Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Praise of Exposition: "Fantastic Beasts" and Too Much Plot

As Plot has come to occupy the throne of Zeus in the Mt. Olympus of Storytelling, poor, unwanted, and abused Exposition has all but been chased down the mountain's stony steeps.

The ascendance of the film franchise, the television serial, and the multi-volume literary series, has been accompanied by the phenomenon of spoiler hysteria, itself the natural consequence of the elevation of plot. If a spoiler truly can spoil a story, then it follows that plot, and plot alone, constitutes the essence of a story, to the detriment of character, world-building, setting, literary beauty, or any other element of storytelling.

For films, the adulation of plot drives further the retreat into a reliance on popular book or comic series for the simple reason that books, far roomier than a feature film, have a greater, though shrinking, luxury: the establishment of a fantastic world and fascinating characters to populate it. The viewer's familiarity with the material allows film and television adaptations to cut back on exposition.

Exposition is crucial. Without it, a plot has no meaning, no emotional resonance. Exposition establishes the frameworks over which the story is constructed and it delimits the bounds of the imagined world, thus permitting the viewer to perceive the 'rules' of that world. Exposition is equally important for the introduction of characters. If we do not see Frodo happy and contented in Hobbiton, the scale of his sacrifice and bravery is lost; he is simply an opaque hero. His motivations for treating Smeagol with respect are dim, his desperation to destroy the ring becomes nothing more than a symbol of uninteresting good pitted against uninteresting evil. Whether Frodo succeeds or not only matters if we care about Frodo, if we care about what he cares about.

One of the commonest criticisms of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of what will eventually be a five-film series set in J. K. Rowling's Wizarding World, was that it was a largely expository film, but on the contrary, I would argue that the film's greatest weakness was its lack of exposition. Fantastic Beasts runs a bit more than two hours and it is jam-packed with happenings. Luckily, over the course of the Harry Potter series, literary and cinematographic, the vast majority of viewers will be familiar with the rules of the Wizarding World. It makes sense to us that a wizard can keep a menagerie of magical animals in a suitcase or that a witch can bake a strudel with a few waves of her wand. Though I personally would happily watch hours of such things, details of the workings of magical world, the lack of world-building in Fantastic Beasts doesn't cripple the film, as it would without the prior series. Even so, the greatest pleasures are to be found precisely in those details: the newspaper headlines, the spells and heretofore unseen magical creatures, clever inventions that Rowling so excels in creating.

What weakens Fantastic Beasts is the lack of expository character-building. Eddie Redmayne's performance as Newt Scamander has been criticized as flat and uninteresting, but frankly I don't see that as Redmayne's fault. No sooner do we meet Scamander than we see him swept into a chase after a Niffler (kudos to the design and effects departments - they are highly charismatic). We get no sense of why he is passionately enamored of magical animals, only that he is. Tina (Katherne Waterston) is in trouble with the MACUSA, seemingly for on-the-job incompetence, but the revelation of the reasons for her demotion doesn't explain who she is, or why she acted as she did. The real problem here is that the characters are reduced to easily definable qualities, qualities that fail to add up to an irreducibly complex character that resembles a relatable human being.

If Redmayne's performance lacks charisma, it may very well be because the audience never has a chance to spend time with him. Newt, Tina, Jacob (Dan Fogler), and Queenie (Alison Sudol) are the 'good guys' because they are the characters we are following, not because they are relatable or struggling to make choices that force the viewer to ponder the implications of such choices. Moral decision-making in Fantastic Beasts can be collapsed into easy alternatives: help someone or harm someone, preserve wildlife or destroy it. This is surprising, given that few fantasy novels can boast of the moral, spiritual, and psychological complexity of the Harry Potter books (the movies were able to ride on the books' coattails, enriched by the audience's reading).

On the one hand, Fantastic Beasts is enormously fun and, for those who care only to know what happens next, a true treat. There is much to admire - the CGI is absolutely splendid, all design elements, from sets and costumes to creatures and magic, are stunning, unique, and witty. But on the other, I hope, very much, that subsequent films will offer more time to get to know the characters: not just that Newt is shy and awkward, but why and how he feels about the way he is perceived; not just that Tina gets herself into scrapes, but why and how she feels about it; not just that these two characters feel a kinship, but why and what that kinship is like. I trust Rowling as one of our best storytellers to have created brilliant, complex characters. Now I'm ready to get to know them, but until I can, I'm just watching what they do, not caring why they do it.

So, hooray for exposition and may we get substantially more of it in the films to come!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Poetry for Dark Times: Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself"

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) was one of the pithiest of twentieth (and twenty-first!) century poets, as well as winner of the Nobel Prize. Her work is characterized by an ethereal beauty, a cross between the exquisite and the earthy, and easily travels, like the most magnificent of celestial zoom lenses, from the microscopic to the universal. Though many of her poems engage with the weightiest of subjects, from death to true love to the meaning of life, they are always leavened with an elegant, light-touched, and ironic sense of humor. Szymborska succeeds in striking a tone that is equal parts deadly serious and wittily unpretentious. Indeed, the lack of pretension elevates her poetry above that of many of her contemporaries. She may address Death, but then, she accuses it of a lack of humor ("It can't take a joke") and incompetence ("Preoccupied with killing,/it does the job awkwardly,/without system or skill./As though each of us were its first kill"). Her stars are celestial orbs, but she's as likely to reference Einstein or Plato as she is one of the Romantic poets. Time is bent and twisted about, examined up close and from a distant perspective. Dreams and reality collide; Szymborska reaps a spark of something beautiful or truthful in their collision. A poem entitled "Metaphysics" lands neatly on the decidedly contemporary image of a plate of fries, while "Tarsier" ascends to an ironic apex, vaunting the very essence of being the wide-eyed animal. Her world is a modern one, cognizant of its smallness in the cosmos, populated by machinery and wracked by the throes of misery in death camps and terrorist attacks, but Szymborska's frame of reference is enormously wide, easily encompassing ancient Greek philosophy, astrophysics, Dutch painting, medieval tapestry, archaeology, slapstick silent film, and even every-day life.

Many of us, as 2016 comes to a close, can look back at a difficult, if not brutal year. Those events that effect all of us have been frightening and threaten to have dire consequences. And, I would claim, the time is ripe for poetry. Perhaps no poet can serve us better, then, than Szymborska. Here is one of her beautiful poems, translated from the Polish by Claire Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself."

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weight a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet from the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is number one.

This poem was published in the collection, A Large Number, released in 1976, mid-way through Szymborska's career. Here we have an example of the brilliance of her final ironic turns, an elegant deflection that suddenly shines a blinding light on the human condition. Animals in her poems are never anthropomorphized, though they sometimes speak for themselves, as in the aforementioned "Tarsier" and "Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History," which builds to a devastating last stanza. However, animals coexist with human beings not as lesser, but as different, beings, beings that abide by different moral codes, different rules. By drawing comparisons between the pitilessness of animals, of the hard and often brutal demands of their continued survival, with the behavior of human beings, Szymborska - who lived through World War II in Poland, one of the worst ravaged countries in Europe - steadfastly, almost obstinately, insists that we face ourselves, who we really are, and pass sentence on ourselves. If you shrink from the sight of a lion mauling its prey or an insect burrowing into the skin, she tells us, look around and take a look at yourself.

Even so, this doesn't mean that her point of view is pitiless. In her refusal to name the creatures who comfort themselves with clear consciences and count themselves as estranged from the bestial, she is clear-eyed, but not cruel. The admonishment is clean, cool, keen, but it is really the reader, not the poet, who admonishes. The reader jumps from that final line to the state of her own conscience and must either recognize the stains upon it - or be marked as bestial. The only other option is to slam the book shut and determine to forget one ever read such words.

Szymborska wrote many poems that both obliquely and explicitly address specific violent conflicts and events, including the Vietnam War and September 11th, but the war that occupies her most deeply, unsurprisingly, is World War II. In desolating poems such as "Starvation Camp Near Jaslo" and "Still," Szymborska insists on the facts, and if they are brutal, upsetting, or ugly (and, goodness knows, they are), she refuses to turn away from them. She remembers the neighbors that disappeared, she notices the verdancy of the fields that cover mass graves, she recognizes that there are stories, people, lurking beneath every gravestone. This is why I believe her to be a poet to cherish at this moment. She provides us beauty and bracing, unadulterated truth, a look at our naked selves in a mirror, in equal measure. The mixture of these two qualities offers a certain degree of pleasure and relief without permitting escapism. So, let us read poetry; perhaps it will prove a better guide than any other. Through poetry, if we're more sagacious than human beings usually prove to be, maybe we'll remember to think and to have compassion for others. It's no guarantee, but then, as Szymborska has written, "there's no stop/along our escape route/where reality isn't expecting us."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Tolkien's Gollum and Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism"

Given its erudition, immensity, dense prose, and close-packed print face, Hannah Arendt's still controversial The Origins of Totalitarianism is anything but a fast, easy read.The same could be said of the masterwork of another brilliant academic, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, though the fantasy epic can certainly lay claim to providing substantially more in the way of entertainment. In the past few weeks, Arendt's opus has catapulted to best-seller lists, though it was originally published in 1951. We are in dark times and the choices we face are weightier and have more potentially far-reaching consequences than perhaps ever before in my lifetime. In such times, it is not uncommon to turn to the comforting world of the fantasy novel, with its Manichean struggles, exquisite and unpolluted landscapes, magic, and triumph of the forces of goodness.

But Tolkien too lived through dark times. The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954-55, but the writing of it occupied Tolkien from 1937 - a momentous year in terms of the history of fascism, given that in that year Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, the gifted intellectual Antonio Gramsci died after eleven years in a fascist prison, and Hitler held a secret meeting to plan the expansion of Germany across Eastern Europe - until 1949, when wartime rationing was finally coming to an end in Great Britain. Perhaps the greatest of many great achievements encompassed within the creation of Middle-earth, the character of Gollum is one of the most complex and fascinating in all of literature. The brilliance of the creation of Gollum is burnished further when thinking of The Lord of the Rings as a saga against totalitarianism.

Though Tolkien resisted facile interpretations of his work, it seems clear that the immense struggle undertaken by Great Britain and her allies against the Nazi war machine had a deep impact on his writing. Between the scars of the past traumas of World War I, which left Tolkien, like his good friend C.S. Lewis, in perpetual mourning for their dead companions, and the shadow cast by Nazism, the darkness in The Lord of the Rings has a palpable, searing quality. The evil of Sauron, entrenched in his stronghold of Mordor, in the east (the geography seems significant: not only is Germany to the east of the United Kingdom, but Hitler aimed first at eastern expansion, hoping to postpone the invasions of western countries until he'd secured more territory, a goal thwarted by the stubborn intervention of the British), is portrayed as intent on a totality of power. This totality is expansionist and military in nature and Sauron determines to destroy all potential threats to his power, including all those who might think for themselves, who might feel love or compassion or a sense of honor, and all forms of culture and merriment. Warfare is conducted species against species; civilians are not spared, nor children, nor the elderly. Even a wise man like Saruman, once Gandalf's mentor, converts to Sauron's vision of a conquered Middle-earth; in this, he recalls Heidegger, Arendt's teacher, mentor, and lover, who was a devoted Nazi and anti-Semite.

But in these dark times, I believe that we should cast our eyes on Gollum. Gollum, enslaved to the ring, locked in an unending struggle to obtain and possess the ring and an equally soul-breaking struggle to extract himself from the cruel demands of the ring, strikes me as the terrifying prototype for the ordinary man brought under the extreme pressures of totalitarian ideology. Unlike the orcs, born and bred in the sweltering volcanic rock of Mordor, knowing nothing and wishing to know nothing but brute strength and obedience to their master Sauron, Gollum was once a hobbit, of all the creatures of Middle-earth the most innocent.

Before continuing, I must point out that it is essential to note that Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism is almost purely secular, while Tolkien, a devout Catholic, intentionally revised his magnum opus to reflect his religious beliefs. This is important to understand because there is a divergence in terms of the conclusions of the two works. While Arendt pleads with her readers to think, to reject monolithic ideologies and be cognizant always of the signs of incipient totalitarianism, and thus sees totalitarianism as a threat that has not been laid to rest by any means, Tolkien's Catholic beliefs lead him in a different direction: defeat evil, and a new world will be born, one that will have its flaws and its struggles, but one in which the like of Sauron will never be seen again. This is a vision founded in Christian conceptions of good and evil. If Tolkien's vision were applicable to our workaday world, it would seem that we have not yet even met Sauron on the field of battle; a glance at what is currently happening in Syria alone ought to quickly dispel any ideas of a progression towards a peaceful world. If Tolkien's understanding of moral progression points us rightly, then neither Hitler nor Stalin nor any other historical dictator has been our Sauron, for total warfare is still with us. However, one must realize and remember throughout reading and comparing these books that Arendt rejects absolutely simplistic notions of historical cause and effect. Only in a fantasy world, springing from the imagination of a man, a mere man and no god, can such historical argumentation ring true. With these caveats in place, let us turn to Gollum.

Gollum is incapable of rejecting the advance of power, even when it is relatively benign, except through violence. This is the cruelest mark the ring has left upon him, crueler even than the mangling of his body. While Frodo insists on referring to him by the name he held as a free hobbit, Smeagol, Gollum himself appropriates the word 'sneak' to refer to himself after Sam hurls it at him in a moment of anger. In response to Frodo's pained expression of pity, "'Smeagol has to take what's given to him,' answered Gollum. 'He was given that name by kind Master Samwise, the hobbit that knows so much.'" Without a higher power to obey, Gollum wallows in confusion and so he takes up whatever crumbs of instruction he finds, even as he rebels, even as he despises those who exert power over him. When he breaks away, it is to resort to brutality, violence that he always subsequently regrets and revisits upon himself in hopeless retaliation.

Gollum loses his ability to rule himself, and yet the ring, once taken from him, exerts an ungovernable attraction. Prevented from bowing completely to its influence, Gollum desperately seeks another power to rule over him and thus with Frodo he is "pitifully anxious to please," prone to overpowering tears whether he pleases or displeases the hobbit who, possessed of the ring, becomes his master by proxy. Gollum's self has been annihilated, so much so that he refers to himself in the third person; Gollum is a nobody because he can no longer fit together the shattered shards of Smeagol. "What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is... the transformation of human nature itself," writes Arendt. In the case of poor Smeagol, the transformation is horrifying. Every feeling, any sensation beyond the merest urges of biological necessity, crush him, for they drag him away from the ring, the ring he worships even as it terrifies and tortures him.

For Gollum to feel the slightest compassion, the slightest emotional tug towards another creature, he must experience pain.  "A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee--but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing." In these brief moments, Gollum almost recovers his hobbit-ness, his integrity as an individual, but inevitably the ring exerts its impossibly seductive force.

The pain he feels never suffices to destroy the chains of Gollum's enslavement. “Nothing is more difficult and rarer than people who, out of the desperate need of loneliness, find the strength to escape into solitude, into company with themselves, thereby mending the broken ties which link them to other men," writes Arendt. Gollum, so desperately lonely that he fears his own threats, never quite manages to mend those ties, though he tries with Frodo's help. Alone with himself, what remains of Smeagol is always cowed by the wraith-like fierceness of the slave Gollum. True converse with himself is impossible.

Gollum dies still in thrall to the ring, still lashed to its sinister chains. His final moment of ecstasy as he repossesses the ring is equally a moment of the profoundest agony. "And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone." Gollum quite literally can no longer exist without the ring; if the ring is destroyed, so must be Gollum. They meet the same fate: dissolution in hellish waves of lava in the deep chambers of Mount Doom.

Even so, the ring's effects were not universally obviously bad. Possession of the ring promises a sort of immortality and Smeagol lives for an astonishingly long time, well over five hundred years, due to the influence of his precious. The price paid for a long life, something much coveted for instance by Bilbo and essentially every hobbit and human character, is the total loss of what one could charitably term 'humanity.' This immortality mirrors the twisted immortality promised by totalitarian death cults: die for it, one is promised, and you will live forever. And yet that life is a perversion of life: for Gollum, an existence of torture, loneliness, and terror; for the men and women under a totalitarian regime, an equally barren existence in which all thought and feeling is crushed, squeezed, and destroyed until all that remains is a robotic shell.

Gollum's corruption, far more than Frodo's determination and Christ-like sense of mission, prevents Sauron from recapturing the ring and attaining total domination. This is the terrifying truth of totalitarianism: a human once under the thrall of totalitarian rule can only be redeemed through the destruction of the very thing that sustains his life, that narrates and delimits the scope of his being. Gollum is the man who comes under totalitarian power; he is not born into it; he is seduced by it. That is why he came "to love and hate the Ring, just as he loved and hated himself." Let us remember Gollum, now and in the months to come, for if we teeter on the brink, espy the glimmer of a shining object and seek to possess it, we risk not merely our lives but our reasons for living, not merely our freedoms but our very souls. "Even a single individual can be absolutely and reliably dominated only under global totalitarian conditions,”Arendt writes, but it is up to us to make sure that such conditions never come to be.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

12 Great Experimental Films That Deconstruct History, (Auto)biography, & Storytelling

Experimental films, like documentaries, tend to interest a small subset of the movie-watching public and even devoted cinephiles may struggle to appreciate experimental efforts, but without such films, movies would still be a loop of footage showing us a galloping horse or some people walking through a garden. In a sense, all films are experimental because the medium is so young and new technologies and innovations are still being developed at a fairly steady pace. Granted, however, when one says experimental film, one intends a film that approaches narrative (or refuses to approach narrative) in unexpected or strange ways, juxtaposes images, sound, and words without regard for usual formal conventions, exhibits a self consciousness of its own construction as a film, or, generally, rejects the standards and formal techniques that mainstream films, and mainstream audiences, take as given. The following list reflects my own preferences as far as experimental films are concerned; many are documentaries in one way or another and more than half were directed by women. These are films that tell stories that break apart traditional, conventional, and comfortable understandings of history, gender, art, progress, and reality.

Daisies (1966)
Radical feminist Věra Chytilová was banned from working in her native Czechoslovakia for nearly a decade once the censors got a look at her subversive masterpiece, Daisies, a film that deconstructs and cheekily pulls the rug out from under patriarchy and the hypocritical capitalism of the soviet model of industry. Unlike so many well-regarded cinematic experiments, Daisies is legitimately both fun and funny, though some of the more gleefully incendiary jokes, as in the scene where the two Maries cheerfully snip up phallic foods like pickles, might make men squirm in their seats. Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová play the two girls who throw off all social constraints and follow whatever anarchic impulse emerges in their bubbling psyches. The world cannot contain the two Maries; either they or every social institution must be subdued. Chytilová's film is not utopian, but its spirit is impossible to suppress, for no matter how oppressive a state, an ideology, or simply a man may be, below the surface lurks a mischievous, happily destructive id, and at any moment, anyone might decide, like the two Maries, to "be bad," the consequences be damned. 

The Gleaners and I (2000)
This stunning documentary by French filmmaker Agnès Varda is part autobiography, part sociological study; its ostensible subject, the practice of gleaning and the men and women who glean, ultimately encompasses a plethora of far-ranging themes, from the French class system, immigration, art history, collage and found object art projects, viticultural agricultural methods, French property law, psychoanalysis, and the beauty of heart-shaped potatoes. Both deeply personal and intellectually curious, The Gleaners and I is marked with a singularly French quality of engagement. The political coexists and interacts with the personal and the artistic in such a way that the film is texturally, structurally, and thematically enriched. The film's form mirrors its subject, for Varda gleans images, interviews, sounds (the use of birdsong is striking), and objects in the process of filming and editing. Who would have imagined that such an odd, seemingly marginal and obscure subject like gleaning could yield such satisfying results?

The Immortal Story (1968)
This rare film directed by Orson Welles has only this year finally been released by the Criterion Collection after languishing for decades in obscurity. Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, the film is not obviously experimental and in fact has a regimented narrative structure, yet its dizzying obsession with narrative renders the experience of watching it something like walking through a house of mirrors. Welles plays a despotic colonial merchant in Macao, slowly and painfully dying. He is utterly heartless, obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in his environs, and his final coup de grace, he insists, will be to make a fictional story happen in the real world, to create reality like a god. He is aided in this by his nihilistic and fussily unemotional bookkeeper (Roger Coggio), who recruits the vengeful Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), daughter of the merchant's former partner, whom he ruined, to enact in real life the story of a sailor paid by a wealthy, impotent man to impregnate his beautiful young bride. Reality resists being shaped, however, and something at the core, some essence, eludes the merchant, just as it eludes Welles, and this is precisely the point, and also why I would claim that the film is purely experimental. This is a film about storytelling as an empirical science, as pure form, and by exposing the artifice of narrative, it transforms into pure artifice itself. 

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's feminist masterpiece stars the enigmatic Delphine Seyrig, muse of Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras, as Jeanne, a single mother whose monotonous daily routine is so crushingly miserable that only an act of violence can break through its mechanistic patterns. Subsistence and biological necessity are the sole gods in Jeanne's universe; her time is consumed with the buying, cooking, and eating of food, the washing, mending, and wearing of clothing, the applying of lipstick, the submission to utilitarian and paid-for sex. Jeanne experiences nothing that is not directly tied to the maintenance of the body. Made with a crew of all women, Akerman's film unspools at a glacial pace and yet it hypnotizes as it aggravates. Loathed or loved, Jeanne Dielman makes an irrefutable case: if a woman is merely a body, a reproductive entity to be consumed, then the only way out is death, whether her own or someone else's.

La Jetée (1962)
French director Chris Marker's short film is a miniature time travel epic, a brilliant meditation on love, purpose, utopia, and nuclear apocalypse that unfolds in a series of rhythmically edited photomontages. Narrated by Jean Négroni, the film shows us a Man (Davos Hanich) haunted by a pre-nuclear apocalypse memory, in which he witnessed a man killed on a jetty. This memory proves key to the Man's capacity to withstand the exigencies of time travel and he is sent to the past, where he meets a Woman (Hélène Châtelain) with whom he falls deeply in love, in an effort to save the harrowing present. This is a delicate film and none of its many imitators have come close to evoking the aura of ethereal mystery, tinged with menace and longing, that Marker succeeds in calling up like a spirit. No other film has ever portrayed with such perfection the stickiness of time, in which we are caught like flies in a web.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
Koyaanisqatsi is unquestionably one of the most successful avant-garde American films and its success is deserved. Director Godfrey Reggio juxtaposes footage of the natural world with footage of an ever accelerating human development of buildings, airplanes, rockets, escalators, and highways, altering film speed to dazzle us with the jewel-toned light show of traffic at night, the oceans of clouds crashing across mountain peaks, or the stunning wafting of debris in the aftermath of an explosion or shuttle launch. Though a plain description of the images could make them seem boring or mundane, as the film rushes towards its astonishing conclusion, it is impossible to look away; the everyday world has become bizarre and strange; the remote and relatively untouched landscape of deserts, mountains, and oceans explodes off the screen in hyper-reality. The exhilarating and yet increasingly disturbing impression one receives watching this film is partly due to the intense rhythmic quality of the editing and probably mostly due to Philip Glass's pulsating minimalist score, his first in a long and brilliant career as a film composer (the scores for The Thin Blue Line and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters are some of the best in American cinema).

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren's apocalyptic fever dream of psychological breakdown is one of the most significant and copied avant-garde films. In the space of fourteen minutes, the film circles through a succession of images, which with each repeated frame seem to grow denser and heavier with unknowable, unspeakable meaning. In contrast to the surrealist short films of Luis Buñuel, Meshes of the Afternoon refuses the temptation of randomness rendered satiric, and unlike the films of Stan Brakhage, the clarity of the objects on screen only alienates them further from their usual meaning, without the need to obscure them with rapid jump cuts, scratches on the film, or extreme close-ups. Though some (including Brakhage) contend that the film was more Deren's husband, Alexander Hammid's creation, Deren is credited with directing, writing, editing, and producing, and although Hammid has credit as a co-director, without significant evidence to the contrary, it seems to safe to assume that this was Deren's project. Whatever the truth may be, Meshes of the Afternoon depicts with subtlety and psychological specificity a gendered perspective on the dissolution of the mental safeguards that hold us in reality.

Pina (2011)
Pina Bausch was one of the most innovative choreographers of her time, a leading exponent of the Tanztheater (that is, dance theater) movement, and an artist of fierce and compassionate vision. Director Wim Wenders blends segments of some of her most significant ballets, including Café Müller, Vollmund, and The Rite of Spring, archival interview footage, and new interviews with the dancers of her company, filmed in 3D; the result is a spectacular celebration of Bausch and, by extension, the overwhelming power of the body to quicken the mind and the senses through movement. The bonds that hold her company together, even after her death, are testament to both the uniqueness of her artistic perspective and the loving generosity with which she treated her dancers. As Bausch said, "Dance, dance otherwise we are lost."

Russian Ark (2002)
Alexander Sokurov's gorgeous tour-de-force retells three hundred years of Russian history in one glorious, ninety six minute shot, a breathtaking marvel that dwarfs similar such experiments. A ghostly wanderer walks the halls of the Winter Palace, accompanied by the European, an aristocratic French visitor come to court. The camera, manned by Tilman Büttner, dips, weaves, and leaps through seas of dancers, soldiers, musicians, coffin-makers, artists, and museum curators, wending its way through the corridors, ballrooms, and antechambers of the palace. With a cast of over 2,000 and three orchestras spread across thirty three rooms, Russian Ark dazzles, inviting (literally - the narrator invites us in) the viewer to bask and whirl in a pastel and wintry tinted Russian vortex, in which the boundaries between past and present collapse. The bizarre effect of the film is part dream and part chiaroscuro theater, a heady mixture of the painfully real and the evanescent fantastic.

Sex Is Comedy (2002)
French writer-director Catherine Breillat is one of the most intellectual and daring filmmakers working today and this film indulges both a penchant for analysis and a blisteringly unflinching cinematic perspective. Sex Is Comedy is a self-reflexive reconstruction of the filming of one of the most controversial scenes in one of Breillat's most controversial films, Fat Girl. Breillat's stand-in, played by Anne Parillaud, is struggling to film the scene in which her ingenue (Roxane Mesquida, both reprising her role and playing herself) loses her virginity to a handsome older student (Grégoire Colin). The two actors loathe each other, the prosthetic penis won't cooperate - in short, nothing is working out according to plan. The metafictional elements of Sex Is Comedy insist on constant re-examination, constant revision, but then, in the end, Breillat's magic moment somehow comes together, an alchemical flash of cinematic authenticity achieved by the most artificial of means.

The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922)
Germaine Dulac is one of the earliest surrealist film directors and often credited as the first genuinely feminist filmmaker. The Smiling Madame Beudet is her most famous film and a most brilliant, extraordinary one at that. Using double exposures, Dulac shows the tortured and increasingly violent fantasies of a repressed bourgeois housewife (Germaine Durmoz), whose husband's predilection for faking suicide by revolver, which he perceives as a hilarious joke, sparks her imagination and inspires a sinister plan. The woman's life is bifurcated, but the lines between her fantasy life and the mundane reality of housework and obligatory sex blur as the monotony of her day-to-day existence erases any sense of time, while her husband, whose job brings him out into the world, lives in a strictly factual reality, his practical jokes a vent for whatever dark subliminal impulses are at work within him, thus rendered harmless. Though Freud is clearly an important influence, Dulac succeeds in mounting a stinging critique of his highly phallocentric philosophies, decades before feminists began deconstructing and reinterpreting psychoanalysis. 

Stories We Tell (2012)
Sarah Polley's documentary doesn't at first glance appear especially experimental. Using what are disparagingly referred to as talking head interviews, home videos, and reconstructions with actors, Polley narrates her family's unconventional history. The reason I would consider this film experimental is the way in which the crafting of the film forces the viewer to confront the porousness and ambiguity of what we are accustomed to assume is factual. Each person's truth has genuine weight, each person's truth is true, which means that the truth is riddled with contradictions. Formally, the film's structure reflects this multivalent quality, for it is next to impossible to clearly ascertain which footage is home video, that is, actual depictions of Polley's family, and which is a reenactment, carefully composed with actors. The incredible poignancy of Stories We Tell, the heartbreaking images of her mother and the man she loved on a snowy bridge, of her mother dipping her baby's feet into a pool, of Polley herself as a child patting a snowman, isn't contained; it spills out, breaking apart the comforting idea that reality is singular and verifiable.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Was Simone Weil Anorexic (and Does It Matter)?

Simone Weil (1909-1943), though she died in obscurity, has become one of the most studied and influential philosophers of the 20th century, this despite the fact that she published only a handful of articles in her lifetime. Political theorists treasure her writings on Marxism, labor, and war, while theologists cherish her spiritual writings, many of them highly mystical, on love, evil and what she terms decreation. Her life has become the stuff of legend. A prodigy, Weil had taught herself ancient Greek by the age of twelve. She was passionately drawn to those who suffered from an early age and began haunting labor meetings and acting in solidarity with those she saw as miserable. She had a horror of being physically touched and a habit of speaking her mind without caring whether anyone was offended by what she said. Though plagued by ill health all her life, she worked tirelessly, organizing and teaching laborers, volunteering on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, and always denying herself anything denied others: when the poor people around her had no heat, she refused to light her fire; when they were hungry, she refused to eat.

Weil was of Jewish origin, but her family was not religious and she became a Christian, though she never formally converted, after a series of intense mystical experiences in Assisi. St. Francis would be a guiding light for her her entire life and she wrote to a priest and friend that she dreamed of being forced into a life like his as a mendicant. "I fell in love with Saint Francis of Assisi as soon as I came to know about him. I always believed and hoped that one day Fate would force upon me the condition of a vagabond and a beggar which he embraced freely." Her Christianity confirmed her intense habits of denying herself any necessity that was denied to others. Thus, when in exile during World War II, working frantically for the Free French government, she refused to eat more than those living under Nazi occupation were eating. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she was moved to a rest home against her will where she continued to refuse any treatment, food, or luxury that might have been unavailable to those suffering in her native France. She wanted to work. She died of heart failure at age 34. The coroner opined that her death was caused by self-induced starvation and that she was not in her right mind.

This is a controversial opinion, however. Weil was tubercular and had suffered from migraines and other physical illness all her life. She did drive herself in the most Spartan fashion, certainly part of her decline can be ascribed to the intensity of her work, and she had throughout her life limited her consumption of food both as an act of political solidarity and as a spiritual practice, designed both to humble herself (humility is critical in her spiritual writings) and to destroy her attachment to life, which she saw as necessary to create the voids which God can fill, that is, to be decreated in her terminology. But, it is not clear why specifically she was having difficulty eating at the end of her life. She may have been refusing food, but tuberculosis can make eating difficult and absolutely causes dangerous weight loss.

This ambiguity is not ever really going to be resolved, but recent writings about Weil have taken to diagnosing her retroactively with anorexia. This is problematic, to say the least. Though some do differentiate, many writers conflate anorexia nervosa and anorexia mirabilis. The former is an illness characterized by a distorted understanding of one's weight and an explicit attempt to become thin through starvation. It is tied to self-image. The latter is not even necessarily a diagnosable condition; rather, anorexia mirabilis is a spiritual practice that exists in a web of other ascetic practices, such as self-flagellation, enforced celibacy, or reclusion. Anorexia mirabilis was common in the Middle Ages and was accepted as a form of Christian behavior that, for women especially, was a means of spiritual advancement not unlike becoming an anchoress (many of whom practiced anorexia mirabilis). Anorexia mirabilis does not involve a distorted vision of the body, for the person who practices it negates the body, denies it significance. Not thinness, but lack of attachment to earthly things, including the body that will be cast off at death, is the goal.

To call Weil an anorexic full stop dismisses the fact that starvation is not an inherently pathological behavior. It's possible the behavior was a symptom of mental illness, but not provable and, at least in my opinion, not terribly likely. The coroner seems to have assumed that self-starvation could only have been the result of mental illness, but that's a big assumption to make. Politically speaking, Weil's behavior throughout her life was consistent: she thought that she could only hope to understand those who suffered if she suffered like them. Thus, unlike most intellectual leftists of the period, Weil refused to content herself with organizing and teaching laborers. Instead, she actually took a job at the Renault factory and learned first-hand what it meant to work under the conditions of modern industry. Had she eaten the good food her family might have provided her, her act of solidarity would have had no meaning, as far as she was concerned. Her limited consumption of food was a choice undertaken in order to, in a sense, report from the front lines. Her essay "Factory Work" burns with righteous determination; there is none of the cold-blooded theorizing of other contemporary writers on the subject. It is also important to remember that hunger strikes are, and have been, an effective political strategy, used by Gandhi and his followers and Irish irredentists, to name just two examples. Weil was co-opting a strategy of civil disobedience, at least in part.

It would be wrong to discount the religious significance of her attitude towards food, which must be understood in tandem with political motives. For one thing, her political conclusions are part and parcel of her Christianity, though it is a radical Christianity that firmly rejects proselytizing; in writing about institutions, whether the Church or the Communist Party, neither of which she belonged to formally, she claimed that "collectivity is not only alien to the sacred, but it deludes us with a false imitation of it." For another, Weil was a mystic and mysticism in this age of secular culture tends to make intellectuals uncomfortable. Weil's spiritual beliefs are highly complex and can hardly be explained in a brief essay, but crucial was her belief that "the only way into truth is through one's own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation." That is, to be one with God is to under go decreation. One needn't agree with the extremity and insistence of her beliefs about the humility of human life to recognize that she lucidly expressed a theology that advocated for a lack of care for the body, which had little to no importance to her. Such a belief doesn't make her mentally incompetent - on the contrary, it's a sign of the robust courage and consistency of her mode of philosophical and spiritual inquiry.

Finally, Weil doesn't seem to have spent any time worrying about her appearance. If anything, she made efforts to appear as unattractive as possible. Her hair was left unkempt, she rarely washed, and she wore unflattering smocks. She placed no value on the physical beauty of the human body and, indeed, the body is rarely mentioned concretely in her work. She never had any romantic or sexual relationships, either with men or with women; in fact, she was nicknamed the Red Virgin. The motivations of pathological anorexia - a desire to thin because thinness is codified as beauty or attractiveness, or in order to hide from trauma (to literally become invisible), or for the sake of a ravenous ambition to control one's fate - none of these are reflected in Weil's life or works. Weil didn't care about thinness; she cared about the suffering of humanity and she cared about creating the voids which God could occupy.

Therefore, it seems untruthful to label Weil an anorexic, even if it happens that she did die directly as a result of self-starvation, which is not a proven fact. Secular mainstream culture has made something of a cult of health. We tend eagerly diagnose every oddity, misfortune, or poor choice made by our forbears with some illness or other. Even when anorexia mirabilis is treated as a legitimate form of behavior, it's historicized; medieval women can have practiced anorexia mirabilis, but today, there's a refusal to admit that a non-pathological form of self-starvation can even exist except under extreme duress, such as political imprisonment. Finally, though men as well as women can suffer from anorexia, the disease is strongly gendered and even in some ways a child of the Victorian female diagnosis par excellence, hysteria. To disregard Weil's possible, and intellectually well-grounded, reasons for refusing to eat, or eat enough, dismisses her gifts as a philosopher, activist, and theologist. It is an arrogant act of paternalism that insists that one, singular point of view is correct and all deviations from that point of view can be rejected as forms of insanity. Hence, the coroner's assumption that Weil was mentally ill. The fact that Weil was a woman ought to make us all the more cautious about pathologizing her behavior, behavior that one finds reflected in her religious belief and practice and as part of her political activism.

In some ways, the rush to label Weil an anorexic might have as much to do with the pitilessness of her theology as it does with the fact that she was a woman. Weil isn't prepared to let anyone off the hook, least of all herself, and it is difficult to study her work without feeling that one is a selfish, closed-off person, oblivious to all the suffering and misery in the world. She proves that the comfortable excuse of caring for one's own well-being before anything else is only one way of considering one's duty as a human being, only one, while hers would require sacrifices that very few people are prepared to make. And it is worth asking, if everyone felt it an absolute duty to eat no more than the hungriest person in his country, or even in the world, how long would humanity continue to suffer hunger? We might consider whether Weil was right, even if few, if any, among us are really capable of following her example.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

14 Great Films About Dictatorship

A dictator is an absolute ruler, in his modern incarnation, usually of a one-party state that operates under repressive laws that are nevertheless more loosely enforced than the expressed will of the dictator himself. Modern dictatorships are characterized by the repression of political opponents, who are designated subversives, censorship of the press, the state education system, and the arts, limitations on civil liberties, and the perpetual deployment of the military, whether the formal army, the police, or paramilitary groups, to control the citizenry. The term "dictator" has acquired negative connotations, not least of all because high death tolls are the cost of dictatorial power. Here I've compiled a list of films that examine dictators, dictatorship, and the life of those living under, and sometimes resisting, dictatorial power. Though the word "dictator" is often used indiscriminately as a synonym for despot, tyrant, emperor, or even just absolutist monarch, this is incorrect usage and so none of the most famous tyrannies or despotisms, such as Rome under Nero, Russia under Ivan the Terrible, or France under Napoleon, are represented. Perhaps the most obvious exclusion from this list is Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator; though its sincerity is indubitably moving, the film is uneven, suffering from a herky-jerk pace that veers between the tragic and the comic without ever managing to reconcile the two tones, and, while Jack Oakie was nominated for an Oscar, his performance as Mussolini stand-in Benzino Napaloni has aged very badly indeed.

The Conformist (Il conformista) - 1970
Based on Alberto Moravia's novel, The Conformist is one of Bernardo Bertolucci's best films, in the same league with 1900. This film delves deeply into one of the central problems of fascist dictatorship: if the dictatorship is so oppressive, why do most people living under its power, even educated intellectuals, support it, at least tacitly? Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an ordinary intellectual who refuses to see the inconsistencies, fallacies, and dangers of fascist governance, even when he is ordered to assassinate his mentor and father figure, an anti-fascist professor (Enzo Tarascio). The desperate desire to be normal at any cost fuels his capitulation, but this desire is complicated by Clerici's tortured sexuality. Beautiful women (Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda) haunt the screen like pagan spirits, sexual, alluring, and incomprehensible, subjugated by the regime and yet constantly evading perfect control, while Clerici drives himself deeper and deeper into a political entanglement he cannot even begin to contemplate.

The Damned (La caduta degli dei) - 1969
The Damned (the title would be better translated as The Fall of the Gods) is an unremittingly disturbing film and one of Visconti's masterpieces. The film revolves around the Essenbecks, a wealthy industrial family. Set in the turbulent years of the Nazi rise to power, and unlike the vast majority of such films, The Damned probes the rifts and fissures among the various factions of Hitler's supporters; the family is less split along lines of simplistic support for or opposition to Hitler than it is riven by inter-party conflicts, with one member a virulently racist member of the SA, another an opportunist happy to collaborate with the SS, and another, deeply troubled but sensitive and brilliant, proves that pain and suffering hardly guarantee any degree of sympathy for others who suffer. The viciousness and cruelty with which they treat each other, the sadism and devastating confusion of a decadent world corrupted by the too easy fulfillment of even the most revolting desires, the arrogance that masks a pitiful sense of one's own inadequacy, these are the traits of the Essenbecks, prominent German industrialists, whether they collaborate or oppose the Nazi regime, whether they stay silent or declare their allegiances. The queasy quality of this film lies precisely in its stark refusal to continue past the point of total Nazi victory; hope is stripped away to reveal a gaping horror beneath; brutality doesn't suffice to keep any of these characters alive: only a totalizing despair that destroys whatever shreds of morality remained.

Downfall (Der Untergang) - 2004
Bruno Ganz gives a monumental performance as Hitler in this film that narrates his final days in his Berlin Bunker. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film is scrupulously accurate in terms of its history for a narrative film. If it can be said to have a heroine, she is Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), one of Hitler's private secretaries, a somewhat milquetoast and oblivious girl whose shock at realizing that the Third Reich is coming to end less than two decades after it began stuns her, somewhat, out of her complacency. The film's strength, and the reason it awoke significant controversy, lies in its insistence on creating a three-dimensional portrait of the most powerful Nazi figures, including Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) who murdered their own children in the bunker and Himmler (Ulrich Noethen). Truthfully, Downfall, no matter how complex its portrayals, doesn't come close to inspiring sympathy for these people, responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history, but it does frighten, precisely because it becomes clear that one needn't be a monster to do monstrous things, a salutary lesson in this age of threatened democracies.

Hitler's Children - 1943
Hitler's Children is the pulpiest among a handful of Hollywood films that confronted Nazism head-on, which included The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage's masterpiece) and Tomorrow, the World! Though not a critical success, the film made boatloads of money, perhaps in large part due to its overwrought and almost hysterical vision of Nazi Germany. Tim Holt plays a young Gestapo thug, whose love for an American girl of German descent, played by Bonita Granville, forces him into ideological crisis. The film makes only passing reference to concentration camps and anti-Semitism and prioritizes melodrama over realistic depiction, but the aim of the film is to stress the brutality and horror of daily life under a totalitarian regime: Germans are the perpetrators, but they are also the sheep being led to the slaughter, in desperate need of re-education, of an intrusive reality that contradicts the ideologies they believe, or pretend to believe, messianically. The film's portrayal of mass sterilization of "undesirables" still shocks today.

Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie - 1988
Marcel Ophuls is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of cinema history; his abilities as an interviewer and editor render the four hours of this film endlessly fascinating and deeply disturbing. Ophuls refuses to satisfy the viewer's increasingly desperate desire for clarity, even as there is no question of his values and his own fiery and righteous point of view. Hotel Terminus, like the equally merciless The Sorrow and the Pity, examines the moral quandaries of World War II unflinchingly, but totally without sensationalism, an effect created by the use of pure testimony rarely illustrated with stock footage. Ophuls simply refuses to centralize his ostensible subject, but he also recognizes that simply defining Barbie as a monster fails to grant any depth to an understanding of the horror of the torture that was Barbie's specialty. The film welcomes dissenting voices, but allows a Jewish concentration camp survivor the final word. While dozens of documentaries have taken Nazi war crimes and criminals as their subject, none other has succeeded so perfectly at balancing condemnation with complexity.

The Interview - 2014
The Interview would almost certainly have been a moderately successful and swiftly forgotten political comedy if the North Korean government hadn't reacted to it with such wrath; ironically, the film's significance is almost entirely due to the interference of North Korea. Easily half an hour too long and at times descending to comedy more in tune with a toddler's sense of humor than an adult's, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's film takes a simple premise - barely competent talk show host (James Franco) and nebbishy producer (Rogen) are invited to interview Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and ordered by the CIA to assassinate him while they're at it - and builds a series of comic scenarios that eventually culminate in a bloody finale that implies revolution without granting politics any substance. Even so, the movie has its cake and eats it too: the movie's politics are simplistic in the extreme, and yet the friendships between the characters feel fresh, real, and genuinely anchor the film's values; the adolescent desire to blow up the bad guy is freely indulged, but the starry-eyed innocents are more concerned with the safety of a puppy than the success of their mission; female characters are sexualized and lack personality, while the male characters have unexpected depth. What charmed me most, however, were Franco's frequent, nerdy Lord of the Rings jokes.

Judgment at Nuremberg - 1961
Seeing this film was a major event in my childhood - I'm surprised my mother let me rent this particular video - because it was my first exposure to footage filmed by the Allies as they liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Rewatching it as an adult, I'm struck as much by the tacit assumptions, political lacunae, and careful moral delineation of the film as I am by its profound emotional impact, largely due to brilliant performances from Judy Garland, who could wring tears from a stone, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Marlene Dietrich. Though director Stanley Kramer strives to inject moral complexity into the drama of the courtroom, what complexity there is can be ascribed almost purely to the actors. The nastiest Americans are still earnestly striving to live by a moral code, the nicest Germans teeter on the edge of villainy, and their victims are wounded lambs at the altar. Even so, the film's defects in some ways make it a more precious document, one that, in attempting to wrestle with the issue of the victorious Americans, who had just dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, setting themselves firmly on the moral high ground in choosing to try Nazi criminals in military tribunals (as opposed to setting up international tribunals that would be placed above all countries, rather than only the one whose officials were being tried). This is an issue far from clearly resolved; I applaud Kramer for trying with such sincerity.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) - 2006
Released seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's debut film is about a Stasi agent (Ulrich Mühe) assigned to monitor a pro-communist playwright (Sebastian Koch), whose actress lover (Martina Gedeck) has lamentably attracted the interest of the greedy Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme). Mühe gives a revelatory performance as a lonely man whose senses and conscience are awakened as he presides over the apartment, like a silent and lesser god moved by the plight of the mere mortals under his control. The Lives of Others is devastating, but it works well both as a thriller and as an examination of the workings of human morality stretched to its limit under surveillance. Though the film attracted controversy for portraying a Stasi agent sympathetically, I would argue that this is largely the point. Had Mühe's character been portrayed as a monster, the film could not treat its central subject, that is, that humanity lurks in every person and can be revived even after the most exacting indoctrination if that person comes to care for another, to see himself in that other. This is a much more compassionate point of view, and it is also a more hopeful one, for otherwise the monsters among us could only be eliminated by their own methods, by murder, and those who eliminate them would risk constantly becoming such cartoon creatures themselves.

Love and Anarchy (Film d'amore e d'anarchia) - 1973
One of Italian director Lina Wertmüller's four masterpieces released in the 1970s, Love and Anarchy stars two of her favorite actors, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. The film is set in a Roman brothel in 1932 where Salomè (Melato), a prostitute popular with Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), the head of the fascist police, collaborates with the anarchist resistance by manipulating her powerful clients. Tunin (Giannini), a naive country bumpkin, hides out in the brothel, biding his time: his mission is to kill Mussolini. Love and Anarchy is both a blistering comedy - Spatoletti in particular is a fascist caricature par excellence - and a heart-rending tragedy, for Wertmüller uses both laughter as a means of exposing the moronic nature of fascist ideology and a realistic depiction of fascist abuses to mourn the sacrifices made by partisans, sacrifices that all too often proved futile, for Tunin is a buffoon, but one capable of passionate and pure love, selflessness, and a very reasonable fear of death. Special mention should be made of the costumes by Enrico Job, who manages to endow each of the prostitutes with a sense of personality with their garish finery.

Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) - 2006
Guillermo del Toro's heart-breaking film is about Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in an astonishing and insistent performance), a ten-year-old girl whose widowed mother is pregnant and deathly ill and whose stepfather, a falangist officer tasked with annihilating the local rebel forces, orders the doctor to save his son and let his wife die without a flicker of an eyelid. Ofelia is an innocent in a world of monsters and so when she meets a faun who gives her three tasks as the price for admittance into a magical kingdom where she will rule as an immortal princess, her bravery, a desperate necessity as her stepfather tortures dissidents in the cellar, is imbued with a positive purpose. Del Toro's fairy tale admits no childish ideas of absolute good and the magical world in which Ofelia attempts to complete her tasks is as violent and dangerous as the real world in which her mother lies dying. By the end, it becomes impossible to draw a distinction between real and imaginary, and blood sacrifice is demanded. Pan's Labyrinth is proof that "realism" can hardly claim superiority when it comes to portraying such surreal and horrifying eras of history as the Spanish Civil War.

Passenger (Pasażerka) - 1963
This Polish film is extremely hard to track down, but it is also one of the most potent cinematic confrontations with the Holocaust. Left incomplete after director Andrzej Munk's death, Passenger uses the techniques of documentary filmmaking to deconstruct and probe the veracity of the testimony of Liza, a female SS guard at Auschwitz, played by Aleksandra Śląska. Years after the war, Liza finally admits her past to her husband, claiming that thanks to her a Jewish girl named Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) survived the liquidation of the camp. The film contrasts this telling with Liza's private remembrance. The bias of both accounts is obvious, but what makes the film so daring is its way of forcing the viewer to sift through the differences between them, to search for some trace of the unadulterated truth, if it can even be said to exist. Passenger is rife with haunting moments: in one scene, a tiny Jewish girl pets an SS guard's German shepherd; the guard smiles down at her before waving her down the steps into the gas chambers. 

Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze) - 1975
Another of Lina Wertmüller's masterpieces starring Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties revels in the grotesque, the abject, and the wretched; it is one of the most challenging and one of the most brilliant of films addressing the horror of concentration camps. It is also howlingly funny. Pasqualino (Giannini) is a Neapolitan ne'er-do-well, a petty crook, whose machismo lands him in jail after he kills his sister's pimp. In a tour-de-force scene, Pasqualino pretends to believe he's Mussolini, which lands him in an insane asylum, and when he gets tired of acting crazy, he volunteers for the army. Once in the army, Pasqualino, ever the scallywag, deserts and lands in a German concentration camp, where he schemes to seduce the grotesquely hideous commandant (a chilling Shirley Stoler). The humor in this film is literally brutal; Pasqualino shrieks for his mother in jail as he's swarmed by an army of weeping sisters, while in Germany he breaks into a private house and gorges on food in front of a shocked granny, and in the concentration camp, the seduction scene is so macabre that its absurdity borders on monstrosity. In other words, Seven Beauties is not for everyone. It does, ultimately, make more than one profound statement about the price of dictatorship, whether that of a man in his family, of il Duce over Italy, or of the commandants over concentration camp inmates.

To Be or Not to Be - 1942
Ernst Lubitsch's wildly subversive comedy is unquestionably Jack Benny's best film and among Carole Lombard's best. The movie's sense of humor is gleefully dark and yet it still has that light, frothy Lubitsch touch. A Polish theater troupe in Warsaw watches with dismay as the Nazis march in, but finds their talents uniquely suited to resistance when they discover that a traitor has a list of the Polish pilots enlisted in the RAF, the families of whom the Nazis want to send to concentration camps as reprisal. Solemnity hasn't got a chance in this film that has a running joke about Concentration Camp Ehrhardt and a false beard, there are Hitler impressions (some of them excellent) scattered throughout, and yet, To Be or Not to Be never hits a false note. Every line has a double, or triple meaning. For instance, Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is recited several times and its meaning alters and amplifies with each recitation. To Be or Not to Be, for all its slapstick and pratfalls, is a genuinely subtle film, its politics crystal clear and not even a little heavy-handed. It is also an impassioned argument in favor of the subversive power of art, even when the artist is a ham.

Vincere - 2009
Marco Bellocchio's gorgeous film (the cinematography is by Daniele Ciprì, who uses complex blacks and deep reds to great effect) tells a curious and until recently secret story of Mussolini's biography. Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) was the passionate, headstrong lover of the young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi, who also plays Benito, fils) and newly unearthed research has all but confirmed that Dalser was, in fact, his first wife before Rachele Guidi and that therefore Mussolini was a bigamist. Dalser's life is a tragic one; she spent it on a quixotic mission to be acknowledged as Mussolini's rightful wife and the mother of his legitimate son. For this, both she and her son were imprisoned in separate insane asylums, where both would die under suspicious circumstances. Dalser's erasure from the public record testifies to how dangerous her claims were considered to be. In Vincere, Mezzogiorno gives a luminous performance, one that embraces all of Dalser's more difficult qualities without by one iota diminishing the depth of her misery and the extraordinary force of her stubborn indomitability. This operatic film gives full scope to the dramatic possibilities of this piece of history, finally granting Dalser some justice and exposing the unthinkable repression of Mussolini's dictatorship.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Notes on Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite

 Though it may be hard to conceive almost a hundred years later, when sound film technology premiered it was avant-garde in a way that subsequent technological breakthroughs (3-D, digital animation, digital compositing, steadicam) have not been since. While the avant-garde had been experimenting with film since the nascence of the medium, sound brought a new group of artists into the cinematographic world: musicians and composers.

The Soviets, always at the cutting edge of cinema, made their first sound film in 1931, but composers had begun composing film soundtracks even before that (which would be performed with the film or recorded and played to accompany the film), including Shostakovich, who composed his first film score in 1929. In 1932, Prokofiev was commissioned to write the soundtrack for Lieutenant Kijé, based on Russian formalist and Pushkin authority Yuri Tynyanov's novella. It would be the first of several film scores by the composer, which would include Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. Prokofiev had the reputation of a radical, as far as his music was concerned, but he was an inspired choice. Lieutenant Kijé tells a story that is equal parts comedic and tragic, tracing a lineage from the elegance of Pushkin and the irony of Gogol: a clerical mistake results in the nonexistent Lieutenant Kijé to catch the eye of Tsar Paul I and the officials of the court, too frightened to admit their error, soon find in their accidental creation the perfect scapegoat and the perfect hero. If the Tsar is angry, Kijé did it; if a princess needs a husband, Kijé marries her; if the army needs a commander, Kijé rides at their head. When in the end, Kijé cannot be produced, the Tsar is told that the Russian hero has died and Kijé receives a lavish funeral. Rather than end on a note of triumph for the ephemeral lieutenant, when a scapegoat is required again, the deceased Kijé is posthumously accused.

Prokofiev wrote about fifteen minutes of incidental music, scored for a chamber orchestra, for the actual film, but it is the later suite, of about twenty minutes, scored for full orchestra, that became a beloved concert piece. The suite exemplifies two tendencies in Prokofiev's music: an entranced love for the 18th century (also evident in his Classical Symphony, his first, and the score for Cinderella) and a thoroughly modern experimentalism, most obvious in his use of the saxophone, which had acquired some popularity among the Parisian composers with whom Prokofiev associated, but was almost unknown in the USSR. These two approaches are entwined in the story, for, while is set in the decidedly 18th century world of the despotic tsardom, with all its labyrinthine bureaucratic ceremony, its pomp, its sudden, fateful changes in favor, its modernity is marked: its tragic irony, its Beckettian hero who is there and yet not there, its moral vapidity, its refusal to define absolute realities. The creation of Kijé is not the literal handiwork of folk tradition, like the Jewish Golem, nor the scientific monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Kijé exists because he is said to exist; he is a post-factual being.

The suite has five movements, which narrate the tragicomic "life" of the chimerical Kijé. The "Birth of Kijé" introduces Kijé's theme with a fanfare. This is followed by "Romance," in which various instruments, including notably the saxophone, develop an increasingly complex rendition of a folk tune about a dove, "Kijé's Wedding," which intertwines a solemn theme of brass and winds with the playful, rakish melody of the lieutenant's theme, and then the "Troika," an exquisite aural vision of a sleigh-ride in deep winter, in which tinkling sleigh-bells accompany our ephemeral hero on his merry way. The "Troika" is based on a traditional Hussar song and is often extracted and recycled in pop music, particularly Christmas-themed songs. The final movement, "The Burial of Kijé," mingles the various themes, in an elegiac reflection on Kijé's fantastic, if decidedly fictional, life.

Prokofiev demonstrated a fascination throughout his career with Russian folk tradition (Peter and the Woolf, The Tale of the Stone Flower), a celebration of heroic (if perplexingly so) figures of Russian history (the score for Alexander Nevsky, the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, the Stalingrad piano sonata), fairy tales (Cinderella), and literature, especially but not limited to Russian literature (War and Peace, Romeo and Juliet, the Pushkin Waltzes). Many of these interests are apparent in the pageant-like Lieutenant Kijé Suite. The piece is unique, however, for it, more than any other of Prokofiev's compositions, is a work about itself. Since Kijé is a purely imaginary man, his story is metafictional, fictional not only to us, the listeners, but to the flesh-and-blood characters, who have created him in their own (fictional) world. In this sense, the suite reflects upon itself, upon the flights and visions that, within the mind of the artist, are the fertile material of his compositions. It tells us the story of creation, of its own composition, as it tells the story of the creation of a man who was and yet was not. Kijé's existence is bounded by belief in him, just as the suite that brings him to life is bounded by our hearing it. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: Julia Stephen's "Notes from Sick Rooms"

One could be forgiven if the name Julia Stephen fails to ring a bell. She occupies the footnotes of biographies of better known Victorians, such as Edward Burne-Jones, for whom she modeled as a young woman, and her daughter, Virginia Woolf. In her lifetime, she was more than well-liked: Woolf wrote that, in later years, acquaintances were moved to tears when remembering her mother, but Woolf herself did not see Stephen, the quintessential angel in the house, as a figure to emulate. While Stephen signed a notorious petition in 1889 against women's suffrage, Woolf would go on to become one of the foundational figures of modern feminism, as the author of A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Interestingly, Woolf wrote that Stephen left behind her no concrete legacy and indeed Stephen never worked professionally. She was a loving wife, an adoring mother, a devoted daughter, and much in demand as a (strictly amateur) nurse, in an age when the professionalization of nursing was much discussed, but still controversial. But Stephen was also a published author; her Notes from Sick Rooms was published in 1883, the year after Woolf's birth.

It is highly unlikely that this slim volume of commonsensical advice for those looking after ill family members would be remembered or available if Stephen's daughter hadn't been Virginia Woolf, but she was and thus Notes from Sick Rooms is in print, paired with Woolf''s essay On Being Ill, from the Paris Press. It is not an especially literary work. Unlike Florence Nightingale, Stephen was not given to flights of poetic fireworks, but she has a wry, too practical to be coquettish sense of humor. The book is made up of short pieces, each on a subject of importance to the nurse, such as "Washing," "Visits," and "Remedies." Stephen advocates for a radically patient-centric approach to nursing. Each piece of advice is intended to lighten the patient's misery and thus she spends considerable time on issues that medical professionals, even today, would not consider of especial import. For example, Stephen devotes a section to the subject of "Crumbs," which, as anyone who has ever spent a compulsory period in bed knows, are "the greatest... among a number of small evils which haunt illness." With a typically dry tone, Stephen exhorts the nurse that "she must first believe... I have crumbs in my bed" or else she will fail to eradicate them properly. This particularly wry section recalls, more than any other in Notes, Woolf's pithy and delicately sarcastic sense of humor, for instance in her description of the official clothing of archbishops, generals, judges, and the like in Three Guineas. This one long paragraph is a small, schoolmarmish masterpiece.

Much of Stephen's advice is outdated, for instance, her concern about keeping a fire going at all times, so as to have easy access to hot water and warmed towels, and much of it is, frankly, a bit terrifying. Stephen endorses macaroni as a substitute for vegetables and recommends as a diet for the patient afflicted with nausea "cold quenelles or cold fowls, boiled or roast, with thick cold white sauce or a beef-tea jelly," which will supposedly go down easy while "any hot food would create disgust." Indeed, beef-tea jelly is oft mentioned in Notes and she even includes a recipe, which made me devoutly glad not to be under her care.

Some of her advice, however, is still quite useful. Her comments on making a bed comfortable or changing the sheets for a patient who cannot get up are as applicable today as they were 150 years ago and her admonition to avoid both "an unnatural gravity or cheerfulness," either of which are quite frightening for someone who is already ill and worried over what further tortures may be in store is sound advice. She also offers excellent instructions on massaging someone, relieving bed sores, and washing a patient while leaving her in bed. Stephen's main point is that a good nurse "should look on her patient as a 'case,' nursing with the same undeviating tenderness and watchful care the entire stranger, the unsympathetic friend, or the one who is nearest and dearest."

Such a view of the nurse is quite lovely and recalls in softer terms Nightingale's avenging angel or Clara Barton's angel of the battlefield. It is also an intensely gendered image of nursing. Historically speaking, it makes perfect sense that Stephen assumes in all cases that doctors are male and that nurses are female, and usually untrained. Elizabeth Blackwell and a tiny coterie of similarly ambitious women became doctors in the 19th century, but they were exceptional to say the least. Nevertheless, I rather take issue with the way in which Stephen's perfect nurse mirrors so precisely the angel in the home, that Victorian paragon of selflessness, self-abnegation, and silent suffering, the creature that Woolf determined to kill in "Professions for Women" in order to set herself free from the tyranny of respectable, domestic womanhood. It is worth noting that Woolf claimed she could not recall ever being alone with her mother except during childhood illness. Stephen, clearly an intelligent, witty woman with decades of expertise caring for the sick, would have been scandalized at the idea of becoming a doctor, for instance, or a public intellectual, though she spent her life nursing and writing publicly about it. If Woolf dismisses Notes from Sick Rooms so easily, this could be the reason: Stephen remained bound to a vision of womanhood that superseded her individuality as a person.

The conclusion of the book may (despite the beef-tea jelly) prove the most shocking to the modern reader. Stephen matter-of-factly addresses how the nurse ought to behave when the patient dies. She describes how to properly lay out the body, so as to spare the mourning family as much as possible, and she sternly insists that the nurse must remain quiet, composed, and unhurried, for "in the presence of death all bustle is unseemly." Though death is as ubiquitous today as it was in the Victorian era, it is increasingly rare for people to die at home, cared for by family members, rather than in a hospital, hooked up to monitors and IV poles, surrounded by hordes of professional caretakers. It is our attitude towards death, rather than its reality, that has changed. Death is tastefully kept behind curtains and closed doors. Professionals wash, dress, and lay out or cremate the body, it rarely even being seen by family, except by those whose religious practice dictates a wake. Stephen's easy confrontation with death - which is not to say she was cold; she suffered cruelly the death of her first husband - is, I believe, a rather more salutary attitude than our own hidden, despairingly existential fear of mortality. But wait, one might say, surely it must have been easy for a pious Victorian lady with the hope of heaven before her to face death? Indeed, not at all: Julia Stephen, like her husband and daughter, was thoroughly agnostic and faced death with peace and pragmatism, though she believed in no heaven.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Notes on the Invitation List for a Literary Dinner Party

Samuel Beckett: Says he can't come to dinner, but he's coming to dinner. Bringing a pebble as his guest.
Fanny Burney: Coming? Made it to page 1,342 of her reply, but haven't found answer to invitation yet.
Lewis Carroll: Put children to bed before arrival.
Agatha Christie: Promises to bring her own arsenic.
Gabriele D'Annunzio: Will arrive by aeroplane on the lawn. Say good-bye to garden.
Emily Dickinson: Arrange flowery bower with bee hive in which she may hide from view. Songbirds and frogs optional.
Arthur Conan Doyle: Avoid at all cost mention of fairies.
Elena Ferrante: Requires camouflage - perhaps a humanoid teepee made out of the wallpaper?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Never mind. Paint over wallpaper.
Antonio Gramsci: Wishes it noted that, although all men are intellectuals, D'Annunzio is a nincompoop and doesn't count. Seat at other end of the table.
Alice James: Set smelling salts, milk of magnesia, and laudanum at seat. Rent small therapy dog for the evening. Says Nurse will eat beforehand at home.
James Joyce: Prefers crockery to have lewd designs; says otherwise party is too boring and monoideal.
Vaslav Nijinsky: Alright, alright, he's not a writer... But rumor has it, he comes to parties in his faun costume (!), so sure to prove a beneficial sight for Emily and Alice.
George Sand: Won't come without Chopin and Chopin concerned about drafts. Send photographic proof that windows close tightly. Reconsider Nijinsky, as Chopin might not survive the shock.
Jonathan Swift: Requests Irish baby for his entrée. Actually seems to be in earnest.
Henry David Thoreau: Requests that he be served his dinner outside, on a log. Would prefer that the weather be rainy.
P.L. Travers: Hide the Disney videos.
Simone Weil: Says dinner parties are for bourgeois oppressors. Will only eat food if has grown it herself in the garden first.
Virginia Woolf: Insists on buying the flowers herself. Says, last time, the flowers were all wrong and she was busy weeks writing out her frustration. Also, requests private dining room.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Is "A Room of One's Own" Classist and Racist?

In 1983, Alice Walker criticized Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, on the grounds that Woolf's argument was classist and racist. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker wrote:

"Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phyllis [sic.] Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day."

Walker's reaction is part of a larger wave of criticism directed at Woolf that essentially denigrated her feminism because of her privilege. Though there has been a substantial rehabilitation of Woolf's reputation, especially as her pacifist masterpiece Three Guineas has been analyzed with greater attention and care, a whiff of disapproval continues to cleave to the conception of Woolf as a feminist. If we unpack Walker's critique, however, it becomes clear that a failure to consider the work's context and some misreading weakens that critique.

Walker claims that Woolf argues that women require a room and a living wage in order to write fiction. There are several misapprehensions here. First of all, Woolf is not claiming that women require these things in order to write fiction. She claims that women require these things in order to write fiction that can compete with the greatest works written by men. It isn't impossible to write fiction without a room (or, really, privacy) and money, but the lack of these things severely handicaps women. Woolf herself cites Austen and points out the difficulties that she faced in writing her novels: Austen had to write in the family drawing room and had to hide her manuscript when anyone outside the family came to call and she was entirely dependent on male relatives for shelter, clothing, and food. The fact that Austen is one of a select few women who managed to write and publish novels is testament to the fact that it requires something truly exceptional to overcome these limitations, which were the common lot of women of leisure (while women in the working classes were denied education and often could neither read nor write).Woolf also notes that Austen, like the Brontë sisters and George Eliot, were childless (Charlotte Brontë died likely from complicated causes related to a first pregnancy), had male relatives tolerant of their pursuits, and published either anonymously or under a male pseudonym. Woolf's point is that women writers could produce more and better books if they were not constantly interrupted and did not always have to ask permission from a man in order to write; both of these problems are solved by a private room and money enough to live on.

Second of all, the phrase "writing fiction" in Woolf's analysis presupposes "writing (professional, published, critically considered, literary) fiction." She's not talking about writing fiction as a hobby or a distraction from the exigencies of everyday life. For her, fiction is a serious and above all professional pursuit. She's attacking the patriarchal paradigm that allows men, whether married or not, whether fathers or not, to be professional writers, while women, especially if married and especially if they had children, were expected to be available at all times, that is, their writing was not deemed professional.

What, then, are we to make of Walker's example of Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)? Wheatley was, as Walker points out, an enslaved black woman, of frail health but robust intellect. Wheatley was also incredibly exceptional. She was owned by a liberal family who, impressed with her talent, furnished her with an education, an advantage hardly any enslaved person could hope to attain. It is also very much worth noting that this was special treatment: Wheatley's domestic duties were assigned to other slaves owned by the family, slaves that, notably, were not privy to an education, no matter how liberal the family may have been. The publication of her poetry was so controversial that she was forced to prove in court that she had actually written the poems; one can hardly conceive of the humiliation she must have felt. Teaching enslaved persons to read and write was quite controversial and in the 1830s anti-literacy laws were passed in several states, but even in Wheatley's time, few indeed believed in education for the enslaved.

Wheatley did not have a room of her own and she certainly did not have access to a living wage. But, she would not have been able to write a line if her male owner had not decreed that she should receive an education, materials with which to write, exemption from domestic labor, and encouragement that extended as far as a trip to England where her poetry could be more readily accepted for publication. Wheatley was freed only upon the master's death, but her life as a free woman was one of abject poverty and brutal domestic labor that she was too physically unwell to perform. She died at 31.

Walker's rebuttal to Woolf's argument is not really supported by pointing to Wheatley. At the most fundamental level, Wheatley was a poet - she never wrote any fiction - and Woolf draws a distinction between the demands of writing poetry and the demands of writing fiction. But, in essence, that's a quibble. Wheatley's success as a poet says more about how exceptional her circumstances were than it does about what women, especially black, enslaved women, could realistically accomplish at the time. Woolf, too, points out exceptions. It's absolutely crucial to acknowledge that the number of black women writers contemporary with Wheatley can be counted on one hand. In a very limited sense, Wheatley did have a room of her own because she was granted the latitude to the privacy that advanced study and writing require, but, because of her status as an enslaved black woman, she had no right to that room and was at the mercy of the family that owned her. It could be denied her at any moment. Similarly, when she had to work for her living, she was no longer able to get her work published. Without the support of a white family, publishers wouldn't buy her poems. In other words, Phillis Wheatley could never have written or published if the white man who owned her hadn't decided that it would be so. Her circumstances are more extreme than Austen's, say, or Fanny Burney's, because of her race and because she was enslaved, but her career was severely limited by white, male interests.

Woolf wants to do away with those white male interests. Had Walker presented us with a lengthy list of female authors who were brilliant novelists, who had published their work and received a fair critical appraisal, who were considered on a par with contemporary male authors, but who could not lay claim to any form of private space (even so much as a desk) or monetary support, then her critique might have had some merit. But, instead, she gives an example that Woolf herself might have used, an exception that proves the rule.

Lastly, Walker makes the dubious claim that, "had [Wheatley] been white, [she] would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day." That's total nonsense. Had Wheatley been white, she would certainly have had far greater chances, both to study and write and to publish. She would certainly not have had to defend her authorship in a court of law; unquestionably, that humiliation would have been spared her. It is easy to imagine that she would have been accorded the respect (limited and patronizing as it was) granted to women writers of her day. But to say that whiteness would have made contemporary men consider her their equal or superior is an absurd claim. There is not a single eighteenth century female writer, poet or novelist, that any contemporary male critic ever considered his equal or superior: not Austen, not Fanny Burney, not Mary Wollstonecraft, not Françoise de Graffigny, not Ann Radcliffe.

In fact, Wheatley more than many writers of her time desperately needed a room of her own and a living wage. Her physical frailty, her vulnerability as a black woman in colonial Boston, the intellectual tenor of her writing and her lively engagement with writers and thinkers such as Alexander Pope (the expense of the books alone would have been formidable), all these factors made it imperative for her to have her own space and her own income. She never had those things. She died in poverty, her husband in debtor's prison, her infant children dead or dying, her last poems unpublished. Her entire literary output can be collected in a volume just under a hundred pages. Far from rebutting Woolf's thesis, if anything, Walker further supports it, for it becomes clear that Woolf's requirements were as pertinent in colonial America as they were in England.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

6 Texts Essential to an Understanding of Fascism

The word "fascism" has been thrown about with quite the cavalier attitude throughout the 2016 presidential race, but it seems to have been predominantly used as a pejorative term for right-wing candidates (or, at least, a certain flamboyantly orange candidate). Without minimizing the substantial threats that certain xenophobic, misogynist, and otherwise extremist comments and policy suggestions have rendered all too frighteningly tangible, the word "fascism" has been improperly applied. Americans have certainly considered it a dirty word for decades (for instance, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, the insult is "fascist pig," rather than "Nazi pig" or "Falangist pig"), but it is not a well understood term and even among serious scholars there is no consensus as to what exactly fascism is, what constitutes lived fascism as opposed to ideology or theory, and whether the dictatorships usually identified as fascist - Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, sometimes Franco's Spain - demonstrated an actual fascist reality. It is urgent, I believe, in these tumultuous political times to use words clearly and with a reasoned understanding of their meaning. With that in mind, I have put together this brief reading list of sources that should allow the reader to form an opinion about the meaning of fascism. This understanding should both grant insight into twentieth century history and politics and provide groundwork for a more discerning appreciation of the political ideologies in play in this election. I would also point out that Mussolini's writings are not under copyright and quite easy to access in online, both in the original Italian and in translation. Though much, if not all, of his writing proves rather distasteful, it is unquestionably illuminating. I must confess I have preferred to leave the reading of Hitler's Mein Kampf to experts on Nazi Germany, but it too is easily accessible online.

The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt
Totalitarianism, like fascism, is a term that is much (over)used by journalists and political commentators, although there is substantial disagreement about what the term means even among scholars. Fascism is not totalitarianism, but the terms have been historically linked - they were both coined in Italy, by Italians, at around the same time - and one cannot talk about one without raising the specter of the other. Arendt doesn't consider fascism a form of totalitarianism: in her view, the only two truly totalitarian regimes in history were Nazi Germany under Hitler and Soviet Russia under Stalin. Her lucid, incredibly rich analysis traces the origins of these totalitarian regimes, which she sees as based in the development of a paranoid antisemitism that presumed the existence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and in the expansionism of late imperialism. This is a considered and yet deeply felt book that presents history and politics in the most nuanced and rational way possible. 

How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945 - Victoria De Grazia
The first scholarship on fascism rendered women essentially invisible, even major figures such as Margherita Sarfatti and Ines Donati (one of the only women to participate in the March on Rome), and books like this one have remedied this unforgivable oversight on the part of male scholars. De Grazia approaches her subject from a variety of angles, examining everything from women active in politics to maternity, symbolic representations of women in fascist media to how the regime impacted social life and dating, treating these subjects with a sophisticated comprehension of political theory and a lively empathy for Italian women. The most valuable and far-reaching insight proposed by How Fascism Ruled Women is how insidiously and completely Mussolini's regime was able to penetrate daily life for Italians, even in arenas where politics would at first glance seem irrelevant or unnecessary.

Ur-Fascism - Umberto Eco (Il fascismo in tre capitoli - Emilio Gentile)
For those who speak Italian, Emilio Gentile's Il fascismo in tre capitoli is an invaluable handbook, a brief but extraordinarily succinct summary of the history of fascism and fascists in Italy that includes the most convincing definition of fascism that I have found, but treats the controversies with fairness and transparency. Although Gentile is arguably the foremost expert on the subject, this particular book is not available in English, so as a replacement I recommend Umberto Eco's essay, "Ur-Fascism," which defines with grace and wit the signs with which proto-fascist or fascistic ideologies can be identified. Eco's essay is less an attempt to understand history than a protest and a plea; he urges us to be on the watch for ideologues who might bring us again down the path of dictatorship, repression, and genocide.

A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 - Stanley Payne
Payne's hefty volume is one of the single most important books for English speakers hoping to gain an understanding of fascism; he offers a complex and exact definition of fascism (and also provides a summary and condensed translation of Gentile's definition) and traces the political history and evolution of the regimes that he views as fascist, that is, Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. Here, fascism is placed in its historical context, its origins traced from the nineteenth century. As a final gesture, Payne, like Arendt in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, considers what new transformations extreme right-wing ideologies could undergo and what that could mean for the future.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's masterpiece is a complex narrative framed as a series of letters within a letter in which she advances a delicately labyrinthine argument that equates the fight against patriarchy with the fight against fascism, given that both, as she makes clear, are struggles against tyranny. The dictator, whether Mussolini or Hitler, finds his counterpart in the dictator in the home; violence, Woolf tells us, is organic to the hierarchical structure in which one class of beings is oppressed by another, made secondary, denied power. Three Guineas portrays a sort of apocalyptic utopianism that in practice may be impossible to apply exactly, but that insists on a constant questioning of the status quo, a questioning that opens up an avenue for positive change. It's also one of the most exquisitely written books of the 1930s.

Vincere - Marco Bellocchio (La moglie di Mussolini - Marco Zeni)
In 2005, substantial and damning evidence was compiled and presented about a shocking and monstrous episode in Mussolini's life: he was a bigamist and he shut up his first wife, Ida Dalser, and their son, Benito, in separate insane asylums where both remained imprisoned for years and where both died under suspicious circumstances. Few stories illuminate to such devastating effect the horror of the fascist government's control over the Italian people and their ruthlessness in suppressing those who spoke up to question the regime. Unfortunately, Marco Zeni's biography of Dalser, La moglie di Mussolini, has not been translated - a real pity, since it is chock-full of lengthy quotations of letters, diaries, and other precious sources - and a documentary, Il segreto di Mussolini, which aired on state television, is not available with English subtitles. The only access English-speakers have to this incredible piece of Italian history is Marco Bellocchio's film adaptation, Vincere, which stars Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, and Michela Cescon. This film is saturated with Bellocchio's own leftist politics, but it is still an exquisite and subtle film with gorgeous cinematography by Daniele Cipri and splendid costumes by Sergio Ballo.

I myself believe that the term "fascism" should only be applied to the Italian regime, though fascist, proto-fascist, and fascistic parties certainly existed elsewhere in Europe, notably in England (the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley) and the former Yugoslavia (the Croatian Ustaše). It will be noted that I have included no sources that address Nazism as a primary subject, though there are hundreds of books, many of them masterpieces, that focus on Nazism, Nazi Germany, Hitler and other prominent party members, and so on. Though I see Nazism as fundamentally linked to fascism and think it is clear that the two ideologies acted as influences on each other, I do not believe that the two can be equated. For those looking for fairly accurate cinematic representations of Fascist Italy, I recommend (though of course with the caveat that they are narrative films, not documentaries): The Conformist; Rome, Open City and Paisan; Amarcord; 1900; and Love and Anarchy. Also notable, though explicitly about Nazism and Germany, is Visconti's The Damned.