Saturday, June 25, 2005

Richard III

The one starring Laurence Olivier. Can’t say much that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and by people much more knowledgeable of the subject than I. It is excellent through and through, and a very fine DVD edition in perfect keeping with the Criterion Collection’s usual high standards. This is evidently the first time the complete version has been offered to the public in decades, so if you haven’t seen the movie in a few years it’s probably worth checking out – depending on how much of a completist you are about such matters. Extras include a good commentary by Russell Lees, with comments added here and there by John Wilders as well. These range from very specific anecdotes about some of the action behind the scenes to sweeping statements about Shakespeare’s art, with which it is hard to argue but which could also have probably been left unsaid. Although I guess it’s good to be reminded. The second DVD is significant mainly for a fairly extended interview with Olivier by Kenneth Tyson. It’s fun to watch Tyson smoking his cigarette, moving the little prop from this to that grasp, especially the one between his ring and pinky finger. Olivier comes off very well, I think, at once honest about his own achievements, humble before the work of other directors, producers, and fellow actors alike, and most of all proud the craft of acting itself. He also offers some very good insights into Shakespeare’s artistry. He is, not surprisingly, best on himself. Here he talks about mannerisms, of which he’d been accused of having quite a few by various critics throughout his career:

“What are mannerisms? Mannerisms are cushions of protection which an actor develops against his self-consciousness. An actor comes onto the stage on the first night and does something – hangs his head and does something or other – and for that second, it’s a comfort to him, what he’s done. It gives him a little moment of reality at this terrifying moment and it goes into the works, and in the future if he’s not very careful, he resorts to it on any first night and those things collect, and collect up, and you’ve got about 24 or 37 things that you finally can’t do without – those are mannerisms.”

Friday, June 24, 2005

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

“The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon - Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already - lounged across the table, pushing a fourpenny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb.” (3)

These first sentences of this relatively unknown novel by George Orwell include a number of threads in the story of a no-longer-quite-so-young poet who disdains the middle class values characterized by the plain plant of the title. There is his age: not yet middle-aged, but perhaps already past the prime of his life, which is soon confirmed by the phrase ‘moth-eaten already,’ a description driven home by two more mentions over the next few pages. We are in a bookshop, which is an important part of Gordon’s identity, and yet of which he will soon seem to have grown somewhat tired. There is his family status, ‘last member,’ suggesting that he may indeed be the last, later confirmed by the fact that he is unmarried. There are the Player’s Weights, the cigarettes with which the rest of the chapter shows him to be fairly well obsessed, and the fact that they are worth fourpenny. Money, and the privilege it affords or denies, is of great concern to Gordon, and the war which he has waged upon this modern God sets him apart from his literary friend Ravelstein, his girlfriend Rosemary, and as evident in some of the grimmer passages in the story, himself.

“He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; so cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being under ground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under ground people, tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition. It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself for ever.” (203-204)

From his conversations with Ravelstein and Rosemary it is clear that Gordon is actually on to something here. Depriving himself of a decent paying job, cigarettes, clothes, and even food, he names as fools all those middle class troglodytes who content themselves with creature comforts and the aspidistra signaling their complacency. Neither one of his friends disputes whether the judgment he passes on the world is correct, but for them his attempts at financial abstinence are Quixotic and destined for ruin, however right the cause. Ravelstein the Socialist finds Gordon’s tirades against the god of mammon discomfiting, but a kind of truth-telling as well. Rosemary loves him because he is principled, never mind that these very principles bar them from enjoying even the most rudimentary happiness. All this is hammered home quite often and would grow tedious were it not for Orwell’s masterful descriptions of objects, people and abstractions alike, and his nearly pitch-perfect ability to accomplish exactly what he sets out to accomplish. The portrait of Gordon’s meanness while cadging from his sister Julia is particularly galling because of the awareness he brings to their encounter, and a conscience that leads him to self-loathing rather than self-correction. Moreover, the parallels drawn between Julia’s bargain hunting at night and Gordon’s carousing show the utter pointlessness of all those privations on his own terms. It may be a corrupt world, but it’s the only world there is, and those who make a go of it in the best way they can are able to claim a success more moral than Gordon ever can, living on the fringe and trying in vain to break free from the very ‘system’ offering a chance to live a life of virtue. Like the knight of doleful countenance, it is this life of virtue to which he is unable to remain blind, however much he tries.

“Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler.” (239)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


A fairly short read from the sometimes prolix Dutch author, Harry Mulisch. In lunging after large ideas it is similar to his own ‘Discovery of Heaven,’ and in structure it is something like a cross between ‘Father Smith’s Confession’ in The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy and the meditations on Nietzsche and music in Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera, but having the smaller scope of his later French works.

The novel begins with arrival of one Rudolf Herter and his mistress Maria in Vienna for some kind of cultural affairs event. It is soon revealed that Herter is a novelist modeled on – here’s the non-surprise – Mulisch himself. In an interview Herter mentions Vienna’s most prodigal son in an effort to explain the engine that drives his fiction, and what follows is a kind of postmodern fantasy designed to capture the fates driving the darkest forces of History.

In order to do this, Herter/Mulisch expounds on philosophical subjects ranging from Pseudo-Dionysus to the two legacies of Hegel. All this is in the service of obsessing about Hitler, evident in passages such as this:

“In a different way only Nietzsche was as obsessed with Wagner as Hitler was. Apart from that Hitler, too, had decided to rule the world, he also toyed with the idea of a new calendar, and so on and so on – I could continue for a lot longer. With Hitler, Nietzsche’s megalomania and his anxieties became reality from A to Z; it all fits like a glove. Later, when as chancellor he was visiting Nietzsche’s sister in Leipzig, he even had something of a mystical experience there: it was as if, he said, he had seen her dead brother physically in the room and heard him speak. And is that precise coincidence of Hitler’s origin and Nietzsche’s downfall suddenly coincidental? And is it coincidental that they lived to be precisely the same age: fifty-six? Is it also coincidental that Nietzsche’s madness lasted exactly as long as Hitler’s time in power: twelve years?” (167)

Pretty manic. Which is not to say implausible, although I’m not sure how well it works with the story with which it is interwoven. I’ve become accustomed to reading philosophical discourse in novels as a digression offering up a kind of freedom from fate (or plot), so that reading Herter as he connects so many disparate dots left this reader looking for more of the actual story. The ending is a little spooky, and getting there is something of a thrill, but the supporting events struck me as somewhat flimsy, and wanting at that.

A number of questions came up for me while reading: How does the idea of Hitler having a son alter our perception of the dictator? How does the murder of this son by him make him any worse than the ‘abyss’ (Mulisch/Herter’s description) already responsible for the death of so many millions? Are the author’s creation of the diaries of Eva Braun supposed to lend verisimilitude to the description of Hitler? More generally, what exactly does the practice of creating a fictional double for the real author do for the stories in which they take part? In this novel I’m not sure what was gained by having the fictional author so closely resemble his creator. I tried to think of this duality in terms of Nietzsche’s and then Hitler’s obsession with Wagner, but that didn’t really help. Perhaps I’m making too much of what is now becoming a fairly standard fictional device, but it seemed to detract from the story rather than add anything to it.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann

Fairly decent movie based on the novel by Heinrich Böll. Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) is interrogated by Kommissar Beizmenne (Mario Adorf) because she has just spent the night with Ludwig a terrorist. The police are brutes, but we're never really sure what Katharina knows or doesn't know. The best part about it is the pretty damning indictment of the press, here characterized by an incredibly unscrupulous newspaper reporter, Toetges (Dieter Laser). Nice score by Hans Werner Henze.

Opening Night

A movie about a train wreck in the end becomes something of a train wreck itself. The plot concerns actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) as she (sometimes literally) tackles the lead role in the play ‘The Second Woman’ written by Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell) and directed by Manny Victor (Ben Gazarra).

In the opening sequence Cassavets gives us a close-up of Myrtle sucking pretty hard on a bottle moments before going on the New Haven stage, and it’s soon pretty obvious that she has just as difficult a time coming off it as well. Compounding this fine mess is the death of an autograph hound mere seconds after their brief exchange outside the theatre. She goes mental, partly because of her preoccupation with the death of the young woman and partly because of her own dissatisfaction with the material and the role it is her job to perform, chiefly about a woman confronting, or not confronting, the fact that she’s getting older. Things get worse before they never really get better. Sarah and Manny aren’t much help and neither is the spiritualist supplied by the former or the booze and affection available from the latter. By the time the play is set to open in New York Myrtle stops showing up altogether, and in the final scenes (actually filmed before an unwitting and yet very forgiving live audience in Pasadena) there’s enough improvisation out of character to embarrass the greenest of junior high school thespians.

Yes, Cassavetes is certainly a model and a hero for his tireless and daring work as an independent filmmaker. Those shifts from stage to backstage and back to stage are very nicely done. The acting here is mostly good, even by the Teamster pulled from the set, John Tuell. Gazarra and Rowlands are always worth watching, and listening to them rasp and slur their way around each other here is usually pretty fun. But when we go from watching Maurice smack Myrtle around the stage to bouncing up and down like a Gorilla and proclaiming himself ‘Superman,’ it seems less about courage and more about nobody really having a clue as to which takes will be used and which won’t and what the hell difference will it make anyway. There are some fine moments here, I just don't think they add up to a very good film.

The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze)

This film takes place in a small Slovak town in 1942, just after the government has become a puppet regime for the Nazis, and centers on the relationship between an elderly Jewish shop owner (Ida Kaminska) and her Aryan overseer, Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner). In certain respects this story is the very antithesis of Schindler’s List. Where the 1993 movie pitted a bureaucratic David against the bureaucratic Goliath that was monolithic Nazi fascism, Elmar Klos’ and Ján Kadár’s 1965 film searches out the tragic entanglement of the most pitiable of human destinies and still works towards the most unlikely of transformations. Beyond anger, disappointment, resignation or hope on any scale, this movie really offers an incredible experience, about which no reviewer can say much besides ‘See it.’ The Israeli novelist Aaron Appelfeld has asked whether art and literature are really possible after the Holocaust. While his own somber works are themselves an answer, I think this much too little known Czech movie offers something even more. Truly one of the greatest movies ever made.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

All Angst From Heaven

Rather too obviously influenced by Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and half a doxen Fassbinder films including Fear Eats the Soul and Lola, this is nevertheless a great film in its own right. To my mind it’s an even greater accomplishment than such other cornball masterpieces of Sirk’s as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. The colors are brighter, the story seems a little tighter, and if there isn’t as much mileage to be had out of the mother/daughter psychorama as there is in Imitation of Life, there is the added benefit of some of the cheapest Freudianizing to be found anywhere outside the office of an actual analyst (and written for some pretty poignant laughs, too). Ronald’s wife does a great turn as Brigitte Mira (who passed away just this last year), and Agnes Moorehead is equally excellent as a more severe Patricia Clarkson. Rock Hudson is both ideal and fabulous as Frank Whitaker, bringing to the performance such a spot on parody of No. 40 that one can only wonder that Nancy didn’t run screaming onto the set to demand Brigitte’s part for herself. The only thing lacking was for Dennis Haysbert to show up at a local pool hall sprachen zie broken Deutsch with an Arabic accent. There isn’t room here to do a full-scale take-down of the final scene, but do pay special attention to that 12 point buck in the picture window. You’ll think you were there.

Highly recommended.


This first-rate scholarly study of the relationship between Marc Szeftel and Vladimir Nabokov has been endorsed by such heavyweight academics as Brian Boyd and Robert Alter, and I can only add that if there is such a thing as required reading for non-specialists in Nabokovopolis, this should be at the top of the list.
Galya Diment provides a fairly conclusive argument that Mark Szeftel was an important model for the Russian Master’s third novel written in English, the second in America (if it had ever been in doubt, a matter on which I’m not clear).

The heart of the book consists of five chapters and a conclusion, and also contains appendixes from Marc Szeftel’s archive and own writings. The latter includes of selections from his diaries, which make it pretty obvious that Szeftel wasn’t nearly as comfortable a solipsist as the alter ego fate appears to have dealt him. And man, did he ever know it. Some of the passages included in Diment’s study read like outtakes from a rough draft of Kinbote’s, without the miniscule amount of self-awareness the fictive scholar was able to muster. They certainly exhibit nothing like the former king’s rather heady imagination, in which readers have taken so much delight. What is there, and what Diment makes all to clear, is a great deal of sadness. The sadness of an émigré, the sadness of a scholar, and perhaps even the sadness of a century.

Szeftel seems to have toiled long and hard in the academic vineyards, at times with scholars as notable as Roman Jacobsen, and for reasons that perhaps only Nabokov himself knows never really achieved his due regard as an academic. More to the point, he seems to have settled just outside the realm of humiliation and some grand joke at the hands of everyone from the great writer to colleagues and even his students. The operative paradox here is that Szeftel would have remained one of life’s unknown little tragedies had it not been for his immortalization as the Russian specialist at Waindell, but as Diment evinces he may well have never felt himself to be quite so tragic a character at all if he hadn’t crossed paths with the accomplished poet-lepodiatrist-teacher-scholar-writer from St. Petersberg. One of Szeftel’s books was praised by Nabokov, he was once on the verge of actually working with Nabokov, and he long contemplated scholarly studies of Lolita even after he became one of the models for Pnin. In the end he produced a few anecdotes about exchanges with Nabokov during the time they shared together at Cornell.

Along the way, Diment notes that a case has been made for considering Pnin an even greater work than the now monolithic Lolita, and by no less a scholar than Michael Wood in ‘The Magician’s Doubts.’ The reason for this originates in the rather more organically developed theme of the Double, a theme Szeftel himself consciously noted and, like several others (to Nabokov’s own consternation) tied to Doeseovsky. She expertly employs the work of other scholars to illuminate what is particularly special, if not unique, about Pnin’s relation to the novel he inhabits:

"The most dramatic declaration of Pnin’s independence and VN’s [the self-identified narrator of the novel] “just deserts” comes from Charles Nicol… Nicol actually goes as far as to describe the two men as atgonists and their relationship as a struggle between the “devilish” narrator and the innocent protagonist, in which Pnin “has confronted Nabokov and won.” (p.56)

It seems to me that Nicol overstates his case a little here, but I do think that Diment's account of the narratological ambiguity that grew as the novel progressed and it's roots in the brief conjunction of the fates of Szeftel and Nabokov is illuminating.

Diment is entirely evenhanded in her treatment of everyone involved, and the only particular bias consistently shown is her high regard for the Northwest, Szeftel’s final home and where she herself teaches (at the University of Washington, sponsors of the press that published this book). She notes that Szeftel never much enjoyed the region himself, and perhaps even saw it as the true boondocks, one of the many injuries to be suffered in a long and yet disappointing life. In its way, this is one of the saddest books ever written. But it is gracefully written, and, as she says in the conclusion, a real tribute to the model, to the author, and to our ability to transform life through fiction. Marc Szeftel certainly did his best to partake of that transformation.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

In The Mood For Love (Fa yeung nin wa)

This movie, filmed in Thailand in order to recreate the atmosphere of Hong Kong in the 1960s, manages to marry the claustrophobic mood of illicit, romantic longing to the sense of epic proportion that only memory can bring. Director Kar Wai Wang was first brought to the attention of many American viewers through Quentin Tarantino’s enthusiasm for Chunking Express, a 1994 movie that harbingers some of the techniques employed in Mood For Love but registers nothing near the impact of this melodrama set mostly in the cramped confines of tenement houses and business offices.

Chief among these techniques are the slow motion shots and the discreet ruptures of time and sequence to emphasize the confusion inherent to the predicament of the two major characters. Where slow motion sequences in Wai’s previous work were often halting, and combined with out of focus camera shots, in Mood they are languorous and intensely erotic as they follow swaying hips and swinging arms of characters simply moving from one room to another. These shots are usually close-ups at torso-level (front or back) and encourage in the viewer the kind of obsessive observations made by lovers in close quarters.

The action begins in 1962 as Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) move in to adjacent rooms with their respective spouses. Since the heart of the story follows their co-discovery and reactions to the adultery committed by these spouses, there is an element of surprise that evokes sympathy for the Chow and Su as they fumble their way through a web of tangled emotions within their private lives and struggle out from under the oppression of a society that places more burdens on them than on their sneakier spouses, whose faces are never seen and their voices never heard. No wonder that love soon blooms between them as well. On the pretense of writing a martial arts serial together they begin meeting more frequently, and their growing friendship is characterized in the movie by their unification within single frames, where they had hitherto been more often separated by individual shots. Their intimacy increases even as they remain faithful to their already broken marriages, and the poignancy of their choice is most evident in their efforts to keep their relationship secret.

The importance of secrecy is apparent when Chow shares with a co-worker a fable about confession rather than the details of his life. According to the story, in the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share, they went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud, and left the secret there forever.

Perhaps a three fourths of the way through the film moves forward: first to 1966, then to, and finally to Cambodia in 1966 following De Gaulle’s visit to Phnom Penh. The era is vividly evoked by a soundtrack that includes Nat King Cole and other standards of the decade. Other staples of the mid-60’s aesthetic are the bee hive hair doos and cheongsam dresses worn by Su.

Compared, say, to Adrian Lyne’s ‘Unfaithful’, or for that matter, Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Faithless,’ Wai’s film seems both staid and daring in its treatment of adultery. It isn’t that morality is sacrificed, but rather the full dimension of moral responsibility is explored in such a way that something more than titillation and lacerating guilt is brought to the drama. To pursue the story of the aggrieved partners is an interesting choice, if not totally unheard of. What makes it works so well is Wang’s restraint, which is translated on film as the self-control of Chow and Su. This decision brings its own pain, as when he helps rehearse her for the eventual confrontation and revelation. As viewers we never see this confrontation: we are left to imagine it just as they imagine it. Of course we don’t want to, any more than they do, and soon we are returned to the private life shared by them.

The final sequence observes Chow’s pilgrimage to Angkor Wat, perhaps as a search for love and reconciliation on a religious plane. He’s seen whispering into the hollow space of pillar, confessing his secrets in secret. Though we can’t hear, we understand the significance of those whispers, and of such a mysterious ending to such a mysterious movie we are privileged observers indeed.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ladies in Lavender

Saw this one the other night with me mum. A young Polish man (Daniel Brühl) washes up on a beach in Cornwall during a storm and is spotted the next morning by two seventyish sisters out on a walk. Janet (Maggie Smith), who has been married but lost her husband in the Great War, and Ursula (Judi Dench), who has not, have him brought back to their house, where they nurse him back to health with the help of the their cook (Miriam Margoyles). It could go without saying that the movie is well acted by the principles as well as anyone else who puts in a line or two, but this alone isn't enough to overcome defects in the script, the direction, and what struck me as simply poor editing choices. Slow motion probably won’t be a good idea again until a movie of the Six Million Dollar man is made, and here this technique is made especially awful by slowing it down to stop-frame shots of such things as a lock of hair being dropped out of an opened hand, which makes a crude kind of sentimental sense, or of Dench and Smith walking along the beach, which made no sense to me at all. On the whole there isn't much to recommend here outside of the acting.