Thursday, April 28, 2011

Holy Baloney


In the film The Name of the Rose (1986) there is a fascinating character, played by Ron Perlman, named Salvatore, a hunchbacked, evidently demented monk who goes around speaking "all languages, and none", spouting heretical slogans like "Penitenzi agite" and eating rats. The young acolyte Adso asks him, "You eat rats?" To which Salvatore replies, "Yes! But not during Lent. I'm a good Catholic!"

In the days prior to Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, many Catholic, or formerly Catholic, countries in Europe and the Americas celebrate Carnival. The word is derived from the Latin words "carne vale", which means "farewell meat". Even non-Catholics in the U.S. celebrate one abridged version of carnival called Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, most conspicuously in New Orleans, even if they have no intention of observing the forty days of fasting the celebration precedes.

This past Lenten season, I continued my personal tradition of non-observance by eating meat (no rats) as frequently and as heartily as I pleased. But this was not always the case. Growing up a Roman Catholic in the 1960s meant that throughout the year, for one day a week, Friday, I was compelled to eat fish rather than beef or chicken or pork. My mother was a good but a limited cook who could work wonders with meat but was at a loss when it came to fish. So we invariably had to eat "fish sticks" for lunch and for dinner. Fish sticks - or fish fingers - are as simple and as unpalatable as the name suggests. Made primarily from haddock, they are shaped into rectangular "sticks" and breaded, so you can taste them. They come frozen from the supermarket and can be baked until they're ready to be masticated. They were served for lunch at the Catholic schools I attended, often with a dab of tartar sauce on the side to disguise the flavor.

As a consequence of this ridiculous practice, I learned to hate Fridays, and, quite irrationally, I have avoided eating fish ever since. (I eat seafood without any intrusive memories.) On one particular Friday in my childhood, I couldn't take it any more and I simply refused to eat my dinner. My sister could do nothing to persuade me to eat. So she called up the Pope and asked for dispensation. With me standing beside her in tears, she picked up the phone and dialed a number.

"Hello?" she said into the phone. "Is this the Vatican? May I speak to the Pope, please?" She indicated to me that they were getting him. After a few moments, she said, "Hello your holiness. I'm so sorry to wake you. [It must've been late at the Vatican.] I'm calling about my little brother, who won't eat his Friday fish for dinner." I immediately felt guilty about it, and regretted that I had allowed my sister to disturb the Pope over something so trivial.

"Is there anything else he can eat besides fish?" she asked. I felt a sudden rush of hope. "Really?" she exclaimed. "Oh thank you so much, your holiness. Have a good night. Goodbye." And she hung up the phone.

My sister looked at me and smiled. "Well," she said, "you're in luck little brother. The Pope said that the only acceptable alternative to fish on Fridays is a fried baloney sandwich." (Baloney isn't really meat, you see.)

I was delighted, and my sister fried me up a crisp baloney sandwich. From that day on, thanks to my sister, I was the only Catholic boy I knew who enjoyed fried baloney for his Friday dinner.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pistol Pete


There are probably many young basketball fans who wonder why Utah has a team called the Jazz. If they went to the New Orleans Arena and looked up in the rafters, they might see a jersey with the number 7 on it. It was retired in 2002, in honor of someone who never played for the New Orleans Hornets, who actually died 14 years before the team was created.

The 2010-11 NBA Playoffs are underway and once again the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are there again, trying to better their record of 33 championships to 31 for the rest of the league. There are many outstanding players, most of whom try their best to play for a "winning team".

Pete Maravich, who became known in high school as "Pistol" for his shooting style that looked like he was drawing a gun from a holster, made it to the NBA playoffs four times, but his teams (the Atlanta Hawks and - guess who - the Boston Celtics) didn't win. He never won the NBA Most Valuable Player award. He was never a league-leading scorer. He appeared in five All-Star Games (although he was benched in the 1977-'78 game).

Maravich's father was a college basketball coach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In 1966, he offered his son a spot on the LSU team, and Pete accepted. He remains the highest-scoring player in NCAA history, with 3,667 points in three years (he wasn't a varsity player his first year), averaging 44.2 points per game. Statisticians point out that a great number of his low-percentage, long-range shots were beyond the 3-point line, even when the line didn't exist in the NBA until the 1979-80 season (Maravich's last), and in the NCAA until 1986. If it had been around for Maravich's LSU career, his points per game average would've been 57.

Maravich spent his first four professional seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, before being traded, for eight other players, to the New Orleans Jazz. His scoring was high (31.1 ppg in his best year at New Orleans), but not as spectacular as in his college career. Maravich made his mark as a play-maker and ball-handler. John Havlicek called Maravich, "the best ball-handler of all time".

After following the Jazz from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in 1980, team execs waived his contract that season and Maravich played his last games for the Boston Celtics. One of his teammates was Larry Bird. He retired because of an incapacitating knee injury at the age of 32.

Still a young man, Maravich was lost without basketball, which had absorbed his energies for nineteen years. He was a recluse for the first two years, studied yoga, Hinduism, "ufology" and vegetarianism before becoming a born-again Christian. In 1988, in the middle of a pickup basketball game at a church gym in Pasadena, California, he collapsed and died at the age of forty. According to James Dobson, for whose group, Focus on the Family, Maravich was making an appearance, his last words were "I feel great".

An autopsy revealed something that is astonishing: Maravich had a deformed heart - he was missing a left coronary artery, which supplies blood to the heart muscle. In all the years of his basketball career, in which his health had to be closely monitored year after year, this heart defect had gone undiscovered.

I don't expect it will ever happen, but I'd like to state that if anyone were to ask me to name the greatest basketball player in the history of the game I would answer, without hesitation, Pete Maravich. He was outscored and outplayed, statistically, by many other great players of the game. But they all possessed whole hearts. Trying to guess what Maravich would've done as a player with that extra coronary artery, even with a bum knee, would baffle the sagest of statisticians.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cameraman


"When acclaiming our modern heroes, let's not forget The News Reel Cameraman. . . . the daredevil who defies death to give us pictures of the world's happenings. And there are other types of photographers." (Intertitle at the opening of The Cameraman, fading in on Buster as a tintype street hawker.)

Surely one of the most beautiful and sad films ever made is The Cameraman (1928), the first film Buster Keaton made for MGM, after the long and quite amazing run of feature films, ten in all, that he made for his brother-in-law Joseph M. Schenck, between The Three Ages in 1923 and Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928. Both Chaplin and Harold Lloyd reportedly advised him against signing with MGM, which meant giving up creative control. But Keaton's last three films for Schenck, including what most critics regard is his masterpiece, The General, had been box office flops. He had seen his great friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the man who discovered him, destroyed by Hollywood by the scandal surrounding an alleged rape. Arbuckle was acquitted after three sensational trials, but he was effectively banned from making any more movies.(1) Keaton's marriage floundered after his wife Natalie Talmadge announced in 1924 that she wanted nothing more to do with sex. He was drinking heavily by the time he signed with MGM, but it was still too early to describe him as washed up. To suggest that his heart was broken would be closer to the truth, and it helped give The Cameraman, especially for anyone acquainted with Keaton's career as a silent filmmaker of genius, a heartbreaking beauty.

One thing that The Cameraman dramatizes is Keaton's unique familiarity with the inner workings of a movie camera. The one he uses in the film is a particularly old one, probably similar to the ones in use when he started out in Fatty Arbuckle two-reelers in 1917. According to his biographers, Keaton knew the mechanics of cameras so thoroughly that he could take one apart and reassemble it like it was a gun. He also played with the camera lenses and with film exposure, the way Georges Méliès had done, creating in The Playhouse (1921) a film showing nine Busters in the same shot.

Somebody at MGM decided to pair Buster with a leading lady - Marceline Day - who was a thoroughly modern working girl and, problematic for Buster, taller than he. In all his great films, his leading ladies had been, or had appeared to be, shorter. This is far more pronounced in Spite Marriage, Keaton's next and last silent film, in which his leading lady (Dorothy Sebastian) practically mops the floor with him. In The Cameraman, Sally (Day) appears to be attracted to Buster because he is utterly incompetent - and adores her. She evidently feels sorry for him, which is insufficient grounds for her interest in him.

The scenes in the film that stand out are the ones in which Keaton is allowed to cut loose his physical self. On his first assignment, looking for a fire, he shoulders his camera and hitches a ride on a firetruck and we're given a remarkable shot of Buster from the truck itself - as it enters the station. Or when Buster and Sally board an omnibus that is so crowded that Buster is forced to run alongside it, eventually jumping onto the fender right beside Sally's window - only to be bumped off when the bus hits a pothole. Or when, living four flights up, he has to run at top speed downstairs to answer the telephone and, on making a date with Sally, dashes to her side across town so quickly she has hardly enough time to hang up the phone before he's standing beside her. (A cop [Harry Gribbon] watches Buster throughout these city street scenes, and thinks he's crazy.) The public swimming pool sequence is hilarious, especially the changing room scene, wherein Buster and a bigger man try to disrobe in a space about five feet square. The scene is funniest just for watching both men - even Buster - struggle to keep a straight face.

Then someone at MGM decided to introduce a monkey to the plot. Buster runs around a corner and collides with one of those Italian organ-grinders that exist only in movies, who falls onto his trained monkey and apparently crushes it. The organ grinder complains ("You killa da monk!") to a cop, and demands compensation. Buster grudgingly gives the man a handful of dimes. The cop tells Buster to dispose of the lifeless monkey. He wraps it in a handkerchief and walks around the corner. The monkey comes to, and takes an immediate liking to Buster. They become inseparable, alas, until the last scene.

Then comes the justly famous scene of Buster filming the Tong War. There is a spectacular fall when Buster mounts a tower to get a better angle for his camera, only to cause the tower to fall like a tree with him attached. When it is all over and Buster believes he's got some great newsreel footage, he finds an empty cartridge in the camera. A boat regatta follows in which Sally and Stagg, Buster's rival, are riding in a speedboat. Stagg crashes the boat, and Buster, who is on the beach filming, rows out to rescue her. When Buster deposits her, unconscious, on the beach and goes for first aid, Stagg finds her and takes credit for her rescue. They depart, and Buster returns to find Sally gone. Unfortunately, through all these scenes, Buster has to share the laughs with the monkey. When the monkey even cranks Buster's camera (just like he, presumably, did for the organ grinder), it made me wonder to which "cameraman" the title was referring.

Buster hands in a roll of exposed film after he quits and his boss takes a look at it just for laughs (Buster's first attempt at a newsreel looked more like something from Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie-Camera). It turns out to be the footage of the Tong War that Buster thought was lost, along with enough footage of the regatta to reveal who really saved Sally. You see, the monkey switched the film cartridge after the Tong War and all the while Buster was saving Sally, the monkey was cranking the camera on the beach.

So Buster triumphs. He wins Sally back and he gets his job as an MGM newsreel cameraman. He's so excited, in the closing shot (sans monkey), he thinks the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindbergh is for him. But the happy ending, though sweet, is compromised for me by the knowledge that Buster wouldn't have pulled any of it off without that damn monkey. Buster would later call his move to MGM "the worst mistake of my career." The Cameraman is a bittersweet, beautiful film, but not nearly the equal of Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator,The General, or Steamboat Bill, Jr.


(1) Arbuckle turned to directing films under an assumed name. Louise Brooks appeared in one of them, and told Kevin Brownlow: "He made no attempt to direct this picture. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career. But it was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this broken-down picture, and to find my director was the great Roscoe Arbuckle. Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer—a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut—really delightful."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nazarin


I have always wanted to write an essay comparing Luis Buñuel's Nazarin (1958) with John Ford's The Fugitive (1947). Both films are about a priest on the run - Buñuel's because he is accused of consorting with prostitutes, Ford's because the revolution in Mexico turned temporarily anti-clerical. Both films were photographed by Gabriel Figueroa on Mexican locations. Buñuel's film is based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. Ford's film was based on Graham Greene’s The Labyrinthine Ways – otherwise known as The Power and the Glory.

In the space of a few minutes, Ford destroys the subtlety of the novel by establishing Henry Fonda as a Christ figure. Greene’s protagonist was a failure as a priest and as a man, and the outlawing of his vocation only brings his weaknesses to light. That his weaknesses also make him a very real and human character, I doubt that either John Ford or his scenarist Dudley Nichols knew or even cared. The only conceivable way the film might be enjoyed is as a photographic achievement – but therein lies the limitation of film. All of the inner life that Greene explores cannot even begin to be suggested by the melodramatic lighting and black-and-white compositions of Gabriel Figueroa. (Emilio Fernandez, whose film Maria Candelaria (1944) was admired by Ford, is credited as associate producer, but is rumored to have been a co-director.)

Ford probably made the film as an excuse to wallow in his obscene Catholic symbolism, just as in The Informer (1935). Vernon Young got it right as long ago as 1957: “what explanation justifies Ford (and again [Dudley] Nichols) for scrapping Graham Greene’s harrowed whiskey-tippling and woman-fumbling priest in favor of a soulful prig?”

Needless to say, I hadn't the stomach to attend Greene's funeral. Next to Ford's typically fulsome pieties, Buñuel's Nazarin is represhingly impious. The title, of course, refers to Jesus the Nazarene, whom Nietzsche called the last Christian.

Father Nazario has to take to the road in late 19th century Mexico after he has been exposed for having relations with a prostitute named Andora, whom he had merely sheltered and cared for in his humble room after she had been stabbed. To make matters worse, the crazy woman sets fire to the priest's furniture to get rid of the smell of her noxious perfume, managing to burn down the inn in the process. Andora and another woman named Beatriz decide to accompany Nazario. Beatriz is attempting to escape from Pinto, whom she loves passionately but who humiliates her.

Along the way, this curious group of pilgrims has a series of encounters which reveal Nazario's inability to live in the world. He upbraids a colonel for humiliating a poor traveler, calling his behavior anti-Christian, barbaric and mean. He tells him that the traveler "has dignity like any tyrant past, present and future". The colonel goes for his pistol, but another in his party tells him that Nazario is a "heretic".

Buñuel's point, I think, is that Christian principles are impossible to live by. It is not that society makes it impossible for Nazario to live according to Christ's teachings, but that life itself makes it impossible. When Nazario goes to see a sick young woman named Lucia, he tries to comfort her with the same old arguments. "Think of this life only as a road," he tells her. But she wants only one thing: "Juan".

"Forget the passions of this world," he pleads with her. "Think only of heaven."

"What heaven?" she mutters. "Juan."

Juan arrives, and says to Nazario, "You can go. We don't need you any more."

"I'm a priest," he tells Juan. "I beg you to let me help in this." Lucia, her eyes closed, says, "Juan, tell him to go." She has all she needs. Outside, Nazario tells Beatriz, "I have failed." But his failure was not to persuade Lucia to forget Juan and think of heaven. He failed because his doctrine was rejected.

Finally thrown into prison, Nazario is about to get a beating when another man intervenes. They sit down and talk. Nazario tells the man, "You are good."

"Good? Me? Don't believe it. I'm one of the worst."

"Don't you feel bad at times about what you've done?"

"When I'm alone. But then my friends come around and . . ."

"Would you like to be good?"

"Well... But how?"

"It is enough to say 'I want to be good.' and you have the steadfastness to be it. You'd like to change your life, wouldn't you?"

"Would you like to change yours?"

"How?"

"Well, I only make mischief, and what does your life have to offer? You are on the good side and I am on the bad. Neither of us serves any purpose."

The final scene is the best thing in the film. Nazario is being escorted along a road by a soldier. Beatriz and Pinto pass him in a wagon, but Beatriz, totally absorbed by her love for Pinto, fails to notice the priest. Nazario's guard stops to eat an apple from an old woman's cart. She asks the guard if she can give a pineapple to the prisoner, but when she offers it to Nazario with the words, "Take this charity, and may God be with you" he looks at her at first astonished, then frightened, and walks away from her. She asks him again to take it, and he mutters, "No, no." When the old woman gives up and moves away from him, Nazario stops her, takes the pjneapple and tells her, "May God repay you for this, madam." He turns and quickly walks away with the guard, weeping. The sound of drums rises on the soundtrack and the film closes.

There are two typically surrealist moments in the film that, as usual in a Buñuel film, stand out like sore thumbs. The first is when Andara looks up and is startled by a portrait of Jesus, which depicts him laughing raucously. The other is when Beatriz dreams of embracing Pinto, only to bite his lip so savagely that blood spills from his mouth.

The film's biggest flaw is that it is technically feeble. There is a noticeable difference in the technical quality of Buñuel's Mexican films and those he made in France and Spain. He later wished, for example, that he could've made The Exterminating Angel (1962) in Spain, since sacrifices had to be made with some details of the production in Mexico.

But what Nazarin suffers from most is the tedium of its argument - that a priest's convictions should prove to be untenable the moment he comes in close contact with reality is neither a novel idea nor a very edifying one. French literature abounds with such tales - Zola handled it head-on in a novel that Georges Franju made into a vividly beautiful film in 1970 called La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret.

But Buñuel is clearly not interested in humiliating his protagonist. The world that Buñuel shows us is one that is filled with half-demented people riddled with preposterous superstitions and beset with a rigid class system. Men and women are born into a certain station and die there.

I disagree with the criticism that Buñuel was deliberately trying to make Nazario look ridiculous. In fact, he doesn't look ridiculous - only a failure. The people all around him seem to be acting out parts in a drama that were already written for them when they were born.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dying Out


In 1977, a creative-writing professor at Midlands Technical College mentioned a poem by James Dickey, of Deliverance fame. Sadly, the teacher's mention of it long outlasted his name. I remember him only for the poem he recommended. I had written a harmless poem to a whale, whose extinction seemed imminent at the time. The last line went something like "We could have called you Brother/But now we teach our children what you were."

Dickey wrote "For the Last Wolverine" in 1966. Despite the fact that his own prognosis for the animal's survival was exaggerated, his love of nature and of wild things like wolverines give the poem emotional and imaginative power. As the poem demonstrates, Dickey delighted in language and in the physical world.

The idea that he grapples with in the poem is a fate actually worse than death: extinction; the end of oneself and simultaneously of one's kind. The statistics, in this case, don't lie: our epoch, known as the Holocene, is witnessing a mass extinction. Dickey's novel solution to the wolverine's passing is one that geneticists might find challenging. The image of a winged wolverine swooping down and snatching away lumberjacks is disturbingly compelling. The nature that Tennyson claimed is "red in tooth and claw" has been vindicated.


FOR THE LAST WOLVERINE

They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea
Stream into his gnawing head
That he no longer has a thing
To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun
Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it
With all his meanness and strength.
Lord, we have come to the end
Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers
And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling complete in the joy of a weasel
With an elk's horned heart in his stomach
Looking straight into the eternal
Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World's last eagle
Hunched in mangy feathers giving

Up on the theory of flight.
Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate
To the death in the rotten branches,
Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come
Of it something gigantic legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills
Of ice SCREAMING that it cannot die,
That it has come back, this time
On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk and fall
On men building roads: will perch

On the moose's horn like a falcon
Riding into battle into holy war against
Screaming railroad crews: will pull
Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton's internal fire the elk's
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the "blind swallowing
Thing," with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty

Non-survivor.

Lord, let me die but not die
Out.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sidney Lumet


Another great film director has died. Two years ago, in my post The Greatest Living American Film Director, I said of him that "[Martin] Scorsese will always be the second best American film director as long as Sidney Lumet is alive and kicking." Scorsese can now take the laurels.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) directed more than fifty films in a career that lasted for than fifty years. 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Q & A, the list of his triumphs is long and impressive. He seemed drawn to subjects dealing with cops. He once said, "I've known a lot of cops, most of whom join the force with a good deal of idealism. They wind up with the highest suicide and alcoholism rates of any profession." The Departed, which won a ton of awards for Martin Scorsese, was a film Lumet should've made, if only it had been set in New York.

In 2007, Lumet talked to New York magazine about the future of New York films: "Well, we were shooting out in Astoria, and one day I was watching all these kids standing outside a school near the studio. It was just marvelous: Indian girls in saris, kids from Pakistan, Korea, kids from all over. So I think you'll see more directors from these communities, telling their stories. You know, I started out making films about Jews and Italians and Irish because I didn't know anything else."

Living here very far from home, I'm reaching the age when people I knew when I was young are getting on in years. When people I admire above all the others die, particularly fellow Americans, I feel like Hadad:

And when Hadad heard in Egypt that David slept with his fathers, and that Joab the captain of the host was dead, Hadad said to Pharaoh, Let me depart, that I may go to mine own country.

Then Pharaoh said unto him, But what hast thou lacked with me, that, behold, thou seekest to go to thine own country? And he answered, Nothing. howbeit let me go in any wise.
(I Kings, 11:21-22)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Good Book


I grew up in a religious household in which crucifixes and rosaries were always close at hand. I attended Catholic parochial schools where the three Rs were supplemented by a fourth - religion. I was taught the proper manner of praying and i prayed often, both publicly and privately in what I thought was the correct way. I don't remember what I prayed for, and don't remember having any of my prayers answered. I hated Sundays because I had to put on very uncomfortable clothes and sit, stand, and kneel throughout a tedious and interminable ceremony.

But what bothered me the most was that I felt nothing when I prayed, and it was depressing because it was just one more thing to disappoint my parents and teachers. So I had to go through with the charade of believing. When Herman Melville put the words of a prayer into the mouth of Father Mapple, he asked "what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"

Voltaire famously claimed that "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him". I believe that, even if God existed, it would be necessary not to believe in Him. Despite my active atheism, I read The Holy Bible frequently, if not religiously. While my believing friends prefer the modern versions of the Bible, in which the revealed word of God comes across in stale but straightforward English, I cling to the King James version, in which the inspired words of mostly anonymous men still sound across four centuries of the decline of the English language. It has given average people, who perhaps could barely read, access to a world of exalted and noble language which lends even the most common emotions a grandeur and grace. Its purpose was nothing more - or less - than what the words of the first chapter of Proverbs state:

"To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels."

One of the things that I still resent about the Catholic Church is that it had to rule the King James Bible, which turns 400 this year, to be heretical and then came up with its own flatfooted translation in the 1960s when the Latin Mass was finally abandoned. The Standard Text, "appointed to be read in Churches" was "translated out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised by his majesty's special command." In the dedication to King James, the translators gave due credit to the "many worthy men who went before us." The worthiest of them was William Tyndale.

The problems facing the first translators of The Holy Bible into English, once the Reformation made it no longer a capital crime, were the lack of Hebrew and Greek scholars in early 16th century England and a scarcity of religious reformers who could match their piety with a feeling for poetry. The Holy Bible was seen by its first translators as a work of prose, not of poetry. The emphasis on literalness and not literary quality resulted in some of the clumsiest English ever written.

William Tyndale changed everything and set a standard of excellence and beauty in his translation that hasn't been equalled since, not even by the illustrious King James Standard Text. His intention was to "interpret the sense of the scripture and the meaning of the spirit." Tyndale was determined that the familiarity he had with the Bible should be shared with every Englishman. The Roman Catholic Church, which hoarded the word of God for itself, would not allow Tyndale and others to make the Bible available - and understandable - to everyone. To a fellow clergyman, who told Tyndale that "We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's," he responded: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!"

There are enough great translations around to offer sufficient proof against Robert Frost's suggestion that poetry is "what gets lost in translation". In his study of translations, After Babel, George Steiner wrote of "the influence of the genius of Tyndale, the greatest of English Bible translators". Thorough analysis of the Standard Text shows that at least three-quarters of the Old Testament was cribbed from Tyndale, along with nearly eighty-five per cent of the New Testament. Though far more widely read, the Standard Text is surpassed in beauty by Tyndale's version. Take, for example, his translation from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, 13th chapter:

1 Though I spake with the tongues of men and angels, and yet had no love, I were even as sounding brass: and as a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I could prophesy, and understood all secrets, and all knowledge: yea, if I had all faith so that I could move mountains out of their places, and yet had no love, I were nothing. 3 And though I bestowed all my goods to feed the poor, and though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no love, it profiteth me nothing. 4 Love suffereth long, and is courteous. Love envieth not. Love doth not frowardly, swelleth not, 5 dealeth not dishonestly, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh not evil 6 rejoiceth not in iniquity: but rejoiceth in the truth, 7 suffereth all things, believeth all things hopeth all things, endureth in all things. 8 Though that prophesying fail, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge vanish away: yet love falleth never away. 9 For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophesying is unperfect: 10 but when that which is perfect is come: then that which is unperfect shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I imagined as a child: but as soon as I was a man I put away childishness. 12 Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking: but then shall we see face to face. Now I know unperfectly: but then shall I know even as I am known. 13 Now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the chief of these is love.

Looking into the glossary of my Standard Text, beside the word charity, used by the King James translators, is the word love. Tyndale was able to make even Paul sound human.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vernon Young: Unpopular Critic of a Popular Art


Below is another of my first published pieces, devoted to my favorite film critic, who was probably the most gifted writer to go near the subject on a regular basis. The original piece can be found here.


"Nobody can predict future opinions on so perishable an art as that of the motion picture. Nobody can predict, in our time, what people will celebrate or what they will destroy six weeks from now.I believe in the power of the mind, provisionally at least, to make choices and to exercise discriminations." [CB, p.282] (1)

Nearly forty years ago, the savage New York-based critic John Simon introduced the sensible view that the best film critics are never merely critics of film. They are often also critics of theater, books or art. In the U.S., at least, this view would appear to be virtually axiomatic: Otis Ferguson's essays on Jazz are often anthologized; James Agee wrote novels, poetry, and screenplays; Dwight Macdonald was a lifelong political commentator; Stanley Kauffmann, at 94, also comments on theater and books. Whatever advantage it might give them as writers, this interdisciplinary experience also gives a critic a necessary edge when it comes to discriminating or determining any given film's worth as art, since it provides perspective on a film's status not simply among other films, but among other works of art. Of course, this has led to ongoing arguments over the very status of film among the other, older arts.

My favorite film critic is Vernon Young. Already I can hear the pages fluttering in people's film encyclopedias. Vernon Who? In reply to his publisher's request for a personal account, Young wrote: "I am English by birth, American by citizenship and I feel most at home in Europe - preferably south of Scandinavia and north of the Alps." [CB, front dust jacket] In our critic-as-superstar era, no one could possibly be more peripheral. And yet, from 1949 to 1986, no one could possibly have been more brilliant. Throughout his career, his only steady forum was in The Hudson Review, a legendary literary magazine that featured such other notable contributors as W.H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov. Over the years, he also wrote pieces for several other equally arcane journals. This meant his readership was small, and often not directly concerned with film. But neither was Young ever directly concerned with film:

"I think we tend to take for granted the most obvious yet the most precious contribution of the film-maker. (With such statements, I have in mind always and only the namable, gifted few among the ten thousand who are there to make the whole thing pay.) So often an object invoking disdain (I have expressed my share), the film is in nothing more wonderful than this: it brings us not simply a world we never made but worlds we would not otherwise glimpse. It compensates us for all those lovely dawns we slept away, the sycamore trees under which we never awakened, the rivers we never crossed, the fugitive friendships that never ripened, the Southwest canyons or Bavarian churches we never reached." [OF, p. xvii]

Like any other great critic, Young always managed to relate film not only to art, but also to life - more crucially, his life. Not to give us superfluous biographical details, as too many reviewers are apt to do. For them, criticism is something akin to therapy. For Young, "criticism is a method of rationally explaining the emotional experience one has already had." [CB, p. 169] And because his prose is both so acute and sensuously beautiful, the encounter with his intelligence is something felt as well as understood.

We know next to nothing of his life. What little we do know comes from what scraps he threw to his editors. One bio credits him with being a novelist, a theater and radio director and an occasional actor. The one acting credit we know for sure is in A Matter of Morals (1961), an American/Swedish co-production whose only other distinction was that Sven Nykvist photographed it. We can derive much more from his writings, which give us fascinating glimpses of his itinerant life:

"My pursuit of films, during the late fifties and early sixties especially, assumes in my memory the character of a nightmare odyssey. The recall of any particular film from the middle past is associated with the places in which I saw it. As if caught in a montage, I am again sitting day after day in Rochester, New York - during a wintry March - watching the brute phantoms of UFA and Soviet films loom and grimace soundlessly; when I emerge at day's end, though at four o'clock only, the landscape - like Sweden's, too far north to be lived in happily by man - is leafless, lightless, dirty-snow-banked, as gloomy as the film I have just left, likely, and I rush with relief to my bottle of Black and White. Or I am in London, traveling in the fag-butted underground, alone of course, hoping yet skeptical, headed toward a remote and dismal suburb where, in a schoolhouse, a local film society is showing a French film from 1931; probably not worth seeing, but sundry chumps with reputations as annalists have affirmed its uniqueness and there is no way of settling the case except to see the thing for myself. Or I am struggling up at six-thirty A.M. in Rome (I'm not at my best in the sane light of early morning), hoping to be properly awake by nine when, after breakfast (not too heavy) and a journey which might better have been to Orvieto (it wouldn't have taken much longer) than to Cinecitta, I am to see four films, two on a movieola (which increases one's anxiety since the concentration is thereby more intense), following a lunch which must be solid enough for sustenance but not so much antipasto and wine as to induce an overpowering desire to sleep around two o'clock! Or I am in Milano, arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, nine-fifteen sharp, as arranged, at the wrong studio (the right one being at the exactly opposite end of town), owing to our old friend and crippler, 'language misunderstanding.'" [OF, p. xii-xiii]

Young was clearly trying to arouse our sympathy, and who could not feel sorry for an ardent filmgoer before the age of multiplex theaters, video and DVD? "After listening to other anecdotes similar to those above, someone asked me, 'Is it worth it?' Great heavens, what a preposterous question! Life under any conditions is filled with idiotic excursions, false goals, prodigal waste, disappointed loves, galling personal insufficiencies, half-witted associations. Is it worth living?" [OF, p. xiii]

Young gradually developed an approach to film that respected its cultural origins. He wasn't the first to notice qualities peculiar to films from different countries, but he was insistent that, despite their international reputations, Fellini was an Italian, Bergman a Swede, Buñuel a Spaniard. Any full understanding of their work must begin with an examination of the group from which they came. "All art is a game played with ethnic rules." [OF, p. 9] This comes as close as any other single point to explaining why some of the most brilliant filmmakers, when transplanted by war or economics to another country, fail to make films as compellingly or as convincingly as those they made in their native land. Of course, Young was never so doctrinaire as to use his theory to pound round pegs into square holes. His first published book was a study of Ingmar Bergman whose very title gave away his agenda: Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos (1971). While examining every film Bergman made (prior to 1970, of course), he presents an often surprising - and none too flattering - view of Swedish society: "Let it be understood clearly, since without this premise nothing else makes sense. Sweden is a prohibitive society. Root, stem, and branch it is prohibitive. It is a society of the armored personality, it is a never-on-Sunday society, it is a society whose doors are locked before 9 P.M., a society of no dialogue, a society in which hospitality is merely a word. It is in short a puritan society and let no one tell you differently." [CB, p. 92]

He examines the suicide rate in Sweden, which is curiously much higher than any other Scandinavian country. And he demonstrates the extent to which the gloominess of Bergman's films, and Strindberg's plays for that matter, are virtually racial characteristics. "On certain days in Sweden, you feel you should note in a diary that Someone smiled." [CB, p. 114] And perhaps in mockery of their famous social welfare system, Young suggests that "Every Swede has a Strindberg phase: it lasts from the cradle to the grave." Incidentally, these very elements - the weather, history, and culture - have combined to produce, among other things, one of the richest film traditions in the world - a point that Young is only too eager to make.

The book was a tour-de-force, and it encouraged Young the following year to collect his far-flung writings into a single volume. On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (1972) was nominated for the American National Book Award. It is, first and foremost, a collection of essays - some of the finest written in English. Some of his admirers, not enamored of movies, wondered why he was devoting his energies to so ephemeral a medium. And yet who cannot detect, in a sampling from these essays, the presence of Young's heart prominently displayed on his sleeve:

"Those of us for whom the written word is after all the sustaining expression to which we turn for statements of the imaginative and intellectual life must deplore the contemporary abandonment of reading in favor of those shortcuts to culture which are actually endless detours: the picture magazine (see, look, and live!), television, and the movie. For a film critic, this is an especially troublesome acknowledgement, since his function is precisely to discover and relate in motion picture art those concerns which are basic to all the expressive arts. If he is honest, he will admit that instances of a film, in its own esthetic terms, supplying the spectator with an experience equal in serious definition and in style to the arts with which it is contemporary, are distressingly rare. Carl-Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie (this, one hour after you've watched it, seems hard to believe), is one of those instances; it forces our consent to the proposition that to see is as fruitful as to know, when the object of our seeing had been invested with the form that inspires knowledge. Knowledge of the poetic order, let us say. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one film among probably less than a dozen of which it can be said that it adds deeply to the sum of one's experience." [p.44]

"All Japanese films are not lovely; they are all composed, Kurosawa's least obviously, since they are more dynamic. The grotesque plays a prominent part in the Japanese movie, but we may imagine that only disorder is considered ugly. The loving scrutiny of the Japanese is impartial: almost equal pictorial value is bestowed on the skirt of a roof, wrinkles around the eye, a dragon on a lacquered box, polychrome parasols lanced by rain, shirts flapping in a slum compound like the banners of defeated samurai. Despair, reconciled by formal beauty - the Japanese answer to life resembles that of the ancient Greeks, or of Nietzsche."

Scola's La Nuit de Varennes: "In the long run (from Paris to Limbo), you may well remember, indelibly, the whips and the wheels, the dust by day and the torches by night, the citizens of Varennes crying havoc on their captured king (all we see of him is his feet), the Comtesse curtsying to royal robes on a dressmaker's dummy and, in the person of Casanova, the lust of the flesh canceled by the unforgivable insolence of time." [FCVY, p.123)

Picnic at Hanging Rock: "Weir's movie is permeated with suppressed eroticism that never crudely surfaces. By lyric touches and the art of indirection he conveys the somewhat smelly radiance that emanates from the girlish admixture of innocent crush and diffused smut which constitutes the eternal milieu of adolescents segregated from the other sex. . . Lovely girls, lovely analogies: swans, flowers, young trees reflected in darkening waters. I was reminded of Elie Faure's inspired image when describing the phenomenon of Watteau's art under the regime of Louis XIV: 'a profound sigh of nature delivered from a corset of iron..'" [FCVY, p. 124]

So often, Young was moved to expand on what a scene in a particular film merely implies: Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe: "Crusoe is suddenly aroused by the woman's dress he salvaged in the sea chest, which now, stirred by random breezes, is invested by his fancy with a woman's body. Feel the possibilities: the tropical evening, the oceanic loneliness, the plants breathing, the devastations of memory visiting a predominantly physical man - the unbidden but palpable shape of lust, hardest of all our inclinations to divert." [OF, p. 383) This practice, far from detracting from the film experience, contributes to it by expanding on its implications. We all bring to a film our own storehouse of experiences, impressions, prejudices. We also bring with us our prevailing moods which events unrelated to the film that we are watching have put us in:

"Relative to the observer, we have learned: relative to the observer's constitution, his experience, his cultural presumptions. . . . Jules and Jim is neither romance nor morality not pure farce nor psychological epitome, yet it touches and sometimes invades each of these territories. 'Like life,' one is too easily tempted to conclude; the very conclusion can only be drawn by adopting what seems to be the most embracing inference of the film, viewed as a story. 'Life' has no such tone - life has no tone at all until endowed with someone's imposed vision of it. 'Be careful how you interpret life,' Erich Heller has advised - 'it is that way.'" [OF, p. 174]

Often this practice makes a film seem more impressive than it is. How is one to account for a film failing to measure up to the quality of its review? Young is surely at his best when he commits his considerable skills to evoking a scene from a film that one is never likely to see. Concerning a Brazilian item, The Priest and the Girl (1966), he remarks on how

"the situation gathers a lot of conviction for itself, after its pedestrian opening scenes, chiefly because Paolo Jose is utterly believable as the mulish, harassed priest and Helena Ignez is the most persuasive rebuke to celibacy I've seen for nigh twenty years, palpably bewitching, with her young amplitude, heavy eyelids, earthy hands, and long Raphaelesque neck. (I am dedicating my next bull to her.) There is one particularly impressive piece of cinema, probably suggested by Woman in the Dunes, when she sits stark maddeningly naked in the desert. The camera frames her face and shoulders, primo piano, tendrils of corn-silk hair blowing into the lens. After which, a curve of shoulder and naked back - pure draftsmanship. The priest, in profile, kisses her arm: past reason haunted, he drops to his feast; the camera remains, above it all, just focusing the melody of her face. Beautifully done: nothing Swedish here." [OF, p. 364]

Sometimes Young saw a filmmaker's glorious opportunity inexplicably passed by and found it necessary to remind him - and us - of what was lost. Admittedly, over the course of almost forty years of writing on the subject, and passionately more often than not, his perspicacity was sometimes hit-and-miss. He was unkind to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, while devoting a whole essay to the adroit but decidedly lesser The Hidden Fortress. He was dismissive of Ozu's Tokyo Story: "at the end the girl speaks a last sententious word, declaring that she is not going to live like her elders, and I am immediately made conscious of the message." [OF, p. 376] He was high-handedly dismissive of American film in general: "There is always someone announcing that the American movie has come of age. The announcement is always premature." [OF, p. 399] He was equally inflexible toward Godard and post-1960 Bergman. Insisting that there is no such thing as a definitive opinion is rather like saying there is no such thing as a definitive performance of Hamlet. Every generation has at least one of its own. Reading Young may occasionally force us to re-think an opinion, while not necessarily shaking us from it. Disagreeing with a great critic is always a learning experience.

But get him on the right subject - and in an expansive mood - and Young is unsurpassed. Particularly indulgent to the Italian film, no one wrote as sensitively about De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni. Consequently no one was as personally disappointed at their decline. Detecting a crisis in international film in 1966 he opened his essay "The Verge and After" with a chilling statement: "The party's over. . . . Another phase of film history, in many ways the most creative, is drawing to a close, accompanied by a jump-cut bang and a pornographic whimper." [OF, p. 273] This same crisis drove Dwight Macdonald to give up his film column at Esquire magazine and turn to politics. One by one, seemingly every great European filmmaker who had emerged by the early '60s had been "extolled, excoriated, and finally expropriated." [ibid]

Thereafter, the only filmmaker who earned Young's wholehearted praise was the Swede, Jan Troell. In his review of The Emigrants he opens with a rare salvo: "The Great American Film has now been made - in Sweden." [FCVY, p. 40] And after minor reservations concerning Troell's The Flight of the Eagle (1982), he concluded: "But this film is touched by greatness; it confirms my insistence, for seventeen years now, that Jan Troell (in this case director, co-writer, cinematographer and editor) is unsurpassed by any film-maker of our time." [FCVY, p.125]

But one swallow, alas, doth not a summer make. The New Wave - Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette - washed ashore fifty years ago. New names emerged, perhaps not enough (nor as great) to supplant the old, but Young watched and commented with his customary acuity until his death in 1987, shortly after his last review was published in The Hudson Review. Given his experience of film, we can only speculate what Young might have made of the New Asian Cinema, or the surprises and frustrations of American Independent film, of Kiarostami or Béla Tarr, or, indeed, of Bergman's re-emergence as a magisterial scriptwriter.

Doubtless the major films on which Young comments will retain our attention. But, honestly, who will care in another twenty years that he chose to single out for praise such out-of-the-way films as Nunca Pasa Nada (Spain, 1964), or the Polish film True End of the Great War (1958) or The Golden Fern (Czechoslovakia, 1963)? Or, more to the point, who will ever have a chance to see these films? "Among the critic's obligations is the salvaging of neglected films before they go softly into that dark night." [OF, p. 11]

It will come as no surprise to those of you involved in the business that the two books Young published in his lifetime are long out of print. The last, a collection published in 1990, is on backorder. Young seemed to welcome obscurity, if not the very oblivion that so many of the films he chose to italicize have suffered:

"I have never, or rarely, known for whom I was writing. It was made pretty clear to me for whom I was not writing - among others, most 'film people,' who never read opinions expressed outside the film publications or the columns of the wide-circulation press. As I was principally published in the Hudson Review or in magazines with a comparable, if not identical, readership, I could infer the status of my reader up to a point. He was very likely affiliated with a college, either as a student or as a teacher; he was closely interested in the arts; he was worldly by inclination; he was not the sort you talk down to, and he would welcome a minority voice (otherwise he would not be reading that magazine). Yet I never knew how much I might assume of what he knew about movies. For a while this worried me until I realized that the anxiety did not improve my communication. Then I began to discover that numerous people read my criticism (not just mine, of course) who never, or seldom, went to a movie! They simply liked to read about movies if they found the critic's point of view interesting and the content vividly re-created. I felt better after that."

December 2000

1. Sources are identified as follows: CB - Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos (New York: David Lewis, 1971); OF - On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972); FCVY - The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, Edited by Bert Cardullo (New York: University Press of America, 1990).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Other Side of Heaven


"Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enmity of God." (James 4:4)


Mark Twain wrote that “True irreverence is disrespect for another man’s god.” Not your own god, of course, but somebody - anybody - else's. Some religions seem to invite irreverence.

Every now and then here on my remote Philippine island, I run into Mormon missionaries: young men who look like they're in their late teens or early twenties, dressed in dark trousers, white shirts and ties. I saw them when I was living in Japan and in Korea, where their missionary work must be a good deal harder. Filipinos, unique among Asians, have been Christians for four hundred and fifty years. Only Mindanao remained Muslim, because the Spaniards never succeeded in conquering the sultanates there.

The locals tell me that these missionaries can speak the Visayan dialect fluently. I have to take their word for it because I've never had an opportunity to speak to any of them. The missionaries keep to themselves and avoid contact with the expats here, probably by direction. Since I know what they're up to here, and they know that I know, their behavior towards me isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is that these Americans had to come all the way to the Philippines to avoid their fellow Americans.

Whenever I pass by them in the market or the street, I try to make eye contact, but they always look away. I've had the feeling that many of the foreigners who come here are up to no good, but the Mormons seem to confirm my suspicions. The organization called Survival International might not think that Filipinos qualify as indigenous tribal or "uncontacted" people, but somebody should look into the activities of these Mormons here and elsewhere.

The Mormon faith, which Edmund Wilson once called “a farrago of balderdash”, is ostensibly Christian, but it's a hybrid sect, comparable to the Black Muslims and their Nation of Islam, which is a decidedly New World, quite distorted re-invention of the Muslim faith. Like all Christians, the Mormons proselytize - they seek converts in the unlikeliest places, like in another collection of islands called Tonga in the South Pacific, which is the setting of a curious film with the illuminating title The Other Side of Heaven. Released in 2001, it tells the "true" story of John Groberg, a Mormon missionary sent, like a Peace Corps volunteer, to this outpost of civilization in the 1950s. Groberg is played by Christopher Gorham in the film, which was shot in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. Unlike the Peace Corps, however, the Mormons don't go to such places to teach the natives how to read and write or cultivate their land.

The film recounts Groberg's adventures, which he recounts in letters to his fiancée (played by Anne Hathaway). It is an insider's view of his experience, directed by Mitch Davis, whom the credits tell us is "also a BYU grad" (Groberg attended Bringham Young University). This might explain why no one involved in the project could see its premise - another white man "saving" the unwashed pagans in their outer darkness - as disgracefully racist. Stephen Holden in the New York Times remarked of the film that "the movie's vision of a white American zealously spreading a Puritanical brand of Christianity to South Seas islanders is one only a true believer could relish."

Like military recruiters, I imagine that missionaries have their own quotas of converts. Exactly how they go about substantiating such conversions to their superiors is unclear. But the title of the film spells out the conflict that each of us must face, namely having to choose between God and man, eternal life or an attenuated life on this earth. A strange missionary goes all the way to a South Pacific island - a paradise on earth - to lure its inhabitants away from a life in the thrall of nature to a sad, painful faith in a fuzzily conceived paradise that is to come. I had to wince at the spectacle of that young American dipping the natives in the waves, baptizing them, opening their eyes to the terrible knowledge that they were born in sin and will die there unless they forsake their love of the earth.

The film concludes with titles announcing the emigration of some of the natives from their refulgent paradise to ours. It would be difficult to imagine a more inequitable exchange.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Infidelity

One of the many quicksands that technology has devised for us, ever since Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph, is the concept of "fidelity" in sound reproduction. The term "hi-fi", which is widely misunderstood and misappropriated, is derived from the recording principle of "high fidelity", and was used to measure how accurately a recording reproduced not just the music or the spoken word, but the experience of being present at the recording. There are first-hand accounts from people who first listened to Edison's copper cylinder recordings that claim they sounded like the person speaking or singing was standing right next to them. Today, some of the surviving recordings sound barely human.

As recording technology improved, so did the expectations of the listeners. By the time of the first recordings in stereo in the 1950s, the extra-dimensional range could actually reproduce the placement of instruments within a room, or "spatial realism". Recordings of orchestral music could capture acoustical environments that the greatest concert halls could not equal. Jazz musicians could capture their playing in environments that were free from the obtrusive noises of a jazz club, the hubbub of tinkling glasses and muffled voices.

It was at this point that "fidelity" became somewhat idealized and ambiguous. "High Fidelity" was actually codified in Germany and applied as a standard for audiophiles to use in their purchase of audio equipment. But the term was quickly made meaningless by the indiscriminate application of the term "hi-fi" to every piece of audio equipment and even became synonymous with the equipment itself.

The invention of stereo recording and the long-playing vinyl record greatly enhanced the possibility of genuine "fidelity". "Stereo" soon replaced the term "hi-fi" as a name for audio equipment. Vinyl records improved in quality as technology improved, and audio players became segmented, with amplifiers, turntables and speakers becoming separable.

The main problem with vinyl records and turntables is that they are subject to environmental conditions that can interfere with the sound reproduction. Things like dust, grime, and vibration - not to mention the vinyl surface itself that is easily damaged - are some of the serious disadvantages of the medium. High-end turntables are now equipped with sophisticated baffles that eliminate the effects of vibration, which could come from a heavy truck driving by the house or merely walking across the floor.

Then came the compact disc. Compact disc players, which can eliminate the problems of environmental interference with oversampling, maintaining the position of the laser by constantly reading the information just in front and behind the track, are now commonly installed in cars. When compact discs, or CDs, first appeared, some audiophiles, who had spent small fortunes on the equipment required to produce a sound quality comparable to that produced by an inexpensive CD player, expressed their displeasure by denouncing the technology altogether. I recall music critics, especially of classical music, at the time expressing skepticism for CD recordings, since (they argued) the silence between the notes is as much a part of the music as the notes themselves, and the silence on CDs was considered merely blank audio space.

For me, the compact disc was an improvement on vinyl in many ways. It was the clarity of the sound - with nothing coming between the sound and the listener - that was most impressive, no matter how many times a disc was played. Everything else was, to me, secondary, like the dynamics of the recording range or its "fidelity" - whatever that is supposed to mean. To my educated ear, CDs sounded marvelous, and especially in recordings of classical music.

Lately there has been a curious backtracking among audiophiles, many of whom grew up after the invention of CDs, from digital to analog - from CDs and even MP3s to vinyl. This movement seems to suggest that the old recording technology, invented by Edison, of carving grooves in vinyl, provides a more "natural" or more dynamic sound. I find these arguments hopelessly subjective and hard to take seriously.

Aside from what I believe is the snob appeal of the old medium, it seems to me that alot of the people now advocating a return to vinyl are probably not old enough to remember the special frustrations of that medium. There are also people who are so emotionally (and materially) committed to vinyl that they refuse to go digital. When I think of the thousands of hard-earned dollars that I shelled out for my own modest collection of hundreds of records, not to mention the numerous cassette tapes I bought in the 1980s, I can't blame them one bit. But I refuse to go back. For the longest time, and even today, all that most people required of an audio system was something that played music - what Alex in A Clockwork Orange contemptuously called a "pitiful portable picnic player." Everything else, as always, is a matter of personal delicacy.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Akira Kurosawa's Nightmares

Significantly, it was mostly through period films that Akira Kurosawa chose to examine people and the problems of life. But with a few exceptions, every one of his films set in contemporary Japan directly confronts some moral problem besetting society.

Stray Dog (1949) looks at the rise of violent crime in the years immediately following the war. Scandal (1950) examines the effects of tabloid journalism on people's lives. Ikiru (1952) looks at the quagmire of government bureaucracy. High and Low (1963) ponders the meaning of the gap between the rich and the poor.

Two of Kurosawa's films in particular, Record of a Living Being (1955) and an episode in Dreams (1990), are dramatizations of a nightmare that comes tellingly, frighteningly close to the reality in Japan over the past few weeks.

Record of a Living Being, also known as I Live in Fear, concerns a family patriarch, Kiichi Nakajima (played by Toshiro Mifune), who wants to move his entire family to Brazil to escape what he sees is an impending nuclear war. His family believes he is insane and wants to have him committed to a nursing home. The sixth segment in the film Dreams, called Mount Fuji in Red, is a nightmare in which the dormant volcano Mount Fuji erupts and causes six nuclear power reactors to meltdown. Survivors wander a devastated countryside, with clouds of colored mist floating by - each radioactive isotope given a different color. Like all the other episodes in the film, Kurosawa doesn't editorialize this strangely premonitory dream.

Kurosawa's point, I think, is that while Kiichi's fear is a decidedly modern problem that we all must face, and while nuclear meltdowns have occurred before, how can we really function rationally with the fear of such disasters? How can we possibly live normal lives with the threat of our imminent annihilation hanging over our heads? In Mount Fuji in Red, Kurosawa asks how we can possibly allow the threat from radiation leaks and contamination of our air, water, and food to continue? How can we live with the potential for this kind of "accident" being ever present? Are we to simply accept these perpetual and inescapable threats to our existence as necessary consequences of our mistakes and a condition of our living in a new age? Of course, Kurosawa's is an emotional, non-rational response. It must be emotional, he insists, since we now clearly see where all our rationalism has landed us. To act rationally in an age like ours, in the face of such danger, is truly insane.