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Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
Looking back, the language scribbles.
What's hidden, having been said?
Almost everything? Thrilling to think
There was a secret there somewhere,
A bird singing in the heart's forest.
Two people sitting by a river;
Sunlight, shadow, some pretty trees;
Death dappling in the flowing water;
Beautiful to think about,
Romance inscrutable as music.
Out of the ground, in New Jersey, my mother's
Voice, toneless, wailing--beseeching?
Crying out nothing? A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
The quiet room floats on the waters,
Buoyed up gently on the daylight;
The branch I can see stirs a little;
Nothing to think about; writing
Is a way of being happy.
What's going to be in this place?
A person entering a room?
Saying something? Signaling?
Writing a formula on a blackboard.
Something not to be understood.
It is always among sleepers we walk.
We walk in their dreams. None of us
Knows what he is as he walks
In the dream of another. Tell me my name
Your tongue is blurred, honeyed with error,
Your sleep's truth murmurs its secret.
Tell me your name. Out at the edge,
Out in the cold, out in the cold
That came into the house in your clothes
The wind's hands hold onto nothing,
Moaning, over the edge of the cliff
The wind babble unintelligible.
By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn't
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind
Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws
Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,
Intelligence of body was obedient now
To other laws: "Weight is the measure of
The force with which a body is drawn downward
To the center of the earth"; "Inertia is
The tendency of a body to resist
Proceeding to its fate in any way
Other than that determined for itself."
That evening, at the Bromells' apartment, after
She had been carried up through the rational structure
By articulate stages, floor after flashing floor,
And after we helped her get across the hall,
And get across the room to a chair, somehow
We got her seated in a chair that was placed
A little too far away from the nearest table,
At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
Exposed, her body the object of our attention--
The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe.
. . .
Her smiling made her look as if she had
Just then tasted something delicious, the charm
Her courtesy attributed to her friends.
This decent elegant fellow human being
Was seated in virtue, character, disability,
Behind her the order of the ranged bookshelves,
The windows monitored by Venetian blinds--
"These can be raised or lowered; numerous slats,
Horizontally arranged, and parallel,
Which can be tilted so as to admit
Precisely the desired light or air."
. . .
The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
"In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
Perplex the intellects of man so much,
As the disruption of this union with
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
A state he has not faculties to know."
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Don't be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It's better not to know.
Either Jupiter says
This coming winter is not
After all going to be
The last winter you have,
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. Be mindful.
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Hold on to the day.
The chair left out in the garden night all winter
Sits waiting for the summer day all night.
The insides of the metal arms are frozen.
Over the house the night sky wheels and turns
All winter long even behind the day.
"I don't want to stay here. I want to stop it."
Was "here" the nursing home? Was it the chair?
The condition she was in? Her life? Life? The body?
. . .
..."Life" seems melodramatic,
Too large and general to fit the case.
But "the chair" seems too small. And "the nursing home"
Too obviously the right answer to be so.
In my reason and health I was outside this world,
Translating her words with a too easy confidence.
But Mary was there, imprisoned in it, sovereign.
The scene changed in the way I experienced it.
It was as if I wasn't in the room
But in the empty lobby of some building.
Mary was in an open elevator,
Old-fashioned, ornate, and beautiful.
The elevator kept moving up and down,
Kept going down to the hell below--when I
Leaned over and looked down then I could see
The suffering and also I could hear
Sounds of the suffering too--then up again
To the hellish heaven above--peering up there
Through the elevator shaft I saw and heard
The transcendental hilarious suffering there.
I heard voices as if there was singing or quarreling.
The Otis elevator never stopped at all.
Mary's body and spirit kept passing back and forth
Before my eyes, vivid, free of the conditions
In terms of which her sympathetic friend,
Standing in the deserted hallway, saw her
Carried up and down in the elevator.
Over and over I saw her going past,
Clinging to the bars, gesticulating,
Frantic, confusingly like a figure of joy.
In the heat of the room on the summer day
Mary, standing now, began to unzip her dress,
With a slowness and persistence that suggested
An indecent purpose, a naked revelation
Of body or soul, embarrassing to a visitor
There at the nursing home on a kind errand.
Perhaps she only wanted to unzip the dress
A little way, because of the summer heat.
But something about it seemed to refuse the suggestion.
There was a concentration and seriousness,
Oblivious of the visitor and his thoughts,
As when she looked so earnestly at the bouquet.
We were in the same room and not in the same room.
I was in the same room. She was in a shirt of fire.
She was out on a plain crossed by steppewinds.
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