Friday, December 19, 2014

Burmese Days

In a recent article, “Back to a Burmese Prison By Choice”(NYT, 12/6/14 U Htein Lin, the Burmese artist and dissident is quoted thusly about his years of imprisonment, “I was completely cut off from art critics and an audience. I just did what I wanted. In the cell I found freedom. It was the most important time in my art career.” Now Mr. Lin makes the journey back to his former prison “to reconnect with a sense of confinement.” Edmund Wilson's The Wound and the Bow intertwined the Philoctetes to myth with the lives of writers like Dickens, Kipling, Joyce, Wharton and Hemingway to show how suffering can lead to creation. And Lin’s career and his nostalgie de la boue, as the French put it, underscores the idea of the part misery can play in generating insight. Of course there are many former dissenters once incarcerated in Burmese prisons who probably don’t share Lin’s fond memories. While pain may result in enlightenment, it more often then not simply crushes the human spirit. Solzhenitsyn who survived the Gulag and Dostoevsky who went onto achieve greatness after a mock execution are the exceptions. In John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, Lawrence Harvey plays the role of Raymond Shaw a former prisoner of war, who has been brainwashed into becoming an assassin. The Times story recounts how Lin used “old prison uniforms,” “syringes,” and “the flint wheels of cigarette lighters” as his palette. It’s a wonderful talent to be able to constantly recycle experience, performing a version of alchemy in which dross is turned into gold. Hannah Wilke the sculptress made her own death the subject of her last pieces. Lest we forget, George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, derived from his deployment as a police officer during the waning of the Raj.The only problem would seem to occur when things are good. Many artists become so attuned to making their own subjective experience into an object that they are no longer able to enjoy the unmediated experience of reality. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Raining on the Rainmaker’s Parade

The Times ran a story about John J. Altorelli, who they describe as one of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s “most important rainmakers, the term used to denote partners who land clients  At his peak he was credited with generating more than $33 million in annual revenue for the firm,” (“The Rise and Fall of a Rainmaker,” NYT, 12/12/14). Altorelli is portrayed as leading a pretty high falutin' existence traveling in the company of glitterati, during the heyday of the now defunct firm. A picture accompanying the article shows Altorelli with Anna Chapman, who the Times describes as “being arrested by the F.B.I. on charges that she was a member of a Russian spy ring embedded in the United States.” The last movie which with a plot like this was The House on 92nd Street (1945) about the F.B.I. cracking a Nazi espionage ring that had established itself in Carnegie Hill. They don’t even make movies like that anymore. Perhaps the moral of the story is that to succeed, even for a little while, you have to cook up the kind of plot that’s so outlandish it would be rejected by most Hollywood studios. John le Carre has ventured into the world of corporate law, but it is unlikely that Altorelli would have been the model for any of his characters. Anyway Altorelli, who the Times piece described as coming from a family of l0 children growing up in Derby, Connecticut, must, one would think, be living a far more modest existence than in his glory days at Dewey & LeBoeuf. The piece went on to describe the fact that the bankruptcy trustee involved in the case "is suing him for $12.9 million." In Democracy in America de Tocqueville pointed out the fundamentally populist (and anti-aristocratic) nature of American life in showing how one generation could be rich while the next one poor. John J. Altorelli’s story shows a new America in which wealth can be amassed and lost in the same generation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Gray White Way

Most people who gravitate to New York City live in the shadow of a romance that is seldom fulfilled. You may have been born here, but if you migrate to New York, you're probably suffering from early stage Bovarysme. You're less interested in being rather than becoming. Existence always plays second fiddle to those dreams fanned by the flames of infinite possibility. Sure there are thousands of exceptions, but New York is a hard place to settle down in. It’s not for the kind of people who enjoy using the expression “I can’t complain.” New Yorkers are always complaining because they see the possibility of something greater. After all, that's why they live here. They willingly enter the Inferno because of unruly imaginations that always leave them in a state of dissatisfaction. There are the few who are able to harness their yearnings in ways that nearly satisfy this search for the grail. There are those whose talents are like the detonator to a nuclear device, but the majority are trapped into a sate of permanent malaise. As Gina Bellafante remarked in a Times piece about the plight of one New Yorker (“As Shop Owner, Woman Sees Troubling Sides of Herself,” 1/10/14), "There are no campaigns to be waged against the darker turns of aspiration, but we can know the cost of too often looking up and too often looking down is too rarely looking forward."

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Passionate Thief

If you want to see Anna Magnani’s earthly talents turned to comic advantage then check out Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief (Risate di goia, l960), the restored print of which is currently completing a run at Film Forum. Magnani, whose suffering persona in films like Rome, Open City (1945) and Mamma Roma (1962) was accentuated by those famous eyes which sparkled with life in spite of the dark rings, plays the part of, Tortorella, a down on her heels extra at Cinecitta, out for a good time on New Year’s eve in Rome. The Passionate Thief is worth seeing if only for the blond wig Magnani sports as part of her party outfit. Magnani is passionate even in her comic roles, though the passionate thief in question may refer to the character of Lello (Ben Gazarra) who calculatedly seduces Magnani only to use her as a front. “Steal but why play with my feelings?” Magnani cries at the end to which Gazarra replies, “Because I’m a thief and not ashamed of it.” The famous comic actor Toto plays Umberto, a bungling scammer and sometime performer, who is the straight man in the face of Magnani’s frenzied energy. He’s a Buster Keaton double, as they open up their only possession, an umbrella, to protect themselves from the sun rather than the rain. By the end of her New Year's, Tortorella’s fortunes have fallen even further with her taking the rap for the theft of a necklace from the Madonna in a church. Here Monicelli conjures the memory of another famous Italian screen actress, Giulietta Masina, who played an equally down on her heels character, the prostitute in Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (l957). Fred Clark has an uproarious cameo as a drunken American tourist who seems like an easy mark, but inadvertently ends up relieving the thieves of their jackets before attempting to jump into a fountain. Poverty is really the subject (“Why are some people born rich and others so poor?” Gazzara’s character asks at another point) and as in Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), Monicelli uses the comic caper to underline a theme that neo-realists like Rosellini, Visconti and De Sica presented in a more sinister light.