Monday, December 31, 2007

Two Movies

May we discuss Jewish culture? What is it? Is there such a thing? Why is it that everyone reading that sentence had a small electric shiver run up their spine? How many people, right now, have the words 'anti-semite' on the tip of their tongue? Rather than leap in head first why don't we go sideways. And mix some metaphors whilst we're at it, sure. Let's have a discussion that is permissible. I've actually had this particular discussion many times and didn't spook anyone. We all sat round the dinner table and nobody freaked out.

The discussion is about the film Spirited Away by the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. It's animated but I hold no brief for animation as such. To that end I'm uninterested in discussing it in those terms. Here I treat it as just another movie, a representation of the-world-is-thus comprised of plot, themes and world-view. When viewed in these terms Spirited Away stands out as being completely at odds with everything I understood, or was familiar with, in cinema - so much so that it left me at a loss when I first viewed it. And yet it was based on a very familiar model. It was a variation of the kind of movie we've all seen many many times, especially if you have kids, ha ha. To wit: a little girl, Chihiro, is separated from her parents and plunged into a world of adventure. Simple stuff. The comparison to Disney is obvious and few who reviewed Spirited Away failed to make it.

Whilst there have been many films following the 'lone child having adventures' model, for the sake of simplicity I'll settle on The Lion King as a useful comparison. Both these films were huge smashes at the box office. Spirited Away broke all records in Japan. Every Japanese kid saw it. The Lion King likewise was watched by just about every kid in America and did such big business it pretty much saved Disney. Kids didn't just see these films once. With the advent of video and then DVD they saw them, in all probability, dozens of times. Anyone who thinks that this doesn't shape a kid is nuts.

I'll do The Lion King first since most people know it better. Loosely, the plot consists of a son failing to heed his father's advice that he not go to a particular dangerous place. Apples anyone? Cue the wicked other, in the role of satan who tempts the son to disobey his father. Our young hero not only succumbs to the temptation but in doing so causes his father's death. Following this, he runs away and effectively leads a life that is a disneyfied version of delinquency. With the father dead and the son absent the wicked other somewhat pointlessly turns paradise into hell. In fact you'd have to wonder why he bothered. If you weren't so distracted by all the singing and dancing that is. Finally, via a requisite plot device, our junior hero returns to do his duty and face down the villain.

The nature of the villain is worth discussing. He is evil - irredeemably so. There is no point coming to a compromise with him. Nor is there any point discussing with him the wrongness of his behaviour. Only a craven fool would even consider it. He is that kind of villain - he who must be killed. Twice. How often must the villain be killed twice in Hollywood? I lost count. And when the villain is dragged screaming down to hell to be tortured and eaten alive, then all is as it should be. Redemption? Never heard of it.

That our villain is limned in such black and white terms is not an accident. His wicked nature did not lead him to his death. Rather, it's the other way around: the screenwriters wanted a fight to the death and to that end depicted him as deserving of it. The final fight to the death was not a result of the plot but rather the purpose of it. Thus it should come as no surprise that after our hero's bloody victory over the devil he is regaled by all of creation. Literally. Not only is he not chastised for any of his previous foolish behaviour but the entire animal kingdom agrees that he is the greatest and most worthy creature there is. Indeed his father appears in an immortal and god-like form and gives our hero a blessing from heaven. Which is to say, the god of the film makers is a god who reserves his blessings for killers.

Wow. So what happened in Spirited Away? Did Chihiro in any way resemble our lion hero? Barely. Chihiro starts the film sooky and self-obsessed but then only briefly - a single minute of screen time. Unwittingly she and her family enter a world of spirits. Her parents, without actually being culpable, are effectively taken and our heroine is lost in a world she doesn't understand. By way of assistance from a sympathetic other she finds herself in, believe it or not, a bath house of animist gods.

Anyone who's seen an unhappy kid on their their first day of school will be perfectly familiar with the nature of her predicament. Indeed she cries precisely in that fashion. Her fear is not of monsters but of an unknown environment that is absent her parents. However unlike the junior lion our heroine has no time for delinquency. She must rescue her mother and father. In fact for the duration of the film she remains selfless, courageous, honest, hardworking, and sympathetic to the plight of others - even those who torment her, if you can believe that.

And who is the villain in this film? Surely there must be one? Perhaps it is Yubaba the witch who runs the bath house? But she takes Chihiro in and treats her exactly as well as everyone else. The bath house is is not a place of suffering. If anything we could declare it a happy place. And what to make of the scene where Yubaba alone recognises the significance of a particular bath house patron (a situation that all had previously misunderstood), rallies the staff of the bath house, and pulls off a tremendous victory that earns the gratitude of a god and ensures the further well-being of the bath house and all whose livelihood depends upon it? What sort of villain is that? Where's the pointless cruelty?

Perhaps the villain is the Kaonashi (No Face in English). He is definitely scary. Wow, he just ate that guy! When he's on a roll, everyone runs for their lives, our heroine included. However, unlike the everyone else she has the presence of mind to plead with him to stop and to consider others. (This is standard in Miyazaki's films. All thoughtless rampagers are asked to see reason and to stop their behaviour). On first viewing of the Kaonashi's rampage any little kid watching will be frankly terrified. But only briefly and only on the first viewing.

On the second inevitable viewing, kids understand that the Kaonashi is not a monster. All he wants is to be friends with Chihiro who was previously kind to him. He is simply confused as to how to go about this. Amazingly, Chihiro refuses to judge him by his early bad behaviour. Here, judgement is entirely absent and forgiveness is s superfluous concept. Indeed upon catching the train to a distant unknown, Chihiro gives the Kaonashi the ticket that would otherwise have enabled her to return. Without moralising, all she asks is that he behave himself. He assents and they peaceably ride the train together.

Extraordinary! When did Hollywood ever have a scene like this? And never was a train ride so beautiful. At the end of the movie we see the Kaonashi happy to farewell Chihiro and sit with Yubaba's sister helping her spin yarn. He wasn't even killed once, let alone twice. Believe it or not, this film has no villain and miraculously it is not dull. Who knew this was possible?

Finally, Chihiro returns to the bath house and by way of forthright wit frees her parents. All rejoice. Yubaba is stumped but receives no comeuppance. That would be pointless. Throughout the story her actions were invariably guided by her responsibilities to those she led and provided for. At no time was she pointlessly vicious or cruel. Compare this to the villains of Disney and Hollywood who are idiotically, even self-defeatingly, vicious. If we weren't watching a movie/tv show and instead encountered such entities in real life we would shake our heads. They'd make no sense.

What's going on here? The most popular movie in Japanese history was completely and utterly at odds with the all-pervasive paradigm of western, which is to say American, which is to say Hollywood story-telling. Unsurprisingly Americans, and those schooled in Hollywoodese, had trouble with this film. Reviewers barely knew what to make of it: Spirited Away was like 'Disney on acid!' and other such idiot descriptions. Nobody said it was 'like Disney except it acknowledged the humanity of all of its protagonists'. Ha ha ha, I crack myself up.

Anyway, in trying to figure out what was 'wrong' with Spirited Away I realised what was 'right' with it and wrong with everything else I watched. And let's not be mistaken. We all watch Hollywood. I'd be prepared to bet that Hollywood product comprises at least 90% of what we watch. Hell, more. And don't think that American TV isn't Hollywood. Of course it is. As for those leaping up in protest - 'But I watch this and that!' - ask yourself if the non-Hollywood product you watch breaks from the Hollywood paradigm, or apes it. We're so used to it we don't even notice. It's like the air that we breathe.

Think about it. How many films or shows have we seen that involved: teenagers knowing better than their idiot parents and being proven right; people heaping insults on and belittling each other and looking cool with it; absurd merciless villains who cannot be reasoned with and must be killed; the righteous smashing of those that would find commonality or seek accord with opponents; a hero who uses lies and other subterfuge to destroy the deserving villain; people for whom co-operation is not an option and must survive by dog eat dog; things such as lying, cheating, stealing portrayed as virtues ...hell, let's just call it 'all that old testament shit'.

Like I said, I've expressed my views on kid's movies at dinner parties, barbecues and other polite venues. Kids are there, they watch DVDs and a discussion ensues. I lived in Japan and China and it suits me to discuss the cultural differences between the Japanese and the Chinese and Westerners. But it's not just me. Everyone grooves on it. Everyone has a story to tell and the conversation goes to and fro. I've stated my take on Spirited Away and The Lion King previously and found people to be fascinated.

Clearly it's permissable to discuss cultural differences by way of cinema. Or is it? May we discuss Jewish culture? Certainly we may discuss other Semites, which is to say Muslims, as long as we all agree how wicked they all are. Does anyone know any Muslims? I do. I found them to be the sweetest, most hospitable people I've ever had the fortune to meet. How is it that the people I've met are so completely at odds with Hollywood Muslims? In Hollywood, Muslims are the very definition of the idiotic villain. They make no sense. They hate us for our freedom, whatever that means. Where in all of the Western Canon was there a villain who hated another man for his freedom? How did Shakespeare miss that one? Um... because there's no such thing?

I digress. May we discuss Jewish culture? Maybe we're not meant to be talking about it at all. So unlikely is this conversation that we don't know where to start. And thus the question - Is there such a thing as Jewish culture? Surely there is. How would we describe it? Don't be scared. We're allowed to speak of the Japanese, the Chinese, and Muslims in this fashion. So. How about Jewish Culture? Oh, and anyone who wants to say that Hollywood isn't Jewish - ha ha ha ha - knock yourselves out. I got no time for such idiot parlour games.

And guess what? I got no time for a discussion of Jewish culture neither. It pivots on an us and them paradigm. Them is the other, the irredeemably evil. Them is those whose humanity is denied. Them can be stolen from, starved, beaten, tortured, killed. And the thing is - if you believe in them you will find them. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those of you out there who believe you have impossibly vicious enemies one way or another you, and people like you, imagined them into reality. Dig it, you're living the Hollywood dream.