Contrasts: The Lives of Others and The Wind That Shakes the Barley

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I probably wouldn’t have bothered to pen anything concerning The Lives of Others, a movie I detested not only while I was sitting through it, but continued to detest exponentially long afterward, if I hadn’t spent two weeks in hell with a corporate Democrat (white, affluent, lesbian) in Columbia City.

Lives, as we all know, was handed the Oscar for best foreign film; what is less acknowledged is that this densely plotted narrative, which doesn’t end when it should — with the rather pleasing suicide of its physically grotesque heroine — preferring instead to stockpile coda on top of coda on top of coda, is perfectly in keeping with Academy taste. That is to say, and readers who know too well my treasury of phrases can chime along in unison, it’s a wretched fiasco.

I saw the movie more than a month ago, and still Lives takes up valuable space on art-house screens while more deserving works (see The Wind That Shakes the Barley, see The Cats of Mirikitani) are confined to the margins. I have to wonder if anyone suckered by the Oscar win into enduring what amounts to two hours and twenty minutes of Euro-trash cinema at its ostentatious worst actually likes this tread-milled slop. It seemed fairly clear to me that the writer-director’s grasp of a repressive Socialist government was formed by early and fatal exposure to Walt Disney movies and to The Sound of Music. With finishing touches as they might have been supplied by John Grisham. Everything is explained, dear children. Nothing left ambiguous or unresolved. No plot thread permitted to dangle. And there’s “pay off” for every single portentous exchange or planted device (literal and metaphoric), even if it takes the acme screenwriter an extended running time to get there. At the very end, we are in full receipt of uplift and closure.

But back to my hostess in one of Seattle’s ugliest neighborhoods, a prime example of gentrification gone wrong: “I thought it was so well done,” she said, and I wish I had asked her why. Looking around at her well-appointed house, at all the Rick Steves travel guides, and at all the gear from REI, I imagined I had a fairly apt notion of why such an over-baked, lumbering movie met with no criticism from her. Why, it’s approved of, of course, and who’s going to deviate from the lockstep chorus? The Academy has spoken; the will of the collective is superior to anyone who has the gaucherie to dissent. But I plowed ahead with: “Well, the first hour is flat-out terrible. And then slowly it improves. It becomes engrossing at least, in a mechanical sort of way.” I restrained myself from pointing out that although the men in the movie refer almost constantly, in the beginning, to how “beautiful” the leading lady Christa-Marie is, Christa-Marie quite plainly isn’t beautiful. In fact, Christa-Marie stands out as fearfully unattractive. Why does the playwright protagonist (the only East German writer, we’re told, who’s read in the West) sleep with this two-timing neurasthenic hag? Yet my remarks were enough to alienate, to offend. I tried to steer the conversation in a new direction by talking about a foreign film that I do like — I had been on a month-long diet of Jacques Rivette movies — and attempted to engage this exceedingly straight, 42-year-old dyke in the virtues of Céline and Julie Go Boating, a film as fun as it is masterful. She would have none of it. Hadn’t heard of it, didn’t want to hear about it. Silence ensued. I had broken the cardinal rule of liberalism — or what passes for it in the Pacific Northwest: I disagreed with someone over a movie, a movie the Establishment has been paid untold sums to tell us is a Product of Excellence. Exit the injured party to retreat into sullenness or into National Public Radio, whichever comes first, and to emerge armed with the Northwesterner’s chief weapon against independent thought: coldness. In our remaining 10 days of being under the same roof, she never spoke to me again, other than a poker-faced “Have a good one” in the early mornings. Well, welcome to Seattle. In more than a year away from the city, I’d forgotten that the expression of opposing views gets you killed here.

lvothers2If I had been able to get a conversation going on Céline and Julie, I likely would have ventured my opinion that without this 1974 film, we would have no David Lynch and no Charlie Kaufman, if only because both of these …oh, what’s the noun I’m looking for here …have transmuted and filtered this movie’s ideas into their own. C&JGB, when I saw it on an unseasonably warm Sunday night in early March, struck me as, among other things, a Mulholland Drive made by someone with a sense of humor and humanity (as opposed to Lynch’s exclusive and one-dimensional interest in peeking through tents at sideshows; Juliet Berto’s nightclub “magicienne” act remains more slyly mysterious than anything Lynch has conjured), and an Adaptation stemming from a feminist perspective, which differs markedly from the Jonze/Kaufman worldview (reminiscent, I might surmise, of college-town alcoholics unaware that the hour for vacating the fraternity house, their own “other house,” has long past). Yet it was impossible to go there with my Nordic-featured passive aggressor, who shut down more or less completely, content in certitude. Our exchange put me in mind of something an Italian woman once told me: She had taken a couple of dykes to see Sue Brooks’s film Japanese Story when it played at the Crest and was exasperated when they dismissed the movie as “too disturbing.”

“In Seattle,” I can still hear her thickly accented lament, “even the lesbians want everything to be predictable and… nice.”

A word about those aforementioned codas in The Lives of Others: Titles appear on-screen — two years later — six months later — another two years later — and on they go. Which ending will be the ending? The filmmaker settles on a real doozie, one guaranteed to give the closure crowd sweet dreams and as for those stray few who resent having their intelligence insulted, well, Sony didn’t distribute this motion picture for the likes of you. In a scene worthy of Chaplin at his most self-pitying, the sad-sack former spy, whose clandestine good deeds have reduced him to a lowly, mail carrying civil servant, staggers in front of a glossy, corporate bookstore, the kind that has bay windows scrolled with banners proclaiming the newest rollout off the assembly line, and sees (he could hardly fail to notice) that the playwright on whom he spied has published a novel, a novel called something like Sonata for a Good Man, a phrase repeated endlessly in earlier reels. The weathered, prematurely aged old softie walks into the bookstore, picks a copy of the novel off a shelf, thumbs through the first few pages, and — lo and behold, and bless my soul! — he discovers that the writer has dedicated the book to him. He cracks a desiccated little smile; the sleek young male at the counter asks some typically clerk-like question, whereupon our middle-aged geezer gurgles, “This one’s for me!” Oh, so, so well done — done until the bones are charred. And this is what our monoculture champions — or allows to have championed? Is it any wonder that psychological illiterates have flocked to this cinematic egg-toss and lapped up the yolks? The movie “provides solutions” and “delivers the deliverables”; it repackages the same old shit in politically acceptable terms, so that the nutjob liberals who orgasm over the noxious term “sustainability” won’t have to go home with their false ideals disarrayed.

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The Lord only knows what my Columbia City acquaintance (let us now leave her there) would have made of Ken Loach’s exceptionally fine film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Instead of “closure,” this movie ends in utter hopelessness and helplessness. It has a final scene of two enemies mutually frenzied with grief, and not even the tears of the victimized or the victimizers offer salve against despair.

The hour is late in terms of me “reviewing” this picture, therefore I can only state why it touched me.

Loach portrays the almost non-stop violence discreetly; with one exception, he makes points using sound effects, not shock cuts. Throughout, the sad contrast of the clean, raw youth, the village lads in rural Ireland, 1920, fighting a conflict older than they are, that will outlive them — the friction of their well-scrubbed, boyish innocence alongside guerrilla warfare and bloodied faces pierced me to my soul.

There’s a torture sequence in which British soldiers have captured one of the leaders in the Irish Republican Army. They interrogate him, and when he won’t betray his cause, they remove his fingernails with a pair of pliers. The young man, Teddy O’Donovan (Pádraic Delaney) with limpid blue eyes, dimpled chin, and neatly trimmed dark red hair, epitomizes a particular kind of masculine beauty, and it hurts to see him mistreated.

A certain amount of narrative disorientation works in the movie’s favor. Paul Laverty’s screenplay never once feels like a screenplay, the highest compliment I can pay it. The film drops us into the middle of a cycle of war and lets us puzzle out connections between the figures on screen. The protagonist, Damien (Cillian Murphy), observes the horrors before becoming a participant in them. Who was he prior to joining the volunteer army to fight the British occupiers? It isn’t until Damien announces, some time into the picture, “I’ve studied anatomy for five years,” prior to assassinating a man for the first time, that I realized the character is a doctor, here ending lives instead of saving them. And this assassination scene, which takes place on a high, lonely hill of desolate crags and intoxicatingly verdant flora, marks a turning point for him, for the film. Up until then, the young Irishmen have either been under attack by the British or retaliating against their enemy. In this moment, the volunteers elect to kill one of their own, and Loach conveys, with the subtlest of means, the crossing of a hard line: the precise instance when liberators become oppressors. A kid who’s had no real chance to live is gunned down. The boy, who looks all of about 17, milks cows in a barn for his meager living; he hasn’t written his farewell letters that the condemned are told to write because his mother can’t read; and in the seconds before he’s executed by someone he’s known his entire short life, he mumbles tokens of love to that absent mother and says, “I’m scared, Damien.” And there you have it, rendered with such economy: The sad wastefulness, the delusions of the “right side” and its fatal ridiculousness. In this sequence, although not only in this one, the filmmakers offset the similarly themed yet oafish and crude Army of Shadows.

In addition to the vérité-like authenticity of actors Murphy, Delaney, and John Crean, there are powerful, if too brief, contributions by Fiona Lawton, as a tough-talking, feminist magistrate who refuses to have the verdicts of her court undermined by her fellow Republicans; and Mary O’Riordan as an elderly woman so determined to keep what remains of her family homestead, after the Brits have burned her house, that she tells the survivors of the assault she’ll sweep out the chicken coop and sleep there. What’s so delicately superb about The Wind That Shakes the Barley is that it’s so specific to a time and place in Irish history yet the parallels of war’s universal incomprehensibleness are here, too — they need no introduction. In a society less in love with lies and bad taste, Barley would screen in American theatres from North to South until the Iraq war grinds to a halt as inconceivable as its start. – NPT

April 25 – May 6, 2007

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