"Jules and Jim" - Francois Truffaut (1962)

Perhaps Francois Truffaut’s most memorable film was Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, 1962).  It was the third feature film for the 29-year-old former film critic, coming directly after his outstanding Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste, 1960), and for many people it ranks as the seminal film of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) in cinematic expression.

The story is based on the mostly autobiographical first novel of the same name by Henri-Pierre Roché, which he published in 1953 at the age of 74 and which described his experiences many decades earlier.  Truffaut is said to have run across this novel in 1955 at a used book stall in Paris and had been so enthralled by it that he vowed to make a film out of the story [1].  Truffaut and Roché gradually worked out the script of the film, although though the author’s death in 1959 prevented his seeing the finished project.  Nevertheless, Roché did know about and approved the idea of Jeanne Moreau playing the pivotal role of Catherine in the story [2]. 

Actually, Jeanne Moreau’s performance is so electric that many viewers, particularly women, in my experience, feel that the film is really about her character.  Ms. Moreau’s lengthy career was full of acclaimed showings, often as a femme fatale, but most people regard her role here in Jules and Jim as her signature performance. It may well have been vitalized by the fact that she and Truffaut were apparently having an affair at the time of production [2].  The entire cast, though, is excellent and features:
  • Jeanne Moreau as Catherine
  • Oskar Werner as Jules
  • Henri Serre as Jim
  • Vanna Urbino as Gilberte, Jim's fiancee
  • Serge Rezvani as Albert, a friend of Jules's
  • Marie Dubois, who was wonderful in Shoot the Piano Player, has a memorable cameo role as Thérèse, a woman who has a brief affair with Jules.
In addition to the fine acting, Jules and Jim is graced by the dreamy music of Georges Delerue, who wrote the scores for many films, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and several other Truffaut films, including Shoot the Piano Player.  Another key ingredient was the dynamic cinematography of Raoul Coutard, who apart from working with Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player and La Peau Douce) was more famously associated with several films directed by Jean-Luc Godard.  Here his cinematography is particularly enlivened by interestingly-composed long shots, moving-camera shots, and freeze frames.

This inventive mise-en-scene of Truffaut and Coutard is one of the principal virtues of Jules and Jim, because it imbues the film with a pervasive sense of melancholy, even including those early scenes representing care-free enjoyment.  We know from the narrative voiceover that this story is one of recollection, remembrance of things past, but the cinematography accentuates this psychological experience by highlighting (using, for example, freeze frames) those special moments that persist in one’s memories of long ago experiences. This contemplative, melancholy flavouring is one of the things that makes the film special.

The narrative covers the long-standing friendship of two men, Jules and Jim, and how they attempted to accommodate themselves to the love they both felt for the same woman. The two men have distinct personalities, which makes their friendship rather interesting.  Jules is sensitive, giving, and vulnerable.  Jim is gentlemanly, but also more self-sufficient – he plays by his own rules and doesn’t give in so easily to others’ demands.  Nevertheless, they formed a firm partnership, such that they were likened by others to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  One might first think that the confidant Jim was the Quixote character, and the less dominant Jules was the Sancho Panza.  But recall in that ancient tale that Don Quixote was the idealistic dreamer, while Sancho Panza was the worldly and pragmatic operator.  In addition it appears that Jules is wealthier than Jim.  So I would say that Jules is the Quixote character, and Jim is the Sancho Panza of the twosome.  And yet one could also say that in a certain sense the truly “quixotic” one is Catherine. Anyway, the focalization of this tale is on Jim, whose perspective mirrors the experiences of Henri-Pierre Roché.  Just about everything that we see in the film is from Jim’s viewpoint or what Jim would probably have been told about.  Note that since this is all reminiscence, what Jim remembers could also be scenes that he devised in his mind from what he was told.

As the story of their friendship evolves, it passes through a series of stages.

1.  Jules and Jim Form a Friendship

The story begins in 1912 when Jules, a diffident Austrian, becomes friends with Jim, a bohemian Parisian, because of their mutual interest in culture and art.  Soon they are getting together daily to talk about everything, including their mutual pursuits after women, at which Jim is decidedly more successful.  It is in this sequence that Jules forms a romantic friendship with the capricious Thérèse, who memorably performs her inverted-cigarette choo-choo prance in front of Coutard’s closely tracking camera.

The two men visit Jules’s friend Albert, who shows them some slides of ancient sculpture, one of which, a sculptured head of a woman with an enigmatic smile, so captures the fancies of the two friends that they decide to go and see it firsthand on its Adriatic island.  Later they meet a young woman, Catherine, who reminds them of that statue and similarly haunts their fantasies. 

2.  Jules, Jim, and Catherine
Jules takes an immediate interest in Catherine, and pleadingly whispers privately to his friend, “Not with her, Jim, OK?”.  It is clear that Jules feels hopelessly inferior to Jim on the romantic plane.  But anyway, Jim already has a girlfriend, Gilberte, who loves him without reservation and hopes that he will ask her to marry him.

Gradually the volatile and intense personality of Catherine comes to the fore.  Although she is ostensibly Jules’s girl, Catherine frolics with them equally, in the fashion of a threesome.  In this group, she always wants to be the center of attention.  On one occasion Catherine dresses as a man, and the three of them take to the streets fooling people into believing that they are three men together.  At another point when Jim is helping Catherine with her suitcase to make a short trip, Jim notices that she packs a bottle of sulfuric acid to use against any man who might abuse her.

Later while they are walking in the evening after seeing a theatrical play together, Catherine becomes bored and frustrated with her companions’ intellectual reactions to the play.  Catherine says she liked the girl in the play, because “she wants to be free and live each moment of her life”; while Jules and Jim dismiss her psychological analysis and prefer to discuss the “metaphysics” behind the play.  After hearing them go on about this, Catherine impulsively jumps off a bridge into the Seine river.  The voiceover narration at this point tells how favourably impressed Jim was with Catherine by this act.

Finally, Jules telephones Jim to tell him that he and Catherine are going back to Austria to get married.  But shortly thereafter World War I breaks out, and the two men are conscripted to serve in the armies of their mutually opposed countries.  During the war, Jules writes passionate love letters to Catherine, while Jim manages to see Gilberte on one of his infrequent furloughs. 

3 Jim’s Postwar Visit to Austria
After the war, Jim, who is now working for a newspaper, is invited to visit Jules and Catherine in Austria for a month.  Although at first Jim seems to be visiting a happily married couple, now with a young daughter named Sabine, he soon learns that their marriage is failing.  Jules privately tells Jim that Catherine is unhappy with him and has already had several affairs, “one as revenge for something I did, but I don’t know what.”  He confesses glumly to his friend, “I am not the man for her.”

After hearing this, Jim recalls Jules’s past “errors” with other women.  This reflects more on the character of Jim than on that of Jules.  To the manipulative Jim, a successful relationship depends one’s abilities to perform the “correct” actions towards the other.

After a week, Jim and Catherine become more familiar, and they go for a walk alone in the evening.  Jim is now wrestling with the fact that he has always been attracted to Catherine, and he wonders what he should do.  While they walk, Catherine is amazingly frank in describing her failed marriage. 
“I hoped to heal him [Jules] of his crises with cheerfulness, but I realized that his crises were part of him.”
. . .
“Our last argument and true breakup was on his first leave [from the army]”.  I felt like I was in a stranger’s arms . . . He left.  9 months later Sabine was born.”
. . .
“As a husband to me, Jules is finished.”
She tells him that they now live in separate rooms and that she has only been back for 3 months, after being apart during a 6-month affair.  At the moment, she is having an affair with Jules’s old friend Albert.  In response to all this, Jim tells her that he always knew that Jules would be unable to hold on to her and that he has understood her; but Catherine defiantly answers by saying, “I don’t want to be understood.”

However, Jules still loves Catherine and desperately wants to be a part of her life, no matter how diminished his role might be.  He tells Jim to go ahead and romance Catherine and marry her, just so he will have the chance to see her sometimes.

4.  Jim and Catherine Get Together
The next evening Jim unleashes his passions and makes his approach to Catherine.  In a romantic scene, they kiss, and the voiceover says, “their first kiss lasted all night.”  (I have always remembered that line.) 

The next morning Catherine tells Jules that Jim should live with them.  They become a menage a trois, or perhaps un amour a trois.  It is truly three-way, since Jules and Jim love each other, platonically, too.

However, not long later, boredom for Catherine sets in again.  One Sunday afternoon, she decides to seduce Jules, much to the consternation of the now-infatuated Jim.  The “amour-a-trois” relationship has its limits.   Eventually Jim’s newspaper recalls him to Paris.  On departing, Jim tells Catherine that he wants to marry her and have children.

5.  Jim and Catherine Struggle
Back in Paris, Jim tells Gilberte of his plans to marry Catherine.  Then he writes to Catherine that he will be returning soon, but first he has to make “a few farewells”, a phrase that on receipt angers Catherine.  When he returns to Catherine, she provocatively tells him that she went ahead and made her own “farewells”, too.  They decide to go ahead and have a baby, but when Catherine doesn’t become pregnant straight off, she becomes frustrated with the mechanics off baby-making.  They quarrel, make up, and then quarrel again and finally decide to separate for three months.

Back in Paris and now sick with the flu, Jim receives a letter from Catherine that sets off a message exchange that highlights their mutual mistrust and unwillingness to surrender to love (only Jules and Gilberte in this story could do that).
  1. Catherine’s letter tells Jim that she is pregnant, and for him to come immediately..
  2. Jim writes back jealously saying he is sick and not coming back.
  3. Jules writes to Jim saying they doubt that Jim is really sick and that he should come back anyway.
  4. Jim writes back saying, given Catherine’s promiscuity, he doubts that he is the father.
  5. But at the same time (their letters crossed in the mail), he gets a letter from Catherine saying that she really loves him.
  6. So Jim writes a second letter to Catherine saying that he loves her and is coming.
  7. Catherine, meanwhile, has received Jim’s earlier letter, and angrily writes back telling him to get lost.
  8. Then Catherine gets Jim’s subsequent letter, and writes to him that she loves him and for him to come.
  9. Finally, Jim gets a letter from Jules informing him that Catherine had a miscarriage and that Catherine wants to terminate their relationship.
Time passes. Jim and Catherine are now apart, but there are further occasions over the years when they meet up. Catherine continues alternatively to solicit Jim’s interest and provoke him.  Jim, the earlier avowed risk-taker, meanwhile, becomes more and more defensive and standoffish. For him Gilberte appears to be tactically the safer option.

There are increasingly dramatic encounters between Catherine and Jim, but things are not headed in an optimistic direction, and I will leave it to you to see what happens in the end.  In the final scene, Jules reflects that the relationship he had with Jim had no equal in love.

There are fascinating and attractive aspects of Jules and Jim, but there are weaknesses, too.  The story covers a considerable duration, some twenty years, and yet the passing of time is not well presented in the film.  The film begins in 1912, and by the end of the story we are aware of Nazi book-burnings, which must make it around 1933.  And yet the characters show no signs of aging or acknowledgements that considerable amounts of time have passed since their earlier encounters.  One could perhaps argue that this is the nature of memory – we situate our memories in the past, but we don’t emphasize the passing of time.  Our memories represent snap-shots of experiences that we have simply had in the past, which is “back there in time”, but may have little temporality to them.  We don’t think of ourselves as having changed very much, at least psychologically, it is only the external world of circumstances that has changed. 

What makes the film interesting, nevertheless, is its psychological exploration of love and friendship between men and women.  In particular, it highlights the fact that men can have strong, platonic love for each other that is not necessarily homoerotic. In the current cultural climate, people might accuse Jules and Jim of being “closet queens”, but that would be a misrepresentation.  Men can have this strong friendship, a form of love, without any physical attraction.  And I think this love is very different from that between a man and a woman.  In Jules and Jim we have both of these relationships and an attempt to reconcile the conflicts that can naturally arise in these circumstances.

In this respect we have three distinct, but realistic, personalities. 
  • Catherine is willful and spontaneous.  She lives for the moment.  She can be likened to the Anny character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, who was always searching for the perfect moment.  This is not an exclusively feminine trait, as attested to by Goethe’s Faust.  But Catherine is also selfish and lacking in compassion.  She wants to be possessed by an “alpha male”, but only for a moment.  Then she wants to break free and look for something else.
  • Jim is inspired to be the “alpha male”, but he is concerned about his own dignity and his faithfulness to higher principals.  In this connection, he is conscious of avoiding “mistakes” when dealing with women he wishes to possess.
  • Jules is compassionate and giving, but he evinces neither the commanding nature or the mystery that Catherine desires. 
We encounter these personalities and conflicts all the time. The desire to be completely one with another entails a certain degree of possessiveness. There is no way to avoid this conflict when mutual friends like Jules and Jim run into such a situation. The beauty of Jules and Jim comes from its melancholy fatalism in this regard.

To a certain extent, I see both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard as frustrated romantics.  Though they had different styles of cinematic expression, they both showed worlds depicting romantic possibilities that were thwarted not by bad luck, but because they were intrinsically doomed to be thwarted.  This is the nature of tragedy.  It is to Francois Truffaut’s credit that he could depict this kind of tragedy in a cinematic fashion that, by combining music, temporal sequences, and psychologically-inspired images, showed how far one could go beyond the written word to express these feelings.

  1. Truffaut would later make another excellent film based on Roché’s only other novel, the also semi-autobiographical Two English Girls (Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, 1971).
  2. Chale Nafus, “Jules and Jim”, Austin Film Society, (2014).

"And Along Came a Spider" - Maziar Bahari (2003)

The word ‘evil’ comes up constantly in our social discourse  – not only in ordinary conversation but also in the remarks made by cultural and political leaders of high standing.  Although the word might be assumed to have a specifically religious connotation, it is commonly used by Western secular leaders, too, as philosopher John Gray observed [1]:
“When Barack Obama vows to destroy Isis’s ‘brand of evil’ and David Cameron declares that Isis is an ‘evil organisation’ that must be obliterated, they are echoing Tony Blair’s judgment of Saddam Hussein: ‘But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’“
And yet there is a widespread divergence concerning how that word is understood across society. Even among my own close associates, there are huge differences in terms of how we each interpret the word. This suggests a paradox: the word is used all the time, but there is little common agreement on what it means.  I would argue that this disparity of understanding about ‘evil’ is not just a trivial one concerning  the precise semantics of a single word, but points to significant cultural differences that have been at the root of many social problems.

In this context Maziar Bahari’s documentary film, And Along Came a Spider (Va Ankaboot Amad, 2003) [2], which on the surface is simply an account of an unrepentant serial killer in modern Iran, is actually much more profound than that – it is an interesting (and disturbing) exploration of how ‘evil’ is understood.

The subject of the documentary is Saeed Hanaei, a resident of Mashhad who carried out a secret campaign of personally murdering prostitutes.  From July 2000 to July 2001 Hanaei killed 16 prostitutes by luring them one-by-one into his apartment while his wife was out and then suffocating them and disposing of the bodies. Because of his procedure of inviting the prostitutes to his home, he was later likened by the press to a spider luring flies to its web and became known as the “spider killer”.

Bahari’s film is mostly “talking heads”, but he definitely got some interesting heads to talk to. In documentary filmmaking it is not so important what goes on behind the camera as what you have in front of the camera.  In this case Bahari, in collaboration with Iranian reporter Roya Karimi, managed to get exclusive and candid interviews with Hanaei, his family, and with relatives of some of the victims. The presentation is further enhanced by the haunting musical score by Payman Yazdanian. (He was listed as “Payman Yazdanian” in the closing credits, but I am assuming that this is Peyman Yazdanian, who composed evocative piano scores for The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad Ma-ra Khahad Bord, 1995), Going By (Az Kenar-e Ham Migozarim, 2001), The Deserted Station (Istgah-Matrouk, 2002), The Wind Carpet (Kaze no Jûtan, 2003), Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh, 2003), Friday’s Soldiers, (Sarbaz-haye Jome, 2004), and Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe Suri, 2006)).

The film mostly avoids any polemical or moralistic voiceover commentary and unobtrusively allows these people to speak for themselves.  It is left to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.  And depending on one’s moral perspective, each viewer might draw different conclusions concerning what is shown.

There is no real suspense concerning what is shown.  In the first eight minutes of this 53-minute film, the basic facts of the case are already laid before the viewer.  In fact even before the film’s titles are presented, we learn that Hanaei is a convicted murderer and proud of what he has done.  As the film proceeds, it shows that he decided to kill prostitutes after becoming enraged when a Mashhad taxi driver mistook his wife for a prostitute.  But although Hanaei confesses to Ms. Karimi that revenge was a motive for his deeds, he feels that his murders were in accordance with Islamic doctrine.  He felt that he was removing “pollution” from the world in alignment with the Prophet’s teachings.  In fact he mentions that he had lined up 80 more women to kill and would have carried out his plans if he hadn’t been apprehended by the law.

Mashhad, like most large international cities, has many prostitutes.  The film narrator mentions in voiceover that the Mashhad police had recorded knowledge of 5,000 prostitutes in the city.  In addition drug addiction, primarily with opium, is a major social issue in Iran.  I have seen estimates that six per cent of the adult population is addicted, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the true figure was considerably higher than that.  Opium smoking (as distinct from the more intense experiences associated with heroin addiction) has had a long tradition in Iran, and opium can be easily and inexpensively obtained if you ask the right people. The netherworlds of drug addiction and prostitution are connected, and the film mentions that 15 of Hanaei’s 16 victims had been previously incarcerated for prostitution and drug-related charges.  Hanaei says that 14 of his s16 victims were junkies.  As far as Hanaei was concerned, he was removing scum from the earth by performing his murders.

Still in the film’s first eight minutes, the attention quickly turns to Hanaei’s family.  Saeed’s brothers (those that are shown, anyway) feel that he did the right thing.  As one of them says, “but, frankly, a whore doesn’t have an ounce of humanity.”  Saeed's mother expresses similar sentiments. Saeed;s teenage son, Ali, expresses admiration for what his father has done and regards him as a hero.  He even suggests that he would like to emulate his father’s actions someday.  Similarly, Saeed’s wife, Fatemeh, who was unaware of the murders prior to his arrest, also admires him and says,
“When a woman rides on a motorbike with a man she doesn’t know at all, the punishment for this woman is nothing less than death.”
So early on, the most shocking aspects of this tale have been revealed. The remaining forty-five minutes do not reveal much that is new, but they penetrate further into this story, and I found them interesting, anyway. There is more discussion with Saeed in prison, who smilingly speaks of his earlier days and provides more detail concerning how he managed to carry out his murders always when his wife was out of the house. There are interviews with working-class people and shopkeepers, who express moral support for what Hanaei has done, although some felt that he went too far.

Interspersed among this material are comments from the victim side of this story.  One of them is an 18-year-old girl, Mahasti, who was never approached by Hanaei, but is presented as a typical young prostitute. She has been a prostitute for the past five years and is shown only in silhouette. She was forced into marriage when she was 10-years-old and then bullied by her husband into prostitution to support his drug dependence. Her testimony probably epitomizes the experiences of most prostitutes, who are themselves victims of a society that has left many of them impoverished and in servitude.

Also shown are two young daughters of another of Hanaei’s victims, and they sadly talk about their lives and the loss of their mother.

Finally the film comes to Hanaei’s arrest and trial.  The hardliners exonerated him, and one hardline newspaper asked its readers,
“Who is to be judged?  Those who seek to eradicate the sickness or those who stand at the root of the corruption?”
Saeed argues confidently in the court hearing that he was acting to remove what is spoken of in Islamic law as a “waste of blood”. The magistrate at the court, Hojatolislam Mansoori, acknowledge that the “waste of blood” notion was a valid concept for killing someone, but that Hanaei was not in the position to make the correct judgement. Hanaei is sentenced to death and hanged in 2002.

Although And Along Came a Spider tells the story of an implacable murderer, the real issue here is evil.  Depending on how your attitude about evil, you might see Saeed Hanaei as
  • a psychopath
  • a normal product of a corrupt culture
  • a possible product of any culture, since all current cultures have embedded within them the seeds to produce people like Saeed Hanaei
Of course there are many differing views about evil, but we can roughly partition them into three groups [3]:
  1. Evil derived from religion (religionists)
  2. Evil as an innate psychological concept (many modern secularists)
  3. Those who deny the semantic usefulness of the term evil (evil-skeptics)
1.  Evil According to Religionists
The idea of evil as a distinct force in the world (as opposed to just seeing evil as the absence of good) was most clearly articulated in religious form by two belief systems originating in Iran: Zoroastrianism and  Manicheanism. Both of the religions viewed evil as a powerful force, equal in power and opposed to good.  The world was seen as an eternal struggle between good and evil. These ideas were ultimately incorporated into the Abrahamic religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, etc.), which are monotheistic and believe in an all-powerful creator of the universe.

But or course the concept of evil brought in serious philosophical problems for these monotheistic religions.  How could an all-powerful creator of the universe, who is supposed to represent everything that is good, allow evil to exist in His creation?  Theologians have struggled with this question for centuries, and about the only answer they have come up with has been that the Lord works in mysterious ways – it’s all too much for our finite brains to fathom.  Nevertheless, the concept of evil is used in these religions and applied to individuals.  A person, like Hitler, can be considered to be evil and a “waste of blood”.

2.  Evil According to Many Modern Secularists
As John Gray has pointed out, even in our modern secular world that is inspired by notions from Western scientific rationalism over the past three centuries,  the concept of evil is widely invoked [1]. Secular modernists, like the religionists, can focus on the individual, but they may not always use the word ‘evil’. Instead they dismiss a miscreant as a “psychopath” – essentially meaning a defective biological organism. Thus people like Hitler and Osama Bin Laden are sometimes said to have been psychopaths.  In many cases, however, the secular concept of evil is applied not to an individual, but to a whole cultural grouping, such as ISIS in the Middle East.

However, there is a significant distinction between modern secularists and religionists besides just naming.  For religionists someone is just evil, and that’s it – there are no degrees to evil. But secularists are often interested in the degree to which one might be evil.  For this task there are differences among them concerning how much relative weight ought to be given to the intention of the killer and the damaging consequences of the evil actions.  Recently Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky, two modern secularist academics, had a lengthy and rancorous exchange of emails over the course of which they discussed their respective moral orderings concerning evil [4]. To get an idea of where they stand, consider the  following two examples of murderers:
  • Killer1. He intends to kill his victims
  • Killer2. He has command of great destructive power and sometimes out of negligence kills victims as “collateral damage”.
For Harris, Killer1 is worse than Killer2, because he (or she) meant to kill his victims, while for Killer2 it was an accident.  For Harris, evil intention is the dominant consideration. For Chomsky, however, Killer2 is worse than Killer1, because at least Killer1 acknowledges that his victim was human and was a worthy adversary, whereas Killer2 regarded the victim like an ant that one might step on while walking down the sidewalk, i.e. non-human.  For Chomsky evil consequences are dominant, and those who disregard those consequences are more evil. Chomsky thus sees the malevolent actions of Western powers as being like Killer2, such as the 1998 bombing of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which led to the collateral-damage deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Sudanese who suffered from the unavailability of needed medication.  The Western powers (the USA in this case) did not regard the lives of Sudanese as worth considering, because their primary concern was to destroy what they thought might be a plant site for the manufacture of chemical weapons.  For Harris, the 911 attack a few years later was much more evil, because the assailants wanted to kill as many people as possible.

In any case, both Harris and Chomsky see evil as arising from an evil culture.  In Harris’s case the evil culture is Islam, while in Chomsky’s case the evil culture is American Exceptionalism. If they looked at Saeed Hanaei’s actions, they would both probably focus on the evil social circumstances that led to his crimes, rather than on the evil inside his soul.

3.  Evil-Skepticism
A third attitudinal grouping about evil comprises those who feel that evil is a useless concept and ought to be dispensed with. As Todd Calder summarises [3]:
“Evil-skeptics give three main reasons to abandon the concept of evil: (1) the concept of evil involves unwarranted metaphysical commitments to dark spirits, the supernatural, or the devil; (2) the concept of evil is useless because it lacks explanatory power; and (3) the concept of evil can be harmful or dangerous when used in moral, political, and legal contexts, and so, it should not be used in those contexts, if at all.”
To say that someone is evil or is a psychopath is merely to label them with an opaque name, and it closes the door on further analysis.  Indeed, the field of psychiatry has often lived off the practice of merely naming a behavioural malady (such as schizophrenia, depression, ADHD, etc.) and considering that to be an adequate diagnostic understanding.  In this case, to call someone evil is to suggest that they are subhuman and not worthy of empathetic consideration.  It is evident in the film that this is how Saeed Hanaei thought; he considered the prostitutes to be despicably subhuman and even “worse than animals”.  So evil-skeptics suggest that the notion of evil, itself, leads to further harm.
It seems evident then that these three groupings would view Saeed Hanaei differently
  • Many religionists would consider Hanaei to be fundamentally evil, although some of them (the hardliners) might align themselves with Hanaei’s own arguments and consider him to have been doing God’s work by erasing those who are a “waste of blood”.  
  • Many secular rationalists would likely dismiss Hanaei as a psychopath, although some would see him as a victim of an evil culture.  Note that Sam Harris’s focus on Islamic culture as generating evil is probably not balanced, and it is easily countered by examples from the US, such as Ted Bundy [5] and the My Lai Massacre [6,7].
  • Evil-skeptics are likely to suggest that the notion of evil merely causes further harm by legitimising cruelty on the part of individuals who lack empathy and compassion in their efforts to combat what they believe is evil, such as was the case with Saeed Hanaei. We need new and better social mechanisms to nurture more empathy and to guide those who have difficulties or deficiencies in feeling empathy.
Consider the following ladder of killing and where you might place yourself:
  1. Killing other humans for the purposes of satisfying one's own selfish material interests.
  2. Killing other humans for the purposes of personal revenge.
  3. Killing other humans in order to assist God in eliminating those who are a “waste of blood”.
  4. Killing other humans in wartime in order to serve one's own country’s interests.
  5. Killing and eating animals for pleasure (and because so many other people do it)

Most people would place themselves somewhere on this ladder (probably level 4 or level 5) and regard those who occupy positions higher up on the ladder to be evil.  But the killings performed at one level provide a foundation for moving up to the next level – Hanaei had served in the Iran-Iraq War and mentioned that his subsequent prostitute-killing campaign was merely a continuation of his holy-war-based actions to eliminate “corruption on earth” by killing enemy soldiers during the war.

Maybe in order to deal with the problem of evil, it is time for everyone to get off that ladder altogether. And Along Came a Spider closes not on the image of Hanaei being hanged, but on the smiling, wistful face of one of Hanaei’s victim’s daughters. There is no place for evil in that image.

  1. John Gray, “The Truth About Evil”, The Guardian, (21/10/2014).
  2. And Along Came a Spider is available on YouTube.  You can find a copy of the film here.
  3. Todd Calder, “The Concept of Evil”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (26/11/2013).
  4. Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky, “The Limits of Discourse”, Sam Harris, The Blog, (1 May 2015).
  5. “Ted Bundy”, Wikipedia, (15/5/2015).
  6. “My Lai Massacre”, Wikipedia (15/5/2015).
  7. Consider this example of malevolence carried out by a Western society on the Vietnamese village of My Lai (from Jonathon Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, (1999), Yale Univ. Press, p. 58.):
    “Early in the morning the soldiers were landed in the village by helicopter. Many were firing as they spread out, killing both people and animals. There was no sign of the Vietcong battalion and no shot was fired at Charlie Company all day, but they carried on. They burnt down every house. They raped women and girls and then killed them. They stabbed some women in the vagina and disemboweled others, or cut off their hands or scalps. Pregnant women had their stomachs slashed open and were left to die. There were gang rapes and killings by shooting or with bayonets. There were mass executions. Dozens of people at a time, including old men, women and children, were machine-gunned in a ditch. In four hours nearly 500 villagers were killed.”

"The Maritime Silk Road" - Muhammad Bozorgnia (2011)

The Maritime Silk Road (2011) is an Iranian action/adventure film covering historically significant material that is probably not well known to the general public. Perhaps because of this historical setting, the film, under the direction of Muhammad Bozorgnia, differs from the characteristic and internationally admired Iranian personal perspective and offers up more of a Hollywood-style spectacle. This more or less results in a thumpingly entertaining story, but, like other spectacles of this type, it has some flaws, too.

The story concerns the true, but heavily dramatized, adventures of Soleiman (aka Suleiman) al-Tajir [1], an Iranian merchant sailor who is believed to have made the first complete ocean voyage from the Middle East to China back in the 9th century CE.  His ocean travel covered a continuous route from Siraf, an ancient seaport on the southern coast of Iran, all the way to Canton, China. Actually some commentators say he made this voyage in 775 CE, but in any case the written account of his voyage became widely known after 850 CE. This epic voyage was of enormous cultural and economic significance, because it opened up the maritime trade routes between China and the West. In connection perhaps with its fame at the time, there is some speculation that Soleiman’s adventures may have served as the seeds for the tales of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, which are part of the Western versions of the Arabian Nights [2,3].

The production values of this film are at a high level, including expert cinematography by Bahram Badakshani and a cast of leading Iranian actors.  In fact the cinematography –  which includes spectacular crane shots of the ships out at sea, as well as atmospheric shots of palace grounds and interiors –  is so good that it helps compensate for some weaknesses in other aspects of the film.
The cast includes the following principal characters:

  • Captain Nakhoda Soleiman is played by Dariush Arjmand.  He, of course, is the principal historical character, but the narrative focalization is not centered on him but on his assistant Shazan.
  • Shazan Ibn Yusuf is played by Bahram Radan, who also starred in Dariush Mehrjui’s Santoori (2007). Shazan is a recently educated young man who joins Soleiman’s crew in order to write a chronicle of everything that happens along the way.
  • Captain Nakhoda Edris is played by Reza Kianian, who also starred in The Wind Carpet (Kaze no Jûtan, 2003) and The Fish Fall in Love (Mahiha Ashegh Mishavand, 2006).  He is the captain of a second ship that accompanies Soleiman’s on the voyage.
  • Mardas (Payam Dehkordi) is the first mate of Captain Edris's ship.
  • Mahoura (Pegah Ahangarani) is a beautiful Iranian noblewoman who had earlier been captured by bandits and sold as a slave.  She provides the welcome inclusion of some feminine pulchritude in this othwerwise all-male tale.  I will have more to say about her performance below.
I might also mention Ezzatolah Entezami, who has a small role as a slave seller in this story, but whose distinguished acting career goes back to the 1940s. It includes many films directed by Dariush Mehrjui, including Gaav (The Cow, 1969), The Cycle (Dayereh Mina, 1978), The Tenants (Ejareh-Nesheenha, 1986), and Hamoun (1990). The connection that The Maritime Silk Road has to Mehrjui, by the way, extends also to director Muhammad Bozorgnia, who had earlier served as an assistant director on Mehrjui’s The Postman (1972) and The Cycle (1978).

The principal characters can be partitioned into two competing groups:

  • The Virtuous.  On this side are Soleiman and Shazan, who are invariably heroic, industrious, honourable, and sensitive to others’s needs.  In fact like all good scouts, they are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
  • The Wicked.  On the other side we have Edris and Mardas, who are deceitful, vicious, slovenly, venomously cruel, and despicable in every way.  Moreover, rather than being reverent, they believe in magic and seek to invoke satanic powers to support their evil intentions. In short, they are rotten to the core.
All along the way of the voyage, these two groups are, besides just hoping to survive the rigours of their journey, seeking glory, riches, and the pleasures of having the company of the beauteous Mahoura.

The film’s narrative passes through eight event sequences associated with the encounters that the journey provides.
1.  Setting out from Siraf
In the 4th century of the Hijri calendar [4], Shazan, a young graduate of the Shiraz Academy, is sent by his master to work with the sea captain Soleiman, who is about to set out on an ambitious and groundbreaking voyage to China.  Soleiman needs a literate man to write an account of everything that they encounter along the way.  Soleiman enlists financial support from the Sultan of Siraf, who responds favourably and assigns another ship captained by Edris to accompany Soleiman’s ship, with Soleiman placed in charge of the whole mission. The malignant natures of Edris and his first mate, Mardas, are immediately evident when they are shown to employ a magician/seer whom they threaten with bodily harm if he does not provide them with favourable predictions.
The ships set out, and Shazan, the center of the film’s focalization, begins to learn about the sailing craft.

2.  Muscat

They stop at Muscat, Oman, which is a big trading center that includes the sale of slaves.  Edris purchases a beautiful Iranian “princess” (Mahoura) who had the misfortune of being captured and made a slave by pirates. As commander of the two-ship fleet, Soleiman forbids Edris to take the woman on the trip, but Edris refuses and announces that from now on his ship is going on independently.

3.  The Ghost Ship

The Soleiman and Edris ships, now sailing near each other but separately, depart from Muscat and soon encounter a typhoon.  Afterwards they come upon a “ghost ship” with a full cargo but no living crew members.  Soleiman orders that they not take on any of that ship’s cargo, because the additional weight will slow them down.  Edris and Mardas have other ideas, though.  Mardas and some of his fellow crew members come aboard the ghost ship, beat up Shazan, and then proceed to loot the cargo and take it back to their own ship.

Afterwards back on his ship, Edris tries to seduce Mahoura.  When this fails, he forces himself on her.

4.  Pirates
Later at sea the two ships are accosted by sea pirates.  There is colourful footage of Shazan using Soleiman’s catapult to launch flaming “cannon balls” at the pirates’ ship, but that isn’t enough to halt the onslaught.  The pirates storm aboard Edris’s slower ship (because of its added looted cargo), and a melee on the deck ensues.  Edris is killed, but Soleiman’s ship comes over to help Edris’s ship and subdue the pirates.  With Edris dead, Soleiman takes command of it and, much to Mardas’s frustration, orders that Shazan be made the new captain of the Edris ship.

5.  The Maldives
They next arrive at the enchanting Maldives islands in the Indian Ocean and present its queen with gifts to ensure a warm welcome [5]. With Edris gone, Mahoura is offered the chance to go back to Iran, but she feels she is better off continuing on the trip with them. Soleiman says that is only allowable if she marries one of the crew members; so Shazan offers to be a celibate husband, and she agrees.  A sumptuous wedding ceremony is then performed.

6.  Thirst
They depart for China, but they encounter another typhoon that damages the Edris ship, causing them to lose all its drinking water. Soleiman honourably orders that water be shared all around, but there is not enough, and soon the sailors are all close to dying of thirst.

7.  The Savage Island
Just before they are about to die of thirst, though, they come upon a strange island ruled by a savage and hostile king. With Mardas having been slain by the king’s men and Soleiman held hostage, Shazan is sent back to their ship to bring back some jewels as tribute/ransom. Shazan and Mahoura manage to make it back to the ship where the rest of the crew awaits.  At night they return to the island, rescue the nearly dead Soleiman, and set sail once more.

8. Arrival in China
They finally arrive in Canton, China, where local physicians revive Soleiman.  The ruler of Canton graciously welcomes his visitors and proposes a bilateral trade pact with Persia (Siraf) as the film comes to a promising close.

The story of The Maritime Silk Road is event-filled and colorful, featuring many fascinating encounters with various societies and cultures.  The entertainment level is diminished, however, by several serious weaknesses in the production:
  • Intrusive Music.  The musical score for the film is by Kwong Wing Chan, who made the music for the Internal Affairs films directed by Wai-Keung (Andrew) Lau (2002, 2003, 2003).  Unfortunately, the music here is mostly distracting, and many times trivializes the dramatic situations.  In particular, the music is too much imbued with brass (horn) orchestration.
  • Everyone Speaks Farsi. The fact that everyone speaks the Farsi language in the film may be convenient for the film's presenters, but it detracts from the wonder and mystery of exploring foreign and exotic lands.  Even popular Hollywood films often introduce interpreters for these circumstances to maintain some credibility.
  • Fake Fight Scenes. The hand-to-hand fight scenes that take place in the film are artificial and poorly performed.  In many case it doesn’t appear like fistic contact is really made, and the goings on appear to be more like slapstick than real fighting.
  • Exaggeration of Good and Evil. The black-and-white character portrayals of the principal male characters is a big problem and inappropriate for a historical drama.  This is sometimes undertaken for children’s fairy tales, but even then, the kids often laugh at the Snidely-Whiplash-type characters as buffoons.  Here it just doesn’t work with the story presented.
Despite these limitations and within the rather severe constraints imposed by these narrowly conceived dramatic roles, the acting is pretty well done.  Of particular interest is the performance of Pegah Ahangarani as Mahoura.  She has little to say in the film (and her presentation is thoroughly chaste, with no head-hair shown and no suggestive gestures), but still she does manage to add something to the overall drama by means of the wistful, emotive expressions on her face as she reacts to what is going on around her.  As such, she makes the drama a little more human.

In fact with Ms. Ahangarani’s performance in mind, it is worth reflecting on what was the lasting value of Soleiman’s epic voyage and the film’s ultimate message.  Certainly that voyage was a seminal historical act that helped open up trade and cultural exchange benefiting Iran and the wider world around it. The societies subsequently involved in such exchange became exposed to new goods, new ideas, and new ways of doing things.  Thus the new maritime routes for exchanging ideas opened up the world for the betterment of all.  And so one could say that the film serves as a statement in support of intrepid pioneers who opened up new ways of exchanging goods and ideas.

It is ironic, then, that Ms. Ahangarani, whose mother and father are both flim directors and who has been an active journalist as well as a film actress, has been punished by the Iranian government merely for expressing her ideas.  She was arrested and confined in Iran’s notorious Evin prison in 2009 and 2011, and she was sentenced to an 18-month prison term in 2013 [6,7,8,9]. 

If you do manage to see The Maritime Silk Road, you may want to keep in mind as you watch that there are people in Iran like Pegah Ahangarani who are trying to open doors and new paths today, just as Soleiman and Shazan did centuries ago.

  1. Sulaiman al-Tajir”, Wikipedia (2015)  
  2. Kallie Szczepanski, “Was Sinbad the Sailor Real?, About.com, (2015).
  3. Laura Kelley, “Maritime Silk Road”, The Silk Road Gourmet, (2015).
  4. As I mentioned above, Soleiman’s real voyage probably took place at least a century earlier.
  5. At this time in history, the Maldives population followed the Buddhist faith.  They were later converted to Islam.
  6. “Iran Releases Prominent Actress on Bail”, Voice Of America News, (27 July 2011).
  7. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran Releases Prominent Actor and Filmmaker”, The Guardian, (27 July 2011).
  8. “Iranian actress Pegah Ahangarani Arrested Earlier This Month: Report”, The Daily Star (from Agence France Press), Lebanon, (18 July 2011).
  9. Nasser Karimi, “Iranian Actress Pegah Ahangarani Sentenced on 'Security Charges'”, CTV News, Canada, (29 October 2013).

"The Docks of New York" - Josef von Sternberg (1928)

Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate silent film, The Docks of New York (1928), was one of this master visual stylist’s most moody explorations of romantic fatalism.  Set on the New York dockside in the early 1900s, it tells the story of two aimless, disconnected souls who manage to make an unlikely connection.

The film’s story, written by Jules Furthman, who would collaborate with von Sternberg on seven later films, is relatively simple.  What makes the film last in one’s memory is its evocation of loneliness and isolation among characters whose dark-world horizons only extend to the next day.

Von Sternberg’s cinematic skills are conspicuously on display here, and they encompass more than his well-known virtuosity in the display of light and shadow.  There is also here a wonderful manipulation of dramatic pacing, whereby some moments are drawn out with melancholy languor, which are  punctuated by brief, explosive moments of dramatic violence.  Such is the way, we are led to believe, of life among the lower depths.

The Docks of New York's narrative passes through five successive stages concerning the improbable relationship of the two main characters.

1.  A Meeting by Happenstance
The beginning images show a steamship docking at New York’s harbor.  The fact that this film’s story is set probably at least twenty years earlier than its time of production is important for two narrative purposes.  Most shipping at that earlier time was still powered by coal-driven steam engines, whose furnaces were constantly fed by dust-covered, grimy coal stokers.  It is hard to imagine a more miserable occupation than having to work hard in such squalid conditions.  Also, the film is set in the years before US alcohol Prohibition [1], so the film’s audience was offered the titillation of seeing the working class engage in one of their limited opportunities for reckless indulgence.

The steamship docks at the waterfront, and the coal stokers are given leave to go ashore, with the stern, but probably fruitless, warning from the ship’s third engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) not to come back drunk.  The scene then shifts to a dockside bar, The Sandbar, where Andy and the stokers intend to spend their limited free time.  There Andy runs into his estranged wife, Lou (Olga Baclanova), whom he had abandoned three years earlier, and it is evident that there is no love lost between the two of them. 

Meanwhile stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft)  notices just after having disembarked from the ship that a young woman has made a suicidal dive into the harbor. He jumps in and rescues her, and then he carries the still unconscious girl over to an empty boarding room above The Sandbar. The establishment’s belligerent proprietors object to Bill Roberts’s peremptory possession of one of their rooms, and they summon one of their bouncers to oust the two intruders.  This is where we get an example of von Sternberg’s disjointed pacing.  Up to now (and in fact throughout) Roberts is shown to be a man of few words, and he does not initiate conflict.  But when the bouncer attempts to throw out Roberts, the powerful stoker throttles him in seconds and returns to his business.

Lou, who also occupies a room above The Sandbar, hears the ruckus and comes over to where the young woman, who will be revealed as Mae (Betty Compson), is lying.  She attends to the girl and orders Bill Roberts to go downstairs and get her a hot drink.

2.  Bill Attends to Mae
Bill goes down to the bar, where some more tough guys try to muscle him, but Bill throttles them in seconds, too.  He brings back a “hot toddy” and sees that Mae is now revived – in fact, unrealistically so, since her hair now looks beautifully coiffed as if she had just emerged from a salon.  Such is von Sternberg’s expressionistic dreamworld. Learning that Mae doesn’t have any clothing aside from her soaked dress, Bill goes down to a shuttered clothing store and pilfers some items to take back to Mae’s room. 

Mae is still despondent and suicidal.  She tells Bill, “you could of saved yourself the trouble an let me die”. Bill doesn't think that way. Although Mae seems to be a woman of “easy virtue”, she is beautiful, and Bill is instantly attracted.  He tells her that all she needs is a good time to cheer her up.

3.  The Party at The Sandbar
Bill and Mae go the crowded bar, and Bill quickly gets very drunk.  When Bill’s boss Andy sees Mae, he is immediately attracted and tries to push Bill aside; but he gets punched out for his efforts – noone pushes Bill around.  A ruckus ensues, and only the efforts of Lou and Mae manage to calm things down. 

Bill, now feeling his oats, announces to everyone in the bar that he intends to marry Mae (whom he calls “Nell”) immediately.  Mae happily agrees. A preacher (Gustav von Seyffertitz) from a nearby mission is summoned, and the next ten minutes of the film feature a raucous, drunken marriage ceremony. Again von Sternberg varies the pace, though, and when the marriage vows are exchanged, everything slows down while Mae solemnly promises to be a good wife.  The contrast between Mae’s concession to her interior innocence and the cynical surroundings of the drunken bar revellers is another von Sternberg touch that is likely to leave a lasting memory with the viewer.

4.  The Next Morning
But, of course, Bill was drunk that night and scarcely knew what he was doing.  After having spent the night with Mae, he intends to return to his ship and sail away.  While she is still sleeping, he leaves a “tip” on her night table and sneaks out of her room. 

When Andy learns that Bill has abandoned Mae, he quickly goes to her room and tries to have his way with her.  But Lou follows him into the room, and soon shots are heard (von Sternberg’s camera remains outside, and the gunshots are evoked by showing birds rustling form their perches). Hearing the gunshots and seeing the police come, Bill returns to Mae’s room, where Lou confesses that she was the one who shot her husband. 

Now alone again in Mae’s room, Bill confesses that he is incorrigible and never really meant to fulfill his marriage vows.  His ship is leaving in one hour, and he tells her,
“I never missed a ship in my life.”
 . . .
“You knew I was just a dirty stoker.”
Their parting is sad.  Mae offers to mend Bill’s torn shirt before he leaves, but her eyes are so teary she cannot even see well enough to thread her sewing needle.  Finally she loses her temper and angrily orders Bill out of her room.

5.  A Change of Mind
Bill is back on the ship stoking coal as it sets out in the harbor.  Andy is there, too, barking out orders to the stokers. Living in this loathsome routine and environment again, Bill finally takes action.  He jumps ship, swims ashore, and finds his way to a courtroom, where Mae has been charged for stealing the new clothes she is wearing. She has just been sentenced to thirty days in jail, but Bill interrupts the proceedings, asserting that he is her husband and that he had stolen the clothes. The unsympathetic judge orders Mae released and sentences Bill to sixty days in prison for his impertinence. As he is being led away by the police, Bill turns to Mae and tells her that if she waits for him, he will never leave her again. Mae smiles hopefully and says she will wait forever.
Von Sternberg’s films are often situated in exotic, fantasy-laden settings – Morocco, Spain, Shanghai, Imperial Russia – where the surrounding circumstances are (to the viewer) mysterious and threatening.  Note that von Sternberg never travelled to these places; he conjured up everything inside the studio, where he could shape the shadow-laden atmosphere of his imagination without concern for documentary reality.  The principal characters in these stories are not given much psychological grounding (they rarely articulate what they are thinking or intend), but we empathize with them anyway.  As such, these films are prime examples of film noir,despite their exotic settings. The characters’ backgrounds are unknown and unimportant; and their futures are dim.  As Andrew Sarris said [2],
“His [von Sternberg’s] characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love.”

In these films, there is often an outer story of external action and an inner story concerning the relationship between the man and the woman whom fate brings together.  The outer story is often a war, or a revolution, or a spy mission, and this can serve up some excitement.  But von Sternberg ultimately brings our attention to the inner story, where the real action takes place.  In The Docks of New York this is taken to an extreme, since there is virtually no outer story; everything is the inner story in this film.

It is interesting to compare The Docks of New York with two other films that share some similarities with it: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Ingmar Bergman’s Port of Call (1948).  Carné’s film has the noirish features of a dark, gloomy seaport and lost souls, but the outer story is relatively complicated and dominates the story.  Bergman’s film, on the other hand, has even more direct similarities with The Docks of New York, since it is also about a seaman who eventually falls in love with a woman who has just suicidally thrown herself into the harbor waters when he had just come ashore. But Bergman’s film is more psychologically motivated than von Sternberg’s. The viewer is given much more information about what the character’s are thinking about in Bergman’s film. This might suggest in the reader's mind that the acting is less significant in von Sternberg's film, but that is not true.  The performances of the two main characters in The Docks of New York are nuanced and effective. We don’t think about the characters shown, instead we feel for them directly and immediately.

For example, George Bancroft’s’ Bill Roberts character is a ruffian used to getting his way with his fists.  And yet he often pauses in reflection and seems to contemplate his surroundings with  a wry smile.  He seems to be fair-minded, at least within the limitations of his own moral universe, and in the end he vows to do the right thing.  

Of course, as is usually the case in von Sternberg’s films, the affective focus is on the woman.  Betty Compson’s Mae character is interesting, because although she portrays a person who seems to have been hardened by circumstances, she evinces sensitivity.  Inside her sometimes caustic exterior, Mae is revealed to be an innocent young woman in search of love. And von Sternberg artfully reveals this interior, not with words, but by means of her emotive glances gorgeously ensconced in his chiaroscuro-sculpted cinematography. 

Von Sternberg intuitively understood that the film medium had the unique capability of evoking in the viewer not only a narrative understanding of how events progress in the world, but their emotional feelings, too. 

At the end, in that final shot, Bill and Mae have so little that they can actually count on for the future. But perhaps that is all we ever really have.

  1. “Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution”, Wikipedia, (20 April 2015).
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968, (1968), E. P. Dutton, New York, p. 76.