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925 Silver Collection

Trials and Juristribulations By Mark Van Proyen

While many of my friends were extricating themselves from the mud at Burning Man, I spent a pleasant Labor Day afternoon in a dark theater. Orson Welles’ 1962 production of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” flickered at the far end, one of the many films that really needs to be seen on a large screen, as it loses much of its visual and emotional power when viewed on more intimate media players. I have the DVD, which I have watched many times. But the last time I viewed the film projected on a screen was over three decades ago. Welles himself was famously quoted as saying that, in his view, “’The Trial’ was the best film I have ever made.” I would whole heartedly agree with that sentiment, “Citizen Kane” notwithstanding. “The Trial” stars Anthony Perkins fresh from his role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” with all of the international acclaim associated with it.

Still from “The Trial,” 1962, directed by Orson Welles. Anthony Perkins is Josef K. (Left), Welles is Albert Hastler (right).

In “The Trial,” he plays the part of Josef K., a befuddled everyman accused of committing an unspecified crime by a faceless and omnipresent jurisprudential machine. As the film progresses, he is lead into a nightmarish labyrinth of absurd humiliation, gaslighted by his own expectation that it all somehow must make sense. The fact that it doesn’t and will not is underscored by the way that the narrative frequently falls through trap-door plot complications that repeatedly catapult its protagonist from bad situations to others that are far worse.   

The structure of the film’s descent into madness is a stunning visual feat. Welles uses the forlorn outskirts of post-war Paris to backdrop many of his shots, almost all captured at night in a stark and oftentimes terrifying black-and-white. Special credit should be given to cinematographer Edmond Ricard, whose out-does Greg Toland’s photographic stylistics from “Citizen Kane” with even more extreme exaggerations of foreground and background, not to mention a relentless cascade of unconventional camera angels. No doubt, he spent a considerable amount of time studying F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu” and Paul Leni’s 1924 film “Waxworks” to get the vibe just right. Editor Fritz Mueller’s hyper-syncopated jump cuts and lingering tracking shots seal the film’s nightmarish deal, perfectly soundtracked by the dirge drone of Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio for Strings.”

Lari Pittman, “Nosteratu,” 1982, oil, acrylic, metal leaf on paper and fabric, mounted on plywood, 42 1/16 x 77 1/16”. Courtesy of the artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Welles made only one major story change to the original novel’s narrative. At the end that novel, Josef K is taken to a quarry by two thugs, who try to convince him to kill himself with a knife that they provide him. When K refuses, they do the deed themselves. In Welles’ version, the murder weapon of choice is dynamite, ending the film with an explosion that must have deeply resonated with audiences in that year of the Cuban missile crisis. Kafka’s original novel was mostly written in 1914-1915, when Europe was at the very beginning of the First World War. He rather famously claimed that it was undertaken as an exercise in comedy, leaving us to wonder about how many grains of salt we might need to accompany that assertion. The novel was posthumously published in 1928, assembled from fragments by his friend Max Brod well after the war’s carnage finally ceased.

That was then, but what about now? Keen observers of the news will note that indictments, trials, appeals and other legal gesticulations are hot topics of controversy. Will Teflon Don weasel out of being held to account for his myriad misdeeds? Has the Justice Department been weaponized? Will the whole thing end in anti-climax when final verdicts are delayed to the point of oblivion with mass pardons issued by a reelected Ill Douchbag or his salivating sycophant of a Vice President, code named Keri Lake? Or will we dodge the bullet of domestic fascism and return to the path of social sanity? These and related questions have become the addictive stuff of network newsporn for months. Given that we have entered an election year, that situation will not change anytime soon. It will only get worse.

Yosl Gergner, “Painting to Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’,” 1987. oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 17 3/4”

So let’s clear things up so that we can spend our Sundays watching NFL football free of unnecessary distraction. One: The Department of Justice should be weaponized … against criminals, those being the folks who commit crimes. In four separate jurisdictions, grand juries have looked at evidence and determined that there is credible evidence and probable cause to assert that crimes were committed by those individuals accused of committing them. So let the courts do their job. Two: Clearly, the Trump strategy is to delay any and all legal proceedings at every possible juncture so as to stretch the process past the November election. It is likely that he will succeed in doing this. This is not special prosecutor Jack Smith’s  fault. It is Attorney General Merrick Garland’s fault for shilly-shallying for well over a year before appointing a special prosecutor, which he could and should have done in short order after his Senate confirmation. If Trump is able to delay the proceedings long enough to pardon himself, we will have Garland to blame.

This illustrates one of the reasons why people get exasperated with Democratic administrations, as is reflected in recent polls. It is because the Democrats have shown themselves to have no principles other than influence peddling in service to constituency building. The Republicans do have principles, but they are wrong ones that are mendacious and evil, all drenched in shrill hypocrisy. America hates a weakling more that it hates a bully, and in a political environment skewed and shaped by an outmoded Electoral College built on gerrymandered districts further burdened by many kinds of voter suppression, the downtrodden weaklings have little chance to make their case. This is why the phrase “our democracy” rings so shallow. At best, it is a euphemism for a well-rigged game, the only saving grace of which is that it is not the outright fascism that the majority of the Republican party now prefers.

Jeff Soto, “The Winds,” 2023, acrylic on wood panel, 40 x 60”. Courtesy of KP Projects, Los Angeles.

Just as Kafka’s novel was written in the first year of the Great War, so too is our national legal drama taking place with multiple wars on the distant horizon. When most Americans are asked about the start date of World War Two, they almost answer by saying December 7, 1941. In fact, the war was underway in Europe more than two years prior to that, and earlier still in Asia with the Second Sino-Japanese War underway in 1937. We now may be poised at a similar precipice in relation to another impending catastrophe. The conflict in Ukraine has devolved into something like a high-tech version of the First Word War, that being a slow-moving war of attrition with minimal shifts in territorial capture and no possible end in sight. Maritime sabers are being rattled on a weekly basis in the straits of Taiwan, while combat jets routinely test each other’s airspace in the skies above. Since 2018, there have been eight coups in adjoining countries in central Africa stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, places where China has been making major inroads by investing in massive infrastructure projects. 

Wolfgang Lettl, “The Trial,” 1981, oil on canvas, 52 3/8 x 46 1/2”

Meanwhile, we now have a special prosecutor to look into Hunter Biden’s laptop, while the obsequious Democrats won’t say boo about the two billion dollars of Saudi Arabian money that found its way into Jared Kushner’s pocket thanks to the time that he worked in his father-in-law’s White House. How is any or all of this not Kafkaesque? It most certainly is that, reimagined at a grand geopolitical scale that courts disaster as if it was business-as-usual. But it is so with one major difference, that being that those accused of crimes are not the ones who have been traduced into a labyrinth of frightful absurdity. On the contrary, it is we onlooking citizens who have fallen into that labyrinth, through no fault of our own other than our apathy and our gullibility. In this noisy election year, all of us are now Josef K.

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