Please use the comments on this post to discuss your favorite books, music, movies, etc. of the year. This post won't be at the top of the blog for very long, but there's a link to it in the "Here" section of the sidebar.
Please use the comments on this post to discuss your favorite books, music, movies, etc. of the year. This post won't be at the top of the blog for very long, but there's a link to it in the "Here" section of the sidebar.
I'm beginning to suspect that Jean-Luc Godard is an over-rated filmmaker. Or at least that I don't care very much for his work. Maybe ten years ago I saw Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), and really liked it. But I suspect that may have been only because of a few charming scenes involving the beautiful and charming Anna Karina. I haven't seen it again so I'm not sure. Then I saw Breathless, and came pretty close to disliking it. I don't have a lot of patience any more for the romantic and glamorous criminal business. Yes, I suppose that has something to do with the fact that I'm not romantic or glamorous or criminal, but even in my old age I find it a little depressing that chicks go for that type. (I also saw Weekend sometime back around 1970 or so, and thought it was sort of crazy, but I'll withhold current judgment on it until or unless I see it again.)
And then this week I saw Alphaville. I had put it on our Netflix queue years ago. Really, years--I put it on there in a burst of enthusiasm when we first signed up, but then kept putting other things ahead of it. And it finally made its way to the top only because I forgot to put the next series of Vera ahead of it.
It's a sort of science-fiction movie with a few film-noir trappings. The city of Alphaville is the totalitarian governing metropolis of some sort of giant civilization, apparently an interplanetary one--the term "galaxies" is thrown around but in a way that doesn't make much sense. A secret agent from the Outlands has been dispatched to the city with orders to assassinate a scientist who is in charge of a computer called Alpha 60 which is in the process of becoming the real governing entity.
There's nothing wrong with that as the premise of a movie, but I don't think this one is very well executed. There are absolutely no special effects, and all the action takes place in what is obviously a contemporary (that is, 1964) city. The secret agent initially appears driving a Mustang. I don't know whether Godard wanted to do it this way or just didn't have money to build some sort of futuristic environment. And maybe that's just as well, considering the state of special effects etc. at the time. But it lends a slightly ludicrous quality to some of the dialogue. More fundamentally, if the story was meant to be genuinely exciting, it certainly failed for me. Almost everything about it was unconvincing to me. There is a lot of fairly conventional sermonizing about mechanization, automation, control, dehumanization, etc., mixed with heavy 20th-century-French profundity. I actually laughed out loud when our hero said, in an interior monologue:
Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night you end it in death.
There were a few things I liked, most of all some really evocative photography of nighttime cityscapes and the cold empty interiors of office buildings and hotels. Anna Karina is there, playing Natasha, the daughter of the scientist, and there are many long looks at her lovely face. There is a long, really too long, scene, where the hero and Natasha are in a hotel room philosophizing and falling in love. And one device of the Alphaville environment struck me as a distinctive and still telling insight: dictionaries are treated like Bibles, but are constantly replaced with revised editions that omit some words as no longer permitted and add others that are now required. The hero finds that Natasha does not know the word "conscience." He tries to explain it to her, and she says something like "I feel that I know this word although I have never heard it." Yes--it's one of the things we can't not know.
Looking around on the net, I find that my view seems to be in the minority. Here's a more typical one, if you're interested. There is apparently some cultural context that I was not aware of: the agent is named Lemmy Caution, and is played by an American actor, Eddie Constantine, who was well-known for playing the same character in a series of crime dramas.
Years ago (I mean something like forty years) when I worked in a bookstore, we stocked the fiction of B. Traven. Or perhaps I should say The Mysterious B. Traven, as he is often described. Here is the beginning of his Wikipedia entry:
B. Traven (Bruno Traven in some accounts) was the pen name of a presumably German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. One of the few certainties about Traven's life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted for the Academy Award winning film of the same name in 1948.
I remember picking up one of his novels, The Cotton Pickers, one night in the store when nothing was going on, reading a little, and feeling a bit let down, because it didn't seem to promise anything as exciting as the vague mythology surrounding the author suggested. Then I got interrupted, and never went back to it. A month or two ago I saw The Cotton Pickers and another book, The Night Visitor, on the discard table at the local library, and grabbed them.
Now I've read The Cotton Pickers, and that initial hasty impression of forty years ago seems to have been fairly accurate. I enjoyed it, but it's not a dramatic narrative, nor does it reach great psychological or philosophical depths. Insofar as it seems to have any aim beyond the picturing of a place and time and the telling of a story, that aim seems to be political: it is concerned with the oppression of the poor in Mexico (and by implication in the whole "capitalist" world). But it's not strident or plainly ideological, nor does it picture saintly poor people up against evil capitalists, so you never feel like you're reading a tract, but simply seeing things as they are. And in fact I would recommend it precisely as a social document, because it has the ring of truth, and it's good to be reminded sometimes, if one is inclined to forget it, of how deeply serious injustice is embedded in the world.
The story is set in rural Mexico, presumably in the 1920s when the novel was published. It's a loose first-person narrative of some months in the life of Gerard Gales, of whom we know nothing much except that he is "a white man," presumably American but possibly European, and is a vagabond without money or apparently any sort of stable life. The story opens with his arrival in a village where he desperately needs to find work. With a few other equally poor men he goes to work picking cotton. A good third or more of the book describes that experience. Later he puts in a bit of time at an oil field. He stays for a while in a little town, where he works in a bakery. He takes a job driving a herd of cattle to market.
And that's it. There's no cumulative narrative, just a series of incidents peopled by characters who come and go. Only at the very end of the book is there a suggestion that there may be more purpose in his wanderings than meets the eye, and I'm not sure about that. It's very low-key, and Gales's voice is wry and ironic. I might even call it light, but in retrospect, I'm left with a cumulative effect of seriousness, as much picture as story, and a very vivid one. A blurb on the dust jacket of my copy says that Traven does what Hemingway only tried to do, but this book, at least, doesn't strike me that way. It doesn't have Hemingway's grim seriousness and self-conscious heroic fatalism.
Now I want to read Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which unfortunately was not on that discard table.
One reason I read this book before the other is the subject, with which I have a personal connection: I'm one of a dwindling number of people in this country who have actually had the experience of picking cotton all day. The title in German is amusing: Die Baumwollpflücker. Good thing I never called anybody that in the cotton field.
I can deal with people making cheap political points by way of slogans, "memes," and the like. Well, that's not entirely true. I can't really deal with them, but I can usually manage to change the mental subject and ignore them. What really drives me up the wall is when they think they've made a point, but it doesn't even make sense. I've long thought that "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries" was some kind of champion among that species. But I saw one a day or two ago that beats it: "The Constitution Has No Alternative Facts." The one about rosaries makes no direct sense; it's only word-association, but at least you can discern a connection between the words and a sentiment: the Catholic Church is trying to oppress me. I cannot find anything resembling a thought in the new one, though. I know what it means, of course: I don't want Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. But is there any connection between that and a dig at Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" remark about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration? Well, there I go, doing what I really must stop myself from doing: trying to point out illogic in a context where logic is irrelevant. It's a trap.
More and more often, in journalism and in the writing of young people in general (not real writing, but Internet postings of one sort or another), I notice misspellings indicating that the writer has only heard the word, not seen it in print, and is spelling it phonetically. This one caught my eye in a local news story the other day:
“She goes bizzurk, stabbing a gas station attendee in the neck and then goes across the street and attacks a female pharmacist, literally beating her to a pulp,” Nancy Grace said during a 2010 show.
I'm assuming this was the reporter's transcription, not an official one from the TV network (Nancy Grace is a TV "personality.")
January 9, 2017
So now Trump really is the president. I was astonished and appalled when he got the nomination, and thought it only guaranteed that Hillary would win. I was more astonished when he won the election, and was only pleased by the result because it meant that Hillary would not be president. Since then, I've heard or read a number of people saying things like "I no longer recognize my country." I don't think they really mean it. It's the striking of a pose, a way of saying "I'm very upset." But to one who did really mean it I could only say "You never knew your country."
Donald Trump is thoroughly American, as American as...well, apple pie doesn't really do anymore, does it? I believe the phrase at one time was "Mom's apple pie." The average American mother has no time and probably little inclination to bake an apple pie, and very likely doesn't know how. So let's say Donald Trump is as American as...as P.T. Barnum. As Hollywood. As reality TV. As Disneyland. As SUVs. As professional sports. Mega-churches. Yellow journalism. Buzzfeed and the Drudge Report. Talk radio and the New York Times. Al Sharpton. Al Gore. Starbucks. Google and Netflix. Rock-and-roll. A 10-million-word tax code.
Any useful discussion of this country has to take into account the fact that we're crazy.
But admittedly, it is extraordinary that someone like Trump is president. I don't expect him to be a good president; in fact I expect him to make a mess. But I hope he surprises me again.
Something that struck me in his inaugural address was the extent to which much of it reminded me of Obama. Not in its specifics, of course, and not in its tone, but in its assertion that this is an unprecedented and almost mystical moment, and that from this point on all our problems will begin to be resolved by the sheer personal power of the speaker. Take this sentence, for instance:
That all changes -- starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
Very Obama-like. And he goes on to promise changes which are not in the power of the president to make. From that broad perspective, both presidencies appear to be symptoms of a general movement toward a belief that government, and specifically the presidency, is the most important reality in society, the one that has the power both to cause and to solve our biggest problems, to save us from ourselves (or rather, in the minds of all too many people, the enemies in the other party). There's a longing for a king-messiah that exists on both sides of the political divide. It is far from what our founders intended, in fact is something they feared, and apart from that it is unwise, and apart from that it is unworkable. It will lead to more disappointment, anger, and polarization--the same things that helped make Trump's victory possible. We are flung out into the extremes: unbalanced nationalism on the one hand, unbalanced anti-nationalism on the other. And so on.
Show me a citizen of the world and I'll show you someone who probably doesn't like his own people very much.
As American as Star Wars. I saw Rogue One last week. It's enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, and especially if you like the original Star Wars--I mean not just the original trilogy but the first of the three in particular (which is still my favorite)--because it tells the story of how the plans for the Death Star got into the hands of Princess Leia. Thus it brings the action up very close to the point where the original film begins. It's also somewhat in the spirit of the original, and for that matter even resembles it in plot, beginning with evil descending on an isolated farm on an out-of-the-way planet.
A few things that struck me:
Seems like most of the episodes at some point have a scene that takes place within a wretched hive of scum and villainy which has a pronounced middle-eastern feel, or perhaps I should say a Hollywood notion of a middle-eastern feel. This seems a bit odd. Why would planets in a civilization that can travel among the stars always have dusty marketplaces thronged with people in robes jostling and haggling? Is this not culturally insensitive?
And why are those fully-armored storm troopers so very easy to kill? Or to disable with one blow from the fist or foot of a slender young woman who probably weighs 110 pounds at most?
This episode has a battle scene which is apparently meant to recall the final scenes of the original, when the Death Star is attacked. I was struck in 1977 and still am by how much the spaceship combat scenes resemble WWII air combat scenes in old movies. And in fact the whole structure of the Empire and the rebellion against it is very much a reprise of the fight against the Nazis as rendered in post-war movies, only with space-opera trappings. This is not the only movie (or movies) for which that holds. And it occurs to me that that struggle has become fixed in our minds as a sort of archetype of noble war. But the totalitarianism which is the enemy in that archetype did not exist until a few decades into the 20th century. Sure, there were always tyrants, and noble struggles against them. But this idea of the enemy as one giant inhuman machine, with its anonymous and absolutely obedient hordes of troops, and the cold, haughty, and ruthless commanders who are also absolutely obedient (and in fear of) some equally cold and haughty and ruthless superior--I think that's something new, at least in degree. More realistic films don't do it so thoroughly as Star Wars, but the flavor is there in almost any drama that pits some hero or heroine against a government (or big corporation).
Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.
The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all.
This picture was taken in our local independent bookstore. It's not very clear, because I was trying not to be noticed and took it hastily. In case you can't read the names, the ones in the top row are Darwin, Einstein, and Austen. I think I see John Lennon and Poe in the second row.
These struck me initially as slightly annoying, and then as rather pathetic, like those Darwin-fish stickers that put Darwin in the place of Jesus. I always want to ask what sort of salvation Darwin is supposed to offer us. Deliverance from superstition, I suppose? But then what?
One night last week I dreamed that I was on a college campus that was being terrorized by small (about man-sized) blue dinosaurs. They looked like upright alligators, a bit like Albert the Alligator in the Pogo comic strip, except that they were blue, a rather pretty light shade, rather than green, and not at all cute: more like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. They were running around loose and chasing students. I didn't see a dinosaur catch a student, but the presumption was that when and if that happened the student would be messily devoured, as an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon puts it. The campus was not any that I've known in the real world. Well, maybe it looked in a very general sort of way like parts of the University of Alabama in Huntsville campus, where I had my first job in technology: very open, very "modern" in that the buildings were simple brick or concrete affairs, nothing at all Greco-Roman.
It was night, and I was walking around, a little worried about the dinosaurs, but only a little, because I witnessed one of the dinosaurs chasing a screaming student without being extremely disturbed. I wasn't really fearful for myself (which is not at all realistic) but rather was concerned about the students and the general problem of What To Do About The Dinosaurs. I may have been part of a Dinosaur Action and Awareness Committee or something, because I felt a definite sense of responsibility.
Then suddenly there was a shift, like a scene shift in a movie that's also a time shift, the sort of thing where text across the bottom of the screen says "Five years later" or something. Things had changed significantly. The dinosaurs were no longer terrorizing students, no longer chasing them. In fact they were students themselves. They had been integrated into campus life, and on the surface it seemed that everyone was getting along. But there were subtler tensions. Aside from lingering concerns about being eaten, on the one side, and about being unjustly accused of eating, on the other side, there was just a sort of cultural barrier that made things difficult. It was not clear whether the whole dinosaurs-eat-humans thing was just a big misunderstanding, or a real problem that had somehow been resolved. But in any case dinosaurs and humans just felt a little awkward around each other, or maybe more than a little, and so tended to keep to themselves. I guess I should say reptile-persons and mammal-persons, because both species were persons.
In this last bit, I was with some mammal-persons, in the campus cafeteria, and there were reptile-persons around. We, the mammals, were sitting together, and there was a sense that we should make some kind of gesture of welcome or at least non-hostility to the reptiles, but we didn't know what to do. Then the mammals I was with left, and I was sitting at the table by myself. In a couple of minutes I was ready to leave, too. But there was a reptile sitting at a nearby table, also alone, and I felt awkward. I thought he looked uncomfortable (don't ask me how an alligator looks uncomfortable), and I wondered if it would be a nice gesture if I went and sat with him, but that might have been unwelcome, and anyway was maybe a bit condescending or something. But then if I just got up and left, which I would otherwise have done without thinking about it, would he think I was avoiding him?
While I was considering the situation, I began to wake up. Sometimes when you're waking from a dream there's an in-between state where you are still in the dream but are beginning to be aware that it is a dream. Or at least it happens that way with me. When I reached that point, I realized that the whole thing was very funny, and by the time I was fully awake I was laughing.
Our difficulties involving ethnic diversity are not quite as bad as that. At least we all belong to the same species.
Unfortunately they're not very funny, either. Even with good will all around, it's not easy to bridge cultural differences. There are many awkward situations. Natural inertia leads everyone to avoid the effort, just because it is an effort: much easier to just stay with one's own. Misunderstandings arise, and may lead to hostility. Or the groups may differ so much that they simply do not get along all very well, and are more cordial at a distance. What we're doing in the United States is not easy, and hasn't been the norm for most of the human race for most of history. We've managed it in the past, but it remains to be seen whether we can keep it up, with so many centrifugal forces at work.
I watched the Netflix series The OA last weekend and last week. I don't especially recommend it. It was gripping at first, but grew tiresome, and I think there are some pretty major problems with the plot. It's about a young woman who disappeared for seven years and has suddenly reappeared under strange circumstances, and refuses to tell anyone anything at all about what happened to her. There's a complicated and very New-Age-y plot involving her recruitment of several other people for a mystical task. All are outsiders in some way, and all but one are teenagers. There are a number of scenes where they're all sitting around by candlelight in an abandoned house, with the young woman telling her story and leading them in very weird dance-like movements which, when perfected, will have supernatural effects. There's a bit of an encounter group quality to these sessions, as they all become more open and loving, getting past...I almost said "their hangups"... all the damage done to them by their parents and the generally mean old world.
Part way through this it suddenly dawned on me that these group scenes reminded me of the 1960s, and of my own youth: the longing for community and meaning, the impulse to seek those things in flight from the normal world, and in a small pure group of the like-minded. And it seemed very sad.
If you decide to watch it, be aware that there is a sex scene in the first episode which appears without any prelude whatsoever and is pretty much soft-core pornography. I assume someone threw that in as a reliable attention-getter, because it's completely unnecessary. There's another sex scene in a later episode, and a few scenes of somewhat disturbing fear and violence. All that also owes something to the 1960s, I guess.
Another film from Fairhope Film Festival: Lamb, "the first Ethiopian film screened at Cannes." I expect most of us have neglected the Ethiopian cinema. But don't think the presence of this movie at Cannes represents any kind of condescension, because it very much deserves the recognition. It's a small, gentle affair, about a boy, Ephraim, who has a pet lamb to which he is very attached. The boy's mother has recently died and his father has gone to Addis Ababa to look for work. Ephraim is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, and, not surprisingly for poor rural people, their view of the lamb is decidedly businesslike: they expect it to be the main course for an upcoming feast (was it Easter? I can't remember). Ephraim naturally intends to prevent this.
From that description you might expect some kind of Disney-fied sentimental thing, but it's not that at all, and the resolution is not what I expected. This review in The Guardian goes into more detail without giving away anything important. As the review says, a great deal of the appeal is in the picture of the lives of the people and of the land. You can get a sense of that from the trailer.
Lamb is listed on Netflix in the DVD section but is not currently available, so maybe that means it will be.
So much of what's wrong with America is exhibited in this:
[Sorry, I missed one. --Ed.]
What a lovely little film this is. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, and clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, this minimalist gem carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.
The opening ten minutes provide the backstory for our oddly-named protagonist. Takitani Shozaburo is a Japanese jazz trombone player who was captured in China during World War II. After the war he returns to Japan, marries, and the following year the couple has a son. The boy’s mother dies soon after he is born, and Shozaburo gives him the Americanized name Tony, liking the sound of it.
Tony’s father continues to travel as a musician, and Tony grows up basically alone; among other things his Western name is a hindrance to the development of friendships. But he likes to draw, and eventually becomes an accomplished illustrator, one who excels at drawing cars and machines, but whose work shows little emotion despite its technical skill.
This prelude to Tony’s story is told largely via voiceover narration and a series of brief visual vignettes, during which the camera remains mostly static within each scene, but pans from scene to scene directly from left-to-right like in a slide show. These movements mark the passage of time, as in the technique in older films of having calendar pages flip or be blown off by the wind. At first this technique may seem a little forced and perhaps distracting, but as you settle in with it and the film progresses it becomes quite fitting and natural to the way in which director Jun Ichikawa tells the story.
After this prelude we see Tony as a successful technical artist, still alone in early middle age. One day he meets a pretty young client, and after a time he asks her out. They go on a few dates, seemingly hitting it off, and Tony proposes. Surprisingly, the girl, Eiko, agrees to think about it, and eventually says yes. They marry, but not long afterwards, and despite their apparent happiness, Tony finds out something disturbing about his new bride: she buys an “alarming number” of designer clothes.
Eventually Tony and Eiko talk about this obsession of Eiko’s, and she agrees to cut back. But an obsession is an obsession, this one takes a tragic turn, and again Tony finds himself faced with the possibility of being alone. His attempts to deal with this make up the remainder of the story.
The overall feel of this film is that of a fable, or even a sort of visual poem. Dialogue is sparse – most of the story is told by the conjunction of the narration and the visuals, and the narration itself has the matter-of-fact quality of a folktale. Issey Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father, and who is better known in Japan as a comedian and comic actor, captures both Tony’s lonely world-weariness and his hope perfectly. It’s a quietly wonderful performance. And Rie Miyazawa, who plays both Eiko and another girl, Hisako, that Tony meets later in the film, plays both of these quite different girls so well that only the credits give away the fact that it’s the same actress.
The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is sparse too – all solo piano, made up of haunting melancholy themes for the most part, but punctuated occasionally by the more upbeat, almost jazzy moments that accompany the film’s brighter scenes.
On a surface level, then, the whole thing seems very simple. But the excellent understated performances, the uncomplicated storytelling, and the visual poetry combine in a way which makes Tony Takitani deeper and richer than it appears. And the gentle touch of irony with which the film ends is perfect. Ultimately what we have here is a jewel of small beauty -- a fine poetic meditation on life and loneliness, love and memory.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.
The election is now seven weeks or so in the past, the inauguration three weeks away, and I think I'm in a position to say that my one feeble effort in the political debate of the past year or so has been a complete failure. I refer to the attempt to persuade Democrats that the habit of denouncing as bigots everyone who disagrees with them is partly responsible for the Trump phenomenon. Judging by the reactions of people I know, and from what I see on the Internet, they're having none of it. Asked to consider the possibility that telling people how much you despise them is not a good way to get them on your side, many don't seem able to see that they are perceived that way. The reaction has tended to be "Obviously those bad people didn't get the message that they are bad, so we need to say it more loudly and frequently."
The accusation that their enemies are driven by hate and fear, whereas they themselves are driven by love and tolerance, is so integral a part of the left's self-conception that most of them seem to be truly incapable of seeing that what those enemies see directed toward them is, precisely, hate and fear. One of the first things I wrote on this site, back in 2004, was an attempt to analyze liberal bigotry. The phenomenon has only grown more intense and more common since then. I've been struck over and over again in recent weeks by the degree to which the psychological mechanism of bigotry is operative among those for whom opposition to bigotry is an important part of their self-conception. "See the ugly thing that a Trump supporter said; Trump supporters are evil." It's exactly the same mental operation as that of a racist commenting on a crime committed by a black person. It seems to me that they are, you might say, self-inoculated against the capacity to see what they're doing: "I am not a bigot, therefore what I do is not bigotry."
So the polarization seems likely to continue and intensify, the diagnosis of undeclared civil war more frequently heard, the two sides less and less able to see the possibility of coexistence, more likely to see the seizing of federal power as the only way of avoiding subjugation by the other side.
Oh, and I suppose I should mention the continuing failure of another favored effort of mine: to persuade people, mainly those on the left to whom it seems most applicable, that the attempt to enforce national uniformity on controversial matters is a mistake, and that a path to peaceful coexistence is to allow the federal system to operate, leaving many things in the hands of the states. The response is always to point to slavery, segregation, and the civil rights laws: the resolution at the national level of great injustice. The well of federalism has been poisoned. I suspect that hundreds of years from now it will be generally seen that slavery and its related evils were the fundamental source of the forces that destroyed the United States. The lesson that might be drawn from the current situation is that we have invested too much power in the central government, and too much power and symbolic importance in the person of the president. The fact that he matters so much is not healthy, and was not intended by the founders. But the reaction seems rather to be a renewed sense of urgent necessity for seizing control of the national government. We do not elect a monarch, but some large portion of our citizenry seems to believe that we do, and that Trump could, if he chose, simply give the order to start rounding up everyone he (and/or his supporters) dislikes and putting them into concentration camps. (I'm not exaggerating.) And that the only defense against him is to seize the power attributed to him for their own side.
There's been a lot of talk about the effect of this election on the position of the media. I'm certainly not a student of the matter, but it seems to me that maybe we've reached some sort of recognition of the situation that's been developing for decades: the existence of openly partisan news media, along the lines of the newspapers ca. 1900. That's not altogether a bad thing. Anyone on the rightward side of the political spectrum is very well aware of bias on the part of the media establishment, bias which operates most powerfully not in the specific slanting of news stories but in the assumption by the media of the right and power to set the boundaries of acceptable discourse, in fact of truth itself. The Trump phenomenon seems to be evidence that that power has been reduced if not destroyed. James Bowman, whose media column in The New Criterion generally contains some useful insights, described what has happened this way--the context is of the Brexit vote, and the media coverage of the presidential debates:
...the job of reporting the news has in recent years too often taken a back seat to the reinforcement, with the help of media-identified experts, of an elite, bipartisan consensus on everything from trade to global warming to how to stimulate the economy to gay marriage. This consensus is also seen in both countries as being under threat from an incipient revolt by social and intellectual undesirables....
The media themselves, in other words, are the real experts in their own conceit. What they see as their unassailable moral authority gives them the right to identify the right experts, as it does to report the right facts, and so to decide in advance all those questions that were once supposed by non-experts to be debatable....
The consensus, and the right of the media to define it, have been severely damaged, though I think not destroyed. Even people like me who did not support Trump think that's a good thing. The next few years will be...interesting.
Back in November I saw several films at the Fairhope Film Festival which I wanted to recommend. We already had a full slate of 52 Movies entries, so I haven't yet mentioned them. One of them is a Swedish film, A Man Called Ove. (The name is pronounced "oo-veh", by the way.) I'm a little suspicious of my reaction to it, a little suspicious that I've allowed myself to fall victim to something sentimental. A brief summary of the plot reinforces the suspicion: a bitter and misanthropic old man is restored to humanity by engagement with the people around him. Although I can't think of a specific example, it seems a cliched plot.
It's both funny and moving, and even putting it that way arouses the suspicion that I was tricked by sentimentality into thinking it's a better movie than it is (the tear and the smile!). Well, so be it, I still recommend it. I argue that it's done so well that it succeeds in spite of the obvious pitfalls of the subject.
The film is based on a best-selling book (best-selling in Sweden, at least). I haven't read it, but my wife has, and liked it, which is a big part of the reason why we saw it.
Yesterday I went to a funeral. The deceased was not someone I knew at all well; it was the mother of a friend, and I went as an act of respect for him and his family, not because of any personal sense of loss. As is often the case when I attend a funeral, especially in a circumstance like this where I was not close to the person who died, I feel that there is something a little appalling about the way life goes on for the rest of us. Here is this enormously important event, and my wife and I are wondering if we can work it into a day of which the focus is going down to my sister-in-law's house in Josephine, Alabama, and watching the Alabama vs. Washington playoff game. I'm reminded of a story about a country preacher admonishing his flock to keep in mind the transitory nature of this life: "One day they'll lower you into the ground, and then everybody will go back to the church and eat chicken and potato salad."
For some reason--well, for definite reasons both cosmic and personal--Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" has been on my mind for some weeks now. Here's a link to someone reading the poem, which includes the text and a rather nice graphic. It's the closing lines of the poem I keep hearing:
Some blessed hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware
No man is an island. – Jon Bon Jovi
This quote is the theme of the movie, discussed in voice-over by the main character at the very beginning, and then again at the very end. Will Freeman considers himself “an island”; completely self-sufficient, and in need of no other islanders to share with him his realm. To be perfectly honest I have never really liked living with other people, so was very much drawn to this movie from the opening scene back in 2002 when I was fourteen years younger. Now, such an island seems a little bleak.
It is always odd revisiting a film after many years have passed. Especially when it is one you felt at the time seemed to speak to you. There is a reason I have never re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that the enjoyment my 13-year-old self had reading it would be much diminished as a wiser adult. But I digress. When I first saw About a Boy I was surprised that:
Hugh Grant seemed to be playing a real person, and not the fluttering eye lidded floppy haired fop from so many of his previous films.
A “rom com” (romantic comedy) could have a little depth, make me think, appear to exist in a world I might recognize.
I am happy that watching it again so many years later it does still retain much of its inherent charm. I probably do not relate to Will as much as I did back then, but the movie was enjoyable and went by quickly. I kept thinking, “is this really going to make me laugh” and then during one scene I was suddenly laugh/crying and getting the insides of my glasses wet with my tears!
Grant plays Will Freeman, who lives a life that is certainly enviable in many respects: no wife, no kids, no job, money to live comfortably, ability to meet beautiful single women. But I suppose Will finds himself a little lacking in that final category and begins to date divorced single mothers. Then he attends a SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together) self-help group meeting, pretending to be the father of a two-year-old son named Ned. Through some oddity involving a date with a woman there who knows the mother of our titular “boy” Will eventually befriends the 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult, who lately plays Beast in the X-Men films, and used to date Jennifer Lawrence).
I must sheepishly admit that I did like the Hugh Grant persona to some degree in those previous films, especially Four Weddings and a Funeral, regardless of how annoying his typical character back then was. About a Boy seems to be the point in his career when he either got a better agent, or simply made a conscious decision that he should try to act rather than simply react to the actors around him.
Marcus’s mother (“was clearly insane, and appeared to be wearing a yeti”- Will) Fiona (Toni Collette) is a vegetarian, neo-hippie, and quite depressed. All three of these conditions help to make his school-life more difficult than your average already difficult middle-school experience. His solid brown shoes, sweaters knitted by his mother, and occasional singing of mid-70s lite-rock hits during class without realizing it does not endear him to his fellow students. Marcus provides the viewer with a second occasional voice-over, helping to explain the action.
About a Boy began as a book by Nick Hornby, who is a favorite author of mine. He also wrote High Fidelity which was adapted into a fine movie starring John Cusack. The filmmakers who adapted High Fidelity moved the action from London to Chicago, but this time with About a Boy we stay in the UK. Both have music as a recurring theme, and the soundtrack to About a Boy was written and performed by Badly Drawn Boy, who is some sort of lite-rockish, neo-folk English singer who always wears a knit hat. At the time it came out I found his music endearing, and enjoyed how it strung the movie together. All these years later it reminds me of Jack Johnson, and I was more impressed with the U2 and Roberta Flack songs included. Redo the sound and ditch Badly Drawn Boy! As a matter of fact, both he and Jack Johnson can end their careers and do the world a favor! Uh oh, another digression.
Nick Hornby, if you’ve never read him, is what I would categorize as a very smart contemporary writer. His books are not very long, and they all speak with what I suppose is his voice. They tend to be written in first-person narrative, wherein you easily hear the main character and understand all his (or her) quirks and motivations. Hornby has also gained some success writing screenplays lately. I believe he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Brooklyn (a tremendous movie, and an even better book). With all of that said, Hornby did not write the screenplay for About a Boy.
I am discussing other things besides the movie because I feel I have already given away too much of the plot along with one very funny line. Will and Marcus befriend each other. Will understands what a boy needs more than Fiona does. Through their friendship Will becomes more open to the idea that his island does not have to be a population of simply one. That said, it is not the typical romantic comedy which has Will and Fiona carrying on at the end. It is more about the man and the boy and their friendship. And yes, I do know that John Donne said “no man is an island”, not Jon Bon Jovi.
This is probably the first romantic comedy reviewed in the series. A movie to enjoy that is not in any way cerebral, or taxing. I feel like a commoner introducing silly nonsense to a group of smart people. However, very much recommended, good acting by all parties! In 2018 let’s do “52 Rom Coms”! It made me chuckle out loud just to type that.
—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.
This post is made up of four short reviews of movies that are only related in the flow of my own stream of consciousness. I was thinking about the first film one day and one thing led to another, and this was the result.
I first stumbled on the movie Dark Horse (2016) when I was looking for The Dark Horse. I had seen a trailer for the latter on the DVD of another movie, and it looked like it might be good. The description of Dark Horse looked interesting too, so I put it on my Netflix queue. By the time it arrived, I had it in my mind that it was a movie about an actual event, but in reality, it is a documentary.
Jan Vokes is a barmaid in a small Welsh mining town. Her father bred parakeets, and she followed in his footsteps, breeding other animals among which I think were greyhounds. I wish I could remember exactly, but I don't have easy access to the film now. In any case, she had a background in breeding animals, and when she overheard Howard Davis, a well-to-do patron of the bar, talking about his unprofitable foray into horse racing, she decided to give it try.
When she told her husband, Brian, what she intended to do, he said something to the effect that she was daft, but he also said that when Janet put her mind to something, you could be sure that she would do it. (I had to laugh at that, because I have heard my husband say the exact same thing many times.) Then, despite the fact that Davis had sworn to never get involved with horses again, she convinced him to help, and persuaded 100 locals to join a syndicate in which they would contribute £10 a week toward the expense of breeding and racing a horse.
Despite the fact that they had so few resources and had to go to the bargain end of the stud book to achieve their goals, the syndicate succeeded in breeding a winner. Dream Alliance gained increasing respect from the racing community who originally snubbed the syndicate, and in the end won the Welsh Grand National.
Louise Osmond, the director of the film, did a wonderful job of interviewing the members of the syndicate and telling the story in a delightful way. Godfrey Cheshire at RogertEbert.com described the film as crying out, “to be a Mike Leigh film starring Jim Broadbent and other members of the director's stock company,” and this is as accurate a description of the film as you could find.
The Dark Horse (2014) begins with a large Maori man wearing a large quilt, wandering through the streets of a New Zealand town muttering to himself. He turns into a second-hand shop, and when he sees a chessboard on the counter, he immediately snaps into a more understandable monologue and begins playing chess. He is still obviously disturbed and the proprietors call the police who take him into custody and back to a facility for the mentally ill.
The Dark Horse is based (to what degree I don't know) on the life of Genesis Potini, a man who had in his youth had a reputation as an up-and-coming chess master. His severe manic-depression, however, put an end to his early promise. The story of the film begins as he is released into the custody of his brother, Akiri, who is the only person willing to have Genesis in his home.
Akiri is not the ideal custodian of a mentally ill person as he is the leader of a gang, the Outcasts, and his home is the place where the gang hangs out. Besides the Outcasts, Gen has to deal with his resentful nephew Manu, who has had to give up his room for his uncle. Manu is, understandably, a troubled young man who is torn by his desire to make his father happy by joining the gang, and his desire for a different kind of life.
Gen, seeing a poster advertising the Eastern Knights, a chess club for underprivileged youth led by an old friend, offers his services as a teacher for the group. The friend isn't at all thrilled with Gen's offer, but is finally convinced to see how things go. Needless to say, it isn't all smooth sailing, but the story of the Eastern Knights, the relationship between Gen and Manu, and Gen's struggle to stay on top of his illness make for a compelling film.
I also enjoyed the French chess movie, Queen to Play (2011). Sandra Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a woman who cleans rooms in a pastoral hotel in the Corsican countryside. One day a couple tells her to go ahead and clean their room while they are sitting on the balcony playing chess. As she cleans, she watches the beautiful couple—the woman in her slip--on the balcony, intent on their game and one another, and feels a growing hunger. After the couple leaves the hotel, Hélène finds that the woman has left the slip behind in the bed, and she takes it home and begins to wear it, a sort of talisman of the life that she wants to lead.
Hoping to be able to play chess with her husband, Hélène buys him an electronic chess set for his birthday, but he is completely baffled by the gift. He does try to learn, but the complexity of the game is too much for him, so she tries to teach herself to play.
Hélène has another job cleaning the beautiful home of a reclusive and irascible Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline). She finds that he owns a chess set, and asks him to play with her. He declines, but she is persistent. She even offers to work for free if he will, and he says they will try once. When he sees how serious she is about the game, and how much it means to her, he agrees to teach her.
The picture at the top of this section comes from a NPR review by Ella Taylor that describes Queen to Play as not-too-terrible, but I think it's a good deal better than that, and that Ms. Taylor has some kind of an ax to grind, particularly with Kevin Kline. I hesitated to link to the site, but I liked the picture.
Roger Ebert, on the other hand, says this about the film:
I wonder if someone who doesn't love chess as much as I do would like “Queen to Play” as much as I did. Such a person could enjoy the transformation of a Corsican maid into strong chess player. They might read it as a story of female empowerment, of a woman asserting herself in her marriage and in her job. That would be fair enough.
But what I enjoyed was the way the film summons up the pure obsessive passion that chess stirs in some people.
I live with a bit of that in my husband, but, since I can't grasp the spatial aspect of the game, I'm not a chess enthusiast myself.
The last film is about yet another French housekeeper who has a an inner passion, and that passion is for painting. Like The Dark Horse, Séraphine (2009) is a movie about the life of a real person, a person who is also mentally ill. Séraphine Louis (played by Yolande Moreau) was born in Arcy (Oise), France in1864. She was very poor and and seems to have had a rather limited intelligence. She used the money from her work cleaning houses to buy the materials to paint the pictures which she secretly worked on at night.
Séraphine's work was accidentally discovered by art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who was a neighbor of one of her employers. He was very impressed by her work, which he exhibited, and her paintings became very popular. Some of them are quite beautiful, but as you can see from the above picture, many of them had a rather disturbing quality, and they came by it honestly. Séraphine was very ill and ended her life in an institution where she was unable to paint.
This is a good movie but it is very sad and very disturbing. I would only cautiously recommend it. In fact, I'm not even sure that I want to include it in this post, except that it ties in so well with what's gone before. And then it shows that even the most unlikely people can have deeply hidden talents. Her works are still exhibited.
As I think about these four movies, I realize that the one thing that they all have in common is this discovery of gifts in unexpected places: the barmaid who breeds a race horse, the manic-depressive who mentors children, the chambermaid who plays tournament chess, and the housemaid who creates masterpieces. It's odd that I never noticed that until now.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.
I believe that La Sapienza, a 2014 film written and directed by Eugène Green, has not been widely seen. I forget how it came about that I heard of it; probably there was some approving notice in the local press when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. In any case, and box office returns notwithstanding, it is a film very much worth seeing.
We are introduced to a middle-aged couple, Alexandre and Aliénor, he an architect and she a psychoanalyst. They are both professionally successful, but beset by problems: their marriage has grown cold and dry, and he, in particular, has come to regret the path his professional life has followed, for though he has won many accolades he has neglected the guiding ideals that had inspired him to become an architect in the first place. He decides to travel to Italy to rekindle that early love of his subject, and she goes along.
It soon transpires that they cross paths with a young brother and sister, Goffredo and Lavinia. She is ill with a strange malady, and he, it so happens, is about to begin his university studies in architecture. Thus we get a natural shuffling: Aliénor elects to remain with Lavinia as she recovers in order that Goffredo can accompany Alexandre on his architectural tour. From this point, the film jumps back and forth between the two women and the two men, following their developing friendships, and, subterraneously, re-aligning and healing the original relationships.
The architectural tour, devoted especially to the works of Borromini, takes the two men to Turin and then, for the bulk of the film, to Rome. My friends, I know of no film more apt to delight the heart of a lover of the Eternal City! The camera lingers lovingly over details as it gently slides across a facade, or is content to gaze raptly at the intricate symmetries of a church ceiling. Rome, and its many beauties, is no mere setting, but becomes itself a subject of the film. It is truly glorious. Even were there nothing else going on in the film, the devoted attention it lavishes on these architectural gems would be enough to recommend it.
But there is more going on. As the two women get to know one another, Aliénor explores with Lavinia her hopes for the future and the nature of her illness. Meanwhile the two men, ostensibly the master and the student, through a series of encounters and conversations find their roles gradually reversed, the older learning from the younger how to recover his lost passion for his art. Those, at least, are two of the main arcs of the story, but to leave it there would be to oversimplify.
On the surface La Sapienza is about how the friendships and experiences of the characters change them for the better, for the film believes strongly in truth and beauty as spiritual curatives. But having pondered it at some length (and watched it twice), I believe that one of its leading convictions, sunk into numerous aspects of both story and presentation, is that spiritual realities manifest themselves in physical things, or, put the other way, that tangible things possess an inner reality. This is true of buildings as of bodies. It's a rather Catholic idea, consonant with a sacramental imagination, but the film itself does not stress any particular religious connection. (Indeed, all we know of the religious convictions of the lead characters is that one is a syncretist and another an atheist.) It is nonetheless an amazingly rich theme to explore, and one rarely encountered at the cinema.
At this point I should note the most obvious thing that will strike the average viewer of La Sapienza: it is weird. I choose the word advisedly, intending to catch the resonance with the old sense of 'uncanny', as well as the modern sense of 'unusual'. Green has adopted a daring formal technique: almost always the actors speak directly into the camera, as if addressing the viewer, even when actually addressing one another. The conversations have a studied quality, each line having a little more silence around it than we’re accustomed to. Furthermore the actors often adopt a highly artificial acting style, with stiff movements, vacant facial expressions, flat tone. Even the blocking is deliberate: characters who are unfriendly to one another, for instance, stand angled away from one another, while characters who love one another stand face to face. So strange is the cumulative effect of these unconventional rules that I confess I found the experience of watching it curiously unnerving.
Here is a short excerpt of a conversation between Alexandre and Goffredo, illustrating, in part, what I mean:
At first I was puzzled by the purpose of these odd formal strategies, but upon reflection I believe they are related to the idea I discussed above: that inner realities are conveyed by means of external signs. In this film what we see on the characters' faces, and in their postures, and what we hear in their voices, are their souls, without disguise or polite veil. The face looks hard because the heart is hard. The eyes are bright and open because the soul is alive and beautiful. They smile because they feel genuinely happy. They walk stiffly, or easily, because their souls are bound, or free. The drama we see is the interior drama. And this revelation of the inner world by the outer is transposed in the film also to the architectural masterpieces, palaces of space and light, in which we see only the surface but are drawn to the spirit.
I hope, but doubt, that these notes adequately convey what I found so alluring about the film. If I have made it sound dull or didactic, this is just because while writing I've been trying to work out in my own mind what I think it is doing.
All told, I found it to be a fascinating and surprisingly touching film. It is rare to find a movie that has such great confidence in beauty and goodness, and one that is so wholly oriented toward light. It may seem perversely odd at first, on account of its unfamiliar and apparently bizarre conventions, but as it proceeds it slowly excavates an interior space until the viewer, without quite knowing how, finds himself in a realm of mystery.
As a child I involuntarily acquired a familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan from my grandmother’s record collection (which consisted almost wholly of their operettas and Strauss waltzes — the popular music of her parents’ generation) and from the occasional televising of a performance. These were the days when a household had a single screen, and the children got to watch whatever the adults decided should be on it. In 2005, for the World Expo in Aichi, the commissioner of the Belgian pavilion published a lavish volume on the history of Japanese–Belgian relations (economic, diplomatic and cultural). I revised the essays in the book, more than one of which was about the 19th-century craze for Japanese arts and crafts (which can be seen in Van Gogh’s imitations of Hiroshige, or Monet’s more oblique debt to Hokusai).
Not long after this I first saw Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on television. I have rewatched it five or six times since, and regret having become aware of it too late to see it on a big screen. The film covers a period of about a year in the mid-1880s when Gilbert and Sullivan came close to ending their flagging artistic collaboration, but triumphantly got it back on track with The Mikado. So many influences on our appreciation are personal that I do not know whether anyone else would respond with quite the enthusiasm that I did — a reluctant Gilbert and Sullivan buff, with an unsought depth of knowledge about the Victorian enthusiasm for Japan. The film certainly seems not to have done very well at the box-office, where according to Wikipedia it recouped not much more than 6 of the 20 million dollars that it cost to make.
I really cannot imagine why it had so little success at the box office, as I would count Topsy-Turvy among the cleverest, best written, best acted, and most beautifully produced films of the last twenty years. The sets and costumes are unimpeachable. It does rather pack in the novelties of the time – telephones, fountain pens, ice-cream cones, indoor plumbing – but in an entertaining enough manner. I think I’m right in saying that it won Oscars for costumes and make-up; if it didn’t it certainly deserved to. And of course, it is filled throughout with songs from the works.
As fair warning, I will mention that two scenes do always irk me. One is of Sullivan in a Parisian brothel, which takes a good deal longer than is necessary to convey whatever artistic point its inclusion requires (similarly, in Mr Turner, a film that is a stunning exploration of light and colour, Leigh has an uncomfortable sex scene that goes on long after its point is made, for no clear reason — certainly not for titillation). Luckily, once the brothel scene starts you miss nothing by skipping straight to the beginning of the next chapter on the DVD. The other is a group of leading actors from the company (the bass, tenor and baritone who in the final production of The Mikado have the roles of the Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) dining together and discussing news from the Sudan (the contemporary events that provide the plot for the 1966 blockbuster Khartoum). They speak with a crude and dismissive racism that rings false. Racist assumptions may have been characteristic of many attitudes of the period, but the dialogue in this scene strikes me more as a modern liberal trying to sound like an imperialistic jingo (see how unenlightened they were!) than something respectable people at the time would actually have been likely to say over dinner in a public restaurant. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these minor irritations, but in the balance of the film as a whole they certainly detract little from it.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.