Monday, December 11, 2017

The Other Side of Hope

The whole project of the so-called art cinema, which can represent anything from the French New Wave of the 50’s and 60’s to Bergman, Italian neo-realism and the films of directors like Wenders and Haneke today can make one question why one goes to the movies in the first place. Is a film like Amour, about a dying old woman, really enjoyable or even enlightening? Is the experience of watching Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest entertaining or is it merely a kind of esthetic workout—with pleasure deriving from the edification or creation of a certain sensibility? Certainly many films in the canon of so-called high art cinema are an acquired taste.The Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope, currently completing a run at Film Forum, exemplifies this problem. With it’s title and an opening shot of a soot faced Syrian refugee (a survivor of the destruction of Aleppo) escaping from a ship’s hold it almost seems like a parody of art cinema. Furthermore if the scene of Finnish culture that unfolds is any reflection of life in that land, you might opt for Norway, Denmark or Sweden--unless you’re interested in penal colonies of which Finland boasts some of the most advanced. However, even given the grim scenario, The Other Side of Hope presents a countervailingly challenging narrative strategy, a cocktail of existential and esthetic issues (the Syrian refugee crisis viewed in the context of aleatory action) that make you come away with at the very least an admiration for the filmmaker’s intellect. The Other Side of Hope presents an almost surrealist premise in presenting two seemingly incongruous characters, a businessman named Waldemar Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) who's trying to reinvent himself as restaurateur and the refugee, Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), who gratuitously cross paths. Khaled has fled Syria by way of Turkey and Greece and is in danger of being deported back to his country. His object is to find his sister Miriam. There are little kindnesses in the film amongst them Waldemar’s sympathy for Khaled, a ton of sly wit and satire in otherwise improbable situations (one of the most laudable aspects of the production) and lots of evil (the local skinhead population doesn’t take kindly to the influx of strangers who they sometimes mistake for Jews). However, the universe that Kaurismaki creates is fundamentally indifferent. Even when there’s good news, nothing particularly good happens. Ingmar Bergman’s films were dark and challenging but cathartically enjoyable. The Other Side of Hope is competitive with the Swedish director’s despair and yet is steadfast in its refusal not just in offering hope, but solace too.

Friday, December 8, 2017


Watch out for the sarcastic individual. Behind the skeptical seeming exterior lies a romantic and even striving sensibility that's in danger of breaking out. Sarcasm is like the seeming obedience of an oppressed population. You know the kinds of people who love to make little cutting remarks about everyone else’s life, but seem to have few ideas or passions of their own. Such sarcasm is a perfect defense for those who feel their appetites won’t be satiated. More than that it's the perfect protection for those who fear that their grandiose subterranean wishes will be the recipient of a swift rebuke. The sarcastic individual carries a chip on his or her shoulder, but it’s not the result of the fact that they're ready to lead the charge with their colorful peacock’s feather flying. It’s that somehow they're deprived of certain entitlements of which others freely partake. What other default mode is left to them then to make little snarky quips, when if they really tried to put themselves in the batter’s box, they’d surely strike out. Moliere’s Alceste in The Misanthrope is a famously sarcastic character. However, his view of womankind is fashioned by Celimene, a notorious flirt, who has no ethics or standards, and lives to pull the carpet out from under her suitors. Though he’s sarcastic, he’s always on the verge of revealing a vulnerability that would only confirm his negative view of humanity.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Who Is Kim Jong-un's Optometrist?

image: The LoneOptom
Who is Kim Jong-un’s optometrist? It’s a question that has been asked both by intelligence agencies and stylists around the world. We know about Mao suits, the Stalin era overcoats and especially the hairdo, but it's the glasses that give Kim Jong-un a particular distinction (his black frames are similar to the ones worn by Nelson Rockefeller). Most people don’t realize that Stalin was short like Hitler and Napoleon for that matter and neither Hitler, Stalin nor Napoleon sported glasses. Spectacles like the ones that the Korean leader wears weren’t even made back during those long winters in 1812 and l943 when invading armies were defeated by the Russian winter. But there's no doubt that Kim Jong-un’s stature is coming up in the world. When he wears the glasses he almost looks like a Korean Mister Rogers as he peers genially over his babies. Kim Jong-un has the most pleasant avuncular expression on his face when he stands over a bomb; he's never threatening and whoever writes his responses to Trump’s tweets (particularly the one where Trump was called a “dotard”) has the arcane sound of Victorian age Oxford don. As the Times recently reported there are cute little names for his ICBM’s ("North Korea's New Missile is Bigger and More Powerful, Photos Suggest,"NYT, 11/30/17), Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and most recently Hwasong-15—this last deemed to have the capability of hitting the East Coast of the U.S. You begin to buy the notion of the North Korean dynasty as a way of life unless, of course, you're a reviled sibling name Kim Jong-nam who doesn't have enough time to administer the atropine, the antidote to the VX nerve agent that killed him in a Malaysian airport ("Kim Jong-nam Carried the Antidote to the Poison that Killed Him,NPR, 12/1/17).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget famously wrote about the stages of cognitive development and Freud described the anal and oral stages of infant and childhood psychosexuality, amongst others. The latter is a concept that still continues to raise eyebrows in a schizophrenic culture where increasingly permissive mores have ignited the deep-rooted puritanism that has always been an undercurrent in American life. Human development, of course, ends with death, which has its own protocols. Both Kenneth Nuland and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote books with the titles How We Die and On Death and Dying. But between the stages of early development and the closing act which Shakespeare’s Jaques describes so eloquently in As You Like It (“Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion: Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), lies a large spans of time and possibility. Fifty Shades of Gray, the title of an erotic romance, is also a good description of the fine shadings that accompany senescence. “Do not go gentle into that good night” urges Dylan Thomas. In fact hardly anybody departs this world without following Thomas’s words to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The end seems so near at some points, but can actually feel protracted, long and almost boring. However, few people have the courage or desire to want to pull down the curtain on their own performance even when they’ve said their piece and have plainly overstayed their welcome.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

War Games?

There’s the experience of war itself that ranges from the unspeakable to Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front and Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night and more recently Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato amongst others. And then there are the famous treatises beginning with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War dating from the 5th Century B.C. and a perennial favorite of martial artists and leading up to Clausewitz's On War. Clausewitz remarked, "War is diplomacy by other means.” But being prepared for war is a little like trying to predict the outcome of an operation. No act of reason can truly anticipate the outcome of this insult to the body of civilization. Some people have serious surgeries and emerge almost as good as new and others go into the hospital for a simple surgery and emerge feet first. The European body politic was never the same after the First World War, with its enormous casualties that knocked out whole generations of British citizens and led to the economic ruin of Germany where old news footage of the Weimar Republic shows inflation reaching the point where money was transported in wheel barrows. Some populations are resilient, and others never fully recover from their defeats. How does historical memory cope with the atrocities of the Japanese siege of Nanking, the bombing of Dresden or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”