Saturday, September 15, 2018

Keeping Watch

As I watch, from the other side of the world, the disaster in the Carolinas wrought by Hurricane Florence, I have very mixed feelings. I am amazed at the overwhelming response to the event - the number of people either appointed to provide support or volunteers who just want to help the people who live in the path of the storm, who have to endure the high winds, the heavy rains and the floods. But also the media coverage: CNN sent all its top reporters (Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon) to provide 24/7 coverage of what they are calling the "storm of a lifetime."

I find myself bemused by the sheer scale of the disaster response in the States, but not especially surprised. The reason is simply that response to disasters  here in the Philippines where I am living is nonexistent or simply too little, too late. As I write this, a category 5 Super Typhoon named Mangkhut in Asia (but named Ompong in the Philippines for utterly inexplicable reasons) has moved across the northern tip of the main island of Luzon with probable but, as of yet, unreported deaths and damage. There was another typhoon, at least as powerful, that passed close by my location in November 2013. It was named Haiyan to everyone else, but Yolanda to Filipinos, which has led to predictable confusion whenever the storm is mentioned to anyone outside fhe country.

Here are some things you won't see in the wake of Hurricane Florence that happened here after Typhoon Haiyan: police positioned to protect property, like Malls, abandoning their posts and going to help their helpless families; armed gangs going door to door robbing households of everything of value (and raping girls and women there); mass looting - entire malls stripped of their merchandise, grocery stores of their food; fishermen bringing drowned people up in their nets; hundreds of dead bodies interred in mass graves before they are even identified because morgues run out of space and there is no power (for almost 6 weeks); misappropriation of millions of dollars in international relief (the governor on my island detoured rice shipments and sold it all on the black market - I saw it happen); ordinary people setting up makeshift stores to sell the food they looted at exorbitant prices; price gouging of gasoline and other necessities. Plus a death toll at around 8,000 because people's grass huts and wood shacks were blown apart. No warnings, no evacuations, no rescues. No cellphone signal for 10 days, no internet connection for two weeks, no power for almost 6 weeks, no Anderson Cooper, no Chris Cuomo, no Don Lemon providing 24/7 coverage. Nobody cared. 

These massive storms are likely the consequence of climate change, or what they used fo call global warming. I am bemused, but again not exactly surprised, at the American inaction in the face of irrefutable evidence of what is happening and what is probably coming if something isn't done. Watching the news coverage of Hurricane Florence, which has stationed reporters on the shores of the Carolinas, I found myself looking up a poem by Robert Frost called "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep":

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be---
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

It was published in 1936 as part of the collection A Further Range, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The collection also contains "Desert Places," "Design," and "Provide, Provide." It isn't among Frost's best known or most popular poems, both because of its qualities as a poem, which are great, and because it is tacitly critical of his readers, humanity, that can't seem to find its way to looking farther or deeper into the universe. It can't even look at what is in front of its face the things that could spare it a multitude of problems - like climate change.

The poem's broader implications, which can't get much broader than they are, have been discussed to death since its publication. Still, the poem stands apart, unassailably itself. The best commentary on the poem I have read is in Randall Jarrell's book, Poetry and the Age. Jarrell was one of Frost's champions, who argued both against the superficial popular image of Frost as a Farmer's Almanac poet of homespun wisdom and the academic (wilful) ignorance of his occasional greatness, in poems like "Home Burial," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Acquainted with the Night," and "Directive." Here is Jarrell's commentary:

First of all, of course, the poem is simply there, in indifferent unchanging actuality; but our thought about it, what we are made to make of it, is there too, made to be there. When we choose between land and sea, the human and the inhuman, the finite and the infinite, the sea has to be the infinite that floods in over us endlessly, the hypnotic monotony of the universe that is incommensurable with us—everything into which we look neither very far nor very deep, but look, look just the same. And yet Frost doesn't say so—it is the geometry of this very geometrical poem, its inescapable structure, that says so. There is the deepest tact and restraint in the symbolism; it is like Housman's

Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.

The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault:
It rains into the sea
And still the sea is salt.

But Frost's poem is flatter, greyer, and at once tenderer and more terrible, without even the consolations of rhetoric and exaggeration - there is no "primal fault" in Frost's poem, but only the faint Biblical memories of "any watch they keep." What we do know we don't care about; what we do care about we don't know: we can't look out very far, or in very deep; and when did that ever bother us? It would be hard to find anything more unpleasant to say about people than that last stanza; but Frost doesn't say it unpleasantly—he says it with flat ease, takes everything with something harder than contempt, more passive than acceptance. And isn't there something heroic about the whole business, too - something touching about our absurdity? If the fool persisted in his folly he would become a wise man, Blake said, and we have persisted.

The tone of the last lines—or, rather, their careful suspension between several tones, as a piece of iron can be held in the air between powerful enough magnets—allows for this too. This recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or palliation, is very rare and very valuable, and rather usual in Frost's best poetry. One is reminded of Empson's thoughtful and truthful comment on Gray's "Elegy": "Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem … And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society would prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy."(1)

Standing on the beach in the middle of a hurricane might seem like insanity, instead of when you're a reporter and a cameraman revealing what is in store for so many of us if we're not more careful. We must go on keeping watch, heedless of our native limitations.

(1) from Poetry and the Age (Knopf, 1953). 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Return of the Soldier

Rebecca West was 25 when, 100 years ago, her first novel The Return of the Soldier was published. The First World War wasn't to conclude until November 11, but to speculate that the war's last battles, claiming its last dead or disfigured, were a tragic waste of life would be an admission that the dead millions in the three previous years of the war had died for SOMETHING.

The novel is narrated by Jenny Baldry, the 30-something unmarried cousin of Chris Baldry. Chris is at the front, and Jenny lives with his wife, Kitty in a glorious house called Baldry Court, made even more glorious by renovations made since the death of Chris and Kitty's 2-year-old son five years ago. The scenes at Baldry Court make it seem as if the way of country life that the Great War brought to such an abrupt end was breathing its last in its own marbled mausoleum.

There has been no word from Chris in two weeks, and Jenny's concern is exacerbated by troubling dreams:

"Of late I had had bad dreams about him. By nights I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No-Man's-Land, starting back here because he trod upon a hand, not even looking there because of the awfulness of an unburied head, and not till my dream was packed full of horror did I see him pitch forward on his knees as he reached safety, if it was that. For on the war-films I have seen men slip down as softly from the trench-parapet, and none but the grimmer philosophers could say that they had reached safety by their fall. And when I escaped into wakefulness it was only to lie stiff and think of stories I had heard in the boyish voice of the modern subaltern, which rings indomitable, yet has most of its gay notes flattened: 'We were all of us in a barn one night, and a shell came along. My pal sang out, "Help me, old man; I've got no legs!" and I had to answer, "I can't, old man; I've got no hands!"' Well, such are the dreams of English-women to-day. I could not complain, but I wished for the return of our soldier."

Out of the blue, a middle-aged woman pays a visit to the house, and immediately we are subjected to the most horrific class snobbery, from Kitty and from Jenny herself. The woman is Margaret Grey, formerly Allington, who abruptly informs Kitty and Jenny that "Mr. Baldry" (she doesn't know his rank in the army), has sent her a telegram to a 15-year-old address, along with letters that convince her that he is ill. Kitty and Jenny at first don't believe her and think she is perpetrating a fraud in order to get money out of them. But the telegram is authentic. Having endured their insults and incredulity, Mrs. Grey leaves convinced that she should never have come.

Frank, Chris's cousin, who is "in the church," goes to France and discovers him in a hospital in Boulogne. He has suffered an unusual form of shell shock that has affected his memory and he believes that he is not married to a woman named Kitty with whom he had a deceased child, but that he is 15 years younger and is in love with Margaret Allington and that she, too, is as she was 15 years before and is in love with him. The letters he wrote to her are passionate love letters written by a man she hasn't seen since they parted company when she was a girl of 20. She, too, has married and (we only learn in the last chapter) lost a 2-year-old child five years ago.

Chris is told the truth about his wife (but not about the lost child) and he is invalided home to Baldry Court. He is happy to be home, though he doesn't recognize the house's renovations, and he demands that he see Margaret at once. Jenny fears he won't recognize the middle-aged Margaret, but she finds that "to lovers innumerable things do not matter."

While Chris and Margaret cavort like children in the house's gardens and woods, Kitty calls on the expertise of several doctors, who study Chris's case and examine him without knowing what should be done to bring him back to normalcy. But one doctor, a psychiatrist (a newfangled profession in 1918) named Gilbert Anderson arrives, confesses to the three women, "It's my profession to bring people from various outlying districts of the mind to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it's the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don't see the urgency myself." But Margaret, who goes upstairs with Jenny to make herself more presentable to the good doctor, discovers a photo of Chris's dead boy in Jenny's room. Realizing that both Chris's child and hers had died five years ago at the age of 2 leads her to conclude that "It's -- it's as if they each had half a life." This remark leads Jenny to think how she "had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life; the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure."(1)

Margaret tells the doctor, who knew nothing of the child, and he suggests that it might be the key to Chris's amnesia. He tells them to find a memento, a toy or piece of clothing that could break into Chris's amnesia. Margaret volunteers, but expresses doubts, knowing that a cured Chris will have to go back to the war. But she relents, "the truth's the truth, and he must know it," and takes a red ball and a blue jersey out to Chris. Kitty and Jenny remain in the nursery and Kitty asks Jenny to watch from the window and to tell her what she sees.

"There had fallen a twilight which was a wistfulness of the earth. Under the cedar-boughs I dimly saw a figure mothering something in her arms. Almost had she dissolved into the shadows; in another moment the night would have her. With his back turned on this fading unhappiness Chris walked across the lawn. He was looking up under his brows at the over-arching house as though it were a hated place to which, against all his hopes, business had forced him to return. He stepped aside to avoid a patch of brightness cast by a lighted window on the grass; lights in our house were worse than darkness, affection worse than hate elsewhere. He wore a dreadful, decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier's hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man's-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead."

As most critics noticed at the time, The Return of the Soldier is about how three women, all in love with one man (Jenny's unrequited passion for him is obvious), save him from the trauma of war. But if there is any weakness in this terse tale of a man whose confrontation with the painful reality of the modern world drives him into a denial of that reality and into a retreat long before experience, it is the patness of its resolution - the simplicity of Chris's "cure." Dr. Anderson's job is merely to point out to the three women things they figured out on their own.

The novella reminded me in places of The Beast in the Jungle, which makes sense since West was heavily under the influence of Henry James. Just beneath the lovely surface, in which Baldry Court is itself a place of dreams far from the trenches, there is a crushing pain. The only happy ending is Kitty's, who gets her husband back.

The transformation of West's intimate little novel into a film in 1982 is hardly a transformation at all. Everything seems to arrive intact on the screen, with a little welcome fleshing-out of the characters and their motivations. After a credit sequence depicting Ann-Margret (Jenny) watching over a sleeping Alan Bates (Chris) in the middle of what looks like a nocturnal battlefield, the film begins inside Jenny's dream, with her and Chris as children at play half in Baldry Court and half in No Man's Land - the cratered wasteland between the British and German trenches. Richard Rodney Bennett's music cries out insistently on the soundtrack as Jenny raises a stick like a rifle and - BANG! - she sees Chris blown to smithereens. The film shows us Baldry Court's social life both before Chris goes off to war and after he jettisons his memory. The role of his cousin, Frank (Jeremy Kemp) is greatly expanded in the film, and he is definitely NOT "in the church". And Chris is provided with terrifying visions of death that break into his otherwise placid home life.

One crucial scene not in the novel is an absurdity: Kitty and Jenny travel to France to find Chris. They find him in a ward crowded with other men. He recognizes Jenny but reacts violently to Kitty's suggestion that she is his wife. The absurdity of the scene is that it would be logistically impossible (and probably prohibited) for British families to travel to France to find their wounded soldiers. The scene in the hospital, in which people clamor around a nurse demanding information about their loved ones, is suitably nightmarish. An older man asks in a crushed voice as he passes the nurse on the stairs where he can collect his son's "things."

The film gives us more of William Grey, Margaret's husband (West merely sketches him in). He is played beautifully by Frank Finlay. I mean, what must he have felt about Chris's love letters to Margaret? There is a quiet scene in which he studies Glenda Jackson as she's cleaning up after the milk has boiled over on the stove, like he's trying to look into her thoughts.

Ann-Margret's performance is, thankfully, understated. Julie Christie's pretty frigidity is perfectly contrasted with Margaret's dormant love. Glenda Jackson gives by far the best performance. The scene in the child's nursery as she recalls the short life of her own child is heartbreaking. Ian Holm manages to impress in the tiny role of Dr. Anderson. But Alan Bates carries all the drama of the film, managing to suggest with his bearing alone something of the trauma he's been put through. The film shows us what Rebecca West could not: the very moment of Chris's reawakening. Shot mostly at middle-distance, the scene is perfectly staged. We first see him (from Jenny's vantage point at the window) enter on a bicycle, while Rodney-Bennett's music makes us feel suddenly protective of this middle-aged man who is about to be reminded of his child's death. Margaret presents him with a stuffed toy (ironically a soldier in khaki), he takes it and he acts exactly as if a veil has been lifted from his eyes. He gives the toy back to Margaret and strides resolutely ("every inch the soldier") towards the house. As he nears it, we can hear the sound of the heavy guns in faraway France, and as the scene fades we can hear the officer's whistle ordering his men over the top.

Alan Bridges directed adroitly, interweaving reality, memory, and nightmare in this ultimately sad tale. Hugh Whitemore, who died last month, wrote the script, and his additions to West's text - except for the hospital scene - are perfectly apposite. Two years after The Return of the Soldier, Bridges returned to the English countryside in The Shooting Party, from the Isabel Colgate novel. Set in 1913, and taking its cue from the rabbit-hunting scene in Renoir's The Rules of the Game, its prevailing sense of doom was somewhat overstated but exquisite nonetheless.


(1) Not knowing what to do about Chris, Margaret tells Jenny that she prayed and read the Bible, but it gave her no help. "You don't notice how little there is in the Bible really till you go to it for help."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Gullible Gilliam


The following thoughts are completely off-the-cuff - in fact they are provoked by a clip I ran across on YouTube, taken from what (I guess) is a longer discission by Terry Gilliam for Turner Classic Movies, and I have had to transcribe his remarks on scraps of paper (I wasn't wearing cuffs at the time) in order to copy them here.

The short clip (just shy of 2 minutes) that caught my attention (without rewarding it) was titled "Terry Gilliam criticizes Spielberg and Schindler's List." By no means do I intend to add emphasis to Gilliam's utterly glib comments [I examined the merits of Gilliam's work a few years ago in One Trick Python], but the subject is fascinating to me because I still haven't quite recovered from the surprise (more like the shock) of finding so much in Schindler's List that is brilliant and moving and disturbing in quite positive ways, when it was made by one of Hollywood's most phenomenally successful whizkids, maker of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park. Though he indicated now and then (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun) a capacity for seriousness - that is, the ability to distinguish intelligence from mere cleverness and to reflect that ability in his approach to his material, it wasn't until Schindler's List that Spielberg showed us all what he could really do. Most of the time, the efforts of commercially successful film directors, writers, and composers to create something that they want people (critics) to take seriously end in disaster. Think of Liberace's first recording of his interpretations of works by Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven. The music critics savaged it because, without the charming presence of Liberace himself in concert, the music sounded terrible. The recording quickly outsold every other available classical recording. When asked for his reaction to the critics' verdict on his recorded piano stylings, Liberace famously said, "I cried all the way to the bank." Who needs to be taken seriously when you're rolling in cash?

Here is everything Gilliam said in the clip:

"The great difference between Kubrick and Spielberg is Spielberg is more successful. His films make much more money. but they're comforting, they give you answers - always the films are answers. And I don't think they're very clever answers. And 2001 had an ending - I don't know what it means. I don't know, but I have to think about it, I have to work. And it opens up all sorts of possibilities and probably the next person I speak to has a different idea of what that end means. Suddenly we're in discussion, now we're talking. Ideas come out of that. That's what I always want to encourage. Spielberg, and the success of most films in Hollywood these days, I think is down to the fact that they're comforting, they tie things up in nice little bows, gives you answers - even if the answers are stupid, they're answers. You go home and you don't have to worry about it. The Kubricks of this world and the great filmmakers make you go home and think about it.

"There's a wonderful quote in the book that Freddie Raphael wrote about the making of Eyes Wide Shut. It's called Eyes Wide Open, and he's talking to Kubrick about Schindler's List and the Holocaust, and he says, 'The thing is, Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure.' And that's Kubrick, and that's just spot-on. Schindler's List had ... we had to save those few people - AH! Happy ending. A man can do what a man can do, and stop death for a few people. But that's not what the Holocaust was about. It was about the complete failure of civilization to allow 6 million people to die. And I know which side I'd rather be on. I'd like to have a nice house like Spielberg, but I know which side I'd be on."

I don't know what the context of Gilliam's remarks was, but it was probably Spielberg's film A.I., which was based on ideas developed by Kubrick. Evidently, Stanley Kubrick saw the serious streak in Spielberg that I mentioned above, which explains why he consulted Spielberg extensively in preparation for the project A.I. When Kubrick died suddenly, Spielberg felt obliged to take over and finish the project. Heaven only knows what Kubrick would've made of the project, but Spielberg made a great mistake in taking the helm. As Stanley Kauffmann commented: "Spielberg's roseate view of science fiction--as a means to glimpse future possibilities--grated with the view of Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, in which the human race is riven by disjuncture between moral stasis and scientific advance." (1)

For several years, in the 1960s and into the '70s, Stanley Kubrick was the Great Hope of American film, just as Orson Welles had been for a short time in the '40s, before a series of tough breaks and bad choices effectively dashed that hope. After the success of Dr. Strangelove in 1966, Kubrick was in a position, with his own production company (Hawk Films, Ltd.), to make virtually any film he wanted. The first result was 2001, which was technically interesting, and remains the finest example of the science fiction film genre. But the "ideas" behind the film are damned silly. And the phantasmagorical ending, which makes perfect sense given the premise that some alien intelligence immensely more advanced than our own has visited the human species in the form of a black monolith that emits Gyorgy Ligeti music at certain moments in our evolution and has helped us along toward the ultimate immaculate conception of the "star child" who appears in the size of a planet to the grandiose opening notes of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra - to me, that ending didn't provoke discussion. It ended discussion.

Kubrick's next films, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining ... to list them is to relive one's mounting dismay at Kubrick's squandered talents. He left a number of unrealized projects at his death. Steven Spielberg adopted some of them - like Kubrick's long-cherished Napoleon project, which is being developed (the last time I checked on it) as a series for HBO.

But, Schindler's List is a success story? It's the story of real people, some of whom lived through the Holocaust. Spielberg's film doesn't elaborate on their subsequent lives, but that they owed their lives to the reluctant heroism of Oskar Schindler is not arguable. Spielberg's treatment of the story has its momentary missteps, but it is a formidable, if utterly unexpected, achievement from a filmmaker who proved that he had it in him. The fact that the importance of the film has sparked so much "discussion" is proof enough against Gilliam's point. I, too, know which side I'd rather be on.


(1) Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, July 23, 2001.

Friday, August 17, 2018

War & Peace


Though they were in power for only 75 years, the Soviets saw great significance in anniversaries. The 10th anniversary of the October Revolution inspired them to commission major films on the subject from its best filmmakers, including Sergei Eisenstein. That Eisenstein's film, October, was released several months after the anniversary was the subject of an essay I published on the centenary of the revolution last November.

When the 150th anniversary of the 1812 invasion of Czarist Russia was approaching, a film adaptation of Tolstoy's epic historical novel War and Peace was commissioned by the state film production company, Mosfilm. Hollywood had already tackled Tolstoy's novel in 1956. Directed by the silent-era's King Vidor, it was a respectable dud, featuring the miscast Henry Fonda, who was too old to play Pierre Bezuhov, Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, showing off what Dwight Macdonald called her "good bone structure" and little else, and Mel Ferrer an utter nullity as Prince Andrei.

The movie was a box office success, but the Russians wanted to take back their national epic and the Soviet Ministry of Culture announced that they were going all-in with a mega-production of their own. The film that began principal shooting on the 1962 anniversary was eventually released in four parts between 1966 and 1967. The production was unprecedented, mobilizing the entire state film apparatus in the acquisition of artifacts to lend its production design and costumes the ultimate in authenticity. 

The appointed director, Sergei Bondarchuk, announced: “Our duty is to introduce the future viewer to the origins of sublime art, to make the innermost mysteries of the novel, War and Peace , visually tangible, to inform a feeling of fullness of life, of the joy of human experience.” Bondarchuk, who started his film career as an actor, appointed himself to play Pierre, the novel's central character, though he was almost as old as Henry Fonda. The ballerina, Lyudmila Savelyeva, played Natasha gracefully and naturally, and the film's highest-paid actor, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, played Prince Andrei in a finely shaded performance, despite also being too old for the part. But the actors, every one of the cast of literally thousands (one of the very last of its kind), are dwarfed by the scale of Bondarchuk's production. Though the grand balls are impressively staged, it is the battles for which the film is justifiably famous. 

And it is here that I must interject a disclaimer. The decision was made by Mosfilm, the film's production company, that the film would be shot on high-resolution 70-millimeter film stock, and not on the usual 35mm film, using anamorphic lenses to create a "letterbox" widescreen aspect ratio. This decision called for the use of special cameras to handle the film format, but also 70mm film projectors when the finished film was screened in cinemas. I have never had the opportunity to see Bondarchuk's massive film on the big screen - I have only seen it in a compressed digital format. Some films (some would insist all films) were designed expressly for the big screen. Bondarchuk's War and Peace exploits the special attributes of an outsized, panoramic big screen - one that can accommodate the 70mm aspect ratio - the same ratio as two television screens side by side. However closely I may hold my device to my face, I can only get an approximate, attenuated look at what audiences saw when the films were first exhibited in cinemas. When he saw the English-dubbed version of Bondarchuk's film in 1969, Roger Ebert was inspired to write: "It is hard to imagine that circumstances will ever again combine to make a more spectacular, expensive, and -- yes -- splendid movie. Perhaps that's just as well; epics seem to be going out of favor, replaced instead by smaller, more personal films. Perhaps this greatest of the epics will be one of the last, bringing the epic form to its ultimate statement and at the same time supplying the epitaph."(1)

My disclaimers out of the way, and mindful of the fact that the experience of watching a film conceived for a cinema screen on a 5 x 3 device is the future of what was once romantically known as filmgoing, I am able to recognize that this 6 3/4-hour War and Peace is a formidable, sometimes beautiful, and momentarily amazing film experience.(2)

There are three battles depicted in Bondarchuk's film - two in Part I, Schöngrabern (which was little more than a skirmish) and Austerlitz, and the major, full-scale Battle of Borodino in Part III. When asked about his experience of directing the battle scenes in the Hollywood production of War and Peace, King Vidor famously claimed to have had an advantage over Napoleon because he was in command of both armies. The first battle, Schōngrabern, takes up almost a half hour, beginning with a detachment of Russian soldiers singing like a Russian National Chorus as they enter the German town. The battle itself is staged as a crescendo of Russian and French soldiers, in serried ranks, converging on each other. One of the characters, Nikolai Rostov, has his horse shot out from under him and finds himself deliriously fleeing the field. On the soundtrack we can hear a strange sort of musique concrète, with modified instruments, attributed in the credits to Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov. It is quite effective in contributing to the visual confusion witnessed by Prince Andrei. Such confusion, of course, required extensive (and expensive) preparation and teams of drill masters to marshal all of the extras - including many horses - through their movements - exactly like a general. (Look for the famous "cannonball-view" shot - a first, as far as I know, in filmed battle scenes.)

But Schöngrabern was merely a dress rehearsal compared to the Battle of Austerlitz. The historical battle itself was a demoralising rout for the Russian army, and Bondarchuk makes it into a convincing disaster. The moment when Andrei takes up the standard and screams "hurrah!" at the retreating Russian soldiers, only to be knocked down by a piece of shrapnel and find himself suddenly admiring the peaceful sky above him is one of Tolstoy's greatest narrative triumphs. Bondarchuk's handling of this scene is shaky, as if the sudden shift from the external of the battle to the internal of Andrei's delirium was too much for him.




I am compelled to proclaim that the Battle of Borodino, that takes up the last half of Part 3 has to be the greatest battle scene on film. It looks exactly as if a horrific battle takes place that the cameras were there to capture. The Russian army had retreated from the advancing French for weeks when the Czar demanded of his General Kutuzov that his army stand and fight. Far outnumbered, the Russians fought valiantly but managed only to slow Napoleon's advance in Moscow. Even Napoleon saw it as a pointless, if calamitous, expense of life, estimated at between 72,000 to 73,000 dead, wounded, or missing for both sides. Pierre foolishly shows up in fine clothes and a conspicuous white top hat to watch the battle, and his mounting distress at the desperate carnage around him contributes a personal perspective on the catastrophe. In a cinema, the effects of watching the scene must have been overwhelming. Even viewed on my tablet, the images and sounds combined to create in me a nervous, altogether distressing reaction. Two other war films that I've seen had a similar effect: Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. After watching Peckinpah's film in a cinema, I found myself trembling uncontrollably as I walked to my car.

After all the expense of rubles and testosterone that went into the re-creation of the battles in Bondarchuk's War and Peace, the single scene that I found most moving was the one you can find at the beginning of Book 6 of Tolstoy's novel, in which Prince Andrei, resigned to a joyless existence after the death in childbirth of his wife, refusing even to recognize the beauty of the spring day when he travels by coach to visit the estate of the Rostovs, sees an old oak standing alone, defiantly bare of new leaves and blossoms in the middle of a verdant forest. He recognizes himself in the oak. Then he sees Natasha, and overhears her at night in the room above his calling out to Sonya to come to the window to admire the night. To simulate the moonlight, the entire night scene in the film was shot with a blue tint - an old technique from the silent era used by Bondarchuk to remarkable effect.

Returning the same way he came, Andrei's coach takes him through the same forest of the day before. But the once bare old oak is unrecognizable - it has come back to life, responding to the irresistible pull of the spring with green leaves and white blossoms.

"Yes, it is the same oak," thought Prince Andrei, and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning springtime feeling of joy and renewal. All the best moments of his life suddenly rose to his memory. Austerlitz with the lofty heavens, his wife's dead reproachful face, Pierre at the ferry, that girl thrilled by the beauty of the night, and that night itself and the moon, and.... all this rushed suddenly to his mind. 

"No, life is not over at thirty-one!" Prince Andrei suddenly decided finally and decisively. "It is not enough for me to know what I have in  me — everyone must know it: Pierre, and that young girl who wanted to fly away into the sky, everyone must know  me, so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live so apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony!" (Book Six: 1808-1810, chapters 1-3)

This is the scene that every Russian once knew by heart, that the prisoners in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich gather together to recount to one another in one of the novel's most moving scenes. The scene is almost like a personal memory to me, and to everyone else who has read it in the 150 years since Tolstoy's novel was published. Sergei Bondarchuk captures the scene beautifully in his film.




Though an impressive, sometimes daunting accomplishment, Bondarchuk's War and Peace fails to maintain a high enough degree of intensity and inventiveness to make it anything more than a series of richly detailed illustrations of Tolstoy's novel. Bondarchuk was tempted, as even some of the greatest filmmakers have been tempted, by the potential for sheer spectacle presented to him in Tolstoy's battle scenes. Although cumulatively effective in capturing some of the excitements and horrors of war (they completely overshadow everything else in the film), Bondarchuk is too much of a little boy, playing with his tin soldiers. Film has to be about more than just explosions to transfix the viewer's attention. I remember watching a television series about silent films when I was in my teens called The Toy That Grew Up. Judging from the box office receipts for the latest superhero/Star Wars movies, film still has a lot of growing up to do.


A closing note to film restorers. I can't say for certain that efforts to restore this 50-year-old film haven't already been undertaken. All I can say is that the digital version of the film available online is in sometimes execrable condition. I understand that the 70mm film stock used for the film was Soviet-made and often of such sub-standard quality that more than 10 per cent of the exposed footage had to be re-shot by Bondarchuk. The color in several scenes is in flux, as if the colors printed on the celluloid had bled into one another. This is especially noticeable in the battle scenes, in which the shifting colors seem to be a part of the atmospherics of sky, smoke, cannon blasts, and swarming masses of extras. In a strange way, the horrible condition of the film actually contributes to the hellish pictures of battle. The film I saw is in quite desperate need of restoration.


(1) Roger Ebert, June 22, 1969. Ebert's review can be found HERE
(2) The film is advertised on Wikipedia (consider the source!) at 431 minutes, more than 7 hours. The version I have seen, which has no perceptible lapses in continuity, is 405 minutes. Interestingly, the version cited on Roger Ebert's website is 415 minutes.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A House for Mr. Naipaul

Patricia and V. S. Naipaul

I feel obliged to write a few passing words on the passing of V. S. Naipaul, who died on Saturday. I had known about him and knew some of his writing, though I am somewhat ashamed I hadn't read him much at all. I also knew Paul Theroux, American traveller and travel writer (though he writes novels, too, like The Mosquito Coast). When I checked out one of his books from my local (Des Moines) library, 1999's In Vidia's Shadow, I wasn't aware that Vidia was V. S. Naipaul's first name or that the book was the story of Theroux's long friendship with Naipaul. I don't imagine the friendship survived the book. I was astonished that Theroux had gone to such lengths to present to the reader such a negative account of a fellow writer, whom Theroux freely admits writes much better than he did. 

But upon finishing the book, I realized that it wasn't exactly Theroux who had lived in Naipaul's shadow. It was Naipaul's first wife, Patricia, "Pat," who had, for the 41 years of their marriage. She is the real subject of Theroux's book. Naipaul carried on an affair for 25 years quite openly with Margaret Gooding, and admitted in an interview that he frequented prostitutes. Patricia's health declined in the 90s, and after her death from cancer (Naipaul even complained about having to take her to the hospital because it took him away from his writing), he married a Pakistani jounalist just six days after Patricia was cremated.  In the authorized biography of Naipaul by Patrick French, Naipaul even admits that his cruelty may have killed her. "She suffered," he told French. "It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way." Of his mistress, he told French, "“I feel that in all of this Margaret was badly treated. I feel this very much. But you know there is nothing I can do.... I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady."

Naipaul was an unsurpassed master of English prose, as his great novel, dedicated to his father, A House for Mr. Biswas, makes movingly and abundantly clear. What is unclear, however, to so many of the admirers of his writing is how such beauty could've been produced by such an overpoweringly ugly man. Biography is now so pervasive, so inescapable, that it is virtually impossible for a writer to achieve fame without everyone knowing some embarrassing details about his life. And social media paving a broad avenue straight through everyone's privacy is making it far worse. We know the lurid and irrelevant details about the private lives of so many writers by now that it might persuade the more privately-inclined to hide behind a scrupulously defended pseudonym or not to write at all.  Robert Frost, one of the greatest and most beloved American poets, had to endure the first two volumes of a three-volume biography that tried - and failed - to destroy his reputation. As Clive James wrote in a review of a collection of Frost's letters: "Luckily not even America—still a puritan culture in which an artist’s integrity must be sufficiently unblemished to impress Oprah Winfrey—has proved entirely devoid of critics and academics who can handle the proposition that the creator of perfect art might be a less than perfect person."(1)

Well, Naipaul was, as everyone has been saying over the weekend, an appalling man. The man is gone. Will his personal nastiness affect how people in 50 or 100 years will read his novels? I hope not. Does that mean that biography is separate from an artist's work? I hope so. I never met Naipaul except in The Enigma of Arrival, The Middle Passage, and A Way in the World. What does it matter - what can it matter - to me what kind of a person he was?


(1) Clive James, "The Sound of Sense," Prospect Magazine, January 23 2014. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Six Poets: Elizabeth Bishop

"The notion of secrecy is central to Western literature. You may say the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information, which, for various reasons, sometimes perverse, sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose." [Bernhard Schlink, The Reader]


Poetry can be intensely personal - the most intense form of communication ever invented: one person implanting his thoughts or sensations, through the device of a construction of words that have both euphonic and mnemonic power, in the mind of the reader. So why would an obviously gifted writer - like Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) - try to use poetry to hide herself? 

Bishop expressed her distaste for "confessional" poetry - just the sort of poetry her dear fiend Robert Lowell was writing under pressure from the new generation of poets in the Sixties who introduced a frankness (though it was far from new) to modern poetry. Women poets, in particular, like Sylvia Plath, hung out their most delicate, blood-stained laundry in public, whether or not that public cared to see it or even understood the private traumas on display. Philip Larkin wrote about his sex life, but always in an ironic, self-deprecating manner. Robert Lowell actually incorporated phrases from an ex-wife's letters to him in his poems, and Bishop told him he had gone too far.

Concealment was Bishop's defense against a lifetime of losing: her father at eight months old, then her mother's crack-up, the beautiful hiatus with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, her embargo to her other, wealthier grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts when she was six and then to her Aunt Maud outside Boston (where her uncle abused her). She wrote her first poems at the age of eight.

The details of her life are all public knowledge now. Bishop loved women. So did Adrienne Rich (eventually), Amy Clampitt, Mary Oliver. Now they write papers about her as a victim of abuse, as a closeted lesbian, as an alcoholic, and even that broadest of categories, as a woman poet. Despite efforts to enlist her in the cause of women's liberation in the Sixties, she resisted being classified as a woman poet, and would've been appalled at all the current fuss over her love affairs. She would hate how everyone voluntarily surrenders to the eradication of privacy on social media. She was, by any standard, antisocial.

Early in her adult life, an inheritance from her father's family set her free. She travelled. She confessed to enjoying exile. Her poetry appeared gradually, and her celebrity as a poet grew. She was a close friend of Robert Lowell until his death at 60 from a heart attack in a New York taxi. She eulogized him (In Memoriam) in her poem "North Haven":

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue...And now--you've left
for good. You can't derange, or rearrange,
your poems again. (But the sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

Their correspondence is one of the most moving, enlightening, and entertaining collection of letters ever assembled. She found the love of her life, Lota de Maceda Soares, on a whimsical journey to Brazil. It didn't stop her from questioning her motives for travelling:


Questions of Travel 

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams 
hurry too rapidly down to the sea, 
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops 
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion, 
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes. 
-For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home. 
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? 
Where should we be today? 
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play 
in this strangest of theatres? 
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life 
in our bodies, we are determined to rush 
to see the sun the other way around? 
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world? 
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework, 
inexplicable and impenetrable, 
at any view, 
instantly seen and always, always delightful? 
Oh, must we dream our dreams 
and have them, too? 
And have we room 
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm? 

But surely it would have been a pity 
not to have seen the trees along this road, 
really exaggerated in their beauty, 
not to have seen them gesturing 
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink. 
-Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
-A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
-Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
-Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
-And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"ls it lack of imagination that makes us come 
to imagined places, not just stay at home? 
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 
about just sitting quietly in one's room? 

Continent, city, country, society: 
the choice is never wide and never free. 
And here, or there . .. No. Should we have stayed at home, 
wherever that may be?" 

That last question wasn't rhetorical, especially the "wherever that may be?". Responding to her growing prestige in the States, she returned home, and eventually (after Lota came to visit her and killed herself with sleeping pills) took over a poetry teaching post at Harvard vacated by Lowell. In her sixties, it was in Cambridge that she met her last love. And in almost losing her (she came back), in 1975, Bishop wrote the "villanelle" for which she is best known:

ONE ART

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;   
so many things seem filled with the intent   
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.   

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster   
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.   
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.   

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:   
places, and names, and where it was you meant   
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.   

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or  
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.   
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.   

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,   
some  realms I owned, two rivers, a  continent.   
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.   

— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love)  
I shan’t have lied. It’s evident 
the art of losing’s not too hard to master   
though it may look like (Write  it!) like disaster.

Beautifully, the "disaster" was averted - her last love returned to Bishop, and was with her when she was found dead of an aneurysm. But losing her wouldn't have come as a surprise to someone so practiced in loss. She told Robert Lowell (who would die two years before her) , “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” The words on her tombstone, from her poem "The Bight," now read, "All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful".

Monday, August 6, 2018

Prince Andrei's Dream


Over the past several weeks, I have had the immense pleasure (tinged with some disappointment) of seeing once again the twenty-episode BBC adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, made in 1972. I first watched the programmes, one episode per day, on summer afternoons in 1974, and it is one of my most cherished memories of television viewing. I was 16 and had yet to read Tolstoy's novel. Since I didn't know the novel's plot, nor how it would end, every new episode held me in suspense until the next one arrived. When it finally did arrive, I felt exactly as I did upon finally reading the novel in 1979 - not that it was too long, but that it was too short, so vivid and real were Tolstoy's characters - at least as real to me as people I had actually met.

The BBC production cast the young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, Alan Dobie as Prince Andrei, and a large cast of marvelous supporting actors. (Morag Hood, who was cast as Natasha, bore the unenviable burden of having to embody Natasha Rostova, and doesn't quite pull it off.) But the staging and costumes and the patience of the script (by Jack Pulman) provides plenty of room for the viewer to settle into the splendor of Tolstoy's tale. And it actually spares us those - to my mind - superfluous history lessons that Tolstoy occasionally indulges in once Napoleon enters the story. 

Of course, everyone has their own favorite scenes, like Prince Andrei's sight of the old oak tree stubbornly resisting the tumult of spring just before he meets Natasha, or the great battle set-pieces that Tolstoy handles so brilliantly, like Austerlitz and Borodino. One of my own favorite scenes, that I wrote about in a blog post from 2014 (see Look to the Sky), involves Andrei in a near-death experience at Austerlitz.

But much later in the novel, Andrei is mortally wounded at the battle of Borodino, and finds himself, half-conscious, caught up in the evacuation of Moscow. Also among the evacuees is Natasha, who was engaged to Andrei before it was called off. Natasha does her best to help Andrei convalesce, until it becomes clear that his condition is hopeless and he dies in one of the most moving scenes ever written:

He dreamed that he was lying in the room he really was in, but that he was quite well and unwounded. Many various, indifferent, and insignificant people appeared before him. He talked to them and discussed something trivial. They were preparing to go away somewhere. Prince Andrei dimly realized that all this was trivial and that he had more important cares, but he continued to speak, surprising them by empty witticisms. Gradually, unnoticed, all these persons began to disappear and a single question, that of the closed door, superseded all else. He rose and went to the door to bolt and lock it. Everything depended on whether he was, or was not, in time to lock it. He went, and tried to hurry, but his legs refused to move and he knew he would not be in time to lock the door though he painfully strained all his powers. He was seized by an agonizing fear. And that fear was the fear of death. It stood behind the door. But just when he was clumsily creeping toward the door, that dreadful something on the other side was already pressing against it and forcing its way in. Something not human — death — was breaking in through that door, and had to be kept out. He seized the door, making a final effort to hold it back — to lock it was no longer possible — but his efforts were weak and clumsy and the door, pushed from behind by that terror, opened and closed again.

Once again it pushed from outside. His last superhuman efforts were vain and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was death, and Prince Andrei died.

But at the instant he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.

"Yes, it was death! I died — and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!" And all at once it grew light in his soul and the veil that had till then concealed the unknown was lifted from his spiritual vision. He felt as if powers till then confined within him had been liberated, and that strange lightness did not again leave him.

When, waking in a cold perspiration, he moved on the divan, Natasha went up and asked him what was the matter. He did not answer and looked at her strangely, not understanding. [Book Twelve: 1812, Chapter XVI]


As I mentioned, I was reading War and Peace in 1979 for a seminar college course in Russian Literature. I was reading the passage above one evening in my bedroom with my door closed, and when I came to the exact point at which "the door noiselessly opened" and death entered, my father opened my bedroom door. The timing couldn't have been more perfect, and I leapt to my feet and cried out in fright. But it was only my father - and not death - who had come through the door.

Looking at the same scene in the BBC television production, in Part Seventeen, with Alan Dobie playing Prince Andrei, I was surprised to find that they omitted the dream altogether. Andrei drifts in and out of sleep, with Natasha sometimes there, or his sister Maria. They even bring his little son, Nikolai, to see him. And then he awakes from a dream, tells Natasha that he loves her and . . . dies. It's a moving scene all the same, but I was waiting to see the dream in vain.

There is a great deal to be said in praise of the BBC production of War and Peace, as well as all such adaptations of literary classics. The careful, exceedingly patient dramatization of a big 19th-century novel, from the casting of actors to the creation of sets and costumes is one of the most respectful and faithful approaches to literature imaginable. But whether it was my age at the time I first watched the BBC production, or the expectations that an intervening lifetime of television and film viewing have inspired in me, but seeing each episode again after a  interval of 44 years, I found the re-encounter with the BBC's War and Peace disappointing. The faces of the actors, which I carried over in my imagination as I was reading the novel - so that I saw Anthony Hopkins face in Tolstoy's scenes of Pierre Bezuhov, or Alan Dobie's face when I read about Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - were still there, but the awfully flat television lighting of every scene seemed so unreal to me and the movement from one scene to the next felt so studio-bound, and the occasional outdoor scenes, especially the battles (which were shot in the former Yugoslavia) seemed almost silly in their lack of any real scale. I will always cherish the memory of watching the series when I was 16, but there lies the greatest hazard of trying to recapture the past, unless one applies some Proustian intellectual effort of recollection.

I have also recently had a chance to see the four parts of Sergei Bondarchuk's landmark film adaptation of War and Peace, produced at enormous cost in the former Soviet Union in the mid 1960s. I think I will write at greater length about the film, it is so extraordinary - so epic at precisely those points at which the BBC production couldn't hope to succeed on the small screen - namely, the great battle scenes that Tolstoy himself described so bravely. While the BBC was better at depicting the peace half of the novel, Bondarchuk is reported to have had thousands soldiers of the Red Army at his disposal with which to re-create Austerlitz and Borodino. 

Unfortunately, what Bondarchuk's War and Peace proves, with a breathtaking finality, is how a big budget can be an even greater liability to a filmmaker than a low budget. Bondarchuk started to shoot Andrei's dream exactly as Tolstoy described it. Andrei (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov) is in the same room in which he had fallen asleep or into a delirium, but he is dressed in full military regalia. There is a large white wall and at its bottom left corner is a small door. A crowd of people, all dressed as at a ball or on military parade (and appearing to be transparent as phantoms) are coming towards him. They are talking but he can't hear what they're saying. The crowd of people are suddenly gone, and Andrei rises from his bed.  There is a sudden disruption, like an earthquake - the camera lurches and the whole room tilts to one side. Andrei - phantom-like - walks in slow motion toward the door of the room and presses with both hands against it, trying to prevent it from opening. But it opens. Only the look of fear on Andrei's face suggests to us what it could be that has entered the room. All Tolstoy needed to do was call it Death - death entered the room. But how could Bondarchuk show death to us? He could simply have cut to Andrei opening his eyes - but before he does so, he shows that the doors have become enormous and Andrei is a tiny figure walking into the darkness beyond. Which is it to be - does death break in on Andrei in his room or does Andrei enter the darkness beyond the opened door? Why is Andrei leaving? Where is he going? Bondarchuk's contribution to Tolstoy's simple dream doesn't quite work.