Monday, March 18, 2019


Christian Petzold’s Transit is a cubist narrative, but the difference between it and say “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” is that the Picasso masterpiece is about a whorehouse. Here the experience of watching the movie is a little like pickup sticks. There are strands of narrative which center around refugees and exile and in particular the question of who forgets, the person being left or the person who leaves? However, the real subject is veiled in a series of dead ends. The air of mystery is aided and abetted by the fact that the movie inhabits an alternate universe in which the Nazi occupation of France is taking place in the present time (the movie is actually based on novel by Anna Seghers written in l942). In this sense it’s a little like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. There are four deaths in Transit and each of them is someone that the film’s protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) tries or in fact succeeds coming into contact with. The message might be stay away from this guy. Add to this that the fact that one of the deceased is a writer named Weidel whose identity is fungible and becomes the source of a hard to come by exit visa. The confusion is increased by the fact that much of the plot is farmed out to yet another voice, that of the bartender who apparently has witnessed much of the action and is writing about it in retrospect. Weidel’s writing also plays a cameo role as part of the evidence which Georg uses in establishing his identity before his interlocutor at the American consulate. Talk about unreliable narrators. Nothing seems to be consummated in the film, not escape, nor even a sexual act with the dead writer’s vampish wife, Marie (Paula Beer). 

Friday, March 15, 2019

M et Mme. Ovary

Let’s face this fact. Chances are things probably won't change. Aspiration is  nice. People, especially those who read too many magazines, jump through hoops to be happy. They drag each other into marriage counseling, they attend ashrams, they take cooking courses, they question their sexual orientation and maybe do something about it like transition (or not). They become like dervishes, trying free love or paying for it (or not). They decide to move to another city (or not). They decide to go it on their own (or not). They become vegetarians. They only eat farm fed beef or poultry. They meditate (that’s a big one and on the basis of the anecdotal evidence one would wish them good luck since they’ll need it). They do dangerous things like ascend Everest (or not). Climb cliffs without ropes (or not) and endeavor to shake things up by exhausting exercise regimens like running a marathon, riding a century or doing both in an Iron Man (or not). They attempt to become spiritual and commune with God (or not) or with the nature or the universe a la pantheists like Spinoza (or not) or they gain solace in philately or numismatics (or not). A lot of people spend considerable amounts of time and energy to supposedly achieve a modicum of happiness and once they've gotten all their pieces on the board and moved them into the appropriate positions ie made their bed, then they have to sleep in it. Some people will find that after all the time, trouble and expense that they have attained a state of karma that's close to satori and some are just going to find themselves scowling about life being “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." The latter is undeniably true! No two ways about it.Was the Duke of Windsor really all that happy once he abdicated and had Wallis Warfield all to himself? Some people may kill themselves when they realize it’s all a charade, but there are others who are content to just go along for the ride and when you come down to it, that’s an approach that makes a helluva lot of sense. Everybody ends up in a room staring either at the reflection of their own face in the mirror or that of some other on whom they confer a host of not always complimentary feelings.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Final Solution: Separate But Equal

Here is a brilliant aside from de Tocqueville quoted by Louis Menand in his New Yorker piece on Plessy v. Fergusson (“In the Eye of the Law,” 2/4/19) where Menand also cites C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” For example, minorities facing similar forms of discrimination often find themselves at war against each other--a propensity which is often hidden under the veneer of good intentions. On the other side of the fence, the old South was feudal. Repression was a form of definition. A slave was going to be less a threat to a plantation owner than someone from the underclass, who had rights and privileges, along with a certain ingenuity or entrepreneurial talent that would challenge the status quo. Racism and prejudice are multidimensional, but in some ways economic inequality plays a central role in the perpetuation of these forms of discrimination. A wealthy liberal is less threatened by a minority than another worker struggling to make ends meet, who's competing for the same job, for which say and immigrant might be willing to take less pay. It's like children in one of those large families who fight with each other over two scarce commodities: love and scraps. Trump appeals to his base with this very message. It’s not that caravans from Central America are murderers and drug lords, it’s that they will undercut the market and accept a lower wage.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Take Me To Your Dendrite

Coleridge by Peter Vandyke (1795)
Pleasure is often mentioned in connection with serotonin the neurotransmitter that runs between the synapses of the brain. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac work to maintain a certain serotonin level and inhibit its reuptake. This model poses problems, however, since it envisions the brain as a solipsistic device, a chemical engine that may respond to existential stimuli, but which exists as its own psychopharmacological lab. Ultimately with the right mixture of drugs one could live a more pleasure-filled, or at the very least less painful existence. There has been much recent talk about the varieties of animal consciousness, but in the classic view, animals don’t possess the self-reflexive consciousness that allows them to realize they're having a good time. "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" was the title of a famous essay by Thomas Nagel, but it’s hard not to conclude that the average bat is literally in the dark. On the other hand anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs are only the beginning when it comes to dealing with psyche. The famous Coleridge poem, written under the influence of opium, begins “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree.” And the hell with drugs. Consciousness separated from the body and running freely through cyberspace may provide the ultimate high.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Big Shoes

brogue Oxford shoes (photo: ASuitableWardrobe)
Big shoes to fill is an expression that’s sometimes used when a person is taking over a position that may have been run by someone of authority who had a reputation in a particular field. It may also refer to a son or daughter taking over for his or her father or mother in the family business or just taking on the role of pater or mater familias upon the demise of a parent. Some people literally try on shoes or other elements of attire because they feel it will change them. For instance there was a period back in the 50’s and 60’s where you would dress for success. Getting the right suit and rep tie at Brooks Brothers was almost as important as having an MBA from Harvard and this was the period starting with the Stork Club and ending with the demise of Studio 54 when nightlife with its emphasis on appearance was a convenient metaphor for the stratification of society. While in England, you had to have aristocratic lineage to attend certain clubs or even get a room at the Connaught, in New York it was a matter of wearing black tie or the equivalent that distinguished you from the crowd entreating the pickers behind the velvet ropes. The selection process was primitive. However it catered to a uniquely fetishistic approach to self-definition, in which the part (often the most superficial part, attire), was representative of the whole. As quickly as one conjured the images of the Duke of Windsor or Wallis Warfield, one might change uniforms, feeling the shoes of Jane or John Doe more comfortably fit the foot.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Room at the Top

The mystery behind Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), currently in revival at Film Forum, is what constitutes the fatal love between Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret) and Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey). Alice is an unhappily married French woman living in industrial England and Joe ia an ambitious working class war veteran. Joe is the ultimate arriviste and his ambition is primarily sexual to that extent that his desire is created by the perception of what he thinks he can’t have. “Find a girl of your own…” his boss warns. “Class?” Joe responds, angrily finishing the sentence. “Background” is the reply. Taking off from the title (is there room at the top?) the film is shot in angles. In the first scene Joe sees Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a wealthy businessman, getting into a sports car from a second floor window. He’ll eventually follow her into a lingerie shop in which the bra she might wear is tauntingly displayed in a storefront window. Is Joe enthralled by the woman or the world she represents? Is he stalled at the intersection of sex and ambition? Ironically he spots both his lovers looking up at the same stage of the local theater troop and one that he’s significantly laughed off of when he tries to read some lines. Later in the movie Alice and Joe will escape to Sparrow Hill which looks down on their industrial town of Warnley. It’s a scene right out of a Thomas Hardy novel and it may give a clue to the essence of the love which is so uncharacteristic of the bounder Harvey plays. Love freed from social climbing is as foreign to Joe as Signoret’s accent. It’s basically an unnatural act which flourishes in natural settings (besides the room of the title there's actually a lover’s aerie in the countryside which is a respite from the cruel dog eat dog world in which Joe is trying to make his way). The real evolution of the movie revolves around the development of Joe's sensibility. His relationship with Alice changes him (it's something Alice actually remarks on in a scene) and he's ultimately caught in a vice. Room at the Top was one of the first of the angry young man films that included The L-Shaped Room (1962), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and of course Look Back in Anger (1959)..Shot in black in white it captures the gloom and entrapment of the industrial North. The whistle of a teapot segues into the shrill sound of a train’s steam engine as an ongoing leitmotif. Irony is the emotion that accompanies the film’s tragic denouement. “You’ve got everything you wanted,” is the taunt that Joe faces more than once. As he drives away from a wedding that seems like a sentence, his new wife declares, “Now we really belong to each other, til death us do part.” There are artful bits of stage business throughout like one scene in which school kids are coming up a road towards Joe as he descends and one final truly lovely touch. The car carrying Susan and Joe away to their future disappears into the horizon and then just a lone figure crosses the road.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Elementary Particles

In essence man isn’t free. That was the message of determinists like Zola and his latter day incarnation, Michel Houellebecq, whose The Elementary Particles is an essay on the shadow fate (in the form of history) casts, particularly in an atmosphere of seeming freedom. The sexual liberation of the 60’s which is the chrysalis out of which the novel grows, is ultimately rendered as a virus rather than an ideology. This was Freud’s message too, epitomized by the famous “anatomy is destiny” quote. Protestantism and in particular Calvinism lend a totally different etiology to determinism, in the notion of predestination. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is an attempt to pinpoint the bizarre form such a constraint of liberty take in the formation of the free market. In other words the very idea of freedom can be loaded with contradiction. In his Justice For Hedgehogs the late Ronald Dworkin questions the limits of liberty. If actions have consequences then say pleasure and satiation don’t exist in a vacuum, but have their effects on others. It’s nice to think that humans can exist in a perpetual tabula rasa, but then the price to be paid would be a kind of collective amnesia in which remembrance was the province of rebels like Winston Smith of Orwell's l984.