Sunday, June 27, 2010


Flipping through, I see that Canadian headlines are screaming, “Thugs!” and, “Anarchy!” Understandably, one cop car appears to have burned. It’s ghastly, indeed. No one likes seeing that. Or at least, no one admits it. But if a car burns and no one is hurt by it, is it really such a story? Why do no headlines pronounce, “Police Brutality!”?

Peaceful protesters at the G-20 in Toronto are being corralled, intimidated, pepper-sprayed, and beaten. Interestingly, in our modern age of small media, certified journalists are also getting pummeled. Police reports generally cite instigation by protesters, but most marchers I’ve ever known are mild-mannered and tell another story. Unlike the days of the unfortunately named, “Battle in Seattle,” front line reporters now have the tools to expose unprovoked violence. Check it out.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Pursuit of Happyness

I once bought this film from Videorama on Alberta in Portland, Oregon. They would put movies on sale for 5 bucks once the demand had died down, and I picked up a number of titles that way. I never got around to watching it before I sold everything I ownded and moved to Sweden. So it wasn’t until today I actually saw it.
There are two reasons I never watched it. The first is that I generally shy away from serious films. I’m not proud of that fact. I like to think of myself as an intellectual, but when it comes down to picking something to watch I’m more likely to go with Hot Fuzz than Hotel Rwanda.  I figure the serious films will always be there later; right now I want to laugh or get swept up in fantasy.  Turns out that I miss a lot of great movies this way. So I got lucky today.
The other reason I didn’t watch the film before now is that on one level I expected it to be cheesy. Where the rest of the world sees The Will Smith, I still see the Fresh Prince. I can’t help it. And when the star of Men in Black does a serious picture, I don’t expect the demands of the role to be in his ken. Now, however, I’m entering a new phase of Will Smith bias. For someone who is used to being presented as larger than life one second, a smart ass the next, he had me totally convinced.
If you haven’t seen it, The Pursuit of Happyness is a somewhat true rags-to-riches story of Christopher Gardner, a gifted and successful American man who happens to be black. The first act shows the collapse of Gardner’s assumed marriage, his struggle with a difficult sales job, and the birth of a stubborn drive to be wealthy. The story is most compelling in that as Gardner progressively loses everything he owns, including a roof, he is also raising his five year old son. Somehow he manages to maintain his dignity, along with his determination to become a stock broker with no college education, no partner, and no home.
Though director Gabriele Muccino downplays race as a theme in the film, it is implied. During his internship with Dean Witter, Gardner is regularly sent on insulting office-boy errands by the instructor. Not only do his duties as a father limit the hours he can spend at the office in competition with the other interns, but now he has this to deal with. Muccino shows his opinion that being black in America can be an unfair disadvantage, but this obstacle is no less surmountable than any other roadblock to success. Gardner deals with racism as he does everything else. You see him weighing his options, making a decision, and doing whatever he has to do in order to move forward. That means playing the game, and if the boss tells you to get coffee, you get it well. If that means you’ll have less time to call prospective clients, then you better make your calls count for more than anyone elses.
The story follows the classical romantic model. It is David and Goliath. It is the Greek hero fending off hordes of Achaeans. It is Robin Hood. It is the Crusades. Who doesn’t love a good underestimated hero? Early in the film Gardner solves a Rubik’s Cube to the astonishment of the man who will eventually offer him the internship. It’s an accidental audition and one of the more pleasant moves of the dour opening act. Rubik’s game is our modern day version of slinging a rock between the eyes of a giant. We’re all technically capable of it, but only a few can inspire us with their ability to actually pull it off.
If anything, such stories should put us off. They are, in a way, telling us exactly how ordinary we all are. A character such as Gardner’s does not seem ordinary through the eyes of the camera. He is always on top of his game, but the cruel world endlessly piles it on.  We know that by comparison we are completely outclassed. But we can’t help to be inspired, as we have since Homer. In the dark of the theater we are closest to our ancestors at the side of the fire. We can almost believe in our own capacity to be as great as the children of the Gods.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

City Lights and The General

I began a new class today. This will be my last semester before obtaining an associate’s degree. That means that all the classes I put off are now due. Computer essentials, for example, is a thinly veiled Microsoft recruitment camp, and required before graduation. It’s all about Word, Excel, and Power Point, and comes with a $150 book (which the school will not buy back afterward), and the $150 student version of Microsoft Office 2007. After all these years, Bill Gates finally got me to shell out money for his word processor.
 I also have a Health and Wellness class. Though I was not excited about this one, it does force me to exercise at least 3 times per week. I’m grumbly about it, but I totally need it.
Two more requirements for graduation are Fine Arts and Diversity. No matter how many bands I was in, paintings I made, or exotic girls I flirted with (let alone the one I married), they’re making me take the class anyway. So I went with the most common choice, Film and Culture. It fulfills “Fine Art” by the fact that we sit in extraordinarily uncomfortable theater seats for 5 hours per meeting, and it fulfills “Diversity” because one assumes we’re going to watch “The Godfather”.
All of my crying aside, I’m actually pretty happy with this course, and it’s going to be the ongoing topic of Klipper Till for the time being. After watching one or two films each Monday, I intend to come here and write my impressions. Today we began with the (no drum roll) silent era.
Charlie Chaplin is one of those iconic, national treasures of a bygone American age, about whom I know jack. That adds up to as much as I know about any of the other pop-culture heroes of the early 20th century. I did, however, see Robert Downey Jr. with all of that makeup caked on him, for whatever that’s worth. I also saw an interesting documentary (“The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”, Sophie Fiennes, 2006) some months ago which took a psychoanalytical look at everything from City Lights to Blue Velvet. Slavoj Zizek, the writer of the doc , says that whether you’re Chaplin or Lynch, we all want to either be or be in our mothers. My take on the Chaplin masterpiece is less Oedipal.
I’ve been reading the Stoics, lately. Perhaps I’m looking through Cynic-tinted glasses, but I see Chaplin’s The Tramp as Diogenes, a 4th Century BCE philosopher of the soup kitchen variety. Diogenes, who was called the Dog by many, including himself, lived in an empty wine barrel by the sea and once said, “When I saw a child drinking from his hand, I threw away my cup.” His message is that all attempts to attain status, privilege, wealth, or recognition are vain and unfulfilling. No matter how much you may be able to achieve, you will always want more. You will never be satisfied with what you have until you limit your ambition to only the strictest bodily needs. Furthermore, those materials you do manage to capture in this life will also leave you anxious in your desire to avoid losing them. The Buddha called it dukkha. Chaplin called it, oh, the American Dream, I suppose.
Though my professor says City Lights is satire, which I’ll buy, if we look at it as a romantic comedy, which Chaplin calls it, then it is an exceptional example of the genre. In the end there is no wedding by which such films are defined. There is no afternoon together for the lovers, let alone any happily ever after. The beauty is that the question of, “What happens next?” doesn’t need to be answered. You can decide for yourself. It ends optimistically, pessimistically, or you can opt not to decide anything at all. The fact is, the end of the story is when the film fades to black. Anything after that is another story.
The characters in City Lights all require some sort of deficiency in order to be good. The selfish, narrow millionaire is only kind when he is drunk. The Blind Girl is innocent and pure, but only because her blindness keeps her from seeing the truth. The Tramp is the selfless, loving, and harmless “hero”, but only as a consequence of his break with society. This gestalt is a powerful metaphor all on its own, but one can assume that Chaplin was also being more specific. He made this film after the birth of the Talkies. He said that he could out-perform any new cinema while holding to the old style. The form of City Lights is, despite its deficiency, even more precise and honest in delivery of its message. Chaplin believed that language in film is dishonest by its very nature. As he wordlessly emotes his part, and tells a long, quiet narrative, he certainly makes a strong argument.
One thing about the film leaves me scratching my head. There is obvious irony in the fact that The Blind Girl sells flowers which she cannot see the beauty of. The Tramp is obsessed both with her and her product. Near the end he has come into enough money to pay for her to undergo an operation which gives her sight. Doing so means that he must abandon her; because she will then see that he is not the powerful, wealthy man she has mistaken him for. The question is, why does he do it?
The obvious answer is that he loves her enough to let her go. Perhaps that is Chaplin’s message. But is there something deeper? Diogenes would say that the money was not a good thing to halve. The Tramp’s virtue may require that he quit himself of the windfall, and healing the girl is a handy, noble way to do so. He’s not completely selfless, either, as he does keep a portion of the cash for himself just before handing it over. What else, then, might be in it for him? He has been trying to hold down a job in order to buy the poor girl groceries. Does letting her go mean he can stop working and return to being a happy vagabond? This is a likely motivation, though one he wouldn’t want to admit to himself, especially because he can’t keep himself from her in the end.
The second film we watched today was “The General” with Buster Keaton. He is a completely different breed of silent film star. He makes the blockbusters of his day, with clear, uncomplicated narrative. The story is of a man whose unhappy beginnings are turned by extraordinary luck and circumstances. He charges into the enemy north of 1862 to rescue his rather unrequited love interest. This film is also a comedy, and of course the hero wins in the end, but he is hapless and ends up in his position partly through his own foolhardiness and also through a kind fate.
Made in 1926, the most interesting thing about this movie is that the Good Guys are confederates. The film is decidedly black and white in more than one respect, as I certainly feared and loathed the devious northern soldiers throughout the film. Did the public have any problem with such a depiction only 60 years after the Civil War? Would such a sympathetic view be allowed today?
Otherwise, I was not a big fan of this piece. It didn’t have nearly as many philosophical implications as City Lights. The first half of the film was predictable and a yawn. The second half, beginning with the rescue of the girl and ending with the battle scene, was much more engaging. The problems with this movie all come down to its lack of art. It was extremely well-crafted, and must have had a relatively large budget. But there is no nuance. It’s a feel-good action movie, like a comedic version of “300”, if the inherent humor of that film doesn’t provide enough laughs for you.