ICONOGRAPHY (Part 2): Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life; featuring Nine Lives, Paradise Now, Pride and Prejudice, Syriana, and more
For thoughtful dissent, against mindless consensus
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont was described by _Newsday_’s Gene Seymour (November 25, 2005) as being the kind of film that “should be appraised for its ability to make people’s insides all gooey and warm like cocoa and gingerbread on a cold, stormy afternoon,” noting the film’s inclination toward platitudes and homilies. His review led me to expect something much worse than I found. The film is about friendship, and friendship is often a happy accident and that is the case in this film, in which a widow who has moved into a London hotel trips on a sidewalk in front of the basement apartment in which a young writer is living. After the writer tends her leg wound and the two share tea, they begin a friendship, part of which involves a mild deception of others: when she tells her hotel comrades that she’s expecting a guest, they think it’s her never-seen grandson and she doesn’t correct their mistake and asks the writer to play along. Joan Plowright is the widow, Mrs. Palfrey, and Rupert Friend is the writer, Ludovic, and they create an intergenerational friendship in which small favors and kindnesses mean much. Joan Plowright is hopeful but honest, and nurturing without being smarmy, and Rupert Friend is caring, earthy, masculine, and sensual. (“He’s gorgeous,” a woman behind me in the theater said when he appeared on screen; and when he reappeared, she said, “He’s so cute.”) The film, written by Ruth Sacks and based on a novel by a writer named Elizabeth Taylor, was directed by Dan Ireland, and it formally introduces Rupert Friend to cinema, though I first saw him in a smaller part in Pride and Prejudice, and he was the reason I defied Seymour’s discouraging review. Friend, who reportedly studied at the Webber Douglass Academy of Dramatic Arts, gives a performance that is well-modulated: though he has a romantic aspect, he never says or does anything that indicates his relationship with the older woman might become at all inappropriate. The film also introduces Lorcan O’Toole as the widow’s real grandson, Desmond—he is Peter O’Toole’s son, who worked in the art department as a carpenter on several films; and the cast of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont also features Anna Massey as a very direct new friend of the widow, Clare Higgins as Ludovic’s mother, and Zoe Tapper as a new girlfriend of Ludovic. This is a sweet, intelligent film about a rare friendship in which an important and somewhat painful fact is not denied: loneliness, the loneliness of age, and the loneliness of a young impoverished creative life.
My Beautiful Laundrette, a 1985 film written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, stars Gordon Warnecke as Omar, Roshan Seth as Papa, Saeed Jaffrey as Nasser, Rita Wolf as Tania, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Johnny. Gordon Warnecke was a real find in this film, but, of course, it was not the brown boy but the pale one who went on to fame and fortune: Daniel Day-Lewis. Warnecke and Day-Lewis play school chums, both involved to one extent or another with women, but also infatuated with each other—they’re lovers, and Omar takes over a laundry facility and gets Johnny to work for him. The film is also about Indian exile and success in Britain, and the use that’s made of women. Nasser has a superstitious Indian wife and an English woman as his mistress, and his daughter is frustrated, looking for love or purpose. The film has all the comedy and drama, all the lucid and vivacious life, one wants in a film and it also suggests the richness of a novel and the relevance of a political essay.
Written by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and directed by Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre (1981) is full of smart talk—artistic, personal, spiritual, social. Andre has made the mystical his principal interest—he’s in search of what used to be called the ineffable, a glimpse of deep connection, of unusual beauty, of primary purposes. The ordinary is not good enough—is too much drudgery, routine, social convention. One admires Andre and thinks Wally is too confined to the convenient and perfunctory, but as Andre continues it’s possible to think that what he wants is a dream that can never live—that he forgets the effort and compromise involved in human life and the need for stability and rest. However, I suspect that the people who can give up Andre’s dream may have not really needed or believed it.
The New Deal was the subject of a recent exhibit at the central library in Queens, an exhibit that featured drawings, paintings, and prints: “New Deal, New York: Prints and Paintings from the Queens Library Collection.” I was impressed—pleased by the colors and forms, and stimulated by the visions, and admiring of the craft—of Hyman Warsager’s color silkscreen showing men “Gathering Logs” (1937), with the controlled roughness of the image reminding me of Honore Daumier; Leonard Pytlak’s “Watering Time” (1937), a color woodcut featuring two people working in a greenhouse; Abraham Tobias’s “The Reader” (1937), a lithograph, with gorgeous—fine, harmonious—draftsmanship, showing someone reading; and Mabel Wellington Jack’s beautiful drawing, a lithograph, of ugly industry, “Coal Hopper at 14th Street” (1937). The roots of the New Deal are in the Great Depression. Something people know but often forget is that stocks are both forms of ownership and also gambling; and in the 1920s in the United States, people borrowed money to buy stocks, and used the stocks as collateral to buy more stocks in a time when many Americans did not have much money. It was a kind of lottery that failed when people ceased believing in it. Many people were or became unemployed, and were even starving—and both the economy and the national spirit could be said to be depressed. Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, and created programs intended to restore the country; and that included providing federal inspection and insurance for banks; ensuring public access to information about stocks being sold; creating public works programs such as repairing infrastructure—roads, parks, schools, hospitals, and airports; setting a minimum wage and facilitating the regulation of various industries regarding working conditions; providing refinance for home mortgages; establishing pensions for the elderly (social security); and ending the sale of tribal lands and returning some lands to Native Americans. The New Deal also put artists to work doing what they do—and out of that came drawing, murals, sculptures. At the Queens library, the work of artists using carving and printing to produce lithographs, silkscreens, and woodcuts were shown (October 3 through December 11, 2005), and while many of these artists are unknown they are (or were) talented; and the exhibit was an affirmation of that talent and also of rare government imagination.
Having appeared in the film The Silver Chalice in 1954 and then Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, The Hustler, Paris Blues, Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot, Fort Apache The Bronx, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, The Color of Money, Fat Man and Little Boy, Blaze, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, The Hudsucker Proxy, Nobody’s Fool, Twilight, Message in a Bottle, and Road to Perdition in 2002, Paul Newman has had one of the longest, most rewarding careers imaginable for an actor. One might look at his films and see what it is to be a modern American man.
I think the people who know nihilism best are not those who loudly say “life is meaningless,” but rather those who throw everything at it—good books, great music, hot fucks, delicious foods, gorgeous sunsets, trusting friendships, sacrificing love—and find them swallowed by despair, indifference, endless want, as if all resources were nothing at all.
Nine Lives is a good, small independent film that plays like a collection of sometimes intertwined short stories. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez), it features Robin Wright Penn, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Holly Hunter, and Glenn Close, among others. Elpidia Carrillo plays a woman inmate who works hard in prison and looks forward to seeing her daughter on visiting day; and she is upset—angrily screaming—when the phone at her visiting station does not work and she cannot speak with her daughter; and Carrillo conveys the humility, circumspection, worry, turmoil, and rage of the entire situation. Carrillo has been in Spanish language films, and in Under Fire, Salvador, My Family, Bread and Roses, and Solaris. Robin Wright Penn is poignant as a married pregnant woman—first sensible, then sad and a little amused, and finally torn up—by an unexpected encounter with a former lover in an expensive grocery store. Robin Penn is a lovely actress, and her face is a great canvas for emotion, and I found her to be the most heartbreaking performer in the film. Lisa Gay Hamilton, a graduate of New York University and Julliard, appeared in Krush Groove, Twelve Monkeys, Jackie Brown, Beloved, True Crime, Ten Tiny Love Stories, and The Truth About Charlie, and in one of Nine Lives segments Hamilton plays a daughter who returns home—obviously disturbed (agitated, angry, in extreme pain, and full of memories) to confront her father; and in another segment she is a very professional nurse. Her performance as the distraught daughter suggests terrible childhood events. Sissy Spacek is in one segment a wife and mother overwhelmed by caring for her crippled husband, finding comfort in her daughter, who often acts as go-between for mother and father, and in another Spacek is a woman contemplating an affair with one of her daughter’s counselors, played by Aidan Quinn, whom I didn’t recognize at first. Amy Brenneman plays a woman attending the funeral of her former husband’s second wife, and William Fichtner plays that deaf man, still in love with his first wife (Brenneman)—they apparently had a strong sexual bond that disturbed his second wife and led to her suicide. Glenn Close in the last section is a woman whose graveyard visit and great grief inspire an understandable magical realism. All the segments are worth seeing; all suggest the possibilities in women’s lives, and the range of human experience.
Overrated White People: In my more cynical moments, I think that to get a contemporary accounting of people whose power and publicity exceed their intelligence and skill, or an accounting of people whose talents have been well-paid for but badly used without a loss of status, all one has to do is pick up an important daily newspaper in any of the nation’s—or the world’s—important cities and see who is featured in the sections devoted to business, culture, and politics. For today, my sense is that George W. Bush and his father and Ronald Reagan as well as Bill Clinton would make such a list, as would the presidents of most corporations, and The Beatles, Don DeLillo, Tom Hanks, Norman Mailer, Al Pacino, Elvis Presley, Thomas Pynchon, Madonna Ciccone Ritchie, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and William T. Vollman. Yes, they do have their uses, and I do like “All You Need Is Love” and “In My Life,” but…
I imagine that I’ll remember Paradise Now for a long time. I’m not aware of anything that’s wrong with this film. It doesn’t seem like a work someone made; it seems like a reality someone discovered. Paradise Now presents Palestinian life with border guards, work conflicts, class differences, religious manipulation, ignorance, videos of political collaborators and martyrs, and the oblivion of other people living what they consider normal lives; and it features actors who are natural and very appealing. The film is about two young men—car mechanics and friends—who have agreed to be suicide bombers. It says a great deal about the film that the why of this becomes readily understandable: with the Jewish or Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the circumscription of Palestinian life, their freedom and possibilities are extremely limited. The task they undertake is for justice, but it’s a commitment they have come to because the lives they will leave behind are not themselves rewarding. We are already dead, they say more than once. Kais Nashef is Said, and Ali Suliman is Khaled. Lubna Azabal is Suha, a young woman recently befriended by Said; and the young woman is also the daughter of a local hero, and she, apparently involved in a human rights group, argues against meeting violence with violence. Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, presents the landscape in which the Palestinians are massed—its rocky hills, its trees, its poor neighborhoods—and shows some of the communal rituals—simple meals of vegetables, bread, and sauces; and smoking a water pipe. When Said comes home late, his young brother talks about how he would have been reprimanded if he’d come in that late; and when the same boy asks if his mother has used a new water filter—he says the water tasted better before—his mother tells him to turn off the radio he swallowed, meaning he’s too smart-talking. The mother (Hiam Abbass) is not young but she’s also not old and she seems, as such women often do, practical and wise (knowing but limited). Her oldest son Said does not tell her or anyone else what he plans to do. When Suha, who sees how the two friends have changed (hair cut, dressed in suits so they’ll look like Israeli settlers) she guesses their intentions and talks against such plans to Khaled, who says he prefers to die and find paradise, or to live with the paradise in his head, rather than live their terrible common reality, but she shakes Khaled’s assurance—and Khaled tries to do the same for Said. One of the fascinating things about the film is that these people do not speak of love, and yet there were times when I felt it—the love of mother and son, the love of the two male friends Said and Khaled, and the love of Said and Suha; and that’s an achievement. The film’s ending—an ending without the expected closure—is the right one.
Paris is burning? The riots in the Paris suburbs in late fall 2005 seemed to tear the veneer off of a French façade: the city and country of liberty, equality, and fraternity had failed to integrate its African, Algerian, and Muslim population, had in fact exiled them in ghettoes. When two boys, Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, fled the police and were electrocuted at an electricity station, the boys’ deaths reminded others of their own dissatisfactions—the police harassment, the difficulty in finding work and housing; and the rioting began. Each day, there was destruction, with news that hundreds of vehicles had been burned in a single night. Reporting from France (in Aulnay-Sous-Bois), Peter Ford of Christian Science Monitor (November 4, 2005) described a scene in which young people threw stones and Molotov cocktails as riot police tried to restore order; and Ford described the conditions in which many of these youths lived, conditions thus far impervious to inadequate government reach and positive impact: “In these 751 zones that the government has designated for special programs, unemployment stands at 19.6 percent—double the national average—and at more than 30 percent among 21-to-29 year-olds, according to official figures. Incomes are 75 percent below the average.” The flames of the riots were fed when the French interior minister referred to the young people as scum and vowed a merciless war against them. That was not the vision one had of a Frenchman or of France from most French films; and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate), about a man brutalized during a police interrogation and the vengeful aftermath, was one of the few French films arriving in America to suggest troubles between policemen and those corralled in certain French suburbs. Rather one thinks of French films and thinks of Claire’s Knee, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Diva, Entre Nous and other films that somehow involve pleasure. I will have to think differently.
*Caryl Phillips*’s novels are The Final Passage, A State of Independence, Higher Ground, Cambridge, Crossing the River, The Nature of Blood, and Dancing in the Dark. Phillips has taught in colleges in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States (he teaches at Yale now), and his non-fiction has sometimes featured international concerns: The European Tribe; The Atlantic Sound; A New World Order; and A Distant Shore. The St.Kitts-born, England-reared Oxford graduate is producing one of the oeuvres by which the times in which we live can be judged: artistically, intellectually, politically.
Philosophy Born of Struggle: An Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917, edited by Leonard Harris (Kendall Hunt, 1985), collected the fragments of a disbelieved, valuable tradition: the thoughts of blacks speculating about existence, knowledge, values, social relationships, and politics—philosophy. Other related books are: Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy by editor Lewis R. Gordon (Routledge, 1996), and African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations by editor George Yancy (Routledge, 1998).
Adrian Piper is a visual artist and a philosopher who has explored the most esoteric western and eastern texts, as well as high art and popular culture. Adrian Piper’s art work, marked by self-consciousness and world-awareness, has been less concerned with the creation of an object, than it has been concerned with ideas and experience—she would, upon hearing a racist remark, present a card identifying herself as black and allowing the possibility of conversation, and she also did a piece called “Funk Lessons” in which she moved beyond notions of the sensual other and introduced participants to dancing to funk music. She turned herself into an art object, walking blindfolded with ear plugs through the club Max’s Kansas City, and walking in Manhattan wearing a “Wet Paint” sign. “The demand to keep politics out of art is really a demand to keep art out of real life,” she told Maurice Berger (Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, University of Maryland, 1999; 82). Piper is skeptical of critiques of logic, objectivity, and authoritative texts: she thinks these critiques can be used to undermine claims authored by minorities. (She also sees poststructuralist discourse as having little value in producing useful analysis, but can accept it as a form of concrete poetry: that amuses me, as I recall telling someone two decades ago that I was reading Derrida’s Writing and Difference as poetry—which he assumed meant I was reading it as nonsense, while I was reading the book as experimental language use and revelation.) Much of Piper’s academic work has revolved around Kant, but she has increasingly included explorations of eastern philosophy in her teaching work.
I sometimes think of Plato (427-347, before Christ) and Socrates as having the centrality in philosophy that the Apostle Paul and Jesus have for those who believe in certain religions, and that Socrates, the pivotal figure in Plato’s dialogues, is ideal, and judge, and source. Plato had studied with Socrates, and himself would have Aristotle as a student; and Plato used the dialogues to convey what a conversation—or seminar—with Socrates was like: the defining of virtues, the questioning of assumptions, the practical illustrations. It has been noted that as Plato’s work developed he moved from using Socrates as an historical character in Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito to using him as a fictional character: possibly the same thing happened with Jesus, and the use to which his disciples put him. Plato’s Republic, in which he defines what it is to live a good life and to create a good society, and his Symposium, with love as its subject, are works of his still referred to today. Plato names as virtues courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom, and in his republic, there are different temperaments and different responsibilities: the wise rule, the courageous defend and protect, and the fit work. I have reservations about such demarcation, just as I wonder about his notion of form—is the form an idea within the reality or is the form an idea of reality?—is form an understanding or is it an unchanging essence? Yet, I find the Socratic interrogations useful and the articulation of values invigorating and the rigorous work of Plato’s texts of fundamental importance.
People who do not see very far, or think very deeply, can be snide about the importance of dignity, integrity, and intelligence; of being dependable and respectable; but for a man or people with slim prospects in an indifferent or discouraging world, these qualities cannot be assumed, they must be earned and forever after defended. Sidney Poitier embodied good character on the film screen, and he could be passionate and funny as well: and his presence gave others permission not just to dream, but to live. Poitier, his parents of the Bahamas, was born in Florida, and he moved to New York and studied with the American Negro Theatre. Poitier played Dr. Luther Brooks in No Way Out in 1950 and the next year was featured as a reverend in Cry, the Beloved Country, and as the years went by he starred in Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, Something of Value, The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, All the Young Men, A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, For Love of Ivy, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Brother John, Buck and the Preacher, A Warm December, Uptown Saturday Night, The Wilby Conspiracy, Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, Little Nikita, and The Jackal. Some of his most famous work was seen sometimes as too dignified and that may be one reason he made so many comedies in the 1970s before sitting out much of the 1980s. If his reputation were to rest on the comedies he made, he wouldn’t have much of a reputation—just as if James Baldwin’s reputation were to rest on his more demagogic statements, he wouldn’t have much of a reputation: what the audience asks for or appreciates most is often beneath the best the artist can deliver. Poitier may have learned that: his more recent films have returned him to roles of dignity—he played Thurgood Marshall in the television film Separate but Equal in 1991, and Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk, another television film, in 1997.
“To me, the political is a fundamental order of history, of thought, of everything that is done, and said. It’s the very dimension of the real. Politics, however, is something else, it’s the moment when the political changes into the same old story, the discourse of repetition…,” said Roland Barthes (“Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes,” The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus, 1985; 218).
There are few examples of achievement that seem to come as vividly with admonishment about the company a revered man may be inclined or required to keep, but *Colin Powell*’s appointment as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, followed by his humiliation—the disregard for his advice and position—by other members, arguably much inferior members, of the pro-war and pro-capitalism Bush administration, and finally by the president himself, is nearly tragic in its clarity. Powell, a Bronx boy of Jamaican parents, was born in 1937 and went to public schools before attending City College, and he received a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University. Colin Powell was a soldier in Vietnam, a battalion commander in Korea, and after other responsibilities, became the commander-in-chief of Forces Command. Powell became famous when he was appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in October 1989 under George H.W. Bush (he continued to serve under Bill Clinton). People believed in his personal integrity and were proud of his success. Having been to war, the four-star general was not a war-monger. Before leaving his post in 1993, he had supervised more than twenty-eight important events, including the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Operation Desert Storm. He published My American Journey in 1995, and became involved with various do-good institutions. He was nominated in December 2000 by George W. Bush for the post of secretary of state, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and sworn in on January 20, 2001; and his troubles began. Although Powell is said to have some foreign policy successes, principally in Asia, they have been overshadowed by the debacle of the current Iraq war and his involvement, a war begun with affirmations of claims of dangerous weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to be found in Iraq. In the February 19, 2004 online article “The Tragedy of Colin Powell: How the Bush presidency destroyed him,” _Slate_’s Fred Kaplan wrote: “As George Bush’s first term nears its end, Powell’s tenure as top diplomat is approaching its nadir. On the high-profile issues of the day, he seems to have almost no influence within the administration. And his fateful briefing one year ago before the U.N. Security Council—where he attached his personal credibility to claims of Iraqi WMD—has destroyed his once-considerable standing with the Democrats, not to mention our European allies, most of the United Nations, and the media.” Kaplan also notes that when told that Bush was sleeping like a baby, Powell was quoted as saying, “I’m sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up, screaming.” Powell chose not to serve in the Bush administration upon the president’s re-election in November 2004.
Did Jane Austen ever think of simply calling one of her novels Love and Money? Her fine calibrations about conviction, manners, and sensibility suffuse her work and the best interpretations of it on film, but the prospects of fortune, happiness with a lifelong companion and the reward of wealth, are very much the focus of her stories. Will girls, who need for their own sakes and that of their parents to make a good marriage, make a marriage with someone they love that also has money, despite being able to bring little themselves to the bond other than character and love? The new film of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy, with Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth’s sister, the delicate, good-hearted, and private Jane Bennet, the charming Simon Woods as Jane’s suitor, the bashful, love-struck Mr. Bingley, and Kelly Reilly as his rude-faced sister Caroline Bingley. As part of Elizabeth Bennet’s sometimes embarrassing family are Brenda Blethyn as an irrepressible mother too loudly planning her daughters’ advantageous marriages and Donald Sutherland as a wise father and Jena Malone as a silly and strangle-tempting girl who happily marries the wrong man (a dashing Rupert Friend as the wicked Mr. Wickham; the casting makes her mistake forgivable—he is what the better-known Orlando Bloom might one day become, with luck). I have reservations about the extremely pretty Keira Knightley, but she did nothing in this film to significantly corroborate them and she and the intense MacFadyen, who made Darcy’s moodiness and bewitchment with Elizabeth a fact, together form, at long last, a very charming pair. It’s pleasing to me that work that so vitally concerns us—the strictures of class and gender (the vulnerability of women, particularly those without inheritance), and the unlikely relation of love to many marriages—should be the subject of classic literature and the kind of film that’s seen to have much prestige. It’s an affirmation that important ideas can be presented in graceful ways, besides being a wonderful story that contains some truth about human nature.
Films are sometimes criticized for being like formulas, but some formulas give nutrition, pleasure, and can even save lives—and some can irritate our bellies or put us to sleep. It’s odd, but not unprecedented, to see a film and think that the only thing wrong with it are the people who made it possible, such as its stars. There are a good number of things I like about Ben Younger’s Prime??—its realistic physical and social New York atmosphere, its casting of almost all the characters, its soundtrack—that includes John Coltrane, dance music, and hip hop, and its cinematography and set design; and the story it tells—about the intergenerational relationship of a young Jewish man and an older woman, a shiksa—is one that is serious without being dire. However, Uma Thurman as the woman in love, and Meryl Streep as the Jewish therapist mother of the boy she’s in love with, do not always fit in with everyone and everything else. Stars offer their emotions and their intelligence and their radiance, but what they cannot offer—what everyone else in the film seems to offer—is the sense that they have lived inside of their bodies and characters for decades. There is a worn quality—aged, bruised, casual, ordinary, tired—that most stars do not have, and which many people, including the other people in ??Prime, do have. That lack is especially true of Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. I do not know what kind of acting training Uma Thurman had or has, although I’m aware that she left school to act when young and starred in Dangerous Liaisons when she was eighteen (she has learned by doing; and living). I have admired her in certain things—Les Miserables, and The Golden Bowl??—and liked her in other things—??The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Gattaca, The Avengers??—and watching her in ??Prime I see again that sometimes her sensitivity is wonderfully transparent—curiosity, desire, judgment, and pain flood her face—and other times it is as if her face is simply a pretty mask (it is as if when her character is not thinking or feeling a particular thing, she gives the camera nothing). I came late to Meryl-worship—and I had seen The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Silkwood, and Out of Africa in the early 1980s and I wasn’t impressed. I found the simple vulgarity of 1992’s comedy Death Becomes Her refreshing, and when someone told me what a come down that was for Streep I didn’t mourn the loss of her dignity and I said that I thought actors should do a range of work. It was with her performances as a self-centered mother in Marvin’s Room in 1996 and as a self-sacrificing mother in One True Thing in 1998 that I began to like her: these seemed to be genuine people on the screen. With her performance in Prime, she seems to be embodying the complaints some critics have had about her: the Yale-trained actress uses an accent (Jewish), mannerisms (touching her face, rubbing her torso), and clothing to create a character—and that is what is on screen, a character (form, idea, technique, social type), not a person. Everyone else in the film—Bryan Greenberg, as Streep’s son and Thurman’s lover David; and the rest of the cast—Jon Abrahams, Zak Orth, Annie Parisse, Aubrey Dollar, Jerry Adler, Doris Belack, Ato Essandoh, Naomi Aborn, John Rothman, Gil Deeble, Lotte Mandel—seem authentic. The thing is, I enjoyed the movie—I laughed consistently; and I did not dislike Thurman or Streep, but I could feel the two, especially Streep, using up my goodwill without much replenishment. In the film, Lisa (Streep) is surprised to discover that the young man her therapy client Rafi (Thurman) is excited about is her son David (Greenberg), a situation ripe for comedy and drama; and while Thurman has some of her best moments—of shy excitement, doubt, happiness—in their therapy scenes, the possibility of extreme conflict (of disgust, of fear, of rage), between two women who want, in different ways, to possess the same man, is not really plumbed, and I think that is because of Streep’s choices as much as a result of the film being most positioned as a comedy. A very effective comedy can be rooted in the roil of human emotion—and as Rafi and David develop their relationship and see its limitations there are glimpses of that reality, but there might have been more.
Private, which was shown at the Toronto International film festival last year and only released in New York near the end of the year, is a film about the occupation of a Palestinian home by Israeli soldiers, who find a family’s second floor a good outpost from which to monitor warfare from the Israeli and Palestinian territories, between which the house sits. The digital video film, based on a true story, was directed by Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo, and it is entirely believable, featuring performances that seem naked—sad, worried, angry, proud, vengeful, resigned—though Private??’s production values are sometimes imperfect: the film has the compelling realism of video, with sometimes imprecise imagery. In ??Private, a literature professor, his wife, and their five kids refuse to leave their home when the Israeli army breaks in one night and confines them to their living room. The father doesn’t want them to become refugees; and he thinks that if he leaves, one day his children will not forgive him. The Israeli commander tells them that they are not to enter the second floor during the night, when the army is there, nor during the day when the army is often, though not always, gone. Otherwise, during the day, the family can use the rest of the house. Most of the family members keep to this rule, but the eldest daughter quietly goes up to the second floor and hides in a closet from which she spies on the soldiers (there are two daughters, one a young adult, and one a little girl, who becomes withdrawn after being separated from her family during one night after she has gone into the bathroom; and there are three boys); and near the end of the movie the eldest daughter is almost caught—a soldier who sees her encourages his comrade away from the closet and into the room he’s been staying in. The moments of human curiosity and sympathy in the film offer small elements of hope. When the youngest boy sees his sister go up—he at first cries at the threat that embodies, and after she falsely reassures him he tries to follow her up (her lie has put her brother in danger). One of the sons, the middle son, finds a grenade and tries to engineer a trap for the soldiers, while the oldest son, who says he’s not a fighter, wants to leave the house and when his father forbids that, the oldest son spends his time watching television. The mother weeps when alone—something that made the man sitting two seats away from me cry. Seeing the diverse responses of the family is very important (it’s a fundamental affirmation of Palestinian humanity; and we have not received enough images of Palestinians for this to be an unimportant thing). The film ends with the family’s hopes for independence, for privacy, still frustrated, and with the possibility of an explosion. That the film is allegorical is a strength: we can see the capture of Palestine by Jews who claimed it for themselves in the family’s story. (How many Arab Palestinians are part of the Israeli government? How many Israeli government ministers are not Jews?) The film is very intelligent, and that alone relieves its being grim. There were two times when I laughed—first, when an Israeli soldier repeatedly asks a friend of the mother why she is visiting (I laughed at his stupid force, at the assertion of violent authority: he was asking questions and not paying attention to the answers; but it was chilling when he told the woman it would be better for her if she never visited again, but before the friend leaves she quietly tells the mother that it is good the family is staying to fight for their house). Then, there’s a dinner scene in which the father is the only one talking—he’s asking questions and making comments as if everything were normal and the rest of his family is too disturbed by circumstances to answer. No one else in the small mid-evening audience at the Angelika theater laughed; and the audience seemed hesitant to leave when the film was over. Of the films released near the end of year 2005—including The Cape of Good Hope, The Dying Gaul, Jarhead, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Nine Lives, Pride & Prejudice, and Prime??—I think that ??Paradise Now and Private are among the most significant and strongest.
The American Civil war began in April 1861, and ended in April 1865; and with its end, came the passage of the thirteenth amendment, which ended slavery, the fourteenth that recognized the civil rights of blacks, and the fifteenth, which gave all men the vote. Reconstruction (1866-1877) followed the American civil war, and was principally the federal government’s attempt to rebuild and unify the country; and with the freeing of the slaves—and the amendments to the Constitution, and civil rights act of 1866—blacks began to participate in politics as well as vote, seek paid employment, own land, and use the public facilities and transport systems available to others.
Reds, written by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths and directed by Beatty, is one of the films that shows radicals as not only well-intentioned but also beautiful and sexy. Beatty stars as journalist John Reed with Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and a brooding Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill in this 1981 film. Reed covers the 1917 Russian revolution. Beatty answered President Carter’s analysis of the country’s mood (malaise) and President Reagan’s proposed cure—advanced capitalism, narcissism, scapegoating, and war—with Reds.
Winold Reiss (1886-1953) may be no more than an illustrator to some people, but in his images of African Americans, I see a mastery of character and technique that are uncommon. Winold Reiss’s father was an artist, landscape painter Fritz Reiss, and Winold Reiss studied in Munich at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and Reiss move from Germany to the United States in 1913. Reiss had read about Native Americans in novels by James Fenimore Cooper and Karl May when he was in Germany; and interested in many cultures, Winold Reiss in America studied and painted Native Americans and African Americans. Reiss was virtually adopted by the Blackfeet natives, and his depictions of Native Americans were often used for calendars and cards. The works of his I know best are his portraits of African Americans, who have never looked better in art.
Rent, the Jonathan Larsen musical made into a film with a screenplay Steve Chbosky, directed by film director Chris Columbus, is a movie about bohemia. I always thought of “making it” as being free, as being able to do what you wanted to do—so that bohemia, rather than a state of lack could be a state of plenty, if it was what you wanted. If you wanted to be a student, a writer, a singer, a painter, and were practicing that purpose, you had made it: and in creative or spiritual terms, I may have been right, but in the material terms of the world in which we live, I was absolutely, exactly, and profoundly wrong. Rent affirms a sense of community and a way of life that only creative work and periodic infusions of money—not attitudes, cool clothes, or good intentions—can sustain. The difficulty of paying the rent on their living spaces, and the threat of eviction, are the circumstances in which the film’s characters live; and I do not know why the characters in Rent do what they do. Why does Roger want to write songs, or Mark want to make films? Why is Angel a transvestite—except that a young homosexual is often expected to be? I don’t know why Collins is a philosopher or Joanne a lawyer, but I’m glad that these two African-Americans are, though these counter-cliché professions are not significantly explored. The film is less about art, thought, friendship, love, and various forms of sickness and death than it is about clichés about these things; the film confuses clichés with truths. There were only two or three songs I liked—“Seasons of Love,” “Today for You (Tomorrow for Me),” and “La Vie Boheme.” The musical arrangements are sturdy, better than I anticipated, but I don’t think that most of this is good music—it’s some kind of Broadway/rock hybrid and it—like the broad sentimentality of the story—is more inclined to irritate than give pleasure. Roger is a former addict grieving over a dead girlfriend while sharing an apartment with Mark, who has been abandoned by Maureen for Joanne. Collins upon returning from MIT to NYU, with plans to stay in the apartment, is mugged and soon meets a young man, who tends him before spending most of the rest of the film in female attire. The scenes between Collins and Angel are well-handled in terms of dialog, gestures, and song (and for those counting, the two kiss twice and otherwise comfort each other with hugs). Collins is played by Jesse L. Martin, and though tears welled up in his eyes three or four times more than was necessary or effective, he wasn’t bad, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia plays Angel but Heredia’s speaking and singing voices hit a few shrill notes—which may or may not have been intentional, a gesture toward natural tones, the awkwardness of the everyday. Heredia, who seems relatively ageless in comparison to most of the other original cast members, may have enough charisma to create illusions: he seemed good-looking as both a boy and a girl. Collins and Angel manage to suggest a story—the unexpected birth of love and its short life thanks to AIDS—that is truer than anything else in the movie, though Roger and Mimi’s story, less effectively, has something of a parallel. Roger very reluctantly becomes involved with Mimi, who has a drug problem. Several characters have tested positive for the virus thought to engender the immunity-destroying syndrome. I wish we knew why Roger and Mimi had been attracted to drugs—pleasure, despair, just something to do? We do see that when things aren’t going well for Mimi she takes refuge in drugs, a renewal of an already established habit. Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Traci Thoms as Joanne are the new cast members complementing those who had been in the Broadway show, and they are the genuinely fresh—alive, feeling, sensuous—faces in the film. Rosario Dawson’s presence is huge, mesmerizing, sexy, and Traci Thoms is a convincing actress and has the best voice in the cast—big, warm, soulful. The self-contained Taye Diggs as Benny was okay, and I had very mixed feelings about Idina Menzel as Maureen, though Maureen’s performance art piece in its busy ambition—inventive, aesthetically repellent, topically relevant, and impressive, all at the same time—was one thing that did seem authentic in terms of the characters’ creative lives. Adam Pascal as Roger and Anthony Rapp as Mark do not seem young as much as freeze-dried, juiceless, though Rapp tries to give a vigorous performance, while Pascal’s acting work seems stage-stuck. Pascal’s voice is good, reminding me of David Bowie. What we see on the screen are social types and social problems—such as homelessness and crime—and these are mostly symptoms of a life rather than life itself. The musical and film seem obviously intended to be emblems of a generation—but they say to me that it’s not easy to self-consciously and successfully speak to and for a generation.
Condi Rice, or Dr. Condoleezza Rice, as her White House biography insists, is a genuine mystery, and admirable, fascinating, and scary at once. There’s a web site devoted to her called Condi Rice is Angry, and it features a lot of photographs of her looking contemptuous, disgusted, irritated, and outraged! In February 2005, the Washington Post commented on her commanding clothes, particularly during one event when she wore a long black coat, short black dress, and shiny knee-high boots, deciding that the coat and boots exemplified sex and power. Rice became national secretary of state in late January 2005, after being a national security advisor since 2001. Rice had been provost at Stanford University for six years, and before that a longtime Stanford political science professor, specializing in issues involving the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Arguably, her field of specialization—the basis of her intellectual authority—has crumbled, or has changed from being political science to being history. When in December 2005 the United States was reported to use planes to take people to foreign lands where torture could be conducted, she denied that is being done, without addressing whether it had been done in the past—and the best thing I could say for her was that she sounded uncomfortable: which means she either has a conscience, is aware of a lie, or, at the very least, registers the seriousness of the charge.
The Duino Elegies of Rainer Rilke for many years were what I thought of when I thought of poetry.
Bayard Rustin is one of those people who could not be planned for or predicted; and yet his presence was absolutely necessary. Two books of Rustin’s—Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (Quadrangle Books, 1971) and Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest (Columbia University Press, 1976)—attest to the fact that he was a first-rate thinker and social organizer. Jervis Anderson’s biography of Rustin Troubles I’ve Seen (HarperCollins, 1997) gives an account of Rustin’s entire life. While so much of the works of the 1960s and early 1970s read like a satire of fake seriousness, or like expressions of the insane, Rustin’s commentary is still respectable, still useful. C. Vann Woodward introduces Down the Line with a brief biographical account of Rustin: Pennsylvania-born, Rustin as a young man was a sportsman and a singer and a communist. He became a race relations secretary with the Quakers’ Fellowship of Reconciliation, and a youth organizer with A. Philip Randolph’s march on Washington (possibly a prophetic experience for his work later with Martin Luther King Jr.). Rustin did political work in India, West Africa, England, and Ethiopia. He assisted King with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, and became the director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. In one of his Down the Line essays, “From Protest to Politics,” Bayard Rustin says that the Negro’s struggle for equality is revolutionary and has democratized America, stimulating political debate, and a war on poverty. He talks about the importance of allies, of coalitions—to create an “effective political majority” (119). In “The Premise of the Stereotype,” Rustin wrote, “The resort to stereotype is the first refuge and chief strategy of the bigot” (171), and he counseled blacks and Jews against using stereotypes against each other, noting that “the real oppressor is white American immorality and indifference” (172).
To find a serial killer who captures and kills women, FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), visits the imprisoned killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) for advice in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991), a film that is a psychological thriller, and foregrounds issues of class, gender, and sexuality. The film was based on a novel by Thomas Harris. It is also the contestation of two forms of intellection, and two forms of morality.
66 Seasons (2003) is a Slovakian, humorous documentary film focused on a local swimming pool but drawing connections to facts of love, community, history, and war, a film I saw in a free screening, with delicious refreshments, at the Anthology Film Archives in early December 2005. Slovakia became a country in 1993 with the breakup of Czeckoslovakia into the Czeck Republic and Slovakia; Czeckoslovakia had been formed in 1918. The film was introduced by Martin Ciel, a film critic who flew in from Bratislava in the Slovak Republic. In notes edited from a translation of a published essay, “The Age of Documentary Film,” he spoke about the value of documentaries and the particulars of the film, 66 Seasons. He said that cinematography arose with the documentary film, and the documentary film remains an aristocrat in the cinema world, “a Greek among barbarians. It is a laboratory of new ways and potentiality in reflecting reality.” He himself is impressed with three Slovak documentaries: Marek Skop’s Romany House, Robert Kirchhoff’s Hey You, Slovak, and the film under review, Peter Kerekes’ 66 Seasons, but, as he has written, “a few snowflakes do not make winter” and these three works are part of a greater trend observable in Central Europe. Regarding 66 Seasons, which discusses the time period of 1936 through 2002 and was filmed during the summers of 2000 to 2002, Martin Ciel specified that Peter Kerekes used “direct documentary recordings of the characters’ statements, reenacted scenes, and archive footage. With music and songs serving as commentary.” Before the film Martin Ciel identified certain of the film’s considerations, such as that of the relation of the center to the periphery and the majority to the minority and the matter of boundaries and frontiers. I enjoyed the film, and was surprised by its tone. The director interviews family members and local people, often giving them prompts and suggestions from behind the camera, some of which they follow and some of which they resist or handle with a twist. The film begins with slides of the sea, and a dedication to the filmmaker’s grandfather, whom the grandmother says wanted to move near to the sea for his health but never made it there, though the grandfather and the family took to the water in the local (Kosice) swimming pool, a place of refuge where many different languages were spoken. We see model boats in the swimming pool and girls with monitors in their hands, moving the boats this way and that. His grandmother admits to being only a few years younger than the Czeckoslovakian constitution. She mentions that as a girl she fell out of a window but was caught, saved. She says that if she hadn’t survived there would be no filmmaker and no film. As the stories unfolded, I heard the eager laughter of the audience. One old man in the film recalls being young and handsome, and when he is filmed on a rooftop near bathing beauties and they ask what the film is about, the old man says it’s about the way people used to live, live now, and should live. (There are a lot of bathing beauties in the film, a casually funny lechery.) An old man watches an old film of the pool and says he feels young again; and the filmmaker’s grandmother and other elderly ladies in swim suits talk about time, aging, death—and they affirm their beauty. One says, We used to be young and beautiful, and now we’re just beautiful. They admit that when they were young they didn’t think about aging or death, didn’t think about death until the second world war began. One old woman identifies a young woman she thinks looked as she did when she was young, and it is the past and future meeting—and the young woman begins to speak as if she were the old woman when young. Everything wants to merge, like the two sexes, says the grandmother. Another woman walks around the pool, trying to identify someone who looks like the young man who had briefly been her husband before he went missing in action during the war, but doesn’t see anyone, until she says the roguish eyes of the cameraman remind her of her husband. Some of the director’s questions I found a little too blunt—and I could be only grateful for the patience of the interviewees. Some of his manipulations are overt and funny. At one point he asks a man to throw his hat off the roof, and the man only pretends to do so—he doesn’t want to lose his hat—but after he’s assured that someone they know is on the ground to retrieve it, the man does so. Such things remind one of the usual manipulations that go on off camera, the things we take for granted. Speaking with Martin Ciel after the film, he mentioned to me the practicality of some of the filmmaker’s choices—it’s less expensive to work the way he does. The most poignant aspect of the film for me involved the Jewish holocaust. One woman remembers being in a concentration camp’s hospital ward, sick with measles, and a census was taken of those fit to work. Someone, a political prisoner, aware of what was likely to happen walked in and discharged the girl, but her mother, wanting to be with her daughter, asked to be included in the sick unit: and mother and daughter were separated—and the mother was killed and the daughter lived, with guilt, to tell the story. The story contains the perverse strangeness of human experience, and this film, surprisingly, has found a new voice in which to tell that story.
The socialist believes in a society in which people who work receive fair reward for that work and collaborate in shaping society, so that neither the governing nor work aspects of the society are controlled by a few: and consequently work, the generation of goods and services of value through organized effort, has an empowering rather than an exhausting effect; and society is organized so that the needs of all—such as education, health, and housing—are an important aspect of government planning. Several questions often occur: are we good enough to be socialists? How can a transition to socialism be achieved? What are the examples of socialism already present in the world, in England and Europe and Latin America and even here in the United States? Would Americans be less afraid of socialism if someone pointed out that Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs can be seen as socialist projects?
The emphasis on shock and surprise in art replaces the significance of the why and how of a story in film and fiction, though often to discuss the meaning of a work one has to disclose the consequences of acts, the connections, leading to an increase in advance and often inelegant notice of forthcoming details, spoiler alerts. Is the focus on surprise a result of our knowing more or less than in the past?
Syriana, named after a hypothetical country that some conservatives would like to see come to exist in the middle east, is a dramatic political thriller about corporate business, national government, and international politics set in a world that runs on oil, a film written and directed by Stephen Gaghan. It is also about self, family, and morality. The film does the work of journalism, political theory, and tragic catharsis. The story of Syriana focuses on an intelligence agent (Bob: George Clooney) given assignments to sell arms then to assassinate a progressive middle eastern prince; a due-diligence lawyer (Bennett: Jeffrey Wright) assigned to fix an important oil company merger, even if it means finding sacrifices for legal prosecution among his own associates; and an economic analyst (Bryan: Matt Damon) who tries to mix business and family pleasure, and loses and gains much more than he could have anticipated. George Clooney’s intelligence agent is someone whose extensive history, thoroughness, and age may actually be making it harder for him to do his job—he’s reacting to complexities others do not see or want to ignore. Jeffrey Wright’s lawyer, saddled with a companion (apparently his father) who is alcoholic and whom he treats with a wary and sometimes antagonistic concern, has sensitivity and great control—he’s capable of the frightening poker face one sometimes sees on organization men. Damon’s analyst is a man who is decent and intelligent but practical—with a decency that extends his business morality but short-circuits his familial conscience. Syriana requires and rewards a vigilant intelligence and empathic imagination. The film involves the intricacies—some elaborate, some almost embarrassingly mundane—of the interrelationship between national economies; and the film’s locations are international, and its characters use English and French as well as Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. The United States is dependent on other countries for oil and manufacturing contracts—and government is willing to ignore rule-bending, and both corporations and government aren’t above ruining the reputations and careers of individuals if that will protect the system: capitalism and government are inextricably linked. The film is full of facts, ideas, and connections; and it demonstrates an understanding that the viewer—the citizen—now needs to grasp the public world in which we exist. Understanding is possible: it’s been demonstrated.
Andre Techine, the director of Paulina is Leaving, The Bronte Sisters, Rendezvous, My Favorite Season, The Wild Reeds, Thieves, and Alice and Martin is one of the more interesting film artists. Techine’s Thieves is an intricate work—mixing perspectives and timelines—about a woman philosopher (Catherine Deneuve) and policeman (Daniel Auteuil) involved with the same young woman. The film is about sacrifices and sorrow in love, and crimes small and large, shared and individual.
I remember hearing a woman editor describe the women in the film Thelma and Louise as being stupid; and I recall people in my Cultural Politics Discussion Group, at Poets House in Soho, asking whether it was a feminist film (I said yes, as it suggested the choices women have in society and depicted the journey of two women)…
There is a lot of art to be admired in the world: Giovanni Morani’s “The Tailor” (1550), with its proud, hard-working, and elegant subject; Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s “Spring” (1573), in which a man’s face is profiled with flowers rather than skin and bones; Giovanni Canaletto’s “The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking East…” (1734), with a cosmopolitan view, featuring shimmering water; and John Constable’s “The Haywain” (1821), a pastoral scene; and Eugene Boudin’s “The Beach at Trouville (1864), with its entrancing sky. I like Cezanne and Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud—and Edward Bannister and Henry Tanner, and Palmer Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., Eldzier Cortor, Beauford Delaney, and Kerry James Marshall. I have seen the work of painter Bob Thompson in galleries and museums, and I immediately responded to the scenes of diverse people together—Edenic, multicultural—and the references to classic figures and stories, but it was Stanley Crouch who first introduced me to Thompson’s work when he wrote an essay about it for The Village Voice (“Meteor in a Black Hat,” Voice, December 2, 1986). Stanley Crouch called Bob Thompson “a spiritual muckraker whose shocking, erotic, satiric, and mystical paintings were intricate fusings of classical and American themes, methods, and images. Symbols, designs, taboos, and stereotypical figures were interwoven with subtle African patterns and religious suggestions. Sexuality was celebrated and teased in some works, while other paintings illuminated its mysteries and terrors; the literal and metaphor implications of violence, horror, transcendence, and apocalyptic destructions were confronted and probed.” Crouch described the warm love felt by those who knew Thompson, who faced racism in the art world and also the resentment of other blacks for his relative success, and Thompson had a serious, worsening drug habit. Thompson went to Rome in 1965, with his wife, and was challenged and inspired by the great art he saw, but he got sick and had an ill-advised gall bladder operation, did a lot of drugs, and his lungs flooded while he slept, and he died. Stanley Crouch wrote that in his career Thompson had “stood up to the demands of his gifts, and to the history of visual art” (“Meteor in a Black Hat,” reprinted in Crouch’s Notes of a Hanging Judge, Oxford, 1990; 185-200). The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Manhattan recently opened a November 2005 to January 2006 exhibit of Thompson’s work that takes the title of Crouch’s essay as the exhibit’s name (the exhibit is at Milwaukee’s Haggerty Museum from late January to mid-April 2006). The exhibit features a confrontation near the sea in “St. George and the Dragon” (1961), and “The Nativity” (1963), with the three wise men dressed in red and green and blue, and an orange, nude mother, with a light powder green baby, and a male figure—either a bearded father in brown robes or multiple wings—and winged baby angels, giving this traditional scene in western art a twist. Do his truly colored figures indicate that it is not skin but relationship, function, and symbolism that are important? Or are his colors just more offerings of aesthetic pleasure? “Tribute to an American Indian” (1963) has two red Indians with a seated group of diverse figures, and “The Golden Ass” (1963) has a woman’s buttocks and legs with blotches of gold. “Mother and Child” (1965) features a blue mother with a yellow-gold child and careful detailing of tree branches. One sees a lot of control of form and color, and care for texture and motion; and some of the work—I’m thinking now principally of “The Frog and the Princess” (1960), in which a naked gray lady seems to be entering a wooded area—have dark and harsh color, with a kind of expressionistic roughness.
Patrice Chereau’s films include Queen Margot, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Intimacy, His Brother, and Gabrielle, among various stage and television productions. It’s my personal misfortune not to know anyone who has seen Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1999), a French film I recommended to anyone who would listen. It is about a painter Jean-Baptiste (Jean- Louis Trintignant) whose wish was to be buried in the family plot in Limoges, where his brother lives and where the family shoe factory is. The painter is the loved and hated wild man in the family, the one whose energies defied and pleased his family and friends, while his brother married and had children and led a stable life and kept the family business going. The painter’s arrogance continues after his death, as he insisted that those who love him would be willing to bear the inconvenience of taking the train from Paris to the Limoges cemetery. Those going to the funeral include Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) as the alienated son of the shoe business father, who was close to his uncle, the painter, and Jean-Marie’s wife, an addict, Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), was seen as something of a death-bringer by the painter. Pascal Greggory plays a editor-publisher, Francois, who is preparing to publish an interview with the painter, so we hear the late painter’s words. Pascal Greggory has appeared in the films Pauline at the Beach, Queen Margot, Time Regained, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Confusion of Genders, and Gabrielle. Lacking nothing—neither intelligence nor passion—he still seems a very physical, vividly sexual, presence; and in Those Who Love Me he is involved with Louis (Bruno Todeschini), and Louis becomes infatuated with a boy on the train. Vincent Perez plays Frederic/Viviane, a young man in the middle of a sex change. The film was reviewed by critics—who aren’t entirely real people, are they (we)?—and it was not uncommon for them to note difficulty in discerning the characters or the film’s intentions. I welcomed the diversity of characters, with their complicated impulses, and the film’s ability to balance comedy and drama: the film seemed cosmopolitan, sophisticated—and it was fun.
Time Code (2000), a film by Mike Figgis, offers four stories simultaneously told—so that we see four blocks of images on the screen at once, with the stories taking place in the movie industry and often focusing on the ups and downs of business, love, and sex. The film features Stellan Skarsgard, Salma Hayek, and Jeanne Triplehorn among its large cast. Time Code works as both aesthetic experiment and as the portrait of a specific society.
Caetano Veloso has directed a couple of films: Cinema Falado (Talking Cinema, 1986), a collage of monologues, dialogues, and literary quotations, and Bem-Vindo a Sao Paulo (2004), a celebration of Sao Paulo. He has also been featured as an actor and performer in various films, but he is best known as a musician. When I first heard the voice of Caetano Veloso, I thought it was one of the most beautiful male voices I had ever heard: I would put on his Circulado (Elektra/Polygram, 1991) album when I wanted to hear something mellow, but that was not enough for me to stop spelling his name incorrectly. There are various ways of apprehending the musician and writer Caetano Veloso, but the most enjoyable are, for me, two recordings released in the last few years: A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch Records/Universal, 2004) and The Best of Caetano Veloso (Nonesuch/Warner, 2003). The album A Foreign Sound, produced by Veloso and Jaques Morelenbaum, is an English language recording that features songs written by Cole Porter, Kurt Cobain, the Gershwins, David Byrne, Rodgers and Hart, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Irving Berlin. It is a very elegant album, with printed lyrics, interesting photographs, and a note from Veloso. One hears the plucking of guitar strings and orchestral swirls, and Caetano Veloso’s voice is both light and grave. It’s fun to hear him sing Cobain’s “Come As You Are,” which was first recorded by the band Nirvana, and contains sharp contradictions, suggesting not confusion but an aware and complex mind. Veloso uses both a falsetto voice and a low, declamatory voice to interpret “Feelings,” making a song that had become a cabaret cliché sound like a genuine human expression. Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” coming from Veloso, can be heard as a whore’s advertisement, a lover’s cynical awareness of the dating game, and an existential lament. His casually brave singing of the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” is actually one of the best interpretations of the song I’ve heard—I think Diana Ross’s Stolen Moments performance of the song is good too (the strength of both is the intonation of serenity rather than suffering)—and Veloso manages to make the song amusing, charming, proof that Caetano Veloso is capable of more conceptual sophistication than most American male singers. Veloso’s “Cry Me a River” is not enough to make me forget Streisand’s desperately emphatic version of decades past, but his “Jamaica Farewell” is jaunty, terrific. Nature reclaims man-made environments in David Byrne’s “(Nothing But) Flowers” and Veloso’s vocal echoes Byrne in this satirical song. I think that Veloso, who had an English language advisor for A Foreign Sound, mispronounces the word and name “Bronx” in the song “Manhattan,” evidence that tiny mistakes are hard to avoid even in work conducted by a genius. Veloso’s “Summertime” is awkward in comparison to that of Mahalia Jackson, who saw beyond the song’s details to suggest the sorrow of a spirit (her recognition itself was soothing); in Veloso’s version I could hear the song’s irresolvable contradictions: the song seems a lullaby for trouble that neither sleep or parents and only death can stop. More rap than singing is Veloso’s reading of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” but Veloso turns “Body and Soul” into a courtly declaration of love, a troubadour’s offering rather than the half-mad confession the lyrics could be thought to suggest. A Foreign Sound is the work of an ambitious musician who lays claim to the world. The Best of Caetano Veloso is the musician offering sounds that might be more readily identified with him, but they are no less far-ranging and imaginative. Veloso’s work, which consists of many songs that he wrote, is complex, unique, and warm. David Byrne has written the album notes, and he calls Veloso’s music “a sonic representation of a world that allows itself to partake in everything that is available and that works.” The song “O Estrangeiro (The Stranger)” is about travel, sight, blindness, memory, dream, and nationalistic myth, and it mentions Gaugin, Cole Porter, and Claude Levi-Strauss in its opening lines. There’s a cry that the “king is naked,” but “I wake up because all becomes silent/ Before the fact that the king is more beautiful naked.” It’s impressive that on a song such as “Manhata (Manhattan),” a song about an Indian girl, land and water, history, Veloso can perform with such a large group of musicians—instruments include guitar, cello, conga, trumpets, flutes, trombones, and saxophones—and yet the music is delicate: in the song, which could be an account of the taking of the new world, of America, “All of mankind/ Turns its eyes in that direction” and “here wars dance amid/ Love’s peaceful dwellings.” The end of slavery is celebrated in “13 De Maio (May 13th). A song written by Chabuca Grande, “Fina Estampa (Fine Figure),” is a flowery tribute to a gentleman, and features cello, viola, and violins with Veloso’s voice, and the song has a classical sound. “Haiti,” a song written by Veloso in collaboration with Gilberto Gil is about race, poverty, and brutality, about “the epic grandeur of a still unfinished people,” and an atmosphere in which it may happen that “the venerable cardinal declares that he sees so much/ soul in the fetus/ But none in the criminal.” Obviously this is far from the brainless popular music many of us are accustomed to. “Baiao Da Penha,” written by Guio de Moraes and David Nasser, is a sung prayer for voice and guitar. In Tomas Mendez Sosa’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma (Cucurrucucu Dove)” Caetano Veloso caresses the lyrics in a way he does not his English-language songs, and that is especially impressive as the song’s theme—grief over a lost love—is so old, so often treated, that anyone could be expected to fail in interpretive intensity given it. A song about singing that Veloso wrote, “Um Tom (A Tom)” has the simplicity of a folk song. “Tradicao (Tradition),” written by Gilberto Gil, is a song about watching a young attractive couple in a city, and there’s a certain sexual ambiguity that becomes unabashed: “I watched her so much I ended up watching the boy she was going out with” and it turns out that boy is also watching the narrator. The Best Of Caetano Veloso also has other love songs, ballads and uptempo, and includes a tribute to film director Michelangelo Antonioni in a song bearing his name and the lyrics: “Vision of silence/ Empty street corner/ Page with no sentence/ Letter written on a face/ In stone and mist/ Love/ useless window.” David Byrne said in his notes for The Best of Caetano Veloso that Veloso “has reconciled innovation with beauty, intelligence with sentimentality, worldliness with localness and sexual androgyny with time.”
Voltaire (1694-1778) was witty, and is reported to have said many amusing, wise things, such as “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” and “If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace.” He said—something useful to the mediocre, which is most of us most of the time: “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” After a sexual experiment with a boy he was asked if he’d renew the pleasure and was quoted as saying, “Once a philosopher, twice a pederast.” He said also, “Common sense is not so common,” which was a simple statement I thought original to myself—that’s the thing about smart people: they’re always getting there first. Voltaire wrote a poem, “The Lisbon Earthquake,” following a natural disaster that inspired spiritual doubts and philosophical questioning by many; and it is a poem that has relevance now when so many thoughts have been about earthquakes and hurricanes. Is divinity just? Was there divine retribution for spiritual offenses? “And can you then impute a sinful deed/ To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” he asks. Does divinity not direct nature? “Will you thus limit the eternal mind?/ Should not our God to mercy be inclined?/ Cannot then God direct all nature’s course?/ Can power almighty be without resource?” he asks: an interrogation of belief by intellect. He examines the circumlocution that often accompanies religion, such as the idea that a supreme power created man but is not responsible for man’s flaws: “No vessel of the potter asks, we know/ Why it was made so brittle, vile, and low?” He ends the poem with this: “A caliph once when his last hour drew nigh/ Prayed in such terms as thee to the most high:/ “Being supreme, whose greatness knows no bound,/ I bring thee all that can’t in Thee be found;/ Defects and sorrows, ignorance and woe.”/ Hope he omitted, man’s sole bliss below.” (The quotes are from The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems, part of The Works of Voltaire, published by E. R. Du Mont, Paris and New York, 1901; 8-18).
Barry Levinson’s very amusing and intelligent Wag the Dog (1997), based on a book by Larry Beinhart, is about a Hollywood producer hired to help fabricate a war with Albania to distract the United States electorate from the president’s sexual scandal. It stars Dustin Hoffman as the producer, Robert DeNiro as a political fixer, and Anne Heche as an aide; and each is wonderful. Hoffman is a walking satire, and DeNiro has never been more appealing or more subtly dangerous, and Heche is luminous.
“Today, as a result of the agricultural revolution that in so many respects Wallace pioneered, fewer than 2% of Americans are employed in farm occupations—and they produce more than their grandfathers produced 70 years ago,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the March 12, 2000 Los Angeles Times about Henry Wallace. Wallace was described by Schlesinger as an editor, geneticist, economist, businessman, and the “best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had.” Henry Agard Wallace (1888-1965), who became the vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, was born into a family of editors interested in scientific farming (Wallace’s Farmer was their publication), and his own father served in a national presidential administration. Henry Wallace was tutored as a boy by the Negro agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, whose belief in both science and spirituality was said to be a lasting influence on Wallace. When Wallace was fifteen, in 1903, Wallace conducted an experiment that demonstrated that corn yield could not be predicted by the look of the ear of corn (a correlation between appearance and yield had been supposed previously). Wallace, as a man, began to look at the manufacture and sale of corn, wanting to give farmers a business model (considering production and shipping costs, how much would farmers need to charge to make a profit?); and he is largely responsible for the introduction of statistical analysis in agriculture. He also developed corn hybrids. Wallace as secretary of agriculture used thinkers and practitioners in the field of agriculture to help draft legislation to control production and the surpluses that negatively affected the market. As vice president, Wallace supervised various programs, and he was also a public spokesman for the Roosevelt administration—defending New Deal policies, arguing that the second world war could bring in the century of the common man, strengthening ties with Latin America. Wallace also spoke against segregation and for civil rights for blacks; and he believed in equal wages for equal work regardless of race or sex. Wallace learned the Russian language and visited Russia and saw the Russians as people not enemies—a view that if followed might have decreased suspicion between the U.S. and Russia. Controversy over Wallace’s desire to promote détente with Russia led to his ouster as vice presidential nominee when Roosevelt ran for re-election, just as Wallace’s spiritual beliefs would be publicized and used against him in later years. Wallace was reported to have said in a speech that a liberal was someone who asked, “What is best for all people—not merely what is best for me personally?”
*Cassandra Wilson*’s music albums include Blue Skies, Jumpworld, She Who Weeps, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, New Moon Daughter, Rendezvous, Traveling Miles, Belly of the Sun, and Glamoured. She has performed standards, experimental jazz, and folk and popular songs, bringing a dramatically moody intelligence and dry tone to her work. She evokes rather than expresses emotion and she suggests meaning.
Withnail and I (1987), written and directed by Bruce Robinson, is a buddy movie, but being an English film, wit, and not merely drinking or sports, is involved. The film stars Richard E. Grant as the eccentric and often drunk Withnail and Paul McGann as his friend, Peter Marwood, both down-and-out actors in 1969 London. Although different in temperament, they are friends; and they each may represent something the other lacks, such as flamboyance versus seriousness, and a moneyed past versus an ordinary one. They decide to escape their troubles by visiting the cottage of Withnail’s uncle who unexpectedly shows up and shows a sexual interest in Peter. It’s possible that the uncle is an embodiment of the repressed element in the relationship of the two young men, an unacceptable element. Why does Withnail drink? I do not remember. At the film’s end, it seems Withnail and Peter will part.
“Nothing is more difficult than facing concepts without prejudice. (And that’s the principal difficulty in philosophy),” wrote Wittgenstein (The Wittgenstein Reader, Blackwell, 1994; 177). Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) said that the philosopher is not a member of any community of ideas; and his own work focused on language and logic, but he also made some comments about culture. Wittgenstein thought that many philosophical problems were actually problems in language, and that life’s rules come to us in pictures describing how we are to act. Wittgenstein, who saw language as a labyrinth—he said one could know one aspect and be lost in another—thought metaphysics confused fact and concept, and he also said that if one is in an room, but doesn’t know how to open the unlocked door (push or pull?), one is imprisoned. Wittgenstein reportedly liked the films of Carmen Miranda and Betty Hutton.
“Every time he thought he was going mad, he met somebody else who had already gone mad, but in a nice, sweet sort of way,” wrote Richard Wright about Cross Damon, faced with a woman allowing herself to become involved in a real estate scheme, in the novel The Outsider (HarperPerennial, 1993; 184). Wright was himself a man of intelligence and taste and, considering what he knew in the era in which he lived, his own sanity is nearly a miracle—except that we know his sanity was cultivated. Michel Fabre paid essayist, novelist, and poet Richard Wright significant respect by producing Richard Wright: Books and Writers (University Press of Mississippi, 1990), which provides an annotated bibliography of Wright’s library and also includes some of his sharp, quick-moving book reviews and other commentaries on literature. Richard Wright read the published (and sometimes unpublished) books of Peter Abrahams, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Austen, Balzac, Djuana Barnes, Joseph Conrad, Rene Descartes, John Dewey, John Dos Passos, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, DuBois, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, Engels, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Forster, Freud, Gibbon, Gide, Goethe, Geoffrey Gorer, Gorky, Graham Greene, Knut Hamsun, Hardy, Hawthorne, Hegel, Heidegger, Hemingway, Chester Himes, Langston Hughes, Husserl, Ibsen, Joyce, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kinsey, George Lamming, D.H. Lawrence, Camara Laye, Alain Locke, George Moore, John O’Hara, George Padmore, Edgar Allan Poe, Proust, Pushkin, Rabelais and many, many more, famous and obscure. The important events in a writer’s life—his perceptions, ideas, and discoveries of the uses of various forms—are identified not by considering the people he slept with, fights he had, contracts he broke, or alcohol he drank, but by identifying the books he read and wrote. It was famously said that Richard Wright could imagine a Bigger Thomas (Native Son), but Bigger Thomas could not imagine a Richard Wright. (Wright himself starred in a mid-century film of Native Son as Bigger Thomas, directed by Pierre Chenal; and a subsequent film version of the novel, directed by Jerrold Freedman and starring Victor Love as Bigger, was released in 1986). Richard Wright could claim the broadest human inheritance for himself because he was aware of its full dimensions; and he was surprised to learn how rare this knowledge was, and where, other than in art, it might be found. In White Man, Listen! he wrote, “It has been almost only among Asians and Africans of an artistic stamp and whose background has consisted of wars, revolutions, and harsh colonial experience that I’ve found a sense of the earth belonging to, and being the natural home of, all the men inhabiting it, an attitude that went well beyond skin color, races, parties, classes, and nations” (HarperPerennial, 1995; 25-26).
“*Yesterday, When I Was Young*” is a song written by French writer-singer Charles Aznavour (standard English translation: Herbert Krestzmer) that Lena Horne sang in her stage show The Lady and Her Music on Broadway (Qwest Records, 1981). Lena Horne was a featured performer in Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, Death of a Gunfighter, and The Wiz; and she is one of the most scintillating, honest, and intelligent women of the last hundred years. The Lady and Her Music was staged by Arthur Faria and featured Tyra Ferrell and Vondie Curtis-Hall in its company, and Grady Tate, Cecil Bridgewater, Jon Faddis, and Michael Brecker as part of the orchestra, directed by Harold Wheeler. Yesterday, when I was young, the taste of life was sweet, as rain upon my tongue. I teased at life, as if it were a foolish game, the way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame. Horne sings “Yesterday, When I Was Young” as a confession of lifelong memory—it is sensual and self-accusatory, painful and wise, eloquent and gritty, in a great performance: Every conversation, I can now recall, concerned itself with me, just me, and nobody else at all_—and it can easily touch one’s own regrets. _The game of love I played, with arrogance and pride, and every flame I lit, too quickly, quickly died, the friends I made, all seemed somehow to slip away, and only I am left all alone on stage to end the play.