A Good Fight: Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night)

Two_days,_one_nightIf a pair of writer/directors exists that can rival Joel and Ethan Coen for a body of work with profound depictions of humanity, it is another set of brothers. The films of the Dardennes, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have consistently been among the best of modern offerings and were a main feature in an essay I wrote on European film for Image a few years back (“Portraits of the Sonata: Desire and Transformation in Modern European Cinema,” No. 61, Spring 2009).

La PromesseL’Enfant, and especially Le Fils, match any expectations one could have with regard to artistic portrayals of humanity’s struggle for decency and dignity, and one of the Dardennes’ latest works, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) proves that their touch has not waned in the thirty-odd years they’ve written and directed for the screen.

The film features the magnificent Marion Cotillard. In an Oscar-nominated performance, she plays Sandra, a Belgian mother of two children who has just learned that while she was absent, her employer offered her co-workers a choice: they could either have a one thousand euro bonus, or Sandra could keep her job. [Read more...]

Tale of the Lucky and the Star-Crossed

Lady Awaiting InspirationThey say that luck is where hard work meets opportunity. But often the ones who say that are those who are the greatest beneficiaries of luck. It seems a way by which the fortunate can reclaim a portion of the credit for the things that have befallen them:

“Yes, X happened, and it was indeed fortuitous, but had I not stood ready to seize the moment and make the most of it—had I not prepared my body and mind for just such a chance—nothing would have come of it all.”

And in a sense, a portion of that seems so. Even when the stars align, the sea parts, and before us lies the golden way, only those who have the presence of mind to capitalize upon the moment, to swoop in and storm on to claim the happy day, can smile when they later tell the tale.

At times, the teller is humble. He admits that what has come his way is inexplicable, all talent and effort aside. “What I got from life was more than I would have dared ask for,” a great singer once said. The profligacies of fate are not always lost on its beneficiaries, and the best of time’s favorites acknowledge that to be the case. [Read more...]

A Lottery for Barbarians

the_lotteryFrom time to time in my unorthodox career, I’ve found myself teaching a class—be it in ethics or literature or law—which includes a reading of Shirley Jackson’s horror story, The Lottery, first introduced in eighth grade English (or it was back in the day) and having the singular distinction of being the one story most retain memory of—even those who despise fiction.

I can’t possibly spoil the story by telling the ending, as everyone must’ve read it. So it is only memory that I prod when I relate that the denouement involves a contemporary American village’s annual custom of stoning a lottery winner—this time, a housewife and mother—all in order to make the corn crop grow. At least that’s the implied reason, as the purpose is left vague. The power of the story lies in the chilling nonchalance with which the ordinary townspeople conduct this yearly slaughter.

My students react with predictable disgust at the characters’ ignorance—“doing something for which they have no good reason,” it is often expressed.

But surely those are the wrong objections, I say.

“You’re faulting them because they’re illogical? Because there’s no real correlation between human sacrifice and corn growth?”

If so, what if there was a “good” reason? What if blood spill were actually to make corn grow, and science said that it did. Would that make the townspeople right? What if hunger could be eliminated, lives saved, etc., with the shedding of this particular character’s plasma? [Read more...]

Where’s the Guilt?

15698224630_85fddfa509_zI’ve had the experience of dealing with renters from time to time, though more in the capacity of property manager than as landlord. It has been one of the ugliest, most unpleasant things a person can go through in business.

You might say, “Well, everybody knows that—people don’t really respect what they don’t own.” True, I suppose, to a degree. But then, I’ve rented property for most of my life, in one way or the other, and it would be a slander to myself not to qualify such an adage. I’ve kept up the places and paid my rent. I’ve given them back to their owners in as good a shape as they gave them to me, “normal wear and tear accepted.” So I think there’s something else behind what I’ve gone through. Let me relate my woes:

Let it be said that this property is in a prime location, is practically brand new, and is marketed at a price that would chase away the kind of folks who aren’t paying much, so don’t care much. A professional set is the target audience and a professional set, by and large, has been interested in leasing it.

But you’d be surprised at what even professionals are capable of doing. The first group of people came well recommended and had good references; they had the money and were anxious to move right in. They were in transition (which now I know is always a dangerous state—volatile and unpredictable). [Read more...]

Original Sin and the Warp Effect

Fleeing_bayeux_tapestryOne of the great writers—to my recollection, Flannery O’Connor—said something to the effect that everything we touch is warped by original sin, even our greatest virtues. If I am interpreting her correctly, this means that any display of a moral act is polluted somehow, flecked with impurity, however slight, simply by way of being performed by a human agent.

Of course, in a very simplified definition, original sin is the concept that a human being, through some primordial dissociation from God’s will—is by nature a creature morally flawed and faulted. This dissociation riddles his existence with tendencies, penchants, bents that are as innate to him as the desires of a lion to eat meat, a plant to seek sunshine.

More precise yet, they are as entwined with his makeup as a leopard is with his spots, a giraffe with her height, a gazelle with his speed. Indeed, the lower animals act by instinct and there is some rough barometer to their need. They may lay waste to field or to another population, but in doing so, there is a level of satiety that they are aiming for, and it is directly associated with their appetites.

Man, on the other hand, has no cap to his desires; they are boundless. Further, unlike animals, humans are not necessarily motivated by physical want. Pride is a metaphor applied to the lion; it is a deadly reality when applied to a human, as much a part of a man as his blood type. [Read more...]


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