Big Beasts


Editor’s note: Once again, I vigorously disagree with Mr. Bouza’s analysis. Please read my note at the end of his essay.
Today’s word—and, since confronting the English language on Dec. 22, 1937, I’ve grown increasingly fond of this really powerful tool. At about that time I began my affair with movies. One of the first was a horror pic that was actually a rewrite of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” How tricky is that? (It was titled “Tower of London.”)
I came to appreciate the artist’s role as prophet—and nowhere was it more striking (for me) than on the Silver Screen. Ultimately, I came to rely on movie makers’ views of the world.
So, I asked the folks here in Geezerland to get “Leviathan.”
It is a contemporary view of Russian society—and a baleful one indeed.
The film depicts a society awash in vodka and corruption—yet curiously remains a rickety democracy.
The central characters lie, cheat, drink and cut every corner. The corruption—among officialdom, friends and family—is so pervasive and hopeless as to preclude any attempt at rescue, reversal or circumvention.
Yet the mayor worries about his re-election and the film did get made in Russia. It would never have been allowed in China.
Even the Russian Orthodox Church engages in a suave, sophisticated complicity with the system.
Portraits of former leaders—Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and others—are used as target practice while Putin hangs demurely on an official’s wall.
In the harbor lie the rotting hulks of once valued ships—and the skeletal carcass of a whale. Omens.
The plot is simple but one of Nicolo Machiavelli’s major concerns—the taking of a neighbor’s land by an official. Nicolo wrote you could rape a man’s wife or even kill his kids and still harbor the hope of a reconciliation, through cleverness. And didn’t the Duke of Gloucester say, “Was ever woman in this humor wooed … and won?” as he walked beside her behind the funeral bier of the man Richard had murdered? But, Nicolo wrote, if you take a man’s land—kill him. Hope of reconciliation is dashed.
The film ends badly for the hero. He is falsely convicted of murdering his wife. She actually committed suicide but officialdom finds it convenient to store him. His son, about 15, drinks beer with his little friends.
Every scene is bleak—windy, overcast, raining, or just gray. Hope is not to be found, and the flick looks like a subversive metaphor for the apparent kleptocracy that is modern Russia. But who spins in the graves of this unhappy country? The czars and their minions? Uncle Joe? Rasputin? Lenin? Even Gorbachev? I don’t think so. As the shooters—of—the—portraits clearly believed, there are few Washingtons, Lincolns or Roosevelts in the nation’s unhappy history.
The whale’s skeleton on the beach is likely a symbol for the nation. The overall impact of the film conjures hopelessness and despair. The pervasiveness of decay is such as to leave no one uninfected. Hope, the one virtue in Pandora’s box, is not to be seen.
My prescription is to follow a viewing with a glance at “The Death of Stalin.” As we say in Hollywood—a laugh riot (but not without historical verisimilitude).
The whole business of assessing a nation’s prospects—as “Leviathan” plainly urges us to do—is a truly fascinating and important process. How countries are governed decides your fate and mine. There were never better-intentioned rulers than Castro or Chavez—yet look at Cuba and Venezuela, while Scandinavia promotes freedom, inventiveness, competition and prosperity. And we do too. The joyless alcoholism and corruption of Russia dooms its citizens. China cannot win in a competition with us. How a nation is ruled decides the destiny of its people.
It is a great irony of history that cruel, merciless, greedy capitalism needs freedom while altruistic socialism has mostly been dictatorships that stifled prosperity. Deng Tsiao Peng understood the need to capitalize China’s economy, but neither he nor his successors could afford the unbridled freedom capitalism requires. Putin, meanwhile, seems to preside over a ramshackle and ungovernable conglomerate of 30,000 clerks.
Happy viewing. Russia must be a whole lot freer than we commonly believe—or the vodka lobby has created a long commercial for its product. But the inescapable message is that a hopeless, joyless society is no place for Man The Wise.
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[Editor’s Note:
First, “Cineaste.
“Today’s word—and, since confronting the English language on Dec. 22, 1937, I’ve grown increasingly fond of this really powerful tool.”
But “cineaste” is a French word, slang from the 1920s.
What sort of perverted message is intended here?
His first film is a horror film based on King Richard III that becomes his matrix for measuring political power relationships. So, in spite of (or maybe because of) the paranoid madness of Rasputin, Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin, he likes the Russian corrupted democracy more than the Chinese.
He calls Cuba and Venezuela failed socialist experiments. I think it’s too early to judge. They will be measured by history.
He appreciates the successes of Scandinavian socialism, but he fails to appreciate that Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, were under attack from the capitalist government of the U S. as soon as they declared themselves socialist. Socialism has been under attack everywhere in the world except Scandinavia, and Scandinavia is the exception that proves the rule. When you’re not being bombed or invaded, you can develop a peaceful, democratic society that has socialist and capitalist features. It is the function of the U.S. government and military to attack and undermine socialism everywhere they find it. Our government will destabilize a socialist government, create angry crowds, finance the opposition and arm a revolt. Their government will respond defensively. They may limit free speech because they can’t tell what’s a genuine protest and what’s a CIA rent-a-crowd. They are on alert. They are at war, with us, and we can’t understand why people in the world don’t like us.

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