Madame de…, dir. my Max Ophuls, 1953

This essay is written by a guest author, Yana Skrynnik.

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Madame de… Who is she? In the beginning of the film we see her as a high society woman, leading a rather empty, frivolous life, defined by the norms and customs of her environment. She’s attached to her material possessions: her furs, her emeralds, her diamond cross… Out of all these things she cares the least about the earrings that her husband, the general, gave her as a wedding gift. The relationship between Louise (Madam de…) and her husband is amiable, light and superficial. They do not inconvenience each other with their secrets, and this not prying into one another’s personal life satisfies them both. Ingmar Bergman would call this type of behavior “The Touch”: when the most that’s happening between the two is the physical touch, and there’s no other contact beyond this. Madame de and her husband do not connect on a spiritual level and do not aspire to – the way the majority of married couple live, the way it is approved and encouraged by society. Madame de… – one of many. A spiritual nonentity.

Yet spirituality always gives us a chance. Louise meets baron Fabrizio Donati and falls in love with him. On the surface it might look like just another flirtation, another intrigue to spice-up the monotonous lightness of their being. But for Louise –it’s love. The love that transforms and makes one overcome material limitations of ego and social norm. Congruent with her personality, Louise’s new knowledge of spiritual existence is spontaneous. She didn’t do anything conscious to open her eyes to a different, non-material way of living. But her merit is her uncompromising faithfulness to her feelings, and resolve to follow her destiny in it. She doesn’t even have a choice of not following her spontaneous enlightenment.

The general – Louise’s husband – is also given a chance of transforming himself and his relationship with his wife into something more real than just following one’s social role. As a gifted man he senses that what’s happening with Louise is profoundly more important than a passing love affair (the kind that would be quite acceptable to society). He even envies her, recognizing the difference between an empty life and a fulfilled one. The general apprehends how vulnerable his wife’s condition is: for on one hand society doesn’t approve of something beyond the set rules of the game, on the other hand, baron Donati is not a Tristan. It is not a story of two soulmates. Baron Donati plays his role of a lover very well as long as it stays on the surface. The moment Donati is really challenged in his feelings for Louise (when the general lets baron know he has stepped out of the limits of his patience and accepted propriety) – Donati withdraws. “I’m not here anymore”, – says baron to Louise after his tete-a-tete with the general. But has he ever been there? It’s ironic that Donati prefers to let himself be killed than to become a victim of a scandal and social censure. He’d rather perish in this nonsensical fate than really love Louise. And unfortunately so would the general, who doesn’t choose to become a real friend to Louise, supporting her in her sufferings, being patient and loving. Instead he becomes a social monster and kills his chance for spirituality – and that’s the only thing we can really kill in this life.

Louise dies as soon as her lover’s heart stops beating, but this isn’t “Liebestod”. God takes her because she has no reason to stay in this material world anymore. Spiritually, she is accomplished. Those material things that she adored in the beginning of the movie do not have any value for her now. The earrings she didn’t cherish are precious to her now, but only as a symbol of her love. She parts with their material form as easy as she herself leaves the world. “Madame de…” in the end of the film signifies freedom from social labeling, like in “I’m nobody!” by Emily Dickinson. Not being defined by social means, being beyond them – being spiritual.

Yana Skrynnik,

Sunday, August 14 2011, 5:10 PM, New York

Twin Peaks, 1990-1991

The author of this essay is not a Twin Peaks fan: not only he resents the idea of fandom, but also finds Twin Peaks extremely imperfect. And yet, despite all its imperfections, Twin Peaks, without a doubt, is a great work of art, comparable in its importance with such finest examples of television as “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980, dir. by Reiner Werner Fassbinder), “Fanny och Alexander” (1982, dir. by Ingmar Bergman) or, in a quite different genre, with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch show.

The rest of this essay will expand on the two statements made above.

First, the criticism.

Twin Peaks is flawed by uneven acting (I prefer not to mention any particular actor or actress, but if you know Twin Peaks, I’m sure you can name a few), eclectic directing and, as the series progressed, increasingly uninspired, unimaginative and unresearched writing.

A story is only as good as its villain. Having to reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer in the middle of the second season due to television politics, the show’s creators failed to find another worthy lead antagonist . Compared to tragic, funny and terrifying Leland Palmer, the character of Windom Earle is so flat and dull that it’s difficult to believe that he is indeed such a genius as he is too often advertised in the dialogue. The inner drama of the main villain has been replaced with the bad case of “demented giggles”. Insanity and revenge are cheap motivators, and Windom Earle is driven by both, and nothing else. With the introduction of that character, the show loses direction and begins to wander about between several launched and quickly abandoned subplots: for example, “murderous chess game” (a cliché from the beginning) is replaced with “beauty pageant”.

Even in relatively early episodes, comical relief scenes are often strained, substituting quirks and eccentricity for true humor. For example, deputy Andy Brennan covered in post-its head to toe is one of many visual gags that call for too much suspension of disbelief, and result in nothing more than a polite smile. Eventually, any attempt at humor is completely abandoned, and the show begins to take itself so seriously that it loses most of the spark it used to have in its first season.

Characters are often inconsistent, without any reasonable justification. Donna Hayward’s odd transformation in the beginning of the second season is a good example. Many scenes are so implausible that it’s a miracle of the audience’s loyalty those scenes didn’t destroy  the show immediately. When agent Cooper rescues Audrey Horne from the “One-Eyed Jack’s”, she is unconscious after being injected with a near-lethal dose of heroin by the crook Jean Renault. Instead of taking Audrey to a nearest hospital, Cooper, a FBI agent, leaves her to sleep it off in a log cabin. What if she went into a cardiac arrest and died? Later in the series, agent Dennis Bryson is held hostage by the same Jean Renault and is then released in exchange for agent Cooper. Agent Bryson than quickly changes clothes and transforms himself from Dennis to Denise, the pizza delivery girl. Jean Renault, who didn’t order any pizza, and who’s supposed to be a shrewd, cunning master criminal, for some reason is stricken with temporary stupidity. That’s the only way to explain why he falls for that trick. He doesn’t recognize Dennis in drag and invites him / her in. Moreover, Dennis / Denise, who has been completely helpless against Jean Renault as a male FBI agent, somehow becomes invincible as Denise and defeats Jean Renault effortlessly, saving agent Cooper from certain death. No doubt, it’s the improbable dramatic situations like the one just described that lead to the audience’s eventual loss of empathy with Cooper and Twin Peaks. I appreciate self-irony and self-parody in genre writing, but these things still need to be done within the limits of plausibility and good taste.

I could continue trashing Twin Peaks a lot longer, but I don’t think it would be worth it. Suffice it to say that the series fell victim to the limitations of its own genre. Semi-improvisational, loosely structured serial writing and the rating race tarnished the great potential Twin Peaks contained.

Let’s now move on to praise Twin Peaks deserves.

There’s a lot to be said about the series aesthetic and dramatic originality, but it’s been talked about by thousands of other people before me. The world of Twin Peaks is vivid, multidimensional and haunting. It’s probably one of the darkest stories ever told in moving images, and yet its darkness is so well-balanced with humor, joie de vivre and intrigue that at least the first and half of the second season of the series is a TV equivalent of a page-turner.

But if we want to grasp the true value of Twin Peaks, we must understand its philosophical message. In fact, simply having the philosophical message is something that already distinguishes Twin Peaks from almost every TV series that were ever produced, but the depth and originality of that message abstracts Twin Peaks from its utilitarian purpose of selling coffee and donuts to TV-enslaved proletariat and elevates it, despite all its imperfections, to the artistic level equal to that of high cinema and high literature. That message of Twin Peaks can be recognized by analyzing relationships within and between the groups of its characters – and certain key scenes.

To be continued…

Scarlet Street, dir. by Fritz Lang, 1945

Every aspect of a truly artistic film (or a work of art in any medium) should in some way contribute to the key idea expressed in it. The title is no exception. An ideal title should serve as a metaphor for such idea and be constructed in a way that – a) doesn’t reveal the idea before the climax; and – b) provides the meaningful additional bit of metaphorical meaning that deepens the audience’s understanding of the idea as expressed in the climax.

Seen in this perspective, the phrase “scarlet street” doesn’t refer to any actual geographic location in the film, but rather should be interpreted as a metaphor. The word “scarlet” may be interpreted as the color of blood – or, in its more archaic sense – as “wicked”, “heinous”, “immoral” or “unchaste”. The word “street” of the title may of course refer to the final condition of the main character of the story (who ends up being homeless, that is, becomes a “street person”) – but it can also be interpreted in its traditional meaning, “the public road”. The combination of the two words, therefore, is likely to signify something like the “heinous road”, “road of shame” or the “path to hell”.

(Curiously, a similarly constructed metaphor was used as a title for another classic film that is also usually attributed to the film noir genre: 1950s “Sunset Boulevard” – this title can be interpreted as “road to darkness”.)

But let’s get back to the message of “Scarlet Street” now. It should become obvious after we analyze the behavior of its key characters.

The main character of the film, Christopher Cross, has spent the last 25 years in the state of wasteland: working as a cashier in a bank and barely allowing himself to indulge in his passion to painting as an after-hours hobby. He lives with the woman he hates, whom he had married just because he couldn’t stand the loneliness.  One night he attacks a thug who’s beating up a street-walker, and ends up going out on a date with the woman he’s just saved. Despite all the signs, he refuses to acknowledge Kitty’s profession and prefers to think that she’s an actress who just happened to be returning home from an evening performance. She, in turn, although having instantly identified Christopher as a bank clerk, prefers to ignore it, and manages to convince herself that the aging man she picked up is not only a professional artist, but a rich and successful one, too. This self-deception is so strong that Kitty manages to convince Johnny Prince, her amateur pimp, that they can prosper by shaking down some of the dough from that “rich artist”.

Being a small-time crook, Johnny flatters himself with the idea that one day he may go to Hollywood and become a film star. Kitty is so sure that she is in love with Johnny and that Johnny loves her back and will one day marry her, that she ignores not only the ample evidence that Johnny just uses her to get money for his gambling, but also the fact that Johnny beats her up at every opportunity. Christopher, having met Johnny in the new apartment he rented for Kitty, recognizes him as the street thug who was beating Kitty up, but refuses to believe his eyes, and prefers to trust Kitty’s words that Johnny is her former roommate’s boyfriend.

After Johnny sells Christopher’s paintings to a street dauber (who, incidentally, imagines himself as a true artist and a “master of perspective”) – a famous art critic comes to visit the person who painted these great artworks. The critic mistrusts Johnny, who informs him that Kitty painted all the pictures – but after speaking with Kitty for a few minutes, fools himself into thinking that it is indeed true.

To provide for Kitty, Christopher has to embezzle money from the bank where he works. The bank owner, J.J.Hogarth, nearly catches Christopher red-handed, but chooses to ignore the obvious signs, and just drums his fingers on the envelope containing the stolen cash.

When Christopher finds out that Kitty sold his paintings as her own, he, blinded by his desire for Kitty, paints more artworks and allows her to sign them. He is so certain that she is in love with him, too, that he never even asks himself how such attractive young woman could fall for the aging, ugly, ordinary guy like him.

Missis Cross’s ex-cop ex-husband, long thought dead, reappears and allows himself to be persuaded, against every bit of common sense, that he can get his hands on the insurance cash hidden in his wife’s drawer. This sets Christopher free, and he arrives to Kitty’s place, only to catch her with Johnny and to face the truth he long refused to acknowledge: that Johnny and Kitty are lovers. When Kitty exacerbates that realization by teasing him, Christopher kills Kitty with ice-pick and later frames Johnny, who is sent to electric chair for the murder he didn’t commit. As a trade-off, Christiopher has to give up painting, because any artwork he may produce from now on can implicate him in the crime.

Christopher ends up homeless and insane, tormented by the ghosts of Kitty and Johnny, and watching wistfully how his (Kitty’s) paintings are sold for huge money to people who delude themselves into thinking that they can appreciate art.

At the end Christopher is sunk in a much deeper wasteland than the one he was in at the beginning of the story.

Denial (and active self-deception) lead to subjectivism (insanity) and to meaningless, de-actualized existence. Denial is such a widespread phenomenon, that it requires a great deal of effort to recognize elements of denial in our own attitudes, but it’s necessary because only after removing the denial we can begin to take steps toward meaningful life.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Tuesday, April 26 2011, 10:00 PM, New York

The Woman in the Window, 1944

Many film connoisseurs mistakenly qualify “The Woman in the Window” as “minor Fritz Lang”, considering it more mainstream, less original and less art-like compared to Lang’s earlier “Der Müde Tod” (1921), “Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” (1922), “Die Nibelungen” (1924), ”Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931). Even critics who acknowledge the importance of “The Woman in the Window” in Lang’s oeuvre and in film history, mainly stress its value as the precursor of film noir genre, rather than the artistic merits of the film itself. In my opinion, “The Woman in the Window” is deeper film than other Fritz Lang films I mentioned above, and it shows the director’s greater maturity as an artist; I hope to prove it in this article.

Viewers usually see this film as a sort of morality tale illustrating dangers of being lured into a sexual trap set by a femme fatale, and the common notion of a single misstep having far-reaching consequences – but such interpretations are not entirely correct. First of all, Alice Reed (played by Joan Bennett), isn’t a typical femme fatale, but rather a victim type: she is not consciously trying to destroy Assistant Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson in one of his less aggressive roles), and isn’t even trying to manipulate him into submission or to take advantage of him in any way (aside from relieving her boredom by practicing her charms on a funny middle-aged man); she is in trouble no less than the lead character. Secondly, even though the “single misstep” theme is present in the film, it’s not the key subject matter here, but rather a form-building technique that gives this story certain similarities with such literary structures as “The Monk” by Matthew Gregory Lewis (published in 1796), and “Das Schloß” by Franz Kafka (published in 1926).

I believe that the true theme of “The Woman in the Window” is the philosophical dichotomy between determinism and free will. The film asks whether all events of our existence are bound by the rigid cause-and-effect structure, or we can freely choose things that befall us – and, if the latter is true, what should be the basis for our choice and how we can make it.

The ancient intellectual conflict of strict causality versus free will isn’t likely to ever be resolved. From deterministic point of view, everything – including our thoughts, actions and decisions – is caused by preceding events, and what we see as “free will” is nothing but our ignorance of the “big picture” of the complex and nearly infinite network of causes. The proponents of the free will, on the other hand, state that there are events even in physical universe that are not connected by any cause-and-effect relationship, and therefore, a conscious mind is free to make a choice that is not dictated by any prior occurrence. Till the late XIX century science seemed to favor determinist point of view, but the most current trend, started by Josiah Willard Gibbs, is to see physical reality in terms of statistical probability and chance rather than strict causality. Philosophers has differed in their opinions through the ages, and offered powerful reasoning in support of determinism and free will, as well as many equally weighty arguments in refutation of both concepts. Ultimately, no measurement can be absolute, no result of mathematical calculation can be confirmed with complete certainty, no physical law can be fully tested and proven – and no philosophical position can be asserted as the truth. It all comes down to individual faith and the personal choice (either predetermined or freely made). First we gain faith in a certain concept for certain combination of reasons, and then we seek best arguments to support our faith. For example, I support the concept of positive reasonable doubt in the matters of idealism versus materialism: I cannot be sure that the material universe is the only true reality, and recognize many things as evidence of higher, spiritual level of being – so I must apply the concept of reasonable doubt and choose idealism as the truth (see “12 Angry Men”, dir. by Sidney Lumet, 1957).

But let’s get back to “The Woman in the Window”. Its dramatic structure contains not one, but several progressive missteps by the lead character.

1. Richard Wanley stops to admire the portrait of the unknown woman in a gallery window. This seems the most innocent misstep, but actually the crucial one. It’s his attraction to the painting that makes the character of Alice Reed materialize. He should have just walked by, which would have been the easiest thing to do – but he doesn’t.

2. Alice Reed appears out of thin air and accosts Richard Wanley, striking up a flirtatious conversation with him. He should have apologized and left, instead of supporting the conversation, and that, too, would have been relatively easy – but he  hasn’t.

3. Alice Reed invites Richard Wanley for “just one drink” in a nearby bar. He agrees, even though he should have said no, which still wouldn’t require a lot of willpower.

4. She invites him “to look at some sketches” at her house. After showing feeble resistance (giving her a list of things that he shouldn’t have done by now), Richard agrees. His willpower, somewhat diminished by alcohol, isn’t sufficient to overcome this new temptation (still relatively minor, but stronger than the previous ones).

5.  At Alice’s place, after showing Richard the sketches, she offers him another drink. It’s the last chance for Richard to escape the quagmire, but as Alice says, “this is much too pleasant to break up”. Richard hurts his finger while trying to open a bottle of champagne (the foreshadowing of the approaching suffering), but this forceful reminder is just not enough to sober him up.

6. A grotesque “force majeure” is introduced, in the form of the jealous millionaire Claude Mazard who storms in and proceeds to strangle Richard. Fighting for his life, Richard stabs his attacker with scissors and kills him. The choice is thus elevated to a new level: to report the murder to the police or to hide the body. There’s more at stake this time: if Richard calls the police, he may lose his job and probably be separated from his family; if he doesn’t call and is later found out, he will face a trial, a prison term or even death penalty. It’s clear that the correct choice would be to confess, but Richard chooses to hide the body of the murdered man instead. During the following several interactions with his friend, the District Attorney investigating the case of the missing millionaire, Richard blurts out several clues that may very well implicate him in the future. (Why he does that will become clear in a couple of paragraphs.)

7. Heidt, the blackmailer, appears and demands five thousand dollars. Richard Wanley defines the choice at this point as threefold: “You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you’re penniless. Or, you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or… you can kill him.” The fact that Richard by that time has already made the choice to kill the blackmailer, and the way he says it, shows that the pressure of circumstances has precipitated his inner corruption, transforming him imperceptibly from an innocent, diffident academician in peril to a violent, cynical predator. (This introduces the very important part of the subject matter: series of wrong choices that we may make are dangerous not so much because they put our social and physical survival at risk, but mainly because they can imperceptibly transform our psyche, turning us into our own evil twins. Such inner transformation is impossible to self-diagnose, because in our subjectivity we’re bound to perceive ourselves as unchanged and basically good, no matter how corrupt we my have become.)

8. The plot to kill the blackmailer fails and backfires: he demands more money. Drained of willpower, confused about his choices and unable to face the responsibility for his mistakes, Richard falls into abject despair and commits suicide.

This outcome reveals theretofore hidden true nature of the key motivation behind Richard’s actions: Freudian ”Todestrieb” (death drive), the desire of any organic life to return to the inanimate state – the secret dark side of the “pleasure principle”, Thanatos behind the mask of Eros. (Evidently, having embraced the American commercial cinema style, Fritz Lang however never really severed his German Expressionist roots.)

The structure of the story very well illustrates the idea that tiny, seemingly insignificant choices we face every day should be treated very seriously, as they are often more important than they seem. It’s a lot easier to make a correct small choice in a situation where not much is at stake and very little energy is needed, than to face a huge quandary, selecting lesser of two evils. To quote from Chapter 64 of Tao Te Ching:

What remains still is easy to hold.
What is not yet manifest is easy to plan for.
What is brittle is easy to crack.
What is minute is easy to scatter.
Deal with things before they appear.
Put things in order before disorder arises.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth.
The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands.

Even though I must accede that “it-was-all-just-a-dream” ending of the film is probably not much of a surprise (it was added after the suicide sequence mainly to make “The Woman in the Window” better comply with the notoriously prudish Hays Code), I think Fritz Lang succeeded in making the movie more profound thanks to that ending. Richard Wanley’s overkill climactic reaction to a strange woman’s request to light her cigarette may seem hilarious, but it actually shows the correct tactic for abstaining from seemingly small temptations. Up to that point in the story, Richard failed to make the right choice each time, because making it would require just a little more willpower and energy than he was prepared to give it. In the humorous climax, however, Richard puts all his willpower and energy into the tiny right choice, refusing the “call to a dark adventure” with everything he’s got – and no matter how funny it may look, that’s probably one of the best ways it can be done.

In “The Woman in the Window”, Fritz Lang tells us that freedom of will is real, and can be actualized by investing our complete commitment into the right choice. “The window” of the title is the opening that allows us to see the reality beyond our mundane world, and “the woman” is any obstacle that blocks our vision of that higher realm. We must therefore concentrate on fulfilling our moral mission, and turn away from any “women in windows”, whatever specific forms they may take in each case.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Tuesday, April 19 2011, 5:55 PM, New York

12 Angry Men, dir. by Sidney Lumet, 1957

Works of art in any medium, including film, may be sorted in two broad categories according to the methods chosen by their creators: art addressing intellect and art targeting emotions. Having stated that, I feel I must immediately emphasize that intellectual art obviously doesn’t preclude emotions, and neither is emotional art the enemy of intellect. At the climax of any film worthy of its celluloid, logic and emotions blend into a single explosive. Still, some of the films employ mainly emotional leverage to produce the climactic effect, while others captivate the audience through the force of logical argument.

I’m convinced that, despite all the turbulent emotions in “12 Angry Men” (and notwithstanding the emotion of anger that made its way even to the title), this film is, at its very core, a purely logical, crystal-like structure – and I’m also certain that all the violent emotions in this story just serve to underline (and sometimes probably even disguise) its sharp, clear, cold analytical edges. Being a work of intellectual art, “12 Angry Men” permits certain level of abstraction, making its theme and idea range wider and deeper than the subject of justice, typical to the genre of courtroom drama, or that of relationships between children and parents, revealed in the powerful climactic scene performed (or rather, lived through) by Lee J. Cobb.

But before we get to the analysis of this film’s message, let’s talk a little about its aesthetic and technical qualities. A viewer caught in the dynamic unwrapping of the story may experience the deceptive feeling of watching a stage play performed in front of the camera. Nothing can be further from the truth. Most of cinema enthusiasts are familiar with the basic imperative that the camera must not cross the eyeline (a.k.a. line of action) between any two shots of two people talking. Breaking that rule destroys the flow of the scene and creates confusion. Things become a little more complicated when a scene involves three people and three corresponding eyelines. A scene with four people has six eyelines. A twelve-people scene contains sixty-six eyelines. Don’t forget that neither of the twelve jurors in the film just sits in one place – each of them moves all over the room in the course of an hour and a half, interacting with each other, entangled in a complex web of constantly changing eyelines. A camera crossing any of those sixty-six dynamic eyelines would ruin the continuity. To make things more challenging, the characters stand up and sit down, changing the vertical angles of each eyeline. Every actor, addressing every other actor, looks exactly in the direction where the eyes of the other character should be at this moment; if they address more than one character at once, they shift the direction of their gaze between those multiple characters. Because of the specifics of lighting setup in one enclosed space, the film was not shot in continuity; so to maintain all the eyelines, the exact position of every character at every moment of story had to be exactly known. There’s more: every object on the desk had to be where it belonged no earlier and no later than necessary. Some shots include rain outside, others don’t; the rain affects the look of the shot even if not filmed directly. It’s hot in the room, and the jurors sweat profusely. Perspiration stains on their shirts had to be smaller or larger depending on each specific moment in the narrative. The camera had to be positioned above or below the eye level and equipped with wider or longer lens, depending on when within the story the currently filmed scene should occur (as the film progresses, lenses become noticeably more long-focus, creating the illusion that the walls are moving in closer, almost squashing the jurors – but the scenes weren’t filmed in sequence, so the lenses had to be changed depending on lighting of each specific scene being filmed ). “12 Angry Men”, from technical point of view, must have been a continuity hell, and it would deserve to be considered a directorial tour de force even if just for that. The acting of every member of the cast is pure Stanislavski – even the actors in non-speaking bit parts are superb. Obviously, none of it would matter without the tight, well-structured dramatic narrative (by Reginald Rose). I was particularly impressed with how skillfully he introduced the necessary breaks of logical flow of the story: having established the order of speaking for the 12 jurors, he quickly breaks that order to make the structure seem loose and spontaneous, almost improvisation-like. Absorbed in suspense and mystery of the story, the viewers may not be as acutely aware of its humor, but the comical is there all right, and adds a lot to the overall style. I must also mention of course the crisp, striking, dramatic cinematography of the great Boris Kaufman (the younger brother of the Russian documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov and the collaborator of Jean Vigo, Elia Kazan, and Samuel Beckett, among many others) – and masterful, assured editing done by Carl Lerner. But enough accolades; let’s focus on the meaning.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the main theme of “12 Angry Men” is truth: the obstacles one may encounter searching for it, and the ways to find it.

It impressed me as the clear sign of writer’s logical and moral depth that he didn’t allow himself an easy solution of declaring truth as something certain and perfectly defined. No, the truth in “12 Angry Men” is realistic: it’s bound within the limits of human perception. The truth we can find is never perfect, and yet we must pursue it to the best of our ability. Henry Fonda’s character, Davis, is not claiming that he knows the truth. He only claims that he cannot be positive that he or the others know it, and that having reasonable doubt, the jurors must assume that the accused is not guilty; that’s the positive truth accessible within his human limitations. This position is not agnostic: it’s objective. “I don’t really know what the truth is, I don’t suppose anybody will really know… Maybe we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong. Maybe we’re just trying to let the guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have reasonable doubt. And it’s something that is very valuable in our system.” The truth exists; it must be searched for and found. The truth is simple (one bit of information: “guilty” or “not guilty”) and practical. Discovering the truth or, rather, eliminating the fallacious assumption of already knowing it, is demonstrated in “12 Angry men” as the matter of life and death: physically – for the accused, and morally – for the jurors, who risk becoming murderers of an innocent boy.

The film doesn’t tell us who really committed the murder; it doesn’t even tell us whether the boy accused of murder was indeed guilty or not. But within the realistic limits of human knowledge, “12 Angry Men” shows a perfect example of logical reasoning that brings out the practical and meaningful truth.

The same principles and the same method can and should be applied to any search of truth, and especially to the search for the ultimate Truth. As long as we can have reasonable doubt, we have no moral or intellectual right to choose “guilty”. (As I’ve already mentioned earlier, the value of “12 Angry Men” reaches beyond the thematic borders of its genre. We can even use the methods described in this film to discover snippets of truth in other films or any other works of art.)

Interestingly, in the beginning of the story, Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda’s character) doesn’t seem to have noticed all the inconsistencies in the witnesses’ accounts of the murder. As he explains, he has chosen “not guilty” simply because he couldn’t bring himself to send a young boy to the electric chair without at least talking about it first. This illustrates the notion that the search for truth may be initially motivated by humanism – even though I must note that in many situations humanism may also be a trap (see “Farewell, My Concubine”, dir. by Kaige Chen, 1993). In “12 Angry Men” though, reason and empathy go hand in hand: “I kept putting myself in the kid’s place”.

Another, probably much more important motivation for the search of truth is the feeling of disturbance, lack of inner peace, the irritation experienced when facing the untruth. That sensation is the greatest indicator of the truth not being found yet, and if we pay heed to the sensation and follow it, we can take the first and strongest stride toward the truth. (When everyone sounds too positive, when everything seems to be unquestioned, it may be the sign that everything is false.) On the other hand, if we force ourselves to disregard such inner disturbance, we make a dangerous philosophical mistake that can have far-reaching consequences in our destiny.

What I’m about to say is a platitude perhaps, but lack of indifference to truth is the most important character trait for any seeker of meaning. Everything really is the matter of life and death, and our decisions deserve a lot more depth than we’re normally willing to give them. Not all decisions we ever make are final and irreversible like the one in this film, but all are important. Our choice does matter. Superficiality may be caused by our indifference to the outcome  – we tend to neglect our own lives and lives of people close to us a lot more often than we would want to admit.  But it is possible to know the truth if we really want to, and it is possible to infect other people with our urge to know it. These things are illustrated in the character of the Juror # 8. His is the angelic presence in the story: he wears the symbolic white suite; he has 3 children (a possible allusion to the Trinity); he’s an architect (the Creator). His last name is Davis (another possible allusion: to David, the underdog vanquisher of Goliath.)

What qualities make Juror # 8 a positive character, a hero, a protagonist in the story? He looks deeply into the matter, striving to avoid and omit nothing. He bought the knife identical to the one used in the killing. He analyzed the testimonies and found inconsistencies. He understood the consequences of his choices and realized that he must take every choice very seriously. This is maturity. But more importantly – he is objective (“Nice bunch of guys, huh? – They’re about the same as anyone else.”), and his reason is in full control of his actions.

The positions and behavior of the rest of the jurors in “12 Angry Men” illustrate various fallacies that block away the truth. The film tells the story of overcoming these obstacles one at a time, so I think it would be important for us to consider them one by one.

Juror # 1 (the foreman; played by Martin Balsam): authority challenge. A high school football coach, he represents authority to his students while being aware of not having any real authority or any significant social status. His urge to gain leadership makes him want to take a secure, popular position, and forces him to ignore the signs of untruth in that point of view – as a result, while nominally being a leader, he is, in fact, a follower. He may know the truth before many others, but he can only acknowledge it when he sees that it’s become the position of the majority (exactly the way it happens in the film).

Juror # 2 (the nerdy bank clerk, played by John Fiedler): this character illustrates the power of the subjective opinion based on the phenomenon of “trust to authority” (or trust to someone else’s point of view, or to superficial appearances). The opinion of this type of person may be based on feelings (mainly on the feeling of comfort) – or even on a random choice. It’s the character who settles for the untruth simply because “it just feels right”. This challenge is rooted in his deep lack of self-confidence. This character is not without common sense, so it’s relatively easy to make him recognize the truth simply by offering facts and strong arguments; finding the truth helps him to gain self-esteem and makes him a different man in the end.

Juror # 3 (the monster father, played by Lee J. Cobb): aggressive denial. This core issue is revealed as soon as he opens his mouth to argue his case: “I have no personal feelings about this. I just wanna talk about facts.” (no matter what he says, he is the most emotional and personally involved man in the room, which makes him ignore the facts). This character functions as the antagonist in the dramatic structure of the story, and I’ll come back to him yet.

Juror # 4 (the stockbroker, played by E. G. Marshall): this man is convinced of his intellectual, moral and even physical superiority not only over the accused, but over everyone in the room. It may not be very obvious, but having this unique brand of subjectivism, he is the most comical character in the film. (“Pardon me, but don’t you ever sweat?” – “No I don’t”). Neither does he smile or go to the bathroom (while the rest of the jurors run in and out of the bathroom all through the film). Naturally, he can only become aware of the truth after he’s forced to face his imperfections: very characteristically, once the flaws of his memory are exposed, he does sweat. It’s not enough to just make that kind of man face his imperfections once; only by being reminded again of his human limitations, he accepts the fact of his metaphorical (moral) myopia and stops being judgmental.

Juror # 5 (the man from the slums, played by Jack Klugman): suffers from ambivalence brought about by his sense of social inferiority. That’s why he skips his turn to prove the defendant’s guilt. Having been born in the slums, he apparently made a great deal of effort to put maximum distance between his current self and his lowly background– and yet he never quite managed to leave it completely behind. Even though this man’s lower-class past constitutes sharp contrast with his soft-spoken, mellow, guarded persona, it’s eager to reveal itself at the first available opportunity (as soon as he feels offended in his sense of affinity with the proletarian defendant). He has more in common with the defendant than he wants to admit to himself, so his initial verdict – “guilty” – is a form of self-punishment for feeling socially inferior. Recognizing and accepting the objective value of his past helps him to see the truth very soon.

Juror # 6 (the house painter, played by Edward Binns): this character’s challenge in accepting the truth is so general and widespread that it can be considered as the key to everyone else’s. He illustrates the mechanism of arriving to erroneous conclusions just out of need for any conclusion. This fallacy is very common. The uncertainty is frightening, it threatens the hardwired belief in our ability to assess the environment correctly – and therefore makes us fear for our survival. We are so desperate for definite conclusions that we rather prefer to choose something wrong but definite and final than to face any uncertainty. We may try to persuade ourselves that our false conclusions are true, because being persuaded like that may make us feel safer. That’s why this juror is so eager to hold on to something clearly unconvincing but superficially truth-like: the questionable motive for the killing. When forced to deal with the uncertainty, he concedes to the truth.

Juror # 7 (the marmalade salesman, played by Jack Warden): indifference, selfishness, agnosticism and cynicism. (“I don’t care, it’s all the same thing!”) This type sees the reality in terms of personal advantage; that’s why he interprets Davis’s effort to uncover the truth as “soft sell” and wonders if Davis does it just for kicks. He is also more obviously materialistic than anybody else in the room – something that is vividly expressed in his choice of costume, in his shallow charm and in his little tricks. Very characteristically, he is also prone to having great belief in the system and to valuing a socially accepted position higher than the truth (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that to cynical people social status indicates obvious benefits). “The kid had a lawyer, he presented this case, and he couldn’t say anything to defend that kid.” Even when he finally accepts the truth, he does so partly because he just wants to save time for hedonistic pursuits. An agnostic can be swayed, but it’s almost impossible to make him change. Only after his indifference is attacked, he admits that the truth, and not personal interest, must motivate decisions.

Juror # 9 (the old man, played by Joseph Sweeney): a misguided urge for importance and actualized existence. Luckily, this character, thanks to his old age, or perhaps in spite of it, is blessed with profound self-knowledge (metaphorically  expressed as his 20/20 vision). This power of understanding allows him to recognize his own negative qualities in the old man on the witness stand. That’s why this character becomes the first of the jurors to support the Juror # 8. It takes a lot of mental flexibility and great courage to change one’s mind and become a single supporter of someone who alone stands up against the majority. His choice to support Juror # 8 is what turns the tide. That may be the reason why the old man’s name is revealed in the end of the film as MacCardle (“of high valour” in Gaelic).

Juror # 10 (the man with the head cold, played by Ed Begley): bigotry – the most primitive and easily identifiable psychological aberration, and yet the one among the hardest to defeat. Still, after this juror is motivated by his peers to experience deep shame, he is transformed to such degree that not only he discards his prejudice, but also remains speechless through the rest of the story.

Juror # 11 (the watchmaker, played by George Voskovec): it may seem strange, but this articulate, intelligent character suffers from one of the most insidious and dangerous problems among all the characters in this story – mental inertia and stagnation. Not only he does know the truth, but he also offers strong arguments for it, and yet he has a really hard time deciding to say “not guilty”.

Juror # 12 (the advertising man, played by Robert Webber): superficiality. Everything in this character – his occupation, his inability to focus, his humor –  shows that almost through the entire story he isn’t taking anything seriously, being more interested in clever wordplay than in truth. A superficial man is necessarily fickle because nothing concerns him very deeply. That’s why Juror # 12 is characterized by fluctuating between “guilty” and “not guilty” , rather than changing his opinion only once. In the end, his superficiality is outweighed by the old man’s attention to detail that proves intellectually contagious.

So, we now considered the positions of the twelve men and analyzed the foundations of their points of view (even though we still need to take a closer look at the Juror # 3 and his confrontation with the Juror # 8).

This may be relatively unimportant, but I think it would be interesting to recap and see in what sequence the various false notions have been dispelled in “12 Angry Men”. Perhaps that sequence can give us the idea of which fallacies are the easiest and which are the hardest to overcome.

1. Juror # 8 senses the inconsistency of testimonies for the prosecution and is moved by humane considerations to declare the defendant “not guilty”; he stands alone against the rest of the jurors.

2. Juror # 9, thanks to his unusual mental clarity and sense of justice, triumphs over his misdirected need to be important, and supports Juror # 8, thus becoming truly important.

3. Juror # 5 realizes the value of his low-class background, which allows him to let go of his social ambivalence and see the truth objectively. The importance of his background will be further confirmed later in the story, when his expertise at handling a switchblade knife provides a crucial bit of information.

4. Juror # 11 makes several forceful arguments for the truth, then struggles to accept his own arguments and finally realizes that he must take the position opposite of the one he held initially.

5. Juror # 2 gains self-confidence and ability to confront people who spontaneously try to intimidate him. As a result, he earns the nickname “Killer” from the Juror # 7 – and changes his verdict to “not guilty”.

6. Juror # 6 questions his desperate urge for certainty at the cost of truth; the truth wins.

7. Juror # 7 initially concedes to the truth out of indifference, and after being confronted by Juror # 11, expresses the belief that the defendant is not guilty.

8. Juror # 12 is persuaded by the amassed power of the preceding argument that the defendant is not guilty. (A few minutes later he changes his opinion back to “guilty”, having been persuaded by the Juror # 4.)

9.  Juror # 1, who probably saw the truth a lot earlier, declares the defendant not guilty only after realizing that it’s become the position of the majority.

10. Juror # 10 exposes the full range of his bigotry and gets ostracized by the entire group. He is so ashamed of himself that he manages to overcome his prejudice, accepts the truth and remains silent till the end.

11. Juror # 4 becomes aware of his imperfections and his moral shortsightedness, rejects his neurotic urge to deceive himself into feeling superior to others, and states that he now has reasonable doubt. Juror # 12 finally becomes persuaded that the correct verdict should be “not guilty”.

12. Juror # 3 undergoes the experience that amounts to no less than a psychotic episode, and after having confronted his inner demons, re-emerges on the other side with the truth gained at the hardest cost. His verdict of “not guilty” is more important than anyone else’s: without his word, everything that took place before would still have no power.

It’s very clear through the entire film, and especially in the climax, that the main confrontation in “12 Angry Men”, the stand between good and evil, happens between the angelic character of Juror # 8 and the monstrous entity that dwells in the mind of Juror # 3. The confrontation even reaches such heights that Juror # 3 stabs Juror # 8 (symbolically) through the heart with the switchblade knife. So what is the secret nature of their conflict? What exactly happens between these two?

Juror # 8 applies a highly rational, logical approach to prove the accused boy not guilty. In contrast to him, Juror # 3 pursues his goal – of proving the boy guilty – with a great deal of passion, and is only eager to hear and accept those arguments that conform with his preconceived opinion. What makes these Juror # 8 and Juror # 3 the protagonist and the antagonist in the story is their relentless desire (to set the boy free and to administer the punishment, correspondingly): both are a lot more proactive in their pursuit than everyone else in the room. Juror # 8: “No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure”. Juror # 3: “We’re trying to put a guilty man in a chair where he belongs”.

It’s rather obvious that Juror # 3 is motivated by hatred to his estranged son who offended and left him (“pierced his heart”, figuratively speaking). That’s why Juror # 3 emphasizes so strongly with the murdered man, and wants to punish his own son by putting in the electric chair the boy who is accused of stabbing his father through the heart (that boy is the “son figure” for Juror # 3). However, the father/son aspect of the story is only a particular. What is important here is that Juror # 3 identifies himself primarily as the “wronged father”, and that self-definition serves as the substitute for the true essence of his character. His denial of truth stems from the pain rooted so deeply that it appears to be the very core of his personality, and makes Juror # 3 believe erroneously that his spontaneous, uncontrollable emotional and even physical reactions to that pain constitute his fundamental values (whereas in reality they are nothing but dark replacements of those values that turn him into a doppelgänger, a sadistic social monster driven to destroy his own son).

When truth challenges what we perceive as the very core of our existence, we have a choice : either to accept the truth and give up our false sense of self – or to ignore the truth and hold on to the falsehood that we imagine as conditio sine qua non of our sanity and survival. That’s when we may fall into the trap of aggressive denial. A human being in that state is highly susceptible to violent emotions, and prone to ignore any clear fact and any reasonable argument (like many people who suspect that they may be wrong but refuse to acknowledge that suspicion, Juror # 3 gives every indication of believing that if he says something forcefully enough it may become more true). That is the hardest, most impenetrable and lethal fallacy – but it, too, can be overcome if we realize that the false things inside us that we’re trying so hard to defend are not what we truly are. That’s how, in “12 Angry Men”, Juror # 3 defeats his pain and hatred by discovering the truth about his relationship with his son. This truth equals unconditional love and absolution, the very things that every child would want from a father: “No. Not guilty. Not guilty.”

In memory of Sidney Lumet

Dimitri Vorontzov

Thursday, April 14 2011, 11:25 AM, New York

Dogtooth, dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009

I want to begin by deciphering the meaning of the film’s iconic logo, used in its opening credits and posters. If we understand the meaning of that image, it will be a lot easier to recognize the message conveyed in this work of cinematic art. Here’s the full image, combined of three elements:

Dogtooth Logo, Medium Image

In the film, the logo appears one element at a time. First, the yellow flat line:

Dogtooth Logo, Flat Line

Yellow is a color of gold, a measure of social value; of the Sun, the center of the planetary hierarchy, and therefore, of the ruler, the government, and any kind of social system. A flat line, in medical terms, is an attribute of death (no heartbeat); metaphorically, it’s an expression of ethical and personal neutrality. A social being, characterized by the flat line, exists in the state of complete conformity; that being is morally inactive and cannot make mistakes. Neither can it achieve any spiritual heights, so is neither “good” nor “bad” because it’s personality had been reduced to zero.

The yellow flat line on the screen is followed by the red figure that has a certain resemblance of a semi-swastika:

Dogtooth Logo, Semi-Swastika

Red is the color of blood, danger, sexuality, suffering (inflicted or experienced); and, very fittingly, red has inevitably been chosen as a color of organized rebellion (whether of French, Russian, Chinese, South American or any other variety). The “semi-swastika” figure grows out of the preceding flat line and retains the flat line as its part, with medium-sized dogtooth-like protuberances growing up and down. The flat line part of the figure points at the compromise at its essence; a state of a human being, illustrated by that figure, is that of an excruciating conflict between the need for freedom and the urge to follow rules. The figure illustrate a painful and futile attempt at self-liberation, marred by fear.

Finally, after the red “semi-swastika” figure, the blue sinusoid appears:

Dogtooth Logo, Sinusoid

Blue: the color of sky, freedom, and spirituality; the color of God. The sinusoid represents the full range of fulfilled human potential and experience in all its aspects, achievable only to those few who can let go of their slavery to the yellow flat line. The blue sinusoid is the ideal state of spiritual freedom that wasn’t achieved by anyone we see onscreen in “Dogtooth”. (There may be a small probability that such spiritual freedom had been achieved by the absent character of the “escaped brother”.)

In this essay I want to focus on the themes and idea of “Dogtooth”, but I can’t help praising it, even if only briefly, for its aesthetic qualities. The authors (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) must have thoroughly brainstormed the subject matter. The film explores every aspect of its material, and maintains the steady supply of freshly shocking scenes. The son killing a cat with pruning shears. The setup of vicious guard dogs in the dog training sequence, and the visual “punch line” of a tiny, confused, intimidated white mutt, the owner barking at it: “Rex! Rex! Rex!”. The whole family barking mad (literally). And just as you think the film can’t avoid repeating itself any longer, it shocks you even more. Fish in the swimming pool. “Grandfather’s” song. Father and mother mouthing words. A wedding anniversary dance by the two sisters. Delightful!

Even though most of the action in “Dogtooth” contained within one family (and within one house and yard), it’s not a movie about interactions between parents and children or husbands and wives (even though the truths formulated in this dark comedy without a trace of a smile can be applied to family relationships, too). The family in the film serves as a model of oppressive society… not that there can be a society that is not oppressive. (Using the microcosm of a family to express ideas pertinent to society isn’t anything new in film history; “The Shining” (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of the most famous examples.)

The limitations imposed by society bring about numerous psychological and behavioral aberrations in people under strain: masochism and sadism (“the game of endurance”, cutting off the feet, hands and nose of a doll, and the “attack of a cat armed with a hammer” sequence); ferocious, predatory competitiveness (fighting over toy airplanes); infantilism (for example, in the episode where the son, who could be in his thirties, can’t sleep because of the full moon and climbs into his parents bed); lack of confidence and self-esteem (the siblings’ vocal delivery and body language are remarkable in their expression of expecting punishment for any wrong move). Incest is promoted for the sake of integrity and safety of the family.

Fear and misinformation are the most important instruments of the oppressor. Subjects consumed by fear will have to obey the ruler. We’re all well familiar with how it works. “The cat is the most dangerous animal there is. We have to be ready in case it invades the house or a garden.” (We’re so used to security guards handling the contents of our bags in libraries, museums and theaters – the guards who don’t really look into our bags; we’re so used to taking off our shoes and approaching metal detectors in airports barefoot – that we think of these idiotic rituals as something normal and don’t even feel humiliated by them anymore. How shameful!) Misinformation requires certain effort, but in the long run is almost as effective as fear: the father who removes the labels from water bottles and spear-hunts the live fish he put in the swimming pool, and the mother who narrates the modified vocabulary lessons for her children are bound to be obeyed and respected as the ultimate authority figures.

Society promotes competition and administers tests. The winner of any competition is predetermined, and the purpose of the tests is not so much to gauge the compliance of the subject with the social standards, as to impose those standards. The very act of testing, followed by qualification, is the event where the rules to be complied with are introduced and ingrained in the minds. Whenever you’re subjected to any type of testing: whether IQ tests or other forms of psychometric and aptitude tests, or any kind of personality questionnaires, be aware that you are being molded into the norm, and some part of your inherent originality is being destroyed. The people of the system who give you the tests are trying to enforce their authority over your mind by testing you. Tests eliminate your originality, they transform you into a mediocrity that is easy to control. Things like “high IQ” , or even “high emotional IQ” are not really indicators of true intelligence, and the intelligence itself is not the indicator of your true value. Those are just social mechanisms to assign a label and a place in the grid for you. Any talents you may have – whether to drawing, music or medicine – will be placed in service of the system.

Aside from tests, there are more direct ways of imposing notions on minds. Society does that non-stop, defining our reality for us and adding ageism, sexism and multiple other “isms” to our perception: “What’s the most creative age of a man?” – “Between 30 and 40!” – “What’s the most creative age of a woman?” – “Between 20 and 30!” Names of those who managed to escape the influence of the system are used to instill more fear: “Your brother was killed because he leaved the safety of our house”. Entertainment offers one of the most effective methods of brainwashing. The scene in which the father uses “Fly me to the moon” (sung by the British Frank Sinatra impersonator Fred Gardner) as an indoctrination tool can serve a great illustration of the mechanism. (Ever wondered why true art of intellectual cinema barely survives in dilapidated “art-houses” while some idiocy like “Saw XXVII” boldly occupies large screens in cineplexes? It’s not because commercially successful intellectual cinema isn’t viable; it’s because society needs dull, witless entertainment to keep you stupid. Our entertainment movies work much in the same way as Goebbels’ propaganda films.)

Society applies “dog training” methods to human beings, keeping us imprisoned until we pass the “stage 5″ of our training: complete submission, total elimination of our inherent characters, pure social function: a zombie.

But that’s not the worst; and that’s where we approach the message of the film.

“A child is ready to leave the house when the right or left dogtooth comes out. Only then is your body ready to face the dangers that lurk. To leave the house and be safe outside, we must take the car. A child is ready to learn to drive when the dogtooth grows again.”

Society has a safety mechanism against the rebel types. There are rules for the rebellion. In “Dogtooth”, the older daughter falls into a trap of rebelling “by the book”: similarly to the group of characters in Luis Buñuel’s “El ángel exterminador” (1962), she can’t just force herself to walk out of the gate; she finds in necessary to execute the program installed in her mind by society. The scene in which the older daughter knocks out her tooth with a dumbbell and then locks herself in a trunk of her father’s car, illustrates the heroic pains a typical rebel takes, hoping to break free from the system, but in reality blindly following the explicit commands provided by that system. Think of how often we put ourselves through painful acts of fulfilling what society imposes as the conditions for our freedom: we go out of our way to free ourselves, but do it according to the rules determined by society (through hard work, humiliation or any other type of self-inflicted suffering). The scene of knocking out the dogtooth demonstrates the illusory nature of any initiation ritual and oppression at the core of any mythology in service of society.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Monday, April 4 2011, 11:oo PM, New York

The original Greek title of this film is Κυνόδοντας, (Kynodontas), it’s produced by Iraklis Mavroidis, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Yorgos Tsourianis at Boo Productions in 2009.

Spoorloos, dir. by George Sluizer, 1988

A note on the method: one of the key questions we must ask when analyzing any work of art is whether the artist expresses a pessimistic or optimistic point of view. It’s typically “either – or”, because the mixture of both is practically never even, and tends toward either optimism or pessimism (most commonly the latter). Determining a pessimistic or optimistic point of view of a film is often easy, because in most works the climax and resolution leave no place for doubt: it’s either a happy ending, or a “downer”. For example, Ingmar Bergman’s “In the Presence of the Clown” (1997) is unmistakably one of the most pessimistic films even for this generally ruthless director: in the dilemma of “sinking” versus “rising” he chose “sinking” in the climax. In a somewhat less obvious case, “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), also by Bergman, a grain of hope remains at the end, but knowing the previous history of Johann and Marianne, we can be sure they will never truly reunite. On the other hand, “Fanny and Alexander” (1983) and “The Magic Flute” (1975) are optimistic stories, despite their inevitably ironic endings.

To be able to define a film as optimistic or pessimistic, we should have clear understanding of its main theme.  ”Some people are lucky to get a fair treatment, but ultimately, the justice doesn’t exist”. Theme: justice; attitude: pessimism.  ”People do suffer unfairly sometimes, but in the long run justice always triumphs, even if not completely”. Theme: justice; attitude: optimism. “God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t give a damn about His people”. Theme: religion; attitude: pessimism. “God is perfect, omniscient and omnipresent, and His will determines everything that happens to us, even if we don’t understand Him”. Theme: religion; attitude: optimism.

Having defined the theme and the outlook, we must determine whether the artist gives artistically compelling, competent proof of his pessimistic or optimistic position. And finally, we must choose whether we agree or disagree with the offered point of view, and why.

Analyzing “Spoorloos” (literally, “Traceless”, known in US as “The Vanishing” and in France as “L’homme qui voulait savoir”) we have to conclude that even though the film has a deceptively optimistic climactic point (Rex has a vision of reuniting with Saskia) – it ends with a perfectly pessimistic resolution: Rex and Saskia are dead, their photos are apart from one another on the newspaper page, their murderer enjoys impunity, and even his deep existential angst emotionally underlines the bleak mood of the ending.

The film deals with the theme of communication, and asserts pessimistically that human contact is impossible despite any effort. Did  the director George Sluizer prove the idea convincingly? Do we agree with him? I won’t retell “Spoorloos” in this article: I assume the reader has seen it. Instead, I’ll sketch a list of themes treated in the film, and scenes that illustrate those themes.

Blending in with nature: the opening shot of the stick insect attached to a tree, followed by a panorama across the blooming meadow. Rex and Saskia’s choice to explore the countryside. The shot of the praying mantis in the grass at the end of the film. The bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s graves. Animals on a torn poster next to the poster of the vanished Saskia. This theme must be interpreted in two ways: as an expression of a desire to achieve a state of harmony with nature, and as a visual metaphor of mimicry. The image of the praying mantis in particular offers a number of relevant allusions: the insect makes itself near-invisible in the environment, lying in wait, and then attacks its prey suddenly, with terrific speed. It’s a cannibal insect, known for devouring its mates during copulation. It’s clear that the praying mantis metaphor points at Raymond, the film’s sociopathic antagonist. However, the protagonist, Rex, initially displays a lot of similar qualities: in the beginning of the film, having just abandoned Saskia in a car stranded in a middle of a dark tunnel where she may be killed by a passing truck, Rex, in his own words, feels more in love with her than ever before.

Survival: expressed in the film metaphorically through the recurrent motive of the Tour de France bicycle race.  The all-permeating race for survival is one of the major factors contributing to the impossibility of true contact in the material world. As long as we’re preoccupied with having to survive, we are competitors in the race to every other survivor, and therefore cannot truly unite with them. Rex’s ability to overcome his urge to survive is the key turning point in his character development arch.

Superficiality of communication: one of the film’s notable features is the nonsense “small talk” type of dialogue illustrating lack of contact between people. It’s introduced in the opening scene of the film, when Rex and Saskia rant about animals, insects and trees (all things nature). Later, Rex and Raymond compare the nonsensical Dutch and French last names. Ironically, Rex appears to have much better rapport with the murderer of his wife, than he had with her. Raymond also calls out Rex’s superficiality by labeling him as an “amateur cyclist”. Raymond’s behavior appears to be anything but superficial: his meticulous preparation to a murder is a masterpiece of organizing. However, Raymond’s relationship with his wife and daughters is beyond superficial: being a sociopath, Raymond lacks empathy in any form, and his contact with members of his family is limited to using and manipulating them. In one memorable bit of dialogue, Raymond directly tells his wife about his obsession with committing an act of ultimate evil – but he omits the specifics, and what he says may be attributed to his obsession with their country house, proving that even when the truth is told, the listener is likely to interpret it from a subjective point of view. The importance of this episode is underlined with subtle, eerie music. In a more dramatic way, Raymond’s interaction with Rex may be interpreted as a highly perverted, doomed attempt at establishing a contact.

Isolation: Saskia’s recurrent nightmare about floating through space trapped in a golden egg. (There’s another golden egg drifting nearby, and should the two eggs collide, it will all be over.) Rex having the same dream. Rex and Saskia being trapped in a car inside the dark tunnel. Saskia’s terror of abandonment. Of course, the climactic event of the film is the ultimate metaphor for the state of isolation. Most importantly, the isolated photos of Rex and Saskia in the newspaper. The physical isolation in “Spoorloos” is horrifying, but the psychological alienation described in the film is probably even more profoundly disturbing, and I do not refer here only to near-autistic mental isolation of Raymond preparing for the murder. The isolation of Rex throughout the film is subtler, but no less complete. After Saskia has vanished, Rex is naturally terrified for her, but that doesn’t prevent him from being a lot more preoccupied, even if only momentarily, with the theft of their bicycles. Only two years later he is already in love with another woman, Lieneke, and would choose her over his former love, should Saskia suddenly reappear. Lieneke, however, is not happy with Rex, because he never stops thinking about Saskia, and the true contact between him and Lieneke never occurs. Rex’s curiosity about Saskia’s fate is so obsessive that he would rather choose the situation in which she is dead but he knows what happened to her, than her being alive on the condition that he knows nothing. Even the main motivation that ultimately leads Rex to his sacrifice is curiosity, rather than love. George Sluizer emphasizes the similarity in the opposing characters of Raymond and Rex, asserting the nature of Rex’s relationship with Saskia – the nature of any “normal” relationship, really – as inherently sociopathic. There’s a great deal of resemblance between what Rex does to Saskia in the tunnel and what Raymond does to her off-screen. Raymond is claustrophobic, and his idea of  ”the most horrible deed that is worse than killing” is, of course, the act of trapping a living being in complete and hopeless isolation.

Subjectivism: yet another manifestation of the isolation. I already mentioned the dialogue of Raymond and his wife that expresses the notion of subjectivism very clearly. Raymond’s younger daughter is sure that he has a mistress, and Raymond doesn’t try to convince her otherwise. In the tunnel, Saskia’s suffering is Rex’s triumph, and he subjectively believes that at that moment he’s in love with her, just while she’s at the peak of hating him, tormented by her fear of being abandoned. A single woman who interprets Raymond’s approach as an attempt to pick her up. Saskia, blinded by her love to Rex, falling into the murderer’s trap because she hoped to buy a gift for her husband.

Rex in the beginning of the film is self-centered and oblivious of the emotional needs of Saskia. It’s rather natural that Saskia finds herself isolated even in his presence. After Saskia has vanished, the mounting pressure, the urge to know what happened to his wife gradually transforms Rex, making him take action to overcome his lack of awareness. The only chance to destroy superficiality and subjectivism, the only one way to establish a connection with another human being is to discard the ego by putting oneself through the same experience. Having allowed himself that choice, Rex took the ultimate step toward uniting with Saskia and breaking through the shell of the “golden egg”. Rex’s character arch leads him from the state of natural isolation to the conscious choice of becoming the other person by living through the extreme ordeal that person had experienced, even if it means death in the end. Having thus shed his ego, Rex becomes the true hero. There’s just one problem with his self-sacrifice: it’s naive and ultimately useless. Even in recreating Saskia’s experience, Rex remains isolated within his subjectivism, and his final vision of  reuniting with Saskia is nothing more than wishful thinking of a dying man. The reunion only takes place in his imagination. Even the strongest, least conservative action doesn’t lead to lifting the limits of isolation. Death turns out to be not the way to unite with another human being, but merely the way to achieve the ultimate harmony with nature: by dissolving into it, becoming it. Hence, the two separate bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s final resting place.

I am forced to admit that within the limits of the given story, I find the point of view of George Sluizer well-argued. Philosophically, it’s an uncompromising position, and I respect that. And yet, everything in my belief system prevents me from accepting that point of view. Yes, we are limited by our material bodies and social statuses, by language and emotions, and of course we’re bound by the shortness of our lifetime and the need to survive. But I simply can’t allow myself to give up hope that my connection with someone I love is real. Even if true human contact is an exception to the general rule, I want to implement that exception in my reality.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Friday, April 1 2011, 10:13 PM, New York

La Pianiste, dir. by Michael Haneke, 2001

There’s a certain type of predator whose function is to lure potentially enlightened people away from enlightenment.  The predator, socially deprived of traditional ways to achieve dominance, is motivated by the urge to dominate and will occupy the professional position of authority related to a certain spiritual phenomenon, and will dedicate all its energy to negating every aspect of spirituality inherent in such phenomenon. For example, the predator can be a music teacher who, as it is unfortunately common among music teachers, will do everything to teach a talented youngster who genuinely loves music that music is to be hated.  The predator is inevitably seductive to immature but promising minds who plead to become the predator’s disciples. Once the  teacher-disciple relationship is initiated, the predator will immediately attack the unprepared mind with extreme force of utter cynicism and materialism.

Every human being, every one of us really, has the devil as well as angel in us. In many cases the dark side is counterbalanced with fear of society. Spiritually enlightened, or potentially enlightened people are rarely afraid of society and in their case the dark side is counterbalanced with intelligence, compassion and culture. But what if compassion and culture are removed? There’s no fear of society in that individual, and the dark side, powered by intelligence, swiftly takes over and irreparably destroys the personality of the individual. The predator blocks every possible chance for its victim to ever regain spirituality. I’m not into yoga, but using yogic terminology metaphorically, it’s as if an unbreakable lid is set permanently over the top chakra of the predator’s victim.

In life, just like in the film, the predator is likely to use sexuality as the simplest, most obvious and effective materialistic weapon, to keep things at a level of the second chakra, so to speak. This doesn’t have to be done physically and in person, as in “La Pianiste”. Very often a questionable authority figure in music, visual art or literature will attempt to impose sexual interpretation of the meaning of a great artwork, or novel or a work in any other artistic medium. Sexuality is a very obvious way, but it’s not the only way. To speak more generally, any spiritual idea can be materialistically reinterpreted by the predator.  If a bright but unstable mind trusts such reinterpretation, a tragedy may occur, as illustrated by Michael Haneke in his film.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 23 2001, 11:32 AM, New York

M, dir. by Fritz Lang, 1931

Film storytellers who aim to make strong moral statements may choose to rely on extreme, controversial perspectives in order to get their message across. For example, Liliana Cavani in “The Night Porter” (1974), wishing to express the power of romantic love, selected a Nazi torturer and his female victim as a pair of star-crossed lovers. Similarly, Lars von Trier in “Breaking the Waves” (1996), striving to emphasize that a wife can achieve saint-like enlightenment by submitting unquestioningly to her husband’s will, made the husband a sexually obsessed paraplegic who forces his wife into the life of prostitution. In my opinion, both filmmakers failed to cope with their unmanageable material and fell into relishing of sadomasochistic aspects of perverted relationships they attempted to justify. Extreme perspective is a risky method, demanding highly developed taste and a great deal of healthy rationality from any artist who wishes to use it. As a significantly more successful example stands out Merian C. Cooper and Earnest B. Shoedsack’s “King Kong” (1933), in which the power of a femme fatale to ensnare and destroy even the most resourceful and violent male was famously illustrated by pitting a seemingly innocent and helpless young actress against the murderous oversized ape of the title.

One of the finest examples of cinematic narration that employs such “broad brushstrokes” dramatic technique is “M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder “, written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, and directed by Lang in 1931. The central character of the story is Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre’s arguably most famous role), the maniac who terrorizes Berlin for months by luring and killing children. Hardly any character in film history would seem to deserve less compassion than Hans Beckert – and yet compassion to that monster is precisely the emotion Fritz Lang leads his audience to experience.

The animal nature of the Homo Sapiens has enough power to dictate our behavior; history offers countless illustrations for the scope of viciousness of our species. We brought ruin to nations, ethnic groups and entire civilizations; we even murdered our God. And yet I refuse to regard myself as merely a beast with a somewhat better developed brain: I choose to believe that at the core of every human being’s psychological setup there’s a well-defined structure of moral principles that should govern that individual’s decisions. Some people may be less sensitive to such inner postulates, and others may have no way whatsoever of connecting with their conscience, but I can’t help thinking that it’s more than just the social taboo or biological survival-of-the-species imperative that prevents us from destroying each other at every opportunity. I may be too optimistic, but I’d like to hope that an average human being is imbued with the deep sense of empathy that forbids us to cause evil to others. At the very least, I think that any person aspiring to spirituality should develop such sense.

So how can it happen that any human being, even though inherently moral, may give in to an impulse to do evil? In what ways does our demonic nature triumph over morality?

According to Fritz Lang, nature and society have conspired to create a loophole in our moral code, allowing any human being to circumvent the inner interdiction of causing harm to others. The loophole that can be metaphorically named “M” consists of justifying an evil deed with high moral considerations. A person may consider any malicious act as acceptable if it’s being done “for the greater good”.

Every one of us needs to see self as “good” and “right”. We need to experience our philosophy as correct. Such sense of moral righteousness forms the basis of our ability to assess the environment, and is therefore essential to our physical survival. And yet none of us is absolutely good. We can only be good by comparison with someone else whom we consider “worse than us”. That’s how very early in life we learn to demonize others in order to justify our actions: we develop the need for having an enemy. We mark the enemy for destruction with the proverbial “M” and feel justified in our desire to destroy.

A serial murderer of children qualifies as the ideal candidate for the role of the enemy. It’s easy to hate him: no one is more ignoble than he is. Even the criminals who have to kill for survival feel justified in their righteous urge to punish Hans Beckert – and up to a certain point in the film we, the audience, may even emphasize with the criminals, who stop at nothing to capture the maniac; we, too, want him killed.

But even though Der Schränker, the master criminal, asserts that his organization must destroy Hans Beckert to protect the children, that’s not the real motivation. The crooks want Hans Beckert out of commission because their criminal business is disrupted by daily raids the police has to conduct in search for the maniac. Saving the children is only a noble pretense that hides purely economic interests… and yet even those interests become secondary by the time the maniac is finally at the mercy of Der Schränker and his kangaroo court of thieves. The masks are off and the audience finally realizes the true underlying motive of the violence: the sheer sadistic pleasure of destroying someone completely helpless.

This notion is best expressed by Hans Beckert himself in his climactic monologue. The monster describes being chased by his “other self” and the ghosts of his victims, and confesses that only the moment of actual killing gives him temporary sense of relief and freedom from guilt.

When neighbors write anonymous letters to the police about each other, accusing each other of being child murderers; when drinking buddies spontaneously decide to ostracize one of their own and expose him as a pedophile; when a street bully towers over a little old man and then drags him to a police – all these events in the film are rationalized by the hunt for the child murderer, but in reality the urge to expose a maniac is only a pretense: people simply use it to feel justified in their hatred to their neighbors and in their desire to dominate and destroy another human being. The crooks set up their court not because they want to punish the evil deed, but simply because they need, for once, to experience the sense of liberating righteousness while committing a murder.

The true reason for violence is the sensation of power it can give. The wicked do evil so that they can experience the doing. Anything else is merely a rationalization. The existence of such rationalization is the main theme treated by Fritz Lang in his film. The message is twofold: we must be able to recognize the truth when someone is using a beautiful justification for an evil deed; and even more importantly, we must be aware of our own inherent desire to do evil, and must prevent our attempts to use the loophole in our ethics and justify our potential wickedness by any kind of greater good. No matter how monstrous our enemy may be, if we succumb to hatred, we destroy our own souls.

You may think this idea is way too abstract, but it’s immediately applicable to the current reality – to any current reality. The ruse of justifying evil actions with noble considerations is well-known and has been used consistently all through history. People were tortured and killed in the name of true faith and spiritual enlightenment, salvation of their own souls, national unity, protection of society, duty, and, on many occasions, even out of pacifism (as in “Sergeant York”, dir. by Howard Hawks, 1941). When my country attacks another country on the opposite side of the globe, whether to destroy a tyrant, establish the democracy or protect innocent civilians, I am repelled, because I know that all these beautiful motives hide the ugly truth. Wars are waged for money, influence, power – and for the joy of killing.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 22 2011, 2:15 AM, New York

L’Arrivee d’un train, 1895

My goal in writing this article is to prove that “L’Arrivee d’un train” is remarkable not merely as one of the early examples of moving image, but more importantly, as an early work of cinema as art – thanks to its profound philosophical controlling idea. I know the film in two different versions, marked with the same number: Lumiere #653. One of the two versions includes the footage of a lavishly dressed woman and her tiny daughter, running together hand in hand alongside the railroad track. The other version can be recognized by the image of a man wearing a light suit and a cap, walking backwards in front of the camera, likely aware that he’s in the shot, but probably not realizing that the apparatus he’s being filmed with is Le Cinematographe Lumiere.

According to the famous urban myth, during the premiere of this 50-seconds-long film in 1896 in Lyon the audience was so terrified of the image of the arriving train that many people leaped up from their seats, screaming, and ran to the back of the screening room. That myth may or may not be true, and yet, it appears certain that Auguste and Louis Lumiere, when they captured the approaching train on film at the most expressive angle they could think of, did expect to elicit strong emotional reaction from their audience. This was the likely reason why they didn’t stop the camera immediately after the train arrived to the platform, but kept rolling to record the hubbub of disembarking passengers and people greeting them on the platform: the pre-climactic buildup of the locomotive filling the screen was too powerful and needed a relatively longer period of relief.

People at the premiere of the film knew that the train was merely an illusion, a sequence of  photographs projected onto a white screen – and yet their reaction to the illusion was real. Seeing the arriving train made people tense up, hold their breath, perhaps even gasp, their heartbeat quickened, the palms of their hands moist, their mouths dry – or, if the legend had any basis in reality,  maybe some of the viewers did scream and run in panic.  Whatever the reaction was, it was intended by the Lumiers, the masters of illusion. And their intention can help us to recognize the controlling idea, the intrinsic philosophical message of this early example of the art of film.

“L’Arrive d’un train” says that even though we may be aware of the illusory nature of a certain event, that event is nevertheless likely to elicit a strong emotional response from us, and therefore, to motivate us to action. The emotion provoked by an event may be positive or negative, and therefore we may act out of fear or desire – but whatever the motive, we end up acting all the same, and become involved, entangled, in the various manifestations of the material world – or, metaphorically, in the idle dither of the crowd greeting the proverbial train that rushes on to crush us. With that crowd we chase that train, no more capable of releasing ourselves from the claws of illusion than the tiny girl on the platform can free herself from the grasp of her oblivious mother – and even if we realize the hidden mechanisms of the occurrence and decide to move against the flow and avoid being “in the shot”, like the backward-walking gentleman in the light suit and a cap, we still can’t help being “captured” – objectified by the material and social system – against our will.

Obviously, this message refers to much more than just the illusion of images moving on a screen. Any type of illusion works in the same way, whether it’s money (in our age, nothing more than abstract arrangement of particles on the disks of banking computers),  terrorists (modern boogeymen, replacing communist conspiracy in public mind and forcing countries into wars), medicine (pills that promise to save us but put our health out of balance instead) and myriad of other things. So the idea at the core of this film is not only deep but also practical.

Despite its apparent pessimism, the Lumieres’ philosophical warning offers hope. If we know where the trap is laid for us, we have a chance to avoid it, so by being aware of our human propensity to act on impulse stirred by the illusion, we can counterpose our conscious refusal to follow that impulse.

The idea, expressed by the Lumieres, is congruent with their chosen medium: the method fits the message. With “L’Arrivee d’un train”, Auguste et Louis became the founders of the tradition of cinema exploring and exploiting its own illusory nature. The pinnacle figure of that tradition was, of course, the great Ingmar Bergman who, remarkably, titled his autobiography  ”Laterna Magica”, thus implying that his life and creative work constituted a mere succession of illusory projections.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 16 2001, 4:12 PM, New York

The complete title of the film discussed in this article is “L’arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”. It was produced and directed by the French inventors of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, in 1895.