Over the past few days I've watched Antonioni's Red Desert. A very striking film, though I haven't quite decided how good I think it is. It depicts a troubled young woman (Monica Vitti) whose difficulties seem to be connected to her environment, an industrial area near Ravenna. The contrast between the lush, fragile, and vulnerable beauty of the woman and the brutal and toxic factories and polluted lands and waters with which she's surrounded is pretty powerful. I'm not sure what it all adds up to, but it's fascinating visually.
The DVD includes an interview with Antonioni. The interviewer naturally is interested in what the director really intends to be saying about industrialization etc. Among other things in his reply, Antonioni says this:
But there are aspects of that world that I even find beautiful. For example, on the road from Ravenna to Porto Corsini on the coast, on one side, factories, smokestacks, and refineries fill the horizon. But the other side is completely covered by pine forest. I think the complex horizon filled with factories is much more beautiful, even esthetically, than the uniform green line of the forest. Because behind the factories, you sense the presence of human beings. They're alive. But behind the green of the pine forests there's nothing. Just animals, the wild. It's not as interesting to me.
The opening sequence of Yojimbo (The Bodyguard), Akira Kurosawa’s darkly comic samurai film from 1961, must have caught Japanese moviegoers quite off guard. First, there was the jazzy percussive score, with its almost African feel and slight nods toward Ravel’s Bolero. Second, the entire two-and-a-half minutes of the opening credits simply show a rear view of a lone samurai walking along a road, flexing his shoulders, occasionally scratching his back or his head; you never really get to see his face. By the time the credits and opening theme end, he has come to a fork in the road, where he chooses which way to go by tossing a stick into the air. I don’t know a whole lot about samurai films, but I’d venture to say that this was a bit of a bold move by Kurosawa, as Japanese historical films tended at that time to be quite serious. But the music is a giveaway, so that within the first few minutes the viewer knows that this is going to be something a little different.
Given the somewhat jocular nature of the credits, it should be no surprise that one of the things that sets Yojimbo apart from previous samurai epics is the humor. The film doesn’t play broadly for laughs – it’s not a parody or a farce. But there’s a certain knowing, smart-alecky feel to it, which seems very modern in some ways for a 1961 film. Most of the characters are almost caricatures – the bad guys border on the ridiculous, occasionally crossing the line, and the couple “good” characters are comedic types also (a sad sack restaurateur and a gleefully opportunistic constable). The samurai himself remains the closest thing to a real character. He manages to stand above all the shenanigans, so that it’s almost as if an adult has walked into a violent drama staged by children.
The plot of Yojimbo is fairly well known: a lone samurai wanders into a town which is besieged by two clans of warring criminals. The samurai, a mercenary, decides to play both sides against each other, freeing the town from both groups while getting paid by both in the process. If you haven’t seen Yojimbo, but this still sounds familiar, you may have seen one of the two remakes, the more famous of which is Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the film which put both Clint Eastwood and the “spaghetti western” on the map. The other is Walter Hill’s 1996 version Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis. Leone sets his remake in the Wild West, of course, while Hill’s is set in Prohibition-era Texas.
Besides the humor, the other thing that was apparently rather shocking to the original audiences was the violence. By the end of the film the body count is pretty high, and while none of the killings is very bloody or graphic, the sheer number of them probably took viewers aback, especially in one scene where a group of unarmed members of one gang are killed by the other. (This scene was extremely brutal in Leone’s remake.) Modern viewers, though, unfortunately rather numb to this sort of thing, probably will find it tame by today’s standards.
Given the slightly cartoonish nature of the secondary characters (played very well, mind you) mention must be made of the great Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Sanjuro, the samurai. His character is the most realistic of the bunch, with just the right amount of swagger, and a number of tics which give him personality. He’s smart, and despite the violence of what’s going on in the town, finds a good deal of it humorous. Part of the fun is watching him play the other characters, pushing their buttons, and capitalizing on their responses. In some ways this is all a game to him, a game that the viewer is in on.
I remember when I first watched this movie many years ago, after having seen A Fistful of Dollars any number of times, I was a little disappointed by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the thing. Leone’s movie had a little of that, but the overall tone was much more serious. Of course in hindsight it’s plain to see that it was Leone who changed the tone, and that the change wasn’t necessarily an improvement.
Kurosawa didn’t make many “light” movies – most of his better-known works are fairly serious, both the historical films and the contemporary ones. Yojimbo stands out not only as the best among these lighter works, but as one of his best and most influential films overall. Of course, the “lightness” of the film is relative – it’s still generally considered “darkly comic,” as I said above. But it’s not one of those films in which the darkness totally subverts the comedy, so it manages to maintain its entertainment value without leaving a cloud over your head.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Sometimes, in an effort to distinguish myself from the likes of Sean Hannity, I describe myself as "conservative but not right-wing." It's not a hard and fast distinction, of course, and it's not easy to articulate, but it's being pretty clearly illustrated by reactions to the Trump campaign. It's been a week or so now, so I'm late in commenting on this, but, as you may have heard, National Review published a cover story making the argument against Trump which includes contributions by a number of fairly well-known names on the right, both the religious (Russell Moore, R.R. Reno) and non-religious (libertarian David Boaz). There is an editorial summary of the case, "Against Trump", which is probably all you need to read unless you're extremely interested. But the whole story is online, too: "Conservatives Against Trump".
My favorite political blogger, Neo-neocon, has also had a lot to say about Trump; here's just one post. One reason she's my favorite is that she's very careful about researching everything she writes about, and, not surprisingly, the more she's learned about Trump, the more alarmed she is. (She was alarmed about Obama in 2008, too, and she was right about him.)
I think I'm like a lot of conservatives in that I just can't quite believe this is happening. I can't believe he's gotten this far. I can't believe he'll get the nomination. I can't believe he could win. Most of all, I can't believe that people who consider themselves conservative are supporting him. Whatever he may be, he is not a conservative in any remotely plausible sense of the word. We all know that "conservative" is in many ways inaccurate as a description of American conservatism. But I can't see that it has any application at all to Trump.
Why, then, do so many people on the right support him? There is generally at least some connection between "right-wing" and "conservative". It's a species of populism, yes, but much more a rightist than a leftist sort. It's apparently driven by anger. The conventional, i.e. the liberal, response to this is to sneer at the angry people--they're just racists whose evil grip on society has been loosened, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Where non-white anger is concerned, liberals insist on looking for root causes. To do so in this case doesn't require a lot of digging. As someone put it a while back, in a quotation I haven't been able to find again, the American people are governed by an elite which despises them. The anger tends to focus on immigration, and with some reason, because it is here that the ruling class has shown again and again that it is indifferent to the effects of immigration on working-class and poor Americans. The best analysis I've seen of the syndrome is by William Voegeli at the Claremont Review of Books: "The Reason I'm Anti-Anti-Trump."
Demagoguery flourishes when democracy falters. A disreputable, irresponsible figure like Donald Trump gets a hearing when the reputable, responsible people in charge of things turn out to be self-satisfied and self-deluded. The best way to fortify Trump’s presidential campaign is to insist his followers’ grievances are simply illegitimate, bigoted, and ignorant. The best way to defeat it is to argue that their justified demands for competent, serious governance deserve a statesman, not a showman.
On a deeper level, I think there's something more happening. The American republic is in decline in many ways, including in its character as a republic. I've often thought that monarchy is the most natural form of government, and there's certainly some warrant in history for believing that any form of self-government by the governed is a fragile business. Among other things Trump's candidacy is a personality cult. His supporters don't apparently care that much about what he actually believes; they just think he is a tough guy who will stand up to their enemies. There is certainly no sense that he cares about the constitutional order as such, and this doesn't seem to bother his supporters. He wants power, and they want him to have it, because they think he will exercise it in the way they want. It doesn't take much imagination to see how that could go wrong. You don't even have to be a pessimist.
This is easy for people on the left to see. What is not so easy for them is to see is that much the same could be said of them and President Obama, as with Clinton before him. The left in fact seems more susceptible to adulation of a president or a presidential candidate as a personality than the right--Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama (and arguably Carter), and currently Bernie Sanders, for the former, only Reagan for the latter, as far as I can recall. The difference in personality between Obama and Trump is great, but both they and their followers have in common an impatience with democratic processes: "We can't wait for Congress to do its job, so where they won't act, I will." The linked story is only one of a number of instances in which Obama has said something similar. Never mind that the Constitution prescribes a system in which the legislature makes laws and the executive implements them. That doesn't matter when the progressive cause is being thwarted. It will matter when an anti-progressive autocrat proceeds in similar fashion, but it may already be too late to stop the trend.
Actually I'm still not 100% convinced that Trump is not part of a scheme to elect a Democrat.