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: melty.fr)

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–to It may raise some interesting questions about 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.

Nobility and tragedy

Pequod fitted out with whale teeth, jaw: “A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.” (69)

Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease. (73-74)

…moody stricken Ahab stood before them [the officers] with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal over-bearing dignity of some mighty woe. (122-3)

Nature and God

Moby-Dick Ch. 22-31; Iliad Books 5-6

In Chapter 24, Ishmael humorously but earnestly defends the nobility of whaling. Comparing and contrasting whalemen to soldiers, he says, “For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!” (Ch. 24, p. 107), e.g. the natural dangers of whales and the sea.

Nature, this indicates, is what is not man, what is not man-made, what is (therefore, by definition) God-made. This is why for traditional Christians nature is a manifestation of God’s glory.  In Moby-Dick, nature is still what is not man, and it’s therefore symbolic of all that is not man, but it’s no longer certain what it is that manifests itself in nature, what it is that nature represents or symbolizes.

Among other things, the ship (generally, and the Pequod specifically) is the human spirit–at least that part of the human spirit which insists on confronting nature. Nature in Moby-Dick is no longer the ordered universe of a benevolent God; it is characterized less by God’s presence than by the absence of both man and God, of both human purposes and the purposes of a caretaking or even interested God.

The land is social reality, comfortable but confining. It is also the haven of the human spirit, but of the animal part, so to speak, that which needs warmth, connection to other human beings. Bulkington, then, is humanity fully sublimated, the animal and social all but gone, and thus he is a demigod (Ch. 23).

Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!….Take heart, take heart, oh Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis! (105-106)

Humanity is a ship that has its purpose and proper being only at sea, dangerous as the sea may be. The tragic truth may be that the sea is ultimately hostile to human being–that it lures one to where life is impossible, because one can no longer stand the ingloriousness of the shore; that all that which is not humankind is not, finally, benevolent to humankind, but hostile or at least indifferent.

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