Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) “Fragments of Life’s Evening “

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

We might add that this applies to the filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino as well. Sorretino portrays the holiness of days passing and the divine in men with particular visual and stylistic eloquence in his La giovinezza (Youth). Sorrentino can be rightfully called Fellini’s heir, just like Kore-eda in Japan can be called Ozu’s heir. Being a “cinematic heir” does not mean that the following director is an emulator. It can be stated that the director manages to use central themes and cinematic style of his predecessor in an authentic manner, and develop them even further. Perhaps he never accomplishes the grandeur of his predecessor, yet he manages to evolve and adapt to the radically new environment and create admirable pieces of art.

For Fellini, life is akin to circus, it is a feast for the senses, and Sorrentino seems to take this basic assumption and develop it in a manner which is distinctly his own. For example, Fellini’s stance about Catholicism is less ambivalent than Sorrentino’s is. The celebration of the carnal and divine merge into one in Sorrentino’s La giovinezza. The Buddhist monk and Miss Universe are both an integral part of the same cosmos which celebrates life and its gracefulness.

At the beginning we see the composer Fred Ballinger (Michel Caine) browsing the magazine and pausing at the image of Miss Universe. She appears three times later in the film, symbolizing the eroticism and the voluptuousness of youth. She represents carnal Aphrodite for the aged composer and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel). The Queen’s emissary comes to the hotel in the Alps in Switzerland where they reside, and asks Fred to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Phillip’s birthday.

Fred says that he finds monarchy endearing “because it’s so vulnerable. You eliminate one person and all of a sudden… The whole world changes. Like in a marriage”. He dreams that he is surrounded with wondrous buildings with arches on the first floor (presumably of a hotel) which give light to the water around him; it is night and it imbues the water with blackness. A narrow  path is in the middle of the water, functioning as a bridge. As Fred walks across it, Miss Universe crosses paths with him and her breast touches his body as he moves by. The black water, similar to a melancholic lake, rises and he is drowned; he wakes up with a gasp.

The major part of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, in a resort similar to the one from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Mann’s novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the cultural elite comes to in the hope of recovery. Death plays a prominent part in Mann’s novel, it is concerned with time, the nature of its passing, the narration of time itself. In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is influenced by Settembrini, who advocates democratic republicanism and Naphta who is a romantic, conservative revolutionary. Sorrentino’s La giovinezza deals less with illness, and more with the joy of life and sensuality of youth. If it deals with time, it is concerned with the shifting of perspectives of the young and of the old, the time which has already passed, with the solidness of time.

Swiss Alps

The old are confronted with the irrefutable fact that the time has passed: “It’s too late”, Fred says a few times. Sorrentino is less concerned with the passing of time in the Alps; they are a place where the time which has passed is contemplated. The film is mostly apolitical, save for the fact that the overweight Diego Maradona has a huge tatoo of Karl Marx on his back. It seems that Sorrentino jokes about the Marxists in the film, just like he does in his La grande bellezza when he puts the words communismo puro in the mouth of a middle class woman. On the other hand, we can see that in La giovinezza the residents of the resort are an elite, actors, composers, filmmakers, the rich, and Karl Marx’s tatoo seems to be a form of self-irony on the part of Sorrentino.

In a distinctively Bergmanesque scene on the massage table, Fred’s daughter Lena, while her father is next to her, tells about her and her mother’s suffering regarding Fred’s behaviour throughout life. The camera is fixed on her face in a close-up and the scene strongly resembles the scenes from Bergman’s films, Autumn Sonata for example, in which a character shares his or her suffering with a family member. Her face is calm, without expression, yet her pain can be discerned throughout the shot. Fred cared only about music, and showed little affection toward his daughter, and had “a stream of women”, hurting her mother in the process. We find out that Fred’s wife was in Venice, paralyzed, and Fred hadn’t visited her for years.

He says to her later: “Music is all I understand. Do you know why? Because you do not need words, only experience to understand it. It just is.” Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.” When compared to Schopenhuer’s understanding of music, we can understand Fred’s relationship with music, which “just is” and is remote from the pains of reality. The music in the film gives the scenes a drop of the divine celebrating life’s youthful passion.

In a scene in which Fred and Mick lie in the pool, a beautiful young woman (Miss Universe, played by a Romanian model Madalina Ghenea) slowly gets in naked, and the men experience a moment of bliss and are left speechless. Jacques Lacan would designate this moment in terms of his understanding of the order of human experiences, as Real, which is inexpressible and beyond symbolization. This moment of speechlesness is broken when a woman comes in and tells Mick that Brenda Morel has come, an actress Mick has collaborated with many times, and should act in his last film.

Brenda tells him in a straightforward and rather rude manner that, basically, films are a thing of the past and that she agreed to act in a Mexican TV series rather than in his film. TV is the present, she says. This opens up a rather crude, but interesting discussion about the nature of cinema in contemporary times.  Sorrentino himself has filmed a TV series Young Pope which was both critically acclaimed and well-recieved by viewers. Rather than presenting an opposition between cinema as art and TV series as only mass entertainement, some great directors, including Sorrentino, have accepted the changing nature of cinema as an art form.

 

Vigorous line:

[Mick asks the Girl screenwriter if she sees the mountain across them. She replies affirmatively and says that it looks “really close”]

This is what you see when you are young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future. And now. And that’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.

Mick

In showing his screenwriter the mountain and telling how it looks really close, and comparing it to the young age, Mick points to the change in optics when you are older, when everything seems far away. This change of view is symbolically enhanced through a spyglass. La giovenezza is not only a film about youth and old age, it is also a film about time, although not in the same way The Magic Mountain is a novel about time. This change in optics is conditioned by the passing of time, when the past seems to be far away. It is also a change in perception; the film’s title La giovenezza points to the fact that Mick and Fred are constantly trying to perceive youth, their own youth in the past. They are surrounded with young men and women; Mick has young screenwriters working for him and Fred befriends the actor Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, who was possibly casted, among other reasons, because he looks younger than his age.

The interesting thing is that the passing of time is associated with seeing. It is not the question about “feeling” young or old, it is the question of perceiving through the eye, the distance of the past and the closeness of the future (when one is young). This change of perspective is also qualitative; not only does one see less when he is older, but the view is also distorted, when the close objects are shown through a spyglass. Nevertheless, the closeness of things in youth is also an illusion, since the mountain is only perceived to be close, but in reality it is not. In La giovenezza, youth is celebrated precisely for that reason, because it can easily come to terms with illusion, while contemplation of the past is left to the older generation. In the final scene, the music brings the two worlds together, with an aesthetic tour de force.

 

 

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) “Path to Completion”

 

Title card: The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

Never Let Me Go is based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; the film describes the dystopian reality which takes place more than 50 years before the film was made. It seems to imply that the portrayed reality could occur now, as it could occur 50 years ago. It can occur at any time when the principles of civilization are rejected at the prospect of progress of “mankind” by the murderous enslavement of others. Clones are raised in a boarding school, they live a life which is both artificial (they buy stuff with tokens, simulate ordering tea in a bar) and deeply human. They are told horrific stories about the destinies of children who transgress the boundaries of the institution, most probably false. They are surrounded with lies, barriers, yet they live in accordance with their roles with almost joyful compliance. Throughout the film there are practically no warm colors, sunlight is scarce and the atmosphere is of damp sadness, accompanied by static shots of nature with dazzling beauty.

Raised to be donors for the human population, they use the term “completion” to describe their death, when they cannot donate more organs. The ironic term, since completion can be used to describe the completion of a spiritual path, and the establishment of harmony in the soul. The film centers around Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, a love triangle is formed. Tommy and Ruth end up together, while Kathy lives a rather solitary life in the Cottages, where they are sent before donating. They are in search for their original models, in other words, in search for who they are. Kathy browses through a pornographic magazine and Ruth sees that act as an attempt to understand sexuality. Yet, we find out that she does it because she believes that her model might be in there, since she posseses strong sexual craving. We can see that her act shows that she understands little about her urges, as it is difficult for her to order food and beverages in a bar. They are almost extinguished socially as they are raised for one simple function.

Someone described the government in the film as “fascist”. The term can be applied to the system of authority described in the movie if we consider Michel Foucault’s understanding of modern state and racism. In his lectures Society Must Be Defended he says: “What is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die… It is in short a way of seperating the groups that exist within a population. It is… a way of establishing a biological type of caesura within a population that appears to be a biological domain.” In one word, racism establishes a relationship which purports: “If you want to live, the other must die”. Clones are obviously a type of species, human in every manner, biological organisms capable of producing life for others by giving their own organs. In the process, they “are completed”, they die.

                                Tree-lung

This is the realm of thanatopolitics, as Foucault understands it, which forces one to die. The relationship between the clones and humans who raise them to be donors is a biopolitical relationship, the power which operates is power over life – biopower. In one word, the government in the film can be seen as fascist, since it employs the racist distinction between the ones who are entitled to live, and the others who are to forced to die because of their objective characteristics (they are clones). The film is a critique of the path modernity can take when its own fundamental values are renounced and the bleakest side of modern state prevails (Foucault believed that racism is incorporated in every modern state, to some degree). Namely, that the power over life becomes total, and forces some to die so that the majority of population can be biologically empowered, their lives prolonged and diseases eradicated. At the institution where clones grow up, Hailsham, Madame finds a few cigarettes which clones smoked. She says that they are  explicitely forbidden to smoke. Their organisms are of essential value and power which operates over them is the type of power which maximizes the vital functions of their biological organisms.

Utilitarian moral theory emphasized that it is  ethical to maximize total happiness while minimizing total pain. To save lives of many, it is ethical to let some die, since, in that case, total happiness is greater than if you let many die. Utilitarians were often of liberal orientation, which holds the human life sacred, yet there is a tension between these principles and the utilitarian ones which emphasize the importance of happiness of as many people as possible. The famous trolley problem implies an ethical choice which gives an agent a choice between causing one death and saving five lives, or letting five people die, but not causing the  death of anybody. According to the surveys, most Americans would choose causing one death and saving five lives. In the film the offical in the institution of Hailsham, Miss Emily, says: “Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. You have to understand – cancer used to kill almost everyone. Now it kills no one at all… You see – it’s not an ethical issue – it’s just about the way we are. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer and breast cancer and motor neurone disease… they simply say no. Do you understand?” In one word, Miss Emily presents the problem as if there is no ethical question at all. It is who we humans are, prepared to sacrifice some individuals to escape death and suffering.

 

Vigorous line:

We didn’t have the Gallery in order to look into your souls. We had the Gallery in order to see if you had souls at all.

Miss Emily

Tommy hears that a couple who is truly in love can get a deferral and spend a few more years together. This seems to be a desperate illusion which celebrates romantic love to the extent that it produces the opportunity to live, when life is denied. He comes up with a rather creative idea that the Gallery, in which the artworks they made as children are stored, exists because the administration needs proof that the couple is in love. This idea is shattered and along with it the notion that “love conquers all”. Tommy succumbs to despair. The administration’s endeavour to see if they had any souls is interesting. Wouldn’t it be easier to raise clones so they can give organs, if one thinks that they are soulless?Maybe the intention was to find out that they are. In this case, creating art is a way of examining one’s authenticity, in other words, humanity. In the end, Kathy ponders: “I remind I was lucky to have had any time with him at all. What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.”

Kathy’s ruminations equate the clone’s destiny with the destiny of men – “we all complete”. What’s given to the clones is an authentic attitude toward their death. Their strong bonds shatter like glass in the storm, the angst makes them even more alive. Left with memories, they cherish them with care, knowing that their own end approaches. They have a strong sense of purpose, especially Kathy, who nurtures her kind while they slowly fade away with less and less strength in them. The clones are sacrificial lambs, but the ones which nurture authentic sensitivity, the sense of duty and the need for forgiveness, as we can see in Ruth’s case. They seem to be the answer to the questions about our own existence, most particularly our relationship to the finite nature of our lives.

References:

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Picador, New York, 2003

 

 

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

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