“Argo” - Ben Affleck (2012)


I have mixed feelings about the recent popular war caper film, Argo (2012).  True, the film about the CIA rescue of six US Embassy professionals from the Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis has been a huge success at the box office. And the film has been racking up plaudits right and left, such as seven Oscar nominations for the US Motion Picture Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, and it has already won the Best Picture - Drama and Best Director awards at the Golden Globes. But there are things that bother me about this film and that I have difficulty accepting.

The problem comes down to authenticity, which is actually a core theme of the movie story.  Of course, every film invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief and accept that what is happening on the screen is real.  In the case of Argo, though, we have a story that is based on real events that took place in 1979-80.  In particular, the film is supposed to be revealing a previously unknown story that is part of an important historical “moment” in modern US and Iranian history. The details of the story were classified until 1997 and first revealed to the general public via Joshuah Bearman's 2007 article in Wired magazine [1]. So we expect that in this particular case there would be a meticulous effort to tell the story as authentically as possible.  Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true.  The film, directed by Ben Affleck and scripted by Chris Terrio, takes some significant liberties with the truth in order to concoct an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
                               
The basic situation was this. On November 4, 1979, Iranian “student” militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomatic personnel hostage. But six other staff members managed to sneak out the back of the embassy compound and went into hiding in Tehran. The US government’s task, when they learned about these six staff members on the loose, was to figure out how to smuggle them out of Iran and get them back to safety.  The film covers how the CIA came up with a plan to do this, and how the plan was carried out successfully. So the film narrative moves through three stages
  1. The attack on the US embassy and the escape of the six staff members
  2. Setting up the CIA’s plan
  3. The Getaway

1. The Staff Members Escape
The film begins with a quick background in voiceover covering events leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  Then the embassy is violently attacked and overrun by an angry Iranian mob.  Since the embassy grounds were relatively large, the six staff members in a separate office were overlooked for a short period, which gave them a chance to escape out the back onto the Tehran streets.  They found refuge and went into hiding in the Canadian embassy, but their safety was not assured.

2. The CIA’s Plan
The US government was in an uproar, and there was the usual back-and-forth tussling between the State Department, the military, and the CIA.  Eventually Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck), an expert “exfiltrator” (someone who gets valued personnel out of dangerous places), was assigned to try to rescue the six US staffers at the Canadian embassy. He and some colleagues come up with a crazy plan: to dress up the six US refugees as Hollywood film production personnel who have gone to Iran for some location scouting in connection with their planned Sci-Fi film, whose intended name was Argo (inspired by the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts).  The whole thing, of course, is a scam to fool the Iranian authorities at the airport. 

The reason why the plan could work is that everyone, the world over, expects Hollywood types to be weird and artificial.  So making these the US escapees look like Hollywood glam types was a case of hiding their out-of-placeness in plain sight.  Much of this section of the film is set in Hollywood and features a lot of over-the-top spoofing of cheap, grade-Z Hollywood movies

3.  The Getaway
Mendez arrives in Iran and goes to the Canadian embassy to tell the US personnel about his plan.  They are flabbergasted by it outlandishness, but have no other options than to go along with it. 

Mendez first dresses them up in Hollywood-looking garb and takes them to the main Tehran Bazaar to scout locations – a completely crazy idea.  Even if the Tehran Bazaar were to have some architectural suggestiveness that would go with their weird science fiction script (which I find impossible to believe), it would not be a practical location for arranging a film shoot.  With Mendez and an Iranian guide, they all go to the Bazaar in their costumes virtually asking for trouble. One of the embassy women is even shown taking Polaroid snapshots of local people, behavior which I can’t believe the CIA would be so ignorant as to allow to be part of the group's activities (you might think that it was no wonder that the Iranian Revolution hit them as a complete surprise – but then, this bizarre Bazaar scene apparently didn't take place in reality). Naturally a ruckus ensues over this, and the entire group barely makes it back to the Canadian embassy.

The next day they all proceed to  Mehrabad Airport and try to get past the Iranian security personnel and get onto the commercial plane headed out. There are some big-time moments of tension throughout this section, but they do manage to get on the Swissair plane and fly out to safety.
There really are some good elements of Argo, but first I will go over my reservations, which pile up more and more as the film moves along in it early stages.  It is only at the end during the “Getaway” that the good things begin to take over.

An irritating aspect of the film throughout is the heavy-handed cinematography.  There is a never-ending sequence of swish-pans, jarring closeups, and rapid, short-cut edits, all  presumably to connote a tense and frenetic atmosphere.  It is like a 30-second TV ad that never ends, and it winds up cheapening the film.

But, as alluded to above, the main problem with the film concerns the distortions of fact.  These have been discussed elsewhere [1,2,3], and I won’t go through all of them here.  Note that there are two different aspects to the distortions: the general overall representation of the Iranian reality and the specifics concerning what actually happened in the caper. 

With respect to the depiction of Iranian society, the film makes it look like Iranians were largely overheated thugs. It is true that there was a certain amount of chaos in Tehran at that time, with loosely organized Pasdaran (revolutionary guards) and Komiteh (ad hoc revolutionary committees) creating havoc; and these elements could pop up and cause trouble for anyone at any time. But the film makes it look like the streets were crawling with angry and fanatic mad dogs. In fact most Iranian people were generally upbeat and thrilled at what they had accomplished – overthrowing a dictator via "people power" – perhaps much like the Egyptian and Tunisian people may have felt after the Arab Spring. So there was a lot of good will on the Iranian streets. But Argo makes it look like the people were fashioned into an army of fanatics.  Even (Argo’s) Iranian crowd’s chanting of “Marg bar Shah” (“Death to the Shah”) seems to have a cadence that is too rapid, too much like synchronized barking dogs, compared to what I have seen and heard.

In connection with the actual getaway caper, itself, there are a number of inaccuracies, which you can find listed in these references: [1,2,3].  Notably, the visit to the Bazaar apparently didn’t really take place, the confrontation with the Pasdaran at the final airport check-in didn’t take place, and the final car-chase along the runway didn’t take place.  These things that didn’t really take place are major components of Argo.  In addition, the involvement of the Canadian Embassy staff was misrepresented and underplayed.

On the other hand, there are some strong points to the film.  Some of the acting is good.  Ben Affleck, as Tony Mendez, doesn’t look or act much like a Mexican-American, and he may be a bit too cool, like a latter-day James Bond, but his low-key performance is effective. Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who both appear as Hollywood professionals in the second stage of the film are good, especially Arkin, a favorite of mine.

And the final section of the film is indeed very gripping.  In fact the confrontation at the airport check-in with the Pasdar, which didn’t actually happen in the real story, is one of the best sequences of the movie. 

In sum and looking through all three sections of the movie, I would have to assess those parts of the film separately.
  • Section 1 (The Staff Members Escape) is a failure.  In the background commentary at the beginning, it claims that Mohammed Mossadegh, who was deposed in a 1953 coup, had been "overwhelmingly elected as Prime Minister" – this is an exaggeration. It says that the US installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as their puppet Shah in that coup – again a misleading and over-simplified statement.  Then the film introduces the viewer to the US embassy personnel and shows the 52 captured hostages being blindfolded and subjected to brutal harassment – but then it simply drops them from view and never comes back to them, which is a narrative shortcoming. The film later shows US diplomatic personnel back in Washington running around cursing and metaphorically slamming their fists on tables. This is basically ham-acting.  In addition this section misrepresents Iran and the Iranian people of that time, as well.
  • Section 2 (The CIA’s plan) is also a failure.  This section crudely mocks cheap, glitzy Hollywood, but again, there is no subtlety here. Some critics found it hysterically funny, so you might like it.  I found it boring (even with Alan Arkin’s participation, which was good).
  • Section 3 (The Getaway) is a stunning success, if you take it on its own terms.  It turns the film into a war caper movie, and it pulls it off well.

So the entire film rests on the strengths of the third section.  But on reflection, maybe I am being too harsh.  After all, classic war caper films like The Great Escape (1963) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) may have misrepresented the reality of the war and the character of the German and Japanese combatants, but we still generally accept those films as simply action/adventure yarns, whose “truth” didn’t really matter.  If that’s all Argo ultimately is, then you might say it is good.  But even on that reckoning Argo can't match the drama and quality of another film that covered people trying to flee a revolutionary environment, Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). And Argo's pretensions of presenting the authentic inside story of an important historical event should be dismissed. 
★★½

Notes:
  1. Joshuah Bearman, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran”, Wired Magazine, April 24, 2007, http://www.wired.com/magazine/2007/04/feat_cia/all/. 
  2.  Nate Jones, “The True Spy Story Behind Argo: The internal CIA account of how the Iran rescue really went down”, Foreign Policy, October 8, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/1/18/the_true_spy_story_behind_argo?page=full.
  3. David Haglund, “How Accurate Is Argo?”, Slate, October 12, 2012, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/10/12/argo_true_story_the_facts_and_fiction_behind_the_ben_affleck_movie.html.

Mohammad Rasoulof

Films of Mohammad Rasoulof:

“Head Wind” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2008)


Social control of public information in Iran is the subject of the documentary film, Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008), written and directed by Mohammad RasoulofIt would seem that making any film in Iran must be a difficult undertaking, but making a film on this particular subject must have been fraught with extra concerns.  In this instance Rasoulof came up with an entertaining and relatively even-tempered work that  essentially captured the situation and general attitudes as they exist (at least in 2005-2007, anyway), but it probably didn’t satisfy the Iranian government authorities.

The availability of public information has exploded due to the globalization of mass media access, which has had massive social impacts everywhere, usually opening the doors of opportunity to large sectors of the population. But governments in authoritarian countries such as Iran often view these developments as existential threats.  They count on their governing elites to control the masses, and they know that restricting the population’s access to information is critical to their continued governance.  Up until recently it was relatively straightforward to burn books, shut down newspapers, and restrict broadcasts to achieve their ends, but what about those communication satellites flying overhead?  They can’t block those satellite signals, so people in range with receivers will be able to tune in and watch the broadcasts.  All the public needs to do this is to have access to a satellite dish.

So not surprisingly the Iranian government has banned the private ownership and usage of satellite dishes, but ordinary Iranian people still manage to get hold of them and use them, anyway.  These satellite dishes are crucial instruments of the public’s freedom to know, and how they go about doing this is the main topic of Head Wind
               
The documentary narrative of Head Wind goes through roughly five general topic areas that cover a broad spectrum of public electronic media access and usage in Iran.  The focus is on ordinary people – this is the general public that wants to see other things than what is delivered over the tightly regulated government media.

1.  Television to the Provinces
The first five minutes of the film examine the small village of Makhoonik in eastern Iran [1], where electricity was only introduced three years earlier than the time of filming.  The people there now have a television relay station that enables the local people for the first time to watch public (Iranian government controlled) television.  Since this is a small, rural town where tradition dominates, the village elders are suspicious of the corrupting influences of any kind of television – even the government sponsored material.  The kids love it, though, and it is interesting to see their excitement as they watch TV. 

2.  Satellite Dish Entrepreneurs
The big cities have already gone through this initial exposure to television that is covered in the first segment of this film.  What the more sophisticated urbanites want now is access to the richer and more diverse international media.  So this next section switches to the big city of Tehran, where despite the government prohibition, vast numbers of people have installed satellite dishes on their apartment building rooftops or in window frames.  The film focuses here on two individual private entrepreneurs who procure and install the dishes for their clients.  Advertising is done by word-of-mouth, but both of these dish installer have plenty of eager customers.  In fact from the estimates given, it seems that at least 70% of the people in Tehran have access to satellite TV. 

The electronics are imported via the black market, but the dishes themselves are made by local metalsmiths, who make the dishes as side operations to their ordinary business of making containers and fencing material.

3.  The People’s Views
Throughout the film there are people who face the camera and express their views concerning access to the satellite TV channels.  There are always two basic concerns acknowledged:
  • immoral content that could “corrupt” the public and lead to a deterioration of public morality.
  • political views and revelations that could lead to public dissatisfaction with the government.

The government, of course, says they are only concerned about public morality, but everyone knows that their primary worry is the second issue – people might learn a truth that the government doesn’t want them to know.

The film depicts a relatively broad spectrum of satellite users, including even an enterprising herdsman who powers his electronics with a petrol-powered electric generator.  Even some Basiji and Muslim mullahs express their views, which are, of course, scathing with respect to public media access.  The two that are interviewed both solemnly affirm that noone in their horizon uses satellites, which is probably something that they are trying to get themselves to believe, if not the film viewers. 

But in fact satellite dishes are everywhere, even in the pastoral villages.  One villager points out that the women of his village are not allowed to watch any of those films on satellite TV.  What about him?, he is asked.  “Very rarely,” he says, cautiously.

4.  The Police
Of course, since satellite dishes are illegal, there is always a danger of getting caught and punished.  The film shows how the police regularly go onto apartment rooftops and destroy satellite dishes that they find.  And the people just go out and buy new ones again in an endless game of cat and mouse.  In Iran, by the way, there is a rather strong cultural tradition, almost an unwritten law,  that while the government can be very strict about public morality on the street, it is not generally acceptable for the government to enter into and interfere with life in private dwellings [2].  So people who surreptitiously place satellite dishes (often homemade ones) in their windows can often get away with it.

5.  Other Media
The last part of the film goes beyond satellite dishes to cover other media, including, of course, the Internet.  A former journalist of a shutdown reformist newspaper talks about how he and others get around the Iranian Internet censors by using proxy servers.  This is another cat-and-mouse game, since the government can block a proxy server address when they discover it, but a new one will soon pop up and offer an alternate route around the authorities.

Besides the peoples' directly accessing the Web, there is the widespread exchange of DVDs containing movies that have been acquired by various means.  There are even underground professional dubbing studios that dub non-foreign-language films into Farsi [3] and perform subtle graphical edits that make the dubbed films suitable for general audiences in Iran. Again, all this is accomplished by means of enterprising Iranians, such as the cheerful diminutive DVD librarian shown here, who are in the private business of providing people with what they want.  As part of this underground media culture, there are also underground recording artists who make music that they could never perform in public and distribute their performances via electronic media.

One of the things I like about Head Wind is that, without preaching or harranguing, it lets the ordinary people point out the basic disconnect that lies at the heart of government media control. It all comes down to a basic misunderstanding of what information is all about. Conservative doctrines view any various dangerous (to them) influences as harmful substances.  Thus they want to control it like they control the use of alcohol – ban it, for the most part.  But information is not a substance; it is part of an interaction. The most successful societies set up norms and instruments of governance so that fruitful interaction is maximized among the constituents of society. Without widespread, fruitful interaction, the society cannot prosper. 

In this connection there are four areas of concern for successful interactive societies, which for brevity are labelled "RMDL".  The two most significant interaction types are communication interactions and the goods-exchange interactions.  To assure the safety and equity of those interactions, there need to be two public regulating mechanisms that assure the equitable and inclusive involvement of the entire society: democracy and the rule of law. Aggregating those four concepts, we can say that all successful interactive societies must provide institutional guarantees in the four RMDL areas:
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech and, as covered in Head Wind, the freedom to watch and listen. These are fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish. Those who are imprisoned merely for their conscientiously held beliefs become prisoners of conscience [4,5,6,7].
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated exchange markets that allow the open and fair exchange of goods and services across society.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place [8].
  • Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. The laws provide regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good [7].

Note that the key to successful societies is that the RMDL institutional mechanisms enhance interactions, which include, of course, communication interaction, the message of which is information.  But traditional thinking has often seen information as a substance, which is believed to have some sort of mysterious power, independent of the associated interaction. People following this outdated line of thinking believe that simply controlling and "owning" information will give them power.  But by doing so, they restrict the entire sphere of social interactivity in their communities and thereby diminish the beneficial social externalities that come from widespread interactions on the part of the public.

Actually, even from a moral/religious perspective, it is beneficial to view information as an accessory to interaction.  The great religious messengers throughout history have all urged their followers to engage in compassionate, loving interactions with their fellow beings – interactions which are not only mutually beneficial to those involved in the interaction but also elevate the society as a whole. This is in accordance with the “Golden Rule”, which is endorsed by all religions [9]. The practice of suppressing communicative interactions may lead to quietude, but this only amounts to pious isolation and is not inherently that which elevates one to a higher level of consciousness. Confinement does not lead to virtue. Achieving a higher level of enlightenment requires loving interactions with others, not withdrawal.

The RMDL formulation is important, because all four of the RMDL institutional principles must be in place in order to assure the success of a society. If any one of them is missing, the society will suffer breakdowns.  Nowadays there are some Asian nationalists who believe that they can get away with having just a subset of the four, such as only Market capitalism and Law, without Rights and Democracy.  But I believe that they cannot reach their ful potential by following such a path; they will need to have all of RMDL to succeed in the long run.

Getting back to the people of Head Wind, you can see it written on the faces of the ordinary Iranians in the film that (a) it is interactive engagement with others that  drives their interests and (b) that satellite TV is a means to enhanced interactions.  It is similarly the same kind of personally engaged communication that sparks the underground musicians.  The faces of many of these people are animated and full of enthusiasm as they stare into the camera.  It is evident that whenever they look at the TV or computer screen, they are looking for enhanced human engagement – it is interaction that they seek.  But the naysayers, those who see information as something to be thwarted, do not see information as part of and in terms interactions.  Instead, they view information as a dangerous substance that is potentially damaging to themselves and others. Accordingly, the information suppressors punish people not just for political opposition but even just for trying to make information more freely available. So such a coercive and punitive line of thinking led to both Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi being sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison, along with a 20-year prohibition from leaving the country, talking to the press, or participating in filmmaking [10].  The information suppressors currently hold power, but compared with the mass public, they are in the minority and are living in the past.

To be sure, the authentic way of thinking about information – that it is a component of interaction – is not obvious to everyone, whether in Iran or elsewhere. But this realization is intuited by young people, and it is implicit on the faces of the people shown in Head Wind, which is why the film stands as a valuable testament. It testifies to how an entire nation, with its rich cultural traditions that include Sufic wisdom, is working from the bottom up to find creative ways to exchange information in the face of obstruction.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. Makhoonik is near Sarbisheh in South Khorasan.
  2. This is discussed in some detail in Hooman Majd’s , The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran,   (Doubleday, New York, 2008).  Of course this is presumably an ill-defined boundary, and if there is a noisy party, for example, the “moral police” can storm in, claiming it is a public nuisance.
  3. Many Iranians prefer dubbed films to subtitled films.
  4. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Anita Hunt, “Iran's Prisoners of Conscience – an Interactive Guide”, The Guardian, (21 May 2013), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/may/21/iran-prisoners-of-conscience-interactive.
  5. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran Cracks down on Activists in Runup to Election”, The Guardian”, (21 May 2013), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/21/iran-election-crackdown-rights-activists.
  6. Another human right is the right to personal privacy. So it follows that one must have the right to restrict “watching” of his or her personal affairs on the part of outsiders, such as the government.
  7. Laura Secor, "War of Words", The New Yorker, (4 Janurary 2016). 
  8. Laura Secor, "Election Monitored", The New Yorker, (7 May 2012).
  9. Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama), Towards the True Kinship of Faiths, (2000), Hachette Book Group, USA.
  10. Michael Sicinski, “When the Salt Attacks the Sea: The Films of Mohammad Rasoulof”, Cinema Scope, CS46 (2010), http://cinema-scope.com/features/features-when-the-salt-attacks-the-sea-the-films-of-mohammad-rasoulof/.

“Rescue Dawn” - Werner Herzog (2006)


Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006) covered the same territory as his earlier outstanding documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998), but now in a fully dramatized format. The subject matter concerns the extraordinary and true experience of German-American Dieter Dengler, who was captured as a prisoner of war in the US-Viet Nam War and somehow managed to survive the horrific conditions of that experience.

As always with Herzog, there is a fascination here with doom and profound existential loneliness, which is why he is a master of expressionistic horror cinema, both in the fiction and documentary film genres. In many of those cases, Herzog places his characters in an expressionistic environment where the threatening antagonistic element is even difficult to identify.  Often the protagonist exhibits extraordinary resolve in the face of these daunting circumstances.


Little Dieter Needs to Fly provides some backstory material concerning how Dengler came to America from Germany at the age of 18 and his attempts to satisfy his passion of becoming a pilot, which eventually led to his enlisting in the US Navy. But Rescue Dawn omits any such background information and starts with Dengler’s assignment to an aircraft carrier squadron in late 1965, where he was assigned to participate in the clandestine US bombing missions over Laos [1].  Throughout the film the focalization is exclusively on Dengler.  On an early bombing mission, his plane was shot down and crashed in the jungle.  Dengler had no time to bail out and wound up crashing with the plane, but somehow he survived the crash.

He is quickly captured and tied up by Pathet Lao guerillas, who first beat and torture him and then force-march him over some distance across the Laotian terrain to reach a jungle prison camp run by the guerillas but under the command of the North Vietnamese army. There he discovers that he has some fellow inmates: two other Americans and three Thais [2]. They have been prisoners for some time – some of them for more than two years -- and it is immediately evident from their emaciated condition and demoralized, neurotic behaviour that the conditions of confinement are unbearable. Dengler tells them he intends to escape, but his fellow prisoners advise him that survival prospects outside in the jungle are even worse than in the prison. In any case, survival would be impossible before the rainy season commences, which is months away. 

So Dengler bides his time and schemes. He craftily uses a filed nail to pick the prisoners’ handcuff locks in preparation for their planned future breakout, which can only be carried out at a specific moment in just the right circumstances.  As time passes, conditions become worse.  There is apparently a drought, and the prison staff are suffering from lack of food, too.  The prisoners are reduced to eating worms [3].  One of the Thai prisoners who could understand the Laotian language overhears the prison guards discuss their intentions of returning to their home villages in order to find food for their families.  To enable them to leave the prison, they plan to take the prisoners out into the jungle the next day and kill them all, making it look like there was a  rebellion, so that there will be nor further need for prison guards.  So Dengler and the prisoner decide to carry out their planned escape immediately. 

With careful timing, Dengler and fellow prisoner Duane Martin steal the guards’ guns, shoot most of the guards, and then head off into the jungle. The other prisoners move out in other direction [4].  Dengler’s plan is for himself and Martin to build a raft and float down tributary rivers that lead into the Mekong river and eventual safe haven in Thailand. But they soon find this won’t work and barely avoid getting swept to crashing death over a waterfall. In the meantime they out of food, are getting eaten alive by insects and leaches, and are suffering from malaria. When they finally stumble into a Laotian village and kneel down before the residents begging for food, one of the frightened villagers runs up with his machete and beheads the kneeling Duane Martin. Dengler goes berserk at the horror, and amazingly, the villagers run away temporarily.  This gives Dengler just enough time to escape into the jungle again. 

Finally, and very luckily after 23 days in the jungle, Dengler was able to signal an overflying US plane, and a helicopter was brought in to rescue Dengler by dropping a rope and lifting him to safety. The final scenes show the emaciated Dengler being attended to by US healthcare workers and then being triumphantly welcomed back in front of his Navy shipmates.

As confirmed by the information provided in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the material provided in Rescue Dawn is not exaggerated and is carefully based on fact [5]. It’s interesting to compare the two films in terms of the degree to which they convey reality. After all, every film is necessarily an interpretation of reality by the narrative creator, and here we have two narratives that were created by the same auteur about the same subject and sequence of events but in different formats [6]. Of the two, Rescue Dawn is more concrete, and it instantiates in real, physical imagery what is only more or less talked about in a schematic fashion in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Yet, for me, the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly is more horrifying and ultimately more disturbing.  Even though the awful events outlined orally in the documentary are given instantiated, physical presence in Rescue Dawn, the viewer’s empathic feeling of horror can be even worse when he or she imagines it, as one must do when watching the documentary. Also, Herzog's overall tone in Little Dieter Needs to Fly has more sombre overtones. 

Rescue Dawn’s immersion of existential loneliness in the real, physical world also points to why it is superior to Life of Pi (2012).  Both films involve an isolated young man in a savage environment who must rely on his own will and resources in order to survive.  Both films demand and evoke belief in a potential positive outcome in the face of near impossible odds.  But Rescue Dawn’s reality-based grounding make us believe more than do the artificial contrivances of Life of Pi.

Note that the presentation of Dieter Dengler as an amazingly resourceful and relentlessly positive personality in Rescue Dawn is confirmed by what is shown in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.  So Christian Bale’s generally congenial and upbeat portrayal of Dengler in Rescue Dawn is not just a Hollywood softening of brutal conditions – Dengler was really like that. In general, the acting performances are very good, particularly that of Steven Zahn as the prisoner, Duane Martin. But Herzog did choose to omit some scenes from the final cut of Rescue Dawn that were particularly gruesome, such as the occasion when a North Vietnamese commander peremptorily cut off the beringed finger of a Laotian villager so that he could return the stolen ring to Dengler [7].

Nevertheless, Herzog went to considerable length to portray reality, as he saw it.  The filming was done in Thailand, so that the actors could experience the true native bush of Dengler’s ordeal. This contributed to the authentic sense of a claustrophobic and impenetrably clogged jungle that Dengler had to pass through. Herzog even had his actors undergo massive weight losses so that they were truly emaciated when filmed in the prison [8]. There are no subtitles offered for the Laotian language spoken in the film – the (non-Laotian) viewer must make out of what is spoken in those exchanges in just the way that the protagonist Dengler had to do.

Despite the killing, the pain, the anguished suffering, and the hopeless brutality of war, Rescue Dawn comes off as surprisingly positive.  Dengler was one of only a handful of soldiers to escape and survive a Vietnamese POW camp.  But Herzog is a poet, and this is not a typical war film.  The music by Klaus Badelt offers a further haunting and reflective counterpoint to what goes on visually.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. For further information about Dengler’s experiences, see the review of Little Dieter Needs to Fly: http://www.filmsufi.com/2012/06/little-dieter-needs-to-fly-werner.html.
  2. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, there were four Thai inmates, but for pragmatic reasons Herzog decided to reduce the number in Rescue Dawn to three.
  3. Christian Bale actually did eat the worms shown in the film.
  4. The fates of most of them were never known. 
  5. But some of specifics concerning the depiction of prison inmate Eugene Debruin have been challenged, and Herzog has accepted that this characterization was probably an unintended misrepresentation.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_DeBruin.
  6. In both cases the story told to us is based on the story that Dieter Dengler told to himself and then told to others.
  7. This event is mentioned in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and it was something that afterwards evidently haunted Dengler all his life.
  8. For Christian Bale this must have been a real roller coaster ride in dieting.  He had lost 27 kilograms in preparation for his performance in The Machinist (2004), then put on 45 kilograms to bulk up for his next performance in Batman Begins (2005).  Then he had to go back down again.

“Life of Pi” - Ang Lee (2012)

Everyone seems to love Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), based on the 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel.  Well, almost everyone. Since the novel is a philosophical fantasy about a lone teenage boy on a lifeboat, it would seem to be almost unfilmable.  Yet Lee’s film was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece and nominated for eleven US awards, including Best Picture. Certainly on the cinematography level, the film is a marvel – as one watches, one can’t help wondering, “how did they do it?” Nevertheless, I have my reservations concerning the ultimate merit of this work as an effective film narrative, and I think it pales in comparison to Lee's wonderful Eat Drink Man Woman (1994).

The narrative structure of the film is somewhat complex, and this accounts for part of the film’s popularity.  At the outer level, the film itself has an implicit narrator, the filmmaker, who is telling us a story by visual means.  Then within that narrative we have the character of the Writer, who is evidently telling us the story of his encounter with Piscine “Pi” Patel, who survived a shipwreck and is now a Canadian academic in theology.  Then within the Writer’s narrative are two conflicting narratives by Patel about the same events, the “Animal” story and the “Human story”.  The Writer and the viewer are then forced to choose which of the two stories by the unreliable narrator Patel is more believable.  So the outline of the story proceeds as follows:

1.  The Writer Meets Pi
A successful novelist, the “Writer”, wishes to interview Piscine “Pi” Patel, an academic in Toronto, because the Writer has been told that Patel has an amazing and true story that will help him believe in God.  Patel is known to have miraculously survived a shipwreck years ago, and it this experience that constitutes Pi Patel’s story.

2.  Pi’s Upbringing
In a somewhat desultory fashion, Pi begins to recount his upbringing in India, where his father owned a zoo in Pondicherry.  The main items covered are how Patel acquired his name, “Pi”, and how a Bengal tiger in the family zoo came to be called, “Richard Parker”. He also relates his growing fascination with religious truth.  Even though from a middle class Indian family and with a father who was a rational humanist and discounted religion, Pi embraced traditional Hinduism and its ethical precepts. But Pi subsequently converted to Christianity and then to Islam. Each time he converted, he did not renounce his previous religious affiliations, but apparently embraced additional truths offered by the newly adopted faith.

When Pi is about sixteen years old, his father sells the zoo in Pondicherry and loads his family and animals onto a ship headed for Canada.  Somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean, however, the ship encounters a heavy storm and founders.  At this point one enters the “Animal” story.

3.  The Animal Story
Most of the film’s running time is occupied with relating what happens in Pi’s “Animal” story.  Almost everything is dramatized in this section, and Pi’s explicit narration recedes from the viewer’s focus. 

In the chaos of the sinking ship, Pi alone winds up in a lifeboat, along with some animals who accidentally fall into the lifeboat, too.  These turn out to be a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the tiger Richard Parker.  The rest of the ship, crew, and passengers go down.  On the lifeboat the hyena soon kills and eats from both the zebra and the orangutan before suffering a similar fate from the tiger.  The rest of this part of the story concerns how Pi manages to coexist with his lethal feline shipmate, Richard Parker.

Eventually the lifeboat makes it to a mysterious floating island featuring a vast horde of meerkats. This appears to be a safe haven with an abundant food supply for Pi and Richard Parker, but they both discover that they are inhabitants of an island that is a huge carnivorous plant that may at some point eat and digest them. So they get back into the lifeboat and eventually make it to Mexico, where Pi is finally returned to civilization and Richard Parker disappears into the forest.

4.  The Human Story
Noone, including the authorities, believed Pi’s fantastic story about living 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger, so he tells the Writer that he gave the authorities an alternative story about his lifeboat experience.  This story, which is told to the Writer in words rather than being dramatized, involves not animals on the lifeboat but three human companions, several of whom (and ultimately Pi, himself) engage in murder and cannibalism in order to survive.

So the Writer and the viewer must choose which story to believe.  Both stories seem implausible.  The "Animal" story suggests that a person could rise to the implausible heights of taming a tiger; while the "Human" story suggest that people could readily descend to implausible depths of bestiality. In any case, as we know, the most important stories we tell are those that we tell to ourselves. Pi asks the Writer which of the two conflicting stories he wants to believe, and the writer says he prefers the “Animal” story. Pi responds by saying, “and so it goes with God.”  This is presumably the philosophical message of the film.

OK, it is a challenging thought, but I will outline why I don’t think this film really amounts to what its supporters claim.  There are two basic problem areas with respect to Life of Pi: the narrative, itself, and the philosophical implications concerning what is shown.

Narrative Issues
Despite the spectacular mise-en-scene carried out by Lee, the fundamental problem with Life of Pi is that the narrative core to the film, the “Animal Story”, is one long shaggy dog story [1]. The interaction between Pi and the tiger Richard Parker doesn’t evolve into a relationship. We can perhaps accept certain aspects of it by imagining that the tiger becomes exhausted from hunger and becomes more familiar with the other “animal” on board, but we really don’t have any idea of how a tiger thinks or feels.  There is a conflict here in terms of narrative presentation, because by Lee’s real and physical depiction of the tiger, he sacrifices the metaphorical insinuation that some sort of relationship is evolving.  Now one might possibly counter by arguing that everything is going on inside Pi’s head and that he is “taming the tiger within”.  But what is shown onscreen is the direct interaction between the tiger and Pi, and that has to work as a narrative.  Instead, the viewer’s interest is more occupied by what is really a distraction – how did they film this thing?

Interesting narratives must evolve, usually by means of changing attitudes among key personages in the story.  But the viewer of Life of Pi cannot understand the motivations of Richard Parker, the hyena, or the orangutan – motivations which are essential for a narrative to hold our attention. So we are only left with Pi’s experiences.  Moreover, although the performance of Suraj Sharma as the 16-year-old Pi shows a certain sensitivity, he many times seems entirely too calm for a boy going through such horrific catastrophes and ordeals.  So even with Pi, it is difficult to get a feel for his motivations and what is going on inside his mind.

A further complaint that I have about the narrative is the decision to have the Writer articulate the explicit correspondences between the “Animal” story and the “Human” story.  This connection should have been left to the viewer to make, and it makes the story structure even more artificial and explicitly schematic.

Philosophical Issues
But there is still the philosophical side of things to consider.  Can the issue of “and so it goes for God” make up for the shortcomings of the film’s narrative presentation?  Again, I feel the film falls somewhat short along several lines.

  • Taming the Tiger Within.  If the “Animal” story is to be taken allegorically, then we might consider Pi’s relationship with, indeed identification with, the tiger (Richard Parker) as his attempt to tame the tiger within himself.  He says that his preoccupation with Richard Parker is what enabled him to survive.  But what he ultimately arrived at was merely a form of peaceful coexistence with the tiger. Originally a devout Hindu and therefore a vegetarian, he compromises his ethical values and eats animal flesh, and thus gives in to being part tiger. This wasn’t truly a taming, and it doesn’t bring Pi closer to God, even if it did help him to survive on the material plane.
     
  • Moral Condemnation.  By seeing his lifeboat shipmates as animals instead of humans, Pi could avoid the feeling of disgust and moral condemnation he had towards cannibalism. This altered perspective might make Pi more sympathetic, but it would also lower his companions from the status of morally responsible sentient beings to that of beasts.  Rather than holding the compassionate vision that all sentient beings, including animals, are higher souls, this reductive re-perspective operates in the reverse direction. It is true that this has the advantage of removing his shipmates from moral condemnation and therefore utter rejection, but it also makes them lesser beings and consequently eatable – a compromise that is also not exactly godlike. 
     
  • The Carnivorous Floating Island.  In the “Human” story there is no episode that corresponds to the carnivorous floating island of the “Animal” story.  We might fill in this gap and guess that when Pi first returned to the civilized world in the “Human” narrative, he was still accompanied by the tiger within and was still participating in a seemingly civilized world that masked its underlying carnivorous nature. So he presumably had to make an additional escape, this time to a more humane world in order to find a harmonious existence.  This is a point worth making, but it seems to have been dropped from the film and therefore leaves an unfilled gap.
Ultimately, the film suggests to us that all religions have a story and that we should adopt the one that “works” best for us, i.e. the one that contributes most effectively to our survival.  This strikes me as a utilitarian prescription and is not something that elicits the feelings of loving compassion.  Pi was a sensitive, loving boy when he was a teenager.  The older Pi who narrates the story is living a comfortable life; but he seems not to have the same spark of caring engagement, and I don't think he is closer to God now.  We need to do go beyond just taming the tiger within – we need to evoke the loving and compassionate heavenly being within.  Then we will be closer to God.
★★

Notes:
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaggy_dog_story

“Fiddler on the Roof” - Norman Jewison (1971)

The popularity of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), producer-director Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical stage play (1964-1972), runs along several dimensions: drama, music, dancing, and even sociocultural or philosophical ideas.  In fact it was the sociocultural side of things that made the musical unique and ensured the broad popularity of the film, as well.  Indeed, the film adaptation follows the musical play very closely, and attempts to translate the theatrical magic of the musical as much as possible into the film medium.  However, adapting such a musical play (in fact any musical play) to film presents difficulties and tradeoffs due to differences across the two types of media, and I will discuss that below.

Of course, the musical play was an adaptation, itself.  It was based on stories in Sholoam Aleichem’s 1894 book Tevye and His Daughters, which was originally written in Yiddish.  Aleichem’s stories concern the travails of a peasant Jewish dairyman who works hard to support his family in a small town, Anatevka, in the western edge of the Russian Tsarist empire (now Ukraine).  For the musical play, these stories were woven into a single tale about life in the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish culture (Yiddish language sphere), which naturally had an interested audience in Broadway’s home, New York City, where about 2.5 million Jewish people, many of Ashkenazi descent, were living in the 1960s when the musical was opened.  But, of course, the themes and events of the play have a much wider cultural compass than just a single ethnic community.

The are four basic subplots, or narrative threads, in Fiddler on the Roof, but they are linked and shadowed by two overarching themes, which, just to make sure you don’t miss them, are explicitly introduced in the opening moments of the film:
  • The Fiddler on the Roof.  In the opening images of the film, Tevye points to mysterious man, perhaps an apparition, playing on his fiddle while standing precariously atop the peaked roof of his peasant house.  The fiddler metaphorically represents the eternally precarious position of the Jewish people (and by extension all of us) on this earth.  The fiddler must continue to play his life’s “tune”, while at the same time attempting to maintain his balance in the face of all of life’s vicissitudes. 
  •  Tradition.  The Jewish people have managed to endure in the face of so many challenges because of their staunch adherence to their traditions.  These traditions specify the proper and authorized activities in all aspects of life. For example, men always keep their heads covered and wear a little prayer shawl. Of course, traditions are followed in all conventional societies, but the implication here is that the strength of Tevye’s people is their meticulous adherence to the full range of their religious and cultural traditions.  The film’s opening song, “Tradition”,  is a musical celebration of this notion.

So throughout the unveiling of the four subplots, we are to understand that Tevye is seeking to be the “fiddler on the roof”, trying to maintain his balance, a crucial support of which are the heavenly-ordained traditions of his people.

But there is another important cultural element that is not articulated here but which represents a crucial aspect of how Tevye and his people make their way.  Tevye believes in a single, all-powerful God that he can somehow talk to.  This is something additional to ordinary social traditions.  There are many cultures that follow strict social traditions, for example traditional Confucian Chinese society, without much reference to heavenly spirits.  In addition there are other cultures that either have numerous heavenly spirits, some lower elements of which may have a personal interest in an individuals life (e.g. traditional Indian culture), or have a single, all-powerful spiritual essence that is remote from human concerns (e.g. Theravedic Buddhism).  But it is the Abrahamic religions, initiated by Judaism, that have a single God, Who is the creator of all and yet Who can receive personal prayers, too.  So throughout the story of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye talks directly to God and tries to understand His reasons for making things as they are.

These conversations with God are in fact one of the narrative innovations of Fiddler on the Roof, because the unseen narrative witness of the film seems to stand in the perspective of God’s perception.  When Tevye speaks into the camera, there is a bit of ambiguity – the narrative listeners is the audience, but it also sometimes seems to be God.  It is as if we viewers are in an “over-the-shoulder” camera position with respect to God.  At various critical moments in each of the four subplots, Tevye is required to make a decision, and he take a moment to reason with himself concerning what he should do.  The external world freezes for a moment, while Tevye recites to himself, but also to God and to us, the various pros and cons concerning a particular action.  “On the one hand,” he says on each occasion, there are these particular concerns, but “on the other hand”, there are counter-arguments that need to be considered.  These conversations with God reflect a man’s reasoned struggles to maintain his precarious balance on that existential “roof”, and they provide some of the charm of the story.

In contrast to these larger themes, the four subplots are not as interesting, but they drive the story.  Tevye has five daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age, and it his task to find husbands for him in his community.  According to tradition, the marriage arrangements must be made in the order of the daughters’ ages.  In addition, tradition dictates that the father makes the arrangements with the intended husband, with the daughter having no say in the matter. So the first three subplots, which are somewhat interleaved, concern the marriage arrangements for the three older daughters, and the three marriages signal three modernist challenges to tradition: (1) industrialization and automation, (2) peoples’ revolutions, and (3) liberal humanism.  The fourth subplot depicts the expulsion of all the Jews in the region as a result of a pogrom.  Although Aleichem’s book was first published in 1894, the film is set in 1905, during a time of one of the amajor anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia.

1.  Tzeitel’s story
Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, is in love with Motel, an impoverished young tailor in the village.  But Tevye’s wife, Golde, learns through the local match-make, Yente, that the more prosperous, middle-aged butcher in town, Lazar Wolf is interested in marrying Tzeitel.  So Tevye goes to Lazar Wolf and seals the deal with a handshake. But when Tzeitel is confronted with the prospects of marrying the elderly butcher, she protests, and Motel steps in to plead his case for her hand. Tevye now engages in his first back-and-forth reflective consideration, observing that his traditional authority is being challenged, but that his daughter’s future happiness is at stake. In the end, he succumbs to Tzeitel’s wishes, and Motel and Tzeitel then run off through the neighboring woods singing the song, “Miracle of Miracles”.

2. Hodel’s story
Hodel, Tevye’s second-oldest daughter falls in love with an educated and city-bred young revolutionary, Perchik.  He is a modernist who seeks to overthrow many outmoded traditions, including the idea of servitude to the Tsar.  Accordingly, he insists to the local villagers that women should be allowed to dance with men, and he tells Tevye that he and Hodel intend to marry, without first asking for Tevye’s permission.  Again Tevye has a dramatic wrestle with his pride and conscience, but he ultimately consents to this marriage, too.

3.  Chava’s storyThe third daughter, Chava, falls in love with a local Christian man, Fyedka, and they seek to marry, as well.  But this time, Tevye cannot accommodate such a break with tradition, and he refuses to allow the marriage.  When Chava and Gyedkadecide to go ahead and marry anyway, Tevye disowns his daughter for choosing to leave her religion.

4.  The Expulsion
The final section of the film shows all the people of Anatevka evicted from their homes and forced out of the region as a result of the pogrom.  The message here is that reasoned forbearance, rather than suicidal retaliation, in the face of cruel oppression may often be the only option for survival.

Returning to the problem of presenting a stage musical on film, there are things about the cinematic version of Fiddler on the Roof that work, and others and don’t.  A stage production always features a certain psychological “distance”, with respect to what is presented.  There is a seated audience watching actors on the stage, with a seated orchestra and singing chorus.  When the story is transferred to the more realistic and immediate film medium, things are different, and the artifices of the stage seem more conspicuously artificial.  On the other hand (to echo Tevye), the film audience wants to see the musical they have hear about without alterations.  So the filmmaker must insert the orchestra, the chorus singing, and the dances, even when they seem much more intrusive in the cinematic setting.  On top of that, there is the question of how far to go depicting the agonies of the pogrom.  In this respect there are clear limitations to what can be staged in a theater and for an audience that expects music and dancing on the stage.  A film is less limited.  For this reason there are elements of the film that are relatively effective (the “good”), and others aspects that don’t deliver (the “bad”).
The Bad.  There are several elements of the film that limit one’s enjoyment. 

  • Particularly irritating are the bizarre camera angles and the jarringly rapid editing. These effects are presumably intended to provide visual dynamism to what might be thought of as a static stage play, but they have no motivation behind them and are merely distracting.  There are too many closeups, and the various high and low camera angles are confusing and counter-intuitive. Surprisingly, however, veteran cinematographer Oswald Morris won an Oscar for his work here.  
  • A second problem with the film is its overall length, which at about three hours runs on too long.  Most of the story, except for the expulsion, and the best songs are covered before the intermission, so the second half of the film seems to drag.
  • A third problem is in connection with the final expulsion from the village.  Curiously, the realism of the cinematic medium, when combined with the necessity of faithfully following the stage play’s restrained depiction, make it seem flat.  The film shows the various characters heading off to new homes in New York, Israel, and Chicago – it seems everyone has some place to go.  But I suspect that the real story was more dour. The pogrom at that time forced people with limited means off their own land and with limited protection from the civic authorities.  Thousands of people lost their lives.
The Good. . . . on the other hand, . . .
  • The acting performances of Chaim Topol (Tevye), Norma Crane (Golde), Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), and Leonard Frey (Motel) are simultaneously engaging and realistic.  Topol (who wasn’t that old at the time of production) is particularly good in the demanding role that dominates and carries the entire narrative. Unfortunately however, Topol’s raspy voice gets to be a problem after awhile, particularly in some of the songs.  
  • There are a number of songs in the film that are justly famous, including, “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Matchmaker”, “Miracle of Miracles”, and “Sunrise, Sunset”, as well as the famed “bottle” dance. In fact it is the performance of “Sunrise, Sunset” where the vocals, the visuals, and the overall mood all come together perfectly, that is an unmatchable experience and the highlight of the film.

Anyway, what is it about Jewish culture that has inspired them to such success [1] and has enabled them to adapt to and survive so many disruptions in varied circumstances over the years?  There are other factors besides just tradition, for example: communal exchange and concern, an eschatological belief that the Supreme Spirit has selected them for a chosen destiny,  compliance to precepts recorded in the “Good Book” (the Tanakh), and a general confidence that problems can be solved through reasoned investigation and skillful application.  Or maybe it is all of these elements and more that are somehow artfully combined in this perilous, ever-changing world in the fashion of that maestro fiddler.
★★½

Notes:
  1. Coupled with the successes of the Jewish people has been the unceasing envy and hatred on the part of many outsiders.  Even nowadays, the president of a major Middle Eastern country has urged his followers (prior to his election) to hate Jews – for example, to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/15/world/middleeast/egypts-leader-morsi-made-anti-jewish-slurs.html.

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” - Blake Edwards (1961)


Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), directed by Blake Edwards, has always been immensely popular with audiences, though critics have tended to dismiss it as a lightweight romance.  To be sure, the film has all the commercialized luster and trappings of Hollywood, including some almost burlesque comedy scenes, but I think it still holds up as one of the great movies. Although the film is based on Truman Capote’s 1958 novella of the same name, it departs significantly from the original story so that the two works have rather different feelings to them. Capote was unhappy about some of the changes made, but the screenplay, by the gifted writer and director George Axelrod, has its own virtues apart from the novella.  Capote’s story is more bittersweet, more bleak, while the film holds more promise about life.  From my perspective, both works are outstanding in slightly different ways, and I recommend you both see the film and read the book.   Here, though, I will just concentrate on the film.

Actually, critics who do like the film sometimes have a hard time articulating why.  After all, the story about a frivolous, selfish girl hardly seems to have much of a plot to it, features some outlandish characters, and contains many implausible moments throughout.  Yet the film rises above all that and manages to capture something almost mythic about love.

As with Capote’s novella, the film story depicts the life of a glamorous young lady, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), as seen from the exclusively focalized perspective of a young writer, Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who is Holly’s neighbor.  Since much of the film is a profile of Holly Golightly, your appreciation of the tale will depend on the degree to which you find her interesting. 

The narrative goal takes awhile to crystallize, but it is clear from the outset that this is going to be a relationship narrative.  The question is: what will happen to the relationship between Paul and Holly?  The story goes through about seven stages, the first two of which provide the viewer with background information about the life of Holly.  The remaining five acts represent narrative episodes depicting Paul’s evolving relationship with Holly.

1.  Paul Meets Holly
The film starts with Paul moving into the apartment above Holly’s in an east side Manhattan (New York City) brownstone.  They soon chat and learn about each other.  Holly is a socialite, but she lives off the favors (“50 dollars for the powder room”) of men she meets at various night spots.  It’s never quite clear just how promiscuous Holly is, but her incessantly flirtatious nature suggest that she is used to seducing men for money, in a high class way, of course.  One evening she sneaks up the fire escape ladder and enters Paul’s apartment in order to flee one of her overly aggressive drunken conquests.  Wearing only a bathrobe, she chats with Paul, and they get to know each other. Holly says that she wants to earn money to look after her older brother, Fred, who is currently in the military but is evidently mentally impaired.  She also earns money by making weekly visits to a mafia narcotics boss, Salvatore Tomato, who is a prisoner in Sing Sing penitentiary north of New York City.  It later becomes evident that her visits are used to pass coded information between the mafioso and his fellow gangsters.

Though Paul has published some stories, he is unemployed and  financially supported by his lover, Emily Eustace Failenson (Patricia Neal), an older, married woman of considerable wealth. So both Holly and Paul are living off favors from the opposite sex – not exactly an admirable profile from either’s perspective in terms of a potential relationship between them.

2.  Holly the Socialite’s Party
Paul is invited the next day to party in Holly’s apartment, which turns out to be wild, almost ridiculous affair.  Here is where the burlesque comedy comes in, as we meet a cast of odd New York socialites.  A socialite friend of Holly introduces her to two wealthy men in her company, Rusty Trawler, whose underwhelming appearance is compensated for by his being the “ninth richest man in America under the age of fifty”, and a rich Brazilian patrician, José da Silva Pereira.  Paul meets Holly’s Hollywood agent, O. J. Berman (Martin Balsam), who tells Paul how he has taken Holly from the backwoods of Texas and groomed her to be a star.  But, he tells Paul, just when he had arranged a screen test for Holly, she had tripped off to New York City.  When Berman had asked her why, she responded, “when I find out what I want, I’ll let you know.”

At this point in the story, forty minutes into the film, we have enough information about Holly and Paul.  And we know that though Paul is relatively taciturn, he is very attracted to Holly.  But Holly is a will-o-the-wisp who calls everybody “darling”, even the taxi drivers.  The rest of the story concerns the progress made concerning their evolving relationship.

3.  “Doc” Golightly’s Story
The first hurdle is presented by the appearance of “Doc” Golightly (Buddy Epsen), a Texas veterinarian who shows up in New York City and reveals that he is Holly’s husband and wants to take her back to Texas. This is the first of the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that Paul faces in his quest for Holly. Paul is crushed to learn that Holly, then known as Lula Mae Barnes, had married “Doc” when she was only fourteen, and he reluctantly agrees to let him take Holly away.  But Holly tells Paul that her marriage had been annulled and sends “Doc” packing on a bus back to Texas.  OK, one hurdle cleared.

4.  The Rusty Trawler Affair
Paul and Holly get drunk together at a nightclub, and then Holly reveals to Paul that she intends to marry the wealthy Rusty Trawler for his money.  Again Paul is miffed.  However, luck comes Paul’s way in two forms.  He gets one of his stories published, and he learns that Rusty Trawler, who had run into financial straits, has gone off and married someone else for her money.  Another hurdle has been cleared.

5.  Paul and Holly on the Town
Now Paul and Holly go out to celebrate Paul’s new publication.  They visit Tiffany & Company’s famous jewelry store, where they have a wonderful interaction with a Tiffany salesman (memorably played by John McGiver), who treats their impecunious circumstances with respectful dignity. They also visit the famous New York Public Library and finally indulge their impish urges by robbing a five-and-dime store. By the end of their day, they are in love and embrace each other in a passionate kiss.  The next day Paul, now committed to Holly, breaks off his relationship with his friend Emily.

6.  The José Affair
Paul, now in the thralls of love, looks to find Holly, but she has gone out.  When he eventually finds her in the New York Public library, she is cold and indifferent to him.  She tells him that she has now decided to marry José da Silva Pereira for his money.  Incredulous, Paul can’t believe that he has been dumped so abruptly.  José, it turns out, is a gentleman and is sincere about wanting to marry Holly, so Paul can do nothing.  At this point Holly learns that her brother, Fred, has died in an accident, and is overcome with grief.  But Paul realizes that it is now up to José to comfort her.  Paul’s relationship with her is over.

7.  Finale
Time passes.  It seems that the better part of a year has gone by, and Paul has gotten a job and moved elsewhere. He gets an invitation from Holly to visit her and say good-bye just before she is to depart on a plane to Brazil. The meeting is cordial, but Holly is totally immersed in her future plans for life with José.  When after a farewell dinner out they return to Holly’s apartment, however, they are arrested by the police in connection with Holly’s relationship with mafia boss Salvatore Tomato.  Her paid weekly visits to Sing Sing prison had been used by the mafia to exchange coded messages, so Holly is jailed. 


Paul calls O. J. Berman in Hollywood, who arranges to get Holly released on bail and tells Paul to pick up Holly and put her up at a new address.  While collecting Holly’s things, including her cat, at her old apartment, Paul finds a message from José.  It turns out that having learned about Holly’s arrest, José’s concern for his family’s social standing has led him to break off their engagement.  When Paul picks up Holly in a taxi and the message is revealed to her, she tells him that she is going to Brazil anyway – now not to marry José, but just to explore an exciting new place and find more rich men to seduce.  She tells him that she is like her mongrel cat, a gypsy and eternally wandering free spirit.  Then she pitches her cat out of the taxi and tells it go look for mice.  Paul can’t believe that she could be so heartless.
"I love you; you belong to me,” he implores. 

“People don’t belong to people,” she responds. 

But he tells her: “People do belong to each other.  Because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.”
Then he says his final farewell and storms out of the taxi to go back and look for the cat. 

But for once, Holly has a change of heart.  She goes to him . . . and to retrieve the cat.
So what is it that makes Breakfast at Tiffany’s a great film?  It is all about the depiction of Holly Golightly and her way.  I have personally known a Holly Golightly, and probably you have known someone like that, too.  Holly uses people by charming them.  This is her habitual way of survival and is second nature to her. But she runs away from any real personal involvement.  Joni Mitchell’s song, “Cactus Tree”, comes to mind in this respect, a stanza of which reads:

    There's a lady in the city
    And she thinks she loves them all
    There's the one who's thinking of her
    There's the one who sometimes calls
    There's the one who writes her letters
    With his facts and figures scrawl
    She has brought them to her senses
    They have laughed inside her laughter
    Now she rallies her defenses
    For she fears that one will ask her
    For eternity
    And she's so busy being free

Some people have asked me, why would such a person like Holly be appealing?  When it comes down to it, isn’t she just an exploitative narcissist?  Well, I don’t think so.  The Holly Golightly here, as well as the one I knew, is completely guileless.  As O. J. Berman had told Paul, Holly is a phony, but at least she’s a “real phony”.  She believes in the dream world that she fabricates. Her social kisses are on the lips, not this French-inspired buss-on-the-cheek business. She innocently shares her thoughts with everyone, and she never intends harm (although her frequent disappointments with the men she has “dated” led her to designate most of them as “rats” or “super rats”). She invited intimacy with everyone, and this part was sincere, but she was afraid to go further and hold on to something. This combination of openness and invited intimacy – carrying an assumption that everyone is inherently good, combined with an innocent vulnerability – is what makes Holly appealing.  And Audrey Hepburn’s performance embodies this ideal image of vulnerable, timorous openness perfectly.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s features a number of established Hollywood performers, including Patricia Neal, Martin Balsam, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Epsen, and John McGiver.  But their portrayals, though emphatic and effective in their way, were rather schematic and in stark contrast to Audrey Hepburn’s genuineness.  George Peppard’s restrained performance as Paul is a good complement to Hepburn’s. He effectively portrays the barely concealed anxiety of a frustrated man in love who is not supposed to reveal his feelings.

In fact, though, it is Audrey Hepburn’s performance that makes the movie.  Her acting style is so natural to her visible persona that one doesn’t really think of her as a real actress.  She just seems to be herself every time.  But when she acts, she inserts herself so perfectly into the role, that it makes a natural fit with the interactive context.  The attraction people feel is to her whole being and not just to her physical appearance. Perhaps this was why she was nominated for a best acting award for most of her film performances over her career.  Audrey Hepburn even does a good job singing the evocative song, “Moon River”, which became a classic.  But for some reason Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the lead role, and while Ms. Monroe might have given a decent performance, it would have been different and resulted in a different film.  I can’t believe that she could have conveyed the essence of Holy Golightly’s personality as well as Audrey Hepburn did.

In the real world, the Holly Golightlys out there invariably run away in the end, always looking for their next adventure, but never finding true happiness. But films, particularly great films, reflect our dreams more than actual reality.  Rather than run away, the will-of-the-wisp Holly lingers in Breakfast in Tiffany’s, . . . and in our own dreams, too.
★★★★