All posts filed under “1940s

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Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

“What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who give your arguments a fair hearing and the simply persists in his lunacy?”

Well, sure, why not. I hadn’t read this since high school, and I’m a huge Orwell fan, so I thought I’d re-read it along with everyone else. Unsurprisingly, I found a lot of really smart ideas in here, but I was surprised at how dull the book is as a novel. The characters — especially women — are flat as pancakes, the plotting is glacial, the descriptions are relentlessly repetitive. But those disappointments aside, there are surely many incisive and prescient passages.

Winston’s job is to adjust the past to suit the ideological needs of the present: “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

Well, that sounds familiar!

Or: “Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.” Not far off from the methodology of Alex Jones or his fans.

I’d forgotten the whole thing about the government developing a new language (“Newspeak”) which would make the expression of dissent literally impossible. Thus “the Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect,” a terrifying idea and one worth considering in contemporary terms.

Retrograde attitudes toward women; embarrassing romanticization of “the Proles”; a somewhat obsessive need to follow every idea out to its logical extreme; but of course at the same time a work of terrific insight. I don’t at all mean to sound condescending when I say that high school was after all exactly the right time to read it first.

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)

Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.

McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.

 

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White Heat, Raoul Walsh (1949)

Annex - Cagney, James (White Heat)_NRFPT_02
I won’t say they don’t make ’em like this any more; I’ll say this is where they learned how to make ’em. White Heat is an early zenith of the form, where the hardboiled sensationally violent stuff that went before (The Public Enemy is a great example) gets tempered with subtle, truly fascinating psychological character development. You couldn’t have Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano without Cody Jarrett. Jimmy Cagney’s Jarrett is a ruthless boss, but utterly helpless to his Oedipus complex, and Edmond O’Brien is deliciously nuanced as the undercover cop who slowly insinuates himself into the position of Cody’s absent mother, so as to betray him in spectacular fashion. It’s a crisp and vivid gangster picture, but it’s also a perfect Freudian nightmare of betrayal and frustrated desire. It could only have been better if the gang would have used an empty milk truck instead of a gas truck as their Trojan horse. Bonus points for Walsh’s always-hilarious fascination with technology and procedure; the long and exhaustively explained process of triangulating the location of the bad guys using radio transmitters (little Teletubby antennae affixed to the roofs of squad cars) cracks me up almost as much as my all time favorite “Report all changes as they occur” assault planning sequence in Objective, Burma! God bless AMC.

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The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig (1949)

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Zweig was an immensely successful novelist, playwright, and librettist in early 20th century Europe. Though Austrian by nationality and Jewish by heritage, he considered himself first and foremost an European, and no one was more delighted than he by the vigorous bounty of European culture at the turn of the last century. To be a talented aspiring writer, nineteen years old, in Vienna, in 1900 — what a joy! Modernity must have looked like a blossoming Eden. And then, of course, came the snakes. By 1942, Zweig was in Brazil, a refugee with no citizenship and no possessions, and he with his wife saw no future. They took an enormous amount of barbiturates and lay down to die. “I send greetings to all of my friends,” he wrote. “May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.”

Zweig’s memoir, completed not long before his death, is both a lively read, full of insights, and also an indispensable and unique document. The early sections describing fin de siècle Vienna are like reports from another world; the central chapters give a visceral and detailed account of what it was like to suspect but not know that the world had begun to crumble; the closing movements bring together extraordinarily shrewd analyses of historical forces and heartbreaking anecdotes from Zweig’s personal journey to exile. I can’t think of another book which so successfully blends personal memoir and cultural analysis.

I’m making it sound a little too sad and dry, perhaps. It’s neither. The book is rife with humor and fantastic details, none of which I’ll list here because I intend to use them for my own purposes in the future.

I found Musil first, then Roth; now I add Zweig to my personal pantheon of Austrians who were not only able to understand their historical moment, but were able to write about it so that we could understand it too, later on.

Who’s doing that for this historical moment of ours?

 

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Ketchup

Sometimes the rate of my consumption of culture outpaces my capacity to reflect upon it. Here’s what’s passed through my head of late:

The Wire, David Simon et. al. (2002-2008). I believe this displaces The Sopranos as the best television I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen it you already know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t seen it, you should. There were of course some passages that were more successful than others–I for one found the invented serial killer idea too clever by half–but on the whole this is a masterpiece. I was very sorry when I ran out of episodes, but then I realized that this story is of course far from over; all you need to do is read the Sun paper now and then and imagine the episode Simon would have wrought from the day’s news. Here, this one took me about forty seconds to start scripting in my head.

Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison (1999). What a pleasure to read Harrison’s collected nonfiction about Leelanau by a lake just northeast of Muskegon on a July afternoon.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, Joan Didion (2006). What a pleasure to read Didion’s collected nonfiction in the air over California’s central valley. Old and new favorites. Too bad this edition’s pages are so thin.

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1942). Oh my stars. I’m only on page 500 or so of the some 1200, and I’m going to have to put this away now that school’s started, but I feel like it’s OK not to read this straight through, and I also, frankly, feel like I’ve mostly gotten what’s on offer here, namely deliciously incisive diagnoses of a grand society striding confidently toward the edge of a cliff. I can’t think of any other novel that so decisively nails the 20th century’s disastrous obsession with progress. “With a little attention, one can probably always detect in the latest Future signs of the coming Old Times. The new ideas will then be a mere thirty years older but contented and with a little extra fat on their bones, or past their prime, much as one glimpses alongside a girl’s shining features the extinguished face of the mother; or they have had no success, and are down to skin and bones, shrunken to a reform proposed by some old fool who is called the Great So-and-so by his fifty admirers.” Paging Ross Perot.

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polankski (2010). Whew, Polanski’s just oozing decadence these days. This is supposedly a thriller about a CIA plot to, you know, take control of everything, but Roman can barely be bothered to flesh out any of the absurd plot points; he’s too busy setting up beautifully lit shots of fog and sad adulterers. Beautiful photography, but not really a movie. The amazing house on the beach at Sylt receives more attention from the director than do any of his stars.

The Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (2010). Essentially a continuation of Greengrass’s Bourne movies, in that Matt Damon takes on the entire corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex and wins. This one is purportedly set in the “real world,” though, namely Baghdad’s green zone. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the takeaway for the action movie crowd at the mall is that their government lied to them about Iraq, and that’s a truth I’m delighted to see promulgated as widely and effectively as possible.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine (2006). Muddily structured but useful. I really had no idea this was going on when it was going on.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009) does for 20c European history what Bergman’s so-called “trilogy of faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) did for God. Namely, shows it to be incomprehensible and cruel, but absolutely beautiful to look at in luminous black and white. Go back and look at those Bergman films, though, and then look at this again, and see if you don’t feel, as I did, how creepily clean Haneke’s images are. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Lightroom, but The White Ribbon feels like a masterpiece of post-production as much as anything.

Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh (1949). Walsh remakes High Sierra as a western, with Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. Nice enough for a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you like Virginia Mayo, which I do, but a minor Walsh by any measure. I like the hideout in the ruined village of Todos Santos.

Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges (1955). Sturges also directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others. Notice a theme? Manly men in conflict with other manly men. This one fits. A strange and small picture, in which Integrity (played by Spencer Tracy) squares off with Deceit (Robert Ryan) and comes out ahead. Atmospheric and nice to look at for a while, but finally the claustrophobia that Sturges is trying to engender just turns into tedium.

A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009) has its affecting moments, but is mostly, probably predictably, an exercise in style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the style brings pleasure. Some here does–lots of beautiful California summer light, lots of fantastic bric a brac to ogle–but someone really should have steadied Ford’s hand on the post-production dials; the gimmick where he keeps making people pale when they’re sad and rosy when their faith in humanity (and/or libido) is restored is tacky and emberrassing.

Band of Brothers, various authors (2001). The Pacific is way better, and do you know why? Because this is pre-9/11 triumphalism, and that is post 9/11 realism. That’s oversimplifying, but really, the difference is amazing. In Band of Brothers, PTSD is represented as tough luck that befalls the weak. In The Pacific, it’s clearly shown that those who appear not to have PTSD are the truly weird ones. Like I said, The Pacific‘s a great example of how our understanding of historical realities is shaped by our present historical circumstances. So is Band of Brothers, unfortunately.

Music in rotation: Tosca, Up Bustle & Out, Jazzanova, Cal Tjader

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Road House, Jean Negulesco (1948)

If I were a programmer at Film Forum or something, I might put together a group of noirs that take place in the sticks, as opposed to the city. Out of the Past, for sure, and also this one. I know there are others; I just can’t think of them right now.

This is a pretty straightforward story of two guys after the same girl. It’s distinguished by its unusual setting, as mentioned, and by Lupino’s gorgeously ravaged voice.

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All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen (1949)

It must be a lot of fun to do the programming at Turner Classic Movies. Someone, clearly, thought that the week of the apotheosis of the Obama health care reform journey called for a showing of this powerful accounting of the costs incurred by the practice of retail politics. Had you forgotten, as I had, that the central plank of Willie Stark’s platform is universal health care? And do you recall how he meets his end? I won’t spoil it for you; let’s just say the medical profession doesn’t exactly rush to his aid in his moment of need.

It’s a politics story, but it’s also a Southern story, in ways which I probably wouldn’t have understood ten years ago, before moving to Alabama. Issues of dilapidated family pride and post-Reconstruction sullenness, which of course also animated Faulkner, Walker Percy, Welty, and Tennessee Williams are central here, too.

It’s a big book, and even a movie more than two hours long can’t begin to get its arms around all the novel’s moving parts, so some passages here feel stunted and lacking context. Still, it’s a lively piece and worth watching. After you call your representative and tell him or her to vote yes on the Senate bill this week.

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Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang (1945)

Jeepers, Johnny. Probably, perversely, my favorite Lang movie of them all. Edward G. Robinson perfects his macho/emasculated persona, and Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea click arhythmically as Vronsky atop Frou-Frou as they ride poor Chris Cross down to his doom. Add in the jacked-up pathos of the artist struggling to maintain two faces–one facing the real, the other the truer truth of the imaginary–and this sucker’s sold. I would like to have seen this movie with Wallace Stevens. I would have held his hand.

Paging my digital petit voleur: Any chance you could locate Renoir’s La chienne (1931)? I haven’t seen it in more than a decade. It’s not as hard-boiled as this, but it contains the full germ of evil which herein blossoms.

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Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa (1949)

Ostensibly a procedural about a rookie cop (Mifune, so young I didn’t recognize him at first!) whose gun is stolen, the movie’s as much or more about Japan’s effort to regain its self-respect. Terrific, near-genius cinematography; the camera itself behaves like an investigator. Featuring many wonderful sequences, including one at a baseball game and another at a cabaret on an unbearably hot summer night. The chorus girls run off stage and into their dressing room, where they all collapse on the floor, fanning themselves. Really top notch Kurosawa; I’m surprised I’ve never seen this before.