Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Most White Privilege-Evoking Song of All Time?

antonius antonius ut mihi

Probably not, but I heard it, or the more uptempo recorded version of it, on the radio the other day and it made me think of it, and I don't remember any other song having that precise effect on me. It does seem to have everything the most socially advanced people truly hate packed into one four minute sequence. And if these same people think white privilege is obnoxious and an obstacle to civilizational advancement now, I guess they can be glad they weren't around in the 40s, because they were really kicking it back then.

I also associate the song with this movie, The Harvey Girls, which I have not seen apart from a few clips on the internet but which in general seems to be a celebratory film about white people pouring almost giddily into the American west and carrying all of the most vulgar aspects of their civilization with them whole hog, oblivious to any idea of respect for nature or the effects on the indigenous population as we would understand those things. The Harvey Girls themselves of course were waitresses in the chain of Harvey restaurants that sprung up along the railroads specially chosen for (and, it might be noted, fondly remembered for over a hundred years later) their whiteness, attractiveness, and feminine pleasantness, the contemplation of the latter two of which is offensive to a whole other host of modern sensibilities. The privilege on display here is most remarkable for its purity. These people really seem innocent of any idea (or at least unconcern about the significance of such ideas, if anyone had them), that they are depicting and celebrating all kinds of things that large numbers of later and more evolved people would consider to be morally, as well as aesthetically, repugnant. The assumptions about the social order, the nature of men and women, the universality of the worldview and peculiar desires of white middle Americans with total unconsciousness of that of anyone else having existence in any kind of serious manner strike us--even me--as almost brazen, insouciant. It's hard to imagine anyone today being able to believably project themselves in quite this extreme manner, at least no one I would ever be likely to encounter.

On the other hand popular culture does project some uncomfortably unconscious, and I suppose heavily 'white' assumptions, in other ways, a lot of which are connected with wealth or other attitudes towards food, health, technology, professionalism, and those kinds of things that a certain segment of the population has gone in for heavily over the last twenty years or so. I don't really relate to these people at all however, and it is almost certainly why I never like any modern movies or books (the Breadloaf conference was full of this over-wealthy, rather languid crowd when I went there too), because they are populated with characters and are written by authors whose mindsets are not recognizable to me in any way.

The white privilege meme seems to be coming up more even in my sheltered life. It think in its current incarnation, being a target of antagonism and disdain, rather than respect and aspiration, it is a wiser move for people like myself, and my children, to embrace it if people insist upon its being an issue rather than to devote ourselves to mitigating its effects. But I am out of time to elaborate more on this now. I probably won't be back until after the new year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Very Brief Christmas Greeting

Weak Christmas posting this year. I find in recent years that I'm kind of crabby at Christmas time. I shouldn't be, and certain I feel very sentimental about Christmas in many ways, but I am nonetheless kind of constantly grouchy throughout the holidays. Still, let young people and grandparents carry the banner for Christmas spirit, it's asking a lot of middle-aged guys. Maybe if we could get to go to parties like this again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Three Movies From the Seventies

The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978)

Three-hour plus Italian epic about peasants circa 1900 in the sweeping, novelistic style that was popular from 1975-82 or so, especially in Europe, but was also visible in things like Acopalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Kagemusha and other films of the period that took it for granted that there existed a critical mass of moviegoers who would go to the theater, and sit through long, dense, meticulously detailed serious movies, especially if they were the work of important directors. I suspect that this is actually very good, but I was unable to get into it at this particular time. My mind kept drifting away from whatever was going on in the movie to focus on my own personal existential crises. But I will try it again someday. It verily is about the extremely humble and limited lives of rural peasants, I believe in the northern part of Italy, in a period probably within the lifetimes of the director's parents, their childhoods at least, a life that most Italians by the 1970s had, with evidently mixed feelings however, ceased to lead. I was not struck on this initial viewing with what was most important about it.

One probable reason for why I had trouble getting into the movie (besides the fact that I am too exhausted in the evening anymore to really concentrate on anything) is that I watched it on a faded VHS copy in which the indoor and nighttime scenes especially were so dark that I imagined they could not have been thus on a good print. Netflix doesn't have it. In truth, they don't have a lot of what I want these days. Here is my current list of 'Saved Titles: Availability Unknown' with that service:

1. Alice Adams
2. Follow the Fleet
3. Giant
4. Giant: Bonus Material
5. Odd Man Out
6. Separate Tables
7. Soldier of Orange
8. Stella Dallas
9. Harold Lloyd Collection, Vol 1: Disc 1
10. Man With the Golden Arm
11. The Tree of the Wooden Clogs
12. Three Brothers

Obviously I have found old VHS tapes for a few of these and watched them, but it seems like that ought to be an unnecessary hassle, especially as none of the movies in the above group are obscure in the least, and all of them, except maybe The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, have easily recognizable stars. I guess I imagined Netflix as bascially a subscription library that would have anything that has ever been released on DVD readily available. Actually, of course it is an ambitious, scheming, 21st century internet business that wants to make billions of dollars, and that apparently doesn't involve investing in enough copies of Odd Man Out to make people like me happy. I have read that they are making fewer DVDs available because they want to phase out the mail order part of their business, which costs them a lot of money, and push everybody onto streaming. I don't have my television set up to receive streaming, which probably isn't that hard, but it seems like it might be a minor pain in the neck at the very least. And then it isn't clear that the things I want to see are even going to be available anyway.

Silver Streak (1976)

Sometimes a pointedly humorous book or other entertainment causes me to ask myself, what is that I want from a comedy anyway? The truly successful comedy in any art is a rare achievement. The work that is not primarily intended as comic but is punctuated with frequent humor or wit is often better received and gives more pleasure. The straight comedy, it seems to me, comes laden with an expectation that is usually impossible to live up to. Long form works especially depend on certain jokes, or persons, or situations, being so conceived as to maintain their ability to amuse throughout the length of the story, and feeding off of and into other jokes.

Silver Streak is not altogether unsuccessful--there are a few modest laughs in it, the premise and characters give it at all times the potential that something very funny might happen, and it has some sociological interest as a relic of its time--but in the end I didn't get enough fun out of it to be satisfied. I did make a few mental notes re certain things that struck me:

I was always under the impression that the early to mid 70s were the nadir of passenger rail travel in the United States, the last of the dinosaur private companies going out of business at the beginning of the decade and the early years of Amtrak which followed being universally mocked as a disaster, so that making a movie about a train trip at this time was akin to making one now about people who read physical books and newspapers or something like that.

Gene Wilder is an odd leading man. It is not merely his hair, though that probably does influence me a little, but the way he moves and his expressions, he does not give off the air of a guy really inhabiting a character or carrying a movie. Often it seems as if his mind is remaining archly aloof from the film while he physically moves through and mouths his part. This kind of thing was appreciated at the time. By the time I became conscious of the movie landscape, around 1980, Wilder was still a big name though most of his big roles were behind him by then and his star was, however imperceptible it probably was even to him, going into decline.

Very 1976 how Gene Wilder manages to get laid by a complete stranger within an hour of getting on the train; which turned out to be extra fortunate, because all of the mayhem that broke out on the train immediately after the successful consummation of this tryst would probably have forestalled it if they had waited a second hour. Maybe it would be a good thing if the crime rate really went back up again after all.

Jill Clayburgh. To paraphrase Ben Jonson, she was evidently not for all time but for an age, that age being approximately from 1975-1980. She was always a name from my childhood, but I had never seen her before. She reminds me of somebody's mother--the mother who is not really very nice and is in fact judgmental and a bit of a snob.

The Conversation (1974)

Interesting movie in terms of visuals and sounds, which depict pretty well what the sensory impression of existing in America in 1974 felt like (this was the first year that I have any real memory of at all). The fact that it was made at all is a testament that it was also at the peak of the power of the more humanistic and art-focused New Hollywood movement, the snuffing out of which, we are told, would begin in earnest in the following year with the colossal success of Jaws. But in '74 things still appeared to be solidly moving in the less bombastic and more subtly alert direction of which this movie is a good illustration.

There are a lot of the kinds of little artistic touches in this that elude most filmmakers but please the viewer and keep drawing him back into the story, especially in the first half. The choice of jazz music works very well here, and also calls back the popular pastime of sitting in a room playing longform records out loud, which I don't think is something people do much any more. The old reel to reel tape machines and the other for the time sophisticated recording equipment possess a kind of mesmerizing beauty--maybe this did not strike people as so in the 1970s. Most of the characters in this wear eyeglasses, and by the standards of the present these glasses are almost gaudy ornaments on the face--again, this may be a happy coincidence with the fashion of the time, but I found I was frequently drawn to contemplate the fact and nature of this eyewear. The party at the shop after the surveillance convention with its instant bar of hard liquor bottles and the seedy, quietly desperate quality of the guests and conversation, also strikes me as reminiscent of its time. These things all work well. That said, the actual plot itself, while well-written and quite clever even, I don't find as compelling. The narrative, for me, does not go hand in hand with what else is interesting in the movie.

The disc came with multiple commentaries, including one by Francis Ford Coppola himself. I listened to about twenty minutes of it. I have not gotten into any commentaries in a while. The 70s guys will talk all about the film and what they are doing but I find it in their case more interesting to just watch the movie and find out what works for me on my own. The 70s are still near enough, to me anyway, that explanation is either overkill or pointless. You need to get to it on your own or it doesn't do you any good. Now going farther back in time, though maybe all the way to the 50s or even the 40s, I find a good commentary can be helpful, or at least enjoyable, because you are dealing with things that you are not directly connected to in time or sometimes place. But with newer things, if you don't understand them even somewhat intuitively, then they are not meant for you anyway I suspect.  

Good role in this for Harrison Ford. One gets the feeling too that the character he plays in this is what he is really like.

I remember as a child always thinking minor 70s icon Cindy Williams was *pretty* in her famous roles in "Laverne & Shirley" and American Graffiti, but as an adult (me) she too seems to possess some kind of generic 70s quality that I am kind of repelled by. Maybe it is that these people are all about the age of my mother and I must have seen them, or their type, on television a million times and identified them vaguely as some kind of alternative mother or mother-aged female figure and that is all playing into my response to them now. Who knows.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Very Brief Posting About Current Events

I spent nearly two weeks working on a post about Ferguson, et al, and my stance with regard to it, because I felt like I should acknowledge that I was aware of it and thought something about it, even if those thoughts were not as informed or coherent or had as much conviction as most commentators on the situation seemed to require.

I found that I was not really able to write in a natural and human tone about the matter. This was not because I was secretly sympathetic to the police. I have never thought much of the police, have always found there were too many of them and their presence too ubiquitous wherever I have lived in this country, in those places have always felt that their power to do harm far exceeded all of the supposedly wonderful things that were always attributed to them, and never understood the broad liking for them that seems to exist. Especially in New Hampshire it seems to me a far greater likelihood and cause of worry that I or one of my four sons will get caught up in the racket of the criminal justice system for some trifle or behavior that does not intuitively occur to one as being a crime than that any of us are as a matter of rule in imminent danger of being victimized in some particularly violent or horrific way but for modern police practices.

I have always had, compared to other people, a weak sense of morality, of almost anything being absolutely right or wrong, or good or bad, independent of my personal inclinations.  

While I am sympathetic with those who assert that the police are way too heavy handed in the use of lethal force, especially against black people, as in many controversies one is not always readily accepted by the partisans of either side as sharing their position unless he accepts and adheres without doubt or qualm to a number of correlating stances. And as I am much less certain about the absolute truth of some of these, I therefore cannot help but appear to be insufficiently incited by the more fervid advocates of social justice.

Many, many people in this world, including quite a lot who are quite fortunate and privileged in their lives and suffer little in the way of direct oppression, carry within them a store of righteous anger that never fails to impress me. Some of them brim with it just about all the time, while others who are usually jovial enough are able to call it up in a flash when occasion calls for it. In addition to all of the outrages they are angry about, many of these people are angry that other people are not angry in the way they are angry, which mass indifference or pusillanimity they see as a primary obstacle in effecting the changes they desire. Anger, like love, is of course an emotion, and in raw form it is as silly to demand another to spontaneously feel strong anger such as you feel as it is to demand that they feel love in the way that you would have them do so. I suppose the argument is that a moral system can, and ought to be, cultivated through education that is central to a person's waking consciousness, such that, unless he is utterly devoid of natural spirit (though this does seem to be the case with multitudes of modern people, especially Americans) he can be trained to muster up some degree of response or agitation to gross wrongs passing under his nose. It is true that most people, myself included, do not receive a moral education with anywhere near the degree of intensity needed to produce this reaction, however.

I also wonder, and this is purely a conjecture I am throwing out, whether the competitiveness of our society, and the increasing attitude that only the most serious and accomplished practitioners in any area of life really matter, is causing people with weaker levels of anger who are in the main sympathetic to an issue to doubt whether they in fact care anything about said issue, or any other, at all, and certainly whether their tepid sense of outrage could ever be of any use, since even the people who seem to experience all of life as an endless series of crimes against righteousness and possess an endless amount of fire for railing against it appear to be able to effect very little change such that their moral sense is ever satisfied for long, which ultimate satisfaction the non-crusader, doubtless mistakenly, assumes to be the purpose of employing this anger.

The racial aspect of this police and prison culture, the effects of which are obviously multiplied many, many times in black communities, even acknowledging that the violent crime rate is many, many times higher in these communities, is the problem that it is seen as incumbent on white America especially to come to terms with and address. The tone taken in many of these declamations is that this persecution can stop, or be turned off, at anytime if white America decides it wants to do so, at no real cost to it, but that it obstinately refuses to take this just action. From the 'white' point of view, and I think it is pretty safe to say that there is such a thing in general that is distinct from the 'black' point of view, or the 'non-discriminating human in the abstract' point of view, is that the general tenor of life in poor black communities tends to be totally incompatible with--to the point of non-negotiability, in truth--the general tenor of white middle and upper class life (I say general tenor so that those who are comfortable in all places and with all people and with all lifestyles and do not even perceive that there are any differences between them understand that I know and am not talking about them). I do believe this is, all else aside, the main reason why even well-meaning white people cannot achieve more progress in resolving the racial disparities with regard to justice and law enforcement that I do think many of them really do want to see resolved. By incompatible here I mean that there are very few white people, and essentially none with any middle class pretensions, who can handle on a day to day basis the stress that the level of crime, social disorganization, low quality of schools, confrontation in routine interactions, etc, etc, that prevails in many poor black communities. The degree of integration on the part of the white middle class that progressives claim that they want and that we should be achieving will never happen until there can be serious assurance that these problems, whoever's fault they may be, are either resolved or can somehow be subjected to tight social control. Otherwise, I can't see how it is ever going to happen.

Most of the policemen I have had occasion to know in my life (I am, in part, from an Irish family in Philadelphia, and there are policemen among my extended relatives or their spouses or circle of friends) would be considered appallingly racist by anyone in the liberal arts intelligentsia. There is no way to sugarcoat it and it is not even particularly subtle, but describing the form it takes in such a way as to overcome that which the enlightened liberal imagination already has in its head is a little problematic. There is a belief that the kind of nice white people who hate racism and would never work as policemen are hopelessly naive and would have their (the police's) more 'realistic' attitudes towards the black community if they really knew the kinds of things that went on there. Outside of their families and people like themselves, they really don't care about the feelings or perceptions of other people towards them in the same way that sensitive people with high SAT scores who care about the environment and animals and so on do. While I don't think it is difficult for writers and so on to believe this, I think it is hard for them to grasp what it is like to approach life with this kind of mind at every instant of the day.

These policemen when they are sitting around the barbeque grill or in the stands at the little league game or whatever will once in a while go on about their training in firearms and how they could blow your or anybody else's head off from a distance of such and such yards and so on. I don't remember anyone explicitly expressing a desire to do this, whether to black people or anyone else, but some of them didn't seem to mind letting it be known on occasion that they had it in them to do so if circumstances required it.

A number of writers felt called upon in addressing the crisis to expostulate on the various deficiencies and moral vacuity of white people as a collective entity, or blot, I guess, on the face of the earth. Many of the more zealous of these commentators could not easily escape being fingered as belonging to the blot themselves. They doubtless appeal to a certain kind of reader, though I rarely find anything in them that I consider to be insightful as far as what is wrong with me, let alone all of the much smarter and better adjusted white people whom one assumes would be in a better position to effect change than I am. A reporter from the Guardian accused the whites of America of isolating themselves in their cars and crying to the Frozen soundtrack instead of dealing with the world exploding and rising up in a fury all around them (I hate it when they get personal like that). This is a familiar, and old, attack, that white Americans in particular are the world's perpetual sheltered and fragile children, as compared with the seriousness and maturity of, apparently, everybody else. I don't really see this as being true; I think that what is meant is that the white American middle class is always perceived as having more power, if it could rouse itself from its frivolous amusements, to affect political and social change, fight racial injustice, prevent the government from starting wars, throw the bankers and torturers in jail, prevent the establishment of for profit prisons, and so on, than maybe it really does, especially anymore. Outside of a few social issues, the public certainly seems to have lost any kind of moral force as far as being able to constrain the powerful from acting on the most outrageous impulses of greed and injustice and even cruelty. But it strikes me that people seem to be more aware of and upset about these things than they were in the past, it is just that their ability to protest and contend against them has become so feeble.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movies 1985-1998

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I really do not like much from the 90s, movies or anything else, which is a little sad, since that was the decade I was in my twenties, and one would think I would enjoy being reminded of that era. But I find that I do not at all. With regard to the art and entertainment of the time in themselves, my charitable interpretation of this is that they are currently passing through that awkward age where their charms, assuming that they have any, are hard to discern, and their themes and guiding assumptions feel tired and unappealing, because the psychic universe they inhabit is still much the same as that which prevails now, only with an incomplete awareness of everything that has happened in the interval, which has the tendency to give them a rather grotesque character. This is similar to how I felt about the entertainments of the 1960s and 70s when I was younger, and what I presume is how people in those times felt about the ones of the 1940s and 1950s. In these latter cases enough time has passed now that the environments and social atmosphere we see in them seem quite unlike that in which we currently live, and in some instances the differences--including many that we either took for granted or considered to be unfortunate if we happened to be sentient at the time--have become attractive with the passage of years, at least to some people. If I have enough energy, I may elaborate on this more later on.

Pi (1998)

Maybe it seemed good at the time, but now it comes across as a compendium of the worst tendencies of Generation X alienation, ennui, and incapablility of engaging with anyone at all who does not perfectly suit one's imagined social requirements dedicated to celluloid. It is a low budget indie shot in dreary black and white about a guy who has presumably a very high IQ but, unfortunately for the interest of the film, has little in the way of accomplishments, palpable genius, or even social acquaintance. He is obsessed with number patterns, though certainly nothing beyond what the internet has revealed lots of people to have, has a pill addiction, rarely leaves the house, has no real friends and grows ever more incapable of interacting with people or even being sentient as the film goes on. It did recall to me the time when most smart people built their own computers (maybe they still do, but I haven't met anyone who does this in years) and when New York City was the domain, both in reality and in the popular imagination, of a large population of eccentric obsessives and introverts who lived in apartments lined with bookshelves and were economically neither exceptionally busy nor productive. I suppose there are probably a few such people hanging on in today's New York. though they would seem to be increasingly marginalized, and it would not appear that they are setting any kind of dominant tone in the current life of the city.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

This has always had a high reputation, but I didn't care for it. It gave me no joy. The dialogue is 97% macho posturing and insults and defiance directed at other people. I think it is considered to be funny, but most of the humor was lost on me. This movie had an over-the-top aspect about it in the writing, acting, plot, etc, that makes me think it is a commentary on the Industry of some kind, which is the cause of its being so celebrated. I don't like most of the actors in this either. Chazz Palmintieri especially is like the anti-Claude Rains. I see his name listed in the cast and my heart sinks. Gabriel Byrne isn't much better.

Braveheart (1995)

I had never seen it. It at least has some entertainment value, though it could have been a little shorter. Mel Gibson is a polarizing figure now I suppose but I don't react to him strongly one way or the other. Clearly he has a violence fetish and he is more openly assertive in expressing contempt for weak and timid men who shy away from combat and struggle than most people are. This helps him as a director and actor in that it gives everything he does a decided character, but it is ultimately not one that moves me to any kind of especial response. One is reminded that people really love medieval fighting. The depiction of the blatantly homosexual Prince Edward, later Edward II, is mildly hilarious, but is probably too over the top to be acceptable to people nowadays.  

The Fugitive (1993)

Thriller starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, well-received at the time. For a 21-year old movie where people still use pay phones all the time its atmosphere, particularly when in professional and corporate environments, is very recognizable to anyone living in the present. I know that you are supposed to suspend belief and the necessity for strict realism when you watch this kind of a movie, and let yourself be carried along by the narrative, but this one asks a little too much of that, particularly since there isn't really anything else going on in it. I had a thought come to me about this movie about 3 days ago, when I was not a liberty or had materials to record it, that encapsulated better my impression of it, but I cannot remember any of it now.

This is set in Chicago, a city that has always held comparatively little appeal to me, and I suspect to most people from the east coast as a rule. I know a number of people who lived there for a time, mostly for graduate school, and I don't recall that any of them loved it, and several seemed to have loathed it more than I probably would have found necessary. But it is true that it has never struck me, in movies or in person (apart from Wrigley Field), as an attractive place, especially in winter. The weather is just as dreary as it is here probably, but we at least have trees and hills, and winding roads, and the light seems to be a little warmer. I would probably not dislike it that much if I had had a reason to spend some time there. I would like all the bars and the central and eastern European food, which latter especially is thin on the ground in New England.

Apropos of nothing, the 1960s television show which inspired this movie was apparently a favorite of my grandmother's. I have never seen it.

Mask (1985)

Now we are further back in time, to an era that does feel different to me from the present, and of which I do feel a certain fondness, though the period of which I am particularly fond was quite short. The peak, or 'real' 80s for me, were essentially two years, '84 and '85. '86 still had some of the qualities of these previous years but you could sense it was a year of transition. '87 and to a lesser extent '88 were disappointing. '89 to '91 I thought promising, as if building up to a world in which I might comfortably and meaningfully move, but it was really the swan song of a dying order. In '92 and '93 the new cultural environment, in which we still largely find ourselves, really began to insinuate itself, '94 and '95 were kind of dog years in which some of the lingering detritus from the previous age had to receive its final crushing (I remember these being the years when the restrictions on smoking really begin to be amped up, for example). '96 and '97 weren't bad. I essentially lost contact with the world after '97 and cannot tell one year from another since then. My feelings about these years by the way do not always correlate with what was happening in my own life, but with what I felt the possibilities in the greater society were if one could be a part of whatever was happening. I personally personally had better years socially in the early 90s than in 1985, but my sense was always that the opportunities I could have had if I had been cool 1985 or 1989 were better than those I could have had if I had been cool in 1993 or '94.

From a distance of 29 years, Mask has a good deal of this to me positive 1985ish vibe. Of course at the time (I was 15) I would not have found it so. Indeed, I remember when this came out and the way it was promoted it seemed about the most hideous thing possible, a tear-jerker about a deformed freak starring Cher, who seemed to me at this juncture the embodiment of everything gross about the 60s (and my dominant impression of the "60s" then, notwithstanding a thousand other things I surely knew about it, was that it was at its core an orgy of grossness, Woodstock, LSD, extremely hairy people on sexual rampages, and so on). If I had seen it in 1985, my response to it would have been morally reprehensible as well, something along the lines of, 'OK, so this guy had to live with a horrible and painful facial disfigurement and died when he was sixteen, but you know what, he still got more action in his life than it looks like I am going to get. I also would have begun to fantasize about getting a job a counselor at camp for blind people, which is where the character in this movie was able to meet his girlfriend, though, as wife my helpfully points out, my looks really are not my problem so much as my personality, which would have sabotaged all my efforts at picking up one of the blind girls.*

When this turned up on my list something of this ancient repulsion almost immediately started to rise up in me, though I was willing to give it a chance based on my warm feelings for its year. I also noticed that it was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, several of whose 1970s movies I had thought were good, and this piqued my interest a little as well. There were a number of directors who made well-regarded movies in the early part of that decade (William Freidken; Francis Ford Coppola) and then went off the rails somewhat as it went on, but continued to work fairly steadily through the 80s and 90s, though their later work is not much celebrated. I like Bogdanovich's sensibility, and it informs this movie too, which on paper has a lot of things about it that I would otherwise be pre-disposed not to like.

The movie, or I should said the re-issued director's cut that I saw, has an excellent classic rock soundtrack that accurately captures the way that kind of music existed in the general atmosphere in those days, especially the Bruce Springsteen songs, which had to be cut from the original release of the movie due to a dispute with the record company over royalties, which dispute has evidently been cleared up now. You can also see in this, which even by the early 90s was beginning to change, how comparatively smaller the difference in socio-economic classes were compared to now. The film is set among a community of bikers, and they are different, and a subculture and all of that, but Bogdanovich and the actors do not seem to be daunted by the challenge of portraying or trying to make sense of this lifestyle, nor do they project a consciousness of it being something far beneath them that they are examining critically, nor do they need to pity the condition of their subjects and examine what ails them, because the community, while it has some problems with drug use and familial relationships, is not desolate and distressed in the way that such communities are often depicted as being now.

Cher did a good job acting in this, and supposedly she was considered in her youth by connoisseurs of the female form to have one of the most spectacular bodies of all time, but I still find her to be rather slaggy. The prejudices of youth die hard.

My recent late night time wasting has been watching old epsiodes of the very long-running 1960s TV show My Three Sons on Youtube. The shows in themselves are not particularly interesting, plotwise, though it is certainly enjoyable to imagine a world where a typical 'problem' is having made dates with two 1960s California babes for the same night. I like to study Fred MacMurray to learn how to be a dad. None of the children on this show ever scream at each other, or backtalk, or complain about boredom, or complain about work, or are on the autism spectrum, the dishes and laundry and vacuuming are always done. Fred MacMurray is an aeronautical engineer, and all of the other adults who appear in the show seem to be respectable professionals as well. It's all very calm. Of course I know the real world was nothing like this show even in the good old days; in my own family at this time, especially on the Irish side, severe alcoholism, chronic unemployment, domestic abuse, and problems of that ilk were more the order of the day than Steve Douglas, but for all that I do think to a certain extent MacMurray projects how the men and fathers of that day generally saw themselves, authoritative, necessary, competent, natural leaders in the community. The fathers of my generation, if they are of a squishy liberal background, are largely incapable of seeing themselves in this way. Those of a more right wing bent want to see and present themselves in this way and probably believe it is proper that they should, but even with them it is usually not convincing. It isn't deeply encripted in their world view the way it was with the older generation.

Another thing about this show I never realized is that even though for most of its run it was about an entirely male household, it was nonetheless a parade of really good-looking girls, the wholesome old California and Mormon types, mostly Robbie's dates or other love interests, but even the older teachers and social workers and so on who turned up were unusually attractive. My favorite episode so far is a blakc and white one from 1963 where in repsonse to various Russian threats Robbie's high school decided to award a letter jacket for excellence in science. The main competitors for this award are Robbie and a studious, bespectacled girl with blond hair whose father is a physican. When the jock types begin to mock Robbie about the science letter, he tries to lose on purpose. The smart blond girl does not like this. Wonder why? Her mom knows, and decides it's time for her to get down to the beauty parlor for a makeover. Robbie wins the award and Jimmy Stewart turns up (as himself) in his general's uniform to personally present it and give a rousing speech about the importance of young Americans to excel in school, and the sciences in particular, that everything we held dear depended on it (though I do not recall that the economy or the stock market or taxes were explicitly mentioned). Robbie and the blond girl end the show by going on a date to a highbrow musical concert. There are a lot of retro-stimulators that could be supposed to be appealing and reassuring to me packed into 23 minutes here. But I am not really taken in in practice.    

When the sons on this show (or two of them at least) get married, their (extremely lovely) wives move right into the house with the rest of the family and everyone gets along swimmingly and the house stays as clean and well-organized as ever. Even after one of the women gives birth to triplets!

I like Polly (Chip's wife). She was a cutie pie. She came in at the very tail end of the show, the last two years, from 1970-72 (It started in 1960).

*I forgot to note in the original posting the theme, still prevalent at that time in the Karate Kid and various other movies and TV shows, of the great California fantasy, wherein however hopeless of a loser one was at home in the East or Midwest, if he can make it to California he will inevitably find the beautiful, nice and happy girlfriend, in most instances blonde, of his dreams, whether his wildest or tamest ones I suppose depends on your personal preferences. I think everybody knew that this could not possibly be real, but myth was too alluring for most to avoiding succumbing to it. I haven't seen it depicted in a long time though, probably since the 80s, so maybe it has died out. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Me on Suffering

A few months ago I read a book by a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina named Bart Ehrman called God's Problem. I wrote about this guy a little on my other page. He is overbearing and arrogant towards everyone who is inferior to him in academic rank. I suspect he is probably insecure enough around those he perceives to be his peers or superiors that he expresses some of it through this overblown arrogance. Why do I judge the man in this way? I don't know, he does write that up until about the age of thirty or so he was a zealous and combative evangelical Christian, at which time his immersion into the world of academia and professional research as he pursued his career persuaded him that the episodes and personalities of the Christian story as they are related and traditionally interpreted in the Bible and other familiar sources, were most unlikely, and nothing substantial enough on which to base a belief in a supernatural deity. The need to account for his not having come to this realization until relatively late in life in his new professional and social circles, one suspects to have been, and to continue to be, a somewhat humbling experience for him. Being by nature a man of fire and a lover of debate however, whatever crisis of mind or spirit this caused our professor does not appear to have shattered his intellectual self-confidence at its core, and he is now as zealous in his exposing of the lies and inconsistencies of the standard Christian narrative as he previously was in championing it.

Anyway, the professor wrote in his book that, textual dubiousness aside, the main reason that he ceased believing in God was the existence of inexplicable suffering in the world, especially among children and other innocent people. The contrast with his own life of material comfort and plenty--if you're ever in Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman's fridge is apparently stocked at all times with high quality steaks and craft beers--which he senses has been afforded him due to no outstanding moral merit on his own part, is disconcerting to him. He can't accept God, and certainly not the idea of God as an all-loving force of good in the universe on those terms. Personally I find this way of thinking about the matter inadequate. Historically the periods of the most fervent religious belief seem to have their origins in times of greater than usual suffering. There seems to be a point of suffering beyond which all hope or care to obtain hope is crushed and the human being becomes nullified, but even this is more concerned with the capacity in people for religious faith than the actual existence or not of a God. In the West and I suppose in the wealthy countries of the Pacific Rim in Asia as well the emergence of the modern life largely free from physical suffering and torment has hardly been accompanied by a more certain conviction of the existence, and greatness, of God, but in the certainty that the whole idea of God is ridiculous, and was the brainchild of men and women of whom the kindest thing that can be said is that they were intellectually stunted, probably through no fault of their own.

Obviously I cannot myself really believe in gods, at least not in any of the more charming ways that humans have conceived of them, I have an idea that the effects of such belief are often beautiful and inspiring and give an intensity to life that is hard to replicate for most people in other pursuits, but I am probably deceiving myself in this. My tendency has been to find people who are commited to a religious life admirable however, especially in that singular aspect. I don't know for the life of me why I do, especially since most people of this kind that I am thinking of tend to hold political positions that are at the least unpopular in the part of the world where I live and are considered by many to be dangerous or mad. I am sympathetic to the desire to be religious and to participate in that life. I admit that I think it an attractive trait in women especially to think that abortion is terrible, perhaps because I have known so few women in my life who seemed to think this. I go to a kind of church, though I do not consider myself a member of that church, and I enjoy the ritual, though I don't think there is a single person in the congregation who actually believes in the reality of the Christian God, and none of the people I was thinking of as being beautifully touched by religion are among its number. There is no suffering, at least none where I feel the existence of God is one of the forces at work in its operation. But then perhaps I am so prejudiced against this church that I cannot feel the presence of any spiritual feeling within it. Are these modern Catholic and remedial-level simple evangelical believers whom I feel some admiration for any more authentic? Well, I think perhaps, yes, though the Catholics at least are not outwardly very intense. I trust them more to be able to tap into something of the true spirit. They might not suffer physically, but if they retain their belief they will probably also retain some sense of their own wretchedness and the attendant humility, which awareness is not perhaps the main aspect of a healthy religious sensibility, but it is a great part of it.

This is just going to be like my diary now. It's 2:24am and I cannot write coherent essays at this juncture of my life.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Ponyo; Disgrace

I never want to do three movie posts in a row but I don't want to fall hopelessly behind and if I can only schlup together any kind of post every 2 weeks, well...of course it would seem as if I ought to be able to say whatever I want to say about these movies in a few short sentences. Perhaps I could get them down to that length, but not easily. Indeed, it would take me twice as long to do a posting. I did put up a new post at the Vacation blog yesterday. And here is a site of old photographs by the famous photographer Albert Kahn that I was referred to in something I read that I think might be something of interest to my imagined readership, friends, etc.

Ponyo (2009)

This is a Japanese cartoon. It is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who is a famous and esteemed maker of cartoons. Even though according to all the special features it takes hundreds, if not thousands of supremely talented people to bring cartoons to the screen, Miyazaki's is the controlling vision and the source of interest in this and other of his films, and as such the bulk of the glory falls on him.

Personally, after twelve years and counting of constantly having small children underfoot, I am very much cartoon and children's movied-out, so I could not get too much into this, though I can see where it would appeal to other people. It is set partly in the ocean and partly in an isolated Japanese coastal town where it rains all the time and there are lots of cargo ships. The human characters are all drawn with round eyes and childlike faces, in what I take to be a characteristic Japanese style, though they look as much English as they do Japanese. Ponyo is a fish who falls in love with a little boy and metamorphoses into a human. Her father has a human form, and a rather fantastic one, reminiscent of a late 1960s idea of an eccentric wizardlike character. He has long red hair and wears stiff suits with bright colors and stripes. He lives in a kind of underwater palace and goes to extreme and menacing lengths to bring Ponyo back. The American version has voiceovers by the likes of Tina Fey, Betty White, and Matt Damon. Like a lot of--maybe most?--Japanese art, the whole work is attended by a heavy atmosphere, and images that provoke strangely emotional responses even if one is not entirely engaged with them.

Overall it did not enthrall me however; whether this was due to its being aimed at children or its just being new and contemporary, and my inability to feel warmth for anything contemporary, I did not immediately discern. Though as I often like, or imagine I like, older children's movies, I suspect it is likely the latter.

Disgrace (2008)

Based on the novel by the very serious South African author (and Nobel Prize winner) J. M. Coetzee. While national boundaries and identities matter ever less and less for high level talent at least, I still find it of interest that this was primarily an Australian production, though it was filmed in South Africa, has a South African subject matter, and features an American star, John Malkovich. It's better than most movies I've seen that have come out in this new century. It has the advantage of being about a phenomenon that is large, obvious, and significant, that being the decline of Europeans and what remains of their culture, certainly in Africa, though perhaps by extension in the world as a whole, but what is unusual is that it is able to present this in a pretty straightforward, matter of fact way, without relying too heavily on ideology or emotion one way or the other, so that even while the plot is highly contrived, even formal, it feels natural, like a real story.

There is quite a bit of sexual symbolism, none of it flattering to Europeans, that is not especially subtle, to the extent that I imagine myself to be picking up on it. Malkovich starts out pretty robust. A professor of English literature specializing in the romantic poets, especially Byron, a devotee of European classical music who composes operas, whose house is furnished like the library at an exclusive London club and who seems only to indulge in the highest quality food and wine, he is about as stout a representative of the best of European culture as we can expect at this point. He takes a liking to one of his female students who appears to be of mixed African and European descent and goes after her with a surprising aggressiveness that is perhaps the one part of the story that feels off--who ever heard of a middle aged white guy, since about 1990 anyway, with any sexuality at all, let alone one that asserts itself so boldly and inconveniently to other people's prerogatives. He does not exactly rape the student so much as takes, or maybe leads her forcefully to bed--she does not exactly protest or resist his moves, and gets into his car and goes out to dinner and back to his house of her own volition, a weak one perhaps but not under any physical coercion or restraint that could not be contended against. She receives his European love with complete passivity and a lack of enthusiasm, and falls into a deep depression as a result of the affair. There is a scandal, Malkovich discovers, in what was apparently news to him, that he and his kind cannot get away with this kind of behavior anymore, and he is dismissed from the university and in effect exiled to the countryside to live with his lesbian daughter surrounded by a lot of black people.

Here the reality of the direction of things is illustrated much more starkly. With regard to fertility for example. All of the children who appear in the movie are black, and they are profuse in number. By contrast, the only fertile white woman, and white person of any sex under the age of fifty who appears in the movie is Malkovich's lesbian daughter. While the daughter shuns any contact with men in her own cultural community or whatever you want to call it and serves as a symbol of European sterility, she is raped by a trio of black teenagers, becomes pregnant, and ultimately comes to the determination to have the child and not to pursue criminal action against her rapists. She seems to be concerned about the prospect of overreaction on the part of white males, which would not be helpful, and perhaps more importantly, with whom she does not especially identify; though as it turned out there was little cause for worry on that front. The impression one gets in watching this movie, and indeed in reading about similar cases where white women are raped or violently attacked by non-white men and are apparently unable to feel as much anger or contempt towards their attackers as they do towards white guys, is that non-white men's being willing to press, insistently, the elemental fact of their own sexuality, and asserting their total independence of and indifference towards Western ideas and etiquette in such matters, is able to blow apart something in the elaborately constructed psyches and egos of the modern western women with regard to their sexual natures and forces a kind of acceptance of their own raw natural force in them that all but a few western men have apparently lost the ability to do. Malkovich's sexuality is downgraded into a tame and harmless form as well as the movie progresses, as he is reduced to afternoon sessions on the floor of the animal hospital with an overweight, post-menopausal woman of his own age whom he would not have considered when indulging confidently in his earlier Byronic persona.

I have not read the book, which sounds as if it is 'great' in the old sense of the word--that is to say, that the average university professor of 1950 would probably have been able to recognize it as a work of literature if it had been handed to him at the time--so the implications of the title probably apply to even more lives and situations and incidents and histories than are suggested in the movie. The weight of the word 'disgrace' however seems to fall pretty exclusively in this story on the Europeans. At least it is hard to see how it applies to and effects the African characters, here, to the same immediate degree, though I suppose they are the inheritors of a country and society that are not healthy, and that they are burdened with the hindrances this has placed on their various personal development. The baby that the raped daughter chooses to have I assume is supposed to be seen as illustrative of the movement of South African history, and the movie suggests that it may serve almost a cleansing purpose of sorts as history moves forward, though I have the sense that Coetzee is too serious and wary of declaring the eclipse of western power and ideas an unalloyed good (I have read some of his essays and critical writings) to take this simplistic and too neatly wrapped up stance.

I voted the other day, but the thrill was definitely gone, and to be honest, I found I did not care all that much who won, though I still had some worry that if the Republicans won and destroyed what was left of the country and I hadn't even bothered to vote, I would feel some guilt about that. Fortunately my children infused the process with some humor by repeating, innocently in most instances, and sometimes with their own malaprops, many of the more ridiculous ads and slogans ("Jeanne Shaheen fights with Barack Obama. Scott Brown fights with you"), which threw them into an absurd relief that made the whole process slightly less depressing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Baby Face (1933)

Pre-Code movie starring Barbara Stanwyck as a very bad girl, that is, if you believe that sleeping with whomever you need to at any given time to rise in the world is bad. Many people probably don't believe this, especially nowadays, but enough did in 1933 that this is credited as one of the main films that precipitated the establishment of the Code, which of course restricted the amount of moral deviancy that could be shown, especially in anything resembling a celebratory manner, until well into the 1960s.

Aside from the more egregious deviancy, the America depicted in Baby Face in general is a much rawer, uglier, cruder, beastlier place than that depicted in the polished classics of the Code era that was to begin within a few years, and which has a tendency to induce nostalgia for many aspects of that era in some people. The dingy, firetrap speakeasy, supposed to be in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Baby Face works (and lives) when the movie begins, with its rotting walls and peeling wallpaper and tiny window looking out on a row of smokestacks barely visible through the thick pollution, in which she cannot walk more than three steps without being molested by sweaty, violent, and uninhibited factory workers in various states of undress (and in which she later gives out her father has been pimping her out to the clientele since she was fourteen), is convincingly appalling. Life in this ghetto has little object beyond day to day survival and the periodic satisfaction of one's animalistic urges. Such ambition as there is consists entirely of schemes which involve either exploiting or swindling whomever lays conveniently to hand for the purpose. Baby Face eventually makes her way to New York, and that is not quite as hopeless, but even the atmosphere there, with its characteristic 30s emphases on sleek modernistic and art deco designs and the massive gulf in wealth between the elite and the ordinary schmoes, is cold and forbidding compared to how it would be depicted once the New Deal ethos began to kick in towards the end of the decade.

When I say that Baby Face sleeps her way to the top, she really has to start from the bottom. The first lucky fellow is the guy whose job it is to throw vagabonds out of the boxcars, whom she has to placate to even get to New York; and then when she gets there it's the fat slob whose job is to sit at the reception desk and keep the unemployed hordes at bay's lucky day. (That guy is at about my occupational level--today of course any woman ambitious enough to be willing, and alluring enough to be able, to rise by this means would at least be able to start out much higher up the ladder and get to skip these gross early steps). The further up she goes, the more havoc she wreaks in careers and personal lives and the less able the men seem to be either to resist her initial advances or to get over her once she has gotten them fired and broken up their engagements, and moved onto the next guy on the chain.

By the way, back in Erie, there is a German-accented old-timer in the 'hood who, in spite of his own seemingly lowly station, is into Nietzsche, and introduces Baby Face to some of that philosopher's most famous concepts, though the application of these in the film strikes me as the product of a decidedly sub-Straussian interpretation.

I don't love this movie, though I don't think it is supposed to be a great work of art so much as an interesting artifact of the zeitgeist of its period, as well as a showcase for the talents of Barbara Stanwyck, whom many connoisseurs of both film and women consider to be one of the greatest movie actresses of all time. I have to admit I do not really get the mystique of Barbara Stanwyck yet either. Some people think you either get something right away or you never get it--there is never any in-between ground with such people--but I often find that after multiple exposures to or efforts with poets, directors, actors and so on that I will begin to see something that I can appreciate or perceive some hint of greatness in.

I was going to write something about the folly of imagining what past times were like based on their presentation in movies, using the pre-Code/post-Code divide, when all manner of vice and bawdiness suddenly took on much more subdued and socially marginalized forms, as an example of this. But I am not sure that I believe it is all folly. The Depression era, especially after the election of Roosevelt, was a period of dramatic change. The centralization and overall tighter organization of society compared to what had existed previously could not fail to insinuate its effects into movemaking and other artworks. The crime rate did begin to plunge precipitously right around the time the Code was instituted (and ironically did not start shooting up again until the time it was lifted). We are so well trained to be suspicious now of the boldface narratives that formerly held sway in this country and assume they were all lies to cover up what was really going on that you almost have to look at what is not calling attention to itself or perhaps even conscious of itself in these old books and films to try to give yourself a persuasive idea of what was authentically happening or important at the time.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Separate Tables (1958)

While I have noted before that I am not much of a fan of movies set in courtrooms, ones set in hotels I cannot get enough of. When the lodging in question is of the shabby variety, populated by patrons clinging by their fingernails to the bottom rungs of the respectable middle class, and located in a second rate British seaside resort town, I am usually overcome by the second scene with the feeling that I have missed one of my true callings in life by not having passed through the purgatory of a year or so as one of the permanent inmates of such an establishment. Given the currents of the modern society and economy, it is hard to make a rational case either for the utility or attractiveness of this mode of living; but given how many books, plays and movies have adopted this setting as a milieu, creative types have obviously seen in it attractive possibilities related to our civilizational condition that productive and less static activities and pursuits have a tendency to mask and blur.

Separate Tables was nominated for seven Oscars in 1958 and won two (for best actor and best supporting actress). It also has an star-studded cast that is especially heavy on people who have been enthusiastically celebrated on this site. I had never heard of it. Certainly it does not come up at all in most channels of conversation about movie history and lore that I am aware of. It is dated in the sense that it is so heavily steeped in the conventions and themes of its particular time, and has no anticipation of the concerns that in 1958 were approaching rather rapidly. But in my current state of mind I do not look on that automatically as a fault even through a critical lens, and in this instance it accounts for a considerable amount of the charm of the movie.

The film is set in a hotel--functionally really more of a boarding house--in Bournemouth. The way it is presented in the movie it looks rather cozy, but we are supposed to have the impression that most of the characters have ended up there due to some misfortune, and would really rather find themselves in other circumstances. The title refers to one of the hotel's selling points, that you don't have to share a table at meals with other guests, a practice which evidently was still common in England in the 50s (it seemed to have died out there by the 90s, but it was still in practice on the continent, especially in the East). Leading the spectacular cast are Bourgeois Surrender Hall of Famers Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, and Deborah Kerr. They are joined by David Niven, who won the best Actor Oscar referenced above (beating out Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, reviewed here formerly, as well as Paul Newman & Spencer Tracy). I don't know what I was expecting from him--a full-on helping of arch British suavity, I suppose--but in this he plays a pretty sad sack character and really goes to work to endear himself to the sympathy of the audience. Obviously it worked, and not only on me. Rita Hayworth adds more star power and some Hollywood glamour to the proceedings, and the less famous (but far from lesser) players include numerous highly skilled veterans of the British stage, most notably Gladys Cooper as Deborah Kerr's suffocating mother (typical of the popular 50s themes with which this movie is suffused), and Felix Aylmer as the retired headmaster who detects the fishiness of the Major's public school reminiscences (among his other trangressions, the Major--Niven's character, who is not, in fact, a major either--claimed a more exalted background for himself than he had a right to do) when the latter is flummoxed by Aylmer's quoting of Horace.

This is adapted from a play by Terence Rattigan, who was popular in the immediate postwar era but whose overall style, as hinted at earlier, could not weather the transformations towards the edgier theater ushered in during the Angry Young Man period of the late 50s. His middlebrowness, in this movie at any rate, is almost pure, undiluted by any element either of cleverness or edginess or crassness or vulgarity (or visible anxiety about this, for that matter). He was apparently very gay, but nothing of that nature is remotely suggested in this plot that even our super-attuned modern sensibilities can readily discern. None of the characters really rise above being types; they don't possess much depth or roundness. However there are tropes and rituals, and gentle jokes, as well as various fumbling, Freudian-tinged 50sish explorations of human relationships. I liked the couple of the medical student and his girlfriend, though they were minor characters did not appear much in the final cut; I am assuming there was more of an explanation as to how she went from being dedicated to creating art and, it is implied, committed enthusiastically to free love in the opening scenes, to her abrupt decision at the end of the movie to get married and start pumping out babies as quickly as possible. The Deborah Kerr character was kind of ridiculous, especially for her to play, but this is the kind of movie where you go along with it, kind of like when the major gets arrested for harrassing women in a darkened movie theater you go along with the premise that, hey, he's not a bad guy, he's just lonely.

The Burt Lancaster-Rita Hayworth-Wendy Hiller love triangle was not believable in any of its aspects, perhaps because it was overloaded with all kinds of postwar class and emasculation issues that come off as ludicrous now at the expense of any kind of natural feelings. I love Burt Lancaster, and I know the presence of the American stars was probably considered exciting at the time, but he seems kind of out of place in this odd and dated but watchable and often interesting movie.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Buffalo Wild Wings

While I do for the most part lead a comparatively retired life in a dusty old house among dusty old books and shabby and mildewed old tables and cabinets, I still like to drop in once in a while--usually it ends up being quite a long while--at some loud, brassy modern barroom with a hundred gigantic televisions, video game consoles on the tables, frat party music pumping through the restroom, and cute young waitresses. I had forgotten to do this for several years until I was in the grocery store a few weeks ago and saw one such attractive woman** there who was wearing a Buffalo Wild Wings work shirt, at which the thought occurred to me that perhaps I ought to go there sometime. Of course I have long given up entertaining any thoughts of having any meaningful interactions even with women my own age, but for all that I am still biologically somewhat alive, and it still affects my spirits positively to see a few attractive women* on occasion, maybe (of course?) especially ones whose own spirits don't appear to be weighed down yet by children or bitter experience or the other cares of deep maturity***.

I found that I enjoyed indulging, for a little bit, in the overwhelming stimulation of the televisions, almost all of which were turned to sports stations. I have not had cable TV for years, and I have never owned a giant flat screen television, so the immensity of the picture and the scope of modern media coverage of sports are amazing spectacles for me to behold. I was especially drawn to the NFL Networks replaying of the previous week's games in 30 minute condensations. That would have seemed like Elysium to me as a ten year old. Once in a while I will sit down to watch a little bit of a football game at home, but my wife, who hated football long before it was fashionable, can only endure about a half an hour of this before some crisis or theretofore unsuspected (by me) necessary household project is found to exist which necessitates leaving off the game. Shortly after we were married my wife actually began taking down one of the walls of the living room in the middle of the NFC championship game--this had been planned, but it hadn't occurred to me that the demolition could, or would, begin during the game. This was what a football coach would call 'setting the tone' in the marriage. In truth the games are too long for any new age husband and father to reasonably give up more than a couple of Sunday afternoons for in a year, and those only if the weather is too bad to do anything outside. So I am not very attuned to the ethos of the man-cave lifestyle that is supposedly prominent in current society.

The food was not very good, which if I noticed it means it must have been beyond terrible. I know that refined opinion holds that all these kinds of places are atrocities against human culture, but usually I am either so hungry or otherwise stimulated that the awfulness does not make a pronounced impression on me (also I have no real idea what good food in the United States is supposed to taste like, or where to consistently go to get it,**** but that is another article). The excessive saltiness really did strike me this time, however. I think it is more that I am getting older and need less salt and am more sensitive to it. So I doubt I will go back there very often, if at all, but...it is one of those places, contrived and phony, though not wholly ineffective, that holds out some kind of tantalizing promise that Fun really does exist, and that maybe you, or somebody anyway, could have it at Buffalo Wild Wings. They won't discourage you from pretending or imagining it to be the case, anyway.

As a case in point with regard to this, when I was in the restroom I saw a truly awesome poster the absurdity of which made me nearly double over with laughter at the time, and caused me to suppress chuckles throughout the rest of the day. Here it is:

The humor of course lies in the fact that the guy in the picture is experiencing a level of ecstasy at indulging in the Tuesday night beer and chicken deals at Buffalo Wild Wings that no one ever experiences in real life. People are not this ecstatic when they win Olympic gold medals or Nobel Prizes. Maybe some men are this ecstatic if they get somewhere with a woman a level or more of desirability higher than they really merit, but this almost never happens. Maybe desperate authors and academics who land a publisher or tenure track position feel something like this, but the glory they feel may be more delusional than that brought upon by the arrival of the basket of hot wings. Top line rock stars are never this ecstatic; nor are even second rank rock stars. John Tesh is said to get pumped in this way during a concert, but I cannot find any photographic proof even of that.

So I think the poster is kind of genius. It sums up what all ordinary--i.e. non-cool--men deep down want their night at their bar to feel like, and that they imagine must be what they would feel if they could suddenly transform into a cool guy--and makes them believe what ordinary bars are too real and honest to pretend, that this feeling is what they are selling, and that it truly can be bought. Of course I know it cannot really be bought. Or can it, provided one is emotionally shallow enough?

* I know that in much of the country the waitresses at these kinds of establishments tend towards a more extreme bimboish or sorority girl model that is beyond what a person like me could really relate to. However that extreme type doesn't really exist in New Hampshire, and the women at the place I went to were quite normal-looking, young and thin and with regularly proportioned bodies, this being really almost the whole source of their attractiveness, as they were otherwise almost entirely normal in their appearance.

**I did not see the person from the grocery store on the day that I went to the restaurant. She was probably slightly prettier than the ones who were there, but really as I say they were all of a very similar type and the overall effect was little less pleasing.

***It is telling how pitiful the state of modern manhood that I seem to be experiencing this as some kind of revelation. Of course I always have imagined it must be so in theory, but have had vanishingly fewer and fewer occasions to test it in practice.

****I have always wondered about whether the women frequenting and working at vegan and other alternative/new age establishments would be of the sort to provoke this mood boost in me. The problem is, I either really can't abide the food at all (veganism) or don't have the habits/rhythms/ sense of purpose to effectively hang around trendy coffee shops or those arty/organic/raw milk anti-mainstream America type restaurants. Yet I still believe this is where my natural crowd and all the friends I should have in life are really to be found.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Were Freaks Really What Made New York City Great?

I have links to a few other blogs in the right hand column of this page, but this has been a rather desultory process. Some of these have not published new material in upwards of a year, and the quality of some of the others, after my initially finding something in them that piqued me, has not remained consistently engaging. I suppose I will keep adding to the list whenever I find something that both publishes relatively regularly and has the sort of intelligence or humor or interests that I like. I come across very little that fits this description however, though I am sure there is a lot I would like out there, if I could manage to find it. I have not exactly cast any very large nets in this regard; it is more that I have turned over a few things that happen to have washed up on my little shore and seen something that made me want to put them on the shelf for a time. The links have never been a strength of the page and I almost never refer to them in my posts.

Today however I am going to refer to the 'Vanishing New York" blog, which is written by a guy named Jeremiah Moss, some of whose work has actually been published in real newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. For those who are unfamiliar, the blog chronicles old-style Manhattan places, mostly restaurants and other small businesses such as barber shops and newstands, that are being/have been steamrolled by the ongoing gentrification and transformation of that island to its new identity as a luxury playground for the global elite. Moss deplores these changes. I find the economic forces at play in them unsettling, and as my affections for the city are mainly directed by a kind of patriotic nostalgia, change of the sort that is happening now threatens to make me feel even less at home and happy there than I have always been (and actually I almost never go there in real life. Still, I imagine there will be a time when my children are not little or I will have enough money and time to be able to go down for a few days a couple of times a year and go out to dinner and do other things I have always imagined I wanted to do there, though probably this will never be the case). I will admit to being impressed on recent visits with how clean the steets and parks are compared to the 80s and early 90s (let alone the infamous 70s), when one of my main impressions, doubtless from the circumstance that on those visits I didn't have anywhere to stay or any money to spend and therefore spent about eighteen hours a day walking everywhere in between catching the occasional nap on a park bench, was of the overwhelming amount of garbage and filth and the seeming physical impossibility that it could ever be eradicated. But Moss seemingly cannot bring himself to find much cheer or romance even in the lovely prospects that the restoration and brightening-up of older and architecturally preserved streets and landmarks offer, because he is too conscious of the costs, mainly in accessibility and character, that have made it possible.

One of Moss's primary laments is how the forces of ruthless wealth on such a scale that for a normal person to try to contend against it is the economic equivalent of trying to fight a tank attack and aerial bombardment with a bicycle corps, and the development that accompanies it, are clearing the city of freaks and any other free-thinking and challenging people with an eye toward making it attractive to tourists and other people devoid of personality who are more conducive to following the cues the corporate interests set out for them and expediting the processes of money-making.* He longs (along with many, many other people) for the days when the freaks were setting the tone in certain parts of New York City and keeping the kind of people who didn't get them, tourists and otherwise, where they belonged, which was decidedly not there. I have friends who had a similar attitude. If they walked into a diner or bar and there were a few transvestites sitting at the counter it was a great joy to them, a reassurance that they had found a place that was all right, and real. I never felt this exhilaration, I had good 1960ish liberal values, that tolerance was necessary and people should be free to be themselves and not persecuted, and I even had some sense that this was a part of why New York had become and was so great--but still, on a personal level, I found most of the extreme freakishness unattractive and not especially fascinating. Certainly they did not make New York. In the dream New York of my imagination, which is pretty much the 1920-1965 era, the lifeblood of the city are really normal people, some of whom end up doing great things, but most of whom are regular workaday family type people, who are maybe, stimulated by the environment and the institutions and their daily interactions with each other, just a little smarter, a little funnier, and a little more energetic than a similar collection of people would manage to be somewhere else, the cumulative effect producing the possibility that we identify as our own personal dream. I suppose we are all inclined to regard scenarios where people most like ourselves seem to have the most favorable circumstances for professional and social relevance and success, romance of our preferred type, etc, as the ideal, not merely for ourselves but for society as a whole. As indeed it is, from our own point of view.

*Complaining endlessly about tourists is of course a favorite pastime of a certain kind of New York City person, usually one who did not actually grow up there themselves, and whose personal contribution to the city's economic strength or cultural vitality and prowess seems as if it is not above questioning, if they are going to insist upon holding such attitudes. I say this as a person who has been largely relegated to dreaming even about going there as a tourist at this point. All this aside, I have never felt the presence of people who were obviously tourists to be anywhere near as overwhelming as it is in any of the famous cities of Europe. Maybe in the new post-2000 Times Square, but even there it was neither as crowded or as obvious as it is in most popular travel destinations. Even when I went to the Statue of Liberty about 80-90% of the other people on the boat were either orthodox Jews or very diverse school groups who seemed to be from pretty close by, if not perhaps Manhattan itself. And I did not see a single middle-aged fat couple from Iowa. I guess one of the complaints is that the tourists, who are extremely numerous, love chains and bad food generally which drives independent places out of business and causes the most popular areas to proliferate with characterless restaurants serving garbage. I don't think it is quite that simple. I believe most people, tourists or otherwise, want to have meals and experiences, especially in places like New York or Paris or Italy, that make them feel they are living a higher kind of life than they or almost anyone else is accustomed to, as often as they can. Most people have to eat several times a day, and if they have to work, or are on a tight schedule, or have children with them, or, as often happens in great cities, are timid about whether they will be welcomed at a place that looks to be of some quality or even that is populated by cool-looking people, they will probably, statistically, on average (i.e., not you, the way above average, sophisticated reader of exquisite taste) at some point in their life or vacation will for convenience's sake settle for a meal or two at the kind of establishment designed to accomodate this particular reality. Maybe you are pretty good, and you only go to the brand name places (I will include coffee shops in this as well) 3 out of 10 times. But of course if this ratio is repeated among 100,000 tourists, in the aggregate the individual chain locations will do much more business than the scattered and more individually numerous authentic/human places.

Monday, September 29, 2014

1960s BBC and the Czech New Wave Revisited

Wuthering Heights (1967)

BBC television production, in glorious black and white. Though I was taken enough with the whole effort, the highlight was the epically gorgeous 1967 hairdos worn by the lead actresses, who were both named Angela*; which hairstyles, imaginatively at least, translated well to the 1840s. One of the Angelas played Cathy Earnshaw as a brunette in the first two parts of the series, and Cathy Linton (the first Cathy's daughter; the mother of course died in childbirth) as a blonde in the last two. The other Angela played Isabella. The male leads were decent enough too, I guess, especially the guy who played Hindley was good. Ian McShane, who is something of a name, was Heathcliff. He did not to my mind emit to the full the masculine ferocity that this character so famously and belovedly exhibits in the book, though it does not seem as if anyone has managed to capture that on the screen (I have not seen the Olivier version, but supposedly he is an even milder Heathcliff than McShane). The sets and outdoor camerawork are simple but evocative, and one never feels that something would have been better if more money had been spent. Once again it is demonstrated that a little atmosphere, a few good-looking girls, supporting players with some presence and a good story can go a long way.

Regarding the story--like the Idiot, this is in my opinion one of the great stories of the post-renaissance era. It always works for me. I had the good fortune to read the book at a pretty young age, before I was fully cognizant of my mind's inability to keep up with my ambitions for it--it was the very first book I took up when I started reading again after I had been out of college for a while--so I remember it quite well. It is extremely funny, and all of the characters have either well above average verbal intelligence irrespective of their stations, or are so freakishly absurd in some way that their presence serves to stimulate rather than stifle the more intelligent characters. I think that the book resonates with as many people as it does because it does have all of this humor and intelligence while taking place far out of the way of great events or anything resembling intellectual ferment or heightened social stimulation or even economic and societal churn. To recreate this type of scene would seem to be more attainable to the socially isolated modern reader than those found in other books which either require extraordinary talents, years of high level training, or even generations of cultural indoctrination as their basis. Also, the characters that possess no inconsiderable amount of sex appeal (and any amount is not inconsiderable to me)--even Heathcliff--are not exactly surrounded by people equipped to properly appreciate and quench it, which does have the effect I suppose that its edge is never wholly dulled. I suspect a lot of people imagine this to be the case with themselves too and sympathize with the circumstance in the book.

Angela Scoular as Cathy Earnshaw (with Heathcliff)

*I have always liked the name Angela a lot and have brought it up as a possible baby name but my wife always immediately shoots it down as having trailer park-ish conntations for her. Perhaps this is more the case around here (New England). In the suburban mid-Atlantic area in which I grew up, I associate it more with energetic, slyly nice but maybe also slyly naughty daughter of an orthodontist types. My idea of trailer park names falls more in the direction of Crystal, Brenda, Tammy, and the like, though I associate Tammy as being usually the good-looking one from this pool and therefore have some fondness for that name as well.

The Report on the Party and the Guests (1966)

This is a somewhat hard movie to find. I ended up doing something I don't usually do, which is shell out for a four-DVD Criterion Collection set of "Pearls of the Czech New Wave", which includes six movies from 1966-69, one feature by each of five different directors, plus one collective effort in which each the featured directors contributed a short movie based on a story by the important and very good Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. The Report on the Party and the Guests is only 70 minutes long, so I watched it twice. I don't think it is a great movie, but one has to grant that it took some cojones to make it (and I would think to be involved with it at all) in 1966 Czechoslovakia. The plot is that a group of vaguely bourgeois adults out on a picnic in a place that looks like it could be the Sumava forest are surrounded while strolling through the woods by a large band of unfriendly men who do not pointedly hurt or even threaten the picnickers but nonetheless make it clear that their movements are restricted, that they will not be allowed to leave the area, that they will have to submit henceforward to the authority of the men who have interrupted their walk; apart from a few weak and half-hearted attempts at protest and rebellion, the picnickers accede and become resigned to their new condition relatively quickly. In the second half of the movie they are brought to a large outdoor banquet like a wedding dinner along the wooded shore of a lake, and a number of odd things happen--for example, the guests all realize they are not sitting in their assigned places at one point and move en masse to find them. The meaning of a lot of what went on the second part admittedly was not clear to me. One of the picnickers, who had remained silent and sullen, does slip away from the table during the banquet; a search party is raised to go bring him back, and his wife (who is kind of attractive in a matronly late 30s way, but does not possess much character to oppose any convention or authority) apologizes to the leader for his antisocial behavior. Another picnicker, flattered by the new authorities' assurances that he is a reasonable and intelligent man, spends the banquet trying to ingratiate himself with them. As happens to me a lot with Czech movies, something will appear on the screen--some kind of food or utensil or mannerism or even the odd word or phrase which I can still pick out--which reminds me of when I was there and sends me into a reverie which distracts me from following the movie. Still, on the whole, I have a much easier time getting into these Czech New Wave movies than I do the likes of Godard and some of the other French avant-gardistes, even when the narrative does not take an easily-deciphered form, because I feel I have some sense of at least the material world these movies inhabit. Also even the most talented Czech artists--and this seems to extend even to major international figures such as Dvorak or Smetana--tend to see themselves and their countrymen more as underdogs and subversives trying to cut a few slivers through the massive quantity of baloney weighing people down to expose any fleeting flash of truth than as people in a position to make grand pronouncements and discoveries about the state of civilization or the nature of universal man that will take the average person a few generations to catch up to and absorb anyway.

When the picnickers are first taken into power by the mysterious band their leader is a rather clownish guy who looks and kind of behaves exactly like Adam Sandler. Eventually a more distinguished gentleman shows up to conduct the captives to the party who is revealed as the real leader. 

The Adam Sandler Guy

The women in all of these films are variously quite attractive without being classically movie star beautiful. In this one they all seem to be in the 32-37 range for age--of course that is young to me now. I have gotten to the point where I at least am finding some 32 year olds as beautiful as I once thought women ten to fifteen years younger to be. Anyway these are the kind of women I imagined I would have hung out with a lot if I had ever been able to establish my artsy credentials. Of course our imagination always outstrips reality. As I have written before, I imagined myself before I went to college hanging out with women of a certain type that I thought, and congratulated myself for thinking, reasonably realistic, whom I found upon arriving at school barely existed at all, and when they did had far more desirable social and physical options than I could offer at the time. 

The Women I Found Attractive Despite Their Being Rather Weak and Stupid in the Movie

I have watched a couple of the other films in the collection. The first was Pearls of the Deep, which is the collection of shorts based on the Hrabal stories. It is a superb mixture of quirky Hrabal stories, imaginative and beautiful film-making, and documentation of the Czech life and personality. The directors were Jiri Manzel (Closely Watched Trains), Jan Nemecs (The Report on the Party and the Guests), Evald Schorm, Vera Chytylova (Daisies), and Jaromil Jires. If I had to rate the shorts, I would say Schorm's ("The House of Joy") about a butcher and amateur artist who covered every bare surface in his house with his painting, is the most interesting idea, Chytylova's (The Restaurant The World) is the most cinematically arresting, Jires's ("Romance") the most evocative of what it is like to be out and about in Prague. Menzel's ("Mr Baltazar's Death") is also very good--I wonder if it was not the most effective as a literary story--and had many ingenious images and directions that it took. The Nemec ("The Imposters") was good too, though the simplest and most straightforward of the set. I also saw the somewhat famous Daisies, which I liked for a while but of which I eventually grew a little tired. In its story of two anarchic girls running wild, rejecting conventional romance and other girlish concerns, cutting up penis-shaped fruits and meats, putting old men on trains they don't want to be on, and smearing food and various other things all over their beautiful young bodies, I was reminded a lot of Celine and Julie Go Boating. How much was I reminded of it you say?

Sedmikrasky (1966)

Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (1974)
Quite a few other people on the internet have noted the similarities between these two films. It is not my special insight. 

At one point of the girl's names in Daisies was Julie too, but their names kept changing. 

The Adam Sandler guy was briefly in this also, as a hopeless sap in love with the more extreme 60s chick of the duo, the one with the rust-colored hair. I thought they were both sexy, but I suppose if I had to pick I have a slight preference for the brunette.