“The City of Photographers” - Sebastián Moreno (2006)

The Chilean documentary The City of Photographers (La Ciudad De Los Fotógrafos, 2006), directed by Sebastián Moreno, has valuable offerings on several dimensions. For one thing it provides an interesting angle on the turbulent period of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). This is a fascinating story of how ordinary citizens used their cameras as witnesses to stand up for the basic human right of expression. These heroic people in Santiago, Chile, stood alone, because the US government, rather than defending democratic interests, was perniciously intervening on the side of the oppressive dictatorship at the time.  So on this level, the film presents material for further reflection (in the light of the "Arab Spring") concerning the somewhat ill-defined term of crowd-sourcing.  But perhaps the most significant dimension of the film concerns what it reveals about the nature of narrative witnessing.  What role can the witness play, and how does visual imagery play a part?  After all, this documentary film is not only reflective but reflexive: it is a documentary about documentarians.


Because the film was made for Chilean audiences, for whom the gory details of the Pinochet dictatorship were all too familiar, there is little coverage in the film concerning some of those historical details. So it might be useful to recall that for all of its history prior to the Pinochet period, Chile had perhaps the strongest traditions of democratic government in South America. But given the enormous wealth and power divide between the privileged classes and the common people throughout Latin America, there were always simmering social tensions in those countries that made the option of Communism politically attractive to some sectors of society.  In particular, Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution was always a model for emulation, and the US government was determined to thwart a repeat of something like that happening again on the content. Chile, because of its vast copper reserves, was one particularly important theater in this drama.  Due in part to its robust democratic institutions, Chile was a seething cauldron for this political contest, and during the 1960s there emerged a united front of leftist Chilean political parties, led by Salvador  Allende, that vied for political control.  The US CIA engaged in various interventionist tactics to block Allende, but in the end they were unable to prevent his coming to power in 1970 [1].  This was a major worldwide event, because it marked the first, and perhaps only, time that a fully socialist government (i.e. fully committed to Marxist socialist principles) came to power via democratic elections.     

The US government then actively encouraged (although the extent to which it offered any actual material support at that point is unclear) for the military coup d’etat that installed Augusto Pinochet as dictator in 1973. Thereafter the US government actively supported the “Operation Condor” operation of right-wing South American governments, including the Pinochet regime, to suppress and terrorize all political opposition [2]. Among the activities of this so-called “dirty war” of oppression were acts of “disappearing” political opponents: victims were first tortured to death and then vanished from sight.  US citizens, even today, find it almost impossible to believe that their own government could have supported such murders and torture, so they tended to discount the evidence when presented – particularly when the evidence was not well documented and could thereby be dismissed as hearsay (which is a typical problem when dealing with secretive operations involving military intelligence).  For example a few years later, former CIA operative Jesse Leaf revealed that the CIA had taught torture techniques, based on captured Nazi documents, to the SAVAK secret police of the government of Iran ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [3,4,5].  Again, US citizens could not bring themselves to believe that their own people supported torture – in fact torture that was worse than waterboarding, incidentally. 

What did it take for US citizens finally to wake up to the realization that their government supports torture?  It was graphic, pictorial evidence from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that proved to be inarguable [6].  There it was shown in pictures for all to see.  This kind of visual revelation is what The City of Photographers is all about.  It was brave photographers merely doing their civic duty who revealed the atrocities that were being committed by the Pinochet government.  This had political consequences for the evolution of Chilean society, and it serves as a general reminder for us today, too.

The story of these photographers essentially begins in 1978 when one of them, Luis Navarro, discovered the abandoned Lonquen mine, where he discovers the remains of fifteen laborers who had been tortured to death and buried there in 1973. They had been made to “disappear”. This photographic evidence was the first step in opening up to the world the kinds of atrocities that were being committed by the Chilean dictatorship.

It should be remembered that not everyone in Chile was against the Pinochet dictatorship.  The privileged clashes felt that Pinochet was a bulwark against Communist chaos.  As long as the Chilean government could keep hidden their “dirty war” tactics, it could retain support from a significant portion of those who proceeded with business as usual.  But photographic evidence is difficult to deny and can provide revelations.  More and more photographers began to join the cause of providing documentary evidence concerning the oppressive tactics of the military police.  In 1981 they formed the Independent Photographers Guild Association (AFI was the acronym in Spanish), and this provided them with accreditation as a professional body.

These people were street photographers, most of whom were, I believe, free-lance operators who sold their photographs to various media outlets. It was an open group of men and women that could be joined by anyone with a camera and the passion to reveal the truth, and among those shown in the film are the following participants who comment and reflect at the time of the film production (2006) on their photojournalistic activities of twenty years earlier:
  • Jose Moreno (the father of director Sebastián Moreno)
  • Luis Navarro
  • Claudio Perez
  • Paz Errazuiz
  • Inez Paulino
  • Percy Lam
  • Kena Lorenzini
  • Jose Duran
  • Oscar Navarro
  • Marcelo Montecinos
This is very much a human story, as people describe how they joined the guild and found what became a shared mission and their personal calling.  As time went on, leftist demonstrators against the regime became their friends, counting on them to record the police brutality that usually ensued when there was a demonstration.  Since the political activists wanted to hold their demonstrations without the police knowing about them in advance, they would secretly inform the photographers about their upcoming events.  Some of the photographers struggled with this in connection with their feelings of sympathy for the activists and at the same time their felt need to maintain a sense of reportorial objectivity. Eventually it became something of a cat-and-mouse game, with the activists, the police, and the photographers all becoming personally familiar with each other, even though they were on opposite sides of an ongoing argument.

Soon the photographers discovered that there were about 1200 apprehended and missing people – people who had been disappeared, and they felt the need to make these people reappear to the public eye by publicizing photographs of them.  But for about 500 of the disappeared people, there were no available photographs, so the photographers set about the task of finding past photos of these people and creating a pictorial memorial in ceramic tiles of all of them.  This reflects an underlying theme of the film: a person’s photographic image is more real than a mere description of that person in words.  The image evokes a sense of presence about the person – this person truly existed and had a life, just like the rest of us.  As Ana Gonzales, one of the mothers who had lost children to government disappearance, said, “not having had a photo of your family is somehow not having had part in the history of mankind.”

To counter the public’s growing awareness of government atrocities, the government took various measures against the photographers.  For awhile they banned all images from magazines. So the journals responded by publishing issues with blank-out spaces with the word “censored” where images were intended on some pages. And the people began wearing enlarged prints of disappeared people’s photos around their necks on the streets, keeping the ultimate question about their whereabout constantly in the faces of the authorities. 


The government also tried to infiltrate the group with spies and informers, but the photographers were quick to learn how to identify the lack of genuineness of a government snitch. 

As the photographers continued their investigations, they would occasionally suffer beatings at the hands of the police.  One of their number, Oscar Navarro, even got the nickname “Kamikaze” for his willingness to risk plunging into the midst of some dangerous encounters. But there were more sinister things than beatings; they learned that the CNI (the Chilean internal intelligence agency) was murdering people as part of their “dirty war” activities. One of the AFI members, Rodgrigo Rojas, was an idealistic teenager who had committed himself to the AFI photojournalistic movement. While photographing one newsworthy event on the road, the military poured gasoline over him and immolated him.  The surviving photographers who recollected him twenty years later still shared a sense of guilt and sadness for not having restrained the young boy from pursuing the dangerous operations in which they were engaged.  The AFI photographers lost other good friends this way, too.  The Chilean academic Jose Manuel Parada was a good friend of the photographers.  One day the bodies of Parada and two of his academic colleagues were found dumped by the side of the road with their throats slit. 

In addition to such butchery, the government tried to discredit the photographers.  Luis Navarro was arrested while photographing Pinochet entering the government palace and held for five days.  We are not informed what they did to him, but there is a suggestion that he was abused. Afterwards the government propagated a false story that Navarro had been a government informer for years. Some of the public believed the story, and it took Navarro years to recover his reputation from the slander.

Over the years, the violence took its toll on many of the photographers.  Some of them wondered if they were getting caught up in an eternal narrative of violence.  They asked themselves if they were actively looking for violence, seeding the world with their own preconceptions.  They wondered what was happening to their souls.  Oscar Navarro is still disturbed twenty years later by the time in those days when he asked a police-beaten boy to remove his hands covering his face.  When the boy did so, Navarro saw (and photographed) that the boy’s eye had been gouged out by a police baton.  Navarro had earlier said that his camera was his weapon, but his sense of powerlessness on that occasion still lingers with him.

But despite all the tragic occurrences, this film is still a story of triumph. These “ordinary” people (ordinary in the sense that they did not have authorized power from the establishment) had collectively stood together and used their cameras to provide a social witness. What they captured were pictures, and these pictures had a richness to them that conveyed, in way that words could never do, the horror of what they were witnessing.  Such witnessing offers a lesson for the rest of us. In an age when governments and commercial organizations are using electronic media to invade our private spaces, they also often reject the people's right to record government and corporate depredations in the public space.

So we need to  keep in mind the distinctions between public and private spaces. People have a right to privacy; but they also have a right to free speech, i.e. public expression, in the public space. The photographers in The City of Photographers were intensely aware of the ambiguities of this process.  As I see it, they often asked themselves the difficult question concerning to what extent were they capturing reality or actually making it. This is a problem that cannot be avoided. Every witness to an event, every documentarian, is also a participant. But we all do believe in a shared "reality" and a “true” (mutually agreed on) narrative description of what has happened. And the richness of visual imagery provided by photography is irrefutable. When photographic evidence is presented to the public, it is up to the public to decide what to make of it. The AFI photographers in Chile were aware of this challenge and conscientiously and humanely tried to operate within the inevitable compromising constraints entailed. From all of this we can see that there is a task set before us to which all of us interested in helping to defend and preserve democracy around the world can contribute – "we’re all this together”.  This is what the AFI members of The City of Photographers have shown us.

½

Notes:
  1. “United States intervention in Chile”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intervention_in_Chile, accessed 25 April 2013.
  2. “Operation Condor”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Condor, accessed 25 April 2013.
  3. Seymour M. Hersh, “Ex-Analyst Says C.I.A. Rejected Warning on Shah; Shah Was a Source for C.I.A.”, The New York Times, 7 January 1979.
  4. Alexander Cockburn & James Ridgeway, “The Shah and the Hot-Egg Tango”, The Village Voice (“The Moving Target” column), 4 December 1978.
  5. A. J. Langguth, “Torture’s Teachers”, The New York Times, 11 June 1979.
  6. Scott Shane, “U.S. Engaged in Torture After 9/11, Review Concludes”, The New York Times, 16 April 2013.

“Cartouche” - Philippe de Broca (1962)

Cartouche (aka Swords of Blood, 1962) was a French historical action-comedy written and directed by Philippe de Broca that starred two epic film figures of that period, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claudia Cardinale. On the surface, the film is clearly a ridiculous historical farce, with broad comedic turns that border on slapstick. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a shameless and irreverent thief who mocks everyone he encounters. As such, the film appears to be directed at the adolescent community and anyone who enjoys seeing the authorities get their comeuppance. But the film has other dimensions and themes to it that are quite at odds with its lightweight tomfoolery, and these extra layers are what really interest me.

The story of the film is based on a real figure in French history, Louis-Dominique Bourguignon (1693 - 1721), who achieved legendary status in his day as a French Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. To deceive the authorities, he went by other names, too, including Louis Dominique Garthausen, Louis Lamare, and Cartouche. But whatever the historical reality of Bourguignon was, what we see in this film seems mainly to be tongue-in-cheek fantasy.  Nevertheless, there are some interesting aspects here that go beyond the superficial silliness.  One is associated the romantic personae of the two principal characters; and another is the dramatic swerve in the fourth act that altogether changes the tenor of the story.

The principal characters in Cartouche are

  • Louis-Dominique Bourguignon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) – a dauntless thief.
  • Venus (Claudia Cardinale) – a Parisian commoner.
  • Malichot (Marcel Dalio) – the original ringleader of the Parisian thieves. Dalio had a lengthy film and TV career that included appearances more than two decades earlier in the classics, La Grande Illusion (1937), Rules of the Game (1939), and Casablanca (1941).
  • Isabelle de Ferrussac (Odile Versois) – the wife of the Parisian Police Chief, Gaston de Ferrussac.
The film’s four acts are quite distinct, and in fact the fourth act utterly alters the entire mood and meaning of the film.
1.  Bourguignon, the Thief
The first act features Bourguignon’s devilish antics, as he careens around the city streets picking pockets at his leisure. As a member of Malichot’s gang, he is supposed to be subservient to his ruthless master, but his natural rebelliousness prevents him from appropriately knuckling under to  the chief. He also meets and wins the love of the street wench Venus during this part, but he and his two pals have to flee Paris after rudely challenging Malichot’s leadership.

2.  In the Army
To escape punishment from Malichot’s thugs, Bourguignon and his two friends run away and join the army.  But the army is commanded by witless fools who sacrifice their soldiers in near-suicidal encounters with their enemies. Although fearless, Bourguignon looks out for himself first, so he deserts the conflict and runs for cover. Hiding in the bushes, he and his friends are the only ones to survive one of their company’s futile attacks, which winds up earning them decorations as heroes.

3.  Cartouche in Command
Bourguignon returns to Paris, now under his new name of Cartouche, and he reclaims Venus and again challenges Malichot. This time he gets the upper hand, and the entire gang rallies to follow the more humane Cartouche, who tells them they should only steal from the undeserving rich. So Cartouche becomes the king of the Paris thieves, and Venus is his queen.

4.  Cartouche and Isabelle
In the final act the film abruptly turns away from its previously carefree tenor. The pivotal event is one of Cartouche’s robberies during which he encounters a regal, upper-class woman, Isabelle de Ferrussac, whom he had briefly seen in the first act. Isabelle’s aristocratic air and reserved demeanor ultimately proves to be an irresistible challenge to Cartouche. Unabashedly lustful of Isabelle even in front of Venus, Cartouche openly throws himself at the feet of the still hesitant Isabelle. Soon, though, Cartouche is arrested by the police and headed for the gallows. Despite Cartouche’s betrayal, Venus leads the gang in a desperate rescue, but she dies in his arms during the skirmish. In the finale, Cartouche grimly conducts a grand nocturnal burial by placing Venus’s body, now covered with stolen jewels, in a stolen golden coach and sinking it in the river.

For much of the film, Cartouche is a relentless sequence of prankish acts on the part of Belmondo and his wiseguy pals. This is exemplified in the pirouette-filled sword fights that frequent the action.  In fact it might be interesting to compare the choreographed swordplay in Cartouche with what appeared later in Asian martial arts films.  In both settings the almost ludicrous acrobatics are very carefully staged, but the later Chinese martial arts action is probably more seamless and skillful.  On the other hand, the swordplay in Cartouche is performed without the benefit of special effects.  Nevertheless, there is something disturbing in Cartouche in connection with the film’s casual depiction of killing.  Cartouche and his pals are seen smirking their way through numerous scenes filled with blood and guts. Is all this carnage supposed to be funny? What kind of culture do we have that supports this attitude? Perhaps it is just part and parcel with the cavalier tough-guy attitude that prevails in this context.

The real lasting feature of Cartouche, though, is the fact that it stands as the ultimate vehicle showcasing its two stars, Belmondo and Cardinale. Jean-Paul Belmondo was perhaps the French anti-hero of this period, but with impertinent and comic overtones. He emerged to become an iconic cultural figure with his role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1959).  Critics at the time struggled to articulate just what was the essence of Belmondo’s charm. Clearly he was not classically handsome, and he was sometimes characterized as “handsome-ugly”. But he did have a kind of naturally good-natured recklessness that was appealing to women (or so they tell me). Basically, he was a naughty boy, a wiseguy, who was continually forgiven for his transgressions – the kind of guy that the gangsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) imagined themselves to be. And it was Cartouche that best displayed Belmondo’s impertinent persona. 

Claudia Cardinale was an entirely different figure.  She was one of those unique actresses who projected a feminine allure that somehow went well beyond mere physical beauty.  There are others who had this kind of magic, too, such as Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, and Maria Schneider.  But perhaps Claudia Cardinale was my favorite of all of them.  She was naturally beautiful, without need of any adornment, and she was always physically sensuous, passionate, and innocent all at the same time.  Static images do not capture her charm; you have to see her flashing eyes in action.  She was the ultimate screen goddess, and she lit up every scene that she was in. 

So I assume that anyone watching Cartouche is naturally mystified when in the third act Cartouche turns his back on Venus (Cardinale) and falls for Isabelle. Clearly on the level of pulchritude, Claudia Cardinale, as Venus, was far more desirable than Odile Versois (who is pretty in her own way), as Isabelle.  Cardinale suggests passionate, animated engagement, in comparison to Versois’s bleached-out passivity.  What was it about Isabelle that so charmed Cartouche?  (I will set aside the possibility that de Broca simply erred by casting the too-beautiful Cardinale in the role of the street wench, Venus.) Perhaps it was the fact that Isabelle was refined and oh-so upper-class. This made her an iconic trophy that Cartouche, the embodiment of French masculine charm, simply had to have. But there is another factor, too, to consider: Isabelle was a blonde. And it might be said that the mysterious seductiveness of blondes is even greater in France than elsewhere. In fact the French even hold academic conferences where their intellectuals examine and discuss the nature of why they are so attracted to blondes [1]. 


Whatever it is that fueled Cartouche’s downfall – blondes, class – it doesn’t matter. What lingers by the end of the downbeat fourth act is the unfathomably self-destructive craving that often leads men to turn away from what they hold most precious. Why are we so often like that? We viewers know that Venus was Cartouche’s messenger from God.  But Cartouche at the end of the story is still blind to his failings, and he covers Venus’s naturally beautiful form with jewels – as if those artificial decorations could somehow enhance her perfection. What we are left with at the end is an enhanced awareness of romantic engagement’s ultimate ephemerality. Isabelle was a frozen image, a static cosmetic form; while Venus embodied the promise of interactive magic that may come.

★★★

Notes:
  1. Henry Samuel, “French University to Study Whether Gentleman Really Do Prefer Blondes”, The Telegraph (2009), 13 January 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/4230941/French-university-to-study-whether-gentleman-really-do-prefer-blondes.html.

“Zorba the Greek” - Michael Cacoyannis (1964)

There was something unique about Zorba the Greek (1964) that makes it stand out far above the accolades that it gained: it won three US Academy Awards and was nominated for four others, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It remains today as one of the greatest cinematic expressions of existential engagement and is still a must-see for every young person setting out on his or her own.

The story is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s Greek novel, Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorba (1946), the 1952 English version of which was titled, Zorba the Greek. The screenplay from writer-director-editor Michael Cacoyannis is a bit different from the novel, and I think the changes made improve the telling.  Nevertheless, as was the case with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), whose production also had to convert a first-person authorial perspective into the concrete imagery of film and thereby made similarly significant changes, I again recommend both reading the novel and seeing the film.  Despite their somewhat differing perspectives, both the texts and the films have valuable things to offer.

The film’s plot concerns a thirty-something writer, Basil (Alan Bates) [1], who comes to the island of Crete to look after his recently gained inheritance: an abandoned lignite mind on the island.  He meets and hires a Greek peasant, Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn), to assist him with these matters, and the rest of the story concerns their activities on Crete over the better part of the ensuing year.  Along the way there are four narrative threads that are followed over the course of the story:
  • The quest of making something economically sustainable out of Basil’s inheritance
  • The amorous relationships of Zorba
  • The amorous relationship of Basil
  • Basil’s relationship with Zorba and how it affects his outlook on life.
In fact it is the last narrative thread that is the most significant.  In the novel, emphasis is made on the idea that Basil is going through a spiritual crisis.  He turned away from Orthodox Christianity, has been seriously exploring Buddhism, and now finds himself stuck in a mental block.  In the film this spiritual crisis goes unmentioned: the author is simply said to be suffering from “writer’s block”.  But in both cases It is through his relationship with Zorba that he begins to see another perspective on things.

The narrative goes through roughly five stages of development.

1.  Arrival
While Basil is waiting for a ship to take him from Greece over to Crete, Zorba approaches him seeking employment.  Zorba is rough-hewn peasant, perhaps in his fifties, who says he is a musician and can do all sorts of jobs. Basil is bookish and refined, Zorba is the opposite – extroverted and boastful.  They make the crossing in rough seas and find their way to an impoverished Cretan village near Basil’s abandoned lignite mine. There they are joyfully welcomed by all the locals, and they go on to make arrangements to stay in the local “Ritz” hotel run by an eccentric old French lady, Hortense (Lila Kadrova).  At a local café, Zorba and Basil see that a beautiful and lone Widow (Irene Pappas) spurns the amorous advances of senior village figures’s infatuated son, Pavlo, and that she is also the object of the all local peasants’ lustful and resentful gazes.

By the end of this section all four narrative threads are operative, with Zorba evidently pursuing Hortense’s affections and emphatically suggesting that Basil seek similar favors from the Widow.

2.  Settling in
Zorba and Basil get more acquainted with each other as they attend to the lignite mine.  In particular, Basil learns about Zorba’s need to express himself through dance and his passionate engagement with the living here-and-now.

The mine is very much run down, with decaying wood beams making it regularly subject to cave ins.  Zorba then comes up with the idea of getting the rights to the surrounding trees on the hillside that are owned by the local monastery.  With wood from the trees, they can refurbish the mine and sell the rest as timber.  Zorba goes to the monastery to negotiate, and although Kazantzakis’s cynical views of the Orthodox Church are largely cut out of the film script, there is sufficient material here to see that Zorba views the monks as superstitious and corrupt fools who can be seduced with wine.

During this section of the story, Zorba continues his affair with Madame Hortense.  Meanwhile the reticent Basil is evidently attracted to the Widow but too shy to act.  When Zorba urges Basil to act, Basil says he doesn’t want to make trouble.  But Zorba responds by saying.
“Boss, life is trouble. Only death is not.
 To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
3.  Romancing the ladies
Basil is worried about lack of progress with the mine and his declining funds, so he sends Zorba on a trip to a nearby commercial town to acquire some provisions for their timber venture, which will involve a trolley wire structure to transport logs down the hillside.  When Basil is angered by receiving a message from Zorba boasting of his sexual exploits with a prostitute in the commercial town, he decides to punish Zorba by telling Hortense the lie that Zorba intends to marry her.  Meanwhile Basil finally summons up the courage to go to the Widow’s residence and spends a the night in her arms.  However, Pavlo learns of their tryst and commits suicide.

4.  Dead end
When the Widow attempts to attend the church Easter ceremony, she is blocked by Pavlo’s father and forced out into the courtyard, where a venomous crowd has gathered to stone her for her “immorality”. Basil is unable to stop them, but Zorba arrives just in time to prevent a local village thug from knifing the Widow.  However, when they attempt to leave the scene together, Pavlo’s father runs up and slits the Widow’s throat.  The crowd quickly disperses, and Zorba and Basil are left to stare at the slain woman on the ground.

Later, Hortense, now more frail and suffering from some consumptive illness, presses Zorba about his supposed marriage promise.  Zorba relents and they holds a private ceremony exchanging vows under the stars, with only Basil (and God) as witness.  But Hortense’s illness worsens, and spying village crones rush around saying that the foreigner is dying and that since she has no legal heir, they should all grab her belongings before the government confiscates them.  With Hortense still alive, the villagers, mostly women, surround her house like scavengers and begin stripping everything.  Hortense dies in Zorba’s arms, as the cackling ladies swarm into the hotel and grab everything that is movable. 
   
5. Timber trolley
With the romantic quests disastrously terminated, there is still the possibility of realizing Zorba’s ambitious plan of harvesting the timber from the hillside forest.  The villagers and the monks gather for a ceremonial inauguration of Zorba’s now constructed trolley wire for timber transport.  The local bishops gives his blessing and successive logs are sent hurtling down the hillside transport wire.  But Zorba’s system was badly designed, and after only three logs, the entire structure is destroyed, sending everyone scurrying for cover.

With all their hopes and plans at an end and Basil’s funds exhausted, Zorba and Basil stare at each amidst the ruins.  It can be seen that despite all the disappointments, Basil has become a changed man – now more resigned to dealing with things as they come and hence more Zorba-like.  Zorba knows that Basil now must return to England and his old life, but he is delighted to hear Basil’s final request – “teach me to dance, will you?”
Although much of the philosophical and religious speculation in the novel has been removed from the film script, the movie does convey the most essential element, perhaps even better and more vividly than Kazantzakis’s prose does -- the unquenchable spirit of Alexis Zorba.

Of course, free spirits like Zorba are always seen in the social milieu that tries to restrain them, and the movie here effectively portrays that social context and issues associated with it.  One cultural theme concerns the position of women.  In the Cretan village society shown in Zorba the Greek (and similar to many traditional societies), the men are obsessed with “face” and the felt need to demonstrate a dominant will.  The easiest target for them to dominate is women, and the social mores almost encourage hostility towards them.  But what could be more unbearable to them than the presence of the defiant and indomitable figure of the Widow? Irene Pappas’s performance here, almost without the benefit of any dialogue, is electric; her smoldering glances and watchful, impassioned demeanor are almost the perfect exemplar of a dark-eyed Aryan beauty.  To the men in the village, she is poison and the embodiment of all their impotent frustrations.  They cannot tolerate her continued existence. The French woman Hortense, on the other hand, is the complete outsider [2].  She is not even a woman to the local villagers; she is just someone to laugh at and to rob.  In the end, because as Zorba remarks she “crossed herself with four fingers” (was not Orthodox), she was not even worthy of a funeral. In contrast, although Zorba was not exactly the apotheosis of feminism, he was much more empathetic towards women.  As he remarked to Basil:
"And as for women, you make fun of me that I love them. How can I not love them? They are such poor weak creatures... they take so little. . . . and they give you all they got.”

Yet the villagers are not simply cast as brutes. Through Walter Lassally’s expressive cinematography and the melodic instrumental folk music of Mikis Theodorakis, the village life is presented as rich and full of the joys and woes of life.  For the most part, Zorba and Basil are part of and take part in their world.

In the context of this traditional society and its sometimes stifling traditions, we have Zorba’s spirited existential expressiveness. Over time he has learned to turn away from the social traditions that suppress people. At one point in the film, Basil chides Zorba about his lack of patriotism. Zorba disgustedly responds by telling him what patriotism taught him to do:
“I have done things for my country that would make your hair stand on end. I have killed, burned villages, and raped women”
Now, he says, he takes people for what they are, not what they represent or what uniform they wear. 

Throughout the film Zorba tries to relate to people in ways that are meaningful to them.  When he meets Hortense, he speaks to her in an engaged, sympathetic fashion. In contrast, Basil holds back in reserve and smirks at her unstylish behavior. In fact Zorba  generally chooses to plunge directly into the goings on that are right in front of him. Indeed, Zorba’s immersion in the vitality of life, itself, is symbolized by the fact that when Hortense dies, he returns to her room to retrieve the one living thing that remained there – her caged parrot.  Similarly, when at the end of the film Zorba’s timber trolley construction is destroyed, he again rushes to save Hortense’s parrot.  For him, life in all its forms is to be treasured.  At the end, the two of them have the following exchange:
Zorba: “Damn it Boss, I like you too much not to say it. You've got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else...
Basil: “Or else?”

Zorba: “...He never dares cut the rope and be free.”
In contrast to Buddhism’s ego-denying nihilism, Zorba always immerses himself passionately in the living moment, which is exemplified by music and dancing.  Those two modes of being represent the two choices for Basil, and in the end he chooses Zorba’s path.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. To adjust to the UK-Greek co-production and the performance of  Englishman Alan Bates, the ethnicity of the writer is altered somewhat.  While Kazantzakis’s unnamed narrator was Greek, the film’s protagonist is said to be half-English and half-Greek.  This actually has a positive result, because it makes Basil even more of an outsider to the Cretan local community.
  2. In the novel, the narrator was Greek, not half-English, so Hortense was the only real “foreigner”.

“Memento” - Christopher Nolan (2000)

Memento (2000) was the film that vaulted Christopher Nolan to international attention, and despite subsequent successes, such as the Batman series (2005, 2008, & 2012) and Inception (2010), it remains his most significant work.  In fact from the outset Memento attracted a cult following because of its bizarre narrative structure.  Some people saw the nonlinear plot structure as a mere gimmick, while others felt it raised profound questions concerning personal identity, paranoia, and the nature of memory.

Nolan fashioned the screenplay from a short story, “Memento Mori”, written by his brother Jonathon, and it tells the story of a man’s personal quest to find and kill a man who raped and murdered his wife.  This is classic film noir material, but in an extreme form.  In a typical film noir:
  • The protagonist wishes to forget his past and has no long-term future.  
  • The “truth” is hard to find – the world is dark and obscure.
  • There are few people that the protagonist can trust.  Those with whom he associates may be dissembling and working against him.
In Memento these problems are taken to the limit.  The protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), suffers from short-term memory loss (anterograde amnesia), so the immediate past is lost to his mind. Consequently he continually must mentally construct his past and arrive at an up-to-date understanding what is “true” in the world.  This is confounded by the fact that since Shelby can’t remember recent things, people can lie to him and he will forget that they are liars. The film’s narrative structure attempts to put the viewer into Shelby’s mental framework by showing much of the story in reverse order.

Actually, the plot, which takes place over a couple of days, has a well-ordered structure.  There are 22 short scenes shown in color, each of which is separated by a brief scene shown in black-and-white. Although within each color scene events mostly take place in normal chronological order, the separated color scenes, themselves, are ordered in reverse chronological order – so that the last shots of a particular color scene will match the first shots of the preceding color scene that appeared to the viewer. The intervening black-and-white (b/w) scenes, however, are collectively ordered in normal chronological order. 

As with any film, the viewer must construct a fabula (the world model of what has happened) out of the syuzhet (the scenes as presented).  Usually, this involves simple "filling-in-the-blanks" sequences that the viewer assumes must have taken place off screen. But in the case ofMemento, the viewer has a far more arduous task of constructing the fabula.  After awhile, though, it becomes clear to the viewer that all the b/w scenes take place before the events shown in any of the color scenes. Following what now seems to be a convention, we can then label the color scenes as they would be ordered in a chronological sequence with alphabetic characters (A - V) and the b/w scenes similarly with numbers (1 - 22) [1,2]. Since scene 22 is merged with scene A, it is labeled “22/A”.  So the correct fabula ordering should be: (1, 2, . . 21, 22/A, B, C, . . V). However, since the color scenes are presented in the syuzhet in reversed order, then the ordering sequences of the scenes actually presented on film to the viewer is: (1,V,2,U,3,T, . . . 21,B,22/A).  Things are made even more complicated by the fact that within some of the  color and black-and-white scenes there are additional flashbacks (usually associated with periods before the rape incident when Leonard’s memory was intact). 

The film’s scene ordering puts the viewer in a position somewhat like that of the protagonist, Leonard Shelby.  With each color episode, neither the viewer nor Leonard has a recollection of what came before and must construct a fabula model based on what is presented here and now.  Leonard tries to deal with his problem of soon forgetting what happens by writing notes to himself and taking Polaroid snapshots of things around him.  Since he has learned to be distrustful of the ephemerality of any written artifacts (they could be lost or altered), he has the most important facts he wants to remember tattooed to his body. 

However, the viewer is involved in an additional task: with each color episode presented, the fabula model of the previously seen (and hence later in the story) scene may have to be reorganized in the viewer’s mind. Thus after seeing color scene F, the viewer must reinterpret what happened in scene G, which was presented earlier, but which comes later chronologically.  This memory reorganization option is something that the viewer has but not Leonard, because Leonard has no memory of these things to reorganize (although he can edit some of his notes).  It is all made more complicated by the fact that there are (at least) two unreliable characters feeding Leonard misinformation. A barmaid, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a cop, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), both lie to Leonard, knowing that he will soon forget their lies and that they can tell him completely different things later. So they use their lies to get Leonard to commit murders for their own nefarious purposes by making Leonard believe each time that their designated murder targets are really his wife’s killer.

All of this fabula construction may seem like just a teasing gameplay for the viewer, but it points to a philosophical theme that lies at the heart of the film.  Philosophers, notably John Locke, have argued that our very identity is based on our memories.  If all the memories in your mind were to be completely replaced by a different set of memories, then your essence as a person would be changed – you would fundamentally be a different person.  But other philosophers have argued differently, saying that all that really counts is psychological continuity.  If all your memories were to be gradually replaced, little by little, then you might not have any memories that you had ten years ago, but given the continuity of psychological existence, you would still be the same person [3].  Both of these theories are essentially Objectivist: there is an objective world out there that can be understood scientifically, and a person’s identity can be based on some objective measure associated with his or her memories (whether based on the static record or on connective continuity). 

Leonard Shelby in Memento is an Objectivist, too.  He believes that he can overcome his short-term memory problems by scientifically recording what is happening in the real world and updating his real-world model. As he says at one point, “I have to believe that when I close my eyes, the world’s still there.”  But there is another way of looking at the world, that I call “Interactionist”, which is based on a interactive narrative construction of reality. From this perspective, narrative construction is not just a useful tool, like a notebook; in fact it is an essential operation to our self-understanding. Cognitive scientists like Roger Schank [4]  and Jerome Bruner [5] have argued that narrative is a fundamental mode of the mind.  They base their ideas on the notion that the narrative form is inevitably the way we structure what has happened to others and to ourselves.  Of course, this introduces problems of authenticity.  The listeners of our story will interpret it and perhaps restructure it in their own minds so that it fits better with their own thinking and experiences.  Thus our story is likely to be passed on to others in an altered form.  This has given rise to a certain misconception that because narrative inevitably entails fabrication; we should be objective and just “stick to the facts”. Leonard is reminded by people around him of this problem of subjectivity:

“So you lie to yourself to be happy.  We all do it.” 
“You don’t want the truth.  You make up your own truth.”

But he doesn’t fall to this pessimism.  He feels he can find the objective truth.

Nevertheless, narrative construction is inescapable, and our understanding of what has happened around us, and even who we are, is inevitably structured into a narrative form [6].  These narratives, of course, are interlinked and embedded within higher-order narratives.  As we go about our daily lives, we are continually constructing new narratives and restructuring and rearranging existing, stored narratives in our minds to maintain a narrative representation of reality. 

This brings us to another problematic aspect of Memento’s narrative – its backstory.  These are the events that took place before the rape/murder of his wife, a period which Leonard is supposedly still ("now") able to remember perfectly well.  Throughout much of the black-and-white sequences of the film, Leonard is on the telephone talking to someone (Teddy, we later presume) about things that happened before the rape/murder.  He was an insurance investigator and had to evaluate the claim of a man, Sammy Jankis, who suffered from anterograde amnesia after a traumatic accident.  Leonard reports that at that time, he denied Jankis’s claim, because he believed that the problem Jankis was suffering from was psychological, not physical.  For the Objectivist Leonard, only physical problems are objectively real – psychological problems belong to a malleable world of conjecture and distortion.  In fact Leonard says that he has heard that people with anterograde amnesia might be able to inject false memories into their minds by means of some sort of repetitive “conditioning” process.  Given Leonard’s denial of the insurance claim, Sammy’s wife, Harriet, who suffered from diabetes, found living with Sammy's condition unbearable and decided to test whether Sammy was really faking it.  So she asked him to inject her with insulin every fifteen minutes.  If he were truly afflicted with anterograde amnesia, then he would keep forgetting his previous injections and give his wife a lethal overdose. This is indeed what happened, and Sammy Jankis unintentionally murdered his wife.

We viewers take this backstory to be true, because Leonard is presumably remembering things that are still intact in his long-term memory.  But by the end of the film, our fabula construction is thrown into disarray.  Although many things have been cleared up, we still have three possible theories about Leonard:

  1. Leonard’s wife was raped and killed, and Leonard suffered a traumatic blow to the head leaving him with anterograde amnesia.  He sets about trying to find his wife’s murderer with the dubious help of Teddy and Natalie.
  2. Leonard’s wife was raped, but not murdered.  Leonard still suffered the blow leading to anterograde amnesia.  He later killed his wife in the way told via the Sammy Jankis story. Leonard is then committed to an insane asylum but escapes prior to the beginning of the film. With repetitive-conditioning assistance from Teddy, Leonard makes up a false memory about Sammy Jankis and transfers the overdose murder account to Jankis and his wife.  He now (at the start of the film) “believes”  that his own wife was murdered in the rape event.
  3. Similar to theory 2, but Leonard is still in the insane asylum, and everything shown in the film is in Leonard’s imagination. In this connection there is a brief image of his wife examining his chest tattoo that reads, “I’VE DONE . . .” and that seems outside the realistic scope of what would be consistent with theories 1 and 2.
So at the end of the film, we realize that there is a third unreliable source of information: Leonard, himself.  Leonard knows that his mental condition will enable him to forget his own lies to himself, so he goes ahead and lies.

So how does all this work for us?  Are we doomed to have only the two following choices in understanding the world:
  • the hopelessly difficult task of constructing a scientific understanding of everything (which has been advocated by the Modernists, but which doesn’t work for Leonard)?
  • the untrustworthy path of relying on presumably prejudicial personal narrative testimony (which has been deemed hopelessly subjective by the Postmodernists)?
No, there is another alternative.  Remember that I said above that our own narratives are interlinked and embedded within higher-order narratives. These are the narratives that we share in our community of acquaintances.  Together, all these conjoined and overlapping narratives need to be made as consistent and comprehensible as possible.  We need to engage in a shared community of understanding, empathy, and practice.

Consider religion. There are many disparate narratives on this subject that people follow, some relatively objective, others based on personal revelations of varying degrees of authority or credibility.  Because the topic covers the most profound aspects of our conscious existence, we have been unable to to come up with a single scientific model about the nature and meaning of our world. So we take into account and weigh multiple perspectives. There are inevitable contradictions when all our various schemes are lumped together, but we do not abandon the effort. Instead we are continually sharing, criticizing, and linking together these complicated narratives and trying to integrate them into something meaningful – even if it is not always perfectly consistent.

It is this third alternative, which involves compassion and the empathetic sharing of narratives, that helps make our existence meaningful.  Regrettably, this way or path is outside the  scope of Memento. Though the film is clever and skillfully executed, it is cold and lifeless; and despite its intricate plot structure, it doesn’t engage us at this level of empathetic and involved interaction. Memento bases its own model of identity on individual, static memory (Objectivism), not on narrative (Interactionism). In this connection Leonard is essentially a cipher; other than partially sharing his mental condition, we know nothing about him. Natalie and Teddy are more interesting, but nowhere in this bleak landscape is there a character with whom we can empathize. The film has taken noirish alienation a bit too far.


Notes:

  1. Andy Klein, “”Everything You Wanted to Know About ‘Memento’”, Salon, 29 June 2001, http://www.salon.com/2001/06/28/memento_analysis/.
  2. “Memento (film)”, Wikipedia, (accessed 31 March 2013), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_%28film%29.
  3. Basil Smith, “John Locke, Personal Identity and Memento”, (2006), Southern Humanities Review, vol 40, no. 4, pp. 313-326.
  4. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory)  (1990), Northwestern.
  5. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press.