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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007

It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.

Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.

Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.

As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.

This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.

The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.

Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.

Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.

This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.

Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.

All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.

Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.

At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.

Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.

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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

The music video “I Wish (In Search of the Missing Children)” by Vienna was produced by a group of young professionals whose aim is to reach out to people to help find Missing Children around the United States of America.

The song is about the sorrow of losing someone dear and a desperate longing to be with that person.  It’s a cry to be heard, to be given another chance to see and be with that person and the pledge that expresses undying love for the missing one. The song is based on a real-life experience of a mother who lost her little one at the most unexpected time.

The producers felt that the song “I Wish” plays a vital role in this music video in search of the missing children around the US.  The words and the music in this song speaks to its purpose.

The people behind this video production offered their sincere intentions, their God-given talents and their devoted time to come up with a music video that would hopefully help pave the way to finding “The Lost”. -

Watch the video here

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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007
by tjm Holden

No matter where we travel in this peripatetic world, there are a few universals we’ll inevitably stumble across: taxes, corruption, commercialism, kitsch, artistic expression, hope against all odds, selflessness, selfishness, true love. Maybe a few others. Math. Sports on the weekend. Spirits—often in the form of beer. The idea of education. The tendency to settle disputes with fisticuffs.

Cultural universals are what anthropologists like to point to as signs of humanity’s general similarity. As proof that no matter how unique we may claim to be—either individually or as a collection of somehow-like-defined folk—we are actually all cut of the same general cloth. These universals do not have to be genetic traits or indigenous to the social organism; they can be acquired and installed in the heart of a culture via practices. Repeated repetition; social sanction.

That is where we are heading—a universal that is such because it is practiced . . . everywhere. And—stop being so antsy!—we’re about to get there.

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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007

Several bloggers have recently noted a dread of having to talk on the phone. Matt Yglesias wonders if this is “a common psychological profile to blogging’s early adopters” and Amanda Marcotte argues that “the phone simply fails to live up to the internet as a form of remote communication. The advantages of the internet are that you have more control over when you speak to someone. In chat, if they’re online, sweet, you can talk to them. If you’re busy or distracted, log off and no feelings hurt. Email is casual but can be performed on your time. The telephone has none of the convenience or privacy of the internet, but it doesn’t really have the intimacy of in-person conversations.”

I also hate the phone; it’s ringing jangles my nerves like nothing else, particularly because I’ve saddled myself with a principled opposition (loosely based on Kant’s categorical imperative) to letting it ring through to the answering machine. I can fully relate to Marcotte’s point that phone conversations are not sufficiently immersive enough to stop one from, say, playing Freecell at the same time and missing two out of five words the other person says. Maybe being overly habituated to getting information through reading augments that problem; it may take words on a page to get me to really concentrate and focus, and it takes an interlocutor being in the room with me to enforce my attention. Phone conversation also rewards arbitrary space filling;  getting a call can sometimes feel like being a television that a bored person’s turned on, looking for distraction.

The problem with phone conversations, I think, is that they promise presence but produce absence. Phone talk is pseudointimacy that mocks real intimacy. A phone conversation delivers another’s unique voice to you, but it’s a faint shadow of really hearing them. With other forms of immediate long-distance communication available, what the phone as a medium now communicates (and with such force it tends to drown out whatever is being talked about) is the specificity of the person’s voice, and how that voice is not there in the room with you. This prompts me to want to use the phone exclusively for making plans to see people in person in the very near future. Otherwise the fungible written word will have to suffice.

The phone can easily and unfortunately be deployed as a means to control other people. But perhaps online communication may end up providing us too much control over conversation, making it something that is so completely on-demand that it will eventually become solipsistic. No one will ever be able to force you to discuss something you are not interested in, but perhaps should be—instead you may be able to use online communcation as a screen, tossing off postponing or superficial e-mails that seem to attend to such matters without really bearing down on them. “Real” interepersonal communication may require some actual sacrifice at some point, some reciprocation and compromise (for better or worse, the phone demands these). These are perhaps the building blocks of commitment to a specific audience. But online presence management seems to promise the eradication of these nuisances. You’ll be able to have conversation only when it suits you, and you will pop online and be content to talk to whoever happens to be out there. The online population is so vast as to prvide any number of people who might relate to you, or at least hold up the mirror in which you want to see yourself. The specificity of the other person may come to be fully irrelevant, leaving you typing for your own sake, for the pleasure it gives you to read your own words regardless of who it is prompting them. Hell, at that point you may as well be blogging.

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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007

The run up to Valentine’s day is a good time for journalists to file stories like this one, from today’s WSJ. The headline: “Is It Love or Mental Illness? They’re Closer Than You Think.” This is not exactly breaking news; people been describing love in terms of madness probably since the time of Sappho. But given a technological sheen, this information can seem reinvigorated, scientifically proven rather than the idle speculation of poets. The article, by WSJ’s health writer Tara Parker-Pope, describes recent research into the neurochemistry of love, using brain scans to measure activity in its various parts while test subjects were shown pictures of people they love versus people they felt neutral about. “Everything that happens with romantic love has a chemical basis,” explains Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and the lead researcher. (Love and chemistry? Who would have thought?) This raised methodological questions for me: How do the researchers know that the subjects are really in love with the people whose pictures they provide? Isn’t there a kind of confirmation bias when you’ve provided a stack of photos, one of which you have said is special? Of course you are going to react to that one. It would be more interesting if there were unexpected brain activity in relation to one of the others. Also, this invoked for me an ultimate Valentine’s Day activity—the day is already a show trial of romantic feelings through a variety of commercial rituals, so why not pay for the privilege of proving your love for your partner by having your brains scanned while you look at each other. Then your MRIs could be compared to other lovers to prove any number of things: that your love for each other is stronger that others’ loves, or that one partner loves better than another, that you are still in love at all. Perhaps a business could be run in which couples prove their fidelty by having their love tested the way you might have your cholesterol measured. The brain scan could be a sophisticated lie detector; one could show a spouse pictures of various acquaintances and see just how they feel about them. The opportunities for exploiting jealous paranoia seem limitless, so there are many potential Valentine’s Day marketing opportunities here. (Also, is there anything brain scans can’t be alleged to show? A recent Washington Post article discussed how “brain scans and hormone fluctuations in our bloodstream show that our brains are designed to know where we fit into the pecking order, and we’re uncomfortable when we’re not among equals”—not only can they provide scientific basis for romance but also for class difference.)

Parker-Pope points out that “the dramatic changes evident on the brain scans may help explain bizarre behavior that is often associated with love. It can also help explain why marital problems are such a serious health worry. Studies show that people in troubled relationships are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.” Then she suggests the fix:

Studies show that trying something new with a spouse can go a long way toward reigniting love. In one study, couples were assigned a weekly activity they both found new and exciting—such as sailing or taking an art class. Another group did pleasant but familiar activities, such as dinner with friends. Based on answers to relationship tests, the couples doing new things showed far more improvement in the quality of their marriage after 10 weeks than couples who did the same things every week. The lesson is that sharing new experiences with your spouse appears to trigger changes in the brain that mimic the early days of being in love.
“We know that novelty and new experiences engage the dopamine system, and when it’s associated with your partner it creates a link with the partner,” says Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at New York’s Stony Brook University who conducted the study. “It creates a dramatic increase in the sense of passion and romance.’‘

So this Valentine’s Day, don’t just go out to dinner. Go snorkeling or something.

Other societies, according to Lust in Translation, a book about infidelity in various cultures that Brad Plumer blogged about a few days ago, may have a different, more-straightforward solution to the novelty problem: new lovers, which spouses keep private and unobtrusive. Only in America, the book implies (at least to Plumer), is infidelty considered proof that a relationship is failing: “Now, obviously, anecdotal reporting isn’t the same thing as doing extensive surveys and the like, but it was interesting that the people in France whom Druckerman interviews were mostly dumbfounded by the notion that couples should never have any secrets between them. That largely seems to be an American idea. (French people also don’t appear to think that an affair is always a symptom of some horrific flaw in a relationship.) But then, looking at the statistics, French couples aren’t any more prone to infidelity than American couples. It’s just dealt with differently.”

Americans may view it differently because of the commercial incentives to make them do so: Plumer notes how the book reveals that “an entire industry has sprouted up to help couples deal with the post-traumatic stress of an affair”—stress created perhaps because of the way the stakes of infidelty are already raised. American counselors and Christian organizations prescribe radical truth-telling as a cure: How radical? “Many therapists believe that a wife is entitled to ask her husband for the details of every text message and encounter. The rationale is that the relationship between a husband and wife should be transparent. Some couples create a detailed chronology covering the entire period of the infidelity, even if it lasted for several years. The process stops when the wife can’t take it anymore, or when she’s satisfied that she’s overturned every lie she’s ever been told.” It’s easy to see where brain scans might fit into this. What better way to ground the truth of your feelings than in science, in hard data. A brain scan could be like a pee test for recovering addicts—it could be checked to make sure a spouse isn’t harboring untoward feelings for an ex-lover. It’s a good way to reinforce the vision of marriage as sharing property, headspace included.

But aside from the relationship industry (and its manufactured holidays like Valentine’s Day), it may be that Americans register infidelity as more of a threat because other social pressures to maintain commitment are absent or weakened. I wonder whether divorce rates are lower where infidelty is regarded as less of a threat. Infidelty in such countries may be as much of an instituion as marriage, with the same sorts of humdrum instiutional hassles—it may not seem all that exciting and thus may not seem to warrant an elaborate confessional. Perhaps some political science theory can shed some light here. Albert Hirschman, in Exit, Voice and Loyalty, notes the existence of “lazy monopolies” that welcome competition as a means for doing away with the troublesomeness of voice (intra-institutional complaining). Marriages in cultures where infidelity is tolerated may work similarly; that other subordinate relations can be conducted drains away the impetus to make major alterations to the dominant relation, which can lumber along quiescently, in “comfortable mediocrity” (to use Hirschman’s epithet for ghetto grocers).  Infidelity allows relationships “the freedom to deteriorate” without stirring up all that much stress.

Moreover, in order for couples to communicate like they must in order to maintain a relationship, the barriers for exit must be sufficiently strong. Hirschman explains that “specific institutional barriers to exit can often be justified on the ground that they serve to stimulate voice in deteriorating, yet recuperable organizations which would be prematurely destroyed through free exit.” He’s mainly talking about patrons of poltical organizations and business firms, but he remarks also that this logic rationalizes otherwise arbitrary procedural difficulties in divorce proceedings. With these barriers eroding, infidelity may seem more and more like outright exit, leading Americans to view it as a desperate spur for using an extreme version of what Hirschman calls “the voice option”—radical truth-telling.

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