of fear suffocated intelligence in the Republican Party.

.

The Female Gaze II – Carol: A Movie Review

The Female Gaze II – Carol: A Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

I usually do not know what I will specifically write in the morning until I sit down at my desk. However, after seeing Carol, I went to bed last evening knowing exactly and completely what I would write. This morning I woke up knowing, not what I would write, but what I need to write, but keep postponing, setting if off for a future hoping it would not come, but knowing, like a biblical prophet of old, that I would have to, must write about it. But not this morning.

Cate Blanchett, when she was touring and promoting her new film, Carol, kept telling interviewers that she wanted to talk about the bigger, more complicated things in the world, like what is taking place in Beirut, in Iraq, in Syria. The situation of the refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Europe in leaky boats is a real issue. So were the Paris terrorist attacks. In terms of those standards, Carol, about a lesbian love affair set in Eisenhower’s America in the early 1950s, seems a luxurious extravagance and an escape.

It is that, but that makes it no less real. I am writing about movies again because I keep postponing writing about the immanent war in Israel, not just a Third Intifada, but a real, full scale uprising that is coming as certain as I sit here. I know it is coming. I skirt around it. I write about Turkey. I write about refugees. Now I obsessively write about movies because I just do not want to face the horror of what I see approaching.

Last night we went to see Carol, Todd Haynes’ re-creation of the unspoken side of 1950s America and his film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s pioneering lesbian pseudonymously semi-autobiographical novel, The Price of Salt. The ostensible author was Clair Morgan. Salt is a fundamental ingredient necessary for life. Children are a fundamental ingredient necessary for love. Is the price of salt, is the cost of keeping custody of your children, worth the sacrifice of who you are?

Seeing Carol was a deliberate choice. I had been talking to my daughter in Miami yesterday about The Danish Girl and the feminine gaze. She had just seen Carol and urged me to see it because it also was about the female gaze. And that is how the film ends, clearly and unequivocally. My daughter did not tell me that. She did not need to. It is so obvious when you watch the movie.

I cannot remember seeing Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven when it came out in 2002. I think I was working too hard trying to get my last five PhD students to complete their theses before I retired; I believe I then avoided seeing films. I might have even said I had more serious things on my mind dealing with Hegel’s Phenomenology. But, in a totally different sense, there is nothing more serious than the images on the cave wall, than the reflections of the surface of life and our reflections about that surface. For that is the only way to get to deeper truths.

If Far from Heaven was about inter-racial love and homosexuality in the 1950s, that is to see the surface of the film I am sure, not what it reflects. Similarly, to view Carol as a film just about lesbian love is to miss the point. The movie had far greater ambitions and succeeds brilliantly in achieving them. Unlike The Danish Girl, Carol is not a complex film. The female gaze is up front and overt. The male gaze is a clear foil with its brutality, its manipulation, its indirection, its power-mongering and its sheer belief in force and revelation about the deep impotence of males. Harge, Carol’s aptly named estranged husband played by Kyle Chandler (who played the sheriff in the Florida Keys Netflix drama, Bloodline), is both a deeply needy brute and a rich momma’s boy who cannot survive without a beautiful blond on his arm. Richard who plays Therese’s would-be boyfriend is not much better, just a younger version living in full expectation that women exist to fulfil men’s fantasies. But the central focus is the female gaze. Wait for the ending of Carol. I do not need to describe it. It is a delicious and perfectly appropriate completion to a film that is almost entirely about the female gaze.

The story is straightforward. It begins in the toy department of Frankenberg’s Department Store where Therese (Rooney Mara, who became such a distinguished presence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a shop girl, presumably a temp working in the pre-Christmas rush. But the movie does not begin there. Instead, the opening shots are of New Yorkers emerging to the surface from the subway beneath. It may be the fifties. It may be the era when McCarthy ruled the airwaves as Donald Trump does now. But it was also the era in which America was coming to the surface and breaking out of its racialized and sexualized repressive past. Just the beginnings mind you, but beginnings nevertheless.

What more appropriate place to start the actual story, moving from the street level to the fifth or sixth floor of the “modern” department store that would become obsolete in our time. It may have been far from heaven, but it was also far from the gritty streets of New York and the inhabitants either striving to survive or striving to succeed; one could never decide which was worse. What more appropriate situation than selling Christmas toys for children who had left behind the stage at which they were just toddlers.

Was Frankenberg’s Department Store in the movie supposed to be Altman’s that had been located between Fifth Avenue and Madison at 34th Street? It does not matter. What mattered is that it was not Macy’s. It was not Gimbel’s. And it was not even the neo-modernist Saks Fifth Avenue at 50 th Street, the symbol of New York retail elegance. Frankenberg’s or Altman’s was handsome and understated while also exquisite in its choice of materials in Italo-renaissance style with its flat façades, masonry walls – differentiated for each floor – dentils and decorative detailing, always with a heavy masculine cornice to top it off, Silitto’s department store with its Art Deco style in Cincinnati provided an excellent substitute for its exterior. It was the department store that catered to the carriage trade.

There is a horizontal contrast in addition to the vertical one. For the juxtaposition of the New York pedestrian setting with its striving for elegance contrasted with the road movie shifting from seedy motels on route to the Drake Hotel in Chicago. New York, the mansion in New Jersey, and the highways of the northern U.S. are as much characters, though minor ones, in the movie as Therese and Carol. We are not in the modern up-to-date New York of the seventies of American Hustle, but the tired elegance of post-war America still living off the glamour of the roaring twenties. We are not yet into motorbike rides across a drug-ridden America striving for escape, but the era of travelling by car across a barren landscape.

 

We are also in the toy department, not the department selling elegant fashions, though Carol wears her elegant full-length mink coat throughout the film like armour plating in a mediaeval movie about war. The portrait reminds us of Melanie (Tippi Hedren), another tall, blond beauty in The Birds who also wears an elegant full-length honey-coloured mink in that film. And we recall how Hitchcock treated Tippi in real life as seen in the biopic about him. The Birds is an allegorical movie about birds in the cockney sense, about women in a cage and about women as birds who revenge themselves on humankind for their past mistreatment. For the women are either trapped or go mad and attempt revenge, for they still believe that they need men and they flock around the emotionally frozen male lead in the movie vying with one another for his affection and attention. Carol is well beyond that. She believes she has escaped her cage. But she will learn that it was not so easy. And it will not be without great cost.

 

The Birds begins in a pet store as Melanie goes to see if the mynah bird she ordered has arrived. Carol begins on the toy floor. She is shopping for a doll for her daughter, but instead settles on a train set, a boy’s choice for a toy, one recommended as Therese’s dream of a toy when she was four-years-old. This was a period when the mechanical age was at its height and when wood and leather and solid metal had not yet been replaced with plastic. There are two sides to that New York. There is the grimy Greenwich Village in which I lived over Christmas in 1957 and in which Therese probably lived in the movie. And there is the courtesan culture of the West Side that I only saw in movies, but which is juxtaposed – not married – to the grittiness of New York in this movie as in few others.

 

This is not a movie of the grey flannel suit, of fifties conformity. It is not about repression, but the difficulties of expression. The movie is not so much about coming out of the closet to make the invisible visible as it is about making the visible very visible even when the movie shots are taken as Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman’s famous 1961 movie). We watch the movie unfold through a rainy store front window or a grimy streaked window of a railway carriage or a car. We see through the glass. The characters stare out through the glass. So all is visible from the very start, but it is also streaked and discoloured. It is always about gazing, about our gaze, about the gaze of the characters in the movie, The problem is not in what is hidden in the film, in what the allegory is about, but in our difficulty, and even sometimes refusal, to see a situation very much associated with the male gaze. The story comes alive, not in what is said, but in what is left unspoken, unstated.

 

On the one hand, we see Rooney Mara, at one time in a cafeteria eating her meatballs and gravy on mashed potatoes, in such contrast to the elegant meals and martinis to which Carol will treat her, places where Therese does not even know what to order. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet has large soulful eyes that peer out and pierce the surroundings like the camera shots in her later development as a photographer. But the photos are not melancholic; they see directly; they are outspoken even when Therese herself says nothing. Therese with the angular lines of her face and her waif-like body is a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Edith Piaff, without the impish smile and the true lightness of being of Hepburn, but with a heart that sings of loneliness without the cigarette-smoked huskiness to her voice. Instead, her heart sang out like a Billie Holiday tune reeking of an unexpressed depth of emotion and a bluesy uninhibited directness, but as if she carried the weight of the world on her very fragile frame.

 

Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird is a study of contrasts. It is as if she is a glamorous old-style movie star locked up in elegant suburban New Jersey. If Therese is all presence while inhabited with absence, Carol is all performance – sophisticated and poised with a studied and practiced elegance that Eider so longed to attain in The Danish Girl. Carol’s cigarettes are always cocked at just the right angle. Carol belongs to a world of Packard cars rather than Chevrolets or even Cadillacs. Mercedes an Audis had not yet really arrived on American soil. It is not as if this is a movie about the coming together of two people from two different classes, though it is that, but the coming together of two people who gaze at one another from very opposite angles, but each directly and without inhibition. The first sighting in the department store is furtive when they first make eye contact, but eye contact they do make, reinforced by the double take of the camera as Carol leaves the toy department. Carol exhibits languor while Therese is a caterpillar that has not yet moulted. The back story of Therese is never told in the movie, for the focus is on the future story that has yet to unfold.

 

Neither is torn because of inner inhibitions repressed by a stuffy and backward culture. Rather, Carol is torn between her intense love for and dedication to her five-year-old daughter and the possibility of true love with another woman which she knows, in the world of the fifties, will cost her a great deal, most specifically in relationship to her daughter. Therese, on the other hand, has to emerge from her cocoon in which she has confined and resigned herself, someone not so much with a hidden past as with an unknown future.

 

The film is also a contrast of the interior scenes of bright colours and studied wealth versus the dreary overcast and even rainy exteriors shot with all the graininess of super 16 film stock. This is not a romantic movie with florid and extravagant dialogue, but one that is understated, that emerges through looks rather than excessive verbal dialogue, Therese simply says, “Take me to bed.” There is not a single scent of the gushy dime store romance novel. The movie is sensuous but not cerebral like The Danish Girl.

 

The film moves along at an agonizingly slow path in stark contrast to the rush and mayhem of New York. But it is not a movie of seduction, like Lolita. Nor is it a film of hot and tempestuous passion. The emotions are not complicated. Girl meets girl. Girl falls in love with woman. Girl – see the movie. It is well worth it.

The Female Gaze – The Danish Girl: A Movie Review

The Female Gaze – The Danish Girl: A Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

Last night, I came home from watching The Danish Girl in a quite troubled state. Let me say at the start that my mental turbulence had nothing to do with a film telling the story of the first person to undergo a sex operation in Germany in the early nineteen thirties. It is worth seeing the movie for that alone, but the acting is absolutely brilliant, certainly on the part of Eddie Redmayne (he won an Oscar last year for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything). He plays the landscape artist, Einer Wegener, who undergoes the operation to become Lili Elbe with such sensitivity that it defies one’s imagination. Eddie is absolutely magnificent.

Alicia Vikander (Kitty in Anna Karenina, Queen Catherine Mathilde in A Royal Affair – which I have not seen but will now do so ASAP – Vera Brittain, the mother of Shirley Williams, in Testament to Youth, Ava the robot who conveys a total sense of otherness, but also an agent beginning to be in charge of her own life in Ex Machina) plays Einer Wegender’s portrait artist wife, Gerda Wegener, in The Danish Girl. Alicia is both an extremely beautiful Swede as well as an actress who can express more with just her eyes than anyone else in film today.

This year there are just too many actors deserving to win academy awards. In the movie, A Danish Girl, Alicia plays a role that demands full self expression and the strict discipline and pain of a stoic who holds everything in. Her best friend in the movie is a ballerina in the Danish Royal Ballet. As Gerda Wegender, Alicia paints ballerinas, particularly her husband dressed as a ballerina, like someone who fully understands the paradox of combining strict discipline with the greatest bodily expression. She is a wonder to behold and it is no surprise to learn that she was trained as a ballerina herself in the Swedish Royal Ballet School. So The Danish Girl is a movie of art expressing real life which is lived as itself an exercise in art, self-reflection and self creation.

But it is not the acting on which I want to focus. I want my readers to help me resolve several of the dilemmas that really bothered me. One I believe I easily resolved concerned the title. Why was the film called, The Danish Girl? The biographical fictional novelist adaptation of the tale by David Ebershoff had a title that troubled me in a different way. The story focuses most of the time on the emotional turmoil that Gerda Wegener goes through as she responds to the different stages her husband transits. Those stages culminate in the desire, and the enactment of that desire, in a gender change operation. Gerda is an American woman. Yet the book that focuses on her is called, The Danish Woman.

The movie, on the other hand, has an intense focus on Einer Wegener/Lili Elbe. But then why not call the film, The Danish Woman? There is only one slight reference to Einer’s youth when he first had a glimpse of his self-identity as a girl. But the film is not about the development of that child as he transforms himself before our very eyes into a girl. The film starts with a portrait of two artists extremely in love with one another and mutually supportive. So why is the movie not titled, The Danish Woman and not The Danish Girl since it all takes place when the two leads are in their late twenties and early thirties?

My guess, and it is almost certainly a wrong guess, is that we, in the audience, watch as the inner girl, awkward at first, more like a thirteen-year-old, coyly emerges in an initially male exterior. So the film itself is really about the development of the girl within, even if the male body may be thirty or so. It is about how a girl learns the gestures, the bodily language, that makes her into a woman.

The movie is all about the corporeal when it comes to Einer Wegender/Lili Elbe. It is all about the soul when it comes to Einer’s wife, Gerda. He creates his female persona through performance; the actual physical operation to transform him into her is post climatic and almost irrelevant. Alicia creates the life of an emerging great artist at the same time as her most intimate relationship disintegrates in front of her.

But there are two other problems that I could not resolve to my personal satisfaction. The first concerns “the female gaze.” The second concerns “narcissism.” Very near the beginning of the film, Gerda Wegener is painting the portrait of an upper middle class bourgeois gentleman who is posing as she paints the canvas. Gerda senses the man’s discomfort and says to the portrait sitter that she understands his discomfort, “It is hard for a man to be looked at by a woman.” It is hard for a man to submit to a woman’s gaze as the portrait sitter gets even more uncomfortable as she smokes her cigarette with a long cigarette holder that she flaunts like a sword. She is the one in charge.

My eldest daughter is a painter. She taught me a bit about the female gaze when she did graduate work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and was immersed in the feminist literature of the time. I know that the concept of the female gaze emerged in the seventies in the academic literature. So it is disconcerting to hear a reference to it in a movie set in the twenties and early thirties first in Copenhagen and then in Paris. Why the female gaze when the movie is about eyes that express every subtlety of emotion rather than a singular focus on the other as an object?

My eldest daughter is a pop surrealist painter. The female gaze is a counter point to the concept of the male gaze. (Read Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay; she exemplified this theme in her discussion of post WWII films.) In the conception of the female gaze, art, and pop culture more generally, are understood historically as the expression, not conscious or otherwise intentional, of the male perspective on the world, whether it comes to painting or to contemporary films. So that when that gaze becomes fully self conscious, we get its parody as in the series, Sex and the City which I could not stand to watch. If the TV shows were about analyzing the male gaze rather than exhibiting it through the eyes of women, then I would not experience such misogynist hatred.

When the male gaze is pre-eminent, our sensibilities are aroused simply by looking on, by perceiving the woman as an object. There is not one instance in this movie where I could detect the male gaze even when there was a scene in which men are portrayed as looking at women. In those few scenes that try to portray that contrast, the movie just does not work for me. It does work when Alicia as Gerda portrays looking at her husband with a male gaze for we realize that what she loves so much in her husband is his femininity but cannot learn to accept her husband as a physical female with the soud of a male in her real life. That is, or should have been, the heart of the movie.

The male gaze is about dominance. As the female girl emerges and grows in Eider, Alicia as Gerda is torn between what she deeply loves and her socialization as a female sensitively attuned to the male gaze and deeply desiring to master it, which she does, but at great cost to her personal life. The sacrifice is supposedly about Einer’s transformation – more about that soon enough – but it is really most deeply about Gerda’s. This is a movie truly about women seen from a female perspective even when the lead role of the woman is played by a character who has embraced a male perspective, but only becomes a great artist when she reveals the contradiction in the two perspectives in her own art and it then becomes recognized by the greater public. The film inadequately focuses on this, the more important, transformation. The movie is too caught up in and trapped by the male gaze even as it tries to escape its entrapment.

Jean Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness depicted men as coming to know themselves truly only when, in interaction with others, they came to realize that they were the objects of the other’s gaze and not agents in their own right. For Sartre, there are never any subject-to-subject encounters, only subject-object ones or their inversion. For humans are never Kantian self-determining agents expressing their personal freedom. That is merely the conceit of the male gaze. But Sartre never escapes that male gaze, only magnifies it for our self-understanding as the dominant phenomenology of history.

Martin Buber, on the other hand, in I and Thou, brought to the fore the female gaze inherent in Jewish thought where the woman is truly predominant in spite of the social predominance of the male. In such an existential phenomenology, the core experience is not one self gazing at another as an object, but one agent interacting with the subjectivity of another. This is what Gerda does, struggle between her feminine self that loves and identifies with her husband’s struggle, and the persona she developed as a female artist who mastered the male gaze, but remained an unsuccessful artist until she began to surrender that insistence on male mastery. Intersubjectivity is the key, not subject-object relations. Distancing and interconnecting offer the key dialectic and dialogical insight into life. Emmanuel Levinas has made his brilliant philosophical career enlarging on this insight.

In my experience of the film, the problem is not so much that the male gaze and the female gaze never come together – they certainly do not – but that the film never resolves its focus on whether it is about the male gaze or the female gaze, whether the object of wonderment is Eider/Lili who transforms himself from a male with a feminine gaze into a female with a male gaze, or Gerda who never resolves the tension in her soul. I wanted to experience more of Gerda and felt deeply dissatisfied. The director, Tom Hooper, introduces that element as a secondary plot, but without the self-consciousness to fully realize the experience. He surrenders to his own male gaze and leaves the audience, I believe, totally frustrated.

With a gaze one looks intently, without wavering, fixated on the other as an object. Eider gradually emerges as physically a woman, but as one who sacrifices his male feminine gaze to become obsessed and fixated with a steely determination on himself as a woman, but as a woman insensitive to the pain he/she is inflicting on his wife as he murders the female/male within himself to emerge from his cocoon as a fully realized female physiognomy but with a male soul.

Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst French philosopher, wrote about how the subject loses, not gains in autonomy as in Immanuel Kant, by seeing oneself as a visible physical object. And that is precisely what happens to Einer – he loses his autonomy, his identity as a subject, when he turns himself into a female object and betrays the feminine side of his soul. Only I am pretty sure this happens in spite of the director’s gaze and not with the director’s gaze as an assist. But, as I said, I feel very unsure of this conclusion. But it is a Sartrean movie because it is about a self who turns himself into an object in his own gaze as we see scene after scene of Einer imitating women’s gestures and poses as he/she watches him/herself in the mirror. Tom Hooper would have done well to have read Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to become much more self-conscious of what the story was really about.

I wonder how the film would have emerged if it had been directed by a woman, such as Jane Campion, with such an exquisite sensibility. I wonder how the film would have emerged with a different cinematographer than Danny Cohen, who is terrific in giving the sense of Einer’s obsession with the miniscule details of the landscapes of his youth that turned the movie into a painterly expression of natural objectivity, but never quite captures the inner turmoil of the wrestling match really underway in both Gerda and Einer/Lili. For the movie gets progressively less sensual and less sexual and less truly physical as it progresses towards its clinical ending, but at the cost of Gerda’s turmoil, which I thought was the real story.

Einer when he becomes Lili becomes an object of pain rather than someone deeply experiencing that pain. It is as if in becoming the corporeal body of a female, Einer had lost his female soul when wrapped in a male’s body. What would the film have looked like if there had been more lower angle shots and less high angular ones looking down on the action, so that the power within wrestling with the corporal self could be more fully realized, expressed and viewed? I would like to see the movie over again just to follow the shifts in the camera angles.

Which tales me to the other dilemma I had about the film – its narcissism. For that turned me off. The film becomes so preoccupied, as only the male gaze can be, with Einer’s obsession with Lili, with Einer actually transforming himself into someone who looks upon the world with a male vision so deeply in love with himself that he, as he becomes she, loses and deliberately sacrifices his female side and his relationship with Gerda, who remains true to him and their love for one another in spite of Lili’s betrayal.

The problem with the film, for me, was that it was mostly about narcissism, about an obsessive interest in one’s own physical appearance as scene after scene shows Einer gazing at himself and gazing at an other to practice his physical self-transformation. The self-absorption is so dominant in the movie that one cannot escape its embrace. Einer, in spite of his hesitancy, in spite of his self doubts, in spite of his trepidation, becomes more and more extreme in his selfishness, more and more indifferent to Gerda’s loss when he/she murders the female/male within. How could Einer/Lili be so indifferent to Gerda’s suffering as he/she tries to make himself into an object of a male’s gaze? He is so insensitive to her suffering that it literally drove me crazy.

It is not as if Einer was transforming himself into Donald Trump with a narcissistic personality disorder of the giant variety. Einer never becomes conceited, never becomes boastful like a carnival barker, never becomes obsessed with monopolizing conversations and the attention of the world, never becomes someone possessed with a sense of entitlement that the highest office in the land exists so that he could assume it, Einer/Lili never becomes pretentious even as he becomes a she who is deeply a he. But Einer also never comes to realize how much of a pretence and a love of pretence comes to define his life. The film is one of megalomania written on the intimate scale of a personal relationship rather than on a world stage.

Becoming Lili takes on an exaggerated importance and obsession so that Einer is willing to sacrifice both his artistic career and his deep love for his wife just to become Lili. He is truly sick even as the film portrays Einer as a female caught in a male body when he tries to release the male within in the form of a female body. Einer wants to be admired as Lili rather than loved as Einer. He is one sick dude, but the film conveys the sensibility that he has this trouble because society does not understand the conflicted state of a transgendered being. But the real story is not about the acceptance of a transgendered self, but about the sacrifice of an empathetic self in the cause of pursuing the physiognomy of a female acceptable to the male gaze.

The movie in the end is a betrayal of the feminist revolution that had dominated the last half century. That is what I cried about when I watched The Danish Girl.