As I finished up James McClure's "The Artful Egg" (1984)I couldn't help thinking of a conference I recently attended. A woman participating in a seminar became somewhat agitated, almost leaping out of her seat as she inveighed against the persistence of the mind-body or soul-body duality. Finally she let forth an anguished and strident cry: "I am NOT a vessel!" Everyone in the room murmured appreciatively, although whether it was the point or the performance that they enjoyed was unclear.
Later that day, I saw the woman at a reception. She was carrying a tiny baby.
I don't want to overemphasize the importance of this to her stand. I am sure the mind-body duality has always been a source of outrage to her. But this certainly added a meaningful richness to her zeal.
Parenthood, as one might suspect from the novel's opening lines, is no small or carefree endeavor in "The Artful Egg." Children become full of guile and complexity as they age, and are cheerfully resistant to your social deceptions when they are young. To say more would perhaps reveal too much about this double-stranded whodunit, so I will simply summarize the premise: a progressive writer is murdered in apartheid-era South Africa. What was the motive? Her money? Her politics? Her thorny familial relationships? The police (riven with racial strife themselves) compete against each other to solve the crime, while simultaneously delving into the demise of an infamous interrogator's wife in circumstances that suspiciously mirror the "accidental" deaths of political prisoners.
I found myself troubled by the racial politics of the novel (this may be to be expected in any book about apartheid). The plot is explicitly subversive, as paradoxical as that phrase may seem, but the characterizations revel in a physicality of stereotypes that can be quite unsettling. So grotesque are characters of all ethnicities that the body itself, with all its racial codes, becomes a source of extremes, a vessel of disgust.
"The Artful Egg" (1984)
James McClure [who, I am sad to say, died earlier this year at the age of 66]
As I finished up James McClure's "The Artful Egg" (1984)I couldn't help thinking of a conference I recently attended. A woman participating in a seminar became somewhat agitated, almost leaping out of her seat as she inveighed against the persistence of the mind-body or soul-body duality. Finally she let forth an anguished and strident cry: "I am NOT a vessel!" Everyone in the room murmured appreciatively, although whether it was the point or the performance that they enjoyed was unclear.
First of all, I have to mention my favorite (for this week) "acknowledgment" from the beginning of an academic tome, Branimir M. Rieger's "Dionysus in Literature." Hewing closely to convention, he thanks his colleagues, his editors, the contributors to the volume (a collection of essays), his parents, his children. And then, this, the final sentence:
"And to Katanga, Major Tom, Baby Schnupkin, Lothar, Mookie, Nub, Baby Nub, Pockel, the Twins, Mousie, Lobotz, and Tiniest Of ..."
Um. Wait, no, read to the end...
"for their feline encouragement, and especially to Molly."
Without commenting in depth on how delightful it is that Molly (if Molly is in fact human, as I suspect) is folded in to the long train of meowing supporters, I just have to say this: Tiniest Of! Best cat name ever. And the idea of acknowledging your cats in an academic work (particularly one that takes as its subject madness in literature) - Awesome.
Or in the new Britspeak parlance that my friend and I are trying unsuccessfully to adopt .... "Immense."
"The Mayor of Casterbridge" gallops apace, although I approach it with a growing sense of doom since my flatmate Anthony told me that it was a terribly sad book. I don't know why I believed that, totally against form and precedent, Hardy would have written a Jane Austen novel in which everything ends happily after some witty convulsions of plot. But I did. And now I fear for these poor characters.
There is a strange aversion to implicitness in the prose that I hadn't remembered from my one other experience with Hardy, although it may very well be characteristic. An example, from a scene in which Henchard reads a letter from an ex while his wife lies in her sickbed:
"Henchard breathed heavily. 'Poor thing - better you had not known me! Upon my heart and soul, if ever I should be left in a position to carry out that marriage with thee, I ought to do it - I ought to do it, indeed.'
The contingency that he had in his mind was of course the death of Mrs. Henchard."
Of course. Thanks for the clarification.
This novel is pretty much the opposite of a Henry James novel. In Henry James you wade through miles of text and then think, "Wait, did that really just happen?", aware that if you returned to the passage you would find all evidence of the event to be tricksy and double-edged, yielding multiple possible interpretations. The Hardy of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" would follow up such a passage with a paragraph break and the statement, "And then they had sex. Twice."
Is this a conscious narrative choice on Hardy's part? If so, to what end?
I must admit to using my recreational reading as a carrot to encourage me to do work, alternating academic reading (divided into manageable chunks) with New Yorkers, novels, comics. This does not always yield the most efficient results, but it is highly satisfying. I have also developed a curious relay* method to organize my reading and guarantee that I don't favor any particular genre (reading nothing, as is sometimes my wont, but young adult novels). I read three books at any one time, going through a generic to-do list in the following order:
1) Book groups (I now belong, on Yahoo groups, to a Dickens group, a British Classics group, a Literary fiction group, and a Twentieth Century Writers group)
2) Young adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Crime, or Thriller
3) Book from the 1001 Books I must Read Before I Die list **
4) Comics/Graphic novels
5) Random fiction
As a result, I am currently at work on two other books in addition to "The Mayor of Casterbridge:" Paul Auster's "The New York Trilogy," which has delighted me by referencing my favorite Poe character (William Wilson), and James McClure's "The Artful Egg." I will leave you with the pleasing (and then troubling, which makes it all the more pleasing) opening line of McClure's mystery:
"A hen is an egg's way of making another egg."
*My mind is on relays at the moment, since I just turned on the television to record the Carolina women's basketball and soccer games and discovered that Animal Planet is televising a delightful sport which sends a series of dogs over hurdles to a machine which shoots tennis balls into their mouths. Nothing (except lumber sports and a curious hybrid of kickboxing and wrestling that I like to call boxling) amuses me quite as much as dog sports.
**I should note that I have another newfound enthusiasm for a webpage called Lists of Bests, which allows you to create or adopt lists (of books to read, movies to watch, places to visit, people to meet, or anything else really) any track your progress through them. Here is the absurd group of lists I am ... pursuing.
I am spending the weekend curled up under a blanket, in my normal sickly way, catching up on TiVo and the many excellent books I am reading. I am perpetually behind in the numerous reading groups I have been drawn into by Yahoo, but (rising above my inadequacy as a participant) they continue to provide me with excellent books that would never otherwise have been a priority.
At the moment I am hard at work on "The Mayor of Casterbridge," only my second ever Hardy (after the grimmer "Tess") and a font of antisocial and macabre delights. The blurb on the back of the book is one of the worst pieces of literary advertising I have ever seen, mumbling drearily on about the honesty of the protagonist Henchard as a tragic hero. Meanwhile, the inciting action of the novel, an event worthy of a Victorian Jerry Springer, goes completely unmentioned, despite the fact that it occurs in the very first chapter: Henchard ("honest" Henchard), drunk and belligerent, sells his wife like a horse to the highest bidder in provincial market, sending her and their baby daughter off with an unknown (but apparently kindly) sailor.
Nonetheless, my favorite moment so far (I am about 13 chapters in) comes in the midst of Hardy's description of the Roman essence of Casterbridge's topogrophy and architecture:
"It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobstrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years. He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes with the remains of his spear against his arm; a fibula or brooch of bronze on his breast or forehead; an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at his mouth; and mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes of Casterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at the familiar spectacle as they passed by. Imaginative inhabitants who would have felt an unpleasantness at the discovery of a comparatively modern skeleton in their gardens, were quite unmoved by these hoary shapes."
What could I think of, but the skulls in the Museum of London?
This week has seen me a slave to my TiVo, which, brimming full, has mercilessly threatened to erase unwatched movies (to avenge itself for my tendency to record three hour long monstrosities) if I don't continuously watch films from morning to midnight. So, a summary of recently watched movies on TiVo, DVD, and in theaters, with the most recently watched films first (SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW):
dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
I was slowly wooed by this classic Antonioni, only the second of his (after "Blow Up") I have ever seen. The best explanation I can give of the transformation of my initial reluctance to engage is that it is really the magnetically beautiful Monica Vitti who made the film for me, and she only comes to occupy the central place in the narrative after her friend Anna (Lea Massari) has lengthily expressed her discontent with life and mysteriously disappeared. This is a rich, eventful film masquerading (quite cleverly) as a plotless one, and I can see already that it will reward multiple watchings, not merely to observe the famously ambiguous details of Anna's disappearance (was she lying when she said she saw a shark in the ocean while she was swimming?), but also to absorb the significance of a fleet of peripheral characters and events (like the author who writes in a trance and transforms a city of Italian men into a lurching zombie horde by ripping the seam on her skin tight skirt). One of my favorite moments comes quite near the end, when the bored, insomniac Monica Vitti, waiting for her absent lover to return, wanders her hotel room and explores the plasticity of her face in the mirror. A dozen emotions range across her face in a matter of seconds; it is as if she is warming up for a confrontation to come. A layered and captivating film.
"THE QUIET MAN" (1952)
dir. John Ford
I can't help it. I never expected to harbor a secret, burning love for either Gene Kelly or John Wayne (and more different loves they couldn't possibly be - let's be honest - although they certainly share a substantial physical charisma), but that is how it has happened, and there is no use denying it now. John Wayne plays slightly out of form in this rollickingly paced comedy about an American who returns to his Irish birthplace and falls in love with the "Homerically" willful Maureen O'Hara. OK, so the film is wildly uncomfortable on the subjects of, say, spousal abuse, feminism and non-violence, and it has a wonderfully blithe way of plastering over the Troubles and the problem of religious difference, but the sheer enthusiasm of the characters (not to mention the disarming intensity of the love scenes) are seductive, and you find yourself undeniably enthralled.
"LOOK AT ME" / "COMME UNE IMAGE" (2005)
dir. Agnes Jaoui
A narcissitic author-publisher and his terminally self-conscious daughter clash over the idea that caring is control, and manage to be endlessly cruel to all those that love them. Every attempt at connection (be it friendship or love) is met with distrust, derision, or the obliteration of the friend and lover. But the whole thing is done to a haunting lovely soundtrack of Monteverdi, so can it all be that grim? What emerges is a fascinating character study in family politics.
"THE WEEPING MEADOW" (2004)
dir. Theo Angelopoulos
A synthesis of (and meditative response to) the entire Greek epic tradition, this is also an absolutely riveting three hours. See it on as big a screen as possible: it is a subtle, painterly approach to film-making, a narrative constructed of incredibly long shots that develop in infinitesimal increments until they ripen into shocking meaning. It is a stunning love story of few words and detailed characterizations, a family saga and a tale of civil war that searingly retreads the traditions of "Seven against Thebes" and "Antigone." Each of the shots is a flawlessly constructed study in place as character. The weeping meadow is the plot of land given to ethnic Greeks fleeing Russia in the film's opening moments (land which ties them to an endless cycle of labor and loss); it is the field of honor on which soldiers killed in battle lie, waiting for their mothers to find them; and it is the organizing symbol of history in the film - a field in which each blade of grass yields a drop of dew that ultimately forms a river. There are town scenes straight out of Brueghel, in which the real object of our interest is gradually lost amidst the shifting patterns and rich seeming-chaos of life. There are Dutch interiors: Vermeer letter-readers and scenes that develop across several rooms, fitting multiple planes of narrative and image into a single frame. But this rich weft of cultural precedent never makes the film derivative or its characters stiff allegories. A devastating, imperative experience.
My boyfriend Dan and I finally caught up with the lauded television series "Weeds" this weekend, largely because whenever he expresses an interest in writing quirky comedies (which is frequently) this one is cited to us as a prototype. Many people I know, love, and respect have a fondness bordering on addiction (ha ha) for the show, so we settled down to watch it with relish. Only to look at each other with a wary incomprehension thirty minutes later. Surely it must get better, we concluded. So we watched two more episodes. At that point Dan sleepily gave up, but I persevered through the whole first disc, without any increase in admiration or enjoyment.
I have always found Mary Louise Parker's work somewhat grating, and nothing convinced me otherwise here, but she was hardly the only problem. Across the board the acting was wooden or oddly half-formed (I am narrowly avoiding bad pot-related puns all through this explanation) and the characterizations were thoughtless and even lazy. In Dan's view, the show's most serious flaw is that it is "overwritten." The most effective television comedies (like "Arrested Development," the British "Coupling," or "Sports Night") manage to create a comic structure made up of many seemingly unrelated jokes that all coalesce into one grand, unexpected joke: a sort of a drama of coordination, to use a term that recalls Shakespeare's comedies. "Weeds" self-consciously attempts this, but you can see skeleton through the flesh of the writing all too often - every joke is telegraphed, and the structure seems not so much complex as contrived. Also, most devastatingly, it isn't funny. Is this just prudery on our part? Does it improve from here? Please tell me if it does.
Speaking of prudery, I became enraged with "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" on Monday. This was the most anticipated new show of the season for me, since I have been known to be a bit of a Sorkin groupie (I abruptly stopped watching "The West Wing" after he and director/producer Thomas Schlamme departed at the end of the fourth season). Unfortunately, I have found the first few episodes strangely dull. There seems to be nothing at stake here - not only have they (writers, actors, directors) failed to convince us that we should care whether the show-within-a-show succeeds, but the dialogue contains almost none of Sorkin's trademark wit. Instead we get rehashes of old dialogue structures that are now so tired that can chant along with the characters the first time you see an episode.
Worse yet, I have finally grown tired of the smug tone of Sorkin's writing (once in strayed out of "The West Wing"'s soothing championing of my personal political beliefs). The third episode of the season spent a considerable amount of time condescending to people who lack the education or interest to appreciate the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell'arte, but meanwhile every single character mispronounced the term (as commedia dell'art). I don't know - to me, ill-informed pomposity and arrogance are worse than garden variety ignorance. Furthermore, the episode featured a scathing comparison of cocaine and alcohol abuse, in which Bradley Whitford's character claims that as a cocaine use he only hurt himself , whereas a drunk driver endangers every other person on the road. Now I am hardly a friend to alcohol use, and I couldn't feel more strongly about the irresponsibility of driving drunk. It seems to me morally suspect, however, to pretend that cocaine, a drug steeped in violence, exploitation and social upheaval, has only one victim, the user. This is the singular self-absorption of privilege.
Nitpicking apart, "Studio 60" could be much better. The characters all still seem like Sorkin mouthpieces, which was seldom the case on "West Wing" or "Sports Night." Both Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry are immensely talented (as evidenced by their ability to escape merely replicating two of the most well-known characters in television history, Josh and Chandler), and several promising members of the cast are barely being used (D.L. Hughley???). I'm rooting for it. For a little while longer, at least.
In happier, albeit less televisual news, we went to see our most anticipated movie of the fall, Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep." We are both fascinated by Gondry's visual wit and crafty (in both senses of that word) aesthetic. We haven't yet seen "Block Party" or "Human Nature," but we have followed his career avidly through "The Work of Director Michel Gondry" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (both of which I highly recommend). We almost sprinted to the theatre on the first day we could see it together.
What can I say? Even the trailers were exciting. John Cameron Mitchell (of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" fame) appeared in a preview of his new movie "Shortbus," explaining how the sexually explicit film was developed. Then came a trailer for the latest installment of Michael Apted's engrossing documentary series, "49 Up." I became so agitated I nearly jumped out of my seat, ran down the aisle, and flung myself at the screen in mothlike ecstasy.
The film itself was much more experimental and less coherent than Gondry's previous efforts, but it still showed all of the filmic ingenuity that we have come to expect. It focuses on the experiences of Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an exuberantly delusional young man who returns to Paris from Mexico after his father's death, speaking virtually no French, living in his late father's apartment, sleeping in his childhood bed, falling in love with his equally quirky neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and filtering the primal psychodramas triggered by all these powerful events through a vivid dream life. So vivid, in fact, that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the borders between his dreams and reality - in his dreams he can swim out his window through a landscape made of paper towel rolls, but in reality he can create (as a gift for Stephanie) a one second time machine that minutely changes your experience of time, social rhythm and causality. I can't help but notice that you've never made me a one second time machine, I whisper accusingly to Dan. To his credit, Dan responded to Gondry's narrative experiments with a more unstinting good will than I did. As he pointed out, the delight of the film is that we become increasingly unsure where the boundaries lie, and begin to feel just as unmoored as Stephane. Causality never works quite as it should - time leaps and skips unevenly and characters react against the grain of convention. What should be a straightforward love story when you unfurl all the complications (think of "Eternal Sunshine"'s crablike approach to romance) is in fact a battle between narcissism and connection. In Stephanie's harshest and her most affectionate moments alike, we remain unsure about whether what we are witnessing is just wish fulfillment on Stephane's part. Does she even exist, or is Stephanie just Stephane with a difference, the crucial "I"?
O LibraryThing ! O constant purveyor of new internet delights! Thanks to the now not-so-new forums feature, I have found a seemingly endless stream of new procrastinatory strategies. Not least of these is the Blessed BookMooch , which has suddenly transformed me from a manic book-hoarder growling defensively in front of a padlocked bookcase to a person who thinks that giving away books is the most entertaining possible way to spend an afternoon (Why? Because I get unread books in return, of course.). But now, a new source of delight, which speaks directly to my love of making lists and incrementalized reading: DailyLit .*
DailyLit is a website that takes public-domain works of literature (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) and breaks them up into convenient bite-size morsels that it then gently feeds you (daily, as you might very well guess) by email. So you can read "Don Quixote" daily (a feat that I have long been attempting to accomplish with my own hard copy, with only quixotic success**) in a mere 448 parts, Dante's "Inferno" in 38 parts, or Aristotle's "Poetics" in a measly 19 parts. I am currently tackling three works: Shaw's "Major Barbara" (he really has such an immense body of work that I have barely scratched the surface after years studying drama), Freud's "Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex" (I have just reached his account of bisexuality), and Shakespeare's sonnets (tastily portioned out one-a-day, the perfect amount). Limiting myself to just three showed considerable restraint, I thought.
*As you can see, I am attempting to expand my blogging repetoire to include such newfangled doohickies as links. And footnotes.
**I have an uncomfortable habit of figuring the act of reading classics in the terms of the texts. When I read "Moby Dick" I made an insufferable number of references to the blasted tome being my white whale.
I have been suffering, along with my beleaguered housemates, from debilitating internet problems - for over a week a veritable network plague kept us from any sort of reliable or prolonged access. No sooner had we triumphed over these problems in an almost ritualistic communal gathering and calling of the help line, then I headed off to Los Angeles, where I am now basking in unfettered internet access. Ahhh.
And none too soon. I have both read and seen some extraordinary things lately, and am excited to write about them!
I have only reached 1951 in my "1001 Movies you must see before you die" project, but already the 1950s are proving to be a delightful (surprisingly delightful) decade. 1950 alone gave us "Rashomon," "All about Eve," and "Sunset Blvd.," three of my favorites - endlessly recommendable.
My first Robert Bresson, however, did not inspire such delight - nor, I think, did it attempt to. The label "Journal d'un Cure de Campagne," or "Diary of a Country Priest," provides a fairly complete description of the film that bears its name. It is an exercise in what you might call histrionic mundanity, a melodrama of microcosm. Taking as its subject a young priest in charge of his first tiny but emotionally rotten parish, the film follows his quotidian concerns, attending the catechism classes where he becomes entranced by a beautiful girl of exceptional ability, following him to the local manor house where the nobles are harrowed by secret sexuality and obsessed with a dead child, and most of all watching him record these subtle, even microscopic narratives in his journal.
He is not completely convinced, and nor are we, that this historical or self-analytical impulse to record is morally sound, being at times a violation of the confessional and at others a record of his own torment, his progress marked by a sheet of blotting paper increasingly crossed by the inky stains of his experience. The priest, in fact, is undergoing a sort of internal crucifixion, suffering from searing stomach pains and fainting spells that keep him to a diet of stale bread and wine, and eventually undermine his character in the community.
This account makes the film sounds lush and riveting, but this in fact couldn't possibly be further from the truth. I don't mean to insult the movie by saying this, for I don't think that inspiring interest was Bresson's primary endeavor. In fact, "Journal" is filled with moments of tremendous interest (sexually charged exchanges between adults and creepy, creepy children, or the image of the blotting paper) but it goes a long way towards characterizing this film to say that after just a single viewing I can barely remember any of them. Our hero walks through his life in a sort of charged daze, which lends the mundanity of his activities a surreal air while keeping them strictly at a distance. Similarly, watching this movie is like moving through a thick and chilling fog, only to emerge unsure of what has just occurred.
"Journal d'un cure de campagne" (apologies for the lack of accents in my recalcitrant blogging program) / "Diary of a Country Priest"
dir. Robert Bresson
In the (aesthetically, morally, etc.) questionable act of rating these films, I have often found myself bullied by my inner snob. I tend to distrust my own enjoyment of a film, privileging my analytical sense that there was something of interest to be found in the construction of the film. But sometimes I find a film both only mildly enjoyable and mildly interesting and still find myself giving it a higher rating (most often ****) merely because it is considered a "great film." This has to stop. I must develop a spine. So I am confronting my inner bully and trying to combat grade inflation as best I can, in blog as in classroom. I know, giving a film ***1/2 instead of **** is hardly the bold gesture of the revolutionary, but baby steps, baby steps. It is hard to resist the inner bully. She is mean, with a tendency to throw my cultural chops into doubt.
There is an oppressive amount of catching up to do. I am not sure I will get to all the films from my 1001 project that I have watched since "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," but I want to at least mention them:
435) "Louisiana Story" (1948) ***
436) "Whiskey Galore" (1949) ***
437) "In a Lonely Place" (1950) ***
438) "Gun Crazy" (1949) ***
439) "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" (1951) ***1/2
440) "Sergeant York" (1941) *1/2
441) "Rebel without a Cause" (1955) ***1/2
442) "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" (1962) ***1/2
443) "On the Waterfront" (1954) ***1/2
444) "Walkabout" (1971) ***1/2
445) "Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) ***
446) "Shaft" (1971) ***
447) "Diary of a Country Priest" (1951) ***1/2
I list these movies in the order that I watched them, and you can sense the moment at which I returned home to the east coast and became subject yet again to the demanding whims of my TiVo, which uses its wiles to lure me away from strict chronology. "You could watch an Italian neo-realist masterpiece," it murmurs to me, "or, on the other hand, you could watch 'Shaft' and a bevy of Woody Allen films .... It's totally up to you."
There is much to say about each of these movies, and it is all rapidly flowing out of my memory, so here's hoping I return to some of them soon.
So I am home for a long weekend in Washington, and got into some serious trouble at the Politics and Prose members book sale. This brought my Washington library to a crisis point of crowdedness, prompting a purge of some of the books that I could never imagine consulting or rereading (as well as a few duplicates). This otherwise painful task was rendered strangely delightful by my discovery (thanks to LibraryThing) of the BookMooch website (www.bookmooch.com). BookMooch is a used book trading site, which allows you to offer up your unwanted books for mooching, in return for points that allow you to mooch off others. The only expenses are the shipping costs. In fact, because you get fractions of points merely for listing books that you would like to give away, I have already mooched four books, while only sending off one. So the pain of giving away books has been greatly soothed by my eagerness to receive Joyce Carol Oates's "Bellefleur," Geraldine Brooks's "Year of Wonders," Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and Kamran Nazeer's harshly titled "Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism."
In the meantime, I have set my sights on some of the books I have bought and borrowed here. I have begun one of my new P & P sale purchases, which also makes an appearance on my "1001 Books you must read before you die" project: Paul Auster's "The Book of Illusions" (2002). I am only a few pages in, but the opening is already more gripping than any book I have read recently. A literature professor who has just lost his whole family in a plane crash is interrupted in his attempt to drink himself to death when a clip from a silent comedy actually makes him laugh. He learns that this comedian's films are now so rare (in part because the actor disappeared at the height of his fame and ability) that most only exist in single copies in archives, donated by an anonymous benefactor. He writes a book about these films, and soon receives a letter: the comedian, whom everyone had presumed was long dead, wants to see him.
Meanwhile, I am also turning my mind back to Alan Moore's "From Hell," which I had to leave half-read went I left for London. It remains to be seen whether I have retained anything or whether I will need to start from scratch.
If "Great Expectations" had been written a hundred years later, its quite delightful title might have fallen away in favor of one more in Philip Larkin's line: "They f**k you up, your mom and dad...". Except of course there is a distinct lack of actual moms and dads in Dickens's novel, and those who are still present and breathing seem barely aware that they are parents.
From time to time I have an insistent desire to read books that are appropriate to the place I am visiting, and occasionally this madness translates into a stubborn determination only to read books in their "natural setting." Earlier this summer, I accompanied my grandparents on a seniors' bus tour to the gardens of southern Wales. I was an object of great interest, as you might imagine, being (besides my grandparents) the only American, the only person under the age of 55, and utterly (UTTERLY) ignorant about gardens. I spent many a bus-ride through lush green hills and towns once populated by miners and now by IT professionals reading Caradoc Evans's "My People," a reviled classic of Welsh literature. I would recommend that everyone dip into one or two stories from this collection, which deals with the biblical harshness of life in Nonconformist Welsh towns. It apparently caused such a furor when it was first released that it was burned in many parts of Wales.
At any rate, I decided last Christmas that I would read Dickens in London, and nowhere else (a vow that promises a very slow progress through the poor man's oeuvre, since I am only in London for a few weeks a year). I don't have a lot of Dickens under my belt at the moment ("Oliver Twist" and "Tale of Two Cities" from high school, "Bleak House" from my graduate comprehensive exams), and I am determined to read one of his works and one of Faulkner's every year until I conquer both bodies of work. I decided to start with the book that everyone else had to read in high school, a trying educational experience that left my poor boyfriend with the conviction that it was "the worst book ever written:" "Great Expectations." So good old "GE" (which ended up being delightful in every possible way, contrary to my boyfriend's scarred rantings) was begun in London last Christmas, and then abandoned with a coldheartedness worthy of Estella when I returned to the States.
I finished it on a trip to London in July, but in the interim I had watched David Lean's 1946 film, which was made all the more magical by the fact that I had preserved a miraculous ignorance of the plot's resolution up until that point, despite its cultural ubiquity. The film is extraordinarily lively (although it goes terribly wrong in its representation of Estella, I think), but as I finished the book I could already feel the disappointment kicking in. Even a really excellent movie adaptation abridges a novel in terrifying, deflating ways. There is no defense against that sort of disappointment; a novel's breadth and detail of characterization is just not equivalent to a film's powerful (and often subtle) visual approach to the same goal.
So I want to argue for what I think would be a major innovation and improvement to our current system of adapting novels for the screen (in this case the small screen). The British, and increasingly HBO in America, have done excellent work adapting novels into two or three part miniseries, 6-8 hour extravaganzas along the lines of "Pride and Prejudice" and the recent "Bleak House." But this does not go far enough - even these highly successful adaptations still seemed painfully cramped in their plotting at time, and were forced to elide many important details. The novel-adaptation miniseries needs to be reconceived on a larger canvas, and I think this work needs to be done by American networks which work within the framework of a longer season. Let us have a "Bleak House" or a "Middlemarch" the length of a "Desperate Housewives" or a "Sopranos" season. Audiences are clearly capable of sustaining interest in a long plot arc and a highly subtextual mode of characterization on TV, and the serialization so prevalent in 19th century novels forms an ideal transition to the suspenseful demands of the one hour, year long television drama. So let's see it, TV producers: 24 hour Dickens.
"Great Expectations" (1860-1861)
"My people" (1915)
"Great Expectations" (1946)
dir. David Lean
Ok, let us address the most important question first: Why does the title of Lewis Trondheim's book spell "alien" with three E's? The title page claims that the acronym stands for "Archives of Lost Issues of Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties." My own opinion, based on the climax of this twisting, wordless narrative, is that the two extra E's stand for "excessive excrement." I will say no more, to preserve the innocence of those of you who have yet to read this graphic novel. Innocence that will be crushed all too soon. On page two, in fact, when an adorable little blue alien pig-creature gambols through a lurid pastoral landscape straight into the sharp branches of a tree, which poke his eyes out.
Trondheim, in the grand "meta" tradition of Kierkegaard, claims to have found this volume in the middle of a scorched patch of earth while camping with his family (the edges of the pages still show vague burn marks), and to have passed it on unchanged to his publisher, excited at the prospect of discovering what alien children actually read. It rapidly becomes clear that these alien children are going to have a LOT to discuss with their therapists when they grow up. These tales have the primal, warning harshness of old fairy tales, the ones in which Cinderella's stepsisters fit into the slipper by cutting off their toes and heels. Multiple stories weave in and out of one another's awareness (in fact the whole landscape feels like a Renaissance romance with enraptured or terrified semi-allegorical characters running aimlessly through it: "Alien Furioso"). You are never sure that you truly understand the causal relationships between events until you get to the very last page. A disturbing book, but a really sort of brilliant one in terms of narrative construction.
Lewis Trondheim (2004 in French, 2006 in English)
With my head hung low and my back bowed under the weight of the tremendous shame of not having written in so very long, I slink back to you, quaking at the thought of all the films and books I have yet to account for. To ease my troubled soul, I thought I would mark my return to blogging with a milestone celebration: I have reached the year 1950 in my 1001 Movies project ("Huzzah!" [blaring of trumpets]).
What follows is a list of my favorite 50 films from the first half of the century covered by the book "1001 Movies you must read before you die." A few disclaimers:
-My criterion in choosing these films was simple: they should be films that delighted or intrigued to the extent that I would be happy to revisit them and unashamed to recommend them. Thus, many great (GREAT) films, like Battleship Potemkin, failed to make the list, not because I failed to admire them, but because I am not eager to watch them again.
-Several of the films from "1001 Movies" book and the first half of the century have been difficult for me to obtain as of yet, but I intend to watch them all and thus reserve the right to update this list at any time and with any degree of whimsicality.
-There are several films from the list that I have watched but not (in my opinion) truly absorbed. These are the films that I will return to first when I am finished with my rampaging progress through the 1001, and perhaps then a new appreciation of them will merit their inclusion on another version of the top 50 pre-50.
-If there is a pre-1950 movie that you feel I have neglected (whether or not it is on this list), please do let me know. I am always eager to be won over by other people's enthusiasm.
Ok, the list:
THE TOP 50 PRE-1950 FILMS (chronological order)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
The Unknown (1927)
The Crowd (1928)
Un Chien Andalou(1928)
Love Me Tonight (1932)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Daybreak/Le Jour se leve (1939)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Henry V (1944)
The Children of Paradise (1945)
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Brief Encounter (1946)
The Stranger (1946)
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The Killers (1946)
Great Expectations (1946)
Black Narcissus (1946)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Red River (1948)
The Snake Pit (1948)
Adam's Rib (1949)
The Third Man (1949)
1946 was a VERY good year, apparently.
A few short reviews of recent movies that aren't a part of my 1001 Movies project:
"Walk the Line"
I have never watched a biopic that really impressed me, but I find the phenomenon of their popularity really fascinating. It seems to me (and to a number of other commentators) that it speaks to some basic cultural assumptions about mimesis, art, and the craft of acting. Our acclaim for biopics and the actors who impersonate the living or recently deceased implies that the highest achievement of acting is in exact imitation of a model, a reality effect that seeks to ellide the difference between imitation and original but in fact (like the wax models of Madame Tussaud's) only makes us realize that the original is just as plastic and constructed as the fake.
Thus biopics manage to be incredibly effective at the sort of emotional manipulations that many of us seek from film, while somehow making the events seem totally improbable (as in the case of famous, and apparently true-to-life, scene from "Walk the Line" in which Cash proposes to Carter in front of a concert audience). We know that life doesn't obey the laws of narrative progression and closure, which is why there is always so much to be unsatisfactorily summed up in brief textual bursts before the credits can roll. It is incredibly difficult to contain a life within the narrative strictures of Freytag's Pyramid, that famous structure of rising action, climax, falling action and resolution that defined both the well-made play and the melodrama and continues to define mainstream cinema. Lives don't have climaxes, generally speaking, and there is no point of absolute closure. Our lives are so intertwined with other people's continuing narratives, so unrepentant in their rejection of any dramatic unity of action, that even death does not mark the end of most of our life stories. So the biopic is almost always (I can't think of a single exception right now, but perhaps there is one) doomed to either narrative bagginess or the sheen of falsehood and romanticization.
Despite belonging to the genre, and to the equally meandering subgenre of the concert-tour movie (so much less satisfying than its more rebellious cousin, the road trip movie), "Walk the Line" manages to be a very entertaining film, skilled at the emotional manipulations I mentioned earlier. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter both do (as has been proclaimed throughout the land) uncanny impersonations. I choose that adjective carefully, both because there is something inherently uncanny about the doubling of impersonation (the idea that someone's self can be captured and replicated entirely in the superficial trappings of voice, gesture, clothing), and because there is something oddly ritual or even macabre about resurrecting these two and bolstering their myths in the immediate aftermath of their deaths (the uncanniness of which is not lessened by the fact that both Carter and Cash were apparently intimately involved with the planning of the film and the casting of their doppelgangers).
dir. James Mangold
There appears to be a little bit of a trend right now (ok, "Sin City" and "A History of VIolence" don't make a trend, just a pair) for translating hyperviolent comics to the screen. This trend distinguishes itself (although without the normal positive connotations of that word) by developing a specific mode of hyperbolic acting that is meant to match the iconic image that the original graphic, paper representations convey so well in the stillness of a single frame. Now, many have objected to the excessive, or rather extreme violence in these two films, and I want to make it clear that my frustrated reaction to them had nothing to do with the violence. In fact, I was glad when a violent scene came along, because it provided a break from the consciously atrocious acting. These films gave me the gift of knowing what stereotypical men feel like when they are dragged to romance flicks by their stereotypical girlfriends - I was often DESPERATE for the action to begin. What is remarkable about the bad acting, since it was clearly an aesthetic choice on the part of the directors of both films, is how unironized it was for so many of the actors, particularly since so many of the characters should be conscious of their double lives (Viggo in "A History of Violence," on the one hand, or Michael Madsen in "Sin City," among many others). The aesthetic of "Sin City" was new, indeed, but its unholy fusion of Tim Burton and the noir tradition was hard to laud unreservedly because the actual content of the film contained none of the complexities of noir, its thorny hedge of impassable plot development that evokes the moral confusion of its characters. Morality, for the most part, is disappointing clear in "Sin City." It should even be possible to utter that sentence, but there you have it.
dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, with a little soupcon of gory goodness from Quentin Taratino
I'm telling you, allegory is hot right now. "Lost" is dominating the smallscreen, expressionism is having a minor renaissance in museums and theatres, and message boards all over the internet are devoted to reading every trace of our culture with a eye to deep meaning. Into this allegory-hungry world, a world fed on abstract filterings of the news that emphasize the epic battle being waged between good and evil and the impossibility of gray area in between, comes Michael Hanneke's "Cache," a psychological allegory exploring French intellectual guilt about their relationship to Algeria and (more importantly) the Algerians "hidden" in their midst, never fully acknowledged and thus never fully enfranchised. It begins with a mystery: Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) receive a series of videotapes of the outside of their home, and gradually of other familiar, emotionally charged locations. These tapes are accompanied by gory children's drawings, but otherwise no threat is made and no motivation is stated. They are mystified and alarmed, and at this point Haneke focuses on something film has always done well, from "Peeping Tom" to "Blow Up": meditate on the creepiness of its own processes and force the spectator in the dual awkwardness of voyeurism and consciousness of the persistent surveillance which characterizes our culture. Nothing about you is hidden, the tapes say. Nothing can be.
As the film goes on, a new set of concerns emerges, the concerns of political and psychic allegory: Georges becomes convinced that the tapes are coming from an Algerian man (Majid, played by Maurice Benichou) whom, decades before, his parents had tried to adopt. His response to Majid is so disproportionate to the perceived threat (and we remain far from convinced that Majid is responsible for the tapes) that it is clear that Georges is both responding to some larger psychic event and standing in symbolically for a wider cultural phenomenon. "Cache" consciously takes as its subject the twisted workings of social and racial anxiety that "Birth of a Nation" unconsciously represented (in, for instance, its deluded/deluding insistence that black Southerners were keeping whites from voting at the polls). It pays particular attention to the paradoxes that this anxiety creates, the ways in which an oppressive class can convince itself that it is the persecuted, the oppressed, the threatened, as a way both of avoiding guilt and maintaining the status quo.
Though the details of the guilt are specific to France, the workings of social anxiety are obviously relevant to a much wider range of societies at the moment. It can serve as an allegory for any nation using a cult of fear and threat to disguise its own acts of violence and disenfranchisement. This is obviously a complex and timely topic. There is a great deal to be said about it, and I can only wish that Haneke had said more. His film is evocative and blessedly open-ended, but a greater degree of subtlety and complexity in teasing out the layers of allegory would only have enhanced its virtues.
dir. Michael Haneke
"The Phantom of Liberty"
Descriptions of Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" tend to make it sound lofty and intellectually distant: a surrealist masterpiece of non-linearity, it emerged from the idea of a narrative structure that would set up a series of more or less framed and interconnected stories, each of which would be interrupted by its successor just at the moment when it threatened to become really interesting. In fact, this is a tremendously accessible film, in part because we are already familiar with so many of its structures of illogic and satire from Monty Python (whose work "The Phantom of Liberty" closely resembles at times in aesthetic as well as tone) and the less realist ventures of Woody Allen. The two most famous scenes from the film are indeed iconic, hilarious, and disturbing. In one, a professor lectures on subject of pliable, relativistic morality to a class of police officers, giving as an example a dinner party in which the guests sit on toilets while they make idle conversation with one another, occasionally excusing themselves to hurry off to a tiny room where they can surreptitiously wolf down a meal in absolute privacy. In the other, perhaps even more well known, a little girl is pronounced lost by her school and parents, even though she insists that she is standing right there. Shush, they tell her, don't interrupt while the adults are talking. These are the narratives of dreams, held together by a loose but suggestive structure of dream logic, in which narratives dissolve into tangents just at the moment of greatest import, and the symbolic workings of the mind are both overt and complex.
dir. Luis Bunuel
I have just started my study of yet another foreign language (this time, Spanish), blazing the way for it to be added to the great language Pangaea (Panlingua?) in my brain. I am now unable to remember a single foreign language with any consistency. Instead I can only form sentences made up of French nouns (none of them the correct gender), Latin verbs and German conjunctions (because I learned German most recently and thus the most common words emerge in that tongue), all given a vaguely Italian pronunciation. I must admit that I learned Old English shortly after my summer of German, and because of the greater similarity between those two than between English and its ancestor, I am afraid they are hopeless entangled in my mind. When I speak to Germans I must sound like a horned-helmet-wearing Rhine-maiden, ready at any moment to lay waste to some villages and flee in my longship (an impression totally out of sync with my meek appearance). I have to wonder what place Spanish will take in this totally incomprehensible linguistic cassoulet. Though mostly nonsensical, my one uber-language does have the wonderful side effect of throwing listeners into confusion and almost totally obscuring my Americanness, which is sometimes useful when traveling in Europe.
At any rate, I have decided to take on Spanish because a playwright who interests me tremendously is from Argentina, and much of her work exists only in Spanish. Rather than take a course, as I have in previous language endeavors, I have decided to undertake this project on my own, accompanied only by the rather-too-advanced-for-me "Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice," from a line of grammar guides that I have found useful for both French and German. This is a questionable choice, to say the least, but I remain optimistic. My masterplan for correcting both my understanding and my totally unfettered pronunciation is to take up a telenovela and follow its progress for weeks and weeks, hopefully someday coming to understand what it is all about. I will let you know how it goes. My only disappointment so far is that the telenovela based (VERY loosely) on "I, Claudius" appears to be over. Sigh.
Apparently Robert Altman also can't resist a nice alliterative title.
We settled down last night for the second in our Warren Beatty double header, Altman's 1971 western (made when he was virtually unknown in Hollywood) "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." This is a different sort of Altman film than what we have come to associate with him: there are no grand ensembles of celebrities, no intricately woven webs of characterization that seem both entirely plot and scornful of narrative. The eccentric philosophy of sound is there, with what little plot advancement there is occurring entirely in stifled, muttered outbursts that melt away before you have truly understood them. The visual fascination with idiosyncratic detail as a building block of character and place-as-character are also there, largely (to my eye at least) unchanged over the years.
"Ah," my boyfriend said as we started the film, "Altman. Another slow meander to a questionable destination." And it is indeed slow going at first. The film concerns a, well, an entrepreneur named McCabe (Beatty) who comes to the fledgling mine town of Presbyterian Church and decides that there is money to be made there in whores, liquor and gambling. He is soon joined by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), who convinces him that there is more money to be made in high class brothels and bathhouses than in the filthy tents he has set up. They and a few others build an entire town faster than we have understand what is at stake in these events. As far as we can tell at this point, Altman is concerned with asking the really big questions in this film, questions like "How many whores can you fit into a barrel?" and "What if it were a really big barrel?"
I began to think about how both "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" had grown on me over time, going from rather dutiful, lengthy viewing experiences to objects of prolonged intellectual interest to vividly imagistic, almost archetypal myths. Would this happen with "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"? Would distance be necessary for affection or admiration to grow? Then we entered the final twenty minutes of the film. I don't want to ruin this for anyone, although as you know I am not normally in the habit of avoiding spoilers, so I won't go very deeply into it. Suffice it to say that big business interests express a desire to buy out McCabe and Mrs. Miller's holdings in Presbyterian Church, and threaten violence if their offers aren't entertained with sufficient openness. The protagonists' response, and the ramifications of their actions for the town, transform the movie in a fairly revelatory way. The events that ensue involve (at least) one of the cruelest, most senseless murders I have ever seen in a Western, and indeed this murder takes the genre into a new sphere of morality. It occurred to me that it is often the casual cruelty of an individual scene in Altman that transforms the film into something lasting, that lifts it out of the conventions of its genre, scenes like the one in which the fishermen find a corpse in "Short Cuts," but ignore it because they don't want to ruin their vacation.
Roger Ebert has said that of the many great movies that Altman has made, this is the only one that is perfect. I pondered what he could mean by that. Although I enjoyed and admired "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," both "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" interested me a lot more, in part for their intricacy. There is admittedly a lot to admire about the production of this film, which was brilliantly designed and shot in a real town that Altman's team built (and in fact inhabited) outside Vancouver. It is obviously also a tremendously influential film for its genre, leaving its mark with particular indelibility, I now realize, on the dusty frontier amorality of HBO's "Deadwood." I grow more fond of westerns with every movie I see from the genre.
Perhaps by "perfect," Ebert was getting at a rather more fundamental meaning of the word than "flawless." Perhaps he meant the word to connote "complete," for this is one of the most containable of Altman's "great" films, the one with the narrative borders that are the least porous. This is particularly worthy of note because the Altman style is so frequently associated with the opposite of these qualities. It is an aesthetic of imperfection, of incompletion, of expansiveness; of porousness of borders and roughness of edges. In "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," by contrast, pleasure is about coziness and confinement (think of the whores in the barrel, which was in fact a tub in the bathhouse), and fear is about claustrophobia.
"McCabe and Mrs. Miller"
Dir. Robert Altman
Well, the last person besides my boyfriend, who watched it with me this afternoon. It occurred to me, while watching it, that I almost always judge a film more harshly while watching it with my boyfriend, and not merely because he has a more skeptical attitude towards movies than I do. He approaches films with a more analytical eye, or perhaps I should say an analytical eye more attuned to issues of stylistics and construction than to thematics. When I watch a film with him, I become much more aware of the seams, of errors and triumphs of editing, and of the professional processes of acting. He defamiliarizes the narrative for me; suddenly film becomes much more a conscious construction, and much less an overwhelming emotional experience. Which is odd, because he is highly skeptical about applying this sort of analytical gaze to literature.
You probably already know the plot of Arthur Penn's 1967 film, even if you are in fact even more behind on your film canon than I am. It is based on the real story of two 1930s lovers and armed robbers (although honesty might require listing those qualities in the opposite order), Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who captured the attention and to some extent the affection of a nation in thrall to financial depredations of the Depression and eager to see foreclosing banks and big businesses pay. In the film, they meet in Texas, discover Bonnie's ravenous sexual hunger for the excitement of armed robbery, and then in quick succession realize Clyde's talent for satisfying her craving for larceny and his utter inability to respond to her sexual appetite. They acquire several hangers-on along the way, but the most notable is the looming presence of death in their stolen cars and shabby bedsits. This at first unwelcome but increasingly avuncular presence first appears when they pick up a terrified couple and befriend them over an hours-long drive, only to abandon them abruptly when it emerges that the young man (Gene Wilder, who emerges from Zeus's brain fully formed as a comic actor in this his first major movie role) is an undertaker.
For a time, only such a distinctive comic actor as Gene Wilder (who always manages performances at once broad/stagy and highly detailed - is this the definition of a good comic actor?) seems appropriate for the large, stylized acting that Penn demands of his actors in "Bonnie and Clyde." As the film progresses, you settle in to this aesthetic of acting, if less comfortably into the unsettling, abrupt editing style, which seems to evoke the earlier, rougher mode of B-westerns. Would that I could comment on the famous New Wave influences on this film, which might have explained and enhanced these stylistic choices for us, but since I am watching these films out of order in my 1001 Movies project, I have yet to reach its New Wave predecessors. (Curse my infidelity to chronology!!!) I can only promise to return to it when I reach the proper place in the timeline.
The real heart of this film, for us, was not the passion of the love story, nor the innovation of its violence (which include repeated and remarkable references to "Battleship Potemkin," the granddaddy of film violence), but its obsession with celebrity. The film's Bonnie and Clyde, like the real criminals, were not just aware of their public image, they manipulated it through a press which was seldom completely hostile to them, using tactics litarary (Bonnie's mythmaking, pointedly child-like poetry), visual (through pictures which inevitably evoke the ones you get taken at the fair, in different costumes and against different backdrops), and personal (winning over converts one by one on their famous "rides"). They envision themselves (somewhat broadly) in the terms of the myth they build up in the press, as populists wreaking the vengeance of the masses against the rich and powerful.
The most wonderful tensions in the film come when the drive for celebrity comes in conflict with celebrity's handmaiden, death. As Chris Rojek points out in his book "Celebrity," one of the expectations we have of celebrities is that they serve a shamanistic purpose for our increasingly secular culture, undergoing the same "rituals of descent" and abasement that we would otherwise have turned to other symbolic sources to fulfill (messiahs, prophets, gods, priests who would go to the underworld and return). An inevitable characteristic of celebrity is that someone, somewhere, wants to do them harm (sometimes as a way of expressing love), and that we will be there, hungrily watching, as the celebrity is sacrificed, ready to experience the catharsis of mourning for someone we didn't even really know. Bonnie, in particular, is well aware that this sacrifice is the price of celebrity. And she is right - the most famous, oft-cited scene in the movie is the one in which they meet their grisly fate, a scene which inevitably seems smaller in reality than the enormous symbolic place it holds in our culture.
"Bonnie and Clyde"
dir. Arthur Penn
I can never resist a nice alliterative title.
Even without the draw of emotional consonance, I would still have been relieved to revisit the deadly serious world of the West, where men are men and inevitably become corpses, after my foray into Bob Hope's comic version of it. I am also befuddled - I have always had an instinctive dislike for John Wayne's iconic persona and drawling speech, but this is the second of his films that I have seen through my 1001 movies project (the third I have seen, total - I watched "The Quiet Man" while in Ireland several years ago), and I have really loved them both. Even more horrifying to my entrenched opinions: I really enjoyed (ENJOYED!) Wayne's characters in both "Stagecoach" and "Red River." I felt a rush of sympathy in response to the laconic machoness of his dictatorial behavior, quickly followed by a surge of feminist shame.
"Stagecoach" (1939) surprised me with its deliriously exciting stunts shot in majestic locations, but I was really drawn to the highly developed characters who are thrown together by that most equalizing of experiences, frontier travel. This is the tradition that "Deadwood" exploits to the maximum of its televisual potential, the West's ability to throw together characters with nothing in common at the moment of extreme stress. Wayne played the young hero (it was his breakthrough role) and his presence is magnetic. I probably only liked him so much because he said so very little, I said soothingly to myself, and this allowed his impressive physicality to bear the burden of characterization.
Wayne made "Red River" nine years later, and in it he cedes the role of the young hero to Montgomery Clift, taking on instead the more complex character of Clift's adopted father, the tyrannical but basically sympathetic Thomas Dunson, who is torn between his affection for his men and a ruthless survival instinct. This is a densely plotted movie, so densely plotted that it does away with an entire revenge narrative in the first ten minutes. Dunson and his friend Groot (who is well named, but would perhaps have been even better named "Toothless McMumbles") have joined a wagon train heading West, but as they approach Texas Dunson decides that this land is good enough for him and breaks away from the group (I sense social symbolism...). This involves shuffling off (temporarily, he thinks) his beloved, who begs to come with him, but who is clearly not man enough for the dangers of Indian country (he says). She disagrees, and with a surprisingly aggressive sexuality reminds him that it will only be day half the time on his ranch, and the rest of the time is when she could really come in handy. All this argument is in vain, and he demands that she stay with the train, giving her an opportunity to be the first of many many people to say the words "You're wrong" to him.
He and Toothless ride away, only to see a huge fire rise behind them later that day. I think that the moment that John Wayne won me over was his reaction to this sight: he watches the wagon train burn in the distance with a totally still, abstracted face and then says, in a voice charged with practical intensity "Take us hours to get back there." Then he turns his mind to defending himself against the Indians who must be pursuing them from the burning train. After Dunson kills the man who murdered his fiancee, he finds a boy (half mad and ferally defensive) wandering amidst the brush with a cow. He adopts the boy, Matt Garth, and they go on (with Groot) to found a vast cattle empire that becomes totally penniless in the aftermath of the Civil War. Their survival, and the survival of all the hands who work for them, depends on getting these cattle to a railroad farther north, past Indian country and bandits. The rest of the movie follows this drive, tracing the increasing desperation and cruelty of Dunson and the noble conflict of Garth (Clift), who must choose between his affection for his father (who demands absolute loyalty) and his innate sense of what is right.
One of the highlights of film is its brilliant dialogue, which is often rich with subtext and features some of the best crypto-sexual and homoerotic dialogue in a genre that is well known for it. Take this famous encounter about and between Garth and Cherry Valance, his cocky alter ego whose promise as a nemesis is (sadly) never realized:
Groot/Toothless: "You reckon they're gonna fight?"
Dunson: "No, not yet. They'll just paw at each other... find out what they're up against. It'll be worth seeing...
Cherry: (to Matt) "That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it?" (He takes it and admires it) "Maybe you'd like to see mine." (He hands over his gun to be admired.) "Nice... awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?"
For a long time it looks like the female presence in the film died with Dunson's fiancee, but late in the movie all three key men (Dunson, Matt, and Cherry) become attracted to the strength and vitality of a woman of ambiguous morals named Tess Millay. Some critics complain that Tess shows the pernicious influence of Hollywood on an otherwise grittily realistic movie, but (with the exception of her role in an ending so incongruous it could have come from one of Shakespeare's more improbable romances) I found her to be hypnotic, all sinewy gesture one moment and nervous babble the next. This is a film in which coffee and women hold approximately the same value for the cowboys, but nonetheless Tess is able to take an arrow through the shoulder and still carry on a steely, witty banter with Matt. My only real complaint about the romance plotline is that it seems too rushed and thus not as nuanced as, say, Matt's relationship with Dunson. One moment Matt is sucking the poison from the arrow wound in her shoulder in an astonishingly intimate gesture, and the next she is decking him. Although a superficial justification is given in the film for this glamorous sequence of events, what the film does well it does delicately and deeply, so it feels like something is always missing in their fast-paced relationship. This is by no means a short film, but I could easily have stood for more exploration of this plotline (and of the resolution of the Dunson and Matt narrative, for that matter).
Nonetheless, the characterization (although initially a little overblown) is by far the strong suit of this film, as it was for "Stagecoach." This is the best work I've seen by Montgomery Clift, who always seemed a little blank behind the eyes to me in other films (this was his first). The initial duality between the manly, work-oriented straightforwardness of the day and the sexualized, feminine nighttime that is laid out by Dunson's fiancee continues to work its symbolic magic throughout the film. The daytime, their work, and the constant movement towards their goal soothe the men with a knowledge of their own heroism, but when the sun sets all of their anxieties come to light and their social bonds break down. "It's funny what the night does to a man," Groot remarks. There is one marvelous scene when the men speak entirely about what they are feeling through the objective correlative of the cattle, who are spooked by inactivity and the howling of a nearby coyote. It wouldn't take much to set the cattle off tonight, they say, ...just a single gunshot. And of course, it doesn't even take that - just a cascade of pots and pans set off by a man who can't control the sweet tooth that drives him to steal sugar. Just the normal pursuit of appetite.
dir. Howard Hawks
I have been urged on to greater vigilance in blogging my progress through my 1001 Books and Movies project by the impressive rigor with which other bloggers are attacking and documenting similar campaigns. So, of course, by Film #431 I mean "of the 1001 I Must See before I Die." Today I am having a bit of a western double feature: this afternoon was Bob Hope's spoof of the genre, "The Paleface" (directed by Norman Z. McLeod), and this evening I will embark on "Red River," my third John Wayne experience.
"The Paleface" was, oddly enough, my first experience with a Bob Hope movie (I think. Can this really be true?). And what a profoundly silly movie it was. It opens hopefully, with a fairly faithful echo of the second movie of my 1001 list, "The Great Train Robbery," as Calamity Jane (the voluptuous but totally uncharming Jane Russell) is rescued from jail by the Feds in a mock hold-up. This seems like it might be an interesting plotline, what with the government coverup and possibilities for duplicity, but it is quickly disposed of so that we may move swiftly onward toward the appearance of Bob. Jane is offered clemency for her crimes if she acts as the government's undercover agent in a particularly corrupt corner of the west, where someone is selling guns to the Indians. As camouflage, she agrees to acquire a husband and pose as the harmless, helpless wife, and after her first marital pick shows up dead, she happens by chance on a likely candidate in the form of bumbling dentist Painless Potter, played by Hope (even I will admit that this is a brilliant case of comic naming). As they move farther west, the baddies become convinced that Potter is the agent, and the film unfolds along dual comic lines, as Jane tries to avoid sleeping with her newlywed husband and attempts to convince him that he is a dashing, spittoon-using cowboy hero.
In its time, "The Paleface" was most famous for a hit song, "Buttons and Bows," that Hope casually tosses off while in the wagon train moving west, and despite the unremarkable quality of this piece today, I can't particularly claim that the movie has anything better to offer. Hope takes a Groucho Marx approach to humor, trying 100 jokes all at once in the hope that something will land, or that the audience will be overwhelmed by the comic pacing. I must admit that this is a comic style that has never particularly appealed to me. The satire is not as sharp as it could be, relying strongly on the physical humor of Hope's straightforward mockery of the cowboy persona. Parodically, the film reaches its high point early on, when the intimidated dentist exclaims, "I'm going back east, where men may not be men, but they're not corpses either." Nowhere else does this film deliver that kind of carefully wrought comic aphorism, which mocks both its character and its genre. The western is such a nuanced genre, really, it seems too bad that its comic transformation didn't match it in complexity.
Dir. Norman Z. McLeod
Yesterday afternoon I returned to the fold of Netflix, after my month long banishment in England, with Werner Herzog's "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser." I am rather green when it comes to Werner H., having only recently made my first acquaintance with him (as so many did) with the intriguing and finely-wrought "Grizzly Man." Little birds have told me that Herzog is a man of strong preoccupations, whose work is perhaps best seen as one long oeuvre return again and again to the same metaphysical themes. Indeed it is possible to see this tendency after my minimal exposure to him, and to do that sloppy thing I am increasingly guilty of: making a pattern of two.
Both films, for instance, take as their central concern men who feel alienated from human society, distrustful of and dissatisfied by the rewards of civilization. In "Grizzly Man" this becomes a tale of withdrawal: the environmentalist Timothy Treadwell retreats with increasing paranoia from the human world in which he was raised, into what he believes to be the harsh but honest world of the bears of Alaska, one of whom will ultimately kill and eat him. "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" follows the same archetypal path of sacrifice and martyrdom, but in some sense it pursues its interest in the protagonist who dwells on the outskirts of civilization while following an inverted trajectory. Instead of withdrawal, this becomes a tale of unsuccessful integration into society, of a conscious, chosen failure to learn the values of civilization.
"Kaspar Hauser" is a reworking (a remarkably faithful and inclusive one) of an odd piece of German history. In 1828, a young man appeared in the centre of Nurnberg, unable to walk comfortable or to speak any words apart from "I want to be a pretty rider like my father." When given pen and paper, he is able to sign his name: Kaspar Hauser. A note on his person says that he wants to join the cavalry, and while the civic authorities decide what to do with him he is kept in a tower for vagabonds and vagrants. As he learns more of the language and customs of those he lives among, he is eventually taken up by a series of intellectuals as something between a friend and an object of study. One day, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant, and though he survives this attack, he is later mortally wounded in another assault.
For Herzog, this becomes the perfect platform for an exploration of the emptiness of civilization and its unquestioned routines: Kaspar, unlike most of us, is indoctrinated into these values and behaviors while a fully self-conscious, critical adult, capable of abstract thinking that is both more direct that academic logic and too sophisticated for an unquestioning acceptance of new rules. The "intelligent men" who surround Kaspar are repeatedly reduced to sputtering defensiveness by his commonsense rejoinders to their lessons and lectures: "Kaspar," they cry, "That just isn't true!" But they are unable to provide him with any concrete proof that it is false.
Kaspar's eccentric thought processes form the most rewarding aspects of the film. His language is densely poetic, and often resonates with metaphor-- the difficulty in putting together even the simplest sentence means that he chooses words with an astute eye for how great a weight a meaning they must carry. One example (sadly paraphrased from memory): in a prescient echo of the real Timothy Treadwell, who often describes his disgust at the callous behavior of humans in "Grizzly Man," Kaspar tells his friend and tutor, "These people are as wolves to me." And, although for the most part we see only the "kindest" behavior from the Germans who surround Kaspar, we can't help but agree: like Treadwell's bears, these people may have social network, but they also have the primal drive towards self-preservation and self-aggrandizement of the wild. And Kaspar, the "wild child," seems to lack this drive entirely.
The other rich consequence of Kaspar's "uncivilized" thought processes is his tendency to think in visions, dreams, and highly symbolic images. He has odd epiphanies about distant, wild landscapes over which helpless herds of people move and toil to no valuable end, and to him these visions are clearly more pressing and more real than paltry questions about his quotidian life (even the questions of where he came from and who is attacking him). Both he and Herzog traffic in allegory (as the original German title of the film, "Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle / Every Man for Himself and God Against All," makes clear), and like most allegories, "Kaspar Hauser" uses archetypal forms to rip the film of "reality" off our everyday lives. In medieval and Renaissance allegory, this would have revealed a Platonic world of ideal forms, a landscape of salvation rather than of fallenness. When Kaspar sees a vision of people, whole swarms of Sisyphuses, dragging themselves and their lives up a neverending hill with nothing at its summit, there is no landscape except for the fallen one: the allegory falls away and leaves only emptiness. At the beginning of the film we are given a rolling field of grain and swelling music. Well trained by Hollywood, our hearts swell in response, and then we see Herzog's epigraph (taken from Lenz?), and the emptiness yawns: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?"
Throughout the film, Kaspar tries to tell a story, and until he is on his deathbed he is dissuaded from the telling because he admits that he doesn't know the ending. Endings, his housekeeper and tutor sternly tell him, are of the most vital importance. Civilization depends on containment, so all narratives must be walled round by clear beginnings and good endings. Kaspar defies all attempts at containment. It is perhaps in the service of making his own ending as meaningful as possible that they final allow him to tell the tale after he has been mortally stabbed by the unknown assailant. The oddity of the tale, it turns out, is that it seems to be complete: it certainly has a beginning, a middle, and an end as we would conventionally imagine them, except that Kaspar doesn't believe the story to be over. So in fact we find that stories without endings are in fact made up of a series of conclusions: all our lives are, in a way, nothing but endings.
Of course, the same can be said about beginnings, but that would be a bit cloying, wouldn't it?
"The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"
dir. Werner Herzog
***1/2 (because it was in fact, more interesting to ponder than to watch, although it was extremely interesting to ponder)
I am not normally someone who achieves that most invoked of readerly cliches, the one-sitting reading. I must admit that I am not a very fast reader, and rarely have the stamina or attention span for the sort of prolonged immersion necessary to pull off this feat. Only Jane Austen, for some peculiar reason, regularly inspires these sorts of insomniac long-haul readathons. But this afternoon, my mind utterly fried from jetlag, I sat down with Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad," a slim volume from Canongate's new series "The Myths," and read it from beginning to end.
This is not necessarily praise, although it does speak to the straightforward readability of Atwood's lightly feminist refiguring of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" from the forgotten point of view of patient Penelope. I have enjoyed many of Atwood's other books, but I find them oddly ephemeral, eluding any attempt to fix what I admired in my memory. The problem with "The Penelopiad" is that its strategies are so familiar from other, more complex feminist and postmodern rethinkings of canonical works (like Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" or John Barth's "Chimera") that they are altogether predictable. As many critics have noted, it is hard to read "The Odyssey" without wondering what is going on in Penelope's head, but Atwood seems to have given voice to the assumptions that we all make about what Odysseus's patient wife is thinking, rather than complicating these assumptions. The prose of Penelope's remembrances is straightforward to the point of clumsiness at times, which only underscores the banality of her reactions. The seams in her fictionalization show all too often in ways that are not so much wittily self-conscious as oddly wooden, as if this narrative were patched together too quickly and never fully completed its metamorphosis from research to fiction.
There is one aspect of the novel in which these criticisms are largely untrue. A chorus of interlocutors, made up of the lady's maids whom Odysseus and Telemachus bafflingly murder at the end of "The Odyssey," regularly interrupts Penelope's rather dreary memoir to form a sort of counterreading to her tale. These interludes draw delightfully on classical traditions of the theatre: the multifaceted use of the chorus is here (as a dissenting voice, as the force of objectivity, as the representative of the social group vs. Penelope's individualism), as is the idea of the satyr play which farcically reframes the issues of the preceding tragedy, refusing them their usual solemnity.
Theirs is a demand for justice, delivered in the folk forms of the malleable oral tradition which preceded the textualizing of "The Odyssey" (these forms begin as popular songs and ballads, and ultimately morph into the dissenting, unwritten protest at a modern trial). Atwood makes this all too explicitly clear, but the choric interruptions are also a revelation about the imprecision of both myth and history, the impossibility of providing a single coherent explanation for the inconsistencies in the stories we are told and tell ourselves. (As such they form the antistrophe to Penelope's strophe, redirecting the course of the narrative as Penelope has attempted to wrest it from Odysseus's sole control, just as the Greek Chorus would switch the direction of its stage movements regularly in its chanting.) This is not to say that there are no explanations for these gaps and contradictions, just that histories must be told in dialogues and conversations: the discord of many memories is infinitely more truthful than the assured account of one voice (even if it is an ignored voice like Penelope's).
My film consumption has drastically slowed during my time in London. While I am at home I would say that I average a time-guzzling rate of a film a day, thanks to the fatal cocktail of Netflix, TiVo and Turner Classic Movies. I stocked up on movies at an Amazon sale before I left for the summer, anticipating terrible withdrawal symptoms , but (in part because I have spent most evenings at the theatre) I have barely found any time to watch them. Apart from the much loved "Snake Pit," the only others I have watched in their entirety are "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947), the tale of a widow's love for a salty sailor's (excuse me - seaman's) ghost, and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), about a benevolent extraterrestrial diplomat who tries to convince the people of Earth to adopt the ways of peace (which will be enforced by all-powerful, difficult to control robots).
I find myself with almost nothing to say about poor old "Mrs. Muir" - it seemed so very slight. I have liked Gene Tierney in other things - most notedly as the magnetic and manipulated heroine of "Laura" - but here I found her hollow-cheeked and simpering. Rex Harrison provides a much more charismatic performance, largely because, as his admirers often note, he never seems to take himself or the film very seriously. The whole package, unfortunately, feels far too much like a play of a certain era, neither tragic nor comic nor even melodramatic, because it doesn't have enough substance to fill out any of these genres.
I approached "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with more hopefulness. I enjoy the films of Robert Wise, for the most part (my new favorite being his striking subtext-laden horror film, "The Haunting"), and I am keen on science fiction generally. On further reflection, however, I must admit that I almost always find cinematic sci fi less effective than literary sci fi, a reaction that I can only attribute to that old anti-cinematic feeling (some might say prejudice) that the visual effect of film leaves too little air for the imagination to breathe. Sci fi films are rarely successful in navigating the perilous line between unabashed fantasy and the realism of concrete detail.
Actually, the courting of realism amidst the unfolding of an utterly improbable premise was the major (perhaps the only) success of this movie for me. The plot of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a thinly veiled plea for international (ahem... interplanetary) solidarity even at the price of national sovereignty. Of the sci fi films of the 50s I have seen ("The Incredible Shrinking Man," "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers") this is perhaps the least metaphorical. It often openly speaks its message rather than filtering its anxieties through a surreal web of sci fi symbolism. As such, it is also my least favorite of a more or less hamfisted genre.
As a native Washingtonian, however, the principal pleasure of watching the film came from Wise's extensive interest in using both mundane and iconic images of D.C. to ground his bizarre plot in the familiar, which is simultaneously "universal" and highly specific to that time and place. Although Wise's stars never left California to shoot in the nation's capital, he planned and shot a carefully choreographed array of backdrops and secondary scenes there to situate the film. Seeing the police chase Klaatu the alien emissary though the street of Washington circa 1950, through locales which are well-known to me and yet alien, highlights the fact that I am seeing the product of a specific, ephemeral socio-political moment that was nonetheless acutely aware of the importance of its decisions and its own lasting historical significance.
"The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" - **
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" ***
I have come to the most surprisingly realization: I really like - even admire - Olivia de Havilland. For years the poor woman (and I'm sure this affected her deeply) languished at the peripheries of my awareness, forever identified with Melanie, Ashley Wilkes's insipid wife. I knew nothing about her - not about her famous feud with Joan Fontaine (or even that the two were sisters), nor about her pioneering role in lessening the actor's subservience to the will of the studio.
A few months ago I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "The Heiress" (1949), William Wyler's adaptation of Henry James's "Washington Square," in which the principle source of interest is de Havilland's plain and plaintive heroine, spurned by father and lover alike. Over the course of the film (which won her an Oscar), she moves from melancholy and the self-effacing acceptance of disappointment to an opportunity-snuffing firmness, a love-quashing self-sufficiency that is truly chilling. And we revel in it all - we think she is right.
Last week I faced a second surprise, when I found that I loved (absolutely loved) "The Snake Pit," Anatole Litvak's film of the previous year. I give de Havilland a great deal of credit for this. As in "The Heiress," de Havilland shows the remarkable ability to evoke our sympathy, or even empathy, for her weakness one moment (in a medium in which weak or unheroic characters so often provoke sadism, at worst, or wincing impatience, at best), and awe at her icy strength or ferocity the next. Seeing de Havilland perform Catherine Sloper in "The Heiress" is like watching the creation of Miss Havisham, and quietly cheering it on. (I am just now finishing "Great Expectations," and have been pondering the relationship between James and Dickens - more on this soon, I hope.)
"The Snake Pit" makes similar demands on our empathy. In it, de Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman confined to a state psychiatric hospital by her bewildered but adoring husband. She famously performed much of the film without makeup, a choice that enhances the haggard expressiveness of her face as well as underscoring our sense of her normalcy, her proximity to us and our experience. Here is a question for the film buffs among you: was de Havilland the first actress to be lauded (by the Academy, among others) for deliberately cultivating plainness onscreen? Should that title instead go to Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager," or does that film not have the proper social agenda of realism (a la Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking" or Charlize Theron in "Monster") to really "count"? Maybe an earlier film yet, like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," deserves a nod here?
The film opens in medias res, our consciousness awakening with befuddled Virginia's: she finds herself in a garden, hearing voices (as we do) but unsure of where they come from, seeing people (as we do) but as of yet unclear on who they are, and most importantly, utterly confused (as we are, forced to trust only her assumptions) about where she is. The context comes to us very slowly. Her interaction with the voiceover, which may be the soothing presence of her perhaps too heroic therapist, Dr. Kik (played with a refusal to sink into blandness by Leo Genn), or may be the paranoid urgings of schizophrenia, is an utterly innovative blending of the psychiatric and the cinematic.
The story unfolds from there in an intriguingly nonlinear manner, weaving together a series of narratives provided by her husband, hypnosis, and the slow excavation of her subconscious in analysis. This is all ultimately in the service of equating psychoanalysis with the methods and narratives of detective thrillers, bound inevitably for the set of concrete clues that will solve the mystery and end the narrative.
As with Hitchcock's "Spellbound," this scheme makes for the least interesting aspect of the film - an unsatisfactory colonizing of the far more intriguing irrational world by the logical drive of the rational that represents neither the complexities of psychoanalysis nor of these story-tellers well. To me it rather recalls Coleridge's assessment of Iago's character as plagued by "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity." This is motive-hunting that is far less interesting than the essential elusiveness of motive: an overdetermined drive to explain that points to the futility (and even absence) of real explanations. We don't believe in the end that confronting her fears and traumas has really cured Virginia, in part because her (and our) fears and traumas proliferate so rapidly upon examination, and in part because we have enjoyed the art of her insanity so immensely.
It has been some time (perhaps 9 months or a year) since I have seen "Spellbound," and I would like to compare the two films more closely sometime soon. From what I can remember, however (and I may be about to commit heresy here), I enjoyed "The Snake Pit" more and found it to be a more successful formal experiment with the implications of mental illness and psychotherapy. [Those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for tales of psychotherapy in film and theatre.] The weaving narrative is more innovative and complex, and makes wider and more bewildering use of cinematic conventions to convey the slippery feeling of being unable to rely on your own mind and senses. The therapeutic "solution," although still uncomfortably "pat" and paternalistic (I feel rather pleased with that pun -- I'll admit it), is both more multi-faceted and more self-consciously tentative than "Spellbound's"
Havilland's harrowing, unpredictable performance is another great feather in "The Snake Pit's" hat (what a bewildering array of images that phrase contained), but the film's strength does not solely reside in her contributions. Anatole Litvak and the screenwriters (Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents, and Frank Partos) also deserve a great deal of praise for their bold approach not only to the increasingly chic "mystery" of psychoanalysis, but also to the more difficult and plebian issue of state-funded psychiatric institutions, under constant pressure to churn out cures on the model of a factory. This is a film that draws heavily and meaningfully from its predecessors, lifting the oppressive masses from King Vidor's masterful "The Crowd" (particularly in one shot which recalls the famously vertiginous view of "The Crowd's" hero dwarfed in an endless line of desks) and a dizzying unreliability of narrative from "Caligari." It also speaks with remarkable prescience of films, theatre and novels to come, like "Cuckoo's Nest" (as yet, sadly, unseen and unread by me) and "Marat/Sade."
The ensemble work that is done here, both by the not entirely unsympathetic staff of the hospital, and by the vivid characters who populate the teeming wards, is extraordinary. Over the course of the film, we lean away from the model of sanity, the orderly portrait of the subconscious presented by the film's psychoanalytic resolution. Much more seductive is the chaos of the wards, surging with crowds made of absolutely unique individuals. This seduction lies in the rhythms of each patient's psychosis, often marked by an expert, prolific use of jargon; an obsessive, warped expertise that provides a refracted view of their former lives and selves, of the outside reality.
"The Snake Pit" ****1/2
Another long hiatus, and a dismaying amount to catch up on. Since I have last written, I have seen several movies, been to a mind-boggling and possibly time-defying number of plays, been to Wales and back, and even finished one or two books. So this is my solemn promise to account for all of these events in some manner (however brief) in the next few days. Really. It's solemn.
My Saturday evening theatregoing was not a total success, but it did lend a sort of organic unity to the day as a whole. After my wanderings round the Barbican, I headed south. Traveling was no simple matter this weekend, since about half of central London's Underground was down for scheduled track maintenance, 600,000 people were in town for EuroPride, the heat wave continued (even intensified), and England lost that very day in the World Cup.
At any rate, I returned to the National Theatre, this time to the tiny Cottesloe, to see "Southwark Fair," by Samuel Adamson. I had seen Adamson's adaptation of "Pillars of the Community" over the winter, and had qualifiedly enjoyed it (that play is marred by its final act, which is a precipitous charge through a series of false endings and near tragedies). This, on the other hand, was structurally ambitious (it follows several groups of people through the same day twice, each time from a different point of view), but the development of this structure is half-baked and the pacing of the scenes is off-kilter. The complex premise seems gimmicky rather than having that peculiar combination of inevitability and revelation that films like "Memento" and plays like Stoppard's time-benders possess. The script certainly needed a few more drafts and a few new actors - the principals are strong, but the peripheral characters are often surprisingly slapsticky. At one time or another, everyone seems to be pushing at the characters too too hard.
I saw the author before the show, in an odd turn, and this reminded me of a biographical connection that is worth noting: Adamson once taught at the well-worn nemesis of my beloved alma mater. Drawing on his experience in the States, Adamson has several of his characters visiting or returning to London from their home in Durham, North Carolina. It felt a bit like a nostalgic ambush to encounter NC (my home for several years) at this unexpected point in my travels.
The characters that populate the play are indeed an international gathering, featuring an Australian, a Canadian, and an American as well as Brits. I have to wonder what temptation continually leads British playwrights and directors into this folly of foreignness. I have no authoritative way of judging how accurate the details of American attempts on British accents are, but with very few exceptions (I'm looking at you, Hugh Laurie) British actors' attempts at American and Canadian accents are excruciating (Never, coincidentally, worse than when they attempt Arthur Miller, whose work settles out into "Aw shucks" sentimentality in the process). The more dialect coaching is done, the more the character is lost beneath a series of garish, cartoonish voice-masks. The poor actor who plays a Canadian in "Southwark Fair" is caught in this quicksand of accent, unable to make any line sound as if it were spoken by an actual human being.
If the author's ties to that iniquitous seat of Blue Devilry in Durham created a sort of symmetry in my summer travels (I have just returned from a lovely wedding in western NC), this play managed to surprise me with ties to all my Saturday activities. The driving point behind the plot of "Southwark Fair" was a possibly pedophiliac fumble backstage at a student performance of none other than "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The play was filled with a sort of weary post-Puckishness (and the inevitable puns about "being a great Puck") that was totally at odds with the endless exuberance of the matinee performance. The final puzzle piece dropped into place when the Clytemnestra of the play avenges herself on her inane, philandering husband by flinging all his belongings into the River. Ah, I thought, ... ritual offerings.