Victor Hugo’s daughter sails to Nova Scotia to stalk a man who doesn’t love her. When her marriage schemes fail, and she becomes desperate, she disconnects from external reality. Eventually she follows him to Barbados, where she drifts through the island’s cobblestone streets, lost in the wreck of her passion, a beautiful shade. Though “The Story of Adele H.” is one of the great Truffaut pictures, it’s infrequently discussed, possibly because the 21st-century audience doesn’t know how to take its focus on feminine hysteria. (The 21st-century audience favors different hysterias.) Perhaps more than any New Wave director, Truffaut understood Griffith; he especially understood his poetic power. There are moments in “Adele H.” that have Griffith’s unaccountably expressive simplicity. It’d be wrong to call that simplicity crude, because its effects are too delicate, too rich, but there’s a directness to it that brushes up against crudity — that transforms and elevates crudity. The frightfully young Isabelle Adjani (this is the performance that established her reputation), wandering into frame inside a bourgeois grocery store, her unhappy outline rebuking the orderliness of the establishment’s shelves, seems to have swallowed that expressive power and allowed it to pour out of her. It’s insane for an actress to “do Gish,” but Adjani does Gish, and she succeeds at it; there are moments where she’s so committed that we fear for her. We wonder: how will she pull herself back? Though Truffaut never sugarcoats Adele’s obsession, he treats it with extreme sympathy, even when highlighting its absurdity. To him, her commitment has artistic overtones. This is expressed most vividly in the weird moment when Adele slides off the side of her bed to protect her memoirs from the prying hand of a fellow tenement dweller (she does it with her whole body, like a mother protecting an infant). Did Truffaut identify with Adele? Famously, he used a neurotic investment in movies as a springboard to worldwide fame. Nestor Almendros gives the picture a look that’s beautiful and tender in unshowy ways; it envelopes without overpowering. It has the conceptual wholeness of a “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “Broken Blossoms”: to tease apart its meaning and its aesthetic is to break its spell.
A middle-aged man has a breakdown while riding on a train, and his memories, fantasies, and perceptions blur, like the scenery glimpsed through the train’s windows. The late Dennis Potter had a gift for making movies that feel like paroxysms of consciousness. Images, sounds, and bits of staging repeat, rhyme, and play off one another. Popular songs trigger personal associations, thereby throwing our own mental processes into the mix. Without these elements we’d have little to orient ourselves; they’re like lifelines thrown to us from the shore of comprehension. Yet as quickly as Potter tosses one out he pulls it back, teasing us forward. His method relies on that teasing quality, on the goading of our desire for understanding; the more we try to keep up with him, the more we’re pulled in. When he’s on, his movies are frustrating in a way that’s engrossing. Here he’s only intermittently on, and the movie is frustrating in a more banal way — I walked away from it feeling a little annoyed. Potter seems to be trying to make a virtue out of irresolution. He introduces thriller elements and then doesn’t build on them, and his hero’s backstory becomes more rather than less muddled as the picture progresses. It’s likely that he intends to suggest the ingrownness of erotic identity: to demonstrate how our most personal desires, in being fulfilled, can become alienating. The suggestion is made and we register it; but the movie has a narrative dimension, and Potter’s technique doesn’t support it.
It’s interesting to compare Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 “Umberto D.” with his earlier “The Bicycle Thief.” The latter is very materialistic in outlook and simplified in message, like a propaganda film. Though there’s plenty of “humanity” in it, there’s not much human feeling. Absent his bicycle, the hero is nothing. That’s the movie’s core idea — that he needs his bicycle to be a man. Aside from a few scenes sacramentalizing everyday life (I admire a passage showing the bicycle seeker eating spaghetti with his kid) everything is intended to emphasize this idea. It’s a reductive idea. It’s fitted to the characters like a harness: they’re driven by it. “Umberto D.,” by contrast, is filled with emotional and behavioral complexity; it seems to expand as you watch it, to fill you up. The movie contains moments of cruelty that are so gracefully presented that we’re equally pained and charmed by them. It’s probably the most Chaplinesque movie that wasn’t made by Chaplin. Yet I think De Sica does Chaplin one better because “Umberto D.” has none of Chaplin’s emotional neediness. As the old pensioner whose main concerns in life are his comfort and his dog, Carlo Battisti manages to humanize Umberto’s selfishness. He and De Sica do this so fully that we come to recognize selfishness as an outgrowth of self-respect. If Umberto doesn’t care for his needs (and for his dog), who will? We sense this self-respect most powerfully when Umberto, at his wit’s end, sticks out his palm in anticipation of a handout. Upon being noticed by a passerby, he feels ashamed, and deftly makes as if he’s testing the air for rain. (Again, it’s impossible not to think of Chaplin.) There’s a quiet commentary here regarding the deleterious effect of modernity upon the family, and it’s given additional weight by the normally hyper-familial Italian context. Umberto has no children — and what are the old absent children? The scenes showing the maid of Umberto’s apartment building going about her daily routines are intensely beautiful. I think they exhibit more feeling for the lot of common people than anything in “The Bicycle Thief.”
Girl on a Motorcycle, a starring vehicle for chanteuse and Mick Jagger girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, is vintage 1968. I can’t recommend the film that highly as cinema. Not a lot happens as the main character zips across the French border to Germany to hook up with her lover Alain Delon. Light on plot, though the film struggles to articulate ideas, albeit the kind of half-baked ideas that passed muster as cultural and political philosophy in the late 60s. Mostly, Faithfull looks very good in it, both in and out of the one piece leather zip up outfit she wears with nothing on underneath.
She is fond of reaching orgasm using the motorcycle seat. You’d think this might be dangerous.
I had completely forgotten seeing this when it came out in ’68. If it is worth seeing–and that’s a big if apart from the star–it is as a near perfect example of that rare bird: a movie made in the high sixties that tries to capture something of the era, and not in a sober respectful way, or in a “those crazy kids” way, but through a countercultural lens. The psychedelic coloration of the film; the fast zooming in and out on an object to suggest vertigo or a trip, the disparagement in the constant voiceovers by Faithfull of the normal people who live in the dreary normal houses she rides by.
We read today about how Antifa is made up of privileged types who say they are down with The People but mostly just look down on them. The film is a constant reminder that elitist rebellion is not a new thing.
Still, it is helpful to put the condescension in context. As Michael Caine suggests in his narration to My Generation, a documentary on Swinging London in the 60s, a lot of the rejection expressed in Europe had as its target the grimy old world that had given it war and misery.
Rebellion in the United States was directed most at the increasingly affluent “plastic” suburbs. But as Faithfull looks down her nose at the tired streetscapes she passes by you can’t help but think she is struggling for a way to escape history, not rejecting an older generation who was already trying to live outside of it. Still, she is quite the snob, and comes across as a harbinger of a much better world to come.
The film came our the year before Easy Rider and you can see some parallels, including (spoiler alert) a long panning out in an aerial shot of a fiery motorcycle crash scene which looks for all the world like the final shot in Hopper’s film.
But there are differences. Hopper’s rebels were very American and he put at least some critical distance between his authorial self and his characters–“we blew it Billy”. Girl on a Motorcycle is all in on the Revolution, whatever the hell that means.
Fifteen years earlier Brando the motorcyclist could respond to the question ‘Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” with a chip on the shoulder “what’ve you got?” But by the time ’68 rolls around in Europe this question was framed in existential fashion, complete with nods to the trendy Marxism of Permanent Revolution.
As the movie came back to me I realized I could only remember a couple of things about it. The first was the notion of political and cultural revolution for its own sake. That was much in the air at the time.
The other was Faithfull’s nudity. I suppose this was one of the first movies I’d seen with real nudity in it. It is tame by today’s standards but “art movies” were hard to find in ’68 and XXX was still several years away. It was eye-opening.
Still, the movie is a complete mess–though an interesting artifact and a nice . . . vehicle.
No, I don’t mean Nazi. Just garden variety fascist, you know, like China.
We beat communism fair and square as it was not working well in practice. The natural selection found in the biological realm has its political, economic and social counterparts. The Cold War was mostly about systems.
But fascism? While we beat the fascists in the Second World War, we have been wise not to be so triumphalist about the inevitability or the permanence of a victory. over fascism . That war was more about battles than it was about revealing fascism’s hidden genetic weakness.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war. But how are we being tested? What is at stake?
Generals, even armchair generals, tend to fight the last war. And so there has been no end to the instant replay from the couch of our great moments in battle.
For some we must be ever vigilant to stamp out dreaded socialism. It never works! Look at Venezuela! And if economic socialism is bad cultural Marxism is worse! Damn those sneaky Frankfurt School emigres!
For others the Nazis are ever lurking in the shadows.
The Second World War helped usher in a new age, one in which consensus seemed to come easy. But was it so easy? Right and left have both been heard speaking wistfully of the age of middlebrow. But consensus was even then being engineered, and it ignored a lot of the multitudes that Whitman said the country contained.
Indeed the “plastic” nature of the consensus was one of the main vectors of attack against it. After what Strauss and Howe call the “high” of a Second Turning in the sixties the pendulum swung the other way, with the multitudes getting voice. Call it libertarianism or call it libertinism or just call it liberty if you will. It can be great fun, and exhilarating, to do what thou wilt.
Note that this principle applies to those joyously finding voice across the board: sexual liberationists, gay/trans pride and ethnic identity as well as flyover people given voice by Fox News, alt-Righties, Scalia federalists, and Benedict Option believers.
It is curious–but only if you don’t think about it much–that the some of former groups above tend to think of the latter as Nazis while the latter think of the former as socialists. What is going on?
To carry the Strauss and Howe argument further what is happening is that we are now in a Fourth Turning. The odd and hard to understand goings on are not a function of a high, as they were in the sixties, but of a low.
For fifty years everybody got up to dance, and they danced how t hey damn well pleased: the frug over here, line dancing over there, hustles, bumps, lambadas, gangnams, twerkings, electric slides, funky chickens.
When the music slows it is time to take a rest. But the dance has now been replaced by musical chairs. There are not enough chairs to go round, and as you search you see them being pulled one by one.
Deep down people begin to sense the dynamic: some kind of winnowing is inherent in a return to order. On the one hand that may bring about a new middlebrow moment– and we all have some fond feelings about the last one, don’t we? On the other, some dances will just have to be wiped off the dance card. Sorry funky chicken people!
Anger mounts. Fascists! Socialists! Racists! Cultural Marxists!
Whit Stillman has remarked that the eighteenth century is looking better and better. Just so. But a voyage to a current version of a classical era will require that many genies must go back into a very large bottle. And since we live life going forward there is no guarantee a new “classical” era must resemble the old. We don’t know in advance whose ox will be gored. The arc of history may move us back in a classically classical way, or a new classical may be quite different, Blade Runner, Xi-thought, Beyonce cults and so forth.
So are we all fascists now? If by that you mean, per Wikipedia, “a totalitarianone-party state . . . necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and to respond effectively to economic difficulties”– no. We are not there and there may be no need to go that far in one’s definition of the term.
But if the term is cleaned of some of its perjorative aspects is it not undeniable that all sides are partial to it in one form or another? We all seem to grasp that a society with intention, with a sense of collective identity, direction and–yes–will may be in our future in one form or another. That a bundle of sticks bound together with an ax may be stronger symbol than the funky chicken. We see that sentiment in many statements voiced on the right — but we see it just as clearly, or even more clearly, in the affection felt by many so-called liberals for the Chinese way.
In crises, events first everything else later, including post-mortems, recriminations and oopsies.
This is true with the law as well. The law pretends to majesty but in crisis it can find itself behind the curve with the other schlubs.
I don’t cotton to the Critical Legal Studies set but that’s mostly because my thoughts on extra-legal sociology don’t jibe with theirs. They are quite right that the law is a huge heuristic, so large and critical (in the other sense of the word) that it seeks by its nature to blot out any meta-interpretations as to what it is all about.
And so when you get to crisis modes the self-satisfied concept of the law as Platonically real will always be under more pressure than it will be in normal times, when we can afford to accept the notions advanced by lawyers that they somehow transcend history.
I am on the one hand looking for a legally sound review of what the hell is going on with “public health” relative to law while on the other desirous of a counterweight that is capable of seeing law as just one more thing in a complex society beset by events.
It is tempting to turn to lawyers, prominent graybeard eminences, to provide that prudential advice. Alas, reliance on lawyers is compromised in crisis for several reasons.
First, they have a hard time seeing the law as a device. The practice of law puts a premium on living inside its strictures. To expect otherwise would be like expecting a car mechanic to consider the role of God in the automotive industry.
Second, they are trained in the adversarial method. Under this view “justice” may be mangled in any particular case but the arc of justice is long. The only reasonable way of securing justice in that long run is by taking positions, even absurd ones, and fighting things out. So the risk of asking a lawyer what gives in a crisis is that you are likely to get an answer fashioned by someone who preferences the defense of a position over a critical regard for truth.
As much as I respect Alan Dershowitz and would not want to tangle with him in debate something of this tendency is apparent in his quite firm view on the law where aspects of public health and vaccinations are concerned. Here is is on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Asked about the constitutionality of mandated vaccinations Dershowitz responded:
The Supreme Court said yes. If a case came today to the Supreme Court they would say yes. It would be nine to nothing or eight to one. It is not a debatable issue.
Is this a nuanced legal analysis? Or is it better seen as the taking of a position and aggressively advancing it?
Surely Dershowitz knows that cases do not arrive at the Supreme Court in neat little packages–thumbs up or thumbs down on vaccinations, and put it into Box A. Cases have hair on them, and the process of judging is less a matter of categorization than it is balancing the general with the particular.
Yes there are Supreme Court cases that support the notion of mandated vaccination programs. Whether a given case falls inside or outside the scope of previous decisions–especially in a dynamic environment when past categories become uncertain guides for current problems–is not a given.
Take the case that seems to this non-lawyer to be the one most cited in terms of Supreme Court precedent.
Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws. The Court’s decision articulated the view that individual liberty is not absolute and is subject to the police power of the state.
But in 1905 public health had not yet established a rough dominion over the kind of killers, like smallpox, that had scarred the body politic for millennia and that supported an expansive view of police powers. Indeed this very case was brought after the city of Cambridge moved to mandatory vaccination under the immediate threat of a smallpox outbreak.
Quick and admittedly cursory reviews of similar court cases establishing precedents give off the same air–the immediate need for vaccinations given a clear emergency, the need to vaccinate against killer threats.
I am holding aside for the moment whether the current COVID outbreak has those characteristics. But would Derwshowitz be correct in asserting a generalized power on the part of government in favor of mandated vaccinations, irrespective of the conditions at hand in the moment?
Our practice to date with the flu has been to make vaccination a matter of personal choice. If a person opts not to be vaccinated he is not only subjecting himself to risk but also others with whom he comes in contact, all of whom will have some possibility, however remote, of dying. We accept that method as a reasonable one. But there are certainly many voices in the public health community that would like to see more flu vaccinations. Indeed I am sure some would like to see the practice a universal one.
But if the federal government announced tomorrow a program for mandatory flu vaccinations would Dershowitz say that program would be constitutionally kosher?
Moreover, what limits, if any, exists to government action with respect to diseases that have not yet spread or may not be imminent? It’s like the “pre-crime” in Minority Report. Say that experts think it reasonable to assume an illness may spread in the future. Can we mandate vaccinations today?
Or take the notion that mass vaccinations may not be employed only to ward off disease but to change the underlying structure of the vaccinated person such that positive public health objectives are met. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that work is underway on methods by which the genetic structure of a species–say the human species–can be altered. Should government be given free rein to vaccinate if the objective is not to halt an immediate threat from a dangerous plague but rather to retool DNA to support public health goals? What public health? Whose?
It is not sufficient to say that government has a right to vaccinate and simply give the CDC or some other government body a free hand in the exercise of police powers. And the same goes for lockdowns which have no statutory basis but are entirely premised on an expansive view of police powers.
And here we come back to whether the majesty of the law can easily survive a serious brush with crisis. Formally speaking the law in a constitutional republic is deemed legitimate since it is held to arise from decisions made by free people in their selection of representatives. Legislatures will delegate and courts will second guess–but the law is the law.
But legitimacy is as legitimacy does. If the government is seen as running roughshod over the people’s clear interests no amount of Constitutional flapdoodle will get the genie back in the bottle. If the people see the emperor has no clothes, and act on that basis, legitimacy is withheld in a more direct fashion than could ever arise via methods that are procedurally more pristine.
The “federalist” approach to lockdowns has the virtue of being in keeping with a certain view of the Constitution, and has some formal integrity as a result. But when power is mostly exercised by state and local government the ability of the people to seek redress through direct action is enhanced, too. If all the businesses in the city re-open at one time there is precious little local authorities can do about it.
Rebellion expressed in this way does not line up neatly with the notion of a constitutional republic. It is that rawer thing: democracy.
Sometimes you need democracy–the real thing–good and hard. But direct democracy is an unstable governing method in the long run . Sooner or later cooler heads will prevail and with a little luck that may mean a revitalization of the republican ideal. But how this would work in the long run is to me unclear, my vision clouded and my imagination limited by the ridiculous confines of the moment. Maybe the answer lies in individual choice. Maybe it lies in collective decision making regarding the limits to government action.
I doubt individual choice can be counted on to provide the bulk of the answer. We are not living in a libertarian moment and are probably not living in a libertarian century, or millennium. The East is Red, though not (necessarily) in a communist sense. Solutions to problems in an a world stuffed with advanced technology will have by necessity a collective dimension because the overriding feature of that technology is that it is networked. Social media expresses networks of ideas. Surveillance is interested in networks of human behaviors. And via public health seeks to manage living networks of biological entities.
That does not mean there is no role for the individual in collective action. Concerted action by a group towards a goal does not require that all actors are required to become cogs in a wheel. One of Tocqueville’s key insights about Americans is that they were both highly individualistic and capable of accomplishing great things in common. He saw a nation of joiners, not serfs or conscripted soldiers.
If we can locate that part of our historic character and act on it great things might be possible still. Relative to the question at hand that would mean that Americans would find a way to take a firm stand against the excesses of technological tyranny, doing so voluntarily and collectively in the protection of individual autonomy.
You wouldn’t need any special tools to do this. They are in front of our noses–in the Constitution. Throw the bums out and keep throwing them out until they pass laws that ensure we wont be vaccinated with tracking devices. Until they pass laws asserting control over renegade tech companies with government-like power but private sector protections.
I recently wrote up The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary distributed by Neon and streaming on Hulu. Today, another Neon/Hulu documentary: The Painter and the Thief.
The Biggest Little Farm presented a view of nature that was both beautiful and bracing. Close observation of natural processes was shown to be integral to a natural way of farming. But that does not mean nature is ordered in a stable way. Order is nestled, sometimes comfortably and sometimes not, within larger disharmonies in which chaos can be glimpsed.
The vast uncertainties that The Biggest Little Farm suggested relative to the complexities found in nature are visible in The Painter and the Thief relative to the conundrums of human nature–which only makes sense since human nature is, after all, part of nature.
Facts are often not in dispute. Concerning the film, Vanity Fair has some facts:
After two of her most prized paintings were stolen, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova came face-to-face with thief Karl-Bertil Nordland in a courtroom. Rather than reprimand Nordland though, she asked him if she could paint his portrait. The unlikely friendship that developed over the following three years is chronicled in Benjamin Ree’s new documentary The Painter and the Thief.
“The Painter and the Thief” follows their relationship for the next three years on a most unexpected trajectory.
And other facts, dealing with redemption, compassion, honesty, theft, and other things. Quick summary: she paints him; he feels “seen” for the first time; they commence a complicated and deep relationship based on their respective dark sides; he struggles to fail and ends up succeeding; their roles threaten to reverse; she comes close to being the one to fall apart but in the end does not. A happy ending, sort of.
Yet these are but facts, decent material for explanation but not sufficient for understanding. How do we wish to understand? And what or whom do we wish to understand?
The painter? The thief?
Or maybe the dyad– the odd and special relationship between the two?
But was that special relationship even possible without the filmmaker? Can the relationship between the two be properly understood without taking account of the presence of a third: Ree, whose own accounts of the making of the film only deepen the mystery of what the film is “about” and how to consider its qualities?
And how do we want to conceive of the lived life into the movie versus the way it is captured, artificially, in the medium of film?
Does the film have a theme? It is maybe about art. Or maybe Art?
And if so what about Art? Its formal qualities? Its redemptive qualities? Does Art carry within it the power to redeem? Or is it mainly a token, a symbolic means by which one person reaches out to another?
And how do we wish to reconcile the naked honesty on display with possible subterfuge and guile? Does the painter have an agenda at the beginning, or even at the end? What about the thief? The film maker?
And can we understand what is going on without a religious frame–specifically a Christian one?
It is worth seeing the film just for the pleasure–if that is the right word–of confronting these challenges. It is quite a Rorschach Test. That slippery quality is evident in the many reviews of the film, which generally agree on the facts but think quite differently on the question of understanding.
The Guardian closes its review with a quote from the film maker that stresses the notion of human intention in interaction:
“The questions I would like to explore here are: what do humans do in order to be seen and appreciated?” said Ree. “And what it takes of us to help and see others.”
The Wrap found it a “chronicle of a truly crazy relationship”, indeed a “downright weird” and “sometimes wacky trip into the messiness of human relationships.”
Ultimately it’s a movie about how art can change people’s lives for better and worse, altering our perspectives of ourselves and the world around us.
For its part Vulture saw things through the lens of the carnal:
The Painter and the Thief is an examination of the intersection between inspiration and self-destruction, and of a rapport so deep and instantaneous it feels like evidence of the existence of a soul. But alongside these elements is always the steady thrum of another question, one that sometimes grows so insistent it seems impossible that everyone onscreen can continue to just pretend it isn’t there: Are these people going to fuck or what?
And then there is the question of the last scene. The Painter and the Thief are mounting her paintings for a show and the camera tracks back on a final image, one of her paintings in the show.
The painting resembles one she is seen working on earlier, of the Thief and his girlfriend at the time. In the earlier painting the girlfriend lies atop him in a pose that suggests a sexual theme.
But in the film’s final image, we see The Painter has placed herself atop the Thief instead of the girlfriend. Is there a sexual dimension here, too? Most likely, given that the Painter portrays herself as partly naked.
You almost come round to Vulture’s carnal interpretation. If they are not going to fuck in the movie maybe they did off-screen, or will consummate things after the show.
But is it about sex? Indeed, is the Thief even alive?
Reviewers had a field day here, too.
Vulture comes back to the art:
The film is a portrait of an intimacy that’s as impressive as it is unsettling, and, as the perfect final image proves, it’s also a portrait of a portrait, put on display for anyone to see — or steal.
WBUR stresses the ambiguity of human relationships:
The film’s note-perfect final shot drifts from our real-life participants to one of Kysilkova’s canvases — illuminating the symbiotic relationship between the artist and the admirers, the seers and the seen, the painters and the thieves.
But is there a religious dimension in there too? We speak of compassion and redemption easily enough in the modern world. But Christ? Less so. Still,
(t)he film’s Christian symbolism is hardly accidental. Beyond being a carpenter, Norland, in a car accident that nearly kills him, gets a wound on his wrist that turns into a permanent scar resembling stigmata. He himself recognizes the similarity. Kysilkova later paints the two of them posed in a pieta.
It is odd in a way that what with all the Christian themes running through the movie that more was not made of religion in reviews. The review linked to above is the only one I could find that spied Christian iconography in the final image, or in the body of the film.
But that is maybe not so surprising given that most cultural discussion takes place within its own cultural framework, one that often poses as universalistic but that is as particularist as it gets.
And now that I mention it . . . are there perhaps other layers in the film that a causal viewing and a scan of reviews might miss?
What about politics? It is hardly front and center in the film but there are bits and pieces of it in there, and it is fair to wonder what they mean.
The Painter and the Thief both have dark qualities that put them at odds with the blithe consumerism at the heart of the West in our age.
The Painter comes from deplorable Eastern Europe. She has fled to Norway under the pressure of an abusive relationship and to pursue her art in a free environment. But you never get the impression she is home in Norway. Her husband Oystein Stene, a well-regarded author and director, is seen as hectoring her for what he sees as her dark obsessions. Why do you do these things? She has no ready answer. One of the few observations made by the Thief of the Painter is that she rejects Western feminism. Really? In Norway? What’s that all about?
The Thief is a stranger in his own land, and his journey can be seen not only in terms of kicking the habit but also one of finding an identity he can be comfortable with in his home country. While an addict he adopted something of a skinhead image, with the long-haired Mohawk pulled back on top of his head and with the sides of his head shaved bare. When he eventually turns his life around he takes a real job but hardly opts to fit in. Indeed he appears to double down on the skinhead look: shaved head with Mohawk, more muscles from a lifting regimen, more tatoos. Here’s his current Instagram page: no overt politics but he’s still got the look.
Early in the film we learn that he has an interest in traditional Norwegian architecture, especially wood-framed churches. We see him later in the film showing off a primitive dwelling fashioned from wood harvested in the forest–very Norwegian. The Painter, in a voice over, says that his favorite movie is Dugma, a film about the commitment of Syrian suicide bombers. She suggests that he could have been a suicide bomber, willing to sacrifice for a cause, but that he could have as easily ended up the Prime Minister.
Terrorist potential with nationalist impulses. You are left to wonder–if you noticed in the first place.
I am not sure the politics of the film cohere into anything intelligible. But the entire enterprise keeps you guessing, and that is one of its main virtues. That, and the powerful emotional impact of some scenes that would be hard to fake.
One scene in particular stands out. About a quarter of the way through the film the Painter unveils her portrait of the Thief to him. I won’t describe the Thief’s reaction. Suffice it to say that if it were acting it would rank as a great performance, one of a kind. I trust it was not acting, and that makes it even more powerful.
It is an odd time in the movie for the emotional highlight. You still have more than another hour to go, and you wonder where in the world the film can go after what you’ve just seen.
But life imitates art, and only imperfectly so. Life’s scripts, ever undermined by circumstance and chaos, do not proceed with the formal elegance of a three act play. And this film, while ostensibly about art, is all about life.
“I could teach anybody, even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer.”
-Mike Bloomberg at Oxford
People, despite their seeming complexity, often yield up their characters quite readily to those with an eye to see. You can learn a lot about Mike Bloomberg from that quote, and it is likely further brushes with the camera’s unforgiving eye over the course of his disastrous campaign would simply validate any first impression gleaned from his comments at Oxford.
By contrast that handful of earth from your back yard may look simple yet it is anything but. The complexity, beauty and imponderable qualities of nature, starting with humble soil and going on from there, is the subject of a very interesting documentary entitled The Biggest Little Farm.
The film is in one sense a glorified home movie. It consists mainly of footage shot by Jim Chester of the events surrounding the decision taken with his wife to chuck professional careers for the farming life.
In 2010 the couple was living in Santa Monica in a tiny apartment. Molly, Jim’s wife, was a “private chef and culinary blogger” and Jim was cameraman on wildlife projects. They had a yearning to undertake a collective life project of some sort that was larger and more meaningful but had neither clarity of vision nor resources. The drama kicks off as they are evicted from their apartment as a result of their dog Todd’s unwillingness to stop barking when they are away from the apartment.
What to do? Their commitment to the dog prompts hard thinking, and then a large leap into the void, trading their urban life and careers for a new life together as farmers.
Having read from time to time about the young and educated dropping their conventional careers in favor of farming I was expecting a modest but inspiring lifestyle tale–e.g., “sick of the rat race two Ivy-educated investment bankers find love and meaning on 20 acres in the Berkshires with Belgian endives and Bessie the Cow.”
Jim and Molly’s tale has a good deal of that romance but it is quite a bit more complicated than that. For one, despite the claim that they have no money they presumably are networked into a fairly well-heeled crowd, as they are able to spin the business plan they develop into backing from investors. And they must have raised a tidy sum. They may not have understood farming but they presumably knew their way around a good business plan.
So this is no 20 acres in the Berkshires thing, bought on a whim from last year’s bonuses and able to be reversed if there is a change of mind. They purchase 200 acres an hour from Los Angeles and immediately set out to bring a failed farm, complete with dying fruit trees and dry, depleted soil, back to life. Even in the first year of operation you can see why they needed heavy investors. No expense seems to have been spared. Serious heavy equipment is purchased. Crews are brought in to restore, and then work, the land. They retain a full time natural farming guru, a Zen master of farm design and crop and animal diversity, to more or less run the show while sharing his wisdom.
Jim’s little film is likewise more than a low-key, low-tech home movie. His career in wildlife photography is made apparent, with an awful lot of professional quality footage of aphids, snails, coyotes, owls, fruit trees, the birth of piglets and the entrails seeping from the gut of a baby lamb that has to be put down.
You eventually realize that some of the professed modesty of our main characters presented at the outset may be a tad contrived. They had some serious access to capital and were from the get-go aiming high on everything, including agricultural aspiration, scale of operations, idealistic devotion to natural principles and film making craft.
The cynic in me gets suspicious here. Maybe, I thought, this is just an example of two trust fund kids who said they were chucking it all when they were simply looking for a new and environmentally sensitive canvas on which they could paint their new lives, combining career success with high minded principles.
And yeah there’s something of that in the film. Nonetheless the film won me over, and the protagonists did too.
It took a while for me to be won over. Some things take time to grasp, including something as “simple” as a farm. The guru Jim and Molly brought on as an advisor told them it would take time, as well as a lot of effort. But he gave them a broad template to follow: diversity is good, more diversity is better and you can never have enough diversity.
And at the same time he sketched out a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When you get things seriously diverse the enterprise will achieve a kind of lift off, and more or less run itself, in the way nature does by its very, well, . . . nature. It’s a lot of work to set the contraption but in time you get to sit back and let the farm happen. It’s all mapped out so that everything in nature pulls for everything else –that’s the theory anyway.
We see some glorious images of the farm in operation in the first few years and we get a tantalizing glimpse of this vision of self-regulation. Appealing as I found these images it was around this point in the film that my cynicism was at its high point. Is it all just crimson and clover, over and over?
But things keep going awry. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, or the President of the United States, or even the Zen master of natural farming–something can always go wrong, seriously wrong, and quickly. When their guru dies of cancer several years into the project the couple is made aware with a start how unprepared they still are.
They realize that “embrace diversity” is fine as a general principle but what to do about the coyotes that insist on killing lots of chickens? The birds that peck at the fruit and ruin the harvest? The snails that devour fruit tree leaves, retarding the growth of the fruit? The gophers that gnaw at the tree roots?
It is not giving the story away too much to say that they manage to find solutions to most of these problems. And they are continually surprised to find the answers to problems right under their noses most of the time–ducks to handle snails, coyotes to kill gophers rather than chickens, and so forth. In time they come to see wisdom in a particular method: 1) foster a sufficiently complex and diverse environment such that so that a solution is likely to be at your feet, 2) observe closely 3) draw tentative conclusions directly from nature and then 4) take action based on the observations made in an environment rich in life and possibility.
They end up with what appears to be a highly successful farm, with tours offered to visitors from around the world impressed by the commitment to natural processes as well as the farm’s striking visual beauty. Once again my cynicism bell starts to ring. Is this whole thing going to end too neatly? Is this a worthwhile venture but still something of an elaborate conceit of most use to the affluent who can pay the surcharge for the endives? Most of all, does the film attempt to impart to us an idealized view of nature?–sure, it is hard work but it all comes together with a kind of perfect symmetry in the end.
To their credit the Chesters do not avoid tough truths. Sure, many of the images are gauzy and the underlying commitment to the natural way is unambiguous. But a lot of questions remain unanswered. How do you reconcile your love for an animal with its value as food, or as a commodity to be sold? And is nature’s way a panacea? Many questions are addressed using nature as a template–but nature is not inherently ordered, much less compassionate. A fire could destroy everything in an afternoon.
Perhaps it is helpful at the beginning of the journey to hold to one’s ideals, to believe in nature as ordered, and to aim at fashioning a farm, or a life, to be a kind of self-running clock. But in end the work goes on, and nothing is settled or certain.
“. . . and in the end if the whole idea was to live in harmony with nature, well, we made it this far with a comfortable level of disharmony. The ecosystem of our entire planet works the same way. And when I look at it like that . . . . it’s perfect.“
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, where the almost mandatory take of pundits is that any protest of lockdown measures is troglodyte death wish. The aftereffects of years of Russiagate/Trump coverage are seen everywhere: press outlets reflexively associate complaints of government overreach with Trump, treason, and racism, and conversely radiate a creepily gleeful tone when describing aggressive emergency measures and the problems some “dumb” Americans have had accepting them.
Jimmy Dore and Dylan Ratigan discuss the bad effects of Congress’s “stimulus” efforts. A-one and a-two.