Ten Feet Tall

Do you remember when America stood ten feet tall, when America was a political, economic and intellectual giant in a world of pygmies? That was one side of the portrait. The other side meant that America was an oversized and clumsy monster that trampled on buildings, boats and buses. Whether a giant or a monster, America was imbued with the conceit that it could – indeed did – touch the sky, that the country descended from the clouds above to be “a light unto the nations.”

This is a branded medical condition – periarteritis nodosa – a destructive inflammation of the arteries that feed oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. The symptoms of the condition are remarkably distinct:

  • A sense of enormous strength  
  • Accompanied by an extreme sense of well-being
  • An utter faith in each and every action taken
  • Incessant talking
  • An unquenchable desire for food leading to obesity
  • A manic-depressive psychosis.

But is this not also the description of a cryptid, a hidden animal, a mythical creature found in virtually every corner of our planet earth? Bigfoot, the American cryptid otherwise known as Sasquatch, or sometimes Yeti or the Skunk Ape, is easily the most famous. Like all other cryptids, he is a male but otherwise fictional, even though lots of evidence is put forth to substantiate his reality. In spite of the many stories and alleged evidence for his existence, this massive, hairy, bipedal humanoid who stands perhaps ten feet tall remains elusive and mysterious.

Sasquatch lives on the edges of civilization – the Rocky Mountains of Washington or Oregon – and on the fringes of both our imagination and comprehension.  He is a paranormal creature. Yet he so resembles the condition of periarteritis nodosa, that it is difficult to insist that he is not an abnormal but rather a real living creature. I suggest the same is true of America – a country that is both very real but ultimately also a country of myth and legend.

We are living through a time when the legend has been disintegrating. The self-destruction began with the conceit of America having won the Cold war as men like James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State, served as a catalyst to the disintegration of another mythical and legendary but also real menace, the Soviet Union in 1991. America became the unipolar power in the world, only to find that power squandered in an amoral attack on the dictator Saddam Hussein under the pretext that Iraq was becoming a rival nuclear power with storehouses of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The two-decade decline culminated with the boastful presidency of Donald Trump, his triumphalism, his logorrhea and his incessant lying that provided one book end to the other, Joe Biden’s stumbles and mumbles, verbal slips and demonstrations of impotence.

January 6th 2021 was not so much an insurrection as an eruption. Though rioters who assaulted police and destroyed sacred property provided so-called leadership, the mob was driven rather than being a driver of any real change. They were reinforced by large numbers of more passive reactionaries and revisionists, ideological rhetoricians rather than men of intention and action. What all the groups shared was a belief in legend and a distrust of institutions and lack of respect for formal authority. The common characteristic of all their symptoms and all their behaviour was an inability to know what was real and what was fiction. And for that failure, they did not look within themselves but at the intellectual and political leadership that had failed to provide this most fundamental level of security – the ability to differentiate between reality and myth.

In the meanwhile, the pandemic continues even though the promise of its abatement is just around the next corner. Confusion arose over long-term effects and collateral damage to those whose medical treatment was postponed, to those additional hordes who became afflicted by opioids and to the many more marriages that disintegrated under the pressure. These problems were either ignored or dismissed as necessary collateral damage. The old bogeyman of inflation has returned driven by both a shortage of skilled labour and the disruptions in the supply chain for services as well as material goods.

 And the yellow peril has once again raised its ugly head both in a pervasive rise of racism and antisemitism and in the identification of China as the new world’s threatening monster, an interpretation reinforced by its own mistreatment of minorities, threats against Taiwan and suppression of rights in Hong Kong. Russia mobilizes to browbeat, intimidate and menace Ukraine. Insults and threats cross borders far more easily than travelers.

Polarization pervades both foreign and domestic affairs. And covid has become its blaring symbol as groups increasingly define themselves in terms of identity politics and whether they were or were not vaccinated. Liberals assumed that if you were not vaccinated you had to be an ideological anti-vaxer worthy of being defined as “fringe” and “misogynist.” and “racist.” That you may have held a more universalist sense of distributive justice re vaccines, or a scepticism about claims or sufficiency of proofs, or cast your lot with eminent scientists of alternative strategies to deal with the pandemic, were largely ignored, dismissed and even in some cases suppressed. Instead, the tiny group that carried antisemitic signs and Nazi symbols to the rally in Ottawa were headlined.

In adopting a sceptical posture towards mandate and lockdowns, you may have been wrong, but in the vast majority of cases, you were not a moron or an ideological nut, though, if you are honest, you had to admit that your side was sprinkled with a good number who could be characterized that way. But the battle was not fought on the cognitive level of competing theories, interpretations and policies but on the level of insults and calumnies, branding and misrepresentation.

America is but the most prominent of perniciously polarized polities. Why? Because it is very rich. Because it is deeply democratic so the formation of silos that do not compromise of even address one another is extremely distressing. The reality is that America has set sail in a sea of shoals with whipped-up waves and very dangerous undercurrents.    

Barack Obama may have celebrated America as the most successful experiment in creating a multicultural and multiethnic and multireligious society. However, the very portrait belies its ignorance of its immediate neighbours, its own conceit and its fragile susceptibility to disintegration as a consequence of political identity politics. In America, the ethnic and religious rivalries are reinforced by a democratic system that reifies and rigidifies binary choices which always greatly exacerbate a rising insecurity.

Surprisingly, that insecurity is strongly felt among the .1% who control the majority of wealth in the United States but whose plutocratic control is being challenged. At the same time, the strays at the other end of the spectrum who feel left out and abandoned, have become so disoriented that their greatest fears focus on bureaucrats as if they were Sasquatch himself. Government mandarins are perceived as autocrats and the economic predators are protected by the diversion of the animosity. The fact that the marginalized were raised on promises of opportunity, on beliefs in American superiority, on faith in America’s dominant power, shatters their mirrors into much smaller fragments.

Thus, the illusion of a future Promised Land that was purportedly real in the past. Thus, the reactionary revolutions whose numbers are greatly increased by disaffected conservatives and evangelicals who live on the borders of loss of faith. They buy into a new vision of self-sacrifice, but one clearly based on legend rather than scientific verity even as they challenge the credibility of their opponents. Freedom is defined as surrender to a higher power. The marginals and the misfits join with the misfortunate and the monied class to form the shock troops for the misbegotten messages of salvation from the destructive course of their ship of state.

The present has no reliability; the past is legend. What can the future be? An angelic promise propelled by vehemence more than simply anger, by insulting missives and vehement messages, by a manic hatred that seems boundless and builds to militant posturing and even actions. By mindblindness in which minorities become scapegoats on whom responsibility can be reposed. And truth becomes deposited in madmen and manipulators.

In such a system, Bigfoot becomes more real than any grizzly. And ideological liberals not only buy into this arena as the centre of the conflict, but try to enjoin their kissing cousins to the north in the same imaginative world of cryptoids to try to form a counter mass movement of so-called “moderation.”

A recent Washington Post op-ed called on Canada to “confront the toxic “Freedom Convoy” head on assembling in Ottawa and at key border crossings across Canada to confront mandatory pandemic measures. In interviews with truckers, such as one who owns a small trucking firm in the Niagara peninsula and also serves on a local municipal council, these modern voyeurs come across as begging to be heard, as challengers of dogma and as rational dissenters with no “affinity with Trumpists, however much they are claimed as affiliates. They come across as longing for ears to listen and a dialogical exchange rather than being branded as deplorables. They may be wrong in the substance of their views, but they do not come across as maddened in their rhetoric.

Some trucker convoy participants may indeed have a history of white nationalism and racism. And many liberals may be led by and pushed forward by neo-Marxist ideologues. The op-ed advised that, “Canada’s response to the convoy should be a strict line of resistance that doubles down on, or in certain cases at least introduces, commitments to anti-hate resistance, pandemic supports, vaccine mandates and a media policy of refusing to platform, humanize, or, God forbid, glorify the convoy and its members beyond the bare necessity of speaking to their existence and outlining a program for pushing back.”

In other words, do not listen. Resist. Double down. Don’t humanize the participants. Treat all participants as toxic. Denunciation and demonization not dialogue is the message.  Yeh to polarization!

Parshat Mishpatim – On Milk and Meat

When I was sixteen and in Grade XII, I went with some of my friends to a restaurant in what was then Chinatown in Toronto and is now a walking boulevard on the west side of the City Hall Plaza immediately east of Osgood Hall. The restaurant was called “9 1/2” I am not sure whether that was its real name or not. But it was the address on the door which led to a second- floor restaurant that was really the long hall of a semi-detached house with the walls of the rooms torn down to make room for tables. 9 ½ served Chinese food.

When Gandhi lived in London as a student, he too went to a restaurant with a Muslim friend. For the very first time, he ate meat. For the very first time, his friend ate pork. The event remained memorable for the rest of Gandhi’s life. When I went to 9 1/2, for the first time ever I ate barbecued spareribs. I ate pork and I can still taste how delicious those ribs were 66 years later.

But what I could never eat was milk with meat. I have never had a cheeseburger to the best of my knowledge. I have never had a glass of milk with a steak; at the present, that combination remains appalling to me. But it is a gut reaction, not one based on any reflection or deep commitment. Yet, of all the prohibitions from my orthodox early upbringing, it remains the most powerful. It does not bother me at all to turn on a light switch on shabat. But I still cannot eat milk and meat together even though one of the results of following the prohibition became an addiction to drinking coca cola with meat, a far from health practice.

Since I attended Talmud Torah, I have always known the source of the prohibition. It occurs in this week’s parashat in Exodus 23:19 which reads,

יט  רֵאשִׁית, בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ, תָּבִיא, בֵּית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.  {פ}19 The choicest first-fruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.    

It is a prohibition repeated in almost identical terms in Exodus 34:26, but in Deuteronomy, the third time the prohibition occurs, the wording and context are somewhat different and clearly suggest a dietary rather than just a cooking prohibition. In the two occurrences in Exodus, the prohibition is connected in the context bringing to YHWH the first fruits of your soil. A kid who is the first fruit of its mother, however, should not be torn away from that mother while it is still suckling, but only after it is weaned. God would not do anything to intervene in the developing attachment of a mother and its babe.

Deuteronomy 14:21 reads:

כא  לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל-נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר-בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ, אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי–כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ. 21 Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself; thou mayest give it unto the stranger that is within thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto a foreigner; for thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. 

Here, the prohibition is connected with a holy people banned from eating an animal that dies of natural causes and, thus, clearly implies a dietary and not just a cooking restriction. The intent seems to be the opposite of that in Exodus, namely, that a kid still suckling and then cooked is contaminated. The issue then is not one of intervening between the bonding of a babe with its mother so much as a suckling newborn connected to rotting flesh of an animal.

However, whatever the differences, the prohibition seems to be the same – do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. In Exodus, it is a prohibition about cooking, not about eating. And it is not about all meat, not even all goat meat, but about a baby goat still suckling from its mother. This is the interpretation both Augustine and Martin Luther adopted – what is prohibited is eating a sucking still at its mother’s breast. On the other hand, in an opposite direction the intent is interpreted as referring to not letting the suckling get too fat before it is sacrificed to God.

Now I remember a game the boys in Yeshiva used to play with us when they were not entertaining us with scatological interpretations of biblical texts. If you pour sour milk down a drain, then put scraps of meat down and you pour boiling water down the drain to clear it, are you not boiling meat in milk? Is pouring boiling water over scraps of meat and milk really cooking? What if the scraps were previously cooked – does that get around the prohibition? What if they were put down the drain at separate times and by different people, in which case the second person would be abysmally ignorant that there were scraps down the drain. And even if they were put down the drain by the same person, if the intent in pouring the boiling water down was to clear the drain, would that be cooking?

This is pilpul, the process of making endless further distinctions in examining arguments to either drag the argument down a rabbit hole or, alternatively, to mock that form of argument altogether, though the exercise was excellent in training my analytical mind even though exercised on esoterica and irrelevant issues. I took the questions seriously.

What if the mixture consisted of meat and cheese rather than meat and milk? In any case, the prohibition was against cooking, not eating. Yet it was clearly a very important prohibition. After all, the angels in heaven were forbidden from receiving the Torah because they were accused eating milk and meat together.

In any case, the deeper question was not the rule itself but the intent of the prohibition. Why is it prohibited not simply to cook a newborn kid in its mother’s milk, but, as Deuteronomy suggests in the third iteration of the mitzvot, why are we forbidden to eat the two products together. There have been a plethora of suggestions over the ages. Meat represents nutrition. A baby kid suckling at its mother’s breast entails taking in more than nourishment but a mother’s love. The prohibition is intended to make sacred aspects of eating related to reproduction and emotional memory rather than simply nourishment.

Food as our lifeblood has two distinct roles, a profane one – eating to stay healthy – and eating to imprint an emotional connection as well. It is this aspect of emotional imprinting that interests me rather than the great variety of textual interpretations and the defenses for each of them.

Further, my interest in imprinting is not because I am concerned with reinforcing positive emotions but because we are going through a terrible period of polarization in which opposing camps have been imprinted with an interpretation framework that denies legitimacy to alternatives. In Israel, the polarization is primarily between the secular versus the ultra-orthodox Israelis much more than between the Palestinians and the Jews.

Secularists, presumably led and manipulated by Reform Judaism, has imprinted a mindset that displaces orthodox Judaism. The leaders of Reform imbue secularists not simply with a critical attitude towards orthodoxy but with hatred. How many times have you hear that the ultra-orthodox because they do not serve in the army live off the security provided by the secularists but are unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the preservation of their own Jewish state? But the same accuser of others spreading hatred and stereotyping, Yisrael Eichler, a member of the Israeli Knesset, has described secularists human beasts who behave like two-legged animals. They belong to an abomination culture ridden with snakes and scorpions.

In North America, in the debates over how to respond to the covid pandemic, Anthony Fauci has been venerated as the scientific Moses who will lead his people to safety. But he has also been vilified as the numbers of popular protests against mandates and closures and requirements for documentation of vaccination increase. In Canada, truckers are cheered on as they head in a convoy to Ottawa to protest against imposed vaccination.

In Ontario, over 11,000 have died from the pandemic. In the US, the death toll now exceeds 900,000. Insults fly in both directions. Those who refuse to get vaccinated or who simply support the right of individuals to refuse to get vaccinated are accused of putting selfish personal interest before the common good. Rage as well as delusion mark not only the protesters but the defenders of the dominant system for tackling the virus. Fauci called an opponent a moron – and to me, he sounded like one. Prime Minister Trudeau called opponents misogynists, fringe types and racists – at least some of them, thereby protecting himself from accusations of stereotyping while managing to imply his opponents were, at the very least, dupes of these anti-vaccine dogmatists, though the evidence clearly indicated that 90% of the protesters were vaccinated and some of the others joined the opposition not because they opposed vaccination but because of justice ethics and the insistence that those in need in other countries should get the vaccine before they do.

What we are witnessing is critical thinking on both sides mixed with dogmatism and opportunism, extreme behaviour and extreme language. Fauci is not Mengele. As citizens retreat more and more into their silos, they accuse the other side of abandoning real science, falsifiability and the pursuit of facts and hypotheses as a result of experiment and evidence. Even the virtue of saving lives gets lost in the rhetorical flights pushed and reinforced by dogmatic imprinting.

Instead of shared data and collaboration among those with differing views and arguments, we witness the rise and leadership of charlatans. In the US, under the leadership of an ex-President, they falsely claim the election was stolen and in the process undermine democracy, critical thinking and the role of evidence in establishing truth.

For what is at work in Canada, in our neighbour to the south, in Israel and around the world has been not simply imprinting, but imprinting that is more a tattoo, an identifier, rather than one interpretation among many. Fauci, the saintly leader of the vaccination campaign, is accused of promoting his view because of thigh salary he receives and because his personal stock portfolio benefits. Lies, lies and more lies rather than a pursuit of truth. The fight is unnerving to those who love critical discourse and dialogue versus insults and food fights.

It is not that the pandemic has hijacked civilized behaviour so much as it has facilitated uncivil behavioir. Our governments are no longer trusted. Our bureaucracies and mandarins have lost control.  Changing positions are not rested as responses to more accurate scientific conclusions but to hypocrisy and ignorance, the pandemic continues in spite of false promises about its termination, not simply because of disproven assumptions and unforeseen mutations but because our leadership led us down a false path, just as the Israelites accused Moses whenever they ran into seemingly insurmountable challenges.

I am not against imprinting. I am against tattooing. Our beliefs should not br pasted on our skins as they are tested by our intellects and our trials. Much worse than the pandemic has been the deterioration of our civility and our ability to both listen and hear.

Six Feet Under – a series review

Six Feet Under, created and written by Alan Ball, is a TV series than ran for five seasons between 2001 and 2005 and is currently streaming on HBO. In its time, it won numerous awards: nine Emmies, three Screen Actor Guild Awards, three Golden Globes and a Peabody Award.  It is reputedly one of the best and highest rated series to have ever been shown on television. People are not just buried six feet down but six feet under where the turmoil of primal emotions are also buried against a backdrop of psychoanalysts in the role of grave robbers of psychic souls.

We just watched the first two seasons and the beginning of the third season. In one sense, it is odd writing a review of a show broadcast two decades ago. But since the series is a rather macabre one that takes place in a funeral home in Los Angeles where death is set against the background of ocean, hills and magnificent weather of what was then regarded as paradise before the area was ravaged by fire and floods, a retrospective may be in order. Especially when the viewer only gets occasional glimpses of paradise and the foreground is filled with mundane ordinariness, dead bodies, and kinky sex before the episodes revert back to ordinary psychological and social catastrophic liaisons. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the mundane and the mad, of ordinary life and dysfunctional relationships, of the secular and the sacred, that gives this series its power.

Each episode begins with another death, usually of a life terminated by sheer accident prematurely. In one funeral, a three-week-old baby expired from SIBS (sudden infant death syndrome) or crib death. The first death is that of old man Fisher (Richard Jenkins), the owner and director of the funeral home. He will haunt the rest of the series as a ghostly presence in the memory of his widow and three children and as a projection of their ruminations and worries about their current problems. The manner of the death initiating each episode and the persona of the individual who died set the theme and background for that show.

The oldest child, and the most normal individual in the series centred on the Fisher & Sons funeral home, is Nate Fisher played by Peter Krause. Though he had appeared in a plethora of shows and series in the nineties, I only saw him in one other black comedy, The Truman Show (1998), but he did not have a major role. Peter Krause received three Emmy nominations for his role as Nate Fisher in Six Feet Under. As well, he has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards. I do not recall ever seeing one of the many series in which he subsequently starred.

In Six Foot Under, he plays the son of an uptight mother and widow, Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy). He is also the older brother of David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and a teenaged sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), who is full of the anxieties and uncertainties during that rite of passage in one’s life. David Fisher, as the brother who stayed in the funeral business with his father, is as picture perfect and straight as his mother, except he turns out to be gay. The first several years of the show often deal with his struggles with that identity and his growing warm relationship with his brother, Nate, who reluctantly also became a funeral director following the death of their father.

Nate Fisher develops a deep love interest in Rachel Griffiths (Brenda Chenowith) who has a very high IQ, a troubled history as the child of two crazy psychoanalysts, including the mother, Joanna Cassidy who plays Margaret Chenowith. Brenda is also the heroine of a study by a different psychoanalyst and a best-selling book. Needless to say, her life unfolds in relationship to the ordinary Nate Fisher in extraordinary paths complicated by wayward experiments with kinky sex.

The juxtaposition of the mad and mundane are evident in two very contrasting side characters, Keith, a black cop who is a centre of solidity even as he increasingly shows signs of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after he inadvertently kills an armed man harassing and threatening that man’s girlfriend and beats up a “wife’ beater who, contrary to any impression (or credibility for that matter), is claimed to be an ecological genius. At the other end of the spectrum is Brenda’s brother Billy who suffers from bipolar disorder. Other characters appear, such as Gabriel Dimas (Eric Balfour), another troubled teenager and friend of Claire who reveals himself to be a druggie and borderline sociopath. Madness, death and deep devotional love entail two rather than six degrees of separation.

The series is not “ha, ha” hilarious. The laughs are quiet but as disturbing as they are revealing. For the glaring sunlight of Los Angeles has some very dark moments that crash against the sublime Pacific shore. One is always on edge as the dangerous and hidden undercurrents reveal themselves in the different sub-cultures that characterize LA – whether of ancient and wild hippies, members of a relatively sane motorcycle gang, a bizarre sex club or of a Jewish community struck by an unintended suicide and then put to the acid test by an inappropriate stand-up comic at the shiva of his deceased entertainment lawyer.

Nothing will be as it seems, particularly the prettified corpses of the bodies being prepared for burial primarily by Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez), the mortician artist charged with restoring the dead to look like the one who had just lived even as each one lies still in their very different coffins. This Puerto Rican and “artistic” live wire with a wife and two young children is the marker of everyday life in a churning sea of morbidity and mania, delirium and derangement.

The series bounces back between humour and compassion all underwritten by a very intelligent and perceptive script. But I doubt if that was sustained for the full five seasons, though it may have been. In any case, I may return to at least watch the last episode, reputedly the best finale of a television series ever, evidently a projection forward to the inevitable death of each character. However, I gave up at the beginning of the third season when the episodes appeared more and more contrived rather than compelling and the twists and turns seemed arbitrary rather than following the natural curves of Highway One running down the coast of California.

The setting and the events ensure that death always remained as the central theme and the foremost subject of consciousness of the ensemble cast. But it is not just death. The meditations are also macambre, for the fear of death haunts everyone in the series and their everyday efforts to escape its embrace. Each episode is a reminder of how transient our lives are, how subject they are to contingency and serendipity. As we meditate on the themes, we never lose sight of our mortality, though the series is suffused with morbidity even more than with our pursuit of self-destruction marked by an excessive deeply-rooted gloom and sense of our fragility as we all lead lives of disquieting desperation.

In the first two seasons, the episodes became deeper and darker at the same time as they became more droll. The self-mockery and dry humour provided the comic relief and the ghost of the Fisher father’s wry sense of humour and commentary on the follies and foolishness of ordinary life lightened the dark clouds – death put in service of life.  The series sprinkles the episodes of poignant drama with salt and pepper sardonic humor and heartrending sentiment.

Death is the subject matter, not dying. The series is NOT primarily about the suffering that very often precedes death, though a very few episodes have this as their focus. Pain is otherwise generally eschewed. Juxtaposed are not pleasure and pain but life and desire, the former imbued with the fear of mortality and the latter with the search for eternity and immortality. Desire mediates the two poles. But desire belongs to this world and is imbued with social assumptions and prejudices that throw the tension askew. Los Angeles seems to be characterized as a geo-political locale that has lost any magnetic compass let alone a moral one.

At one time in the series, I lost it – in the episode mentioned above that began with the baby who dies at three weeks from sids, sudden infant death syndrome. I burst into tears. The memory came back of myself in the delivery room in Mount Sinai Hospital when my son Gabriel emerged from the womb as a droopy white rag. I think I fainted, but I can no longer remember. It took an eternity that lasted at most a few minutes for the doctors to bring him back to life and I, never mind Gabriel, could breathe again.

Can you possibly imagine meeting with funeral directors to plan your infant son’s internment? The series does so with sensitivity and nuance.

But none of the above is why I write about the series. Rather, my conviction is that Six Feet Under marked a turning point when America repeated the mistakes of Vietnam and went to war in Iraq under the pretense of finding weapons of mass destruction and, even worse, into Afghanistan which Barack Obama had labeled as the right war in contrast to Iraq. America would reveal itself as a unipolar power incapable of exercising that power to help nations rebuild. This was the period when the dream of America as leader of the free world began to sink into an abyss and that vision was buried under the preoccupation with personal and interpersonal psychological and social dramas as the collectivity began to fragment and implode.

America itself was being buried six feet under.

Parshat Yitro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 There and Then: The “Ten” Commandments

Yesterday, paradoxically, I wrote about Here Today, about Here and Now in accordance with a comic genre. Today, I will address the issue of There and Then, again, a paradox, but one within the genre of tragedy.

Tragedies often begin with messengers. Parshat Yitro in chapter 18 begins with Jethro, a pagan priest and Moses’ father-in-law who begins by listening to Moses’ tale of what God instructed him to do, what happened and how he led his people out of Israel with God’s guidance. Jethro listened and heard. He also reprimanded. Jethro concluded (18:10-11):

0[Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. יוַיֹּ֘אמֶר֘ יִתְרוֹ֒ בָּר֣וּךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרַ֖יִם וּמִיַּ֣ד פַּרְעֹ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִצִּיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת יַד־מִצְרָֽיִם:
11Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.” יאעַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל יְהוָֹ֖ה מִכָּל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים כִּ֣י בַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר זָד֖וּ עֲלֵיהֶֽם:

It is a pagan who recognizes the Hebrew God as the most powerful god.

Second, the next day it is also Jethro who teaches Moses the first and most important principle of governance: delegation and separation of the judicial and executive functions of office. Arafat sought to rule like a traditional sheikh, dispensing both favours and judgements. I witnessed it personally on a visit to Gaza late one evening. It cannot and does not work but rather leads to cronyism, corruption and poor governance.

Why does Jethro pronounce Moses’ efforts to listen to disputes between and among neighbours and then make the disputants aware of the law and God’s interpretation as without worth? First, because Moses cannot do such a job alone. In the words of Isaiah, it makes “fat the heart” and that is “not good”. Instead, Jethro insists that Moses’ responsibility is not to be a judge at all, but a defence attorney and his client shall be the Israelites whom he is told to defend in the court of God. The major event and issues are tensions and disputes between man and God not between and among humans.

Moses must also be a teacher about God’s laws and ordinances as well as a defence attorney as distinct from a judge. Only in this way will Moses be able to survive as a leader and ensure peace for the people of Israel.

After Jethro returned to the land of the Midianites, he left Moses to lead his people as he had instructed him. The Israelites moved on and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai.

3Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel, גוּמשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהוָֹה֙ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
4‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me. דאַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָֽאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָֽאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי:
5And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. הוְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִֽהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ:
6And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” ווְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּֽהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

Obey. Keep my covenant. And in this way become a holy nation. Moses took that message back to the people and they agreed to do as God wished. When Moses returned to God with that agreement, God promised Moses that when he speaks, the people will hear and they will have faith in your leadership. But they must not try to ascend the mountain themselves, but only go to the rim at the bottom lest they meet their destruction. Then Moses ascends and returns from the mountain with what is known as the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments first inscribed in chapter 20.

2“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. באָֽנֹכִ֨י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֽוֹצֵאתִ֩יךָ֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֗ים:
3You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. גלֹ֣א יִֽהְיֶ֣ה־לְךָ֩ אֱלֹהִ֨ים אֲחֵרִ֜ים עַל־פָּנַ֗י:
4You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. דלֹ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂה־לְּךָ֣ פֶ֣סֶל | וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם | מִמַּ֡עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁר֩ בָּאָ֨רֶץ מִתַּ֜חַת וַֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמַּ֣יִם | מִתַּ֣חַת לָאָ֗רֶץ:
5You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, הלֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֣ה לָהֶם֘ וְלֹ֣א תָֽעָבְדֵם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵ֠ד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֽׂנְאָ֑י:
6and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments. ווְעֹ֤שֶׂה חֶ֨סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֔ים לְאֹֽהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹֽׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֹתָֽי:
7You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain. זלֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יְנַקֶּה֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ לַשָּֽׁוְא:
8Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. חזָכוֹר֩ אֶת־י֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֜ת לְקַדְּשׁ֗וֹ:
9Six days may you work and perform all your labor, טשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים תַּֽעֲבֹד֘ וְעָשִׂ֣יתָ כָל־מְלַאכְתֶּךָ֒:
10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. יוְי֨וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י שַׁבָּ֣ת | לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ לֹ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה כָל־מְלָאכָ֡ה אַתָּ֣ה | וּבִנְךָ֣־וּ֠בִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ֨ וַֽאֲמָֽתְךָ֜ וּבְהֶמְתֶּ֗ךָ וְגֵֽרְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ:
11For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. יאכִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ:
12Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. יבכַּבֵּ֥ד אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּ֑ךָ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יַֽאֲרִכ֣וּן יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ:
13You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. יגלֹ֖א תִּרְצָֽח: ס לֹ֖א תִּנְאָֽף: ס לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹֽב: ס לֹֽא־תַֽעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר:
14You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” ידלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ך ס לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַֽאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַֽחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ:

Except, these are not commandments. They are sayings.

  1. Do not worship other gods in my presence.
  2. Do not engage in idolatry.
  3. Perform chesed or acts of loving kindness.
  4. Do not commit blasphemy by taking the name of the Lord in vain.
  5. Keep the sabbath by performing no labour on that day or permitting your servants of strangers from performing this labour – there can be no shabas goys.
  6. Honour thy father and mother.
  7. Do not murder.
  8. Do not commit adultery.
  9. Do not steal.
  10. Do not bear false witness against your neighbour; don’t commit perjury.
  11. Do not covet thy neighbour’s house or whatever belongs to your neighbour.

But that makes eleven not ten commandments. Usually, the third is omitted to ensure there are ten. Yet the third is more often interpreted as the most basic and all-encompassing. Or else the first and second are combined as one. But it does not matter except rhetorically whether there are ten or eleven or whether the same ones are reiterated in Deuteronomy 5. Rather, notice that there are three prohibitions with respect to God – no worshipping other gods, no idolatry and no blasphemy, three positive instructions, performing chesed, keeping the sabbath and honouring your mother and father, and then five further prohibitions but this time in relationship to other humans – don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, commit perjury or covet.

Each of these prohibitions or advisories is subject to interpretation. For example, the first is often interpreted as insisting on a monotheistic faith. Except that Jethro worshipped other gods and interpreted the Israeli God simply as the most powerful. Further, more idiosyncratically, the prohibition has been interpreted as not worshipping other gods in front of the Lord. But the intent seems clear enough at its core – not a metaphysical monotheism but a legal one. The people must consent to the arrangement. The arrangement also requires their commitment. Third, the sayings in effect provide a contract between God and the Israelites, a pre-nuptial agreement in their marriage. Consent, commitment and contract seem to be requisites.

Take these sayings in the three groupings above beginning with the instruction not to worship any other god (in front of or as first in power -?) before the Israelite God. Do not commit idolatry, more specifically, make a graven image as an object of worship. Obviously, making a material object like a golden calf or any other cultic physical representation and treating it as if it were God is idolatry. But idolatry means far more. There can be no physical representation of the divine for that is oved avodah zarah (worship in a pagan or strange service). But then why is Jethro given such a high status?

Any answer requires a lengthy exposition, but suffice to say it simply means, and Jethro attests to that meaning, that God is the only God responsible for all creation and His creatures that He created, especially the Israelites whom He consecrated as a people and with whom He entered a covenantal relationship. God too entered into a commitment and a contractual relationship.

Speaking of God in profane terms (blasphemy) is also forbidden. This does not simply mean that we should not say, “God damn!” Rather, it prohibits disrespect or contempt for God. It does not mean not arguing with God. It does mean not engaging in a pissing match. That means, as Isaiah said, listening with a lean heart, one that is emotionally sensitive, hearing what is said by washing out one’s ears and looking at the other as a cloud rather than with eyes glazed over as if one could readily see the other. It means to hear intently without claiming to understand or categorize, looking closely without presuming what one can perceive. It means being open to the Other.

How then do we fit in chesed? Rabbi Simiai in the Talmud claimed that, “The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed.” Chesed provide the book ends to hold up the Torah, the shelf on which the Torah can rest but is not itself the Torah.  Mercy and compassion are prerequisits for a lean heart, unstopped ears and unglazed eyes. It is God who embodies chesed, what Jews translate as mercy and Christians, grace. Chesed entails God’s love for His people, the zealous love of one person for another and the compassion of people towards God.

The forbidding of murder, theft, adultery, perjury and especially being covetous are all expressions of what it is not to be charitable and kind to others. They are all mean acts. Covetousness is not forbidding acquisitiveness. It does mean an injunction against jealousy for what one’s neighbour has.

That was then and there. The tragedy is always when was there and then as an aspiration has become a lost cause, that we give up on forbidding a covetous life, that we fail to empathize with the other, hear the other and see the other not through either rose coloured glasses or darkened shades. For we must pronounce, Hinaini, here I am ready not only to say but to go, to hear intently without presuming to understand and to look closely without assuming one perceives.

Here Today – a movie review

The buddy film starring Billy Crystal as Charlie Burnz and Tiffany Hassish as Emma is a change of pace. It is a warm comedy rather than a cold tragedy. Billy Crystal plays what he has always played best – a comic version of himself. And he directs as well. He is an old-style stand-up comic working as a writer on the equivalent of Saturday Night Live among a gaggle of young comics less than half his age. He and Tiffany, a street performer and jazz singer aspiring to be a stage artist, form a fast friendship – fast both in the sense that it took very little time to gel and fast in the sense of firm and deep.

When Tiffany introduces Billy to her ex-boyfriend, who is a fan of Billy, the latter invites Tiffany to be his “date” at his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. She accepts on condition that he dance with her. He replies that he is a very poor dancer, indeed, a very dangerous dancer, the only person he knows who carries “mambo insurance.” But she insists. He accepts on condition that she wear a football helmet and pads. When you write the one-liners down, they do not seem very funny. But when Billy delivers them, they are hilarious.

Why? Because although the lines are smart-alecky and witty, they are also authentic, expressing real emotion underneath. Secondly, they are expressed with “the lightness of being.” Tragedy is heavy and the challenge is to lighten it up so that we do not drown in despair. Comedy is inherently light and the challenge is to turn air into helium and make the balloon rise faster and higher until it is out of sight. Third, comedy requires a comic situation. As older comic with early onset dementia befriending, indeed, falling in love in a way, with a young vibrant jazz singer who gives him energy, appreciates his talent and restores for him a sense of vitality even as she expresses a deep sensitivity for his situation, is a joy to watch. The redemption comes naturally; a melodramatic situation is raised to the level of a romantic comedy.

Their first real informal date is at a wax museum where Billy can demonstrate his imitation and comic skills of the various characters on display. But his comic skills make these wax figures live again in your memory. It is a movie full of “honest laughter.” Watch Billy’s autobiographical show, 700 Sundays (2204), which is also available on streaming, and you can see much more apparently how Crystal relies so much on authenticity to make his comic sketches work.

Here Today may be about the transitory nature of life. But that life is given meaning by love and relationships that have a positive outcome even as we watch the early stages in which a clever, sensitive and well-informed man decline into senility.

Bob Rae sent me a sketch, indeed an evening in Stratford Ontario (https://youtu.be/7b4hi5bjkEY), following a performance of Macbeth in 2016, which filmed a mock appeal to three real Canadian supreme court justices on behalf of Macbeth and his wife. Bob Rae performs as the “expert witness” and, it turns out that although he is not a Billy Crystal, he is authentically a brilliant sit-down comic. Placing Macbeth within a comic frame also turns out to be very revealing about the play itself.

Comedy is very hard to do but when it is done well, there is no better remedy when you are recovering from covid.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review:

Part III Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand

Denzel Washington is almost seventy years old. He has been a Hollywood star for decades. He has stared in comedies (Carbon Copy with George Segal), a host of second rate murder mysteries, westerns (The Magnificent Seven, 2016), thrillers (Mississippi Masala and The Taking of Pelham – 2009 and a repeat version in Unstoppable, 2010), science fiction (The Book of Eli, 2010), crimes stories (The Pelican Brief, 1993), action movies (The Mighty Quinn), what I regard as his best roles in historical dramas (as Steve Bilko in the 1987 film, Cry Freedom, Malcom X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie by the same name, the 1999 movie about the boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter wrongly convicted of murder – The Hurricane, the 1993 movie staring Tom Hanks where Denzel played Tom Hanks’ homophobic lawyer in Philadelphia, the psychodrama, which he also directed, Antwone Fisher, as drug lord, Frank Lucas, in American Gangster – 2007, and as Professor Melvin Tolson, the Texas debating coach in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters), a myriad of police dramas (the 1999 movie The Bone Collector, Training Day, 2001), war films (Glory), and musical dramas (Mo’ Better Blues). Lately, his forte seems to have been police detectives, FBI agents and CIA operatives. However, I missed him in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian comedy, Much Ado About Nothing (1993). After watching him in Macbeth, I vowed to go back and watch that film.

I do not know and cannot count how many other shlocky films that I did not see in which Denzel Washington appeared. But his versatility is legendary. However, I could never have imagined him as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Fortunately, Joel Coen with his genius did.

Denzel gives Shakespeare’s poetic and high-minded language a colloquial tone. Instead of bravura and bombast, we watch a man twisting on his own petard of psychological conflict. Macbeth may be both a war hero and a serial killer in this movie, but it is the internal workings of his mind that fascinate Shakespeare, Coen and Washington. Denzel Washington’s lines are delivered in a restrained, even hesitant, manner rather than a tone full of bluster and braggadocio. Shakespeare’s language may be grandiloquent, but Denzel allows the magniloquence to emerge much more forcefully and clearly through the use of restraint and introspection. Rather than a man living in the glory of his achievements, Denzel’s Macbeth is a man wearied by war and conflict, but driven to repeat his fighting acuity by an unbridled and little understood ambition. In a context stressing mood and mystique, symbolism and sensitivity, we watch a close-up of a hero who turns into a mad dog.

In his first and pivotal murder, we watch Denzel’s boots as he marches down a long corridor with the stomping echoing through the emptiness. We see a line of vertical light on a doorway at the end of the hall. Before we can discern what we are viewing, Macbeth asks whether what he sees is a blade. And, as we come closer, we perceive that the sliver of light is indeed a knife that serves as the handle to open the door to the king’s bedchamber. Denzel will use that handle-knife to slit Duncan’s throat as he sleeps.

How does one combine masculinity and might with psychological feebleness, power with impotence in the grasp of fate which has taken one prisoner? That is a very hard act to pull off. And Denzel Washington succeeds superbly. Instead of mud and grit, instead of fields of dead bodies, we observe a great man disintegrating before our eyes.

Frances McDormand is his prefect partner. For it isn’t the lust for power that drives the pair. They seem to have no idea of what to do with the power they have once acquired. Instead, what we see is ambition for position in which power evaporates like the water on the floor of the castle that serves as the witches’ cauldron. Instead of fractures and floundering, the players became wearier and wearier and more broken and fragmented with their achievement. Not because it has not been enormous. But because the victory has been hollow, without purpose or meaning. Even the plan for blaming the courtiers of Duncan goes awry when, in a supposed fit of passion, Macbeth murders them. Instead of displacing the blame, Duncan’s sons, Malcolm (who looks like Steve Lewis did in high school) and Donalbain quickly grasp the source of the mayhem and flee for their lives.

I remember Frances McDormand as the pregnant cop, Marge Gunderson, in the early Coen film Blood Simple (1984) where she plays the role of an unfaithful wife of a murderer, as the lead pregnant detective in the very famous Coen film, Fargo (1996), as Mrs. Pell the interpreter of the source of prejudice in Mississippi Burning (1988), as Elaine Miller as the protective but threatening mother of a young prodigy, the smart, good-hearted fifteen-year-old rock journalist in the story of the young boy who becomes a journalist for Rolling Stone in Almost Famous (2000), as Jane in another rock-era film as a libertine mother and ’60s-era record producer past her prime who nurses a band to stardom In Laurel Canyon (2002), as the unfaithful wife of a barber determined to become a fraudster in Joel Coen’s 2001 film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, as the self-appointed detective to solve her daughter’s murder in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, as part of an ensemble cast in both Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and in his stop-motion animated fiction comedy Isle of Dogs (2018), alongside Matt Damon as Sue Thomason, a silver-tongued gas company land buyer who has little time for any relationship in the story of heartless corporate America in Promised Land (2012), and in North Country (2005) which we just rewatched where she played a supporting role as a female miner dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease who becomes the main psychological supporter for Charlize Theron who plays the standout role as the leader in the first class-action sexual harassment case in US judicial history.

Frances McDormand played the van dwelling nomad in Nomadland (2020) who lost everything in the Great Depression. These are all realist rather than symbolic roles, but rich in nuance and subtlety. Frances McDormand usually plays an earthy woman grounded in everyday life. Who could have imagined her as Lady Macbeth? Presumably, only she and her husband, Joel Coen. How fortunate we are that we have been enabled to watch this enormous and very successful stretch. Though sometimes deep in a swamp of corruption, more usually she stands for decency and determination set against a “valhalla of decadence.” In The Tragedy of Macbeth, she becomes the central decadent figure.

In The Tragedy of Macbeth, we watch two characters melting before our eyes as they disintegrate in a fate they cannot reverse. They both become mad – not just Lady Macbeth. They remain in consort even in their insanity. Inevitability and insignificance are married against a backdrop of magnificence and heroism. For such a psychological drama, the film is uncompromisingly physical. It is not only their minds that fall apart, but their bodies. Lady Macbeth’s hair begins to fall out. From an elegant and self-confident woman, she herself becomes a frazzled hag. And McDormand manages the transition with a depth of intensity and subtlety that is almost incomprehensible.

How can one be both regal and so fragile? Because both leads are also older and very experienced actors rather than relatively young and vigorous thirty-year-olds. Frances McDormand’s histrionic range is deliberately kept in check. The deicide is a last gasp rather than the first outrageous step in a long march towards power. The frames are cold and stark. The score echoes and haunts. The past imprisons the present and condemns the future. It is the first and only time that I have seen Macbeth where the depth of the psychological force emerges with such unrepentant fury.  

The film opens with clouds and birds (witches) emerging from not only those clouds, but from the audience as if we were watching a Hitchcock thriller at the same time. For we must be part of the psychodrama being created. This is NOT an action movie in spite of a culminating fight scene on the castle walls. An individual treks across a snow-covered field and it is not where he comes from or even where he is going that counts so much as the tracks he leaves behind. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand allow us to follow those tracks, step by weary step, until their last moment of recorded time. And they keep in step, locked together in both love and madness, supportive of each other in their doomed journey.

he Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review:

Part II Set, Lighting, Costumes & Score

The sets (Stefan Dechant – Avatar and True Grit), lighting and cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), costumes (Mary Zophre) and score (Carter Burwell – FargoThe Big LebowskiNo Country for Old Men) are more intrinsic to this movie than in any that I have seen lately. The action and interpretation are enormously enhanced as well as facilitated by the lighting and sets, costumes and soundtrack. The film is shot in black and white – really dark and light grey – to emphasize shadows and beams of light that penetrate the high brutalist architecture (cf. the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto) of a stage set that has been stretched vertically and horizontally and in terms of depth beyond any stage you have ever witnessed. The unnaturalism of the set supersedes what could have been viewed on a wild Scottish heath.  

Why? Because, in the end, we are not really in Scotland but instead dwell within the architecture of Macbeth’s mind and mythic dimensions of the play. We are watching a stage, not a landscape, where the mind plays out its struggles and contradictions. The most brilliant quality of the movie I found was how Coen combined the poetry of Shakespearian blank and rhymed verse with such barren visuals. The sets and sounds and costumes all allow the language a greater clarity.

The scenes are not always logical or sequential. Characters appear out of mists, appear in hallways, on long stairways and on castle ramparts as if emerging from thin air. This is because we are offered an unnatural realm for the unconscious to act out, not a natural landscape. The combination of the real and the dream – or really the nightmares – create a super-reality. The film owes much more to German expressionism as developed after the horrendous events of The Great War than to the stock shots of Hollywood, even though the whole movie was shot on a sound stage.

The first manifesto of the surrealist movement wrote of a “psychic automatism.” This is how Macbeth and Macbeth’s wife’s actions have to be viewed – not as behaviour determined by intentions, but actions driven by unconscious passions. On the cognitive level, Macbeth cannot both believe the witch’s prophecy that he will be king AND that it will be Banquo (Bertie Carvell) who produces a line of kings. Why seize the throne if that will be the outcome?

But the actions are not determined by a consequential calculation but by hidden forces that turn a brave warrior into a bloodthirsty serial killer. The scenery does not represent a Scottish heath or any real Scottish castle. The concrete is too smooth, the elevations are far too lofty and the fenestrations make no rational sense. They are there simply to direct beams of light on the action. On a more metaphysical level, the film offers a critique of those who believe that political actions on the world stage can be understood in terms of rational explanations. The film is but another radical departure for a Coen film, for it is rooted in the depths of the imagination far more than a Minnesota landscape or a Scottish one for that matter.

Joel Coen, using Bruno Delbonet, films the movie through a 1:33:1 aspect ratio adapted from silent film and discards the widescreen approach of modern films the better to hone in on the intimate and the personal against a minimalist but brutalist background. Further, birds turn into witches and witches sit above the action on beams rather than on the same level as humans. Potions and parts of bodies are dropped onto the floor of the castle which has become a pool of water, first bubbling and then boiling and finally dissipating altogether.  Elements not found together in real life are juxtaposed. For this is a film about the unconscious life projected on the world stage. What counts is not the verisimilitude of the image but its emotional power to evoke the imaginative realm.

Why now? Why this Macbeth? Because we live in a time in which irrationality rather than reason rules the roost, where rational calculation is bracketed to reflect how thought really works. It is mythical. It is allegorical. It is mystical. It is metaphysical. German expressionism as expressed by George Grosz or Wilhelm Klemm is inverted, for the intention is not to remind the audience of our inalienable humanity but of our most evil instincts. Art then is not redemptive but subversive.

That is why Stefan Dechant has been inspired by brutalist architecture, its minimalist construction and its use of bare building materials. No ornate baroque here. No decorative design or carpets or wall hangings. Instead, we find long columns or walls of smooth concrete punctuated by openings above and below and from the side. The angular Pythagorean shapes suggest a rationality of the surface that disguises the turmoil beneath. The black and white – or gray on gray – monochrome offer shadows rather than shades, sharp contrasts rather than blends. Joel Coen wants to liberate us from a nostalgic view of Shakespeare to reveal him as a prophet of our contemporary age. It is a search for honesty and revelation rather than hiding the underlying structure of the mind. What is revered is not a divine force but the harsh reality of the concrete and real world seething with passions underneath. The absolute clarity of the structure and the strict formality of the clean lines and angles using the barest of hard materials is reflected in a repetition of ballustrades, openings, steps, shafts – all suggesting a modular world that is very contemporary.  And cold. And austere. And bare. And hollow. And empty. Yet very muscular with very long wide corridors and very high walls.

The armor plate of the warriors and their costumes convey not only strength and security but aesthetic beauty. Thus, Ross (Alex Hassell), as a minor character promoted in status, emerges first as a striking sleek figure in black with a sharp goatee, a very handsome face and the body of a stud. He is a striking cool presence while he serves as an Iago for Macbeth, a facilitator of evil and murder rather than the grace he appears to express.

Carter Burwell’s sound cues (cf. https://www.what-song.com/Movies/Soundtrack/104698/The-Tragedy-of-Macbeth) – are drawn from action and horror films, but mostly thrillers – the pounding boots hitting the concrete floor, the slapping of a tree branch against a window pain, the drips of water reverberating like thunderclaps in the room which has itself become a cauldron. Death is made palpable. And even more than death – the fear of mortality. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are driven by a deep desire to fend off mortality by grasping for a last gasp of greatness. In the moment of action, we hear the weighty instrumentation of the fiddle rather than violin strings that reverberate and recall earlier soundings, especially the prophecies of the witches in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have become trapped. At the same time, those folk sounds are grounded rather than elevated. The musical chords are used to shadow the present moment and adumbrate the future as the plot unfolds, the pace increases and the end is foreshadowed.  

Sets, lighting, cinematography, costumes and score all reverberate against one another to convey Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

As Macbeth conveys the message in his famous soliloquy:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review: Part I The Three Witches

Joel Coen is an artistic genius. He and his wife, Frances McDormand, have produced and he has directed one of the most extraordinary productions of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. Released in theatres (a limited release) on Christmas, it has as of 14 January been streaming on Apple TV.  It is a MUST see.

A thane is a Scottish lord. Backed by the Norwegian King Sweno, the Thane of Cawdor organized a rebellion against King Duncan; Macdonald was the military head of the uprising. After a see-saw battle in which Fortune seemed at first to favour Macdonald, the rebellion is put down by Macbeth, the head of Duncan’s army. Macdonald was killed. Not just killed. Macbeth “unseemed him from the nave to the chops” and presented his severed head as a trophy. And Macbeth then repelled the Norwegians. He is a military hero. He is a Stoic, like Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.” However, Macbeth’s ambition proves to be the extent of his greatness.

Why did Cawdor rebel? According to Duncan, he was a man of integrity and honour; he courageously accepted his punishment by getting his head cut off. But why did he rebel in the first place? Was Duncan a corrupt king? An incompetent one? We are not told. And as presented in the opening scenes of Coen’s movie (and Shakespeare’s play), there is no indication that Duncan was anything but a noble and upright ruler. This adds to the ruthlessness of Macbeth. Otherwise, how could he do what he did next – kill the king himself, assume the throne and then instigate an endless bloodbath.

Macbeth is not just an ambitious man. He is a superb warrior, “valour’s minion.’ But in the stark misty landscape that has little resemblance to the Scottish highlands, he has also reenacted Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem. Who is Christ in the play? Macdonald? The Thane of Cawdor? We have no idea as the opening witch scene throws no light on the politics that gave rise to the rebellion and then the doubly traitorous act of brave Macbeth. All is ambivalent and confusing. And that is a point of the play – ambivalence.

For how can Macbeth be ambitious if it is foretold by the witch that Banquo, not he, will give rise to a line of kings? Besides, he (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) are childless and seem too old to bear children. Thus, the irony. He wants the throne, but it is a passion without a future.

Usually, the opening scene of the play with three witches reciting Shakespeare’s immortal lines sets the stage for what follows but does nothing to clarify the instigation of the action. Coen does something unique. The movie opens with one high-flying crow. Then a second appears among the clouds when the first is at the bottom of the screen. Then a third flies out from the viewer into the scene startling a lonely traveler who goes on to report the results of the battle to King Duncan.

Macbeth and Banquo appear out of the mist and discern a black figure beside a pool in which two other black figures are reflected. The first shape-shifts into an old contortionist hag whose scrawny limbs can bend and twist like pretzels with one leg slung over her shoulder. Kathryn Hunter plays all three witches in an award-winning performance on a misty rough unreal terrain. She looks like an old crow, acts like one as she jerks her head back and forth, and incites the famous incantation. She is truly weird, or “wayward” as Shakespeare spelled it, the weirdest and most harrowing witch I have ever seen. No long bent noses here. No steaming pot in the middle with frogs legs.

The Anglo-Saxon term “wyrd” means destiny or fate. But Shakespeare offers a twist. The witches are wayward, more like Delphic oracles than witches who offer spells and feed a person magical potions. They are sinister, not because of what they do, but because of what they say, and what they say and look like projects the inner state of a man’s soul.

Hunter turns from a raven into a stone that is a black Golgotha and then into an animated crow-like hag in a masterly exercise in magical realism that raises the whole scene to the level of epic surrealism. You know the witches are creatures of Macbeth’s mind because the one becomes three, each with a unique but, at the same time, identical smoky voice, that is also the voice of a fourth male character who appears later. The first witch who looks ancient and haggard predicts the future that hypnotizes Macbeth with its optimism, even though driven by an ill-understood and ageless id. The second witch is ironical and wry in adumbrating how that future will unfold. Then the third, angry and chastising, the superego that will deliver the mental turmoil that will doom Macbeth. The third witch is the “harpier,” a harpy, a loathsome monster in Greek myth with the head of a hag but the body of a predator bird. The three witches are three aspects of one being and in the movie are played as one person.

Here is Shakespeare’s versions of Act I, Scene 1 set in “a desert”

[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First WitchWhen shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second WitchWhen the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third WitchThat will be ere the set of sun.
First WitchWhere the place?
Second WitchUpon the heath.
Third WitchThere to meet with Macbeth.
First WitchI come, graymalkin!
Second WitchPaddock calls.
Third WitchAnon!
ALLFair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

In this mesmerizing chant in which the witch herself is summoned by her guardian spirit, a gray cat (graymalkin), we are introduced to the topsy-turvy world of Macbeth where evil rather than the pursuit of the good reigns and Macbeth is bewitched. There is no other way to explain his behaviour.

In Shakespeare’s play, the witches do meet again in Act 3, Scene 5.

ACT III SCENE V A heath. 
[A banquet prIn the Middle Etepared. Enter MACBETH, LADY MACBETH, ROSS, LENNOX, Lords, and Attendants]
[Thunder. Enter the three Witches meeting HECATE]
First WitchWhy, how now, Hecate! you look angerly.
HECATEHave I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call’d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done10
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.
But make amends now: get you gone,
And at the pit of Acheron
Meet me i’ the morning: thither he
Will come to know his destiny:
Your vessels and your spells provide,
Your charms and everything beside.
I am for the air; this night I’ll spend20
Unto a dismal and a fatal end:
Great business must be wrought ere noon:
Upon the corner of the moon
There hangs a vaporous drop profound;
I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:
And that distill’d by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear30
He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear:
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
[ Music and a song within: ‘Come away, come away,’ etc ]
Hark! I am call’d; my little spirit, see,
Sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me.
[Exit]
First WitchCome, let’s make haste; she’ll soon be back again.
[Exeunt]

The three witches are wayward, beldams, crones who have traveled on their own path without direction from Hecate, that is, without a moral compass. They do not guide the action as much as reflect it. They are bold, saucy and themselves rebellious. Hecate may be mistress of their charms, but these witches do not work through charms. They do not contrive or create harms. They are reflections rather than real agents of the action. They do not operate through magic nor are they responsible for Macbeth’s confusion. Most of all, Hecate is wrong. Empty ambition, not the quest for security, is portrayed as mortals’ greatest enemy.

It is no wonder that Joel Coen excised Hecate from the play; she was superfluous and, in the end, misleading.

In Scene 1 in Act IV when the witches return a third time, after a preview in the movie, the recitation begins – “double, double” for the play is about inversion and doubling that instigates the trouble for doubling entails deception. The witches do not enter but sit on cross beams above the action and the first drips one magical item after another in the pool of water on the castle floor.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: Act IV, Scene 1

Thunder.
Enter the three Witches
(in the play but not in the movie; there, only the first witch speaks. After the introductory verses, she looks up to the ceiling and begins the famous incantation: “Double, double…”)

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.


All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.


Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
 
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

All
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

Hecate
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]


Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, but also of childbirth, appeared first in Act III, scene 5 in Shakespeare’s play (though perhaps not in the original version) to reprimand the three witches for leaving her out of the action and for interfering with Macbeth without her approval. But she was MIA, missing in action, for Lady Macbeth has been barren. Yet in the scene above, she contradictorily congratulates the witches.

I assume, to avoid the confusion, Joel Coen excises Hecate in the film. And the witches are left to drop their charms from the rafters into a boiling pool of water down below. In that water, the face of Biancho’s son appears wearing a crown. While Macbeth promises his death, the voice from the depth predicts that he will be king. Macbeth’s ambition will be truncated.

(To be continued: Set, Lighting, Score and Costumes)

Landscapers – a series review

THIS WHOLE REVIEW REQUIRES A SPOILER ALERT!

The Lost Daughter starring Olivia Colman was one of the terrific films of 2021. Released on HBO as a four-part series on 7 December, Landscapers starring Olivia Colman as Susan Edwards is the best series that I have seen from 2021. It is hailed as a true crime drama. Though based on and inspired by an actual crime, the series in the end is not primarily about the crime nor even about the truth. The movie is NOT an “immaculate retelling of real-life murderous couple Susan and Christopher Edwards,” if only because the couple may have murdered, but they are not murderous.

To claim it is also about fantasy is also a stretch, though it is about the way we construct the past when we act and, once again, when we defend those actions, about the way that reality is reconstructed in different ways by the police and prosecutors as they try to prosecute a case. It is also, and perhaps mainly, about the way art, including this series itself, reconstructs events when the justice system and the agents caught up in it clash over their respective differences over reality. What art can do and courts cannot is explore the imaginative lives that undergird actual behaviour in history.

The most intriguing creation was that of Christopher Edwards (played by David Thewlis who called the series “the very finest project I have worked on in many years”), the husband of Susan, a mild-mannered and caring accountant who is secretly a shooter, indiscreetly shoots his mouth off fifteen years after the crime was committed and is accused and found guilty of the actual shooting of Susan Edward’s parents, Bill and Pat Wycherley. The synopsis reads, “Husband and wife Susan and Christopher have been on the run from reality for over 15 years.” They may have been on the run for 15 years, but not from reality. Their ordinary lives were always steeped in reality. They were on the run into creating their own imaginary fantasy, their own version of Bonnie and Clyde, their particular love story.

For the film is at its core a love rather than crime story, though a crime did take place and much of the movie is taken up trying to establish what happened in that crime. But after you watch the movie, it is not all clear what happened, just what the cops and the prosecutor and, in the end, the judge determined what happened, But what is clear and distinct is the fact that these two extra-ordinary – literally, supremely ordinary – people created their own world of real love precisely because they shared a fantasy world and love of movies, particularly westerns and ones starring Gérard Depardieu, the former reference clearer than the latter.

The series is about the magic of films and the magic of love as opposed to the crass reality of the search for truth and justice. The core facts are not in dispute. In 1998, the parents of mild-mannered and considerate Susan Edwards were murdered in Mansfield in England. Susan and Christopher did wrap the bodies of Susan’s parents in duvet covers and buried the bodies in the backyard of the home of those parents. Seven years later, the home was sold. Seven years after that, the Department of Works and Pensions wrote a letter asking to interview Bill Wycherley. Susan and Christopher had obviously been cashing his pension cheque since his demise had never been reported.

Susan and Cristopher fled to France. The balance of the funds from the sale of her parent’s house had obviously been dissipated, in good part because Susan had become a collector of movie memorabilia. When the couple were down to their last few dollars, Christopher, in order to get a loan from his stepmother, told her that they had buried the parents and where they had done so. There is no real effort to grasp why he made that confession or how it helped him get the cash advance – the implication is that the couple had reached a dead end with their finances and prospects. However, the slip became the catalyst for the stepmother informing the police and the police instigating an investigation.

Several additional undisputed “facts” emerged in that investigation. Susan had been sexually abused by her father as a child. Susan had also always been belittled by her mother. Third, Susan’s grandfather, not wanting to bequeath his own son anything, had left an inheritance to Susan which she used to jointly purchase a house with her parents. But her mother browbeat her into signing her portion of the house over to them and the parents quickly sold the house and moved away.

All the facts told in the series – we do not know what all the facts were that were revealed in court – are used by the scriptwriters and directors to direct the sympathies of the audience towards Susan.  Further, Susan and Christopher had rehearsed their version of events and told the police the same story – Pat had shot Bill and inadvertently Susan had killed her mother as the mother once again taunted and belittled her daughter and for the thousandth time told her she was worthless. Then, after a week, she had summoned Chris from Dagenham, told him what had happened, and he had helped bury the bodies. But the justice system determined that version of events was a lie. Chris never reported how putrid the house would have been with corpses lying under a bed for a week. Rigor mortis had not set in when the bodies were moved. Susan claimed there were casings found on the floor when the type of pistol used did not drop casings. Perhaps most incriminating of all, the couple opened a bank account with the parent’s money the first day after the killing. Chris and Susan were found guilty of killing the parents to get back full ownership of the house. They were sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years in prison.

At one point Susan offers an impassioned speech. Prison can’t break me. Because. Because I am already broken. I had been shattered and the justice system could do nothing more to compound the pain of her early life or the love she had found together with Christopher. The crime, police investigation and court drama are not the main event. The love story is.

A love story at its core is about what binds two people together. Love can also bind a family together, but in this tale, it is a story of hate and oppression that leaves little if any room for love. The miracle is that Susan and Chris were able to tease love, and such a strong love, out of the broken fragments of another’s life. Chris had that propensity as demonstrated in his love for both his mother and deep love for his brother David before he died. They were evidently both fragile people whom he protected and loved.

As he did Susan. Only she claimed she was NOT fragile. How could she be. As indicated by the righteous indignation of her monologue, she had been broken. It is the hard-headed interrogator policewoman, Emma (played superbly by Kate O’Flynn – she certainly deserves at least a nomination as best supporting actress), who had her own axe to literally grind against her own father. Emma defines ”fragile” from a realist perspective: “It means you’re in charge…You’re the pain in the arse, basically.” In those terms, it is Emma who is fragile not Susan. Susan only appears vulnerable. However, she’s in charge of all the shattering illustrated by the wealth of great graphics.

But how does a writer (Ed Sinclair, Colman’s husband in real life) and director (Will Sharpe) turn murderers into star-crossed lovers, not sensational characters like Bonnie and Clyde, but people who seem to excel in being ordinary? By – as the film actually does – taking down the fourth wall of a film set and showing the relationship of the making of the series to the construction of the fantasies and love life of the couple. They were not driven by hate. Hate drove Susan to be the broken woman she was disguised as a polite librarian who loved novels and films. She just waited for her prince charming to save and protect her. And Chris was a protector – or so the film would have us believe in contrast to the crime and trial story.

The intersection of fantasy and reality, of iconic film clips and real scenes that imitate art, of real people playing scenes from old cowboy movies, work wonders. Literally! Sets deconstruct. The colour slips away. Current “reality” dissolves into iconic forties movie scenes. Reality is suspended as fiction becomes the greater reality. This is not a love story like the one between Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, the rich Harvard undergrad and the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The 1970 “Love Story” directed by Arthur Hiller may have won Oscar nominations for its stars, but that is because the film transformed an archetypal but real love story into an emotional chorus of violins. This series does the reverse. The violinists are put in the scene alongside the Western trekking wagons, the cowboys and the posses that hunt them down.

The Lost Mother

The Lost Mother – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

The Lost Mother is not the name of the movie. It is called The Lost Daughter. Maggie Gyllenhaal offers audiences one of the most outstanding films of last year with the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel. Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is nuanced, incisive and uses the cinematic grammar of a top director with 20-30 years of experience. The pacing and pausing directly evoke the ambiguity that permeates the movie. Go see the film; it has been streaming on Netflix since 31 December. Do not read this review until you do. For there are too many spoilers.

The performance of 48-year-old Leda by Olivia Colman (Jessie Buckley plays her twenty-year younger self) is simply superb. In fact, both performances are excellent. Since the two are physically quite different looking that a twenty-year difference could not disguise, it is also the more remarkable that I, and no one I spoke to, had any difficulty accepting that the two were the same person at two different stages of one life. This fits in with a movie theme – do not trust appearances and impressions; it is the deeper psychological factors that establish identity – attitudes, intentions, how one handles emotions and how the body language of both point to an identical psychic make-up. This is particularly difficult to pull off when we only have a partial glimpse of an ambiguous inner self.

Leda in William Butler Yeat’s 1926 sonnet, “Leda and the Swan,” adopts the name Leda from Greek mythology as the mother of all of humanity, the product of intercourse with all the mighty gods – Zeus, Jupiter, et al, who appear to her deceptively as swans and rape her. Progeny include the beautiful Helen of Troy who is the “cause” of the great calamity of the ancient world, the Trojan War. Fate is born in disguise and the result is both violence and indifference.

How unlike the Torah where mankind is a result of the war between earthly lust and intellectual abstraction. In the novel and the film, the root problem is steeped in Hebraic rather than Greek mythology. The Greek origins of Leda, like much of the remaining content of the film, offers only a set of distractions and false clues. If we follow them, we will never discover the ambiguity of this amalgam of Adam and Eve as the virgin mother of humanity. And the roots of the inhumane!

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

                                  Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Rape is not the backdrop of The Lost Daughter.

I call the review The Lost Mother because that is what I think the movie was really about. Discovering that primal mother. But I am not sure. It is rare that I am left so perplexed by a film that I consider great. But I am. And I want to tell you why. It may have something to do with one of the themes of the film – female acuity versus male obtuseness. As a male, I suspect that I was not alone in my puzzlement for, as Leda in the novel says, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” Yet Leda recognizes that she, herself is “a very selfish person.” It is also a movie focused on body language for, as Leda says at one point, “The unspoken says more than the spoken.” But it is Leda who repeatedly misinterprets the unspoken. Yet we, in the audience, are repeatedly and endlessly exposed to the close-up so that we are put off balance by the absence of a frame as the characters exude emotions with every slightest inflection.

The movie takes place on an unnamed Greek island – except it is the one on which Leonard Cohen made his home for years, Hydra, his second home rather than his first for he could never leave the Hallelujah chorus of his Jewish birth in Montreal behind. It was the home of his muse, the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, for whom he wrote the masterpiece, So Long. Marianne, his own complicated lyric of abandonment.

In Greek mythology, Hydra is the child of Typhon (think typhoon) and Echnida, a monster half-woman and half-snake, the mother of most of the monsters that populate the Greek mythos. Hydra is a gigantic poisonous water-snake with nine heads. Cut off one head and two heads grow in its place. Hydra or hydra-headed connotes an ambiguous and multifarious dimension of existence.

However, in Hebraic mythology, the snake is not female, but the masculine penis objectified and detached as the male conceives of himself as divine, as pure mind detached from body and responsible for creating the world with words and language. Leda is a translator, a translator of one mythology into another and herself a hybrid creature: female with powerful maternal instincts and male with a cold indifference to the irritating progeny she breeds in favour of enlightened intellectual pursuits.

The first verses of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s ode to Hydra, Moving On, are about our inability to move on, our incapacity to leave the past behind.         

I loved your face, I loved your hair
Your T-shirts and your eveningwear
As for the world, the job, the war
I ditched them all to love you more

And now you’re gone, now you’re gone
As if there ever was a you
Who broke the heart and made it new
Who’s moving on, who’s kidding who

I loved your moods, I loved the way
They threatened every single day
Your beauty ruled me, though I knew
’Twas more hormonal than the view

And now you’re gone, now you’re gone
As if there ever was a you
Queen of lilac, Queen of blue
Who’s moving on, who’s kidding who

Hydra as a Greek resort island is a recreational retreat. But looks can be deceiving. For what we experience is not a place of beautiful calm waters and a warm sea, but a seething cauldron of cross currents with a powerful undertow. What appears peaceful and refreshing can really be turbulent and dangerous. And ditching a life of responsibilities does not have to be done for love and enchantment of another. Intellectual life has its own allure. So does basic sexual attraction.

Leda is a professor of comparative literature in Cambridge (US), near Boston – hence Harvard. (In the novel, the location is Florence.) She is on vacation – a working holiday (?) – by herself looking forward to a quiet period of reading, writing and relaxing. She is a Brit translating a book from English into Italian and looks down upon the crudeness, crassness and unruliness of the Greek (Italian in the book) family sharing the beach and dominated by a pregnant Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk). Leda is a loner and an outsider. Nina (Dakota Johnson) is a mother with a young daughter who belongs to the extended Greek family. Nina’s attraction to and identification with Leda proves that Leda is not as alien as she appears even as she endures rather than engages in conversation with Nina.

The key event takes place as Leda watches Nina interacting with her daughter as well as the rest of her family. In the novel, both Leda and Nina are originally from Naples and have clearly moved up in the world, though in very different directions. In the movie, this dimension of class is hinted at because Nina is from the New York borough of Queens and suspects Leda, from her accent, may be as well. But that allusion to a common past went way over my head because I could not imagine Leda with her clipped English accent having even a hint of borough New York in her voice.

The daughter goes missing – to the consternation of the whole extended family. Leda seems to know where to look for her and finds her, returning her – to her mother’s overwhelming relief.

But it is Leda who is really missing. And has been all her life. Not only Leda. Many of the characters are escape artists from life. Ed Harris, Lyle the caretaker, fled his responsibilities almost three decades earlier; but surprisingly, we don’t hold him in contempt. Is it because he is currently presented as a caring and considerate individual while Leda, in stealing the little girl’s doll (I did offer a spoiler alert), proves she is beyond redemption even though she, unlike Harris, returned to resume her responsibilities and continued to have a close relationship with her children? After all, as children, the girls had a very physical relationship with their mother – wanting to touch her, caress her, press flesh upon flesh. In contrast, Nina escapes the insensitive arms of her handsome husband into the arms of a young Australian lad in a less dramatic act than the young female academic, Leda, who absconded from her family and abandoned her two daughters many years earlier.

When Leda capriciously steals the girl’s doll, it is absolutely unexpected. The child is beside herself. Distraught, crying – nothing the mother does can ease her daughter’s pain at the loss. Nina must endure a week of tantrum and tears emanating from her daughter. Leda witnesses this all but is unmoved. She is pitiless. The scene is extremely painful to watch, indeed harrowing as much from its unpredictability. Why? Why so cold-hearted? Why so callous? Why so cruel? The mystery is not that she was the thief but why?

My youngest daughter offered me an explanation in terms of Freudian object displacement, “an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.” Leda has projected her whole psyche onto that doll, all the trauma of being a mother and sacrificing one’s personal life to the responsibility of caring for and raising a child. The accompanying jazz-blues score by Affonso Gonçalves captures the rapid changes in mood and mania of Leda’s shifting emotional states.

However, isn’t the movie simply a story of a self-centred female unwilling to assume the requisite sacrifices of motherhood? As such, isn’t she in the end repulsive in general and most especially for the theft of the doll even more than deserting her daughters at a young age for several years? But the movie not only reveals her irritability, her taut desperation, overwhelmed and frazzled by motherhood – and her deep frustration, but also her loving and inventive devotion.

Leda’s alter ego, Nina, the mother of the little girl who gets lost and whose doll is stolen, is also desperate and distracted, but not by the lures of an intellectual life, but by sex with a younger man when her husband is such a macho oaf. In contrast, Olivia Colman’s brooding passion never gets beyond flirtation with both the older Ed Harris, the caretaker, or the younger Australian tourist.

Leda and Nina are two peas in the same pod, but such different peas. Nina, like her namesake in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, can say, “In me is the spirit of the great Alexander, the spirit of Napoleon, of Caesar, of Shakespeare, and of the tiniest leech that swims. In me the consciousness of man has joined hands with the instinct of the animal; I understand all, all, all, and each life lives again in me.” Leda would rewrite these words and insist that instinct dies rather than lives within her, for the consciousness of man lives in her schizophrenically divided from her maternal consciousness as a woman.

So what is the problem? My dislike, indeed, condemnation of Leda is understandable. But where was my empathy. Sometimes it peaked out of my heart, got caught up in my throat and welled up in my tears. But they never flowed for Leda. The disgust at what she had done to the little girl whose doll she stole and her own daughters was too great.

Do you have to be a woman to fully empathize with such an ultimately repulsive character? Am I just an old-fashioned war horse intolerant of “non-natural” mothers? Is Leda simply taboo for me so that I want to lash out rather than commiserate? The movie even anticipates this response by differentiating between the language used by women to communicate and the inability of men to understand that language of imperceptible gestures, side glances and surly lips.

Nice review, Dad.I think your self-awareness about your lack of sympathy for Leda was perceptive.You missed the play on the doll’s name–Leda’s doll from childhood, “Mini-mama”, which her own daughter, Bianca, had scribbled all over–and the beautiful, sexy Nina, mother of the daughter who got lost and then lost her doll/mother.You also didn’t explain how the “transitional object” moves from daughter to mother.But fair enough.  The Yeats background is important.Leda gives birth, in the wake of the rape, to Helen (by Zeus) and Clytemnestra (by Tyndareus): hence “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.” I think the shadows of those two daughters flit across Leda’s body in the film, too–Bianca’s passionate (and almost destructive) attachment to her mother, while Martha (?) was more placid.Maternal ambivalence is powerful and under-explored in movies.
I don’t think the Leonard Cohen background and the song about “Hydra” really shed much light on the film for me.You were just free associating?Also, it was Callie (callous, obtuse Callie) who thought Leda was from Queens (–and, I agree, how unlikely!). 
It makes me want to read the book.

Rachel