Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Directed by David Lean. 1957.

"There is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth." –The Ballad of East and West

Face to face in the Burmese rain forest in late winter of 1943 during the Second World War, two men square off in defense of honor. Honor, not the Bushido code, drives Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the proud commander of a Japanese prison camp. Honor for Saito is absolute control of his camp, which he maintains until the unmovable, indefatigable British Colonel Nicholson marches his captured battalion into the camp whistling Colonel Bogey's March. It is one of the great cinematic moments.

The soldiers enter tracked in one of David Lean's famous pans, followed by the camera first from behind the camp cemetery and then from behind the infirmary. There the sick silently sit up with limp limbs and turn round to see the swagger of the British soldiers brazenly pitching arms to their defiant little tune. The contrast is immediate and palpable: the sick are ready to die and the entering men, though captured, are somehow free. The only question remaining is whether what those entering soldiers bring can survive in the brutal heat of the Burmese jungle and the grip of Colonel Saito.

What they bring is their deference to their commander, Colonel Nicholson, and what he brings is unswerving commitment to their orders. By that obedience, to the rules of the British military and to the rules of war, they maintain their honor. While Saito derives his honor from the obedience of others, Nicholson finds his honor in his own obedience to the law.

This contrast is subtly established when the two men face-off in front of their troops. Against the rules of the Geneva Convention, Saito has ordered that that all officers must work manual labor along with the enlisted men, and when Nicholson hands the colonel a copy of the laws and begins to cite from it, Saito strikes the British colonel's face, tosses his book aside, and bends his swagger stick. It seems at first a glib cinematic gesture to demonstrate the fealty of the British men, who stop forward in uproar, but Nicholson's response is the genius of the gentleman: first he disciplines his own men, then retrieves his book of law, and ignoring his own bleeding face, only then defies his captor.

The punishment which comes for him and his officers, day after day in a sun-scorched, tin-roofed hot-box, is abuse, but it is not dishonor. In fact, it is Saito who incurs dishonor after days of futile, embarrassing attempts to complete the bridge over the Kwai without the cooperation of Nicholson.

First, Saito sends to Nicholson the British doctor, who pleads that already the American prisoner Shears (William Holden), Jennings, and Weaver are dead, killed trying to escape. To that he adds how the cruel colonel has cut rations to the men and will make the sick work to death on the bridge. These entreaties do not move Nicholson, who replies, "If we give in now, there will be no end to it." Nicholson knows that once he is cowed he will no longer command his battalion and after that the men of it will no longer be his soldiers but Saito's slaves. Once he is cowed, they will all be cowed, and after that they will all die as slaves. The doctor, though, sees the situation as a dilemma between principle and death, and presents Nicholson with a seemingly logical answer: because no one will know of their duty if they die, they ought to live. Nicholson is adamant. There is no dilemma for the colonel, for whom thought of British officers working as coolies, as grunts, and British enlisted dying as slaves, is so appalling as to be unworthy of consideration.

Next, Saito tries to earn the favor of the British enlisted by shifting blame to his engineer, whom he removes from overseeing the project. He even goes so far as to try and curry favor by giving the men their confiscated Red Cross parcels. Again, though, in the shadow of the caged Colonel Nicholson, Saito gains not their respect and thus not their effort. As a result, the bridge falls further behind. Finally, he brings Nicholson himself into his quarters.

Saito offers him fine liquor and sumptuous food. He identifies himself as a Western man, preferring Scottish whisky, speaking fondly of his three years at the London Polytechnic, and slicing English corned beef for dinner. Nicholson senses the angle and, refusing the food and drink, flatly replies that he intends to make a full report of Saito, who then offers him another cheap, but logical, way out, just as the doctor did. He tells Nicholson that camps up and down the railway are using officers as soldiers, to which Nicholson, stubborn as ever, replies, "I'm not responsible for the actions of other commanding officers." Increasingly desperate, Saito offers a compromise: only junior officers will have to work. Again Nicholson refuses.

The turn of the tide is neatly set by the following shot. Nicholson waxes a little philosophical on the topic of leadership and as he, a self-disciplined leader with nothing to learn from Saito, looks past him to study the problem of the bridge model, Saito, unable to build the bridge, intently studies Nicholson, from whom he has much to learn about command.

After Saito agrees with Nicholson first that a commander must have the respect of the men in order to have them work and then that the bridge is not completed because the men to not work, he flies into a rage as he realizes that he lacks the respect of the camp. "I hate the British!" he fumes, "You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn, but have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage." What we hear, though, is, "You are defeated, but you retain your honor. You are stubborn, but keep your dignity. You endure, and you do not fear." To Nicholson, he retains his honor by upholding the law, his punishment as an officer is less than the suffering of a slave, and his fear of death in punishment is less than the disgrace of indignity.

We know that Saito has finally admitted defeat when he seizes the occasion of the anniversary of Japan's 1905 victory over the Russians as an opportunity to grant amnesty to Nicholson and the soldiers, releasing them not only from their confinement but also from his command that they stoop to manual labor. There is poignant contrast between tragedy and triumph as Saito weeps defeated and every British man pours out in triumphant celebration as Nicholson greets the his newly liberated officers before being himself hoisted up like a victorious commander. Of course not one of them is free as a man is by right, but the tenor of the moment is a sure vindication that by retaining command of his men he has freed them from dishonor.

It now remains to save them from despair, toward which end Nicholson insists not only that the bridge be built, but that it be built with such speed and exemplary organization and execution that it does lasting honor to the British Army. Medical Officer Clipton, however, wonders whether such cooperation is treasonous, to which Nicholson again finds recourse in the rules of civilization, by which prisoners have no right to refuse work. It is no more proper, he argues with the doctor, that the British soldiers work with deliberate inefficiency than if a surgeon such as he were to operate without the intent of saving his patient. Nicholson is equally appalled by the thoughts of appearing lawless or incompetent. He concludes,

I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it: not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity.
The subsequent and successful bridge-building is satisfying and it pleases to watch Nicholson and his officers humble the Japanese with their scrupulous efforts and precision, but these scenes pale somewhat before the drama of the preceding act. Moreover, the tension dissipates as Saito recedes from the drama and the film splits its attention between Nicholson's efforts to build the Japanese bridge and the efforts of Commander Shears (William Holden), who in fact survived his escape and was brought safely back to the British base at Ceylon, to make his way back to the camp and under British orders, destroy it.

The first times I saw Kwai, these scenes with Holden puzzled me. How do Shears' smart mouth and skirt chasing fit into place after the contest between Saito and Nicholson? Well, I still find them long and off-tone from the rest of the picture, but one parallel intrigues me. At the British base the higher-ups ask Shears, because of his knowledge of the area, to destroy the incipient bridge over the Kwai so the Allies can impede the Japanese efforts and, preferably, knock out a train which is soon due to cross the river on the bridge. When faced with the prospects of returning, Shears discloses the fact that he is not a commander, but merely took up the guise upon capture, so as to get better treatment at the camp. He hopes by this admission to be found unsuitable for the risky mission.

This is in sharp contrast to Nicholson, who goes out of his way to be treated according to rank even when that means undergoing punishment. Nicholson could have allowed his officers to work like enlisted men, essentially disregarding their honorable ranks, but instead he elected to suffer to maintain their dignity. Faced with the same risk, Shears immediately throws down his rank and its accompanying honor, albeit assumed, aside. Worse than dropping the pretense when costly, Shears keeps it up when it mean points with the leggy nurse on the beach and fancier quarters at the hospital ward.

When the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) tells Shears that both the Americans and British know his story already, and that his own side, faced with the dilemma of dealing with a man deserving both punishment for impersonating an officer and praise for escaping a prison camp, merely tossed him over to the British, Shears pragmatically concludes, "As long as I'm hooked, I might as well volunteer." It's as blunt as but antithetical to Nicholson's, "It's a matter of principle."

This contrast is satisfying, but Shears' reticence is insufficiently developed–neither with dialogue, although some does dance around the issue, nor with style–to feel like a proper, significant, contrast to Nicholson's efforts at the camp. In back-to-back scenes we have Nicholson earning the respect of Saito by rousing injured men to volunteer and Shears getting his hair washed by a native girl. The scenes of Shears and his party making their way back to the bridge, save one chase in which Warden and an untested young soldier must track down a fleeing sentry, do less to heighten the drama than to distend the film and dilute the conclusion. Worse, Warden becomes a foil for Shears, in place of Nicholson, merely out of convenience. Here too I wearied, feeling the length of those talky scenes at the Ceylon hospital. At least we enjoy some fine cinematography, with wide pans over the marvelous landscapes dotted by the tiny figures of our characters.

It is impossible, though, to overlook Alec Guinness' bridge-top monologue, a miniature masterpiece, which begins the finale. Colonel Nicholson's bittersweet rumination on his life of service is exactly the sort of unexpected, unexpectedly honest, reflection that creeps up on us amidst success. Guinness' pitch-perfect tone is that of a man tempted to regret, bearing the burden of that temptation. There's also a subtle reversal only suggested in the staging. Nicholson first walks the bridge, leaning on a thin stick, slowly surveying the marvelous handiwork of his men. Saito then does the same from the other side, approaching the front of the frame.

The shot is a reversal of the one we examined earlier. Here, though, Saito is front, examining the bridge that was before beyond his comprehension. He has learned from Nicholson, who now in the background, looks not at Saito or the bridge, but beyond in self-reflection.

At the apex of its masterful slow-burn finale, Holden's character falls just short of greatness. Shears' sacrifice, running across enemy fire to tell Nicholson that the bridge needs to be destroyed, seems meaningful because he is sacrificing himself, but because the plot hasn't been building him up for any change of heart, it doesn't feel dramatically important for his character. We have little inclination as to what he would do in any given situation, so what does happen is neither expected nor unexpected. Still there is a satisfying reversal if we recall that earlier in the film his buddy inmate says to him, tongue-in-cheek, "You're neither an officer nor a gentleman." Now he has died an honorary officer and an unexpected gentleman. In contrast, Nicholson's fate is complex and rich with pathos. His final heroic moments draw together both plot and character in a concentrated few seconds which arouse in us great pity and fear.

Fist, remembering his speech atop the bridge, we feel pity for Nicholson because, when he learns that Shears' team has been sent to destroy the bridge, we see him denied the satisfaction of what he thought to be his life's great achievement. We sympathize with Nicholson because his virtue deserves reward and because it is a situation, albeit often less grave and grievous, in which anyone may find himself. We feel this pity all the more acutely, though, because of the reversal that has taken place. Heretofore Nicholson's stubborn insistence on building the bridge has been a virtue, giving purpose to the men, and now it is a vice, in its extremity about to contribute to the enemy cause. This creates fear in us, for we anguish in the uncertainty of whether he will destroy the bridge and whether it will be destroyed at all, on which are predicated not only the mission of the Allies, but Nicholson's legacy.

As he takes his last steps toward the detonator, his wounded, injured gait reminds us of his tortured walk from the hot-box, and as he dusts off his officer's cap and replaces it atop his head, we remember his principle, and as he falls on the plunger, we remember the sacrifice, not only of his bridge, but of his whole service. We may even be tempted to exclaim, watching the burnt dedication plaque of the bridge float down the Kwai, "For he's a jolly good fellow. And so say all of us." Or are we like the doctor, who looks on the scene and sees not the price of principle but only, "Madness. Madness."

Monday, June 27, 2016

How to New York

Greetings and welcome to the Big Apple! For whatever reason you've come–a new career, social aspirations, or a pathological rejection of your upbringing–we're happy to help you transition from them to us, from Joe or Jane Q. American to a denizen of the capital of the world. Now before we get started with practical advice there is one super important premise that should guide your every waking moment: living in New York City is not about living well, but about being seen living like New Yorkers. Now wait just a moment!

Eager friend, you're about to commit the most common mistake among aspiring urban elites. So grave a mistake, in fact, that you'll be re-packing for Tulsa before you've had a chance to sip that organic, artisanal, gluten-free smoothie. So listen up! You–we, I think I can say we now right?–We don't take our social cues from actual New Yorkers. Crazy right? Let me explain.

You see actual New Yorkers are busy living in New York. Most of them are even part of these burdensome tribes called "families," which come with all sorts of obligations and traditions. More importantly to us, they don't care how people see them because they're too busy living in New York. They're weird like that because they're liberal, and yet not. We don't get it either. In fact they're creepily like the rest of America. Now if we imitated them, what fun would that be? We might as well be back home!

So where do we get our lifestyle cues if we don't get them from actual New Yorkers? From trendsetters. Who are they? It doesn't matter. It could be anyone–even you–at any moment. That's the thrill of the city. All that matters are the trend and the difference: that something is just catching on and that something is different from what came before it. You just need to spot it and hop on. That said, there are some do's and don'ts.

Let's start with what you should leave behind. This foremost means pesky domestic obligations and what is more obligatory than that old time religion? Yes, I know almost seven million New Yorkers identify as religious, but remember: New Yorkers are living in New York, we are New Yorking! Actually, you don't really have to disbelieve anything, you just can't openly approve of anything religious or any religion in particular. Except Judaism, which is fine. And Islam. And Hinduism. And Buddhism. Actually it's just Christianity that's kinda taboo right now, but if you belong to one of those denominations where you don't actually have to believe or do anything in particular, identifying with it will be just fine. Anything Catholic, however, is way off limits and to be avoided at all costs. There are two exceptions, namely that you're allowed into St. Patrick's (just don't say cathedral!) provided you bring tourists and comment sarcastically, and that you are allowed to attend church festivals provided they are sufficiently ethnic. (Favoring local cultures beats mocking Christianity. For more, see Hierarchy Table 4.2.) Otherwise, avoid the Catholic thing! It sounds easy, but on Ash Wednesday you'll be dodging sooty foreheads like potholes on 1st Avenue.

Actually, speaking of cars, it's preferable that you don't have one. This is not a hard and fast rule, and if you can find something suitably small, cute, dilapidated, or lacking in horsepower, it may pass muster, otherwise avoid. Why? Cars usually send the wrong signal. Luxury cars spell privilege, midrange ones spell bourgeois pragmatism, minivans ooze family, and any truck of any kind will drip so much blue-collar sap all over your New Balances that you'll be sprinting a brisk barefoot run to reclaim a new vintage pair before your next 5k. True, almost half of NYC households may own cars, but remember that we're New Yorking here. Getting it yet? Taxis are of course fine and services like Uber and Lyft are covered by the Silicon Valley Exception. If this is too complicated and you want a car just remember the Annie Hall Rule: buy a used Volkswagen Beetle and casually advocate that cars be banned from the city. (You'll probably want to check out Addendum #4 for the list of approved vacation destinations.)

Trust me, though, you don't want to drive in the city because you'll be advocating for every road-closing event you can find. Marathon, bike-a-thon, walk-a-thon, crawl-a-thon, they're all good. Farmers' markets are preferred weekly and cultural parades are Sundays between May and October. Protests are relatively rare these days, but never pass one up. If you find yourself in a position to occupy something, put on your Pampers and sit in, down, or on it! In short, if there is any slow-moving or preferably immobile vehicle or person we can plop in the middle of a road, we're for it.

That brings us to our last topic: causes. Since you won't be busy with bourgeois responsibilities like tending to your family and your community, you'll need something to fill what remains of your mind and time. The good news–not that good news, newbie, so put that  bible down!–is that you don't need a family or community in order to take care of people. In fact, taking care of people that you know is totally passé now. That's where causes come in. What's a cause, you ask? A cause is exactly like a responsibility, but you're not actually responsible for anything. By having a cause you get all the praise that responsible people get, but there's no accountability whatsoever.

For example, taking care of your ailing grandmother is a responsibility. It's time-consuming and risky. If you flake on driving granny to her doctor's appointment and she breaks a hip, then you bet you're responsible. So why take care of granny way out in Wilkes-Barre when you can take care of, "the elderly." Are you with me? Don't help your disabled neighbor mow his lawn, but take care of, "the environment." Now don't think you actually have to do anything significant here. We're not moving mountains, we're...that's right, we're New Yorking! Yeah, sure, you can recycle a few bottles and wheel a few meals around, but all you really have to do is advocate for your cause.

Why? Because advocacy is an activity and we identify ourselves by our activities. For this reason, though, you can never be at rest. Rest happens at home, and home breeds all sorts of pesky things. You only need a place, where you can occasionally show off cultural totems like expensive cooking equipment, transgressive art, or whatever your thing is. You, however, have to be out and about!

Sharklike you must ever swim the avenues of the city seeking experiences,

but more importantly you must be seen. Attend screenings, showings, tapings, viewings, fundraisings, samplings, readings, gatherings, signings, openings, closings, Q&A's, debuts, last performances and any other culturally-sensitive, preferably exclusive, pop-up activity that your keen eye may discern. While the native proles are taking care of their homes and raising their families in their oh-so-American manner, you'll finally be New Yorking. Have fun and welcome to the Big Apple!

Back to Writing...

I just wrote several essays. The first was short, but I didn't know what I wanted to say until the end so most of it was insubstantial. For the second essay I took the last sentence of the first and started with that. Unfortunately, in it I tried to say way too much. Now I realize I have two things, roughly, to say.

First, I'm sorry, dear readers, that I haven't posted in so long. Second, my wife gave birth to our first child in March and we've been quite happily busy.

I have much new to write and many back articles to publish, so thanks for your patience. Oh, and I like to post a picture with every post because it looks so much better in the "Popular Posts" section of the sidebar, therefore Bob Ross.