Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 May 2015

Sallah Shabati

I am watching a lot of obscure stuff at the moment. This is because I am leaving Dartmouth College after this term and I am trying to watch the most difficult-to-find films that are in the library here but available in few other places. (Last time I was at Dartmouth this meant a lot of 1980s Soviet films. All of which were good!) In any case, I am trying to record these films here so that I remember them.

This morning I screened Ephraim Kishon's Sallah Shabati (סאלח שבתי‎‎) from 1964. This is a really funny satire about Israeli bureaucracy, the kind of hilarity that Kishon will continue to create in his films (especially his great movie The Policeman).

Sallah Shabati, though, stars the amazing Chaim Topol, who will go on to play Tevye the Milkman in Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof. Gila Almagor is also absolutely hilarious in this picture.

There isn't much to say about this movie, but it works really well; it is very funny, and became a huge international hit.

28 May 2015

Let's Fight!

Actually, I don't really want to fight. (There's a "We Don't Need Another Hero" Tina Turner / Thunderdome reference in here somewhere.) But what is Mad Max: Fury Road when it isn't about fighting? In any case everyone I know liked this movie, apparently, and I was sort of bored, so a fight is probably inevitable. A few thoughts:

1. This whole time I have been getting George Miller (who made those original Mad Max movies, and also Happy Feet and The Witches of Eastwick) confused with Frank Miller, the guy who made 300 and Sin City. I was, apparently, incorrect to be thinking they were the same person, but I expect I can be forgiven because basically everything about the comic-book-style of Mad Max: Fury Road looks similar to the style of 300.

2. This thing moves fast! I understand being a little drunk on the movie's style and speed, but my first reaction to the film's speed was to be reminded of the way silent-era comedies move just a little too fast when Charlie Chaplin falls down or Harry Lloyd chases a streetcar without catching it. The opening sequence had a kind of Keystone-Cops quality that, for me, was unintentionally humorous.

3. I was really troubled by the grotesque imagery in the film as it pertained to bodies. The film's villains are styled as disabled by their decadence (and also presumably by incest??) We see the main villain's back first, as he is sprayed with talcum powder before he dons a kind of plastic suit of armor. This atrophied, aged body is intended to indicate weakness, frailty, and most obviously deviance (sexual perversion, here, is linked to criminality and villainy). The bodies in the palace all have this quality to them. The main villain's son is a hulking god of a man whose face is apparently being held together by plastic and who is semi-permanently attached to an oxygen tank. There are others, too, including a dwarf, a man with severely swollen ankles, and an entire farm (?) of large-breasted women who are being milked. Why does the film indicate decadence or villainy using bodies it deems grotesque? And how are these disabled bodies being used by the filmmaker as foils to the masculine power of both Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy? Good people in Mad Max: Fury Road have good bodies.

Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen
4. Fight! Fight! Fight! The film's best sequence is one in which Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron fight mano a mano, while Nicholas Hoult is (mostly) thrown around like an unconscious rag doll. This sequence is thrilling.

5. There is a lot of wasted water in this movie. And wasted fuel. I sort of didn't understand how these most precious of commodities in the film's world were actually valued. Water is literally dumped on people in the film's first act, even though, it would make way more sense to dole it out to them judiciously. Plus, it is the desert! How are those people even still alive?

6. Mad Max: Fury Road is actually the movie Waterworld with the elements reversed. Like actually, though. The villains, obsessed with fire and oil, are basically identical in these films, although Hugh Keays-Byrne is much scarier (and plays his role much straighter) than Dennis Hopper's campy tongue-in-cheek villain in Waterworld. In fact, Waterworld is a much better movie overall, to my mind, and also includes something Fury Road totally ignores: the sky. There are no flying machines in Fury Road. There is only the road. (The original Road Warrior came out way before Waterworld, of course, so obviously it is Waterworld that is derivative, here. But still.)

7. But Aaron, you really should've shut your brain off. True. I probably ought to have.

Is that you in there, Tom?
8. It was cool seeing older ladies shoot guns and be the third-act stars of an action movie. I was super into that. But I am also bored by the idea that women are, like, "keepers of seeds" and shit, as though nurturing things is somehow linked to femaleness. What is not gendered in this film is masculinity, and for this I was fairly happy. Femininity and masculinity are still kept pretty separate from one another in this movie, as far as I can tell (we have the über-feminine, Game-of-Thrones-inspired ladies with their white, flowing garb giving us feminine realness the whole movie). In other words, Fury Road does give us femininity and masculinity, but where as both women and men can be masculine in this movie, only women can be feminine. I'm not a fan of masculinity in general, but it was nice to see a film so celebratory of female masculinity. I loved the older ladies fighting, and Charlize was a fun action hero.

9. Take Tom Hardy's mask off! I could not believe we spent most of act one with him in a mask. You have a movie star and you obscure his face for the first third of the movie? So weird! It made me feel very strange, and perhaps personally claustrophobic.

10. My main gripe with Fury Road is that act three is simply a repeat of act one. It's almost exactly the same thing! There is an addition of guys swinging from poles. That part was cool, and I was glad there was at least one new technology added to the chase, but the terrain was all the same and the plot was all the same. Rocks. Sun. Dirt. Dust. Fire. Blood. Some dude with a electric guitar. The end of the movie is exactly the same as the beginning. Rev that engine and hit the gas.

25 May 2015

Jacques Becker's Last Film

Le Trou is gorgeous. It's so weird because I love gangster and other crime films from this period – the films of Melville, Becker, Clément, Clouzot – but I really hate how the bad guys (by which I mean the good guys, the main characters of the film, whom we love and want to succeed) never get away with the crimes they wish to commit. Crime never pays in these movies. It's hearbtreaking.

Becker's film has a million things going for it, and like all of the movies in this genre, the movies doesn't particularly moralize at the end; it just refuses to let them get away with their scheme.

Le Trou is fundamentally a prison film, and because it is 1960 it is a prison film not about the abuses that occur in prisons but about the action of escaping the prison. There is one little very clear homo-moment. A character named Monseigneur is in the infirmary stealing some glass bottles, and there's another guy in there getting a shot for some venereal disease.
Monseigneur tells the guy: No women; that's the way to stay clean.
The guy replies: To each his own.
To which Monseigneur responds: No men either.
It's a funny little moment, intended only for color. I obviously found it delightful. The film itself is in love with Pierre Leroy's chest, as well, and he spends half the movie without a shirt. I found that, in particular, quite surprising.

As a film, this is one of Becker's best. It's beautifully shot and really explores the morality of friendship, duty to one's fellow man, and (especially) the time involved in breaking out of prison. Le Trou dwells in this, and it is both excruciating and fascinating. I loved this movie.

23 May 2015

Children of Nature

Another quick review. This one of a picture from 1991 called Börn Náttúrunnar, released in the U.S. (briefly and only on VHS, not in theatres) as Children of Nature. It is about an elderly man living on a farm in Iceland who can't manage the farm anymore. After a stint with his family in Reykjavik doesn't work out, he and his old girlfriend steal a jeep and they return to an island where they used to live and then become part of nature. Or something like that. This was a kind of 1990s spiritualist/nature-loving thing. I was sort of bored.

The film has a few magical elements in it – there's a ghost, and a couple of vanishings into thin air, and a cameo by Bruno Ganz (perhaps a kind of tiny tribute to Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire), but these things aren't really coherent, to my mind.

22 May 2015

Beyond the Walls

Some quick thoughts on Uri Barbash's film Beyond the Walls (מאחורי הסורגים) before I forget. This is an Israeli prison film about Jewish and Arab prisoners who band together to strike because of the unjust conditions perpetuated by the prison administrators and because the administrators murder one of the prisoners in cold blood.

It is 1984, and this is a prison film, so (if the thesis of my essay on Fortune and Men's Eyes is correct) that means there will be at least one rape sequence in the movie, or at the very least a discussion of rape. As it happens, there are two rape sequences in the film. 1) There is an attempted-rape sequence that we see: in which the character Pitoosy (Rami Danon) assaults Asaf (Asi Dayan) for being an Arab-lover. He strips him and grabs him sexually and it is a very scary moment, but the other characters prevent Pitoosy from hurting Asaf. 2) In the second sequence we only hear the agony of the character Doron, who is violated. While his violation is happening Pitoosy again speaks to Asaf and explains how everyone has "had a piece" of Doron, who is young, beardless, and pretty.

This rape sequence is actually a very important plot point to the film as a whole, and Doron emerges as a very significant character in the film, even if he is a pawn of all of the factions involved in the prison strike.

21 May 2015

As a Latina...

A couple of years ago, I was at a conference and I was working on a committee to plan the following year's conference and when the committee asked for feedback on the current year's events, several people complained that the events were not as inclusive of people of color as they might have been, and made some very valid critiques. One of the planners at this point got rather indignant and said, Well as a Latina...

I can't actually remember what she said after that. This, to me, was the worst kind of positioning. This woman was attempting to use her own subject position as a woman of color to excuse the way that the conference she had helped to organize had been insensitive to women of color. I have identity with other women of color and therefore I should be excused from being considered insensitive to women of color even though many people here actually feel slighted by my behavior. Um, no.

I've used that phrase As a Latina to make fun of this kind of positioning ever since. And since then I've noticed the phrase As a... also crops up when people do not want to take the time to justify their own credentials. As a person who researches x / As a historian of x, here is my opinion about x... Or you could just make an argument that makes your point clear and demonstrates why your theory is workable or interesting. As a person who thinks about x / As a person who is a longtime fan of x... These are somehow even worse. Wait, wait, you think about this topic? That's the way you're going to describe your subject position here? Or you're a fan? And that is supposed to give credence to your argument in some way?

In a way, I think this kind of strange positioning, the active claiming of a specific position in the world before making an argument, is descended from Pierre Bourdieu and the idea that we ought to analyze our own subject positions as a part of the analysis we are doing. I am totally on board with this, but the As a Latina formation actually occludes analysis. Instead of interrogating how this position might color or otherwise affect the argument being made, the position almost always is intended to make the argument seem more accurate – as a person like the person I am, my argument is going to be more sound than someone who does not have this position – or it is intended to excuse behavior that ought not to be excused – as a Latina, I ought not to be considered at fault for whatever anti-Latina sentiments you perceive.

I haven't thought about this phenomenon seriously in a while, but I've been thinking of it again lately because I am revisiting some scholarship on manhood and masculinity. And I am noticing this weird "guys like us", "for us men", "feminist critiques have often misunderstood what we as men actually understand about ourselves because we've lived it" kind of thing. In other words, the theorist I'm reading at the moment (who shall remain nameless) keeps beginning sentences by saying, sometimes obliquely, sometimes literally: As a man.

The reason I am thinking about this positioning seriously is that although I write about masculinity, I cannot actually imagine ever writing anything equivalent to the phrase As a man. In fact, I don't think I would ever use that phrase even in conversation.

As a man...

It just looks weird to me.

First of all, one's position as a man does not give one any particular access to understanding masculinity writ large. And secondly, to be a man is specifically to claim not to be so many other things. Why would one want to do that? I have often felt the need to quote one of José Muñoz's critiques of masculinity, the one that notes that “masculinity is, among other things, a cultural imperative to enact a mode of ‘manliness’ that is calibrated to shut down queer possibilities and energies. The social construct of masculinity is experienced by far too many men as a regime of power that labors to invalidate, exclude, and extinguish faggotry, effeminacy, and queerly coated butchness.”

But also, I don't actually understand myself as a man, at least not as a man without qualifiers attached. I refer to myself as a gay man often enough, I guess, but never as simply a man, never as a man undiminished by faggotry, weakness, sensitivity, pacificism, shame, or bookishness. In fact, I like the idea of whatever manhood I might possibly claim being somehow always diminished.

In any case, I have no intention of beginning any arguments by saying as a gay man or as a person who is often racialized as white or as a person who listens to a lot of Philip Glass, but I often think it is interesting when other people do. Why are we positioning ourselves and what advantages do we feel that these positions offer us? I am not arguing that who we are ought somehow to be absent from our scholarship or that we ought to try to excise our own subject positions from our scholarship. Not at all! But wouldn't it be best if it were the argument itself that made this position clear? If I have argued well, my argument ought to state my position quite clearly, at least whatever one (or several) of my identity positions that is relevant to the current argument.

As a Spanish-speaking Packers fan invested in the anarchist movement in France in the late nineteenth century and also captivated by queer issues and also interested in the political history of black America and also fascinated by the work of Seneca, my argument today will be that the original reception of Bernard-Marie Koltès's play Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton (1985), with its too-intent focus on issues related to AIDS, overshadowed Koltès's own focus on economics, much to the detriment of the play itself.

Sometimes one's subject position just isn't relevant.

18 May 2015

The Briefest of Reviews from 1972

Moshé Mizrahi's movie I Love You Rosa (אני אוהב אותך רוזה) is no great shakes, but it is charming in its way. Like Mizrahi's subsequent film The House on Chelouche Street, I Love You Rosa focuses on a small boy. In fact, this purports to be a kind of feminist tale about freedom and liberty, in which a young woman decides to choose for herself and convinces the man in her life to let her choose, whereupon she chooses (and this is never in doubt) precisely the thing everyone wishes for her to choose. I found all of this to be a bit of a red herring. And the film is much much more interested in the young man than it is in Rosa herself, no matter how much it claims to love her. The film is also bookended by a completely superfluous framing device. Still, it's a likable picture.
(Apparently this movie is available on DVD in a dubbed version. But I watched it in Hebrew on an ancient VHS copy with English subtitles.)

16 May 2015

My Lives as a Dog

I have had a ticket to the one-time only screening of Kornél Mundruczó's Fehér Isten (White God) for weeks now, and I was extremely excited to see it yesterday.

I was so excited to see White God that I got ahold of a copy of Samuel Fuller's White Dog a couple of days ago and watched that in anticipation. Some thoughts on Fuller's movie first. White Dog is a movie about a young actress (played by Kristy McNichol) who accidentally hits a beautiful white german shepherd and then cares for it, takes it home, and adopts it. The dog saves her life when a rapist breaks into the house, but the dog also doesn't seem to like her boyfriend very much. Ennio Morricone's eerie score also makes the whole thing seem like we are headed for very bad things.

We are. The white dog starts killing black people. He attacks a garbageman in the middle of the night without getting caught, but then he is on a movie set and attacks Kristy McNichols' friend. Everyone wants her to put this attack dog down. He is a time-bomb waiting to go off, but she wants to have him retrained. This retraining will be attempted by Paul Winfield, who fully commits to the task: It isn't the dog's fault that some racist motherfucker of an owner programmed him to hate dark skin.

White Dog is a parable of USAmerican racism. It is about racial hatred as a disgusting, learned behavior, but it is also about the way that racism is latent: the dog is loving and sweet and not the least but violent when it is around a person he loves, but then when a black person is around he immediately sees red. And the film asks the question, can racism be unlearned, can we learn to retrain our own racist attitudes and begin to see each other with more equality? The end of the film reflects Fuller's own attitudes toward this, certainly, but the film itself is perhaps more interested in the question. As for the dog, White Dog is about animals only sofar as it is about training and teaching. A dog, in this sense, is the same as a child in Fuller's film – and the movie makes this explicit in a third-act scene with two small girls.

Just for the record, this is also a very good film. The image of this white dog's beautiful fur covered in blood resounds poetically several times, and we frequently see his mouth dripping with blood, and there is lots of suspense and a great deal to think about in this movie following an attack dog. I loved it.

White Dog was never released in theatres in the U.S. In the early 1980s films about race became less and less common – there were plenty of great films about race in the 1970s. But in the 1980s we were supposed to be post-race (you know, like right now), so many many people objected to Fuller's film. It got great reviews in Europe, however, and it was released by the Criterion Collection in 2008 (twenty-six years later) where you can find it on DVD.

* * *
I want, also, to add a side note and say that while waiting to see White God last night I was reading a collection of plays by (the amazing) Adrienne Kennedy and I'll be damned if I didn't read a one-act called A Lesson in Dead Language from 1968 that includes a group of small girls at school learning lessons from their female school teacher who is actually a white dog from the waist up. This was a total coincidence, I swear! The play is about girlhood and menstruation and has nothing to do with any of the movies I'm talking about, but the character is called White Dog.

* * *

Kornél Mundruczó's White God begins in an abattoir. We watch a man inspect the carcass of a cow. They cut the cow in half. They cut open its belly and its viscera spill out. The man cuts the brain in half and inspects it. Then he stamps it: cleared for consumption. In other words, it is clear from the very first moments of White Dog that this isn't a movie only about humans' relationship with dogs but about our relationships with all other animals. Watching this cow being butchered is fairly disgusting, and I was surprised some of the more squeamish in the audience didn't get up and leave right then and there.

The plot of White God, though, is about a girl named Lili and her dog Hagen. They are separated when her total jerk of a father gets angry at her and abandons the dog on the side of the road. From here we follow the dog and its friend Lili in two different places, sometimes trying to find one another, sometimes forgetting about one another. We follow Hagen (a beautiful brown mixed-breed dog you will love instantly), as he runs from dogcatchers, and then goes into the service of a panhandler/dogseller in Budapest. From here Hagen is purchased and drugged and then trained to be an attack dog. These scenes are very difficult to watch, and I wasn't surprised when several people walked out of the picture at this point. Some people are kind to the dog. Most are not. And we follow the dog's own journey and from his perspective.

In this way, White God is, more than anything else, like Stanislav Rostotsky's beautiful 1977 film White Bim Black Ear (Белый Бим Чёрное Ухо). White Bim Black Ear is also about a white dog, the runt of a litter, who is adopted by a kind old man and then has a million adventures when the two are separated by the man's illness and the betrayal of an evil neighbor. There are also three children and a schoolteacher who befriend the dog at various points in the dogs picaresque journey across (it would seem) half of the Soviet Union. But this is where White God's similarity to any other dog film ends.

The reason you need to see White God is that the dog escapes. And the dog raises an army. And the dog comes back for the people who have hurt him. This beautiful animal, who is tortured into becoming an attack dog, forced to kill other animals, leads a revolt – of dogs against the humans who have mistreated them. All of a sudden, White God becomes a kind of horror film. At one point it occurred to me that I had no idea what kind of movie I was watching anymore. It moves outside of its genre. It becomes a thrilling and terrifying revenge film, where the revenger is a handsome brown dog, whom we know and understand very, very well.

But, as I said, Mundruczó has made a movie about the ethics of human interaction with animals. This is a film about how we care about the world in which we live and how we care for the other creatures that inhabit that world.

And god? I had simply assumed that White God was riffing on the title White Dog, and now that I've seen both movies I am not totally sure if it is or not. The original title is in Hungarian where there is no such pun, but it must be a riff on Samuel Fuller's title, right? That Mundruczó keeps the word white in the title, ought to be a clear indication that his film, too, is about racism.

The concept of a "white god" refers to colonialism and the idea that white people could go to other lands and assume a kind of deity, where they fantasized that the inhabitants of these places saw them as gods, where they could order them around, careless of their actual lives, treating them as slaves and creatures less than human. The parallels here are quite clear, and the film is about inequities among humans, as well as inequities among the other beings in our lives: dogs, cows, chickens, and other animals. Does a dog see a human as a kind of white god, does he look at us, waiting for orders, happy only to serve? Or is that simply our own fantasy about that dog: a fantasy we need so that we can believe in our own superiority, shoring up an idea of what humanity is? The film asks these questions masterfully, and the journey of this is absolutely thrilling. White God is an absolutely extraordinary film, peopled (haha) with real dogs, not digital re-creations. It is not for the squeamish, but it is not to be missed.