Friday, January 19, 2018

The Whisperers

One of the most discomfiting poems I've ever read is Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools," which is about what will happen to all of us who are unlucky enough to live to be very old. 

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?

Another of Larkin's poems, "Long Last," tells of the plight of an old woman in the same blunt, terrifying terms:

Suddenly, not long before
Her eighty-first birthday,
The younger sister died.
Next morning, the elder lay
Asking the open door
Why it was light outside,

Since nobody had put on
The kettle, or raked the ashes,
Or come to help her find
The dark way through her dress.
This went on till nearly one.
Later, she hid behind

The gas stove.  ‘Amy’s gone,
Isn’t she,’ they remember her saying,
And ‘No’ when the married niece
Told her the van was coming.
Her neck was leaf-brown.
She left cake on the mantelpiece.

This long last childhood
Nothing provides for.
What can it do each day
But hunt that imminent door
Through which all that understood
Has hidden away?

The poem reminded me of The Whisperers, a 1967 film I first saw decades ago, and that I've recently had a chance to see again.

Now that a Republican-majority government in the U.S. has turned its attention to what are known as "entitlements," with an eye to undermine them as much as their constituents will tolerate, I think it's a good time to reconsider a film about one of the people for whom such entitlements were created - an old woman abandoned by what's left of her family who is slowly losing her grip on reality and sinking into what was then (in 1967) called senility, but which is now known as dementia.

The Whisperers is graced by the presence of Edith Evans, one of the greatest British actresses of the 20th century. Based on the novel Mrs. Ross by Robert Nicolson, the film depicts the difficulties faced by a very proud old woman, Margaret Ross, living in a rented flat in a labyrinth of row houses in a northern industrial city. She tells the police, who unfortunately know all about her, that she's being spied upon inside her flat (the "whisperers"). Whenever she enters her front door or otherwise notices the water dripping incessantly from the tap, she inquires of this unseen presence "Are you there?" 

A grown son, Charlie, shows up at her flat just long enough to hide a parcel that contains stolen cash in a cabinet in the "guest room." She mentions his father, who hasn't been seen in twenty years. Charlie gives her a "couple of quid" and leaves, saying he'll be back in a week. After a confrontation with "the woman upstairs" (Nanette Newman - Bryan Forbes's wife), Margaret decides to tidy up the guest room, finds Charlie's parcel and discovers the cash. It's nothing but bundles of one pound notes, a few hundred pounds perhaps, but it's more than she's ever seen at one time in her life, despite her claims of owning property in Argentina and having "married beneath her." She thinks that the money must be from the settlement of her late father's estate, and sends a note (along with a one pound note) telling her National Assistance case worker, Mr. Conrad, that she won't be needing him any longer and that she's going to the Bahamas. Before embarking, however, she stops once more at the National Assistance Board and, while waiting in queue, boasts to another woman that her money has arrived, and opens her purse to show her. Telling her she'd like some refreshment with a real lady, the woman takes Margaret by bus to a pub, plies her with port and listens to her stories from her genteel childhood (depicted in blurry images of a little girl and a chandelier). When night falls, the woman takes her back to her own flat where, after more port, Margaret passes out. She removes the money, stashing a little for herself, until a man, presumably her husband, arrives with two teen-aged children. Plopping Margaret in a push-cart, the man takes her to within a short distance of her flat and dumps her beside the street, where she is found by her upstairs neighbor and taken to hospital. 

Charlie is arrested and confesses to stealing the money. Mr. Conrad asks the doctor, "Is she going to live?" "Oh, yes." the doctor replies. "Well - recover, shall we say?" Once she has recovered physically (from pneumonia), she is transferred to a mental hospital. There is a fantastic shot of Margaret and a therapist sitting in a large room in the hospital with a bright shaft of light shining into the room - compliments of Gerry Turpin, the film's DP. Her doctor explains to Mr. Conrad how he has to peel away all of Margaret's delusions until she's left with nothing but the truth about her life. "Yes, that must be a very rewarding moment," Mr. Conrad observes to the self-satisfied doctor, "when you tell the Mrs. Rosses that they're nobody - and nothing."

Her husband, Archie, is located. He is played by Eric Portman, who is the only other actor in the film besides Evans to present to us a nuanced, many-sided character. Though he's a "bum" and a "drunk," he's reminded of his legal responsibility for Margaret, assured of some clean clothes and transportation to her address. Living with her again, her silences irritate him, calling her a "bleeding zombie." She discovers her flat has been tidied up during her illness, and even the tap no longer drips. Archie picks up a prostitute on his first perambulation around the neighborhood, and returns to find Margaret still awake in bed. "Don't worry," he tells her bluntly, "you've got nothing I want."

When Archie takes a day job as a driver for a local syndicate boss, and a few days later as his enforcer's driver, the film goes quite a bit silly. The enforcer is attacked, Archie escapes in the car with a bag full of cash, boards a train and mutters, "You poor old bitch. You're on your own again," At that point the film - and John Barry's otherwise subtle musical score - has reached its lowest point.

As soon as Margaret knows that Archie has run off again, she goes to the National Assistance Board and tells Mr. Conrad, who, of all the people acquainted with her case, seems to be the only one who gives a damn about her. He asks her if she's sorry he's gone. "Not him," she says. "You?" Mr. Conrad asks pointedly. "Yes," she says wanly. With Archie never coming home again, Margaret falls back into her old habits - the Free Library and the church soup kitchen, picking a newspaper out of the trash can on the way home, and, once alone in her flat, her whisperers.

Bryan Forbes (1926-2013) was a British filmmaker with a background somewhat different from his contemporaries, entering films as an actor in the 1950s. Older than the generation that introduced the "kitchen sink" realism of such fine films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, and A Kind of Loving, he was nonetheless the beneficiary of a renewed international interest in British films and shared the same interest in working class subjects. If his films lack the raw energy of the best British films of the period, their technical polish and structural plottedness were used by Forbes to his advantage. He made three films, I think, that will last - The Whisperers, The Raging Moon (1971), and The Slipper and the Rose (1976).

In his biography of Edith Evans, Ned's Girl, Forbes wrote:

"I elected to shoot the film in the Moss Side area of Manchester; in 1966 this was in the process of becoming a planners' Hiroshima; whole areas had been flattened by the bulldozers in preparation for a petrified concrete forest of high-rise tenements. It was a waste land ... It provided me with the requisite desolation I needed for my story and I moved my film unit into the area."

Evans was 78 when she appeared in the film and she was entirely committed to whatever was required of her. Accustomed to playing dowagers, like the old countess in Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), The Whisperers was the first time she had played a working class role in a film. This was the same woman for whom George Bernard Shaw had written roles in the 1920s, the same woman who had played Juliet's nurse in four different stage productions of Romeo and Juliet. Her performance as Mrs. Ross is especially remarkable today for its intimate study of an uncomfortable subject, an old person's descent into dementia, which wasn't as well understood or documented in the '60s.

Forbes cleverly shows us how mercilessly such charitable institutions as the "Free Library" and a church soup kitchen are presided over by mean-faced men who can't let an old man sleep over his morning newspaper or allow Margaret to warm her stockinged feet on a steam pipe - or who make a roomful of hungry people sing a hymn for their supper and order them around like they're children, under that ghastly sign on the wall, GOD IS LOVE. (is He?) 

So many hoops they have to hop through for their "entitlements" - like the new Republican proposal that will require Medicaid recipients to work for their "entitlement" (an odious, offensive word, especially in the mouth of a Republican). It reminds me of how two people, a husband and wife, define "home" in Robert Frost's poem "The Death of the Hired Man":

"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."

"Home," he mocked gently.

                          "Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, anymore
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."

                           "I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

In his Paris Review interview, Frost pointed out about the poem, "You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat." Republicans think the poor and the old should do something to "deserve" the assistance that the government provides for them. Democrats think it is a citizen's right. The debate will go on as long as people cannot agree on what role a government is obliged to play in society, since private charitable institutions have to worry about profits before providing for our most needy citizens. It always comes down to Gandhi's remark that there is plenty to satisfy the world's need, but never enough to satisfy its greed.

The sad irony is that the National Assistance Board was terminated before The Whisperers release date, replaced by the Supplementary Benefit Act. In a sense, the film is a rather sad protest, like Kenji Mizoguchi's last film, Red Light District (Akasen Chitai-1956) - stupidly renamed Street of Shame in the U.S. - which follows several women engaged in legal prostitution in Tokyo, a film made while the Japanese government, during the American occupation of postwar Japan, was voting to ban legal prostitution. 

It's a bit difficult communicating the shattering effect this film has had on me. We have watched an episode in the life of a forgotten old woman on the extreme fringes of our world, going through the motions of what is left of her life, for how much longer Forbes couldn't bear to say.

The last moments of The Whisperers leave us with Mrs. Ross, somewhat the worse for the wear she's been put through, returning to her flat, smiling wanly (because it is, after all, home), asking - hopefully for a change - "Are you there?" The voices in her head are all she has left for company.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Who Killed the Novel?

I get the feeling that a lot of people hate literature. I get that feeling every time - which is every so many months - I see an article in the literary press announcing the death of the novel. The novel has one foot in the grave, evidently, and the other on a banana peel. The trouble is those of us for whom novels are the length and breadth of literature, the measure of the truth in writing, were not even aware that the novel was sick. 

Last week The New York Review published "The Novelist's Complicity" by Zia Haider Rahman that blames the imminent demise of the novel on an imaginary Golden Age of Television, on the death of the critic, on people who don't habitually read, and on novelists themselves.

This argument, that new media will eclipse old ones, is older than some people think. In the 1920s, radio was supposed to destroy the record industry. In the '50s, television was going to end movies. In fact,  neither medium was seriously affected. Radio actually boosted record sales. And movies changed to include technicolor (color television didn't arrive until the '60s) and letterbox screens.

Rahman argues - feebly - for the ascendancy of TV over fiction: 

"Reading now, also, has strong competition from screens. This is a new golden age of television, we’re told, and I agree. With The Wire, The Sopranos, Madmen, Breaking Bad, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (think “Shakespeare in Space”), and many, many other shows, there has been a steady supply of riveting dramas, with rich characterization, moral depth, and tumultuous plot lines. The boxed set and the binge-watching of viewers have freed up writers from the constraints of the weekly serial, whose intervening seven days ensured that scarcely more than a cliffhanger of the plot survived in the memory. Now TV writers can craft and develop character over time, something novels do. Binge-watching offers space, also, to introduce subordinate plot lines and ideas. Just like novels.

Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?"

I'm dubious of Rahman's claims for TV when she offers as "riveting dramas" shows that offer - at best - solid entertainment. And I'm tempted to credit Rahman with sarcasm in that last sentence.

She continues: "Television might offer strong competition and attention spans might be sagging, but there may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending . The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book.

"Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction. Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing. The arbitration of scientific evidence is not conducted under the auspices of universal suffrage; it is scientists who adjudicate on the risks of climate change, for instance, not elected politicians, and that’s exactly how it should be. The democratization of reading tastes has gone hand in hand with the demise of the critic, and with that, the idea of reading a novel because certain people with discernibly good judgment think that the book is worth reading. A writer — I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me — suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.”[1] The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not. Great works allow us to gather around the campfire and discuss things of importance — not least of all, our diverse subjectivities. This idea might smack of snobbery, but it’s useful to reflect that the idea retains influence in other areas of art, such as painting and sculpture — notably, areas that don’t rely on an economics involving a large number of buyers of the same product."(2)

All of this sounds to me suspiciously like a phenomenon that Hilton Kramer called "The Revenge of the Philistines" - many people (most of them with no qualifications) are now involved in evaluating works of art merely because everything is now subject to the marketplace, where the only rule is What Sells is Good. 

Rahman leaves out of her argument, probably on purpose, the strong anti-intellectual streak in contemporary culture - the hostility towards what is perceived to be "elitist" or requiring a depth of experience or specialized learning that is beyond the average person's immediate grasp. She quotes remarks made by Philip Roth in a 2009 interview. Predicting that within 25 years the readership for novels will be negligible, he holds out a little optimistism:

“I think people will always be reading them, but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range . . . To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”

Forty years before Roth's remarks, John Cheever, in his Paris Review interview, had a better - if considerably dated - explanation:

INTERVIEWER: What about the beginning of stories? Yours start off very quickly. It's striking.

CHEEVER: Well, if you're trying as a storyteller to establish some rapport with your reader, you don't open by telling him that you have a headache and indigestion and that you picked up a gravelly rash at Jones Beach. One of the reasons is that advertising in magazines is much more common today than it was twenty years ago. In publishing in a magazine you are competing against girdle advertisements, travel advertisements, nakedness, cartoons, even poetry. The competition almost makes it hopeless. There's a stock beginning that I've always had in mind. Someone is coming back from a year in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship. His trunk is opened in customs, and instead of his clothing and souvenirs, they find the mutilated body of an Italan seaman, everything there but the head. Another opening sentence I often think of is, "The first day I robbed Tiffany's it was raining." Of course, you can open a short story that way, but that's not how one should function with fiction. One is tempted because there has been a genuine loss of serenity, not only in the reading public, but in all our lives. Patience, perhaps, or even the ability to concentrate. At one point when television first came in one was publishing an article that couldn't be read during a commercial. But fiction is durable enough to survive all of this.

I have had the pleasure over several decades to see some outstanding things on television, a few of which exploited the special qualities and limitations of the medium. But it has never seemed to me that television has ever really distinguished itself as a medium. The outstanding television programs that I have encountered in the past forty years have been documentaries like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (which was made for television but also had a theatrical release), multi-episode dramatizations of literary novels like the BBC's War and Peace (with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezuhov), or Ken Burns's The Civil War. The impact of these programs derived from the fact that viewers experienced them in the privacy and intimacy of their homes.

A novel is even more of a private and intimate experience, since it uses words alone to identify characters and settings. The "interiority" of the novel comes naturally since everything the author presents to the reader takes place in his mind. 

Rahman argues that novels and television shows function differently and that novels have a great advantage when it comes to "interiority". The weakest part of her argument is blaming novelists themselves for anticipating film adaptations of their work by deliberately avoiding a first-person narrative or by striving to maintain a visual perspective to facilitate their novel's translation to the screen.

I also found Rahman's aim to be scattershot. In the middle of her essay, she switches from discussing the decline of the novel to that of the "literary" novel, which is a very different matter. If the numbers of readers for fiction is in precipitous decline (23% in the past five years), then literary novels must be in danger of total extinction. I'm always dubious of such worries, since I have known from the beginning that reading literature is a pursuit of a very few. A few years ago on this blog I addressed the claim that poetry was dead, for the same reasons that fiction is on the skids.

Literature will continue to live, I think, because what it gives the reader is something that nothing else can give him. In his 1951 essay on Anna Karenina, Lionel Trilling wrote:

"It is a subtle triumph of Tolstoi's art that it induces us to lend ourselves with enthusiasm to its representation of the way things are. We so happily give our assent to what Tolstoi shows us and so willingly call it reality because we have something to gain from its being reality. For it is the hope of every decent, reasonably honest person to be judged under the aspect of Tolstoi's representation of human nature. Perhaps, indeed, what Tolstoi has done is to constitute as reality the judgement which every decent, reasonably honest person is likely to make of himself - as someone not wholly good and not wholly bad, not heroic yet not without heroism, not splendid yet not without moments of light, not to be comprehended by any formula yet having his principke of being, and managing, somehow, and despite conventional notions, to maintain an unexpected dignity."(3)

Ironically, Rahman's essay was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's "A Point of View." Wasn't television supposed to have killed radio ages ago?

(1) It was, in fact, George Orwell, who wrote in 1944, 'Obviously one mustn't say "X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer," and for the last ten years honest literary criticism has largely consisted in combating this outlook.' "As I Please," Tribune, 28 January 1944. Orwell also provides us with a useful decinition of the novel: "A novel ... is a story which attempts to describe credible human beings, and - to show them acting on everyday motives and not merely undergoing strings of improbable adventures." ("George Gissing," May-June 1948?, Essays, Everyman Edition, 2002, p. 1288)
(3) "Anna Karenina," The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism (London: Secker and Warburg, 1955).

Friday, January 5, 2018


One of the reasons why I'm convinced that Stanley Kauffmann is the best film critic of his time (1958-2013) is because he never wasted his time attacking any of his colleagues. His contemporaries, among whom were John Simon, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris, were too often sidelined by their gainsaying of one another's opinions - to the extent that their fighting (critically useless) became famous in itself. As passionate in the defense of their opinions as they too often were, it is the opinions themselves that will stand or fall.

Kauffmann quietly went about his job holding every film and filmmaker up to his own standards of quality, regardless of their broader "significance" to the medium, to the culture at large, to history, or to art. He had plenty to say over a career of 55 years, but he had nothing to prove. On the rare occasions when Kauffmann found it necessary to take a stand - for example, on the subject of the "auteur theory" introduced by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema and by Andrew Sarris in translation - it was always in the context of evaluating specific films for consideration. Reading Kauffmann's second collection of film criticism, Figures of Light,(1) which covers the crucial period 1966-1970, an era that saw often unfortunate shifts in international film production, I occasionally found him commenting directly on the claims of the auteurists, and you couldn't find a more concise and more thorough dismantling of the theory anywhere else.

He concentrates his argument in his discussion of Targets, the film debut of Peter Bogdanovich, a few of the post-Jules and Jim films of François Truffaut, and of one of the auteurists' most highly touted masterpieces, Max Ophuls' Lola Montes.

Regarding Targets:

Peter Bogdanovich is twenty-nine, the author of several brochures for the Museum of Modern Art Film Library and of numerous articles about film. He has now written, directed, and produced Targets and also plays a substantial role in it. As a film, it's minor; as a phenomenon, significant. So far as I know, Targets is the first picture made in Hollywood by an American critic of the auteur school. France has had many new auteur directors in the last decade, but Bogdanovich is the first American auteur to appear in the city that is a particular heaven for auteurs. All those Hollywood elements of commerce and popularity-groveling that seem restrictive to many of us have meant little to auteurs.

Their chief concern is with the way a director handles the material he chooses or is assigned. Many of us think of Hollywood as, in general, the home of hacks or of good men hampered. Here is an intelligent, utterly hip young man who chooses Hollywood. His action and his beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with that other group of young filmmakers, the Underground or Free Cinema. They are anti-Hollywood. The auteurs are, in one sense, the
first pop artists and cultists, but with a difference: they can see a fourth-rate melodrama and know it is fourth-rate as a melodrama at the same time that they glory in the director's use of the camera and his expertness in film mythology.

To argue for more than filmic content in films is taken by some as an argument for literary or theatrical film. But such new directors of the past decade as Bellocchio, Bertolucci, De Seta, Olmi, Jessua, de Broca, Lester, Teshigahara, and Nichols have shown that film can be truly film without being only film. Bogdanovich, however, has grown up in an esthetics that exalts manner over matter - no, it tells us fundamentally that manner is all: that Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor and Nicholas Ray's Party Girl and Preminger's The Cardinal and Hitchcock's The Birds and Hawks's Hatari! are excellent artworks because of the directors' styles, that objection to the tacky stories is misplaced because the film is not in the story but in "the relationship between the director and his material" (Gavin Millar). To me, this seems the equivalent of the theatrical legend about the great actor who could pulverize you by reading the telephone book. I have never had the luck to be thus pulverized, but the legend does not maintain that the ideal is to have great actors read telephone books. I am unconvinced that any of those directors is as good when (even because) he uses fourth-rate material as when he uses material and performers that satisfy other expectations in us as well.

On Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid:

Truffaut was a leading formulator of the auteur theory; in fact, as explicit theory, it is usually said to date from an article he wrote in Cahiers du Cinema in January 1954. One tenet of that theory holds that material is less important than its cinema treatment, thus these directors have often taken stock genre material, like American thrillers, in order to prove that film art can be made out of the film's "own."

Sometimes (as in Shoot the Piano Player), the transmutation succeeds; more often, the result is only a combination of smugness and camp, accompanied in the theater by the purring of the viewer who gets the "in" references and relishes the exaltation of pop over pompous old "elitist" art. When the transmutation fails, as it does in Mississippi Mermaid and as it does in most cases, the auteur theory shivers. André Bazin, the late French critic who was early associated with the theory and who was Truffaut's mentor, wrote a corrective article in 1957 which is generally disregarded by his disciples. Bazin said: "All that [the auteur supporters] want to retain in the equation auteur plus subject = work is the auteur, while the subject is reduced to zero....Auteur, yes, but what of?" The answer, in regard to Truffaut's recent films, is: Not much.

After detailing the good and the bad things about Max Ophuls Lola Montes, Kauffmann proceeds:

Some of the Lola admirers might agree with all of this; all of them might agree with some of it. Together they reject its relevance. Why? Because they subscribe, with passionate and unquestionable conviction, to a theory of the hierarchy of film values. They believe in selecting and exalting sheerly cinematic values, like the matters I praised earlier, and in subordinating or discounting such matters as those I objected to. To them, this is exultation
in the true glory of cinema.

To me, it is a derogation and patronization of cinema. To me, this hierarchy says: "This is what film can do and we mustn't really expect it to do any more, mustn't be disappointed if
this is all it does." A chief motive behind the hierarchy is to avoid discussion of the strictured elements forced on filmmaking by the ever-present money men. Lola was commissioned as an expensive showcase for Martine Carol. The money men foisted Miss Carol and a cheap novel by the author of Caroline Cherie on Ophuls, so let's not criticize those elements, let's concentrate on Ophuls' marvelous decor, detail, and camera movement and, by the simple act of appropriate omission, presto, we have a masterpiece.

I disbelieve in this hierarchy. There are money men involved in every art. No one would dream of praising an architect because he designed his interiors well, if he had debased his overall form to please his client's pocketbook. Why a special leniency for film?

Why indeed in the face of the fact that film has proved it doesn't need it, has achieved thoroughly fine work? The worst aspect of this approach is that it crimps the film out of its cultural heritage - the cinematic and the literary and theatrical and psychological and social-political - and says to it, "Just go and be cinematic. If anything else is achieved, good. If not, no great matter." It is an esthetic equivalent of the Victorian ethic of "knowing your place."

This concentration on part of a work leads to inflation of the value of that part. Ophuls, who in some ways was masterly, is extolled as a master of romance. To speak only of Lola, I
see him sheerly as cynic, burdened with this trumpery novel and this mammary star and deciding to give it back to the world in spades. One critic envisions Lola in the circus as a presence "redeeming all men both as a woman and as an artistic creation." This woman? This artistic creation? The last scene, in which the crowd presses forward to buy kisses of the caged Lola, gave me a vision of Ophuls himself chuckling at the Yahoos who are wonder-struck by this earlier Zsa Zsa Gabor, this "celebrity" in the word's synthetic present-day sense, a crowd scrabbling to pay for a touch of this scandal-sheet goddess. And I also had a concentric vision of Ophuls chuckling at his film audiences, as they press forward to pay for a
chance to adulate his caged talent.

Let me give the last word, on this matter of exalting a medium in itself, to the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Writing about McLuhan in the latest Partisan Review, Enzensberger says:

"It is all too easy to see why the slogan "The medium is the message" has met with unbounded enthusiasm on the part of the media, since it does away, by a quick fix worthy of a card-sharp, with the question of truth. Whether the message is a lie or not has become irrelevant, since in the light of McLuhanism truth itself resides in the very existence of the medium, no matter what it may convey....

Despite Kauffmann's total rejection of auteurism, its pernicious influence persists among an older generation of film critics whose god appears to be Jean-Luc Godard, the sole survivor of the Nouvelle Vague. Kauffmann reviews quite a number of Godard's films in Figures of Light, and finds merit in some (Les Carabiniers, Weekend), but not in others (La Chinoise, Pierrot le fou). This is something the auteurists seem incapable of doing. To them, every film made by an auteur is of more or less equal value. In fact, evaluation isn't what auteurists do. They are content to catalog and classify - not to quantify.

In an extensive analysis of Godard's Weekend, Kauffmann quotes an article in support of Godard by Susan Sontag, and concludes:

I cannot summarize all of Miss Sontag's article (it should be read), but, for me, it leads to and away from this sentence: "Just as no absolute, immanent standards can be discovered for determining the composition, duration and place of a shot, there can be no truly sound reason for excluding anything from a film." This seemingly staggering statement is only the extreme extension of a thesis that any enlightened person would support: there are no absolutes in art. The Godardians take this to mean (like Ivan Karamazov) that therefore everything is permissible. Others of us take it to mean that therefore standards have to be empirically searched out and continually readjusted, to distinguish art from autism; that, just as responsive morals have to be found without a divine authority if humanity is to survive, so responsive esthetics have to be found without canonical standards if art is to survive. The last may be an open question, but it is open as long as men continue to make art.(5)

"Standards" and "responsive esthetics" are among the words most foreign to auteurists.

(1) Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
(2) Ibid, p. 96-99.
(3) Ibid, p. 255-256.
(4) Ibid, p. 160-164.
(5) Ibid, p. 132-133.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Same River

I have mentioned before on this blog a favorite poem, "The Voyage to Secrecy," by the Scots poet Norman Cameron. Late in my Navy career, I printed a copy of it and placed it deep inside my wallet.

The Voyage to Secrecy

The morn of his departure, men could say
‘Either by such a way or such a way,’
And, a week later, still, by plotting out
The course of all the roadways round about,
‘In these some score of places he may be.’
How many days the voyage to secrecy?
Always the milestones by the road hark back
To whence he came, and those in idleness
Can bound his range with map and compasses.

When shall their compasses strain wide and crack,
And alien milestones, with strange figures,
Baffle the sagest of geographers?

The destination that Cameron seeks isn't physical or even terrestrial. There are no more nowheres, no more uncharted lands. The earth has been hammered down, and although there are still plenty of hard-to-reach places, there is nowhere left where one can truly hide, not to be found.

At some time in the mid-1990s, after leaving the Navy, I replaced Cameron's poem in my wallet with the English lyrics by Norman Gimbel of a song originally written in Portuguese by Chico Barque. Antonio Carlos Jobim supplied the song's languorously lovely music.

Song Of The Sabiá

I'll go back, I know now that I'll go back,
That my place is there and there it will always be,
There where I can hear the song of the sabiá.
I'll go back, I know now that I'll go back.

I will lie in the shadow of a palm
That's no longer there.
And pick a flower that doesn't grow,
And may be some one's love will speed the night,
The lonely unwanted night
That may bring me to the new day.

I'll go back, I know now that I'll go back.
They won't in vain,
All the plans I made to deceive myself,
All the roads I made just to lose myself,
All the love I made to forget myself,
Those mistakes I made just to find myself.

I'll go back, I know now that I'll go back,
That my place is there and there it will always be,
There where I can hear the song of the sabiá
Of the sabiá.

Is the writer of the song talking about an actual place or is he talking about the past - a past self? What both writers were tacitly pointing out is that their goals are equally unattainable. Secrecy is as elusive as the past.

Both of these pieces, secret messages to myself, express a great longing - the first, to lose myself, the second, to find something that was lost. Having to be "present and accounted for" in the Navy for eight years, mostly in places and among people I didn't like, made me want to lose myself somewhere, it didn't matter where, I couldn't be found. My returning to active duty for three years in the Army couldn't have turned out worse. I did it to save my marriage and found myself, when I got out, in a failed marriage that was more like a crypt for two. Shortly after joining the Army, I realized my mistake and wanted to go back, back to the very beginning.

I accomplished both when I came to live in the Philippines ten years ago: while going back to a place from my past, I somehow found myself about as thoroughly lost as it's possible to be. I live on a small island, one of the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines. Looking at a map of the country, it looks sort of like the skeletal remains of a hominid. There is the skull, represented by the northern island is Luzon, the elongated arms are the islands of Palawan and Negros-Cebu. Mindanao is the pelvis, and the islands of Samar and Leyte are its spine. I live somewhere along the hominid's lower ribcage.

But I've gone too far. Finding my way back may take too long, but I have to try. It was Heraclitus who wrote that one cannot step into the same river twice, and Thomas Wolfe who wrote "You can't go home again." Everything is in flux, change is inescapable, nothing remains as it was.

But it isn't as simple as this. Physics can't explain why we can't maneuver in time as freely as we travel through space. They argue that, just as Anchorage, Alaska continues to exist a decade after I left it, and I can return to it (if only I had the wherewithal), so, too, the past continues to exist and awaits our return. The life of Anchorage has continued without me. Much will have changed since I left. For one big reason - my sister is no longer living there. She died in October 2016. Without her there, I have no real reason to return.

But the past remains as it was - perhaps not exactly as we remember it because memory is selective. It remains as we first experienced it, alive and dynamic. Will we one day prove Heraclitus wrong and step into the same old river that we once crossed?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cat Man

When it comes to pets, a lot of us are dog people. The majority of my friends are among them. They post photos of their dogs on social media. I like to kid them now and then, especially when they tell me that their dogs have human traits, that they have souls and deep thoughts. Ok. So let's pretend that your dog is actually a human being. Naked, covered in hair, he can't understand a language and can only make rudimentary noises. He isn't toilet trained and has to be taken for walks on a leash. He's likes to pee all around your yard - on trees, on walls, on your car's tires. He also sniffs everything, including your friends' crotches when they come over to your house. Imagine your friends' reaction to this naked, hairy human being in your house. They would be terrified. "He's just being friendly" you reassure them when he humps someone's leg.

Some of us, though, are cat people. My mother was a cat person, so I grew up around a few cats. We went through rather a lot of them, I'm afraid. We lost them to accidents, usually involving a car. We lost them in long, cross-country moves. They disappeared mysteriously, because of an evil-minded neighbor or because my father took them on a "one-way ride." My father - you guessed right - was not a cat person.

One memory stands out from all the rest. It happened before I was in school. My folks were getting ready to move. Since my father was in the Army, we moved rather a lot. When all the boxes were packed and the movers had arrived, we couldn't find the cat. We called her and looked everywhere. One of the movers found her inside my mother's empty wardrobe - with a litter of newborn kittens. We had to leave and there was no way we could take the cat and her litter with us. So my father took them, all five of them, into the bathroom, locked the door behind him and drowned them in the tub, despite my screams outside the door. I resented what he did for years.

My latest cat arrived in my life in June 2014. My girlfriend called me from outside and I went out the front door to the terrace where she held out to me two tiny kittens that our neighbor's cat had given birth to a week before and told me to choose one. One was a gray tabby and other was red. I chose the red one. He was male. We had to wait awhile until the mother weaned him before my girlfriend brought him home.

Since I wanted him to be a house cat, we had to improvise a litter box. I live on a remote provincial island in the Philippines, so pet supplies weren't available anywhere. My girlfriend had never owned a cat before. Over the years, I had owned several. I preferred them to dogs because they were smaller, cleaner, and easily house-trained. But also because they were smarter and more independent. I had learned that you never earned a cat's devotion easily. You had to work at it. Ultimately, I found them to be inscrutable, which was, I think, a large part of their fascination for me.

My girlfriend and I had trouble getting him to eat. He went days without eating and, having tried our best, I resigned myself to his imminent death. Then, hearing a fishmonger outside our house one day, my girlfriend bought some small fish and offered them to the kitten. He gobbled them up so quickly that he threw up. But at least we found something he would eat. Our neighbors, some of whom couldn't afford to feed fish to their own children, were amazed that we were feeding fish to our cat. They were also surprised that my girlfriend spoke to him and how, eventually, he would reply. She named him "Kichie" and when she called his name, he would reply "Ma! Ma!"

We tried to keep him in our house but it became impossible. As soon as he was strong enough to jump from the floor to the top of our refrigerator, and from the refrigerator to the top of the wall beneath the eaves of our house, he was routinely outdoors. It was our intention to have him spayed, but when my girlfriend reminded her relative, who was supposed to perform the operation, he reneged. This turned out to have serious consequences for the cat and for us.

When he was 16 months old, we moved a short distance down the road to another house and brought Kichie with us. Within a few months he established himself as the alpha male, with his own territory and a harem of females to defend. He would come home with fearsome injuries, some of which were obviously inflicted by a dog. There were several dogs in the area around my house. As I have pointed out elsewhere, these dogs don't belong to anyone. They are "adopted" by people in the same way the ,dogs "adopt" their fleas. They stake out a selection of houses from which they eat discarded scraps of food and the people utilize them as watch dogs. Unrestrained, the dogs are a nuisance, causing accidents on the road, scattering garbage everywhere, and engaging in loud and bloody territorial. fights with other dogs. When a female is on heat, male dogs from all directions arrive to have a go at her. It is a terrible sight when the dogs, sometimes more than ten at a time, swirl around through yards, with the female at the center, savaging one another for their turn.

These dogs are also a menace to cats, and when I discovered the wounds that they had inflicted on Kichie, I planned to poison them with engine coolant. I never went through with it. Kichie recovered and returned to his place as the alpha male.

My girlfriend learned to love Kichie deeply, just how deeply I discovered when she came to me and thanked me for persuading her to adopt a cat. Kichie was like her child, she said. Unfortunately, two years after we moved, we had to move again. Like the first move, it was only a short distance down the road to our new apartment. After we were finished moving, my girlfriend brought the cat to our new apartment in a rice sack. Unlike our old house, there were no spaces between the walls and the roof to escape through. We expected it would take some time for Kichie to adjust to his new territory, but we were surprised when he got out the door and, after a brief inspection of the area, disappeared. He didn't come back, and the following day my girlfriend returned to our old house and called his name. "Ma!" he cried as he emerged from behind the house. My girlfriend then brought him back a second time, and then a third time, to our new apartment before we realized that we would never be able to keep him there. His hard-won territory was back at our old house. He had made his choice.

Now, three months after we moved, my girlfriend sometimes returns to the old house, which has been transformed by renovation. Kichie always answers my girlfriend's call. He gives her a sad look. He has grown thin, despite the promises of the house's new residents to save their leftovers for him. He is 3½ now. My last photograph of him shows him poised in a living room chair, glancing nervously at our open door. That was September 15, the last time he was with us. We have spoken of getting another kitten, but my girlfriend is no longer interested. She hasn't learned what I learned so long ago - that pets can never be replaced, that they somehow cross the distance between the animal and human worlds to become our familiars, companions, to occupy that special middle ground, less than human but more than animal. But the love we had for one can sometimes be bestowed on another, however grudgingly, until they, too, are, as Rilke put it so beautifully, helped "up into a soul for which there is no heaven."*

*Letter to N.N., February 8, 1912.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Baby, It's Cold Outside

It began in 2014, I believe, when The Huffington Post ran an article that, for sheer purblind stupidity, would be hard to beat. "A Line-by-Line Take Down of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’"(1) by the eponymous Em & Lo, accuses the 73-year-old Frank Loesser song, which he wrote for himself and his wife, of being "creepy" because its language suggests nothing less than date rape. Whether the legions of admiring listeners across the decades were aware of it or not, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is "a song that basically sanctions date rape — roofies and all."(2)

In disbelief, defenders of the song insisted that the key to the song's charm is its context of a loving couple (Loesser and his wife) kidding around on a cold night. Rich Lowry of The National Review wrote last Christmas, 'A cottage industry has sprung up denouncing the song as “creepy” and even as a “rape anthem.” Two singer-songwriters recently reworked the song so it could pass muster, say, at the holiday party of the Oberlin College gender-studies department. The result is predictably leaden and humorless.'(3) Even the greatest songs are subject to interpretation, the interpretation of the singer who has to find its true meaning and present it to the listener. Simply reading the printed lyrics is like reading the text of a play: it often provides nothing but indications, clues for an actor to "flesh out." 

Unconvinced, the critics of the song continue, every holiday season, to stand on their own necks, proudly displaying their ignorance of double entendre and denying the possibility of the tongue-in-cheek. The corrected (unsexed) alternate version of the song accomplished nothing but make the original seem far better than it is.

Which raises the ultimate point: it's only a song - an old song at that, written for a generation that is long gone. The fact that it has stuck around for so long is all the testimonial its qualities need. It will probably outlive the current fidgeting with the past. I mean, why should men and women from the 1940s, like my father and mother, be held to our enlightened standards of behavior? Times have changed and, we can only hope, so have people.

Nobody seems to have seen the MGM film in which the song debuted - and which won an Oscar for Best Original Song.(4) Neptune's Daughter was a star vehicle for former Olympic swimmer Esther Williams. The scene in which the song is performed features two couples in separate locales - Williams & Ricardo Montalban and Betty Garrett & Red Skelton. Montalban and Williams perform the song straight, i.e., "romantic," as it was written. But Betty Garrett and Red Skelton perform the song with the roles reversed, presumably for laughs, with Garrett playing the aggressor and Skelton playing the victim. I hate to break this to the enemies of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" but the Garrett-Skelton duet stands their date-rape argument on its head, unless they mean to suggest that Garrett has plied Skelton with roofies and is planning to rape him? 

One of the most entertaining recent renditions of the song by She & Him is contained in a very clever animated short that can be found here. The woman very aggressively tries to convince the man to stay in her cabin. She even stoops to disabling his car. Finally, all her efforts wasted, she sits, exhausted and alone. But then the man comes back to knock on her door, and, smiling, holds up a mistletoe. I wonder how many people will lose their jobs this Christmas season by hanging mistletoe around the office?

(1) Huffpost, The Blog, Dec 19, 2014.
(2) In the same article, Em & Lo take a swipe at the Richard Curtis film Love, Actually, which is "mind-bogglingly offensive in its depiction of women as nothing more than the embodiments of men’s romantic and/or sexual fantasies." Such sexism isn't the exclusive domain of men. One of the most cogent criticisms of Jane Austen's novels is that they are exclusively about young women seeking to land good husbands. I wouldn't dream of equating Love, Actually with Sense and Sensibility, but isn't Austen guilty of depicting men as nothing more than the embodiments of women's romantic and sexual (and monetary) fantasies?
(3) The National Review, December 24, 2016.
(4) A different Frank Loesser song was going to be used in the film called "(I Want to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China" which - ironically - the infamous Hays Office warned was too risqué. So Loesser sold MGM "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - over the objections of his wife.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Long Ball

"Baseball fans are pedants, there is no other kind."(1)
(Wilfrid Sheed)

Speaking now as a former fan about baseball, I want to address Joe Morgan's recent letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Morgan says just about everything I expected he or any other player from the analog days of baseball would say about the continuing refusal to induct some former players who are eligible for induction into the Hall. The reason is by now no longer what it was when these players were active: a secret (although it was the subject of widespread rumors). The problem with Morgan's letter is that the issue isn't nearly as black and white as it seems. Morgan wrote:

"The Hall of Fame has always had its share of colorful characters, some of whom broke or bent society's rules in their era. By todays's standards, some might not have gotten in. Times change and society improves. What once was accepted no longer is . . .  But steroid users don't belong here. What they did shouldn't be accepted. Times shouldn't change for the worse."

(I am heartened by Morgan's faith in society's improvement through the years.)

I learned to love baseball through the eyes of my father. Born in Lagrange, Georgia, his team was the Atlanta Braves. He was a devoted fan, which you had to be if the Braves was your team. "Cellar Dwellers" is the old term for sports teams that commonly occupied last place in their divisions, and in the late 1960s and early '70s the Braves lived up - or down - to it year after year. The only ray of sunshine during those years for a Braves fan was one player - Hank Aaron. I remember when Willie Mays and Aaron were neck-and-neck in the race to break Babe Ruth's record for career homeruns. Week after week, I would check the Sunday newspapers for the lists of the top homerun hitters of all time. There was Ruth's name at the top with 714 homeruns, with Mays' and Aaron's names beneath. Mays, who was older, gradually faded away. He retired with 660 homeruns. But Aaron kept going. When he finally broke Ruth's record, in May 1974, I was in hospital recovering from an appendectomy. I also celebrated my 16th birthday there, which is why it's easy for me to remember the date of Aaron's feat.

When I look at the current list of Major League Baseball's Top 300 career homerun hitters, it feels like I'm being wrapped in a warm blanket on a December night. The names that stand out for me are Willie McCovey (521), Boog Powell (339), Dave Kingman (442), Willie Stargell (475), Harmon Killebrew (573), Reggie Jackson (563), and Frank Robinson (586). Mea culpa - I remember their names because they were sluggers, "long ball" hitters. For a kid, there is nothing in sports more impressive than a homerun.

There have always been great baseball players who didn't hit homeruns. Pitchers, for instance, were expected to be poor hitters, which is why they were almost invariably the ninth batter in the lineup. Barry Bonds was a gifted hitter and had a dependably high batting average. But, too often, he found his accomplishments ignored because he hit comparatively few homeruns. "Cleanup" batters, at number four in the lineup in game after game, were always the long ball hitters. They couldn't match Bonds in average, on base percentage, in runs scored. But it didn't matter as long as they could knock the ball out of the park thirty, forty, or even fifty times a season. That's why Bonds decided to become a slugger, and why he, and some other sluggers - Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez - changed baseball by cheating. They took their natural talent for hitting the ball and enhanced it to the extent that they broke - shattered - existing records for single season and career homeruns. Both McGwire, Sosa and Rodriguez later admitted to "doping," but Bonds has always denied it. Their long ball stats are impressive: Rodriguez 696 homeruns, Sosa 609 homeruns, McGwire 583 homeruns. And Barry Bonds sits atop the list at 762 homeruns. So why aren't they in the Hall of Fame?

It seemed like it happened all of a sudden. In 1998, it became obvious that Roger Maris's record for most homeruns in a single season - 61 - was going to be beaten. By whom wasn't exactly clear, since there were two contenders. Mark McGwire had forearms so enlarged that he reminded me of Popeye. He and Sammy Sosa made the breaking of Roger Maris's record into an appalling circus. McGwire finished the season with 70 homeruns, while Sosa had a mere 66. One would think that, getting close to the record, these hypertrophied antiheroes would've perhaps slowed down so it didn't look so obvious that they were doping. But, no, they approached the record in haste, it seemed, broke it, and then kept on going into stratospheric heights of absurdity. Not to be outdone, Barry Bonds nullified McGwire's record in 2001 by hitting 73 homeruns.

Joe Morgan was a great member of a great baseball team - the Cincinatti Reds - that also included a cheater - Pete Rose. Morgan is a member of the Hall of Fame. Rose is not, and may never be. Rose never doped, but he participated in gambling while an active player and was proven to have, on occasion, bet against his own team. 

Americans invented baseball, basketball, and their own kind of football, but the principles behind these games and the rules that bound its players were all invented in 19th century England. Wilfrid Sheed could write with some authority on the subject because he was an Anglo-American whose dreams of playing any sport were forever extinguished by a brief bout of polio at the age of 13. As Sheed wrote in his essay, "Why Sports Matter," "But perhaps the greatest benefit of all, to judge from the fuss that would be made about it, was that sports not only outlawed cheating but drilled its devotees to detect and despise it in each other and by extension in themselves."(2)

When I think of great baseball players of the past, like Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, both of whom played with sometimes crippling injuries, I think of what they accomplished and what they might have accomplished if they hadn't had to contend with injuries. But then I think about the fate of the record-setting balls. According to Wikipedia, "[Barry Bonds's 756th homerun ball] was consigned to an auction house on August 21 [2007]. Bidding began on August 28 and closed with a winning bid of US$752,467 on September 15 after a three phase online auction. The high bidder, fashion designer Marc Ecko, created a website to let fans decide its fate. Subsequently, Ben Padnos, who submitted the (US) $186,750 winning bid on Bonds's record-tying 755th home run ball also set up a website to let fans decide its fate. 10 million voters helped Ecko decide to brand the ball with an asterisk and send it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Padnos sold 5-year ads on a website,, where people voted by a two-to-one margin to smash the ball."

Now that the entire Russian Winter Olympic team has been banned from competition in South Korea early next year because of substantial evidence of systemic and institutionalized doping, the issue of performance enhancing drugs is once again in the spotlight. While sports organizations have all decided that it is bad for every sport, I wonder if a majority of fans really care. I mentioned above that I am a "former" baseball fan. Contemporary professional sports is exasperating to me because it doesn't seem to even want to make up its mind. Like everything else, professional sports has been tainted by money. I don't watch baseball much any more, but if players like Bonds, Rodriguez, McGwire, and Sosa are voted into the Hall of Fame, which is probably nothing but a matter of time, I will never watch another baseball game, not in my home, not at a friend's house, if I am in a bar and a baseball game is on the TV, I will get up and leave. Before lights were installed in stadiums, baseball games used to be called on account of darkness. For baseball, it's getting darker by the hour.

(1) "Why Can't the Movies Play Ball?," The New York Times, May 14, 1989.
(2) "Why Sports Matter," Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1995.