THE IDIOTS OF CINEMA

February 17, 2019 – 5:04 am

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Good cop or bad cop? What about good idiot or bad idiot? The Idiot (and we don’t mean Iggy Pop) has been a literary reference for centuries and has now invaded pop culture. But the function of the idiot has not changed however, there seems to be a dearth of good ones around. Philip Cheah reflects.

Unemployment is a curious gift. Just when you think that your life’s purpose is over, you realise what you have left undone. So finally I found the time to read Miguel de Cervantes’ 1,000-page, 17th Century classic, Don Quixote. The book inspired the award-winning film, Arthur Hiller’s Man of La Mancha (1972), that spawned the evergreen song, The Impossible Dream.

But something changed from the 17th to the 20th Century. While Cervantes was motivated by a dislike of the chilvaric romance novels (the pulp fiction of the 16th Century); the film’s adaptation reduces the satirical intent of the book into sentimentalism. The film was negatively reviewed for many years with Time magazine labelling it as “epically vulgar” while Newsweek called it “the cheapest sentiment.” In the hands of film, the book became everything that the author despised.

Yet Cervantes’ Don Quixote is today regarded as a pillar of modern Western literature (some call it the first European novel) and the most influential book of the entire Spanish literature.

Among its admirers was none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky who opined: “A more profound and powerful work than this is not to be met with… (It is) the final and greatest utterance of the human mind.” That’s important to note because two centuries later, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot, of which a link to Don Quixote could be made. The Idiot is a kind of companion work, with both books reflecting on the times, in particular, the state of idealism.

Of course, both books had a protagonist whose innocence was so pure that they were regarded either as delusional or insane. Both books had heroes whom people regard as idiots!

Coincidentally too, there was a film adaptation of The Idiot (1951) by none other than the legendary Akira Kurosawa. Thankfully, his film adaptation did great justice to the book, even though its original 266-minute length was only shown once at a preview, and then chopped up by the film studio. But even after 100 minutes was lobbed off, the truncated version still captured the spirit of Dostoevsky’s novel.

“Of all my films, people wrote to me most about this one,” said  Kurosawa. “I had wanted to make The Idiot long before Rashomon (1950). Since I was little, I’ve liked Russian literature, but I find that I like Dostoevsky the best and had long thought that this book would make a wonderful film. He is still my favourite author, and he is the one - I still think - who writes most honestly about human existence.”

In Kurosawa’s hands, Dostoevsky’s eccentric “Idiot” is captured in all his precious, wafer-thin nervousness and behaviourial fits of ecstasy and emotionalism. Kurosawa does not dumb down the character nor glorify him with a new heroic purpose. He shows the character in all his impossibility, a person who is willing to trust and give his all to those he believes in. As wonderful as you can imagine that person’s warmth and good intentions are; in today’s world, you would still react by saying “What an idiot!!”

In much the same way, Cervantes’ protagonist, Don Quixote, rushes around the countryside, riding a mule in his makeshift knight’s armour and battling windmills that he imagines as giants. He struggles to right wrongs and rescue people who suffer from injustice. Everyone in the book sees his condition as one of a sick mind, and they either humour his wild imagination or avoid him.

The dichotomy between idealism and reality is brutally put forward as a modern-day condition of everyday acceptance of injustice. In short, one would be a fool to challenge the insane wars, the military industrial complex that fuels such wars and the wish to uphold principles of social and political fair play.

Is innocence a kind of madness today? Do we all pretend to turn the other cheek when we can’t bear to see the ugly truth? Can cinema still be a force for enlightenment? Or is the market, indie-credibility, industry recognition and awards the main motivation to make movies?

In this post-Dogme 95 world of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), where are idealistic foolish idiots of cinema who are willing to battle windmills with their cameras?

Note: This essay was first published in the 13th Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival catalogue in December 2018.

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  1. One Response to “THE IDIOTS OF CINEMA”

  2. “Man of La Mancha” was filmed in 1972 but it originated as an off-Broadway musical in 1965 that moved to Broadway after a year and has been revived repeatedly. The film was derived from the musical but it was the live theater piece that was derived from Cervantes’s novel.

    By Frederick Miller on Feb 19, 2019

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