Tuesday, August 7, 2007

running has always been big in my family. especially running from the police.

My current favorite movie is Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” (1962) Superficially enough, I was drawn to it by its title, which appealed to me in spite of the fact that I am not a distance runner and had only a remote idea of what could have been meant by such a person’s “loneliness.” However, unlike so many prosaic movie titles these days (“Becoming Jane” is the recent worst) this was a title you could really feel even if you had no knowledge of the experience it hinted at.

I really like the complex and controversial ending of “Loneliness.” ***SPOILER WARNING!! TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DESIRE TO REMAIN UNSULLIED!*** As brief background, it is important to know that Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) is a working class guy sent to reform school after being caught with money he stole. He is determined to “play ball” with the school’s governor (Michael Redgrave), all the better to get out of the disagreeable place as soon as possible. To accomplish this, he need only continue doing what he has done his entire life; that is, running. He’s good at it and the governor soon realizes that he stands a decent chance of nabbing a victory at the biggest race of the year, against another boys’ school that holds the title. However, in the last leg of the long-anticipated race—comfortably ahead of the only other runner who poses a threat—Smith stops dead in his tracks. Images flit through his head, largely of a series of authoritarian figures he has encountered in his young life—cops, politicians, schoolmasters, even his mother—who have subtly and overtly bent him to their will. Smith’s protest against the abuse he has suffered is to stop. Stop running, that is.

Smith loses the race, to the dismay of his peers and the disgust of the governor. The last shot of the movie is a gloomy one that we have already seen earlier: Smith and the other boys quietly working on an assembly task while school officials hover over them, watching their every move. The mindless, machine-like quality of the activity and the closeness of the surveillance suggest the drudgery that Smith will continue to endure, in his life after the race and possibly forever.

It might correctly be asserted that what Smith does in quitting the race right before the finish line—in plain view of the governor and his other classmates—is tantamount to (the saying seems appropriate here) shooting himself in the foot. Running might have been Smith’s escape from a life of poverty and desperation. As the governor hints, he might even have competed in the Olympics—in true Chariots of Fire style. I can only imagine that criticisms against the film’s ending have been leveled at this aspect: that, implicit in Smith’s defiance, is the certainty of his continued maltreatment. In a sense, he cooperates with the system that wants to keep him down. Rather than strategically playing the game (in this case, running the race) and sneering privately, Smith’s rebellion gives “the man” a perfect reason to continue his close scrutiny and suppression. He cements his reputation as a troublemaker, one of the “angry young men” who must be watched closely and dealt with severely.

This is all true. But to me, it is the very ambiguity of the ending that makes it great. Smith’s act is neither triumph nor surrender. It is protest certainly and rebellion in the broadest sense. It is a refusal to do what it is expected merely because it is expected—and I mean that last sentence in both ways that it can be interpreted. Stopping is symbolic but it is also foolish since the implicit criticism largely escapes the personages that prompted the act; Michael Redgrave’s governor is no more likely to see things from Smith’s point of view than he was before. However, acts are not meaningless simply because they are lost on those for whom they were intended. When Smith stops running, he is in a sense recognizing that quite the opposite is true: all my life, people have wanted me to do one thing. Now I’m going to do what I want, and what I want to do is precisely what they won’t understand me doing. They will say I’ve thrown it all away but, after all, did I want what they offered? It’s true that in “Loneliness” Smith never says he enjoys running. He says he feels compelled to do it; he equates it with escaping from the police (in other words, a necessary survival skill) and eventually with obedience, which, after all, is merely another method for survival.

In the end, Smith’s act demonstrates what can happen when you drive a spirited person into the ground. It shows how someone can be so crushed by his circumstances that he actually acts against his own self-interest. To me, the brilliance of the ending is there in the very foolish and courageous nature of Smith’s act.

Friday, August 3, 2007

You Make Me Sick, Michael Moore

It’s always interesting to hear people lambaste Michael Moore. Or, more precisely, it’s always revealing to hear those who basically agree with Michael Moore’s positions lambaste him. It seems that Moore has managed—besides shocking and disgusting many a right-winger—to alienate a good number of liberals as well. Though the average liberal (and even moderate) is likely to agree with Moore’s fairly unradical assertions—we have become a dangerously trigger-happy nation, president Bush is and has always been the pits, our healthcare system is crying out for some serious changes—it is far less clear that he will agree with A.O. Scott’s statement that Moore is “a credit to the republic.” What else, one might ask, must a documentary filmmaker who has raised hard questions in popular films do to win respect from those who ought to like him best, the converted to which he is supposedly preaching?

Some of the insults that have been leveled at Moore are that he’s “extreme” and pushy and that his films are biased and manipulative. You say that like it’s a bad thing! As far as I can tell, Moore has never pretended to be anything but a provocateur and propagandist, out to transmit his message and ruffle some feathers in the process. He is big. He is annoying. He asks faux naïve questions of his interviewees in order to push his point. He has questionable taste in attire (why always the baseball cap?) But beneath his exterior—in fact, apart from the persona altogether—remains Moore’s work, from “Roger and Me” to “Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” to the current “Sicko.” These are films that have demanded attention and generated debate at a mainstream level, a rare feat for documentaries to begin with. Why are we so caught up with what’s at the surface, with the packaging of these films and of Michael Moore as a brand? Why are we so quick to dismiss the work itself?

Some liberal moviegoers I have spoken with worry that Moore has hopelessly alienated those “middle of the road” types that might have been convinced by his message if he hadn’t collected it into such a potent little package and hurled it in their faces. But would people even have heard of Moore if he hadn’t been such a barnburner, I wonder? Isn’t that what it takes to get noticed around here? Paradoxically, it is the pushy persona that Moore’s detractors loathe which made him such a (key word) controversial figure to begin with. After all, who would have gone to see “Bowling for Columbine” if it had been a complacent little documentary that meekly suggested that perhaps, just maybe, we should stop shooting each other up with such fervor? Not even those middle-of the-road-types, I think.

And why, oh why, is it acceptable for conservatives to sing the praises of the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter, public figures of such intense obnoxiousness and comparatively little substance, while liberals feel obligated to distance themselves from Moore for fear of being contaminated by his offensive radicalism? Few conservatives expend much energy bemoaning the fact that O’Reilly and Coulter are alienating moderates or pushing people’s buttons. Au contraire.

But liberals are warier of causing offense, it seems. We are in such a rush to beat Moore’s critics to the punch and admit with heads hung low that he is a disgrace to our kind that we fail to realize that in doing so we are really only hurting ourselves. By anxiously trying to separate ourselves from Moore’s camp of lefty fringe lunatics we tacitly accept the judgment of Moore as a crazed zealot when what we really ought to be doing is demanding that the messages in his films be recognized for what they are—in the final analysis, as I have said, fairly unradical. By being apologists for Moore, liberal moviegoers simultaneously participate in the marginalization of his message and reinforce the image of him as an unhelpful extremist.

It seems to me that we could all stand to be a little less afraid of heated debate and the passionately argued opinions (or films) that it produces. Why do pundits get to spew the most astonishing garbage while the average person must pussyfoot around for fear of *gasp* causing offense? I would be thrilled to see a conservative filmmaker make a counterpoint movie to one of Moore’s, if—aside from being provocative and borderline infuriating at points—it also happened to make as many salient points as Moore chances to do in his work.

I don’t know about you but I would see that movie. Well, if A.O. Scott approved, of course.

From Here to the Grand Canyon--You Have to Cross the Symbolic Complex on the Way

I had a supremely trapped-inside-the-symbolic-complex moment last night. It happened while I was watching "From Here to Eternity" (1953), the great and grim classic film set shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It had wrenching, real-feeling characters and was filled with those memorable “treasurable” moments that happen in good movies where for an instant you sense that you are being let in on a secret about human life. And better yet for me, it was tinged with noir, which wasn’t what I expected from a film whose most famous moment involved Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr washing up on a beach in each other’s arms.

But it was actually that very scene that ended up haunting me the most, though for unexpected and extra-filmic reasons. Having seen countless pictures of the ahead-of-its time, sea-soaked smooch (which, inevitably, is featured on the cover of the DVD) I was all prepared when the Deborah Kerr character announces to her lover that she is concealing a bathingsuit under the little black number she has on. Here it comes.

And it came. And went. In a matter of about three seconds. Frankly, I was disappointed and I wasn’t the only one. “That can’t be it,” said my mother, who was watching with me. “That can’t be the scene.” We had, of course, expected greatness and were confounded to be met instead with the smallness of reality. No doubt it was a vigorous liplock that looked like it would be fun to be part of but it was brief, even missable if you’d happened to turn away for a moment. No camera circled the lovers’ heads, probing for the most intimate shot or attempting to suggest with proximity the sheer intensity of what was happening—though the naturalistic image of the lovers in a sandy embrace must have been hugely risqué for 1953. Regardless, the background music didn’t do what I had expected: it failed to hit a soaring note after a dramatically building crescendo designed to complement the crashing of the nearby waves. The characters looked downright small, almost distant compared to their counterparts in the enlarged stills I had seen so many times. And then, most anti-climactic of all, mere moments after the famous kiss, the two lovers began to argue…Burt is insecure and jealous because Deborah has had so many lovers before him. He makes some catty remarks and she nearly storms off. Hardly the romantic ending I had imagined.

I am once again reminded of the symbolic complex. I call it this of course because of Walker Percy’s 1954 essay “The Loss of the Creature,” in which Percy argues that modern man has lost the ability to appreciate sites/sights and experiences on their own merits. To illustrate his point, Percy asks us to imagine the thrill García Lopez de Cardenas must have felt coming upon the Grand Canyon for the first time. In an attempt to pass on this feeling of awe to others, the government allowed this site to be viewed by the general public. However, in so doing, just the opposite occurred. Saturated by images of the Grand Canyon, it is increasingly difficult to see it except through the frame of how we have been told we ought to view it. It is amazing. It is enormous. It is breathtaking. Something terrible is expected of us: we must be awestruck. Even worse, Percy says, we judge our satisfaction in seeing things (the Grand Canyon) or even having experiences (attending our senior prom, let’s say) based on how closely they conform to our pre-existing concept of what that thing should be like, a concept developed within the symbolic complex of advertising and marketing in all its insidious forms. Inevitably, we are disappointed when the thing fails to live up to our precise (and pre-packaged) expectations—it’s cloudy that day in Arizona. Seeing a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon should be an exhilarating experience like it was for Cardenas, marvelous in its specificity. Instead, it has become the most typical of all. The thing itself, that which forms the essence of an authentic experience in its purest and most vivid incarnation—what Percy called “the creature”—has been lost.

Hence my disappointment at the famous scene in "From Here to Eternity." To my chagrin, it wasn’t (and it couldn’t be) the spectacular moment that someone stumbling upon the movie might have felt it was, especially someone seeing the movie in its original historical context. Through no fault of its own it couldn’t live up to the hype. I have felt this way many times encountering purportedly incredible things—when I first saw the Tower of Pisa, for instance, or the Mona Lisa, or even when I glimpsed Claire Danes on the street once. I felt it when I stayed up to see an unspectacular sunrise, not because I really felt like doing it but because staying up to see the sunrise is just one of those magical things that one is supposed to do at some point in one’s life since one ought to be the kind of person who would enjoy that sort of thing. Who was I kidding watching "From Here to Eternity" in the first place? I was only seeing it because I had heard so many times that it was an unforgettable classic.

Percy said that we must enter into a struggle to recover the sights or experiences whose value has been lost to us. In more general existentialist terms, we must struggle for authenticity in a world ridden with bad faith. It’s a hard struggle, a losing battle. The only real chance we have is to be aware of the symbolic complex and as much as possible to resist it, even knowing that it cannot be very much. It is all we can do to seek authentic experience without falling into the trap of preferring something because on the surface it looks like what we imagine “authentic experience” should look like—staying up to see the sunrise, for instance…And aspiring to be free of outside influences that would make our decisions for us—not wearing Ugg boots just because everyone else is wearing them but also not not wearing them because everyone else is wearing them.

Is there anything harder? Even writing this entry I am sure I’m not succeeding.