Monthly Archives: October 2008

October 23, 2008

5. Les quatre cents coups (1959)

directed by François Truffaut
story by François Truffaut
adapted by François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
dialogue by Marcel Moussy

i.e. The 400 Blows.

Quite wonderful and definitely my favorite Criterion Collection pick so far. This being number five and all previous disclaimers regarding the longevity of this project continuing to apply. Coming up very soon on their list are various roadblocks – a whole slew of discs that are out of print and thus extremely hard to come by in the Criterion edition (there are always illegal ways, online, but do I really want to go there? not particularly), and, more distressing still, movies that I really REALLY don’t want to subject myself to. So I’ll either be dropping the whole thing cold or coming up with convoluted policies to rationalize the ones I skip.

“Quite wonderful and definitely my favorite Criterion Collection pick so far,” I said. As the guy says in that book about books you haven’t read*: we have all kinds of impressions of works we haven’t actually experienced, because just knowing they exist means sorting them and fitting them into our picture of the wider culture. In my picture of the wider culture, I have a chunk of property carved out for “European art movies” where I can toss all sorts of titles I haven’t yet seen. Having given them a category and seen a couple, I assign some basic prejudices to them. I articulated some of those prejudices here: “slower pace, less artifice, more interest in the human, more room for the lyrical and the profound, more ambiguity, greater resonance.” But the more basic prejudice is the one that can’t be articulated, that being my overall sense of what that all adds up to: what a European art movie “is like” and, more pointedly, what it “is worth to me.”

Because while I can nod at each of the attributes in that list I just copied from my entry of two years ago: yes, yes, they are all true of The 400 Blows – I also feel that what they signify as a whole is not true of The 400 Blows. Having thrown its title on the “arthouse” pile in my brain, I felt while watching that though I had categorized it correctly by all objective standards, I had gotten it wrong subjectively.

I’m not about to come out here and say that I have never been touched or moved or impressed by an arthouse movie – but this one moved me at a more basic level. It actually reminded me of life, and elicited emotions directly. Most of the time, arthouse movies seem to me to be specifically and intentionally rejecting the rhythms of commercial filmmaking. I think of them as having a rubato drift – all inflection, no drive – which is, in its way, just as artificial and arbitrary a tendency as anything out of Hollywood. But this was nothing like that: it actually worked. Somewhere in the bonus features Truffaut is seen saying that he thinks rhythm is the most important and most difficult aspect of filmmaking. Amen. His attention to it shows and means a lot. He says that his New Wave intentions were not to invent a new style of film but simply to correct mistakes he found in other films, to make films more true to life, and I believe him.

It’s also possible that I’ve just grown up a bit; I notice that I am more comfortable playing music at slower tempi, recently, which seems temperamentally relevant.

I’m going to be a bit bolder, from now on, about calling out rhythms that aren’t working. During slow famous movies I always tell myself that the deliberate pace is a kind of poetry and that I need to try to savor and enjoy it. But just now, watching the first few minutes of the next Criterion Collection movie – look it up if you want to know – there was a shot where some people were leaving the scene, and we stayed with the shot until they had all left. Only then did it cut away. After a point, the “meaning” of the shot had lapsed and it became only a mechanical matter of waiting for them to finish their motion. In that sense of waiting I recognized the feeling that I am constantly suppressing during art movies: “this moment means nothing and I don’t need it to process what came before, so I have nothing to think about; speed it up.” I am not an unthoughtful person! If a movie gives me absolutely nothing to think about for two seconds during a movie, dammit, I’m going to be honest and say: those are two mishandled seconds. Art movies get away with mishandled seconds at the beginnings and ends of shots all the time.

Not so here. He is in tune with the pulse of every scene, and, inconspicuously, of the whole movie. The ending is, I am not alone in saying, the most beautiful thing about The 400 Blows. It harnesses a carefully controlled accumulation of pressure that you the viewer have not even noticed until it is released. Commentary in the booklet seemed to be saying that the ending is positive, a hope and a relief, but I didn’t feel it that way at all. We spend the whole movie building a sense of pain that this child is not loved, and when the catharsis finally comes he is still entirely alone and unloved; only the rhythms have changed. The great sadness of that can only be accomplished through craft, and it was pulled off perfectly. I found myself shocked into crying, which is very high and rare praise from my skull, especially seeing as I was neither alone nor sleepy, when I tend to be more susceptible to tear-jerking.

The fantastic score is a major contributor to the impact of the movie. One of the most effective I’ve heard in a long time. During the movie I assumed it was by the ubiquitous Georges Delerue, but no – it’s by a guy named Jean Constantin who hardly did anything else in film. Which seems a shame, because this is really effective stuff. Here’s the Main Title, which is essentially identical to the Finale. I think it was the pizzicato solo violin that got me to tear up – a really brilliant, perfect choice.

Having seen this, it now becomes much clearer to me that Wes Anderson and his ilk are doing candied impressions of this material and style. Even the score was more or less copped for Rushmore. But this was relentlessly sincere, whereas Wes Anderson’s personal demons are not at issue in his movies in any obvious way – more like he’s made (Truffaut’s?) personal demons into fetish objects and papered his walls with those.

This made an interesting follow-up to Amarcord, since they both seemed to serve a similar memory-function for their respective filmmakers, but approached from two diametrically opposed perspectives. Beth asked me which was better. Apples and oranges, clearly. But I am personally much more of an apple than an orange, and I had a deeper experience with this one. Truffaut, in a sense, was the braver artist in that he truly reentered his emotional past, whereas Fellini seemed to want a solution that would allow him to use his past without having to inhabit it. Watching The 400 Blows was like hearing a plea directly from that boy in the film. The 27-year-old Truffaut, seen in a television interview, seems truly to be the character we’ve just seen, aged only a few more years. When the filmmaker puts himself into a carnival spinner with the protagonist and whirls them around at the speed of film, the implication seems pretty clear.

The performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud must be the best acting by a child ever committed to film, yes? Even more remarkable when you learn that all the audio was recorded later. The best feature on the disc is the audition footage of Léaud, instantly revealing himself to be perfect.

Oh yeah, the disc. Two commentaries: one from the original laserdisc, by a scholar type, Brian Stonehill. He’s well-organized and overall fairly reasonable, but the analysis isn’t particularly thoughtful or convincing. Actors reading from Truffaut’s letters and transcripts of various interviews are slipped into the mix; the whole thing feels planned and scripted enough that it ought to be better. The second commentary is a more recent interview with Truffaut’s lifelong friend Robert Lachenay, who corresponds to the friend character seen in the movie. There is overlap with the first commentary, but the personal touch is meaningful, if a bit depressing: Lachenay sighs distractedly throughout and is clearly trying not to dwell on the fact that his friend is dead, at least not while the tape is running.

* Which, ha ha, I haven’t exactly read.

October 17, 2008

4. Amarcord (1973)

directed by Federico Fellini
written by Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra

Yes, Criterion Collection #4.

A very sweet nostalgia piece. No plot, just a sequence of memories that create a feeling. I don’t think there’s more going on here than that, but that’s plenty. Someone in one of the documentary features on the second disc says that Fellini went through life collecting impressions and then building movies out of them. His impressions are sufficiently rich, and his moviemaking is sufficiently witty, that we need no more. There’s ample food for thought – or for, at least, aesthetic delectation – here.

I spent some time musing on the distinction between thought and delectation, actually, while listening to the commentary – I don’t feel I’ve really watched a Criterion Collection disc, you may have noticed, until I take in the bonus features – which is by two film professors, Peter Brunette and Frank Burke. Their discussion takes a completely “interpretive” tack, organized around a vague thesis that the film is actually a sad comment on the stunted, adolescent nature of all human interaction in this small town and in Italy as a whole during fascism. For example, whenever a woman’s derriere is the center of the camera’s attention – which is frequently – they comment on how seeing women as a collection of body parts, rather than as whole people, is a symptom of the lack of real human connection in the world that the movie portrays. They almost never talk about memory, or nostalgia, or what teenage experiences mean to adults looking back on them, or how, to adolescents, everything becomes imbued with the mystery and intrigue of sex. They don’t have a language for saying these things in any depth, so they end up saying quickly that scenes are “just wonderful” and then, after an awkward pause, fill their mouths with other business: academic sideshows. The guy on the left is worse about it than the guy on the right. I forget which was which.

I used to have absolutely no patience for that kind of analysis. This time I felt more sympathetic to it. It is not illegitimate to point out that the movie has very few deep human connections portrayed in it. But neither does Star Wars. The question is, what does it mean, if anything? The implication, when a film scholar says such a thing, is that it is part of the intended message of the filmmaker. However, these guys seem to know that’s not the case – at one point one of them says that Fellini would probably be infuriated by their commentary, because he didn’t like people claiming that there were “meanings” in his work – but the justification, as usual, is that even if the meanings are there only due to the filmmaker’s subconscious, or as a byproduct of his circumstances, they are still part of the work for the audience. There was a time when my response to that was “Oh really? So what you’re saying is that there’s no framework in which you, Mr. Professor, can ever be demonstrably ‘wrong’? Well isn’t that convenient!” Now my response is “Yes, that’s interesting, what you’re saying, but only in proportion to how much it is a part of my experience of this movie.” Guys like this are given a bucket of delicious fresh water and immediately start panning for gold, holding up the grains proudly. Yeah, you’re right, Mr. Brita, that stuff’s in there, but don’t you think Fellini probably wanted us to drink the water?

Again, this goes back to the wine-tasting concept. Sooner or later you get done with saying “yum, wine,” and start talking about everything but “yum, wine,” because you wore that out. The commentary was sympathetic to me this time because I could tell that these guys really liked this movie, but they blew out their “yum” a long time ago. It’s okay to go there, but it brings new responsibilities. Graduating to that next level means raising the stakes – you’re now responsible for both levels at once. I had to wonder whether these guys had, along the way, inadvertently lost sight of the first level and actually forgotten that this movie is not, in fact, a sad comment on stunted human interactions – it’s a sweet, comic, nostalgic memoir.

Another attitude toward criticism, which I am also amenable to, is that critics point out the non-obvious in order to make it available to others, who might then wish to incorporate it into their future experiences. The grains of gold are being pointed out so that we, the audience, have the option of consciously choosing to savor them, thereby (supposedly) enriching our experiences. In this philosophy, criticism is a service, not a conversation. The reader of such criticism is expected not to commune with the critic, or compare notes, but rather to consider his offerings as educational, a Sherpa’s suggestions of what paths to take next. But given the choice, I will always prefer being stimulated to deeper understand and identify my natural experience of a thing than be stimulated to have a new and unrelated experience. The essence of art is the experience of it, and the nature of that experience is uniquely specific to each person. And at the same time, most people can be expected to make the same basic choices – i.e. when given the bucket, to drink the water.

Though I think I am speaking for everyone, I speak at least for myself when I say that the bottom line is: I find delectation a much more essential vein of aesthetic experience than any socio-political or psychoanalytic thoughts could ever be. If a critic offers up a dessert menu of new interpretations, saying, “you might not have noticed, but this movie could actually be seen as being a critique of traditional conceptions of masculinity,” I am almost always going to say, “why would I want to do that?” The only case where I might order what’s on that menu is if I don’t feel full yet. But in this case I most certainly did.

And having watched the bonus features – some very nice, well-chosen interviews etc. – I feel sure that Sig. Fellini did too. Unlike the commentary, this material enriched and confirmed the experience I was actually having – of being dipped into a man’s deep, mixed, sacred feelings about his memories and about his hometown. I didn’t always know what everything meant, exactly, but I never doubted that everything meant something true and personal to him, and that was generally rich enough. I don’t think the ambiguity was really the point, but it wasn’t a problem either; he judged his work very sensitively.

I had never seen a Fellini movie before. The strength of personality behind everything is obvious; it was immediately clear to me why he has such an enormous reputation. The film was not shy about being DIRECTED. Films can work many ways, and sometimes the director is hardly central to the experience, but this one entirely presented itself as the work of an “auteur.” I have the sense that the art-house tradition is disproportionately built around such films because art loves a celebrity, because we’re still wading through these old ideas about geniuses. Because pretension gravitates toward personalities, basically. But that’s not in any way a knock against movies that are built on personalities. I really enjoyed this.

I was immediately struck, strongly, by how blatantly, directly, and repeatedly Woody Allen has ripped off Fellini, in style, technique, attitude, everything. And that’s just from this one movie. After a while I got over it.

Cinematography was very pretty. In this case I did get to watch the later, improved Criterion release, and I’m glad, because the beautiful colors and the fine image quality was a big part of the experience for me. Yes, even on the iPod screen. Also, this edition has a very fine, nicely-judged illustration on the package, which always pleases me.

Music by Nino Rota is absolutely vital to the mood, and thus the movie as a whole, and very charming. I kept mis-hearing the main tune as a hybrid of “Stay Awake” from Mary Poppins and “Big Stuff” from Bernstein’s ballet “Fancy Free.” But eventually it came into its own. Here it is for your Criterion Collection soundtrack album, straight ahead, as the Main Title.

October 16, 2008

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

directed by Alfred L. Werker
cartoon sequences directed by Hamilton Luske
screenplay by Ted Sears, Al Perkins, Larry Clemmons, Bill Cottrell, and Harry Clork
based on the story by Kenneth Grahame (from the collection Dream Days (1898))

This is another pendant to the Disney animated canon, an only-partially-animated feature from the days before they wholeheartedly made live-action movies. I already saw Victory Through Air Power, but that was out of chronological order. This one comes first.

It’s just a behind-the-scenes tour: TV-special fodder from before the TV era. In 1941 the concept was apparently still novel. A dorky title card at the end of the opening credits feels the need to explain, lamely: “This picture is made in answer to the many requests to show the backstage life of animated cartoons. P.S. Any resemblance to a regular motion picture is purely coincidental.” Oh ho ho is it then.

In the opening scene, Robert Benchley’s wife – not, of course, his actual wife – insists forcefully, but for no apparent reason, that Benchley pitch Walt Disney the idea of making a cartoon of Kenneth Grahame’s story “The Reluctant Dragon.” She seems to believe that they will be able to “sell” the story to Disney somehow, even though the rights are certainly not theirs. Frankly the premise makes very little sense.

Benchley resists, but you know how onscreen wives can be, so the next thing you know he’s on the Disney lot, under the watchful eye of a priggish young nerd, being led to his meeting with Walt. He ends up slipping away on his own – he can’t bear the nerd, and he sees a pretty girl walking by – you know the drill. He proceeds to wander around the studio and learn all about the aforementioned backstage life of animated cartoons.

Every department that he stumbles into is awfully cheery about interrupting their day to put on a little informational show for Robert Benchley and then help him escape from the pursuing nerd, who is, we learn, universally despised. Given that the film is pure Disney PR, why, we might ask, does Disney portray itself as employing this hateful wet blanket? Luckily, his impact on the studio’s image is counterbalanced by the movie’s insistence that Disney also employs a great many PRETTY LADIES. Cheerful ones, who don’t mind at all when Robert Benchley makes wisecracks about how hot they are instead of paying attention to what they’re saying. Such ladies make up a large part of the workforce at Disney, apparently. So we can’t begrudge the company its one irritating eunuch.*

Benchley finally meets up with Walt in a screening room, just as a new cartoon is about to be shown. Punchline? The new cartoon is The Reluctant Dragon. Disney’s already made it. Get it? Then we watch the short, which makes up the last 20 minutes of the movie.

Walt always had a penchant for talking about the technical side of his business. He thought it was interesting stuff and he liked sharing it; he clearly believed that “behind the scenes” had entertainment and educational value. We tend to take it for granted, but on consideration there’s something noteworthy, and praiseworthy, in the fact that his TV introductions frequently featured him holding up models or sketches from the development process of the cartoon you were about to see, sometimes launching into extended educational sequences about the subject matter, or about animation. The Disney product gets criticized by some as slick and impersonal, but I think Walt had a sincere desire to get his viewers to see his shiny product as the result of fascinating and intricate human labor. “The Making Of” has PR value but it also has aesthetic value; the value of seeing an artwork as a creation, full of intention and skill, rather than just as an experience.

Animation is one of those artforms that particularly resists being felt as a truly human creation. The method and materials involved are so far removed from everyday experience, and the illusion so strong, that even if we tell ourselves we are watching a series of photographs of painted sheets of acetate pinned in front of a painting laid flat on a table and filmed from a camera suspended overhead, we can’t do anything, perceptually, with that information. The most delightful part of The Reluctant Dragon is when the camera operator gives Benchley the standard demonstration of how successive images create movement by showing him a few cels in Donald Duck’s walk cycle, and then Donald wakes up and takes over the demonstration himself in fully-animated motion, holding still in the poses as best he can. “First my foot is up here, see?… Then it’s down here, understand?… When I do it faster, I’m walking!” The phony demonstration is a celebration of the strength of the illusion: whenever the film is rolling, we’re on Donald’s time, and we can’t hope to conceive of the technical process any better than he can. From his point of view, “animated” just means “sped up,” and in the moment, that’s about the best we can do too.

This I think is why the Disney product manages to seem irredeemably slick even though he was constantly inviting viewers to consider the dirty work. You can see it, but you don’t believe it. Not in the middle of a cartoon, you don’t. Another highlight of this movie is seeing Clarence Nash talking normally and then launching into the Donald voice, but as with Jim Henson and Dan Castellaneta, he might as well be dubbed, because there’s no way that what I hear Donald saying is actually coming out of that guy’s mouth. Whether or not Robert Benchley is actually seen producing the Donald voice is a legitimately open question. If it’s for real, my hat is off to him.

The Reluctant Dragon short itself is reasonably attractive and reasonably charming, for a short. By far the most memorable thing about it is the mincing dragon himself, whose “reluctance,” ahem, is so spectacular that the critic for the Times assumed the dragon was a “she.” Simpler times, those. Also interesting to note that, in contrast to my attitude above, the Times review had no patience at all for “a lot of shop talk,” and was pleased only by those portions of the film that had been drawn, ahem, and ahem again, “out of Disney’s own gay fairy book.”

Oh, it’s immature of me to find that amusing, is it? I suppose you’re going to say that this isn’t funny either, are you? Be that way, see if I care.

* Sad that I feel the need to answer this seriously, but I do: The nerd is in fact a model employee; his only flaw is that he is too dedicated to have a little fun, and too rigid in his ways to realize that Mr. Benchley is running wild. And we see that his supervisors are dutifully on his case, reprimanding him for the latter fault (and in a vague way, the former) – all part of the healthy process of molding an enthusiastic entry-level twit into one of Disney’s own. Nothing to be ashamed of there!

October 13, 2008

Locus Solus (1914)

Raymond Roussel (1877-1933)
Locus Solus (1914)
translated into English by Rupert Copeland Cunningham (1970)

Roll 15: 1361 = Raymond Roussel
1362 = Locus Solus

This was a surprise and a delight the likes of which I doubt will be repeated anywhere else in this enormous list.

Before I read it, I read some online reviews. They all said how wonderful it was, that it was a marvelous feat of imagination. But when they offered quick previews of the wackiness in store – e.g. telling me to look forward to reading about “… an aerial pile driver which is constructing a mosaic of teeth and a huge glass diamond filled with water in which float a dancing girl, a hairless cat, and the preserved head of Danton…” – I was left a bit apprehensive. The images in question seemed no more charming than any other bits of random nonsense, and I didn’t relish the idea of plugging through hundreds of pages of deep surrealism.

But I loved this book. It was indeed wonderful, and yes, a marvelous feat of imagination. The problem is that, having experienced this cavalcade of the fantastic, one imagines that just naming these crazy things will surely give others a taste of the fun. But it doesn’t at all. Yes, I’m strongly tempted now to rattle off some of the craziness – because boy is it crazy! – but I’m going to try to resist because it would miss the point entirely. You really have to read it for yourself.

Unfortunately you probably won’t be able to, because the English translation is out of print and extremely rare and the French original is, unfortunatement, in French. None of the public libraries had a copy (!), nor did any used bookstore, and I couldn’t even buy one online for anything like a reasonable price ($120 and up on abebooks!). The copy I read, seen above, was borrowed for me from Firestone Library at Princeton University. I would love to own a copy of the text, but the actual edition, rare though it is, is of no particular aesthetic interest, so I’m not about to spend the big bucks.

This book is all but unobtainable, despite being not only in Harold Bloom’s canon but also in the considerably more populist 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (it’s number 257). It is RRRRRripe for the reprinting. NYRB Classics, are you listening? Actually, I think I’ll write to them for real.*


When I was a kid my sense of humor put great emphasis on craziness. In part this was because I didn’t actually understand very much of the comedy I encountered. Didn’t understand it, but still “thought it was funny.” I responded to the ambiance and rhythm of humor without necessarily being able to parse the content, and since I seemed to be having the same reaction as adults – namely, enjoying it – it seemed apparent to me that my spotty understanding was in fact sufficient and complete. I think I truly believed that much of adult entertainment culture consisted of a barrage of near-nonsense, delivered with panache. That was what adults enjoyed. The more brazen the nonsense, the funnier. And I found that a very congenial standard.

Of course, fondness for craziness is common to all kids, to some degree, and entertainment for kids bears that out. The books and movies in which silly really was the name of the game probably only reinforced my impression that adult comedy operated the same way.

The fascination of craziness, the meaning of no-meaning, is a particular kind of giddiness that I can still savor, but now it tends to be diluted by knowledge. Locus Solus got me back in touch with the essence of craziness – pure, unqualified, Porky in Wackyland-grade craziness. It functions almost as an inquiry into craziness: what does it mean for something to be crazy? And conversely, what does it mean for something to make sense? If you can explain something rationally, does it cease to be irrational?

Okay, here’s what the book is. A genius scientist is giving a tour of his fantastic estate, showcasing his various “experiments” and “inventions.” These consist of intensely surreal tableaux, described slowly and carefully. Such as, yes, a floating automated device building a mosaic out of a huge supply of variously discolored human teeth. There’s more to that scene, but, like I said, just telling you about it misses the point. Because: after each scene has been lovingly laid out in all its jarring irrationality, our host sets about explaining it. The explanation meticulously addresses absolutely every absurdity and creates a history and a context that justifies it and justifies their juxtaposition. Roussel writes story after story – highly inventive and amusing stories, but essentially as conventional as possible – until what once seemed an hopelessly dense clump of nonsense has been entirely defused. Or has it? It’s still all nonsense. But now it’s explained nonsense.

Each chapter repeats the process with a new tableau. Like a good performer, Roussel knows to up the ante a little bit each time. As each chapter wrapped up, I would think, “okay, I get it now,” and then upon reading the next chapter would find myself laughing and shaking my head in amazement – “boy, and I thought that was crazy – now this is crazy!” The number of individual absurd details rises in each new tableau, so that in the later ones they accumulate in drifts, like heavy snow. As the craziness kept piling up higher, I would feel the pressure rising too. “Come on! how is he possibly going to be able explain his way out of this one?”… and then, like Houdini, he would! I wanted to applaud.

It’s like a delightful combination of watching an escape artist and listening to your dad improvise a bedtime story.

The explanatory stories are what make the book truly great. But even the setups, the mere descriptions, are fascinating. Unlike the actual Surrealists, who were in it for the shock of unfamiliarity, Roussel does everything he can to underplay the weirdness. His descriptions are as scientific and un-dreamlike as possible. He frequently points out quaintly that various things “surprised” the spectators or “seemed miraculous.” Here’s a snippet to give a taste.

…the sibyl took a pack of tarot cards from a tall, narrow box of old leather, whose lid was missing–and placed one of them flat, its back in contact with the table. Before long a tinkling music issued from the card, though there was no abnormal thickening to suggest the presence of any internal mechanism. The tune, an incoherent adagio which seemed to be due to the capricious improvisation of living creatures, progressed indolently and was of an extremely bizarre nature, though free of any errors of harmony.

A second card which took its place beside the first produced a livelier air. Others laid one after another on the table all played their separate pieces with pure, metallic notes. Each was like an independent orchestra which once laid down sooner or later launched into its symphony, languid or lively, sad or joyful, whose almost hesitant unpredictability betrayed the personal touch of living beings.

The ear was never offended by any infringement of the rules of harmony, but only confused by the multiplicity of these various ensembles, which were too soft anyway for their simultaneity to constitute an unpleasant din.

The evident localization of the sounds forced one’s mind to admit that, contrary to all likelihood, there was a miraculously thin musical device imprisoned within each tarot card.

That’s only one of many many many details in a very elaborate scene. The narrator is not complicit in the craziness, nor does he find it unnerving. He is, simply, a reasonable fellow, and he happened to see some tarot cards that played weird music. No need to get upset, because surely there is some explanation. And of course there is.

Having read up a very little bit on Roussel, I can let you know that the way he wrote was by generating the nonsense through wordplay, mostly phrase homonyms – sort of a Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames kind of thing – and then working from the output. Which is certainly interesting, but beside the point. In his essay on his process, he admits that he can’t remember specifically how he came up with most of what’s in Locus Solus. The book itself really is the point.

I’m not sure what this book “says” or “means.” It’s been nearly a year and I’ve been thinking about it frequently, but it resists any simple analysis. The great beauty of the book, in fact, is that it is not expressive of anything; it has no interior. That’s not to say that it doesn’t “mean” anything – it is rich with potential meaning, even as it pulls the rug out from under all meaning. Both the form and the content are concerned with the interface between the mechanical and the human, between the automated and the chaotic. Things we are shown turn out to be simulacra, even when that seems impossible. Repeatedly, things that seem reactive and human are revealed to be blind automata, and the appearance of normality revealed to be dependent on pre-planning of unthinkable, infinite precision. Actually, this makes me think that maybe Roussel’s method isn’t irrelevant after all: his text, too, is a product of unfeeling mechanical techniques, rendered into flesh and blood.

Is Roussel poking fun at science, or is he celebrating it? I think neither but probably closer to the latter. He is grasping the essential strangeness at the heart of rationalism, the dizzying notion that our lives, our loves, our fairy tales, all are just vast assemblages of cold data. A notion so essentially weird to contemplate, in fact, that it doesn’t feel “rational” at all. This is the hall of mirrors in which the book takes place. I thought it was spectacular.

I want to note that with this entry I am now UP TO DATE with my Western Canon reading. How can that be, when I read Locus Solus almost a year ago? It can be because the next spin of the wheel turned up something truly long, an entire corpus, which cried out to be broken up with other reading. I have heeded those cries and taken several extended hiatuses from the main assignment, which lingers on even at this late date. No regrets there, especially since it’s afforded me the opportunity to catch up with myself. Hooray!

* There was no need. Many months have passed since I wrote the first part of this entry, and I have since learned that a UK reprint is imminent. Good!**

** More months yet have passed since I wrote the preceding footnote – these entries build up very slowly, like sediment – and I have now in fact bought a copy of that reprint. It was oddly expensive, here in the States, but I had no qualms. So now what I said above is simply no longer true. The book is not at all out of print and it’s quite straightforward to obtain a copy. Whew.

October 10, 2008

Disney Canon #11: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)


ADAM That was awesome!

BETH That was one of my favorites. But I don’t think Mr. Toad should be shown to children. There’s just no way they could follow it. It was hard even for me. Was that what it was called? Mr. Toad?

BROOM I would say that section is called The Wind in the Willows.

BETH Well, I thought The Wind in the Willows was pretty interesting but not for kids at all.

BROOM I agree. I thought both segments in the movie required a sophistication of narrative comprehension that kids just don’t have. I remembered seeing both halves, separately, and not being able to really follow either of them. As a kid watching the Sleepy Hollow section, you don’t know what’s going on… and then eventually there’s the headless horseman at the end. And it still seems like a payoff, because it would be a good payoff for any story. But the psychological, interpersonal content is over your head. I think kids would also have a hard time answering the question of what type Ichabod Crane is.

ADAM Namely: a hideous pantywaist. That’s what went through my head the whole time. He’s just this mincing, sly, hook-nosed, homosexual Jew. Well, he’s not really a homosexual Jew, but you know.

BROOM But it’s more complicated than that, because then the question is, why are women into him? What does Katrina Van Tassel see in him? Is she just using him to make Brom jealous? It’s all based on non-standard subtleties of characterization that would never be in a Disney movie today.

ADAM The other women are just desperate mongrels. We’ll see these women again, pursuing the Pirates of the Caribbean.

BROOM And pursuing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, which borrowed heavily from this.

ADAM Yes. In the first scene, when we saw Ichabod walking down the street with his nose in the book, I kept thinking about Belle’s opening number.

BETH I don’t know Beauty and the Beast.

BROOM Well, you will… in a year.

ADAM Belle, being an untraditional Disney heroine, loves to read, and in the first scene she walks through town with her nose in a book, greeting the villagers, and Gaston tries to get her attention. Gaston being a sort of handsome brute.

BROOM Gaston is exactly the same as the guy in this movie. Except he’s less sympathetic. But that’s another interesting thing about this movie: there are no truly sympathetic characters. Brom Bones is a bully… but you can’t blame him… but you don’t root for him either. Do you?


ADAM I want to put this out there: Brom Bones is the first authentically hot Disney character. Discuss.

BETH I actually had the thought, while watching, that he was nearly as ugly as Ichabod, but in a different way.

BROOM I thought that Katrina was pretty hot.

BETH Did you? She was definitely the fattest yet.

BROOM She was “buxom,” if that’s what you mean.

ADAM She was a blooming rose, and you’re just jealous of her petticoats.

BETH She was buxom but her face was pudgy.

BROOM I didn’t have a problem with that.

BETH She seemed a little stupid-looking, though.

BROOM Smarts don’t really come into it.

ADAM So there have been several attractive ladies, but has there been a hot man?

BROOM Certainly not in the muscled sense.

ADAM Tarzan is hot, we’ll come to see, and Robin Hood is hot.

BROOM Robin Hood is hot in a whole other way.

ADAM Well, he’s a fox.

BROOM He’s like Errol Flynn hot.

ADAM Yeah, whereas this guy was like [my boyfriend] hot. And he’s not really a bad guy.

BETH He’s not a bad guy, but he’s sulky.

BROOM That’s what I’m saying is the odd thing about that story; they wouldn’t make it now because there are no clear heroes and villains. In neither of these stories, in fact.

BETH They wouldn’t make either of these stories now. The first one in particular I just found so inaccessible for kids.

ADAM It’s hard to understand what they’re saying, for one thing.

BETH You have Scottish and British dialects, and the story is about, like, a deed.

ADAM It’s a courtroom drama.

BETH It’s about the ownership of a house.

BROOM Okay, Adam, voice your objection.

ADAM What?

BROOM That the end of Wind in the Willows doesn’t make sense.

ADAM Oh. Well, it’s true that it does not make sense that merely retrieving the deed from Winky would demonstrate Toad’s innocence, let alone that he owns it. It wouldn’t exonerate him. I don’t understand the logical connection there. I must say, I never understood the Wind in the Willows ride – or, I should say, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

BROOM It’s based only loosely on the movie. In Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, you hit a train and go to hell.

BETH Don’t you go up into the sky at some point?

BROOM Well, you hit a henhouse, you break things.

ADAM I knew there was going to be a motorcar in the movie.

BROOM The whole ride is about driving recklessly in a motorcar.

ADAM And there is a cop, and a scene where you escape prison.

BROOM You go to court and a judge slams a gavel, too. And there’s a scene where you drive through Toad Hall and see weasels wrecking everything.

BETH They closed it at Disneyworld. I don’t know if it’s still open at Disneyland.

BROOM But at the end, you escape somehow and you’re on train tracks, and you see the headlight of a train coming directly at you, and there’s a boom, and then you’re in hell and there are devils taunting you. So I wasn’t sure Mr. Toad was going to survive the movie, but he did. But perhaps “you” aren’t Toad himself in that ride.

ADAM Probably fewer than one percent of visitors to Disneyland have actually seen The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

BROOM Oh, I don’t think that’s true. Lots of people have seen this movie.

ADAM I guess maybe just I had not seen it.

BETH I thought I had seen it, but I did not remember it.

ADAM I found it totally charming. It was like a Dickens story.

BROOM I remember knowing, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came out, that the weasels in that movie were from something, but I had since forgotten what it was they were from. They were from this.

ADAM It’s like a Dickens story crossed with a Wodehouse story. The courtroom stuff was funny.

BROOM It was all very entertaining. I don’t know why The Wind in the Willows is called that, or why it’s a classic of British literature. Maybe I should read it.

ADAM I’m not sure that it’s a classic of British literature any more than, like, “Johnny Appleseed” is a classic of American literature.

BROOM Well, the narrator of this movie said that he thought that Mr. Toad of Toad Hall was the most fabulous character in English literature.

ADAM But it said that on his script.

BROOM Maybe. Anyway, what I was thinking throughout – besides that the movie had no sympathetic protagonists in either half…

ADAM I think all four of the main characters of Toad are sympathetic.

BROOM You were rooting for them more or less, but you weren’t them. There was no clear hero. Toad was the heroic central figure but you didn’t quite like him. I mean, I liked watching him, but I didn’t identify with him.

BETH He was just a goofball.

BROOM Yes. Adam said in the middle, “he’s kind of an asshole,” and he was.

BETH I said he was like a baby.

BROOM He’s some ideal of aristocratic recklessness that’s supposed to be charming.

ADAM And is.

BROOM Anyway, we’ve been saying that with this movie, now we’re “out of the woods” of these second-rate package features, and in many ways this movie did seem like it initiated a new direction, toward what Disney is now.

ADAM Sophisticated adult jokes and lavish animation for children?

BROOM Actually, I think this movie was markedly more adult than what Disney is now.

ADAM They would never end a story the way Sleepy Hollow ended. Obviously the whole point of the Washington Irving story is that it is ironic, and that he does not explain the ending, although it is pretty clear what happened to Ichabod Crane. But for children – I was expecting at least a wink, like Brom’s head popping up through the cape. But they didn’t give you that.

BROOM I remembered very specifically from childhood that you had to put it together yourself. That was right on the edge of what I was able to do as a kid. But I didn’t really understand what the tensions had been. As a kid you just know, “that guy’s trying to make that guy dance with the fat girl, and now that guy’s outside, and now that guy’s telling a scary story, and now there’s the headless horseman!”

ADAM That’s like every time I watched “Three’s Company.” I was too young to understand that Jack was pretending to be gay so that Mr. Furley would allow him to live with Chrissy and Janet.

BROOM Of course you were too young to understand that.

ADAM But I loved “Three’s Company”! So I don’t know that not understanding adult jokes is a bar to children’s enjoying something.

BROOM I think it was a bar to enjoying parts of this where there’s no slapstick for a while, there’s just a lot of walking. There’s a fair amount of watching characters talking and gesticulating in Wind in the Willows – which I thought was interesting, because we’d talked about how they hadn’t really found a convincing way to animate full-fledged humans yet, and, while these were of course still animals, there was something newly human about the way the dialogue was handled.

ADAM I thought it was very funny that Toad was the size of a toad.

BROOM I thought it was funny that he wasn’t the size of a toad but he wasn’t the size of people either. He lived in a house and was about as tall as the doorknob, which is neither the size of a toad nor the size of a person.

ADAM A toad is smaller than a doorknob?

BROOM No, he wasn’t the size of a doorknob; his head reached to the doorknob.

ADAM But when he was in court, he wasn’t more than the size of a toad.

BROOM The animals were like half a person’s height. They weren’t toad-sized, they were hobbit-sized.

ADAM As a kid, would you have understood that both Angus MacBadger and Scrooge McDuck are Scottish stereotypes of stinginess?

BROOM Of course not. I didn’t even process now that he was a stereotype of stinginess. I just thought that he was a serious-minded older guy.

ADAM Well, he’s an accountant type, which is a Scottish stereotype. Would you have understood that he was Scottish?

BROOM I don’t think I even knew that was a Scottish stereotype. To be an accountant?

ADAM Well, not an accountant, but to be concerned with penny-pinching.

BROOM Only Scrooge McDuck. I don’t know it outside of these cartoons. Can you give another example?

ADAM I’ll have to look into it.

BROOM Well, I wouldn’t have gotten that.

BETH You wouldn’t have gotten that he was Scottish?

BROOM Probably not. As a kid?

BETH How old are we? If I was six, no. If I was nine, yes.

BROOM Really? I might have recognized that they were the same thing as each other – I think we’ve had this conversation before.

ADAM I thought it was unpleasant that Ichabod Crane wanted her money. It was kind of clear that he was not sexually interested in her. He’s kind of a weirdo for that reason.

BROOM He was both sexually interested in her and interested in her money, and they emphasized the money to drive home that there was nothing sympathetic about this, and that we should side with the bully. Which was a weird case for a movie to make. Ichabod was just a very strange character all around, and that was the point of the movie, and that was odd for Disney. And the character design, with no chin and a big ugly nose and huge ears, was weird and interesting. And I think it answers – earlier than I predicted last time when we talked about this – our question of “when will they create a person who has distinctive person-like characteristics.” We were complaining about the bland-faced people in Melody Time. You definitely knew exactly what Ichabod’s head looked like, in three dimensions. The human animation was really full of character, and they still looked like people, so I think they achieved what we were talking about. But there’s still room for improvement. But what I was going to say earlier: I felt like this was the first movie where the storyboard work, and the pacing and plotting, felt really sturdy and familiar.

ADAM None of us came close to falling asleep, and I was sorry when Mr. Toad ended.

BROOM I’m glad. I didn’t know what you guys were thinking. I’ve been enjoying the other ones, and then it turns out that you guys didn’t like them. And I was enjoying this one too but I thought, “maybe they’re going to say this is dumb, I don’t know.”

ADAM No, it was good. But it was a little jarring to leave Mr. Toad in his airplane and then suddenly we’re with Bing Crosby in a library. They gotta fix that.

BROOM Well, this will be the last movie where something gives way to something else that has nothing to do with it.

BETH I agree with what you’re saying about the plotting, and I thought, “how refreshing that we’re actually watching stories, here, being told well.” Especially when you think about “Bongo.” It’s a big contrast.

BROOM Well, I think both parts of Fun and Fancy Free – “Bongo” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” – were had-been-aborted-and-then-were-quickly-wrapped-up projects, and they didn’t represent the full force of the studio.

ADAM Is it relevant that Mr. Disney didn’t come up with these stories, but that they’re adaptations?

BETH I thought it might be relevant. But just that they can take something and tell it well is the big improvement. [ed. worth reminding ourselves that apart from stuff like “Pedro the Mail Plane,” none of the movies so far have been on original stories]

BROOM There’s definitely a different thrust to this from their earlier successes, than Pinocchio or even Snow White. This feels like a more conservative, less visually-oriented type of storytelling. It’s more like normal movie-making. It just had a different rhythm to it, and I felt like, “Oh yeah, this is how Disney movies flow.” Strong caricatures are used to send clear signals to a kid about what each scene is. During the heist scene where they’re lowering him down on a rope, I was thinking that not only is this scene familiar because it’s used all the time, but it’s been set up very purely, so it’s clear exactly what the standard tensions are. I’m not sure how to say this.

ADAM Like… whether the person falls or not?

BROOM Just what the significance of the scene is, and what’s at stake. Like, what kind of function it serves in the plot, and also in itself. It telegraphs its own function and mechanism in such an immediate way.

ADAM What’s the earliest movie where you remember it being a plot device that someone is trying to retrieve something from somebody sleeping, and the sleeping person ends up hugging the would-be thief as if he were a pillow?

BROOM This goes back to the “meme-o-pedia” idea I’ve mentioned several times. There’s “trying to retrieve something from a room full of sleeping people,” “trying to retrieve something from a person holding it while sleeping,” and then as a subcategory of that, what the person does when it doesn’t quite go right. Hugging is one of the several options; there’s also rolling over and putting it where it can’t be gotten; there’s the “they can only get it when they’re yawning” gag, where someone has to tickle their nose with something to make them let it go. A lot of options there. This one had the hugging.

ADAM And the tickling.

BROOM Did it?

ADAM That’s how he freed himself.

BROOM I guess I must have seen that and been thinking of it, but just now when I said it, I thought I was coming up with it out of nowhere.

ADAM I liked that this was not yet in the Disney mold of, like, a spunky hero on a voyage of self-discovery.

BROOM When we started this project I thought we would get to watch the evolution of that very formula. And what I’m saying is that I think this is the first time we’re really seeing a definite step in the process of that evolution. Somehow everything before this had a different emphasis. There’s some kind of divide, during the war, where there’s not a completely direct relationship in style between what precedes and what comes after. Then again, maybe there is. But I felt like here they suddenly have maybe fifty percent of the elements of the Disney movie “brand” in place.

ADAM Well, Pinocchio is in that mold, sort of.

BROOM It’s a quest, but it’s episodic, as we talked about then. It doesn’t quite have that feeling of an outline with sections like “Introduction to characters”; “First stage of conflict”; “Second stage of conflict”; “Climax.” It just has a bunch of linked episodes. This felt very cozy, like we were now in the hands of something very familiar, even though I didn’t remember the details of these particular movies. Just the way it worked was comforting and traditional.

BETH I still think that for these to be the first two stories that they tell as regular stories in ten years was a strange choice.

ADAM Well, these are the two most fabulous characters. They had no choice.

BETH So was this a success?


BETH It was?

ADAM Oh, you mean commercially?

BETH Yes, commercially.

BROOM I don’t know. It’s hard to find out that information for older movies. We can find out what the Times review said; we’ll read that in a second. Any thoughts about the songs?

ADAM They were out of place.

BROOM I thought it was pretty hilarious when I first saw that they sing a swingy song at the beginning on the phrase “Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” A title song justifying this meaningless assemblage. And then you guys chuckled when they started singing the “Ichabod Crane” song. I think they knew it was a little funny. I think part of the joke was, like, “We got Bing Crosby and we’re gonna use him.”

BETH They were out of place but they weren’t bad, so I didn’t mind them.

BROOM I think that “Merrily Merrily Merrily Going Nowhere In Particular” was pretty bad.

BETH I forgot about that. The ones in the Ichabod story weren’t so bad.

ADAM The ones in the Ichabod story jarred with the colonial American tone.

BETH I was thinking, “He’s not only telling them a ghost story, he’s introducing them to a whole new form of popular music!”

BROOM I think as a kid that stuff all just mixed together for me, because it was all “out of the past.” It was just cozy stuff your grandma might like. Your grandma might have a sampler in her house and she might listen to Bing Crosby.

ADAM Did you find it a comforting idea that a nerd could dance well and almost get the girl?

BROOM That’s what was so weird about it. He wasn’t just a nerd.

ADAM He was a conniving, mean nerd.

BROOM He was talented, and elegant and graceful, and also obsessed with eating sweets when people weren’t looking.

BETH Eating anything! Whole turkeys.

BROOM Manipulating people so that he could get to their turkeys. And yet he also was an idiot.

BETH And he had a lovely singing voice.

BROOM “Ba ba ba boo!” Did Bing Crosby actually sing “ba ba ba boo?” Why was that his thing? What was the context where he would sing “ba ba ba boo?” At the beginning, when the credit came up that said “Bing Crosby,” they gave him a little vocal solo to go “ba ba ba boo!” to signify “Bing Crosby is singing!”

BETH I don’t know.

BROOM Back to what I was saying before: there was a lot more acting in the facial animation. Not just vaudeville slapstick acting, but actual the-way-people-would-act acting.

ADAM Furrowing brows.

BROOM Yeah, all sorts of sophisticated expressions. Like when Ichabod looks in the mirror and thinks “you sly devil,” and he has a funny little crinkled mouth and makes faces at himself, I thought that was a new level of sophistication in what they got into the character’s face. And also when Mr. Toad was going on about his various passions, and being Mr. Toad, he did all kinds of well-characterized stuff.

BETH I liked Mr. Toad’s faces.

BROOM The quality of the acting was at a higher level, and the emphasis on acting was greater.

ADAM Mr. Toad is no one you’d want to hang out with, but he was a charmer.

BROOM “He had many fair-weather friends.”

ADAM Do we think this is one story plucked from a long series of stories in The Wind in the Willows? It seemed to start mid-stream, as if they had just picked out a single story.

BROOM I don’t know what happens in The Wind in the Willows. There might be more to it. [ed. seems like this is the main storyline, streamlined and tweaked]

BETH Sequences that I liked a lot were: the train chase with all the cops shooting at Mr. Toad, and the dance sequence with the fat girl, which I thought was hilarious.

ADAM I liked the courtroom fun.

BROOM I liked the parts Beth liked; I also liked the stuff with the weasels; I thought they had a good look to them. And I thought the spooky sequence at the end was good – the whole thing builds up to it, and it’s very satisfying.

ADAM Although the animation of the headless horseman looked a little too much like a He-Man cartoon.

BROOM I thought that was what was cool about it. Ichabod Crane, looking the way he’s looked for the whole movie, is riding right next to him, and the headless horseman nonetheless is animated in this different style, to make him unearthly. I really liked the first shot, when the camera whips over and you suddenly see The Headless Horseman, rearing up perfectly, and the background goes red. I enjoyed that. But what about the animation and design in general? There was less of an emphasis on…

BETH …lushness?

BROOM On draftsmanship.

ADAM There were no whirling leaves anywhere. [ed. actually, there are a couple, when Ichabod looks up at the moon]

BETH I thought the trees in “Sleepy Hollow” weren’t so great looking. I liked that they were flat, but otherwise I didn’t like the style of the drawings.

BROOM I thought a lot of the artwork was more utilitarian than previously.

BETH Serviceable.

BROOM Yes, serviceable. There wasn’t nearly as much design enthusiasm as in the music movies.

BETH Which is fine.

ADAM Well, wait ’til Rapunzel comes out.

BROOM Right, in the style of Fragonard.

[we read the rather pedestrian Times review, by one “A.W.” Link below.]

ADAM I miss Bosley.

BROOM I had another thought but I can’t remember it.

ADAM Why wasn’t Cyril upset about losing his job to a motorcar?

BROOM Ah, now I remember: anything to say about the undertones of homosexuality throughout this film, Adam?

ADAM What do you mean? Between whom?

BROOM Well, between Mr. Toad and Cyril, and between Water Rat and Mole.

ADAM Water Rat and Mole had just a sort of English ladies’ domesticity to them. Which I didn’t take to be homosexual.

BETH Didn’t Mole have a crush on Mr. Toad?

ADAM Well, didn’t you?

BROOM I thought he just had a charisma crush on him, yeah.

BETH All right, fine.

ADAM And I thought Cyril and Mr. Toad were just, you know, fellow rabble-rousers. Cyril is like a Cockney brawler. I found this movie remarkably free of homosexual undertones.

BROOM Oh. When he was jumping on the horse’s butt and shouting “I won’t get tired of this!” I thought you were laughing.

ADAM Oh, no, it didn’t even occur to me. I just thought they were sort of, you know, the Rat Pack. You know, in rural England. At most, Rat and Mole were like Bert and Ernie. They’re just friends. What a sicko you are.

BROOM I really thought that Mr. Toad had that fey quality and his enthusiasm seemed primarily to be to jump on Cyril’s butt, and I thought you were laughing at that and would want to say something about it.

ADAM No. He did have a vaguely Oscar Wilde-ean quality.

BROOM Yes, exactly. He had limp wrists! He was the first limp-wristed character we’ve seen.

ADAM But he was sort of a wit, you know, and like a…

BROOM …bon vivant?

ADAM Yes. I didn’t take him as coded gay, per se.

BROOM Well, no. But something. And then Winky

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM Okay, fine, so there were no gay characters in this movie. Thanks for watching, guys. Next time: Cinderella.


ADAM A hotbed of gay themes.


October 9, 2008

The Street of Crocodiles (1934)

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)
Sklepy cynamonowe (1934)
translated into English as The Street of Crocodiles by Celina Wieniewska (1963).

The 14th random number: 1814. Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles.

Here’s what I wrote quite a while ago – because I read this quite a while ago! – on a book review site elsewhere on the internet:

Beautiful, painterly, profoundly atmospheric. Maybe the finest rendering into text of the actual dream-life of the mind, of fantasy as it touches childhood (and adulthood), that I have ever read.

I stand by that and don’t feel the need to say too much more. But unfortunately I don’t have the guts to let that stand alone here, in such verbose company – it would seem unfair to this book that I so admired, to write so much less about it than about the others. So out of misdirected guilt, here’s some more.

The book is a collection of short pieces, each originally written to be sent to the author’s literary pen-pal. They feel befittingly delicate and private, and would be marvelous things to get in the mail. The stories do not form a sequence or an internally consistent set; they share settings and characters, but only, it seems to me, as a consequence of all stemming from the same psychological zone within the author. His creative impulse – as a writer and as a graphic artist, too – seems to have emanated directly from his personal experience of life, without interest in invention for invention’s sake. It all means something to him; it’s all meant to be felt as he felt it. So it’s no surprise that the stories all feel of a piece, even if they vary in tone and substance – because it’s clear that they all have the same author’s real life at their heart.

The world in these stories lapses into fantasy not through whimsy or invention but through confusion – a quiet confusion that touches everything and so goes unquestioned. There are no falsehoods imposed on the reality; the reality is just parsed murkily, like a child might. Or an adult, for that matter. His fantasy is more like superstition: the fiction is not fanciful; it’s like something actually believed.

Children can work themselves into a frenzy of confusion and lose themselves, to the point where they come to believe that a story they made up might actually be true. These stories have that quality, of being believed because belief has become a maze. Impossible things are described but they seem neither like nightmare nor happy fantasy; they’re like the lingering residue of dreams still experienced while awake. Wait, I’ve got an even better one – have you ever had a memory that you take for granted for years, but one day when you finally analyze it, you realize it cannot possibly have ever happened? The stories are like that.

Schulz’s mastery of this fuzzy area is the greatest I’ve ever encountered. Of course, given the shadowy, chilly Eastern European dream-reality, comparison to Kafka seems to be standard fare for commentary on Schulz. But I feel them quite differently: while Kafka’s fantasies are caricatures of reality, Schulz’s fantasies are just extensions of reality. Schulz’s writing is expressionistic in the best sense – it distorts in order to deliver real sensations that might otherwise be too quiet to hear, too slippery to isolate. Not like the Dr. Caligari sort of expressionism – or, let’s be frank here, the Arnold Schoenberg sort of expressionism – in which distortion is used as a launching pad into Krazyville, where would-be sensations of alien intensity dwell. Schulz’s stories do not take place in Krazyville. His angst is real and human in scale, and we feel it with him as the world bends and buckles around him.

I’m placing too much emphasis on the surreal elements. There are also entirely realistic pieces here, and many descriptive passages that could pass as straightforward memoir writing. There’s a delightful one about the personality of the family dog. Each story goes where it will and isn’t bound. The author was writing for pleasure and discovery and when he hits a particular note that you enjoy, you can bet that he won’t ever quite return there again; he’s going to try other things instead. But he’ll be nearby.

The two stories that are most whole and seem to form a matched pair at the center of the book are “Cinnamon Shops,” after which the author titled his collection (see above – that’s what the Polish means), and “The Street of Crocodiles,” after which, for some reason, the translator retitled the collection. This change is significant, because whereas “Cinnamon Shops” is an eerie but deeply warm dream of the city at night, “The Street of Crocodiles” is about sleaze and illusions, about facades of facades. Over the course of the book, the light and dark have about equal play, but the overall impression is a melancholy nostalgia; “The Street of Crocodiles” strikes a cynical note that, to me, sours the whole collection if it’s taken as the overarching title. The nocturnal drift of “Cinnamon Shops” is far more the spirit of the thing.

It’s possible that the darkening of the title was undertaken posthumously in light of the idea that Bruno Schulz was a tragic figure, due to his depressing and absurd death at the hands of the Nazis, about which you can read elsewhere if you like. But the book doesn’t feel tragic in the least. Sad, yes, but not tragic.

I really do recommend this. Of course, I recommended it strongly to [a friend who will no doubt comment below], who promptly read it and basically shrugged it off as not his thing. So maybe it won’t be your thing. It’s also worth nothing that I mentioned that I’d read this to a Jewish Literature Scholar acquaintance, thinking that it was mildly obscure, and he immediately proceeded to rattle off a list of works influenced by Schulz, including one or two that incorporated or fantasized the figure of Bruno Schulz himself. I’m not sure I like that; any whiff of “these are a few of my favorite things” post-modernism generally turns me off.* But the point is, in certain Polish and/or Jewish circles, Bruno Schulz is not obscure at all; he’s a big big deal, big enough to play games with. I don’t think you should read him that way. These stories were written to be taken out of a mailbox with no expectations. And that’s more or less how I read them, less the mailbox.

Final comment, because now I feel perfectly comfortable with the length I’ve reached, and hopefully so does the book: I knew the title, and only the title, prior to reading the book, because I had seen the memorable, but heavily overrated, 1986 Brothers Quay animated short of the story. And, I might add, not understood what it meant. What it definitely doesn’t mean is the same thing as the story, because after reading the story I went and watched it again, sure that this time I’d be able to crack it, and while certain scenes and moods became clearer, most of it didn’t. A good deal of what goes on still needs to be interpreted from the ground up. Contrariwise, if you come to Bruno Schulz looking for a book about decaying dolls terrorizing each other and tiny screws drilling through watches stuffed with meat, you’re in the wrong place. God help you, in fact.

The subtle beauties of the book, to my mind, serve as a mature counterexample to the “oh man that’s so creepy” MTV baby-doll nightmare of the short film that happens to borrow its name. Yes, the Quays were doing baby-doll nightmare before MTV. They get some credit for that. But it’s still what it is, and why, why that of all things?

I don’t know. Enough about those guys.

Here’s a very long excerpt for you. I tried to reduce the length, but I wanted it to be this passage and there was no way to cut without diminishing the effect. I think you’ll enjoy the whole thing. I have to marvel at his skill – even just now, reading it for the third or fourth time, still that lightheaded sense of twilight half-reason kicked in vividly. He heads directly and surely for that sensation and begins painting in it, without hesitation. The fantasy is so present and clear you can smell it. The unreality he describes here is at least as familiar to me as anything in a “realistic” novel, as any cartoon character from Dickens. In this case the fantasy is at one remove, in the fevered mind of the narrator’s father, but it’s the same fantasy that lives in the world of the book itself.

Here my father began to set before our eyes the picture of that generatio aequivoca which he had dreamed up, a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of a fantastic fermentation of matter.

They were creations resembling, in appearance only, living creatures such as crustaceans, vertebrates, cephalopods. In reality the appearance was misleading – they were amorphous creatures, with no internal structure, products of the imitative tendency of matter which, equipped with memory, repeats from force of habit the forms already accepted. The morphological scope of matter is limited on the whole and a certain quota of forms is repeated over and over again on various levels of existence.

These creatures – mobile, sensitive to stimuli, and yet outside the pale of real life – could be brought forth by suspending certain complex colloids in solutions of kitchen salt. These colloids, after a number of days, would form and organize themselves in precipitations of substance resembling lower forms of fauna.

In creatures conceived in this way, one could observe the processes of respiration and metabolism, but chemical analysis revealed in them traces neither of albumen nor of carbon compounds.

Yet these primitive forms were unremarkable compared with the richness of shapes and the splendor of the pseudofauna and pseudoflora, which sometimes appeared in certain strictly defined environments, such as old apartments saturated with the emanations of numerous existences and events; used-up atmospheres, rich in the specific ingredients of human dreams; rubbish heaps, abounding in the humus of memories, of nostalgia, and of sterile boredom. On such a soil, this pseudovegetation sprouted abundantly yet ephemerally, brought forth short-lived generations which flourished suddenly and splendidly, only to wilt and perish.

In apartments of that kind, wallpapers must be very weary and bored with the incessant changes in all the cadenzas of rhythm; no wonder that they are susceptible to distant, dangerous dreams. The essence of furniture is unstable, degenerate, and receptive to abnormal temptations: it is then that on this sick, tired, and wasted soil colorful and exuberant mildew can flourish in a fantastic growth, like a beautiful rash.

“As you will no doubt know,” said my father, “in old apartments there are rooms which are sometimes forgotten. Unvisited for months on end, they wilt neglected between the old walls and it happens that they close in on themselves, become overgrown with bricks, and, lost once and for all to our memory, forfeit their only claim to existence. The doors, leading to them from some backstairs landing, have been overlooked by people living in the apartment for so long that they merge with the wall, grow into it, and all trace of them is obliterated in a complicated design of lines and cracks.

“Once early in the morning toward the end of winter,” my father continued, “after many months of absence, I entered such a forgotten passage, and I was amazed at the appearance of the rooms.

“From all the crevices in the floor, from all the moldings, from every recess, there grew slim shoots filling the gray air with a scintillating filigree lace of leaves: a hothouse jungle, full of whispers and flicking lights – a false and blissful spring. Around the bed, under the lamp, along the wardrobes, grew clumps of delicate trees which, high above, spread their luminous crowns and fountains of lacy leaves, spraying chlorophyll, and thrusting up to the painted heaven of the ceiling. In the rapid process of blossoming, enormous white and pink flowers opened among the leaves, bursting from bud under your very eyes, displaying their pink pulp and spilling over to shed their petals and fall apart in quick decay.

“I was happy,” said my father, “to see that unexpected flowering which filled the air with a soft rustle, a gentle murmur, falling like colored confetti through the thin rods of the twigs.

“I could see the trembling of the air, the fermentation of too rich an atmosphere which provoked that precocious blossoming, luxuriation, and wilting of the fantastic oleanders which had filled the room with a rare, lazy snowstorm of large pink clusters of flowers.

“Before nightfall,” concluded my father, “there was no trace left of that splendid flowering. The whole elusive sight was a fata morgana, an example of the strange make-believe of matter which had created a semblance of life.”

Fantasies of plantlike growth, of the animate in the inanimate, I’ve always found particularly unnerving, so this passage had special meaning for me. But what I love most about it is its unsummarizability. Even after reading it and understanding it well, you can’t really say what it is that’s doing the growing. Illusions, and matter, and memories; all at once, because in this philosophy they are all the same thing. As they are in our minds.

* It seems likely that the works he mentioned included this, which doesn’t sound the least bit deserving of my complaint, and this, which does.