Thursday, November 06, 2014

Ponyo; Disgrace

I never want to do three movie posts in a row but I don't want to fall hopelessly behind and if I can only schlup together any kind of post every 2 weeks, well...of course it would seem as if I ought to be able to say whatever I want to say about these movies in a few short sentences. Perhaps I could get them down to that length, but not easily. Indeed, it would take me twice as long to do a posting. I did put up a new post at the Vacation blog yesterday. And here is a site of old photographs by the famous photographer Albert Kahn that I was referred to in something I read that I think might be something of interest to my imagined readership, friends, etc.

Ponyo (2009)

This is a Japanese cartoon. It is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who is a famous and esteemed maker of cartoons. Even though according to all the special features it takes hundreds, if not thousands of supremely talented people to bring cartoons to the screen, Miyazaki's is the controlling vision and the source of interest in this and other of his films, and as such the bulk of the glory falls on him.

Personally, after twelve years and counting of constantly having small children underfoot, I am very much cartoon and children's movied-out, so I could not get too much into this, though I can see where it would appeal to other people. It is set partly in the ocean and partly in an isolated Japanese coastal town where it rains all the time and there are lots of cargo ships. The human characters are all drawn with round eyes and childlike faces, in what I take to be a characteristic Japanese style, though they look as much English as they do Japanese. Ponyo is a fish who falls in love with a little boy and metamorphoses into a human. Her father has a human form, and a rather fantastic one, reminiscent of a late 1960s idea of an eccentric wizardlike character. He has long red hair and wears stiff suits with bright colors and stripes. He lives in a kind of underwater palace and goes to extreme and menacing lengths to bring Ponyo back. The American version has voiceovers by the likes of Tina Fey, Betty White, and Matt Damon. Like a lot of--maybe most?--Japanese art, the whole work is attended by a heavy atmosphere, and images that provoke strangely emotional responses even if one is not entirely engaged with them.

Overall it did not enthrall me however; whether this was due to its being aimed at children or its just being new and contemporary, and my inability to feel warmth for anything contemporary, I did not immediately discern. Though as I often like, or imagine I like, older children's movies, I suspect it is likely the latter.

Disgrace (2008)

Based on the novel by the very serious South African author (and Nobel Prize winner) J. M. Coetzee. While national boundaries and identities matter ever less and less for high level talent at least, I still find it of interest that this was primarily an Australian production, though it was filmed in South Africa, has a South African subject matter, and features an American star, John Malkovich. It's better than most movies I've seen that have come out in this new century. It has the advantage of being about a phenomenon that is large, obvious, and significant, that being the decline of Europeans and what remains of their culture, certainly in Africa, though perhaps by extension in the world as a whole, but what is unusual is that it is able to present this in a pretty straightforward, matter of fact way, without relying too heavily on ideology or emotion one way or the other, so that even while the plot is highly contrived, even formal, it feels natural, like a real story.

There is quite a bit of sexual symbolism, none of it flattering to Europeans, that is not especially subtle, to the extent that I imagine myself to be picking up on it. Malkovich starts out pretty robust. A professor of English literature specializing in the romantic poets, especially Byron, a devotee of European classical music who composes operas, whose house is furnished like the library at an exclusive London club and who seems only to indulge in the highest quality food and wine, he is about as stout a representative of the best of European culture as we can expect at this point. He takes a liking to one of his female students who appears to be of mixed African and European descent and goes after her with a surprising aggressiveness that is perhaps the one part of the story that feels off--who ever heard of a middle aged white guy, since about 1990 anyway, with any sexuality at all, let alone one that asserts itself so boldly and inconveniently to other people's prerogatives. He does not exactly rape the student so much as takes, or maybe leads her forcefully to bed--she does not exactly protest or resist his moves, and gets into his car and goes out to dinner and back to his house of her own volition, a weak one perhaps but not under any physical coercion or restraint that could not be contended against. She receives his European love with complete passivity and a lack of enthusiasm, and falls into a deep depression as a result of the affair. There is a scandal, Malkovich discovers, in what was apparently news to him, that he and his kind cannot get away with this kind of behavior anymore, and he is dismissed from the university and in effect exiled to the countryside to live with his lesbian daughter surrounded by a lot of black people.

Here the reality of the direction of things is illustrated much more starkly. With regard to fertility for example. All of the children who appear in the movie are black, and they are profuse in number. By contrast, the only fertile white woman, and white person of any sex under the age of fifty who appears in the movie is Malkovich's lesbian daughter. While the daughter shuns any contact with men in her own cultural community or whatever you want to call it and serves as a symbol of European sterility, she is raped by a trio of black teenagers, becomes pregnant, and ultimately comes to the determination to have the child and not to pursue criminal action against her rapists. She seems to be concerned about the prospect of overreaction on the part of white males, which would not be helpful, and perhaps more importantly, with whom she does not especially identify; though as it turned out there was little cause for worry on that front. The impression one gets in watching this movie, and indeed in reading about similar cases where white women are raped or violently attacked by non-white men and are apparently unable to feel as much anger or contempt towards their attackers as they do towards white guys, is that non-white men's being willing to press, insistently, the elemental fact of their own sexuality, and asserting their total independence of and indifference towards Western ideas and etiquette in such matters, is able to blow apart something in the elaborately constructed psyches and egos of the modern western women with regard to their sexual natures and forces a kind of acceptance of their own raw natural force in them that all but a few western men have apparently lost the ability to do. Malkovich's sexuality is downgraded into a tame and harmless form as well as the movie progresses, as he is reduced to afternoon sessions on the floor of the animal hospital with an overweight, post-menopausal woman of his own age whom he would not have considered when indulging confidently in his earlier Byronic persona.

I have not read the book, which sounds as if it is 'great' in the old sense of the word--that is to say, that the average university professor of 1950 would probably have been able to recognize it as a work of literature if it had been handed to him at the time--so the implications of the title probably apply to even more lives and situations and incidents and histories than are suggested in the movie. The weight of the word 'disgrace' however seems to fall pretty exclusively in this story on the Europeans. At least it is hard to see how it applies to and effects the African characters, here, to the same immediate degree, though I suppose they are the inheritors of a country and society that are not healthy, and that they are burdened with the hindrances this has placed on their various personal development. The baby that the raped daughter chooses to have I assume is supposed to be seen as illustrative of the movement of South African history, and the movie suggests that it may serve almost a cleansing purpose of sorts as history moves forward, though I have the sense that Coetzee is too serious and wary of declaring the eclipse of western power and ideas an unalloyed good (I have read some of his essays and critical writings) to take this simplistic and too neatly wrapped up stance.

I voted the other day, but the thrill was definitely gone, and to be honest, I found I did not care all that much who won, though I still had some worry that if the Republicans won and destroyed what was left of the country and I hadn't even bothered to vote, I would feel some guilt about that. Fortunately my children infused the process with some humor by repeating, innocently in most instances, and sometimes with their own malaprops, many of the more ridiculous ads and slogans ("Jeanne Shaheen fights with Barack Obama. Scott Brown fights with you"), which threw them into an absurd relief that made the whole process slightly less depressing.

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