The Revenant – Stamina

The Revenant – Stamina


Howard Adelman

“Revenir” in French means return, to come back, and, in this film, to come back from the dead, to be really and materially resurrected. This is a film about resurrection and revenge. The medium of resurrection was the holy spirit of the dead wife of Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio). As I wrote in my blog on Friday, the lesson was to keep breathing no matter what, because the Holy Spirit was in “ruah,” the breath of life.

The motive for Hugh Glass’ pursuit of revenge was the killing of his half-breed son by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), even if, according to legend, the revenge was because Glass had been left for dead contrary to the code of trappers and fur traders and the military forces that provided a degree of protection. In Western legend, Hugh Glass, a frontier trapper and fur trader, was attacked by a bear and left for dead by two other trappers, but he was not buried alive and the events took place in late summer rather than in late winter.

Why the infusion of a different theme of survival than the one handed down in history? And why was a non-existent son included, but given such a flimsy almost ethereal presence to complement that of his invented mother? The answer may be found in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s comments as the director; he envisioned Hugh Glass as an amalgam of “a man, a beast, a saint, a martyr, a spirit.” The question is how does this syncretic view compare and contrast with inherited legend, and how does it rewrite the mythology of the American frontier?

Why did the native American hung from a tree, presumably by French trappers, have a sign hung around his neck, “On est tous des sauvages” (we are all savages)? Was it an assertion about Native Americans or a universal assertion that in the Wild West, in a Hobbesian world of each man for himself in competition with every other, all humans are savages? If universal, is this thesis put out there as a contrast with a competing ethic of human survival through the help and care of others, through the mediation of women, through a God of mercy and not just justice? Is the film really about “mercy” competing with “justice” for pre-eminence? If so, why in the end does vengeful justice emerge supreme instead, as legend has it, Hugh Glass eventually forgave the two trappers who abandoned him?

But, of course, it is breathing we hear at the end. So ruah is still associated with mercy, with survival, even if Glass, in the film, lost his soul to justice. Redemption was still possible through the feminine aspect of the divine spirit, through the shechinah. In the legend of Hugh Glass, there is both masculine individualism and the power of justice to motivate, but, in the end, mercy wins out as the feminine aspect in the male soul is the real power behind survival. In the movie, that feminine aspect is almost totally externalized in a female ghost and lives on only after the God of cruel justice has his revenge.

In a blog a few days ago, I quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s first public speech at the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, called, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” I repeat the first part of that quote here:

We [the American People] find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

In The Revenant, the far West was on the verge of being conquered and wrestled away from the French just fifteen years before Abraham Lincoln made his speech. In the first half of the nineteenth century, these were “the new territories.” The West (ironically, as we shall see, the Canadian West and, in the end, Argentina, were used in the film) is not portrayed as verdant and bucolic, fertile and graced with a salubrious climate. It is starkly and much more beautiful, but also far more inhospitable with its cold and its cliffs, its ice and wild rivers and even wilder “savages.” [Excuse my politically incorrect language, but it is true to the film.] However, although the scenes do not correspond to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills where the Crazy Horse Memorial is located and that I described last year in my blogs as we drove through South Dakota and to which we will be returning next week, for thematic purposes, the Alberta landscape was probably more suitable.

I am writing this review in expectation that by now everyone has seen the movie in the theatre where it absolutely must be seen. It is such a magnificent visual product. But I will not focus on the difference in landscape between Alberta and the Black Hills, with the ending even shot in Argentina because Canada’s winter had been too mild, with the fact that in the short days in winter with so few daylight hours and the desire to shoot only in natural light to enhance “the realism” in accordance with the aesthetic decisions of the academy award winners Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, to shoot only with natural light for maximum realism, meant that they were only able to shoot a few hours a day. I will not allude to the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, a vegetarian, ate real raw liver allegedly from a bison to give a real feel to his hunger.

However, as the readers will see, it is important that Iñárritu was a tyrant on set and that Tom Hardy, who, in my contention, was the best actor in the film, came to fisticuffs with his tyrannical director. Further, some comparison to reality is necessary to clarify what the film is really about. There are a number of iconic characters in the narrative of America “taming” the West, some, like Davie Crockett, very well known and others that you encounter in the wonderful museums in virtually every town throughout the West when you travel through the U.S. Those are icons that I had previously known nothing about. Hugh Glass was not a virtual unknown. There may not be songs written about him to make him a household name, but his story is reasonably widespread to those who read about the West and love westerns.

So why change the facts of history? Why, in the film, let his companions in the wilderness set his leg snapped by the bear, when, according to the “real” historical narrative, he set his own leg? Why give him a half-breed son when there is no record of his having had a son, part native or otherwise? If realism was the goal, why evade essential elements of realism? Though setting one’s own broken leg might be harder to believe, exploding gunpowder on a wound to cauterize it was perhaps more sensational, and I did not know that he had actually done that until I saw the film and double checked afterwards. And why not include the grossest scene of all, Glass rolling around in rot to allow maggots to eat away the gangrene that had infused his wounds?

Glass, in the film, is made into a loving father and a romantic male haunted by the love of his life, his native wife. But he never had a wife, native or otherwise. He was truly a wilderness survivor who relied on his inherited individual resources. Native aboriginal peoples helped him, but not nearly as much as the film suggested, for the narratives handed down in history again make him an exemplar of the rugged individualist who could conquer the challenges of nature on his own. He, according to legend, actually crawled several hundred miles with his broken leg, though we only get a hint of that in the film. The film clearly suggests that his survival skills – sucking bone marrow from the skeleton of a dead bison – are what count. The film, however, suggests that these were survival techniques learned from Native Americans, which could possibly be truer than the stories of the Robinson Crusoe who virtually survives on his own.

And what about Jim Bridger, the young boy who is persuaded by John Fitzgerald to leave Glass behind in spite of the agreement made with the fort’s captain? I looked up the “real” story and, as it turns out, both of the trappers who abandoned him were eventually found and forgiven, Bridger, as suggested in the film because he was duped by Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald himself, not because of any act of mercy towards him, but because Glass knew he would be hung for murdering an active military man.

Further, Hugh Glass went on to live another ten years and did not die in a vengeful battle. I write all of this, not to insist that a film conform with inherited historical reality, but to ask why history is being so totally rewritten when visual realism, when the feeling of the real, has been such an aesthetic dictatorial principle in making the film, but historical realism has been simply cast into the dustbin of history? I contend that the reason is that the director is involved in the construction of a new mythology about the West intended to displace the old one.

What is that old mythology?

Frederick Jackson Turner, an American historian, at the end of the nineteenth century, advanced the thesis that the American character had been formed and forged by the process of westward movement of pioneers and settlers, a character reinforced at each stage of western movement and reified by legend and history. On Sunday, we will be driving by Chicago to reach and pass through the latest stages where that character was forged and it is in Chicago where Turner first presented his famous paper introducing us to his thesis about the American character.

I think it is no coincidence that it was in Chicago that Donald Trump had to cancel his rally with the lie that it was because peaceful protesters were threats when the real threats came for his own supporters and his instigations to prove that “might is right,” that force works, and that what counts in a leader is strength and not wisdom, will and certainly not judgment. Almost fifty years earlier, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, riots broke out in the International Amphitheater in late August in response to the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and in the way that Mayor Richard Daley had responded to Black rage.

This time, white rage, not so much at economic injustice as it has widely been portrayed (though undoubtedly a factor), but white rage as white resentment and latent racism that still permeates America and is redirected by Trump at Muslims and Mexicans.  But Black rage is still evident in the way the campaign to nominate Hillary Clinton has been hurt by Rahm Emanuel, currently mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff under Barack Obama, and rage that is now directed at how he has handled, or mishandled, the information on the police treatment of Blacks that has leaked out. Chicago remains a testing ground for American values. In the nineteenth century, Chicago served as the bridge between the opening frontier and settled America.

When presidential candidates, from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, cite liberty and egalitarianism, though different versions of each, as the core of the American character, when Republicans and Democrats take such opposite views of the use of coercive force both domestically and internationally, in the case of Donald Trump stressing non-conformity and the refusal to accept any inherited norms of correct political conduct as supervening while his opponents rail at his torching the conventions that have governed politics in the U.S., we watch current emanations of the conflict over the role of the frontier and settled America.

The irony, of course, is that politicians of all stripes talk about the eternal and unchanging character of American equality of opportunity, of liberty and of justice, but Frederick Jackson Turner had an evolutionary model of the functioning of the frontier in the tension between civilization versus the wilderness. “Establishment,” whichever establishment it is, became a term of abuse which Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders all rhetorically rail against because American history is so imbued with a narrative that insists that America was forged in opposition to any standing class, to any aristocracy, to any established church, and, currently, to any establishment in Washington.

The issue for all has become insensitivity to the rising expression of the will of the people and Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sander’s monopoly over the economic version of this thesis has been removed. Of course, all this depends on ignoring the fact that “the checks and balances” system of democracy is but an inheritance from Great Britain reconstructed as a democratic monarchy. The king is now elected, but must be opposed as soon as he or she is in office. And Trotsky wrote about “continuous or permanent revolution!”

As Turner wrote, as Americans moved further and further into taming the wilderness and the Rockies, they became more and more prone to resist intrusive government, more “democratic,” more intolerant of any hierarchy. It does not matter if Donald Trump is a billionaire, what matters is that he sells himself like a snake oil salesman as anti-establishment and does it so much better than any other competitor. Of course, in Turner’s thesis, the more Americans moved West, the more they moved further away from inherited institutions, the more violence and individuals taking security into their own hands became the ruling norm. Not science, not a refined sense of fine art, but literally a society forged out of tooth and claw.

For Turner, with the conquest and taming of the New Territories by the end of the nineteenth century, the forge out of which the America was built, would no longer be in play. What Turner did not envision is that this construct became even more powerful as it was divorced from actual history and became an integral element in American mythology. If the frontier closed on the ground, it had a vastly wider purview when it operated on the mythological rather than the earthly plane.

It may help to contrast the American mythology with the Canadian tale of the frontier developed by Harold Innis that became so pervasive when I was at university, especially in its revamped form of communications theory of Marshal McLuhan. For the fur trade was not so much about the interaction of humans in conflict with nature in a lawless universe, but about establishing communication routes and contacts between and among peoples. Sometimes that would entail violent conflict, but most times it was negotiations and treaties, about trade and exchange of goods, of ideas, of services. In America, the frontier was a region of natural and inherent contestation. In Canada, opening the West was a matter of utilizing different technologies of communication that altered both the so-called wilderness and the ordered system of government coming into contact with a different political and social order. The issue was not so much violent conflict as inter-cultural exchange.

Harold Innis was an economic historian. His “staples thesis” about the fur trade was a tale of export-led growth. In Canada, the issue was natural resources – fur, fish, lumber, mineral commodities – and how these could be brought to markets where they were wanted and needed for a developing consumer economy. Cod and its modes of collection, transformation and transportation produced one kind of culture while furs produced a different one. Canada was inherently multicultural dependent on which natural resource was being exploited. The American frontier thesis was about a constant and universal quality inherent and characteristic of all Americans, reinforced, not because it happened to be fur that was being fought over among Americans, the French and the native peoples, but because the fight was a constant whatever the commodity and whatever the place.

I recall that my eldest son’s first publication – or one of his first major ones – was on the contrast between the way Argentina was settled and the way Canada was settled in the freezing climate of the West at the end of the nineteenth century. In Canada, only when a new strain of wheat was invented that could survive in that harsh climate could the West be settled. Civilization was a precondition for settling the West and not antithetical to it.

The combination of the type of commodity (then wheat) versus cattle, the communication routes for labour and capital, the technology of a new strain of wheat and of a new form of transportation, railways, all were woven together to produce different characters in different regions dependent on the interaction of a variety of factors rather than a thesis of a constant battle between wilderness and civilization, between individuals and inherited social establishments.

In The Reverant, there is no mention that the fur trade was controlled by large multinational companies, in Canada, the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, where the emphasis was on the need for large companies to facilitate the trade instead of on the wild individual, whether a trapper or a prospector of minerals. Large companies, centres of finance capital and the creation of technologically-founded communication routes were all crucial to find and forge the materials. So Canada is much more attuned to the importance of international trade and large multinational firms, to trade and transportation more than acquisition, to cultural mosaics rather than forging a unified national character, to cooperation more than competitiveness, to the volatility of resource economies in general and to the disruptions and radical changes required by broad technological evolutions.

Which takes us back to the film. For in the movie, the Mexican director is using the lament over the demise of the old individualistic American mythology of the frontier to forge a new one. Cooperation and competition are in contention. Law and order versus the wild West are in contention. The feminine spirit is at the heart of survival in nature, shechinah rather than Elohim, the merciful Adonai more than the God of justice. The villain kills he who is Other. The villain denies and disrupts family values. The hero insists on revenge, but survives, not only to take revenge, but because of the spirit world which is the world of the feminine.

In the days of modern communication when electronic and digital media are at war with old-fashioned television in the political marketplace of ideas in the American election, The Revenant is really an old fashioned frontier movie, but with a new vision of the frontier embedded with mercy as a value, embedded with a feminine spirit, in an effort to transvalue and resurrect, not just Hugh Glass, but an old American ethic for a new age.

Elohim, the God of justice, and Adonai, the God of mercy infused and evocative of the shechinah as would eventually be expressed in the post-biblical period, are in contention. As the Mexican Director has interpreted it and as American politicians and voters experience every day, the issue is stamina, who can survive best the legions of arrows shot at both candidates and voters in barrages every day. It is we, crippled with a broken leg and suffering wounds that would kill most mortals, who crawl hundreds of miles to the finish line.

The issue is over stamina, not individualism, and a different expression of stamina than demonstrated by Terry Fox in his run across Canada against cancer. For Terry Fox became a hero even though he lost his life to cancer. Donald Trump denigrated the American war hero, John McCain, even though he survived five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. After all, he was a loser and not a winner. In the revised mythology and the inherited one, only winners count. Losers must be cast aside, except when opposing Trump and the God of mercy is then invoked. We need a liberal rather than two different and competing tyrannical versions of the frontier tale.


Akram Kahn and Toro


Howard Adelman

At then end of yesterday morning’s Torah study session, the rabbi passed around a copy of chapter 9 of Rabbi Joshua Heschel’s 1951 book, Man Is Not Alone. I can remember how much I was affected by reading that book almost sixty years ago in early 1958.  I could not recall the contents, but I certainly recall the powerful impression that the then fifty- year-old rabbi made on a twenty-year-old in second year medical school and living in Mount Sinai Hospital in the interns’ quarters. I was not an intern, just getting free accommodation in return for working in radiology a few hours every evening. I certainly felt alone as I wrestled with my desire to leave medical school and just read and write.

The chapter distributed yesterday is called, “In the Presence of God.” As I wrote above, there was not a chance in hell that I could tell you what was in that chapter. I have only picked up Heschel sporadically since that time, and then only to read bits and pieces. But I remember reading that book and I definitely remember reading that chapter. I thought at the time that he should have written a chapter called, “In the Absence of God.”

The chapter begins, “The sense of the ineffable introduces the soul to the divine aspect of the universe, to a reality higher than the universe.” Why should the inability of language to depict God introduce a soul to the sense of the divine in the universe. Adam in the Garden of Eden had the power of speech. It was his duty and responsibility to be a scientist, to walk around that garden and do the closest thing to imitating the creation of the universe by naming things – cats and dogs, tulips and daffodils. He was a nascent biologist.

But when it came to God, the same God who told Adam, the archetypal nerd who was totally oblivious to the fact, that he was alone in the universe and that he needed a helpmeet, when it came to God, Adam could not pigeon-hole Him, could not properly categorize Him or Her. I do not remember much of what I learned in Talmud Torah, even though I spent four afternoons a week after school as well as Sunday mornings there. But I do remember, though probably not from my years of non-study of the Torah, my years of feeling like I had been sentenced to a few hours of prison every day. I do remember that Moses had asked God what his name was. No, that is not what he asked. He asked, “Who are you?” Not to solicit God’s name, but his character. Moses was saying, I have learned from Adam to categorize different kinds of dogs and different kinds of tomatoes. How do I categorize you?

How does God answer Moses? With words that Adam cannot possibly experience. I am eternal. Since you left the Garden of Eden, you only know your mortality, especially as you grow older. But I, God, am immortal. I lack the experience of being mortal. I lack the experience of living within a limited time. I am unable to experience how time is sacred because I permeate all of space. But as such, God has experienced human affliction, in particular, the affliction of Moses and his ancestors, the affliction of my people and my ancestors. God is a witness to suffering while not being able to suffer Himself – a very different sense of the divine that is taught in Christianity. God does not suffer. God observes, not what category we belong to, not whether we are doctors or lawyers or labourers. But God witnesses our pain and our affliction, all inherent to what it is to be human.

But God is not just a witness. He is a redeemer. Actually, He promises redemption. There is no evidence of delivery. He offers a promise, a future prospect of redemption, of relief from that affliction, a relief from being mortal. But unlike God who is not mortal, that redemption could not come by our being made immortal as many believed. I knew better. It meant that God was Death, for the promise was just a tautology. We were mortal. Ergo we would die. Ergo we would be redeemed from our affliction. And the older you get the more aware and sensitive you become to a world full of pain and suffering.

If God is death, why “Kiddush Hashem?” Why sanctify His name? Why is profaning God’s name prohibited? Why must we avoid bringing shame onto God, avoid “chillul Hashem?” Not by uttering blasphemies, but by our behaviour, bringing God into disrespect because of what we do. If God’s name is YHWH, Yud., Heh, Vav, Heh, the four letter acronym for God that expresses His or Her ineffability,  that says that, unlike a flower or an ant, God cannot be characterized by His or Her name, but only by a name that says we cannot capture God by a taxonomy of language.

Hence Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joshua, the card God held up his sleeve when both Moses and Aaron fell so far short of who they could have become! For Yeshuah means, the Lord is my salvation. For God is Elijah. God is the Lord. God is Elohim, the ruler of the universe. Humans live in bondage. God, and really only God, can be a Lord on High. God has enormous power. God has unbounded authority, not that we really can understand either. But the depictions teach us that humans can only have bounded or limited power and authority. And the great sickness of man is to aspire to have unbounded authority, to become a dictator, to become an authoritarian ruler and revel in one’s power and one’s might.

It is so easy for people who are feeling insecure to long to worship at the feet of a golden calf, especially if it is a golden cow with a crown of gold for hair. But, for Heschel, it is precisely because God is ineffable that we are introduced to two things at one and the same time. First were are introduced to our own souls because our minds, our brains, are pre-programmed to reject an inability to categorize, to reject that anything is ineffable, for the intellect is totally convinced, has it built into its very DNA, that everything in experience can be classified and categorized, assigned attributes that allow one thing to be grouped with another. By definition, according to Heschel’s challenge to the Lithuanian and enlightenment tradition of Judaism, the mind inherently cannot grasp God. And only when humans recognize that, only then will they come to recognize that they have a soul which, though it may not be able to grasp God in order to categorize and characterize Him or Her, can experience God’s presence.

But can the soul feel God’s absence? That is the question I wanted to ask Heschel sixty years ago. If the soul can be attuned to God’s presence, the soul must be able to experience God’s absence. Even if that absence is only depicted as not experiencing that presence. If God, for Heschel, was a category within which the universe was to be placed rather than placing God as simply one additional item within the universe, God would then still be experienced as a category. And so Heschel began that chapter with a fundamental contradiction. If God was ineffable, then God could not even be categorized as something within Whom the entire universe and the entire universe of categories could rest. For that would still mean grasping God as a category for the mind and not simply experiencing his presence.

That is how I experienced that chapter – not as a chapter about the anteroom of experiencing God, but as an introduction to a paradox that even depicting God as ineffable did not work, even suggesting that by grasping the ineffability of God, the soul is introduced to the divine aspect of the universe. For if the universe could only be grasped intellectually as within God, then how could Heschel say that the soul experiences an aspect of the world as divine, for then the universe could not entirely be within God, but God, the divine, must simply be one part of the universe?

But Heschel does not get caught up in intellectual paradoxes. For in describing, in trying to experience God through first grasping that God is ineffable, an experience which the intellect by definition cannot grasp, we fall into the Black Hole of the intellect from which we cannot escape. For the issue is not really knowing God. By saying that God is ineffable, we are saying that God cannot be known. So what are we talking about? We are not really discussing God, but as Heschel writes, we are discussing that which can know God, our souls. We need to be introduced to our own souls. And if we are mortal and God is immortal and eternal, then the issue is not what we think of God, but what God thinks of our existence, of our mortality, of the fact that we exist at all. The issue is and always has been, not do we have faith in God, and not even whether God has faith in you, but who you are to be worthy of God’s faith in you.

In other words, we must look not at our experience of the universe, but at the universe as an object of divine thought, not us as simply independent agents, for, by definition, from God’s perspective, independence and individual agency are ruled out in advance,. Even if the Torah is all about teaching us to be responsible human beings and to take responsibility for the universe in which we live, from God’s perspective, we and the universe are objects of divine thought. Even if we do not yet – or ever – experience God’s presence, we are taken out of our minds, we are, in fact, driven out of our minds to open ourselves to the experience of God by first recognizing that God’s experience of the world is not ours. We cannot grasp the universe from the perspective of a being who is ineffable. That is just the nature of what it means to have a mind. And that is why such an experience must, and is the only way to grasp that we have a soul that can have such an experience.

That is an awful lot of verbiage to spend explicating the first couple of sentences of a chapter in Heschel’s book. For his book is just a reiteration of an Enlightenment precept articulated by Kant, that the mind, the brain, has its limits and can really only operate within those limits. If you try to grasp God from the perspective of a brain that works by giving finitude to the world of objects, then we cannot know we have a soul and, it follows, we cannot experience God’s presence, or, as I would add, even God’s absence. The only way to begin to know our own soul and begin the long road to experience God’s presence is not through the intellect but through intuition. This is Heschel’s central message.

Presence precedes essence. And intuition is the precondition for experiencing a divine presence. The intellect has to be bracketed.

I write this not to begin a theological discussion, but as an introduction to my experience of  the dance and sound performance of Akram Khan and his musical partners that I experienced at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. The performance cannot possibly be grasped or depicted in words. It has to be experienced. I have never seen a performance like it before. And thus the paradox – using words to depict what is not about words at all and that cannot be grasped by words that, in effect, reduce language, not to words, but to a wide variety of sounds and movements, to body and auditory language without words. And it is not only the sound of drums or the various voices on stage, but the sounds of silence, the sounds of the body language, not only with its foot-stomping flamenco rhythms, but with the sounds of silence as hands whoosh through the air, as shoulders jerk, as heads move as in a Thai dance.

Unlike simply a musical performance of a band or singing group, dance is movement without a text, without a vocabulary. Reading all the books on my shelves will tell me nothing about the experience of watching a dance company. This is even truer when the purpose of that dance company is to express the ineffability of both dance and voice. God is the witness to the experience of our ancestors. The construction of the mishkan, of the Tabernacle, can be described in exquisite detail. But what about the dancing of the Hebrews when they whirled with joy around the golden calf?

The faster the dance, the more exotic the rhythms, the more complex the movements, the less dance is able to be grasped and depicted through the language of the intellect. If flamenco is defined as the cry of the soul of the Spanish people, more particularly, the gypsies or Romani and the Jews, the Moors and the Andalusians, we have on offer one entry into how the ineffable God experiences the world, one entry point to our souls, one entry point from which to experience the ineffability of the divine presence.

There was evidently a back story to last night’s performance. I really did not know about it until I read the theatre notes. Evidently, the original show scheduled was a performance focused primarily on two dancers, the very famous flamenco dancer, Israel Galván and the equally famous British choreographer, Akram Khan of Bangladeshi descent and interpreter of Indian traditional music and dance, kathak, from which flamenco is believed to have been derived. What unites both forms of art is they are more direct aesthetic expressions of what is written in Torah, the experiences of pain and oppression, the lamentations and suffering of a people over time, and the moments of exquisite glory that like a flaming torch leads the people on its onward journey through history.

The back story is important. Israel Galván did not perform last night. The production, which was originally scheduled, was a duet–duel, like two rappers. It is a dialogue between these two traditions coming once again face-to-face, both having traveled via different routes through the Diaspora. But without Israel Galván, who had been ordered to rest for weeks, even months, to allow an injured knee to mend, the performance of TOROBAKA could not be presented.

Akram Kahn had written that Israel Galván is a sublime storyteller of rhythms, not rhythms of the past, but rhythms of the future,” “He [Galván] has opened my eyes into how and what is possible with flamenco, how one can deconstruct it, transform it and recreate it, in order to form new stories. After all, stories are what help us make sense of the world.” I would suggest one modification to what Khan wrote of Galván. “Not rhythms of the past,” I suggest he really meant, “not just rhythms of the past.” For, if the performance originally scheduled was even loosely akin to the performance of toro that we witnessed last evening, then the profundity of the music and dance comes not merely from its novelty, but from how the new and innovative can be enriched while raising up and preserving the past, the past even before there was a recorded past, the past prior to the mind going to work categorizing the world and writing down those stories.

I mention this back story because, after the performance I heard two different people say that, although they really liked the performance, it was too bad that they had missed seeing TOROBAKA. I wondered. Was my experience of God’s absence preventing me from fully, or even partially, experiencing God’s presence? For what we saw last night was so extraordinary, so outstanding, I could grasp how focusing to even a small degree on what is missing can interfere with experiencing what is present before us.

At the end of the movie, Revenant (which I promise to write about), when the picture fades, we still here Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) breathing. A very old friend from my activist days in the New Left in the sixties, whom I have not seen for decades, but whom I frequently read since he became a rabbi, Arthur Waskow, wrote an essay called, “The Breath of Life and Prayer.” It begins as follows:

For millennia, the Jewish convention has been to non-pronounce “YHWH” by saying instead, Adonai, “Lord.”  This fits with naming God as Melekh ha’olam, King or Ruler of the universe. Sometimes people (usually from other religious communities or influenced by academic teaching) try to pronounce the four-letter Name by adding vowels, so it becomes “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” But what if we broke the rule and “pronounced” that Name with no vowels?  I have invited hundreds of people to experiment this way, and for almost everyone, what happens is a breath, or the sound of wind. Spiritus in Latin is “breath” and “wind.”  In Hebrew, Ruach=breath=wind=spirit. “Spirituality” is what celebrates the interbreathing that connects all life. (What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.) So we might begin our blessings, “Baruch attah [or Brucha ahtYahhhhh elohenu ruach ha’olam”—“Blessed are You, our God, the Breathing Spirit of the world.”

For me, YHWH as Breath of Life is not just a neat understanding of the four-letter Name, but a profound metaphor and theology of God. God as the Breath of Life, in-and-out- breath, that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us. Words are physical breathing shaped by our intellectual consciousness into emotional communication. Using words is one of the crucial aspects of being human (not absolutely unique to us, but by far best-developed among us). So for me, what we do when we pray or study Torah or share words of compassion is breathe our selves into the Breath of Life. We shape one major aspect of what makes us human, and part of the Breath of Life, into a conscious weaving of our breaths into the breath of life.

But there is breathing even before there are words. In the movie, Hugh Glass insists that, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.” And his dead native wife appears to him as a floating ghostly figure and articulates at greater length the sense of the divine as ruah, as breath, as spirit. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”

Experiencing the breath of life inherently makes us feel insecure, on edge. And that is exactly what toro did last evening. Once, my wife walked away from an accident in which she flipped an ATV onto herself. It has left its memory written into her bones. But she walked away breathing. Toro is not just a bull, but is precisely to walk away standing, breathing and alive after wiping out. And that is what toro was about last evening. You could not help, if you attended, continually catching your breath, infusing ruach into your very being. It allowed us to get in touch with sound before there was language, with motion and gesture before there was ballet or the fox trot. Toro took us back to a time before intellectualization took place, before we were placed in the Garden of Eden, before we were instructed to categorize and give meaning to what we experienced, to a time when experience was direct and immediate before we constructed a correspondence theory of truth and organized language mediated between what we experience and how we articulate what we experienced.

Thus, the movement of animals – the bear in Revenant, the representation of animal movements the dances of Akram Khan. As the program notes expressed it, “The hunter, lost in the countryside, imitates the gait of the animal he has come to hunt. Words are yet to be defined; they are guttural sounds which are understood almost as if they were orders, acts of command. Every part of the body is expressive, movements are read, they have a function. “TOROBAKA!” But what happens when we have the bull without the cow, toro without baka. (Baca, as in Hebrew, is also vaca, “cow”.) We have even a more refined version, I suspect, of Adam living in the Garden of Eden before Eve came along. We have the expression of loneliness and inter-subjectivity without the experience of human intercourse. For, as in jazz, the dancers and singers play off one another.

Thus we have futuristic dance, dance and sound as fusion and reflection and resonance, but always with a reaching back to before we learned to play intellectual games, the choreography of kathak and flamenco with flamenco remaining as a residue where we experience its absence through its presence. As background to Akram Khan’s stamping and jingling ankle bells, to Khan wearing and dancing with flamenco shoes on his hands, Khan silences each of his singers in turn – except for the exceptional percussionist, B.C. Manjunath, without whose rhythms there could be no performance.

We have dialogue and tension, but not a duel between two very different paths of history, Sometimes, the sounds are purely guttural. At other times they mimic a Latin boys choir in a mediaeval church in something that sounds like Latin but is not. Thus, we have the great soloist, the speed, precision and virtuosity of Azram Khan accompanied by, no, really matched against, the Don Quixote of the troupe, David Azura, a countertenor, whose singular voice carries the sound of a full boy’s choir.

As a vocal contrast of David’s, we hear the voice of Christine Leboutte with a maternal and sometimes unusually gutteral contralto sound. What comes out of the mouths of the musicians just does not match their body types. David Azura could pass for a tall, bald and gaunt monk in a mediaeval church. Leboutte is a matronly earth mother with a voice that both startles and comforts. When Manjunath offers his vocal contributions, we are listening to the deep roots of scat in the jazz tradition, but the vocalizations resonate with something even deeper than the blues in the rapid-fire vocalizations that compete with the stamping. Then there is the portly bald and bearded rabbi of the troupe, Bobote, who just startles you when he performs flamenco numbers. And when he sings…! But he also performs with his arms as if he were Krishna standing in the shadow of Khan. And then his clapping, the intricacy along with its independent voice, sometimes performed with just fingers against a palm and sometimes with the sound of one hand clapping.

Arms weave and gesture, express awe and wonderment, while at other times commanding silence, telling us clearly in the voices and the sounds that what we are experiencing, that we are in the presence of the ineffable. So why long for an absence? What does it teach me about getting beyond the experience of an absence to intuit a presence?


With the help of Alex Zisman

Holy Motors II – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part II: a movie review


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


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


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

Youth – a movie review

Youth – A Movie Review


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.

The Female Gaze II – Carol: A Movie Review

The Female Gaze II – Carol: A Movie Review


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


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.


Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies


Howard Adelman

I spoke to my eldest son on Sunday morning – he was born exactly half-way between the period when the film takes place – to check whether he had returned safely from Paris, where he had been for a few weeks. As it turned out, he had left Paris just before the IS terrorist attacks and knew nothing of them until he arrived back at Newark Airport. Obviously we discussed Paris and its significance, but he also urged me to see this film. I saw it Sunday evening.

Bridge of Spies is touted as part courtroom drama and part spy movie. It is neither. There is no drama in the court case when Rudolf Abel (played absolutely brilliantly by Mark Rylance) is tried in 1957, though there is some interesting negotiations between James Donavan (Tom Hanks), Abel’s defence attorney, and the presiding judge in his chambers and home. This is also no spy movie, though the movie is about the events leading to the exchange of two spies, Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy for the Soviet Union, and Francis Gary Powers, who flew the U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union when it was flying at 70,000 feet in the air in 1960.

That was the most exciting action scene in the whole film, a scene that is used to suggest why Powers has no time to take the poison that the CIA gave him. However, the movie is overwhelmingly about James Donavan who first defended Abel in his trial and then negotiated the exchange with the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1962. The movie is a negotiation film; that is what the film is about and where the real drama takes place.

The movie opens in the spring of 1957. Dwight Eisenhower, who would denounce the military-industrial complex, had just begun his second term as President of the United States with the Eisenhower Doctrine promising aid to countries that resisted the entreaties of the Communist Bloc. Mike Pearson’s innovation in creating peacekeepers to help end the Suez crisis was an integral part of that history and time. Pearson would become Prime Minister after the Diefenbaker government imploded when it cancelled the Avro Arrow and disintegrated in internal wrangling.

After completing my second pre-meds year and waiting to enter my first year of medical school, I had just been hired by the Campus Cooperative Residences, a student-owned and run low-cost residence at the University of Toronto. I was its first outside general manager. I was nineteen and I was reading Alan Ginsberg’s poem Howl that had been suppressed in the U.S. It was also the year I began to read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and discovered how even more extensive my ignorance was than I thought it had been.

It was also a year when I had begun to feel some real traction as I exercised my political walking legs. On 23 October 1956, when I was still eighteen, student demonstrations in Budapest in Hungary escalated to a demand for the communist government to ease up on its repressive policies. Though Prime Minister Imre Nagy conceded to the student demands under the slogan “a new course for socialism,” precisely because of that, on 4 November, Soviet Union tanks and 150,000 soldiers rolled into Budapest and crushed the rebellion even before we could prove our worth as volunteers to fight the repressive order in Hungary in imitation of the students who had volunteered to fight in Spain in the thirties.

My first job as General Manager was to house about 30 of the 37,000 Hungarian refugees who had fled the re-imposition of repression and had been taken in by Canada. Had I heard of Rudolf Abel at the time? Yes. He had been linked to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whom the United States had executed in 1953 and 1955 respectively for transferring atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In that year, I was still under the illusion that the Rosenbergs had been railroaded and found guilty in an American kangaroo court and, although I was neither a communist supporter or even sympathizer, in high school I had joined the marches protesting against the scheduled executions.

The film opens with Rudolf Abel painting a self-portrait. We see him in the mirror then the painting itself and finally his face. It is an example of realist art – the representation looks just as much like the original as the mirror image. Yes, this is a man of many aliases. But he was never disguised. He always looked the same. I knew or, at least believed, at the time that Rudolf Abel was Jewish, as the Rosenbergs had been, but I knew little else beside that. And perhaps even that was a construction of my imagination. Abel in the film looks nondescript. He does not look Jewish. Nor are we ever told that he was. Then I thought that Abel had been caught because he was alleged to belong to the same nest of spies and that he was possibly persecuted and prosecuted because he was Jewish.

At that time as well, when I finished my exams, I began my twice-yearly ritual of hitchhiking down to New York City, leaving in the evening and getting to New York sometime the next morning, in time to buy a snack and wait outside one of the theatres to sneak in at the first intermission. When someone three years later asked why I had written a two-act rather than a three-act play, the norm at the time, I explained that I had never seen a first act and found the play got along well without one.

I usually saw two-thirds of two plays the first day, slept at the Y, and then saw two-thirds of two plays the second day. I then got on the highway to hitch a ride home. I usually could do the whole trip for about $12. I remember that before I started my summer job at the Co-op, I had gone to New York and saw my first Eugene O’Neill play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, that would set the tone for all the O’Neill plays I saw afterwards – about alcoholics, domineering women and dissolute men, though I cannot recall the plot at all. I also saw my first Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, about the conflict between dogmatism and narrow-minded beliefs versus freedom of thought and the free flight of the imagination. I also saw Hotel Paradiso, but I cannot remember the play at all; it was replaced in my memory by the film with Alec Guinness. I have no idea of the name of the fourth play.

I describe all this because, in the opening scenes when the FBI agents, like Keystone Cops, are chasing Rudolf Abel through the streets and subway of that great city, the million dollar scene of the streets of New York and Brooklyn transported me vividly back to that period full of memories and inspiration, and my first love – theatre. My second love – movies – would blossom in 1962 when I first saw François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, truly bracketing the period covered in the movie.

The scene in the movie is so exact, so fulsome, so rich in the texture and colour of the times, even though the male colour was predominantly gray. If the film does not receive an award, or, at the very least, a nomination for set design, and perhaps costume design as well, I would be very surprised. The film is worth seeing for the sets alone. The film is so true to the period. It proceeds in three major acts – the courtroom act, the Powers flight in the U2 and the prisoner exchange.

We are introduced to Rudolf Abel as a spy through all the apparatus of the spy – hollowed out quarters with encrypted messages, hollowed out legs of furniture, and what initially appears to be a hollow man with no emotion whatsoever, an automaton as it were. But Rudolf grows on you as his wit and stoical manner succeed in transforming him from a non-entity to, as Donavan learns to see him, a brave, courageous and principled man, even if he served an unprincipled cause.

I would later learn a great deal about Abel when I was into my spy-reading phase, both fiction and books about spies. My greatest dreams at the time were about being a spy. You would never know from watching Rudolf Abel, played as a nebbish, as a man who would go totally unnoticed in a crowd, that he was one of the greatest spies the Soviet Union had ever produced. In WW II, he had been responsible for the most brilliant and imaginative deceptions against the Nazis that probably allowed the Soviet Union to win the battle over Stalingrad.

Rylance plays Abel with quiet, stoical, understated wit; he only pretends to be nondescript. Abel responds to Donovan’s (Tom Hank’s) question about whether he is not perturbed by what was happening. Abel looks up to Donavan, with barely a touch of a smile (and even that may have been a product of my imagination), but with eyes sparkling with humour, and asks, “Would it help?” Abel remains inscrutable in the film and you would never know in watching the movie that Abel had been responsible for Operation Berezino during WWII and then Operation Scherhorn, or that he had run the biggest and most important string of Soviet spies in the USA. In the film, we are simply told he was important to the Soviet Union because he could be turned and reveal secrets.

At the end of the film, just before Abel is returned to the Soviets, Donavan turns to him and asks, “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen to you upon your return?” Rudolf quips, now with still a slight but at least noticeable ironic smile, “Would it help?” He then tells Donavan that if they embrace me when I return, I will be alright. We watch him cross, get into the back seat without any warm homecoming at all. We are left to fear that he will be executed, even though Stalin is now dead. In reality, Rudolf Abel returned to the Soviet Union to receive its highest accolades and honours. He continued to serve his ideological homeland.

In the first courtroom part of the film, Donovan, cannot save Abel from being convicted, and too little of the case is shown to indicate how Abel excelled as a spy. We do not even learn that he was captured because he had an alcoholic careless subordinate, who defected rather than follow orders and return home, presumably because of the fate that awaited him there. He cut a deal and turned Abel in.

Donovan is portrayed by Tom Hanks as a man of both principle deeply rooted in the religion of America, the constitution, while most or many Americans had given way to the Satanic force of McCarthyism. He is also very compassionate and certainly never simply an insurance lawyer. He was just too politically astute. Though there is one mention of his role in working for the American OSS (later the CIA) in WWII and serving on the legal team at Nuremberg (he was general counsel I believe), he is overwhelmingly portrayed as a simple insurance lawyer. One would never know he was a founding partner in the firm; as one source of suspense, we are left to wonder whether he will be fired because he had become an embarrassment for the firm for defending a Soviet spy.

There is another trait he had that made him a superb negotiator that is barely hinted at in the film. The real Donavan was reputedly a terrific listener. In the words of his daughter, he “used the art of negotiation as his weapon of choice. He felt that a person simply wants to be respectfully heard, and that it is only when you listen well that you can reach the most just results.”

However, the simplification of character and the distortion of history should be no surprise for a Steven Spielberg film which readily sacrifices historical truth for a dramatic trick, except when it comes to scenery – see Oscar Schindler. But why not learn about Abel as a spy and how he was betrayed by his alcoholic incompetent assistant? His life is left as spare as his acting so that we only have sympathy for him through the eyes and heart of Donovan.

Francis Gary Powers is another matter. He is a hunk, an empty cipher in comparison to the mild-mannered but evidently very deep Abel. But we learn nothing more. We are given no reason to believe that he has any knowledge that would be at all useful to the Soviet Union. We are led to believe that Americans hated Donovan for defending a communist spy – the cliché scene in the subway where all the passengers are reading about the case and looking with scorn at Donovan whom they recognize from his picture in the newspaper. Later, true to the cynical neo-nihilist perceptions of Ethan and Joel Coen who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, the fickle American public will look on him with admiration for being the hero who gets Gary Powers and another American student returned. (He actually got two; the second was returned a year later.) Though the cynical view of FBI and CIA agents can be expected in a Coen film, this jaundiced view is offset by the heroic qualities Spielberg lends to Donovan. Blending heroic idealism with political cynicism is a specialty of Spielberg’s – see Lincoln. In fact, this movie is a tour de force in creating such a paradoxical synergy.

The film is dominated by contrasts, between the pastel shades and happy family life of Donovan – though his wife is portrayed as a stereotypical fearful partner – and the shabby deterioration of East Germany and the lonely life of Rudolf Abel. Donovan’s principled character and determination to get the student as well as Powers in exchange for Abel stands in stark contrast with the CIA agents who are eager to conclude the deal without getting the student in return. The Western and Eastern systems in the Cold War are portrayed as equally full of venal and opportunistic men and judges who are political advocates, but America has the constitution to prevent Americans from betraying themselves. In contrast, the Soviet Union is bereft. Except, even the U.S. constitution in which Donovan so ardently believes does not work. The Supreme Court votes 5 to 4 to deny Abel the right to be protected from a search without a proper warrant.

That is why, at the end of the film, when the prisoners are exchanged, the two sides of the Glienicke Bridge where the exchange takes place mirror each other just as Abel’s face and portrait so precisely mirror one another. What saves the world in the end are honourable men; Donovan and Abel are both honourable men. The difference is that Abel serves his country blindly; Donavan has his conscience intact to save the country from its own weaknesses. He is a Western lawman who has traveled in the other direction to Berlin and East Germany. Instead of carrying a gun, instead of being the quickest on the draw, he carries words rather than weapons. He carries the art of persuasion rather than the art of intimidation.

So does the film. The film uses artifice so well, particularly the artifice of realism, so that one loses any sense of historical reality.

The movie takes place in four time slots – 1957, 1960 when the U2 is launched, 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built and Frederic Pryor, a young American graduate student, was arrested inadvertently as a spy by Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, and February of 1962 when the exchange takes place. But the time is condensed. The events could be taking place both simultaneously and one after the other. There is no historical development. The world had, however, radically changed in the five years between 1957 and 1962, the period when Nikita Khrushchev first visited America and then the year when he agreed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba and avoid the nuclear clock striking midnight.

In the summer of 1957, American gangsters were still machine gunning one another in barber’s chairs, but Eisenhower had ordered a cessation of nuclear testing. But other events were ominous. The first American had been killed in Vietnam. By 1962, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had resumed the nuclear arms race with an acceleration in testing making all our work in the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCNF) – I was a founder of the University of Toronto chapter – seem wasted. In 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas, as the latest iteration of Governor Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who we had sang about as kids in camp, used his national guard in Little Rock to prevent the integration of a high school. By 1962, the civil rights movement had found its legs.

1962 was so different in many ways. Fidel Castro was portrayed as a heroic rebel in The New York Times in 1957. In 1962, he was the supreme ruler of Cuba and had been ex-communicated by the Pope for suppressing the Catholic Church. Much later, I would also learn in my study of the Rwanda genocide, that the initial pattern of the genocide had been set that year when Rwanda had acquired its independence from Belgium.

The movie misses the opportunity to present that development and to show why what seemed impossible in 1957 was feasible in 1962, how the period of total paranoia morphed into the first real openings between East and West even as it approached the most devastating crisis in history for all humankind. One would never know the Bay of Pigs was just around the corner when Donovan would once again bring his negotiation skills to repatriate the 1,100 captured invaders in exchange for badly needed food and medicines. The film is too much of a comedy caper to anticipate an apocalyptic moment – the Cuban Missile Crisis – and the step back from the breach that then took place.

History does not just march on because Tom Hanks has a doozie of a cold and is impatient to get the spy exchange over. In that sense, the film is very different than the book by Giles Whittell, on which the script was based, which uses the exchange of spies to track changes and developments in the Cold War. After all, 1962 was also the year in which the Soviet spy in Britain, Kim Philby, escaped to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the film does highlight the superiority of jaw, jaw, jaw over war, war and war symbolized by Donavan surrendering his Cold War warm coat or cloak to a gang of hoods organized by the KGB. But one would never suspect that the everyman Tom Hanks plays would go on to run for Senate and lose to Jacob Javits.

Black Book: A Review

Black Book: A Review


Howard Adelman

This past Wednesday at Holy Blossom Temple, one of the best of the Holocaust historians, Michael Marrus, gave a superb lecture as part of Holocaust Education Week. His thesis was straightforward. The evidence was overwhelming to support the proposition that the Holocaust did not end with the conclusion of WWII. The sources of evidence he offered were quite varied and often complex.

Michael did not put forth the thesis that anti-Semitism, which had such a vicious expression in the Nazi murder of six million Jews, gradually morphed into a new alleged form of anti-Semitism – anti-Zionism and the disproportionate attacks against the Jewish State of Israel. Rather, Michael took up the historian’s argument that the Holocaust continued in the immediate aftermath of the war. As he began his lecture, there could be no focus on the Holocaust immediately after the end of WWII itself because neither the international community, nor the lands where those Jews were slaughtered, nor the Jews themselves, had any way to specifically identify what had happened to the Jews. The word “Holocaust” took a much longer time to settle into our language.

As Michael documented, for the USSR, the Jews who died sacrificed themselves in the fight against fascism. French Jews died for the greater glory of de Gaulle’s mythological re-creation and vision of France. There was then no discussion of the degree of collaboration, though many collaborators and alleged collaborators were dealt with swiftly and cruelly after the war. Nor did those creating the new myth of a France reborn from the resistance ever pay much attention to the fact that an estimated 15% of Frenchmen on average over the years were active or ideological collaborators, that almost 85% percent were standbys, that is, servile, reluctant collaborationists, who stayed out of the fray. Only perhaps .1% actually participated in the resistance. All of these figures fluctuated over the course of the war and shifted with its fortunes.

In Holland (a long time supporter of Israel), it is worthy of note, and of great relevance to the movie I will be reviewing, that one of the highest if not the highest proportion of the 140-150,000 native-born Dutch Jews and approximately 35,000 former German Jews were sent to concentration camps from Holland than from any other country in Europe. An estimated 75% died in the Holocaust. At the same time, Holland had fewer rescuers recognized as righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem than Poland, in spite of the number of killings and even pogroms in Poland in the immediate aftermath of the war. This discrepancy could be explained because the population of Poland was much larger than that of the Netherlands. [I expect Michael Marrus to correct me if these estimates are way off the mark.] More importantly, for the purpose of Michael’s lecture, the death of the millions of Jews was almost always made part of a larger story of valour and sacrifice. In the popular imagination, Jews were not killed because they were Jews. They were killed and were martyrs for a variety of different mythologies.

The overall numbers of Jews killed constituted a significant number, but still only a small number of the overall death toll from the war. In terms of survivors, the surviving Jews, the 200,000, were an even much smaller percentage. Besides, in a devastated Europe after the war, few had time to think about the death of the Jews, including the Jews themselves. Virtually everyone was focused on survival.

After the talk, a survivor came up to me and discussed her experience after the war, effectively confirming Michael’s thesis. Though she tended to stress the disinterest of the gentiles in what had happened to the Jews, I reminded her that I myself was preoccupied with other matters and had not paid much attention to the Holocaust from 1945 to 1960. In university as an undergraduate, the plight and flight of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Suez War, the fear of strontium 90 and the atomic arms race, were at the forefront of my mind. It was not until the Eichmann trial in the early sixties that the Holocaust come to the forefront of my concerns.

In 1960, my family with a newborn baby (Jeremy, now a renowned historian at Princeton University), took possession of a rented house at 586 Spadina Avenue; we rented the upper two floors to effectively reduce our rent while I was a graduate student. The landlord was moving to Montreal. It turned out he was a Holocaust survivor. He belonged to the small minority of Jews who survived the Holocaust when it reached Hungary in the final year of the war, though tens of thousands of Jews had died in Horthy’s forced labour camps before the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944. Only then did the wholesale deportation of most of Hungary’s 800,000 remaining Jews begin.

Our landlord was not just a survivor. He had compiled a book documenting what happened to memorialize the Hungarian Jews who had died in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. It was called The Black Book. It had been self-published. As a condition of the rental of the house, I had agreed to make an effort to find libraries and individuals to purchase the over thousand copies he had stored in his basement. Though I am sure I did not try nearly as hard as he did, to the extent that I did, I found very few takers for the books, though I took a copy and read it. Was I appalled at what I read? Not really. It certainly made me weep, but my main reaction is that he could have used a good editor.

I only make this point to reinforce Michael’s thesis that the Holocaust did not end with the termination of WW II. It continued, not only with the physical persecution of returnees, with the resistance to giving up property to those few survivors, but in the second visitation of the Holocaust, the initial disappearance of the slaughtered Jews from memory and from history in the immediate aftermath of the war.

This is important. For in restoring the Holocaust to memory, and doing so in such a pronounced way, unfortunately a new heroic mythology replaced the previous repression. One dominant theme was that the gentile nations helped bring Israel into existence because of their guilt over the Holocaust, or, at least, over their guilt about the death of the six million whose slaughter still had no-name. Michael cited the Harrison Commission Report after the war. Harrison and his team visited devastated Europe and looked at the situation of the Jewish survivors after the war. In Michael’s recounting, as a result of the Harrison Report, the Jewish survivors were brought together into one camp under the auspices of the United Nation Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), treated much better and given a great deal of self-government within the camps.

I recalled another side of the Harrison Report. The reason the Jews were still in camps after the war is that no one wanted the remnants of the Jews of Europe. By 1947, the 200,000 Jewish refugees soon became a bone of contention between the United States, a country that wanted to settle them in Palestine, and Britain which did not. When I read the Report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report (UNSCOP), the minutes of its meetings and the diaries and memoirs of its members who participated in the Committee that would recommend the partition of Palestine, what stood out for me was that there was not one mention of the Holocaust or of the six million who died. The focus was on what to do with the 200,000 refugees that countries were still unwilling to resettle.

The belief that Israel was created because of guilt and as a recompense for the Holocaust, a myth shared by many if not most Jews, is just that – a myth. It is has no basis in historical fact. It is a myth perpetuated in many Holocaust films, perhaps most notably in the most famous one of them all, Schindler’s List. The film ends with the refugees leaving Europe as the wretched of the earth and reappearing coming over a hillside, healthy and alive in a reborn Israel that has arisen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

Last night we watched a movie on Netflix that by chance was called Black Book, Zwartboek, not The Black Book. I had not caught the title of the movie before we began to watch it, though I noticed it had been co-authored (with Gerard Soeteman) and directed by the Dutch-Hollywood filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven on 2006. I recognized his name, but my shrinking brain could not at that time recall the names of the films he had directed. (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) Further, it did not help that the selection of the film to watch yesterday evening was a matter of complete happenstance and was totally unrelated to Michael’s lecture earlier in the week and my discussion after the lecture. It was only after we finished watching the film that I learned that the title was Black Book.

As it turns out, Paul Verhoeven is my age, actually six months younger. He lived in The Hague during the war while I lived safely in Toronto. But though shaped by very different experiences, we have a number of personal historical factors in common. For example, we both switched careers at an early age – he went from a PhD in mathematics to filmmaking while I went from medical school into philosophy. He is mesmerized by religion, particularly Jesus. He even flirted for a short time with evangelical Christianity. But we are very different in our tastes – like my youngest children, but unlike me, he thinks Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the greatest thing since the invention of the bagel. Ignoring these differences, and some other coincidental similarities, quite aside from the radical differences in our experiences and expressions, I truly believe I can get inside Verhoeven’s head and see what he wanted to portray in the movie.

The movie is a classic Hollywood film in that the narrative pushes and, indeed, rushes the film forward, even though the mechanics of the plot are quite complex. But it is also a movie about character, about virtue and vice and the difficulty in distinguishing the two. Unlike a typical Hollywood narrative film, this one is rich in irony. Further, the film was inspired by real historical characters.

A kibbutz in Israel provides the frame of the film. It begins when a busload of tourists to a kibbutz in Israel disgorges a redhead and her Canadian pastor husband. Suddenly the visiting tourist recognizes the teacher in the kibbutz, Rachel Rosenthal, née Stein. As a spy for the Dutch Resistance, she infiltrated Nazi headquarters, under the assumed name, Ellis de Vries. The two women had been together in occupied Holland at the end of the war. We learn during the film that both had become intimate with the Nazis, but for very different reasons.

At the end of the film, we see the other half of the frame, which I will not give away. But one part I will describe. The movie ends, not only in revealing a key piece of information about the kibbutz that had been withheld from viewers, but it is clear that we are suddenly at the beginning of the start of a new war, the Suez War, and the message of eternal recurrence rather than a phoenix arising out of the ashes of the old is unequivocally broadcast.

The movie is at once a war action flic, a spy movie, a film about magic and deception and a detective whodunnit to discover who was behind one trap after another for the Resistance, even discovering that each disaster had been a trap. The movie is even akin to the serials we saw in Saturday matinees as children, often about a damsel in distress rescued by a hero when the heroine is tied down on the tracks as a locomotive approaches, along the lines of The Perils of Pauline from the silent film era. And the situation keeps recurring in different guises. After all, this film is not just a fictional narrative, it is pulp fiction, but a pulp fictional representation of reality with a very serious theme. The movie offers a profound exploration of morals and atrocities in Holland in the final year of the war and its immediate aftermath. As it happens, the most horrific scenes in the movie take place after Holland has been liberated by the Canadians. And the most painful moments come just before those scatological scenes, before liberation, when the anti-Semitism on the part of the Resistance is portrayed.

The final scenes are adumbrated when a farmer is hiding the main heroine, the Jewish Rachel Stein girl, alias Ellis de Vries, played brilliantly by Carice van Houten (to my grandson, Eitan, in Israel – yes, this is the same actress who plays Melisandre of Asshai in your favourite series, Game of Thrones). The farmer asks Rachel to say the Christian benediction for the dinner they are about to eat which she had just memorized. Rachel says it flawlessly and, in my mind, I commended the farmer for helping her develop her gentile disguise as a hidden Jew. But suddenly the farmer remonstrates her and insists that the Jews would not be in such trouble if they had followed their saviour, Jesus.

This coming Friday, I believe I will be writing about Rachel as I wrote about Rebekah this past Friday. Rachel married Jacob to become the mother of Israel. I believe the naming in the film is no coincidence. At the same time, Rachel is a universal character, echoing those lines in The Merchant of Venice. But instead of her eyes and her mouth being in common with non-Jewish women, it is her breast and her hips.

That scene, and the scene of the Resistance just before Liberation, reminded me of the role of Dr. N. S. Blom, the Dutch delegate on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Holland is generally lauded by Israel for its strong support of Israel after the war. Except Blom was one of two delegates on the Commission required to follow the dictates of the Dutch foreign office. (The other was the Australian delegate, John Hood.) Blom had strict instructions to abstain or vote against partition lest his vote alienate the Arab vote which Holland needed to support its colonial position in Indonesia. (Blom was an ex-senior Dutch foreign service officer who had served in Indonesia.)

By luck, only weeks after, the peace negotiations between the Dutch government and the Indonesian rebels seeking independence led by Sukarno broke down in July of 1947, Subsequently, there was an impasse between the Dutch and the Indonesians over independence. The Arab High Committee voted to lend its support to Sukarno for independence. Only then, just two weeks before the partition recommendation, was Blom freed up from the instruction to abstain and allowed to cast a vote supporting partition. The Dutch, as it turned out, had another, a darker side to their heroic support for Israel.

That is one of the best elements in the film, the upturning of myths about the Resistance, including the one in his own 1977 heroic war epic, Soldier of Orange. Unlike that movie, The Black Book thrives on ambiguities and displacement, the magical inversions in which the best are revealed as among the worst and the worst emerge as virtuous souls, the cerebral underpinning made all the richer by the pulp realistic portrayal of death, of bodily functions and of the body itself. The film is not so ambiguous that it frees itself from the stereotypical vulgar Nazi war murderer, portrayed as Günther Franken as the deputy Gestapo chief, the Obergruppenführer, and a stereotypical villain in spite of Verhoeven’s insistence that all his characters are neither just good or bad. In fact, the ambiguity about Franken is that he is not just a crazy killer and a loutish pursuer of the female flesh, but that he is a thief and a crook to finance his life and planned escape after the end of the war, incidentally a far worse evil for Hitler’s regime than the cold-blooded killing of Jews and resistance fighters.

The film was justifiably voted as the best Dutch film ever and won numerous awards and three Golden Calves from the Dutch Film Academy. Many critics are bothered by the numerous coincidences that propel the plot – such as Rachel Stein as Ellis de Vries who first meets the head of the Gestapo, commander Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), accidentally on a train, a meeting which saves her from her Nazi pursuers. Coincidences do not bother me, any more than the coincidence of my discussing The Black Book on Hungarian Jewry lost in the Holocaust and then watching Black Book unintentionally three evenings later.  Coincidences are only a problem when they are improbable. And it was not improbable that Rachel would seek a haven and flash her smile at a German officer sitting alone in a train compartment in the search for an escape. Further, the series of coincidences are congruent with one dominant theme in the movie, the issue of moral contingency.

I have not really said much about the plot – it is such a plot-driven film that I do not want to spoil it, or the musical score and the cinematography and editing, but they all mesh together beautifully.

So don’t let anyone tell you that this is just a soapy melodrama. Watch the film if you have not already seen it.

The Intouchables

The Intouchables


Howard Adelman

The 2011 movie, The Intouchables is one of the best buddy movies I have ever seen. Until I saw it, I believed Hollywood was the master and virtually sole owner of that genre. But this is a French film. And, in its North American release, the French spelling of “untouchable” is left intact.  The movie itself is untouchable it is so touching. And do not let anyone tell you it is simply a sentimental male to male friendship version of the delightful, but relatively simplistic, relationship of Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy.

The movie is uplifting. It is funny. It is surprising and very irreverent. And it is a great study of two characters, two characters with apparently very opposite personalities who truly become best buddies through the means of a flashback on how they came together and grew together. And the story, as told, is totally credible, even from the first opening chase scene of French cops in pursuit of two men racing at high speeds on the highways and roads of Paris to the totally farcical ending of that scene.

When I was much younger and traveling through Europe with my oldest daughter and her three year younger male sibling who was just about to enter his teen years, we were driving a Volkswagen camper van. We were coming from Britain and made our first stop in France at a Versailles gas station. We filled up the tank – or the attendant did – and we offered him our Canadian visa card to pay for the gas. He looked at the card and said, “Non, non, d’argent.” Even I could understood that. Recall, these were the early days of credit cards and it was possible that foreign visa cards were not acceptable at French service and retail establishments even though the symbol stuck to the window of the station was a replica of the colours and stripes on a visa card and clearly said “visa”.

I replied in English that I had no French money; I had not yet had a chance to go to a French bank to change dollars for francs – remember the days when there francs instead of euros. I even opened my wallet and my pockets as a gesture in mime to indicate they were empty of cash. He was clearly very disturbed and said, “Un moment.” I thought he went off to verify the card. He was gone for the longest time. Finally, he returned to insist he needed to be paid in cash and would not accept the credit card. I replied, in English, which he clearly did not understand, that I had nothing else with which to pay him.

My daughter intervened and took up the effort to explain our situation in French – she had gone to French school and was reasonably fluent. As the temperature of the discussion and its decibel count rose, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a French paddy wagon arrived. There had been no siren. Out of the back poured about sixteen French police fully armed with truncheons, body armour vests and helmets. My daughter then turned to them and repeated the explanation that she had been trying to deliver to the gas station attendant, but the exchange soon became as heated as the previous one. I started to laugh watching my fifteen-year-old daughter verbally deek it out with these French cops. I literally laughed so hard I had to sit down with my back against the van. Whenever I tried to stand and talk and intervene in the ongoing exercise in mutual misunderstanding, I would burst once again into uncontrollable laughter. Tears were literally flowing down my cheeks. After what seemed an interminable period, during which time I never could stop laughing, the police captain finally turned to the gas attendant and told him something with a Gaulic shrug. I interpreted the message to mean, “Accept the card.” Which the gas attendant reluctantly did and we went on our merry way.

Suffice to say that the opening scene of the movie and the chase scene ends up with the French police looking as foolish, but truly fooled, as that van full of armed cops pulling into that French gas station on the outskirts of Versailles. The memory is so vivid and so deeply part of our family lore that, when I see French cops, my smile is almost as large as that of the actor, Omar Sy who plays Driss (Bakary Bassan) in the movie. Omar Sy won the César Award for Best Actor based on his performance in Intouchables.

A buddy film need not be credible, only barely plausible. It can be either a hilarious farce or a light comedy. But this film was very real. It was and remains an honest buddy movie that made its comic moments even more delightful. And it felt authentic in spite of the matching of such an implausible pair. Perhaps it seemed authentic because the movie had two directors, not one, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. But the deeper reason was that the film was based on a documentary movie based on the relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his Algerian caregiver, in A la vie, à la morte.

Like many buddy movies, the characters are also different in age, class and race. One, François Cluzet as the rich Frenchman, Philippe, is an older very wealthy Frenchman and the other, Driss, an impoverished out-of-work and just out of prison Frenchman who immigrated as a kid from Senegal. Most of all, Philippe, is a quadriplegic who can only move his head. His body itself has lost all its powers of locomotion. In contrast, Driss seems to be almost all body – tall, lithe, all physical movement and somatic language, but with a smile as broad and open as Philippe’s is cramped and confined.

But these two unlikely true buddies most unexpectedly bond even as the friendship between an uncouth black immigrant’s child from the other side of the tracks working as Philippe’s caregiver grows and the servant gradually and voluntarily becomes the master of their often hilarious escapades together. In the movie, as is the custom in buddy movies, the relationship is frowned upon. After all, Philippe appreciates abstract fine art, opera and classical music. Some of the funniest scenes take place as Driss, in spite of himself, gradually acquires an appreciation of the “fine” arts while Philippe is released from the confines of his high-tech wheelchair to watch and experience a more Dionysian than Apollonian music and dance, and even use his new experiences to satirize the contemporary valuation of high art.

Normally buddy movies are asexual and totally sideline relationships with the opposite sex. This movie turns that sterile element of the genre on its head and the shaggy dog story running through the movie is all about sex between a man and a woman, with a lovely touch of whimsy in a back story told very briefly about a lesbian relationship. The buddy movie typically puts male Platonic relationships on a pedestal. This movie never displaces male-female relationships as the pinnacle of human experience, but not by idolizing it as Philippe did with his lovely, now dead, wife, but by fully embodying such relationships, by insisting they are fundamentally, though never exclusively, about men and women having sex, and sex of many varieties.

Norman Mailer’s Why We Are in Vietnam? A Novel, a road movie about a hunting trip of a father and son, was about the repressed and unacknowledged homosexuality underlying the bonding of men in times of conflict, violence and war. But there is not a single sign of homo-erotic love in the movie, even as the true love of Philippe and Driss for one another grows. Further, instead of allowing their repressed passions from aggravating one another and being transformed into dissing and teasing, the two challenge one another so that Philippe’s greatest success is in helping Driss overcome his fear of flying, both literally and even figuratively with respect to rising from his station in life that our lazy society permits and even encourages to remain frozen.

The movie even has symbolism, the ostensible sign of very high art, here in the form of a Fabergé egg, a bejewelled egg fixed in time and turned into a symbol of wealth but impotence, that Driss steals from Philippe near the beginning of the movie when he is being interviewed for the job. The egg reappears near the end of the film, but only after Philippe has been liberated to the extent possible from his stoic and immobile state. Most of all, the so-called repressed love that once had no name is the one relationship totally sidelined in the movie as, contrary to most buddy movies, earthy heterosexuality is celebrated even as the Dionysian wild man is as deprived of its deep joys as the character confined to a wheelchair. The female-male relationship is not simply used as a foil and contrast with the depth of feeling between two men.

The reason the film works so well is because it is not an escape fantasy, but an escape from the idols of the rich into the rich embodied life of those who struggle to survive and experience life in all its dangers. Further, the flow does not simply go one way. Driss, while uneducated and certainly unrefined, is a very bright and creative fellow who is also a quick learner and discovers both an appreciation of and how to use the refinements of the upper class for his own benefit.

I was brought up on buddy movies – Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello. The relationship between Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they travel down the Mississippi in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made that Mark Twain novel one of my all time favourites. I never became bored by buddy movies. Who can forget such oldies as Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider or the only twenty-year old versions, The Fisher King, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction and Weekend at Bernie’s? Even female buddy films such as Thelma and Louise delighted me almost as much as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether in the form of a Western or an action film, a road – think Bing Crosby and Bob – or a cop movie – recall almost the first that I can recall, 48 Hours with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy – when well done, buddy movies can be among the finest expression of the cinematic art. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple was one of my all time favourites. The Intouchables perhaps tops them all in sophistication combined with earthy humour, with subtlety married to broad farce, with appreciation as well as satire.  It is no surprise that its original ten million or so dollars it took to make was rewarded with almost $500 million at the box office, not counting the rewards from watching the movie on the small screen via Netflix as I did in my second viewing the evening before last.

Watch it on Netflix. It won’t cost nearly as much as a Fabergé egg.

Commentary on Bereshit 2

Commentary on Bereshit 2


Howard Adelman

In my comment on commentary last week, I set out a few of the premises of MY reading of the Torah:

  1. I believe in doing what commentators have done over the centuries, retelling the story in my own words.
  2. The story is about creation, about coming to be, about the beginning of that process through the interaction of God and earthlings.
  3. I pick up on one stream of interpretation that sees this creative activity, once nature has been organized, as the result of a partnership of a non-material Being and earthlings: “Let us create…” The process of creation is the story of the creation of two worlds, heaven and earth.
  4. I then take from this stream another even rarer stream – that the story is about God becoming; God not only creates history in partnership with man, but creates Himself in the process. God is
  5. Though I told the tale as if God is characterized as masculine without explication, this is also a premise that will be developed and explicated.
  6. I am fully within the tradition in seeing the narrative as being about tov and ra, goodness and evil.
  7. Then I became really idiosyncratic in depicting the character of God, for, in my understanding, God has the hubris to congratulate himself on what he does as Good, and in the case of creating human beings, as “very good,” a pronouncement that will soon prove to be not only very incorrect, but the first lesson: Let others pronounce and recognize the quality of what you do. It is not only a curse to make that pronouncement oneself, but it is itself a moral failing.
  8. So as I read the story, God in the process of co-creation has to also create the moral world and to make Himself as a moral being who has faith and compassion and a capacity for respect and reverence for the sanctity of life.
  9. But as I will again try to show, He only does so primarily through the mistakes of humans living in history as embodied creatures.
  10. God begins the process of creation by giving order to chaos; since humans are made in the image of God, they too have a responsibility to give order to chaos.

Ironically, as I will try to show, chaos and order turn out to be, not polar opposites which admit of degrees, but a process whereby chaos follows from order as well as precedes it. Put simply, as soon as we think we are on the verge of creating a new world order, beware for we will be introduced to a new type of chaos. This interpretation is offered, not because I have mastered Hebrew and Aramaic, know the Torah intimately and have thoroughly studied the commentators. It should be very evident that I do not write this commentary as a result of any claim to be an expert on either the text or previous commentators, but it is the way I find coherence and meaning in the text as well as a correspondence between what I read and how I interpret it.

The narrative does not move forward because men have an inherent propensity towards evil in the most customary interpretation. The new chaos emerges out of the limitations of what has previously been created. But, as in most traditional interpretations, it is about responsibility, beginning with God assuming all responsibility for what happens and assuming, because He is the creator, it must be good. Human beings initially assume none of the moral responsibility, but also assume that because God was the creator, what takes place must be good. Both have to learn that the true source of evil lies within this nearsightedness, this myopic view of the world.

So how do we reconcile Chapter 1 and chapter 2, for as everyone knows who reads the text, they appear to be contradictory? Chapter 2 begins with the consecration of the seventh day as a day of rest. The whole text is a process of embedding in the repetition of time, in embodied existence, the metaphor of the Torah story. But look how it starts, in complete contradiction to what I just wrote. Instead of a dynamic story about creation, that process is said to be finished; the heavens and earth were a totally completed product. The Torah is then not a tale of a process of both Heaven and Earth coming to be, but of what has been completed. Further, instead of worshiping and celebrating that dynamic process, the most celebrated day of the week emerges, shabat, the day that is said to be about rest. Further, it is rest, not creativity, that is made holy.

But read the text again. On shabat, God “rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Not from the process. It was a day to look back, to reflect, to analyze what had just been completed. As we shall see, this applies to every new lesson and is why we read and re-read the text in an annual cycle. It is that reflection, that evaluation, which is holy. For it is a very different order of creativity, not one which ends as each of the first six days did in dogmatic conviction, but one which will challenge those dogmatic convictions in the most fundamental way. And the challenge is not one which proceeds sequentially – He created this, then He created that. Rather, it is about subordination rather than conjunction. Instead of this and that, we find: when this then that.  Each action has consequences.

Further, the Creator has a new name, Yahweh rather than just Elohim, the Lord God and not just God. He has a name with two yuds and two hehs, a God that doubles up on Himself, a world which is abbreviated and to the point as a yud, and open to interpretation as a heh. Instead of a story of coming into being, of creation, of bara, it is a story of fashioning, of constructing, of yatsar, in fact, of reconstructing. Words do not bring the world of material being into existence. Rather, through massaging words themselves, existence is given form and order. We are presented with a moral rather than a material order, the world of adam and not just adamah. The action, the verb is followed by its noun form. To die – a process – is followed by death, a final state. Ironically, that very fixed state will be the source of a new stage of creativity.

In reflection, as in commentary, the same story must be re-told, but now from a retrospective perspective. That retrospective focused on the last day of creation after God turned a planet into a thriving greenhouse from a moonscape. But suddenly instead of simple interpretation, we get a midrash, a story about the original story. In this version, God hives off a Garden called the Garden of Eden, seemingly rich and perfect in every way – most perfect because there is no apparent death, no awareness of death, just the richness of nature.

Second, instead of this day of rest being about a celebration about what had been created, God continues to create, but what God creates on the day of rest, on the day of reflection, on the day of re-examination, are not dichotomies and opposites, but particulars: the Garden of Eden first, then soon two unique and very different trees. But first the creation of earthlings is re-envisioned.

It is a very specific process: “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is also self-evidently a different process. First, man is formed, that is fashioned and shaped rather than brought into being through words, So the dichotomy of male and female become a story of priority and subordination. Because we are now in the realm of reflection, in the realm of historical reconstruction of what has already taken place, in the realm of midrash, Second, instead of apparent dichotomy, it is our reconstruction of original creation that is taking place. Equality is transformed into a moral hierarchy through a different kind of temporal ordering such as occurs in dreams as well as nightmares. Third, the dichotomy is internalized, for instead of two from one, we have one out of two, man made from shaping his earthliness at the same time as he is infused with God’s spirit. This will be a story not about the coming to be of a natural creature alongside all the other animals, but of a unique being, about what it is like to be made in the image of God.

But first the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, two unique trees among all those that were created. Then the Garden of Eden is described as having four headwaters of one river. And we should recognize that we are being introduced to the four orders of interpretation, the four lenses through which the recreation of what has come about materially can be understood on the reflective plain. They are the headwaters of creative reflection:

  1. Havilah – gold, but also the precious onyx and aromatic resin – interpretation must be rich; it must smell right and sensible; it must pass the smell test;
  2. Gihon – comprehensiveness;
  3. Tigris – the boundary river for interpretation is not arbitrary, but has limits and is an example of order itself, not of sequential order but of framing;
  4. Euphrates – the longest of the rivers in Western Asia, u-fra’-tez, “the good and aboundingriver and, together with the Tigris, the defining river.

So in addition to interpretation being rich and sensible, in addition to it being comprehensive, it must have an order in space, a frame clearly defining an area of reflection, but, as well, an unfolding in time that goes on and on, an openness, a heh and not just a yud. We are now in a specific location of earth, in western Asia, but boundaried on the east to define the world of the Middle East.

We have our frame. What happens? Man is placed in the garden. Though resting from making the world, it is clearly a garden of enormous richness. The conversion of the natural world into a civilized and ordered one must be reconsidered, must be reflected upon, for that is the work of Eden. That is the work of shabat. But in doing this work, man is given a very specific warning – not a command. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (TKGE), for when you eat from it, you will surely die.” But, of course, as in all such narratives, a warning is merely a prediction of what is to come.

Then we have a sudden disjunction, or, at least, the appearance of one. God discovers everything is not very good. For, as He observes, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helpmeet suitable for him.” Adam does not seem to feel he is alone. God recognizes it. But why is woman characterized as a helpmeet, an ezer to and for him? Does this simply mean she is a helper, or does it mean she is someone who will help him meet both himself as an other, both to see himself as an object of reflection and not just an agent, and the other as an agent and not just an objectification of himself? If eating of the TKGE means having sex, why is there a warning of the great risk of sex?

Suddenly another switch. We are back in the natural world of the garden. Or so it appears. Adam is doing his proper work, giving order to the world in terms of language. He is a botanist and zoologist naming the various species of plants and animals. Using language, he is re-creating the world as experienced in front of us into an intellectual order, into a taxonomy. But he is a nerd who does not even have the sense to know he is alone. But his dreams tell him. In his dreams, God took one of his ribs and made woman. Woman is made from tsela, from man’s protective but fragile shield, from that which gives the body its structure, from that which embodies flesh and internal organs. Woman was seen and imagined as a projection of one side of man. Which side? Surely not consciousness, not the scientific side that went around the garden naming the animals and plants. Not the conscious side that saw the world as objects needing to be ordered. It must be the side of which he himself was not conscious, the protected side, the hidden side, the side that he did not recognize, the side that felt but was not even recognized by the other side. Adam did not even know he felt lonely.

So in his dreams, Eve was projected to be a person of feeling, an .objectification of a side of himself that he did not recognize. Eve was feeling; he was thought. In his objectification, Eve was not recognized as a subject, an agent in her own right. And he did not recognize himself as having feelings, as having passions, as a man who would leave home and marry and thereby make himself whole again. Man, not woman, is a bifurcated being, a being with no intercommunication between his right side and his left side, a being who does not know he has desires, but in his conscious life thinks that he is only a scientist who gives order to the world by means of language.

As an arrogant aside, when I read the Talmudic commentaries, it seems that virtually all the commentators are as pedantic and nerdy and oblivious to the plain meaning of the text as Adam was to his own feelings. This is not entirely accurate. Many of the commentators do note specific technicalities of the text which have a mine of revelations. For example, Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabi Jose the Galilean, noted the rhythm within chapter two moving back and forth between what he thought was generality and particularity, much as I described the shift from chapter one to chapter two. Where I described disjunctions, he noted connections. And there are connections, but not simply a connection between generality and particularity, but between a depiction of a state of being and the content of that state.

For example, verse 6 described a mist or fog rising from the earth and watering the whole garden while verse 7 moves to God forming man out of the dust of that same earth. I read this as first offering a clue that this is a dream sequence – we are in a fog. In the content of that dream sequence, God is seen as making man alone, not man and woman, and in the dream, man is an earthling into whom the breath of the holy spirit must be breathed. That breath gives life to the “dead” being that Adam has thus far revealed himself to be. In the dream, there is the world that the conscious self does not recognize, his embodied being, his being as a man of desire and passions, a being when the air and the earth combined to form fire, to form what can never be given form, fire and passion, a world that is first glimpsed in the fog of dreams.

In this type of pilpul of literalness, of the detailed analysis of the bark and the leaves of each individual tree, we do miss the forest for a tree. We miss the sweep and scope of the tale, the richness, and sensuousness, is missed, the real understanding of the headwaters of the long river of life are be missed. It begins with the period before the conjoining of man and woman when both, not just Adam lacked any shame.

So sex, pain, temptation, desire and most of all death – not the objects of consciousness but the subjective state of experience – now has to be brought forth.

Next week: Sex and the Origin of Shame