Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movies 1985-1998

jahn s done remains chance anecdotes retire verses before inverness coirechatachan

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

Pi (1998)

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

The Usual Suspects (1995)

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

Braveheart (1995)

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

The Fugitive (1993)

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

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

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

Mask (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Me on Suffering

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Ponyo; Disgrace

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

Ponyo (2009)

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

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

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

Disgrace (2008)

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

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

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

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

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