Friday, September 29, 2017

Playing Some Catch Up

Needless to say I've fallen way behind on recording the movies I've seen. Some of these go back to the beginning of the year. I've got twenty-five of them that I haven't written about. I'll be keeping these very short, hopefully honest, which shouldn't  much of a challenge since I won't have remembered many details by this time.




The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

I am prejudiced in favor of almost anything halfway decent from this time, so I enjoyed it as far as that goes. It was produced by Merian Cooper of King Kong fame. Cooper was a dynamic man of action more than an aesthete, and the film takes on this general character. In the credits it claims to be "inspired by" the famous Bulwer-Lytton novel, which I have not read, though apparently it has a completely different plot. While I believe the book features some early Christians as major characters, this movie is set mostly during the time of Christ, which of course pre-dated the famous Vesuvius eruption by about 50 years, tying the stories together by having a man who encountered Jesus while young be settled as a rich old man in Pompeii at the time of the disaster. As a production the movie is a little clunky and forced anyway, and all of this rather fantastic far-fetchedness is not done in a way that holds together. The always entertaining Basil Rathbone appears here as Pontius Pilate.
Good enough for fans of 1930s Hollywood, but I would not call it a classic.




Rebecca (1940)


It won the Oscar for best picture, the only movie directed by Alf Hitchcock (in I believe his first Hollywood effort) to do so, featuring a comparatively young Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, though all of this is incidental. It is famously not a typical Hitchcock picture--he was under some restraint by the studio at this time--and while a well-regarded classic, it seems to be ranked outside his most essential films by the experts, and the same critique is often applied to Olivier too. I had never seen it before, but it has all of the kinds of things I like with regard to dialogue, setting, faces, sensibility, general intelligence, etc, which I recognized within about five minutes. It's easily my favorite movie since Stolen Kisses.







Raging Bull (1980)


I had seen this a couple of times before, though I'm pretty sure the last time was when I was in college, which was a long time ago, so it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit it when it came up. I'm not a huge Scorcese fan, mainly for reasons that have little to do with the quality of his movies, the better of which I usually concede are decent enough. His characters tend to be completely unrelatable to me, to the point of striking me as probably having advanced forms of various mental illnesses, a pattern which runs through movie after movie after movie. The other reason is that he turns up on a lot of these DVDs I get on the commentary track or some other of the special features, and I don't enjoy him or find what he has to say particularly interesting. He goes on too much for my taste about the lens being used or the panning and so on, a little bit of which is informative, but there is no humor or sense of mischief such as I like to leaven the technical presentation.


But this has nothing to do specifically with Raging Bull, which I think holds up pretty well as a work of cinema art. As far as deriving a thought exercise from the movie, I suppose the obvious question is, What are we supposed to think of LaMotta? He is possessed of a kind of demonic force that is relatively rare even among the more violent subcultures in America, which is the entire source of interest in him. Early on he is able to at least temporarily impose enough discipline on himself to become a top ranked prizefighter, yet he seems to give up even on this as he gets older, and has more need of it. He demonstrates an obnoxiously low level of intelligence, however I think we are supposed to feel a little sorry for him for this as such things are not ultimately one's one fault. He causes an awful lot of havoc however, and the people around him don't really seem to get much in return.



California Solo (2012)


I've adopted a new system for picking movies which is not completely an improvement, though it allows more opportunity for more recent films and others that may not have attained the highest rankings. For every title generated by the new system, which is a much more random process, I match it with one attained via the old system, to ensure that I still have a steady supply of the classics that I like.


California Solo, a recent production of modest distinction, is thus one of the first movies of this "new" type to appear in my lists. It features the actor Robert Carlyle, who appeared in the late 90s indie hits Trainspotting and The Full Monty. Here he is playing a former minor member of a moderately acclaimed 80s era British rock band who now lives in California doing agricultural labor, making music-related podcasts, and drinking a lot. He's also divorced and has a teenage American daughter whom he barely knows; and he is also facing deportation back to the U.K. because he gets arrested for drunk driving. While he has a certain amount of British rocker charm, his life is in the mess it's in because he drinks so much that no one can really help him. I suppose that is the most interesting part of the movie, I have rarely seen a depiction of alcoholism that is so thorough and illustrative of the pitiful state that it reduces a man to. A lot of movies that are supposed to feature the bleak side of alcoholism still induce me to want to join in and imagine that I could carry off that lifestyle if I put my mind to it. But this character I knew was beyond anything I would be able to pull off at this point of my life. I can't go that far, not that I want to obviously, but some people have compulsions to be so extreme in everything, their souls are so volatile. My soul seems to be entirely bland in that regard.
I think there was supposed to be a message for us about immigrants here because it's a fairly relatable Scotsman who is being put through the grinder with police, lawyers, and all the rest of it, and perhaps we'll be sympathetic to his desire to stay and equate that with the plights of people who aren't white and/or English-speaking and move or fortify our personal take on this issue. I tend to be of the mindset that seemed to me to be prevalent when I was growing up that if any individual country decided that they didn't want any particular foreign national camping out on their territory indefinitely that there was always a risk of deportation. Obviously the sentient part of the world has moved on from this way of thinking about the matter.



The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978)


Italian epic from the heroic era of European filmmaking. I had seen this a few years back on a poor quality VHS tape and written a post about it. In addition to the dark print on the much smaller television I had at that time, I seem to have been distracted on that occasion and not taken much away from the viewing. In the meantime I kept the movie saved in my Netflix queue along with about thirty other DVDs whose statuses are perpetually "availability unknown". However, as occasionally happens, one of these elusive discs will suddenly become available and turn up in my mailbox, in this instance the Criterion Collection release. So I had to see it again.


Of course my experience was much better this second time. I was evidently in a more relaxed state of mind, which helped, and the bigger screen and clearer print brought out much more of its grandeur and depth than I had been able to perceive the first time. There is a very well known scene in which a pig is slaughtered, and there was another episode again involving an animal, a diseased cow that has to be put down. As this cow is the only one that the family, who was exceptionally poor, owned, and they cannot sell the meat or anything due to its being diseased, it represents years worth of financial devastation. It would be hard to concoct a "pitch" of this movie describing what it's about, it's an accumulation of small incidents or strokes of ill or good luck that given the narrowness and rigidity of this world determine the courses or nature of people's lives. One boy is identified by the local priest as intelligent and is given the opportunity to go to school. A woman's husband dies and she has to take in laundry to support herself. Meanwhile the local lord of course has access to books and newspapers and even a record player on which he listens to recordings of Caruso while his peasants lead the same lives their forbears have led for hundreds of years, and this all taking place, as I noted in the earlier post, perhaps within the lifetime of the filmmakers themselves, or at least their parents, as the director (Ermanno Olmi) was born in 1931. He is still alive, by the way.


   


The Red Shoes (1948)
Much-loved Powell and Pressburger film about a ballet troupe and the artistic process intended as an infusion of beauty and color into a still dreary postwar England. There is a lot about it that I like, though I did not have the same response to it as I did to the earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by the same duo, which I thought was pretty much a masterpiece. However this does star favorite of this blog (and of Powell and Pressburger) Anton Walbrook as the ultra sophisticated and exacting director of the ballet company, and an English redhead (seemingly another P & P staple), Moira Shearer, who, I had not realized, was a real ballerina of some renown, as the unknown dancer who persuades the master Walbrook that she has what it take to dance the lead in his company. There are some pretty hard observations on the demands and sacrifices necessary to lead the life of the true artist, though these probably apply almost equally to being a true businessman, or a true scientist, or true tech innovator, or ace high school student, or almost anything requiring true excellence. Whether true art still occupies an elevated position relative to these in anyone's mind I am not sure.


There is of course the incongruity of the brilliant young composer and the brilliant young dancer in the film both being standard issue born and bred English people, given that these are arts in the English are not traditionally recognized as having a culture of greatness in, and even the English composers who have achieved some degree of fame (Britten, Vaughn Williams, Walton) I tend to think of as somewhat stodgy, respectable establishment types--sort of like the professor at the beginning of the Red Shoes who cribs from his student's work for his new composition--rather than the more fiery, intense younger men identified with this art on the continent. However, I find the optimism expressed by attributing the possibility of attaining great and noble heights where they have not traditionally been considered to have been reached to one's own people, as the phrase goes, to be admirable. This particular sort of confidence is not consistent with most peoples across the ages.


  

Iron Man 3 (2013)


Another selection by my new system, I figured that these movies were hits so they must have some kind of appeal, or fun to them, so I wasn't opposed to seeing it. I couldn't understand this at all, it made absolutely no sense to me. All the technology and machines that were constantly introduced were way over my head, explained in an impenetrable foreign language. I lost the plot about fifteen minutes in, around the point at which any resemblance to life on Planet Earth as I have always experienced it departed from the movie. If this is at all representative the mental world the mass of the population comfortably inhabits nowadays it no wonder I am so isolated and incapable of understanding anybody. Good God. Look at the cast they got for this thing. Gwyneth Paltrow? Not that I ever liked her particularly, but I thought she wanted to be a snob. Don Cheadle is in this too. I know, money, money, money. Not too many people in America can win a real following doing the kinds of movies I like, But some can.





Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Ancient Literature Review: John Dryden--"To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady Mrs Anne Killigrew"

The original idea when I read this poem nearly concurrently several months ago with the two recent works I just wrote about was that this would be a companion piece to the other one. I don't remember the intention now, but it was not to try to purposefully beat down the newer books by contrasting them with an old classical English poem. Believe it or not over the years I have come to feel bad, even guilty that I usually only like older things. I don't know why I should respond to them, since I have no more really to do with them than I do with all the wonders and glories of modern life that I don't relate to, for which reason I actually have a certain respect for them. The advantage an author like Dryden has with me is that I associate him with nostalgia for the time when all this literature was exciting and seemed to offer hope and promise everything else. Anyway, at the time I wanted to write something about this poem, but I don't remember what it was now.




The beautiful Anne Killigrew




The occasion of this ode of course is the death of a young lady otherwise of little interest to history. My only marginal comment on it is "amusing and fun". Yes, well it is those things. Are you telling me that such sequences as


"Whatever happy region is thy place,
Cease thy celestial song a little space;
Though wilt have time enough for hymns divine,
Since heaven's eternal year is thine."


when you consider that he is addressing a dead person, are not funny? Maybe they aren't. I laugh at inappropriate and poorly understood things a lot . How about this comment on one of Miss Killigrew's paintings, crowded with satyrs, flocks of sheep, Roman ruins and other trappings of the Classical world:


"So strange a concourse ne'ver was seen before
But when the peopled ark the whole creation bore."


How about this one, on a portrait the dead lady had executed on King James II:


"The scene then changed: with bold erected look
Our martial king the sight with reverence strook;
For, not content to express his outward part,
Her hand called out the image of his heart:"








I have written about Dryden and the decline of his reputation and influence over the centuries before, one of the reasons for this being the frequently absurd and consequently hilarious effect he has when writing about somber topics. His writing abounded in exuberance and bombast, which I have a taste for when done in a somewhat clever style. And perhaps there is some value in being familiar with this type of literature in one's youth, it does enhance the perception and color one's experiences in a generally positive way for a time. But there seems to be a limit to the period when it has this value if one is not moving in some positive direction oneself. If you are moving as your force these works can move with you in a kind of parallel or complement, but when you are not then the books will take on that air of stagnation and deadness, for you at least and for the people you would extol them to.


"Now all those charms, that blooming grace,
The well-proportioned shape, and beauteous face,
Shall never more be seen by mortal eyes:
In earth the much-lamented virgin lies!"





Thursday, August 24, 2017

New Literature Review: "Look" by Solmaz Sharif and "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

It's now about two months since I read these, but I am going to go ahead and finish the article as an exercise anyway.


Solmaz Sharif is a Turkish-born American poet of Iranian descent and Stanford faculty member whose debut collection, published when she was thirty, was nominated for the National Book Award. While from my standpoint it would appear from this outline that her adopted country has embraced her and honored her talent as much as could reasonably be expected her work is very much fueled by rage against the inane brute power of the American state, especially in its military operations and other meddling in the Middle East. Most, if not all of the poems are take-offs on particularly antiseptic definitions from the U.S. government's official Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. This is a clever enough conceit, though I probably would have confined my use of it to trying to make one especially powerful poem. Over the course of a series of poems it relies too much on sarcasm, spite, the denigration and really dehumanization of mainstream American culture, people, soldiers, etc. Who is the audience supposed to be, even in an aspirational sense? Who is her "us" that she is one of, or would be one of? This was published by the Greywolf press, and is in line with what seems to be their aspirations and mindset. It appears to be edgy, it is the work of what is still considered in the West an outside voice, at least in terms of ethno-cultural background, and it is the kind of thing a lot of influential people say they want, though did I mention that the author teaches at Stanford? Isn't that place teeming with the people who run the damn country and start all these wars? I believe Condeleeza Rice herself is a colleague on the faculty. Yet I don't sense that this is where her anger is really directed.





I concede that she is intelligent enough and her points about the problematic nature of American military power put to use in foreign countries are reasonable though within the usual range of complaints and accusations from the progressive globalist left. She comes off as somewhat incurably joyless (do I come off this way I wonder?) and seems to be one of these people who is interested in "controlling" language with an end in mind of rendering those she considers to be her enemies mentally impotent, which are not appealing qualities in a poet. I happen to be reading some Swinburne currently for the program on my other blog, and I came across a passage he wrote in an essay on Baudelaire that I found interesting, and which attitude certainly informs the spirit of much of traditional Western European poetry, whether it is correct or not. He says, in an article dated September 6, 1862, of contemporary French poetry, "A French poet is expected to believe in philanthropy, and break off on occasion in the middle of his proper work to lend a shove forward to some theory of progress. The critical students there, as well as here, judging by the books they praise and the advice they proffer, seem to have pretty well forgotten that a poet's business is presumably to write good verses, and by no means to redeem the age and remould society." This does not apply exactly to Solmaz Sharif, though the main impression her book made on me was not the artistic quality or spirit of her writing but the sense that this person hates America so much but is possessed somehow of moral authority over us, somehow possesses, or believes herself to possess, a culture, insight and moral righteousness that we lack.






Anthony Marra's well-received 2013 debut novel is set in Chechnya, mainly during the two wars with Russia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, though time shifts throughout the course of the book and there are flashbacks at least as far back as World War II. The book struck me as similar to another book by a contemporary American man I had read, David Benioff's City of Thieves, which is set during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The Eastern European/ex-Soviet Empire theme also recalls the acclaimed novel Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (set in Ukraine), which I have not read. The brother of one of my high school friends is coming out with a book set in old Jewish Prague that seems like it might make one of this school also. The three latter authors are Jewish. I am not sure whether Marra is or not, and the characters in his book were not Jewish that I picked up on, Chechens being generally Muslim I believe, though religious fervor was not a particularly strong force in the book. The heroine of the story, perhaps unsurprisingly given the way the smart contingent of this generation (the author was born in 1985) was brought up, was a dogged, serious, cosmopolitan, highly competent female doctor. There were times when I admired this book and thought there were flashes of talent, and certainly it is, like so much of what is written today, the work of an almost impeccably trained intelligence and professionalism. The characters didn't strike me as being very much like actual Chechens so much as what our meritocratic class imagines everyone whom they want to ennoble must be like. It was all a little too polite, I mean of course there were impolite people, but they were obviously bad, the murderous ones who had a lot of bad ideas besides. The sympathetic ones tended to have, even if they didn't realize it yet, manners and attitudes more in keeping with the right side of history and the globalist future.


As I say, this is not a bad book, but for the most part the war stuff hasn't stayed with me. The evocation of the typically dreary atmosphere, which is easier to imagine, has a little. The characters to me were more vehicles to represent certain kinds of people in certain ways desirable to people in influence rather than vivid people. Perhaps the world will develop (or deteriorate) in such a way that this type of character and their manner of thought will be attractive to reader types, or whatever evolves from them, fifty or sixty years from now, or two hundred as the case may be. Though that would surprise me.


I don't know if it is a full blown trend or not (though it seems like it to me), these books by younger American writers, primarily Jewish perhaps, set in far Eastern Europe, usually in wartime. I know younger writers in this country, especially men, have been discouraged for some time, if they are ambitious to succeed, from writing about themselves and their own lives if they come from any kind of conventional background, and taking an interest in other people and other ways of life. The Eastern European angle probably presents itself as a way to do this with people whose lives and interests are still somewhat relatable, though the two books I have read have an unmistakably modern American character--with happy endings where the protagonists end up safe and prosperous in the West--that, even when it is skillfully done, left me wondering what the real story or point that the writers want to get across is.


Also, as I think the popularity and success of Knausgaard with critics shows, ordinary life when taken up by someone who is a good writer and has an interesting mind can still yield books that people will want to read, even in the future if they find our time of interest, which many people will. I get the impetus behind discouraging everybody from following that course in the 1970s and 80s, but children's upbringings, especially those of the smarter and more privileged kids, over the last generation have changed dramatically enough that I want to read about them and see what these wunderkinder have to say.    


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.


Gambrinus


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.


Radegast

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.


Staropramen


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.


Krusovice

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.


Ferdinand


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

Off-Topic

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.