Category Archives: Film

Giving Reality a Relief

To find  trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance. 
—Jean Cocteau, Diary of a Film (50).

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Still from the filming of La Belle et La Bête.

Jean Cocteau’s book Diary of a Film is a lovely little look into the process of making a film. His diary documents the making of the 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. A friend had wanted me to read the book, so I decided I’d better see the film first. The film is fabulous. Not just fabulous as in ‘wonderful,’ but, as my desktop dictionary gives the etymology: Latin fabulosus ‘celebrated in fable,’ from fabula. It is both kinds of fabulous. The artistic conception of the sets and costumes are a wonder, and the earnestness with which the earnest tale is told is nearly flawless (there was one scene which caused an outburst of mocking laughter in me, but I didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed, the hearty laugh).  

But for all that, I’d be mad if I forgot that bad luck has always run through  my life, and that it always has been and always will be, a sheer struggle (77).

“Bad luck” is a serious understatement. Never mind the post-war equipment problems and chronic “current” spasms (in my translation when there was a power outage it was said that they lost ‘current’—and that was pretty much daily). No—it was health issues that seriously beset Cocteau and crew. The leading man suffered boils, the leading woman—feverish illnesses, co-stars—various maladies including a fractured hip, and Cocteau…oh dear man—carbuncles, shingles, fevers, face rashes, eczema, and then this gem on page 189: “Have got jaundice. Yes, that was about all that was missing!” It’s a medical miracle they finished the project. Meanwhile:

Nuremberg trial. The two-and two-make-four’s are judging the two-and-two-make-five’s or even twenty-two (158).

Cocteau is a marvel of succinct truth and he is eminently quotable. Does the above quote not perfectly describe many of our current politician’s logic? And yet….This past summer I bought a wonderful book (it’s a rare occurance for me to actually purchase a book as I neither have room to house books nor discretionary money to spare—but, je ne regrette rien). I haven’t finished it, but this is why I bought it—I knew I would want to take my time with it. (It is in alphabetical order—I’m up to the F’s.) Written by Clive James, Cultural Amnesia is a series of essays (over one hundred) on the heros, villains, and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. Cocteau naturally rates.  And yet, while more than acknowledging Cocteau’s artistic achievements, James, as is his style, does not give Cocteau a pass regarding his questionable forbearance regarding the Nazi occupation of France.

While not exactly despicable—nobody died because of him—his behavior was not admirable (James 131).

Cocteau did not merely stay silent, he was an “air-kissing” attendee of Nazi cocktail parties. I read this essay before I saw La Belle et La Bête and, of course before reading Diary of a Film, but I had to re-read it after the two because….oh man. People are complex and flawed, I know. And—I have children! and I know enough about the Nazi’s and their ilk to know that I can’t say for sure how I would behave—those folks don’t fuck around, they don’t simply murder you! no, they will murder your son, daughter and goldfish too—and that is terrifying. We can not be in Cocteau’s mind, we can not know what aspect of his life allowed or forced his recurring attendance at these Nazi fêtes. All we can know is that we hope we would not. And we hope we will never be faced with the prospect.

I went off to R. in despair of ever finding perfection that can survive its difficulties. It’s always just beyond one’s reach. Sometimes one can almost touch it. But something is lacking (Cocteau 86).

*Title from p. 57: “In films a trick shot is often much more convincing than the real thing, and besides, it gives reality some relief.”

 

 

Philistines From the Plush Parlors

Any legend immune to rational arguments can be supposed to rest upon powerful collective desires.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film (117).

IMG_5602A couple of weeks ago some of my children and I went to see Star Wars. I’ll state right up front, unequivocally—I love Star Wars. Okay, maybe a little equivocation—I am only speaking of the first three, and mostly the first two that were made. Nevertheless—we were excited. The film was fine, I do not regret the price of admission (which my lovely daughter’s boyfriend paid for come to think of it, although I bought the exorbitantly priced popcorn and what not) and it went a long way to make up for the last three monstrous iterations. But never mind all that. The discomfiting thing I wish to discuss is the previews that we were subjected to.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness (6).

There were of course many previews. The remarkable thing to me was not that they were all hyped-up action flicks—I suppose that is to be expected when one goes to see an action film—but it was the sheer redundancy of the films. We watched the first one which was based on a comic book, something to do with a superhero “civil war.” Then the next film was previewed—instead of DC Comics, this one was Marvel Comics about a superhero “civil war.” I look around in dismay—we literally just saw this preview, I hissed to my daughter— It’s the same film, right? Am I right? The next six previews were exactly the same, saving the scenery—one in ancient Greece, another Egypt, et cetera, ad nauseum. What the hell?

And permeating both the stories and the visuals, the “unseen dynamics of human relations” are more or less characteristics of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge (7).

I began to be convinced that these films must surely suggest something about the American psyche. A deep fear, a hope for a single vigilante-like hero to save a world beset by evil. By a very interesting coincidence the next day a book that I had requested from ILL (inter-library loan) came. It had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger Howard JohnsonFrom Caligari to Hitler examines just this question in pre- and interwar Germany. And the comparisons are chilling.

Significantly, many observant Germans refused until the last moment to take Hitler seriously, and even after his rise to power considered the new regime a transitory adventure.[…] Their surrender to the Nazis was based on emotional fixations rather than on any facing of the facts (10, 11).

In the book, Kracauer takes the reader through a history of the German film which, he argues, shows the struggle and latent anxieties of the German people at that time. Film, in particular, because of its collaborative nature, has the ability to inadvertently expose the pulse of the culture. No single person’s pathology emerges, rather there is a sort of leveling out of the zeitgeist. The major difference between our time and the time Kracauer writes of is the complete excess of entertainment we now face. One can (and believe me, I normally do) easily avoid “popular” movies and TV, while still enjoying myriad film productions. This may diffuse our ability to gain insight into our particular current psyche. But— I am very confused about Donald Trump’s popularity…and I think it is worth a few moment’s thought to take him more seriously, or probe the unfathomable-ness, than any semi-intelligent person might otherwise be inclined.

All said, I am not sure whether or not I should be happy that what I sensed on the screen was as potentially ominous as I perceived, or, seriously depressed that it might in fact be so.

*title from p. 272 “The blare of military bugles sounded unremittingly, and the philistines from the plush parlors felt very elated.”

** Photo of my daughter and her Donald Trump creation made for our dear friends’ Guy Fawkes party this past fall.

 

Eats On The Streets

Really love the collective power of crowd sourcing, and I really love my son and am excited for him in this venture. Please consider supporting a great project and documentary filmmaking adventure at indigogo: http://igg.me/at/eatsonthestreets/x/12984751

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Things got out of…hand

My son Marco is in the soon-to-be-released indy film, The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes. It pleases me excessively to see him in the trailer…

 

Give me ambiguity or…Give me something else!

The brain creates, according to its own rules, the knowledge that we have.
-Semir Zeki, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness (27)

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By beginning his book focused on neurological constancies of the innate brain, that is: the one we’re born with before (as my step-father loves to gleefully quote) “they fuck you up, your mum and dad…” Semir Zeki lays the groundwork for his soul crushing conclusions. I don’t want to impugn Zeki, he in no way blames mum and dad – that is merely an indication of my own learned brain’s irreverent cheek. Forgive me.

It has been shown that color is perceived before orientation and that expressions on faces are perceived before their identity (37).

Color is just one brain concept that is hard wired for constancy. Even when the reality changes (say, from morning to evening light) we still perceive red as red, and we “see” it first, before we may even understand what it is we are looking at, we know it’s red.

Concept formation is one of the great triumphs of the brain but it also exacts a very heavy toll (47).

What the book is so excellently and fascinatingly working towards is the universally shared brain concept of love as a feeling of in-unity with another. In unity– I actually have to pause every time I write or think on that- its succinct precision of definition is quite beautiful.

Fighting against love is fighting against biology (132)

There is so much we don’t know about the brain, and as a brilliant doctor friend of mine reminds me, just because areas “light up” consistently only tells us just that much – areas light up. Still, for such an all-consuming yet (largely) academically and scientifically ignored topic, Zeki’s book is fascinating entrée.

The brain is organized to project its own interpretation to the incoming visual stimulus. And as we have seen, inherited brain concepts are immutable (85).

One of those inherited concepts is ambiguity. Ambiguity, Zeki tells us, is “constant,” which is the very quality that gives art its rich and endlessly creative interpretive life. The ambiguity of the innate brain allows for our different “learned brain” interpretations and perceptions. This is that delicate space in between the artist’s work and our experience of that work. Zeki cites myriad artists and writers whom exemplify a miraculous perfection of ambiguity and:

The difficulty of representing the synthetic brain concept or ideal, and the advantages of leaving much to the mind (111).

Reading Splendors and Miseries of the Brain is such an intellectually exciting endeavor that the soul crushing thesis sneaks up…yes, Zeki is taking us neural pathway by neural pathway to the fatalistic conclusion of the near impossibility of realizing what our brains so stubbornly create and insist upon: the Ideal. The root of all of our discontent, (historically proven in literature, art and music of the centuries past) is but a hopeless quest to experience a synthesis between our Ideal concept of love with reality. To experience the sublime – in unity with another, whether it be sacred or profane- no difference seems to exists within the brain, the lucky few sublimate their disappointment into the highest expressions of art- the rest of us….well, we have the pleasure of appreciation, and we have our dreams. That’s something.

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter

-Shakespeare, quoted in Splendors (199).

*title – a favorite joke of a friend of mine.

Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)

Mirror

“Passing life’s halfway mark, I lost my way in a dark wood”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror (film)

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One of my jobs is in a library. I always like to shelve the books first. I’m hidden deep in the stacks, focused intensely on tiny sometimes obscured sequences of numbers, letters, dots and slashes.  I work in the arts and music section, the books are all lovely and tempting…but last Tuesday when I came in I could see there was a DVD shelving emergency underway, so I gave the books a longing look, and got right to work on the towers of DVDs. Still, I have preferences. I always start with the foreign films, then documentaries, and only then attack the regular collection. I find the foreign films more interesting, plus there is a stool on wheels that I can skate around on while running through the alphabet in my head over and over again, which makes it more fun.

Sometimes I don’t shelve them. I put them aside, and when I have a minute I go downstairs and check them out. That’s how I came to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

The paradoxical thing about a task like shelving books is that it requires deep but meaningless focus. It’s just numbers and letters. But then there is the actual object in my hand, which can trigger thoughts, memories, and feelings. My shift is two and half hours and it feels very like to what watching The Mirror feels like: somewhat stream of conscious, deep in thought, with memories, words and images coming from all directions creating a quiet, sometimes profound emotional rhythm.

There is no story, really. Not in our minds, and not in The Mirror. But the engrossing drama of  (presumably) Tarkovsky’s childhood memories,  twisted up with his mother’s history; the sequences of Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry, read by the narrator (A. Tarkovsky);  the beautiful cinematography: by random turns, black and white, and then color; the dreams and nightmares, anxieties, regret and hope all converge to express, I think, a visual representation of the deep recesses of our minds in which our foundations, if examined, can be all revealing. Just a glimpse, maybe. But a flickering light in between the letters and numbers of our lives.

*photograph taken by Augustus Accardi