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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from November 1, 2015 - November 30, 2015

Thursday
Nov262015

The Jewel of Seven Stars

There is little in the way of evidence that we understand what this ancient civilization truly accomplished. We have disinterred tombs, deciphered a hieratic language of obscure characters and darker gods, and mimicked the Egyptians’ customs and designs endlessly in an array of films and media (to the last any self-respecting horror fan will attest). Yet what we haven’t understood so dwarfs our discoveries that pensive minds tend to consider a rather terrible alternative: the Egyptians were so far ahead of their age as to remain uncanny forever. Canopic jars, thurification that has proven irreproducible, astronomy that may be more accurate than we care to imagine, mummifying techniques never seen before or since – never mind the everlasting monuments that have symbolized the country in our imagination. For a number of reasons the Egypt of today has little in common with its glorious past, but one thing from which it has not strayed is its ability to enchant and attract. One of the prototypes of Egypt’s mysteries can be found in this seminal novel.

Our hero and first-person narrator is Malcolm Ross, a nice name for a nice fellow. He is a single London barrister, quite professional and Victorian in the sense that he feels a deeply rooted repulsion towards the easy virtues that men in his position routinely enjoy. What he wants is a wife, a goddess he can place upon a pedestal and focus his awe upon until his ghost departs. We learn these facts quickly but as sidelights to another tale. A certain Margaret Trelawny, a young, retiring, raven-haired beauty, calls upon Ross to help her tend to her father Abel, who just happens to be a wealthy, world-famous Egyptologist and also just happens to have fallen into an unexplained hypnotic stupor. Ross comes racing in heart and leg only to find a wicked scene: the explorer is unconscious, bleeding from an odd scratch on a bangled wrist, his room of Egyptian antiquities sealed from within; he also lies at a strange angle to a safe whose contents shall remain unidentified for most of our story. A physician, a couple of incredulous policemen, and a band of snooping household staff all combine for a plain body of voices and visions – not one being of any particular interest – yet as a whole they provide a fine chorus for what is essentially a romance cast against a Gothic landscape. In the face of upped precautions the next night the event repeats itself (with the added bonus of a catatonic nurse), at which point Ross, a hopeless Romantic to begin with, now comes to consider that something otherworldly may be the catalyst. The policemen wish to instill in Ross the notion of empirical proof; the servants are aghast at the poltergeist-like attacks and quit in droves. But Ross is in love (detractors may carp that the novel devotes far too many pages to hand-holding and unrequited affection) and nothing on earth or beyond could drag him away from the object of his obsession. That is, until the appearance of a frantic polymath by the name of Corbeck.

A leather-faced collaborator of Margaret’s father just arrived from an operose three-year excursion on his partner’s dime, Corbeck’s degrees and level of learning are so extraordinary as to broach the inhuman. After some debate on the theft of a set of seven Pharaonic lamps that Corbeck insists are unique, Ross is handed a 17th-century Dutch travelogue on a tomb, a jewel, and a sinister mummy hand that guards that same jewel outside of its sarcophagus. The hand, you see, has seven fingers, and the jewel it protects contains the constellation of seven stars that appear to compose a sort of mandate from heaven. In time, we hear of a young and beautiful Queen Tera who inherits the throne as very much the envy of a theocratic cabal thirsting for power. We are regaled on stories of the Queen’s innovation and intelligence as our novel progresses, but that is not how the Dutch traveler van Huyn recalls an episode from his journey:

The fellaheen absolutely refused to enter the valley at such a time, alleging that they might be caught by the night before they could emerge from the other end. At first they would give no reason for their fear. They had hitherto gone anywhere I wished, and at any time, without demur. On being pressed, however, they said that the place was the Valley of the Sorcerer, where none might come in the night. On being asked to tell of the Sorcerer, they refused, saying there was no name, and that they knew nothing. On the next morning, however, when the sun was up and shining down the valley, their fears had somewhat passed away. Then they told me that a great Sorcerer in ancient days – ‘millions of millions of years’ was the term they used – a King or a Queen, they could not say which, was buried there. They could not give the name, persisting to the last that there was no name; and that anyone who should name it would waste away in life so that at death nothing of him would remain to be raised again in the Other World.

Ross reads on to find a fantastic sepulcher as well as the sorcerer in question – or at least, the curse that followed the desecrators and their loot. If you’ve seen a couple of mummy movies, the consequences of such greed will be quite clear to you.  As will the oddly parallel lives of Margaret and the much-beleaguered seven-fingered Queen.  

There are a few conclusions to draw about the novel that recommend themselves upon re-reading. We have the very distinct impression that our opening scene may not appear to be what it claims; we also comprehend that a human being who has willed herself seven digits cannot be holy. There is also the not nugatory matter of the novel’s two editions. The original, published to much vitriol in 1903, features an ending quite in keeping with the cataclysmic predictions of the forerunning chapters. It also contains a chapter omitted in the 1912 edition entitled “Powers – Old and New,” that holds forth elegantly and quite reasonably on the implications of the discovery at hand. While the ‘happy ending’ of the 1912 can at best be termed lamentable and at worst incoherent, the omission of the 1903 edition’s sixteenth chapter might be the more egregious sin. It is in this brief chapter that Ross, an introspective and overly sensitive young man, mulls history as a whole, its myths and its gods, the visions of artists who looked askance at the basic notions of divine power and glory:

The whole possibility of the Great Experiment to which we were now pledged was based on the reality of the existence of the Old Forces which seemed to be coming in contact with the New Civilization. That there were, and are, such cosmic forces we cannot doubt, and that the Intelligence, which is behind them, was and is. Were those primal and elemental forces controlled at any time by other than that Final Cause which Christendom holds as its very essence? If there were truth at all in the belief of Ancient Egypt then their Gods had real existence, real power, real force …. If then the Old Gods held their forces, wherein was the supremacy of the new? ….What was it that Milton saw with his blind eyes in the rays of poetic light falling between him and Heaven? Whence came that stupendous vision of the Evangelist which has for eighteen centuries held spellbound the intelligence of Christendom?

This is the precise reasoning of a Christian, but also of any monotheist gazing at the dynasties that allegedly yielded only one ruler who wished to believe in a single universal force. There is, anyway, something more than a little off-putting about gods with the heads of hyenas or birds. Not that you'd ever know that from all their modern acolytes. 

Tuesday
Nov242015

Cape Fear

This film begins with one of the most heavy-handed title sequences in recent memory, proceeds to a narrator who is both unappealing and, frankly, a twit, and then hands off the baton to Max Cady (Robert De Niro). Whenever it is enraptured by Cady's words, the film blooms and glows. We first meet the tattooed back of him (with truth and justice as captions) before an "eight-by-nine" library of a jail cell. On his wall hang pictures of mustached dictators that we would all do well to forget, as well as law books with stipulations and codes that he justifiably cannot. "What about your books, Cady?" asks a guard as he struts out of the Georgia State Correctional Facility and into our camera, literally ramming it with his ground teeth. "Already read 'em," he replies coolly. He has had all the time in the world – fourteen years, to be precise. And it is clear to absolutely every viewer of Cape Fear that after spending a third of his life in lockup, Max Cady is now on a mission.

That mission will take us to New Essex, North Carolina, that type of sleepy little town that tends to harbor the wickedest of secrets. It will also introduce us to the Bowdens, "Slippery" Sam (Nick Nolte, who has never looked quite so slick and unpleasant), an attorney, Leigh (Jessica Lange), a designer, and their only child, fifteen-year-old Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Even from the opening vignettes, one has the impression that the Bowdens have seen far unhappier times. Too many of their words seem weighed as if they were all striving not to exceed some invisible boundaries of pain. Lange, for example, is made to look as dowdy as is possible for a woman of her attractiveness (my childhood awe of her in this film has never dissipated). This otherwise inexplicable move serves two purposes: mother and daughter gain a passing resemblance and Sam's roving eye seems extenuated. One June evening a family outing to the movies is tarnished by the maniacal laughs of Cady, who happens to be enjoying a cigar (the camera caresses his bikinied lighter) only a couple of rows in front of them. Our cigar-smoking hyena never even turns to address the indignant requests so Sam orders his clan to decamp. When Danielle eggs on her father in that way we all have of taking pride in those who protect us ("Dad, you should have punched him out"), Sam espies an opportunity for a parental lesson in non-violence. Yet it is precisely here – as if to undermine Sam's credentials as a domestic lawgiver – that Leigh chuckles that Sam should be used to "fighting dirty," a comment at which he takes umbrage.  As he goes to pay for their after-movie snack, however, Sam is informed that "everything's been taken care of." The caretaker? The fellow with the cigar glowering at them from the red convertible in the parking lot. But that person and his car are now gone.

Since Cady is a very recent ex-convict and Sam a criminal defense lawyer, we suspect a vivid back story. We get one, and it comprises the primary distinction between Scorsese's plot and that of the 1962 original. While the first Sam Bowden is scapegoated by a madman whose legal culpability was never really in question, our Sam is not quite as innocent. Once upon a time and place, 1977 Atlanta to be exact, Max Cady couldn't even read the laws he had every intention of breaking, a handicap that obliged his kindly attorney to enunciate every statute for Cady's own frustrated half-comprehension. About the only thing that Sam did not have to dictate to his client was the latter's eventual conviction for the sexual assault and battery of a teenage girl. Events throughout Cape Fear make it painfully obvious that Max Cady is not a good man victimized by an imperfect justice system; in fact, one might properly wonder why on earth we would ever release such a beast from incarceration. Nevertheless, the letter of our imperfect laws was not followed: after Cady buttonholes him in his car and punctuates their reacquaintance with a whisper that sounds a lot like "you're going to learn about loss," Sam confesses his own sins to another attorney. And what was Sam's unpardonable offense? Nothing really if you understand guilt as absolute and not relative to the weaknesses of the prosecution and its toolbox. Looking back at what he did and did not do for his client, Sam cannot help but imagine his own daughter, now the age of the victim in 1977, and consider Cady's disgusting acts in a more personalized context ("If you had seen," he assures the same skeptical colleague, "what he did to this girl"). Sam's moral character is further tainted by his implied escapades with a frisky law clerk (Illeana Douglas, Scorsese's girlfriend at the time) about whom he does not see any need to tell his wife. One evil night, of course, Cady will happen to chat up this same clerk, whose regrettable taste in men turns out to be unwavering. At the precise center of the film, in a masterful scene more suspenseful than anything involving a killer shark or slasher, Cady will also get a crack at sweet helpless Danielle. While Lewis as a sex symbol remains one of Hollywood's greatest implausibilities, she can play rather effortlessly the incipient rebel who might like a little dope and a little of this author. And Danielle has long since determined that her parents are neither soul mates nor entities worthy of their proclaimed authority, which will explain a few minor discrepancies in our story.

The conclusion to Cape Fear was quickly spoiled by trailers that prove you can't just name a film after a location and not feature its natural obstacles. I remember seeing it in the theater at Danielle's film age and being put off by the utter inevitability of what happens, an opinion I swiftly forsook upon reviewing. As it were, the film's strength is drawn specifically from its irresistible force, from the notion of old sins that recur to the sinner, from the sense of implacable doom. Although not his best role, De Niro immortalizes himself in Max Cady in no small part through his much-ballyhooed fitness and his even more celebrated tattoos, most of which avow Biblical vengeance. Despite this unorthodox appearance, Cady is so smooth, silver-tongued, and terrifyingly literate that at times one forgets his most recent permanent address. Then we realize he has been performing this role, in gradually modulated versions of perfection, for the last fourteen years. His very best monologue is delivered in his convertible before a standing Sam after the latter has just been informed of when exactly Max learned to read in jail and what he chose as his favorite texts. In this scene, if but for one or two seconds, De Niro succeeds in making us pity someone who was, at least in terms of due process, deprived unfairly of his freedom. When Sam interrupts this brilliant flow of details by proposing monetary compensation, Cady simply crunches the numbers and accuses his former attorney of offering him below minimum wage. "Not to mention," he mentions anyway, "the family and respect [he] lost" during his long sentence. The worst sequence involves a hare-brained scheme to lure Cady into a trap in the Bowdens' house, and the less said about these minutes the better. But the finest moments remain those at the film's midpoint between Danielle and Cady. Here several possible, perfectly viable outcomes present themselves, but only the best and, in a way, the most shocking occurs. It is also here that Cady warns the youngest Bowden that "every man carries a circle of hell around his head like a halo. Your daddy, too. Every man. Every man has to go through hell to reach his paradise." And whatever that paradise might entail is not ours to imagine.

Friday
Nov202015

Blok, "В день холодный, в день осенний"

A work ("Upon an autumn day so cold") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

Upon an autumn day so cold 
I shall return at last;
Recall sweet springtime sighs, behold
An image from the past.

I shall not cry as my steps near, 
From memories withdrawn.
Perchance I’ll meet the melodies
Of new autumnal dawn.

O baleful, wicked laws of time,  
Which soothe a spirit’s woes!
Yet erstwhile moans will never chime,  
Past howls you’ll never know.

This flame won’t burn my blinded eyes 
In a past dream’s mad flight.  
And soul allayed will realize
That day outdarkens night.

Monday
Nov162015

In unserer Synagoge

A short story ("In our synagogue") by this German-language writer. You can read the original as part of this collection.

In our synagogue lives an animal roughly the size of a marten. It can often be quite clearly observed and it tolerates human proximity at a distance of about two meters. Its color is a light bluish-green. No one has ever stroked its fur, so little can be said in that regard; one might even claim that the fur's natural color is unknown. Perhaps its visible color comes from accumulated dust and grout, since the color also resembles the plaster work of the synagogue's interior, only a bit lighter. Apart from its timorousness, it is an immensely calm and sedentary beast. If it did not get roused quite so often, it would hardly change position at all.  

Its favorite place to stay is near the grates to the women's section. With visible pleasure it crawls into the grates' mesh, stretches itself out, and casts its gaze down towards the prayer area. Such an audacious position seems to please the animal, yet the temple's maintenance worker is commissioned to make sure the animal is never on the grates because it would soon accustom itself to this place, which we cannot allow because of the women who are afraid of the animal. Why they are afraid of it, however, remains unclear. Admittedly, it looks rather scary upon first sight: one may find the long neck, triangular face, almost horizontally-protruding upper teeth, and the seemingly hard, light kemp-hair protruding past the teeth, a row longer than the upper lip, particularly frightening. Nevertheless, we are soon forced to conclude how obviously harmless this whole scary business is. First and foremost, the animal stays away from humans; it is shier than a forest animal, and this seems to have nothing to do with the building. In fact, its personal misfortune consists of the fact that this building is a synagogue, which means it is occasionally a very bustling and lively place. If one were able to communicate with the animal, one could at least comfort it by mentioning that our community is getting smaller and smaller with every passing year and is already struggling to secure enough money to maintain the synagogue. One cannot rule out the possibility that sooner or later a silo or something of that nature will be made out of this synagogue, and the animal will get the peace and quiet it so sorely lacks.  

It is in any case only the women who fear the animal, as the men have long since grown indifferent to it: one generation showed it to the other; again and again was it seen; and in the end, one no longer looked in its direction. Even children seeing it for the first time are no longer amazed. It has become the pet of the synagogue, and why shouldn't the synagogue have its own, unexampled pet? Were it not for the women one would hardly know of the animal's existence. Yet even the women are not really afraid of it; it would be too odd to fear such an animal, day in and day out, for years and decades. They defend their position, however, by saying that the animal is much closer to them than to the men, and this is true. The animal does not dare approach the men; no one has ever even seen it on the floor. If one didn't let it near the grates to the women's section, it would still settle at an equivalent height on the opposite wall. There one finds, hardly the width of two fingers, a narrow ledge circling three sides of the synagogue. On this ledge the animal sometimes scampers here and there; most of all, however, it sits calmly in a specific spot across from the women. It is almost inconceivable how easily it can make use of this narrow path, and the way in which it turns back around once it has reached one of the ends of the ledge is well worth seeing. It is, after all, a very old animal, yet it does not hesitate to take the most daring leaps and, what is more, it also never fails. It spins in midair then goes back the other way. Nevertheless, when one has seen this several times one is sated and no longer has any incentive to keep staring.  

It is also neither fear nor curiosity that keeps the women moving; if they stuck to their brooms a bit more they would completely forget about the animal. The pious women would do the same if the others, who happen to comprise the majority, allowed it; these others, however, like drawing attention to themselves and the animal for them is simply a welcome excuse. If they could and if they dared, they would certainly have lured the animal closer to themselves just to be able to get more frightened. But in reality the animal does not approach them at all; when it is not attacked it is as unconcerned about the women as it is about the men. It would probably prefer to remain hidden, in those places it inhabits when there are no services, in all likelihood in some hole in the wall that we have yet to discover. Only when one begins to pray does it appear, frightened by all the noise, wishing to see what has happened, wishing to remain awake, wishing to be free, able to escape, running before us out of fear, making its little capers out of fear, and not daring to retreat until the services are over. It prefers heights, of course, because there does it feel safest, and the grates and ledge offer the best opportunities to flee. Yet in no way does it stay there all the time; sometimes it climbs down, closer to the men. The curtain of the ark of the covenant is borne by a shiny brass rod that seems to attract the animal; often enough it creeps down to it but always sits there calmly. Not even when it is right beside the ark of the covenant can one say that it disturbs us, its blank, always open, perhaps even lidless eyes seem to take in the community members, without, of course, looking at anyone in particular. Instead it only stares at the dangers from which it feels threatened.

In this regard it has seemed not much more comprehensible than our women, at least until recently. What dangers does it have to fear? Who has any intention of doing anything to it? Hasn't it been left utterly to its own devices for many years? The men do not worry about its presence and the majority of the women would likely be unhappy if it were to disappear. And since it is the lone animal in the building, it also has no enemies. It should have very nearly been able to detect this fact from all its years here. And although the services and their noise may be frightening for the animal, they occur every day in such modest intervals, somewhat more often during holidays, with such regularity and always without interruption, that even the most craven of beasts would have long since grown accustomed to such services, especially when it sees they comprise not the noise of persecutors, but that which has nothing at all to do with the animal. And yet this fear. Is it the memory of things long past or the premonition of days to come? Does this old animal perhaps know more than the three generations gathered at any one time in the synagogue?

Many years ago, it is said, one would have really tried to banish the animal. This may well be true; more likely is that we are merely dealing with invented stories. What we can show, however, is that the religious point of view, that is to say, whether one should tolerate such an animal in a house of worship, was investigated at the time. The attestations of various well-known rabbis were collected, and the views were split: the majority wanted the animal's expulsion and a new consecration of the house of worship. But this was easy to declaim from a distance. In reality, of course, it was impossible to drive out the animal.  

Thursday
Nov122015

The Lives of Others

The grass, we are told, is always greener somewhere else; a less philosophical slant to that old adage summed up most concisely by this French poet in the phrase la vie est ailleurs. Yes, in a way, life is always elsewhere. When we choose to live in one city, love one woman, read one book, befriend one colleague, we necessarily forsake all other cities, women, books, and colleagues, at least for some period of time. There are many among us who do not have broad selections in these categories; many more privileged persons can only lament their destinies and look upon the choices of others with the greenest of eyes (the coincidence of color is striking). The higher we get on the totem pole of privilege and ease, the more likely we are to second-guess what we have made of our allotments  such is the luxury of having too much time and too many competing brands and alternatives. Not so in most countries of the world. Despite our amazing industrial advances in the last hundred years, most countries are still limited in what they can offer their citizens, both commercially and socially. Most people still marry partners from the same region in which they were born; most people, in fact, do not spend appreciable amounts of time far from that selfsame region. This rule of thumb used to apply to Europe, albeit less so, before the advent of the European Community, which has been slackening controls on labor mobility little by little. Now a forty-year-old computer programmer from Kaunas can pack up his things and move to Paris with nary a thought about visas, permits, and other obstacles of immigration – and for that reason alone, he will be less likely to immigrate. Less likely because regardless of his degree of Gallicization, he will ultimately miss home, the home that he was not really allowed to leave for at least half of his life, and those memories, however austere, will propel him back to the cultural milieu in which he feels most comfortable. But what if the culture of both countries were once identical? What if there were two realities, the open, liberal, creative culture you had always known, and another reality – directed, Spartan, ruthless – a mockery of the first culture aimed at some untenable goal in some unthinkable future? Such is the conundrum of the protagonist of this glorious film.

The original German title would translate as The Life of Others, suggesting a Boschian gaze on the entirety of alternatives to your own existence. But in the plural, we get the sense of tangible life, of individual fate and collective oppression. Our hero, if we can call him that, is Gerd Wiesler (the late Ulrich Mühe), a career Stasi officer who is so regimented as to be unable to enjoy any of life's details except the precision of his routine. Were Wiesler's face a true reflection of his soul, we would be worried that his body might contain nothing more than rotting bones and flesh. His assignment as one of East Germany's most devoted agents is to sit patiently and collect incriminating information on anyone who could possibly betray the socialist cause. I suppose the bulk of intelligence legwork involves trials of patience; but when you factor in stereotypical German thoroughness and diligence you have quite a project. Wiesler's current quarry is playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who embodies that most feared enemy of totalitarian regimes, the artistic intellectual. Dreyman's résumé includes a series of successful publications and a coveted actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), as his girlfriend. Still, something is missing in Georg's life. His creative potential has not been fully achieved, although these thoughts plague any artist of merit from adolescence to the grave, and Dreyman is said to have started looking to the emerald fields of his Western confederates for inspiration. West Germany's economic renaissance was one of the more extraordinary turnarounds in modern history and the details of its resurgence, despite efforts to gag the actual figures, were well-known to citizens of East Germany. In lieu of speaking out against the regime, which would spell an end to his burgeoning career, Dreyman tries to enjoy his status as a semi-celebrity with witticisms and hints at the power and value of artistic expression regardless of the politics of one's country. Dreyman is an East German citizen, but his lineage is to German artists of all times.

These ingredients sound like a plausible defection case to Wiesler, who has little appreciation for the arts since they tend to entail rather impractical matters. He will watch some television now and then, in between sessions with paid escorts, but his mind is focused on the Darwinian struggle to survive and protect – and in this respect, he is the fittest sort of predator. Dreyman's apartment is quickly tapped and Wiesler settles into his listening post at clockwork shifts with the facility of someone for whom spying comprises more muscle memory than thought. Wiesler reports to his superior (Ulrich Tukur) that he has yet to find any evidence incriminating Dreyman, but then again the Stasi could probably drum up something untoward against even an automaton like Wiesler. And here is where we suspect a twist will occur, and it most certainly does. Wiesler discovers a piece of information to which the audience has already been privy: that a filthy hog of a government official by the name of Hempf  (Thomas Thieme) wants Christa-Maria all to his greasy self. Consequently, Dreyman must be found guilty of harboring pro-Western sympathies. Most drones in a police state of this caliber and unscrupulousness would emit a chuckle and carry out the order thinking lasciviously of their own past and future conquests. But not our Wiesler. Wiesler is, you see, the ideal Stasi member, completely incapable of contravening socialist concepts of equality and fair play even in favor of some bloated cadre's lusty whims. Since tales like these either have characters who never change and slowly become symbols for whatever ideals they cherish, or feature an unexpected change in a person captive to antiquated missions, we sense that Wiesler will do something dramatic. Could Wiesler even regain the soul he forsook years ago when he bought into the artificial brotherhood of man based on its least impressive commonality, money? What could he, a mid-range officer with little pull apart from local operations hope to achieve against Hempf, the epitome of all totalitarian regimes at all times, a man gorged on money, power, and, from the looks of it, an ungodly amount of Bratwurst?

What Wiesler does and, specifically, what he doesn't do, will not be revealed here. The viewer who craves a happy ending may take solace in the fact that the two Germanies reunified into the Mecca of culture and artistic genius for which they were once exclusively known. This same viewer may be informed in his readings about the film that there never was a Wiesler, or a Dreyman, or an actress as enchanting as Christa-Maria Sieland, and that these bare facts reduce the validity of such an enterprise, reserving it for pure fiction, which as we all know has little to do with reality. But in essence, Wiesler, Dreyman, and Sieland all existed in exactly the form you see on the screen; their thoughts, concerns and hopes were all the same; only their actions and fates may not have been accurately portrayed. Maybe one day a file will surface from the bottomless trench that was East Germany's database in which all three of these characters will be clearly alive, Wiesler perhaps under his code name HGW – Hauptmann (Captain) Gerd Wiesler – XX/ 7; maybe Dreyman will indeed have a copy of a Sonata of a Good Man; perhaps Sieland will be allowed to be with whom she wants and not have to cheat death by cheating on her beloved. Until then, you can enjoy one of the most spectacular films in recent memory.                         

Sunday
Nov082015

Musset, "Se voir le plus possible ..."

A work ("To share all possible time, and to love") by this French poet.  You can read the original here.

To share all possible time, and to love 
Bereft of guile, of shame, of lies, of scorn, 
Without desire's heat or remorseful thorn,           
Two hearts e'er twinned, two souls in peace above.

Respect the past however far its wings, 
Our love a daytime haze, not just a dream;  
Within this clarity shall we breathe free,    
As Laura sighs and her sad lover sings.

And you, whose every step reveals His grace,
And you, in flowered crown without a care, 
'Twas you who said we had to love like this.

And I, old child by holy doubt so faced,  
Who hears and thinks and then to answer dares:
We may live otherwise yet love in bliss. 

Wednesday
Nov042015

A Separation

"What you are telling me," says a judge who remains off-camera in the opening scene of this film, "is not a good reason for divorce." That very principle distinguishes more conservative countries from the West's revolving-door marriage policy, a situation on which I will comment no further. Our invisible arbiter generously floats three scenarios in which the plaintiff, Simin Lavasani (Leila Hatami), might have good cause to rid herself of her husband, Nader Lavasani (Peyman Maadi): he is an addict; he beats you; or he does not give you an allowance. Students of human nature will know this triptych as the three failings of man: the suppression of his desires and emotions; allowing thorough conquest to his desires and emotions; and the forsaking of spiritual salvation for the idolatry of his piggy bank. The modern mind also knows them as the indefinite roulette of drugs, violence, and greed in the news, tales we have all heard a thousand times but which, for those involved, do not diminish in their tragedy. 

Nader is, however, none of the above. On the contrary, even Simin assures the judge that her husband is "a nice, decent man." What she fails to mention is that he is a nice, decent man who ministers to his Alzheimer's-stricken father by himself. The old fellow has a sweet, soft, blank look.  We do not know whether his life was marked by sin or goodness; we know nothing about him except that he is Nader's father. Not once do we hear of siblings who could help in his efforts; in fact, no one even suggests it, meaning either there are none or the matter has been so often discussed that it never needs to be brought up again. This renders Simin's request all the more cruel: after "eighteen months of running around and expenses," the couple and their daughter, 11-year-old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's own daughter), have received visas to go and live abroad. This was six months ago and there remain only forty days before the visas expire. Importantly, the destination is never specified, because that would generate an unneeded political angle to a film that will focus its attention on two concepts of truth – the concept embedded in written law, and the concept particular to each individual. A casual observer may think that Simin's desire to leave Iran is justified given what we may have heard of its political climate. Yet by refraining from truly criticizing a political or religious code, A Separation is very consciously hermetic, urging us to judge the actions and words of the characters only within their limited sphere. If that is the case, then Simin is wrong: the couple can always reapply for visas in the future once Nader's father has succumbed to darkness, or they can simply send their daughter abroad. If her husband is willing to forego this opportunity, Simin claims, then he "obviously does not care about his daughter's future." "So you think the children living in this country don't have a future?" replies the still-unseen judge, a response that dampens her aggressiveness. When Simin meekly explains that she would rather her daughter "not grow up in these circumstances," the judge quickly answers:"What circumstances? Is she better off with two parents here or with no father over there?" To this the couple falls predictably silent. No one would ever claim that a separation of two good people who "have lived together for fourteen years" could possibly be beneficial for their child.

Two good people? Yes, actions throughout the film indicate that both Simin and Nader are morally responsible citizens, relatively well-off, well-educated, and open-minded. While they have numerous advantages in life, they are neither snobs nor vulgarians. And while others might eschew hiring an underprivileged woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after Nader's father, they have only the usual qualms of entrusting a house key to a stranger. We give away nothing by adding that as the woman, Razieh, begins to come to the house, Simin moves to her mother's place in symbolic defiance. Termeh, who will ultimately judge her parents in the film's final scene, remains with Nader because she knows, as one character observes much later on, that her mother would never go anywhere without her. This unambiguous truth pains Nader, who now questions his daughter's allegiance and consecrates far too much precious time trying to secure it, which brings us to another point. A Separation is a strange and unique film because it repeatedly and gleefully denies our expectations. Instead of showing us, as the title suggests, the difficulties a troubled couple might endure, it provides a metaphor for their split and their differing priorities. Razieh, now a substitute for the departed Simin, comes to help Nader but does not want to stay: the commute is too long; the pay is measly, even in her dire financial straits; she has to bring along her four-year-old daughter Somayeh, but with all the caregiving and housework has almost no time for her; she is repulsed by the need to change Nader's father like one would a baby (her aversion is later consistently attributed to religious propriety); and her volatile, unemployed husband Hodjat (a marvelous Shahab Hosseini) neither knows nor would approve of her new job. After a couple of tiring days, including one in which Nader's father escapes to buy a newspaper, Razieh is fired by Nader for having left the apartment and tied his father to the radiator. Nader also accuses her of theft, triggering a chain of events that must be left to the curious viewer to discover.

There is something else about Razieh that we will come to learn, and in a key scene in the film, we hear a personal conversation that is unmistakable in its subject matter, but the camera's placement does not allow us to confirm precisely which characters are also privy to it. Razieh is a woman of faith who nevertheless time and again will act in blatant contradiction to what we understand to be her religious principles. Why would she do such a thing? The answer may be found in her husband, whose uncouth and deranged behavior so contrasts with Nader's as to make the two husbands obvious foils. Hodjat was once a cobbler who was released without compensation and told "to seek justice if he pleases." Justice failed him, and now he cannot support his family, a multi-pronged curse in a conservative country. As a result, Hodjat believes in God, but no longer believes in man's ability to do God's will. This makes him desperate, crazed, depressed, and violent. He is capable of anything, and everyone around him knows it.  Again, those who tend to think of man as predominantly a political animal will understand Hodjat's and Razieh's roles in very distinct symbols. To wit, the conservative culture evident may strike the outsider as odd since it succeeds in making women look uniform, unrecognizable from the back (even more so with schoolgirls), injecting otherwise untenable suspense into a couple of scenes when Nader is looking for his daughter. Farhadi seems to have considered this inevitability and gently steers us away from it by reinforcing why Hodjat has some good left in him, namely his honor and dignity, the last things that can be stripped from the poor, even if the cobbler repeatedly expresses himself in a regrettable fashion. There is also a revelation towards the end of the film that is not so much exciting as devastatingly truthful, and part of that revelation is the admission that we are not stronger than the law. The law, however well intended it may seem, only factors in certain details because otherwise it would become a holistic judgement of one's life, of one's sins and crimes over the course of thoughts and actions and years. It is then hardly a coincidence that all five main characters will end up doing something they believe complies with the spirit, not the letter, of the law, and each action has its own particular consequences. Perhaps that is why the term "legally separated" sounds more like a condemnation than a reprieve.