Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Wager and slavery

Captives being taken on board a slave ship on the west coast of Africa. Image source: The Guardian

David Grann's The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is a compelling saga of an 18th-century British naval expedition in the Pacific to attack the Spanish trade in South American silver. The expedition ended in disaster: only one of the six ships ever returned. It's a story of brutality, cowardice, and courage. It's also, and mainly, a tale of an extraordinary feat of seamanship, in which 81 men set sail in overloaded jury-rigged boats from the desolate island on which the warship HMS Wager had been shipwrecked, and somehow managed to navigate 2500 sea miles to a safe harbor. But only a handful survived the perilous journey and ultimately returned to England—where they were put on trial for mutiny. 

Grann's retelling of this story, as well as the fate of the one ship in the expedition that managed to fulfill its mission, the flagship HMS Centurion, is vividly written with many novelistic touches, and is highly engaging. For more on Grann's book and the story of the expedition, please see the post Shipwreck, mutiny and murder: The Wager. [1]

But Grann's book also contains significant gaps in both fact and historical context. As Fara Dabhoiwala writes in the London Review of Books, key omissions involve the connection of the men and ships of the expedition with the Atlantic slave trade.

The leader of the Pacific expedition, Commodore George Anson, had spent the two years before the mission commanding the Centurion as a naval escort for British slave ships on their journeys from the west coast of Africa to the sugar islands of the Caribbean, something that Grann doesn't mention. Anson had also spent a decade as part of the naval garrison in Charleston, South Carolina, where he bought property. Charleston was largest slave-trading port in North America; it's estimated that 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. came through Charleston. Though apparently not a slaveowner himself, Anson was deeply implicated in protecting and sustaining the slave trade.

Portrait of George Anson, 1st Baron Anson, by Thomas Hudson, before 1748. Image source: National Maritime Museum

In addition to omitting Anson's backstory, Grann also falsifies the story of John Duck, a mixed-race member of the Wager's crew. Duck, raised in London, was probably the son of a British man and an enslaved African woman. Dabhoiwala speculates that Duck's father may have been a British captain of the same name known to have been master of the ship Ann around 1709.

On the Pacific expedition, Duck had lived through an onboard plague of typhus, the decimation of the crew by scurvy, and the wreck of the Wager. Like the other members of the crew, after leaving the sinking ship he was stranded for months with little food on an otherwise uninhabited island off the west coast of what is now Chile. After dozens of men had died of starvation (and some by violence), most of the remaining crew had left the Wager's cruel and incompetent captain David Cheap behind and sailed off in the most seaworthy of the Wager's boats. Duck was among those risking a quick death at sea against a lingering death on the island.

Portrait of David Cheap by Allan Ramsay, c. 1748 (detail). Image source: The Guardian

After leaving the island, Duck had survived for three months as one of the dwindling number of men on the Wager's jury-rigged longboat, christened the Speedwell. The survivors had navigated two thousand nautical miles through the Straits of Magellan and up the east coast of South America. Their ultimate goal was the Portuguese colony of Brazil; had they landed in Spanish-held territory, they would have been held as prisoners of war.

Duck was one of more than a dozen men who had been sent ashore to find food at Freshwater Bay (near Mar del Plata in what is now Argentina). When a storm blew up suddenly and pushed the damaged Speedwell away from the shore, eight of the foraging party were stranded on the beach. Duck and several others, including Isaac Morris, Samuel Cooper and John Andrews, were soon captured by indigenous Tehuelche tribesmen.

In Grann's account, the men spent two and a half years with the Tehuelche, who "led them from one village to another, staying for months in one place" until they reached the Spanish settlement of Buenos Aires. There, according to Grann, Duck was "kidnapped and sold into slavery. Morris didn't know where his friend had been taken, whether to the mines or the fields—Duck's fate was unknown, as is the case for so many people whose stories can never be told."

But the men were not guests of the Tehuelche. According to Dabhoiwala, after they had been captured all the men had been immediately enslaved. Being enslaved by the indigenous tribesmen meant something a bit different from being enslaved by Europeans. Dabhoiwala writes that "slavery among Native Americans. . .was largely a form of involuntary household servitude. It didn't mean being worked to death on a large plantation or down a silver mine, or being horrifically maltreated, as enslaved Africans in America routinely were." Morris later wrote that "our Work was chiefly to fetch Wood and Water, and Skin all the Horses which they killed; and tho' we were their Slaves, we were treated very humanely, and they would suffer no one to treat us ill."

Tehuelche tribesmen, 19th century. Image source: Awasi

The Tehuelche also enslaved captured Spanish women (Dabhoiwala does not mention what might have happened to any captured Spanish men). Duck's companions stated that each of the enslaved seamen had "a Spanish Woman given him to Wife, and that some of them had left Children behind." Of course, free consent is impossible under conditions of captivity, and the effect of the unions was to engender more slaves for the Tehuelche.

After two and a half years, the men were taken by the Tehuelche to Buenos Aires, where they were sold to the English agent for the Asiento de Negros. [2] They were held captive there for more than a year, "treated more like Slaves than Prisoners of War," before hostilities between England and Spain ended and they were repatriated to England. But Duck was not imprisoned with the others and never returned to England; his fate is unknown. It's certainly possible that he was separated from his companions due to the color of his skin and sold into Spanish slavery by the English Asiento agent. It's also possible that, as his companions stated in one account, the tribesmen refused to sell Duck to the agent because he was "too near of a Complexion with those Indians" that they, "insisting upon his being an Indian. . .therefore they would keep him." But Dabhoiwala offers another possibility: Duck may have chosen to remain with the Tehuelche voluntarily, because winding up in the hands of the Spanish might well lead to enslavement in more brutal conditions, or repatriation to an England that might hang him as a mutineer.

Dabhoiwala writes,

Perhaps Duck, far from home, had made a new life. Even the unrecorded and the enslaved, whatever the extremity of their predicament, are actors in their own stories. Perhaps he himself chose to remain behind.

We can only hope he was given the choice.

Cover of David Grann's The Wager (Doubleday, 2023), featuring "Ships in distress in a storm" (detail) by Peter Monamy (c. 1720-30), courtesy of Tate Britain. Cover image source: David Grann

  1. Martin Scorsese is currently planning a movie version of The Wager. Grann is also the author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017), which Scorsese adapted as a film in 2023.
  2. The Asiento de Negros was a monopoly on trading slaves in Spanish territories. The Spanish did not generally capture or purchase slaves in Africa and convey them to the Americas, but instead outsourced the procurement of slaves to agents from countries more directly involved in the slave trade.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Poster for What's Love Got To Do With It? (2022). Image source:

The marriage crisis

Marriage is in an ongoing state of crisis. People are choosing to wait longer before they marry—median age at first marriage is now in the 30s for both men and women in the UK—and more are choosing never to get married at all. Although in the U.S. the legal right to marry was extended in 2015 to gay and lesbian couples in all 50 states, the number of marriages per 1,000 people is entering its fifth decade of decline: in 1980, there were 10.6 marriages per 1,000 people, while in 2020 there were around 5 (a COVID low; the number has since rebounded to around 6, but the long-term trend is steady decline). The marriage rate has fallen even though the percentage of people of marriageable age has increased over the same span, from around two-thirds to almost three-quarters of the population.

U.S. marriages per 1,000 people, 1980-2022. Data source: Provisional number of marriages and marriage rate, United States 2000-2022, CDC/NCHS National Vital Statistics System; Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton, Marriage rates in the United States, 1900-2018, NCHS Health E-Stat, 2020.

One reason for more women choosing to remain unmarried may be that, as Clementina Ford writes,

Marriage is not now and never has been designed with women's happiness in mind — and yet we're told that without it, we will be miserable. As any sociologist can tell you, it's men who benefit from marriage: they live longer, they are generally healthier and happier, and their economic prospects improve [compared to single men]. On the other hand, studies have shown that married women die earlier. [1]

Ford is citing a study of 100,000 Europeans that found that marriage adds 1.7 years to the average husband's lifespan, and subtracts 1.4 years from the average wife's. [2]

As marriage rates have fallen, so have divorce rates, but they are still proportionately high: in the U.S., the divorce rate fell from 5.2 per 1,000 people in 1980 (49% of the 1980 marriage rate) to 2.3 in 2020 (45% of the 2020 marriage rate). In other words, roughly speaking, for every two marriages there's one divorce. Let me just say that I would not get on a plane if I had little better than a 50% chance of making it to my destination.

Share of marriages ending in divorce in the US, by year of marriage. Image source: Our World in Data

Given our spectacularly poor track record at picking people who will be good, fulfilling, and reliable partners in the long term, shouldn't we seek assistance in making that choice? Two recent phenomena reflect this idea:

  • Marriage Pact: Begun at Stanford in 2017 as an undergraduate project, Marriage Pact is an algorithmic matchmaking service. According to a recent story in the San Jose Mercury News, each participant fills out a 50-question survey about their "core values," such as "communication styles and conflict resolution. Smoking and drug habits. And things like: 'If you do nothing for an entire day, how do you feel?' On a 1 to 7 scale, 'like a lard' is 1 and 'like royalty' is 7."

    No pictures or swiping are involved. Each participant receives one name, an email address, and a percentage: their highest-rated match among fellow participants. The marriage pact is a pledge to marry your algorithmic best match if you don't find someone better by a mutually-agreed date—a kind of marital backup plan. It has now spread to nearly 90 campuses around the country.

    According to the San Jose Mercury News story, of the nearly half-million participants to date, "a tiny fraction land in long-term relationships, even marriage." But the creators claim that 30% of the matches meet in person, and one-ninth of those wind up dating for a year or more. If those numbers are true, that's a 3.3% relationship success rate, or 33 out of 1,000 participants. With a current U.S. marriage rate of 6 per 1,000 people, on your own you could do a lot worse.
  • Indian Matchmaking: A 2020–23 Netflix reality series created by the Indian-American documentary director Smriti Mundhra, Indian Matchmaking features Sima Taparia, a Mumbai-based "marriage consultant." Mundhra had featured Taparia in her 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl (co-directed with Sarita Khurana), which followed the efforts of three middle-class families to find husbands for their college-educated daughters.
    Poster for A Suitable Girl
    One of the families was Taparia's, and we watch her struggling to succeed as a matchmaker for her own daughter, Ritu (who would prefer to continue her career in financial services).

    The TV series follows Taparia's efforts to find acceptable matches for multiple clients each season. In a Guardian article a viewer criticized the first season as a "cesspool of casteism, colourism, sexism, classism." Women must come from a "good" (i.e., high-caste) family and be light-skinned, slim, and at least average in height; "the prospects for women who are dark-skinned, overweight, or under 1.6 metres (5ft 3ins) are presented as bleak, if not a lost cause entirely." Women are also subject to "moral policing": they must not have an extensive romantic history, or children from previous relationships. An NPR story reports that in Season 3 the series introduces "Priya, a pretty 35-year-old who is dating after a divorce and worries that men she encounters think she is 'broken.'"
    Mundhar has now created a spinoff, Jewish Matchmaking, which dropped on May 3 of this year. Can Poly Matchmaking be far behind?

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Many of us could clearly use some help in finding good romantic partners. Which brings us to What's Love Got To Do With It?, the 2022 feature film written by Jemima Khan and directed by Shekhar Kapur. [3]

The film starts promisingly. Zoe (Lily James), an "award-winning documentary filmmaker" (is there any other kind?) has grown up with her Anglo-Pakistani next-door neighbor Kazim (Shazad Latif). When Zoe finds Kaz at his brother's wedding, sneaking a cigarette in their childhood backyard treehouse, he confesses that he is ready to settle down and is willing to try to find a Pakistani bride through an arranged marriage: "Well, 'assisted marriage.' That's what we're calling it these days." Zoe is initially incredulous—"What, like assisted suicide?"—but then decides that Kaz's search for a wife will be the perfect subject for her next film.

Shazad Latif (Kazim Khan) and Zoe Stevenson (Lily James) in What's Love Got To Do With It?. Image source: Greg King's Film Reviews

Zoe herself is starting to feel that it would be nice to have a relationship that lasts longer than a weekend. But despite (or perhaps because) of these feelings, she continues bonking men she's just met in bars, waking up in strangers' beds, and shying away from a handsome, kind veterinarian (Oliver Chris) she meets through her mother's dog's misadventures. Her desire to be in a couple is more than cancelled out by her fear of commitment; while she's looking for Mr. Right, she seems only to be attracted to Mr. Wrongs.

Of course, unlike the characters we can see exactly where this story is heading, but there's a good deal of pleasure in getting there. In the initial part of the film the humor in Khan's script can be delightfully pointed, as in Zoe's clueless but well-meaning mother Cath (Emma Thompson) calling the wedding celebrations "exotic" ("'Exotic' meaning good foreign rather than threatening foreign?" asks Zoe. "Yeah, exactly," responds Cath).

Cath Stevenson (Emma Thompson) in What's Love Got To Do With It?. Image source: Cinema Clock

Or Zoe's white male producers (Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen) gradually becoming more interested in Zoe's proposed film about Kaz as they run through possible working titles ("My Big Fat Arranged Wedding"; "Meet the Parents—First"; "I Hope She's A Pretty Woman") and check off the funding boxes: "Eth? Tick. Female director? Double tick." (The white producers later critique her film as being shot through a "white lens"—evidently not "eth" enough.)

And although Zoe defends the practice of arranged marriage to the producers, in conversation with Kaz she's still skeptical. When he says of arranged marriages that "over time, you grow to love the person you're with," she responds, "What, like Stockholm Syndrome?" When, on the way to an appointment with the Muslim matchmaker (Asim Chaudry) hired by his parents (Jeff Mirza and E&I favorite Shabana Azmi), Zoe asks Kaz the difference between using a matchmaker and using a dating app, Kaz says "I suppose you could call it a bespoke, 3D, halal Tinder. Operated by your parents."

Kaz's parents Aisha Khan (Shabana Azmi) and Zahid Khan (Jeff Mirza) in What's Love Got To Do With It?. Image source: Firstpost

When the matchmaker Mo asks asks what they are looking for, Kaz's mother Aisha brings out the stereotypical criteria: "A girl from the same. . .background, soft-spoken, long hair. Not too dark." Kaz's father wants the bridal prospects to have complexions no darker than "wheatish." The film's portrayal of reflexive color prejudice is all too real.

Kaz soon begins to meet over Skype with Maymouna (Sajal Aly), a lovely young Pakistani woman. Of course, both sets of parents are hovering in the background the whole time, and can't help themselves from interjecting regularly. But perhaps Maymouna is not quite so chaste and demure as she appears, and has her own agenda. . .

Maymouna (Sajal Aly) and family in What's Love Got To Do With It?. Image source: Variety

The most treacherous moment in any romantic comedy, though, is the ending, and there's no way to talk about where the movie goes wrong without spoilers. So if you want to avoid them, please skip the next two paragraphs:

  • Spoiler 1: There's a subplot featuring Kaz's sister Jamila (Mariam Haque), who has become estranged from her parents and the family matriarch Nani Jan (Pakiza Baig) because they have rejected her marriage a non-Muslim white man. Towards the end of the film Kaz invites Jamila to the family Eid celebration without telling his parents or Nani Jan. When Jamila arrives, she has her husband and new baby in tow. Of course, fulfilling her traditional role as mother instantly erases all discord, and Jamila, her husband and baby are welcomed back into the family. This feels like a reinforcement, rather than a critique, of motherhood as a woman's destiny.
  • Spoiler 2: When it comes time for the main characters to figure out the pairing that has been obvious to the audience from the first scenes, there are a couple of problems. Since Zoe and Kaz have grown up together like sister and brother (although we do learn that as kids they shared their first kiss), when they finally start thinking about each other romantically it seems queasily semi-incestuous. And the big kiss they exchange just before fadeout is anything but electric. Since movies are shot out of sequence, my guess is that Kapur unwisely shot the kiss early in the filming schedule, before the actors had gotten to know and feel comfortable with each other. Perhaps the lack of spark is a deliberate directorial choice, signalling the difficulties and awkwardnesses that lie ahead for the couple. But a sense of difficulty and awkwardness is not the final impression that most romantic comedies want to leave with their audience.

—End of spoilers—

What's Love Got To Do With It? is worth seeing for the witty first 90 minutes or so of Khan's script, the performances of Lily James and Shazad Latif as people who only slowly come to realize that their best match may be right next to them, and the pleasures of watching veteran actors Thompson and Azmi as their mothers. As with many romantic comedies the ending doesn't quite fulfill the film's early promise. On the other hand, you could do a lot worse.

  1. Christina Ford, "Marriage is an inherently misogynistic institution—so why do women agree to it?" The Guardian, 30 October 2023.
  2. Roger Dobson, "The stress of marriage shortens your life by a year (if you're the wife)," The Independent, 26 February 2006. 
  3. Screenwriter Jemima Goldsmith Khan is the British former wife of Pakistani cricket star, later Prime Minister, and current prisoner Imran Khan. Director Shekhar Kapur began his career in India, directing Masoom (The Innocent, 1983), with Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi; the indelible Mr. India (1987), with Anil Kapoor and Sridevi; and Bandit Queen (1994), with Seema Biswas. He then moved on to the UK for Elizabeth (1998), with Cate Blanchett, and then to Hollywood for The Four Feathers (2002), with Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson. Since the sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2008), however, he's only contributed segments to anthology films, directed short films and some TV series episodes, as well as the 2016 documentary Science of Compassion.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

In memoriam: Paul Auster

Paul Auster. Photo credit: Jerry Bauer. Image source: L'actualité.

Paul Auster, The Locked Room (1986), Book Three of The New York Trilogy, Chapter 4:

I spent that night in Sophie's bed, and from then on it became impossible to leave it. . .I had been born to be with Sophie, and little by little I could feel myself becoming stronger, could feel her making me better than I had been. It was strange how Fanshawe had brought us together. If not for his disappearance, none of this would have happened.

. . .In some sense this is where the story should end. The young genius is dead, but his work will live on, his name will be remembered for years to come. His childhood friend has rescued the beautiful young widow, and the two of them will live happily ever after. That would seem to wrap it up, with nothing left but a final curtain call. But it turns out that this is only the beginning.

. . .Only darkness has the power to make a man open his heart to the world. And darkness is what surrounds me whenever I think of what happened. If courage is needed to write about it, I also know that writing about it is the one chance I have to escape. But I doubt this will happen, not even if I manage to tell the truth.

 . . .11:30 rolled around, the hour of the mail, and I made my ritual excursion down the elevator to see if there was anything in my box. . .This was my hiding place, the one spot in the world that was purely my own. And yet it linked me to the rest of the world. And in its magic darkness there was the power to make things happen. There was only one letter for me that day. It came in a plain white envelope with a New York postmark, and had no return address. . .I opened the envelope in the elevator. And it was then, standing there on my way to the ninth floor, that the world fell on top of me.

'Don't be angry with me for writing to you,' the letter began. 'At the risk of causing you heart failure, I wanted to send you one last word, to thank you for what you have done. . .I'm not going to explain myself here. In spite of this letter I want you to go on thinking of me as dead. . .Above all, say nothing to Sophie. . .Seven years from the day of my disappearance will be the day of my death. I have passed judgment on myself, and no appeals will be heard. . .Writing was an illness that plagued me for a long time. But now I have recovered from it. Rest assured that I won't be in touch again. You are free of me now. . .Wish me luck.'

Mekons, "Only Darkness Has The Power," from Rock N' Roll (1989):

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Mark Morris: Socrates and Via Dolorosa

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group perform in Socrates. Photo credit: Chris Hardy. Image source: San Francisco Chronicle

Those who truly grasp philosophy pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead.

—Socrates in Plato's Phaedo

Throughout his career Mark Morris has set dances to unusual music choices. In the months after founding his company in 1980 he created dances to Harry Partch's Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California (a dance actually made when he was 16, and reset on his new company seven years later), Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano, Vivaldi's sacred choral work Gloria, and traditional Romanian songs. In later years he choreographed pieces to music ranging from the Baroque to the 21st Century, and from pop to High Modernism.

The program Morris brought to Berkeley's Cal Performances (seen April 21) was a two-part meditation on death. The first work was Socrates (2010) to Erik Satie's Socrate for piano and voice (1917/18), which sets three texts from Plato: "Portrait de Socrate" (Portrait of Socrates) from Symposium, "Les bords de l'Ilissus" (The banks of the Ilissus) from Phaedrus, and "Mort de Socrate" (Death of Socrates) from Phaedo.

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group perform in Socrates. Photo credit: Gene Schiavone. Image source: Time Out

In this performance, tenor Brian Giebler sang all the texts to Colin Fowler's piano accompaniment, although the first two sections are dialogues and the voice part was originally written for one or four female vocalists. The music is stately and formal, and the movement often places the dancers in geometric formations and frieze-like positions suggesting the ancient Greek vase paintings. The dancers are costumed by Martin Pakledinaz in tunics of yellow, red, pastel blue, gold, and brown, colors that, as Alice Miller Cotter has pointed out, echo those seen in Jacques Louis David's painting The Death of Socrates.

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787. Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Socrates' raised finger gesture from this painting also makes repeated appearances:

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group perform in Socrates. Image source: New York Times

No single dancer portrays Socrates; instead, both he and his students are embodied collectively by the group. In the moving final tableau dancers lie onstage, immobile—they are all Socrates, and by extension, we in the audience must reflect on whether there are ideas that we would die for. One dancer, though, escapes into the wings. In her New Yorker review of the premiere, dance critic Joan Acocella wrote that this dancer may represent "his ideas, which, unlike Socrates’ body, could not be put to death."

"Portrait de Socrate" sung by Barbara Hannigan, accompanied by pianist Reinbert de Leeuw:


Or, mes chers amis, afin de louer Socrate, J’aurai besoin de comparaisons: Lui croira peutêtre que je veux plaisanter; mais rien n’est plus sérieux,
Je dis d’abord qu’il ressemble tout à fait à ces Silènes qu’on voit exposés dans les ateliers des sculpteurs et que les artistes représentent avec une flûte ou des pipeaux à la main, et dans l’intérieur desquels quand on les ouvre, en séparant les deux pièces dont ils se composent, on trouve renfermées des statues de divinités.

And now, my dear friends, in order to praise Socrates I will need to make comparisons, and yet I speak not in jest; nothing could be more serious,
I say that he is exactly like the busts of Silenus, which are set up in the statuaries’ studios, which the artists represent holding a flute or pipes in hand, and which, when they are made to open in the middle and are separated into two pieces, have images of gods inside them.
Je prétends ensuite qu’il ressemble au satyre Marsyas. . .
Et n’estu pas aussi joueur de flûte?
Oui sans doute, Et bien plus étonnant que Marsyas. Celuici charmait les hommes par les belles choses que sa bouche tirait de ses instruments et autant en fait aujourd’hui quiconque répète ses airs; en effet ceux que jouait Olympos, je les attribue à Marsyas son maître,
I say also that he resembles Marsyas the satyr. . .
And are you not also a flute-player?
That you are, without doubt, and far more amazing than Marsyas. He indeed charmed the souls of men by the beautiful sounds his breath drew from his instruments, and the players of his music do so still; for the melodies of Olympus are derived from Marsyas who taught them.
La seule différence Socrate, qu’il y ait ici entre Marsyas et toi, c’est que sans instruments, avec de simples discours, tu fais la même chose. . .
Pour moi, mes amis n’était la crainte de vous paraître totalement ivre, je vous attesterais avec serment l’effet extraordinaire que ses discours m’ont fait et me font encore.
That is the only difference, Socrates, between Marsyas and you. With the effect of your words alone, you produce the same result. . .
For me, my friends, if I were not afraid that you would think me hopelessly drunk, I would have sworn to the extraordinary influence which they have always had and still have over me.
En l’écoutant, je sens palpiter mon cœur plus fortement que si j’étais agité de la manie dansante des corybantes, ses paroles font couler mes larmes et j’en vois un grand nombre d’autres ressentir les mêmes émotions.
Tels sont les prestiges qu’exerce, et sur moi et sur bien d’autres, la flûte de ce satyre. . .
For when I hear them my heart leaps within me more than that of any Corybantian reveler in his dancing frenzy. His words cause my tears to flow, and I observe that many others are affected in the same manner.
And this is power exercised over me and many others by the flute-playing of this satyr. . .
Tu viens de faire mon éloge: c’est maintenant à moi de faire celui de monvoisin de droite. . .
You praised me just a moment ago: It now falls to me in turn to praise the neighbor to my right. . .

In that same New Yorker review Acocella wrote, "With Jesus Christ, Plato was the most influential thinker in the history of the West." No surprise, then, that the second half of the program was about Jesus. Via Dolorosa (The street of sorrows, 2024) is Morris' interpretation of Jesus' Passion. Commissioned in part by Cal Performances, this was its world premiere.

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group perform in Via Dolorosa. Photo credit: Chris Hardy. Image source: San Francisco Chronicle

Via Dolorosa is well-matched with Socrates in mood and theme, if not in choreographic inspiration. Both men were murdered by the state for asking uncomfortable questions, and Nico Muhly's score for Via Dolorosa, entitled The Street (14 Meditations on the Stations of the Cross) for solo harp, seems at times Satie-influenced. The excellent harpist was Parker Ramsay, and Morris' wise decision to omit the recitation of Alice Goodman's textual meditations on each Station (included in the program) enabled us to focus on the music.

Parker Ramsay performing Nico Muhly's The Street (14 Meditations on the Stations of the Cross) as accompaniment to Mark Morris' Via Dolorosa. Photo credit: Chris Hardy. Image source: San Francisco Chronicle

It's not clear what inspired Morris to choreograph the Passion, but as the piece developed I felt that Via Dolorosa increasingly demonstrated the limits of literalism. The dancers wear thin white or light brown robes, as though they are extras in The Last Temptation of Christ. In three of the 14 Stations Jesus falls, and of course, in each of these sections we see the dancers stumble and fall to the stage. In the Stations that mention the cross, dancers hold their arms straight out to the sides as though they portray or are nailed to a cross. When Jesus encounters his mother, we see him being born (sliding forward onstage between her legs as she squats above) and then as a toddler clutching her hand and walking beside her; the toddler Jesus is represented by dancers shuffling forward on their knees, an old vaudeville gag.

Members of the Mark Morris Dance Group perform in Via Dolorosa. Photo credit: Chris Hardy. Image source: San Francisco Chronicle

Via Dolorosa was not a disaster, but at times it skirted the bathetic, and for this viewer it fell far short of achieving the precision of effect, amplified through restraint, seen in its partner work. Socrates has taken its place among Morris' masterpieces; I suspect that Via Dolorosa, despite seeming to have been purposely designed as its companion piece, will not share the same fate.

But Morris' ear for striking, unusual music has not left him; Muhly's score is quietly compelling. Station VI, Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus:

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Haruki Murakami, part 7: Burning and Norwegian Wood

Still from Lee Chang-dong's Burning (2018). Image source: The Criterion Collection

As a follow-up to my post on the film Drive My Car (2021), in which writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi combines elements from two Haruki Murakami short stories, I'm going to take a look at two other Murakami film adaptations: Burning (2018) and Norwegian Wood (2010).


Yoo Ah-in (Jong-su) and Yeun Sang-yeop (Ben) in Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Image source: Hikari Hana

Burning is an adaptation by Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong of Murakami's 1983 short story "Naya o yaku," originally translated by J. Philip Gabriel as "Barn Burning" and published in The New Yorker of 2 November 1992. The story was retranslated by Alfred Birnbaum under the same title for the collection The Elephant Vanishes (Knopf, 1993). For a summary of Murakami's story, please see my post on The Elephant Vanishes.

Lee shifts the action to Korea and adds many details that heighten the psychological tensions only suggested in the story. A flirtatious and free-spirited young woman, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), calls out to Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) one day when he's on his round of deliveries. The two knew each other as children, but haven't seen one another since junior high school a decade ago. (In fact, Jong-su doesn't recognize Hae-mi at first; she tells him she's had plastic surgery to improve her looks. South Korea has the highest rates of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world; a BBC poll estimated that more than 50% of South Korean women have cosmetic surgery by age 29. [1])

Jeon Jong-seo (Shin Hae-mi) in Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Image source: Asia Pacific Screen Awards

Hae-mi works doing store promotions, and slips Jong-su the winning ticket for a grand-opening raffle whose prize is a girl's watch (which, of course, she then suggests that he should give to her; it's a clever way for her to find out if he has a girlfriend, as well as gain a watch). Later she invites Jong-su to her apartment to show him how to feed her cat while she's away on an extended trip. But there doesn't seem to be a cat in her apartment; has she invited Jong-su there on a pretext? She reminds him that in junior high school he had told her that she was "really ugly," an incident he doesn't remember; she then seduces him (which takes very little effort). Is Hae-mi's seduction of Jong-su, and perhaps her cosmetic surgery, an attempt to exorcise that painful childhood moment?

When Hae-mi returns from her trip, to Jong-su's surprise and dismay she has a new boyfriend in tow whom she met while abroad, the wealthy Ben (Yeun Sang-yeop). Jong-su feels pangs of sexual jealousy and economic inadequacy, and we begin to wonder whether we're witnessing Hae-min's revenge on Jong-su for his teenage cruelty.

Yoo Ah-in (Jong-su), Jeon Jong-seo (Hae-mi), and Yeun Sang-yeop (Ben) in Burning. Image source: Ricepaper Magazine

Ben sees the world as a playground, and confesses to Jong-su that he has an odd hobby. Every so often when he spots an abandoned or run-down greenhouse, he burns it down. Jong-su then begins to look at the greenhouses around his father's farm with a new perspective, weighing the chances that each could be Ben's next target. It's a suggestion that under his nice-guy exterior, Ben may harbor destructive obsessions.

Still from Burning. Image source: franceinfo: culture

Hae-min confesses that on her trip she felt a strong desire "to disappear, as if I had never existed." When she does disappear, Jong-su becomes fixated on Ben and begins following him around the city. One day, Ben spots Jong-su lurking in his Gangnam neighborhood in his delivery truck, and invites him to his spacious apartment. While there, Jong-su encounters a cat that Ben calls by the same name as Hae-min's. Jong-su opens a drawer and discovers that it is filled with bracelets, barrettes, and other small trophies of Ben's conquests; right on top is the watch Jong-su had given Hae-min. Jong-su begins to have dark suspicions about Ben, and Hae-min's possible fate. . .

Lee Chang-dong's additions to Murakami's story bring out aspects only hinted at in the original, and he very effectively ratchets up the suspense. The film is also filled with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo's strikingly photographed images. But both Jong-su and the film go off the rails in the final few minutes, when the movie completely departs both from Murakami's story and from any connection to plausibility. I found that the final few minutes ruined the film for me; judging by its positive critical reception, others have felt differently.

Norwegian Wood

Rinko Kikuchi (Naoko) and Ken'ichi Matsuyama (Toru) in Ang Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood (2010). Image source:

Anh Hung Tran is the French-Vietnamese writer and director of The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Cyclo (1995), The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), and the recent Juliette Binoche film Pot au feu/La passion de Dodin Bouffant (released in the U.S. as The Taste of Things, 2023). In 2010 Tran wrote and directed an adaptation of Murakami's 1987 novel Norwegian Wood; for a summary of the novel please see my post on Murakami's English Library novels.

In 1969, as police storm university campuses to chase student demonstrators, college student Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) spends his time chasing girls. One day he encounters Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), the former girlfriend of Toru's best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Kizuki committed suicide, and Naoko and Toru are drawn together by their connection to him. Naoko has thoughts of suicide as well, and leaves the university to go a mental health retreat in the mountains. Toru visits her there and meets her roommate, the 39-year-old divorcée Reiko (Reika Kirishima, who later played Oto in Drive My Car). Back on campus, Toru is approached by Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a lively, outgoing student who expresses a romantic interest in him even though she already has a boyfriend.

Still from Norwegian Wood. Image source: Asian Movie Pulse

Norwegian Wood is elegantly filmed by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, with beautifully composed shots of the snowy mountainous region where Naoko's retreat is located contrasting with the cramped apartments and neon-lit bars of Tokyo. But Tran simplifies the story, eliminating even a major subplot that provides the reason that Reiko has come to the sanatorium. Of course, any 2-hour film adaptation of a full-length novel must involve judicious selection of what to include, but the simplified narrative makes the plot seem even more schematic than it does in the book: all too clearly Naoko represents the past and the death drive, Reiko represents the present and the power of healing, and Midori represents the future and the life force. Although the film is shot from Toru's point of view and places him in the coming-of-age dilemma of having to decide among the three women, it's actually the women who make all the key choices (spoiler alert—for some reason those choices all involve wanting to sleep with Toru).

Filmmakers are drawn to Murakami's fiction in part because of its popularity, but his laconic style and protagonists who are more passively acted-upon than actively choosing their fates can present cinematic difficulties. In Burning Lee makes the mistake of over-elaborating Murakami's story into a violent suspense thriller that ultimately takes the movie too far from its source. In Norwegian Wood Tran over-simplifies the novel and so makes the story's flaws even more apparent. Neither filmmaker manages the careful balance of Hamaguchi's adaptation, which opens up its stories in a way that makes use of the strengths of cinema, but which still retains the atmosphere of Murakami's originals.

Other posts in this series:

  1.  See Patricia Marx, "Letter from Seoul: About Face," The New Yorker, 23 March 2015.