Sunday, June 26, 2016

Our Beloved Month of August

When writing about Miguel Gomes 2008 film, Our Beloved Month of August, the temptation  is to clarify the film, normalize it, and make the movie seem less strange than it really is.  Every description of the film that I have read has this effect and it is inimical to the way an audience actually experiences the movie.  In the first shot, we see majestically combed roosters clearly agitated by something -- as the shot continues, we see that a little fox has entered the chicken coop and is eyeing the roosters:  the image is magisterial, at once, strange and suspenseful, shot from a peculiar angle as if to mirror the perplexity of the big, bright roosters.  In the second shot, we see that the fox is separated from the chickens by a wire-mesh.  But the mesh is inefficacious and the fox bursts in among the chickens -- the film, then, cuts away to a pavilion where someone is crooning in a soft-rock pop song; it is night and the weight of the summer is palpable in the scene, an erotic humidity and warmth and, while the singer performs, gradually couple gather on the dance-floor, entering, however, from an unexpected angle.   At the end of the film, Gomes castigates his soundman, a figure that we have been watching throughout the movie, for recording in nature sounds that can't possibly be present -- pop tunes, apparently, picked-up by the soundman's microphone on its lance-like baton.  Each member of the crew berates the soundman who maintains that he didn't do anything wrong -- on the soundtrack we hear forest sounds, birds chirping and the wind in trees, gradually supplanted by faint pop song that grows in volume.  While crewmembers are berating the hapless soundman, their names and roles in the production are shown on-screen.  When the sequence is over, the film's final credits are projected and the movie ends. 

Much of the movie follows the logic, or illogic, of these sequences.  Only gradually, after about an hour, does the audience sense that there are actual characters in the movie, people extruded above, as it were, the documentary milieu -- as soon as we become accustomed to the fact that we are watching a lyrical documentary designed according to associative and poetic principles, suddenly, we are confronted with fact that there is, in fact, a story, that the story becomes increasingly melodramatic, and, ultimately, seems to seize control of the film, turning the movie into a family melodrama with some kinky attributes, a bit like a film by Fassbinder or Douglas Sirk.  The narrative seems wholly improvised -- at first, we don't know that we are seeing any kind of narrative at all.  The pleasure that film yields is that aspects of the picture that we initially perceived as purely documentary become assimilated into the improvised story.  For instance, we have seen a red fire-truck somewhat incongruously touring the mountainsides of the Portuguese forest where the film takes place.  These seems are vaguely comical and we can't quite make any narrative sense out of them.  Later, we are introduced to two girls who work at a fire-tower, one succeeding the other with regard to their sentinel duties -- these girls are fire-watchers atop a high mountain in the forested range.  The girls gradually become central characters in the narrative and, at the end of the film, there is a wild-fire that has the melodramatic function of ending a bitter family argument and, in fact, reuniting characters who had disavowed any further relationship with one another.  (The fire clearly stands for sexual love-- the fires of passion.)  Here is the question that film poses:  did this imagery of fires and fire-fighting drive the narrative and yield, through improvisatory means the narrative or was the film maker cunningly foreshadowing narrative events by concealing in plain sights, as it were, this theme within the documentary aspects of the movie.  I don't think this question can be answered and therein lies part of the charm of Our Beloved Month of August

At first, we seem to be watching a documentary about some kind of musical festival occurring in a rural and mountainous region of Portugal.  Bands appear on a dramatically lit stage, are identified by super-title over the image, and perform -- the music that they play is not some kind of European "roots" or traditional music; rather, it is ingratiating key-board and synthesizer-heavy Euro-pop.  At first, the film plays as a kind of movie-essay, the sort of film that Chris Marker used to make -- there are some portentous voice-overs and we see lots of tracking shots of wooded and hilly landscape.  A big motorcycle rally is underway and the narrow, winding roads on the mountain side are, often, blitzed by swarms of bikers -- near the start of the film, we see an immense campground where the bikers have gathered.  There is a look-out atop one of the mountains, a statuesque ridge where giant wind rotors are turning, and some beautiful streams where people swim and sunbathe near a dam.  Local people are filmed in their habitats telling stories about how the festival originally involved a testicle feast and one man recounts the story of ax murder.  It appears that the film is documenting the Feast of the Lady of Conception and, at twenty minute intervals, there are images of long processions in which the people carrying sacred figures on litters going uphill meet and pass similar crowds descending the steep streets.  Bands play in out of the way alleys and there seems to be a lot of feasting underway.  From time to time, a man from Lisbon admonishes the film crew to get underway -- Gomes, who plays himself in the film, says that he has to record sound effects because he doesn't yet have actors.  At the climax of the religious festival, someone -- apparently the town drunk -- will have to jump off a high medieval bridge over a ravine where the river flows.  He isn't anxious to do this -- last time, he jumped he hurt his ankle.  Frequently, we see the sound man recording in groves of trees or on the mountainsides -- of course, we never see the camera crew:  the film's point-of-view is the camera crew and the reason we don't see any footage being shot is because the only camera on location is the one recording the various random, or seemingly, random snippets of film that comprise the movie.  At one point, the villagers gather to see some rushes of a "terror movie based on Little Red Riding Hood" -- this may be the project the filmmakers have come to produce.  An older woman appears in the clip of film, scary and formidable as a witch -- we later see her from time to time in the streets of the town, a heavy-set, jolly old woman nothing like her image on the screen.  (The locals aren't fooled -- they laugh loudly at the horror scenes.)  A boar is butchered and an old man climbs into a deer stand.  Two girls try to get parts in the movie and are inexplicably turned-away -- the crew is more interested in playing quoits.  Gomes is a very cunning and intelligent director and this seemingly random footage probably fits together and forms patterns that are not immediately apparent, but, nonetheless, meaningful -- in part, an associative principle connects the short sequences:  while we watch a religious procession, a man talks about being healed by an encounter with the plaster figurine of the Lady of Healing; in the next scene, we see a man singing karaoke -- the song is about being saved by the Virgin Mary, although the tune and melody aren't sacred sounding at all, but more of the saccharine Euro-pop that characterizes the soundtrack.  (Our Beloved Month of August, if nothing else, is a musical, featuring about 12 fully performed songs.)  Gradually, we begin to notice recurring characters and, in the last hour, there is a story:  a girl named Tania sings in a family band with her father, Domingos, and her uncle.  The girl's mother has run away from the family to Lisbon -- it's not quite clear why she abandoned the family.  Father and daughter have a close, almost freakishly close, relationship -- at one point, the villagers accuse the couple of incest.  The lead guitar player in the band is Helder, Tania's 15 year old cousin.  Helder and Tania fall in love.  This leads to conflict in the family, problems in the band as well, and, ultimately, there is a showdown between the young lovers and Tania's father -- catastrophe is averted by a fire on the mountain in which the family members are trapped.  The fire is a deus ex machina that resolves the major tensions in the film, although the movie has trouble ending -- I counted about six or seven separate endings.

Our Beloved Month of August is fiendishly clever but overlong.  The story that is improvised out of all of the fragments of apparently documentary footage is melodramatic and slight, if pleasant -- young lovers (there is a subplot involving another girl Lena and her admirers) enjoying long lissome summer nights together.  But the story isn't strong enough to sustain the film's length and, in any event, its clearly disposable -- something Gomes constructed out of bits and pieces and, then, improvised a few acted (or dramatic) scenes.  The film's length is integral, however, to the very gradual development of the plot -- the narrative consists of a series of secrets disclosed to the audience only very, very slowly and with immense hesitation.  If the whole plot were summarily presented, we would probably reject the film as banal and uninteresting -- part of the pleasure in the picture is fitting together the fragments to construct the narrative.  I think it's a film that is probably designed to be watched several times -- some parts of the film have a meta-narrative aspect that is fantastically complex.  In one scene, we see two men from behind at one of the ubiquitous mountain lookouts -- one man tells the other that he's concerned about the film makers.  "They seem awfully disorganized," he says.  The other man responds:  "Well, it's just their method."  The first man reveals, then, that he was the fellow who talked about being cured by our Lady of Healing -- "they recorded me without my knowing," he says.  Of course, we are seeing the two men from behind and this begs the question of whether they know they are being recorded and filmed in this sequence.  Both men are part of the film's narrative -- but how do we distinguish the narrative from the documentary aspects of the movie?  Can this even be accomplished?  In one scene, Helder masturbates, apparently to images of Tania's missing mother, someone called Auntie Rose Marie -- this sequence is clearly staged.  A few minutes later, some Belgian dudes approach the girls who are swimming at the dam and try to pick them up -- this sequence seems completely documentary, although the scene plays a role in dramatic narrative.  Was this scene staged or is it documentary? 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Murnau's Tabu

Murnau’s Tabu


An aura of predestined doom surrounds Murnau’s 1931 Tabu. There are several causes for this. First, the film is Murnau’s final work, premiered 9 days after his death in a motor vehicle accident. Thus, viewers are wont to impute a sense of fatality to the movie. This is a fallacy – no doubt, Murnau planned a long and happy life after completing the picture -- but, probably, unavoidable. Second, the film itself seems to labor under a curse – whispered rumors of hauntings and malign influences surround the picture. Finally, the movie’s subject matter itself, a weird combination of German expressionist gloom and South Seas romance inflects the way that we approach the film: there is a price to be paid for innocent eroticism and that price is death.

F. W. Murnau was born Friedrich Plumpe in Bielefeld, Germany in 1888. His family was comfortably wealthy and mercantile. Murnau studied philology at the University of Berlin but gravitated into the world of theater. Homosexuals were welcome in that field, particularly in Max Reinhardt’s sphere, and Murnau was, more or less, openly gay. Theatrical careers were not respectable in late 19th century (Wilhelmine) Germany and the young man changed his name from the rather banal and crude-sounding Plumpe to Murnau when he worked as an assistant director with Reinhardt during the years 1911 to 1914. (Murnau is the name of an artist’s colony where Kandinsky and other luminaries of the early Expressionist and Blue Rider movements spent their summers – the director also had a cottage in that village.)

Murnau enlisted in the army during World War One. Initially, he served in the infantry, an assignment that he thought boring. He used family influence to finagle his way into the Luftwaffe. Emulating Baron von Richthofen, Murnau flew a number of successful combat missions as a fighter pilot. He probably survived the war due to a mistake – he got caught in fog over the Alps and had to make a forced landing. The airfield was in Switzerland and he was interred there for the last year of the war. The other combat pilots with whom he served were all killed, including a handsome young man who had been Murnau’s lover.

After the war, Murnau worked in Berlin in the film industry. Most of his early films are lost. He revolutionized the movie industry with his vampire picture, Nosferatu (released in 1922), the first film of that kind to be an international smash-hit. After a few more pictures made in Germany, most notably his version of Faust and The Last Laugh, Murnau emigrated to Hollywood where he was hired by Fox Studios. His first American film, Sunrise, is a monument to the late Silent film industry, often characterized as the most beautiful movie ever made. Sunrise won the first Academy Award bestowed in Hollywood for best picture. Murnau directed three other films for Fox including City Girl, a Kammerspiel quite unlike the extravagant earlier films involving elaborate spectacle and camera effects. (Murnau was versatile and City Girl shows that he could effectively direct a light romantic comedy with melodramatic accents.) The other American films Murnau made are now lost.

One of Murnau’s close friends in Berlin was Walter Spies. Spies was the son of the German ambassador to Russia and had been, mostly, raised in Moscow and a dacha in the Ural mountains. Spies was also homosexual and closely affiliated with the Russian post-revolutionary avant-garde – he knew Eisenstein and many Soviet dancers including Anna Archipenko. In 1923, Spies traveled as a collier to the South Seas and took up residence in central Indonesia. For several years, he worked for one of the Indonesian sultans as a director of his patron’s orchestras, including a Balinese gamelan ensemble. Fascinated by the gamelan music,

Spies moved to Bali where he also studied traditional dance forms.

Murnau’s Hollywood films after Sunrise (1927) were not successful at the box-office. Irving Thalberg suggested that Murnau travel to the South Seas to make a film with Robert Flaherty. Murnau hoped to visit Spies with whom he remained in contact by letters. Accordingly, Murnau agreed to the assignment, primarily because it would give him an excuse to see his old friend again.

Robert Flaherty was famous for his documentaries. In the minds of most film audiences, Flaherty was best known as the director of Nanook of the North (1922). Flaherty had made another documentary in the South Seas at Bora Bora and Papeete in French Tahiti– Moana released in 1926. Moana is a hybrid, a documentary involving many staged sequences – today, the film would be characterized as "docufiction." Flaherty was blustery, outspoken, and aggressive Irishman who was drunk most of the time. Murnau was concerned that it would be difficult to collaborate with him. Flaherty was bogged down in a film about the Indians at Acoma pueblo – Acoma, the City in the Sky – and so Thalberg closed-down production on that film, being shot in western New Mexico, and sent Flaherty to the south seas to make a fiction film co-directed with W.S. VanDyke. That film released in 1929 was called White Shadows in the South Seas. Accordingly, Flaherty was still in Tahiti when Thalberg sent Murnau to those islands to work on Tabu.

Murnau’s sense of geography was a little inexact. He seems to have thought that Tahiti and Indonesia were the same place. Instead, Murnau was disappointed to find that he was supposed to work with Flaherty in Tahiti and not Bali. For a number of weeks, Murnau collaborated with Flaherty and, ultimately, the two men agreed upon the script that was ultimately shot. By this point, Flaherty’s alcoholism had become an insoluble problem and Murnau complained that he couldn’t work with his co-director. Flaherty was removed from the project. Murnau, then, persuaded the Studio to send for Walter Spies. Spies came from Bali and agreed to serve as a dance consultant on the film – he was responsible for choreographing the motions and gestures of the native actors participating in Tabu. Although the script is a collaboration between Robert Flaherty and F. W. Murnau, the footage accumulated to make the film was almost entirely shot under the direction of the German. (On the first day of production, Flaherty’s camera jammed and ripped film passing through it; after that day, all camerawork was directed by Murnau). Murnau’s process was to develop immense amounts of footage and, then, work the actors on editing – it is said that 90 hours of film were shot, mostly around Bora-Bora.

Murnau returned to Hollywood to supervise editing the film. He completed the picture and planned a trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate the successful wrap of the film. Murnau, who did not drive, selected his chauffeurs on the basis of their attractiveness and not their skill in operating a motor vehicle. His 14-year-old Filipino house-boy was driving his car when he lost control and slammed into a telephone pole along side the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Santa Barbara near Rincon Beach. Murnau was instantly killed. He was 42. The director’s body was returned to Germany where he was buried at Stahnsdorf, about 12 miles from Berlin. Greta Garbo, a close friend, commissioned a death mask and kept it in her study for the rest of her life. (The death mask is claimed to be the nexus of paranormal phenomena – rapping and knocking noises and other ghostly manifestations.)

Murnau and Spies had built a house together in Tahiti at Papeete. Apparently, they selected a location for the house that was itself tabu and the structure was also said to be haunted. It burned down in the 1935, was rebuilt and burned down again in the 1980's. After Murnau’s death, Spies returned to Bali where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1938, Spies was arrested for homosexual conduct and put in prison. He was released in 1939 after the intervention of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, with whom he was friends. In 1942, Spies was interned as an enemy non-combatant – Indonesia, at that time, was part of the Dutch East Indies. The authorities sent Spies back to Germany. With other deported persons, he was loaded on the S. S. Imhof for return to Europe. A few miles from port, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Imhof – it sank and Spies drowned.

A year ago, someone broke into Murnau’s grave at Stahnsdorf and stole the great director’s skull. Wax was found on some of the other bones, suggesting some kind of occult ritual. Murnau’s huge skeleton – the man was 6 foot 11 inches tall – was the only corpse desecrated. Murnau’s brothers, also occupying the grave, were not disturbed. To date, the skull has not been returned.

The Apogee of the Silent Film
Tabu was one of only two silent films released by American studios in 1931. The other film, also estimable, was Charley Chaplin’s City Lights. (Only Murnau and Chaplin had sufficient prestige in Hollywood to compel the studios to yield to them with respect to allowing these films to be released as silent movies.) The aura of doom surrounding the picture also arises in this context: Tabu is the last film of its kind. (Edgar Ulmer, the production liaison on the film, remained in Hollywood while Murnau was in the South Seas shooting the movie. Murnau was in Polynesia from May 12, 1929 through November 8, 1930 – that is, during the first broad application of sound technology to film. Ulmer wrote to Murnau and provided him with a very lengthy and detailed technical account as to the new technology, suggesting that Murnau consider re-shooting some parts of the film with synchronized sound. Murnau declined and said that he thought that the merits of silent film were so obvious that the art form would continue to exist and survive side-by-side with sound films – Murnau thought that more poetic or lyrical films were well suited to being produced and projected in silent format. Accordingly, Murnau believed that film as an art would in the future embrace both silent films like Tabu as well as talking pictures.)

The German critic, Lotte Eisner, writing about Tabu calls the film the "apogee of the art of silent film" and "visually perfect." Murnau was famous for his moving camera and for streamlining his narratives so that very few titles were necessary to explain the images – his picture The Last Laugh (in German, Der Letzte Mann) was the first important silent film to be made entirely with out intertitles. In Polynesia, Murnau couldn’t move the camera; the infrastructure necessary for those effects did not exist. As a result, Murnau relied upon powerful evocative, sculptural staging of his actors against lush tropical landscapes and carefully designed editing. The movie’s cinematography was awarded an Academy Award for best camerawork in 1931.


Tabu has no titles descriptive of the action. There is no scene-setting after the first ethnographic titles and no extraneous characterization of the images – in essence, what you see is what you get.

As in Nosferatu, Murnau uses documents in lieu of titles – Hitu carries a scroll announcing his mission to seize a virgin from Bora-Bora. The couple’s dilemma in Papeete, Tahiti is shown by diary entries and the credit account maintained by the pygmy Chinese merchant. Murnau’s felt intertitles interrupted films and were generally unnecessary if the movie was coherently constructed.


Tabu and Expressionism

Tabu marks the confluence of German expressionist interest in the South Sea Islands with Hollywood film making. As we have seen, Murnau produced Tabu with money from Hollywood and, indeed, returned to Santa Monica after the movie was complete. About the same time, German painters and sculptors were exploiting South Sea and primitivist motifs in their art.

In the late 19th century, Germany’s imperialist aspirations led it to annex as colonies substantial territories in Oceania. The largest German colonies in the south Pacific were Kaiser-Wilhelmsland (the northeast quadrant of Papua, New Guinea) and the Bismarck Archipelago, a number of fairly large islands off the east coast of New Guinea. These lands, with a dozen other island groups, comprised Deutsche Neuguinea – that is, German New Guinea. Before the First World War, German artists, naturists (nudists), mystics, and theosophists visited these colonies in swarms. Papua New Guinea and the south sea islands were thought to be a natural paradise, a place where human nature had not been deformed by economic or religious oppression. The Germans were obsessed with "race’ and "purity" and the people dwelling on small islands surrounded by thousands of miles of water were considered examples of undiluted and ethnically pure human beings, Naturvoelker ("Nature-people") living in accord with ancient tribal laws that expressed perfectly their racial essence. Although many German artists were content to study these specimens of undisfigured humanity by viewing pictures of them in ethnographic museums and by sketching their masks and other ritual objects, several of the greatest Expressionist artists actually traveled to German Polynesia and Papua New Guinea to live among the people on those islands. (In this respect, the Germans were following in the footsteps of Paul Guaguin, the grest post-impressionist painter who left Breton – and his wife and children – for an uninhibited life in French Polynesia.) Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde both spent considerable time in the German colonies in the South Seas and produced innumerable images of the people and landscapes of that place.

The interest in Oceania by German expressionists reflects an essential and motivating impulse for that artistic movement – art should express the inner essence of that which it depicts; optical appearance is secondary to the emotion that the object of contemplation induces in the viewer. Expressionist art attempts to convey the emotional essence of an encounter with the world and the people in the world – certain fundamental forms express certain fundamental emotions or forces that exist in reality. The artist’s objective is to pierce through optical or visual appearance to achieve an unmediated encounter with these fundamental forces. In effect, expressionism was one of the last bastions of Platonic thought, the idea that all appearances are underwritten, and arise from, essential forces and powers that are concealed from the eye. The veneer of civilization that religion and economics imparts to the man who lives in the city shields, and conceals from him, the real powers that exist in the world. These powers can be accessed through art or by ritual. The Naturvoelker of the South Seas were imagined to be people that lived in close harmony with these essential forces and powers and could, therefore, guide over-civilized Europeans into an encounter with these mysteries, ultimately, the enigmas of sex and love and death. (Imperium, a wonderful recent novel by the German writer Christian Kracht dramatizes many of these ideas – the story involves a German mystic who travels to the Solomon Islands before World War One to found a coco-vore utopia, that is, a utopia where its inhabitants eat nothing but coconuts.)

Although Murnau was interested in Expressionist ideas, I would hesitate to characterize him as expressionistic film maker. Actual expressionistic film making, properly characterized, is limited to a handful of movies made between 1916 and 1920, most notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Visual expressionism, particularly as expressed in the graphic arts, involved very significant distortions of optical reality – narrative films are generally wedded to an appearance of accurate optical reality; therefore, the kind of expressionist distortions evident in a film like Dr. Caligari were a dead-end – audiences wanted movies to reflect some semblance of optical reality.

Murnau’s involvement with Expressionism, nonetheless, is significant in several respects. (One key factor is Murnau’s name – the great director’s actual last name was Plumpe, not a particularly inspiring moniker; F.W. Plumpe assumed the stage-name "Murnau" because he particularly admired a German village with that name, a place in the country frequented by the great Expressionist painters and closely associated with them.) In my estimation, Murnau distorts reality to express inner states of being inconspicuously and without overtly disrupting the fiction that the filmgoer is seeing something realistic. In his massivley engineered (some would say over-engineered films) of late twenties – for instance, Faust and Sunrise, A Story of Two Humans – the most conspicuous expressionist effect is the director’s use of light. Murnau thought of light as ‘raum-gestaltende" effect – that is, "space-creating". Accordingly, in Faust and Sunrise, lighting effects create glares and halos, zones of intense brightness surrounded by the densest darkness. Murnau’s expressionist interests, accordingly, often appear in the director’s deployment of exceedingly non-naturalistic effects of chiaroscuro, intense light and dark with figures casting inky, ominous shadows.

Filming in the South Seas, Murnau was forced to mostly use natural light with reflectors. Therefore, he is not able to engineer the dense chiaroscuro that characterizes his later German films and some, but not all, of the surviving Hollywood pictures. (Murnau’s comedy City Girl shot before he departed for the South Seas is a conventionally lit, sunny, and pleasant romantic comedy.) Stripped of some of his characteristic pictorial resources (moving camera and intensely dramatic lighting effects), Murnau, nonetheless, demonstrates several strong Expressionist affinities in the way that Tabu is made.

How does Murnau portray space and topography in Tabu? I think close analysis of the film warrants a conclusion that Murnau’s use of optical space in Tabu is expressionistic. This effect is sub rosa – we don’t immediately perceive that the space occupied by Murnau’s Polynesian islanders is irrational and non-naturalistic. But if we attend close to the film’s mise-en-scene, we encounter puzzling incongruities. These incongruities are best explicable in these terms – the space in which the islanders live is constructed expressionistically: it conforms to an inner reality.

In the first half of the film, "Paradise", we are shown a world that is completely open in all dimensions. The world is a sort of playground for the desires of the Polynesian islanders. The paradox that the film presents in thematic terms is this: the Polynesians can effortlessly enjoy any pleasure that they want except the greatest pleasure, the consummation of sexual desire. (This theme of forbidden love undoubtedly arises to some degree from Murnau’s homosexuality. You can have anything you want except the person that you love.) In the opening sequence, Matiha throws spear after spear into shallow water, impaling fish without any apparent difficulty. (An omitted sequence from the film, later released as "Treibjagd im Sud-See" ("Fish hunt in South Seas") in 1940, shows the entire village driving fish into the shallows and, then, harvesting them by the hundreds – this is an intensely dramatic sequence, but one that shows fairly arduous efforts required to sustain life in these idyllic islands. One can speculate that Murnau excluded the footage from "Paradise" because it shows that real organization and the considerable effort of everyone in the village is necessary to harvest fish from the sea – that is, the frenzied activity of the sequence interferes with the idea of the Edenic "paradise" in the opening part of the film.) Space and landscape provide no obstacles – the boys effortlessly climb a waterfall to access the interior of the island. Motion is free and unobstructed in all dimensions – one boy scrambles a hundred feet up a palm tree without any difficulty; people use natural sluices in waterfalls to rapidly move between different locations. When a ship appears far beyond the boundary reef, everyone in the village is instantly waterborne – even tiny children are confident enough on the sea to leap into outrigger canoes and rush through turbulent seas, there is substantial surf at the reef, to swarm onto the boat. Climbing from the canoes onto the European vessels poses no problem – the natives seem preternaturally agile. Everyone moves like a dancer and, even, scenes of prosaic action involve actors who move as gracefully as ballet dancers.

But, of course, all of this is stylized. We can see this in the opening sequence – Matahi does not initially stand on the sharp, painfully jagged piece of coral in the surf. In fact, he stands behind the nasty-looking coral plinth in the opening scene on sand – the tide has not yet reached the coral boulder. But in the third or fourth shot of the movie, time has obviously passed and, now, the coral boulder is surrounded by water. In the following scenes, Matahi stands on the sharp rock, but seems uncomfortable. Within the first thirty seconds, the film presents us with shots that don’t match – in the opening scene, the surf is far away and rock stands on the beach; in the second scene showing the rock, the ocean is now all around the boulder. The blithe way that the natives move through their landscape is contradicted by various cues – first, the boys in the water seem to be walking or scampering carefully so as to not slice open their feet on sharp coral. We have a sense that the landscape somehow is too rugged, too sharp, too angular – that it opposes the way that the people move.

Simply put, the topography of the opening forty minutes of the film makes no realistic sense. A flower garland, apparently, drops from the waterfall that decorously slides down a coastal cliff. (The cliff looks sharp and dangerous, but the actors seem able to scramble up the cliff without any difficulty – my suspicion is that we are seeing the best of a hundred takes with respect to ascending the waterfall.) The boys decide to climb to the top of the waterfall. We see them begin that ascent and, then, immediately the film cuts to a waterfall and punch-bowl-like plunge pool where the maidens are bathing. The editing suggests that these locations are adjacent – in fact, later we find that the waterfalls and punch-bowl plunge pools are far in the interior of the island not directly above the coastal cascade as the cutting initially suggests. The action with the girls among the waterfalls is confusing – how many waterfalls are there: one or two or three? Probably, there are two waterfalls although this is hard to decipher. (In fact, it’s not clear where the waterfall scenes were shot – there are no waterfalls on Bora Bora.) The landscape with the waterfalls is weirdly accommodating – it’s less of a landscape than a water-park. And this stylization is essential to the film’s mood. When we ask "How many waterfalls are there?" The film answers: as many as are desired. The landscape seems to shift and warp according to what the characters desire – the topography in other words is pliable, it bends to the desires of the protagonists. Very few of the shots comprising the first section of the film match – for instance, when Matahi surprises Rire, he appears from a place where we don’t expect him to be. How did he magically get behind Rire? Again, the landscape seems less of a real place and more of a dreamscape of desires that are offered up by the terrain as soon as imagined.

(Opposed to this idyllic and strangely accommodating landscape is the impulsive violence of the characters. When the women beat Rire, they seem to be actually hurting her. Rire seems to have blood (or, at least, Schmutz) of some kind all over her legs and shoulders – Matahi wipes off the substance whatever it is. The other woman involved in the cat-fight has a very noticeable black-eye. In other words, this is a paradise in which people strike one another, hold each other’s heads under the water, and, in fact, get visibly injured.)

The uncertainty about the film’s landscape is enhanced in the bravura sequence involving the islanders taking to the sea to clamber onto the sailing ship. A dramatic, double-horned mountain looms over the village. But where exactly is the mountain? It seems to shift position in relationship to the bay as the scene progresses. The geometry of the bay is uncertain and the distance of the sailing ship from shore seems also to vary from shot-to-shot. The armada of canoes striking out across the bay provides Murnau with a splendid opportunity to move his camera and the effects that he achieves in this sequence are extraordinary, particularly the fugue-like contrast between motion and counter-motion – the canoes hurtling seaward, while Matahi heads to shore to pick up his little brother. This part of the film has an exhilarating character, a sense of great freedom and motion, a visceral joyous energy that is suddenly impeded by the ominous figure of the priest, Hitu. Prior to the appearance of Hitu, the viewer has the impression that the island and sea around it are perfectly, and effortlessly, penetrable – people can move in every direction without encountering any kind of obstruction.

Murnau uses space and topography in a similarly non-naturalistic way in the "Paradise Lost" half of the film. Hitu appears without warning out of nowhere – it is unclear as to whether we are to interpret his appearances as real or imaginary. French Tahiti (Papeete) where the second half of the film takes place is ruined, a paradise lost infected with booze and cash-money. Rire and Matahi’s destruction is over-determined – of course, we can accept Murnau’s narrative showing Hitu’s malign influence as the cause of their doom, but, we are, also, I think warranted in construing Hitu figuratively, as an embodiment of the forces that destroy the couple. And, of course, the champagne poured by Matahi in the party, and purchased on credit, precipitates the film’s catastrophe – the native people of Tahiti were, in fact, savaged by alcohol, traded their women for booze, and, then, economically destroyed. Matahi and Reri’s plight seems a metonym for the calamities that contact with Europeans inflicted upon the South Sea islanders.

One of the most noteworthy and memorable scenes in silent cinema is Nosferatu’s appearance on a death-ship in Bremen harbor in Murnau’s 1921 unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With rats underfoot, Nosferatu slinks away from the ghost-vessel that has glided to a stop in the misty, dark harbor. The appearance of Nosferatu is a harbinger of doom for the young lovers in that film and, also, symbolizes the onset of a great pestilence, rat-born plague, that kills most of the people in Bremen. In Tabu, Murnau returns to the image of death gliding ashore in a sailing ship – it is interesting that the ship carrying Hitu is conspicuously European in appearance. This verifies my suspicion that Hitu, in part, embodies the forces of alcohol and mercantilism brought to Polynesia by the Europeans – in fact, one might argue that the failure to placate the Polynesian gods by offering Reri as a virgin consecrated to them has, perhaps, doomed the entire culture to ruin at the hands of the Europeans. In any event, the appearance of Hitu is non-naturalistic and ambiguous, signified by imagery of fatalistic doom invoking Murnau’s earlier vampire film – one of the first great international blockbuster hits of the silent film era.

At the end of the movie, Matahi’s desperate pursuit of the skiff in which Hitu has abducted Reri is designed as a kind of anxiety nightmare. Hitu’s skiff glides smoothly as if yanked over the waters by an invisible agency. By contrast, Matahi’s pursuit is obstructed not once, but twice, by barrier reefs exposed above the water, painfully sharp coral outcroppings that the young lover has to run across. Why don’t these reefs block Hitu’s skiff? Why don’t the exposed reefs pose an obstruction to the old witchdoctor? As we have seen in other contexts, space is used expressionistically – the topography that is unimpeded, open sea to the skiff, is blocked with painful barricades of coral reef as far as Matahi is concerned. As in a nightmare, Matahi’s pursuit of the skiff keeps encountering obstacles, piles of rock rising enigmatically from the sea that he must cross. The final sequence could not be improved in terms of concise brevity and uncanny, but precise horror. Matahi comes close to the boat and seizes a rope dangling from it. Hiru locks the girl away but putting down the hatch over her – figuratively, he is sealing her into a dark casket. We don’t even really see her face when he locks her away – she has already departed into his dark realm. The close-up of Hitu’s hand using a preternaturally sharp knife to slice through the rope to which Matahi is clinging is an astounding image – not only does the film show us a literal event, the lifeline to Matahi being cut, but, also, something larger and more intensely ominous: Hitu is one of the Fates, Nemesis, cutting the thread that symbolizes a human’s life.

As Nemesis expands to seize control of the film, the idea of tabu similarly expands. At first, Tabu is just the name of the film, the title of a story. Then, Reri becomes tabu. Later, we see a sign posted in the sea signifying that a part of the lagoon is tabu. Then, the film ends with the word filling the screen – tabu has come to mean "end" and, now, it seems that an entire world has fallen under it’s malign spell.

Murnau described the film’s theme in these terms: "Men are given to create their own tragedies when destiny is too generous with them."


A Snatch
of poetry:

( eve they)

Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,

Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,

Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,

Nor pause, nor perch, h overing on untamed wing!
These lines are from Coleridge’s poem "The Eolian Harp". Birds of paradise were known to the English primarily as anatomical specimens collected in the South Sea islands and, particularly, Papua New Guinea. The natives who prepared the specimens skinned them and removed their legs. This practice led to a belief that the birds were without feet and, according to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, "spent their lives hovering in the air and feeding on nectar."


Return to the Islands
In 1930, when Tabu was being filmed in French Polynesia (Tautira), Henri Matisse was visiting the island. Matisse closely observed the film’s production and made many sketches of Reri and the Polynesian landscapes. Matisse’s watercolors and sketches of the Polynesian girl are among his most evocative works.

Later, Reri of Tabu was recuited by Paramount to tour the United States. (Reri was not quite the naive Polynesian maiden shown in the film – Murnau met her in a bar in French Tahiti where she was working as a cocktail waitress; her name was Anne Chevalier.) Reri came from Polynesia to the United States where she promoted by the studio as a new starlet, the debutante of the hour. She performed in the Ziegfield Follies and made many professional appearances for her fans. Five years after her arrival in the United States, Reri returned to Tahiti. She stayed for only a couple of days – "it’s too boring," she proclaimed, "there is nothing to do."

Tabu has a very important cultural status in Polynesia. The film is frequently revived on the islands. At showings, people reminisce about the characters in the film, villagers that the older men and women can recall. In that respect, the movie serves as a link between the Polynesians today and their ancestors shown in the film. Reportedly, screenings of the film are festive affairs, more like family reunions that conventional movie-going with banqueting and much carousing accompanying the movie. The portrait of old Polynesia shown in the movie, imagery that was idealized when the picture was shot, has replaced Tahitians actual memories of the period of the time displayed in Tabu – in effect, the movie has substituted its vision of the islands for reality.



1. The idea of Tabu was important in the period after World War I. A well-known book was Totem and Taboo written by _________________.
2. This writer suffered from tuberculosis and wrote a famous short novel that is made into a horror film about twice a decade. He died in Samoa and is buried under a tombstone that ends with the words: Home is the sailor, home from sea/ And the hunter from the hill. Who is this writer? What is the book that he wrote that was repeatedly made into a horror film?
3. Emil Nolde, the great German painter who lived for several years in New Guinea, was a devout follower of German National Socialism until Hitler declared his paintings to be unartete or (name the word)?
4. Before making Tabu, Murnau directed City Girl, a story about a Chicago waitress who falls in love with a farmer (who has come to Chicago to sell wheat), marries him, and goes to live on his farm in ____________.
5. Murnau’s co-director on Tabu, Robert Flaherty, is most famous for his 1922 documentary Nanook of the North. What happened to Allakariallak, the Inuit man who played Nanook?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015) only serves as a sad reminder that the most beautiful of film genres, the Western, remains dead.  Although the film presents all the classical trappings of the Western (it even has a ballad, "Four Doomed Men Rode Out," sung by a husky-voiced baritone over the closing titles), there is no money available to produce a Western per se, and so Bone Tomahawk was probably pitched as gross-out horror film.  The horror elements don't necessary falsify the nobility of the film's Western structure, but they result in some mighty odd, and implausible, plot contortions.

The initial problem that the film must solve is that of establishing an effectively nasty and remorseless adversary.  In the fifties, and even up to about 1970, renegade Indians could play the role that zombies now occupy in action films -- that is, the robotic, savage killers prone to rape and torture their victims (zombies just eat your brains).  Movies like the great Ulzana's Raid or The Searchers posited the Indians on the warpath as irredeemably brutal, an "Other" with which we can't co-exist and that must be exterminated.  (Of course, The Searchers, a film that is really a portrait of an archetypal figure in Western mythology, the Indian-hater, is much more complex than this sketch -- but the film's narrative is founded in an almost Old Testament vision of the Indian enemy as a figure beyond any moral redemption.)  Political correctness does not permit the portrayal of Indians in this way any longer.  Accordingly, Bone Tomahawk must posit a tribe of "troglodytes", mud-caked savages living in a sort of primal horde in a cave high above a remote desert valley.  The "troglodytes" are said to non-Indian.  Indeed, Bone Tomahawk recruits to its estimable cast a famous and authentic TV Indian (the handsome Zahn McClarnen who played Hanzee Dent in the second season of Tv's Fargo).  This actor has only one function in the movie:  he establishes that whatever the "troglodytes" are, they aren't Native Americans.  But, of course, this is completely absurd -- the "troglodytes", although caked in eerie white mud, use bows and arrows, howl like wolves to signal one another, and slaughter their prey with "bone tomahawks".  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.  Therefore, the film's machinations designed to exempt it from claims of racism are both ineffective and risible -- it suffices to say that the bad guys in Bone Tomahawk are some kind of Indians. 

For reasons that are unclear, "troglodytes" (previously ensconced more or less harmlessly in their remote valley), have left the reservation and abducted three people from the town of Bright Hope.  Bright Hope is purely notional village -- it has no economic or industrial basis, a little idyllic village set down in the middle of a completely empty wilderness.  (This is not inconsistent with classic Westerns -- in The Searchers, the pioneers live in Monument Valley and seem to be farmers and ranchers:  but, of course, there is no way to farm or ranch in Monument Valley).  The town's sheriff played by Kurt Russell leads a posse of three other men in pursuit of the savages.  This aspect of the film is played out in a way that will be reassuringly familiar to fans of the Western -- Russell has a school-marmish (but sexually frisky) wife and is accompanied by the "back-up Sheriff", an loyal old man in the Walter Brennan mold.  One of the posse members is an Indian killer who has notched his belt 116 times, but otherwise the very picture of a dude-ish southern gentlemen.  The fourth member of the posse is the husband of the woman who has been snatched by the savages, his participation in the venture hampered by the fact that he has a badly broken leg and, after their horses are stolen, literally has to crawl through the desert in his quest for the missing woman.  The men's trek across the deserts and mountains is pleasantly filmed and involves many vistas of men on horseback traversing empty wastelands.  There are some encounters with other desert dwellers, including a pointless shooting of two Mexicans described as the "definition of Manifest Destiny" and suitably criticized by the film.  Ultimately, the heroes reach the narrow and hideous defile where the savages live and there is a protracted and very gory last act involving lots of slaughter on all sides.  

Although Bone Tomahawk invokes many films from Hitchcock's Rear Window to Monte Hellman's minimalist Westerns, the movie that seems to be the greatest influence on the film is the Coen brothers' 2010 version of True Grit.  Like that film, Bone Tomahawk features florid Victorian dialogue and one of the Coen boys' best supporting actors, the redoubtable Fred Melamed, playing the saloon-keeper of the Learned Goat.  The film is the first picture directed by S. Craig Zahler and, if truth is told, the film making is not particularly polished.  Zahler has a tendency to edit away from the action to extreme long shots.  The long shots are often not particularly expressive and, indeed, sometimes produce the feeling that we are looking at a master shot because something went wrong with close-ups.  (This is probably the case -- the movie with its elaborate set-pieces was shot in the Mojave desert in only 28 days.)  The actors are uniformly excellent -- Richard Jenkins plays the Walter Brennan role and Patrick Wilson, recently featured on the second season of another Coen brothers' project, Fargo, is the aggrieved and crippled husband.  Matthew Fox plays the Indian-hater.  The scenes involving violence are all unexpected and effectively staged -- our heroes get repeatedly wounded and are, more or less, effortlessly mangled by the bad guys.  The film's rhythms are all wrong and a lot of the dialogue, although cleverly written, doesn't ring true.  There is lots of over-the-top gore.  And every cliché in the film and TV industry is on display -- when an African-American kid goes into a barn at night, we know what to expect.  It's the old Star Trek rule -- always teleport down to the alien planet with one Black guy in the crew so that someone can be killed without having to harm a major actor with a continuing role in the show.  Bone Tomahawk is pretty good and it's always pleasant to see a Western, but it's not as good as it should be. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Goodbye CP

Kazuo Hara's 1972 documentary Goodbye CP is hard to watch, technically ragged, and depressing on all levels.  A documentary film can expose some social injustice and  justify itself, perhaps, by suggesting means to ameliorate that injustice -- indeed, many documentaries follow this norm.  Or a documentary may simply arouse consciousness about some aspect of human existence (or scientific interest) as a matter of education.  Finally, I suppose, a documentary can be a kind of freak show -- near the end of Hara's film, the protagonist, Yokota Hiroshi, a man severely disabled by cerebral palsy, is sprawled in the center of a public square, bawling out a poem that he has written.  The man is afflicted by clonic-tonic spasms and writhes horribly, his face contorted into a series of grotesque grimaces.  It's not clear that anyone can understand his distorted voice -- the film's subtitles benefit non-Japanese speakers unfairly, I think; my suspicion is that most of what Hiroshi bellows would be incomprehensible to those around him.  Finally, someone cries out that this is a "freak show" and should be stopped and the camera, for the first time in a film resolutely focused on the grimy pavement, tilts up to survey the skyscrapers and the sun before the frame freezes.  Although condemning both Hiroshi's poetry reading and the movie as a freak show is simplistic, there is some merit to the anonymous interlocutor's cry.  How are we supposed to react to the imagery in this film?  Cerebral palsy is a not a social injustice and, probably, isn't a legitimate subject for intense biological scrutiny (something the film doesn't provide in any event) unless you are a nurse or doctor or victim of this condition.  Hara's film is designed to make us look, and look closely, at something to which we would normally avert our eyes -- but does this justify this harrowing and invasive film? 

Yokota Hiroshi is a man who walks on his bent knees -- he looks a bit like a maimed frog as he creeps across the pavement in Tokyo.  In the beginning, the film shows him hurtling himself across a cross-walk, trying to get off the road before the traffic hits him.  Hiroshi moves with surprising speed but it is exceptionally painful to watch him  repeatedly smashing his knees against the hard concrete, his glasses falling off his face, as he drags himself forward with the strength of his upper body.  At first, Hiroshi seems to invite the viewers' admiration for the feat, but, of course, we wonder -- why isn't he using a wheelchair?  Isn't the spectacle intended to appall us?  Later, a group of five or six men with CP set up a donation box and solicit small contributions to something they call the "Green Lawn" -- the soundtrack consists of interviews explaining why the onlookers donated money, most of them sending their terrified toddlers up to the donation box to drop in paper money.  The reasons people donate money are mostly banal and related to a mixture of fear and pity.  A lengthy series of interviews, filmed in extreme close-up, consists of the badly disabled men telling the camera about their first sexual encounters -- of course, this is painful material, but it is hard to measure the men's reactions because their faces are continuously twisting into masklike grimaces.  The camera is so close that we can sense the spittle oozing from their lips spraying onto the lens.  At a meeting of the Green Lawn, Hiroshi's wife, Yoshiko, also terribly twisted and mutilated by CP, berates the protagonist for walking on his knees, something that she thinks is grotesque.  Yoshiko accuses Hara, the film maker of encouraging undignified and freakish behavior.  This leads to full-scale fight in which Hiroshi and Yoshiko flail away at one another -- one of them starts bleeding.  Of course, their two children, both toddlers, are alternately horrified and delighted by their parent's violent antics.  Hiroshi rides the subway -- how he gets on and off is terrifying to see.  One of the men with CP is married and his wife, also afflicted, has a normal baby.  The man and his wife carry the baby through heavy traffic, staggering so much that we are afraid that they will drop the baby on the road -- it seems astounding that they can even walk, let alone carry the child successfully.  The man says that he is very happy that the baby seems normal, something that he admits is shameful because he has been taught to embrace his CP.  A man carries Hiroshi on his shoulders to a poetry reading.  Everyone ignores Hiroshi.  They go to another public square where Hiroshi recites his poem to a large crowd of gawkers but someone, possibly a policeman, stops the performance.  On a lonely bridge in an ugly industrial district, Hiroshi shows us his body, squatting naked on his battered knees in the middle of the road.  Hiroshi, now clothed, says that he participated in the film to show what he could do, to demonstrate his prowess in getting around, but, now, he admits that he can do nothing on his own -- during the last three minutes of the film, he wriggles around on the pavement like a worm someone has cut in two.  He seems to have lost the ability to walk on his knees, or, perhaps, because of his wife's objections, he will not move in that way.  He cries out that he is completely helpless and on that note the film ends.

Goodbye CP is shot in grainy black-and-white, probably 8 millimeter blown up to a larger format.  The soundtrack is not synchronized -- or, at least, mostly non-synchronized.  The synchronized parts of the sound track are signaled by someone stabbing a battered-looking microphone into the faces of the people appearing in the screen.  The picture is resolutely unpicturesque, ugly, grimy, poorly cut -- it's like punk rock film making.  And the movie refuses to provide the viewer with any solace.  Most films of this sort would celebrate the heroism of the victim of CP battling against terrible and painful affliction -- this film does the opposite:  Hiroshi seems to become more frail and more disabled as the movie progresses and, at the end, proclaims that he is completely helpless.  Hiroshi is an unlikely hero in any event -- a wife-beater and narcissist who seems obsessed with reciting poetry to people who aren't interested in hearing his work and who are probably unable to understand his speech in any event.  The film revels in suffering with no indication that this suffering ennobles anyone -- the bystanders simply avert their eyes and the people suffering aren't magically cured, don't get better, and aren't reconciled to their plight.  Furthermore, the Hiroshi's poems suggest a horrifying zero-sum view of the world, the same view that, I think, subconsciously appalls those who see him:  he cries out that because the able-bodied have legs he has no legs.  In other words, CP is an affliction that is visited on a sacrificial victim, Hiroshi, so that he others will not have to suffer from this curse.  This notion is primitive and awful, but, I think, explains the sense of almost religious awe and obscenity that we experience in watching Hiroshi and the members of the Green Lawn.  Is CP somehow contagious?  Does he have the disease so that I won't have to suffer from it?  Ultimately, Goodbye CP suggests a couple antecedents.  The first is a film about lepers made in Iran in the early 1960's, The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad) -- although this film is famous in Europe and the Middle East and very harrowing, it is ultimately, perhaps, a surrealistic picture:  the horrors shown are depicted in intense chiaroscuro and there is a certain grim poetry in the picture.  The other antecedent to Goodbye CP are certain works by Beckett, prose and plays in which the characters are systematically stripped of everything and end as mutilated lumps of flesh.  Beckett, of course, is making a metaphorical point about despair and the human condition.  There is nothing metaphorical about Goodbye CP

Monday, June 13, 2016

Pedro Almodovar and "Talk to Her"







Pedro Almodovar Caballero ("Almodovar") is the most flamboyant and representative figure in la Movida Madrileno – the "Madrid Movement," a cultural explosion arising in the aftermath of Francisco Franco’s death. This efflorescence of the Spanish avant-garde, both in life-style and the arts, spread from Madrid to Barcelona, Bilbao, and other parts of the country. La Movida Madrileno had its own dialects (cheli and posata – working class and slum speech), favored certain kinds of recreational drugs, and inclined toward transgressive art – a landmark of the movement was the display of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in a Madrid gallery in this heavily Catholic country. Almodovar, who is homosexual, was part of this sex-friendly counter-cultural revolution and his early films like Labyrinth of Passion depict the sudden, hedonistic, and productive confusion that ensued when Franco’s death released previously repressed energies in Spanish culture.

Like similarly utopian moments in the United States, the movement was crippled by the fact that there was a price to be paid for all of this pleasure. AIDS and drug addiction were the dark side of la Movida Madrileno, and, ultimately, society reverted to some extent to more conservative principles.

In the mid-nineties, a Spanish lawyer interned for a few weeks in our office. The lawyer was a young woman of the aggressive, and fantastically stylish, variety shown in Almodovar’s films. By American standards, the young lawyer was overly made-up and, somewhat, histrionic, bigger than life, in her gestures and demeanor. She walked with a swagger. I took her to court with me to observe the eviction of a welfare mother and her children from HUD housing – our office represented the housing authority. The Spanish lawyer was predictably horrified – the social welfare safety net is much tighter in Spain than in this country. But she was also aristocratic in her perceptions and I understood that she was dismayed by the squalor exhibited by the welfare mother who was being evicted for making threats of deadly violence against other tenants. After the hearing, I met some of my colleagues and we had a few drinks in a downtown bar. I asked the Spanish lady-lawyer what she thought of Pedro Almodovar. She looked at me with mild disdain. "Actually, I have never gone to his movies," she said. My paralegal asked the woman what films she particularly enjoyed. The lady-lawyer said that the best film that she had seen recently was Patch Adams, a comedy starring Robin Williams as an avuncular doctor ministering to sick children.

Almodovar was born in a small village in Castile-La Mancha in 1949. His father was a wine-maker and his mother read and transcribed letters for other villagers who were illiterate. (Later, his parents ran a gas station and bodega where they sold home-made wine.) Almodovar studied for the priesthood but has said that his real education was watching the films of Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish surrealist, then, in exile from the Franco regime.

Almodovar moved to Madrid in 1967. He did not attend film school because Franco had closed that institution. Almodovar supported himself by writing articles for various underground rock music and art journals. He worked in the vanguard theater where he met Carmen Maura, the woman who was his principal actress and muse for a decade. Initially, Almodovar made pornographic films on 8 milimeter. He sang in a parody glam-rock band and wrote critical articles under the pseudonym Susie DiPhusa. Almodovar couldn’t figure out how to synchronize his sound tracks with the 8 mm films that he made so the gave the pictures asynchronous music and sound cues. The short films were shown in bars and at parties and garnered Almodovar some fame, particularly in the homosexual community.

In 1980, Almodovar made his first feature-length film, Pepi,Luci,Bom. The movie became a cult film – it was shown at midnight for three years at one of Madrid’s art houses. (The picture is like a John Waters’ movie crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but much more sexually explicit – the film contains an infamous "golden shower" sequence.) Based on the success of his first movie, Almodovar made Labyrinth of Passion (1982), another cult film and Almodovar’s first collaboration with Antonio Banderas, an actor with whom he has made a number of movies.

Almodovar produced a film a year, mostly transgressive "black" comedies for a decade – his European breakthrough film was the 1986 Matador, the first of his pictures to achieve international distribution. (The film is archetypal early Almodovar, extremely violent and filled with graphic sex scenes – I showed the movie in Austin to this group in the early 1990's. The film features both Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas.)

Since Woman on the verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Almodovar’s films have all been shown to considerable acclaim in the United States. Indeed, he is one of the few foreign film makers whose pictures generally make money in the States. His films have won every possible award and include All About my Mother (1999), Volver (2006), Tie me up, tie me down (1990 – rated X in this country and attacked by feminists), and Bad Education (2004).

Almodovar’s three recent films demonstrate the breadth of his talent. The Skin I live in (2011) is horrific torture porn – it is one of the most disturbing films that I have seen, a homage to films like George Franju’s Eyes without a Face. Almodovar followed this film with I’m so Excited (2013), a very light, almost weightless, comedy about a plane having trouble mid-flight with its landing gear – a trio of homosexual stewards gets the first-class cabin drunk and all is well in the end; the film features song and dance numbers with campy kitsch humor. Almodovar’s most recent feature, Julieta, has been torpedoed by factors outside of his control – the movie was slated for release in the summer of 2016 but has done poorly at the box-office. Almodovar operates a production company called Deseo; the Chief Financial Officer for Deseo is Augustin Almodovar, Pedro’s brother – we see him in a cameo role as a priest officiating at a wedding in Talk to her. When the Panama papers were published, it became clear that Augustin was sheltering income in banks in Panama, a scandal that adversely affected the box office with respect to Julieta. The Almodovar brothers are regarded as figures of national importance in Spain and the revelation that Augustin was hiding money to avoid taxation overshadowed interest in Julieta, by all accounts a modest film about the life of a woman.

Cucurrucucu, Paloma

In Talk to Her, the great Brazilian singer, Caetano Veloso, performs a version of the Mexican song, "Cucurrucucu, Paloma". The song is about lovesickness and sometimes called in English Coo-coo Dove.

On my first night in Mexico City, my wife and I were seated at an outdoor café in an expensive part of downtown. The spectacle of the place was overwhelming: street kids were begging tourists for coins, skinny-looking Indians in ill-fitting khaki uniforms cradled machine-guns in their arms as they guarded ATM machines, crowds of stylishly dressed Mexicans hustled in and out of the Sanborn’s across the street, either buying cups of coffee or using the toilet, and storms of battered-looking VW bugs rushed from streetlight to streetlight, gypsy cabs alternately picking people up or letting them out. Three guys dressed in mariachi outfits, with tasseled sombreros, drum major vests of gold and velvet, and side-arms in rhinestone-adorned holsters, came down the avenue. To my horror, they marched up to my table and the fat leader with the violin called me amigo and asked: "What is your favorite Mexican song, Senor?" I was dumbfounded – I didn’t know any Mexican songs except La Cucharacha and it didn’t seem appropriate for me to ask them to play that tune. I told the man that he should surprise me and that I was sure I would enjoy whatever he played. The mariachi nodded to his compatriots and they began serenading me with the song that I now recognize as Cucurrucucu Paloma. The song was soft and delicately performed with a complex rhythm, huapanga de Mariachi. When the singer reached the refrain where he imitates the sounds of a lovelorn dove, he paused, whistled the tune, and, then, sang it in a high-pitched falsetto with his lips tightly pursed as if he were kissing the air. My wife thought the spectacle amusing: a fat gringo being serenaded by a fat mariachi pretending to be a lovesick dove. I wasn’t sure how much to pay the mariachi band for the serenade. I either overpaid or underpaid them; it doesn’t matter now and I don’t recall anyway.


Almodovar’s cinema has never been sealed or self-contained. His films are open to outside influence. Initially, Almodovar’s movies cited popular telenovelas, homosexual melodrama, the films of Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk, comic books and glam rock bands. As Almodovar’s pictures have become more sophisticated, his allusions to outside art have also progressed in sophistication. Almodovar’s earlier films used allusion and citation to make jokes. Talk to Her uses citations more poetically, as signs that the issues raised in the film are grave, profound, and constant in human affairs.

In Euripides’ Alcestis, a faithful wife exchanges her life for her husband’s continued existence. So that King Admetus can remain alive, and, indeed, even provisionally immortal, he must find someone willing to pay the price of his existence to the dark god, Thanatos. Only his wife, Alcestis, is willing to die for her husband. As Thanatos takes her away, a maidservant tearfully tells the chorus: "She is alive. And dead." Alive and, yet, dead characterizes the ontological status of the two women in Talk to Her – perhaps, the two male lovers are also comatose in a way, trapped in deathly obsession from which they can not escape. Later, in Alcestis, Heracles descends to Hades and rescues Alcestis – she remains on-stage for the last half of the play, but remains veiled and does not speak, a theatrical way of depicting her ambiguous ontological status: not fully alive, but not dead either. As we shall see, the motif of the sleeping and unresponsive beauty is ubiquitous throughout the world. The Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. I is comatose and repeatedly raped by her attendant in that state – her first act after awakening is to slaughter the attendant who has abused her. Yasujiro Kawabata’s 1961 novel, House of the Sleeping Beauties, describes a speciality brothel in which beautiful young women are rendered temporarily comatose by sleeping pills; old men pay handsomely to sleep with them but are not authorized to touch the young and unconscious women. Gabriel Marquez describes a similar whorehouse in his book Memories of my Melancholy Whores. It is not wholly clear what this symbolic structure reveals, but it suffices for us to understand that it is, apparently, archetypal, a motif that arises in many different cultures.


Pina Bausch

Born in 1940, Pina Bausch is regarded as the greatest choreographer of the last half of the 20th century. Two of her dance pieces are cited in Talk to Her. These citations appear as an epigraph or introduction to the narrative of the film and, then, at the end of the picture as a kind of coda or afterword.

Bausch attended the Volkzwangschule where she studied with Kurt Joos. Like piano playing and philosophy, dance is taught by imitation – an older master passes the great tradition down to a younger disciple. Joos, born in 1901, was the most important choreographer in Gemany, during the years leading to, and after, World War Two. Joos pioneered a kind of wordless, narrative choreography that was intensely expressive. Bausch learned from Joos and, then, traveled to New York where she trained at Juilliard. In the mid-sixties, she returned to Germany. The great German dance companies are allied with opera – each German opera company has an associated ballet that provides dancers for the opera productions. Bausch’s famous Tanztheater Wuppertal began as the Wuppertal Opera corps d’ ballet. Bausch’s dance productions, many of them lengthy and immensely ambitious, soon outstripped in fame and importance the Wuppertal opera. The Tanztheater became known as the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

Bausch made many famous dances including Café Mueller and Masurca Fogo ("Fiery Mazurka") shown in the film. Her production of The Rite of Spring is performed on an actual sod floor imported into the theater for the dance.

A striking presence, Bausch appears in Fellini’s film And the Ship Sailed On in 1983. (Fellini’s unerring eye grasped Baush’s spectral charisma and she plays a melancholy representative of the doomed Austrian-Hungarian nobility before World War One.) Almodovar’s use of Bausch’s dance pieces in his movie inspired the German director, Wim Wenders, to produce a documentary film about Pina Bausch in 2009. Bausch was a heavy smoker and she died of lung cancer the weekend before Wenders began filming. Wenders persisted in the project, shooting the film in 3D, and his movie, Pina, was released to great critical acclaim in 2011.

Bausch’s dance pieces are complex and exhausting. Masurca Fogo is two-hours and 45 minutes long – it features Portuguese fado music, gamelin orchestras, as well as songs by k.d. lang and jazz interludes to the music of Duke Ellington. Café Mueller is an hour long and, generally, performed after intermission – the first half of the show is Bausch’s dance work for Stravinsky Rite of Spring.



People sometimes awaken from comas. However, there are complex distinctions as to the degree of coma and it is unclear to what degree these distinctions affect outcome. People who are comatose may be in a minimally conscious state or a persistent vegetative state. The prognosis is far worse for those who slip into a persistent vegetative state, but there have been a few cases of people allegedly recovering from this condition.

Jan Grzbski, a Pole, was in a coma of some kind for 19 years as a result of a brain tumor. He emerged from the coma in 2006 wondering what had happened to communism and why the food was so much better. (The strain of his resurrection killed him – he died of heart attack two years after his revival.) Terry Wallis from Arkansas was badly injured with resulting quadriplegia in 1984 – he remained in a "minimally conscious state" for 19 years. When he revived, he thought it was still 1984. The South African Ayanda Niquinan, another automobile accident victim, was comatose for seven years – a regimen of ambien treatment revived him. After one of his motorcycle stunts, Evel Knievel was comatose for 29 days. A few years ago, an unnamed patient in the United States was revived by DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) after six years in a comatose state.

Rip Van Winkle it may be remembered was apparently comatose for 20 years. Philip Fry in Futurama is comatose for 1000 years. The seven sleepers of Ephesus, seven royal pages who were converts to Christianity and who fled into a cave to avoid persecution, remained unconscious for, at least, 180 years. (Holy Qu’rn says they were comatose for 300 solar years). They awakened during the reign of the Christian emperor Theodosius, came into Ephesus to get food because they were very hungry, and promptly died shortly thereafter.


One way of looking at Talk to Her

But that what you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.
William Blake writing to Dr. John Trusler, August 23, 1799

Talk to Her is a fable, a kind of myth or fairy tale. The elements of the narrative are familiar to us from ancient stories: a sleeping princess under some kind of malign enchantment, an ardent lover, the devouring mother, a forbidden object of desire – these are the components of stories as diverse as The Golden Ass by Apuleis, Wagner’s Die Walkyrie and Siegfried, and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. By presenting us two parallel stories of sleeping beauties, Almodovar boldly suggests that these motifs are not particular, or individual, but universal. The strategy is similar to that deployed in Shakespeare’s King Lear – both the principal plot and the subplot involve the revolt of children against their elderly parents and toxic sibling rivalry. When plot and subplot double one another, the artist is suggesting that the dilemma is an affliction not unique to one set of characters but something suffered by all of us.

Almodovar is a homosexual raised under a right-wing dictatorship in a repressive Catholic culture. From earliest childhood, Almodovar was taught that his objects of desire were forbidden. Accordingly, one of the director’s great, and persistent, themes is that forbidden object of desire – this subject is also characteristically Spanish; we need consider only the films of Luis Bunuel to be persuaded of this fact. Almodovar now lives (and loves) in a sexually emancipated country. But his early education persuades him that all objects of desire are, perhaps, initially off-limits – indeed, the piquancy of desire is that it seeks that which attracts because it is inaccessible or forbidden. In Talk to Her, several forbidden objects of desire are suggested: first, there is the comatose, sleeping beauty whose body should be off-limits because she is unable to consent to Benigno’s caresses; second, Marco‘s love for the skeletal and morose female matador seems to contain elements of the perverse – indeed, even a suggestion of homosexuality (in Almodovar films. bullfighting and matadors symbolize a repressive inversion of the libido that transforms eros into a death instinct); third, Benigno is under the thrall of his mother and, probably, also a closeted homosexual – it seems that he is in love with Marco at the end of the film. These forbidden objects of desire are contrasted with ordinary, banal heterosexual love. The plain-looking nurse who works with Benigno clearly desires him. Her plight resembles that of the character played by Barbara Bel Geddes in Hitchcock’s similarly perverse and obsessive Vertigo – Jimmy Stewart is in love with a dead woman, callously rejecting the pathetic advances of his very much alive, and loyal, gal pal. Indeed, a characteristic of forbidden love is obsession, the force of perverse passion that overcomes the resistance of the censorious super-ego to the prohibited object of desire. Obsession is the engine that drives great art – the ballet-master seems obsessive and, perhaps, she also loves her student, Alicia, resurrected from her four-year coma. At the end of the film, Geraldine Chaplin’s ballet teacher jealously watches over the resurrected dancer – she wants that dancer all to herself and, in the final scenes of the movie, appears as another embodiment of obsession, a chaperone resentfully obstructing Marco from romantic access to Alicia. (It is a measure of the film’s subtle and generous complexity that the dance instructor’s jealousy can, also, be interpreted as solicitude and kindness, an attempt to protect a naive and vulnerable young woman from an older man.)

Obsession, one of the film’s great subjects, is notoriously blind. This is dramatized in the opening dance sequence, the scene from Pina Bausch’s Café Mueller, in which two women who seem to be blind repeatedly hurl themselves at a wall while a male figure, subservient to their obsessive and repetitive actions, clears the way for them. As in Vertigo, the male character’s obsession entirely denies humanity and ordinary transactional agency to the beloved – Jimmy Stewart dresses and stages Kim Novak’s hair as if she were a doll. Benigno’s obsessive love for the comatose Alicia is dependent on the fact that the object of his desire is silent and wholly passive – a contrast, one supposes, with Benigno’s demanding mother. An obsession is not a relationship. One who loves obsessively, in fact, doesn’t really care about the well-being of the object of that obsession. The object of the obsession is, in fact, almost wholly imaginary, a creature devised and loved in the eye of the beholder but otherwise denied any capacity to act or have any feelings or ideas of her own. The severely damaged Benigno would not love Alicia if she were able to speak and interact with her – his relationship with her is essentially necrophiliac, that is, dependant on her corpse-like passivity.

The power of Talk to Her lies in our recognition that the mythic scenes that the film presents are representations of the universal. All love runs the risk of becoming obsessive. Indeed, at its inception, romantic love is characteristically obsessive. The challenge for the lover is to progress from obsessive, delirious amour fou toward something like love based upon friendship and mutual understanding. Almodovar’s model for true, mature love expressed in Talk to Her is Marco’s friendship with the wounded Benigno – although Marco knows that Benigno has done a terrible thing, he remains loyal to him and seeks his friend’s well-being to the film’s bitter (or bittersweet) end. Fairy tales present love in this light. The princess is sleeping and can not be aroused except in a certain magical way – her plight symbolizes the "marriage of death", the imprisonment of the soul in the purely carnal; this is Psyche’s state before she dares gaze upon Eros. Purely sexual love is obsessional and bestial – it is like being trapped in the "donkey-skin" in Apuleis The Golden Ass. The sexual lover appears in fairy tales as a toad or a frog demanding to be brought into the maiden’s bed, as a debased animal. Romantic love humanizes the sexual relationship and restores the elements of friendship, comity and mutuality to the intercourse between lovers. Benigno commits a rape because he loves a body (and an imaginary woman) who is without a soul. At the end of the film through a series of trials, Marco seems on the verge of becoming a human lover – the desired woman is the man’s soul. (This is the message of Plato’s Symposium, a work imagining carnal love rising by stages to spiritual love and the radiance of the truth.) At the end of the film, we see lover’s dancing in an elaborately formal style – their bodies are controlled and regimented by the dance: this is an image for romantic love that has escaped the temptation of the merely obsessive. Almodovar signals this by imposing a title on the film: Alicia y Marco – that is, Alicia and Marco will now be a couple.

As Camille Paglia, and many others, have pointed out, male sexuality, not controlled by the limits of reproduction, is highly abstract, conceptual, and prone to fetishism. For women, sexual desire has a reproductive component that physiologically precludes (in most cases) the sort of obsessive and bizarrely abstract fetishism to which men are prone. Men can fall in love with leather whips, shoes, stallions. I know of one case in which a man fell in love with his front-end loader, gave the machine a name, and caressed and made love to that implement – the result was, as you might imagine, ultimately fatal. As shown by Talk to Her, the lure of eros carries the risk of excess, the danger of either too much or too little. Benigno is complete lord and master over Alicia’s corpse-like body – in the throes of his obsession, he treats her as a body without a soul. It is important to understand that this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love her – the problem (and this is characteristic of male sexuality) is that he loves her too much and in the wrong way. The reason Benigno has fallen into this necrophiliac obsession is that he was totally subservient to his mother. With Benigno, relationships with women have always been all or nothing – either he is in complete control when he caresses Alicia’s body without a soul or he has no control at all. This is demonstrated in powerfully archetypal terms in the silent film that "screens" or conceals, as it were, the physical fact of Benigno’s rape of Alicia. The silent film represents the aspect of male sexuality that is completely submissive, wholly masochistic, powerless between the thighs of the great and all-devouring Mother. In the silent film, we see the male shrinking into insignificance and, then, creeping into the Great Earth Mother’s womb – at least, he can provide her with some pleasure before he shrinks into invisibility. The silent movie at the center of Talk to Her accordingly provides us with a key to Benigno’s sexuality – his sadistic manipulation (rape) of the unconscious Alicia is merely the inverse of his completely submissive, wholly masochistic sexual fantasies. For Benigno, the woman is either someone who devours you or a completely passive body without a soul. Any man who has thought about this subject knows not to scoff at Benigno’s plight. How many of us have engaged in love affairs that have oscillated wildly, and violently, between the demand for complete and selfish dominance and total humiliating abjection? Benigno, the fetishist, invades Alicia’s private living space before she becomes comatose and steals her hair-clip. The toothed hair clip that Benigno manipulates obsessively provides us with an image of the tooth-mother, the dangerous vagina dentata – a fetish of Alicia that colludes with Benigno’s self-destructive relationship with his mother (who, in effect, devoured him) and that represents his desire to be wholly consumed by the female, to return to her womb and die, thus, the motif of the stillborn son. Benigno has never really been born – he has not successfully exited his mother’s womb.

Talk to Her is probably Almodovar’s greatest film to date. It is the function of great art to show us the truth by devising ways to make that truth visible. One way to make the truth visible is to exaggerate. Almodovar contrives a freakish and unnatural situation – as freakish and unnatural as Psyche’s rape by Eros or Apuleis transformation into an ass. By embodying universal aspects of the human imagination in a grotesque, but gripping way, Almodovar educates us as to what it means to be fully human.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Film Essay: I Served the King of England, Jiri Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal

I Served the King of England, Jiri Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal



At the end of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, I served the King of England, the hero Ditie (Czech – diti means "child"), contemplates burial at the very summit of local peak in the European continental divide:

I wanted to be a world citizen after death with one half of me going down the Vlatava into the Laba and on into the North Sea and the other half via the Danube into the Black Sea and eventually the Atlantic.

In an essay on Hrabal, the critic James Wood cites this passage as evidence of a characteristic of the Czech imagination – the desire to be both intensely parochial and true to the geography and unique history of Czech Bohemia as well as the contradictory aspiration to perform on the great international stage.

In Too Loud a Solitude, said to be Hrabal’s best novel, the narrator Hanta works at a garbage dump operating a trash compactor. Hanta preserves books that he admires from destruction. The novel is an extended soliloquy and ends with a thousand-word sentence that contains the phrase: What is down is up and what is up is down. This assertion could be an epigraph to the topsy-turvy world presented in I served the King of England.

Hrabal’s career as the most important Czech writer remaining in his native country is inextricably linked to the work of Jiri Menzel, one of Czechoslovakia’s best known film makers. Hrabal and Menzel worked closely on the script of Closely Watched Trains (1966), a film based on the author’s novel and the winner of an Academy Award in 1968 for Best Foreign Picture. Menzel’s first commercial film, a segment called "Pearls of the Deep" (1964) for an omnibus movie is based on a short story by Hrabal. Menzel collaborated with Hrabal again in adapting a series of short stories into the film Larks on a String. This picture was completed in 1968, a time that coincided with the Soviet crack-down on Eastern Bloc nations – as a result both Hrabal’s anthology of short stories and Larks on a String were suppressed and not commercially released until 1990. After 1970, all of Hrabal’s books were censored. This censorship was ineffective. Samizdat editions of the writer’s novels were in wide circulation and the expatriate Czech novelist, Josef Skvorecky, then-living in Toronto, published each of Hrabal’s books in their original language in Canada during the decade of the seventies. Hrabal was prolific writer – his works run to 19 hefty volumes in the collected edition issued after his death in 1997.

Hrabal’s novel Cutting it Short, about a Czech brewery, was made into a movie by Menzel in 1980. Another Menzel comedy based on a Hrabal novel, The Snowdrop Factory, about life in small town catering to the tourist trade, was produced in 1984. This was followed by Menzel’s 1985 adaptation of Hrabal’s book My Sweet Little Village, the most popular Czech film ever produced.

In the eighties and nineties, Hrabal himself appeared frequently on Tv and in films – he had an important role as an amiable psychiatrist in the Czech TV show Hospuda ("The Pub"), apparently a knock-off of the American series Cheers. Hrabal often uses an elaborate and baroque prose-style, two of his novels consist of a single vastly engorged sentence. He was an important influence both Ivan Klima and the much more famous expatriate Czech writer, Milan Kundera – Hrabel was a generation older than Kundera. Kundera praises Hrabal’s ability to combine the baroque and surreal with a warm depiction of everyday life. Hrabal’s books are described as picaresque novels with effects that may be characterized as "magical realist." I served the King of England, at about 300 pages, is one of Hrabal’s longer novels – it was written in 1970, but could not be published in Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, the novel circulated in the Canadian edition published by Skvorecky and in "secret anti-Communist" editions and was well-known to Czech literati.

From its first Samizdat publication, Menzel wanted to adapt the novel into a film. After the collapse of Communism, Menzel had some difficulty navigating the commercial film production system. Here is an Eastern bloc paradox – the most difficult, politically problematic films were readily produced in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries; money was available for such movies and they were duly made, then, censored into oblivion and shelved; it seems almost as if the production of politically subversive films was a kind of safety valve to the repressive system – you could make the movie, but the authorities didn’t have to release it. By contrast, no money is even available for political challenging films in the capitalist system. Thus, the paradox: people like Menzel, Tarkovsky, and German could make politically challenging films, they just couldn’t show them publicly; in the market system, these film makers weren’t even able to get their films produced. At a film festival in Karlovy in Eastern Europe, Menzel learned that his producer at Prague’s legendary Barradnov Studios had sold the film rights in Hrabal’s I Served the King of England to another competing production company. Menzel was so outraged that he attacked the film executive, beating him with a big stick. Later, Barrandov Studios was able to re-capture the rights to the picture so that Menzel could produce the picture. The stick that Menzel used to attack the film executive was auctioned off to raise money for the picture.

Menzel’s version of I Served the King of England was released in 2008. The film was nominated for an Academy Award but did not win. (This was Menzel’s third nomination for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film – he won in 1968 for Closely Watched Trains and was nominated as well for My Sweet Little Village in 1986).

Bohumil Hrabal had been dead for eleven years when I served the King of England was first shown to paying audiences. In a number of his books, Hrabal stated his opinion that the best way to commit suicide was by throwing oneself from a warm and cozy apartment on the fifth floor. A fall from that height would reliably kill instantaneously but would not create a great deal of gory mess. In 1997, Hrabal fell from the balcony of his fifth floor apartment in Prague. It is said, however, by witnesses that the old man was trying to feed the pigeons, lost his balance, and fell to his death.

Menzel, now 79, continues to work extensively in the Czech film industry. His eight-part film The Skirt Chasers (2013) was nominated for a number of international awards, but, ultimately, disqualified because the production was made for, and first broadcast on, television. He is married to one of the producers who worked on I Served the King of England, Olga Menzelova-Kelymanok, a glamorous blonde who seems to be about 30 years old. (There are several wonderful images of Menzel – in one picture taken at the Berlinale, we see the gnome-like Menzel peering at the camera from a location that is literally between the breasts of two starlets wearing very low-cut gowns – one of the women is apparently his wife; in the other image on You-Tube, a pretty female interviewer, also about 30 years old, lays sprawled in bed with Menzel where she interviews him.) In his 28 films, Menzel embodies the Czech spirit of carnal sensuousness, a playful and subversive attitude toward sex that ranks love affairs as events of importance equivalent to the world-historical movement of armies and battles fought between nations. The Czech sensibility is anti-heroic, summed up in a line from Closely Watched Trains – after some German trains are blown-up, a characters proclaims that the world would be a better place if everyone "just stayed home on their arses." Human motivation is sordid – Menzel focuses on greed and lust as the impulses driving most human action. Menzel is not judgmental, however -- in his hierarchy of sins, greed and lust are petty compared with the more terrible crimes committed by idealists in the name of politics. The Czechs, who have been the victim of idealistic, world-changing ideologies, have earned the right to their cynicism. Note that, although Menzel depicts, with great tact and horrible objectivity, the execution of some young Czech partisans, this sequence occurs in the context of the hero’s inability to successfully masturbate to climax – an incapacity afflicting our hero because he is listening to one of Hitler’s speeches on the radio. Furthermore, the characteristic violent gesture in I Served the King of England is someone pouring food or beverage over someone else’s head, an indignity that is more slapstick than anything else.


The garlanded pubis
From a poem by Thomas Campion:

The peacefull westerne winde,

The winter storms hath tam’d,

And nature in each kinde

The kinde heat hat inflam’d.

The forward buds so sweetly breathe

Out of their earthly bowers,

That heav’n, which viewes their pompe beneath

Would faine be deckt with flowers.
Ditie impresses his girl-friends by covering their naked bodies with flowers. This quirk seems to please his lovers immeasurably. Ditie drapes the German phy-ed teachers groin with spruce needles. (In the novel, there is an extensive and pleasantly pornograpic account of how these spruce needles get in the way and end up in both lover’s mouths.)

How should we take this motif? Clearly, it is important to both Menzel and Hrabal. What does this mean?


Differences between novel and film version
The novel is darker in tone than the movie version of I Served the King of England. In the novel, Ditie narrowly escapes committing suicide when he is wrongfully accused of stealing a gold spoon – he goes into the woods to hang himself but is scared away after encountering the corpse of another suicide. At the end of the book, Ditie works as a road repairer in a remote part of the country. (The motif of the German village from which all ethnic Germans have been cleansed, integral to the movie, is not a central theme in the novel – although the depopulated regions around the border are important in the book’s final recuperation of Ditie.) In the novel, Ditie and his German wife have a child. But the baby, although blessed with "perfect Aryan genes", is born retarded and, as he grows up, spends his time hammering nails into the floor of Ditie’s apartment.

In some ways, I Served the King of England, is similar to be both Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik and Guenter Grass’ Danzig trilogy – the books offer a "worm’s eye view of history". Ditie experiences history not as a series of great political events, but instead as picaresque episodes in the life of a roguish bell-boy who later becomes a millionaire. Ditie’s main concern is seducing women. Nonetheless, the Zelig-like Ditie meets famous people during his varied career – in the novel, he spends time with Tomas Masaryk, the founder of the Czech republic between the wars (characteristically, Ditie sees him with his French lover) at a hotel where he is working. He also meets the American author, John Steinbeck.

Hrabal is clearly a magisterial prose stylist. He works in long sentences that wander associatively from one topic to another. I Served the King of England is constructed in massive blocks of prose and resembles, superficially at least, the work of the great Hungarian novelist, Laszlo Kraznahorkai (as well as Gyorgy Konrad the author of The Social Worker) – although Hrabal’s subject matter is brighter and, of course, substantially more hedonistic. (There is sex or a naked woman on just about every page of the novel and Hrabal describes the various nude women and their sexual encounters with a connoisseur’s practiced eye.) There is an intense joi d’vivre in the novel that wars with aspects of the book that are indisputably melancholy. From the perspective of the little man, like Ditie or the good soldier Schweik, what is important in life is women, sex, and food – everything else is politics and politics is bad for the soul. Hrabal’s Slavic melancholy captures the last forty pages of the novel – near the end of the book, Ditie retreats into the wilderness with a German shepherd dog, a goat, a pony, and a skittish cat. Avoiding human contact, Ditie broods on his life and, ultimately, becomes a kind of ascetic saint. In essence, he renounces human society as fundamentally corrupt and withdraws into a world of literature – at the end of the novel, we see Ditie beginning work on the memoir that will become I Served the King of England. (In this part of the novel, the action is all internal to Ditie and, so, this part of the book is not well-served by Menzel’s film.)


Czechoslovakia was a nation-state that arose in the wake of the Great War and the German defeat in 1918. The country was carved out of territory that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Large numbers of ethnic Germans, about 3.5 million people, lived along the west and north borders with Germany – these were the Sudetenland Deutsch. The center of this area was the city of Cheb, called Eger in German, and the regional capital of what was known as Egerland – Ditie’s girlfriend is an ethnic German phy. ed. teacher from Cheb. This part of central Europe is mountainous and heavily wooded. The Germans who lived in this area, many of them Hussite refugees who settled in the forests during the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, supported themselves largely by manufacturing glass from the sandy soil in the forests. (Industries making use of silica deposits in the area are still prevalent – when I traveled to Prague about 15 years ago, I recall the huge sand and gravel mines near the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia.) These people were patriotic Germans – Sudeten Deutsch suffered some of the highest casualty rates for any region in World War I, 34 dead for every one-thousand people.

In 1938, after the Anschluss with Austria, Hitler sought to annex Sudetenland to German. Ultimately, Neville Chamberlain and the western powers acquiesced and the provinces of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany became part of that country. This measure, of course, did not avoid war – Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. During the war, the Nazis persecuted the Czechs and committed a number of atrocities; the Germans also deported the 300,000 Jews living in the country to death camps, including the notorious Theresianstadt in Bohemia, where the they were murdered. The Sudeten Germans were strongly pro-Nazi – in Germany proper, NSDAP membership never exceeded 7.5% of the population. By contrast, the Nazi party boasted 17.8% membership in the Sudetenland.

The Germans lost the war and, at the 1945 Potsdam conference, it was agreed that all ethnic Germans would be deported from Sudetenland. Deportations began in 1946 and continued for three years. Some of the Germans were simply moved into the Theresianstadt concentration camp where a number of them were murdered. Several massacres occurred and large numbers of Germans were killed by the avenging Czechs – the total number of Germans slaughtered in the exodus is somewhere between 15,000 and 270,000 according to various sources. (The true figure is probably close to 15,000 than the larger estimate.) There are presently about 40,000 Germans remaining in Czech Republic – a tiny proportion of the 3. 5 million Germans who once lived in that country. Reparations for confiscated German property were proposed and some legislation considered on this issue in 2010 – the legislative measure did not pass.

The Communists felt that it would be wise to maintain buffer zones between Czechoslovakia and German. As a result, the areas where the Germans had lived were simply left empty and, in some cases, made into National Parks, for instance NP Sumava. As a result, there are many ghost-towns in Moravia and the former Sudetenland, German villages emptied of their people and allowed to fall into ruin. This is shown in some detail in Jiri Menzel’s film.

Representative Men
The notion of the representative man, at least in its modern understanding, arises from Carlyle. In 1841, Carlyle declared that the "history of the world is the biography of great men" – this doctrine is developed in his lecture series On Heroes and Hero Worship. Emerson subscribed to this view as well and, also, lectured on seven great men said to be representative of various aspects of human endeavor – in Emerson’s lectures, Shakespeare embodied "poetry," Goethe was the representative of "writing," Swedenborg was the "the mystic," Napoleon the "man of the world," and Plato "the philosopher" and so on.

Menzel and Hrabal seem to have something similar in mind. Indeed, I Served the King of England, can be interpreted as demythologizing the notion of the representative man. To Menzel and Hrabel, the idea of the heroic "representative man" is problematic – in the breeding station where nubile German girls are mated with Aryan warriors from the Wehrmacht, the pregnant women contemplate images of great Teutonic heroes; beholding pictures of these men is supposed to make their children strong and heroic as well. The film and novel present a counter-perspective. Ditie is a little man and there is nothing heroic about him – at every point, he is shown to be venal, lustful, selfish, even, cowardly. But, ultimately, Ditie’s cowardice is probably preferable to the courage of the German soldiers – heroics that result in their mutilation as shown in the scenes involving the amputee warriors. Czechoslovakia was a young country. Among nations, Czechoslovakia might be considered a child, that is "ditie." In effect, Ditie is the man who represents the plight and particular characteristics of the Czechs and their nation. The Germans were, once, a great nation as are the French and Russians and Americans today – accordingly, these countries seek to exercise their influence on the world stage. Great nations have big armies and engage in large-scale conflicts. Great nations wish to impose their will on others. Great nations are afflicted with great ideas: democracy, communism, national socialism – they have heroic agendas that end in tears. By contrast, a "little, childish" nation like Czechoslovakia doesn’t have a big army, espouses no great political ideas, and doesn’t wish to force its will on others. Big warrior nations seek victory and wish to export their ideas. Small nations must be content with cultivating pleasure, living well, enjoying wine, women, and song.

When the Germans ceased to be a great nation, they were suddenly happy, a people devoted to managing their pleasures – strolling the streets of Berlin, this is immediately apparent. Anyone who has set foot in Canada will acknowledge feeling a great sense of relief – when an American enters Canada, we are exiting from the world-historical stage and there is a distinct pleasure that arises from that sensation. The burden of the world does not rest on the shoulders of the Canadians, nor does it rest on the shoulders of the Czechs. In this respect, Ditie seems to be a representative man, a figure that typifies the ethos and hedonistic morality of the small nation.





"The crows assert that a single crow could destroy the heavens. This is certainly true but it proves nothing against the heavens because heaven means precisely: the impossibility of crows."

The author of this aphorism is a famous writer from Czechoslovakia. In Czech, this writer’s name means crow. Name the writer.



This Czech scientist invented frequency hopping and spread spectrum technology instrumental in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other high-tech communications. She also appeared naked in an early Czech film, Ecstasy, (Gustav Machaty, 1930) and was filmed in close-up having an orgasm.

Name this scientist.