Friday, August 19, 2016

Five Movies 1949-1977. Two Golden Age Foreign Classics, One Golden Age Hollywood Comedy, One Neglected Classic, and One Exhibition of Edgy Modern Nihilism

Abigail's Party (1977)

British teleplay, written and directed by a young Mike Leigh, whose work I have always found a little too relentlessly unflinching and vicious. This might be the most depressing movie I have ever seen that didn't involve child rape, or the Holocaust or something. I didn't know anything about it, apart from the blurb on the sleeve, which made it sound like a comedy in which working class British people drink too much with socially disastrous results. Based on this, I induced my wife to watch it with me. She did not find it uninteresting, though at several intervals she did ask "What is this?" and "Where are you finding these things?" It is a comedy, of sorts, though of an extremely uncomfortable variety. It is not uproarious.

This work is better-known in England than it is in the U.S., and seemingly well-regarded there. I guess it is the sort of thing they like, and it speaks to their uniqueness as a people. For all of its artistic and literary virtues, I see it still as a story about vulgar, animalistic people who are neither bright nor virtuous nor original with and to and around whom nothing good or positive happens. It is almost a ne plus ultra of spiritual nihilism.

My wife thought it was the kind of thing certain people at St John's would have gotten into on account of its ironic, passive-aggressive edginess and alienation. Perhaps.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Now we are back in the sunny days of the first flowering (in terms of popular success in the West) of the golden age of the great international directors, whose fame I suspect will continue on and occupy the position in the history of cinema that the famous novelists of the 19th century (Dickens, Twain, Austen, Balzac, Tolstoy, et al) do in the history of that genre, even if certain of their attitudes and concerns and even techniques become outdated or superseded. Everyone will still know them, better than they will most of their worthiest contemporaries, and will probably still like them to some degree because their films, especially the earlier ones, have many likeable qualities.

Kurosawa has at present perhaps the strongest cult following among this group, Bergman, Fellini, various other new wavers, et al, at least among important people. Maybe this is because he is not European. Sometimes it seems like it, that certain Western people want to respond to a vision that is more definitively other. I greatly admired Kurosawa's version of The Idiot, but that is to this point the only one of its films that has strongly resonated with me. There is a lot of fun and high spiritedness in this movie, and it conveys an optimism, about the direction of the art of cinema if nothing else that was characteristic of a lot of these celebrated foreign movies (though I think it picks up as well on certain other positive attitudes that were widespread in the later 50s even if brooding artistic types denies sharing in them). However, and this is about the third time I have watched it, my mind always wanders about during it, thinking about the terrain, and the sunlight on the rocks, and maybe the sweep of the vista in certain shots, and I lose track of the characters for minutes at a time. In truth, they are not as compelling to me. Of course, I have never been able to get through Star Wars either, large parts of the plot of which George Lucas has confessed to lifting from this movie. So there is something in the story that does not connect with me.

Edge of the City (1957)

I liked this one very much, perhaps because it is not especially well known, and thus a pleasant surprise for me (I had never heard of it before), though there is no especial reason for it not to be known at this point in time. It was the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, who went on to make many well-known films, the only one of which I have seen is  Hud, which however I also liked very much as an American movie with something of the atmosphere and sensibility of the European art films. This one has something of that as well. It also reminds me of Paths of Glory, which came out the same year. Sidney Poitier stars in what I think probably should be one of his more celebrated roles, along John Cassavetes, who is one of those people the edgy art-film crowd always talks about but whom I had never managed to encounter until now. It has a lot to recommend it besides being a solidly made movie: New York in the 50s, even some of the redeeming aspects of America in the 50s, a jazzy contemporary soundtrack of the sort that was criminally underexploited at the time, Poitier's character is extremely likeable, though perhaps primarily to whitebread types, as some prominent studies by black writers have been dismissive of the character. One example given in the Wikipedia article on the movie calls the character a "colorless black" with "little ethnic juice in his blood", who acts in the tradition of "the dying slave content that he has served the massa". I think this is a little harsh (To be honest, I also find it humorous. Why I do, since I am sure it was not intended for me to find it so, I think is because there is something of truth in it, though only partial truth, and I am pretty certain the effect that the film inspired in the critic was entirely unintentional). The Poitier character does not seethe with anger every second that he is around white people, though I don't think he lacks ethnic juice, nor is he in a totally submissive role relative to any of the white characters, though perhaps this aspect was somewhat sugar-coated for 1957. In the first scene when his light-skinned wife, played by Ruby Dee, appeared, I thought for a moment that she was actually white; but I knew there was no way that would have flown at the time. In fact I have seen several claims that this was the first American movie to depict a genuine interracial friendship, and one of the reasons it did not make a lot of money or otherwise have much of a national impact was because the studio didn't even bother trying to show it in the south. There is a lot here that I found moving. There is an undercurrent of anger in it, but it is understated and low-key and allows for a lot of fine impressions to come through.

Not available via Netflix. I bought a cheap DVD (around $1.99) on the internet, well worth it.

Pather Panchali (1954)

I had seen this probably three times already, but not in ten or fifteen years, and as it is to me one of the greatest of all movies, I was glad for the excuse its coming up in my system afforded for seeing it again. I cannot say much about it beyond what has already been said a million times, that it is so moving because it is really a very simple, ordinary story out of which great secrets and other depths have been pulled. This is not the whole of art, but it is a substantial and in terms of power usually underdeveloped part of it.

The night after I saw the movie I had a dream about the toothless, ancient "Auntie" who is one of the more visually memorable characters in all of cinema. I am usually rushed in the morning but I took a couple of seconds to jot down what I could remember of it:

"Twice came across Auntie blocking road while driving, once legless body, second time just a head still breathing. Both times waited for another guy to move her out of the way, set her up on the side of the road. Second time she stared at me hard in disgust. I couldn't think of what else to do. I was in New Hampshire, not India..."

Adam's Rib  (1949)

One of the famous Tracy/Hepburn "battle of the sexes" comedies that judging by this don't appear to have dated very well. Since I usually love just about anything from this time I watched it through twice just to make sure, but I could not get into it. Besides the changes in the male/female dynamic in our day that have rendered most of the jokes stale when they are not actively wince-inducing, the writing and direction in general I did not find strong enough to be able to overcome the contrivedness of the plot and the artificiality of the situations, including the marriage. The screenplay was written by women, which I suppose was somewhat unusual at the time, though many famous female writers of the 20s and 30s, such as Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Lillian Hellman, Mary Chase (author of Harvey), etc, received paychecks from Hollywood during this era, so it wasn't completely unheard of.

The most interesting character in this movie to me is the Cole Porter-esque piano-playing, always tuxedo-clad song and dance man who lives in the apartment across the hall from Hepburn and Tracy. He is interesting mainly because he was a type who was a staple in these kinds of entertainments who has largely faded away. What was the cause of his demise? Rock and roll, perhaps, or television, or the decline of the cocktail party in general, or the movement towards music-playing among those who could do so as exclusively an instrument for self-aggrandizement rather than shared camaraderie and joie de vivre? Yes, I wonder.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Break From Origin Story to Catch up on Movie Notes (1982-2009)

I actually have nine of these to do, but as I have only gotten through four and the end of the week approaches, I will divide this into two parts.
Me and Orson Welles (2009)

Period piece about the 1937 production of Julius Caesar directed by the 22-year old genius and egomaniac Welles, largely from the viewpoint of a teenager from, I presume, the outer boroughs or maybe New Jersey who lands a small role in the play. I like the period aspect. It is well felt, particularly in the romantic attitudes towards the arts and learning and New York City life (by outsiders) that seem to be more characteristic of that time, or at least my idea of it, than of our own. Welles, whose genius was evidently already established, or was forcefully impressed rather quickly upon anyone who had to deal with him, comes off as pretty insufferable, not to mention capricious, manipulative, bullying, and generally joyless. As long as all this is in the service of great art and the exercise of the g-word, it need not be of any concern to lesser mortals. However, in Welles's defense, I have seen real-life interviews with him in which, while arrogant, he displays more humor and charm than he is depicted as having in the film. He also, in these interviews, strikes me as engaging with the person talking to him, even if he is berating him, on a more personal and intimate level than is common with celebrities. On the other hand, as I get older, the Welles genius, at least as experienced through the medium of his movies, seems to be losing some of its appeal and power. Now I have only seen two of these since I began documenting all of my cinema-watching here, one being The Trial, which is not renowned as one of his better efforts, though some people still consider it good, and the other The Magnificent Ambersons, which I thought was great when I saw it in my twenties, but in my forties found to be difficult to concentrate on and be drawn in by, as there are long, long spells of verbose conversation unenhanced by music, etc, which effect had only gotten worse by The Trial. So while I do still like Welles to some extent, especially as far as what he represented in his youth, I would not regard him as someone who needs to be treated with the level of artistic reverence that I feel this movie thought it was obligated to do.

An Education (2009)

Another period movie, this time taking us back to the hidebound, provincial London of 1961 in which all of the better sort of young people are dying from boredom and waiting for things to loosen up and get exciting (hey, I'm 46 and still waiting for this to happen). It's not bad, though I found it kind of depressing. It's about a teenage girl (who, despite having hopelessly middlebrow and status-anxious parents, has a legitimate shot at going to Oxford), who has an affair of a kind with a comparatively sophisticated older man, who turns out to be disturbing for reasons other than his predilection for dating teenagers, which, while perhaps of a body with his other objectionable qualities, is not presented as a terrible thing in the movie. The supposedly cool, more alive people in this themselves have rather more of an air of desperation than joy about them. Even the teenage girl when she is swept up in the excitement of the more sophisticated, jazz-club and art auction life seems not to be exactly having real fun, though I guess that is the point, one has to be educated in these things before you can fully take part in them as an independent agent as an adult.

The girl, whose name is Carey Mulligan, is pretty (she was also 23 or 24 when the movie was made). The director was Lone Scherfig, who is a Danish-born woman and was part of the Dogme 95 movement that was a big deal for a time. Since this movie she seems to be working mainly out of Britain.

It is a point of emphasis of course that the era in which this is set was stifling and dull and culturally stagnant, especially for women, and while all that was doubtless true, especially for the more artistic and dynamic-minded, I don't see a lot of films depicting contemporary England that would indicate that the overall quality and tone of life has improved that much beyond the circumstances, usually presented somewhat superficially rather than deeply explored, that some people are more cosmopolitan, that women can hold important and lucrative jobs, travel is easier and more frequent, and so on. Working class horror show movies like Fish Tank and Wasp come immediately to mind, though the whole genre of Hugh Grant-type yuppie movies don't portray a way of life that I find especially attractive, and yes, I am assuming that these movies are rooted to some degree in reality or aspirations for some such lifestyle, or they could not have such similar attitudes, characters and so on.

This is based on a memoir. I hope for the father's sake he lived long enough to see his suburban London house appreciate to be worth half a million pounds or whatever it would go for these days. It would have given him real joy.

Hamlet (1996)

There was an article by John McWhorter that came out around the time I saw this in which he made a point that I was going to make in this article, which is that he, and presumably many other modern people, cannot really enjoy watching most staged productions of Shakespeare because it is difficult to keep up with the spoken language in real time, because the syntax and word usage and so on are not what we are used to processing, even if we have a lot of experience with and are able to enjoy reading them. Obviously this is not the case with many people, who are either able to process the language faster, or have committed greater snatches of the plays to memory, but I usually find it to be the case with me. There are some Shakespeare movies that I like, though these tend to be more cinematically (visually) oriented ones, like Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V. I also remember kind of liking the Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet, though I haven't seen that one since I was in 9th grade. Most of the film adaptations I find either too stagey without the warmth that a stage performance can sometimes convey or otherwise disconnected from, whether emotionally or by way of intellect.
As you have probably guessed, I have written this introduction because I did not have the time of my life in getting through Kenneth Branagh's four hour plus movie, considered by seemingly a lot of people who demand to be taken seriously to be the greatest of all filmed Hamlets. Besides falling asleep several times, which happens to me now during all movies except those most exactly fitted to the workings of my brain, and finding difficulty in keeping up with the dialogue, I was not inspired by any aspect of it, and nothing in it fit with or satisfied any of my pre-existing ideas about the story, which could mean that I understand absolutely nothing about it, though I doubt it. The cast is full of big name stars, including lots of Americans, even in minor parts. For the most part this was a distraction as far as perceiving the characters, who in the long run are more famous and greater personalities than most of the movie stars. There were even people in this that I like, and Gerard Depardieu I thought was pretty good in his part, while the effect of Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston, who seem by the way like they have been dead for too long to have been in a movie with all of these other people, is just strange. Then there are the people I don't particularly like, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal as the gravedigger (spare me!). Kate Winslet is Ophelia. Since I never like her in anything, I am starting to think that maybe she can't actually act. I know unlikeability is considered something of a virtue now, especially when it is people like me who are doing the unliking, but I never really think she is all that good. However, casting directors love her. I will grant that she looks great naked, and in most of her movies (including this one), they'll put in a scene which requires her to appear in this natural state.

I've never liked Kenneth Branagh much either. He plays Hamlet here as a prick who luxuriates in his superior intelligence and facility with words and is aggressively contemptuous of everyone. Of course one can read it this way (Yes, I know you don't read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads you. Another of my favorite people), and I shouldn't be surprised that your brash, in the arena types would interpret the most important character in world theatre to be temperamentally closer to themselves, just like everyone else does.
Missing (1982)

One of those movies that was a big deal when it came out but has to my mind been kind of forgotten, though whether because it is not similar enough to other stories that we have grown accustomed to in the interval or too much like them I cannot determine. It is based on an actual event, the disappearance of an American journalist during the 1973 military coup in Chile (though the specific South American country we are in is not identified in the movie), that is widely assumed to have been instigated in no small part by the United States government. I guess what I remember most (the movie, while well made and dealing with one of those dreaded serious subjects, does not seem to have left much of an impression on me) are snippets into the characters and mindsets of Americans of the time: the still overwhelming maleness of professional life, especially at the upper ends; male sexuality that is still aggressive and assertive; the know-it-all arrogance of the younger boomer aged males, and their often uncertain comfort levels with physical danger; the attitude of the father (at first) that diplomats and other U.S. government officials are in some way answerable to and should care about him at all. All of this did not add up to any great effect for me however.

Friday, July 29, 2016

St John's Origin Story Part 2

I closed the first part with my job at the post office in Maine, which detail is incidental to the story, curious to me only because I had not thought about it in a long time, even though I have been back to the town numerous times since I returned to this part of the country and have surely driven past the building on several of these occasions. To move on, during this time it was suggested to me by a handful of people, including my father, that perhaps I should consider joining the army, since I gave the impression, I suppose, of being disorganized and lacking in direction and many people have the idea that the army can correct those problems in young men. Perhaps it would have done me some good, instilled in me some real discipline and purpose, though certainly the United States is full of people who appear to have come out of the army in little better condition either psychologically or as far as possessing other relevant life skills than when they entered it. I was a petulant little brat at that time, and my idea about the army was that it was akin to signing up for two years of virtual slavery, and why should I have to endure that when all of these other people had these great lives, going to college and parties and having women and so on. What had I done, that I was not as entitled to these things the way everybody else was? Admittedly this point of view was very shallow and foolish, and if one wishes to argue the case that with such an attitude I was not fit for or deserving of going to any college, I can make no defense other than to argue that colleges are full of people as weak-headed and morally objectionable as I was, some of whom even have worse academic qualifications than I did.

I became at this point quite obsessed with going to almost any college of the regular residential, sex- drugs-and-rock-and-roll variety, which obsession was reinforced by a few weekend visits to nearby schools which people I had known in high school attended (I realize now the true generosity and indulgence of these friends, whom I dropped in on completely unannounced with the full expectation that they would put me up and entertain me for several days). The threat of enforced sobriety and especially chastity scared me off from considering any super religious schools, where temperamentally I otherwise might have fit in. I reacted to my feeling of having been shunned by serious academia by abandoning any real concern about the nature and quality of the education I was supposedly seeking and devoted most of my energy in this search to what I thought would enhance my possibilities for engaging in mature (in the film-rating sense) relations with women. Though I did even at this time keep up my correspondence with St John's, as the reading list there still appealed to me, the tiny size and as it appeared unfavorable male-female ratio of the school raised the spectre that there might not be enough women around to satisfy me reliably produce any who might be interested in me (and who I would be interested in as well, though at the time I did not imagine there could be very many people left who would not fall into that category). I did not realize that when you have no demonstrated history of being desirable to women, the last thing you need to do is expand your options, because you don't have options. You need to limit the number of able competitors that you have to overcome. This point did not fully hit home with me until years afterwards, when I knew some people who worked at a residential home for mentally handicapped adults (from well-off families) in an isolated part of New Hampshire. There were about twelve people on the staff, evenly divided by sex, mostly from Germany with the rest from various of the old Communist European countries, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, etc. Every one of them that I knew of was at some point involved with one of the fellow staff members, and at least two of the couples eventually got married. But getting back to the main story, besides this concern about numbers, I figured that the girls there would be like the smart girls at my high school, many of whom were wonderful people, but likely to be too engaged with learning and taking part in constructive (self-improving) extracurricular activities and contributing to the advancement of various liberal causes for me to be easily able to connect with them, because I was not going to be engaged with these things to the same extent, mainly because I did not know how to be so, in the right way. If I was going to be able to get anyone like this it would only be, I foresaw, after a long and necessarily asexual vetting process which I did not want to go through, though of course I did not articulate it thus at the time. Instinctively I knew that my life was passing me by, that I needed some things that were quick and dirty but also exhilarating to begin happening immediately, though I had no idea how to make those things happen. I had become convinced however that the answer to my problems did not lie with the liberal smart girls who up to that point had shown little interest in me anyway, but among the more general, less intellectually conscious population of females; a population the overall mindset of which, alas, I understood even less than I did the striving liberals.

It is understandable if by now the reader is thinking that I did not need to go to college, but should have packed off for Ibiza or the Full Moon parties in Thailand until such time as I might have found some Eurotrash or licentious Australian girl, hopefully multiple ones, to carry me past this ailment that was psychologically crippling me. This would have been the ideal solution, assuming anything would ever have come about, which is a big assumption, but I knew nothing of such scenes at the time, and the affordability of such trips would have posed a bigger problem even than college did, for which at least financial aid was available. The world is very efficient at gathering the most desirable young women in a fairly limited number of scenes, which of course cuts anyone left out of those scenes off from them. When you are a nineteen year old boy/man out of college, particularly if you have a three digit IQ, the truth of this situation/arrangement of society becomes very salient to you. There seemed nothing else to be done but to go to school.

So on my second attempt at applying to college I applied almost exclusively to large universities that had some name recognition but did not seem overly difficult for me to get into, though a couple still rejected me anyway, as did as a couple of rich kid 'alternative schools' I took flyers on because the literature on them indicated that if you went there you could be the ugliest person in the world and still get laid, which the literature on St John's did not promise so explicitly. I ended up going for one semester to a large university in a state somewhat renowned for the ordinariness and boring composition of its people, full of Deadsvilles from one end to the other. I imagined this would be an ideal environment in which to rejuvenate my flagging enthusiasm for existence, because there would be hordes of simple, wholesome, cornfed babes that I as an Easterner possessed of a mind that seemed threatening to grow more overpowering every day would be able to manage...Needless to say I did not manage anybody. I have in fact never been so entirely invisible and nondescript to women while actually in the midst of them as I was there. The tiny number that even condescended to acknowledge my presence did so in a way that indicated that if I happened to possess any latent sexuality, its expression was something that was going to occur in a time and place very remote from the present scene. One day a very beautiful, polished sorority type girl made the rounds of the floor I lived on, selling cosmetics or something as an assignment for a business/marketing class. Her pitch to me was that I could get some "for my mother". It was fortunate that I did not have any money or I probably would have felt some compulsion to buy something even though the women spoke to me as if I were less than a full human, politely enough of course, but in the manner of a being on a plane of life with which the likes of me could never hope to have anything to do. I realize now that my approach to that whole experience could not have been worse. Going to classes held very little interest for me, and I devoted the greater part of my days to trying to procure alcohol, drinking alcohol, and sleeping off hangovers. I did nothing to improve my chances of meeting the kinds of people with whom I might have been compatible, partly because I did not have a good sense for what people with whom I might be compatible did for activities (judging by my subsequent experience and other pleasant, attractive, and reasonably intelligent women I have met over the years, squaredancing, hiking/camping, and other anachronistic types of fun would have served I guess). Unlike at St John's, where the overall environment is serious and comparatively elevated enough to wield some positive influence on a mind otherwise wholly given up to obsessions with drinking and women, there was no such tempering or uplifting atmosphere to lean on in this other place. Despite the circumstance of the semester's having been a complete failure on all imaginable fronts, since I did not know what else to do, I still planned, when school let out for the summer (I had started after Christmas my first year out of high school), to come back and give it another try, figuring that eventually I would have to have some luck. I still was not really that inferior, after all, though certainly I felt that I was whenever other people were around. And perhaps if I had quickly gotten a summer job, and that had gone well somehow, and things in general had started going in the direction of looking up for me, then maybe I would have returned after all--I left some favorite books and other youthful mementos, including possibly my high school running medals, in a storage box in the place where I had gone to school, which I never went back to retrieve--but that story I must leave for another section (I am now only fifteen months out from my matriculation at St John's College however...)     

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My St John's Origin Story (Part 1)

On Facebook a few weeks ago many of the St John's alumni were publishing their stories of how they ended up going there. I didn't feel like writing it there, but I thought maybe I could try it here. It's taking a long time because my versions keep coming out overly long and negative in tone, and I don't want it to be like that. So I am going to have to try to shape the truth showing only the (comparatively) less depressing aspects of the story

My parents once took a day trip to Annapolis when I was around seven or eight, I assume to look at the old houses and perhaps the Naval Academy. I don't remember anything of this visit other than a vague recollection of the brick sidewalks and the narrow old houses. I have no idea whether we saw St John's or went on to the campus or not. It was certainly not pointed out to me on this occasion as anything special or any place where I might go to school someday, though this does not seem to have been anything that greatly interested my parents. It was not that they never talked about "college", but it was mostly in a generic way, without reference to particular colleges (though my father, among his many eccentricities, had for some reason conceived an intense dislike for the University of Pittsburgh, and was wont to speak disparagingly of it in reference to several acquaintances of our family who had gone there).

I first became aware of St John's when I was around 15 or 16. My father had read something about it and made a point of mentioning that it sounded like the kind of place I would like, which I probably noted because, as I noted above, he was not in the habit of making those kinds of observations. His having brought it up did not make me feel any great warmth towards the place, that and the idea that he associated me with a place that seemed to appeal mainly to misfits, and that no one I knew of who cut a winning figure in the world would acknowledge having ever heard of. I was suspicious, as people often are at that age, that it was being recommended to me more in consideration of my perceived deficiencies than my perceived strengths. Like almost every young person who has any measurable abilities, my perception of where mine must rate compared with the entirety of my generation at that time could hardly have been expected to be accurate, especially as we were not blessed in those days with as big a picture and examples of the spectacular achievements and talents of our faraway contemporaries as young people are now.

When I reached my senior year of high school, somewhat to my surprise, no one among the adults who might have been expected to be guiding me seemed particularly interested in whether I went anywhere for college or not. My parents, having gone through a separation and eventual divorce as well as making several major moves during my middle high school years, were still too distracted by the problems all this had created to be overly involved in what I was going to do, and certainly there were no big discussions or strategizing sessions about this with anyone at my school. I suppose it could be argued that I was a totally nondescript student, but still, I was in the top quarter of the class, and my SAT scores, which seemed to be a big deal as far as other people were concerned, were around what Princeton claimed to be the average score for its incoming freshman at the time, which I thought was pretty good, but I guess they didn't make much of an impression on anybody at my high school, though maybe they didn't know about them. Also compared to other people I knew I received very little material in the mail, and nothing from any place I would have wanted to go to, though I put this down now to the circumstance that I never took the PSAT and went to three different high schools in three different states, all of which may have knocked me off of the radar of the colleges at the time. I ended up writing to a bunch of places myself for information, including St. John's, which even then I had a feeling I might end up going to, mostly because it was the only school where the test scores were in the range where mine were that didn't reject most of the people who applied, and I did like the subdued, mature tone of their materials compared with most of the other schools'. But it was very small, and I thought I would not like a school that was that small, that my social options (ha!) would be too restricted, so I did not apply there in this first round, but applied to four other places to which, other than maybe Columbia, which I was imagining more in its 1940s carnation than what it had probably become by 1988, I had no especial passion to go other than that they were prestigious, you had to triumph over other people to get into them, they conferred status, and the social proof of an important institution declaring you to be in some degree a winner, one of the chosen ones. Who doesn't want to be a winner, and judged to be acceptable by some segment of the best and smartest people? Obviously I always have, and especially then, since I had some idea that I deserved it. The people who were promoting St John's (none of whom I knew personally--this idea was gathered from such rare and widely scattered testimonials about the school in printed materials as were to be found in those days) did not seem to me to be promoting a promise that the kind of transformation I was looking for, that being basically to become a comfortably dominant person who awed lesser people into submission and was attractive to the most interesting and desirable types; I felt like they were telling me to embrace my essential 98-pound weakling, which I felt it was my duty to some extent to resist. Needless to say, I did not get accepted to any of these schools I applied to.

So when the fall after I graduated from high school came around, instead of heading off to college like pretty much everyone else my age who was in any way like me, I took up a job working in the little more than kiosk-sized post office in Kennebunk, Maine...

Since it has taken me a week to get even this far (and it's still pretty negative, though the story does get better), and I as am going on vacation in a few days and don't know when I might get around to finishing it, I am going to publish this part now. To be continued (maybe...)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Thoughts Inspired By Uproar Over Recent British Vote*

*I refuse to say "Brexit".

As with so many political things, I had, like Levin in Anna Karenina, no especial emotional investment in whether the UK remained in the European Union or not, but, as you know if you have any social connections with the educated cosmopolitan internationalist crowd, they are rather enraged and seemingly fearful at this development as if it marked an ominous devolutionary movement along the road to Progress that they all seem to have seen as very clearly marked out for the achieving. Certainly this view of the world has a strong appeal to me--I devour magazines and other media detailing the lives of its adherents, and at one time I very likely would have counted myself among their number in spirit. However as this cosmopolitan lifestyle requires most preferably a substantial amount of money, or at the very least good modern credentials and education, to take full part in it, none of which I have or am at this point likely to obtain, it naturally holds less meaning for me as something that must be promoted or preserved as time goes on. I have never been much of an EU enthusiast because of what I took to be its homogenizing influences, though these did not seem to me quite as pronounced in England as in countries like France or Italy or Spain, which were formerly much more worlds onto themselves and quite foreign places that have to my view been pushed into becoming more like the United States and England and Germany more than these latter countries have had to become like them. The increased freedom of movement for work and travel purposes has been wonderful for people in the traditionally poorer countries and the upper, best-educated ranks of the wealthier countries, including many Americans, but the benefits to the more ordinary people in these societies of the constant flow of people into what used to be considered "their" countries and correlating constant changes in the social contract are obviously starting to come under question.

The enlightened media, and its sympathizers in the social media universe, has not for the most part been shy about expressing its horror at the result of the vote and what they took to be the motivations behind it (namely economic ignorance and racism, two of the deadliest sins of the new social order), and by extension their apparent inability to guide a too great segment of the electorate to think and vote properly on important issues. Seeing as a great part of the resentment against the establishment as I see it is stirred up by the way all kinds of stories are reported, and what is emphasized in them, I wonder if there are not some changes in the presentation of certain stories that might assuage some of the hysteria which is currently afflicting much of the electorate in what used to be known as the advanced countries:

1. I know it is boring, but perhaps run a story once in a while about some ordinary person who actually paid off their student loans, maybe with some detailed explanation of how they did it over a period of years.

I have a lot of questions about the current way student loans are administered--I don't understand, apart from the necessity of pandering to various forms of greed, why it is impossible, for example, to just go back to the system that was in place when I was in school, which was low interest government administered vanilla loans with clear and consistent repayment schedules--but nonetheless the overwhelming majority of people still don't default on their loans, especially if they went to any kind of legitimate school, but you certainly would not know this from reading The New York Times. People below the upper middle class in general I think need more detailed straightforward explanation, not necessarily negative, but something like in the manner that magazines like the old Saturday Evening Post or Edward Bok's Lady's Home Journal used to do, from their media about practical matters and how to navigate education, find careers suitable to their abilities, how to work effectively in general, not get taken advantage of financially, and so on. It seems clear that current media is not helpful in this way and is promoting a state of widespread fear, pessimism and panic with regard to these areas,

2, Two, related to this, it might be helpful sometime to run a story about an ordinary person who got laid off and whose life was subsequently not ruined; houses were not lost, children did not end up in jail for selling meth or abandoned single mothers, the middle aged ex-worker did not develop debilitating health problems but was able to carry through, and so on. Surely there are instances where this has happened. I don't want to make light of the real problems people in this situations can face, and this is something that I often worry about it in secret with regard to myself, though the people around me have made it very clear to me that it in the event of such a thing happening, my innate proclivities towards weakness and emotional collapse will not be indulged, and I will be expected, as a 46 year old (one person even went so far as to say 'white') man with a college degree and six children, to conduct myself in a manner appropriate to what used to be understood by that station regardless of whether some sector society would diminish it or not. There is something to be said for maintaining an attitude of dignity in the face of adversity that the media could promote more effectively, and with better results than I think has come out of this last decade or so. The  Times, Post, Atlantic, etc, seem to love to go to these towns abandoned by the modern economy and wallow in how pathetic and poor and bereft of dignity and self-respect all of the people left behind in them are.

3. It is clear that in the British election, the implied threat that if people did not vote the way the establishment wanted, they would basically be thrown into poverty almost as a punishment, backfired to some extent. This implication of punishment for incorrect voting is one of the more revolting characteristics of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate by the way, because there is no pretense that she cares about the actual horrible consequences that are going to fall upon the deceived voter, it's intended purely as a threat to vote for her--or else. Something of that same dynamic looks to have been at work in the British vote. The instinctive response to this kind of threat for many people, especially men d'un certain age, is to think, jeez, if it's gotten to this state that I have to support this unappealing program or direction in which everything is moving or face imminent ruin than perhaps we had better return at once to a state of things where this was not a danger and we had more agency over the course of our lives. But this mentality is a blind spot that many people in power seem to have, or are at least dismissive of.

4. I don't know how the establishment's/media's message with regard to mass immigration can be massaged to make it more palatable to their antagonists among the backward elements of the native populace, though as it looks more and more like they are never, in the near future anyway, going to relent on their demands for welcoming endless numbers of immigrants into the western nations, and are willing to fight anyone opposed to it to at least the metaphorical death, especially if they have any sense that racism is an influence in the opposition, they might want to try. There is an emphasis and tone in most current pro-immigration stories in mainstream media that are going to be off-putting to some degree, either because the immigrant(s) under consideration is written about in a far more respectful or admiring way than the writer would ever express towards a non-millionaire or high level creative/knowledge class native citizen, especially if the native citizen is white, or the premise of the reporting is completely phony, like the story I mentioned that ran in my local paper a few years ago about a pro-immigrant rally that was accompanied by a photo of a person everyone in town knows to be arrogant and disdainful of most of her fellow citizens gleefully hugging an African refugee, or an article that ran recently in the New York Times about Muslim teenagers celebrating Ramadan against the backdrop of the Orlando shootings that was basically A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Syrians taking the place of the Irish-Germans. I actually liked the article, and thought it would be nice if it were so. But is it so? The modern propagandist is often handicapped by his or her inability either to share and express the enthusiasm for America, or the vision of it, which many immigrants still really do have, or to feel an obligation to promote its adoption and an accompanying respect for the established citizenry, at least publicly, among the new arrivals where it is perhaps lacking. Apart from the question of how many people should be continually coming into these countries in the first place there is a conflict in many western countries over whether there are norms of behavior prevalent in the existing societies that immigrant populations should be expected to conform to in some degree, or what those norms even are, that as far as large swathes of the less-influential segments of the public are concerned, are not even being addressed.

I sat up until 3:53am on Saturday night to write this post.       

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Musing About Getting Feedback

The ten-year anniversary of this site is approaching. It has never attained much of a following. Since about 2010, I have been topping out at about one legitimate comment per year. I have some idea of how many people read this site on a somewhat regular basis, though I don't know who they are. I have tried at various points over the years to implement some of those stat counter type things onto the site that tell you where people are who are getting on the page but none of them ever work, or at least I can't figure out how they work. I am curious about a lot of things, what kind of people come to the site, why they come, what they like or don't like about it, what they think works/are strengths, what, if anything, has gotten better over the years, whether they believe I could really come up with better material and writing if I had more time.

Or maybe I don't really want those things. Because what I imagine is that there are people out there who are sympathetic to my general personality and worldview and that these can be persuaded to say kind or encouraging or enthusiastic things, or at the very least think them in secret, but in general life does not work this way, for me at least. Even when people are, I think, trying to compliment me, I usually am not able to feel it as such because my desire is for such a level of understanding or enthusiasm as I cannot produce, but that I feel others, my rivals, can produce, which naturally causes me great unhappiness. So I go on more or less, putting out my posts with the object of...what? Satisfying what at this point is left of what I once thought I was, I suppose.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Bunch of Pointed Film Reviews

I'm very far behind on recording my movie impressions. So I'm just going to take this batch and make bullet points as to what I remember about them.

A Prophet (2010)

1. French prison movie, which I have gotten the impression over the years is a surprisingly robust genre.

2. Very well made, compelling movie--one might call it the Paris movie Woody Allen didn't even think about making, though apparently many people in France thought the degree of violence in it was exaggerated and the filmmakers were too much influenced by Hollywood.

3. It felt like it was dealing with things that are real and important happening in the world that a certain segment of the population such as myself is largely sheltered from, and does not particularly want to know about. Somehow I always feel personally implicated for the condition that these guys find themselves in, not directly, but because my general lukewarm and retiring temperament is accepted as being within the normal range, which puts these more naturally violent people in contrast with mainstream society, which is then biased and discriminatory against them.

4. Pretty much the entirety of the prison population are people who are not "French" as most people would have considered that term in 1968 or so, mostly being of Arab/North African or sub-Saharan African origin. The only old style European people in the prison are a gang of Corsicans, most of whom are pretty old (over 50) themselves, with the kid of that group maybe able to pass for 35. There are no traditional French people under the age of about 50 in the entire film, and the only older ones who appear are judges and lawyers and prison administrators who might as well have descended from outer space in the world of this movie. I wonder if this is not a trend in European films, where young people of native stock have either vanished more or less entirely from the picture, or you have the Amelie-(or Midnight in Paris) style escapist fantasy where all of the angry Muslims have disappeared and it's all about Marcel and Fabienne drinking wine at the cafe again.

The English Patient (1996)

1. I remember this being a big movie for the somewhat sophisticated adult set when it came out (it won the Oscar for Best Picture in its year) which I was probably interested in but never got around to seeing at the time and now twenty years have passed.

2. Having come out just before, to my mind, the internet broke big, it still has an underlying pre-internet mentality that I recognize, and am in many ways fond of, but which also in other dates the film considerably.

3. One example of what I mean by the pre-internet mentality is in the general book-informed mental makeup of some of the characters, which is a little contrived, but the filmmakers and the actors both have an idea of and appreciation for the kind of person they are trying to depict. I don't know if a character of this type holds any similarly vivid place in the imagination, let alone the esteem, of people who have come along in the ensuing years.

4. I went back and forth several times in the course of watching this movie between liking it and not liking it. The best parts are those that evoke pre-war nostalgia, upper-class British variety, music, cocktails, black tie dinners, walking through the Cairo bizarre like you own the place. The movie's raison d'etre however is in its romances and those did not work for me. It is well-established that I am a sentimental person and am very fond of certain romantic movies whose situations move me, but that was not the case here. The premise of the Ralph Fiennes romance was that he was a prickly man but possessed of a dominating intellect and the ability to wield it with both charm and severity who would require a mental equal to even consider the possibility of romance entering his life, which seemed unlikely to happen up until it did. I found this relationship to be a bit of a snooze though, despite the objective superiority and even perfection of the involved parties. They were lacking the qualities of actual real people, which I guess was one of the themes of the movie, seeing as the main character ended up suffering injuries which caused his face to be unrecognizable and he also claimed to have forgotten his name, where he came from, and his life's history, though he continued to speak an clipped and elegant English and to retain in his possession a well-thumbed antique volume of Herodotus so that we know is not just some ordinary guy.

Kommisar (1968)

1. Deep Soviet-era movie set during the Russian Civil War which followed the 1917 Revolution. I had read the book And Quiet Flows the Dow, which deals with the same period, not long before I saw this, and it was on my mind while I watched this.

2. It was banned in the Soviet Union upon completion and not seen there, or anywhere else I think, until the late 80s. I forget why (according to Wikipedia the censors wanted more heroic realism which the director, Aleksandr Askoldov, refused to accommodate, and was banned from film-making for the remainder of the Soviet era, which was a great loss to the profession.

3. The movie stars Nonna Mordyuka, whom I had never heard of, though a major British film publication named her one of the 10 greatest film actresses of the 20th century (sadly, I cannot easily find the rest of the list).

4. The movie conveys with some success the psychology of being caught up as an ordinary and unaffiliated citizen in the midst of a war.

5. It's very good, the work of serious people who are able to think about things in a multitude of aspects and from all kinds of sides, which is the striking strength of the great Russian novelists as well. It is not like other movies, even European ones, in a way that I am having some difficulty conveying. It is not stylized, but has a more tactile and unvarnished atmosphere, that still manages to impress the viewer with its beauty.

I Married a Witch (1942)

1. There was some talent on this movie, starting with the usually high-toned French director Rene Clair, who was serving his wartime exile in Hollywood when he made this (I enjoyed his 1945 effort And Then There Were None a few years back, recorded in these pages). It starred the always capable Frederic March. 1920s and 30s New York creative world legend Robert Benchley acts in the movie, as does future Oscar-winner Susan Hayward.

2. Veronica Lake plays the witch, who went by the then somewhat unusual name of Jennifer. Having never seen her in a movie before I had an image in my mind of her as a rather vapid, over-the-top blonde bombshell type, but in this she looks and even talks like what I imagine the more attractive girls at Middlebury or Williams to be like (sorry that I use colleges for reference so much when talking about women, but I really don't have any other references for where one might expect to encounter intelligent ones socially in any kind of concentrated numbers). She was extremely tiny--4' 11", and a wisp of a figure. Her ancestral background was similar to mine, and especially to my children's, mostly Irish with some German on one side. Her career and eventually her life were cut short by alcoholism and mental illness.

3. I cannot remember a lot of the details of this rather odd film, but I like the time period, I found Veronica Lake to be very appealing, and Rene Clair's directorial style seems to tend towards a kind of understated, even spare gentility that is pleasing to me. So I liked it.

The Anna Movies

This is not even including The King and I, which I have not yet seen. I saw these because I had recently read Margaret Landon's 1944 novel, which I wrote about on my other blog.

Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

With Irene Dunne as Anna and the distinctly non-Asiatic Rex Harrison as the king.

1. It is not the greatest movie from 1946, and its seems a little overlong--though the overlong part was more in the beginning and middle I thought--I liked it more as it went on.

2. I did find Rex Harrison to be amusing and to have some presence as King Mongkut. That he was obviously English does not upset me too much. The story is very much in the tradition of encounters with exotic peoples through Western eyes, the more so as I believe the book and the various movies made about it are still banned in Thailand to this day, and the more Western one's eyes are, the less necessary it is that the King or anybody else be played by non-Western actors.

3. Irene Dunne as Anna strikes me as being very much as she comes across in the book. This is also why I usually find film versions of books that come out close upon the book's publication to be more satisfying as interpretations of the book, as opposed to pure films. They are invariably more attuned to the vision that the author was probably working from in the book.

4. Like the book, the movie is episodic (and several incidents were changed--Anna's son did not die in the book for example) but as is often the case, the interest for me is not largely in these episodes as in the king's and Anna's and to a certain extent the Kralahome's (the King's chief minister's) individual eccentricities in how they respond to situations, as being the people with the only really autonomous and interesting minds in the story.

Sultry Linda Darnell awaiting her execution for disloyalty and defiance while being a wife of the king.

Anna and the King (1999)

More modern version starring Jodie Foster (whom I generally like a little more than most stars of her generation). The king is played by Chow Yun-Fat, who is from Hong Kong.

1. I did not finish the whole movie here. This was not willful, it was just that with about half an hour left in it, the disc froze and I couldn't get it to start up again. This version is pretty long (about 2 1/2 hours) and I think I saw enough to get the idea of where it was going.

2. This version was very beautiful in a meticulous way. The wonder of modern production values and all that. It was not particularly joyous.

3. Like all modern movies based on the past, the West cannot be allowed to hold any inherent cultural superiority or moral authority over a non-Western culture. Whereas the book managed to balance a certain respect and affection for the king especially while obviously considering most of the customs of his kingdom barbaric, this film version, while regarding the various atrocities carried out in King Mongkut's name as legitimate atrocities, it takes care not to present them as contrasting with the more enlightened societies of the West, or in need of an infusion of those Western values. Ironically, for a modern movie, more effort is made to emphasize Anna's naivete as a negative quality than in the older versions of the story, where it is perhaps seen as abetting her considerable pluck. Also in this film, all of the British officials and businessmen who turn up are awful people, racist, sexist, condescending, scheming against the indigenous population, etc, while in the book the staff of the British consulate especially, as well as various Americans who happen to be in Bangkok, tend to be a helpful and reassuring presence, at to Anna (it is the book it is the French who are awful, condescending, scheming and all of that).

This is all for now.