June 13, 2005
I have seen the future, and I don’t want to go there.
- Jim Hightower
“Are you sad because you’ve grown older?” asks Grandma Eckdahl of her late-in-life lover Isak, in Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander.” “I’m certainly not,” he replies. “Everything’s getting worse. Worse people, worse machines, worse war…and worse weather.”
Offhand I can’t think of four things that have gotten better. I know they’re out there, but they escape me at the moment. Some improvements, like cars or computers, made things both better and worse. They made life easier and more convenient, and also created brand new arenas of toxic waste. And the human race itself? You could certainly make solid arguments in both camps.
In advance of seeing “The Aviator” I took a look at Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels,” his 1930 film that took three years and three pilots’ lives in the making. (“The Aviator” is a brilliant film tarnished only by Leonardo DiCaprio’s perpetually looking like a 12-year old boy. Bulk up those pencil-thin arms of yours, loverboy! They’re called biceps, babeget yourself a pair.)
“Hell’s Angels” is the WWI tale of high-minded, idealistic Roy Rutledge and his devil-may-care playboy brother Monte. James Hall as Roy delivers his dialogue in a stentorian, distinctly enunciated manner that makes everything sound like an announcement, but I still find him effective as the no-nonsense older brother with a poker up his ass. Helen (Jean Harlow) is the woman Roy puts on a pedestal; his brother Monte takes her down. She’s the only person I’ve ever heard pronounce “Roy” as two syllables. Erich von Stroheim’s Capt. von Rauffenstein in “La Grande Illusion” (1937) may owe a debt to Lucien Prival’s performance as Baron von Krantz, both of them playing gentleman-officers who would not think of treating their enemies with anything less than respect.
Though I wouldn’t put it on a level with Renoir’s masterpiece or Sergey Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” (1968), two of the greatest of films that examine the effects of war on the individual (is there any scene in cinema more poignant than Dita Parlo in “La Grande Illusion” pointing at her large, empty table with none of her men folk left to sit at it?)there’s a lot to be impressed by in “Hell’s Angels,” despite the lousy acting. Its emotional truth and humanity, shown often in small details, were compelling, and the ending blew me away.
That the film took so long in production that talkies were introduced during the making of it, was a lucky development for Hughes, because the incessant, ominous droning of the German dirigible is veritably its own character. “Hell’s Angels” contains some of the most arresting footage I’ve ever seena duel at dawn under a spreading tree silhouetted against a lavender sky, the creepy first appearance of the dirigible emerging out of a billow of blue clouds. Hughes paints his WWI palette in black and white (ordinary civilian life), violet for passionate violence (the duel), green and red for a dance party (heightened reality), and for the pivotal dirigible battle scenes (impersonal violence)an icy cobalt blue, like the protracted twilight of flying west into the sunset, that I have long associated with death. This gauzy blue erupts into a vermillion fireball that fills the screen. There are harrowing scenes of courage and duty and the awful decisions soldiers have to make, as well as moving scenes of loyalty, sacrifice and heartbreak.
“WAR DOESN’T CHANGE PEOPLE…IT’S LIKE GETTING DRUNKIT BRINGS OUT WHAT PEOPLE REALLY ARE.” (Monte Rutledge)
I mention the film here because of the astounding antiwar outburst made by Monte when he gets called for Night Patrol, where “someone always gets it.” It could have been written today:
Oh I’ll get it sooner or laterwe’ll all get it. Isn’t there any end to this...I’m not yellow! I can see things as they are, that’s all, and I’m sick of this rotten business. You fools! Why do you let them kill you like this? What are you fighting for? Patriotism. Duty? Are you mad? Can’t you see they’re just words? Words coined by politicians and profiteers to trick you into fighting for them! What’s a word compared with life, the only life you’ve got? I’ll give them a word: MURDER! That’s what this dirty rotten politician’s war is! Murderyou know it as well as I do. Yellow, am I? You’re the ones that are yellow! I’ve got guts and say what I thinkyou’re afraid to say it, so afraid of being called yellow that you’d rather be killed first! You fools! You…stupid fools!
Jean Renoir made the following commentary to accompany a re-release of “La Grande Illusion.” He remarked that we might find it odd to see English and French prisoners being friendly with German officers.
In 1914 there was no Hitler. In 1914 the Nazis hadn’t spoiled yet the spirit of the world. May I say that to a certain extent, the war of 1914 was almost a war of gentlemen…“La Grande Illusion” is a story about people like you, or like me, caught in this horrible tragedy named the war. But it is also a story about human relationship and I’m convinced that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say goodbye to our beautiful world…It is doubtful whether civilization will survive its present madness, but if our species does not wholly disappear, and if historians still exist a few centuries hence, they will be able to divide the chronicle of our times into two stages: before and after 1914.
Renoir’s mission as a filmmaker was “to express the common humanity of man,” as beautifully illustrated by the Germans’ treatment of the prisoners of war. Erich von Stroheim as Rauffenstein tells his staff, “I just shot down a Caudron fighter. If they’re officers, invite them for lunch.” And greeting them, “I am honored to have French guests,” he says, pulling their chairs out and seating them. They had even made a funeral wreath for a French pilot that had been killed. “To Captain de Crussol, French Flying Corps, shot down in flames, from the officers of the German 21st Squadron.” The wreath “is a mark of respect that binds every man at the table, French and German alike,” says the commentator on the Criterion DVD, “for flying is their profession, even if they are, temporarily, enemies.” Von Rauffenstein offers a prayer, followed by a moment of silence: “May the earth lie lightly on our valiant enemy.”
Can you imagine George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld ever saying anything like that?
How about this exchange between the wonderful Pierre Fresnay as Captain de Boeldieu and a German officer who is frisking him:
I can’t resist including this still of Boeldieu I shot off the TV.
We all know WWI was billed as “The War to End All Wars” and we all know it was not and did not. In that war, it is estimated that 10 million people were killed in battle in 16 countries and 20 million more were wounded. Why? What result w as worthy of this carnage?
There’s a moment of sick realization by George, the time traveler, in George Pal’s 1960 movie of Wells’ “The Time Machine.” The movie begins in England on the eve of the 20th century, with Britain into the Second (South African) Boer War. George tells his friend Filby, “I don’t much care for the time I was born into. It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days; they call upon science to invent new, more efficient weapons to depopulate the earth.” George travels cautiously and tentatively some years into the future, and when his windows become boarded up in 1917 he stops to explore and discovers there is another war going on, with Germany. Disheartened that people are still warring, he moves further ahead, to 1940, and finds “the war with Germany was still waging, now in the air with flying machines, and then I realized the truth of the matter: this was a new war.”
Further into the future, his house disappears and he stops again in 1966 and is delighted by the “splendid achievements” and “gigantic strides” mankind has made, but an air raid siren is blaring and people are running, and George is warned to head for the shelter “or the mushrooms will be sprouting.” The “progress” has merely accelerated the means and the scope of killing each other, resulting in mass destruction and “the labor of centuries, gone in an instant.” George wants to escape to a future where mankind has evolved past its warring nature, and pushes his time-ometer all the way up to 80,2701. At first he thinks he is in another garden of Eden. Instead he finds that though centuries have passed, man has still not learned to live in peace without exploiting others.
IF GEORGE BUSH DID NOT EXIST, WOULD WE HAVE TO INVENT HIM?
So in humankind’s recent history, in the course of a little more than one century, several turning points have come and gone. For Renoir it was the First World War. For Dr. Helen Caldicott it is “the splitting of the atom (that) changed everything in the world.” I just heard David Meltzer say at City Lights the other night, that there were “two things that signed the death warrant to western civ”the bomb and the Holocaust. Now we have “before 9/11” and “after 9/11.”
In 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, Eugene O’Neill wrote to his son:
It is like acid always burning in my brain that the stupid butchering of the last war taught men nothing at all, that they sank back listlessly on the warm manure pile of the dead and went to sleep, indifferently bestowing custody of their future, their fate, into the hands of state departments, whose members are trained to be conspirators, card sharps, doublecrossers and secret betrayers of their own people; into the hands of the greedy capitalist ruling classes so stupid they could not even see when their own greed began devouring itself; in the hands of that most debased type of pimp, the politician, and that most craven of all lice and jobworshippers, the bureaucrats.
“We’ve got to end this damn war, and make it the last,” says Marichal at the end of “La Grande Illusion.” Don’t delude yourself,” Rosenthal counters. It is a grand illusion to think any war will be the last. War itself “is a great illusion”, said Renoir, “with its hopes unfulfilled, its promises never kept.” The vast expanse of snow at the end of the film, with its invisible border between Germany and Switzerland, shows dramatically that “the border is really only man-made;” says the DVD commentator, “there’s no difference between that valley and this hillside. It’s another of life’s great illusionsthe boundaries that artificially separate peoples.”
Is George Bush merely today’s tool for humanity’s death wish, just a variation on the theme? Will humanity ever learn?
Not according to Peter Beard.
I THOUGHT I WAS AN OBSESSIVE DIARIST
one who, in my twenties, never missed a day’s entrynot a one (though admittedly some were illegibly drunken scrawls)until years ago I saw a picture in Vanity Fair of Peter Beard writing in his journal while sticking out of a crocodile. I admit to keeping men waiting in bed while I in another room composed my daily entry because I knew the night was shot for writing, but I do believe if I were in the maw of a croc, I would get out of there first, fast. Then I would write about it. “It was just one leg,” he would tell me. “But still.” “It was only a leg!” he reiterated. Oh, well, all right then.
Beard is a Yale graduate, writer and photographer who describes his career as “escapism through collage, books, diaries and anthropology.” Peter Beard has been around and seen it all. He first went to Kenya in 1955 (with Charles Darwin’s great grandson no less) and later settled there and established Hog Ranch. He saw Kenya’s population rise from 5 million to 30 million, and documented the decline of natural habitat and the plight of elephants and crocodiles. He has lived his life in tune with the natural environment and how animals and people function in relation to each other. So when I went to see him read from his latest book Zara’s Tales at Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books last December, I knew he would not have much good to say about man’s treatment of nature, but I was surprised at the vitriol with which he delineated the “horribleness of our species.” At the same time the disgust was mixed with a sort of wistful resignation. We have painted ourselves into a corner and whatever feeble attempts we are now making to reverse the damage are “too little, too late.”
We have the “reverse Midas touch: whatever we touch, we spoil.” “Wherever we go, we botch it.” We have “buggered it big time.” “We’re a moment in time and a dangerous moment.” We are “enemies of the global habitat.” We have advanced “the galloping rot.” Not surprising, considering the horribleness of our species.
Have we had it as a species? someone asks. Is the end indeed near? Beard’s surprising answer is No. “We will adapt to the changes we are causing. We will lose quality of life and live on, like cockroaches.” The Angel of Angels in America says, “Before life on earth becomes finally merely impossible, it will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.” What a horrible curse upon mankind! But who has cursed us if not ourselves? Without stopping to think, ask yourself: is humanity more cursed than blessed? BLESSED leaps to my mind. Being blessed, however, does not depend upon one’s knowing one is blessed; our blessed human race may be thinking and acting as though it were cursed. Beard says people are unable to accept two basic truths about mankind: we are tribal, and we are territorial. We want to consort with our own kind, and have a clearly defined homeland in which to do it.
Beard was an all-American fox as a young man and in his 60’s has the rugged, rough-hewn visage I might expect of a plains farmer who has spent his life outdoors. Yet he easily fraternizes with the glitterati, includes fashion shoots among his oeuvre, and was married to supermodel Cheryl Tiegs for a while. Give me a man who can go from the maw of a croc on the African veldt to tuxedos in Manhattan without blinking (perhaps because his grandfather, Pierre Lorillard, invented the tuxedo).
After the talk, Beard gave more one-on-one time to fans waiting for his autograph than any author I’ve ever heard read. The line stretched on for well over an hour, Beard exhorting people to sit down and relax. At one point we’d been there so long and there were so many people left that he sent someone out to get a bottle of vodkaBeard already had his Clamato mixer in his briefcase. He created unique autographs using finger- and palm prints, smearing his hands with green stamp ink and gladly distributing his DNA in instantly collectible volumes.
I decided I’d rather have this famous diarist sign my own diary than his own book. Whereas mine plods along, as I describe it therein, in “strings of words marching into infinity in the same even penmanship,” Beard created a riot of color and energy on a 2-page spread, in the process lifting some of the paper off onto his hand.
God bless you, Mr. Greenhands. And I can’t BELIEVE that in all these years it never once occurred to me until I write these very words, that THE CROC WAS ALREADY DEAD! Well, duh.
WHAT WOULD I DO?
What is the solution to the warring nature of mankind? H.G. Wells would say, if you don’t like the world, you can change it. George’s friend Filby tells him “here we are and we have to make the best of it,” and George replies, “Maybe you do, but I don’t.” The time traveler not only found oppression in the far-off futurehe led a revolution to obliterate it. I suggest we, every one of us, but especially George Bush, start the day looking in the mirror and asking ourselves the question posed by Buckminster Fuller: “If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do…How would I be? What would I do?”
How we are and what we do are very much the cause of our own cursed state and perhaps our own cursed fate. For my own part, my lifestyle choices directly address two of the earth’s greatest problems: overpopulation and dependence on fossil fuel: no kids, no cars. That’s just me…children born in love are an act of faith that the world will be worth inhabiting. But at least I do not burden the world’s diminishing resources with my own exponentially expanding progeny. And it’s not everyoneit’s hardly anyonethat would sacrifice the convenience of having their own personal transport; I just always made sure I live in cities in the midst of the things that interest and sustain me, so there’s no need to drive there. I get to work in Berkeley by the Transbay bus.
Now and then the Green Party presents a screening of “The End of Suburbia,” the documentary about oil depletion, and I went to a panel discussion they had afterwards, where they solicited written questions from the audience. As soon as the moderator said, “I wasn’t going to read this one,” I knew he was talking about my question, which was to all the four panelists: “How did you get here tonight?” It’s a little beside the point to talk the talk about decreasing car dependency when you drove to the lecture to do so. The moderator took my challenge exactly the right way, though: that we have to start thinking about doing the things we take for granted differently. Start by thinking about it, and then start doing it differently.
Howard Zinn, in his lecture “Artists in a Time of War” said: “I am asking all of us to transcend what is coming at us on all sides. And to think carefully and clearly, for if we are all going to be herded into actions that are even more dangerous than we are facing now, then later we will regret that we went along silently and did not raise our voices as citizens to ask: How can we get at the roots of this problem? And what can we do about it? All of us can do something, can ask questions, can speak up. It’s the American thing, it’s the patriotic thing to do, to question, to ask, to rethink.”
Yes, we have no choice but to rethink how we do things, from how we get to work, to how many children we have, to how we deal with terrorists. We’re at a point now where everything either helps or hurts. I say, for a start: if you can do it without using a car, don’t use one.
Fuller: “Humanity has the option to become successful on our planet if we reorient world production away from weaponryfrom killingry to livingry. Can we convince humanity in time?”
That is the question, as to whether we will continue to be, or not be.
The author dedicates this column to
Short Attention Span Poetry Corner
Sown from indifference
War! Good God, y,all.