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June 2005

June 24, 2005

Watching Cinema Paradiso


It was with a special kind of melancholy that I sat down to watch Cinema Paradiso on Monday night. It was a melancholy aggravated by caffeine, but given piquancy by a reading of Flannery O'Connor's sublime short ''The Life You Save May Be Your Own''. Before the movie began I determined to write a short story of my own, but I wrote just the opening paragraph:

The old man introduced himself as Alan, but asked for me to call him Seagull, and I'm no doctor, but I think he'll die soon--Seagull smelt of death and tuna and his whiskers were very short and grey: ''My friend,'' he said, studying my eyes, ''I have loved very much in this world, but the sadness is now almost total.''

But I did not know the old man, only myself, and I did not feel like writing about him...

In 1945 the supreme leaders of Fascism and Nazism had come unstuck--Hitler had overreached in Russia and was paying the price, and, while Berlin was being overrun, Mussolini and his wife were being captured by Italian partisans.
''Let me live, and I will give you an Empire,'' Mussolini pleaded, but nobody believed him and the two were shot in the head and hung in a piazza in Milan.
Two days later, Hitler, deep in his bunker, shook hands with his Nazi companions and retreated with his wife into private chambers. Hitler blew his head off, and his wife swallowed cyanide. Their bodies were carried upstairs to a shell-pocked garden where they were doused in gasoline and burnt. Yes, these were strange days....
And so Italy was a strange country after the war--Mussolini was gone, but so was half the country. You could still see fascism in the shadows that were made by the rubble.
Cinema Paradiso captures this perfectly--the war is over, but there's evidence of it everywhere, most noticeably in the lovingly painted classes of the half-mad and heartbroken that inhabit this film. Yes, the war is everywhere.

The story of this history--the ''what just happened?'' numbness that defined most of Europe after the fall of Hitler--is gently navigated through the role of a cinema in a small Italian town. Headed, in sorts, by the inexpressibly lovely Alfredo, the cinema becomes the focus of the community--a marketplace of benevolence and shared history important to those puzzled about what Mussolini's downfall meant.
Yes, the cinema was a place of escape. Of freedom and community. And strangely, this companionship was being provided by the Americans--the US, overnight, had become a profound ally; providing the half-mad and heartbroken with delicious fantasies. The irony here, of course, is that Hollywood's success was made possible by the Axis' capitulation. The US emerged as a superpower--and the spring of late-capitalism funded the Hollywood fantasies that, in turn, provided succor for the Italians. Hollywood's presence was a reminder to Europe that they had nothing--Italy was confused, Germany flattened, Britain bankrupt and Russia... well, Russia was incorrigible.

But Cinema Paradiso's heart is larger than any of this--its heart is larger than Mussolini's cupidity and much warmer than politics... it's a film that poignantly invests the charismatic, the young and the injured, against the backdrop of a terribly scarred country. This investment is made with such gentleness that the subsequent sadness seeps through like memory. There is very little overt mention of Italy's woes (that is its virtue) but when there is, you feel it. Alfredo: ''Do as the soldier, Toto--leave. This land is cursed.''

And so Toto leaves, and never comes back, and Italy, like the rest of Europe, begins to rebuild its buildings and values and histories--meanwhile death is there, is always there, and Alfredo's passing seems to me like the collapse of a very wise and very beautiful empire.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 4:45 PM | Comments (9)

June 17, 2005

Review -- Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
[Documentary: USA, 2003]

Stuart Klawans, in his review of this film for The Nation*, reminded us of the persistent strength of the myth of objectivity, and that the myth holds especially true for documentaries. Klawans reminded us that the purchase of the myth confers (in the mind of the viewer) ownership of The Truth -- an intellectual omnipotence that out-shadows the knowledge of the participants of the story. It is beneficial to meditate on the strength of this myth--that the very word ''Objectivity'' has been used, for some time now, as an arc with which to house concepts like ''equality'' and ''truth'' and ''professionalism''. The arc's design, of course, is flawed, and has been profoundly undermined by academics from many stables. It hasn't really mattered though--the strength of the myth persists, and is ritually given voice in the popcorn-stained foyers of doco-showing cinemas 'round the country.

In his adroit, but hurried review, Klawans tells us that the film ''quietly convinces us that we, as viewers, may now own the truth--which makes us superior to the cops, the lawyers, the judge and the TV reporters. I need hardly add that we're also superior to the Friedmans.'' Klawans is not, if this needs to be said, convinced himself, but he suggests that this sense of superiority is encouraged by a consumption of the myth. Of course, the film contains its own agendas, whether they're of the film-makers, or the subjects themselves, and it becomes so that the film very firmly convinces me of the opposite--that ownership of the Truth is a chimera.

In order to demonstrate this, let's start from a beginning -- Capturing the Friedmans is a remarkable film and is so for this reason: it entitles the viewer to an appalling level of intimacy with a doomed family, viewed through the hazy lens of a bankrupt myth. The film leaves in its wake a trail of seductive half-truths that are not, and never can be, pieced together. At the end of the film, we must ask ourselves if we were, in fact, justified in occupying that level of closeness...

In order to tell the story of a father and son convicted on charges of child-sodomy, the film utilizes a strong team of figures involved in the case -- police, detectives, judges, lawyers, alleged victims, friends... The film boasts a heavy element of authority symbols -- lawyers, judges, police, for whom their authority is coloured by the professional ideals attached to ''objectivity''. These talking heads voice their perceptions, share their investigations**, and we believe them, but with a refundable kind of interest -- it's the sum of the parts (the film itself) that will give us the Real Truth, right? Well, maybe for some. Klawans would say maybe for most. For me, however, this film clearly demonstrates the opposite...

If Klawans is right, and I suspect he is, then the myth of Objectivity is strongest in the documentary form -- that ''credible witnesses'' (lawyers, police, teachers etc.) are credible only in that they provide a vital part, but it is only the documentary maker himself that can provide the Divine Sum. It would be interesting to note precisely how the documentarian*** came to receive this God-like platform, but regardless it remains absurd to grant it. Capturing the Friedmans, in its multitude of competing truths and histories, and its grim cloak of poorly concealed desires, suggests, to this viewer anyhow, the intrinsically protean nature of this little world.

Of course I still did come to a few conclusions concerning those involved in this film -- I decided that Arnold Friedman was sick and confused and profoundly disabled the lives of his sons; I noted, with great interest, the worship of Arnold by the two sons we are permitted to view, and was astonished at how this worship translated into a fierce species of denial; but most significantly, I was made aware of the frailty of my perceptions, and the chimera of total truth... I was also saddened by the deep and ubiquitous brown-sadness that seemed to infect everyone involved in this cursed story.

*Stuart Klawans, ''Candid Camera,'' The Nation, July 7, 2003. [http://thenation.com]
**It is interesting to note the varying professional procedures that are employed to obtain truth--for instance, the police have developed their own unique brand of questioning, distinct from that of the lawyer. In fact, it is probably safe to say that not only do their techniques differ, but that they have different values of truth. One police officer describes the difficulty of interviewing children (another group with a vastly different system for obtaining truth) -- another speaks of the danger of using hypnosis to encourage 'repressed' memories; the risk being, it is believed false memories may be created. And on it goes...
***Clearly there are differing levels of credibility here; neither his fans nor detractors could assert that Michael Moore even pays lip-service to the notion of objectivity.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 4:53 PM

June 10, 2005

A Very Short Story About Bread & Juice & Nothing Else. Or, Why You Should Listen to Simon & Garfunkel

the bakery.gif

I decided I wanted to buy bread. And juice. Bread and juice. Yes, that's exactly what I had decided. No more, no less. As I left the house, setting out towards grass and roads and openness, I thought: ''maybe I'll meet a girl. A real nice girl.''
And then I thought: ''maybe I'll meet a rat, a real nice rat.''
Who knows?

Simon and Garfunkel came with me, across all of that grass, and all of the roads, and all of that openness -- which reminds me: Simon and Garfunkel are very, very good to have, when you're setting out towards all of that openness.
But that's another story, and requires many things I don't have -- like narratives and structure; like characters with arcs; like style... style is important.

No, I don't have those things -- just a hunger for milk bread and a thirst for some good juice and I light a cigarette. Puff, puff -- inhale.

Did I mention that the sun was shining? The sun was shining and there were no rats, no girls, just my hunger and thirst and the giant ghost-gallon of mine that's filled with a million million memories and pains and whispers and follows me wherever I go.
Even the bakery.

The bakery's close, and it's run by a Swiss man, who has his own ghost-gallon which is also filled with a million million memories. I think he likes his.

I like his bread. And juice. I buy my lot and smile, thinking that I'm the luckiest ghost-gallon captain around, 'cause Simon and Garfunkel are riding shot-gun with me.

The walk back's even better -- in the park there's birds without memories, old men with dreams and a story that ... has ... nothing.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 5:42 PM

She Sends Kisses

Love was arrested
On a Tuesday.

I was making
lemon trifle
and listening to
The Pixies
when I heard.

''According to police sources,
love was arrested earlier today,
captured in an abandoned

''Strange,'' I muttered.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 4:51 PM | Comments (1)

June 7, 2005


You did not know him --
but I did
... a little.
His name was Adam,
but what is a name?

The coffin knew more
than I
or you


The coffin contained
his hair
& honey-swirl;
it held his lightly decayed flesh
embalming fluid.

It humbly announced
his sins
absence of potential
for sin.
It shared his molecules,
his eyes,
his moon and

It knew more than I, or you

afterwards, we ate fish and chips
in front of the ocean
and we spoke of him --
watching the waves
and silence
and hating our words because
they knew so little.

We watched a seagull land,
and quietly,
we wished we could be so smart.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 8:20 PM | Comments (3)