Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Beers That Made Me Part 2--The Czech Years

I began this testimonial around four years ago, but had to stop it when I got up to around age 24 because so many beers had contributed to my making to that point that the post had already taken up a considerable amount of time. Now I am going to try to pick up that inspiration where I left off. Having gotten through the beers that I associate as the most crucial to my development up through college, I go next to that important interlude by which my life has been pretty starkly divided into two main parts, my time in the Czech Republic, where beer plays a more central role in everyday activities throughout the life cycle than it does in this or almost any other country. To me this beer was almost uniformly better in taste to anything I have had before or since. I have never been to Belgium or Germany, other than a layover I had in Frankfurt once which enabled me to wander around the downtown for a couple of hours, in which countries the quality, and especially the variety of beer and beer culture are rated superior by most experts, but what existed in Bohemia answered most of my beer drinking ideals pretty perfectly. The lamented lack of variety (most of the domestic beers on offer are a variation on pilsener), seemed irrelevant to me. In this, as in most areas, I don't especially crave variety or experimentation, though I have forced myself to seek it, a little. I am happiest when I have found something that I do not desire to be improved and reveling in and repeating or re-enacting the experience, or one approximate to it, as often as possible, which I have found to be a more elusive desire to fulfill as I have gotten older. I have no doubt that even if I were to wake up in Prague tomorrow morning enough time will have passed and general change have occurred that I would have some difficulty at first to find again an approximation of the atmosphere and general sense of comfort and well-being with which I associate these ideas. I suspect I could find such an approximation given enough time and effort, but it would come harder now than it once did, as it is with all of the especially-cherished associations of youth.

Most of the beers I am going to list here were the biggest and most popular brands, since they were what was most readily available in the markets and at hospody (taverns), which under the prevailing system at that time (I have no idea what prevails there now) were owned, or at least franchised or something, by the breweries, and they usually only served one kind of beer, their own, sometimes two if there was a dark version of the main product. I have to say that I generally found the bigger brands to be the best tasting, as did, it seemed to me, most of the Czech populace, since they obviously drank the big brands most of the time too. The only domestic beers I only ever observed my Prague acquaintance being really critical of the taste of were very localized products of small breweries in the country that we would run across on our weekend jaunts, though most said that the big beers were not as good as they had been during the Communist era due to the increased implementation of modern industrial practices.

Plzensky Prazdroj (Pilsener Urquell)

Probably the most famous Czech beer, made with the famous Plzen water and Bohemian hops, one of the classic brands of the world. An impeccably smooth and balanced drink in the Czech Republic, like ingesting a good impressionist painting into your body. The variety sold as export in the United States and elsewhere cannot replicate this sensation, I am told, because legally it has to be cold filtered, which process was not done in the Czech Republic. We took a very pleasant Saturday trip near the end of our time there out to Plzen, which is a medium-sized city with an atmospheric train station and central square, visiting the brewery among other places and drinking a lot of beer in shabby, unfrenetic old European style café-pubs, all at rock bottom prices. It was the kind of day I like.

Budejovicky Budvar (Czech Budweiser; Kristal)

Probably the #2 brand and the main rival to Pilsener Urquell, to which it is similar. Sometimes I thought it was the better of the two, depending upon where I was getting it, the batch that fell to my lot to have, the mood I was in. Made in the city of Cesky Budejovice in the south of Bohemia. I wanted to take a day trip there too, but other than passing through the city on the way to Austria and Cesky Krumlov, I never made it. The town is known as Budweis, and the beer Budweiser, in German, which has created trademark problems with its being able to import to the United States. The beer Kristal, which I have occasionally seen in specialty stores in Boston and places like that, is supposedly produced by this brewery for the American market, but as with Pilsener Urquell it doesn't taste anything much like the real Budvar.


Seemed like the junior member of the Czech big 3, also brewed in Plzen. I liked it very much and went through periods where I thought it was actually my favorite kind. I would describe it as a kind of clean distillation of the essential qualities of the other two beers without their extra layer of grandeur, which one does not necessarily always want. I was also a fan of their label and glassware, which I found to have a classic appeal.


Considered by many (foreign) experts to be the worst of the major Czech brands, it was popular among actual Czechs, and you would frequently be served this if you were visiting someone's home or attending a private party. I rarely encountered it in pubs, but there was one rather greasy tavern in Prague in alley in the Old Town that served it and the glasses I had at that particular place may have been the best glasses of beer I have ever had in my life. Unfortunately I drank so much that evening that I couldn't remember where the bar was afterwards and I never managed to stumble upon it again.


Brewed in Prague itself, this was the "local" beer and available everywhere in the city, though not as ubiquitous in the countryside. It was not considered great by most of the people I associated with, but I rather liked it. It was the only Czech beer on draft at the tourist-oriented and therefore expensive Irish pub that I ended up at one night when I had latched onto some other people from various Anglophone countries, and it was for some reason especially good there. I have a memory of the brewery being out on the edge of the city by the railroad tracks surrounded by a kind of weedy field, but I might be mistaken in that.

Bohemia Regent

The only time I remember having this was on New Year's Eve. It was very smooth. Nothing particularly interesting happened to me on this or any other night when I went out, but in a life as uneventful and remote from great events and urban scenes as mine has been it was exciting to be out in a European capital on a holiday. I went out to dinner by myself that night and had duck at a nearly empty, cavernous café with a Hapsburg era ambiance. The meal was a splurge, I think I spent around $7 or $8 on it.


The two pubs in my immediate neighborhood (Krc(h), near Pankrac metro station)--one was nominally a pizzeria, but you could just drink there if you wanted to--both served this on tap. I did not like it as much as the other kinds at first because it was yellower-looking and seemed less dense, but it grew on me.

Velkopopovicky Kozel

"Kozel" means "goat". They served this at the American expat bar where I would go sometimes to watch football games, which of course come on in the evening in Europe. It was a real meat market pick-up scene too, not for me it goes without saying. The Australians especially would often just nail girls in the bathroom they had just met. I liked the label of this beer a lot, very pretty and interesting colors, and it was a little darker and heavier-tasting than the usual pilseners. I never got really into it though.

I can't find any good Kozel pictures that I can upload at the moment.


Named (I believe) after the ill-fated Archduke whose assassination sparked the first World War and who kept a castle (Konopiste) about 45 miles from Prague, which we went out to see on another weekend. This was the local beer in that village. Not the greatest beer, but a pleasant memory of sitting on a hillside beside some outmoded abandoned building looking on a few somber trees and clouds eating sausages. These days were very leisurely and unhurried, and being away from all of the excessive silliness of American life, and largely cut off from the Czech version of the same, I was very alert to my surroundings and what I was doing in them. Since I have returned to the United States, I have had very few experiences of a similar quality, certainly in which beer was memorably involved. So there may not be a Part 3 of this series, in which anything contributes to my development after 1997...

Friday, March 31, 2017

Next Group

It's been at least a couple of months since I saw these as well. I'll try to remember what I wanted to say about them at the time.

Divided We Fall (2000)

Czech World War II movie that involves the hiding of an escaped Jew by a married couple in his former neighborhood, but for those accustomed to the highly moralized approach that Hollywood usually applies to this subject, this may seem an original and slightly more intricate examination of it. European movies, and especially those made in the eastern countries, are pretty loath to depict anyone in the occupied territories as heroic, or motivated by heroic impulses, at least as the Hollywood mindset conceives of what form this would, or should have taken. I had seen this shortly after it came out--I was at that time still just a few years removed from my time in Prague and eagerly sought out any new Czech movies that made their way to this country--and I had forgotten how good it was. It is the kind of thing that does not sound that good if you try to explain it broadly. Within the apparently standard and perhaps even tired framework there is a lot of inventiveness that I did not anticipate, in part no doubt because I am so conditioned to regard the events of this period of history through the lens that American sources have usually insisted on their being understood. This is not however the way that artists, and presumably a significant portion of the sentient population, in most of the European countries seem to understand it however.
I like this picture because it is reminiscent of every dining room in Prague I had the pleasure of being invited to for drinks. 

I must have watched this just after the election because it was around the time that people on the Internet were asking if anyone would "hide them" from Trump's white Nazi supporters when they were imminently unleashed. Of course I have no sense that anything of this sort is really gearing up, at least for educated upper middle class people, and therefore cannot bring myself to take such alarms very seriously, though if people genuinely feel that they are facing this kind of existential danger from the current government, I am about the last person who is going to be able to persuade them otherwise. Given the advances in surveillance and detection technology, apart from the already established custom in this country of SWAT teams, etc, being able to kick in your door and tear apart your house if they consider they have a good enough reason, I'm not sure that hiding anyone for any amount of time nowadays is terribly plausible, especially if you have already committed to doing it on Facebook. Perhaps if you have truly been existing completely outside of legitimate society, banks, identity papers, taxes, and so on, it is possible to lose yourself in the fabric of the country, but that situation applies to few of the more vociferous members of the Resistance. Now, if some kind of government orchestrated genocide is implemented, and many of the intended victims are not able to get out of the country beforehand, the futility of the gesture will still not excuse slamming the door in the face of the persecuted and leaving them to their fate in order to preserve yourself, but one of the insights of the better sort of Holocaust art, usually, I find, a product of the smaller and poorer European countries, is that if things really come to that point, almost no one has a clear sense of what might be demanded of them or how they are going to respond to particular situations that arise. Especially someone like me who just doesn't have the righteousness and fire and hatred of my political enemies that I guess are going to bear other people through whatever transpires.

That said, I acknowledge that our current societal order is clearly exhausted, and needs some kind of rebirth or reorganization. My personal exhaustion, however, is increasingly of everyone who has no sense of humor and no appreciation for any of the things that I appreciate, or am able to appreciate, no matter what their politics are. ...    

Jupiter's Wife (1995)

Documentary about a mentally ill homeless woman in New York who claims among other things to be Jupiter's wife. This probably seemed like an interesting idea in 1995, but the development of all media in the ensuing years, at least for this type of story, makes it seem rather quaint now. The main problem is that the subject (by which I mean the woman) is not that interesting. The filmmaker did manage to find out who she was and that she had a conventional suburban upbringing, attending high school on Long Island in the early 60s and that she had once driven a horse carriage in Central Park for which she had been featured in newspaper articles and TV spots, as being a girl driver was evidently considered unusual at that time. However, she was much more strange than brilliant, and her adult life and spoken thoughts had little evocative about them, at least that I can remember. The movie is also shot on videotape which further adds to the tired effect, the 90s being now at that distance from us that its negative qualities still carry force in the present and not enough time has passed to make many charms peculiar to that time readily jump out at us.

New York City was still quite dingy in 1995 compared to what it is now, or at least what it was the last few times I was there, when Bloomberg was still the mayor. Most people claim that they liked it better when it was dingy, but I much prefer like the way it looks now, at least the older parts that have been preserved and restored to some of their former charm and grandeur, to the way it looked all through the earlier part of my life. I am certainly sympathetic to the claims that the character of the city at the street and boarding house and library reading room and cafeteria level has been negatively impacted by the ever increasing demands that the immensely wealthy of the entire world make on Manhattan especially, which has had the effect of pushing out most of the people who were sort of like me, if there were ever any such people, which will make anybody upset. It does seem to me to be becoming more remote as an aspirational destination for ordinary young (i.e. not Wall Street bound) Americans who have to earn their own bread, which would obviously be a terrible cultural loss, for them. Of course, it isn't like the city is lacking for people, or younger people, it is just more daunting for those whose main ambitions there are to loaf around reading books, walking around the streets for hours on end, drinking beer and looking at girls, and who live in denial and fear of the forces and necessity of capitalism and enterprise. Who it goes without saying are not reckoned much of a loss by anybody but themselves.

Bizet's Carmen (1985)

This is a film of the famous opera, but not of a stage performance, the singers and actors are out in the open air in various locations around Andalusia. This worked better for me than a stage performance would have, I actually feel like I got something out of seeing it, though of course Carmen is famous for being an opera popular with people who don't know anything about opera, or music, or culture, and probably food, wine, sex, and whatever else there is that is worth knowing, but I am peace with this aspect of myself now. The famous opera star Placido Domingo is in this. I don't recognize any of the other stars by name, including Carmen herself. Even though I obviously have not spent much time in my life in Europe, this production conveys something of the spirit that I felt the first time I was there in 1990 that I have often written about, before the hyper modern strands of global economics and mass migration had set in, and more people seemed to live according to the rhythms and habits more traditionally associated with their particular country or region. Since the contemplation of this was an especial joy and inspiration to me in my youth, it always revives my rather deadened soul a little to be reminded of it again, though I wish I could anticipate some such excitement in the future. As the trend however seems to be for everything to be changed and transformed into some more efficient or exalted version of itself in which most people have less and less of an active part to play, it's not clear what there is for any non-superperson to be excited about.
The Grey Fox (1982)
I believe this movie is categorized under the genre of "Canadian Western", though much of it is set in Washington and Oregon and it stars the well-known Hollywood actor Richard Farnsworth, who plays the gentlemanly real-life outlaw Bill Miner, famed for pulling off Canada's first train robbery (I noted on my Twitter account at the time that train robbing was a crime that has really gone out of style). I liked the mood of this, which is somewhat surprisingly quiet and understated given its subject matter. It mainly takes part in the rainy, heavily forested, and at the time in which the movie was set (1900-1910 or so) practically uninhabited Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the border, and Miner spends a lot of time living in the woods or lying low in sleepy frontier towns. The conflict in the story is that Miner, while intelligent and charming enough to be well-liked by such relatively cultivated people as he is able to encounter who don't know who he is, is unable to "go straight" and live an honest and respectable life, but has a constant compulsion to return to his life as a notorious criminal, in which field he has attained the notoriety and grudging respect due to accomplished practitioners that most men of spirit crave. It is a good, if relatively uncelebrated movie that I had to watch on a VHS tape before Christmas, though now that my wife has gotten Amazon Fire TV I will probably need to seek out VHS copies ever less and less now. This is perhaps one of the last ones I will ever watch in that primitive format.
Three Sisters (1970)
Adaptation of the Chekhov play by Laurence Olivier and a number of other familiar names from the British stage of that era, including Joan Plowright and Alan Bates. Notable for being the last movie that Olivier directed, though he would continue acting of course almost up to the end of his life in 1989. I have not read the play, and I wish I had had more familiarity with the story before seeing the movie, since I have to confess that I increasingly have trouble keeping up with British stage productions with regard to the pace of both the story and the dialogue. Of all the really great authors whose stature pretty much everyone agrees, I think Chekhov may be the one of whom I have read the least. My various lists and games surprisingly have not thus far turned up anything by him apart from The Cherry Orchard, which is consequently the only work of his that I have read. I thought this movie, though (another) British interpretation of an obviously Russian play, was very beautifully done, and took a subdued and yet unaffected tone that the material called for that I am not sure a contemporary production could pull off. Also, as I get older I am increasingly interested in films made right around the time when I was born (1970), since that time seems more and more to belong to another age, particularly in the cinema, where nearly half of the form's history has occurred in my lifetime, and it is reassuring to me, who is so sidelined mentally from contemporary currents of life, to reconnect with the more recognizable world I was born into. This applies to the next movie on the list also.

Louise Purnell, the actress who played the beautiful youngest sister Irina, was so beautiful herself in this that I feel the need to commemorate it here, especially she does not seem to have gone on to do anything else notable in films, and does not even merit her own Wikipedia page. Still, she was once exceptionally beautiful in a high end Chekhov production, and that is not nothing..

Medium Cool (1969)

Somewhat falsely advertised as more of a documentary than it in fact is (though there is some documentary footage in it), this is more accurately a rumination on the state of society that was made in a documentary style, culminating in the real-life events around the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. Its director was a man named Haskell Wexler who I think it is safe to say could be described politically as "Old Left". He just died in 2015 at age 93, which was too bad, since he was still active within this decade, the special features on the Criterion DVD including a film he made at an Occupy Wall Street rally which it was obvious he was hoping would reveal some hints of an incipient inspiring movement of the people akin to those of the 60s (needless to say, it didn't). The '68 movie is concerned with the mass media's control and distortion of the narrative and the effects it had on the public perception and understanding of everything, activism, the youth culture, the poor community of Appalachian transplants in Chicago, suburbanites arming themselves, politically aroused and confrontational young black people, the eternal class struggle. A very different and interesting movie, probably would reward more than one viewing (I was nearly halfway through it before I realized most of it it must be scripted). Recommended.
I liked this lady in the yellow dress, who played a rather sweet Appalachian woman from West Virginia. I have always had a little bit of a thing for girls from West Virginia since I went to basketball camp (at Morgantown) in high school and thought 'I wouldn't mind partying with some of these cuties.' Of course you hardly ever meet anyone from West Virginia outside of the state itself, at least I don't remember that I ever have.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


This is something I was going to post on Facebook within the last couple of weeks, but I didn't do it because the people I am aiming such posts at and the people who actually read and comment on my posts there most of the time are (mostly) not the same people, and I didn't think the latter group was likely to get my point the way I wanted it to be gotten. But I still want to write the thought down, so why not do it here, where I need content and where I have no real idea who, if anyone is likely to see it:

So the other day I finished reading the second volume of Knausgaard, and in the spirit of that book I thought I should take a similarly honest appraisal of the essential banality of my ordinary thought and activity. As most people have probably noticed, the last year has not been a very happy one on Facebook most of the time, particularly for those of us whose friend base is 98% affiliated with the Democratic Party (I have only two friends out of 133 who openly supported the Republicans in the elections last year--ed.). Most of the time nowadays I wonder why I even bother looking in. When I tried to think of what in the last year had given me the most happiness on Facebook it had nothing to do with people who had performed virtuous or courageous or defiant acts or who were defending truth and speaking it to power in the current age of lies, of course not, it was discovering that people who I have always thought of, and still do, as attractive, cool, and successful to a degree that I have never been able to attain go camping with their families in the summertime, and appear to enjoy it and think it a fine way to travel. I don't think anything else could have done so much to help in improving my own attitude towards camping, which had been largely negative and reluctant, only undertaken on my part because I am so desperate to go anywhere sometimes that I will even agree to sleep on the ground in the middle of the woods miles from the nearest town if that is the only option. But being able to see that certain people of the sort that I imagined myself being excluded from the company and atmosphere of by going camping camp themselves is the sort of thing that makes me keep checking in. I would have hated to have missed that.

I'm glad I did not actually write this. This is a good example of why I don't have any real-life friends with whom I have serious conversations. I cannot form a coherent thought without working through it first for several weeks, let alone trying to say anything in real time. I appear to have no idea what I think about anything, or even why I like something if I am overcome with genuine pleasure, though this is not exactly true. I simply have no idea how to say it unaffectedly in a way that would be socially acceptable or that I would not be embarrassed by.

The internal debate I had over this half-baked paragraph took place before I found out that another one of my classmates (aged 45) had died suddenly. These (and there have been quite of them, considering what I take to be our relatively young age as far as dying is concerned) are always shocking to some degree, since so far they almost all happen out of the blue, but this one was especially shocking. I am of course interested in knowing about what happens to all of the people I used to know, even tangentially (though this particular person I knew somewhat more than tangentially) and something like Facebook is good for that, I suppose. I am increasingly cognizant now of having most of my life behind me, and that probably even most of the trips and drives and outings and ice cream stops with my children are in the past, though I do still have a two year old. However, my energy as far as organizing and carrying out these activities on a regular basis seems to have declined noticeably in the last couple of years, though the desire to do them is still there. You see, I am talking about myself again instead of the person who has died, but it is hard to say anything at the time, I was even like this when my grandparents died, the real meaning of their absence, what they really were, the kinds of things that went out of my life or were not said or thought anymore when they died did not really become clear until they had been gone for a while.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Notes on Movies Continued

As I am months behind in this, I am going to have to do a few of these. The good news is that I have not seen too many movies either, so three (posts) might do the trick. Of course at my rate that could take another two months.

Anna Karenina (2012)

I admit I liked what they did with this. They got Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay, and his vision was to take episodes from the book and put them in a theater setting, but the theater is usually just a starting off point for a good deal of clever filmwork. I remarked at the time that the movie makes a lot of assumptions that viewers have read the book and have a good recollection of it. Many minor characters for example make appearances without any introduction or explanation of who they are, you have to recognize them from the novel, and a similar dynamic is applied to various of the situations that the major characters are involved in, they appear or are alluded to in the course of the movie without being any further developed. As in often the case with modern productions that have some money to work with, the colors and sets and clothes and most of the people are lustrously beautiful. I was not enamored some of the casting, in particular Keira Knightley as Anna, though she does seem to fit with many people's idea of what Anna is. Older men (by which I mean older men than me) in the business love her, she is an ideal art-world sex goddess for them. Personally I don't detect much of a soul there, or an appealing mind either, though reputedly she is very smart. Maybe I don't like her, or Anna, because they are too superior to me all around, or at least there is no opening for me to approach them in a way that is pleasing to me. Even in the book there is with Anna much of a sense that her mental and emotional life, more as the result of cultured habit and upbringing than intellectual development, are inaccessible, certainly to the lowlier sort of reader.

I didn't like the actor they had playing Levin either, who played him as more of a goober than I think was merited. I thought it was widely known, or understood, that Levin was modeled in large part after Tolstoy himself, and in the book he had some cachet in Moscow society even if he was regarded as a bit of an oddball.
I do remember thinking that Vronsky was well-cast.

The King's Speech (2010)

I had seen this a few years back and I gave it another try. It still strikes me as a weak Oscar best picture winner. The material is too slight, the class dynamic strikes my American sensibility as rather gross, not that we do not have problems of our own in this regard; some of the particular forms of the British system are still alien enough to strike me as strange. The uninspiring George VI is not one of my favorite British royals. I was always partial to his disgraced brother, mostly on account of his clothes. I suppose the film had some appeal for me as a period piece, given my general affection for this period, though even in this I thought the effect was overly drab. Not in the physical sense--I like drab as an aesthetic in that--but in its animating forces.

It appears from reading this that I think it is dreadful and was rolling my eyes and generally not enjoying myself throughout the movie, but I am not fierce enough to denounce anything that thoroughly. Some of the performances are quite good. Still, overall I found it a disappointment.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

The second of the back to back Oscar winners from the turn of the current decade, and I suppose the best-known movie to deal with George Bush II's Iraq War. What I remember most about it was that it was filmed in videotape, and its overwhelming aura of alienation and nihilism. Compared with World War II movies or even to some extent Vietnam movies it is striking to me how little emphasis is placed on the connection of the soldiers with the greater society back home, effectively there is not much of one, and this is of course one of the themes of the movie. While I am partial to some landscapes more than others, I usually am able to feel some sense of beauty in most places. Iraq in this movie at least looks to be oppressively unlovable and alien in a geographic sense. The barracks--trailers I guess--where the soldiers reside are equally devoid of any tribute to aesthetics or positive cultural associations. We are reminded that there are still men in the world--I don't remember there being any women soldiers in this movie, which was somewhat famously directed by a woman--who take to the life of soldiering and war as their calling, though perhaps there are not as many being produced in the Western nations as there used to be, for good or ill, I am not clear in my own mind on this point. The Iraq War is presented in this movie as a somewhat endless series of military exercises and maneuvers, which, however skillfully executed, do not seem to be leading towards any obvious end, at least from the American point of view. Perhaps I should see it again sometime. It is not an enjoyable or hopeful movie in any way however.

Top Gun (1986)

Another military-themed movie, of a sort, though immersed in late Cold War Reagan-era jingoism rather than the fractured confusion that in the public mind at least has characterized the more recent conflicts. What a difference 30 years makes! I was not looking forward to seeing this, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, not because of anything to do with the story, but because I found it (as I have on several of the rare occasions when I take up movies from these particular years) so much fun to be back again in the oddly lost world of the mid-1980s, which were my high school years and the details of which therefore I recollect very vividly and which belong to me--not that I was myself doing anything very exciting compared to most people at the time--much more than the present does. There is a lack of oppressiveness in the atmosphere of this movie compared to pretty much everything about life in the present that does ring true in my memory. The look and demeanor of the women in the 80s were so comparatively pleasing too. Of course it is easy to be gulled by movie stars, but with the NCAA basketball tournament being on this week I was looking on the internet at some of the old games of the 80s and when the cameras scans the crowd or shows the cheerleaders they look a lot happier and like they are having a lot more fun, and are therefore cuter, than what I feel when I look at similarly aged people today, though perhaps I am partial to my own time. And then of course the lively, beautiful young women of the 80s are the 40 and 50-somethings who seem to be not especially happy with circumstances in the present.

And Quiet Flows the Don (1957)

3 part, 6 hour Soviet adaptation of the Sholakhov novel about Cossacks during the period of World War I and the Revolution. I found it to be very poignant. Why would this be, given all of the horrible things that not only take place in this story, but that we know are going to happen in the future to anyone who is surviving at the end as well? To begin with I am emotionally susceptible to the historical events of the period under consideration more than most others. I am as well susceptible to certain of the particular sensations which cinematic evolution had become adept at projecting by the 1950s, so much so that much that the default or base of most my ideas about geography and how the natural world especially is supposed to look like date from this time. I had also read the book, and the story is moving and stirring, in the sense of having sweep and movement. Even though they were a wicked regime and our enemies and they stifled entrepreneurship the circumstance that it seems to have been a prestige project in the Soviet Union may have made some impression on me also, the idea of the existence of this whole other film industry completely cut off from Hollywood certainly, but even Western Europe, full of actors and directors most people in the West know nothing, who if they ever had occasion to speak English, did not do so professionally. The movie was shot in bright and unsubtle color that makes it appear somewhat cartoonish at first but I found it grew on me.

I have written in the past about my time in Prague in the 90s and how I found certain lingering aspects of the lifestyle and organization of the era appealing, namely in the form of (certain of) the kinds of shared experiences that people had with one another, which seemed to me superior to the weak shared experiences, if there are any at all, that I at least have with anyone in the United States. This called some of that to mind too.

This came with a 4th disc exclusively devoted to some of the oddest special features I've ever seen. There was a droning interview with a modern day Cossack ataman (something like a chief), who was a balding, heavyset, rather unwarlike middle aged man wearing a medal-covered blue dress uniform and sitting behind a desk in what looked like an office in a community center. There was about a twenty minute segment devoted to traditional Cossack songs and dances which I was going to take a quick glimpse at and move on, but I found I was drawn into and rather uplifted by it, because, at least during the performance, the people were so proud and comfortable in their own skin not merely as awesome or superior individuals but as members of a community with some sense of positive identity and purpose. I know this sort of thing is discouraged nowadays among us because it often ends in conflict and people getting killed, but it is very attractive when you see it. The anomic life spent in shuffling about with one's head down, unable to drawn strength from or commune with such vitality as does exist around you is pitiful in comparison. This was what I was thinking while watching the dances anyway.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Some Things I Would Like to Do This Year

As the dates on the postings will bear out, this has been the longest hiatus in the history of this site, at nearly three months. Of course I thought I ought to say something about the election, and all of the ensuing drama, but for the time being at least the subject with all of its various aspects has defeated me. There is too much to it, and I don't have the concentration anymore to be able to organize all of the material I wanted to address. I still hope that some day it may come back, but I suspect it isn't (going to).

The problem I was having in my political essay was that while I acknowledged all of the awfulness that Trump is inflicting on the country, I am not seeing any element of the opposition to him that I would want to align with or desire to see in power all that much more either. The whole country is clearly a mess, and if there is one particularly evil side, it is not like there is a more reassuring one to turn to, at least if you are me. Even the supposedly good and caring people on the left have become absolutely vicious in their various antagonisms to an extent that I think has become counterproductive and seems at times to be verging on Jacobin territory in its rage. It is going to take a while now to sort all of this out and find some reasonable basis and common ground on which people can sort of begin to relate to each other again, men and women perhaps most urgently. Trump is a product of these underlying problems and certainly seems to be the catalyst for an escalation of the hostilities currently at work in society, but getting rid of him and replacing him with someone slightly less volatile does not fix the serious issues, it just moves them along more (less?) rapidly to whatever form they are going to take next.

The issues themselves I find myself constrained to talk about, because while I don't exactly agree with most of what Trump is doing, and especially with his manner of doing it, I am not as insanely angry about it as everyone else is and I think his opponents go too far in the other extreme on many things as well. Trump and his supporters would probably point out that this kind of nervous response in men--confused, reactive, revealing a lack of intestinal fortitude and control--is emblematic of some of the problems that have spurred his political ascendance. However I am not going to attempt to go on about this any more. I'm sure I will have the opportunity to give some sense of my thoughts on various of these matters in the course of writing about other things, if anyone cares about them. In truth I am still much angrier about my personal failures than about the country's descent into fascism. Maybe this will change if people are forced to choose a side or ideology and accept that the consequence for choosing the wrong one will be death.

I am going to write down some things that I would like to do, that I feel like I haven't done in a long time. I feel like I have not had any real adult fun in some years. I am going to Florida in a couple of weeks and I am looking forward to that. Most of my ideas involve going places and seeing things and not really doing activities. I like (or liked) activities if I am doing them with some kind of egalitarian group and there is a party or going out on the town afterwards, though I guess I am getting too old to do that now anyway.

I am keeping my ideas in the realm of plausibility. I would really (like) to go and wander around Spain for a few months or something, but I am a ways off from (being able to) do anything like that.

1. Go to a brew pub. I haven't been to one of these places maybe since before my children were born. I don't really want to be educated in beer drinking by some twenty four old bartender, but apart from that I generally like the atmosphere in these places. Related to this, I would love to find a Czech restaurant or beer hall somehow and have a meal there. There aren't too many in the northeast, that I am aware of. There was one in Astoria, Queens, New York in the late 90s that I went to. It looks like it is still there.

This segues into #2, which is to go to New York City again. It has evidently only been 3 or 4 years since I was there, as I have a photograph on my bookshelf of five of my children, including my still just 5 year old daughter standing upright and with fully grown out shoulder length hair, standing on the piano at the late lamented FAO Schwarz toy store. It seems like it has been longer than that. Besides, I am getting older, and there are only so many more times I have left to go there, and so many things there I have still not done. I should really make a point of getting there this year.

3. Long rides to see rocks. This is something we used to do a lot when my older sons were little, before everybody was in school and had activities and all of that. There are a lot of famous rocks in New England, and they are usually free to visit. I enjoyed those times quite a bit. I forget that the family stamina for long drives is not what it was in those days, people fighting and so on. We are driving to Florida, though my oldest is going ahead on a plane, because we can't all fit in our car anymore, and it is cheaper to buy one plane ticket than to rent an eight-passenger van. So there will probably be a lot of fighting on that trip though much of it is at night and we try to break it up (the ride, I think, not the fighting).

4. I have got to get to Cape Cod one of these years. Last summer we went to Newport, Rhode Island, which is in that general direction, and which we had also never been to, for a few days, because my wife was possessed with the inspiration/desire to see some of the mansions there, so maybe we will get to the Cape, finally, this summer.

5. The Stowe area in Vt. We did go there once about 12-13 years ago. It's only about 3 hours away and I think it's time to go back. I would like to try to climb Mt Mansfield. It's a famously beautiful area, and pictures of it feature prominently in all of the old 1950s and 1960s Vermont Life/Yankee Magazine compilations I have collected over the years. I should spend more time up there.

Along similar lines we should get over to see Lake Champlain and all the stuff going on there sometime, which we have also not done in our family, though I was there once as a child.

(Addendum--6. I've never been to a real deal steakhouse with big booths and big servings such as men's men are wont to frequent. I've always wanted to go to one of those too).

Hopefully now that I have started I can get back to blogging on a somewhat regular basis again.

(This was one shaky post. I hope to God my writing can come back a little stronger than this).

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Final Word on the Election

I didn't feel like writing about this at all, and now I have run out of time so I am not going to able to be too expansive in any event but I feel like I ought to make an account of my positions, given the amount of fury and sanctimonousness and other emotions that the race is bringing out in people, which I for the most part do not share, except against the Clinton campaign; however I cannot help feeling in many instances an object of this general rage, which would bother me less if anybody actually liked me, other than my children, who don't know any better. But at this point of my life I often feel like I am being despised by people who are generally much more beloved than I am in actual life, not to mention more successful and smarter and with much richer and more exciting pasts than I have to look back on. But that is always how I have seen things.

I have to admit, America has kind of lost me with this election. I guess I can sort of understand how some of these people can like Hillary Clinton, but I don't know why anyone would expect me to like her. I think she's awful. I think what she and her organization have put this country through in this election with all of their machinations to clear the field for her on the Democratic side as well as clearly desiring Trump, almost the most toxic political personality imaginable, as the opponent, is unforgivable to me. I still don't know what I am going to do. I will still go to the polls and vote for the state and local races, but the presidential race I am seriously thinking about taking a pass. I am really quite upset about this. The ordeal that we have had to endure to get this woman elected has not been worth it, not to me. Now I am not going to vote for Trump, whom I have known to be evil since I was about thirteen. You can argue that I am imperiling the nation, but does anybody even consider me part of the nation anymore? I don't feel part of it, or at least not this political part of it. Maybe I will write in Bernie Sanders, not because I love him, but at least he had enough gumption to oppose the Clinton behemoth. I have tried very hard to believe what everybody I know wants me to believe, that Hillary Clinton is a great candidate for president, that all--and I do mean all, for in the minds of her most fervent supporters, she has essentially become flawless and innocent of any taint of wrongdoing--all of the shady accusations and unpleasant revelations about her are lies. But I am not able to believe this, and any reassuring qualities that might compensate for the many ugly ones I am not persuaded of.  If I had any confidence that Hillary Clinton was going to lead the country in any direction that I would like it to go in, I can't believe that I would not support her wholeheartedly. But where do her loyalties lie? not with any interests of the mass American public, or at least the male part of it, that I can see. Maybe, if it is convenient to her, she will exert influence, in positive ways that mitigate some of the burdens these currently impose on people, on the health care system, the higher education system, the criminal justice system, the wage and employment problem and the cost of housing. But how can she do this if she is too beholden to interests that appear to be largely antagonistic to and contemptuous of this population at the present time?

While it is true that the older she gets the more grating is the effect Hillary Clinton's persona and manner of speaking have on me, as is the case with many men, I was not always so averse to her, or to the whole Clinton political operation, as I am now. In the 1990s I think they were to some extent right for the times. My impression is that Bill Clinton ushered in a more recognizably modern and corporate approach to governing and the Washington culture, with a lot of emphasis on raw brainpower and talent and innovative approaches and workaholism as a badge of in-groupness. This was not a favorable group of traits for me to have to compete against as a young man, but it has certainly set a tone for this whole Clintonian era, which seems however, as if it should be running its course. I actually wanted Hillary Clinton to run in '04 very badly. I felt that that election, getting George Bush out of office, was the critical one as far as preserving the country--Trump to me is a joke, a sign that things are too far gone to be taken too seriously anymore--and I thought the Clintons would have been able to beat him, and those four years would have made a huge difference. Too many things have been done since that cannot be undone now, especially with the Clintons' evolving worldview and overarching political philosophy, which I have doubts about being what is needed at this particular moment. So I was very disappointed in 2004.

I had a lot I was going to write about the outcry about the revelations of Trump's behavior with regard to women, and the pointlessness of hapless and sensitive men trying to denounce the attitudes and actions of their less sensitive and more entitled brethren in order to appease or reassure or show solidarity with women or whatever they mean to do, raising feminist daughters, and what I worry about in these matters where my own children are concerned, and all of that, but I am out of time, and maybe I will write about that in another post. When I am less tired.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Moving On to the Next Pile of To-Dos

I will get to those election and election-issue related essays. Especially those of us whose overall righteousness was subject to question anyway are being called to account for themselves in the wake of this ongoing debacle that has revealed the presence of so much rancidness in the body politic. But I have to make quick notes on all these movies and then I should be set on that for a little while.

Julia (2009)

This was pretty good, it had a plot that was both different and edgy (by bourgeois standards), professional grown up acting, much of it takes place in Mexico, which seems on film like a more free flowing and natural, and therefore in many ways more alive, place than the U.S. at this point. I thought the ending was anticlimactic, if perhaps the most 'realistic', though the film had not been particularly realistic up to that point. Tilda Swinton is the star, and I must say she is quite aggressively good as an abrasive, middle-aged alcoholic wastrel with no evident family, or career, or interests outside of drinking. Most of the characters in this movie come from this down and out milieu, or are professional criminals. The main plot involves Julia's kidnapping a child, the grandson of a well-known millionaire, with some vague idea of collecting a ransom. It held my interest.

Traffic (2000)

Before the Fall

This won the Best Picture Oscar in its year, which I still think of as recent, though in fact it was over a third of my life ago. It takes on the cross-border drug trade, and also has a good portion of it set in Mexico. It has some entertaining aspects, though a bit over the top, particularly the storyline where Michael Douglas's daughter goes from being an Ivy League-bound straight A student at her prep school to whoring herself out to vicious drug dealers in the hood to support her coke habit. Maybe this really happens a lot, but to me it is a sign of how the times have changed just since 2000. There kind of was a perception, certainly in the 90s, that hard drug use tended to be concentrated among spoiled upper middle class brat types and was something of a problem. But I don't perceive this to be the case now, while of course in poorer rural areas the rates of drug addiction and even drug-related death have soared to levels that I think would have been shocking in 2000. So the movie also is dated in the sense that the serious problem it was trying to address seems only to have gotten gradually worse, at least up to this time.

Rear Window (1954)

More my scene

This is, thus far, my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock's later (post-1950) movies. Sitting at a window in a big important city looking out at people, with my beautiful girlfriend attending me and engaging with me in ongoing commentary, appeals to my sensibility anyway, and then there are the various fascinations that whatever version of the past I am watching hold for me. So this one is very easy for me to get into. The plots of most of these Hitchcock films, and especially their resolutions, always seem rather simple and almost primitive to me, but of course the style and composition and the intelligence and wit of the dialogue are where their main value lies for me. I know there are endless critical studies that explain the intricacies and hidden depths of these movies in excessive detail, and I have read some of them, but I am rarely struck by anything in them that seems important. What is important here are the simple activities of seeing, and thinking, and talking, and noticing, and offering something for others to notice.

I missed the Hitchcock cameo in this. I have to assume he was at one of the songwriter's parties, or passed by the alley.

Since Donald Trump has now unleashed a scarcely precedented outpouring of feminine rage in this past week, which is probably not going to abate until at least after the election, if even then, I did take note of the especially egregious sexism of Jimmy Stewart's war buddy the detective in his dismissive analysis of the workings of the feminine mind. The popular entertainment of the 50s and 60s, for reasons I have explored elsewhere in my writings, seem to be the most offensive to our sensibilities in this regard. In my opinion the condescension and general assurance of male competence was not as pronounced in the 20s, 30s and even early 40s. The combination of success in the war and the male-centric prosperity that arose after it made American men feel perhaps a little overly good about themselves, at least as vis-a-vis women.

In addition to her other attractions, Grace Kelly is probably the most famous figure to emerge from Philadelphia's Irish Catholic community, with which I have familial connections as well. In other words I am kind of claiming an especial closeness to her.

The Bank Dick (1940)

A W.C. Fields comedy that seems to have claimed the mantle among modern critics as the Most Essential of his titles. I didn't really get it. I thought it was silly, slow, cheap-looking, and not remotely funny. Of course the experts can't be that wrong, so I will assume I am missing something. I had never actually seen a W.C. Fields movie, so I was expecting him to be a lot different, namely a more slashing wit and the kind of, if not manic, certainly aggressive energy that I associate with more modern comedians. None of this is in evidence here, in which the humor, or attempts at it, take fairly mild and languid forms. Not one of my favorites.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Regularly celebrated as one of the greatest movies of all time, and among the most poignant. If one of the themes of the film is the passing of the aristocratic ethos of old Europe as a result of World War I, it is experienced by us as being made with a particularly old European, and especially old French, sensibility of its own that was itself about to pass away forever. I had seen this a very long time ago, and I'm sure I liked it, or the atmosphere of it but I had not remembered it all that well, and doubtless almost all of the class and historical symbolism must have gone over my head. But I was more attuned to that this time. I should note, it also helps that I have a new television that is about five times as big as the one I used to have, so watching movies now is much more like a theatrical experience. Jean Gabin made the strongest impression on me that he ever has (I assume I must have seen him before in something besides this; on the other hand, after perusing his 'filmography', perhaps I haven't). He has a great star presence. The role of the enigmatic von Stroheim of course is also legendary, but it is borne out in the viewing, his signature and unusual combination of haughtiness and deep melancholy is very affecting. I had not recognized Pierre Fresnay, whose work as Marius in the Fanny trilogy I remember praising, as Captain Boldieu, nor Dito Parlo, the German farm widow, as the newlywed from L'Atalante. I note these trivialities because all of these movies represent something important to me--indeed, in some ways the entire purpose of this whole project is as an excuse to see certain films without appearing to unduly favor them--and I like to be conscious of the relation and continuity of the artistic people involved in them.

While I am willing to believe this may be one of the twenty or so greatest films ever, I cannot with honesty rank it there on my own list, because for all of its depth of character and generosity of spirit I have not been able to reach the point with it where it has resonated with me emotionally, in terms of true love. But I do admire it.

The Awful Truth (1937)

Even though I do my best when finding a movie to put on my list to have as random and eclectic a selection as possible, there are periods when by whatever coincidence certain actors seem to turn up multiple times within a very short space. I have gone through a Toshiro Mifune period, a Burt Lancaster period, even a mini-Fernando Rey period. For the last year or so I feel like I have entered a heavy Cary Grant period, after almost never encountering the man over the first forty-five years of my existence. To my mind he has not aged as well as a movie star as some of the other golden age titans like Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart or Bogart, because he is either strangely impersonal (queue the famous Mel Brooks monologue about going out to lunch with Cary Grant) or because his persona is not really like that of anyone nowadays not only in show business but in life itself. My wife likes him however, and in addition to the movies I write about here we have seen quite a few of his other ones with the children (whom we periodically subject to oldies as a supplement to whatever other education they might have picked up over the years), such as Arsenic and Old Lace, Room For One More, etc. And of course a lot of his movies are pretty good or otherwise have some interest about them, but him personally I don't really find appealing at all. Something about him makes me uncomfortable. Not like Jean Gabin or Erich von Stroheim. I'm very comfortable around them.

Getting back to the subject at hand, The Awful Truth is I guess one of the more celebrated of the 30s screwball comedies, in which genre Grant was one of the true mainstays. His foil in this one is Irene Dunne, whom we have also been seeing a lot of lately (Anna and the King of Siam; Life With Father), though about ten years younger than she was in these other roles. I like it--I don't love it, the screwball comedy not being a genre I have fully taken to (yet). Maybe I will watch this again soon, as part of the children's classics series. I am not sure if my wife has ever seen it, and she often has very original insights about things, because she is intelligent but is not mentally in the same rut as everyone else because she reads very little contemporary media, criticism, and social commentary. One thing I have to admit is that, as much as I love a lot of 1930s Hollywood product, the over the top depiction of wealthy characters that flourished in this era I often find to be wearying. All the furs and jewelry, the enormous doors and dining rooms, the silver table settings, the silk bathrobes and the top hats, the dogs of the ladies, when there is one. I don't find it attractive, I suppose.

The Crowd (1928)

Hitting a little too close to home at times

Great late silent movie about mediocrity in a mass society and its feeble consolations that is surprisingly modern and still packs a considerable emotional punch almost 90 years later. It isn't available on DVD for some reason (it was one of the first 25 movies designated for preservation by the Library of Congress, so it's not like it is that obscure) so I sprung for a VHS copy. I can't recommend it enough, though it is a little depressing. My wife found out that a child dies in it and refuses to watch it on that account, which is unfortunate, since I would have valued her observations and perhaps reassurance about the film, since the two lead characters are quite similar to us, the man being delusional and lacking the drive to advance in life, eventually becoming an unemployed and unemployable loser, the woman (played by notable silent star Eleanor Boardman) being supposedly ordinary but appearing to her husband of course as the most beautiful girl in the world, which she in fact is close to being, more responsible and harder-working but too indulgent of her husband's flaws and, the movie suggests, culpable in their situation by not taking a more hard-headed stand against his frittering away of money on entertainments and other frivolities. There are just so many famous scenes that are painful to watch, because the director is not wholly sympathetic to his subjects; he is a little, and they are to some extent victims of circumstance, but they also walk blithely into every trap the world has set for them, and we can't really admire that, can we? It is an all-time great movie though, and in its time very innovative.