Friday, September 19, 2014

My Log 442 Sept 18 2014: A remarkable account of Mao Tse Tung and his extraordinary life, written by his personal doctor, which reminds us of the traumas the Chinese people have lived through

English: Photo of Mao Zedong visiting with a f...
English: Photo of Mao Zedong visiting with a family, from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
President Nixon meets with China's Communist P...
President Nixon meets with China's Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse-Tung, 02/29/1972 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pictured here is former Chinese Chairman Mao Z...
Pictured here is former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong announcing the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1 1949. Italiano: Immagine di Mao Tse-tung che proclama la nascita della Repubblica Popolare Cinese l'1 ottobre 1949 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just finished reading an immense book, 638 pages, on The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by a man who was his private doctor for 22 years, Dr Li Zhisui. The book was published in 1994, and has since gained a reputation as one of the most detailed and fascinating accounts ever written about the private life of one of that rare breed of man who is considered great, or a leader of men, during his lifetime and sometimes beyond.
That Mao must be considered to have been a great man, I suppose, is incontestable, for, coming from a peasant background, he clawed his way to the top position in the government of the world’s most impoverished and largest nation, and set about its transformation in a more thoroughgoing way than perhaps anyone had ever attempted anywhere before. In that, he was certainly a man with remarkable gifts of leadership, just as, I suppose were Napoleon, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Hitler, and Julius Caesar. One  of the conquerors. And, inevitably, one might as well add, one of the tyrants. I remember thinking one day as I lined up in Tiananmin Square to go in to take a look at Mao’s body, preserved somehow or other and put on exhibition for ever, that the greater tyrant a man may have been, apparently the greater is his attraction for the masses, who long after he is gone, will line up for hours just to catch a glimpse of what is left of him.
He certainly looked more like a wax figure than a real person, and the book opens with a grisly account of the problem of preserving him for display, for a mere two weeks as first demanded, and then, by decision of the politbureau, the decision-making body of the Communist government, for ever. The doctors, conscious of the disasters that had befallen similar efforts made in the past to preserve Lenin and Stalin --- Lenin’s nose and ears had rotted off and been replaced by wax, and Stalin’s moustache had fallen off ---- frankly believed it could not be done, especially since their Chinese knowledge of embalming techniques were far below those of the Soviet Union.  At first they had dealt with the demand for two weeks by pumping his body full of formaldehyde, and the only thing they could think to do for the longer preservation was to double the dose. That had left Mao’s body so grossly swollen that he was almost unrecognizable, so before he could be displayed they had tried to at least reduce his face to more or less normal size by squeezing the formaldehyde down into his lower body, which remained  so huge that his clothes had to be cut down the back to ensure he did not burst out of them.  Dr. Li records that for insurance, they had begun to prepare a wax version of Mao’s body, and certainly when I saw him he looked more like a wax model than a real person. A  grisly tale all round.
Dr Li was a young man from a family of doctors, an elite Chinese family which in the past had had some minor connection with the party opposing the Communists in the battle for control of China --- a connection that haunted him throughout his working life in the tumultuous events he lived through in China. He was working in Australia when he was offered a job back in China in 1950, and in 1954, although he dreamed of becoming a top surgeon, he was appointed medical director of  the health clinic in Zhongnanhai, the place in Beijing where most of the top leaders lived and worked. This made him personal physician to Chairman Mao, whom at first he adulated and was happy to serve. After 22 years at the centre of the byzantine school of back-stabbing, rumour-mongering and medieval-type manoeuvring for power which he found the central leadership to be always engaged in, his admiration for the leader had evaporated.
His account of the amazing manoeuvring that went on between the various factions, all of whom acknowledged Mao as the supreme leader who could dispose of any of them on a whim, is really something unusual to read about the modern world. A friend of mine who is vastly knowledgable about the history of China does not think their behaviour was so extraordinary, but merely very Chinese, since emperors of China in the past had been gotten rid of by their subordinates and even their sons, in struggles for power in which no holds were barred.
The Communist government did succeed in getting the country working, and establishing a massive bureaucracy to keep it moving. But Chairman Mao, who Dr. Li says never understood economics, was always restless, and he wanted to keep the party under him restless. He would embark on amazing schemes, force them on the party, and had the ruthlessness and the means to impose his schemes on the nation.
Reading the book, the revelation of his ruthless attitude towards politics and towards the people under him did not surprise me. I had read Vol. V of his selected writings in which he coolly --- coldly might be a more appropriate word --- outlined his theory of politics, which acknowledged that maybe three per cent of the people at the top were entirely with him, perhaps ten per cent were supporters whose loyalty might be questionable (and who therefore had to be unmasked, and gotten rid of), the vast majority were indifferent, and ten per cent at the bottom were out and out opponents, and also had to be gotten rid of.
The troubles described in such detail and with such eloquence in this book really began in 1957 when he decided the time had come to unmask the ten per cent of lukewarm supporters. So, he launched his programme, “let 100 flowers bloom, 100 schools of thought contend,” and invited everyone to express honestly their opinion of the work of the Communist government so far.  People seized the opportunity to say what they really thought, and gave expression in big character posters which appeared everywhere. Eventually, Mao decided he had heard enough, cracked down on any further expressions of negative opinions, and expelled those who had been negative to twenty-five years of working in the nether regions as peasants.  I remember, years later, meeting an 80-year-old woman writer, Ding Ling, on a tour of Canada, who had not long before emerged from her twenty-five year exile among the peasants. She was a woman of remarkable calm, apparently exhibiting not a trace of bitterness, although perhaps this was just another Chinese characteristic which westerners like me had difficulty in comprehending.
Anyway, Mao’s ultimate objective --- apart from maintaining his own unchallenged power --- was to keep his subordinates on the hop, and to establish the once-despised nation of China on the world stage as a genuine power. So, he next launched what was called The Great Leap Forward, in which the aim was for China to overtake the United Kingdom in production and standard of living. To that end he encouraged everyone to establish a backyard furnace in which they could make their own steel, in this way overcoming the figures for UK steel production.  According to Dr. Li, everyone in the country jettisoned their knives and forks, plates and other household goods into backyard furnaces which were fuelled by their wooden furniture, broken up and burned, leaving them with nowhere to sleep except on their baked-mud floors.  While tending to this useless occupation --- useless because the furnaces might have produced ingots of steel, but these ingots were found to be useless for any purpose their creators could think of  --- all the able-bodied peasants who should have been tending their crops were just allowing their crops to wither on the vine, untended. Local bureaucrats, pressured to produce more and more, declared impossible yields ---- at first maybe 10,000 pounds of wheat per mu, a mu being .16 of an acre --- and later 20,000, 30,000 and so on, totally impossible yields that were announced but never actually produced. A vast famine spread throughout the land, but Mao and his functionaries and subordinates, lounging in their own specially guarded enclaves, were isolated from the worst effects of the famine, and scarcely acknowledged it.  During this time Dr. Li was sent by Mao into the countryside to work with the peasants, but with orders to report to the leader about what he was seeing, and he discovered agonizingly terrible poverty had seized hold of the peasantry, resulting at first in thousands, then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of deaths.
A few brave functionaries did not toe the party line as required; they told the truth about what was happening, but they were immediately dismissed from their posts and banished to sinecure jobs  in the hinterland.
So long as the Glorious Leader’s position was never challenged all was well.
Meantime, ideological debate raged among the comrades, with Mao’s estranged wife, Jiang Quin, a former actress, and by this time a dangerously deranged personality, putting in her bid for power, gathering ultra-leftist followers, and denouncing everyone  to whom she took a dislike, or who seemed to be standing in her way on her quest for power.
While all this was going on, Mao himself was plunging increasingly into an almost non-stop orgy of pleasure, surrounding himself with adoring young women, some of whom became figures of authority because of their relationship with the Leader, and whose arrogance could not safely be challenged even by other top leaders of the party.  Verily, Dr Li reveals a truly Byzantine world, tinged with madness, it seems to me, although one thing about Mao that remained functional as his body declined, was his brain.  He seemed to be able to keep enough of a hold on commonsense to enable him to bring some of this madness to a halt when he felt it had gone far enough.
The days of the Cultural Revolution are described in agonizing detail. Trying to look at it objectively, one can say that probably no other great leader in history had ever before attempted to cleanse his court by calling out the people to destroy its members, as Mao did during the Cultural Revolution. If it had not resulted in so much injustice, so much terror, so much appalling cruelty, one might have been able to praise it as an unprecedented act of political bravery.
The other leaders come and go through the book: Liu Shaoqi, a veteran Communist, was appointed head of the nation when Mao decided to relinquish that post and confine himself to being Leader of the Party. But Liu proved to be too independent, and became the convenient scapegoat for Mao in the search for those responsible for every mistake. He was hounded out of office, fell ill (and was denied treatment) and died in disgrace.  Then Lin Biao,  head of the Army, was named as Mao’s likely successor, and formed an alliance with Jiang Quin, but when Mao decided to cut him down, he tried to organize a coup, and when that failed, took off for the Soviet Union with his wife in a plane that was inadequately supplied with fuel, and crashed on the way, killing everyone on board.
Others, like Zhou Enlai, a smooth diplomat, and the favourite Chinese Communist leader in the West, was in and out of favour, but was never anything but a follower of Mao, and a subservient follower at that, according to Dr. Li. Similarly Deng Xiaoping, an independent-minded second-level official, was in, out, in again, out again, of favour.  He was not named by Mao as his successor, but soon after Mao died he returned to power and became the unchallenged ruler of the country --- although without any formal post --- for some twelve years. He it was who set China on its new course that has produced such spectacular results.
Mao chose a mild-mannered, reasonable man, Hua Guofeng to be his successor, and within a month or so of the old man’s death he combined with other survivors to arrest Jiang Quin and her clique who became known as the Gang Of Four, and commit them to life imprisonment, they having been seized just before they were ready to seize power in a coup d’etat.
The final  days of Mao’s life are described agonizingly by Dr. Li. At one point 24 nurses, working in shifts of eight, and five full-time doctors, were assigned to his care. None of them wanted to take decisions alone for fear that if things went wrong for their patient, they could be accused of killing him. The so-called Doctor’s Plot which had obsessed Stalin as he was dying hovered over all these people as a grave warning of what might happen. At one point the doctors agreed on a course of treatment and presented it to the young woman who was the only one who had direct access to Mao in these last days of his life. But --- she had been a railway employee when Mao met her some years before --- she announced their proposed treatments were worthless, and she had decided he would need to be fed glucose. The doctors were horrified, because they feared that Mao, who at that point could not swallow, would be choked to death when trying to take the glucose.
A high functionary named Wang Dongxing, who had been in and out of Mao’s favour, had been Dr. Li’s most significant protector through most of this experience, and he was a major influence in the arrest of the Gang of Four. Through his influence Dr. Li managed to survive, and finally was allowed to go off to a job as leader of a Beijing hospital. Eventually he took his ailing wife to the United States, where his children already lived,  for treatment. He stayed there after his wife’s death, and he wrote his book  “….for everyone who cherishes freedom. I want it to serve as a reminder of the terrible human consequences of Mao’s dictatorship and of how good and talented people living under his regime were forced to violate their consciences and sacrifice their ideals in order to survive.”
I went to China in 1978 as part of a National Film Board crew which made three films. Even so short a time after the death of Mao and arrest of the Gang of Four, the wheat-fields of the North China Plain were alive with healthy crops, a measure, perhaps, of the remarkable recuperative abilities of this great and ancient and still-multiplying people.





Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My Log 441 Sept 17 2014: Excellent series of films on Al Jazeera called Rebel Architecture. Insightful episode shows how Israeli architects have put their work at the service of a nasty occupation

English: Israel's "Security Fence", ...
English: Israel's "Security Fence", "West Bank Barrier", is a solid wall along 5% of it's length. 10 meters high and reinforced concrete. Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (left)...
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (left), escorts Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (center) into the Pentagon at the conclusion of a full honor arrival ceremony for Sharon at the Pentagon on March 19, 2001. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Israel: Judea and Samaria District according t...
Israel: Judea and Samaria District according to official Israeli regulations. Unlike other administrative districts of Israel, this district is not entirely territorial - it includes only the Israeli settlements in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem which was annexed to Israeli Jerusalem district). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Modi'in Illit, Israeli settlement in ...
English: Modi'in Illit, Israeli settlement in West Bank. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Piece of File:Westbankjan06.jpg which...
A detailed map of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, January 2006. Produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - public UN source. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have said it before and I will say it again: the TV channel Al Jazeera is screening some of the best documentaries to be seen on television today.
I have just been catching up on their series called Rebel Architecture and this week I streamed from the Al Jazeera website an especially brilliant episode, that I had previously missed, dealing with the architecture performed in the West Bank by Israeli architects.
A young Israeli architect, Eyal Weizman approached the stuff built on the West Bank to accommodate the flood of Israeli settlers  as the “architecture of Occupation”, whose objective, he said, is to “strangulate the villages and towns on the West Bank and to make their environment unliveable.”
He added: “This architecture is being used by architects as a weapon. Everything built is a tactic used in the architecture of occupation.”
He showed how, when the Israelis built houses on the outskirts of Arab towns, they, in effect, created a wall within the city, and in 1996 they began to build apartheid roads to serve only the Jewish occupants and join up the various settlements. “These are the roads of apartheid, right here,” he said.
Most of the Israeli settlements were built on the hilltops, as measures of self-protection, and also to enable them to dominate the surrounding countryside. Everything, down to the smallest detail, was designed to bring to the Palestinians the message that they were under control. Road blocks were established, special highways were built, and, even where access was allowed through turnstiles, those turnstiles were so narrow as to ensure that, in turning, the Arabs passing through them would be rubbed by the arms of the turnstiles, in case they might be carrying something. He described this as “a cruel and degrading reduction of Palestinians to make them feel they are nothing, except their bodies.”
“We see apartheid in action here,” Weizman  said. The architecture was designed to hide the presence of the Israeli army,” which he described as a sort of “slow violence” and an architecture of “destruction.”
The film showed what happened in 2002 when Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister of Israel, decided to enter the Jenin  refugee camp with bulldozers. They smashed  whole streets through, destroying houses in their way, creating new spaces broad enough to allow tanks to enter the camp. “It was the first time the bulldozer was integrated into the battlefield” he said.  When the recipe was repeated in Nablus it became obvious these were regarded as laboratories for a new type of urban warfare.
Subsequently, the Israelis turned the uses made of private and public spaces upside down: the streets, normally the public spaces, were designed to be empty, and the warfare was carried into the homes, normally the private spaces. The method used to enter the homes was, not through the doors, but by driving holes through the walls, a brutal  invasion of the Arab towns that Weizman  described as “an invasion lasting for eight years.”
The film must have been made before the recent horrifying attack on Gaza, but it analysed  the Israeli tactic, invented in the 2008 Gaza attack, to pretend they were conducting “a humanitarian war,” which he described as “the saddest and most horrifying new kind of warfare that pretended to be legal and has gone completely wrong.” He had found that between the Israeli “warning shot”, designed to give the inhabitants time to leave, and the actual bombing, not enough time was given for everyone to leave, and one family he had met lost seven members when the bomb hit their house  just as they were leaving. The traces left of this house challenged, he said the Israeli claim to have conducted “a humanitarian war” in Gaza, and what he said about 2008 surely could be multiplied many times in relation to the most recent onslaught.
“I love this land,” said the young architect, standing on a hilltop looking out over the landscape, “and care deeply about both of the peoples living here, but I would have loved to practise my architecture free of the constraints imposed by this slow process of killing the Palestinian communities."
On the Web site, the producer of the film, Ana Naomi de Sousa, described Weizman’s  work as being at the “intersection of architecture, with politics, violence, conflict and human rights.”
Other episodes in this six-part series deal with Vietnam, where efforts are being made, again by a young architect struggling against prevailing attitudes, to improve the quality of life of poor people living along the Mekong delta through the innovative use of materials and site planning,  and the other episodes give examples of similar work from Spain, Pakistan, Brazil and Nigeria.

This is documentary film work that puts itself at the service of the people who are its subjects, a rather rare assumption in television, especially in the Western world.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Log 440 Sept 14 2014: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree …. As Coleridge wrote, and Marco Polo revealed: a superb three-part Al Jazeera series which reveals Marco’s original book does not really exist

English: Death of Genghis Khan. The Travels of...
English: Death of Genghis Khan. The Travels of Marco Polo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Français : Marco Polo en costume tartare.
Français : Marco Polo en costume tartare. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Travels of Marco Polo
Travels of Marco Polo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Portrait of Marco Polo.
Portrait of Marco Polo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Marco Polo's alleged birthplace in modern-day ...
Marco Polo's alleged birthplace in modern-day Korčula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Travels of Marco Polo (Signet C...
Cover of Travels of Marco Polo (Signet Classics)
I have just watched a remarkable three-part series of programmes on Al Jazeera called Marco Polo: A Very Modern Journey in which the filmmakers followed the steps of Marco Polo, from the time he left Venice in 1271 AD as a boy of 17,  until he arrived, several years later, in the court of Kubla Khan,  successor to the great Genghis Khan, who established the Mongol Empire that, after his death in 1227, became the greatest empire to have existed in the world up to that time.
That was one of the two strands by which the film-makers told their fascinating story: the other was in the lifelong fascination for Marco Polo held by a Chinese history professor, Qiquang Zhao, whose journey to Venice in search of Polo’s origins is followed all the way with some surprising results.
Although I don’t remember this being mentioned in the documentary, apparently the Polo family originated in the island of Korcula, on the Adriatic, an island that, as it happens, I visited for a day earlier this year. Today Korcula is one of the string of small towns along the Adriatic that are still surrounded by substantial walls, built generations ago for their defence, because of their vulnerability as city-states. The best-known of these is Dubrovnik which every summer is crowded to bursting point with visiting tourists from all around the world.
Apparently, also, Marco Polo’s father and uncle were well-connected businessmen who had moved east from Venice to the Crimea, and to Constantinople, finally making it to the court of the Kublai Khan, who gave them a message to convey to the Pope on their return to Europe. They arrived back in  1269, their tales about their voyaging inflamed the interest of their teenaged son and nephew Marco, and two years later they set out again, this time with a message from the Pope in reply to the message they had received from the Khan.
The film gives the impression that Marco travelled alone, and by foot all the way, but that seems merely to have been a symbolic method of establishing the journey. To make a long story short, the Polos made it to the court of the ruler of the Mongol empire, in Xanadu, which the English poet Coleridge immortalized in a poem written after a bout of opium-smoking.
Marco was apparently a clever boy, was given many assignments by the Khan, and only after 17 years was the family allowed to go back home, where they arrived 24 years after they left.
A few years later Marco was put in prison for some time, where he met a writer to whom he dictated the book that was later published as The Travels of Marco Polo.  Later the book was published in many countries, in each of them being tailored to the preconceptions of its proposed audience. The argument of the film is that Marco Polo’s book established a superior attitude towards the empire of the East, and to this day has been a major influence in the negative attitudes adopted towards Asia and its peoples by Europeans. The Empire, which had been established by some brutal killing of local populations as it spread westwards, eventually took in all of modern-day China, Korea, the Caucasus, Central Asian countries, and substantial portions of modern Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
But the reality, of course was quite different. China at that time could claim to be possibly  the leading  civilization in the world. For example, as Prof Zhao points out in the film, the great canal built by the Khans in China, which established the north-south link that became central to their control of  that country, had been built 200 years before Venice had ever heard of a canal, and the film celebrates the many other achievements of the Mongols and Asians, including the lavish and elegant clothes, spices and cultures, which were wonders for the Europeans to behold.
What Professor Zhao found in Venice, however, was an ironic result of his search for the original Marco. Welcomed to examine the archives, he discovered that the original book of Marco Polo does not exist, and the only manuscript he came across was Marco’s last will and testament, which was marked by “his mark”, as they say when illiterate people are required to sign something, So Marco, according to the Venetian archivist,  was illiterate, although author of one of the most influential books ever written, a book  that has marked political and social attitudes across a great part of the world to this day.
The film is also worth watching because of its account of the surviving peoples among whom the Polos travelled in the 13th century, but who still live according to their ancient customs. These include a group of people called the Mosuo, who live on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, whose women rule and make all the decisions, while men do what they are told, and where, if a man lays with someone’s wife or daughter it is not resented, but is regarded as an act that will bring the family good fortune.
The film showed a family living in what is called “the Grandma house”, a 200-year-old structure whose inhabitants still practise what is called Walking Marriage, where most marriages are contracted if the woman invites a man to be her partner. A girl can, however, change partners if she likes, and it is the girl who decides who will be in her room. For 700 years before Marco Polo, and for the 700 years since, these people have honoured the goddess of love and of aging.
There are remarkable shots of the Taklamaken desert through which the Polos walked at a time when deserts were thought to be the abode of evil spirits, and archeologists in the 1930s began to uncover the great cities of the Mongol empire and far beyond that, stretching back 3,000 years.
Perhaps the most amazing shot in the film shows the uncovering in 2006 of a  beautiful young woman of thirty, her face almost perfectly preserved under the sands, which in the opinion of the experts established that they had discovered the heartland, the city of Xanadu, at the centre of the empire.







Friday, September 12, 2014

My Log 439 Sept 12 2014: Four good films I have seen recently, from France, United States, Mexico and South Africa

I have seen some interesting films in the last week or two that have been rather dissimilar from each other in form and style.
I will take them one by one:
Aimer, Boire et Chanter (/the Life Of Riley): This was the last film made by the late Alain Resnais, who made his name with such classics as Last Year In Marienbad, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour. This one could hardly have been further from the style of those great films (only half of which I understood at the time). This was based on a play by Alan Ayckbourne, the playful British playwright, who came to prominence in the 1970s after I had moved back from Britain to Canada, and whose works I have never before seen. Resnais, using a cast of expert French actors, found a remarkable way of filming a stage play: since the play is set in Yorkshire, he filmed many shots of the Yorkshire countryside, which metamorphosed into large drawings of the cityscapes in which the play took place, eventually metamorphosing again into a setting for whatever the next scene might be, always with a backdrop of long canvas-like drapes.  So there is a slight air of unreality about the action taking place, which, to be quite honest, was unreal enough to warrant such a setting.  It is all about a character called George, who is falsely rumoured to have been diagnosed with cancer, setting off his four or five mates into paroxysms of grief (and some gallic shrugs of indifference). They discuss George’s characteristics, among which is his fondness for women, and what emerges as the play goes on is that George has threatened to take a holiday in Tenerife, and appears to have promised each of the wives of his four friends that he will take her with him. His wife, who is present from time to time, protests that he is taking her, and eventually, faced with the dilemma that each of them has been promised the trip, the wives reconcile with their husbands, and George goes off with the young daughter of one of them.  George, who has been living the life of Riley, as the English expression (and title of the play) has it, finally expires, and all we ever see of him is his coffin. Tellement drole, as the French might say.
Boyhood: This film, hailed as a masterpiece, was made over more than two decades by the American director  Richard Linklater. It runs for 166 minutes, rather too long, even for a supposed masterpiece, I would say. But it is a remarkable affair. Linklater began to shoot around a six-year-old child Ellar Coltrane, and returned to film aspects of his life every year until he was 21. When I went to the film I thought it was a documentary, and I wondered how he managed to film scenes of family life  which, frankly, did not bring much credit to the characters at its centre. For example, the boy’s mother had three husbands, at least one of whom developed into a domestic tyrant, who didn’t seem to mind his tyrannical ways being filmed, which seemed most unlikely. Not only did it seem unlikely, but it was unlikely, and, in fact, never happened, because all the characters surrounding the boy were played by actors. The film, thus, was a documentary only in its portrayal of the boy, but was otherwise a feature. As such, it did present what seemed a rivetingly authentic view of middle class (or perhaps just a touch below middle-class) American life. The father of the boy, who was estranged from his wife from an early stage in Ellar’s life, was expertly played by Ethan Hawke: he portrayed a man who was raffish, verging on ne’er-do-well, in the early stages, but who somehow, through various shifting relationships, managed to emerge at the end as a more solid and dependable character who was at least capable of talking and mingling with his ex-wife from so long before. I kept thinking of Barack Obama’s statement that he believes in American exceptionalism with all his heart, and what I was thinking was that this film might serve as a corrective to that absurd and Amero-centred view of life. The people in his film seemed more representative of that class of Americans we read about from time to time, people who are hanging on by their fingernails, mired in debts that they believe are unpayable, and whose passage through life is more truncated and confused than a normal middle-class family might expect.
Zulu: I have not heard much of South African film in recent years, although their plays have reached a world-wide audience, and their novelists are among the best writing in English. Zulu
is a gritty, realistic film made by Jerome Salle last year, and starring two excellent American actors, Forest Whitaker, as the embodiment of a politically-conscious black policeman, who, along with his scruffy, disrespectful sidekick, played by Orlando Bloom, is trying to uncover the murder of a mutilated corpse that has been discovered in Capetown’s botanical gardens. She turns out to be the daughter of a formerly well-known Rugby player, and what occurs and is shown in excruciating detail in this movie is the almost insensate violence that hangs over South Africa these days as a cloud.  The movie is good in that it portrays a South Africa struggling to emerge from its former insane policies of apartheid, showing black-white acceptance (up to a certain level) that seem realistic. But the level of violence shown, of casual violence, is exceptional, even for an action movie. For example, when the policemen go to the beach to talk to people who might know something, they are suddenly put upon by a gun-wielding gang of thugs, who, having discovered in one of the policemen a certain fear, zeroes in on him, and almost casually hacks off his hands with their machete. The fact that this violence affects everyone is emphasized when the lead policemen discovers that his mother is threatened in a effort to get at him, and that she has, in fact,  been killed in one of those inconsequential episodes of violence. He is so enraged by the death of his innocent mother that, knowing who to blame, he stalks the gang, and as soon as he comes upon them, brutally shoots them down, one by one. When his sidekick, in search of him, finds him in the desert, he is lying propped, dead, against a tree, the life apparently having  out of him in the course of his path of destruction. This is a scary movie, and it reminds me of a statement made in the 1960s by the brilliant correspondent Stanley Uys, who reported on his country for The Observer newspaper in England for many years. He wrote that apartheid was having such a deforming effect on South African life that if it went on much longer any government that followed it would probably find the country ungovernable. In certain aspects, this seems to be true.
Babel: I came upon this movie, made to great acclaim in 2006 by the Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalaz Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga, on Netflix. I had seen it before, but at that time did not appreciate fully how remarkable it is. Using a gun as a connecting point the movie follows the stories of three groups of people in Japan, Morocco, Mexico and the United States. The gun was owned by a  wealthy Mexican who, during a hunt in Africa, gave it to a Moroccan guide, who sold it to a man, who handed it over to his two pre-teenaged sons, who, testing the boast that it could shoot three kilometres, fired form the hills at a passing tourist bus, and happened to hit an American woman, played by Cate Blanchett, with one of the bullets, putting her life in danger. Her husband played by Brad Pitt, was a peremptory rich American who had left his two small children in the care of their Mexican maid, Maria. When Maria had reported to him that she had to attend her son’s wedding, Pitt had peremptorily told her to cancel the wedding, she had to stay, especially if she could not get anyone else to look after the children. Perhaps unwisely, she decided to take the children with her into Mexico, rather than cancel the wedding (which was, in any way, impossible). And when, the wedding over, she travelled back into the United .states with her drunken nephew, they got involved in border problems that ended with her being set adrift in the desert with the children, who were saved just in the ick of time, but which incident led to her being deported, because she had been living illegally in the United states for sixteen years. Meantime, in the home of the rich Japanese, his deaf-mute teenage daughter, contemptuous of her father, goes out into the city with her deaf-mute friends, and flaunts her youthful sexuality to bad effect, while, back in Morocco, a hunt is on for the killers, thought by the American ambassador, to be terrorists who had carried out the shooting on the Ameircan tourist bus.  It all has been shot with such verisimilitude, the sequences all being shot with an impressive attention to local colour and custom and possibilities, and impossibilities, come to that, that I found it, overall, a most impressive movie, and one whose characters, rooted in life as they were, it was impossible to lose interest in. Try to pick this one up, if you can.