All posts filed under “1930s


Liliom, Fritz Lang (1934)

This story began as a play by Ferenc Molnár and has been remade many times in many forms, most famously by Rogers and Hammerstein as Carousel. Lang’s version is pretty straightforward: Liliom is a charismatic but crude carnival barker who breaks ladies’ hearts and dreams of glory. It’s all a bit too weepy and predictable for me, but there are some nice examples of Lang’s incredible facility as a director, particularly with regard to editing; some of his cuts take your breath away. The best part of this comes at the end, when, pretty much out of nowhere, Lang decides to turn what has been a straight-ahead story of realism in the slums into a fantasia. Doesn’t that happen at the end of The Kid, too? I think I remember angels flying around in Olvera Street.


The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang (1933)

Years later, Lang returns to Mabuse. Now the evil genius is locked up in an asylum, but still scribbling brilliant criminal tactics on page after page. His physician collects these outpourings and puts them into motion to create an “empire of crime.” And so the movie was swiftly banned by the Nazis; they well understood what Lang probably, at this point, could only have intuited: the coming structure under which madmen would ejaculate insane orders and reasonable people would execute them. This is a far tighter movie than Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, much shorter and more narratively efficient, but its final passages deliver an even stronger dose of anarchic carnival than its prequel.

I’m too blown away by these movies to say anything too smart about them. They’re dissertation-worthy. But I will point out this one thing. Mabuse never commits any crimes himself. He orders, influences, hypnotizes, bluffs, impersonates, represents, but never acts. As such he seems a perfect representative for how evil is conducted in our age: by proxy.



Highlights of recently consumed cultural products include

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2004). Nothing particularly surprising here, but the utter sanity of the essay is a real tonic. Honest and deeply moral exploration of contemporary culture’s relationship to images of pain, war, torture, and so forth. The most compelling moment, to me, is the one where Sontag demolishes the conventional wisdom that our steady diet of such images must inevitably inure us to them. She won’t let us off the hook that easily. If we’re going to look, she demands that we also see.

As Is, William M. Hoffman (1985). Excellent play; anyone who calls it sentimental is too cool for their own good.

Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch (2008). Quiet, sane, systematic account of the experiences of the notorious Abu Ghraib soldiers. Gourevitch is painstakingly objective, except for a few sections where he indulges in some Sontag-like theorizing about the nature of the documentary image, and a few others where he can’t help but call attention to some of the scandal’s more vertigo-inducing conundrums. Among the most pointed: Sabrina Harman went to prison for photographing the corpse of Mandel al-Jamadi, but the CIA interrogator Mark Swanner, in whose custody al-Jamadi died, has never been accused of a crime.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman (1991). Inspiring walk along the high wire of literature above the abyss of propaganda.

The Theater and Its Double, Antonin Artaud (1938). Yum.

Baghdad ER, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (2006).

Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, Jon Alpert and Ellen Goosenberg Kent (2007). Some very moving stories from veterans about deadly days they lived through. Having Tony Soprano interview and offer encouragement is a little schmaltzy, though.

Complete Plays, Sarah Kane (2001). Terrifying and brilliant playwright. I don’t know why I’d never heard of her. It’s somehow sad when your Amazon recommendations get to know you this well.

Mad Men, Matthew Weiner (2008). This show is so sad. I love it.

Planet of the Apes, Franklin J. Schaffner (1968). Boring.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007). Sorry, hate to be a spoilsport, but this is a really turgid, sloppily directed, and indifferently acted movie, and I can’t help but think that all the international acclaim for it is actually somehow condescending and patronizing, like, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, a Romanian who thinks he can make a movie.” The film’s bleakness has some power, and it’s certainly a fine documentation of the insane Ceausescu regime, but it’s not great cinema.

About 6000 hours of the 2008 Summer Olympics. I heart Guo Jingjing.



Wanted, Timur Bekmambetov. The Da Vinci Code meets The Matrix meets La Femme Nikita. Is AJ all that? Yes, she is.

The Question, Henri Alleg. More bravery in a month than I’ll muster in my life.

Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright. Documentary about contemporary English culture.

The Namesake, Mira Nair. Hackneyed narrative transposed onto inscrutable culture attempts to pass as original.

Strategic Air Command, Anthony Mann. Weird one from the great Mann. Made just two years before the Beckettesque desolation of Men in War, this film’s a hymn to the constant nuclear vigilance of the SAC. Some of Mann’s usual darkness definitely creeps in around the edges, but on the whole it’s pretty sleepy.

Operation Crossbow, Michael Anderson. I heart cable WWII flick. George Peppard infiltrates buzz bomb factory. Double crossing and Sophia Loren.

The Thin Man, W. S. Van Dyke. A marriage to aspire to. Makes your liver hurt just to watch.

White Heat, Brenda Wineapple. Delightful account of the correspondence between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. My review is here.

Bush’s War. Brilliant, comprehensive documentary from Frontline covering the Bush administration’s machinations from 9/11 to now. Watch it online. Costs only your time and your lunch, which you’ll lose.

Job, Joseph Roth (1930)

I only discovered Roth a couple years ago and have been reading him with delight and astonishment ever since. Reading his Right and Left on a bench with a view of the Riechstag was the highlight of my trip to Berlin a couple years ago, and his interlocking masterpieces, The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb brilliantly capture the cultural and political tipping points of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Job is an earlier novel, and quite different in tone and scope; instead of taking on gigantic issues of historical shift and representing the characters as bits of flotsam carried on the tide, Roth gives us a warm, touching novel that moves in the opposite direction, telling with great sympathy and attention the story of a particular family of shetl Jews. The history’s here, of course, but only insofar as it affects the lives of Mendel Singer and his family, who begin in Russia in extreme poverty and end in America with some hope. This isn’t a story about immigrants triumphing and prospering in the new world, though. Indeed, the main reason the Singers overcome their troubles is that they remain faithful to no one but each other and their traditions. Gorgeous book, and one which shows that Roth is just as capable of subtle characterization as he is of incisive political allegory.


Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabokov (1938/1959)

That’s a picture of the first page of the Nabokov’s draft of this novel.

“I composed the Russian original . . . in Berlin, some fifteen years after escaping from the Bolshevist regime, and just before the Nazi regime reached its full volume of welcome. The question whether or not my seeing both in terms of one dull beastly farce had any effect on this book, should concern the good reader as little as it does me.” Thus Nabokov instructs us in his foreword to the first English translation of his Russian novel Priglash na kazn’. We are not to read the story of Cincinnatus C., imprisoned and sentenced to die for the ill-defined crime of “gnostical turpitude,” as any kind of political allegory. The thing about prohibitions, though, is that they’re so much fun to violate. And in fact it’s not hard at all to read Invitation to a Beheading as political allegory, though not of the individual-at-mercy-of-unfeeling-and-incomprehensible-monolithic-power variety, but rather the the-state-decides-what’s-real type. Cincinnatus’s crime is that he’s interested in the actual that lurks beneath the apparent. (Thus his crime’s name. “Gnostic” is that which pertains to knowledge, and Cincinnatus wants to know.) His misfortune is that he’s found himself in a novel by Nabokov, who enjoys nothing more than the idea that what we take to be the actual is in fact imaginary. Nabokov, of course, means to—such trepidation, beginning a sentence in that manner, since Nabokov would almost certainly insist that he doesn’t mean anything at all—suggest, as Wallace Stevens did, that this is good news, since the imaginary is a lot more fun than the real anyway. But we mustn’t forget that totalitarians, too, often find it useful to offer up the imaginary and call it real. While Cincinnatus awaits execution, a whole cast of characters parade through his cell—wife, mother, sympathetic jailer, cunning fellow prisoner, respectful warden, and even a Lolita-like nymphet—but it becomes increasingly clear that all of these are simply actors playing roles, ala The Truman Show. The only real things are Cincinnatus’s desires to know the hour of his death, and to record for posterity, in writing, his thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The fun conundrum for Nabokov (here and everywhere) is that artifice and imagination are the only available entry points into the real and/or are themselves all the real there is. But this can be construed as a political problem as well as an aesthetic or philosophical one. By convincing Cincinnatus that the imaginary world constructed to delude him is the real world, his jailers cut him off from the actual, and, worse, lead him into a space where he can no longer tell the difference between the real and the imaginary. This, I’d argue, is pretty much exactly what any totalized political structure does for—or rather to—its citizens. And, frankly, while I enjoy Lolita as much as the next aesthete, and adored teaching Pale Fire in my Reiteration class, Nabokov’s jewelly prose is harder to take when the context evokes political prisoners instead of suburban Lotharios or kooky professors.

Damn. Nearly got through an entire paragraph about Nabokov without using some effing fancy adjective, only to blow it in the very last sentence.