Friday, March 29, 2013

The Holy Moocher

With this post I will mark the Easter weekend and start a shift from my look at movies, which is coming to an end, to books. Today I want to quote a rather long passage from a novel I recently read, Laura Warholic or The Sexual Intellectual, by Alexander Theroux. I don't recommend the book. It's almost one thousand pages of rants on various topics: Why San Francisco is a grossly overrated city. Why Democracy is a grossly overrated political system. Why women fail as artists and intellectuals. There are many many more, and details escape me. It was exhausting. I thought however this rant about Jesus was worth repeating. It struck me as having the unusual power to shock and outrage even an audience of today. We can get an inkling of how those who read the anti clerical rants of Voltaire or de Sade might have felt.

Feast at the House of Levi - Veronese

“Christ was a sponge!" deblaterated fat Warholic, angrily leering, his face going heavy, with folds, like a bull's scrotum. He aimed a cold eye. "He was a fucking mendicant! A pet! A leech! A deadbeat! He was always walking around inveighing against ill-gotten riches and corruption by way of private property, but what did the guy ever do to pay his own way?" Inflamed with revenge, Warholic was ready to launch. Emotion made him impolite, and his bigoted fury prepared. A fierce thorn impaling him gave him unappeasable anger, a black, annihilating hatred of Christianity that allowed him the change he relished acutely to deliver the darts he would.

“Of the million subjects available to Christ, his second favorite to discuss, after the Kingdom of God—it is scripturally proven—was cash," barked the detracting editor. "Long green. The ol' do-re-mi. Spondulicks. Money! But, tell me, did he ever have any money on him? They had to bring the damned fool a denarius—Matthew 22:14—to make that obvious point about Caesar and God. He owned nothing. He borrowed everything. You people turn this into a virtue? He cadged. He wheedled. He bullied. It was not his own stable at birth. It was not his cross at death. The tomb he was buried in was not even his own. Live free or die, the good old New Hampshire state motto, right?"

Warholic was under full steam. Having been bested in such arguments before, he had done his homework, and it was bring it on.

“He was always hungry. Ever notice? He spitefully withered a fig tree for bearing no fruit just when he petulantly wanted something to eat (Matthew 21:19). Don't go trying to make me look like Mickey the Dunce. We learned all this crap seated at long wooden tables from Horev to Yavneh—Jew school to you jamokes, OK?—under the knuckle-knocking zaddiks in shul. What, you don't think we know our enemy? 'Where's the grub? Where's the grub?' he complained, starved for food when leaving Bethany and then frustrated, spitefully took it out on that tree. 'May no one ever eat from you again!' he cursed, blasting the tree with the prosecution of a poison finger. The very day before that, not twelve hours before, spitting in fury because of an empty stomach, he barged into the holy temple on his big feet and furiously punted over all the tables. That's not food rage? That's not a glaring example of hunger-spite? This scavenger is your messiah, Discknickers? Your savior? Mr. Big? He defended David's right to go barging into the house of God and blasphemously wolf down shewbread. The apostles and disciples themselves were always starving. The poor ignorant fools were driven like ravenous giraffes to have to snatch and munch handfuls of wheat in the fields, crumblestumble they had to glom from the fucking yarrowstalks through which they walked (Matthew 12:1-2)! Check your own bibles! Face it, Christ was the ultimate parasite and invitee. A dinner dog! He attended huge sumptuous banquets at a certain Levi's wearing costly apparel and gulping from flasks of date spirits and eating fig cakes, herbed cheese, and salted meat with rich, overindulged tax-collectors—Luke 5:29—but with a visible weakness for social climbing and parvenuism was constantly queening it at long groaning tables with pompous and wealthy snobs every chance he got! It was if he were born to the manor. Disgusting! Take a look sometime at that famous painting Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese which depicts exactly what I'm talking about where you can see this so-called ascetic of yours with perfumed hair all farputst and sporting exquisite silks and sitting center-stage in an expensive marbled atrium in the company of a whole passel of performing buffoons, noshers, red-nosed drunkards, upstart coons, pimp hustlers, fawning hangers-on, and a zooful of malignant dwarves without so much as a hint of anything spiritual. No elevated ideals at all. Scatheful! Devouring! Rude!

“On the cross itself he was still whining—I am thirsty!' Get me a Fresca! Why even after he dies, it is duly recorded by the four fabulists that he suddenly appears like Banquo's ghost, pale as paper, and what's the very first request from this universal bailiff of poverty and toiling in the vineyard? Exactly. 'Do you have anything to eat (Luke 24:41)? Will you tell me something, does a dead man have an appetite? Hunger pains? Belly cramps? 'Bring me some of the fish you have just caught,' he demands as if he had just sat down to table (John 21:10). Once again it is back to food, strapping on the feedbag, banging his tin cup up and down for a waiter. And so what happens? They throw the goldbricker a boiled fish! I told you, we had to memorize all this shit in yeshivots, twice a day. Christ then proceeds to tell the apostles or the epistles or whatever they were, 'Come and have breakfast, 'John 21:12 in the godbook, if you're interested. He tears into a hank of bread, then wolfs down a haddock or two. This is, what, an hour or two after he has been just raised from the dead? Unearthed from the dark tomb, folks, trailing his filthy graveclothes behind like a mud-mummy? Had he even a stomach?"

Indignant, Discknickers struggled to go after him, but Spalatin grabbed the accountant and said, "No point, he's on a roll."

“Tell me, who paid for all of Christ's lodgings? When he went roaming about the countryside with that circus troupe of his, all of those performing monkeys, wandering through Galilee, Caesarea, Sidon, Philippi, Carphanaum, and Bethpage, had the man a fucking shekel? Answer?" Warholic mockingly put an open hand to his ear. "I don't hear anything." He paused. "Had he a seashell?" He fake-looked up at the ceiling and hummed. "Cloudy with showers?" With a big grin, he stood back in triumph. "Don't all of you mevshavs look so shocked. Are you afraid you'll be hit by lightning and barbecued? These are facts, not fictions. My old rabbi who knew from Christian ugly and scorn and never failed to warn me not to trust a smiling Gentile—he came from an impoverished little dorp in Russia called Motol where the uncircumcized putzes all treated him like donkeyballs—used to quote Proverbs 30:15: 'The leech has two daughters. "Give! Give!" they cry.' I know I'm correct in saying that the figure the reb had in mind was nobody but your greedy Middle Eastern carpenter!"

“Swine," shot Discknickers.

Warholic shoved his face forward. "This was not a chiseler, a mooch, a beggar, a schnorrer figuring how to live off other people?"


“Do you happen to remember how one day just roaming around the countryside he spies that rich little shitpad, Zacchaeus, and walking right up to the guy, buttonholes him with, 'I must stop at your house today' (Luke 19:5). What is this rubbish, I must? I must reach into your deep pockets and grab some cash, you gullible nudnicks? He brazenly walks—walks—into the houses of strangers and commandeers their rooms as if he fucking owned them (Mark 7:24-25)! Drop what you're doin, bublik, I don't give a shit what, and wait on me! What poor slob had to pay for the luxury of the Upper Room into which this bearded nuchshlepper walks with all of those stinking, illiterate fisherfolk for companions (Matthew 26:18)? He appropriated some perfect stranger's room for Passover the same way because that was his habit! Beggary! Who paid for the donkey on which he rode into Jerusalem? Clyde Beatty? Robert Ruark? Buffalo Bill? The Ringling Brothers? A delegation of suits from the Moose Club of Nazareth? He then proceeds to order some of his lackeys to go into town and snag a colt and a donkey—a donkey he royally insists, notice, that no one has ever ridden—giving these same obedient dumbbells by way of permission in taking these animals the lame excuse to pass on as an explanation, 'The Lord needs them.' The Lord—! The Lord, my ass! Hey, the Lord needs someone to settle my gas bill! The Lord needs someone to buy my lunch! How about to float my loans and to pay my taxes and to cover my mortgage? Why not simply come out and declare without the flannel, 'We, the Gestapo, take what we want'?

“He was always riding in someone's boat, ordering one of his pursuivants to pour him a cup of water, demanding that milling crowds be parted for him to walk through, insisting they throw their cloaks into the roads, badgering someone to feed him, commanding someone to wash his feet or to fetch him this or that. These were just plain scams, out and out. I've often wondered whether research into the old police records of Jerusalem, if such still exist, would not reward the industrious investigator with proof that as a deadbeat Christ the check-kiter didn't spend some serious time in the clink, wearing cast-iron leg-chains for all of those pea-and-thimble tricks he pulled on the innocent and unsuspecting. Expensive oils and unguents were always being lavished on him (Matthew 26:7) which of course he assumed were his due. Had he and his family already been so badly spoiled by the Magi's extravagant offerings given him at birth which he felt were owed him and which his parents clearly cashed in in order to travel to Egypt? Had he no ethics? Nothing stopped the man. He kept it up day after day. All sorts of people were pissed off, of course. The Pharisees. The Essenes. The Roman authorities. Did that make him rein it in? Not a bit. The dude never quit. No, I can see nothing in his character to persuade me that any indignation a flout of his might arouse would have driven him from a place he did not want to leave. There were too many good pickings there! He turned his disciples and dogsbodies into beggars. Remember how he told all of them whenever they were setting out to bring nothing but scrip and staff?"
 Seeing as how Jesus was offering those who followed him a ticket to eternal life in Heaven at the feet of God, only a cheap charlie could begrudge him a meal. Still I confess to feeling a frisson of sacrilegious guilty pleasure on reading the rant. The content is true, after all, yet until reading this I've never seen Jesus portrayed as a mooching beggar. Why do we avoid the obvious? His entourage, the apostles were drawn from the lowest orders of society. The main woman in Jesus' life was a prostitute. A begging Jesus would not be out of place. Spiritual practitioners of other times and places have often taken up begging to get their daily bread. Buddha and his begging bowl is one example; there must be countless others. I think we owe this frisson of almost blasphemous pleasure not to any teachings of Judaism which the Warholic character supposedly follows, but to a heritage of Calvinism. This is the doctrine where religious devotion is expressed by our works here on earth - the protestant work ethic. Against the teachings of Calvin we should set those of Jesus... Matthew 6:20 - "But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." Sound advice, maybe, but what and where is heaven?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ucho (The Ear)

I've already looked at one Czech film of the 1960s here, Sedmikrasky, or Daisies, but the output of during the period was so prodigious, and Ucho is so singular an example, that I feel I should include it. It's actually dated by some sources as 1970, but it was made at least partially in 1969 and never shown publicly until 1989, just months before the velvet revolution, so I take the liberty or including it here. Besides, of all the films I've featured, Ucho is by far the most explicitly political, confronting head on such taboo issues like Stalinism, repression and antisemitism.

According to the interview with Peter Hames, a British expert on Czech cinema, the director of Ucho, Karel Kachyna, and the writer, Jan Prochazka, enjoyed a long career together collaborating on films. Prochazka was a communist and had many contacts with the party elite, including an acquaintance with the president. Their films together were seen as bearing the stamp of officially approved criticism. Ucho was made after the Prague Spring had ended, apparently with Soviet troops marching on the streets outside their studio, and on completion it was withheld by authorities. Prochazka died the next year, but Kachyna seems to have accepted the dictates of the regime and continued to make uncontroversial and unremarkable children's films, and even continued his collaboration with Prochazka, filming some of his scripts, though a 'front' was given credit.

Ucho is the story of a couple returning home after a party at the presidential palace. They discover they have somehow misplaced their keys. Their gate is open in any case, and once inside their house, they discover that the electricity and telephone service are not working. They begin to suspect that somebody had been there while they were out. The husband, Ludvik, is deputy at the ministry of construction and his rather vulgar wife Anna (superbly played Jirina Bohdalova) bicker with each other as they explore their darkened home. It's coincidentally their tenth wedding anniversary, and despite numerous broad hints, Ludvik won't acknowledge the occasion. We switch between the scene at the house and flashbacks of the party where we learn that Ludvik's superior and three colleagues are missing, and presumed to have been arrested. By the end of the film we understand the connection between what we've learned at the party and the strange state of the house. Ucho is a mix of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Kafka. It's a study of a relationship under conventional strains that could affect any marriage, with the added burdens of being subject of surveillance and political repression.

at home - before or behind bars

Ucho gives us an opportunity to see life under surveillance. What I thought was unique is how 'the ear' - those who listen -  is drawn into their personal lives. Anna will be talking to her husband, and when she finds him too obtuse or otherwise objectionable, she will interrupt herself and address the ear directly in cheeky banter. Their casual acceptance of the police state is also evident in their prison-like decor, and in Anna's admission that she keeps her young son locked in his bedroom while they go out. Near the end, Anna courageously rebels against her role as prisoner and warder in her own home, but her freedom is short lived. In the final scene, for the first time she expresses fear, and we see her, also for the first time, silent, deflated and exhausted.

Ucho is available here at the Pirate Bay for download. With a bittorrent client, of course. Be sure not to miss Peter Hames' twelve minute introduction to the film, which is part of the package.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Red and the White

The Red and the White is a 1967 Hungarian Soviet co-production made by Hungarian director Miklos Jancso to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution. It was banned in the Soviet Union but shown in Hungary and received recognition by various film appreciation societies, mostly for its direction.

The film concerns a company of Hungarian volunteers fighting alongside the Reds during the civil war perhaps some time in 1918 somewhere south of Moscow near the Volga river, although the film was actually shot, I believe, in the Hungarian countryside.

Anyone interested in the craft of film direction should gain from watching this film. It's comprised of long takes, typically up to 3 minutes in length, which are extremely intricate, showing actions that might start in deep background, approach the camera, switch attention to another character or set of characters all the while panning, tracking and zooming. It shows great control and vision, and is all the more impressive as many of its characters are on horseback. It's amazing to think that over the course of a 3 minute scene an actor (and his horse) can make his entrance, hit his mark, deliver his line, and move along as the camera takes up with another set of actors on another piece of faultlessly executed business.

Like many war films of East Europe and the Soviet Union, The Red and the White is an antiwar film. It may be the most uncompromising antiwar film I've seen. What makes it different from others is the lack of character and narrative. We see faces (no names though) get to recognize them, but they never have anything to say to us and very little to each other. They are almost invariably killed either off screen or in the background. There is not much in the way of battle scenes either. There is so much fluidity to the situation that in one scene the Whites will be subjecting their captive Reds to humiliations and in the next scene, the tables are turned and the roles are reversed. All without much or any shooting, much less explanation. Both sides mistreat the civilian population, themselves and each other; there's really not a lot to distinguish one army from the other. Without narrative or character, an absurd aimlessness is all that remains.

The decision to eschew character and narrative means sacrificing the favour and attention of a good part of the audience. I think it's safe to say that many audience members will find the film boring and alienating. That's evident in the IMDB comments on the film. The slower pace and longer takes of the European style of film making are only the beginning of this film's capacity to alienate. Without a character to identify with or a narrative thread to follow, the audience isn't left with much to hold onto. This is what I meant about The Red and the White being an uncompromising film. Compare it to other antiwar films of East Europe of the same period or even to those of the West, like MASH and Catch 22. In these films, war is elevated as a stage where the characters can express their individuality, heroism or joy for life. In MASH, for example, the doctors take advantage of the chaos and absurdity by asserting their medical and military authority to successfully manipulate whatever and whoever comes before them. There are no successful manipulators in The Red and the White. In Catch 22, one scene has our hero dumping his bombs into the sea, intentionally missing his assigned target. In the Red and the White, an anonymous White soldier ordered to execute a Red prisoner fires from the hip without taking aim. His officer, without a word of reprimand, passes the order to the next soldier who executes it without pause.

Miklos Jancso is still making films today. They lack the grandeur and budget of his earlier work, and I couldn't recommend them with confidence. However, The Red and the White deserves to be seen by anyone interested in film or especially film making. It's available at the Pirate Bay for anyone who has a bittorrent client.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Not so dictatorial

There´s been lots of press coverage of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, since Tuesday, and the funeral today, and most of it fairly negative. It´s not terribly surprising since he tried to alleviate poverty and pursue an independent foreign policy. But I´m not going to defend him or his regime except in one respect. Chavez wasn´t a dictator, as he´s commonly referred to. In fact he deserves some credit for scrupulous adherence to basic democratic principles.

What impressed me was the events around Venezuela´s 2009 referendum on constitutional reform. Chavez wanted it, and once Venezuelans narrowly rejected it, the issue was dropped. Abiding by an unwelcome decision of the public is not dictatorial, it´s democratic.

The reason why this setting aside an agenda for constitutional reform deserves attention is that other nations, never accused of being ruled by dictators, don´t have referendums, and don´t have to abide by the results. Instead they hold ¨never-end-ems¨ where a government that doesn`t get the ´yes´ answer it hopes for, puts money into a yes vote publicity campaign, and goes to the polls again holding another referendum on the same issue, perhaps with slight adjustments. I´m thinking about Denmark, Ireland and Iceland, though I´m sure there are others.

Maybe that´s not dictatorship or democracy. Maybe it´s liberal democracy, where the power of the public is checked and balanced by the power of the government.We never hear Chavez criticized for being too much of a democrat. It doesn´t have the same ring as dictator. But I suspect it was Chavez´s democratic tendencies that earned him the dislike of his critics.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator

That´s ¨Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.¨ in Serbo-Croatian, the original title of Dusan Makavejev´s 1967 film. It has the honour, among the films I´ve been looking at, of being both the film with longest title, and at one hour and seven minutes, the shortest running length. Perhaps this in itself gives us an idea of something that has been lost since the time when the film was made. A time when the makers of this film were not afraid to release something closer in length to a weekly installment of a television series under a title that´s not quite instantly memorable. A time of risk-taking and experimentation.

Love Affair is an example of Yugoslavia´s ¨Black Wave¨ movement of film-making. There are other examples of this style, and all share similar Anarchist or Maoist sensibilities, borrowing from the French New Wave while offering quite explicit criticism of Yugoslavian society. Yugoslavia is unique in Eastern Europe for not having been occupied by the Soviet Union, and maintaining its independence under a socialist regime.

Dusan Makaveyev is famous for his ¨WR: Mysteries of the Organism¨ of 1971. This was made in Yugoslavia, and like many other black wave films was promptly banned there, and many other nations, besides. He went to Canada to make ¨Sweet Movie¨ which was also banned in Yugoslavia, but also Canada, and most other nations. Love Affair was not banned in Yugoslavia, and was shown with only modest cuts in the West.

During this period, Makaveyev was essentially working and reworking the same material in each of his films. Like the other films of his I´ve mentioned, though much less explicitly so, Love Affair is a playfully didactic exposition of the thinking of the German psychoanalyst and communist Wilhelm Reich - the WR of his most famous picture. Reich believed that sexual repression led to tyranny and fascism, and to avoid this fate we had to fully and fearlessly express our sexuality. For his troubles, Reich was expelled from Freud´s inner circle, the communist party and Norway. After a brief stint teaching at the New School in New York with other Jewish emigres, he attracted the attention of the FBI, was fired and died in 1957 while in custody at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, but not before the FDA had burned all his books and papers.

Eva and her other rat catcher 

Love Affair is a tragic love story intertwined with a pastiche of flash forwards, expert lectures on sexuality, criminology and pest control, propaganda broadcasts of anti clerical campaigns and street demonstrations, and poetry. It maintains a light, comical tone throughout, though some of the scenes can be rather gruesome. Eva is a modern girl who works at a switchboard and Ahmed, a rat catcher, is her older, more conservative, lover. They are both good people, and they both love each other. But what chance does love stand in a world where Wilhelm Reich dies in an American prison after fleeing the Nazis?

Love Affair is available for download at the Pirate Bay. It comes packaged together with several other titles of his from the same period. All you need is a bittorrent client.