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

 

 

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) “Bloody Code”

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri belongs to the jidaigeki genre (period piece). It follows the period shortly after the battle at Sekigahara and the establishemnt of the Tokugawa shogunate (1630). The film begins with a short exposition by the official of House Iyi, who talks about the everyday life of the samurai warlord. It is a perspective of a person in power, whose status is in sharp contrast to the one of rōnin, a samurai without a lord. We see the samurai armor, which belonged to the one of the ancestors of House Iyi, surrounded by a fog similar to the one we can see in performances of Wagner’s operas. The armor represents tradition, the samurai code of honor, bushido. An impoverished rōnin comes to the House Iyi to ask for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. The house of his lord has fallen and he wants to end his life honourably.

He s told that acts of this kind have become widespread since one rōnin, after asking for a place to commit seppuku, became a retainer in one of the houses, causing the admiration of the samurai. The others followed him, with insincere intentions and got a few coins so the samurai could get rid of them. It is important to note, as Daniel Botsman writes, that the rōnin were the destabilizing element in the time of the shogunate’s rule and were often the source of public disturbances. Once, a group of rōnin tried to overthrow Bakufu. They were not just vagabonds and beggars who were imprisoned in the West during the time of “the Great Confinement”, as Michel Foucault understands it. The rōnin were trained warriors, a violent element dangerous to the established order.

Impoverished rōnin Motome Chijiwa comes to the doorstep of House Iyi without the intention to actually perform it. House Iyi decides to make a precedent so that dishonourable and extortionate practice stops. Motome’s wish is accepted, he is absolutely horrified, and the ritual of seppuku is arranged in the courtyard. He is forced to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, since he did not have a steel sword. He stabs the sword in his stomach, manages to penetrate his skin and thrust the sword into his gut. His face shows horrific pain and his head is cut off by his second. Seppuku, which Motome is forced to perform, is the example of the functioning of sovereign power as Foucault understands it. It is the power that lets one live or exiles him into death, in other words, it is power over life.

The telos of the punishment is the prevention of similar acts. Foucault believed that power is productive, it makes things happen. In this case, the image of honor of House Iyi is strenghtened, as well as the projection of the image of horror toward others who could try the same thing Motome did. Daniel Botsman writes: “By far the best-known example of a status-specific punishment, however, is the notorious seppuku, or “suicide by disembowelment” for warrior men. In spite of its name and repuation, when practiced as an offical Tokugawa punishment, this was, in fact, little more than a ritualized form of beheading, involving neither genuine suicide nor actual disembowelment; once the condemned warrior had readied himself, he simply reached toward a symbolic wooden sword to signal the executioner to proceed.” Despite the tradition of the execution by decapitation, Motome is not only forced to disembowel himself, he has to do it with a bamboo sword. Wooden sword which served a symbolic function became an actual means to execute the punishment.

drawn-samurai-harakiri-15

Motome’s father-in-law Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to the doorstep of House Iyi with the same request. In the palace courtyard he speaks to the gathered samurai about the fall of his lord’s house, as well as destitution of his family, almost in a Faulknerian manner. He speaks of son-in-law’s motives to come to House Iyi and his Motome’s son’s illness which put his life in danger. The film has a fractured narrative, with frequent retrospections and its fabric gradually gains a clearer shape as time progresses. Black and white photography is paired with brilliant use of lighting, of light and shadow. When they find out about Motome’s death, Hanshiro’s and Motome’s wife backs are illuminated, as in prayer, while they are surrounded by darkness. Appalled by the conduct of House Iyi, Hanshiro decides to ask for their remorse. Since he does not get it, the film draws to a close with an aestheticized revenge.

 

 

 

Vigorous line:

After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a façade.

Hanshiro

The main tension, or antagonism, is the one between honor as illusion (façade) which conceals socio-economic realities and honor as a legitimation discourse which sustains the order. It is not hard to draw a comparison between the ideology of the shogunate which produces an impression of its benevolence and all the “fine” layers of exclusion which function beneath. Bushido is, speaking in a Nietzschean manner, a ruse which serves the warrior elite to project “moral superiority” and secure their social status. Hanshiro is executed with guns, which foreshadows “the taming of the samurai” which happened in the Meiji era. “The Great Peace” of Tokugawa means that the age of the samurai as actual warriors is at its end and they adapt to the emerging modernity to secure their positions as the rulling elite. The Meiji revolution showed that it could not last indefinitely.

The main counselor of House Iyi orders the defeated samurai to perform seppuku and proclaims that those who died, died of illness. House Iyi gets praises and enfirms its status through lies (illusion): “The house of Iyi has no retainers who could be felled or wounded by some half-starved rōnin”. They tell the other houses that a rōnin performed seppuku in their courtyard, forgetting to tell the truth that the measures to include the excluded and desperate are nonexistent. In the same manner in which Hanshiro sees the samurai honor as a façade, the film ends with the reestablishment of illusion, a façade according to which all the historical and contemporary societies function. Harakiri shows a tragic era in which Hanshiro’s poetic remark that our lives are castles built on foundations of sand, and one strong wind tears them down, holds truth.

References: 

Daniel V. Botsman,  Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan, Princeton University Press, Oxford, 2005

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

 

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) “Benevolence Is Akin to A Flame”

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 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