All posts filed under “1970s

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Lacombe Lucien, Louis Malle (1974)

Lucien is a young farm hand in rural France, hardworking, not too bright. It’s 1944 and the Allies are advancing from Normandy. If Lucien hadn’t had the bad luck to live at such a fraught moment in history, he probably would have just gone on shooting rabbits, ploughing the fields, and been just fine. Alas.

Lucien’s little village is under strict and orderly occupation, but panic and hysteria lies just beneath the surface of every interaction. The Jews in hiding fear deportation, the collaborators fear their time is nigh, the resistance fighters fear discovery.

Lucien tries to join the resistance and is rebuffed on account of his youth. In an adolescent dudgeon, he unwittingly betrays the local resistance leader to the French auxiliary to the Gestapo. These latter craven and dissolute bastards take him on as a kind of mascot.

The exquisite subtlety of the story has to do with Lucien’s fundamental misunderstanding of how power works. For example, he thinks he has power over a girl, but when other guys can dance with her and he doesn’t know how, it confuses and enrages him.

His most dangerous misunderstanding concerns that girl and her family, who are Jewish and in hiding in the town. He thinks the power he has from the sanction of the collaborators enables him to force the family to do his will, but he also thinks he has the power to protect them.

The movie resonates at this historical moment, where we see a lot of people acting as if being in power at the moment entitles you to do whatever brutal and stupid things you like. Even things which in the long or not-so-long run are going to bring woe mainly to yourself.

Devastating but totally understated, with gorgeous performances throughout. Watch it.

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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)

8b1087fc_9780060936228_custom-a17e6811a0d8658b75998dc86873b2a4b060d9f2-s6-c30-1.xxxlarge_2xPatti Smith offers a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman, and the story of her famous friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, with appealing simplicity and humility. It’s always been what’s vexed and excited people about her, I think–the contrast between the primal wildness and impiety of Smith’s art and the sober, earnest, humble artist behind it. And then of course Mapplethorpe, whose work was so violently and willfully misunderstood and misrepresented that it may never recover and be seen for what it actually is.

Smith’s prose style is almost naive in its simplicity; she reports on the mad rituals of the 70’s downtown tribe without a trace of sensationalism. Not that the book’s a dispassionate ethnography, though–there’s not much reflection or analysis at all. It sounds more like Smith was a stranger in that strange land, just trying to survive and do her art. It mattered to Robert to see and be seen. To put it mildly. But not Smith; she was happy to have a job at a bookstore, a donut for breakfast, and paper to write or draw on.

If the book’s account and tone are to be trusted, it seems pretty bizarre that these two kids managed to accomplish what they did. It helped, of course, that they had no student loans and monthly rent bills in the low three digits. These days, a jejune poète maudit wanna-be with no money, no degree, no connections, no safety net, and vague artistic goals would last about ten minutes in New York before she was forced to move back to Jersey. Five.

It’s a lovely, sweet book, but weird too. I sometimes got a little frustrated with Smith’s decorousness and discretion, her refusal (or inability) to convey, or even much acknowledge, the enormously chaotic character of the historical moment she’s writing about. But that’s also what makes the story so sweet. It’s not a cultural history of 70’s NYC. It’s just kids.

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The Marriage of Maria Braun, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979)

The-Marriage-of-Maria-Braun-DIFassbinder used to intimidate me, or maybe confuse me — the idea of his oeuvre I have in my head is of a jumble of contradictory bits and pieces. It’s probably something to with his making 40 movies in fifteen years; that’s a body of work, one assumes on some instinctual level, that can’t possibly be coherent.

But my stars, look at this, an absolutely amazing film, fully-realized, resonant, challenging, timeless. He’d still have been thought a genius if he’d made only this one.

Maria Braun’s marriage is an unusual one. She marries Hermann Braun in 1943 when he’s home on leave for two days. He goes back to the front and at the end of the war is missing and presumed dead. Maria remains stubbornly faithful to him, always expecting his return. “Faithful” starts to become complicated when she’s driven by poverty to become a bar girl, and then even more complicated when she takes up with an American serviceman. So far the story could be a Hollywood melodrama; here’s where Fassbinder swerves. Maria’s relationship with Bill, the American soldier, follows neither of the two predictable formulae: She’s neither callously using him for nylons and chocolates nor falling madly in love with him. Instead, the both of them seem simply to enjoy each other, assuming nothing and expecting nothing. He’s middle-aged, a little overweight, and very sweet; she’s playful and frank; they eat and drink and sleep together and don’t make a big fuss about it. I’d like to say that what they have is an adult relationship. And it gets me thinking about how completely rare it is to see one of those represented on the screen. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul features a similar relationship. It might be my favorite thing about Fassbinder, this capacity, which shouldn’t be as unusual as it is, to show how human beings actually conduct themselves in real life. But at the same time the situation here is entirely unreal — this is postwar Germany and the world is completely upside-down for all these characters. The only thing that remains constant, the only compass point, is Maria’s commitment to Hermann, though that commitment does take increasingly strange forms as the story progresses.

I’m not going to say much more about the movements of the plot, which are both surprising and steeped in inevitability as in all the great tragedies. I think it’s just a miraculous movie, the way it does such good work probing the general terrified, voracious, survivalist atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder while also telling a very human stories of these characters. People will compare Maria Braun with Mother Courage (another strong woman who keeps her family’s integrity by inventing new definitions of integrity) and Fassbinder with Brecht. It’s true that Fassbinder uses some Brechtian techniques to alienate us from the emotional lives of the characters (famously, during emotionally volatile scenes in this movie (and in others of Fassbinder’s), the radio loudly and relentlessly broadcasts a football match in the sonic foreground of the scene), but Fassbinder’s characters do not seem like types to me. Maria, the men she loves, the men who love her, all seem whole and real, and the sociological commentary, though always incisive and fascinating, always seems secondary to me. I don’t think Fassbinder would have been pleased to hear that, but to me it’s a mark of his genius.

Next up: The second and third parts of what’s often called the BRD Trilogy. I think I’ll need to wait a few days before I watch Veronika Voss, though — I want to think about Maria a little longer.

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A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul (1979)

This is the first Naipaul novel I’ve read, and I found the experience quite disorienting, in ways both pleasurable and upsetting. I think my upset is what will persist, and that may be a good thing.

I’m well accustomed to literature which travels a predictable path of indignation regarding the injustice of European colonialism. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything, though, that so fully encompasses the complexity of the relationships between all the various players in a colonial situation. The shorthand version of colonialism — wealthy European whites exploiting poor African blacks — conceals a plethora of more nuanced and complicated relationships. That seems a pretty self-evident thing to say, but I don’t know of another text that brings it to the fore as forcefully as this. Instead of the basic master/slave dynamic, we find here highly complex systems of classes within classes, exiles within exiles, powers within powers.

An ethnic Indian trader prospering on the east coast of Africa moves with his mixed-race slave to an interior African country which was recently decolonized by a European power and is now tipping into a civil war sponsored in part by European interests and partially by ethnic and class divisions within the aboriginal culture. Everything that’s wrong with colonialism (slavery, oppression) and all of its benefits (clean water, electricity) are on display. Everything that’s wrong with independence (kleptocracy, recapitulation of colonial power structures) and all of its benefits (a sense of common destiny and self-determination) are on display. Human relationships are a hall of mirrors. “Everyone is a villager,” and everyone’s a kind of slave. As Naipaul puts it more than once, “It wasn’t that there was no wrong and no right. It was that there was no right.” He has no respect for any of the systems on offer, imperial or revolutionary or anything in-between, and his analysis of how the different constituents of the river town exercise, cede, and accumulate different forms of power — economic, political, sexual, emotional — is nuanced, precise, and persuasive.

All this is an easy sell as far as I’m concerned. I’ve written myself about what seems to be the sad inevitability of revolutions turning back into empires. The discomfort enters for me, though, because it does sort of seem like Naipaul is especially contemptuous of the revolutionary part of the cycle. There are passages here which remind me of Shelby-Steele-like rhetoric, which seem to accuse the oppressed of abetting their oppression, and that kind of thinking makes this white boy fidget with discomfort. It may well be a productive upset, though, because one thing I can say for sure is that few pieties about colonialism can survive a careful reading of this book.

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Ketchup

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.

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The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula (1974)

In honor of this week’s public release of the Pentagon Papers, it’s heroic journalism week here. We begin with this paranoid classic. The relentlessly louche Warren Beatty is pretty improbable as a crusading journalist, but the pure weirdness of the story is ample compensation. As usual in Pakula, banal and efficient modern spaces — parking garages, convention halls, office buildings, airports — intensify the horror and dread. This was made at a time when Americans were just getting used to living with the idea our leaders lie to us as a matter of course, but were still capable of being scandalized. Pakula captures the zeitgeist with verve.

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The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann (1973)

Just doing my homework in anticipation of Olivier Assayas’s upcoming Carlos, to which I’m looking forward despite myself. This is a very straightforward procedural and nothing to write home about. Its potentially explosive political implications are assiduously suppressed in favor of the cops and robbers storyline. The fun lies almost entirely in getting to see all these delicious shots of 60’s Europe.

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Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974)

Completely satisfying emotionally as a love story, yet at the same time so critically astringent, there’s no way you could call it a melodrama. A lonely widowed German charwoman of a certain age and a Moroccan guest worker fall in love. The forces of hatred, fear, and misunderstanding besiege them from both outside and from within. Love wins, but not until Fassbinder’s made it clear that, as Wittgenstein put it, “love is not a feeling; love is put to the test.” Utterly convincing, fascinating to look at. This was of course inspired by Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but does that look like Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson there, eating dinner together? No, it does not. Everyone in Fassbinder’s movie looks like a human being, which is part of what makes this picture so affecting.