Monday, August 18, 2014

Edith Wharton--The Custom of the Country (1913)

I have been reading a lot of Edith Wharton lately--I wrote a couple (here, and here) of things recently on The Age of Innocence for my other blog, and here is another archival bit on her, with some commentary on Ethan Frome, which I read a few years ago. The Custom of the Country I take to be considered in the second rank of her novels, as I had never heard of it before. I do think the other books are a little better, they are more tightly written and focused, the settings are more vividly evoked, the dialogue is sharper. This book is about a beautiful and already super rich American woman with voracious and ultimately insatiable appetites for ever greater wealth and social success. She marries four times, to a scion of one of New York's most established families, a French marquis, and a billionaire who is reckoned America's sixth wealthiest man (she married him twice--he was not a billionaire yet the first time, just a cocky and abrasive striver she ran off with, and her parents forced her to divorce him). She was divorced three times. Her New York society husband, with whom she had a son she was not much interested in (but demanded and received custody of in order to maintain her respectability for future husband-hunting and social climbing) ended up killing himself. The sacred ancient possessions and household customs of her French husband did not escape from his marriage to her without enduring some substantial dimunitions either.

The biggest problem with the book is that Undine (the man-eating beauty) is such a relentlessly awful and shallow person that it is not clear why her New York and French husbands, secure in high social statuses and pretty substantial wealth, and who are portrayed as intelligent and cultivated men, would be so eager to marry her. She is described of course as beautiful, but it is not a beauty that the reader is made to feel, and be persuaded that it is worth all of the trouble that comes with procuring it. Being a patriot, I was sympathetic to her struggles against the austere restrictions her French husband and mother-in-law and their army of enforcing relatives would put on her social energies, but only because it was so ridiculous to expect an American millionairess not born into decrepit European aristocratic society to be capable of adhering to them. Among the other characters, Undine's billionaire husband goes from being a decidedly menacing figure through the early parts of the book to being mildly jovial at the end when he has made his fortune and has finally gotten his destined bride. Are we supposed to like him then? It also is not consistent that Undine's parents could have forced her to dissolve the earlier marriage, since whenever they appear in the rest of the book they are cowering to every demand she makes of them, all of which involve spending exorbitant amounts of money. The characters in this book are on the whole cruder and less truly wealthy than those in The Age of Innocence, so some of their exorbitant expenditures on flowers, apartment furnishings, seasons in Paris, opera boxes, and so on, come off as more desperate (and consequently offensive), I suspect because there is a deficiency of harmony between the possessors of these luxuries and privileged positions and the possessions themselves, which the observer/fantasist never likes to see.

In one of the biographical notes in my edition of the book (The Library of America), it stated something to the effect that Wharton was impressed or experienced pride in the successes of the American forces during World War I. I suppose I knew that there was skepticism on the part of some of the old guard of Europe that Americans could really have what it took to fight toe to toe with the great nations of Europe with their ancient and glorious military traditions and cultures, but I had never heard it hinted that any Americans possessed such doubts. I also suppose it caught me by some surprise that Edith Wharton should identify at all with the American army, and take a keen interest and pride in its performance.

I only took down two quotes from the book. I found relevance to my own idea of life in both of them.

"...but perhaps another stroke of luck might befall him: he was getting to have the dependence on 'luck' of the man conscious of his inability to direct his life." This was the guy who later killed himself.

"Raymond de Chelles, who came of a family of moderate fortune, lived for the greater part of the year on his father's estates in Burgundy; but he came up every spring to the entresol of the old marquis's hotel for a two months' study of human nature. applying to the pursuit the discriminating taste and transient ardour that give the finest bloom to pleasure." This seems like a life I was, if not meant to lead, perhaps suited for, as much as any.

Since finishing Wharton I have gone on to Emerson's "Divinity School Address", which I take to have lain down the primary tenets of the transcendental school to a not terribly appreciative audience at Harvard (30 years later, when the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes had become the ruling spirits of the University--and Emerson had attained international stature--he was invited back). I have written here before that I enjoyed Emerson's journals, but had never taken much to his essays. This one has not really set me on fire either. Near the end it gets a little better, when he exhorts the auditor or reader to in effect be self-directing in religious matters, that the follower or imitator of established forms or doctrine can never attain to the insight or intensity of the originator of those forms. However much of it suffers from the usual Emersonian problems of his words and ideas not having enough clarity and solidity to focus the mind of the reader on their flow. I don't think his thoughts and his general organization are good enough to hold his essays together in any kind of pleasing whole. When I read this my mind is not moving with his, nor is it moving in any firm direction at all. It may be that I am always catching his essays at a bad time, or perhaps it is his writing that sends me into these periods when my focus becomes poor and my thoughts sluggish, because I had for the past couple of months felt generally sharper and more engaged with what I was reading, until the past few days. I ought to take more interest in what he says about God being present and alive and within every one of us, but I can't seem to find it very interesting, as he writes about it. 

"The third floor chapel in Divinity Hall where Emerson delivered his Divinity School address in 1838".

Part 2 of the Previous Movie Post

Soldier of Orange (1977)

The first Dutch movie (I think) to have made its way into the record here, made in the densely plotted novelistic style that was prevalent in Europe at the time. It is a style that I like whenever and wherever it recurs. I also like the story here (as a cinematic device), which is about a group of friends who formed at university in 1938 and whose schooldays were interrupted by the Nazi takeover of the Netherlands in May of 1940, after which the history of their youths and friendships play out in the arena of World War and occupation. With the exception of the main character every one of the group dies (this is not a huge surprise in any World War II movie about young men), so the film has that poignant doomed and beautiful youth aspect going for it as well. Still, unlike in other Nazi movies, these guys are not, or at least do not come off as, completely powerless victims who are humiliated and murdered without having been able to assert any agency on their own parts. Most of them die as a result of some manner of resistance or at least trying to escape. There is one who turns collaborator (and therefore is working directly against his friends) when his underground activities are discovered. There is another who ends up with the German army in Russia, though I think we are supposed to believe that he is not really into the war and the Nazis and so on. The dangers they undergo are leavened with interludes of romance, sex, riding motorcycles and attending galas while wearing tuxedos, elegant European coffee and liqueur-drinking and educated conversation. This last sentence sounds flippant, but it accounts for much of the appeal of the movie.

The opening scene takes place at the Dutch equivalent of a fraternity house rush. To people like myself who have not undergone this particular trial of male bonding and initiation, the torments and physical abuses that are inflicted on the new pledges seem on the surface little less humiliating and excessive even than what we know is coming in the war. You would think that nothing is worth enduring this hazing, certainly not gaining admission to a society of sadistic jerks who treat you as subhuman scum for the first six months or whatever that you know them. However, the main character (played by Rutger Hauer in what would be his breakout role) eagerly submits to this and the chief tormenter and president of the secret society, who in the first scene you believe to be about the most horrible person in the world, a soul brother of Hitler himself, eventually becomes his closest friend and comrade in war and everything else. I assume the mayhem and violence of this first scene in the dinner club is supposed to refer in some way to the much greater mayhem and violence of the war years which follow. One of the strengths of this movie for me is its portrayal of friendship among men who have some traditional masculinity and competitive drive but also have refinement and intelligence. I largely missed out on this in my own life, and certainly our society on the whole suffers from the lack of it. So I find it very attractive when it is depicted in books and movies.

Netflix Availability: You can "save" it, which means that they acknowledge that it exists, but that they don't actually have it. Availability is unknown. I ordered a copy on VHS. When I have more time I would like to see it again.

Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)  (1979)

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the great men of our age in the arts, so great that it clearly requires one not only to be of genius level intelligence but almost devastatingly cool to really even follow his movies, let alone get what is really going on in them. I am forty-four and I don't really have much idea of how to watch or what to take from his movies. Effusive and strident and confidently knowing as they are, I don't find professional critics to be particularly helpful either with regard to Godard either. With other movies you can read something pointed out in a review and it strikes you as just so, and perhaps you even wonder how you were so dull as not to have picked up on it. But most Godard reviews, especially the deeper you go into his career, are not convincing or illuminating in this way at all. I have no more sense of what the film is supposed to be about or wherein its real claim to greatness lies after reading one than I did before. There is supposedly all of this incredible, innovative, challenging greatness, yet whatever it is defies persuasive articulation, and does not affect a discernible influence on those who supposedly grasp it other than perhaps to accentuate already obnoxious tendencies (which would make sense, because what I can make out of Godard's general worldview would seem to indicate a singularly obnoxious person in his core). I'm not saying it isn't there. Obviously it is there. Perhaps in time I will be able to develop some sense of the man's mind, what he most deeply cares about and sees about him. I do think I am starting to get somewhere in this vein with Bunuel. Not at the level of intellect of course, but of recognizing feelings and symbols and themes that he favors.

What do I make of Sauve Qui Peut? By this point it has been two weeks since I saw it and it is slipping away from me. Prostitution is a theme, so to speak, running through it, and the prostitutes, to my surprise are treated rather brusquely, given sharp orders to do this or that. I think this is because in American movies the person using these services is usually some kind of nerd who is terrified of the prostitute because of her superior experience and knowledge of harder men. But in this there is no respect towards the sex worker as a person at all, she is merely a body. Most of the men in the movie are pretty vulgar as a rule, though one could say Godard is simply showing them as they essentially are, with the facade of any kind of social niceties stripped away. Beautiful women sit in large windowsills opened to let in the country air while languidly perusing books or doing writing of some kind or another (this was reminiscent of Celine and Julie Go Boating, another 70s French classic). There is a suave-looking character named Godard, who is played by another actor however. Godard is divorced and has a twelve year old daughter to whom he seems reasonably well-intentioned in the way a suave French creative type would be, but is probably a little aloof. The world in general is a cold place if you were hoping to develop closeness with other people. The film is great to look at. Apart from the various genius and coolness that only Godard could have contributed to its outcome, the 70s in Continental Western Europe (this was apparently shot in Switzerland) seem on film at least like a pretty great time to have been there, as far as culture, girls, cheap food and lodging and so on.

Netflix Availability: No. This has not been released in any form in the US as far as I can see. I shelled out for a Korean-made DVD (it did have English subtitles), and I will, I hope, have occasion to study this masterpiece again at some point in the future. Another addition to the ever-growing list of highly rated French movies from 1974-1990 that are not readily available in this country.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Four Movies, None of Which are Readily Available on Netflix (Part 1)

Cross My Heart (1990)

This is a strange French movie about a bunch of schoolchildren who rally around a classmate whose mother's sudden death has left him an orphan by secretly burying the corpse and bringing him food so that the adults won't remove him to an orphanage and he can continue living in his house and going to their school. I guess it is supposed to be sweet (especially by French standards) as well as somewhat subversive (those killjoy adults with their rules and duties) but I found it unconvincing. Of course the whole premise is not plausible, but any very well made story will make even the most unrealistic possibilities seem as if there is a grain (or more) of important reality in it that is truer than actual life. I did not reach that state with this film.

The aspect of this movie that made the strongest impression on me is its having been made in 1990, and apparently is supposed to be set more or less in that time (the clothes at least look like what the French were wearing in the late 80s). As I have noted elsewhere, movies from that 1987-91 or so era look now like they come from a more remote and obscure age than some stuff from the 70s does. The kids in this movie are 7-8 years younger than I am! and still there isn't a computer in sight, nor the thought that there even ought to be one, they are using those absurdly clunky box public telephones (the era of which lingered well into the 90s) and their schoolroom is the dreary, screenless, pencil- paper-book-and-chalkboard dominated cell that my sense is has been relegated by technology to the scrap heap of history. The outdoor scenes also have what I immediately recognize as the light that was peculiar to the 1988-92 period (I was 19-21 in those years, and very alert to the physical environment). This is a real natural phenomenon--it is connected with changes in the ozone or sunspots or something, I suppose I should look it up. Anyway, this is noticeable in film history. In the mid-60s, '63-66 or so, the light is very bright. Then around '69-'71 things are more drab, vegetation seems more sickly and so on. Around '74-'75 the light always looks as if it is slanted or otherwise off-kilter, and is shining down on the earth through a filter of grit. In the '88 to '92 period, and this film corroborates with my memory, twilight, or the sensation of it, occupied a much greater portion of the day than it does now (at least in the fall and winter), in fact pretty much the whole afternoon after about 2 pm, until it finally got dark. This may not be an accurate description, but I tell you, when I was watching this movie, I thought on several occasions that it was uncanny that I remember the afternoons and the light looking exactly as they do in this movie, and that I have not had the same sense recur for many years since.

Netflix Status: They don't have it. It doesn't seem to be available on DVD in the US (add it to the list of well-regarded French movies from 1974-90). I had to buy a used VHS tape.

The World According to Garp (1982)

It happens by coincidence that Robin Williams died while I was in the middle of writing this. I was not much of a fan of his--this was probably the movie of his that I liked best, though oddly, in the various memorials that have been playing on TV and radio programs the past few days, I have not noticed any mention of nor footage from this at all. It was well-reviewed at the time, but it does seem to be kind of forgotten now.

I also thought (before the media coverage of Williams's death, at least, suggested otherwise) that the general esteem for both John Irving and Robin Williams, which were probably around whatever peak these attained at the time Garp was made, had since declined to the point that any movie which was heavily dependent on their talents must have a decidedly limited ceiling with regard to its potential greatness. And while I think there probably is such a ceiling, and also that thirty years on certain elements of the story, at least as translated to film, do not hold together, I found the movie more watchable than I thought it was going to be. Amidst the various incoherences and seeming misfires at social commentary, there is quite a bit that is good, or at least that speaks to me. The director was George Roy Hill, who had several big hits in the 60s and 70s (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot, etc). I saw some of these films when I was around 10-15 years old, and I remember liking them well enough, though at that time I could not possibly have understood most of what was going on in them. Still, I am guessing there was something in the look and narrative style that has primed me to respond to this manner of filmmaking when I see it now. John Irving of course is from New Hampshire and the story has a lot of good old New England elements to it, a little higher class than I can lay claim to (oceanfront mansions, boarding school, people with literary-oriented lives), but recognizable enough that I find the scenes depicted enjoyable (my college at least was kind of like boarding school). Besides Robin Williams the cast included several other baby boomer actors who would go on to become insufferably annoying (Glenn Close, John Lithgow), but they are all in the early part of their careers here and are tolerable. Mary Beth Hurt, who plays Garp's wife, does a good rendition of a cute, bookish New England girl/wife, and I quite enjoyed the parts that she was in (though now, in her 60s, she looks just as superciliously annoying as other people in her generational cohort, she was very pleasant-looking back in the 80s). The film has a flow to it and is always pushing forward in a number of different directions, some of which are mildly interesting, though as noted before, the whole thing in my mind does not add up to anything especially coherent.

I haven't read the book, so I will assume that the worldview suggested by the title is made a little more manifest. In the movie Garp comes off as a pretty conventional person, who is more shaped by circumstances and events around him than the shaper of them, though perhaps this was the point. He decides as a young man to become a literary novelist and succeeds in this, though there is no indication in the movie of what his books are about or why they are good. The circumstances of his conception and birth were unusual, though his upbringing by a feminist single mother and exposure to her radical friends, close friendship with a transvestite, etc, make less of an impression of eccentricity/zaniness than they would have in the 70s--this is what our lives ought to be like now if we're open-minded and have gone to the right schools, aren't they? It is suggested that Garp possesses a heterosexual virility greater than the average, and the movie reveals him having sex with at least four women during the movie; besides his wife there is a childhood friend who conveniently has become a nymphomaniac in their teenage years, a prostitute that his mother sends him off with after interviewing her for one of her books in disgust at his unbridled male lust (?), and his children's teen-aged babysitter. Babysitter sex of course was not far-fetched in the least in the 60s, 70s and 80s. My father's second wife was one of our old babysitters, and apparently she was not the only one he knew thus intimately. Nowadays of course the idea of such a thing taking place has become so monstrous that any man who would be revealed has having done it--probably who had even given a thought to doing it--would be thought of as among the most depraved sorts of criminals imaginable. And of course all the people (mainly middle-aged and older women) who are committed to overseeing my behavior and making sure I do not get any ideas about wandering off the accepted path love to emphasize how my father is a deeply unhappy person, has no relationships with his children, etc, though whenever I see him, which is about every three years or so he seems perfectly fine. He's very enthusiastic and is usually boasting about his latest project or accomplishment. I'm sure he would be more interested in maintaining relations with his children if we had not turned out so hidebound and lame. He is vigorous and engaged with the world. I'm the one who is the repressed basket case.

Garp's wife has an extramarital affair too and there is a bizarre and rather horrible part (with an attempt to be darkly comic as well) that is the result of this that I was not really satisfied with the resolution of. Perhaps it was handled more thoroughly in the book.

I have noted that there were a number of pretty good large scale novelistic mainstream movies that came out in '82-'83 (Sophie's Choice and The Right Stuff are two other ones that come immediately to mind, and I'm sure there were others) there were aimed at reasonably intelligent adults. I don't want to imply that the modern stuff that correlates to this, whether it be Coen brothers movies or the Sopranos-Mad Men-Breaking Bad TV dramas are worse--they almost certainly are not--but the tone and presentation of them are different in some particular way that I am having trouble identifying but that seems important to me. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the hyper-knowingness of almost all contemporary productions. That may be inevitable given the point that our society has come to, but I do find something artistically oppressive about it.

Netflix Status: You can put it in your queue, but its status is 'very long wait', and I have never actually received a movie that was a very long wait, though I have had a few of them in my queue for years. My library had a VHS copy in storage, so I checked that out, but the tape did not work. So I ordered a cheap copy off the internet. This movie was surprisingly difficult to find, considering that it is pretty good and has lots of famous actors in it.

I wanted to get four movies in this post, but given that it's taken me a week to do these two (I did go to the beach for about four days) I will divide the post into two parts

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

On Not Visiting Concentration Camps

A few years back I began periodically putting up pictures from my time in Prague. That series was far from finished, but it has been on hiatus because I have not had a working scanner for some months. I was however reminded of a Prague story recently by the photograph that went viral on the internet  that a youngish woman had taken of herself grinning fecklessly while visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp. The picture was, to say the least, unfortunate, in poor taste and revealing of a surprising lack of self-consciousness (considering that even in this day and age it takes some planning and effort for an American student to get to Auschwitz, such that one assumes they have some idea of where they are going). Doubtless many internet denizens were appalled or outraged, ones supposes not to the same extent that they are towards the actual atrocities and injustices themselves, but still with some degree of power. Outrage is a great response, provided one's sense has some kind of coherent form and organization. I wish mine did, but unfortunately I do not have that degree of righteous and sustained fire in my makeup. I never feel outrage. There was another story last year about the Auschwitz museum's having a gift shop that--apart from the question of the appropriateness of having a gift shop at Auschwitz in the first place--sold Woody Allen key chains and similar kitsch items that opened itself to suggestions of institutional insensitivity. I was somewhat surprised by this story, and 'uncomfortable'--middle aged people in the 2010s want to be comfortable, in body and mind, above all other concerns--but I am pretty sure I was not outraged by it.

But with regard to my Prague story. It does not involve my going to a concentration camp--I have never, in keeping with the title of this posting, gone to one--but rather a person who came to stay with us while we were there whose first priority in visiting that part of the world was to see one. This primacy of the desire struck me as strange at the time--the person in question was neither Jewish nor had any other personal connection to the camps, though even in those instances I probably would thought it an odd thing to want to do, or, as our visitor explained to me, feel it to be something they ought, or had to do. I admit I don't feel any compulsion or moral obligation to visit Auschwitz or Terezin (Theresienstadt, which is the camp nearest to Prague that our guest went to see), and the idea of going to a place where people were gassed to death and tortured and otherwise abused and humiliated does not hold any especial fascination for me. Obviously the camps were preserved, I have always assumed in the hope that ordinary people, citizens, functionaries in positions of moderate authority and their underlings, would remember what went on in them and develop their consciences to resist the establishment and execution of similar atrocities in the future. This may have had an effect for a time in certain segments of the West, though it seems that even there the nature of power is taking a form that is getting away from most people's understanding again. (This is not to say that I believe a mass genocide to be imminent, only that I don't think very many ordinary citizens at present would be equipped to effectively stand up to it in the form it would be likely to take if something of the sort did arise). At the time, and not much less now, I did not understand what good purpose would be served by my taking a day outing to the countryside to traipse through this ground of horrors, especially given that the horrors occurred in living memory, and the wounds of the period, the literal as well as the psychological ones, remain so raw and bitter (though I have never been there either, I have considered going to visit Andersonville in Georgia, the Civil War prison camp where men suffered starvation and horrible diseases and cruelties. Perhaps because this is far enough in the past that both the sufferers and the inflicters of the suffering are long dead, and even the differences in the identities of the same are no longer of such great significance that such guilt and anguish as are to be found there do not continue to fall especially heavily on some people more than others. While I know that many natives of the old Confederacy especially still identify with that rebellious era, I for my own part do not consider the Civil War to be an issue that has an active bearing on my life). There are sad reminders of history everywhere in that part of the world. It permeates most atmospheres, and no, the minor spirit is not going to penetrate it, or be very much penetrated by it, any more than he is by anything complicated that he is exposed to; seeing that a concentration camp is this type of evil atmosphere multiplied to an extreme, it seemed to me foolish and obscene to go to such a place without a sense of real purpose impelling me there; and I did not have any such purpose.

The visitor who went out (by himself) to Terezin did not say too much about it that I remember, other than what you would expect. He did seem as if he had undergone some kind of purging of emotions, though as I did not have those particular emotions I still cannot guess what they were and where they originated, and why my guest felt that something in his experience had caused him to be able to deal with them. I should have asked him these questions at the time, but I have never been very forthright with other people in this way, and when I have tried I have not been able to present my thoughts in a way that set people at ease. So I let it go.