Sunday, December 20, 2015

Gett: The Principle of Patriarchy

Religion is the arena of popular, especially traditional, philosophy and ethics.   Courtroom dramas push the envelope of ethics, displaying where law fails ethics, or the law can uphold ethics, depending on the story.  Gett is the intersection of traditional and modern ethics in the midst of a curious courtroom drama.

The set up sounds like the Iranian drama from a couple years ago, A Separation, in which a woman desires a divorce from her husband, but obtaining that divorce isn’t at all clear cut.  In Gett (which is the Hebrew term for “divorce”) it is clear that the husband is a righteous man, a scholar of Torah, who neither abuses nor cheats on his wife, and although it is clear that their marriage is far from a happy one, he refuses to give her a divorce.  And he has the right to refuse her.

In a secular court, divorce, especially since the 1950’s, has been much easier to get.  The trickiest part is if money or children are involved.  In a religious court, such as Orthodox Jews or Catholics might have, a divorce is much more restrictive, and a level of unfaithfulness must be proven.  Of course, one could always obtain a divorce through the secular court, but not if you want to remarry a Catholic or an Orthodox Jew.  Then the right to remarry a religious must be obtained through religious permission.   Vivian Amsalem is a religious woman, and wants to live her life at peace with a religious man.  Thus, she must have a gett.

The ethical principle primarily being challenged in this film is patriarchy.  Ancient Jewish culture is the oldest patriarchy based on a rule of law that considers all in the society, still in existence.  Many Jewish cultures have set aside patriarchy, but many have not.  Certainly, a strict reading of ancient Jewish law says that a divorce may only be obtained if the husband hands a written divorce to his wife.  Thus, the husband has all the control of a divorce.  A woman might sue for divorce, like Vivian, but she does not have the right to speak for herself, and if the husband refuses to give a divorce, then the judge’s hands are tied.

As a narrative, the great mystery is the marriage itself.  All we see is the speech offered in court and in the anteroom.  We have no idea how they lived or why Viviane is so desperate to get a divorce.  And the courtroom proceedings, for the most part, carefully steps around the marriage, speaking of reputation and the public face of the marriage, only giving us small glimpses of the marriage itself.  So we, along with the judges, are piecing together the truth and the motivations behind Viviane’s desperation and Elisha’s refusal.

While the hesitantly granted details are interesting, what is really on trial is the process itself.  The greatest benefit of modern justice, in the instances when it is allowed, is the ability to speak one’s own perspective.  An older male can never understand what it means to live as a woman.  A wealthy person will never really appreciate the difficulties of being poor.  The sane will never understand the way a mentally ill person undermines themselves without knowing. The white person won’t understand the limitations of being a black American.  We can intellectualize the situations, even appreciate the difficulties, but the life of an oppressed person is much more difficult than any of us realize until we have experienced it ourselves.  The life of a person of power is all the same, but each life of oppression is uniquely different.  Thus, the oppressed must have the opportunity to speak, to explain, to give windows to the difficulties.  And if there is a system in which the weak are not allowed to speak their peace, then no one can say it for them.  No one will give them justice, because no one other than they even know what justice looks like for them.

Everyone must be given an opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain who they are and the difficulties they face.  And people of power must be forced to listen to them or else justice will be thrown out the window.

The film is sparsely decorated, simply scripted, but the cinematography is interesting.  Each scene is uniquely set up, with cameras seeking out different details.  So we look at each time frame with different eyes, even though we are in the same rooms.  It is clever and powerful and strongly reminiscent of 12 Angry Men in it's simplicity and power.

Spoiler discussion of the ending below the pic: 

The very last shot of the movie confused me.  It is a shot of a pair of feet and lower calves walking over the tile of the courtroom.  They couldn't be Viviane's, I thought, because the calves are too big.  These are the legs of a larger woman than Viviane.   I looked back over the film at the women who were a little overweight.  But it didn't make sense for it to be them.  They weren't important enough for the film, and what would it mean?  It only makes sense if it is Viviane's feet but she...

Actually there has been a lot of attention given to her feet in the film.  At first, you couldn't see them, but given the rest of her outfit, we assumed that they would be simple, conservative shoes.  We notice her feet about halfway through her film, where she is wearing open toed high heels and her toes are painted.  That's odd, and unlike her.  Later, she is wearing a loose bright red blouse.  Clearly, she wants to be seen as a loose woman.  She wants the court to think she's a loose woman.  And they do.  They accuse her of having an affair with the lawyer.  He is offended by that, perhaps too offended?  But nothing is really made of it.

In thinking about this more, I realize that the feet in the last scene could be Viviane's if she were pregnant.  She had warned Elijah that she could do something to make him sorry that he wouldn't give her a divorce.  And when she agreed that she wouldn't be with another man after the divorce was given, she agreed, but had a funny smile on her face, as if she were disingenuous.  OR if she had already been with another man.  And she got pregnant by that man.

And then I remembered a story.

It's a Bible story, from the book of Genesis, so every Torah scholar in the courtroom should be familiar with it.  It is the story of Tamar, who was married to a son of Judah, the ancestor of the Jewish kings.  Judah's son died, so he married Tamar off to his second son.  The second son also died.  At this point, Judah was thinking that perhaps his sons died because of Tamar, although she had nothing to do with their deaths.  He had the responsibility to give his third and youngest son in marriage to Tamar, so that she can bear the children of Judah's inheritance.  But Judah held off, not wanting to put his youngest son in danger.

Tamar realized what Judah was doing and understood that she would never be married off to the youngest son.  She then heard that Judah's wife died.  When Judah was travelling a distance, she went ahead of time and set up a prostitute's tent on his path, dressed as a prostitute, and lured Judah into her tent.

Months later, it was discovered she was pregnant.  Judah was relieved because it proved that she was an adulterous woman, and he didn't have to marry her to his son.  As judge of his family, he declared her guilty and sentenced her to death.  She asked to meet with him privately, and showed him a possession of his that she had taken when she was masqueraded as a prostitute.  Then he understood that he was the father, and that she had tricked him.  But, looking at the whole situation, he responded, "You are more righteous than I."  Her son later became the patriarch of the tribe. 

Viviane is also a woman trapped by a system of injustice, and she also used sex to escape this injustice.  And, I believe, she had sex with the judge, the one determining her fate.  Note that the judge left the proceedings and refused to deal with it anymore, right after fingers were being pointed as to who might be having a sexual relationship with Viviane.   He was the one who was most upset when she let her hair loose and played with it.  She was being blatantly sexual in the courtroom to catch a judge in temptation, so she could take advantage of the situation and be freed from her self-righteous, cold, miserable husband. 

This is a lot of words, but I think this is the undercurrent of the second half of the film.

I win.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Adventurer and The Pilgrim

The Adventurer (1917)/The Pilgrim (1923)

(I only posted a link to the Adventurer because I couldn't find a good full copy of The Pilgrim streaming)

I decided to watch the Adventurer as a lark (because it was the only other Chaplin film on a silent film list I hadn't seen yet), but it turns out to be quite appropriate.  Both are "fish out of water" comedies, and both begin with the Tramp as an escaped convict taking on a new identity.  In the Adventurer, he claims he is a Commodore, and in The Pilgrim it is assumed that he is a minister.

The basic joke of both is that the Tramp must act like an educated, cultured gentleman, when he is anything but.  In The Adventurer, this is shown by Chaplin eating ice cream without a spoon, realizing his mistake, which then causes even more mayhem.  In The Pilgrim, it is primarily shown by him being told he must lead a worship service, when it is clear he had never been to one in his life. The last is a hilarious sequence.

The real difference is what Chaplin learned about comedy in the intervening years.  Although he was a matured comic in his final Mutual film, and the timing and story of his comedy is coherent and well ordered.  But in The Pilgrim we can see that he also learned about the necessity for real drama to make the human connection with those in the film.  It isn't enough to add some tension, he pursued melodrama and truly heroic action. 

A comparison of the endings of each film also shows quite a bit of maturity.  This is surprising, really.  Many directors and writers and comedians have a schtick and stick with it, not growing.  Chaplin has his bag of tricks, but he is constantly expanding and improving his art.  It is this that makes him an artist and not just a comedian.

The Adventurer-- 3.5/5

The Pilgrim-- 4/5

The Kid (1921)

It has been more than a year since Chaplin released his last film.  First National Films agreed that Chaplin could set his own schedule for films, but this was getting a bit carried away.  They had spent a million dollars on their star, but this isn't the way they would be getting their money back.  They knew he was working on a project, but it was simply taking too long.  So they approach Chaplin, and demanded that he produce something, quickly.  He showed them some of the film he had put together up to that point.  And then he had the execs meet his young co-star, Jackie Coogan.  Mollified, they gave Chaplin what time he need.  From their perspective, they were rewarded, for The Kid grossed the second highest amount of any film that year.

And we are still rewarded today.  Here we have a film that captures everything that Chaplin had been trying to do, almost from the beginning of his career, and it is all wrapped up here.  It isn't primarily a comedy, but a compelling drama with some comic elements.  We don't see the Tramp for the first five minutes of the feature, which is shocking for a star vehicle of the time.  Instead we are given the story of a woman (Edna Purviance) who is desperate from her poverty to surrender her infant son to a wealthy family.  But just after she deposits her son in the family's car, the car is stolen, and the ruffians leave the child on the side of the road, where he is found by the Tramp, who raises him as his own son.

The plot is touching and melodramatic, but the secret of the film is the chemistry between Chaplin and Coogan. Coogan's actions resemble the Tramp's, but doesn't exactly imitate it.  At times, we look at Coogan and we really see a small version of Chaplin-- the charm, the smooth action, the precise hand movements.  But Coogan as something that Chaplin never had-- he is adorable, and he can emote believably.  This is a great Tramp movie, not because the Tramp is so wonderful, but because it really is a shared performance.  For years, every Tramp film had the Tramp in every scene, and it is rare to find a single cell without him.  Here, we have long stretches of the film without the Tramp ever appearing.  And we appreciate him all the more for his absence, for he shares his screen time with other fantastic performers.

This is possibly Chaplin's most personal film.  He grew up with mean social workers controlling his early life in London.  Just before production, Chaplin lost his firstborn son, probably the inspiration of the film.  This project was so important, and Chaplin gave it his all.  We can see it in the quality of the production, the excellent writing and the fact that he shared with Coogan many of the big laughs of the film.  This, plus City Lights, are the perfect combination of pathos and comedy, and they changed the definition of the superior comedy forever.


Destruction of a Creative: Amy

Amy (2015), a documentary about Amy Winehouse

It's pretty rare that I just love a documentary.  Even more so to love a doc about a celebrity.  I mean, really, can't we find someone who hasn't been focused on for a decade to do a doc on?

But for Amy Winehouse, the celebrity culture is the focus-- it was her downfall.  She was an easy person to take shots of because she did embarrassing things in public.  But what if her uncontrolled actions was a direct result of the fact that she had no private space?  What if the whole concept of celebrity destroys? 

My friend, Bondo, points out that it is not celebrity, but her weaknesses that caused her death in 2011.  I say that it is both.  I have known many people with the same weaknesses as Amy, and they had lived to survive and eventually thrive.  It is clear, in the doc, that those controlling her life, including boyfriends, her husband and her father wanted the fame and crowd that tore Amy down.  I understand her perspective.  I, too, am a creative introvert that longs for the ability to live a creative life, but is torn by the demand of being in crowds.  I’m sure for Amy her finances required concerts.  But being around people who desire a piece of her celebrity drove her toward self-destructive tendencies, and those tendencies cost money.  Bulimia and alcohol are problems when you don’t have people pushing you toward it.  But they aren’t death sentences unless there is an additional force. 

Before watching this film, I didn’t know about Amy.  I might have heard a joke or two about her addictions, but a celebrity girl with addictions isn’t really surprising.  But after spending two hours with this girl, I felt like I knew her a little and I recognized her talent.  But not like the great Tony Bennet comparing her to Sarah Vaughn and Billy Holliday.  He knows, and through her songwriting and singing the talent slaps us across the face.

What is great about the film is that the comments and interpretations come from people who knew Amy, without speculation of the filmmaker.  No question, this is interpreted through editing and who he interviewed, what parts he picked.  But the film is a blueprint for an excellent film about a celebrity.  Show us, let's hear the witnesses, the friends.  Let them share their grief, we don't need to hear false guesses or re-interpretations.  The interviews and footage are raw, realistic, powerful.

By the end of this film, I was weeping.  Not just because of the loss of a great talent, but because we keep finding new ways to destroy people.  Is she just a repeat of Judy Garland?  Maybe.  But her story is faster, and her death more sudden.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shoulder Arms

Shoulder Arms (1918)

In the final year of WWI, Chaplin releases this comedy about the soldier’s life in the trenches. There is a long tradition of films that cater to the enlisted man, and this would be close to the first one.  Unlike most of those films, this one is actually funny-- still, almost a hundred years after it was made.

The set is quite reminiscent of Kubrick’s trenches in Paths of Glory, which probably just means that’s what the trenches looked like.  Still, it almost seemed a comic take on Kubrick’s classic, although I’m certain they had nothing to do with each other.

Chaplin fails boot camp, unable to follow a single order.  In the trenches it’s even tougher where it’s so wet that even the bottom bunks are covered in water.  But Charlie soon becomes such a great soldier that he captures a whole trench because he surrounded all 13 of them.  But then comes the challenge of his military career—going behind enemy lines.

The film is well paced and the jokes feel fresh, although I could see some of them telegraphed well in advance.  As a solid comic film, this is one of Chaplin’s best.