David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2004 (page 1 of 3)

Incensed at Peppermint

The South Korean film Peppermint Candy begins with a man gunning down some random person who’s ripped him off and then committing suicide, then traces his life backwards through his career as a dirty cop, a cowardly soldier, and a youthful innocent.

It’s not much of a film, but it did get me thinking back myself, before Irreversible, Memento, and Betrayal, to an earlier example of reverse chronology, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, a morality tale about a successful playwright who gives up his dreams for fame and cash. As you’d expect, Kaufman’s gags fit very uneasily into the contrived framework, and on paper at least, the thing doesn’t work. (It was also excluded from the new Library of America Kaufman collection.) Stephen Sondheim tried to retrofit it as a musical fifty years later, and it bombed.

(Okay, I admit, I usually ignore films I dislike, but I came up with the title for this entry and had to use it….)

Update: Brendan Wolfe (who, if you follow the link under his name, has himself written a good assessment of Aharon Appelfeld) has asked why I didn’t care for Peppermint Candy.

I thought that the film consisted of plot elements that weren’t in themselves distinctive: a despondent, broken, hollow man committing suicide; a corrupt cop losing his morality; the man trapped in a marriage while he pines after his symbolic first love; the tragic death of an innocent in a war zone poisoning the man forever; the innocent youth naively ignorant of the horrors of the world.

The film takes two approaches to justify these generic mechanisms: first, through (backwards) structure, and second, through context (of recent Korean history). The contextual approach fails because the corrupted everyman protagonist does not become a representative of a particularly Korean experience; the movie actually feels quite American next to, for example, Shohei Imamura’s remarkable Vengeance is Mine, which makes a much greater attempt to place one man’s life (a serial killer’s, specifically) into the context of modern Japanese society. The structural approach fails because it does not provide any revelation about the content of the film. Thematically, it’s not hard to see that the man has progressed from innocent to corrupt to despondent, and the suspense is muted because the protagonist is too representative to be seen as an individual.

I haven’t seen other films by Lee Chang Dong, and it’s possible that were I Korean, I would appreciate subtexts that I missed as a foreigner.

Another update: I had originally posted this in the comments, but since no links are allowed there:

Another perverse backwards-chronology exercise is Anne McGuire’s Strain Andromeda The, where Crichton/Wise’s film The Andromeda Strain is run with its scenes in reverse order, fencepost-style. Fred Camper says:

This somewhat playful “deconstruction” of mainstream Hollywood has its virtues: with narrative causality flipped, one looks for causes of events already seen, questions traditional forms of narrative organization. But while we often hear the dialogue reversed–many lines get only single shots–longer takes contain whole conversations that we hear in the original order, providing a confusing disruption of the film’s “backwardness.” It is unique, but the interest of this rather mechanical exercise exhausts itself after a half hour.

Waggish says check it out.

Fires on the Plain

The first hour of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain was slower and less gripping than I remembered, but it’s all a setup for the last forty-five minutes of sheer hell. The structure is conspicuously Dante-like, as our tubercular soldier hero, stranded with his fellow starving and injured soldiers on an island of the Phillipines where the Japanese are badly losing ground, encounters horror after horror, cannibalism representing the absolute deepest form of amorality and evil.

The most memorable scene comes at midpoint, where a group of wounded, starving soldiers are trudging down to base camp, walking down a path strewn with bodies. The camera shoots them from behind. An enemy plane flies overhead and they all collapse to the ground in unison. The plane, unseen, strafes the area, and then some, but not all, of them get up and walk on. It best captures the Beckett-in-a-shooting-gallery feel of the entire film.

The hero, while he refuses to give up the final shred of humanity and eat other people, is hardly a paragon. Though never made clear, there’s as much fatalism in his decision as ethics: he knows he’s going to die of tuberculosis. Though ostensibly a passive observer, he is largely complicit. (Unlike Dante, he does not attempt to intervene, knowing it to be hopeless.) And the film subverts at least one paradigmatic antiwar trope: after our hero guns down a Filipino woman and pushes aside her body to steal the rice under her house (this detail I’d forgotten, incidentally), he tosses his gun in the ocean in a symbolic renunciation of violence…which lasts for all of about fifteen minutes before he gets another one. Moreover, he’s been holding on to a grenade the entire time, a detail which hasn’t been mentioned for quite a while. For all the horrors in the film itself, the sickly feeling of nihilism only grows after things are over and amoral continuities start to become apparent.

Other films of the period, notably Kobayashi’s ten-hour The Human Condition and Ichikawa’s own The Burmese Harp, offered more idealistic, moralistic sentiments couched in more traditional oppositions: pacifism vs. war, struggle vs. resignation, barbarity vs. civilization. They haven’t dated as well as Fires on the Plain, and they are more tied to specifically Japanese attitudes towards the end of the war. The star, Eiji Funakoshi, seems to have been cast specifically for his resemblance to Tatsuya Nakadai, star of The Human Condition: like Nakadai, Funakoshi has wide, sad eyes capable of inspiring massive empathy. But Nakadai’s torments in The Human Condition were meant to serve as a kind of societal self-flagellation, a noble sacrifice so that the humanity of the Japanese could be recovered. Here, you feel rotten for every second you empathize with Funakoshi, and yet you can’t stop, because it would mean withdrawing from the film entirely and giving up on the world.

Fires on the Plain which undercuts any message it proposes and presents an impossible situation, is simpler and more universal than those other films. While the subject matter is tantamount to that of a horror movie, Ichikawa paces it to have the cumulative shock set in afterward. The audience was very quiet when the lighs went back on. It is, along with Jancso’s The Red and the White, one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen.

The Art of C.S. Peirce

This Public Address publishes a fascinating sketch by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Trigonometry, algebra, statistics, drawings of faces (the one at the bottom vaguely reminds me of Charles Crumb), retraced figure-eights…the impression I get is one of a man concerned with surfaces, from handwriting to hair.

TPA’s Jeff Ward observes:

Peirce&#x92s realism attempted to embrace both the constructions of the mind and the mind&#x92s interface with reality through perception. It seems notable to me that his semiology did not spring from psychology, but rather informed it.

Which seems exactly right to me. Peirce was far too exacting to allow generalizations about the disposition of the mind to influence a study of what was right out in the open.

Bruno Schulz and Wittgenstein

Mark Kaplan thinks about Hegel after reading a phrase of Bruno Schulz:

It is though what the mind grasps, in a cursory and impatient way, is simply the idea of these things – without colour, volume, height, or any tangible qualities at all.

This sent me scurrying back to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for a rejoinder. I didn’t find one, but here is a (rather Kantian) comment from Philosophical Remarks:

That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc. etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectivally or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it’s impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.

What I wanted to say is it’s strange that those who ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas move about so unquestioningly in the world as idea and never long to escape from it.

The word points to a series of cognitive structures that give form to the world, as though, in the absence of physical details about an object itself, the formal constraints on the word bound what it means in our mind.

Some of Schulz’s own comments on the matter (please read the whole thing at the link, it’s wonderful):

Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth.

When we employ commonplace words, we forget that they are fragments of ancient and eternal stories, that, like barbarians, we are building our homes out of fragments of sculptures and the statues of the gods.

Speech is the metaphysical organ of man. And yet over time the word grows rigid, becomes immobilized, ceases to be the conductor of new meanings. The poet restores conductivity to words through new short-circuits, which arise out of their fusions.

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

Also check out some of Schulz’s drawings, some reminiscent of Tenniel.

Later thoughts: first, that attempting to mention Hegel, Schulz, Wittgenstein, and Kant in a single concept was a bit of a stretch. The Kant-Wittgenstein connection deserves more comment, though.

Wittgenstein in the quote above describes the boundaries of perception that are a given to us, both physically (in the form of our vision) and conceptually (in how our sense data, shaped by those boundaries, are reflected in mental and verbal concepts).

This is a variation on one of Kant’s core ideas, the transcendental deduction:

For the empirical consciousness, which accompanies different representations, is in itself diverse and without relation to the identity of the subject…The analytic unity of apperception is possible only under the presupposition of a certain synthetic unity.

(Since this is one of the most famous passages in Kant, I fear that I’m going to bore philosophy majors here and mystify everyone else, but I will try to take it in a different direction.)

Approximately, Kant makes a case for a priori synthetic knowledge by concluding that the mind cannot simply be a blank slate on which sense impressions are made, since there must be a set of preexisting organizing principles. He then proceeds to lay out at great length what those principles are.

Wittgenstein views these principles as a prison: they confine the ideas that proscribe our world. And thus they confine our use of language as well. In the absence of alternative principles, our words must reflect a blinkered perception that generates ideas about the world along strict, narrow lines.

Wittgenstein focuses on one of those principles at much greater length than all others, which is the placement of the self in relation to other objects. For Wittgenstein, it is the way that we pick ourselves out amongst all the objects in the world that is one of the key aspects of how our minds give shape to raw sense data.

Now, this is a jump, but can you see what Schulz is saying, the writer’s act upon words that — that it is not experiential sense data that can operate upon the mind to change it, but words in the absence of sensory referents that can stretch the boundaries of the organizing principles? And that, in the absence of sense data in which one can pick one’s self out of one’s surroundings, writing can offer a less blinkered view in which ideas may be more unfettered. This is all mysticism, of course, but at least it’s interesting mysticism.

Finally, a quote in summary from Gilbert Ryle, with regard to Mark Kaplan’s original thoughts:

Sometimes, when someone mentions a blacksmith’s forge, I find myself instantaneously back in my childhood, visiting a local smithy. I can vividly “see” the glowing red horseshoe on the anvil, fairly vividly “hear” the hammer ringing on the shoe and less vividly “smell” the singed hoof. How should we describe this “smelling in the mind’s nose?”

Narrativity Debate on Infinite Worlds!

Great discussion on John Barth specifically and experimental fiction generally at The Reading Experience (and links from thereon out). Ray Davis posits the generic nature of Barth’s work in response to Dan Green’s claim that it is seminal, in an ongoing attempt to construct a taxonomy of experimental fiction. Is the father dead yet? Somewhere I read someone (was it Gregory Rabassa?) saying that Garcia Marquez cast such a shadow over Latin American fiction for so long that he provided a ready-made taxonomy for every new book coming down the pipe.

I exhausted what little I had to say on the subject earlier, but to hear someone speak passionately in favor of these works is always the best defense of them.

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