Tuesday, February 28, 2012


A few years ago my sister and I were watching our favorite cable movie channel, Turner Classic Movies, which was showing The Awful Truth, when the scene that is set in an unbelievably lavish nightclub appeared and my sister said how wonderful it would be to have been in such a place at such a time. Bless her heart, but I had to tell her that no such place ever existed outside the Columbia Pictures sound stage where it was shot in 1937. The Awful Truth - and 98% of the movies made in Hollywood in the 1930s - takes place in Movieland, a terra incognita that resembles the real world purely coincidentally. Rather than imitate life, such movies imitate other movies. All the major studios developed a "look" that became unmistakable. Contract actors, writers, photographers, set and costume designers, and directors all contributed in some way to a recognizable appearance stamped on every one of their movies. With few exceptions, rather than titles, their movies could as easily have been called MGM Movie No. 9 of 1935 or Warner Brothers Movie No. 12 of 1939. What ultimately brought about Movieland's downfall was an insistence by filmgoers for a degree of realism - or at least a pretense to realism.

But there is a subtler and more insidious effect that Movieland has inflicted on films everywhere. Lapses in plausibility, violations of logic, fictions that strain - and often break - credulity. A film like the acclaimed The Artist has been called, like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a "love poem to cinema". It is actually a love poem to Movieland.

The Artist isn't just a throwback to an old, outmoded way of making - and of looking at - movies. Erroneously called "silent", it is a regressive passage back, a re visitation to classic Movieland. It isn't so much a style as it is a concept, a frame of mind. If you had a chance to ask F.W. Murnau, who died in a car crash in 1931, why the people in his movies look and move so unnaturally, he would probably be puzzled by the question. He might try to explain that cameras, that were originally hand-cranked, recorded the action at a slower speed - around eighteen frames per second at most - and that when the movie was projected at the normal speed of twenty-four frames per second, everything moved a little faster than normal.

More likely, Murnau would probably inform you that the people in his movies aren't supposed to look or move naturally, simply because his movies weren't intended to be mistaken for nature. When I heard that Kevin Brownlow had endorsed The Artist, saying that the film "got it right", I knew what he meant by "it": not just a film without sound (which The Artist is not) but an aesthetic understanding of expression in the framing, the pacing and the acting. Every aspect of the film is handed over to, surrendered to, the images. Even the talking, which we don't hear, can be visual. New studies in child development have shown that babies begin to look at people's mouths within a few months of birth, in learning how words are formed. So we learn to read lips even when we can also hear from our infancy. When I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc on the Criterion DVD I saw the exact words in French that were spoken by the actors (they were the very same words spoken at Joan's trial) on the title cards. Since the director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, shot the film using extreme close ups, it was as if I could hear the words that the actors were speaking. A silent film, Vernon Young was moved to write that "this, one hour after you've watched it, seems hard to believe".

When I watch a great silent movie like Battleship Potemkin or The Passion of Joan of Arc, I am left with the conviction that the people who made them turned the liability of silence into a virtue and expanded the limits of visual expression. They are so much more than silent movies because they prove that sound is unnecessary. As much as I love some silent movies (Brownlow seems to love every silent movie), I love them right where they are. I would no more wish films to go silent and black and white again any more than I would wish myself back to 1925.

Friday, February 24, 2012

On Being Childless

In life there are no risk-free trials.

A few days ago, the woman with whom I’ve been living these past four years sat down beside me while I was watching TV with a sad look on her face. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she was sorry that she hadn’t given me a baby of my own. I was surprised by this sudden confession – so surprised that I had to stop and think of an answer.

I am old enough to be able to look around me at my friends and marvel at their children, some of whom are in diapers, some in school, and a few even in college. My friends look at me, childless but not fr want of occasionally trying, and feel sorry that I haven't yet taken, as one friend put it, "a dip in the gene pool". I look at them and wonder where on earth they could've found the temerity to do it.

I have to admit that I don't like children - either in the flesh or as an idea. My friends invariably tell me that having one would change my mind. Looking at my own child, they argue, and knowing that I was involved, however remotely, in giving him or her life would somehow overcome my prejudices. I used to think that they must be right.

It's probably because of my own childhood, or what I remember of it. If only I could've thought of it all as unfair (which it partly was), the desperate loneliness, the feeling that no one could possibly understand what I was feeling and that it would would never end. Of course, it did end. But only as soon as I was no longer a child. And this brought home to me the terrible proof that it was the very condition of being a child that had to be endured, that the sense of adults taking unfair advantage of a child's position of inferiority was genuine. This is especially obvious whenever an adult inflicts pain on a child as punishment. If the child were equal in size, an adult would think twice about such abuse. When I see kids in show business talking on TV, it surprises me how together, how aware and expansive they are. It surprises me because, when I was eight or ten years old, I felt utterly lost.

Many people never set out to have children, but wind up having them anyway. One friend of mine was determined in his twenties to remain childless because his own childhood was so terrible. Now in his thirties, he has had two children. I haven't had a chance to ask him what changed his mind, but both our lives have taken so many turns since we last met, it could account for just about anything.

Some people, no matter how long they live, can never forget the sometimes nightmarish reality of childhood and can still feel it acutely. As George Orwell wrote in an essay about his school days:

"In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them ... But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others ... Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely ... Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child's mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child's vision of the world."(1)

At least two of the qualities that are required to be a parent - an even temper and patience - are in short supply in my personality. I have sometimes found myself in the impossible position of being called on to impose discipline to the ten-year-old girl whose mother lives with me, and finding that, while the child certainly deserved to be paddled, I was not at all prepared to do the paddling. Indeed, watching a child grow up has shown me what a terribly lengthy and painful process it is. Human development is inhibited by the size of our brains. While some of us may be physically grown at sixteen, experience has taught us that intellectual and emotional maturity takes a bit longer.

But the main reason why I am childless and why I am against even the idea of having a child is due to something that no parents ever talk about: the fact that a parent has to use coercion in some form to get a child to do what he wants him to do. The notion that a child will do what you tell him to do merely because you are the parent and he is the child is sheer fairy tale. From the earliest age, telling a child to do something, especially something that they don't want to do, makes them think about two things: what will I get in return for doing this and what will happen to me if I don't? It may not sound nice, but the child has to be coerced in some way, with love and affection or with pain. He must either be enticed with the promise of some reward, even if it simply making his parent happy, or threatened with violence.

What people find most charming or adorable about children I find most intimidating: their helplessness in the face of every power on earth that, but for the protection of family and the law, would harm them. They have to be instructed in the world's indifference to their welfare or their happiness. The experience of simply watching children react to such indifference, seeing them slowly become aware that the world wasn't made for their concerns, that it wasn't made for things like love or friendship but for some bizarre struggle for dominance, one man over another, seems dreadful to me. What can a parent possibly do to prepare a child for the inevitable disappointment, the unavoidable broken heart? It seems to me precisely the security of a loving home that makes a child particularly unprepared for the real world.

And, to top everything off, I am simply too old to have a child. My father was forty-five when I was born, which was also too old. He had his first heart attack when I was ten, and my mother prepared me for the possibility of his death. Every time I was called out of class at school, my first thought was that my father had died. By making me aware of the possibility of my father dying, my mother was simply preparing me for the inevitable. As it turned out, he didn't die until I was thirty. My mother was off by two decades.

So when my asawa sat down beside me and confided her regret, I could only reassure her that I didn't mind the fact that she hasn't borne me a child. In fact, I thanked her for it - for neither of us being able to make a biological connection.
It was the least I could do, even if she didn't quite believe me.

(1) "Such, Such Were the Joys", first published in Partisan Review, September-October 1952.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Shooting the Messenger

Last December I watched a BBC round table talk with the 2011 Nobel Prize winners or science. One of the subjects they addressed was the 45% of the American public that is reported to be skeptical about Darwin's theory of evolution. The only real conclusion that the scientists could draw was that those people were not, apparently, happy with the results that science came up with. The scientists also compared the rejection of evolution with the reception of Climate Change - that some people, when confronted with unpleasant conclusions, will reject the methods that led to those conclusions, and shoot the messenger.

Religious people reject evolution and politicians reject climate change, and reject the science that came up with the information. In a powerful way, I think this demonstrates the rectitude of science, since its conclusions are not always universally gratifying. Scientists are not in the business of always telling humanity what it wants to hear.

The Nobel scientists, all men and most of them American, said that the politicians who claim to share this skepticism of their findings are merely pandering to the ignoramuses in America, and that if they were in the same room with them, with no reporters or cameras present, would admit to an acceptance of evolution and climate change.

But a common cause of complaint among the scientists was the treatment of scientific discovery by the media; that the media, which is in the business of selling airtime to advertisers, is not always in the service of the truth - or, in this case, of the facts.

Since their creation, cable television channels like The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and The Discovery Channel have featured programs devoted to pseudo-science - subjects that belong to fantasy fiction, tabloid journalism, or comic books: UFOs, extra-terrestrial visitors to earth, conspiracy theories, ghosts. The number of programs devoted to the 16th-century French author of prophesies Nostradamus alone could justify the creation of a Nostradamus Channel.

Skepticism on these subjects is sometimes introduced to the programs - contrary opinions are occasionally presented. But they are usually overruled, and the cumulative effect of the content is to verify the existence of flying saucers, zombies, and the clairvoyance of Nostradamus.

These programs have no basis in fact whatever, yet they are presented as fact. Rather than legitimize their subjects, the programs undermine the credibility of the networks that present them. Carl Sagan summed up the only possible attitude to such subjects: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The evidence used to support things like the Lock Ness Monster and Big Foot is utterly insupportable.

I think that the real reason why so many Americans are prepared to believe in such nonsense is due to the powerful anti-intellectual streak in American culture, that mistrusts expertise and is suspicious of rationality. When these TV networks produce programs about alien visitors to earth, they are doing more than simply pandering to ignoramuses. They are also giving credence to their cretinism.

I am certain that the people who produce these programs are doubtful of the existence of the phenomena they examine. They are worse than the politicians who advocate the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, simply because they are the ones teaching it.

Friday, February 17, 2012


Long letters written and mailed in her own head
There are no mails in a city of the dead.

-Robert Graves, "I Will Write"

In a culture like ours, enthralled by money, people are fascinated by millionaires, and a thousand times more by billionaires. They attribute nonexistent qualities to them, ingenuity to the things they do, and profundity to the things they say merely because they are wealthy.

When the death of Steve Jobs was announced last year my initial reaction, like most people's I suppose, was that it was unexpectedly sudden. There was certainly plenty of speculation about the fragility of his health, despite his efforts to keep the details secret. His insistence on appearing in public to show off his latest gadgets made his decline obvious to everyone. His personal connection to those gadgets made his brand into so much more than just a label affixed to sometimes delightful accessories.

I have never owned a Macintosh/Apple product, either because I never had a use for one or because I simply couldn't afford it. So I was bemused by the outpouring of emotion when Steve Jobs died. His true importance will take awhile to properly assess. His direct impact on people's lives was, it seems to me, overwhelmingly exaggerated. I am confident that Steve Jobs did not change my life one tiny bit.

Quite the last thing I wanted to carry around with me in my pocket was a telephone. I'm certain that when letters were invented some people complained that they would only give people an excuse to live apart. Letter writing is predicated on distances between people. They increased immeasurably people's opportunities for leaving and deceiving one another.

Computers and cellphones have made the discipline of letter writing obsolete. How many people in the rich countries ever send or receive a real letter any more? The pleasure of holding in one hands an object that was last touched by a loved one is being lost. When cellphones first appeared on the market, my immediate response was one of overwhelming disapproval. Human discourse is becoming a matter of electronic connections between people who are out of physical reach, "facing" one another only through the intervention of webcams or videophones.

John Cheever, in his Paris Review interview, spoke about precisely this problem, decades before it became a reality for all of us:

Another opening sentence I often think of is, “The first day I robbed Tiffany’s it was raining.” Of course, you can open a short story that way, but that’s not how one should function with fiction. One is tempted because there has been a genuine loss of serenity, not only in the reading public, but in all our lives. Patience, perhaps, or even the ability to concentrate.

Cheever blamed it on the effects of advertising, but its effects have been accelerated by technology. An ebook reader may be a splendid tool that can store one's own private library of favorite books, but it denies a reader the irreplaceable pleasure of holding a book in his hands.

Steve Jobs may have helped make communication quicker, but he also helped make it more impersonal. He didn't make people more obliged to communicate with one another. In fact he created for them whopping excuses to not communicate.

Undeniably, Jobs was a salesman of genius. He was also a micro-manager who insisted on overseeing every detail of his products' design, manufacture and marketing. He was no Thomas Edison. In a hundreds years, will there be as many high schools in America named after Jobs as there are for Edison today?

Jobs's last public speeches, in which he touched on the meaning of mortality, were, I think, inspired by the shock he experienced when he realized that all his billions couldn't save him from his premature quietus. He spoke about the pointlessness of being the "richest man in the cemetery". He could've bought himself his own private cemetery.

I'd rather repeat the words Carl Reiner (as Saul Bloom in Oceans Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen) spoke: "I want the last check I write to bounce."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012



The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean -
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.

-Robert Frost

Communism, while it might not have been such a good thing for the people living in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, was responsible for producing, under exceptionally straightened conditions in its Soviet-style film schools, some of the most interesting and challenging European films of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. It's quite probable that political orthodoxy, which forced conformity to strict rules of plotting and characterization, also inspired several filmmakers to create their best work as a form of tacit dissent. How else to account for the many superb films from Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and even Bulgaria? Films like Wajda's Kanal (1958) , Kawalerowicz's True End of the Great War (1957), Weiss's Romeo, Juliet, and the Darkness (1959), Jireš's The Cry (1963), Passer's Intimate Lighting (1965), Berković's Rondo (1966), Fábri's Two Halftimes in Hell (1962), and Gaal's The Falcons (1970)? Andrzej Wajda put it succinctly: "It's dangerous, but there are ways to get round political censorship. There are no ways to get round the censorship of money that you have in the west, which is much stronger." (1)

Károly Makk (b. 1925) tried for five years to make a film of Tibor Déry's 1956 novella Szerelem, known in English simply as Love. It was published the year of the Hungarian revolution, and Déry was imprisoned for his role in it. Sentenced to nine years, he was released in 1961 and granted amnesty in 1962.

Makk made his film of the novella in 1971. It is the story of Luca (Mari Törőcsik), whose husband János (Iván Darvas) is imprisoned for ten years for his political activities. Luca cares for János's old mother, played by the incomparable Lili Darvas. She doesn't tell her that János is in prison, and instead makes up an elaborate story about him making a movie in New York. She even writes letters, affixes American postage stamps to the envelopes, and mails them to the old woman's house. She carries on this hoax until the old woman's death. Without disclosing how long it has been (when the film opens it is the winter of János's first year in prison), the rest of the film shows us János's abrupt release and his reunion with Luca.

The film is a beautifully artful collection of stark black-and-white images, into which Makk throws us flashing glimpses of the memories and fantasies of the characters. When we see János's mother, there are momentary, fleeting images of the past, old photographs, advertisements, men in top hats on horseback. When Luca is onscreen, we see flashes of János's arrest, the inside of a prison.

The long sequence of János's release is one of the tenderest and most moving lovers' reunions on film. On a day not reserved for shaving inmates, a barber enters János's cell and shaves him without saying a word. They then take him to an office where a uniformed man asks him "Destination?"
"I don't know," János replies.
"What do you mean? You don't know your destination?"
"No. I don't know where they're taking me."
"They're not taking you anywhere. You can go home to your wife for lunch. Tonight you can even have some fun in bed. Clear? Well, then, destination?"
"17, Syilfa Street."

They give him back his effects, his wallet, his watch, the cash in his pockets on the day he was arrested. He signs for them. He waits. A doctor examines him. "Stand on the scales." János starts to remove his overcoat. "You needn't undress." Even fully clothes, he's lost weight.

Before we know it, János is standing outside the prison gate, a bundle of clothes in his hand. He boards a tram and, as it pulls away, we fleetingly see what János sees: a garden path, a lonely seat in the grass. He hires a taxi, tells the driver to take him to Buda, but can't remember what bridge to cross.(2) He asks to stop at a tobacconist's, telling the driver he wants "Kossuth" brand.(3)

"Political?" the driver asks discreetly as they resume their trip.
"And now they have released you."
"So it seems."

When he recognizes something, János tells the driver to stop. It's the same garden path from his thoughts on the tram. He comes to a familiar house - their house - and rings at the door. But no one answers. He walks around the yard, lies down in the grass. He tries again at the door. The caretaker finds him. "Good Lord! So you've come home!" She tells him that the house now has co-tenants and that his wife still lives there, though in just one room. She takes him inside. He finds Luca's blouse on the back of a chair, takes it in his hands and buries his face in it.

He sits, and looks around, noticing some of his mother's old things: books, paintings, her reading glasses. He goes to his mother's house and finds it shuttered, sealed against foreclosure. He gets caught in a downpour on his way back, and sits down by the stove to dry off.

He hears someone enter the gate. Luca comes in the front door and puts her open umbrella on the floor to dry. She notices the key in the door to her room and opens it. There is a strange bundle on her bed. She looks into the foyer and sees someone's coat is hanging on a hook. She touches it, and then looks back at her door. Through the opaque glass there is a shadow. Curious, perhaps, without dreaming it could be him, she steps past the door and looks at him.

Never has the pain of separation and the joy of its ending been summed up by two actors more movingly. And the way Makk shot it, shuttling us backward and forward in the moment, as if it were a broken spring suddenly exploding.

"When did my mother die?" János asks.
"It was an easy death."

Luca begins to wash him. He lies on his stomach on her bed. "Do you think you can get used to me again? I've grown old. Will you sleep with me?"
"Will you stay with me all night?"
"Yes. Every night. As long as I live."

The genius of Frost's short poem that I quote above is contained in the word "counting". Only love would bother to count an "endless repetition".

(1) See Derek Malcolm,
The Guardian.
(2) Buda and Pest, are connected by bridges that cross the Danube.
(3) One of János's imaginary accomplishments told to his mother by Luca is winning the Kossuth Prize.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hold the Limo

There is certainly something to be said for the Academy Awards. There is something to be said for the fact that every year otherwise uninterested parties like myself feel obliged to say something about the Oscars, which will be handed out on February 26th.

Any good film critic can tell you that, from a purely aesthetic perspective, the Oscars are about as meaningless as such an award can possibly get. Every year people I don’t know make up their minds about which film, which actor or actress, which director and script-writer is the best based on criteria that seem to me inexplicable.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is a genuine prize, since a cash award comes along with the medal. Of course, the Oscars also provide a cash award, in the form of subsequent box-office receipts. If I were a film director and I won one of those golden bowling trophies, I would be ecstatically grateful. Winning the award would mean that many more people who wouldn’t otherwise have bothered to see my film would do so, because enough people believe that winning the award has meaning.

I have always wondered why the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) continues to award films in languages other than English in a separate category every year. It has been doing this since 1956, when the category was established.

The annual Academy Awards has never been, or really wanted to be, anything like an international film festival, which is a competition held in places like Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, that accepts films from everywhere (even from Hollywood) and seeks to single out the finest examples of film art, in whatever language they are made. The success of these festivals in discovering good films and rewarding the efforts of their makers accordingly has been uneven. But at least their intentions are laudable.

I have the feeling that the real reason is because Hollywood has never accepted the notion, either out of cultural or financial arrogance, that its films are at all comparable to those from abroad. I have often said that the only reason that foreign films are treated as a separate category of film altogether by the Academy is that they exist in an entirely different world from Hollywood’s – a world of art.

Hollywood exacts its revenge on the prestige that foreign films often acquire by not admitting them, with a handful of exceptions, (1) to the competition for the most coveted awards – the top five being Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. On rare occasions an actor, actress, or director gets a nominated for one of these, but never has a film produced in a language other than English won the Best Picture category.

So, what has the Academy done with its award for the Best Foreign Language Film? For the first twenty years of its annual prize-giving, AMPAS completely ignored films made somewhere other than in Hollywood. Since it was very, much a private party for industry insiders, there was really no compelling reason why it should have.

Probably due to the worldwide shock created by the breakthrough Rossellini film Open City, much of which was shot during the last weeks of the Second World War, re-introducing “realism” to film, the Academy created a “Special/Honorary Award” especially for such foreign-language films as were not under consideration for their major awards in 1947, and gave the first to Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine.

Since there was greater interest in films from abroad - and money to be made in their distribution to American theaters – in America, in the following eight years the Academy awarded the films Monsieur Vincent (France-1948), The Bicycle Thief [sic] (Italy-1949), The Walls of Malapaga (Italy-1950), Rashomon (Japan-1951), and Forbidden Games (France-1952). No award was handed out in 1953, for no apparent reason, except that no one could come up with a film worthy of it. (2)

In 1954, Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell won the award, and the first part of Inagaki's epic Samurai won it in 1955. Finally, in 1956, the Academy created an Award of Merit for the “Best Foreign Language Film”, and opened up a competition, somewhat comparable to a film festival’s, accepting one film from every country interested in competing for the award. Fellini’s La Strada won the first such award, and Fellini was present at the ceremony with his wife Giulietta Masina to accept it.

Since then, the list of winners has been intriguing, since it includes such obvious masterpieces as The Virgin Spring (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and Pelle the Conqueror (1988). It has some near-forgotten jewels like Sundays and Cybele (France-1962), Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia-1967), The Official Story (Argentina-1985), and Burnt By the Sun (Russia-1994). But it also reveals the extent to which publicity and faulty critical acclaim can influence the Academy judges, which is the only possible way that such burnished turds as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Amarcord (1974), Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), Life Is Beautiful (1998) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003) could have won.

Then there are the much more worthy films that were beaten in competition for the prize, like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s uncanny masterpiece Woman in the Dunes, which lost to Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in ’64, the beautifully ebullient Marriage Italian Style losing to The Shop on Main Street in ’65, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers was beaten out by Claude Lelouch's bonbon A Man and a Woman in 1966, Claude Goretta’s lovely L’Invitation losing to Truffaut’s charming but slight Day for Night in ’73, Louis Malle’s brilliant Lacombe Lucien losing to the aforementioned Amarcord, Ettore Scola’s moving A Special Day (what a companion piece to Marriage Italian Style!) losing to Madame Rosa in ’77 (only because an old and obese Simone Signoret was in it), Jan Troell’s magnificent The Flight of the Eagle, losing to the sentimental To Begin Again in ’82, two more deserving achievements, Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl (a stupidly misleading translation of Das Schreckliche Maedchen) and Gianni Amelio’s superb Open Doors, losing to the - once again - sentimental Journey of Hope in 1990, and the illuminating Sophie Scholl, losing to the more topical Tsotsi in 2005.

Occasionally, the Academy stumbled on the less-than-obvious right choice, like Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color in 1976, or Bille August’s Babette’s Feast in 1987, Ang Lee’s enthralling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, and The Counterfeiters in 2007.

Who knows but that some day the Academy Awards will finally come to its senses and open its competition for the best films from all over the globe? As long as it remains a spectacle driven by publicity, and one of the biggest excuses in the world for movie stars to show off their designer clothes, borrowed jewels, and their latest soul mates, I will have to refrain from watching.

(1) In its 84 years, eight foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture Oscar: Grand Illusion (France-1938) (it lost to an inferior Frank Capra comedy, You Can't Take It With You), Z (1969), The Emigrants (1972), Cries and Whispers (1973), Il Postino (1995), Life Is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which was an American-produced film in Japanese.
(2) This despite the fact that 1953 was one of the most amazing years in film history, with Bergman’s The Clown’s Evening, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and Fellini’s I Vitelloni being released within months of one another.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Dickens Papers

Charles Dickens turned 200 yesterday. Tributes on television, on stage and screen extolled how widely loved - and somewhat narrowly known - he is. The best thing written on Dickens is the 1940 essay by George Orwell, which takes a very modern, very political look at his work, dispelling many misconceptions about him and clarifying our understanding of his lasting impact. Here is a selection of quotes.

[Dickens] was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. Everyone who has read widely in his work has felt this ... In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling.

Whatever else Dickens may have been, he was not a hole-and-corner soul-saver, the kind of well-meaning idiot who thinks that the world will be perfect if you amend a few bylaws and abolish a few anomalies ... He really hated the abuses he could understand, he showed them up in a series of novels which for all their absurdity are extremely readable, and he probably helped to alter public opinion on a few minor but important points. But it was quite beyond him to grasp that, given the existing form of society, certain evils cannot be remedied. Fasten upon this or that minor abuse, expose it, drag it into the open, bring it before a British jury, and all will be well that is how he sees it. Dickens at any rate never imagined that you can cure pimples by cutting them off. In every page of his work one can see a consciousness that society is wrong somewhere at the root. It is when one asks ‘Which root?’ that one begins to grasp his position.

The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places ... There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property ... His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

A Tale of Two Cities is not a companion volume to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will follow. He repeats this over and over again. We are constantly being reminded that while ‘my lord’ is lolling in bed, with four liveried footmen serving his chocolate and the peasants starving outside, somewhere in the forest a tree is growing which will presently be sawn into planks for the platform of the guillotine, etc., etc., etc.

If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment ... ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.

By this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as this, will probably be angry with me ... I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his ‘message’, and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.

Even by the standards of his time Dickens was an exceptionally artificial writer ... But there are no rules in novel-writing, and for any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about — survival. By this test Dickens's characters have succeeded, even if the people who remember them hardly think of them as human beings. They are monsters, but at any rate they exist.

You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Peter Bezoukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy's greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to — Bloom, for instance, or Pecuchet, or even Wells's Mr. Polly. It is because Dickens's characters have no mental life ... Does this mean that Tolstoy's novels are ‘better’ than Dickens's? The truth is that it is absurd to make such comparisons in terms of ‘better’ and ‘worse’. If I were forced to compare Tolstoy with Dickens, I should say that Tolstoy's appeal will probably be wider in the long run, because Dickens is scarcely intelligible outside the English-speaking culture; on the other hand, Dickens is able to reach simple people, which Tolstoy is not. Tolstoy's characters can cross a frontier, Dickens can be portrayed on a cigarette-card. But one is no more obliged to choose between them than between a sausage and a rose. Their purposes barely intersect.

What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once. Any writer who is not utterly lifeless moves upon a kind of parabola, and the downward curve is implied in the upper one ... The thing that drove Dickens forward into a form of art for which he was not really suited, and at the same time caused us to remember him, was simply the fact that he was a moralist, the consciousness of ‘having something to say’. He is always preaching a sermon, and that is the final secret of his inventiveness. For you can only create if you can care.

A good-tempered antinomianism rather of Dickens's type is one of the marks of Western popular culture. One sees it in folk-stories and comic songs, in dream-figures like Mickey Mouse and Pop-eye the Sailor (both of them variants of Jack the Giant-killer), in the history of working-class Socialism, in the popular protests (always ineffective but not always a sham) against imperialism, in the impulse that makes a jury award excessive damages when a rich man's car runs over a poor man; it is the feeling that one is always on the wrong side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong ... All through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slave-owner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

The essay can be found HERE in its entirety.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hollywood is Suicide

In his Paris Review interview, John Cheever has a few pithy words to say about writing and films. And an evocation of D.W. Griffith's "Detroit of the mind": Hollywood.

Interviewer: Do you think that your inner screen of imagination, the way you project characters, is in any way influenced by film?

Cheever: Writers of my generation and those who were raised with films have become sophisticated about these vastly different mediums and know what is best for the camera and best for the writer. One learns to skip the crowd scene, the portentous door, the banal irony of zooming into the beauty’s crow’s-feet. The difference in these crafts is, I think, clearly understood, and as a result no good film comes from an adaptation of a good novel. I would love to write an original screenplay if I found a sympathetic director. Years ago René Clair was going to film some of my stories, but as soon as the front office heard about this, they took away all the money.

Interviewer: What do you think of working in Hollywood?

Cheever: Southern California always smells very much like a summer night . . . which to me means the end of sailing, the end of games, but it isn’t that at all. It simply doesn’t correspond to my experience. I’m very much concerned with trees . . . with the nativity of trees, and when you find yourself in a place where all the trees are transplanted and have no history, I find it disconcerting.

I went to Hollywood to make money. It’s very simple. The people are friendly and the food is good, but I’ve never been happy there, perhaps because I only went there to pick up a check. I do have the deepest respect for a dozen or so directors whose affairs are centered there and who, in spite of the overwhelming problems of financing films, continue to turn out brilliant and original films. But my principal feeling about Hollywood is suicide. If I could get out of bed and into the shower, I was all right. Since I never paid the bills, I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of, and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself. This is no reflection on Hollywood, but it’s just that I seemed to have a suicide complex there. I don’t like the freeways, for one thing. Also, the pools are too hot . . . 85 degrees.

Cheever also mentioned writing novel synopses for MGM in the early 1930s: "I had a job at MGM with Paul Goodman, doing synopses. Jim Farrell, too. We had to boil down just about every book published into either a three-, five-, or twelve-page précis for which you got something like five dollars. You did your own typing. And, oh, carbons." Evidently no one in Hollywood could read. His mention of René Clair's interest in a project, which amounted to nothing, is revealing of the process of moviemaking.

But his mention of a "dozen or so directors" puzzles me. He doesn't name them, and it isn't at all easy to figure out to whom he's referring. He said this in 1969 or shortly thereafter, and the directors who were working at that time, with two or three exceptions, weren't exactly capable of what I would characterize as "brilliant and original films". Cheever's tastes in movies would have to be known, whether or not he was aware of films from Europe and elsewhere at the time, and what he thought of them.

One should remember what Cheever said about writing "for a living": "I earned barely enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year." Success, in monetary terms, came very late, after the publication of the novel Falconer (which I gave to my older sister on her birthday in - I think - 1977), and his indispensable Collected Stories. But his life as a writer had its rewards, even if he had to find a day job:

"I worked four days a week on 'The [Wapshot] Chronicle', with intense happiness. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I had a course in advanced composition at Barnard College. My weekends went roughly like this. On Saturday mornings, I played touch football until the noon whistle blew, when I drank Martinis for an hour or so with friends. On Saturday afternoons, I played Baroque music on the piano or recorder with an ensemble group. On Saturday nights, my wife and I either entertained or were entertained by friends. Eight o'clock Sunday morning found me at the Communion rail, and the Sunday passed pleasantly, according to the season, in skiing, scrub hockey, swimming, football, or backgammon. This sport was occasionally interrupted by the fact that I drove the old Mack engine for the volunteer fire department and also bred black Labrador retrievers. As I approached the close of the novel, there were, in my workroom, eight Labrador puppies, and on my desk the Barnard themes, the fire-department correspondence, [and] 'The Wapshot Chronicle'....

"My happiness was immense, and I trust that the book will, in some ways, be a reminder of this."

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Thinking about Steve Jobs for a post-in-progress, isn't it interesting that the man who led the development of electronic devices for communicating - PCs, smartphones - never knew his biological father? And isn't it also interesting that nowadays we feel the need to stay in touch with one another, but we can only do so at one remove, through the intercession of an electronic device? Things like Skype may permit us to see one another face to face, but only because of the distances we've put between us. Being cut off from one another is a precondition of our getting "connected".

But there are greater distances between some people besides physical ones. Emotional and intellectual estrangement may account for our breakups, whether from friends or from lovers. Or they change in opposing directions. Two people can live under the same roof for years and slowly grow apart, until a distance opens up that is unbridgeable.

Like everyone else, I have managed through Facebook to unearth many people with whom I lost touch over the years - old classmates, fellow sailors and soldiers (I happen to have been both), co-workers.

The biggest reason why I lost touch with them is because I have a habit of not sticking around for very long in one place. When a friend in Des Moines told me that he'd lived there all his life, I told him it was unimaginable to me. Whenever we went somewhere around town, he would introduce me to someone he had known since the third or fourth grade.

The only people who have known me all my life are my siblings. I've known my oldest friends only since I was 30. We haven't seen one another in the flesh since 2000, and now we live on separate continents. And it's the same for all my other friends. My most recent face to face encounter with a friend was in 2005, when he was passing through Des Moines on his way to Seattle. (I'm not the only one who doesn't stick around.) They live everywhere: Maine, Seattle, Wisconsin, Indiana, Las Vegas. I stubbornly regard some of them as close friends, but others have allowed experience, time and distance to come between us.

I once told an Army buddy that, contrary to popular opinion, "absence makes the heart grow absent." (I didn't exactly coin the phrase.) It isn't necessarily true, but absence is an obstacle that only love can overcome, and then only imperfectly. Since I started using Facebook, I have found most of my old friends again, or they found me. I also found people with whom I once worked, a few of whom had even "heard the chimes of midnight" with me, and slowly let them go as soon as I realized that they simply weren't my friends. (Of course, some of them realized this before I did.)

Facebook is always asking "What's on your mind?" Speaking my mind has lost me a friend once or twice in my life. On Facebook, this is especially treacherous, since it sometimes isn't clear whom I am addressing. Or I will simply throw tact to the winds and forget that this or that person might take something I say personally. Experience has taught me how inadequate it can be to believe that all my friends are among the "happy few", as Stendhal, not Henry V, meant it.

I stay away from Twitter, even if I am somewhat interested in what Stephen Fry or Harry Shearer or Martin Amis or Niall Ferguson is up to. I acquired a few "followers" of my own, even if I've never met some of them and I'm not sure why they're following me. Rather than allowing me an opportunity to look around me at a circle of friends, Facebook has given me a chance to look back and descant on all the bridges I've burned to get where I am. In another moment from the Paris Review interview with John Cheever, he reflected on his own reluctance to look over his shoulder:

I seldom read my own work. It seems to be a particularly offensive form of narcissism. It’s like playing back tapes of your own conversation. It’s like looking over your shoulder to see where you’ve run. That’s why I’ve often used the image of the swimmer, the runner, the jumper. The point is to finish and go on to the next thing. I also feel, not as strongly as I used to, that if I looked over my shoulder I would die. I think frequently of Satchel Paige and his warning that you might see something gaining on you.

I sometimes like to think of simply getting lost, however impossible it might seem these days.

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

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

-Norman Cameron