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“In America, you have the right to be stupid if you want to be”, said John Kerry, Obama’s new Secretary of State, in a recent speech to German students. It seems, however, that some are abusing the privilege, including members of the current American government. (The fiscal cliff comes to mind.)

Of course, Kerry was actually talking about the importance of free speech, and observing that even unpopular or wrong (“stupid”) views should be permitted, which is a valid point. (That is increasingly untrue, by the way — there are several politically incorrect facts that cannot be mentioned in contemporary discourse in America, and criticizing minorities in any way is strictly verboten, as the German students would say.)

Nevertheless, we can also take his words literally, and wonder up to what point American culture is promoting stupidity, in the phenomenon commonly known as “dumbing down”.  It is true that American pop culture has been leading the world in celebrating stupidity, and where American pop culture goes, global culture goes. We are all Americans now.

Be stupid“, orders us a recent international campaign for Diesel jeans — an Italian brand, but the ad was created by a New York agency. The message is clear: to be reckless and irrational in the search of cheap thrills is to be alive. This is pretty much the general message of the media, from reality shows to commercials.

There have been many American films celebrating stupidity, from “Dumb and Dumber” to “Jackass”. Even “Idiocracy”, while having an interesting opening that criticizes the demographic dumbing down of America, ends up becoming the same form of mindless entertainment that it purports to criticize.

“Forrest Gump” is perhaps a more interesting film. Here the dim-witted protagonist ends up as becoming a moral example, whereas the supposedly smart Jenny ends up joining hippies and dies of AIDS. The film can be seen as a criticism of the cultural revolution of the 60s, although it always bothered me a bit the fact that you’re supposed to see dumbness as the equivalent of moral good.

It is true that, in many cases, because of the leftism indoctrination in American Universities, to be “smart” and to have a diploma merely means to have a high degree of Marxist and progressive ideas inculcated in the brain. But it is also true that there is a stereotype in the USA that liberals are “smart” and culturally savvy, while conservatives are usually seen or portrayed as dumb hicks, clinging to guns and religion.

Of course, that is not really true. While conservatives might be less attuned to contemporary culture and many don’t “get” abstract art, liberals are in many cases just as ignorant of basic economics, such as the fact that money doesn’t grow in trees and you can’t just tax people to death to provide welfare for the non-productive. And, while progressives apparently seem to care a lot about Latino immigrants, their ignorance of Latin American culture and even geography is abysmal. They really see things through they parochial progressive eyes and think that everyone is the world is just like them.

However, what is is true is that there is a certain anti-intellectual bent in part of the American right, which is a pity. While this is understandable, since “intellectual” today in the U.S. usually means “leftist activist”, it seems to me that it is wrong to reject high culture and literacy, throwing the baby along with the water. What Americans should do is get rid of the politically correct claptrap that is currently being taught in the Humanities departments, and return to an education that values the Classics and the canonical works of Dead White Men, as Harold Bloom already argued in 1994 in “The Western Canon“.

We might have the right to be stupid, but it’s not an obligation.

“And this also”, said Marlowe, “has been one of the dark places of the Earth”.

So begins Marlowe’s narration in “Heart of Darkness”, referring to the fact that England, then at the top of its imperial powers, had centuries ago been a land of primitive barbarians, at least when compared to the lights of Rome.

I’m reminded of that because of the film “The Eagle”, which I just watched. The film is based in the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth”, which is a work of fiction, but inspired in historical events such as the rumoured disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion in Northern Britain. Now the story in itself is a bit implausible, and apparently the Ninth didn’t even disappear, but that’s not the point right now.

I touched the question of verisimilitude in historical movies a couple of posts ago, when I discussed “300”. Now I am grappling with the question again after I watched Kevin MacDonald’s film. Yes, the film is much more realist than “300”, at least in appearance. The Romans look like Romans, and the Britons… Well, here he seems to have taken some liberties, specially in his portrayal of the “People of the Seal”, which I believe are supposed to represent the Picts or early Scottish tribes.

Still, we are not talking here about realism, but verisimilitude. It is not important if it’s really accurate, but if the audience believes it to be so. Since I am pretty much ignorant on the subject (what? someone admitting his ignorance in the Internet??), I cannot judge how realistic the portrayal of the local tribes is, and the “People of the Seal” look a bit too much like mohicans to my mind. But at least they are more believable than the Persians in “300”.

All the Briton tribes speak Gaelic in the film, which adds a touch of apparent authenticity, although they wouldn’t speak Gaelic at that time. The Romans in the film, however, strangely enough do not speak Latin but modern American English. This is understandable, as modern audiences would expect it, and no one is as crazy as Mel Gibson. Still, it feels strange. Which would be a better way?

Well, watching the TV version of “Persuasion” (see below) we believe that we are in 1816 because of the way the actors speak. Now, I don’t think all people in England at that time were as witty and articulate as Jane Austen’s characters, but it does the trick. The same is true of Shakespeare adaptations, by the way, even though his language is highly artificial.

So I think that if the Romans in the movie spoke with a British accent, and perhaps in the manner of Austen or Dickensian characters, it would have worked much better.

Why do we seem to think that people in the past were more articulate? Well, maybe because they were. For instance, I watched the other day this excerpt of the 50s TV game show “What’s my line”, with Salvador Dali as a guest, and it was amazing to see how all the guests in the television program were well dressed, articulate, witty and polite. They can even speak in complete sentences! Compare it with any, and I mean really any, reality or game show currently on American television, and the difference is abyssal. Not to mention that today no one would even know who Salvador Dali was.

But back to the film: it’s not bad, but the American accent almost ruins it, although of course that was probably the intention — a lame comparison with the American Empire and all that. Yes, the US is Rome today, and it is falling at the hands of barbarians, but we all knew that already.

I watched a BBC version of the novel “Persuasion” the other day. It was not a great version, with a few ham actors and an apparently low budget, but still pretty watchable. I came out with a few conclusions.

– Jane Austen invented romantic comedies. Unfortunately, I hate romantic comedies with a passion. (Really, I jut can’t stand them. They usually repeat over and over the same stories in exactly the same order.). While I am sure that Austen’s books are much better than the typical Hollywood fare, I haven’t taken the time to read them yet.

– Status was very important in the anglo world of those days. Almost as much as it is today.

– We think society has changed, but it really hasn’t changed that much. Women still want rich husbands and men still want young beautiful women. The difference is that now that became harder to achieve, except for a few. But the higher classes still behave very similarly to the higher classes of that period. And they still hate those with lower status with a passion.

– Being 27 in 1816 was like being 37 today. Which is a relief, in some ways.

– While the main purpose of women seems to be to find a rich husband, men actually do have a life. Feminism didn’t change that, it just delayed it (see point above) so women now usually wait to get married in their 30s. Unfortunately fertility decreases with age.

– There was no Muslim immigration in England in those days.

– It rains a lot in Bath.

I apologize to my three readers for the lack of posts. I feel that I need to rethink the concept of the blog and decide if I want to write about politics or about art and culture or just about random themes. While that clarity doesn’t come, here goes another random post, a mere film review. But I will soon be back with more interesting stuff.

I saw “300” the other day. Yes, the film about “Sparta”, even though it is from 2006 I hadn’t seen it yet. I didn’t like it. I didn’t hate it either, but I cannot say I liked it, and a lot of it has to do with how contemporary films portray historical events.

There is not much that is really historical in “300”. It is, after all, based in a comic book by Frank Miller that I didn’t read and which, while inspired by, did not exactly follow the events of the Battle of Thermopylae. The film is really closer to fantasy flicks such as “Lord of the Rings” than to actual historical epics. It has deformed hunchbacks, persians fighting with Samurai masks, rhinoceros and elephants, impossible CGI scenery and choreographed fights.

That is not really my problem of the film. While I would prefer a more realistic film about the real Sparta, I think that there is no reason why film-makers should not be able to to what they damn well please. Even if, in the present times where ignorance of History is rampant, there might be some viewers who believe that what they see on the screen is a valid and realistic historical portrayal (which was also my issue with Tarantino’s “Django” and its slaves screaming “mothafucka” and “yo black ass”).

The film is kitsch. In fact, it probably elevates kitsch to a whole new level. Dialogue is unrealistic and uninspired, mostly consisting of platitudes such as “Freedom isn’t free”. I find it hard to believe that the ancient Spartans thought or talked like American neocons. And, while the message is uplifting, I am pretty sure that “freedom”, at least how we understand it, was far from being the ancient Spartans’ priority. Also the subplot with the Queen, in fact the character of the Queen, is irrelevant, and I supposed was only included because of a complain by feminists, since it seems it was not even in the original comic book.

I suppose my main problem with the film is that it follows a pattern of exaggeration in American cinema, which I don’t know if is related to the growing use of CGI, to the overuse of superhero-type characters in popular culture, or to the fact that most filmgoers today are teenagers. From “Avatar” to “Batman”, films are just getting closer and closer to videogames.

Would a more historically accurate and more realist film be as successful? Hard to say. It might, but it also might not, and producers usually prefer to play safe and to reach for the largest audience possible. As H. L. Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” — but some may have lost money overestimating it.

Cinema started as an unpretentious form of entertainment, and today in the age of superhero megamovies in 3D it might have reached its zenith as a form of massive hypnosis and mindless diversion with merchandising. But there was a brief period, that lasted maybe from the 50 until the 70s, when Film was considered a major form of Art. Before that, no one took film seriously; after that, nobody cared anymore.

During that brief decades the world had Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovski, Kubrick, Wilder, Truffaut, Malle, Kurosawa and several other filmmakers who developed new ways of telling stories and seemed to be expanding the possibilities of cinema in ways not thought before.

Today, what is left of that? There are a few aging French directors. There is Michel Haneke, who seems to be highly praised by today’s critics, but to be honest his films always leave me cold. Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and all the great American directors of the 70s seem to either have gotten tired or to have sold out long ago.

Maybe I have aged too; maybe it’s not cinema that lost its power but myself. It is also true that the music I tend to hear even today is not very recent, the most “modern” ones are from the 80s or 90s; can’t stomach much of what came after that. Has the world changed or have I changed?

One thing that certainly took place was a continental shift. Maybe what happened was not so much the decay of art cinema as the decay of European art cinema: Europe became somehow less important in film-making (where are the great Italian masters of today, for instance?) and the United States lost its inferiority complex towards Europe: Woody Allen and Scorsese stopped imitating the European masters and developed their own style, and the younger directors such as P. T. Anderson didn’t even look to Europe as a model anymore. But perhaps the real news of the last decades is the emergence of a new Asian cinema, with Japan, Korea and Taiwan making some of the most innovative films out there.

Still, it seems true that cinema is no longer thought by many as a major form of art. Perhaps the most famous director working nowadays is Quentin Tarantino, and that says a lot. Whatever you think about his work, it can hardly be called serious in the sense that those works of the 60s were. (However, it is also true that many of the films of the 60s and 70s were certainly overvalued and some of them did not age so well.)

The public has also changed, it is true. Most films today are created for an audience of teenagers, or for adults that are still mentally teenagers, which would be the majority of the population of the world today. However, it is also true that we tend to see things in a diverse way nowadays, so maybe it’s not so much cinema that changed but ourselves.

In terms of mere technique, cinema improved a lot. And, because technology also reduced the costs and improved the quality, there is a vast array of independent movies that continue to create more original works, even if having less exposure to the commercial market, or maybe because of that.

Still, I can’t remember any good recent director that could be the equivalent of a Fellini or a Bergman in those earlier times, but I could be wrong. I don’t watch as many films as I did before. Indeed, has the world changed or have I changed?

Here’s an article saying that intelligent movies are dead, another saying that they not dead yet but are dying, and finally a contrary view saying that the death of cinema is just an impression of nostalgic old fools.

The famous French actor Gerard Depardieu is in the news after having received from Putin the Russian citizenship. As most people know, Depardieu said he would give up his French citizenship and move away to protest against the taxes of up to 75% to the rich that the current socialist president, Monsieur Hollande, wanted to institute.

Indeed, 75% seems a bit extreme, even for the French. But I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about Depardieu. An actor lately more famous for his drunken behaviour in planes, he however is a cinema icon, perhaps the greatest icon from France. “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small”, said Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Well, Depardieu got bigger and bigger, at least in size, to the point that he could portray Obelix a few years ago, but it is also true that French pictures, in general, got smaller and less interesting. But that is hardly Depardieu’s fault.

I remembered Depardieu in Truffaut’s “The Last Metro” and “The Other Woman”, and also in the 1990s version of “Cyrano de Bergerac”. But it was only yesterday that I watched “Les Valseuses”, in English called “Going Places”, the film that first made him famous in France. (To be honest, I watched the movie not for Depardieu but because I knew that there was a scene in which Miou-Miou appeared naked, but Depardieu was the second reason.)

It is a pretty strange film, a film from another era; a film that intended to be and was certainly shocking at the time, but that now comes to us tinted with a certain melancholia, or at least it so seemed to me, maybe because the France from that time doesn’t exist anymore. Or maybe because that was a time when still it was possible to scandalize audience with outrageous scenes, and that is really no longer possible anymore, at least not to the same extent.

Some say that the film is a criticism of the hedonism, empty rebellion and self-absorbed navel-gazing of the 70s generation; it could be, but it could also be a celebration of it, I really don’t know. The film is pretty ambiguous about it.

I am not sure I would recommend anyone to watch it, especially to conservative readers. It is a very French film. There is a lot of sex and a little, but not too much, violence. There is no coherent plot and hardly any story. On the other hand, besides Depardieu and Patrick Deawere as the two young ruffians and Miou-Miou as their companion, there is Jeanne Moreau in a wonderful short performance and a very young and beautiful Isabelle Huppert in one of her first screen appearances.

I don’t know how Blier managed to do it, but the film, which starts being about two very disagreeable characters who seem only interested in crimes and sex, ends up in the second part becoming quite funny, lyrical and melancholy at the same time. Maybe it’s the music, which remains in your head after the end.  Or maybe it’s something else. Who knows?

As for Depardieu today, I doubt that he will end up going anywhere, and since the French government is giving signals that it might change its law, he might even remain in the country. But maybe not: French people are not too happy at his “desertion”, and Russia, very far from Communist days, apparently has a flat tax rate of only 13%, which is pretty tempting even for people who don’t make as much money as Depardieu.

I didn’t want to give money to Tarantino because I find him obnoxious, so I watched “Django Unchained” in a very bad pirated copy (sorry) and I cannot vouch for the visual quality of the film. In terms of story, however, I thought it was a pretty weak film.

Let me tell you how I feel about Tarantino: I enjoyed “Pulp Fiction” at the time it came out and had some fun with “Kill Bill” although it was way too long. I hated “From Dawn to Dusk” and was annoyed by the historical liberties of “Inglorious Basterds”. I didn’t care much for “Reservoir Dogs” but I thought “True Romance” (directed by Tony Scott) was fun. Still, I never considered him a great filmmaker, at most a talented genre filmmaker with a good knack for dialogues and violent scenes. But hey, that’s just me.

Tarantino once said that Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was one of the best-directed movies of all time. He might as well be right, it is certainly in my list of favorite movies. However, Sergio Leone was a very different director than Tarantino, and, despite “Django Unchained” being a clear homage to the so-called “Spaghetti Western” genre, it falls very short of Leone’s mark.

For one, Sergio Leone was interested in real History. He was fascinated by the Old West and did a lot of research on the subject. Also, both “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” have charismatic, human characters, something that Tarantino’s films sorely lack. Maybe that’s my main problem with Tarantino: after “Jackie Brown”, he just decided that believable human characters were a waste of time, so he went into caricature overdrive.

Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, which takes place during the Civil War, presents the Southern Confederates as honorable soldiers, not as the total evil bastards that we see in Tarantino’s film, where pretty much all Southern whites are sadistic pricks. In fact, in Leone’s movie, it is the Yankees who are shown in worse light, badly treating the captured Confederate in prison camps. Leone knew that The Good are not always good, The Bad are not all the time bad, and the Ugly can be also funny.

A film touching the delicate historical issues of America’s dark past could be interesting, even if it was an action film, even if it was a revenge story and even if it was a “spaghetti Western”.

But subtlety is not Tarantino’s main strength. Then again, maybe it’s not what the current American public wants, anyway.

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“The Intouchables (Americans distributors could have called it “The Untouchables”, but I suppose they didn’t want it to get confused with Brian de Palma’s film about Al Capone) has been an incredible hit in France, watched by over fifteen million people, and is repeating the same level of success in many other European countries. In the U.S., it had so far a box office of US$ 10 million, not bad for a foreign film in a country that hates subtitles.

The film tells the story of the friendship between a quadriplegic rich man and his assistant, a black immigrant from Senegal. It was apparently based in a real case, but in the true story the nurse was an Arab from Algeria, while in the movie he is portrayed as a black man from Senegal. It is unclear why the filmmakers made the change, except to increase the contrast between the two main characters, and to offer an even more audacious propaganda of immigration. Being Arab was perhaps not exotic enough, at this point.

In a superficial level, the success of the movie seems easy to understand: it provides, after all, a feel-good message of understanding between rich and poor, aristocratic French and immigrant minority, handicapped and healthy. Who doesn’t like a happy ending, especially while in real life they are so hard to come by?

There have been many good films about two characters with contrasting personalities that are forced to live together and end up learning much one from the other.  Intouchables, however, is not one of those films. In the end, frankly, it is just a superficial movie with one-dimensional characters and a politically correct message that actually seems to be the main concern of the film.

It’s been happening in Hollywood for a while, but we now see the phenomenon in European movies as well: the (liberal) message takes the front seat to the story or the characters. All politically correct bases are covered. In Intouchables, there’s even an unnecessary nod to homosexual couples, totally unrelated to the main plot.

The main problem of the film, however, is that it says nothing real about its characters. The pitch: poor black man teaches rich white French man how to “swing”. Well, not literally, since the poor guy is tied to a wheelchair and can’t move any of his limbs. But, in essence, that’s the message of the film. And, as such, it consists of a complete inversion of what all movies of similar genre have been. Scent of a Woman, both the Italian version with Vittorio Gassman and the American version with Al Pacino, was a good film about a young man who learned something about life from a handicapped man.

You would think the same would happen in Intouchables: that it would be a story about a poor, ignorant immigrant who, in contact with a completely new world of richness and high culture, grows personally, learns about art, poetry, music. But, of course, it’s the opposite. In the film, it is the aristocratic Philippe who learns to have fun driving recklessly, to listen to black pop songs, to smoke dope and to have fun with Asian prostitutes who massage his ears (as if, as a rich aristocrat, he couldn’t have access to better drugs and women).

Driss, the male nurse? Well, he learns how to create meaningless abstract paintings and get rich idiots to buy them (another cliché). He learns a few quips about art and literature, but he mostly uses them as lines to impress women, without any kind of genuine aesthetic interest.

Philippe is also not well developed, and his character also doesn’t seem to grow much. In the end, it seems that the character of Philippe in the film works best as a metaphor for Europe: an old aristocratic continent totally paralyzed by inaction, dragged by third-world immigrants into a life of hedonism, rap, drugs and prostitution, and yet still feeling pretty good about it.

The Intouchables

A metaphor about Europe?

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