Archive for January 2011

At one point during the film, the financial editor of the Washington Post asks Chance (Peter Sellers), the protagonist: “Are you there?” The latter casually replies: “Yes, I’m here.” Chance is no doubt unaware of the existential weight of his answer. In fact, to anyone meeting Chance for the first time, it may seem like there is no one “there” at all, for he is a simple man, with an even simpler outlook on life. He loves watching television, and is inexplicably drawn to gardening. That is it. That is all that he is. No more. He is physically there, but he’s not paying much attention.

In his thoughtful analysis of the film, Roger Ebert (1997) observes: “The movie provides no diagnosis of [Chance’s] condition. He is able to respond to given cues, and can, within limits, adapt and learn.” It is true that we do not understand Chance, and that he is unlike most of us. When faced with something (or someone) we do not understand, our immediate reaction is typically to categorize or label, in other words, bring meaning to the unknown. While none of the characters attempt to label or diagnose Chance’s behavior, they only become attuned to him once his name is, well, re-tuned. Chance, that powerful event-altering force, is whitewashed into the less intimidating Chauncey Gardiner. While this re-naming happens through a misunderstanding, it is the moment in which Chance suddenly becomes relevant and valuable to the world around him. Indeed, Being There is less about (or not at all about) Chance, and more about (or entirely about) what people do with him.

Chance is the kind of character that you do not forget, probably because there is something indefinably archetypal about him. This is fitting, after all, as he is named after Opportunity itself, which is exactly what he gives the people lucky enough to cross paths with him: an occasion to think, and to think differently. The successful integration of an abstract force into a painfully ordinary man is a credit to screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski’s nuanced writing, and Sellers’s understated performance, which deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination.

Directed by Hal Ashby, and based off Kosinski’s own book, the film tells a rather simple story. Chance, having led a sheltered life as a gardener in his employer’s house, is evicted when the latter dies. Through a fortuitous encounter with Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), he is given shelter in her expansive mansion. Her prominent husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas), who happens to be dying, finds Chance a welcome addition to his last days. He introduces Chance to the president of the United States (Jack Warden), and Chance inadvertently becomes an influential financial advisor. Everyone who meets Chance is enamored by him, and if they are somewhat confounded by him, they quickly fill in the blanks and assume they understand what he has just said. As the film nears its end, Chance has become an international mystery of sorts; people, the media, and governments from around the world struggle to define him. Who is he? Everyone wants to know. Where is he from? No one finds out.

Chance involuntarily encourages people to see things, everything, simply. Perhaps because he tends to reflect people’s words back to them, people come to see in him a part of themselves and what they desire. Indeed, people interpret his passion for gardening as a hopeful metaphor promising better things to come. Chance’s metaphors can potentially clarify and elucidate the big issues of Life, provided that those who embrace them never forget that they are allegorical simplifications. There appears to be a danger, however, that his metaphors may confuse and misrepresent when those who embrace them do not recognize their limitations. As with the metaphor of mental illness (see Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, 1961), when the characters do not understand that the frameworks they place on Chance’s ambiguous statements are merely adopted frameworks rather than Truth itself, they mistakenly attribute more to the metaphors than is reasonable. This muddies the waters of reality, and threatens to take away from Chance’s simple purity.

The sense of simplicity within Being There is endearing. The film is refreshingly minimalist in its approach, which is perfectly suited for its rich material. I shudder to think what the film would have been like had another director taken it on: likely a frenetically-paced and gag-laden mess. Here, however, everything is carefully and tastefully conveyed. The misunderstandings between Chance and other characters, for example, are never played for laughs. Sure, they put a smile to your face, but they do not serve to deride Chance or his confused companions, instead helping the audience fall for him, much in the same way as the characters on screen.

Although the tone of the ending stands at odds with that of the rest of the film, the transition feels so seamless that we accept what we see with no reservations. The final scene is surprising, and with this image, the film appears to comment on religion. As with Jesus, the world has become desperately infatuated with Chance, and in a similar way, the world has profoundly invested itself into him.

If Chance is understood to be a wise figure, then religion is portrayed as a legitimate answer to life’s mysteries. To me, however, there is a crucial difference between Chance and Jesus, in that Chance has no motivation nor is he on a special mission. Rather, Chance just is. And by just being (there), he mirrors humanity and reveals to us certain truths about ourselves in a dispassionate and, therefore, purer way. Chance does not pander or trivialize. The fact that he has no idea what he is saying only adds to his message; indeed, it is precisely because his message is so devoid of intention that it is able to carry so much meaning. Being unobtrusive, Chance allows us to see in him not only what we want to see, but what we so desperately need to see as well. Chance’s answers to life’s mysteries are our answers to life’s mysteries.

If Chance is understood to be no more than a dimwit, however, religion is portrayed as the simple man’s answer to life’s mysteries. It cannot be escaped that Chance is ultimately a light-minded man with nothing intentionally wise to offer. Perhaps, then, dimness is the secret to the ability to walk on water, so to speak.

Suffice it to say, Being There operates on several levels at once. However, after a second viewing, making sense of the film is no less exasperating. Despite encouraging multiple levels of meaning, the film suggests that there is no inherent, only subjective, meaning to life and the universe. The film itself mimics the process of assigning meaning where no objective meaning exists. My boyfriend was reminded of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), a play that begs for interpretation every step of the way, but refuses to allow a satisfyingly coherent interpretation of the story’s metaphors and events. The audience is left with a mishmash of potential meanings, but never a fully-packaged understanding that would ease the discomfort of experiencing something inherently meaningless. While intriguing, this feature makes neither Being There nor Endgame a particularly pleasant viewing experience.

Chance (or Random Luck) not only drives the plot of the film, but also inadvertently dictates what happens to each character. Each character, too, is an archetype representing a different social system, including Science/Medicine, Government, Relationships, Business, and the Media. All attempt to capitalize on Chance, but refuse to admit this, possibly because it would be too overwhelming to face this reality. Similarly, we want to believe that all is meaningful and intentional, but nothing really is. Chance is just chance.  We can assign meaning to randomness (and the film might suggest this is not a bad way to live), but this certainly does not ensure that random variation in the Universe will ever be within our control.

Upon reflection, the closing scene of Being There is not as surprising as one that takes place after the death of the character named Ben. Ben’s doctor (Richard Dysart), representing Science, is the only one to figure out that Chance is truly a simple man, not the enigmatic philosopher everyone thinks he is. However, Dr. Allenby chooses to let Ben die thinking that Chance is a brilliant man; this comforts Ben, providing him repose. Following Ben’s death, the typically inexpressive Chance exhibits an emotion for the first time. Something has happened in Chance, something we suspect has never happened to him before. Perhaps Chance is grateful that a man died having never realized the truth about him. By blinding himself to the simplicity of Chance, Ben has elevated Chance to something greater than chance, infusing him with Meaning he does not inherently own. This is emotional stuff, for do we not cling to and cherish our own Meanings?

Being There takes place in winter. In his influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the philosopher Thomas Kuhn described a rhythm to science, where hypotheses about our world and its mysteries are cyclically updated as time progresses. Likewise, there is a rhythm to Life itself. Chance methodically explains: “First comes Spring and Summer, but then we have Fall and Winter. And then we get Spring and Summer again.” Before the credits roll, we are told: Life is a state of mind. And if there is no inherent meaning to the Universe (besides meaning that is deliberately assigned), are all realities equally valid? If all is equally accurate (or equally inaccurate), which state of mind (or hypothesis) should we favor?

Note: I would like to thank Caleb Lloyd for discussing Being There with me, and for helping me, in the process, extend my thoughts about the film. This review would not have been possible without him.

Thought of You is director/animator Ryan Woodward’s latest short. It is best described as a projective film, where one if free to cast his or her own interpretations onto the screen. The tender, contemplative tale enchants the senses with smooth, detailed visuals, creative imagery, and hypnotic music courtesy of The Weepies. Check it out…

It amazes me just how much art you can pack into a few minutes… On his latest exhibit’s website, Woodward shares his intent: “Rather than creating a narrative animated piece that communicates a well-defined story, this piece allows for each individual who views it to experience something unique and personal that touches their own sensibilities.”

It is fitting that the first movie review posted on this website is about the world’s first talking picture. Produced by Warner Brothers and directed by Alan Crosland, The Jazz Singer was released onto the silver screen in 1927. Although I’ve been avidly watching movies for the past 27 years, this was my first time watching Crosland’s seminal film. Having now seen it, I can safely say that it belongs on every film enthusiast’s bookshelf. Despite its age, the film’s themes are timeless, exploring the importance of being ourselves while still honoring our roots, even though our heritage might not have anything to do with who we are. Being Jewish, I’ve thought about the relevance of religious and racial heritage to present-day identity. The Jazz Singer proved to be right up my alley…

Based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jackie Rabinowitz, a young boy enamored with jazz music, aspiring to one day become a stage performer. However, there’s a tiny complication: Jackie was born into an orthodox Jewish family. And, wherever you find religious heritage, there are responsibilities. Jackie’s father (Warner Oland), from a long line of cantors, wishes his son to uphold the family tradition. Unfortunately for Jackie, his father isn’t about to be convinced otherwise. A title card explains: “Cantor Rabinowitz, chanter of hymns in the synagogue, stubbornly held to the ancient traditions of his race.” Jackie’s mother (Eugenie Besserer), on the other hand, is as unconditionally loving as her husband is small-minded: “God made her a Woman and Love made her a Mother.”

Unwilling to bend to his father’s expectations, Jackie runs away from home. We next see him as an adult (Al Jolson), living the dream as a cabaret jazz singer. Only now he’s no longer Jackie Rabinowitz, going by the less ethnic-sounding Jack Robin. Through a series of events, Jack is eventually reminded of his heritage, and becomes conflicted: should he honor his roots, or pursue his calling? The film subsequently follows Jack as he struggles between the two options. The “child seeks approval from parents” plot has certainly been done and redone; yet, the film held my interest as a strong version of this storyline, and was of particular interest since it is one of the first film incarnations of this well-known plot.

Soon celebrating its 85th birthday, The Jazz Singer remains an engaging film throughout, and at points surprisingly affecting. A number of themes were thoughtfully addressed: the conflict between religion and modern values, art as a legitimate profession, duty to family, and the challenge of staying true to ourselves in the face of adversity. Although The Jazz Singer is technically the first talkie, sound is still used sparingly. It may not boast the technical trappings of modern film, but it certainly makes up for it in other areas: strong performances, inventive editing, and careful usage of sound.

Al Jolson is a very charismatic lead, making his character easy to cheer for and sympathize with. Of note, Eugenie Besserer delivers one of the most powerfully moving performances I’ve seen captured on film. Although she seems slightly out of her element in scenes where she speaks aloud, she is right at home in her silent scenes. In particular, there is a scene where Jack’s father, enraged by his young son’s impertinence, drags him into a room for a beating. As he shuts the door behind him, Jack’s mother rests sobbing against it. With every strike, her body flinches. Though silent, I could swear I heard every snap of the belt.

Harold McCord’s spirited editing serves to highlight the actors’ performances, helping lift them off the screen. Rather than distracting from the performances, the film boasts clever usage of title cards that enhance key moments. In one scene, Jack is about to board a train on way to his next performance when he learns that he has scored a gig on Broadway. At an increasingly rapid pace, the camera alternates between closer and closer shots of Jack, and larger and larger font-sized title cards, reflecting the dawning realization: New York City = seeing mother again! (Who said Freud was wrong about sons and their mothers?)

Sound is used sparingly, and not indiscriminately. We hear music: Hebrew prayers and jazz numbers. This is certainly an interesting choice, as song represents the issue at hand here: should we sing to the tune of our past heritage or our present calling? We also hear speech. Jack treats his mother to a private piano performance in her apartment, and the first dialogue sequence featured in a full-length motion picture follows. However, this moment is short-lived. The film reverts to title cards as Jack’s traditionalist father enters the room… Soundless fury ensues.

One aspect of the film that will likely shock modern audiences is the use of blackface. In the early days of theater and film, Caucasian actors playing African-American characters applied “blackface makeup” to their faces. The practice eventually fell out of artistic favor as society matured. While I am not an expert on the history of blackface and cannot comment on the socio-cultural significance of its usage in 1920s America, it did strike me that the blackface scene at least served an artistic purpose in The Jazz Singer. This is in stark contrast to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), where Caucasian actors played African-American characters alongside African-American actors for no apparent reason.

While blackface was used in The Birth of a Nation to support clearly racist ideologies, the scene where Jack applies blackface makeup in his dressing room works on an allegorical level, as he is surrounded by both his actual and showbiz families, each vying for his allegiance. With streaks of black makeup on his white skin, Jack is divided, torn between his Jewish and his artistic selves. The question is presented: which is Jack’s true identity, and which one is the mask?

The Jazz Singer’s resolution may leave contemporary audiences feeling unsatisfied, which is probably why I started to imagine how a modern retelling of the story might conclude. Perhaps today’s Jack would successfully reconcile his two selves by delivering a traditional Hebrew prayer with a jazzy twist. Since The Jazz Singer ends with the somber Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) anthem, Kol Nidre, perhaps the remake could simply switch the holiday to a more cheerful one. Simchat Torah meets Jazz Fest anyone?

As if the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) wasn’t enough of a travesty, psychiatrists are already hard at work on its successor. Although the DSM-V is still a few years away from publication, controversy over the next incarnation of the psychiatric bible has already arisen. Stricken with an apparent change of heart, Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who chaired the task force that developed the DSM-IV, has revealed that he is severely worried about the societal repercussions that the DSM-V may have come its release atop psychiatrists’ desks nationwide.

Frances rather candidly admits that the DSM-IV has done a disservice to society, by misleadingly labeling certain difficulties in living as mental illnesses, thus giving psychiatrists free reign over those “suffering” from these so-called illnesses. Should the recently released draft of the DSM-V be any indication of the final product, there is a serious risk that it may just end up doing the exact same sort of harm its predecessor has done… So watch out people: what is normal today might be pathological tomorrow. Come the advent of the DSM-V, we might suddenly find ourselves struggling with a mental illness we didn’t have the day before its publication!

For more details on Frances’ arguments, check out his recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

For a preview of the next DSM, head over to the American Psychiatric Association’s The Future of Diagnosis website.

This is technically our first post. Mazel Tov to us! We will begin posting official content soon…

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