“Life of Oharu” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1952)

Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952), writer-director Kenji Mizoguchi’s grim tale of a woman’s tragic fall in feudal Japanese society, is based on 17th century author Ihara Saikaku‘s sensational novel about an “amorous” woman and her varied experiences of that time. Although Mizoguchi faithfully set the film during that same period as the original novel, one still gets the feeling that he must have added his own interpretive touches to the narrative. But many of us regard Mizoguchi’s interpretive touches, not as unwarranted alterations, but as significant original contributions. And in his own country of Japan, Mizoguchi has always been regarded as one of its greatest filmmakers.  However, it was only in 1952, just four years before his death, that Mizoguchi gained international recognition, when Life of Oharu won the International Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

Mizoguchi is often identified with his films that are about and sympathetic to women, all the more so because he worked in a society that has been culturally restrictive for women. In fact a number of his earlier films that endure today, such as Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî, 1936), Sisters of the Gion (Gion No Shimai, 1936), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Zangiku Monogatari, 1939), Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), and The Lady of Musashino (Musashino Fujin, 1951), all have themes that are highly sympathetic to the disadvantaged situation of women in Japanese society. Life of Oharu continues this characteristic sympathy for the feminine circumstances, and yet there is also something different about this film, when compared to his earlier work about women. The style is not that of a crusader out to undo the wrongs of an unjust society. It does indeed expose those wrongs, but it is also more contemplative – almost a brooding piece about the more general and tragic aspects of human existence. Possibly linked to this distinction is the fact that, according to my understanding, Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism around this time, and that co
nversion may account for the subtleties of expression that appear in Life of Oharu. In any case it seems that Mizoguchi’s evolving sentiments at this time blended well with his customarily masterful mise-en-scène, which characteristically featured artful moving camera work that was combined with carefully choreographed character movements so as to maintain fluid but balanced compositions throughout the lengthy shots. This technique could effectively generate narrative scene changes even within a single shot, thereby obviating the need for a visual cut. Most of the time, his shot compositions are in long shot or medium shot, so that the environmental “architecture” of the surrounding space contributes to the emotional context of any given scene. In addition the narrative setting of past, “fabled” times seemed to be more suited to his form of cinematic expression, which happily made Life of Oharu an excellent theme for Mizoguchi’s cinematic poetry.

Oharu, herself, was played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who gave a nuanced performance. No longer youthful, at 42, she had to play a role that was necessarily constrained with respect to the allowable range of gestures and expressions, and she had to portray convincingly a suffering personality that spans from a seventeen-year-old girl to a fifty-year-old woman. She had already starred in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (1948) and The Lady of Musashino (1951), and she would also subsequently appear in his Ugetsu, (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Note that her early romantic love is played by Toshiro Mifune, whose brief, controlled performance was commendably restrained by Mizoguchi.

The story of Life of Oharu does not follow the conventional four- or five-act structuring often present in feature films. Here the narrative has about ten sections of quite varying length, with each one depicting the dispiriting downward spiral of Oharu’s circumstances over a period of about thirty-five years. After starting out in the “present” in section 1 (about three hundred years ago), much of the film, comprising sections 2 through 9, represents the extended reminiscences of Oharu’s past, after which section 10 picks up with the narrative that had begun in section 1.
1. At the Temple. In the opening sequence, Oharu is a fifty-year-old prostitute walking on the street. Attracted to the sound of some religious chanting, she wanders into a temple and stares at one of the many Buddha idols, whose likeness reminds her of someone. Then she lapses into her memories of long ago.

2. Samurai’s Daughter. Oharu is the teenage daughter of a samurai serving in the Imperial Court. But despite this rather exalted status, social customs severely restrict her activities, and she is apparently is not normally allowed out, other than to go to the temple. On one such occasion, though, she meets Katunosuke (played by Toshiro Mifune), a lowly page who is enamored of Oharu. He comes to a hostel room where Oharu is resting and pleads his case, asking to marry her. At first she coldly dismisses him, but eventually, in an exquisite two-minute tracking shot, she admits that she does love him, but that their differing social statuses prevent them from being together. There is then a cut to a scene some hours later, in which the police barge in upon the two lovers and catch them red-handed. A subsequent court hearing (explicitly dated November 7, 1686) reveals that in punishment for this breach of class barriers within the Imperial Court, both Oharu and her parents are to thereby dismissed from their positions and banished from the city of Kyoto. Meanwhile Katunoske suffers a worse punishment: he is beheaded. His last message to Oharu before he dies is that she should go ahead and find someone else to marry, but that she should only marry for love.

Upon learning of Katunosuke’s execution, a superb 70-second shot shows Oharu running out of the house to kill herself, only to be barely prevented from doing so by her mother. This is the first of many situation in which Oharu’s life is crushed because she has followed her heart.

3. With the Daimyo in Edo. A messenger from the court at Edo comes to the Kyoto area looking for a mistress for the high-ranking daimyo, Lord Matsudaira, whose wife is apparently unable to bear children. In an ornate 2:25 tracking shot, he examines all of the most beautiful girls from Kyoto that have been assembled for his inspection, but none of them is good enough for the lord’s demanding requirements. Later and by chance, the messenger sees Oharu performing a dance and, of course, she is selected as the perfect young women for the daimyo. However Oharu, in another intricate 2:20 shot, resists becoming a concubine, citing Katunoske’s last request, but she is forced to submit anyway.

After settling in at Edo, Oharu delivers what was demanded – she gives birth to a male heir for Lord Matsudaira. But the courtiers and members of the Matsudaira clan become concerned that the lord’s amorous passions for Oharu are sapping his energy, and they decide to send her quickly back home to poverty in Kyoto. Once again, love proves to be Oharu’s undoing.

4. A Coutesan in Shimabara. Oharu’s father, having overly estimated the wealth he could make from Oharu’s concubinage, now sells his daughter as a courtesan to the Shimabara geisha locale in order to repay his debts. But later Oharu, not wanting to be treated like a sex object, rejects the vulgar attentions of a rude patron, and she is fired from the geisha house and sent home again, much to the consternation of her unsupportive parents.

5. With the Merchant Jihei. Oharu now secures a position working as a maid for a rich merchant, Jihei. Her beauty immediately attracts the amorous attentions of a fellow-servant, a jovial rascal named Bunkichi; but Oharu keeps him at a distance. In the meantime Jihei’s wife becomes friendly with Oharu and timidly reveals to her a big secret: a recent illness has left the wife bald, and, fearing that her husband will abandon her if he finds out, she now wears a wig to cover her baldness. Soon, however, the merchant family learns of Oharu’s notorious past as a Shimabara courtesan, which has two differing effects: Jihei becomes attracted to Oharu, while his wife becomes jealous. Finally, Jihei forces Oharu to have sex with him, and, in a responsive act of vengeance, Oharu gets a family cat to steal the wife’s wig, revealing the woman’s secret to her husband. But Oharu’s act of independence only succeeds in her getting kicked out of the household.

6. Marriage. While sections 2-5 have been relatively lengthy, each lasting some 10-20 minutes, sections 6-9 are much shorter, as Oharu’s degenerating circumstances gather pace. Oharu is at this point working for a lesser family and in poorer circumstances, but now she is approached by a gentle, timid fan-maker who asks her hand in marriage. She accepts, and for once, she is happy and busily helping her new husband in his fan shop. But the happiness is short-lived, and soon her husband is killed by a thief, leaving Oharu penniless. This time it is cruel fate that has defeated her.

7. A Buddhist Nun. Now despairing of ever achieving happiness in this material world, Oharu decides to become a Buddhist nun and work in the temple. But Bunkichi, still seeking Oharu’s affection, loans her a kimono from Jihei’s shop. When Jihei learns of this, he goes to the temple to demand the return of the kimono, treating Oharu like a whore. But just as in Shimabara, Oharu stands up to such rudeness; she strips off the kimono she is wearing and throws it at Jihei. Jihei, aroused by such boldness, forces himself sexually on Oharu, and when they are discovered by the head nun, Oharu is kicked out of the temple. It is clear that for this head nun, the Buddhist principles of compassion have strict limits.

8. With Bunkichi. Now on the street and further reduced in social status, Oharu runs into Bunkichi, who has also been recently fired by Jihei. Bunkichi promises that he will look after Oharu (with some money that he has just stolen from Jihei), but soon he is discovered by Jihei and his men and dragged off, presumably to be killed. Oharu is left alone and with no resources.

9. Further Decline. Many years have apparently passed. Oharu is now completely destitute and reduced to being a beggar, playing a lute by a gate. She happens to see an elegant procession pass by, carrying the palanquin of Lord Matsudaira’s son, Oharu’s own child. When the palanquin door is briefly opened, Oharu has a momentary opportunity to see her son, who is now apparently in his teens. This heart-rending experience of separation shatters Oharu, and she collapses in tears and faints to the ground. Two passing prostitutes find her and convince her that she should join them rather than starve to death.

Later, now working as a prostitute, Oharu is summoned by a man to his quarters. She is shocked to learn that the man doesn’t want sex from her, but is actually a religious pilgrim who only wants to display her to his fellow pilgrims as an example of the depths to which temptation can force the weak-minded to sink. To them she is a symbol of sin and a real-life witch. Oharu snarls at them sarcastically, mocking their belief in witchery – she still knows who she really is, inside. This spectacular shot, lasting four minutes, is one of the best dramatic moments in the film and features superb acting by Kinuyo Tanaka.

10. Back to the Present. The opening shot of the film is now repeated, and Oharu is again seen contemplating the holy idols (all males, of course) in the Buddhist temple. Then she collapses to the floor, and her fellow prostitutes carry her back to their quarters. There her mother, who has long been looking for her, finds her and informs her that Lord Matsudaira has died and that her son, the new Lord Matsudaira, wants her to come and live in his palace. But when she goes to Edo, the Matsudaira clan members, alarmed over Oharu’s notorious past life, forbid her to live in the palace and condemn her to anonymous exile as a prisoner on the palace grounds. She is granted one final chance to see the young lord in secret as he walks by in a procession, and the two shots depicting this scene are superbly choreographed – a highlight of the film, as they contrast the artificial role-playing pomp of the lord with the authentic humanity of Oharu. Afterwards, however, the clan soon learns that Oharu has slipped through their guard and escaped. In the final scene Oharu is seen walking outside somewhere in the evening from house to house, humbly singing hymns and seeking alms. She is still unbowed, but resigned and egoless.
Those people looking for a soaring tribute to feminism, or a hard-hitting condemnation of social injustice towards women, will ultimately be disappointed with Life of Oharu. Seen from such a point of view, the film would only be seen as an unrelenting and enervating sequence of defeats and disasters for Oharu. Though there is some portrayal of encrusted Japanese prejudices, the film has a more inward-looking glance, and its strengths lie in that direction. None of the men in the film, by the way, not even Jihei, is particularly evil, although, as in all of Mizoguchi’s films, they are invariably selfish and unprincipled. In fact there is something human about them, and we can recognize their moral frailty as common in society (and to a certain extent in ourselves, too). And it is not just men who mistreat Oharu; many of the women in her life, concerned as they are with their own troubles, cause further problems for Oharu. Her mother seems roughly to agree with her father’s dismissive attitude. Lord Matsudaira’s jealous wife is Oharu’s enemy. Jihei’s wife, too, becomes her enemy. And the Buddhist nun has no sympathy for her whatsoever. So we can't just say that the film simply depicts men oppressing women. No, the film has a wider perspective than that.

How is one such as Oharu to deal with all these vicissitudes? Japan had recently gone through an incredibly catastrophic and destructive period – millions of their own people killed and the country completely defeated. It was not enough simply to blame some people or forces; the whole world had to be called into question. What kind of cosmic answers are there in the face of such suffering? For many years after the close of the war, Japanese culture was obsessed with how to come to grips with what had happened. Life of Oharu was one such response, and it took inspiration, I believe, from Buddha’s original insight. Attachment entails suffering.

Throughout all her travails, Oharu is not outwardly defiant, but she retains a certain inward authenticity. She holds onto and never loses certain convictions that she knows are innately right: that Japan must someday recognize the rights of people to marry for love; that the natural birth-mother of a child has a certain inalienable affinity with that child; that a woman should not be treated as an animal. It is this unwavering authenticity that makes us see almost a Bodhisattva at the end of the film. She still treats people with the compassion that is due every sentient being. In this material world, she has been denied any reward, but inwardly Oharu has attained something else.

“RiP: A Remix Manifesto” - Brett Gaylor (2009)

RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2009) is a documentary made by Canadian filmmaker Brett Gaylor about the inherent injustices associated with copyright. The film is particularly focused on the work of remix recording entertainers, who creatively remix lots of existing, copyrighted songs in order to create their own music. In such cases there is no original music recorded; the output of the remixer is a mixture and comprises multiple overlays of existing pieces of music (i.e. a mashup). Has the mashup artist created something new? Yes, he has, and that is what this film is all about.

Actually, the film production is something of a self-reference to its content, because Gaylor has enlisted hundreds of people to collect existing film footage in order to make a mashup out of his own film. At the end of the film, he announces that RiP is an open-source documentary, and he urges others to take his film and modify it as they choose.

The film is basically made up of two intermixed (and remixed) parts. One part focuses on the life and work of remix/DJ artist “Girl Talk”, who in real life is Greg Gillis and who until recently had a day job as a biomedical engineer. Girl Talk takes without authorization and remixes sometimes a dozen songs in order to produce one of his mashups, which he “performs” in public as a gyrating DJ. By means of a careful examination of how he makes his mashups, it is made clear in the film how remixers can take original pieces of music and electronically produce “compositions” that are strikingly different from the starting material. Note that your enjoyment of this part of the film will, of course, depend to a certain extent on the degree to which you are a fan of Girl Talk.

The other part of the film comprises a critical discussion of the general idea of copyright, and in fact it offers a damning critique of the very nature of intellectual property. Featured here are the following figures who have brought the inequities of copyright to public attention:
  • Lawrence Lessig is a Stanford law professor who established the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and is a well-known critic of the excesses of copyright. He is the founder of the non-profit organization, Creative Commons, and is the author of the book, The Future of Ideas, which is available for free download.
  • Cory Doctorow is a well-known social networking blogger and critic as well as a science-fiction author. He is a prominent advocate of the liberalization of copyright laws.
  • Dan O’Neill is an underground cartoonist who founded the Air Pirates whose depictions of cartoons looking like Mickey Mouse led to a lawsuit filed by the Disney Corporation that went on for nine years and cost millions of dollars in legal fees. In this connection the film exposes the duplicitous nature of Disney, which derived their cartoon characters from existing graphic representations of iconic fantasy figures. Moreover, O’Neill’s mouse was graphically similar to the original 1930s Mickey Mouse and therefore rather different from the graphical form that Mickey had in 1971, so O’Neill’s mouse representation was not even in competition with the Mickey of that time.
  • Jammie Thomas is a single mother who was successfully sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for hundreds of thousands of dollars for downloading some songs from the Internet.
  • Gilberto Gil, a famous Brazilian musician, was the Minister of Cultural Affairs, and has been a leader in promoting Brazil’s sponsorship of its world-leading open-source culture.
Along the way, Gaylor and his collaborators outline and elaborate their general schematic description of cultural evolution that underlies their Manifesto and specifies what to do:
  1. Culture always builds on the past
  2. The past always tries to control the future
  3. Our future is becoming less free
  4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past.
All of these elements are of interest, and they are interlaced with additional remix material that underscore the points made. But Gaylor’s sociocultural description is quite general and doesn't zero-in on the key issue here: intellectual property. In fact my only reservation about the film as a whole is that people like Lessig, and perhaps Doctorow, don’t really go far enough in their criticism of intellectual property. They seem to think that copyright is, at bottom, legitimate, but that current law has simply gone too far. But I hold that the very nature of intellectual property is fallacious and that there is no legitimate place in society for copyright or patents. We need to look for different solutions.

The idea behind “intellectual property” arises from a misconception about the nature of information. Over the centuries there have been a number of philosophical conceptualizations about just what is information. Plato and the idealists suggested that abstract ideas constitute are the ultimate ontological reality: abstract ideas exist. Aristotle and others saw information as forms or patterns of material reality. But the advocates of “intellectual property” see information as something concrete and essentially material – they see it as something that can be held “property”, like a material thing, and hence they believe in “intellectual property”. But information is not really separable as a material thing. Information is better viewed as part of an interaction with several components:
  • artifact: the text, picture, bitmap, drawing, ...
  • mechanism: it lays out the organization of the artifact
  • map (or “message”): an example is the specific character sequences of text
  • reader/viewer: information is understood if the reader’s response is what the creator/sender more or less expects.
  • narrative context: what part this particular interaction plays in a larger narrative
Thus information is not just the map (which is often just the text), as “intellectual property” advocates assert; the map, itself, is useless without the other items that are part of the interaction. The map, alone, is typically just a sequence of characters, and the semantic interpretation depends on other components of the interaction.

But since “intellectual property” advocates believe that information is effectively just a material entity, they attempt to justify intellectual property laws with the same two kinds of quite distinct arguments used to justify material property, in general: (1) moral arguments: we deserve to have exclusive possession over the fruits of our labor, and (2) utilitarian arguments: property ownership is useful for resolving custody disputes and for stimulating economic development.

Those advocates must somehow justify intellectual property laws, because, as we know, such laws represent a severe restraint of trade – they essentially impose a monopoly. Consider those two lines of intellectual-property-law justification, in turn:
  • moral justification. It should be evident that intellectual property is in fact not truly attributable to an individual; it is inevitably a social product from a social context. Nobody invents something out of thin air. We all know that new ideas are built from existing ideas and experiences, so it is unsuitable to attribute the “creation” and ownership of an idea to a single person.
  • utilitarian justification. Although there have been many studies made, the utilitarian value of intellectual property laws has never been demonstrated. Actually, only England (from 1710) and the United States (from 1790) even have much of a history with intellectual property laws. Much of the rest of Europe didn’t introduce intellectual property laws until the 20th century. So most of history the world has lived without such laws. The economic successes of the US and England were due to free trade, not restraints of trade. See Boldrine & Levine for more information.
In fact the notion intellectual property is not only not helpful, it is genuinely harmful. Consider copyright, which concerns expression. Certainly nobody owns the English word, “the”. It follows the nobody should own any particular sequence of letters. To mandate such ownership constitutes an impairment of free speech. If I gain legal control over a collection of words, it doesn’t afford me any greater control over my own circumstances (I already have that); rather, it gives me control over you – I can prevent you from expressing yourself freely.

Now consider patents, which ostensibly concern how “devices” work. Just as the computer industry has exposed, via remixing and mashups, the absurdities of copyright, so, too, it has exposed the inadequacy of patent laws and in three ways:
  1. Software patents represent a confused idea that cannot be enforced in a logical fashion. Patents were originally intended for inventions of new devices or of processes associated with them. The appropriate domain of patents has always been problematic, but with the advent of computers, that inherent problem became intractable. This can be explained with the aid of the diagram at the right. General-purpose computers can emulate any kind of machine if they are given the right instructions (software). Once a given machine is emulated, further instructions can be given to operate that machine – or instructions can be provided to produce another virtual machine on top of the original one. On most computers there are several such layers of virtual “machines” running software programs. In fact it has long been known that general-purpose computers can emulate any form of structured (logically expressible) thought. This means that if one allows software patents, one is opening the door to the patenting of all thought. All the structured ideas in your mind could ultimately “belong” to someone else. Not only is the idea absurd, it is not enforceable in a judicious manner. Just imagine if all mathematical theorems were patented and limited in their availability!
  2. Software patents inhibit new technical developments. The argument is made by some that patents stimulate inventions. In fact, the opposite is the case. We can be thankful that there were no software patents before about 1980, prior to which there were a great many discoveries made that are now freely available. Since then, however, there have been numerous software patents granted that impede progress in the field, including patents in such basic areas as font types, compression, and encryption. When such patents are granted, they stifle new developments. Currently, for example, the area of Voice of Internet Protocols (VOIP) communication is so cluttered with patents that technical advances will likely be impeded for the next 15 years.
  3. Software patents waste resources and contribute to the economic polarization of society. When patents are granted, considerable research effort is devoted to developing workaround solutions that strive to get around a patent blocking technical development. Large companies often take out patents in order to stifle their competitors or for use as bargaining chips in negotiations with other large companies. In such cases, valuable resources are wasted in the effort to avoid the suffocating effect of patent control. In addition, the existence of software patents has led to a wasteful increase in litigation associated with patent enforcement (enforcement, in fact, of an idea that is fundamentally unenforceable).This situation only contributes to an increasing economic polarization in capitalistic society. Microsoft, for example, has 10,000 U.S. patents, more than 17,000 U.S. patents pending, and more than 30,000 issued and pending international patents. Such patent collections are beyond the reach of ordinary companies and contribute to the kind of industrial concentration that has increasingly polarized the “globalized” society. The World Trade Organization is aggressively attempting to globalize strong intellectual property laws everywhere, so that large American organization can maintain control over the global marketplace.
If intellectual property represents a faulty model, then what should be done? Ownership of things, such as books and DVDs, is OK, of course, and these can be suitably encrypted by the producer as they wish. Furthermore, purchase contracts associated with these items are legitimate, and more creative types of such contracts can be explored. But we are wasting effort and resources enforcing the bad model of “intellectual property” that information technology has now exposed as flawed. RiP: A Remix Manifesto raises some of these issues. Let us hope that as information technology continues to progress and more people see films like this, it will become increasingly evident to a larger portion of the public that something needs to be done to open up and ensure freedom of expression for everyone.

“Encounters at the End of the World” - Werner Herzog (2007)

Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary film by Werner Herzog, recounts his experiences during his visit to Antarctica. But since Herzog is one of the greatest of documentary filmmakers, one expects that this film will not just be a travelogue or an academic description of the earth’s southernmost continent (although there is some of that). In fact knowing Herzog, we expect this film to be something of a meditation on man, civilization, and the world – and we are not disappointed.

The two-man film crew, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and Herzog on sound, had only the short Antarctic summer to shoot the film, and they pretty much had to shoot and record on the spot whatever they found interesting. From this, and from the film’s title, you might expect that the film would come across as simply an ad hoc stream of occurrences. But Herzog is always uniquely able to express his sometimes grim, existentialist view of humanity, whether his production is a fiction film or a documentary. He is fascinated with people who live at the extreme edges of human existence and who are exploring or experiencing what it is like to step beyond the boundaries of our comfortable civilized world.

To me, Herzog is a frustrated Romantic – he is disturbed not only by the unending display of human depravity but by the inconsequential and ineffective achievements of human progress in the face of brute Nature. He doesn’t relish, as perhaps some people ghoulishly do, the macabre hopelessness of the human condition, so he is always seeking out those people, like himself, who are looking for something more. At the beginning of this film, he remarks that he went to Antarctica, not to shoot “fluffy penguins” but to learn something about man: some animals enslave other species to help procure food (he gives an example from the insect world), while man domesticated the horse more for reasons of adventure. What propels man to do this? This kind of reflective question would not normally make a visit to Antarctica spring immediately to mind, but Herzog is different. He is curious to learn about the people who would go to that continent and what it is that they seek.

Herzog does manage to fashion a story around his encounters, and in its various guises it serves to shed more light on his abiding themes. There are very roughly six sections to the film:
  1. Arrival and Introduction. Herzog arrives in the summer, when the sun never sets, at McMurdo Research Station, the largest settlement on Antarctica (although most of the people there are not permanent and have other occupations elsewhere). Expecting to see one of the last pristine places on earth, he is put off  by the cluttered squalor and detritus of building construction and human habitation. During this section he gives an overview of some of the general facts of Antarctica and what it is like for newcomers to try and operate there. At one of the canteens, a young worker points out that all of the residents crave Frosty Boy ice-cream cones, which Herzog presumably finds bizarre for a frozen place like Antarctica. But Herzog is probably not familiar with this Australian junk-food delicacy, as I am. I have always had a taste for Frosty Boys since my first sampling.
  2. Strange People. A number of people are interviewed, mostly scientists, but sometimes maintenance personnel. Irrespective of their education, they are all adventurers of some sort. There is one woman scientist who has had an astonishing number of bizarre and dangerous experiences while hitchhiking all over the globe. One hundred years after Ernest Schakleton almost made it to the South Pole, these people are trying to reach something else. With everything on earth already “discovered” for a century, there is nowhere else to explore physically. And one is inevitably led to reflect on the limits of our planet once one has come to the very end of it: the “end of the earth”. All the scientists are acutely aware of the effects of global warming and how it is massively reducing the Ross ice shelf, so it is perhaps not surprising that most of them are pessimistic about the prospects of man’s surviving on this planet for much longer. At night some of them like to watch old doomsday movies from the 1950s and 60s. They see themselves as being at the end of our world in both space and time.
  3. Undersea Photography. The film shows some of the underwater photography of musician Henry Kaiser and includes discussions with biologists Samuel Bowser and Jan Pawlowski. This section presents a dark, eerie, and claustrophobic scene of divers filming life beneath the ice shelf, showing the brutal world of strange sea animals that are endlessly seizing and devouring each other.
  4. The Penguins. Herzog does finally show some penguins, but his interest is focused on those rare penguins which apparently lose their bearings and determinedly charge off away from the sea, in the direction of the frozen mountains. The resident scientists seem only bemused by these stubborn acts of self-destruction, and they do nothing to intervene and turn the wayward penguins back in the right direction. Such a level of fatalism on their part serves as something of a metaphor for the entire film. Mankind is stubbornly charging off to its own self-destruction, and the scientists seem to accept their powerlessness and the inevitable fate that awaits us. Later, in fact, there is a shot of a deep tunnel that has been constructed, at the bottom of which is placed a number of artifacts and mementos. These items are being left there so that future visitors to Earth may learn something about the species that eventually went on to destroy itself.
  5. Vulcanology. Next the film shows some scientists investigating a real, active volcano, the only one in the world currently accessible-for-study. Herzog, of course, has a fascination with the brute power and destructiveness of volcanoes and how men react to them, dating back at least to his La Soufrière (1977).
  6. Neutrinos. This last section interviews a physicist preparing for the launch of an enormous helium balloon that will be used to detect neutrinos, the nearly scientifically invisible elementary particle. The balloon needs to be launched over Antarctica, because everywhere else there is too much particle and electronic noise from human activities. The presentation here is more subtle, but it displays the kind of self-absorption of elementary particle physicists who insistently think that the irresponsibly wasteful Large Hadron Collider will provide them with a “theory of everything”. This is the prime academic example of the mad, self-defeating quest for reductionism, in contrast with the holistic, "relational" view that is actually needed today. It’s another instance of educated people charging off according to the misguided readings of their own compasses – like the errant penguin.
Werner Herzog’s slow, precise enunciation of the voiceover enhances the reflectiveness of the narration and is particularly effective. Despite the cramped conditions and time constraints, the camera work and editing are professionally handled. And the music, always a key ingredient to a Herzog film, is, as usual, eerily effective. But the collection of these seemingly simple and innocent elements add up to a characteristically expressionistic effect that is unique to Herzog. Overall, Encounters at the End of the World is another work from one of the greatest documentary filmmakers.

“Unmistaken Child” - by Nati Baratz (2008)

Many of us have a fascination and sympathy with the notions of Buddhism, in general, and with Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, but we are curious to know more. Certainly, the Dalai Lama seems to be an enlightened and widely revered figure who is able to understand and converse with scholars and thinkers from East to West. Heinrich Zimmer, commenting on the worldwide cultural contribution of yab-yum which is the symbolic understanding that began to have influence around the seventh or eighth century CE that male-female romantic union represents the mystical union of wisdom and compassion, said [1]:
One thinks immediately of Eleanor of Aquitane and the Provencal courts of love, four centuries later, when the aristocratic circles of the Occident were being touched by the magic of the Orient, in the period of the Crusades. Simultaneously, in Mahāyāna-Buddhist Japan, the lords and ladies of the Imperial court of Miyako wee enacting their poetic romance of the “Cloud Gallants” and “Flower Maidens”, while Persia was singing the songs of Omar, Nizami, and the Sufi poets. A line of Hafez might be taken as the motto of the movement: “Love’s slave am I and from both worlds free.” From the castles of Portugal to those of Japan, the civilized world, for some five centuries resounded to this song; and the echoes are still be heard in the cloisters of Tibet. The basic Indian doctrine – the doctrine of transcendental monism, which merges opposite principles in timeless union – finds no more striking symbolization anywhere than in the lamasery cult of the icon of the holy bliss (mahāsukha) of the united couple.
But the centers of Tibetan Buddhism are particularly remote, both physically and culturally, from the West. So when the documentary film, Unmistaken Child (2008) came out purporting to show some of the secret practices of Tibetan Buddhism, I looked forward to seeing it with enthusiasm.

The story of Unmistaken Child is focused on the ritual process of identifying a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist tulku lama. A tulku lama is an enlightened lama and Bodhisattva who chooses to be reincarnated in human form in order to assist other humans towards the path of Buddhahood. The most well-known example is the Dalai Lama (the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso). According to the practice, when a tulku lama dies, certain signs and omens are interpreted by other respected lamas and their appointees, and from these signs potential candidate infants are identified and then tested to see if they are able to recognize artifacts that once belonged to the recently deceased lama. The process was dramatized in the film Kundun (1997), but some of the authentic, realtime vetting activities are presented in Unmistaken Child.

The tale begins in 2001 when the revered Geshe Lama Konchog passed away at the age of 84. His chief disciple and attendant for over twenty years, 28-year-old Tenzin Zopa, was appointed by the Dalai Lama to the task of discovering the child that would embody the reincarnated soul of the late lama. The film respectfully follows Tenzin Zopa’s search for the next four years to locate and unmistakably identify the child in the remote reaches of Nepal. This includes meetings with various Tibetan Buddhist theologians and masters. In order to find out the general direction in which to search for the reincarnation, there are first consultations about the direction of the smoke that emerged from the Lama Konchog’s funeral pyre and the diagnostic interpretation of a perceived fresh footprint in the ashes. This is then followed by a video-conference consultation with an astrologer in Taiwan, who determines that there is a 95% probability that the holy child’s father’s name begins with ‘A’, and that the birthplace most probably has a name beginning with ‘TS’. All of this leads Tenzin to conclude that he must seek out the Tsum Valley near the border between Nepal and Tibet. There he makes numerous and lengthy treks on foot to remote, almost inaccessible, villages in order to interview parents of children who may have candidate children of the requisite age and characteristics.

When a suitable child is located, he is asked to identify a rosary, a hand drum, and a bell that belonged to the late lama. The recognition actions appear ambiguous to me, but the authorities seem convinced that this is the “unmistaken child”. For ecample the authentic rosary selected is certainly much shinier than the other two candidates offered. And note that by this time it was December 2005, and the candidate child is not such an infant anymore – he would have been susceptible to coaching, or he might simply have attempted to guess what the authorities wanted him to do. Anyway, the next steps is to have the identified child finally confirmed by the Dalai Lama, himself, who gives him the name “Phuntsok Rinpoche” and later sends a confirmatory message:
“My observations in various signs as well as my divination also came out very auspicious. I feel very comfortable and confident identifying Tenzin Nyudrup as the unmistaken reincarnation of the late Lama Konchog.”
There is finally the task of persuading the child’s parents of the rural village to give up their child forever so that he can be raised as an enlightened lama. The parents are saddened but feel it is their duty to hand the child over to the religious authorities.

All of this has a certain interest, because the authentic events are filmed as they happened, and we get to see traditional rural Tibetan life as it is lived in the rugged and beautiful Nepalese landscape. So the subject matter is definitely of interest (to me, at least), because it might shed more light on the fascinating subject of Tibetan Buddhism and its mysteries. How, for example, are we to reconcile the combination of seemingly incompatible elements of (a) the Dalai Lama, who has an understanding and appreciation of Western natural science, and (b) the utter nonsense of making predictions based on astrology, which is not mystical divination but is instead a demonstrably false pseudoscience? But what writer-director Nati Baratz has made of this material, despite his four-year quest to go to the source and film the interesting activities, falls short in the two key areas of documentary filmmaking: the cinematic expression and the film narrative.

1. Cinematic expression. There are two key problems in this connection.
  • One was the decision to shoot the film employing a cinema vérité style. This style eliminates an onscreen narrator or an offscreen narrative voice-over, and it thereby attempts to present a fly-on-the-wall picture of what was happening. The implicit idea is to make the camera an invisible witness, so that the film appears to be completely “objective”, with the filmed actions uninfluenced by the present of the film crew. This can work in some situations, but it doesn’t work here. Since the events are strung out over four years, the film desperately needs a narrative guide to provide more background information and continuity. That narrative guide could have been Tenzin Zopa, and there are in fact a few revealing interviews with him. But the narrative guidance that might have come from him is essentially absent. Instead we just have the camera traipsing after Tenzin as he wanders about Nepal looking for the unmistaken child.
  • A second failing is due to the cinematography and editing. For much of the film, the hand-held camera work is extremely shaky, as the cameraman plods along in the company of Zopa. This jostled-camera effect is worsened by the efforts to maintain the frame in closeup much of the time. For example there are amateurish camera movements as the photographer films a conversation by awkwardly trying to pan back and forth between the two interlocutors. It would have been much better simply to employ more conventional over-the-should camera work in such situations. Of course, sometimes a cameraman does find himself in an opportunistic setting and must capture the scene in an ad hoc fashion, but many of the conversations seen in the film appear to be somewhat staged, anyway, so I believe that much better camera setups could have been employed.
2. Film narrative. The basic narrative line is, of course, the search for the reincarnated lama. But there are other narrative themes that are left unexplored. Tenzin Zopa is on his own journey of self-discovery, but this is only briefly touched upon. He has lived most of his life in the shadow of Geshe Lama Konchog, on whom he has relied for all important decisions. With his master’s passing he expresses some self-doubts concerning his own abilities to make carry out such a critical task for the monastery, and we get a glimpse that he may have other doubts, too. He seems, and would be expected to be, quite reflective, but this voyage of self-discovery is mostly missed. Instead, we get many shots of him playing with village children that look more like home movie material than elements to the story. All that appears is surface material, with no pointers to the deeper spiritual mysteries that lie within. For more first-hand accounts and written material (though perhaps less objective) about the esoteric process of identifying the unmistaken child of Geshe Lama Konchog, you may find it interesting to consult this Web site.

The human story of the parents having to give up their child is interesting, too, although it admittedly probably would have been difficult to get more material on this aspect.

It would also have been better to see more commentary from the Dalai Lama, himself. Of course, his availability may be quite limited, but since this film would offer an important opportunity to expose Tibetan Buddhist culture to a wider audience, he might have been interested in offering his thoughts. Having spent some time in Dharamsala and having attended both the Dalai Lama’s monastery there and another in Himachel Pradesh, I can attest that there is much of interest to explore in Tibetan Buddhism. The listening and the gaze of the practitioner is perpetually directed towards the mysteries of consciousness and being -- and how to follow the path to enlightenment. But this film, interesting at times though it is, showed little of this and did not satisfy my appetite.

  1. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (1951), Bollingen Series XXVI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA, pp. 558-559.

“Sin Nombre” - Cary Joji Fukunaga (2009)

Inside the consciousness of everyone, there is an innate tendency for compassion and love. Spiritual practices call this the Buddha or God within. But there is also another side, a much darker side. This is the region that the film, Sin Nombre (2009), written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, explores. On the surface, the film could be cast simply as a combination of Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) and Fernando Meirelles’s Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002), but I see it as a unique work that stands on its own merits. In fact the cinematic storytelling skills displayed here by first-time director Fukunaga may herald an outstanding new cinematic auteur.

The story traces the intersecting paths of two groups of people:
  • a Honduran family that wishes to travel north through Guatemala and Mexico in order to get to the United States,
  • a collection of violent gang members belonging to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, aka “MS-13".
The Hondurans family headed North comprise a young woman, Sayra, along with her uncle and her recently-deported-from-the-US father, whom she hasn’t seen for many years. The father intends to take the two of them all the way through Guatemala and Mexico and up to New Jersey, where a promised safe haven supposedly awaits them. Much of this perilous passage that is the subject of the film is shot on the tops of boxcars, where the endless stream of illegal immigrants ride in the open on their nightmarish dream journey to the promised land.

The other focalilzation of the film focuses on a taciturn member of the Mara gang, Willy, whose gang name is “El Casper”. He introduces a 12-year-old boy to the gang for initiation, which involves the willingness to receive a severe 13-second beating from the existing gang members and the requirement that one must murder a rival gang member before one is fully accepted. After this boy completes his initiation, he is given the name “Smiley”.

Casper has a beautiful girlfriend who lives within the barrio of a rival gang, and Casper has to lie to his leader, Lil' Mago, in order to make his trysts with her. Eventually Casper’s lies are unmasked, the ritual 13-second beating is administered to him, and his girlfriend is raped and accidentally murdered. With his life hanging in the balance, though, Casper prudently keeps his mouth shut.

The paths of the two groups eventually cross when Lil’ Mago takes Casper out on a mission to plunder the meager belongings of the illegal immigrants aboard the freight trains. When Lil’ Mago spies Sayra and begins to rape her, Casper finally snaps and kills him. Sayra, overcome with emotion for her savior, becomes enamored, but Casper knows that the Mara gang’s code will bring the entire international network of gang members out for revenge. He is a walking deadman and has no future with her. Nevertheless, he is committed to delivering her to safety.

Sin Nombre has some weaknesses in both the story and in some of the acting, which initially put me off as I watched the film. Edgar Flores, the native Honduran who plays Willy/Casper, doesn’t convey the charisma or toughness that I would expect for the character. How could this heavily-tattooed sulker attract two beautiful women to be so desperately and passionately in love with him? The passion of Sayra, played by Paulina Gaitán, for Willy is also not very believable. Admittedly, she would be expected to feel grateful towards the person who rescued her from the rape attack, but her stubborn insistence on following him to the ends of the earth seems artificial.

But let’s consider the virtues of the film, which eventually won me over. This is not just a journey to a longed-for destination. Instead, it is almost literally a descent into Hell and an attempted escape, and Fukunaga has depicted that hell with poetic mastery. Although there a number of deaths in the film, including many of the principal characters, the film is not as violent as one might think. What comes across here is not so much the shock violence that is present in City of God, but something else – the chilling dark side of human mind. The phrase, “banality of evil” misses the point: the dark side is not banal, it is just so shocking how easy it is for people to succumb to its seductions.

The Mara gang is devoted purely to oppression and dominance: to crush and kill the enemies, the “chavalas” (“bitches”, or rival gang members). Just as there is a compassionate side of human nature, there is a cruel dark side that loves to destroy the “enemy”. For example, the Iranian Islamic Republican Guard today has the same devotion to cruelty, almost for its own sake, as the worldwide Mara Salvatrucha gang, or as the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) did in Sri Lanka. Such a psychosocial tendency demands utter loyalty – anyone who resists is identified as the “enemy” and must be crushed. Sin Nombre depicts this hellish side of humanity, not with shock violence, but with graphic scope and fluidity. In so doing, it explores the very nature of this dark side. Smiley, with his cherubic face, is inexorably drawn to become a member of the MS-13 gang so that he can prove himself to his gang “brothers”. He is desperate to belong. The gang members, almost completely covered with tattoos over their bodies and faces (this includes Casper), have aligned themselves with the ultimate oppressive side of human nature. The tattoos brand everyone in the gang, thereby facilitating global surveillance, control, and punishment of any errant members, such as Casper. This vision disturbingly foreshadows our own future, in which electronic tagging will enable oppressive organizations to carry out the same kind of global surveillance and control of everyone.

The narrative journey in Sin Nombre is twofold. In the early thread Casper has brought Willy to Hell – a Hell that has already been part of his life. Casper knows, too late, that he has delivered the willing boy to the devil. Now his final act of redemption, the second thread, is to attempt to save Sayra from this Hell. Thus the story of Sin Nombre is not a journey to Heaven, but a flight from Hell. There may not be a heaven, but there definitely is a hell.

The name “Sin Nombre” means “without name”, or “nameless”. It could refer to all the gang members who have received new gang names and are no longer “themselves”. Or it could refer to all the nameless, unbranded people in the world who want to escape from the hell that is perpetually being made for them by others. Fukinaga's background perhaps suits him for being their champion, since it resists branding -- he is an American of Japanese-Swedish parentage who shot the film about Hondurans in Mexico.

The cinematography by Adriano Goldman, with its expert moving-camera shots, which I understand were undertaken with 35mm cameras, is superb throughout. The music is effective, and in fact, I would have liked it to be even more prominent, since it enhances the dreamlike flow of the film.

“Moon” - Duncan Jones (2009)

Moon (2009), directed by Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie) and based on his original story, is a science-fiction film set in the not-too-distant future. Despite some thematic reservations I have with the film, it has an eerie seductiveness that lingers in the memory.

The story begins with a quick contextual positioning some years hence in the future at which time mankind’s energy crisis has been solved by mining rich energy resources from the dark side of the moon. At a lunar mining station there Sam Bell is the lone human being in attendance and is near the completion of his contracted term. His only companion during the last three years has been a computer robot, named “GERTY”, which speaks to Sam in a soothing voice and controls all the electro-mechanical functions at the mining station. Anyone familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) will make the immediate connection with that film, and that association may be explicitly intentional. From the very outset we are suspicious of Gerty and the degree to which Sam is in control of his situation. Since one of the film’s virtues is its air of mystery, the reader is hereby warned that principal elements of the mystery will be revealed in what follows.

The story has roughly three phases to it:
1. Isolation. In the first phase, Sam is shown to be going slightly stir crazy and given to hallucinating after almost three years of claustrophobic loneliness. Because direct satellite communications with the earth are apparently not working, Sam is only able to familiarize himself with the latest news from his wife back home via video recorded messages that she sends to him. Otherwise, he goes over his work schedule with Gerty, runs on his treadmill, and spends free time making wood-carving models with his pocket knife. Given the fact that almost all of his interaction in the world is via mediated electronic and electro-mechanical devices, this wood-carving activity seems to constitute his only direct and authentic interaction with physical reality. This section may remind us of our own increasingly mediated existences and the degree to which we are becoming isolated from direct interaction.

2. Identity. One day while inspecting some mining equipment away from the station, Sam crashes his rover vehicle and is severely injured. The next scene shows him waking up in the station infirmary, with Gerty soothingly informing him that he has been “out ” for some time and has suffered some memory loss from a concussion. Because Gerty restricts his access to some facilities during his convalescence, Sam becomes suspicious and sneaks out to the accident site, where he discovers the damaged rover vehicle with a body in it. When the body is brought back and revived, he discovers that it is a copy of himself: there are now two Sams at the base.

Apart from the distinction that one of the Sams (Sam1) is injured, we soon see that though they are physically the same, the two Sams have some differences. Sam2 is something of a control-freak and a hothead, while Sam1 is laid-back and more accepting of their present circumstances. In this section, the two Sams have to come to terms with just who he (or they) are and what constitutes their individual entities. After some time it is clear that Sam2 is a biological clone of Sam1 and that Sam1 knows a little more about “their” past than Sam2. The mining company has stored clones in the base station for quick replacement in case their human agents die during service. Gerty had mistakenly replaced Sam1 with Sam2, assuming that Sam1 wouldn’t live. We also learn that Sam1 used to be hot-tempered control-freak, too. The agreed-separation from his wife and child while working on the Moon had been intended for him to learn how to manage his own emotional weaknesses, and this apparently had met with some success. So Sam1 tries to impart some of his recently gained philosophical wisdom to the impatient Sam2.

3. Departures. The two Sams, now feeling a sense of brotherhood, realize that the mining company will not allow more than one Sam to live, so they decide to escape together. This can be accomplished by reviving another clone to serve on the station. Sam1 also learns that he, himself, is a also clone and that the real, original Sam must have died years ago. But Sam1 is rapidly degenerating physically and experiencing persistent internal hemorrhaging. He knows he is not going to survive, so he volunteers to be placed back into the damaged rover vehicle to help cover Sam2's escape. Sam1 dies, and Sam2 makes it back to Earth.
There are a few remaining, unresolved questions I have about the story.
  • What were Sam’s hallucinations in the first phase of the film about? They seem to be present in the narrative only to set up the crash, but they suggest something of importance which is then abandoned.
  • Sam1's physical degeneration is puzzling. Was it due to the crash? He seemed to recover somewhat after the crash, though, only to decline rapidly subsequently. Or are the clones designed to be functionally operational for only about three years, after which they degenerate?
  • Gerty’s role (voiced creepily and effectively by Kevin Spacey) is also unclear. He secretly communicates with the mining authorities on Earth sometimes, but later apparently doesn’t divulge to them that there are two Sams alive at the station. He explains that he is programmed to help humans (like Kryten on the TV series Red Dwarf), but the implications of this interesting humanistic directive are left unexplored and the evocation of associations with 2001: A Space Odyssey seem to be only a red herring.
Still, for a debut effort on a limited budget, one has to admire what has been produced. There is really only one actor of significance in the film, yet the visual narrative remains fascinating throughout. There is a clever action scene in which Sam1 plays ping pong with Sam2, and of course both Sams are played by actor Sam Rockwell. Clint Mansell’s pensive music sets contemplative mood for the themes of loneliness and human meaning.

There are several interesting aspects to this film that generate reflection on the part of the viewer, such as what is human identity, what is real, what is authentic interaction. These are tantalizingly raised, but only superficially explored. But my biggest problem with the film is that it is based on a scientific premise that is fundamentally false. It is OK for science fiction films to posit activities that are not currently realizable, but are still philosophically possible. So, for example, there may be a future possibility of making physical human clones and setting up mining base stations on the moon. I am even willing to forgive minor technical issues, such as
  • suggesting that helium will be the energy source that is mined on the moon and
  • showing the earth hovering in the sky when the station is supposed to be on the "dark side of the moon" (assumed to be colloquially identified with the far side of the moon, because the true dark side of the moon would not identify a fixed location).
But the entire premise of the film is based on the unsound idea: that the human mind is a mechanical computing substrate, onto which all the memories of someone can be “uploaded”. This involves confusing the physical mind-embodiment of real, human existence with the digital computing metaphor of a Turing machine. Although it is true that there are a number of people, even academics and computing professionals, who believe that the human mind is equivalent to an algorithmic computer, this belief is incorrect. The human mind can simulate (not very efficiently) the operations of a logic computation machine, but its operational and interactive capabilities go beyond the mechanics of computers. Sam1 and Sam2 might be identical twins, but they are not, and cannot be, identical copies of each other. It will not be possible to upload the memories of one person onto another.