Friday, October 23, 2009
Crusoe in England
A new volcano has erupted,
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being born:
at first a breath of steam, ten miles away;
and then a black fleck - basalt probably -
rose in the mate's binoculars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island's still
None of the books has ever got it right.
Well, I had fifty-two
miserable, small volanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides -
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.
I'd think that if they were the size
I thought volcanoes should be, then I had
become a giant;
and if I had become a giant
I couldn't bear to think what size
the goats and turtles were,
or the gulls, or the overlapping rollers
- a glittering hexagon of rollers
closing and closing in, but never quite,
glittering and glittering, though the sky
was mostly overcast.
My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere's
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters - their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much?
And why sometimes the whole place hissed?
The turtles lumbered by, high-domed,
hissing like teakettles.
(And I'd have given years, or taken a few,
for any sort of kettle, of course.)
The folds of lava, running out to sea,
would hiss. I'd turn. And then they'd prove
to be more turtles.
The beaches were all lava, variegated,
black red, and white, and gray;
the marbled colors made a fine display.
And I had waterspouts. Oh,
half a dozen at a time, far out,
they'd come and go, advancing and retreating,
their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches
of scuffed-up white.
Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
sacerdotal beings of glass...I watched
the water spiral up in them like smoke.
Beautiful, yes, but not much company.
I often gave way to self-pity.
"Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn't be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don't remember, but there could have been."
What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater's edge, I told myself
"Pity should begin at home." So the more
pity I felt the more I felt at home.
The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
rose from the sea,
and there was one of it and one of me.
The island had one kind of everything:
one treesnail, a bright violet-blue
with a thin shell, crept over everything,
over the one variety of tree,
a sooty, scrub affair.
Snail shells lay under these in drifts
and, at a distance,
you'd swear that they were beds of irises.
There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects;
and so I made home-brew. I'd drink
the awful fizzy, stinging stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries.
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.
Because I didn't know enough.
Why didn't I know enough of something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I'd read were full of blanks;
the poems--well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
"They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss..." The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
The island smelled of goat and guano.
The goats were white, so were the gulls,
and both too tame, or else they thought
I was a goat, too, or a gull.
Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek,
baa...shriek...baa... I still can't shake
them from my ears; they're hurting now.
The questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies
over a ground of hissing rain
and hissing, ambulating turtles
got on my nerves.
When all the gulls flew up at once, they sounded
like a big tree in a strong wind, its leaves.
I'd shut my eyes and think about a tree,
an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere.
I'd heard of cattle getting island-sick.
I thought the goats were.
One billy-goat would stand on the volcano
I'd christened Mont d'Espoir or Mount Despair
(I'd time enough to play with names),
and bleat and bleat, and sniff the air.
I'd grab his beard and look at him.
His pupils, horizontal, narrowed up
and expressed nothing, or a little malice.
I got so tired of the very colors!
One day I dyed a baby goat bright red
with my red berries, just to see
something a little different.
And then his mother wouldn't recognize him.
Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I'd dream of things
like slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I'd have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, eventually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He'd pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
- Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
And then one day they came and took us off.
Now I live here, another island,
that doesn't seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
bred islands. But that archipelago
has petered out. I'm old.
I'm bored too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf
- it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain in the handle...
Now it won't look at me at all.
The living soul has dribbled away.
My eyes rest on it and pass on.
The local museum's asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
- And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Is a most dangerous thing; I tremble for something factitious,
Some malpractice of heart and illegitimate process;
We're so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty. -- A. H. Clough
Graham Greene has not been well served by his film adaptations. Neil Jordan included a scene in his adaptation of The End of the Affair (1999) in which Maurice (Ralph Fiennes) takes Sarah (Julianne Moore) to see a movie based on one of his novels. As they watch, Fiennes whispers to Moore, "not in my book." The scene occurs in Greene's novel, and Jordan's inclusion of it is a rather backhanded tribute to Greene, since Jordan's film takes liberties of its own with Greene's book, like completely eliminating the miracle of the birthmark's disappearance.
Propaganda may not have been foremost in the mind of Graham Greene when he wrote The Quiet American, but events certainly made the novel seem much more anti-American than perhaps he intended. The tale of a British correspondent's encounter with an American intelligence agent, disguising himself and his actions with platitudes about goodwill and finding a "third force" among the Vietnamese to satisfy both sides has come to seem prophetic, given the course of events. When it was published in 1955, Vietnam was still making up its own mind about how to govern itself - but self-government was the ultimate goal.
The novel is by no means up to Greene's former standards (The Power and the Glory, 1940), but it is an excellent divertissement, whatever its political insights. Greene, the traveling trouble-sniffer, warned against the perils of taking action and how political motives can sometimes be a disguise for less noble ones. Its setting is 1952, when the French were still fighting Ho Chih Minh's Communist forces (the so-called Viet-Minh) in the North. the French quit Vietnam for good in 1954, and an uneasy division of the country along the 17th Parallel was enforced, with Ho Chih Minh agreeing to honor the sovereignty of a foreign-funded government in the South. Since the Communists were unacceptable to the U.S. and the "elected" government in Saigon was unacceptable to most Vietnamese, a "third force" was sought that might make everyone happy. One such force were the Caodaists. It was during this relatively peaceful ceasefire that Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted The Quiet American to film. And a more thorough hatchet job of the novel and of Greene could not have been devised.
(1) In the place of Pyle, who becomes the victim of Fowler's jealousy and hatred for Americans, Mankiewicz created "Dominguez," a rather oily character who is otherwise a replacement for Fowler's Vietnamese assistant, Heng.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Since I like exercise for its own sake, and since there have been four more Sight & Sound Critics' Polls since Macdonald compared the first two, I will try to bring Macdonald, who has been dead - and sorely missed - since 1982, up to date by examining the polls, their consistencies and inconsistencies. I have expressed my own opinion of such polls elsewhere (3), but there is a mania for them among critics and filmgoers, which is a direct reflection of the absense of serious thinking and discussion about films.
The point of conducting the critics' poll only every ten years is, I suppose, meant to bestow on it some sense of historicality. But by waiting so long between polls, during which time a new generation of critics has appeared with their own pet peeves and axes to grind, not to mention a new generation of filmmakers that has its own ideas about what a film should be, the very notion of consensus is challenged. I am, for one, rather glad that there were no pollsters in the 1940s, '30s and '20s to remind us what a wilderness the film world was before De Sica and Kurosawa, Renoir and Carné, or even before sound was added to sight. Trying to imagine what a 1932 Critics' Poll would have looked like (4), with its purists hanging on tenaciously to the lost art of the silent film, while newcomers dismissed them as prehistoric, is proof of how far film has come in a relatively brief period of time. But even such attempts at comprehensiveness have not prevented the poll from being topical.
In the 1972 poll only five titles survived from the '62 poll: Citizen Kane (#1), Ugetsu (#10), La Regle du Jeu [why the pretense of titles in French but not in Russian or Swedish or Italian?] (#2), Battleship Potemkin (#3) and L'avventura (#5). The rising and falling fortunes of old artists was more to blame than the introduction of new talent. The rest of the list shows the extent to which the reputations of two filmmakers dominated critical thinking then: Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (in the shattered edit, tied for #8) and Ingmar Bergman's Persona (tied for #5) and Wild Strawberries (tied for #10). The dropouts were Greed, Bicycle Thieves, Ivan the Terrible, La terra trema and L'Atalante. (5)
The disappearance of Greed from the poll was encouraging. Stroheim's star would never rise again, not even after the 1999 "restored" version was released to some acclaim. Nor would Visconti's, whose La terra trema was a rather unsettling combination of neo-realism and homoeroticism (Visconti had a predilection for casting catamites in all his films). Ivan the Terrible seems almost sclerotic today. L'Atalante is utterly charming and would reappear in the 1992 poll at #5. Periodically, certain films are re-discovered when restored prints are made available, as with L'Atalante, The Rules of the Game, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vertigo, Sunrise, etc.
Of the new additions in the '72 poll, the most pleasant surprise is Keaton's The General (tied for #8). the realization of Keaton's superiority to Chaplin, even if it does not lessen Chaplin's genius, was one of the most heartening mutations in cinematic taste of the past fifty years. What puzzles me is the rather back-handed tribute paid Ingmar Bergman, whose Wild Strawberries and Persona are considerably overrated. The biggest movement on the '72 poll was the appearance, at #4, of Fellini's 8 1/2.
Not surprisingly, then, by the time the '82 poll appeared, both Bergman films had dropped out, along with Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, although it would reappear in '92 tied for #10. Welles still clung to the cat-bird's seat with his Kane and Ambersons. Between '72 and '82 an unprecedented seven films clung to a place in the polls: Kane (#1), Rules (#2), 8 1/2 (#5), Potemkin (#6), L'avventura and Ambersons (tied for #7) and The General (tied for #10). Three new titles on the '82 poll show the direct impact of the auteur theory: Singin' in the Rain (tied for #3), Vertigo (tied for #7) and The Searchers (tied for #10). That all three are American genre films did not seem to faze the critics who voted for them. The happiest addition was Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (tied, unbelievably, with Singin' in the Rain). None of the films on the list happened to have been made during the intervening ten years, which is a trend that continued through the present 2002 poll.
Five titles survived the next decade for the '92 poll: Kane (#1), Rules (#2), Vertigo (#4), The Searchers (#5) and Potemkin (in a four-way tie for #6). Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc reappeared in the tie for #6, along with L'Atalante, which makes me wonder if the critics were beginning to keep tabs on the old polls. Kurosawa, #3 in '82, is replaced by Ozu's Tokyo Story. Though magnificent, it seems to be the token Japanese title of the decade. The victims of the interim decade were Singin' in the Rain, 8 1/2, L'avventura, Ambersons, and The General. Two new titles to the poll were Ray's Pather Panchali (#6) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (#10). The Kubrick film that belongs on the poll is, of course, Dr. Strangelove. But the pseudo-intellectuality of 2001 made the critics seem smarter than they are. The Ray film is obvious lip service, since he died in April of that year.
Having lived with the choices for the latest poll, published in 2002, for seven years, I am as astonished at the persisting critical reason represented by Kane (#1, as usual), Rules (#3), Tokyo Story (#5), Potemkin (tied for #7), and 8 1/2 (tied for #9) as I am at the growing critical aneurism that put Vertigo at #2, The Godfather(s) at #4, 2001 at # 6, and Singin' in the Rain at #9. But where discrimination is most needed, and most to be expected, as when a person involved in the life of international film who has some knowledge of its history and the ability to distinguish between the films that conform to his subjective tastes (gustibus) and those that take powerful exception to them, is called on to submit his list of the Top Ten Films, it is sorely lacking in at least half of those critics consulted by the British Film Institute. But like all the other arts, the talent necessary to make a great film, and to a lesser extent the faculty needed to recognize it, is a matter of only a few. The size of an audience for, say, The Passion of Joan of Arc is miniscule compared to the number of viewers who flock (which best describes it) to see the latest X-Men or Tarantinto film. In fact, to adapt the Matthew Arnold maxim, you can clear a crowd faster with the word "Ozu" than with a firehose. But many critics like to pretend that there is a middle ground on which a popular film can also be deemed art, and that this extremely narrow ground is as broad as the Susquehanna River Valley.
No music critic who is worth reading would argue that Beyoncé is a good singer. No decent food critic would state that pizza is good food. No theater critic worth a damn would claim that Spamalot is a good play. And yet film critics routinely hand out praise for trash like Inglorious Basterds (or is it Basturds?) and The Dark Knight.
While I understand that such things as the Sight & Sound Critics' Poll is compiled from extremely divergent sources, and that de gustibus non est disputandum, I believe there is good reason to question the sanity of a critic who thinks that Touch of Evil and L'Avventura can be mentioned in the same breath. Placing a film like Vertigo or The Searchers alongside The Rules of the Game and Tokyo Story is tantamount to saying that Patricia Highsmith is the equal of William Faulkner or a Japanese manga is comparable to Kawabata.
Singin' in the Rain is a good musical, but it belongs to a genre and is subject to a specialized set of standards that Citizen Kane, obviously, is not. No one would think of judging Seven Samurai according to the quality of its songs or its choreography. And no one would argue, who has any reason at all to argue, that Silk Stockings is a poor musical because its characters and its situations are unbelievable.
So when Sight & Sound persists, as it has for the past sixty years, in proudly publishing the results of its Critics' Poll, with films like 8 1/2 and The Passion of Joan of Arc sticking out between recognizable rubbish like The Godfather(s) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the significance of the poll is seriously compromised, if not nullified.
(1) Macdonald's list: 1. The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith) 2. Intolerance (D.W. Griffith) 3. October (Sergei Eisenstein) 4. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton) 5. The Gorky Trilogy (Mark Donskoy) 6. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir) 7. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) 8. Les Enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné) 9. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais) 10. L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni. (see http://jdcopp.blogspot.com/2007/12/sight-and-sound-ten-best-films-in.html)
(2) The polls can be viewed here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/.
(3) See http://tangodelviudo.blogspot.com/2008/12/critical-cretinisms-top-tens.html.
(4) If I had been around in '32, and lived in Paris, my list would look like this (in no order): The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer), M (Lang), I Was Born, But... (Ozu), The Gold Rush (Chaplin), Potemkin (Eisenstein), L'Age d'Or (Buñuel), Sherlock Jr. (Keaton), The Blue Angel (Sternberg), Le Million (Clair), The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström).
(5) A conspicuous lacuna: from 1952 to 2002, there has never been a film from the French New Wave anywhere near the top ten.
Monday, October 5, 2009
To put one brick upon another,
Add a third, and then a fourth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.
But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven bawl
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.
Philip Larkin, 1951?