Monday, July 17, 2017

How Little We Know


I'm old enough to have been captured by Humphrey Bogart's screen charisma. To Have and Have Not was created by Howard Hawkes, et al, the year after I was born. But I didn't see that remarkable film until we purchased a Dish subscription about ten years ago, more or less. I'd seen Casablanca several times, probably the first time at a UNC “free flicks” screening in the late '60s. I particularly recall seeing the film in Washington, DC, in the early '70s, at a theatre so full that I had to sit down in the very front row. With that perspective the plane taking off at the end, with Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, seemed to take off straight up, like a V-2 rocket. Beyond that, there was little damage to the movie.

Casablanca is a romantic tragedy, and a call to arms. It's much like Mrs Minerva, another beautiful film that I came to after I had access to Dish and TCM. My appreciation of these sorts of movies was certainly sharpened by my education, by reading Hemingway and Camus and Norman Mailer. I think my parents' way of looking at life was shuffled in there somewhere. There was a lot in life that you'd best be capable of “taking” without breaking. That's just how it was, and part of their education in the '20s and '30s. The eventual triumph of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 was historically coupled with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War. This historical flow around me was not a message of short term optimism. Nixon was elected as a “peace candidate” in 1968. Alternatives were eliminated during the campaign: first Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert Kennedy.

The first time I watched To Have and Have Not it was easy to appreciate that it was a film that consciously traded on the reputation of Casablanca, and of Bogart, an existential hero along with Gary Cooper. (Probably the first “adult” movie I experienced was High Noon—my father very much approved of the message of that film.) I didn't immediately understand how specific and detailed was the relationship between Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. I was just following the immediate plot of the film. I probably caught the most famous line--”you know how to whistle...?”--but some of the other wonderful zingers, including “are you guessing her weight, Steve?” flew past, over my head.
Well, ok, William Faulkner is credited with the screen-writing.

I watched To Have again over the weekend. These days it's a staple at TCM, which is ok by me. Perhaps because I was at this point entirely aware in advance of the plot, I actually heard all of the nuanced dialog. The whistle line is still great, and wonderfully played. But the most poignant line this time around was Bogart's observation that Bacall's Slim had been through things, because she hadn't flinched when the Vichy detective slapped her for “insolence.” “Why did you come to Port of France” the cop asks. “To buy a hat,” she replies. We can all watch that scene, but Bogart instructs us on the character revealed, in case we hadn'd noticed. And it's a character he admires. They're both “tough cookies,” which is to say, seasoned veterans of life.

At some point during my Saturday viewing I realized that the genius idea Howard Hawkes had was to redo Casablanca, but this time around, give “Mr. Rick” a great girl friend. The whole exotic location is just paint color. North Africa? Martinique? What's the difference. In both films the same tension exists between Bogart's existential hero, working to stay apart from the great moral question of the day, which really amounts to “Why aren't you in the Army, son?” And the forces of oppression, in both cases the Vichy government, the Vichy police. The same moral quandary arrives in the form of a resistance hero and his wife, both of them beautiful blondes. In Casablanca Rick finds the exit visas for them. In To Have Bogart removes a bullet, then once again enables them to escape.

But this time around, the romance comes from another quarter. Slim has arrived before the resistance hero and his beautiful wife, and she explicitly makes fun of the romantic tragedy the resistance hero's wife touches on after being captured by Bogart's skill at first aid. Bacall even quotes, explicitly and with hilarious irony, the lines she's just heard the hero's wife say to Bogart. “I don't think I'll ever be angry at you again.” Bacall only adds some fluttering eyelids. That cements his appraisal of her in Steve's mind. He later, as things wind towards happy resolution, tosses her a wonderful zinger in reply. “Give her my love,” Bacall says as Steve makes one last check on the patient, hiding down in the cellar of the bar. “If's she's wearing that dress” (the one Bacall has on), “I'll give her my own.”

If I wanted to teach a course in the difference between comedy and tragedy, I might assign these two wonderful films. Both end with resolutions that are driven by the need of audiences to get at least a little good news. Shakespeare didn't shrink from “reality” like that. We don't know, in fact, if Steve and Slim and Walter Brennan and the resistance fighters will make it to the mouth of the harbor. We don't know if the airplane with Bergman and Henreid actually makes it to Portugal, or if Mr. Rick manages to become a successful resistance fighter. You want to watch some more realistic stories of World War II, try Melville's Armies of the Night, or Rossolini's Open City. Resistance was a terrible choice even if it was the only one. But at least in To Have the immediate romance is fulfilled. Casablanca leaves us with the tragic promise of “I'll Be Seeing You,” which was the fear everyone carried until the war was over. My very first memory, when I was between two and three years old, is of my father bursting in to report that the war was over.

The American audience has mostly turned away from that dark truth, of how deep the losses really are. Perhaps this is why we're where we are today. The propagandists have won, at least for the moment. They have the biggest megaphones, a physics that did not escape Goebbels, the genius of propaganda, and has apparently never been allowed out beyond the confines of the academic study of advertising in this great land of ours. Today Fox News is on the attack, bashing real news with every passing day. Over the weekend Fred C.Dobbs, on the Fox News channel, said the “deep state” was engaged in a coups. The ever changing stories of the Administration count, to Mr. Dobbs, as “fake news” because they are reported. Sean Hannity can be directly lied to, in real time, by one of the facilitators of the Russian operation to capture the Presidency, and can still talk about “fake news” in the next moment. “Fake News” is a great phrase. It resonates. As usual, the public mostly doesn't want to hear the real stuff, uncut. This means that there's a given willingness to suspend disbelief. Fake news it is. They are going to get those coal mines going again, just you wait. In my little town, the furniture factories are going to get cranking before long. Or at least the chicken plants. Of course the last standing plant has just been demolished to literal rubble by the biggest successful business in the area, D. H. Griffin Wrecking and Scrap Metal.

We Americans just don't like real tragedy. Before the little scrap metal processing company I worked for closed its doors for good last year, we used to get frequent visits from a nice local kid in an old white Chevy pickup. He was full of energy, and hauled some decent scrap, which in the good times that preceded our closing (and the world-wide drop in the price of scrap) would make him a decent pay day. It's true that his mom called us once complaining that he'd stolen a load from her pile—she also brought scrap now and then—but that was almost funny, the travails of a scrappin' family. Last week, according to our very local paper, this kid, 24 years old now, had been killed in a single vehicle wreck at 3 AM on a rural road not so far from my kitchen. Traffic, it was reported, was tied up as they worked to get his vehicle, and his body, out of the woods. He'd hit two trees. Excessive speed. No mention of “substances,” which probably didn't mean very much. Quite a lot of promise lost. He was working on getting his commercial driver's license the story reported. Who knows if he even voted back in November. If he'd gotten that CDL he might have been hauling the chicken plant rubble for D.H., and at the same time dreaming of an office job in a new chicken plant courtesy of the Make America Great team by the time 2020 rolled around.

Sartre wrote a play once called No Exit. Far as I know it was never popular in Chatham County. Too French.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Chilly Winds




My mother used to tell me a story with a message in it, about life. I think it is an Aesop's Fable. It's likely found in more than one cultural tradition. This is the message of Joseph Campbell: look around and you'll find resonances in many cultures. I was probably about five years old the first time she told the story to me. The story was basically this:

A god (or God) was having an argument about power with one of his minions, perhaps Satan in his pre-Fall state, if you want to get all Miltonic about it. Satan says, “See that guy down there, all wrapped up in his big fur coat, shivering in the North wind. I'll bet you I can make that guy take his coat off by blowing twice as hard.” So God says, “You're on. And I'll up the ante. I'll bet you I can make him take his coat off by not blowing at all.” And the two of them clink their glasses of mead and give a hearty laugh.

So there's the bet. Satan blows harder and harder, so hard that finally he gets plumb dizzy and has to sit down. Then God simply wipes away the clouds and shines the sun down on the freezing traveler, and in a few minutes off comes the coat.

Apparently Satan learned the lesson. “Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.” By then he'd Fallen, and his aim was to discredit guile so as to more easily trick us muddled humans into trying something else, more to his liking in the big picture of things, which is of course to make our little planet as terrible a hell as can be imagined.

Our most underrated trait, as humans, is probably multi-generational resilience. We create children, young people, who mostly start out seeing the future hopefully no matter what has happened to their parents and grandparents. This isn't always true of course. Sometimes this trait so annoys people with other agendas that they employ scientific methods aimed at training hope right out of the young. Some of these people mount armies of children, and train them to kill, and work at destroying all empathy. Take a ten-year-old, give him a pistol, have him shoot someone in the back of the head, then praise him mightily, call him a hero, give hm a birthday cake. Sometimes it works. For an exploration of this story, and how it works and how it sometimes doesn't, see Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien.

You could say that the 9/11 attack was an example of the bitter destruction of empathy. The men who planned and carried out the attack cared only about the symbolism of the buildings, and entirely put aside the real people who happened to be in the buildings. As well, they wanted to show the world that empathy was not going to stop them, just as fourteen years later ISIS wanted to show the world the same thing by cutting off the heads of their captives, no matter who they were.

But this battle of an eye for an eye was surely joined long before 9/11. There can be no doubt that from the point of view of a person struggling to survive in Afganistan or Iraq in 2000, there had been already many bitter blows, and a long chill wind. As many people said when we decided to attack and invade Iraq in 2003, “it's all about the oil.” Who's oil?

9/11 upped the ante, or perhaps to use another metaphor, accelerated the death spiral. Our attack on Iraq gave another goose to the accelerator. There is no obvious end point to this.

Meanwhile, there remain (until they vanish) other possibilities. Some smart, scientific-minded girls from Herat, Afganistan, applied last week for permission to come to the US and participate in a science forum on robotics. They are earnest, serious looking people, these young women. They come from a part of Afganistan that has a great, centuries old tradition of science, and more affinity with Iran than with the Pastun-speaking and Taliban supporting peoples of Afranistan who reside nearer the Pakinstani border. Nontheless, these young women were summarily denied entry into the US. The “travel ban” is a cold North wind.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world-0/us-afghanistan-robotics-robot-inventors-teenage-girls-first-global-challenge-kabul-citadel-travel-a7818191.html

There are a lot of stories covering the denial, you can google yourself.

This is what we have as US foreign policy these days—a cold North wind. The Herat girls live in a country that in significant measure frowns on women having any education at all. Apparently Mr. Trump stands with the Taliban on this. It's another weary example of Billie Holiday's strange fruit. It has been, for pretty much ever, the response of some of us. It is perhaps a definition of authoritarianism. Put their heads on pikes lining the road to the palace. All will bow down and tremble. There will be a final end to those who dare to complain. The more brutal, the more effective.

The horror is that there is no way to entirely refute this Satanic dream. The horrors can be multiplied. People in Herat probably invented multiplication a thousand years ago. Yet these girls thought the effort was worth it. Perhaps the US simply has gotten away with too much for too long. Too many of us simply do not imagine the possibility of being in the footsteps of these girls, making their way from Herat to Kabul to apply for a permit at the US Embassy. I believe I read last week that some 4,000 more US troops are on their way over there.

We never looked into the face of oblivion, except for our soldiers, who went and either came back or didn't. If you came back, we said, “Get over it.” In Japan, in Germany, in France and Great Britain and the Soviet Union, they lived it. It was harder to forget in those places. Here we've already put up a new, better tower, and there are mostly just brief glimpses of the old twins in movies from the '70s and '80s.

When you finish with Lacombe, Lucien, try Fasbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun.

My mother was of course also teaching me about how to get along with my father.