Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bill Douglas, 1937-1991

In a singular denunciation of the insincerity of Hollywood rhetoric, Clifford Odets has his struggling movie star Charlie Castle say in The Big Knife, "This cheerful 'giving of hearts' chills my blood." I don't know when or how that level of fake piety and fake emotionalism infiltrated the rest of our culture (although the enduring popularity of Frank Capra leads me to believe that it predates television by quite a lot), but a lot of important words have been devalued as a result.

I'm thinking today of the word "tragic" in particular. I have heard/read the use of the word to describe everything from the destruction of the World Trade Center to a tough loss in a baseball game. The Merriam-Webster dictionary (which I refer to because it is available on-line and therefore close at hand) gives this series of definitions for tragic:

1 : of, marked by, or expressive of tragedy 2 a : dealing with or treated in tragedy <tragic hero> b : appropriate to or typical of tragedy 3 a : regrettably serious or unpleasant : b : marked by a sense of tragedy

And for tragedy is has the following:

1 a : a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man b : a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror c : the literary genre of tragic dramas 2 a : a disastrous event

Okay, pity or terror -- straight from Aristotle, that one -- applies to the WTC, but I'm not sure the average newswriter has as free a license to use "tragic" or "tragedy" as he may imagine. When Walter and Stella, our cats, died early this summer, I was deeply upset and the depression that resulted has followed me all summer, I readily admit. There was no reason for them to have died as young (8 years old) as they did, but that doesn't raise our loss to the level of tragedy.

The reason for this rumination -- other than my usual misanthropy -- is the program of films by the fine Scottish writer-director Bill Douglas, currently being shown at Anthology Film Archives
through the weekend. Douglas was only 54 when he died of cancer, and his entire output as a filmmaker consisted of the extraordinary trilogy of autobiographical films that bears his name and a marvelous historical feature, Comrades. Does this loss to film rise to the level of tragedy? I don't know, but what I do know from seeing the trilogy for the first time in 30 years at a press screening at Anthology is that Douglas was a very significant talent, a sure-footed director whose mise-en-scene was a brilliant blend of Bressonian minimalist rigor and character and social detail observed with the intensity of Dickens.

The three films of the trilogy -- My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home -- are a striking recreation and recollection of life in post-WWII Scotland in the most dire of circumstance, in a dying mining town where the prospects of escape or advancement are virtually non-existent. By leaping from his childhood to his time in the Army, stationed in Egypt in the '50s, Douglas deliberately sidesteps the urge to "explain" everything about his own departure from Newcraighall, that grim hometown, while still giving us a glimmer of insight into the forces that would lift him out of the Highlands and put him on the road to the British Film Institute.

The one thing that was missing from the prints that were press-screened, regrettably, was the visual sharpness, the skillful use of chiaroscuro and the sheer starkness that etched these three films so firmly onto my memory that 30 years after that initial viewing I could still call up images and vignettes from them. I hope and pray that those prints aren't the ones being shown at the public screenings, but even if they are, it's worth a trip to Anthology to see them. The films retain their great power, even under such adverse circumstances -- and how else are you going to see them on a big screen, they sure has hell won't turn up at the Ziegfeld any time soon.

But that's what places like Anthology are for. Consider just the programs they've done this past month -- Douglas, Pedro Costa, Minnelli melodramas, Barbara Albert, and the usual rotation of 'essential cinema' masterpieces.

At any rate, you have 48 hours to see some of the Douglas films. Now get going!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Guilty . . . As Charged

I don't know how many of you listen to Brian Lehrer's show on WNYC-AM here in the city or download the podcast. Lehrer is a smart, thoughtful guy who does excellent local and national political stuff, mixed in with a leavening dose of culture and humor. This past week, while he was on vacation, several guest hosts sat in for him, and I was listening moments ago to a segment with David Cruz and Kalefa Sanneh of the Times about the secret songs you have on your iPod that you are embarrassed to admit you like.

As I just wrote in an e-mail to a friend, I probably should be embarrassed about the fact that I use my iPod more to listen to lectures, audiobooks and podcasts than to music. Yesterday I heard about 90 minutes of a panel discussion with Jacques Derrida from a past meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I'm not trying to impress you. I also listened to a half-dozen different English football podcasts, every single one of which dissed my Premier League side, Tottenham Hotspur (but none in as baldly negative terms as I used myself after seeing their first three games of the new season).

At any rate, inevitably my thoughts turned to the old "guilty pleasures" concept. For many years, we have idly discussed the notion of coming to the Iras with our own guilty pleasures lists. What's interesting about such lists, to my mind, is less the titles that one finds on them than the attitude of the list-maker towards the concept. I can't recall who it was -- it wasn't me -- who said, "If it's a pleasure, there's no reason to feel guilty about it." Or another of our number who said, "If I like it, by definition it can't be without some kind of quality."

I must confess to my own kind of ambivalence about the "guilty pleasure" film concept. On the one hand, it falls into the trap of making some kind of false distinction between "high: art and "low" but, in the hands of someone like Pauline Kael, it becomes a smug middlebrow way of asserting one's contempt for "high" art without validating what is really valuable about "low" art. It's as bogus as her promiscuous manipulation of the first-person singular and plural to let her readers feel they are in on the joke.

On the other hand, there certainly are texts -- one hesitates to call them works of art -- that I enjoy with a certain sense of embarrassment, whether it's Glen Campbell's recording of "Wichita Lineman," which came in for some abuse on the Lehrer show (which you can download here) or the films of William Castle (who has a warm spot in my heart right next to Bill Veeck). Margo and I enjoy watching '30s and '40s B series detective films. I would hardly make any aesthetic claims for the Boston Blackie movies, although Chester Morris has considerable charm as a leading man, but we like them just the same. (It's interesting to think about the function of familiarity in the series film, much like the television series, as a sort of emotional shorthand that brings a viewer into a specific relationship with recurring characters as surely as genre does.) I suppose my "guilty pleasures" list would consist mainly of those films -- the Charlie Chans, the Mr. Motos, Boston Blackies, Falcons, Saints, Crime Doctors, Mike Shaynes, and so on. One can make a serious case for some of them as being more than merely run-of-the-mill; the Motos are actually fairly interesting, in no small part due to Lorre's performances but also because Moto's utterly detached use of violence anticipates the anti-hero status of the noir protagonist by a few years. As a hero, Lorre is actually something of a cold-hearted bastard, and that makes for an interesting contrast to the Chan film -- same studio, same basic premise, and even, on occasion, the loan of a script between the two series.

Of course, at this point, you are heading towards criticism-as-sociology and, indeed, the mediocre or minor film lends itself more easily to use as a barometer of social attitudes, if only because you're not distracted by aesthetic concerns. Perhaps that is the defining characteristic of the "guilty pleasure," that what draws us to them has nothing to do with artistic judgment and evaluation. I won't defend the Boston Blackie films, but I like them all the same.

Now B westerns, that's another story. Have I told you about the many virtues of the Hopalong Cassidy films . . . .

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Little Family Bragging

If you are a regular reader of this blog (and if you're not, how did you get here?), then you know that Margalit Fox, a reporter for the New York Times, also is my wife and best friend. You also know that her new book, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind, has just been published by Simon and Schuster and has already received several highly favorable reviews. Needless to say, I'm very, very proud -- and I've read the book so I can tell you, quite honestly, that it is excellent, a compelling and highly intelligent piece of work, and I was a book critic for 20 years so I'm not just blowing smoke up your butt.

Anyway, Margo is doing a few radio shows and podcasts, so allow me to draw your attention to Leonard Lopate's show on WNYC here in the Apple. If you are home tomorrow during the day, you can hear her as Lenny's lead guest. Or you can download the podcast and hear her at your leisure. You can also download the New York Time Book Review's latest podcast, which also features an interview with Ms. Fox (as well as a nice chat with Clive James).

Later this week, Anthology Film Archives will begin a (necessarily) brief retrospective of the work of the late Bill Douglas, a brilliant Scottish filmmaker whose life and career were all-too-brief and whose work is regrettably underexposed on these shores. I'll have a lot more to say about that in the next day or two.

More on Bunuel

So, I'm sitting at home last week, watching the Cardinals finish off a sweep of the Brewers with a getaway day game victory (the Cardinals don't seem to want to go away, but I suspect the manhandling they took from the Cubs this weekend may damper their ardor a little bit), and between innings I start running the dial. You can usually tell just how bored I am by whether I click on the favorite channels all the way through or if I start with New York 1 and go station by station -- we have well over a hundred, so it takes about fifteen minutes to establish that there is nothing on -- but this time, since all I was doing was avoiding some idiot trying to get me to come to St. Louis to buy a car, I didn't expect to be seriously distracted for long.

Except that I clicked onto Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie in a handsome, letterboxed print on one of the Showtime channels (if I remember correctly) and within seconds I was hooked. Hey, what would you rather do, watch a brilliant assault on our "civilized" values or wonder at the collapse of the Brew Crew? In fact, it was only about 30 minutes into the film and, if you have never seen it -- shame, shame -- it's not exactly a linear narrative anyway. Don Luis would probably find it amusing to see me jump into the middle of his movie and immediately start swimming, so to speak.

And while I was watching it, I was struck by something that doesn't get mentioned nearly often enough when critics write on Bunuel: the film is damned funny. Jean-Claude Carriere and Bunuel put together a relentlessly hilarious script that bounces its benighted protagonists from one nightmarish dilemma to another, all of them punctuated by interrupted meals Ior as we say in Hebraio-Latin, nosherei interruptus). Some of the humor is elevated and sophisticated, but the funniest moments are pitched at a level of the Three Stooges; I'm thinking of the look on Fernando Rey's face when the terrorists who have broken into yet another dinner party find him under the table, reaching for a slice of ham.

That set me to thinking about what I had written last week about Bunuel's seeming neglect by critics' poll voters. Now I am not about to say that it's some kind of perverse enactment of middlebrow snob appeal; Bunuel's pedigree as a serious artist is too distinguished for that. Indeed, I'm not sure there is any relationship at all between his comedy and the state of his reputation. Hell, I'm not even convinced that his absence from ten-best lists has anything to do with his reputation, which I suspect is still pretty bright. I just think it's interesting to try and see Don Luis in the context of low slapstick comedy as much as we think of him as the last and probably greatest of the Surrealists. And I don't think Carriere is the source of the film's humor, or at least not the sole source. There are hilarious moments in just about every Bunuel film while Carriere, who is certainly a gifted screenwriter, has a rather more uneven output.

As the credit crawl was rolling -- and you must watch the crawl in Discreet Charm or, rather, listen to its canny orchestration of sound effects -- I was reminded of something the late Richard Roud told me during an interview around the time the film was released. In his later years, Bunuel was increasingly deaf. Very, very deaf, apparently. But he told Roud on several occasions that his only real ambition as a filmmaker was to win an Oscar for the sound effects on his films. Sure enough, there was the credit: Sound Effects -- Luis Bunuel. One more dark joke by a master, made all the funnier by the care with which the soundtrack of the film was put together.

I wonder just how deaf he really was.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

One of my favorite observations in English literature is Jerome K. Jerome's sage remark, "I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."

Unfortunately, it has not been lack of work that has kept me from my appointed blogging rounds. But the focus of my most recent contributions to Jewish Week has been largely musical this summer, very pleasant but not germane here. On the other hand, I neglected to post anything about the Pedro Costa series at Anthology Film Archives, for which I humbly apologize. Colossal Youth, which received its theatrical debut in New York as part of the series, is my first Costa but will definitely not be my last. The film is a riveting blend of Straub-Huillet and Cassavettes, sort of a neo-realist-Marxist-minimalist ode to the downtrodden residents of one of Lisbon's worst slums, Fountainhas, now gone. Costa's use of screen space is challenging, fascinating, and I wish I had a copy of the film to look at again and more closely.

And there is no shortage of good stuff on the way. In just the past couple of weeks, I have seen two excellent new films, David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon, a breathtaking documentary about the Apollo program in which all the living moon-landing astronauts except Neil Armstrong are interviewed, and Exiled, Johnnie To's delirious homage to The Wild Bunch, which lacks the dark, brooding heft of Triad Election, but has considerable charms of its own. I also was at a press screening at Anthology of the Bill Douglas trilogy, unseen in the town for something like 30 years and still a tremendously moving experience. I will talk about these films at the appropriate time; suffice it to say, all are highly recommended.

I promised some of the highlights from the raging battle in Ira-land over the legacy of Ingmar and Michelangelo, which somehow turned into a no-less-ferocious dispute over our memories of NYC cinephilia in the 1970s and a long, interesting debate on opinion v. fact in criticism.

Lazy SOB that I am, I haven't asked any of my colleagues for permission to include their postings here. I believe that several, if not all, read this blog and I encourage them to reproduce some of the meatier entries in the Comments section.

In the meantime, here are a couple of my more, shall we say, temperate remarks:

I miss the movie world in which I grew up. I miss the 42nd St. grindhouses, I miss the New Yorker, I miss the Regency and so on. On the other hand, I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the old NYC rep houses -- the Thalia was a dank pit and half the films they showed were artsy crap; the Elgin was a lousy place to see a movie of any kind; the Theater 80 St. Marks had back-projection, wihch mean that everything was shown in soft-focus.

Would I rather see a movie on a big screen or on my TV? No comparison. But the advent of the VCR and the DVD player means that I now own copies of thousands of films that 30 years ago I could only dream about seeing, let alone seeing whenever I feel like it. I think Ira is probably the only other person on this list who remembers the mixed thrill/discomfort of watching a good 16 print of an obscure Tashlin or DeToth or Karlson in the apartment of Roger McNiven (may his memory be a blessing) and Howard Mandelbaum. There would be 20 of us crammed into their living room, sweltering whatever the weather outside. Now I can flip on the AC and watch the same films in my own living room with Margo or whoever, any time the urge takes me. I keep a card-file catalog of my tapes (Three are almost a thousand of them, so I have to), and I have some 40 John Ford films on VHS -- that's more Ford than gets shown in all the rep programming in New York City in a year, perhaps a decade. (Oh yeah, and with cable I get TCM and French TV on Channel 5.)

And there are still a few choice rep programmers left -- Anthology, the Film Society, Film Forum, MoMA -- the quality is probably higher right now than it was when we were young and impressionable.

Is ciinephilia dead, as Sontag claimed? I don't know, I don't get out as much as I used to.
But I can tell you one thing for sure -- Bergman, Antonioni, Yang, Sembene (what a shit year this has been) may be dead, but cinema isn't.


No work of art exists in an ahistorical vacuum. While I will happily concede that there are "timeless" masterpieces that speak to us across millennia -- Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, Austen, Elmer Fudd -- it's still useful, even imperative, to have some understanding of what produced them. If nothing else, it may help us decipher some of the more arcane references -- have you ever tried reading The Divine Comedy without notes? Whoo boy.

There are works -- and the Dante falls into this category for most readers -- that are rendered all but inaccessible without some kind of context in which to understand them. It's probably vulgar and crass for me to quote from my own book, but I think I said it best in Chapter 6 of Essential Torah and there's no reason to give you some warmed-over variant.
When we read Homer, we may be shocked by the petty nature of the argument that sets Achilles to sulking in his tent, or appalled by the violence with which Odysseus and Telemachus dispatch the suitors. The moral code that condemns the sinners to the various circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno may puzzle, even outrage us. The depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice has been giving sensitive directors fits for centuries, and the promiscuous use of a certain racial epithet frequently blinds contemporary readers to Mark Twain’s vigorous denunciation of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In one way or another, texts from the past trouble us, but not so much that we can’t find a way to read them creatively or with an understanding of historical context that allows us to look past our own contemporary attitudes to discern what is great in them.

The Torah is older than most of these books, the creation of a civilization far removed from our own in time and attitudes. Why are we surprised to find that there are many passages in it that challenge our beliefs, even offend us?

For a moment, let us put aside the problems of the troubling text and consider a more basic problem that afflicts our reading of any passage of the Torah. Quite simply, the distance in time between ourselves and the Torah is at least 2400 years.

Consider what that means in terms of our reading comprehension. Shakespeare’s plays are about 400 years old, Dante’s Divine Comedy about 700 years old. Try reading either in an edition without footnotes and you’ll find yourself frequently lost in a wood as impenetrable as the one in which The Inferno opens. Even with footnotes, we cannot hope to recreate the experience of reading these texts (or seeing them performed) that the authors’ contemporaries had. Certainly we can read the footnotes and a stack of histories of medieval Florence and learn about Guido da Montefeltro, but his name will never strike us with the immediate resonance that it would a Florentine reader in, say, 1310.

And the Torah is more than three times as old, as distant from us, as Dante. To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust. As Barry Holtz says of The Inferno, “To read the poem, we need to bridge the gap to a world that viewed hell as a living reality, that saw nine circles of inferno populated by the souls of actual beings. This is a profound gap, and interpreters have struggled since the advent of modernity with ways of overcoming it.” (And that is without taking into account a world in which the names of those actual beings would have been instantly recognizable.)

This is not an insurmountable gap, but it requires not only a huge amount of background reading but also an imaginative act of recreation, a kind of reading that places the text in its own time. Reading the Torah this way calls upon our full attention to detail and overview, putting everything in context. We have seen examples of this kind of reading throughout this book.

For example, Yitzhak’s great achievement is re-opening the wells his father dug; given the setting of the story in a desert nomadic society, that’s a pretty important legacy. And given that setting, one can easily see why the emphasis on hospitality – a unifying cultural positive throughout the Middle East – is so great. Would either of these facts be as significant in a modern urban society, where one has recourse to hotels and motels, gas stations and fast-food restaurants? Obviously not.

But these are simple examples that don’t call on a huge imaginative leap for us. The problems arise, I think, when we get into those thorny areas where we are distanced from the sociocultural context in such a way that the mindset, the philosophy and ethical assumptions of the text are drastically removed from our own. Our own societies are no longer built on tribalism, no longer revolve around customs like primogeniture or bride-price. Texts that involve and invoke xenophobic violence should fill us with horror. The advent of social structures based on individual rights and responsibilities dates back only as far as the Enlightenment, but it seems us as if they have been here forever, and when faced with a world in which such notions were utterly incomprehensible – and the world in which the Torah is set was such a world – we are as dumbfounded as Moshe would be if you handed him a cellphone.

Simply put, as Holtz says, “The Bible has a symbol system and ideational framework that require explication and understanding. Its concepts of holiness, covenant, divinity, prophecy, and law are all very different from those of our contemporary world.”

For all that we may attempt to understand, on some level, when we read Torah the Patriarchs and Matriarchs might as well be Martians. This is a gap that is on some level unbridgeable. When we study these texts, we have to accept that reality, as surely as we must accept the reality that there are certain words in the Torah whose precise meaning we cannot reconstruct.

I believe that having access to historical context doesn't hurt our reading of a text. It enriches it. It makes accessible to us texts that might otherwise lay inert on the page -- ever read the Epic of Gilgamesh, pretty dull stuff until you start to learn where it fits in the larger picture of that civilization.

And that, I think, is part of our job as critics. I believe that what we should be doing is to speak for and/or with the text (film, song, painting, whatever) so that someone who reads our stuff gets more out of their own experience of the text.

Merely confirming our readers' prejudices or giving them a flat-out consumer guide with nothing more than 'It's great" or 'it stinks' -- that's the literary equivalent of being a racetrack tout or a pimp. One of the pleasures of reading Michael [Giltz's] new DVD column is how much he insight he gets into the very small amount of space he has per film; if all he did was say 'buy this one, but not that one,' any halfwit could have written it. As I said in an e-mail to him off-list a few hours ago, you end up like the teens on American Bandstand (I'm dating myself here, but that's okay 'cause I enjoy my company), saying "Gee Dick, it's got a good beat, yuh can dance to it. I give it a 95."

You have to be able to tell someone more than that. Emily Dickinson once said something to the effect that she recognized a good poem because she felt like the top of her head had been blown off. By that measure, a .44 Magnum slug is the best poem there is, and a Claymore mine ripping your lower body in two is a Homeric epic. You have to be able to say something more meaningful than "it blew the top of my head off." And that means you have to be able to see more than the fact that you enjoyed it on a visceral level -- you have to be able to say why.

And that, I repeat, is our job, or at least part of it.

Some civilian -- i.e., not a writer, you know, someone who actually makes a living from their job? -- once asked me what the best part of writing is for me. I thought of all the clever one-liners (Benchley said, the best part of being a writer "is not writing.") But I didn't have to think for more than a split second to give a serious answer. For me the best part is when I'm writing an article and I suddenly understand something or learn something about the film or music or book that I'm writing about. That's the most exhilarating thing I do as a writer. And the best part of all is that I get to pass along something like that to whoever is reading my stuff.

Well, you get the idea. It was like one of those great old nights at Cannon's or the Marlin, both gone the way of all Upper West Side Bars, when a bunch of half-waxed undergrads would get together and settle the great questions of the universe. I think our ambitions are somewhat less grandiose now, and we don't get as wrapped up in these large issues as we used to. That is the product of time and the perspective that generally accompanies its passing.

One last thought, completely unrelated to the function of criticism, the death of cinephilia or the woes of the freelance writer. This is one that's been buzzing around in my head for a long time. I throw it out for discussion, wherever and whenever:

When Sight and Sound assembles its decennial greatest films list, I'm always surprised how few of Luis Bunuel's titles turn up. I think all but a handful of critics would fail to include Don Luis on their list of the greatest filmmakers, yet somehow he gets short shrift in the all-time-ten-best-list follies. I have pondered this for quite a while now and the only explanation I can come up with that does credit to my profession is that Bunuel's filmography is of a remarkably consistent quality. There are many great films in his oeuvre and almost no clinkers (even the worst of the Mexican films has a great deal of charm). But there is no single Bunuel that everyone points to as his obvious masterpiece. Think about it: with Ford you have The Searchers, Hitchcock Vertigo, Renoir Rules of the Game, and so on. Now it would be absurd to say that these are the only listworthy films for each of these artists, and there are camps that would argue for, let's say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Psycho, French Can-Can. Looking at the post-mortems on Bergman and Antonioni, the same few films get mentioned over and over -- Persona, The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, Red Desert, L'Avventura, Blow-Up.

But once you've named one Bunuel film -- might as well start at the beginning with Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or -- you keep wanting to add more titles. I personally would plump for Phantom of Liberty or Discreet Charm, in recognition of their pretzel-bending narrative lines and magnificent illogic, but you wouldn't be heckled for saying Viridiana or Los Olvidados or any of several others worthy of inclusion.

In a sense, then, Don Luis is punished for his consistent excellence. Does that mean he's a greater filmmaker than Jean Renoir or John Ford or Roberto Rossellini or fill-in-the-blank? Now you're on my sportswriting side. The best comparison I can offer is the double measurement of value that Bill James uses in his magnificent Historical Baseball Abstract, where the greatest players of all time are given two yardsticks, career value and peak value. If you think that Bunuel never made a film as great as The Searchers or Touch of Evil, then his peak value would be below that of Welles and Ford. If you agree with my supposition about his consistency as an unfortunate damper on his appearances in critics' polls, then you would probably say that his career value -- his worth over the long haul -- is greater than that of most other filmmakers. But, of course, there is no objective way to measure greatness in the arts, which is what led to the heated discussion on Iranet in the first place.

For the record, I have never actually sat down and ranked filmmakers that way. I'm not sure there is any satisfactory way to do it that isn't demeaning to great art and artists. Certainly box-office figures, critics' awards, Oscars and their non-US equivalents, are only a measure of middlebrow acceptance (or worse). Is Bunuel a greater director than Lubitsch? I think the nicest answer I can come up with is, "That is a truly stupid question," and move on to other matters.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I'll have a lot more to say soon, but for now . . . .

In the wake of the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni there has been an absolutely fascinating e-mail discussion among the extended family of Ira voters that began with some talk about the impact of the art-house films of the '50s and '60s and has gradually transmuted into a weighing of the pros and cons of the fragmentation of the audience and market, not only in film but in most forms of popular (and elite) culture. I'll replay some of the choicer tidbits in the next day or two, if my brothers-in-Ira-hood will permit.

In the meantime, I want to draw your attention to a non-film item, but one that must cause any reader to reflect on the tragedies that surround the repression of free expression. Once upon a time, the Zimbabwe International Book Fair was one of the largest in Africa. Founded in 1984 it began as a refreshingly energetic gathering of publishers, authors and book dealers and distributors. This year, it limped to a close Saturday with only 84 exhibitors, all but one of them local. The exception was the Iranian embassy, which had a display that consisted mainly of Islamic religous pamphlets apparently.

It is indicative of what has befallen Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe that the ZIBF has fallen so far. For a measured assessment of what has happened to the book fair, take a look at this story from the International Herald Tribune.

And many thanks to the wonderful blog The Literary Saloon, which had the link that led me to this article. If you care at all about literature, this blog is an absolute must, smart, funny and committed to good writing.


Incidentally, this is the 78th post of 2007, equalling my entire output for the previous year. so I guess I can stop feeling guilty for not writing more often. Of course, if I stopped feeling guilty, I might never get anything done. (As the rabbinic sages said, if it were not for the yetzer hara (the evil impulse), no man would ever get married or build a house.)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Dog Days of August

That's the title of an album by the excellent blues duo Cephas and Wiggins and it sure sums it all up.

Edward Yang, Ousmane Sembene, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni. Well, as John Garfield says at the end of Body and Soul, "What can you do, kill me? Everybody dies." I must say that this has been a deeply dispiriting summer in our house, and I can't wait for Labor Day and the hope of beginning something better. I wish I had something cogent to add to the discussions of Bergman and Antonioni. I stand by what I wrote earlier -- Bergman is a brilliant director of actors who had no affinity whatsoever for film as a medium. Antonioni is a brilliant director of decor and a master manipulator of screen space who has little feeling for human beings, but that makes him a voice uniquely well-suited to the changing face of Italy in the wake of the 'economic miracle' of the late '50s-early '60s. If you combined them, you'd either get a brilliant but very bleak filmmaker -- someone whose vision of fucked-up modernity would make you weep -- or you'd get a ponderous, brainless jerk who can't tell a story, can't elicit a decent performance, doesn't know where to put a camera, and who preaches in your ear at the top of his lungs. (In other words, Stanley Kramer.)

I'm sorry if that sounds too flippant. I wouldn't trade Sembene for either of them, but there are moments in the films of each that are indelible, remarkable, moving.


The upside of August is that the studios have exhausted their supply of comic-book crap and a few good films manage to sneak through the haze. A case in point, Julie Gavras's delightful Blame It on Fidel. given that her father is Costa-Gavras, I don't know how much of this film about growing with committed revolutionaries as parents is autobiographical; certainly the source material, an Italian novel by Domitilla Calamai, plays like the story of people who would have watched all of her father's movies. The film is set during his heyday, the early 1970s, and focusses on the effects of the couple's dedication to the Allende regime and other progressive movements on their nine-year-old daughter (Nina Kerval, in a sterling performance) and her younger brother.

Gavras is very smart about the tensions between the personal and political in this period -- I lived through this stuff myself and although I was in the States the entire time, I recognized many of the types -- and her sympathy for both the embattled parents and their barely comprehending children is poignant and effective. All in all, an excellent debut and a film well worth seeking out. (In New York it's at the Cinema Village. They're also showing Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley, so prepare for a long but very satisfying day.)