Thursday, February 05, 2009

Of Fact, Fiction and Finitude

This post is going to be a short review of three films under the above title.  The three films are (i) Defiance, (ii) The Wrestler and (iii) Frost-Nixon, all three of which I have viewed in the past several weeks.  Of the three The Wrestler is fictional while the other two are fact, though embellished fact indeed for dramatic and cinematic purposes.  The silver screen is no respecter of historical fact at all and conspires to recreate the past in dramatic scenes, and, indeed, to create incidents and scenes which never happened at all.  After all, cinema is entertainment, not documentary.

Objectivity, even in the hands of professional historians, is at best an approximation of what really happened, an imputation of likely motives to historical characters and indeed inferences of particular actions from papers and other historical records.  They are in all probability likely to have happened, but, objectively it may not be 100% accurate.

Defiance (2008), directed by Edward Zwick, featuring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Alexa Davalos is a thriller or action/war movie which tells the story of a pocket of Jews who did resist the Nazis.  Again the bare story is re-worked for dramatic effect with the insertion of the typical love affair, brotherly rivalry and super-human resistance in battle scenes – all the stuff of Hollywood.  However, the tale is certainly worth telling and is, indeed, based on fact.

Gabriel Murray (Olympia Films) gives the following by way of summary:

The Bielski family were farmers from Belarus. Following the German '' Operation Barbarossa " the invasion of the Soviet Union that began on June 22,1941, the town Nowogrodek where the Bielski family lived became a Jewish Ghetto. The four Bielski brothers, Tuvia , Alexander Zisel "Zus", Aseal, and Aron , managed to flee to the nearby forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the ghetto in December 1941. Together with 13 neighbours from the ghetto, they formed the their partisan combat group. Some 4,000 Jewish inhabitants were ordered by the Nazis to dig 40 deep pits. In temperatures that had plunged below zero, they were forced to take off their clothes and stand, facing the graves. Then they were shot, their bodies whether killed outright or injured falling into the graves where they were buried. Tuvia's parents were among the dead.When he learned that his parents had been murdered, Bielski was tortured by remorse... At that moment, he swore that he would not only try to rescue the rest of his family, but also as many Jews young, old, frail, or ill as he possibly could. 'I'd rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazi soldiers,' he declared. 'It was simple,' Tuvia later recalled… The group's commander was the eldest brother, Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987), Hundreds of men, women, and children eventually found their way to the Bielski camp eventually numbered 1200 individuals. (See this link here: Defiance)

In sum, it is a brilliant film and explores a very much forgotten episode in European Jewish history – the resistance of some Jews against the Nazi death machine. As the director, Zwick has said: "You have these chapters of history that get lost.  Sometimes that's down to political agendas or because mythologies are created. Ideas and events that are contradictory to those myths often disappear. That's what's happened here. The image of European Jews going passively to their deaths is inaccurate. We hope this film corrects that view, while also exploring the specifics of the Bielski story. You have to consider how they felt. Where is God when they are hiding and scratching out this existence in the forests? Where is love in the forest? What is it like to be a child in the forest? All these things were important."  If, in the end, Zwick embellishes his tale with romance, the over-the-top heroism of Hollywood and brotherly rivalry, to make a good movie, he can be forgiven because he has captured well an important moment in the history of the Jewish people.

Frost-Nixon (2008) is also a wonderfully worked film based on the famous Frost interviews of the disgraced president in the summer of 1977.  Director Ron Howard has really pulled off a gripping film which holds the viewer’s interest from start to finish.  That a film could be based upon a series of interviews is an audacious undertaking which does indeed come off.  If Frost had risked all to get his interviews with Nixon, it seems to me that likewise Howard risked a lot for this film.  The main roles are played by Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) who are equally superb.  Langella holds our attention superbly.  He walks and talks and manages to look like Nixon, even though he bears little resemblance to the real historic figure.  He gets Nixon’s voice, his gestures and his gait so exactly that we willingly suspend our disbelief – he is the real Nixon for us there on the screen.  Moreover, Langella manages to bring a considerable depth of tragedy, almost of Shakespearean proportions, to our man Nixon.  He captures the flawed hero that was the disgraced president so well.  One can see the reflective sadness and regret in his eyes despite the outward show.  I won’t rehearse the substance of the famous interviews here as they are widely available on video and even exist in edited highlights on YouTube.  Nor will I describe the drama of the sparring between the two during the interview.  This is a finely edited film with not a spare part or excess anywhere.  The script is pared down to the minimum as are the scenes.  I should imagine once again that no little dramatic licence was taken with the scene where a drunken Nixon phones Frost and even totally forgets later that he did so.  Likewise, the story of the gift of Italian shoes seems somewhat apocryphal, yet it adds a very human touch to the whole thing.  This film is a tour de force of accomplished acting by the two main characters.

Finally The Wrestler (2008, directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Robert D. Siegel) is a marvellous film which depicts a perennial cinema, if not literary, portrayal of a broken-down fighter (wrestler in this case) attempting to make a come-back.  The plot is pretty straight-forward and somewhat hackneyed as it has been done to death so many times in the cinema.  However, it is the brilliant acting of  Mickey Rourke which saves the whole film.  Also the script is superb and is pared finely to a minimum.  Rourke is very believable and credible as the broken-down wrestler.  One immediately feels his angst as a character – probably because Rourke put a lot of himself into the part, having been a boxer indeed for much of his early life.  His disfigured and almost expressionless plastic-like face lends some credibility and pathos to the whole thing.  One can feel his frustration at life in every line that he utters and in every glance that he takes at the camera.  Also the visual effects are excellent and all too gory, e.g., having the staples removed after a fight in which his opponent used a staple gun on him.  However, the film does contain a few funny scenes e.g., where “Ram” Robinson quits the ring for the job as shop assistant in the deli in the local supermarket.

Likewise, the musical score is superb as is the song called The Wrestler, written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. (Clint Mansell, the composer for Aronofsky's previous films, π, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, reprised his role as composer for The Wrestler. The Springsteen song, plays over the film's closing credits. The Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child o' Mine" is played during Randy's ring entrance at the end of the film. In his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Mickey Rourke mentioned that Axl Rose donated the song for free due to the budget, and the film's closing credits thank Rose for this. Rourke had used the same song as his intro music during his stint as a boxer in the mid-90s.)

These films, then deal with the universal themes of struggle against injustice and sheer evil, the struggle of all men and women everywhere to eek out an existence and to earn both a living and to create an identity for themselves in this often too painful world.  In these films fact blends with fiction and fiction blends with fact.  They creatively interweave to make for a wonderful experience of cinema.  Films of fact, films of fiction and films of fact-fiction or fiction-fact must all deal with the finitude of humankind if they are to hit home.  Indeed they are wonderful vehicles to portray the angst-ridden existence of modern survival.  That they can have humorous scenes in them is also a testimony to their authenticity.  To laugh in the face of their finitude has long been a characteristic of humankind.

Above the many faces of Mickey Rourke!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Of Myths and Greed and Selfishness

I remember years ago when I was in fifth and sixth year in secondary school the school librarian telling us that history was a most essential subject because it taught us to review the past so that we should not make the same mistakes again.  He also informed us that no matter what subject we were going to study at college that it was important to study its history.   How right that old gentleman was.  His name was James J. Carey and he had long retired from teaching by the time I went to secondary school in the early seventies, but he had still come in every day right up till his death at the age of 81 or so because he was paid a small stipend to run the school library.  James J., as we all called him, was born in Tipperary around 1900.  He was a quintessential scholar and as a young boy I envied him his scholarship.  He edited many books, the most notable of which was Vox Romana, a Leaving Certificate compendium of the writings of ancient Latin authors, and also Junior and Leaving Certificate English books.  He was the first person I personally knew who had a Ph. D.  As young college students, a friend and I actually painted his house for a small fee.  James also had a wonderful book-lined study.  Again, I said to myself that I’d have such a library when I would get a job.  As well as that, Dr. Carey was a good man to tell a joke – always literary in nature.  He was the first man I had heard as a young student utter the phrase: “my wife does not understand me.”  Another interesting fact is that his son had become a pilot, if not even a wing commander in the RAF.  In fact I remember his showing us the picture of his son with his fellow officers when we were doing our very amateur painting and decorating for the old gentleman.

Anyway, I never forgot James J’s wise statement about the importance of history.  While I did not study the subject for Leaving Certificate I always studies the history of the various subjects I was studying at any particular time – Theology, English Literature, Philosophy, Education, Italian, Gaeilge and Mathematics.  I also come to history through biography and historical novels which I adore reading.

When one reads history one is almost literally hit in the face by the various myths which humankind creates for itself at any one time or another.  Let it be the myth of nationalism in its various forms or even the myth of progress.  It is the myth of progress that I wish to allude to here.  Perhaps my tackling it here and now may be a little superficial as I have not done any considerable research into it of late.  However, I feel that this particular myth is at the heart of the pain the world is experiencing lately with this international recession (if not depression?) from we are suffering. 

One of the things that I remember from my own reading over the years is that the Enlightenment brought with it great positivity – indeed sheer hubris - about the power of human reason.  It reigned supreme and one day during the quite “atheistic” French Revolution the Goddess Reason was carried shoulder high like a new “Blessed Virgin of Rational Thought” into Notre Dame and in November 1793 this metropolitan cathedral was rededicated as the Temple of Reason. The new God was now the people, and reason would be the power that would rule wisely in national assembly or government.  I am not speaking, of course, per se about the French Revolution but rather about this new passion for reason.  That new passion for reason, of course, spilled over into the sciences, into the empiricist principles of such scientists and into the explications of the great empiricist philosophers who would give such sciences their imprimatur and nihil obstat.  In brief, my argument here is that one myth is being replaced by another – the religious/illusional (a la Freud) myth by the scientific/rational myth.  Let me explain.

Now that mythical reason had dethroned the lesser myth of illusion, magic, mystery and mumbo jumbo of religion it seemingly became evident that there was nothing ahead for man but unmitigated progress.  That such progress was inevitable was never doubted.  Indeed such progress was even thought to be linear in nature.  All of the sciences and especially the newly discovered hypothesis (which has never been disproved though many times countered) of evolution suggested a veritable solid foundation of evidence to support the myth of progress.  Then technology took off with steam engines and railroads and modern transport and all that is implied in the term Industrial revolution.  The era of hard facts had begun.  However, there were many other less rational people who saw through the delusions of the rationalist mind.  Writers, poets and scholars such as William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, Wordsworth and all those Romantic fringe voices gave the lie to unbridled reason in the UK.  The German Romantic Movement also saw through the new myth of indefinite progress in the works of such diverse luminaries as Heinrich Heine, G.W.F. Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schelling and Schlegel etc. They quickly saw that the Gradgrind school of hard facts a la Dickens in Hard Times was soulless, spiritless or to put it in very similar terms that it and quite literally soul-destroying and spirit-crushing.

However, despite the timely warnings of the critics of unbridled reason and indefinite progress, of unbridled science and inevitable technology, the proponents and exponents of the latter paid little or no heed.  However, it was history that was to teach the hard lessons to cold and clinical reason.  Two catastrophic wars – namely World Wars I and II gave the ultimate answer to the lies of these potent myths.  Okay, humankind is a marvellous project in itself – however, it is very much a work in progress and even reason has its limits.  Much more is needed like compassion and love and ethics and morality and such like.  The wanton and useless destruction of so many lives in less than one hundred years and the total misuse and abuse of science gave the lie to the myth of indefinite progress.  Of course, reason is a marvellous faculty to have at our disposal, but uncoupled from ethics and morality it is little more than useless.  And so the lie of indefinite progress died after World War I and again after World War II, but it does have a recidivist turn to its nature.  Our memories are short, too short indeed.  As the old saying goes - “eaten bread is soonest forgotten.” The lie of indefinite progress keeps rearing its ugly head.

And now we have a World War of a different kind, a bloodless war, but a war none the less – let’s call it a World War of Recession or Depression that is striking every corner of the globe.  It is attempting to teach us that indefinite progress and indefinite prosperity (which is the result of the former) is an insidious myth that is eating away at our souls.  As Pat Cox, that wonderfully bright and intelligent former politician, journalist and lecturer who has in recent years retired from the position of President of the European Parliament said some weeks ago on RTE radio 1 “there is a tsunami of greed sweeping the world.”  I agree totally with him.  People in Ireland, having ridden too long on the back of the mythical Celtic Tiger have got too used to their comforts and indeed to their ever increasing comforts.  They see such comforts as rights and not as privileges.  The bloodless Third World War has many messages for us and one of them is to get a grip on reality; to realise that we bought into a dirty myth of selfishness and greed; to ponder the meaning of our short existence as a dot on a bigger dot in an infinity of space; to get real and value other important gifts like our health, our imagination, our creativity, our laughter, our joy in small beauties; to put things in context – we are not being bombed upon; we are not being murdered or tormented by a dictator; to focus in on the important things and not to swallow whole the lies we are told.  Let us go back to tending the gardens of our own souls, and this is not to despise or decry science as the enemy.  No, no, no.  It is to unmask the rotten greed and selfishness that lurks in each and every person in the developed world.  Let’s get real and let everyone to a man and a woman pay his or her fair share for the common good.

Above I have posted Figure 6, Joseph Chinard, La Raison sous les traits d'Apollon foulant aux pieds la Superstition (Reason, in the person of Apollo, treading Superstition underfoot), 1791, terracotta model, 51.5 x 13.3 x 12 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: © RMN/C.Jean. by way of illustration.