Skip to main content

Film Critic John Powers

Film critic John Powers pays tribute to comedian Bob Hope, who is 100 years old today.

09:16

Contributor

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on May 29, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 29, 2003: Interview with Chen Kaige; Commentary on language; Commentary on Bob Hope.

Transcript

DATE May 29, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige discusses his works and
his life in China
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Chen Kaige is best-known for his films, "Farewell My Concubine" and "Temptress
Moon," both epic stories of loss and betrayal. These are themes Kaige
understands well. As a teen-ager during the cultural revolution, he was
forced to denounce his own father, also a well-known filmmaker. In his new
film, "Together," Kaige takes a true story involving a father and his
musically gifted son and weaves a coming-of-age tale infused with more light
and optimism than his earlier work. The cast includes many non-actors.
Kaige, himself, has a role in the film. The central conflict involves the
choice the child has to make between two violin teachers. Terry asked Kaige
to describe them.

Mr. CHEN KAIGE (Filmmaker): The first one is the one that sort of got--you
know, culturally, I mean, he got lost, and he's the one sort of way behind the
time, you know? And he doesn't know how to handle his own life, but he's the
one believe in music. He's the one believe that those kids should play the
instrument with their heart.

TERRY GROSS (Host): And he's kind of broke. He's not really interested in
money. He's pretty bohemian and disheveled in a pretty bohemian kind of way.

Mr. KAIGE: Yes, but, you know, I'm familiar with this kind of intellectual,
you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAIGE: And I think he may represent so-called old culture and the old
value and represents something that we used to believe a lot, you know? And,
you know, my father, not necessarily just like him, but, you know, I mean,
many, many people in my father's generation are just like that. And the
second one, you know, who, you know, the one played by myself is the one that
I consider as the star maker. You know, he can guarantee the success for his
students. And he, I guess, represents, you know, the current value of Chinese
society today.

GROSS: Why did you cast yourself as the star-making teacher as opposed to the
intellectual teacher who reminded you of your father?

Mr. KAIGE: Well, the thing is that, you know, I mean, I had a problem to
cast, you know, this guy, 'cause, you know, those professors either were too
busy or not experienced to work in front of camera. That's the problem. So
one day that a friend of mine, who's also a director, came to me and just say,
you know, `I know you really worry about that, but why don't you just cast
yourself?' I said, `So why you say this?' And he said that, `I saw you work,
you know, on set with your actor, you know? You're pretty much like this guy,
and I think no one can really understand and do better than you do.' And I
said, `OK, I try.'

I think the reason I only decided to do that is that I'm almost in the same
situation with this professor. You know, I'm considered by many Chinese
people that I'm a star maker. You know, I can--for example, this young boy,
the young man in this, after I did my movie and he became sort of celebrity in
China, and he received a lot of interviews, and he became someone, somebody,
you know, in the school compound, and his life's been dramatically changed.
And he used to study in Shanghai. Now he move from Shanghai to Beijing,
become the student of number one professor in China. So I want to ask my
question by doing this part: Am I doing the same thing like what he does in
this movie or not, whether there's a difference between this guy and me, you
know, what I really believe, what I really want, you know? I think I got
answer after this part.

GROSS: And what was the answer?

Mr. KAIGE: The answer is that there is a huge difference, you know, between
this guy and me. You know, I don't have that kind of, you know, I mean, moral
problem I guess that, you know, I will never really push so hard to tell my
actors to do the things they don't want to do, you know? That's not me. And
I've sort of denounced that kind of--you know, totally reject that kind of
value. I don't believe that.

GROSS: What kinds of things would the teacher push his students to do that
they wouldn't want to do?

Mr. KAIGE: The thing is that, you know, they always say you need more time.
They all believe, you know, I mean, to be a musician is a technical thing.
You know, if you're more patient, if you practice, you know, spend more time
to practice that you can guarantee yourself, like, you know, you can be very
good musician. It's completely wrong. I mean, if you don't play with your
heart, you will never, ever be a good musician, you know, but they never
taught their students like that.

GROSS: When you were making "Together," did you have to submit the film to
Chinese censors, or did you even have to submit the script before you made the
film to Chinese censors to make sure that it was acceptable to them?

Mr. KAIGE: Yes, I did. You know, this is the process, that I need to submit
the screenplay to the National Film Bureau first, let them to prove it. I
think they have a committee, and the member of the committee are not
necessarily only the government officials but including some old filmmakers.
And they just look at the script, but this time, I was OK with the script.
They just said, `Go ahead and shoot it.' But afterwards, that I thought that
I was pretty safe, but someone, you know, talked to me nicely, and they just
say, `Look, we're not really in favor of the character you played. So is
there any way to do a slight change or something?' I said in a very nice way,
I said, `Well,' I said, `unfortunately that this movie is officially finished
because, you know, the post production is finished. There's no way to add
anything in or change, you know, even slightly.' So then they say, `OK.' So
that's it.

GROSS: "Farewell My Concubine" was censored in China, wasn't it?

Mr. KAIGE: Yes.

GROSS: It showed in the United States. Did it ever show in China?

Mr. KAIGE: Yes but it's a different version. It was shown there...

GROSS: So the film was cut?

Mr. KAIGE: Yes.

GROSS: And were most of the cuts during the part of the cultural revolution?
The movie traces two characters who are in the Peking Opera.

Mr. KAIGE: Yes.

GROSS: And a part of it takes place during the cultural revolution. It takes
place over, like, five decades. So is that the part that they didn't like?

Mr. KAIGE: Quite honestly, I don't know...

GROSS: Mm.

Mr. KAIGE: ...'cause they didn't really bother to talk to me. They just give
very, very simple sentence, like `The film must be released,' and `The film
must be cut.' So there's nothing specific, like, you know, what you have to
cut. I just hope then that, you know, if you think there's a need to cut the
film, go ahead and do it, but not me. I didn't do it.

GROSS: You're one of China's most famous artists. And if the censors censor
you, that news gets out around the world, 'cause your movies show around the
world.

Mr. KAIGE: Right.

GROSS: And it makes China look bad. Do they care?

Mr. KAIGE: They do. They do. I mean--so that's why I can receive, you
know, the better treatment...

GROSS: So you get special treatment.

Mr. KAIGE: ...then other directors, particularly the younger directors.
Yeah.

GROSS: But that's kind of like, you know, if a tree falls in the forest and
there's no one there to hear it, has it made a sound? If you make a great
film and it's re-edited by the censors and it's no longer a great film, have
you made a great film?

Mr. KAIGE: Yeah, that's the thing. So that's why, you know, some people are
doing the movie underground, meaning that you don't submit the screenplay to
the Film Bureau...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: ...and you don't really, you know, shoot openly, meaning that
there is no press...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: ...for you.

GROSS: So can you screen it underground in China or can you only...

Mr. KAIGE: Yes, you can.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. KAIGE: Yes, you can, because you can develop the film in the lab. You
can also show the movie somewhere, you know? But you can't really release
the film commercially.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: You can't do that because you don't have the permission. I think
it's a pity. I want to do something. Like, I want to bring them together,
the both sides, the censors and the filmmakers, let them to have a nice talk
because, to me, I feel like it doesn't makes sense at all to have this kind of
censorship.

BOGAEV: Filmmaker Chen Kaige speaking with Terry Gross. His new film is
"Together." We'll hear more of their conversation after the break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, Terry's guest is filmmaker Chen Kaige.
His films include "Farewell My Concubine" and "Temptress Moon." His new
movie is called "Together."

GROSS: Your father was a famous filmmaker in China. What kind of movies did
your father make?

Mr. KAIGE: My father made, you know, literally, you know, dramas, of course,
something really about revolution. And the most famous one is called "The
Song of Youth."

GROSS: The film was called "Song of Youth"?

Mr. KAIGE: Yes.

GROSS: What was it about?

Mr. KAIGE: It's about young intellectuals, you know, how they enjoy the
revolution in the early '30s in Shanghai and Beijing. So it's also sort of
love story, you know, elements there.

GROSS: Gee, so here he is making a story about how positive the revolution
was, but he was punished. He was in prison during the cultural revolution.

Mr. KAIGE: Oh, that's true, yes.

GROSS: Why did the government turn against him?

Mr. KAIGE: It's not only him. I think the group of intellectuals and
filmmakers were not being trusted by the party, because of their, you know,
political background and their educational background and so on, mostly that
those government officials, you know, who were in charge of the business at
that time, were all from countrysides. They're not very well educated.

GROSS: So being intellectual, being sophisticated, even being urban was
something you were going to be punished for?

Mr. KAIGE: No, there is a--I guess the main reason was Chairman Mao.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAIGE: I knew the story that he wasn't very well educated in any
university or college. He was sort of self taught. He was a genius
politically, but I guess that he didn't really like those intellectuals.
That would become a very big issue during the cultural revolution.

GROSS: Now I know that this is a story you've talked about before, but
when you were young, during the cultural revolution, you were asked by the
Chinese authorities to denounce your father. How did they approach you?

Mr. KAIGE: No, it's not really a Chinese authority, you know? At that time,
there's no authority at all except Chairman Mao himself. It's very weird.
Those who revolutionized literally were my father's colleagues. They were
either lighting men or just doing the production people, you know? They call
themselves workers, but they were not necessarily only workers. And they sort
of took action against my father and other directors. And they thought that I
was perfect, you know, to be used for them, you know, against my father.

GROSS: So how did they approach you?

Mr. KAIGE: You know, they came to me and just say, `Well, in the name of the
revolution, you must do something,' you know? `You must disclose some secret
of your father.' I said, `What secret?' And they say, `You may know that.
If you don't know, we want to tell you,' you know? `That will be more
powerful if you say, you know, than we do it.' I think human nature is very
complicated. At that moment, I think, `I want to make this as a film in the
future.' I was very good student of my class, probably one of the best
students. I thought that, `Oh, my God, everything's changed overnight. I
can't stand that anymore. I feel like I want to prove that I'm the best
student of the class. I want to prove myself as very faithful to Chairman
Mao. So I knew that my father wasn't a secret agent for any political party
at all. I knew that he was very innocent. But I decide to denounce him
because I want to prove I'm innocent. So that is the way of...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAIGE: ...how the political campaign going on there.

GROSS: So what did you denounce him for?

Mr. KAIGE: No, just because I was told that he was the secret agent for
Nationalist Party. Of course, he wasn't. I just said that in front of
public. I mean, I think that's deeply hurt not only my father but myself as
well, because, you know, I told lies, and I knew he wasn't. Surprisingly, you
know, I was sort of--they like it. The revolutionaries just, you know,
praised me as a good boy, something.

GROSS: Right. So you had to do this in public?

Mr. KAIGE: No. There is a sort of a struggle session with a couple of, you
know, hundred people around. In the place where we live, you know, there is a
sort of small square, you know, between buildings. So that session just
taking place there.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting. Like, good children are brought up to
respond well to praise, and you were going to get more praise by denouncing
your father.

Mr. KAIGE: Yes. What kind of people they are, you know? I got very
confused, you know, at that time because--I mean, what I want to say is that I
think I'm very sort of unusual person, meaning that most people at that time
kneel down to say, `Forgive me. This is my fault,' all right, in order to get
forgiveness from the authority. But after cultural revolution, most people
just stand up, you know, shouting that it's all their fault.

GROSS: It's all somebody else's fault.

Mr. KAIGE: Right. Right. `I never really want to do it. I don't want to
take the responsibility for what I did,' OK? But I'm the other way around.
So at that time, yes, I did make mistake. And later on, I want to identify
with this. I want to say, `This is my fault'...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: ...because if no one want to take the responsibility, something
will happen again like that.

GROSS: What did your father say to you after you denounced him?

Mr. KAIGE: He hardly did say anything to me, because I guess he was pretty
shocked. And he believed that we had very good relationship, although that
he's always away, because he was busy making movies. So it seems like, you
know, I was quite afraid of my father for one reason or the other, because,
you know, we didn't really spend a lot of time together. But the
relationship eventually being repaired afterwards, you know, in two or three
years' time.

GROSS: Well, you know, you denounced him, and you were, like, a good boy for
doing that in the eyes of the workers who wanted him denounced. And so you
temporarily poisoned your relationship with your father, and at the same time,
you're still punished by the cultural revolution. You're still shipped out
from the city to a province to do hard labor. So did you feel really
betrayed?

Mr. KAIGE: Not really, because, you know, I've been sent to the countryside
not because, you know, what I did to my father, you know? It's not even
considered as a punishment. It's a sort of revolutionary activity...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: ...you know, I mean, because young people at that time didn't
really have any choice but go to the countryside to receive their education
there by the Chinese peasants. So, yeah, I was pretty happy to leave Beijing
at that time.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. KAIGE: 'Cause I thought that this is the beginning of new life. I was
fed up with what happened there. I can't stand that anymore. I just felt,
`I need to go. I need to leave. I'm looking for a new life, no matter what
happen, that I'm going to take it.'

GROSS: So what were you assigned to?

Mr. KAIGE: To the province called Hunan province. It's a very remote, I
mean, southwestern province.

GROSS: And what kind of work did you have to do?

Mr. KAIGE: That's the jungle area, that my job was to chop the trees. I
considered that as a very bad job, because I love trees. I love jungle. I
love, you know, the rain forest a lot. But we cut the trees, 'cause, you
know, we need to plant rubber trees there instead of the real original jungle.
That's terrible job. I hate it. But you can imagine how sad I was at that
time, very depressed and no future at all. I have no idea what time I can go
back to Beijing. I was, I mean, obviously, very sort of homesick.

GROSS: How old were you when you were able to go back?

Mr. KAIGE: I was 16 at that time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAIGE: I mean, when I denounced my father, I was 14. Then I was 16, you
know, when I left Beijing for Hunan province.

GROSS: He was in jail for two years. Was that because you denounced him?

Mr. KAIGE: No. With or without denouncing of my father, you know, he was in
trouble...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: ...you know? He was sort of nowhere to go.

BOGAEV: Chen Kaige's new film is called "Together." We'll continue Terry's
interview with him in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Back now to Terry's conversation with filmmaker Chen Kaige. His films include
"Yellow Earth," "Farewell My Concubine" and "Temptress Moon." His new movie
is "Together." Kaige's father was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.
Like Kaige, he was also a distinguished filmmaker.

GROSS: You ended up studying film and then, of course, making movies. Did
your father's life as a filmmaker inspire you at all to become a filmmaker
yourself?

Mr. KAIGE: Not really. I remember that I went to the film school to see my
father making movies, and I thought it was very boring. Well, in four hours'
time nothing happened, you know. I asked my father, you know, `Why you are
so slow?' And he said that people were setting light...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAIGE: ...you know, and that kind of thing. I wasn't, you know, feel
like, you know, it's enjoyable to make a movie. My dream was to be a scholar
with a piece of paper and a pen holding in my hand, you know, to do research
about Chinese classical literature.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KAIGE: That was my dream.

GROSS: So what happened?

Mr. KAIGE: No, I couldn't. I couldn't do it because I wasn't very well
educated in many ways because I was the first-year student of high school when
Cultural Revolution broke out. I couldn't pass the general, I mean, exam, the
regular exam after school reopened in the year of 1977. That's the year when
Cultural Revolution finished. Yeah.

GROSS: So you went to film school after the end of the Cultural Revolution...

Mr. KAIGE: Yes.

GROSS: ...when the schools reopened after having been shut.

Mr. KAIGE: Right.

GROSS: What was it like for the students and for the teachers to be back in
school after a few years where there was no school?

Mr. KAIGE: I guess that everyone was very excited. Obviously those
professors and teachers who didn't teach for almost 10 years got very excited,
and they were so happy to receive the new students. And I remember the first
class we had when we became the film students, they said, `We didn't know,
didn't teach anyone for 10 years. We don't know how to teach you guys.' And
obviously I was very, very happy. I thought that's my, you know, turning
point of my life. Everything now become very positive. I can be a film
director? You know, that's really beyond my imagination because I used to be
a peasant, a worker and soldier, so I never thought that I can do sort of that
kind of job, you know. That's very high job something.

GROSS: Did your father ever make movies again after the Cultural Revolution?

Mr. KAIGE: Oh, yeah. He did many. He did many. But he was getting old.
You know, he was sort of isolate from life, and I think he didn't really do
that well.

GROSS: After you reconciled, did you become closer than you had been before
you reconciled?

Mr. KAIGE: Oh, yeah. I mean, my father really was very, very supportive,
although that in the beginning he totally reject the idea that I'm going to be
a film director. It was very obvious reasons that what happened to him, he
doesn't want that kind of things happen to me. But he just said to be a film
director is really a nasty job. It's difficult. But you have to remember one
thing, that, I mean, since the decision is made you will never give up.

That's unforgettable what he said to me. I will remember that forever. My
father already passed away for nine years, so I still remember him, you know,
what he said to me. And so...

GROSS: Can you repeat what he said to you?

Mr. KAIGE: He said many things to me, but, you know, there is only one thing
I remember, which is that he said, `Never give up as a film director. You
have to sort of dig deeper and deeper to find out the new elements of human
nature. That's your job. Your job is not just going to make more money than
the other people. And you have to know yourself. I'm so happy that you
understand yourself better than before. You didn't know who you were, so
that's why you denounced me. Now you know that, I'm sure that--I mean, you
told me that you have made mistake, so I'm so happy that I forgive you not
because that you are my son, only because that you represent the future of our
family, and you are not going to do the same thing again. I'm pretty sure
about that. I'm comfortable with that.' That's what he said to me.

GROSS: I can see now why the music teacher in your new movie "Together" is
based on your father, the music teacher who believes in the purity of music
and in playing with your heart and in not worrying about fame or fortune.

Mr. KAIGE: Right.

GROSS: Now the advice your father gave you is difficult advice to live by,
making movies in China in a world where your scripts and your movies are
censored, because if you're going to be investigating matters of the human
heart and human nature, you're going to be dealing in the world of ambiguity,
and you're going to be dealing in the world where people aren't necessarily
nice or doing the right thing and where people certainly aren't necessarily
supporting the Communist government. And that's exactly the kind of stuff
that the government isn't going to want you to be describing in your movies.
You're just going to be at odds all the time.

Mr. KAIGE: Well, I'm still struggling. I think that I know better why my
father said to me that never give up. It's not an easy job. But I'm used to
this. You know, I'm comfortable with what I am, and, you know, I become more
calm than before.

GROSS: In the mid-'90s, after you made your movie "Temptress Moon," you said,
`I'm not ready to make a film about contemporary China because nothing is
interesting now. Step by step everything has been destroyed.' Your new movie
"Together" is about contemporary China. What changed for you that made you
feel like you were ready to make a movie about contemporary China?

Mr. KAIGE: Well, you know, I used to be very angry because of my personal
experience, you know, my experience about cultural revolution. I feel like
the culture's been, you know, completely destroyed, so this is my attitude
towards what happened in Chinese society. I feel like there's no sort of high
culture at all. But now I've become, you know, optimistic because I
witness--I want to be--the first thing I want to do is to be honest with
myself. I used to focus on history, I mean, focus on what happened in the
past, you know, doing something like, you know, "The Emperor and the Assassin"
or "Temptress Moon" because the history itself just like that.

I'm very proud of the film called "The Emperor and the Assassin" because at
least I told the people's story about the first emperor who began the
dictatorship in China. So he was the one who created whole system, and he got
a lot of followers even now. That's very important. But now I want to be
honest with myself again because I have seen many, many positive steps being
taken in this society, and people pay more attention to culture. People
realize that, you know, the mistake they have made before.

For example, when I see, I mean, something happen in front of me, like the old
wall being turned down, you see the huge smoke, you know, going up to the sky.
Then I was very, very sad and angry. This was a long time ago, you know.
Then people ask me why you think it's so precious to have this kind of wall.
I said, `Look, this is...

GROSS: Oh, the wall.

Mr. KAIGE: The wall...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. KAIGE: ...of the city.

GROSS: The wall of the city being torn down.

Mr. KAIGE: Yeah. I just say, `Look, this is our protection, you know.' I
take any kind of art form, including music and art, you know, fine art,
cinema, as the protection of human nature. Without that how can we call
ourselves human beings? Now I think, you know, something very interesting
happened. There's very interesting things happening in Chinese society now.
Some things very good, really. I think that this is a happy film, meaning
that Chinese people are learning how to be happy. Happiness, the genuine
happiness, is a gift given by our creator, our god, I will say. If you don't
know how to be happy, how can you call yourself as a rich people? You're not
rich because you don't know anything about happiness.

You see that, particularly the young boy and his father. The young boy is
just like sunshine, you know, I mean, just coming into the life of those
adults. Those professors and the people like Leevy(ph), they're not necessary
happy. They are struggling to make more money, to, you know, get the fame
they want, you know. I mean, but I think this young boy live a natural life,
you know. He never really considered that I want to be rich and famous.

GROSS: Chen Kaige, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KAIGE: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you.

Mr. KAIGE: Thank you very much.

BOGAEV: Chen Kaige's new film is called "Together." It opens tomorrow in New
York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and nationwide next month.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Coming up, when language gets in the way of politics. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Stereotypes of missing words in various cultures
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

The difficulties in reaching a Middle East settlement have a lot of people
talking about how stubborn both sides are, and some have claimed that the
problem is partly linguistic, since Arabic doesn't have a word for compromise.
To our linguist Geoff Nunberg, those are just old stereotypes wrapped in a new
package.

GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:

A couple of months ago the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations published its list
of the top 100 sayings of 2002. It included this remark, which President Bush
was supposed to have made to Tony Blair. `The problem with the French is that
they have no word for entrepreneur.' After the list appeared, though, a
spokesman for the prime minister denied that Bush had ever said anything of
the sort. I believe that. The line really sounds too pat to be true, like a
story the English would cook up to put in the mouth of an ignorant American.

What makes the story plausible, though, is that you're always hearing people
say this. The so-and-so people don't have a word for such and such, where the
absence of the word is supposed to shed a telling light on a people's culture.
At one time or another I've heard it said that the French don't have a word
for nice, that German doesn't have a word for fair play, and that Chinese
doesn't have a word for privacy. Back in 1985, President Reagan asserted that
the Russian language didn't have a word for freedom. Of course, it does,
`svoboda,' but Reagan was never one to let details get in the way of a good
story.

I saw another one of these the other day, when a friend sent me a link to an
article that had appeared a while ago in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram,
and which had been widely reprinted on the Web. Its author was an Egyptian
businessman and writer named Terruk Hegi(ph), who claimed Arabic has no word
for compromise. `For the Arabs,' he said, `compromise is associated with
submission and weakness, whereas the Anglo-Saxon nations value the ideas of
compromise and a respect for the opinions of others.'

Now I don't know Arabic, but that claim struck me as pretty bizarre on the
face of things. Sometimes you can conclude that a people lacks a certain
concept from the fact that they don't have a word for it, but that's usually
because it's a notion they can live without. You're not surprised to learn
that Tibetan doesn't have words for squeeze play or happy hour. But it's hard
to imagine how any people could run a global civilization without having a way
of talking about compromise, or, for that matter, how they could manage their
daily lives. I mean, where would that leave you? I wanted to spend our whole
two-week vacation at the beach, and my wife wanted to spend it in the
mountains, so we had to get a divorce.

I checked with a couple of Arabic linguists who confirmed that Arabic has
several items that translate the English word `compromise.' I'm not sure why
Hegi would think Arabs didn't have the notion, but probably it's because the
most common way to speak of compromise in Arabic is to use a phrase rather
than a single word. You say, `We reached a middle ground.' But then we do
the same thing when we talk about a meeting of the minds or meeting someone
halfway.

The fact is that people have plenty of concepts that their language doesn't
give them a single word for. Take the German word `Schadenfreude,' which
denotes `the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others.' I'll grant you
it's a nice item to have handy in a prepackaged form, but that doesn't mean
that Red Sox fans have to learn German before they can enjoy watching the
Yankees lose eight straight at home.

Still, people keep pointing to these gaps in the dictionary as if they had a
profound cultural significance. More often than not it's just a way of
dressing an old racial stereotype in a new kind of cognitive garb. The fact
is that Westerners have always attributed an unwillingness to compromise to
the Arabs and the other Semitic peoples. According to T.E. Lawrence of
Lawrence of Arabia fame, the Semites have no halftones in their register
of vision.

And after the failure of the British government's 1948 partition plan for
Palestine, the English historian Elizabeth Monroe explained the breakdown by
saying that the British were full of the capacity for compromise and couldn't
understand that they were dealing with two peoples of the most uncompromising
race in the world. The only difference is that back then nobody felt the need
to say that the Jews and the Arabs lacked a word for compromise; they just
assumed that obstinacy was bred in the Semitic bone. But then, you could make
the same point about us anglophones if you were of a mind to. For example, we
tend to use uncompromising as a morally complementary term nowadays. `She's
an uncompromising perfectionist.' Why is that necessarily a good thing? And
we only use the adjective compromised with a negative meaning. `The
ambassador was too compromised to serve as an intermediary.' But language
doesn't just give us the names of concepts, but ways of seeing them in
different lights. Someone who strikes us as uncompromising on Monday can come
to seem inflexible or obstinate by the end of the week once we start to see
the need of cutting a deal. If the players really want to find a compromise
in the Middle East, they'll find the words for it.

BOGAEV: Linguist Geoff Nunberg.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Career of Bob Hope
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

Bob Hope turns 100 today. His official career in show business spanned 75
years. He did everything from Vaudeville to Broadway, from radio to
television. He also made more than 50 films. Seventeen of them have recently
been reissued on DVD, including four Road movies co-starring Bing Crosby and
Dorothy Lamour.

Oh, excuse me. Let's do this right.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Bob Hope turns 100 today. His official career in show business
spanned 75 years. He did everything from Vaudeville to Broadway, from radio
to television. He also made more than 50 films. Seventeen of them have
recently been reissued on DVD, including four Road movies co-starring Bing
Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Our film critic, John Powers, has been home
watching movies, and has these thoughts on the hugely influential film career
of Bob Hope.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

I still remember the first Bob Hope movie I ever saw. I must have been seven
or eight, and my family was living in the small town of Martensdale, Iowa.
My mom yelled for me to come into the living room. `You've got to see this,'
she said, pointing at the TV screen, where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were
sitting on the sand, jawing back and forth in a way that I didn't find
especially funny. But then somehow a camel showed up and spit right in Hope's
eye, an animal ad-lib so utterly unexpected that Hope lurched back in shock
while Crosby hooted with laughter. My mother and I hooted, too, and I was
hooked. I sat and watched the rest of the movie, "The Road To Morocco,"
startled to discover just how much funnier Bob Hope was in the movies than on
those TV specials that my parents liked so much.

Over the years, I saw a lot more of Hope's movies, maybe 50 or so. I know a
lot of them were pretty darn bad, especially the ones from the 1960s. That
was almost beside the point, which was to watch Bob Hope. For he wasn't just
a terrific screen actor who knew how to deliver a wisecrack in every possible
key signature. With his ski nose, jeering smile and aggressive chin, he
sometimes seemed to act with his jaw. Hope forged one of the most enduring
personas in modern movies. He was the jumpy braggart, the wisecracking
coward, the would-be ladies man who's forever eyeballing women who seem
hopelessly out of his league. When he wasn't losing Dorothy Lamour to Crosby,
he was sleeping with horses in his Westerns, or nearly getting raped by a
gorilla in "The Road to Bali."

For many people, his most beloved films are the six Road pictures he made with
Crosby, whose vaguely posh, often comatose-seeming calm made him the perfect
foil to the wired, less-educated Hope. Anyone seeing these movies for the
first time today might well be surprised that they were so popular, for they
seem so lazy and protracted, a bit like those "Saturday Night Live" skits that
get turned into a movie.

But for an earlier generation, these movies had a different aura. When Hope
and Crosby set off on the road to Singapore or Bali or Hong Kong or Rio, they
were about as hip as Hollywood got in those more innocent days. For the Road
pictures were a double spoof. They not only sent up formulaic adventure
stories that other Hollywood movies were presenting seriously, they made fun
of how these movies were made. Even as most movies worked hard to make their
back lot seem like a foreign country, so "Casablanca" was supposed to take
place in the real Morocco, the Road pictures always jokingly announced they
were being shot on a back lot, and that viewers were, of course, sitting in a
movie theater. `He's going to sing, folks,' Hope announces before one of
Crosby's numbers. `Now's the time to go get your popcorn.'

Occasionally, this got to be too much. And watching the movies again
recently, I was struck by how many tired Hollywood in-jokes show up in these
Road pictures. But the chemistry between Hope and Crosby was always so strong
that it carried them past this, giving their work together an exuberance that
often led them to song. Here, they're sitting atop that spitting camel as it
carries them across an endless expanse of sand in the Sahara.

(Soundbite from "The Road To Morocco")

Mr. BOB HOPE: You think we got enough gas?

Mr. BING CROSBY: I got her carburetor cut down to nothing. Where do you
suppose we are?

Mr. HOPE: This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses.

Mr. CROSBY: I think this is what's left after I clean my spinach. Hey, look!

Mr. HOPE: You could have thought of another way to get us here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CROSBY: Here we go again, Junior.

Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: (In unison) (Singing) We're off on the road to
Morocco. This taxi is tough on the spine.

Mr. CROSBY: Beats the bus, huh, Junior?

Mr. HOPE: Oh, it beats me.

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) Where...

Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: (In unison) (Singing) Where we're going...

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) ...why we're going, how can we be sure?

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) I'll lay you eight to find that we meet Dorothy
Lamour. Yoo-hoo!

Mr. HOPE: Yahoo!

Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: (In unison) (Singing) Off on the road to Morocco.
Hang on till the end of the line.

Mr. CROSBY: (Singing) I hear this country's where they do the dance of the
seven veils.

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) We'd tell you more but...

Mr. CROSBY: Shh!

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) ...we would have the censor on our tails.

Mr. HOPE and Mr. CROSBY: (In unison) (Singing) We certainly do get around.
Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound.

POWERS: Of course, Hope made scores of movies without Bing Crosby, and it's
amazing how many of them have the same structure. Wisecracking Bob plays a
small-timer who gets in some sort of trouble. In "The Pale Face," he's
painless Peter Potter, a frontier dentist who marries Jane Russell, unaware
that she's really Calamity Jane. In the noire spoof, "My Favorite Brunette,"
he's a photographer who gets mixed up with gangsters. In "My Favorite
Blonde," he's a musical performer with a trained penguin, who gets involved
with Nazi spies. And in "Ghost Breakers," perhaps a precursor of
"Ghostbusters," he plays a radio personality who gets hooked up with
apparently supernatural beings. His character there is named Lawrence L.
Lawrence, whose middle initial also stands for Lawrence. `My parents,' Hope
says, `lacked imagination.'

Through all these pictures, Hope was essentially the same. He talked big and
acted small, often got the girl you'd think he never could get. And he did it
all while delivering the endless quips that his huge team of writers always
stuffed into his movies. I don't say this dismissively, for Hope's comic
formula has been copied by everyone from Woody Allen to Bill Murray. Allen,
in particular, has long celebrated Hope's movie acting, and freely admits that
his own screen persona bears strong affinities to Hope's. Woody is just the
updated, neurotic, intellectual version. There was nothing remotely neurotic
about Hope's own screen image, whose most striking feature may be its almost
total lack of any kind of interiority. Where Allen is filled with angst,
Groucho bursting with libidinous anarchy, or W.C. Fields shot through with
melancholic misanthropy, Hope always stays on the surface. With Chaplin or
Keaton, you saw through to the comic's very soul. This never happens with
Hope, who is always content to stay within the safe limits of the gag, the
crack, the one-liner. His films were never really about anything.

Of all our screen comedians, Hope is the glibbest, and potentially one of the
most sinister. Although he always hid it, you can see all manner of meanness
glinting through those aggressive wisecracks. And had he lived in a different
age, Hope would have made a great antagonist for 007. Thanks for the memory,
Mr. Bond. I've long thought I would have loved to have seen him cast as Noah
Cross, John Huston's role in "Chinatown," which wouldn't really have been much
of a stretch. Although Huston had that rumbling voice and Billy Goat Gruff
appearance, he was never in showbiz for the money. Hope always was. Indeed,
he became one of the most richest men in Southern California by investing in
San Fernando Valley real estate, the very theme of "Chinatown." But to
imagine him playing such a dark role is to imagine a different Bob Hope.

I grew up watching him make jokes about never getting the Oscar, but the truth
was, he never really tried. He never wanted to risk his persona by moving too
far from what made him successful. And who can blame him, for Hope was really
great at what he did. He knew his way around a wisecrack. Nobody ever timed
a gag better. He knew how to dance. In a movie like "The Road To Rio," you
see him cut loose with genuine brio. And like Fred Astaire, another Hollywood
star with a seemingly unpromising voice, he knew how to put across a song,
like the Oscar-winning tune "Buttons and Bows," which he sang to Jane Russell
in "The Pale Face." In all these things, Bob Hope was satisfied to be a
consummate professional. And in days when too many comedians think of
themselves as artists or geniuses, such respect for his craft is no small
thing.

BOGAEV: John Powers is film critic and media columnist for LA Weekly.

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev. We'll close with Bob Hope
singing this Academy Award-winning song from the film "The Pale Face." Bob
Hope, happy 100th birthday.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOPE: (Singing) A Western ranch is just a branch of nowhere junction to
me. Give me the city where living's pretty and the gals wear finery. East is
East, and West is West, and the wrong one I have chose. Let's go where you
keep on wearing those frills and flowers and buttons and bows, rings and
things and buttons and bows.

Don't bury me in this prairie. Take me where the cement grows. Let's move
down to some big town where they love a girl by the cut of her clothes, and...

(Announcements)

Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

BOGAEV: On the next FRESH AIR, David Benioff talks about adapting his book
"25th Hour" into a film directed by Spike Lee. It stars Edward Norton as a
drug dealer who has one day left on the outside before beginning a seven-year
prison sentence. It's now out on video. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Nicole Kidman says being an indoor kid and a bookworm led her to acting

While her friends and family went to the Australian beaches, Kidman stayed indoors reading — and imaged herself as a character in the books. She says reading is what led her to acting. We talk with the Oscar-winning actor about ageism in Hollywood, singing in a cover band as a teenager, and playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.

07:07

Jazz trio Artifacts gets to the point quickly, and sticks to it, on a new album

Flute player Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed all came up on Chicago's new jazz scene about 20 years ago. Now they revisit their roots on ... and then there's this.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue