Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) “Purity of Earth”

From the very first scene of Nausicaä we can see that we are in a place of magical beauty. The trees, a windmill and the surroundings are coated in what looks like a spider-web or frozen snow; the flakes are falling around a man riding strange creatures, wearing a mask, looking bird-like. The man breaks down the door, the focus is on the skulls of unknown entities; he picks up a doll which disintegrates in his hand. He says: “Another village destroyed”, and the scene is cut to the image of blue, monstrous flying bugs.

The man concludes: “Let’s go, soon, this will also be consumed in the Sea of Decay”. Two minutes of the film have just passed and we already know a lot about the world we are witnessing, yet we wonder. We are sure that this is not the Earth as we know it, yet it similar to it, just distorted to the point of unresembling beauty. We find out that the Sea of Decay is consuming village after village, but we can only guess what it is. This opening of the film is powerful, gives us some information to ponder upon and wonder about and brings us into the world of decay, but also of stunning beauty.

Soon, we are informed in a caption that: “1,000 years after the collapse of industrial civilization, the Sea of Decay, a swamp exuding toxic vapors, covered an earth strewn with rusting ruins, threatening human survival”. One of the images shown, after we are informed that the legendary Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay and directed the film, presents a giant creature painted in flamboyant colors consuming a town. It is painted in the manner of a child, yet it is impressive. The Giant Warriors are shown with great rods in hands, surrrounded by fire, cities are in ruin. Thus, with the first reference to the element of Fire, we learn how the civilization came to an end. Bearing in mind the Japanese experience in WW2, one cannot escape the notion that this is an allusion to nuclear weapons, in a similar way Godzilla is.

We see a girl with angel’s wings, and cold colors dominating the movie are anticipated. The beginning is highly contrasted with the scene in which Nausicaä flies on a glider and the blue of the sky and sea prevails. This is again contrasted in the next image of a skull of a giant, which symbolizes death contrasted to Nausicaä’s serenity. She is the princess of the Valley of the Wind and has a “mysterious power” (in words of Lord Yupa) to calm and influence giant bugs, Ohms, to return to their forest and cease to be aggressive. The following verses from William Blake’s poem To the Muses can be used to describe Nausicaä:

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,

  Or the green corners of the Earth,

Or the blue regions of the air

  Where the melodious winds have birth

She is cheerful, kind and is embracing all the creatures that surround her (a fox-squirell for example); she is respected and adored by her people. In her father’s room there is the armor of a samurai with spears next to it and this reference to tradition cannot be overlooked. The oracle tells of a person “clothed in blue robes descending onto the golden field to join bonds with the great earth.” Now, the element of Earth is introduced and contrasted to the element of Fire. Later in the film, the oracle says that the creatures (Ohms) “reflect the anger of the earth”.

All the four elements that were important for Japanese mythology, Fire, Earth, Water and Air (i.e. wind) are present in the film. Their prominence was introduced to Japan via Buddhism and Indian vastu shastra philosophy. The oracle says that the ocean wind protects the people of the Valley; thus, Wind is represented as an element that enriches and preserves, along with Water. Fire represented the things that destroy, just as it does in the film.

Fire

Nausicaä finishes the oracle’s prediction with following words: “and guide the people to the pure land, at last”. “Pure Land Buddhism”, advocated the belief in the transcendent pure land which is impossible to reach in this world, since the world is necessarily corrupt. Thus, the myth is complete, a person will come to unite the bonds of men with the earth, but also bring them to the land of purity; in one word, he or she will end the corruption of men. Considering the ending, Nausicaä is an optimistic film. Although decay and death are prominent, there is a clear possibility of ending the corruption once and for all.

The idyllic setting is abruptly ended with the scene in which a Tolmekian ship comes and crashes into the cliff. The scene is consumed in blackness (the fifth element, the Void seems to make an appearance) and fire in which the Tolmekian ship burns. Nausicaä offers comfort to the dying Tolmekian princess and consoles her by saying that her cargo is in flames. In this scene, fire is a productive, positive element. It destroyed that which destroys. Valley of the Wind is attacked by the Tolmekians and the king is murdered in his bed. Thus, we see the symbolic fall of the Valley personified in the act of physical destruction of the king, the symbol and holder of sovereignty.

The people of the Valley of  the Wind enjoyed their tranquility and freedom due to their geographical position and belevolent rule. The Valley can be compared to Venice, serenissima (the most serene). The republic of Venice existed for a millenium, (just like the Valley), mostly due to its favorable geographical position and good fortune (Machiavelli), until Napoleon conquered it. Political philosopher Brian Barry writes that it was not uncommon in the history of humanity for the more advanced civilizations to be conquered by the less civilized warlike nations.

We learn that the Giant Warrior, whose kind once destroyed civilization, is kept by the Tolmekians. They aim to destroy the toxic jungle (i.e. the Sea of Decay) which consumes what’s left of civilization. The Giant Warrior is a weapon of mass destruction, and both Tolmekians and Pejites are aiming to possess it. They are engaged in an open warfare and throughout the film Nausicaä serves as a mediator between the forces, trying to convince them not to use the Giant Warrior. The Tolmekians and Pejites personify realpolitik, pragmatic approach to international relations which equates power with military force and might and gives prime importance to the interest of the state, which is  self-preservation in the first place. Both nations believe that getting hold of weapons of mass destruction (i.e. the Giant Warrior) is the only means to achieve security, both against other nations and the threat that the Sea of Decay poses.

 

Vigorous lines:

Every one of us relies on water from the wells, because mankind has polluted all the lakes and rivers. But do you know why the well water is pure? It’s because the trees of the wasteland purify it! And you plan to burn the trees down? You must not burn down the toxic jungle!

Nausicaä

Water - purity

Nausicaä finds this out when she falls through quicksand into a place where everything is pure and unpolluted. She says: “The trees of the Sea of Decay grew to cleanse a world polluted by humans. They absorb toxins from the earth, generate pure crystals, die and turn to sand”. She realizes that the Sea of Decay is a self-sustained ecosystem which purifies the water humans can use. Since humans polluted all the water, that is their only chance of survival. Ohms protect the trees and are living in unison with nature. An imbalance in the ecosystem, or even worse, its destruction, would destroy both the nature and human civilization. They live in mutual dependence and humans are not aware of it.

When Nausicaä falls through sand, she uncovers the world as it is beneath appearance. Other humans value only what they perceive, without inquiring into the nature of things; they are prone to solutions they envisage only by observing the surface, not the effective truth of things (veritá effetuale della cosa), in Machiavelli’s words. For him, we should not follow our imagination, but act in accordance with the world as it is. For Tolmekians and Pejites, the truth is obvious – there is a threat and it needs to be destroyed. For them “effective truth of the things” is to gain power to prevail and survive. Today, mankind is living in a world in which security threats are manifold, and policy can no longer be thought out in terms of amassment of power (economic or military power), regardless of threats to security which are created through our neglect of the environment.

Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) “Ship of Fools”

Dr. Strangelove, based on the Peter George novel Red Alert is clearly deeply rooted in its own time; shot when Cold War was in its zenith, yet it manages to speak to us. It will speak to us as long as Doomsday Machine in the form of the nuclear arsenal possessed by the major world powers exists. When the film came out in 1964, one reviewer called it: “dangerous… an evil thing about an evil thing”. Some compared it to Soviet propaganda, while others called it implausible, since allegedly, nuclear attack could not be ordered without the knowledge of the president of the USA. Today, we know this not to be true, as the New Yorker reports.

The relevance of Dr. Strangelove is all the more clear when we consider the fact that human species has lived with the possibility of an all out nuclear conflict for decades and it may be asserted that the fear of nuclear destruction is the hidden matrix of the modern mind. The shape of the nuclear detonation may very well be incripted in our collective unconsciousness, if we follow Carl Jung’s psychology and accept that there is such a thing as collective unconsciousness. We can also say that Dr. Strangelove represents the state of the Western mind at the time of the Cold War and is an invaluable historical document, or even a documentary, since the events in the film could happen in the way it was filmed.

 Mushroom Cloud

The code that the pilots in the film get, and start a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, is supposed to be used in case Washington is attacked and the president is not in a position to order a counterattack. President Eisenhower did in fact authorize six US officers to order a nuclear attack if there is not enough time to contact the president. Secretary of Defense McNamara expressed his concern regarding the possibility of a scenario we see in Dr. Strangelove, although we may presuppose that his imagination was not up to Kubrick’s.

The Cold War strategy relevant for the understnading of the movie, mutually assured destruction (MAD) implies that the nuclear conflict would lead to annihilation of all the countries engaged in the war, regardless of the military strategies used. For example, the strategy of massive retaliation, which means that the state responds with much greater force after the initial attack, can be useless if the other state’s capacity is of equal power in terms of nuclear weaponry. Doomsday Machine, a device in the film that the Soviets planned to activate and frighten the Americans, is based on the principle of releasing chemicals in the atmosphere that could make the world inhabitable for the next 100 years. In the spirit of Dr. Strangelove’s black comedy, the Soviets planned to announce that they have the device on Monday  but General Ripper already ordered the attack. Doomsday Machine is a brilliant metaphor for the nuclear arsenal the USA and the USSR possesssed, and the unimaginable repercussions an all-out war would have on the planet.

In the film, the infamous General Ripper, states that Clemenceau was maybe right in the First World War when he said that war should not be left to the generals, but in his words, the time has come when politicans are useless and the true strategists are in the military. This is a direct attack on democratic values which postulate that military is subordinated to the civil authority and echoes Okamoto’s film Japan’s Longest Day in which part of the military stages a coup to overthrow the government and continue fighting the Pacific War. The military in Okamoto’s film postulates that the country is lead by senile and cowardly politicians who need to be overthrown so that the martial spirit of the army can lead the nation. In Dr. Strangelove, General Buck explains that in case the war breaks out civilian casualties would be “only” 10-20 million and the Soviet Union would be destroyed.

Dr. Strangelove is a former Nazi scientist originally called “Merkwürdigliebe”, in English literally  Strangelove – whose name ironically alludes to Freudian eros, while General Ripper’s name is an allusion to thanatos, the destructive death drive. Strangelove is Pentagon’s leading scientist and his role in the film is that of a warning. The president of the USA listens to his advice of eugenic nature: chances to survive the catastrophe are non-existent, unless the selected few retreat 300 meters under the surface and start a new civilization. The question is, who will get the chance. The new civilization will need experts in governance and politicians are an obvious choice – that is said in a room crowded with politicans.

Those that are the superior in intelligence and strength get the chance to survive, and the means to select them are interesting. State statistics, medical records, census, all the biopolitical tools of the modern state, speaking in Foucauldian manner, are the means to select those who are “the best” to start a new civilization. The ratio of men to women is 1:10 and only attractive women should be selected “according to their sexual characteristics… of highly stimulating nature”. The warning Kubrick gives is alarming: Western democracies may be ready to accept the ideas of its sworn ideological enemy and ensure the existence of only those considered biologically superior in the face of extinction. In other words, deep down, men value eugenic and racist inclinations more than they are prepared to admit. The civilization which accepts the eugenic principles in the face of thanatopolitics is not only engineering its own destruction in terms of physical annihilation, but moral as well. Consciously attempting to create a new race of men is a straightforward National Socialist project. Dr. Strangelove calls the US president Mein Führer in a Freudian slip and instinctively raises his hand in a Nazi salute.

 

Vigorous lines:

You know when fluoridation first began?… Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

General Jack D. Ripper

The Telegraph writes: “Paranoia was common during the Cold War – the natural offspring of propaganda, ignorance, fear and secrecy”. The portrayal of Cold War paranoia is particularly vivid in the character of General Ripper who is obsessed with ideas of purity, contamination and losing one’s essence. He gets the idea, “during the physical act of love”, that America is losing its essence and is being physiologically contaminated by the communists via flouridation of water. He says to Mandrake, his subordinate: “Have you ever seen a commie drink a glass of water?… Vodka, that’s what they drink”.

In her article Purity of Essence in the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, paranoia and bodily boundaries Scarlet Higgins writes: “General Ripper narrativises his move towards nuclear apocalypse through an understanding of the (male) body – physical and national – as penetrated and fragmented by the substance most necessary to its survival – water. The paranoid subject perceives the national and/or physical body as constantly under threat of penetration by dangerous foreign forces and objects”. Ripper says that seven tenths of one’s body is made of water and seven tenths of Earth’s surface is water. He does not lead it to a conclusion, but it may very well be that since the communists don’t drink water and it is intimately connected both to the preservation of human body and Earth, the communists are bound to destroy both.

Water circle

 In one of his speeches J.F. Kennedy said: “For we are opposed around the world, by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means…” In the popular culture of the time (comic books, movies, novels), in the most popular genres, the political speeches, the signs of a paranoid structure of thought can be discerned. This can be easily understood through the fact that for the first time in history of mankind, the humanity has been lead to the possibility of complete annihilation. At the end of the film, when the bombs are falling on the Soviet Union, a pilot jumps along with the bomb, snaking and twisting as if on a rodeo horse, with a cowboy hat on his head, accompanied by a jazz tune. Kubrick majestically shows radical evil in a comic manner, and potrays how civilization ends; by forfeiting its own values, surrendering to the death drive and backed by a jazz tune.

 

References:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/bridge-of-spies/cold_war_paranoia

Scarlet Higgins, Purity of Essence in the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, paranoia and bodily boundaries, Textual Practice, Vol. 32, 2018

Lion King (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1994) “Circle of Life and the Other”

 

And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns

Nick Cave

Lion King opens with a song accompanied by beautiful scenery, showing the animals ranging from ants to elephants living in perfect harmony and joy: But the sun rolling high/through the sapphire sky/keeps great and small on the endless round/It’s the circle of life/and it moves us all/through despair and hope/through faith and love. Soon we meet the main antagonist, Scar, who appears contemptuous and cynical. When comparing hisemlf to king Mufasa, he says: “Well as far as the brains go, I’ve got the lion’s share, but when it comes to brute strength, I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene’s pool.” This is the first instance in which Scar identifies himself as cunning and crafty and Mufasa’s abilities with brute strength. Niccolo Machiavelli in his Il Principe wrote that a great prince has to have qualities of both lion and a fox. He has to know when to use brute force, and of course possess it, and learn to be cunning as a fox. Throughout the film we can see that Scar has the qualities of a fox and that Mufasa has the “brute strength” of a lion. This can be a key to understanding why both Mufasa and Scar failed as kings. Neither of them possessed both.

Mufasa says to Simba that beyond the North the territory is not theirs, and it is implicated that other animals live there. Scar tricks young Simba into going to the Elephant Valley where the hyenas reside, and Mufasa shows his strength and fends them off. Zazu defines hyenas as “slobbering, mangy stupid poachers”. Hyenas are presented as vile and reckless, yet it must be noted that their condition is that of extreme hunger. When Scar gives them meat they eat it instantly. In one word, hyenas are excluded from the animal polity and are left to starve, most likely because they are considered dangerous (and lions are sweet and symphathetic to the eye). Hyenas are not only excluded from the community of animals, but they also stagger around Elephant Valley as if being in a concentration camp.

They are in a sense, the Other, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as Dylan Evans writes, “designates radical alterity, an other-ness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification.” He also writes about the Others’ “radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness”. Scar organizes a coup through a scheme in which he kills Mufasa and forces Simba into exile, which follows his attempt to integrate hyenas into the polity. When Scar prepares a coup, hyenas are shown marching which seems to be an allusion to the National Socialist movement. Scar’s abilities of a fox win the day, but only to create a disaster since all the game escapes and hyenas are hungry once again (as well as the rest of the animals) and left unassimilated. Scar’s failure as a king can be explained in terms of Machiavelli’s republicanism; he did not succeed to rally the animals to his cause, make an “alliance” with them and thus failed.

Hyena

To sum things up, hyenas are shown both as the Other which has no place in polity because of their wild nature which cannot be tamed, and as the prime danger for the community. Hyenas are excluded from the “circle of life”, nature and the community of animals, just like non-white races were excluded from “humanity”. Firstly, during the era of imperialism the “primitive” African people were excluded from “humanity” since, as Hannah Arendt writes, they were not seen as human, yet “resembled” humans. Around the same time, for example in Germany, the idea of Yellow Peril appeared and Kaiser Wilhelm II championed the anti-Asian racist policy. In one word, throughout the history of the West, there were nations, races, which were not considered as part of humanity (i.e. the circle of life). The remnants of that kind of reasoning can easily be seen today and Lion King is a perfect example how that logic operates, hidden in the black and white narrative and cloaked in animal fur. Mufasa’s words to his son: “Everything you see exists here in a perfect balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antilope.” Except the hyenas, which need to be excluded so that the “balance” is not disturbed.

 

Vigorous line:

Hakuna matata! What a wonderful phrase/Hakuna matata! Ain’t no passing craze /It means no worries/ For the rest of your days/ It’s our problem-free philosophy/Hakuna Matata!

Simba, Timon and Pumbaa

 

This is not really a line to be considered great. Yet, it serves a purpose to illustrate not only Simba’s position as a character in a Disney animated movie, but also some contemporary discussions in Western society. Simba is suffering from a guilt complex since he believes he is responsible for his father’s death and escapes into the carefree land of illusion together with his friends Timon and Pumbaa. As Nala rightfully tells him, he is fleeing from his responsibility to reclaim his former status and fight for that which is rightfully his, to protect his family and subjects. When Simba and Nala fall in love, Timon regrets it since it will bring him “doom”. Romantic commitment and responsibilities are thus equated with unnecessary trouble.

Popular psychologist Jordan Peterson believes that young men (he is primarily adressing young men) need to take responsibilities and are not encouraged enough. The same point was already made in Lion King since Simba desperately craves for his father’s encouragement and when he gets it in the figure of his father in the sky, he accepts his responsibilities and fights against Scar. He wins the fight and reclaims his position as a king. If he had remained in the “carefree Paradise”, he would never have reclaimed his true identity. He would have remained deeply confused underneath and incapable of greatness. It seems that Lion King’s message, putting aside the earlier discussed discourse on exclusion, is to refuse to take hakuna matata as one’s motto and strive to fulfill oneself.

 

References:

Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, 2006

One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Dominik, 2016) “Nick Cave Speaking the Unspeakable”

 

William Faulkner once wrote: Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

These words, from the novel Light in August, have the quality of a prose poem. Their meaning eludes me, just like the understanding of this documentary eludes me. Its elusion is associated with its nature, the articulation of feelings and thoughts which accompany a loss beyond imagining: Nick Cave’s young son Arthur died by falling from the cliff in Brighton when he was 15 years old. When it is observed on the surface, one can tell that the documentary is about many things. It is about trauma. About the creative process which is hampered, yet endures. It is about change, our desire to stay the same (with modifications to the original model) and the wondrous ever-changing nature of women. It is about communion with fellow men. It is about the danger of words, the articulation of one’s feelings and thoughts, their implications. It is about art as a “metaphysical consolation” and, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “victory over suffering”. It is about transformations: we see the improvised interviews and the process of filmmaking – the transformation of the raw material of physical and mental pain into an expressionistic film.

 The documentary, like Faulkner’s quote, has the quality of a prose poem. Within that prose poem we can hear Cave’s prose poems beautifully expressed: Sometimes I get the elevator to the top of the Burj Al Arab/And shoot my guns across Dubai; My housefly tells me not to die/, because someone’s got to sing the stars/and someone’s got to sing the rain. The documentary and aforementioned Faulkner’s words have one more thing in common. Memory believes, and does not cease to believe its validity. It is solid. As Cave says toward the end of the film, the elastic nature of time brings one back to the memory. It is unavoidable and one is drawn back to it by its magnetic force. It is the nature of trauma. The documentary is eerie, yet beautifully eerie.

The title of the film most likely alludes to the rehearsals when one makes the record, the allusion points to the originally conceived nature of the film – it was supposed to be a documentary about making the record, yet, due to the tragic event, it turned out to be something completely different. Nick Cave was angry with the final cut since he found it exploitative, but later he embraced it as a gift to his wife, his son Arthur and himself. Like in the songs from the album Skeleton Tree Cave exposes himself; he did not cross out the words in the songs he wasn’t completely satisfied with and that contributed to the unparalleled nakedness which characterizes both the documentary and the album. The main difference between exploitation and sincerity in presenting oneself naked to the light of the public is in that very sincerity, which characterizes One More Time With Feeling.

The documentary is not only about Nick Cave, although his monologues, introspections and fragments of thought take the central position; it is about a community, mainly family, which is given the task to endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable. We can see the ruminations on everyday struggles which accompany the simple act of going to the bakery or buying a pack of cigarettes. In his review of the documentary for the Esquire, Ryan Leas writes that the documentary is “less explictly about Arthur Cave’s death and more about the ripple effects of that sort of catastrophe, the way everyone else finds their way back and keep working”. We can see his wife’s compulsion of moving the furniture around accompanied by “untapped creativity” which finds its expression in fashion design and is thus a victory over suffering.

 

Vigorous line:

You need… the imagination needs room to move. It needs room to invent. Um… and to dream, and when a trauma happens that’s that big… there’s no room, there’s just no imaginative room around it. It’s just the fucking trauma.

Nick Cave

 

James Dawes writes about the paradox of trauma: “it is unspeakable, but must be spoken. What makes a traumatic event traumatic is, in part, the impossibility of making it comprehensible. ‘Whatever pain achieves’, writes Elaine Scarry, ‘it achieves in part through its unsharability through its resistance to language.’” This understanding of trauma which Dawes presents helps us reveal the nature of the documentary and Nick Cave’s (at least speculatively) motivation to make the documentary, apart from desire to avoid the pressure to speak about the event in the press.

Although trauma is unspeakable, Nick Cave, with the face resembling that of a “battered monument” as the director Andrew Dominik said, Cave tries to put the unspeakable into words, as a significant part of what might consist the process of healing. Yet, the paradox seems unresolvable. The answer might lie in Frey’s speculation: “Only fictional accounts can come close (though still inadequately) to creating an understanding of trauma.” This brings us to the fact that Nick Cave is an artist who expressed his trauma in the album Skeleton Tree; the songs are sung in the documentary and can be a key, if not to understanding of trauma, then at least to a way in which trauma can be expressed through music and language.

Although Cave says that life is not a story in the documentary (i.e. it is non-linear, there is no narrative) in a rare interview Cave gave after Arthur’s death he said: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.”

It would be an exercise in schematism to understand Cave’s words solely in terms of their connection to the traumatic experience – Cave’s 2013 album Push the Sky Away followed more or less the same premises – yet, the connection with trauma cannot be completely dismissed. Hoffman wrote that “to make a sequential narrative of what happened would have been to make indecently rational, what had been obscenely irrational.” The turn from a sequential narrative may have been aggravated by a trumatic event, but, on the other hand it is a form of creative victory over trauma. William Faulkner wrote in the similar unsequential fashion in his Sound and Fury for example: what is incomprehensible is turned into art.

                  

References:

James Dawes, Evil Men, Harvard University Press, Cambridge/London, 2013

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) “Tragic Character of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz”

Preliminary remarks: There are several different versions of Apocalypse Now, including the theatrical release, the Redux version which is 53 minutes longer than the original and the 259 minutes long “VHS” version, which is now all but lost. This article is based on the Redux version, while the ending of the VHS version will be mentioned, and will be crucial to the interpretation. The Redux version significantly changes the film thematically, it draws the film closer to the book on which it is based, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

While speaking in Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola said that the film was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. The very conditions of the shooting resembled the madness of war so closely that, in the words of the director, the crew went mad. In the famous documentary about the making of the film Hearts of Darkness: Filmmaker’s Apocalypse Coppola said that they had too much money, too much equipment and that the crew (and Coppola himself) descended into madness step by step.

Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the shooting and Coppola’s response was that no one was allowed to have a heart attack on his set. Quentin Tarantino said that this was the moment when Coppola’s madness had started. When interpreting the film, one can take into consideration various sets of ideas which put a different light on the movie. The emphasis could be laid on the clash of civilizations, the critique of imperialism, the Vietnam war and the character study of Lt. Kurtz. This interpretation will connect the last two and focus on Lt. Kurtz, an army officer deeply commited to his ideals and his descent into the abbys.

In the remarkable opening scene we see the trees in the wind and The Doors’ song The End is playing. The forest is soon engulfed in flames and the face of captain Willard (Martin Sheen) appears which conveys emptiness bordering on despair. He is naked, drunk and dancing, breaks the mirror and his hand is bloodied.  He is shown in the most vulnerable position and says that, very hour he spends in the room he gets weaker, while they get stronger. We see a gun and from the very beginning we understand that we are in the realm of thanatos and despair.

 

He is taken by the army and set upon a task to find and assassinate an army officer named Kurtz who resides deep in the jungles of Cambodia an whose methods, as the army officer says, have become unsound. Kurtz is accused of ordering assassinations of the Vietnamese intelligence agents he believed to be working for the enemy. It is important to note that in contrast to Marlow, who in the novel Heart of Darkness embarks on an imperialist journey in Africa as an advanturer, Willard’s journey is not of his own will. This can be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that the Americans were “thrown” into Vietnam without choice, considering the balance of powers. This thesis is soon rejected when we hear Willard’s thoughts: It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.

Willard’s superiors emphasize that Kurtz was brilliant and outstanding in every way, but has “obviously gone insane”. We hear Kurtz’s words on the cassete player:

I watched a snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor and surviving… But we must kill them. We must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie and we have to be merciful to those who lie. Those nabobs. I do hate them.

Nabobs were British governors in East India, wealthy individuals who worked for the East India Company. Here, we witness the first reference to imperialism and Kurtz associating the Americans with imperialist powers. A snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor is a metaphor for Kurtz’s own condition and the Americans in Vietnam. His words can be compared to the condition of the crew working on the film in the Phillipines, going mad step by step. Kurtz advocates mass killings, the destruction of animals, villages and armies; he sees hypocrisy and lies around him and proclaims the Last Judgment in the Christ-like manner, as Michelangelo depicted it in his fresco in the Sistine Chapel. His agenda is annihilation as a reaction to the utter moral corruption and meaningless destruction. At the end of the film, we can see the following words written in blood on a temple wall: Apocalypse Now! A military officer says to Willard: “Out there with these natives, there must be a temptation to be God.” This is the very definition of hubris which for the Greeks meant the will to become like gods.

Willard’s first reaction to the order to assassinate Kurtz was: Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. As Willard reads documents on Kurtz he finds out that he graduated on Harvard with a thesis on the Philippine uprising in 1898. The American invasion of the Philippines in the end of the 19th century was clearly an imperialist conquest. This is the second allusion in the film which associates Kurtz with the critique of imperialism. In the famous scene in which the American helicopters invade a Vietnamese village and Wagner plays on the stereos the American understanding of the spectacle is more than evident.

 

The spectacle and the killings merge in an all-out show wich when compared with the scene with the Playboy bunnies portrays the interplay of eros, thanatos and spectacle. The scene in which a military officer explains how they bombarded the hill for hours and found out that there was nothing there, and that the smell later was of victory shows the non-utilitarian destruction which was commonplace in Vietnam. Hannah Arendt in her book Imperialism writes: “The most radical and the only secure form of possession is destruction for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours.”

The vision of French soldiers in the mist, which appears only in the Redux version of the film, casts a new light on the narration. Now, the allusion to imperialism is explicit. We can conclude that the scene with the French was important for Coppola from the beginning, since he mentions it in the documentary, but somehow it did not reach the theatrical version. The French are presented as phantasms of the past, who refuse to leave Vietnam, although the situation for them is hopeless. They persist with the idea that Vietnam is their home, that they cannot and will not leave. They discuss the foreign policies of their country with Willard and criticize the American endeavour as a fight “for the biggest nothing in history”. The old Frenchman keeps on saying I know that we can stay… We can stay…

 

Vigorous line:

The horror, the horror…

(said in a whisper)

Colonel Kurtz

At the very end of the movie, when Willard comes to the temple where Kurtz resides with his followers, Willard sees bodies hanged, heads on the ground and a deranged photojournalist who speaks frantically about Kurtz, calling him “a warrior poet” and recalling the scene when Kurtz wanted to kill him. Willard is in contact with a plane squadron bearing a suggestive name “Almighty”, which is prepared to bomb the temple, Kurtz and his followers. This reference to the Divine is a suggestion that Kurtz is a false deity, a golden calf, and the Americans are called upon to restore the Divine order by destroying the idolatry and restoring the true order. It can also be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that  hubris of the Americans is even greater than that of Kurtz. The Americans see themselves as the impersonation of the Divine will and thus their will to be gods is absolute.

When Willard meets Kurtz, his silence is indicative. He was mesmerized by Kurtz while reading documents about him and when he meets him he is captivated by the grandiose image Kurtz projects. Kurtz says that his allies are “horror” and “moral terror”. It is obvious that his motives are of moral nature and the reading of late Nietzche’s philosophy strongly suggests that crimes done in the name of morality are the most atrocious. Speaking of his recollections when he saw the Vietnamese cutting the arms of inoculated children, Kurtz speaks of the purity of the act and the bravery those men were capable of. He is the only one who refers to the Vietnamese as men, while the rest of the characters dehumanize them (gooks). What is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Apocalypse Now is the easiness with which Coppola transposed the behaviour of the Europeans toward African natives from Heart of Darkness  to the Vietnamese setting. Kurtz says that he can be killed, but cannot be judged; this is most probably a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Will to Power in which he wrote that for nihilism to be prevailed, values that pass judgment must be prevailed as well.

In stark contrast to the ending of Heart of Darkness in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s wife about his demise, Colonel Kurtz wants Willard to tell his son the truth about him. The question which needs to be posed is whether the truth about someone so inhuman yet all-too-human can be said to those who live in the comforts of civilization. This is one of the tragic elements of Kurtz’s destiny. During the scene in which by brilliant editing (cross-cutting) Willard’s murder of Kurtz is shown (who wanted to die like Socrates, if we are to believe Nietzsche), it is juxtaposed to the ritual slaughter of an animal. This suggests that Kurtz’s murder is also of ritual nature; in ancient civilizations the ritual slaughter of an animal was associated with an act of purifiction. Thus, Kurtz’s murder is puryfing, in the first place for him, since his life had become a circle of death and madness without end. His last whispers the horror, the horror, suggest that proposition.

When considering Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is necessary to highlight the distinction considering the word “tragic”, which exists in Croatian language. These are “tragično” and “tragičko”. The first one denotes the everyday use of the word “tragic”, which borders on banal. On the other hand, “tragičko” is characteristic of Nietzsche’s philosophy which foresees a tragic age (which existed in the pre-Socratic Greece) which will be the age of great purification, outbursts of genius and creative energy, but also the destructive age abundant with horrors and disasters.

Nietzsche saw Greek tragedy as the affirmation of life, but it must be highlighted that tragic characters in, for example, Aeschylus’ tragedies brought their fate upon themselves by their hubris. The same is implied for Kurtz; when he accepted to play role of a deity for the natives (as have all the imperialist powers) he precipitated his doom. The tragedy of Walter E. Kurtz is that the best of us can be tempted, fail to resist and fall into the horror of darkness. When Kurtz is killed, Willard sees a book in which the following written: Drop the bomb, exterminate them all. In the longest version of the film, the natives surrender and nevertheless, the bomb is dropped on them and they are all exterminated, as is vividly shown as a spectacle in the ending credits. Allmighty strikes, and the “Divine Order” of annihilation is established.

 

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmack, 2006) “Auschwitz of the Soul”

Introductory remarks: The painting selected alongside the headline of the article is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Mountains and Houses In the Snow”. His expressionism conveys the overstressed colors which are on the verge of puncture. For this article, white and its sublime horror presented in the painting are particularly interesting. The symbolism of this use of white will  be present throughout this article.

Regarding the title, I chose “Auschwitz of the Soul”, an expression used by a scholar of the German Democratic Republic, which implies the torture, submission and in the end extermination of souls of subjects in GDR. Kirchner’s painting may as well be an outline for the concentration camps with its strict order of the objects in the painting (the trees most particularly); its composition gives the impression that the mountains are subordinating the houses at the bottom with their immense might.

 

I repeat once again: we must know everything! Nothing can get past us. And some directors are not yet doing this. They don’t even notice it, comrades, some of those among us. They don’t even really understand it yet. That, precisely, is the dialectic of class warfare and of the work of the Chekists.

Erich Mielke, 1981.

[the head of  the  East German Ministry for State Security (Staasi)]

 

The film can be roughly divided into three acts. In the first, the actors are grouped on the stage according to their social status: a writer (Georg Dreyman), a Staasi officer (Wiesler), an actress  (Christa-Maria), a dissident, a theatre director, an ambitious and corrupt Staasi official. They are each shown in their own distinct light and are “waiting” to be fully developed. The interesting part of the first act is the abundant use of irony, even humor, but each of these figures of speech are either very close to cynicism, or are explicitly cynical. The second act begins with a suicide of the theatre director Jerska.

The reading of the film which tends to explain it in the terms of the Staasi officer being closely entangled with the lives of Christa-Maria and Dreyman as a catalyst for his transformation into a “good man” is only partially true. The tears appear in his eyes in the moment when he hears Dreyman playing Beethoven’s Apassionata and claiming that no man who actually hears this music can be evil. Georg’s expressive performance of Apassionata as a eulogy for his dead friend, seems to move the Staasi officer deeply. Georg quoting Lenin’s impressions on the musical piece most likely induced strong feelings in the man loyal to the regime, as well.

 

A few scenes after, Wiesler is reading Brecht’s romantic (in terms of a movement) meditations. It is art, combined with a genuine reaction to the terrible loss that moved Wiesler, not “passionate sex” of the couple as some may argue. Sex “moved” a voyeuristic officer who likes to supervise artists rather than priests since they are more sexually active. Wiesler tells Christa-Maria in a bar that she is a great artist, and he seems quite sincere. It is true that he starts to feel affection for both of them, but the reading of the film which emphasizes the role of carnal  and amorous relationship between the artists as Wiesler’s main motivation is simply incorrect.

In the third act, after Georg succeeds to get his article about suicides in the GDR published in Der Spiegel, the tragedy occurs once again and the transformation of  the Staasi officer Wiesler into a “good man” is complete. He uses all resources available to him to help Georg. Slavoj Žižek calls the presentation of Staasi in The Lives of Others “too modest”, but I tend to object. Horrors of Staasi are not presented on a “massive scale” in terms of intensity of prosecution, yet the horror of elimination of healthy interpersonal relationships and means of self-actualization is all too vivid. The aim of the film is not to present Staasi in a neo-realist manner; a certain romanticism in unavoidable.

Žižek also objects to the presentation of the minister’s vices  (the use of blackmail to get a woman) as a major plot element, since it is a universal phenomenon which is possible (and is often actualized) in all societies, democratic ones as well. That may be true, but the director’s goal was obviously to present a distinctly liberal argument of the power that corrupts absolutely, since it is absolute (lord Acton’s argument, which is disputable as a law of moral natures, but still highly relevant). The moral corruption is present not only at the highest levels of power structures, but at the lowest as well; it does not destroy bodies – it destroys souls. In a reference to Lipsky, I will call it the structurally caused street-level moral corruption.

A cinematic reference relevant to The Lives of Others, and more particularly Staasi’s praxis is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. In Murnau’s film count Orlok spreads plague and sends rats to the city as his agents. The plague which Staasi spread was in the form of total control, imprisonment, surveillance and destruction of interpersonal relationships. I will call it the white plague in direct reference to Kirchner’s painting. It is rather invisible, does not aim primarily at the bodies, but souls of its subjects. Orlok’s rats are equivalent to the Staasi informers.

 

Vigorous line:

What is a director if he can’t direct? He’s a projectionist without a film, a miller without corn. He’s nothing.

Albert Jerska

The scene in which Jerska and Georg discuss his position as a theatre director banned to direct is abruptly cut and the shot which succeeds it shows the surveillance apparatus in darkness. This example of powerful editing intimately connects the Staasi with the role of the artists in GDR. Aforementioned Jerska’s thoughts pose a fundamental question of the relationship between artist and his essence which is connected with his artistic work in the most innate manner. If the writer cannot write or director cannot direct, he is stripped of his self, of his innermost being. The most chilling and uncanny phenomenon in the film is the case of Christa-Maria. She is an actress and an artist who, like Jerska, is confronted with the possibility of ceasing to be an artist.

The decision which she has to make; whether to betray her lover or cease to be an actress is a tragic choice. Either she has to forsake her ethical beliefs and betray her feelings or abandon art. In both cases she loses a significant portion of that which makes her what she is. In her case the Auschwitz of the soul is most vivid. Totalitarian regime’s goal, as Hannah Arendt writes, is to reduce human beings to their basic biological impluses and needs; to be controlled entirely, stripped of their essence as social beings and ther intimate self which constitues them. The horror of destroying one’s soul draws us back to Kirchner’s painting which shows desolate landscape which is intense and horrifying. Life in totalitarian regimes is pure zoe, life stripped to bare life. The Lives of Others‘s Sonata for a Good Man is similar to the comforting vision a child sees in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is a welcome illusion brought to life which tries to ease us with the belief in our fundamental goodness, but, witnessing the horrors of the life eliminated one may ask oneself together with Theodor Adorno, is poetry even possible after Auschwitz.

 

References:

Jens Gieseke, The History of the Staasi, East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990, Berghahn Books, Potsdam, 2014

 

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013) “Nature or Nurture?”

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son explores the meaning of the proverb in the film’s title and whether it can be the justification and the solution to the tragic choice characters in the film are forced to make. Ryota is a workaholic and a successful businessman, hardly spending time with his family; his wife tells him that he has been telling them for six years that they will spend Sunday together. He says that he does not have time for losers, believes that the strong succeed while kindness is nothing but vice. Their lives change abruptly when they find out that their son Keita is not their biological child and that the children were swapped in the hospital. Ryota’s first reaction to this discovery is: “Now I understand.” He feels that his son’s Keita’s lack of strength and gentleness is an explanation for his not being his son, due to his self-image of success and strength, which he projects on others as well. Soon they meet the parents of their biological child (Ryuseki) and they have to decide whether they will swap the children or raise the one they already did for six years.

In his book Moral Dilemmas Daniel Statman writes: “Tragic choices are situations in which whatever a person does, he would irreparably damage one of the projects or relationships which he pursued and which shape his life.” The choice Midori and Ryota have to make, as well as the couple who raised their biological child, certainly falls in this category since whatever they choose, they will irreperably damage their lives. Either they have to give up the child they grew to love over the six years they raised him or they have to give up raising their biological child. Ryota’s co-worker calls the situation a tragedy, and certainly it is tragic. In the hospital the staff say that 100% of couples decide to make the swap. Nevertheless, the decision cannot be made in advance since a variety of factors are to be considered; ethical, emotional, the well-being of a child, the psychological effect this will have on him and so on. The fundamental question for the parents is whether the heritage which defines parenthood is strictly biological or a matter of socialization as well.

Eating Our Meal

Eating Our Meal, Japanese girl, age 7

Found on https://library.illinoisstate.edu/icca/exhbits/japanese.html

Yukari, who raised Ryusei, is Ryota’s opposite. He is a shopkeeper, spends a lot of time with his children, bathes with them, flies kites and behaves like a  child himself when he is with his children. In his Twillight of Idols Friedrich Nietzsche writes: “Leading a long life, having many descendants [my emphasis], these are not rewards of virtue; rather, virtue is itself a declaration of the metabolism that brings about (among other things) a long life with many descendants…” At one point in the film, Ryota suggests to Yukari that he raises both children, since their future must be taken into consideration. In other words, since Ryota has much more financial capital, is younger and “stronger in metabolism”, he has the right to more descendants than Yukari does. Yukari is of course, deeply offended by that suggestion and refuses it. Things change dramatically and in an ironic fashion when Ryusei, Ryota’s biological son, comes to live with him. Ryusei runs away from Ryota’s apartment and comes back to Yukari, whose wife says: “We have no problems with having both Ryusei and Keita.” Although Ryota has a larger financial capital, it turns out that a child’s desire for care and attention is stronger than for things Ryota has to offer, and it seems that Yukari is the one who is more virtuous than Ryota.

 

Vigorous lines: 

I’d like him to live with us, he is of my blood.

Ryota

Your blood? In our time and age it does not matter.

Ryota’s lawyer

 

The problem posed from the very beginning of the film is whether being of one’s blood is still an argument strong enough to consider one’s biological child one’s own, in favor to the child a person has brought up. Ryota’s lawyer argues that blood does not matter “in our time and age”, while in premodern or early modern societies this kind of dispute could be easily solved – blood is more important than emotional bonds, or the subject of nurture (exceptions were adoptions by feudal lords for an example). Psychonalysts would say that we as human beings are formed in our early childhood; although Ryusei and Keita were brought by their non-biological parents, their psyche is formed through the influences of their “foster parents”. In the hospital the staff says that incidents of this kind were happening in the  60’s and Keita’s grandmother says that adoption was not uncommon during the wartime years and strong bonds between children and foster parents were formed, in other words she opts against the swap.

Ryota’s father says: “Well, have you got to know him?… Does he look like you? Of course he does. That’s what family means. Ones children are like one, even if not living together… Listen to me, it’s a matter of blood. It’s the same in humans as it is in horses. This child will be more and more like you.” While his father opts for the swap, his mother says that living with someone and loving him makes him more like you. In these observations the eternal question whether genetics or our upbringing make us who we are can be discerned.

DNA (2)

In his writings, particularly Being and Time Martin Heidegger stressed out that Dasein (for Heidegger the term means the existence which makes his being an issue) is temporal, not merely because it exists in time, but because it is rooted in temporality – the unity of past, present and the future. By encountering himself in his historical “heritage”, he opens up possibilities of his being. Dasein is authentically historical. His authenticity, which Heidegger understands as the appropriation of himself, can be attained or not. The key figure in regard to this observations is Ryota’s biological son Ryusei who fights being transferred to another home without any explanation whatsoever. He becomes authentic in the acts of defiance, he understands his heritage in terms of his upbringing. Keita remains passive throghout the whole affair. The historical character of Dasein is revealed throughout the movie and the main debate is, as noted above, in the character of that historicity.

In the somewhat ambiguous ending, Ryota and Keita are walking down the separate paths and Ryota is apologizing to him. They meet at the end of the paths which at some point come together. Symbolically it may mean that although they were living together throghout Ryota’s life, they were walking separate paths. Symbolism can be twofold. They were walking seperate paths because Ryota never spent time with him, and on the other hand, because he is not his biological father. Nevertheless, at some point they do come together and the ambiguous ending offers a possible solution. Whether he will stay with Ryota or not, we can only guess, in the same manner in which the problems posed in the film are a conjecture themselves.

References:

Daniel Statman, Moral Dilemmas, Amsterdam-Atlanta, Rodopi, 1995

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twillight of the Idols: or How To Philosophize With a Hammer, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1986