16.3.15

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
There are no surprises in this film. The quiet brunette girl who looks like she has a crush on the main guy, so much that you think they'll end up together? They end up together. When the main guy and main girl sleep together, and you think she'll probably get pregnant? She'll get pregnant. When that perfectly nice guy shows up and shows interest in the girl while the guy is away in Algeria, and you think they'll get married? They get married. When the final scene takes place in the snow and the girl hasn't been seen for 40 minutes or so, and it seems obvious that they'll run into each other one last time? They run into each other one last time.

Worse, all of the dialogue is sung, opera-style.

And yet, this is an indisputably great movie, warm, not melodramatic even in its very conventional turns. The casting is perfect, the music neither overwhelming nor clichéd, the story structured to bring at least relative happiness to everyone. Evidence, if you needed it, of what good solid writing can do.

12.3.15

Ethan Hawke, doin' work:

A person can reach incredible heights of grace in art and have no relationship to that in their daily life. But what Seymour talks about is something I’ve personally found very inspiring—the idea that they could play off each other, and that you can use the things you learn not only in life in your art, but the things you learn in your art in your life. That’s something I’ve never heard people talk about. There’s a beautiful moment where one of Seymour’s students, that young man who’s playing that Rachmaninoff piece, talks about trying to listen to his friends with the same patience, understanding, and alertness he uses when he listens to himself playing the piano. You can hear so much in his playing; why couldn’t he hear the same thing in his friend’s voice? And of course he can. And all of us know we can. It’s just, are we listening? I found all that really exciting.

There's a lot that's admirable in this snippet and the whole interview: the idea that being human is a lifelong process where humility is always in order and grace is the best way to approach others, a recognition of the ways art can facilitate both, admiration of the way other people can succeed in their work, candidness in discussing his own metier. The patter of language that is warm and friendly, neither shying away from intelligence or observation nor making them central. No wonder he makes--and writes--good movies lately.

10.3.15

Easy Cases Make Bad Law

Chris Lawrence, on Facebook, brings attention to Eugene Volokh on the racist-frat-at-Oklahoma explusions. Volokh comes to the reasonable conclusion that offensive racist speech may be censured in a number of ways, but expulsion from a public institution is not one of them. This puts me back in mind of my best unrealized paper idea from my academic days: "easy cases make bad law." People who study law know why hard cases make bad law--they're idiosyncratic instances that are unlikely to repeat in a manner conducive to the generalizable form law must take, virtually guaranteeing unanticipated consequences--but easy cases do, as well.

The impetus for the idea came from studying the formation of the Nuremburg Tribunal law: France, Britain, Russia and the US get together to figure out how to improve of the then-reigning plan for dealing with senior officials in the Nazi government: summary execution. One can read the US representative's report, which includes minutes of the discussions of the four representatives, and be horrified at the way the law was put together. Sometimes standard legal procedures were followed, sometimes not; sometimes appeal was made to the basic principles of legality, sometimes they were conspicuously avoided; sometimes discussions were had in great detail, sometimes central problems are waved away. No issue is more depressing than the treatment of 'aggressive war,' a concept everyone seems to know and no one is able to define in a way that separates out Nazi from Allied actions. The IMT punts on the question, and makes little use of the category--and it's still a problem 50 years later during the writing of the Rome Treaty (that formed the ICC), where everyone once again agrees that aggressive war is a problem and no one knows exactly how to define it.

It's not that the IMT was bad--under the circumstances, it was pretty good (the frequency with which the US and the Soviet Union agree on matters of legal principle should be a little disturbing). It was certainly preferable to summary execution. No, the problem was the basic situation in which the deliberation was happening. There was no particular reason to doubt that senior Nazi officials were guilty of something, probably many things. A legal system that works provides procedural safeguards and returns the 'correct' result. But: there are a lot of different institutional arrangements that can do this. The question of the system's suitability is not whether it can produce the right outcomes here, but in other, more difficult cases. On this, the general unwillingness of international criminal law to treat Nuremberg as a legitimate precedent is telling.

Back to the racist frat case. It feels satisfying to expel people who were doing something that obviously wrong, who were doing it without shame; it feels good to be able to act with maximum force for a good cause. But it's bad policy, because it won't work as well on more complicated cases: we can't throw everyone out who says anything some people find offensive.* There's also a connection to the internet's economy of shame: it feels good, or satisfying, to make someone lose their job for posting offensive material on the internet--no one's going to feel too bad for those dudes who decided Curt Schilling mentioning his daughter was a good pretext to write vile, sexist stuff about her--but it's no solution to anything. Sustainable practices--good, fair, stable practices--need a better context, need serious thought devoted to potential long-term ramifications, the difficulties of scaling up behaviors and institutions, and the facts of human fallibility when forgiving offenses or implementing justice. Most of all, there needs to be recognition that there are always a wide variety of options in play, and sometimes it makes sense to choose one other than the most extreme, even if it doesn't feel as satisfying.


*I was teaching a course on human rights when Kony2012 broke (remember that?), fortunately over Spring Break that year. By the time classes were back in session, the ICC had just convicted Thomas Lubanga for similar crimes to Kony's, for which he is expected to serve something like a dozen years in jail. The students were confused and dismayed, but I had to remind them: you can't throw the book at everyone who does something you don't like, even if they did many bad things. If you give life in prison to someone who used child soldiers, what are you going to do with the person who commits genocide?

4.3.15

Reader, I Think She Probably Should Have Taken a Few More Months to Think Over Her Options

Jane Eyre

Though I'm generally of the view that arguing over details of the plot is not a particularly interesting way of reacting to a book,* and better analyses involve considerations of structure, pacing, voice, composition, etc, here we go:

I don't see how anyone could possibly root for Rochester.

The absolute worst thing one could say about St. John would be to make him equal to Rochester in ill-treatment of Jane. Both are attempting to use her for their own ends, and want to cultivate her responses to them without informing her about what is going on. St. John, however, reveals his motivations much faster, of his own volition, and at least has them aimed toward a noble purpose. As Jane herself admits, but for his insisting on marriage without love, there's nothing wrong with his plan. (A significant 'but,' of course, though it seems less a fault of an unforgiving nature than a crucial mistake made by someone focused on his vocation/too young to think through all the consequences involved.) Rochester, by contrast, holds his peace until he is forced to reveal all, and would implicate Jane in a crime without her knowledge or consent--I presume his requirement that she wait a year and a day after the wedding to ask about the other woman in the house to be one that would make annulment impossible. He is, in other words, willing to run her great legal and social risks without informing her. That's not to say St. John is better--I think the obvious best outcome for Jane is to live at Moor House with Diana, and never marry.**

The novel itself is lively and modern, and the direct narration a good deal more sophisticated than, say, David Copperfield. It's rather, in its own way, a good commentary on the action delivered by one of its players, not unlike All About Eve. That it unfolds as a combination of the most unlikely happenstance is not a matter of great concern to me as a reader--Jane is discovered in the end by the family she did not know herself to have, but the knowledge is not at all essential to the action as it is happening.


*Not interesting because it involves arguing over a stipulated and limited set of facts (the text), which then involves one in the equally difficult games of guessing the author's intention (as something distinct from the actual words the author chose to write, and retained after editing; for which there might be supplementary evidence in notes and letters, but for which none often exists) or reading facts and relationships not written into those stipulated, an endless game. It is also almost always an exercise in wish fulfillment or enforcement of orthodoxy--making the novel into The Thing The Reader Wants It To Be, which is flattering to their own beliefs and prejudices, rather than The Thing That It Is.

**And, yes, I get that the point of the novel is that circumstances come about wherein Jane can freely choose Rochester, and we are meant to acknowledge it as a free and unforced choice, and that is a good thing. But we've also probably all had the experience of dealing with friends who make free and unforced decisions that are nevertheless poor.

20.2.15

Two things to say about this:

1. I have, apparently, reached the age at which people who are younger than me will die tragically and unexpectedly, but having had enough time to get themselves into trouble and start trying to crawl out of it. It's not Philip Seymour Hoffman throwing away a long and distinguished acting career, and it's not quite DFW succumbing to the pressure of early success. It's someone whose career seemed to be generally on the upswing, and was well-liked by a lot of people. If that's not enough to frighten you, I don't know what is.

2. Related to that last point, I have never in my life done any kind of drug and I've never had the least desire to. When I was younger, it was out of sheer love for my brain and an aversion to doing anything that might mess with it. Now it's with a few decades of seeing that the best case scenario for use is trying it out for a short period where you're young, are not one of the demographics targeted for prosecution on drug-related charges, have no mental health issues, and have the benefit of a stable (or at least good) home life to keep whatever you do moderate and limited. I know people who had the benefit of all of these and still lost years or decades of their lives--and those are the ones who have survived.

For both of these, I credit an adolescent viewing of Trainspotting. Like Renton says in the film, they're not idiots. They just have very little control over their lives. It's not (entirely) their fault, because addiction has complicated social, mental, and physiological components that cannot be willed away. But the easiest way to avoid having to solve that later problem is never to start.

16.2.15

In Which I Discover the Importance of Film Editing

Lord of the Flies
Overlord
Au Hasard Balthazar

Lord of the Flies is not a great movie: the quality of performance given by the children in it is too variable. But it is a good movie that ends on its strongest note. I was quite surprised after watching it to realize that many of the individual scenes features improvisation, including improvised dialogue. As a general rule, I hate improvised movies: Aguirre, the Wrath of God captures indolence and insanity but at the cost of narrative and viewer patience; Drinking Buddies and its mumblecore ilk hang on too little story to justify their meandering run times; Anchorman demonstrates that it might be very funny to be in the room with a bunch of humorous people trying to make each other laugh, but that hardly makes a movie. Lord of the Flies avoids all of these pitfalls. The question is why.

The answer became obvious when watching Overlord, which matches archival footage of World War II to the story of a British man who is called up for service and dies during the D-Day invasion. The director went to great pains to use equipment that would have been available in the mid-40s in order to match up the look of the different parts. The effect is astonishing: the parts don't roll off each other seamlessly, but there's a strong mutual sympathy between the two. It's a film that puts most of its focus not on story or cinematography but editing. The two halves work because each is slotted into the appropriate parts of the overall film, and it is clear that switches between the two are quite intentional. The same applies to Lord of the Flies: each individual scene has a purpose within the overall narrative, so the improvisations are good when they work to the end of that scene (and its place within the overall narrative), and may be discarded when they are not. That is to say, there is a principle that allows the director to decide what remains and what is cut, that principle is tied to the overall thrust of the film, and the director edits the film with these considerations in mind. The principle that affects whether a joke is cut in Anchorman is whether that joke is funny or not, which has very little to do with the narrative of the movie, such as it is.*

The high art version of this is Robert Bresson, who chose people who were not actors to get more instinctive reactions, and frames much of Au Hasard Balthazar around the reactions of a donkey. If the story is well-constructed and the editing purposeful, then the end product can be quite profound and beautiful.

Watching these was one of those rare moments when some new element of vocabulary makes itself known; I'm not sure I had ever thought about how a movie was edited before. But it adds something new to the conversation, a new way of understanding why we like what we do and why certain things are effective and others not.


*The Big Lebowski, which is also mostly concerned with whether its jokes are funny, gets a pass because it is obviously supremely scripted in the manner of most Coen Brothers films. It's the writing rather than the editing that exerts control, but the control is there all the same.

4.2.15

It's going to be a busy week or two between work and other life stuff. Back later.
Le Silence de la Mer

Begin with the irony: a Jean-Pierre Melville film, with the word 'silence' in the title, no less, that is wall-to-wall talking. The film and the novel it is based on use the silence as both a figurative and a literal means of depicting the struggle of French Resistance members during World War II. To resist requires ignoring something central in the humanity of the Germans, and willfully ignoring this is an act of psychic violence on the person ignoring.

The plot is predictable enough: the German soldier will become disillusioned, and the French uncle and his niece will not talk to him. What saves the film is in two rather unconventional decisions about structure and pacing. The first is to film the soldier's trip to Paris in two separate scenes: one where he tours the monuments of the city, alone; and another, separated from the first by five or ten minutes of film, where the soldier interacts with his fellow officers and then begins to notice details of the city and the Nazi occupation. The second key decision is to allow the solider his longest monologue after this revelation: he is allowed to talk himself through all the stages of his own disillusionment, how the hopes he had announced in the beginning of the film were based on lies (not his own lies, but his willingness to believe the lip service others paid to his cultural aspirations), how the entire thing was rotten to the core, how he could not run away from his responsibilities but could not take part in this mission any longer. Allowing him the simple perspective of the outside observer comments more effectively on the Nazi mission than something that attempts to speak directly to it.