Thursday, July 18, 2013

Departures, The Yakuza, Celine and Julie Go Boating

I would expect an even slower rate of posting in the future. They seem to have finally around to jamming up my ability to access this site at work, and it is virtually impossible for me to get anything done at home, since I have to share one computer with 4 and a half other people now, all of whom have work to do on it that rates a higher priority than my blog. I would just shut it down, but I find it useful for recording and dating some of my scattershot hobbies. My attempts at more expository pieces have never really worked here anyway.

I am getting behind on movies again, with six to comment on, so I will do two sets of three in this and a following post, one modern trio and one ancient, if we draw an artificial line demarking (demarcating--I checked my dictionary and they are variations on the same word) the modern period as beginning around 1970, though really I would put it more around 1980, with the 1965-1980 years serving as a kind of cinematic middle age.

Departures (2009) 

This was another Roger Ebert selection, though it did win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in its year, which in this era indicates that at least it probably won't be egregiously offensive to middlebrow taste. It's Japanese, and like almost all modern Japanese movies that achieve arthouse distribution in this country, it is about death. Indeed, the main character is a failed and disillusioned cellist who becomes an undertaker, which, like so many professions in Japan, is conscious of and honors its artist aspects. The popular impression, aided by films like this, is that the Japanese nation, symbolized by its ongoing anemic birthrate, declining population, workers who collapse and die on the factory floor of convulsions brought on by extreme stress, and growing numbers of adult men who refuse to come out of their childhood bedrooms, has largely lost its will to live in the modern world. An exorbitant number of the corpses represented in this movie were of attractive young people, women in particular. The protagonist is married, and cutely, as it were--being cute, if you're a woman, is I think trendier is Asia, particularly in the advanced economies, than it is among us--but his wife is not really sold on his new career and their new life out in the provinces, the husband decamping back to his mother's house (she is dead) from one of the big cities, probably Tokyo, after the collapse of his music career. I had the sense at the end that she was supposed to have gotten pregnant, but I don't really remember now. It was not that explicit, unless I nodded off for a moment. It is a quiet, low energy sort of movie. It is probably worth seeing if you are young, have a lot of time, and need to get a general sense of what Japan looks like and the kinds of things is expending its creative energies on. If you are older, and time is more precious, I think it can be safely skipped.

There was a setup in the plot for a cathartic emotional payoff, but this was relied on too much, considering that nowhere near enough had been invested in the setup. It did not come through.

The Yakuza (1975)

I didn't know what a yakuza was until a month ago, and now I feel like I see a news story on them every other day. They're Japanese gangsters, but they have a deep and complex code of honor that among other things requires you to cut your little finger off and offer it to someone if you have profound obligations to them that you cannot otherwise adequately repay. The movie is a Hollywood picture, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Mitchum. It was an ambitious undertaking, but it did not really work for me. It is, as even Sydney Pollack admitted in the commentary, very much an artifact of its time, and, I would add, not in the best sense. Its predominant atmosphere was similar to that of the TV show Hawaii Five-O, and overall it very much plays up the whole 1970s idea of the Pacific Rim as a kind of futuristic vision, in which the ancient cultures of the Orient take on a remarkably Hawaiian and Southern Californian influenced character. The action scenes seem to me mostly ludicrous. Robert Mitchum is believable as a certain kind of tough guy in a conventional social or business situation, but coming into Japan as essentially a solo foreigner and taking out dozens of thoroughly trained and hardened native gangsters, particularly as a 50-something, is asking too much of one's credulity.

I posted this on Facebook already, but it amused me, so I will put it up again here. My wife's capsule review of this film was "Let's have some tea and cut our fingers off." That really about sums it up.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

1974. What a year! My memories of it are naturally scant, and either elusive or melancholy. However, it is the first year I have any memory of at all, and I like to imagine that it was in this year that my intelligence peaked, at least comparative to other people my age, mainly because it appears to have have declined by this measurement almost every year since. In any case, my personal future looked more rosy and brilliant in 1974 than it ever managed to afterwards. So, after a fashion, so poignantly illustrated in this film, did modern France's. This is the backdrop against which I am going to attempt this review.

Celine and Julie Vont en Bateau, which, while interesting in some ways, is also three plus hours of the kind of artsy self-indulgence that only the French have truly mastered, and probably only truly appreciate, is regarded as the most accessible film, certainly from the earlier part of his career, of the director Jacques Rivette, who is usually identified as part of the Nouvelle Vague, but in many ways remained always too new to ever get pinned down enough and made a symbol of anything intelligible by some mass of cinemagoers, as occurred with Truffaut and even Godard, to a certain extent. His masterpiece, according to many, is the 1971 epic Out 1, which has only been screened one time in its original cut, ostensibly because it 12 hours and 40 minutes long (there is a 4 and a half hour version that is also rare, though it has been seen by a few more people than its parent, and is said to have a cult following). The plot of Celine and Julie is supposedly based on a couple of Henry James short stories. I don't know whether "The Turn of the Screw" is one of them or not, or whether it is even considered a short story; I suppose the movie had some elements that were reminiscent of that tale. It also would not surprise me if there were 20 Henry James short stories that were superficially alike. There are also acknowledged references to Alice in Wonderland, Proust, and Jean Cocteau. The Alice ones are not too obscure, and the influence of or obvious similarity to aspects of Proust did flicker through my mind, though I did not think much of it. The affinities with Cocteau I tended to see more as generic obscure French artist poses that are stock in trade in that country, without making a specific connection to Cocteau.

This is the 3rd highly acclaimed French movie in the 1974-1983 period I have seen in the last year that is not available on DVD in America (joining Madame Rosa and Entre Nous). Apparently from the commercial standpoint we have given up on this epoch of film history. Usually when this happens I will buy an old VHS tape on the internet but the tapes for Celine and Julie started at $45 so I had to watch it on Youtube, where somebody had fortunately uploaded a watchable version of whole movie, and with English subtitles too.

As I noted in the Madame Rosa note, people in 1970s French movies look fantastically healthy and almost absurdly natural, despite all of their seeming pretension and affectation in the realm of the intellect. The actresses who play Celine and Julie (Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier) do not seem like any spectacular beauties at first glance, especially with their ludicrous 1970s clothes and untamed hairstyles, but the effect of bodily health combined with mental engagement with the physical, living world around them creates a sense of vitality that is striking and impossible to ignore, especially Celine/Berto, who seems to me to have a glorious and almost perfectly realized beauty. There was another woman in the Henry James/Proust-like country house that they are transported to when they eat the candies that was quite extraordinarily beautiful as well--the blonde one. Of course you have a lot of leisure to examine the skin and figures and facial expressions of the actresses and actors in this movie because your attention is not diverted by an overabundance of action or plot, and there is a lot of repetition.

While the film itself is antagonistic to any emotion of sentimentality or even meaningful specificity of time and place apart from the realm of pure art and mind, its presentation, almost matter-of-fact for our purposes, of the Paris of 1974, its streets ruled by clanking Citroens and Peugeots, its sleepy little shops and languid afternoons in leafy parks and the library with its open windows on a hot day and wooden shelves and wooden files and wooden tables and rubber stamps and its garish and sweaty bohemian apartment with a panoramic view of the city and its (compared to today) scant evidence of oppressive Anglo-American and international capitalist infiltration of the culture, is among the main charms of the movie for me, especially as so much of the background impressionism in it hits at the exact points that have most strikingly been lost or are fading rapidly, but were especially central to a certain life and myth of Paris, particularly that I bought into. The whole '65-'75 period, which I tended to think of as fairly recent up until the last five years or so, when finally the accumulation of change made it suddenly appear to be quite long ago; and 1974 has never seemed as long ago as it does in this.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tower of London 2

Hopefully this will go quickly, as I am not as fired up to write about this book as I was last week. On the other hand, I have been having a lot of problems with computer 'errors' and so on in the field where you write these posts which is hindering my effort so far this week.

I am going to skip over a bunch of passages regarding architectural details of the tower, the inscriptions left on the walls by numerous of its doomed inmates, including the Duke of Northumberland, many of which can still be seen today, and numerous poignant thoughts that might effect a sensitive tourist while wondering the grounds, particularly at certain times of the day. I found them to be not unenjoyable, however.

On Lady Jane, preparing her soul for her imminent execution: "...anxious as she was to obtain the queen's forgiveness, she could not purchase it at the price of her salvation...", i.e., by renouncing Anglicanism for Rome. Not that it does not make perfect sense that the Church of England is the surest way to the Christian Heaven while there is no greater abomination to the same than professing adherence to the teaching of Catholicism.

p. 208, a prisoner thrown into a pit is devoured by rats in an especially gruesome scene. When I was in New York City in April, my unfortunate wife had a large and muscular rat brush against her leg as it rushed past while sitting on a bench in Central Park. It was, I gather, a feeling equally gross and disturbing, and I think it put a damper on the trip for her.

"Ever brooding upon the atrocious action he was about to commit, he succeeded in persuading himself, by that pernicious process of reasoning by which religious enthusiasts so often delude themselves into the commission of crime, that it was not only justifiable, but meritorious." Refers to a character who attempted to assassinate Queen Mary.

While Ainsworth was, at least as far as the most serious people are concerned, a failed author, he seems not to have been a failed person. The persona and mind that he reveals in his book are, if not unique or great, at least seem capable and worthy of participating in and appreciating many of the better aspects of human existence. Most people cannot even get to that level.

"In swordsmanship, horsemanship, and all matters connected with the business of war, he was, as may be supposed, eminently skilful." Sir Thomas Wyat of Allingham Castle in Kent, the son of the poet. A man worthy of emulation, by all appearances.

p. 282 "But that which imparted the almost angelic character to her features, was their expression of perfect purity, unalloyed by any taint of earth. What with her devotional observances, and her intellectual employments, the mind had completely asserted its dominion over the body; and her seraphic looks and beauty almost realised the Catholic notion of a saint." I was momentarily carried away with emotion, and scribbled in the margin: "Oh Lady Jane! How we wanted you at SJC and shall never get your like!"

The manipulations of manifold insidious Catholics were skillfully written, enough to make me hate them too.

"I know Elizabeth too well to believe for a moment she could abandon her faith". Lady Jane is beginning to resemble my wife in the extent of her dedication to defying popery.

"'My project once carried, and Philip united to Mary,' he muttered to himself, 'we will speedily cudgel these stubborn English bull-dogs into obedience.'" Sinister Renard!

The importance of romance in political affairs during aristocratic eras is beneficial for artistic plotting and themes.

On a related note, I always love it in this class of novels when people step out from behind the arras after eavesdropping on a secret and vital conversation. This trick is used on several occasions in this book. It provides some kind of dopamine rush, replenishing our sense that we are engaging with the mainstream of old European literature and history, which we like, and I suspect the author had enough sense to know this. This is why it is for me not bad to read such books as this on occasion.

"Her courage never for one instant forsook her, and her spirit and resolution sustained the wavering minds of her adherents." Queen Mary. This guy does like to suck up to royalty.

The scene where the giants/rebels are throwing their enemies off bridges and parading around with heads on stakes was rather gruesome.

It is all fun because we are so knowing where religion is concerned. And I am in that knowing group, whether I really want to be or not.

I'll have to check out making a visit to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, which received an odd personal plug in the middle of the headlong rush to the climax ("...still in the possession of his lineal descendant, the present Sir Henry Bedingfield, and one of the noblest mansions in the county"). I wonder what homage Ainsworth owed Sir Henry.

Oxburgh Hall is currently a National Trust affiliated property. 

"Renard followed, and beheld the fugitive speeding across the nave of Saint John's Chapel, and without regarding Wolfytt, who was lying on the floor, bleeding profusely, he continued the pursuit." Renard himself had set Wolfytt on the fugitive. Needless to say, Renard is the best character in the book.

"Here, besides the ill-fated and illustrious lady whose history forms the subject of this chronicle, was confined the lovely and, perhaps guiltless, Anne Boleyn." I like the "perhaps".

"'Do not question the purposes of the Unquestionable, Angela,' replied Jane, severely." I have to admit I have never liked this literary custom of chastising people who express sorrow over your imminent death for ostensibly religious reasons, especially when the person you are addressing is obviously simple-minded. If you are surrounded by your supposed philosopher friends, whom you have put to many rigorous tests for the purpose of rooting out mush-headedness over the years, a la Socrates, maybe that is a different story.

Though a less than stellar novel, it is still one of those books where it was a little sad when the characters' stories began to be wrapped up. Every somewhat personable book finished past a certain age--around 33 in my case--takes on the character of a bunch of mini-deaths, especially when you know you will never read them again. Of course this relates to all manner of other things, cities, restaurants, activities, as one's experiences with them clearly begin to wind down or perhaps are a one time occasion. I did not feel this way about things when I was in my 20s. I knew when I graduated from a school or had to return home from overseas that a certain part of my life was coming to an end, but I expected that other things equally important, and in which I would be more important than I had been theretofore, still awaited me. Needless to say I do not feel this anymore.

I end by giving you an excerpt from the charming song that the executioner sings:

"Queen Catherine Howard gave me a fee,--
A chain of gold--to die easily:
And her costly present she did not rue,
For I touched her head, and away it flew!"

Even though I have been to London 3 times in my hilarious life, I have never visited the Tower, which has a fearsome reputation for being expensive, crowded, and woefully uncool to boot, but I think if I ever go back I will have to confess my colossal unimaginativeness to the world and go see it.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Notes on the Class of '88

or cerchi se io

I went to my 25th high school reunion last weekend. Here are my impressions:

The self-consciously "smart" people--I would loosely define this group as the people who cared and thought very much about which good college they were going to go to, or in a few rebellious cases, which good college they were assiduously not going to go to--were largely absent. I would probably not have been considered to belong to this group of people, and certainly would not be now, but I would have liked to have seen more of them make an appearance. Those who had been most notable in their school days for partying constituted the dominant group in attendance. Most of these seem to still live in the area. I don't have a great rapport with most of the party people either. I was exceptionally immature in high school. Most of my real male friends were a year behind me; I suspect that even now it would be considered bad form for me to crash that reunion however. I did not have any real girl friends in school, but if any exist who would remember me with any degree of friendly feeling, they would have been two years behind me at least. This is not unusual, I don't think, and as such it shouldn't really matter that the girls exactly your own age never liked you that much; but somehow it always does.

The class of '88 missed being part of the Tattoo Generation, if not by much. I did not see a single person who was sporting any visible ink, which is unusual in any social setting nowadays, and there were certainly those present who if they were ten, or even five years younger, you would scarcely be able to see much of their actual flesh by this point. If I remember accurately the trend of widespread tattooing really got rolling sometime around '96 or '97, which indicates to me that if you are able to make it to twenty-five without succumbing to this ridiculous temptation, you are not going to be easily seduced by it thereafter, even if you are an incurable knucklehead. Perhaps future generations will even consider us early 70s birth cohorts to be possessed of a certain old school elegance, as we will apparently be the last group of people for a long time to enter old age on the whole tattoo-free.

People born in the early '70s are also the last group to get through a lot of their formative experiences--school, college, early dating, early jobs, living abroad or otherwise away from home--before the technology explosion which has so altered people's relationships to information. Although being exclusively with people around your own age is common during one's school years and I suppose again in the nursing home, when you are 43 it is unusual to be somewhere where everyone else is exactly the same age as you. So while of course people had their i-phones with them and a few people pulled them out from time to time--mostly to read messages from their children--they were not ubiquitous, nor did they interfere with conversation, that I noticed. I even found another guy, indeed someone who had been a pretty good friend of mine, who hated phones and refused to carry one, which has not happened to me in a long time.

As I have very little to say for myself I appear to not be very social at these kinds of events and periodically have to go and sit down or step out on the balcony alone for a few minutes. Some people get the impression I am not having a good time; if asked I will usually say that if I really didn't have a good time at these reunions, I wouldn't come to them, though that is not exactly true. Other people I sense are annoyed or even, if not 'uncomfortable' (a loaded and increasingly unsatisfactory word nowadays), discomfited by my being there without any identifiable role or place in the proceedings. I do feel more and more after each of these reunions that maybe I shouldn't go anymore, no one really knows me, I don't look forward to having to try to explain who I am and what I have done with my life, and every brief exchange is a bit of an ordeal. On the other hand, I still want to keep up some connection with the old town and the school--I have not, to my mind, so far transcended them that the connection has ceased to be meaningful--and I also think that, if I am 43 and am uncomfortable telling other people what I am or do, maybe I need to go through more such ordeals, that perhaps sometime something might happen that motivates to do something about this problem.

The most unpleasant conversation I had was with a woman to whom I had never spoken before. I think she was one of those discomfited by my general appearance of purposelessness and took it upon herself to question me about it. It went badly. There is a certain level of condescension with regard to social status, personality, intellect, general adult substantiality, etc, that I have grown accustomed to and can usually either maneuver around or at least dig in and hold fast at a certain point in a short conversation, but I was wholly unsuccessful in pressing any case for myself as a man possessed of even a modicum of human worth. Everything I tried to say to her questions about my life, she would not accept, but would want to know more precisely what I meant, and would proceed to call it what it really was. And of course all of her answers to my questions in return were unassailable, in part because I chose not to assail them, but really I could see no way to do so that would be seen as acceptable. I am sure she was a fairly miserable person, but it was quite established that I was nobody to suggest such a thing. It would have looked like an aggression on my part against a person to whom I must be crushed by a massive sense of inferiority. So I was in a bind. Because I said I worked in a hospital she kept threatening--under a veneer of politeness, of course--to introduce me to her husband, who was an attorney who specialized in hospitals so that we could talk together about the changes, the doom, as it were, that were coming to the industry--this really was vicious--but fortuitously we were interrupted at this point by the arrival of one of her old friends and I was able to slip away.

At that point, even though I had told myself beforehand that I was going to endure, as a kind of penance, whatever judgements, spoken or unspoken, were cast upon me, I did think for a few minutes that perhaps I really did have no business there, that my presence was offensive to people, and that I ought to go back to my hotel and call it a night. However, I decided to go back in the direction of the bar, which is so often curative in itself in such circumstances, and a couple of hail fellow well met types with whom I had drunk on a few occasions in the past assailed me, and I was brought back into the fold of conviviality once more.

You tend to talk to the most successful people at these kinds of things earlier in the evening, for a variety of reasons, one being that most successful people are by nature gregarious, and also because the obvious conversation opener at a class reunion is one's career, and people who have good ones are naturally more eager to have that conversation than those who don't. One such person had made a lot of money off four patents he had filed and was now involved in redeveloping old warehouses. He told us that "entrepreneurship is the number one way to achieve financial security; and number two is so far behind it doesn't even matter". I thought it was a good quote.

Later on I talked to a guy who was the manager of a strip club. I was a little taken aback, but it was a public school, so why shouldn't there be a strip club manager in the class? It isn't a glamorous life. Twelve hour workdays. The base pay is criminally low though I guess they make up for it with a cut of the tips ('I have strippers paying me. Am I a genius or what?') I had always thought of strip clubs from the purely business standpoint as quaint, fly-by-night deals, probably connected with the mob in waterfront cities, but for the most part, locally owned. The one this guy worked at was owned by a corporation based somewhere in the midwest. The person over him was a less than scintillatingly talented relative of the CEO's who, it was surmised, had been sent to Maine as a means of getting rid of him. I have heard this theory expressed before by people in this godforsaken part of the country, with regard to an incompetent but well-connected boss who has been shipped in from Dallas and has no understanding of our peculiar market and its conditions (i.e., raising prices in September). I wonder if there isn't something to it.

I had planned to leave as early as possible the next day because my two older sons were going away to camp, but I had left my car in a garage that, I had neglected to note, was locked up until noon on Sunday. So having a few hours to kick around Sunday morning and having skipped the breakfast at the hotel, I decided to have brunch at one of the numerous hipsterish eateries that have sprung up in town since my era. Having had a chance to survey a bunch of them on the mile walk from my hotel to the garage, I went back to the one which had had the most attractive liberals arts type girls sitting outside; though the original girls had gone by the time I got back, their replacements were no less pretty or liberal artsy. I don't where these girls/women came from, or why they decided to come to Portland. It is a well-situated town with lots of beautiful old buildings, but it had been that way for 200 hundred years without being known to attract good-looking and reasonably refined young women in any sizable numbers. Certainly it was not the case when I lived there. Anyway, despite all the lovelies sitting in the outdoor cafe area, it was 85 degrees and I was hung over, so I opted for an inside seat. At first I couldn't see anything but a bunch of low tables surrounded by sofas and I had a slight moment of panic; but they had a few tables set off in the corner for the odd traditionalist, and I gladly accepted one of those. I had a good view of the room, with its red and green crushed velvetlike sofas, its ceiling fans, its plant boxes and artwork and the front opened up to the street, its collection of eclectic dishes and glassware. I rarely have the opportunity to go to such places, and it seemed to me both gorgeous and decadent and even mildly sinister. It was full of the kinds of people I should have been friends with, as well as reminiscent of the blithe summer of 1914 or even the British Raj. I couldn't help thinking that surely in a few years something is going to happen that is going to sweep all of this away (What will happen to all of the pretty liberal arts girls?). Because I was hungover I was craving an ice cold Coke, but you can't get one of those at a place like this, so I had a mimosa and about four glasses of water. Thankfully they had a old-fashioned eggs, hash browns and english muffin plate on the menu. As the place reminded me of the Raj so much, I had to order my eggs poached, because that's how the British in India always have their eggs in the old novels, or at least that was my memory. The meal was a little heavy, given the heat of the day and my overall condition, but I think it was pretty good.

Here is the place, the Local 188 on Congress Street, across the street from the Longfellow statue.