Saturday, February 08, 2014

Seven Beauties

Seven Beauties is an Italian movie from 1975 with which I was heretofore unfamiliar. It was directed by Lina Wertmuller, of whom I guess I had heard, but I did not know anything about her. I had assumed she was German, to begin with (she is of aristocratic Swiss descent, but was born, and as far as I can tell primarily grew up, in Rome). Since she seemed to be admired exclusively by either self-serious intellectuals or the most impossibly with-it people, while I was aware of no humbler or duller person who had any familiarity with her work, I had a vague idea that she operated as a director on the more difficult and inaccessible end of the German New Wave. This did not deter my excitement to try to take it on, for I often like movies of this type, though I harbored little realistic hope that I would be able to understand most of what was important about it. And while my taste very often does not agree with what hip and edgy people find worth their time, I usually can find something that is appealing to me in things that real intellectuals like, even if I don't understand them. This may appear a paradox or impossibility, and I suppose it is if one admits that nothing has reality that fails to meet the most basic laws of logic; however it is clear much of conscious life, both of the social and inner varieties, takes place outside of these narrow bounds.

Seemingly everyone who writes about Seven Beauties concurs that it is outstanding, a film of the very first rank all around. I will only join in with this chorus because I do not think this enthusiasm and high opinion have penetrated very far even among the general intelligent cinephile public. In the course of this movie several hundred people are killed by firing squads, the body of a murdered man is chopped up and packed into three separate suitcases and put on three separate trains, a man in a concentration camp contrives his end by diving into a sewage pit and refusing to come up again (though the guards unload a few dozen rounds of machine gun fire into the pit just to be sure), there are a sex scene involving a sadistic 250 pound female prison guard in an office whose furnishings include a swastika rug and an enormous photograph of Hitler, a rape of a woman tied up in a bed in an insane asylum, and some of the ugliest women (contra the title) ever seen in any movie anywhere, as well as one of the clearer representations of the kinds of things a person in a concentration camp could be brought to do that I have seen, at least in a long time. Yet it is in many instances comic, at least in an absurd way. It is also serious, but the interjections of comedy and absurdity insist that this seriousness is no way the result of straining or conscientiousness. The tone and the balance of this mass of horrors juxtaposed with the underlying absurdity and the occasional flash of intelligent or pertinent observation ('How did the world get like this?") is achieved about as perfectly as could have been expected (and it had to be). It is the signature accomplishment here.

Fernando Rey is in this. It is always a delight to see him, even though here it is as a prisoner in a concentration camp. His presence had not been advertised in the brief promotional and critical summaries I had come across, and it is a rather small role. However his whole persona as an actor, especially in this period, is largely of the same animating spirit as that prevalent throughout this movie, so it is almost as if he is there for emphasis (Look! It's Fernando Rey! And he is in a striped concentration camp outfit! And he is still suave and witty and contemptuous! And you love it!)

The star was Giancarlo Giannini, whom I have not seen before. He is most famous for his parts in Lina Wertmuller movies. His performance stands out, enough that he was nominated for the regular best actor Oscar for the 1976 awards despite his movie's obviously being in a foreign language (which is not as rare of an occurrence as I thought, however). Lina Wertmuller was nominated for best director as well, which indicates to me that the film made a splash of some kind at the time. I wonder why it has become relatively forgotten. Besides still being very good, the basic story is not difficult to follow and while entertaining is not exactly the word I would use to describe it because of the nature of the content, its construction and the way it unfolds is in what I would call the entertaining style (that is, the story is always active, each little section builds up to a climax, these occur at intervals that are not too far apart, and the result hurtles you forcefully into the next scene).

Lina Wertmuller's Oscar nomination for this was the first ever for a female director. I feel like I am supposed to be overcome by trepidation and discomfort as a result of this, but as long as the direction isn't cloying or reveling in opposition to everything our male-centric traditions and civilization hold dear, which is not blatantly the case here, I don't see why I would be. Wertmuller looks to be one of those old European artist-intellectual types who always hung with the big brain boys and knows, and mainly cares about, what is and has been in the past strong and worthy in the arts and thought, who is not motivated by personal animosities or resentments or extreme self-absorption, and who finds interesting stories and things to think and write about outside of this, which is always a rare ability no matter who the group is made up of.

The opening sequence included some film footage of Hitler and Mussolini. We all know what Hitler looks like, but I had never seen much tape on Mussolini. He was really absurd.

There was an interview with Lina Wertmuller in the extras that came with the movie. It was over an hour long so I did not watch much of it, but there was one minor, prosaic item in it that caught my attention. Wertmuller's father was an important lawyer in Rome, and his idea, which he did not neglect to plant in her head, had been that she would be one too. This made an impression on me because I have noticed people are starting to ask my older two sons what they want to be when they grow up, and invariably they say "I don't know". I am sure this is an honest reply, and that they have no idea what they would like to do, because the serious work world that the people who are asking these questions have in mind can hardly have much reality for my children, mainly because it is does not have much for me. There is an immortal line in the old movie Dead Poet's Society where a heartless father barks to his son, who is overindulging in the romantic side of his personality at his exclusive boarding school, "You're going to Harvard, and you're going to be a doctor". This line has always stuck with me, because it not only sets a clear bar of what is the minimum that will be acceptable for the child going forward, but that the parent knows absolutely what he is saying, and that it is easily within his power to bring about the desired result if the child has the least capacity and will to attain it. A more humbly placed family cannot in most instances insist that their children get into and attend elite colleges and become doctors, because they simply don't have the knowledge of what is actually required to achieve those goals. Of course lower class families have pride and set bars as well--even at the bottom, Chris Rock's famous joke about keeping your daughter off the pole applies--but in the case of Lina Wertmuller and many other writers and other creative people that one reads about, even if there is some flexibility with regard to the ultimate occupation, the message was clear that anything below the education level and respectability of 'lawyer' was essentially the equivalent of 'the pole', and was not to be considered as acceptable, ever. People who come from this kind of background of expected success are not wholly conscious of this, because it is the very atmosphere they breathe; but it is real, and powerful.

But to return to my children: Where we live there are a lot of Libertarian types, people who hate taxes and worship capitalism, and due to choices we have made with regard to schools and activities in addition to the relative density of their numbers locally, we are coming into contact with them with increasing frequency. These people don't quite know what to make of me, which is understandable, as I don't know what to make of myself, but they see that my wife is an energetic and extremely resourceful person who never whines about fate or limitations or not being able to do something she wants to do, but immediately and constantly sets to making plans for how her various desires might be brought about (I would tell you some of these successful and to me marvelous schemes, but I don't think she would like being brought alive as a character in this blog to that extent) and that my sons are not complete blockheads either in academics or in practical matters, and seem to be doing at least as well as their own children, in spite of their comparatively lackluster paternal guidance and example. I have noticed a couple of times now people not only asking the two older ones what they wanted to be when they grew up, but whether they had chores at home or not, and indeed one person asked them whether they were aware that they would have to have a job someday (thankfully they answered yes to that one). I remember on several occasions when I was an adolescent adult men trying to strike up conversations with me about matters on responsible adulthood as if they suspected my father of being deficient in these areas (perhaps he was, but as he seemed to me, and still does, much more intelligent and vital than most of these other people, their efforts did not leave much of an impression on me). Some of the upright blue collar types (policemen, independent contractors, etc) who populated our neighborhood (and who really disliked my father) took it upon themselves to talk to me about the necessity of morality and work ethic and proper decency in social intercourse, which I naturally resented, enough that this in part prompted me to move to Maine (where my father actually was). When I was there I remember the father of one of my friends, who was a lawyer, and didn't know my father, but had seen enough of me to not like the impression, giving me a harangue one evening at their dinner table about how I needed to be productive in my life, and how I was not productive. Anyway I wonder if something like that is going on now with my children. Still, I think because of my wife that the bar of acceptability may be already, and for the most part unconsciously on her part, set higher than I suspect it is. I believe that certain failures of will or talent or fortune that cannot be overcome are possibilities that I do not think she believes are possibilities, because they are not an imbued part of her experience. I certainly hope that this is the dominant impression that the children will receive in these instances.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1997)                  

This is the Disney cartoon version. I want to record and leave at least a brief note on all of the highly rated movies I see. Going on twelve years of having small children, a cartoon has to have something really, really unique and appealing about it for me to take much of an interest in it. That was not the case here, though I acknowledge the greatness of the story, the elements of which were ready-made to be classic, and were only waiting to be combined into a narrative. I don't know if the execution ever lives up to the promise offered by the scenario, as I have neither read the book nor seen any of the other numerous movie versions, several of which are considered classics in their own right. All of these I am pretty sure will turn up on one or another of my various lists at some point (if I live long enough, henceforth shortened to the internet word IILLE).

Sometimes I do searches on this blog to see if I have ever, in seven and a half years, used certain words. Today I discovered that I have never used the word "spreading" in this blog (Until now).

When I was really little I thought The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a true story about football.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

11:33 I Swear It's No Sooner...

...I went inside my TV and met the Honeymooners.
Ralph wanted me to bust a few rhymes
But I had my eyes on Alice's behind.

--LL Cool J

People love the Honeymooners. At the very least a lot of old New York people do--most personal reminiscences of the show that I can find recount that the reruns played at 11:30 on Channel 11 (WPIX) through most of the 70s and 80s--and their cultural weight, no matter who they are, is of course multiple times that of any ordinary person from anywhere else. I never watched the Honeymooners as an adolescent or young adult. I don't think it was on in Philadelphia. When we first got cable, around 1983 or '84, WPIX & WOR in New York were two of the channels we got, but other than watching the occasional baseball game (the first of these stations carried the Yankees, the other the Mets) I didn't take the opportunity to connect with New York life that having these channels offered. I was still pre-occupied at the time with trying to connect to Philadelphia life, which, as I lived there, must have seemed more relevant. Plus all of the real to the bone Philadelphia people, of which everyone I knew other than myself was one, hate New York City, so there was no one to try to persuade me otherwise. One of the minor consequences of this was that I made it to my forties without ever having seen the Honeymooners.

As you have probably guessed, I have been catching up with this iconic artifact of popular culture over the course of this winter. I've gone through four of the five DVDs on which the series is preserved, 32 of the famous 39 episodes. The first episode I didn't like too much. I thought it was silly and that Norton especially was more or less retarded. The second and the third were a little better, the likable or interesting aspects of the characters began to become more defined. By the fourth show, which was an Alice-centric one, I began, sort of, to see what the hype was about. It is quite poignant for a television show. Much of this has to do with the circumstance that it only ran for a year. It is absolutely frozen in a particular moment in time, not only its year of 1955-56, which itself was on the cusp of changes in society, New York City, and the economic situation of the white working classes that are of especial relevance to the themes of this program, but also in the ages and personae of the three main actors, and the rather hopeless seeming situation of the characters (fourteen years into her marriage and Alice can't even get a curtain for the window, let alone furniture, a vacuum cleaner, wallpaper, a refrigerator, a telephone, a nicer apartment, etc). Suburbanization and the abandonment of the cities by characters like this, while underway, was still far from complete in the mid-50s. My own grandparents, for example, did not make the move from Philadelphia out to Cheltenham and Elkins Park until '57 in the one case and '59 in the other. For the generations who were small children when this big break from the city occurred, or were born after it, there is often a nostalgia for aspects of the old city life, especially the idea that there was a sense of community or camaraderie, with attendant simpler pleasures, in it, that have been denied to us. I feel something of this when Ralph and Norton go to the raccoon lodge (it is widely known that The Flintstones is more or less a cartoon version of the Honeymooners, but the homage was lost on me until I saw these shows; it is notable that even by the time of the Flintstones--who were clearly resident in the suburbs, it should be added--the lodge membership was showing signs of being dated). It would be fun to drink beer and tell jokes and laugh uproariously with other grown men who have more or less the same level and kind of education, and broadly the same kind of occupation and income (probably necessarily low, however), and where no one is complaining that there is too much coriander in whatever it is people put coriander into. It is true that among this general equality of station Ralph always seems to be a few dollars worse off than everyone else--and not insignificant dollars either, but these signifiers do not seem to be the barriers to social life in this program that they are in our time, with their minute and finely shaded gradations of achievement and quality. Of course it is illusory, people were at least as miserable in the 50s as they are now, certainly my own relatives were more miserable than I am (though maybe they only seemed that way because they had more expressive personalities), most grown-ups had no more close friends or any more of a social life than people have ever had. There were gradations of rank among people on the same assembly line that were no keenly felt by all parties. Still, the idea appeals, even at the social level depicted here.

The series is often lauded for its superior writing. I wouldn't say that the writing ever approaches real literary brilliance, though some of the episodes do strike me as having more to them they look, and it is no longer a question of whether I could produce anything better; I just like to display some restraint in my praises. There is an obvious charm about the world of this program that must in some part be due to the writing though I think it is probably mostly due to the three primary stars. The characters do attain more depth over the course of the 39 (in my case, 32) episodes than most television characters ever do, but I don't know that that depth would be conveyed by the written script alone.

The poignancy of the show, of course, is that its situation is almost ludicrously sad and hopeless--Ralph and Alice have been married for fourteen years, they have no children, no furniture or new appliances or any other accoutrements of married life, Ralph's job status is never going to improve, as he seemingly lacks the qualities to rise a step above the bottom rung of the career ladder--yet there is a sense of genuine affection in their life that most programs and movies are not able to duplicate. Also Ralph's various failures are largely those of a lack of social and intellectual experience and preparation in juxtaposition to people who have more of these things, which is exaggerated for the purpose of the program, but which shortcomings and failures in crucial moments define the mass of people's existences, so you have the pain of this recognition followed, usually, by the consolation that Alice, and Norton (who one realizes as the show goes on is something of an idiot savant) too, are loyal in their affection, and (and this is the crucial point) they possess enough admirable qualities that their affection is worth having, that it means something.  

Jackie Gleason (in addition to writing the theme music for the Honeymooners) put out a number of jazz/mood music record albums, which sold remarkably well (his first ten albums all sold over a million copies!) His inspiration for this enterprise came from watching Clark Gable work on the ladies in the movies. "Gleason reasoned 'If Gable needs music, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate.'"

In Honor of the Super Bowl

So I've actually missed the Super Bowl. I was going to mark the occasion by posting these highlights from the broadcast of a Giants-Redskins game in 1970:

Didn't that look like it was about a hundred times more fun to watch on TV than the games are now? I think the only reason I remain something of a football fan is because I was introduced to it in the more low-key era of the 1970s. I think if I were a kid now I wouldn't like it, it would be too overwhelming. My sons, the two oldest of which are now 11 and 10, don't have the same interest in professional sports that I had at that age. They watched the Super Bowl with me, but that's because we had a party, with shrimp and crackers and chips and other snacks that they like, and they like the commercials and the halftime show probably more than the game. I think the overkill of media coverage is suffocating all of the joy out of football. One of the reasons the game was so exciting back in the glorious 70s was that the game itself (and the half-hour pregame show) was about the only media coverage you had access to. There would be the write-up in the newspaper on Monday and maybe a recap show with the local sportscaster on Monday after the evening news, but after that it really went away until the next Sunday, and everybody went on with their lives.

1970 was pre-George Allen for the Redskins, and they were not very good, yet they already had a lot of the players in this who be central on those teams--Pat Fischer, Chris Hanburger, Brig Owens (and who were still playing for them when I began watching games, around '75 or '76). I'm getting so old, and I have not really watched much football in the last 20 years, that if I am watching a game with the Cowboys or the Giants or the Redskins, I'll often see a guy wearing a certain number and automatically associate it for about five seconds with whoever had the number in 1980, before I realize, no, the guy I'm thinking of would be about 60 years old now.

We get to see Fran Tarkenton with the Giants, in that odd five-year interlude in the prime of his career where he played in New York, and was apparently good there too, but never got into the playoffs, before returning to Minnesota, where I remember him at the tail end. Doesn't it seem like there were a lot of guys who came into the league in the early 60s who lasted forever? Besides half the 1970s Redskins roster there were lots of Vikings, Marshall, Eller, Hilgenberg, Tarkenton, etc. Merlin Olsen was old, Jackie Smith the tight end. Roger Staubach was in this age group, though he started five years later due to his naval commitment.

We also see Tucker Frederickson, a white running back who was the number one pick in the entire draft in 1965 or 1966 whose selection ahead of the likes of Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus was frequently held up in the 1970s as one of the main triggers of the Giants being a putrid team during the whole of the 1964-80 period. My impression of him was that he was a colossal bust, but 1970 would have been his fifth or sixth year in the league and he was still on the roster. Moreover he had at least two big plays in this game, and looked like he actually had some speed and talent as a runner. That said, his stats were not impressive. 1970 was one of his better years, especially receiving, and he only managed about 750 yards from scrimmage. He played into the 1971 season, when his career was ended by a knee injury.  

When you are in your 20s it is beauty, and the people who possess it, who fill your dreams and seem hopelessly remote from you. In your 30s and 40s the remote ones are those who are genuinely intelligent and have managed to achieve something of substance. I don't know what possesses the entirety of the waking thoughts of failed people in their 50s, but I suspect it is money. If that is the case I am really not looking forward to my 50s


"A few years ago an eminent French litterateur, Brunetiere, declared science bankrupt. This was on the eve of the discoveries of radio-activity which have opened up great vistas of possible human readjustments if we could but learn to control and utilize the inexhaustible sources of power that lie in the atom. It was on the eve of the discovery of the function of the white blood corpuscles, which clears the way for indefinite advance in medicine. Only a poor discouraged man of letters could think for a moment that science was bankrupt. No one entitled to an opinion on the subject believes that we have made more than a beginning in penetrating the secrets of the organic and inorganic worlds."--Robinson, The New History, quoted by Irwin Edman, Human Traits and Their Social Significance, 1920.

Ferdinand Brunetiere (1849-1906) was a writer, primarily a critic, and a member of the Academie Francaise, holding seat number 28. I was not aware until this particular research that the members of this body were identified by their seat numbers, and I am still not clear as to what these numbers signify, but Wikipedia and other internet sites have graphs and lists showing who has held each seat through history (the most famous occupant of # 28 from my viewpoint appears to have been the writer Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who rocked the house from 1844-1869; but then he is the only person on the list whose name I recognize). Brunetiere was noted, according to his English Wikipedia article, for his intolerance, his sledge-hammer method of (intellectual) attack, and his dry pedantry. His claim about the bankruptcy of science is not referenced in the article, though it did mention his essay "Apres une Visite au Vatican" in which he argued that 'science was incapable of providing a convincing social morality' which sounds like a more nuanced explanation of what he might have meant in calling science bankrupt. His French Wikipedia page paints him as something of a reactionary, noting that he wrote frequent articles against the likes of Flaubert, Zola and Baudelaire, and was an anti-Dreyfusard at the time of that crisis. With regard to science, it states that (trans. mine) "He was equally hostile to dominant scientism, ce qui l'a rapproche un temps d'un anarchiste comme Octave Mirbeau" (I am stumped by the grammar in the second part of this sentence. I cannot determine whether the subject is Brunetiere and the object scientism, or vice versa) and "Brunetiere upheld a theory of evolution of literary genres, inspired by the theses of Darwin." So it appears he was often congenitally wrong-headed, as well as personally obnoxious, and that he was badly out of step with the direction that knowledge and thought were headed in by the time he was elected to the academy (in 1893). That acknowledged, it doesn't appear that he was actually an idiot, or at least was not mentally and emotionally weak enough that anybody below the level of groundbreaking genius could laugh in his face and humiliate him without absorbing a few wounds of his own in the blowback. Still, if he really did think science had reached a technical (as opposed to a moral) dead end by the 1890s--which I cannot find corroborated--that would be hard for an intellectual in our society to ever really live down; though I think the French are more tolerant of outrageous or even wrong views, if you present them elegantly or dynamically enough.

Brunetiere failed the entrance exam of the Ecole Normale as a young man due to his deficiency in Greek.

Brunetiere's grave, Cimitiere du Montparnasse