Arts & Letters



John Hospers

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

There have been numerous films about American and British soldiers in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in World War II, of which King Rat is a fairly standard example. Most outstanding among them is David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which exemplifies the classic Aristotelian requirements of esthetic form such as organic unity, development, mounting tension, reversal, and climax. It is not without reason that this work has become a cinema classic.

Now we have an entirely different kind of prisoner-of-war picture, set in Java in 1942. It is Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, from the gifted Japanese director Nagisa Oshima. He does not shrink from the direction of the Japanese code of that time—the pointless beatings, the torture, the strange sense of justice whereby it doesn't matter who is being punished as long as someone is punished. But he is also sensitive to the contrasting British culture of the prisoners. This is especially true in the long flashback by which one of the prisoners (David Bowie, in a surprisingly effective portrayal)—as he is being buried by his captors with only his head above ground—reflects on his betrayal of his brother and the resulting guilt which made him anxious to participate in the war as an escape. On the whole, the film is a revealing and richly textured study in contrasting cultures.

There was a vital clash in Kwai, between the British general who wanted to do everything well, including the building of a bridge for the Japanese, and the other British officers whose aim was to destroy the bridge. The clash in Oshima's film is between the Japanese ideal of valor, which requires committing hara-kiri rather than undergo "dishonor," and the Western ideal, which permits a captured soldier to live to fight another day. The latter values are exemplified by the principal character, flawlessly played by Tom Conti, who with his knowledge of the Japanese language becomes a kind of bridge between the two cultures.

The final irony of the film is that after the war, the Japanese officer responsible for the cruelty is not caught, but the one who was kind to the prisoners is executed. As Conti remarks, "You think you're right, and we think we're right, and the truth is that neither is right." (This is analogous to the final comment by a British officer in Kwai: "Madness! Madness!")

There is nothing in this film of the riveting tension mounting almost past the point of endurance that pervades Kwai. But if you relax and let the film do its quietly effective work scene by scene, you may find it to be in its own way rewarding.

The Big Chill

They were all revolutionaries together in the 1960s. Now, almost 20 years later, they meet again for the funeral of one of their number. None of them eschews the revolutionary ideas today, but they have simply lost interest: some have homes and families, others are involved in personal catastrophes of one kind or another, and they all tend to be apolitical now.

The Big Chill is the story of their weekend meeting for the funeral. The peculiarities of each of them are artfully sketched, with simple words and actions revealing the distinctive nature of each one. But though the characters are quite individualized, there is not much reason to care a great deal about any one of them. As a result, their many interactions, secret sexual escapades, and black-humor witticisms soon become—along with the whole film—a colossal bore.

John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the editor of the Monist.


David Brudnoy

A Different Kind of Love

Just when you thought somebody might bite the proverbial bullet and do a Broadway extravaganza celebrating whatever it is that makes homosexuals different, along comes La Cage Aux Folles. It is the most delightful pro-"normal family" show you could imagine in these despairing times.

After a long-running French play and the most popular foreign movie ever to play in the States, the theme has jelled, the idea becoming something of a fixation in more than one theater brain. With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (Mame, Hello, Dolly!, and much more) and a book by Harvey Fierstein (the Tony-winning playwright and actor for Torch Song Trilogy), this musical wonder has captivated New York and in short order will be doing the same across the land.

I saw it first in Boston, often compared to San Francisco for its bayfront charm but never compared to San Francisco for its attitude toward homosexuality. Still, Boston took to La Cage Aux Folles with such enthusiasm that the city fathers celebrated it with a La Cage day, unheard of in a backwater that regards theater much as Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather regarded frivolity. Probably the gushing word of mouth from Boston sufficiently ruffled the feathers of some Gotham critics that they retaliated by giving the show only glowing instead of ecstatic reviews.

La Cage is sold out in New York till approximately the Tricentennial, but the national company is soon to be formed and before long the incredible moneymaking machine called La Cage Aux Folles will be everywhere. So while the Moral Majority is gaily trying to use the AIDS scare as a bludgeon to whomp homosexuals back into the closet, America will see a show that revels in sanitized images of the homosexual world and equates the homosexual lifestyle with the most prosaic of heterosexual married patterns.

This, of course, is the winning formula of La Cage. It gives us glitter for hours, but also a paean to connubial fidelity and monogamous longevity. Whatever you are, whoever you are, there is something—in fact there are many things—to love about La Cage.

I can say without any reservation that La Cage playwright Harvey Fierstein—who is suddenly all the rage—is certifiably brilliant. His brilliance as a writer is somehow connected to his cohesiveness as a person: he is, and has always known that he was, homosexual. He has lived that life and accepted it totally. He champions the life patterns of his roots, as conventional as apple pie (or at least as chicken soup) and he truly believes that the best of the homosexual world is its freedom to choose precisely that which is best in the heterosexual world.

Even more skillfully than Jean Poiret's French play and the fantastic, hilarious movie did, the musical La Cage creates the loving relationship of Georges, a nightclub owner, and Albin, the club's featured entertainer who performs in drag as "Zaza." One day years earlier, just to see "what all the fuss was about," Georges had a heterosexual experience. From that came a son, Jean-Michel, whom Georges and Albin have raised.

Now, Georges and Albin's domestic bliss is disrupted not by another man but by an impending heterosexual marriage—Jean-Michel's. The father of the young man's fiancee is a Gallic Jerry Falwell, a champion of "morality" who loathes homosexuals and is quite happy to tell anybody his views. Jean-Michel wants Albin to make himself scarce so that Georges can feign heterosexuality and somehow the young man can get through an evening with his father and prospective parents-in-law.

Our Albin requires quite a bit of jostling to understand exactly what is being asked of him: get out so you don't embarrass the callow youth whom you have raised as a son from his first days on earth. When he does understand it, he gives the first act closer, "I Am What I Am," which pulsates with rage and bitterness and plucks at every heartstring. It has already become for homosexuals what "Lift Every Voice" is for blacks, something of an informal national anthem. It is, by the way, an absolutely wonderful song: no more closets, no more pretense. What one is, one is, and he who can't accept what he is—is nothing.

La Cage Aux Folles resolves itself in the second act more or less as a splashy musical must, with confrontations, deceptions, role reversals, exposure, raucous artifice, and the coming together of those who have been separated because of the young man's stupidity and thoughtlessness. The bigot is a caricature as he was in the movie. Fierstein has taken the easy way out by making him so ludicrous that even those who dislike homosexuals intensely will be embarrassed by this dreadful man. The boy and his fiancee are bubbleheads, as young lovers are easily made to be on the American musical stage. The chorus of ten male and two female dancers are all gorgeous and fabulously outfitted in female costumes and wigs by Theoni V. Aldredge. You while away slow moments (actually slow seconds, since there are no slow moments) trying to guess which of the twelve are the women.

Gene Barry as Georges, and especially George Hearn (Sweeney Todd) as Albin, are phenomenally good. La Cage Aux Folles is no breakthrough for gay liberation, but it's a tremendous shot in the arm for the theater. And for the family.

You figure it.

Contributing editor David Brudnoy reviews the arts for WNEV-TV (CBS) and WRKO-AM and is film critic for several Boston-area newspapers. He is host of a nightly talk program on WRKO, writes regularly for the Boston Herald, and syndicates a thrice-weekly newspaper column.