Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Conformist (1970)

The Greenbelt 3 leg of the Italian Film Festival has been over for two weeks, yet here I am still with a backlog of its movies to review. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il Conformista consistently ranks as one of the best films in cinema history. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a Fascist spy ordered to kill his former professor, now a political refugee residing in Paris. Using his honeymoon with Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) as a cover, he undertakes his mission with determination, but soon finds himself paralyzed by political and sexual doubts, exacerbated by encounters with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the professor’s enigmatic wife.

The conformist is an irritating character. Through all of his dilemmas Clerici does not arouse sympathy, only contempt. Until the end, he remains a self-serving coward who does not know where to position himself in a dangerous arena and therefore strives to cover all grounds. He is intentionally portrayed as a despicable creature. By contrast, the women that surround him—Giulia and Anna—are incomparably beautiful. In the dirty world of politics, they stand out as stunning jewels on screen, but that beauty that is not spared by the horrific activities that occur in and across their lives. Anna, especially, becomes deeply entrenched in tragedy. But in a way all of their lives end in tragedy, to varying degrees. That the ending feels so strongly unsettling rests on this point, for it depicts not only the fall of Italian Fascism, but also the personal demise of many individuals.

“Ravishing to the eye but less than fully satisfying to the mind,” judges Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader. Recently it feels like Rotten Tomatoes reviewers know exactly what I want to say. Undoubtedly, the cinematography is breathtaking. I will never forget that scene with the autumn leaves. The suspense was also handled well, especially in the last part. In place of a dramatic soundtrack you have instead an eerie quiet that makes you feel all the more anxious. Even the last scene’s continuing allusion to Plato’s cave feels subtle and well-suited, not at all hyperbolic. Still, despite all these, The Conformist comes across as a very dry film (Maki fell asleep quickly, but then he was very tired). At least for me, it doesn’t have an emotional hook, only an aesthetic appeal. It’s probably a consequence of my ignorance, but I just can’t imagine this as one of my favorite movies.

‘I want to confess today the sins I’ll commit tomorrow.’

‘…a normal man is one who turns his head to look at a beautiful woman in the street. But he is not the only one. He sees that there are five or six others looking, and he is glad to find people who are like him, his equals.’

A Clockwork Orange

The airport is not the best place to read philosophy theses. But in my junior year, while waiting for the plane that would jumpstart my spring/summer adventure in Seoul, I did just that. Titled “A Horrorshow Raskazz in Kantian Morality: The Conflation of Ethik and Recht in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange,” Mike’s thesis gave me my first glimpse of this novel—not to mention Kantian philosophy. Danica gave me the book for my birthday.

With words like chelloveck and skolliwoll, this novel is half English and half invented language. The vocabulary bumps seemed too frequent at first, but fascinatingly enough, the strange words eventually registered in my mind just like any other. Still, more than its linguistic aspect, what is really striking about the book is the moral dilemma it poses. Young Alex is a repeat offender who undergoes an experimental procedure that renders him incapable of evil. He is then ejected back into society to build a “good” life—one in which evil is not only physically impossible, but no longer even conceivable.

After being promised freedom in a fortnight, Alex enters into the deal expecting it to be real horrorshow, but instead finds it a real horror show. “Am I like just some animal or dog?” The prison chaplain expresses the problem plainly: “He ceases to be a wrongdoer. [But] he ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” What is the point of good if it is a person’s only reality? Where is the meaning in that? But: In a world of scarcity, should we give the same value to criminals as well as to innocents? When we cannot fund both the penal and social system, which do we choose? Also: Is completely removing evil from the horizon of another person’s existence not evil in itself? As Anthony Burgess himself states, “It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil.”

In the introduction, Burgess deplores his publisher’s omission of the last chapter, which he insists is integral to the novel. I agree, although I think it should have been toned down: Alex’s rapid maturation seems out of place, too glaringly didactic. Overall, A Clockwork Orange struck me as powerful—but underwhelming. Still, that’s probably only because I already knew the premise beforehand. First-time readers are certain to get more of a kick out of it than I did.

‘Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.’

‘You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321.’

It’s funny how the colours of the like real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.

Habemus Papam (2011)

The Pope has just died, and the conclave meets to elect a new one. After several failed elections, an inconspicuous candidate, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), is voted the new Pope. Unable to handle the strain, he refuses to come out on the balcony, rendering the Vatican immobile. A psychoanalyst is summoned, but he does little to reassure Melville, pushing the Pope to find other ways of relieving his anxiety—eventually running away from the Vatican altogether.

The setup is clearly ambitious. “How many movies do you see about the Pope feeling insecure?” I asked Maki, convincing him to include this in our Moviemov: Italian Cinema Now schedule. I had expected Habemus Papam to be a dramatic piece, extremely heavy and serious. Reading the synopsis, I imagined that there would be very little action, and that most of the film would focus on deep conversations between the Pope and the psychoanalyst. But Habemus Papam is something else entirely. It turned out to be—of all things—a comedy! I cannot count this as a fault, but watching the movie made me feel strange: I was laughing at cardinals, at the Pope! The point: to show their humanity. Rarely do we see religious people as anything other than holy (except in extreme cases like pedophilia and embezzlement, but those are different issues). Yet here we see them joking around, dealing cards, playing volleyball (in slow motion), being silly. Here we see them fearing the papal burden, praying for God to spare them from such a life. How strange, indeed!

I love the cardinals in this film. Their refreshingly honest portrayal successfully brings across the point of the movie. I actually think they took the spotlight away from the Pope. Although apparently a veteran actor, Michel Piccoli falls flat in this film. As one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer observed, he “just looks shell-shocked every minute.” Instead of appearing insecure and pitiful, the Pope comes off as annoying and cowardly (except when he talks about theater, at which points he actually comes alive). I felt irritated by the ending, which is not only premature but also unsatisfactory. I wouldn’t blame this entirely on Piccoli though. Conceptually, it’s very difficult to combine high drama and this brand of laugh-out-loud comedy. The project might have been flawed from the beginning. Habemus Papam proves entertaining enough, but is overall a major disappointment. We should have watched something else.

‘I’d even tend towards a double round-robin tournament.’ ‘Double round-robin, no. We’d die.’

District 9 (2009)

What is District 9? This was a question I had asked myself many times, whenever I heard the title brought up in workshop discussions or random conversation. Initially I thought it was an action-drama movie. I had imagined prison breaks, rapid gunfire, a happy ending. What is District 9? This was a question I asked even as I pressed the button that would play it on our TV. What unfolded on that screen was as far from expected as possible.

Aliens. A million of them. Their sudden arrival on an inoperative spacecraft in Johannesburg pushes the government to confine them inside District 9. During a mass relocation decades later, operation leader Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) becomes exposed to alien biotechnology, making him a valuable specimen for genetics research. Escaping capture, Wikus runs for his life and in the course of survival forges an unlikely friendship with an extraterrestrial (Jason Cope). Together, they struggle to harness alien biotechnology to achieve individual ends, even as a military colonel (David James) and his army follow at their heels.

The movie opens with Wikus, immediately establishing him as a bureaucratic flunky. In his early encounters with aliens, he displays a flippant callousness bordering on offensive. But while he is an unpleasant character, Wikus does not deserve what happens to him. Since exposure, his life is reduced to a series of choices forced onto him by circumstances. As a viewer, I felt tremendous pity for him. But I also recognized the cleverness of the setup, the possibilities it held for the film. The movie’s structure also deserves praise. Regular action sequences are interspersed with various mock-documentary material such as fictional news footage and interviews, creating an illusion of reality. This technique also lends the movie an exposé feel, as if we viewers were regular citizens suddenly given a chance to become privy to national secrets. The surveillance camera trick makes you feel as if the whole truth is unfolding before the public eye. Who can resist?

Like any good science fiction movie, District 9 offers a lot more uncertainties than answers. It pushes viewers to the limits of their imagination and poses the right questions—without brandishing a moral and, most importantly, without sacrificing the story. A film worthy of its premise, District 9 refuses to fade into memory. It delivers a calculated ending that leaves viewers with a profoundly disturbing chill.

When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Holiday weekends are for food, family, and afternoon naps. For the first of November, also grief and remembrance. I started this book on October 29. I finished five pages. Over the weekend, 200 more. I brought it with me to the cemetery, silently reading a few pages while sitting beside my grandparents’ graves. The aptness of it struck me only today.

Happiness is rarely the hallmark of literature. Fiction or nonfiction, we don’t often find books plotting within the circumference of bliss. This is perhaps reflective of the human condition, which orients sadness as far more permanent and multifarious: to each his own. We have more words for sadness than for happiness. Yet when I try to describe The Year of Magical Thinking I cannot come up with anything but, simply, sad. Sad, because it is without the affected manner of melancholy, the clinical ring of depressed, or the histrionics of woeful. Sad, because it is grief under control—controlled—never scandalous or loud in its mourning, Didion still exhibiting all signs of the “cool customer” she had been on the night of her husband’s death. In fact she only mentions crying a few times in this book, the first one not even appearing until p. 117. Instead she fills the pages with chronologies, medical facts, memories, histories. She quotes Philippe Ariés: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty… But one no longer has the right to say so out loud.” Here there is no extolling of the departed: no weepy anecdotes, no charming grin—only the remembrance of John’s eyes, “his blue imperfect eyes.”

Didion’s only daughter falls critically ill around Christmas, 2003. Her husband of almost forty years dies a week later. In this book she writes about the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about marriage and children and memory…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” The Year of Magical Thinking does not lead readers anywhere (“I look for resolution but find none”), but it is not a mere overflow of memories and emotions. Carefully structured and extremely refined, it carries an overwhelming sense of loss that permeates almost every page. In my life I am fortunate to have never yet experienced such grief, but among all the narratives I’ve encountered, this is as close as I’ve ever come.

I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. … These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.

Why…did I remain so unable to accept the fact that he had died? Was it because I was failing to understand it as something that had happened to him? Was it because I was still understanding it as something that had happened to me?

If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die?

I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. … When he died I stopped having dreams.

John’s mother was dead. John was dead. And I still had, of the “Wickerdale” Spode, four dinner plates, five salad plates, three butter plates, a single coffee cup, and nine saucers.

Stacking magazines seemed at that point the limit of what I could do by way of organizing my life.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.

We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know.