Self as Individual Consciousness, And Embodiment of Nation
Winter 2003/2004 Films
The world is more complicated than it used to be, but not as large: we have access to other countries and cultures via mostly affordable, quick travel options and also through an abundance of books, films, music, television programs, and internet sites. I recently traveled to Australia, Japan, England, the Galapagos, and France without leaving New York—through modern magic, film. Of course, multiculturalism is not new. The ancient Greeks wrote about the influence of Egypt on their culture, and others have since written on the influence of Ethiopia on Egypt, and cities throughout history have attracted travelers and immigrants (and conquerors) and have adopted the texts and tools of foreign lands. Some people have feared foreign cultural influence, seeing that many works of art, especially films, show habits they consider strange; and often films are about transgressions—adultery, theft, murder—and allow us to speculate about the forbidden. The films Dirty Pretty Things, Cold Mountain, and The Dreamers show people committing acts that are forbidden by custom or law. One of the most transgressive stories imaginable is a love story between individuals who are members of groups in conflict. Their tribes ask, How can they love each other when we hate each other? and scream of betrayal. It’s true that social existence informs individual consciousness, but the better educated or simply the more intelligent and sensitive a person is, the less limited he is likely to be by the accidents of his social existence, and the more likely to embrace people who are different, just as the greater the work of art, the more diversity, the more of both reality and imagination, it can hold. Japanese Story has a character who, by the end of the film, is no longer constrained by the limitations of her country.
Japanese Story, written by Alison Tilson and directed by Sue Brooks, opens with an aerial view of what seems to be an Australian landscape (it looks also like a landscape model), while music with Asian instrumentation and rhythms is heard on the film’s soundtrack, before moving to Toni Collette’s character Sandy Edwards in bed having an early morning telephone conversation with her mother. The mother, when they get together, is pulling together a scrapbook of her own life, and, though apparently healthy, anticipates her own death—she tells her daughter that Sandy will have to finish the scrapbook. Sandy Edwards is a geologist who gets stuck as a tour guide and driver for a visiting Japanese businessman, Tachibana Hiromitsu (her firm, which also produces geology software, hopes to get some of his business); and Sandy must forsake a planned tennis match with a friend to be the man’s guide. Sandy is late to meet Hiromitsu, who is played by Gotaro Tsunashima, and at first they do not say very much to each other. (His response is often “hai,” which sounds like “hi,” and which he’ll later explain.) Sandy, who knows little of Japan but is willing to learn (she buys a book and asks others for suggestions), observes how her associates respond to Hiromitsu, exchanging business cards and bowing in the Japanese manner. Hiromitsu and Sandy are taken to a restaurant where there is karaoke and Hiromitsu gets up and sings badly and by the end of the evening is falling-down drunk. Sandy will describe him later in her room, over the phone to a confidante, as a boring jerk. Sandy is frustrated by his lack of communication, and he thinks she’s loud, as he tells someone in Japanese over the phone as he sits next to her in the jeep she’s driving. Collette, as Sandy, is forceful, plain-spoken, and strong, and Tsunashima, as Hiromitsu, is formal (which can seem both elegant and sensitive), intelligent, and withdrawn to the point of arrogance. They drive through Australian landscapes, some of which are untouched by man and some with tremendous iron ore mining sites. The landscapes are awesome. (The cinematographer is Ian Baker, and the film editor is Jill Bilcock.) Hiromitsu compares a site where work is being done, with its impressive layers, to a Mayan temple (human apprehension of the sacred, past and present); but Hiromitsu finds open space scary. He says that in Japan there are a lot of people and little space, and in Australia there is a lot of space and few people.
Hiromitsu insists on continuing to explore the land, despite Sandy’s objections regarding the time it will take or the distance involved. The land they travel is very sandy and hard to drive through, and the vehicle gets stuck. She tries to dig them out while he sits in the back seat (he is a man but also a guest), until she tells him that they are both going to have to help if there’s a chance of them getting out of this trouble. He hesitates to call for help, and claims his cell phone is no longer working. He offers to walk and find help, but Sandy tells him that “Do not leave your vehicle” is a rule in the Australian desert, in which the days are hot and the nights cold. They get a fire going for the night; and he reads a cold forecast and mentions that it’s coldest just before sunrise (she looks exasperated at this discomforting emphasis). He wakes early to put branches along the vehicle’s wheel paths, and when she awakens he shares his bottled water equally with her. The branches give the tires traction and they are able to move again; and Sandy teaches Hiromitsu a few lines of the song “On the Road Again,” which he sings with no melodic sense. Upon their return to town, they eat and talk about the trip and their frustrations with each other—they are very honest and friendly. He explains that “hai” means, “Yes,” and “I’m listening,” and sometimes even “No.” She distinguishes the pronunciation of desert and dessert, which he had confused. Before their talk is over, he admits that he didn’t want to use his cell phone to call for help as he believed that if you cause trouble you should resolve it. When they go out for a drive again, there is a new intimacy between them and sexual tension, and back in his room, she begins to explore his body while he lies on the bed looking up at her. She takes off her clothes and puts on his pants, and then they have sex. He is a bit distant the next morning. During the drive, he tosses aside the map, and says, “No more map.”
Sandy and Hiromitsu rent a small boat on a lake, and the old Australian man who rows the boat talks about the local Australian fear of the Japanese during the war (apparently, World War II), how people hid valuables and supplies and stuck knives at the end of broomsticks, and wouldn’t buy Japanese products, but how now Japan owns a lot of Australia. The film seems then to be about more than just a random meeting between two people; or rather, we are able to see through these two people, a woman and a man, an Australian and a Japanese, how history and society are a part of individual lives—the self is an embodiment of individual consciousness and experience and a fulfillment of a nation’s possibilities.
Films present and past such as The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand), Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears), Chinese Box (Wayne Wang), and Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom) do something similar. In Dirty Pretty Things, written by Steven Knight, one of the most impressive of recent films, an exiled African (Nigerian) doctor, Okwe, works in London as a hotel clerk, and as part of his work he learns of a human organ-selling market. The doctor is played with dignity, intelligence, and sensitivity by Chiwetel Ejiofor, but his dignity is not often respected—he is told by someone attempting to intimidate him into illegal actions that he keeps acting as if he has a choice. The doctor’s friends are Senay, a Turkish maid (convincingly played by Audrey Tautou), and Juliette, a black British prostitute (Sophie Okonedo, who is here charming, funny, pretty, and good with her fists), and Guo Yi, a Chinese morgue attendant (Benedict Wong, with a huskily sensual voice and a wisdom that is not far from both dark wit and sadness). Senay is a Muslim virgin who allows Okwe to sleep on her sofa, and she is vulnerable to communal rumor, sudden official immigration checks, and sexual harassment from businessmen. Okwe cooks for Senay, helps Juliette handle an abusive customer, and plays chess with Guo Yi, achieving a degree of warm and sometimes mildly (and mutually) mocking candor, while maintaining mystery regarding elements of his African past. Okwe and his friends embody a British reality, impoverished and multicultural, that usually goes unseen. Together, after surviving exploitation, humiliation, or (at best) indifference, they achieve a rough justice unaccompanied by the certainty of happiness.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance received accolades, yet has not been well-remembered during the recent award season in the United States of America: “A revered English stage actor of Nigerian-immigrant parents, Chiwetel Ejiofor should become a household name—assuming we can learn to pronounce it. (It sounds something like, ‘Chew-ah-tell Edge-ee-oh-for.’) He has a face that registers everything, even when he’s impassive—a way of seeming both extraordinarily tense and extraordinarily centered,” wrote David Edelstein in his July 18, 2003 Slate.com review. In a Salon.com piece published the same day, Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “Ejiofor, who is English by birth (and prepared for the role by studying his parents’ Nigerian accents), is an actor of tremendous expressive depth. Without really doing anything—with the raising of a brow or a widening of his large, liquid eyes—his handsome, almost aristocratic face conveys momentary flashes of the emotional wellspring Okwe is guarding like a military secret. This guy may make some questionable decisions, but we know he’s going to be a hero from the moment we meet him; he’s just a little bit bigger than the people and places around him, which is just what this movie’s amoral universe needs.” Watching Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Okwe, one sees that a man can try to establish his own principles—personal, professional, and philosophical—but the world will attempt through golden promises and blinding white punishments to draw him back to its own purposes. Both the character and the man who stands behind him are worth knowing, and both are an intrinsic part of the merit of Dirty Pretty Things, just as Toni Collette’s character and performance have been considered essential by critics and audience to the effectiveness of Japanese Story.
Toni Collette won the Australian Film Institute best actress award for her portrayal of Sandy Edwards in Japanese Story, and received good reviews in the United States and abroad. In his January 16, 2004 Newsday review, John Anderson wrote, “Toni Collette has often been the best thing in the movies she’s made. One mother she played, in The Sixth Sense, was a briefly seen but brilliant study in thwarted intellect. Another, in About a Boy, was convincingly suicidal. Her supporting housewife in The Hours should have taken an Oscar and she was Velvet Goldmine‘s secret weapon.” Following that, Anderson wrote, “Here, she is a deeply moving conduit of mixed emotions and utter despair, and has to carry much for, and in, the movie. Tsunashima, suitably for the story, is thin-lipped, slightly built, almost effeminate; Collette, by contrast, is more butch than she’s ever seemed. But the assumptions we make about physical qualities and gender are turned on their heads by what happens in the film.”
In Japanese Story, two very different people, Sandy Edwards and Tachibana Hiromitsu, have unexpectedly found each other, but finding is not keeping; and after they make love again, he drives the jeep and she sees a picture of his wife and kids in his wallet. She asks him if he loves his wife. He says that there’s no need to say it, and if you say it, it can seem or become less true. He quietly refuses to take a photo of an animal imprint on a rock, seeming to prefer to savor it and hold it in his memory. She likes touching him, and they make love outside. Hiromitsu talks about grief and his obligations; and confides that the greatness of the land has opened something in him. She goes for a swim, and he runs to join her by a slightly different route—she calls out, No, but it’s too late. Has he jumped into shallow water, where there are rocks? Sandy frantically calls out his name, and then sees his body floating; and she puts him in the back of the vehicle for the ride back. She stops at a gas station, and asks for a hospital, but the hospital has been shut for three years. There is no undertaker, only a cold room where a body can be held until a doctor can come by helicopter to certify the death.
When Sandy looks into a mirror, she is self-critical, fierce, distant. Her mother wants to send a condolence card to Hiromitsu’s wife, saying that grief is the same every where in the world, which Sandy rejects, saying different places have different traditions. Sandy has met and loved a man and watched him die; and she cannot grieve openly as no one knows of her love. She wants to be part of her company’s official duties following Hiromitsu’s death; and then when she meets Hiromitsu’s wife, Sandy tells her that she is sorry about the man’s death and Sandy bows to her (Sandy will see the wife cry as the wife travels in the back seat of a car); and later, before the wife departs for Japan, Sandy will tell his wife that Hiromitsu spoke of her as a good wife and that Sandy feels responsible for his death. The wife gives Sandy a letter that Hiromitsu wrote to Sandy when they were out in the desert, in which he writes of the good feelings he has had there.
The film can be said to be about a rare moment of human connection, and even of transcendence, and also about the fragility of human existence; and those are certainly ways in which I read it, but Australians, apparently, and understandably, are seeing the film primarily as an embodiment of Australian character. The Australian film web site Senses Of Cinema published in November 2003 an essay by Felicity Collins in which she says, “The sense of an inward-looking gaze, despite the cross-cultural plot in Japanese Story, arises from its revival of familiar Australian landscapes (remote, desert, outback) and character types (brash, laconic, independent) as the bedrock of an Australian identity based on white settler masculinity. In this regard, Japanese Story reprises an unmarked, Anglo-Celtic, rather than cosmopolitan or multicultural, concept of Australian-ness. The film emphasizes the difficulties of cultural translation in terms of national differences (even in the iron ore industry where doing business with Japan has long been part of the daily routine). This emphasis harks back to a core sense of Australian-ness honed into the body from one generation (of films, of screen actors) to the next.” Collins goes on to write, “The landscape tradition in Australian cinema has to some extent been the crucible of national gestures, embodied and honed by icons of Australian masculinity. The longevity of the non-urban, outback landscape in Australian cinema over several decades has perpetuated the idea that somehow the national character, forged in the bush, will always be defeated by the desert,” but Collins concludes her essay by saying that in responding to Hiromitsu, loving and mourning him, Sandy has moved beyond national insularity. There may be a moral responsibility to know; and, if there is, that responsibility is exercised, for instance, when the recognition of the decimation of aboriginal peoples in Australia or Native tribes in America is made; and attending to suffering is a gesture of the spirit.
Happiness is one of the myths Americans are sold, as is justice, and belief in these ideals do not allow really for the reality of great suffering. I heard Susan Sontag speak eloquently in the great hall at Cooper Union in Manhattan about her book Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she examines the consciousness of suffering, especially as a result of violence and war, and how suffering is depicted in art, photography, and the media, especially in television news broadcasts; and, amid comments about her time during the siege in Sarajevo, where she put on a play (Waiting for Godot), helped organize an exhibition of photographs, and acted as a witness to the war, she talked about how people in certain locales hold themselves aloft from the awareness of misery, past and present, especially when they or their ancestors may be responsible for that misery. She also talked about America after the attack on the World Trade Center, focusing on the subsequent war in Iraq and the censorship of images of hurt and killed Iraqi civilians and of dead American soldiers’ bodies being returned to the states. Sontag discussed suffering and its representation while indicating aspects of her own work—curiosity, focus, discipline, research, exchanges with other artists, writing—with a quiet but perceptible pride, and of all the writers I have seen and heard in Manhattan—John Irving, Maya Angelou, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, James Purdy, Adrienne Rich, Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, John Edgar Wideman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Paul Auster, among them—no one better conveyed the value of a life of the mind without explicitly speaking of it—the value of being aware, perceptive, drawing connections, establishing criteria, and responding not only intellectually but also sensually to ideas. Sontag spoke of people asking her what Sarajevo was like, and asking her if she was afraid; she said she asked them if they watched the evening news, with its scenes of artillery shelling and sniper fire, and told them, It is like that. In the Picador paperback edition of Regarding the Pain of Others on page 101, Sontag states, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” Two recent films, Cold Mountain and The Last Samurai, both historical narratives, make gestures toward the acknowledgement of suffering.
The Last Samurai is a film partly inspired by a real-life Japanese samurai (Saigo Takamori, 1828-1877), and the film is directed by Edward Zwick, and stars the handsome, lordly Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise’s Yankee soldier is haunted by his participation in the massacre of Native Americans, and we see his memories of the killing of women and children. There is no Native American character of significance in the film; and one of the things this means is that the guilt felt is self-accusatory, with a whiff of noble masochism, a personal rather than a social or political matter: a Native American accusation would be equivalent to a charge of criminality, an indictment of a society. Bitter and drunken, but respected, Cruise’s soldier, Nathan Algren, is hired to train the Japanese emperor’s army in the ways of modern warfare, away from the samurai tradition. Nathan Algren goes to Japan, and we do not know if he is leaving friends, lovers, or family behind. Algren, after he and some of the men he is training to use guns are rushed into battle too soon, is captured by the samurai leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and his men. Algren asks why he is being kept—so the samurai leader can practice his English? (One recalls Gohatto, or Taboo, by Nagisa Oshima in which samurai men lust after each other and one wonders briefly if Cruise might become another man’s erotic plaything—but Last Samurai is a major Hollywood film featuring one of its most prominent stars in Cruise—no way.) Katsumoto says he wants to know his enemy; and Algren learns to respect samurai and Japanese values and ways—regular bathing, men in skirts, sword fighting, regard for poetry, Zen consciousness, and honor; but it is Japanese tradition that will be defeated in the film by western modernism as exemplified by guns that fire multiple rounds and global business deals. The film is beauty-filled (John Toll is the cinematographer) and intelligent, and it is well-cast and consequently well-performed, but, very strangely, it does not leave one with much; and possibly that is because, unlike in Japanese Story, we observe most of the characters without getting to know them.
Ken Watanabe’s Katsumoto is The Last Samurai’s most intriguing character. He begins the film in meditation, remembering himself and his men defeating a beautiful, ferocious tiger; and Katsumoto first meets Algren as Algren is keeping Katsumoto’s men at bay using a pole, one of their own, from which a banner featuring a tiger hangs. In the film, Katsumoto is fearless in battle and authoritative before his men, but humbly perplexed when Algren rebuffs his attempts at conversation (and he recovers with a slightly vexed pride and practicality), but later he is open to sharing his attempts to finish a poem about blossoms, and idealistic enough to stand by old national ideals and honest enough to accept their probable defeat. Saigo Takamori, on whom Katsumoto is based, was part of the samurai tradition that began in the 12th century when Japanese clans (the Taira, and the Minamato) fought each other. Samurai is a word for “those who serve,” and as skilled warriors they helped established military rule. Saigo Takamori helped to defeat military rule and return the Meiji emperor to power, with the dominant force in Japan remaining an oligarchy of business, political, and military leaders. Takamori became part of the government as a state councilor and army general, but when he saw government reforms undermine the traditions he believed in, he quit and organized the samurai into a rebel force. Takamori’s men, in 1877, took up traditional weapons such as swords in battle against the government’s newly modern army, about 40,000 men against 60,000, and more than half the samurai were killed. Takamori, wounded, committed seppuku (ritualized suicide), and was pardoned posthumously for his rebellion by the emperor. Ken Watanabe as the Takamori-inspired Katsumoto makes majesty perceptible, vivid, respectable, and seductive. Watanabe, the son of teachers, studied acting at England’s National Theatre Company, and has been in various films, including Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985); and in The Last Samurai, Watanabe conveys individual character and cultural history.
I suspect that I could learn more about Japan, its people, and its art by seeing the films of Sugii Gisaburo (The Tale of Genji), Kon Ichikawa (The Harp of Burma), Akira Kurosawa (Ran and Rashomon), Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), and other Japanese directors, but it is a remarkable thing for a film to introduce us to distinctive individuals and cultures, and Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai does that. (I am not aware of any acknowledgment thus far of the fact that a film with the same name and story—The Last Samurai, featuring a Captain Algren hired to train the Japanese emperor’s army but who finds himself drawn to the samurai he is expected to defeat—was made in 1990, starring John Fujioka, John Saxon, and Lance Henriksen, directed by Paul Mayersberg, and produced by Vincent Ward.)
Light research can confirm certain facts about Japan: Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, the people in that country were hunters, fishers, and gatherers, and the cultivation of rice led to social development and unification. Buddhism, which signifies awareness and affirms individual development, originated in India and was introduced into Japan between the years 538 and 552 after Christ. A constitution of principles, advocating harmony and fairness, and also collective decision-making among government ministers, and partly inspired by China (and originally written in Chinese), was issued in 604 by a Japanese prince, Prince Shotoku. Zen took root in 1191. Joei Shikimoku, a legal code stressing morality and loyalty, was established in 1232. Weather defeated the Mongols attempt to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. Japanese government was divided between southern and northern courts with different emperors in the years 1337 and 1338, but unified in 1392. Firearms were introduced in 1542; and in 1588 the weapons, apparently the swords, of farmers and religious institutions were confiscated. There were other rifts, and by 1603 a warrior leader, a shogun, was established; and by 1639 Japan was fairly isolated from the world, until the American Matthew Perry compelled the Japanese (shogunate) government to open trade ports in 1854. The shogunate lasted until 1867; and the action in the film The Last Samurai occurs after its’ end, after the restoration of the emperor. Those facts, though, do not mean anything without context, and context, ways of being, ways of living, present and past, is what art, such as film, can suggest.
Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier’s novel with a script by Frazier and the film’s director Anthony Minghella, with cinematography by John Seale, takes place a short time before the events in The Last Samurai, but, though a film does not have to be factual to be true, Cold Mountain seems a less honest film. Cold Mountain is focused on a man, Inman (Jude Law), and a woman, Ada (Nicole Kidman), who hardly have time to establish a relationship in North Carolina before they are separated by his involvement in the American Civil War (1861-1865), a war over northern industry and the southern agricultural economy powered by the enslavement of Africans. Inman is a Confederate soldier, and much of the story is about his desertion of the army and attempts to return to Ada, while she tries to survive on her farm following her father’s death. Jude Law’s performance as Inman is inflected with shyness, concern, determination, and desire, and he is shown as brave in battle and concerned about his fellow soldiers, but he does not have the casual brutality I often associate with being an American male, the kind of threat that can be heard in silence or seen in a smile before fists are raised or guns pointed. Kidman—beautiful, cool, sweet—does not consistently convey the grief and anger, not to mention desperation, one reasonably could expect. Her most expressive moments are probably when Ada first realizes her father is dead, and when Ada hungrily eats a stew prepared by a friend, Sally, played by Kathy Baker. The moment when Ada tries on her father’s coat after his death—she seems girlish and sensual—could have been more powerful if the scene had ended with Ada in tears; this might have been something of a cliché but the mix of the pleasure of memory and the pain of loss also would have been true. While the Australian Kidman and British Law do not evoke great love or lust, they both have an emotional quality that makes them a believable, sympathetic couple. The supporting performances of Renee Zellweger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Giovanni Ribisi, and Eileen Atkins are earthy and amusing. Natalie Portman expresses the caution, loneliness, curiosity, and vengefulness of a woman whose husband has gone off to war, leaving her vulnerable; and the vulnerability of women, and the simultaneous opportunity war provides them to do things they have not done, is one of the better illustrated and more resonant themes of Cold Mountain.
The history that is kept at the margins in Cold Mountain is what influences everything else in it—it is the cause of the war, why Inman leaves Ada, and why Ada has never had to learn to do practical things and subsequently has trouble living without servants: the subjugation of one group of people for the benefit of another. We see blacks working in a cotton field, running from slavery, fighting in battle, and a black woman made pregnant by a white married minister—we see the facts of black vulnerability (and aspiration) and white power but there is no consciousness in the film to tell us what any of that means, as there is when Portman’s character, a poor white woman, talks about all the women who have been left behind. Not a single black person speaks. Better films on slavery and the Civil War, films that do not deny brutality nor complexity, include Nightjohn (Charles Burnett), Sankofa (Haile Gerima), Beloved (Jonathan Demme), Glory (Edward Zwick), and Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee).
Nightjohn tells the story of the vicious retribution African-Americans risked in order to attain basic literacy, such as having fingers chopped off. Sankofa is about a contemporary clothes model transported back to slavery, and Beloved has a mother haunted by the daughter she killed to save from slavery. Glory shows blacks fighting in the Civil War, for their own freedom and to earn respect for their citizenship. Ride with the Devil features a black man and a white who are brothers. While it’s true that few films featuring slavery as a subject have been supported by African-Americans, the absences and silences in Cold Mountain immediately caused talk and anger among some who had seen the film.
Film critic Armond White (The Resistance), in his January 9, 2004 Africana.com review, wrote about Cold Mountain, “This view of history — and of romantic fiction — is idiotic. Any person of color who accepts it must be dangerously naive, if not self-negating. Minghella passes over the issue of slavery almost as insensitively as did the makers of Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. These films that misrepresent crucial moments in the political and moral development of the United States (both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War) offend the moral basis upon which any romantic fiction can be founded.” Armond White’s reviews are usually good at describing the motion, motive, and meaning of films, and though his tone here may be bullying (why should millions of people of color have a singular response to anything?), White is responding out of a sense of genuine offense.
Greg Tate’s February 4-10, 2004 Village Voice article suitably compares the film to the more realistic Frazier novel and references various scholarly works, but mixes insight with hysteria, as when he wrote, “Word on the street is that there are no African Americans in the film. Would that this were true. There are in fact several—except they are all mute. In the film, a Stepin Fetchit-like gaggle of runaway slaves emerges from a field with a basket of eggs likely stolen from some decent white person’s henhouse. Though Inman begs for an egg, the darkies refuse to share. In the summary justice of cinematic closure, the runaways are last seen marching into the woods with their stolen chicken embryos, where they are massacred by members of the evil Home Guard—comical comeuppance, one supposes, for not recognizing Inman as one of their own, a runaway, as desperate to avoid the Home Guard as they are. Now, in the novel, when Inman encounters a group of African American runaways, he is fed and sheltered and passed valuable information. Given that there were half a million African Americans in the state at the time, Frazier knew better than to have Inman’s encounter with Us, in numbers, conform to coonish stereotype.” Too much of this is supposition, something that often occurs when discussing “race,” a concept with more basis in psychology than in biology or even sociology. Historians have said that most North Carolina blacks lived in the state’s lowlands rather than its mountain area during the Civil War. It’s not clear that the runaways have stolen anything, and it seems as likely that they avoid Inman because he is a strange white man, a stranger, and while it is accurate that the Home Guard, an unpleasant mélange of civil defense, policemen, slave patrollers, and bushwhackers, captured both slave runaways and military deserters, the film’s runaways are not injured because they refused to befriend Inman. Scorpions sting; the Home Guard hurts people—and the Home Guard kills the husband and sons of Ada’s (white) friend Sally and maims Sally.
Greg Tate’s more interesting speculation involves his identification of director Anthony Minghella’s idealization of rich white people, also exemplified in Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Minghella was born to Italian parents on the Isle of Wight, a county of England.) Tate wonders if the dark Italian Minghella feels particular insecurities and peculiar allegiances that come out in his films. (I, too, had found it striking that although in Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the working class boy’s taste is superior to the rich boy’s, because the working class boy is particularly intelligent and interested, in Minghella’s film, which I liked, Minghella reversed Highsmith. Minghella made the rich boy, portrayed by Jude Law at his most incandescent—alluring, complex, and cruel, the epitome of taste, and made the poor boy, though played by the always respectable Matt Damon, an admiring, bumbling aesthete, who fills an apartment with some very ugly art.)
It wasn’t only African-Americans who found the racial politics of Cold Mountain questionable. Stephanie Zacharek, in her December 25, 2003 Salon.com review of Cold Mountain had written mockingly, “Who needs actual black people? Cold Mountain is a romance, refreshingly free from the taint of any political realities other than the ‘War is hell’ variety. It’s also completely juiceless. As you might expect from romance-of-the-living-dead director Minghella (The English Patient), Cold Mountain seems to unfold under a glass jar, a curlicued curiosity designed to make us marvel at how meticulously wrought it is.” Zacharek concluded her article, which would draw angrily disagreeing letters, with this: “The Civil War was uglier, and caused more suffering (physical, psychic and political), than many of us often acknowledge. But if nothing else, Cold Mountain reminds us of one resounding truth: In their fight for states’ rights, the white folks sure had it hard.”
Slavery is the original wound for most African-Americans, the wound beneath the other wounds—lynching, burning, and limited access to education, housing, and decent-paying jobs. Books such as How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Howard Univ. Press, and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America by Manning Marable, South End Press, explore that legacy. Slavery is a largely unmourned fact, and there has been no true reparation, and when many African-Americans look at history they often cannot get past slavery, cannot see beyond slavery into the African past of Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, or Mali—or recognize Africa as a current reality. How many African-Americans have seen the work of African filmmakers such as Souleymane Cisse (Yeelen; or Brightness), Idrissa Ouedraogo (Yaaba), or Ousmane Sembene (Faat Kine, Camp de Thiaroye)? How many African-Americans will see Dirty Pretty Things, featuring the Nigerian Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor and what his character Okwe calls an “African story,” a phrase that insinuates absurdity and tragedy, the mundane and the complex, the personal and the political?
Instances, however, of recognition of the presence and value of African traditions does occur in the work of certain artists. “Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Art,” an early 2004 exhibit at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery featured African art, such as sculptures (among them, a Nigerian Shandara figure, a Dan mask from the Ivory coast, a Bobo mask from Burkina Faso), and work by African-Americans utilizing African references: Yoruba Shrine, 1957, by John Biggers (1924-2001), made with conte crayon on paperboard, is a finely detailed drawing of three sculptural figures side by side, suggesting two men in conversation attended by an animal; Soul Three, 1968, a collage on board, by Romare Bearden (1912-1988), features three musicians seated on chairs facing out, two men with guitars and a woman in the center with a tambourine, a collage of cutouts, photos, and drawings, some of African masks used here as faces, with blue, purple, pink, orange, brown, and burgundy colors as part of clothing and background, a very homey scene; Ceremonial, 1950, an oil painting on canvas, by Charles Alston (1907-1977), features four somewhat abstract standing figures and is done in a bluish green (or greenish blue), and rust, yellow, brown, and white, and seems influenced by both African masks and Cubism, and the painting’s composition of strong lines and colors is taut, creating intensity; Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) has an Untitled oil painting from 1945 featuring a bowl of fruit, a blackish bird hovering above the fruit, and an outlined African statue next to the bowl, done in rich, dense colors—red (mostly) and orange for bird and background, and different shades of blue on the bowl’s edge, with some yellow—and Delaney’s strokes are dramatic, both large and fine, and the whole reminds me slightly of Van Gogh. The Alston and Delaney paintings may be masterpieces.
Some of the works in “Embracing the Muse” seem to refer beyond Africa, a broadness that can occur with ease once an artist has achieved personal and cultural confidence: Untitled, a work by Romare Bearden done in 1968, is Edenic, featuring a sitting solid black woman (that is, a silhouette), flowers, birds, monkeys, and the cat-like face of an art object; Europa, 1958, by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), is an oil painting of a nude woman on a black wolfish animal amid a landscape of sparse trees, and whereas some of his paintings have brush strokes that strike me as careless, including one that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, Europa does not, its strokes seem focused, impassioned; and Black and White, 1958, an oil painting by Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), is full of angular lines, slashes of color, in white, brown, and black paint, and seems influenced by abstract expressionism. There is also more recent work, from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, by Betye Saar, Mel Edwards, and John Biggers; and a nameless Jean-Michel Basquiat ink and oil drawing on paper of a face or mask from 1982 is something I find crude, ugly, lacking in thought and grace—and Basquiat’s work is to the rest of the show what hip-hop is to jazz.
Seeing the exhibit, I thought of the creativity and freedom of jazz, a music of improvisation, interpretation, and mastery, given to utilizing blue notes and swing rhythms and shrieks in its evocation of the freedom to know one’s self, to accept one’s history, and to express alienation and community, charming seduction and raw sex, and sublime contemplation, before moving on in search of new possibilities. Romare Bearden was quoted as having said, “The more I played around with visual notions as if I were improvising like a jazz musician, the more I realized what I wanted to do as a painter, and how I wanted to do it,” reported Deborah Hirsch in her February 10, 2004 Newsday article, “Romare Bearden: Jazz Infused His Palette,” which I read after seeing the Rosenfeld exhibit twice. The exhibit, though good, does not encompass all African aesthetics, iconography, or history. (For accessible references and reproductions of relevant art, see Sharon F. Patton’s African-American Art, from Oxford, and also several books from Thames and Hudson, African Art by Frank Willett, Contemporary African Art by Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, and Black Art: A Cultural History by Richard J. Powell.)
Unfortunately the kind of honesty and sophistication in distinguished paintings, music, and certain novels—Margaret Walker’s Jubilee, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, all depict slavery—are not often seen in films dealing with African-American history. There are books by African-American writers such as James Baldwin, David Bradley, William Demby, Ralph Ellsion, Percival Everett, Ronald L. Fair, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Johnson, Henry Van Dyke, John A. Williams, and Charles Wright, and African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta, among others, that would make interesting films. Chinua Achebe, who authored the novels Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, and whose themes include the changes in Africa wrought by colonialism and the responsibility of Africans for their own lives, wrote an essay, “Africa’s Tarnished Name,” that accompanied color photographs of Africa and its people by Robert Lyons for Lyons’ Doubleday book, Another Africa, which was the basis of an exhibit organized by Curatorial Assistance of Los Angeles and shown in January and February of 2004 in the gallery at the Queens Public Library’s central branch. The “Another Africa_” exhibit featured “Student Teacher,” a 1994 photograph of a Mali lady in pink and black traditional dress with head wrap, reading at a table, keys not far from her book; a “Commercial Artist’s Shack,” 1997, in Ghana, with a painted portrait of actor Sean Connery shown in the photograph; the “Great Mud Mosque” in Mali, 1991; and also photographs of men at the Niger River talking, municipal buildings in Ghana, a woman in a bar with a raised drink, a red flower with large leaves seen through the window of Uganda’s “Markerre” University (Makerere?), a sugar cane field in Uganda, and other scenes of men, women, and children relaxing and working on this incomparable land, images different from the usual crisis view of illness, poverty, and war, images of elemental being.
Despite what has survived of Africa in America, words, foods, rhythms, and references to art, the African presence in America changed Africans, obviously, creating African-Americans, but that presence also changed the Englishmen and Europeans who came here and became Americans, something the work of Mark Twain and Jackson Pollock and Elvis Presley and Quentin Tarantino attests to, although many Americans still yearn sometimes for stories of the old (white) world and see themselves in the people who used to be.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, directed by Peter Weir, with cinematography by Russell Boyd, was written by Weir with John Collee and based on Patrick O’Brien’s work, and it stars Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as an English sea commander and his doctor friend on a mission to capture a French vessel during the Napoleonic Wars, as they travel from the Brazilian coast to the Galapagos islands. (Weir is Australian, and Crowe, though born in New Zealand, lives in Australia.) Crowe’s best scenes are his well-covered anguish when a boy seaman’s lower arm is amputated and later when the doctor must perform surgery on himself. Otherwise Crowe is authoritative and heroic in a predictable way. I preferred Crowe in Proof, The Sum of Us, The Quick and the Dead, Rough Magic, and L.A. Confidential, his earlier films, just as I found Jude Law more appealing in Wilde, Gattaca, The Wisdom of Crocodiles, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Enemy at the Gates, and A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) than in Cold Mountain. Gladiator, a very entertaining movie, was the beginning of something dull and too-solid, though forceful, in Crowe’s performances; Crowe may have lost an ambiguous and rather truthful humanity. (Certain works seem to both confirm an artist’s attainment of public stature and simultaneously herald the atrophying or betraying of his talent. I wondered about this regarding Titanic and Leonard DiCaprio, whose work I had liked in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Quick and the Dead, Total Eclipse, Marvin’s Room, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.) Russell Crowe’s co-star Paul Bettany is captivating; and I wish I could say precisely why. What unique combination of confidence and humility, intelligence and sensitivity, honesty and slyness, seriousness and sensuality, is the key to his charm? One simply has to watch him; and his character, a doctor concerned about the misuse of political power and interested in the development of various animal and plant species, is more interesting than Crowe’s character (making it true, once more, that people who are interested are the most interesting). As with Cold Mountain and Last Samurai, Master and Commander is technically impressive; the elements of filmmaking such as costumes, locations, sets, staging, and cinematography and editing are expertly handled, but despite the friendship of the commander and doctor, who even make music together, the commander on violin with the doctor on cello, the compelling aspects of a human story are lacking.
Vision consists of more than a spectacular view, a pretty picture; and a film with vision can give one a new experience or a new way of understanding old experiences, and a different interpretation of human purpose. Vision can be found in all kinds of movies—Angels and Insects, Before Night Falls, Boesman and Lena, The Cell, Cold Fever, Dark City, Dead Man, Ed Wood, Farewell My Concubine, The Fast Runner, Gosford Park, Monkeybone, Mother and Son, The Pillow Book, Pleasantville, Shakespeare in Love, Strange Days, Thelma and Louise, The 13th Warrior, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, A Time for Drunken Horses, Wag the Dog, What Dreams May Come, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son, about an adult man caring for his dying mother in a small home amid a lush green landscape, seems a vision of purity, without any commercial calculations. However, films constructed to appeal to a wide audience—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Gladiator, The Matrix, and Titanic—also have vision, though often whatever mysteries, whatever ambiguities and contradictions, that are in those stories are usually vanquished by the film’s end, if not long before. Vision alone is no guarantee—for example, though I liked the eerie beauty of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and am intrigued with a couple of his other films, I thought his recent film of tall tales, Big Fish, which I saw on the first day of a new year, a disappointment, especially, and surprisingly, regarding the look of the film. In B_ig Fish_, a film about a son who wants to get to know his father beyond the stories he’s told about a cave-dwelling giant, singing Siamese twins, and a prophetic witch, one sees why the issues presented—who is the father really? has he given himself to his son?—are important for the characters in the film but not why they are important for the film viewer (a young man sitting next to me in the theater uttered words of impatience regarding the accusing journalist son, an introspective character I liked, played by Billy Crudup, an actor who was good in Almost Famous and The Hi-Lo Country, and who I confused years ago with Joaquin Phoenix, when they both appeared slim, vaguely undernourished, pale, and somewhat melancholy—I used to think it was Crudup I saw in Clay Pigeons but it was Phoenix, who also gave a terrific performance, mixing amoral ambition, decadent desire, and humbling hurt, as Russell Crowe’s co-star in Gladiator). It is an unfortunate but possibly inevitable fact that many films, whatever the merits of their vision and craft, will be forgotten.
The most satisfying recent films, whether in dramas such as Japanese Story and Dirty Pretty Things or comedies such as Stuck on You and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, often take as their premise the possibility of people caring about each other even in the presence of conflicts and difficulties. Somehow, the love on screen touches the love in us. The more disappointing films, such as Cold Mountain, Last Samurai, and Master and Commander, emphasize and draw meaning from violence and war. It is possible also that the sense of history as something distant and ennobling accounts for a lack of vitality. Although it is true that films with a bitter vision—whether the dramatic City of God or the comic movies Bad Santa and Die Mommie Die—can offer insight and wit, the belief in a heroism that can only be demonstrated in battle makes loving human relationships seem less important, and those relationships become less affecting within the war films; and yet war is, obviously, part of what defines a nation’s meaning. In order to assert a nation’s character, must individual identity be crushed?
I want to say, No, one does not have to choose between individuality and nationality. Sandy Edwards, in Japanese Story, fits into her environment, despite its’ difficulties, and that environment is thought fundamental to Australian identity, but Hiromitsu’s death occurs in what for him is a foreign place. Katsumoto, in The Last Samurai, is gunned down by the evolution of Japanese society, just as Native Americans were killed by mostly white American soldiers. Okwe cannot fulfill himself in England, not emotionally, not professionally, and plans to go back to Africa, in Dirty Pretty Things. Inman dies, Ada has their daughter and Cold Mountain ends with a tableau of community, no African-Americans or Native Americans in sight. In Master and Commander, the doctor’s concerns for his scientific studies—the island the ship’s crew visits has formerly unknown species—are sacrificed in the pursuit of a nation’s war. Obviously, for some people, a nation’s weight is crushing: in films, and in life.
In The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci’s rather frustrating interpretation of Gilbert Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents, the power of the state is felt in the world of film when the director of the Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, a dedicated film collector and generous film screener, is charged with administrative incompetence and fired by the minister of culture Andre Malraux, a real world event that led to street protests that heralded large-scale social rebellion in France in 1968. Bertolucci inadvertently proves that though art has power, it is life that gives it significance.
Adair, Bertolucci’s screenwriter for The Dreamers, also wrote the novel Love and Death on Long Island and as a film critic has written on Kubrick and on Vietnam in film and authored the book Movies. Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents is about an American, Matthew, who goes to Paris to study cinema, and attends screenings at the famed French film center where he could see the whole history of international cinema and where he meets a French girl and her brother, Danielle and Guillaume, as infatuated with film as he is. The three become involved first with the protest against the firing of the film center’s director and then, more disastrously, with each other. The novel has an anarchism of sensuality that mirrored an impulse toward new freedoms felt by a generation in the late 1960s. It was provocative but not vulgar, despite the incest of the brother and sister and Matthew’s becoming sexually involved with both; it’s a book in which sex has meaning not simply as pleasure but as an expression of personality and ideas. I read the novel in anticipation of the film by a director I used to think of as my favorite, having seen The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1900, Luna, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, The Last Emperor, Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, Stealing Beauty, and Besieged. Bertolucci seemed to want to fill his films with as much life and speculation as he could; and 1900 was my favorite of his films for years, but I now prefer Last Tango in Paris and Besieged. I thought that with The Last Emperor his films began to have less depth, but that Besieged had intimacy, politics, and visual beauty, and was a sign of mastery. I looked forward to seeing The Dreamers, which I thought would be a wonderful tribute to film.
The Dreamers has rung various changes on The Holy Innocents, the least of which is renaming the sister and brother, Isabelle and Theo, and all with the participation and approval of Adair, who has since revised and reissued his novel under the name The Dreamers. The film is sometimes enchanting and sometimes dull, the moments of enchantment created by incidents that manage to feel spontaneous—Isabelle offering part of a sandwich to Matthew and encouraging her brother Theo to do the same, which Theo half-heartedly does only to retrieve his portion when Matthew says he did not come to eat their food; the political disagreement between Theo and his poet father at dinner, the shock and pain it causes the father and the discomfort it causes others; Theo and Matthew arguing over the differing appeal of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; Isabelle imitating the chorus dance in Blonde Venus, and then later posing with her breasts bare, a whitish cloth draped around her waist, and long black gloves on her arms against a black curtain, as the Venus de Milo; Matthew and Theo lying on a bed and talking about why Theo prefers to be inside rather than out on the street protesting, with Theo seeming to become both upset at Matthew’s accusation and aroused by his attention and perception. Matthew is acted by Michael Pitt, who seems more emotional (frightened, really) than sensual or intelligent, and Isabelle is acted by the sometimes too theatrical Eva Green, and Theo by Louis Garrel, who manages to suggest, appropriately, a budding bourgeois intellectual with radical sympathies, an insensitive son, a first loving then angrily jealous sibling, and a sexually confident young man.
The dull moments occur when one feels the contrivance of the film, the artificiality of some of its settings and the unlikelihood of anyone, even French kids, being so besotted with films and themselves that they pay attention to little else. We may want sometimes to disappear into art, into film—but that is usually temporary, and usually a measure of our ecstasy or our hopelessness. After the siblings’ parents have gone away and the three refuse to leave the family apartment, as part of conversation and a game of forfeit they quote large moments from loved films, making too many of those moments smaller. Bertolucci, through Matthew, explains away the now merely budding incest of the brother and sister in the story as immaturity, as spiritually limiting, though truly consensual incest is only possible with sexual development—that is, sexual maturity with a twist. In the novel, from what I recall, the brother and sister are not behaving incestuously because they are immature, morally right or wrong, spiritually evolved or limited, but because they can. Bertolucci also eliminates the homoerotic relation between the French boy and the American. I’d be inclined to see these changes as dishonest, as giving in to personal conservatism or that of the expected censors if it weren’t for Adair’s participation. One is left to guess that the film has received a sexual content warning label (NC-17) because we see Green’s naked breasts, with their large aureoles and small nipples, and her thick, closed vaginal lips, and the soft genitalia of Pitt and Garrel, the former pink and circumcised and the later brownish and uncut, none of which engages the full capacity of one’s erotic imagination. Despite the appeal of the principals, it is hard to view their bodies with much more than a clinical eye; and, despite Pitt’s speech about the love he is offering Isabelle, only Garrel is able to indicate what Matthew’s entry in the lives of the siblings means. The Dreamers also fails to illustrate what in French culture needed or needs changing—what are the social practices and policies that repress? The novel, but not the film, ends with the battles between police and the rioting public and Matthew’s death at the barricades, a death that says experience has a price and politics is not play; in the film, we simply see that Matthew refuses to dream any longer with the French and walks away. Bertolucci has given us a dream of life, while advocating life. I liked the book better than the film; worse, I liked the positive reviews of the film, so celebratory and well-written, better than the film. I would not have guessed that Bertolucci, whose films can be full of color, drenched with the emotions, and exciting to the senses, would try to convince me to walk away from dreaming.
On the day that I saw The Dreamers, I heard a radio broadcast about a 17-year old indigenous boy, Thomas Hickey, who died after he was chased by police in Redfern, Australia, fell off his bike, and was impaled on a fence; a riot followed his death. The same day, I read that censors in China had edited scenes in Cold Mountain that they said went against Chinese customs. I know that as I write these words about film, much of the world is busy with other things—working, looking for work, loving, hating, drinking, eating, starving, thirsting, finding and losing homes, living and dying; and in America, common concerns include, the presidential election primaries, the war in Iraq and the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction there that were given as the reason for war, the loss of privacy rights after the Patriot Act’s passage, the rising rate of people without jobs, the possibility of contracting illness through eating contaminated beef, the abuse of thousands of children over the years by Catholic priests, gay marriage, AIDS in Africa, the unpopularity of New York’s wealthy mayor Michael Bloomberg, actor-director Mel Gibson’s film interpretation of the Christ story, the apparent end of the romance between the actors Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, singer Janet Jackson’s exposure of a single breast during a televised performance, and the child molestation charges against her brother, the popular music icon Michael Jackson. Arguments about the Jacksons are just as heated as arguments about politics. There are many things to be said about Michael, and others have said them; but what I recall is a ballad he wrote that begins with a classical European choral arrangement and also has black gospel flourishes, “Will You Be There?,” a blend of cultural traditions, in which Jackson, a talented, flawed, and tormented man, expressed feelings that are beneath much of the communication we call art:
Hold me, like the river Jordan, and I will then say to thee, You are my friend. Carry me like you are my brother, love me like a mother. Will you be there? Weary. Tell me, will you hold me? When wrong, will you scold me? When lost, will you find me? But they told me, A man should be faithful, and walk when not able, and fight till the end, but I’m only human. Everyone’s taking control of me, seems that the world’s got a role for me. I’m so confused. Will you show to me you’ll be there for me and care enough to bear me? Hold me, lay your head lowly, softly then boldly, carry me there. Lead me, love me and feed me, kiss me and free me. I will feel blessed. Carry, carry me boldly, lift me up slowly, carry me there. Save me, heal me and bathe me, softly you say to me, I will be there. Lift me, lift me up slowly, carry me boldly, show me you care. Hold me, lay your head lowly, softly then boldly, carry me there. Need me, love me and feed me, kiss me and free me, I will feel blessed. (spoken:) In our darkest hour, in my deepest despair, will you still care? Will you be there? In my trials and my tribulations, through our doubts and frustrations, in my violence, in my turbulence, through my fear and my confessions, in my anguish and my pain, through my joy and my sorrow, in the promise of another tomorrow, I’ll never let you part, for you’re always in my heart.
Those are the words of one person asking if another will respond to his pain, a need that defies age, ethnicity, gender, wealth, or nationality, a very human need.
As I write these words, and as you read these words, art is being conceived, films, literature, paintings, music, and more, and yes, that is always an affirmation, but also people are struggling for freedom and fulfillment against formidable powers in other countries and this one, in wars declared and undeclared, and many people are lonely, starving, and homeless, trying to reconcile themselves to the irreconcilable. How do we regard and respond to the pain of others?