Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Boring Movie Post

I really outdid myself this time.

These came up on my list but I had already seen them before, in some cases several times. One of them I did not even bother to watch again, due to time constraints and a second I only watched with the commentary on as a refresher. But I want to keep a full record here so I will leave a few brief notes.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

This is the one I watched with the commentary on. It is one of those films that makes me wish I had more of the native instinct for ferocity and scorn. It is perfectly adequate of course, especially for the likes of me, and the cast is almost a who's who of fully developed and humblingly literate British acting talent. But I suspect there is more than enough room for it to be knocked down a peg or two, if you have it in you to persuasively assert that it is smug, lacks warmth, lets the actors show off too much, and all of the other things I find in it in the frame of mind I inhabit now. There were instances where the lines seemed and objectively were funny, but I did not feel entirely free or eager to laugh, and twisted my mouth into a grim smile instead. It was as if I were hesitant that doing so would give satisfaction in a quarter such as would be especially distasteful to me.

Sense & Sensibility is probably my least favorite Jane Austen book (I won't count Northanger Abbey). That is not to say it isn't better than ninety percent of even well-regarded novels, but I find the particular characters and the general situation of this one the least compelling (I've always been a big Mansfield Park fan, which I feel is underrated among us because the main female character is less feisty and more deferent to societal expectations than the other Austen heroines).  Among the Jane Austen film adaptations I do like the 1992 six hour Pride & Prejudice, which does a better job it seems to me of inhabiting the story as Jane Austen would have regarded it. It feels like a younger person's movie in general. There was a BBCish version of Mansfield Park, very low budget and pretty conservative (compared to the 2000s version that featured explicit incest and lesbianism anyway), that came out in the 80s that I also liked because it had that ruling spirit of youthfulness about it. I think that must be important to the Jane Austen formula.  

Roman Holiday (1953)

I have this listed on my profile page as one of my favorite movies. The other time I saw it was before I took a trip to Rome in 2001, so that predisposition towards excitement and the power of the association ever since have doubtless influenced my idea about it ever since. Did I like it as much after the thirteen year interval? Probably not but how could I? I don't feel about anything anymore the way I used to feel about them. I fear that if were to read War & Peace or the Pickwick Papers again I would not find that they moved me as they once did, and I should agree with modern people that long form novels and the whole idea of great books are a relic from a age comparatively starved for information and novelty, and that tech innovators and economists discover and accomplish things every few weeks of more probity and import than Dostoevsky did in the whole of his life. (Interlude--I managed to begin this posting in the morning, and sneaked in about an hour of writing. Now I have to stop, and the rest of this will probably have to be finished late at night. Note how the quality both of my mood and my coherence of thought will slip from this point forward).

(Starting again, about a week later...)

I had forgotten that the first half hour is a little slow going. However, once they get out on the streets of Rome that part really is, and probably always will be, still great. This was, famously, Audrey Hepburn's first movie, and it is one of the great debuts of all time, a stroke of great luck not only for her, but for the movie itself, for as it was pointed out in the little documentary that came with the DVD, if she had already been an established star, the film almost certainly would have been made in technicolor, had a much bigger budget, been much more serious, and not as good. All of these legendary film stars and directors and producers and writers, we are told, had dark sides that would make the average earnest workaday type of fellow shudder to encounter face to face. It is hard to imagine Audrey Hepburn, at least at the time this was made, having such an unfathomable dark side. I only mention this because I was looking for signs of it both in the movie and in the other materials, but I didn't really see anything.

It would be easy to be envious of the cheap expat life in the great capitals of Europe that was available to Americans in the 50s (though the Gregory Peck character and his friend are supposed to be behind on their rent and scrounging up money to order coffee). However this is one thing I cannot really lament this, because I was able to replicate this to a very great extent in Prague in the 90s, which I think is not possible anymore for people who are bringing the amount of money to the party that I was at the time. I have to confess I have been lucky in my timing in several of these life experiences, in fact. I only regret that I could not have made more of the opportunities, the comparative rarity of which for people in my condition I now realize.

So, is Roman Holiday still one of my all time favorite movies? About half of it definitely is, yes. I am not dissuaded enough to take it off the list and replace it with anything else.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

This is the one that I did not bother to watch again because I have seen it often enough and I just don't have the time. I watched it every year as a child when it came on television and I looked forward to it, though I was always more of a fan of the books, and as the movie departed massively from the book in pretty much every way (to my literal 9 year old brain) I never quite embraced it whole-heartedly. Of course at that time I was not in the Judy Garland cult either. This is probably her signature role in most people's minds, though I have always tended to view it as something separate from the rest of her career, because it does not seem to me to fit in with those other movies. I met Margaret Hamilton, who played the witch, at the annual Munchkin Convention (for East Coast Oz Club members--the Munchkin Country was the eastern part of Oz in the books) in Cherry Hill, New Jersey when I was nine or ten. She seemed to me a regular little old lady. She did not break into character at any point, that I can remember. We have a tape of this and my own children watch it sometimes. They don't seem to be afraid of the witch the way I and most other older people remember being afraid of her. Modern kids not terrified by witch. I don't whether the proper question is why they have no terror of this character or why older generations did have it? Obviously there was some threat hinted at in the witch character that had a reality for us that it does not have for my children. Indeed, my children do not seem to have much sense of anything more unsettling than that someone may restrain their ability to express their anger to its absolute fullest extent.

I have come, in my periodic glimpses of the movie when it is playing in the house, to appreciate the MGM production values in the black and white, really sepia-toned, scenes in Kansas. This is probably my favorite part of the film at this time. The songs are (mostly) good, and the scenes where the Wizard is exposed and then departs have a certain undeniable poignancy. It's more that I had not noticed the vintage 1939 beauty of the Kansas part earlier in my life the way that I do now. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

I Have Had Enough of This Economy (And the Society It Is Producing)

I am reading Ruskin again, his not very famous"Sesame" lecture, delivered, I believe, around 1865. Its main theme was about the value of reading, with much emphasis on how few people had any conception of what that actually meant. By way of example he broke down a couple of lines of "Lycidas" word by word, considered the roots, the relations of each word to the others, how those derived from Greek had been used in the Bible and other classical literature in different senses than their usually English meanings, and so forth (This poem was frequently extolled in my 1940s and 50s reference books as perhaps the greatest short poem in the English language; I don't think people changed their minds about this so much in recent decades as that it is not the kind of thing any significant people deeply care about anymore).  Anyway, upon doing this, Ruskin proclaimed to the assembled audience that:

"...we have done enough by way of example of the kind of word-by-word examination of your author which is rightly called 'reading'...putting ourselves always in the author's place, annihilating our personality....so as to be able assuredly to say, 'thus Milton thought,' not 'Thus I thought, in misreading Milton'...You will begin to perceive that what you thought was a matter of no serious importance;--that your thoughts on any subject are not perhaps the clearest and wisest that could be arrived at thereupon:--in fact, that unless you are a very singular person, you cannot be said to have any 'thoughts' at all; that you have no materials for them, in any serious matters...Nay, most probably all your life...you will have no legitimate right to an 'opinion' on any business, except that instantly under your hand."

That noted, I am going to unburden myself of some of the impressions that the ongoing weirdness of our economic state has produced in me.

It is become almost a proverb that lotteries are a tax on stupid people, or at least people who have no understanding of math. Is not the entire economy for the bottom half of the wealth distribution pretty much a similar tax. And 'tax' is a polite way of putting it. Working a dismal job, without full time hours, and those not at set times, with no prospects for advancement, for eight or nine dollars an hour, is scarcely less pointless and absurd than buying a lottery ticket if one's intention is to live by working. The idea that doing some kind of approved work, or at least behind forced to show up and pretend to do so, as opposed to sitting around idle, is a virtue and reward in itself, even if it is separated from any pretense of making a real living, apparently remains strong, though it does not make much sense to do something unpleasant for someone else's profit if you have no hope of even being paid enough to support yourself. Our supposed societal revulsion to slavery, or at least that of our economic leaders, consists solely in the ownership by one person of another's physical body, as if that is, and only ever was, the whole of the cruelty.

The distortion at the higher end and the widening ranges of income between various positions and fields of work have impaired my ability to perceive any kind of true value of money or the appropriate compensation for labor. My sense of value, my own or most other people's has little to do with real production or contribution to the economy, if there even is any of this. In coldly rational economic terms, yes, I probably deserve to be even poorer than I am. Indeed, I often cannot think of any compelling reason why anyone who works at anything should be paid less than I am. Yet I am still arrogant enough to think it is my birthright to live in a pleasant house in a not completely ramshackle town and for my children to go to nicer schools than other children go to even though there is nothing in the world I can do particularly well that creates any wealth. Why? Because I am taller and paler and probably would still score higher on academic exams than most people (even though I can't talk), and because the idea of having to live among people with whom I have socially and culturally nothing in common even though it is the level that my actual skills and abilities merit is just too unthinkable. I could not claim it was unfair, but I would think it very hard.

The opportunities for the already extremely wealthy to make massive amounts of additional income contrasted with the limited opportunities for ever-increasing swathes of the population to substantially improve their very modest amounts of wealth seems out of sync to me and has distorted society to the point that it needs some kind of corrective, whether via regulations, or oversight, or what have you. 'Redistribution' is an ugly word, and I don't really like that concept myself, but the access that a relative few have to absolutely immense streams of income, greater, in some individual instances, to the combined sources of income of millions of people, has to be reigned in. People were aghast that Wal-Mart was taking up collections so its employees could have Thanksgiving, but many large companies have hardship funds set up for their own low wage employees to apply to if they are in need. It is considered normal.    

I read a story about Bloomberg in New York, that when he trimmed the budget, which included cut the public funding for a number of cultural institutions, he replenished, or partially replenished, much of this lost funding out of his own fortune. The writer of the article seemed to think there was nothing bad about this, but it seems wrong to me. You can't have a strong publicly supported institution if your population of millions can't generate enough tax revenue to support it, but are dependent on wealthy individuals acting as wealthy individuals and not as part of the tax base to support it.  In his campaigns for mayor he also was able to use his personal fortune to overwhelm many times over the amount of money that the opposition party was able to raise. Is this indicative of a healthy body politic?

In light of all of the Catholic schools that are closing I recall that in my parents' day the Church maintained a standing army to run their schools and I suppose other of their enterprises, who I am guessing did not cost quite so much to maintain as regular full time employees are nowadays. They were called nuns. The economy of nuns seems like an interesting topic to look into. At one time there must have been tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of women employed and sustained in this occupation. They worked hard, lived very modestly, and were paid little, yet the position required education and seriousness, and obviously had a sense of purpose about it. The life was one that many people found to have dignity. I know that in our time the mere idea of nuns is fraught with myriad issues regarding people's intense feelings about the Catholic Church, hierarchies, gender roles, and so on, and I am not suggesting that people adapt to the economic situation by refilling our abandoned convents. I wonder if some aspects of this model for economic purposes could be revived. Modern Americans, it is widely agreed by the experts, cost too much to maintain in the manner to which they are accustomed, and the lifestyle for many has to be downgraded. Certain nun qualities, such as plainness of dress and diet, as well as self-discipline and purposefulness, has to be a more attractive alternative than much of what passes for life in this country nowadays, and these habits would not be incompatible with family life, for I am not suggesting that people would have to forgo sex and parenthood to adopt some of these habits...

3:23am, I have to go to bed. I had more on this too, but I've forgotten it...

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Literary Studs II

Sir Kingsley Amis:

"There were parties at the Amises in which every woman present was invited by him to visit his greenhouse in the garden; they all knew what the invitation meant.

"The writer Al Alvarez, present at one such long, drunken evening, remembered that 'the rest of us sat around trying to make conversation and pretending not to be embarrassed.

"'Half an hour later our host and whichever lucky lady had gone with him sauntered back in, smoothing their clothes and hair but not quite able to conceal the wild furtive triumph in their eyes.'"

The story goes on to talk about how this triumph would shortly afterwards fade to misery for all involved, but I can hardly get interested in that. Almost everyone is miserable to some degree, and I don't buy that the misery that follows in the wake of triumph as a hard contrast to it is worse than the eternal low level kind of misery that knows no such release. The man who triumphs can sell his misery as more serious because he experiences the feeling as an affront, and because smaller people are trained, or have trained themselves, to think of any minor emotional affliction he may suffer as being a greater calamity in the real, social world, than the worst thing that could befall them; this does not make it so however.

All of the people involved in these stories are dead or extremely old now, and it is the people who never did anything illicit, or not more than once or twice in the whole of their faded lives, who appear ridiculous in such stories.

I gave a thought to running a parallel series about Literary Duds, featuring people like Ruskin and Lewis Carroll whose sex lives were a series of unending disasters, or who suffered any great social or intellectual humiliation, whether sexual or not, as if that perspective would make me feel less oppressed by the overwhelming feats of the studs. That would not be a very likely outcome, however.

There are a million of these anecdotes about the sexual triumphs of superior men buried in libraries (it is hard to find just the right episodes and descriptions online--these tend to be things you come across in passing that make an impression at the time but that you then cannot find again). You could easily have an entire site with this as a sole subject. To be honest I am not as stirred by these stories as I was even a few years ago. I used to take it as a grave insult, in my late 20s and early 30s especially, but even beyond that time, that I could find no woman anywhere who would flirt with or express--or even attractively feign--the least curiosity or interest in me at all. I am not claiming to be an exciting person or anything, but no one in his 20s and 30s who has any spirit wants to go through the world in that degree of total invisibility as far as these things go. In the last couple of years I have had to admit that I have gotten old, that my record in the game of life, while I still think it is around .500, if not slightly above, has not been good enough to put a claim on the attention and interest of other people, and that it would probably be embarrassing to me at this point if anybody were to behave in a flirtatious manner, since they would in all likelihood, given the nature of such things, be attributing qualities to me that I could no longer pretend to flatter myself as having any grounds; and while it is not impossible, it is doubtful that it is more likely than it was when I was more or less in my prime that people should develop a fondness for personal attributes that have been revealed to be mediocre at best...

For people who would protest that I have no business to be even speculating about these kinds of subjects, I am playing/pretending, admittedly feebly, at being a person of the type who at least moves in the kind of world that are celebrated in this and other literary-themed posts. Whatever may happen in my inner life in this way translates exactly zero percent to my actual, outer life, the only one anyone would insist counted if I tried to assert my fancies of what kind of person I was as what kind of person I really was. In the life of this blog, this general topic, translating as it so often does to high intelligence, liveliness, worldly success and achievement, is important and the consequences and causes of not being such a person are ones that I will feel compelled to think upon on a more or less continuous basis.

And believe me, these essays are not going to pique anybody's desire to get to know me better. It is at this point a dead phenomenon that I think is for my own sake worth dissecting and asking the question "why?"