Last night I got an email from Harvey Karten, one of the founders of New York Film Critics Online and an all-round great guy, who asked me why I walked out of the press screening for “The Notebook”, a Hungarian film based on a novel by Ágota Kristóf. I also had a bad experience the same day with a press screening for “Expedition to the End of the World”, a Danish documentary opening at the Film Forum on August 20. It irked me so much that I emailed NYFCO colleague Avi Offer, who was at the screening, to get his take.
Generally I don’t bother writing “rotten” reviews of such films on Rotten Tomatoes, since I prefer to cut indies, foreign films and documentaries some slack. From time to time, when a publicist for such films will write me to ask what I thought the day after a screening, I might say that I didn’t care for the film at all but will refrain from trashing it on Rotten Tomatoes. When it comes to big budget crapola like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, it’s no holds barred.
After I wrote Avi Offer a quasi-tweet that “Expedition to the End of the World” was a “terminally crappy film”, he wrote back that he was “constantly wishing that Werner Herzog were the director instead!” Since the film was a fatalistic shoulder-shrugging affair about the extinction of the human race due to climate change, I might have been more amenable if it at least had Herzog’s knack for story telling and vivid characterization that is present in both his narrative and documentary films. But the film was bad both in terms of message and presentation.
“Expedition to the End of the World” is about the voyage of a three-masted schooner to the northeast coast of Greenland to study the geology and biology of a region formerly inaccessible. With global warming, it has become possible for such a ship to get through waters formerly blocked by ice floes.
The press notes quote a geologist who was part of the team: “Life on earth will survive us. We’re but a parenthesis in the development of the earth. And most likely a very short parenthesis.” Very likely this is the same geologist who explains that the bacteria contained in the permafrost will come to the surface once global warming reaches its peak toward the end of the 21st century. Human beings might perish but the bacteria will go on. This sense of impending doom is shared by just about everybody on board but there is not even the slightest expression of anger or dismay. The crew might be described as anti-catastropism writ large.
It might have been a better film if at least we had a better idea of what they were trying to find out. We see them hacking away at rock formations or depositing dead fish into containers for future laboratory examination but there is no attempt to make any sense of their activity. Nearly the entire film is devoted to the men (and one woman) doing pretty much the same thing a bunch of vacationers would be doing on one of those “see the wilderness” tours advertised in the back of National Geographic, like taking target practice with high-power rifles (they were meant for defense against polar bears that have largely disappeared due to habitat change), skimming rocks, sightseeing, playing a banjo, etc.
When they are not hanging out and having a grand old time, they are sitting around the galley dining table and philosophizing about existence, something that led Avi Offer to comment: “I thought it was never going to end when they started talking about the meaning of life!”
You can get a sense of director Daniel Dencik’s priorities from the short bios he put together on members of the crew:
Before he became one of the world’s greatest artists, he had the brown belt in karate. Before that, he was a squatter in Germany. He loves Slayer, Sarajevo and Strawberries.
Ideally she would be piracy. She is driven by an uncontrollable love for her animals, which she can only keep track of with her microscope.
Dreadful, just dreadful.
“The Notebook” was even dreadfuller—yes, I know, that is not a word. So much so that I walked out after a half-hour. Let me provide the gory details on what led up to me bailing out.
This is the story of 13-year old twin boys living in Budapest whose father is in the Hungarian army. So unconcerned about historical context, the screenplay makes no effort to explain that Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany during WWII.
When he returns from the front for a brief visit, the two boys are happy to see him and sad to see him go off to the battlefield once again. In his absence, they are instructed to enter everything that happens into a notebook that he bestows on them, along with two brown scarves.
Just after he leaves, their mother puts them on a train with her to escape Allied bombing of Budapest. Their destination is her mother’s tiny farm in the countryside far from the devastation being visited on the city in 1944.
Grandma is one of the most absurd caricatures I have run into in a film in a very long time. She greets her daughter and her two grandchildren with a long stream of invective. What did you do with the other kids, she asks? The mom says she only had the two boys. Oh, replies grandma, generally when a bitch has pups she drowns those she can’t take care of. In one of the film’s constant tendencies to depict unnatural reactions, the mom takes all this in stride. Evidently grandma hates her daughter with a passion, but no explanation is offered.
Perhaps she is just a misanthrope since after mom goes back to Budapest, she beats the children every day and twice on Sunday. On their first night there, they are forced to sleep outside. On the next day, when they are finally allowed into her filthy hovel, they learn that they have to do chores in exchange for food, including chopping firewood and other menial labor that the boys carry out dutifully. They become slave labor in effect.
Eventually they develop a strategy that will allow them to tolerate her beatings. They will beat each other to “toughen” themselves up to the point where her fists can be laughed off. We see the two boys beating each other with sticks and belts until they collapse to the ground, blood pouring from their nose and mouth. Just like the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons Bart and Lisa Simpson love.
Many years ago Esquire magazine used to run parodies in which a fairy tale would be retold in the style of famous writers. As “The Notebook” unfolded, I felt that I was watching Cinderella rewritten by Cormac McCarthy. This is a tale that is unrelentingly sadistic and ice-cold but salvaged—in the eyes of many—by its art-house flourishes. The twin boys are meant to be compelling after a gruesome fashion, like the “kid” in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” who would plunge a knife into your ribs if you caught him in a bad mood.
Last August Slavoj Žižek raved about the novel to Guardian readers as part of a series described as “a book that changed me”:
The Notebook tells the story of young twins living with their grandmother in a small Hungarian town during the last years of the second world war and the early years of communism. The twins are thoroughly immoral – they lie, blackmail, kill – yet they stand for authentic ethical naivety at its purest. A couple of examples should suffice. One day they meet a starving deserter in a forest and bring him some things he asks them for.
When we come back with the food and blanket, he says: ‘You’re very kind.’
We say: ‘We weren’t trying to be kind. We’ve brought you these things because you absolutely need them. That’s all.’
If there ever was a Christian ethical stance, this is it: no matter how weird their neighbour’s demands, the twins naively try to meet them. One night, they find themselves sleeping in the same bed as a German officer, a tormented gay masochist. Early in the morning, they awaken and want to leave the bed, but the officer holds them back:
‘Don’t move. Keep sleeping.’
‘We want to urinate. We have to go.’
‘Don’t go. Do it here.’
We ask: ‘Where?’
He says: ‘On me. Yes. Don’t be afraid. Piss! On my face.’
We do it, then we go out into the garden, because the bed is all wet.
I am glad that I walked out before the twins pissed on the Nazi officer’s face.
Zizek concludes his article:
This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.
Actually, there is some evidence that the super-star Elvis of Marxism achieved his goal some time ago, according to Lingua Franca:
Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.
Looks like someone else needs to get pissed on…