Saturday, June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain

I was lying in bed when my girlfriend, who was watching the Filipino network news in the sala, came to me and told me that an American, "Antony Buran," was dead. I rolled the name through the rolodex in my head and came up with nothing. She has a hard time pronouncing my last name, too, even after being with me for a decade. So when I got up late in the night and turned on CNN and saw that she was referring to Anthony Bourdain, I, like everyone else in the world hearing the news, was stunned.

Where are you going now? I was only one of Anthony Bourdain's ever-expanding audience. And like a lot of them, I felt like I knew him. He proved to us that he was so much more than a celebrity chef. I found him to be the perfect antidote to Gordon Ramsey, who seems to be on a one-man crusade to destroy the reputations of cooks and of cooking. For Bourdain, food was his foot in the door, his passport into the lives of people everywhere in the world he traveled to. He knew haute cuisine, the food served in high-end Michelin star restaurants. But he clearly preferred real food eaten by real people - street food in exotic places.

On a blog post from 2014, I called him The Detrimental Tourist, because his acerbic wit and cynical, snide asides weren't likely to attract tourists to the strange places he sometimes visited. It seemed to me that he was driven by something very dark, that attracted him to the wrong side of the tracks, the dangerous parts of the world. When he visited places like Paris, he expressed contempt for their biggest tourist attractions where people stand in line for hours to catch a glimpse of "the real Paris" - whatever that is.

I didn't share his literary tastes - William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson. Like them, many of his stories began with a hangover. His favorite novel was Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and his trip to the Congo was his retracing of the steps of Mistah Kurtz down the River Congo. I saw every episode of No Reservations and The Layover - his two series prior to Parts Unknown. For some mysterious reason, probably stemming from his foul language and his fondness for the underbelly of the world, Parts Unknown isn't aired in CNN International. The episodes I have managed to see were broadcast on other cable channels.

He left the world just as mysterious as he found it. And, in his last act, contributed to the greater mystery of the human heart. Paul Bowles, another of his favorite writers, wrote, "Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home." The writer he most reminded me of is Paul Theroux, who once wrote, "Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going." Though he had been practically everywhere in the world, Anthony Bourdain never seemed to know where he was going. Farewell, fellow traveler.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Two Cheers

One of the few advantages that comes from growing old is having some experience of life from which to draw precedents. Remembering the past, whether it is a moment or a whole period of one's life, is the best way one can understand the present, especially when one thinks that the present offers what we feel are unprecedented problems and difficulties to us. Having a clear picture of what happened in the past can dispel most of our concerns with the present.

Throughout the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency, there were some rather shrill voices in America (one of which belonged to our current president) that insisted that Obama's presidency was, for various reasons, illegitimate. For eight years some of these voices never went away. As a supporter of Obama (by which I mean an opponent of the alternatives to Obama: anti-liberal, authoritarian, hysterical populism represented by talk radio and its audience), I felt personally affronted by some of anti-Obama rhetoric, though not nearly as personally as black people, who saw attacks on Obama's legitimacy as racially motivated. I felt that an attack on a sitting president, or a sitting congressperson or governor or mayor, as not just an attack on an individual, but an attack on all of the people whose votes got them into office. 

The United States is a representational democracy. Since all the decisions that shape our society and its laws simply cannot be decided by plebiscite, by a preponderance of votes by every eligible voting citizen, a government elected by a majority vote makes all such decisions for us. When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, I expressed the reasonable view that the only people who had a right to pass judgement on his fifty years in office were his constituents in the state of Massachusetts, whom he served as senator from 1960, when Ted's brother John vacated the seat to run for president, until he left office - as it were, feet first.

If one of us votes in an election and his or her candidate is defeated, he or she can have plenty with which to take issue in the ensuing term of the candidate who won. But what he or she is taking exception to is not the government. It seems to me that the problem they have is with democracy, since the candidate they didn't vote for didn't steal the office (even when they suggest that the election was rigged), but was put there by a preponderance of votes in a democratic election. 

I have taken extreme exception with Donald Trump, with practically everything he stands for and every pronouncement that comes out of his mouth. He is a thoroughly deplorable man and a disaster as a president. But I make these denunciations mindful of all the American voters who put Trump in the White House, some of whom are related to me. My problem really isn't with Trump. I have a problem, thanks to the popular election of this disgraceful clown (despite Hillary winning the popular vote by almost three million), with democracy. 

E. M. Forster published a book of essays in 1951 called Two Cheers for Democracy, a title that pretty much sums up my feelings about democracy. Forster wrote in a prefatory note, "These essays, articles, broadcasts, etc., were nearly all of them composed after the publication of Abinger Harvest, that is to say after 1936. A title for the collection has been difficult to find. One of my younger friends suggested Two Cheers for Democracy as a joke, and I have decided to adopt it seriously ... Until livelier counsels prevailed "The Last of Abinger" was to have been the book's general title. But I do not really want to record the last of anything and am glad to change. Human life is still active, still carrying about with it unexplored riches and unused methods of release. The darkness that troubles us and tries to degrade us may thin out. We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy, although at present she only deserves two."

Democracy is an imperfect system, but it's the best one we have come up with so far. I am a socialist, committed to a radical reconfiguration of society, which in its current condition resembles more than anything an incredibly elaborate swindle - a free-for-all in which the worst man wins. I am a socialist, but a democratic socialist. I don't want to overthrow the government, even if it were possible. As we have learned - in the hardest way -, all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure. I am committed to the radical restructuring of society through democratic means. And - yes - Bernie Sanders is a kind of hero of mine. Socialism means the people shall rule. It is all about human brotherhood. If this surprises you, you should know that I became a socialist when I found out that everything I had been told all my life about socialism was a lie.

No matter. The best way - the only way - to oppose Trump is with democracy, which is clearly what he fears most (other than the rule of law). If it is disclosed that he used unfair means to win the 2016 election - which seems to me obvious by now - he will still have to be turned out of office with democracy, with the free and open exercise of our democratic right to defeat him if he is crazy enough to run for re-election. 

I think we need to stop being government-haters when it is really democracy that gets us into these messes. Stop hating the government and change it.

Get out and vote.

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.