Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Six Feet Under - Third Season

This third year with the Fisher's is, if possible, even darker than the last half of the second season. Is there a falling off here, in terms of quality? Friends have suggested this to be the case, but while I don't think they've matched the tension created by the carefully constructed arc of the second season (which left us hanging in the dark, like one of those uncompleted off-ramps that used to be all around Seattle), I still think they're ahead of where they began with the first season. Looking forward to the fourth.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Last Call For Blackford Oakes

"Three hours later Blackford lay on his bed, the yellow light from the little picture lamp hanging opposite only just reaching her eyes, closed, her breasts softly shaping the sheet that stretched toward Harry Doubleday. But the light didn't reach his sex and the long, light fingers that enveloped it. His lips came together only enough to say her name. She responded by a a further caress. His joy was unbounded, miraculous." (87)

No, that is not a menage a trois you just saw described - Blackford Oakes is Harry Doubleday, and the CIA special agent who once shagged the Queen of England has just tumbled into bed with a beautiful Russian urologist who at one point deigns to be an expert in erectile dysfunction. Ol' Blackie's checkup seems to have gone well. All in all it's a pretty good yarn. The plot centers on the dirty deeds done by one Kim Philby towards the end of his career as an exile in the Soviet Union (maybe 'exile' is a misnomer, as the USSR really was his true home) and Blackford Oakes' various attempts to thwart the notorious agent from MI6 long after he'd dropped any pretense of being 'double'. Sometimes Oakes even succeeds, in spite of such blunders as actually sending a signed letter to the Philby household. Damn that crafty Red! Opening mail that wasn't even his! Sealed mail, at that. Well, it costs Ol' Blackie dearly, and we thereafter witness his rapid decline into a vortex of unshaven despondency fueled by alcohol, from which he is able to extricate himself only by assigning to himself the singular task of taking out the Cold War's most nefarious spy.

The descriptions of U.S./Soviet diplomacy, especially with regard to an important defection, is very good and makes one nostalgic for the good old days when we had one clearly defined Evil Empire to deal with. Best of all are various cameos by such literary luminaries as Carlos Fuentes and Graham Greene. I'm not sure how seriously we're to take the ending, since Oakes is known to have appeared before a Senate committee in the mid-nineties. We can only hope there is some further revelation in store.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Great film from Danish director Carl Dreyer, about a family in which the eldest son's wife, Inger, is about to give birth to their third child. The second son, Johannes, has gone mad from studying Kierkegaard too intensely and now believes himself to be the living Christ. The third son, Anders, is in love with a tailor's daughter, but has been forbidden to marry her on the grounds that he doesn't come from a religious family. Presiding over all this is the patriarch, Morten Borgen, whose rendering by actor Henrik Malberg is surely one of the greatest portrayals of old age on film. Though slow moving, the film offers several surprises that raise the story to the level of parable. Well acted throughout and beautifully photographed in a way that makes light itself a character in the unfolding drama. Most highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ocean's Twelve

A fair sampling of Hollywood's highest paid stars flew to Italy, set up a camera, and threw a party. It looked like they had a lot of fun.

Let's just hope we're spared Ocean's 13.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss

In English it is simply titled 'Veronika Voss', which I think is unfortunate. The entire title should have been translated. One of the web dictionaries informs me that 'Sehnsucht' means 'longing', which makes a lot of sense after viewing the film. While watching the movie it would be good to ask one's self what it is exactly that Veronika longs for. Many things, of course, but what is at the bottom of it all? The film is a mystery in which some of the secrets are hidden in pretty dark corners, and being the work of Fassbinder it is deeply woven into the fabric of his own life as well.

A washed-up movie star is somewhat immoderately grateful for the kindness offered to her by a sportswriter, and soon a lopsided relationship of undefined reciprocity blooms. Perhaps 'reciprocity' is too chilly - there is real affection between the two, but neither character really seeks to understand the forces that have driven them together. Is the reporter simply looking for a story, and is the movie star simply looking for adoration? Not quite, for the sportswriter can be seen scribbling strange poems in the margin of his marginal life, and the actress has a habit of trying to turn the world around her into a movie set. Something else is at work behind the intersecting fates of these characters. Robert’s attempt to right the balance of their early friendship turns into a quest to discover the reason for some of the darker irregularities in Veronika’s life. He does so under the guise of being a reporter (he is a reporter, but this story would seem to lie outside his domain), although halfway through the movie he can’t say whether his pursuit is more professional or personal. The dramatic irony that develops during those incidents in which the plot turns is such that even the most predictable destination demands to be seen in light of other characters' reactions to it. The less predictable fates of relatively minor characters are even more sad, prompting the question of why others must pay the price for the darker obsessions of selves unable to break free of their fetters, whether they be societal or psychological.

It's also a tremendous indictment of the society that developed and developed under the economic miracle of Germany in the 1950's, without being the least bit preachy. An American soldier drifts in and out and is often visible in the background taking care of business, providing supplies, and generally making himself at home in a world that really isn’t his. An elderly gentleman rolls up his sleeve to reveal his concentration camp tattoo, and a public health official maintains the impossibility of a drug scam developing, but describes his own complicity in his very denial. The entire story unfolds to the tune of tired American country western songs in endless repetition on the radio. It’s all stunningly filmed in beautiful black and white, and accompanied by a rather unique soundtrack of harmonicas, guitars and saxophones by Fassbinder's usual collaborator, Peer Raben.

The film is not without humor. A simple, drunken joke about two brothers limns the complex interconnection between the principle characters, and the soldier is played more as a buffoon than a morally corrupt villain. The sportswriter's girlfriend inexplicably stands by him, even after being left on her doorstep for a strange woman. Veronika's loosening grip on reality is at times painfully on display, and one can only wonder that she isn't aware of the extent to which her life is becoming a mockery of 'Sunset Boulevard'.

The DVD edition includes the best extras I've seen on disc yet, for any film. Tony Rayns' commentary track is a model that other critics would do well to observe, and the conversation between the star, Rosel Zech, and editor Juliane Lorenz is the most informative of any I've seen in the Fassbinder series. The whole package is really a minor masterpiece, as Zech says in the interview; perhaps something more than minor. Watch it for yourself and see.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Talaye sorkh (Crimson Gold)

I saw the trailer for this in theaters a few years ago and thought it looked terrible. The opening, in which a thief shoots the proprietor and then himself in a hold-up gone bad, is by turns humorous and horrifying. The viewer is finally shut in in with the unfortunate thief and owner when the cage door accidentally closes and locks shut. An audience of passers-by gathers outside as the situatiion within grows more and more desperate. The rest of the movie is an attempt to show how such desperation could arise by following a driver as he delivers food to various upscale locales throughout Tehran.

In a role that is apparently taken straight from his life, Hossain Emadeddin's hulking presence dominates almost every frame. Early on in the movie he reveals to his friend Ali the frustration he hides underneath his pained silence, and for the rest of the movie he remains laconic to a degree that throws off everone around him. When he drives his fiancee back home his smoldering anger leaves her confused and silenced on her doorstep, but when a customer later invites him into his luxury house and proceeds to talk to his girlfriend on the phone, Hossein wanders around the mansion drinking wine from a bottle in the kind of bacchanalian revelry he has hitherto witnessed only from the outside looking in. Is this what's supposed to set him off? There's not much in the way of plot, and even the tension raised early in the film seems to evaporate on a Vespa tour that at times seemed like a weird cross between 'La Dolce Vita' and 'The Trial.'

The current plight of women in Iran is everywhere in evidence, hidden under scarves by day, bullied by police on the streets at night. Their purses are snatched and their needs mocked by men who never seem to know what to do if they can't control them.
There are a number of scenes of dark humor, such as the policeman who asks a man coming out of an apartment building, "What kind of man goes out with his wife?" Or when a young woman plaintively asks Hussein if the reason for his anger is the fact that she raised her head scarf to show him a necklace. All well-aimed barbs at the mullahs ruling the theocratic state, which is probably why Panahi reportedly had to stay one step ahead of the police while making the movie. Uneven over the entire span, there are nevertheless some excellent moments throughout, and certainly offers a fascinating and pointed look at life in contemporary Iran.

David Kipen on Nabokov

While looking for other conjunctions linking Milosz and Nabokov, I came across this characterization of the Russian master from David Kipen:

"Nabokov's prose sometimes recalls the private language of identical twins, completely assured in its conspiratorial willingness to be strange. He makes every admiring reader into his twin, which may help explain why many feel so territorial about him. Always oblique yet never obscure, Nabokov's prose sounds like English on the morning of its birth, with every word equally available to him, and all the ruts of habit gone suddenly smooth."

Published one year ago today, interestingly enough.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz

While randomly dipping into this gem as I watched the Sonics tank against the Spurs, I came across a number of interesting comments, which is par for the course from Milosz.

“It’s very difficult to reconstruct the perceptions you had at one age or another. We usually project back from the present. Even our ideas and the books we’ve read transform reality – our outlook on reality is constantly shaped by literature. Many things in the world are shaped by literature, even where one would least suspect it. The trials and hangings of the witches in Salem resulted from a book about witches by Cotton Mather. The book was widely read, and women under its influence came to believe they were possessed. That’s how it started. It all came from a book.” (3)

“… You could say that I’ve read the whole debate on the reality of the world. That debate began quite early and in some ways determined the direction of modern philosophy. But I frankly admit that I don’t find the epistemological side o fthe question very enticing. I acknowledge the importance of all that, but those are mountains of wisdom that I prefer not to climb … I’ve always said that I’m not a philosopher, I’d prefer not to take a position in that quarrel.” (286)

On a quotation from Simone Weil: “On Judgment Day, when creation is laid bare by the light of God which reveals it utterly, it becomes pure light; there is no more evil.” Milosz: “That’s right: by then it has reached apokatastasis. Origen thought that at the end of the world even the Devil would be saved.”

Apokatastasis is defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia as “the doctrine which teaches that a time will come when all free creatures will share in the grace of salvation; in a special way, the devils and lost souls.”

On his essay “Reality” in “The Garden of Knowledge”: “My concern was not to trace its lineage in the history of aesthetics. Those conflicts go beyond formulations. The formulations codify fundamentally divergent attitudes toward reality. Cezanne was fascinated by nature, the visual world. All his life he tried t opaint from models, from nature. At times, that sort of fidelity has a strange way of almost leading to abstract art; it gradually evolves in that direction. Today, there are contradictory tendencies. One is the penchant for form, ecriture, writing that feeds on itself. This tendency, which is very strong today, moves away from nature; it is antimimesis. There is another and opposite trend: the attempt to describe reality, to depict reality. There are few artists exploring this second path, because reality is so very elusive.” (302)

Maybe it’s bad form to stack the comments of one writer up against the work of another, but when I read this I couldn’t help but think of Nabokov as a writer whose fidelity to the visual world does lead to an art of tremendous abstraction. How else to account for such puzzles as are contained in almost everything he wrote? Those sentences that often come to resemble the chess problems he so enjoyed making often began as everyday observations of the world around him. And Pale Fire is certainly a work that ‘feeds on literature’ – perhaps it can even be said (with no prejudice intended) that it feeds on itself. Milosz would probably wince at being compared to a Russian (I don’t see any comments on N. in the index), but there it is: language itself as a natural phenomenon, even at its most mimetic. And Nabokov shows us what a joyous conundrum this can be.

Perhaps the most perceptive of Milosz' comments appears on the inside flap of the dust jacket: "It's possible to detect a single refrain in everything I've said here - namely the desire not to appear other than I am." What a wonderful writer he was. And conversationalist, to judge from this book.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

In the Realms of the Unreal

This fine documentary written and directed by Jessica Yu concerns Henry Darger, a recluse who lived his entire adult life near Chicago's Lincoln Park. Working by day as a dishwasher, janitor, and bandage-roller(?), Darger seems to have spent much of his free time writing a 15,000 page novel entitled "In the Realms of the Unreal". That's a lot, maybe the most ever for a single work, and after finishing the novel he began producing a tremendous number of watercolors to go with text. And man, is it all weird. As far as I can tell it is about a set of Bobsey Septuplets named the Vivian girls, who as very observant, even angelic, Christians lead a war on behalf of their Christian nation (Angel-something or other) against the evil nation (Gland-something), a nation which practices child slavery and from the paintings appears to be led by purple-coated Confederate dandies with names like "General Smashface" and "Corporal Pugnose". Specialists and scholars from diverse fields are going to be dining out on Darger's legacy for years to come, so by all means get in on the action as soon as you can. This movie is a good place to start. Another are various presentations on the web, and some guy named Gavin has written an informative (and somewhat pejorative) review of John M. MacGregor's book on Darger, which you can read by following the link here.

The Woodsman

Kevin Bacon plays a man who is trying to adjust to civilian life after twelve years in prison for molesting girls between 9 and 12 years old. Tough subject. Bacon gives a fine performance as a man trying to find his behavior as monstrous as society sees it. Tries, fails, tries again and perhaps succeeds when he finds a kind of co-traveller lurking around a schooyard across the street from his apartment and shows him less mercy than he did himself during recent stalking trips through a public park. His redemption comes through the kind of vengeful violence that he rightly fears (and to some extent, suffers) from others, but the darker implications of this redemption are unfortunately left unexplored. He even gets to move in with his new and very mature girlfriend, well played by Bacon's real-life wife, Kyra Sedgwick. In other words, a very Hollywood ending to a very un-Hollywood movie.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Le Fils

Formidable aussi.

Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut

Formidable. Regardez-le. Maintenant.

Vera Drake

A great movie from the consistently excellent Mike Leigh, who gave us Life is Sweet, Naked, Secrets and Lies, and Topsy-Turvy. Leigh is one of the most ungimmicky directors around, and such discretion is a key part of Vera Drake's success. The camera is almost always at eye level or thereabouts, giving the entire picture a very human perspective. The story unfolds in a very straightforward manner. The only diversions are the story of the budding romance between Vera's daughter and a veteran, and the efforts of her brother and sister-in-law to start a family. Both serve well as narrative foils for the development of the central drama of Vera's efforts to help young women and the cost she must bear for doing so. Here's a strange fact from IMDb: "Except for Imelda Staunton, none of the actors knew that the film was about abortion until their characters find out. Each actors only knew what concerned their characters." Here's another one: "Filmed with no script, the film went on to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay for 2005 Oscar. Mike Leigh said that he "had to prepare the screenplay so it can be sent out to academy members. But actually the screenplay that was nominated doesn't exist. The film is the screenplay."

The film being an almost complete success, I can only assume that this strategy was a significant factor that helped make it work. It certainly contributed to the scene of Vera's initial questioning, as well as the extraordinary exchange between Philip Davis and Daniel Mays following Vera's detainment. Every performance is masterful, although Imelda Staunton's certainly does stand out, and not awarding her the Oscar for best actress makes about as much sense as withholding the Oscar from The Aviator for best picture. Lesley Manville is wonderful as the begging-to-be-despised Mrs. Wells and Simon Chandler is equally good as her abiding and yet complacent husband.

It’s tremendous aesthetic achievement notwithstanding; Vera Drake is an extremely difficult film to watch. The various abortions performed on wretched women in dilapidated surroundings are particularly miserable, and for all Vera's humanity and good will she seemed to me remarkably unconcerned with their psychological distress. I don't think this quite squares with the many, many instances of her kindness in almost every other situation. Nor do I buy the usual chatter about the non-political nature of the film. Where Leigh stands on the issue of abortion is perfectly plain, and the fact that he endows the title character with a naive saintliness right out of a child's picture book of holy women robs the film of any chance at dealing honestly with the inner life of his heroine. Compare this with Claude Chabrol's "Une affaire de femmes," a movie as equally difficult to watch, but which assumes a great deal more moral complexity in the main character. That Leigh's film is a greater success in terms of its story, its acting and its simple mise en scene is a testament to his and his actors' achievement, but let's not kid ourselves about the politics.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Suspect Zero

An okay thriller, in a 'Se7en' meets 'Minority Report' kind of way. There are a few too many shots of Aaron Eckhart slumped over a desk covered with scraps of papers that may have been meaningful, but were in reality disorganized, arbitrary and often confusing. The direction of this movie too often resembled that desk.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Karl Adam on Consciousness and Reality

"But the process of uprooting went further still. After the age of "enlightenment" had dethroned reason and dispossessed that power of thought which grasps the whole in one comprehensive view, to replace it by the power which pursues detail and difference, the interior economy of man, his spiritual unity, broke up into a mere juxtaposition of powers and functions. Men spoke now not of their souls, but of psychic processes. The consciousness of being a personal agent, the creative organ of living powers, became increasingly foreign to the educated. And after Kant and his school had made the transcendental subject the autonomous lawgiver of the objective world and even of the empirical consciousness itself, after man instead of holding to the objectivity of the thing and of his own self began to speak of an objectivity which possessed none but a purely logical validity, and of a purely logical subject, then the whole consciousness of reality became afflicted with an unhealthy paralysis. The "As If" philosophy here, and solipsism there, like vampires, suck all the blood out of resolution and action.[6] The autonomous man, cut off from God, and the solitary man cut off from the society of his fellow-men, isolated from the community, is now severed also from his own empirical self. He becomes a merely provisional creature, and therefore sterile and unfruitful, corroded by the spirit of "criticism," estranged from reality, a man of mere negation."

"The "As If Philosophy," or "Fictionalism," regards our intellectual conceptions as nothing better than fictions. It admits that they are useful; but, unlike Pragmatism, regards this usefulness as no criterion of truth."

Who among us doesn't feel these fangs?

Kingdom of Heaven

What a mess. I expected better from Ridley Scott, who of course gave us the very entertaining Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Kingdom of Heaven is, in its basic plot, very similar to Gladiator, with the pageantry of pagan Rome replaced with the pageantry of medieval Christianity. In addition to that we are served up the warmed over hash of such stale stereotypes:as the Noble Muslim Warrior, the Bloodthirsty Christian Warrior, and the Stoic Warrior Who Doesn't Really Want To Be A Hero But Fights The Good Fight Anyway, While Clearly Seeing All The Controversy Swirling Around Him As Just Plain Nonsense. Which reduces the movie to, well, just plain nonsense.

Friday, May 06, 2005

"The Spirit of Catholicism" by Karl Adam

One of the best apologies for Christianity I've read yet. Goes much, much deeper than C.S. Lewis, in my humble opinion. And it's available for free from EWTN. Here's one of my favorite passages in a chapter on the Pentecost.

"Therefore it was not literary records, incontestable documents, which were the primary means of bringing the message of Jesus to men, but the broad stream of the uniform life of faith of the primitive Church, a life based on the preaching of the apostles and animated by the Holy Spirit. How could it have been otherwise? A living thing, in all its depth and in all its extent, cannot be comprised within a few written sentences. Only that which is dead can be adequately delineated in writing. The living thing is continually bursting the temporary form in which literature must perforce embody it. At the very moment that literature is endeavoring to arrest and fix it, the stream of life is escaping and moving swiftly on. Therefore all literature, and even the Bible itself, is stamped with the character of its time, and bears a form which, however vital its content remains, yet all too easily seems stiff and strange to later generations."

But by all means, read the whole thing.