Friday, January 28, 2011

R. Browning--"Porphyria's Lover" (1834) Like most of my recent posts, this one has been slow going--at this rate I'll be lucky to get up 60 for the whole year. I don't want to skip Browning, but at the same time I don't want to be a pedant, in this instance an especially unneeded one, as Browning is one of those poets--of which the group is not a large one, especially in his age--who is widely respected even by the more exacting classes of critics for whom the demonstration of a high level of development of the faculty of intellection is a minimum requirement for works to have any value. That he ultimately falls short of the very highest levels of greatness, these schools--perhaps out of sympathy orignating in their own historical circumstances--attribute almost as much to the general, too-great-for-anyone-to-overcome intellectual poverty of the literary culture of his time as to glaring personal deficiencies. In English literature, especially since 1800, such intellect is nearly as rare a commodity as artistic talent. Dickens and Blake I think may qualify as creative geniuses but the works of both men are both generously populated with conclusions and incongruities that are unsettling to a rigorous and rational thinker. Wordsworth, Tennyson and Byron are often dismissed out of hand by severe thinkers, sometimes with a devastating disparagement of their inadequate cognitive capacities. Shelley, while cleverer than this trio, is not always convincing that he understands many or even most of the important implications that the ideas he puts forth might suggest. Browning, as far as I can make out, gives the impression that he has thought through, at a truly serious level of rigor, the significance of the words and images he has made his poems out of; that he understands what usages of language and problems of human thought and action are of interest to highly mentally advanced people; and also, that he never relapses into egregrious weakness. His is the sort of mental composition that tough thinkers can admire and appreciate even when finding fault in the result. I have never written about Browning before. I had read a few things of his previously, but for whatever reason had not gotten much into him. Perhaps I am growing into his style, since I was more impressed with him, as well as more easily transported by his work out of the mundanities and distractions that are increasingly having an effect even on me, and to rise above which is the main reason that I have not given up literature and reading altogether yet, than I was able to experience before. It seems to me that I probably was not reading, or perhaps I should say, scanning the poems properly. Browning's poems especially strike me as being like short popular musical compositions, with satisfying hooks and fluid, rapid movement from image to image and action to action, and if you pick up the rhythm and ride along with it, the poem will carry you along and penetrate your senses with remarkable clarity, but if you do not do this and try to break the meaning of the words down line by line you will feel as if you are stumbling or forever outrunning yourself. As I say, I think this was my problem with Browning before. A rare instance where my researches misled me. I thought that this location was Browning's birthplace site, but it turned out to be the site of a cottage he lived in as a youth. "Porphyria" is an early, gothic-inspired work. It is probably not as intellectually interesting as his more mature poems, but its poetic technique is fabulous. First of all, the poem is in tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, or feet) and has an ironclad ababb rhyme throughout its sixty lines. This makes for a brisk pace and tight little lines in which to fit the rhymes. This is achieved by using almost exclusively commonplace, one and two-syllable words, arranged, also almost exclusively, in commonplace, gramatically correct simple sentences which move the narrative. There are very few instances of poetic as opposed to ordinary diction in the whole of the poem. See the first five lines for example: "The rain set early in tonight, The sullen wind was soon awake, It tore the elm-tops down for spite, And did its worst to vex the lake: I listened with heart fit to break." Other than perhaps 'early in' and 'listened with heart fit to break', which may even have been expressions in regular English speech in the 1830s, the parts of this could be written out in a prose paragraph or spoken as if naturally. The fertile possibilities of the language are almost--when one thinks of the Bible, one is tempted to says always--more clearly illustrated by an exercise like this than in a more obviously strenuous and elevated effort that is clearly beyond the abilities of most people to comprehend, let alone attain to. I should add that the subject and resolution of the poem which I am praising so exuberantly are quite gruesome, and no doubt the bouncy tempo, blizzard of rhyme, and unaffected language of the poem are intentionally ironic given the persona of the narrator. I admit I am not certain what the greater intellectual or moral point of the poem's story was supposed to be. It may be a parody of certain gothic/romantic conventions that dominated the poetic scene which Browning came of age in and which he would move forward from though never entirely leave behind. It may be also be a carrying of that same romantic ethos to its furthest logical extreme, which his reputation suggests Browning would not be afraid to do. Browning's old neighborhood has gotten a little tough over the years. One of the minor themes of this site is my growing conviction that I am probably never going to go to Paris (or anywhere else in Europe, but Paris seems to be the stand-in for the entire continent) again, in the foreseeable future due to family responsibilites, and in late middle and old age because it seems there would be little point in it unless my mind can recover somewhat to what it was formerly. I had a dream the other day that I was there, just me and my four little boys, but of course I was not really there. A boardwalk such as one would find at the beach was the stand-in for the central area of the city, a street with manicured lawns and 1940s era houses that looked suspiciously like Pelham or Mamaroneck outside of New York I believed to be the Fauborg St Germain, a domed building in the distance that I excitedly identified as the Pantheon and exhorted the children to follow me to see turned out to be a fire station, and beyond the fire station was a train track overgrown by weeds and lined with piled of broken bricks and railroad ties and white plastic bags of unidentified agriculture product that looked like somewhere in the southern United States. This too I thought was still Paris, it was just that we had gotten lost and were on the outskirts of the town (this is what the unsuburbanized outskirts of the cities in Eastern Europe looked like). Eventually we went to a restaurant where of course no one was speaking French or where any remotely French food was being served and the waitress gave my son a Dover coloring book about three 19th century French composers I had never of (and who I don't think really exist) who worked in collaboration and were supposedly the most famous composing team in the history of classical music. It probably would have gone on, but at this point I was mercifully awakened. I attributed this dream to the combination of something I was reading about Paris the previous day and my disappointment at not being able to take my annual trip to Florida this year because my work won't give me the time off (I can only go during school winter vacation week, as is the case with pretty much anyone who has children, so this week is highly coveted). This is not the greatest year to have to stay home either. I like snow, but it is getting to the point now where outside of the tunnels that have been dug out to get to the cars, we're pretty much immobilized, not only at home, but in town. My older children have skiing lessons at their school and go snowtubing and all of that, but the little ones can't really do much when the entire world is covered with powder twice as high as they are.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Movies 1942-1950

Love them and extol them as my favorite era in cinematic history though I do, I actually have not even seen that many of the classic films of these years. Today's group includes three I had never heard of previously and another that I had confused with something else. So I was pretty excited at the likelihood of discovering at least one unsuspected pleasure in the bunch, which kinds of pleasant surprises of course grow more infrequent with the inexorable advance of age.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

This is the one I had confused, thinking of Blackboard Jungle, the famous film about 50s juvenile delinquents who came to school chewing gum, flashing switchblades, and generally not bearing a mindset conducive to effective learning (Thank goodness we have gotten those problems under control). The one is a film noir directed by the legendary John Huston, with whose work however I am just beginning to become acquainted. Indeed I am just starting to distinguish his career from that of fellow legend (and John) John Ford, with whose work I am even less familiar, though the latter's legend is if anything even bigger at the highest levels of cinephilia than Huston's is--doubtless at this very moment some avant-garde Japanese director with pink hair that I have never heard of is declaring with complete sincerity that John Ford is one of the major influences on his work. Back to Huston, last year I watched and reported briefly on The African Queen, which came out the year after this, and which I was entertained but not much absorbed by. Some years ago I saw 1948's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I remember, albeit hazily, as more substantial, and probably great. I also saw his 1987 version of Joyce's The Dead even more years ago, which at the time however did not strike me as adding anything to the original story. My feelings on The Asphalt Jungle are again somewhat mixed--I have yet to make that connection with Huston's peculiar vision, or genius, that makes one an especially devoted admirer.

As noted, The Asphalt Jungle is another film noir, of which genre we have been on a bit of a run these past few years. Huston also made The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, which I have not seen but which I take to be in the film noir spirit, though as they featured actors who were A-list stars at the time and had bigger budgets and promotion they are sometimes not included among the classic B-movie, harshly lit, ugly mug strain of classic film noir. This one had lots of ugly mugs and no established superstars (though it did feature several people who later on became stars, including, most notably, Marilyn Monroe), so it is often considered the most purely noir picture Huston made. Film noir story arcs all being largely the same, the style, characterization, idiosyncratic plot elements, sex appeal of the women, etc, etc, of this family of movies are especially important. These elements in Asphalt Jungle are not terrible, but they are not on the level of Double Indemnity or The Third Man, both of which have more evocative settings and sophisticated characters (and consequently dialogue), somewhat more developed criminal schemes, more interesting clothes and other props, as well as (to me) more appealing women. Of course both of those screenplays were written by celebrated literary authors (Raymond Chandler and Graham Green), a connection I had previously failed to make, and the significance of which clearly shows in these instances.
I have written before that I am not the greatest Marilyn Monroe fan who ever lived. She plays what most people would think of as a prototype Marilyn Monroe character in this movie. She is 23 or 24 here, and even I her detractor grant that she is eminently squeezable. There is nothing else in her persona here that particularly excites me however. The humor and warmth that she allegedly brought to her later celebrated roles is yet in evidence. She and the other main female character, played by Jean Hagen, are perhaps illustrative of a general transition in the depiction of womanhood as the 40s moved into the 50s, certainly in the realm of film noir. Both of the women in this are rather passive, weak and stupid compared to their mid-40s noir counterparts, either the famed femme fatales, who were hard, scheming, usually unsentimental agents of destruction, or, if they were virtuous, intelligent and forceful enough to assert their personalities with some effect against the evil that threatens to engulf them on all sides. The change I am describing is probably exaggerated here--from what I have seen and heard of Huston, he was a man's man whose genius did not lie in his depictions of women or male/female relations--but I most people have always sensed that something of the sort did broadly occur.

Sterling Hayden, who I just saw recently further on in his career in The Godfather (he's the Irish cop who gets it in the Italian restaurant), was the lead in this. He was six foot five, which is unusually tall for a movie star. He's not one of my favorites either. It's not clear whether he is really kind of dense, or if he just got assigned to play a lot of dense characters. In any event, he played them perhaps a little more literally densely than was called for.

There is a trope in the movie that each of the characters in on the heist has a weakness that ultimately leads directly to his downfall. I thought this was a rather hokey element that didn't really add anything to the movie, especially the Sam Jaffe character, who is the mastermind of the operation but is supposed to be an incurable old lecher who gets mesmerized watching a girl dancing to a jukebox in the kind of roadside tavern I am always searching for in my own travels and ending up shuffling into Friendly's twenty minutes before closing time after several fruitless hours of searching. I am coming off as down on the movie, but it has its good points, and it is fun to talk about. It did not grab me as great however.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

I am going a little out of order due to the way the pictures arranged themselves in the loading.

There is a considerable amount of awesomeness in the myriad parts of this movie, which, if they do not perfectly cohere into a completely staggering whole, still make for a uniquely great film after a manner. This was made in the midst of the war and is nominally a propaganda movie, but it is more sophisticated than the usual specimens of that genre. Colonel Blimp was a newspaper caricature which was supposed to represent the chauvinistic, tiger-hunting, war and empire-loving, intellectually obtuse, conservative element of society whose attitudes were relics of the increasingly remote Victorian era--i.e., he was not conceived with flattery in mind. The irrepressible, up to date, and rather brilliant filmmaking duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose work I am encountering for the first time, decided to make this restless and generally likeable (at least to people with some affection for the old British ruling classes), though frequently clueless creature the hero of their wartime epic; and it worked. The story, after a jazzy opening sequence in the (1943) present which is repeated and clarified at the end of the movie, finds the aged though still commisioned Colonel Blimp (who actually is a general and is named Clive Candy in the film) in the Turkish bath at his London club, where in the midst of a tussle with a young whippersnapper who has come to play a prank on him, we are transported back to the same scene 40 years earlier, when Blimp is a dashing young officer. Colonel Blimp, by the way, is played by the superb actor Roger Livesey, who was apparently a last second replacement for Laurence Olivier. Olivier's presence is not missed, which should give an idea of how good Roger Livesey is. We then follow Blimp/Candy through the ensuing forty years, which include numerous scenes of interest including a rollicking beer hall and a duel in imperial Germany, an abbey in World War I France, a dinner party at Blimp's house in 1919 with a (now) ridiculous gallery of pompous guests with important titles, and a visit to the underground bunker housing the BBC's wartime studios. Gaps, or, as Christopher Fry more elegantly put it in one of the bonus materials, lacunae, in the story, usually the periods between wars, are marked by a striking device which is remarked upon by every commentator on the film, in which the heads of the victims of Blimp's hunting expeditions throughout the British Empire appear, following the sound of a rifle shot, mounted upon the wall in his study, accompanied by a placard with the name of the country and the year of the kill. The study was actually looking like a pretty cool place to hang out by the latter stages of the movie.

This is a Criterion Collection film, and as such features a pretty good commentary, by Martin Scorcese and Michael Powell, the director of the picture himself. Powell died in 1990 at age 84, so his portion was evidently recorded some time back. He sounds quite aged in it. Scorcese's part is a little too film geekish for me, but Powell's is most enjoyable. Though he refers to his origins as middle class several times in the course of the monologue, he comes across as one of those old timers who was deeply educated and immersed in the European art tradition from an early age--perhaps that is an upper middle class signifier. While there is some technical movie directing talk, he also talks a lot about his Savile Row tailor, the fashions in ladies' hats through the early part of the 20th century, the etiquette of duelling in Germany, and things like that. When discussing actors, he noted that Deborah Kerr (pronounced "car") was intelligent, which was unusual in that profession. He did not say this in a perjorative way however, as we have being accustomed to take such statements, but as if there were numerous qualities of equal value that a good actor, or a good person, could possess. He clearly held the abilities of Richard Livesey, to whom he attributed the quality of unusual honesty, in high regard, though he did not praise him as intelligent, this the more pointedly as the discussion of his honesty came within five minutes of the comment about actors generally not being intelligent. There is a part at the end where he lucidly explains the impressiveness with which the Austrian actor and refugee from Nazism Anton Walbrook--I can't believe he wasn't intelligent--carries off a long speech, in English, a foreign language for him and in a different tradition, which makes Scorcese's and all contemporary people's gushings and conversation on interesting matters seem utterly inarticulate.

This movie was made in gorgeous Technicolor. On one of my old posts I wrote that I had never seen a British film in color prior to 1965 or so, and was only aware of the 1951 festival-commissioned The Magic Box, which for some reason is not available in North America, as having been shot in it. Evidently British Technicolor films constitute an entire genre of cinephile fetishism. Scorcese, in the most interesting observation he made on the movie, noted that British Technicolor films were widely considered more beautiful than Hollywood's offerings of the same, because the muting effects of the continually overcast English light made for a more delicate and striking effect, and after seeing this, I am inclined to believe him. Why don't they make movies in Technicolor anymore? Is it expensive? Because when done well, it looks better than whatever kind of color treatment is usually used now.

Deborah Kerr, best known among us for such 50s Hollywood classics as From Here to Eternity, The King and I, and An Affair to Remember, was, for lack of a better word--I am too tired to come up with one at the moment--a revelation to me in this movie. She played three different girls, one in 1902, one in 1918-19, and one in 1943. Her 1919 persona was pretty fetching--I like the style of that time too--but the 1943 version of her as Colonel Blimp's driver just about laid me out. It's the hair. There is no amount of exposure to 1943-44 women's hairstyles that is possible to weary me of them--and if you can believe it there are many creditable people who think those were the absolute worst years for women's hair in the whole 20th century!

One of the sites which had posted this picture noted that redheads look best in technicolor.

To further emphasize my point about the style and spirit of the babes of World War II (Anglo-American version) the women drivers employed by the British military have been much celebrated in literature and movies. One has to think they contributed not a little to the triumph. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but I feel like this is the 3rd or 4th time in the last few years I have come across this. The Pamela Flitton character in Anthony Powell, although not a sweetheart, entered the story as one of these drivers. She inspired fanatical, even insane, love in dozens of men, was vigorous, and certainly was not intimidated by the Nazis. I cannot remember any other examples right off hand--I believe Evelyn Waugh's characters in Brideshead were driven about by men, though of course Julia was a great motorer in the 20s. I will definitely be alert to it in the future.

Among the many delights of this film, there are a couple of brief sequences shot from a moving car on the real streets of 1943 London, the area around Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Berkeley Square, the street that runs along the north end of the park, which I believe is Bayswater (evidently this neighborhood was spared major bomb damage). If you have been reading about between-the-wars London, and especially this part of it, all your life, but have never seen any vintage color film of it, it is practically breathtaking. The traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, in the movie, is probably artificially much reduced from what it normally would have been, even in wartime, but the real reason the effect is so gorgeous of course is because of the absence of all the postwar architecture which mars and bludgeons the charm of most of the city now. If I could freeze architecture at any point in history and spend the prime years of my life in that environment, I would probably actually pick 1928, but 1943 would still be acceptable (John Ruskin would have gone with 1418).

This movie had the coveted weekend before Christmas slot on my schedule this year. It was a winner.

Letter to Three Wives (1949) This movie has an unorthodox construction and overall feel to it which are interesting though not exhilirating. It was directed by Joseph Mankewicz, whose hand we saw at work recently in another unorthodox picture, the later Sleuth, and who is probably best-known for All About Eve. I had not paid much attention to his career before, but I suppose I should be alert to him whenever he pops up from now on. The premise is that the three wives, who are all friends in the prosperous small city where they live, and not only they themselves are friends but their respective husbands are all friends with all the other wives and husbands as well though all are from disparate backgrounds and have widely disparate careers and interests, are spending Saturday chaperoning a bunch of girl scout types on an outing which requires an hour long ride each way in a ferry, after which they will all be meeting up with the husbands for some big dinner dance that is taking place at the country club. This apparently is how people lived at the time. As the boat is about to leave for the outing, a letter is delivered to the three wives as a group from a fourth woman, a glamorous type who also formed part of their social circle, informing them that she is running off with one of their husbands, the unlucky victim to learn her fate when she arrives at the club that night and her husband is nowhere to be found. Each of the wives in turn then flashes back to scenes from the marriage looking for clues/proofs as to whether her husband is more or less likely the scamp who is absconding. Some of these episodes are better than others. Kirk Douglas, at that time not well-known, has a rather ridiculous role as one of the husbands, a culture-loving but impecunious English teacher whose wife outearns him writing melodramas for the radio--the other two guys are a lawyer from an already wealthy family and the owner of a chain of successful department stores, so his ego is getting battered from all sides. He goes on a rant against the low quality of radio serials as opposed to Shakespeare and Mozart, which is rather bizarre in that this screenplay is certainly nearer in substance and ambition to a radio soap opera than it is to the tragedies of Aeschylus. The third episode, featuring the courtship and marriage of the furniture magnate, who is rich but rough-edged, with the equally rough-edged but socially ambitious stockroom girl who lives five feet from the railroad tracks, probably on the wrong side of them, is the best one.

This is the kind of movie where the man will be sitting in a chair reading the paper, on Saturday afternoon, wearing a tweed jacket and a tie, and his wife will come in and scream at him, "Aren't you going to get dressed? The company will be here in an hour."

I am going to talk about the actresses a little, because I like to do that.

Jeanne Crain is the most obviously my type, wholesome, All-American, still has good 40s hair even though the fashion was starting to change by '49. She is supposed to be from a farm in Kansas or somewhere is this movie--the other women have to teach her how to dress and put on make-up. Due to the stress of her new social condition for which she is unprepared, she tends to drink too much at the country club parties and make a wholly adorable spectacle of herself (This is bad?). Other Notable Roles: Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) & State Fair (1945). My Love Level: High. 9.89 or so. I would like to see a little more distinctive personality or mental acuity, but the way she played the drinking, I have to say, was a major turn-on.

Here we have Linda Darnell. She's the one who married the furniture store owner. I was not initially too excited about her but she does a good job in the movie and she grew on me a lot as being sexy, the way she talked and smoked, mannerisms, etc. I wonder whether actresses were coached more in these kinds of nuances more in the past or if they simply had more of these alluring qualities to begin with. This woman knew in what forms and dosage to dole them out. Other Notable Roles: My Darling Clementine, The Mark of Zorro (1940) My Love Level: Pretty high, but guarded. She's still got that tough exterior, and don't believe she won't use it. 7.93.

I don't have a picture of Ann Sothern, the third wife--Kirk Douglas's--in the film. She had a platinum dye job that made her look 10 years older than probably actually was. When the camera panned in you could tell that she still had good skin, a youthful glow in her eye, and a nice bosom. I don't remember much else specific about her voice or speech, though in the movie she was supposed to be the smart one of the group. Other Notable Roles: Panama Hattie? Crazy Mama? My Lovel Level: 7.24. Good-looking enough, but I need to see something more.

The love levels for Deborah Kerr in Blimp, by the way: 1902 Deborah--9.68. 1919 Deborah--9.90. 1943 Deborah--10.00.

Roxie Hart (1942) A short movie that was a remake of the 1927 silent farce Chicago! about a dancing girl who advances her career by pretending guilt in the murder of her husband's mistress and basking in the attendant publicity. The story has been successfully revived on at least one occasion since. I thought this version was essentially silly, though it was not a chore to get through and like most Hollywood productions from the 40s had some period touches, such as the scenes at the bar, the juke box, the setting for the courtroom scene, that were able to hold my peculiar interest. It had quite a cast. Ginger Rogers, in a non-dancing role, was the star, though without Fred she really is too brassy and low class for my liking. The great Adolphe Menjou, who was actually from Pittsburgh, puts in an appearance as Roxie Hart's celebrity lawyer. William Frawley, who went on achieve fame as Fred on I Love Lucy, plays the bartender. Phil Silvers, the TV personality of the 50s and 60s, is also among the players, though I don't really know who he is, the reruns of his TV show not having been in heavy rotation in my youth. The director is William Wellman, who, while he doesn't seem to be legendary, made a lot of films of which the titles are recognizable to me. As I have not seen any of them however, I will refrain from forming any kind of thesis about him until some future time.

The final shot, which involves a car with about seven children in it, in their 1942 kiddie outfits, none of them in car seats, several sitting in front and one sitting on the driver's lap, with the announcement that a bigger car will be needed next year--I thought it was charming.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Miscellenea #2

College Football Recap

A little late--the holidays, which in the early part of one's life are a two or even three week holiday, are now almost too busy to properly enjoy--but it has become a mini-tradition here at the site. Once again I did not actually watch any games, and I wouldn't be able to recognize any of the season's celebrated players if they came into my office to discuss the article, but then my review has not much to do with any actual play on the field, but with the various trends that struck me in paying cursory attention to the sport, mainly via radio and the internet, over the last 4 months.

1. This nonsense of playing numerous bowl games all the way to January 10th, including longtime New Year's staples such as the Sugar, Orange and Cotton bowls, causes me the sort of mild displeasure that I however fear repeated too many times will eventually take a toll on my continued enthusiasm for such aspects of life as I formerly enjoyed. The season should be completed by midnight on January 2nd (local time of wherever the last game is being played). Though I rarely watched them even when I had time, I associate the bowl season with the holidays and the festive atmosphere of the 2 or so weeks between December 15th and New Year's Day, after which this festive atmosphere is really over, and college football should be too. I also despise the slotting that they have now to determine the matchups, e.g., where the 7th place team from the Big 10 plays the 4th place team from the SEC West and all that. Can it get any lamer? And while we're at it, whatever happened to the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston? That, along with the still existant Sun Bowl in El Paso at either end of strange and far-off Texas, were the 2 pillars of football on New's Year Eve, at least when it fell on a weekday.

2. It would be nice if the northeastern schools could be a little more competitive on the national level, though most people in these parts who follow the sport believe that all of the top southern teams, and a fair number of the lousy ones, cheat shamelessly and don't even make a pretense of offering their players even any trappings of an education, which absolves us from being too much chagrined by their superiority in football.

3. Another really bad trend is the fervor for firing coaches who are actually pretty good because they aren't contending for the national title. Two schools in the east which I thought were fairly sensible, West Virginia and Maryland, just did this. West Virginia's coach was 28-11 over 3 years--a winning percentage over .700, which traditionally has been enough to at least stay employed--when he was sent packing, and Maryland's coach, though evidently not a spectacular enough recruiter, seems to have been regarded as an intelligent and sound teacher of the game, which is the kind of person who I feel like used to be appreciated a little bit more in this society, especially by universities, though perhaps I am deluded. He was also coming off an 8-4 season. No one wants these days to come off as espousing mediocrity, which is being ever redefined, if not upwards, at least so as to encompass more and more people who would formerly have been regarded as generally competent and successful, but churning through even coaches who post decent records every 3-5 years because the program is not in the top 5, or top 10 nationally, seems like a foolish policy at most places, given that nearly all the colleges that are in the top 10 in football are, or quickly become, more or less insane in the pursuit or maintenance of this success, and to my mind usually lose a considerable portion of their institutional dignity in the process.

4. My favorite team, Penn State, on the other hand, had a decidedly mediocre year, going 7-6, 4-4 in the league, and being essentially non-competitive whenever they played anybody who was remotely good. In recent years they have been treading water by usually beating the teams that are worse than they are--a bad loss to Illinois this year was an exception to this general rule--while they have not won a game in which they were a substantial underdog in years--maybe not since they have joined the Big 10. The recent collapse of Michigan to the bottom ranks of the league has been a godsend, though on the other hand Iowa seems to have replaced them for the time being as a team that Penn State is no longer well-coached enough to beat.

Though Joe Paterno is now 84 and obviously is not a front rank coach anymore, I am glad that his situation is still being handled with some delicacy, though really how much longer can they let him go on? About 10 years ago--maybe 2002-03, when he was merely 75-76--the team went 4-8 and 3-9 in back to back seasons, and he survived that, which no one else could have done--and which I doubt even he would have been able to do had the climate been what it is now--and he still survives, and the team has come back to winning fairly consistently, and even has won the Big 10 twice, which level of success I have extolled elsewhere as such that supporters of teams should find acceptable provided the character of the program does not detract too terribly from the that of the university overall, which at Penn State has for the most part I believe been the case. However I can't help but think once he got into his mid-70s that they kept letting him stay on figuring it will only be another 2-3 years and then he'll retire. It's already been 10, and I'm sure they're still thinking there's no way he's going to want to be out there in 3 years when he's 87. We'll see. Nonetheless I will miss him when he finally does go. I have no doubt can be and has been ornery over the years, and probably let drop some hint that he knows and believes that football is ultimately more important than academics, but I have always sensed that he belongs to an distant enough generation that he has some conception of what a university's ideal mission really consists of, and may even actually believe people such as English and history professors have some value and are entitled to a certain amount of respect, even from football coaches. Perhaps the Nick Sabans and Jimmy Johnsons of the world have something of this attitude and conception and I impugn them unfairly, though their way of expressing their feelings does not make them entirely clear. And really, how could they? Big time coaches get paid millions of dollars a year, and if they do really well generate even more, while history and philosophy departments barely bother to hire full time scholars and pay them a respectable wage anymore. I know the basketball coach at Duke, Kryszewski, projects himself as respecting scholarship, though I think what he respects and wishes to align himself with, like most contemporary successful people, tends towards outward proofs of success and importance on something approaching his own scale, which is natural in the environment in which he moves, and has been moving for the last 25 years. So much of the society has adopted this corporate mentality of interpreting and measuring one's own life and that of other people that we have largely come to take it for granted as the natural order of the world. But there was much of our national life where this was not always the case, or at least not entirely the case, and due in great part to the current circumstances, will be so again in the foreseeable future.

5. I was rooting for Boise State to make it into the championship game, though I never believed the system would allow them to get in unless about ten unlikely stumbles by other teams gave the voters as well as the computers no other option. The fervency of the outrage from various fan bases--mainly in the SEC it seemed--regarding their being ranked #3 much of the season and seemingly threatening to qualify for the title was ridiculous. People need to lighten up. They were a good story, they've only been pretty much killing everyone one who they can get to play them for about 10 years (their record since 2002 is 106-12), and they have earned the chance to play in some meaningful big games to show what they can do. One of the knocks against them is that they wouldn't be able to endure the grind of a major conference schedule. First of all, none of the major leagues is going to invite them in--believe me, they would accept the invitation--so holding this circumstance against them, while it may be true, seems an invalid reason for excluding them from championship consideration if they continue to go 13-0, 12-1 every year and beat their opponents by an average score of 50-7. They tried to upgrade their conference this year and all of the decent teams in it (TCU, BYU, Utah) promptly left. I think they would have been an above .500 team in the Pac-10 or Big-12 most of the last few years--they have acquitted themselves well against some of the better teams in the BCS conferences during that time, and their home field would be an uncomfortable trip even for the power schools with the exception of historical level juggernauts, like some of the USC teams of the mid-2000s or some of the more explosive Oklahoma teams. I think they could even go .500 in the SEC, certainly this year, though of course there is no reason why they would ever be in the SEC, seeing as they are in Idaho. No, the recruiting base is not as deep, and they do not have access to as many blue chip prospects. But the regional nature of the sport--that the team from Idaho with all the players nobody has ever heard of turns out to be pretty good after all--is one of the things that makes it interesting.

I have much more miscellenea than this, though seeing as it has taken 5 days to get this out, I will save the rest for future posts. There is always time and opportunity for that, and if what I have to say on these subjects is insignificant next week, then it would have been just as insignificant today, and better off not done.

I do promise that this will be my last sports topic for a while. I am burned out on it. I used to wonder if somehow my life could not be wholly complete if the Philadelphia Eagles never won the Super Bowl, but I think it's time to start approaching my plans for the remainder of my time here under the assumption that that is not going to happen, and to seek the meaning and wholeness that this looked to event was supposed to convey to one of the voids in my spiritual development elsewhere.

Monday, January 10, 2011

John Keats Tourism Extravaganza

Part I: London

John Keats was born in a house approximately at this site, 85 Moorgate, slightly northeast of St Paul's Cathedral. His father had, I believe, a kind of stable there which was his business. The plaque is placed quite high up on the building that is there now, as you can see, and it was hard to get a picture of it with my amateur photography skills that would be readable (as was the case with the Pope plaque).

The ground floor of the building of the Keats birthplace site was at the time, and perhaps still is, a slightly more swanky than ordinary pub/restaurant. At the time (this was in '96) it was way too expensive for me to be tempted to go in, even for just a drink. The beer was around 4 or 5 pounds a pint, which was a fortune in those days, and the meals started at around 14 or 15, which came out to $20-22, which would still be almost a special occasion for me now.

This picture of me is pretty unflattering. When you're already 26 and hitting Europe for basically the 1st time with any degree of having a clue of what you are doing, you've got to bring more game and purpose to the excursion than this figure in the photograph is demonstrating.

The one consolation is that the picture of Keats is perhaps even more ridiculous and a disservice to the dignity of its subject.

I thought I should throw in another London picture while we are in the neighborhood, as we are soon departing. I never made it to the main Keats attraction in town, the Georgian house up in Hampstead where he lived for a time as a young man while active as a poet, and which is now a museum dedicated to him.

Part 2: Rome

As much as I love Britain, and could much more easily live there than in Italy, there is nothing like visiting the latter for a holiday, at least in the off-season. Just looking at these rather pedestrian pictures calls up in the memory myriad ideas and images, of light, of air, of ancient times, of medieval times, of fairly recent but no less irrevocably lost times, of things believed in and held dear that were solid and palpable there but lost or forgotten in the course of 'regular' existence.

Keats died in the pink house in the rear that is being helpfully pointed out by this handsome girl, which abuts the famous Spanish Steps. There is now a small museum dedicated to Keats and Shelley, and to a lesser extent other English poets with a connection to Italy, on the second floor.

In case you like to read the inscriptions on the sides of buildings--some people do. How about the Baroque scrolling on those windows?

Inside the museum. There isn't much to it--I do remember that they had a supposed lock of Milton's hair, of all things (it was blond). I liked it though. It looked like it might be a good place to meet people, if you were the kind of person who met strangers in foreign countries and went on to socialize with them. A class of students from Cambridge and their professor dropped in the day we were there and this gentleman gave an impromptu lively and erudite talk on the last days of Keats. The Italian employees of the museum were also quite knowledgeable as well as engaging. I realize now that they were probably bitter underemployed Phds making $900 a month or something. The frustration and despair of the underemployed in Italy is not immediately palpable to the outside observer because everyone still dresses so well and knows how to groom themselves. Even the beggars wear sweaters, corduroys, hats, shoes, etc that clearly were once pretty stylish.

The other room in the museum, this being the actual one where the poet died.

A short ride on the subway--one could walk too, if he wanted, it would probably take about an hour--brings us again to the Protestant Cemetery, which we revisited previously in our tribute to Shelley. Keats is commemorated not only by his grave but by this likeness accompanied by some lines of (English) verse, which I believe may be by Oscar Wilde. I think you can read them if you enlarge the picture, but if you can't I will transcribe them later.

Keats's grave is on the left. Like Shelley, he is buried together with a devoted friend and caretaker of his literary legacy who long outlived him, named Joseph Severn. The pyramid of Gaius Cestius is visible in the background.

Keats's somewhat hard to read grave, on which his name famously does not appear, as he was evidently still brooding about some cruel reviews of his poems and being a failure in general, sentiments I can certainly relate to, preferring to be identified as 'one whose name was writ in water'.

One of Rome's innumerable and famed legions of stray cats, in the Protestant Cemetery, where one of the old sheds is loaded with packages of cat food that is set out for them in a space back by the pyramid. I'm worried that I put this picture up with the Shelley Rome photos as well. If I did, I am going to take it down. Maybe. This cat looked like a younger version of the one we had at the time, who has since died (he was 16), right down to the tuft of white fur on the gullet.

I often think that that there is no purpose or utilitarian value in my ever going back to Europe, especially its great cities, even if economic and environmental circumstances allow for it, and probably there is not, but it still stirs memories of exhiliration even to look at the pictures of these places, and the modest communion with the legacy of the Great Historical and Cultural figures of Europe, however superficially understood and experienced they must necessarily be (comparatively) by someone like me. I think I would still like to try to go back some time, maybe with various of the children? It still obviously has meaning to me.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

John Keats, Endymion (1818)

Long, not wholly successful pastoral romantic mini-epic, apparently conceived as a more ambitious work than the execution proved it to be. Keats's miracle year of course was the next year, 1819, so the significance of Endymion, which was pulverized by the critics upon its first appearance, mortally wounding, some claim, the sensitive poet, lies largely in its relation to the more celebrated poems which very closely followed upon it rather than strictly on its own merits. It has a famous opening: "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness," etc. It is skillful, perhaps overly dreamy, the narrative is difficult to follow and conceive of as a whole. It is neither a solid world that is created therein, nor a vivid (living) one. The quest is not heroic enough, the observation not exquisite enough, for a work of high power. That Keats did go on to become, for a period lasting about 8 months or so anyway, a legitimately great poet at a very young age, would not, I think, have been anticipated by anyone reading this. He was 22 when this was published, and while there is evidence of some talent, he had not yet figured out either how to curb his exuberance, to hone in on specificities rather than abstractions of thought and feeling, or to measure and frame sensations and experiences at something approximating their real value. Most potential writers of course fail to get a handle on these secrets before that exuberance, and the greater part of whatever talent they may have had, have been exhausted or have abandoned them. The poem above all is a celebration of a comfortable, soft and idle life that appeals to many well-intentioned but misguided young people of a romantic bent. I was such a young person myself; I hated working and thought it would be the height of living to loll about in cafes and bars until 3am every night, get up at eleven, take a walk in a European-type city or go to the cinema or some art gallery in the afternoon, write in the evenings, go out for dinner and an evening of revelry around 9. Women of course, but bohemian-style affairs, numerous and of short duration. Other observations:

Beauty compensates for everything ("despondence...the inhuman dearth/Of noble natures...the gloomy days...all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways").

The idea of "binding", boundaries and the like, applied to bodies, souls, realms of the firmament, etc, is repeated numerous times in the poem.

Notes on selected lines: The languidness!--So lush. So romantic. So unreal.--A pleasant, good verse, if a bit airy.--Lovely images, but what do they mean?--In images luxuriant like a rococo painting.

This rhyme drew a laugh: "Aye, even as dead still as a marble man/Frozen in that old tale Arabian." Endymion himself is being referred to here.

The introduction of the Endymion character was confusing to me. I am pretty sure I missed something.

We are helped to see better. One of reasons for reading pastoral poetry.

These lines drew both a laugh and a reminiscence of Spenser:

"There hollow sounds arous'd me, and I sighed
To faint once more by looking on my bliss--
I was distracted; madly did I kiss
The wooing arms which held me, and did give
My eyes at once to death..."

This recalled the verse in the Faerie Queene where the idle men wallowing in sensualism have their eyes--or perhaps it was even their brains?--devoured through the eye sockets by the sirens who have lured them to their current sybaritic pass. The image obviously left an impression on me.

Hard to get a sense of what is happening (previously introduced characters that I had entirely forgotten are re-entering the narrative, etc).

These lines I find rather endearing:

"...although 'tis understood
The mere commingling of passionate breath,
Produce more than our searching witnesseth:
What I know not: but who, of men, can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet
If human souls did never kiss and greet?"

I do not know that I can share this view of the nature of existence, but I do think the sentiment has a deal of beauty in it.

Not an alpha male sentiment, and therein, perhaps, the crux of the poem's overall problem:

"...O that she would take my voews,
And breathe them sighingly among the boughs,
To sue her gentle ears for whose fair head,
Daily, I pluck sweet flowerets from their bed,
And weave them dyingly--send honey-whispers
Round every leaf, that all those gentle lispers
May sigh my love onto her pitying!"