Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ciao Professore!

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the word "professorial" in British English as "of or like a professor." The American Urban Dictionary defines the same word in very much different terms: "approaching hot real life issues in an analytical, absorbed, and abstract manner." Instead of being a term of praise to Brits, it means to Americans being aloof, difficult, superior. It seems to me that it is precisely when confronting "hot real life issues" that such an approach is most effective. But try and convince Americans.

And try and convince Americans that such a demeanor is a good thing in a president. If the otherwise inexplicable success of Donald Trump, a bonafide fool, reveals anything about his followers, it is that, for them, eight years of a "professorial" president has been a nightmare. Not to mention he's the wrong color. And belongs to the wrong party. But the real reason why Obama's "professorial" demeanor as president has not gone down well with so many Americans is because they have never had much respect for teachers or for learning.

In American politics, 2016 is quickly becoming a year of astonishments. That finding a successor to Barack Obama was going to lead to surprises was to be expected. In the case of the Democrats, two candidates are running who have either upheld some of Obama's accomplishments or questioned them. Hillary Clinton is clearly the candidate most likely to accept Obama's inheritance and to carry on some of his triumphs, like managing to keep us out of further wars, and maintaining the slow but steady improvement of the economy. Bolstering what has, for better or worse, become known as "Obamacare" is something that Clinton promises to do. But Bernie Sanders, who uses the scary word "revolution" too much (this is coming from a fellow socialist), says that he plans to expand Obamacare into something like Britain's NHS - despite Prime Minister Cameron's efforts to undermine it. Sanders is also promising the moon for anyone who wants, but can't afford, to go to college.

The debates on the Democratic side have been substantive arguments about the direction in which a post-Obama presidency should try to lead the country. Although a degree of skepticism about precisely what Obama's accomplishments have been in eight years of Congressional gridlock, I didn't expect there to be such a wholesale debunking of them by the opposing side. The state of the nation is decidedly different from what it was in 2008, which was the last time a Republican was the Commander-in-Chief. George W. Bush ran the country like there was no tomorrow - and there damned near wasn't one. But the stories that have circulated since the election of the first African-American to the highest office - stories that I once considered too extreme and rather insulting expressions of Conservative angst - now seem to have been true. How many Americans awoke on the morning after the election in November 2008 thinking that Obama's victory was a bad dream, only to turn on their TVs and discover that it wasn't a bad dream but (for how many of them?) the most unimaginable result?

The nature of the unimaginable is, I'm almost afraid to believe, probably of racial origin. There's a black man in the white house. It's just as simple and outrageous an objection as that. Not only is Obama the representation of everything (or just about everything) that they despise, he is the physical embodiment of it. When the various anti-Obama movements manifested themselves one by one, with their avowed ambition to de-ligitimize his presidency and remove him from the White House by an means necessary, many observers who were black saw only that their opposition, which seemed to be so angry, was being directed not at a president who happened to be a black man, but at a black man who happened to be the president.

Just a few weeks ago, while most of the world marked the historic occasion of a sitting U.S. president setting foot in Cuba, Fox News was talking about what a betrayal it was of JFK, who started the ridiculous embargo. JFK, you'll recall, green-lighted the Bay of Pigs debacle, only to pull the plug on it during its execution, stranding thousands of Cuban-American volunteers on the beaches without air cover.

I have commented before about how some presidents get elected because they are - or seem to voters to be - the antithesis of the preseident who came before them. It seems obvious to me that George W. Bush, an unsubtle man of few words, succeeded Bill Clinton, who was branded "Slick Willy" by the press, not simply because he managed to slip out of so many potential legal prosecutions, eventually even surviving impeachment, but because it was difficult to get a straight yes or no answer out of him. Bush was utterly unequivocal, which was a refreshing change from eight years of Clinton's masterful equivocations.

Donald Trump appears to be the candidate who is most unlike Obama. Not only are his racial credentials impeccably WASP (Trump is American for the German name Drumpf), but he is the absolute antithesis of a thoughful, studious (if rather aloof) professor. Instead, he is a bullying doofus who shoots his mouth off before its fully loaded (half-cocked).

I stole the title of this post from a film released in the States in 1992. The distributor of Lina Wertmuller's film, known as Io speriamo che me la cavo (Me, Let's Hope I Make It) in Italy, gave it the American-release title "Ciao Professore!". The film is about a conscientious teacher who is sent by some bureaucratic error from a relatively prosperous school district in northern Italy to an urban school in a poor district of Naples. Like Obama in the White House, the teacher, faced with seemingly impossible odds, uses his wits to convince his students and their parents the value of learning and the unwisdom of taking the easy way out of their problems.  

While Bernie Sanders would claim that Barack Obama is too close to the center to be effective, Hillary Clinton - to her favor, I think - is promising to carry Obama's legacy forward. While I agree with Sanders about the dubious history of Centrism, I think in the balance that Obama was a successful president.

Obama will officially depart from the White House on January 20, 2017. Will Hillary return, as she might to a cherished old home to which she grew attached for eight years (even if some of the activities of her husband under the same roof showed lapses in judgement - not to mention taste)? Will it be darling old Bernie Sanders who puts his feet up on the furniture? Or will Trump move in with his trophy Slovenian wife, and turn the White House into another Trump hotel casino? A letter by Harper Lee from 1990 has recently surfaced in which she tells a friend that "the worst punishment God can devise for this sinner is to make her spirit reside eternally at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City." Four years of a Trump presidency might seem like an eternity to many Americans, an ill-devised punishment for our sins. But if we're not too careful, Trump may turn out to be exactly what we deserve for not being "professorial" enough to properly educate our citizens.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Je Suis Beirut

There is a running gag in Luis Bunuel's wonderful last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) that has become, over the years since the film was made, uncannily portentous. At several moments throughout the film, armed men appear suddenly or explosions take place, there is a momentary pandemonium as people scatter and scream, and, just as suddenly, the armed men exit the scene and, strangely (hilariously), everything returns to normal as if the guns and explosions were never there. It was Bunuel's last - sadly - surrealist attack on everyday European life, what he might have called bourgeois normalcy. What is funny about these scenes is how little the terrorist attacks interrupt the story of the film and the lives of its characters.

There were terrorist attacks in Spain, in which Obscure Object was made, carried out by separatist groups like the Basque ETA, after the death of Franco. Some of them were large-scale attacks, in which there was substantial loss of life and property damage. Bunuel, who always hated middle class European society, lampooned it in his last films, like The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. He was always waiting for cracks to appear in the carefully-crafted edifice of modern society because he knew that it was nothing but that - an edifice. Underneath it were all of the old passions and hatreds that had always threatened to tear society apart. Surrealism was a kind of artististic terrorism, attempting to tear holes in the thin veneer of civilized life. Bunuel was clearly in favor of society's destruction, and probably saw the terrorists as catalysts, blowing it apart - literally and symbolically. (1)

When the Paris bombings took place last summer, and the outpouring of sorrow and sympathy followed in their wake, I remember someone asking why there was no such outpouring of feeling after similar bombings had taken place in Beirut a week before. The immediate response to the question, which no one dared utter, was that it was Paris that had been bombed, not Beirut; that no one is geniuinely surprised when they see reports of bombings in a place like Beirut.

Last month I watched a report from Beirut in which someone said that when a bomb goes off in Beirut, people's lives aren't interrupted. Life goes on as if the bombings were just another part of everyday life in the city - whereas when bombs go off in Paris, "the whole country goes into a coma for three months."

Now the focus of international sympathy is on Brussells. Flowers are being laid in the city squares, messages are being scrawled in chalk on the pavement. "Je suis Bruxelles" has replaced "Je suis Paris," which was itself a replacement for "Je suis Charlie Hebdo." Despite such shows of solidarity in the face of terrorist acts - whose aim, besides death and destruction, is to inspire nationalism, to disunite people, to close borders and for Europeans to reconsider the EU - fractures are already appearing in Europe. Right-wing, ultra-nationalist political parties are scoring victories in elections. Concerns about terrorism and about the stanchless flow of Muslim refugees into Europe, like blood from a bullet wound, are inspiring countries formerly known for their openness toward immigrants, like Denmark, to pass laws limiting future immigration to their countries.

Terrorist acts are always the same. They vary only in scale and ferocity. They are considered atrocities and not acts of war because they aren't directed from any specific country, even if the country "sponsors" terrrorists and belongs to George W. Bush's comic book "Axis OF Evil." Military responses are invariably counter-productive, since all they manage to do is arouse more hatred and resentment and result in the multiplication of potential enemies. Will our major cities eventually become Beiruts? Will we be living in the world Bunuel foresaw so clearly in his last film? Somewhere Luis is heaving another sigh.(2)

(1) I am not suggesting that Bunuel was in sympathy with terrorists. He saw them for what they are - dangerously deluded characters in a melodrama written by someone they never met, in a war among shadows.
(2) Bunuel's gave his memoir the title "My Last Sigh" (Mon dernier soupir).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Erin Go Home

Just as I was at the point of despairing of finding suitable material for a St. Patrick's Day post, handed one to me this morning. The headline reads: "Gerry Adams expresses anger after being denied entry to White House."

"Gerry Adams," the Guardian reported, "who was refused entry into the White House to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, has described the incident as an 'unacceptable development'. The Sinn Féin leader turned up for the annual Irish reception hosted by the US president, Barack Obama, on Tuesday evening only to be stopped over a 'security' issue. It is understood he left after being forced to wait for an hour and a half to get clearance. In a statement confirming the incident, he said Sinn Féin 'will not sit at the back of the bus for anyone'."

As an Irish-American, I know who Gerry Adams is. More than that, I know who he was. Just now he is the president of Sinn Féin, a Northern Ireland political party that has a long and spotty history. Adams was also a prominent leader of the Irish Republican Army, the military - some (like me) would call it the terrorist - wing of Sinn Féin. In 2014, Adams was arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and held for four days while being questioned about his role in the murder of Jean McConville, one of the "disappeared" of the Northern Ireland "Troubles." He was released and a report stated that it was due to insufficient evidence to detain him further.

Some of you may remember how Adams petitioned for a visa to the United States in 1993, about how President Bill Clinton personally approved the visa and how Clinton later welcomed Adams to a visit to the White House on St. Patrick's Day, 1995. Adams requested entry to the U.S. in order to facilitate his party's fund-raising efforts among Irish-Americans. Last year on this day, Hillary Clinton was inducted to the Irish-American Hall of Fame and posed for photographs next to Adams in New York City. She has stated that she regards Adams as an important figure in the history of Northern Ireland comparable to Nelson Mandela's position in South Africa. I find her views typically obtuse and disgusting in the extreme. Unlike South Africa, there are no heroes in the Northern Ireland Troubles - only victims, some living and some dead.

I, for one, was appalled in 1995 to see an American president shake hands with a known leader of a terrorist organization. But Clinton and his friend Tony Blair claimed that it was the only way that Sinn Féin could be relied on to cooperate in peace talks that led eventually to the Good Friday Accord in 1998, and the announcement in 2005 in which the Provisional IRA agreed to abandon its "armed campaign" and embrace a democratic political solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Recently released transcripts of phone conversations between Clinton and Blair the day after the Omagh bombing in 1998 (four months after the Good Friday Agreement) reveal Clinton's misgivings about trusting Adams, whose murky ties to the IRA he was never able to clarify.

The trouble is, Gerry Adams, while maintaining his evasive stance regarding his terrorist past and attempting to excuse his past actions with the blanket alibi, "we were at war," is the head of a Marxist/Leninist political party that remains committed to revolutionary change.

I have described in previous posts how in my teens I went through my own Irish Republican phase. Like many Irish-Americans, I embraced the quite ludicrous version of Irish history in which the British Army's intervention in Northern Ireland in the 1970s was just another example of British colonialism, and I, too, listened to the Paul McCartney song, "Give Ireland Back to the Irish," among other, much older rebel songs. As I grew up, however, I gradually realized that the situation in Norther Ireland was far more complex and that the struggle between the Protestants and Catholics was about power and political control of the six counties of the North. The IRA wanted the British Army out so that they could wage war on the Protestants with impunity.

I grew sickened by the stereotypical image of Irish-Americans, especially on this day, sitting in bars all across America, tearfully swapping stories about the Old Country and handing over their hard-earned dollars to organizations like Sinn Féin, clandestinely funding terrorist acts. My feelings, then as now, are those of an interested observer of events that the Irish themselves have shaped. No one was as surprised as I was by the Good Friday agreement, but peace has not come without resistance.

When president Bill Clinton first welcomed Adams to the White House in 1995, I thought that it was a terrible precedent. Perhaps Bill Clinton considered kissing a terrorist's arse on the White House premises a small price to pay for establishing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Whatever the reason for refusing Adams entry to the White House for this year's celebration, I think it's high time he was shown the door. Erin go bragh.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Pépé le Moko

The term "poetic realism" doesn't really work. Poetry is the redemption of reality. The particular style of filmmaking one encounters in the best French films of the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, from Rene Clair's Le Million (1931) to Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), is much more poetic than realistic. There is a moment near the end of Pépé le Moko, Julien Duvivier's marvelous 1937 film, in which Pepe is at last leaving the Casbah to join Gaby on a ship to Oran. As he walks, determinedly and almost joyfully, Duvivier resorts to using a process shot, a rear-screen projection, that shows us Jean Gabin walking facing towards and away from the camera as dizzying images of the Casbah's labyrinthine streets are projected behind - and in front - of his head. Of course, it's only Gabin pretending to walk in front of a screen on which the exterior shots are projected. At first one is tempted to object to this intrusion of patented falsity - until one realizes that it is actually Duvivier's poetry. It was never intended to look real. The images even dissolve into one another as Gabin mimes his long walk to freedom.

Pépé le Moko is a distinctively French film, but looking at it eighty years after its initial release, so much of it is so intolerably contrived that it was halfway to Hollywood when it was being made. There are too many Europeans trying to pass for Arabs, too many types trying to pass for the real thing. (One character, L'Arbi, is played by the great Marcel Dalio, made up as an Arab, tarbush and all.) It explores the Casbah of Algiers as thoroughly as Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers did thirty years later. Algeria was French in 1936, almost as close to Marseilles as Mexico was to Hollywood. The extended montage depicting the Casbah, with the French Chief Inspector's voiceover, is a virtual rogue's travelogue.

Pépé is a legendary thief, hated by the police and loved by the people of the Casbah, especially by women. When, for example, he is moved by his gratified love for Gaby to sing from a rooftop, women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, hear him and smile. "Pépé is happy!" they shout, running and clapping beneath his terrace. But the police are always waiting for Pépé to make some mistake, to expose himself in a vulnerable place, or to go outside the safety of the Casbah. He meets a beautiful Parisian woman, who has entered the Casbah as much for a chance to see Pépé as to take in its exotic attractions. Beguiled by her jewels and by her knowledge of the Paris that he longs to see again, he falls for her and wants to escape from the entrapment of his life in Algiers.

There are many celebrated scenes, like the one in which Pépé and Gaby recite the Paris Metro stops one by one until they arrive simultaneously at the same stop. Or when Pépé first sees Gaby, and his eyes pass first to her rings and bracelets, then to her her pearl necklace and earrings, until he finally notices the beauty of her smiling face. Then there is the scene in which an old cocotte sadly sings along with a recording of a song that she sang when she was young and hopeful. With tears in her eyes, surrounded by souvenirs of her desirability, she gives us an indelible image of sadness for a lost youth, a lost beauty.

In Algiers, the American remake of Pépé, Charles Boyer played Gabin's role. He was an effective actor - Hollywood's stock suave Frenchman, but he was no Jean Gabin. Gabin brings Pépé to life. He is convincing no matter what he does or says. Perhaps only James Cagney could've pulled off a performance of such power. But Cagney was a short man who made up for his lack of size with toughness and tenacity. Gabin's best scene is the one in which he gets roaring drunk after the death of Pierrot and, longing to escape the Casbah and see Gaby, he is almost caught by the police when he starts walking down towards the port. Ines, a girl who loves him, tricks him into returning to his house where, she tells him, Gaby waits for him. When he learns that she lied to him, instead of getting angry at Ines, Pépé sees her love for him and that her lie saved him from getting caught.

Among Pépé's henchmen there is Gilbert-Gil, as Pierrot, a young crook whom Pepe has taken under his wing, who looks strikingly like Jean-Pierre Leaud. Gaston Modot, who plays incessantly with a child's toy, hasn't much else to do except remind us of his much more substantial roles in L'Age d'Or and La Regle du Jeu and Les Enfants du Paradis.

Something must be said about Mireille Balin, the beautiful actress, born in Monaco, who plays Pépé's Gaby. During the German Occupation, she fell in love with a Wehrmacht officer named Birl Desbok. When Paris was about to be liberated by Allied forces in '44, they fled towards the Italian border, but were arrested near Nice. The couple were separated, with Desbok probably killed and Balin beaten and raped. She was imprisoned until after the war, when she was forbidden to appear in films for one year. When the prohibition was lifted, she made only one more film, in 1947, before withdrawing from society completely. She died in 1968, without a sou.

Pépé le Moko is by far Duvivier's most popular film, if not his best. It isn't every day that a foreign film is so popular that Hollywood not only tries to cash in on its success but also tries to reproduce it virtually frame by frame. For the Criterion DVD of Pepe, a shot-by-shot comparison was made with Algiers, and the extent to which Duvivier's film was stolen is undeniable, if somewhat funny by now. But there is enough location photography, matched with clever studio-shot scenes, to give Pépé an authenticity that Hollywood could only dream of. And Duvivier's realistic poetry lends lyricism to an otherwise unedifying tale of a happiness too far away to reach.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Form and Feeling

The piece I published at the beginning of February, "The Lovely Woods," centered on a reading of two poems by Robert Frost, "Come In" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I mentioned how both poems have been noted for their "optimism" and for their (surface) beauty, but that they betrayed depths that have gone largely unexamined. This is a particular danger with poetry, especially in poetry, because of the concentration of criticism on its verbal effects alone - on its technical accomplishments, its euphonic effects of word-sounds assembled in lines and stanzas. Some poets, however, deliberately combine a surface loveliness with depths of meaning that are a tacit betrayal of such loveliness. Frost must have been aware that his poetry is misinterpreted and/or underestimated precisely because of its surface simplicities.

Frost was very attuned to the euphonic effects of words. He wanted to move poetry away from poetic language and from the sclerotic condition that poetry was in at the end of the 19th-century and restore everyday speech to a poet's vocabulary. But Frost was also very much aware of the sense of poetry, of making his spoken American English a tool for the expression of the same themes - about love and death - that poets have addressed for centuries.

A few days ago I encountered something written by R. P. Blackmur in a preface to a collection of poetry criticism:

"[Denis] Donoghue ... has a point when he goes on to say that many people feel confident enough in talking about fiction — novels and stories — but are more or less tongue-tied when it comes to poetry. Doubtless this condition has something to do with their desire, as he says, to 'come to themes and issues directly, without the hesitations enforced by considerations of form, structure, and style.' This bears out my experience that students come from secondary school prepared to think of poetry as a very deep art indeed, and that their task is to penetrate its depths and arrive at something called the real meaning. Thus Frost’s 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,' with its snowfakes and harness bells, is 'really' about death, perhaps about suicide. In other words, the poem’s enchanting surface ('The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake') exists only to be seen through to something beyond or under it. If there is a single principle holding these essays on poets and poetry together, it is that style needs to be attended to, not just at the beginning of our reading but continuously, and that readers should invest in an engagement, sometimes a prolonged one, with the surface of a poem — with its events that can be seen and heard as they reveal themselves over time."

Blackmur was, I think, trying to justify - as if he needed to - his lifelong devotion to the study of poetic form. But if the 20th century can be noted for a single accomplishment in criticism, it is that form is inseparable from content, that you cannot judge discuss one in complete isolation from the other.

What else is Frost's "Snowy Evening" about,if not death? Was Frost simply doing what everyone seems to think he was doing - merely describing a beautiful scene for our pleasure in words that mirror in their sound the beauty of the scene they describe? Blackmur, who was no great fan of Frost, knew what Frost was getting at, but also wanted to emphasize how Frost's use of language wove a spell of its own over the scene.

In a broadcast he made for the BBC, whose text was later published in The Listener, George Orwell, who chose a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins - "Felix Randal" - to illustrate his point, said:

"... in any criticism of poetry, of course, it seems natural to judge primarily by the ear. For in verse the words - the sounds of words, their associations, and the harmonies of sound and associations that two or three words together can set up - obviously matter more than they do in prose. Otherwise there would be no reason for writing in metrical form. . . . [But] one cannot regard a poem as simply a pattern of words on paper, like a sort of mosaic." ("The Meaning of a Poem," 14 May 1941)

Orwell went on to relate the special circumstances of Hopkins' life, his close readings of early English poetry, his service as a Catholic priest in an English village, and about how his position in the village gave him a special perspective on the lives of its inhabitants. Orwell wanted to prove that Hopkins' choice of words and his choice of subject were not, by the time he came to write "Felix Randal," accidental and that they were deliberately and directly reflective of his past life.

I feel obliged to finish with an example of what I've been discussing, a poem that is equally mellifluous in its use of words and in the sense that the words convey. Philip Larkin was one of those poets who hated the academic approach to poetry. For him, structure and meaning in a poem are all of a piece, so that it is impossible to isolate the one from the other without departing from what, he believed, was essential to both: the communication of a striking experience, an astonishing realization, in carefully chosen words that invokes the experience in the reader's mind.

‘When first we faced, and touching showed’

When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.

The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.

Admitted: and the pain is real.
But when did love not try to change
The world back to itself – no cost,
No past, no people else at all –
Only what meeting made us feel,
So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?

20 December 1975

A lifetime of waiting for a moment like that, the oblivion in her arms. That's what Larkin lived for, and lives on for.

Orwell finished his broadcast with words that, I think, settle the argument once and for all:

"I have tried to analyse this poem as well as I can in a short period, but nothing I have said can explain, or explain away, the pleasure I take in it. That is finally inexplicable, and it is just because it IS inexplicable that detailed criticism is worth while. Men of science can study the life-process of a flower, or they can split it up into its component elements, but any scientist will tell you that a flower does not become less wonderful, it becomes more wonderful, if you know all about it."