Thursday, June 19, 2003

We interrupt the culture blogging for a few political messages:

Dumb Frum

Well, my "Donate-to-National Review" fund has gone from a negative twenty dollars to a negative twenty-four. (Scroll down to the next post for details.) Why didn't I take out the full five bucks this time? Because David Frum's latest attack on same-sex marriage includes one interesting question that deserves a quick address. Five bucks out for insulting me and my neighbors, one buck in for providing an article that I've unironically cited in my weblog. So the way I figure it, National Review now owes me twenty-four bucks.

Here's Frum on the prickly issues of divorce and child custody:

It's a good guess, for example, that we will see an end to the concepts of “motherhood” and “fatherhood” in our legal practice. The law will increasingly see couples as interchangeable “parents.” This reinterpretation of motherhood as parenthood will have large impacts on, for example, custody decisions during divorce. ... [As] the courts have to make new law to cope with gay divorces, look for the old idea of maternal preference to disappear. You can’t have maternal preferences when both parents claim to be the mother.

An interesting point. Of course, when you're dealing with the children of Lesbian couples, one of the women is usually a birth mother, while the other is ... well, not. In these cases, it would be perfectly easy for the court to make its custody choice; it can give primary custody to the birth mother, just as family-law courts usually do with Straight couples.

Even so, our courts don't act consistently on that preference. In family divorces where the birth mother is Lesbian, family-law courts frequently take the children away from her, presenting them to the (presumably heterosexual) father instead. As a result, many Lesbian mothers live in fear of losing all contact with their children if they are ever "found out." This is especially true in states with sodomy laws, because Gays and Lesbians there are by definition unconvicted felons, and therefore cannot enjoy equal protection under the law.

The question of custody becomes even more difficult if the divorcing couple consists of two men. Usually in these cases, the child is adopted, and thus both parents could exercise an equal claim for custody. Since there is no "mother," birth or otherwise, for the court to give default preference to, a judge will have to make the sort of value decision that family-law judges make all the time: Which of these two people will be the best single parent for the child?

Up to this point I've assumed that the court's default preference for the birth mother is a positive good. But this may not be true. Fathers' rights groups have protested a family-court system that seems inherently biased against them, compelling them to support children they love deeply, but are never (or seldom) allowed even to see. They claim that family courts discriminate against men, refusing to consider them as fit parents because -- well, they're men, and everybody just knows the best parents are always women, because they're the natural birth mothers. These men argue that family-law courts should give fathers an equal voice in child-custody hearings.

They have a point. Family courts tend to base their decisions more on antiquated gender stereotypes than on concrete family realities. Judges still assume that Dad makes money for the household, while Mom stays home, changes diapers and turns the pork chops. But in real, contemporary families, child-rearing and breadwinning duties are shared between men and women -- so that, in terms of rigid gender roles, the heterosexual American family is already pretty thoroughly mixed up. Nowadays, Dad may change diapers and cook at home, while Mom goes to work at the office. But fathers' rights groups note that when questions of child custody arise, courts tend to dismiss the father's demonstrated child-rearing abilities out of hand, because of their abstract preference for natural birth mothers. The result: Quite often, courts don't give custody to the parent who has best demonstrated fitness, because the judges pay more attention to what they believe a family should be than what the family situation actually is. Surely Frum would consider this unjust for men, and potentially detrimental for children.

Nothing in family law mandates that courts give child custody to the mother under all or most circumstances; the law gives that decision-making capability to judges to exert as they see fit. Thus, the courts' de facto preference for natural birth mothers constitutes a very harmful form of "judicial activism;" judges are making a law that isn't there rather than enforcing laws which already exist. So if same-sex marriage were somehow to undermine family courts' habitual preferences for the birth mother and persuaded judges to evaluate custody decisions on a case-by-case basis as the law states, the result would be a reduction, not an increase, in judicial activism.

In the face of legal reality, Frum's argument against same-sex marriage collapses like a house of cards. Still, I have to give him credit: He has at least bothered to provide a real argument against same-sex marriage this time. This means that marriage opponents are actually feeling some pressure to produce reasons to support their claims, and evidence to support their reasons. They can't assume their statements will be accepted at face value anymore, even among fellow social conservatives.

Here's hoping this signals a change in the debate.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

You Disgust Us, Give Us Your Money

National Review Online is in the midst of a fund-raising drive. So how does it celebrate?

Why, by getting all-around nice guy David Frum to write a vituperative column denouncing same-sex marriage in Canada, of course! Here's how Frum begins:

“It’s over,” is Andrew Sullivan’s verdict on the Canadian government’s decision not to appeal the Ontario court of appeal’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. If Andrew means that what Canadians – and civilized human beings generally – have known as marriage is over, then yes, he is exactly correct.

Gee, Frum's not at all bitter, is he?

Not that he can provide any evidence that a few same-sex marriages in Canada, or in the good old U.S.A. for that matter, will destroy all marriages everywhere. It's just assumed: Gay marriage "Baaaad" (perhaps because Gay people bad?). By the way, since I recognize the same-sex couples I know as married people, does that make me a barbarian? And while I'm at it, why would same-sex marriage be more destructive to the traditional family unit than, say, no-fault divorce?

Well, now that Frum has sounded the depths of his disgust for Gay relationships, he has to go jonesing for my cash:

I’ve got a simple proposition for you: Set for yourself a daily figure for what the availability of this site in its present size and scale is worth to you. Even if it is as little as 25 cents, that’s still a $65 a year value.

Tell you what, Dave -- I've got a modest proposal for you. Whenever your magazine offers some interesting nugget of information that I see fit to squirrel away in my memory, I'll put a quarter in my personal "Donate-to-National Review Fund." Every time your online service publishes something I consider worth my immediate friends' attention (David Klinghoffer's ridiculous posts on "Judeo-Christian traditions" don't count, since I use them mostly for comic relief), that'll be a decent fifty cents at least, maybe more if I really like it. If I feel like linking unironically to an NRO article on my weblog, that'll be a buck in the fund. And when NRO decides to insult my Gay friends and me by stating that we don't deserve -- and therefore, shouldn't have -- equal human rights and protections under the law, I'll take five bucks out of the fund.

The way I see it, Dave, your magazine owes me about twenty bucks right now. But I promise that if you send me the money, I won't keep it. Instead, I'll pass it along to a truly civilized conservative who can keep me informed without insulting me -- someone like Andrew Sullivan, maybe.

Oh, and Dave, now that I've presented the bill, so to speak, I expect a check from you guys sometime next week. (Hey, if the cable company can do it ....) But I'm not holding my breath.

And now we return you to your regular culture blogging.

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll: Playtime

This is Part XI of an ongoing series. To read Part X, click here.

Parisians called it "Tativille," the behemoth five-block city constructed for Jacques Tati's film Playtime. It was larger by far than any movie set they had ever seen; Tativille had its own approach road, streets, two large buildings (one with a working escalator), and even a power plant, all on land leased from the Paris city government . When a violent storm demolished the set, Tati rebuilt it. When rains stalled the production, he waited them out. When he ran out of money, he put his personal assets on the line (a decision which eventually left him bankrupt). Shooting took a full 365 days, as Tati fine-tuned the timing, updated and reworked old gags, and scrambled to raise more funding. No wonder that when Playtime was finally released in 1967, it was the most expensive French film ever made.

By the early 1960s Tati was internationally renowned for his portrayal of bumbling, sweet-natured Monsieur Hulot, with his trademark pipe, overcoat, and argyle socks. The structurally experimental M. Hulot's Holiday, a plotless comic ramble about a seaside vacation, introduced the character, and the second Hulot film was the box-office and critical triumph Mon Oncle. Once Mon Oncle had received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a third Hulot picture was inevitable. But Tati felt that he had "wandered off the track" with this somewhat sentimental, conventional comedy. Now he was going to do something radical: He would gradually phase out his Hulot character, and make a film starring ordinary people. Nearly ten years later, he achieved that goal with Playtime.

The idea of nonprofessional actors appealed greatly to Tati. Although his films drew their inspiration from silent comedians like Keaton and Chaplin, he departed from their performer-centered approach to comedy. In the films of Keaton or Chaplin, the main character is played -- or performed -- by the comic. Everyone else in the cast is placed to advance the plot or set up a gag. But in a Tati comedy, Tati the performer is not the principal or even the primary source of humor. We laugh not only at him, but with typical bystanders. The most memorable sequences in Tati's films often don't feature Tati at all (or if they do, place him on the periphery of the action).

Tati always searched for new ways to erase the boundary between foreground and background, spectator and spectacle, performer and audience. His ultimate goal was to create an entertainment that involved the audience as not just spectators but active participants. This may explain the unique visual style of Playtime. The film consists of distant shots, long takes, and a static, almost deadpan camera; it is as if the motion-picture screen itself is a window to the world, and we in the audience watch and reflect on the passers-by. Tati's decision to shoot the film in the expensive 70-millimeter format also leaves us with a highly detailed widescreen image. Playtime is made on as large a scale as possible, and deserves to be seen that way.

I hesitate to use the word "epic" to describe the film, because the experience it offers is both grand and intimate. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that Playtime must be seen multiple times, preferably from different vantage points within the theater, because a viewer's own experience will depend on which part of the screeen she observes at any given time. Each shot in the film features several different, simultaneous actions, and the relationship among them is frequently contrasting or contrapuntal. One group of American tourists ascends an escalator as a second group descends; a doorman helps a coat-check girl put on her jacket as the coat-check girl helps a woman remove her fur; a man in one apartment undresses as a woman in the adjacent apartment leans forward (she's engrossed in a television program, but from the street she looks as if she's staring directly at him). Tati organizes his sight gags into a cinematic fugue, one which must be seen repeatedly to be fully understood.

Playtime is divided into three distinct segments. First, we see the city in daylight, as Hulot attempts to keep an appointment and stumbles into a trade exposition. Then we see the city at night, as Hulot visits a friend from the army in his new, ultramodern apartment. Finally, in an hour-long finale, the film takes us to the Royal Garden restaurant and nightclub, where trendy modernist architecture collides with haute cuisine and the city's trend-setting elite for an elaborate, escalating series of comic mishaps. This is not a plot so much as a series of vignettes, and the vignettes interact with each other to produce images of surprising density. The result is an intellectualized version of silent comedy, designed less to produce belly-laughs (though there are quite a few of them) than to tickle the mind.

Tati's overall theme is modernist urban architecture, and how human beings can exist within these outsized, alienating cityscapes. He introduced this idea in Mon Oncle, even designing the Corbusier-inspired suburban villa where much of the film takes place. The house gives Tati the opportunity to stage some very strange visual gags; when two people look out of its circular second-story windows, the windows suddenly resemble cartoon eyes, with the backlit heads serving as pupils. This may be one way to "humanize" modernist architecture, but in Playtime Tati finds many others.

One way Tati's characters humanize the architecture is through visual association and mental transformation. In the eyes of the locals, Tativille is perpetually one step away from becoming a grotesque theme park, so their responses to the city involve a sense of "play." When silhouettes of construction workers struggle with a sheet of plate glass, two rowdy teenagers blow circus music on kazoos, as if the workers were part of a children's puppet show. Hulot himself plays with vinyl cushions on modern chairs, pressing them down and listening to the flatulent whoosh as they reinflate. The outlandish decor at the restaurant becomes linked to "playtime," especially as it falls to pieces and the patrons are left to make what they will of the collapsed fragments. And in the film's final minutes, the camera takes "playtime" to its logical extreme: A congested traffic circle visually transforms itself into a carousel, and calliope music accompanies the vehicles as they go round and round. Tativille, at last, is an amusement park.

However, Tati does not forget that the impersonal, glass-and-steel amusements impose a terrible human cost. Even the unflappable M. Hulot loses himself in vast mazes of cubicles, glass boxes, and office complexes. (That everyone else is lost with him is small comfort, at least at first.) The film's color palette is deliberately limited to monochromatic grays and blacks, the better to illustrate that people in this film are outgrowths of the surrounding structures. Yet when individuals break out of this color scheme by wearing vibrant colors (a woman in a green dress, for instance), the effect is nothing short of startling; we begin to see what we've been missing in this world of whites, steel greys, beiges and taupes. Still, this modern world is as unpleasant and alienating in the cinema as it is in real life; Tati replicates its design so effectively that many audiences find the film frustrating, difficult to "get into," as they say.

Ultimately, the Royal Garden scenes show Tati's satire at its most biting. The restaurant is literally under construction as patrons arrive; tiles slide off the dance floor with the dancers, crown-shaped chairs leave metallic imprints on men's jackets (and rip the waiters' uniforms to shreds), lights short-circuit and the air-conditioning flickers on and off. Hulot demolishes a glass door, but the doorman continues to hold the detached brass knob, pretending to let people in. However, the doorman cannot keep out the stupefied drunks, who follow the spiraling neon arrow straight into the formerly exclusive restaurant. Naturally, with all this chaos, the waiters can never get around to serving the food, which they frequently import from the drugstore next door.

As the architect (who bears a striking resemblance to le Corbusier, minus the hat) fusses and frets over his dysfunctional design, blaming everyone but himself for what happens, the patrons rip the space apart with their bare hands. Hulot innocently deals the death-blow, when he reaches for an orange and literally brings down the house.

From the fragments of this ruin, however, arises an unexpectedly intimate space -- a club-within-a-club, where the film's victims of architecture may assemble in anarchic revolt against modernist elitism. A business executive with crushed glasses tends the entrance; a blustering Texas millionaire with a heart of gold and wallet to match keeps the drinks pouring for everyone. Most of the nightclub's Afro-Cuban musicians have left in disgust as the lights explode around them (and Tati makes it clear that this nightclub would never admit Blacks except as musicians) -- but those who haven't are drinking on the millionaire's tab. More importantly, the musicians have been replaced onstage by the patrons themselves, who entertain each other with sentimental songs of old Paris. The boundary between performer and spectator has been blurred beyond recognition; these patrons have, entirely on their own, created an unbounded spectacle.

This scene is as close as we may ever come to a definitive statement of Tati's anarcho-egalitarian aesthetic. It is a profoundly humane vision of utopia born from the ruins of modern urban design, or even from the ruins of elitist, performer-based entertainment. When the buildings are smashed, the social order is turned upside down, and the spectators become the show, then we'll get to see "playtime" in its purest, most joyous form.

Even though Playtime gave Tati the chance to make his greatest artistic statement, the film was a financial disaster. Critics were quick to laud it as a masterpiece, but audiences were bewildered at Tati's strategies to deemphasize his own presence. Tati had sprinkled the film with nonprofessionals in Hulot's clothes, a series of decoys which he dubbed "fake Hulots." Fake Hulots were everywhere, it seemed, but the "real" Hulot -- Tati himself -- was hardly to be seen at all. Where was the star of the film? Adding to the film's problems, Tati cut it by half an hour during its initial release, eliminating scenes which he felt were redundant. American studios cut another fifteen minutes from the film without Tati's permission; unless you view the Criterion DVD edition of Playtime, you'll probably end up with the mangled American version. Tati made one other film starring Hulot (the negligible Trafic), but by then his heart didn't seem in the role anymore. He contemplated making a film which would have begun with an auto running over Hulot and killing him, but as with most of his late projects, it never got past the drawing board.

Still, Playtime is an experience that few cinephiles can forget. For its presentation and foregrounding of architectural spaces, for its skillful use of nonprofessional actors, for its intricately composed images of urban life, and for its fugal counterpoint of visual gags, I've placed it on my ten-greatest list.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Found on the Net

One thing you have to say about Democrats: They really know how to put the "libel" in "liberal." Click on that last link to see what I mean.

Monday, June 16, 2003

Yojimbo: "Now It'll Be Quiet in This Town"

"With some bodyguards, you have to watch your back," says Sanjuro, the samurai hero of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. The film has been compared to a Western, but Sanjuro seems not so much a gunfighter as a grifter. He's always looking for an angle to play and a quick buck. And why not? "Killing is dirty, dangerous work," he says. "Might as well get paid for it."

Played by Toshiro Mifune, Sanjuro is a ronin, a roving warrior under allegiance to no one. It's dangerous to have someone like this around town; you never know who he'll carve up, or why. But in this particular town, there's plenty of bloodshed for everyone. Two crime lords, the brothel-owner Seibei and the entrepreneur Ushitora, are battling for supremacy, and the town's main street has become a battleground. With these two factions going at it, an unscrupulous ronin could make a real killing ...

Sergio Leone would remake this film in his ponderous, mythopoetic style as the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Kurosawa's original isn't so interested in mythicizing the action. When Sanjuro makes "a name" for himself in town by killing three hired assassins, the confrontation is quick, ugly and bloody -- violence in real time, or something disturbingly close to it. But the warring factions themselves seem comical as they face each other in the street, always careful not to come too close to those nasty, pointy swords on the other side. The samurai sits on his perch above the action and observes them with mirth. They're a fresh batch of suckers. A clever fighter could keep them going indefinitely.

Unlike a typical Western hero, Sanjuro is quite adept with words. Literary critic Jane Tompkins has noted that the Western's masculine heroes are laconic to a fault, and that their reticence springs from a general distrust of language. On the edge of civilization, where words hold so little significance, conflicts are best handled through violence. Sanjuro, in contrast, lives by his wits more than by his sword. He can tell a convincing story when pressed, and he usually has an explanation at the ready. When he kills, it's frequently in the service of his words; after he runs through half a dozen of Ushitora's men, he methodically trashes the scene just so he can convince the boss that a large force of Seibei's men did the deed.

Into the fray comes a man with a superweapon: Ushitora's youngest son has brought a gun to town. The gun makes it possible to kill an opponent from a distance, without venturing inside his guard. The son may be borderline-psychotic, but he's going to transform the conflict into a full-blown conflagration. At this point, it's awfully tempting to view Yojimbo as a Cold-War allegory, and if so, Kurosawa's "plague on both your houses" message is pretty cheeky stuff for the early 1960s. Ultimately, this gun will shift the balance of power, and Sanjuro must act to end the conflict. If that means destroying the village in order to save it, well, so be it.

I saw Yojimbo recently -- in a newly restored, fresh-scrubbed print that made this 42-year-old film look as if it had been released last week -- with an audience comprised in no small part of Virginia teenagers. It's a given that teenagers won't watch a black-and-white movie, let alone one with subtitles, and they can't stand anything with the pedigree of a "classic" (a label which makes even a perfectly good film seem about as appetizing as required reading). That's three strikes right away. Naturally, I expected them to be deeply dissatisfied, and awaited the wisecracks and snickers that accompany bored teens wherever they go. But to my surprise, they responded to the film's dark wit, then were horrified at the sudden change of tone before the climactic showdown. I submit this as evidence -- not that you need it, gentle reader -- that a great movie can be every bit as entertaining as a cruddy one.

Another thing I noticed about these teenagers: They were extremely enthusiastic about onscreen violence, but squeamish about blood. In Kurosawa's swordfights, people bleed when they are hit, and sometimes the blood makes an awful mess. But even if the spurting blood was shown in shadow and long shot, the teenagers winced audibly, gasping "Ew!" at the merest suggestion of blood. This was chop-socky fighting, the kind you see in summer blockbusters all the time, and no one really bleeds in a Hollywood blockbuster. Alas, even after a full century of experience to the contrary, American cinema naively conceals the fact that creatures who die violently usually leave an ugly mess behind.

Leave it to Kurosawa to expose the sordid truth. As a humanistic filmmaker, he is determined to show the horror of violence, deflating the samurai myth even as he invokes it. And it's significant that the most severe violence in the film is carried out against Sanjuro himself; we never see the beating he receives, but we see his bruised and bloodied face in close-up. (This was another moment where the teenagers winced, but this time the grown-ups in the audience joined them.) Killing really is dirty, dangerous work.

I haven't spoken much about style to this point, although Yojimbo features the meticulous compositions common to Kurosawa's work. In the opening scenes the camera seems to stalk the samurai, pushing him into the action. But as Sanjuro assumes a greater role in the action, we see him primarily from the front. One can detect the influence of John Ford in the film's deep-focus compositions, the counterpoint between foreground and background, and the starkness and simplicity of the image. Inasmuch as Ford solidified the generic and stylistic conventions of the Western film, it's difficult to see a Western nowadays -- or even a film patterned on Westerns -- without thinking of him. Still, the imitation here seems more than a formal gesture; I'd say that it's linked to the film's ambivalent attitudes toward violence as reflected in the ronin Sanjuro. The Fordian presentation alternately celebrates and deflates the hero as the embodiment of an existential attitude of "cool" that Kurosawa can neither embrace nor entirely refute.

A second filmmaker whose influence I detect in Yojimbo is the forgotten Western auteur Budd Boetticher. His late-1950s Westerns with Randolph Scott constitute a missing link between the romanticism of Ford and the hard-edged ultraviolence of Sam Peckinpah. In Boetticher's The Tall T, Scott slowly cons a group of stagecoach robbers into attacking each other; in Westbound, the threat of random, senseless violence (including offscreen murders of children) disrupts not only the town's sense of order, but our own sense of cinematic propriety. Like Kurosawa, Boetticher keeps his compositions taut, stark and rigorous; his violence erupts suddenly and spontaneously, to ironic rather than sentimental effect. When in Yojimbo a dog trots down the street clutching a severed hand in its mouth, it's a moment that could fit well in a Boetticher film.

Boetticher's Western hero, a tough guy, can show kindness if pressed. But in a perverse twist, he saves his most tender emotions for those he kills. In a way, he is emotionally closer to his victims than he can be to any living person. Sanjuro is also a tough; in the film's most bone-chilling moment, where humor and horror meet, Sanjuro claims, "I can't die yet -- there are many men I must kill first." Yet he has a sentimental core, visible when he rescues a mother from Ushitora's clutches, though never more pronounced than when he surveys his victims after the final showdown. He even offers Ushitora's son a chance to hold his revolver one last time because, as the dying man says, "I feel naked without it." Sanjuro is out for more than revenge, something barely hinted at in his rueful last line, "Now it'll be quiet in this town." The compassion he shows at this point seems to transcend all previous irony.

I don't buy it, though, and I don't think Kurosawa does, either; he seems aware that isolated moments of compassion cannot atone for the horror that has come before. As a result, Yojimbo is one of his few films that could be legitimately accused of nihilism. If that nihilism has been imported from American film genres (the "noir" and the Western in particular), it's no less troubling for that. However, to the film's credit, it follows its nihilism fearlessly to a logical outcome, exposing the apparent "solution" of eye-for-an-eye retaliation as unsatisfactory.

From now on, as Sanjuro says, it may be peaceful in this town. But what's the use of peace if no one is left to enjoy it?

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