Boccaccio: Day 1, Stories 1-3.

Mike's Billiards

I think the fondest pre-reading memory of Boccaccio I have is as I stood outside a billiards-room in Amherst, having been reintroduced to Will after some years, and while I’m trying to decide if anyone realizes that I’m only pretending to smoke a cigarette, he’s trying to make a point about Walter Benjamin’s “Mechanical Reproduction” and asked me, “so, if you’re familiar with Boccaccio, you’d, oh, are you familiar with Boccaccio?”
The Decameron, yeah” Apparently he wasn’t expecting me to say that.
“Of course.”
“Why do you know who he is?”
“I dunno, because I studied English and it’s important to know where Chaucer and Shakespeare got their stories from?”

Of course, I was bluffing. I knew just enough to bluff. But he immediately switched the subject to the connection between Boccaccio and Charlie Chaplin, which, if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I can bluff just as well when it comes to the great silents…anyway, he was dismayed, I was delighted, and we got a place together and lived happily ever after.

One comes across the plague in various forms, a source of fascination to every generation, a muse in every genre, sometimes lightly as Bergman’s Seventh Seal or Boccaccio, sometimes dark, as in Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, or Mary Shelley’s Last Man. At its heart, I think, is the extreme focus of the singularity of man, in whose fragility and amidst a divine silence it becomes apparent that there is nobody watching over us, no higher order, no final recompense; there is only life, which is suffering, and death, which is horrid. But it’s precisely that divine silence that allows brilliance to flourish time and again, not that we need a plague to feel forsaken, as I think the atmosphere of post-Enlightenment war straight through the 20th century has produced  rarely more than works of forlorn schizophrenia to the point that we may have replaced Greatness with Feelings forevermore.

Anyway, Boccaccio so transparently wants to write stories of frivolity yet needs to grant himself license to do so somehow, and so the framing begins. Indeed, he reminds of the horrors of the plague and how it led many to…well, licentiousness. Well, forget them, as his characters are religious and well-disciplined young men and women who, with their servants, of course, pack up and take a trip far off into the countryside, about the distance that I’ll go for a slice of pizza when I’m super hungry, and tell stories befitting such religiosity, discipline, etc. etc.

Master Ciappelletto dupeth a holy friar with a false confession and dieth; and having been in his lifetime the worst of men, he is, after his death, reputed a saint and called Saint Ciapelletto.

And this is where the fun begins. It takes quite a long series of introductions to reach this point, but the payoff is fabulous. The most horrible man you’ve ever heard of becomes a saint because he lies about his deeds. That’s it. And the way he goes about it is so very, very funny, and heretical, and one wonders how things like this become classics anyway.

Abraham the Jew, at the instigation of Jehannot de Chevigné, goeth to the court of Rome and seeing the depravity of the clergy, returneth to Paris and there becometh a Christian.

Just to remind you that one religion is the correct religion, or something, but a brief story with none of the character development, the humanity, of the first one. I think it’s written for one reason, which is to provide an excuse going forward, that “it having already been excellent well spoken both of God and of the verity of our faith, it should not be henceforth forbidden us to descend to the doings of mankind and the events that have befallen them.” Voila. Who can argue with logic like that? The Church is responsible for logic like that, and so…

Melchizedek the Jew, with a story of three rings, escapeth a parlous snare set for him by Saladin.

I haven’t anything else to say about this one. Saladin asks him which religion is best, and he answers “to each his own,” and then happily lends Saladin some money for war and the two become BFFs.

In short, it’s the lovely framing of the stories that I find so fascinating, as Boccaccio, under a pious cloak finds a way to tell us dirty little stories.

I wonder if I can fall asleep this time.

film: (Chaplin) – Tillie’s Punctured Romance

I don’t care if it is the first feature-length comedy ever, because it still sucks–which, I mean to say, is that it contains everything I never liked about American comedies. The majority of its humor is from slapstick violence, some of it’s from alcohol, and a lot is because Tillie’s a real beast. I suppose this would fall into the category “farce”–the same as Comedy of Errors, in which the main purpose is to get laughs, and the only resemblance between two is that despite excessive beatings, nobody seems to get hurt. It grows tiresome to watch these people who seem so alien to their own bodies, falling over everything, having difficulties running or moving or even thinking clearly. However, one sequence of bandied violence, between Chaplin and his crooked girlfriend, was nearly identical to a sequence in The Thin Man. Both begin with one person bumping the other, and end with the man raising his arm back across his body about to strike the girl, and then stopping when noticed by somebody else. In The Thin Man it’s funny because you can see the characters in love, you can see how well they get along, and it’s quite endearing, their little battles of wit and this pretended violence. Yet in Tillie it’s only a droplet in the sea, it’s nothing–it’s not cute, it’s not sweet, it’s not funny. Yet–the one thing that confuses all is when Chaplin and his girlfriend are caught making out. It’s as if they may love each other after all. I don’t know–perhaps I don’t have a good sense of humor. I began watching a Will Farrell movie–uhm, Anchorman–everyone was talking about, and had to turn it off after fifteen minutes of not even finding something to smile at, and the same goes for School of Rock which I watched half an hour of last night. Not funny. I can tell when I’m supposed to laugh. But it just doesn’t do it for me. Yet the Dick van Dyke Show does. In any case, I’ve decided life is too short to watch any of the other Fantomas films, or Tillie films. Fuck that.

film: Neilan: Stella Maris (1918)

1918. I fall in love with Mary Pickford every time I see one of her films, and it’s difficult to remember that her hands were smooth and delicate, her body serenely curvaceous ten years before my grandfather was born. I cannot imagine her slacks torn, her belt broken, and yet watching her, how she loves, and how her heart breaks, I wonder how indebted I am to her for knowing the motions of love–is it she who taught me to slump in the corner or hold your hand to my chest or kiss the top of your ear and bury my face in your hair? Is it she who taught me that when the deus ex machina feels Aristotelian that’s just what we call love?

There was a three year age difference between us, me and the 15-year-old girl with whom I’d fallen madly in love. It was a very large gap at the time. To make things less awkward the first time we went out, I brought my best friend along and she brought some other girl, I don’t remember who. The moment she set eyes on my friend, she fell for him. Maybe they might have ended up together, but at first he loved me too much to hurt me like that, and later he ended up falling in love with some sexless knockout who nearly drove us all off a bridge in an attempt to spite his love. You can see photographs of the four of us looking painfully lovesick as we carried on in such torment for nearly three years.

Horatio Alger does not always prevail: the character Unity has an unfortunate face, a poverty of intellect, and a dearth of grace. But she’s played by the stunning Mary Pickford, who also plays Stella Maris herself. If the name Stella Maris indicates nothing but the character’s untainted purity, the choice seems a bit heavy-handed because the character is so predictable and empty; Unity, on the other hand, only lives up to her name by saving the day in the last five minutes of the film. It seems obvious that the drug-addict-wife needs to die, but it doesn’t seem entirely apparent why Unity has to commit suicide also. Stella Maris was born into misfortune, and upon rising from it becomes disenchanted with humanity. Unity is born into comparably bad circumstances, and only rises far enough to be a servant seemingly doomed to become an old maid. But the fact remains–underneath all that makeup is a very pretty Mary Pickford. So couldn’t the story just…you know, let her turn out happy? Of course not…The real turning point came when we went out on a date, the four of us, and then went back to her house to watch a movie or something–she asked me to get her a drink, and I walked to the kitchen before, looking back onto the sofa, I saw the two girls clinging to my best friend. It had been a set up! I was just a vehicle for propriety, and now they realized there was enough of him to go around all at once. I stormed out.

I find it easy to remove myself to the year of the film, to appreciate the maturation of photography, the use of the iris and the close-up and special effects (like two Mary Pickfords on screen at once, or a dog imagining another dog). After seeing the earliest Chaplin and Feuillade films it’s not difficult to be swept away simply by how the camera tracks away from the embracing characters in the closing shot, bumping along the road one can see appear just before the picture fades out; it’s not difficult to laugh or cry or lose your breath at the way Unity creeps through the shadows darkening all but a luminous stripe across her eyes, foreshadowing everything noir. These things become habit in later years, and if analogous to our own lives, we would, ideally, focus on intellectual pursuits; and so it seems natural that film should become more edifying as it grows less clunky. But not everything appreciates with time.

So, I left the house to cool off, take a walk. I removed my shoes because the air was so warm. And then my socks. And then my shirt. And my pants. And then through the populous suburban wonderland I marched a mile and a half down the center of the street in my underwear. I made it back to the house crawling, my feet swollen with blisters, bloody where I was lucky, and my best friend carried me to his car and drove me home, where they lanced my callous feet, again and again, blisters over blisters, a hundred times, and set me in an easy chair to dry. I was an eccentric, and he was a man, and that’s why they loved him and looked upon me as no more than a curiosity.

film: Newmeyer, Taylor: Safety Last! (1923)

Click picture for licensing details.
Click picture for licensing details.

Drinking for seven hours, and suddenly the inclination to make fun like this, and it’s not unusual? Mentioning Kafka is rarely a smart idea. The only instance I can recall when it was okay was during a discussion over whether the Germans or the Czechs have more claim to him. Using the word Kafkaesque is never a smart idea. Ever. No, I take this all back: one has to earn the right to use the word in the same way Milton claimed to have earned the right to blank verse, something one earns through perseverance and bleeding fingers. Mostly I hear the word dribbling out of the mouths of people whose reading lists comprise little more than The Metamorphosis, On the Road, and maybe something by Bukowski. And would the word be better replaced by “nightmarish?” Yes, I think we could successfully eschew Kafka in our idle chatter and the sun might continue circling the earth.

The idea of “Kafkaesque” brings another detail to my mind, something that the term does not mean, something I’ve never heard anyone mention before. And the reason I call it forth now is because this slapstick romantic comedy uses a similar technique. I meant to discuss the importance of Harold Lloyd here, but this technique is more important to me:

A technique Kafka enjoyed using, at least in his short stories, was to begin by presenting a major problem, and instead of solving it, to instead solve an extremely minor and unrelated problem and present that as the dénouement. What this means, essentially, is that we’re dealing with a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. I just came up with this shit, my head hurts, but golly, thanks booze! This differs from my general theory of tragedy, in which what’s bad for the protagonist is generally good for some lollygagging third party, e.g., what’s bad for Hamlet is ultimately good for Denmark, differs because what’s good for the protagonist is bad for the protagonist. I cannot remember a specific example in Kafka, but I do recall observing this.

So, now we have Harold Lloyd, and here’s a brief synopsis: he moves to the city to make his fortune so his girlfriend can marry him. He gets a shit job, barely makes ends meet, and writes to her that he’s very wealthy. She finally comes out to see him and hilarity ensues as he repeatedly convinces her that he’s rich and important. And then he invents a zany scheme to become rich, very dangerous, and pulls it off so that he’ll win $1,000. Super. The film ends as he and his gal walk off arm in arm, presumably to get married the following day. Is he worse off than before? Yes. Because in the beginning:
• His girlfriend is an idiot.
• He landed his best friend a police record.
• He needs money to eat.

And by the end:

• He’s now also got a police record.
• He’s been lying to his girlfriend and has a lot of ‘splainin to do.
• He landed his best friend in jail.
• He alienated all his coworkers.
• He got hurt a whole bunch and now has to cover medical expenses.
• He broke a very large and expensive clock.
• He needs new clothes after his adventure.
• His girlfriend is still an idiot.
And where did all his problem-solving energy go? Easy. He spent the last half hour of the film trying to climb a tall building in a publicity stunt. Climbing the building becomes the main problem. But what about all the money he wins in doing so? I mean, really, $1000 is a lot of money, especially when we see that his rent is $14 per 3 weeks, and a meal is only 15 cents. Let’s do the arithmetic, shall we? Roughly, rent for two equals $880 per year, and food for two is around $365. That’s $1,245. What I mean is that he’s by no means wealthy, and will probably spend most of that money on fixing all the things he’s damaged. This should all be beside the point, and I’m writing now 14 hours later, with a hangover, because it’s early cinema doing comedy, and there’s something of an appeal to the down-and-out American that we love so well. Chaplin, for instance. We don’t consider it a tragedy to leave an American in rags, because we know that there’s always riches in the future. Horatio Alger’s bootblack Ragged Dick doesn’t begin in tragic circumstances like a chimney sweep of Blake’s, and there’s the great American dream, that the future always looks brighter. Recent polls show that for the first time in the history of the U.S., a majority of citizens believe that the nation’s best years have passed. And perhaps it’s that new mentality that forces our comedies to tie up all loose ends positively, why we’re not going to create a comic hero with the depth of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton these days.

A last note: this film exploits the capabilities of the new medium immediately by tricking the viewer into believing the protagonist to be in jail as the film begins, about to be hung. When the camera changes position, we see that he’s only on a train platform and our eyes deceived us.

film: MacPherson: Borderline (1930)

Click picture for source
Click picture for source

I was always judged very harshly by my appearance, which was something I never took much time to consider. It was around the time that my sister told me I’d taught her a valuable lesson, “that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you,” when I found myself with a host of new values, spending all my time shopping, grooming, tanning, fine-tuning the science of conversation, and, in a word, only caring about what others thought of me. Most people I went to school with are hard on the path to marriage now, and most seem to have really let themselves go, and me? I’ve grown more irresponsible and vain with every passing day, dedicated to nothing more than satiating my senses, living fantastic stories, and doing all I will to brutalize these deep breaths, my firebrands, my progeny, my animation. So, I suspect one of the key reasons I’ve been so enchanted by silent films lately is purely a sexual matter, whether it be Rudolph Valentino or Mary Pickford, so be quite sure that I’m not exaggerating when I claim to be in love. They entice my eyes. But H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), oh no, she does not. And yet she was Pound’s lover, and I find him to be enthrallingly handsome…so, clearly, her intellect could shine through that dangerously steep forehead and that brick of a jaw, a face I could not even bring myself to look at until I tried to convince myself she was actually a man, oh, the relief when she was finally murdered in this film. But why, oh why, did everyone else in the film have to be nearly so ugly as well? What I mean is I don’t care about art or entertainment: I care about pretty.

Director Kenneth MacPherson was a film theorist whose sole surviving film, Borderline, was considered by G. W. Pabst as “the only real avant-garde film,” remarkable considering this film was made in the same year as L’Age d’Or, and Le Sang d’un Poete, both the latter of which Henry Miller extolled for many years (while consistently leaving MacPherson’s work off his lists). This leads one to consider the logistics of distribution of art films in Europe at that time, given Borderline’s role in advancing the career of Paul Robeson and being what would today be considered an international effort—and also wonder why Cocteau and Bunuel’s work went unmentioned. While the use of montage may not add to the semblance of a narrative (indeed, what narrative might one draw from a film exploring the dictates of the unconscious?), it does not hinder the flow, adding something of a poetic rush to it, Eistenstein under restraint; this is furthered by the hand-held use of the camera, giving the film a naturalistic feel amongst the violent strobing. And this is where we find art, perhaps, couched somewhere in between the unnecessary and the useless.

Maybe Pabst looked highly upon this film due to its use of excessive facial close-ups, something he made use of in his 1929 Pandora’s Box¬. Things taken for granted now were, for most of the history of drama, impossible, viz., subtle facial expressions, and this is one of the key elements that differs between pop and art films of the silent era; recall Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc and the way that facial close-ups are even now some of the rarer shots in contemporary film. One can see the progression through Feuillade or Chaplin as expressions slowly take the place of grandiose gestures…perhaps it’s only logical that it progressed so far as New Yorker fiction, in which plot was replaced by subtle character development, character development later replaced by inferences, and presently the inferences have been replaced by drivel. And you wonder why I drink myself onto the ceiling every night. Today, perhaps it’s the expression of the full body emphasized, or even the tone of voice, something early sound films did poorly, as a soft voice is analogous to a face’s subtle expression, and radio depended on flailing rather than lilting voices. I’ve written a bit about William Powell and how by 1932 he was a shining example of modern speech. Indeed, the majority of this film is carried by expressions, conscious hyperbole (as opposed to early film’s somewhat vaudevillian methods of acting), and frequent synecdoche as close-ups are used not only on faces but also on hands, arms, and torsos. Silent film may be likened to a deaf person whose other senses are thus heightened, and rarely does a film make use of all our senses. In this film one feels dirty from the spilled drinks and blood everywhere, tastes and smells the smoke and booze through its glorification on every character’s breath, hears the piano and phonograph so constantly seen, and lives the anxiety of the cutting, the lighting that switches from shot to shot, a film one lives, not views.

Borderline (okay, let’s try to be mature and academic) comprises extensive cuts, both in the physical film itself through the montage sequences, and in the domestic fight scene, during which H.D. wields a knife wildly and cuts her lover in a few places. And then there’s the demarcation of male and female, homo- and heterosexual, black and white, shadow and light, dream and reality, indoors and outdoors, hardwood doors and beaded curtains, water and alcohol, dancing and fighting, violence and joy; there are the fluids that will not remain in their vessels, whether blood that gushes, or drinks that spill, and, throughout all, the heretical concept, the heart of borderlines, pulses that nothing can remain static, nothing is born in its grave, that all will break free and finally converge.