Back to blogging: Akos, groups and Heaven’s Gate

I have had my hands full for quite a while. I intend to get back to blogging now — starting with a few short notes.

First, as some of you may know, I recently posted and submitted a survey paper on one of my main areas of research, viz., growth in groups:

In retrospect, it was a very good thing that I was required to write it (by the conditions on this). It has allowed me to summarize a great deal of what I have been doing in the last few years, as well as to explain other people’s work (to the best of my ability). Participants in the field come from many different areas – I hope I have managed to render ideas from different sources accessible in a fairly transparent way and in one single place.

As many of you also know, and as some others will be saddened to learn from the dedication in the survey paper above, one of my main coauthors, Ákos Seress, passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 54. I look back fondly to our many conversations on permutation groups and to our friendship. He will be missed.

A few days ago, I saw La porte du paradis in its new, restored, uncut version. Some American cinéphiles will know that there is nothing particularly courageous in writing about generally positive impressions of the film, since here in France it was widely appreciated already back when it was released.

Let me, then, say a few things that are meant to be neither positive nor negative, even if they could be misinterpreted as “faint praise” (and that at best).

First, there are some obvious “bad reasons” for disliking the movie: it was released in a severely cut format, it presents the federal government in alliance with a death-squad led by large landowners, and so on. Another, possibly less obvious reason is that it seems to demand a viewing to which most viewers – especially American viewers? – are simply not used: this is not a movie that hypnotizes the audience, or attempts to, but rather a movie to be viewed from a conscious distance, much in the way that some historical novels can be read. The pictorial references that so annoyed a popular reviewer seem to indicate that this was deliberate.

There is also an arguably “bad reason” why the movie was almost uniformly liked over here: the dialogue sounds a bit off at times (both stilted and too modern) and that is, fortunately, lost in translation.

As for whether the movie will be liked more widely now in its home country now, at least by film buffs — I would think so. For one thing, time induces forgiveness — forgiveness the flaws in something worthwhile, and also for different conventions; this usually means “the conventions current in a different time”, but it can also mean the conventions that an ambitious film may have created for itself, and attempted to define. Heaven’s Gate, released in 1980, is now farther in the past than The Searchers was in 1980.

One note, though — yes, the objectively implausible but narratively completely expected survival of the hero may have been a reference to the conventions of classical Hollywood epics on the matter, and what not. Still, things can get a bit much. Was Kris Kristofferson bathed in the Styx as a child, with pincers? Is “Averill” the name of an Atlantic sea-goddess, or at least that of a nymph of the Charles River, perhaps?

Lastly: if a work of art is meant to make us think about an actual historical event that will be shocking and surprising to most viewers, then it is a rather bad idea for it to exaggerate it, even if – or especially if – the exaggeration in question does not change the essence of the matter. The Stock Growers’ Association did exist, and did have a death squad that was given the names of seventy opponents to lynch, with, as the film correctly stated, a $50 prime per person killed. Now, in the film, seventy gets inflated to 150, apparently just because the director felt that everything in the film had to be scaled up to certain proportions. Wasn’t the truth bad enough — and difficult enough to believe?

About valuevar

I am a number theorist with side interests in combinatorics and group theory.
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