Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Are We Safe? Review of Todd Haynes’ Safe

Distorted vision of a person walking in a mask and costume
After watching the much acclaimed Carol (2015) by Todd Haynes, I decided to watch one of his earlier movies Safe (1995) with the great (and at the time aspiring) Julianne Moore. Although I thought Carol was pretty good, it did not thrill me as much as I had hoped and expected, at least not like the brilliant mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011), which I had seen previous to it.

The movie Safe is about a young married woman incidentally also named Carol (!) who seems to have a safe albeit dull well-to-do life in the San Fernando Valley. The movie opens with a drive home at night and then a scene of love-making with the focus on her face. She, unlike her groaning husband Greg White face unseen, does not enjoy the sex very much as her facial expressions do not change and definitely do not show any kind of pleasure gained. At the end of their intercourse, she merely taps her husband lightly on the back.

Her life is filled with boredom. They have a Mexican servant who fulfills all the everyday necessities including the care of her stepson, while she is in charge of some of the interior decorating of the spacious house. She is upset that the new furniture is not the color she had ordered and complains about this to the factory.

Apart from that, she meets with some of her female friends at the gym. Those women seem superficial and are interested (one might say even obsessed) with their looks and appearance. One of them urges Carol to try out a new diet fad that includes the sole consumption of fruits, and she accepts.

Yet gradually, her health begins to deteriorate. She has a very persistent coughing fit one day when driving home from work as she was forced to tailgate a truck emitting substantial amounts of exhaust fumes. Then she has a serious asthma attack at a baby shower of her friend, not to mention an ominous nosebleed at the hairdresser’s. Her doctor, however, insists that she is physically fine and suggests for her to see a psychiatrist.

None of these remedies work for her. She is then sent to an allergy specialist who determines that she is highly allergic to milk. Yet cutting out dairy products and returning to a regular non-fruit diet does not alleviate her symptoms; in fact, over time her symptoms worsen and she even faints at the dry-cleaner.

Then she hears of a group claiming that many people are allergic to their environment and that they are suffering from what they term multiple chemical sensitivity or the Twentieth-Century Disease. Curious about this group, she goes to one of their meetings and finds people who seem to have similar symptoms. Slowly, she becomes convinced that the reason for her malaise lies in her environment, a dangerous cocktail of chemicals and pollutants that can even potentially kill a receptive and sensitive person like her.

Soon enough she joins some of these more extreme group members in a retreat in a deserted area where they sing songs, hold hands and are given motivational speeches by Peter Dunning, the author and so-called inventor / discoverer of this disease and its so-called cure. The cure, he insists, lies in positive thinking and to shelter oneself from all the evil that happens in the world, including violence and pollution. The retreat Wrenwood then becomes their “happy” and “safe” place.

As we witness this group, we are reminded of both New Age philosophies as well as religious cults. Although the members are not openly religious or Christian, there is a lot of overlap there. We can sense that at first Carol is not comfortable in this place, but soon she comes to accept it as a possible alternative to her ills.

Curiously enough, she keeps getting worse until she decides to find shelter in a highly secluded place that has its own ventilation system. She basically lives in a bubble, far from any contact with other individuals, be they the members of the retreat or even her husband.

This is a very sad movie that offers various layers of meaning and interpretation. First off, it shows the disillusionment and dissatisfaction of upper-class women who consign themselves to the home. The founding member of the group Peter Dunning (who himself incidentally suffers from AIDS) claims that each of their members is to be blamed for their ills. The reason they got sick was because they did not accept themselves as who they are and, more importantly, they did not love themselves sufficiently.

Partly, this may apply to Carol, but also it can be expanded to many other people in the modern industrialized world. We live in a place that has become too convenient for our own good and although the movie was made before the era of iPhones and iPads, it seems even more relevant and urgent now.

Our technological progress has left an indelible mark on us making it more difficult to communicate with each other and of having a satisfying and fulfilling relationship with ourselves and others. This malaise that she feels might also apply to us in a world in which we find it hard to find personal meaning and relevance; while technology in its heydays used to spellbind us only in our homes with television sets, it has now become ubiquitous in the form of our handy and mobile smartphones.

Another layer of the film includes the fact that we are exposed to chemical hazards and pollutants in our daily life. The food that we eat is for the most part artificial and filled with chemicals and genetic manipulation; the air is mostly unfit for us to breathe filled with constant exhaust from cars and factories; our climate is becoming erratic and uncontrollable due to our own greed and negligence.

The more health-conscious groups these days may think they are evading some of these aspects by eating organic non-GM food, but they are also deluding themselves. There is no real safety from these growing pollutants and one needs to be as radical as she is in the end, to live in a self-contained bubble with self-grown food and sterilized water etc. to be “safe” for that matter.

As defeatist as that may sound, we are trapped in the consumer world and there seems to be no safety net and no exit from it all. The idea of completely blocking or isolating ourselves from others or even from these dangers and hazards is equally, if not more, harmful than accepting and living with them.

Add to this, the fear of lethal and contagious diseases, like the AIDS syndrome or more recently, the unpredictable Ebola virus or the antibiotic-resistant super-bug. These are just a few of the dangerous and even mortal infections that plague us and make us paranoid. The dark irony is that despite our advances in medicine, we are not safe yet. There is still danger lurking around the corner. (I am omitting other kinds of dangers here, in terms of incipient wars including those on drugs and terror, natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, and also tragic accidents like that of Chernobyl dipping surroundings with all its sentient beings and food and plantations in harmful radiation.)

Person lost in barren landscape

Considering the fact that the film is set in the 80s makes it plausible that Carol’s mysterious, never clearly identified disease could be indeed AIDS. Not only does the founder of this group openly state that he is infected, but the movie also shows us a sex scene at its inception. She might have been infected by her husband, which is merely a theory as we are not given any concrete proof of his philandering. Nonetheless, the movie also captures some of the paranoia, helplessness and, in the case of AIDS, even prejudice and ignorance that are often associated with new unknown and infectious diseases.

Finally, the movie has another layer that includes a possible criticism of New Age philosophies and of religion and religious cults. In our despair, we are ready to swallow and believe anything that could get us out of this mess, that could give our life a little more sense, meaning and security. Although Haynes does not openly criticize the group (they are for the most part seen as rather honest if slightly deluded and naïve people), there is a sense that none of this will actually help but merely exacerbate the problem. At the same time, the raison d’être of this group seems to most likely be the financial rewards achieved by its founding author who himself does not live in the sheds like the members but in his luxurious home above the hill.

I very much enjoyed this film as much as it frightened me. This is the world that surrounds us, and so many of us walk around in a daze or in pain. The illness may be invented but it does hit the nail on identifying our own malaise in this modern consumer world of ours. There is a spiritual vacuum that each has to find on their own; unfortunately, there are many charlatans out there that claim to guide and help us find our ways, while in many cases, they confound us even more.

At the same time, doctors and psychologists do not seem adept to help and heal us in a profound manner. Science addresses and redresses many ills and diseases, but some parts of us remain untouched, while the malaise still persists. The film itself urges us to look into that direction of our dis-ease, of our lack of ease in the modern world; to first recognize it and then to find something worthwhile to hold onto in the faint hope of remedying it one day.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Entering the World of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Berlin Alexanderplatz Review

Fassbinder filming with Hanna Schygulla
When it comes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his reputation exceeds him. He is known as the enfant terrible of the New German movement. He was openly gay. He was openly self-destructive. He was a workaholic and a drug and sex addict. He made about forty films before he died at the young age of 37. He left an undisputed legacy, while critics, regardless whether they like him or his work, acknowledge his important contributions to the art and world of cinema.

My first encounter with Rainer Werner Fassbinder happened more than a decade ago with the bizarre Beware of the Holy Whore (1971). Having heard so much about the director and not having been exposed to any of his films before (strange considering my German upbringing combined with my steady and steadfast love for cinema) I watched this particular movie with great enthusiasm and expectations.  

And I was let down. I would definitely not recommend this film as an entry to the world of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It felt for the most part pointless and there were only two scenes that made an impact on me. One, if I remember correctly, had the director of a movie, Fassbinder casting himself as the director, fall in great despair to the ground and ask for five (or more) Cuba libres. 

The other scene was a strange and quite inventive fighting scene towards the end and it was acted in slow motion and on replay. Everything else did little to impress me, and I discarded Fassbinder for the time being and did not approach him again until a number of years thereafter.

Then within the past year or two, I decided to give him another shot. This time I was more strategic and hunted down the movies that were among his most celebrated and known. So I watched The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Ali or Angst essen Seele auf (1974). The first one I thought well-made, but still did not understand why there was so much fuss about this film-maker. The second one I thought very well done and again, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic directorial touches and flourishes here and there did not see anything truly outstanding or unique.

And that is exactly what draws me to a specific director or artist in general. It is not just craft, but something that makes the director truly different from others. It is not unlike falling in love with someone; they may look and be similar to everyone else on the surface level, but there is something extraordinary or special about them, and we feel ourselves inexplicably drawn towards them. Yet until we notice that particular quality which the French (of course!) render best with je-ne-sais-quoi (and not everyone has it in fact), there is little to attract us.

So I decided to give Fassbinder another try and this was an experiment and a significant investment of time and probably effort: I tackled his magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) based on Alfred Döblin's Ulysses-like novel. It is purportedly one of the longest movies in movie history clocking in about 15 and a half hours. I was apprehensive, nervous and thrilled to embark on this cinematic adventure.

The very first minutes were great. The main character, an unassuming rather sympathetic Franz Biberkopf was released from prison for the manslaughter of his wife. Yet he hesitates to leave the prison grounds, scared about leaving behind his accustomed confines and worried about the world he might find outside. 

Then followed about half an hour of bizarre events and I was getting worried that I would not be able to continue, but it got better; I vowed come what may I will finish this as I had heard praise and bewilderment regarding the final episode (and I was more than fourteen hours away from it).

Berlin Alexanderplatz is not a mini-series by any standards. It is more a very long and drawn-out movie. In fact, it is a movie that would have surely benefited from tighter editing; it could have been much better had it been cut by say about thirteen hours or so. As it stands it is self-indulgent, meandering, and repetitive.

The movie has cases of poor plotting, scenes and dialogues that go far beyond the necessary running time, while the murder scene that haunts poor Biberkopf is repeated a dozen times (I lost count after a while) as a flashback, each time with different commentaries.

By now, you might think that I disparage of this movie, but against my own statements above, I must confess that I think Berlin Alexanderplatz to be brilliant. Yes, it has its various flaws, but they are, like the beloved person mentioned earlier in this post, part of its attractive features. In fact, only someone like Fassbinder could make such a movie and get away with it.

Berlin Alexanderplatz also has flashes of brilliance that blow any cinephile's mind. Strangely enough, it is a take-it or leave-it affair. The poor plotting is, in fact, one of its trademarks. We come to expect and cherish it. It is as detailed as a good old-fashioned literary book. The movie is, at the same time, inventive and is more than a movie. It is a documentary, a novel, a music video, a treatise and much more. It is ingenious and wildly imaginative.

Fassbinder has made another literary adaptation, namely the also very good Effi Briest (1974) based on Theodor Fontane's classic novel. Fassbinder played around with some of the stylistic devices, such as intertitles and dialogues that are taken directly and verbatim from the book.

Yet all of that is taken a step higher in Berlin Alexanderplatz, while Fassbinder shows more mastery than before. In Effi Briest we are treated with beautifully composed shots and ingenious mise en scène and constant play with mirror images, yet despite or rather because of these effects we distance ourselves from the characters and their plights.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz, it is quite the opposite. We are literally thrown into the world and particularly mind of its protagonist. We hear his thoughts, we see his deliriums and flashbacks, we know of his fears and obsessions. The image quality is purposely imperfect and occasionally blurry; yet it all works in its own ways and on its own terms. There are tracking shots that left me in a state of wonder. And we had not even reached the madness of its final episode!

I will not give away any particular or relevant plot details (although in movies like these, plot does not matter much anyhow), but I have two observations to make. First, the movie showed me something that had not occurred to me before. The protagonist had spent years in a prison and was weary about the world outside. In fact, the world turns out to be bad, if not worse than what he had imagined. At one point of despair, he catches a cab to the prison grounds and begs to be let in again.

It is strange how the prison confines can over time become someone’s home and I am reminded of the old man in Shawshank Redemption who had difficulties adapting to the real world out there. For a long-term prisoner, the prison can be their structured and secure home.

The second observation is about a scene in which Franz Biberkopf orders various pints of beer and talks to each of them. This scene is completely redundant and even pointless by any standards; yet it has Fassbinder written all over it. It is funny and quirky though, and we see the protagonist Biberkopf drink them one after the other and still able to deliver (most of) his lines. The surreal meets cinema verité!  

As can be seen, I finally seem to have gotten Fassbinder. Something clicked within me and I understood. From now on, I will see his movies with different eyes. I would not mind re-watching some of the previous films with this renewed knowledge and, moreover, appreciation for this great film-maker.

I also understand now why he is considered so good. Because, put simply, he is. He is an acquired taste for sure, just like sushi or Hitchcock. You may not like his films at first or see nothing special in them (as I had done), but delve deeper and you will find a treasure trove.

Am I going to watch all of his movies? I doubt it. Just like Alfred Hitchcock whom I admire now (but about whom I did not always feel that way), Fassbinder also has some misses. There are also movies that are fraught with violence (or so I have heard). But I will add many of this director's movies to my (alas endless) watch list and give them a fair hearing and seeing.

And I am confident that there is something I will see in his movies that I do not find in many other films, something bold, something unique, that je-ne-sais-quoi, the secret, mysterious and often missing alchemical ingredient that transposes craft into genius.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

US vs. Them: The Perceived Threat of the Other

Religious wearing a "We're right" sign while holding the Bible
Beginning in our infancy, we instinctively learn to separate the self from the other. The infant notices that there is indeed a physical separation between them and their mother. With time, this separation of the self increases and crystallizes into a unique identity.

This separation is encouraged more in certain cultures like the West with its focus on individuality and reason, while Eastern culture with its collectivist outlook may prefer harmony and unity over the fragmentation of the self. Be it as it may, one can analyze what the separation consists of alongside its inherent criteria as well as its possible consequences.

Physically speaking, where does my body end and the body of the other begin? This seems to have relatively clear marked lines as I can claim that this pound of flesh is mine and is visibly separate from yours. To protect my own body I may ask the other, among other things, to give me some physical distance, which may be broken by loved ones.

Poetically speaking, we overcome or annihilate the physical separation with our lover, an act that is often portrayed as a mystical union in Sufi tradition, for instance. In that sense, the touch of the lover will connect my body with hers. It is only in love-making where physical distinctions completely blur and the body becomes one. Put differently, the body of the one merges with the other, becomes indistinguishable and creates a new unified entity.

But separation does not exist only on a physical level; there are also various types of psychological separation. This can still exist within those same aforementioned lovers where each holds onto a separate identity. But in psychological terms, we may identify with particular groups and as a result extend ourselves beyond the self. For instance, we often see those who belong to our family as part and parcel of our identity.

This circle can be extended to include friends and acquaintances and social, national and religious groups. Moreover, I may identify myself with my city, my country, my religion and even my local hockey team, that is I perceive a connection between me and all the others who belong to those groups. During hockey games, fans tend to easily set themselves apart through their clothing and paraphernalia, while in other situations people carry around pin-flags or wear crucifixes.

Groups serve a number of functions. They can be a way of escaping ourselves and our sense of loneliness. We feel as islands upon ourselves, but the extension of the self towards others helps us alleviate some of those lonely feelings. This can also be a manner of protecting ourselves both physically and psychologically. By being one within a group of people, we sense strength and support, and people are more likely to help someone they perceive as similar to them than a complete stranger.

And in these situations who can be seen as a threat here? The enemy is, in fact, the “other.” In that sense, anybody or anything that represents something other or something different from us can be perceived as a threat. For instance, imagine a family party in which there is a person who does not have any ties to your family. That person, due to his difference, may be looked upon as suspicious; although he can never fully become one with the family (unless he chooses to marry one of the other family members), he can manage to override the differences by showing everyone that he is, essentially, either similar to them (culturally, professionally etc) or that he is, despite his differences, not a threat to the status quo.

The desire to create and belong to groups has been existent since our hunting and gathering days. Basically, our cave ancestors did not want to risk their lives for others unknown to them nor did they wish to provide food to those that did not belong to the group. In each of their clans, they sought also protection from any external threats, which could come in terms of animals or other humans / groups.

It turned to be a good idea to expand the group by creating alliances. Even that is a selective process. If your group is having an alliance with mine and intermarriage would foment and fortify the link between the two, then, ipso facto, this also meant and implied that there are many other groups that are not belonging to mine; they are different to the ideas, values or any other characteristics that I cherish within my own (now extended) group.

Alliances have been an important tool in politics too. We form groups with nations and ideologies that are essentially similar or at least not seen as combative to our worldviews. For example, there are a number of contracts, contacts and organizations ranging from NATO to OPEC and even humanitarian groups, such as Unicef or Médecins sans frontières.

The alliances can be political in nature, or else ideological. In fact, the common dividing factor in the past century was based on political ideology. It was the ideals of communism pitted against those of the West; this clash is often portrayed as socialism versus capitalism. In today's world (years after the Fall of Communism), these distinctions are made based on religion mostly (although religions are used as political and propaganda tools by either party) and so broadly speaking the Middle East is thrown against the West, Islam apparently bumping heads with Christian values (while Islam itself has its own divisions and clashes between its Sunni and Shiite brands).

When we identify with one of the groups and exclude the other, we feel stronger and more accepted within our group, whereas we distrust any member of the other group. The problem is that these perceptions of the other - often based on hearsay - are almost always flawed by being too simple, one-dimensional, stereotypical, and even grotesque.

The Western idea of Muslims is highly distorted, and they are portrayed as forms of caricature, the same way (or even worse) Hollywood movies present the bad guys. This distortion goes both ways and also applies to the other group, i.e. the US being referred to as the devil incarnate.

What then happens is that there are a number of misconceptions that, in turn, give rise to outward prejudice and open violence towards any member of those groups. In Canada, the fact that wearing religious clothing could be a contentious issue among the voters can be only seen as troubling.

The West cannot pride itself on its values of liberty and acceptance by simultaneously attacking some of its own members that belong to other religions. The speeches by Donald Trump are essentially not that different from the radical hatemongers he tries to disassociate himself from, and that people on either side of the spectrum do not fully notice this is alarming, if not downright terrifying.

What can or rather needs to be done in this situation? This is, of course, harder said than done. The turmoils seem to be beyond control and terrorism threats seem to be around any corner. But to generalize and put everyone in the same sinking boat cannot be the right path.

Too see the folly of such thinking, just imagine the following analogy: it would be like claiming that the extreme Christian right speaks for all of Christianity and for all Christians across the globe; one cannot throw together and discriminate against all shades and forms of Christians from radical to liberal believer due to one marginalized and defecting (defective?) group.

This focus on religion harks back to the age of the Crusades. Yet to have this today in our modern age is inexcusable. We have at hand not only knowledge and experience, but also technology to safeguard ourselves from such fallacies.

In the past, people believed those distortions because they not only lacked education and literacy but also they did not have much actual contact with people of other faiths. Moreover, they did not have the Internet. We are at a much more advantageous position and cannot claim ignorance to our defence.

One way to dispell the myth of difference as a threat is to actively engage with others. Segregation only increases distrust and suspicion, but what people in the West should do is to actively reach out for those of different faiths. They can also start reading about Islam itself and see for themselves that this religion (like most) is being distorted and manipulated by those extreme voices.

In fact, I think we should follow Alan Watts' timeless advice in his speech on social conformity “Everyone must play” and see our lives with all its contents and structures as a game. We should stop taking ourselves, our religion, our nation, in short, our “group” so seriously and start seeing it as a form of role-playing.

In any game, you cannot force others to play with you. If they are different, they will have their own game and play by their own rules. Nor do we have to play the same games. We can still say to them that we accept them and have respect for their game, but essentially it is not ours to play; neither group ought to force the other to play something they have no wish or desire to play. That way, we can eliminate conflict and increase tolerance and acceptance.

Finally, diversity is not a threat but an opportunity and even a sign of strength. We cannot claim to be an open society and then exclude others. We should see beyond the scopes and limits of our own group and learn to understand the other and have compassion for them.

We should be flexible enough to know that our group can be extended and that there is indeed room for others; we should not permanently shut our doors but give the “other” a chance or opportunity to enter, should they wish. Chances are once we see them as fully-fleshed and feeling humans instead of grotesque and one-dimensional cardboard figures, we will see similarities between each other and not feel threatened anymore.