Monthly Archives: November 2014

Seven Days in May (1964)

Seven Days in May, John Frankenheimer’s film about an attempted coup against a liberal Democratic President, was pushed into production by none other than John F. Kennedy himself. Kennedy, who had read the best-selling novel, published in 1962 by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and who was becoming increasingly concerned about about right-wing extremists like General Edwin Walker, contacted Frankenheimer through White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, who assured Frankenheimer that the President would arrange to be away at Hyannisport when he needed to shoot outside the White House. Frankenheimer would also have access to the White House administrative staff and the Secret Service. Arthur Schlesinger, a historian close to the Kennedy family, talks about how Kennedy’s concerns went all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There are are few things to keep in mind when you watch Seven Days in May from the perspective of 2014. In 1964, the national security state and the idea of permanent military mobilization was relatively new. The Pentagon was less than 20 years old. It was at least within the realm of the imagination that the United States could come to terms with the Soviet Union and disarm. John F. Kennedy hinted as much in his speech at American University the previous Summer. Then there was the threat of a nuclear holocaust. For the first time in history, the human race had the capability to destroy itself. Generals like Curtis LeMay occupied prestigious roles within the United States government. They commanded vast resources, billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of men, and state of the art weapons. But some of them were also belligerent, insecure, and, occasionally, downright insane. Kennedy had removed General Lyman Louis Lemnitzer as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1962, for example, after Lemnitzer had presented him with the plan for Operation Northwoods, the lunatic idea that to discredit Fidel Castro the United States government should mount false-flag terrorist attacks in Miami. Some writers have even gone so far as to speculate about whether or not Lemnitzer was behind Kennedy’s assassination.

Then there’s the figure of General Smedley Butler. All the way back in 1934, a group of right-wing businessmen allegedly approached Butler, who was a veteran of the Marine Corps and a two-time medal of honor winner, with their plans for a coup against President Roosevelt. According to Butler’s testimony in Congress in front of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, Gerald P. MacGuire, who was supposedly a bond salesman for a company called Grayson M-P Murphy & Co., a group of businessmen, supposedly backed by a private army of 500,000 ex-soldiers and others, intended to establish a fascist dictatorship. They wanted Butler to lead it. JP Morgan, which Butler claimed was behind the plot, would install General Hugh S. Johnson, former head of the National Recovery Administration, as dictator. Franklin Roosevelt would be removed, and the New Deal would be over.

To be honest, even though it’s long been the conventional wisdom on the American left, Smedley Butler’s testimony sounds fantastical. You don’t approach complete strangers and ask them to lead coups. What’s more, Samuel Dickstein, the head of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, was later alleged to have been a paid agent of the Soviet Union. Whether by Russian intelligence, or a clever American troll, poor old Smedley Butler, I suspect, got played. Nevertheless, there’s no question that a well-organized far-right did everything they could in the 1930s to kill the New Deal and discredit Roosevelt. What’s more, by 1964, these same far right-wing, anti-democratic, movement conservatives, who detested Kennedy almost as much as they detested Roosevelt, were ready to seize control of the Republican Party.

Seven Days in May opens with a charismatic General named James Matoon Scott, a loosely fictionalized Douglas MacArthur, leading an attack against a newly ratified nuclear disarmament. President Jordan Lyman, a liberal Democrat who seems partly John F. Kennedy, party Adlai Stevenson, is understandably worried. Already, there have been riots between pro and anti-war Americans in front of the White House. His approval ratings are hovering around 20%. His one dependable supporter in the Senate is a boozy old Georgian named Ray Clark. The economy has gone into a recession. Lyman is beginning to look like a lame duck President.

But then it gets worse, much worse.

Colonel Jiggs Casey is a well-respected, and very well-connected Marine Corps colonel who works at the Pentagon directly under General Scott. He’s a clear stand in for Smedley Butler. After Scott, a square-jawed, steely-eyed Burt Lancaster, testifies in front of Congress, and gives a rabble rousing, anti-nuclear-disarmament speech at Madison Square Garden, Casey, who’s played by Kirk Douglass, begins to notice that there’s something not quite right at the Pentagon. A junior-intelligence officer translates a coded message. Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, save for an Admiral Farley C. Barnsworth, is betting on the same race at the Preakness. Why would the entire high command of the United States military use top secret code to talk about a horse race? When Casey, who first dismisses it as a harmless joke, mentions it to Scott, Scott goes ballistic. He has the junior intelligence officer transferred out of Washington to Pearl Harbor. He orders Casey never to mention it to anybody.

One by one, things begin to add up. Casey goes to a cocktail party. Fred Prentice, a right-wing Senator from California, demands to know his position on the nuclear disarmament treaty.  Prentice also reveals an insider’s knowledge about a highly classified military exercise that only the President and the Joint Chiefs are supposed to know about. Has Scott been leaking classified military information to Lyman’s political opponents? Casey then runs into Colonel Mutt Henderson, a good natured, but dimwitted man who unintentionally gives him information about a special division of the military called “ECOMCON.” ECOMCON (or Emergency Communications Control) has a base in the desert outside of El Paso, Texas, and over 3000 soldiers. Casey’s never heard of it. Henderson is chatty enough to give Casey a sense of ECOMCON’s mission, to seize control of the country’s telephone, radio, and television networks. Casey, who’s a conservative, but a man who still believes in civilian control of the military, comes to a horrifying conclusion. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are planning a coup. James Matoon Scott, a man he’s always admired, is contemplating treason.

Reluctantly, Casey decides to go to the White House and warn the President.

John F. Kennedy certainly got his money’s worth with John Frankenheimer. The unmasking of the right-wing coup, and the mission to shut it down, are crisply paced, and full of suspense. Lyman sends Paul Girard, his chief advisor, to confront Admiral Farley C. Barnsworth on his flagship at Gibralter, the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Girard bullies Barnsworth into signing a confession. He knew about the plot for the coup, but did nothing. Girard phones the President. The two are jubilant. On the way back to Washington, however, Girard dies in a suspicious plane crash. It’s never a good idea to bully a man with an aircraft carrier. Lyman also sends Senator Ray Clark to investigate the whereabouts of the secret ECOMCON base near El Paso. Clark finds the base, but is discovered, and kidnapped, eventually escaping with the help of Mutt Henderson, who he manages to enlighten about to the real purpose of ECOMCON. Jiggs Casey visits a high-society party girl named Eleanor Holbrook, and manages to steal General Scott’s carelessly written love letters. They’ll be useful to blackmail him if all else fails.

Seven Days in May is more exciting than either Dr. Strangelove, or the Manchurian Candidate, two similar films, but, after the focus shifts from Jiggs Casey to Jordan Lyman, it grinds to a halt. The last 20 minutes of Seven Days in May are dull and unfocused. It’s not that Frederic March, who plays the President, is a bad actor. Quite the contrary. He’s a superb actor. The problem is his character. Jordan Lyman is such a pompous bore that it almost made me feel like organizing a coup to get rid of him. After the American consul in Spain discovers the metal cigarette case Paul Girard had used to hide Barnsworth’s confession, and Lyman realizes that he has Scott and the Joint Chiefs right where he wants them, he gives Scot a way out. Resign, and he won’t be prosecuted for treason. My God, we think, how can Frankenheimer go through so much trouble to build Scott’s character into an effective villain, then deny us the satisfaction of bringing him down?

A good military strategist gives his enemy room to retreat so he won’t fight to the death. But Lyman goes even further. He begins to organize a coverup. Lyman wants to squash the coup, but he doesn’t want the American people to find out it ever existed. If Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in order to avoid a full impeachment hearing, Bill Clinton shut down the Iran Contra investigation, and John Kerry refused to investigate voter fraud in Ohio, Lyman is almost as bad. If the real truth comes out, he maintains, it will tear the country apart. James Matoon Scott, in his own twisted way, was right. Jordan Lyman is a liberal elitist who doesn’t trust the American people, a neoconservative who’s willing to construct a “noble lie” in order to preserve the social order. Seven Days in May was released in February of 1964. A few months earlier, of course, John F. Kennedy, the man who pushed so hard to get the film made, was murdered in Dallas. Jordan Lyman’s coverup, his refusal to lay the facts about Scott’s attempted coup at the feet of the American people, and let them decide, inevitably makes you wonder.

Is there something about the Kennedy assassination “they” aren’t telling us?

Mauvais Sang (1986)

Mauvais Sang superficially resembles a traditional “heist” movie. But if you’re looking for a tightly plotted film about an intricate criminal conspiracy, go see Oceans Eleven or The Asphalt Jungle. Mauvais Sang will bore you to tears. French director Carax doesn’t care whether or not two middle-aged gangsters named Marc and Hans and their young sidekick Alex get away with stealing an AIDS like virus from a multinational corporation in the “Darley-Wilkinson Building.” He does care about what the Darley-Wilkernson Building looks like in the evening light.

I first became aware of Mauvais Sang after I wrote a review of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.

https://stanleyrogouski.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/frances-ha-2012/

Frances Ha, which is a well-made, entertaining, but far more conventional film, has one transcendently beautiful scene. After Frances, an aspiring dancer played by Greta Gerwig, finds a new apartment in New York, she takes off running through the streets of Chinatown. For me, it tied the whole film together. Frances has such joy in movement, such an abundance of youthful energy, that it’s clear that she’s got real talent. She’s not a fake or a poser.

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach aren’t fakes or posers, but they’re not as original as I thought they were. Frances running through the streets of Manhattan to the sound of David Bowie’s song Modern Love is an “homage,” a nicer word for “imitation.” Not only did Carax do the same thing all the way back in 1986, he did it much better. Greta Gerwig is an attractive young woman. Denis Levant, who plays Alex, is a revelation. Short, only 5’3,” he looks a bit like a tiny, simian version of Kevin Bacon. By American standards, he’s ugly. But once you hear the opening riff of Modern Love and he starts running along the sidewalk of Carax’s dark, poetic, urban landscape, he starts to remind you of a modern Vaslav Nijinsky. Not only does Denis Lavant move with an athletic grace the tall, blond Greta Gerwig can only dream of, Carax films the 70-second sequence in front of a long line of aluminium columns, all painted in different colors, the effect of which is to give the illusion of even greater speed, of a headlong movement forward. It’s abstract art meets ballet meets cinema, a deliriously poetic expression of falling precipitously in love.

If social hierarchy is key to understanding Frances Ha – Frances is a middle-class woman living among the very wealthy — then movement, and how movement relates to young love, is equally important to understanding Mauvais Sang. Frances runs through the streets of Manhattan because she found an illegal sublet, the opportunity to stay in New York for another few months. The rent is too damned high! Alex has found Anna, played by Juliette Binoche, the much younger mistress of Marc, his “partner in crime.” When the film opens, Alex, whose father has just committed suicide, is living in a small apartment in Paris. He’s surrounded by hundreds of books. He’s an intellectual. The music on his answering machine is the Romeo and Juliet Overture by Prokofiev. He also makes a living running three-card-Monte games on the street, and has a girlfriend named Lise, played by a 17-year-old Julie Delpy.

What to make of 17-year-old Julie Delpy, other than that she’s so beautiful it’s almost difficult to look at her? I’m half torn between guilt and nostalgia, guilt because she’s only 17, but nostalgia because she and I are from the same generation. I was unaware of Mauvais Sang in 1986, when I was the same age as the film’s two young, beautiful woman, and athletic young anti-hero. But it filled me with nostalgic regret. Now I’m the same age as Marc and Hans. Where did my youth go? In any event, youth, in 1986, was under attack. My tiny generation, people born between 1965 and 1980, weren’t worshiped like the Millennials or the Baby Boomers. On the contrary, we were despised. What’s more, we came to sexual awareness just as the AIDS epidemic was at its deadliest. STBO, which mainly kills young people who make love without love, is clearly AIDS. What’s more, Carax addresses the subject a full year before the President of the United States government even acknowledged it existed. Lise puts a condom on Alex before they have sex. When he leaves her, he makes her promise never to fuck any man without one.

It’s unclear whether the “bad blood” of the film’s title refers to the blood of a person suffering from STBO or to Alex, the son of a father who jumped in front of a subway train. Is “bad blood” the tainted blood that comes from a sexually transmitted disease? Or it is a bad bloodline, the idea that you’re doomed by your family, that “fate” has set you on course for an early death? Enter Marc and Hans, former “associates” of Alex’s father. Hans, a doctor, is a vain, elegant man who strongly resembles Bob from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob the Flambeur, no less of an “homage” than Noah Baumbach’s. Marc is a balding, middle-aged neurotic who’s terrified of the head of the crime syndicate, an elderly American woman simply known as “The American.” Marc doesn’t think Alex’s father killed himself. He thinks “The American” had him murdered. What’s more, Marc and Hans owe her a significant amount of money. They have only one hope. They need to steal the isolated STBO virus from the Darley-Wilkinson Building, and for that they need Alex.

If you can imagine how much money an AIDS serum would have been worth in 1986, and just what kind of security the newly isolated HIV virus would have had, you would expect the planning for the heist to look like a finely tuned military operation. You would be wrong. The planning to break into the Darley-Wilkinson Building doesn’t even rise to the level of amateur. Two middle-aged men persuade a young punk to break in and steal the virus. That’s it. What’s more, he’s not even very interested in the job, even though they promise to pay him a hefty sum of money and arrange for him to be parachuted into Switzerland. Alex agrees to join Marc and Hans more as an excuse to leave Lise than as an opportunity to make money. Lise, in turn, loves Alex unselfishly, totally, almost obsessively. When Alex leaves her, she chases him. It’s a jarring contrast to Alex dancing through the streets to “Modern Love.” There’s no joy in movement, no headlong rush into young love. On the contrary, it’s a mechanical slog into premature old age. Even as he speeds up the film’s frame rate, Carax arranges for the images to be repeated, lending an illusion to the chase that time is “standing still while running.” Life is not only monotonous and unvaried, it goes by faster, faster and ever faster. Alex is running, but in running away from love — not a woman he loves but one who loves him — he’s running to his death.

He thinks he’s running to his soul mate. Anna, played by Juliette Binoche early in her career, is a very odd, very depressed young woman. The film’s last scene will have her running from Marc, but when she meets Alex, she’s obsessed with him. You realize just how much older Marc is than Anna after she lies and says she’s 30 — she’s clearly much younger — and you realize that even a real 30-year-old woman would be too young for Marc. What’s more, Marc has hit an emotional dead end. He can’t run anymore. His life is static. Emotions never leave you, he maintains. They just pile up. Once you feel something, you feel it, forever. Marc an no longer grow as a human being. He can just become more afraid. If he seems oblivious to Alex’s designs on his much younger mistress, then it has a lot to do with how fear has taken over his life, smothering love, even jealousy. He needs Alex, so he ignores what the younger man is doing behind his back.

Alex feels no Oedipal rage towards Marc, only the desire to rescue Anna from her morose, wordless sulking. Anna doesn’t even speak until her character’s been on screen for 20 or 30 minutes. Alex, in turn, who only spoke very late in his childhood and was given the nickname “tongue tied” can see into her silent brooding soul. He’s been there. Lise may be prettier. She may have more force and personal integrity but Anna is Alex’s inner child. Marc becomes his domineering father. By running away from Lise, he’s run right back into his wordless childhood. The film becomes dreamlike, the isolated landscape of a small boy who doesn’t speak. To have Alex, Marc, and Hans plan out the “heist” the way the gang of criminals in Bob the Flambeur or Le Cercle Rouge do, to rehearse breaking into the Darley-Wilkinson Building, practice picking locks, or immobilizing guards, would be to show Marc, Hans, and Alex as three adults working together as adults. Instead, Marc has “an attack” —where never sure what it is — and is drugged for the night. Alex, like a child whose parents aren’t home, gets the run of the house. He tries to win Anna over. It’s not so much that he fails — he does — but the way he fails. It’s the most beautiful, poetic sequence in the film. Not only does it include the “Modern Love” dance through the streets, Carax creates his own private world inside Paris, the dream scape of a child in the body of a grown man. Even though Anna rejects him, he brings her right up to the edge of accepting him. It’s like a long date that doesn’t lead to sex, frustrating, but richly emotional and resonant long after it’s over.

When it comes time, finally, for the heist — Alex wants to quit but Anna persuades him to stay on — it feels more as if Alex is going to his senior prom than to rob an AIDS vaccine in 1986. Always go to the hairdresser the week before a job, Hans says. That way if you get killed her arrested, you’ll look good in the papers. If Han’s feels fatherly, and maybe a bit vain, Marc feels paranoid. He has good reason. Alex has already gone behind his back to “The American.” The heist itself is a parody of a thousand different heists from a thousand different heist films. Alex successfully breaks into the Darley-Wilkinson Building, but someone alerts the police. The heist, it would seem, is blown. Alex will get caught and go to jail for the rest of his life. Enter Lise.

 Lise, who’s been stalking Alex ever since he dumped her, has finally found out where he is, and she runs him down just as he’s trapped by the police. Earlier, Alex hurt Lise by running away from her. But now, in a deliriously romantic escape to match the Modern Love scene, she rescues him. He had left her his motorcycle. Alex puts a gun to his own head and threatens to commit suicide. The cops back off. She ride in, scoops him off the ground, and speeds off. You want them to keep riding out of the frame, out of the film, into the sunset, happily ever after. Why they don’t left me scratching my head. But I suppose that would be too easy. Alex is doomed and he knows it. He puts the serum inside a Matryoshka doll. He goes back to Marx and Hans. He’s agreed to take their way out, to go to the airport and have them parachute into Switzerland. He should have stayed on the motorcycle with Lise. The American’s henchman tracks him down and shoots him in the gut. He dies along the way.

But, just perhaps, he achieves his goal. After he dies, Anna no longer feels tied to her older lover. She runs away. Marc chases her. She has become Alex. Marc has become Lise. Alex, who loves Anna as unselfishly as Lise loves him, has saved her life. Or has he doomed her? We never quite find out. But at least she’s finally in motion. She’s begun her adult life. Where it will lead is left to our imagination.

Orientalism (1978)

The most famous work of the renowned Palestinian American scholar Edward Said is both a survey and a polemic, an introduction to the academic discipline of “Orientalism,” and an argument that it should be reformed or abolished. Said, who had an endowed chair in Comparative Literature at Columbia University, rose to the very top of the academic profession. Yet Orientalism is an argument against the academic mindset. Said’s ideal is not the social scientist, but the novelist,not the professional sociologist, but the liberal humanist.

The word “Orientalism,” like the word “hacker,” is misunderstood. So we need to be clear exactly what Edward Said means by “Orientalism” and “Oriental.” In the United States, an “Oriental” is a person from the Far East. In France and in the United Kingdom, however, the “Orient” usually refers to the Middle East, to Egypt and Palestine more than it does to China and Japan. “Orientalism,” in turn, does not simply mean “racism” or “Islamophobia.” Rather, until the post colonial era, “Orientalism” was an academic discipline just like English or History. The Department of “Near Eastern Studies” at Princeton, for example, was founded in 1927 as the “Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures.”

http://www.princeton.edu/nes/

Not every Orientalist is a coarse racist, a Bernard Lewis or a Daniel Pipes. Nevertheless, even though Said admires scholars like Richard Francis Burton and Louis Massignon, he also argues that the academic discipline of Orientalism has traditionally been in the service of empire. In vast, and often mind numbing detail, he traces the beginnings of the Orientalist outlook back to its roots in the ancient world. He then proceeds to examine the process by which the Orientalist mindset became codified as a profession, and then how the profession of Orientalism became subordinated to British and French, and then American imperialism. If Economics is the codified ideology of capitalism, then Orientalism is the codified ideology of European domination of the Middle East, of the British and French scramble to control the Suez Canal and the route to India, and of the American need to control the supply of oil.

A key event in the development of the Orientalist mindset was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The French, having lost most of North America, hoped to secure their control of Western Europe by outflanking the British in the Middle East. To seize Egypt meant to block the route to India. To control the Eastern Mediterranean meant to threaten British sea power. For Napoleon, however, control of the Middle East meant more than simply the control of the Nile Delta. It meant French domination over the way Europeans saw the Islamic world, French control over the origins of Western Civilization. As such, Napoleon brought with him to Egypt an army of scholars to rival Murat’s cavalry and the Old Guard. He wanted to use the soft power of ideology to control Egypt and Syria. The end result was to subordinate the study of history and of languages to the hard power of economic and military necessity.

Many of the scholars Napoleon brought with him to Egypt were students of the French Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy, a pioneer in the study of Arabic and the Middle East.

“It was not only because he was the first president of the Societe asiatique (founded in 1822) that Sacy’s name is associated with the beginning of modern Orientalism; it is because his work virtually put before the profession an entire systematic body of texts, a pedagogic practice, a scholarly tradition, and an important link between Oriental scholarship and public policy. In Sacy’s work, for the first time in Europe since the Council of Vienne, there was a self-conscious methodological principle at work as a coeval with scholarly discipline.”

In de Sacy and even more so in his successor Ernest Renan, Said argues, we can see the main characteristics of the European approach to the Middle East. For the Orientalist, the Middle East is not an empirical reality to be investigated with an open mind, but a projection of the European imagination onto the Arab world. Islam is not a diverse, often contradictory, evolving reality like Europe. Rather, it is the eternal “other,” a closed off system that exists, not in Egypt, Palestine, Syria or North Africa, but, rather, in the mind of the European Orientalist. The Semitic world is removed from history, and put into a glass case in the British Museum. Like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, Sylvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, and their successors travel to the Arab world and find nothing but their own heart of darkness.

‘In the system of knowledge about the Orient, the Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work on the Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these. Direct observation or circumstantial description of the Orient are the fictions presented by writing on the Orient, yet invariably these are totally secondary to systematic tasks of another sort. In Lamartine, Nerval, and Flaubert, the Orient is a re-presentation of canonical material guided by an aesthetic and executive will capable of producing interest in the reader. Yet in all three writers, Orientalism or some aspect of it is asserted, even though, as I said earlier, the narrative consciousness is given a very large role to play. What we shall see ‘is that for all its eccentric individuality, this narrative consciousness will end up by being aware, like Bouvard et Pécuchet, that pilgrimage is after all a form of copying.”

As the Middle East becomes the Orient, an essentialism born of empire, becomes, in effect, a lens through which all Europeans, even the most intelligent and radical, view the Arab world. Karl Marx, for example, made an initial attempt to understand the Middle East on its own terms. But he eventually fell into the Orientalist’s mindset. How different history would have turned out, Said suggests, had he been able to overcome the intellectual limitations of Orientalism. Marx might have provided the intellectual tools necessary to overcome the ideology of empire in the Arab world. But he didn’t. It’s a testament to intellectual power of the Orientalist outlook that even the author of Capital got straightjacketed by de Sacy’s and Renan’s essentialism, by the world view born of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and of the long domination of the “Orient” by the west.

“The quotation, which supports Marx’s argument about torment producing pleasure, comes from the Westostlicher Diwan and identifies the sources of Marx’s conceptions about the Orient. These are Romantic and even messianic: as human material the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemptive project. Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx’s theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image.”

Arabs and Muslims, the “Orient,” pushed itself back into history during the First World War. The French and British, now allies, scrambling for position as the Ottoman Empire cracked up, allied themselves with the Arab revolt against the Turks. The Turks, in turn, defeated the British at Gallipoli, and established their own secular nationalist state under Ataturk. The process continued after the Second World War with the independence of India and the rise of Pan Arab nationalist under Nasser. But western imperialism and Orientalism live on. Edward Said died in 2003 during the darkest days of the Bush administration without getting to see an independent Palestine. American and Zionist imperialism has replaced British and French imperialism. The need to control Saudi oil has replaced the need to control the Suez Canal.

American Orientalism has become, if anything, more of a self-enclosed and self-enclosing worldview than British or French Orientalism. After 9/11, every right-wing, low-IQ American became a vulgar Orientalist, quoting out of context snippets from the Koran in the comments section of his local newspaper’s website. Bookstores were lined with works by Hirsi Ali and whatever Israeli “terror expert” the media was pushing at the time.  What’s more, Said argues, while Arab radicals once tapped into Marxism, anti-imperialism, and secular nationalism to re-establish the Orient as a subject of history instead of merely the object for western contemplation, the Arab elites — who are now largely educated at American universities — have begun to adapt the Orientalist mindset for themselves.

But Said does suggest a way out.

Throughout his book, hovering behind his survey of the academic discipline of “Orientalism,” is Said’s own discipline of Comparative Literature. If Orientalism is essentialist and sealed off from experience, dogmatic, racist, Islamophobic, and, in the end, subordinated to empire, the novel, liberal humanism, and philology — the study of languages — are searching and open ended, a way back into history. The key distinction, Said argues, should not be east vs. west but history vs. mythology. We need more literary criticism (Said himself began his career as a critic of Joseph Conrad), more empathy, more history, less academic pseudo-science.

“One of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East and never encounter a single reference to literature. What seem to matter far more to the regional expert are “facts,” of which a literary text is perhaps a disturber. The net effect of this remarkable omission in modern American awareness of the Arab or Islamic Orient is to keep the region and its people conceptually emasculated, reduced to “attitudes,” “trends,” statistics: in short, dehumanized. Since an Arab poet or novelist—and there are many—writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity (however strange that may be), he effectively disrupts the various patterns (images, cliches, abstractions) by which the Orient is represented. A literary text speaks more or less directly of a living reality. Its force is not that it is Arab, or French, or English; its force is in the power and vitality of words that, to mix in Flaubert’s metaphor from La Tentation de Saint Antoine, tip the idols out of the Orientalists’ arms and make them drop those great paralytic children—which are their ideas of the Orient—that attempt to pass for the Orient.”

The method behind Said’s examination of Orientalism can be applied to other academic disciplines. The intellectually straightjacketed worldview that gave us Orientalism doesn’t begin and end in the Middle East. We should examine every area of study, every well-funded, established field of intellectual endeavor. Why, for example, do we presume study “English” in American universities? Does the typical American with an English degree know how the discipline was codified? When it was first taught? When it was first offered as a degree? How about Economics? Why do we study economics as if it were a pseudo-science outside of history? Why do we study Milton Friedman and not Marx? What interests does the discipline of Economics serve? Why do we study “Political Science” and not “Politics?” Why don’t people study “Classics,” once the core curriculum at English universities, in American universities? What about the American university as a whole? How did the expansion of higher education under the GI Bill and during the Cold War serve the needs of the American empire?

Said’s “Orientalism” should be read by every high-school senior before he gets to college. Agree with his conclusions or not, it’s worth learning his methods. It’s a thoroughgoing preparation for getting the most out of an undergraduate education, a course in critical thinking. If the “Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures” at Princeton is now the “Department of Near Eastern Studies,” if Joseph Massad, Said’s colleague at Columbia, is now perceived as more of a threat to Zionism and the American empire, than a tool in the service of Zionism and the American Empire, if the Palestine Solidarity and the BDS movement have become almost mainstream, then Orientalism, Said’s book from 1978, in no small way contributed to the new way of thinking, to the cracks in the once dominant “Orientalist” mindset. Any book that powerful deserves to be studied.

This Land Is Mine (1943)

This Land is Mine is both a great film and a terribly flawed one. It’s talky. It can be almost unbearably self-righteous. It has none of the romance or style of Casablanca. Nevertheless, any film that stars Charles Laughton in his prime is worth revisiting. What’s more, This Land is Mine was directed by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir. While not on the same level as Rules of the Game or The Grand Illusion, it’s far and away more intelligent, and politically radical than most films that came out of Hollywood, even in the 1930s and 1940s.

The setting is a small town in an unnamed country in Nazi occupied Europe. It’s Vichy France, but Renoir leaves it ambiguous. He wants This Land is Mine to be about the universal struggle between democracy and fascism, not about a nationalist war between the French and the Germans. Charles Laughton plays Albert Lory. Lory, a schoolteacher who still lives with his mother, is a timid, unprepossessing man in his 40s, quite obviously a virgin, and deeply in love with Louise Martin, a fellow schoolteacher. Martin, a very young Maureen O’Hara, is a fiery patriot who hates the Nazis. Her brother Paul is an underground resistance fighter who carries out acts of sabotage against the occupation, but she’s also engaged to George Lambert, a local factory owner and fascist collaborator.

Renoir was a solid anti-fascist. Joseph Goebbels declared his film The Grand Illusion “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1.” But what makes This Land is Mine so fascinating after all these years is how Lambert, Manville, the collaborationist Mayor , and the Nazi military commander Major Erich von Keller are complex, three dimensional human beings, not cartoon villains. Von Keller is an evil, manipulative political mastermind, but he’s not stupid. He knows that being appointed military governor over a resentful, sullen, occupied people is no easy job. This is Vichy, not Poland. Von Keller not only has to rule with an iron hand. He has to keep up the charade that the local civilian government is still in charge, that Manville is more than just a puppet. Manville is just the typical politician who bends with the prevailing wind. Lambert is the most interesting character of all. Played by suave British actor George Sanders, George Lambert embodies the inner conflicts of the bourgeoisie, of the French capitalist who depends on the German occupier to put down a revolutionary proletariat he can’t control himself.

“I too fought the unions Major Von Keller, right here in this (railroad) yard. I was very nearly killed. But you had a leader and were many. We had no leader and were few. That’s why you’re here.”

The American and British attitude towards the French under Nazi occupation has always had an air of bad faith. How would the British have acted had the English Channel, and the Royal Navy, not been in between them and the Wermacht? We actually know. They turned tail and ran, pulled their army out of Europe at Dunkirk and abandoned the French to their fate. The United States, in turn, sat out the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and only opened up the western front in June of 1944, long after the Soviet Union already had the Germans on the run. The American and British ruling classes were spared the decisions George Lambert and his class had to make all over Western Europe. Hitler declared the French, along with the Danes, Belgians, Dutch, and Norwegians as Aryans in good standing. But they were also deprived of the right of self-government. France, the oldest nation state in Europe, was partitioned, 1000 years of history wiped out of existence with one armored blitzkrieg through The Ardennes. To be a French patriot meant to join Paul and Louise Martin, to commit acts of sabotage, to become terrorists. To remain a good, solid bourgeoisie meant to side with the Germans, to become a traitor. George Lambert, who can’t bring himself to choose, chooses to kill himself.

For Albert Lory, it’s a lot easier. All he needs to do is grow up, find a backbone, cut his ties with his mother, and die like a man. It’s Paul Martin, who represents the revolutionary proletariat, and the headmaster at Lory’s school, Professor Sorel, who represents the liberal intelligentsia, who precipitate the film’s crisis. In the film’s opening, Albert Lory wakes up to two things, a bottle of milk his mother scams for him from the local German authorities, and a newspaper slipped under the door. The newspaper, edited by Professor Sorel, and called “Liberté” is the voice of the local resistence movement. As with Lambert, Lory’s inner struggle almost directly mirrors the struggle of the French people as a whole. It’s a clear choice for a 40-year old boy man, his mother’s milk, or a struggle for liberty. Emma Lory is a jealous, smothering mother, so controlling she manipulates time, sets the clock ten minutes ahead every morning so her son — who dutifully sets the clock back when he comes downstairs— gets to work on time. She knows her son is in love with Louise. She does everything possible to keep them apart. But then she goes too far. Louise invites Albert to dinner at her house with her brother. But Paul Martin is out, as usual, committing acts of sabotage against the Germans. So he comes home late. Albert agrees to cover for him.

Emma initially keeps quiet. Then it comes out that Paul killed two German soldiers. Von Keller takes ten hostages, all of whom will be shot unless someone turns in the newspaper’s publisher and names names, and one of whom is her son Albert. She goes to George Lambert and confesses that she knows that Paul was the “terrorist.” Lambert goes to Von Keller. Paul is killed. Sorel is shot with 8 other hostages, and Albert is released. Louise turns viciously on Albert. Albert temporarily loses his mind. He goes to Lambert’s railway yard intending to kill Paul’s betrayer. Lambert has already committed suicide when he arrives. But after Albert picks up the gun, and is discovered by an office clerk, the Germans arrest him and put him on trial for murder. Lambert, now dead, has passed his moral dilemma on to Albert. Von Keller gives him a choice. If he agrees to work with the German occupiers, to replace Professor Sorel at the school, to dutifully indoctrinate his students in the tenets of National Socialism, Von Keller will have the prosecutor forge a suicide note, and Albert will be allowed to live. But if he rejects the deal, he will be shot as the murderer of George Lambert.

Walter Slezak, who plays Von Keller, is an effective Satan. The temptation he offers Lory is not only his life, but the truth. Lambert, after all, did commit suicide. Lory doesn’t deserve to die for a murder he didn’t commit. But Albert Lory, unlike George Lambert, faces his moral dilemma head on. More importantly, he understands his class position. As a member of the educated middle-class, the intelligentsia, he’s neither bourgeois nor proletariat. Will he chose to be a French patriot, and side with the memory of the dead Paul Martin? Or will he choose to be a collaborationist and side with the dead George Lambert. We know he’ll make the right choice. It’s 1943, not the 1970s. Jean Renoir is writing anti-fascist propaganda, not a nihilistic script about the moral bankruptcy of the intellectuals. But it’s how Lory makes the right decision that brings the film to its climax. He’s determined to win over the jury of the kangaroo court, to have them find him “not guilty,” and force the Germans to murder him outright. During the trial scenes, all of Charles Laughton’s acting skills and Jean Renoir’s directorial genius are on full display. It may be talky, but it’s talky the way a great educator is talky, and Lory lays out the stakes with a lucidity we rarely see in films about the Second World War.

“It’s very hard for people like you and me to understand what is evil and what is good. It’s easy for the working people to understand who the enemy is because the aim of this occupation and invasion is to make them slaves. But middle-class people like us can easily believe as George Lambert did that a German victory is not such a bad thing. We hear people say that too much liberty brings chaos and disorder. And that’s why I was tempted last night by Major Von Keller when he came to my cell. But this morning I looked out through bars and I saw this beautiful new world working. I saw ten men die because they still believed in freedom.”

One of the men Lory saw die was Professor Sorel. Sorel, who Lory respected as a father, waves, going to his death with a smile. Earlier, he had told Lory that there will come a time when he has to make a decision. Will he have the courage to die like a man? He does. Astonishingly, the jury finds him “not guilty,” but he knows its only a matter of time before the Germans drag him out in front of a firing squad. He goes back to his classroom. He takes a forbidden book out of his jacket, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and starts reading. Which one of his students will take his place in the struggle for democracy against fascism. Will it be Edmund Lorraine, a Jew, who’s regularly bullied, and whose father was executed along with Professor Sorel? Or will it be one of the bullies? As the Gestapo lead him away to his execution, he gets a hug from Louise Martin. She takes his in front of the class, and finishes the reading. His mother, significantly, isn’t there.

Albert Lory has become a man.

El Cid (1961) Barry Lyndon (1975)

What are the two best duels in the history of cinema? Your mileage may vary. We all have our own favorites. For me they would have to be the trial by combat in Anthony Mann’s medieval epic El Cid, and the final duel in Stanley Kubrick’s 18th-Century costume drama Barry Lyndon. They are both so masterfully done, and yet so different, that a comparison between them will shed light on two great directors, and two great films.

No duel in film can quite match the famous trial by combat between Charleton Heston’s Don Rodrigo, the champion of the King of Castile, and Don Martin, the champion of the King of Aragon. Earlier in the film, Rodrigo had spared the lives of two Muslim Emirs he had taken prisoner. For that act of mercy and patriotism — he wants to unite Christian and civilized Muslim Spain against Islamic fundamentalism — he was given the title El Cid. He was also branded a traitor. After he kills Count Gormaz, his would-be father-in-law and one of his accusers, he not only wins the hatred of his fiancee Donna Ximena — it’s never a good idea to kill your girlfriend’s father —he deprives Castile of its best knight. It’s at that moment that the King of Aragon decides to press his claim to the disputed city of Callahora.

Aragon’s champion, Don Martin, is a legendary knight who’s already killed 27 other men in single combat. Rodrigo, even though he killed Count Gormaz, is still young and relatively untested. The Castilian court doesn’t trust him. Maybe he killed Gormaz by treachery. But Ferdinand, the King, also recognizes that Cid, who’s been accused of treason, has the right to clear his name, and so accepts his petition. The stage is set. If Cid kills Don Martin, he proves himself an innocent man. The city of Callahora goes to Castile, and Cid becomes Ferdinand’s champion. If Don Martin wins, however, then Callahora goes to the King of Aragon. Cid is proven a traitor. His family’s reputation is ruined, and he presumably goes to hell.

We find ourselves in front of the City of Callahora, the real Castle Belmonte in Spain, an imposing structure that dominates many miles of farmland from atop a commanding hill. The trial by combat is part of an elaborate ritual. Both Kings are there with their full compliments of lords, ladies, and men at arms. If Cid is a traitor for sparing the lives of two Muslims, then what is Donna Ximena, Sophia Loren, after she gives her colors to Don Martin, and expresses her desire that he kill Cid, her one time fiancee? Is she also a traitor? No. It’s her right as a witness to the trial by combat to bless whomever she feels is worthy of her support. Ferdinand’s daughter, Donna Urraca, a haughty, regal Geneviève Page, in turn, gives her colors to Rodrigo.

What follows is a clash between two big, strong, athletic men on horseback with lances, then broadswords. Cid, a religious man, believes that whoever is right with God will win the duel, but it’s also clear that the trial will be decided on the individual merits of the two champions, on their courage and on the strength of their arms. The elaborate ritual, the complex rules, the stately pageantry, is all designed to “let the best man win.” It’s a relentless, brutal fight to the death. Don Martin unhorses Cid, but, as he moves in for the kill, Cid knocks him off his mount and brings him crashing to the ground. There’s no room for error. Don Martin has his sword out so fast Cid has no time, even to raise his arm. Eventually, through sheer skill and tenacity, Rodrigo maneuvers Don Martin out of his initial momentum. The camera angles, the facial expressions of the lords and ladies of Aragon and Castile, the score by Miklós Rózsa, the clanging of the swords, are all so engaging that we become involved in a semi-mythical, semi-fictionalized joust that took place centuries ago. We are transported back in time to a grand, romantic medieval Spain that never quite existed, but which looks like history written in light.

The two duels that bracket Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are an entirely different affair.

As the film opens, Redmond Barry, a young Irishman played by Ryan O’Neal, is courting his cousin Nora Brady. Nora, in turn, is being courted by Captain John Quin, a rich and cowardly English gentleman played by Leonard Rossiter. Barry demands “satisfaction.” Seconds are named. They meet, armed with pistols, in a quiet field. Barry, apparently, kills Quin, but no. It’s all a setup. The pistols have been loaded with blanks. Nora’s father, who’s deeply in debt, needs Quin’s money, and Quin, terrified by Barry, agrees to “play dead.” Barry is given 20 crowns and hustled off to Dublin. Like a modern day conservative, he believes he’s proven himself the best man. He’s not. The game has been rigged in his favor.

Years later, after working his way into high-society as a professional gambler, and into a marriage with the beautiful Lady Lyndon, Redmond Barry’s bad character finally catches up with him. He’s no El Cid, no pure-hearted knight willing to give up everything for God and country. He’s a mean-spirited little spendthrift who cheats on his wife, drinks himself into a stupor, and squanders her fortune. Eventually, he’s ostracized by polite society after he assaults Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first husband, at a concert. Lord Bullingdon, now grown into a young adult, challenges his step father to a duel. They meet in an abandoned church. What follows is 5 minutes of cinema so full of tension that we can barely stand it.

It’s also a comic masterpiece. The elaborate ritual of the trial by combat in El Cid was designed to strip away anything that would have gotten in the way of either knight’s strength and courage. The second duel in Barry Lyndon brings two small men down to each other’s low level. Redmond Barry is physically stronger than Lord Bullingdon, who’s a sallow faced, effeminate little mama’s boy, but he’s no better a man. Barry would have clobbered Bullingdon had it been a duel with rapiers, but a stylized ritual with pistols neutralizes his strength and courage. Lord Bullingdon gets the first shot. He’s so incompetent,he fires the pistol into the ground by mistake. Barry gets the second shot. Bullingdon is white with terror. He throws up. But Barry spares him. He also fires into the ground. It’s probably the only generous thing he’s done in the film’s three hours. He won’t kill his wife’s child, but he’s miscalculated. Bullingdon has no intention of letting bygones be bygones. He raises his pistol and takes aim. Then he shoots Redmond Barry in the leg, crushing the bone and the artery. Barry loses the leg. He goes back to Ireland to live out the rest of his days in poverty and obscurity.

Kubrick makes it clear that Barry goes back to Ireland because of his debt, not because of the amputated leg. While the pistols this time aren’t loaded with blanks, the game is still rigged. Lord Bullingdon restores the old order, sends the upstart Barry back home, not because of his own abilities, but because Barry’s luck had simply run out. Barry had been put in a lose lose situation, kill his wife’s first born, or fire into the ground. He takes his chances on Bullingdon’s generosity and loses. If Rodrigo and Don Martin fight each other to the death without a trace of personal animosity, these two men hate each other to the bone. Lord Bullingdon finally gets in a lucky shot. He also gives his victim a pension after it’s all over.

What would have happened if Lord Bullingdon had also fired into the ground? Things probably wouldn’t have been much different. Barry would have either gone to debtor’s prison, or his rotten character would have caught up with him in the end. Lord Bullingdon, it must be remembered, only acts after Barry has already been shunned by aristocratic society. His own personal animosity means nothing. He’s nothing more than the aristocratic old order’s bumbling tool. Had it not been Lord Bullingdon, it would have been somebody else. The film, significantly, ends in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Perhaps Kubrick is telling us that even revolution is meaningless. After all, the rising bourgeoisie in the form of Redmond Barry has already proven itself no better than the aristocratic old order in the form of Lord Bullingdon.

“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled,” the final title card says. “Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”

Perhaps Kubrick’s fatalism, his tendency to put all his characters under a microscope like bugs, is reactionary. Kubrick was certainly no liberal, as his earlier film, A Clockwork Orange, demonstrated. He admired violent little pricks like Alex and his droogs for their own sake. Freedom, for Kubrick, was the freedom to rape women, and beat up old men, just for kicks. But is Anthony Mann necessarily more progressive than Kubrick? Perhaps not. Mann, unlike Kubrick, was no reactionary, but El Cid is anything but liberal. Indeed, there’s a reason Francisco Franco allowed Mann to film in Spain and wound up using the film as part of a campaign to increase tourism. Mann’s Don Rodrigo, El Cid, is a noble, honorable, pure-hearted knight in shining armor, but therein lies the problem. The Castilian royal family in Mann’s film is thoroughly corrupt. Cid should just declare himself king, unite Spain behind him, and drive out the invading Muslim fundamentalists. He doesn’t. Like Franco himself, he lets the Spanish royal family stay on as puppets, even though he’s obviously the great man of destiny who saves his country from the invader. Perhaps Franco saw himself in Spain’s legendary knight of the Reconquista, and Mann’s ode to Spain’s greatest hero as unintentional fascist propaganda that validated his own brutal dictatorship. El Cid is certainly open to that interpretation. Great men, even when noble, generous, and self-sacrificing, are always problematic.

Trust (1990)

I saw Trust, Hal Hartley’s second film, during its original theatrical run back in 1990. It become something of a personal milestone, if only because it was probably the first film I saw at the Angelika Theater in the East Village. Just like Nevermind, it represented an introduction to the “alternative” culture of the 1990s, the end of the conformism of the 1980s. It’s not a widely known film, but it has influenced independent, and even mainstream cinema. If you pay attention to movie posters, you will recognize many homages to its quietly iconic final scene. I was curious, therefore, to see how well it would hold up.

The question turned out to be more difficult that I had anticipated. Trust has a number of strengths, one or two glaring weaknesses, and a style that, depending on your inclinations, you’ll either love or hate. As the film opens, we meet Maria Coughlin, a 17-year-old high-school student who lives in working class, Lindenhurst on Long Island. Maria, played by the late Adrienne Shelly, is the prototypical guidette, a Jersey Shore character long before reality shows even existed. When she announces to her father that she’s pregnant, that she’s dropping out of high-school and getting married, he grabs his chest and dies of a heart attack. In one stroke, we are introduced to Hal Hartley’s signature style. Trust is both realistic — if you’re a working-class New York area white ethnic you know people who look and sound exactly like Maria and her parents — and self-consciously stylized. What if our deepest thoughts immediately became physical reality?

Part of the reason Trust had such an impact on me back in 1990 is precisely this, the way Hal Hartley obliterates the distinction between our inner lives and our environment. In the 1980s, Hollywood films regularly portrayed teenagers as fully mature, socially adept adults. Think Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller or James Spader in Pretty in Pink. There were few, if any “misfits” I wanted to identify with. You were either one of the popular crowd, or you were the comic relief, an outlandish nerd or geek. But real high-school kids are, more often than not, so wrapped up in their own inner worlds that their position in the social hierarchy matters less than adults think it does. The 24-year-old Shelly, and the 33 year-old Martin Donovan, who plays Trust’s “hero” Matthew Slaughter, were some of the first genuinely believable depictions of young people I had ever seen on the big screen. They not only had rich inner lives, the boundaries between their inner lives and the world around them were blurred, fluid, constantly evolving. What’s more, the film’s self-consciously stylized aesthetic, combined with working-class Irish Catholic characters who lived in the suburbs of New York City, flattered my own, unstable sense of identity. Who was I? What did I want to become? That people who looked and sounded like me, people who had parents who reminded me of my own, could star in a feature length film that played at The Angelika in the East Village convinced me that maybe my own experiences could be mediated through the creative, artistic discipline of cinema.

Trust is also one of those extraordinarily rare films that will appeal both to feminists, and to “nice guys.” It passes the Bechdel Test. Women actually talk to one another, and not only about men. But the geek in this film is not only tall and handsome, he has women competing for his attention. Matthew Slaughter, an electronics genius who appears to be somewhere in his late 20s, lives with his violent, abusive, and obsessive compulsive working-class father. He has trouble holding down a job, not because of a lack of ability, but because of his integrity. He quits one position because he won’t install inferior motherboards in a high priced computer. He quits another because he doesn’t want to work on television sets. TV is brainwashing. At home, his father treats him like a slave, making him clean the already clean bathroom over and over again, lecturing him about how worthless and selfish he is, punching him in the stomach when he doesn’t feel the point is getting through. So why doesn’t Matthew find a job he likes, apply himself, and move out? Hartley makes it clear that this isn’t about child abuse. Martin Donovan is in his 30s. The actor who plays his father is probably in his mid-40s. They don’t look remotely alike. In other words, Matthew’s father isn’t really his father. He’s just another abusive authority figure. He embodies, not parental authority, but the idea that, while a working-class man can quit his job, it doesn’t mean he escapes from the system.

I also think that, whether or not he’s doing it consciously, Hartley wrote Matthew Slaughter as mildly autistic. Matthew has trouble looking his father in the eye. His responses are flat and without affect. He may look and sound neurotypical. His low status combined with his high intelligence indicates that he’s not. What’s more, Hartley’s dialogue constructs Trust’s imaginary Lindenhurst from the point of view of a high-functioning Aspie. Hartley’s characters don’t make small-talk. They speak their subconscious thoughts immediately, and out loud. They also talk right past one another. After Maria’s mother kicks her out of the house — for killing her father — she meets an apparently sympathetic middle-aged woman at the bus stop. She doesn’t notice that the woman is not only insane, but a child snatcher plotting to steal another woman’s baby.

The utopian moment of Trust, the glimpse of a better world lurking underneath dreary, working-class Long Island, comes when Maria and Matthew run into each other by chance. They are immediately revealed to be soul mates. They say what they think, but they don’t speak past each other. When Matthew hints that he’s suicidal, Maria gets right to the point and asks him if he’s emotionally disturbed. Instead of hiding behind her pride, she immediately tells him she’s been kicked out of her home, and needs a place to stay. Matthew, in turn, offers her shelter without hesitating, even if it means provoking his sadistic father. It never occurs to him to consider how it would “look” for a 29 or 30 year old man to be bringing home a pregnant 17-year-old as if she were a stray kitten. His intentions are perfectly asexual anyway. “I don’t love you,” he says. “I admire and respect you. That’s better than love.” He’s ready to help her raise another man’s child, not because he feels it’s his obligation, but because it’s finally given him a purpose in life. He goes back to his old company and asks for his job back. “I want a real, career type job,” he says, “with benefits and a pension.” Matthew is smart enough to realize that his working-class life s going nowhere, but he has enough soul to understand that it means he has to create some meaning for himself. Raising Maria’s child is as good as anything else.

If I opened my review by saying that the question of whether or not Trust holds up after 25 years is more difficult than I realized, it’s partly because the film’s biggest strength, its stylized dialogue, is also its biggest weakness. Martin Donovan’s self-consciously flat style of acting is almost perfect for the role of Matthew Slaughter. But Trust is not Matthew’s story. It’s Maria’s. Without Adrienne Shelly the film would have probably just seemed boring and disjointed, another pretentious independent film without any real point. Shelly — who was murdered by a construction worker in her West Village office back in 2006 — had a gift for infusing her characters with an emotional depth that often transcended the parts as they were written. It’s not only Maria’s look that changes it’s her outlook, her level of maturity, her understanding.

The problem is that Shelly, and a young Eddie Falco — who plays her older sister Peg — are such good actors it’s disappointing to see them straitjacketed by Hartley’s stylized dialogue. There are characters — like Maria’s mother — we wish were either more sympathetic or, if set up as villains, played as villains. Indeed, when Maria’s mother suggests Matthew would be better hooking up with Peg, it’s presented as a betrayal of her younger daughter, but we can’t help but see her point. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Matthew and Peg, who’s not yet aware that he’s already taken her sister home to live, meet up in a bar. Donovan and Falco play effortlessly off each other, their combination of sexual attraction and hostility not only seems like it’s part of another film. It gets Hartley’s scriptwriting out of the way altogether. Had Hartley allowed it to go on, for his two actors to improvise the way John Cassevetes would have done, the film might have transcended the stylized quality that prevents it from becoming a genuine masterpiece.

The ending of Trust somehow manages to be heartbreaking, frustrating, and deeply unsatisfying, all at the same time. Maria’s mother gets Matthew drunk and puts him in bed with Peg. Maria feels betrayed and has an abortion. Matthew tries to commit suicide in public with the hand grenade his father brought home from the Korean War, the one he carries with him everywhere he goes “just in case.” He fails. The grenade is a dud, but, since he’s effectively held most of the employees at his old job hostage, he won’t be a free man for very long. Just before the police drag Matthew off to jail, Maria arrives on the scene to tell him she forgives him. They reconcile. Why? Maria betrayed the central premise of the film, that trust, admiration and respect are better than love, by having the abortion. She killed her unborn child because she was jealous of her sister. The police become, in effect, a deus ex machina that saves Hartley from having to write the deeply unhappy ending his script called for. He likes Matthew and Maria too much to let their story play out. The barriers to their love become, not each other, but straw men. Maria’s mother and sister, Matthew’s father, the police, Matthew’s old boss, none of them could tear a pair of soul mates apart. It reveals Hartley’s snobbery towards his own working-class upbringing. His hero and heroine are just too precious for the world they live in. It’s a cheap ending to an otherwise rich, complex, and humanistic film.

Why Cycling is Better than Sex

breaking

I have never experienced “love at first sight.” I never will. As an American, I have trained my mind to believe it’s wrong. At best, it’s a sign of immaturity. At worst, I would be oppressing some poor woman with my objectifying white male gaze. We are a country of lawyers, not poets. We have reversed the hierarchy of sins found in Dante’s Inferno. We value duplicity. We condemn lust. In an American Inferno, Guido da Montefeltro might even go to heaven. Paolo and Francesca would end up in the City of Dis.

I do, however, know what it feels like to fall in love at first sight. In 2008, I decided to get back into cycling. My job was only a few miles from where I lived so it made no sense to drive there every day in a Ford Explorer. I hate driving. Not only are you locked up in a tin can, you are entombed in the general stupidity of the traffic flow created by your fellow motorists. On a bike, you make your own rules. You can zip in, out, and around cars and SUVs. You can ride on the sidewalk. You can ride on the streets. You can run red lights if you’re willing to take the risk. I had ridden a Centurion Dave Scott Iron Man in my teens and twenties. It was a great bike that got me around the Rutgers campus without having to take their horrible bus system. But, to paraphrase Keats, never did I breath the pure serene air of cycling until I walked into Jay’s Cycle Center in Westfield, New Jersey and bought a Trek 7.2 FX.

The Trek 7.2 FX, for those of you in the know, is not a glamorous bike. It’s a low-end hybrid with a cheap drive train and an aluminum fork that absorbs every bump in the road. But it didn’t matter. As soon as I got back to my house in Roselle, and took a spin around the block, I was in love. Something just felt right. Something made sense. This was it. The moment I had been waiting for all my life. I went back inside, and got my wallet and cell phone. I got back on my bike. I took a longer ride, south, through Clark, through Woodbridge, through Edison, through Highland Park and New Brunswick. I took a spin through the Rutgers campus, road the same paths I did when I was a 20-year-old kid on my old lugged steel road bike. Why did I take to cycling at age 44 in a way I didn’t when I was 20, and still had time to train for the Tour de France? Who knows? Why cares? I kept going. I road through North Brunswick, South Brunswick, Kendall Park, and Kingston. I kept going until I reached the campus of Princeton University, 30 miles from home. I road around Nassau Hall. I road past Morven. I ate lunch across the street from Albert Einstein’s old house. Then I popped over to the Princeton NJ Transit Station to take the train back to Linden. I waited. I waited, and I waited. The line was long. Some foreign students were fumbling around looking for the right combination of buttons to press to get a round trip ticket to New York. Fuck it, I said to myself. I’ll just ride my bike. Another 2 hours, and another 30 miles and I was back home. It was late August. I was drenched in sweat. I ate dinner, and grabbed a can of beer from the refrigerator. I ate a pint of ice cream. What did I care about calories? I had finally vanquished the memory of the fat kid I was in junior-high-school. I had found my calling.

That’s the first thing to remember about cycling. Unlike sex, it makes you feel better about your body. As a teenager, I felt I was ugly, dirty. I would have to shower twice a day because I thought my sweat was unclean, that it had a funny smell. It only occurred to me year later that the funny smell came from the old, poorly maintained inner-city high-school I graduated from, not me.

Theoretically, of course, sex should also make you feel good about your body, but it doesn’t. It’s not the sex. It’s the effort you have to put into finding it. Sex puts me into a hierarchy. I become aware that I’m 50 years old. I’m bald. My teeth are crooked. I’m not exactly what you would call a “good catch.” I become subject to an increasingly restrictive, puritanical set of laws. Did you get the impression that I don’t like being 50-years-old? You got the wrong impression. Thank God I’m 50-years-old. I would hate to be 20-years-old in the age of “affirmative consent.” Were I still a young man, subject to getting a hard on over any women who smiled at me, I would have to deal with more than I had to deal with back in the 1980s. Today, if you talk to a strange woman in a bookstore or a coffee shop, she might suspect you of being a “pickup artist.” If you whine about not getting enough sex, you’re an “MRA.” But that’s all trivial. Any 20-year-old man not in solidly in the upper-middle-class or above will probably never get a job that pays a living wage. He’ll never buy a house, or send his kids to private school. The evangelicals haven’t succeeded in getting rid of birth control or abortion, yet, at least in New Jersey, but even fucking on the pill raises all sorts of issues. Does the pill damage a woman’s health? Is birth control just another form of “male entitlement?” No. Thank God I’m 50-years-old. Thank God my blood is tame and waits upon the judgment. Let me be 50-years-old forever.

I mean it. 50 is the perfect age. True, I’m no longer “young and hot.” But amateur cycling is a middle-aged man’s sport, not a young man’s sport. It’s not sprinting, basketball or hockey. Short of riding in the Tour de France, I can do anything on a bike at age 50 that I could do at age 20. 100 mile rides are nothing. 50 mile rides almost feel like a warmup. Years of long distance running prepared me for that first 60 mile ride back in 2008. I plan to be riding long distances right through my 70s. I’ll die of cancer or the effects of global warming long before my cardiovascular system gives out. What’s more, unlike happily married men my own age, I’ve found the perfect mate. My bike won’t dump me for Lance Armstrong. My bike won’t look at me and sigh that it could have been ridden by someone with better thighs, a better hairline, or a better education. There’s no such thing as “affirmative consent” with a bike. I don’t have to say “bike, we are coming to a rather steep incline. Would you consent to my shifting down a few gears and getting into the drops?” Feminists won’t look at me funny if I trade my dowdy old Specialized Allez compact-double for a sleek new Trek Madone. Unlike with wives, I won’t get thrown in jail if I own two, three, four, five bikes. I can buy as many as I can afford. What’s more, my bike won’t punish me for being poor. In fact, it will reward me. Can’t afford gas? Well just jump right up on top of me. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Perhaps my happiest week over the past decade was the week after Hurricane Sandy. I’ll never forget the schadenfreude I felt whenever I road past a gas line, and looked at people waiting to fill up their SUVs, those same people who shout “get on the sidewalk” at me or occasionally menace my life when I’m riding on a busy street without a shoulder.

Nothing, of course, is perfect. My bike won’t nag me if I look at another bike, but it does nag me. Badly adjusted brake pads that rub up against your rims, a creak in your saddle, badly tightened crank bolts, STI levers that rattle when you inflate your front tire above 100psi, there’s absolutely nothing worse than a mysterious noise that you can’t trace to its source. At its worse it can become a form of Chinese water torture, an insignificant annoyance that repeats itself every few seconds and won’t go away. Pinch flats are almost as bad. If I over inflate my tires, then surely it has something to do with that sinking feeling in your heart when you get off from work or leave a coffee shop and see one of your rims touching the ground. Blowouts can be fun. You congratulate yourself when you keep control of your bike bombing down a hill and your front tire explodes, but pinch flats? Pinch flats are like viruses. They sneak up on you when you’re not looking, and immobilize you. Yes, changing a tube gets easy after awhile. Not getting grease all over your hands doesn’t. Then there are the people you have to share the road with. Male pedestrians don’t get cat called. Male cyclists do. There’s something about being inside two tons of Detroit metal that just brings out the worst in people. Frat boys are annoying. They throw beer cans. They shout out “Lance” as they accelerate past you. Soccer moms are worse. Something about having to share the road with a middle-aged guy on a road bike brings out the beast in the typical soccer mom. “Get on the sidewalk,” they shout as they roar by. Sometimes they roll down the window, point at the ground and just say “sidewalk.” Catcalls from cars and SUVs bring me back into the societal hierarchy that riding my bike helps me escape. Occasionally, when a motorist cat calls me I can catch him, or her at a red light. But what can I do then? Bang on the windows? If it’s a car load of frat boys I’ll get my ass kicked. If it’s a soccer mom and her kids, she’ll call the cops.

But pinch flats and cat calls are a minor annoyance. Nothing beats getting up at six in the morning, and getting on my bike, especially in the Spring and Fall. I ride out of my grubby old inner-city suburb west. The sun comes up as I ride past the beautiful old colonial revival mansions in Westfield and Summit. Cycling has given me perhaps a better visual sense of the architecture of Union County, New Jersey than just about anybody. I can look at a house and tell you what year it was built, how many bedrooms it has, when it was modified, how much it costs and how much property surrounds it. I have a similar expertise about the local trees, landmarks, rivers, parks,and wildlife. Cycling has allowed me to to assimilate my hometown and the surrounding area the way few people can. I’m no longer an alienated cog in the middle of the suburban sprawl. I’m an organic part of my environment. At about 7:00 AM, if I’m lucky, I cross Route 22 and climb 500 feet up into Watchung Reservation. Watchung Reservation is three times the size of Central Park. It’s thickly forested. It has herds of deer, panoramic views of Manhattan, and even the occasional black bear. It has hills that would challenge Lance Armstrong, houses that look like the East Coast equivalent of estates in the Hollywood Hills, but, above all, it has privacy, especially early in the morning before rush hour. Occasionally, I’ll ride out on the eastern ridges. The trees will clear, and then I’ll see it, New York City, the Empire State Building, the Freedom Tower, the entire Manhattan skyline, shimmering 15 miles in the distance like the Emerald City. I’ll think about the New York Stock Exchange, the hipsters in Brooklyn, the greasy crush of people in Penn Station, Park Avenue, and the Upper West Side, people making money, socializing, flirting, fighting and fucking. I’ll sigh with relief.

“Thank God,” I’ll say. “I’m not part of that.”