Thursday, August 26, 2021

On Being Translated

It is worth saying something about the condition of the writer who finds himself being translated.  Being translated is not work for either the weekday or the abounds in violent and conflicting emotions.  The author who finds before him a page of his own work translated into a language that he understands will, variously or all at once, feel that he has been flattered, betrayed, ennobled, X-rayed, castrated, planed smooth, raped, embellished, or murdered.  Rarely does he remain indifferent toward the translator, whether his is an acquaintance or a stranger, who has jammed his nose and his fingers into his viscera: he would gladly send him, variously, or all at once, his own heart carefully packaged, a check, a laurel wreath, or his seconds for a duel.

        - Primo Levi, Other People’s Trades (1985)

Thursday, August 19, 2021


Have you sometimes thought, dear sweet friend, how many tears the horrible word “happiness” is responsible for?  If that word didn’t exist we would sleep more serenely and live in greater peace.

    - Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Alfred LePoittevin, 

         June 17, 1845

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Values of the Enlightenment

I believe that one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness is the set of values inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  This is not a fashionable view at this moment, when the Enlightenment can be dismissed as anything from superficial and intellectually naive to a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs to provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism.  It may or may not be all that, but it is also the only foundation for all the aspirations to build societies fit for
all human beings to live in anywhere on the Earth, and for the assertion and defense of their human rights as persons.  In any case, the progress of civility which took place from the eighteenth century until the early twentieth was achieved overwhelmingly or entirely under the influence of the Enlightenment, by governments of what are still called, for the benefit of history students, “enlightened absolutists”, by revolutionaries and reformers, liberals, socialists and communists, all of whom belonged to the same intellectual family.  It was not achieved by its critics.

                Eric Hobsbawm, “Barbarism: A User’s Guide” (1994)

Monday, February 24, 2020

Local Hero

Watched Local Hero this weekend.  So good.  I saw it when it first came out in 1983 but haven’t seen it again in many, many years.  It holds up well after all this time.  Still charming.  Still quirky.  Burt Lancaster still perfect as Felix Happer, the comet-obsessed CEO of an oil company who wants to buy a small Scottish village and turn it into a petroleum processing facility.  Peter Riegert still good as MacIntyre (Mac, for short), the not-entirely-unlikeable yuppie sent to acquire the town, though he’d rather do everything by telex (google it).  And the town and its inhabitants – enchanting and winsome, as always.  Whimsy can sour over the years, but that's not the case with this film.

Bill Forsythe wrote and directed.  To judge by the many extras on this Criterion Collection release, his sensibilities are far more abstract than one would suppose.  He emphasizes several times that he wanted MacIntyre to be as bland and nebulous a person as possible, he didn’t want a strong and domineering leading man.  Mac’s assistant Danny, played by a young and goofy (and pre-Dr. Who) Peter Capaldi has a much more forceful personality.  As Forsythe points out, if Local Hero had been given the typical Hollywood treatment the two characters would have been merged into one.  No doubt.  And Mac would have been a manly type with a love interest (in the actual film Capaldi gets the love interest, not Riegert).  And instead of a charming and eccentric oil millionaire there would have been some unbearable asshole as the heavy (think of the EPA Administrator from Ghostbusters).  And of course our leading man would have put that son-of-a-bitch in his place at the end of the film, and probably become rich and famous in the process.  Then freeze-frame on our victorious hero, cue the rock-n-roll (Journey, Pointer Sisters, Bob Seger, etc.), fade to black, roll the credits.  I think it was federal law that every comedy in '80s had to end this way.

Burt Lancaster
But Local Hero didn’t play by any of those rules, and that's one of the many things that made it special.  It wasn’t like all the other dreck playing in 1983.  Here was a unique and idiosyncratic vision.  And underlying it was Forsythe’s total indifference for telling his story the “normal” way.  “Oh, I can’t be bothered with that rubbish,” he seemed to be saying to the viewers’ expectations.  And it was irresistible.  Another filmmaker from that era who shared Forsythe’s contempt for the status quo was Alex Cox, whose equally quirky and unforgettable Repo Man would open a year later.  I’ve always regarded Forsythe and Cox as cinematic brothers.  The former hailing from Scotland, the latter from Britain.  Both outsiders with a rebellious, even punk, sensibility (though Cox was, obviously, more in-your-face about it).  They were independent filmmakers too soon for the indie film breakthrough of the late ‘80s, but much too late for the “New Waves” (French, American, Czeck, etc.) of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  

Peter Capaldi and Peter Riegert
From our vantage point it may be hard to recapture some of the freshness which Local Hero had on first release.  For instance, Victor the Russian (Christopher Rozycki).  He shows up to attend the town's party and to check up on his financial investments.  He's a big, boisterous, lovable teddy-bear of a Commie, nothing like the scheming, murderous, Soviet bastards of Reagan-era schlock like Red Dawn (1984) and Rocky IV (1985).  There was something slyly subversive about Forsythe's unwillingness to play along with the rest of the culture's clichés.  Local Hero is also a wry twist on British post-war comedies about Americans.  Had it been made two or three decades earlier (and been subjected to the pro-forma British studio treatment) the film would have been about how a bunch of plucky local Scots foil the plans of greedy Americans to take over their village.  Forsythe inverts that mythos - now the townspeople are more than eager to sell the village for as many millions as they can get.  In one of the films many charming touches one of the townsmen asks MacIntyre for his autograph as the latter is about to leave in a helicopter.  One immediately wonders why.  But, really, why not?  He's made them all rich, he's their hero.

And that's one of the aspects of Local Hero which, to my mind, hasn't aged well.  Its obsession with getting rich is very much representative of its era.  Forty year later that conceit doesn't have the same bright sheen as it once did.  In the intervening decades we've all learned that the folks promising to hand out big bags of money usually end up fleecing and bilking the people they alight upon.  In the early 1980s, at the dawn of what I believe it's safe to call The Golden Age of The Big Con (an age which, you won't be surprised to learn, is still going strong), Local Hero has all the wide-eyed gullibility of a true and perpetual mark.  But this is a minor quibble with the film.  And it turns out that reality had a finer sense of irony than the movie itself.  Two different villages were used to create the town of Furness in Local Hero; one for the beach and one for the town itself.  Both villages are still there, but the one used for the town, Pennan, has created a tourist industry for itself based on the film.  They've barely changed at all; they even kept the red telephone booth on the pier.  It wasn't petroleum which made them money, it was fans of the film. 

Peter Riegert and Denis Lawson
Local Hero is one of those movies in which the locale is such a strong presence that one feels that it should receive an actual credit along with the actors and crew.  Other films I would also put into this category include Lost in Translation (co-starring Tokyo), To Live and Die in LA (co-starring LA (duh)), and The Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis (co-starring The City and Night).  In Local Hero the Scottish countryside, the sea, and the sky are essentially characters in the story.  They work their magic.  Much of this is due to the magnificent cinematography of Chris Menges, who seems to suffuse each shot with radiance.  I swear he actually captures the atmosphere in the air on this film.  Local Hero was one of the first movies I saw in which I found myself just getting lost in the sheer beauty of the shots, and at several times in the commentary track both Forsythe and his interviewer, Mark Kermode, suddenly fall silent, taken about aback by the beauty of Menges work.  The soundtrack by Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler has also been justly celebrated.  In fact the music is probably more iconic of Local Hero than any of the film’s images (with the possible exception of the red telephone booth).  And now there is even more Local Hero music.  Last spring the musical version of the film opened in Scotland; music and lyrics by Knopfler, and the book by Bill Forsythe and David Greig.  It opens this summer in London’s Old Vic theater.  

Peter Reigert, Burt Lancaster, and Peter Capaldi
Forsythe has characterized this film as "Brigadoon meets Apocalypse Now."  Brigadoon I get, but Apocalypse Now seems like a stretch.  However, both Mac in Local Hero and Willard (Martin Sheen) in Apocalypse Now have similar trajectories in their stories.  Both leave civilization and journey "up the river" into a strange environment (the village/the jungle) which ultimately transforms them - one into madness and murder, the other into possibly becoming a decent human being.  Very different outcomes.  It certainly seems to me that the shot, late in the film, of Happer's helicopter coming out of the sky and landing on the beach is a pretty blatant visual homage to Coppola's film.* 

Jennifer Black and Peter Riegert

The small things in Local Hero are often the most memorable and moving.  "What lovely long lashes you have," the pretty Stella (Jennifer Black) says to Mac at one point.  And he is completely taken aback, flummoxed.  He sits there speechless, lost.  Later in the film he and Stella's husband, Gordon (Denis Lawson), get plastered.  Gordon is negotiating on behalf of the village and during their drunken discussion Mac mentions that he loves Stella (whom in truth he barely knows) and will want her for himself as part of any final deal.  The moment is both funny and sad, a sign of Mac's deep loneliness.  Speaking of which, there are few things more haunting in 1980s movies than Mac's return to Houston at the end of Local Hero.  In two long hand-held shots we follow him as he enters his apartment, puts down his bags, empties seashells out of his pocket, and pins up some pictures on the wall.  Then he walks onto the balcony.  Night is falling in Houston.  We hear noises from the street.  We see the downtown city lights in the distance, out of focus.  Knopfler's plaintive guitar softly wails.  Then the distant city comes into focus and the image of Mac blurs.  Yet we know there's nothing in that big bright city for him anymore.  It may as well be a million miles away.  But the final shot of the film, which I'll let you discover for yourself, redeems it all.

Peter Riegert in Houston

If I really wanted to run wild with this whole Local-Hero-as-Apocalypse-Now theory (and perhaps I shouldn't) it's worth noting that the Scottish film is largely a retelling of the narrative of the American one.  In this fakakta analogy of mine, Mac isn't really Willard, he's actually Kurtz (Marlon Brando).  He's the one who goes upstream and "goes native."  And Happer is actually Willard.  He follows after the rogue agent when things get out of control.  Happer then "terminates" Mac "with extreme prejudice" not by killing him (as Willard will kill Kurtz) but rather by sending him back to Houston (which is also bad). 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Razzia sur la Chnouf

If you were to compile a list of the coolest movie stars who ever lived, there is little doubt in my mind that Jean Gabin would be in the top ten, if not the top five.  And if you wanted a film to justify that claim you could scarcely do better than Henri Decoin’s fantastic Razzia sur la Chnouf (Drug Raid) from 1955, recently released on DVD/Blu-Ray by KL Studio Classics.  It will also be part of the Film Noir Foundation's Noir City 2020 line-up which will be touring the country during the year.  See the schedule for details.

In Razzia (as it was called in the US) Gabin plays Henri Ferré, a gangster returning to France after a successful stay in the US.  Crime boss Paul Liski (Marcel Dalio) has a special project for him.  The heroin business in Paris isn’t doing as well as it should, and Liski believes that Ferré is just the right son-of-a-bitch to break heads and increase his profits.  To that end he assigns him two hit men (Lino Ventura and Albert Rémy) to help motivate those in the racket who aren’t keen on the new requirements.  Ferré also gets a nightclub to manage (it’s a good cover for him, too).  There he starts up a love affair with the young cashier, Lisette (Magali Noël).  

Jean Gabin

A title card at the beginning of Razzia tells us that this film was made to educate the public about the evil of drugs and to dissuade the viewer from ever getting involved with them.  Now, anytime a film begins with that type of earnest disclaimer you can bet that the crimes/sins/evils we’re about to see will be depicted in the most flattering, appealing, and irresistibly enjoyable ways - and you would be right.  Razzia is a delight.  The world of crime in it is cool, romantic, exciting.  It probably won’t make you join the French heroin business, but you’ll sure want to dress and act like you're part of it.

And at the center of it all is Jean Gabin.  This is a stolid and stoic performance.  The less Gabin moves and speaks the more compelling he is to watch.  It’s like there’s a gravitational field of cool around him.  He's Bogart-esque.  At one point he catches a waiter (Robert Le Fort) trying to steal food from his nightclub.  He slaps the man across the face (he does a lot of slapping in this movie) and sends him back into the kitchen to return the food.  The waiter comes back out and apologizes, explaining that he's broke from a 14,000 franc gambling debt.  Gabin, who's barely moved since he smacked the fellow, calmly pulls out a wad of cash and gives him 10,000 francs.  So smooth.

Jean Gabin and Robert Le Fort

Gabin had been the top French movie star during the 30s and 40s but with the coming of World War II he emigrated to the US, where he hoped to start up a Hollywood career.  Instead, he encountered total failure.  He made only two films in the US and both bombed.  He just didn’t catch on with American audiences.  When he returned to France after the war he wound up having trouble catching on with French audiences as well.  His career was floundering.  But in 1954 he starred as an aging, tired, weary gangster in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi.  It was a huge success and Gabin was a star once again.  Life, failure, and the passage of years had kicked the shit out of him, and that gorgeous face was now lined and furrowed and grizzled and wounded.  In other words, it was the perfect face to play a gangster, which he would do for much of his remaining career.  He would play cops, too, because, per the unwritten rule of gangster film casting, if you have the face to play a criminal, you have the face to play a cop.

A gambling den

Words and a few stills cannot capture the pure visual gorgeousness of Razzia.  This film is opulent and lush - sensuous, even.  It's hard to overestimate just how visually beautiful French films of the 1950s were.  Francois Truffaut may have railed against the stifling "tradition of quality" in the French film industry of that time, but sixty years later I find it hard to agree with him.  Decoin, cinematographer Pierre Montazel (who also shot Touchez Pas au Grisbi), and the production team led by Paul Temps have created a feast for the eyes in Razzia.  When Gabin takes the lovely Noël to his apartment to sleep with her all we see at first is a completely darkened room, except for a window with some outside light.  Then the door opens.  The two of them enter, silhouetted by the hallway light.  It's only a brief moment but it's poetic and evocative.  Yes, this is exactly what taking a new girl home to bed feels like - or should (for both parties).  At another point Gabin visits the lab where the heroin is processed.  It's a small room but when he enters we see the immense shadow of a slowly rotating fan completely fill the space.  This film has dozens of visually breath-taking moments like those.  Honestly, Razzia is so sumptuous on the eyes that if it were publicly acceptable to drool at the movies, I'd need to wear a bib when I watch this one.

Albert Rémy and Lino Ventura motivating a colleague
And now that we're on the topic of cinéphiles and drooling, one week after Razzia opened in France, Jules Dassin's equally brilliant Rififi (arguably the best heist film ever made) had its premier.  Yes, April 1955 was a good month for Parisian film-goers.  Both movies, by the way, are based on novels by Auguste Le Breton.  Without Le Breton French crime films would be short of many a gem.  He would later go on to pen The Sicilian Clan, and a year after Razzia he helped Jean-Pierre Melville adapt Bob le Flambeur for the big screen. Le Breton had been a petty criminal in his youth and no doubt much of the docunoir detail about the distribution of heroin in Razzia is based on solid second-hand, or maybe even first-hand, knowledge.  Le Breton even has a brief cameo in Razzia as one of the patrons at Gabin's nightclub.

Jean Gabin and Magali Noël
The rest of the cast in Razzia hold their own with Gabin.  It's a delight for fans of French film to see him paired again with Marcel Dalio.  The two had co-starred back in the '30s in Jean Renoir's Grande Illusion and Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko; both classics.  Dalio also went to Hollywood during WWII, but he had more success than Gabin.  And, yes, you have seen him onscreen; he played Emil the croupier in Casablanca.  Magali Noël is completely fetching as Lisette.  Her striking face would subsequently enchant Fellini, who featured her in many of his later films (which, frankly, were little more than testaments to their creator’s endless fascination with faces).  Lino Ventura and Albert Rémy bring a cold malevolence to their roles as hitmen.  There are more than a few times when one wonders if they’ve actually shown up to whack Gabin.  I’ll watch anything with Lino Ventura in it anyway.  From the time I first saw him in Melville’s Army of Shadows I’ve found him one of the great underappreciated actors in French films (at least outside of France).  I love his quiet, easy toughness, his total unflappability.  He’s got the face of a man who’s see it all and is yet totally centered and at peace with the evil world around him.  Razzia was only Ventura's second film (his first was, you guessed it, Touchez Pas au Grisbi), and Gabin viewed him as something of a cinematic successor to himself.  If only...  The French film-going public, it turns out, had different ideas, and the next big male movie stars in France would be Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon.  Which wasn't so bad after all.

Lino Ventura, Albert Rémy, and Jean Gabin

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Respectable People

Respectable people…What bastards! 
    - Emile Zola, The Belly of Paris (1873)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Danger of Indignation

Indignation and goodwill are not enough to make the world better.  Clarity is needed, as well as charity, however difficult this may be to imagine, much less sustain, toward the other side.  Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about social indignation is that it so frequently leads to the death of personal humility.  Once that has happened, one has ceased to live in that world of men which one is striving so mightily to make over.  One has entered into a dialogue with that terrifying deity, sometimes called History, previously, and perhaps again, to be referred to as God, to which no sacrifice in human suffering is too great.
            - James Baldwin, “The Crusade of Indignation” (1956)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cousinly Love

The Americans and the English are bound together at present by the ties of war, and by that sort of cousinly love which expresses itself in private by foaming at the mouth.
- Bernard Shaw, “Why Devolution Will Not
              Do”, The Irish Statesman, November 15,


Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Problem with Opinions

The problem with opinions is that one is stuck with them.
      - Susan Sontag, “The Conscience of Words” (2001)