Saturday, May 26, 2018

Six Poets: Robert Frost

Robert Lee Frost (March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963)

Poor Robert Frost has been pulled in so many directions in the fifty years since his death that it looks more like he's been drawn and quartered. He is a victim of an excess of familiarity. Too many people who should know better think they know who he is. Biographies and critical works have tried to add greater detail to the popular image of the rustic New Englander with his farmer's almanac aphorisms, either to demonstrate how much more profound a poet he was or to expose him as some kind of egotistical fraud. Some critics have apparently made up their minds that Frost was anachronistically anti-modernist, going in the opposite direction of Eliot and Stevens, too dependent on the integrity rather than the ambiguity of words.

Meanwhile, his poetry remains stubbornly real and alive and, at its best, frighteningly modernist in its understanding of life in the universe. There appears to be an innate mistrust among critics of writing that is clear, that doesn't try to be difficult, that presents no great challenges to our interpretation. There is a serene openness and clarity to Frost's poetry that one isn't used to encountering in great poetry. This doesn't mean that there is nothing to explore and celebrate. The precision of Frost's poetry makes every word crucial to each poem's cumulative effect. There are some Frost poems that don't measure up to the greatness of others because their effect is marred by a single word.

In many of Frost's poems the voices of nature can be heard addressing him directly, but the things they tell him aren't at all what one might expect.  Like the thrush calling him to "come in" to the woods at dusk.  Or the beguiling beauty of a snowy woods that he stops to admire,  until his horse pulls at his harness to remind him of his promises. When I think of Frost I have an overpowering feeling of solitude. Not loneliness, since that implies a want of company. Frost is so often encountered in his poems walking alone. It seemed to be his natural habitat. His voice is unmistakable and one of the most intimate. He seems to be addressing me personally. The only other poet who has this effect on me is Philip Larkin.

He wrote a great deal - he was writing from about 1890 and he had enough material to fill two books (A Boy's Will and North of Boston) and part of a third (Mountain Interval) when he was in England in 1912-1915 and managed to get them published. Ezra Pound befriended him and wrote a favorable review of North of Boston that was published in Chicago. Frost's friend Edward Thomas wrote an ecstatic review for a British magazine.  Poetry was his vocation and his avocation. But he wrote substantial, powerful poems well into his Seventies. "Desert Places" and "Provide, Provide" are there in A Further Range (1937).

Randall Jarrell celebrated his long poems, like "Home Burial" for their dramatic use of vernacular speech. I would normally defer to Jarrell, but he loves too much of Frost's work, I think, to bear to let some of it go: "The Witch of Coös," "Home Burial," "A Servant to Servants," "Directive," "Neither Out Too Far Nor In Too Deep," "Provide, Provide," "Acquainted with the Night ," "After Apple Picking," "Mending Wall," "The Most of It," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "To Earthward," " Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Spring Pools," "The Lovely Shall Be Choosers," "Design," and "Desert Places." While I would eliminate a few of Jarrell's choices, I am surprised that he neglected to include one of Frost's more perfect poems, "Meeting and Passing."

Irving Howe is no less enthusiastic than Jarrell about Frost's poetry, and his own list of his "superior lyrics" includes several of Jarrell's choices, along with "Storm Fear," "The Oven Bird," "Dust of Snow," "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length," and "Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same" - though Howe, too, omits "Meeting and Passing" from his list.

I wanted to choose just one poem that would stand for him, for his strengths but also his weaknesses (since I have a weakness for him, an indulgence that comes from years of familiarity with him). It is a late poem, from Steeple Bush (1947), his last great poem, and just the poem to bewilder a reader - like me - who thought they knew him, who thought he had no more surprises for him.


Back out of all this now too much for us
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost
May seem as if it should have been a quarry --
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two villages cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

There is so much here that is familiar but made strange, so much like a dream, the dream of an old man now lost in a world grown old like him. In his New York Times review of Steeple Bush, Randall Jarrell found in "Directive," "so much longing, tenderness and passive sadness, Frost's understanding that each life is tragic because it wears away into the death that it at last half-welcomes -- that even its salvation, far back at the cold root of things, is make-believe, drunk from a child's broken and stolen goblet hidden among the ruins of the lost cultures."

If "Directive" were anthologized more and became better known than such comparably harmless poems as "Birches," perhaps Frost's reputation even among more cynical and susceptible critics would be unassailable.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Beyond Disbelief: Sex, Death & the Graphic Movie

I found myself unexpectedly moved at the start of this week when the news of the death of actress Margot Kidder was announced. Was it a reminder of how old I've become, that a woman I remember as so funny and genuine in the films of hers that I've seen can have now been 69, old enough to die? It has given me a moment to reflect on a subject I've examined at greater length - movies inspired by comic books. Kidder found fame playing Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve's Superman in the four films that made up the original movie franchise in the 1970s & 80s. The extraordinary personal strength and courage that Reeve showed when a riding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down demonstrated to me how ultimately silly the superhero character was,(1) and I wished that no more Supermans would be made. 

But advances in movie technology have made it possible to represent the character's superpowers a great deal more easily and realistically. But by the time subsequent Superman movies were made, in 2006, the character itself had undergone significant changes as well. DC Comics, which owns the character, along with Batman and Wonder Woman, decided, probably because of the Reeve representation of the character, to reconceive it for a new audience of fans. 

The first time Superman appeared outside the covers of a comic book was in animated short films in the 1930s. That seemed to be an ideal medium for such a character, and it was better equipped to represent his superpowers. A Superman radio show was popular in the '40s, and producers had to find creative solutions to some of the limitations of the medium. For instance, when Superman takes flight, the actor playing Superman had to say the words, "Up, up and away'" and a sound effects department would add the sound of hurricane winds. Audiences enjoyed the moment when Superman would speak those words so much that when the radio show transitioned to early television in the '50s, the actor George Reeves would jump on a springboard and leap into the air to simulate him taking off into the air without him having to say the words "up, up and away." But the response from fans convinced Reeves to say the words, regardless of the redundancy.      

Something on the order of twenty-six years ago, I watched the second Terminator movie with some Navy friends. I was 34; they were 20 at most. When it was over I was surprised when they complimented the movie's "graphics" - which I would've called "special effects." I guessed then that it was due to their having grown up with video games, but I didn't exactly know what they meant until the appearance of the first graphic novels. At first I thought they were merely illustrated novels. Now I know that they are novels told partly in words and partly in graphics, or hand-drawn images. So, too, what are known as comic book movies are not merely reconstituted comic books. They are graphic movies consisting partly of actors and sets and costumes and partly in graphics, or CGI.

Computer Generated Imagery has given movie directors, especially those involved in the making of superhero movies, an incalculably valuable tool for the creation of movie special effects - or graphics. Their movies combine actors and live action with original computer-generated imagery on a sometimes astonishing scale. Like past technical advances in movies, like the additions of sound and color, CGI has contributed to movie realism, but through the detailed creation of original, alternate realities. They are now so seamless that they make the suspension of disbelief unnecessary. The results make the special effects used in the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder era look terribly hokey. But because movie technology is now developing at an exponential pace, today's CGI becomes obsolete almost immediately. George Lucas was so bothered by the limitations of special effects in hs first three Star Wars moves that he revisited them and made extensive improvements on them. Some fans of the original films, however, have rejected Lucas's "improvements" and prefer the original productions, replete with their seamy special effects which were state-of-the-art in 1977.

More than one observer of the differences between the first Superman movies and the latest productions have pointed out that the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder movies were made "tongue-in-cheek" - something that infuriated many comic book fans because it suggests that the subject of the movies could not be taken seriously. But the original Superman movies weren't created by fans. They were created by filmmakers who were faced with finding technical solutions to the realization of a comic book world in a wholly different medium relying on a literalness that a comic book totally eschews. 

Christopher Reeve was an actor playing a man from another planet whose molecular makeup made him defy earth's gravity and totally invulnerable to physical harm. But Christopher Reeve, however physically beautiful and incomparably brave he showed us he was, could not fly and was not, alas, invulnerable. The latest superhero movies continue to use actors, but as CGI advances, the elimination of real people from these movies is foreseeable.

Looking back on the first Superman, directed by Richard Donner in 1978, what stands out in my memory are the beautifully human scenes like the one in which the young Clark Kent attends the funeral of his adopted father (the great Glenn Ford), backed by the stirring symphonic music composed by John Williams. Or the moment when Superman, busy saving the residents of a California valley from an earthquake and flood, finds that he is too late to save Lois Lane, whose car has fallen into a fissure in the earth. By the time he wrenches her car out of the ground, tears off the driver's door, and pulls Lois out of the car, she is dead. At that moment, by making Superman shed tears, feeling deep love and grief, he proves to be greater than all of the superpowers with which the new movies are replete. As the latest Superman gets closer to making his superpowers real, the sillier the character seems. The moment one of these movies touches the truth, it falls to pieces.

The original Superman, despite my having seen it perhaps a few too many times, now looks like a towering masterpiece - because, not despite, it was made tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes a wink and a nod is all it takes to suspend our disbelief.

(1) Nothing exposes the underlying juvenile mentality behind these superheroes better than the Incredible Hulk. Obviously, whenever Bruce Banner, the normal-sized man (played by Mark Ruffalo) transforms into the Hulk, ten times his size, he should be divested of every stitch of his clothes. How is it, then, that the man's pants somehow survive the transformation? Nobody wants to expose a giant green penis - or sexuality in any firm - to the overgrown kids who flock to these movies. They would prefer to remain in a blissfully pre-sexual stage, before life got complicated by real women (not Wonder Woman) and procreation.

Margaret Ruth "Margot" Kidder, 1948-2018.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

On Turning 60: The Moral of the Story

Are we supposed to be grateful for birthdays because they force us, if only for one day a year, to examine our lives? This may be true of most people, who have never bothered to cultivate their inner lives. But for someone like me, for whom the inner life is just as important as the outer life, the life in the senses, the last thing I need is an excuse to examine my life. But I feel obliged today on my 60th birthday to mark the occasion with a selfie. (That isn't me in the photo.)

I envy people like my parents, who were born and who died in the 20th century. Straddling two centuries, as I do, is a dirty trick. Evelyn Waugh could declare that "The trouble with the 20th century is I live in it." (The trouble with the 21st century is, I'll be lucky if I live in half of it.) And while Waugh would probably have been more comfortable in the 19th (or 18th) century, we would've been deprived of the exquisite poignancy of his novels, which were an elaborate memorial to a vanished way of life, a "kind people who cared for animals and the deserving poor, brave and rather unreasonable people, that fine phalanx of the passing order, approaching, as one day at the Last Trump they hoped to meet their Maker, with decorous and frank cordiality to shake Lady Anchorage by the hand at the top of her staircase." (Vile Bodies)

"The Last Trump," indeed! When I think about the twelve men who have been president in my lifetime, I am inclined to conclude that the most effective, the most impactful, and the most liberal of them all was Dwight David Eisenhower. Kennedy was president for just shy of three years when he was murdered by a nobody. Ronald Reagan was, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, "as dumb as a post." (Yet Conservatives use him as their shining example). Reagan cut the wealth tax down to 28%, claiming it would boost the economy and create millions of jobs. It did not. Eisenhower was a moderate, a rational conservative. "I like Ike" was the campaign slogan that he ran with and won with. His eight years as president were distinguished by peace and a prosperity unprecedented in American history. The economy boomed, despite the fact that the tax on the wealthiest Americans was at a whopping 91%. During his two terms, the interstate highway system was constructed and more Americans than ever were on the move in their big, resplendent American cars. I was born when the going was good for America. It's decline ever since then has been clearer at some moments than others, but it has been declining steadily.

Looking at the young generation in 1967, Philip Larkin (who always sounded older than his years) felt compelled to write:

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives -
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Larkin was pointing out that every generation gets it wrong, the ones who thought in the 1920s that the young would find total happiness unburdened of the religious dogmas of the past as well as the ones who thought that dispensing with the formalities of sex and marriage would lead to absolute fulfillment. What they all get eventually is the same thing - a world that is indifferent to them and their wishes for happiness. Old age. Death.

So, why do I feel, at the age of sixty, as if I am just getting started?

Let me conclude these random birthday thoughts with Aesop's fable of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, “Wolf! Wolf!” and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains. The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: “Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep”; but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.

The story is very well known and endlessly used as an example of the unintended hazards of raising false alarms. "There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth." It is also an admonition to people for believing what liars tell them. So goes the conventional moral of the story. But there is another moral to the story that is completely overlooked, and one that experience has taught me, because, regardless of the boy's "lies" of a wolf, all the sheep were lost. If the villager's had responded on the fifth time the boy raised the alarm, the flock would've been saved. 

When someone calls for help, whether or not they give us a reason to disbelieve them, it's our moral obligation to take them seriously. I am addressing this last message to those family members and friends who have discounted my own cries for help in the past, not because I ever gave them reason to, but simply because they refused to believe me.


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Six Poets: Thomas Hardy

I first heard of Alan Bennett when he was one of the quartet of wits (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller) who made up Beyond the Fringe. Only later I learned of his renown as a playwright. In 2014, Faber & Faber published a book of his called Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin, An AnthologyBennett's six poets are Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and Philip Larkin. It was clearly a personal selection, rather idiosyncratic, and limited to Brits, and not trying to be scholarly or comprehensive or even prescriptive.

While it's tempting to quibble with Bennett's choices (Louis MacNeice?), if I were to compile such an anthology, I would keep two of his poets (Hardy and Larkin) and add four of my own choosing: Robert Frost, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop. I will devote a piece to each of them in the coming weeks.

Randall Jarrell claimed that poets are people who run outdoors during thunderstorms hoping to get hit by lightning. If they are struck a few times in their lives they are genuine poets. If they are struck several times they are great. Everyone interested in poetry has his or her own way of telling the real thing from the fake. Housman told a friend that he couldn't think of a poem while he was shaving because it made his whiskers stand on end and he couldn't get a good shave. Some invoke the hairs on their forearms or on the back of their necks standing edgewise. It is always something like this - an uncanny feeling, like terror, comes over you. Robert Graves went so far as to identify it as the unmistakable presence of his White Goddess.

1. Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) 

Though he studied to be an architect, Thomas Hardy was a lifelong poet. He even dictated a poem to his second wife from his deathbed. He wrote novels to make a living, but he didn't publish his first book of poems, Wessex Poems and Other Verses, until 1898, after the outraged reception of his last two novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure made him decide to give up novel writing altogether. He was clearly in the habit of writing poetry, of finding occasions to put thoughts and feelings down in verse. That he maintained, over more than sixty years of writing poems, such a high degree of quality is amazing in itself.

But it is commonly believed that his work took on a higher quality and a greater sense urgency upon the death of his first wife, Emma. He then wrote, in Poems of 1912-13, a series of poems that are imbued with a powerful grief and regret. His marriage to Emma, which lasted thirty-eight years, was marked by an estrangement before her death, which caused Hardy greater pain when he looked back on the course of his love for her. Here is a poem from that period. 


Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear?
Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

     Thus I; faltering forward,
     Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
     And the woman calling.

December 1912.

Hardy isn't telling us a ghost story, as in Wuthering Heights. He is haunted by thoughts of his wife, that make him feel her presence, but he is writing about the dead. He feels that her death is a direct challenge to his continued existence. Emma's death was not Hardy's first encounter with death, but it made him think about his own death for the first time, which hers seemed to directly foretell. In several poems, Hardy is reminded, again and again, that his place is with her in the grave. In another poem from the period, "Something Tapped," Hardy hears a tapping at the window and thinks that he sees "my weary Belovèd's face," berating him that she has waited in vain for so long for him to join her in the grave. Some have mistaken this concentration on death as "gothic" - a term that Hardy knew from his studies in English architecture, not as a popular genre of horror fiction. Again, Hardy wrote of someone he knew who had died and with whose absence he was obsessed. But unlike Miss Kenton in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, we never have to guess whether someone is seeing ghosts or is merely hallucinating. Emma is unambiguously dead. The voice that Hardy hears, the visions he sees, the presence he feels, are all in his mind - and he cannot get them out.

There is a haiku by the 17th century poet Basho that captures the same tone:

The piercing chill I feel/ my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom/ under my heel

There is the physical pain of the comb's "teeth" digging into his foot, and the existential pain of the sudden remembrance of his wife. 

Hardy's plans to join Emma after his death were frustrated by well-meaning people who wanted to secure his legacy. He had left instructions that his body should be placed beside Emma in Stinsford churchyard where she was buried. However, his executor insisted that Hardy be buried in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. A compromise was reached whereby Hardy's heart was removed from his body prior to cremation. The heart was buried with Emma, and his ashes enshrined in Westminster. While somewhat poetic, I somehow doubt that Hardy would've been satisfied with his executor's solution.  

Friday, May 4, 2018

Taking Off

Miloš Forman died on 13 April in hospital in Danbury, Connecticut, and what a long way it was for an orphan boy from Čáslav to go.

Officially, Forman made three feature length films in Czechoslovakia. Having watched Taking Off a few days after Forman's death was announced last month, that number should be expanded to four. Forman, a member of the great Czech New Wave, with Black Peter (1963), Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen's Ball (1968) behind him, had clearly not yet broken his stride when he made Taking Off in New York in 1970. It has the same look and feel of his free-wheeling and highly personal Czech films.

Taking Off opens with two little girls stepping in front of the camera, singing a song, smiling sweetly and walking off camera. Loves of a Blonde opens similarly with a young woman looking into the camera, strumming a guitar and singing how her love was so great it turned her into a "hooligan." The cinematographer for both films was Forman's third eye, Miroslav Ondříček, and Taking Off has the advantage of having been shot in exquisite color. Forman had (how sad to suddenly use the past tense) a brilliant eye for faces. Under the opening credits of Taking Off, Forman shows us the faces of young women auditioning before an unfazed panel of judges. Scenes from these auditions appear throughout the film. Carly Simon and Kathy Bates (credited as "Bobo Bates") are among them. There is even a naked blonde playing a cello [see photo].

The “story” of the film is about how some well-off parents, Lynn and Larry Tyne (Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry), try to understand why their 15 ½ year old daughter Jeannie (Linnea Heacock) has run away from home. They end up joining an organization of parents of runaway children who, in an earnest attempt to see things from their children's perspective, take instruction in the etiquette of pot smoking, learning how to curl their lips when they inhale, to hold it in their lungs while counting to ten, to pass a joint to the person on their left or risk "Bogarting." I couldn't tell if it reminded me of Woody Allen or Luis Buñuel. Lynn and Larry return to their home with another couple, Ben and Ann Lockston, and play “Texas one-card showdown” (strip poker), until Larry loses the game and all his clothes and stands up on the table to sing “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from La Traviata. Jeannie emerges from her room and looks at her naked father in shock. Trying to cover himself, he falls to the floor. Jeannie persuades her parents to invite her new boyfriend, whom she had met at the audition, to dinner. After the boyfriend (a successful musician) declines Larry’s invitation to perform for them, Larry sings “Stranger in Paradise” heartily to Lynn’s piano accompaniment. The film closes with Jeannie staring in puzzlement into the camera.

Taking Off could be misconstrued as just another youth-oriented film from the period. Universal financed the film and others like it inspired by the phenomenal success of Easy Rider. But Forman's sympathies are evenly distributed among young and old, as they had been in his Czech films. The title adds a third element to a double entendre: Jeannie "takes off" from her home, her parents take off their clothes in the strip poker game, and the film is Forman's takeoff into American films. But the film has dated rather disastrously. There was a special ugliness about Americans in the Seventies. The clothes. The haircuts. The cars. The whole hoary gestalt. Someone epitomized the era as "The Agonew and the Nixtacy."

As I mentioned above, Forman had a genius for faces, and he shows us, especially in the audition scenes interspersed throughout the film, quite a number of them. But, for me, therein lies the problem. On the official Miloš Forman website it states: "Forman managed to find the actress Linnea Heacock for the leading role, who has nearly the same expression as the actress from his previous movie Loves of a Blonde, Hana Brejchova. He came across her among some hippies, when she was splashing about with her friend in Bethesda Fountain in New York Central Park." Hana Brejchova was a real find. She is one of the main reasons that Loves of a Blonde is interesting to watch. Her face manages to express a range of emotions all at once. Linnea Heacock is pretty from certain angles, but when she looks into the camera (as she does in an unnerving take at the end of Taking Off as Buck Henry belts out the song "Strangers in Paradise") she looks utterly bovine.

In the opening scene of Black Peter, Forman's very first film as director, a store manager is readying his business for opening, and he lets in one shopgirl after another. Every passing face is eloquent, splendidly lived in. These middle-European faces are the stuff of Forman's aesthetic, and when he found out, as his compatriots in the Czech New Wave (Menzel, Jireš, Schorm) all found out, that he could no longer practice that aesthetic in his homeland without draconian constraints, he did what so many dissident artists had done before him and defected. As we have seen so many times before, defection may offer improvements in an artist's liberty to express himself without having to live clandestinely, underground or in secret, but he is effectively cut off from his muse, from the source of his aesthetic. This is especially true of emigré filmmakers. The faces that Forman shows us in Taking Off are the faces of a melting pot culture with no identifiable image of its own - a hodgepodge of races and ethnicities whose whole is always less, not greater, than the sum of its disparate parts. With a borrowed, displaced identity, America is the destination of displaced persons, displaced by war, poverty, and oppression, and Hollywood is a mecca for displaced filmmakers.

Forman wouldn't make another film until 1975, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Its phenomenal success green-lighted the rest of Forman's Hollywood career. His close friend, Ivan Passer, whose Intimate Lighting remains one of the highlights of the Prague Spring, wasn't so lucky. After scoring - for me - a hit with Cutter's Way (1981), his career floundered. But then I remind myself of the fates of the filmmakers who chose to stay in Czechoslovakia. Jiří Menzel's Larks on a String was filmed in 1969. After the Dubcek government fell in August of 1968, it was banned and Menzel prevented from making another film until 1974. Now 80, he still lives and works in the Czech Republic. Jaromil Jireš made a brilliant adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel The Joke in 1969. It was subsequently banned for twenty years. Jireš continued to work in Czech film and television until his death in 2001.

In the online Prague Daily Monitor, it is pointed out that Miloš Forman was "the most successful Czech film-maker in history". Events honoring his memory were held in his hometown of Čáslav including a screening of Amadeus in which locations shot in Prague double for 18th-century Vienna. Proceeds from ticket sales will go to FAMU, the Film Faculty of the Czech Academy of Performing Arts. FAMU is the Czech film academy among whose illustrious graduates Forman counted himself.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Sleeping Beauties

“Good day, mother,” said the Princess, “what are you doing?” “I am spinning,” answered the old woman, nodding her head. “What thing is that that twists round so briskly?” asked the maiden, and
taking the spindle into her hand she began to spin; but no sooner had she touched it than the evil prophecy was fulfilled, and she pricked her finger with it. In that very moment she fell back upon the bed that stood there, and lay in a deep sleep, and this sleep fell upon the whole castle.

(Grimm's Fairy Tales, "The Sleeping Beauty," 1812)

Yesterday - Friday here in the Far East - I spent most of the day in a state of amazement. Though I am dubious of Kim Jong Un's ultimate ambitions on the Korean Peninsula,(1) his very presence in the Korean Demilitarized Zone across a table from South Korean president Moon Jae-In, and walking side by side with him, planting a tree and even having what looked like a friendly conversation away from microphones, was an amazing spectacle. 

However unconvinced I am that Kim has turned over a new leaf, this has to be an immeasurably heartening moment for Koreans - in the south, that is. Who knows what the North Koreans have even heard about the meeting? I have written about the year I spent (1997-98) in what the U. S. Army calls Area One in South Korea, the area between Seoul and the DMZ, so my interest in what happens next is personal. Since everyone is speculating about possible conditions prior to actual negotiations for peace, I suggest only one: how about a Kim-free Korean peninsula?

But earlier on Friday, in the wee hours, I was equally amazed when I learned that Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault in a court in Pennsylvania. I have not mentioned Cosby in the years since women started to come forward with accusations, most of them remarkably similar, that he drugged them and had sex with them when they were unconscious. Like most people, I believed the women's stories, and not simply because, eventually, there were so many of them. 

I am rapidly approaching the age of 60 (less than three weeks!), so I remember watching I Spy when I was a boy and listening to some of Cosby's many comedy albums. I didn't hear his Fat Albert stories until later. Then there was The Cosby Show from 1984  until 1992. It was easy to like Cosby by then - an innocuous wise old man. His chastisement of young black comics (like Eddie Murphy) who used foul language in their comedy was a little silly - especially now that we know about Cosby's dirty little secret. 

Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby's wife in his hit TV series, made some callous statements after the first victims came forward with their stories. After trying to walk her remarks back, Rashad then insisted that "What I said is this is not about the women. This is about something else. This is about the obliteration of legacy." However much she may have tried to defend Cosby's "legacy," it's all over by now. 

Whatever it's called by psychoanalysts, it's clear that Cosby had a definite taste for performing sex acts with helpless, defenseless women who were unaware of what he was doing. There is an interesting precedent for Cosby's strange behavior from an unlikely source: a 1961 novella by Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata called The House of the Sleeping Beauties. It tells the story of an old gentleman named Eguchi who frequents an exclusive brothel that caters to old men who want to pay an unnamed sum of money to spend the night sleeping next to a naked young woman. The women with whom they spend the night are sufficiently drugged to make confidentiality certain. They're involvement in the transaction is voluntary, or, to use the legal term, "consensual." 

Eguchi is informed that sex with the young woman is forbidden. The first sentences of the novella make this prohibition explicit: "He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned old Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort." But the simple fact that the girl is naked (beneath a quilt) arouses the expectation in the reader that some form of sexual contact is taking place. 

Given the key to the room, Eguchi smokes a cigarette outside the door. "He was a light sleeper, given to bad dreams. A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, 'the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned'. It was a line that Eguchi could not forget. Remembering it now, he wondered whether the girl asleep.. no, put to sleep.. in the next room might be like a corpse from a drowning. And he felt some hesitation about going to her. He had not heard how the girl had been put to sleep. She would in any case be in an unnatural stupor, not conscious of events around her, and so she might have the muddy, leaden skin of one racked by drugs. There might be dark circles under her eyes, her ribs might show through a dry, shriveled skin. Or she might be cold, bloated, puffy. She might be snoring slightly, her lips parted to show purplish gums. In his sixty-seven years old Eguchi had passed ugly nights with women. Indeed, the ugly nights were the hardest ones to forget. The ugliness had had to do not with the appearance of the women, but with their tragedies, their warped lives. He did not want to add another such episode, at his age, to the record. So ran his thoughts, on the edge of the adventure. But could there be anything uglier than an old man lying the night through beside a girl put to sleep, unwaking? Had he not come to this house seeking the ultimate in the ugliness of old age?"

Eguchi enters the room: "He locked the door, drew the curtain and looked down at the girl. She was not pretending. Her breathing was of the deepest sleep. He caught his breath. She was more beautiful than he had expected. And her beauty was not the only surprise. She was young too. She lay on her left side, her face toward him. He could not see her body, but she would not yet be twenty. It was as if another heart beat its wings in old Eguchi's chest." After he undresses, Eguchi slips under the quilt next to the girl. "She was not a living doll, for there could be no living dolls. But, so as not to shame an old man no longer a man, she had been made into a living toy. No, not a toy. For the old man, she could be life itself. Such life was, perhaps, life to be touched with confidence."   

Doing what he was told to do, Eguchi slips into reveries, and finally sleeps beside the unconscious girl. He dreams. Eventually he dreams of his mother, until the sight of blood oozing from a fish she had cooked in his dream wakes him: "Old Eguchi awoke with a groan. He shook his head, but he was still in a daze. He was facing the dark girl. Her body was cold. He started up. She was not breathing. He felt her breasts. There was no pulse. He leaped up. He staggered and fell. Trembling violently, he went into the next room. The call button was in the alcove. He heard footsteps below."

How long must it have taken Bill Cosby to work out the correct dosage of whatever he was using to drug his victims? And how far was he prepared to go to exercise his power, his control over his sexual encounters with all those women? Rape - non-consensual sexual contact with another person - is a kind of murder - the taking of something that was not his to be taken, that would otherwise not be given: another person's physical integrity. Perhaps Cosby is lucky that his peculiar sexual practices hadn't, after all the years he practiced them, resulted in charges of murder?

(1) Kim's statement that "New history begins now" sounds suspiciously like Pol Pot's declaration to the Cambodian people that it was "Year Zero." What he meant - in true Marxist fashion - was that the political struggle of history was over.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers

When Émile Zola decided that he wanted to write a novel including characters belonging to his fictional Rougon-Macquart family set during the Second French Empire (1852 to 1870) that would most accurately and powerfully express his deeply anti-clerical convictions, arguing specifically against the Catholic Church's draconian insistence on the celibacy of its ordained priests, he created La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret,(1) that contains his usual naturalistic style describing how Serge Mouret, a 26-year-old priest, arrives in Les Artaud, a very poor and isolated parish in the south of France, about the extremity and austerity of his devotion to his faith, specifically as it pertains to an idolatry of the Virgin Mary, and about the complete indifference of the people of Artaud toward religious observance, their almost animalistic lives surrounded by farm animals.

While Serge's retarded sister Desirée delights in the natural surroundings, he finds himself bewildered by his attraction to Albine, the pretty niece of Jeanbernat, an old man who presides over a dilapidated estate called Paradou surrounded by a lush, overgrown garden. Jeanbernat is a rather bigoted atheist, and won't tolerate any talk of God. Albine is almost a wild animal herself - uneducated and passionate. She is attracted to Serge, and becomes his nurse when he suffers an emotional breakdown. Zola then adopts a different style of writing, more psychological and impressionistic, as if his settings come alive. Taken to Paradou after his breakdown, Serge forgets he is a priest and acts on his attraction to Albine, who encourages him to be her "husband."

Deeply symbolic, with obvious parallels to Adam and Eve in Eden, the second section of the novel is remarkably different from the first. These two contrasting parts of the novel reminded me of one of my favorite musical compositions, Debussy's "Sacred and Profane Dances," which begins with a stately severity but then dissolves into a hypnotic, sensuous waltz. But Debussy resolved the piece abruptly, whereas Zola carried it into third act. Serge suddenly remembers he is a priest and, overcome with shame and repentance, abandons Albine and Paradou to return to his priestly duties. Unable to comprehend Serge's rejection of her, Albine dies after she seals herself in her airtight room smothered in flowers. Serge performs a funeral rite for her, "Requiescat in pace," just as Desirée's cow is delivered of a calf.

Despite Zola's anticlerical convictions, he manages to make his priest, Serge, sympathetic by contrasting his faith, which is a gentle one centered on Mother Mary, with that of an altogether loathsome character, Brother Archangias, who chooses instead to worship at the feet of a gruesome crucified Jesus. Zola wrote in a style that became known as naturalism (though Zola didn't call it that), which is nothing but the presentation of things as they are and life as it is lived, not idealized or stylized in any way. No dramatic flummery. The style had its first impact on the theater around the turn of the century, and it was passed smoothly to film by some of France's first filmmakers, André Antoine and Louis Delluc. But Zola's unflinching descriptions of nature got him into some trouble with censorship. L'Abbe Mouret, for example, wasn't given an unexpurgated translation in the U.S. until the 1950s.(2) 

But Book II, set in an intentionally ethereal landscape within the confines of a walled-in garden, is written in a very different style - impressionistic, almost surreal. It was this part of the novel that, I think, attracted Georges Franju to make a film of Zola's novel in 1970. Often described as "fantastic realism," Franju's filmmaking style was at its best in his depictions of Serge and Albine's dreamlike idyll inside Paradou.

Franju is a fascinating figure in French cinema. After military service in Algeria, he worked as a theatrical set designer. On meeting Henri Langlois, together they created a film club, made a short film called Le Métro, and in 1936 founded the Cinemathèque Française. La faute de l'Abbé Mouret was Franju's next-to-last film. One wonders why he chose to plunge himself (and us) in Zola's distant world. Though best remembered for the horror film Eyes Without a Face, his best film is Thérèse Desqueyroux, based on the Mauriac novel. He retired from filmmaking to take over as artistic director of the Cinémathèque Française upon the death of Langlois in 1977.

Zola's novel and Franju's film question what is natural and unnatural in a man's life (particularly a young man) and what is sane and insane behavior. There is a cruel irony in the depictions of Serge's fervent observance of priestly rituals and his passionate prayers to a statue of a beautiful Holy Virgin. He is disturbed by the natural lives of the people of Artaud, their purely physical, sexual lives, and by his natural attraction to Albine. They lead him to total physical and mental breakdown. In Paradou he experiences a life of the senses for the first time. He becomes a man, a sexual being. But only because he suffers amnesia - he has forgotten himself and the strict, inhuman rules imposed by his calling. He returns to his senses  only to resume a life that denies the part of himself, perhaps the best part, that he discovered with Albine. He loses his innocence not at the hands of Albine but when his knowledge is restored, the guilt-stricken life of a priest.

In a related story, Pope Francis announced on April 11 that he committed "grave errors" in his handling of sexual abuse accusations made against a Chilean bishop. The Pope's appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros, the protegée of Rev. Fernando Karadima, found guilty by a Vatican judge of numerous acts of sexual abuse, has led to violent protests and, this past week, the firebombing of several churches in Chile. On an official visit to Latin America, the Pope stated that he refused to believe that Barros had any knowledge of the abuse without proof. On his return to Rome, however, the Pope apologized and begged the forgiveness of the victims. “From now on I ask forgiveness of all those I offended and I hope to be able to do it personally in the coming weeks,” Francis wrote.

This is only the latest scandal in the ongoing exposure of paedophile Catholic priests. The problem of sexual abuse carried out by ordained priests boils down to the Church's ancient insistence on celibacy - on the sexual denial of men and women under Holy Orders. The priests' enforced celibacy, their deliberate isolation from all sexual practices, has clearly led to serious sexual abuse committed by many priests. I wonder if Zola would've been surprised that, 143 years after La faute de l'Abbé Mouret's publication, the problem of the celibacy of Catholic priests would remain unresolved.

The film's weakest point is the casting of the lead roles, Serge and Albine. Francis Huster, who was 22 when the film was made, has the look and the fervor of Serge, but he is far too insubstantial to carry the film. Gillian Hills will be remembered - forever I hope - as "The Brunette" in Antonioni's Blow-Up. (Her hills were on display in virtually every film she appeared in.) She is pretty but utterly unalluring as the elemental wood nymph Albine. In the novel, she is practically a natural force and is completely pagan. In the film, her great sex scene with Francis Huster (in which they - ostensibly - both lose their virginity) has zero fire and cannot even rise to the level of softcore porn. There is another sex scene at the beginning of the film between Rosalie and Fortuné that is more successfully erotic, but only because the actress playing Rosalie (Silvie Feit) is clearly unabashed at being naked.

The character of Desirée was eliminated by Franju, but Franju's most significant alteration of Zola's novel was his ending. In the film, after the chaotic scene in which Albine's coffin is lowered into the grave, and Jeanbernat suddenly appearing to slice off Brother Archangias's ear, Serge returns alone to the church and, gazing rapturously at the statue of the Holy Virgin, he holds out his arms as the statue is transformed into a radiant image of Albine, whom Serge kisses tenderly. It is a striking and gloriously disturbing final image, accompanied beautifully by Jean Wiener's music. It is Albine's beatification, but for the exclusive use of Serge. I could almost hear Alex, the hero of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, saying "I was cured all right."(3)

(1) The title has been variously (mis)translated as L'Abbe Mouret's Transgression and The Sin of Father Mouret ("sin" in French is "péché."). A more accurate title might be Father's Mouret's Mistake
(2) And the distribution of the film in the U.S. was held up until 1977. 
(3) Gillian Hills also appeared in Kubrick's film of A Clockwork Orange. She was one of the girls Alex took home for an impromptu orgy to the accompaniment of an electronic William Tell Overture.