Monday, April 07, 2008

The Key To The Pennsylvania Primary

Yes, the New Hampshire primary is long gone, but Pennsylvania, my native state, has been getting a lot of media coverage as a result of the long interlude leading up to its contest. The other day I heard or read someone opine that the battle really came down to the division between the Starbucks Democrats, who represent the Barack Obama wing of the party, and the Dunkin' Donuts Democrats, whose champion is Hillary Clinton. But surely the political experts must know that the most influential and important voting bloc in Pennsylvania are the Wawa Democrats; about the courting of whom, however, I have read very little to date.

I believe I have written in here before about my efforts, during this period of my life when I generally have to live at a great remove from any scene or event that has anything to do with art or cosmopolitanism, to watch at least a couple of bona fide, universally agreed upon five-star-rated movies a month. This week's selection was Kurosawa's 2 hour, 40 minute 1980 epic set in 16th-century Japan, Kagemusha, or The Shadow Warrior. Despite the film's obvious beauty, provocative philosophical conundrums and masterful directory--and I mean this seriously--it took me three nights to get all the way through it, because, after a long day of the endless tedious tasks of ordinary life, I couldn't concentrate, or in some instances, stay awake, for longer than an hour on images and questions of the greatest interest to my soul. The idiosyncracies of my system of choosing films having led in recent weeks to a very heavy selection, including a movie version of an opera (Zefferelli's Otello), as well as several movies of the German New Wave of the 1970s (The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fitzcarraldo), I am starting to think that even this is a task that needs to be undertaken in earnest when one is younger, preferably in school. Serious movies, especially long ones from countries where people have complicated thoughts that they accustomed to tracing out both the origins and possible consequences of in great detail, are exhausting to watch. If one is going to take in a two-and-a-half hour Kurosawa or Werner Herzog film, it probably needs to be the main activity of the day, or at least of the day up to the point when one sees it (these movies especially were made to be seen on a big screen in a theater as well, but I am not going to be able to swing anything like that for years to come); one really needs to be rested, fresh, alert and undistracted I think to get much out of them.
For one thing, unlike in Bergman or highly stylized French movies that arise out of the set confinements of the theatrical tradition, the amount of purely mechanical and technical work that is visible on the screen in these films, in terms of the sets, the costumes, the vehicles, the massing of extras, etc, becomes exhausting to contemplate in itself. Herzog especially is fond of showing in meticulous detail how a rusted ship is rehabilitated to sail once more (and then decay again) or how a building or mechanism is constructed from scratch, from the cutting and clearing of the land, the making of the tools and the digging of the earth to the actual completion and functioning of the projects. Similarly when it's time to prepare a meal we often find that the pigs have not even been secured yet, let alone butchered and frozen, nor the grain for the day's bread harvested, all of which then proceeds to be shown. Human beings sweat and strain and become covered in dirt. These give a definite texture to the movies, but it is hard for me at least to maintain my concentration. Fitzcarraldo, for example, is a two and a half hour movie about a man whose dream is to build an opera house in the middle of Amazon jungle. This seems to me to be a desire only a German could even conceive of having (as well, perhaps, as the desire to then make an extravagant film on the subject), and why he does have it, and persists so doggedly in trying to bring it about instead of returning to the civilization whence this much-loved art form sprung and where it most thrives, I never really could get a firm sense of. In the end, after he fails to build the opera house, he has a full orchestra and company of singers in full evening dress and Puritan costumes transported in barges down to his ship for a sailing performance of I Puritani, which is actually is an opera about the Puritans, which I had not previously realized. Clearly there are a great many statements in this monumental undertaking about human industry, art, desire, appetite, relation to the earth, but they are presented in such an ambiguous manner that one really needs to be undistracted during the film and have some time to ruminate after the film for it all to sink in, which makes the style not a good match for our current era, when the most successful and important people don't really have any time at all to give to ruminating, nor seem to see much point in it if one doesn't intend to accomplish something concrete thereby.

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