The Opposites On The Joy Scale
Today’s movie double is an attempt to talk about two totally different movies linked by only one tenuous link, euthanasia.
‘Terminal Trust’ was one of the featured highlights of this year’s Japanese Film Festival, which also saw the director Masayuki Suo and his wife and leading actress Tamiyo Kusakari make an appearance in Sydney. It’s a heavy film which negotiates the tough waters of how a doctor arrives at a point to administer euthanasia, and if that’s not heavy enough, it goes on to show how the prosecution system works in Japan, which is infuriating and frustrating. The film is on the whole, heavy, dark, depressing and full of protestations about the injustices of the Japanese justice system.
The Three Stooges on the other hand is a Farrelly Brothers movie. You know what you’re going to get – furious slapstick – and you get it in spades.
I will say this for the latter film: I was really glad to watch it straight after seeing ‘Terminal Trust’.
So… Euthanasia You Say…
‘Terminal Trust’ is an interesting movie in as much as it uses the important topic of euthanasia to vault into a deep investigation of the prosecutorial process in Japan. In that sense, euthanasia itself is what Hitchcock would have termed a maguffin. The film spends 2 hours going through a recollection to explain why the doctor finds herself in the office of the prosecutor, and it can be distilled simply as, she made the call for euthanasia when perhaps the circumstances didn’t quite warrant it; and yet she believed strongly that was what the patient desired. What follows is 45minute scene in the prosecutor’s office where the prosecutor bullies and browbeats her into signing a confession worded to suit his case.
In ‘The Three Stooges’, Larry, Curly and Moe need to make $830,000 in a hurry which invites the evil conspirators to hire Larry Curly and Moe to carry out a murder. The conspirators use the pretext that the husband needs to be euthanased, but he doesn’t want to see it coming. Curly responds by immediately pushing one of the conspirators in front of the bus, landing him in hospital. The Stooges then try to fulfill the mission by entering a hospital to finish off the job. What’s interesting in the sequence of events is that euthanasia is the implicit euphemism for murder.
And oddly enough that is exactly where both films land themselves. If euthanasia is interchangeable with murder, then it is no surprise that the doctor lands in front of the prosecutor, any more than Larry Curly Moe do their damned best to kill their target because they need to be euthanased properly. The grey area is amplified when the patient struggles in ‘Terminal Trust’ as well as the turtle-like resistance of Larry, Curly and Moe’s target.
The Law Is An Ass? It’s An Evil Motherfucker In Japan
I haven’t lived in Japan for so long it’s hard for me to get a feel for how courtroom dramas work in Japan or whether they even have those kinds of things. Japanese court scenes seem odd areas where the adversarial system seems to take some shape, but what I did not know until I saw this film is that Prosecutors get to:
- summon their suspects (with a summons to which they must comply)
- interrogate them without a lawyer present
- write out the ‘stated confession’ on behalf of the suspect
- make them sign it, even though it is not in their own words
- use this ‘stated confession’ as the centre piece of their argument when the trial proceeds.
All of this is pretty frightening just to watch in ‘Terminal Trust’ and the director assured us that this was about par for the course, and this is why he is involved with the juridical committee for the Ministry of Justice in Japan, trying to propose changes to the law so that there is more transparency.
Because I’m so used to seeing lawyers in action in the adversarial system through western courtroom dramas, I was apoplectic with my “but, but, but where’s her lawyer?” shock.
Let’s be frank, it’s a brute violation of basic human rights; and yet this stuff goes on everyday in Japan. Which got me to be thinking, that if I were some kind of Yakuza crime lord and some prosecutor spoke to me the way they do in this film, I’d vow to kill the asshole. And then it occurred to me this is exactly why Japanese prosecutors don’t go hard at organised crime in Japan. They can’t beat a confession out of the Yakuza without endangering their own lives. Instead they beat up on the meek, framing them up for crimes they didn’t commit.
A typical example of this is how 4 people were hauled into the prosecutor’s offices because their email was hacked by some blackmailer. The prosecutor managed to force 2 of the 4 to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. And presumably he was going to wave this ‘stated confession’ around in court as his central argument as to why the innocent must be placed in jail. You wonder if these people ever read the work of Franz Kafka.
But it’s even worse than that. Once they get the suspect to sign the ‘confession statement’, they can then pull out an arrest warrant from the drawer, cuff the suspect on the spot and remand them for 21 more days for ‘questioning’ – before they see their lawyer. The Japanese police and prosecution boast of a 97% conviction rate – which is to say, they go after the soft targets and make them confess to crimes they haven’t committed and send them to jail, all the while letting organised crime flourish.
Some people came out of the screening for ‘Terminal Trust’ demanding that Japan change its laws. I’d have to say I was one of them. I was so revolted, I rushed home and put on ‘The Three Stooges’.
There is no doubt in my mind that ‘Terminal Trust’ is a very important film. It is immensely high-brow and so grave that you cannot argue with it; you are more overwhelmed by the massive legal edifice of how Japanese prosecutors do their dirty work
Fast & Furious Slapstick
In contrast to the high brow, high-minded ‘Terminal Trust’, ‘The Three Stooges’ is a decidedly low-brow, poke’em-in-the-eyes slapstick movie with virtually zero intellectual challenges in deciphering its meaning – because there is no deep underlying meaning. It’s just a showcase of some actors being able to duplicate the fast and furious slapstick routines of the original Larry Curly and Moe. The surprising thing is just how good they are at doing this ‘business’.
Watching ‘The Three Stooges’ took me back to moments from my own childhood when I used to watch this immensely violent psychotically hyperactive slapstick. The film was so evocative that the maudlin sentimentalism of the plot seemed to just float by.
What is tremendous about the original Three Stooges’ oeuvre is that their chaotic routines of poking and hitting and hammering and stamping on each other is not the result of comedy degenerating to slapstick, but a sign that the essence of comedy being distilled to the point of its essential sadism. Consider a moment that comedy depends entirely on the creation of a victim. All the best jokes have somebody or something being the butt of the joke. With the Stooges, you saw the flip-flop of sadistic tormentor and hapless victim swap between the three members at a phenomenal pace. The senseless sadism of Moe results in knocked heads, poked eyes, squeezed noses, pulled nose hairs and hair, while immediate retaliation from Curly and Larry result in misdirected blows hitting one another, increasing the cycle of violence.
In a sense the fast and furious slapstick routines are mini-critiques of social interaction as sadistic interlocution. Some weeks ago, I pointed to Woody Allen’s interpretation of the Three Stooges through the stylings of Truman Capote, and I have to say that Woody Allen does a marvelous job of connecting the apparent senselessness of the violent interplay with the apparent senselessness of a God-less universe. What draws me greatly to the Three Stooges and this remake at this point in my life is that I like the reification of violence, comedy, sadism and victimhood. The lower the mode of comedy goes (and the Stooges even in this incarnation are uncompromisingly low and nose-turned down), the more acceleration we feel towards the laughing end.
Or more to the point, if I were the doctor on ‘Terminal Trust’, I might have just stood up and poked the prosecutor in the eyes with my index finger and middle finger and then swiftly twisted his nose by pinching it between my index knuckle and middle knuckle with a ‘Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk! Wise guy huh?’
…but that’s just me.
High Brow, Low Brow
It’s interesting how the higher the brow, the lower your spirits are when you come out of the movie. The lower the brow, the more uplifted you feel. What is that?
The modern incarnation of the Three Stooges is uplifting as ‘Terminal Trust’ is down-stamping.
Acting As Construct
The director of ‘Terminal Trust’ mentioned that the reason the prosecution sequence seemed to be more theatrical than the rest of the film where everything else was naturalistic had to do with the unnaturalness of the conversation that takes place between the prosecutor and suspect. The prosecutor is ‘acting’ because there is no way he speaks to people in his own private life like he does in the office.
This is an interesting notion because in ‘The Three Stooges’, Larry Curly and Moe stumble into a room and begin to blame one another for their failings, eventually launching into one of the most brutal-looking slapstick routines, only for Moe to find out they had done so in front of a casting crew for a reality TV show. The casting people assume that Moe’s persona is an act.
Now, we know that Moe in the context of the Three Stooges is an act; but this is layered on by the fact that the Moe we’re seeing is not the original Moe but an actor playing a representation of the Moe character created by Moe Howard. Moe is then cast in a Reality TV show, where all the personae are masks of some kind, representing yet another layer of acting in our society. There are layers upon layers of ‘acting’ that you actually find it hard to parse which bit might not be the acting.
The more serious a film gets, the more the acting tends towards naturalism. A serious film cannot withstand the indelicacy of a schtick or an artifice. The less serious the tone of a film, comedy seems to gain power by layering levels of acting upon the characters. This may be why there are so many comedy pieces through history where characters pretend to be something they are not. We watch, not for the Cathartic denouement, but for the Cathartic rupture of laughter.
If you look around the net a bit, you’ll find that there are complaints about ‘The Three Stooges’ being ‘Anti-Catholic’. This may be true, in as much as one of the nuns gets portrayed in a bikini as a babe, while another nun is a truly repugnant sister Mary Mengele, played by a man.
However, I’d like to point out some things…
- The Catholic Church did support the Nazis against the Communist Soviets and then helped many Nazis escape to South America.
- The Catholic Church is against euthanasia.
- The Catholic Church is lucky the film didn’t portray the priests fiddling with the orphans in their care, given the dire history of such things in the real world.
Now, I’m not anti-Catholic myself (“some of my best friends are Catholic!”); I’m totally outside of this issue, but I do think that if you are a worldly power, sometimes you just have to cop it sweet when you’re made the butt of jokes. Complaining about it makes you look worse.