Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Cruellest Month

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less -
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

-Robert Frost, "Desert Places"

We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.'

W.B. Yeats, "Adam's Curse"

It's April 30, which means that National Poetry Month is - thank God - almost over. I'll bet you never knew it was National Poetry Month. Neither did I until I read a Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Epstein, "The Poetic Justice of April 1."(1)

Because I never moved in intellectual circles (shouldn't it be intellectual "squares"?), unless you count the years (1976-1981) I spent in university, poetry has been an exclusive, private pursuit, like the music of Bartok ad Stravinsky or the films of Antonioni and Bresson. I have corresponded with creative people from time to time, authors and literary editors, but they weren't my friends. My friends have been people living very far from the arts, in fact as far from the arts as one could get - people with whom I came in contact in the military or in various revolving-door jobs I've held since. If they discovered that I could recite certain poems by Robert Graves or Elizabeth Bishop from memory, it would induce little more than a somewhat embarrassed silence in them.

So when I read articles announcing the death of poetry, I am neither saddened nor particularly surprised. Joseph Epstein was once called "perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell."(2) Twenty-five years ago, Epstein wrote a lengthy essay for Commentary asking "Who Killed Poetry?" His point, then as now, is that no one really reads poetry any more, in the way that educated members of his own generation would "walk around with lines and entire passages from the poetry of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, e e cummings, and others rattling around pleasantly in [their heads]." There are still plenty of poets, of course, and plenty of them teaching creative writing courses in universities, but no one knows their work or buys their books. Poetry is kept alive artificially, like a comatose patient on life support, or like Japanese Noh drama - physically intact, but utterly isolated from the world around it.

Epstein has various theories about the absence of poetry as a vital part of our age, as it has been part of every age since prehistory: modernism, the ascendancy (since Flaubert) of beautifully written prose, rampant anti-intellectualism, capitalism, the dwindling of the average person's attention span. The fact that poetry teachers are propagating a mistaken example of poetry to their students, and a mistaken estimation of certain poet's worth, has contributed to the confusion, in the minds of the few readers of poetry, about what poetry is and, crucially, what it isn't. This explains why recent presidential inaugurations, like Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996 (oh, lost halcyon days!) and Barack Obama's last year, featured such pseudo-poets as Maya Angelou and Richard Blanco.

But I don't see what the fuss is about. I've always known poetry has always been a matter of a few, so why should I care if it's even fewer today? This trend, of the incomprehension or even hostility of the public toward poetry, has been underway for at least a century. It came about partly as a result of the deliberate effort by the leading poets of the first decades of the 20th century to render poetry as unintelligible to the uninitiated reader as possible. To understand Pound, for example, you needed to be a polyglot, or as full of bogus scholarship as Pound.

But even a generation before Vers Libre, Arnold Bennett expressed the view that, in English-speaking countries, the word "poetry" would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire hose. In 1945, George Orwell, one of the most sensitive and under-appreciated critics of poetry, wrote that "one must conclude that though the big public is hostile to poetry, it is not strongly hostile to verse. After all, if rhyme and metre were dislike for their own sakes, neither songs nor dirty limericks could be popular. [Nor, for that matter, would rap music, which uses what Glyn Maxwell calls "Rapid feminine rhyming - feminine in the prosodic sense, I hasten to add."] Lyrical and rhetorical poetry have almost ceased to be written, and a hostility towards poetry on the part of the common man has come to be taken for granted in any country where everyone can read. Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday." ("Poetry and the Microphone")

Robert Graves once told an interviewer that he only made enough from the publication of his poetry to "keep me in cigarettes." Auden, in Nones, famously lamented the loss of an audience: "The wind has dropped and we have lost our public." In his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," he honestly appraised the number of people in the world who were moved by Yeats' death: "A few thousand will think of this day/As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual." So, only a "few thousand" would remember the day on which a great poet died.

In "The Obscurity of the Poet," Randall Jarrell wrote what everyone who wrote and read poetry already knew, that the poet "lives in a world whose newspapers and magazines and books and motion pictures and radio stations and television stations have destroyed, in a great many people, even the capacity for understanding real poetry." If this was true in the 1950s, how much have the new media of video and computers and cellphones worsened the problem for the poet?

Delmore Schwartz, in "The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World," outlined what he saw as a natural process: "As soon as the student leaves school, all the seductions of mass-culture and middlebrow culture, and in addition the whole way of life of our society, combine to make the reading of poetry a dangerous and quickly rejected luxury."

Isn't it fashionable to regard one's age as an age of decline? "It is not sufficient," wrote Philip Larkin in 1957, "to say that poetry has lost its audience, and so need no longer consider it: lots of people still read and even buy poetry. More accurately, poetry has lost its old audience, and gained a new one . . . What can be done about this? . . . If the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on. And I use 'enjoy' in the commonest of senses, the sense in which we leave a radio on or off." ("The Pleasure Principle")

I am less worried about the death of poetry than by the troubling insistence of some people that it is already dead, is dying, or must die simply to fulfill their grim forecasts. But I refer you to the Washington Post article I reproduced above. When I first read it, in the Des Moines Register about a decade ago, I thought it must be a hoax, the ridiculous revenge some copy editor was having on poetry. Because it is regarded as an obligation to the past, instead of a source of continuing and eternal pleasure, poetry is hated by people who can never forget all the "required reading" they were subjected to in high school. I blame the manner in which poetry is taught for that. But there is always someone, probably bespectacled, sitting in the back of the English class, who is bullied and ridiculed for being brighter than everyone else, and quiet, and unable to conform to the norm of stupidity - a person for whom the "obscurity of the poet" comes as little surprise, and as a secret pleasure.(3)

(1) April has been National Poetry Month since 1996.
(2) William F. Buckley, "Who's He?", The New Criterion, September 2002.
(3) By the way, that bespectacled student wasn't me. I dropped out of high school (before entering university at 18) before my opinion of poetry could be pulverized by an English teacher whose first name was likely to be "Coach."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From the Golden Age to the Golden Years

In so many ways, Stanley Kauffmann is an astonishment. One of them is that he turns 97 today. Another is that he continues to comment on films for The New Republic, which he has done since 1958. The New Republic has a history of giving space to quality film criticism, going all the way back to Gilbert Seldes and Otis Ferguson. It took a little time for them to settle on Mr. Kauffmann. How do I know this? It may simply be an editorial trifle, but it is significant. You can see for yourself at the bottom of each of Kauffmann's columns. Of the articles to which I have access from 1961, there is a subtle change - a single word - that indicates TNR's official acceptance. At the bottom of every column are the words "Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic." One of his greatest essays, "Arrival of an Artist," from April 10, 1961, which celebrates Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura,  closes with that line. A month later, at the bottom of his essay, "A Catalogue of Deadly Sins (celebrating Fellini's La Dolce Vita), it reads "Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic".

Hard as it may be to believe for someone who wasn't alive at the time, but there was a genuine Golden Age of American film criticism in the Sixties. The critics who were historically associated the age were Dwight Macdonald, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, John Simon, and Stanley Kauffmann. Though sometimes mis-identified as "mainstream," none of these critics were mere movie reviewers - the ones who wrote for the dailies and who fulfilled the lowly capacity of consumer advocates, informing the mass of moviegoers of what would supply them with the biggest bang for their hard-earned buck. There were a lot of people writing about film, but these five were the major figures on the subject of film as art. They were neatly divisible into two camps, even if they may not have felt comfortable with their association. Macdonald, Simon, and Kauffmann were known, contemptuously by some, as "literary" critics, since they were first and foremost writers, who also wrote literary and/or theater criticism. It was also because they would not accept the notion that films are created in a vacuum. Andrew Sarris introduced the so-called "auteur theory" to American film criticism, which opened the door for some of the most preposterous re-evaluation of Hollywood movies in terms normally reserved for art films. Kael seemed to resist the urge to take film too seriously and attacked filmmakers (like Antonioni) when their work made too many demands of her.

Macdonald stopped writing about film in 1966 because of a chill he perceived in the climate of international film. He died in 1982. Kael retired from writing full-time in 1991, and died from complications associated with Parkinson's Disease in 2001. Sarris passed away last June.

That leaves two of the originals still around. John Simon quit his film criticism post at The National Review in 2002, but continues to write theater criticism for Bloomberg News. Since late 2010, he also writes on many subjects on his blog, Uncensored John Simon.

Stanley Kauffmann, who was sometimes enlisted by his colleagues in some film fracas or another, has always seemed the most gentlemanly of them all. The late Roger Ebert called him "The most valuable film critic in America, and the one I turn to with the thought that, if we disagree, I may very well be wrong."(1) There have been enough occasions when I disagreed with Kauffmann ( Le Samouraï , Berlin Alexanderplatz, Philadelphia, Reds, Amistad, Vanya on 42nd Street) for me to know he isn't - thank God - infallible. Not surprising to me, those films were all failures in my estimation, praised by him. Like all good critics, Kauffmann spent most of his time explaining why he didn't like a film. My only quibble is that I wish he'd done it more often.

In 2008, The New Republic celebrated his 50 years of writing for the magazine with tributes and testimonials. He doesn't go out to see films any more, but the studios send him dvds, and he continues to write about them - some of them, the ones he thinks are worth writing about. He's certainly earned the enviable right (for a film critic) to pick and choose.

Despite enjoying the luxury of living in New York, where it's possible to see every film released in the U.S., Kauffmann has always been aware of the problems of his readers, especially those living in the Sticks. A reader from the Pacific Northwest asked him in a letter if he invented some of the films he wrote about, since they were never shown in his area. "In terms of filmgoing possibilities," Kauffmann wrote, "this country is schizoid. I, in New York, confront a fairly full range of available films. Only in a few large cities is anything like that range available; and those cities are only a small slice of this country's possible audience. Most people, like that reader, have the chance to see only the major Hollywood products--not even all the American films, let alone foreign ones.

"This dismal fact ought not to make us romanticize. If Kiarostami and Tavernier and Zhang Yimou were as widely available as The Lord of the Rings, they would not attract a sliver of the same attendance, which is obviously why they don't have the same distribution. But doesn't that sliver deserve nourishment? The possible nourishment exists. Year after year films are being made for more people than have the chance to see them. And if the whole idea of film-making is as serious as some of us take it to be, this gap between film and viewers is a cultural crime.

"Why, then, do critics--at least on some magazines and newspapers--continue to review films that will probably not reach wide audiences? For myself, it is partly because, as a democrat, I believe that the rights of the minority must be respected, including the filmgoing minority. It would be an offense to that minority, whether or not they knew it, to omit reviews, positive or otherwise, of films that are part of contemporary culture and of value to their cultural conspectus ... Equally importantly, it would be an offense to the art of film to ignore those who, often through much travail, keep reaching upward. I don't think that seriously intended films will save this sorry world, but I do think that their absence, even ignorance that they exist, would make it sorrier."

Whatever else you may say about George Burns, he had balls. At the age of 87, he wrote a book called How to Live To Be 100. He made a reservation at the London Palladium for his 100th birthday party. And he made it.(2) Kauffmann, who never planned his longevity, admitted recently that people ask him how he "did it," how he managed his longevity. His response was, "I didn’t know I was doing it."

(1) Speaking of being gentlemanly, Ebert also said, "I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat." I always regarded Ebert, R.I.P., as a movie reviewer, not a film critic.
(2) Actually, Burns made it to 100, but didn't make the party at the Palladium.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Perfidious Albion

Last June, Queen Elizabeth the Second, fresh (if that is the word for an 87-year-old woman) from the soggy festivities of her Diamond Jubilee, shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a member of Northern Ireland's parliament, and former commander of the IRA. I'm fairly certain that it wasn't the Queen's idea. I think she would've been more pleased if McGuinness were confined to the Tower of London, awaiting her majesty's pleasure, as so many men and women had done during the reign of the Queen's namesake, Elizabeth the First.

Reading recently from an introductory note to his book, The Discovery of Guiana, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was one such victim of the Virgin Queen's perfidy, made me wonder why Old Bess is still regarded as an "enlightened" monarch. She could, in fact, be terrifyingly fickle in her favors, even if her quite justified paranoia often resulted in the imprisonment and death of numerous friends as well as enemies.

Raleigh, for example, was as loyal and creditable a courtier as Elizabeth could have asked for. The introduction, lays out the panoply of his life in broad strokes:

"He first saw military service in the Huguenot army in France in 1569, and in 1578 engaged, with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the first of his expeditions against the Spaniards. After some service in Ireland, he attracted the attention of the Queen, and rapidly rose to the perilous position of her chief favorite. With her approval, he fitted out two expeditions for the colonization of Virginia, neither of which did his royal mistress permit him to lead in person, and neither of which succeeded in establishing a permanent settlement.

After about six years of high favor, Raleigh found his position at court endangered by the rivalry of Essex, and in 1592, on returning from convoying a squadron he had fitted out against the Spanish, he was thrown into the Tower by the orders of the Queen, who had discovered an intrigue between him and one of her ladies whom he subsequently married. He was ultimately released, engaged in various naval exploits, and in
1594 sailed for South America on the voyage described in [The Discovery of Guiana].

On the death of Elizabeth, Raleigh's misfortunes increased. He was accused of treason against James I, condemned, reprieved, and imprisoned for twelve years, during which he wrote his "History of the World," and engaged in scientific researches. In 1616 he was liberated, to make another attempt to find the gold mine in Venezuela; but the expedition was disastrous, and, on his return, Raleigh was executed on the old charge in 1618."

There are two books, a part of V.S. Naipaul's splendid novel, A Way in the World, and Charles Nicholl's The Creature in the Map, that dwell on that last disastrous expedition of Raleigh's up the Orinoco River. They provide a vivid picture of the sad remains of all Raleigh's fortunes. Raleigh had passed on Spanish stories of the City of Gold, El Dorado. His claims that he had found it, and that he could exploit its riches for the glory of England, were what undid him. Raleigh himself, in the opening passage of The Discovery of Guiana, provides a deeply melancholy commentary on the downturn of his luck. Addressing his benefactors, Lord Charles Howard and Sir Robert Cecil:

"For your Honours' many honourable and friendly parts, I have hitherto only returned promises; and now, for answer of both your adventures, I have sent you a bundle of papers, which I have divided between your Lordship and Sir Robert Cecil, in these two respects chiefly; first, for that it is reason that wasteful factors, when they have consumed such stocks as they had in trust, do yield some colour for the same in their account; secondly, for that I am assured that whatsoever shall be done, or written, by me, shall need a double protection and defence. The trial that I had of both your loves, when I was left of all, but of malice and revenge, makes me still presume that you will be pleased (knowing what little power I had to perform aught, and the great advantage of forewarned enemies) to answer that out of knowledge, which others shall but object out of malice. In my more happy times as I did especially honour you both, so I found that your loves sought me out in the darkest shadow of adversity, and the same affection which accompanied my better fortune soared not away from me in my many miseries; all which though I cannot requite, yet I shall ever acknowledge; and the great debt which I have no power to pay, I can do no more for a time but confess to be due. It is true that as my errors were great, so they have yielded very grievous effects; and if aught might have been deserved in former times, to have counterpoised any part of offences, the fruit thereof, as it seemeth, was long before fallen from the tree, and the dead stock only remained. I did therefore, even in the winter of my life, undertake these travails, fitter for bodies less blasted with misfortunes, for men
of greater ability, and for minds of better encouragement, that thereby, if it were possible, I might recover but the moderation of excess, and the least taste of the greatest plenty formerly possessed. If I had known other way to win, if I had imagined how greater adventures might have regained, if I could conceive what farther means I might yet use but even to appease so powerful displeasure, I would not doubt but for one year more to hold fast my soul in my teeth till it were performed. Of that little remain I had, I have wasted in effect all herein. I have undergone many constructions; I have been accompanied with many sorrows, with labour, hunger, heat, sickness, and peril; it appeareth, notwithstanding, that I made no other bravado of going to the sea, than was meant, and that I was never hidden in Cornwall, or elsewhere, as was supposed. They have grossly belied me that forejudged that I would rather become a servant to the Spanish king than return; and the rest were much mistaken, who would have persuaded that I was too easeful and sensual to undertake a journey of so great travail. But if what I have done receive the gracious construction of a painful pilgrimage, and purchase the least remission, I shall think all too little, and that there were wanting to the rest many miseries. But if both the times past, the present, and what may be in the future, do all by one grain of gall continue in eternal distaste, I do not then know whether I should bewail myself, either for my too much travail and expense, or condemn myself for doing less than that which can deserve nothing. From myself I have deserved no thanks, for I am returned a beggar, and withered; but that I might have bettered my poor estate, it shall appear from the following discourse, if I had not only respected her Majesty's future honour and riches."

Raleigh's great mistake was, according to Charles Kingsley, that "he tries to be too many men at once." George Orwell caught something of the temper of the man when he wrote of one episode of his longest stay in the Tower:

"When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent enquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about: whereupon, so it is said - and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be - he burned what he had written and abandoned his project."("As I Please," Tribune, 4 February 1944)

[In his biography of Raleigh (he spells the name Ralegh), William Stebbing discounted the veracity of this account, calling it "insolently mythical": 

"John Pinkerton, writing under the name of Robert Heron, Esq., in 1785, in his eccentric Letters on Literature, is its source. According to him, Ralegh, who had just completed the manuscript of a second volume, looking from his window into a court-yard, saw a man strike an officer near a raised stone. The officer drew his sword, and ran his assailant through. The man, as he fell, knocked the officer down, and died. His corpse and the stunned officer were carried off. Next day Ralegh mentioned the affray to a visitor of known probity and honour. His acquaintance informed him he was entirely in error. The seeming officer, he said, a servant of the Spanish Ambassador, struck the first blow. The other snatched out the servant's sword, and with it slew him. A bystander wrested away the sword, and a foreigner in the crowd struck down the murderer, while other foreigners bore off their comrade's body. The narrator, to Ralegh's assurances that he could not be mistaken, since he had witnessed the whole affair as it happened round the stone, replied that neither could he be, for he was the bystander, and on that very stone he hd been standing. He showed Ralegh a scratch on the cheek he had received in pulling away the sword. Ralegh did not persist in his version. As soon as his friend was gone, he cast his manuscript into the fire. If he could not properly estimate an event under his own eyes, he despaired of appreciating human acts done thousands of years before he was born. 'Truth!' he cried, 'I sacrifice to thee.'" Stebbing mentions that Pinkerton's account "led astray both Guizot and Carlyle. Carlyle talks of 'the old story, still a true lesson for us.'" I think Stebbing is being disingenuous. Orwell, and perhaps Carlyle, probably discounted the story's veracity, while finding enough truth in it to inspire them to pass it on.

Orwell believed that Raleigh was probably wrong in abandoning his history of the world since, at the time he was writing, the modern habit of discounting the existence of objective truth had not appeared. It was still possible in Raleigh's time to produce "a world history which had some resemblance to the real course of events." By Orwell's time, "in no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners."]

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Winters Tale

"I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it."

For months I've been trying to write something about Adam Sandler, whose ultimate ambition appears to be to make the worst comedy in history. With every new release, Sandler proves that, instead of regarding film comedy as an Olympic event in which the bar is always raised, he thinks he's doing the limbo, and is always lowering the bar.

But every time I begin to write about Sandler, I seem to hear a small but insistent voice asking me, "Does it really matter how laughter is elicited? Isn't laughter scarce enough without kvetching about its quality?" (I think the little voice must be Jewish). A good laugh is reason enough to go very far out of one's way - even to a movie as frightfully mirthless as You Don't Mess with the Zohan.

A comedian who always reached the highest bar, Jonathan Winters, who died last Friday at the tender age of 87, was an American original, like Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, and Jack Benny. He was a master at a risky, tightrope-walking style of comedy made popular by Robin Williams, who was a devoted fan of Winters. One never knew where his improvisations would lead, so protean was his imagination and his ability to mimic and to create alternate personalities.

I saw him on television in the Sixties, and in movies like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I'm still puzzled that so many critics were bothered at the expense to which producer/director Stanley Kramer went for the often delirious laughs in that movie. I loved it when Winters got his own show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (1972-74).

Robin Williams always gave Winters credit for his own improvisation-based style. News of his death prompted Williams to post on Facebook, "First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I'll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha."

I was surprised to learn that he served in World War Two in the U.S. Marine Corps. I was not so surprised when I learned how he was hospitalized in 1959 and 1961 for what is now known as bi-polar disorder. One of his anecdotes could stand as an unofficial testament: He once admitted to parking in a handicapped space. A woman approached him and said, "Excuse me, sir. I noticed that you parked your car in a handicapped space, but when I look at your arms and your legs, you don't appear to be handicapped at all!" Winters smiled and replied, "Not physically!" and he opened his eyes wide and began to laugh maniacally. The woman ran away from him.  

He likened the entertainment industry to the Olympics, with actors standing on a platform to be handed their gold, silver or bronze medals. Except that "I think my place is inside the box, underneath the guy receiving the gold medal. They're playing the national anthem and I'm fondling a platinum medallion."

Friday, April 12, 2013


'Tis the cause makes all,
Degrades or hallows courage in its fall.


What madness the Cold War seems today. A forty year nightmare that novelists John Le Carré and Ian Fleming made their bread and butter. I saw the new James Bond installment, Skyfall, within a week of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, made in 2011, and the coincidence made me wonder that the first movie, part of a franchise that was a product of the Cold War, is as anachronistic as the second movie, which is set firmly and definingly at the height of that thawed-out conflict.

Skyfall is the most expensive and explosive Bond to date. But it bothered me, for the opposite reasons why the Bond films bothered me throughout the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. Where did the movie's reason to exist go, and why do I feel more than ever that the franchise shouldn't persist? Skyfall's very success (in excess of a billion dollars) is reason enough, I think, to put Bond out to pasture. Tinker, incidentally, made less than $100 million.

About the only significant detail in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that bears on the present comes when Smiley relates the story of his first meeting with Karla, the future head of Soviet intelligence. By the time Smiley, on behalf of British intelligence, got to him, the Americans had "had a go" at him - his fingernails were missing. Smiley offers Karla to "come to the West and live a comfortable life." But Karla goes back to Moscow. When Smiley catches the "mole" near the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he's told that his decision to spy for the other side "was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly."

This is an instance of the pervasive anti-Americanism that runs throughout Le Carré's books. James Wood defined those books in his essay, "The Little Drummer Boy":

"Instead of Bond's easy triumphs, Le Carré presented liberal English muddle, the kind of mutely triumphant failure canonically formulated by George Eliot at the end of Middlemarch, in the famous summation: "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." The English spies whom Le Carré wrote about were not exactly committing unhistoric acts; but theirs were hidden lives, lost in the complicated fog of the Cold War. Le Carré's characters were almost willfully unglamorous, closer to Oxford dons or mild headmasters than to political brokers. And no one would ever hear about their sacrifices and their courage, partly because they were naturally secret, and partly because their actual jobs were morally shabbier than the public wanted to know."

For eight years in the Navy, I served as an intelligence specialist. I was little more than a custodian of classified material, but in all that time I learned just one thing: that I was no good at it. I wasn't at all diverted by the fact that, every day, I had access to information that no one else did. It gave me no special pleasure. Like everything else in the military, it was reduced to drudgery. 

The West didn't win the Cold War because of Bond, a cartoon version of espionage, but because of squalid little men like Smiley, functionaries performing their miniscule duties in poorly-lit offices with bad ventilation. If Fleming and Le Carré had anything in common it was their distrust of - and distaste for - the Americans.  Le Carré's anti-Americanism took center stage in his work when the Cold War ended and it wasn't necessary to be anti-communist any more.

The 1974 Le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the absence of commas is never explained), was first made into a TV series in 1979, with Alec Guinness as Smiley and Patrick Stewart as Karla. If the series had advantages over the movie, and I think it did, one of them was the simple fact that it was made at a time when Le Carré's concerns were still real. The book and the series were validated by the times in which they were created. All these years later, it seems like it could've been about the Thirty Years' War.

As I recall, thirty years later, Alec Guinness was a bit of a cipher as Smiley. He looked more effete in those awful glasses than he perhaps intended. Gary Oldman is much better in the role, his vulnerability, thanks to his unfaithful wife Anne (whose face, just like Karla's, we never see) more in evidence. The rest of the movie cast is predictably fine for a British production - even one co-produced by French and German companies (there are eleven producers in the credits, including Le Carré). 

I think that I'd have liked the movie a bit more if the makers had been alive, or aware, when the events had fictionally taken place. The credits give a more prominent place than usual to the make-up and hair and the costume design. A good chunk of the movie's budget was spent on capturing the look of the story's world. The Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson, and his Dutch cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, obviously had a vision of that world as hellish - ponderously gloomy and grey. This grim, wan account of imagined people involved in fanciful events is as close to actuality as its author was authorized to take us. These unhappy Cold Warriors held the redoubt for the sake of our sound sleep.

There was a transcendent moment in the series that sticks in my memory. It was in the last episode, after Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen*) has killed the mole, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson). He's in the boarding school church during a service and the boy named Jumbo, who has befriended Prideaux, is reading from Genesis: "And the Pharaoh said unto Joseph: forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this." Jumbo stumbles on the word "shewed", pronouncing it "shooed" - "Forasmuch as God hath shooed thee..." He tries it again, and stumbles. Then again. Finally Prideaux, absorbed by other thoughts, intones sadly, "Forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this."

Both Skyfall and Tinker Tailor are classified as thrillers, although they are at opposite ends of the genre. The suspense created in Skyfall depends on how convincingly the villain threatens the hero (and heroine). Bond is believed to be on the side of good, but only because - ostensibly anyway - it's our side. Le Carré is too cynical, or so he wants us to think, to portray our side as much nobler or virtuous (as in "possessing virtues") as the other side. His suspense is low intensity, even if the stakes are high. The question remains: why dredge up all this spent angst forty years later? There's no hope of recapturing the atmosphere of alarm that pervaded the Cold War. A film like Dr. Strangelove, though a satire, retains its power simply because its gallows humor was created in the shadow of the gallows, not safely in hindsight. There are fewer and fewer people who remember what it was like living under the threat of nuclear annihilation day in and day out.

The trouble with Skyfall is its insistence on making Bond human. Bullets can penetrate his body. He bleeds. After his three installments in the Bond franchise, Daniel Craig's Bond must have added a number of scars on his body to his distinguishing marks. As always, despite his being more human than Connery or Moore or Dalton or Brosnan, Craig's Bond defies the limits of human endurance. He's rather like Jesus - the son of God, but human enough to bleed and die. But by the end of Skyfall, with a brand new M (Ralph Fiennes), a new Q (Ben Whishaw), and even a new Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond's resurrection insures the future arrival of another episode.

*I liked Ian Bannen much more as Prideaux. What he suffered at the hands of Karla (emasculation was implied) makes his revenge on Hayden more convincing.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Strike While the Iron is Hot

I would choose heartlessness over brainlessness any day of the week. So it is impossible for me, in remembering Margaret Thatcher, to forget the appalling era - 1979-1990 - over which she presided. When Robert Graves tried to characterize English poetry from Dryden to Pope, he called it "The Age of Obsequiousness," - servile competence substituting for inspired originality. Such were the Reagan/Thatcher years. Heaven only knows how two people from such humble beginnings (Reagan was born in an Illinois apartment to a salesman father, Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer) could have become the saviors of wealth and privilege. Of course, the big difference between Reagan and Thatcher was that Maggie had convictions, however misguided. When I looked into their eyes (on television, of course), it was apparent that neither was capable of the slightest self-doubt. It's no coincidence that nearly everyone who spoke out on Thatcher's behalf had the word "Lord" or "Sir" in front of their names.

But the amount of invective directed against Thatcher in England was unmatched by any Prime Minister in history. If nothing else, she was definitive proof against the notion that electing a woman - any woman - to high office would be an improvement over what men have been doing for centuries. Feminists, who argued for decades for a female world leader, got more than they bargained for with Maggie. The reckless force with which she dispatched the Royal Task Force to the Falklands in 1982 (it was called Operation Corporate, of course, with a fleet of 127 ships [43 Royal Navy, 22 auxiliary, 62 merchant]), was much less "risky" than foolhardy. The task force took more than a week to arrive (I'll never forget the slow-motion suspense) and accomplished the messy but effective feat of killing a fly with a cannon. It was a case, for Britain, of too much, too late. The subsequent rejoicings in Britain reminded me of the scene from Monty Python's Meaning of Life, in which a headmaster reminds the boys of his school "to commemorate Empire Day, when we try to remember the names of all those from the Sudbury area who so gallantly gave their lives to keep China British."

Thatcher's contribution to history was to undo just about everything that progressive governments had been trying to do in England since the war. (Reagan did virtually the same thing in the U.S.) She slashed the taxes on the wealthy by more than half (98% to 40%), privatized infrastructure industries (British Petroleum, British Airways) and broke the power of the labor unions. (Ronald Reagan cut the wealth tax in America from 70% to 30% and killed regulation of industry.) The direct result, less than twenty years later, was a worldwide economic catastrophe that did nothing more than accelerate the widening of the gulf between the rich and the poor, which is the singlemost serious threat - economic inequality - to democracy.

Reagan wasn't nearly as hated by the Left as Thatcher. It continues to astonish me whenever Republicans intone his name like a mantra, and it should send chills down people's spines when they realize that Reagan is The One for American Conservatives. But reading some of the comments made about him at the time of his death provide a measure of the depth of the Left's antipathy toward him. Philip Roth said in an interview:

"Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry, just where Orwell failed; he would have seen that the grotesquerie to be visited upon the English-speaking world would not be an extension of the repressive Eastern totalitarian nightmare but a proliferation of the Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism—American-style philistinism run amok. It wasn’t Big Brother who’d be watching us from the screen, but we who’d be watching a terrifyingly powerful world leader with the soul of an amiable, soap-opera grandmother, the values of a civic-minded Beverly Hills Cadillac dealer, and the historical background and intellectual equipment of a high-school senior in a June Allyson musical."

Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic:

"That our countrymen could have elected this good-natured, engaging, but utterly inconsequential B-movie actor to two presidential terms is commentary enough on the weakness of the democratic electoral process. But to hear pundits and pollsters claiming that Reagan should now be considered one of the great presidents of history, below only Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (FDR apparently having dropped down a memory hole), is to enter the realm of the preposterous, if not the occult. Yes, his genial smile and crinkly quips made everyone feel good about themselves, except those afflicted with such un-American disorders as homelessness, minority status, and AIDS. Yes, he presided over the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the "evil empire." But didn't Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika have a bit to do with that development as well? The real legacies of the Reagan years are harebrained technological stunts such as Star Wars, clandestine adventures such as the Iran-Contra affair, tax cuts for the rich masquerading as economic restoratives, and pre-emptive strikes against such menaces to democracy and world peace as Grenada. Sound familiar?"

But the greatest dismantling of Reagan's overblown reputation came at the hands of the late Christopher Hitchens. In his essay for Slate, "Not Even a Hedgehog," Hitchens wrote:

"The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon."

The thing I disliked the most about the recent Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady (aside from it being such a poorly-made movie), was that Meryl Streep was such a great actress that she made Thatcher more sympathetic - by making her seem human. And nobody noticed the irony of the casting of Jim Broadbent as Dennis Thatcher, Maggie's long-suffering (and apparently befuddled) husband, when he had also played the long-suffering husband of Iris Murdoch, John Bayley, in the much better movie, Iris. Murdoch had also contracted Alzheimer's, to tragic, rather than simply sad, effect.

It may not be the most eloquent diatribe against the Iron Lady, but Elvis Costello's song, "Tramp the Dirt Down" is certainly the most emphatic:

"Well I hope I don't die too soon
I pray the Lord my soul to save
Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave
Because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live
long enough to savour
That's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."

I can't say I hated her. I simply hated everything she so proudly stood for.

[While working on a post-in-progress, I stumbled on the resemblance, plummy accent and bad teeth, between Margaret Thatcher and Sir Kenneth Clark!]

Friday, April 5, 2013

My Last Sigh

“Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” – George Orwell (1)

“I dream of a language whose words, like fists, would fracture jaws.” – E M Cioran (2)

Based solely on the evidence of his work – iconoclastic, irreverent, anarchic – one would expect an autobiography by Luis Buñuel to be equally irascible and unrepentant. In his 1967 essay Thoughts After Attending Another Film Society Buñuel Series, Vernon Young wrote of him, “You can lie awake at night and hear his lip curl. His natural ancestor, in film, was Erich von Stroheim, who hated all his characters (except those he played himself); that was the secret of his charm. And like Buñuel, one feels, von Stroheim kept a diary in which, under THINGS TO DO TODAY, he wrote “Remember to be nauseated.”(3) Yet Buñuel’s memoir, My Last Sigh, has been praised since its publication in 1982 as intensely moving and even warm and witty.(4) The man who emerges from these pages is unexpectedly urbane and, especially in the final chapter, wistful and vulnerable - not quite in keeping with expectations of Buñuel’s temperament since his fellow surrealist and co-scenarist on Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (1930) – the painter Salvador Dali – published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali in 1944. But Buñuel has long since emerged as the better artist, and Dali as a hyper-extended exhibitionist. Perhaps the difference can be attributed to their ages when their respective memoirs were published: Dali was 40; Buñuel was 82. But Buñuel had the presence of mind to recall his mother’s decline into senility, while recognizing the importance of memory to identity:

"You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing."(5)

To be sure, Buñuel wasn’t born to reassure us that we live in best of all possible worlds. Indeed, we were forewarned of this fact in the “prologue” from Un Chien Andalou (following the famous opening intertitle “Il etait une fois…”) in which Buñuel himself appears sharpening a straight-razor, gazing out of his window at a line of clouds scudding across the moon – and the next shot we see is one of the most shocking in film history, the one in which Buñuel slices open a woman’s eye with the razor (it was only a safely dead pig). Buñuel was so uncertain of the response of the audience at the film’s premier that he brought along stones in his pockets to hurl back at the audience should they decide to attack him. But instead of violence, the film provoked an enthusiastic incoherence from the general public (this was 1928 Paris), even as the Surrealists – led by Andre Breton – embraced it as a prime example of their esthetic. Buñuel comments in his chapter “Surrealism (1929-1933)” that his first ground-breaking film made him the target “of a lifetime of threats and insults.” No wonder, since he had written in a prologue to the published scenario of Un Chien Andalou “that the film was nothing more or less than a public call to assassination.” But no one, much as they may have tried, could forget Un Chien Andalou or its creator. Buñuel committed himself to surrealism from the beginning and, unlike many of its founders (except Breton himself), never chose to forsake its ideals. One priceless anecdote illustrates his total commitment to surrealism in the Thirties. Invited to Charlie Chaplin's house in Beverly Hills for a Christmas party, Buñuel and a friend, without warning, attacked and destroyed Chaplin's Christmas tree. I can only assume that Chaplin's magnanimous response to this violent demonstration was a measure of his respect for Buñuel's artistic conviction!

"More than anything else, surrealism was a kind of call heard by certain people everywhere – in the United States, in Germany, Spain, Yugoslavia – who, unknown to one another, were already practicing instinctive forms of irrational expression…There was indeed something in the air, and my connection with the surrealists in many ways determined the course of my life."

This would prove to be the source of Buñuel’s lifelong fame, as well as the later marginalization of his genius. Surely Bunuel must have felt appalled when his films made in France from 1964-1977 were greeted at the festivals with polite laughter and applause rather than boos and catcalls. When he met Breton in New York in the 40s, he wondered at Breton’s recent excommunication of Max Ernst and Dali from the movement. Breton replied: “’It’s sad, mon cher Luis,’ he added, ‘but it’s no longer possible to scandalize anybody!’” (6) Buñuel sadly witnessed the demise of the very movement to which he had added a tremendous impetus: “I’m often asked whatever happened to surrealism in the end. It’s a tough question, but sometimes I say that the movement was successful in its details and a failure in its essentials . . . There’s no doubt that surrealism was a cultural and artistic success; but these were precisely the areas of least importance to most surrealists. Their aim was not to establish a glorious place for themselves in the annals of art and literature, but to change the world, to transform life itself. This was our essential purpose, but one good look around is evidence enough of our failure.”

For the average moviegoer of the 50s and 60s, Buñuel’s periodic re-emergence from the obscurity imposed by his exile from Spain – with such characteristically subversive films as Los Olvidados (1950), Nazarin (1958), and the magnificent Viridiana (1961) – must have seemed like his further “notes from the underground,” examples of his endless intransigence with the status quo. Buñuel supplies our avid need for some continuity during these otherwise dark years with priceless anecdotes. Buñuel dwells – as was his surrealist wont – on his childhood memories in Aragon, his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish Civil War, his exile to America and eventually to Mexico, his triumphant return to Spain in 1960 and his subsequent renaissance in France. But the richest anecdotes are those that assist us, however incompletely, in the explication of his splendid films.

For instance, he complains that he had to make The Exterminating Angel in Mexico, which forced him to make concessions in the production design that he wouldn't have made in Europe. Or, my own favorite, he explains why he used two actresses to play Conchita in his last film Cet obscur objet du désir (Buñuel had a fetish for Franglish titles). Since it went entirely unexplained at the time of the film's release, many critics assumed it was more of Buñuel's surrealism at work. Vernon Young confessed that, when the second actress appeared playing Conchita, he laughed out loud. In My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes that it was simply a matter of his first choice for the role (the very French Carole Laure) suddenly being unavailable to finish the film (due to a "tempestuous argument") and his unwillingness to reshoot all her scenes with another actress (the highly Spanish Ángela Molina). So he decided, with his producer Serge Silberman's approval, to finish shooting with a new Conchita:

"In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who'd brought the shooting of That Obscure Object of Desire to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved."

Buñuel's steadfast atheism ("I'm still an atheist, thank God!" he wrote in his last chapter) never seemed to shake what I would call his nostalgia for the medieval Catholicism with which his childhood in Calanda was saturated. His obsessive lampooning of Christianity in films as late as The Milky Way (1969) and Tristana (1970) seemed rather old-fashioned - almost charming - even if, for most critics, he seemed to be whipping a dead Messiah. Still, in his last moments he declined the intervention of a priest. He died at 83 in Mexico City.

(1) Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali". The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, 1984, p.254.
(2) Cioran, The Temptation To Exist, translated by Richard Howard
(3) Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art, Quadrangle Books, 1972, p.385.
(4) On the back of the Knopf dustjacket is a blurb from Francois Truffaut: “the nonconformist autobiography of a great filmmaker – moralistic, modest, and extremely witty.”
(5) All quotations from the book are from the 1983 Knopf edition, translated by Abigail Israel.
(6) Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto can be read in its entirety here.