La terra trema: Episodio del mare, Luchino Visconti (1948)

The Joads look like the Rockefellers compared to the family of Sicilian fishermen hung out to dry in Visconti’s heartbreaker. The fishermen in the village are at the mercy of the wholesalers who own the boats and buy the fish at fixed prices. One socialist-minded lad, Ntoni, mortgages his family’s house to buy his own boat. But controlling the means of production is a bitch; one storm wrecks the family’s boat, and thus their livelihood, causing them to default on their debts and be evicted from their house. After a lot of gnashing of teeth and macho pledges to starve rather than work for the Man again, Ntoni heads back to sea a prole puppet of the fat cats. The end. Odd how the movie’s explicit message is one of the desparate need for social justice, but its implicit message is that if you stick your head up you’ll just get whacked. The cast of nonprofessional actors (Visconti credits them en masse as “Sicilian Villagers”) is amazing and gorgeous, and the cinematography is a dream. Favorite shot: the family women waiting by the shore at dawn for the men to return. In their black cloaks, they look to the camera to be part of the set of towering offshore rocky outcroppings: immovable and resolute as the landscape itself. An excellent and wholly gripping film, even in this lousy DVD transfer, even though a half hour too long. (Yeah, that’s right, I said it. You know you thought it.)

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The Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel (1974)

Soldiers munching the heavenly host like crackers, drunken card-playing priests, roadside inns in the middle of nowhere where the power goes out and suddenly everything turns into an episode from deSade. (My favorite line: the guy in chaps being whipped by his girlfriend says in distress, as the room empties, “At least let the monks stay!”) Plus lots of naked women (some of whom turn into other naked women), incest, rape, murder, childish and senselessly violent policemen, blasphemies of all kinds, etc. etc.

Some terrific set pieces. The dinner party where all the guests are seated on toilets around the table and eat their dinners in private rooms is fun, but the story of the missing schoolgirl who keeps protesting to her worried parents and teachers that she is actually present, is downright poetic.

Buñuel’s so reassuring. Still thrilled by the same old depredations and obliquities, nearly a half-century after Un chien andalou. Like a grandpa giggling at a screening of Porky’s. I wish he’d lived long enough to see Haneke’s Funny Games, or Carax’s Pola X. Would he have cheered or squirmed to see how far it’s become necessary to go in order to go too far?

What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis (2002)

Lewis’s subtitle says a lot about his argument. The crisis, in his formulation, is not between East and West, Islam and Christianity, or Muslim nations and Christian nations, but between Islam and modernity, or, if you will, between a construction and a condition. That’s a stacked deck–conditions always have the edge on constructions–and I disagree with the presumption that modernity–in the guise of what we’ve come to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Age of Exploration, Colonialism, Industrial Revolution, etc. (so many triumphal capital letters!)–is somehow a natural condition, rather than itself a construction. In short, Lewis’s subtitle puts me on high alert for some orientalist bullshit, where the West is portrayed as inexorable and the East as unnatural.

Still, once you get into the book, it’s difficult to argue with Lewis’s basic arguments, because they aren’t really arguments, they’re recitations–repetitive, diffuse, and shamelessly disorganized yet well-researched and occasionally enlightening recitations–of certain historical realities, chief among them the fact that the Arab world was bigger, richer, smarter, and stronger than Europe up until the sixteenth century, whereupon–what went wrong?–it began a long slide into poverty, bigotry, insularity, reactionism, and xenophobia.

Lewis provides a useful historical account of this shift, but his overview of what went wrong, the failure of Muslim nations to keep pace with the economic, social, and political innovations of the west, (and, to Lewis’s mind, their more profound failure to desire to keep pace) leads very quickly to what seems to be a far harder question to answer: Why? We get far fewer answers to this question. But here are the salient few that do stand out:

— Europe was simply more curious about the Middle East than vice-versa. Europeans traveled in the mideast, learned mideastern languages, studied the culture, translated the literature, etc. Little of this happened in the other direction, so mideasterners were not exposed to the West’s innovations.

— In the mideast, nationalism and religion were not just partners, as they were in the Christian West, but absolutely inextricable. It was the opinion of most Muslim clerics up until the end of the 18th century, and continues to be the opinion of many Muslim clerics today, that it is not possible to live a good Muslim life in a non-Muslim nation, broadly construed. Thus few Muslims were interested in extensive travel in the West, and so they were not exposed to the West’s innovations.

— “For traditional Muslims, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice.” Muslim culture was less interested in free expression and investigation than in order and equality.

— “In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different.” [Interesting point, and also a good example of the terrible writing in this book.]

— Once ideals of liberalism did begin to pervade some circles of mideastern thought, it was difficult to put them into practice, because they were seen as Western imports.

— Lewis has a fascinating but probably somewhat overblown chapter on the perception of time and space in the West and in the East; Western precision of measurement enabled “progress,” while Eastern disregard for exactitude in such measurements inhibited it.

Of course, all these explanations of why what went wrong went wrong themselves require explanation of why they occurred. Lewis’s book is badly written, disorganized, and unsatisfying in that it raises as many questions as it answers. But it is undeniably a fine introduction to, if not the causes of the conflict between East and West (for that is what it really is, not a conflict between Islam and Modernity), at least the history of that conflict.

Job, Joseph Roth (1930)

I only discovered Roth a couple years ago and have been reading him with delight and astonishment ever since. Reading his Right and Left on a bench with a view of the Riechstag was the highlight of my trip to Berlin a couple years ago, and his interlocking masterpieces, The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb brilliantly capture the cultural and political tipping points of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Job is an earlier novel, and quite different in tone and scope; instead of taking on gigantic issues of historical shift and representing the characters as bits of flotsam carried on the tide, Roth gives us a warm, touching novel that moves in the opposite direction, telling with great sympathy and attention the story of a particular family of shetl Jews. The history’s here, of course, but only insofar as it affects the lives of Mendel Singer and his family, who begin in Russia in extreme poverty and end in America with some hope. This isn’t a story about immigrants triumphing and prospering in the new world, though. Indeed, the main reason the Singers overcome their troubles is that they remain faithful to no one but each other and their traditions. Gorgeous book, and one which shows that Roth is just as capable of subtle characterization as he is of incisive political allegory.

03.18.06

Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Rodrigo Garcia (2000)

How perfect to see this just after the testosterone fountain that was Miami Vice. Smart, terse, elegantly constructed set of vignettes–they feel like a set of Raymond Carver short stories–that shows what could be possible if womens’ experience were foregrounded in film instead of mens’. The segments are all frankly emotional, but none of them (OK, almost none of them) are mawkish, and all of them are shot with intelligence and sensitivity. Is it a coincidence that the normally so-so actors Amy Brenneman, Cameron Diaz, and Calista Flockhart all shine here? I don’t think so; I think they’re just thrilled to be able to play human beings instead of chicks, and rise like crazy to the occasion. Written and directed by the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What I wouldn’t give for a drop of that gene pool.

Miami Vice, Michael Mann (2006)

If this had been the first Michael Mann movie I’d seen, I would have thought it was a close-to-perfect atmospheric thrillah, but I’ve seen Heat, so I know better. Here, as in Heat, Collateral, The Insider, and pretty much everything else Mann touches, we get two layers: the action-packed surface of fancy guns, cars, planes, helicopters, guns, boats, sunglasses, clubs, guns, cars, and guns; and the pseudo-literary layer wherein one of the good guys teeters on the edge of badness and/or vice-versa.

I’ve never been able to get into this narrative of the good guy who gets so deep into his fight against the bad guy that he almost becomes him. George Smiley‘s purported and extended anguish along these lines, for example, always made me feel merely impatient.

I could stand this in Heat, I think, because it was such a perfect apotheosis of the theme, and because DeNiro and Pacino played their yin-yang yo-yo parts so perfectly. But Colin Ferrell is no Robert DeNiro, my friend. The only real grit this movie has, its only possible claim to significance beyond mere summer shoot-’em-up, lies in Ferrell’s confusion over how and whether to bust the drug lordess he’s fallen for, and frankly, it’s almost impossible to give a shit about his quandary, because it seems patently absurd from start to finish. Vastly talented and experienced undercover vice cop melts like a fourteen year old when a pretty girl on the other team catches his eye? It just doesn’t make sense.

OK, but whatever, this is still, even with Farrell’s ridiculousness and the shameful underuse of Jamie Foxx, a thousand times more interesting to watch than the typical summer blockbuster. Mann does fantastic sex scenes–the one with Pacino and Diane Venora at the beginning of Heat was excellent, but the one with Foxx and Trudy Joplin here is better, and the one in Havana with Ferrell and Li Gong is even better than that–and he shoots every scene like a sex scene, so close up you can’t quite tell what’s happening, or from a little too far away, with the interesting thing happening off to one side, out of the corner of your eye.

A worthy contribution, though not a masterpiece, from my second-favorite sixty-something brooding Hollywood would-be Calvinist.

(Paul Schrader, of course. Duh.)