Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Another melting pot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1997) (obviously at a very specific time in modern Canadian history – a referendum on independence for Quebec had failed very narrowly in 1995, and the risk of a second, successful attempt at it felt very high).

It’s obvious by now that I can hardly articulate my thoughts, except by referring to movies. But then, why would I need to, when fate (or as the case may be, Alliance, Norstar and so forth) keeps delivering such eerily topical stimulation to our local screens.

Last Friday night I had some drinks and, the way the conversation went, I ended up getting all depressed about Quebec. The next afternoon, clear-headed again, I went to see Broken English, a new film directed by Gregor Nicholas. This movie tells us (a) that diverse societies can be hell, (b) that they needn’t be, and (c) that either way, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative, in Broken English, is war. In one of the more idiosyncratic melting pots I’ve encountered in a movie-going life, based largely on the search for diversity, the movie presents a family of Croatian refugees, living in New Zealand, and the consequences when one of the daughters (played with effective sexiness by Aleksandra Vujcic) falls in love with a Maori cook from the restaurant where she’s a waitress.

The most prominent subplot involves the Vujcic character’s arranged marriage (she has citizenship by virtue of her mother having been born there) to a workmate’s Asian boyfriend. Just on a basic line-by-line and scene-by-scene level, the movie isn’t always easy to assimilate for the very reason suggested by its title: the mix of accents and idiosyncrasies – intermingled with bursts of foreign dialogue that are sometimes translated and sometimes not – means that your sense of what’s happening is occasionally only approximate.

This isn’t a big problem, though, because the characters aren’t staking out particularly complex positions. The Croatian father (Rade Serbedzija, whose other movie this year was The Saint) has managed, through his entrepreneurial activities (at least some of which aren’t quite within the law) to acquire a passably middle-class house and such trappings as a mobile phone, into which he talks a lot.

Economically and structurally, he’s essentially absorbed into the society. Culturally, on the other hand, he doesn’t even try. He basks in his difference; he asserts it frequently. He doesn’t even seem to try modifying his hot temper and (by Western standards at least) wildly unreasonable treatment of his family; he conducts himself with a self-righteous, passionate swagger. When Vujcic’s character brings her Maori boyfriend and Asian friends for a visit (a venture that we always know will end in tears), he makes a remark about it resembling a UN peace-keeping force, which isn’t delivered with the tone of an endorsement.

This all plays out in a relatively unsurprising fashion (and, coming on top of Once Were Warriors a couple of years ago, has the effect of making you a bit depressed about New Zealand). The climax of the movie is violent and hopeless – a racial war on a suburban lawn. But the final image is uplifting: a moment of unambiguous, pragmatic, cultural unity that, however – because it consists of people posing for a photograph – is also an explicitly artificial creation. So can we take away a feeling of optimism about this particular melting pot (and, by extension, our own), or are we just being thrown a final reconciliatory mirage to distract us from the ongoing fractures?

As usual, the answer is probably both, although it’s encouraging that the younger people are, on the whole, better integrated than the older ones (also as an aside, the Croatian daughters seem to be more independently minded than the son). Love, economic opportunity and the plain desire to have a life that’s easy and uncomplicated, and that allows you a measure of pride and self-respect: these seem like obvious motives for assimilating as much as you can of your governing environment.

On the other hand, depending on the time and place, and on how the cards are dealt, they might all seem like equally obvious motives for rejecting it. Serbedzija’s character might be described as prejudiced against the Maoris and the Asians (one wonders how he’d react to a WASP, but the movie hardly contains any of them), but his actions are based in his desire to perpetuate values and traditions that he knows will otherwise be swallowed whole by the multi-cultural society. That’s not a justification, but it’s the way he is.

So I said I was thinking about Quebec. As Jack Nicholson said in Mars Attacks, just before the aliens zapped him, “Why can’t we all just get along.” Movies, or any media products for that matter, seldom suggest that any situation is utterly intransigent. The nature of a narrative, of the artistic process, and of imagination itself, is to find a way to get from here to there – however crazy and idealistic the goal.

The real world, unfortunately, generally follows more incremental mechanisms: in politics, it pretty much always does. Our leaders may or may not have vision, but they seldom apply it to their policy-making (which is perhaps just as well, given that the Megacity idea was a bold enough leap to be attributed to a vision of some sort). And I guess we just have to accept, for the most part, that they do the best they can given the tradeoffs required.

The thing that depresses me about our current situation is that we might actually need some inspiring leadership. If I were in Quebec, listening to the Bloc trying to pull me out of the country on the one hand and (if this is how it develops) Preston Manning seeming to push me out of it on the other – of course I’d be tempted to vote for independence.

Why would I want to be locked into that perpetual debate and psychic trauma with its uncertainty -  I’d rather pull the plug and hope for the best. Which would be the wrong decision. The economics of separation are probably just devastating. But as we know, people play their hunches as far as economics goes.

Next time round, then, the argument for continuing unity had better be as clear as a bell. Which it wasn’t last time, and won’t be again, unless someone starts meticulously communicating it long before the situation becomes dire. And as for whether Chretien’s the person to lead that communication…well, I think we’re all aware of his limitations by now.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the reason that Broken English gives me some hope isn’t in the characters who assimilate, but in the Croatian father who doesn’t. Despite his hot-headedness, he knows that culture and economics are two different things: separation in one can – in a diverse world – must coexist with assimilation in the other. Not everything is a matter for the gun, or even for the ballot box. Although the world of Broken English is hopelessly fragmented, this is just a reflection of the fact that in an open facilitating society, people make the choices they must. And if they choose to erect internal walls, well…there’s nothing wrong with separation as long as we’re all in it together.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

I suppose your assessment of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket depends largely on how you see the relationship between its two halves: the first set in a South Carolina training camp where a group of newly-recruited Marines are belittled and terrorized by their drill sergeant; the second following a couple of the characters to Vietnam, to be belittled and terrorized by the war itself. The first time I saw the film, the transition seemed jarring, but over time I’ve come to see it as validating the sergeant’s tactics as much as damning them. Of course his relentlessness makes them tougher, but Kubrick pushes the abuse into the realm of twisted poetry and mythmaking, into an exercise in fictionalizing oneself (no one ever gets called by their real name) and then wearing that fiction like a full metal jacket. If Matthew Modine’s character “Joker” copes best, it’s perhaps because of his head start on such a project with his dumb John Wayne impersonations and smart mouth. In Vietnam, working for the Stars and Stripes newspaper and chafing at its mediocre reporting values, he craves greater engagement, then gets a dose of it, and in his final voice over is retreating back to the imagined, to the world of the sergeant’s invented “Mary Jane Rottencrotch,” and thereby finding a measure of peace, even of satisfaction. Given time, he might retreat even further, maybe into a photograph as at the end of The Shining; the interiors in the first half of Full Metal Jacket often feels like it might have been shot in some of the back corridors of the Overlook Hotel, and the second half might just be taking place inside a more cunning and noisy metaphysical maze. Whether it’s an “anti-war” film seems somehow like the wrong question; any attempts even to engage with it – as in Joker’s simultaneous wearing of a peace symbol and a “Born to Kill” slogan on his helmet, explained as some kind of comment on the “duality of man” – seem draining and futile. As such, the film, even if it’s not one of Kubrick’s very best, is an astounding exercise in strangifying.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Tati’s Playtime hardly encourages a deep sense of people as individuals – few of its dozens of characters are even granted a medium shot, let alone a close-up. The movie seems to warn of nothing less than collective obliteration – submersion into mass standardization, into absurd consumerism, into systems and surfaces that can only be stained by human intervention (and of course this is even before the online/social media revolution), into hopeless distance from basic pleasures (embodied by the American visitors to Paris who are kept well away from all its points of differentiation). Looked at a certain way, it can feel overwhelming, and even depressing – Tati’s choreography is so staggering, often involving multiple bits of foreground and background action in the same shot, that it hardly seems designed for a human spectator. Of course, this is also at the heart of the film’s inexhaustible glory, of its status as one of the most singular of all cinematic masterpieces. And Tati seeds his design with remnants of past humanity or portents of a future one – the sudden appearance of old friends, of mysterious near-doubles, of things that are just funny despite everything. The brilliant extended climax in a restaurant that all but gets destroyed on its opening night speaks to the capacity of collective action for transcending stifling corporate calculation. But it’s also plainly a one-off, incapable of shaping the following day for more than a few dreamy early-morning hours. In one of its final gags, the movie posits that a moving window might actually influence the object that’s being reflected in it – something that might have seemed like the ultimate loss of control, except that Tati presents it as an elating moment, a promise that all isn’t yet heavy and tethered. Least of all, of course, M. Hulot, who returns to the crowd as modestly and mysteriously as he emerged from it.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands is perhaps Cassavetes’ most darkly disorienting work, and probably his most aggressive one: its trio of protagonists interrogates and/or attacks virtually every utterance, every assumption, every active moment and every quiet one, exhausting each other (and possibly us) in their search for a new stable structure – the old structure fell apart after a fourth friend suddenly died. After Harry (Ben Gazzara) gets into a violent fight with his wife, he decides to take off for London – Gus (Cassavetes) and Archie (Peter Falk) tag along; they all set out to find women for the night, and all succeed (the inevitability of this, at least, is one thing the film never questions), but it never feels like conventional coupling will generate much of an answer to anything. The film sees better prospects for renewal within the dynamics of mysteriously-assembled groups, often from using song as a tool for moving past language, to a purer expression of emotion. As with most of Cassavetes’ work, the impact is hardly naturalistic, and doesn’t necessarily seem like an excavation of “truth” either, but it’s an astounding exercise in unbound performance, in traumatic destabilization. And you constantly feel Cassavetes’ delight in faces and voices and expressions, particularly it seems in observing English women with their strange accents and turns of phrase. Harry stays in London (defined here solely by its cramped interiors and its rain); Gus and Archie return, if only because they can’t figure out how to make a case for doing anything else. “What’s he going to do without us?” they ask, but the real question is the opposite one – how they’re meant to reconfigure their relationship yet again to accommodate a further loss. But whether they manage it or not, the final moments of Gus returning to his family (played by Cassavetes’ real-life children) leave little doubt that they’ll be husbands, and fathers, whether or not they’re also living out their concept of being men.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mother Kusters goes to Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

You might initially consider Mother Kusters goes to Heaven to be one of Fassbinder’s flatter, less stylistically interesting films, until it occurs to you that’s probably the point, to record a cross-section of a society that hardly has the emotional and intellectual energy to lift its drab ugly ass of the ground. Mrs. Kusters works at home assembling electrical components (some 1,500 a week of them, we’re told) while her husband toils in a chemical plant, where one day he kills a boss’s son and then himself. The media pounces on the story as a lurid tabloid sensation, trashing the family accordingly; her daughter grabs the chance to wrap herself in scandal and advance her singing career, while Mrs. Kusters’s bewildered loyalty to her husband makes her an easy toy for the left, seeking to brandish her as the surviving spouse of an unrecognized revolutionary. Virtually every face is familiar from other Fassbinder works, feeding its sense of claustrophobic insularity, of self-devouring ugliness (nobody ever captured eye-hurting 70’s clothes and d├ęcor better than Fassbinder did, no matter that he did it in film after film). The restored version of Mother Kusters initially seems to end in terrorism and death, but then a caption introduces an alternative ending, originally used only on the American release it says, which leads to further dissipation of energy, before an act of kindness and a hint of a possible return to happy domesticity. There’s no suggestion Fassbinder ever envisaged showing the film with both endings, and yet it’s just about perfect, underlining how the tangle of personal and political will only ever resolve itself arbitrarily, either due to the unkind whims of society, or to the (perhaps) more sympathetic ones of the artist. Viewed now, at a time of particular shakiness for progressivity, the film speaks louder than ever of a collective inability to diagnose and shape the present, let alone look to the future.