Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dardenne's, Jacob Riis & Lewis Hine:

 ~ Dens of Death,  
                                   Birds of Prey                          
                                                              &   Loving Darkness 
                                                                                                   Better than Life

     As I was looking for a book, I found a documented recollection of realities of immigrants’ life in the late nineteenth-century in New York City portrayed by the former police reporter and photographer Jacob Riis.

    How bold I’d said if I haven’t learnt that he was raised among these people, now objects of his work. As I was going through the pages, exploring through the deploring working and living conditions of “How The Other Half Lives”, I kept assuring myself if there was any place in the world where they could have came from where they may possibly experienced such precarious living conditions as these, yet chosen by their own will.

     Perhaps, some of the closest descriptive words that can alive these muted scenes could be these of Gregory Christiano on a research about urbanography for The New York Daily Tribune of about the same time and place:
 “Among the places the most crowded in proportion to their actual size, the worst ventilated, and whose mortality is the greatest at all times, are those subterranean abodes which constitute the subject of our remarks, and which we have denominated – for want of a more appropriate term – Dens, Dens of Death; the term “cellar” not 
                                                   conveying a proper idea of the place when used as a residence. [“CELLAR – A room under a house, used as a repository for provision” Webster]. These dens, or man-made caves of the earth, like the natural caves in former times in Africa, often send forth bands of murderers, who live by thieving alone; and the modern Troglodytes, like their prototypes, after a successful expedition, return to their dark recesses to divide their spoil and plan a new scheme of depredation.
Darkness, therefore, would appear to have been from the earliest times one of exciting causes of crime, and our modern policemen see it is so now. We heard a worthy Alderman once say that plenty of gaslight in the streets would go far to exterminate wickedness of all kinds. Whether darkness be a cause of crime or not, it is certain that murderers, thieves, etc. “love darkness better than light,” and that there is more propriety of deportment found in a good, honest abode above-ground, fully open to the light of day, than in dark under-ground residences and caverns, which in a state of nature are inhabited only by beasts of prey.
But we have not undertaken to consider the relative state of morals of Subterraneans and of the “Upper Ten,” such as live on the surface of the earth; we shall, therefore, pass to the subject of the consideration of the physical effects of living in these damp and stifling abodes of darkness.”
     Isn't it described here what a dungeon is, so to speak?.
     And about decease in dens he adds; “These places are always damp, and are thus a continued source of various inflammatory diseases; indeed the occupants of them are always sick in a never-ending rotation, and demands for medical services are more frequent by the inhabitants of dens, than by such as live on the surface, in proportion to their number. Sickness among the poor is always great and in the damp and badly ventilated abodes we are considering, is more protracted, beside being more fatal, than above ground, so that if life is prolonged it is too frequently an existence of helpless misery.”

   Well, his complete research is rich and exciting but I was moved to ask me more and more the now most obvious question; what kept this immigrant people alive? And I strongly wished someone to enlightened me.

 Another series of photographs, of a more recognizable type of living, about the European immigrant arriving at Elli’s Island and the hardships of living in slum buildings in America of about the same time were portrayed by Lewis Hine of a slight up level on social class; the tenement. All scenes are reminiscent of impressionist paintings as "Boy picking Cotton” and “Shucking Oysters” from the county life are heartbreaking; he still finds beauty in the poor “with hope”.

     Extreme poverty or such a strong need that compels us to move to unfamiliar places that forces us to fight against of all kind of hostilities in order to pursue our dreams can be understood. 
What I think it’s difficult to understand is the acceptance of the miserable soul state that such eager pursing can often leads us. In a sense, I think this is exactly what the Dardenne brothers intended to point out when they wrote the Cannes awarded best screenplay 2008 for their latest film Lorna's Silence in Italy better translated to "Lorna's Marriage".   There, gangsters paid to Belgian drug addict Claudy to marry the immigrant Albanian Lorna so she can become an EU citizen for then later divorce him to marry a Russian mobster to become also an EU citizen, for then she can divorce him to marry his Albanian truck driver boyfriend and live for ever after in the for-to-buy snack shop in the EU. End.
It sounds simple and a very good all-winners plan so far. Characters have its own good dream for a better life, they diplomatically agreed and coolly planed to use and sell each other for their own benefit, there’s collecting money out of these playing-with-the-law transactions.

   Fair enough. But well, things get messed up in spite of hardening hearts, I guess, because life wasn’t designed to be lived in a so selfish fashion.

        So, while waiting for the divorce letter, the minute that Lorna gets to her living place she closes every window and lacks herself in her bedroom. Claudy, who looks more like a peaceful predator or like any of the men portrayed in the afored mentioned book sick in a never-ending rotation helpless misery, burning his money-share in drugs, starves for attention and care. Attempting to kick the drug habit he becomes a problem when reaches an edging desperate need. It’s not that he grew affection for her or anything but it’s more that she has what he lacks; a plan, hope, that freshness when she passes by, so healthy and desirable, so alive... and at the same time so selfish, so careless, unsociable and inhuman that at some point you may feel you hate her. She tries to stick to the plan and “helping” is out of the contract (he received €5000 for marry her and will receive the double to divorce her). That will be all.

     In order to speed up the divorce she injures herself to make the case as a violence one.
They live in hell, yes they live in a den. Oh, but theirs it’s a clean 2009 den where minimal furniture and white washed naked walls has nothing to say but that its tenants are not building a home there. Theirs is and interior den where they can’t get out. They force to live a miserable life, victims of themselves. All characters will live a life when they reach their dreams, meanwhile they're just wrecked people that wait to get there.

     Then, out of pity, Lorna offers her help and happens what never should had happened, as expectable.  Lorna's associates kill Claudy with an overdose, not even music for his mourning is heard in the film (although he was very attached to his disc-man). Now gangsters walk in the apartment (“returning to their dark recesses to divide their spoil and plan a new scheme of depredation”?) as if they were owning Lorna’s life and destiny, and going over the diseased’s belongings like vultures on carrion split his personal effects.

        So now, what was the next step? Oh yes... the Russian.
Lorna now in a round table with the gangsters and the Russian hears the instruction for the “meeting settling” arrangements with payed witnesses and everything. But now is Lorna the one who became a problem; out of guilt she believes is pregnant (in spite of negative tests), and at attempting to find out whether the Russian would accept her in this condition or not, he cancels the deal. Furious gangsters and boyfriend redirect Lorna’s money deal back to each other and return her automatically to her homeland Albania. Fugitive, she lives lost, insane and isolated in the woods.
The end.

      Now, I have a question: Where did the plan-for-the-better get spoiled? Wasn't it when the “being human” factor interfered in the equation? What an end, like many immigrants with so good desires that in the way got lost in a maze of selfish wishes for fulfillment. Their inhuman choices show that indeed they loved darkness better than life.

        Of course that it's but our dreams what keep us alive under the most unbearable conditions.
But immigrant or not, selfishness is undoubtedly labyrinthic for the human mind.

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