Thursday, August 31, 2017

Open City

In one of the most iconic moments of Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945), recently revived at Film Forum, the Germans pull up on the street where Pina (Anna Magnani) lives with her son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico). Leading a caravan of trucks filled with soldiers, a motorcycle screeches to a halt turning its wheel like  a curlicue of punctuation. This is the famous scene where Magnani will be shot in the back as she passionately charges towards her fiancé Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) who’s being dragged away on the day before their wedding. The rooftops in Open City tell the whole story and the camera in this scene is actually filming from the point of view of a resistance fighter who would execute a surprise attack. The band of young proto-revolutionary/altarboys store their bombs on a roof and it’s from a perch above a highway that the trucks full of prisoners will later be ambushed. Rome is a city of vistas. There are seven hills from which the panorama of the city including St. Peters can be viewed, but the recurring image of Open City is one of ascent. You look up into the stairwell as the priest Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi) climbs pursued by German soldiers. He’s supposed to be reading last rites to an  sickly old man and amidst the horror there's a lighthearted moment where he uses a frying to pan muffle his parishioner's protests. It foreshadows the horror of a later scene where the priest has to perform last rites on Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a heroic rebel who has been tortured to death. “You tried to kill his soul and all you killed was his body,” says Don Pietro. The city is under siege and yet the populace like the camera rises above its earthbound condition.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Adulthood and Armageddon

thermonuclear test (photo: United States Department of Energy)
What does it mean to be parental or shall we say act responsibly in the most symbolic meaning of the term? Even if one does not have children, there's a certain point in life where one takes over and where generationally you find yourself in the position of authority, literally for the world. From an ultimate, eschatological or teleological point of view, you would find yourself responsible for the well-being of others, whether one is talking about society in general or merely those closest to you, say in a community setting. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the current spate of weather catastrophes America has experienced, the most recent of which has been Hurricane Harvey. Children expect to be taken care of. The same is true of the old and infirm, who can no longer take care of themselves. But what about those able bodied men and women in between. It’s hard to exactly numerate the demographic, but perhaps it’s best to use movie ticket admissions. You have children’s tickets sold to those 12 and under and senior citizens admissions for the 62 and over crowd. By this criteria adults are defined as those who are neither children nor seniors. When a Jewish boy or girl reaches the age of 13 they're bar or bat mitzvahed and become, from the point of view of religion, a man or woman. In actuality adulthood probably begins in American society at a later date say from 25-35 depending on education, culture and the extended adolescence provided within certain demographics. However, it's this group of people who become the caretakers or givers rather than the care receivers. Though there are no shoulders left to cry on, the benefit may derive from the duty to keep a stiff up lip and resolve in the face of the impossible. As an adult you now have the dubious pleasure of remaining responsible even in the case of Armageddon when there's nothing left to be responsible for.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

What do Kahlil Gibran and Carl von Clausewitz Have in Common?

What do Carl von Clausewitz and Kahlil Gibran have in common? Maybe just the “ka” sound? Clausewitz famously said that "War is the continuation of politics by other means." Kahlil Gibran was the author of The Prophet, a cult classic for Timothy Leary's "turn on, tune out and drop out" generation of the 60's and someone who is not usually associated with conflict. However here is what he had to say on the subject: “Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.” So is there anything latent in these quotes  that would allow for belief that it was possible for the human species to confine its energies to making love not war? The answer would seem to be negative once again. Gibran's words presuppose a condition in which the soul is in a state of perpetual conflict.Whether the cause of this lies in the advent of consciousness is not spelled out and in the case of Clausewitz the presumption is that conflict is part of the human condition with war and diplomacy merely reflecting varying gradations of hostility. But while one might wish there was a common ground in shared humanity there appears to be little in common between the Indian mystic, who became a publishing phenomenon and the oft-quoted Prussian General and author of On War.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Chock full o' Nuts

Two comedians that Baby Boomers grew up with recently died. Jerry Lewis was known for his madcap farcical humor and in particularly his facial expressions ("Jerry Lewis, Jester Both Silly and Stormy, Dies at 91,"NYT, 8/20/17). The Nutty Professor (1963) was the name of one of his famous movies. Dick Gregory was known for social satire and he would eventually turn his energies toward protest and social change, a metier that Senator Al Franken would pick up on after his own early success as a regular on SNL ("Dick Gregory, 84, Dies; Found Humor in the Civil Rights Struggle," NYT, 8/19/17).  Despite the different tenor of their comedy both became associated with causes. Jerry Lewis of course conducted the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon every Labor Day and Dick Gregory became a major figure in the Civil Rights movement. Interestingly enough Lewis became a darling of French cineastes and long after his star had waned in America, he was still lionized in the cinematheques of Paris. He was the lord of misrule and the perfect counterpart for American gangster mythology that also became a force in the Nouvelle Vague. But it was particularly moving to see the obits of Lewis and Gregory sharing the front page of The Times. Unlike the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis,  Gregory and Lewis weren’t destined to appear together on the marquee in Las Vegas or anywhere else. But death is the great leveler and in an odd way their mutual passing was both an epitaph and post-mortem for the 60’s generation.

Friday, August 25, 2017


“Chill” is an interesting directive that also verges on being a jeremiad. You urge a couple of arguing protestors to “chill” when things are getting out of hand. It’s also an imperative. “Chill!” means “you chill,” if it is uttered by an authority who looks like he or she has mace or pepper spray to back up their command. The origin of the expression obviously derives from the need to cool down something that's about to boil over. Of course the condition of someone who's acceded to the advice, command or demand is that of being cold which is not good either. A cold person is emotionally distant and literally if you get cold, you can get a fever and die—in which you case you will turn into a corpse which is the absolute zero of coldness when it comes to living things. To be hot blooded is admittedly to be highly reactive. A hot-blooded person is in danger of exploding, but they're also passionate about people and causes. You can’t just chill all the time or you will be both a lousy lover and indifferent individual who doesn't give a hoot about the fate of humanity. But what do you do when two people are having a disagreement in the middle of a blizzard? How can you tell someone to “chill,”on a street in Minneapolis during the winter months when temperatures sink down to minus numbers.