Michelangelo Antonioni, L’eclisse (1962)

It is somewhat ironic that we are commemorating a total solar eclipse which occurred in the United States a week ago, with a film that can be easily interpreted through Marxist lenses. Although, since the Cold War is over, one can afford such leeway. Speaking of the Cold War, L’eclisse was filmed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and is heavily influenced by that very experience the world had gone through. Trees in the film remind of the shape of a nuclear blast, which is very likely rooted in our collective unconscious, if we follow Jungian psychoanalysis.

The film follows Vittoria (Monica Vitti – one of the most talented Italian actresses of that era), self-confident but fragile young woman who engages in romantic escapades or long-time relationships while seeming to be reluctant to allow herself to be seriously emotionally involved. She longs for security; as we can see at the beginning of the film when she lies in a fetal position, but she also longs for freedom and is repelled by what she perceives as impediments that men bring to her life.

The first man that we can see she encounters is her adolescent amour, the man who wants to marry her, but she escapes from such a possibility and encounters a young man of materialistic nature. He sees the world through the lenses of a man who mostly deals with numbers, money to be more exact. At one moment in the film, he says that he had dinner with “seven or eight billion liras”. When he meets Vittoria, all he talks of are his cars and the money he earned. The angles from which the scenes of Vittoria and her companions are filmed imply emotional distance (we can often see their backs).

What’s even more symptomatic are the scenes of the behaviour of businessmen at the stock exchange; Antonioni dedicates a fair amount of screen time to such scenes to highlight its barbaric and crude nature. At one  moment of silence is had for a “fallen comrade”; the angle from which the scene is shot makes it similar to a religious experience at a chapel. Both romances fail, the second mostly because the tender and poetic side of Vittoria simply cannot digest Piero’s crude materialism.

Stock Exchange

 

The two themes with which Antonioni deals predominantly in this film are the alienation of modern man and the  banality of romantic love. The first theme is explored in his early neorealist films (most notably Il grido), but is elaborated upon fully in the trilogy L’Eclisse is the part of. The scenes which deal with a woman who was born in Africa symbolize the need of modern man to escape alienation through immersion into the life of “primitive” people and intimate encounter with nature. Antonioni points out that this is impossible. The Westerner sees the Africans through the lenses of modernization theories which value other cultures according to their level of industrial, economical (etc.) development.

The banality of romantic love in the bourgeoise society has an important aspect that needs to be considered. Love is no longer destructive in the manner Homer depicts it (Troy is sacked because of eros), or as later poets and authors do. The main danger, as Antonioni sees it, is that romantic love becomes a trifle, a commodity which takes boredom away.

The beautiful final shots in the film show desolate town landscapes with worried and devastated people (the nuclear threat); the shots of water represent life which is slowly fading away into the nothingness of Boudelairean spleen permeating the industrial landscapes resembling those in Antonioni’s Red Desert.

 

Vigourous line:

 “There are times when holding a needle and a thread, or a book, or a man – it’s all the same.”

Vittoria

African Weaving

This line can be interpreted from several different angles. It presents Vittoria in a vulnerable moment of passive nihilism, but also the desire to transcend that feeling. It is important to note the symbolism of tropes she chose to say. A needle and a thread are intimately connected to the art of weaving. It is a delicate skill, but also the one which connects threads into something new, which can be beautiful and awe inspiring.

In Plato’s Statesman weaving is compared to the statestman’s role. He needs to weave divergent and analogue threads into a polity. A “book” can imply numerous things like exploring the uncharted seas, but also late-night boredom and fatigue. Associating all these tropes with the romantic relationship is intellectualy stimulating and interesting. It can inspire countless interpretations, the one that highlights the emotional state of the main character, but also her subconscious desires and imagination.

Hrvoje Galić

 

Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon (1950)

To claim that Akira Kurosawa is an enigmatic director would be an understatement. One of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history, but also a paradigm (and a synecdoche) of post-war Japan, he combines influences from Western literature (e.g. Dostoyevsky) and philosophy with distinctive Japanese aesthetics and tradition. After the American occupation, Japan found itself flooded with Western influence but also wanted to preserve its cultural heritage. This makes Akira Kurosawa one of the most interesting directors of the Japanese post-war era (other notable examples are Shōhei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara, just to name a few).

Rashōmon begins with the conversation between a woodcutter, a local thug and a priest. The priest says: “War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters… I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.” The apocalyptic heavy rain that falls during the film gives the movie its somber tone but also sends a message to the viewer: The catastrophe is about to happen. This quote may very well be a paraphrase from The Book of Revelation attributed to John. This sets the tone and the viewer may most correctly anticipate the horrors ahead.

 

Durer Four Horsemen

Albrecht Dürer, The Apocalypse: The Four Horsemen

Rashōmon tells the story of a murder and rape from four different perspectives. We can guess, almost with certainty, that they are all lies. A bandit (Toshiro Mifune) sees a noblewoman, considers her a goddess and wants to have her. He decieves her husband, dishonours her and then kills the husband. All of these facts are presented in all four stories so we can claim that the events unfolded in this manner.

The film draws heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism. In his famous essay On the Genealogy of Morality, he writes: “There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’; the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’“.

Thus, paradoxically, the farther we are from the „self-evident truth“, the closer we are to the real truth at hand. For Nietzsche, there are no absolutes, no dogmas to believe in, no Truth. We can suppose that Kurosawa was familiar with Nietzsche’s work since in his Ikiru there are some lines that are straightforwardly Nietzschean. Keeping in mind these arguments, we can put the four stories by different characters into perspective and try to be nearer to the truth. This interpretation presumes that all these four stories are lies.

Note: This interpretation does not claim to be a definitive one, it is just that, an interpretation, one out of a thousand and one possible. Each character has his own motives to lie; the first three out of pride and desire to present themselves as strong or honourable, while the Woodcutter has his own motives that are the hardest to decipher.

Story A – Tajōmaru

By observing Tajōmaru’s erratic and uncontrolled behaviour and his vanity, we can tell that he considers himself a great warrior; in his version he is bragging about the way he killed the nobleman.

The reason why the story is a lie:  Tajōmaru seems to project his proud temper and fierceness to the woman he is in love with.

Story B – Samurai’s wife

It is obvious that she feels shame because she was dishonoured and wanted to commit suicide. She fantasizes of killing her husband because she resents him for not protecting her and thus facilitating the violent end.

The reason why the story is a lie: It is obvious that in the court she manipulates the judges and talks of suicide in a manner that is too blunt.

Story C – The spirit of the Samurai

He feels what Nietzsche termed as ressentiment (to look at someone with an „evil eye“, to feel resentment, to say it bluntly – the term is much more complex and far-reaching) toward his wife. He is angry because she let herself be dishonoured and then chose to live in shame.

The reason why it is a lie: His feelings and suffering in hell make him vulnerable to misinterpret himself and others: out of all the first three characters, he has the strongest urge to lie.

Story D – the Woodcutter

The story he presents seems to be in line with his concept of justice (both the Samurai and Tajōmaru are not virtous men), but is not the „real“ story.

The reason why it is a lie: Usually the interpretations tend to emphasize that he should not be trusted by the viewer because he stole the dagger (e.g. Donald Richie). That very well may be true, but also, his black-and-white moral beliefs (he simplifies morality in an almost Manichean form) cloud his judgment and he wants to believe that the world is a just place: Kurosawa suggests that it is not.

Vigorous line:

„Well, we are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth even to themselves.“

Commoner

„That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to decieve themselves.“

Priest

An Allegory of Truth and Time

Annibale Carraci, An Allegory of Truth and Time

In his novel Light in August William Faulkner writes: „They say that it is the practiced liar who can deceive. But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been selfconvicted of veracity whose lies find quickest credence.“

This quote from Faulkner’s novel captures the ideas Kurosawa presented, only with more psychological depth. The mechanism „works“ as follows: to mantain our positive image of ourselves we create lies about ourselves. Since we consider ourselves credible, we start to believe our lies and they become the „truth“.

Precisely that happens with Tajōmaru, the Noblewoman and the Samurai.  Nietzsche used to highlight that illusions are necessary for certain types of living, with the truth at hand, we suffer pointlessly. Dostoyevsky once wrote that if we told the truth, the naked truth to others, life would be unbareable.

Hrvoje Galić

 

 

Ingmar Bergman, Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman is a director who can deliver more in a half an hour of a film than most directors do in their career. A true giant and a poet of human suffering; he deals with the pain of being a man in ways similar to those of Michael Haneke. Both of them show the causes and effects of psychic suffering, but in different manners. Bergman goes farther and more rivetingly than anyone else. In his film Persona he follows the actress Elisabet Vogler takes a vow of silence, she is mute while acting as Elektra (a possible allusion to Electra’s complex) and she travels to an island (a constant Bergman leitmotif) with Alma, a nurse who becomes infatuated with her and their personalities seemingly blend.

To emphasize the word seemingly, it must be said that it is much more complex than a simple gaze can suggest. Firstly, Elisabet is the one who seems to “overpower” Alma mentally. They are both mentally very strong; Elisabet is older and thus more experienced, but as Alma says later in the film, she is young and adaptable, she can change. The term which is predominant in the film is to analyze, it is another constant Bergman motif (e.g. Through the Looking Glass). At first, Elisabet analyzes Alma and betrays her and later Alma does the same to Elisabet, but in a much more cruel fashion. She strips her naked until Elisabet is completely crushed.

 

The psychoanalyst who (like many others) distanced himself from Freud – Carl Jung – defines the term persona as: “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression on others, and on the other to conceal  the true nature of the individual”. Elisabet is obviously trying to conceal and hide her true nature, which is revealed by Alma at the end of the film. But, as the psychiatrist suggests, that is simply not possible. Her reactions to the outside world reveal as much as her words. The merging of personalities surely does happen, but only in certain moments of weakness. In other moments, they are individuals who strive to accomplish themselves, each in their own way. Elisabet, as an actress, tries to exclude herself from her sorrows, while Alma follows her instinct for security and everlasting bonds.

Vigorous line:

Elisebet’s silence

Romaine Brooks

Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein

Throghout the whole film, Elisabet says only one sentence and Alma asks herself whether she heard it well and if it really happened. Elisabet may be compared to stone, while Alma with her remodeling of herself, with water. Stone statues are shown a few times during the film, and in one shot Alma is shown as she is talking to one of them. Lighting in the film is spell-binding, light is rather dim, pointing to the solitary pain of the heroines. The earlier mentioned Jungian term persona implies the mask one wears in public; this makes one’s personality mildly schizophrenic and this is the theme Persona deals with mostly. We can see this friction vividly in Elisabet’s personality.

She seems cold and indifferent, but when she watches the burning corpse on the television, we can clearly see her overwhelming sensitivity. One of the most important aspects of Elisabet’s character is that she is an actress. She is trained to decieve, to pretend to be someone else. Her voluntary silence shows the great strength of character, but also the inability to cope with herself and her surroundings. She simply cannot, not only live with, but live the mistakes she has made in her life. She seems to channel her hatred toward Alma, but the hatred is her own, directed at herself. Elisabet is played by Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s long-time associate and companion.

In one interview when she talks about Bergman, she says that people who live with the darkness they possess in themselves, with the horrros of  solitary pain, transfer that energy toward others. This is precisely what happens in Persona, Alma becomes both infatuated with Elisabet’s charisma, but it is also utterly destructive for her. In the end, she repossesses herself but serves as an agent of destruction and fury. The final monologue is filmed from two angles, each showing the face of one of the heroines. It may be harrowing to watch, but Bergman’s brilliance and genius lies in presenting the darkest aspects of psyches. Another theme the film deals with is a failure of modern man to communicate with others (another constant theme in his work), the result is devestating, for the individuals and their well-being.

Hrvoje Galić

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of his underrated movies, which is completely unjustified. It was nominated for 3 Oscars, Joaquin Phoenix was nominated as a lead actor. It is the best performance of his career; his portrayal of an aggressive, erratic yet extremely complex character will leave an indellible mark in the history of film and be long remembered. The Master is a heaven for psychoanalysts, if there are any of them left (e.g. Slavoj Žižek). It follows a war veteran with mental issues, Freddie Quell, who succumbs to the will of a charismatic and narcissistic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd.

We can tell that he is a narcissist not only by observing his erratic, but controlled behaviour. The subtitle of his second book, as it is shown in one frame, is “As a gift to homo sapiens”. This may inspire one to recall, (or imagine to be more correct) Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance about his own importance to the mankind; when was half-mad toward the end of his sane life he signed himself as “Christ” and “Dyonisus”. The film obviously explores the emergence of cults and their attraction to men who lack direction and purpose in life. A famous Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen writes to his friend in his beautiful song Famous Blue Raincoat:

Did you ever go clear?

“Going clear” is a direct reference to the practices of scientology, meaning that one should be free from past traumas and uncontrolled desires. Lancaster Dodd is an amateur psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing hypnosis and the so-called processing.

 

Later in the film, he tries to help Freddie by controlling his anger and agressiveness, but we can see that he did not (completely) succeed. What’s more interesting than the above mentioned notions, along with the exploration of the psychological state of war veterans in the post WW2 environment, is the father-son relationship between Lancaster and Freddie. This seems to be an important theme for Anderson, since it is explored in There Will Be Blood, in his modern classic – as well.

 Although they are often in a conflict, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be stuck in an unusual  relationship, that of a mentor and a follower, but also a very intimate one. The Master is so complex in its narrational structure one may call it postmodern.  Anderson’s Boogie Nights is deeply influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; The Master seems to be as well. The life of a group which has family structure seems to be Anderson’s constant preoccupation.

Vigorous line:

“Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas… If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.”

Lancaster Dodd

Sea Waves

It is interesting that Dodd mentions the term “master” since he behaves like one throghout the movie. This line can be interpreted in terms of the famous Hegelian master-slave dialectic. According to the professor Eric Steinhart the Hegelian master-slave dialectic occurs when two self-consciousnesses confront each other. It is doubtful if we can call Freddie “self-conciouss” at all, at least during the first half of the film. He is already a slave, to his desires and to Lancaster Dodd. Later, he gains self-consciousness and the battle may begin.

 They decide not to fight, although they do fight earlier in the film and Lancaster implies that they will be mortal enemies in their next lives. For Hegel, this would be barbaric, the two sides need to learn how to cooperate, not to fight an endless struggle into eternity (logically). Lancaster “lets” Freddie live his own life as he pleases, he is “off the hook”; it is an open ending. Freddie decides to live as a free man, but, does he serve any master? Or the master should be himself, exercising power over himself. This may be the message of The Master, one should learn to control oneself, by oneself – alone.

Hrvoje Galić

 

Wong Kar-wai, 2046 (2004)

Wong Kar-wai is not just a movie director, he is a psychologist and a poet dealing with romantic love. His style is so nuanced and brought to perfection that he can be put in the same sentence with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri; the early poems of the aforemention poet are not his authentically, he imitated other authors, mostly Guido Cavalcanti.

Cavalcanti’s poem Fresca rosa novella partially reads

Tu m’hai si piena di dolor la mente’

You have filled my mind with such agony

‘Voi che per li occhi mi passaste l’core’

You who grasp my heart through the eyes

 

We can see that in Cavalcanti’s poem visual tropes are often used. In the first part od Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express, the main female character wears sunglassees in the night; if interpreted in the spirit of Cavalcanti’s poem, it seems that she doesn’t want anyone to fall in love with her (it is true that she does drug deals and wears sunglasses for practical reasons, but it may also be seen as a defense mechanism).

A part of one of Dante’s poems  published in his book Vita nuova reads:

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing

Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Pious Lady on the Right (Study for Dante’s Dream)

Note: The painting, The Pious Lady on the Right, although seeming to be at odds with the ideas presented, portrays the spirit of the aforementioned poem and Wong Kar-wai’s work; a woman is the victim of Amor as well as man.

The connection between Dante from Vita nuova, Cavalcanti and Wong Kar-wai is obvious – both of them find romantic love destructive. In his movies love is never actualized; it is a zero-sum game, but in the end his characters don’t end up with a zero; they end up emotionally crushed, but also enriched by the joyous experience of romantic love. 2046 is the final part of a loose trilogy Days of Being Wild – In the Mood for Love – 2046. Some of the characters from the previous two movies appear again in 2046, but transformed and severely emotionally “damaged”. 2046 tells us what happened with Mr. Chow after the events in In the Mood For Love. Structurally, the film can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Mr. Chow is a libertine lover; in the second he is a nostalgic and caring gentleman.

He engages with a woman who lives next door; she doesn’t succumb easily to Mr. Chow’s newfound charm. He has to “win her over”, after she slaps him when he presents her with a gift. They form an unusal relationship in which Mr. Chow makes the rules; he does not want to get emotionally involved. In the beginning, she is similar to Charles Boudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval, at least as much as we can tell from Boudelaire’s reflections about her in his poems; he often compares her to a cat.

The subplot in the film follows the motel owner’s daughter’s relationship with a Japanese man; although this relationship succeeds, precisely that fact is a catalyst for Mr. Chow’s intensified suffering. Mr. Chow is a writer, and he imagines a place called 2046 where people can recapture their lost memories and experience them again, possibly into eternity.

XIR200360

Charles Boudelaire’s sketch of Jeanne Duval

French philosopher René Descartes used to imagine that an evil demon of “utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to decieve me.” This “demon”, for Descartes, is our senses; applying this notion of Cartesian philosophy to the world of Wong Kar-wai’s movies leads to the conclusion that romantic feelings are such a demon. We can see plainly that in the end Mr. Chow’s life has lost its meaning, romantic feelings have played so many tricks on him that in the end he starts living the life of a gambler. Gambling is a game of chance and luck, symbolically it can be compared to romantic experience; he simply cannot surpass modus operandi he is used to.

Vigorous line:

“Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention: they want to recapture lost memories. Because in 2046… nothing ever changes.”

Mr. Chow

During his voyages Odysseus encountered Phaecians, a highly civilized race who live the life of pleasure and enjoyment of poetry. The king offers him to marry Nausicaa, his daughter, and to live with them. After hearing the bard singing, Odysseus says:

My Lord Alcinous, what could be finer

Than listening to a singer of tales

Such as Demodocus with a voice like god’s?

Nothing we do is sweeter than this

For Odysseus, this is one of the greatest temptations he encountered during his journeys. Mr. Chow is tempted with 2046 as well; they both leave the place since they are aware that their life journey simply cannot stop there; they are destined for more. The Japanese man Mr. Chow imagines goes to 2046 and is simply lost during the encounter with a robot he falls in love with.

Both the Japanese man and Mr. Chow, who leaves 2046, are a significant part of his personality; he wants to live “among the Phaecians”, but his instinct tells him that it is utterly destructive to live an illusion and a lie. Escaping illusions and lies can be more harmful than living in them, but both Odysseus and Mr. Chow show moral strength and virtue and leave the place. They decide to live the life of pain and hardship.

The episode with Phaecians has another side to it. It represents the dangers of music and poetry to an individual’s well-being. Immersing oneself into life of aesthetic pleasure is criticized by Kierkegaard in his Enten-Eller. Although Kierkegaard presents aesthetical and ethical life as matters of existantial choice and implies that they are incommensurable, it is obvious (when his other works are considered as an argument supporting the thesis) that he is advocating religious life.

In his Politeia, Plato writes that Homer should be honored and then excluded from the polity. Plato saw the dangers poetry can bring. Wong Kar-wai and Dante are poets who are aware of the dangers romantic love and uncontrolled emotions can bring; we can only guess if Plato would include them in his polity.

End Note: I owe my gratitude regarding to the more nuanced understanding of Dante’s poetry to my former professoressa, Ludovica

Hrvoje Galić

 

 

 

 

Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets (1973)

Mean Streets is one of Martin Scorsese’s early pictures and a very personal one. As it is well-known, he wanted to become a Catholic priest and grew up in Manhattan, in Little Italy, a famous New York neighbourhood. He later reminisced that it was like a “Sicilian village”. The film follows Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a psychotic young man aspiring to become a respected mob member. De Niro plays the part with virtuosity (he was 30 at the time) that anticipates his later tour de force performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mean Streets is not just a milestone in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant career, it may very well be one of his finest pictures. The film deeply influenced Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie As Tears Go By.

De Niro’s genius is openly manifested in the portrayal of his character’s erratic behaviour and is an antipode of Harvey Keitel’s character Charlie, who is calm, rational and does not succumb to desires easily. A shot in which Johnny Boy shoots in the air trying to shoot the lights on the Empire State Building is a synechdoche that points to the type of character Johnny Boy is. His ravaging irrationality puts him at odds with men he cannot control, as he cannot control himself.

He does not care for family bonds, religion, or anything whatsoever that does not bring him pleasure. He has no fear at all, a characteristic that Aristotle defined as immoderate folliness. On the other hand, for Charlie, family and religion are important, and that, paradoxically, puts him in an impossible position of trying to save a man, whose head is deep under the water, from drowning. Shots of fire are often shown in the movie and its symbolism is twofold. On one hand, fire represents temptations that can lead to divine punishment of suffering in hell; on the other – madness. Fire, along with water is an element that is commonly associated with madness (for connections between symbolism of water regarding to madness, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is a perfect example).

Bob Dylan’s song Joey, originally from the album Desire can be beautifully juxtaposed to the world of Mean Streets.

 

The world of Mean Streets can also be compared to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, most particularly his The Idiot. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Teresa; Charlie can be compared to Prince Myshkin, a naïve man who is trying to “save” his erratic and murderous friend Rogozhin; Johnny Boy is a version of the latter. The Idiot ends with main characters either succumbing to madness or ending up in Syberia, and Mean Streets does not end on a much lighter note as well. On the other hand, music in the film (e.g. the Rolling Stones) gives the grave matters it discusses a tone of playfullness; lighthearted humour, bar fights and improvized scenes, ultimately bring the viewer enjoyment.

 

Vigorous line:

“Nobody tries anymore… Just tries to help, that’s all, to help people.

Francis of Assisi had it all down.”

Charlie

El Greco, St. Francis’s Vision of the Flaming Torch

Note: Martin Scorsese uses El Greco’s Christ in his latest film Silence

Francis of Assisi was born an Italian as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was a founder of the Franciscan order; in 1219 he went to Egypt to convert a sultan to put an end to a conflict. In the country chapel of San Damiano, the Icon of Crucified Christ spoke to him with words “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Keeping in mind these anecdotes, we can perceive the appeal St. Francis had to Charlie. In the opening captions we can see Charlie shaking hands with a Catholic priest and at the beginning of the film he says: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” During the film there are numerous voice-overs of Charlie’s introspections from which we can learn much about his character, religiosity and social views.

He is a ridiculed figure at times because of his devotion to Catholicism; his constant aim during the film is to save others from themselves. At the end of the film, he lies and makes up a story about himself (just like Odysseus did in Homer’s work) to “save” a Jewish woman from the life of prostitution. On the other hand, during the dialogue by the sea, Teresa tells him that everyone must take care of himself (a Nietzschean worldview). Their moral stances are in a constrast, and we can see internal tensions in Charlie’s character as well. He tries to live up to the appearances that he thinks must be upheld, but at the same time follows his principles.

 In a way Mean Streets is a morality tale. It would be much different if in the end Charlie pays  the ultimate price, but it seems that Scorsese wanted to praise Charlie’s way of living not as a naïve one, but heroic and worthy. We can ponder if his devotion to family and helping Johnny Boy is of any use at all and that precisely is Scorsese’s brilliance. Mean Streets is a film open to interpretations, moral discussions and at the same time serves as entertainment. Its twofold characteristic – it brings both enjoyjment and material for reflection – makes it a brilliant piece of art.

Hrvoje Galić

 

 

Leos Carax, Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors is a French film directed by Leos Carax; it competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. In its quaint particularity it approaches themes like sex, modern life, libertinism and aesthetics, completely justifying the aforementioned honour. It opens wih a shot of people in the theater watching a film, suggesting that film-watching experience is a dreamlike state. The film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar who is, as we can tell, a businessman who performs various tasks during the night (aiming to escape his stressful life lacking meaning). 

The tasks are ordered by a woman named Céline (possibly an allusion to the great French novelist). He murders, pretends to be a beggar or a derranged person, an old man on his deathbed – all of these role plays symbolizing the place of  man in contemporary society. He exchanges personalities as easily as articles of clothing, rises from the dead and breaks down in cries. Holy Motors combines music (a very powerful scene with an accordion – “trois, deux, merde!”) with hypnotic shots of driving down distorted streets.

When Richard Wagner was composing and writing the libretto for Tristan und Isolde, he was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and his vision of the world as Will (irrational, mindless, aimless), beneath the world as we perceive it (representation). Tristan and Isolde, during the second act, are together during the night (world as Will) and must be apart during the day because Isolde is promised to King Marke (world as representation). 

The same can be applied to Holy Motors. During the night, Oscar lives as he truly is, he follows his primordial instincts, and during the day he is a successful businessman. It is true that the graveyard scene and the one with a model happen during the day, but we must keep in mind that Oscar is masked. It is an another argument that can be interpreted by means of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics which implies that the world is our representation.

One may be inclined to use the term “surreal” to describe it, and one may not be wrong. Nevertheless, the film’s main point is not in its surreality, but in the distortion and chaotic misrepresentation of reality aiming to transform our perception of  it; at least during its running time. It is a powerful satire that is sometimes sentimental but does not reach the “point of no return”. The scene with Kylie Minogue in its sincerity and restrained sensitivity is one of the most captivating moments in the film. One of its many virtues is that it does not take itself seriously; its main aim is to provoke reflection.

The most interesting (and possibly shocking) scene in the film is the one with a model (Eva Mendes) which is abducted by monsieur Oscar. The shots with him putting a veil on her and him lying naked are particularly interesting to analyze; Michel Houellebecques’ novels Submission and The Elementary Particles deal with such issues.  Holy Motors presents the modern man stripped down to his instinctual desires; he is aching for liberation. It is as if Carax proclaims “the death of man” as Michel Foucault does.

Vigorous line:

“Beauty? They say it is in the eye of the beholder”

Michel Piccoli’s character

“And if there’s no more beholder?”

 Monsieur Oscar

Eye of the Beholder

This line presents the traditional notion of perspectivism, as supported by Nietzsche and lately by postmodernist authors, but expands its scope. It is no longer self-evident that we will find beauty in a piece of art or an object of possible aesthetic worth simply by enjoying it and contemplating it. According to Mr. Oscar, that is no longer simply a truism. When he questions the existence of “the beholder”, he questions the capability of man to perceive beauty according to his aesthetic inner eye (if it exists).

 Modern man has gone a long way in the advancement of technology, but as it is pointed out earlier in the conversation, technology may very well be the destruction of beauty (Martin Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology particularly adresses the question of dangers that technology brings).

Oscar says: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads.” With the advent of the internet it is possible to view artistic works of Botticelli and Raphael (to take an example) for free. It makes a great difference if one views paintings online or goes to a “pilgrimage” to Toledo to see the El Greco Museum. If something is free, its value in the eye of the beholder downgrades. This simple truism reminds of Oscar’s nostalgia that points to the fact that as soon as technology reaches a certain point of development it radically changes the very way we perceive reality.

In line with Mr. Oscar’s arguments, it can be concluded that the beholder is annihilated. Nowadays, art is consumed, eaten (as Refn’s The Neon Demon suggests); the beholder’s inner eye for beauty is distorted. The other notion that Oscar’s line adresses is the transformation and disfiguration of an eye that does not perceive the world aesthetically, but through pragmatic lenses. Remember that earlier in the film the photographer maniacally cries “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!”. When beauty becomes an obsession in a crude manner, it ceases to be beauty and is a distortion of  mind that sees only an object before him, not a piece of art with its soul, rhythm and vigour. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified.”; his interpreter Raymond Geuss asserts that the world justifies itself if it offers an aesthetically pleasing spectacle to an appropriately sophisticated observer. In other words, when these notions are juxtaposed to the words of Mr. Oscar, an appropriately sophisticated observer [the beholder] may cease to exist.

Hrvoje Galić