Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Putin Interview

Between February 2015 and the same month in 2017, the American film maker, Oliver  Stone, was granted access to Vladimir Putin.  Stone conducted several interviews with the Russian leader and has edited the highlights of those encounters into a four-hour series.  The shows, first aired on Showtime, are available to subscribers on-demand and they are worth watching. 

The interviews are inadvertently comical in some respects:  Stone is balding in an unsightly way, jowly, disheveled, and dressed like an overweight New Jersey mobster; he has legal pads on which he has scribbled notes for his interviews, a chaotic handwritten outline that seems to have been written in all directions at once.  Stone also seems to have bad hips and knees and walks with a geriatric shuffle.  By contrast, Putin is impeccably groomed, imperturbable, and ridiculously athletic -- he wears his beautifully cut suits like an Italian model.  Even when he dresses casually in deference to the slovenly Stone, Putin still looks like a figure in a fashion magazine.  Stone, who seems to be no patriot, is forever trying to get Putin to make nasty remarks about the United States -- but Putin is diplomatic, producing the peculiar spectacle of the sinister Russian defending American institutions more vigorously than the fat American.  Stone is a poor interviewer -- he doesn't seem to ask follow-up questions and, most of the time, serves up soft-balls for Putin to hit out of the park.  When he does challenge the Russian leader, Putin's imperturbable, eerily inexpressive poker face gets the best of the American.  A good example of missed opportunities is the first episode.  Stone provides a brief curriculum vita of the Russian, posing leading questions to him:  it's an elementary mistake -- everyone likes to talk about their childhood and adolescence, it's the one part of our lives that we all believe we remember with accuracy.  Putin corrects Stone several times with respect to errors in his account and my guess is that the Russian would have been pleased to speak at length about his father's experiences in the war and the poverty in Russian after the conflict -- one of Putin's siblings seems to have starved to death in the great siege of Leningrad.  But Stone is uninterested in these subjects and simply charges forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the hope that he can get Putin to say something nasty about Yeltsin, by all accounts a shambling inebriate.  (Putin is too gentlemanly to make any ungracious remarks about any of his predecessors -- he also declines to insult American leaders refusing to speak about Obama and remarking that Hilary Clinton is a "extremely dynamic woman.")  Stone seems ignorant of the fact that if you can get a man or woman to talk unreservedly about their childhood, you will quickly learn their values, how they view the past, and what they wish for the future.  Stone unimaginatively pushes Putin on political issues -- he should be asking the man about his taste in music, the films that he admires, and his first love affair.  In the second episode, Stone presses Putin on Edward Snowden and we are treated to a bizarre sequence in which the American seems to do his utmost to get the Russian leader to confirm some of the paranoid theories exploited in the interviewer's fictional film about Snowden.  (Putin just equivocates.) 

The interviews are shot in a peculiar fidgety way and edited for maximum fragmentation.  Unfortunately, Stone seems to have been concerned about camera failure and, so, he typically uses three angles on all interviews -- there is a fixed camera producing a Sixty Minutes style tableaux, a roving handheld camera, and, then, a third camera often located in a peculiarly remote location.  (In one sequence, Stone sets the camera on a high balcony above an atrium in which a late night interview is conducted -- he shoots straight down on the participants, a sniper's eye view, that is striking but not expressive.)  Stones is fearful that his interviews lack drama and so he cuts them for maximum kinetic effect -- he has the misunderstanding that an interview should be as visually exciting as an MTV music video and the camera is forever pointlessly changing angles:  in the middle of a phrase, we may get a completely different camera angle or an extreme close-up of Putin's lips or a shot of Stone's scribbled notes.  The effect is nerve-wracking at first, although ultimately the viewer gets used to the scrambled imagery.  Curiously enough, Stone's verite techniques have the effect of making it seem that the interviews have been doctored -- sometimes the camera angles are so similar to one another to create a jump-cut effect:  we wonder what phrase or name did Stone just omit from the interview.

But the show has its pleasures and I recommend it.  Putin is the kind of man who has to be the best at everything he tries.  He has taken up skating and plays hockey and it's pretty obvious that he's not a good player.  Stone makes a jocular remark about other players "letting him score" and Putin is so vain he misses the point entirely.  Stone wants Putin to watch Dr. Strangelove and we get a cringe-inducing sequence in which Stone attends to the movie while Putin watches with an air of very remote indifference -- he is obviously not amused.  After the screening, Stone gives the DVD container to Putin but has failed to remove the disk from the machine.  Putin and his aides vanish and, then, a moment come back to retrieve the disk -- "a typical American gift," Putin says deadpan, flashing the empty DVD case.  (One of the amusing aspects of the film is that Putin obviously understands English and will sometimes respond to Stone's convoluted questions without needing translation -- but the fiction is maintained that Putin doesn't really know any English.)  We see Putin's thoroughbred horses and his country home, a dacha that appears to have an entire Eastern Orthodox cathedral tucked away in one wing -- a riot of gold and silver.  Putin casually makes retrograde comments about women and homosexuals but, almost immediately, takes his words back and substitutes expressions that he thinks are more politically correct, sometimes just deepening the hole that he has dug for himself.  (He tells Stone that he "doesn't have bad days" adding:  "I'm not a woman." When Stone teases him about this statement, Putin drifts into a commentary on women's physiology.)  Throughout the two-episodes of the film that I have watched, Putin generally spins his comments around four themes:  (1) the United States political bureaucracy controls the President and not vice-versa; (2) the weakness in the American political system is that the President must be elected every four years, a cycle that results in shortsightedness -- Putin says that he makes plans for 25 and 50 years in the future and claims that he is prescient to that extent; (3) Russia is a free, liberal society on par with the democracies of the West although he, sometimes, allows that Russia was feudal and, then, totalitarian until 1993 and, accordingly, must not be held to standards that would apply in America; and (4) the United States has double-crossed Russia by encircling it on all sides with NATO allies and a ring of nuclear-armed submarines.  Finally, and most importantly, Putin avers that there are only a couple of sovereign nations on Earth -- by this he means countries that can really do what they want independent of other nations:  Russia is one of these countries and, of course, it's adversary (he uses the word "partner"), the United States. 

The film's nervous and agitated style makes the viewer long for Errol Morris' cyclopean and relentless fixed-eye camera (or the humble 16 millimeter tripod fixed camera that Hans-Juergen Syberberg used in his long interviews.)  Putin's face is an impenetrable mask, sculpted it seems by botox and also some sort of nasty plastic surgery -- he has the waxen look of Lenin's mummy.  He's not at all expressive -- at most, a very faint smile glimmers on his lips -- but it's fascinating to hear him speak and wonder what lies beyond his implacable serenity.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ace in the Hole (film group essay)


The journalist is a confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, bargaining for their trust and betraying them without remorse.
Janet Malcolm The Journalist and the Murderer

Billy Wilder has a brain full of razors.
William Holden




Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder in Austria in 1906. As a young man, he participated in writing a landmark film in German cinema, Menschen am Sonntag ("People on Sunday"), a picture that presages both neo-realism and the French New Wave – the German term for this kind of Weimar Republic Art was Neue-Sachlichkeit ("New Objectivity"). Menschen am Sonntag feels improvised, a genuinely cheerful movie about a group of young people in Berlin and their adventures on a sunny afternoon in Berlin in 1929 – people meet for drinks, stroll in the park, pair-off and there are romantic interludes; it’s all weightless, inconsequential, poignant with youthful yearning and, surprisingly, one of the biggest hits in German films in 1930 when it was released. Menschen am Sonntag involved both Siodmak brothers, Fred Zinneman, and Edgar Ulmer, all Jewish artists who ended up with Wilder in Hollywood a decade or so later.

Alert to the political weather, Wilder left Germany for Paris in the early thirties, directed a film there, and, then, moved to Hollywood. (Wilder’s mother, grandmother, and stepfather all were murdered by the Nazis). He co-wrote Ninotchka (1939, directed Ernst Lubitsch) and established himself as one of the most sophisticated writers in the business, a remarkable achievement when it is considered that English was probably his fourth language after German, Yiddish, and French. (To some extent, Lubitsch is Wilder’s mentor, at least, with respect to his sex comedies – Wilder amplifies the famous "Lubitsch touch", a world-wise mildly risque approach to the war of the sexes perfected by the earlier film maker, also an urban, German-speaking Jew.) Wilder began directing films in the forties and, ultimately, made some of the most well-known and highly praised movies produced during the Studio era. Among his famous films are The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Some like it Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960). For The Apartment, Wilder won Oscars for writing, production, and direction. His best known films are sophisticated comedies like Some Like it Hot and The Apartment as well as The Fortune Cookie and One, Two, Three... But Wilder dabbled in problem pictures like The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism, and made an early film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). He wrote anti-Nazi documentaries during the war years, directed war films, and made just about every kind of picture with the notable exception of a Western. (One might argue, although frivolously, I think, that Ace in the Hole is a kind of Western – at least, it features Indians and dramatic desert landscapes.)

After The Apartment, Wilder’s invention seems to have flagged and many of his later films were disappointments. He retired from film making in the late eighties to devote his attention to hobbies – he was an avid art collector and his home in the Santa Monica mountains was a kind of salon for artists. (There are a number of celebrated David Hockney paintings that show Wilder’s house and swimming pool.) He died at 95 in 2002. His gravestone says "He was a writer NOBODY’S PERFECT" – a reference to Joe E. Louis’ famous closing words in Some Like it Hot.

Wilder made Ace in the Hole (sometimes known as The Big Carnival) flush from the success of Sunset Blvd. This was Wilder’s first film made in several years in which his writing partner, Charles Brackett, did not participate in the script. Brackett is generally thought to have exercised a moderating influence on Wilder’s cynicism and exceptionally bitter view of human nature. Accordingly, Ace in the Hole is unremittingly savage and harsh to the point that the film’s first reviewers dismissed it as "grotesque." Some writers suggest that Wilder’s perspective on human folly is so cruel in this film that it offended audiences – there is no doubt that the picture, a very expensive film, bombed at the box office. (The movie cost about 1.4 million dollars – Wilder was paid $250,000 for the script.) Many critics argue that the movie is best understood as film noir. I question this genre assignment as well. However, on one level, this characterization is persuasive – some writers argue that film noir dramatizes the "crack-up of the American dream". Surely, there is no aspect of the American Dream that survives this film unscathed.

Ace in the Hole alludes elliptically to Sunset Blvd, Wilder’s previous film that had garnered three Oscars. In the beginning of Sunset Blvd, the unemployed Hollywood screenwriter played by William Holden must conceal his car from repossession agents. Under pursuit, he parks the car in the driveway of the spooky mansion where Norma Desmond, the silent film star played by Gloria Swanson, lives. This plot contrivance leads to the hero’s encounter with Desmond and triggers the events of the rest of the film. Ace in the Hole begins with the journalist’s car actually being towed – it is as if the repo-men have caught up with the screenwriter in Sunset Blvd and repossessed his car. Thus, incidents involving cars in trouble (either about to be repossessed or malfunctioning) initiate the action in both movies. Similarly, both films feature a hero who is a down-on-his-luck writer. There is a distinct element of cynicism about the writer’s trade, a suggestion that writers are a bit too willing to prostitute themselves. One might detect an element of self-loathing in Wilder’s screenplays consistent with the legend on his gravestone.

Kirk Douglas is central to the film and represents core narrative perspective from which the action is portrayed. As in Sunset Blvd, Ace in the Hole focuses on the hero’s point of view (a more incongruous strategy in Sunset Blvd since the first shot reveals that the narrator is dead). We see the world, more or less, through the eyes of Douglas’ character. In effect, we are asked to identify with a louse, a bad man. With limited exceptions, we only know what the protagonist knows – this is not perceived by the viewer as a restriction on our knowledge, however: what the hero knows is more than sufficient for us to make sense of the film and, in fact, the hero is like a screenwriter – he manipulates the story and pulls the strings on the marionettes. In the law, there is a concept used in estate planning – the notion of the "measuring life". In Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas is the "measuring life" – that is, the film spans the period of time from his grand entrance into Albuquerque in the towed car to the moment when he slams down, face-first, in the film’s last shot: the film begins and ends with him. Indeed, the ominous low angle at the end of the film signals Douglas centrality to the picture – the camera moves in an accommodating way to a position where it can best document his downfall; the camera’s placement, therefore, presages the hero’s demise and serves as a rhetorical device to emphasize how the mighty have fallen.

Godard remarked that every edit represents a moral choice and that it is not so important how a scene begins but decisively significant how it ends. In this regard, Wilder’s last shot has a moral significance particularly because the peculiar low angle immediately draws attention to the image in a way that is different from most of the unassuming and workmanlike images that comprise the rest of the film. The viewer asks him- (or her-)self, why is the camera stationed on the floor? How did they get it down there? What is the point of this arduous positioning? All such questions are answered by the hero’s collapse that brings his face down to the level of the lens. But is this way of answering these questions valid? Certainly, it is determinative in every respect – the actor’s fall closes the film like a door slamming in our face. In another respect, the last shot signifies the working of fate – no one had any real agency in this film: everyone will play out the hand dealt to them and destiny (here imaged as camera placement) will decide the outcome. But, it must be said, this level of control exercised by Wilder over his actor and their story is intensely writerly – the moving finger writes, and what has been written can not be altered, notwithstanding "all your piety and wit."

Wilder’s metier was the Kammerspiel – that is, a small ensemble film, exquisitely scripted that takes place in relatively limited circumstances. Wilder didn’t like shooting on location, preferring the control that exists in a studio production. Ace in the Hole is uncharacteristic for Wilder. With the exception of a few artfully concealed rear-projection shots and the studio footage of the cave where Leo Mimosa is trapped, Wilder shot this picture on location near Gallup, New Mexico. In Sunset Blvd, Wilder bows briefly in the direction of a legendary, but much lesser, director, Cecil B. DeMille. (DeMille has a famous cameo in which he prepares Gloria Swanson for her final shot.) DeMille made big screen epics and Wilder ventures into this territory with Ace in the Hole. The set near Gallup, New Mexico was 3000 feet long with a depth of 650 feet. An adjacent railroad brought extras to the location – Wilder’s budget authorized him to 550 extras, a huge number of people for a film of this kind. When word reached Gallup and the other nearby villages that Hollywood was making a film in the west New Mexico desert, other spectators arrived and were enlisted into appearing as extras – in some scenes shot on weekends, as many as 3000 people were on-hand and the carnival atmosphere depicted in the movie was real. Surprisingly, Wilder manages the spectacle very effectively – the scenes showing the carnival from atop the cliff and the climax when Douglas’ character, the corrupt Tatum, addresses the mob are brilliantly designed and filmed.

Wilder wanted to exploit the motif of the rattlesnake in the film’s opening – instead of the Paramount logo, he asked that the film begin with an image of a coiled rattlesnake striking at the camera. The footage was shot and tested, but found to be too intense – studio memos show that there was a concern that pregnant women in the audience would be so terrified that they would miscarry their children. Kirk Douglas fondly recalled the film as one of his best. Unlike many leading men, Douglas was unafraid to play scoundrels and he relished the part of Tatum. In the scene in which he strangles Mimosa’s treacherous wife, Douglas told the actress to signal to him if he was actually hurting her. When the camera was running, Douglas strangled her so realistically that she was unable to give him the signal and almost passed-out. Tatum’s death was a fait accompli – the production code required that a wicked character such as that played by Douglas receive his just deserts. In fact, the studio production code censors were highly critical that the film did not deliver come-uppance to the corrupt sheriff.

Film makers as diverse as Spike Lee and Guy Maddin have praised Ace in the Hole as an exceptional film. The movie lost money in the United States and was derided by critics as "unrealistic". In fact, it now thought that many of the journalists writing about the movie disliked the picture because, in fact, it was too authentic and cast too many uncomfortable aspersions on their profession. The film was very successful in Europe where it was a big box-office hit, shown there under the name The Big Carnival.

Midway through the film, there is an ecstatic shot that verges on the surrealistic. This is my favorite image from the film: we have just seen Leo Mimosa trapped in the cave. His eyes peer out of the darkness and he seems to pleading for help. The image, then, dissolves into an overhead shot of the carnival outside. One of Leo’s eyes remains visible, however, open and staring out of the ground on which the spectators walk.


Floyd Collins

Explorers in the remote recesses of Mammoth Cave, a system of underground passages and chambers now mapped to 650 kilometers, sometimes find rusty cans of Campbell’s Pork and Beans in parts of the cavern never known to have been entered. These artifacts mark the presence of Floyd Collins, the great spelunker, who died in February 1925. The old cans, sometimes accompanied by burnt-out matches, show that Collins reached these inaccessible places, rested there, and ate a meal underground before continuing his explorations.

Floyd Collins was 37 when the accident in Sand Cave killed him. He died searching for another entrance to the Mammoth Cave System closer to the main highway than the show-cave that his family owned, a hole in the hills called Crystal Cave. This grotto was the last cave on the road leading into the mountains and several miles beyond the known and historic entrances to Mammoth Cave. As a consequence, tourists motoring to Mammoth Cave had a chance to stop at Onyx Cave, Colossal Cave, Salt Cave, and Great Onyx Cave before reaching the National Park. Collins’ cave was down the road a few miles from the Park and, therefore, at the end of the route – practically speaking very few tourists ever got as far as Crystal Cave and, for that reason, Floyd went underground, exploring passages in the hopes that he would find another cavern worthy of being shown to tourists closer to Mammoth Cave. And, indeed, a mile or so off the main highway, near Onyx Cave, there was a musty opening into the ground known to locals as Sand Cave. No one had explored Sand Cave and so it was not known where it went. Collins negotiated a deal with the three farmers who owned the cave and its access from the highway – if he found a show cave at the bottom of the crooked sinkhole of Sand Cave, the four men would be partners in developing the property.

Collins entered Sand Cave on January 30, 1925. Under a rocky overhang, a cistern-like pit opened into the limestone. The pit had sheer walls, but they were close together – in the first 100 feet the narrow crack, zigzagged five times, at each bend tightening to an uncomfortable squeeze. The tightest part of the cave was a jagged pothole that corkscrewed down to where there was a dome-shaped room large enough for a man to stand upright. The walls of the spider-hole were rugged and brittle and passage downward caused muck and stones to shower down into the pit. Collins dropped down through the corkscrew into the dome-shaped room, found some more leads descending into the earth from that place, and, then, climbed upward. As he wiggled through the twisting hole, he dislodged rocks and an avalanche of lose gravel pummeled him. One of the stones falling from above smashed into Collins’ left leg and pinned it in the tight passage. As he groped for handholds above his head, Collins dragged down more sand and pebbles until the passageway was clogged with debris – thus, he was caught and held tight in the narrow hole, trapped 55 feet underground and 150 feet from the opening under the rock shelter.

Collins’ partners knew that he was exploring Sand Cave and the next day went to the rock shelter to look for him. They heard him crying out underground and began efforts to rescue him from the cave. From the outset, Sand Cave was a scary place – the little bushel-basket sized cavity under the rock overhang twisted back and forth, a vertical shaft that changed direction every ten feet. The pinchpoints were daunting and rubbed would-be rescuer’s backs and rib cages raw. People who entered the cave recalled that it smelled bad, like death and shit. One of Floyd’s brothers was daring enough to get to point where the spelunker was pinned – Collins’ head and arms and upper torso protruded from a blockage of gravel and rock fallen down into the hole. An electric light was strung down into the cave so that Collins would not be trapped in the dark and so that the bulb could provide him with a little warmth – it was cold in the bottom of Sand Cave.

For a couple days, local people tried to figure out a way to extricate Collins from the place where he was trapped. Nothing worked. Newspapermen came to cover the dramatic attempts to rescue the man pinned in the darkness. One of these journalists was a young man named Skeets (that is "Skeeter" or "Mosquito") Miller. Miller worked for a Louisville paper as a cub-reporter – the rescue in cave country was one of his first assignments.

Miller had the fearlessness of the young and foolish. And he was small – five foot five inches weighing only 117 pounds. He scrambled into the cave, following the electric light cable around the five tight turns to reach Collins. After comforting Collins and bringing him some coffee and food, Miller climbed up out of the cave and posted his first story with the newspaper. Miller’s stories caught the attention of the public and he was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the incident. Each time, Miller descended into the cave, his crawl down to Collins became headline news in itself – for more than a week, Miller reported twice daily on Collins’ spirits, health, and greetings that he sent to people on the surface from his underground tomb. Very few other journalists had the courage (or physical ability) to reach Collins and, so, the story was largely told through Miller’s reports. (Many people claimed that they had ventured down to see Collins but most of those stories were fictitious – about thirty or so feet from the opening, there was a wider place in the fissure called the "turn-around room" – almost all of the journalists other than Skeets Miller reached that place, became fearful and claustrophobic, and, then, abandoned their effort reach the trapped man, often leaving the bottles of water or coffee or tins of food that they were carrying to Collins in the "turn-around room." Most of those people said that had reached Collins, reassured him that help was on the way, and left him provisioned – but, in fact, these accounts were untrue: the majority of the journalists on the scene stopped in the "turnaround room" deposited their booty there and, then, ascended to the surface, not coming within a hundred feet of the dark, tiny hole where Collins was pinned. In the 1970's when the National Park Service let archaeologists into the long-sealed Sand Cave, a treasure trove of intact bottles and cans of food was found abandoned in the "turnaround" room.)

In a video interview shot in 1983, Kirk Douglas smears "Skeets" Miller. Douglas says that the scenario for Ace in the Hole was based on a "real story" and that a corrupt journalist contrived to keep Collins underground until he died. This is both untrue and unfair. Sand Cave was a very nasty place – seasoned war reporters were afraid to go down into the deadly hole. Miller was brave enough to get the story and sufficiently loyal to Collins that he continued to provide him with supplies and company even when it was thought that the whole cave system was in danger of collapse. Miller did nothing to delay Collins’ rescue – there was no easy approach to extracting the spelunker from the cave, although, as noted below, another tiny crawl-space, if it had been explored, might have provided an alternative way to reach the trapped man.

After about a week of unavailing efforts to rescue Collins, the access tunnel down to the pit where the spelunker was slowly dying collapsed. It was determined that the crumbling walls of the passageway were too fragile and no one was allowed to descend into the spider-hole from the surface. The Governor of Kentucky ordered that a lateral tunnel be cut into the rock face slanting down to intersect the vertical shaft where Collins was trapped. Mining engineers and mining crews were deployed to chisel through the stone to reach Collins.

By this time, the fields and roads around the entry to Sand Cave had developed a carnival aspect. Food stands were set up to serve meals and snacks to the tourists flocking to the site and several trains departed from Louisville daily on the L&N Line to bring gawkers to the meadows around the cave. The narrow winding roads leading from the State Highway to Mammoth Cave were blocked by enormous traffic jams. There was wide-spread confusion about the situation in the cave. Photographs simulating Collins’ dilemma showed a man sprawled on the ground in an open cavern among stalactites and stalagmites with a car-sized rock on his leg – the rock pinning Collins to the cave floor was said to weigh 10 or 15 or even 20 tons. In fact, Collins was pinned in an oval hole two-feet in diameter at the bottom of zigzagging shaft – the rock entrapping his leg was the size of a leg of lamb and weighed about 16 pounds.

The lateral tunnel reached Collins on February 17, 1925. Collins was dead and it was estimated that he had perished from hypothermia and general despair about three days before the mining tunnel intersected the shaft a few feet above his head. Efforts to remove the corpse were unsuccessful. It was an eerie place. People said that they heard the sound of old gospel tunes coming from the pit where Collins was buried.

People wrote popular fiddle and blue-grass songs about the death of Floyd Collins and efforts to rescue the trapped man were reported in newspapers around the world. Until the O. J. Simpson murder case, the death of Floyd Collins was ranked as the third most important newspaper story ever reported – first place remains the story of Lucky Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight; the second most important story also involved Lindbergh – the story of the abduction and death of the Lindbergh baby. (Lindbergh himself took aerial photographs of the brouhaha near the entrance to Sand Cave and the huge traffic jams on the country lanes.)

In the early Spring of 1926, Collins’ mother and brothers hired another crew of miners to penetrate the shaft where the dead body was located and, after much effort, the corpse was recovered. A contemporary photograph shows the stark white cadaver, eyes still open lying on a mortuary slab. Collins was embalmed and put in a metal vault. Inside the vault, his corpse was displayed in a coffin with a glass lid. The vault was set next to the entrance of Crystal Cave as a tourist attraction under the sign: Floyd Collins -- World’s Greatest Cave Explorer.

The Collins family lost Crystal Cave by foreclosure in 1927. The new operators moved the vault into the cave itself and, for a small bribe, tour guides were willing to open the tomb and show visitors Collins’ face under the glass lid of his casket. This practice continued until 1989 when the National Park Service acquired Crystal Cave and shut it down. In that year, Collins’ body was buried in the Mammoth Cave Baptist cemetery. (The family was fearful of a reprise of 1929 when vandals broke into Crystal Cave and dragged the corpse out of its casket. The body was found several miles away in a burlap sack on the bank of a river. The thieves had stolen had ripped off Collins’ badly crushed left leg, the limb pinned in the cave by the 16 pound rock and, apparently, kept that as a sourvenir – no doubt there is some curio store or dusty Wunderkammer in some remote hamlet where that twisted, mummified limb can be seen to this day.)

Spelunkers ultimately established that the Flint Ridge Cave System, where Crystal Cave is located, is connected to the Mammoth Cave complex and that, indeed, all of the caverns in the ridge can be characterized as part of Mammoth Cave. Panic makes people unobservant. When the National Park allowed archaeologists to enter Sand Cave in the 1970's, another side passage was discovered, just big enough for a small man or woman to navigate – this passage led to another opening into the tight corkscrew shaft where Collins was pinned. If this passage had been explored, it’s argued that Collins could have been rescued.

Collins’ ghost haunts Mammoth Cave. On several occasions, he has guided lost spelunkers to the surface or helped them find their way through the maze of passageways. In one case, a woman slipped from a rope and harness that she was using to rappel down a shaft. Fortunately, her caving partner was beside her, caught a hold of the rope, and, then, secured it to the wall so that the woman did not fall. Surprisingly, the spelunker found that her partner was not below her at all, but a dozen feet overhead in the same shaft. Someone saved her, but it wasn’t the other cave explorer.

Floyd Collins’ story is irresistably dramatic. It affords the basic premise for Ace in the Hole – an Austrian Jew, then, employed as a part-time actor and taxi-dancer was enthralled, like the rest of the world, by the news reports from far-off Kentucky. This man was Billie Wilder and 25 years later he wrote and directed a movie about this story. In 1996, Adam Guettel composed the musical Floyd Collins – the show is said to be one of the very successful American musicals premiered post-Sondheim and is universally praised. (Guettel is the grandson of the Broadway composer Richard Rodgers.) Around 2009, Billy Bob Thornton bought screen rights to several of the books about Floyd Collins’ death. But a successful script couldn’t be written – the story is too black and disturbing to be entertaining. This probably explains the fact that Guettel’s folk opera on the subject also is only rarely revived. Wilder’s wonderfully accomplished and witty Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas, lost money at the box-office and was panned by the critics.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Twin Peaks (The Return)

When something is broadcast on TV that is exciting, we tend to claim novelty for the program -- this image or theme or character represents something unprecedented for the medium.  Novelty is a term of praise for innovative TV for two reasons:  first, excellence in any form often involves the presentation of material in a way that allows us to see the subject in a new light; second, TV is a conservative medium, or, at least f is perceived that way by people of my generation -- sit-coms are the paradigm for a medium that sits comfortably ensconced in our living rooms, reliably providing us with well-worn pleasures.  Thus, it will not come as a surprise that I claim that the most recent episode of David Lynch's Twin Peaks (The Return) broadcast on Showtime on June 25, 2017 is something wholly unprecedented, something so new to television that I don't know how it  can be assimilated to our understanding.  If suffices to say that, for this episode, Lynch seems to have abandoned anything like conventional narrative in the interest of providing of showing us visions of a kind no one has ever seen before.  I am agnostic as to how this development will end -- indeed, while  watching the show, I remarked that I didn't see how Lynch could extricate himself from this web of pictures, all of them extraordinarily compelling in their own right, but completely inexplicable.  Readers will have to watch this groundbreaking series and form their own conclusions -- at this juncture, I can only report on what I've seen.

The hero of Twin Peaks is Agent Cooper, a FBI man trapped for 25 years in the evil snares of something called the Black Lodge.  (The Black Lodge is not so much a place as a hallucinatory loop of images from which the FBI man can not free himself.)  An evil version of Cooper has been wandering the earth as a kind of avenging wraith for this last quarter century wreaking havoc of various kinds.  The show seems to depict a congeries of multiple universes in which each place has its own version of Agent Cooper -- there is the evil Cooper of Buckhorn, South Dakota, a benign bumbling Cooper in Las Vegas, and, another, Cooper who seems to be drifting through interstellar space, now and then making appearances on this mortal coil through a weird kind of lens with its aperture in Manhattan.  In any event, the evil Cooper has escaped jail in South Dakota.  He directs his henchman to take a little road, a two-lane blacktop that rapidly devolves into a dirt track in the desert darkness.  The henchman has to urinate and gets out of the car.  Evil Cooper has a gun and steps out of the vehicle to shoot the driver.  But the driver has switched weapons and Evil Cooper's gun is unloaded.  The driver, then, guns Cooper down.  Out of the darkness, a mob of shuffling black figures, something like ghost-tramps, appear -- they are hazy and can scarcely be seen and they do something awful to Cooper's body.  (Whenever Cooper is injured or seriously endangered, Twin Peaks goes into spasms of bizarre imagery.)  Abruptly, the scene shifts to the Road House, a bar with a stage where each episode ends with a dreamy rock and roll song or some kind of techno-drone performance.  In this sequence, lasting about six to eight minutes, we see Trent Reznor's "Nine Inch Nails" perform -- the song is an abrasive roar of noise filmed with Gothic intensity.  Then, a title informs us that we are seeing the desert in New Mexico at the time of the nuclear test at White Sands.  The image shows a huge black and white aerial landscape from which the A-Bomb's mushroom cloud emerges as a tiny blister on the desert floor.  This image of the atomic bomb blast as a tiny disturbance in the center of a vast indifferent landscape is completely different from what we are used to seeing and sets the bizarre tone for the rest of the episode.  The camera slowly advances down on the mushroom cloud, entering it, and, then, apocalyptic flames fill the screen -- we see Brownian motion of stars, clouds of glowing particles, nebulae; all of this imagery is congested with darkness, sometimes, hard to see, and very alarming.  Ultimately, we see a body of light, a kind of waxy cadaver, hovering horizontally against a void and excreting through its mouth a sort of pulpy ectoplasm -- this ectoplasm is full of luminous bubbles,one of which seems to enclose the head of Bob, the villain in the first Twin Peaks' shows a quarter century ago.  Next, the camera glides over a fiercely turbulent ocean, waves roaring against one another in the darkness -- we come to pinnacle with the black sea beating against it, and the camera climbs to reveal a sort concrete bunker perched atop the sheer cliffs.  The camera glides into a vent and we find ourselves in a room where a plump woman dressed in Victorian garb is anxiously awaiting something -- she has an old-style gramophone next to her and the room is very grey and shadowy.  A handsome, elderly giant appears and he looks at her in a bemused way, then, adjusting a kind of bell-shaped dynamo extruding electrodes that sits on the other side of the room.  The giant leaves the chamber and walks through what appears to be an empty and vast old-time movie palace.  (This reveals that the woman has been waiting in the ladies' lounge downstairs from the auditorium.)  The giant goes into the theater, stands next to a screen on which there are projected images of the kind that we have previously seen -- apocalyptic fires and clouds of glowing irradiated dust.  Then, the giant levitates until he is horizontal, floating about 40 feet over the floor.  The plump woman enters the theater and looks upward to see the floating giant.  The screen is still animate with fires and explosions.  The giant's mouth is vomiting forth clouds of glowing golden ectoplasm.  A bubble from that ectoplasm floats down to the woman and she holds it lovingly.  We can see (just barely) the image of the Laura Palmer inside the bubble -- the picture of the girl on the fireplace mantle that was central to the first series of Twin Peaks.  The screen above now shows Earth's globe and the woman pushes the bubble back into the air so that enters the screen and drops onto the Earth, apparently in the American southwest.  We now see the dark floor of the desert on which there is an egg -- a title tells us that it is 1957.  The egg breaks open and a weird creature emerges -- it is a winged beetle with the hind legs of a frog.  The beetle-frog laboriously crawls across the sand.  The scene shifts to a dark image of a convenience store isolated in the desert.  In fast motion, we see blurred images of shadowy figures, the mob of tramps that mutilated Agent Cooper, ghostly dark shadows that twitch across the screen, seemingly besieging the shabby C-store.  Next, we meet a boy and girl, two innocent-looking young people, walking in the moonlit desert. The boy tentatively kisses the girl and they part.  In another part of the desert, the ghost tramps converge on a dark highway -- they stop a car and one of the ghost-tramps, a gaunt-looking scarecrow with fire-blackened skin and a long beard, asks the man and woman in the car "for a light."  The man and woman scream soundlessly.  Cut to a radio station isolated in the desert.  A DJ is playing a love ballad.  We see a tired waitress listening to the ballad in her empty café, a mechanic listening in his garage, the young girl sitting on her bed, beaming about her first kiss, also listening.  One of the ghost tramps goes into the radio station, asks for a light and, then, crushes the head of the woman in the office with his hand.  He, then, goes into the studio, seizes the DJ by the head, and commandeers the broadcast.  The ghost tramp recites something incomprehensible about water and a well and the whites of the eyes of a horse -- he has a gravely voice and he says this over and over again.  The waitress drops dead or faints.  The mechanic, hearing the strange voice, falls over onto the floor.  The girl in her bedroom is similarly affected -- she falls over, apparently comatose or asleep.  Then, the strange beetle-frog flies into her room through an open window, creeps up to her face, and, when she opens her mouth wide, clambers laboriously into the "o" made by her lips.  And this brings us to the end of the episode.  In an early review of David Lynch's Elephant Man, Pauline Kael remarked upon the director's use of blackness -- she observed that Lynch is a master of many forms of black and that his darkness is darker than that of anyone else.  This weird nocturne, wholly inexplicable in any terms but its own, proves this point.  Apparently, this show is a punctuation point -- the program will resume in two weeks.  How I don't know.  But this visionary episode is unlike anything ever broadcast -- a combination of special effects of a kind hitherto unseen, poetic night time imagery, and sheer horror. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Woman in the Dunes (film group essay)

Woman in the Dunes

Are we shoveling sand in order to live or do we live to shovel sand...
The man in the dunes

Of course this place isn’t as interesting as Tokyo.
The woman in the dunes

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 Woman in the Dunes exemplifies International Art House cinema. Exquisitely designed and shot, the film is intentional to the highest degree, a work of art in which every line of dialogue and every carefully composed image works to establish the film maker’s meaning. Like Antonioni’s L’Avventura or the contemporaneous films of Ingmar Bergman, the movie is a well-wrought enigmatic artwork complete unto itself as well as a thoroughgoing rebuke to the Hollywood notion that pictures should be an entertaining mass medium. Woman in the Dunes proposes a scrupulously rigorous esthetic that will not be available to the man in the street. Quick to acknowledge the justice of this rebuke, Hollywood awarded Teshigahara a nomination for Best Director for Woman in the Dunes in 1966.

Teshigahara’s pedigree could not be finer. The director was born in Tokyo in 1927, the son of Ikebana grandmaster Sosho Teshigara. Ikebana is the art of flower-arranging, a practice in Japan much aligned with Zen Buddhism. Teshigahara’s avant-garde credentials are also genetic. His father broke with conventional Ikebana practices to found the vastly influential Sogetsu school of flower-arranging. (Sosho Teshigahara criticized conventional Ikebana too restrictive in its tenets; his Sogetso school, both a form of practice and a literal academy, opened up the art of flower-arranging to allow a greater degree of creative self-expression. Sosho Teshigahara’s books on Ikebana have been translated into languages other than Japan, another innovation since traditional practitioners did not think that non-Japanese could master the art. In Japan, Sosho Teshigahara has the status of a culture-hero akin to Picasso.) When his father died, Hiroshi Teshigahara abandoned film making to become the head of the Sogetsu School and he was active in that institution until his death. Hiroshi Teshigahara also is renowned in Japan for his ceramics, elegant vessels made for his flower arrangements.

Because of other distractions, Teshigahara made fewer films than other similarly situated directors. He began his career with a collaboration with the celebrated novelist Kobo Abe, Pitfall (1962). The director produced three other films based on novels and scripts written by Abe, The Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another (1966), and The Man without a Map (1968). The four films made with Abe also feature highly innovative scores by the great Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu. Teshigahara did some work in TV and directed a particularly renowned episode of the jidaigeki ("period drama") show, Zatoichi – Zatoichi is a blind swordsman who moonlights as a masseur. Teshigahara made a film about American deserters on the lam from the war in Vietnam and living on the edges of Japanese society, Summer Soldier (1972). His esthetic refinement is again demonstrated by his 1988 film Rikyu, a movie about the 17th century Japanese tea ceremony master, as well as a number of short films about ceramics, flower-arranging, and art. He continued working sporadically in the film and TV industry while serving as the leader of Sogetsu Ikebana school – his last film, a period drama, was released in 1992. In the West, his most admired films have been Woman in the Dunes, said by Roger Ebert to be the greatest film about sand ever made, the grisly plastic-surgery thriller, The Face of Another, and his 1978 documentary about Gaudi, the Barcelona architect, most notably the builder of the Sagrada Familia cathedral. Hiroshi Teshigahara died in 2001.

The International Art House style arose in post-war Europe, principally Sweden and France, as a reaction to the philosophy of existentialism – particularly the writings of Albert Camus. (Camus Myth of Sisyphus is central to Woman in the Dunes.) Post-war existentialism, in turn, derives from the collective trauma experienced by the countries entangled in World War Two. The absurd and meaningless world proposed by the existentialists is undoubtedly a reaction to the horrific events occurring in Europe and Japan between 1939 and 1945. Werner Herzog, who grew up in Bavaria during the last years of the war, and endured, with his family, allied bombing raids said that, as a child, "I saw things that made no sense at all." This was undoubtedly the experience of the founding members of the French "New Wave" as well as the Japanese avant-garde in film in the mid-sixties, a group of directors that included Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Teshigahara.

Woman in the Dunes involves a woman living in a crater in the sand desert. Her husband and child have been killed in the collapse of their home. She ekes out a precarious living based on Black Market sale of sand and supplements her income by sex-work. This bleak existence was not fictional for many people living in the ruins of their cities after 1945. Sometimes what appears as Kafkaesque allegory is, in fact, a sober recitation of the facts.

In the United States, the International Art House Cinema began with Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In 1961, Antonioni’s L’Avventura was representative of this genre, an elegantly filmed, sexually suggestive enigma. It seems to me that L’Avventura is a kind of companion pieces of Woman in the Dunes. In the Italian film, a group of wealthy, somewhat debauched Italians visit the Aeolian Islands. On one of the desert islands, one of the young women along for the trip, Anna, vanishes. At first, there is consternation and panic. Several of the characters set out to find the missing woman. But, in the end, her disappearance is never solved and, gradually, the characters forget about her, reverting to their ordinary concerns. In Woman in the Dunes, a man also disappears although we know exactly what happens to him – Woman in the Dunes is, perhaps, L’Avventura from the perspective of the person who vanished. In both films, the narrative arc is from the extraordinary and adventitious toward an accommodation with the mystery and, ultimately, the restoration of something like the routines of ordinary life.

Characteristic of Art House Cinema is the so-called "boundary situation." This is a moment when a person is confronted with an event that forcefully draws that character’s attention to the fact that his life is, or has been, meaningless. In many instances, this event not only forces recognition of the protagonist’s absurd or meaningless existence, but, also, serves as an incentive for the hero (heroine) to change and live more authentically. In The Woman in the Dunes, this "boundary situation" occurs twice. Initially, the protagonist is visualized resting in a boat lying ruined in the dunes. The boat is going nowhere, becalmed in a sea of destructive sand. The hero reclines in the boat and muses about his identity and how we use our identities forged by passports, credit cards, driver’s licenses, and so on, as a bulwark against the meaninglessness of existence. Shortly after this epiphany, the hero finds himself stripped of that official or administratively sanctioned identity and reduced to bare existence in the crater in the dunes. A second "border" situation occurs near the end of the film, when the hero is confronted with an opportunity to escape his absurd and painful labor in the sands, but, like Sisyphus, seems to commit himself to the suffering that now characterizes his life.



Some additional information:

1. Teshigahara made The Woman in the Dunes for $100,000;
2. The great Russian film maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, ranked Woman in the Dunes as one of the ten best films ever made;
3. The man in the dunes is played by Eji Okada, a Japanese actor who earlier starred in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amou (1959). That film begins with Okada having sex in what appears to be post-nuclear soot and mud – poor Okada is best-known today for his grimy sex scenes;
4. The townspeople are playing "demon-killing drums" – that is Onigoroshi-daiko: this scene shows a kind of exorcism;
5. The film on the Criterion disk is 147 minutes long; this is the director’s original cut. As shown in the United States and at Cannes, Teshigahara voluntarily cut the film to 123 minutes;
6. The angle of repose for sand of the kind shown in the film is 30 degrees. Teshigahara had great difficulties creating the sand pits shown in the film – they had to be specially shored and the shoring, then, disguised;
7. Kobo Abe described the sand as shapeless, but all the more powerful because lacking shape and form;
8. The great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, is said to have seen Woman in the Dunes over 100 times;
9. One of the few critics dissenting from praise of Woman in the Dunes was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (It seems he moonlighted as a film critic in the early sixties.) Schlesinger despised the film as "café existentialism" and derided it as faux primitif. Schlesinger felt that the movie preached a acquiescence to totalitarianism and that it was a Communist fable.
10. Woman in the Dunes was shot over a period of four months in the Hamamatsu region at the Nakatajima Sand Dunes – this is an area of drifting white sand .4 kilometers wide and 6 kilometers long. The film was shot without sound because of the difficulties of filming on location and, then, post-dubbed.
11. Teshigahara interpreted the scene in which the sand dwellers demand that the protagonists have sex for their amusement as a positive development. He said: "This means that they have accepted the man into the midst – he is now one of them;"

Integral to the film’s design is the music by Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu is an important composer, perhaps, the most well-known of all modern Japanese composers. Takemitsu was born in 1930 and conscripted into the armed forces when he was 14 in 1944. Takemitsu survived the war with a deep distrust and abhorrence for Nationalism. In his early compositions, he rigorously omitted any motives or phrases that might be construed as a derivd from Japanese folk music. An unabashed admirer of Olivier Messian, he met the French composer New York in 1975. Messiaen played his Quartet for the End of Time to Takemitsu. (Takemitsu was also a great admirer of J. S. Bach – he is said to have played the St. Matthew Passion through on his piano from beginning to end before starting any new composition – as a sort of "purification.") Takemitsu composed over a 100 film scores, including, notably, the four Abe collaborations with Teshigahara and most of the scores for Kurosawa’s films (including the famous elegy played during the massacre of the retainers in Ran.) Takemitsu’s later music uses Japanese traditional instruments, is influenced by Balinese gamelan, and develops into a tonal style. Takemitsu died in 1996.


Rumspringa is a Swiss-German word that means "running around." Between the ages of 14 and 16, Old Order Amish youth may experiment with life-styles non-conforming to their communities. The Amish baptize adults and, therefore, technically young people experimenting with Rumspringa are not yet full members of the congregation – accordingly, any minor sins committed during this period will be overlooked. The Old Order Amish require that their beliefs be accepted without coercion and with free will. This means that it is sometimes permissible for young people to consort with the non-Amish and learn about their lives before returning to the fold for their baptism and admission to full membership in the faith.

Westerners will not understand the sort of fame and nobility to which Hiroshi Teshigara was born. His father, Sofu Teshigahara, was a "living god", a National Treasure, the founder of the Sogetsu School, one of the principal factors in the renascence of Japanese culture after the end of the American occupation in 1951. Although there were over 300 competing schools of Ikebana prior to 1951, all of them were moribund, mired in the ancient traditions of the art. Like Noh and Kabuki theater, as well as the Tea Ceremony, Ikebana was passed on to its practitioners by the Iemoto system – this is a form of training that involves a long apprenticeship in which the novice is personally instructed by the Master. Iemoto apprentices copy the work of their masters exactly. There is no room for any personal expression or creativity. Sofu Teshigahara changed this paradigm – his pedagogy emphasized creativity and flexibility; the student was taught the ancient rules of the art but encouraged to experiment with deviation from them. As a result Teshigahara’s, Sogetsu School was fantastically successful – at one point, more than 2 million Japanese were studying Ikebana according to Sofu’s precepts.

There was never any doubt that Hiroshi Teshigahara would follow his father into leadership of the Sogetsu School. Although Sofu had relaxed some of the canons of the Iemoto system, nonetheless, Japanese art and traditional crafts remained intensely dynastic – trade secrets were passed from father to son.

Hiroshi’s surviving friends, all of them quite old now, recall that there was a kind of "rumpus room" in the basement of the Sogetsu School. In that room, Hiroshi entertained his friends, gathering around himself the leading young writers and artists of his generation. At that time, Hiroshi indicated that he really didn’t want to follow his father’s lead and become the Sensei of the School – rather, he said that he wished to make his own way. Donald Richie notes that, given his status, Hiroshi could have "been a master potter in his twenties with fifty retainers at his beck and call." Instead, Hiroshi forged creative alliances with the composer Toru Takemitsu and the novelist, Kobo Abe, as well as the architect, Araki Isozaki. Prominent members of the American avant-garde attended Hiroshi’s salon – these included people from the Black Mountain school including Merce Cunningham and John Cage. For a time, Hiroshi painted. He had the sort of genius that adapts easily to any medium that he chose and his canvases were striking. Hiroshi called his salon "The Century Club" – it’s leader was not Hiroshi, but Kobo Abe, someone who impressed everyone with his talent. For a decade, Kobo Abe and Hiroshi were inseparable – their ideas seemed interchangeable: as it was said of Braque and Picasso in the early days of Cubism, they were like two "mountain climbing explorers roped together".

Hiroshi had made short films, a documentary about the artist, Hokusai, and a lavishly beautiful picture about Ikebana. The short subject on Ikebana is revealing. We see Hiroshi’s father, Sofu, arranging flowers, making calligraphy (in one scene he paints kanji with a broom), and devising sculptures. Sofu’s flower arrangements seem to have been influenced by Alexander Calder – some of them look like mobiles. Sofu’s pottery and sculpture, an integral part of his Ikebana, are similar to the work of Henry Moore and Isamo Noguchi – it appears that as time progressed, Sofu gravitated more and more to monumental sculpture, great lattices of steel that are a far cry from his work with flowers. In the film, Hiroshi shows us the Ginkaji garden, an oasis with great pyramids and mounds of raked sand devised to "capture the moonlight" – "an unearthly spectacle," the narrator says. The film also shows the Zen gardens of boulders and raked sand at Ryunji Temple in Kyoto. Accordingly, this 1956 short film is very much alive to the pictorial possibilities of sculpting in sand. (The film also equates some of Sofu’s flower arrangements to neon lights and the sun shining through groves of perfectly aligned bamboo – an image that became very important later in Hiroshi’s life.) The point of Hiroshi’s film is to show that just about anything can be assimilated to the principles of Rikka – that is, the technique used in Ikebana. Rikka requires that each flower arrangement invoke Heaven, Earth, and Man. (At one point, we see Sofu saying that when using a Japanese chrysanthemum as a floating blossom, the flower should never occupy more than 2/3rds of the "water surface because the surface of the water is also key to the arrangement.") Hiroshi demonstrates in Ikebana that the conventional parameters of Japanese flower-arranging can be expanded almost infinitely.

(When I was a child, my mother had a big green book featuring images of Japanese Ikebana. I wonder if that book was not some kind of text book for the expansion of Sogetsu school principles into the United States. When she was young, my mother dabbled in pottery and made statuettes similar to those produced by Henry Moore – she used to tell us that the statue’s "negative space", that is, its hollows were central to its meaning. I know that my mother was very interested in Japanese flower-arranging and, probably, studied the subject at one time. There was really only one room for one artistic type in the family and that was my father and, so, my mother’s endeavors, which were probably more artistically successful, were denigrated. Now that there is no one to suppress her efforts, my mother has taken up painting – she paints clouds.)

As we have seen, Hiroshi made four films with Kobo Abe. Abe had the ideas; Teshigahara had the images. Abe moved on to other things and Sofu Teshigahara died. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s period of rumspringe was over – he stopped making movies and obediently took over the role of director of the Sogetso School. In time, Hiroshi Teshigahara assumed the role of Sensei in the Iemoto system – his mature work in Ikebana involved exuberant use of bamboo. One of his creations is a kind of waterfall entirely comprised of bamboo, about 200 feet tall. (Teshigahara also used bamboo to startling effect in designing the set for the opera Turandot.) Once a great film maker, Teshigahara became a great calligrapher, potter, architect, sculptor, and flower-arranger.

Donald Richie says that Hiroshi Teshigahara always knew that one day he would have to assume the mantle of leadership over the Sogetsu School – this was a fait accompli. Richie notes that "he was dragged kicking and screaming into the directorship position", although, then, amending his words to say: "Well, of course, he neither kicked nor screamed. The most anyone got from him was a tentative, regretful smile."

I think of the nameless hero of The Woman in the Dunes forced to the tedious task of shoveling sand. Shoveling sand is not Ikebana, but flower-arranging, I think, seems to have similarly limited horizons. Teshigahara said the film was about Giri – that is, the Japanese concept of "responsibility", "doing your duty" as defined by the group into which you are born. Teshigahara always knew that his identity required that take over his father’s role. The School was a destiny he couldn’t resist or elude. And, in the end, he seems to have accepted that role: Sisyphus, it is maintained, is content with the rock that he rolls uphill each day – it is his identity.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Schakale und Araber (Jackals and Arabs)


Jackals and Arabs is a film directed by Jean-Marie Straub. It is ten minutes and 53 seconds long. Straub is a French-German film maker born in Alsace in 1933. With his companion, Danielle Huillet, he made a number of movies, all of them rigorously designed, exceedingly abstract and minimalist, and dense with ideas or ideological argument. (Straub and Huillet dedicated their mid-sixties film Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach to the "peace-loving people of North Vietnam".) Huillet died of cancer in 2006 but Straub continues to make films. Jackals and Arabs was produced in 2011.

Straub and Huillet’s films are almost impossible to see in the United States. Their first feature Nicht Versoehnt ("Not Reconciled"), based on a novel by Heinrich Boll, can be glimpsed, as through a mirror darkly, in a grainy version of the film posted on You-Tube. The film is subtitled and, although just barely visible, can be watched – it is about 43 minutes long and I have reviewed that movie in this blog. Die Chronik of Anna Magdalena Bach is available on DVD. I have a DVD of Straub and Huillet’s film version of Schoenberg’s opera, Moses und Aron – I ordered the film in 2012 and it didn’t arrive until 2015. The DVD is now out of circulation and unavailable. A couple of their short films can be seen on You-Tube. Straub has resisted the idea of distributing his work in the United States. At film festival a couple years ago, Straub declared that "there will never be enough terrorists so long as the United States of America exists." For the time being, Jackals and Arabs can be seen in a version that is very clear, even quite beautiful, on You-Tube – unfortunately the characters speak in German but with French subtitles. I have been unable to locate an English-subtitled version of the film. When I watched the film, I was its 37th viewer. I was also it’s 38th, 39th, and 40th viewer. My guess is that someone will discover this posting to You-Tube, undoubtedly a copyright infringement, and take the film down – therefore, if you want to see it (and I recommend this highly), you should access You-Tube and type into it Schakale und Araber Straub -- a search configured in this way will let you access the film.

Jackals and Arabs begins as a parable by Franz Kafka, first published in 1917 by Martin Buber in a periodical called Der Jude ("The Jew"). (The story was also published in the collection of tales entitled Der Landsarzt –"The Country Doctor" – a few years later.) The fable is only 2 ½ pages long but it contains universes. Kafka’s prose is perfectly clear and austere – each word is chosen for maximum resonance in the context of the story. Since the story is inexhaustible in its meanings, I won’t try to interpret it. With Kafka, the best approach is to resist interpretation and let the fable stand

on its own – it means what it says.

In the tale, an European from "the high north" is traveling with Arabs. The Arabs stop at an oasis for the night. A pack of jackals approaches the European as he prepares for sleep. The jackals are led by an old female ("the oldest of the jackals") and she speaks to the narrator, calling him Herr or "Lord". The jackal says that her people have waited for generations, from the time of the "mother of all jackals" for the arrival of this European to whom she is now speaking. She says that the jackals despise the Arabs because they kill animals for food but have no interest in carrion. By contrast, the jackals eat nothing but carrion and do this in the name of Reinheit ("Purity") –they’re feeding from carrion "purifies" the world, reducing corpses to their bones. The jackals would like to destroy the Arabs who are unclean and who’s impurity horrifies them. But they are afraid of assuming that guilt and the old female jackal says that "all the waters in the Nile" would not suffice to wash away the guilt of jackals if they sullied their paws by slaughtering the Arabs. Two young jackals seize the narrator’s clothing in their jaws and restrain him. The female jackal says that they have done this to "honor" the Lord. "We have only our jaws with which to accomplish things," the jackal tells the narrator. "But your hands are capable of all things." The jackal pleads with the narrator to "end the strife that has divided the world." She produces an old, rusty shears used in knitting and demands that her Lord cut the throats of the Arabs.

But an Arab has been listing to this "charade" all the time. He announces that the jackals are always trying to induce Europeans to take the shears and murder the Arabs. Wherever there are Arabs, there are jackals and the jackals have plotted to get someone to murder the Arabs from time immemorial – the "shears are always with them," the Arab says. The Arab, then, calls for four men to drag forth a dead camel. The camel is already rotting. The jackals are unable to restrain themselves and swarm over the camel, ripping the flesh from its bones. The Arab has a whip that he uses "Gesetzmaessig" – that is, in "accord with the law" – and the jackals present their snouts to be flogged. The Arab says his people love the jackals. They are wunderbare Tiere ("wonderful animals"), the Arab tells the narrator.

‘Du hast recht, Herr," sagte er, ‘wir lassen sie bei ihren Beruf; auch ist es Zeit aufzubrechen. Gesehen has du sie. Wunderbare Tieren, nicht wahr? Und wie sie uns hassen!’
("You’re right, sir," the Arab said. "We’ll leave them to their calling – in any event, it’s time to break camp. You’ve seen them. Wonderful beasts, don’t you agree? And how they hate us.")

The complex of meanings contained within this wunderbar story are clear, but confound one another, and any interpretation of the tale will end in indeterminacy. The jackals act like hyenas and, it seems that Kafka, may have conflated the two canids – but jackals are associated with Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, and probably participate in that realm in some way. The jackals, with their obsession with purity, seem to be associated with the Jews. But the jackals define their purity by eating that which is ritually unclean, carrion. The jackals despise the Arabs for their arrogance and the fact that they kill animals to eat them – at one point, the jackal notes that she is appalled by the cry of the Hammel ("mutton") being slaughtered. The jackals consider the Arabs unclean, an alien Volk into which they have been "hurled" (verstossen). From their perspective, the Arabs regard the jackals with contempt but claim to love them – they beat the jackals for following their vocation (Beruf) and eating the dead camel – the law requires that Arabs beat the jackals. The narrator, a European from the "high north", has some of the character of the Hunter Gracchus, an uncanny figure from the woods of Germany, who is both alive and dead at the same time. From time immemorial, the jackals have tempted the European interlopers in the desert to murder the Arabs on their behalf, an effort that the Arabs regard with contempt. Each European entering the desert wilderness is elected to the status of Messiah or Lord, the person who has the power to deliver the tribe of jackals from their humiliating status as animals despised by the Arabs. But these messiahs are false and unable to save the race of the jackals, although they have yearned for a messiah for generations – "we have been waiting an infinite time for you; my mother waited and her mother and all of their mothers, all the way back to the mother of all jackals."

Straub’s film made from this material is memorable and exquisitely precise. The movie uses three voices: a woman who kneels submissively on the floor and recites the words of the "oldest of the jackals", an offscreen male voice that speaks the part of the narrator and, finally, a standing man who plays the role of the Arab. The film begins with white representing the desert and, then, continues with 10 shots showing the woman playing the jackal and the Arab. One shot is a close-up of the shears. The eleven images comprising the film are interspersed with blackness, sequences of no image at all during which the narrator speaks his part. In most cases, the narrator’s words accompany a black shot or, rather, a few seconds during which no image is projected – in the version that I saw, of course, French subtitles appear at the base of the black screen, but this would not be the way the shot would look in the original film (without subtitles). In some cases, the narrator’s colloquy with the "oldest of the jackals" is short and, therefore, occurs as an off-screen voice speaking while we see the woman enacting the jackal’s role.

Straub eliminates the interpolated narrative in Kafka’s fable and provides only the words as spoken by the tale’s teller, the jackal, and the Arab. The part of the story in which narration is most important involves the paragraph in which the Arab feeds the dead camel to the jackals. This part of the story is filled with violent motion as the jackals tear apart the dead camel: "they had forgotten the Arab, forgotten their hate, everything was extinguished by the strong stench from the corpse which enchanted them." Kafka’s tone changes in this paragraph to a self-consciously literary style – the text weaves variations on the German world ausloeschen, that is, "to extinguish" and there is an elaborate simile of Homeric dimensions. Straub doesn’t see any need to film any of this – he clearly thinks the point is established by the words spoken by the three participants in the conversation and so Kafka’s climax, the jackal’s frenzy around the dead camel, is simply omitted. Most probably, Straub’s elimination of this aspect of the story arises in the context of his rigorous practice – some things can be filmed and other things can not be successfully reduced to images. Surprisingly, the most pictorial part of Kafka’s fable, the point at which the writer actually makes a pen-portrait, is the element of the tale that is most incommensurate with Straub’s austere, if vivid, approach to the text.

At the outset of the film, the screen is bright white – it’s a kind of "no-image" that will correlate to the black empty screen interpolated into the story when the narrator speaks. We hear a frenzy of violin and, then, a soprano singing words in German. A black title on the white screen labels this GYORGY KURTAGand, thus, we understand that we are listening to a recording of Kurtag’s Opus 24, Kafka Fragments, forty short pieces of solo violin and soprano. In fact, the recording that we hear was made in 2008 (soprano: Julianne Banse; violinL Andras Keller) and the fragment recorded is from Part 4, section 7: "Again and again, banished far away, banished far away / Mountains, deserts, broad land provided for wandering" – these words, referencing Wueste, that is, deserts set the scene for the encounter between the narrator and the jackal in the oasis. The desert is a place that is "no place" as signified by the blinding white, empty screen.

At first, the woman playing the jackal is shot from halfway across the room – she kneels demurely and has her head down; she is posed in front of a window that opens out onto a renaissance or baroque facade apparently across the street. Initially, the jackal appears in a sequence of five shots, each of them separated by a black screen marking the narrator’s words spoken to the jackal. The shots showing the jackal are taken from different distances and, in some of them, the jackal tilts her head to the side to signify that she is directing her words to the other jackals, or, at least, referencing them – the tiny movements in the woman’s head are all orchestrated with the utmost precision to conform to the text that she is speaking. The woman recites the text earnestly, a bit like a person reading scripture from the pulpit. The sixth shot of the woman reverts to the initial camera placement – we see the jackal half-way across the room. In this shot, the woman suddenly displays the shears or rusty scissors – her quick motion, displaying the shears in front of her is shocking in context: we had no idea that she has concealed the weapon. The next shot, a very quick one, is also shocking: a hand sets the shears on the floor and, then, a boot steps down heavily on them, pushing the scissors out of the frame – the alarming aspect of this image is that the shears slid heavily across the floor gouges the wood and leaves an imprint. Within the austere context of Straub’s film, this shot is as violent as a battle between transformers in a Michael Bay movie – the image literally takes away your breath. We next see the Arab standing in front of a different window than that affording the backdrop to the jackal – behind him we can see through a floor-to-ceiling louvered door, another renaissance or baroque facade: perhaps, it is a townhouse in Paris. The Arab stands upright and has a halo of frizzy hair around his somewhat coarse features. He speaks German with an elaborate effort to enunciate, to articulate, and floridly rolls his "r" sounds – his German sounds very different from the words spoken by the jackal or the narrator. The Arab looks big, holds one arm tucked against his body, and seems to be very powerful. There is a black screen interpolation when the narrator speaks to the Arab and, then, the film’s final shot is a close-up of the Arab’s face – he is looking fixedly to the side, apparently to where the jackal has been sitting.

Here is the remarkable aspect of this film: on first viewing, nothing seems to be happening. People are speaking in sing-song voices from static positions in a nondescript Parisian house. On second viewing, the woman seems to somehow embody a jackal and Arab’s presence is uncanny. On third and fourth viewing, I am unable to see the woman as anything but a wise and elderly jackal. This is an astonishing transformation, a metamorphosis or Verwandlung as strange, in a way, as that which Gregor Samsa suffered.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Winter Kills

In fifteen or 20 years, even people who are pretty well informed won't understand William Richert's 1979 Winter Kills.  The allusions are fading even now.  Winter Kills is a bitter satire that takes as its theme the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  (In the film, the Kennedy family is named "Keegan" and the president, Tim, was shot in Philadelphia in 1960, that is 19 years before the events shown in the movie.)  For viewers without the requisite knowledge, Winter Kills will seem like some kind of paranoid fantasy because, of course, the truth about the Kennedy family often beggars the imagination -- the real facts are more salacious and bizarre than anything a screenwriter could imagine.  But the film, although compulsively entertaining, doesn't really stand on its own -- without the scandalous references, the whole thing loses its bite.

Jeff Bridges, a beautiful boy in this film, is the male scion of the Keegan family, downwardly mobile and working on one of his father's merchant ships.  A horribly injured oil rig worker is helicoptered onto the vessel and, as he dies, confesses that he was the second shooter involved in the conspiracy to kill the President 19 years earlier.  The dying assassin offers proof:  his rifle is still hidden in a building in Philadelphia.  The sailor travels to Philadelphia, finds the gun, and, then, people around him start dying -- by sniper-fire, in mysterious crashes, by poison and explosion.  In each case, the young man is spared.  Reporting periodically to his father, the family's patriarch played with nightmarish authority by John Huston, the young man penetrates deeper and deeper into a network of sleazy gangsters, tavern owners, Cuban dissidents, and movie studio executives.  At each level, he finds trapdoors leading to lower, and more corrupt, motives for the killing -- although ultimately most of what he discovers is a distraction away from the real villain.  The viewer, of course, schooled in this sort of plot by films like Orson Welles Mr. Arkadin realizes, almost immediately, that the puppet-master controlling this underworld of conspirators is, of course, the old man, the father of the dead president and the hero -- the surrealistically rich patriarch of the family is, in effect, using his son to cover the trail that leads to him as the person who engineered the killing.  But there is a final twist that complicates this aspect of the plot and establishes the film's truly paranoid bona fides.  (The movie's surprise ending shows an affinity with the equally paranoid and, even more bizarre, film starring James Coburn, The President's Analyst, a curiosity so strange that it shouldn't even exist.) 

Winter Kills is based on an once well-known novel by Richard Condon and is briskly directed and paced.  The movie is prescient on many levels -- there are discussions of the use of hormones to raise chickens ("these chickens are all high on speed") and the old man owns "26 hospitals" -- "the real money is in health care."  In the TV series Silicon Valley, the arrogance of a villain, Gavin Belson, is shown by the fact that the man has a "blood boy", someone who transfuses his youthful and vibrant blood into the veins of the middle-aged tycoon -- this seemed novel and horrifying to me when I saw this a couple weeks ago.  In Winter Kills, the Keegan patriarch has all of his blood replaced by blood from younger people once every six months -- we see him lounging in a huge bed in a hospital room tricked-out like a chamber in a baronial manor, beautiful half-dressed nurses feeding him sugar pastries.  (SPOILER ALERT:  the trick ending is about to be revealed.)  The ultimate boss to whom old man Keegan is beholding is someone named Cerruti, an information systems bureaucrat played by a gaunt, and half-crazed-looking Anthony Perkins.  Cerruti lives like in a "rathole in the Bronx", but he manages a vast, planet-wide surveillance system that has collected data on everyone on earth -- in effect, Cerruti is the chairman of the Board and CEO of Google, manipulating data from a vast, hidden fortress full of electronic files, weather maps, and blinking computers.  Everyone turns out to be complicit in the conspiracy -- Hollywood wanted the President killed because his negligence resulted in the death of a starlet (Marilyn Monroe?) whose screen presence was worth "50 million a year."  The mob wanted Keegan killed for welshing on debts; the Cubans were mad about Cuba and the FBI and CIA seem to have looked the other way when Joe Diamond (Jack Ruby) and his associates were bribed to install shooters along the path of the presidential motorcade.  Even old man Keegan, who seems all-powerful, is a thrall to the information empire managed by Cerruti -- in the end, he falls out of his downtown Penthouse, dangling from a vast American flag spread across the side of Trump Tower.  Before he falls, he tells Jeff Bridges to remove all his money from "the Western World" and invest it in "Brazil." 

A film of this kind, featuring a quest through an increasingly febrile underworld, relies heavily on its supporting cast -- the show needs lots of colorful monsters.  And Winter Kills doesn't disappoint in this regard -- Richard Boone, who is always wonderful, is one of the monsters; Sterling Hayden plays a crazed military contractor; Eli Wallach impersonates Jack Ruby; Anthony Perkins rants and raves as the insane Cerruti.  Elizabeth Taylor, uncredited, appears in a couple scenes and there are scads of beautiful women, most of them concubines to the evil patriarch, flamboyantly played by John Huston -- at one point, he prances around naked except for tight red underpants.  Vilmos Zsigmond shot the film -- as was customary at the time, Zsigmond is given a couple of arias to demonstrate his chops:  these scenes are gratuitous but they show what the cameraman can do:  one sequence in particular looks like a Western -- Bridges rides a horse through a desert where there is a big lake to reflect his mirror image on the ridges high above the water.  The tone is wildly inconsistent and the film veers between cartoonish scenes of violence and static tirades by the villains.  Like many films of its era, the movie seems sometimes over-lit and most of the acting is merely serviceable -- it's highly melodramatic and overly emphatic.  The film's cynicism is overwhelming -- the young hero has a beautiful girlfriend who seems to be a call-girl living in a uptown mansion like the Dakota.  When she vanishes, someone tells him:  "She's now entertaining the freshman medical class at Columbia University" and we see her corpse in the next scene on a dissecting table, a sample of the film's acerbic tone.  Winter Kills is a very entertaining picture, a cult film but I fear that the members of its cult, conspiracy theorists on the JFK assassination, are dying off and will one day be as extinct as veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.  Can you be a "cult film" if your cult no longer exists?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Fargo (Third Season)

I have previously reviewed a stand-alone episode in this 2017 television crime drama.  The series, produced by the Coen brothers and, in its third season, is now complete and so I can provide an assessment of the program as a whole.  I continue to highly admire this show and, indeed, believe that it achieves something very rare in this genre -- from beginning to end, Fargo (3) was competently plotted, effectively paced, and managed to fill the time allotted without unnecessary repetition or pointless digressions; in other words, the narrative arc was clear and, even, elegant.  Furthermore, the events in the show were not so hyperbolic, until, perhaps, the last episode, as to strain credulity -- a viewer could imagine that most of the things shown in the show could, in fact, happen.  This is important because of Fargo's signature opening, a title protesting that the story is true and that the events depicted occurred in Minnesota in 2011 -- the notion being that Minnesota is such an outlandish place such things might, indeed, have happened but escaped the knowledge of the general public in the rest of country.  For this convention to have any traction at all, the show must tell a story that is reasonably plausible and, in fact, the third series (unlike the seriously flawed second season) accomplishes this feat. 

The best way to understand the success of Fargo's third season is to grasp the pitfalls, or failings, that it avoids.  First, a TV show committed to a long narrative requires a plot designed to fill ten or 13 episodes -- most crime shows of this sort (the best example is True Detective) start with a lurid teaser and, in fact, establish interesting characters in the first two or three episodes.  Then, the show typically devolves in one of several possible ways -- the narration can get bogged down in inconsequential subplots for six or so episodes before returning to main plot:  this was the failure in Westworld, a show that kept spinning-out subplots while dawdling with respect to its principal narrative.  (Both seasons of True Detective shared this vice.)  Another mistake is to simply reprise the same action over and over again -- in the second season of Fargo, the director staged about three massive gun battles with dozens of casualties.  The first two gun battles, with the firepower of the Somme, didn't really advance the plot and were merely place-holders.  Although these action scenes were brilliantly staged, they seemed gratuitous and unnecessary -- the only gun battle that really mattered was the big shootout in the end of the show that exterminated most, if not all, of the surviving characters.  Along the way, series two featured great minor roles, impressively menacing villains and a fine performance by Kirsten Dunst -- but the plot, involving a gang war between a North Dakota crime family and pretty much all of the rest of the world, deteriorated into implausible and pointless violence.  Indeed, my major criticism of the second series was that it was too ridiculously violent to be even remotely believable.  It's as if the show's writer and producer, Noah Hawley, read my commentary and acted on it.  In the third season, the violence is extremely muted -- and, almost entirely, takes place off-screen.  There are a couple of horrific exceptions but they stand out as hyper-realistic and terrifying since the show is not mired in pointless machine-gun battles.  By suppressing the representation of violence, the show makes the bloodshed shown much more effective and frightening and, further, promotes the sense that the things that we are seeing might, indeed, have happened.

Characteristic of Fargo is the strong contrast drawn between the three types of people that inhabit the world of the Coen brothers -- there are nebbish losers angling for one big score, crooked businessmen whose greed drives them to crime, and virtuous representatives of law and order, unassuming local cops forced to clean up the mess left by the avaricious losers and their more savage counterparts from the world of business.  In this case, the plot proceeds by three interrelated strands -- twin brothers, Emmet Stussy, a successful parking lot magnate and the other a failure, Ray Stussy, a loser working as a probation officer, are locked in deadly conflict:  the symbol of their feud, and the show's MacGuffin, is a 2 cent postage stamp showing Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill.  (In the last episode, this stamp adheres to the forehead of the parking lot mogul, Emmet Stussy, like the Mark of Cain -- he has inadvertently killed his brother Ray -- and, when he detects the stamp on his skin, he simply peels it off and throws it aside.)  The probation officer, Ray Stussy, is sleeping with an attractive female ex-convict (beautifully played Mary Ellen Winsted); she and Ray are planning to enter a Bridge tournament and hope to make a killing on prize money -- their ideas of what constitute wealth are as limited as their other horizons.  Finally, a sinister Englishman, played with monstrous aplomb by David Thewelis, has come to collect on the debt owed his company by the parking lot enterprise -- his plan is to secure millions and millions of dollars of loans in the name of the parking lot tycoon's business, steal the money, and, then, force Emmet Stussy's firm into bankruptcy.  This bad guy, who embodies pure and nauseating evil, comes with a pack of multi-ethnic henchmen and manages his operations from a command center in a semi-trailer rig.  In the course of the show, these plots coalesce.  In large part, our interpretation of the action is shaped by the opinions of the lady deputy sheriff, the incandescent Carrie Coons, who is also equipped with a comic sidekick, another female cop who is assiduously attempting to have a child.  (They are an odd couple -- a bit like Joe Lewis and Fred Gwynne in Car 54 Where are you?)  These two women are the symbolic figures for pure, and disinterested good -- they represent the forces that hold society together, that is, empathy, lawfulness, integrity.  But the cynical plot shows them always arriving at the crime scene about a half-hour too late -- the agents of the law are no match for the ingenious and terrifying evil of the bad guys and they can't intervene successfully to stop the criminals from implementing their wickedness.   The Coen brothers have always represented evil as self-limiting -- that is, bad people become entangled in their web of evil and end up destroying themselves or being destroyed by others who are equally evil and, therefore, equally self-destructive.  In essence, the theme of the show is that evil can't prevail because bad impulses are intrinsically self-destructive -- as we learned many years ago, murderers always fail because the act of killing makes them "blood simple" -- that is, stupid.  A similar mechanism for retribution is shown in this show.  This metaphysics makes the police witnesses but not agents -- they can't alter the course of events.  In fact, the virtuous deputy Sheriff, Office Burgle (Coons) wonders whether she even exists -- automatic doors don't open for her and rest-room towel dispensers don't issue paper towels to her.  She has read a story written by her stepfather about a hapless robot who wanders through many star systems naively chirping "I can help" but who has no capacity at all to assist any one in any meaningful way -- "am I that robot", she asks?  The implicitly self-destructive characteristic of evil is dramatized by an object:  a little box that does one thing -- a hand emerges from the box, switches it off, thus causing the hand to retract into its casket.   At the very end of the series, the evil Englishman has reappeared in America after an absence of five years.  The former Meeker County sheriff's deputy, Officer Burgle is now an agent with Homeland Security.  She confronts the evil multi-national criminal in an allegorical underground vault.  He tells her that she is powerless to stop him.  The film irradiates her humble features with light and she seems to shine like a secular saint.  She says that she will send him to Riker's Island to lock-up and that she intends to go to the State Fair and enjoy a deep-fried Snickers bar -- "it's prison and eating potatos out of a box for you," she said, "and I'll be eating a deep-fried Snickers bar at the Fair"  The villain says that within five minutes his representatives will appear and that "it will be as if you never existed...I will walk right out that door."  The villain's face is bathed in shadow.  The camera leisurely turns away from the protagonists and focuses on a clock on the wall -- the villain says he will be free in five minutes -- we hear a few bars of a Beethoven piano sonata and, then, the screen goes black:  we don't know who prevails in this encounter.  As always with Coen brother's enterprises, the show has a supernatural aspect -- the evil that the characters encounter in Meeker County, Minnesota is related to the same evil that exterminated the Jews and that motivated torture in the offices of the Stasi in East Berlin.  This evil is opposed by figures that have angelic characteristics and that recite scripture -- the show's other heroine, the wily ex-convict seeks revenge for the death of her boyfriend, the crooked probation officer.  In the final shootout, she recites a passage from the Bible apparently conveyed to her by an angel or supernatural figure in an isolated bowling alley, a place where the characters have sought refuge.  The angel is similar to figures in other Coen brothers' films, particularly the cowboy who appears at the bar in the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski.  In Fargo (3), someone mentions that they are in a bowling alley, and the angelic figure, appearing in the guise of the weary businessman, says "so that's what it looks like to you", signifying that the place is some kind heavenly palace or purgatorial prison.  But the plucky heroine ends up aiming her gun at the wrong person and, when the gun discharges, she shoots someone else by accident -- it's all wholly accidental and we see her lying dead on the road against a vista of absolutely flat fields (the show was shot in Alberta), a perfectly round bullet-hole in her head.  Deputy Burgle understands what has happened:  "he killed her man," she says, "and she is going to get him back."  But, as always, human motives generally diverge from the effects of those motives when people try to put their schemes into action -- things go wrong:  it's part of "the crooked timber of humanity."  Everyone is a kind of success until they fail.  And failure is inevitable.

The curious aspect of this iteration of Fargo is the director's refusal to show actual violence.  We hear gunshots and the sounds of people screaming, but we don't see anyone actually firing a gun onscreen.  Indeed, in the final episode, a gunman comes to kill the parking lot mogul -- he has left his Christmas dinner and is looking for a jello salad forgotten in his refrigerator.  As he squats to remove the jello salad from a lower shelf in the fridge, the camera tracks to the left and we see a gun with silencer on its muzzle.  The camera keeps tracking to the left to reveal the identity of the figure holding the gun and, then, we hear the pistol fired.  But we don't see parking lot king collapse -- he dies off-screen.  In the final shootout on the highway, the director stages the exchange of gunshots at such a distance that we can't tell what happens -- we just see tiny figures crumple, dropping onto the pavement against a huge landscape of barren and completely flat fields.  When the  female ex-con gets severely beaten, the camera registers the attack through the reactions of those watching the assault -- we are not actually shown the woman being beaten, although we hear the blows and her cries.  The big massacre in the last episode occurs entirely off-screen -- it's an ambush in a strange-looking storage building among similarly desolate grain elevators and results in 10 or more casualties, but we don't really see any of this happen.  The show's strategy is resolute -- keep the carnage off-screen.  But there is one episode where this rule is violated, and this episode is, more or less, central to the entire series.  (It bears some resemblance to the famous Pine Barrens episode in The Sopranos).  The probation officer's girlfriend is framed for his killing -- in fact, the man was inadvertently killed by his twin brother in an absurd fracas over the Sisyphus stamp.  The young woman shows no emotion, but we know that, against all odds, she loved her loser boyfriend -- her response when someone suggests an autopsy on the dead man is "Don't cut up my Ray." En route to prison, her bus is hijacked and the ex-con has to flee into the woods, shackled to a deaf-mute inmate, a man who later turns out to be a terrifying avenging angel. The fugitives encounter some bow-hunters but those people are murdered by the Englishman's henchmen -- this sets up a gory set-piece involving an ax on a stump, arrows piercing people like pin-cushions, and a beheading.  All of this is filmed from a God's eye view, directly overhead the stump which sits in a snowfield that gets progressively more and more black with blood  -- the sequence is the gross-out equivalent of the woodchipper scene in the original Fargo. After this sequence, the ex-con and the deaf-mute flee to an improbably located bowling alley and there encounter what seems to be a supernatural figure.  This figure stands for God's dispassionate wrath.  We learn that one of the henchmen pursuing the dead probation officer's girlfriend and the deaf mute is an ethnic Cossack -- his grandfather was responsible for the liquidation of a Jewish village.  The supernatural figure, who looks like a weary businessman (we saw him once before in an earlier episode in the same avatar), argues for the notion of inherited guilt -- something like original sin.  As the Cossack bleeds to death, (he's lost his ear and part of his cheek to an ax), the businessman curses him and, in a startling shot, we see a huge crowd of martyrs, apparently Eastern European Jews, filmed in black and white and glowering at the camera.  A little before this sequence, we have learned that hapless Ray Stussy has been reincarnated as a kitten -- his girlfriend says:  "Put him near the TV when the Gophers play and pour a little beer in his bowl."  The net effect of this sequence, taken in the context of the harrowing bloodbath in the forest, is to suggest that the world is, indeed, a just place and that, somehow, righteousness will prevail.  But human beings, it seems, are so fatally defective that they can't act intentionally to will the good -- their actions, it seems, always go awry.  This idea is a variant on an idea that Kafka wrote to one of his girlfriends -- "Yes, there is hope.  Infinite hope.  But just not for us..."  So, similarly, the world is just -- there is justice, infinite justice, but beyond human intentionality. 

Fargo (3) with its three converging plots lucidly ties up almost all loose ends -- the exception is the peculiar opening scene set in East Berlin in the 70's that seems to have nothing to do with anything else in this season's narrative.  Thus Fargo (3) stands in opposition to David Lynch's equally brilliant and unsettling Twin Peaks (2017).  Lynch's original series is a source for much of what the Coen brothers accomplished in their original film, particular with respect to the contrast between complete and horrific evil and strangely naïve and ingenuous virtue -- in the original Twin Peaks and Fargo, the good folks simply can't imagine how the bad people think:  the films posit two almost completely different moral species, two types of human beings who are so different in values and outlook that they can barely communicate.  Fargo (3) is centripetal -- it seems to coalesce, drawing disparate plot elements together.  By contrast Twin Peaks (2017) seems completely centrifugal -- each episode seems to spawn another two or three subplots; this tendency is reflected in the series dividing Agent Cooper up into at least three (or four) competing characters all played by Kyle McLaughlin.  Fargo (3) is centered; Twin Peaks (2017) seems radically de-centered.