Monday, September 22, 2008

The Early Films of Miloś Forman

The Northwest Film Forum is currently running a retrospective of Czech director Miloś Forman’s early films. There is not a single dud in the lot. Except for Taking Off (1971), his first American film (which I have not yet seen and hence will remain silent on) I can say that they are all excellent films – funny, insightful, well-crafted and still as fresh as the day the footage came back from the lab.

Forman’s directorial debut, Audition (1963), is the weakest film of them all, though. It’s a combination of two documentaries about musicians. The first, If There Was No Music, shows two brass bands rehearsing for a competition. In the second, Audition, a bunch of young singers go on a round of auditions in hip Czechoslovakia; think of it as Czech Idol, circa 1963 – lots of cute girls with beehive hairdos and guys in dark coats looking moody in a Jean-Paul Belmondo way. This is one of those films that looks better - and cooler - in black and white than it ever would in color. Still, watching an hour’s worth of footage crammed with people belting out 45 year-old Czeck pop tunes gets dull after a while.

However, Black Peter (1963), Forman’s first fictional film, is not dull at all. It has no real plot. We see the young and churlish Peter start his new job - spying on customers at the local supermarket to catch shoplifters. We see him berated at home by his father. We watch him go out a few times with his girlfriend. He attends a dance and meets some friends there. One of them gets drunk. All very mundane, and yet compelling. In fact, with its handheld camerawork and grainy look, this films feels more like a documentary than a fictional film. And that’s intentional. At the time, Czech films were made under the rubric of “socialist realism” which basically meant upbeat Communist propaganda. To grab a camera and film your friends and family members (Forman was notorious for using mostly non-professional actors) was not just an artistic choice but a political one, too. The actors in Black Peter are all very good. Ladislav Jakim (above), who plays Peter, is perfect in the role. His casual adolescent truculence is charming if you’re under forty, infuriating if you’re over. Jan Vostrčil is excellent as Peter’s father, pacing back and forth in their tiny apartment, his thumbs looped in his suspenders, endlessly hectoring his son to grow up or warning him to beware of the wiles of women. Vostrčil is a pleasure to watch and it’s no surprise that Forman put him in all his Czech movies.

Loves of a Blonde (1965) tells the story of a young girl in a small town who falls in love with a musician performing in a band at the local dancehall one weekend. After their 2-day fling he returns to Prague and she goes back to working her dreary job at the shoe factory. She misses him and soon shows up on the doorsteps of his parent’s home in Prague. They don’t like her at all. When the son shows up the next morning it become obvious that he doesn’t really like her much either. She returns home and to her life in the factory. It sounds more grim than it is. The film has a light touch and a sense of humor which keep it from becoming a downer. And Hana Brejchová is very good in the lead. She conveys a strength and vulnerability that keep her sympathetic but never pitiful. In the clip below we watch her as she tries on her sleeping lover’s overcoat. This film was a big international hit, both commercially and critically, and it’s easy to see why. It is quite funny. The dance hall scenes are especially good as middle-aged soldiers try to score with the young and uninterested factory girls in town. One trio of soldiers is particularly pathetic. One of them takes off his wedding ring and puts it in his pocket. It promptly falls out of the leg of his pants and rolls across the dance floor, right under the table of the women he’s flirting with.

In The Fireman’s Ball (1967) a group of firemen in a small Czeck town hold a big dance (how Forman loves a dance) in which, not surprisingly, everything goes wrong. The raffle gifts keep getting stolen by the guests. The firemen decide to hold an impromptu beauty contest but can’t find enough attractive women in the hall despite making one contestant strip down to her bathing suit in the back room while they breathlessly oogle (below). When a house catches fire they’re unable to put it out so instead they set up the bar and simply watch the place burn down. They even, at one point, almost set their own hall on fire. They are, in short, that old standby of Eastern European and Russia literature, the ridiculous bureaucrat. Dostoyevsky and Gogol mined the same territory. And Forman’s fellow Czecks Jaroslav Haśek (in The Good Soldier Švejk) and Franz Kafka (in…well, everything) show the various responses of people trapped in the bureaucratic machine. We English-speakers brag about Dickens’ Office of Circumlocution Office and Melville’s Bartleby but to really appreciate the nightmare of officialdom you must go to writers east of the Elbe.

But Fireman’s Ball is more than that. It is also a very funny satire about communism. It’s soon apparent that this gaggle of middle-aged, paunchy, bungling firefighters is supposed to represent the leadership of the Communist Party, either Czech or Russian. As I sat watching Fireman’s Ball I couldn’t help but remember the attempted coup against Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. The “hard-line Communist coup”, as the US press immediately called it (was there ever a “soft-line” Communist coup?), soon fell apart and the plotters began hurrying to get out of the country. I’ll never forget the TV footage of them scrambling to board a plane leaving Moscow. It was hilarious - a handful of fat, middle-aged men (very much like our Czech firemen) pushing, pulling, shoving and slapping each other out of the way to enter the airplane door. They looked ridiculous, like The Three Stooges or the Keystone Cops. “What’s next?” I thought “‛Hard-Line Communist Coup Meets The Mummy’?” The judgment of history could scarcely be more devastating or cruel than that footage. The project of Soviet Marxism had been reduced to comedy - a crude, slapstick routine performed on an airport tarmac by doomed clowns. Honestly, shooting the plotters would have endowed them with more dignity.

Like most American filmgoers I tend to think of Forman’s movies (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Ragtime) as being bleak and depressing so it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that his earlier work was humorous, intimate, and, at times, even light-hearted.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"She learned to say 'No' - the hard way"

Caustic Cover Critic has a great collection of pulp and trash novel covers. Here's a sample:

See them all here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Styron's Latest

What is it about William Styron that makes me dislike him so? I certainly haven’t read enough of his work to build up a good, healthy, invigorating hate of the man as a writer. In fact, aside from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness I haven’t read him at all. I’ve managed to avoid his two most successful novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice (although I did see the movie version of the latter) and I have no doubt that if I go to my grave never having read either of them my life will not have been diminished one jot.

However, it was while reading Havanas in Camelot, a posthumous collection of Styron’s essays, that I finally understood exactly why I find him so unappealing. The insight came while reading “A Case of the Great Pox”, Styron’s account of the treatment he received after contracting a dose of syphilis while serving in the Marines during WWII. He’s sent off to the naval hospital on Parris Island and put under the care of the stern and judgmental Dr. B. Klotz. The protocol for venereal disease patients in the 1940s is chilling to modern ears. They were put in their own separate ward. Their robes were marked with a large, yellow V. The mess hall and the bathrooms had specially designated tables or toilets for them to use. When allowed to attend movies at the base, they are cordoned off from the other men behind a yellow ribbon. Even worse were the meetings with the vindictive Dr. Klotz who never misses an opportunity to fill Styron with despair and guilt. As the days pass and his test results keep showing high levels of spirochetes in his blood Styron gives in to “self-lacerating reveries”:

Days passed in a kind of suspended monotony of fear. Meanwhile, the weight of hopelessness, bearing down on my shoulders with almost tactile gravity – I thought of a yoke in the animal, burdened-down sense – had become a daily presence; I felt a suffocating discomfort in my brain. Sitting on a camp stool next to my bed, remote from the other marines, I began to withdraw into the cocoon of myself.
When his gums start bleeding the dentist at the base diagnoses him with Vincent’s disease, a type of trench mouth. Styron starts swabbing his gums with gentian violet and the disease goes away. And so too does the syphilis. It turns out that Vincent’s disease is caused by a different spirochete, one which, in rare cases, can appear in blood tests as a false positive for syphilis. Klotz had ignored that possibility and it was only when he went on leave and his replacement, a genial Southerner named Moss, ran the appropriate tests that the truth is discovered. He never had syphilis. Styron complains to Moss about Klotz: “What this means is that Dr. Klotz could have told me there was a possibility of a false positive. A possibility. But he didn’t do that…He could have spared me a lot of misery. He could have given me some hope.” Moss replies “He was punishin’ you, boy, punishin’ you.”

Now, what annoys me in this whole incident is that Styron never gets mad at Klotz. Where’s his anger? He get abused by this odious little man and his main response is depression and despair. Reading this essay I kept wanting to cry out, “God dammit, Bill, get mad! Get pissed off! Stand up for yourself!” Imagine how Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski or Gore Vidal or Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller would have treated this incident. They certainly wouldn’t have compared themselves to burdened-down animals. In the end, one either likes the personality of the author or one doesn’t and, despite all his talent and accomplishments, I doubt I will ever warm to Styron’s emotional passivity.

Still, if you’re a fan of Styron’s you’ll like this book. The essays are all of a personal nature. He smokes cigars (the “havanas” of the title) with Jack Kennedy. He attends Francoise Mitterand’s inauguration. He writes of his friendship with Truman Capote and James Baldwin. He travels cross-country with Terry Southern. Short pieces deal with censorship, movies, and his family’s slave-owning past. He’s dismissive of the list of the 100 best English-language books compiled by the Modern Library, even though he contributed to it. “I was a little shocked at what the ten of us had wrought, not only in respect to the list’s glaring omissions…but in respect to its generally oppressive stodginess.”

And to end on a note of praise, let me say that his description of first reading Truman Capote is spot-on:

The first story of his that I read was, I believe, published in Mademoiselle. After I finished it, I remember feeling stupefied by the talent in those pages. I thought myself a pretty good hand with words for a young fellow, but here was a writer whose gifts took my breath away. Here was an artist of my age who could make words dance and sing, change color mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart – a full-fledged master of the language before he was old enough to vote.

Monday, September 08, 2008

An Arts Grab Bag


Modern Guilt by Beck. Immediately my mind free associates – Modern Love by David Bowie. Is there a connection? No, not really. Beck’s album is
a collection of 10 tight, well-crafted songs. They’re dense and multilayered, drawing on a wide range of influences, from surf music (“Gamma Ray”) to electronica to rock ‘n’ roll (“Soul of a Man” - my favorite). It’s a pleasant enough album and it’s all over in about 35 minutes, but it doesn’t amount to much lyrically or emotionally. It feels slight. One misses the depth and power evidenced on his 2002 release Sea Change.

Visual Arts

The Foster/White Gallery in Rainier Square is as good a place as any to see the strengths and weaknesses of Seattle’s art scene.

Among the best pieces in the gallery are Jamie Evrard’s still lifes of fruit. I like the quick and energetic brushstrokes; it's almost as if the painter was hungry and wanted to finish off the painting so she could eat the fruit. The colors are bright and the paint is often thick, giving the work a sensual appeal. I find that her work is best on a small scale, though. Her large canvases often turn into little more than a chaotic hodgepodge – an impression aggravated by her tendency to let the paint on the lower part of the canvas streak down to the bottom. Why she does this, I have no idea. But her smaller paintings are very good. I especially liked the ones in which Evrard adds a black bar to the painting to additionally frame the fruit (such as in Italia - Four Mandarins, seen above). It adds a concentration and intelligence to the piece.

Dale Lindman’s large abstracts (like Fire and Ice, left) were my favorites. I could lose myself for hours in these paintings. The colors and patterns pull me right in. These paintings feel industrial and yet organic at the same time. Lindman's work evokes the textures of steel, rust, dry and cracked earth, even the channels formed by running water.

Some of the pieces in the gallery were funny - intentionally so, I hope. Judging by Pink Swink (below, right) - which also would be the name of good fruit drink - Bratsa Bonifacho seems to have found inspiration for his art from the blocks of letters used in traditional typesetting as well as from the symbols menu in MS Word (check out the Wingdings set and you’ll see what I mean).

This being Seattle, there is a great deal of glasswork in the gallery – some of it is good, much of it mediocre (a.k.a. by Dale Chihuly).

John de Wit’s surreal glasswork either clicks with you or it doesn’t. His sculptures have the quality of an obsession, like a haunting set of images which the artist just can’t shake. It has the feeling of compulsion, which is good. However, if you don’t happen to share his visual hang-ups and quirks then his work may bore and baffle rather than engage you. In the first category, for me, was his series of what I can best describe as large hot-water bottles wearing crowns (oh, yeah, that's what they look like); whereas his series of sea-polyp/sponge-like sculptures (such as Snappy, left) belonged in the later group. Why did I like one but not the other? Who knows?

Emily Wood’s new paintings, at The Lisa Harris Gallery, are all landscapes of the Idaho and Montana countryside. Although she can do a good job of rendering light and sky these paintings fall short when it comes to capturing the beauty and grandeur of the American West. There’s no doubt she loves this terrain; she just can’t seem to convey that love to the viewer. I think this is due to her fondness for cluttering up her canvas with too many trees and shrubs. Everywhere you look there’s an unnecessary glob of foliage. A more stripped down, abstract approach would suit her better and play to her strengths. For instance, in Hawthorne in Fall (below) simply remove the tree in the center and the painting immediately opens up – suddenly the power of the landscape comes through. Less is more, Emily, less is more.


And finally, the opening scene of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame performed by animated legos.

Very entertaining - even though I would get rid of the music. Honestly, is there any medium Beckett isn't good in?

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Unloved

My Fantoms is a collection of short stories by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872). His name may sound familiar to you (or it may not); he belongs to that second tier of 19th-century French writers who always seem to be hovering in the literary background while figures like Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Zola fill the center stage. You come across his name in the introductions and prefaces to their works – “…as Flaubert wrote to Théophile Gautier in a letter dated May 12, 1852…” or “Hugo’s poetry would later inspire the masterpieces of Théophile Gautier” or “...(Théophile Gautier’s novel Spirite would explore a similar theme)…”, that sort of thing. Aside from his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, the average reader has been hard put to find other works by this author, whom Baudelaire called “one of the masters of writing, not only in France but also in Europe.”

Fortunately, this volume from New York Review Books helps to remedy that situation. It contains seven stories spanning the length of Gautier’s career. All but one – a reminiscence of his childhood friend Gérard de Nerval – are gothic tales of horror and the supernatural. However, these tales are very different from the kind of ghost stories which English readers are accustomed to. They are spiced with a level of eroticism which readers of Poe and Lovecraft may find surprising. While the reader wanders among the typical paraphernalia of ghost stories (crypts, gusts of wind bursting open casement windows, characters with cat’s eyes, excessive use of the word “drear”) suddenly the plot veers suggestively, but unmistakably, into subjects like necrophilia, voyeurism and masturbation. Gautier yokes together the erotic and the horrifying.

The “fantoms” in this book’s title are all women. Some of them are real, some are fantasy, some are statues or figures in tapestries come to life, some are spirits long dead, and at least one (my favorite) is a vampire. They are beautiful, of course, and their beauty mesmerizes, haunts, and occasionally destroys the stories’ heroes. But this is not merely a gallery of femmes fatales; Gautier’s women also deeply love the men whom they enthrall. They are not only providers of sex but of the deepest love imaginable; they are their soulmates. And the horror in these tales, as well as their emotional power, comes from the destruction of that love due to malice, accident, or madness. Like James in the “The Beast in the Jungle” Gautier understands that the most terrifying prospect for people is not the undead or ghosts or demons or other such trumpery but rather the prospect of losing those we love and who love us back and the turning of one’s life into a long prospect of loneliness and regret. “No one is truly dead until they are no longer loved,” one of Gautier’s fantoms says and that sentence is rightly used by translator Richard Hughes as the motto of this collection.

Gautier was a one of France’s greatest Romantic poets and wrote with a gripping visual power. A brief sample will give a taste of it. The most powerful story in the book is “The Priest” (“La Morte amoureuse” in French), a tale in which the newly ordained Romuald falls in love with the beautiful but degenerate Clarimonde – who also happens to be a vampire. Although they never speak, she becomes an obsession to him. He is sent away to a distant parish. Years later he hears that Clarimonde is dead (she perishes after an eight day orgy, we are told) but she starts appearing in his dreams. Soon the priest is leading a double life; by day, as it were, Clarimonde is dead but by night she lives in his dreams where the two of them lead a life of love and debauchery in Venice. Soon Romuald cannot tell which life is real and which is the dream/nightmare. At one point Clarimonde is lying deathly ill on her bed in Venice. Romauld narrates:

I was sitting beside her bed one morning, and taking my lunch from a little table so as not to leave her alone for a single minute. While slicing a piece of fruit, I chanced to cut my finger rather deeply. Streams of scarlet blood immediately began to pump from the flesh, and a few drops splashed over Clarimonde. Her eyes lit up and she took on a wild and savage expression of delight that I had never seen before on her face. She sprang from the bed with an animal agility, the agility of a cat or a monkey, and threw herself upon the wound and began to suck it with unspeakable sensuality. She drank at it in little sips, slowly and appreciatively, like a connoisseur savoring a vintage wine from Jerez or Syracuse. Her green eyes were half closed, and the black pupils lost their roundness and took on a narrow almond shape. Every few moments she broke off to kiss my hand, and then once more pressed her lips against the lips of the parted wound to bring forth a few more drops of red. When she saw that the blood would run no more, she stood up with glistening, brilliant eyes.

It was a stroke of genius on Gautier’s part to make a priest the victim, and a willing one at that, of a vampire. After all, in Christian mythology a vampire would be the inverse of Christ. Christ gives his blood to the believer so that they can gain eternal life, he dies so they can live. The vampire, though, takes the blood of his victims so that only he will live; they will die or become vampires (the undead) themselves. Also remarkable in the passage above (and there’s a lot of remarkable in the passage above) is his comparison of Romuald’s blood to wine – once again, an inversion of Christian, or in this case Catholic, imagery since it is wine which is drunk in the Mass to symbolize (or not) Christ’s blood. And by the end of this story Gautier has so blurred the lines between good and evil, waking and dreaming, and the sacred and the blasphemous that the most malevolent and hateful character is not Clarimonde but rather the Abbot who “saves” Romauld.

These tales contain more than just eroticism and horror, though, they can also be fantastic and surreal, even, at times, hilarious. In “The Opium Smoker” the narrator, dreaming that he is at a friend’s house, notices that the ceiling, previously black, has now been painted a dark, inky blue. The friend denies that any re-painting has occurred:
“Well, my ceiling obviously found it too tedious to remain black. So it changed to blue. Apart from women, I know nothing so capricious as a ceiling. What you have there, is simply a ceiling’s caprice. Perfectly ordinary occurrence.”
Lewis Carroll could scarcely have put it better. As the painter Onuphrius Wphly (in “The Painter”) sinks into madness he imagines that his reflection steps out of the mirror and slices off the top of his skull, “like someone lifting the crust of a pie.” Out pour all the ideal women he had ever imagined, all the heroines of novels he wanted to write, all the figures he would ever sketch, etc. Finding his apartment crowded, he decides to go out and attend a party. His unexpected lobotomy is no hindrance to his social life; rather the reverse:
Ironically, being less than his usual self, he was more adapted to the others. In consequence he was considered to be particularly delightful company and much wittier than normal that evening.
My only complaint about this book is that I wish it contained more than just Gautier’s fantastical tales. He was after all a poet, dramatist, travel writer, journalist, and for thirty years one of the most important critics of literature, theater, and art in France. A more comprehensive selection of pieces by this underappreciated writer would have been better. But who knows, hopefully, My Fantoms will spark a new interest in him, and his works will suddenly be, like the heroines of these stories, revived.