Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?

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An excess of style (or is it anti-style?) overcooks the movie until it’s plenty gooey. The filmmakers put in an abundance, perhaps even an excess, of effort, but chose to engage only in the kind of work that doesn’t feel like work: the hours spent in an editing room with mutually congratulatory friends at play. Such efforts produce satire that doesn’t bite and comedy that doesn’t tickle.

 

Dont Look Back

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The other day I texted this to a friend:

“I really thought Dylan’s life was over. Until today I almost pitied his continued existence.”

She replied by asking which of our mutual acquaintances named Dylan I was talking about.

Dylan Thomas never won the Nobel Prize. Robert Zimmerman has yet to receive his comeuppance.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

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For Dr. Dann, whose kind words encouraged me to resume this blog.

This fever dream wrings the sweat out of  a question: What’s the difference between a gentle man and a gentleman? The English would-be gentleman struggles with how to be. The Japanese would-be gentleman struggles with how not to be. Such men are too ashamed to hope, too proud to fear, and too stubborn to know. The gentle man patiently endures the gentleman’s blows, wishing every day could be Christmas.

Eye in the Sky

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Where morality is rational utility maximization, the best moralists are machines. They can reduce the risk of collateral damage to a number: unexpected consequences are re-cast as improbable results. They even excel at the all-too-human skill of recognizing faces.

This is as gentle a take on drone warfare as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was on racial strife. We enjoy omniscience through constant cuts across continents from battlefield to command centers. The terrorists are ticking time bombs right out of the textbook, and everyone else has only the best intentions. Discussion up and down the military-civilian chain of command often resembles a spirited Introduction to Ethics seminar at a nice college or law school—a far cry from Dr. Strangelove’s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Come to think of it, the terrorists are the only people we don’t get to hear, though the two Brits and one American likely record their martyrdom videos in English.

The movie’s focus on one drone strike and one innocent little girl puts it at a bliss point, kind of like a Dorito. The scenario is messy enough to be exciting, yet tidy enough not to be disturbing. The whole story could’ve been told in under ten minutes, leaving plenty of time to see many more drone strikes and their human consequences, both for those who control the Predators and those who are incinerated by the Hellfires.

You’re primed to leave with your date discussing not what it’s like to be a citizen of a nation pursuing perpetual global robowar, but how to balance the Good of the One with the Good of the Many. Kind of like one of those vapid personality puzzlers on the website that matched you up.

 

Stromboli: Fear of Boredom

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And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. And he said unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.

Matthew 4:18-21

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Karin has fled Eastern Europe and wound up in an Italian refugee camp. Being Ingrid Bergman, she’s held on to a chic purse and a suitcase full of fine clothes. A bureaucratic soul right out of Kafka denies the undocumented damsel an exit visa. A fling with a hunk (Mario Vitale) in the adjacent soldiers’ camp blossoms into a a marriage of convenience: a home and papers for her, a beautiful wife for him, and some hope of genetic diversity for the small fishing village on the volcanic island of Stromboli.

The Italian version is called Stromboli: Terra di Dio (Land of God). The English version is just called Stromboli, but could also be called Stromboli: Fear of Boredom. Ennui is usually a lurking, lingering imbalance of humors, but Karin experiences it as a shock: both the island and its inhabitants immediately strike her as irredeemably backward and coarse. We never see a cinema, a radio, or even a delivery of mail. Life centers around the church, where the islanders pray for the saints to pray to God to sustain them from the sea and spare them from the volcano. The women regard the beautiful newcomer with a suspicion that appears indistinguishable from hostility.

Like Emma Bovary, Karin wants more. Though her situation is difficult, she’s clever enough to find a way out if she wants one. She stays because she’s weary, and seeks out the priest (Renzo Cesana) as the only other educated person on the island. Or does she stay because of her conscience and seek out the priest as a pastor?

How may she be consoled? She could be encouraged to be content with food on the table, a roof over her head, and a devoted husband—especially at a time when millions are suffering from world war and its aftermath. She could be reminded of the transience of diversion and the insatiability of desire. Such might be the advice of a pagan philosopher or of Dr. Johnson.

Another alternative could be the sour-grapes-intoxicated hedonism of Lorde:

And we’ll never be royals

It don’t run in our blood

That kind of luxe just ain’t for us

We crave a different kind of buzz

A Christian consolation, as offered by the priest and posited by the movie, would require her not just to accept her lot, but to transform her soul. She would have to recognize that her superiority of education, taste, and person does not make her a superior being. For beside, say, the Queen of Sheba, would she not be as common as the women of Stromboli? Christ, after all, was born of a woman betrothed to an itinerant carpenter, and chose a fisherman as the rock of his church. Despair is not only a choice, but an act of selfish rebellion against God. Prayer is not only the antidote, but also the antithesis of despair.

Every cinematic element, from the “neorealist” casting of non-actors, to the studied shot composition, to Renzo Rossellini’s contemplative score, supports the moral theme, and conveys both the couple’s and their neighbors’ discomfort, bewilderment, and faith.

Rossellini could be accused of hypocrisy for beginning an affair with Bergman (married with a child at the time) while making this movie. This isn’t, however, a case of “do as I say, not as I do,” because the movie doesn’t tell us to do anything. Moralizing is haughty and presumptuous. Telling a moral tale, as Rossellini does here (inspiring countless other filmmakers), is an act of faith not in a particular doctrine, but in the capacity of human beings to seek the good.