Friday, October 2, 2015

General Della Rovere

Roberto Rossellini’s General Della Rovere (1959), which was recently revived as a part of Vittorio De Sica retrospective, currently playing at Film Forum, is a chance to see the great Italian director (Bicycle Thieves1948, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1970), act. The role would be a plum for any thespian due it’s marvelous conceit. De Sica plays the part of Vittorio Emanuele Bardone, a fraudster who exploits the misery of occupied Italy and in particular those whose relatives have been imprisoned by the Nazis. Bardone gets caught up short by his fascist counterpart, a savvy S.S. colonel named Muller (Hannes Messemer) who outdoes him at his own game. The mixture of rivalry and admiration that forms the basis of the relationship between Muller and Bardone is reminiscent of that between von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (l937). General Della Rovere is based on a novel that apparently had some basis in fact, but there’s a disconnect. The  contrived theatrical quality which sets the stage for De Sica’s tour de force is almost at odds with Rossellini’s stark neo-realism. It’s as if  the intrinsic melodrama of the narrative were being mollified by the director’s signature style. An unforgettable scene where resistance fighters hover in a snowy piazza recalls the gritty Rossellini masterpiece Rome, Open City (1948). But then there are also the shots of the prison with its futuristic lines of black cell doors complemented by a soaring interior whose Beaux Arts style is as duplicitously high-minded as the film’s final con--where Bardone impersonates the title character. Has Bardone finally undergone a conversion and become a hero? You might admire  De Sica’s acting, but it’s hard to believe the figure Rossellini creates has finally seen the light.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What Do Camelot and Hell Have in Common?

Camelot was the court of King Arthur, but it also was term given to the Kennedy White House. The knights in shining armor were of course Jack, Bobby and Teddy and there were a cast of characters that included the Harvard professor, Arthur Schlesinger who might be equivalent of Merlin, the press secretary Pierre Salinger, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara with his signature rimless glasses and off-center part and advisors like Ted Sorensen. But what would the opposite of Camelot be? Inferno? “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate” (“abandon all hope, ye who enter here”) were the words above the entrance to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. "Arbeit macht frei" were the words that greeted the unfortunates who entered Auschwitz. The Times recently ran the obituary of Ieng Thirith (“Ieng Thirith, Khmer Rouger Minister in Cambodia, Dies at 83,NYT, 8/22/15). If nothing else the piece will disabuse you of the idea that Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was at least a meritocracy. Reigns of terror have their own blue bloods, their own best and brightest. According to the Times, Thirith “was the most powerful woman in the Khmer Rouge.” Her husband was Iang Sary the foreign minister and deputy prime minister and most remarkably “she graduated from the Sorbonne, majoring in Shakespearean studies.” As anyone who studied Shakespeare will tell you, it’s hard to get a job in that area, even with a degree from a good school and that may have radicalized Thirith. It wouldn’t be surprising if she hadn’t done some of her scholarship on Titus Andronicus which was one of the bard’s bloodiest plays. But getting back to aristocracy, according to the obit, her sister, Khieu Ponnary, was married to Mr. Big himself, Pol Pot. Well there’s not really much to say. “The rest is silence” are  Hamlet’s last words. But one thing that Camelot (the Kennedy White House) and Hell (Cambodia under the the Khmer Rouge) had in common was this: they were both run by a clubby little group of people who were either related or met at elite institutions like Harvard or the Sorbonne.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Universe of Things

Eric Schliesser quotes from the book he is reviewing, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism  (“Throwing caution to the wind,” TLS, 6/26/15) thusly, “our very experience of the world can take place only under conditions of our own making.” The quote refers to a philosophical theory called, “correlationism.” But no matter. Every once in a while a concept in philosophy whether it’s analytic or metaphysical can catch you up short. You think you know what it means and yet you don’t. However, you still can’t get the phrase out of your mind. It’s like being punched in the stomach. The lack of comprehension winds you in a good way and makes you want to fill in the blanks. If one were an academic philosopher rather than just an itinerant reader of the TLS which regularly covers tomes of philosophy in way that comparable journals in America (The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books) don’t then one would know where the sentence is coming from and naturally be able to look at the whole thing contextually. Yet a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and in the case at hand ignorance may turn out to be bliss since it leaves one haunted by the mysterious line with its dauntingly poetic epistemology. You can just see a seminar table full of Oxford dons smiling indulgently at the cave dweller trying to parse the shadows of ideas he knows little about as they flit across the scrim of consciousness. You might be tempted to call up your grad student friend at NYU and get the real deal. However sometimes a rose is just a rose. It’s almost nicer to relish the world of implications and irresolution that reside in Shaviro’s uncanny proposition.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Temple, Is Real?

Big Bang diagram by Gnixon at English Wikipedia
Being a part of things, whether it be a church or congregation, political movement, support group, or sexual identity that is the product of politics and predicated on making a political statement (whether hetero, homo, bi, transgender or polymorphous perverse) is an illusion that is easily dispensed with by death. At this significant moment in the life of an individual the utter isolation of the human condition is most dramatically stated. Locked in the final resting form, whether embalmed, gently decomposing, or cremated—once the off switch is pulled, the cadaver is no longer a part of the human race or any of its proxies. In Night of the Living Dead, the director, George Romero, portrayed a race of zombies who reek havoc on the living. But however horrific, Romero’s movie is merely wishful thinking. When you think about it the condition of first non-being, preceding existence and then death for those creatures lucky or unlucky enough to have emerged into existence is a more accurate description of the disposition of organic matter than so-called “living" which is only a flash in the pan. The life, for instance, of our planet (approximately 4.5 billion years) is a mere footnote to time when we consider that the Big Bang occurred approximately 13.8 billion years ago. “We are the stuff that dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero. And bad dreams at that. Human life is like one of those reality TV shows where the stars are arrested for fraud (“'Real Housewives of New Jersey’ Stars Teresa and Joe Giudice Sentenced,” CNN, 10/2/14). Plato had it right we are all living in a dark cave in which the shadows of a reality we will never know are merely reflected on the walls.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What is Family?

What is a family? From a linguistically fundamentalist point of view, it’s defined by parentage and bloodlines, though adoption creates a new contingency which obviates the genetic connection. Adopted children pose interesting questions regarding nature and nurture to the extent that they retain the genetic material of their biological parents. Tolstoy famously opined about families in Anna Karenina,  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And he pointed to the conflict between individuals and the families they have grown up in, that began with nineteenth  century romanticism, where individuality, self-definition and self-invention would become a dominant element in cultural evolution. There are children whose lives seem to be no reflection of their upbringing and parents who can’t understand how they have begotten criminals and sociopaths. This has been recently dramatized in HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. John Edgar Wideman, the well-known African-American writer has a brother, Robert, serving a life sentence for murder (Wideman wrote about their relationship in Brothers and Keepers) and a son, Jacob, also serving a life sentence for a murder he committed when he was only 16.  Is a successful and happy child well-brought up? Is a child who's troubled the product of a poor upbringing? The latter often can produce great chest pounding and self-flagellation. Human intentions and motives are hard to parse and parents often carry emotional wounds and baggage they themselves are not entirely aware of. But even more important where does the family end and the individual begin? In geopolitical terms this is demonstrated in the concept of states rights which is constantly tested by the federal government. The recent battles over same sex marriage are just one case in point. There are still tribal societies, but most of the Western world, at least, functions on a level where blood ties have increasingly little importance. In the modern American family parents exercise a certain degree of authority over a child as he or she is growing up. Yet by adulthood most Americans create their own identities with regard to sex, religion and politics. A biological family can exist in name only, with real family being created through membership in a  close knit society or in devotion to a cause. Veterans and survivors of life threatening diseases may have a stronger bond with their compadres than with their parents, brother or sisters, despite the famous Sister Sledge song "We Are Family." The French philosopher Giles Deleuze and analyst Felix Guattari wrote Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which they inveighed against the family as a useful term in understanding human sexuality.You may feel uncomfortable when the leader of your organization addresses the collectivity as “family," but the linguistic slip is indicative of the degree to which the notion of family is evolving.