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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.

Tuesday
Apr182017

A Suspension of Mercy

Most mystery novels published today follow recipes so tried and true that one cannot but marvel that people still savor them and lick their lips. The mystery is the most elemental of plots, a natural sentiment demonstrated by our own ignorance of the universe and its secrets, yet the novel is startlingly young. Taking (as is often agreed upon) this famous story as its inception, we have only had mysteries for somewhat less than two centuries. Now I am no fan of the plain whodunits that I devoured as a fourteen-year-old because the writing is generally ignored for the sake of momentum, the characters are all stock agents selected for their ability to facilitate that momentum, and the ending is always a bow tied far too prettily to reflect life's incongruities. So even if your neighborhood bookstores disagree in their filing, one should never really call the author of this novel a mystery writer.

Our protagonist is Sydney Bartleby, a twenty-nine-year-old American writer married to Alicia, a somewhat younger British woman who understands her husband because she paints. At least this is the basic assumption made of a couple who devote themselves to the liberal pursuit of creativity. America in the 1950s was apparently not sufficiently inspirational for the fine arts, so although the two meet in the States they quickly take up residence in Suffolk, England for the peace and quiet that can be so detrimental to the young who normally thrive on agitation. This basic premise – two (as we find out, quite immature) young people choosing a rustic retreat over the thrills of London – does not count among the most likely of situations, especially since Sydney has modest talent and Alicia far less. At one dinner they are observed by their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Lilybanks:   

Sydney was a nervous type, perhaps better fitted to be an actor than a writer. His face could show great changes of feeling, and when he laughed, it was a real laugh, as if he enjoyed it to his toes. He had black hair and blue eyes, like some Irish. But he was not a happy man, that she could see. Financial worries, perhaps. Alicia was far more easygoing, a bit of a spoiled child, but probably just the kind of wife he needed in the long run. But the Polk-Faradays were still better matched, looked as if they sang each other's praises constantly, and now were gazing into each other's eyes as if they had just met and were falling in love. And the Polk-Faradays were raising three small children, children raising children, Mrs. Lilybanks felt, and yet she and Clive had been no older when their two had been born.

The Polk-Faradays, Alex and Hittie, are a nice, plump couple (Hittie the wife is repeatedly referred to as something akin to "a blond Chinese") who seem as content and well-fed as Sydney and Alicia have grown loathsome to one another in their two years of acrimony. Sydney and Alex have been collaborating on a series of failed television scripts – those days, there was nothing newer than television – and Alicia hardly conceals her Schadenfreude for her husband's disappointment. A fact not lost on Sydney, who then does what any budding writer might try: he plans his wife's murder.

In a normal detective novel, such plotting would be a lurid, hairy affair mired with unnecessary obstacles and paranoid reasoning. But for all his temper – Sydney, by his own admission, had struck Alicia "once or twice" and early on there is a violent scene over a cup – we note that Sydney is a cool customer, calmer than his nervousness would suggest, and possessor of a very clear, methodical brain. We also learn that he has been considering all his bloody options for quite a while:

Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney's imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn't come back. The police wouldn't be able to find her. Sydney would admit to the police, to everyone, that their marriage hadn't been perfect lately, and that perhaps Alicia had wanted to run away from him and change her name, maybe even go to France on a false passport but the last was sort of wild, France involving complications not in character with Alicia.

Later it is revealed that Alicia suffers from a fear of flying, making her absconding to France all the less likely. What happens next, however, is one of the more remarkable experiments in fiction of any kind because it is so undeniably clever. The spouses have another bitter squabble and Alicia does indeed leave without specifying the destination; the departure is captioned as a move to benefit both partners, who really have no business being together. One is always a tad surprised that any woman could stay with an abusive lout, especially as Alicia is the only child of a very well-off couple who naturally disapprove of Sydney and his travails.  But Alicia does not think much of herself, perhaps because she does not really think much of her parents and their dapper and prim ways. She leaves to Brighton, or somewhere near Brighton, and does not report back. Sydney, adhering to their alleged bargain, refuses to try to contact her. Even when Alicia's influential parents get the police to interrogate Sydney and inquire about a rug he recently purchased – and buried.

Sydney's tale could have been made up from whole cloth, but we never quite know until the end and even then a few inconsistencies might point to an alternative interpretation. With virtuoso pacing the novel shuttles between Sydney, alone and highly productive with both his third novel, The Planners (the first two were not reprinted), and a macabre spy serial called The Whip, and Alicia's peregrinations. Apart from a lengthy synopsis of a Whip episode, Highsmith does not give us much of these texts, but they can be readily imagined. Sydney has particular trouble with The Planners although he is an experienced novelist, thanks in no small part to a belief antithetic to those of the mystery writer: 

He had never had much respect for plot, mainly because he thought in real life people were more separate than connected, and the connection of three or more people in a novel was an artifice of the author, who ruled out the rest of the world because it did not contribute.

Since I have never read a review of A Suspension of Mercy, I cannot say whether this is the novel's most-quoted passage, but it is certainly the most relevant. Sydney regards real life as a series of tasks that may or may not provide him with enough material to become a successful writer. Even lovemaking with Alicia is construed as laborious, and we never get a hint that he might utilize some of those experiences in his work, a sign of the prudishness of the times or, of course, something else. Perhaps that month off will do Alicia some good after all.  

Friday
Apr142017

Fitzcarraldo

At almost precisely the halfway point of this film, the crew of the Molly Aida espies a small black object floating down the Pachitea (an Amazon tributary) towards their large white vessel. It is revealed to be an umbrella, the only remnant of an extremely ill–fated mission to the Jivaros tribe, and, one would think, a logical appurtenance to take into a rain forest. The first mate of the ship, knowing the ways of these "bare-asses" (as they are referred to the entire film), selects for his carry-on luggage a much more appropriate invention from that most civilized of Europeans. Perhaps because he understands that, ultimately, mother nature will be the least of the expedition's obstacles.
 
Although the titular character (Klaus Kinski) insists that his name is a lazy indigenization of "Fitzgerald," the story is remotely based on that of a real rubber baron, a ship, waves of overtaxed natives, and a mountain (even Cortés himself is said to have tried such a stunt). His predecessor had the good sense, however, to dismantle the craft before obliging the local tribesmen to do his dirty work. But Fitzcarraldo has no such sense, nor is he really a rubber baron at heart. His passion is and always will be opera, specifically Verdi and more specifically Caruso (whom he travels hours to hear in the opening scene). By becoming rich off the last unclaimed rubber parcel in the region, Fitzcarraldo hopes to build an opera house that will attract the greatest voices from around the world. Yet there are, one might imagine, some very good reasons why that parcel has remained unclaimed. One reason are the Jivaros, plague-ridden for over a decade and insular since the dawn of time. We are told with the opening credits that they await the advent of an alleged messiah, a "great white God." A second is the parcel's location, between two rivers and rapids such as those that actually swallowed up Fitzcarraldo's namesake. The only way around is, well, over a mountain.
 
The allegorical Ahabian elements are certainly present, Herzog does recycle some stock characters (the brooding and mysterious first mate, the drunk and carefree cook, the captain constantly warning Fitzcarraldo of his impetuous folly), and the Molly Aida (Molly is Mrs. Fitzgerald, and thankfully for her, not along for the ride) is a "great white vessel," a bit bigger than a whale, but still comparable. Yet for all his monomania, Fitzcarraldo's quest is the benevolent pursuit of an aesthete. The only things whiter than his ship and his suit are his teeth. When the cook, who is also the interpreter, tells him that, "they know we are not gods," Fitzcarraldo is more worried about his opera house than his own stature. His hubris has a good end in mind, and maybe that will entice the gods to spare him the disasterous fate that should rightly befall such a ridiculous venture.  
 
Much has been made of the difficulty of filming Fitzcarraldo, and, like it or not, both Herzog and Kinski are shackled together in eternal infamy for their parts. That the two Germans overcame their differences and the easy critique of colonialism to make it into, at times, an amazing artistic achievement, speaks volumes about the film's vision, inevitably ratcheted down into the movie poster of Fitzcarraldo pointing at the ship as it heads uphill. But scenes such as the natives' first contact with ice (for which, the cook says, they have no word) really make the film: after holding then sniffing this fantastic object for a while, the puzzled chieftain turns to his people triumphantly. He is on a deck three stories above them and that much closer to these gifts from heaven.    
Saturday
Apr082017

Verlaine, "J'allais par des chemins perfides"

A work ("Unfaithful paths led me astray")  by this French poet.  You can read the original here.

Unfaithful paths led me astray,           
So sad and so uncertain, they;              
And your dear hands became my guide.  

Upon horizon's distant wane,            
Dawn's faintest hope began to gain,          
And your dear eyes were morning come. 

No noise, not even footfall's crack,               
Could foil the traveler turning back,                             
And your dear voice said, "Keep your stride!"         

Sweet love has conquered whole and part –         
And frightened was my somber heart,                 
That cried alone on its sad rhumb –                  

Sweet joy will join two paths as one.

 

Tuesday
Apr042017

The Thing on the Doorstep

You may have never considered reading this author's work because, as it were, horror or fantasy or some hybrid of these two genres with particularly impassioned readerships has never appealed to your aesthetic enjoyment. And while such a prejudice may be accurate for the vast majority of such writers, missing out on Lovecraft would be criminal. His style is utterly and invariably impeccable; he may often employ old and arcane words, but his subjects are often old and arcane. And while he aims at horror, he does not aim at gore or hideous violence: his achievement, even more remarkable for someone who always insisted that he had no faith whatsoever in the supernatural, was to dissect in all seriousness the wicked portals of eternal evil and their occasional manifestations in our realm. That type of Herculean task is so easily butchered by the melodramatic hack and shunned by writers of true genius as beneath their artistic ambition, which makes Lovecraft an even rarer bird, as his absolutely first-rate prose gleams with precision and beauty at every indentation. And among the many masterpieces he composed, this tale is certainly one of the finest.

We begin with a confession that will turn out to be more of a McGuffin – and I give nothing away with such a disclosure. A man in his fifties, but twelve years older than his victim and best friend Edward Derby, has killed Derby with a full revolver round to the head. The murderer, Daniel Upton, also happens to be our narrator. The motive for such a slaying is poorly secreted from first to last paragraph, as the person Upton murders is not Edward Derby at all – and perhaps, in the strict physiological sense, not quite a person, either. We are eventually led to believe that the being inside of Derby may be the bizarre creature he chooses as his wife; I should say, it is the wife who chooses Derby: 

Edward was thirty-eight when he met Asenath Waite. She was, I judge, about twenty-three at the time .... She was dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people .... Asenath, it seemed, had posed as a kind of magician at school; and had really seemed able to accomplish some highly baffling marvels. She professed to be able to raise thunderstorms, though her seeming success was generally laid to some uncanny knack at prediction. All animals markedly disliked her, and she could make any dog howl by certain motions of her right hand. There were times when she displayed snatches of knowledge and language very singular and very shocking for a young girl; when she would frighten her schoolmates with leers and winks of an inexplicable kind, and would seem to extract an obscene and zestful irony from her present situation. Most unusual, though, were the well-attested cases of her influence over other persons. She was, beyond question, a genuine hypnotist. By gazing peculiarly at a fellow-student she would often give the latter a distinct feeling of exchanged personality as if the subject were placed momentarily in the magician’s body and able to stare half across the room at her real body, whose eyes blazed and protruded with an alien expression.   

There are many other unsettling facts about Asenath, not the least of which is her provenance. She hails from Innsmouth, a "run-down fishing port" around which rumors have swirled about the cause of its depopulation – something involving the breeding of human residents with some inhuman marine visitors, but I digress. That Asenath is a demon, or at least of demon stock, is never doubted by Upton or the reader; perhaps it is not even doubted by Derby himself, although he seems inexorably drawn to Asenath as a great mind can be lured by commensurate evil. As in many formidable Gothic tales, we the readers know that a certain acquaintance is bad news and the end of hope in one package. Yet we sadistically flip the pages forth in wonderment over what precisely will befall him who has chosen so unwisely. 

What becomes of Edward Derby is already revealed on the opening page, and still the suspense of how he achieves his wicked fate is as tremendous as in any whodunit or thriller. Along the way, those who admire the sublimity of the English language sweeping dust off old tomes and vile images will surely be engaged by Upton's report. There are myriad examples of this perfection: "I perceived," says a worried Upton about this new, horrible couple, "that their intimacy was beyond untangling"; "Occasionally the Derbys would go on long trips – ostensibly to Europe, though Edward sometimes hinted at obscurer destinations"; "He repeated names which I recognized from bygone browsings in forbidden volumes, and at times made me shudder with a certain thread of mythological consistency – of convincing coherence – which ran through his maundering." But I have been omitting the meat dish from our courses. Asenath comes from a long line of Waites, nefarious the whole lot of them, with the primary malefactor having been none other than her father Ephraim, a wizard of some significance. Father, like daughter, was a student of magic with some alleged command over the elements and willpower that exceeded all known human exertions:

The old man was known to have been a prodigious magical student in his day, and legend averred that he could raise or quell storms at sea according to his whim. I had seen him once or twice in my youth as he came to Arkham to consult forbidden tomes at the college library, and had hated his wolfish, saturnine face with its tangle of iron-grey beard. He had died insane under rather queer circumstances just before his daughter (by his will made a nominal ward of the principal) entered the Hall School, but she had been his morbidly avid pupil and looked fiendishly like him at times.    

I suppose it is natural enough to abhor someone whose soul you somehow sense has long since been blackened by ambition and pacts; but Upton's reaction may be a mild case of twenty-twenty hindsight. After all, don't daughter and father resemble each other, at times more than just physically, and wasn't Asenath "very good-looking"? And we haven't even mentioned Edward's long, fast drives down Innsmouth road.