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Saturday
Aug122017

Blok, "Как сон, уходит летний день"

A work ("A summer's day like sleep departs") by this Russian poet. You can read the original here.

A summer's day like sleep departs; 
And summer's eve is but a dream.   
My pensiveness is cloaked in steam,       
That slothful haze of hamlets far. 

And so I breathe, think, and stay strong: 
By wondrous, blood-rimmed western shelf; 
This hour I love like sleep itself, 
No force remains to fear its song. 

And at this hour before your prow, 
I dwell amidst a sad soul's ash.
As thund'rous song and fear will clash 
Beneath the raging waves of cloud.

Sunday
Jul302017

Beyond the Wall of Sleep

An old rule about short fiction asserts that a story should not quote its title because it will have a false clang (even more true of a film as those being filmed should not be aware that they have an audience). While numerous great works defy such wisdom – those whose main character gets top billing do not really count in this regard – the sentiment contains more than a few kernels of truth. Philosophy, as many who don't understand a lick of it have said, is a pursuit of the rich. The put-upon, the oppressed, and the marginalized have no time for the distant diatribes of the ivory tower. How could the meaning of the universe or even simply earthbound life resonate with those who struggle for daily necessities? Yet in stories of horror, incorporating the title verbatim into the narrative does not result in a wooden echo, but an omen. It becomes a chant, a legend, a premonition of unspeakable evil prophesied in riddles and warnings which any normal, reasonable mind would interpret as unbesought mercy. And despite all good sense to the contrary, we see another learned man lured into the fantastic in this story.

Our narrator identifies himself only as an intern in "the state psychopathic institution," the state in question being New York since we will be patrolling these mountains. Literary doctors always need literary patients, otherwise they cease to be of any interest at all, and our narrator's subject was foisted upon him by chance itself:

His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts .... This man, a vagabond, hunter, and trapper, had always been strange in the eyes of his primitive associates. He had habitually slept at night beyond the ordinary time, and upon waking would often talk of unknown things in a manner so bizarre as to inspire fear even in the hearts of an unimaginative populace. Not that his form of language was at all unusual, for he never spoke save in the debased patois of his environment; but the tone and tenor of his utterances were of such mysterious wildness, that none might listen without apprehension. He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did.

As well it should be forgotten, since Slater will commit a hideous crime against a man called Slader, a likely cousin amidst all this "degeneracy," and leave behind "an unrecognisable pulp-like thing." Acquitted of murder on grounds of insanity, Slater, an illiterate who "had apparently never heard a legend or fairy tale," will come under the examination of our fascinated narrator. Fascinated by what, you ask? By the fact that Slater's visions imply an ocular homologue of glossolalia, of sights his dim realm could not possibly know. Our intern explains:

The man himself was pitiably inferior in mentality and language alike; but his glowing, titanic visions, though described in a barbarous and disjointed jargon, were assuredly things which only a superior or even exceptional brain could conceive. How, I often asked myself, could the stolid imagination of a Catskill degenerate conjure up sights whose very possession argued a lurking spark of genius? How could any backwoods dullard have gained so much as an idea of those glittering realms of supernal radiance and space about which Slater ranted in his furious delirium? More and more I inclined to the belief that in the pitiful personality who cringed before me lay the disordered nucleus of something beyond my comprehension; something infinitely beyond the comprehension of my more experienced but less imaginative medical and scientific colleagues.

Experience has a rather unfortunate tendency to diminish imagination, and not only that of otherwise blithe and hopeful scientists. One wonders whether our intern would have been so keen on learning the secrets housed in Joe Slater's terrestrial form had his fellow boffins been more receptive to those "great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys." He does not relent in his aims, which means that he will have his chance alone with his "barbarian" of a patient, should that really be Joe Slater behind those blue eyes. 

Lovecraft was a stylist of indefinite genius often waylaid by his own nightmares and henchmen. And while the detail he lends his descriptions bespeaks the idolater, it is perhaps even more impressive that no one could ever deem his krakens and godlets familiar. How can prose convey the eerie sensations that linger in the crevasses of a sleep-flushed brain, how can wickedness in its most awesome manifestations possibly jostle our spines? The monsters of most horror tales are but ghoulish parodies of homines sapientes: it is through our own reflections, our solipsistic urgings, that we imagine life corrupted and distorted. But what if we heard a voice insist, Watch me in the sky beside the Daemon-Star, what then? Would we, akin to our ever-curious narrator, be so inclined as to gaze upon the firmament in search of signs and wonders? Not if our idea of fun is a "plain tale of science," and our reaction merely a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. 

Monday
Jul172017

In a Better World

Translations of foreign film titles are rarely felicitous, but few seem as ill-chosen as the English rechristening of this film. Properly, the Danish Hævnen would be rendered as "an act of vengeance," or simply "revenge," not only a far more appropriate name given the plot, but also a more personal one conveying the basic moral premise of individual responsibility and individual consequences. Before a viewer is provided the opportunity to make up his own mind, however, the English variant implies that responsibility is shifted from individuals to circumstances, to a malefic world at large. This impression is rectified by the film's events, but not without some of the characters evincing a few doubts of their own. And especially dubious are two twelve-year-old schoolmates, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard).

As is common in such friendships, Christian and Elias are bound together by each other's weaknesses. Christian is the newest student, obviously from a family of affluence as his last institution of learning was a London boarding school, but he is also, we learn early on, a victim of a great tragedy. Elias is a half-Swede whose father is conspicuously absent, although far from vanished. That Christian's father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) chooses to move back to Denmark in the wake of his wife's final battle with brain cancer may strike the viewer as unusual, given that Christian probably has more family memories in his native land than abroad. That said, adjusting to a different environment remains one of the most proven methods of coping with loss (another method, working day and night with little concern for one's well-being, is the strategy adopted by Claus). This leaves Christian the time, resources, and lack of supervision he requires to wreak havoc upon the world that swallowed up his mother. His first step in avenging her is to defend Elias from a bully, a three-vignette sequence that yields a bloody nose, a brutal beating, the repeated intervention of the local police, and a weird and somewhat unconvincing truce. A more captious critic than I might object that the school bully, an Aryan thug by the name of Sofus, quits our view a little too quickly, having served only to solder together our two young protagonists. But the theme of bullying and vengeance is taken up anew with the appearance of Elias's father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt).

The lone Swede amidst a passel of Hamlet's countrymen, Anton literally speaks his own language and is understood more or less completely. And while it is widely known that Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes have mutually intelligible tongues, the distinctions can (and, in our case, will) be used against the outsider. For a number of reasons, Anton emerges as the film's compass: he is the father of Elias and a smaller boy, Morten (whose name is tattooed above his heart); he is estranged from his wife (Trine Dyrholm), who cannot forget a past indiscretion; and, least importantly for our purposes even if, at first, quite the opposite may seem true, Anton spends half the year as a doctor in a never-identified African country (the local language and difficulties suggest Sudan). Africa in its most miserable regions has a tendency to render upper middle-class domestic disputes and coming-of-age stories woefully trivial, precisely the problem when the movie is not really about Africa, but about two boys in Denmark. Most lamentable about the half-dozen glimpses into a realm where few Europeans would be brave enough to test their moral fortitude is that the out-of-Africa quandaries eerily parallel the Scandinavian. As these scenes are discrete from the Danish episodes, the discerning viewer may secretly hope that Africa only exists in Anton's mind as a memory or wild dream of his conscience (alas, one vignette ensures us that this cannot be so). Predictably, therefore, Anton's healing of victims of hideous crimes, some of them the age of his own children, have drawn both the most praise and the most ire from critics, the latter of whom view the whole exercise as manipulative – but such an assertion misses the point. All cinema, even documentary, is manipulative: however nominally objective the director may be, you are simply never privy to the whole picture. This criticism is better directed at the non-diagetic music, which is most always cloying and which regrettably megaphones just when we need no reminder of the emotions we are supposed to feel at that very moment.

We have forgotten, in all this politically correct brouhaha, our unfledged heroes and their tribulations, but that's just as well. We know that the boys will embroil themselves in more than just a fistfight; we also know that they will lie both to one another and their parents as they deepen their hole with the keenest of spades. What we do not know and, indeed, herein lies the charm of such melodramatic machinations, is what if anything will be the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in a world that could and should be better, we are inclined to believe that people get away with much more than we could ever imagine. In a Better World clearly knows right from wrong (all too clearly, I fear, for many critics who likely gorge themselves on films they deem "morally ambiguous"), and what happens when the boys elect to avenge a perceived affront against one of their fathers concludes plausibly, if not necessarily as one might expect. This formula, if that is really the fairest term, has been previously employed by the director, with varied results. Bier's most famous film likewise urges the viewer to connect two very different worlds, yet does not end in atonement or even peace, but in a feeling that almost any emotion would be permissible, so wicked was the experience of one of the characters abroad (while this film, also about a Scandinavian doing wonderful things for the impoverished in a foreign country, is far more effective because the abroad is intrinsically tied to the plot). Nevertheless, as in all Bier productions, the acting is splendid (Dyrholm and Rygaard are particularly outstanding), and we are compelled to watch because these young boys are granted vivacity, fear, a sense of humor, purposefulness, and enough intelligence to be held accountable for their choices; at several junctures in the film, I distinctly felt I was observing sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds. So when Claus confesses something very controversial to his son, and gets punched and insulted for his efforts, we understand why Christian has little if no compunction for his misdeeds and why, for him, the world could not be any worse. And we pity him just as much as any little boy anywhere who has been deprived of that most basic children's need, parental love. We just hope he knows that adulthood might show him how many other deprivations exist on this earth. 

Tuesday
Jul042017

The Catcher in the Rye

If I were of a certain bent, it would behoove me to inquire with strict scientific objectivity, of course as to whether any other species apart from our own pass through that troubled period of alienation we conveniently dismiss as teenagery. Do penguins and goats suffer as much as the average privileged adolescent who cannot seem to handle the shift from doted-upon scion to responsible adult? What then of the changes chemical changes, everything we do is a symphony of chemicals that we incur as hormones detonate our every limb? How are we to survive this onslaught? Perhaps we can learn from less evolved monsters, and the measures taken against such rebellion and if you subscribe to the nonsense proponed in these last few sentences, please stop here. Go away. Don't come back. These pages are not for you. If, however, you believe that alienation is a specific phase in the development of a creative soul and is re-experienced then defeated as that same creative soul soars above the daily hypocrisy, hatred, and greed that preside over lesser minds, read on. For one such creative soul is the narrator of this iconic novel.  

Our seventeen-year-old protagonist is one of the most beloved in American literature, and it is of rather amazing coincidence that his name was not derived from the stars of this film. The name, Holden Caulfield, is sufficiently pompous and upper class that we know we are dealing with someone of extreme privilege, even if he doesn't seem to care much about what has been given to him in life ("Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad"), simply what has been taken away. He has an older brother, D.B., who is "prostituting" himself as a hack in Hollywood, a younger, highly precocious sister, Phoebe, who corrects a quote of his at a very critical juncture, and another younger brother, Allie, who died recently of leukemia. It is this last sibling and his wretched fate that shape Holden, inasmuch as teenagers can be sustainably molded by external events. Holden does not use his brother as an excuse; in fact, fairly the opposite occurs.  Holden's poor work ethic, general antisociality, and anger directed at the "phony" people around him (a word used dozens of times in the novel), are all typical teenage angsts, especially when the adolescent in question has a very sharp mind and a sensitive spirit to guide it. All these fears could have been discounted by an emphasis on Allie's death, but Holden only has good memories of his brother and does not wish to make him a martyr. He describes his brother's intellect ("He was terrifically intelligent"), his red hair (in a magnificent passage: "He was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off that's the kind of red hair he had"), and Allie's odd predilection for writing poems on the inside of his baseball glove the confluence of two typical strands of boyhood and, indeed, of manhood. Holden fails his way out of one expensive all-boys school after another and, as our story opens, has just been told just before that most giving time of the year in the Western world that he will not be invited back to Pencey Prep.

Apart from his family members, few if any persons have made an impact on his life. He has a ladykiller roommate, Stradlater, and a pimply, hopelessly mistrustful suitemate, Ackley. Both of these boys cannot be as real as Holden because Holden is their narrator and understands them as the sum of their flaws. In any case, both represent the stereotypes and stock confrontations to which a teenager must quickly accustom himself. Very early on comes the lone scene with Spencer, a pedantic old teacher complete with blanket, robe, and "Vicks nose drops"; his approach to Holden's expulsion is akin to a convalescent's raised brow and a tut-tut, a method that will be contrasted much later on with the sanguine wit of another professor, Mr. Antolini. But what really drives the vast majority of young men his age? That would be the fairer sex, and we have a lot of young ladies in The Catcher in the Rye: Sally Hayes, a former love interest who generates the fabulous observation, "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody"; three thirtyish women from Seattle, who are available for perhaps someone a bit older and suaver than Holden ("I thought the two ugly ones ... were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them.  You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn't blame them"); and a prostitute named Sunny, who is assigned to Holden's hotel room by the lift operator and seems almost her customer's age. His observation of Sunny could be the novel's most telling:

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell I don't know why exactly.

We, however, do know. We know that Holden Caulfield is a sensitive and thoughtful young man who does not force himself upon women like the rakish Stradlater (who apparently takes neither "no" nor "please, don't" for an answer). Although Holden has had "quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity," he "keeps stopping" whenever he is asked, by a girl who values her reputation, not to advance any further. Which makes his claims to being a sex maniac true: he obsesses with something he has never had, but has no real physical courage to get it, perhaps because he fears it will underwhelm him. 

Proof positive resides in the heroine of the novel, the heroine who is permanently absent, the subject of memory and rumors, Jane Gallagher. Jane is many things to Holden; some say she is his imagined soulmate; others may claim, with a great deal of insight into teenage boys, that what teenage boys need is someone to idealize, to talk about, to desire from afar, the classic princesse lointaine of the romantic poet. If you do not have an ideal woman as a romantic poet, then you are not a romantic poet, or at least not one anyone would ever bother about; precisely the same can be said for a teenage boy. So Jane, someone he once comforted and ended up kissing "all over .... her whole face except her mouth and all," becomes what Holden needs to sustain himself against the inevitable disappointment that is teenagery. Her quirk may be the checkers reference that does not impress Stradlater, who much to Holden's chagrin has a date with Jane at the beginning of the book, but another character trait is far more essential to understanding her:

Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something. Jane was different. We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.

This passage may be read several different ways, but the strict literal reading is what should be encouraged. I do not spoil anything of the novel by admitting that we never get to meet Jane, because that would violate her status and all those dramatic conventions we hold dear. Jane must remain apart; too much of her would show Holden what he most fears: that she is no different from any other girl.

What happens next is not predictable, not episodic, and, above all, not crude or vulgar. It is simply what adolescence comprises for a boy: a schedule imposed from without; a series of meaningless meetings with people who know more than you do about life or, in the case of some coevals, pretend that they do; and frustration with your lack of control, your inefficacy, your inability to be taken seriously even though you'll have the rest of your life never to be taken unseriously again. To ban this book, as it so often has been banned, is to eliminate all the madness of adolescence, the wildness that may not mean as much now but was our world then. There are undoubtedly more detailed works about being a teenager, but one would be hard pressed to come up with one that better captures its trials. The voice that Salinger chooses for this journey is so remarkable and original, we are stunned to look back on the novel and find the grating slang of the nineteen forties, utterly authentic, one presumes, at the time and now, in no small irony, utterly outdated or "phony" if compared to the current generation's lingo and buzz words. Every so often Holden makes grammatical errors (notice his idiosyncratic usage of "on account of" and "hell") and spells dialogue phonetically, which is the commonest fault of young writers aiming for authenticity, but the key word is still "phony." Being a teenager, in our modern age at least, means being neither fish nor fowl. It is not a real existence, clearly defined as a child's innocence or an adult's sober perception of life's vicissitudes and tragedies. For that reason alone, more wisdom and self-awareness can be found in The Catcher in the Rye than in all the combined works of all the so-called existentialists, who are, anyway, simply adolescents trapped in adult bodies. And why haven't we explained our work's mysterious title? Now that would be a lousy thing to give away and all.

Sunday
Jun252017

The Fugitive

We have heard so often the story of the innocent man framed that it has become less of a fictional cliché and more of a reminder of our own first disobedience. Such a scenario is carved into the underpinnings of our nightmares, of how life can be snatched up and mutilated beyond recognition (some critics would love to emphasize our own repressed guilt in these instances, but most people's guilt is manifest and petty). What could be worse than being accused and convicted of a crime one did not commit? Loving the victim of that crime and knowing the true culprit perhaps, which brings us to this masterful film.

We know the accused will be Chicago physician Richard Kimble (a still-spry Harrison Ford). Kimble has everything that an average soul could want: he is cultured, financially successful, kind-hearted, attractive, and married to a ravishing beauty appropriately named Helen (Sela Ward); in other words, for the conventions of tragedy, he fits the bill quite well. We would not feel any sympathy towards a person of his privileges if he lost little, or if the person in question had nothing to lose at all. It is therefore appalling to watch our poor doctor enter his lovely home late one evening and find Helen bludgeoned and bloody beside a frightful-looking character (Andreas Katsulas), who in the ensuing tussle is revealed to have only one arm. One supposes it is important to have Kimble ostensibly exculpated from the very beginning so as to increase his pathos, although it hardly remains beyond plot twists to have had him order a killing anonymously. This latter option seems less likely when a filthy wealth of evidence, including life insurance benefits, points towards only one man. Kimble is arrested, tried, and sentenced to die by lethal injection with great alacrity, precisely because the sequence seems like a dream whose details could not possibly coincide with the real world. Throughout the entire proceedings Kimble retains a look of costive disbelief reflecting what he thinks of human justice; and as a man of science, he must know that law and its derivative vocations are as flawed and prone to misinterpretation as any lab test or vial. That he decides to operate outside the law is somewhat owing to happenstance: traveling on one of those prison buses that always seem to provoke mayhem, an aborted escape by another prisoner gives him his freedom − if being a hunted death row fugitive in a Chicago winter can be somehow considered liberty.   

On Kimble's trail comes the eminently cocksure U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones at his very best), who as a film character will resemble an artful codger or two from our own existence. Jones at the time of filming was in his mid-forties, four years younger than Ford. Yet his demeanor is distinctly one of a much older man who has seen and done everything necessary to prove that he is always right. Gerard does have less hair and more wrinkles than his co-star, as well as much less of a need to be in top running condition, but this palpable difference in generations extends into the strategies employed. Being an inveterate rule-follower, Gerard assumes that all success feeds off discipline, this deduction being especially applicable to a man devoted to the rules of nature and medicine. While police procedurals will regularly contrast those who think inside the box and those for whom volatile shapes would be the only means of caging their inventions, Gerard is not mistaken. What he simply does not understand, however, is the degree of indignation that Kimble feels (never mind that he spends most of the film under the presumption that Kimble was rightfully incarcerated). Why he does not know the greater limits of human emotion is not touched upon by the script; perhaps he has never been married or lost a loved one; perhaps he has always managed to treat life's vicissitudes as the function of his decision-making. At times we sense that Gerard would hardly be above gunning down his quarry at the slightest violation of his methods. 

This fundamental ignorance generates the tension required to elevate The Fugitive from the typical feline-rodent event to something grand and unnerving. The film has been compared by some critics to opera, and the comparison stands. The frost-ridden forests and icy pathways imbue the setting with a certain Wagnerian appeal, and the film's unusual length, often cited as its only flaw, actually aids in our concept of time: we cannot glance at our watches and estimate the next shootout, or even whether that shootout will ever occur. This lack of predictability coupled with Gerard's scene-stealing presence suggest that while we suspect Kimble will be ultimately acquitted, we cannot be assured that it will happen while he is still alive. As opera, we have a great hero, a terrible and earth-shattering crime, an unknown villain (one-armed men usually do not make good kingpins), and an ambiguous character who may act in the service of evil while attempting to do good − or exactly the reverse. There are many nice touches to the film, including a much-lauded vignette in which Kimble's Hippocratic oath trumps his own will to survive, but a few questions persist. Doesn't Kimble's flight argue culpability? Was it necessary to kill Helen when Kimble could easily have been out of town for business reasons? Couldn't there be a less conspicuous person to carry out an assassination than someone utilizing a state-of-the-art and not inexpensive prosthetic limb? Not that we are given too many chances to catch our breath and ponder such trivialities.

Friday
Jun162017

Brother

At several junctures in this film we are shown an electric streetcar with no sides, a hollow prism offering a glance at the skyline and sunsets of Russia's most beautiful city. That our streetcar is both transparent and unadulterated may be obvious; but it also masks desires. We are in what is called New Russia, where many have little, few have plenty, and a certain stratum has decided to take what they can before Death casts its shroud. And where does Death lurk? At almost every corner, in almost every alley, but not, most importantly, in every human soul.

Our first scene is like no other: a voluptuous blonde stands against a wall with her black dress peeling off her very white skin. Above her hovers a camera and we understand that what we are watching is counterfeit, synthetic, abstract, someone's concept of what reality should but never could resemble. We then espy a young man who seems to float into the picture asking a crew member what song is playing in the background. He is immediately spotted and berated by the head of security, a bored director contemplates momentarily whether he could use the impending brawl in his film, and as we fade to black our security chief is bounding bloody-minded through the crowd. 

The next vignette has our fellow seated in the local police station. He identifies himself as Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), twenty-two years of age, appropriately residing at the itinerant address of 22 Station Street, and a recent discharge from the Russian army. His wounds are visible but are nothing compared to what he inflicted on his assailant. Danila is offered a job which he politely refuses with a smirk, and as he leaves the police chief comments to a colleague and cold window pane that he was once his father's classmate. The same father who died at forty in a prison after repeated burglary convictions. Danila makes his way home to his mother, who laments in that strange way mothers have of trying to motivate their children that Danila "will croak in prison like [his] good-for-nothing father." Her "only hope" is apparently "little Viktor in Petersburg." This Viktor is hardly little. At least ten years older than his brother, he replaced Danila's father, who died when the boy was only seven, and what he has done with his life in the Venice of the North has not been revealed to anyone at this point; in fact, not even the film's title has been mentioned. The mother insists that Danila peruse once again the photo album she keeps of her beloved Viktor, shown aging into a bald, menacing figure, although Danila has no interest. Yet when his mother recommends a fraternal reunion in Petersburg, he is surprisingly receptive. Perhaps because he knows what his brother actually does for a living – and at this point we get our title and an introduction to a very different world.

We then find Viktor (Viktor Sukharukov), easily identifiable from the photographs, deep in one of those hard-boiled dialogues that involve money, death, or often both. His interlocutor (Sergei Murzin) is an odd, round-headed gentleman (nicknamed "Roundhead" throughout the film) who likes to talk in rhymes and has made his offer at fifteen thousand dollars and one week's preparation "to get a Chechen." Viktor brazenly dismisses this sum and wants twenty, half up front, and twice the time to track his quarry, to which the Roundhead readily agrees, although if we know anything about men of his stamp, quick assent normally indicates ulterior motives – in this case, an added assignment for his two flunkies. At another location in the same magical city, Danila detrains. He walks past one of Petersburg's most famous monuments and pauses, continues his walk around the city freezing, smoking and, most of all, observing. Why would an ostensibly impecunious young man not go directly to his brother's warm apartment? Because Danila has a plan that may or may not include his brother, but which definitely renders his repeated claims to only having served "in headquarters" more than a little dubious.    

This amazing survey is accomplished in about ten minutes of laconic screen time. The vignettes are always curt, almost like the pictures in the album Danila has been force-fed time and again, and perhaps for that reason is he the only one who anticipates the moves of others. He befriends an impoverished German (Yuri Kuznestov) whose penury has not diminished his philosophy, a junkie called Kat, and Sveta, a married thirtysomething woman who happens to be the driver of the aforementioned sideless streetcar. It is among these three characters as well as the morally vapid Viktor that Danila ricochets, and in time we detect the outline of his schemes. Blood is spilled, of course, but literally just off-screen – behind a wall or door, under a bed, from a distance – and Danila makes enough racist comments to disrupt an open-minded person's idea of justice. We are not dealing with a good human being but a criminal with a moral code; unusual surely, though no reason to cheer. Around him Danila sees the more conventional forms of revolution – drugs, long hair, loud music – but prefers his conservative do and this band on his omnipresent discman (which comes in handy in a later scene), and doesn't have any real taste for drugs, alcohol, or the deadening throb of disco bars. As a revolutionary he is most unconventional, which easily makes him the most radical figure in what would otherwise have become a straightforward tale. 

What distinguishes Brother from similar films is the deceptive innocuousness of its fairy tale surroundings and its protagonist, who despite his deep voice and playboy stare does some very adult things in a childish way. There is a hint of something greater at play than man versus man: it devolves into an entire city pockmarked by violent crime against one soul at once above and below the law. A familiar story, but told with such gusto and attention to detail (note how Sveta looks at Danila as he watches a pirated copy of a concert) that we cannot help but wonder whether the German is right when he says of Petersburg, "the city is a horrific force," and "the strong come here and become weak because the city swallows up our strength." And only once do we hear Danila justify his hell-bent tactics, to the German naturally, who can judge him without fear of retaliation. Not that retaliation could really motivate a clerk from headquarters. 

Saturday
Jun102017

Ein Brudermord

A very short story ("A fratricide") by this Czech writer.  You can read the original here.

It has been proven that the murder occurred in the following manner:

At around nine o'clock on a clear, moonlit night, Schmar, the murderer, positioned himself on that precise street corner where Wese, the victim, had to turn from the street where his office was located onto the street on which he lived.

Cold, all-penetrating night air.  Yet Schmar had on only a thin blue coat; what is more, the coat was unbuttoned.  He felt no cold; he was also always in motion.  He held his murder weapon, half bayonet, half kitchen knife, wholly exposed in his clenched fist, then ran it against the brick of the cobblestones until it gave out sparks.  Perhaps he regretted his actions; to make up for the damage, he stroked the blade like a violin bow over the soles of his boot while he, standing on one leg, bent over listening at once to the sound of the knife on his boot and the sound of the fateful alleyway.

Why did private citizen Pallas, watching from his window on the second floor nearby, tolerate all this?  Human nature, that's why!  Shaking his head with his collar turned up and his robe belted around his wide frame, he looked down.  

And five houses down, diagonally across from her, Mrs. Wese, her fox fur over her nightdress, looked here and there for her husband, who today had been delayed for an unusually long time.

Finally the door bell in front of Wese's office rang – too loud for a door bell – all through the city and up to the heavens.  And Wese, that diligent night worker, stepped out of his building and into the street, still invisible, only announced by the clock; and the cobblestones counted his placid steps.

Pallas bent out even further; he did not want to miss a thing.  Mrs. Wese closed up, calmed by the clock rattling her window.  Schmar, however, kneeled down; since he momentarily had no other bare spots, he pressed only his face and hands against the stones; where everything freezes, Schmar glows.

Wese was standing just on the dividing line between the streets, supporting himself with only his stick. 

A whim.  The night sky seduced him, that dark blue and gold.  Absent-mindedly he gazed upon these colors and stroked the hair beneath his propped-up hat: nothing over there conspired to hint at his immediate future, everything remained in its senseless, inscrutable place.  That Wese proceeded was in and of itself very reasonable, but he proceeded into Schmar's knife.  

"Wese!" screamed Schmar, standing on his toes, his arm stretched out, the knife sharply drawn down.  "Wese!  Julia waits in vain!" and Schmar stabbed him on the left side of the neck, then the right side of the neck, then deeply in his stomach.  Wese emitted a sound similar to that of water rats when sliced open.

"Done!" said Schmar, and then threw the knife, the superfluous, bloody ballast, towards the nearest house's façade.  "The bliss of murder!  Winged relief by the spilling of another's blood!  Wese, you old night shade, friend, drinking chum, you ooze upon the dark streets.  Why aren't you simply a bubble stuffed with blood so that I could sit on you and you would completely and utterly disappear?  Not everything has been accomplished; not all budding hopes ripened.  Your heavy remains lie here, already inaccessible to any approach.  What is, in so doing, that silent question that you ask?"   

Pallas, choking on all the toxins in his body, stood at his double-wing door as it sprang out.  "Schmar!  Schmar!  I saw everything, I missed nothing!"  Pallas and Schmar sized each other up, which satisfied Pallas.  But Schmar could not be satisfied.  

Followed by a crowd of people at the sides of both men, Mrs. Wese hurried over with a face aged violently from the horror.  Her fur opened and she tripped over Wese because her nightshirt-covered body belonged to him; the fur coat that covered the married couple like the grass plot of a grave, however, belonged to the crowd.

Schmar, stifling his last qualm, pressed his mouth into the shoulder of the police constable leading him ever so gently away.

Saturday
May272017

A Night Out

What constitutes our evening pleasures very much depends, one may conclude, on how we whittle away the daytime. I have always been partial to reading, writing, and cinema; but not always exclusively partial. That is to say, when I was younger and untethered to a wonderful life of responsibilities, I felt the urge – as all young people do regardless of stock or situation – to drift into the world and let the world drift into me. This drifting may assume the form of walking about a modern metropolis in search of whatever that city may offer its wanderers. It may also involve more organized pursuits, to wit, meeting and carousing with those ephemeral beings we call friends. Now I am all for friends. But true friends are very few and stand like cracked, sturdy buildings throughout our sunsets in the same reliable position, waiting simply to be remembered and reapproached. As life takes its course much of our interaction with these persons, whom we have chosen and who have chosen us, lives off the fumes of a glorious common past. Gone are the days of plenty, or perhaps, the days of prophecy. Which brings us to a work about an old theme from this collection.

Our protagonist is Albert Stokes, a "young man of twenty-eight," to identify him, I suppose, against a much more mature man of the same age. Stokes lives with his widowed mother as well as with the ghosts of his father and a grandmother who still claims a room in the Stokes family basement. Since our title implies an exception, we are not surprised to learn that Albert doesn't really do nights out and his mother becomes staggeringly disappointed when he reminds her of his plans for that evening ("We were going to have a game of cards, it's Friday night, what about a game of rummy?"). Thankfully, dear Mrs. Stokes proves to be far from senile, her grip on reality confirmed by a lengthy soliloquy towards the play's end, even if reality for her consists of unswerving bilocation in her past and her son's present. An old chestnut, surely; but it would hardly be hyperbole to observe that Albert, a shy squirrel, is buried under a mound of chestnuts. Before he even appears for his nocturnal summoning, two colleagues, Kedge and Seeley, dissect him through the unfortunate lens of a recent intercompany soccer match:

Seeley: Sure. He was a very smart ballplayer, Foxall. But what did Albert do? He played his normal game. He let him come. He waited for him. And Connor's not as clever as Foxall.

Kedge: He's clever though.

Seeley: Gawd blimey, I know he's clever, but he's not as clever as Foxall, is he?

Kedge: The trouble is, with Connor, he's fast too, isn't he?

Seeley: But if Albert had played his normal game! He played a game foreign to him.

Kedge: How many'd Connor get?

Seeley: He made three and scored two.

Since I adhere to a strict non-disclosure policy, it should be noted that soccer is the least of Albert's shortcomings, even if it remains, to the casual observer at least, the most glaring. We can also add that Albert is not very good at any games, sporting or otherwise.

These wistful asides usher in the second act and the most important event of all, at least in the synthetic company atmosphere that obliges colleagues to behave like relatives (as relatives at family gatherings are forced to behave like passionate lovers) and celebrate someone and something for which they couldn't care less. The celebrated is old Mr. Ryan, finally booted – that is to say, finally retiring of his own free will. He does not seem as if he has made any recent contributions. As the young people feed and flock in different arrangements, old Mr. Ryan has nothing to do or say apart from being celebrated, which in this case renders his sendoff hardly distinguishable from the unveiling of an obscure statue. The party proceeds as these things often do, as a horrific waste of youth on youth – and Albert's youth has been lavishly wasted. The lack of excitement in an exciting world (ten years or so after the war and England, Europe, and the globe all chirp in a lilac cluster) impends over poor Albert in the form of the mounting personal distaste one colleague feels for him, and the result in its abject unfairness and ridiculous violence will inevitably remind the reader of middle school cruelty. And what if middle school was not a cruel time? Some, I suppose, can make that claim, especially if they were on the giving end of the stick. But Albert has always taken what life has chosen to foist upon him, even when it has shown itself to be a rather vile overlord. And when he leaves as pariahs usually leave – parting a crowd who jeers him on – his real night out at last begins.  

Pinter's theater has a polished consistency to it that is often the mark of first-rate writers, so he always seems to be talking about the same thing. Gathering his picture cards around a single fireplace would be unjust, but we can safely conclude that betrayal, in its myriad guises, has always been one of his – and drama's – most lethal weapons because it is hard by other means to generate tension among people you can see and hear agreeing on every atom in this universe. The most talked about parts of A Night Out, a lesser-known but tidy masterpiece, will always be the third act. Two very loquacious women – the first, dear Mrs. Stokes in a summary of all her deeds and desires, the second, there and on these pages anonymous – assault Albert with everything their minds and tongues can conspire to emit within the façade of social decency. It is to Pinter's credit that Mrs. Stokes comes off as the wiser of the two; it is to our discredit that we seriously feared she might not. We have other fears, naturally, some propelled into dark channels by what we do not really glimpse in Albert, that ticking bomb of male anxiety, here to mean his inability to make any sort of decision because a decision may have a consequence, and people like Albert have never dealt well with consequences. Perhaps that's why he ultimately has to take time into his own hands. 

Sunday
May212017

Nine O'Clock

I die at a time when the people have lost their reason; you will die on the day when they recover it.

Since earliest childhood I have heard plenty about the event that would change all events, the first wave of tyrants destroyed (to be replaced by an even greater despot, a dull subject permanently banished from these pages), the first mass uprising that would have made Spartacus proud. If my tone smacks of irreverence, it is because I have never been an admirer of revolution, bloodhot or otherwise; changes in my universe occur slowly and precisely without recourse to upheaval or war chants. But for the more callow among those of Romantic bent, the last eleven years of eighteenth-century French history represent a watershed in our view of the world and its dividends. Gone are the remorseless monarchs, the meddling clergy, the fiefdoms frozen in eternal hardscrabble stasis; in their stead have come happy, peaceful democracies whose main aim has been to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. Alas, while a narrow handful of such nations do exist, the majority are still mired in that grim morass of greed and power that has plagued every community since scribes and their cuneiform contrived a record of human drama. The French Revolution has come and gone, but we may still detect our proclivity for its success, our wish to see the rich choke on the cakes they so preferred to plainest rye. Which brings us to a quiet tale of injustice.

Our heroes are none; instead, we will have twenty-one martyrs for a cause that remains unestablished, the removal of one government unstinting in its waste for another government unstinting in its vengeance. The year and month, you see, are 1793 and June, and the time has come for something more than theoretical freedoms. The victims will be damned because "they were not, as a party, true to their own convictions"; and they will fall "before worse men, because those men were in earnest." Of course, when your solution to four out of every five problems are mayhem and murder, it becomes quite easy to be earnest about them. Much more difficult is the nuanced detection of human or national desires, which incites one of the condemned men to the magnificent pronouncement that begins this review. As the twenty-one face their last terrestrial night with the conviviality of the plague-ridden in this film, one pale soul withdraws from the commotion, a Girondist by the name of Duprat:

He was a younger man than the majority of his brethren, and was personally remarkable by his pale, handsome, melancholy face, and his reserved yet gentle manners. Throughout the evening, he had spoken but rarely; there was something of the silence and serenity of a martyr in his demeanour. That he feared death as little as any of his companions was plainly visible in his bright, steady eye; in his unchanging complexion; in his firm, calm voice, when he occasionally addressed those who happened to be near him. But he was evidently out of place at the banquet; his temperament was reflective, his disposition serious; feasts were at no time a sphere in which he was calculated to shine.

Soon Duprat finds a willing interlocutor, one of the partisans who will endure the most unfortunate punishment of witnessing his friends' demise on the mill of silence, and answers the only lingering question among the carousers: the exact time of their deaths. Duprat makes the incredible claim that he knows precisely when his time will come (he does not speak for others), and bases that prognosis on an odd family history which cannot be provided at length. It involves his widower father and a gentle youth, his younger brother Alfred, both of whom no longer walk among the living.  

Unlike Duprat, Alfred had not seen much success in school and had accordingly diminished his father's expectations. When, in his teenage years, Alfred finally exhibited an interest in a subject, his father was more than a little disappointed to learn the object of his scholarship: astrology, "the most obsolete of obsolete sciences, the old, abandoned delusion of divination by stars!" Content at least that his younger son would not be utterly idle, the father had left him to his own devices. Until one day when Duprat came upon his sibling in their father's den:

One day – my brother being then sixteen years of age – I happened to go into my father's study, during his absence, and found Alfred there, standing close to a window, which looked into the garden. I walked up to him, and observed a curious expression of vacancy and rigidity in his face, especially in his eyes. Although I knew him to be subject to what are called fits of absence, I still thought it rather extraordinary that he never moved, and never noticed me when I was close to him. I took his hand, and asked if he was unwell. His flesh felt quite cold; neither my touch nor my voice produced the smallest sensation in him. Almost at the same moment when I noticed this, I happened to be looking accidentally towards the garden. There was my father walking along one of the paths, and there, by his side, walking with him, was another Alfred! – Another, yet exactly the same as the Alfred by whose side I was standing, whose hand I still held in mine!

Bilocation not ranking among the virtues of human existence, we may wonder long and hard at this scene, disordered in mind as it may appear, and retreat to logic's dark little corner and swinging overhead bulb. Then again, we may consider the apparition of one and another Alfred as some index of calamity. That this end shall come at a certain hour should surprise us as much as it now surprises the condemned Duprat.     

Those of us who still patronize this author's works know something good when we've found it. I am no Collins completist, yet his books resemble the finest of gourmet dishes: one only needs a few bites to determine their succulence. Beneath lesser hands, the structure and inevitability of Nine O'Clock might feel contrived and unsuspenseful, although as we know from many a thriller, great tension need not lie in the outcome, but in the choices that spell a tragic character's doom. Collins has a talent that cannot be learned or inherited: the gift of atmosphere, of so empathizing with a reader's whims as to predict his turns before the reader himself has pathed them. Even if the reader may not want to know the very last page he will enjoy.

Sunday
May142017

A Mother

Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite. She had been educated in a high-class convent, where she had learned French and music. As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret. However, when she drew near the limit and her friends began to loosen their tongues about her, she silenced them by marrying Mr. Kearney, who was a bootmaker on Ormond Quay.

We forget sometimes that our most fundamental relationships – parent, child, sibling – are the bases for all other relationships, romantic or office, temporary or everlasting. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy a happy, stable childhood – and happiness and stability are the foundations of life, all life – can only wonder at the broken promises that others have endured. Having children is no easy task, and one that to some should never be assigned; but when children are present, when a couple has created a perfect little mammal or welcomed such a being previously bereft of such caretakers, all thoughts should be geared towards the benefit of the children. No longer are we husbands and wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters: we are simply parents, mothers and fathers. And while not everyone, for a variety of reasons, may have a father, every single being on earth may claim the title character of this story.

It may seem strange that we are concerned with a mother, when the focal point of our tale is the performance of a certain Kathleen Kearney, the elder of two daughters of Mrs. Kearney, née Devlin. Kathleen Kearney has the type of name that can "be heard often on people's lips," because some names lend themselves to savoring. By dint of her very marketable appellation, her mother's own insistence, and some veritable musical talent, Kathleen Kearney becomes "the accompanist at a series of four grand concerts." These concerts, to be held in Dublin, are sponsored by the Éire Abú Society, which  I am afraid means something rather dull in Irish (and only appears to exist in Joyce's fictional realm). As the concert days approach, all consecutive, with the fourth on the very fateful evening of Saturday, Mrs. Kearney, who should not be mistaken for a person of culture, has high hopes for her daughter's performance. That first night she meets the secretary of the Society, who will represent everything she is hoping to overcome:

In the dressing-room behind the stage she was introduced to the secretary of the Society, Mr. Fitzpatrick. She smiled and shook his hand. He was a little man, with a white, vacant face. She noticed that he wore his soft brown hat carelessly on the side of his head and that his accent was flat. He held a programme in his hand, and, while he was talking to her, he chewed one end of it into a moist pulp. He seemed to bear disappointments lightly. 

Mrs. Kearney, it should be noted, does not bear disappointments lightly; in fact, she does not expect to have to bear them at all. Disappointments, for a snobbish social climber like Mrs. Kearney, are the lives of those without grace, without ambition, and, most importantly perhaps, without the proper connections to put that grace and ambition to best use.  

Things, of course, get worse for our eponymous matriarch. The Wednesday concert provokes the blasphemous suggestion that perhaps the Society "had made a mistake in arranging for four concerts: four was too many"; on Thursday, "the audience behaved indecorously as if the concert were an informal dress rehearsal"; and by Friday morning, someone has seen enough of the first concerts to use "special puffs in all the evening papers reminding the music-loving public" that Kathleen Kearney will be accompanying some impressive artistes the following night. The following night? After the apathy of the Wednesday and Thursday audiences, it was decided by the Society that Friday's would be even less attentive, a logic that would bankrupt the sturdiest of entertainment enterprises, but that is not ours to ponder. And so, a day before their daughter's third and final appearance on the Dublin stage, Mrs. Kearney reveals her suspicions to that "bootmaker on Ormand Quay" who bestowed his surname upon her:

He listened carefully and said that perhaps it would be better if he went with her on Saturday night. She agreed. She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure, and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male. She was glad that he had suggested coming with her. 

The phrase "she appreciated his abstract value as a male" in a modern work would seem, and would very likely be, wholly disingenuous; but in Joyce's context there can be no more accurate a description. What ensues that rainy Saturday night will not surprise readers accustomed to those vicissitudes of human nature that may be loosely termed "aesthetic sensibilities" (we will leave the matter at that). We will likewise not address the role of Mr. O'Madden Burke, whose ridiculous name swathes a most ridiculous figure, one which, of course, is "widely respected" by simple-minded people who think spruce, pompous frauds are something to which to aspire. What we should examine, however, is one of the artistes whom Mrs. Kearney surely cannot appreciate:

The bass, Mr. Duggan, was a slender young man with a scattered black moustache. He was the son of a hall porter in an office in the city and, as a boy, he had sung prolonged bass notes in the resounding hall. From this humble state he had raised himself until he had become a first-rate artiste. He had appeared in grand opera. One night, when an operatic artiste had fallen ill, he had undertaken the part of the king in the opera of Maritana at the Queen's Theatre. He sang his music with great feeling and volume and was warmly welcomed by the gallery; but, unfortunately, he marred the good impression by wiping his nose in his gloved hand once or twice out of thoughtlessness. He was unassuming and spoke little. He said yous so softly that it passed unnoticed and he never drank anything stronger than milk for his voice's sake.

Mr. Duggan, you see, is precisely what a mother would want in a child, because he has fulfilled his potential to a sensational level, all the more impressive an accomplishment given the banal hurdles of poverty. And yet, among the innumerable Philistines of grand society, an imaginary community staffed almost entirely by such vulgarians, all that will be remembered of him will be his nose and his gloved hand. The same gloved hand that will one day inherit the earth, the air, and the sea.  

Sunday
May072017

Akhmatova, "Ждала его напрасно много лет"

A work ("For him I waited years in vain") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

For him I waited years in vain,     
This time now seems like drowsiness. 
Yet light invincible did reign 
Three years ago, on Lazarus.  
My voice would break, then words entomb: 
Before me stood my smiling groom. 

Behind the pane, the candles strolled
In unfast crowds. O pious eve!  
So easy will iced April cleave,
Above these crowds the church bells tolled, 
The wisest comfort will pain slake. 
And blackest wind the flames then shake.

White narcissus the table smote,   
Red wine cups waiting to be sipped,
My sight akin to dawn's red mist;
My hand, entrapped in wax's coat, 
It trembled with this kiss my choice, 
And my blood sang: blessed one, rejoice!

Thursday
Apr272017

Youth Without Youth

There is a notion that people are not intimidated by great intelligence, but by great ideas presented intelligently. If you tell someone that religion can be boiled down to ten irrefragable commandments, or loving the one you're with, or the eternal return, or something that can fit on a business card or fortune cookie roll, they will smile because they have been initiated into one of the astounding mysteries of our world. It would be sad yet dutifully accurate to inform them, however, that the average person, even if somewhat well-read, would need at least ten years of intense study, incredible enthusiasm, and some cerebral propitiousness to be able to produce a first-rate book on religion or on literature. Of course, political correctness proclaims that all opinions are worth hearing and all viewpoints, regardless of education or perspective, are worth understanding. This I do not deny; these voices all have the same dignity, the dignity of human thought and feeling. But they do not have the same value. For value, you need minds who know their subject backwards, forwards and, in the case of this lush and beautiful film, also upside-down.  

Our hero is Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), a seventy-year-old Romanian scholar who wakes up one evening in the spring of 1938 and realizes that he "will never complete [his] life's work," that work being the chronicling of the origins of language. He decides, quite logically perhaps, to hasten this eventuality. As he potters around a meek Bucharest that already seems to hear the crunch of Fascist boots, Dominic is lifted off the ground, scorched by lightning, then dropped unceremoniously to wither and die. So violent and unexpected is this scene that it sets the tenor for the rest of Youth Without Youth: what has just happened is a miracle of miracles, thus disbelief is necessarily suspended. He winds up mummified in an intensive care station where he signals his name and age by squeezing the hand of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), yet the nurses who wash his crisped body giggle in his presence and only half-jokingly claim that this man is still very young. In short order we learn the truth: right before Dominic awakes, his image in a nearby looking-glass opens its eyes, soon to be met by those of the original Dominic, now young, handsome and completely unscarred from his encounter with a million heavenly volts. If we weren't already convinced by the fulminous scene outside this train station, we now know that what we are watching is science fiction.

And yet perhaps this is still not the right term. The old Dominic inhabits many flashbacks: he loved a young woman named Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara) who essentially leaves him because he has not fulfilled his potential; he is also a diligent student of Chinese who is dismissed by a French-speaking professor (likely patterned after this Swiss linguist) because without a mastery of Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Japanese, he would not take him on as a student. "To master Chinese," says the smug old fellow, twirling his moustaches, "you must have the memory of a mandarin" – which is precisely what the new Dominic acquires. Soon he is able to know the contents of any book simply by willing himself to know them; he can predict the final destination of a roulette ball, move objects by telekinesis, and absorb information at a capacity that can only be called unearthly. He also keeps himself company, literally and figuratively, by discussing his agenda and feelings with a psychic double of himself. If this sounds ridiculous, you may consider that while he has now exceeded all men in pure intellect, he has not lost the human need for conversation with a peer. Stanciulescu publishes a series of incredible reports in a medical journal that garners the attention of scientists around the world. One of these observers has a notebook marked with a wicked symbol that will be mirrored (in perhaps an overlong shot) on the garters of "the woman in room six who was placed there by the secret police." That symbol has now become the most important in Europe, much more vital than all those Chinese characters and all the mathematical equations and all the plethoric knowledge with which Dominic has stuffed his rejuvenated brain. In other words, if that symbol survives, Europe perishes. 

As the war rages on in favor of that symbol, Dominic flees to Switzerland, but he cannot exist as anonymously as he would have hoped. At a professorial gathering of leading Swiss scholars ("I knew more than each of them; I knew things that they didn't even dream existed") he is again accosted by that lovely young lady from room six who just so happens to worship that repulsive, all-important symbol and who tells him of a Doctor Monroe ("He's Swiss. Like me. Like you"). When she adds, "you know, I do have a name," he refuses this feeble stab at humanity because the knowledge of her body was no different than the countless books he absorbed, pure information. Monroe, for his part, is interested in running a million volts through some test subjects for the sake of science – and I think you might guess who foots his laboratory bills. To the film's credit, once Dominic extricates himself from this situation, there is a drastic shift in both time and tone, with the second half of the film outyelling its predecessor and continuing Dominic's spiritual journey in ways he could not possibly have imagined. And since they are beyond his own horizon, at least initially, we too will struggle to grasp why Laura seems to have been reincarnated in a young student by the name of Veronica, and why this may not be the only exemplar of metempsychosis that Dominic will witness.

While I am galled by the chocolate box of accents in English among the cast members, however realistic that has now become in the world (I invariably prefer unanimity of dialect), I should add a few words on the negativity of many of the film's reviewers. Youth without youth was a critical failure, particularly in America, for one very good reason: it holds almost no universal appeal. That some reviewers even stooped to labeling the film kitsch reveals a fundamental ignorance of aesthetic theory. Kitsch (and the closely related Russian term poshlost') tugs at the emotions by reducing them to the solution to all plot developments and all questions of character. A Hollywood film that pumps soft music against a still softer sunset and the embrace of two extremely good-looking young people who have only exchanged platitudes for two hours as bombs and bones detonated around them is the epitome of kitsch. Kitsch expects you the viewer to relate to the on-screen happenings because these emotions and lives and loves and hopes are common to all people at all times, and therein lie its eternal sadness and purported – and utterly fraudulent – artistic credentials. All this has absolutely nothing to do with the plight of Dominic Matei. The youth regained embodies the cerebral life Dominic always wanted, and it is his and his alone. He is granted by some Almighty force the time necessary to finish his life's work (a plot device probably borrowed from this famous tale), but then realizes that while he may conclude his intellectual existence satisfactorily, he will never again be a happy, love-struck youth, whereas precisely the opposite predicament would feature in a film devoted to cheap schmaltz. What is legitimately and artistically tragic in Youth Without Youth is that the wisdom and memories Dominic accumulated in the years before the lightning do not permit him to enjoy things with the same sense of invincibility that usually accompanies our early adulthood. He may be young in body but within him shudders the tortured soul of an immortal who has outlived every love and passion. And what can we say about those three roses? Only that Laura may not be one of them.