Tuesday, August 27, 2013

queue de grace: The Battle of Algiers and Laura

Random comment from Karen a couple of days ago on hearing that Atlas Shrugged is now a movie:

"Yeah, yeah. Enlightened self-interest.  Next."

Best.  Girl.  Ever.

I'm just sayin'.

I'm also saying that two more movies are up from my infernal journey into enlightenment... first is The Battle of Algiers (1966).

I'm ignorant of a surprising number of things, but history is more of a glaring hole in my awareness than it should be.  Much more than I'd like to admit.  If you had asked me before seeing this movie to give you three facts about Algiers I might have said the following:

- I think it is in North Africa
- It might be a type of delicious cheesy bread
- It would make a good dog name.  Algiers, FETCH!

Acts of violence don't win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act. That's the rationale behind this strike: to mobilize all Algerians, to assess our strength. ~Ben M'Hidi (The Battle of Algiers 1966)

And those who explode bombs in public places, do they respect the law perhaps?
When you put that question to Ben M'Hidi, remember what he said?
~Col. Mathieu (The Battle of Algiers 1966)

I wanted to watch the movie cold, before reading anything about the actual events, to better catch it on it's own terms without losing my way in historicritical sidesteps.  I was not expecting this to be an extraordinarily relevant commentary on current world events, namely terrorism and our relationship / response to it.

A bit of random context:  at OU I saw a presentation where a black law professor from Harvard debated himself, presenting, with passion and great arguments, both sides of the issue of affirmative action.

It wasn't a stunt.  Well, ok, it was a stunt, but it wasn't JUST a stunt.  In his first speech, he argued for it in such a way that most of the room was nodding with him, it was impressive.  He even had a panel of local law professors asking him questions and pushing him on the legality of various aspects... then it came time for his opponent to speak.

And he stepped up again.  Arguing against it this time, with passion and crafted oration, the gentleman had serious rhetorical game.  By the time he was through we were in on the joke, but he did it so well, we didn't care.  Even the panel of professors "judging" the debate were smiling in appreciation.  I would not want to face him in front of a judge, you could be completely in the right and still have your hands full.

It's not just about what you believe.  How you say something and the mental gymnastics involved in formulating a position is not just a matter of perspective.  It's a skill, that can be learned and improved and it isn't just spin... there was an appreciation and nuance to a many handled grey area of complexity that by a good, hard look at both sides, was well treated and if we don't know what position he actually held at the end of the session, well so be it.

We'll just have to think for ourselves (a bit) and make up our own minds won't we?

The How:
The film was slippery in exactly this sort of way.  It wasn't a bad thing.  It portrayed both sides, in what felt like brutally transparent detail.  Both sides of the bloody conflict were shown doing things we would have a visceral negative reaction to.

And both sides were shown doing things that seemed completely rational and understandable.

The plot was more of a series of escalating anecdotes than a simple straightforward narrative and this was extremely effective in drawing us into the humanity and the real losses experienced by the people involved.  Somehow it felt like remembering, but without the filter of one sided-ness that comes after you pick a side or a point of view to agree with.

This created a sort of pressure, reflected in the repeated drum beats that would appear in critical moments like a heartbeat... then get louder and louder to a sort of crescendo before the sonic intrusion released.

The way the film was shot went back and forth between drama with great cinematography and the look and feel of what I might describe as an old newsreel.  That was a great choice, it worked wonderfully.

For those folks, that like me, think "Algiers" is a kind of long haired goat, please note that it was actually a country in North Africa that had been under something like French Colonial rule for more than a hundred years, before they really united in a clamor for independence.  

One group of revolutionaries was the FLN, they seemed to be the most aggressive and organized, though there seemed to be other groups at play as well.  They were opposed pretty directly by the French occupying force and eventually an increasing number of anti-terrorist militia.

The Algerian people seemed caught in the middle to some extent, but were as a group, leaning towards the desire, or at least the hope of independence as a nation.  

Many of the scenes were disturbingly familar and the questions asked in the movie, particularly among the anti-terrorist militia are the same questions we're asking now. 

The What:
This is a movie about terrorism and how we respond to it.  That's true to some extent, but too simple.

This is also a movie how people respond to a lack of sovereignty and self -determination.

The moral and ethical questions would go something like this:

- Do we have a responsibility to oppose a tyrannical and oppressive government?
- How far do you take that opposition before you're out of bounds?
- Is there an out of bounds in this scenario?
- What's the end game, once you resort to terrorist tactics?

On the other side:

- You can't allow terrorism to go unchecked, without any response
- How do you respond to a subset of a group of people without punishing the entire group?
- If you know other attacks are planned, and you capture one of the terrorists - how far do you go to get information that may save dozens or hundreds of lives?
- How do you effectively stop an individual (or group) who has declared war on you?

The Algerians are suffering from an unwanted foreign led government that is treating them unfairly in many cases.  They seem to have a legitimate beef.

So one group responds to that by killing policemen - multiple hits on the police, wounding and killing a surprising number in a short amount of time.  Ouch.

The authorities respond with crackdowns, the terrorists respond with worker strikes and escalating violence... shooting, stabbing, bombing.  Women and children play their role, helping the FLN obtain and hide weapons in choreographed handoffs to support the hits on the establishment.

Darn it, if it just isn't a sticky mess.  Ben M'Hidi, one of the terrorist leaders is eventually captured and interviewed by the press... and it would be so much cleaner if he weren't so smart, well spoken and thoughtful.  Ultimately, we're probably not agreeing with his conclusions or methods - but he isn't wearing a red suit and a tail.  And what he wants is independence and freedom for his people - hard for this American kid to not appreciate that.

In the same way Mathieu, the leader of the wave of anti-terrorist units, seems to be a good man, but he isn't quite the white hat we might hope for.  In many cases, he's brutal and unyielding and not afraid to bend (or break) the rules to accomplish the goal.  When the press starts giving him a hard time for hard interrogation techniques and jurisdiction... he gives the quote above.

If Side A in a conflict is murdering people, and injuring innocent people to further their agenda, isn't that at least as bad (or a lot worse) compared to Side B waterboarding to try to prevent future attacks?  

That isn't defending the use of torture, but Mathieu has a point.  If the press is going to point at behavior of anti-terrorist action and question it... shouldn't they also question the much worse behavior of the terrorists themselves - and more aggressively than they do?  

Sauce for the goose.

As things progress, Mathieu locks the city down and is relentless in going after the terrorist cells.  There is a harrowing final confrontation where teen (and maybe pre-teen boys) are holding out the last cell in a gunfight with the french troups.  The Colonel has them pinned down and all but begs them to surrender.

He seems to be fully under the weight of the moment.  Is he acting to remove a clear and present danger to innocent people?  Yes.  Are his men about to kill a bunch of kids?  Yes.

It's just ugly and the film does an amazing job of letting us see more nuance that perhaps we would prefer to in this situation.

Ultimately (years later) Algiers gets their independence and I had to wonder, at the very, very start of the American Revolution - were our initial acts of demanding our freedom, even at the cost of war, so very different?

Next up, Laura (1944).

If you, like me, hadn't seen this before now - please watch the movie before reading on.  I don't think I can talk about it without spoiling it a bit.  I'll wait.

You didn't watch it and you're still reading.  I'm being completely serious.  Stop reading and watch the movie first.  You'll enjoy it.

The How:

I was expecting lots of things from this one.  From Cole's list so far, I knew it would be good.  I knew it would be clever, I knew the writing would be top drawer.

I was expecting a hard boiled noiriffic murder mystery with some twists and turns along the way and some dialogue that would be extremely enjoyable.

I was not expecting the victim of the murder to come home and be, you know, ALIVE in the middle of the movie.  That was the best reversal I've ever seen - there was absolutely nothing before that leading me to think that even might be an option for the film.  I don't know how you could know this... while writing it, and not leave even an unconscious hint that this is where we're going.

It was exquisitely delightful.  I literally clapped my hands like a child.

I'll apologize for ruining it for you.  In my defense, I told you to watch it.  


I still feel a little guilty. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

SAW an ocean, to fly over soon

We had a wonderful evening at New Life McLean this weekend, enjoying the music of Brett Barry and Laura Baron, along with some lovely open mic offerings from those gathered at the end.

If you haven't been to one of these, you really should come.  They are a wonderful evening to spend with friends... with great music, laughter and the uplifting of heart that happens when you hear a great song sung straight from someone's soul.  The Songwriter's Association of Washington is doing some really cool stuff, and I'm honored to get to hang with these folks from time to time.

Brett's set was focused around a concept of a love that endures, with many songs written for his wife of 24 years... but affirming the things that this kind of relationship Can be.   Musically, it was a great set all around, with rock solid bass and percussion, Brett's guitar was inventive and flowing and the harmonies simply could not have been better.  And of course, Ron Goad emceeing is always a good time...

The highlight for me was the songwriting itself, it was just really easy to relax and get lost in the spirit of the song (even though I was greatly appreciating the technical aspects), Brett really just carried us along with him... to see this love through his eyes.  It was refreshingly honest, hopeful, humble and honoring of his lady and the love he clearly still has for her. 

Just the powerful quality of the songs themselves, were as good as anything I've heard in years.

It seems like we live in a world where love is both romanticized beyond any semblance of reality and putting the feelings of falling in love up on a pedestal beyond reach of most mortals... while simultaneously maintaining a cynicism related to love(easy to understand in a world where so many of us have endured divorce and broken families)... as something that promises, but doesn't deliver, at least not for the long haul.

To hear Brett sing, and to watch him put his arm around his wife and just enjoy Laura's set afterwards... was simply, a blow against the darkness that the kind of love we all hope for, can't at the end of the day be real.  Thank you sir, for sharing something beautiful with us... it was greatly appreciated from my end.

Laura Baron was up next, and she didn't disappoint.

Lots of good things about Laura's set, but my favorite thing was her voice.  It is as clear and smooth as the perfect cup of coffee after a fine meal.  Her voice was freshly brewed, just hot enough to make you slow down and sip it to enjoy it more... the kind of thing that chases all anxiety away.

Did I mention that she has that silky, sultry, jazz torch voice that has magical powers?  It can make you forget yourself for more than a moment.  It can make you hallucinate floral scents.  It can spin straw into gold and balance your checkbook in the snap of a finger or the a blink of an eye, if you like that kind of thing.

Also, her voice was just lovely.

And when singing about her soon daughter to be, it can fill us with hope and a sense of love that can't be contained by silly little things like, you know, continents and hemispheres.  She's adopting a little girl from India in a couple of weeks and this show was something of a send off of well wishes.

That isn't to discount the music surrounding her.  Really interesting harmonic structures and progressions, with some bass and guitar lines that were delicious enough to gather some instant and spontaneous applause.  Laura is known in the SAW crowd and the affection everyone has for her was clear and well deserved.

The thing that has been really wonderful to me about these SAW events has been how quickly the room breaks through the "ok, I'm viewing this with some skepticism, will this be good?" to "ohhh, that's really nice, ok I'm with you - take us wherever you want to go."

That is what music really Ought to be.  That the performers have been able to take us there at all is a gift.  That they've done it consistently is, to me, a wonder.

Thanks guys... and thanks to Brett and Laura for an evening I'll remember for years to come.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Get Some Kids to Carry Things in Bags!


We delivered backpacks, filled with school supplies and love to deliver to kids who will need them at Longfellow Middle School through the amazing generosity of New Life McLean folks and other people in our community of friends... here's a note from our fearless leader, Dwaine Darrah - just wanted to share this! ~E


What a huge fun thing. We just delivered all 43, fully-stacked, backpacks to Longfellow Middle School this morning. It was great to have several of you pop over to lend a hand. It was grand. Principal Carole Kihm and her assistant principal dropped in to hang and chat. We had a chance to meet other key people in the Student Services Department, including Gail Bigio, its director. They were all just blown away that we took this project on, and they talked on and on about how much this means to the kids.

For example, they had a backpack last year that someone dropped off that was covered in ants and bugs, so the school just threw it in the trash. They later found one of the "at risk" students digging it out of the trash bin because it was the only backpack available to him. So, to get brand-new backpacks filled with al the school supplies is just so important to helping the kids get off to a good start in the school year.

We also put into each backpack a bottle of water with the New Life logo on it.

It was also fun to let everyone know what a collaborative effort this was this year. I told them that New Life McLean, the True Light Christian Church (the Korean congregation that meets in our building on Sunday afternoons), P4C, R-TEK, and the Songwriters' Association of Washington all banded together to make this happen.

Carole Kihm went on to say that they are looking to do even more to partner with us once all the construction is finished at the school, which the contractors are now saying should happen in January 2012. So, stay tuned for more opportunities to love on the school and the students.

A final cool story. . .As we left, Gail Bigio was walking down the hallways with two huge backpacks strapped across her shoulders. She was telling everyone she could find about the backpacks and New Life and the organizations who helped.

I love this job!!! Thanks to everyone at New Life McLean who joined in to make this happen!!! and you guys at SAW, True Light, R-TEK, and P4C are the bestest!!


Sunday, May 22, 2011

SAW me a River: Post Apocalyptic Concert a Huge Success

First, Harold Camping is an idiot.  Sorry, I was holding that in and I had to let it out.

Second, God loves idiots and children (and dogs)... so hopefully Camping didn't sell all of his earthly goods this weekend and will eventually be ok.  And perhaps we all can take a lesson in humility regarding what we think we know and move on.

So the Rapture didn't happen.  No need for any more than that at 11.

In the world of actual events and real people... SAW (saw.org), the Songwriter's Association of Washington had their kickoff event at our venue at the New Life McLean Campus last evening.

It was a great evening, and I wanted to share a couple of thoughts while things were still fresh on my mind.

First, the open mic was surprisingly good.  We wandered from songs about Braddock road, to resurrections, to southbound trains, to Jabberwocky, an ode to Dylan and the Mayan god of sin... a buffet of creativity to say the least.

Without exception, the artists were able to convey a sense of emotion and shared experience with the room.  That is a huge win for a songwriter, so from my view, raise a glass to the folks who sang and played in the open mic - nicely done all of you!

As a performer, I'm always a bit more nervous with musicians in the room.  They know things.  And it can be a little daunting, because they tend to see and hear the dumb mistake you made in the second chorus much better than normal people do.  Plus, sharing a song you've written is what one friend would call a "pants down" exercise.   To some extent it is a horrible intimate sharing of your soul... and what if your soul sucks?  

It takes a fair amount of courage to step up and share the creation only heard by your pets before now... but the SAW crowd has the right heart of unequivocal support and encouragement... being extremely appreciative of things done well without being critical at all.  

That was refreshing and frankly, a good thing in the earth.  Keep that up.

Second, I can't remember the last time I laughed as much as I did last night.  What a sense of community and fun and good music and friends, new and old.  This is EXACTLY what music is supposed to be.  A vehicle for bringing us together, a space where we can see a truth expressed in a new and unique way... a poignant moment where the vulnerability of a past wounding can be shared, and hopefully, made a little better.

The "Bowling" and "Ed McMahon" poems literally reduced me to tears and a fit of laughter I haven't experienced since Junior High.  Genius.  Hysterically odd and wonderful.  It was something like e.e. cummings giving Beatnik poetry a delightful singsong noogie leading up to a nervous breakdown that doesn't quite happen yet.  Well, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea.

Our main performers were Jean Bayou and Cindi Slaughter and instead of running sets independantly, they bounced songs back and forth, riffing along the way.  That was a good choice and the percussive and extremely tasty, bluesy style of Cindi's guitar playing was a wonderful point / counterpoint to the rolling harmonic tapestry that Jean brought to the fore.  Ron Goad added percussion and emcee goodness, with the heartbeat and accents and humor that brought everything together.

Cindi has groove down to her metatarsals (that's feet bones for those of us who went to public school). 

Let me tell you, she's got the chops... and the head bobbing, sliding lead rhythm up to the 12th fret to ring the harmonic style connected up to the ankle bones and shin bones of the room.   Everything she did was extremely nice.  She just smacked us awake with her very first song and pretty much owned us from then on out.  You want to go somewhere?  Cool, we'll go with you, just lead on!  

And trivia about Pink Floyd results in a door prize of (wait for it...) grits.  

Dark Side of the Moon Grits.  That just never would have occured to me without Cindi's help.

Your love... is better than cheese whiz... fantastic.  

Somewhere Sarah McLachlan started twitching uncontrollably and she didn't know why.  And on the deeper note, the song fitting into the family theme, sung from the heart of a child to her father long gone, was a courageous and vulnerable moment that muted all of us in an sense of loss and real longing.  Great connections, and a great performance.  Nicely done CS.

Jean grooved as well, but I'm trying to think of a good way to describe it.  It was more of a sublime and wandering groove of grace from the smart sister we should have had growing up.  Wisdom meets an old friend and shares an inside joke on the way to clever lyrics, surrounded by an open chord harmonic structure that reminds us songwriting is in fact a craft that we can be good at.

She brought several musicians up to share the stage and her collaborative style and sharing of the spotlight really increased the sense of community we experienced.  Well played, in every sense of the word.

Plus, seeing a bunch of older guys clap in delight at the thought of a song about a mammogram was both surreal and oddly appropriate for the evening.  It was funny even before it was funny, if you catch my drift.

So to review, the world didn't end.  Famine was staved off by cheesecake and coffee and the other horsemen, if they stopped in at all, grabbed a chair and joined in the applause of a great evening filled with friends, music and laughter.

Thanks SAW, and thanks God for letting the world spin a little bit longer.  It was an enjoyable and memorable evening and (hopefully) the first of many to come!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

queue de grace: M and The Exiles

Children singing in an early scene of M

These guilty men ought to be brought, by accusers kindly rather than angry, to justice, as patients to a doctor, that their disease of crime may be checked by punishment.
                                                                                        ~Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

M (1931), directed by Fritz Lang and brilliantly acted by Peter Lorre tracks the events surrounding a serial killer of children (and sexual abuse before the killings is strongly implied).  It's a chilling account, with a suprising number of unexpected turns driving the movement of the plot forward.  The film eventually leads us to questions of philosophy and justice, the nature of responsibility and punishment and with an abrupt ending, leaves us to consider our own role in the fabric of society.

The How:
I don't have a coherent structure for talking about form with this one.  So, I'm just going to make a series of random comments of things I noticed and we'll get there eventually.

The use of sound in this was fascinating.  Sparing, which made even the early scenes harrowing and there was a lot of silence.  In contrast we have the killer whistling from, "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (thanks Karen) as Lang creates a theme metonymically connected with the murderer Hans Beckert.  That's eventually the connection that snares him.

Peter Lorre was phenomenal.  Beyond the expression of his giant eyes, we have his empassioned plea before the "criminal" court and if we don't actively pity him, he had me hesitating in my own summary judgment at least.   He really communicated a lot of dark complexity here, with the compulsion, the whistling, the kindness as a lure (making his crimes even worse) and his cathartic confession / speech / plea for mercy and help.

Google informs me that this was early on in the era of the talkies, when film made the jump to use of recorded sound and that was Lang's first use of sound of this type in his films.  Genius.

The back and forth scenes between the police / political influences scheming how to catch the killer while simultaneously the criminal underworld was meeting to also talk about catching the killer was an interesting twist that I didn't see coming.  I was expecting a more straight forward episode of Law and Order (or whatever it is this week) where the really clever investigators outwit through little clues the really clever and scary criminal.

That's not what happened. 

Across the stata of society this level of violence and abuse for the children simply could not be tolerated.  The criminal world was further motivated by the dramatic increase of pressure from the police and other organizations which made the lockdown of the city really bad for business.  So the criminals decide to go after him with all of their resources as well.

The sequence of the blind man identifying Beckert, followed by something like the guild of beggars tracking him through the city streets led to the title sequence of Beckert being marked with a chalk "M" on the back of his coat.  It was stereotypically efficient and clever of the German beggars to get that done, while notifying the other criminals that they had him trapped in an office complex.

Without the constraint of search warrants, they systematically dismantle the building door by door and room by room until they have him.

One of the most chilling shots I've ever seen was the slow panning across the hundreds of "criminal" participants in Beckert's "trial" in the warehouse as they all are just waiting, patiently, silently, in quiet judgment.  Beckert's response is to scream in panic and run.  Of course it is, what other response could you possibly have to that?  It seemed really clear that he would not be getting off on a technicality, even before a word was uttered.

The leader of the German criminals was pretty intimidating.  I kept telling myself that this was pre-Hitler, but with his hat, coat and leather gloves and prosecutorial style, he had an SS sensibility that was hard for me to set aside.

Last note here.  The ending was abrupt to the point that I thought my streaming had malfunctioned.  I actually backed it up and ran it to that point again.  I wondered, did he do that intentionally?  Of course he did!  

Then I doubted myself, looked it up (again, thanks Google) and yes, it was intentional.  The abrupt ending was one more way to throw us off of our expectations.  A quick review of my own suprises at the narrative flow:

- I was expecting the story to start quickly, but the early pace really languished
- I did not expect the criminals to get involved
- I was expecting the police to get him through their surprisingly good 1931 forensics
- I wasn't looking for him to get "spotted" by the blind guy
- I didn't expect the criminals to catch him, I thought he would elude them
- I didn't expect any of the criminals to defend him, but they did
- I didn't him to leave that room alive, but the police got there in time
- I was expecting a more normal courtroom scene, at least a verdict
- I wasn't expecting the movie to end so abruptly

I love not knowing what's going to happen next.

The What:
This film was about the nature of evil and our responsibility to oppose it.

Regardless of political affiliation, preference for paper or plastic, liberal, moderate, conservative or whether you like vanilla or chocolate, pretty much everyone agrees that molesting and murdering children is out of bounds.  It's wrong and evil and we shouldn't do that.

Further, we shouldn't allow other people to do that, regardless of their motives, reasons, compulsions and the like - it truly doesn't matter in this case.  Not allowed.

In the scene where he's captured I was reminded of Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy where Lady Philosophy argues (with great logic) that criminals and evildoers are to be pitied above all men.  The argument goes something like this (vastly over-simplified):

- to be the victim of a crime is bad
- to be in a place in your life where you are capable of committing that crime is worse
- it isn't good to allow someone to be the victim of a crime if you can stop it
- it is even less good to allow the perpetrator of a crime to continue being criminal, because that is bad for future victims and even worse for the offender
- therefore, punishment that prevents further crime is good for the criminal and society at large

And the motive isn't revenge against the individual, but the good of the individual criminal.  In the case where the criminal can't help himself (to whatever degree) it falls on us to take more extreme measures, and this is actually a good thing.  The removal of someone's ability to further damage their own humanity is the kindest, most loving thing we can do.

Yes, that's counter-intuitive and yes, if someone hurt my little girl, my immediate response might not be to kill them... but I would certainly lean towards making them wish they were dead.  That's why it's important to have these things decided by a court, with a judge, and not by an angry dad - as much as we might sympathize with the parent in any given case.

M strikes to the heart of this idea in the criminal kangeroo court scene.  The criminals are crying out for him to be killed, as retribution for what he's done.  His defense and his own plea point towards his mental illness and his inability to not do what he's doing.  For the criminals, that's even more reason to end him.  But his "defense" advocate says that his sickness makes it necessary that he be treated as ill, not as a reponsible for his crimes.  The mob is raising to a fever pitch when the police arrive and he is transferred to the German authority.

So we're presented with two possible paths to justice.  One is the quick death of the guy with the M on his coat, without room for appeal, or insanity pleas or temporary stays in the sanitorium resulting in other opportunities for the predatory behavior.

The other is to be turned over to the authorities and the incarceration / treatment of our killer as someone who is insane and in some sense, not completely responsible for the things he has done.

Side note: for Boethius (and maybe for our film makers), it doesn't matter which one you choose, both just punishment or treatment for mental illness could be considered a kindness.  The critical piece would be ensuring he is not able to commit this sort of crime again, which life in prison would accomplish.

Lang does a good job of exploring both sides of the issue, in a short amount of time.  I was nodding in agreement when the criminals get him, knowing that he would get blasted without pity or appeal.  I was hesitating with the notion that he might not be truly responsible for his crimes... and I was really interested to see where the tribunal would go with this - we see them seated without hearing the verdict.

Where Lang turns it back onto us is with the final sequence, with one of the mother's of the slain children telling us to watch our kids and be vigilant.  That the lesson to be learned here is that we need to play a better part in the safety of the kids in our influence.  The movement from the court of criminals to the police intervention to the judges being seated to the mothers happens so quickly that we're forced to back up and mentally recreate the narrative to engage it.  I think that's what the film makers intended here.

The Exiles
Yvonne from The Exiles

The Exiles (1961) was painful to watch.  I believe the running time was 1:12, but it seemed a lot longer than that with the emotionally engaging and draining narration and events of the day that came into play.  Sometimes a shared experience will create the background for an inside joke, where you immediately "get" what the other person is saying on a level not immediately apparent.  For Cole to suggest this film to me, is similar to that experience, except instead of an inside joke, it's an inside sorrow, or a shared appreciation of poignancy. 

Cole, this had exactly the impact on me you thought it would.

We grew up in a little cow town called Apache in Oklahoma, with a strong population of Native Americans, Choctaw, Kiowa, Apache... among others.  This film was made before I was born and the young adults it portrays belonged to a different generation.  Still, I could almost see my friends from junior high and high school being thrust into this black and white downtown LA and the sadness the movie expresses hit me harder than I was expecting.

The How:
This was beautifully shot.  Very dark and minimalistic, but the close-ups and cinematography were both top drawer.  It starts with a series of still photographs of American Indians that all convey a deep sense of sadness and loss.

If you think about that for a minute, it makes sense.  The Indians of the Great Plains weren't doing a lot of camera work in the 1700s... it was only when the white man came with all of his cataclysmic cultural influence that we start seeing photographs.  The very nature of photography for these people came with a lot of other manifest destiny evil, so it shouldn't be surprising that the photos reflect the sadness they were living firsthand.

I don't know where to put this film in terms of category.  Sort of a documentary, but with elements of narrative without a real sense of movement or plot... material clearly coming from interviews and scripting and maybe improvisational sequences that happened to be filmed.

The mannerisms, the dialogue, the playful mischief and give and take all rang way too authentic to me to have been written, learned and acted in a traditional sense.  Somehow MacKenzie was capturing ineffable qualities of interaction that I grew up with and witnessed that seemed accurate beyond belief.

The film ends without a resolution, which is the point.  It isn't quite Limbo in the classical sense, but more of a group of people who are thoroughly and fundamentally lost, caught in between shifts of culture without any clear path forward... and the dull sense of lives that are unhappy, getting by and trapped in amber.

The What:
This movie was about the damage done to individuals who lose their own culture.

It wasn't exactly hopeless, but it was close.  If you put yourself in Homer's shoes, as an example - what are your realistic options here?  How do you stop drifting aimlessly in the gaps between two cultures?

1) Go back to the reservation, with your pregnant wife in tow, take a vow of poverty but get a good amount of support from your social base.  Try to resist the change that has been forced on your tribe to be a dull shadow of it's previous self, but you'll never quite get there.  And never leave.

2) Turn your back completely (in some sense) on your parents and your tribe that has stretched back for generations... and pretend you're a white guy.  Go get a job, pay your bills and get ready to be poor and abused until you can acquire education or skill to be successful in a white man's world, on white man's terms.  That will take years by the way and you might not ever really get there.

He joined the Navy, which was a bewildering and negative experience and as a first step to getting a foothold in this new cultural reality, it didn't work.

There might be other options, but those choices seem pretty hopeless.

Is it any wonder he wants to get away from that menu?  So option 3 becomes, Do the least amount you have to in trying to survive... drink and spend time with your friends.  Rinse and repeat.

Yvonne talks about starting a different kind of life, where she could raise her child in a way to give them "things she never had" (the heart of almost any parent), but you get the sense that this is unlikely.  It's almost like she's an immigrant, but without the realistic hope for her children as part of that cycle.  How do you become an immigrant to your own country? 

The solace they take is the escape through alcohol, and the fascinating gathering on Hill X, overlooking Los Angeles.  It wasn't exactly a pow wow, but the drums, singing, dancing and occasional fight was very much a longing to return to a time when things were different.

That return isn't possible and while as a viewer, I hope that over a generational span the equation will change for their children and grandchildren, The Exiles portrays a world where this isn't a given.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

queue de grace: Brief Encounter and Bride of Frankenstein

Dear Readers,

Apologies for turning the queue de grace into the queue de gridlock - lots of life issue stuff happening in the past 3-4 weeks, including a second part time job change with huge practical impact for me and the busiest time of year for my business.  My goal will be to have the queue completed this week and I've watched probably half of the remaining movies so that should be doable.

Up first is Brief Encounter (1945)

And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. 
                                                                                               ~Plato, The Symposium

My first crush of puppy love was with a girl named Lulu. 

No, that isn't a joke. 

She was a ballerina and we were 5 years old at Schultz Kindergarten in Dallas, Texas (Go Panthers!)  She had Shirley Temple curls, though a bit darker and moved with a grace that belied the horrible marketing inherent in the notion of "Lulu the ballerina."  No, she wasn't blue, or a dancing hippo, or a Jim Henson puppet, she was a cute little girl that I was smitten with (see Charlie Brown and the Little Red Haired Girl for reference.)

Our love was doomed by an ill advised self haircut at 3am, which was perfectly done (except for a few places where I created bald spots by cutting down to the scalp) and the inexplicable subsequent buzz, which for some unknown reason my parents insisted on, followed by me wearing a stocking cap to school in August... followed by a gaggle of 5 year olds stealing my hat of shame and laughingly chasing the bald boy for perhaps the longest 17 minutes of my life.

This movie threw me full blown into the reflection of relationships that happened, those that almost did but didn't quite... and ultimately made me appreciate Karen even more.

Moving past Lulu, I was widowed at 22.  I would have to say, that the impact of that event, on the inside of my head, was both very good and very bad all at the same time.  I certainly don't think about romantic relationships the same way I did before, and find that the things that I look for and cherish in a relationship are perhaps a bit unusual.  Again, that is both good and bad.  My inability to escape the existential filter of my own point of view had me understanding, reeling, angry, sympathetic, relieved, apprehensive, hopeful and appreciative of the movement of the film, not necessarily in that order.

My short review of this one would be, find this and watch it.  This has to be one of the best movies ever made.

The longer review would start with the How:

One of the many brilliant aspects of this one was the first scene told, then later retold, with the layers of context that let us in on the depth of bittersweet suffering and moments lost through the clutter of everyday life. 

This, along with the narration of things Laura can't tell her husband, amidst the knitting and crosswords reflects the simultaneity of consciousness and disconnect that we feel when we consider our perceptions of ourselves, versus our perceptions of everyone else.

It is perfect that so much of this happens in a train station.  It is perfect that their trains are going opposite directions.  It is perfect that they meet by him removing a bit of dirt from her eye... and that their last moment is stolen by an oblivious busybody whose world is filled with a torrential stream of unimportant details recounted as if they were matters of life and death - but still showing real kindness.

Neither Laura nor Alec were looking for an affair or for love.  They were, in some sense, captured on the way to other things... and doesn't that just ring true somehow?

This was beautifully shot, the writing was strong, especially her narration and the repetition of the scene of her homelife with her family, pedantic and ordinary was a lovely contrast to the excitement and concurrent turmoil of her inner life.

The What:
This movie is about the nature of romantic love.

I'm actually reminded of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet here, with Brief Encounter coming at the topic from the other direction.  The problem with Shakespeare is that often how he says something is so mesmerizing that we lose sight of what he is saying.  So a quick review of the actual plot points of R and J:

- Two 14 year olds fall madly in love and this fills up their world
- They forsake their families and all manner of things in pursuit of this love
- This continues for a few days
- They commit a double suicide over a misunderstanding, because they can't stand to lose that love

Can I just say out loud, that this is NOT an example of what love ought to be?  It is a warning, and one that all 14 year olds should pay extremely close attention to.  I love that this is taught in Junior High as a matter of course.  It is embarrassing that we, for the most part, are too dull to get or honestly talk about the lurking point here with our fine feathered teenage friends.

Shakespeare, on one level, is really simple.  When everyone dies at the end, the approach people were taking in the scenes leading up to that dreadful end was bad.  What Hamlet was doing... yeah, don't do that.  Everybody dies when you do that.  Blood everywhere in Shakespeare = bad.

Shakespeare's point here is that the place of love in our lives isn't just the passion that fills up our world in that moment of decision.  That sometimes, following that urge blindly, can result in a lot of destruction for ourselves and the people around us. 

Brief Encounter joins the Bard is reminding us that, "Caution, downstream impacts to this kind of thing may be larger than they appear."

The reptilian part of my brain wants to say that this movie ends with Laura appreciating her husband and tearfully reconnecting with him because the writer decided to drop back 10 and punt.  That she and Alec didn't consummate their affair because a 1945 audience wouldn't stand for it, at least not in a way that implied in any way that this was ok.

The better angels swoop in to slap me off of that intrepretation pretty quickly.  This was entirely too well written and executed to be anything other than what it was intended to be.  It might theorectically possible for someone to do this accidentally... or do it, then cave to social / societal pressure, but I'm not not willing to put my money on art of this level happening with monkeys and typewriters or with the ending being essentially a cop out.  There is more going on here than that.

On one level, they didn't consummate their relationship sexually, because his friend came home early.  But that they were willing to, made arrangements for and had greenlit Project Lust has them very much in the "committing adultery in their hearts" bucket. 

On another level, it is important, perhaps even critical to the story, that even though the decision was made and opportunity was pursued... it wasn't ultimately fulfilled.  This kind of intimacy is simply more than skin rubbing on skin, we all get that even if we don't say it out loud.  But the skin on skin step really is important and that it didn't happen in this case matters a great deal.

If the moral point here is that love is more than a connection that goes so deep as to break our hearts when we lose it, this doesn't diminish the poignancy of their situation, or the reality of the loss they experience. 

I was making goat noises when we come back to the scene in the train station cafe and we realize that they were hopelessly (literally hopelessly) in love and that Mrs. Chatterblather was ruining their last moment together.  Even more bleating as we follow her outside to watch her consider suicide by Express Train.  I was literally yelling at her to not do it, even though I knew from the earlier version that she goes back inside.

Buck up with a stiff shot of bourbon indeed.

But love is more than the moment of despair we feel when it is lost, damnably intense though that moment certainly is.

The kindness of Laura's husband when she comes back to him physically and metaphysically, is the true lesson of the film.  Brief Encounter isn't saying that the loss Alec and Laura experience is illegitimate or to be ignored.  It only says that this loss isn't the whole picture, even though we can sympathize with the idea that it does feel that way when it happens.

We wonder with Laura whether life is worth continuing without the promise that the intensity her love with Alec represents.  It is a real question.  And fortunately, it has a real answer.

I love my "crossword puzzle" moments with Karen.  It turns out that is the thing we miss the most when a long term relationship is lost is companionship.  The simple joy of shared experience, the funny moment, the movie and snacks...

and her recognizing the Rachmaninoff in the music, pretty much instantly.  That's kind of fun.  And the encounter isn't brief, we can enjoy those moments the rest of our lives.


The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein

And thereby make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature.  
                                                                                   ~Descartes, Discourse on Method

With the crazed mad scientist moments, I'm reminded that eliminating death has been a goal of medicine and science for quite a while now.  Rene' Descartes had this in mind with his invention of modern philosophy and the practical doubt which led us to methodological naturalism and the scientific method.  His goal was to take up an approach which would sharpen the process taken by doctors related to the workings of the human body.  His hope was that a thoroughly rational approach to physiology and medicine would help us solve the problem of death.

It doesn't sound quite so crazy the way he says it, but there is definite room for a great scream or two here.

The How:
MUA HA HA HA HA ha ha ha ha.  HA HA MUA HA HA HA.  Ok, I'm better now, just getting my mad scientist into the groove.

I'm sure I saw this as a child, maybe multiple times, but I'm surprised how little of it I remembered.   Probably because the scream the Bride gives us was roughly the same noise Lulu made at seeing my bald 5 year old head.  The trauma of her hissing at me probably erased most of the plot from active memory.

Electric girl's hair was burned into my brain, along with her screaming the undead Monster version of LET'S JUST BE FRIENDS in a way that just breaks your heart a little.  We've all gotten that response from a girl at some point... and if there were a lever in reach...  zzzzz zttzzzz tzzzzz.

I was not expecting this to be as campy as it was, very much over the top in moments... but the interesting thing was that the campiness doesn't over do it.  It doesn't damage the story, or the acting, or the movement of the film and it isn't just goofball silliness.    The truly odd moments help create a surrealistic vision that is both larger than life while messing with our expectations of a more linear narrative.

Dr. Praetorian's presentation of the tiny people in the jars, was just the oddest thing I've seen in a while.

We get a queen, who is aloof, a king who is Henry the VIII snacktastic with a turkey drumstick and amorous air kisses to the queen, a finger wagging bishop, a mermaid, the devil, complete with an evil little mustache and a one song ballerina who prefers Mendelson.

It's like what you get flipping onto Telemundo (if you were completely hammered), and they were all dancing on a stage with a midget and someone in a chicken suit... extremely random.  But it serves the purpose of throwing you off the scent for a while, making the chase that much more interesting.

Karloff was amazing.  I can't imagine anyone doing what he did without either seeming tritely contrived or monstrous.  He brings a real sympathy to the role over and over again, with extremely limited dialogue and movement.  Irony firmly in play, the Monster is the least monstrous one of the bunch.

The mad scientist SHE'S ALIVE scenes and electricfest has to be iconic.  It makes Tesla look like an amateur, complete with a castle and giant kites on steel cable to attract the delicious lightning.  I mean, come on, that's pretty cool. 

I also appreciated the nod to Shelley's original work, in the desire of Frankenstein's Monster to have a mate.  In the book, Adam talks like an age of enlightment philosopher, is handsome and strong... but still essentially alone.  It was the driving work of the plot, and it that sense, this was a truer movie to the text than the original Frankenstein was.

It's a side note, but the castle falling down was pretty spectacular.  In terms of special effects, they weren't distracting at all, which is pretty impressive.

The What:
This is a movie about loneliness and fundamental existential angst.

Every major character wants to be whole, and the path to be whole involves the creation of another person who can fill the gap they experience.  Consider the following examples swirling around the film:

- Dr. Praetorian's creations are "small" and inadequate, he needs more
- The Monster needs a mate, and the Bride is his best shot
- Dr. Frankenstein has to create the Bride to get Elizabeth back, yes he's bullied into it
- The blind hermit creates a narrative of the Monster from own desire for friendship

It only works for Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps because he was an unwilling participant in the process, so in terms of narrative justice, he gets a pass.  Everyone else loses everything.

I was dissatisfied by the "burn it all down" ending, though certainly I can understand the sentiment.  I found myself wanting the Bride to see the Monster as the hermit did, as a friend and companion.  But she didn't... and the Monster's response was to lash out in despair. 

"We belong dead!"  Ouch.

I was hoping that they could have another ending, but in this one, it wasn't to be.

On a lighter note, three things I didn't know about the Monster in Frankenstein:

- He likes a good cigar
- Though dribbling a bit, he likes a good stiff drink
- He swam pretty well, somehow I expected him to sink

I need a good haircut.  One that does not produce this reaction:

The bride of Frankenstein