Saturday, May 30, 2015

Videos from the Czech Republic

Monday evening--I had a good weekend, but now I am back in an old end-of-holiday, remembering-all-that-I-have-lost kind of melancholy mood, and wishing I were back in Prague eating goulash and dumplings and drinking beer, afterwards going out onto the dark, cold hush of the Sunday night streets there on the way back to the train, or perhaps to one of the special mysterious cigarette kiosks that were only open from 10pm to midnight on Sunday... 

Tuesday Evening--Everybody wanted to be City in those days. Everybody who mattered to me anyway. Even though in the 80s and early 90s, American cities, or at least the ones in the Northeast where I lived, were, especially in retrospect, not I think what most people really wished them to be. People affected to love the edginess and the constant threat of crime, which I think in many cases they mistook for part of the innate character of urban living; this is perhaps true to a certain extent, but not to the extent that prevailed in most northern cities by 1990. I read a query on the internet written by a younger person the other day asking why in the world people endured the now infamous inconveniences imposed by the circumstances of the at the time apparently permanent crime wave of the post 1965 era, such as not walking around after dark, barricading oneself in his or her apartment, being resigned to periodic robberies of your car or your person, and so on. In the first place, popular opinion at the time held that nothing really could be done about it, short of implementing the kinds of extreme policies regarding policing and imprisonment that finally have been implemented in our time, which was a path many people, myself included, were reluctant to go down then even in the face of massive violent crime rates. For once such large systems are in place as sources of employment or other forms of wealth acquisition, they are difficult to dismantle, and as they also face constant pressure to maintain and even grow the revenue flowing into them, they will inevitably turn their energies in directions that would have been considered intrusive and totalitarian at one time. But in the second place the love that many people have for great cities, or some idea of them, and the desire to live in one if it is at all possible for them to do so will inspire them to put up with a lot for the privilege, even when the conditions and atmosphere presently ascendant are not those of our literary or artistically informed imagination. And besides, in my day, especially if you were a man, having grown up anywhere within the limits of a great city--and it seemed the more notorious for crime and violence the better, in most instances-- made you conspicuously cool in any environment, such as college, or an ex-pat setting, that primarily consisted of the suburban-bred, the contrast with the males of whom in verve, dash, mental quickness and lightness, style of dress, and so on was so pronounced that after a few minutes in such company, any bland or timid suburban boy who still imagined he would be the recipient of any willing, free female love in the immediate future in that social circle was only embarrassing himself and establishing his inferiority further by the demonstration of such delusion...

Wednesday Evening--What I mean to say is that many intelligent but not phenomenally well-connected or wealthy people had desires for a particular kind of city lifestyle that American cities thirty years ago were not really equipped to deliver in any kind of broad way. It was necessary, in a sense, to be cooler (or at least wealthier) to get what good things there were to get out of them than it should have been. I don't know whether this state of affairs has improved in the interval or not. Most people who were not devastatingly cool in this way developed the habit of looking at the cities of old Europe and finding a model of urban living that appealed more to their aesthetic and self-image. This was certainly the case with me, especially with regard to the more egalitarian and less international corporate-finance oriented (i.e. cheaper) cities on the continent. Perhaps the amenities and cultural entertainments--restaurants, concerts, nightclubs, operas, festivals, transit, museums, bookstores, intellectual societies, etc--in a place like Prague are second-rate overall, but one can, or at least could, live a ten minute subway ride from and partake of all of these activities on a regular basis, and feel like one is living a version of a cultured urban life, which seems to be difficult for the person at a certain level to realize in America without a fortunate confluence of circumstances...     

Thursday Evening--I saw a post on a Very Concerned Traditional Serious Christian blog in the wake of the Irish gay marriage vote last night in which an apparently respectable source was quoted with the hint of a shrug that the game had been up in that country for a while; that indeed, when he had spent some time there in 1990, young Irish girls were more than willing to fornicate with American tourists. Oh my God! Why are these glorious aspects of the world never revealed to me, who has no sense of sexual morality and for whom the whole trajectory of life, had I been able to enter this world of willing Irish girls in 1990, would have been different, I cannot help but assume in a positive way. Meanwhile these poor male Christian writers, who want nothing more than to be chaste and virtuous, and to promote the same qualities in women, cannot seem to avoid coming into contact with an endless parade of horny girls signaling carnal interests to them (to say nothing of the scourge of pornography that has already gutted the souls and ability to form mature relationships of a substantial portion of what was formerly Christendom). These poor guys should have traveled with me when I was young. I probably could have backpacked around all of the most celebrated tourist destinations in Europe and the rest of the world for the entirety of my twenties without encountering a single wild party or nightclub or stray woman in a park desirous to cajole me or be cajoled by me into an immoral relation with her (for free, that is), even though that would have been all I was really looking for the whole time. But I guess the problem is that these Christians and preachers are somehow sexy guys. When you are a sexy guy temptations and offers to betray your moral system will inevitably make their way to you no matter how powerfully or authoritatively assert your antipathy to them. When you aren't a sexy guy you can leave the house every day open to engaging in any indecency attractive to you that opportunity may present but, almost as if God were shielding you from being able to commit the sins you have not got the moral sense to be repulsed at the prospect of, the opportunities never do present...

Friday Morning--As any dedicated reader of mine knows, I have been struggling over the past few years to feel the excitement and righteousness in the ongoing gay rights ascendancy that seems to come so naturally to everybody else, so the Irish vote promised to be a good test of my development in this area. When the results came in and the forces of Good had carried the day, my response was...ehhch. I must confess, my heart sank a little, in anticipation of all the triumphant braying that it was inevitable must ensue. I had obviously been holding out hope that some large body politic somewhere that included some cool people might say 'Um, no. I love you brother, but be serious now, two men doth not a marriage make'. But evidently this is not going to happen. People will doubtless think, 'What is wrong with this guy? What's it to him if I want to marry someone who doesn't meet some antiquated heteronormative standard?'...It should be nothing to me, I agree, and if I could be excused from being expected to take it seriously as marriage and didn't have to be subjected to quite so much pro-gay sarcasm and moral instruction (which is at least every bit as grating and obnoxious as that coming from religious conservatives) I would probably be more broadly sympathetic on all of these issues. At bottom, I know that for me this is all really a struggle over who is going to lead and hold authority in public life with regard to tone of discourse and standards of behavior and whose interests are prioritized and whose aren't and I am obviously not really happy that a kind of aggressively overt homosexuality has become the distinct force in these areas that it has...  

Czech version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" from a to me interesting-looking movie called Rebelove that featured Czech versions of a number of 1960s American pop hits. As far as I can tell, this scene appears to feature people leaving the country in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet crackdown. Since many people did this, and at the time it seemed likely they would never be able to return, it is kind of a poignant scene.

Tramvaje circa 1995. I don't expect you to watch this.

Pankrac Metro! My old station! The underground part actually looks exactly the same. It looks like they have built a kind of modern shopping mall with fountains and all on the street level above the station. In my time there were merely a bunch of motley stalls set up selling fruit, cheap clothing, flowers and suchlike, a throwback to the Communist era.

Goofy Czech version of "King of the Road" from 1970.

Friday Evening: I have a very memory from when I was in Florence, which would have been in 1997. I was at one of the famous sites there, and I remember this middle-aged American man who was standing near me, very affluent-looking, distinctly well-dressed, and as I was lingering near him his two extremely beautiful, expensively-dressed and doubtless expensively educated daughters came up to meet him, and they struck me, who devoted very little energy to thoughts of either domesticity or the future at that time, as the kind of family that was actually worth the trouble, and thought the man must in that moment at least be very happy. I always had an idea from that time that if I had children they must be at least as good-looking and smart as this man's daughters and that we must meet together when they are twenty-three or so in some grand place and that that would be something that would make me happy. I feel in some sense that this is a terrible desire to have, because it puts some kind of pressure on my children to be a certain way that they might not want or be able to be, and that also might be superficial, which would both be wrong. At the same time I feel that this idea I have could actually come true, that we will be able to meet in Florence or Granada or New York or walk the Camino de Santiago and I will be able to do certain things I have always wanted to do and be happy doing them just as I have always imagined...

I noted the days and times when I wrote all of these things because I am frustrated and embarrassed by how infrequently I am able to put up postings. Each dated item represents about a full hour of attempted writing.  

Friday, May 15, 2015

I Was Going to Interrupt the Movie Reviews to Comment on Current Events But I Thought Better of it

All of the tired, expected topics: Baltimore, the confusion of the political left, the general level of hatred in society, what seems to me the desperate need to find solutions to problems that don't involve business interests getting to dictate terms that are disproportionately favorable to themselves. But all of this was taking too long, and I did not have a great fire for writing it, so I have put these ideas aside until the next crisis calls them forth.

I find that my responses to movies from the 30s are more unpredictable than they are for any other decade. Sometimes I see something from that decade (Captains Courageous, A Tale of Two Cities, Counselor at Law) and I cannot believe how good it is. Then I will see something else and I am reminded that we really are living in a very different world, which was largely the case with the two films here, both of which I had approached with a higher than normal anticipation of greatness and found myself let down by to some extent.

Gunga Din (1939)

One of the many celebrated films (very few of which I have seen to this point, including this one until now) from what has become enshrined in the popular consciousness as Hollywood's greatest year. On this initial viewing I found Gunga Din interesting for its abundance of classic Hollywood tropes--huge stars, adventure and spectacle in an exotic locale, the unabashed cheering on of the great Western empires in collision with the mystifying cultures of the non-European descended world--but somewhat hard to get into as a story that demanded attention in itself. That is to say that it is more than a little silly unless you apply a whole lot of context. Based on the famous poem by Kipling, Gunga Din (played in brownface by a perpetually loincloth-clad Sam Jaffe, who was a widely respected actor--we have seen him here in The Asphalt Jungle) is preternaturally eager to serve the British and throw over those who are, as far as I can make out, his own people. According to the ethos of 1939 this apparently should suffice to make him a winning chap in our (Western) eyes, and we are even encouraged to get teary-eyed at the end. This last is difficult in the original version of the movie (which has been restored on the DVD release I saw) because an actor comes in for the final sequence depicting an absurd and sheepish looking Rudyard Kipling, who is so moved by the denouement of the Gunga Din saga that he immediately sets to writing his immortal poem in his tent as soon as the body is carried away. Kipling's widow, upon seeing a preview or early showing of the film, demanded that this part be removed, as certain to induce hilarity in audiences, which it subsequently was in all of the prints released until recently.

When you are watching this movie, it is probably impossible for the modern instinct not to demand you express some concern for what people in India must make of it. My impression though is that, compared with other peoples historically disrespected by Europeans, Indians, and Indian intellectuals specifically, have enough confidence in the rigor of their thinking and educations, and interest in those processes for their own sakes, to consider these past condescensions a little more dispassionately than we have come to anticipate.

When watching this type of film I try to imagine myself as a scrawny nineteen or twenty old in 1939, living in one of our dense old cities--New York dominates our imagination of urban life at this time but many of our old northern cities, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Buffalo, St Louis, even places like Newark and Akron and Utica, were significantly more populous and livelier in 1939 then they are now. I work at some fairly wretched job, either in a factory or a dingy, backroom office, but I am still young enough to go out and I don't have a wife or any sweetheart yet (though I have undeclared affections for various lunch counter workers and regular riders on my favored streetcar routes all over the city). I am in general depressed because my life lacks excitement or purpose and the prospects for improvement in my conditions are not promising. As such my twice-weekly pilgrimage to the movie theater is, for the moment, one of the highlights of my existence, and one of the few suggestive of attractive possibility. So once I have entered this mode somewhat, I am more ready to enjoy the films of this period that require such an adjustment.

The only picture I could find of Reginald Sheffield as Kipling in the movie

Rudy Behlmer, a film writer and historian who is one of my favorite commentators, did the commentary for Gunga Din. While I did not like this commentary as much as I did the one he made for the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, it was decent. It was a little too heavy on biographical information about the actors and other prominent people involved in the film, much of which I found I knew already, but overall I like his approach and conversational style in these things, which are important.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Seminal Frank Capra picture, considered by some to be his masterpiece, considered by seemingly everybody to be one of the all time classics, I came to this expecting to be satisfied in about the highest degree a person like me can ever know of true satisfaction, but I never arrived anywhere near that point. I did not hate it, but it is much more dated--in the mildly unpleasing sense of the word--in all of its main aspects than I was anticipating it would be.

Incredibly, this is the first Capra movie I have seen other than It's a Wonderful Life. It certainly operates in the style Capra is famous for, with broadly drawn themes and human types, with an everyman hero whose solid good nature and practical wisdom suffices for him to contend with the more wily and grasping element which seeks to manipulate and control him, strip him of his American birthright of autonomy of conscience and so on. Gary Cooper, a massive star at the time, not exactly forgotten now but perhaps less actively legendary than his previous status might have suggested he would be, fills the Jimmy Stewart role here as a relatively simple guy in a small town in Vermont who inherits 20 million dollars from a distant relative of whose existence heretofore he seems only to have been vaguely aware. Upon gaining this windfall, he goes to New York and has various adventures, most of which involve hardened city sophisticates trying to take advantage of him for some wretched benefit to themselves. The premise of the story is fine, it is actually one of the kinds of thing I like most, but the execution did not hit home to me. One problem is that Cooper's character develops early in the film a propensity to punch people out who are snobbish to him or otherwise do him a wrong turn. One time this might have been effective, provided a sort of catharsis, but once he begins he starts doing it in every situation involving a confrontation of some kind, including to the opposing lawyer during the trial at the end when he is accused of being incompetent to handle his fortune due to insanity. The trial scene is something of a mess as well, and is for me a kind of microcosm of what is the problem with the movie. I can buy one or two fairly outrageous and unexpected things in this type of movie--in It's a Wonderful Life, for example, I completely accept Clarence the guardian angel as what he says he is--but I can't buy every aspect of a scene or a story bearing no resemblance to what it is supposed to be representing in real life whatsoever. The bit where Cooper undertakes to tackle the depression by being a one man jobs program does not really come off either. Besides the fact that it would never happen, even most amateur students of economics, especially nowadays, would laugh out loud at the idea that it would produce good or sustainable results. So that is what I took away from Mr Deeds Goes to Town, though I do want to read up more on it to see what serious men and women saw in it and presumably liked. I was psyched up for this one, so I took it hard that I found it disappointing.

There was a commentary by Frank Capra Jr, but it was very sparse and not particularly enlightening, so I gave up on it after twenty minutes.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Movies 1945-1949, One From Each Year

All the Kings' Men (1949)

I had read the book recently. Here is my report on that from my other blog. The movie version won the Best Picture Oscar in its year. It isn't bad, though it is definitely one of the weaker Best Picture choices of the 40s. I haven't seen a ton of 1949 movies so I don't know how strong a year it was overall, but The Third Man came out that year at least (in England anyway) and seems to have been the movie of that year, though it got very little attention from the Academy other than an award for best black & white cinematography in 1950, which is when it was released in the United States.

Back to All the Kings' Men, it is pretty faithful I think to the general spirit of the book, but it is lacking something in the way of power or anything else that would make it compelling in the way the great classics of its era are. It doesn't have any iconic stars or otherwise interesting movie figures of the time among its cast. The director was Robert Rossen, with whose other work I am not familiar, though other than The Hustler, which came out twelve years afterwards, none of his other titles are widely referenced in the day-to-day discussion of the history of cinema. The noir-ish aspects of the film, in keeping with the fashion of the time, are noted in most of the literature on the movie, but I cannot say that I found that these affected me one way or the other. My opinion on the character of Willie Stark, which I hinted at in my report on the book and mostly refers to that, is that he is the only person in the story who seems to exert any agency of his own, who is even able to respond aggressively to and not be completely destroyed by the threat of shame, or disgrace. It is hard to judge him as someone who assumed more power than it was his right to do, because he seems to be surrounded by people who are largely incapable of effectively exercising basic personal freedom, let alone direct institutions and events. Maybe it is a flaw in the story, that there is no opposing power, and certainly no moral counterpart, anywhere in it to contrast with Stark.

I have seen it noted that All the Kings' Men is the last adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to win the Best Picture Oscar. Since the Oscars were only about twenty years old in 1949, I figured it couldn't have happened that often, and indeed, Gone With the Wind was the only other instance of this happening. I had thought The Grapes of Wrath was a third, but it did not win the Best Picture Oscar. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog the prestige of the Pulitzer was higher among the general public at least prior to about 1960 than it is today, and there have actually been a number of Oscar-quality adaptations made among its winners, though more so in the early days of the award. Just looking down the list of winners, notable films were made of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Age of Innocence (albeit decades later), Alice Adams, Tales of the South Pacific, The Caine Mutiny, and To Kill a Mockingbird. In more recent years The Color Purple and The Hours seem to have gotten some Oscar attention, and a few of the other winners were at least adapted into major movies or television serials. But not really that many.

The Search (1948)

A fairly difficult to find choice--it is available on DVD from Warner Brothers as part of a Classics series, but I had to buy it to get it--this stars Montgomery Clift in what I believe was his debut as an American soldier in postwar Germany who takes in a ragged, uncommunicative child, one of the legions of displaced and orphaned children who were all over Europe in those years and attempts to nurse him back to a state of some trust in humanity and ability to participate in civilization. At the same time the child's mother, a concentration camp survivor, is crisscrossing central Europe on foot in desperate hope of finding the boy alive. It is quite good, and I am surprised it is not better known and celebrated. It acknowledges the existence of what was a very serious issue at the time in the mass displacement of people in Europe. Granted, the Czechs and Hungarians and other eastern nationalities, assuming they returned to their countries of origin, which I think was still taken to be the ideal scenario in 1948, would be going right back to another politically repressive situation, though perhaps the extent and the permanent nature of this in some of the countries with more traditional ties to the West was not yet clearly discerned in the immediate aftermath of the war. Clift, whom I did not like all that much in the other two films I have seen him in, A Place in the Sun and Judgment at Nuremberg (also, oddly enough, set in a bombed out landscape in postwar Germany), is much better here. Apparently he had not imbibed the teachings and philosophical outlook of the Method so fully yet. The director was Fred Zinnemann, who would go on to direct a number of famous movies over the next thirty years, including A Man For All Seasons. Zinnemann, who was Jewish, was, like many of the golden age Hollywood directors, born in Austria-Hungary, in the part that is now Poland, and went to university in Vienna before leaving for Paris and eventually Hollywood. While this family of directors generally did not express a great deal of sentimental feeling for the country of their youths in their work, the European milieu depicted in this movie has a much more naturalistic feel about it, to the point of being unobtrusive, than Hollywood might have been thought capable of at this time. I  suspect this was in large part the work of Zinnemann.

I need to remind myself to take the time to see this again someday, since there is a good chance it will never come up of itself in the course of events, but it does have some qualities about it that are important to understanding the character of the era, in my view.

Life With Father (1947)

Based on the once famous New Yorker stories by Clarence Day, Jr about his childhood as the son of a Wall Street mover and shaker in 1880s and 90s New York. The book is on one of my reading lists--the most ancient and politically naive one--though I probably won't get to it for a long time, if ever. The movie is interesting as a nostalgia piece looking back from the 40s to the 1880s, a time that has now receded too far out of the living memory even of people our oldest acquaintances may have known for us to have nostalgia for. I believe the Days are supposed to have lived on either Park or Madison Avenue, and the street, at least as depicted in the film, was a wide, blissfully uncrowded boulevard along which trolley cars and orderly carriages passed leisurely, lined with handsome and spacious but comparatively low rising (three or four storeys, tops) mansions, though without much in the way of shady tree cover. Of course New York in the 1880s was never really so sedate or orderly as it is made to be in this movie, though if this idea of it came from the book I will grant that it probably gave some sensation of that kind to the memoirist in his youthful goings about, perhaps for reasons peculiar to himself, though the tone he hit on in his writings did resonate with many readers. I am willing to trust people's memories of their experiences rather than what I might think their memories of those experiences should have been.

Compared to what we read of families similarly situated in contemporary New York City, the Day children seem to lead an almost blissfully unharried and carefree existence. Day, Sr was certainly an energetic and hard-driving man, but he is not depicted as being manic or possessed nearly beyond the limits of recognizable human desire by the drive to succeed and make money and be number one and mold his sons into equally aggressive dominant men such as is the popular image of Wall Street brokers in our time. Of course this is almost certainly the nostalgia of 1947 seeping through the filmmaking.

The extremely prolific and apparently indefatigable Michael Curtiz directed this. William Powell and Irene Dunne were the attractive and substantial leads. The 15 year old Elizabeth Taylor appears at her most simpering as the teenage romantic interest of Day, Jr.

By the way, in case you couldn't tell, I did like this.

Peter and the Wolf (1946)

A fifteen or so minute cartoon, this one barely counts, but it did turn up on the list so I will put it in here. It didn't blow me away, but it is diverting for what it is. I am more favorably inclined to Disney's work in the 1940s and 50s than I am in other periods.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

I have written previously that 1945 is my personal favorite year for movies, and this moving film about family life, childhood, school, death, the past, the immigrant experience during the great wave of the last century, all against the hyper-somber backdrop of the stub end of World War II that characterizes all of the movies of that year that I like so much, fits in with the rest of these. I had recently read this book, too, which impressed me as having much merit, particularly with regard to our collective memory of the details of what things and experiences in our past were like. Like any movie, this one had to leave a lot of significant incidents and developments and characters out, but on the whole it is a good adaptation of the basic aspects of the story, and it is even better I think as a movie than it is as an adaptation. This was the directorial debut of Elia Kazan and the atmosphere and the development of the major characters and the way they inhabit the movie are its strong points. The ending is a much truncated version of what happened in the book, doubtless done to not be left with an ending in nothing is resolved or seems to be progressing for the better, but the movie really did not need to be tied up this way. In this it is similar to Life With Father, which operated on an even thinner plotline that was not all that essential to such interest as the film possessed.

The family at the center of this story is an Irish-German union, much like my own family, with both parents being the first generation born in America--and it was emphasized in the book that theirs was the only household Francie knew of in their neighborhood where both parents were actually American born. Despite their status as citizens and immersion in the culture and language of the United States since birth, Johnny and Katie Nolan had not gotten very far by 1912. Johnny of course was fairly hopeless, at least in economic terms, though a highly lovable guy. The circumstance of Katie's being German-descended does not play into my theory of the peculiarity of Irish romance, in which, comparative to more traditionally prosperous peoples, the long term career prospects of a potential husband do seem to be regularly taken into consideration. I feel myself to be in certain ways something of a modern day version of Johnny Nolan, only minus the charm. I suppose one could say minus the alcoholism also, but it is only the greater effectiveness of social control exerted on modern men that prevents me from following that mode of life, as I remain greatly attracted to it. The other characteristics--the inability to perceive the world and my place in it realistically, the endless empty promises to improve myself, the natural inclination toward squalor with regard to living arrangements--are there.

One of the other parts of this story that I relate to is the episode where Francie desires to transfer to a more beautiful and dignified-looking school without knowing much else more about it, since I did the same thing when I lived in Maine. I was not supposed to go to the school I went to, the one that was built in 1924 and had busts of famous white male giants of literature and history lining the hallways and a venerable history as perhaps the premier large public school in the state, but when I saw it I became consumed by a desire to go there as if it were owed me as the natural end of my development to that point to go to such a school, and it was arranged that I was able to go there, and I loved it dearly the whole time I was there, though it is hard to explain why, because in terms of the other students it was just a regular public school, I did not have any very close friends, and when I go back for my reunions most of the people don't remember who I am, and some of them act almost perturbed at my being there, as if I am crashing a party where I really don't belong. But at the time the atmosphere, not merely of the school but of the equally antique neighborhood and city around it, gave me something that I desperately needed to imbibe the air of, even if I was unable to make any very deep connection with it. I have not pushed for very much in my life, but I have a couple of times when it comes to schools. I was determined as well to go to a particular kind of college--residential, preferably somewhat old, average test scores above a certain level, an atmosphere of study that was acceptably masculine without being reactionary or arch-conservative, though this last I would not have been able to articulate in such terms at the time--and I was pretty dogged at not getting pushed into the community college, taking computer classes route that well-meaning people were trying to steer me towards and getting to go to the kind of place I wanted in the end, even though I guess most people would say, given my subsequent career, that the wisdom of those who advised community college has been vindicated.

Dorothy McGuire, who plays Katie, has a lovely voice, and is the easy choice for the honor of favorite 40s girl/woman for this set of reports from that era.