Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

If you haven’t: see it, because whatever its shortcomings, it ain’t boring and it ain’t predictable. Unless you have seen several other films by Lanthimos in which case it might be (I’ve only seen The Lobster; more below on his ‘characteristic style’ as discerned from two films and reading reviews of the others). It is disturbing and might leave you suffering from a nameless malaise, though.

If you have (spoilers):

Here is the plot of Killing. Steven (Colin Farrell, bushy-bearded and a bit pudgy) is a cardiologist and married to Anna (Nicole Kidman, sleek and not at all pudgy, as is the way of things), an opththamologist. They live in a nice home and have two nice children, pre-teen Bob and teenage Kim. Steven meets regularly with the teenage Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died two years previous while Steven was operating on him for a heart condition, possibly as a consequence of the fact that Steven had been drinking, but just as possibly due to other, uncontrollable factors. Martin, who at the beginning is weird and polite, gets weirder and less polite, more insistent about insinuating himself into Steven’s life–including pursuing an erotic relationship with Kim–until eventually he reveals to Steven that he will have revenge, or “justice”: Steven must kill one of his family members or else all three of them–wife and both children–will get sick and die. Both kids soon fall paralyzed and anorexic and Steven and his wife agonize for a while, also kidnap and torture Martin, to no avail. When Bob is on death’s door, Steven plays a version of Russian roulette to choose which family member to shoot; it turns out to be Bob. Kim recovers and life goes on.

Those who saw The Lobster will recognize Lanthimos’s distinctive, perhaps unique, style, which comes through both in the screenplay (which he co-wrote) and the highly mannered acting. The characters act as if they are missing something that normal human beings have, call it ’emotions’ or ‘a soul.’ Or at least human emotions, a human soul. They seem a bit like aliens or creations of an inept demigod in a gnostic world, who are trying to pass as human but don’t quite have the knack and have learned what it means to be human by watching bad television.

Much of the humor and bite of these two films comes from the satirical power of this. Some exchanges are mind-numbingly conventional, except spelled out in a way they rarely are in ordinary conversation–for instance, Steven and his colleague Michael compare their watch bands and Steven says, in formal and complete sentences, how he would like a new one like Michael’s; Michael says that the store owner is a former patient of his and he could almost certainly get Steven a discount.

In others the humor lies in the characters saying or doing things without the usual social or moral filter. Someone asks Steven how the family is; he reports that his daughter has just started menstruating. He asks the school principal which of his children the principal prefers in order to help him decide which to kill. Crucial to this motif is that no one reacts as if Steven has said anything untoward. (The principal hesitates but only, it appears, because he can’t decide either.)

These seem like opposites (over-conventionality vs. departure from conventional mores) but the continuity is illuminating–both highlight the extreme subtlety and sometimes arbitrariness of the rules by which we ordinarily live, such that someone who didn’t have a deep internalized “feel” for them could easily get it wrong one way or another.

In all cases what is lacking is any kind of libidinal investment or ordinary emotional reaction. It’s not that the characters don’t want things, or sometimes go to great lengths to get them. But their wanting seems “put on,” somehow. Not faked–the characters think that their desires are indeed theirs–but it seems rather that they want these things because they are the things that the stories say human beings want–all their desires are “mimetic desires,” in Rene Girard’s phrase (as, for Girard, all desires are), a matter of imitation rather than coming from some deep source. (Some animal instincts survive–self-preservation, but not social instincts like love or attachment. Kim “running away” for her life, dragging her inert legs.)

In the hands of a different–a less, shall we say, idiosyncratic–director, this would have been a very different movie. The question is whether it would have been a better one. The main difference, I think, is that we would have been made to identify with the characters–with Steven in the awfulness of the choice he must make, with Anna and the children in their fear and anguish, even with Martin in his wounded aggrievement over the loss of his father and his desire for “justice.” As it is, we may feel pain or dread at the horrific situation, but the characters never quite become people that we care about or feel to be fully real. Nor, I think, can we quite take the situation seriously as a moral quandary–it just feels absurd. My question after watching the film was whether Lanthimos’s style of detachment works with the story or against it.

A Very Nice War Film

1917 (2020)

97e87937-3e89-40c2-973b-b281cedd08fd-large16x9_mv5bowmynwrmmjytyjg2ns00zgrklwjmywetmjrizja5njuyngjixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzg0odmwndg._v1_sx1777_cr001777755_al_Dir. Sam Mendes

In the famous final shot of the 1930 film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, the protagonist, a young German soldier who has survived a horrific and terrifying tour while one by one his comrades and friends have died, reaches out of the trenches to touch a butterfly. He is shot and killed.

The scene has become iconic of the senseless carnage of the first World War, in which millions were killed as entrenched armies led costly onslaughts to gain a few yards which were then recovered days later by the opposing side.

The charge of utter senselessness perpetrated by the stupidity, egotism, militarism and bombast of those in charge, which was articulated in Remarque’s tremendously popular book and which became the dominant interpretation of the war, has been challenged by some historians, but whatever the “necessities” of the war and its protracted battles, there is little doubt that living and fighting in the trenches was a kind of hell that would have found its place in one of the deeper circles of Dante’s inferno. A soldier who sank shin-deep into the mud on a march would be left to slowly drown because extracting him would put others at risk. Gas blistered men’s faces off. And the soldiers lived in the constant expectation of the moment they would be ordered to “go over,” to hurl themselves over the trench wall into the decimating fire of the enemy.

In Sam Mendes’s rendition, 1917, the war frankly doesn’t seem all that bad.

Based (we’re told) on a story told to Mendes by his veteran grandfather, 1917 begins with a Gallipoli-like premise. Two lance corporals, Blake and Scofield, are sent to stop an imminent attack that has been determined to be a trap.

The central conceit of the film is its appearance of telling, or showing, the story in a continuous shot, a technical tour de force that takes the audience along with the protagonists through the trenches, across no man’s land, and through a ruined city, all staged with a realism and detail that is obviously meant to impress. It does—and for the most part the technique serves the story—but Mendes is restrained in his depiction of the horrors of war, and the result seems sanitized. The horror belongs almost entirely to the mise en scene—there are plenty of dead bodies, decaying corpses—but never does the film have the shocking and nauseating impact of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan where one sees and feels something of the utter terror and inhumanity of bodies being torn apart.

No law says that a war film has to subject its audience to that kind of gruesome realism, of course, but the film’s gentle touch with regard to its violence is continuous with its general conformity to a genre of war film that feels traditional, conventional, not to say quaint—the story of the war hero, of bravery and sacrifice that is noble and, if not entirely successful, neither entirely futile. The progression of events in the film makes sense and largely affirms some order of justice in the universe, the possibility of meaningful heroism. The British are depicted as the “good guys,” the Germans are the “bad guys” (all the significant ethical violations shown are perpetrated by the latter), and the decisions and acts of individuals are supremely decisive.

I would not want to deny that heroism is possible or that what individuals do matters. Courage, acting with integrity, risking one’s life for others or for a higher cause, these are all possible even in “senseless” wars and deserve representation and praise. But I would argue that the most powerful cinema of war—from The Great Escape and All Quiet to Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and The Thin Red Line—conveys also the background of horror and absurdity that complicates, constrains and potentially undermines the possibilities for individual action and the meaning of such action. In 1917 this acknowledgement is heavily muted.

There is one scene in which the film spectacularly transcends its technically-impressive conventionality, in which Lance Corporal Scofield awakens from a concussion and the scene has suddenly shifted from day to night (which is striking because the continuous-shot approach means that, in general, shifts of scene are gradual) and Scofield wanders out into a landscape at once hellish and sublime, a bombed out city lit up in strobing reds and oranges by falling shells. The scene lasts for minutes, and Scofield’s absolute aloneness in this still-burning ruin—until scattered Germans among the wreckage begin shooting at him—makes palpable the awful strangeness of the very fact of war: how it is that men come to do this to one another when it seems in practically no one’s interest that they should—a naïve question, on the one hand, but one that we might hope representations of war continue to ask with accusatory force.

The Enemy Was Us: Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die

the-dead-dont-die-825Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film is obviously a satire (I wonder: how many earnest zombie films are there?) but it is not obvious what, exactly, is being satirized.

Or rather, one of his targets is obvious and explicitly stated at the end of the film by the character Hermit Bob (played by Tom Waits), watching the devastation through binoculars from his leafy retreat. Bob muses that the undead were undead even while still living, having lost their souls to materialism. The film has already advertised this, so to speak; the zombies wander around Centerville muttering the names of consumer goods, and one nice shot shows a dozen or so lurching vacantly through the street holding their gleaming smartphones in limp wrists.

It is also an appropriate allegorical representation of our situation that the dead, past generations of these wanton consumers, come back to wreak destruction on the present and the future.

The film has divided critics. From one representative negative review whose headline accuses the film of being “lifeless”:

Jarmusch’s ultra-laconic, free-floating style has been well-suited in the past to such iconic indie films as Stranger than ParadiseDead Man and more recent entries like Broken Flowers. But this attempt at a removed, laid-back view of a zombie apocalypse doesn’t succeed in the same way.

This seems to me to miss that the film is perfectly aware of its “lifelessness” and that this is even the point. But it is fair to ask what exactly that point is. (A bad film that is self-awarely bad is not thereby automatically a good film.)

One point, I think, has to do with our use of language and our grasp of reality, or lack of it. I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, in which Holly (Sissy Spacek) thinks in the clichés of romance novels and bad TV. She thinks in these clichés, and it leads her to run off with a bank robber on a disastrous spree because it seems like a romantic adventure. In The Dead Don’t Die, the characters speak in banalities, the clichés of everyday life. They say what comes to mind, which is what people always say. Unless you are exceptionally urbane and witty, I would expect that much of the “flat” dialogue of the film is a not-too-exaggerated version of your daily dialogue (and mine). (This is why Google’s predictive text works.)

They speak literally, and they inhabit a literal world. Sometimes this is very funny, as when the three protagonists, local cops played by Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny, show up one by one to the scene of the first zombie murders and ask, appalled at the carnage, “Was it a wild animal? Or several wild animals?” Or when a few teens of mildly rebellious dress and attitude show up in Centerville. The motel owner dubs them “hipsters from the big city”–Cleveland, the locals decide. One of the cops goes to warn them to stay indoors at night and reports back that the kids laughed and said ‘Yeah, we hear you have a zombie problem.’ The motel owner growls, “Those hipsters and their infernal…irony.” I think in both cases it is the literality–the factuality–that is funny here. One wild animal and “several” wild animals are distinct entities. “Hipsters” are a species, like cats or chickens, identifiable by distinguishing traits such as their “infernal irony.” There is what the Marxist would call a kind of total reification, whereby the social world seems perfectly natural, unalterable, opaque. Things are the way they are. And to each fact corresponds a typified, literal expression. (Poetry is unnecessary and alien to such a world–only Hermit Bob gets poetic, murmuring something about human mortality when he finds a copy of Moby-Dick discarded and half-buried in the forest.)

The undead are soulless consumers–now of human flesh–but the living are somewhat less than fully alive, too. They are types, as are we all sometimes, their thoughts and feelings imitations of what they’ve seen and heard from others and on TV–which doesn’t mean there’s no genuine feeling behind the typified expression, as when Mindy (Sevigny) finally loses it when she sees her dead grandmother reanimate, but the film never lets us take this quite seriously, because nothing and no one seem quite real.

It is this out-of-touchness with reality, the film suggests, that is responsible for this whole mess in the first place. The news anchor announces, in the same tone as everyone says everything else, that “polar fracking” has tipped the earth’s axis. She reports that some have claimed that this could have global catastrophic consequences. An energy executive is quoted as saying, without further argument, that’s not true and not to worry. It is a parody of public discourse, words skating on the surface with no connection to what is really happening and no recognition or acknowledgement of what is at stake.

But the film in its flatness also seems to be satirizing the very genre of “genre movie satire.” It is as if it has given up before it’s even begun; it often has the zombie-ish feel of going through the motions itself. This is what the negative reviews are reacting against–the sense of cynicism, the sense that the amateurishness is not the result of a carefully crafted parodic intent but of a weary lack of effort (“lazy,” “like he phoned this one in from the land of the undead“).

I don’t deny that the flatness was perhaps too flat, too pervasive. It could have been a better film, with more humor and unexpectedness–all of which there is just enough of to suggest how much more there might have been. (Like Tilda Swinton as a–very–foreign funeral home owner with samurai skills.) But my sense is that this weariness too has a point, whether or not it’s intentional–or successful. Interviews certainly suggest that the film is in earnest; as Chloe Sevigny says,

The turn at the end was very surprising as a viewer. Just from being on set and the deadpan kind of humor, I was surprised by that turn. And the sincerity of it, the weight of the situation. You could really feel his turmoil and existential angst over what’s happening. I know the environment and environmental issues weigh very heavy on his heart.

But Jarmusch knows that his zombie movie is not going to avert the catastrophe. It may be written in despair over the suspicion that, to paraphrase Auden, art makes nothing happen. There isn’t really an “outside” depicted in the film; Hermit Bob himself is a flat caricature, and Moby-Dick (in which a microcosm of humanity sails to its doom as a consequence of madness and inept mediocrity) has no part to play other than as an object in the mud symbolizing “culture.” (Like the waterlogged books the father finds in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road.) The script is already written. As Ronnie (who has read it) keeps saying, “This is going to end badly.” The film thus functions as a kind of negative image of the good, on multiple levels–within the film itself, and as a film. In a generous interpretation, both try to provoke us to think about what it would mean to be awake, and what it would take to wake us up.


Leave No Trace

Cine qua non

One of the unique strengths of film is its ability to impart
empathy, transporting us from the insularity of our own experiences to some
character or world that, while qualitatively different, appeals to some common experience
of human tenderness. Debra Granik’s Leave
No Trace
swells with empathy in its depiction of father Will (Ben Foster) and
his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who have been living “off the
grid” in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, only to have their lives uprooted
by the outside world in ways both disorienting and welcome.

When we meet them, Will and Tom have carved out a daily
routine of basic survival, sustenance, and companionship in a nature preserve
on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Granik does not sensationalize the dual challenges
and idealism of their pared-down lifestyle, narrowing in on moments of grounded
love and courtesy between father and daughter. Will validates and…

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Pathologies of the poor in Us (U.S.)

Since I seem to be on hiatus–here is an intelligent reading of the social criticism of Us.

Cine qua non

Spoilers ahead.

At a key plot juncture in Jordan Peele’s Us, the Wilsons – headed by Adelaide and
Gabe – are seated alongside kids Zora and Jason, having been violently confronted
by their scissors-wielding doppelgängers. Responding to the natural question of
who are you/what do you want, Adelaide’s croaky twin (titled “Red” in credits) answers:
“We are Americans.”

Without any need for explication (and there isn’t, thanks be), this line directs us to what is a foundationally American story – the story of a vilified “underclass” (this time, in the very literal sense of the word) and the cultural narratives of individual merit and pathology that have been propped up to justify that position. Hands Across America, a Reagan-era campaign launched in 1986 to address national hunger and homelessness through non-profit fundraising and awareness, is featured in the film’s opening shot – a publicity stunt at odds with…

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The Human Animal

Movie Review: Beast (Dir. Michael Pearce)

This is a movie about what seethes beneath our civilized veneer, and it telegraphs this theme in various ways. The title. The opening voiceover about killer whales–they look like they’re smiling, but when they get tired of smiling, they’ll eat you. A character’s comment on a book about animals: that it’s missing an entry on humans. (The character soon comes under investigation for several abominable crimes.) Yet the “beastly,” as it is treated in the film, is not just the dark side of humanity, always waiting to break free, the evil to be guarded against. Pearce’s vision is more complex, provocative, and disturbing than that.

The protagonist is Moll, a young woman with a vital physical presence–solid, strong, curly red hair that flames in the light–but who, when we meet her, is cowed, trapped, in a girlish light yellow dress, and being admonished to civility by her extremely tight-laced mother. We later discover all this is punishment for an early violent crime, terrified constraint to prevent it happening again. The current punishment is her birthday party; she is courted uncomfortably by her friend Clifford, a plump, awkward oaf, and subjected to her perfectly sweet-looking sister-in-law’s announcement that she is pregnant with twins. This is “civilization,” and Moll, after clenching her fist over a handful of glass she’s broken, flees it for the pounding music and sweaty groping of the local pub and dance hall.

She leaves at daybreak with a young man who then becomes too insistent, and is rescued by Pascal, a shaggily attractive specimen who carries the gun with which he’s been poaching hares. His uncouth manliness is liberation for Moll. When questioned about the reasons for her attraction, she says she likes the way he smells. Their first date is at the pub, and on their way home he leads her on a “shortcut” through the forest. She stops, and he asks if she’s afraid. We think she is and that she should be—since she and we have learned that a girl was just found raped and murdered. But she pulls him to the ground and they consummate their relationship, or, as one might say, f&*k. Perhaps she is afraid, but her desire–and the desire for the liberation he offered–are powerful enough for her to repress her fears. Or perhaps the fear is part of the attraction. Moll herself may not know.

Human beings, and especially philosophers, have tended historically to be unfair to animals, ascribing to the “animal” within us anything “uncivilized”–murderous, rapacious, cruel. But animals are none of these things (except maybe higher primates, those closest to us, like chimpanzees who are said to enjoy poking chickens through a fence with sticks). Animals kill and mate without reference to Kant’s categorical imperative or the dictates of Miss Manners, but they do not commit atrocities. They are neither moral nor immoral. Beastliness is a human phenomenon. But it is crucial that in this film it has a dual aspect—source of life as well as, potentially, of violent inhumanity. For some, like Moll’s sister, civilization is not, or no longer, veneer–“civilization” is all there is to her. For others, like Moll’s mother, those deeper, darker sources are fully identified with the demands of “civilization” and she seems inhuman in her own way. (We’re inclined to cheer when Moll and Pascal violate all the laws of decorum of her family’s country club.) The problem in this film is not just the beastly, but all the possible perversions of the relation between what lies beneath and the ways in which we channel and control it—or not.

[Spoiler warning.]

It turns out Pascal is a suspect in the murders, and Moll’s friend and hapless suitor Clifford is the investigator on the case. She confirms the false alibi Pascal gives. She believes in his innocence, she says. Again–does she? Does she know if she does? She is grilled by Clifford and another investigator, shown grisly photographs of the corpses; she maintains her story but the next day becomes sick to her stomach—because the photographs make the murders real to her? Because of the suspicion that her lover might be a murderer? Abruptly, another man, an immigrant, is convicted of the murders. Pascal is exonerated, but this is not the end.

The turning point comes in a sequence that begins when Moll tells Pascal that she wants–needs–to move away from the suffocating environment in which she’s been caged. Pascal, content with his life in Jersey, responds angrily, Moll’s suspicion shows through, he gets violent, choking her almost to death. She flees and shows up on Clifford’s doorstep, asks him how they knew the immigrant was the killer–looking, it would seem, for reassurance that Pascal is innocent of the murders, and if not perhaps ready to come back into the fold. The evidence falls short of iron proof; Moll confesses to Clifford that the alibi she had provided for Pascal was a lie. Rather than accepting her testimony and comforting her, Clifford snaps and throws her out, his own “animal” rage and envy finally overcoming his gentlemanly caretaking of Moll.

At this point she is as alone as a human being can be, and she needs to find the source of strength and action that will sustain her—that will allow her to go on at all. She goes to the place where one of the murdered girls was found, climbs into the excavated grave—puts dirt in her mouth, reenacting the girl’s suffocation. The act is primal, ritualistic, and she emerges changed—though precisely how we don’t immediately know. She returns to Pascal and apologizes, as does he, saying they can leave if she wants. They go to a restaurant to celebrate—and she tells them that she knows he is guilty, that she knows it because she is like him—and she will be with him only if he admits it, and says that it’s over. “It’s over,” he finally says—and then, “They meant nothing to me.” Their food arrives and he begins eating with appetite.

One of the strengths of the film is that it does not telegraph the meaning of what the characters say and do. My own sense is that up to this point, Moll may really have remained open to the possibility of a life with Pascal, if it turned out he was “like her”—that is, still human, repentant of a past and horrible transgression. But in that last line he reveals himself not as a beast but as a sociopath, which perhaps is to say he simply allows his violent drives their way without trying to constrain or integrate or transform them. Perhaps without even recognizing that he ought.

Driving away down a road through the wilderness, Moll asks Pascal to kiss her—and when he leans over, she seamlessly unbuckles his seat belt and yanks the steering wheel down, sending the car into a catastrophic spin. When she comes to, Moll crawls out of the car and finds Pascal mangled on the pavement but not dead. “I’m not like you,” she says, and bashes him to death as he tries to crawl away.

Moll was wrong about Pascal, but not wrong to follow that deep current that pulled her toward him—the “animal” within her. What will free us and what is dangerous may be the same thing—the unsocialized in human beings.

The final image is Moll rising to her feet after her violent act—dirty, bloody, wild-haired, but walking upright. Perhaps the most fully human of anyone we have seen—but if so, that too should leave us uneasy.

Confronting the void (really) in Cosi Fan Tutte

Cosi Fan Tutte at the Lyric Opera, 2018By luck I was offered a ticket to the Lyric Opera’s current run of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte [Thus Do All Women], one of Mozart’s last operas. I confess that beyond that I knew nothing going in; I did not even read the synopsis before the curtain rose, and so I had the rare privilege of seeing a very famous work not knowing how it was going to turn out.

The first act is comical, not to say absurd. Two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, brag about the fidelity of their fiances; their “older, wiser” companion Don Alfonso says he knows women better than they; they challenge him, offended, and he accepts their challenge, devising a test of their beloveds’ honor and offering to pay up if the women pass.

We next see the women, Dorabella and Fioridiligi, bragging about their lovers’ nobility, before Don Alfonso enters and announces that the men have been called off to war. The women mope around histrionically while their maid slyly encourages them to take advantage of the opportunity. The men then reappear in disguise (with beards) as Albanian sailors to woo the distraught women (each woos the other’s fiance)–this is the test. The women are gradually moved from utter disinterest to principled resistance to temptation and finally seduction.  (“Pity” and “compassion” play a large role–the women appear to be moved from their initial indifference by the men’s suffering, first when the suitors pretend to drink arsenic and then when they claim their heartbrokenness at being rebuffed–but is the compassion genuine, or just an excuse for the women to follow their erotic whims?)

In this production at least, the men behave with such silliness–prancing around, flexing their muscles, batting their eyelashes and making immediate and outrageous proclamations of love–that the women’s attraction to them is even less plausible than the fact that they would be fooled by the disguises. I could have imagined the scenes being played straighter, with less slapstick, and consequently evoking real emotion–but the much more serious second act made me think that perhaps the absurdity of the first act was appropriate and effective. Having never seen the opera before, I expected some sort of comic but affirmative resolution, a clearing up of the misunderstanding–perhaps the men’s test would reveal that the initial match was wrong and each partner was really meant for the other, and they would live happily ever after.

Instead, the men are aghast at the failure of their lovers’ fidelity, the plot is revealed and the women are distraught, they all consent to Don Alfonso’s insistence that the ‘solution’ is for them to get married (to their original partners), but unhappily, it seems, and he cynically pronounces that the moral of the story is to trust in “reason” rather than love, where “reason” is a cold-eyed view of human beings as mechanistically subject to sexual desire, all higher ideals being but illusion. I found this line, and in particular the appearance of the word “reason” in the supratitles, breathtaking–it was as if suddenly the whole farce became horribly serious–this is what human beings are really like, this is what it means to recognize the way “reality” is.

What is perhaps most bemusing is that, throughout, the music is delightful, beautiful, often even transcendent, and I discovered that the ambiguity of the relationship between the exalted music and the sordid plot is a central issue in commentaries on the opera. In discussing this relation with my companion after the performance, two possibilities emerged: on the one hand, that the music affirmed some transcendent good beyond the silliness, depravity, and insubstantiality of the characters and their machinations–a higher and ideal order in which occasionally the characters took part despite themselves, though always plummeting back to earth. Or on the other, that the radical disjunction between music and plot simply emphasized Don Alfonso’s point–that our ideals are just pretty, fluting notes floating in the air and dying into silence, without any persistence or true reality.

As a general rule of interpretation, I assume that when two compelling possibilities present themselves, the ambiguity must be part of the point, and I believe that is the case with Cosi Fan Tutte. However overdrawn and stylized, the all-too-easy breakdown of the characters’ professed love for one another and the concomitant breakdown of their very identities (as Edward Said points out in his discussion of the opera in On Late Style) is depressingly convincing; there is nothing one can point to in refutation of Don Alfonso. And yet the music lingers.


In his Ethics, Aristotle argues that we acquire virtues like justice, temperance, moderation and wisdom through exercising them, and our fundamental dispositions of character are formed by the habits of reaction and behaviors instilled in us in childhood. (Yes, this is a review, of sorts, of the film about the figure skater Tonya Harding. Bear with me.)

…the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances….It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

If “I, Tonya” is a tragedy in anything like the classical sense–Aristotle’s sense–it is because it shows how the formation of a character in childhood could make “all the difference”–the difference that could ruin a career, if not a life. This is not to blame Harding’s mother. She, too, was formed, and if she warped Harding with her abuse, she also made her a skater. At a cost. Which was perhaps the necessary cost–and perhaps not.

Classical tragedy, as Aristotle analyzed it, followed the rise and fall of a great man or woman due to some fatal error (hamartia)–except that “error” implies that one might not have erred, whereas the tragic misstep seems fated, inevitable, given the character of the protagonist and the situation in which she finds herself.

What, according to the film, was Harding’s misstep?

To pinpoint it as her “decision” to go along with her then-boyfriend Jeff Gillooly’s plan to mail death threats to Nancy Kerrigan–the plan that culminated in the assault on Kerrigan and led ultimately to Harding’s ejection from figure skating–is unsatisfying. As portrayed in the film this was hardly a ‘decision’–Harding was preoccupied with preparations for the Olympics and didn’t think much about Gillooly’s plan, although she did certainly take part, finding out Kerrigan’s training location and schedule.

The fatal choice, it seems to me, was getting back together with Gillooly. The film suggests that Harding does this because she had to create the right image, to look like a girl from a good home, because her technical prowess was never enough to overcome the disadvantages of her “presentation.” Perhaps the fatal choice was staying with Gillooly so long in the first place despite his abuse. But Harding, it would seem, was primed to accept abuse having (she says) suffered it at the hands of her mother. “Maybe I deserved it.” Maybe also by every slight she received for her homemade, too-garish costumes. Or having had to drop out of high school.

If tragedy is about fate, most tragedies tend at the same time to implicitly provoke some question about fatedness, a question as to whether it really had to happen this way. This is a question we might all ask about our lives at one point or another, especially when they are going badly. It somehow seems at once that we had no choice–that even our bad decisions were conditioned by everything that came before, which was conditioned by what came before that, back into the mists of infancy and outward into the interlocking mechanisms of institutions, culture and history.

True tragedies aren’t morality tales, which tell us that we can do the right thing and if we do it all will be well. Tragedies reveal the contours of conditions beyond our choosing. In “I, Tonya” those conditions are both personal and cultural. Harding’s past–her class, her upbringing–was gravity in the physics of American culture, American history, American inequality. For a moment she broke free of it and made three and a half perfect turns in the air. And then she came crashing back to earth. As was inevitable. Or?

Film review: Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling as Agent K (Source:

If you haven’t:

See it–for Ryan Gosling’s surprisingly engaging and moving performance, for a dark and uncanny world at least continuous with the spirit of the original (if lacking a little of the sheer weirdness and analogue authenticity), for an effective immersion in a future dystopia some specifics of which may be unlikely but the general thrust of which seems pretty plausible.

If you have (spoilers):

The best thing about Blade Runner 2049 is Ryan Gosling, “Agent K” (or later, “Joe”) and that was not what I was expecting. He’s not cutesy (no “hey girl” even if he has a girl who would evoke that kind of thing). He’s a guy trying to do a job, and you feel for him.

He’s a “good” (obedient) replicant who is a blade runner, which means he’s supposed to kill “bad” (disobedient, or even potentially disobedient) replicants. The movie opens with K killing a replicant–a worm farmer–who from all appearances would never have caused any trouble for “real” human beings. K is not eager to kill–he perks up when his target misleads him to think he might be able to “take him in” alive but when necessary carries out the ‘retirement’ professionally. He surveys the property and through some sort of xray drone photography discovers something buried beneath the single dead tree on the grounds, which he reports. Afterward he passes a bizarre psychology evaluation which seems to consist of staying cool while sitting in a white room and being forced to repeat oddly unnerving words and phrases. He’s congratulated for his even keel. He goes home to his hologram girlfriend with whom he seems to enjoy some genuine intimacy.

The “something buried” turns out to be the remains of a replicant who appears to have birth (her pelvic bone is cracked and there are signs of an emergency c-section). K is tasked with tracking down her identity based on her serial number. He goes to the Wallace Corporation (replicant producing-successor to the Tyrell Corporation) and learns that she is Rachel, which means much to the audience but nothing to K.

The point at which all this starts to disrupt K’s cool is when he discovers a date written on the dead tree which is the date also inscribed on a toy in one of “his” childhood memories, which he believes to be implanted as with all replicants. K starts to suspect he may really have had a childhood. He starts to suspect he may be the child he’s looking for. He seems to confirm this when he visits the best “memory maker” and she confirms that the memory was not fabricated but belonged to a real person. After this K begins to go rogue. He deceives his handler, “Madame” (Robin Wright), leading her to believe he found and killed the child. He fails to pass the psych test. Having thus shown signs that he might cease to be an “obedient” replicant he becomes a target.

There’s a bit of a “magic feather” effect here. K starts to disobey because he believes that he might not have been created to obey. Or self-fulfilling prophecy–he thinks he has discovered something about his past that implies he has a destiny, that his is special. He turns out to be special because he believes this, but–in the most brilliant twist of the film–not in fact to be the child.

All of this gets somewhat lost in the sumptuous sci-fi panorama and the periodic shoot-outs and fight scenes, as Ebert thought the “human story” did in the first Blade Runner as well. The movie did not do what it might have done with K’s situation–the struggle with identity, that mythic movement from being a rule-follower to a rule-breaker when one discovers–or thinks one discovers–one’s unique destiny. Then again, if it had tried it might have been too heavy-handed.

Much has been written about how the original Blade Runner and, now, its sequel raises the question of what it means to be human. I frankly don’t think either much does, at least not in a very profound way. The replicants are obviously human–at least the “troublesome” ones are. (This, I would say, not “having emotions,” seems to be what makes one human.) It may raise some interesting questions about at what point the world ceases to be a world in which one can be human. I would see it again to find out.


Nigh to everything in Moby-Dick is elaborated as symbolic–not simply as what it is but as a reflection or manifestation or, well, symbol of some deeper human (or inhuman) phenomenon. In Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” Ishmael looks back in history for the earliest mast-head standers and finds the Egyptians, having built the pyramids for “astronomers to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a moderns hip sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.” (154) Later, Ishmael says of the statues of Napoleon and Washington that “it may be surmised, that heir spirits penetrate through the thick haze of the future, and descry what shoals and what socks must be shunned” (155).

The mast-head, then, is a high place from which one looks out to see something important or portentous which cannot be seen from below–and this is an image which seems to glimmer with some vital yet not fully apprehensible import, an image of, for lack of a better word, the spiritual dimension of human life.

This is the proper understanding of what Dreyfus and Kelly discuss as the experience of the gods (cf All Things Shining, Ch. 3), what we must be “alive to” if we are to adequately grasp and respond to the world in its full meaningfulness. That Odysseus should escape death by a half dozen archers at close range does seem like an event which has further meaning, and perhaps in this instance D&K are right that the proper response is gratitude, however one understands the agency (or sheer chance) responsible. But the most important images and experiences are those which imply a direction, and Moby-Dick is full of such images. It is hard to avoid watery metaphors here (the book is an ocean of such images, is swimming in them) and I think this in itself is illuminating, since the vastness of the ocean is the book’s ultimate image of both the limit and the object of that toward which we are directed–something that ever exceeds but demands our consciousness.

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