Thursday, September 20, 2018

TV Review: "Scarlet and Black" (1993)

Can anyone truly be sincere? Is anyone ever able to spurn hypocrisy? These questions haunt Stendhal's novel, Le rouge et le noir, and they are central to this television miniseries adaptation directed by Ben Bolt and written by Stephan Lowe, re-dubbed, Scarlet and Black. The series is largely faithful to the events of the novel, but rather than critique it as an adaptation, I will judge it according to its unique merits. 

Ewan MacGregor, very young and very dashing, plays Julien Sorel, a carpenter's son with a prodigious memory, which earns him a chance to be educated by the local priest. Napoleon has been defeated and has died in exile and the Bourbon monarchy has been restored, but Julien reveres Napoleon and longs to thrust himself back in time, to join his army and follow him to glory. Since he rarely speaks of his treasonous hero worship, Napoleon (Christopher Fulford) has become his imaginary friend, an interlocutor who urges him constantly 'To Arms!' This phantom Napoleon, however, is a boy's imagining, a mixture of Long John Silver and D'Artagnan in his ripe old age. It is by means of this figure that Julien renders each event in his life in the terms of a military campaign, a way of gazing at the world that obscures the motives of other people and makes of him an unwitting foil for them.

Julien insists at first that he is meant for the priesthood. There, he believes, is where power has concentrated since Napoleon's exile. In the series, Julien sees Napoleon standing in front of crucifixes. He prays, but to a purely secular god, a god who seemingly has nothing better to do than encourage a confused young man to essay each mundane occurrence of his life as though it were Waterloo. His mentor, the priest - the first of many - doesn't think that Julien is sincere in his religious vocation and instead arranges for a position as tutor to the children of the mayor. Insulted by the condescension of Madame de Renal (Alice Krige), he sets about trying to seduce her with all the haplessness of the eighteen-year-old he is. Even so, he succeeds. 

How is it that this callow man, only barely a man, seduces a woman of religious conviction, devoted to her children? The answer lies in the questions I posed above. Julien sees every interaction in his life through the lens of his obsession with Napoleon, but each and every person who encounters him finds him opaque. He impresses through small demonstrations that would seem to indicate undisclosed talents - he can recite the entire New Testament by heart, he obligingly shimmies up to the top of a church to deposit a ceremonial feather - that is, he fakes it until he makes it. However, this fatal combination of opacity and talent allows those around him to find in him the figure that they assume is hidden within him. Thus, a priest believes him to be a believer, above the frivolities of society, while an aristocrat re-invents him as the bastard progeny of a noble, a revolutionary assumes him as a co-conspirator, and women imagine him an ardently impetuous lover, prepared to risk death to make love to them.

Julien takes on each role presented to him with fervor, but he cannot oblige everybody without eventually betraying someone. Some roles, such as loyal, discreet secretary to the Marquis de la Mole (T. P. McKenna) and disdainful Romeo to his only daughter (Rachel Weisz), are simply incompatible. The imaginary Napoleon pushes Julien to view each favor, each order, each new position, that flatters his vanity and makes him feel liked, as something he has chosen for himself, directed into being. As a result, Julien throws himself out of his depth again and again, until his rash actions land him in a hole he can't emerge from, even with the efforts of a surprising number of people who love him. At the crucial moment, he asks 'What does this have to do with me?' 

In the end, Julien will not save himself because that choice, one of the first that he, and not a mentor or lover, would make regarding his future, would, he claims, make him a hypocrite. Julien believes that he lives by the Napoleonic code, but instead he lives by the pursuit of pleasures and luxuries, the illusory signs of power that he never comes close to actually attaining. His phantom Napoleon is a convincing rhetorician; Julien, acting always on sincere impulse, cannot see that his sincerity is the most fickle part of his character. It is pleasant to be loved by an aristocratic woman - it means sex and an interlude of asserting himself over someone of a higher class - and it is unpleasant to be rejected by her - hence, he does everything to win her back. But, even in this instance, he mopes about, until the worldly Comte de Beauvoisis (Crispin Bonham-Carter) tells him what to do. He is constantly sincere, lying only when instructed to do so by someone else (and thus sincerely doing his best to oblige), and thus he is a preternatural hypocrite.

The performances of the actors are mannered, but so they should be: these characters are profoundly conscious of taking poses and playing parts. Even the least affected, the priest Pirard (Stratford Johns), uses his round, red, pock-marked face as a canvas depicting whatever emotion is best designed to achieve his aim. Sincerity and hypocrisy are not contradictory, but complementary, and this is true whether one wears the black uniform of the priest or the scarlet uniform of the hussar. 

The series benefits from an unusually rich symphonic theme by Jean-Claude Petit, evidently influenced by Romantic composers like Berlioz and Schumann, expressive cinematography (decidedly unexpected for a '90s television production) by John Mcglashan, with inky blacks and gashes of red emphasized above all other colors in the palette, and costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux that convey not only each character's class, politics, and attitudes towards love, but their emotional state in each scene. The sound design is marred by a distracting and near constant background noise of bird songs and calls, including one I couldn't identify that sounded so exactly like the mews of kittens that I actually paused the series, thinking there were cats outside my window. This one flaw, and the need to know a fair bit about French politics in the nineteenth century, are all that is likely to diminish the viewer's enjoyment of Scarlet and Black.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Marlene Dietrich's 7 Best Performances

Of the platinum blondes of Hollywood history, Marlene Dietrich is probably the most enigmatic. Her particularly androgynous erotic image - the icily glamorous man-woman in top hat and tails - has been endlessly imitated and parodied. This prismatic image, inseparably male and female, desiring and desired, gazing and gazed upon, doesn't split apart. Dietrich always insists on both.

While her status as a glamorous film star is unquestionable, her credentials as an actress are on slightly shakier ground. That indelible image tends to blot out the memory of her particular performances, not to mention Madeleine Kahn's rendition of "I'm Tired" in Blazing Saddles. But Dietrich was a better actress than the parodies suggest and her integrity is undeniable: this is a German woman, of impeccable 'Aryan' heritage, who began pouring her energies, and her money, into helping Jews emigrate from Germany when Hitler came to power. Although she herself was fervently anti-Nazi long before her adopted country of the United States entered the war, she agreed to play ethically compromised German characters after the war, giving some of her best performances embodying the tacit sympathies, shrugging apathy, and selfish comfort that she herself had abhorred. Here are her seven best performances:

7. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Dietrich has a relatively small role in this star-studded effort directed by Stanley Kramer, a flawed film that nevertheless features incredible performances by, among others, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. Like a number of German and Austrian actors who had emigrated, like Werner Klemperer, Conrad Veidt, and Hedy Lamarr, Dietrich was determined to confront the horror of the Third Reich, in part by taking on roles such as this one, Frau Bertholt, the wife of a Nazi general who has been executed. Dietrich was not happy with how she looked in this film, which she made immediately after a fourth face lift, but her performance is both humanizing and unforgiving.

6. Touch of Evil (1958)
This paranoid noir directed by Orson Welles stars Charlton Heston as a Mexican (yes, yes, I know) cop, Janet Leigh as his angelic American wife, and Welles himself as Hank Quinlan, a cigar-chomping American cop with the ethics of a mad bulldog. Dietrich, in a black wig and spangled earrings, barely has more than a cameo as a madame without much patience for Quinlan's bitter, repressed nostalgia, which she astringently diagnoses as the mental bloat that matches his paunch. Though her scenes are brief, Dietrich is in many ways the film's conscience: she lacks the desperately clutched ideals of Heston's cop, the blonde innocence of Leigh's bride, or the racist pragmatism of Quinlan. A razor-sharp irony drenches her every glance and lift of the eyebrow.

5. Blonde Venus (1932)
Blonde Venus is mostly remembered for its salacious musical numbers, with Dietrich donning a white tuxedo with sparkling lapels and, in the striptease number, "Hot Voodoo," a blonde afro and a gorilla suit. These explosively transgressive images are strange indeed in a film that is otherwise a fairly conventional melodrama about a self-sacrificing wife, whose cabaret career leads her astray from her husband (Herbert Marshall) and son and into the arms of a glamorous playboy (Cary Grant), but Dietrich's performance is phenomenal. Her sexuality was perhaps never put to better use, since it is as evident in her stage performances as it is in her stable marriage. Instead of motherhood neutralizing her eroticism, it further reveals its startling primacy. Dietrich was a rare Hollywood star who was neither femme fatale, nor girl next door, and her healthy, freely expressed, mature sexuality defined her as force to be reckoned with, even in a film as ultimately conservative as Blonde Venus.

4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Dietrich's flashy role in Billy Wilder's courtroom drama, based on an Agatha Christie story, all but upstages one of the all-time great hams, Charles Laughton, who plays the finicky barrister, Sir Wilfrid. In this film, she plays the German wife of a weasley younger man (Tyrone Power, in his final and perhaps best performance), accused of murdering an elderly lady for her money. At first, Dietrich seems cast according to type, but the twists of the plot soon lead the viewer to question whether she really is the icy-blooded, two-timing glamour puss that she initially appears to be. She, Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester as Sir Wilfrid's tyrannical nurse steal scenes from each other, nearly as rapidly as the plot upends our understanding of just who killed Mrs. French and why.

3. The Blue Angel (1930)
Dietrich's star zoomed to its zenith in this massively successful film, the first feature-length German talkie. In it, she plays a seedy, yet seductive cabaret singer, Lola Lola. Already donning her signature top hat, straddling a chair and singing "Falling in Love Again," she arouses an erotic obsession in a formerly strait-laced high school teacher played by Emil Jannings. Dietrich doesn't play Lola Lola as a vapid gold-digger. Instead she chafes against the proprietorial jealousy of her male lovers, even as she realizes that she can only survive in the tawdry clubs where she makes a living by pandering to their desires. When the pudgy professor proposes, Dietrich laughs - not out of cruelty, but because she is genuinely surprised and touched; that scene alone demands recognition of Dietrich's talent as an actress. The film is also notable for launching the remarkably fruitful collaboration between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg.

2. Shanghai Express (1932)
Another film directed by Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express, more than any other Dietrich film, exploits the exotic qualities of her beauty. Draped in exquisite gowns by Travis Banton, Dietrich exudes allure as Shanghai Lily, while the creamy ivories and whites and velvet blacks of Lee Garmes's cinematography make her appear all but otherwordly, a fallen angel in silk and lace, a rare moth flitting through snow. The style here is the substance, an orientalist fantasy so feverishly ripened that it becomes all but abstract; the plot, a pulpy tale of courtesans, opium merchants and addicts, and Chinese warlords, is essentially an afterthought. An exquisitely gorgeous Anna May Wong costars as Lily's 'companion.'

1. A Foreign Affair (1948)
This underrated comedy written and directed by Billy Wilder was filmed in the rubble of post-war Berlin and it offered Dietrich her first chance to play a role as an ex-Nazi, a task she would take on a number of times. In this instance, she plays Erika, a cabaret singer rumored to have been the mistress of either Goebbels or Göring, or both, but this time she's no Lola Lola. Erika claims she does what she must to survive, but she never quite squares her calculations with her spontaneous impulses of decency, and her collaboration is not ultimately forgivable. The film also stars John Lund, as a less than entirely scrupulous American soldier, torn between the smoky charms of Erika and a corn-fed, down-home Iowan senator on a diplomatic tour, played by Jean Arthur, a prude convinced to let her inner daffiness out at sight of Lund. Though this film can be laugh-out-loud funny, A Foreign Affair is periodically hit by the aftershocks of the horrors of the war, small moments as bitter as absinthe that make the black humor of Sunset Boulevard seem downright honeyed. Dietrich was never better, revealing the rottenness that can dwell in a human being, who simply prioritizes her own comfort over the welfare of others, not a monster, but a fellow traveler.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Incredible Humanity of Hannah Arendt's Friendship with Heidegger

Hannah Arendt is one of the few intellectuals of the twentieth century to retain a reputation among non-academics. Her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, again became a bestseller in 2016, decades after its first publication in 1951 and her book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, remains highly controversial and highly influential. Arendt was one of many brilliant Jewish intellectuals who left Germany as refugees in the wake of Hitler's ascension to power, but before that she was a star student at the University of Marburg. It was there she met and studied with Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who was about to publish his most influential work, Being and Time, and a married man of thirty five who soon began an affair with the seventeen year old Arendt.

Such a relationship would already trouble us in this day and age, but the concern is compounded because of Heidegger's queasily ambiguous participation in and support for Nazism. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Although he ceased active involvement in the Party in 1934, keeping his head down for the remainder of the duration of Hitler's regime, he never left the Party and even after the war never publicly expressed regret for his participation. He never spoke about the Nazis' extermination of Jewish people and the closest he came to recanting was an off-hand comment about his own stupidity. Controversy continues to swirl regarding his attitudes towards Nazism and anti-Semitism. Since the publication of his Black Notebooks, in which several damning anti-Semitic comments appear, and especially as his defending colleagues and friends have passed away, Heidegger's unrepentant Nazism and implicit anti-Semitism have been increasingly accepted as the unfortunate truth, even as his philosophy continues to be a frequently cited touchstone in scholarship.

Hannah Arendt believed that Heidegger had made an "error," that he had fallen into a dangerous, but forgivable intellectual flirtation, and that his philosophy was not tainted by Nazi ideology. She was not alone in supporting him, though there were many equally prominent intellectuals, such as Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, who believed that Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party revealed intrinsic problems and tendencies towards Nazi ideas in his philosophy. After the war, Arendt resumed an affectionate correspondence with Heidegger that would continue until her death. Their friendship was interrupted by the war, but seemingly intact. How are we to parse the Jewish refugee Arendt's lifelong defense of the Nazi supporter Heidegger? 

Heidegger obviously played an essential role in Arendt's life as an intellectual mentor, but he was also her first lover, and a man with whom she shared an extremely complicated relationship that traversed the terrain of romance, friendship, and Socratic exchange. Emotionally speaking, Arendt was confronted with a profoundly flawed man who nevertheless she continued to love. Though this presents a shattering psychological conundrum, love and friendship are not based on ideological agreement, but on a more total engagement with and commitment to another, different person. However, Arendt, ever the rigorous thinker, left signs of the intellectual work that permitted her to excuse Heidegger, to forgive him, to continue to cherish him as a mentor and a man. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she writes:

In all fairness to those among the elite, on the other hand, who at one time or another have let themselves be seduced by totalitarian movements, and who sometimes, because of their intellectual abilities, are even accused of having inspired totalitarianism, it must be stated that what these desperate men of the twentieth century did or did not do had no influence on totalitarianism whatsoever, although it did play some part in earlier, successful, attempts of the movements to force the outside world to take their doctrines seriously. Wherever totalitarian movements seized power, this whole group of sympathizers was shaken off even before the regimes proceeded toward their greatest crimes. Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition.

This passage is found in chapter ten, "A Classless Society," under the second heading, "The Temporary Alliance Between the Mob and the Elite," and it reads suspiciously like a defense of Heidegger. In her analysis, Arendt puts the totalitarian ideology into the active role of seducer and the errant intellectual into the passive role of the seduced. This choice of vocabulary is instructive, since it encompasses an element of beguilement with a connotation of gendered violence. Nazism is the Don Juan to Heidegger's Donna Anna. Though she admits that the support of intellectuals contributed to the legitimization of the Nazi regime in the international community, she insists that the labor of philosophy is inherently incapable of shouldering the burden of creating a totalitarian regime. On the one hand, it is true that your average working men probably wasn't spending his lunch hour poring over Being and Time, but on the other, Heidegger did wield a great deal of influence on the German philosophical community, his book was hailed (is still hailed) as a work of genius, and German scholars were not divided from the rest of the intellectual and artistic world, as American scholars are today. Can one really describe Heidegger, who, despite his diminished political involvement lived through the Nazi era unmolested, as a "desperate man"?

Still, Being and Time, though it can certainly be interpreted through a lens of Nazi ideology, does not declare a political allegiance or plan of action, as Hitler's own Mein Kampf does, or "Woman as Thing," by the most vicious of fascist philosophers, Julius Evola. Heidegger's involvement does not ascend to the level of Italy's most prominent philosopher of the fascist period, Giovanni Gentile, who ghost-wrote Mussolini's "Doctrine of Fascism." One would be hard-pressed to assign Heidegger a significant influence on the trajectory and development of Nazi regime, but such a standard ignores the responsibility of the individual, which Arendt is usually so keen to insist upon. By the end of the passage quoted above, the seduced intellectual has nearly become a victim, since his work is so dangerous to the regime. Yet, the worst that Heidegger suffered, either during or after the war, was to be deemed a Mitläufer, a fellow traveler, and be denied the opportunity to teach - that is, until 1951.

The question of Heidegger's guilt could not possibly be resolved in a brief essay, but Hannah Arendt's extraordinary ability not just to forgive her friend, not just to refuse to turn her back on him, but to defend her friend, publicly, and discover paths of forgiveness through intellectual labor reveals the incredible humanity underlying Arendt's work. Arendt, a Jewish woman, had the fortitude and compassion to forgive by means of the work that Nazi thinkers would have deemed her unable and unfit to perform: by means of philosophy. Whether she was right about Heidegger or not, Arendt's actions towards him could not have been more starkly opposed to the totalitarian ideologies she denounced.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Feminist Rebuttal to the "Sight and Sound" Top 50 Critics' Poll

Sight and Sound has a tradition of polling critics every ten years, asking them to rank the fifty greatest films of all time. Inevitably - of course - such a ranking will have both a streak of quixoticism (how on earth, with more than a century of filmmaking, is one to really make such pronouncements?) and the flattening effect of consensus, since the most idiosyncratic, obscure, and odd films won't make the cut, once all the numerical shenanigans are done. (And I do mean shenanigans - this is a poll of fifty films that actually has fifty films on it.) Still, it's worth noting that in the last poll, conducted in 2012, only one film out of the fifty that made the list was directed by a woman: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. So, here is an alternative list of fifty great films, all directed by women, each of which offers an alternative to the choices in the original poll. This is not to say that the original choices aren't great films. Many of the choices are among my very favorites, such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Some Like It Hot, and The Rules of the Game. Rather, the alternatives are meant to expand the scope that any poll can offer and to remove the inherent gender imbalances that still prevail in both film criticism as practiced and the very concept of hierarchizing works of art.

1. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation [Vertigo]
2. Mai Zetterling's Loving Couples [Citizen Kane]
3. Larisa Shepitko's Wings [Tokyo Story]
4. Lina Wertmüller's Love and Anarchy [The Rules of the Game]
5. Frances Marion's The Love Light [Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans]
6. Lana and Lilly Wachowski's The Matrix [2001: A Space Odyssey]
7. Jane Campion's Top of the Lake [The Searchers]
8. Germaine Dulac's The Smiling Madame Beudet [Man With a Movie Camera]
9. Forugh Farrokhzad's The House Is Black [The Passion of Joan of Arc]
10. Sally Potter's Orlando [8 1/2]
11. Sarah Gavron's Suffragette [Battleship Potemkin]
12. Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong [L'Atalante]
13. Chantal Akerman's Je, Tu, Il, Elle [Breathless]
14. Larisa Shepitko's Ascent [Apocalypse Now]
15. Diane Kurys's For a Woman [Late Spring]
16. Anne Fontaine's The Innocents [Au Hasard Balthazar]
17. Jane Campion's The Piano [Seven Samurai]
18. Mai Zetterling's The Girls [Persona]
19. Pina Bausch's Café Müller [Mirror]
20. Gillian Armstrong's Women He's Undressed [Singin' in the Rain]
21. Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon [L'Avventura]
21. Catherine Breillat's Romance [Contempt]
21. Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties [The Godfather]
24. Suzanne Schiffman's Sorceress [Ordet]
24. Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda [In the Mood for Love]
26. Liliana Cavani's Beyond Good and Evil [Rashomon]
26. Margarethe von Trotta's Vision - From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen [Andrei Rublev]
28. Laetitia Colombani's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not [Mulholland Dr.]
29. Germaine Dulac's The Seashell and the Clergyman [Stalker]
29. Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa [Shoah]
31. Nancy Savoca's Household Saints [The Godfather Part II]
31. Anna Biller's The Love Witch [Taxi Driver]
33. Shirley Clarke's The Cool World [Bicycle Thieves]
34. Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid [The General]
35. Petra Epperlein's Karl Marx City [Metropolis]
35. Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol [Psycho]
35. Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
35. Lina Wertmüller's Camorra (A Story of Streets, Women, and Crime) [Sátántangó]
39. Agnès Varda's Vagabond [The 400 Blows]
39. Chantal Akerman's La Captive [La dolce vita]
41. Ida Lupino's The Bigamist [Journey to Italy]
42. Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank [Pather Panchali]
42. Ida Lupino's The Trouble with Angels [Some Like It Hot]
42. Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress [Getrud]
42. Věra Chytilová's Daisies [Pierrot le Fou]
42. Sharon Maguire's Bridget Jones's Diary [Playtime]
42. Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell [Close-Up]
48. Liliana Cavani's The Skin [The Battle of Algiers]
48. Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I [Histoire(s) du cinéma]
50. Francesca Bertini's Assunta Spina [City Lights]
50. Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed [Ugetsu Monogatori]
50. Maya Deren's At Land [La jetée]