Friday, March 31, 2017

Next Group

It's been at least a couple of months since I saw these as well. I'll try to remember what I wanted to say about them at the time.

Divided We Fall (2000)

Czech World War II movie that involves the hiding of an escaped Jew by a married couple in his former neighborhood, but for those accustomed to the highly moralized approach that Hollywood usually applies to this subject, this may seem an original and slightly more intricate examination of it. European movies, and especially those made in the eastern countries, are pretty loath to depict anyone in the occupied territories as heroic, or motivated by heroic impulses, at least as the Hollywood mindset conceives of what form this would, or should have taken. I had seen this shortly after it came out--I was at that time still just a few years removed from my time in Prague and eagerly sought out any new Czech movies that made their way to this country--and I had forgotten how good it was. It is the kind of thing that does not sound that good if you try to explain it broadly. Within the apparently standard and perhaps even tired framework there is a lot of inventiveness that I did not anticipate, in part no doubt because I am so conditioned to regard the events of this period of history through the lens that American sources have usually insisted on their being understood. This is not however the way that artists, and presumably a significant portion of the sentient population, in most of the European countries seem to understand it however.
I like this picture because it is reminiscent of every dining room in Prague I had the pleasure of being invited to for drinks. 

I must have watched this just after the election because it was around the time that people on the Internet were asking if anyone would "hide them" from Trump's white Nazi supporters when they were imminently unleashed. Of course I have no sense that anything of this sort is really gearing up, at least for educated upper middle class people, and therefore cannot bring myself to take such alarms very seriously, though if people genuinely feel that they are facing this kind of existential danger from the current government, I am about the last person who is going to be able to persuade them otherwise. Given the advances in surveillance and detection technology, apart from the already established custom in this country of SWAT teams, etc, being able to kick in your door and tear apart your house if they consider they have a good enough reason, I'm not sure that hiding anyone for any amount of time nowadays is terribly plausible, especially if you have already committed to doing it on Facebook. Perhaps if you have truly been existing completely outside of legitimate society, banks, identity papers, taxes, and so on, it is possible to lose yourself in the fabric of the country, but that situation applies to few of the more vociferous members of the Resistance. Now, if some kind of government orchestrated genocide is implemented, and many of the intended victims are not able to get out of the country beforehand, the futility of the gesture will still not excuse slamming the door in the face of the persecuted and leaving them to their fate in order to preserve yourself, but one of the insights of the better sort of Holocaust art, usually, I find, a product of the smaller and poorer European countries, is that if things really come to that point, almost no one has a clear sense of what might be demanded of them or how they are going to respond to particular situations that arise. Especially someone like me who just doesn't have the righteousness and fire and hatred of my political enemies that I guess are going to bear other people through whatever transpires.

That said, I acknowledge that our current societal order is clearly exhausted, and needs some kind of rebirth or reorganization. My personal exhaustion, however, is increasingly of everyone who has no sense of humor and no appreciation for any of the things that I appreciate, or am able to appreciate, no matter what their politics are. ...    

Jupiter's Wife (1995)

Documentary about a mentally ill homeless woman in New York who claims among other things to be Jupiter's wife. This probably seemed like an interesting idea in 1995, but the development of all media in the ensuing years, at least for this type of story, makes it seem rather quaint now. The main problem is that the subject (by which I mean the woman) is not that interesting. The filmmaker did manage to find out who she was and that she had a conventional suburban upbringing, attending high school on Long Island in the early 60s and that she had once driven a horse carriage in Central Park for which she had been featured in newspaper articles and TV spots, as being a girl driver was evidently considered unusual at that time. However, she was much more strange than brilliant, and her adult life and spoken thoughts had little evocative about them, at least that I can remember. The movie is also shot on videotape which further adds to the tired effect, the 90s being now at that distance from us that its negative qualities still carry force in the present and not enough time has passed to make many charms peculiar to that time readily jump out at us.

New York City was still quite dingy in 1995 compared to what it is now, or at least what it was the last few times I was there, when Bloomberg was still the mayor. Most people claim that they liked it better when it was dingy, but I much prefer like the way it looks now, at least the older parts that have been preserved and restored to some of their former charm and grandeur, to the way it looked all through the earlier part of my life. I am certainly sympathetic to the claims that the character of the city at the street and boarding house and library reading room and cafeteria level has been negatively impacted by the ever increasing demands that the immensely wealthy of the entire world make on Manhattan especially, which has had the effect of pushing out most of the people who were sort of like me, if there were ever any such people, which will make anybody upset. It does seem to me to be becoming more remote as an aspirational destination for ordinary young (i.e. not Wall Street bound) Americans who have to earn their own bread, which would obviously be a terrible cultural loss, for them. Of course, it isn't like the city is lacking for people, or younger people, it is just more daunting for those whose main ambitions there are to loaf around reading books, walking around the streets for hours on end, drinking beer and looking at girls, and who live in denial and fear of the forces and necessity of capitalism and enterprise. Who it goes without saying are not reckoned much of a loss by anybody but themselves.

Bizet's Carmen (1985)

This is a film of the famous opera, but not of a stage performance, the singers and actors are out in the open air in various locations around Andalusia. This worked better for me than a stage performance would have, I actually feel like I got something out of seeing it, though of course Carmen is famous for being an opera popular with people who don't know anything about opera, or music, or culture, and probably food, wine, sex, and whatever else there is that is worth knowing, but I am peace with this aspect of myself now. The famous opera star Placido Domingo is in this. I don't recognize any of the other stars by name, including Carmen herself. Even though I obviously have not spent much time in my life in Europe, this production conveys something of the spirit that I felt the first time I was there in 1990 that I have often written about, before the hyper modern strands of global economics and mass migration had set in, and more people seemed to live according to the rhythms and habits more traditionally associated with their particular country or region. Since the contemplation of this was an especial joy and inspiration to me in my youth, it always revives my rather deadened soul a little to be reminded of it again, though I wish I could anticipate some such excitement in the future. As the trend however seems to be for everything to be changed and transformed into some more efficient or exalted version of itself in which most people have less and less of an active part to play, it's not clear what there is for any non-superperson to be excited about.
The Grey Fox (1982)
I believe this movie is categorized under the genre of "Canadian Western", though much of it is set in Washington and Oregon and it stars the well-known Hollywood actor Richard Farnsworth, who plays the gentlemanly real-life outlaw Bill Miner, famed for pulling off Canada's first train robbery (I noted on my Twitter account at the time that train robbing was a crime that has really gone out of style). I liked the mood of this, which is somewhat surprisingly quiet and understated given its subject matter. It mainly takes part in the rainy, heavily forested, and at the time in which the movie was set (1900-1910 or so) practically uninhabited Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the border, and Miner spends a lot of time living in the woods or lying low in sleepy frontier towns. The conflict in the story is that Miner, while intelligent and charming enough to be well-liked by such relatively cultivated people as he is able to encounter who don't know who he is, is unable to "go straight" and live an honest and respectable life, but has a constant compulsion to return to his life as a notorious criminal, in which field he has attained the notoriety and grudging respect due to accomplished practitioners that most men of spirit crave. It is a good, if relatively uncelebrated movie that I had to watch on a VHS tape before Christmas, though now that my wife has gotten Amazon Fire TV I will probably need to seek out VHS copies ever less and less now. This is perhaps one of the last ones I will ever watch in that primitive format.
Three Sisters (1970)
Adaptation of the Chekhov play by Laurence Olivier and a number of other familiar names from the British stage of that era, including Joan Plowright and Alan Bates. Notable for being the last movie that Olivier directed, though he would continue acting of course almost up to the end of his life in 1989. I have not read the play, and I wish I had had more familiarity with the story before seeing the movie, since I have to confess that I increasingly have trouble keeping up with British stage productions with regard to the pace of both the story and the dialogue. Of all the really great authors whose stature pretty much everyone agrees, I think Chekhov may be the one of whom I have read the least. My various lists and games surprisingly have not thus far turned up anything by him apart from The Cherry Orchard, which is consequently the only work of his that I have read. I thought this movie, though (another) British interpretation of an obviously Russian play, was very beautifully done, and took a subdued and yet unaffected tone that the material called for that I am not sure a contemporary production could pull off. Also, as I get older I am increasingly interested in films made right around the time when I was born (1970), since that time seems more and more to belong to another age, particularly in the cinema, where nearly half of the form's history has occurred in my lifetime, and it is reassuring to me, who is so sidelined mentally from contemporary currents of life, to reconnect with the more recognizable world I was born into. This applies to the next movie on the list also.

Louise Purnell, the actress who played the beautiful youngest sister Irina, was so beautiful herself in this that I feel the need to commemorate it here, especially she does not seem to have gone on to do anything else notable in films, and does not even merit her own Wikipedia page. Still, she was once exceptionally beautiful in a high end Chekhov production, and that is not nothing..

Medium Cool (1969)

Somewhat falsely advertised as more of a documentary than it in fact is (though there is some documentary footage in it), this is more accurately a rumination on the state of society that was made in a documentary style, culminating in the real-life events around the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. Its director was a man named Haskell Wexler who I think it is safe to say could be described politically as "Old Left". He just died in 2015 at age 93, which was too bad, since he was still active within this decade, the special features on the Criterion DVD including a film he made at an Occupy Wall Street rally which it was obvious he was hoping would reveal some hints of an incipient inspiring movement of the people akin to those of the 60s (needless to say, it didn't). The '68 movie is concerned with the mass media's control and distortion of the narrative and the effects it had on the public perception and understanding of everything, activism, the youth culture, the poor community of Appalachian transplants in Chicago, suburbanites arming themselves, politically aroused and confrontational young black people, the eternal class struggle. A very different and interesting movie, probably would reward more than one viewing (I was nearly halfway through it before I realized most of it it must be scripted). Recommended.
I liked this lady in the yellow dress, who played a rather sweet Appalachian woman from West Virginia. I have always had a little bit of a thing for girls from West Virginia since I went to basketball camp (at Morgantown) in high school and thought 'I wouldn't mind partying with some of these cuties.' Of course you hardly ever meet anyone from West Virginia outside of the state itself, at least I don't remember that I ever have.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


This is something I was going to post on Facebook within the last couple of weeks, but I didn't do it because the people I am aiming such posts at and the people who actually read and comment on my posts there most of the time are (mostly) not the same people, and I didn't think the latter group was likely to get my point the way I wanted it to be gotten. But I still want to write the thought down, so why not do it here, where I need content and where I have no real idea who, if anyone is likely to see it:

So the other day I finished reading the second volume of Knausgaard, and in the spirit of that book I thought I should take a similarly honest appraisal of the essential banality of my ordinary thought and activity. As most people have probably noticed, the last year has not been a very happy one on Facebook most of the time, particularly for those of us whose friend base is 98% affiliated with the Democratic Party (I have only two friends out of 133 who openly supported the Republicans in the elections last year--ed.). Most of the time nowadays I wonder why I even bother looking in. When I tried to think of what in the last year had given me the most happiness on Facebook it had nothing to do with people who had performed virtuous or courageous or defiant acts or who were defending truth and speaking it to power in the current age of lies, of course not, it was discovering that people who I have always thought of, and still do, as attractive, cool, and successful to a degree that I have never been able to attain go camping with their families in the summertime, and appear to enjoy it and think it a fine way to travel. I don't think anything else could have done so much to help in improving my own attitude towards camping, which had been largely negative and reluctant, only undertaken on my part because I am so desperate to go anywhere sometimes that I will even agree to sleep on the ground in the middle of the woods miles from the nearest town if that is the only option. But being able to see that certain people of the sort that I imagined myself being excluded from the company and atmosphere of by going camping camp themselves is the sort of thing that makes me keep checking in. I would have hated to have missed that.

I'm glad I did not actually write this. This is a good example of why I don't have any real-life friends with whom I have serious conversations. I cannot form a coherent thought without working through it first for several weeks, let alone trying to say anything in real time. I appear to have no idea what I think about anything, or even why I like something if I am overcome with genuine pleasure, though this is not exactly true. I simply have no idea how to say it unaffectedly in a way that would be socially acceptable or that I would not be embarrassed by.

The internal debate I had over this half-baked paragraph took place before I found out that another one of my classmates (aged 45) had died suddenly. These (and there have been quite of them, considering what I take to be our relatively young age as far as dying is concerned) are always shocking to some degree, since so far they almost all happen out of the blue, but this one was especially shocking. I am of course interested in knowing about what happens to all of the people I used to know, even tangentially (though this particular person I knew somewhat more than tangentially) and something like Facebook is good for that, I suppose. I am increasingly cognizant now of having most of my life behind me, and that probably even most of the trips and drives and outings and ice cream stops with my children are in the past, though I do still have a two year old. However, my energy as far as organizing and carrying out these activities on a regular basis seems to have declined noticeably in the last couple of years, though the desire to do them is still there. You see, I am talking about myself again instead of the person who has died, but it is hard to say anything at the time, I was even like this when my grandparents died, the real meaning of their absence, what they really were, the kinds of things that went out of my life or were not said or thought anymore when they died did not really become clear until they had been gone for a while.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Notes on Movies Continued

As I am months behind in this, I am going to have to do a few of these. The good news is that I have not seen too many movies either, so three (posts) might do the trick. Of course at my rate that could take another two months.

Anna Karenina (2012)

I admit I liked what they did with this. They got Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay, and his vision was to take episodes from the book and put them in a theater setting, but the theater is usually just a starting off point for a good deal of clever filmwork. I remarked at the time that the movie makes a lot of assumptions that viewers have read the book and have a good recollection of it. Many minor characters for example make appearances without any introduction or explanation of who they are, you have to recognize them from the novel, and a similar dynamic is applied to various of the situations that the major characters are involved in, they appear or are alluded to in the course of the movie without being any further developed. As in often the case with modern productions that have some money to work with, the colors and sets and clothes and most of the people are lustrously beautiful. I was not enamored some of the casting, in particular Keira Knightley as Anna, though she does seem to fit with many people's idea of what Anna is. Older men (by which I mean older men than me) in the business love her, she is an ideal art-world sex goddess for them. Personally I don't detect much of a soul there, or an appealing mind either, though reputedly she is very smart. Maybe I don't like her, or Anna, because they are too superior to me all around, or at least there is no opening for me to approach them in a way that is pleasing to me. Even in the book there is with Anna much of a sense that her mental and emotional life, more as the result of cultured habit and upbringing than intellectual development, are inaccessible, certainly to the lowlier sort of reader.

I didn't like the actor they had playing Levin either, who played him as more of a goober than I think was merited. I thought it was widely known, or understood, that Levin was modeled in large part after Tolstoy himself, and in the book he had some cachet in Moscow society even if he was regarded as a bit of an oddball.
I do remember thinking that Vronsky was well-cast.

The King's Speech (2010)

I had seen this a few years back and I gave it another try. It still strikes me as a weak Oscar best picture winner. The material is too slight, the class dynamic strikes my American sensibility as rather gross, not that we do not have problems of our own in this regard; some of the particular forms of the British system are still alien enough to strike me as strange. The uninspiring George VI is not one of my favorite British royals. I was always partial to his disgraced brother, mostly on account of his clothes. I suppose the film had some appeal for me as a period piece, given my general affection for this period, though even in this I thought the effect was overly drab. Not in the physical sense--I like drab as an aesthetic in that--but in its animating forces.

It appears from reading this that I think it is dreadful and was rolling my eyes and generally not enjoying myself throughout the movie, but I am not fierce enough to denounce anything that thoroughly. Some of the performances are quite good. Still, overall I found it a disappointment.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

The second of the back to back Oscar winners from the turn of the current decade, and I suppose the best-known movie to deal with George Bush II's Iraq War. What I remember most about it was that it was filmed in videotape, and its overwhelming aura of alienation and nihilism. Compared with World War II movies or even to some extent Vietnam movies it is striking to me how little emphasis is placed on the connection of the soldiers with the greater society back home, effectively there is not much of one, and this is of course one of the themes of the movie. While I am partial to some landscapes more than others, I usually am able to feel some sense of beauty in most places. Iraq in this movie at least looks to be oppressively unlovable and alien in a geographic sense. The barracks--trailers I guess--where the soldiers reside are equally devoid of any tribute to aesthetics or positive cultural associations. We are reminded that there are still men in the world--I don't remember there being any women soldiers in this movie, which was somewhat famously directed by a woman--who take to the life of soldiering and war as their calling, though perhaps there are not as many being produced in the Western nations as there used to be, for good or ill, I am not clear in my own mind on this point. The Iraq War is presented in this movie as a somewhat endless series of military exercises and maneuvers, which, however skillfully executed, do not seem to be leading towards any obvious end, at least from the American point of view. Perhaps I should see it again sometime. It is not an enjoyable or hopeful movie in any way however.

Top Gun (1986)

Another military-themed movie, of a sort, though immersed in late Cold War Reagan-era jingoism rather than the fractured confusion that in the public mind at least has characterized the more recent conflicts. What a difference 30 years makes! I was not looking forward to seeing this, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, not because of anything to do with the story, but because I found it (as I have on several of the rare occasions when I take up movies from these particular years) so much fun to be back again in the oddly lost world of the mid-1980s, which were my high school years and the details of which therefore I recollect very vividly and which belong to me--not that I was myself doing anything very exciting compared to most people at the time--much more than the present does. There is a lack of oppressiveness in the atmosphere of this movie compared to pretty much everything about life in the present that does ring true in my memory. The look and demeanor of the women in the 80s were so comparatively pleasing too. Of course it is easy to be gulled by movie stars, but with the NCAA basketball tournament being on this week I was looking on the internet at some of the old games of the 80s and when the cameras scans the crowd or shows the cheerleaders they look a lot happier and like they are having a lot more fun, and are therefore cuter, than what I feel when I look at similarly aged people today, though perhaps I am partial to my own time. And then of course the lively, beautiful young women of the 80s are the 40 and 50-somethings who seem to be not especially happy with circumstances in the present.

And Quiet Flows the Don (1957)

3 part, 6 hour Soviet adaptation of the Sholakhov novel about Cossacks during the period of World War I and the Revolution. I found it to be very poignant. Why would this be, given all of the horrible things that not only take place in this story, but that we know are going to happen in the future to anyone who is surviving at the end as well? To begin with I am emotionally susceptible to the historical events of the period under consideration more than most others. I am as well susceptible to certain of the particular sensations which cinematic evolution had become adept at projecting by the 1950s, so much so that much that the default or base of most my ideas about geography and how the natural world especially is supposed to look like date from this time. I had also read the book, and the story is moving and stirring, in the sense of having sweep and movement. Even though they were a wicked regime and our enemies and they stifled entrepreneurship the circumstance that it seems to have been a prestige project in the Soviet Union may have made some impression on me also, the idea of the existence of this whole other film industry completely cut off from Hollywood certainly, but even Western Europe, full of actors and directors most people in the West know nothing, who if they ever had occasion to speak English, did not do so professionally. The movie was shot in bright and unsubtle color that makes it appear somewhat cartoonish at first but I found it grew on me.

I have written in the past about my time in Prague in the 90s and how I found certain lingering aspects of the lifestyle and organization of the era appealing, namely in the form of (certain of) the kinds of shared experiences that people had with one another, which seemed to me superior to the weak shared experiences, if there are any at all, that I at least have with anyone in the United States. This called some of that to mind too.

This came with a 4th disc exclusively devoted to some of the oddest special features I've ever seen. There was a droning interview with a modern day Cossack ataman (something like a chief), who was a balding, heavyset, rather unwarlike middle aged man wearing a medal-covered blue dress uniform and sitting behind a desk in what looked like an office in a community center. There was about a twenty minute segment devoted to traditional Cossack songs and dances which I was going to take a quick glimpse at and move on, but I found I was drawn into and rather uplifted by it, because, at least during the performance, the people were so proud and comfortable in their own skin not merely as awesome or superior individuals but as members of a community with some sense of positive identity and purpose. I know this sort of thing is discouraged nowadays among us because it often ends in conflict and people getting killed, but it is very attractive when you see it. The anomic life spent in shuffling about with one's head down, unable to drawn strength from or commune with such vitality as does exist around you is pitiful in comparison. This was what I was thinking while watching the dances anyway.