How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

The Fearful Symmetry of Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237

Room 237

There are two things I watched as a child – that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch as child – a special shout out to my mad cool parents, yo! – that I believe will stick with me forever…and ever…and ever. One is Twin Peaks. The other is The Shining. Oh yeah, and Fright Night. And that episode of Scooby Doo with the pumpkin-headed phantom. But seriously…about The Shining.

Like Twin Peaks it’s been an object of obsession for me. In Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s obsessive new documentary where half a dozen film nuts/Kubrick scholars obsess over every bit of minutiae in The Shining (check out all the stuff in the walk-in cooler at the Overlook…every brand name has a double meaning so sayeth them!), every cross dissolve (Kubrick dissolves scenes like Kapooya!), every continuity error (de-lib-er-ate they say!), there’s not a single theory presented that I haven’t heard before.

The Shining was actually about the Holocaust (the number 42 is quite telling…as is one cross dissolve of people into stacked luggage…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no, wait…make that the American genocide of the Indians (think of the setting, and the set designs, and the back story of the hotel…and, you know, all that blood in the elevator)…no way…it was about how Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing (duh, Danny’s wearing that Apollo 11 sweater, like, what did you think that meant?)…or…AHA! – it was about all of those things!

Continue reading

A Review of Fritz Lang’s “M”

With nothing worthwhile at the cineplex this spring, I’ve been using my Netflix queue to catch up with many of the classics I studied in film class but never watched as a complete whole.  Fritz Lang’s M is one of those classics that looks great on your shelf, but you might only pop in the DVD player for that single scene or shot.  I’m not sure I could ever sit through it again fully because it’s so challenging and draining to watch.  This is the polar opposite of the film I explored earlier in the month, The Third Man, which I could watch again and again for the entertainment value.  That in itself is notable as M is often sited as one of the first films to flirt with noir, while The Third Man is considered by many to be the epitome of the movement.  As the film that bridged two significant gaps in film history (the gap between German Expressionism and Film Noir, and the gap between silent films and talkies), M also exists above the scrutiny of a modern film critic.  I decided to tackle it as I would have when I was a psychology major in college.  The film is endlessly fascinating in its symbolic imagery and psychological, sociological, and political underpinnings.

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“L” Before “M”, 21 April 2008

10/10

Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In an eerie propagandist fashion, the phrase “in the name of the Law” is repeated over the last two scenes of Fritz Lang’s M as a child killer is brought to justice. If “L” represents the State and the Law, then “M” is meant to represent the Individual (who in this case is a Murderer). Lang boldly asked us way back in 1931, whose rights come first: the State or the Individual? A master of his craft, Lang leaves the question open-ended and let’s the audience decide.

M is shockingly contemporary in its psychological complexities. It explores the psychology of individualism vs. group think while showcasing how a state of fear can be inflicted upon a populace when a government fails to protect society from a single individual terrorizing the people. The story is fairly straightforward: An elusive citizen begins killing innocent children in a large nameless German city. The media fuels a paranoid frenzy that incites the public. The clueless police begin to raid “the underworld” after the populace is turned into a raving mob because of the failure to capture the killer. “The underworld” comes to a screeching halt as their business is ruined by the police and starts their own manhunt for the killer.

Unlike a modern period piece that attempts to evoke a certain place and time, M WAS a certain place and time. Lang, in an almost prophetic sense, captured the state of mind of the German people in 1931 as the Weimar Republic was on the brink of collapse and the Nazi Regime was preparing to take over. When individuals live in a state of fear, as they do in M, society collapses and the Individual is crushed. Only the State, it seems, can bring order.

M is a also a masterpiece for its technical aspects. The way in which Lang uses his camera to move through windows, capture shadows, reflections, empty spaces, and shift points-of-view is staggering even by today’s standards. He also played with the new technology of recorded sound with extensive voice-over narration and dialogue used to overlap and transition between scenes. Didn’t critics recently praise Michael Clayton for utilizing just such a technique as if it was something revolutionary? One can also see a protean style the would eventually birth the Film Noir movement with the creation of tension and suspense in the use of shadows and camera angles.

Yet M is not perfect. It has some major flaws. There are no real “characters” in the film to speak of in the modern sense. The film is virtually all built around mood and plot. The only time Lang invites us to emotionally connect is in the opening and closing scenes with a mother of one of the victims, and in the classic scene of Peter Lorre giving his writhing and primal “I can’t help it!” speech in front of the kangaroo court of criminals. The mother’s grief and Lorre’s madness are presented so sparsely and in such a raw form that it becomes too painful to want to connect with them. Another flaw that is often overstated about films from this time period is the slow pace of the early police procedural scenes. These inherent flaws combined with the inherent brilliance of Lang’s vision make M one of the most challenging films a modern viewer could ever sit through.

What impressed me most about M was the subtlety of the symbolism Lang created with his haunting images. As harrowing as the story is, none of the gruesomeness is shown on screen. It’s all transmitted to the viewer through the power of suggestion. Is it any wonder Hitler wanted Fritz Lang for his propaganda machine, which thankfully led to Lang fleeing to America? I’ll never forget the wide shots of the kangaroo court (and the looks on those people’s faces as the killer is brought down the steps for trial) or the vast expanse of that empty warehouse. The scene of the ball rolling in the grass with no one to catch it, the balloon caught in the telephone wires, and the empty domestic spaces the mother has to inhabit after her child has been murdered are the types of scenes that tape into Jungian archetypes and shared fears. The look on Lorre’s face as he confesses, the hand of the Law coming down to save Lorre from being lynched, and the ghastly plea from the mother in the final scene will stick with me for the rest of my life. 

M is a communal nightmare; one that from which we have yet to awake.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0022100/usercomments-199

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For further exploration, some of the major themes of M can be found in the following films:

The horrors of group think: Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

The stalking and murder of innocence:  Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955)

Individuals crushed while under the surveilance of the State:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006)

The unraveling of communities and individuals when children are threatened: Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007)