How we Gravitate towards Evil, Collectively

The same results can be obtained even after reversing the genders.

And the results are far more diabolical when the individual mademoiselle is replaced with a collective mademoiselle. Or monsieur, or whatever other gender on the spectrum, because the phenomenon is gender-neutral.

The results are already quite diabolical due to the effect of the collective gravitating towards the individual evil, but they become exponentially more diabolical when the evil itself is collective and even bigger collective gravitates towards the collective evil.

The above is an example of the malignant type of this phenomenon.

In a highly organised social collection of individuals, as we have in our world at a global scale, individual evil is (at the worst) like a cancerous cell. There exists what we call cancer only when there are a very large number of such cancerous cells. Individual cancerous cells can’t do much damage.

Even a small group of cancerous cells is usually benign. Unless, of course, the collective gravitates towards it.

Here is benign type of the same, that is, some of the seeds of it, lest we forget completely, shown in a very much sanitized version:

We all carry some seeds of individual evil: some more, some less. Most of these seeds are supposed to lie dormant and they often do. They are there, at least partially, for evolutionary reasons. There are more than enough technologies of power (in the Foucauldian sense) to keep individual evil in check (but also keep individual good in check if it conflicts with the interests of the powers that be).

The problem is, these same technologies of power create and facilitate collective evil and/or make the collective gravitate towards it for reasons of their own (such as The Greater Good or The Higher Cause, whichever way these causes are defined, which may not be really good or higher).

So, yes, in that sense it is more a political matter, less a psychological matter.

Who decides what is Good or Higher? Who decides who decides? The collective? Those who represent the collective? Those who claim to represent the collective? Those who have the power to decide on behalf of the collective? Those who have the power and just pretend to decide on behalf of the collective? Those who convince the collective that they are deciding on behalf of the collective or for the good of the collective?

To convert a mainly political matter into a totally psychological matter has always been a tactic dear to socio-political establishments to maintain their power and to maintain the status quo (or to change it to their interests), particularly to totalitarian systems such as the Stalinist Soviet Union or the Maoist China or Nazi Germany. That is what the Re-education Camps and Gulags were for, in terms of the justification given for their existence.

There is no reason why a Capitalist Establishment can’t or won’t use this tactic.

We do know for sure about the use of medical ‘treatment’ for gender-related ‘illnesses’ or ‘disorders’ or ‘diseases’. That is not a Conspiracy Theory. The people — good people, nice people — genuinely hated and dreaded the people with such ‘illnesses’ or ‘disorders’ or ‘diseases’, to the extent we hate pedophiles, for example. In many societies, such gender related phobias (is that the right word, considering what I just said about the psychological and the political?) are still the norm. Not just phobias (or whatever is the right term), there are still laws applying them.

The one below is a less benign case of the same phenomenon, hinting towards the malignant form:

This one, as the others, shows the pushes and pulls (well, technically only pulls) of gravitation between entities, both good and evil, whether in the same person or not, and also (more importantly) between the individual evil and the collective evil. The political here is much more explicit. The psychological is just what humans are. The political is what humans have made for themselves, collectively. That last one is the keyword.

In that case, are there some Special Ones or Chosen Ones, or is the Higher or the Good for everyone?

In the fight between good and evil, the evil always has the upper hand. This is almost a cliche. But also in the fight between the individual evil and the collective evil, the latter is a guaranteed winner.

The collective just brushes aside the individual good. And it crushes the individual evil as a giant can crush a little thing. It does that only when the interests between the two don’t align well. Otherwise, they can get along just fine. That is part of how the world works.

There is less evil in a room with a view. A room at the top, however, is a very different matter. The evil there is immeasurably more.

The room at the top is the control centre of the technologies of power. An evil Mademoiselle or a Monsieur is just the kind of asset that they need there.

Only as long as the interests align.

A room at the top comes, not only with a view, but with much evil, with or without the Mademoiselle or the Monsieur.

Merit-Credit Competition

I will scratch your …

I mean your back

You scratch my …

… I mean my back

 

I will give you a Like

You give me a Like

I will give you a Thumbs Up

You give me a Thumbs Up

 

Online, offline, be it wherever

These are the rules of the game

 

I am OK, you’re OK; both healthy

And all is well with the world

Even though losers go on and on

About the problems in the world

 

We play by the rules, and so

 

My merit will go up

My credit will go up

Your credit will go up

Your merit will go up

 

Together, both of us

Will win the competition

We will earn the position

That we don’t deserve

 

I mean, yes we actually do

Deserve on our very own

 

Then we will go pay our respects

To the billionaire, God bless him

For giving us all his all blessings

May he prosper forever and ever

 

And may he bless us in the world for

Doing well in all adult competitions

 

All Hail the Gods of Meritocracy!

 

Let’s launch a #hashtag as an offering

In his honour, so he gets eternal glory

We all get our prasad and our lollipops

 

After the fall of the causality frontier

Just as punishment determines crime

Our success also determines our merit

 

That is why we have the word loser

 

***

Updated on 25th August, 2019.

Weaponizable Technologies

250px-Panopticon

Weapon are devices

That can harm people

Can also harm property

But that’s less important

 

Weapons are technologies

Not necessarily physical

As in the Foucauldian sense

 

In that sense,

They can also

Harm society

And culture,

Civilizations

Humanity itself

 

And,

More importantly

The very idea of

What humanity is

 

In the Foucauldian sense, they

Can generate chain reactions

Just like nuclear technologies

And they can destroy humanity

Just like fission-fusion weapons

 

Weapons or technologies

Are not tied to a particular

Ideology or even a religion

 

In the Foucauldian sense,

Conventional technologies

 

Are clandestinely

Or benevolently

Developed, and

Are weaponized

 

They are proliferated

Then are exposed

Are opposed, and

Then, gradually

Are normalized

Are assimilated

Into our social fabric

 

The protests against the weapons

And weaponized technologies

As in the world we have made

Not necessarily in the world

That we could perhaps make

Are very predictable phonomena

 

They can start out very strong

Then they become a shadow of

Themselves, or even a parody

 

At best they can become, and

Exist for a longish time, even

Perhaps with ups and downs

 

With limited longish term achievements

Or with very impressive short term ones

Or with no effect on the status quo at all

 

A connoisseur’s delight

They often are reduced to

 

At worst they may become

Freak shows on the fringes

As Kipling showed in a story

Even if they are genuine

Not the fake ones: A part

Of Manufactured Dissent

 

A protest is like a lot like a balm

A protest that is for a single issue

Or, at most, a few such issues

For the people who are hurting

 

In that sense, they are a good thing

But pardon me, for I feel duty bound

To spoil the positivity with some

Unallied and honest bit of truth

 

For they are mostly just balms

That give temporary relief

From the symptoms only

 

They are necessary, but not sufficient

They are not cures in the end

And they come at the expense

Of some other people, who are

Also very much hurting, and

Their issues, symptomatically,

Can be very much different

 

In fact, they can be the exact

Contraries of the issues of the

First set of people who are hurting

 

The powers that be are apt to play

The one against the other, and

The little or large bits of evil

In all of us, ensures that we play

That game, of our own volition

Collectively, so that none feels guilty

 

On our own initiative even, or

So we might convince ourselves

 

Weaponised technologies then

Not just weaponizables ones

 

Are morally

And ethically

And legally

Sanctioned finally

 

That means that

They are approved

By general society

 

And they become

An integral part

A necessary part

Of the civilization

 

They are never

Ever sufficient

 

They become fait accompli

Which is a terrifying phrase

 

After enough time

They are taken

For granted

Are not even

Noticed in our

Everyday life

 

Most of us forget what they mean

Or what they are, how they work

They become part of our natural

Reality, our very natural universe

 

Who can use weapons?

 

Anyone can use them

If they can get access

 

To them, somehow, anyhow

 

And they will be used

Later on, if not sooner

Over there, if not here

At least in the beginning

 

The good guys can use them

Or those who claim to be so

We all know what that means

 

The bad guys can use them

The ugly guys can use them

The evil guys can use them

 

Individually evil can use them

Collectively evil can use them

 

More likely the latter

 

Anyone anywhere anytime on

The whole political spectrum

Can use them, if less or more

Individually or collectively

 

More likely the latter

 

There is absolutely

No guarantee that

Any of the above

Or indeed all of them

Can’t use them at all

Ever and anywhere

 

But can the weak and the meek

Or the tired and the poor

Use them as much as the

Strong and the powerful

To the same extent, even

For the purpose of self-defense?

 

Can single individuals use them

As much as the collective

To the same extent, even

For the purpose of self-defense?

 

First they are used over there

On those we don’t care about

Then they are used over here

 

And when that happens

There are fresh protests

 

We all care about ourselves

Even if we don’t about them

 

Once again, they

Are exposed: For us

Are opposed, and

Then, gradually

Are normalized

Are assimilated

Into our social fabric

Our very own life

 

Excluding them over there

They are already included

We still don’t care about them

We still care only for ourselves

 

Like before, again

They are morally

And ethically

And legally

Sanctioned finally

 

This time, however

For us, not just them

 

Some weaponized technologies

Are so totally unthinkably evil

That their existence is not even

Acknowledged, for preserving

Collective sense of being good

 

Such technologies are only used

Clandestinely, outside all records

So they leave no evidence at all

 

Who do they mean to target?

The demonized are targeted

Mentally-ill may be targeted

Truly subversive freethinkers

May be targeted, selectively

Misfits and loners can also

Be targeted with these ones

 

And, above all

 

The uncontaminated

(Unalloyed, if you like

Or unallied, if you like)

The incorrigible

Truth seekers, As

They may be called

Justice seekers also

Unalloyed or unallied

Can be targeted with

These unacknowledged

Weaponized technologies

In the Foucauldian sense

 

For The Greater Good

Seems they are called

Coal Mine Canaries

Freelance Test Rats

They may not be paid

May not even consent

 

They don’t even know this

That have been made that

This is the most evil part

Of the scheme, in which

 

All “schematism” had to be avoided

 

So they can’t even share

Without anyone at all

Let alone lodge a protest

 

They become Dead Canaries

If they come uncomfortably

Close to the truths that matter

 

In fact, these technologies

Are, by their very nature

Made only for selective use

Personalization is their

Key feature, their identifier

 

One of them had even

Got put on the record

Perhaps due to naïveté

It was called Zersetzung

It specifically recorded

Naïvely, as it turned out

It specifically wrote down

 

This kind of weaponised technology

Is a collective, organised and mobilised

Version of what is called gaslighting

 

A later version of it was called COINTELPRO

Who knows how many different versions of it

Exist today in how many places

Officially or unofficially

Recorded or unrecorded

 

In the original version called Zersetzung

All “schematism” had to be avoided

Because that would make opposition

And protest against it easily possible

 

It being: The collective using it?

 

Individual simply can’t use it

Not to the same degree and reach

Not anywhere remotely close

 

Or the technology itself only?

 

Or why not both of them?

 

But we had better not forget

Technologies are the means

Religions and ideologies are

About the ends, not the means

For them, practically speaking

Ends always justify the means

 

Even if they are, unthinkably

Unredeemably, only pure evil

 

However, we are all endowed with

The extreme powers of self-deception

Individually yes, but also collectively

 

So we still manage to think that they

Are still for them, over there, not us

They are within our society, never us

They are still for them, not over here

Over there can be much nearer now

But it is still over there, and for them

 

Thus, once more magically

They become fait accompli

With a very different context

But actually the same context

 

They are always necessary

So it is claimed, benevolently

But they are never sufficient

 

This is a universal theorem

If you like to be very precise

Then it is at the very least

A pretty likely conjecture

 

And so we march on forward

Or even backward oftentimes

Or sideways, if necessary

Which can be very effective

If you know what I mean

 

In search of new weapons

And ever new technologies

 

That can be weaponized

Easily and yes, inevitably

Even if you don’t believe

In Inevitabilism at all

 

What really is inevitable

However, is the fact that

Some weak, or the meek

Or an isolated individual

Perhaps crazy, perhaps not

Will use them occasionally

Usually after provocation

But sometimes without it

 

Or some collective

Rogue or not rogue

 

A matter of definition

 

Will also make use of them

Regularly or occasionally

 

That is a great opportunity

A motivation for finding

Implementing and using

Ever more lethal weapons

Weaponized technologies

And some non-lethal ones

In the Foucauldian sense

 

We find new evils

We define new evils

We create new evils

 

We get new weapons

To fight newest evils

Which creates even

More ever new evils

 

Thus the circle of evil

Closes in upon us all

Over there, over here

 

So what do you think about it?

***

Originally published on 14th August, 2019. Updated on 20th September, 2019.

Memsaab Story: A Recommendation

Those who want to educate themselves about Indian films, specifically Hindi films, and even more specifically, ‘commercial’ Hindi films (i.e., mostly ‘Bollywood’ films), can find this blog very enlightening, or at least very useful.

She doesn’t speak Hindi, but she has developed an insight into these movies, not to mention a taste for them (almost like an Indian). The blog is also like a mini-encyclopedia of these movies. The fact that she has many inside (Indian) ‘informers’, many of whom are themselves very knowledgeable about such movies, helps in making the blog more interesting and educative.

No matter how much you know about these movies, you might still come across some new things. There are even resources which only a true (critical) fan can develop, aka trivia of certain kinds.

Of course there are some things which she might not be able to perceive in the same way as an Indian would (given not only the language gap). But that might also be an advantage for a critical fan. The outsider-observer’s advantage.

I have been watching movies from around the world and have often wondered whether I was really ‘getting’ those foreign language (that is, non-English, non-Hindi) films, as I knew very well how inadequate subtitles are. Sometimes they (subtitles) are hilarious (if you know the language) and other times they are idiotic. Still other times they are disorienting. Or infuriating.

After reading this blog (being a highly critical almost-fan of these movies), though, I think it is possible to develop an understanding of foreign language movies almost like not only a native speaker of that language, but like that of a native.

This makes makes me more confident that I can write about foreign films (American, French, Italian, German, South Korean, whatever) with as much authority as a native speaker and a native.

If I do my homework, that is, which I think I do (there are occasional slips).

This takes years of effort.

This kind of effort is quite pleasurable (usuallly), if only you can spare the time.

(The same goes for other forms of art, popular or otherwise, such as literature, painting or music).

***

As I have hinted, she is no fan of ‘art’ films, which she thinks are like ‘watching the grass grow’. Not the same as my opinion.

ईश्वर का साथ हमारे साथ

(गीत: बॉब डिलन)

मेरा नाम, अरे, कुछ नहीं है
मेरी उम्र का अर्थ और भी कम
मैं जिस देश से आया हूँ
उसको सब कहते हैं मिडवेस्ट
मुझको वहाँ यह पढ़ाया और सिखाया गया
कानून की राह पर चलना
और यह कि जिस देश में मैं रहता हूँ
ईश्वर का साथ उसके साथ है

अरे भाई, इतिहास की किताबें बताती हैं
और इतना बढ़िया बताती हैं
घुड़सवारों ने धावा बोला
और इंडियंस कट गए
घुड़सवारों ने धावा बोला
और इंडियंस मर गए
अरे, देश तब जवान था
और ईश्वर का साथ उसके साथ था

अरे स्पेनी-अमरीकन युद्ध
का भी अपना समय था
और गृह-युद्ध को भी जल्दी ही
पीछे को छोड़ दिया गया
और नायकों के नामों को भी
मुझको रटवाया गया
उनके हाथ ज्यों बंदूकें थीं, वैसे ही
ईश्वर का साथ उनके साथ था

अरे, प्रथम विश्व-युद्ध का भी, यारों
समय आया और चला गया
लड़ाई का कारण लेकिन
मेरे पल्ले कभी नहीं पड़ा
पर मैंने उसे मानना सीख लिया
और मानना भी गर्व के साथ
क्योंकि अपन मरों को नहीं गिनते
जब ईश्वर का साथ अपने साथ हो

जब दूसरा विश्व-युद्घ भी
अपने अंजाम को पा गया
हमने जर्मनों को माफ़ कर दिया
और अपना दोस्त बना लिया
चाहे साठ लाख की उन्होंने हत्याएँ की हों
उनको भट्टियों में झुलसा कर
अब जर्मनों के लिए भी
ईश्वर का साथ उनके साथ था

मैंने रुसियों से घृणा करना सीख लिया
अपनी पूरी ज़िंदगी के लिए
अगर एक और युद्ध होता है
हमें उनसे लड़ना ही होगा
उनसे घृणा करनी होगी और डरना होगा
भागना होगा और छिपना होगा
और यह सब बहादुरी से मानना होगा
ईश्वर का साथ अपने साथ रख कर

पर अब हमारे पास हथियार हैं
जो रासायनिक रेत से बने हैं
अगर उन्हें पड़ता है किसी पर दागना
तो दागना तो हमें पड़ेगा ही
एक बटन का दबाना
और एक धमाका पूरी दुनिया में
और तुम सवाल कभी नहीं पूछोगे
जब ईश्वर का साथ तुम्हारे साथ हो

अनेक अंधेरी घड़ियों में
मैंने इस बारे में सोच के देखा है
कि ईसा मसीह के साथ विश्वासघात
एक चुंबन के साथ हुआ था
पर मैं तुम्हारे लिए नहीं सोच सकता
तुम्हें खुद ही तय करना होगा
कि क्या जूडस इस्कैरियट
के भी साथ ईश्वर का साथ था

तो अब जब मैं तुम्हें छोड़ रहा हूँ
मैं ऊब और उकता चुका हूँ
जिस संभ्रम में मैं फँसा हूँ
कोई ज़बान जो है बता नहीं सकती
शब्दों से मेरा सिर भरा है
और नीचे फ़र्श पर भी वो गिरे हैं
अगर ईश्वर का साथ हमारे साथ है
तो वो अगले युद्ध को रोक देगा

The Ambiguity In The Box

Moral ambiguity is one of the stocks-in-trade of literary and art criticism. This or that work of art is said to have moral ambiguity to a high degree and it is usually meant to be a compliment. Now moral ambiguity, given the world we live in, is indeed something that perhaps every work of art should possess to some degree. After all, what can be worse, from the artistic point of view, than to sit in judgement over each and every aspect of human life, when human knowledge of human mind or of human relations, let alone of the cosmic realities, is so little that we can only feel humble at our own collective ignorance. We can also feel collectively criminal, given what we have done to the Earth, but that is a digression. Paraphrasing and putting in the reverse order what Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, unlike in real life, where we often have to (and must) say what is true and what is false (or what is good and what is bad), in art one need not do that. The necessary result of such a well advised policy will be moral ambiguity in art, because art is not Moral Science. That applies as much to popular art as it does to ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. However, that does not give us the license to see moral ambiguity where it is not present.

The sources of immediate provocation for bringing up this topic are the reviews ([1] [2] [3] [4]) that I have recently read of an acclaimed movie. That movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. It can be called a gangster movie. On the surface, it is quite run-of-the-mill, but like all ambitious works that achieve some artistic success, by which I don’t mean box office or critical success, but the inherent quality of the work, this one too rises above other similar crime movies. It is also one of those rare movies that are made great (or almost great) mainly because of the acting, in this case the acting of just one person: James Cagney. On this point I am in agreement with all the reviewers of this movie, who, without exception, praise his performance. The direction is good enough, but it has become secondary.

One can also mention before proceeding further that this is a better movie than the overrated Casablanca by the same director. But please don’t let that come in the way of listening to what I have to say about the supposed ambiguity in this movie.

The basic plot is simple and familiar for every movie buff (even to others perhaps). Two boys live in a slum. They are members of, what we euphemistically call, ‘troubled youth’. They indulge in petty thievery (one reviewer called it robbery: unarmed boys trying to steal a little something from a stationary goods-train wagon and failing to do so). On this train ‘robbery’, they are noticed by someone and then chased by two policemen. One gets away, the other gets caught. From then on, their lives are separated for fifteen years. One becomes a priest and the other becomes a hardened criminal. No prize for guessing which one becomes what. Their lives collide again and one of them ultimately loses. No prize again for guessing which one.

The plot would be especially familiar to those who grew up on Hindi films of the seventies, but it was a common plot even in the US in those days, that is, the thirties. Only forty years of difference in progress, instead of fifty. Cheer up. Don’t feel cheated.

So where is the ambiguity? When the hardened criminal comes out of prison one more time and meets his old pal, the priest, he also revisits his old slum. And he runs into not just the girl he used to tease (who, after having waited for fifteen years, pays him back as she always wanted to, but falls in love with him nonetheless: the movie does suggest that they were in love even in the beginning, though their street-smartness required them to express it via mutual hostility), he also runs into a a group of boys just like what he and his friend were. These boys pick his pocket and he bests them (as one reviewer expressed it) to win their admiration. He was already their hero, being a familiar figure in the daily headlines, but now that they have him near them and find out that he lived in the same place and used the same hideout, their admiration is total. These boys are called the Dead End Kids (or Dead End Boys in the movie, I don’t remember which). They are played by the same actors who played similar roles in an earlier series with the same name. The situation is that the good guy priest is trying to ‘straighten’ them. He tries to make them go to the gym and play basketball. Play by the rules, that is. But he fails. It turns out that the bad guy criminal is better at making them play the game by the rules. How would the priest feel?

The movie ends with the bad guy criminal duly coming to an inevitable bad end, as required by the moral Production Code of those days. He is captured after a shootout, which occurs, in the first place, because he was trying to save his friend’s life. For the second time. The first time was just before he was caught after the train ‘robbery’ and was put in the Center for Juvenile Delinquents. Jerry (the to-be priest) had fallen on the rail tracks as a train was approaching and Rocky (the to-be gangster) stopped and helped him get up. That probably cost him his future. But he ain’t complaining. He is the kind who is prepared to ‘take the rap’ for his actions and maintains his tough persona and, when Jerry comes to visit him and asks him why didn’t he name him too (so that he could have got an easier punishment), he (Rocky) advises his best friend, “Always remember: Never be a sucker.”.

So the bad guy comes to a bad end and is sent to die on the electric chair. Now the priest, who already owes his life twice over to his best friend (and had earlier gone on a campaign against all the criminals in the city, including Rocky Sullivan), asks for one last favour from him. Since the boys hero worship him, would he now show “a different kind of courage, a courage that only you and me and God know about” and pretend to die as a coward, instead of maintaining his brave persona to the end, as expected by the boys? That, the priest argues, would save the boys from falling into a criminal life and coming to … a bad end.

Rocky Sullivan refuses the request (it’s the only thing he has: his heroic, even if criminal, image) and walks defiantly to the chair, but just before the last part, after walking the last mile, his shadow is seen through a glass and his voice is heard as he apparently succumbs and cries out for mercy. The next day the media reports that Rocky Sullivan died ‘yellow’ and the priest takes the dejected and disillusioned (isn’t that an appropriate word?) boys to go with him to say prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. No mention, of course, of the life saving part, which would have caused the hero worship of the bad guy to resurface.

The ambiguity, for many reviewers, is supposed to be in that last act of cowardice. Did he just pretend to die as a coward (for the sake of his friend and the boys who admire him), or did he actually lose his courage in the end? But one can almost excuse the reviewers because James Cagney himself is reported to have said that he tried to make that scene seem ambiguous, and his co-actor (then not quite a star) Humphrey Bogart also appreciated this scene, presumably because of the same ambiguity.

What ambiguity? Where is the ambiguity in that last scene? There is no ambiguity there. If you insist it’s there, may be it’s there in the box. I didn’t see it. Given all that went before in the movie, it is crystal clear to me that Rocky was just pretending to have turned ‘yellow’, granting one more favour to his best friend. And thus failing by his own standards, as well as by those of the others. He died, not a coward, but a sucker.

Actually, there was a reviewer who also didn’t find any ambiguity here. Neither, as he mentioned, his father. He is the one of the robbery mention. But there were others. So I am not completely alone in this.

Movies about crime, movies like this, almost always work at different levels. One is as required by that moral Production Code. Criminals coming to a bad end. The conflict between the good and the bad. Even this is not as simple as it sounds, because at this first level too the bad guy, who is the main character, is shown to be basically a good person (in this movie: in others he may have some good traits), who only came to a bad end because of his circumstances (the movie doesn’t mention his hero worshipping a preceding Rocky Sullivan). That is why he does all those favours to his friend. The movie also shows many other bad characters, who are much worse than him and meant to be seen as such by the audience. But the priest, who is also shown to be really a very good person (who came to a good end), boils down the whole set of circumstances to just one thing: Hero Worship of criminals like Rocky Sullivan. That’s the reason, he seems to believe (like a right-wing conservative nut), if that hero worship was stopped (by hook or by crook), the Dead End Kids will get straightened and will live a good life. So he decides to make an example of his own best friend (who is dying because of him and probably came to a bad end also because of him). For a good cause. For him, ends justify the means. Priesthood and goodness be damned. He is a pragmatic, albeit idealistic, politician. As wily as they come.

The second level, when compared to the first, is what shows up our own moral ambiguity. That is the level of entertainment. How we enjoy those thrilling scenes. How we root for Rocky all the way (as more than one reviewer noted), even when he is in the shootout and is killing policemen. The whole story has been made up mainly for our entertainment. Michael Curtiz (he was famous for his problems with the English language) is known to have said about his movies (and his way of making movies, and may be also for the business of making movies), “Who cares about character (development)? I make it go so fast, no one notices.”. All the way we root for the bad guy, and at the end we set it morally right by delighting in the sorry end of the same bad guy, so that we can go home and sleep well.

That’s the usual thing. What is especially bad here (or is that usual too?) is that there are a lot of other really bad guys. Much worse, as I said. And most of them don’t come to a bad end. They are not even considered or known to be criminals. They live respectable lives. What about their hero worship? Don’t the ‘straight’ but not yet respectable people see them as their role models (or at least look up to them)? The lawyers. The police chief. The businessmen. The mediamen. You can extend the list to the very top.

In fact, as the soon-to-die criminal remarks, all those bad guys were named during the trial and the priest himself had tried to clean the city of all the corruption (with the help of one brave newspaper editor), but nothing happened. The only ones who we see coming to a bad end (except Rocky Sullivan) are those who are killed by Rocky, who is the only one caught and sentenced. So what’s all this about bad guys always coming to a bad end? Does someone really believe that? Did they believe it even in the thirties?

I am talking about the world we have, not the one we should have.

To follow this to the bitter end, one could almost say that the good guy priest finally has his revenge on his friend who didn’t take his offer of help and instead advised him (condescendingly?) to not be a sucker. The monster living in the priest’s dark side might well be looking up during the prayer after the execution and saying triumphantly, who is the sucker now?

The boys, when they first saw him and decided to pick his pocket (and before they realised that he was their hero, Rocky Sullivan), identified him as, yes, a “sucker”. Works of art often say things which their creator may not have intended.

Why were the boys called the Dead End Kids? The word angel is referring to these boys as well as to the famous criminal. One of the dirty-faced angels has to be sacrificed to save the other dirty-faced angels. So it’s all among the dirty-faced angels. Nothing to do with the rest. Be happy, go home and have fun.

It was perhaps the possibility of having to face such questions that sent those reviewers and commentators (and Cagney and Bogart) scrambling to find ambiguity where there was none.

As hinted earlier, there is a kind of ambiguity here, but it’s not in that last scene, which is an embarrassing end to the movie. It’s there in the priest’s character. It’s also there in our reactions to the movie, where it always is. But the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold’s character is as straightforward as that of any archetype in Western movies. No ambiguity.

The problem (at the first level) is not that the priest is trying to make the kids forego a life of crime. The problem is that his endeavour, like that of the moral Production Code as well as the quest for ambiguity in this particular case, is not genuine. And the solution is not to make suckers out of ‘angels’, dirty-faced or not.

The problem (at the second level) is also that even the last purifying delight of ours just doesn’t work, if you think a little about it. After all, it’s not just the priest and criminal and God who know what really happened. We also know it. And the final bad end was ultimately for our benefit. But if we know that he didn’t die ‘yellow’, then the device breaks down. Now we need something else as a substitute. So we make up the story that we really don’t know. The last scene is ambiguous. In spite of the explicit explanation that went just before it and all that went on earlier, we don’t know whether the cowardice was real or not. May be it was. That would absolve us. Because if he did die yellow, then he did come to a really bad end: in the public eyes, his own eyes, in our eyes. No redemption for him. After having entertained ourselves at his expense, we have appropriated his redemption as well. That’s smart, isn’t it?

We ain’t no suckers.

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

हक़

कोई मेरे पास आए
साथ चलने के लिए
और मैं उसे भगा दूँ
दुत्कार कर
फटकार कर
सबके सामने
बेइज्जत कर के

तब भी अगर वो ना जाए
तो मैं उसके होने को ही
नज़रअंदाज़ कर के दिखा दूँ

वो बार-बार आता रहे
और मैं बार-बार यही करूँ
तो क्या मुझे हक़ बनता है
उसे दोष देने का
इसलिए कि उसने साथ नहीं दिया
इसलिए कि वो अब साथ नहीं चल रहा
जबकि मेरी खुद की सांठ-गांठ उन्हीं से है
जिनकी यातना और दुत्कार से बचते हुए
वो मेरे पास आया था

साथ चलने के लिए
इसलिए कि किसी और को
यातना और दुत्कार दिए जाने से रोका जा सके

जबकि मुझे यही नहीं पता
कि वो क्या कर रहा है
और क्यों कर रहा है

किसी के सारे रास्ते बंद करके
(दुनिया से ही टिकट कटा लेने को छोड़ कर)
क्या कोई किसी को पाठ पढ़ा सकता है
कि जीवन कैसे जिया जाए
कि नैतिकता के मानदंड क्या हैं?

इंकलाब के पहले

अन्याय हर तरफ फैला है
पूंजी का बोलबाला है
सच का सर्वत्र मुँह काला है

ये हालात तो बदलने ही होंगे
बदलाव के हालात बनाने होंगे

तभी तो इंकलाब आएगा
हर जन अपना हक पाएगा

पर उसके पहले बहुत से काम
जो अभी तक पूरे नहीं हुए
वो सब के सब निपटाने होंगे

वो कोने में जिसे अधमरा करके
बड़े दिनों से डाल रखा है
वो अब भी, हद है आखिर,
कभी-कभार बड़-बड़ किए रहता है

उसे सबक सिखाना होगा
उसके भौंकने को बंद कराना होगा
पहला बड़ा काम तो यही है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

फिर आपस के झगड़े भी तो हैं
तगड़े हैं, एक से एक बढ़ के हैं
एक-दूसरे को सबक सिखाना होगा
एक-दूसरे का भौंकना बंद कराना होगा

दूसरा बड़ा काम यह भी तो है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

फिर कुछ डरे सहमे
असुरक्षित लोगों ने
अपनी बुद्धि का
अपने ज्ञान का
और तो और
अपनी प्रतिभा का!
(हद है!, हद है!
कितनी अकड़ है!)
आतंक फैला रखा है
यहीं, इंकलाबियों के बीच!

उनका मटियामेट कर के ही
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इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

The Movie that Haunted Coen Brothers

‘Big’ writers generally avoid writing about movies, or, at any rate, writing seriously about them. Part of the reason is that for a big writer (or a would be big writer), there is always the immortality thing to consider, which is as natural and understandable as any other quest by human beings. Immortality in some form has, of course, been one of the holy grails of human history and civilization. Writing about such things as movies might affect their chances. You just have read a little about a writer like Samuel Beckett and read some of his works to see what I mean. Movies, ‘the art form of the (twentieth) century’, even the best movies, are still not fully accepted as belonging to the the haloed territory of High Art. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is hard to find what great writers have written about movies in general and about specific movies. Some might say that there haven’t been all that many really great writers in recent times, but that is a risky territory for me to go into.

Obviously the above consideration doesn’t apply to every great writer. George Orwell is one example: I am not sure whether he wrote about movies, but he did write about other unsafe things. But then the evidence seems to suggest that he wasn’t exactly planning on becoming a great writer, at least not in the way Beckett was. He had other things on his mind. This unexpectedly makes me add here that avoiding politics by ambitious writers is more often than not because of the immortality factor.

Mark Twain is another example (in the category of Orwell, not Beckett). Is it just a coincidence that both had politics in their writing? I mean explicitly: Everyone has politics at least implicitly, whether they like it or not.

Coming back on track, it was, therefore, a surprise when, after discovering (and recognizing as a masterpiece) ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (not having heard of it before that) some years ago, one of the very few reviews or any writing that I found about this (till recently) neglected exceptional work of art was by Margaret Atwood. It is called ‘Why I love Night Of The Hunter’. The movie made such an impression on her mind that she doesn’t now remember who she saw it with. Some of the images have haunted her ever since, she says, especially the famous ‘underwater Shelly Winters’ scene ‘in her aspect of wrecked mermaid’, which has made ‘several disguised appearances’ in her own writing.

Since then I have come across many others, writing that this particular scene haunted them and it’s easy to see why. In my opinion, though, this scene is just one of the minor things that make this movie great.

Among those haunted by images and scenes from this movie are the Coen Brothers, known for their ‘quirky’ ‘indie’ movies. To digress a little, I think it is quite wrong to see them as anything other than Hollywood. They represent the best of the mainstream Hollywood. None of their movies strays too far from the Hollywood style. But that is not necessarily a failing. As I said, they represent the best in this tradition. And they do push the boundaries.

I have been meaning to write about them and the Charles Laughton movie ever since I saw one of their movies after The Night of the Hunter (let’s make an acronym to save my labour: TNOTH), though I had seen two or three earlier. They are said to make numerous references to other movies (nods, as they are called, or tributes), which apparently they claim that they don’t do deliberately, but that doesn’t matter much.

I can’t really say that I am a fan of their movies, but I do like most of them, to varying degrees, like everyone else I guess. But here I am not going to review their movies or even TNOTH. It just gives me pleasure to point out some interesting facts which might be relevant for reviewers of their movies. I had once somewhere read about a few people having influenced them, as is usual in biographies, even very brief ones. And I have also read about specific influences on their movies. When I had checked last, I couldn’t find any mention of TNOTH, but it seems now it is mentioned in several places that this is one of the movies that influenced them and I feel vindicated.

So let me mention a few of the readily observable of such influences. I said the movie has haunted them and it is based on the way images and motifs from TNOTH repeatedly occur in their moves. Their first movie that I remember seeing was Miller’s Crossing. I have since seen it again and it is one of my least favourite of their movies. And it is the only one of their movies for which I can’t recall any example of image or motif from TNOTH. This might be partly because I haven’t thought much about Miller’s Crossing, as I have in the case of other movies by them.

Let me take each of those cases where I can recall, though I won’t cover all of them:

No County for Old Men

Apart from the fact that the movie is set in the West, it is about a serial killer who is almost supernaturally good at hunting people (down). He is a ruthless and cold blooded killer, but he has his own code of conduct, his ‘principles’. Somewhat like Harry Powell, the preacher in TNOTH, although there are differences. And both are hunting for money, which is easy to forget in all their killing. Still, in both the cases it is not very clear what is their primary consideration: money, the violence (which is often shown to be the primary and sole motive for psychopaths: by shallower story tellers) or their ‘principles’. Both are confronted by a woman (young in one case, old in another) towards the end. One meets his nemesis, while there is just a slight hint of redemption for the other, even though the young woman has to die for that. Both movies have a long segment involving the ‘hunt’.

Raising Arizona

What I wrote above for No Country for Old Men is also true of Raising Arizona, except that, since this was a comedy, all similarities are passed through a comic filter. Just like in the other two movies, here also the killer-hunter seems to be ‘more a force of nature’ (a comment the directors made about the actor who played the role in this movie) than a real human being. As one of the comments by a character in No Country for Old Men indicates, he sort of represents all the violence in this land that is ‘hard on people’. Now I might have something more to say about these things, but here I intend to perform duties nearer to accounting than to criticism.

You could say that I am doing this on behalf of Charles Laughton, the great actor, who only made one movie because this one movie, which he rightly believed to be very deserving, wasn’t received well at all at that time. May be I am doing it just to show off, but I like the first idea better.

By the way, a week or two ago I saw the list of top ten all time favourite movies of Fassbinder (excluding his own) and what do I find? TNOTH is in that list! I had a vague feeling that Fassbinder too (in some indirect way) was influenced by this movie, but I actually thought that I was going too far and probably finding imaginary influences. On second thoughts, it’s not so surprising, because the Brechtian thread connects them, if nothing else.

Getting back to the movie under consideration, here also the killer-bounty-hunter has his own icons. In TNOTH he had the LOVE and HATE tattoos on the fingers (another favourite and frequently copied image from the movie) and his trademark knife (recall Brecht’s Mack the Knife, Brecht being associated closely at one time with Charles Laughton). In No Country for Old Men, he has his special weapon that was originally meant to kill cattle. And he has his coin that has been travelling for a long time. In Raising Arizona, he has several such icons strapped on to him and his bike, including one that says (if I remember correctly) ‘Mama didn’t love me’. Even this comic character has supernatural tracking skills.

There can be another take on the supernatural tracking-hunting skills. No real individual can plausibly have such skills. But a large organisation or institution or syndicate (I just saw Love is Colder than Death) or ‘agency’ can. A system can. Or, to put it better, The System can.

As in, for example, Burn After Reading. It would be a piece of cake, even with more than one to be tracked. And even with clueless individuals involved in the tracking. There is always an army of bishops, knights, rooks – and pawns – acting like remote controlled drones with wills of their own, which have nevertheless been trained to do the bidding of their handlers. Not to mention the latest technology of the day and the latest Mythology of Fear and the old old Ideology of Domination.

One of my favourite bits in TNOTH is when the preacher finally arrives at Rachel Cooper’s place to take away the children and the doll. The young orphan girl, Ruby (who is older than the other children living at the place, being cared for by the woman who earlier turns to the camera and says proudly, ‘I know I am good for something in this world and I know it too.’), this young girl who has become infatuated with the preacher, drops what she was doing and cries out excitedly to Rachel Cooper, ‘The Man!, The Man!’.

The Man is the other take.

O Brother Where Art Thou

The underwater scene makes an appearance here too, though there is no corpse as far as we can see. But there must be a few in the background, given the previous scene. Talking of the previous scene, there is, yet again, the motif of the tracker-hunter with almost supernatural capabilities. This time he is a man of the law, not a man of the Lord, or a man outside the law, but he is a psycho and a sadist alright. He is supposed to be from Cool Hand Luke, but that one wasn’t shown to be an uncannily good tracker. He only looked similar and supervised a chain gang.

Fargo

I had to think a little for this one. It might not be so obvious, but it’s there. The pregnant policewoman who tracks down the killers (yes, the tracking thing is present here too), one already fed to a grinder by the other, can be seen as reference to Rachel Cooper. The latter was old, the former is pregnant. Neither seems or acts very heroic, unlike many other Hollywood heroines. Both, in fact, seem vulnerable, but they manage to do what they should. They are no Lara Croft.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The underwater corpse is present here. With the car. Inside the car. Drowned with the car after being murdered. But the murderer in this case is not a psycho serial killer, but a very plausible real person, who cons everyone and is well liked and admired. The protagonist’s wife is having an affair with him. And he is not even a habitual murderer. So the motif of a well liked and admired person, built up by the society, who is actually a murderer is also present, apart from the underwater scene.

Three extra points from me to Coen Brothers.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Margaret Atwood mentioned Harry Powell as a man ’embraced by society, then torn apart by it’. This applies to the protagonist of The Hudsucker Proxy too. There is even the more specific motif of this sacrificial character being chased by a lynch mob, just as the mob goes after Harry Powell at the end of the TNOTH. And the mob consists of the same people who had earlier built him up, directly or indirectly.

The Big Lebowski

The motif from TNOTH in this film is the one that makes me laugh the most. People reviewing this movie always mention the mysterious cowboy (‘The Stranger’) at the end who has a brief chat with Lebowski. Who is he? This is what I think: He is the grown up John Harper from TNOTH. Of course, there is some artistic license here regarding the age etc., but he can’t be anyone else. And here is my evidence: After his chat with Lebowski, he turns to the camera (he has been the narrator earlier: the Brechtian thread is very much visible even in Coen Brothers’ movies) and gives a little speech in which he also says ‘the Dude abides’. And Rachel Cooper at the end of TNOTH said about children, ‘They abide. They abide and they endure.’, also to the camera. The tone used is the same in both the cases. The Stranger (according to Coen Brothers and as interpreted by me) seems to be carrying on the tradition of the old (‘gun toting’, which is not relevant here) cowboy woman played by Lillian Gish. He seems to have learnt well from her and was really saved after all. He even seems to like adopting orphans, in a manner of speaking. It’s almost as if the Coen Brothers are finally trying to exorcise the TNOTH ghost, which has been haunting them for such a long time.

Margaret Atwood, in her article, also wondered what would John become when he grew up:

Perhaps he will grow up to become a robber. Or perhaps, as his name suggests, a singer of bloodspattered sagas and the author of apocalyptic revelations?

If I am to believe Coen Brothers and you are to believe me, then he seems to have turned out quite alright.

So this story seems to have a happy ending. But it could have ended differently. What if John Harper had been taken away by Harry Powell and been made his apprentice or if Rachel Cooper had not found him at all? Well, then, he could have become what we get in Raising Arizona.

 

 

The choice of Coen Brothers has a significance also because, as I mentioned earlier, they are quintessential Hollywood directors, no avant garde or nouvelle vague etc.

[I might add more later.]