Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

This is the one starring Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton. I think it may be my all time favorite Dickens adaptation, to this point, though I have not seen all that many. The other contenders among those I have are good--the 1948 David Lean Oliver Twist that I wrote about a few months ago, both the 1951 and 1984 Christmas Carols, and the 6-8 hour 1988 television adaption of Little Dorrit. I found that this one gave me the most unabashed enjoyment however.

I read the book when I was in high school, though I haven't taken it up since then. I have always enjoyed all of the most iconic Dickens books, even though I doubt I understood much of what was going on in them as a teenager. I realize now that for the most part in my life I have read for companionship rather than information or insight, and Dickens is of course one of the all time best authors for this. Old movies offered something of this sense of camaraderie as well, so that it seems the work of Dickens would have been especially well-suited to 1930s and early 40s Hollywood. They shared, with regard to narrative, many of the same satisfying predilections and excellences, and A Tale of Two Cities was at the forefront of all of Dickens's books in producing potent melodramatic images that old time filmmakers could use with a relish completely free of any sense of shame--the guillotine, aristocrats whose arrogance would permit allow of no inhibitions, fanatical revolutionaries devoted to making sure the 0.1 percent got their comeuppance, the great wild spectacles such as the storming of the Bastille and the revolutionary courts. I don't remember whether the extremely sentimental episode of Sydney Carton's Christmas Eve was in the book, but it was one of the most charming things I have experienced in these last months.

Some notes on the principals:

Over the top though it may have been, the performance of Blanche Yurka as Madame Defarge was striking, and deserves to be remembered.

The great Basil Rathbone appears as the deliciously vicious and arrogant Marquis de St Evremonde, unfortunately only for a couple of scenes. Evidently he specialized in playing supercilious aristocratic types. His Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood was so pointedly and doggedly humorless that his mere presence on the screen caused one to titter in delight, and something of that carries over to here. I like this guy.

I don't think I have ever seen Ronald Colman before, who was the star of the film, and was, like John Garfield, a quite major star of the time whose fame has faded enough that I made it into my forties largely unaware of him. He was obviously affable as Sidney Carton--otherwise I would not likely have been able to enjoy the movie. I'll have to see if he turns up again. Most of these guys I need to see two or three times before I begin to appreciate them.

The director was Jack Conway, who is not usually counted among the giants of his profession, though he was a directing machine at MGM from the 1910s through the 40s. The only other movie of his I have ever heard of is A Yank at Oxford, and maybe I am even confusing that with a book. A Tale of Two Cities is his most famous movie. And it is really good.

The screenplay was co-written by S. N. Behrman, who had a long, prolific career as a screenwriter, playwright and New Yorker stalwart in the era when E. B. White, Salinger, Nabokov, Cheever, Updike, et al, were frequent contributors to that magazine. Everybody is conscious of all the inferior writers who get forgotten over time, but how about all of the pretty good writers, who were right in the thick of the scene in their time, and were respected and commissioned to do real work by other serious people? There are a lot of strata in society and the world of work, and I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons I and so many other people have difficulty getting on with careers and such when we are young is because we are so unaware of any work being valuable or offering the possibility of a pleasurable life besides...

Time is up. I would like to finish that thought sometime. It has something to do with the limited sense of what is valuable or possible, or even of what work or a career really is, or involves, in a healthily developed person. But I probably won't get back to a computer for several days...

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Fanny Trilogy

I am going to try doing my movie reviews one at a time both to increase my post output and to see if the prospect of shorter posting helps my concentration and thought contrast.

The Fanny Trilogy: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), Cesar (1936)

A working class family saga set in the old port of old Marseille, adapted from Marcel Pagnol's plays. Pagnol, like Cocteau and other French creatives of that era, worked across the artistic spectrum. I don't believe he painted, but he was a playwright and novelist of considerable renown in France--he has never been as widely celebrated as a literary figure in this country, my sense is because his writing tended in the direction of a romantic realism that has not much interested our best creative and critical minds since his time--as well as a film director. He was heavily involved in the production of all three of the Fanny movies, but he only directed the third one. The director on Marius was Alexander Korda, one of whose other efforts, Rembrandt, was seen here a few years back, and that on Fanny was Marc Allegret, with whom I am not otherwise familiar.

I like these films. I don't love them, though maybe I would love them if I saw, or had seen them a few more times, on occasions which would in after years call up momentous associations. Each of the three does have a different style, likely due to their having different directors, but I cannot say that any one installment stands out as far superior or inferior to the others. I would say that Korda's was the most polished film, but Pagnol did some interesting things with staging, both indoor and outdoor, and Allegret's contribution had a somber, realistic quality about it that I liked. Raimu, the actor who played Cesar, seems to have been the big star among the cast members. I suppose he was good--I have often maintained that French movie acting in the 30s and 40s was the greatest in the annals of that art, and there were a number of excellent performances in this, though overall it seemed a little below the level of the Carne-Renoir-Cocteau films I was thinking of--but I had trouble warming up to him, I think because he looks just like the father of one of my old high school friends, the lawyer who was always chastising me about not being productive. I thought the actor who played Marius (Pierre Fresnay) was appealing, and those who handled the supporting roles of Monsieur Panisse and Monsieur Brun (played by Fernard Charpin and Robert Vattier, to give credit where credit was due) helped to elevate the movies considerably. Orane Demazis as Fanny was pretty, and gives off an air of perfect Frenchness. I am not as keen of a judge of female acting (though I can tell that some people, Edith Evans say, were good). Many critics have found her to be a weak link in the cast, though I cannot detect that this is the case.

The main appeal of this trilogy to me is the poignancy of the lost time that it depicts. One feels this strongest in the final episode when Pagnol does some filming outdoors on the streets of Marseilles, a city that since this film was made suffered extreme bomb damage during World War II as well as having become much less classically French or Provencal in character due to the constant influx over the last century of immigrants, especially from North Africa. Granted, every place is less classically itself than it used to be, even where there has been less significant change in the make-up of the population, but in Marseilles apparently the changes have somewhat more of an in your face aspect than in others. Nonetheless, one sees these old scenes full of people who are no longer alive, streets and cars and occupations and rituals and clothing fashions and attitudes that have come and gone, and it is affecting. The classically French cafe-bar that Cesar runs I guess you can still find variations of, just like you can find old style bars all around America, but it isn't really the same. Their raison d'etre is too elevated, their business plan too sophisticated. They don't exist for a schlub like me to get comfortably plastered in anymore.      

Friday, April 11, 2014

Was Andrew Jackson a Good President?

(The malware crisis seems to have abated? I will try it.)

(The last sentence was earlier in the week. It seems to be back now. Unfortunately I have already started the next post on this account).

(This assumes that any president has ever been, or could be good, which the free and untamed men of the internet and elsewhere would knowingly insist has never occurred).

It seems like no one whose authority would be credible ever wants to come out and say definitively 'yes' or 'no' to the question above. If there is a consensus among learned people concerning the matter, I couldn't tell you what it was, though my sense is that they probably think he was too important in too many ways to be dismissed, but are uncomfortable to appear to extoll him too much, if at all. He was obviously a man of superior energy and leadership capability who set the country on a distinct path in its youth that it may not otherwise have embarked on so thoroughly, and which in world-historical political terms reaped astonishing benefits in terms of power and affluence, and whose personal character influenced and colored that of the nation itself for generations after his own time. He is a man however who always made the more delicate-spirited members of the intellectual class uncomfortable to contemplate, and today not merely his racial attitudes but his extreme personal harshness generally make it difficult for us to regard him as a person to whom we owe any homage at all, let alone consider him one of the greatest of all our countrymen. Yet for all that we want to think we have moved beyond needing this type of character at this stage of our history, it is hard to read about him and not be struck by the thought that we could sure use someone--provided he or she was on 'our' side--to emerge from the population in our own time who was possessed of certain of his qualities, namely the purposefulness and decisiveness in action, and the ability to lead and inspire and represent some vital segment of the population.

In reading over old historical accounts of Jackson--most of the history books in my library date from the 1940s to the 60s--one is struck by the pervasiveness of the word 'hate' in describing Jackson's attitude on any number of issues. He hated Spain. He hated Eastern bankers, and urban sophisticates generally. He hated John C. Calhoun. He hated the assumption of privilege where he considered it to be unearned (I know everyone hates this, but Jackson actually called people on it). He had a volatile and explosive temper. He fought duels and had men hanged, in his military career, with a minimum of deliberation or anguish. His racism, if that word even begins to describe his attitude towards black people and Indians in the context of contemporary enlightened thought, along with the other negative qualities enumerated above, will probably be the dominant ingredients in any consideration of his career for a large proportion of the modern educated population. That he was the most popular, galvanizing, and perhaps the most fearless political leader of his age (though it seems to have been an age that from our vantage was unusually blessed, or cursed, with fearlessness) perhaps comes to seem trivial in comparison.

His energy and personal popularity remind me of Theodore Roosevelt, who remains a fairly well-liked figure in our history, in spite of, and doubtless in some cases because of, his by our standards more outrageous bloviations about race, the place of women, manliness, and the like. Both men became the political champions of movements that perceived, almost ferociously, to have righteousness and the tide of history on their side. Edman (Irwin, early 20th century psychologist), made a few observations about Roosevelt's career in his book (Human Traits and Their Social Significance, 1920):

Under the section "Pugnacity as a beneficent social force":

"Part of Theodore Roosevelt's power was in his picturesque phrasing of political issues as if they were great moral struggles. No one could forget, or fail to have his heart beat a trifle faster at Roosevelt's trumpet call in the 1912 campaign: 'We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.'...Astute political leaders have not failed to capitalize the fighting instinct, and any social project will enlist the wider enthusiasm and the more energetic support if it is hailed as a battle or fight against somebody or something."

And later on, under the section "Enthusiasm" ('Enthusiasm is as ubiquitous a word in writings about Theodore Roosevelt as 'hate' is in those about Andrew Jackson):

"Leaders of great movements who have been successful in controlling the energies and loyalties of millions of men have been frequently men of this high and contagious voltage. It certainly constituted part of Theodore Roosevelt's political strength, and, in more or less genuine form, is the asset of every successful political speaker and leader."

Jackson appears to have partaken in his time of these qualities also. It is clear, by the way, that while I have some difficulty conceiving of how emotions were communicated to his base of support in those remote times with its technologically primitive media and means of communication, that the communication may have been more effective, and acted more vigorously upon those receiving it, than what prevails in our time. His ascent, and the multitude of deeds of derring-do that marked the way, I still find, when I think about it in the habitual and predominant way of narrative in which I consider things, to be a thrilling and inspiring story taken in its own simple context, and a testament to what men growing up with the freedom of self-determination that existed on the old frontier could make of themselves. His personal determination to break up the big banks (and the imposition of regulations which, if I understand correctly, lasted well into my own lifetime), ultimately successful, to anyone living through these times cannot fail to make an impression. This policy is often blamed for the Panic of 1837, a depression which brought about real hardship in the years right after Jackson left office, and most money-savvy people in today's world I sense highly disapprove of Jackson's views on economics. Most of the midcentury histories seem to be of the opinion that this action benefited the country in the long run. I am sure something of this sort is what most diehard liberals were imagining/hoping that Obama or the Clintons were going to do to the health insurance companies. Many people seem to think we are entering a centuries long period where corporate interests will be incontestable and lord over the common people with an iron and pitiless sway, and certainly they seem to have developed more sophisticated mechanisms for making sure no one acquires the political strength to restrain them, but at bottom all of these entities are just people, and eventually someone, or some faction, will emerge who is strong enough to contend with them on behalf of the interest of the public, or some section of the public that is rising in strength, and one or other of these powerful interests will have so long outlived its usefulness as to be mortally weakened in spite of all appearances. Shocks and dislocations need not always be generated from one direction...

Obviously I have not come any closer to understanding whether Jackson was a good president or not, because I no longer know my own criteria for judging such matters.

I was rereading some Boswell lately, and came across this passage that, sadly, fairly well describes myself these days:

"Johnson lamented to Mr. Hector the state of one of their school-fellows, Mr. Charles Congreve, a clergyman, which he thus described...'He confesses to one bottle of port every day, and he probably drinks more. He is quite unsocial; his conversation is quite monosyllabical; and when, at my last visit, I asked him what o'clock it was? that signal of my departure had so pleasing an effect on him, that he sprung up to look at his watch, like a greyhound bounding at a hare.' When Johnson took leave of Mr. Hector, he said, 'Don't grow like Congreve; nor let me grow like him, when you are near me.'"

Not that the malware infection has come back, after a two day virus, this may again be the last post on the site. I will have to see how things stand when I take up my next topic.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Moving the Blog Due to Malware Invasion

I have set up a new site, at iwillembracereality.blogspot.com, due to this one's having been invaded by Malware, which I have no idea how to get rid of, and don't really have the time to learn.

I suppose if this page becomes well again I can move back. Think of the archives here that will be lost.

I am hoping the new site will have some effect of unclouding my brain, which of late has become almost paralyzed with regard to writing, or even thinking. I don't know what can be done about it. The following was the entirety of my saved work for the week before the Malware crisis erupted:

My mind is so unlucid. It is maybe the greatest disappointment of my entire life.

I need to tell a story. I need to get back to stories.

I have never had a good sense of what the consensus is on this question.

Hopefully any regular readers can find their way over to the new postings.