Monthly Archives: January 2014

January 31, 2014

47. Insomnia (1997)

directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg
written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg


Criterion #47.

This is a Norwegian movie but unfortunately I don’t get to play with Google Translate because it’s already called Insomnia (instead of, say, Søvnløshet, thanks Google Translate!). Probably this was done with an eye to the international market. Perhaps it’s also a case of the Diabolique effect, where a foreign-y name makes something feel even more dangerous and fantastico.

The movie takes the standard setup of moral-slippage noir (i.e. the detective/hero himself does very bad things) and gives it a nice jangly quality by associating it with sleep deprivation (which he suffers under the endless daylight above the Arctic Circle). In most such movies, alcohol or drugs serve the same function, but this is better: insomnia is ostensibly involuntary, a form of natural friction against the world, and thus makes it harder for the audience to blame the protagonist for his plight. We are denied any easy way to stop identifying with his increasingly dissociative immorality, and are forced to slog through it all with him, queasily. That form of guilty queasiness is the point of this subgenre. Of course, just seeing any movie where the protagonist breaks the moral code is already automatically queasy, but for the distinctly rancid flavor of noir, the film must be clear that its point of view is not clucking disapproval; it can’t afford to be because there are even worse monsters out there. As there are in this movie.

You can say something about how setting “noir” in excessive light rather than excessive shadow is some kind of provocative inversion, and I don’t doubt that that was part of the conception of the script, but speaking as an audience member, that feels a little pat and overstated to me. I never insisted on those shadows; people just kept putting them there. There have been fatalistic movies with bright lighting for years. The thing to note here is not that “noir means black but this movie is not black!!!” but rather that the beauty-slash-insinuating-hostility of the far north has been cleverly made to serve an alienating role just as well as the beauty-slash-insinuating-hostility of the city. There’s a version of this movie to be made in every setting. And I will want to see it! I generally like any movie that finds a way to reveal how scary and unwelcoming some particular locale already is. The suburbs, the forest, the desert, the hospital, the ruins, the library, whatever.

(Twin Peaks takes nearly the same premise and the same characters and the same setting — you will think of it while watching this — but then uses all the implicit emotional leverage to go no place in particular. Which is part of its charm: it has all the pieces in place to show us that the world is terrifying and hostile, but like real dreams, instead it shows us all our different feelings: scary, stupid, confused, and soothing, all muddled together. This movie, by contrast, goes on a murder investigation in the north with a real single-minded purpose. The character’s mind is drifting but the movie is wide awake.)

Mr. Skjoldbjærg understands how all his genre concepts are supposed to work and has everything pretty well in hand. I would say that’s what I enjoyed most here: the sense that someone intelligent had thought through all the stuff under the surface that makes these movies go, and that I could just focus on what was there. (I recently rewatched Blood Simple, with which this has a couple of secondary genre features in common, and felt the same way: its greatest strength is that it knows why it’s doing these things.) What’s there in Insomnia is sometimes a little ordinary or a little stilted, but fundamentally it’s reliable.

When I watched this, as it turned out, I wasn’t quite in that playful mood where one can really relish rancidity, but it was done well enough that I wasn’t put off it. I can always make good use of the clean whites and simple self-assurances of European thrillers. This felt a little like some imported TV a la “The Killing.” Good bleak fun, if a little emotionally cool, and sometimes that cool is as pleasant for me as it obviously is for Europeans.

I think that’s about all there is to say. It’s a 1997 neo-noir crime movie with some mild arthouse crossover potential because it’s foreign and its touches of personality feel distinctly un-Hollywood. But they’re just touches. This is the kind of secretly-completely-commercial movie arthouse cinemas make their money off of.

Hey speaking of Hollywood, how would you like to see this movie done right, if you know what I mean. I mean AMERICAN for crying out loud, 2002-style! Where instead of Stellan Skarsgård we get, say, Al Pacino (it’s still only 2002 so don’t worry, he promises he will do at least 5% of the necessary work to differentiate the character from “Al Pacino”); and as the other cop, obviously America’s 2002 platonic semi-sweetheart Hilary Swank; and as the creep, get this: Robin Williams! His agent’s been telling him he’s got an image problem from all that saccharine and needs to play some villain roles ASAP. And the guy who did Memento can direct, since that was sort of the American equivalent movie. Except now this will be the American equivalent movie. It will be so equivalent that it will be called Insomnia (2002). And it will be exactly the same. Except in Alaska. And except that where the original felt like it had a certain hungry-young-director’s-original-idea fire behind it, this will feel like it has some rising-young-director-trying-to-live-up-to-expectations-with-a-bigger-budget can’t-afford-to-risk-a-fire behind it.

I saw it at the time, not really taking in that it was a remake. It made a middle-of-the-road impression and then I forgot pretty much everything about it other than the title’s premise.

Skjoldbjærg, upon seeing what had been done to his movie, was apparently surprised at how literal a remake it was. He made a public statement about being grateful that it had been done so conscientiously, but I have to wonder if he wasn’t actually disappointed. For this they had to make it again?

After watching the original I watched a few clips of the remake on youtube. Comparing this (link will surely be taken down soon! turn on English subtitles) to this made me reflect on all the needless fat and indulgence of the American standard practice, at least of this era. They write lines that might be said, they get coverage of what they might need to see, and then they edit it (particularly badly in this case). All the technical craft (yes, sure, even of the acting) is admirable in itself, and yet why? Why is anyone doing this? In the Scandinavian original I get the sense that the creatives and the crew may not be quite as expert but I have no doubt that they have a real clear sense of purpose, logic, rationale, meaning. By comparison there is something psychologically masked and avoidant about the Americans, both in front of and behind the camera. Our priorities are more profoundly compromised.

Music is by Geir Jenssen. Who? Oh, sorry, you surely know him as ambient electronica artist Biosphere (redirected from Geir Jenssen). He lays down some of that signature Biosphere sound, which I guess is sort of like underwater dial tones. And underwater heartbeats. Generally the score is quiet synthetic soundscaping, just at the very edge of what one would consider music rather than sound design. It’s effective and appropriate to the tone, but also kind of arty in its subtle way, and is one of the things that helps keep the movie feeling European enough for the arthouse.

Our selection has to be the end credits, the only place where the score really goes for it and has an ordinary beat, like humans use. Some listeners might feel that this track kind of puts the Euro thing over the top, but don’t worry, by the time you hear this the movie is already over. Actually I think it’s pretty good for what it is; the icky disco of it feels about right for the sleep-deprived moral moonscape where things end. Track 47. Warning: this begins with the trunk slamming shut.

January 28, 2014

46. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel
screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman
from the story by Richard Connell


Criterion #46. Moving right along.

Check out this list of the Top Ten Most Dangerous Games Ever: you won’t believe what’s at number one!

We all already know the deal with the story. The deal with the movie is that it is a companion piece to King Kong, made by some of the same people with some of the same actors on some of the same sets at some of the same time. But this came out first, as of course it had to, seeing as it’s much dinkier.

This is like a 63-minute pulp cover illustration. Hold on to that dagger and that woman in tattered clothes! Keep holding on! Just a little longer!

Why is there a woman in a brutal man-on-man story like The Most Dangerous Game? I think you know why. The funny thing is that they easily get away with it. I was struck by how readily any scenario could be converted into a sex fantasy. “It’s Moby Dick… but there’s this girl there…”

Fay Wray is in full “can’t-help-it-I’m-just-drawn-this-way” Marilyn Monroe mode here, faux-cluelessly offering herself up in ways that seemingly have nothing to do with the Thrilling Tales business going on around her. But the movie knows what’s really going on, and it’s a little skeevy. Count Zoloft doesn’t just want to hunt the most dangerous game; he wants to hunt the most dangerous game, AND THEN AFTER HE HAS KILLED, “LOVE,” which is why Fay has to flee into the jungle alongside Joel McCrea and get her dress all wet oops.

The classic heartwarming image of a nubile beauty being carried off to be raped by a muscular beast appears here on the wicked Count’s tapestry (+ shock chord from Max Steiner!) as well as carved into his door-knocker, see title screen above. The same image at its most iconic and extreme of course forms the centerpiece of King Kong, wherein the logistics of rape per se have been transcended, in pursuit of whatever is really driving Merian C. Cooper and friends.

(Personally, my one gripe about King Kong has always been that the ape-to-girl size ratio ought to have been just a little bigger. I suspect that my kindred spirits Messrs. Cooper and Schoedsack were secretly of the same mind. Hopefully if they ever remake it again, this time there will be a scene toward the end where the ape eats a magic berry that makes him get four or five times larger, and at the same time the girl goes through a miniaturizing ray. In the interest of promoting discussion of this and related matters I have purchased the domain, where a respectful community of like-minded enthusiasts can share speculative fiction and Photoshop work. Message me for an invite.)

Okay, I’ll be honest: I’m not really skeeved at all. This is all perfectly cozy stuff. It’s actually sort of heartwarming to me that something as nakedly pervy as King Kong is an international treasure without a smidge of shame associated with it. Pulp fantasies of virility like those on show here never really threaten me; I picture a confused Norman Rockwell kid with glasses thumbing through a comic book, eyes wide. I guess I could picture Nazis but I don’t and really why should I? If you’re female, your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Anyway I’m not interested in doing a real analysis of the ideas of masculinity or post-colonialism or Americanness or sex or whatever here. I only am interested in being goofy and meeting my quota of one (1) entry on this movie. So far so good.

This movie reminds me of the world of my grandfather. I remember, once when I was 8 or so, hearing my grandfather make reference to Mighty Joe Young — thereby teaching me that there was more than one giant gorilla movie — and in that moment being struck that he came from, and still mentally lived in, a world that was just irredeemably grandfathery, the same world from whence came the endless stacks of National Geographics that used to be ubiquitous under coffee tables the world over. “Mighty Joe Young,” seriously? And “Gunga Din”? Why did everything “exciting” have to sound so cornily stupid and pseudo-ethnic back then, and why couldn’t people like him hear how it sounded? But that sincere dedication to adventure-corn was also heartening, the way all grandparental things eventually are. I ended up permanently borrowing “Kon Tiki” and “Aku Aku” from his bookshelf, recognizing that such a world might actually be a nice place to spend some mental time. And so, at several removes, the problematic legacy of Rudyard Kipling lives on. Like I said, I’m not interested in coming up with a cogent critique here; just making some personal associations.

The fog in this movie is grade-A fog. In a movie like this that’s important. Ditto the foliage. The shot when a rock falls into a chasm (you know, to help you imagine a person falling in) is a grade-A rock-falling-in-a-chasm shot. The heavy door that mysteriously swings open to the mysterious fortress is a grade-A heavy door. There’s a pretty good point-of-view shot of running through the jungle. When the Count says that he will “take care” of his guest, and Fay looks back at him, there’s a wild crane-zoom all the way across the room into his madman face (with whooshing music to match), which is — well, a little bumpy, but the enthusiasm more than makes up for it. When the ship crashes there’s a satisfyingly prolonged explosion. This-all is what we’re here for, and they deliver. That and a girl.

One thing I would have liked… oh forget it. Seriously, forget it. I am perfectly happy with what I got. Service 5, Food 5, Would come again. (I don’t actually have to come again. It’s just nice to be nice on the survey. They work so hard, you know.)

Watching a movie like this is like eating an egg-salad sandwich. I like an egg-salad sandwich sometimes.

(Yes, I know Pee-Wee Herman put a gag about hating egg-salad sandwiches in his second movie. I was offended by it.)

Max Steiner is the egg-salad sandwich of composers. He sure did know how to make any movie sound, and thus feel, like every other movie. That’s undoubtedly a very valuable skill for a studio to have on staff but I’m not sure it’s exactly an artistic skill. If it weren’t for his totally by-the-books score, this would probably seem more overtly like a B-movie with a few fancy effects. With the music it seems like another certified bauble from the bauble factory, one more red ball that came rolling down the line into the machine that drops a cherry on your sundae.

As far as I could tell, there’s really only one theme in the movie, a simple “ominous” motif based on a hunting call that’s played over and over and clearly meant to signify the Count and his dangerous clutches. The most delightful thing about this score and possibly about this movie is that Count Zaroff is — in addition to being a Count, a Russian, a recluse, a refined host, and a madman — a pianist, with a nice grand piano in his fortress. In the final scene of the movie, having returned from (he thinks) killing our hero, with Fay Wray captive in his rooms, we suddenly cut to him in a robe at his piano, having put off rape to first play “Count Zaroff’s theme” in the finest hotel-lobby manner.

As you can hear, that gets cut off by… uh, action. He actually plays a complete arrangement earlier in the movie, but under a dialogue scene. If I were comfortable with including dialogue scenes, I would of course make this our selection.

But, with some reluctance, I think the only proper representative of the score has to be the standard, the main title, which in classic Steiner sandwich style only gives us a few bars of the big theme before settling into some certified bland scene-setting music for the ship on which our story begins (+ nautical bell). The most interesting thing here is the pre-title lead-in, with an onscreen hand grabbing the door knocker by the maiden and giving three good audible knocks, one for each sundae. Track 46. The hand represents the audience, of course, seeking entry to the world of danger. Your wish is granted!

I wrote all that before listening to the commentary because I was afraid that it might put serious thoughts in my head and spoil the spirit of the thing. Now I’ve listened.

Here’s something commentarian Bruce Eder mentions in passing:

The location shooting for The Four Feathers brought Cooper and Schoedsack to Africa. It was while they were shooting that Cooper had become fascinated with a colony of baboons living by a river, and this led him to start looking into stories he’d heard about a group of giant apes. It was an idea that hooked into a story he’d conceived in childhood of a giant ape carrying off a woman. Cooper discovered that the giant apes that he’d heard about were simply very large, not the outsize creatures he’d hoped for.

Italics mine, in accordance with the style guide.

Basically the commentary is of the historical lore + mild thematic analysis sort, which suits me fine. It reminded me to acknowledge that for every egg salad sandwiches, there was a time before egg salad sandwiches; egg salad sandwiches needed to be invented. I grant everyone involved — screenwriter and composer especially — that this may well be one of the founding egg salad sandwiches of the modern sandwich era. It’s certainly a tighter and more commercial piece of pulp than its much-better-loved contemporary, Dracula, which has a little too much dry yolk, not enough mayo.

As far as the analysis goes, it’s fine: mostly to do with Zaroff’s place in the development of the archetype of the psychopathological villain. My mind still being fixated on the Molly Haskell idea about what forms of self-suppression are being endorsed by movies, I can’t help but see Zaroff’s libidinous and intellectual individuality vs. Rainsford’s all-American blandtastic nonentitude as part of a similarly lamentable scheme. The Merian C. Coopers in the audience, dreaming of their secret inner giant ape, are titillated, and then told no, it’s better to be a cipher in a nice shirt rather than the absolute monster you’d be if you went in that direction, you know the direction I mean. That’s the way to get the girl: be the nobody! It’s the noble thing — the only thing — to do.

Final cranky note: after I write these up I occasionally stop by the reasonably well-linked-to Criterion Contraption blog, where, from 2004 up until a couple years ago (when he sort of let it peter out around #115), a guy was taking this same trip. Roger Ebert wrote him up and he got attention from various other sources, I think including the Criterion website at one point. In this instance I happened to compare notes with him when I got to the horizontal line above, before listening to the commentary. I’ve always thought his take was a little low on personality, with its emphasis on screencaps, but only now has it become clear to me, with no small irritation, that 95% of what he writes is simply regurgitated insight from the auxiliary materials in the package. In this case, I read about this guy’s respect for the complexity of Zaroff’s psychology given the time period, the character’s relevance to future villains with particular reference to The Silence of the Lambs… and then found today that, lo and behold, this is all Bruce Eder’s analysis from the commentary, point for point. So is pretty much everything else in that “blog entry.” And, I realize, so has it been in many of his prior entries that I’ve read. Hey, that’s not cool!

Say what you will about what I write here, I am for sure making it all up.

Why do I give a crap about this guy? Well, yes, obviously in part for hey-what-about-me reasons (he gets hired to write film criticism for Slate now based on this schtick???) about which psychology trust me I don’t need any advice, I’m on it… but also for less embarrassing reasons relating from my ongoing irritation with the attitude of many of the commentaries and the whole apparatus around “talking about movies” in general. Plagiarism is a symptom of extreme anxiety which can be a dangerous contagion. Everyone making these mealy-mouthed commentaries is transparently trying to avoid the giant ape in the room which is why they love movies in the first place and is the really the main thing worth sharing. The problem is it’s often to do with, yes, their weird fetishes, vulnerabilities, whatever. Better to beat around the bush by talking about historical chains of influence, or better still, paraphrase someone else’s bush-beating. Well, I hate that. I want someone to tell me to look right directly at the cleavage, if that’s the point of the movie. That’s the only way to better my experience.

Whatever it may sound like, it is in fact the bravest possible thing when I can volunteer something like: the foliage in this movie is great and gives you a great make-believe-jungly feeling, like Maurice Sendak. That might be pretty weak stuff but I swear this is the direction I have to strive to go (with my machete). So I am pissed that Mr. Criterion Contraption got credit for his plagiarized pseudo-musings not solely because I envy credit, but because I want to live in a world where people aren’t so attracted to the reassurances that anxiety constructs to shield itself. But I’m not and I have to deal with that. I’m dealing with it.

That horizontal line keeps this part of the entry nicely quarantined from the cheery part above.

January 27, 2014

45. طعم گيلاس … (1997)

written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami


Criterion #45. Moving this along because it’s good to watch movies.

Iranian! Foreign language, foreign script! It’s been a while. Let’s dig into this.

First off, what is the name of this language? I thought it was correct to call it “Farsi,” but some investigation leads me to understand that for an English speaker like myself that would be needlessly affected, like calling German “Deutsch,” and that I should just call it “Persian,” which is all that “Farsi” means.

(And, for good measure: “Farsi” is actually only an Arabic modification of the original Persian word for Persian, “Parsi.” The political history is apparently such that nowadays Iranians generally call their language by its Arabic name, “Farsi,” with a kind of footnote “but the correct word is Parsi.” Anyway, the point is, that needn’t concern us in English.)

(P.S. And in case any of you dreadfully ignorant Americans need reminding, as I very very obviously do not and did not, Arabic (spoken in Iraq and westward) and Persian (spoken in Iran and eastward), are completely unrelated language groups, but after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 600s, Persian speakers adopted Arabic script, and thus modern Persian is written using a close variant of the Arabic alphabet. I pity your Western ignorance for needing to be spoonfed this very basic information about the world around you. For shame. I for one clearly had this all well, well in hand prior to googling it and reading Wikipedia.)

(P.P.S. But seriously: I think I would have basically gotten it right if asked nicely. But now that I’ve looked it up we’ll never know.)

So here is our title: طعم گيلاس …. If you copy and paste those letters and fiddle around with them you’ll see what fancy stuff your computer is ready to do with Arabic/Persian script. The letters automatically jump into right-to-left order when you link them up, and switch shapes on context (with different forms depending on whether a letter appears at the beginning, middle, end, or isolated). They feel a little sticky and alive and unpredictable. We Latin alphabet users don’t get to see that kind of magic in our ordinary typing. Savor it! And apparently the computer also knows something (though not everything) about what order to put the words in, because once it picked up on the Persian I had a heck of a time getting “(1997)” to show up to the RIGHT of the title. The cursor jumps around in weird ways when it thinks you want to go right-to-left for a while. Even just selecting the text is weird. Try it, it’s fun.

Obviously this font size is inappropriately small for Persian. Luckily, none of is are actually reading what it says.

Okay, okay, let’s get to it.

طعم = ta'm (the ' is a glottal stop, the first sound in “uh-oh”) = Taste
گيلاس = gīlās (the macrons just indicate long vowels) = Cherry

The romanization on Wikipedia is Ta'm-e gīlās…. The romanization on IMDB, which seems to have been distributed at the time of the film’s release, is Tam e guilass. (I speculate that the “gui” may be an artifact of its appearance at Cannes, where French speakers would have needed the “u” to make clear that this was a hard rather than a soft “g.” Yes?) As far as I can tell the “e” particle is just contextually implied.

So word for word this would be “Taste of Cherry” and this is indeed the English-distribution name of the movie. But as far as I can tell from google translate, written Persian doesn’t generally use articles or distinguish plurals, so “The Taste of Cherries” might be equally valid. It’s certainly more the implied title of the movie. (Subtitle for the relevant line of dialogue is actually “the taste of the cherries” — though I’m not sure the spoken phrase is identical to the title; I can pick out “gīlās” but not “ta'm”.) “Taste of Cherry” seems to me a bit needlessly gnomic and foreign-film-ish.

And this all ignores the ellipsis, which seems a rather significant feature of the title. “Taste of Cherry…” doesn’t really make any sense, since the phrase is semantically too abstract to sustain any sense of time. But “The Taste of Cherries…” is sensible enough. If a little cheesy. I don’t know what to google to find out whether ellipses indicating lapses into reverie are equally cheesy in all languages. But cheese isn’t my problem, it’s Kiarostami’s. I put it to you that the name of this movie is: The Taste of Cherries…

Now that’s overwith, we can finally get to the part where I say something about the part of the movie that isn’t the title.

First I will let Mr. Kiarostami say a few words on his tastes, taken from the disc’s sole bonus feature, an interview:

I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don’t like in the movies. I think a good film is one that has a lasting power. And you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to your seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films that are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater… Some films have made me doze off in the theater. But the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.

I include this because it is a sort of manifesto for a certain kind of moviemaking, stated bluntly, and in a way, everything I have to say in response to this movie can be said in response to this, its rationale. (This allows the reader who has not seen the movie to engage more directly. You see? Very considerate of me.)

Though I guess such readers will need me to say outright: I thought Taste of Cherry (yeah, whatever) was indeed the sort of film he likes, the sort of film he wanted it to be. It is unapologetically slow and quiet and subdued. It introduces a situation revolving around isolation and the contemplation of suicide, and then lets the mood and meaning of that situation seep into the lyrical but simple imagery of a man driving around in a mostly barren Iranian landscape of grassless dirt. One is lulled, if not to sleep, at least to a peaceably bored calm. The muted grinding of tires on gravelly roads is as soothing and meaningless in a movie as in real life. It only took a few minutes for me to understand why it was going to be okay for a full-length movie just to consist of slowly driving around: for the same reasons that people enjoy actually slowly driving around.

And what are those reasons? I can’t help but return to the subject that has preoccupied me (to say the least) for the past year or two: the condition of being a brain, and the care and feeding of brains. (Or “minds,” if you prefer.) What kinds of things do minds like? One point of view would be that there are two distinct sorts of things, and Kiarostami lays out them out side by side in his quote above: one is to be stimulated, and one is to be unstimulated.

Another point of view takes a step back and says there is really only one thing that brains like: to be stimulated and unstimulated in equal measure. Balance. One can imagine some ideal median degree of stimulation, but in practice this is an impossibility and what one really aspires to is something like a well-modulated steady wave of stimulation alternating with unstimulation. My sense, in fact, is that the alternation is part of what brains like, just the way people enjoy swinging on a swingset more than they enjoy sitting at rest on a stationary swing.

When I was younger, my patience for “art movies” like this one was quite a bit shorter than it is now. I definitely had a good open mind about such things: I wasn’t particularly prejudiced, culturally, and I was certainly very much game to be transported into a meditative state if that was what a movie had to offer. But whenever it became apparent to me that a movie (or any sort of art) wasn’t going to prescribe anything in particular for me to do with my mind while watching — that I was under only very lax supervision by some kind of Montessori hippie movie — I would spontaneously feel that I had better things to do and think about. Encouraged to let my mind wander as I liked, I would accordingly do exactly that, and it would eagerly wander away from this lazy movie, toward things I cared about.

As I got older and more defensive, more intrinsically interested in picking apart the mysterious fallacies and hypocrisies of human society, the peculiarity of such movies would hold my attention even when the movie didn’t, and my wandering attention would drift outward, to think about the movie as an artifact, about the people who made it and were showing it, and about the dubious “artsy” attitude that had thought there was some virtue in confusing watching-a-movie with not-necessarily-watching-a-movie. I grew cynical: such films didn’t really want me to freely have my own thoughts; they wanted me to have the thoughts they intended, but they also wanted to congratulate themselves, and wanted me to congratulate myself, for my arriving at those thoughts freely, without coercion. Or rather, pretending in bad faith to arrive at them freely, while actually secretly following the filmmakers’ breadcrumb trails of high-intellectual clues, which generally led nowhere all that great: just to a big crumbling piece of stale bread. High art wanted to have its cake and eat it too: no prescribed experiences, but exceptional experiences nonetheless.

It seemed to me impossible for such art to justify its existence in preference to such superior unprescribed experiences as, say, looking at a tree, or looking at a kaleidoscope. Or looking at nothing and letting the mind wander. I can have all the rewarding thoughts I want with my eyes closed. So who needs authors if they’re not going to author an experience? Only god can make a tree so give me a freaking break, am I right? The Empire Strikes Back made more sense to me than the likes of Le grande illusion not because my mind was so dulled and stunted that I could only find enjoyment being strapped into a rollercoaster, but rather because my imagination was so free and strong that I could only recognize a rollercoaster as genuinely having determined or even demarcated my experience in any way worth naming.

And I still stand by the legitimacy of this point of view. When Kiarostami speaks derisively of movies that “take you hostage,” I find that unsympathetic and wrong. Being manipulated is one of the great pleasures in life; being stimulated is one of the two great pleasures of the mind.

But nowadays I also understand the sense behind movies that cater to the other great pleasure. I finally see the real purpose of all that Montessori art. They were not for people with unfettered imaginations. They are for people whose minds are already full, who have made a habit of overthinking, and for whom the “unstimulation” offered by a tree or a kaleidoscope is something — crazy as it sounds to a child — that has come to seem rare and precious to them. Since they can’t always see the world through their thoughts anymore, they desperately want to be offered the world directly, by other people, by artists. The target audience for a Taste of Cherry is people who go “ah!” when there is quiet because they have come to expect no quiet.

This is generally called “being an adult” but I resent that. People can use their minds however they choose at any age and the number of available trees to look at is the same for adults as for children.

I understand a “down-time” movie now much as I understand a “guided meditation,” which also would have baffled me as a child, as it should. There is something quite sad about having gotten to the point where one feels comfortable being oneself only when being guided to it by someone else. And this is what art films are. But the state of mind in which one is desperate to be granted the right to inattention by the thing you are compulsively paying attention to is very real. It is for this state of mind that such movies are designed to work, and having unfortunately attained that state of mind, I can attest that they do work, and are moving as such. At least this one was.

It also begins to make sense to me that such movies are often associated not just with the ambitions of high intellectuals but also with the political cinema of poor or oppressed populations. The mind that is constantly enmeshed in a struggle against overwhelming problems is a mind that will by force of habit not be able to help but fill in blanks, and thus will seek an art of as many blanks as possible, in the hope that at least some will manage to remain blessedly blank even after the mind gets a stab at it. I have come by my anxieties wholly apolitically, of course, but the principle is the same.

It’s tempting to say that I hope for the day when I will find these movies pointless again, when I’m no longer anxious enough to need to be fed boredom. But actually, in having come this far down the path of overstimulation and gotten to personally comprehend the value of naptime cinema, see what its deal is, I have divested myself of my old cynicism that art-house calm is affectation, or that what’s being asked of me is to fake freedom but actually follow the leader. And the cynicism was the only reason I didn’t like such movies. Without that cynicism they may well be no better than looking at a tree, but also no worse. And I like letting my mind wander. I am actually perfectly content to let my own imagination be the form and substance of my experience, and why shouldn’t that be part of the public culture of going to the movies? Or any other part of society?

In retrospect I do wonder now if my skepticism about Montessori attitudes was exactly the damage done to me by public school, was exactly the stunted Americanized attitude that it’s said to be. Undoing that sort of damage means realizing that I like being given free rein, in all things, including movies. Why not?

They are there for me to watch. When you put this disc in your DVD player you can see a golden-brown world of dirt. That sounds, like so many things, good. And even better: it is a world that wants to be seen, that was made to be seen. I don’t expect ever again to doubt the value of that. There will always be occasion for the gentle downswing of my mind’s stimulation cycle.

[In sum: there is nothing wrong with manipulative, hostage-taking, overstimulating movies. But there is something wrong with disdain for the opposite. The big cultural/socio-psychological problem is partisanship for one or the other. People like Kiarostami (as self-represented above) just contribute to polarization when we really need integration.]

Interestingly enough, when this movie first came out, Roger Ebert caused a stir by writing a one-star review, saying that he thought more or less what I gave as my childhood attitude, above. That the movie was an emperor with no clothes, pretending to profundity by being ostentatiously boring and empty and wasting the audience’s time. All points of view are subjective and thus legitimate and I’m sure in that moment it seemed that way to him. But I can’t imagine the post-surgery meaning-of-life waxing-blogosophical good-ol’ Unca’ Ebert of 10 years later being at all impatient or cynical about this film. He was all about letting his mind wander; he was all about the taste of cherries. Wake up and smell the taste of cherries. Life is just a bowl of the taste of cherries.

I enjoyed it, and I benefited from the time it gave me. I thought about what it was about, and about myself, and about the world. I was moved when it seemed to be moving more or less in synchrony with these thoughts, which was most of the time. It seemed in fact to be about… the issues above, the privations of thought and the relief of the unthought of the sensory world. (It is of course characteristic of the unstimulating art movie experience that whatever you are inclined to think about seems to be wahat it really is about. But in this case, y’know, I think it really was.) On the movie’s small, quiet scale, I felt a slow trickle of feelings of tension and apprehension, and nuances of real discomfort, comfort, hope, and hopelessness. Toward the end I realized that the steady trickle had accumulated a small but real quantity of feeling, and that the filmmaker might be playing a long game where he would end by suddenly flushing it, which might well make me well up or feel horror or joy or something. And after spending an hour-and-a-half in slow time, I was prepared for him to give me one meticulously prepared shove into bigger feelings.

Well, that’s not what he did. This movie ends with a high-concept coda, in which the possibility of cashing in the accumulated emotion is pointedly set aside, apparently on principle (again, see filmmaker statement above). Instead he shows us [spoiler redaction, if this is a spoiler, though maybe it shouldn’t be]. A lot of the discussion of this movie focuses on coming to terms with the anticlimactic jolt this gives the audience, and its possible significance. Certainly in the first few minutes after viewing that’s what was on my mind. But then I came to terms with it, and the terms are: it’s not really that important to the movie. If you’re suddenly startled by someone being near you because you were wrapped up in a book, it might take a while for your heart rate to come down, but hopefully it doesn’t take nearly as long for you to realize that what happened to you wasn’t actually very interesting. The ending isn’t really all that interesting.

There was no music at all (in one scene there was some very faint and scratchy music on a radio but completely under dialogue) and among my peaceful thought processes was “I wonder what I will do about the music selection; maybe I’ll just take some of the ambient driving sounds that make up so much of the soundtrack.” But then a-ha, at the very very end some music starts up and runs through the credits. It’s immediately recognizable as Louis Armstrong playing “St. James Infirmary Blues” (used without credit and, I wouldn’t be surprised, without paying for it), but something is odd. It seems to be two different performances being played simultaneously, or different parts of the same performance. The effect is a little eerie but, while watching the movie, pretty subtle. I’d say it was done to foil the copyright robots on Youtube except this was 10 years before anyone even considered being a tube.

At least some of it, I’ve determined, is from his 1959 studio recording on “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” (though from an “alternate take,” not released until 1979?), but it has been chopped up and shuffled around to skip the vocal. (Maybe the double-exposure effect is just done to help disguise all the splices?) And that 1959 recording ends on a high note, whereas this ends on a low note, so I can’t for the life of me figure out where the latter part of this track comes from. Nobody online has done this detective work and my patience ran out after a while.

Anyway, here you go, track 45. It starts under the last line of dialogue but it seemed better to get the beginning of the music than avoid the few seconds of talking. I faded in as a compromise.

Sometimes the faster I write the longer they get.

January 24, 2014

44. The Red Shoes (1948)

written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger


Criterion #44.

Not just any Red Shoes but The Red Shoes. My movie literacy has gone up one point.

I already said my bit about the reassuring embrace of Technicolor here, but this is obviously the better place for it. This is one of the most Technicolor movies ever made. The virtues and effects of this movie are exactly the virtues and effects of its palette; it is, like The Wizard of Oz or Fantasia, an incarnation of the spirit of Technicolor.

Much of that Technicolor worldview is nourishing to me, and makes me envy and admire the people of the past, whose heads were so naturally full of such simple, sturdy stuff. But those heads had other sorts of stuff in them too, older stuff, equally characteristic of their era but of no particular value to me. Some such stuff was in effect here. I refer in particular to operatic doom, which provides both the obsession and actual outcome of The Red Shoes. We’re on the same spiritual-aesthetic plane as Fantasia, but tilted downward; instead of a dreamy optimism, we get a dreamy fatalism. The movie’s trajectory of doom makes sense to me only as a well-worn formula; by the story logic there is no actual tragic necessity. And, to my mind, neither is there any tragic necessity in the aesthetic logic either, even though that is clearly the filmmakers’ intention.

“To my mind” is an important caveat in such matters.

Beth and I recently read (in this enjoyable anthology) Molly Haskell’s essay on “The Woman’s Film,” which I recommend. Haskell observes that the tear-jerking scenarios found in “weepies” offer wish-fulfillment fantasies that reveal their audiences’ psychologies… but they only offer wish-fulfillment in its most conservative form, which tends to perpetuate rather than alleviate the audience’s problems. Women who feel trapped by the constraints of their social roles find a validating outlet for their feelings in exaggerated cinematic images of those feelings, e.g. movies about grand women who make grandly painful sacrifices… but being gratified by images of the poignant nobility of suffering only reinforces the oppressive paradigm, in which being trapped is in fact inescapable, necessary, and right. People will pay to be reassured that their resentments are necessary; they will not pay to be shown a way out, because that will entail feeling shame. (My summary.) This is her feminist thesis and it’s a good one. I only summarize it here because I want to invoke the general principle, which lingered in my mind while coming to terms with The Red Shoes.

I don’t think the illogical doom of the ballerina in this movie is based on the exact same oppression as “the woman’s film,” but it is based on that same principle: that some particular mode of suffering has gotten baked into a paradigmatic necessity. I am forced to think about this, rather than feel it, because I psychologically don’t need it, and thus don’t get it. The filmmakers expect it to seem inevitable and necessary to the viewer, and it just doesn’t. “Why doesn’t she just, y’know, not kill herself?” I want to ask, at exactly the point when I’m supposed to feel a horrible ache welling up inside me. I’ve certainly felt pre-programmed pangs of recognition in all sorts of other movies, movies that have more to do with my own stuff. But the secret ache behind this particular storyline (trope-line) obviously comes from another kind of life, one that hasn’t been mine.

I wished for years that I could get into opera, because in every aspect other than that opera-y quality it seems like something I would really love. But by now I have come to recognize that no matter how much I school myself and open my mind to it, I’ll never get to where real opera fans are, because that opera-y quality reflects important psychological underpinnings for what goes on at the opera, on and off the stage — and I must accept that it, whatever it is, is not deeply true for me in the way that it genuinely is for its target audience. The question is: what sorts of doom feel necessary, what sacrifices have trapped the audience member in his or her own life? Opera’s baggage clearly has something to do with social roles, if not quite with as narrow a focus as “The Woman’s Film.” I think in the era when these tropes formed, homosexuals and artists and, generally, sensitive men and forceful women (= tenors & sopranos) all felt stuck under the cruel thumb of the social code, just like the oppressed housewives in Haskell’s piece, and thus couldn’t help but identify, unconstructively but sincerely, with doom after doom, penance after penance, consumption after suicide, flung from the parapet until the cows come home.

In fact I would imagine that almost everyone in the 19th century felt to some degree trapped between the intimate encouragements of Romantic art and the restrictive Victorian public reality. (I’m working this out for myself but I recognize, sideways, that this is very well-trod ground for cultural theorists. If you want to read (and then shrug at) an academic treatise on what opera is really about, sociologically speaking, I think pretty much every university publisher has a book for you.)

So I can understand historically. But I can’t feel it. For my psychological part, I feel like I am a pretty good person as I am; all my sacrifices to social pressures have always felt all too contingent and dirty, not the least bit necessary or noble. Not to say I haven’t made them. But I don’t generally get a lot out of operatic tragedy because it doesn’t feel to me like real catharsis; real catharsis would let me cry about the false premises. Tragedy implies the existence of those damnable Fates ruining everything. What Fates? Premises all. My enemies are all people and/or premises. Plus death itself, natch.

I do admire, in the dry sense of the word, that Powell and Pressburger were able to genuinely and classily carry these sorts of ideas intact from the high and hoity world of opera (and, yes, yes, more to the point, ballet) over into film. Their movie at least doesn’t feel quite as kitschy-clueless as the same plot does when it appears in Hollywood movies; here it feels like there is some real expressive continuity with the cultural world the movie is about. It feels distinctly well-pedigreed. And outside of the dubious tragedy, I actually found that very gratifying. In fact even the dubious tragedy I can appreciate for its aura of sincerity. One feels this movie has been made in exceptionally good faith.

The opening moments, when eager young music students bound into the balcony seats to see their teacher’s ballet score, seemed wonderful to me: invigoratingly genuine and unapologetic about taking this world and these passions seriously. It gave me opportunity to reflect on the anxieties that attend all my enthusiasms, and so many others’ today. “Elites” have to contend with being “elites” one way or another; even to those who detest it, the Marxist critique hangs in the air and must be swatted away. Here there was no swatting because there was nothing to swat at: the movie really is about the ballet, the ballet, the wonderful ballet! Having to die for art is a bit silly, but being passionate about it is not, and before the movie gets silly it is not silly at all. Valuably so.

The movie has all the polish and ease of Hollywood product but is decidedly well-bred at the same time, a combination that is, to this American viewer, disarmingly rare. British films seem so often to fall too far to one side or the other of the Atlantic stylistic divide. (Though I guess I also admired The Long Good Friday for getting it right.) Moira Shearer is, in a way, the embodiment of the same unexpected combination. She certainly looks and sounds like a “movie star,” and yet she also seems genuinely relaxed and confident and educated and entirely unbrittle.

That sense of ease, and of place and color and texture, is plenty rewarding enough. I would have loved this movie to have exactly the same atmosphere but no plot. No rise and fall, no love triangle, no tragic choices. Just what it’s like to be in the business and put on a ballet. A few passing hints of darkness would have meant far more to me than explicit doom. The centerpiece of the film, the otherworldly “Red Shoes” ballet, is already intended to be read as a compressed dream-parallel of the real characters’ lives. Great! That’s enough then. All the filmmakers’ ideas about the sacrifice and obsession of art would have come across just as clear even if they had only been delivered surrealistically in the ballet. The sequence is as great and striking a thing as they say, lush and weird and cared-for, a cousin to the brief Dali dream in Spellbound and clearly the source for many dream ballets to come. To my taste, that should have been the one window through which the winds of doom blew across the face of this movie. That is the real nature of art, after all: it is the window. I wish the filmmakers had been content to keep the functions of the frame and the centerpiece separate.

Or else let them bleed more thoroughly together and have the whole story be blatantly run through with surrealism and menace. In fact perhaps this is the better critique. The commentary talks about the movie as a Hoffmann-esque fairy tale. If that were how it really played, my tolerance for doom would have been much broader, since in fairy tales, doom seems like an expression of general fear rather than specific angst. It is the relative Hollywood-naturalism of the main story (up until the last few minutes) that makes the tragic outcome seem like something self-pitying and psychological. (The commentary eventually says that the film “goes a middle route,” which is exactly my complaint.)

To summarize: I’m always game for a dream of rich color, and this is a very fine one, but it’s too obviously not my dream. If I dreamed it I would suspect I’d been Incepted. I will gladly watch the ballet sequence again any time I come across it. The rest I can certainly get something out of but not quite as much as I wish.

Debra Messing and Walt Disney are both very appealing and give the movie its natural magnetism. Zeppo is fine I guess.

Robert Helpmann, whose presence really rubbed me the wrong way in Henry V, was just as unpleasant here. I get a very nasty, vain vibe off of him. Reports are that he liked to be mean to everybody, confirming my impression. I know it’s a gay “type” but that doesn’t mean it’s not also a hateful type. His ballet choreography is good enough — Moira Shearer says something similarly unenthusiastic in her interview. Apparently he was a moderately big deal.

The presence of the real Léonide Massine forms a strange bridge between the actual world of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, De Falla, Prokofiev — which in my mind is faraway and long-lost and classy — and the world of Hollywood, the cowardly lion and Cary Grant, which lives on in a perpetual and cozily garish present. How anyone could have wandered from one to the other is beyond me. Like that clip of the guy on “I’ve Got a Secret” who witnessed Lincoln’s assassination (the real Lincoln). Massine just looks like some guy, some guy who’s not above playing movie make-believe.

Criterion has done their standard nice job. Netflix twice sent me the old 1999 disc instead of the listed 2010 edition, but I wasn’t going to miss out on the fancy restoration, so I waited until I could get a library copy. I’m glad I did. The color is lovely and the color is the point. Commentary is a hodgepodge of interview materials with a host, but very well assembled and consistently interesting.

Martin Scorsese is all over the extras, telling us in various ways how much he loves the movie. It makes sense to me that he would. But it’s also a little odd to think about him deeply identifying with a ballerina. His comments all reveal his sensitive eye and cinematic sense; I would gladly listen to him do a commentary track on any movie. Here is his much more concise (and positive) way of saying, in the commentary, more or less what I’ve said above:

“…in a funny way, the love story, for me, is almost just a device. Really just a device to hinge all these—— this recreation of a world, where, as Michael [Powell] put it, “art is worth dying for.” I don’t know if I’d agree with him, but… that’s what the film’s about apparently. I didn’t know that. I—— [begins laughing] He told me that once! [stops laughing] But it’s great to have that kind of passion. I think it’s great to have that kind of passion, if you agree with it or not, that art is worth dying for. For filmmakers to get together and concoct this and perpetrate it onto the world, at that time, is fascinating. The guts and the risk that they took. Especially after World War II. What I like about it sometimes: it seems out of control, that their emotions are out of control. Not the characters but the people who made the film. That the passion is out of control and I think that’s something that’s very rare. Something very rare is created when that occurs.”

Bizarre bonus feature is a full-length audio track of Jeremy Irons (!) reading the novelization (!) written by P & P themselves much later, commissioned by Avon Books in 1977. I’ll admit I didn’t listen to the whole thing; it seems like a decent enough novelization. Jeremy also reads the original Andersen tale, which I had not read before and which unsurprisingly merits a Yikes.

So, music. This is of course one of those movies where the score is really built into the action – i.e. where there’s a composer character who writes music that we hear, plays it on the piano, etc. In the first couple decades of sound film there was a lot of that sort of thing, but I think this is the first in the Criterion Collection to go there (unless you count Spinal Tap and “Lick My Love Pump”). Score is by Brian Easdale, pretty much known only for his Powell & Pressburger scores and for this one in particular. From what I’ve heard of his music, he was a real talent, as good as the much bigger names in film music, and with a touch of the high in his technique that goes a long way.

Though it is so very, very long, our musical selection simply has to be the ballet, which is one of the most significant “classical compositions” in all of film scoring, and perhaps the single best diegetic work of art (“opus Hollandaise”) in any movie. (I could swear this subject had been discussed long ago on this site but I can’t find it right now.) This ballet seems to me comparable in quality to the most renowned “real” American and British ballets of the same era, including the two by Bernstein that have always been favorites of mine… but the use of ondes martenot, quite a few shock chords, and some shameless “dream sequence” special effects (wind machine!) also give it a distinctly cinematic sound, as much a relative of Rosza and Spellbound as of Bernstein et al. A sort of perfect amalgam of a “cinema-ballet” style.

So I guess disc 2 of our Criterion soundtrack anthology will have fewer tracks on it than the first, because this one runs 15 minutes long. Here it is, track 44. This is Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The recent commercial recording gives a movement breakdown. I don’t have access to that recording so this is somewhat speculative, but based on their timings I imagine those movements begin at these times in our original track (+my summary of the action):

0:00 I. Allegro vivace [The shoemaker / The girl and the boy / She wants the shoes / She gets them]
2:28 II. Allegro moderato e molto ritmico [Dance of the shoes / Nightlife]
3:50 III. Poco più mosso [Dance hall / The scene dissolves]
5:13 IV. Lento tranquillo [The girl heads home / The shoes won’t let her]
6:05 V. Largo [She is trapped / Into dream landscape / Pas de deux with newspaper]
8:09 VI. Presto, quasi cadenza [The shoemaker reappears / Lost in an underworld / Alone]
10:14 VII. Allegro assai [Ballroom / Pas de deux with lover / Waves of applause]
12:41 VIII. Sostenuto [Church / She is forbidden to enter / She tries to cut off the shoes / She is danced to death / The shoes are removed / The shoemaker retrieves the shoes and offers them to the audience]

The piano score was published in 1950 but it’s quite rare. They did play this at the Proms a couple years ago.

You know, watching that yet again just now to type up the action, I feel like I must say: the sequence is really very good. A warm, spooky embrace. At the moment when the hopelessness peaks and the camera begins to pull back (at 9:30 in the mp3) I consistently get a little rush of I-don’t-know-what-emotion-this-is emotion. That’s the supreme form of aesthetic experience, I think. This movie has a lot to offer. Maybe I’ll grow to accept the rest of its embrace, on its own terms, on subsequent encounters. But for now I’ve watched it enough.

Sentences are not forming very well for me right now and this whole overlong entry comes from the tedious rather than the breezy part of my brain. I’m not at all pleased with what I’ve written here. But I’m just going to move on to the next movie rather than wait around for a breeze. All in good time.

January 15, 2014

Fables (1668–94)

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95)
Fables (1668–94)
(selected and) translated by James Michie (1979)


This was what I’m calling “roll 34” in my Western Canon sweepstakes: 482, which is the line for Jean de La Fontaine. Only one item under his name: Fables.

La Fontaine’s verse is prized for its elegance and piquancy in the original language; his fables have been classroom French examples for centuries. Well that sounds splendid but I don’t speak French. After doing a bit of comparison shopping for translations I settled on the Penguin selection seen above.

Many of the fables are just retellings from Aesop; others come from Indian sources. Later in his output La Fontaine ventured more of his own invented fables, which tend to be wordier and more involved. (That is, if I was correct in my sense of which were which.)

For the old chestnuts, the charm of the style would seem to be the main attraction here; his audience already knew the fables themselves as well as we do. La Fontaine retells these little animal stories in a style that is both precious and sardonic, chatting cheerfully and smirking cynically in equal measure. The ideal, it seems, is to be simultaneously free and controlled, breezy refinement. How very seventeenth-century-French, non? The verse follows a similar muse: the schemes of rhyme and meter are generally irregular, whimsical, improvisational, but the element of rhythm is always kept in play. It has sort of a jazzy formal spirit.

That sounds like it might be pretty good, and sure, in many ways it was pretty good, but I’ll be frank with you: my desire to write anything about this runs very shallow. I think that’s because the moral content, which is after all the point, felt neither enriching nor amusing. After each one I had a sense of having been a bit scolded, rapped with a ruler, and felt myself forced to contend with the lesson. E.g. “It’s best for people only to associate with their equals.” Gee, I don’t know, is that really good advice? Was it good advice then? How mean-spirited is this? Do I agree with it even a little? Am I worried about it? How much politico-historical thinking do I need to do to neutralize the discomfort I feel? Why does this 300-year-old smirk feel so personal?

That sort of agonizing is inevitable for me when faced with self-assured criticism and advice. Criticism and advice always unnerves me because it is the knife-edge across which kindness ceases to be kindness. And this book is chock full of it.

Eventually, after finally reaching the end of my wrangle with whatever “oh snap!” La Fontaine had just laid down, I would feel drained. I had to go through that just to read this damn cute animal story? I had a pretty strong hunch that La Fontaine didn’t actually care about these morals as much as he was letting on, nor did his readers; that they all lived in a time when worldly cynicism and metaphors to match were in and that all this finger-wagging was just a posture. Well, I really dislike that posture. Moralizing gives me the willies and moralizing just as a way to be marvelous is even worse.

Like, I don’t even feel very comfortable with that grasshopper (cicada, here) and that ant. When the ant refuses to take pity on the grasshopper because it’s your own damn fault, don’t let the door hit you on the way out to FREEZE TO DEATH, the lesson, it would seem, is not just that one should pull one’s own weight, nor even that one can reap only what one has had the foresight to sow (like in the much more palatable “who will help me bake the bread” story), but, more disturbingly, that your neighbor (as well as every consenting teller and hearer of this fable) is self-righteous to the point of bloodthirst. Forget what Jesus said, everybody really knows that charity is only for the blameless, ha ha ha. And blame after all is very easy to mete out. That stuff’s hard enough for me to take hearing it in public debate these days; somehow it feels even more insidious coming out of a witty old Frenchman talking about some très charmant bugs.

I went through a lot of “who says??” while reading this, which ate up much of the charm. You might tell me, “The point should have been the charming poetry, not the morals! Don’t worry so much about them.” But that’s like telling me to enjoy hard-right-wing political cartoons because “Forget the politics, they’re such delightful cartoons!” I don’t know that they are that. I don’t know that the two are separable.

Admittedly, a great many of the fables had a softer touch and were directed at the softer targets of vanity and pretension. That I found easier to take. I was, in fact, occasionally amused. I did appreciate the breeze of the style. This has all been just to say that I was never fully delighted, because my hackles were always a bit up.

The translations seemed to me good; better than the others I’d sampled. I guess you’ll want to try one. Here’s the one I mentioned earlier. Book V, Fable II: THE CLAY POT AND THE IRON POT.

Said the iron to the clay pot:
‘Let’s see the world together.’
‘If you don’t mind, I’d rather not,’
Said the other. ‘I’m not sure whether
I would be wise to forsake
My corner of the ingle —
After all, it would only take
The slightest shock, one single
Accident to shatter
My body irrevocably.
But for you who are made of matter
Tougher than mine, I can see
No reason to stay inside.’
‘But I’ll be your bodyguard,’
The iron pot replied.
‘If we happen to meet some hard
Impediment on our way
I’ll stand between you and harm
As a buffer.’ The pot of clay
Was persuaded. Arm in arm,
Brother escorting brother,
As best they could they set off
Six-leggedly, knocking each other
At the least stumble or cough.
The clay pot was bound to suffer.
Within a hundred yards
His bodyguard and buffer
Had smashed him into shards.
He had only himself to blame.

In life we observe the same.
One should only associate
With equals. He who does not
Is sure to suffer the fate
Of the vulnerable pot.

Who says who says who says??

I had also checked out of the library a bilingual edition of the complete fables, with slightly less attractive but perfectly passable translations, and intended to supplement the short Penguin volume with a trip through this giant hardcover volume. But as I neared the end of my first round, a rare sense of agency came over me and, in a bid to reduce the amount of masochism in my life, I granted myself leave to declare this assignment finished once I got to the end of the Penguin selections. I had, after all, read an entire book of La Fontaine’s fables. The gods, I thought, would not be angry.

Well, I guess they were, because when I went to find out my next selection the randomizer gave me an unambiguous reprimand. With a nasty twinkle in its eye, La Fontaine style. A little too ironic.

In that same spirit of non-masochism I am going to end this entry here. There is, after all, more to come.

January 9, 2014

43. Lord of the Flies (1963)

directed by Peter Brook
from the novel by William Golding (1954)


Criterion #43.

I’ve always taken the classic status of Lord of the Flies for granted, but it’s actually sort of an oddity: this cynical poison pill of a book that has managed to become an institution. It’s a perennial: just watch the copies sprout every year on the assigned-for-summer-reading tables in bookstores. I may be wrong but I suspect this one book is singlehandedly responsible for the idea that one of the things a young adult novel can aspire to be is “devastatingly grim.” These days that may apply to all young adult novels, but of course it’s gotten pretty attenuated, go Katniss.

In the included 1983 interview, William Golding muses that people can only get satisfaction out of such a pessimistic book because they are fundamentally optimistic. People like to read such things, he says, because they feel it’s healthy to have a counterbalance to their basic inborn hopefulness. Then he likens it to Candide: an antidote to a specific species of over-optimism that the culture subconsciously wanted to see brought down a few notches, to bring their outlooks back into balance.

Good stuff, and the interview made me like Golding, but in reflecting on the meaning of Lord of the Flies my mind keeps getting snagged on this feeling that it’s actually sort of like Funny Games, which I’ve talked about here elsewhere (in particular here). Like that movie and other works of philosophical vengeance, Lord of the Flies conflates fear of people with fear of harm, because they are so conflated in the author’s psychology. It sets to work trying to prove by contrived example that fear of people is reasonable and necessary. This is a form of philosophical self-defense: if I can make you all feel my horror (of you), perhaps you will become fearful like me and I can then relate to you better and hopefully fear you less. William Golding as seen in the 1983 footage gives me exactly that same sense of vengeful meekness I got from the profile of Michael Haneke, the injured timid soul quietly sharpening the sword of art. For jabbing at ghosts.

Lord of the Flies is, he more or less says, his response to the shock of the revelation of the Holocaust, and the horror of trying to come to terms with the fact that he “had a Nazi in him” — that had he been born in Germany, he would surely have gone along for the ride. Everyone did, and still does, have to come to terms with that thought and the nausea it induces. But the important thing is that it is a thought, and it is nausea; it is a feeling, not an obligation. If you don’t have the feeling, lucky you, you don’t have to deal with it (and you still get to not become a Nazi!). Being a “highly sensitive person” goes beyond cultural borders. Golding spends the rest of his interview talking, in a sense, about how anti-social and basically shy he has always felt, which gives the lie to his fear that he would probably have joined up and been a Nazi under other circumstances. No, I suspect he would not have; he would have been preoccupied by how he didn’t feel he belonged, didn’t feel the “normal” urge to join up. Sucks to your ass-mar, mein Herr!

There is a dirty form of satisfaction that comes of having your righteous indignation stoked by a public call to woundedness. “Yeah, me too! They hurt my feelings too, those dirty bastards!” This is how Fox News works, as well as Upworthy: there’s enough to go around on Facebook for every creed. This sort of thing needs a name like Schadenfreude to remind everyone that it is dirty. For the purposes of the next few sentences I am going to coin, um, victimelation. That’s terrible. Please submit suggestions in the comments. Anyway Lord of the Flies is a classic work of victimelation (that really sucks, I’m sorry). It makes a great noise that it’s about showing us what evil lurks in the hearts of all men (hence the nods early on to our protagonist Ralph’s moral failings), but really it’s quite clearly for us to identify with Ralph and Piggy and say “Damn them! Damn those horrible, terrifying, murderous other boys.” And we do! I do! Certainly nobody reads it and thinks “hey, Kill the Pig! Cut Her Throat! cool!”

The book is really a bait-and-switch. Things really go wrong on this island not because of inevitable bestial cruelty inside everyone present, but because one of the little boys, Jack, is a thoroughgoing villain. There certainly are real villainous little boys, but they are all have their reasons, and the reasons aren’t the great inner darkness. At my high school reunions I keep having to face the fact that, oddly enough, even the most frighteningly messed-up of my classmates are now just, you know, messed up, which is not actually so frightening. If anything sad. Not a murderer among them, yet.

The book shows us people being whipped into a deadly frenzy by fear of an imagined beast… and then goes on to tell us that there is a beast and it is inside each of us, and we had better be wary of it. It is a scary story about the error of being scared by scary stories. Fear, fear the error! says the author, with feeling. So where is the Piggy to know better than William Golding?

I write all this because I am oh most assuredly one of these meek/bitter guys with an urge to show ’em all how awful they are. But I want to do better than that. Just because the other boys scare me, and being alone scares me, and civilization scares me, and war scares me, doesn’t mean than when it comes time to sit down and create something for the consumption of others I want make it a cautionary boogieman story about the horror, the horror, a candygram from hell from inside a rotting pig’s head. Maybe better would be to write something nice about the real possibility of not being scared of everybody.

So that’s that thread of my response. But please class all of the above as ambivalence, no worse. Because I still like this book, as an excellent crystallization of my personal fears, and thus as entertainment. Scary is fun if you understand it to be subjective; not how the world works but how we sometimes feel. And as Golding said, that’s essentially how it’s read. We all know not really to take the philosophy to heart, just sample its spice, go “ho ho! What if! What if!” and then cheerfully move on to the next course.

It’s a very good piece of single-image art; it has a fine unity. You can hold the whole notion of the book and its title in your head in one gulp. A perfectly-sized aesthetic/conceptual gulp. That’s a special kind of achievement, worth treasuring. “Iconic” we call it sometimes, but an ad campaign can make an icon; what I’m talking about is the thing itself. “Animal Farm” is another one, perhaps a bit underweight. “The Great Gatsby” is surely beloved for this reason above all others. It fits exactly inside its own cover.

I guess I can segue to talking about the movie by talking about the cover. The cover of the recent Criterion release is typically enticing and effective, even if it is rather obviously modeled on the classic 1980 paperback cover painting. (On a personal note: up until this very moment at some level I always quietly, very subconsciously, understood the thing in the lower right with the flies on it to be a large baguette. I realize suddenly now that I have been thinking this. And that it is not a large baguette. In a way I am sad to see that thought go. Come back, baguette! No no, I’ll be fine.)

And this is my segue because Criterion’s snazzy cover is a very misleading representation of this movie; it offers exactly what the movie does not, which is atmosphere, foreboding, a touch of mysticism. The movie pointedly does not have such things on offer, and so to my mind cannot live up to the promise of the material. Peter Brook took a bunch of kids to an island and got himself some nice black-and-white quasi-documentary footage of well-cast kids re-enacting the events of Lord of the Flies. It’s quite an achievement as far as it goes. But that’s essentially as far as it goes. The assembly has no sense of perspective other than a very few arty shots here and there, no throughline that conveys the ominousness of time, space, narrative inevitability, malign forces beneath the surface, any of what’s so basic to the flavor of the book. It lacks the ambiance of fear, which is the essence of fear. It just has events and “editing.” At times it feels, I am afraid to say, like a produced-for-school-use teaching tool, a filmstrip, a crusty old video. Something flavorless, educational, disposable.

On the commentary Brook says that his intent (determined in no small part by budgetary considerations) was to create a verite sort of Lord of the Flies because the great virtue of cinema was that photography could offer “evidence,” and that the book’s message would be substantiated in the audience’s mind by the undeniable reality of these boys in all their real boyish moral malleability, in cold documentary black-and-white, showing what this sort of evil might really look like. I think it backfired. The non-actor kids don’t act in a distractingly polished way, but neither do they reveal any of the truths that the book has in mind. Because those aren’t their truths to reveal; they might not be anyone’s. The things I actually see and actually believe have to do with these real live kids’ real live desires to do right by this movie they are being instructed to make. It looks like what it was, weird summer camp. And sure, weird summer camp is a little like Lord of the Flies, but not enough to film documentary-style and have one stand in for the other. Lord of the Flies is a nightmare parable of children, not the thing itself. But that’s the movie they made.

I’ll grant that the intermittently arty 60s low-budget thing does have its own sort of philosophical perspective, a new-wave-y one, but for me it’s a perspective incompatible with fear. “This all happened, or could have happened, or maybe didn’t happen,” it says to me with cool equanimity. Who cares? Behind the opening credits are some still images in the manner of La Jetée that efficiently establish the premise: English boys’ schools, war, a plane crash. The deadpan of this technique establishes the tone: consider this from on high. Prepare to sit here with the Fates and, perhaps, feel a pang. The film seems to think this is a tragedy rather than a cautionary tale.

Accordingly, the pivotal scene, when the Lord of the Flies speaks to Simon, has been omitted. The filmmakers address it briefly in the commentary as though they considered it an obvious aberration in the book, correctly done away with. They’ve made their own reading of the material. I can’t see what that reading sees or knows or offers that isn’t just a denuded form of my reading (i.e. the right one).

In addition to a commentary track, they also have a track that is an abridged version of Golding’s complete reading of the book. Listening to the text in (loose, awkward) conjunction with the movie brought into relief that the book places you among children; the movie documents children. What adults forget about childhood, and can never see again, is that when 10 year-olds are completely certain they are out of adult supervision, they have an intense and frightening confidence. Their dealings with one another have all the force and authority that adults sense in one another. When you are 10 and another 10-year-old looks you in the eye and challenges you, it is full. The film cannot find its way there. These children are playing at wildness on cue and the adult artists around them are all too ready to congratulate themselves for getting at the real nitty-gritty. Not even close. That locker room menace cannot be captured outside of the locker room. Kids know far too well. This is why, in fact, child actors ARE necessary; because the famous “beautiful lack of self-consciousness” of children is a sham, so you either need a child who is exceptionally good at mimicking authenticity, or who is exceptionally committed to revealing the real – just like adult actors. Children’s entire lives are about manipulating adults; the flimsy “it was like that when I got here” manipulations end up being a smokescreen for the real, highly nuanced ones. “We worked these kids into a real frenzy to film this scene around the bonfire; they were completely out of control!” Yeah sure. I’ll have what she’s having.

What the film does offer, like those filmstrips would, is a kind of uncanny avatar of the book. “Oh, wow, that probably is what Piggy would look like if he actually were, you know, a real person! Hm. I’m not sure I was supposed to see that.” Like Bob Hoskins playing Nintendo’s Mario — yeah, that’s probably the right casting, but then why does it feel so wrong? Brook had it quite backward: somehow seeing it all photographed deflates rather than substantiates; I came away believing this story much less than before.

Great packaging though. (This is Criterion’s 2013 revamping of the release.) And nice bonus features etc. as usual. A special highlight is the clip from a documentary about Peter Brook’s “International Centre for Theatre Research” with some 1973 footage of an old friend, apparently before her self-esteem had quite settled into its long-term configuration. (Or possibly just on drugs. Or on the natural high of experimental theatre work. Or, I think, all three.) And behind the scenes footage and interviews etc. There hasn’t been a one of these movies yet where the commentary and bonuses haven’t made me like it more. Or haven’t made me think I liked it more. Which perhaps is just an undesirable illusion. The length of this entry probably arises from my subconscious desire to give what I perceive to be “due consideration” to a movie that, had it not been ensconced in the DeLuxe Treatment and just been a thing I saw on TV, I probably would have been content to dismiss quickly as amateurish and unsatisfying. Quickly and perhaps with more spirit; “due consideration” is nearly the same thing as nerves.

Music: is by Raymond Leppard of all people. You will notice when reading biographies of Leppard that they never say “harpsichordist, conductor, AND COMPOSER.” The score is sorely clumsy and hurts the movie significantly. His thought process is all too apparent: “ooh, a movie about choirboys gone bad, delicious, well then, I will have some choirboy music for them, you know, some Kyrie eleison sort of thing, very proper and so forth, and then perhaps as a march, quite British, but then of course there will be another version of it, transformed into something all very brutal, you know, with timpani and such, boom boom boom, to show, you know, the horror of it all. And then I suppose some flutes and whatnot for, you know, the greenery.” That might have been a workable outline for the music (though I am skeptical) but it certainly can’t be the music itself. It is the music itself. Here is the end titles.

January 2, 2014

In a nutshell

High philosophy from my subway ride just ended:

The risk of Enlightenment objectivity is that by defining “truth” in terms of how universal it is, we open ourselves to tyranny by the weakest link. Fear of this tyranny underlies most of the tensions in today’s world. This fear of the obligations owed to objectivity easily supplants the old pre-Enlightenment fear of malice by a foreign subjectivity. The complete equivalence of the two fears seems to me a complete rebuttal of the premises of the Enlightenment.