Friday, November 17, 2017

Other Topical Matters

I do wish I could write these posts earlier in the day, when my mind is fresher and sunnier, and I think more reasonable, than it is at night. But I can't.


I have kept out of commenting on the sexual harassment mania, which I don't consider myself as having much to do with anyway. I'd be happy enough if other guys would stop doing it, not because I am especially virtuous, but because I am worried that for some men these harassing-type acts, which I am incapable of even mildly trying to engage in, kind of work, or at least have worked in the past, in the sense of achieving, or getting a lot closer to achieving what they want than men who are subject to the same lusts but are constrained to be appropriate and inoffensive on every occasion. Obviously the idea is that with very few and very special exceptions, the run of men should never even be thinking about these things in any work or ordinary social environment, especially ones that are supposed to be professional and serious. People presenting themselves as reasonable and enlightened seem to think this is a completely reasonable expectation to have, as are the base principles on which it has to be constructed. If this is not entirely right, it is obvious that under strong enough social pressure and coercion most people will outwardly at least conform to the expected behavior. Most people I am sure have always considered me to be a completely sexless and vitally dead person, if mostly an inoffensive one. Yet today even I was at the grocery store and when a woman I found attractive passed in front of me my brain as if involuntary launched into the intro to a 1970s disco song.









I caught myself fairly quickly and thought of this post I was working on and all of the scandals and how the juvenile, entitled mentality I was indulging in was the very scourge all the better people were so up in arms about and I suppressed the beat. At the same time I really do believe that the reasons I have never reached full adult emotional maturity, developed gravitas, was unable to or uninterested in pursuing a career with the necessary doggedness, all relate in some way to my never having been daring or aggressive in the pursuit of erotic desires.  Though I probably wouldn't bother doing it at my age now, there have been numerous occasions over the years where I wondered if I shouldn't be taking testosterone supplements or other drugs to increase my aggression, capacity for envelope-pushing, and all-around combativeness, qualities that, since I did not have them and was rarely able to get what I wanted not merely with women but in every important and contested area of life, seemed desirable to me.


I was almost certainly warped in these matters by the environment in which I grew up in the 1970s. I never witnessed anything explicitly sexual or, god forbid, was the subject of any abuse myself, but I certainly developed a sense, mostly from my father and his friends, that men who were brash and bright and alive enough were constant objects of feminine desire, and later on I suppose implicitly active participants in the great sensual arena. The scandalous thing to current sensibilities is that these men were all high school teachers. Several of them, including my father, ending up marrying or cohabitating with much younger former students, at least for a time. But this happened near the end. All through my childhood we constantly had my father's female students over at our house, frequently as baby sitters, but often for socializing. He was still pretty young at the time, as he is only 21 years or so older than I am, but he was married, and the talk with some of these girls struck me even as a young boy as pretty sophisticated and suggestive, much more so than anything I would have seen on television, and certainly more charged than any conversations he had with my mother, who was not a lively talker and endured these gatherings (which often included the other lecherous teachers and occasionally even a bright male student or two who my father liked) rather blankly. Many years after the fact it was suggested to me that the reason my father had rather suddenly moved to Maine in the mid-80s was spurred by a situation of this type that was no longer found tolerable, which I had been too self-absorbed to consider at the time, if I had even cared about it. By the early 90s he got out of teaching altogether and pursued several other careers with some success, as he has always been an energetic and forceful man, if many people would not consider him a decent or moral one. In temperament he actually has quite a bit in common with Trump, albeit obviously on a smaller scale.


It is now Friday night and I have to publish what I have. I have another tidbit to write about in relation to these cases but maybe I will address that in a shorter post. It involves one of the women who has come forward with allegations (one of the milder cases, for sure) who grew up in my neighborhood and went to my elementary school, and how what I know of how she and her family operated even 35-40 years ago colors my interpretation of her story, even though the guy accused was clearly in the wrong as far as it goes. Still, when I heard the name and read the accompanying story, it was not without a little eyeroll too.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Robert E Lee and Others

While I am not angry about the Confederate statues being taken down, I am not exultant about it either. The responses I have upon each new episode of desecration indicates that I would prefer on the whole that some of them remain standing. It is true that they belong more to the Old America, in which the Civil War was an outsizedly meaningful event in the formation of the national character and mythology, than to the one that is coming into being, but if you are one of those people who retains a strong identification with that old bad America in spite of all its deficiencies, these memorials can have an arresting and even eerily alive quality. I recall when I was in Atlanta, a city that does not have a lot of visible reminders of its pre-1970s self, I was wandering over the grounds of the state house and found half buried among bushes a stone with a memorial on it to a veteran of the Confederacy who later become a judge and had a distinguished career in politics lasting into the 1910s at least. It was pointedly noted at the end of the testimonial that this gentleman was the embodiment of the spirit of the Old South, at which point, if you didn't know it before, you knew this was a very, very bad man, racist to the core, complacent in the face of injustice and all the rest of it, yet to me there was a certain force emanating from this old bronze plate that was more powerful than that of the perfectly pleasant and prosperous modern city I had spent the previous several hours walking around in. The scale of the war, of the death and destruction, the absolute and seemingly necessary quality of it and the acceptance of this as a fact largely on both sides during and for many years afterwards are circumstances that I cannot dismiss that easily, even admitting that the perpetuation of race-based slavery was a motivation for some portion of the most dogged of the fighters. Yet in the aftermath these were largely welcomed back by the men they had fought against as fellow Americans, and several of their leaders admitted more or less by the same to the pantheon of American heroes. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, for example, an artifact of the early to mid 20th century (i.e. it figured prominently in the reference books of my childhood) that still exists, albeit in a neglected state, enshrined Robert E Lee as early as 1900 and Stonewall Jackson as late as 1955 (though the Hall has been largely forgotten since the 1970s, someone alerted New York governor Andrew Cuomo to the presence of the busts of the two Confederates there, which he has duly ordered removed, though I cannot tell if this order has been carried out yet).


Robert E Lee himself of course by 1950 had famously come to be considered by much of the establishment and book publishing class to be one of the most outstanding Americans of all time. Digging through some of my favorite childhood books that I have saved confirms that I and the many others who have weighed in on this were not deceived. Here is the opening paragraph of the Lee entry from the 1968 edition of the Illustrated World Encyclopedia, from which I have taken the reading list I record on my other blog:


"Robert Edward Lee is ranked among the greatest generals. He was one of the best-loved and respected men in American history. During the Civil War he commanded the Confederate army. Though defeated, he became a symbol of the highest courage and devotion."


Most of the books adopt a similar tone. If it were more convenient for me I would do a more extensive inventory of these testimonials, which are almost stupefying to read in the current environment. Here is another snippet from the IWE article, on the immediate aftermath of the surrender at Appomattox:


"When Lee returned from this historic meeting, his men met him with tears in their eyes. They all wanted to touch the hand of their beloved leader, and many men petted Traveller, Lee's big gray horse, which had been with him through the long and terrible years of the war."


While I know I am supposed to take a story like this and dismiss it as sentimental bull---t, even assuming there is as much as 10% in it that is remotely true, there is probably nothing more emotional, in the subdued post-cathartic sense, than the end of a massive war. People today--and I will even limit this to people whose backgrounds are somewhat similar to my own, since perhaps it is not reasonable to expect others to be moved by such scenes from American history--seem to me to be emotional in a histrionical sort of way, but not sentimental, and stories like this don't make much of an impression on them. The salient points that I absorbed about Robert E Lee in the course of my childhood go about as follows:


1. He was the greatest student in the history of West Point and was still held in reverence there as recently as the 1980s, in spite of the now oft-recited circumstance that he earned his greatest renown as the leader of an army opposed to the United States. I always had the impression that down to that time he had been the only cadet to graduate from the Academy without a single demerit, though there seems to be some dispute about that now.


2. His abilities and leadership in own time were as universally acknowledged and admired by significant men as those of almost anyone in recorded history. Most of the extant legends indicate that the men who served under him were unusually devoted to him even in defeat, and even when it was obvious that defeat was inevitable.


3. Though he is criticized endlessly by internet historians especially for his generalship skills, the consensus of him that I grew up with was that his was the most gifted military mind that this country had yet produced.


4. He was admired, in a similar manner to George Washington, with whom his life had many parallels, for his patrician bearing and manners. This is run down now because the social position and way of life out of which this arose is so bound up with slavery.


There are probably other things, but I'm going to end this post and move on. Maybe I will come back to it at some point. After all, I can't pretend that I am doing anything more than writing down musings and trying to get through this part of my life, if I ever get through it.


On the whole I am not persuaded that many of the qualities for which Lee was admired were not in fact admirable, and certainly I don't think he comes off terribly unfavorably in comparison with most contemporary leaders and powerful people. I do believe these latter are genuinely against slavery as a social institution, not that that is a particularly risky or otherwise inconvenient position to hold in present society.


For all their faults, the old books seem to have the intention, at least where the likes of me are concerned, of wanting their readers to grow up to be somewhat strong and successful men, the future backbone of a great and proud nation. Whatever role the correctors of the historical record envision people like me fulfilling in the future, it is clearly not as rousing or inspiring as this.




I couldn't even get to Stonewall Jackson, who was an interesting case himself. He was renowned for a piety that seems to have approached biblical intensity, yet he was a master of the arts of war. Of course the link between fanatical religious belief and a talent for military endeavors has a long history, one that seems to be underappreciated among the modern educated classes. The professed hatred of these people that has become fashionable I guess seems to be heartfelt enough in some cases. I should like to have it, since it appears to be empowering in those who do have it, but I don't seem to be able to be pushed to such an extreme position if I haven't started on that way from an early age.




I am going to try to get something up every Friday at least, even if it is only a fragment...  

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.