Friday, September 18, 2015

L'Age D'Or (1930)

The third of the group of really old European classics that I had never seen but have been conscious of going back thirty years, to the time when I used to flip through the pages of a 1970s Edition of the Oxford History of World Cinema that I had, which singled each of these out, among others, as especially great and worthy efforts in what was at that time the pretty short history of the art, the silent era being, at the time of the book's publication, less than fifty years gone. As with many of the histories and surveys that influenced me as a young person, I am sure it is due to my memories of this book that my ideas about movies have a sharp divide around 1970, with everything that came afterwards, too late to be included, and perhaps more importantly, judged by the standards of the book, not able to be regarded by me in the same aura.

L'Age d'Or, Luis Bunuel's second major work, after the short but legendary Andalusian Dog he made with Salvador Dali in 1929, was firmly included in the pantheon of films that promised, or seemed to promise, that the mere act of seeing them would be transformative enough to make one more like a character in one of these movies and less like the kind of person book authors and critics appeared to hold in contempt. There may even have been some truth in this in the days before home video, when any public showing of these films would required some physical concentration of sophisticated people to make the showing worth anyone's time. But now that one can see anything without the necessity of being in contact with or even seeing other people, the social benefits, especially as applied to the intellect in some kind of real time way, are less tangibly realized.

Bunuel was a cinematic genius, but I need to watch all of his movies multiple times before I begin to pick up on what is either supposed to or might be brilliant in them. Hopefully someday I will get more than 4-5 hours of sleep a night and will not be too exhausted at the end of every day to concentrate and think a little about complicated images, ideas, suggestions, and so on, but I am increasingly doubtful about this. While I have come around to find instances of real joy in Bunuel, I do have the feeling that for someone of my age, experience as an arts-consumer, and, though it has faded badly, formerly pretty high cognitive ability, getting to these points is requiring a lot more repetitive effort than it should be.  

So I will have to revisit this some time in the future.

Cherrybombs Diner, Dover, NH

The Ride. Dover is located off the path of most of my main routes, being almost due east, right on the border with Maine, but away from the coast. I thought I had only been there once before, some years ago to check out a library sale, but as I came into the town past the handsome late Victorian/early 20th century houses on Route 9 I realized I had been there numerous times, and indeed I had forgotten that the New Hampshire Children's Museum was located there, to which I used to go quite frequently, though usually on rainy or exceedingly frigid days, when my older children were smaller. I don't think my current small children, who are 6 and 4, have ever been there, because now everything we do is geared as much towards the edification of junior high schoolers as it is little boys and girls. As noted above, Dover has a well-preserved older central core and a surprisingly lively Main Street, with few vacant storefronts and a lot of bars. The population is around 30,000, which is comparable to Portsmouth and Concord, and much larger than I would have thought, since it is a pretty anonymous city even within New Hampshire. I am curious to know what accounts for all the bars. Durham, where the University of New Hampshire is located, is only about five miles away, though I have never heard that trekking over to Dover to go drinking was something that was done. For the main ride, I went down on US-4 again to NH-155, which was about seven miles of country road past woods and farms until running into the intersection of NH-9 and 16 (the mysterious Spaulding Turnpike, which due to my awkward location relative to it I have never had occasion to take an extended ride on) on the outskirts of Dover proper. On the return trip I took route 9 back on its way in that part of the state until it joined with US-4--a winding road, that passed a mildly diverting looking general store that retained some slight air of authenticity only because it had not quite attained its ambition to be a known destination on the tourist trail, a lake, and a lakefront community. But other than that I do not remember much distinctly.

Location. Interesting. This establishment is located in a low slung, warehouse type building in a clearing surrounded by woods on a side road beyond the town center towards the Maine state line. The only signal visible from the road indicating its existence is a hand-lettered folding wooden sign sitting on the ground under a tree at the edge of the driveway. It is unlikely many people who do not know it is there or are not looking for it will stumble across it, even if they are completely lost. There is a beaten up hulk of a car from the 1950s sitting near the sign that upon closer inspection is a further piece of advertising for the restaurant. But as ancient, rusting cars are common sights along country roads in this part of the world, it is nothing anyone passing through would take any especial notice of. The wooded setting, especially looking out away from the building, is peaceful and pretty however.

The Day.  The weather had called for heavy rain most of the day, but this held off at least for the duration of the outing. It was overcast, but bright, and warm, around 80 degrees. A good day to be about.

The Ambiance. Weird. The place gave off an amateurish, even half-hearted vibe. The ruling idea, clearly, is to create a 50s, Americana type diner atmosphere, though this aim is somewhat incongruous with the circumstance that the space with which they are working is a 1970s or 80s industrial park structure with cinder block walls. There are a few items of memorabilia affixed to the walls here and there--single pictures of the usual suspects, Elvis, Marilyn, & Jimmy, a plate featuring Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, a few records and advertisements for cars, soap, soft drinks, as well as a steady soundtrack of 50s hits being piped into the mostly empty and energy-less room.

The Crowd. When I first arrived the crowd consisted of two old guys sitting silently at separate tables and the waitress, who was doing something with her back turned behind the counter and did not notice I had come in for over five minutes. Later on though, a couple of other people trickled in, one a younger (late 20s, early 30ish) man who was on friendly terms with the waitress, and a mother/daughter/baby party who were a little livelier. Everyone in the place appeared to be local and decidedly working class, since no one appeared to have an important or lucrative job and most of the conversations, once they got going, kept coming back to depressing themes like not having any money, haphazard and decidedly non-50s family arrangements and such. With regard to sociability the lunch progressed in a stereotypical New England manner, with everyone, including the waitress, being dead silent and outwardly not very friendly towards me or anyone else for half an hour (and I being I suppose the same towards them), in my case I think until they could get some kind of a read on who I was, a strange middle aged man in a button down shirt and toting a baby. But some tentative comments and questions were offered with regard to my baby by the waitress and the family of females and it was established that we were not innately hostile to each other, and it could almost be said that we were on fairly friendly terms by the end.

I think it is worth noting, or at least a curiosity, that so many of the long established family dining restaurants along the coast and in other tourist spots seem to employ exclusively young foreign students nowadays while 10 miles inland at some hole in the wall where six people show up for lunch all of the employees are kind of tough-looking local people of a certain background that does not keep up to date with the fashion in education or food or politics or allows for much evolution in those realms. I know the tourist restaurants are seasonal and I guess they cannot find a workforce adequate to their specific needs among the local population, though it seems strange that the latter are willing enough to work in any number of dingy grease joints and fast food restaurants in Dover when they live ten, fifteen, twenty miles from a busy tourist area that has a desperate need for restaurant workers.

The Food. The menu kept pretty close to the spirit of the 50s--they even offered grilled liver! I got the chili dog, I had never had a chili dog before, mainly because I was always averse to dealing with the inevitable messiness of this dish. It was all right, though it tasted more like something an undistinguished amateur cook would produce in his home kitchen. The fries were good though, and tasted like real restaurant fries. I wanted to help them out a little by ordering dessert, but the pies and cupcakes on the tray again looked more fattening and unfulfilling than inspiring, as if they had been made from a mix by someone who had little experience even with that. In addition they were drooping a little in the warm weather so I had to pass on them.

I am not going to rush back, but I would be willing to try it again to see if different circumstances, crowd, etc, brings out a more satisfying atmosphere. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

M (1931)

Legendarily dark and disturbing Fritz Lang masterpiece about a child murderer (played by a pre-Hollywood Peter Lorre) in an impersonal and alienating modern city. It has been ranked by important critics and polls in Germany itself as the greatest film ever produced in that country, which tells something about how that nation's intelligentsia at least regards itself and the nature of existence, because there is little in it, if anything, that could be called joyous or sentimental or life-affirming. Some people prefer their movies this way, however. Certainly like many of the celebrated films of the Weimar Republic--several more of which are waiting in the wings in this set of reviews--it captures the atmosphere of foreboding and dread and despair that in retrospect is the clear precursor to the the national nervous breakdown of the Nazi era, does not look away from it or deny it to feed the public pablum and feel-good lies, etc, in this sense it is a frank and truthful art that many people in this country wish that we had, though obviously in the case of the German avant-garde of the 20s it had little practical effect on the course of history, and resulted in most of the artists themselves leaving the country, though not before they had had their substantial say in defining the character of this tumultuous and endlessly fascinating era.

As with most of these iconic movies I make notes about here, this was my first time seeing M, and afterwards I went through it again with the commentary and the other extensive special features that you get with the Criterion disk, though I cannot remember any earth-shattering revelations in these. As is often the case with me on encountering something great on a first viewing (or reading, or listening), I found it more strange than immediately compelling, but that usually indicates that the thing is good and has layers of meaning and significance that will speak to people further up on the brightness ladder than I am. So I tend to find strange things to be attractive and mildly thrilling for the connection I can imagine having to the kinds of people whose acceptance I have always fantasized about, even if when it comes down to it, I have been rather shy about really desiring it. The sets and props in this are some of the most desolate and alienating, psychologically, in a Western environment that I have ever seen.

A favorite image from M.   

So now at least I have improved my basic familiarity with the filmic canon, had my initial introduction to a titanic director, and really, in this new and somewhat more alert phase of journal-keeping in these matters, to an entire major period and movement in the development of the art, all of which helps one gradually feel ever so slightly more like a real film buff, and all of the dreams of revival houses and arguments in smoke-filled taverns, and the art girls--oh, we'll never stop dreaming of the art girls--that I associate with that state of being.

Art girls here I come

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Goldenrod--York Beach, ME

Taking a break from the movie write-ups to recount my outing for lunch this past Thursday. I am thinking about doing a series of 'cheap restaurants of New England' posts, at least through the fall, as all of the children are back in school now except for the baby, and it gives me an excuse to get out of town and take a ride once a week during this really lovely season of the year. Of course I have to be back by 2:30 to hand the baby off to her mother and go to work so I cannot go very far away or linger in a place for very long, but I can manage anywhere within 90 minutes if I leave by 10 am, which given my location covers a fair amount of good territory, including most of the state of New Hampshire. I have also devised some internet word search games to generate restaurant possibilities, though for this initial excursion I opted to finally go to a place that I have had a hankering interest in going to for many years, but which has not been practical because it was either too crowded or I have had too many children with me, and which I also mentioned in my summer vacation post, the old-fashioned luncheonette attached to the Goldenrod taffy-candy-gift store, both because of this interest and because I thought they might be closing for the season after Labor Day (though in fact they are remaining open through Columbus Day; maybe I will go down again before then).

I am going to set these posts up in the category style, which has always been popular with consumers of ephemeral media.

The Ride

Usually when going to Maine from Concord I take US-4 to Portsmouth and pick up I-95, or if I am really not in any hurry, US-1. This is a pleasant ride, 50-55 mph the whole way, minimal stoplights, antique stores, book stores, old barns and churches, lakes and lake houses, woods, farms, the famous New Hampshire Trojan horse (said to have been built by a disgruntled old isolationist Yankee in the 50s as a protest against the U.N.), and it takes a hair over an hour to get to the Maine state line, and a further 15-20 minutes to get to York Beach. However all of the internet mapping sites claim that the fastest way to get to the ocean from Concord is to take the interstate south to Manchester and go east on NH-101, which is a highway on that stretch, so I tried that, but that way took me 90 minutes (and route 101 from Manchester to Hampton is for New Hampshire an unusually blah road as far as scenery goes, though the part of it that runs west to Keene, a humbler two-lane blacktop, is a quite beautiful, if plodding route). I took Route 4 home and it was the usual 75. I have really come to love the old U.S. highways in recent years, most of which outside the congested Boston-D.C. corridor you can keep up a good speed on most of the time (and even in some places in it, such as US-301 from Wilmington to Annapolis, and even US-1 between Philadelphia and the Verrazano Bridge and Holland and Lincoln tunnels is usually just as fast as taking the turnpike) and I try to take them now whenever possible.

The Location

I think it is perfect, 100 yards from the beach, but as the beach isn't visible the view out the curtained windows gives the sense of being in a densely built little city through which a constant stream of pedestrians are moving, a really charming effect that, due to the rarity of it anywhere in this country, I had forgotten about in recent years.

The Day

It was nearly 90 degrees, so it still felt like summer, though with school being back in session the beaches on a Thursday had only about half the crowds they would normally have, and the amusement arcades, though still open, were practically deserted. I am guessing they will close up after the Labor Day weekend. As I left home an hour later than I wanted to, I was only able to take a quick peek at the beach before I had to hurry off home.

The Ambiance

Well, I'll read to you from their brochure: "Step back in time to when things were simpler...the classic New England dining room...The heavy beamed ceilings, oak tables and stone fireplace set the stage." It's a great space. It is one big room, but it has a long, not entirely straight perimeter, with a little alcove in the back that I actually could not see. I was given probably the worst table (as I usually am, I guess because I am so ugly and unimportant looking), in the middle area right next to where the people stand when they are waiting to be seated. My ambition for my next visit is to get a seat by one of the windows. The bathrooms are up an interior, dark, narrow, carpeted, wood-paneled staircase lit by yellow light bulbs in sconces, reminiscent of one of the better old bars in Boston. The bathroom itself was more modern, but it did have nice dark-wood doors, both at the entry and in the stalls, that looked legitimately old.

The Crowd

Due to the absence of school-age children, it was mostly older people and people with very young (pre-preschool age) children. I was with my own 7 month old daughter, who is so well-behaved that I do not have the slightest pause about bringing her out with me on these excursions. There were a couple of 20ish New England rocker chicks out for the day with their biker-looking parents, and one MILFy type, petite and wearing glasses, long curly-ish hair, who was giving off a moderately "I'm not dead in that way yet" vibe. I did overhear an overweight, slovenly dressed, doofus-y looking family discussing having seen The Philadelphia Story recently, with the mother claiming it as one of her favorite movies and expostulating a little on the appeal of Cary Grant, which surprised me, especially as in appearance she looked about as far from the Cary Grant style ideal as it is possible to get. As at an increasing number of restaurants in touristy areas around here, the wait staff consisted entirely of young people from non-western countries--the ones here looked to me to be Russian or elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.   

The Food

My waitress was the cutest one of the bunch, though by 'cute' I mean in the way a serious, mildly severe Russian girl would be cute, not like a cheerleader. She was not especially friendly, but she was not unfriendly either. Neither was she terribly conscientious, though she was not completely indifferent. She was busy, I guess (the dining room was about 60% busy) and her mind was elsewhere. The first time she came to take my order I was not quite ready, so she went away and didn't return for 20 minutes. I began to wonder whether this was deliberate, that the hard Russian girl was going to amuse herself by ignoring me and making me have to loudly call after her or make some public complaint which she would know at a glance someone like me would be inherently loath to do. However, I think she just forgot about me, as she did apologize, sincerely if not weakly or obsequiously, when she came back. I just ordered a BLT, but I am happy to report that it was a extremely good one, the lettuce and bacon and even the side pickles, which I usually skip, were of a perfect crispness. So I am a believer in the product now, whatever I get the next time. Due to my late start and the additional 20 minute delay in taking my order, I was up against it for time and was unable to linger any longer to have coffee or dessert, which of course I love to do, because I really don't have anything important to do in my life, ever, or anywhere to get to accomplish amazing things, unless someone else has arranged for me to have to be somewhere. But I had frittered away all of the time that was my own and I had to get back. But I will return now, for certain.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

The Jean Renoir super-classic, recognized as a landmark of the cinema from almost the earliest efforts to define a hall of honor in the form. I mostly was able to enjoy it; I suspect that as with other great French movies of the 30s, including others of Renoir--this epoch being one of my four or five favorites in the history of the art--multiple viewings over time will allow certain aspects and parts of the story to click in my mind as to what they are and how they fit in with the whole more smoothly than they did on the initial viewing, which will enable me to enjoy it much more. While naturally there are movies that require you, assuming you have the mental tools, to be more than usually alert to what is going on in them and put in some effort to see them properly, I find that these old French films will come to you to a certain extent--or at least the adjustment needed to see them more accurately is less strenuous and dependent on high intellectual capacity. The stories develop and take form, have points of emphasis, etc, in such ways as I at least seem not to be accustomed to at first, but the basic narrative language is capable of being picked up on after a few runs through, I think, by even a comparative simpleton.

I do not like it when bloggers do boring plot recaps, but as most of my comments here will not make any sense without some reference to the basic elements of the story, I will make a brief summary of these. Boudu is a vagabond who throws himself into the Seine, though in retrospect it is not clear to me why, since most of the story revolves around how much more free and alive he is than the repressed bourgeois characters all around him; I suppose it is suggested he was depressed at the necessity of living in a world completely overrun and dominated by these smug and soulless materialists. In any case, Boudu is rescued by and taken into the house of M. Lestingois, an apparently prosperous bookseller who is able to arrive quickly on the scene because his home and business have a great location on the Left Bank with a view of the river. Once in the household, Boudu, being a natural person untainted by middle-class proprieties, freely expresses and indulges all the thoughts and physical urges that occur to him, flummoxing the bourgeois males and intriguing their women. At one telling point M Lestingois, who has been carrying on an affair with the live-in maid, when he can manage it, is trying to sneak up to her room in the dead of night and wakes up Boudu, who loudly mocks him for creeping about like a mouse even to avoid being caught by himself, a homeless bum, at which the bookseller, unable to proceed boldly on after this distraction, skulks back to the bed he probably does not share with his frigid wife. This is all good fun, but as I stated earlier I am sure it will be more fun if I can get my mind to respond more in rhythm with the flow of the movie, which I experienced this time in a more herky-jerky manner.

While it is well-established among genuinely intelligent people, especially in France, that bourgeois life and people are, if not absolutely odious, at least too small in their ranges of thought and activity to be satisfactory to any man or woman of real spirit, and everybody who gets the least sniff of a real education wants little more than to be able to escape this deadly and reviled life, it is obviously much more difficult to overcome the bad habits of thought and taste with which such a upbringing permeates you, certainly as far as transcending this status to attain any level that is clearly more desirable, than one would think given the moral opprobrium that attaches to not being able to transcend it. The secrets for becoming the type of person who is accepted as being above the bourgeois, so far as they are secrets, are inscrutable to most people who don't discover that they would like to possess them until after they are around fifteen years old or so, which seems already to be too late to acquire them. As for the hatred of the bourgeois as a class or a kind of organized enemy that is antagonistic to intelligent people and artists, and proud of themselves for being so, as a mass force they would appear to be in decline in most western societies, both in regard to resources and cultural domination, to be replaced one supposes by mass lumpenproletarianism. Why this is seen as an improvement. I do not really understand, though I guess their pretensions and delusions of grandeur are more modest and less grating on the nerves of the advanced classes, not to mention less expensive to maintain overall. Some on the American right wing seem to think bourgeois cultural and behavioral norms should still be promoted for the masses on low prole incomes and employment conditions, but it should be obvious that there is no motivation to become this sort of responsible, sober, sexually chaste person without a promise of obtaining or being let into significant material benefits somewhere down the line.

This movie is also famous for its views of early 1930s Paris. Some of the shots did make me almost want to cry, to think that the particular culture and personality of the city that is so appealing in this era is probably almost all vanished now, to the delight of some no doubt and the superior insistence of others (to persuade you that you never did and never will know anything of of it), though I still was able to find something of the old magic and charm even when I was there last in 1999, though at the time it was alarmingly less than I had found in 1990, at which time Paris was still very much what I think of as its ideal self, less English spoken, the older and simpler pleasures available at reasonable prices, that sort of nonsense...

Another thing I wanted to add about these pre-World War II French classics, is that they depict the attitudes and deep culture of this great and central nation--much of which sense can be discerned in the literature of the era as well--in something of its final days, because the particular outlook on life, whether it is the unconscious confidence or sense of importance of a vital, living people, or whatever, that comes through in these movies did not wholly survive 1940. Vestiges of it hung on for a while and shined through in other books and artworks, again up until the 90s or so, but since then there is not really anyone left with a meaningful connection to this pre-1940 France, and the character one detects in these old movies--or certain aspects of its charm anyway--is largely vanished now