Dr. Ben McKenna & family arrive in Marrakech. He was there once–in WWII. He is in Europe for a conference, so he decided to take the family–to show them where he fought. This is something Americans might do. Mr. McKenna lives in Indiana & enjoys his practice. He is friendly, easy-going, & pleased to meet helpful strangers. He supposes that a man who has done him some good must be a good man.
His wife, Jo, has given up a career as a singer of international renown for the sake of man & child. She is a modern woman–she wears her hair rather short & is not in the least inclined to defer to men or to ask for the privileges of the fairer sex. She is very unlike him–suspicious, given to strong, perhaps overpowering fear, & livelier of wit. They have raised a carefree boy aptly called Hank.
Hitchcock seems to have enjoyed using a number of images to suggest the difference between how things seem & what they are. Hank pulls the veil off a Muslim woman’s face by accident. This revelation might suggest something about the difference between America & the pre-modern Islamic world–but it is merely a show of the democrat’s inability to understand that other peoples are different.
Ben starts changing when a man dies in his hands in the bazaar–the black paint rubs off & a white face is revealed beneath. The stranger is revealed as the Frenchman who helped them with the accident with the veil; this Frenchmen is revealed as a stranger. Ben is not in America anymore–he lives in a world where, he learns, cannot really trust anyone nor expect to be trusted, not even by the authorities. The policemen, of course, already knew all the man is learning–in fact, were he not blinded by his innocence, he would be less perplexed as well.
Ben learns to act without regard for morality & law.
Possibly the only famous Hitchcock movie remaking a movie, one of his own.
The frivolous jokes throughout the movie are meant to moderate the seriousness with which we tend to take mysteries. When dangerous things are happening, we tend to become alert, & fear is never far away, nor yet anger. Moderating these sentiments is necessary preparation for the rather immoral facts of life, as they are presented in the story. Robie spends his time running from the police, although he’d rather they did not chase. It would be silly to insist on his rights or throw himself on their tender mercies.
Of the two women, the mother feels she has to introduce her daughter to the facts of life, from which she spent years sheltering her in one way or another. Frances loves herself so well that she is very much attached to the opinion that have & deserve are pretty much the same thing, that virtue & happiness are connected. However, it is luck, not virtue that her folks ended up wealthy–her mother, that is. & there was more than a little crime in her father’s life.
Of course, without that opinion, why strive? & then what’s the problem? Frances has never had to acquire or manage or defend her wealth. Her mother has done some of those things. & yet the high-mindedness is all in the daughter. Therein lies the problem–would she love her mother, or find anything of worth in her, were she a stranger?
Robie’s jokes are meant to keep the girl at some sort of distance. It would not suffice if intimacy prompted an attachment of her affection. The ugly fact of Robie’s past would always be there to cause trouble & there would be no fixing it, because the attachment creates a right of property… It is better if the girl gets a sense that the man needs her help.
Reconciling the girl to the possible justification of immorality & crime is the easier of two tasks facing Robie. In her moment of doubt, she calls the police–she says she told them everything. He says, everything, well they must have enjoyed that. Well, never mind, but it matters whether he can make legitimate what is illegitimate. This is what the girl’s father could never do.
This is Robie’s corruption of his audience, let us say. For him to keep the city at bay, which he’d succeeded in doing for more than a while, he needs one last thing. Perhaps family will add to his respectability. Some think wealth is his ticket out of the life he acquired for himself by great striving. That is the reasonableness of simpletons. Robie has something far more ambitious in mind, to change his reputation, including that rather increasingly unbecoming nickname.
Robie says Frances must have come to Europe husband hunting; her mother says, she usually takes up with soft fools–she fears finishing school finished her. The girl lacks nothing but horse sense. She’s a mockery of the American self-made man: Spirited; she says, she likes to get down to essentials; she asks men out, plans their outings, & drives her roadster like it’s a race. She spends every day proving her superiority, which includes remarking when possible on her accomplishments.
The woman is a rare beauty & her confidence makes her almost unbearable. It’s hard to take her seriously–Robie avoids it when possible. Flirting is the kind of sweet frivolity that teaches moderation by wit. But the girl likes to play detective, too. She says things she does not think through, because she’s always busy looking clever. She wants to help the investigation while enjoying the thrill of being involved in a crime, with a criminal.
This is heady stuff & it is not clear what life or what man could live up to this expectation. Would a man of action suffice? Would he enjoy the competitive spur without which such a man does not seem satisfied? One limit on her ability is vulgarity. She acts as though she conquered, but she is not shameless. In fact, she is the far more moralistic than her mother, on whom she dotes, trying to protect her from romantic mistakes.
It is more than obvious that this kind of fantastic creature is not entirely aware of her own erotic longings. One finds it easy to think of things as games when one is used to winning. Catching a thief is an excitement of a special kind to the wealthy, who are usually themselves caught.
The girl grew up with people who chased her for beauty, followed by people who chased her for money, & neither the boys nor the men made much of an impression. What she learned is, beauty is a tyrant over willing slaves–they are not real people. I believe, oligarchs are comparatively kind, not to say reasonable. Then, too, there is the sort of stuff she learned about how girls in her new class are supposed to carry themselves. She is all poise.
Frances thinks falling in love is exciting stuff, presumably because she has never fallen in love. But she is not used to the chasing involved, much less the conflict between shame & desire, & the fear of losing something dear or of being betrayed. In a way, she could not have chosen better than a thief–acquiring what is good is his job. But thieves also try not to get caught–her erotic education depends on his eluding her.
Rich people attract thieves. Thieves are moved by a popular sentiment–they believe it’s good to be rich, that wealth & happiness are about the same thing. Thieves, unlike most people, are not very sentimental, nor do they have moralistic feelings about laws. Who among us does not believe–the thief argues–that we deserve more than we have? Well, then, we should apparently be more sympathetic–his word–to those among us who set themselves apart by their daring.
A man of sense knows, the people may envy the rich, but they are really jealous of those they see acquiring. Our man John Robie invites the policemen into his wonderful villa & himself exits by the window. Policemen do not know the old line of Horace about throwing nature out of the house. He knows better than to ask people to trust him, much less the authorized powers.
Then come his old friends. They were all thieves & they are still poor. Their life is not suffering or fear, but all the same, they have no good feelings for the old times. These men fought the Nazis together, to whom they owed their inadvertent, felicitous liberation from prison. They risked life & blood together, they trusted each other & their reward after victory was this, the republic paroled them.
Robie, an innocent man, has been framed by another cat burglar. He does not think this is funny. He is aware, he always has to prove his honesty now, which is presumed in every other man. That is the reward of his shamelessness. He decides, he will do the policeman’s job, as he had previously done the soldier’s & the politician’s. It’s a pretty clever order that gets men like him to do the work.
But he needs an ally, a man somewhat like himself–one who lives around the rich & who knows the business behind the luxury in which the rich live. The insurance business is betting on bad things not happening & that might encourage people to get the wrong idea, hence the need for investigators. Businessmen like money & are not sentimental or moralistic, so hiring a thief is not such a leap for them.
Robie had everything of the good life, or at least the sweet life but the equipment. This he acquired in a rather tasteless manner. Does not this show that excellence serves pleasure? He looks unexceptional now. He needs mingle with the wealthy to espy his likeness–he tells his insurance man accomplice, no, you can never go about this business in the honest way–so he impersonates American money & heads to the casino. The wealthy live apart from the people, for the common good, & he knows enough to know their haunts.
It’s a Hitchcock mystery starring Cary Grant on the French Riviera, to do with a seduction. If you understand what this means, you should probably see the movie.
The possibility of home & defense Some notes on how we understand saving the world
It’s possible that the Avengers are sterile–only one of them has kids & a wife. His family is hidden from the city; there is only so much modernity one can take. He’s got more to lose than any of them, but less power. Maybe they made greater sacrifices than him & find it difficult to remember for what or to find a reason that would make sense of their powers. Their past only shows the same defect of origin.
One of the jokes is who can lift Thor’s hammer–he says, only the worthy. People are just not worthy of divine rule, though Captain America at least might be. He’s a good leader because he’s so dedicate to doing his job with his men. He is at home with war because it’s worth fighting & worthy men fight alongside him. The world he wishes to save he has really left behind, but not the people–he is devoting himself to real people.
Iron man & Hulk would rather not fight & are looking for a way to prevent war–they want a power that would take from mankind all power. It would make life lose all danger & it would make failure impossible. For Ultron not to do evil, he would have to have a mind. He does not. This may be a problem with our science. Our ability to tell that we’re people even if we’re different is the amazing thing, & it precedes any awareness of danger & thought of defense.
Hulk fears the power he wields because he knows how little rationality does to control evil & how we could be beasts with power, too. Iron man embraces this power, lies to his friends, & loses control of it because he thinks without it, there is no survival. He is trying to give mankind hope for the future.
Nobody is in a position to rule mankind & therefore nobody really knows what to do about the future. Inevitably, these heroes fight, & the conservative & liberal alternatives again come to a big quarrel, & again have to unite to face the enemy. But this time the cosmic enemy is a little too much like we are–Ultron is almost human–it thinks that it is thinking. I’m right & you have to die is what he is thinking.
The Avengers not only display our political divisions, they are supposed to defend them. That we are not in a position to decide that we should all be the same or each left to his beliefs is no reason to die. Ultron is the worst of both worlds, both certain everything should be the same–this again has to do with science–& completely careless about everyone else.
The age of heroes Some notes on the way chaos & order are understood
Order depends on our ability to repeat ourselves. Movie sequels do that–like genre–like happy ends. One consequence of order is dulling our attention to changes, because repetition does not look like it achieves anything. We can get away with not seeing what’s in front of our faces. This may be necessary for us to do our work, the assumption that previous work is simply there, & we can continue. But it makes it harder to see why problems we solve keep returning.
The Avengers story teaches us something like what Reagan said: Aliens would bring the world together. Humanity, confronted with a global threat, emerges as a whole. Our tendency to take politics beyond its reach & our tendency to take it for what it is are both activated–we need to understand how in the world the alien has come & how to destroy him. The Avengers are themselves a solution to that, but a woefully inadequate one.
Iron man decides to look for another solution–a scientific solution to a scientific problem. Science has taught us the universe is at best indifferent to us; extinction is inevitable & perhaps imminent. An astute scientist, he decides to build a power that can withstand destructive power. Ultron is born & promptly sets about destroying mankind–humans are unreliable–the only peace is death.
We need to look at why Iron Man & Hulk are so important for this story. The whole problem is created by Iron man, because he cannot help himself from doing that at which he is best of mankind & which is also the best of his several abilities. But in the middle, Iron man has to deal with Hulk doing that at which he is best. They are, of course, order & chaos. The suggestion that we do not get that order & chaos are not opposite is ridiculous–Ultron is pretty sure to be defeated simply because Iron man & Hulk are there.
Our obsession with control & with self-control, with acquiring power & using it for our own good adds something to our usual lives. This continuous fight over energy always suggests that in one sense, energy means doing what we should be doing. We watch heroes because sometimes they show that at which we excel & that somehow is necessary for us go on with our lives, which are not full of excellence.
The extent to which we create dangerous things makes these heroes think of themselves as monsters–that perhaps in the suffering in which we live is the truth about what we are. We are made by suffering & cannot escape it. That there is only chaos & no order. This is what Ultron thinks.
The newest Marvel movie, & apparently an overwhelming success.
Five noblemen come to the princess to ask her to marry them. They have heard of this girl’s beauty & want to acquire it for themselves. They are competing over fantasies & they naturally have recourse to fantasies themselves. They do not expect that they are lovable in the way the woman is, so they try to persuade her with fantastic treasures. The girl seems surprised at the power of love. She also seems to think she can thwart them by taking their lies as truths & their metaphors literally. She asks them to deliver on fantasy, which is what they ask of her implicitly.
One, who had promised something rather domestic, dies in the endeavor. Love makes men do insane things–the princess is shocked to hear this, never having thought of what might come of her reputation & her interview with the undesired suitors.
There is something terrible in what she has done, that shows an irreversible change. She asked people to make miracles happen in the hope of dissuading them from believing in beauty. But the Buddha’s begging bowl & the celestial dragon are tied up with religion, whatever may be said of the other promises of fantastic treasure–if these things are mere metaphors, how will people live? If she can only reject their love by proving them unworthy, she may be teaching them life without love is not worth living.
Another promises her a modest happiness, far away from the city, in nature. She is as good as seduced, except she knows that she is not the same as her dreams. When the man sees an ugly woman instead of a beautiful one, he runs away. The promises of lovers cannot be believed, but it takes a kind of detachment from mankind & from love to know that.
The other three resemble these. One actually tries to conquer the celestial dragon, but is terrified despite his military ability. He also fails to show up & is broken, if not dead. The other two far more reasonably try to counterfeit the miracles; despite some ability to carry out their designs, they fail.
One promises a branch from a tree that grows jewels instead of fruit & is made of gold instead of wood. Another the brilliant, fireproof fur of a rat; another the bowl of the Buddha; another a jewel from a dragon; & finally the cowrie in the bird’s nest. Plant, animal, sort of a divine man, a sort of a divine animal, & how does that lead up to the cowrie? Perhaps this metaphor is most fantastic & apposite because it is about a snail being born of birds. Only the suitor who promised it dies.
One day, an old woodcutter finds a bamboo tree sprout in front of him, opening up to show a small doll that looks like a princess. As aware of the mysterious things beyond human comprehension as anyone, he abases himself in fear. Soon, however, he takes the doll, which seems to be alive, home. He quarrels with his old wife, but in her hands the doll turns into a baby girl.
For a while, it seems like they will have a child that could grow up like every other peasant there, living at the mercy of the mountain. But the woodcutter one day he sees a brilliant bamboo tree which he tries to cut–he finds a fortune in gold. This persuades him he was right to take the girl. The heavens want him to use the money to transform the baby now growing in his house, as his own, into that princess he saw.
There is a small contest in the beginning between the father, who calls the baby princess, & the peasants’ children, who call her bamboo sprout–because she grows so quickly. The baby seems to respond to both names, but goes to her father. This in a way is contest between metaphor & likeness. The boys are reasonable in that they see what is alike to what & call things as they see them. The father is too aware of the divine to be able to do that: A childless man blessed beyond his expectations could hardly be expected to treat a miracle otherwise.
The image is the girl’s fate. Her father will make her into that image, sparing neither expense nor effort, against the wishes of the family, & against nature. We are introduced to the shocking ways in which women are made to conform to the image of a beautiful woman.
The girl is especially offended by eyebrow plucking–which has to do with natural growth–& tooth blackening, an aristocratic adult habit that makes smiling impossible. The city & the nobility seem to be led away from nature by their fantasies & their rejection of everything spontaneous. Maybe in such a world no one is anything but what he is thought to be publicly–how could one come to know oneself?
All this apparently has a divine sanction. The old man does not think he has come into unearned wealth or happiness. He does not do much to enjoy either. He seems to assume the brilliant belong to the powerful & prepares to have this young girl marry some stranger on the strength of his reputation, who would marry her on the strength of her reputation for beauty. Everyone here seems to be blind.
This is the last of Takahata’s animated movies at Ghibli studios. Admirers of Japanese animations will love it.
The end of the story resembles the beginning, but it shows that the hope for modern individualism is an admittedly changed form of the old-fashioned marriage. The dancer is reunited with her army guy, presumably back from Korea & hungry. The melancholy woman tames her dark designs by soft music & seems to have a chance at happiness with the melancholy musician. The old couple who hope to escape heat by sleeping on the fire escape get another dog; the newlyweds quarrel–he quit his job without telling her.
Several suggestions about how people need each other come up here. In what way do Jeff & Lisa need each other? They end up peaceful–he slumbers, she reads her woman’s magazine under cover of an exploring adventure to do with the Himalayas. That’s a fine joke–beyond the highest mountains is Lisa & domestic bliss… Well, he is immobile once more, but perhaps less full of fight, more amenable to peace.
One evening, they see the dancer entertain company–Jeff likens her to a queen bee picking drones, but Lisa likens her situation to her own, she says she’s juggling wolves. The city looks orderly & peaceful to Jeff, up until this last week of immobility–doctor’s orders. The second injury seems to be necessary to allow Lisa to complete his education.
There is something remarkable about the story–the man of action is reduced to looking at people & making a few speeches; the woman, who is only to be looked at–hopefully, she displays fashion of some kind–acts the part of daring investigator, risking life & limb & going to jail. This proves to Jeff that Lisa is a far braver, stronger animal than he had been willing to admit; but it also makes him afraid of losing her.
The quarrel that threatens to set them apart brings up the question of perfection. He thinks he is perfect, because self-sufficient–he does not need the city, in fact, he has withstood what man & nature have done to him & is still around to boast. He thinks she is perfect in another way, the perfect specimen of city life, that to which everything else in the city aspires. Several conflicts line up here: Man & woman; courage & moderation; nature & city; the few & the many.
Why should peaceful, prosperous 50’s America face a crisis? The voice of common sense says, modern marriage is analyzing things to death; people no longer understand that they can help each other & protect what’s good about each other by the secrecy of marriage. Marriage puts two together–maladjusted misfits fit together. She adds, intelligence is the bane of happiness–it publicizes too much, it has no respect for erotic longings.
Jeff is neither blind nor immune to the charms of a beautiful woman–he has somehow succeeded in attaching the affection of fair lady–Lisa Carol Fremont. You have this town in the palm of your hand, he says; not quite, it seems, she answers. Why is not Jeff part of the city quite? Well, he rejects the woman ostensibly because his life is full of hardship & ugliness, which is not fit for her. He does what is necessary to survive in terrible conditions in which he places himself willingly, & yet he feels he cannot stop.
Then, after long weeks of being bedridden–one gets the sense he does not often spends months at a time in the city–this dark secret of his starts to come out–he learns of a murder: He sees in his mind & cannot persuade himself he is wrong, although there is neither evidence nor yet suspicion.
Others disagree with him or reproach him for breaking the laws about spying on people or on the ground of the moral implications of looking at his neighbor as though he was a monster. But Jeff cannot let go–in his heart, he knows man is evil. The dangerous life he lives might have to do with a preference for honesty over the conventions & secrets of the city.
Jeff: She’s too perfect, she’s too talented, she’s too beautiful, she’s too sophisticated, she’s too everything but what I want.
Stella: Is, um, what you want something you can discuss?
Likely, no, it is not. When evil emerges in the neighborhood, such that he is himself beyond suspicion, then this business of ‘what he wants’ becomes more serious & more obvious. Jeff does more than play detective–not least because he commits crimes to do justice without the people having authorized any of his powers–& he puts other people’s lives at risk, not just his own. Who could up & declare that that’s something he wants?
The city turns out to include already the kind of danger & fight for which he somehow longs. It is important to notice how excited the discovery makes him; how little repulsion or outrage he shows; how he seems to assume facing up to evil is his job.
Once he learns about evil, it may be easier for him to reconcile himself to life in the city. The city is not all order carefully administered & peaceful prosperity in the service of beauty & domesticity. Jeff finally does something approaching the heroic. He finally earns praise by noble deeds. He is getting older–no one can wander forever–& he is becoming less scornful of the good things in life. We may allow, everyone finally gets what they deserve.