Friday, April 18, 2014

Let My People Go

“Departure of the Israelites" by David Roberts (1829)
About half way through the Passover holiday you start thinking about bagels. You crave bagels because you can’t have them. It’s not the same as wanting a matzah on Chanukah. The craving is not so bad since you know you can have it. The matzah is supposed to remind one of the Exodus. But now you don’t feel free. When will your liberation from matzah come? There is a concoction called the matzah bagel, but that just doesn’t cut it. Living without bagels becomes like one of those indignities you suffer when you can’t do something for one reason or another. Your knee blows out and you have to forego the workout regimen. Your wireless internet connection is down. Your beloved corner coffee nook relocates five blocks away. You console yourself with the thought of loyally traipsing the extra distance in the rain, knowing full well that you’re going to have to find a new and nearer place to have those meaningful talks. You can’t sleep in Sunday morning because a water main has burst and they’re opening up the street. The neighborhood bowling alley where you  spent so many rainy and joyous Saturday afternoons with your kids finally closes for good. The local library where you read the paper is closing for renovations. After all these years freeloading you will actually have to  buy your Times. How can you survive without those things that are a source of comfort—like the bagel? Passover is a celebratory holiday, but the theme of sacrifice runs through the liturgy (and let us not forget that a Seder was probably Jesus’ Last Supper). Could it be that learning to live without a bagel is telling us something about what it means to be free?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It’s Getting Old

 Joseph Jefferson as Rip van Winkle (photo by Napoleon Sarony)
There are certain old people who are praised for their voracious appetite for life. They can’t see or hear. They certainly can’t fuck and they're steadily draining the resources of their already cash strapped baby boomer children. Is their desire to live for the sake of it necessarily a good thing which should be praised, the way you praise a child who had done his homework? Should old people necessarily be rewarded simply for their stubborn insistence on living, when many young people who are more worthy candidates for life, have life unjustly taken from them by the ravages of cancer, by accidents or merely from one of the occupational hazards of being young and full of the desire for oblivion, the overdose? Sometimes when you see one of these drooling geezers with their walkers, you’d wish they could give up even a few years of their longevity to some poor kid who dies from say the disease of progeria, whose symptom is premature aging. Scientists may never discover the secret of immortality, but perhaps they will find a way that older people can sell part of their timeshares to those whose youth will enable them to make better use of their bodies. Youth may be wasted on the young, but the purpose of life is sometimes misunderstood by gerontophiles who see nothing wrong with aging opera buffs, who have managed to get coveted seats for Don Giovanni, only to sleep through the entire performance. "An aged man is but a paltry thing/ a tattered cloak upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing..." says Yeats in "Sailing to Byzantium." But what if the time for song has past?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Truffaut’s Two English Girls

Truffaut’s Two English Girls (l971) which was revived at Film Forum’s Tout Truffaut retrospective is rather crafty. It begins as a nineteenth century novel in film form with an unreliable narrator of the kind one might find in Conrad, a generous use of the epistolary form and equally generous helpings of interior monologue. Truffaut’s liberal implementation of the iris and dissolve are part of the cinematic vocabulary for what at first seems like a period piece about unrequited love, say like the later The Story of Adele H (l975) Seeing the first hour or so of the Two English Girls based on, Two English Girls and the Continent, the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, one thinks of the movie as a charming anachronism. Was Truffaut the Jane Austen of the New Wave? The nineteenth century novel was devoted to sensibility and the assertion of the inner life. One might say that it’s accomplishment was the invention of a certain kind of interiority that is more important today than  the specifics of what that interiority actually comprised. During the course of the film the Jean-Pierre Leaud character, an art connoisseur named Claude Roc, writes a novel in which the two sisters he’s in love with, Ann (Kiki Markham) and Muriel (Stacey Tendeter), are turned into men. He could also have called it Jules and Jim (that film incidentally was also based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roche). However, what soon becomes apparent is that the film is a wolf in sheep’s clothing which is to say that it’s determinately and uproariously modern. It’s not the Truffaut of The 400 Blows or even Jules and Jim, but far cooler, complex and more subversive. Rather than being the dewy eyed romantic Claude might better be described as an artistic decadent, a character out of the pages of Huysmans. He’s a believer in free love and an early collector of artists like Picasso, one of whose works is gently placed before our eyes as the camera pans his digs. The film plays with the dualities of French and English culture, with religion and free thinking, with repression and expression, yet the dour Muriel sends a confessional to Claude about her long life of masturbation, which he in turn would like to publish; the enlightened sculptress Ann turns out to be a soul murderer as well as procurer for her sister. Rodin’s sculptor of Balzac plays a cameo in the film and besides Huysmans he’s the one other l9th century novelist whose imagination could have accommodated all the selling of bodies and souls. There are lots of tracking shots in Two English Girls and also tracks. Truffaut is fascinated by the advent of modernity which takes the form of the train and an  uncanny ability to subvert the expectations created by familiar iconography. Early in the film, before the director puts his cards on the table, we realize something is amiss when the standoffish Muriel tempts Claude, who in the first scene of the film takes a serious fall in which he hurts himself—with an apple.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Die Hard Without a Vengeance

What if you were told you had 24 hours to live? You could have swallowed a poison capsule by accident or perhaps you had recondite knowledge of Armageddon. What would you do? Empty the bank account and go on a hedonistic odyssey in which you gratify all your as yet unfulfilled fetishes and desires? Would you purchase the high priced hooker (s) or gigolo(s)? Would you fly to Thailand and have the soapy massage or massage sandwich with two lovelies? Probably not, it’s too long a flight and if there were delays, you could be DOA. Under the theory that money can buy anything, you’d probably decide you can find what you are looking for closer to home. What if food rather than sex was the ultimate pleasure as far as you were concerned? Would you construct an elaborate Last Supper composed of foie gras, chateaubriand, cold lobster, naturally caviar and say no holds bar the world’s greatest dessert? Would you finally fork out for those Teuscher champagne truffles that had previously seemed wastefully expensive. This is the theme of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. In that case Kurosawa’s character, Watanabe, learns he has a year to live. He embarks on a Walpurgisnacht in which he attempts to gratify his desires in the seedy side of town, but materialistic pleasures soon prove wanting and he finally devotes himself to helping children by creating a playground. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the film when with little time left, Watanabe sits on a swing, in the playground he has built, as the snow begins to fall.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

Lars von Trier is an incurable romantic. Despite the severe lashings his nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) endures, despite the beatings, the golden shower, the public fellatio, the abandonment of her husband and child and the career as an extortionist who uncovers pedophiliac desires (one of her marks doesn’t even know he had), he posits a belief in a lode of human empathy and emotion however evanescent it may be. There’s even a reference to Star Wars in Nymphomaniac: Vol. II in the form of two Jedi Knights whose sabers are erect penises at a gang bang--an interchange that is one of the few humorous moments of the movie. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who has rescued Joe and who takes her confession becomes like an analyst who sleeps with his patient or one of the rogue priests who have become the scourge of the Catholic Church. But does that allow us to discountenance, the purity and beauty of the transference which takes place between them throughout both Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 and II? Can we say that von Trier’s provocativeness both as an artist and public figure (if his character Joe is a self-described sexual outcast he made himself an artistic outcast by proclaiming his sympathy for Hitler at Cannes and literally getting himself banned). There is a point towards the end of Nymphomaniac: Vol. II where Joe is on her way not to accepting her sexual addiction but to being the one in a million people who actually overcomes it when she discovers the soul tree that her father (Christian Slater) had originally told her about. She has climbed to the top of a mountain where she attains a certain level of peace. It seemingly shares little thematic connection to the denouement of the movie which involves murder, but it’s significant. The belief in the humanity of the human being is hardly the conclusion of von Trier’s art, but it’s a dramatic moment on the map of the human condition that he's drawing. In the beginning Joe relives the memory of a spontaneous orgasm and a spiritual vision that occurred along with it. Only the vision is not of the Christ child and Mary, but of Magdalena the wife of the Emperor Claudius (who was one of the most infamous nymphomaniacs of all time) and of the Whore of Babylon. “I’m a nymphomaniac and I love being one and above all I love my filthy lust,” she screams at one point. The numbers and letters fly across the screen. The 40 Roman lashes she received was incorrect Seligman informs her. Christ received only 39 because they came in sets of three. K (Jamie Bell) is her torturer, L (Willem DaFoe)  initiates her into a life of crime and P (Mia Goth), is her disciple. Seligman goes off on a long digression about the Prusik knot that Joe calls one of his worst, but which is really one of his best. The schism between the Eastern and Western churches of l054 compete with Zeno’s paradox which is used to describe Joe’s futile attempt to reach orgasm. Von Trier wraps his sentimentality in layers of meaningful intellect and literally excoriating sadism (the cocktail of sado-masochistic compulsion and child neglect is one of the most difficult parts of the film to watch). And he is far from providing either a recipe for or hope of transcendence or even peace. And yet Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, like its predecessor is almost unbearably human or unearthly if you regard his nymphomaniac as the ultimate Christ and anti-Christ, the outcast, whose holiness and suffering are totally invisible and misunderstood and who's falsely accused of blasphemy and condemned to flames by the living incarnation of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor-her self immolating conscience.