Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.

Schlock!

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film: Dan in Real Life (2007)

One of the rules I try to keep is that if I wake up, I should get up. In the middle of the night it’s easy to convince oneself that if only it was possible to get out of bed at this moment ownership of the whole world is within grasp, every notion of genius in all history with every heartbeat, every car slipping past, every sleepless bird singing because the streetlights never go out—get out of bed and the world can be mine. But before making that move you begin to question it all. Sure, you can get up and do something great, but you’ll just get sleepy within a couple hours tops. You could drink coffee. Yeah, but that’s not healthy, four hours of sleep and some coffee, in fact, you really need to stop drinking coffee past five anyway, what were you thinking? But the ideas! They’ll be there in the morning. Write them down now. Well, nothing to write with, okay you’ll remember them. Yeah, but, you rationalize, maybe I feel sick. Maybe I feel hungry. I should eat. Maybe I have to piss. So you get up. There. The supreme impetus to greatness: the refusal to piss in one’s own bed.

So, I’m up! Checking vitals. Hungry. Eating snack. Head aches, teeth ache, therefore I’m stressed. See lava lamp and get tears in eyes, therefore I’m getting older. We find words to express degrees of being alive. I wake up thinking about my grandfather, I wake up thinking about how he’s got medications making him piss out whatever’s made his legs swell up. You don’t have a chance to run a few tests on the stability of your soul before giving it a good pat and sending it up to heaven. You’d think that one by one you could piss out your organs if they weren’t doing right, being that regardless everything finds its way out of your body whether you’re alive or not. So your legs swell up. Piss it out. We’re teaching robots and computers to fix themselves, but when your heart goes bad, you can’t just piss it out, you don’t wait until your last organ is passed before heading up to heaven. You take a look around, see where the neighborhood is heading, lock up and head out, you can always come back for the plumbing later if you find the need.

We watched Dan in Real Life last night.

A few days ago she made a comment on how something or other “that’s why I’m not really interested in history, I just don’t see how it applies.” I explain that I wasn’t interested until I began seeing how it applied—that at the end of the day I often don’t see the past as present. And not in a metaphorical sense. I listen to the news and they discuss the Ukraine, civil war, the loss of the Crimea to the Russians, I think “well, I don’t give a fuck, that’s not my family’s land.” By which I mean the land we never owned outside of Kiev that we left more than a century ago. And that’s when it strikes me: I will never, ever get another story out of my grandfather. All this time, and I still don’t know what makes him happy. Well, I try to console myself, I got a lot of stories out of him. I took all his slides. But what of it? My father’s known him for 60 or so years. I have a handful of great stories from this past week alone. Who asked me?

So then you resign yourself to all the things you aren’t, all the things you define yourself by and yet aren’t. Well, let’s face it. I’m not a poet. I’m not a songwriter. I’m not much of a musician. No, I’m just another schmo trying to make a buck so I can tack another room onto the condo. In WWI when most of the French didn’t speak French they handed you a language. That’s what they used to do. Give you a language. A team. An economics you tie yourself to with credit and can’t never get away from. I have allergies and poor digestion and keep thinking, yeah yeah, if I could just get this idea to get me all rich I could be happy because then I’d have a doctor and could buy all the starbucks I want! I got my insurance card in the mail today. Seems like just yesterday that I was advised to try to stay healthy for the next four years or so and then Obamacare will kick in and at least they can’t reject me anymore. Now that they can’t reject me, I’m bitter because they want me to pay for what I lied and begged for before. What is it that I want? To read. To attend synagogue and feel closer to God. To be French. To practice piano. I dreamed last night that I was walking up and down an aisle of books of classical music. I was determined to buy one.

It isn’t that our parents are getting older. It’s that they’ve always been older. It isn’t that I missed out being friends with them when I was young. It’s that we play certain roles. I couldn’t drink beers with my dad when he was in his 30s because I was busy being his child. I would joke with my grandfather, on my birthday tell him I’m catching up to his age. We feel time standing still, but we see it moving around us. It’s everyone else who’s getting older. What about them isn’t habit? What about them can we extract while it’s still real energy, what can we listen to that isn’t an echo of words they said decades ago? I see this look on her face, and she says “right!” in a way that indicates she’s annoyed with me—it happens when she remembers that I lived for 30 years before we met. It’s how I know that when you find love, you can’t expect from it to replace the people who have died. There are holes that must never be filled. You have just to expect it to pick up where the people who’ve died left off. Left you. With holes. You can’t expect your wife to be your grandparents too. She has to just take you and love you despite your grandparents-shaped holes. Most of those holes I guess you just cover up, put them on paper, and just keep building out your life, looking back when nobody’s watching.

Young and Innocent (1937), Mixed Nuts (1994), and This is 40 (2012)

Nova_pilbeam_young_and_innocent

I’ll take any opportunity to use this lovely photo of good ol’ Nova Pilbeam again. I was in love with a British girl once, and I couldn’t understand a thing she said–and she wasn’t trashy either, she was quite proper and dainty, perhaps the daintiest person I’ve ever met. But I couldn’t understand anything she said. Brits talk differently amongst themselves than how they talk around Americans–that’s true. It’s hard to catch them at it, but they have this whole unintelligible language that sounds very nice, but it’s all vowels. Watching dear Nova Pilbeam reminds me of resting beside little she, as she spoke sweet words of love and I alternately said “what?!” or just kept my mouth shut and figured I’d just assume all those breathy vowels were probably the loveliest of poetry. Anyway, she was as full of shit as they come, so better to just fawn over Nova Pilbeam and her tearless weepings, frumpy outfits, and dated finger waves.

We each chose a film. My choice was Young and Innocent, a Hitchcock number from 1937 that I’ve seen before. Two things make the film spectacular–one being my deep eternal affection for Nova Pilbeam, two–a long take that stands out remarkably for the period. I get it mixed up with another, that I believe may be in his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Muchbut that’s part of what I love about Hitchcock: his willingness to repeat things to perfection.

In Young and Innocent, the whole film, in my opinion, hinges on this shot–the audience has been searching the room for the murderer, and the camera finds him through this achingly long take that moves from beyond the room right through the crowd, to the farthest wall, right up to his eyes–a technical feat, to be sure, but one that forces every last person in the audience to hold his or her breath until we see the telltale sign of guilt–the murderer’s nervous twitch.

From here, the camera takes leave of all the characters we’ve come to know so well, introducing us to the villain, giving him about as much personality as one can earn in thirty seconds, being the first time that anyone who has gone mostly unaffected by the main characters is given that much space in the narrative.

Hitchcock is always masterful and in this film he’s no less at his finest than any other–he’s my favorite director because he always delights me for a hundred reasons. Marna thought it was silly.

Mixed Nuts– I know, right? It’s getting to the point where any film I’ve seen reminds me of someone I’ve had something with. Not as impressive as I always expected–it holds a place in my memory of a video (that is, VHS) rental place in Killington, Vermont, above a grocery store, and when you’d first walk in the door, the grownup comedy section was to the right in a small corner, and there it was, eye level, facing the door. Well, so, it’s got that screwball darkness that seems in fashion during the late-80s and early-90s, Beetlejuice, Death Becomes Her, Drop Dead Fred, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Groundhog Day, Funny Farm…hm, I never thought of that age as dark until now…but all those films leave a yucky feeling in me, the Addams Family without costumes.

But what that gives way to, ultimately, is Judd Apatow’s newest one, This Is 40. Not keen on it. Every time I see a film in which I’m the only person not laughing, it turns out to be one of his. Maybe I don’t laugh enough. I don’t give a fuck about the bad language, I sometimes find the naughty bits tasteless insofar as they’re completely unnecessary–I don’t mean that in a conservative way, but I mean, like, honestly, the movie was too fucking long to begin with, and we had to have the colonoscopy/poop-scenes/prostate-exam/mammogram/testicular-check/hemorrhoids montage also? Also there’s no plot beyond people driving Lexuses complaining about money problems. Maybe I’m missing the point.

This is one of those films that leave you feeling edgy though. There’s no moral. It comes from a dark and hopeless place that leaves with little more than a notion that indeed, if you have enough power you can pretty much make a movie about anything.

Bataille, Story of the Eye, “Simone”

Pull out your pencil–we’ve got another awkward fantasy to illustrate. So, in this one, Marcelle’s legs are over the narrator’s shoulders, she’s pissing on him while he’s pissing on her breasts, and Simone’s also pissing on her back, and he’s poking Simone’s nipples with guns that have just been shot, and Simone’s pouring creme fraiche on Marcelle’s anus, and that pretty much covers it. When you stop and think about it, the length of time it takes to get into this position is probably longer than the amount of time they can spend enjoying it. Also, synchronized urination is probably fairly difficult to achieve. But that’s the beauty of fantasies, I suppose.

Part of my efforts to gain more time in my day and health in my life has involved poaching an egg every morning. If I fail to cook my egg, I don’t get to eat until lunch. If I try making it and it explodes or something, I only get to eat what I can fish out of the bowl. I’ve been trying to not just “try harder” at doing stuff–I’ve been actively punishing myself for failing, all across the board. Punishments work so much better than rewards.

But this chapter is where our star duo begin playing with eggs, raw, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, in the bidet, in the toilet, in the anus, you name it!…which is going to make breakfast tomorrow morning significantly more unhappy than usual for me.

Something about the eggs strike the characters as particularly blush-inspiring. Eggs, like eyeballs (yes, she tries to suck the narrator’s eye out of his head); eggs, like testicles (which, unfortunately, we’ll come to a wonderful description of in a later chapter). A fascinating parallel here is in this novel’s being published a year before the release of Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel’s first film, in which that classic eyeball-slicing scene takes place. (Yeah, you know you want to see the eyeball-slice…so here you go, you hero, you.)

Upon my asking what the word urinate reminded her of, she replied terminate, the eyes, with a razor.

Published a year before Bunuel filmed this scene!! And so long as we’re discussing Spaniards and testicles, it was Lorca who described Spain as stretched out “like the hide of a bull. . .it has the shape of an animal hide, and a sacrificial animal at that. In this geographical symbol lies the deepest, most dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character.” And, indeed, the characters will make their way to the bullfights (where the testicles make their dreadful appearance).

As the chapters progress, you might have noticed, the symbolism is getting piled on pretty thick, complete with italics, just in case you missed the connection between eyes and eggs (a connection which must also be in French, as I’d ALWAYS mix up those two words while speaking French, particularly while grocery shopping, to the horror and delight of my pals).

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this extended run of entries about Bataille, but for now we’ll have to say farewell to him for a little while, as we’ve reached page 40, which according to my reading list means it’s time to move on to other books for a while.

Tanaka: New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

The radiators are screaming like lobsters boiling alive, outside the sounds of things coming and going, wind whistling in the tree, sirens, planes zipping around, in short, a frighteningly noisy night. A week ago the place was a cornucopia of delights, breads, fruits, juices, yogurts, everything a boy could want. But now, it’s back to Frosted Flakes for dinner, there might be a spare apple, it might be soft on the bottom.

I had a little party last night. Not a Halloween party, just a party. We drank Abbey Cocktails and took turns sitting on our three chairs. I have four mugs, but they were too hot to drink from, so there was drinking from measuring cups instead. It reminds me that for ten years I’ve been hanging out with Charlie, we do the same things as when we were young.

I’m still overwhelmed, but I’m beginning to get back to swimming with the current rather than against it.

When they switched to color, they also switched to a director who seemed particular fit for filming in color. The lengthy shots of forest landscapes are magical even forty years later, and that’s a lovely thing, mastering color the instant it becomes available, a sort of timeless mastery that only can be called ‘classic’ since it stands up to whatever high-def version of beauty is available now. And in that beauty one senses the blindness of Zatoichi all the more, as he becomes part of the landscapes, hobbling slowly and silently across the screen, stopping to sniff and swallow in that horrid way we’re all ashamed of needing to wash our hands about, he makes us feel awkward because there’s something wrong with him. But there we are, seeing a beautiful landscape in these long, slow camera movements, superior to poor Zatoichi, who despite not being able to see, can sense the landscapes much more acutely than we can see them. His story continues as he kills off more people he loves, and a bunch of others, we deal with the necessary moral ambiguity, the girl who loves him, and the end.

Mori: The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

Everything compounds until I’m ripe for madness. The iron will not heat when I plug it in, no matter how many combinations of switches I try, not even when I unplug it and place it on the radiator. I’ve used it once. And that’s the way with us here, we use things once and then they commit suicide. The dishwasher worked once, and then began emptying its bowels on the kitchen floor. The hookah worked once, and then its copper pipe split in two, and if one wants to know why stereotypes persist, go speak with the salespeople at Tobacco Club & Gifts Inc on Cary St (Carytown), Richmond, Virginia. Here’s a conversation that we have once a week, every week, for three months now:

“You come back tomorrow and man who can help you here, but what can I do today? I am the only one here, and if I go through that door and get you what you ask for then nobody out front, so I cannot do that.”
“But…what about the other three guys working right now?”
“Yes, they can’t help you either. I want you to be happy, I would give you the piece you need, but I just can’t go back there. I’m new. I just started. What can I do? You see, perhaps you fix it yourself with a little bit of wire.”
“But we spent over a hundred dollars on this thing and we don’t want it to look like crap, you can understand that right?”
“Of course, of course, but what can I do? I am new, you need to speak to someone else.”
“One of those guys?”
“No, you need to speak with the other man, he come in tomorrow.”
“With the mustache.”
“Yes.”
“I already spoke to him, he told me the person who needs to help me is in another country.”
“What do I know, I am new.”

But ironing. When I die and they compute how I spent the majority of my time on earth, ironing is going to be second to sleeping. And I have an iron that will not iron. It also turns out that $50 can’t buy you an ironing board that stands up on its own. All life becomes a test over how you spend those eight precious hours you have to yourself each day. Within them you must eat three to five meals. You also must shop for the food. And prepare it, cook it. And then clean the dishes and the kitchen afterward. You must commute to and from work. You must buy the gasoline and rotate the tires. You must put on your clothes, and take them off, and wash them, and iron them. You must wonder what that dull aching pulse in the back of your skull is and judge whether or not it has anything to do with your dizziness. You must find the perfect balance of coffee and alcohol to both stay awake and happy just until bedtime. You must wake up two hours after falling asleep to take an assortment of acid-reduction pills. You must burn your leg on the radiator while trying to open the window. You must go back to your parents house every time you need to do something that doesn’t involve a broken modern convenience. To press a shirt. To toast a slice of bread. To seal an envelope. Even the water here doesn’t work right. Not the plumbing. The water. The only way you can get the trash collector to take the trash is if you leave it outside the trash can. The doors are set in their ways. And my head is rebelling. I’m even dizzy in my dreams.

So if one thing is certain, it’s that things compound. If one thing doesn’t work, it has to snowball. It can’t just be too warm in the house, you also need to have diarrhea and a plastic bag wrapped around your head.

And that’s why I identify with Zatoichi today. In the first Zatoichi, all he’s trying to do is find a place to hang out, eat, sleep, for a night, but by and by he ends up having to kill a whole bunch of people, which leads their relatives to seek revenge, and what for a moment was just a request for a bowl of soup turns into needing to kill fifty or sixty swordsmen. None of the moral ambiguity of the first episode. It’s always okay to kill people who are trying to kill you. In Virginia, though, you have to be fancy about it. Let’s say you carry a gun, and somebody tries to kill you, you’re allowed to kill him in self-defense, but only accidentally. If you do the whole “two shots to the chest, one to the head” thing, then you’re the one who gets in trouble. My favorite scenes in Japanese movies are when everyone who’s been killed by the hero is still in the process of dying, rolling around on the floor groaning as the hero walks away. That’s my whole life, rolling around on the floor and groaning as the heroes walk away. The heroes today? The iron. The wrinkled shirts. My equilibrium.

Misumi: The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

I’ve been in a rut lately. We both have. I suspect it has something to do with that quarter-life crisis everyone’s going through. There’s so much potential for action that always seems to manifest itself in decisive inaction. Shopping for dishes, putting books in thematic order, wondering how two people can create such an enormous pile of laundry, beginning and ending each day with a bowl of cereal. We have no idea where to turn, how to take another step.

I practiced music for seven hours yesterday. Mostly bass, but some piano and guitar, cramming Led Zeppelin as fast as I can. And about six hours into it my fingers suddenly came alive in a way that they haven’t done in perhaps a decade now, with a speed I remember having as a teen, but lost when I stopped performing. My fingertips aren’t blistered either. But we have a show tomorrow night and I’m terrified to put in any more time practicing today, an hour and a half, really pushing myself with strength and speed exercises, so scared that I’ll wake up to stiff fingers. Monday afternoon and evening I spent 11 hours working on a paper with my cousin, a paper on the structure of Frankenstein. It doesn’t take long before I’m pacing around expounding on “Mont Blanc” versus “Ancient Mariner” and Coleridge’s “high imagination” as Mary Shelley’s enemy, on some balance between this and that and trying to find busywork for my cousin before he throws me out at 1am, promising to paraphrase the paper I wrote for him and to return all my library books. I would love to be a student or a professor or something in academics, because I know I can sit there writing papers and feeling like it’s a game of rummy cue.

And then I’m stuck wondering if I should do the dishes, finish this beer, read for fifteen more minutes, practice, or what? I finished up all my medications for this sinus infection today, but I screwed up the schedule of steroids, prednisone, and I think I’m paying for it, I can’t tell, my instinctive solution to anything and everything is to drink a Red Bull and see what happens. I’m seeing what happens.

Before I began watching samurai-sorts of films, I assumed, as I expect most people do, that samurai films are like any other action or martial-arts sort of movie. They’re not. And here’s why: because there’s no action. Newer films like Kill Bill are at times true to this by dispatching speedily the fights with the greatest buildup. So Zatoichi carries this martial minimalism to a degree that could probably only be surpassed by sleeping characters dying peacefully. It’s the tale of a blind swordsman. He’s not a samurai, so there’s none of that pesky baggage of masters, ex-masters, shame, etc. to get beyond. He’s just an oafish blind guy who stumbles around like Mr. Magoo, gets himself into silly situations, and then kills everyone. Oh, and he also a real heartbreaker. The point is, the swords are beside the point. The main character has no objectives, conflicts are resolved via invisible violence, and you’re stuck with 90 minutes of morally ambiguous character-development.

Neame: Hopscotch (1980)

I let Criterion select comedies for me. Well, I let them select anything for me. But their comedy selections are always perfect and end up being some of my favorite films…

but I can’t really come up with anything to say about this film except that it made me feel good. I don’t want to own it, but I could probably watch it again. How can my brain be so blank?

Well, there’s this: I’m sick, I’ve got some sort of nose and head thing, it’s infuriating. I’ve got a plate with bits of cheese on it beside me on the bed, and the dog is wandering in circles on the bed trying to not let me know that he’s wondering about the cheese plate–but I made a wall of Kleenex and books and a lambchop doll, so he’d be pretty conspicuous if he really went for it. And in the meantime, I went downstairs to get that cheese plate, and thought maybe I should have some nuts too, you know, for protein. So I went to get the nuts out, and it was ant city in there. I mean, they’ve been around lately, particularly today they keep making their way into bed with me, but we haven’t figured out where they come from. Now we know. They come from behind the dishwasher.

So I sat there with the vacuum cleaner, just massacring them, though you can see them wandering around inside, and finally we took some bug killy spray and squirted it in the crack behind and above the washer. The way I justify the ants coming to get the food is that I bought some food that I shouldn’t have; it’s not kosher, and I figured I’d just not eat it in the house or something, but that was what they found, a whole bunch of blueberry muffins; and the way I justify killing them is that in some ways it’s a matter of life and death. Will I die without the muffins? No…but if I let the ants take all my food and I could never eat any because the ants had taken it, then I’d die. It’s a matter of nuance, I suppose. And I hate things like that because, of course, I believe if you play nuance with life and death, God will play nuance with you too.

The only solace is that we don’t even know what life is. Certainly we can’t create an ant, but beyond that, we don’t even know if an ant counts as an individual or if an ant colony is actually the individual itself. In which case it’s like chopping off a little toe or something. That’ll grow back in about half an hour. Nuance.

And after killing hundreds of these things, I take my cheese plate and wander upstairs to try and kill off the infection inside me that’s also trying desperately to live. It all hankers after the biblical Jonah story, but not the whale part, rather, the part about the little tree dying and his being angry that it must die.

…and in Hopscotch nobody dies.

Phew, didn’t think I’d be able to make a connection after all!

Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

There’s a technique surely everyone’s now familiar with in suspense or horror films: humor. Often the first part of the film is lighthearted, which serves to…well, you know, make it so that everyone in the audience is really primed to be emotionally demolished.

Hitchcock’s actors in the Man Who Knew Too Much included Peter Lorre, who worked with Brecht, and Nova Pilbeam, who  married Pen Tennyson, great-grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who took over the post of Poet Laureate from Wordsworth, who’d assumed it after Robert Southey, totally mocked by Lord Byron, and Tennyson’s descended from Edward III, of pseudo-Shakespeare fame, and Blake pseudo-fame. Hitchcock, who considered Bunuel the greatest director, Bunuel who worked with Dali, Hitchcock who was worshiped by Truffaut, Truffaut who called Night and Fog the greatest film ever made, which was made by Resnais, who thinks Nathalie is a sweetheart, and so do I, and tomorrow I really need to call her.

I mean, when you stop and think about it, that’s all so much more fascinating than the lies we’ve been told about the good intentions of George Washington.

Hitchcock remade this film in 1956, my comments here, and the film is fairly dense both structurally and in terms of character development. It’s a gorgeous example of the director knowing more about the characters than he lets on, and because there are no explanations, we’re left believing these people are real. Is it necessary? No. Does it make the film more forceful? Yes. But what other differences are there?

Well, to start with, I’ll remind you that this is a story about a child being kidnapped and how his parents go about saving him. The 1956 version has a weaker female lead whose strength is in her musical ability, weakness in her mental fortitude, and the film is just as much about the saving of a child as the saving of a marriage. The 1934 version has a couple with a delightfully sense of love and humor, a British version of Nick and Nora Charles, though The Thin Man‘s earliest European release date is from the same month as this film’s release! So much for Nick and Nora Charles being essentially American. The mother in this story also happens to be a sharpshooter who saves the day not by singing, but by sniping the baddie off the fucking roof. Yeah. Imagine Doris Day with a rifle.

It always gives me a little chill when Brits show anything that look like real emotions. Maybe that’s why I like Lily Allen.

In the 1934 version the child is played by the 15 year old Nova Pilbeam, who’s made to seem much younger, but who, in actuality, was a total hottie, and one of the only starlets of that era with whom I still have a chance to, you know, get with. Even if she is 90. I’ve seen some pretty vibrant nonagenarians. If you have her email address, please let her know.

Compare her with the boy in the 1956 version. Both kids are talkative and walking calamities, but Nova Pilbeam is adorable and the boy is insufferable. I hate him. The kidnappers can have him, because I hate him from the very first scene. It’s also worth noting that Nova Pilbeam’s acting stands out as superb, especially considering the differences compared to other actors of the period. The final scene, when she’s a little hysterical/shell-shocked, is stunning–it’s unlike any sound I’ve ever heard uttered on film up until that point. And her pajamas, prisoners stripes, are a sickening addition for the wardrobe. I must add, though, that anything I watch from this period is with one eye toward the trenches of the Western Front, another eye toward Dunkirk, and that awful understanding that as this film was being made, even one of its stars had already fled Nazi Germany.

We only think time goes quickly because we have the capacity to suffer so horribly during short periods.

But a hundred summers ago we had no idea that the British Empire was about to collapse. King Edward died in May 1910, which means that the film Mary Poppins begins before that date (“it’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910 / King Edward’s on the throne, it is the age of men”) — Kaiser Wilhelm, his nephew, was at his funeral, and the family name was still Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Wilhelm blamed the German disillusionment with the war, and subsequent collapse of the country, on the Jews, stating that they should be wiped out as a vermin.

“And if we spoke we’d never see her again. It’s her life against this fellow, Ropa’s. Why should we care if some foreign statesman we’ve never even heard of were assasinated?”
“Tell me, in June 1914, had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo? Of course you hadn’t. I doubt if you’d even heard of the Archduke Ferdinand. But in month’s time, because a man you’d never heard of killed another man you’d never heard of in a place you’d never heard of, this country was at war.”

And there you have it. That’s how the world works. That’s logic that every single person in the audience would have understood. Our ancient history hadn’t been written yet. Perhaps it reminds you of today. A man we’ve never heard of is supposedly going to open a building whose purpose we don’t know, on a street none of us can name and certainly can’t find on a map. And the whole country is in an uproar because the Republicans see it as evidence that our president is a terrorist sympathizer. We’re all slaves, every single one of us. Stupid fucking slaves whose lives, to our leaders, are worth less than the ink on our birth certificates. But god, we know how to suffer. We know how to take a bee-sting and feel it for an eternity. So it’s easy to think you have all the time in the world, easy to think the Great War happened before the invention of consciousness. But it was just yesterday. I’ve met and touched a man who fought there. There’s so much more to life than the petty shit you find important.

And here’s some recommended reading on Hitchcock’s 1930s films as anti-German: http://www.filminfocus.com/article/hitchcock_at_war/print

and lyrics and footnotes to “The Writing of Tipperary” http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/w/writingo.html

Truffaut: The 400 Blows (1959)

“You take him from here. I’m going home.”

It’s those three little words. “I’m going home.” They really strike me as getting to the heart of things in this film. Not in some silly metaphorical sense, I mean, but literally: this guy has finished up at work, though he’s not finished with this particular job, he’s just handing off the boy to another officer, and he’s going home, where he lives, where he’s likely in charge. Maria Montessori said that children are the most oppressed group of people in the world, and that’s partially what this film is about. The boy barely speaks, and when he does it’s of the lowliest parts of the adult canon, yet somehow we know that he’s good, and know what he’s trying to do, to just get by, to follow his little heart! He doesn’t know where he’s going, that’s obvious, but the same could be said of most of us anyway.

One of the puzzling things to me about this film is how Paris is a character. Is it that Paris is just so beautiful that we can’t take our eyes off her? No…Paris could be ignored, she’s just another city. Yet these lovely cuts of Paris adorn the film every few minutes. And I’ve thought about this for years until it occurred to me today, when the boys get off the metro in Pigalle, why it matters. This is a French film, made for the French and for speakers of French. Films in New York? The Empire State Building looks like any other from the street level. None of the bridges are so remarkable, one from the next, Carnegie Hall is fairly chaste, Central Park might mean you’re near Harlem or midtown, Union Square and Columbus Circle aren’t particularly special…there’s a reason why films in New York show us the cityscape and then plant us on some anonymous street, which is that the physiognomy of New York isn’t ubiquitous in our hearts. What’s the difference between SoHo and Tribeca? But Paris? We don’t need to be told what to think when we see its streets, because it isn’t so fond of novelty as we are here. Vuillard was painting the cafe Wepler more than a century ago, it survived both wars and more than another sixty years. Pigalle means something, and it doesn’t change. Like the pyramids. Part of the charm of Paris is that it knows precisely what it is, and it doesn’t have to be, nor does it try to be, everything…it just has to be Paris. So Truffaut doesn’t have to tell us where he’s filming, he doesn’t have to describe the parts of town, because we already know them, they’re heavy with meaning.

The only other examples that I know of offhand are Blake’s cosmology being symbolically London-centric, and maybe even the Wizard of Oz being a metaphorical representation of the United States. The US doesn’t have any city that the world ‘knows’ but the country as a whole is subject to a fair number of stereotypes we’re all pretty comfortable with. And I continually return to the uncomfortable notion of London and Paris being important places…where else are we supposed to know? Didn’t the rest of the world have history too? That’s what I’ve heard. Yet looking at a map of the world’s major powers in the early 1500s, China’s stuck with ancestor worship, Japan’s essentially an eternal Sparta, Muscovy fairly isolated and otherwise interested in eastward expansion…I don’t know enough about the Ottoman empire to characterize it at all, but Western Europe has all its powers fragmented. But there’s London. And there’s Paris. England and France are the only two countries still recognizable on that map (and Spain and Portugal…but…um…)–it’s not just that those cities were there, as plenty were, but it’s the meaning that each of those cities held at the time, and that remains in our consciousnesses today, it’s their calm longevity in an otherwise frenetic western world.