Thursday, April 17, 2003

I couldn't have said this better myself

John Derbyshire, with whom I usually disagree, has an excellent column in today's National Review Online about the various artifacts that were recently looted from Baghdad's museums. He believes that most of them will resurface in other museums and private collections, where they'll be well taken care of. I think that the historical record generally supports his case.

Here are a few points, none of which are culturally sensitive or polite, but all of which we must remember: 1. Most collections of non-Western items currently displayed in Western museums were acquired through legitimate trade, negotiation and scientific inquiry -- not looting and pillaging, as has often been asserted. 2. Many non-Western peoples (especially those who fell under Communist rule) have deliberately destroyed the lion's share of tangible historical relics. 3. Western countries have generally taken better care of non-Western heritage than most non-Western countries have (or for that matter, could have).

Example: A few years ago I drove through the small town of Weaverville, California, which is about half an hour's drive due west of Redding. This town has the oldest operating Chinese temple in California -- an historic "Joss House." At any rate, Anglos call it a "Joss House" -- probably after half-drunk Portuguese sailors who were trying to spit out their word for "god," deus. The house's actual name, translated into English, is "The Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds." Built in 1874, this Taoist shrine is lovingly preserved by the state of California as a place of informal worship. The house even sold small red envelopes with which we could offer prayers to the gods. So if I were Taoist, I could have worshipped and made a small sacrifice there -- which, I'm told, usually consists of money, same as in my Christian church back home. (Plus ca change ...) What surprised me most, however, was the shrine's elaborate nineteenth-century Tao altarpiece, so ornately carved and beautiful, and imported at great expense from China. I had stumbled across a small but well-preserved piece of world history.

Now in all likelihood, I would never have seen anything like this had I actually visited China. That's because most Taoist temples -- along with other vestiges of organized religion -- were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Mao's gangs of "revolutionaries," out to smash anything they could find, broke the altars, burned the temples, and tortured or killed any worshippers they found. Only a few shrines way out in the boondocks managed to survive. Currently, even these places are neglected and falling apart, because religion is still a great big no-no in the People's Republic. (Look at the Chinese government's recent crackdowns on the harmless Falun Gong movement, and you'll see what I mean.)

When it comes to China's religious history and the traditions of Taoism, the small California town of Weaverville may have more to offer than Beijing itself. Let our anti-Western multiculturalists meditate on that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Hayao Miyazaki movies on DVD

Three films from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki hit the streets today, courtesy of the House of Mouse. Two of them are excellent, while one (his most recent, as it turns out) is not quite as good.

Spirited Away is a nifty movie, and certainly deserved this year's Oscar for Best Animated Film. I wish Disney had let it into a few more theaters before dumping it on home video, but at least they're giving the DVD a well-publicized release. The storytelling is patchy and a bit muddled, and the film drags here and there, but on the whole it's well worth seeing.

Still, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) is far superior, with jaw-dropping visuals and imagination to burn. Although the central conceit is based on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Miyazaki takes little from the book except for the idea of a floating island. (To those multilingualists who understand the significance of "Laputa": Yes, Swift named his floating island "The Whore" on purpose.) The film careens from adventure to adventure like those old Perils of Pauline serials, but the major characters are solidly established and hold our attention throughout. Animation buffs should note that this film influenced Disney's recent features Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. But Castle in the Sky handles its action sequences in a crisper and more satisfying fashion than its American imitators.

Miyazaki's special gifts for storytelling and characterization are nowhere more apparent than in Kiki's Delivery Service, a charming film from 1989 that finds wonder and delicate beauty in everyday moments. Many fans of Japanese anime regard this film as his best to date, and it's difficult for me to argue with them. The film presents a nuanced and thoughtful vision of childhood's end, as well as a keen sense of natural environment. Given that, in animation, show-stopping action and destruction are easier to depict than quiet, human scenes, it's quite remarkable that Miyazaki chooses to fill this movie with the latter rather than the former. For those who think than Japanese animation is all "Stomp Tokyo" destruction and kung-fu fighting, this film is an absolute must-see.

All three films are available with star-studded English dubs, as well as the original Japanese-language tracks. I tend to prefer the original tracks -- especially in the case of Kiki, where the English-language track is just godawful. That said, the English dub of Spirited Away is about as good as they come. Other "extras" on these 2-disc releases are completely dispensible.

There are several other Miyazaki films available to buy or rent: Princess Mononoke, released by Disney's Miramax division, is a great film by any standard. I think it's every bit as good as, and perhaps more dramatically compelling than, Kiki's Delivery Service. My Neighbor Totoro is another delicate, nuanced film about childhood, but the DVD from Fox is so thoroughly mangled -- pan-and-scan, no original Japanese-language track -- that I can't in good conscience recommend it. Even Miyazaki's first feature, the breezy action flick Castle of Cagliostro (which Steven Spielberg claims as a stylistic influence), can be found at your local DVD outlet: Although it's not packed with extras like the Disney releases, it is presented in its original aspect ratio, with a choice of Japanese- or English-language audio tracks.

These are some of the best animated films from the past quarter-century. Rent or buy, but by all means see them.

Whittaker Chambers's Witness

I've been re-reading Whittaker Chambers's autobiography Witness, which for my money is still the best book ever written about the Cold War. Chambers understood the nature of Communism better than anyone I've ever read, and his accounts of undercover espionage in Washington still make for riveting bedside reading. When the book was first published over a half-century ago, American leftists worked overtime to discredit its author. But once the former Soviet Union declassified its old KGB documents, we learned that Chambers's stories about clandestine activity were right on the money.

However, I have noticed one thing that dates the book badly. Chambers, ever the pessimist, honestly believed that the United States would lose the Cold War. For him, ideological consistency and personal sacrifice were the defining characteristics of a "victorious" social movement. Democracy, on the other hand, would fail and fall because it was insufficiently unified, because Americans didn't advocate our economic and political freedom with the same evangelical fervor that Communists seemed to possess.

History proved him spectacularly wrong on this point. Communism's ideological consistency and emphasis on personal sacrifice, which Chambers thought would lead the Soviet Union to triumph over Western democracy, were instead key factors in its downfall. Why?

Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories -- a humanistic allegory which ought to have a place of honor on every American conservative's bookshelf -- answers this basic philosophical question about as well as anyone has, or could (except for Thucydides, of course). In this novel, the boy protagonist Haroun observes rampant individualism within the Kingdom of Story. He cannot understand how the kingdom's defiant and self-contradictory fighting force can possibly defend it against the frightening specter of monolithic tyranny. However, Rushdie notes that defiance and contradiction actually bind humanists together in the face of danger, while ideological consistency imposed from above destroys whatever unifying principle its subjects might have already possessed. To put it simply, free citizens will fight for their country's interests. Coerced subjects head for the hills.

This insight is fundamentally counterintuitive, at least if you view the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism from a standard big-government perspective. If you believe that centralized control is good and the presence of dissenting voices is bad -- in short, that more government is necessarily better government -- then you're probably still baffled that the Soviet Union collapsed while the United States grew stronger than ever. You might even suspect, as do anti-American globalists, that the U.S. survived the Cold War by being even more ruthless and repressive than its enemy, or that, as Michel Foucault claimed in Discipline and Punish, democracies last because their internalized mechanisms of control are far more powerful and insidious than the straightforwardly punitive force of despotism. Alas, this way lies madness (though not civilization).

If our latest conflict with Iraq has proven anything, it's that Rushdie is right to celebrate intellectual and political freedom unironically -- as a durable, not an ephemeral, virtue. Freedom may require constant vigilance, but it is not fragile. Once the ethos of individual freedom is established within a society, it cannot be destroyed without considerable time and effort. Likewise, this freedom enhances national security, because it places decisions pertaining to our lives and property in our hands.

Plato, who famously preferred Sparta to Athens, never quite grasped these basic truths. But Pericles did, brilliantly, in his Funeral Oration. Maybe, if we can keep our wits about us, we'll understand them, too.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" poll: The Passion of Joan of Arc

This is Part VI of an ongoing series. To read Part V, click here.

Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc has a tortured history: In 1928, when the film was first released, it was considered too "arty" and avant-garde for mainstream audiences. (An irate Dreyer, in tandem with a leftist politician, arranged a free screening for unemployed workers in Copenhagen, most of whom liked it.) French censors made a few cuts, but the real damage came later in 1928, when a fire destroyed the original negative. Only a few prints of the film were left in circulation, so Dreyer assembled a second version of the film from alternate takes. This negative was destroyed in another fire -- at a different studio -- in 1929. From then until the mid-1980s, the film existed in several different versions -- some obviously corrupt, others less obviously so, and none of them the film Dreyer intended. Then, in 1981, film canisters containing an uncensored, near-pristine print of the film's original 1928 cut were found in an insane asylum just outside of Oslo, Norway. (No one can quite figure out just what it was doing there.) The Norwegian Film Institute didn't actually open the canisters until three years later, at which point restoration of "the Oslo print" began in earnest. What a long, strange trip this film has had.

It was not my intention to write about Passion of Joan of Arc on Palm Sunday. But now, at the start of Passion Week, I find myself face to face with this silent masterpiece, possibly the best film about Christian faith ever made.

The Passion, at least as most Christians understand it, focuses on individual suffering. Even though it ends in the triumph of Easter, the week-long process to that point is meant to put great faith to the greatest possible test. The scourges, the relentless questioning, the various power games from both religious and Roman authorities, even the slow, painful method of execution (by crucifixion) are meant to press Jesus to submit to earthly authority and deny his divine nature. These efforts to cow the Christ all fail, but through this failure, a greater salvation is created for humankind.

Whether or not you consider yourself a true believer, you have to acknowledge the importance of this narrative within a European-American cultural framework. The Passion is not a military tale of conquest, nor is it a tale of political savvy; rather, it is the story of one great-souled individual who successfully resists earthly power in the name of divine principle. The greatness of Dreyer's Passion, and the secret of its longevity, lies in its ability to follow the grand recit of the first Passion narrative in order to create a cinematic "passion" of its own.

Dreyer never shows Joan of Arc as a military leader; references to the battlefield are fleeting and infrequent. In this film she is Man (or, if you prefer, Woman) Suffering, the imitation of Christ. Traditional Christian symbols reinforce this connection: The imprisoned Joan weaves a simple crown from thatch, while bars on the windows cast the shadows of a cross on the floor. English guards mockingly place this crown on Joan's head, echoing Christ's crown of thorns in the original Passion narrative. The cross and the crown signify the paradox of Christian martyrdom -- earthly death and spiritual triumph. So it's no surprise that when Joan of Arc claims that she will be "liberated" by "a great victory," she's referring to her martyrdom. If all of these references seem grindingly obvious ... well, nobody said that ecclesial art was subtle.

The film's emphasis of isolated, individual spiritual suffering over collective endeavor -- and even over basic human relationships -- may explain its unique visual language, which consists almost entirely of isolated medium shots and close-ups. Most of the images are deliberately flat, with a single face (and usually only one) set against a neutral background. Yet, as if in compensation for these pared-down images, the editing is frenetic, with more than twice as many camera set-ups as was typical for a film of this length. Incessant cross-cutting creates nearly unbearable tension in the examination scenes, as Joan's agonized face alternates with the sly expressions of her inquisitors.

Although one of the largest outdoor sets in the history of film was constructed for Dreyer's Passion, we never see it, save for occasional glimpses at the periphery of the frame. Instead of enhancing the outsized emotions of the characters, as is the case with Murnau's Sunrise, Dreyer's sets remain clearly in the background. Yet they are present in the film, and they exert a subtle influence. Skewed angles, distorted spaces and cockeyed, decentered framing reflect the disproportionality of Western art prior to the invention of perspective. Were we to see these spaces in full, the effect might be similar to Expressionism. But in mere glimpses, they reinforce historicity, not emotion. They replicate medieval art in architectural terms -- and not coincidentally, they help Dreyer to create the cinematic equivalent of religious iconography.

No one can speak of this film without mentioning Renee Falconetti, who in her only film role gave one of the greatest performances in cinema history. Before Dreyer cast her as Joan of Arc, she was a popular comic actress, best-known for bringing the "Charleston" to Paris. Dreyer worked with her closely, eliminating her make-up, her glamorous dresses, all traces of her theatrical manner, and eventually most of her hair, in order to present a peasant girl who suffers.

As with Falconetti, all of the film's actors were filmed without make-up, under harsh lighting that accentuated every facial feature. Robert Bresson, whose Trial of Joan of Arc was released in 1962, claimed that the overall effect was "grotesque," and decried what he saw as an excess of emotion in Dreyer's film. (In all likelihood his reference was to a corrupted 1951 edition of Passion, which even Dreyer thought was in "bad taste.") Yet Bresson took the same aesthetic in Dreyer's film and pushed it to its logical extreme. Dreyer stripped actors, performances and images down to their essentials. Establishing shots are all but eliminated, and intertitles (with one exception) are limited to dialogue. (Dreyer even objected to the idea of opening credits.) The traditional spatial and character references of cinema are nonexistent. Nothing matters, save for Joan of Arc's spiritual suffering and martyrdom.

The thirteenth-century Stabat Mater, written as a hymn to the Virgin Mary, features a stanza which pleads for "compassion" in the term's original sense of "feeling with": "Fac me tecum pie flere, / Crucifixo condolere, / Donec ego vixero." (In English: Make me weep with you, to feel pain with the Crucified One while I live.) By presenting a succession of faces -- faces in agony, faces in triumph, faces that scheme and sympathize -- Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc enables us to feel the pain of a Christian martyr, who herself (at least in the film's structure of religious signifiers) approaches the pain of Christ.

Not only for its profound and powerful exposition of traditional religious themes, but also for the way it organizes its visual style around the expressive potential of the human face, I've included Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc on my ten-greatest list.

Short Review: Adaptation

I just caught Spike Jonze's Adaptation at a second-run movie house in town. It's wonderful filmmaking -- Jonze and screenwriter Charles Kaufman are a perfect writer-director team -- but I don't think it's a good film. In any case, it gives the lie to that old adage, "Nobody makes a bad movie on purpose." When Adaptation is bad (which is quite often), it is intentionally bad.

This is enough to convince war-weary critics, shell-shocked from one too many David Fincher pictures and Silence of the Lambs knockoffs, that the film is not bad, but borderline-brilliant. And Adaptation turns on itself so many times, in so many different ways, that if you're not watching closely, you could actually believe something profound is going on. The whole con job is anchored by Nicolas Cage's spectacular dual performance as twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. In comparison, Chris Cooper's Oscar-winning performance as "John LaRoche" seems vastly overrated, especially considering that he never amounts to more than a fictional construct throughout the film. My guess is that the Academy took his "dramatic" scenes a good deal more seriously than anyone should have. Since nothing in this film exists outside of its own script, we can only guess that his hackneyed dialogue and forced chemistry with Meryl Streep are part of an intricate design -- but is that really worth an Oscar?

If the film is so obsessed with its own unmaking, then the slavishly formulaic writing of the fictitious "Donald Kaufman" should be seen as a major influence on every scene that pertains to the film's literary source (Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief). This may not be so bad in itself. For all his reliance on stock characters and cliches, I suspect that the formulaic Donald may be a better scriptwriter than his artistically minded sibling. (I'm checking my ears as I make this statement -- nope, not any longer yet.) "Charlie" may have his integrity, but by the time he's finished playing with us, he's managed to cancel everything out. "Donald," on the other hand, writes bad films, but they have a certain exuberance to them, and they manage to be about something. Best of all, they don't implode under their own brutal self-scrutiny.

Now if you've read very far into this blog, you'll know that I have nothing against self-referential movies per se. Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale was one of my favorites from last year, and movies don't get any more reflexive than it did. But I never got the sense that the DePalma film was pretentious, or, for that matter, snide. (Sleazy, yes, but never snide.) Yes, the film played an elaborate shell game with us, but the game was basically fair -- anyone who watched DePalma's moves attentively could figure out precisely where he hid the pea. With Adaptation, Kaufman and Jonze play much the same shell game, except that they've palmed the pea. So, regardless of where you look in this film, you'll feel as though you've missed the point.

Adaptation sabotages itself as thoroughly as Herman Melville's novel Pierre, and to much the same effect. Perhaps for their next project, Kaufman and Jonze could actually tackle the Melville -- I know I'd be interested to see what they could do with it.

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