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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from June 1, 2017 - June 30, 2017

Sunday
Jun252017

The Fugitive

We have heard so often the story of the innocent man framed that it has become less of a fictional cliché and more of a reminder of our own first disobedience. Such a scenario is carved into the underpinnings of our nightmares, of how life can be snatched up and mutilated beyond recognition (some critics would love to emphasize our own repressed guilt in these instances, but most people's guilt is manifest and petty). What could be worse than being accused and convicted of a crime one did not commit? Loving the victim of that crime and knowing the true culprit perhaps, which brings us to this masterful film.

We know the accused will be Chicago physician Richard Kimble (a still-spry Harrison Ford). Kimble has everything that an average soul could want: he is cultured, financially successful, kind-hearted, attractive, and married to a ravishing beauty appropriately named Helen (Sela Ward); in other words, for the conventions of tragedy, he fits the bill quite well. We would not feel any sympathy towards a person of his privileges if he lost little, or if the person in question had nothing to lose at all. It is therefore appalling to watch our poor doctor enter his lovely home late one evening and find Helen bludgeoned and bloody beside a frightful-looking character (Andreas Katsulas), who in the ensuing tussle is revealed to have only one arm. One supposes it is important to have Kimble ostensibly exculpated from the very beginning so as to increase his pathos, although it hardly remains beyond plot twists to have had him order a killing anonymously. This latter option seems less likely when a filthy wealth of evidence, including life insurance benefits, points towards only one man. Kimble is arrested, tried, and sentenced to die by lethal injection with great alacrity, precisely because the sequence seems like a dream whose details could not possibly coincide with the real world. Throughout the entire proceedings Kimble retains a look of costive disbelief reflecting what he thinks of human justice; and as a man of science, he must know that law and its derivative vocations are as flawed and prone to misinterpretation as any lab test or vial. That he decides to operate outside the law is somewhat owing to happenstance: traveling on one of those prison buses that always seem to provoke mayhem, an aborted escape by another prisoner gives him his freedom − if being a hunted death row fugitive in a Chicago winter can be somehow considered liberty.   

On Kimble's trail comes the eminently cocksure U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones at his very best), who as a film character will resemble an artful codger or two from our own existence. Jones at the time of filming was in his mid-forties, four years younger than Ford. Yet his demeanor is distinctly one of a much older man who has seen and done everything necessary to prove that he is always right. Gerard does have less hair and more wrinkles than his co-star, as well as much less of a need to be in top running condition, but this palpable difference in generations extends into the strategies employed. Being an inveterate rule-follower, Gerard assumes that all success feeds off discipline, this deduction being especially applicable to a man devoted to the rules of nature and medicine. While police procedurals will regularly contrast those who think inside the box and those for whom volatile shapes would be the only means of caging their inventions, Gerard is not mistaken. What he simply does not understand, however, is the degree of indignation that Kimble feels (never mind that he spends most of the film under the presumption that Kimble was rightfully incarcerated). Why he does not know the greater limits of human emotion is not touched upon by the script; perhaps he has never been married or lost a loved one; perhaps he has always managed to treat life's vicissitudes as the function of his decision-making. At times we sense that Gerard would hardly be above gunning down his quarry at the slightest violation of his methods. 

This fundamental ignorance generates the tension required to elevate The Fugitive from the typical feline-rodent event to something grand and unnerving. The film has been compared by some critics to opera, and the comparison stands. The frost-ridden forests and icy pathways imbue the setting with a certain Wagnerian appeal, and the film's unusual length, often cited as its only flaw, actually aids in our concept of time: we cannot glance at our watches and estimate the next shootout, or even whether that shootout will ever occur. This lack of predictability coupled with Gerard's scene-stealing presence suggest that while we suspect Kimble will be ultimately acquitted, we cannot be assured that it will happen while he is still alive. As opera, we have a great hero, a terrible and earth-shattering crime, an unknown villain (one-armed men usually do not make good kingpins), and an ambiguous character who may act in the service of evil while attempting to do good − or exactly the reverse. There are many nice touches to the film, including a much-lauded vignette in which Kimble's Hippocratic oath trumps his own will to survive, but a few questions persist. Doesn't Kimble's flight argue culpability? Was it necessary to kill Helen when Kimble could easily have been out of town for business reasons? Couldn't there be a less conspicuous person to carry out an assassination than someone utilizing a state-of-the-art and not inexpensive prosthetic limb? Not that we are given too many chances to catch our breath and ponder such trivialities.

Friday
Jun162017

Brother

At several junctures in this film we are shown an electric streetcar with no sides, a hollow prism offering a glance at the skyline and sunsets of Russia's most beautiful city. That our streetcar is both transparent and unadulterated may be obvious; but it also masks desires. We are in what is called New Russia, where many have little, few have plenty, and a certain stratum has decided to take what they can before Death casts its shroud. And where does Death lurk? At almost every corner, in almost every alley, but not, most importantly, in every human soul.

Our first scene is like no other: a voluptuous blonde stands against a wall with her black dress peeling off her very white skin. Above her hovers a camera and we understand that what we are watching is counterfeit, synthetic, abstract, someone's concept of what reality should but never could resemble. We then espy a young man who seems to float into the picture asking a crew member what song is playing in the background. He is immediately spotted and berated by the head of security, a bored director contemplates momentarily whether he could use the impending brawl in his film, and as we fade to black our security chief is bounding bloody-minded through the crowd. 

The next vignette has our fellow seated in the local police station. He identifies himself as Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), twenty-two years of age, appropriately residing at the itinerant address of 22 Station Street, and a recent discharge from the Russian army. His wounds are visible but are nothing compared to what he inflicted on his assailant. Danila is offered a job which he politely refuses with a smirk, and as he leaves the police chief comments to a colleague and cold window pane that he was once his father's classmate. The same father who died at forty in a prison after repeated burglary convictions. Danila makes his way home to his mother, who laments in that strange way mothers have of trying to motivate their children that Danila "will croak in prison like [his] good-for-nothing father." Her "only hope" is apparently "little Viktor in Petersburg." This Viktor is hardly little. At least ten years older than his brother, he replaced Danila's father, who died when the boy was only seven, and what he has done with his life in the Venice of the North has not been revealed to anyone at this point; in fact, not even the film's title has been mentioned. The mother insists that Danila peruse once again the photo album she keeps of her beloved Viktor, shown aging into a bald, menacing figure, although Danila has no interest. Yet when his mother recommends a fraternal reunion in Petersburg, he is surprisingly receptive. Perhaps because he knows what his brother actually does for a living – and at this point we get our title and an introduction to a very different world.

We then find Viktor (Viktor Sukharukov), easily identifiable from the photographs, deep in one of those hard-boiled dialogues that involve money, death, or often both. His interlocutor (Sergei Murzin) is an odd, round-headed gentleman (nicknamed "Roundhead" throughout the film) who likes to talk in rhymes and has made his offer at fifteen thousand dollars and one week's preparation "to get a Chechen." Viktor brazenly dismisses this sum and wants twenty, half up front, and twice the time to track his quarry, to which the Roundhead readily agrees, although if we know anything about men of his stamp, quick assent normally indicates ulterior motives – in this case, an added assignment for his two flunkies. At another location in the same magical city, Danila detrains. He walks past one of Petersburg's most famous monuments and pauses, continues his walk around the city freezing, smoking and, most of all, observing. Why would an ostensibly impecunious young man not go directly to his brother's warm apartment? Because Danila has a plan that may or may not include his brother, but which definitely renders his repeated claims to only having served "in headquarters" more than a little dubious.    

This amazing survey is accomplished in about ten minutes of laconic screen time. The vignettes are always curt, almost like the pictures in the album Danila has been force-fed time and again, and perhaps for that reason is he the only one who anticipates the moves of others. He befriends an impoverished German (Yuri Kuznestov) whose penury has not diminished his philosophy, a junkie called Kat, and Sveta, a married thirtysomething woman who happens to be the driver of the aforementioned sideless streetcar. It is among these three characters as well as the morally vapid Viktor that Danila ricochets, and in time we detect the outline of his schemes. Blood is spilled, of course, but literally just off-screen – behind a wall or door, under a bed, from a distance – and Danila makes enough racist comments to disrupt an open-minded person's idea of justice. We are not dealing with a good human being but a criminal with a moral code; unusual surely, though no reason to cheer. Around him Danila sees the more conventional forms of revolution – drugs, long hair, loud music – but prefers his conservative do and this band on his omnipresent discman (which comes in handy in a later scene), and doesn't have any real taste for drugs, alcohol, or the deadening throb of disco bars. As a revolutionary he is most unconventional, which easily makes him the most radical figure in what would otherwise have become a straightforward tale. 

What distinguishes Brother from similar films is the deceptive innocuousness of its fairy tale surroundings and its protagonist, who despite his deep voice and playboy stare does some very adult things in a childish way. There is a hint of something greater at play than man versus man: it devolves into an entire city pockmarked by violent crime against one soul at once above and below the law. A familiar story, but told with such gusto and attention to detail (note how Sveta looks at Danila as he watches a pirated copy of a concert) that we cannot help but wonder whether the German is right when he says of Petersburg, "the city is a horrific force," and "the strong come here and become weak because the city swallows up our strength." And only once do we hear Danila justify his hell-bent tactics, to the German naturally, who can judge him without fear of retaliation. Not that retaliation could really motivate a clerk from headquarters. 

Saturday
Jun102017

Ein Brudermord

A very short story ("A fratricide") by this Czech writer.  You can read the original here.

It has been proven that the murder occurred in the following manner:

At around nine o'clock on a clear, moonlit night, Schmar, the murderer, positioned himself on that precise street corner where Wese, the victim, had to turn from the street where his office was located onto the street on which he lived.

Cold, all-penetrating night air.  Yet Schmar had on only a thin blue coat; what is more, the coat was unbuttoned.  He felt no cold; he was also always in motion.  He held his murder weapon, half bayonet, half kitchen knife, wholly exposed in his clenched fist, then ran it against the brick of the cobblestones until it gave out sparks.  Perhaps he regretted his actions; to make up for the damage, he stroked the blade like a violin bow over the soles of his boot while he, standing on one leg, bent over listening at once to the sound of the knife on his boot and the sound of the fateful alleyway.

Why did private citizen Pallas, watching from his window on the second floor nearby, tolerate all this?  Human nature, that's why!  Shaking his head with his collar turned up and his robe belted around his wide frame, he looked down.  

And five houses down, diagonally across from her, Mrs. Wese, her fox fur over her nightdress, looked here and there for her husband, who today had been delayed for an unusually long time.

Finally the door bell in front of Wese's office rang – too loud for a door bell – all through the city and up to the heavens.  And Wese, that diligent night worker, stepped out of his building and into the street, still invisible, only announced by the clock; and the cobblestones counted his placid steps.

Pallas bent out even further; he did not want to miss a thing.  Mrs. Wese closed up, calmed by the clock rattling her window.  Schmar, however, kneeled down; since he momentarily had no other bare spots, he pressed only his face and hands against the stones; where everything freezes, Schmar glows.

Wese was standing just on the dividing line between the streets, supporting himself with only his stick. 

A whim.  The night sky seduced him, that dark blue and gold.  Absent-mindedly he gazed upon these colors and stroked the hair beneath his propped-up hat: nothing over there conspired to hint at his immediate future, everything remained in its senseless, inscrutable place.  That Wese proceeded was in and of itself very reasonable, but he proceeded into Schmar's knife.  

"Wese!" screamed Schmar, standing on his toes, his arm stretched out, the knife sharply drawn down.  "Wese!  Julia waits in vain!" and Schmar stabbed him on the left side of the neck, then the right side of the neck, then deeply in his stomach.  Wese emitted a sound similar to that of water rats when sliced open.

"Done!" said Schmar, and then threw the knife, the superfluous, bloody ballast, towards the nearest house's façade.  "The bliss of murder!  Winged relief by the spilling of another's blood!  Wese, you old night shade, friend, drinking chum, you ooze upon the dark streets.  Why aren't you simply a bubble stuffed with blood so that I could sit on you and you would completely and utterly disappear?  Not everything has been accomplished; not all budding hopes ripened.  Your heavy remains lie here, already inaccessible to any approach.  What is, in so doing, that silent question that you ask?"   

Pallas, choking on all the toxins in his body, stood at his double-wing door as it sprang out.  "Schmar!  Schmar!  I saw everything, I missed nothing!"  Pallas and Schmar sized each other up, which satisfied Pallas.  But Schmar could not be satisfied.  

Followed by a crowd of people at the sides of both men, Mrs. Wese hurried over with a face aged violently from the horror.  Her fur opened and she tripped over Wese because her nightshirt-covered body belonged to him; the fur coat that covered the married couple like the grass plot of a grave, however, belonged to the crowd.

Schmar, stifling his last qualm, pressed his mouth into the shoulder of the police constable leading him ever so gently away.