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The Ambiguity In The Box

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Moral ambiguity is one of the stocks-in-trade of literary and art criticism. This or that work of art is said to have moral ambiguity to a high degree and it is usually meant to be a compliment. Now moral ambiguity, given the world we live in, is indeed something that perhaps every work of art should possess to some degree. After all, what can be worse, from the artistic point of view, than to sit in judgement over each and every aspect of human life, when human knowledge of human mind or of human relations, let alone of the cosmic realities, is so little that we can only feel humble at our own collective ignorance. We can also feel collectively criminal, given what we have done to the Earth, but that is a digression. Paraphrasing and putting in the reverse order what Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, unlike in real life, where we often have to (and must) say what is true and what is false (or what is good and what is bad), in art one need not do that. The necessary result of such a well advised policy will be moral ambiguity in art, because art is not Moral Science. That applies as much to popular art as it does to ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. However, that does not give us the license to see moral ambiguity where it is not present.

The sources of immediate provocation for bringing up this topic are the reviews ([1] [2] [3] [4]) that I have recently read of an acclaimed movie. That movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. It can be called a gangster movie. On the surface, it is quite run-of-the-mill, but like all ambitious works that achieve some artistic success, by which I don’t mean box office or critical success, but the inherent quality of the work, this one too rises above other similar crime movies. It is also one of those rare movies that are made great (or almost great) mainly because of the acting, in this case the acting of just one person: James Cagney. On this point I am in agreement with all the reviewers of this movie, who, without exception, praise his performance. The direction is good enough, but it has become secondary.

One can also mention before proceeding further that this is a better movie than the overrated Casablanca by the same director. But please don’t let that come in the way of listening to what I have to say about the supposed ambiguity in this movie.

The basic plot is simple and familiar for every movie buff (even to others perhaps). Two boys live in a slum. They are members of, what we euphemistically call, ‘troubled youth’. They indulge in petty thievery (one reviewer called it robbery: unarmed boys trying to steal a little something from a stationary goods-train wagon and failing to do so). On this train ‘robbery’, they are noticed by someone and then chased by two policemen. One gets away, the other gets caught. From then on, their lives are separated for fifteen years. One becomes a priest and the other becomes a hardened criminal. No prize for guessing which one becomes what. Their lives collide again and one of them ultimately loses. No prize again for guessing which one.

The plot would be especially familiar to those who grew up on Hindi films of the seventies, but it was a common plot even in the US in those days, that is, the thirties. Only forty years of difference in progress, instead of fifty. Cheer up. Don’t feel cheated.

So where is the ambiguity? When the hardened criminal comes out of prison one more time and meets his old pal, the priest, he also revisits his old slum. And he runs into not just the girl he used to tease (who, after having waited for fifteen years, pays him back as she always wanted to, but falls in love with him nonetheless: the movie does suggest that they were in love even in the beginning, though their street-smartness required them to express it via mutual hostility), he also runs into a a group of boys just like what he and his friend were. These boys pick his pocket and he bests them (as one reviewer expressed it) to win their admiration. He was already their hero, being a familiar figure in the daily headlines, but now that they have him near them and find out that he lived in the same place and used the same hideout, their admiration is total. These boys are called the Dead End Kids (or Dead End Boys in the movie, I don’t remember which). They are played by the same actors who played similar roles in an earlier series with the same name. The situation is that the good guy priest is trying to ‘straighten’ them. He tries to make them go to the gym and play basketball. Play by the rules, that is. But he fails. It turns out that the bad guy criminal is better at making them play the game by the rules. How would the priest feel?

The movie ends with the bad guy criminal duly coming to an inevitable bad end, as required by the moral Production Code of those days. He is captured after a shootout, which occurs, in the first place, because he was trying to save his friend’s life. For the second time. The first time was just before he was caught after the train ‘robbery’ and was put in the Center for Juvenile Delinquents. Jerry (the to-be priest) had fallen on the rail tracks as a train was approaching and Rocky (the to-be gangster) stopped and helped him get up. That probably cost him his future. But he ain’t complaining. He is the kind who is prepared to ‘take the rap’ for his actions and maintains his tough persona and, when Jerry comes to visit him and asks him why didn’t he name him too (so that he could have got an easier punishment), he (Rocky) advises his best friend, “Always remember: Never be a sucker.”.

So the bad guy comes to a bad end and is sent to die on the electric chair. Now the priest, who already owes his life twice over to his best friend (and had earlier gone on a campaign against all the criminals in the city, including Rocky Sullivan), asks for one last favour from him. Since the boys hero worship him, would he now show “a different kind of courage, a courage that only you and me and God know about” and pretend to die as a coward, instead of maintaining his brave persona to the end, as expected by the boys? That, the priest argues, would save the boys from falling into a criminal life and coming to … a bad end.

Rocky Sullivan refuses the request (it’s the only thing he has: his heroic, even if criminal, image) and walks defiantly to the chair, but just before the last part, after walking the last mile, his shadow is seen through a glass and his voice is heard as he apparently succumbs and cries out for mercy. The next day the media reports that Rocky Sullivan died ‘yellow’ and the priest takes the dejected and disillusioned (isn’t that an appropriate word?) boys to go with him to say prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. No mention, of course, of the life saving part, which would have caused the hero worship of the bad guy to resurface.

The ambiguity, for many reviewers, is supposed to be in that last act of cowardice. Did he just pretend to die as a coward (for the sake of his friend and the boys who admire him), or did he actually lose his courage in the end? But one can almost excuse the reviewers because James Cagney himself is reported to have said that he tried to make that scene seem ambiguous, and his co-actor (then not quite a star) Humphrey Bogart also appreciated this scene, presumably because of the same ambiguity.

What ambiguity? Where is the ambiguity in that last scene? There is no ambiguity there. If you insist it’s there, may be it’s there in the box. I didn’t see it. Given all that went before in the movie, it is crystal clear to me that Rocky was just pretending to have turned ‘yellow’, granting one more favour to his best friend. And thus failing by his own standards, as well as by those of the others. He died, not a coward, but a sucker.

Actually, there was a reviewer who also didn’t find any ambiguity here. Neither, as he mentioned, his father. He is the one of the robbery mention. But there were others. So I am not completely alone in this.

Movies about crime, movies like this, almost always work at different levels. One is as required by that moral Production Code. Criminals coming to a bad end. The conflict between the good and the bad. Even this is not as simple as it sounds, because at this first level too the bad guy, who is the main character, is shown to be basically a good person (in this movie: in others he may have some good traits), who only came to a bad end because of his circumstances (the movie doesn’t mention his hero worshipping a preceding Rocky Sullivan). That is why he does all those favours to his friend. The movie also shows many other bad characters, who are much worse than him and meant to be seen as such by the audience. But the priest, who is also shown to be really a very good person (who came to a good end), boils down the whole set of circumstances to just one thing: Hero Worship of criminals like Rocky Sullivan. That’s the reason, he seems to believe (like a right-wing conservative nut), if that hero worship was stopped (by hook or by crook), the Dead End Kids will get straightened and will live a good life. So he decides to make an example of his own best friend (who is dying because of him and probably came to a bad end also because of him). For a good cause. For him, ends justify the means. Priesthood and goodness be damned. He is a pragmatic, albeit idealistic, politician. As wily as they come.

The second level, when compared to the first, is what shows up our own moral ambiguity. That is the level of entertainment. How we enjoy those thrilling scenes. How we root for Rocky all the way (as more than one reviewer noted), even when he is in the shootout and is killing policemen. The whole story has been made up mainly for our entertainment. Michael Curtiz (he was famous for his problems with the English language) is known to have said about his movies (and his way of making movies, and may be also for the business of making movies), “Who cares about character (development)? I make it go so fast, no one notices.”. All the way we root for the bad guy, and at the end we set it morally right by delighting in the sorry end of the same bad guy, so that we can go home and sleep well.

That’s the usual thing. What is especially bad here (or is that usual too?) is that there are a lot of other really bad guys. Much worse, as I said. And most of them don’t come to a bad end. They are not even considered or known to be criminals. They live respectable lives. What about their hero worship? Don’t the ‘straight’ but not yet respectable people see them as their role models (or at least look up to them)? The lawyers. The police chief. The businessmen. The mediamen. You can extend the list to the very top.

In fact, as the soon-to-die criminal remarks, all those bad guys were named during the trial and the priest himself had tried to clean the city of all the corruption (with the help of one brave newspaper editor), but nothing happened. The only ones who we see coming to a bad end (except Rocky Sullivan) are those who are killed by Rocky, who is the only one caught and sentenced. So what’s all this about bad guys always coming to a bad end? Does someone really believe that? Did they believe it even in the thirties?

I am talking about the world we have, not the one we should have.

To follow this to the bitter end, one could almost say that the good guy priest finally has his revenge on his friend who didn’t take his offer of help and instead advised him (condescendingly?) to not be a sucker. The monster living in the priest’s dark side might well be looking up during the prayer after the execution and saying triumphantly, who is the sucker now?

The boys, when they first saw him and decided to pick his pocket (and before they realised that he was their hero, Rocky Sullivan), identified him as, yes, a “sucker”. Works of art often say things which their creator may not have intended.

Why were the boys called the Dead End Kids? The word angel is referring to these boys as well as to the famous criminal. One of the dirty-faced angels has to be sacrificed to save the other dirty-faced angels. So it’s all among the dirty-faced angels. Nothing to do with the rest. Be happy, go home and have fun.

It was perhaps the possibility of having to face such questions that sent those reviewers and commentators (and Cagney and Bogart) scrambling to find ambiguity where there was none.

As hinted earlier, there is a kind of ambiguity here, but it’s not in that last scene, which is an embarrassing end to the movie. It’s there in the priest’s character. It’s also there in our reactions to the movie, where it always is. But the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold’s character is as straightforward as that of any archetype in Western movies. No ambiguity.

The problem (at the first level) is not that the priest is trying to make the kids forego a life of crime. The problem is that his endeavour, like that of the moral Production Code as well as the quest for ambiguity in this particular case, is not genuine. And the solution is not to make suckers out of ‘angels’, dirty-faced or not.

The problem (at the second level) is also that even the last purifying delight of ours just doesn’t work, if you think a little about it. After all, it’s not just the priest and criminal and God who know what really happened. We also know it. And the final bad end was ultimately for our benefit. But if we know that he didn’t die ‘yellow’, then the device breaks down. Now we need something else as a substitute. So we make up the story that we really don’t know. The last scene is ambiguous. In spite of the explicit explanation that went just before it and all that went on earlier, we don’t know whether the cowardice was real or not. May be it was. That would absolve us. Because if he did die yellow, then he did come to a really bad end: in the public eyes, his own eyes, in our eyes. No redemption for him. After having entertained ourselves at his expense, we have appropriated his redemption as well. That’s smart, isn’t it?

We ain’t no suckers.

Written by anileklavya

December 27, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Five Fingers

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The phrase ‘too clever by half’ was coined for such things.

Take Twelve Monkeys as an antidote to this poison. If there is not enough improvement, take Brazil too.

In case of side effects from the above double dose, Burn After Reading might help. But be sure to know your allergies before you take it.

For preemptive, I mean preventive, purposes, it is advisable to periodically take The Quiet American. Beware, however, that you have to take the 2002 version, not the 1958 version. The latter is prescribed by many quacks who practice intellectual euthanasia.

As a final resort, you should take the Mr. Neutron episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If that doesn’t help, I am afraid there is not much hope.

Written by anileklavya

March 20, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Posted in Movies, Reviews

The Crescent Moon

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Director: Jang Kil-soo
Year of Release: 2002
Language: Korean

So, a long time after I wrote that I am going to review some movies just a bit more systematically, I have finally started doing that.

I didn’t go into an infinite loop: I just took longer.

Most people will find my list of Great Movies (when compared to my list of Very Good Movies) unconventional, if not strange. And this movie is likely to be perhaps the one (out of my selection of Great Movies) to which rarely any other movie critic will do the same honor. But then I don’t really see myself as a critic. I claim to be a good movie viewer, which is more important in my opinion than being a good critic. Anyway, it seemed quite appropriate to me to start my movie reviewing career with this movie. I was so bent on starting with this one that I stopped myself from reviewing any other movie here before I reviewed this one. So you can be quite sure that I am not taking it lightly and it is not a passing fancy. In fact, it’s already more than two years since I discovered (I hope not in the colonial sense) this movie.

Why did I put this relatively unknown movie in my list of Great Movies? Simply speaking, because it fulfills my criteria of being a Great Movie. But I wouldn’t try to objectively list those criteria. You can get a sense of them if you keep reading my reviews.

But you won’t be so surprised if you are familiar with Korean movies, which are known to be among the most creative by those who know about them, so much so that both Hollywood and Bollywood are getting some of their inspiration from there.

Like several other Great Movies in my list, this one too starts out quite unassumingly. And if you are (according to my standards) not a good movie viewer, you are unlikely to notice much in this movie that can make you call it Great. You might just say that it is a good enough movie. Perhaps I too would have done so when I was just beginning to learn the difficult but quite a tempting art of movie viewing.

The Crescent Moon is, first of all, a classic example of the works of fiction which are centered around what I call the Sibling Motif, or more particularly, the Young Sibling Motif, or even more particularly, the Mixed Young Sibling Motif. This motif requires two protagonists who should be young (children or adolescents) and they should be brother and sister. It involves telling the tale of their experiences, adventures if you like, over a period of time that can range from the shortest possible to whole lifetimes, but is usually a few years.

It is not an uncommon motif and is found in some of the greatest works of fiction, literary or audio-visual. I am not very sure, but it seems to have become more popular from the nineteenth century. Off the top of my head, I can think of many works built around this central motif. From the nineteenth century itself I can cite George Eliot’s classic tragedy, The Mill on the Floss, about the life and death of a girl who is more devoted to her brother than he is to her and who (like many others in Eliot’s novels and like herself) is also an unusual female character in the Victorian era literature in that she is quite an independent individual with a better brain and better education than her brother, but who nevertheless doesn’t do anything that could be considered indecent even by the Victorian standards, though she is hardly ever treated fairly by anyone.

Another, much more well known, classic which is centered around this motif is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Since it is so well known, I won’t say anything about it. There is also the movie masterpiece (and the novel on which it is based) called Pather Panchali. From around the same time, there is a different kind of movie masterpiece, which is much less well known. That one is Charles Laughton’s only directorial work, The Night of the Hunter, which has still not received as much recognition as it should have. Incidentally, both of these movies are in my list of Great Movies. Coming to more recent times, there is, of course, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Needless to say that there are numerous others such as Jean Cocteau’s (much darker) Les Enfant Terribles, which unfortunately I haven’t read as I simply haven’t been able to lay my hands on it. And all the three novels by J. D. Salinger (but more so Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey) are also centered around this motif, except that in his case there are other siblings too who either appear in the novel or are talked about. (About defining what a novel means in Salinger’s writings, you could almost call his collected works a single fragmented novel).

I don’t exactly know what it signifies, but I notice here that the first three books that I mentioned were all written by women and the main protagonist is the girl in all of them, whereas the two movies were made by men and they had the boy as the main protagonist.

Coming back to the movie under review, this one doesn’t really make either the boy or the girl the main protagonist. In that sense it seems to me to be a more paradigmatic example of the works centered around the motif.

The girl in this movie is significantly younger than the boy and we are in fact shown the boy seeing her recently born sister. He is not happy as he is given the task to care for her when the grandmother is busy working inside and outside the house. The mother left the girl with the grandmother and we don’t know anything about the father. So the siblings are not only motherless and fatherless, but their only refuge is the old poor grandmother who has only a few years of work left in her.

The boy is even more unhappy with her sister when she turns a out to be a little hunchback. The fact of the sweet little extremely lovable girl being a hunchback, if I might mention with technical and/or academic brutality, allows the movie to look at the world from a different perspective and to develop the character of the brother, who gradually becomes much more affectionate to her, overcoming his embarrassment at being the brother of a hunchback and being the target of taunts for the same reason from his friends, who the movie doesn’t really make out to be monsters.

The movie also has many other minor and not so minor motifs. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that it is full of what could be called (with some justification) clichés. But then (to use a clichéd expression) some of the greatest stories ever told are full of clichés. Wise usage of these clichés and ‘worn out’ motifs often gives a work of fiction that epic quality which is the dream of most authors and auteurs. This movie is a case in point.

It deals with themes ranging from migration (to city), poverty, the struggle for survival, moral ambiguity, exploitation, child labor and unthinking oppression by the state in the name of development to the relationship between a boy and a teacher, but unlike in Mera Naam Joker (which is not one of my favorite films), here the teacher is a mother figure for the motherless child. It even has a section (which is one of the least clichéd and the most interesting) about the repressed sexual desires of a middle aged woman (to whom the boy delivers newspapers) and the awakening desires of her adolescent maid servant. But (despite the mother figure teacher) this is not really a movie for prudes and moral puritans (the teacher is introduced to the boy’s family through the intervention of the family’s dog who steals the teacher’s ‘chest scarf’). It gives both of them (the woman and her maid) due dignity, even as it presents the tragi-comic nature of the situation. If you want some single label for this movie, then I would have to give you Humanist.

Apart from the brother and the sister, the other important character is the grandmother, who we come to know better and are sometimes surprised by as the movie proceeds. To use another cliché, she represents all the honest hard working members of the class to which she belongs. I might confess here that, unlike some ideologues, I don’t believe that all the members of any class (including hers) are honest and hard working. But I don’t think that changes anything with regard to most other things.

On the whole, like Pather Panchali, this movie has a lyrical (sometimes poetic) quality that, if you get it, would remain with you for a long long time, even if you don’t see it again, which I think you are likely to do if you can. And it is so strong that the fact that The Crescent Moon doesn’t have any very ‘innovative’ technical flourishes is not a good enough reason for me to keep it out of my Great Movies list.

Another important reason why this movie works so well is the perfect cast, which is very important for this kind of movie (as it is for movies by Fellini and the Neo-Realists), even though it may be less important for other kinds of movies, such as those by Godard. Which brings me to mention that this movie somehow makes me recall The Nights of Cabiria.

I might add one caution for those who are very sentimental and also, at the same time, very particular about hygiene. Keep a handkerchief ready. It won’t take anything away from the movie’s greatness.

P.S.: I have found out that the famous French magazine Cahier du Cinema (to which Truffaut used to contribute regularly) conducted a poll of major critics and prepared a list of 100 great films. In this list, The Night of the Hunter is ranked second, along with La Règle du jeu by Jean Renoir. By the way, Truffaut’s was among the few favorable reviews that this movie got at that time. Let’s hope the great actor will break the wall of regimentation that stipulates that if someone was as great an actor as Laughton, he couldn’t be an equally great director (unless he is already recognized as an exceptional auteur, like Orson Welles: after the deification, everything is allowed). Most people now (barring, perhaps, the movie historians and the like) don’t even know that at one time he was as famous as Marlon Brando, Lawrence Olivier and Alfred Hitchcock. And how many people know that he not only worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on the English version of Brecht’s Life of Galileo (and played the title role in it), Brecht also wrote a poem about the actor’s garden. For the longer term, however, let’s also hope that he is not deified.

Cinema Deserves a Separate Blog

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My personal blog already has a lot of posts (whatever is on a blog is a mere post, it can’t claim to be more: ask the bigwigs) about movies. However, there is so much about cinema that I have got to say that I find it necessary to start a blog just for posting movie reviews, or to be more accurate, counterviews of movies. On the personal blog, I explicitly stated more than once that I was not writing a review. But on this blog I will not make this statement, because now I am going to write reviews (or counterviews).

There are a lot of other things about which I have a lot to say, but I am not going to write about them. At least I am going to avoid writing about those things. For example, about Barack Obama. The main reason is that almost all that I have to say has been already said by a lot of people. Not just by a few people, but a lot of people.

I don’t want to add to global warming.

But movies are a different case. For one thing, I do have things to say which not many (in rare cases, none) have said before. For another, simply speaking, movies are (more) fun to talk and write about. And read about. So are books, but let’s leave them for some other day.

So, in this blog, I will be writing in a more systematic way about movies. But I won’t write reviews in the very conventional sense. Hence the name of the blog.

I will also make public my list of Great, Very Good, Good, Average and Bad movies. The last category should not have many entries.

Before I write my first counterview, let me make one thing very clear. I am not Roger Ebert. I don’t claim to be Roger Ebert. I don’t want to be Roger Ebert. I won’t be Roger Ebert. I shouldn’t be Roger Ebert.

Nor am I a cowboy. Or God. Or the Devil. Or an Emperor. Or even The Good Shepherd.

Rumours of my being one of these must be highly exaggerated.

I am just Anil Eklavya.

Written by anileklavya

November 16, 2008 at 2:36 am