Friday, October 30, 2015

The Club Anhedonism

Anhedonia was famously the original title for Annie Hall, but it was thrown out because the word was deemed too esoteric for audiences (“Woody Allen Fights Anhedonia," NYT, 4/20/77). It's  strange since anhedonia's really an easy word to parse out with “an” being the not and “hedonia” referring to pleasure. Putting the two syllables together you get the inability to experience pleasure. Narcissism and anhedonia share some qualities, in that they can both be defensive postures which eschew the dependence on the outside world. Anhedonics may feel powerful to the extent that they don’t need or desire anyone or anything. Anhedonia frees you from vulnerability. It’s a perverse version of the Buddhist mantra “desire is but the beginning of suffering.” Those who go to silent retreats in Zen monasteries choose abstinence while the anhedonic ostensibly has psychological problems which make it difficult for him or her to enjoy the senses. In this regard anhedonia is a sister or brother ailment to depression, since its function, which is to some extent protective, has, at the same time, unpleasant consequences. But if Woody Allen wanted to call Annie Hall, a mild essay on cosmopolitan/melting pot neurosis, Anhedonia, what would be alternative titles for say the films in Bergman’s famous trilogy Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence. Pleasure is not only compromised, but absent in these filmic essays on the absence of God. There's a club Hedonism II in Negril, where anything goes. But where would the club Anhedonism be situated? On The Gulag Archipelego?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Brave Genius

Citing Marx’s line that “religion is the opium of the people,” the French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote a critique of Marxism entitled The Opium of the Intellectuals. The biologist Jacques Monod and the novelist and philosopher Albert Camus both won the Nobel prize in physiology and literature respectively, both were members of the resistance during World War II (Camus edited Combat, which produced the feuilleton of the resistance) and both eventually shared a need to push back against not only fascism, but totalitarianism as it manifested in the Communist ideology of the cold war period. In her review of Sean B. Carroll’s Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher and Their Daring Adventures From the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize (“The Improbable French Buddies,” NYT, 10/21/13), Jennifer Schuessler quotes Carroll thusly “Molecular Biology had brought Monod full circle to Camus’s territory of the absurd condition—that contradiction between the human longing for meaning and the universe’s silence.” Schuessler points out that Monod’s bestselling Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology “took it’s epigraph from Camus’s 'Myth of Sisyphus’ thus repaying and an earlier compliment from Camus that readers of 'Brave Genius' will not find at all absurd: ‘I have only known one true genius: Jacques Monod.'” The locution is actually curious in that it recalls Camus famous line from The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is only one really serious philosophical question and that is suicide.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oedipus at Rest

"Oedipus Explaining  the Enigma of the Sphinx" by Ingres (1805)
Oedipus was actually unusual. Most people don’t leave home when they have the mistaken feeling that their presence is cursed and most people’s flight doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Freud glommed onto the Oedipus myth to deal with childhood sexuality and the stage when a young boy wants to marry his mother and kill his father (as Oedipus did when he killed Laius at the crossroads and married Jocasta). The Electra complex posits a similar paradigm regarding the female offspring whose desire for the father leads to murderous instincts towards the mother. But the real essence of the Oedipus myth resides in the notion of flight and the notion of bringing about a dreaded result. Daniel Kahneman’s theory of “loss aversion” where irrationality drives seemingly rational decisions describes a similar set of circumstances. Meanwhile let’s deal what would have happened to Oedipus had he not decided to take “the higher road,” the morally superior stance which led to becoming the protagonist of one of the great tragedies of all time, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Oedipus had what a psychoanalyst might call an overly developed superego, something that worked against him to the extent it was maladaptive and ultimately mitigated against his own survival. But let’s take your average Joe or Jane who hears from the oracle, aka his or her therapist that he or she wants to murder his father and marry his mother or marry her father and murder her mother. He or she just keeps going to therapy, which doesn’t help the feelings of anxiety, dread and more than occasional impotence or frigidity that accompany his or her murderous wishes. He or she lives a fairly miserable life, racks up enormous bills for the years of treatments, but neither has to leave home nor hopefully murder anybody in the process. Gilles Deleuze wrote a book called Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia which attempted to redefine classic Freudian theory. But what about a post-modern playwright who dramatizes what would have happened to a feckless latter day Oedipus who didn’t run away from his fears. Wouldn’t such an author want to borrow from the fourth and last of John Updike’s Rabbit series, Rabbit At Rest and employ Oedipus at Rest as the title of his work?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers

Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), in revival at Film Forum through Thursday, is like one of those large intergenerational novels. The disquisition is even presented like a novel with sections devoted to the brothers of the title, Rocco (Alain Delon), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi). They're the sons of Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou) who at one point in the film talks about reuniting them like the five fingers of a hand. The displacement and demoralization of a Sicilian family who migrate to Milan comprises the theme, but the narrative takes the form of a classic fight film, as two of the brothers Simone and Rocco become professional boxers. And their deadly battle over a prostitute named Nadia (Annie Girardot) creates the central melodramatic struggle. Yet while the counterpoint between the two characters is simple their relationship is not. As low as Simone sinks in his criminal behavior, which ultimately includes murder, Rocco never forgets his filial duty. Is he motivated by guilt? Or simply by the mysterious blood ties of the insular Southern Italian world from which he comes? Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962) negotiates a similar territory in terms of how it treats the cultural disparities between the South and the North (particularly with regard to deep-seeded familial bonds) and even has a character who has migrated to work in the automobile industry as Ciro does in Visconti’s film. However, Rocco and His Brothers is far more gritty and actually has the noir quality of black and white American fight films like Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), which used the ring as a metaphor both for aspiration and defeat. This almost documentary style of shooting which holds up in neorealist films like Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) looks curiously dated and inert here. After all these years Rocco and His Brothers screens like a period piece that lacks the imperturbability of,  for instance, Visconti’s The Leopard  (l963). If you are a boxing fan you'll find the actual choreography of Alain Delon’s fight scenes to be not lacking in interest. Rocco bobs and weaves, ducks and slips; he has a defensive counterpunching style which is in direct contrast to his brother Simone who is a violent brawler, bully and coward and it mirrors both his contrastingly admirable mixture of vulnerability and guile. There are several spectacular scenes, in particular one between Simone and Nadia which has the quality of a Wagnerian Liebestod and a horrific rape that may give the infamous ll minute take in Gaspar Noe’s Irrerversible (2002) a run for the money. But the romanticism is so extreme in places that you might find yourself nervously giggling at interchanges which were plainly intended to exude high drama.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Requiem for a Junior-Welterweight

Terence Crawford (27-0) fought Dierry Jean(29-2) for the WBO Junior-Welterweight Championship of the World in Omaha on Saturday night. The fight was really a casting call for the challenger to meet Manny Pacquiao in his last performance, now scheduled for April 9, 2016. Crawford was the favorite in the 12 round bout and produced a TKO in the 10th round—which insured his getting the role. A good deal was a stake since the April 9th fight will be a big pay day and Crawford fought like that, switching to a southpaw stance early on. His jab was now a power punch and every time Jean threw one of his own he caught Crawford’s right hook. Crawford is a lethal combination of boxer and fighter which is to say he's a defensive counterpuncher who likes to remain right on top of his man. Boxing is a metaphor for the food chain of human life and the fight arenas for these high level gladiatorial events, dotted as they always are with winners and losers, constitute part of the drama. Warren Buffett aka “the sage of Omaha” was in the audience. As you might expect for a man who flaunts his modesty, he was not in a ringside seat—though he did wave to the HBO cameras. The Haitian-born Jean himself has been a sparring partner for Pacquiao and he had a lot of heart in the face of Crawford’s onslaught. But the referee Tony Weeks spared him from his own willpower and from an even worse beating then he was already taking by calling the fight when he did. Yet in one fell swoop he had lost his big chance. In actuality there isn’t as much room at the top in boxing as life. If boxing is a metaphor for life, it’s a hyperbolic one. The Anthony Quinn character in Requiem for a Heavyweight is nicknamed “Mountain" not only because of his size but due to the heights from which he would eventually fall.