All posts filed under “1920s



These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.


Flight Without End, Joseph Roth (1929)

David Le Vay’s translation of this minor Roth novel tries very hard to make the book unlikeable but fails; Roth’s piercing analysis of inter-war European mores cuts through Le Vay’s fug. (I hasten to say too that every Roth novel is a major novel in my book; this one’s “minor” only insofar as its smaller and less ambitious than his masterpieces.)

Franz Tunda, of the Austrian aspiring classes, goes off to fight, is captured in 1916, spends his war a prisoner in Russia, escapes and hides out in the taiga, learns a year after the fact that the war has ended, and begins to make his way home. Trouble is, things have rather changed in the world. He finds himself swept up in the Russian revolutionary bureaucracy, then wanders like a ghost through the new European realities on offer in Austria, Germany, and France. Trenchant commentaries abound on any number of subjects, from the banality of the new induststrialists to the pretentiousness of the avant-garde. Here’s Tunda in Paris. He’s broke, and has asked the wealthy President of a cultural organization to help him out; here he reflects on his reluctant benefactor. I’ve tried to ameliorate the translation as best I can.

Tunda walked through the serene streets with a great emptiness in his heart, feeling like a released convict on his first walk to freedom. He knew that the President could not help him, even if he gave him the chance to eat and buy a suit, just as a convict isn’t freed when dismissed from prison, just as it doesn’t make an orphan happy to find a place in an orphanage. He was not at home in the world. Where did he belong? In the mass graves.

The blue light was burning on the grave of the Unknown Soldier. The garlands withered. A young Englishman stood there, a soft, gray hat in his hands. He had set out from the Café de la Paix to see the tomb. An old father thought of his son. Between him and the young Englishman was the grave. Deep below were the bones of the unknown soldier. The old man and the boy exchanged a glance above the grave. It was a tacit agreement between them. A pact not to mourn the dead soldier together, but together to forget him entirely.

Tunda had passed this monument several times already. There were always tourists with their traveling hats in the their hands, and nothing hurt him more than their salute. It was like those pious globetrotters, who if they come to a famous church during a service, kneel at the altar out of habit with their guidebooks in hand, so as not to seem impious. Their devotion is a blasphemy and a ransom for their conscience. The blue flame burned not to honor the dead soldiers, but to reassure the survivors. Nothing was more cruel than the blissfully ignorant devotion of a surviving father at the grave of his son, whom he had sacrificed without knowing it. Tunda sometimes felt as if he himself lay there in the ground, as if we all lay there, all those of use who set out from home and were killed and buried, or who came back but never came home. For it doesn’t really matter whether we’re buried or alive and well. We’re strangers in this world, we come from the realm of shadows.

Does that seem turgid to you? I think it’s awesome. It seems to me that what Sebald did for post WWII Europe, Roth did for Post WWI Europe. Namely, showed his readers how eager they were to forget the past, and how the past persists regardless.

One other note of interest here: I’m adding this novel’s narrator to my list of what I’m calling, for lack of a better term, “authors as distant first-person narrators.” The story here is actually told by one Joseph Roth, who claims to have met Tunda once. Yet Roth is nowhere to be found in the novel. It seems like I’m coming across a lot of this lately in novels I really like. Other examples are Bolaño’s Distant Star, all of Sebald, Pamuk’s Snow . . . I know there are others I’m forgetting at the moment. I think some Bernhard novels fit this description. What’s the effect/use of this techinque?



American Gangster, Ridley Scott (2007). Better than everyone said it was. Narratively a mess but mythologically deeply astute.

The Interrogators, Chris Mackey and Greg Miller (2005). As with all the memoirs of interrogators I’ve read, this is useful both with regard to what it thinks it’s saying and what it’s saying without realizing it.

Need for the Bike
, Paul Fournel (2001). Oulipian on cycling. Charming/irritating in that utterly French way.

The Third Man
, Carol Reed (1949). Genius. A perfect pairing with Civilization and Its Discontents. I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to look at, and how perfect the music.

Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud (1929). CANDY. The intelligence is stupendous, the style is wholly beguiling.

The Man Outside
, Wolfgang Borchert (1949). Wanted to like this but it’s a bit too manic for my purposes. That’s saying something, considering how useful I find Buchner.

Travels with Herodotus
, Ryzard Kapuscinski (2007). Almost makes me cry. The final, supremely elegant work by one of my favorite writers ever, who died in 2007. A perfect conclusion to his oeuvre.

Monstering, Tara McKelvey (2007). McKelvey makes a bit too much effort to make a narrative of her journalism, and is a bit too proud of her scoops, which are not in fact that deep. Not without merit, but not necessary if you’ve read Mayer and Gourevitch.


Spies, Fritz Lang (1928)

Similar to the Mabuse movies in its concerns and mise en scène, but leaner. The secret services of Germany and Japan try to protect an alliance between the two countries from being exposed by the evil banker Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rouge, who also played Mabuse). But that’s hardly the point. You watch this movie to learn how to dress, disembowel yourself in shame, decorate, dine out and dance in a nightclub featuring live boxing matches, drink, and do your hair. There are lamps in here I’d trade a foot for. And when Haghi’s femme fatale goes to work, I cry to the spider, Oh, sting thou me! Sting me!


Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Fritz Lang (1922)

More than four hours, and utterly riveting from start to finish. Weimar decadence, fantastic furniture, clever detectives, manipulations of the stock market, hypnotism, flexible sexualities, gunplay, masterful disguises, high stakes card games, buckets and buckets of eros and thanatos, ambition, orientalism, beautiful doomed women, self-loathing, blind counterfeiters, madness, African totems, car chases . . . . I really don’t know where to start or end. Just watch this; you truly won’t regret it. Lang captures his zeitgeist perfectly, and at the same time weirdly seems to capture mine, too. I’d like to put this in a double bill with Wall Street. Heavy-handed, probably, but what the hell.


Der Müde Tod, Fritz Lang (1921)

The English translation of the title is “Destiny.” Isn’t that sad? “Weary Death” would have been so much better. Here a young bride is robbed by Death of her vibrant young husband, and rather than capitulate to grief, she gets all up in Death’s face and demands a chance to bring her man back to life. Death is weary of being constantly seen as the bad guy–hey, he says, I’m just doing my job!–and consents to give the young woman a chance to win her husband back from the dead. Three chances, actually, the classical number of tries given by genies and folk tales the world over, and indeed this is a thoroughly bewitching and enchanting tale from the young master Lang, made when he was barely thirty years old. Featuring lots of wonderful cutting-edge special effects, my favorite among them the ghostly parade of the dead.