Every movie I watch has the same plot. I know everyone says that, and what I imagine is that there are actually several different plots only each of us is caught in a cosmic node that presents her always with the same one. Here is ours:

Through a misunderstanding, the hero – who is valiant and innocent — appears to the world as bad. Unable to explain himself, he runs for it, finds a car, and picks up a side-kick. The hero is a white male, the side-kick is either a white male (drama), a white female (romance), or a black male (comedy) but never a black female. At first the side-kick doesn’t like the hero but then she/he comes around. If side-kick is a white male he says profound things, if a white female she reveals something tragic in her past, and if a black male he makes oh-no-we’re-never-getting-out-of-this jokes. And then they’re being chased, and then things blow up, and then they catch the bad guys all by themselves, and then they get to go back to their lives.

After a steady diet of these, ranging in quality from lousy (Chill Factor) through enjoyable (Caballos Salvajes) all the way to excellent (I Went Down) – not to mention twenty-four hours of this sort of thing on 24 — I decided I never wanted to see it again. But it turns out nothing else is any good either.

Like a while ago, inspired by a long article in the TLS about how incredibly better the original 3.10 to Yuma was, we watched it, and it was not all that good and had a ludicrous ending. Then last night we watched The Lives of Others. Here the effort to create a situation with “real” moral ambiguities results in contrivance, with the audience being dragged to accept increasingly unlikely motivations on the choke chain of Historical Significance. More precisely, for this movie to work one has to believe that an old Stasi man doesn’t have any idea that there’s corruption in the Stasi until one day he discovers it. It’s rubber sheep thinking again, a hypothetical that is supposed to tell you something about the way ethics works – but doesn’t, and can’t, because the thing in the movie isn’t a thing that could have happened. Which means it’s actually the careful construction of historical confusion, or, not to put to fine a point on it, an example of Orwellian historical revisionism. Maybe this movie will heal some old wounds, or even make us all more tolerant and other-people’s-shoe-sy. Let’s drink to that, eh, and forget the facts.

The only truly good movie I’ve seen in the last year is Teshigahara’s Pitfall. It’s tight, smart, cinematic, and utterly different from anything I’ve ever seen.


22 thoughts on “Movies

  1. Ha – well there’s a serious body of scholarship on the white male plus brown/black male buddy genre in American culture, starting with Leslie Fiedler and still not ending. Manthia Diawara the black film scholar calls the black buddy figure the “magical negro”: you know, the Will Smith character in Bagger Vance, or the Whoopi Goldberg character in Ghost. Lone Ranger/Tonto. Tom Sawyer/Jim. In which the character of color mystically facilitates the moral and emotional growth of the white character before returning to the space of death or abjection.

    Still I watch….

  2. I watch too, like the dummy I am. But I don’t see too many “magical negro” movies, probably because I avoid any film labeled as life-changing, vision-enhancing, moving, meaningful, mystical, or truly magical. The black men in my film life are all channeling Chris Tucker in Rush Hour.

    It sounds, Sandor, like Jumper is a movie I am fated to see. Of course I would have seen it anyway, given that you were crew.

  3. I think the solution is TV. Seriously: the glutting of the market with reality television (which I also adore) has, I think, put a lot of writers out of work but it has also somehow distilled the writing market so that truly great writing is now happening on tv. To whit: Dexter. Not to whit: the L Word, which is total shite, unfortunately.

  4. Hmm, I haven’t thus far connected my annoyance at the contrivance of “rubber sheep” ethical puzzles with the contrivance of literary scenarios that, upon closer inspection, might not seem like they could have actually happened, but that are nevertheless evocative (perhaps more evocative than a real-life scenario). I guess in the latter case, I don’t feel like I am being manipulated by some program of instruction, whereas in the former case, I do.

  5. I see your point. I have no problem in general, with literature about things that aren’t likely to have happened — where there are too many coincidences, or miraculous escapes. Only *The Lives of Others* wasn’t only partly literature; it was also partly instruction. It had an aura of ethical scenario. There’s something problematic, in any case, about how we all flock to movies about good terrorists, good Nazis, and in this case good Stasi men. This is the story we want to tell and hear. And in the case of *The Lives of Others* it was being pushed pretty hard as one way of looking at historical truth — a new window on the past looking through which would make us better people.

  6. There was a nice article in _Sight & Sound_ about a year ago, written by Anna Funder, about how ridiculously ahistorical the very concept of the “good Stasi” in _The Lives Of Others_ was. But I do think that there’s a difference between “rubber sheep” thinking, in which a fantastic scenario is used to make claims about the actual world, and another kind of fantasy, in which a re-imagined past motivates a possible future. The former is ridiculous. The latter is necessary, for reasons that might be described as “boilerplate/unsubtle Derridean-messianic”: in order to avoid a strangling historical determinism, radical breaks need to be made in which historical “truth” is reshaped in ways that would make historians scream. It’s a mass version of the structure that Soloveitchik found in rabbinic discussions of repentance.

    That being said, I’d like it if there were more self-awareness about how present cultures reshape the past. For this reason, I structurally prefer films/novels about researchers into the past — like _Possession_, I s’pose? — than films such as _The Lives Of Others_ that risk presenting themselves as Live! Nude! History!. Still, the epilogue of _TLOO_ (from the scene set in the archives onward) is not an ignoble attempt to move into this more self-aware direction.

  7. I am *really* enjoying this discussion.

    Esque, you’re very clear here, and compelling. I almost agree with you. Certainly when I’m judging literature, I think truth is more important than facts. And I’m strongly tempted to say this even of literature that poses as history, like TLOO. But, if I go that far, the question becomes: is TLOO presenting us with something we need? Is it giving us something that will help us move in a good way into the future? And despite how moved I was by the ending, sober reflection makes me say no. It would be wrong to conduct ourselves on the basis of this film’s re-imagined past, and its possible future. Sometimes facts matter.

  8. I think it depends on what “need” means. TLOO doesn’t give us anything that is logically necessary, but if the heart has its reasons that reason does not know, we may have a deep-seated passion to feel that decency is possible so that we can go on. That may be less “good,” but still “something we need.”

    I’m really torn on this issue of how to prioritize facts vs. the psyches that acknowledge them; on some days I just throw up my hands and conclude that drama just isn’t as good at dealing with this as comedy might be.

  9. Yeah. We’re coming closer together. I’d still say that while the need (or desire) to feel that decency is possible is legitimate, it’s equally important to recognize that certain political structures can actually drum that fundamental human thing out of us. But I agree about comedy. A whole new post is building in my mind, and if I can pull it together you’ll see it appear shortly.

    But, esque, I’ve just had a striking thought. Didn’t we have this argument already in the pages of peer-reviewed journals but with the positions reversed? Wasn’t it me arguing that it didn’t matter if Levinas read the rabbis anachronistically as long as he drew out of them something true — i.e. something that we needed to hear — and you arguing that it was, on the contrary, important to consider whether his readings were historically warranted?

  10. What’s all this about the rubber sheep of history? It’s “rubbish heap.” And the rubber sheep thinking that produced East Germany also produced the whole range of American training in post-ethics, from Hollywood’s short prolefeed courses to Harvard’s party indoctrination courses. Friedrich and I alternately weep and laugh about this; and we refuse to sit with Soren, whose triumphalism has become worse than ever.

  11. Word up dog. The problem with being that funny, though, is that people don’t realize how smart you are: using Orwell’s razor to slice off the discourse at the knees.

    Esque has sent me a link to the article he mentioned by Anna Funder, or one like it. You can read it here.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Anna Funder’s conclusions. She does miss one thing though. She says that the Stasi man has a change of heart because of the noble sentiments he overhears on the wiretap. This suggests that what he overhears is pro-democratic, and that he finds himself convinced by it. But in fact the change of heart is more subtle and cleverer. The sentiments the Stasi man overhears before his change of heart are entirely in support of the regime. The playwright is clean. But while the Stasi man listening to the playwright’s pro-socialist chit-chat, he is under increasing pressure from his bosses to find something dirty, or even to invent something. This, not anything the playwright says, is what leads him to realize the regime’s corruption. At the same point, because of an extraneous circumstance, the playwright is also realizing it, and begins to speak against the regime precisely for spying on and condemning people like him, i.e. the regime’s natural supporters. The Stasi man can’t help but agree, because he is doing it himself.

    The main unlikelihood is that in all his years with the Stasi, he has never been pressured to condemn anyone, or had a hint that such pressure existed. The second is the playwright’s model citizenship. The third is the cowardice of the girlfriend. It is these three together that make the film a clever exercise rather than an exploration of the upper limits of the human potential for decency.

    Anyway, what I really want to say is that Marx is right to point out the link between what he calls “post-ethics” and the ethos of the GDR, since when you give up the facts in favour of the upper limits of the human potential for decency, you may well end up with prisons and torture chambers. If we want to get other-people’s-shoes-y, let’s look at the way our regime is like the GDR (i.e. bad), instead of at the way they were all really deep-down inside like us (good).

  12. Karl is a shadow of himself. Spending too much time with Groucho, I think. But if there’s not enough Karl or even Karl-lite in “The Lives of Others,” there’s much too much Freud-lite. I’m surpised you didn’t notice it. Sex and sublimation, sex and sublimation — that’s all anyone thinks I had to say. So Weisler’s dissatisfaction with prostitutes is amplified in his voyeurism — the intelligentsia always has the best sex, doesn’t it? — and that leads him to an appreciation of a single Sonata, after which, Bingo, he’s fully cultured! This isn’t analysis. It’s the post-ethical conversion experience my friend Karlo pointed out.

  13. Worse and worse. I think we’ve licked it now, unseamed it from nave to chops — read: undressed it and then massacred it. Another extra-Hollywood redemptive transformation movie, redemption via sex and politics, which are the same thing anyway. I like the single sonata touch. Nice.

  14. When Hades appointed me Webmaster, I thought I’d have things easy for a change. But ever since we got wireless, there’s been a lot of inappropriate chatter and illegal up-loading. To prevent further such Erring, a wireless-Disabling function has been added to the Cerberus program. Until it’s resolved whether figuring out how to extract payment for transgressions is sufficient reason to allow them again, I’m flipping the switch.

  15. I would also like to assert that literature can be just as instructive and moralistic as film. I believe that the reason we see so many more instructive movies rather than books is the nature of the movie industry and all who control it.

    I had a different take on “The Lives Of Others.” Like most of the commentators, I found the Stasi man’s change of heart unbelievable and/or inexplicable. At most I explained it as less of a meaningful political statement and more of a … love he developed for the vibrancy, complexity, and devotion he observed in the couple’s apartment. Yes, it plays to a sort of fetishism of intelligencia, but I’m sure I’m guilty of that sin, so it was easy to overlook. I see his attempt to shield the couple as quaint, a gimmick to create some kind of Hollywood elegance to the plot line.

    For me, the crux of the film was Christa-Maria’s confession and subsequent suicide. The movie presents a political reality that curtails privacy, warps identity formation and strikes at the heart of emotional relationships. The terrifying choice presented to Christa-Maria is to either betray her internal self by informing on the man she loves or to watch her external self – her career and standing in the community – be destroyed. Either choice is effectively a death sentence. Undoubtedly there are individuals who find Christa-Maria’s immediate moral pliancy unbelievable, but I think you have to take her actions within the context (and sub-context) of this pressure cooker society.

    To me the movie isn’t about one man’s valiant attempt to shield this couple, but instead about the feelings utter powerlessness (whether defensible or not) experienced by individuals living under totalitarian regimes. For me one of the most striking images from the whole film is when Dreyman goes to the Stasi headquarters to read about his own life. Dreyman is powerless against a nameless third party’s ability to construct a particularized narrative of his experience. This is the message I take away from the movie.

  16. Julie, if you are taking away from this movie a sense of political powerlessness rather than, as the director suggests you should, a sense of personal empowerment no matter what the historical circumstances, then all I have to say is: great! This is a better philosophical stance than the one the movie intends to offer. But as an interpretation, it’s surely somewhat far fetched. You say that “when Dreyman goes to the Stasi headquarters to read about his own life [he finds that he] is powerless against a nameless third party’s ability to construct a particularized narrative of his experience” but Dreyman’s experience in the archives is not powerlessness, unless powerlessness is what we feel when we discover we have a guardian angel. In fact, that ‘reshaping’ of Dreyman’s life, written by the Stasi man, is salvific — and justifies the reshaping of history that is the film.

  17. I see your point. I guess I just naturally look past the “uplifting” aspect of the “guardian angel’s” presence straight to the depressing fact that the circumstances were such that that role was possible in the first place.

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