Getting through it, catholic school felt alternately like suffocating in quicksand, routing the lurking ambush of a terror squad , or expanding with sudden joy as when a hurricane approaching is preceded by brief but glorious sunlight and tranquility.
Experiencing life, I often credited that education for the rewards gained from the love of literature acquired despite the cautious offerings but likely because of the scholarly approach and the appreciation of excellence: pleasure in the written word, even more in the spoken; solace in time of sorrow; refreshment in time of leisure. Taking my children to the now almost quaint institution of a bookshop in their adolescence, I could command attention, almost impress, with my deep knowledge of literature and experience of the classics. What had been forbidden during school days, Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, Lessing, later transformed into the emotional and intellectual affluence and security of a well-read life.
Alas, one with its quirky rules….
“If one starts something, one must certainly finish…” And I struggled to finish every book I read until past my mid-century mark! Imagine discovering new freedom after 50!
“Read at least one ‘classic’ every summer……” Feeling, forever young!
And “some books are less worthy than others!” Yes, the shame of reading trash! Whole genres…. Like the Mystery novel!
Until about five years ago, the mystery novel, like its film, dramatic or television adaptation was, for me, a lesser thing, not even a guilty pleasure! Dorothy Sayres? Patricia Highsmith? Serious fiction? Surely, not.
Ill informed, cheap pretension! – my view that the mystery novel, or film, play or drama, is a lesser art. Hawthorne, Green, Poe, Sayers, Tey, DuMaurier, Eco, Black. Surely, these are great writers, indeed. Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Maigret, Montalbano, Comissario Brunetti, Wallander, Miss Marple, Miss Fischer: investigators who delight,indeed. Alfred Hitchcock, David Finchner, Carrol Reed, Francis Ford Coppolla, mystery genre directors who perfected an art form.
The good mystery engages the intellect in a complex puzzle, commanding attention to the most subtle detail. Through this conceit, the skilled author lays bare and probes layers of the culture and society surrounding the characters: the physical landscapes, the interiors of the homes, offices and public spaces, the art, music, poetry of the day or of the past which supports the characters; the landscapes of the mind. The mystery exposes the organization of the society, how it adheres, where it fragments, what it values and what, or whom, it discards. Through the portrayal of crime, and the consequences of crime, concepts of justice are examined; issues of class, race, religion and gender probed. We observe equality and inequality, generosity and self-interest. The mystery scrutinizes human motivation, often exposing the role of history in contemporary identity: the effects of emotional loss and the loss of power; the consequences of addiction, greed and mental illness. The mystery can introduce the foreign and make it ordinary, whether it be the distant place or the idiosyncratic hobby or passion, such as collecting a rare bird or a stamp with a particular ink. The mystery feeds the human hunger for an understandable world – where chaos is tamed, action and consequences are predictable, if only we go back and see the clues. The mystery genre answers the quest for restored order, the search for social justice, a belief in connection and control.
Alas, in television, in particular, the mystery has been mutilated. As one idea so well presented in Gina Gionfriddo’s play Raptrue, Blister, Burn, television and film mysteries are toxic with sexplotation plots which are, in essence, modern “crime porn” masticated for the masses. Not just a murder, we confront a plot of serial killers sexually abusing young women or boys, formalistically, securing trophies, eating , burning or mutilating them, or engaging in some other perversely imagined amalgamation of male-commanding, female-submissive scenario of violence, gore and ritual, all available in prime time and cable for download and on the internet, 24 hours a day. Fine actors, like Kevin Bacon or Viola Davis pollute the images of FBI agents or Law Professors, indeed of human beings, as they become these new tv “crime porn” stars (The Following, How to Get Away With Murder) in dramas which do much more than merely coarsen public discourse: they pollute the national psyche.
The flood of “crime porn” in our theaters and on our screens fulfills none of these basic needs and aims at none of these aspirations. Nor is the issue whether or not there is evidence to suggest that the violent degradation of women and children and the occasional man on the screen increases real life violence. For even if this is not true, it is clear that ours is a society that is far too violent, far too toxic, and, certainly, far too intolerant. I recall my incredulity upon learning that the crowds had hungrily gathered to watch beheadings during the French Revolution. Could this be the impulse which stimulates the greedy creation and consumption of “crime porn” today?
The devolution of “crime porn” provides us with no surrounding layers of culture, (art, literature, music, landscapes) to cushion or surround the crime, to give a meaning, a context for the violence or a significance for the act or the actor. Typically, in crime porn plots, the darkness of deranged criminal is only slightly less dark than some corrosive thing in the life or past of the detectives; the question of how society coalesces, what it values, how it is generous, is not often asked, much less answered. Were it to be, the answer would be as dark and ugly as the depiction of the crime itself. Crime porn does not make chaos understandable, the unthinkable comprehensible; it does not provide a sense of justice and restored order. Rather, crime porn seems to reflect our own anxiety that our world is intolerably out of control, craven, degraded, senseless and adrift.
The riddle is that we call this entertainment. The puzzle is, we permit new, more lavish, star-studded performances every year. Nationwide, we decry the many dangers of the media – cyber bullying, cyber crime, government surveillance – all while this “entertainment” violence propagates unimpeded. The perplexity is our passivity.
As at other times in my life, I am grateful for the solidity gained from my classic, if confining and imperfect, education. A screen can be switched from images to words or a book picked up, and these, detective fiction included, can still transport to reaches where humanity and justice are examined, explored, considered.
The mystery, it seems, is how our culture, as a whole, can be moved to some place safe from this pandemic of “crime porn”.
Against a hypnotic soundtrack, A Coffee in Berlin , always with humor and often with tenderness, demonstrates the inadequacy of both compassion and apology as salve to the wounds, personal and political, those we glibly categorize as “just part of growing up” and those we justly brand evil and monstrous,through the eyes of an alienated twenty -something who can’t even manage to procure a coffee in Berlin.
Young Nikko is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a young man seemingly lost in directionless motion, holding on to the privileges of his life ( family allowance, leisure, drugs, alcohol, sex, companionship) without forming any great attachment to anything. His is a youth unburdened by responsibility but also devoid of promise, neither littered with belief nor sketched with direction. He applies intelligence against authority which enables him to distinguish the absurd and inequitable from the bullying and illegitimate but he seems unable to engage emotion to match his perception. Nor is able, when he finds himself the offender, to direct his encounters to resolution.
Nikko passively inhabits a world which exists in the shadow of Hollywood creations and Washington power plays, as evidenced by his mimicing actor friend and the anti- US graffiti spattered about the city.
More poignantly, Nikko apparently cannot find his place in this landscape through which he travels unsuccessfully seeking a cup of coffee,haphazardly, at times, the phlegmatic wanderer, observing but ineffectually engaging others. His contacts: the neighbor, the old school mate, the buddy, the drug dealer, the thugs, the father, the probation officer, the bartender, – each like a painted pony on the merry-go-round invite engagement, but Nikko avoids connection. Filial attachment, even gratitude,is inoperative. Nikko is immune to sentimentality. He demonstrates neither moral, ethical nor legal concerns for conformity with social standards. While he can own the harm he caused a woman whom he bullied as a child, he acknowledges he cannot understand how she felt, and he refuses a new connection either in intimacy or in her own complex drama of angry behaviors.
Nikko is, however, drawn to connect with the old woman who offers only sandwiches and comfortable seating. The viewer questions whether this kinship is born of some understanding which the young and the old can share about the limits of dreams.
Nikko’s other connection is presaged by a darkly humorous “film within a film.” Nikko wanders into a movie set filming a cloying sentimental and savagely revisionist World War II drama wherein a SS officer falls in love with a Jewish woman whom he hides, becoming her savior and, at the fall of Berlin, himself, the persecuted. Later, as an old and failing drunk attached himself to Nikko, the elder recalls Kristallnact, and what Berlin was like, through his eyes as a child.
We leave Nikko with his coffee in Berlin, and we are, all of us, contemplating: To be a twenty-something, carrying the legacy of Kristallnact; To be human, feeling adrift; To have the goal, only, of a coffee in Berlin.