Monday, June 22, 2009

The Thief of Bagdad

I have a tendency to watch a lot of depressing, or at the very least serious, movies. The Thief of Bagdad is an exception. It's an adventure, over the top, riddled with plot holes, big budget, fun. The movie is is a remake -- I'd guess one of the first -- made in 1940 based on a silent movie from 1924. The characters, settings, and plot have been further liberally borrowed from (Disney's Aladin will be the most apparent example to modern viewers). As children we watched both the 1924 version and the 1940 version (we were pretty confused by the fact that there were two). Watching it as an adult though there are some elements of discomfort particularly to do with race.

Watching older films is interesting partially because of the insight into the culture and worldview of the time. This has a tendency to feel uncomfortable to us most when it applies to race. We don't mind seeing a world in which people see religion or strangely enough even gender very differently, but when it comes to race it tends to provoke a reaction. The Thief of Bagdad is nowhere near the embarassment level of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it is still there. The titular Thief of Bagdad -- Abu, played by the indian actor Sabu, is really representative I think of the roll of the "person of color" as sidekick in a lot of early cinema (and literature for that matter I suppose). He is the loyal, sexless, man-child -- the noble savage. The white man's fantasy of a servant who wants nothing but to help.

The Ahmed, Abu, Princess interactions reminded me of the similar situation in Casablanca with Rick, Sam and Ilsa. I think what seems so strange in both cases is that Sam and Abu clearly have a relationship with the hero's love interest, but it has been so drained of any kind of possibility of anything flirtatious or sexual that it seems unrealistic. The utter absence of anything sexual feels unnatural. The princess is supposed to be this incredible beauty who for both Ahmed and Jaffar one glimpse of her means falling in love forever. Abu sees her and registers no reaction whatsoever even as Ahmed is instantly and permanently head over heels. He is utterly sexless and innocent-- when he finds manages to outwit the genie and secure his 3 wishes he spends the 1st on sausages. Hunger being his only appetite is a recurring theme in the film.

The story begins with a flashback, Ahmed has been blinded and Abu has been very appropriately transformed into a dog (an incredibly cute and well trained dog). Having transformed him Jaffar says, "Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog!" I can't imagine that the symbolism could have been lost on the audience -- particularly at the moment when the curse is lifted and there is Abu shaking the water from himself like a dog and still wearing his leash and collar. Before thinking to remove it he calls to his master to make sure he is ok (Ahmed also doesn't seem to think to remove his friend's collar and leash). I suppose Jaffar's temporarily transforming Abu into a dog is not so bad when you consider that Disney permanently transformed him into a monkey.

In the end though it is Abu who does all the real work of the hero. He's the one who helps Ahmed meet the princess, he's the one who guards her as a dog, he's the one who outwits the genie, steals the eye, wishes Ahmed to Bagdad, rescues Ahmed from certain death and kills Jaffar. And yet Ahmed is the one who ends up with the kingdom and the princess.

The final scene is a coronation/wedding -- all three are beautifully dressed though Abu is clearly uncomfortable with any clothing at all. Ahmed is speaking about how he is going to send Abu to schools so that he can become wise and be made Vizier. Upon hearing of his planned civilized future Abu escapes on his magic carpet to go "have some fun". The happy go lucky, loyal, non-threatening native doesn't really want any power or influence. He just wanted to make his master happy.

The other major non-white character in the film is of course the Genie. He is very different from the genie in the Disney movie, and perhaps if Abu is the white fantasy of the loyal, unthreatening servent, then the genie represents their fears. After all when Abu frees him he attempts to kill him. Abu asks him, "How can you be so ungrateful." To which the genie replies "Grateful? Slaves are not grateful. Not for their freedom!"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The cover of dvd copies of The Passion of Joan of Arc feature a close up of Joan's face. It is an extremely apt image to represent the film, as much of the movie consists of close-ups on her face, and the power of the movie lies in her and the other actors ability to evoke nuanced and powerful emotion without the words to suplement it. There are a lot of things that I could write about with regards to this film, but I think the thing that struck me most is how alien the culture in which is takes place is to us.

The experience of watching The Passion of Joan of Arc as a modern movie-goer is disconcerting at first. It is a silent movie in the true sense of the word, no music was originally composed or selected for it. The way it is shot feels disjointed. As Roger Ebert points out in his review:

"There is a language of shooting and editing that we subconsciously expect at the movies. We assume that if two people are talking, the cuts will make it seem that they are looking at one another... ...Almost all such visual cues are missing from ``The Passion of Joan of Arc.''"

I found myself initially wondering if I could get into the movie -- it felt too different, alien in it's age and style, not to mention the unfamiliarity of the story. It is a testimony to the strength of the movie and the performances of the actors, particularly Renee Maria Falconetti, that I ended the film utterly enthralled and on the verge of tears.

Though we can definitely engage with the film our experience of it -- particularly that of watching a historic movie that was made in a period which is now historic itself remains disconcerting. It is difficult to figure out what is a product of the period the film takes place in and what is a product of the era in which it was produced, but in the end I suppose that is not a delineation that necessarily needs to be made for the film to be interesting or powerful.

Dreyer threw out the screenplay he had been given and used the transcripts of Joan's actual trial. The end result is a pretty incredible insight into a worldview that is incredibly different from ours. The judges' questions are tangled theological questions that would have any of us -- even the most religious -- utterly confused. The most famous question is one of the judges asking Joan if she is in a state of grace. This might seem innocuous to us, but to them it was a key question, and her answer was the only answer that wouldn't have immediately led them to declaring her a heretic. They didn't care that she'd led brilliant military victories against their allies or been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. They cared that she claimed to have had visions. They cared that she wore mens clothing. These were people to whom religion was the most important thing in the world.

It's an amazingly different environment than ours. As the trial continues you realize that while the trial certainly wasn't fair by any standard, it also at least in the eyes of the judges wasn't a sham. It was really important to them to know whether Joan was a heretic or not, and at least one of the characters seems to genuinely care for her. It is a testament to the subtlety of the acting that you can tell that some of the judges deliver their, "I have great sympathy for you Joan." genuinely and others do not without the aid of tone of voice.

Of course Joan if anything takes religion even more seriously than the judges. It is the most important thing in her life -- she lives for it. In the face of all the torture the two moments that come closest to making her break are the moments when she is offered the possibility of attending mass or recieving communion. The sense of longing in her eyes as the priest holds the host in front of her is that of a person who hasn't eaten for a month.

We live in a very different world now -- regardless of individual belief religion is no longer a matter of trials and burnings at the stake, and holding someone back from communion is no longer an effective form of torture.

I recently went to a mass at my brother's church St. Mark's. The service happened to be the feast of Corpus Christi in which they parade the host around the church glorifying it. It is not a commonly celebrated service, and it definitely felt strange. Like the film the mass was an echo of a time when people's understanding of the world was fundamentally different. There is a tendency for people who are interested in tradition to only maintain those which are comfortable, or to allow traditions to be transformed so that they fit with our modern worldview. It was refreshing to see a community not do that, to see them performs a service which feels unfamiliar and which gives us an insight into the way people percieved the world hundreds of years ago. For the space of the mass we could almost be standing next to Falconetti's Joan. She would be staring at the paraded host with that longing that at least to me feels so alien. But at the end of the service we walk out into the sunlight and into our world in which a woman won't be burned alive for wearing men's clothing or answering theological questions incorrectly.

The historian in me wonders what people will regard with a similar sense of wonder and alienation when they look back on us from 600 years from now. If I had to venture a guess it would be our faith in the truth of our economic world. I have a tendancy to be very critical of tradition or at the very least mistrustful of it. All too often the traditional is merely a way of adding a fake sense of legitimacy and permanence to things that lack both. In watching The Passion of Joan of Arc I was reminded of how experiencing the past whether through film or tradition can also be a powerful reminder of how dramatically worldviews can change, and how the truths we see as so obvious may in reality be seen as strangely in another time as we see the belief's of Joan and her judges.

A Dry White Season

A Dry White Season is sort of a strange movie to write about. The direction is ok, even the writing is only ok, and yet because of its historical setting it has a gravity and emotional impact (at least for me) that few movies do. Historical movies often annoy me because I think that attempting to recreate a moment in history is an easy way to artificially inject significance. People remember the events and consequently the film-maker doesn't have to actually engage the viewer and make them feel or think -- they can just evoke certain events to achieve emotional and intellectual engagement from the audience.

With a movie like A Dry White Season that issue is further complicated. When it was released apartheid South Africa was still very much a reality and the film was a challenge, a protest film. I would imagine that a large part of the goal of everyone involved was to bring the realities of apartheid to people's attention. Apartheid is over and the problems facing South Africa are an entirely new set, so how does the movie hold up?

My answer is: surprisingly well. The main thing that has amazed me every time I've seen the movie is that it is a very potent reminder of the lessons of state control of information/propaganda to be learned from apartheid South Africa. I would argue that there has never been a state that has more successfully controlled the information its citizens had access to than apartheid South Africa. The reason, as is immediately apparent in A Dry White Season is not that they were better at it than other similar regimes, but because the people having the truth hidden from them wanted it to remain hidden. I suppose it is pretty obvious that it is easier to lie to someone who wants to believe the lie. Parents are often the worst offenders for that -- believing obvious lies, because accepting the truth would be so much more painful. White South Africa is an example of a situation where a whole society and constituency falls into that trap, and the results were, and are, terrible. A Dry White Season is a good reminder that it is important to not accept easy, comforting lies particularly when they come from those in power.

There was one particular thing that I had not noticed on previous viewings, but which struck me as predictive of the violence that has followed the end of apartheid. There is a moment when the camera zooms in on Wellington, a practically non-existant character with maybe two lines. His brother has been murdered by the police, and his father has just been taken away to his death for looking into it. He closes the door after the police and turns back toward the camera, his 6 year old face seething with rage and frustration. The kind of rage and sense of injustice that makes you as the viewer think, "This is the face of someone who will grow up to be a killer." For a film made in 1989 that momentary hint of future violence seems remarkably prescient. There is a whole generation of Wellingtons -- abused, disenfranchised, undereducated, and filled with rage. The end of the injustice of apartheid has not meant the end of the rage and violence it engendered.

If you haven't seen it I highly recommend the movie, the directing is nothing spectacular, the acting is good though nothing spectacular, but the story, setting, and insights it offers make it a very powerful movie.