Internet troubles quashed

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!

A Film Diet of Wine and Stale Bread

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.

Playing catch up

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.

Wee update, with a discussion of BookMooching

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 ( 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.

"Great Expectations" (Book 132) and 24 hour Dickens

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)
Charles Dickens

"My people" (1915)
Caradoc Evans

"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)

The top 50 pre-50

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)
Intolerance (1916)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Strike (1924)
Greed (1924)
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
Sunrise (1927)
The Unknown (1927)
The Crowd (1928)
Un Chien Andalou(1928)
Love Me Tonight (1932)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
L'Atalante (1934)
Olympia (1938)
Stagecoach (1939)
Daybreak/Le Jour se leve (1939)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Rebecca (1940)
Fantasia (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Casablanca (1942)
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)
Laura (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)
Notorious (1946)
Black Narcissus (1946)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Gilda (1946)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Red River (1948)
Rope (1948)
The Snake Pit (1948)
Adam's Rib (1949)
The Third Man (1949)

1946 was a VERY good year, apparently.