“Japanese Girls at the Harbor” - Hiroshi Shimizu (1933)

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Minato no nihon musume, 1933) is a striking and atmospheric silent movie from director Hiroshi Shimizu, who had a long and successful career in Japan, but is relatively unknown in the West. Based on a story by Itsuma Kitabayashi, the film may at first appear to be a rather conventional romantic tale, but it manages to evoke nuanced considerations of love, jealousy, the challenges of modernism to traditional values, and also what I might call, “truth and revelation”.

The story of this film revolves around three girls in the port city of Yokohama who are all romantically attracted to a handsome young man in the area. The focus is on two best friends, Dora and Sunako, who are students at a Catholic girls school. The plot passes through three basic stages.
  1. Sunako and Henry. After opening with some atmospheric but impersonal and distancing shots of Yokohama harbor, the scene shifts to Dora and Sunako, who walk home together across a hilltop every day. On this occasion the courtly young man Henry drives up to the hilltop on his motorcycle, to the evident delight of both girls. Henry is charming and chivalrous towards each of them, but Sunako is more assertive and succeeds in winning his attentions. Dora is crushed but swears fealty to her eternal friendship with Sunako. Soon, however, we learn that Henry likes to hang around the company of punk gangsters and is also seeing an older, more worldly girl, Yoko Sheridan, who seems to be experienced in the affairs of seducing and manipulating men. Dora reports this situation to Sunako, who is overcome with jealousy and, in a dramatic scene, confronts Yoko in the school chapel and shoots her with a gun.
  2. Sunako’s Fall. The scene now shifts to new circumstances after some time has passed. Through a process of slow disclosure, the viewer gradually learns that in the smoky world of prostitutes and gin joints, one of these girls, now wearing the striking garments of a geisha, is Sunako. She has become a different person from the respectable schoolgirl seen in the first act. Meanwhile Henry and Dora are now married, revealing that Dora’s shy, conservative manner was ultimately successful in the game of love. By chance, Henry runs into Sunako in the city and is shocked by what has happened to her. Dora, still loyal to her old friend, seeks to help Sunako and urges her to come to their dwelling for visits. Both Henry and Dora feel called upon to get Sunako to return to a more respectable and virtuous life, but Sunako, presumably aware of the likely unforgiving nature of traditional Japanese society, feels trapped in her situation.
  3. Sunako’s Redemption. Henry, trying to turn Sunako around, goes to visit her, but he also finds himself tempted by old feelings and is attracted to her again. Perhaps due to his conflicting emotions, Henry turns to drink and starts hanging out in bars until late at night. Although Sunako is also still attracted to Henry, she reawakens to her authentic self and insists on Henry returning to his wife, Dora. At the end of the film, Sunako departs from Yokohama on a ship, having done the right thing but unsure of what life has further in store for her.
There are several interesting aspects of the story of Japanese Girls at the Harbor that make it more interesting than might first appear, The focus of attention here is on women, not men. What we see is a sensitive portrayal of women and how they see and act from their particular perspective, and this portrayal is enhanced by generally subtle acting (despite the sometimes stylized gestures mentioned below) that reveals their depth. As with many of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films, the men in this story are generally shallow and weak. Henry is nice, but seems to have little spine or character. In addition, another personage in the story, the painter Miura, who is Sunako’s later companion in her fallen state, is a friendly but servile camp follower who follows Sunako around like a puppy dog. So the men here are relatively useless, and it is the women who drive the story. Of course, Sunako is an assertive women who takes actions throughout. But even Dora and Yoko Sheridan (who reappears as a chastened and doomed character in Act 3) are attention-drawing and rather complex characters who undergo change in the story. Sunako is the most interesting character and the action-taker. In Act 1 she asserts herself by claiming Henry. Later when Yoko comes to take Henry away from her, Sunako shoots her. In Act 2, Sunako has descended into prostitution, but she is still very much her own woman, making her own living and energetically dominating her hangdog companion, Miura. Finally in Act 3, Sunako is still the decisive character – she reunites Henry with Dora and then chooses to leave Yokohama for new territory. She is the agent that makes things happen in this story.

Getting back to that theme of truth and revelation that I mentioned earlier, there is this curious compulsion on the part of characters in the film to intervene by telling the “truth” as they know it. In Act 1 Dora goes to Sonako and tells her what she knows about Henry and Yoko. Yoko also reveals to Henry that she knows about his dallying with Sunako. In Act 2 both Dora and Henry attempt to intervene in Sonako’s life and get her back to a virtuous life. In Act 3 Miura intervenes and reveals what he knows to Henry. Also in Act 3 Yoko Sheridan, having reappeared as a quite different person, also attempts to straighten out Sunako. The sense of respect for the privacy of the individual was evidently less significant in this realm. All of these characters felt the need to establish a common objective knowledge in the society around them, even though new modernist tendencies were making such commonality even less achievable and also revealing that the depth of individual feelings were richer than can be known in the public space and that increased considerations for privacy were more desirable for individuals and public alike.

What makes Japanese Girls at the Harbor such a special experience and a must-see film, however, is not the basic story, but the telling. The moody, black-and-white compositions and long tracking shots are consistently evocative of the general feelings of longing and loneliness. In addition there is considerable visual symbolism throughout, often in terms of images that represent the challenges of modernism. A further visual attribute, and one that strikes me as more unique to this film, is the sometimes dramatically stylized gestures of the actors – I am not sure whether these derive from silent movie or perhaps Japanese dramatic traditions. Incidentally, although sound movies came early to Japan, with the first one appearing in 1926, it took some time for talking pictures to take hold – even in the year of this film, 1933, more than 80% of the Japanese productions were silent films. One curious aspect to the visual presentation was the many intertitles in the film. These numerous textual interruptions might be thought to interfere with the visual presentation – I was always taught that the best silent films were those that didn’t need any intertitles. And yet the brief intertitles in this film don’t seem to get in the way, and seem almost to provide a form of visual punctuation.

Overall, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is worth tracking down. In many ways I had the feeling as I watched it that I was seeing a Japanese version of a Josef von Sternberg film, where a simple narrative arc is graced by a leisurely, expressionistic cinematography that entrances the viewer.

“The Social Network” - David Fincher (2010)

The Social Network (2010) is about one of the hot cultural topics of the moment, the massive move to computer social networking and the extraordinary rise of its primary platform, Facebook. So even a poorly crafted film would have attracted considerable interest from many quarters. But the public and the critics generally judged The Social Network to be top-notch entertainment, giving it thumbs up all round: it earned eight US Academy Award Oscar nominations and has grossed well over $200 million. Based on Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires, about the founding of Facebook, it is notable that this mainstream Hollywood production is not a product of the youth culture it examines, but is instead something of an examination from the outside of that sphere – it was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, 1999) and scripted by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, 1999-2006). In fact the clinical examination metaphor is made explicit in the production, since all the events depicted are seen from the framing device of two concurrent court depositions associated with lawsuits that were filed about the events depicted in the film: the law courts are trying to get at the truth of what exactly took place in 2003-2004 concerning the rise of Facebook

In fact the film’s viewers, too, are probably looking for some kind of truth, or perhaps many truths when they go to see this film. After all, in just a couple of years, Facebook has amassed 750 million users and is considered to be worth more than $70 billion. How did this thing that was started by a single 19-year-old programmer get so big, so fast? Depending on what part of society they are coming from, viewers probably wanted to know the real story, the truth, that could provide answers to the following questions:
  • What made Facebook different from its other social networking competitors (Myspace, Friendster, Bebo, Orkut, . . .) and how did it come to dominate the market? Does it have special technical features, algorithms, or user affordances that make it so much better?
  • How does the youth-dominated high-tech computer industry work and what is it like to be a computer hacker?
  • Who is Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, and what lies behind his success?
  • Did Mark Zuckerberg actually steal the idea of Facebook from some of his fellow students and cash in all by himself?
Amazingly (for a film that has satisfied so many viewers presumably looking for these answers), the film doesn’t provide definitive information for any of these questions. Although The Social Network is grounded in actual court testimony (much of the testimony in the hearings is taken directly from the court transcripts), some knowledgeable critics have even complained that the depiction of the main character, Mark Zuckerberg, has serious inaccuracies [1,2,3]. In particular they argue that the film shows Zuckerberg to be
  • insecure – but they say he is not;
  • being obsessed with gaining an invitation to one of the prestigious, upper-class Harvard Final Clubs – but Zuckerberg denies having had an interest in that;
  • being a social outcast who could not find a girlfriend or relate to girls – but apparently he has had a steady girlfriend since 2003.
Besides the issue of whether the characterization of Zuckerberg is authentic or not, the film doesn’t even say much of anything about the experience of computer social networking or how the software that drives it was constructed.

Despite these criticisms concerning the film’s failure to reveal authentic and realistic information about its main subjects, though, I would say that the film does have its virtues. We just have to realize that this film is not about gritty reality, but is actually more of an expressionistic fable about characters that exist partly in our collective imagination. And on these terms, the film does convey something of an interest. So for the moment, let’s consider the fictionalized characters as shown, who may differ considerably from the real personages after whom they were fashioned.

First let’s consider the surface reality of the film. From the outset we are plunged into something of a dreamworld, or at least the dreamworld of TV dramas. What we see is not how real people really act, look, or talk. The pacing is too fast, filled with snappy and smart verbal comebacks to any remark. The girls, most of them Asian, are all slender, glamorous, and enticing. This is more the stuff of male fantasies than of the literal truth. At a social mixer party that takes place at a Harvard Jewish fraternity in the film, a male friend of Eduardo, one of the film’s main characters, remarks that he wants to develop an algorithm to explain the connection between Jewish guys and Asian girls. Eduardo responds,
“I don’t think it’s that complicated. They’re hot, they’re smart, they’re not Jewish, and they can’t dance.”
I guess that just about sums it up.

But it is exactly this dreamworld that makes the film compelling. The story is not about social networks, but about a particularly bizarre social network, in fact the social network (as the title reminds us). In this case the social network concerns the principal characters, an odd pairing that fate and circumstance has thrown together:
  • Mark Zuckerberg, the gifted and nerdy computer whiz who starts Facebook.
  • Eduardo Saverin, a Brazilian math major at Harvard and Mark’s roommate. Eduardo works as Mark’s early financial advisor.
  • The Winklevoss twins, two studly and patrician Harvard upperclassmen who want to recruit Mark to work for their own fledgling computer company.
  • Sean Parker, a West Coast entrepreneur who was part of the founding of two well-known computer startups, Napster and Plaxo. Sean entices Mark to move Facebook out to the West Coast.
The plot is crafted as a variant on the classical “hero’s journey” [4], an oft-told story of a dangerous and lonely passage into a mysterious realm in quest of a hidden treasure – but fraught with multiple temptations and dire jeopardy. An iconic example of the hero’s journey is The Wizard of Oz (1939), and in fact I was reminded of David Lynch’s expressionistic turn on that very tale, Wild at Heart (1990), while watching this story unfold.

The film narrative is divided into three acts, and each one features alliances, betrayals, and the confrontation of threats. In each case the protagonist Zuckerberg is faced with a test that he manages to pass through by means of a shaky and not altogether trustworthy alliance. All three acts are framed, as I mentioned earlier, in the context of the later lawsuit deposition hearings, so they represent selected flashbacks of key events during the period under examination.
1. The Harvard Startup.
In the first act we meet the Aspergerish Zuckerberg talking to his girlfriend, Erica, and manically maintaining two conversation threads with the same person at the same time. She eventually zones out of his narcissistic and insensitive ramblings and announces that she is dumping him. Bewildered, Mark goes back to his room and vengefully calls Erica a bitch on his Friendster blog page before turning away from the too-complicated human world and spending all night hacking up a computer mashup, called “FaceMash”, that enables Harvard students to rate and compare how “hot” the coeds are on campus. Although this computer application is immediately popular, it gets Mark in trouble and leads to his suspension. But the bravura exploit draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins, who, together with their classmate Divya Narendra, have decided to start a local blogging and social networking platform at Harvard called “Harvard Connect”. They offer Mark the job of programming their service platform, and Mark agrees to join them. But it’s clear that these guys are just out to use Mark and exploit his programming genius. He’s just a tool for these sophisticates, who dominate Mark by virtue of their being upperclassmen, their immense wealth, and their social status. Meanwhile Mark secretly decides to go off and develop his own social networking platform, and this activity delays his work for the Winklevosses. These are the key events associated with the subsequent Winklevoss lawsuit against Zuckerberg, which claimed that Mark had stolen their idea (their “intellectual property”) for Facebook. We never do get much of a feeling whether Mark meant to screw the Winklevoss twins from the outset and how much of his own venture, initially known as “thefacebook.com”, was his original idea. Actually, it turns out that even his original FaceMash application was not such an original idea, since something very similar had appeared at MIT a year earlier [5].

But somehow the issue of Mark’s originality doesn’t seem to matter in this story told on screen. We are basically on the side of this innocent, naive kid struggling against the super-confident giants that are always expected to win, because the deck is inevitably stacked in their favor. Although on the surface Zuckerberg appears completely outmatched by the Winklevoss twins, in the end it is Mark, like the mouse topping the cat in the Tom and Jerry cartoon, who dumps the Winklevoss twins and plows ahead with his own company.

2. TheFaceBook.Com
Zuckerberg and his roommate and pal, Eduardo Saverin, set out to build thefacebook.com (which will eventually become Facebook.com). Saverin is no slouch, by the way – we are told early on that one summer he made $300,000 investing in oil futures, and he becomes the Chief Financial Officer for the startup company. Throughout The Social Network, much of the action is seen from Eduardo’s perspective, and he is something of a narrator for this tale. This feeling of him being the narrator arises naturally from the fact that Saverin was Mezrich’s principal source for The Accidental Billionaires (Zuckerberg did not cooperate on the book or the film). So we are just getting Saverin’s side of the story all the way along. It is not surprising then that Saverin is the most sympathetic and human of the principal characters in the film. In fact only his role (played well by Andrew Garfield) and that of Erica (Rooney Mara) who come across as real, believable people. The rest of the roles, though well-acted, are heavily dramatized caricatures.

Anyway, in the context of this tale as its cinematically told to us, it is evident that Saverin’s sensitivity and humanity are necessary counterbalances to Zuckerberg’s disconnected and obsessive focusing on his own narrow goals. After some successes both with Facebook and with meeting girls, the two close friends meet up with the next turning point, the encounter with Sean Parker.

3. The Journey Out West
In a way, Parker (in an enthusiastic performance by Justin Timberlake) turns out to be the key pivotal figure to the narrative. He is a dazzling and seductive Mephistopheles, as he completely awes Zuckerberg with his glitzy familiarity with California showbiz-style entrepreneurship. The innocent and genuine Saverin is no match for this smooth operator, and he is easily sidelined by Parker’s almost demonic presence. In fact there is a scene in a San Francisco nightclub that summons up the images of the devil, himself, in the form of Parker seductively leading the ensnared Zuckerberg into a netherworld of forbidden rituals. It is certainly the “innermost cave” [4] of danger for the naive Zuckerberg. Parker represents a different kind of threat than the Winklevoss twins. While the Winklevoss twins were imposing and formidable antagonists, they were external threats – like powerful beasts of the forest. But Parker is even more dangerous – he appears to be attacking Zuckerberg from within and threatening to capture his very soul. And the horrified Eduardo is powerless to stop him. Parker soon engineers a semi-takeover of Facebook by landing some big-time investors to invest heavily in Facebook, thereby establishing Parker as president of the company and forcing Eduardo out of the picture (he would later Zuckerberg over this).

In the end, though, fate plays its hand and saves Zuckerberg from being completely taken over by Parker, as Parker’s fast-paced social life leads to a cocaine bust that removes him from the scene. In the film’s closing sequences, Zuckerberg is seen as having triumphed over everyone. He cam pay off the lawsuits and still be the world’s youngest and perhaps most powerful billionaire.
Many people have criticized the real Zuckerberg for being an ego-obsessed monomaniac, using his calm demeanor to mask a heartless arrogance that is willing to exploit anyone (and everyone, when it comes to people’s privacy) who stands in his way. Yet in this film, anyway, his character comes across as essentially innocent. He is the lone hero who pursues his dream to do it his own way. He spurns easy money and never lets distraction get in the way of his efforts to make Facebook into the what he had originally envisioned: a mechanism to connect people together. So as a drama, The Social Network works. Even though Zuckerberg’s relentless drive led him to move on from his friendship with Saverin, he does get what he wanted: the Facebook that can change the world.

But this victory comes at a price, and at the end of the film, Zuckerberg is still thinking about Erica and wishing that he could get her back. He has created the social networking behemoth, but his own social network is defunct.

This brings us to the larger issue, beyond the hero’s journey depicted in the film, concerning what Facebook really offers to us. Zuckerberg said that it was all about people making connections. When you can do that effectively online with Facebook, you can presumably find out what your friends are doing, eating, drinking, and watching. But the way Facebook works, subtlety and context are lost, and so, too, is privacy

In my view Facebook does not have a magic formula for social interaction. It was simply slightly better and slightly less bothersome than its competitors, and in the power-law economics of global electronic commerce, the leader, no matter how small its initial lead, will dominate overwhelmingly in the marketplace, whether it's in search engines (Google), operating systems (Microsoft), or social platforms (Facebook). And since Facebook is now so pervasive, the information that it has collected about everyone is enormously valuable to commercial enterprises, who will pay high fees to get at that information and make Facebook even more wealthy – a wealth that has been amassed by its acquiring and aggregating personal information from you and me. But we should not be seduced by mere size. As a social tool, Facebook is no more innovative than mass-market TV.

Facebook in fact is based on a reductionist, Objectivist view of reality – an impoverished perspective founded on a simplified and uniform ontology (mental model of the world). In terms of world modelling, it has always been the goal of the natural sciences to develop a universal model of reality, and we all know about the great advances in physics, chemistry, and biology towards this direction. But the complexity of human social interactions is well beyond the explanatory powers of the natural sciences. It is admittedly true that it is possible to employ simplified, quasi-universal ontologies that cover simple products and processes that we use for common and straightforward actions. But the human social world is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of complexity, and it is precisely that sphere of activity that will not succumb to such simplicity. In the social domain, everyone develops their own mental model of reality based on what they can learn from others and from their local contexts. To interact effectively in society, one has to have empathy: one’s mental model of reality must include the notion of other people who have their own, different mental models of the world – and they in turn have mental models that include guesses concerning what our own mental models may be like to them. We do this all the time, almost unconsciously, when we try to navigate in the social world, but in fact it is an extraordinarily complex mesh of multiple models within multiple models.

There are people, however, who have difficulty empathizing, the more extreme examples of whom may exhibit autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and ADHD. Since they don’t empathize and imagine the mental models of others, they don’t see a social world out there of multiple models. For them, the external world, including it social aspects, has only a single, universal model. It would be natural for such a person to come to the idea that the way to extend our understanding of that single, social model is to connect as many people as possible together so that they can all share what they know. This is apparently how Mark Zuckerberg, and people like him, thinks. That’s why the mere act of social connection was so fundamental to him and became his mantra. In this way of thinking, when a person connects with a “friend”, he is connecting with someone who is on the path to being mentally identical to him. They are just at various stages along that path towards comprehending the universal ontology.

But we should not let such empathy-challenged people wire us into a social system that diminishes the rich potential of our interactions. Deep down, we know, of course, that the idea of a “friend” is far more subtle than the way it has been defined in Facebook. In fact the real meaning of friend, just as the meaning of love, is actually so deep and context dependent, that it has forever challenged the world’s poets and artists. And each beautiful poem and work of art that has been produced on these subjects has been understood individually by each listener/observer in terms of his or her own meaningful local context. In contrast, Facebook, as it stands today as the product of Objectivist computer geeks, lumps every connection with another user as simply an unqualified and undistinguished “friend”. You may be electronically connected by this process, but these are often meaningless connections. As Zadie Smith reminded us [3], we need computer systems that empower us to be even more human, not reductionist-driven systems that only provide us with a fast, but barren, landscape of meaningless connections. Those better systems that we need will certainly come eventually, I am sure, and when they do, they will be produced by technically skilled teams that can go beyond reductionism and incorporate the poetry and empathic compassion of complex social interactions.

  1. David Kirkpactrick, “What’s True in the Facebook Movie”, The Daily Beast, September 30, 2010, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/09/30/the-facebook-and-zuckerberg-in-the-social-network-arent-real.html.
  2. Jose Antonio Vargas, “The Face of Facebook”, The New Yorker, September 20, 2010, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/20/100920fa_fact_vargas?currentPage=all.
  3. Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?”, The New York Review of Books, December 23, 2010, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/?pagination=false
  4. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, (1992).
  5. Facemash was preceded at MIT by “Hot or Not” in 2002. See http://tech.mit.edu/V121/N69/69hotornot.69n.html.

Asghar Farhadi

About Asghar Farhadi:
Films of Asghar Farhadi:

“Casablanca” - Michael Curtiz (1942)

When one has the chance to take another look at Casablanca (1942), it brings to mind a sense of anticipation beyond the usual one of reviewing a film classic. It is that of looking straight into the face of an American myth. It is perhaps the contemporary nature of this particular myth that makes the film – a “Hollywood” melodrama – one of the real enigmas of American pop culture.

Even today there is considerable lack of unanimity from critics as to the film’s ultimate importance. It’s overall popularity with its audiences is undeniable, however. Made in 1942 and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, Casablanca has been one of the most popular and widely seen films ever made – achieving almost cult-like proportions with college students. Besides making Ingrid Bergman an American star and winning three US Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film provided the ultimate vehicle for the Bogart legend. Indeed, one measure of the film’s success is that some of its lines, like “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Play it, Sam” are still part of the American scene.

The behaviour of the critics then is interesting. Although most of them admit liking the film, they seldom pin-point the reason, (e.g. Richard Shickel, of Time, called it “delicious”). For one thing, Casablanca stubbornly resists analysis on the basis of film aesthetics’ meager categories, in particular, the auteur theory. The auteur theory asserts, to put it loosely, that a work of cinematic art is achieved as a result of a personal statement by the film’s creator – the director. Casablanca’s director, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, was more famous for his mauling of the English language than for his acts of creativity (e.g. “This scene will make your blood curl”). Curtiz, once a circus strong man, directed three films in 1942, and usually turned out gross blockbusters rather than personal statements. Curtiz did, however, have an excellent sense of camera rhythm and lighting, both essential ingredients to the film’s success.

However, the nature of the film’s greatness is more closely identified with the portrayal of Humphrey Bogart, as Rick, the classic movie example of the alienated antihero redeemed by love. Romanticism in the American film frequently takes its form in the cynical tough guy’s independence. Sentimentality lies traditionally in the finish, when the antihero turns hero. Casablanca is no exception. Rather, it is a near perfect representation of this genre.

Since sentimentality exists more in the imagination than in the real world, an expressionistic, subjective environment is crucial to the theme. Hence Casablanca itself, a city of intrigue and mystery, where chaos rules and only the toughest survive, plays a role. The atmospheric settings and the super-real performances of Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet are thus crucial to the effect; more “realistic” acting would fail to achieve the emotional power. Furthermore, Bogart’s acting style is perfectly geared to the role. His restraint and cool always suggest an inner turmoil that internalizes the action for the audience.

The viewer always understands that Rick knows the score and that his mind is always churning, despite the forcedly calm exterior. (Imagine the film with Rick played by Ronald Reagan, the man Bogart beat out for the role!)

All of these expressionistic effects (some of which may have been partly indigenous to films of the forties) combine for an emotional impact which is still as powerful today as it was seven decades ago and which, except for scattered exceptions such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or occasional works by the Coen brothers, were not the usual fare of modern American cinema. The outrageously melodramatic plot, lack of special effects, and standard studio shooting notwithstanding, Casablanca is still a brilliant example of how stirring good movies can be.

“Inception” - Christopher Nolan (2010)

Inception (2010) currently has a user rating of 8.9 on the IMDB Web site, making it one of the highest-rated films in their comprehensive world database. By that reckoning one could argue that Inception is one of the best (or at least most popular) films of all time. Writer-director Christopher Nolan was already known for his reality-warping screen thrillers Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), and The Dark Knight (2008), but Inception was hailed by his fans as his greatest achievement.

The sci-fi story of the film involves a high-tech “intellectual property” burglar, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is skilled at stealing highly profitable ideas from people by invading their minds while they sleep. Early on we are shown situations where he can invade the dreams of other people and manipulate the dream so that he can grab what he wants; he can also go into a dream within a dream. This dream-within-a-dream scenario becomes the fundamental metaphor of the film.

After a failed intellectual heist, though, Cobb is offered a job by his most recent intended corporate victim to do something different: not to steal an idea, but to implant an idea into a rival’s brain which will lead to big financial returns for the sponsor of that intellectual “inception”. This idea-insertion operation is thought to be impossible, according to the conventional wisdom of dream burglars, but Cobb thinks he can do it and agrees to the contract. He then goes about assembling a high-tech team to carry out the intended implantation maneuver. In order to accomplish the desired operation, he claims, they will need to go down three levels – to a dream within a dream within a dream.

This may seem to be mentally mind-boggling, but actually the task of following the various dream penetrations in the rest of the film is relatively straightforward. The machinations of the dreamworks, however, are not straightforward, at all, although Nolan’s script blithely (and mindlessly) employs basically magical explanations whenever the script demands it. The vehicle for delivering these explanations to the viewer is for Cobb to recruit a young, innocent college girl, Ariadne, to serve as the dream “architect” for the team and for Cobb to explain things to her. She is told that since people can invade each other’s dreams, it means that dreams are essentially shared vehicles with multiple drivers. Whenever Ariadne sees something totally weird going on with the world, she is told, oh, that must be so-and-so’s dream “projection”. Each level of dreaming that one “descends” to (i.e. further descent into the dream-within-a-dream scenario) involves relative time distention by at least an order of magnitude – that is, what seems to take hours in the lower level only occupies minutes in the dream level immediately above it. Then we are told that the entire high-tech idea-implantation team assembled by Cobb and wandering around in the lower depths of dreamdom can magically ascend back to reality by synchronizing on some music that is collectively heard. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Things get more complicated, though, because of Cobb’s own hangups – he is haunted by his own nightmares of his deceased wife, Mal, who occasionally enters into the shared dreamscape and wreaks havoc. This is apparently due to Cobb’s personal feelings of guilt concerning her death and not due to any inherent malevolence on Mal’s part, since Mal is generally presented as a sympathetic character. Anyway, because of various unforseen events, Cobb and some members of his team must descend further into even lower dream levels than originally planned (ultimately to the fifth level), and, of course, that means that they are plunging into unknown and even more dangerous territory. At the end of the film, in fact, there is a suggestion that the entire film, including the final shots, may still have been taking place at some unspecified dream level. That is, perhaps Cobb’s world of professional idea thievery is just another dream, and there are actually (at least) six dream levels covered in the film.

While I recognize that suspension of disbelief is crucial to science fiction films (a number of which I do enjoy), the ad hoc and superficial, essentially magical, explanations in Inception don’t hold up. Claims that this film appeals to the imaginative intellect need to be buttressed by more than repeated references to ‘catharsis’ and having a character named “Ariadne”. I have remarked elsewhere about the folly of believing in "intellectual property" – that ideas are objective, material objects that can be stolen [1,2]. But I would be willing to set that objection aside for a fantasy film like this if there were something else in the story that tantalized the imagination.

One potential topic that could have been taken up with some payoff is the issue of Mal’s (Cobb’s wife’s) autonomy. Is she an autonomous spiritual being who has returned from some external spiritual domain to enter into Cobb’s own dreams? Or is she just a figment of Cobb’s guilt-ridden imagination? It would have been interesting to highlight the contrast between (a) a materialistic interpretation of Mal’s presence (which could be held by Cobb, the professional and mechanical idea thief) as a figment of Cobb’s imagination and (b) the alternate idea that Mal’s presence actually does represent an encounter with the still-living spirit of the deceased Mal. But this potentially interesting issue, one that does come into play in Solaris (1972, 2002), was not pursued or examined here. Inception has many of the external earmarks of an Expressionist film, but I wouldn't classify it as such, because it doesn't convey the expressionistic aesthetic impression.

There are other problems with Inception as well.
  • Throughout the film there are repeated violent encounters involving chase scenes with armed gunmen. These are all going on concurrently at several dream levels, with many people getting shot and killed, but there is little motivation for these scenes. Nolan is unable to build up any narrative motivation for these events, so they just seem to be pointless violence. It’s not even like playing an endless first-person shooter game (FPSG); instead, it’s like watching somebody else play an endless FPSG – the viewer feels little involvement in the action. The relentlessly pounding and one-dimensional background music by Hans Zimmer only makes things worse.
  • The presentation and acting is confused by a mixture of dramatic genres. It is as if the actors and actresses are not on the same page as to what kind of movie they are in. The relationship between Mal and Cobb is presented as a serious and emotional dramatic encounter. But this theme, as I suggested above, is only left hanging. On the other hand, Cobb’s “mission impossible” team of dream-manipulation technicians plays it very tongue-in-cheek. – it all seems like a joke. And then Ariadne, Cobb’s dream landscape architect, is very much the innocent young college girl.
So we have a confused dramatic mishmash of shootem-up violence, a dramatic love relationship, a cheeky heist movie, and a teenage coming-of-age story – and all going on at the same time. No wonder the actors seem confused (although DiCaprio, as Cobb, and Marion Cotillard, as Mal, do pretty well under the circumstances).

Admittedly there are some dazzling graphical effects, such as a downtown city environment rolling up over itself like a carpet, entire cities gradually crumbling to pieces, locomotives roaring down the middle of city streets, and fistfights in zero-gravity (or sometimes gravity is present, but the gravitational axis is shifting). But these effects need an effective story to make them interesting. As it is, the effects (apart from the gravity-shifting environment) seem to be “out there” – just part of some weird landscape and not part of the immediate, interactive environment. The viewer’s attention is distracted (and by means of that distraction perhaps somewhat engaged) throughout the film by the task of having to keep track of exactly which dream level the film is operating on at the moment; and so one keeps on watching intently for the almost three hours of action. But that distraction is not enough to make it all worthwhile (even if video game addicts seem to find that kind of distraction sufficient for their needs). Although Inception is promoted as a mind-bending intellectual feast for the college crowd, it seems to be only sophomoric.

  1. See: "'RiP: A Remix Manifesto' - Bret Gaylor (2009)", The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/08/rip-remix-manifesto-brett-gaylor-2009.html. 
  2. See: "'SiCKO' - Michael Moore (2007)", The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/02/sicko-michael-moore-2007.html.

Roberto Rossellini

About Roberto Rossellini:

Films of Roberto Rossellini:

Bogart and Brando (“The Maltese Falcon” & “The Wild Ones”)

The Maltese Falcon (directed by John Huston in 1941) and The Wild Ones (directed by Laslo Benedek in 1954) offer an interesting cinematic and social comparison. Although made only thirteen years apart, the two films seem to be indicative of distinctive generations. The comparison comes down ultimately to the contrast between Humphrey Bogart, the charismatic star of the forties, and Marlon Brando, the corresponding figure of the fifties. Each one displays the characteristically brutal personality that won them such large followings.

The Maltese Falcon was a break for Humphrey Bogart. The role of Sam Spade, the detective, was first offered to George Raft, who declined it because he wouldn’t take a chance on rookie director John Huston. Huston, in his first feature, went on to fashion the Dashiell Hammett thriller into a film so good, it gave a new dimension to the film noir genre.

Hammett knew the score with detectives (he was once one, himself) – they were basically antisocial cops, but smarter, more mercenary and sinister. Huston did nothing to soften Sam Spade’s character, and the supporting cast (Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor) was near perfection. The only alteration from the original story was the omission of Hammett’s final scene, when Effie realizes what a bastard Spade is. Whether Huston is responsible for this cut or not, it actually improves the story by omitting petty moralizing as well as leaving Spade to the viewer’s ultimate judgement. Bogart’s portrayal is one of his best. His voice and demeanor are perfectly suited for the delivery of such lines as, “Sorry, angel, I have a pressing date with a fat man.”

The Wild One’s, starring Brando and Lee Marvin, was Laslo Benedek’s only decent film. Like many films of its day, it tried to understand the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency in terms of cheesy psychology. Hollywood’s explanation of the alienated antihero of the 30's is poverty. In turn, the antihero of the 40's was supposed to be that way as a result of corruption and war. The preposterous explanation of the 50's was that boys went bade because they weren’t loved enough. These concluding explanations, however, didn’t snow the youth of the time, who perfectly understood the characters of Brando and James Dean and then jeered at the cop-out answer to the problem. Brando’s performances were so good during this time that they carried the entire movies along with them.

I’m sure Benedek didn’t even understand what Brando was doing, but young people all over the country were almost fanatical in their appreciation and empathy. Brando’s inarticulate frustration was a rejection of the entire society – but an individual, not a socially oriented rejection. The war was over, and the plastic American dream was here. Brando’s nihilism was emblematic of the “no” that came from the guts, ignorant of the relatively well-developed and sophisticated youth culture that made antiestablishmentarianism so fashionable later on.

The Bogart and Brando characters are not essentially tied to their decades, however. Brando is raw – the total drop out. Bogart, on the other hand, has not gone so far – or maybe he’s come back part way. He’s out to use everyone and everything for his own cynical purposes. Richard Shickel, commenting on the Bogart character, said of him,
"His special knowledge was of the jungle of the city at night – which clubs the syndicate ran, which one-arm restaurants served good coffee, which hotels a whore could use, which streets were safe to walk upon after midnight.

It was this detailed knowledge that set Bogart apart from the ordinary lonely male; it was the rightness of the setting, mood, and dialogue that established empathy with him.”
Richard Brooks, the gifted writer-director, had particularly revealing comments to make –
“Somehow you identify with this fellow. I think that’s what kids today see in him. He’s a man and not a raw kid, and willing to put his life on the line. He’s not, interestingly enough, like James Dean and other characters they identify with. He is not a lost soul in any of his films.

He knew what he stood for and is masculine and, of course, he could say so much in so few words. . . . For one thing, he was not a sentimentalist. That is important to people today. It’s not a sentimental world we’re living in as far as the youth is concerned today.”

Federico Fellini

Films of Federico Fellini:

“La Strada” (1) - Federico Fellini (1954)

Fellini. If a poll were taken to name the greatest filmmaker ever, the ultimate iconic auteur, his name would probably be at the top. The name is known to people who haven’t even seen any of his films. Despite the fame, Fellini’s determinedly independent course of filmmaking enabled him to evade facile categorization from critics, aside from their frequent use of the phrase, “The P. T. Barnum of the Cinema.” Thus no one ever knew quite what to expect from a new Fellini film, other than greatness. The director of such highly praised films as La Dolce Vita (1960), (1963), and Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini first achieved world-wide fame with the appearance of his third film, La Strada (1954), which in my opinion is his finest work and one of the greatest films ever made.

Fellini was initially associated with the Italian neorealist movement in the cinema just after World War Two. He was a script writer and assistant director for two of Roberto Rosellini’s important films of this time, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta, 1945), and Paisa (1946) [1]. The neorealist movement, a semi-documentary form which tried to depict the most common activities of a society, had its own aesthetic limitations, and Fellini was one of the first Italian directors to move in a new direction. After his only mildly successful first film, The White Sheik (Lo Sceicco Bianco, 1952), Fellini first began to receive attention for his I Vitelloni , a sensitive study of small town aimless youths, the Italian analogues at that time of the Beat Generation. Only after this success was he able to convince skeptical producers to finance the making of his old project, La Strada.

Producers were dubious of his desire to use his wife, Giulietta Masina, as the star. As soon as shooting started, she fell and dislocated her ankle, and the film had to be held up for three months. Anthony Quinn, committed to making another film at the time, Atilla (1954), was frequently absent from the set, and often shooting had to begin at daybreak so that Quinn could rush off to the other set. This proved to be a fortunate circumstance, providing the film with its eerily grayish light and making the actors even more desolate and isolated.

The initial reviews in the Italian press were mixed – primarily a result of the demands of Catholic and Communist dogma, which unnecessarily complicated Italian criticism. But in France, England, and the United States, truly fanatical praise was showered on the film, which was to win over fifty awards in nine countries, including a US Oscar as best foreign film. The film played in New York for over three years, Giulietta Masina was placed alongside the greatest actresses of all time, and the theme, “Giulietta’s Song”, by Nino Rota (who later did the music for Zefferelli’s 1968 film, Romeo and Juliet) became an international hit and sold over two million copies in France alone. So much interpretive material has been written about the film that it would be impossible for me even to mention all of the themes (although I will return to this film later with another, longer article). It is the story of an itinerant Italian strongman who wanders about the Italian countryside performing in small towns with his servant. The episodic plot is wound up and given meaning by one of the most intensely beautiful cinematic endings. Critics often hail the film as a brilliant example of neorealism; other insist it is a symbolic spiritual fable.

Both positions are supportable, but neither seems satisfactory. The poetic quality, which makes the film so unforgettable, seems unapproachable by the intellect. And, like much great poetry, the film speaks of man’s existential loneliness in a language all its own.

  1. see my "Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan" for further discussion.

"The Hurt Locker" - Kathryn Bigelow (2008)

The Hurt Locker (2008) is a feature film about the experiences of a US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team stationed in Iraq after the US invasion there. Based on the experiences of scriptwriter, Mark Boal, who was an embedded journalist with the US military forces in Iraq in 2004, the film has been widely praised as a gritty, no-holds-barred war film and won six US Academy Award in 2009, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (for Boal), and Best Director.

The film begins in Baghdad, where the Bravo Company is in the final weeks of their tour of duty (“rotation”). We are immediately introduced to the three-man EOD team of young soldiers that must undertake the extremely dangerous tasks of disarming and removing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have been set up by insurgents. The team comprises an expert IED deactivator, who must wear a heavy, cumbersome bombsuit that provides partial protection, plus two backup soldiers who guard the back of the explosives expert. Almost immediately the leader of the team is killed by a radio-controlled IED, and he is replaced by another expert who continues to work with the other two men. The rest of the film follows events in the remaining, harrowing six weeks of this group’s rotation. I have mixed feelings about the The Hurt Locker, because it has significant strengths and weaknesses, and depending on your tastes, your enjoyment of the film may vary.

First consider the film’s strengths, which are the basis of the film’s great popularity. By the way, the film does not take a position about the justification for the Iraq War, the American involvement in the Middle East, terrorism, or other issues that are constantly discussed in this connection. The film is solely about the American soldiers, and everything is seen from their point of view. In fact when it comes down to it in my view, The Hurt Locker is not a war film at all, but is a horror film. It doesn’t really show ordinary military combat, and there don’t seem to be military objectives to be gained or lost. Instead, the EOD team seems to be entirely isolated from a battle front and placed in some kind of special hell. Despite the expanse of the city, there is a feeling of confinement, even one of claustrophobia throughout the film. Truly this EOD team is, psychologically at least, perpetually locked in the “hurt locker”. Cinematically, the film is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s classic horror film, Alien (1979), where the protagonists are threatened by an amorphous enemy force of unknown powers that is always just out of sight and is difficult even to identify. The powers possessed by the EOD team seem incredibly flimsy in comparison with the powers of the threats they face.
  • Their flaky little robot vehicle loses a wheel and becomes dysfunctional when it merely runs over a small rock in the streets. How pathetic their supposedly advanced technology appears to be in this threatening theater of action!
  • Their heavy, cumbersome bombsuits makes the bomb deactivators swelter in the heat, prevents them from moving well, and, as we see in the opening sequence when the first bomb expert is killed, doesn’t even seem to provide much protection.
  • The other two backup solders in the unit seem to be isolated from any other support and so are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the crowd of onlookers which could harbor any number of potentially lethally equipped enemies.
The cinematography and editing are geared to accentuate this incessant feeling of paranoia. Handheld, point-of-view camera shots constantly give one the feeling that one is part of the OED team, peering around corners and looking through window openings to catch sight of the next danger. Director Kathryn Bigelow often used four simultaneous camera setups to shoot a scene and wound up giving her editing team (who did a great job with both the visuals and the sound) 200 hours of footage to work with in order to achieve this sustained nightmare of anxiety.

Further contributing to the feeling of impending doom is the abrupt manner in which some sympathetic characters are annihilated. On two occasions we are introduced to characters in the story that are performed by well-known actors who are customarily placed in protagonist roles (Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes). We naturally and unconsciously expect these characters to provide some heroic leadership for our benighted EDO team, since a film production wouldn’t normally be expected to waste such a performer on a minor role. Yet our hopes are quashed; both characters are easily obliterated in short order by the unseen evil. This, again, brings to mind certain events in Alien.

There were other past films that came to mind as I watched The Hurt Locker, and perhaps Bigelow, an MFA graduate in film criticism from Columbia University, had them in mind, too. The incessant, chaotic “fog of war” in the film reminded me of the classic The Red and the White (1968) by Miklos Jancso. The depressing return at the end of the film to the very hell from which the main character had managed to escape was reminiscent of the final scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957). And Bigelow won accolades for her efforts that put her in the rank of those directors: the US Academy Award for Best Director, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, and the Critics' Choice Award for Best Director.

But despite the admitted strengths of the atmospheric cinematography, there are some significant weakness that prevent it from being an outstanding film.
  • The film narrative is episodic and fails to progress towards any kind of goal. This is where it dims in comparison to Scott’s Alien [1], which had a relentless progression of enclosure – the continual closing off of avenues of escape and the successive elimination of hoped-for support for the endangered protagonist, Ripley.
  • The handheld camera shots do offer subjectivity, but often the camera is much too shaky. This is a common mistake of inexperienced cinematographers, who apparently want to suggest agitation and also provide a “newsreel” sense of reality. In fact, this only calls attention to the camera work as camera work and tends to distance the viewer from the action depicted, thereby subverting the very sense of immediacy that was desired.
  • The character development in the film is weak. Although the acting is good, the characters have strange, unmotivated swings in fortitude and attitude. In particular, Sergeant William James, who emerges as the principal character, seems to be utterly fearless, but he remains opaque throughout. What really motivates him? As a consequence, it is difficult to empathize with his situation. For example, at one point in the film when the EOD team comes across a bomb factory, James is highly disturbed to discover the dead body of an Arab boy, who earlier used to hawk DVDs on the street and was known to all the soldiers as “Beckham”. We are led to believe that James had some sort of personal relationship with Bechkam and some feeling for the brutal sacrifice of this boy. But later on, James encounters Beckham on the street (evidently his earlier identification of the dead boy as Beckham was erroneous) and shows no reaction. Why? You would at least expect that James would have been surprised by the site of the living boy whose presumed death had so agitated him earlier.
  • The film opens with a quotation from Chris Hedges’s book, War is a Force that Gives Meaning: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”, with an emphasis on the idea that war is a drug. At the end of the film, James returns to the United States to rejoin his wife and child, but is evidently bored. So he returns to Iraq to serve another tour of duty to satisfy his apparent craving for another rush. This is a very weak conclusion, and it undermines, enervates, and trivializes everything that has come before. (This also has a quite different meaning from the fatalistic return to the underground “hell” in Kanal.) The idea in The Hurt Locker that the civilian “real world” is just too complicated for some soldiers, who prefer simple, black-and-white tasks that have clear outcomes has been asserted many times before, but it is a weak assertion and it doesn’t apply well to the murky, paranoid conditions of this EOD unit. Anyway, the proper metaphor in this respect is not so much drugs as it is sports. Sports and games are what offer the rush that comes from a dramatic victory in connection with a contest with a straightforward goal. So after all that horror, are we to emerge from the cinema with the conclusion that the whole thing we have watched is, for many soldiers, just a game, just a thrill, just a drug rush? I don’t know, but I doubt many soldiers feel that way.
So what we have is a film with a brilliant atmosphere but with a seriously flawed narrative. The Hurt Locker is at times gripping, but it does not carry through with a compelling narrative and so is not what it could have been.

  1. This is just one reason why Scott's Alien is vastly superior to its sequel, Aliens (1986), directed by Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron.

The Treatment of Love in Soren Kierkegaard’s "Either/Or"

In S. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or [1] the reader is presented with two presumably mutually exclusive alternatives for conducting one’s life. In particular, the judge, B, who presents the ethical position, attempts to resolve the aesthete’s (A’s) misgivings about marriage by presenting its aesthetic validity. This argument of B’s, I submit, offers no real advancement from the aesthete’s quandary.

B sees the life of A as inadequate for attaining satisfaction, and B goes on to insist that there is a better method available for conducting one’s affairs. But A, of course, is a complex individual, and it is important for us to see B’s view of A’s life and what assumptions he has made about it. First of all, B senses that A is not satisfied. Here we like to say of satisfaction that it means one’s being at one with oneself. But this doesn’t tell us much; what do we mean by “being at one with oneself”? So for the moment, anyway, let us assume that there is a common understanding of the existence of the state of satisfaction (albeit intuitive), although we don’t have a full understanding of the term, because we don’t understand how this state comes to be. This is just the subject of the present inquiry. Thus we’ll have to settle for the idea that one knows when he himself is satisfied, but knows little of the nature of this satisfaction qua satisfaction. Thus we might say that A is not satisfied and spends a great deal of his time in quest of this satisfaction.

We are also given the information that A finds some things interesting but most things boring. In fact A speculates that boredom is the root of all evil. But what is the nature of the interesting or the lack thereof (boringness)? This again is not defined for us, but it seems somewhat linked to A’s satisfaction – when A is bored, he isn’t satisfied. These intuitively-based polarities are significant. It is not that S. K. has done an inadequate job of clarifying the concepts he uses, but that he begins with certain concepts that cannot be explained in terms of other concepts, but which instead relate directly to experience.

Thus B recognizes that A is bored and wants to be interested in something. A sees his own search for satisfaction in terms of the interesting. If he is ever caught up on some situation in its immediacy, then for the moment A loses sight of his dissatisfaction with existence. However, upon repetition of such events, boredom sets in. Although A is an interested student of the interesting, he seems to have little knowledge of it other than in rather concrete situations. It appears that A has not solved the problem of attaining the interesting in his life (and thus, for him, satisfaction), and because no thing or activity can remain interesting for long (upon repeated encounters, it becomes boring), there is nothing of positive value – everything is ultimately meaningless. Because A is interested in learning the art of acquiring the interesting, B sees it as an attempt to endow his life with meaning. But here B sees a contradiction:
“You told me that this prompted you to reflect whether the entirely fortuitous fulfilment of a wish fortuitously expressed might not bring a person actually to desperation, because thereby the reality of life was negated in its deepest root. So what you wanted was to play the part of fate.” [2]
Now for a man to be his own fate is clearly a contradiction in terms. For a man to determine his own fate, he must reflect on the manifold of his potential activity. When he so reflects, he becomes somehow disengaged from the manifold – he no longer experiences it in its immediacy. This disengagement destroys the interesting nature of it and all emotional attachment; meaningfulness is lost. A is aware that some elements in the manifold are destined to be interesting to him, but he does not know which ones. Nor can he determine this by direct reflection, since the accompanying disengagement prevents him from feeling any meaning. B seems to indicate that A is unaware of this contradiction and of the impossibility of his task.

The judge wants to present the ethical as highly aesthetic to A – in particular, marriage is to be justified aesthetically. B’s plan is for a human being to choose himself, that is, will that which has already been assigned to him. The necessity of choosing among many equally meaningless elements of a manifold is now obviated. The choice has already been made for the subject as to who he is, and one must only affirm this determination. The important thing for B is that one must will himself, and by so doing, one actively engages himself with the manifold again. By this exercise of the self, life again takes on meaning for the ethical man, since he has chosen something from the manifold of possibility (himself) and has restricted himself from participating in the other possible choices (those which are not himself). Thus the ethical man takes on a commitment and a sense of meaning.

How is this program applied to love? B says that here again the choice has already been made; one need only affirm it. One must, in this case, choose his first love, i.e. he must commit himself to his first love. B willingly admits that the term first love is difficult to pin down, but he apparently has a sufficient understanding of the term to apply it to himself – “although I have been for several years a married man, I still have the honor of fighting under the victorious banner of first love.” [3] Here by committing oneself to one’s love, one establishes a dialectical subject-subject relationship that has dynamical characteristics. For such lovers, “‘the first’ is simply the present, but the present is for them the constantly unfolding and rejuvenating ‘first’” [4]. In other words, one must live every moment in its total uniqueness and thereby obtain the eternal in the temporal (implying, among other things, satisfaction).

B says of A, “your life is wholly given over to preliminary runs” [5]. Thus B insists that A is presented with occasions, some of which he finds interesting. The repetition of the situation is often boring to A, so he is constantly looking for new areas of stimulation. His life becomes a series of discontinuous moments over which he tries to assert control but cannot. B himself, on the other hand, by actively willing the first love, feels that he continually lives in the moment of first love. We could say then that the judge present to us a method for aesthetic fulfilment, which in this discussion, of course, stands or falls solely on its aesthetic merit. Now to what extent are the assumptions of B superior to those of A?

B states at the end of his letter that he has “shown . . . that conjugal love has it conflict in time, its victory in time, its blessing in time.” [5] The dialectical, inner historicity of conjugal love allegedly provides a continuity across time, an eternal present, that is lacking in A’s life. The lack of continuity of A is that to which B is most sensitive, but this is more of an outward manifestation of A’s problem rather than the cause of it.

A and B recognize a number of the same things. They both realize that occasions present themselves to their experience, some of which are significant, e.g. they both would agree that the moment of “first love” is significant). They both intuitively feel that man has the freedom to so structure his life that he can find some aesthetic satisfaction. By aesthetic satisfaction I mean activity that has its own justification. The two advocates both agree that there is a substantial element provided, in this particular case, love, from the outside; they have no control over it. The judge attempts to fashion marriage from this raw material, while the aesthete shrinks from the idea. A, however, is now without a program. He is sensitively aware that he has no control over the occasion which supplies content to his life. He can, nevertheless, increase the probability that an occasion will present itself, and his genius lies in this direction. For one thing he is aware that somewhere in his manifold of experience an interesting occasion might lie. When part of this potential is kept from him, the aesthete is painfully aware that he might be foregoing the opportunity for an interesting moment. Thus A avoids the possibility of an interesting moment being eliminated due to a restriction of his manifold.
"You understand how to keep your soul as still and apathetic as a bird of prey is still before it plunges down; you know that the instant is not in any man’s power and that, nevertheless, the most beautiful experience is comprised in the instant." [6]
By refusing to restrict his manifold, A refuses to commit himself and remains detached from all things. Since his moments are always infinitesimal durations of time, A is almost always dissatisfied and bored. Thus marriage would be a drastic restriction of A’s opportunity for love and would violate his freedom. A has other means of increasing the probability of his being interested, though. He devises the “rotation method”, by means of which A varies his moods so as to be in the most receptive condition for an interesting occasion. As was stated above, A’s disengagement from the world prevents him from experiencing any meaning or significance, i.e. his very concern that he keep open all possibilities for the interesting prevent him from apprehending the interesting. Thus A has conceived of the idea of the art of remembering – when an interesting occasion presents itself, A attempts to reflect upon it right at the moment of its occurrence. Then later on, he can remember this reflection and thus approach as closely as possible the moment of the interesting (since reflection cannot apprehend the interesting itself). This indicates that A is quite aware of his own inability to reflect on the immediate, he can only evoke indirectly, perhaps, the mood he felt at the prior moment. The one problem with this is that the repeated reflection on the same thing become boring. This points us to a fundamental difficulty with A’s method – his reflections lack the substantial quality that experience has. To fend off the boring, A has the freedom to make his reflection appear before him in different perspectives each time. But this very freedom to manipulate his reflections is in the end self-defeating, because both reflections of the existent (memories) and of the unreal (fantasies) lack the substantial character of immediate experience. Ultimately, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two reflective modes (i.e. memories and fantasies).

B’s point of view is similarly lacking a mechanism to account for the substantial quality of experience. For example he is totally unable to explain the emergence of first love, yet he is quite willing to build his life on this unexplained phenomenon. To do this he must assume that first love is the only true love.
"On the other hand, the more significant that thing is which for the first time announces itself, the less is the probability of its being repeated. If there is something so important as to be even eternal, all probability that it may be repeated vanishes. Hence when one has talked with a certain sad seriousness of the first love as something which could never be repeated, this is no disparagement of love but a lofty eulogy of it as the eternal power." [7]
He take this position on little more than an act of faith. From this he goes on to inform us that we are able only to sustain a single instance of what he might call a “I-Thou” relationship (in its purest form) and this relationship contains an historical element, its own law of motion. He notes that,
"Conjugal love shows itself to be historical by the fact that it represents a process of assimilation which deals with the experience and refers back the experience to itself. Thus, it is not a disinterested witness of what occurs but is essentially a sympathetic participant, in short, it experiences its own development." [8]
B is aware of freedom in the sense that one is free to choose that which has been present to him (first love). By this B means that one must commit oneself to one’s love, but at the same time be free from the need of one’s love (free from encountering the loved one categorically as an object that can be manipulated). Thus B not only chooses one element (the beloved) out of the manifold, but does so in a different manner (subject-subject encounter, rather than subject-object). He then asserts that a dialectical inner history will result that perpetually maintains the first love. This implies that B knows something about the occasion, yet we know he doesn’t. His assertion that first love (which comes from outside him) is maintained perpetually by conjugal love must be pure guess, since he knows nothing of the nature of the emergence of first love. This naiveté was even articulated when B admitted that first love must precede conjugal love.

What is really behind the judge’s arguments concerning the nature of love? The occasion presents love to a person from outside himself. Hence his failure to understand the reason for his love. The judge says that a man is free to commit himself to his love or not to commit himself. But this act of will implies a subject that is alienated from the task. To will something is to see oneself up against an obstacle which must be overcome – a task is set before one. Thus when one wills, one is alone; he is in a state of alienation (a subject-object situation) from that on which he operates. But this is not the nature of love. It would destroy love’s immediacy. One does not operate on one’s love, but instead receives the love. The establishment of a love relationship is not willed, but rather the subject opens oneself to the possibility of this being established from without. Indeed, freedom is incompatible with love, for love provides the subject with meaning. Love endows a man’s life with meaning; he cannot endow his own life with meaning. That is not to say that one has no freedom in dealing with one’s love, but that one cannot affect the nature of love by any willed activity.

Thus the failure of both A and B is due to their inability to posit a mechanism for the establishment of content. If they do not understand the nature of love (how it comes to be), then their methods of dealing with it in experience are arbitrary and without meaning. Thus in some sense A’s position is more viable than B’s, because it recognizes its own inadequacy. His position recognizes its ignorance of the nature of the occasion and thus wants to provide itself with maximum flexibility to experiment. B, on the other hand, provides no treatment of the possibility of departure of the love content from marriage. Since love’s coming to be is unexplained, its departure is also unapproached. He might try to get around it by saying the “first love” lasts forever, but then he is only providing his own definition of the term “first love”, which may have no real significance beyond this.

A demands freedom from the boring (lack of content), and marriage is very boring without love. Since noone understands how love comes to be or passes away, A refuses to bind himself to some situation which is based on the naive belief that the content will always remain in it, that first love lasts eternally. Thus B’s claim that A, by reflecting on experience is unable to relate himself to the content of experience, misses the point, since both A and B are equally alienated from love – B being equally alienated because by committing himself to his love, he thereby objectifies her.

Finally, B’s claim that he has solved the problem of temporality is untrue. The dialectical process does not extend the quality of the moment across time. An analogy can be made to the field of music, where B’s program is analogous to rhythm. Although rhythm does extend itself across time and is a function of time, it is only a structure for the music. Rhythm cannot create music or ensure that music will continue. It is nothing without the music, and therefore A would rather go where the music is, rather than attempt to stay in one place and structure it rhythmically, when it might at any moment depart.

The fact that A and B are unable to provide a mechanism for the coming to be and passing away of love may point to a fundamental impossibility for human understanding of the essential immediacy of love. It seems that the real difficulty is man’s freedom. A and B presuppose that some kind of freedom exists for man. This very freedom seemingly enables man to endow his existence with content, but this is deceiving, because at the same time it removes the essential meaning or value from a choice. A choice implies that other acts could also have been willed and thus a certain arbitrariness enters. The meaning and power of love precludes a choice with regard to its meaning qua love; one can only choose to do things that are at best indirectly related to love. Thus it may be impossible for a human being, existing in a state of freedom, ever to understand love and how it comes to be. If this is the case, then B’s program represents a retrogression from that of A.

  1. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or; a Fragment of Life, translated by D. F. Swenson and L. M. Swenson.
  2. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or; a Fragment of Life, translated by D. F. Swenson and L. M. Swenson, vol. II, p. 13.
  3. Ibid., p. 38.
  4. Ibid., p. 40.
  5. Ibid., p. 144.
  6. Ibid., p. 103.
  7. Ibid,, p. 40, 41.
  8. Ibid., p. 99.