Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Mickey Kaus: "Don't be jealous of the glamorous "blogger" lifestyle! ... Behind the facade is a lot of napping."

And that, my friends, is really why I long for my blogging days.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Movie Review

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall: Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from Bernd Eichinger's adaptation of the non-fiction books Inside Hitler's Bunker by Joachim C. Fest, and Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge, is a compendiously detailed re-enactment of the last days of the Third Reich as the Red Army closes in on Berlin, where Hitler and his entourage are hiding out in a bunker complex below the devastation and chaos of the bombarded city. Though his staff beg him to leave Berlin before the Russians arrive, with the idea that he'll negotiate some ongoing, compromised form of the National Socialist regime, Hitler staunchly refuses--he'll fall with the Reich. His attitude still varies widely, however: sometimes he rousingly predicts victory and gives orders to move nonexistent troops in the city's defense; sometimes he bellows in outrage at the treachery he believes has brought defeat and vilifies the German people for proving to be too weak to carry out his vision; with equal obliviousness he hands out official appointments to now-meaningless posts (e.g., head of the Luftwaffe) and orders arrests and executions of key officials (the latter of which can be effected if his henchmen can get their hands on the offender).

Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is quite exact, as uncanny as Jamie Foxx's impersonation of Ray Charles, but with alarming, spasmodic surges of violent emotion. At the same time, the Hitler of Downfall is necessarily impersonal. After all, it's hard to imagine what purpose a psychologically nuanced account of Hitler would serve. The effects of his character were magnified in world events to such an extent that it wouldn't get us very far to approach him as a realistic fictional character, that is, as the individual product of a certain psychological make-up and experience, someone we could imaginably behave like if similarly constituted and situated. Hitler is entirely too "individual" for realism. And in movies, abnormal psychology, which doesn't offer the audience a point of identification, can really only be observed. In any case, however Hitler got the way he was, all he has left in Downfall is the increasingly futile display of his larger-than-life public persona and, finally, annihilation on his own terms.

The high-ranking ministers and soldiers around Hitler, who for years have been helping him run the Reich into the ground and lose the war, are now second-guessing him behind his back, and the movie cuts to them outside the bunker as they speculate about the Russian victory and decide what to do. The intercutting between the bunker and the outside world that this permits is, in fact, the subject of the movie, not Hitler himself. He's gone an hour before the movie ends but the disaster he set in motion is unstoppable. The point of the movie's dramatic recreation, then, is to show how even when he was ludicrously powerless, even after he was dead, Hitler's madness rippled out of the bunker and continued harming the Germans.

Most reviews have focused on Ganz's performance, discussing the movie in terms of the great-man theory of history that the movie purposely refracts. That purpose is what justifies the movie's epic scale, that it's the story of the nation's downfall at the hands of the man they so enthusiastically followed. Hitler is the vacuum at the collapsing center of their millenial imperial fantasy, which makes Downfall an epic without an epic hero, an epic of deserved defeat.

That's a fascinating concept and the movie gets into trouble only when one of Hitler's more realistic, less fanatical officers threatens to step into the role of hero. Among the candidates are SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), handsome as a matinee idol and married to Eva Braun's (pregnant) sister, who grabs at individual gratification over immolation in the Führer's lost cause, and General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling (Michael Mendl), who stands up to Hitler's paranoia with an amusingly bluff martial masculinity that we can admire despite the cause it serves.

Most problematic, however, is Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel), who tries to reduce civilian casualties by, among other things, intervening when M.P.s drag non-military men out of their homes and execute them for "desertion." With Schenck Downfall comes close to making you feel something idiotic like, If only the good Nazis had been in charge. This clearly isn't the filmmakers' intention but the movie's broad scope, which is its central virtue, also poses a narrative problem: Downfall breaks the big story of the end of the Reich into so many individual stories that at times it loses control of their shape. Thus, when Schenck gets medicine for the military surgery out of a German hospital behind the advancing Russian lines, he dodges bullets to reach the hospital gate and then looks both ways before charging in. In other words, his escapade suddenly turns into an act of ordinary war-movie heroism. When you feel yourself hoping he'll pull it off you're likely also to remember he was a high-ranking Nazi; performing a mitzvah for his wounded fellow Nazis should not set us cheering.

Most of the men in the bunker are not candidates for hero, however: some give in drunkenly or orgiastically to fate, some decamp or plan to make deals to save their skins, some display more fervently than ever their faith in Hitler by killing themselves. Unusually for a Second World War movie about Hitler and his entourage, the women's stories are more memorable. Their position is different: they're dependent on the men not just for support and defense but for basic information. Lacking first-hand experience of how far-fetched the propaganda has become the women pick up the negative buzz from the men who have been conditioned by Hitler's intemperateness to avoid straight answers. The men, who know pretty well what's coming, still don't know what's coming next. In this atmosphere even sensible women take on a neurasthenic edge. Their attitudes and emotions lose all middle ground: they're preposterously hopeful or can't imagine a world after defeat.

Our entrée into the bunker comes via Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the most sensible of the women, who is hired as Hitler's secretary in 1942 and continues working for him in the bunker in the spring of 1945. But the movie begins and ends with interview footage of the aged Traudl from the documentary Blind Spot in which she notes how naïve she was at the time, how unaware of the horrors perpetrated at Hitler's behest, but that, reflecting on it years later, she realized she had no right to be so uninformed, that it couldn't excuse her.

In narrative terms, setting this documentary confession as the endpoint of Traudl's story makes her the most conventional character in Downfall. The German moviemakers want Traudl to function as an admission of national guilt, which means that she has to make a transition from guilty collaboration to a guilty conscience. Her story thus takes the shape of a redemptive romance in which she goes from being a "normal" person who could take part in the Nazi bureaucracy to being a truly normal person with moral sensitivity even to the relatively remote consequences of her actions. (By 1945 she's been typing to Hitler's dictation for two-and-a-half years but it's his ruthless indifference to civilian deaths displayed at the dinner table that finally brings home to her what she's been typing.)

Traudl's dawning awareness makes for a conventional narrative, but it is nonetheless very effective, especially the moment when she infers, from what Albert Speer doesn't say, what Magda Goebbels intends to do with her six children. (This is followed up by a wonderfully matter-of-fact little scene in which Traudl feeds those hungry, ill-fated kids.) Traudl develops enough awareness that we don't object to her escape at the end of the movie. She takes her new awareness out of the claustrophobic underworld of the bunker to the outside world devastated by her beloved boss's policies and both absorbs and experiences the effect of official policies on civilians.

Traudl is one thing, the high-ranking Nazi women in the bunker are another--we don't want them to survive and can't really imagine them living a post-bunker life. Eva Braun is a true believer but not at all forbidding (unlike Magda Goebbels). Eva wants everyone to have a good time, so she encourages them to dance, play the piano, smoke, go above ground for a stroll. Juliane Köhler as big, warm, fun-loving Eva is fascinatingly delusional. Köhler doesn't make her emotionally complex, with layers of fear and regret under a translucent mask. Instead she shows you what a face looks like when information is being taken in but resolutely left unprocessed. It's almost the very alertness of her eyes that makes them so glassy--tireless Eva working the room as it's being blown apart by artillery shells. She's always good for a demented moment; perhaps the best is when she says to Speer, who hasn't eaten all day, that he must be hungry and offers him champagne and a plate of cookies.

At times Köhler's Eva is as high-spirited as that irrepressible good-time gal Thelma Todd playing a gangster's moll in the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business. She rounds out the unreality of this imperial court that can't both adjust for the fact that it's been forced underground and maintain its identity. So when Hitler denies Eva's tearful plea to revoke Fegelein's execution for desertion, she accepts the decision because, even buried alive, he's still the Führer. The Eva Braun of Downfall, a semi-tragic, semi-camp Persephone, isn't the relentlessly chipper hostess from hell, she's the relentlessly chipper hostess of hell.

Magda Goebbels, by contrast, is the stony, grim embodiment of the impact of Nazi ideology on civilians, even its most ardent adherents. The moviemakers blessedly realize that the insanity of the six blond Goebbels moppets singing in chorus in the bunker, or moping because they want to say hello to Uncle Adolf, doesn't require any stylistic enhancement. (They're like little lost souls cast as the von Trapp children in a death-chamber version of The Sound of Music.) Nor does the movie use their "innocence" or blondness or singing voices to bring out the horror of their murder at the hands of a mother who can't bear to think of them growing up in a world without National Socialism. The plain facts are bad enough: Magda drugs her children, including the oldest girl who has to be forced to drink the potion because she knows what's up; then as they sleep she places a glass vial of cyanide between their teeth and presses their jaws until it breaks with a little crunch. The movie replicates Magda's sinister efficiency by showing her go through the process with every single child, without elision. Those misbegotten children could not have a more effective memorial.

This kind of literalness makes Downfall inevitably lumbering because of its scope and because it chooses a humanely empathic rather than an ironic approach to its anti-epic ambitions. (As much as the movie accomplishes, it is also true that it's hard to keep track of who's who among the Nazi officials and that the civilians' stories are much less individuated.) Hirschbiegel shoots the massive confluence of stories from an overview that can take in, without jarring shifts, Hitler and his followers (the morally dead waiting for physical extinction) and the people who pinned their hopes on them and so in one sense got what they deserved (that's Hitler's view at the end) but in another sense got what no civilians deserve, an onslaught they're not permitted to surrender to.

At the same time, Hirschbiegel lets the irony speak for itself and his unemphatic handling permits a surprising amount of comedy to spring out of the material without diminishing or distorting its other implications. Because of Hirschbiegel's broad engineering of his subject Ganz doesn't have to stretch for the laughs. Simply by reference to the information you gather from his officers' gossip, and from your knowledge of history and familiarity with period newsreel footage, you find yourself laughing out loud at how uncomfortably overscaled Hitler's podium style of ranting is in the cramped rooms of the bunker, at his kvetching that the Germans brought defeat on him rather than the reverse, and especially at his denial of the rapidly-encroaching military reality.

Charles Chaplin's low-comedy assault on Hitler in The Great Dictator attacked not just the man but the humorlessness of his political mania. Chaplin made it seem as if laughter was inherently on the side of freedom. The World War II-era Donald Duck short Der Fuehrer's Face roused horse laughs at Hitler's expense as a rude, morale-building response to the Nazis' barbaric saber-rattling. By contrast, the laughter at Ganz's Hitler in Downfall has a quality of informed historical judgment (what Chaplin lacked in the self-serious speech he ended The Great Dictator with), of justness. Some of it is exquisitely understated.

Downfall does attempt more extreme forms of style, particularly in a few Masque-of-the-Red-Death party scenes, and falls short. At first I found myself wishing for the extroverted sensuality of Bernardo Bertolucci's fascist-era Conformist, but I ended up grateful for Hirschbiegel's prosaic approach to this complicated material because it leaves your mind freer to make connections. (The story of The Conformist ties the protagonist's repressed homosexuality to his fascist collaboration and as such doesn't bear much thinking about. Style is all, and in that luscious instance it's plenty.) The situation in Downfall, both in the bunker and above ground, where in April 1945 Nazi heroism maintains its appeal only for children who don't understand the meaning of their oaths to fight the Russian tanks to the last bullet, is grotesque enough without emphasis. Downfall does its best not to seduce you in familiarly movieish ways.

The Nazi M.P.s in Downfall with their last-stand mentality are thus treated very differently from the patrols hunting deserters in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain (click here for my review), with that violet-eyed albino leading the malevolent pack. This comparison brought out for me the extent of Hirschbiegel's tact. Downfall is what Cold Mountain might be like if Minghella had respected the impact of war on civilians enough to forgo all the literary guff. When Traudl emerges from the bunker disguised as a disarmed soldier and a little boy grabs her hand, enabling her to sneak past the Russians, you sense that her story almost can't help taking on a romance form--the symbolic purification of a tainted soul. But Hirschbiegel throughout refuses to let the movie cohere around Traudl, the most sympathetic figure.

Thus, Downfall can't be said to romanticize a fallen empire as Gone With the Wind does (click here for my review) despite its perfectly frank view of Scarlett's morals (not just her man-stealing but her use of convict labor to rebuild her demesne after the war, for instance). Gone With the Wind is Scarlett's romance--her series of quests as the ground shifts under her, and her temptations along the way--and that pulls everything in its train. (As wrongheaded as she may be, if you're not going to root for Scarlett you may as well leave the theater.) Hirschbiegel appends the interview footage of the actual Traudl's self-castigating comments as if to limit the romance the movie gives rise to, just in case. Hirschbiegel does not have total control over the shape of his movie and his skills aren't always perfectly apt, but any moviemaker who knows not to trust himself, who gives history the last word over fiction in order to counteract the pull of romance, is some kind of hero.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

I could spend all day blogging the tournment. Here's a story from Bucknell's victory over 3-seed Kansas:

Lacking a pep band, a Bucknell assistant AD approached Northern Iowa's band and "rented" it for the Kansas game. The Panthers band received free T-shirts and $150 to spend on pizza. The Bison fight song was faxed in Friday morning.
As nice as the Bucknell victory was, I'm even more thrilled by Vermont's victory over Syracuse in what was supposed to be Vermont coach Tom Brennan's last game. The New York Post calls it "Catamountstanding."

T.J. Sorrentine, who made a three in OT from waaaaay outside, said it with charming delight: "I knew I had one more in me."
What a fun time of year. After a relatively tame tournament day yesterday, there were two huge upsets tonight. Think about how many brackets were created on espn.com -- millions? Hundreds of thousands, at least. And how many guessed all the first-round games correctly? Exactly one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Movie Review

Sylvie Testud and Kaori Tsuji in Fear and Trembling: "Bow--Bow--To his daughter-in-law elect!"

In Alain Corneau's adaptation of Amélie Nothomb's Fear and Trembling, Amélie, a young Belgian woman born and raised in Japan until the age of five, makes a sentimental journey back to the country where she feels she left her heart. She doesn't come as a tourist, however, but on a quest: to fit in, to become Japanese. To fulfill her quest she gets a one-year job as a translator at the Yumimoto corporation in Tokyo. Unfortunately, however, her ideas about Japan are the product of a culturally relativist, western-liberal education and have little currency in the formal, strictly hierarchical, and openly nationalistic Japanese corporate culture. (It turns out to be a disadvantage, for instance, that she speaks fluent Japanese.) To make matters worse, Amélie projects her dreamy, personal perceptions onto other people, which might make her a misfit in a corporation in any country.

When underemployed performers, artists, and writers work in businesses to pay the bills they often don't get the adjustments that have to be made, taking it personally when their creativity isn't relevant, and grinding on resentfully for the paycheck they despise as the symbol of their semi-voluntary servitude. The special charm of Fear and Trembling is that Amélie's impressionistic mind both makes her a freak at Yumimoto and compensates her as she lives out the nightmare of sinking to the level of her incompetence--from translator on down to janitor. The fact that Amélie doesn't fit in is a (traditional) source of irony, but in this movie it also means that the ironic viewpoint is, in part, hers. Amélie is thus both stooge and heroine, which means that the slapstick can get pretty humiliating without awakening any masochism. (The moviemakers understand that irony is a form of identification with character, and so, whether or not you're bad at math yourself, you can laugh both at Amélie and with her, for example, as she becomes unhinged by her inability to reconcile expense reports.)

The movie is slight but in a way that makes it the opposite of pushy; it's companionably easy to laugh with. At one level it's a series of revue-type sketches, narrated by Amélie, about her experience of various aspects of Japanese corporate existence--getting tea and coffee, changing calendars, xeroxing, cleaning toilets, etc.--and has the flippancy of the broad anti-corporate shtick in such American movies as It's Always Fair Weather, The High Cost of Loving, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Secret of My Success, and, more recently though in a less high-spirited mode, Office Space.

At the same time, some of the funniest material is specifically satirical of the Japanese. This material is just as thin as in the brash entertainments above, but pointed: the movie really digs its needles into the Japanese corporate types. It's all heightened and so not literally believable (it's also unclear whether the working space is the product of inefficient corporate planning or inattentive movie production design), but at times it's wickedly amusing, when, for instance, Amélie, head bowed, says that much of Japanese history became understandable when she had to endure her boss's ear-splitting harangue, that a person would do anything to make it stop, invade Manchuria, crash a fighter plane into an American battleship, anything.

As a succession of stages on Amélie's bumpy road to the bottom, Fear and Trembling is somewhat scattered, held together by her narration and our sense that finally her heroism will take the retrospective form of writing that clever narration. But the movie also has a center, in the relationship of Amélie and her immediate supervisor, Fubuki Mori (Kaori Tsuji). Fubuki is a tall, marmoreal woman who at age 29 has devoted so much time and energy clawing her way to the middle that it's considered unlikely she'll ever marry. Amélie, a disheveled young woman with the sensitive comic expressiveness of a degree-holding troll, is utterly entranced by Fubuki's poised beauty and so fails to perceive that her attachment isn't shared by this ambitious junior executive who feels threatened by her subordinate's attainments and initiative.

Fubuki is a minor player in Yumimoto but that gives her enough power to degrade Amélie in Japanese-corporate terms. What Fubuki in her turn doesn't understand is the richness of Amélie's internal resources, which enable her to poeticize Fubuki even as Fubuki indulges her spite by demoting and belittling her. Whatever else you make think of these resources of Amélie's, they keep the movie from becoming a melodrama in which we ache for Fubuki to get her comeuppance. (She never gets it at work, though we're also specifically told she doesn't marry.)

All the same, Amélie cannot be talked out of confronting Fubuki, and these confrontations between them as the situation deteriorates are fascinating. The moviemakers don't fake them up dramatically at all--they resolve nothing. The point of them is that Amélie wants to express her feelings to Fubuki, to speak in a common language, and the movie dramatizes, with no hype or self-importance, the impossibility of stepping outside certain power dynamics to make yourself understood. In the Yumimoto hierarchy there's domination and submission, but for a Belgian girl there's really only submission.

The further pleasure of these confrontations is watching the two actresses face off in Japanese. (Testud is reported to have learned the language for this movie in a matter of two months.) Testud and Tsuji speak a common language but their body languages are entirely different, which is not to say they're untranslatable. Testud has a wonderful way of registering the impact of unfamiliar Japanese customs not just with her eyes but with her neck muscles, as if she were being knocked in the forehead at every misstep. As Fubuki, Tsuji literally and figuratively looks down on Testud, and though she mostly remains still, she pushes her barbs home by swiveling her head, as if she had a bobbling universal joint at the base of her skull. The impact of their scenes doesn't just come from our understanding that the two characters mean such different things by intelligence and obedience and honor. It also comes from seeing the contrast between Testud's frank gaze, the way she simultaneously seems open to and unprepared for everything, and Tsuji's iciness, which is forbidding enough when it's opaque but even more horrible when it becomes translucent.

Whether Fubuki accurately represents a Japanese professional woman's outlook or not, Tsuji puts the character as written over Amélie's net in one unreturnable serve after another. Tsuji comes close to expressing herself in disdain as witheringly, exclusively, and fully as Bill Murray or Kevin Spacey at their most bilious. And like Murray and Spacey she does it in a comic idiom. But in her final encounter with Fubuki, Amélie finally has the insight that she can control the situation by playing into it rather than fighting it. Amélie thus submits to Fubuki's authority so abjectly she gives her an "orgasm." (That is, Amélie approaches Fubuki with the fear and trembling formerly held to be the appropriate attitude with which to approach the emperor.) The basic insight is that at some point the mania for control becomes indistinguishable from its opposite, which becomes apparent in this increasingly wacky scene as Amélie whets Fubuki's greedy appetite for further admissions of incompetence and even retardation.

The movie would probably strike American audiences as very "French." Amélie has such a personal literary take on her experiences that she doesn't take them personally, in the way we usually mean that; her rewards lie outside the scope of institutional recognition of sincere effort. Her range of speculation may also seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with far-left feminist theory, e.g., that a male superior's treatment of women is like rape. (At the same time, Fear and Trembling is nothing like Secret Things Jean-Claude Brisseau's stupefying and unendurable S/M phantasmagoria about Parisian corporate life.) But Amélie and Fubuki are "sisters" only in the most unidealized sense: they can't stop fighting or escape from each other.

Amélie's fascination with Fubuki is also sexually ambiguous, and it's unclear whether the character is supposed to be uncommitted to an identity and so not fully aware of what she's giving off or whether it's the moviemakers who are unaware (though Fubuki does mention it in passing once). And the movie also treasures Amélie's worminess a bit much, as if the inability to take care of herself were just what made her such a poetic soul. As irony, then Fear and Trembling isn't itself bracingly impersonal about Amélie's story as the Brazilian Suzana Amaral's brilliant Hour of the Star is about the fate of its nobody protagonist. At the same time it is preferable to the thoughtless jokiness about Japan in Lost in Translation, that mopey-narcissistic tourist's movie. Fear and Trembling likewise features an outsider's sense of alienation in Tokyo, but the heroine has made much more of an effort to fit in, and her "specialness" itself contributes to the comedy. There's none of the sigh-heaving preciosity of Lost in Translation (click here for my review).

Fear and Trembling is a quick, intelligent trifle that plays out the hyperbolic possibilities in the modern clash of cultures. That clash pushes the idealistic fool of a heroine to the bottom of Japanese corporate culture and out, all the way back to Belgium where she puts her experiences in a book and gets the kind of career she's suited for. In other words, in Tokyo Amélie gets a glass of cold water in the face and both wakes up and goes on dreaming. The unforced doubleness of Fear and Trembling makes it an unusual and easily recommendable little entertainment.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lily showed me this article last week by Yale Law prof Ian Ayres. He writes about how Yale is discriminating improperly by having sex-segregated bathrooms. I think it's idiotic. But substance aside, the article is some of the worst written stuff I've seen in a while. It's like he wrote it on the toilet, which would explain where he got the idea from.
This article caught my eye a few weeks ago. I love it when judges smack down stupid litigants. Check out these facts:
A federal judge last week accused a San Francisco law firm of "plainly unethical" conduct in its representation of a wheelchair-bound man who has filed some 400 lawsuits against California businesses since 1998 for alleged violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

....

Two months ago, Rafeedie declared the firm’s disabled client, Jarek Molski, a "vexatious litigant" and ruled that Molski would have to get a judge’s permission before filing any more suits under the act in the Central District of California. At the latest hearing, the judge said he has decided to impose a similar prefiling requirement on the Frankovich firm.

....

The firm filed 223 ADA-related claims last year, of which 156, or 70 percent, were brought on behalf of Molski, the judge said. All were nearly identical. "Indeed, it seems that other than superficial alteration of the facts and parties’ names, the complaints are textually identical, often down to the typos," he said.

Another common theme in the firm’s cases, Rafeedie said, is that its clients regularly make multiple claims for injuries purportedly suffered at different establishments on the same day. Of the 156 cases filed by Molski last year, the judge said, Molski claimed to have been injured twice or more on the same day in 37 cases, three or more times on the same day in 19 cases, and four or more times on the same day in nine cases.

....

At the hearing, Rafeedie singled out for special criticism the firm’s practice of sending out a form letter along with a copy of the complaint to every business being sued. The letter, which the judge called "astonishing," is not only unethical, Rafeedie alleged, but misleading.

In the letter, the firm strongly advises the defendant not to get a lawyer, noting that once hired, a defense attorney would simply "embark on a billing exercise," according to Rafeedie. It also advises the defendant that its insurance policy may cover the claim, describing in detail what provisions of a general liability policy might provide coverage. The firm even offers to represent the defendant in a lawsuit against its insurer in the event the insurer denies coverage of the claim, the judge said.

Finally, the letter advises the defendant that "it does not have any bona fide defense" to the claim, and recommends that it quickly settle the matter "rather than waste the money on needless litigation," Rafeedie said.

Such a letter, the judge said, apparently violates lawyer ethics in at least three ways:

It advises an unrepresented party against obtaining counsel.
It offers legal advice on pursuing a claim against the defendant’s insurance company.
It advises an unrepresented party that it has no bona fide defense to the claim against it.

Moreover, the legal advice regarding insurance coverage appears to be questionable at best, Rafeedie added. While the letter suggests there may be coverage for the plaintiff’s claims, the judge said, a California appeals court has held that there can be no insurance coverage for the sort of ADA violations the plaintiffs allege.
Seems open and shut to me. This letter could be used as an example in a legal ethics textbook. The response of the law firm is as expected:
The Frankovich Group, however, takes issue with the judge’s conclusion, maintaining in a court filing that it should be commended rather than condemned for its extraordinary efforts in seeking access for the disabled.

The document takes exception to what it calls the judge’s "personal, unsupported, unwarranted, unjust, professional smear" of the good name of the Frankovich Group and its president and sole shareholder, Thomas Frankovich. The document claims Rafeedie has acted "not as a body seeking justice, but as a vigilante."
What's sad, however, is the reaction of a third party "academic."
Washington University law school professor Samuel Bagenstos, one of the country’s leading authorities on disability law and the ADA, says that while Rafeedie’s frustrations are understandable, his focus may be misdirected.

"The reason why these plaintiffs and these lawyers are able to do what they’re doing," he says, "is that even today, 15 years after the statute was adopted, there is still such widespread noncompliance with [the public accommodations provision] of the ADA."
No. No! NO! His focus is not "misdirected." The people have committed innumerable violations of legal ethics. They are exactly the kind of people that give lawyers a horribly bad name. They must be stopped. Their ends must not be allowed to justify their means. Mr. Bagenstos's willingness to attribute noble intentions is understandable, but it is his focus that is misdirected.
Not all the professors at Yale Law are kooky liberals. Peter Schuck considers himself a "militant moderate" (he is publishing a book this summer titled "Meditations of a Militant Moderate: Cool Essays on Hot Topics"). In that role, he's come out publicly to decry the position much of the Yale Law faculty has taken on the Solomon Amendment.

If you've been living in a cave, the Solomon Amendment issue is, in broad strokes, about how Congress will take away federal funding from law schools that refues to allow JAG recruiters to recruit on campus. Schuck writes, among other arguments:
Why should the schools screen employers' practices for some of the most critical and well-informed young adults in the country? Can't students make up their own minds on this? What vision of intellectuality, character, and maturity do the schools convey when they relieve students of their duty as autonomous adults and citizens to make their own moral choices? Given the schools' vaunted quest for diversity, is it not inconsistent for them to discourage students from hearing a world view -- opposition to gays in the military -- that was resoundingly endorsed by a democratic (and Democratic) Congress, affirmed by administrations of diverse ideological stripes, upheld by the courts, and preached by some of the great religions to which many of the students subscribe? How much liberality and subtlety of mind do law schools exhibit when their interviewing rules treat all versions of that world view as a single species of invidious homophobia to be indiscriminately condemned-regardless of whether it proceeds from the kind of blind hatred that murdered Matthew Shepard or from ethical traditions or prudential concerns shared by many thoughtful, morally scrupulous people?
That argument intrigues me the most. He's got some kooky ones, too, namely that "[i]t seems odd for the schools to insist that they may define merit in a way that disadvantages white, Asian, and indeed straight applicants (if schools deem other minorities or gays 'diversity-enhancing') but that the military may not define merit in a way that disadvantages gays."

His book actually sounds interesting. Wow, I'm a nerd.
A fascinating article about a severe baby bust in Japan.
We are happy to hear that Jens 'n' Frens is running a tournament pool this year. Send your entries their way!
Quote of the Day:
"I want to find a voracious, small-minded predator and name it after the IRS."
~ Robert Bakker

Song of the Day:
The Grateful Dead, "Rosemary"

Happy Birthday:
Fabio
Andrew Jackson
Judd Hirsch
Phil Lesh
Sylvester Stallone

Monday, March 14, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."
~ Robert Wilensky

Song of the Day:
Toto, "I'll Be Over You"

Happy Birthday:
Michael Caine
Billy Crystal
Albert Einstein
Kirby Puckett
It's that time of year again -- the only time when the KC watches more SportsCenter than Law & Order. They just showed a Top-Ten list of the greatest buzzerbeaters of all time; #1 was, of course, Christian Laettner's against Kentucky in the greatest college basketball game ever played (and one some people still haven't gotten over, apparently).

We aren't doing a blog pool this year, because we're lazy and most of the few regular readers of this blog who are into this sort of thing are already in our ESPN pool.

Happy bracketeering, everybody.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Movie Review

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows: Watching the Children

In Nobody Knows four children of different fathers ranging in age from 4 to 12 are abandoned in a Tokyo apartment for unpredictable periods while Keiko, their childish, pleasure-seeking mother, goes off with men. Since landlords won't rent to mothers with very young children, Keiko presents Akira, the oldest, as her only child and sneaks the other three in, two of them inside suitcases. Thus, except for Akira, who buys groceries and cooks, the children have to stay indoors. Even the balcony is off-limits, except for the older girl Kyoko who is mother's little laundress.

To show what children's lives would be like with no adults around to nurture them, or simply to impose order, the director Hirokazu Kore-eda employs a shooting style made up of "edgy" choices--off-center framing, movement in and out of frame and focus, cutting before and after the beat, sequencing of scenes without familiar narrative logic. (The camerawork is by Yutaka Yamasaki, the editing by Kore-eda.) It's a paradoxically quiet expressionistic technique, a virtuosic way to make the audience feel as if we were observing without intruding.

Kore-eda's approach is like Gus Van Sant's in Elephant. In Elephant, however, Van Sant was fighting against his material. You went in assuming he made the movie to explain the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and yet he was so concerned (and rightly) about merely dramatizing editorial banalities that he developed a technique to show what it must have felt like to be at the school that day not knowing what was coming, i.e., not knowing what someone would want to make a movie about. Van Sant's technique--long, wandering, unbroken takes successively covering the same time without intercutting--was an interesting attempt to prevent his movie from having the center everyone expected it to have. (Unlike the Columbine shooting itself, it's pretty much impossible to have a rote response to Elephant.)

By contrast, Kore-eda's intention and style in Nobody Knows are more smoothly aligned. The point of his technique is to replicate with the inherently intrusive camera what day-to-day life is like for these kids whose plight "nobody" knows about. (It's the opposite of reality TV which is documentary in the simplest sense of being non-fiction but can tell you only what people behave like when they do know the camera is on.)

At the same time, it would be a mistake to think of Nobody Knows as naturalistic. Kore-eda's technique is actually a highly formal and intentional way of making everything feel unobserved, offhand, diffuse. It's a fabulous technique: more consistently than in such great naturalistic works about the suffering of children as Vittorio De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us and Shoeshine, René Clément's Forbidden Games, and the first story in Satyajit Ray's omnibus movie Two Daughters, you're conscious of the visual and rhythmic correlatives for devastating neglect.

To add to the confusion, Kore-eda has directed the children beautifully in a naturalistic vein. In his hands the young actors effortlessly create distinctive characters; they never seem like they've been cued, the usual curse of children in movies. Akira (Yûya Yagira, who won best actor at Cannes in 2004 for this performance) is mother's lieutenant when she's away. He's up to the challenge of taking care of the younger kids and preserving the family secret from the world but doesn't see the conflict between these two responsibilities. He's also old enough to know what he's missing out on--the friendships with boys his age that would develop if he were allowed to go to school and play sports. Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) has a more limited awareness because she's never allowed out. She doodles on the unpaid utility bills and toodles on a little red plastic piano, wishing she could go to school and take piano lessons. But she's also alert to her mother's evasions and fundamental unreasonableness. Precisely because of her more limited experience, Kyoko represents children's inherent desire to develop their capacities by participating in the world.

Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) is an endlessly energetic boy who might not be aware of what they're missing out on because he's capable of turning everything into a game, providing the sound effects himself. Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), the baby daughter, is naturally the most vulnerable and the most in need of her mother. On her birthday Akira takes her out for an expedition to the train station because she's convinced it's the day Keiko will return. Because it's her birthday she gets to pick her shoes and Akira gallantly lets her wear the teddy bear sandals, despite the inconvenient fact that they squeak at every step. (Unable to sneak past her, Akira tells the landlady Yuki is a cousin just staying the night.)

At 140 minutes Nobody Knows is hard to recommend to a general audience solely on the basis of Kore-eda's technique. (Elephant was 81 minutes--a reasonable ceiling for an experimental film.) If anything would put the movie over it's the kids, in both the more casual and the more deliberate moments. The sight of Shigeru rubbing his head after his mother has cut his bangs too short, or the long shot of Yuki squeaking down the middle of the street on the way home from the train station, are irresistibly moving.

The kids wouldn't come across so well without Kore-eda's pseudo-objective technique; it's plainly a huge plus, as he told IndieWire in this 4 February 2005 interview, that he had "three months to acclimate the children to the camera's presence in their daily lives. To get them used to ignoring us." All the same, though these are perhaps the least pukey kids in movie history they're still "irresistible." That is, Kore-eda presents them in a special way specifically to move us, even if his hand is invisible.

That applies to the incidents in the movie as well. I rarely had the feeling that I was seeing what would happen to an actual family of children abandoned in this way. For starters, they don't fight among themselves, which I suppose you might explain by saying that their situation has made them precociously aware of their interdependence and so they wouldn't risk fighting, but that isn't made clear if it was Kore-eda's intention. (Think of the more bustlingly believable scenes in the divorce drama Shoot the Moon in which the oldest daughter makes breakfast for her sisters before school and then gets mad and dumps it when they don't appreciate her effort.) Kore-eda's kids don't even get sick and, until the very end, they don't have accidents. Neither do they suffer in any way we could fail to sympathize with. They don't have the vices of children as I remember them from my own childhood--they're not selfish, whiney, aggressive. They're purely victims of their mother.

It's no more plausible that the people who become aware of what's going on don't intervene. In one scene the landlady stops in to ask about the unpaid rent and sees that Keiko lied about how many children she had when she moved in. Kyoko tells her Keiko is working in Osaka (249 miles away), which you'd think would be a bad answer, but as far as we know the landlady never comes back. To put it as simply as possible, there's more drama in any child's life, both internally and externally, than there is in the lives of the kids in Nobody Knows.

In the IndieWire interview, Kore-eda says he aimed to show "children's incredible stamina and lust for life and vulnerability and complexity," but most of his darts land on number 3. The kids' lives are exposed to our gaze but what is revealed are four unstained souls, Rousseauian exemplars of childhood innocence. The narrative problem is that naturalism isn't the best way to express ideals. (Isn't the point of "candid" camerawork to capture the unideal behavior people engage in when they don't know they're being watched?)

Oliver Twist is also a pure soul lost in the bad big city; Nobody Knows is what Oliver Twist would be like if he ended up fending for himself in a London garret alone, and without drawing the attention of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies or of Monks, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, and Bill Sikes, either. There's a young cashier at a grocery store who feels for Akira, as Nancy felt for Oliver, but there are no major adversaries to protect him against. It doesn't make sense for Kore-eda to present the children as allegorically pure if he's not shaping the narrative as a romance in which the allegory can function. Pure souls have to be hindered, diverted, tempted, and then must struggle against and ultimately overcome the forces of evil, in order for their purity to have narrative impact.

By comparison, Gabriele Salvatores's I'm Not Scared, which I think was the best movie that opened in the United States last year, expertly makes use of the elements of naturalism and romance in conjunction. I'm Not Scared more shrewdly begins by showing that children are very much prey to vice and then has the little boy protagonist lift himself above the vices of both his playmates and of all the adults around them by making a heroic effort to save a kidnaping victim. The movie is charged with naturalistic detail about brutally limited rural life, but it ideas about moral development in children become operative by means of the romance narrative.

In Nobody Knows, Kore-eda's technique tells you that nobody's watching these kids but you're always aware of the director's sympathy behind his aesthetically disciplined gaze. It's that sympathy that returns and so gives meaning to Yuki's uncomprehendingly pained eyes. Unfortunately, Kore-eda's sympathy is less interesting than the situation that he has transformed to generate that sympathy. (The movie is based on an actual 1988 incident in Tokyo, but Kore-eda admits to IndieWire that the movie is "almost entirely fiction.")

Something similar happens in Kore-eda's After Life (1999), the ingenious premise of which is that the dead are allowed to take a single memory with them to the next world. To determine which memory they'll keep, bureaucrats spend a week interviewing them; once the memory is selected a recreation is filmed that will play in place of the living memory of the actual event. It's not at all a cynical vision: the bureaucrats, dead men and women themselves, are competent and sensitive. With an easy prospect, like the old woman Kimiko Tatara, they may get right to her memory of a formal dance she performed for her adored older brother. A tougher prospect may have to view years and years of videotaped experience before making a decision. (Anyone who can't, or refuses to, select a memory becomes an interviewer.)

In After Life Kore-eda's technique is subjected to the rigors of the premise--the interviewers work against a deadline and each character presents a plot arc with a pre-defined endpoint. At its best moments the premise is also purified by the technique. The scene in which the old lady teaches the dance to the little girl playing her at the age she was at the time, or of a man's flight on a biplane, are both "nifty" and amazingly unforced. When his instincts are just right, Kore-eda has both the perfect technique and the perfect touch for suggesting (without explicitly defining) the immanence of human experience.

But again, while the technique in After Life may always be naturalistic the content isn't, and not just because it's a fantasy about posthumous existence. The game is given away in the stories of the schoolgirl who first chooses a trip to Disneyland as her memory and of an older man who boasts about his extramarital sexual conquests. A young female interviewer delicately steers the girl toward a more individual memory while the cheating husband on his own ends up picking a domestic moment. When you hear these outcomes you realize that despite the seemingly objective technique, somebody--Kore-eda--is most definitely watching and judging and shaping, and what he's coming up with isn't very different from the liberal consensus of most blandly uplifting Hollywood movies. If Hollypeckerwoods remake After Life they'll no doubt use a pizzazzier technique but they won't have to change the attitudes nearly as much.

By comparison to almost any movie about children, Nobody Knows is so low-keyed that the soft attitude may be less obvious than in After Life. Kore-eda doesn't have to push because there's no question about what we'll feel for these kids. But after the third or fourth reprise of the plinky-plaintive music, I began to think that his approach sits right on that razor's edge between recognizable style and shtick. This thought was the gateway to feeling that his failure either to imagine the subject matter more thoroughly in a naturalistic vein or to tie it all up in a romance narrative seriously limits what he can accomplish with his technique.

You's performance as the thoughtless, simpering Keiko offers a good beginning for both naturalism and romance. We've seen selfish mothers feigned by Cher, Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon and the like, but the Hollywood diva is always looking for something in the nature of approval or sympathy. (Ironically, they can't play selfish mothers because they're too concerned about their public images.) With Keiko, Kore-eda suspends judgment to the extent that you can watch You's demonic infantilism without having your emotions distorted by your natural anger. Kore-eda doesn't get the full comedy out of the scenes in which Keiko tries to convince her grave, practical older children that they don't want to go to school, but he does enable us to see more than we might if we were confronted by such a personality in life or read about her in the newspaper.

Keiko may be seen coolly but You's line readings are highly stylized. At times she sounds like the witch in Hänsel und Gretel, a comic enchantress holding the children captive. You has been in only a few movies but she's more effective in this vein than that theatrical veteran Irene Worth as the grandmother in Lost in Yonkers. But although Akira holds things together as magically as a child in a fable, Kore-eda doesn't do anything with these possibilities.

Kore-eda shot the movie in chronological order through four seasons from a script that changed every day. That's great for the movie's feel but bordering on a disaster for its structure. His accretive method simply isn't the most effective way to tell this story, which becomes randomly episodic as it goes on and on.

To start at the top of the list of missed opportunities, Akira can't be a full-fledged protagonist because his "responsibility" is conceived entirely in terms of Keiko's fault for imposing it on him. There's no tragic sense that if Akira weren't such a good boy, if he said to hell with it and let the haywire snap, they might be better off. (Akira tells the cashier that they were once separated by child aid services and that was a mess, but it's hard to say separation would be worse than what finally happens.)

You might also think that Akira displays a maladaptation many of us retain after childhood, clinging to what's familiar even when it isn't satisfactory. But without narrative structure, what you feel for these kids, and what you think of their situation and their reactions to it, can't rise to a very complicated level of drama. You feel bad for Akira, but you feel bad for the mistreated kids you read about in the paper; there should be greater dramatic payoff from the kind of access this movie affords us. I'm not sure Nobody Knows elicits more complex reactions from us than if Keiko had abandoned four dogs in the apartment. (Dogs are even more dependent and even less comprehending, after all.)

The most dramatically engaging part of the movie is watching the older children react to their mother--you can see them trying to be obedient and yet figure out how to get what they want. They're preternaturally good at reading her but too young to understand they have every right to escape from her screwy world; they've become experts at a horribly unnecessary skill. Once Keiko decamps for good, however, all that's left is the special pathos of childhood due to the fact that children have the capacity for suffering without the power to end it or even the consolation of understanding it.

Kore-eda then wraps the movie up with a sequence in which the children have a weirdly affectless reaction to a horrible household mishap. This doesn't even make the most of the pathos the movie has generated up to that point, but rather throws it away for a more anomic vibe. You could say that the point is that the children have become so conditioned to their life that they stop having natural feelings, but that isn't what we otherwise see and the lack of dramatic structure prevents Kore-eda from locking it in, in any case.

The end of the movie seems like the corner Kore-eda backs himself into by shooting without a script. He gets about as much out of his semi-improvisational method as a director could, but style isn't everything, especially if your ambition isn't complex enough for your style. (Also a problem in a movie like Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas.) The movie starts out feeling scrupulous and focused but becomes increasingly listless until the bizarrely decompressed ending. Kore-eda simplifies the material without shaping a story according to the forms that give simple emotional material the most force. At times Nobody Knows provides intense pathos, but given the children's situation intense pathos isn't that big an achievement.

Click here for a more impressionistic statement of Kore-eda's intentions and methods.

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