Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some things are worth admiring

For some of us, “beauty” is a mirage of powder that conceals darkness. Sometimes one wonders if the right people are endowed with it, considering the arrogance of the owner. One can admire it, but then reality puts down its enormous foot and squashes all its pretensions. I’m not speaking of just the superficial, but the internal. I don’t know what I might have turned out like had not most of my earliest memories not been “beautiful”; memories that I still carry to this day include being held to the ground by a gang of white boys older than I who stuffed grass into my mouth, or being sent to a hospital for stitches to the bridge of my nose (the scar of which is still visible after all these years) for the crime of spilling milk from my cereal bowl, when I was still not four years of age. 

Not “life changing” events you might say, but for someone who was naturally introverted they must have had profound effects on my dealings with people. I recall one night around that period that we visited my aunt; I recall how affectionate she was to me. This must have been a profound shock to me, because the next day we returned to her house, and upon the sight of her I ran and hid behind our car. Why? Not because I was afraid of her, but because I did not want to be touched. But I now look back on it with a certain amount of longing, considering what I was in for in the future. 

Of course, "beauty" can be found in art and music, but that is what the artist wishes the world to be, not what it actually is. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that I always preferred the company of nature and the flora within it to human company, especially that which is “beautiful” only because it is, and has no pretentions about it. Even as I get on in age, I am still fascinated by seeing animals in the wild that tend to congregate in places far from human contact. Brightly colored birds tend to fascinate me in particular. Recently late in the afternoon I was walking in along a rural roadside stream created to transport rain run-off into a watershed, where I saw something dabbling in it that I had to do a double take to convince me that I was not seeing things. It was a wood duck, a bird I had only seen once before many years paired with the equally colorful Mandarin ducks at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, Germany. I had never seen one in the wild and held out no hope of actually doing so, since they are relatively uncommon in the Pacific Flyway, and its natural habit deep in remote wooded areas would prevent it. But here was a male and female pair in plain view for pedestrians from the adjacent sidewalk.

The female—which was easily identifiable by its distinctive white eye ring—began swimming to the safety of a storm drain, while the male swam in the other direction in order to attract attention away from it. Apparently satisfied that its mission was accomplished, the male swam back in the direction of the storm drain, emitting a curious “squeak” rather than the familiar “quack” of Mallards and domestic ducks.

But I had no interest in the female; it is the male wood duck in its fall and spring plumage that is so eye-catching. It’s crested head and beak is a display of purple, green, red, yellow, black and white. Its chest and rear are red, its sides yellow, the belly white, its back and wings blue and black. Not without reason did famous wildlife illustrator and author of field guides to North American birds, Roger Tory Peterson, describe the wood duck as "Highly iridescent, descriptive words fail.”

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise the wood duck’s attractiveness to hunters—at one time it was even more “popular” a target than the Mallard. So “popular” was the wood duck prior to 1918 that conservationist William Temple Hornaday noted in the chapter “Candidates for oblivion” in his 1913 call for action Our Vanishing Wildlife that while eight states (all but West Virginia in the Northeast) responded to warnings by the U.S. Biological Survey that the bird was threatened with extinction by banning hunting of the bird,

And how is with the other states that number the wood-duck in their avian faunas? I am ashamed to tell; but it is necessary that the truth should be known. Surely we will find that if the other states have not the grace to protect this bird on account of its exquisite beauty they will not penalize it by extra long open seasons. A number of them have taken pains to provide extra long OPEN seasons on this species, usually of five or six months!! And this for a bird so exquisitely beautiful that shooting it for the table is like dining on birds of paradise.

Among the 15 states with excessively long hunting season on the species, Tennessee had the longest, at nearly nine months. “Is there in those fifteen states nothing too beautiful or too good to go into the pot?” Hornaday advocated banning all hunting of the wood duck for five years in those states. He would be the principle mover in the passage of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it unlawful to hunt or traffic in the “parts” of—meaning feathers, eggs and such—some 800 migratory bird species unless by waiver, meaning regulated hunting, capture for scientific purposes, or for Native American religious customs. It is also legal to kill certain bird species who may pose a danger to aircraft; I actually observed one plane that had to return to Sea-Tac Airport shortly after take-off with a peregrine falcon pasted to its windshield. 

Not surprisingly there is frequent opposition from local governments, developers, hunters and the right-wing dominated U.S. Supreme Court. A 2009 decision excluded “isolated” wetlands from protection as habitat for migratory birds, although a few states overrode the decision by passing state laws to that effect.

Today, the act’s has effectively restored the numbers of many duck species to “safe for hunting” levels. A ban on wood duck hunting from 1918 to 1941 helped restore its population, considering its relatively low duckling survival rates—especially by ones bred in man-made “nest houses,” which because these are usually located out in the open, ducklings are easier targets for predators. The total number of birds is impossible to determine because of their habitat preferences, although the Breeding Bird Survey suggests the wood duck population continues to be stable or increasing. However, it is suggested that the BBS is more unreliable in wood duck counts than other species, since they are seen less often than other species in the migratory routes that the BBS monitors. A more reliable independent count of wood ducks in the Atlantic Flywaysuggests that in some areas wood duck populations decreased by as much as 13 percent from 2012 to 2013. Wood ducks are also far less common on the Pacific Coast than west of the Mississippi, with perhaps 4 percent of the nation’s breeding pairs. 

In any case, one might still be surprised to learn that the once endangered wood duck comprises approximately 10 percent or more of the annual duck harvest in the United States, despite the fact it is rarely seen—unlike the Mallard—in populated areas. In the 2000-2001 hunting season alone, over one million “woodies” were “harvested” by far the greater part of them in the South. Given that wood ducks in the wild have a life-span of four years, one imagines that their population could be easily wiped out in two seasons unless replenished by reproduction.  

If the Bald Eagle is the United State’s national symbol, the wood duck is certainly claims pride of place as its most beautiful bird. Given its relative rarity in the state of Washington, to see one in the wild will be a memory I will cherish—a memory that won’t make me feel I committed a “crime” by having it. Some things are worth admiring.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Turning “criminals” into “victims”--and vice versa

In my previous post, I discussed how the vagaries of human nature make it difficult to determine the line that separates a “criminal” and a “victim” in recent cases of police shooting “unarmed” black males, which have become causes célèbres in the media. Because it has been made a racial issue centered on the “civil right” of persons not to be shot because of the arbitrary and presumably unwarranted actions by police, this requires that the public remain mystified as to any actions by the shooting victim that may have precipitated the event. Not that knowing what it is makes it any more “justified,” but the fact that even discussing the possibilities brings outrage and accusations of condoning injustice.

Now, this brings me to the subject, once more, of gender politics—which as we saw in that now discredited Rolling Stone story concerning an alleged sexual assault at a University of Virginia frat house—seems to thrive on fabrications, hypocrisy and tyranny in the U.S. more than in any other country. In regard to a federal “human trafficking” law heading for passage, the New York Times tells us that “The Senate trafficking bill, which was intended to increase penalties for perpetrators and support for victims, particularly the preadolescent girls who are targeted, would also strengthen the ability of law enforcement to investigate trafficking, including through the expanded authority to intercept communications. It would also make patrons of traffickers equally responsible for the crimes, imposing harsher punishments on the so-called johns.”

I think it is fairly easy to see the base hypocrisy and unjustness of this law. Besides the doubt that female-run “escort services” will be targeted, by taking away a prostitute’s living by targeting their “customers” and arresting “pimps”—calling them “traffickers” now—that will only force more prostitutes to look for a more fearful clientele out in the open. One also wonders if it is  being proposed to “pay”  newly unemployed “victims” with your tax dollars—or just turning them into real victims by taking away what in most cases is a personal choice of livelihood, by forcing someone else’s “morality” on them. 

Furthermore the “trafficking” in children is clearly a bit of self-serving propaganda to serve the agenda of a radical base that has no interest in facts. I’ve pointed out here that one actual field study to track down children working in the sex industry in high density urban areas not only found what could only be construed as an infinitesimal percentage of what advocacy group claimed were 300,000 “children” being forced into sex trafficking in the U.S., but the vast majority they did find under 18 admitted that they did so out of their own accord, for money. In fact, only 7 percent said they were working for a “pimp.” 

The “300,000” number that advocates quoted was in fact only an estimated number of underage runaways in a given year; the advocates were too lazy to conduct their own data search (they always are), so they thought the public would be dumb enough—or scared enough—to believe what they are told without actually checking its veracity. The truth is more likely this: The number of children you will encounter being "sex trafficked" in your lifetime is closer to zero than any number the "advocates" come up with.

In a September, 2014 article in the left-wing Atlantic Monthly, the disconnect between what the public is being told about the “trafficking” in prostitution and the reality is quite wide. Here are some excerpts, just so that you know that I am not pissing in the wind alone on this subject: 

Most current government and nonprofit policies on sex work define their goals as “rescue,” which makes perfect sense if the age-of-entry statistic is central to your understanding of the sex industry. Child abuse and trafficking are crises that require certain types of interventions. But these crimes do not characterize the sex industry more generally. In reality, many sex workers come into the industry as adults and without coercion, often because of economic necessity. By seeing the sex industry through the lens of the misleading age-of-entry statistic, we overlook the people who are most affected by discussions about sex work—the workers themselves… 

But the biggest problem with the claim is that it automatically remakes any discussion about sex work into its own image. When you start the conversation believing that prostitution is rooted in the rape of children, any suggestion that sex workers can be adults who have made an economic choice sounds like an attempt to provide cover for the rapists…

"It distorts the dialogue because it's a very narrow view of how the sex industry functions," Audacia Ray says. "It also means the impulse is that all people are in the sex industry are victims of their situation who are disempowered and have no autonomy and no other skills. That's really damaging. And also, when you treat a whole population as victims, that very process is victimizing because it takes away agency and individual narratives about how they got there."…

"It distorts the dialogue because it's a very narrow view of how the sex industry functions," Audacia Ray says. "It also means the impulse is that all people are in the sex industry are victims of their situation who are disempowered and have no autonomy and no other skills. That's really damaging. And also, when you treat a whole population as victims, that very process is victimizing because it takes away agency and individual narratives about how they got there."…

Kristina Dolgin, a former sex worker and activist with the San Francisco chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-Bay) agrees: "By framing the discourse around sex work—and prostitution specifically—around children, you are taking away the agency of people and instilling a moral panic."…

At its heart, the reality of sex work is rather dull and pedestrian. The main reason that people go into sex work is neither because of predatory gangsters, nor to indulge some uncontrollable nymphomania: It's all about money. It's about the need to pay your rent, put gas in your car, and buy groceries. Like becoming a waitress, a store clerk, a plumber, or a mechanic, going into sex work is driven by the economics of everyday life. If we were start to think of it as being primarily about work instead of sex, the headlines would quickly become much less sensational. "I think that media coverage needs to be less of a dichotomy between people who freely and happily choose the sex industry and people who are coerced into the sex industry," Ray says. "Because there's a vast gray area of economic circumstances in between. Economic circumstances are the reason most people enter the sex industry. I think coverage and conversations about that need to be much more complex."…

Are there really people out there who do not understand any of this, besides self-serving “victim” advocates, politicians, city attorneys and law enforcement looking to improve their PR? 

And besides, what makes a “john” any less a “victim” of the predations of a prostitute than, say, a junkie is to a dope dealer? The prostitute is taking advantage of some males’ weakness in their libido (frankly, I don’t understand it—you can “have” any woman you wish in your “dreams,” and it doesn’t cost anything). Not only that, but prostitution isn’t called the world’s “oldest profession” for nothing; in ancient Greek and Roman times, prostitutes were often held in high esteem, so much so that the emperor Augustus felt the need to promulgate a law that tried to force more Roman men to enter into legitimate marriages. It has only been in prudish Victorian times when legislating “morality” came into vogue that prostitution became a “crime.” 

And it has only been in more recent years that gender fanatics have been allowed to become powerful enough to set a tyrannical national agenda, trying to pass off anecdotal evidence as being the “reality.” An atmosphere of fear and paranoia fed through self-promoting advocacy journalists in the national media, leading to injustice not only for the so-called “criminals”—i.e. “johns”—but turning the people who are actually doing the selling (prostitutes) into helpless “victims” for real, instead of people just looking to make a “living.” 

Of course, it is in Europe with its long history in the “business” where we can find truth rather than propaganda. The UK Guardian had a story about a prostitute seeking to decriminalize her trade. I found most of her story a self-serving whine for public consumption for why she felt “forced” into the prostitution business, but one thing she said made sense: “People have sex for all kinds of reasons. My reason was to escape the poverty trap. I've been told that prostitution is degrading and self-abuse, but how many other people feel abused by their jobs?” 

What will be interesting is to see how the aforementioned law will be enforced. I think its potential for abuse will be rather strong. There are indeed many children in this country who are victims; the problem is that nearly all of this victimization is occurring not on the street but in the home. What is more, perpetrators and victims are of both genders--perhaps equally so.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The "matter" of life

Following another shooting of a black man by a white police officer—this time in North Charleston, South Carolina where an officer was videoed shooting down a man in the back who was running away—local prosecutors had no choice but to charge the officer with murder to avoid even worse bad publicity. TIME magazine has taken the time to devote a cover story to the mantra “Black Lives Matter.” I ask myself: What does that mean? In what context? Compared to whose life? Is it all politics? Do black lives “matter” to the 90 percent of the killers of blacks—who also happen to be black? Does it only “matter” if the perpetrator—whether out of fear, self-defense or a subconsciousness of prejudices and stereotypes—is not black? 

Perhaps it is demanded of us that we  think of black lives in the same way we think of white lives. What does that mean?  Is it a reaction to what is thought to enter white people’s minds when a black man murders a white person? That the victim more societally “valued,” the victim of a mindless beast whose contempt for civilized norms means he shouldn’t be left to occupy the streets where the god-fearing expect to live in peace and safety? Of course the media doesn’t discuss it, but the idea lingers in some people’s minds. They just act like they are not “prejudiced” when they encounter a black person, because they fear if they don’t, they may get “hurt” too. They prefer to let the police take care of that other business.

Let’s see if we can answer some of these questions by first looking at the statistical data. According to the Bureau of Justice, black males have by far the highest homicide victim and perpetrator rate than any other demographic, by over 40 per 100,000 in both instances. Of course, such numbers can easily be “misinterpreted.”  This essentially means that one out of every 2,500 black males that you may encounter over a given year will either die of homicide, and another be the perpetrator of a homicide; you can interpret that as a “lot” or not. Thus the possibility that you will be killed by a black man if you are not black man is even more unlikely than that; if you live in “good” neighborhoods, you probably won’t ever encounter the happenstance of such violence in your lifetime, except on television.

The reality of poisonous relations between minorities and police didn’t start with the recent shootings that have caused national outrage in the media, or at least the way it is being reported makes it seem so. It would, however, be instructive to ask ourselves what did that incident a few years ago here in Seattle when a black teenage girl felt free to strike a white police officer in the face after he stopped her for jaywalking tell us? The officer showed relative “restraint” in the matter, if by that we mean he didn’t pull out his service revolver. But obviously egregious cases of police misconduct like the South Carolina incident are being treated like the “norm,” which they are not. According to CDC statistics, homicide is the number one killer of black males 15-34, accounting for 40 percent of all deaths (accidents were second). Who are the vast majority of the perpetrators? Not police or “white Hispanics,” but other black males. Is that supposed to be “OK”? 

So while the Seattle Times and the national media reports on every instance where a black is shot by police, incidents like the questionable shooting of a Hispanic farmworker by police here in Pacso, Washington go largely ignored by even the local media.  Last year, a Sheriff’s deputy in Santa Rosa, CA shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez. He was shot eight times. The incident was ignored by the national media. Also in 2014, David Silva, a father of four, died after being beaten while hogtied after an arbitrary detainment for public intoxication. Seven Sheriff’s deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers were involved. Witnesses who videoed the encounter had their cell phones confiscated, but they testified that police unleashed a dog on him and then took turns hitting him with clubs and kicking him.  A coroner’s report claimed that Silva’s death was caused by hypertensive heart disease. The officers involved in the beating were not charged with any crime. 

I covered here the case of Daniel Adkins—a developmentally-disabled “white” Hispanic who was out walking his dog when he was shot dead by a black man, Cordell Jude; this occurred almost the same time as the Trayvon Martin shooting. There was almost no local, let alone national acknowledgement, of the Adkins shooting. The few mentions there were of it in the context of the Martin shooting lamely suggested there was no “similarity” in the two cases. I agreed; the Adkins case was far more egregious in character and “self-defense” never entered into it. Because these victims were not black—thus not subject to “outrage”—the national media ignored these incidents.

Blacks are not the only people killed by police, in fact less than one-third of those killed by police in the course of an arrest or detainment are black, according to both DoJ and FBI statistics. Admittedly that number is about 2.5 times their rate by population, but should this really be that surprising, given the crime and perpetrator rates among blacks? Or the fact that unlike the “old” days when blacks had to watch what side of the street they were allowed to walk on, or what drinking fountain to use, or where to sit on a bus (rules that “Mexicans” were also expected to abide by at one time in the southwest and California), we see that among an angry minority there is less willingness to abide by the “rules” of the majority?

Let’s return to the question what does “lives matter” mean in context. Should we start at a base that assumes that every life is “precious” even when one suspects that the “precious” life in question has utter contempt for the life of another “precious” life? Or should we just say that the vast majority of humans on this Earth just want to “get along,” regardless of their race, creed, color or gender? Sometimes this means they just want to be left alone, sometimes it means they want to treat people any way they wish without pushback.  Mostly, they just want to live in an acceptable level of comfort. They don’t want someone else to deprive them of the fruits of their labor, however little that may be. They don’t want to have the walk around being concerned that strangers will approach them intent on some malicious mischief. 

And in the main, the vast majority of people who wish to avoid trouble will likely do so in their own lifetimes, with maybe one or a few “close calls” because they forgot that their own behavior can be “misinterpreted.” By and large, we live in a world of ships passing in the night, rarely acknowledging the existence of other people except in general terms, based on prejudices and stereotypes if thought comes at all. Yet even people one might know “well” does not mean that their lives are “precious” in the vast expanse of the universe. Of course, if a death occurs in one’s own family, this means something because that person is a part of your own “blood,” and a reminder of your own mortality. 

But it is different in other circumstances. At a temp job I worked recently I was surprised to discover that an office employee had died, shot, I was told by one person, by his uncle. “What a crazy world this is,” we agreed. But I did not sense that anyone there was really moved by the event; things went on the way they always did—nobody even talked about it. There was no expression of collective grief or even individually; everyone had their own lives to worry about. Life “goes on.” 

How “precious” was this life? Certainly more “precious” than some hulking thug who made his “living” strong-arming and robbing pint-sized convenience store clerks, and then scuffling with police. Or maybe not; we find apparent incongruity in what the media considers more “precious.” More often it is a white female life, but the media also needs to appear to be “socially conscious” when it comes to black lives. But I couldn’t help but to observe that this death of a white person didn’t even merit a mention in the local newspaper’s police blotter; while the Michael Brown incident made national news for months and was even investigated by the Justice Department.

Perhaps we shouldn’t even be asking the question of whose life is more “precious” or whose life “matters.” People make their own lives “matter” by living according to the rules of civilized society. If they vary from that, they must take into account in whose company they do so. It is one thing to hold “discussions” with police (as I have) so long as you don’t make them feel “threatened.” It is another thing that some people forget that police are not only armed with a lethal weapon, but are prone to use it if they feel threatened by anything above looking at them wrong. Thus a list of blacks who have been killed that TIME gives us doesn’t mean much, because nearly all of the victims did something that caused their assailants to fear for their own safety; if the latter were killed first, it is as possible as not that they would be just put down as another statistic in the homicide perpetrator rates of black males. On the other hand, one has to admit that when the one killed is a police officer, it is played as if the President was assassinated—something which I also find tough to stomach.

Black leaders provide societal and economic “excuses” for all of this, while the media acts as if this is happens so often it is no longer worth talking out in terms that are useful. We are told to forget about the largest number of victims of homicide who are so by the hand of their own race, and go mad over the ones who are killed by people representing the law. We are told that many of these victims are “unarmed,” choosing to ignore the fact that bashing someone’s head against a concrete sidewalk or repeated kicks to the head—or even in a local case where a black male, responding to a summons for “help” from some female “friends,” slugging an older white man in the head—can be the occasion of homicide. 

Unfortunately, we are inundated with wall-to-wall coverage of a few relatively isolated incidents. In the case of the North Charlotte shooting, it is plain to see that the officer in question was “traumatized” by the idea that this man was showing contempt for his authority by fleeing him rather than obeying him, and in his temporary madness sought to “stop” him by the most “reliable” means at his disposable; I guess we can say that he didn’t feel like running after the suspect. Thus is the questions we should be asking is why there is this disconnect between respect for police authority and the way (some) police react to it? Why did this man run away?  Did he actually believe he was going to “get away?” Did he believe that the officer wasn’t going to shoot him in the back in a wide-open space in broad daylight with witnesses present? 

Or maybe he did believe that the officer might shoot at him; in the excitement of the moment perhaps some bizarre wish fulfillment to become some kind of “symbol” was being played out. Surely he was not unaware of the national scrutiny of police shootings of black men; if he thought he was making a “statement,” he surely did in making the cover of TIME, albeit posthumously. 

But it is also a fair question to ask are we giving police an “impossible” choice of carrying out their duty, and letting suspects get away because they are afraid of the publicity that might be derived if they use their firearms against “unarmed” persons? A few years ago the shooting of Native American woodcarver and serial inebriate John T. Williams by an SPD officer was a cause celebre in Seattle and was the catalyst for a DoJ investigation. The reaction of SPD officers to federally-mandated reforms tells us that forcing them to give up their “right” to “protect” themselves from even unarmed civilians seems to suggest that police feel this way. Still, I cannot help but think that the police have brought much of their problems on themselves in their “us against them” mindset, and failure to “police” themselves when given the opportunity to do so.

But the media and so-called civil rights activists also have to admit that if those who draw the attention of police, no matter how it angers them, have done nothing wrong, what do they have to fear from “clearing up” any misunderstanding? It is one thing to become “hostile” verbally; we all have the right of “freedom of speech” regardless of what the police think; it is quite another to react with physically hostile intent. Even running away from a uniformed officer whose authority you are supposed to “respect” when he stops you implies “guilt” whether we like it or not. Naturally we can then ask what is an officer’s legitimate course of action. It is then we can question why all too often they have been led to believe by predetermined inquest hearings and internal reviews that accountability is just a minor inconvenience.

Then there is always the questions “Could these shootings have been prevented? Did they have to happen?” Of course not, but we can’t keep suggesting that something happens for no reason. For every action there is a reaction; that is the law of nature. Sometimes this can manifest itself in simply ignoring another person’s entreaty, which that person may take as a deliberately calculated action. Or someone doesn’t like the way you look; of course you can’t help the way you look, but even when it is clear by your clothing that you don’t fit some “gangsta” stereotype—I recall a scene in the Coen Brothers’ film No Country For Old Men where a white woman was left speechless by the sight of a “Mexican” wearing a suit and tie (she had never seen that before); one might accuse such a person of trying to be something he is not. 

The point of this is that human actions and reactions are complicated and sometimes difficult to predict. Would a black suspect act differently when confronted by a black officer, because they are “brothers” and “understand” their presumably shared cultural mores? If that is the case, then maybe more black officers should he hired to deal with black suspects, because there is too much inherent “bad blood” between white police and black civilians that is the occasion for “tragedy” and accompanying media circus. Or would we see no real difference in police/suspect encounters?  How would we interpret black police officers shooting black suspects? 

We could go run circles around this issue if we wanted to, because it isn’t as “simple” as it is being made out to be. I do know how the vast majority of law-abiding blacks feel; I served seven years in the Army, I have a college degree and have worked hard my whole life, and yet I still find myself embittered by the racist ignorance of many people I encounter (not all of them white). The discussion shouldn’t be about do black lives matter; obviously they do matter if they can be used to advance one issue and ignore others.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Possession": A window into whose soul?

Fourteen years after a poorly-transferred to DVD release, Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H is being released on limited edition Blu-ray disk, part of the Twilight Time series which appears to focus on classic foreign language and British films. Like the rest of the titles in this series, only 3,000 disks are being pressed. I pre-ordered it as soon as that option was available in anticipation of an April 14 release date. However, Screen Archives—which is distributing this title—tells me that there is unexpectedly strong interest in this release, and there will be a delay in filling orders for it—although it is already appearing on eBay at a considerable mark-up (having now received it, the high-definition transfer is quite clean except in some of the dark scenes, although I found the only "extra"--the audio commentary--to be annoying in the extreme).

No doubt interest in this film is based on the Oscar-nominated performance of Isabelle Adjani, whose title character harbors an obsessive love for a good-for-nothing, womanizing British officer, which eventually drives this daughter of Victor Hugo to a 50-year stay in a mental hospital. However,  Roger Ebert wrote that Truffaut found a certain “nobility” in “a single-mindedness so total that a kind of grandeur creeps into it.” The real Adele Hugo--who was "beautiful" if you consider long noses in combination with low foreheads as such--was indeed “touched” in the head; contrary to the film, it was she who initially rejected Lt. Pinson’s marriage proposal, nor was she young--at 32 practically an old maid.  

Far from rebuffing her entreaties, the real Pinson frequently corresponded with Adele in a futile effort to dissuade her, but eventually he gave up and ignored her (or tried to). According to one of her contemporaries, Canadian journalist and political figure James Wilberforce Longley, "she was chiefly engaged in dogging her lover by night and by day, but without success. ... She was eccentric to a remarkable degree. In going out of the house she was invariably closely veiled. Sometimes at night she used to disguise herself in male apparel, and walk through the streets wearing a tall hat and flourishing a delicate cane."

Eventually, according to author Leslie Smith Dow:

She had become virtually incapable of caring for herself and was so obviously unbalanced that the Mottons (a second couple Adele live with) wrote a frank letter to Francois-Victor (her brother) describing her symptoms. Adele, they said, was refusing almost all food out of share parsimony, would not allow a fire to be lit in her room, and bathed infrequently. She lived, they said, very nearly like an animal. Her magnificent hair, which had once hung to the floor, had become so matted, dirty, and vermin-infested that Robert Motton, Sr., had called not only a hairdresser, but a doctor as well. Nothing could be done, he reported to Francois-Victor, but to cut it. Even more disturbing was Adele's recently acquired habit of pacing almost continually back and forth in her room, often talking to herself in a loud voice. More than once the Mottons endured her shouting far into the night, and their hearts went out to the troubled young women whom they did not know how to help.

However,  anyone viewing this film might suggest that it was the object of her affection who was the crazy one; who wouldn’t want to be the object of obsessive love (or was it "stalking") from a beauty the likes of Adjani? Well, maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea, after all. But I’ll get to that later. 

Adjani speaks fairly fluent English, but you wouldn’t know since she has appeared in only a few English-language films. The only one that is really any good is the Ivory-Merchant UK production Quartet; otherwise, she has been a poor judge of her American projects, rejecting the lead role in The Other Side of Midnight (not a particularly good film either, but would have exposed her to a wider American audience), but appearing in a couple of forgettable productions (The Driver, Ishtar—yes, that Ishtar). I would count Roman Polanski's The Tenant as a good film--except that I found the English dubbing of Adjani's voice chuckle-inducing.

Adjani would be nominated for another Oscar for her performance in Camille Claudel, yet another story about obsession over a man leading to madness, roles in which she is particularly adept. However, outside another film of quizzical quality, an American-remake of the French film Diabolique, Adjani has had only sporadic appearances in film in her own country in recent years. One of these is Skirt Day in 2010, for which she gave another strong performance as a neurotic teacher who only gains the “attention” of her class of unruly immigrant students at gunpoint, with predictably tragic results—but for a “cause” I found disturbing and racist. Obviously this was a “labor of love” for Adjani, since she clearly wished to “scold” Muslim immigrants in France who supposedly refused to “assimilate” into French culture like she did (her father was Turkish-Algerian, but her mother German Catholic).

Unfortunately, the film made this “point” far too late to cover-up the fact that it was a compendium of all the racist and cultural stereotypes of the French towards these people in the space of 90 minutes, as well failing to address the discrimination that Muslims and Africans face in France today, especially from rabid “France for the French” nationalists. And besides, like Caucasian Hispanics in this country, no one would have guessed that Adjani wasn’t “French” unless they were actually told so, and then again they probably wouldn’t believe it anyhow. How can anyone with that famously porcelain skin and blue eyes not be “white”? I'm just guessing, but her character's brother's name suggests Muslim Chechen origin--a Caucasian people with generally light skin; I suppose that is supposed to make it more "believable," but it certainly is cold comfort to those who do not.

Adjani seems to have sought out roles about women who have been “damaged” by their relationships with men, although it must be said that these relationships tended to intensify already existing mental illness. Director Jean-Jacques Beineix had a falling out with the original producer of Betty Blue because it was insisted that he use a “star” as Betty, and Adjani wanted the role. But she had just played a similar character as an unpredictable asocial personality slowly succumbing to insanity in One Deadly Summer, and Beineix wanted an “unknown.” In retrospect, while it would have been interesting to see Adjani as Betty, Beatrice Dalle was perfect for the role, and I doubt that Adjani would have consented to the level of “exposure” that Dalle was asked to do, at least what appeared in the director’s cut (recently released on all-region Blu-ray).
One wonders why Adjani likes playing "victims" of questionable facility. Earlier I alluded to a certain possibility of personality lapses (God knows I have plenty of my own, but this isn’t about me), that was there for all to see on one particular film that it is hard to say didn’t come “naturally” for the actress—and not only that, was perhaps the most brutally honest portrayal of a dysfunctional marriage ever committed to film. Such a film was never made before (despite claims otherwise) and certainly wouldn’t be made today, for it would be labeled “misogynist” and certainly politically-incorrect. Some people cannot look truth face-to-face.

Film buffs know that the work I am referring to is Possession, by Polish director Andrzej Żuławski and starring Adjani and Sam Neill, then not well-known to U.S. audiences. This is another of the rare English language efforts by Adjani, and this strange mixture of domestic destruction and horror received mostly poor reviews and failed to find an audience when it was first released over thirty years ago. Vincent Canby of the New York Times actually took the time to review the 80-minute cut version shown in the U.S., describing it as “one long anxiety attack”:

This is about all I can make of ''Possession,'' which has been described as ''an intellectual horror film.'' That means it's a movie that contains a certain amount of unseemly gore and makes no sense whatsoever…One critic reported that the Cannes audience was ''traumatized'' by it. New York audiences may be reduced to helpless laughter…Part of the problem may be that the film has been drastically cut to its present 80-minute running time. Even so, it's possible to see that ''Possession'' would look fairly preposterous at any length. As Anna, Miss Adjani is required to play a succession of increasingly foolish mad scenes…''Possession'' is a veritable carnival of nose bleeds. Because the three leading characters - Anna, her husband, Mark (Sam Neill), and her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) - all knock each other violently around, they play most of their scenes in one state of bloodiness or another…I'm not sure Miss Adjani deserved her Cannes award for acting, but she deserved it for something, maybe juggling. 

Since then the uncut film has somehow achieved “cult” status, even positive reviews in retrospect. In a recent review in Film Journal International, it is seen as having previously unrecognized social value:

The first half of Possession is peculiar and the second half is bizarre, but it all makes emotional sense; you don't have to know Andrzej Zulawski wrote it while going through what must have been the mother of all breakups to recognize the emotional rawness and irrational behavior, even after the narrative runs amok. Because here's the thing: People do go crazy when relationships go bad. Murder, mutilation and literal monster spawning are the nightmarish faces of character assassination, financial destruction and the psychologically damaging use of children as weapons—not too subtle, but potent.

The recent release of Possession on Blu-ray provided me the motivation to watch the uncut version of this film from first to last for the first time. It was an eye-opener, to say the least.  If this film merely centered on the life of the two leads, it would have been powerful expose on the reality of the two-way street that is domestic violence; in an interview with Film Comment, Zulawski admitted that “Possession was born of a totally private experience. After making That Most Important Thing in France, I went back to Poland to get my family (which at the time was my wife and my kid) and bring them to France. I had two or three interesting proposals to make really big European films. But when I returned to Poland I saw exactly what the guy in Possession sees when he opens the door to his flat, which is an abandoned child in an empty flat and a woman who is doing something somewhere else. It’s so basically private. Now I can go back to it many years later, but even the dialogue in certain kitchen scenes and certain private scenes is like I just wrote it down after some harrowing day.”

It is certainly true that even an exorcist couldn't make any sense of this film with 1/3 of its guts cut out, as in its initial U.S. release. However, in the uncut version the elements that I found so bizarre that I initially dismissed as “dumb” before are still there. Anna seems too much on the emotional edge to have an affair with some pretentious, effete phony mouthing clichés like Heinrich, and I never once believed (as Mark was obligated by the script to) that he was the one “possessing” Anna’s soul. And of course I was right, and we eventually learn the “truth” at about the 48 minute mark, when a detective that Mark has hired to spy on her finds that she is hiding what appears to be a B-movie alien creature that initially looks like a bloody squid or octopus, and is murdered by Anna to keep her “lover” safe—something that she does quite often from that point. 

Mark eventually finds out too, but not before he has to go through that “mother” of all emotional and logical wringers to do so. Anna lies and lies and lies (mainly because she has to), and the more Mark attempts to extract the truth from her, the more hysterical and emotionally (and at times, physically) abusive toward him she becomes; nothing she says make any sense until the creature is actually revealed, and we still won’t know for another 30 minutes how and why Anna is “possessed” by this creature. By then, Mark—who is still obsessed with patching-up his relationship with his wife—is in Zulawski’s words willing to play by her “crazy rules,” including helping her cover-up her various murders until she is finished “raising” the creature to its full development, whatever that is, and returning to what Mark believes will be a “normal” life with their son, Bob, who has been mostly neglected by Anna while in the midst of her “affair.”

Of course, all this has to be seen to be believed, and as in most of his films, Zulawski seems to prefer overactive histrionics from his actors; but as in many of her most memorable roles, Adjani seems especially adept at playing characters on the edge of madness, and there are several scenes in Possession that Adjani “performs” far too convincingly for it not to come from some dark place within herself. She obviously has had some “practice” at this, as one suspects from her real-life turbulent relationships with men (who were without doubt initially captivated by her dark beauty). 

The opinionated Zulawski tells us in Possession’s audio commentary that while Adjani has a reputation for being “difficult” to work with—which he claims ruined any chance of success in America, despite her good English—she was on her best behavior on his set. Nevertheless, he also claims to have observed that she displayed “cruelty” in her relations to her then “husband”—presumably meaning Bruno Nuytten (named as the cinematographer in the credits) who was actually her “domestic partner” at the time and not married to her (Adjani has never married, but has sons first with Nuytten and then with Daniel Day-Lewis, giving birth in the latter case a few months after the last time they broke-up).  If Adjani was personally anything even near to what she portrayed so disturbingly “real” in Possession, it is no wonder that none of her relationships (including with Warren Beatty) lasted very long.

Adjani perhaps self-servingly has said that she felt that the way she was photographed in the film (often in distinctly unattractive close-ups) amounted to "emotional pornography,” and it took “years” for her to “recover” from the “toll” of the filming. One suspects that what she really meant was that she hoped it would take that long for the film to pass not from her memory, but from the audience’s, perhaps from a feeling that the film revealed more about her than she wished to be revealed publically. One has to sympathize with the distracted Mark in his quest to “understand” this crazed woman with “complicated” emotions and behavior that are impossible to understand or to take; both Zulawski and Adjani admit that she was given little “direction” on how to play her part, but in a kitchen scene where Adjani literally turns red with undisguised hate, and especially in the infamous subway scene where she was merely directed to “fuck the air” after which her character gives birth to the creature which represents her “faith”—don’t ask—something tells us that we’ve seen this before, and not in the movies. Adjani clearly knows how to “play” this “part”—from experience. 

I suppose you would say that I’m giving something away by revealing that the “creature” ends up being Mark’s doppelganger—after we are served-up the “money shot” of Adjani actually looking like she is copulating for real with the creature. This being is likely meant to be paired up with Anna’s doppelganger, presumably also spawned by supernatural means (but by whom?), who we initially encounter as Bob’s seemingly “normal” teacher, Helen (also played by Adjani), who helps care for him in Anna’s absence. However, that is just a detail, seemingly tacked-on to cause more confusion. The creature itself seems to be part of a living “nightmare” the dangerously insecure Anna is having; what is really “traumatizing” about the film is that we may be seeing in close-up and in disturbingly real terms a window into someone’s soul—or anyone’s. In those terms, this film can be said to be politically-incorrect for our time, since it reveals what our society wishes not to be revealed to advance a “victim” agenda.