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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

old movies

“A classic is a book everybody wants to have read but no one wants to read”-Mark Twain

There’s something about old movies. They have this mystic pull; we hear how awesome they are from those who have actually watched them. The critics love them, the audiences do too, and they stood the test of time. Exotic names people them Katherine Hepburn, Marylyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen. A golden age of Hollywood and movies when only people with the jeng like propensity to favour difficult names gave birth to great talents.

I watched a couple of old movies when I got back to Nairobi. I scoured the internet for them and then scrubbed my computer of the evidence and finally i sat down and watched three...



The name evokes exotica. I knew this name for most of my life though I had no idea from where. It’s a city in Morocco, a place in the Middle East (which I love.) apart from the assonated alliteration in the name it's other claim to fame was that it was one of the only places in the world where you could get transport to Lisbon (during WWII). Why you needed transport to Lisbon is that from there you could get to America, why you wanted to go to America was Europe during WWII was a place of misery and despair. A continent embroiled in a war that was about more than just good and evil. The faces of the axis and the allies represented more than just Nazis and the rest it represented economic concerns, political differences, religious ideologies, the stuff all wars are made of. But it did represent one of the last times human beings could assign a bad guy and a good guy and be honest about it. And this war was dirty and damned. Europe was a theatre of murder and misery and some people needed to get out. So they made their way across the ocean to Casablanca and looked for an exit visa.

What’s your nationality?”
Me, am a drunkard”
And that makes Rick a citizen of the world”

At the centre of the story is Rick a saloon owner in Casablanca, he has seen too much love, lived too much life and fought too many battles. As a result he is love-lost, life-lorn and battle exhausted. He is cynical and tired. His eyes are lowered and downcast, his voice speaks exhaustion. His every movement is measured. A man who believes he is in the twilight of his years though he may just be beginning them and then...

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she had to walk into mine

That’s where the story changes. An old love from a time in his life when he wasn’t what he is. A woman from a point before he lost his heart to a shattering conclusion. A lot of the movie before this sets up the characters, it makes us laugh, it sets the mood of the time and then the crisis comes. The oldest crisis in the world. A woman we should keep away from and a coincidence that leads to one of the greatest lines in movie literature ever heard.; from there the movie moves at a pace incredible to behold. The action as fast as the words, plots revolving around exit visas, charming frenhmen, favours for sex, dutiful nazis and amazing salon players are played out in an arena of smoke, humour and pain.

Smoke billows out of every mouth. Cigarettes finishing like it’s the ‘4os accompanied by pipes and pipes of shisha. And as the movie snakes into its conclusion I couldn’t tell what’s going to happen. There were so many possible endings for the movie even at ten minutes to time and I couldn’t figure out what was going to be pulled off. It was as if all the smoke being blown into the air was obscuring all possible endings leaving nothing but suspense, hope and despair in an endless cycle. As well as lessons in love and the places we can find it. One of the most memorable lines from the movie is spoken in the midst of all this uncertainty, at an end which like most ends in the world are just code for another beginning.

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Another movie inspired by a war. This time the Vietnam War that Americans and the French settlers fought. This was another war that plumbed the depths of human horridity. The literature that survives from this war is all dark, dreary and dirty. You hear the stories of people protesting this war in America and it seems like they all became writers. People with firsthand experience make it out to be a hell masquerading as war. A fight to find the devil and even worse a journey where you would and find he was you.

The name the Americans had for their Vietcong enemy was Charlie. Why this is an excellent segue is because this movie starred Martin Sheen actor extraordinary known to me as president Jed Bartlet from the West Wing but to most people as the father of Charlie sheen. The man who we all watched take drugs, sleep with whores and engage in nearly anti-Semitic rhetoric(one of the last great American sins.) the thing about this movie is it’s so old that Martin is roughly the age Charlie is right now and he looks just like his son does, add to that the fact that he was fighting some of the same demons his son is right now and all through the movie I had to keep reminding myself it’s not that sheen.

The premise of the movie is that Sheen is a hotshot assassin who has been sent into the jungle to kill this one guy who has gone native(gone over to the side of the jungle letting madness and rabid insanity dictate how he will fight the war, fighting it not on any side but on the side of the forest and its lust for blood), an amazing colonel a career military man who could have been in the joint chiefs of staff but quit to go back into basic training. He got lost in the war, it killed his soul and now the Americans want to kill him.

You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like … victory. Someday this war's gonna end.

The guy who says this about napalm is not even the bad guy. The thing about great movies is they have these set pieces that aren’t afraid to imitate the absurdity of real life. We all have one of those stories about one of those people that when we are telling people ask, "did that really happen? Did you really meet someone like that?" And this guy(Mr. Napalm) was like that. When the beach was being bombed and the explosion shook up the sand and whipped round the wind, he didn’t bow he walked with his head held high. Acting like he was in the middle of a vacation. Asking about surfing conditions at that time ordering his soldiers to go and check it out. A crazy mo’fo’ about who Sheen says:

If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder, there was enough of that to go around for everyone.

I liked that the movie wasn’t just another propaganda puppet. They meet some French settlers that question why the Americans are fighting that war. These frenchmen are passionate, france isn’t their home any more Vietnam is, they have the cultural and national memory that goes with losing war after war in continent after continent. They debate with them and let them know that they(the americans) are fighting for nothing. They have no stake in the war, they have no land, no history there and all they are doing is losing a little more of their identity with every passing battle. Battles they weren’t just losing with their troops but in their hearts.

They move down the river and it gets darker, it gets harder. The way the movie is scripted and shot the  further they go into the jungle the further into the heart of darkness they move. We can see them lose their humanity little by little episodes of sexual exploitation are portrayed and one of the most brutal and senseless killings I have seen in a while. At the same time just enough of their humanity is maintained. We see brutality as a cover for fear, bravado and rashness the effect of cowardice. And when they die the deaths are not just deaths. With every one of them we can see more of a loss. A loss of happiness and innocence. This is a movie that doesn’t lie about war and what it will do for you. It’s a manifesto for peace and if this is what was shown to all who ordered war or actually went to it they wouldn’t. They finally meet the guy they should kill and he says:

I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. It's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor … and surviving.

You are ready for that. Then the movie delivers a speech on war that could be true. It could. War is horrible is the message of the movie. There is no good and no bad. There is even no winning and no losing. What we need to give up so as not to give in is too much.

I've seen horrors, horrors that you've never seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me.
It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror! Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.
I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us. He was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget.
And then I realized, like I was shot! Like I was shot with a diamond … a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God, the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love — but they had the strength, the strength to do that.
If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us.


Another movie that starts with an extraordinary set piece. Things that don’t happen except in life. A news anchor is fired and he goes on air and instead of quitting announces that he will kill himself in one week. The ratings for the news show go up and they live in such a materialistic age that the fact of the high ratings is enough to keep him on air. The movie goes on to portray an age where all that matters is money, here it is represented by the ratings of this show on TV. The anchor gets on television and rants telling the public truths that they know if only they looked inside themselves.

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We know things are bad - worse than bad, They're crazy!

And in that way that art is supposed to mirror society this movie does too. The above speech talks about things in a movie released into he 70’s except it talks about things right now. It talks about how bad things are in the world and even worse the fact that we are complacent with this. It goes on to talk about why people would accept this. And why they shouldn’t.

Materialism is explored in more ways there's another tv show that follows the actual exploits of terrorists, terrorists affiliated to the communist party of America that carry out bank robberies and kidnappings attempting to send a social message. The premise of this other show is that every week they will carry out a terrorist act and this will be the hook for the tv show, this act will be followed by a scripted episode. There is a negotiation between the terrorists and the network a ridiculous affair in which these communists, terrorists and tv execs exchange arguments centering around tv share and ratings, distribution rights and syndication possibilities, arguments punctuated by a gunshot in the air that cuts through an intractable contractual clause much faster than the most eloquent of eloquences.

As the movie goes on exploring one of the character’s deteriorating affair with corporate America it shows in counter point another affair. A love affair that goes from lust to worse to heartbreak. The movie explores what happens when only one person is willing to give themselves to a relationship. Not everyone is capable of love or maybe just not of commitment and even when someone knows what they are getting themselves into they can't save themselves. Talking about the relationship he’s in he says:

She does have one script in which I kill myself: An adapted for television version of "Anna Karenina", where she's Count Vronsky and I'm Anna.

He knows the train wreck he’s heading under but he can’t help himself. Until he’s prompted to ask

why is it women think the savagest thing they can say to a man is to impugn his cockmanship?”

The movie explores both our relationship with each other and with corporations perhaps making the argument that the more materially defined we become in relation to industry and commerce the more detached we are from the people in our lives. The conclusion is organic. It grows from the rest of the movie, letting us know that’s the only way a movie that took such a stark look at our life could end.

Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business.

There’s something about these movies, each of them. They tell stories that could be told over and over. Stories that move us in their honesty about human nature and the problems it causes itself.

William Faulkner accepting his Nobel speech said “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Maybe that’s why old movies live till today.