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Sunday
Sep252016

To Be and to Have (Être et avoir)

There are numerous miniature delights in this film, yet perhaps the most magnificent scene comes during a springtime thunderstorm. A sixtyish teacher (Georges Lopez) accompanies two students with two umbrellas from the door of his schoolhouse to a waiting van, a much more complicated task than one would imagine. The two children are not nearly as different in age as some of his other pupils, yet one of them follows his instructions precisely, covers his head with his satchel, and understands the principle of the fragile device keeping him dry; the other, however, seems to get none of this, even though a small child instinctively knows what to do when it rains. A microcosm for Lopez's remarkable world, at once tiny and enormously large.

The smallness comes from the location of our documentary, rural France (we begin and end our visit with cows and green fields as interminable as Sahara dunes). Without a spot of research you would not guess that the population of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson numbers no more than a few hundred, in no small part to the warmth Lopez imparts to both his immaculate classroom and his pupils, ages four to ten. At the beginning, we have a lesson in orthography using a word that every French child will have mastered before he sets foot in school; later, Lopez will teach his youngest prodigies the male and female versions of "friend." That the children of different ages have to interact and yet retain more than a little discipline and decorum in that interaction does not bother them, and it certainly doesn't bother Lopez. He is courteous, caring, immeasurably patient, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly calm. His voice only goes up in mock emotion or to emphasize a part of a sentence not quite understood. At one point we are told that he shares teaching duties with a certain Tatiana, but no evidence of such partition ever manifests itself. When the younger ones are playing (Lopez understands they will learn nothing if they are browbeaten all day), the older ones are assigned projects that harness some of their strengths as well as delve into their weaknesses. We get little of the home life of the students apart from a quick glance into the farmhouse of the class heavyweight, Julien. Julien helps his mom sweep the stalls of their farm then struggles with her through his math homework with an alarming lack of confidence – perhaps because every wrong answer is met with the back of her hand (another relative suggests the equation, "What's six smacks a day for two days?"). Julien has a tense relationship with his only coeval, Olivier, who is more sensitive and therefore more the victim than the bully. When we find out Olivier's secret towards the film's end, we nod in recognition. Such are the simple concerns of children, rarely mysterious, cynical, or evil. Their pain is reflected in their attitude, and a great teacher like Lopez knows the truth before they sob it to him quietly.

About two-thirds through, our documentary halts its depiction of daily events to interview the schoolmaster. A man of infinite serenity, Lopez surveys the plight of his father, a farmhand from Andalusia and, as he puts it, "what we call an immigrant." His father, like all good parents, especially those of humble means, only wanted his son to have a better life than he did. And Lopez always knew what he wanted to do. He never boasts that he was especially talented as a schoolchild, although if the aim of education is to prepare one for adult life, then few could have been as successful. "I used to love being in school so much as a child," he says, "that I would spend my free time playing the teacher for other kids, even some my age." The pleasure that crosses his lips as he relates this oddity is not one of self-satisfaction, but of contentment with the world. How can the world be wicked if it allowed him to identify his vocation as a child and pursue it with such zeal? And aren't children the future of this world? His father died twenty years ago, right before he arrived in Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, but Lopez has been teaching for thirty-five years and is only eighteen months away from retirement. Upon hearing him confess his plans, his children resort to a stereotypically French fail-safe strategy and threaten to strike.

It is perhaps sad that the film engendered a lengthy legal dispute which can easily be researched online, a dispute motivated, it should be said, not by finances but by what is perceived as a breach of privacy. What is more interesting is the film's title, a pair of helping verbs, to wit, the two ways to conjugate compound verbs in French. You could also say that some things are and some things have things that are; perhaps there are people who are themselves owing to personality and people whose personality is based on their possessions. We are never told whether Lopez has a family or whether, like a nun or priest, he has simply adopted a community as his own. Nothing interrupts our enjoyment of the quiet moments shared by trees and snow, the plain road, the simple beauty of winter. Lopez seems in harmony with all these pacific elements, as if his wisdom were as natural as the rapport that the children develop because they understand that squabbling and pouting will never take them far in this life or any other. They cook together, breaking eggs and pouring flour; they correct each other in the mildest way; they rarely tease or push – and such instances are met with swift intervention by Lopez. And what of the turtle seen crawling through the schoolhouse at the film's beginning, or the vivarium of chelonians seen later on? A mawkish image for the torpor of modern education? As it were, it most likely indicates that for some a vocation is not thrust upon them but grows within. And if the beauty of the world is within you, you will remark little difference between a tiny little town in France and the sunset beaches of Tahiti. Not that everyone has any interest in Tahiti.   

Tuesday
Sep202016

Lights in the Dusk

At the beginning of this film, a young man who will end up being our protagonist cowers in the corner as three natives of this language scurry by discussing some of the great authors in their literary tradition. It is of no coincidence that the last name we hear as distance mutes their voices belongs to this writer of genius whose "shadow is so big you can't see the sun." It is likewise appropriate that Gogol's most famous short story features a protagonist not unlike Seppo Ilmari Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), the sweet, loyal, and utterly hapless security guard around whom the film revolves.

Koistinen, as he is referred to exclusively apart from one vital scene, has all the makings of a soul for whom society has neither patience nor space. In a quick series of vignettes, Koistinen incurs the annoyance of his superiors who assure each other once he leaves the room that "he will learn," gets bullied by his colleagues (what we understand to be a regular occurrence), orders a drink and gets rebuffed by the blonde to his right and threatened by the large man to her right, almost gets smashed by a bathroom door as he wallflowers himself to an awkward spot, and is generally stared at by other bar patrons with the repugnance that overcomes some people upon the sight of incorrigible floundering. He claims this will all end with the establishment of his own business (we see him in some class or consultation taking furious notes), but he is abused in his loan interview and forced out the side door like some embarrassing relative. Unlike most underdogs, Koistinen is a handsome fellow who under normal circumstances would not have any trouble getting a date; what normal behavior entails, however, remains to be seen. His behavior is identical to everyone around him, but the results of his actions do not even sniff the others' success or efficacy. This strange hitch can be attributed to Kaurismäki's typically laconic methods whereby the only real character is Koistinen and not one of his actions is real at all. While he struggles to behave the way society dictates – in other words, the way the privileged and powerful behave and prevent others from behaving – the entire supporting cast, with a few allies to be revealed in time, provides nothing more than obstacles to his own development. So if everyone else reacts in a predictable way because they are predictable and clichéd, Koistinen reacts that way because he thinks that is what he needs to do to get ahead, not realizing that as a sensitive and benign exception in a cold, malefic world, the opposite would help him. 

With this setup in mind, the plot – as film noir cookie cutter as all its characters – suddenly becomes very dynamic. Koistinen's duties as night watchman include security for a jewelry store, and so we are hardly surprised when a young blonde (Ilkka Koivula) takes an interest in him and almost demands that he return the favor. They go out on one of the most unilateral dates in cinematic history, most brilliantly embodied by the movie house scene in which she is watching something coy and light and he is only watching her as if the real film were taking place in the pinna of her ear. The abrupt cuts from scene to scene give one the impression of how futile an existence like this can quickly become – even in a privileged and beautiful country like Finland – although those in love are supposed to get along and separate themselves from the rest of the world. The blonde's true intentions, or at least those of the people who are interested in Koistinen, would only come across to the most callow of viewers as novel and require no explanation here. Yet at every step the photography is impeccable, such as the extra time given to the band whose lead singer has everything a young woman interested in rock singers might desire, another contrast to our seemingly talentless protagonist. A film as unimaginative and impatient as most of the cast of Lights in the Dusk would let her carry on with him, throwing salt and fire into a very open wound. But unlike the vast majority of his peers, Kaurismäki has no interest in cruelty or subjugation. All that he wants to show is the possibility of redemption, the bad stuff occurring off-screen so that we are often left staring at just-vacated premises. 

Another fascinating conceit is the polyglot soundtrack, which associates a certain stereotype of the language with its scene. It begins in Spanish, almost as a harbinger of a Carmen-like character, moves to American rock when consummation seems possible, drifts into snowy weather and Russian when Koistinen has lost all hope (Russians also seem to be partly responsible for his predicament), has Finnish when he regains his freedom, as if he were restored to his "natural surroundings," then seems to conclude in French when he and one of his few allies accept their fate. There are countless people just like poor Koistinen and their routines in both work and love are as hopeless as his. Many more live to take advantage of such people because that is really the only way they can satisfy their selfish urges, not to mention feel better about their own shortcomings. That's why Koistinen should have been paying more attention to that radio description of a scorpion: its abdomen might indeed resemble a string of pearls, but at the end there is only pain.

Friday
Sep162016

Gumilyov, "Ужас"

A gothic piece ("Horror") from this Russian poet.  You can find the original here.

gumilev_1.jpgLong, long I walked the corridors,
A circling, wordless enemy;
Niched statues gazed at my rogue course,
And pierced my soul with enmity.

In sullen sleep all things grew dumb,
And grey obscure its strangeness kept; 
As if an evil pendulum
Were measure of my lonely step.
 
And there where deeper gloom arose,
My burning eyes went cold with fear:
A figure, hardly seen but close,
In crowding columns’ shade appeared.

To it I went, but then withdrew,
A beast in horrified escape:
A vile hyena’s head did spew
Upon a girl’s soft comely shape.

Its snout leered forth in bloody blade,
Its eyes evinced an empty cast,
'Twas then I heard base whispers fade:
"Here have you come, all mine at last!"

And fearful moments passed in dread,
And darkness swam around my bones,
And countless mirrors rose instead
In palest horror’s deadly moans.

Monday
Sep122016

On Legend

Earlier on these pages I mentioned that "myth" was the favorite word of a famous actor; what I failed to add was the audience's reaction to such a pretense: the cooing and hollering so typical of the easily impressed. Kingsley's religious beliefs I cannot hope to know, and such a point bears no relevance on a discussion of the difference between his favorite word – sadly abused for over a century – and another, related term, that of "legend." As children, pupils, listeners, we come to associate terms that a more mature mind would cleave asunder; instead of learning at an early age the fine differences between vocabulary, we tend and are in fact pedagogically encouraged to list alleged synonyms as if they were eggs in a carton, all white, unbroken, and indistinguishable. Countless times as a schoolboy I found myself perplexed by this methodology. What good can it do us to know similarity if our world is founded on difference? What passion can be elicited from the average pupil by the average schoolmarm if we cannot take pleasure in separating our reality into its natural categories? Let us be clear: a myth is falsehood taken by the right gullible soul as historically true so that it then becomes a banner for our own mores; a legend is an exaggerated truth or plain fiction with a moral aspect, a glorification of what has already been accepted by the listener as worthwhile. This distinction and several others inform an essay in this collection.   

Legend, according to Belloc, serves the only need that we should ever consider, that of the spiritual (which may explain its earliest English meaning). Are we amazed by mystery and incomplete knowledge of the world and thus prone to flights of fancy? No, we are simply spirituals who must rekindle the imaginings that allow us to glimpse something beyond what our five dull senses might perceive:

It is in the essence of Legend that its historical value is not in question. It has not to be believed as witness to an event but as example; or even as no more than a picture which does us good by its beauty alone. We are not, in using legend, affirming a belief in a particular occurrence, but listening with profit to a story; and if the moral of the story is sound if its effect is towards truth, goodness, beauty that is all we ask of it.

There then follows a nice example of legend deprived: an "inhuman child" does not absorb this children's tale and dream of courage, but rather requests that the Giant's Castle be located "on the ordnance map." Why would a child ever think of committing such folly, given that he is supposed to know what he hears may not and indeed probably could never be true? Because that child is no tyro, but an incredulous adult who from arrogance's throne has decided that anything that his senses cannot pick up is a sham. Now when I heard the tale of Saint George and the Dragon as a child, I immediately sensed that I was listening to fiction; not because, as it were, dragons could not or did not exist; but because the tale itself was too clean, too buttressed by stylistic accretions to resemble the news reports I watched every night on television (my parents, at one point at least, used to love television news). I then learned that dragons, if that's really the right term for them and if they weren't simply this beast, died with all the fantastic creatures in a child's universe because of snow, lots of snow. There still lurks somewhere in the snowy plains of my imagination a slow-falling and gigantic lizard crumbling beneath its incapacity to survive in cold climates. Whence comes that image, or whether it isn't a montage of many memories, is what is meant by legend.

Belloc also touches upon this hallowed site, believes its fame to be perfectly plausible, and then adjoins one final phrase: "I am sure I appear absurd when I say that I believe this legend to contain historical truth." Historical truth is, mind you, not what can be proven through empirical testing – ultimately, almost nothing, since not having been there can stand as proof alone of its impossibility – but what gilds logic according to our sensibilities, not just our senses. Surely it is sensible to think that creatures like us came from other, less evolved creatures, but where we all emerged from is a black hole of knowledge that has been explained away, at least for now, with some preposterous theory of combustion and explosion that is more mythic and nonsensical than any miracle or divine interference. A basic law of physics is that you cannot get something for nothing – but we were, apparently, uncreated and therefore at one time nothing. To remind us of these past lives we have forged the annals to delude the stupid into believing in grace and providence, all the while concealing the truth: that those dragons are nothing more than an amalgamation of birds and snakes, our two tree-bound enemies, and that we are monkeys who have become something more than monkeys. Again, evolution has its merits and it is perfectly logical according to our senses, our actions, and our physical instincts of survival. But to say it completely explains our provenance is a little like saying sharks explain the pelagic food chain or kangaroos explain Australia. In other words, we have a species but not a world, existence without origin, and effect without cause – the last of which will not make the modern scientific mind particularly happy.

We have come a long way from myths and legends. Now we know nearly everything there is to know about our world and have invested an indefinite amount of money into exploring others. Millions of years ago, chants a chorus of men of science, beasts walked the earth whose bones we still have and whose shapes we can reconstruct owing to our utter brilliance in reconstructing the past, predicting the future, and discarding the present in favor of both. These men of science, as learned as they might claim to be despite the fact that they are inevitably destined to be contradicted and exposed by the following generation, will then talk of ice ages, asteroids, and other events that are quite probable but completely and utterly unprovable. They will sneer at any talk of supernatural events, although any fifteenth-century person claiming dinosaurs once roamed the earth would forcibly attribute such an occurrence to powers beyond that of mankind. But something is bothersome about all their formulas, fossils, and filibusters: there is no accountability. The myth itself, if that is the right word, has come and not quite gone until another, better myth has been substituted:

But if there enter into the controversy side issues which have logically nothing to do with it, if the controversy arouses passions on matters which the reason should see to be quite distinct from the original statement, then at once the breeding soil for Myth, the atmosphere favorable for its growth, has appeared. So that the next stage is the prodigious advance in strength and wide dispersion of the false statement; it is, so to speak, mobilized and armed, and goes out to battle on a large scale. 

You may have heard of these battles; they are still being waged by those who believe in nothing except stars they can barely discern and animals whose lifetimes cannot be quantified. They believe that we owe each other nothing because we are but links on an endless chain of death, an assembly line to build a perfect beast that will ultimately develop the capacity to obliterate itself.  Once upon a time we were amoebae – that is their legend, myth, and holy scripture. But an alternative prevails upon the spirit during hard times – even occasionally, I suspect, on theirs – and indicates another path, a golden road which may look like the plainest soil but which ascends gradually to a higher level of what we believe and what we have taught ourselves to think. And there we may find the greatest legend of them all to be something more than that.

Wednesday
Sep072016

The Wolfman

A few years ago a friend called a film we both admired, to my budding surprise, a political allegory. When asked by a third person and someone who had not seen the work to justify his statement, he proffered a couple of short sentences thankfully not smug or discomfiting. The name of the film need not be mentioned here, nor the remarkable parable he detected. What is important about such minor revelations is the thought invested in the symbols of the written or filmed word. Critics have always tended to praise works that can sustain more than one reading even if all the possible interpretations are rather thin. And what of works that really only have a single possible meaning yet internally wrestle with two or three? A question that may well be asked of this film.

The premise is so imbedded in literature that it requires little introduction. Upon a dark Victorian moor, someone or something has carved up three men, including Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells), son of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), a local landowner and widower. The town elders are less superstitious than one might have supposed and expect a scientific explanation from the gypsies stationed on a nearby meadow. The Roma settlement possesses the usual assortment of trained animals and necromancers – the former suspected as dangerous, the latter suspected as fraudulent – but we learn other details. Namely, that Sir John's late wife was also a Roma who committed suicide about twenty-five years ago – just when, it turns out, another local remembers finding a shepherd and his flock slaughtered in a most barbaric fashion. This wife is buried in a sepulcher with an adjoining shrine graced with nightly visits by Sir John. By his own estimation he is quite dead (he speaks in a hurried, breathy, almost overfamiliar tone like a busy ghost), and he might as well have been for the last twenty-five years to his elder son, Lawrence (Benicio del Toro). Sent to America after the familial tragedy, Lawrence Talbot has become a world-famous stage actor, although you would never guess so given the brief snatch of this play to which we are treated. However improbable a film’s hodge-podge of accents may be given its plot and setting, they should never detract from the overall effect – yet this is precisely what occurs. Del Toro's looks and gestures are convincing, but his cadence is distinctly Spanish and his voice, I suspect, too high-pitched to qualify him as a Shakespearean lead (his Yorick speech smacks of parody). Lawrence is summoned to the moors, specifically to Blackmoor, as the family estate is called, by Ben's fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Their first exchange in his dressing rooms induces the other cast members to clear out, he makes a poignant remark about the "shifting character of man," and we understand, even if we have never seen or heard of the original film, that Lawrence will go to Blackmoor and discover some horrible things. 

In the train moorward he is buttonholed by a sinister elderly gentleman (Max von Sydow) who, for reasons unknown to everyone including Lawrence, wishes to bestow upon the actor his walking stick with wolf’s-head pommel acquired "lifetimes ago" in Gévaudan.* After looking at his fellow traveler sidelong a few times (one of the film’s lovely little touches) Lawrence falls asleep as the eternal countryside glides on. When he awakes he finds the vanished old man, who was dapper and well-spoken in a very ingratiating way, to have been in all likelihood a figment of his tortured mind. If it weren’t, of course, for the cane left leaning against the opposing seat. As Lawrence finally makes it to Blackmoor a series of unfortunate incidents occurs, some of which are roundly predictable, others not. We are not, in any case, overmuch concerned with predictability as Lawrence is destined by the laws that govern dramatic convention to assume the responsibilities and ills of the title character. He views Ben’s grisly remains kept in a butcher’s shop beneath gigantic, looming pincers and then tells his father he came because of “Ms. Conliffe’s letter,” when she visited him in person (the letter is mentioned at some other point, but this may be a dramaturgical glitch). The suspected killer is described as “a fell creature,” a nice pun for those who like old words, and the villagers continue to bandy about some theories until the beast strikes again. Given the sheer numerical disadvantage, we may harbor some, ahem, grave reservations about the wisdom of the beast’s attack, which is so ostentatious as to seem forced. One wonders whether any animal would attack a lit camp of almost a hundred people – unless, of course, it thought it could kill them all – but another explanation whispers to us. 

Some fantastic chiaroscuro occurs in a cemetery that will remind you of Stonehenge with fog that assumes the shape of claws and teeth, as well as some odd looks between Ms. Conliffe and Sir John and between Sir John and his faithful manservant Singh (Art Malik). These moments serve pure atmosphere and the atmosphere is most evil at every corner and bend of The Wolfman, even when the requisite Scotland Yard investigator (a glowering Hugo Weaving) gets involved. Weaving plays Inspector Abeline, whom Lawrence rightly identifies as having been part of the investigation of this mysterious figure. Abeline smirkingly addresses Lawrence with the platitudes always directed towards screen stars even if he doubts he is talking to a sane man. “There are no natural predators left in England,” he tells the American, “who could inflict such savage injury,” but the natural has long abandoned Lawrence’s terrible daydreams. Towards the film’s middle, Abeline takes us on a very different route that some claim pads the script with an unwarranted derailing. Yet it is this very premise which lands Lawrence back in the asylum to which he was consigned for one year following his mother’s death that makes the most sense. The double-talk and psychobabble that ensue (and that are given cameos throughout the film) are eradicated in a fantastic scene resulting in a few glorious minutes of unadulterated havoc before the film succumbs to the necessities of the plot. Not that there isn’t time for a medallion and a curse or two.    

--------------------------------------------------

* Note: this scene appears to have been cut from the theatrical version, but included on the DVD.

Friday
Sep022016

Borges, "Los espejos"

A work ("Mirrors") by this Argentine man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Not only crystal brings me fear,       
Impenetrable shadow's sight,                        
All mirrors end and start in fright,           
The unreal space reflected near.

Before the glass-like water's hoax:             
Another blue, the deepest sky;                 
At times sliced through by motion's lie:     
Inverted birds or ripple's coax.

Before the silent surface black,             
Untrammeled smoothness in soft sheets,                 
Dreamlike warm whiteness then repeats     
Of marble pale and faintest rose.

And now so many years have past      
Of roaming by the fickle moon;           
I ask myself what chance assumed    
That mirrors would leave me aghast.

Mirrors of metal, mirrors in masks,        
Mahogany, which in the mists                 
In reddish dusk through smoke persists,
This face which answers and which asks,

Unending, fatal, sleepless faces,
Fulfiller of an ancient pact, 
They multiply within the act
A world awash in selfsame traces.

Expanding this vain, doubtful sky  
Within their web at dizzying height,      
Their fog will sometimes cloud the night        
The breath of someone yet to die.

The crystal waits.  And if there hangs    
A mirror in my room's four walls,              
I'm not alone, my double calls:           
His fate held tight in dawn's white fangs.

And once occurred, all things are cleft                          
From crystal boxes but made for show;                  
Where fictive rabbis long ago                    
Read verse and prose from right to left.

And Claudius, an evening's king,             
A king in dream  at least until                
An actor wore his guilty frill,                    
A silent art, a portrait's sting.

How strange it is that mirrors live,                    
And that we dream! Strange that our days    
Each feed on the deceptive haze                               
Reflected in that deepest grid.

And God, I've come to think, might coat                   
Our architecture with hope's sheen,                            
And light this ebony unseen                             
With crystal lands in thoughts remote.

And God has armed the night with dreams               
And mirror forms in countless waves,                       
So that man's mind thinks we are shades, 
Reflections vain.  Hence come our screams.

Monday
Aug292016

The Devil's Foot

Many moons ago, while leisurely sifting through tome after tome at a beautiful foreign language bookstore, I happened to meet a young man who taught this now-extinct language at a nearby university. That Cornish would be at all offered did not surprise as much as the fact that its enrolment was greater than that of Danish – and I think we’ll all get hungry if I keep talking in this vein. The last native speaker of Cornish, he informed me, died in approximately 1937 (a search online will yield dates going back to 1890), but was cajoled into recording numerous tapes for posterity. More lonely a task I could not imagine. In any case, there has been more than a bit of interest in preserving the rudiments of Cornish, even if conversation will be necessarily limited to prattling about everyday subjects with other enthusiasts. Whatever the case, the preservation of ancient languages is always a noble deed, especially if its original speakers are, as the hero of this tale suggests, descended from one of the oldest languages of the Ancient World.

Holmes, we are told, is in particularly bad physical condition owing to his usual schedule of nonstop work and ordered to convalesce as far away from London as he might hope to venture in his state. The selection falls to this beautiful region, at the time one of the more mysterious in Britain. Holmes’s philological interests in the roots of the language are quickly shelved for a rather fabulous crime: round a card table three siblings, Owen, George, and Brenda Tregennis, are found one early spring morning (seventy-eight years exactly before my first morning) in various stages of hallucinatory angst. While Owen and George are now stark raving mad, soon to be deposed in the local sanatorium, Brenda did not survive the night. The first person to report this tragedy was allegedly the last person to have seen them alive and well, their brother Mortimer. Mortimer is the only one of the four not to reside in the grand villa with his siblings, electing or being obliged to keep house with the local vicar. When questioned about the implication of such a divide, he admits to Holmes:

The matter is past and done with. We were a company of tin-miners in Redruth, but we sold out our venture to a company, and so retired with enough to keep us. I won’t deny that there was some feeling about the division of the money and it stood between us for a time, but it was all forgiven and forgotten, and we were the best of friends together.

He left them all “without any premonition of evil,” although George did espy someone or something jouncing about the window in the middle of the relentless storm. That is a lead that the Londoners decide to follow, which brings them to another character of an era long gone, the great lion-hunter and explorer Dr. Leon Sterndale.

I’m afraid I should not reveal more than this. In my long consideration of the Holmes tales, The Devil’s Foot has almost always been one of the finest, and its screen version is no less sensational. The tale itself was likely based on this fantastic event, never resolved to anyone's satisfaction, and so odd as to have inspired even in our most skeptical times a recent film (whose plain plot and macabre violence exclude it from these pages). And if you understood the reference in the title to begin with, a reference that practically no one would have seized upon in 1910, you might find the exercise a bit tepid. There is also one other major, gaping flaw in this story that often cannot be amended because of its length: a paucity of suspects. Should you be accustomed to a Poirotian sleuth walking into a parlor full of equally indignant personages, explaining the crime down to the minutest detail as if he had been there himself, and then asking the perpetrator sitting quietly through the exposé whether he has left anything out, some of Conan Doyle’s dénouements will seem less elegant, but they are no less enticing, nor the solutions less ingenious.  Nor is the evil perpetrated by evil any less terrifying.   

Thursday
Aug252016

The Departed

I gave you the wrong address. But you showed up at the right one.

Successful, enduring criminals – be they of the pocketbook or the heart – must be able to do one thing well, and that thing is lie. They must live under the guise of law-abiding normalcy and profess no knowledge of underworld happenings; yet for them to move up (or down) within this realm, they will have to know how to double-cross, triple-cross, and endure an endless series of betrayals just to emerge victorious. We will need a word far stronger than Pyrrhic to caption such winners' accomplishments, who don't seem nearly as happy as they should be. That is likely because they know full well the ways of the gun, which have replaced the ways of the sword without overmuch changing the outcome. A brief introduction to this much-acclaimed film.

We begin with an unmistakable voice, for our immediate purposes inhabiting the body of Francis "Frank" Costello (Jack Nicholson). At this point in his career it seems unreasonable to expect Nicholson, who rightfully owns one of cinema's most enduring reputations, to do a role that might disparage his off-screen persona. Thus even without hearing the racist platitudes he utters strolling through the noonday Boston shadows, we know what his philosophy "a man makes his own way" really means. This suspicion is reinforced in a measured early scene in which he stands very still behind sunglasses, his voice slithering from his lips. People at a family diner react to his presence, and their first impression is fear. The second, especially after a lascivious remark directed at the owner's teenage daughter, is disgust; but their third impression is perhaps unforeseeable. As he dismisses the girl from her cashier duties, Costello whispers something in her ear that induces a genuine, coquettish smile; later comments suggest that this type of banter comes to him with enviable ease. So when he turns his attention to a ten-year-old boy by the name of Colin Sullivan, we might expect the mesmerizing of a true prodigy – but this is precisely what does not occur. Costello's life (we begin to get flashbacks of his methods) is neither appealing nor safe; that he is about to turn seventy is a testimony to both his sadistic ruthlessness and a long and passionate affair with Lady Luck. And as Colin, who pleases Costello by unhesitatingly identifying the phrase non serviam with this author, replies that he does indeed do well in school, our gangster finds that they have something in common. "That's called a paradox," Costello quips, talking about himself. But what he is actually saying is that given some of the alternatives in South Boston, a microcosm of life's struggles to an Irish immigrant, organized crime is simply what people do who think the Church, the State, and every authority in between do not really abide by another Latin phrase, Deus est Deus pauperum.

Is it all about money? Well, insanity aside, there is no other explanation. Consider when a grown-up Sullivan (Matt Damon) graduates from the academy for Massachusetts State Troopers, still completely under Costello's patronage (that Costello, a publicly-known mobster, drives up to the ceremony grounds is either audacity or a glitch in the plot), and moves into an apartment that will make him "upper class on Tuesday." If his "co-signer" is who we think it is why does he want to draw attention to himself? Is there nothing more suspicious than a cop who lives in a luxurious home? These and many other, admittedly minor points in The Departed are left unaddressed, mostly just to maintain the plot's pleasantly frenetic pacing. As Sullivan is set to be Costello's inside man, we meet a moody, somewhat delicate fellow by the name of William "Bill" Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). While Sullivan seems like he could have come from decent, hard-working folk, Costigan's pedigree is decidedly felonious: his uncle was a high-ranking criminal, as was, we are told, most of his family, and Bill spent weekends in thug-infested Southie. In fact, the only males in his family who did not have a connection to organized crime were Bill and William Sr., whom everyone labeled an underachiever because he worked baggage carts at the airport. Much later in the film, a rather dubious source insinuates that even William Sr. had criminal tendencies, although "he would never accept money" – and whatever that means may depend on what you would do for a bit of coin. With his high SAT scores, gentle manner, and pretty boy looks, Costigan doesn't strike one as a typical cop – even if he has attended and excelled at the same academy that graduated Sullivan. And for that reason, among others, is he a near-perfect candidate to infiltrate Costello's gang. 

Counterpoised moles are hardly a novelty and, indeed, The Departed is itself a remake of one of Hong Kong's most successful cinematic ventures. I cannot say I plan to see Infernal Affairs – one of the greatest movie titles of all time – because most of its pleasures will likely already have been filched by Scorsese and his exquisite cast (a scene with Chinese gangsters, a tip of the hat to the original, is perhaps the film's least necessary, merely allowing Costello to indulge in more ethnic slurs). After the identity-switching motif starts feeling at once contrived and too devoid of genuine suspense, one character makes a brilliant leap in logic by entertaining a second character’s advice then reversing it. The utter genius of this tactic is undermined by the fact that it seems to bear fruit that very day, but such is the expediency of the plot. This monumentally fateful decision triggers a slow climax that shines at so many moments it is hard to count them all. The best may be when one mole calls the other, and neither one says a word, both of them fully aware that the person on the line is either the spy each has long sought or a dead man (and, in a way, he is both). Another occurs at a funeral, when we see one character approaching from very far off and know she will not look at much less stop for Sullivan, who issues perhaps the film’s most piteous single line. Yet the film will be remembered not for its moments of silence but for its barbs, most of which are not printable without expunction. Costello gets some of the finest repartees (the quote that ends “With me, it tends to be the other guy” must rank as the absolute best), as does a bilious bully of a cop called Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who has some choice words about everyone, including federal agents. It is when, however, a dead man turns up that we thought could not possibly be a policeman, but is declared as such by the evening news, that we start to wonder about another scene which suddenly makes much more sense – including the unforgettable line that begins this review.

I have never cared terribly much for this famous trilogy. Yes, Coppola’s works are beautifully, almost tenderly, produced; but the romanticizing of the Mafioso lifestyle belies the ugly truth of its daily business. That is why The Departed and, in a very different way, this brutal masterpiece, are more powerful statements on America’s most revered bandits (this work, also by Scorsese, while at times even-handed, likewise drifts too far down lover’s lane). Although The Departed is very much a character study, the details do not allow us to forget we are dealing with a grim environment (this is, in other words, not a French film). Surveillance and technology sustain shocking failures, fistfights break out regularly over trifles, and, as is usually the case among men who beat heads for a living and those who seek to arrest those men, an endless litany of filth drips from everyone's mouth. The vitriol is pervasive and nasty, but verbal violence, talking the talk, especially in this age of political correctness, is the first rite of the outlaw. The only person somewhat immune to this disease is police psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), the lone female with more than two minutes of screen time and/or four lines of dialogue. Apart from the teenager in the opening scene and a few pro forma 'policewomen' who do nothing more than smile shyly, Madden is the only female who isn't a corpse, nun, hooker, or secretary – the four age-old misogynist categories subscribed to by imbecile men. At least we can report that something will happen to Madden that is wholly predictable, and something else that is dramatically incorrect yet laudable, specifically because it so defies expectations. And does the rest not defy expectations? I think a rat can always see it coming.

Monday
Aug222016

Baudelaire, "Les chats"

A work ("Cats") by this French poet.  You can read the original here.

The fervent rake, the austere sage,                    
Both grow enamored, as years pass,                          
With cats' soft force in proud home's cage,                      
Like they, oft cold in sloth's morass.                       

With knowledge carnal and of book,                        
They seek the silent shadow's gloom,  
Where Erebus their thralldom took             
For messengers of coming doom.    

And when asleep, their noblesse beams          
As Sphinxes stretched in lonesome night,       
Who seem to rest in endless dreams;   

And magic sparks caress their spine,              
And mystic pupils are gilded bright                                
With obscure hints of pelage fine.

Tuesday
Aug162016

The Closet

One of the most puzzling things about adolescence is the division between the in-crowd and the rabble. Puzzling, I should add, only when you are a confirmed member of the latter grouping; the popular and the admired comport themselves as if their unquestionable status were captioned by this famous motto. The more attentive among the uncool, however, quickly notice that the difference lies in not what is said and done but in the actor himself. The silliest pun can become a shibboleth, the stupidest gesture a signal, the cruelest prank an indication of superiority. What is particularly remarkable about adolescence and its conspiracies is how uncompromisingly bland the stratagems behind them seem once we reach adulthood. Not one joke, not a single sadistic moment will be worth a farthing to a mature and confident twentysomething who sees through cliques and clucks as any of us now should. How odd then that so many of adolescence's wicked games continue undeterred well into our greying years, and how many poor saps remain the subject of their colleagues' scorn. Which brings us to this charming film.

Our hero is François Pignon (the perfectly cast Daniel Auteuil), even if his heroism should be immediately questioned and harpooned. Though a cognate with "pinion," there is a certain contempt with which his surname is pronounced that English does not quite contain, but which suggests a cross between an irritating clink and an onion. Pignon is divorced from a loathsome shrew (Alexandra Vandernoot), whose one good deed in her entire existence may very well have been the birth of their son, Franck. The problem is that Franck, like the rest of humanity apparently, is convinced his father is an incorrigible loser. For his part Pignon definitely provides him with ample evidence. His job at a rubber factory in the accounting department has been for twenty years his only steady beam in a life of avalanches and cave-ins, if one considers his daily parking and coffee debacles to constitute a success. Nevertheless, it is not hard to detect that Pignon is a kind man, as are most pariahs if only because they cannot afford or do not know how to effectuate any other type of behavior. Pignon grins and bears his cruel fate because he has never really managed to succeed at anything. Were he in some isolated, underdeveloped village in an impoverished or war-ravaged nation with little hope of escape, we would hardly begrudge him his despair; but with a fine income, a modest but nice apartment, and a healthy existence in one of the richest countries in the world, the problem lies to a great extent with him. 

Why does Pignon come to the office every day and succumb to his co-workers' sneers and taunts as if he deserved them? Why do all the men at his job think him unmanly and all the women think him boring? Perhaps because when one is insecure but wishes to conceal such misgivings and fears – and most of us huddle under that large circus tent – nothing makes one more liverish than a fool who accepts his insecurities and does nothing to combat or hide them. In other words, we hate this person because he comes off as the worst and most cowardly manifestation of ourselves. Pignon draws the ire most readily of the neckless thug Félix Santini (Gérard Dépardieu). Santini mysteriously holds the position of head of personnel, something akin to a human resources director, even though his hobbies are rugby and the belittlement of lesser beings. Since sports and cruelty are the time-honored pursuits of all high school jock bullies, Santini fulfils a stereotype that allows us to despise him and gravitate towards Pignon. While Santini smashes in his co-workers' teeth in another bone-crushing practice session, Pignon finds and adopts an adorable kitten who turns up one day on his balcony – just as, I might add, he was considering an unforgivable sin. And why such self-loathing? Because Pignon just discovered that, after twenty servile years, his neck is slated for the guillotine. 

The kitten will be traced to a new neighbor, Jean-Pierre Belone (Michel Aumont), who just so happens to be a retired labor psychologist. For some people, work and its associated routines are coterminous, in which case retirement results in complete severance from the tasks of yesteryear; for others, of course, they will always practice what they have practiced until their last, wheezing breaths. Belone is someone who likes listening to people's problems because he truly believes there is no quandary he cannot solve. He understands Pignon's predicament all too well, having likely sat through months of such twaddle in humoring whiny patients, but this time something about the misery of his neighbor summons the altruist from within him and he offers Pignon a very odd piece of advice: spread the rumor that he is gay. The reasoning, in our politically correct days, might be obvious enough; but a rubber factory by definition boasts a clientele that, well, likes its rubbers: firing a man who has just outed himself would then be nothing less than a public relations nightmare. Belone goes one giant step further when he recommends that Pignon anonymously send touched-up photos to his workplace (Belone already has a template in mind). The gambit is taken, the pawn sacrificed (Pignon also has some affinity with the French word for this least powerful of chess-pieces), and Pignon goes into work not having changed a hair on his pointy head yet having assumed a shift of mythic proportions. The women at work, especially the dishy Ms. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), are irrationally drawn to the clandestine Pignon as if he were an island to be discovered. Santini's transformation is even more radical and provides the film with some of its most impeccable humor, as does a certain parade that Franck happens to catch on television, imbuing him with newly-found respect for his father – and further complications need not be mentioned.     

The Closet exploits one of the great premises of fiction: that the person so easily pigeonholed might be playing a master role. In past times, the secret involved subterfuge and espionage, but we have moved on from such undeservedly romantic notions of what lies in the heart of men. Now the secret may be sexuality; it may even be, as a metaphor for the wickedness of the twentieth century, that the person in question is actually of another religion, whose revelation would transform his public image irreversibly. A literary critic might underscore the need for any ambitious work to sustain at least two wholly plausible readings to be memorable and worthwhile, yet to the skeptical mind another question surely arises. Is not every human form a mixture of multiple themes, multiple vices, regret and joy, or are we all just simple beasts consigned to simple boxes for future filing? How about the erstwhile cool cats that all too often seem to have peaked during those same dominating years? Filed away in a factory closet that, presumably, no one would ever find.

Thursday
Aug112016

Bech in Czech

Nineteen years ago I took advantage of a scantness of interest among my fellow grad students and began learning this language. That same year I devoted five glorious weeks to Czech grammar, Prague cobblestones, and a host of books that could only really be read at high summer, when the sun set reluctantly and the clear paved streets reflected the immaculate evenings of our eternity. And an early autumn later – the thirtieth anniversary of this watershed – roaming around this bookstore, I happened upon a copy of this "quasi-novel" whose first tale generously blends fact into its fiction.

Our protagonist is the mildly esteemed Henry Bech, a Jew, a sexagenarian, and, if he were to have died upon arriving in 1986 Prague, an odd practicant of twentieth-century American literature. Bech has had one recent and now-failed marriage, written many books including one bestseller, and bumbled about various parts of the world for book signings and conferences in that mediocre and inoffensive way unique to minor writers. Why is Bech a minor writer? Because he cannot relate in the least to the famous quote by this Argentine about the writer of genius and being right? Because he believes "the purpose of the writer is to amuse himself, to indulge himself, [and] to get his books into print with as little editorial smudging as he can"? Perhaps because each of his novels, by his own attestation, feeds off a trend of the time, or at least an historically successful trend that allows it to appear timely and topical? Without fear of perjury, it can be said that all these factors apply to one degree or another. When Bech meets a Czech man of letters once tortured and jailed for writing "like Saki, arch harmless little things," he can "think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant." When he considers his own works, he finds them all as plain and aseptic as his own life. Therein lies no danger, no regret, no anxiety. His books all linger untouched on shelves, like dust and termites  or, for that matter, Bech himself. For that reason Bech becomes quite excited, if that is really the right word, about his visit to the American Ambassador and his trophy wife only a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution.

The plot unravels as do so many works of Updike's: by a permanent discomfort between life's givers and life's takers. While Bech is most certainly the giver – he has committed his every moment to inscribing the world with its little tragedies – the Ambassador belongs to that boisterous back-slapping network of executives and executors from which many political appointments are drawn. Normally one might scoff at a businessman's ability to run an embassy since an embassy is neither moneymaking nor subject to the same elastic mobility that defines the private sector. But this Ambassador has one distinct qualification for the job: he speaks Czech, albeit humorously, a remnant of his childhood. Those who delve into the relationship between historical fact and the lilac bubble of fiction will surely note that the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s was indeed a businessman of Czech descent. In the story, the conceit allows for one very telling circumstance: Henry Bech, an emotional and absent-minded intellectual, if a bit ignorant about medieval Europe, often finds himself at the linguistic mercy of a man whom his liberal sensibilities would never allow him to approach. Bech is also the guest of the Ambassador's dishy blonde wife, and their conversations, awkward owing to her attractiveness and Bech's lack of sexual gumption, indicate that money really does make some people happy. The Ambassador, "an exceptionally short and peppy man," takes Bech to a Jewish cemetery, where his ebullient manners lead both his wife and his distinguished guest to blush. And we also get at some of Bech's malaise:

For a Jew, to move through post-war Europe is to move through hordes of ghosts, vast animated crowds that, since 1945, are not there, not there at all up in smoke. The feathery touch of the mysteriously absent is felt on all sides. In the center of old Prague the clock of the Jewish Town Hall .... still runs backwards, to the amusement of tourists from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Later, Bech will address a student forum of eager English-speaking fans and learn that they do not value his longest and most difficult novel because, well, it is too greatly about his ethnicity and less about the rest of the world. An undertaker will also remind him, in what might easily have been a chat in Soviet Russia, that Kafka was not Czech, at least not by the strict Socialist categories that some people recall all too easily.

As Bech at Bay progresses – the five parts thrive alone, yet form an oddly cohesive whole – a startling announcement is made about our protagonist's career. The announcement is stunning because hitherto few had really heard of Henry Bech, and his general anonymity was for him more soothing than a symbol of frustration. His Czech book signings are characterized by long, unpronounceable names laden with every diacritic imaginable, and he dreams of moments when everyone in this small and delicate country could simply read his books in the original English, write him loving fan mail, and dispense with this whole Iron Curtain charade. A charade because everyone knew that hope and freedom would eventually triumph, that the whole wall would crumble and be trampled underfoot, and that once-proscribed writers would regain their rightful spots within the Czech canon. One fan, of Roma stock, even gives him a copy of a tome from samizdat:

It felt lighter, placed in Bech's hands, that he had expected from the thickness of it. Only the right-hand pages held words; the left-hand held mirrored ghosts of words, the other side showing through. He had been returned to some archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.   

Bech falls in love with the book without being able to read a word, and even lusts briefly after this young gypsy, the opposite of another lust, the Ambassador's leggy wife. The only difference between this Bech, now sixty-three and hardly spry, and a younger Bech is in physical prowess since Bech has never been one to collect women like a philatelist pursues stamps. "To live a week with Henry Bech is to fall in love with him," says the Ambassador's wife. What a shame no one ever grants him that much time.

Saturday
Aug062016

Rimbaud, "Les corbeaux"

A work ("The ravens") by this French poet.  You can read the original here

When prairies, Lord, breathe but cold words,
And ravaged hamlets sleep in peace,            
And angelus bells hang unheard,   
Upon unflowered, waning leas, 
Let fall from your grey monstrous skies                 
That dear and tasty raven flesh.

Strange army of malicious cries,             
The frigid winds attack your nests!
Along the yellowed rivers' roll  
Upon the Calvary's broad bend,
Above the gullies and the holes,          
Disperse and rally, foe or friend!

Upon the fields of France they feed,
Where sleep the dead of yesteryear, 
And thousands swirl in wintry greed                        
So that each passer-by may fear!    
Be now the herald of our yoke,              
Our black funereal bird of harm!

O holy saints atop the oak,     
Lost masts amidst the evening charm,
Leave warblers of the month of May                          
To those led on by woods' retreat, 
Bestride the grass they aim to stay         
A sad and futureless defeat.