Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Thursday, March 31, 2005

A Streetcar Named Melancholy

My parents and younger brother (aka Small Man) came to visit this last week, and we had a delightful time in Krakow, briefly Wroclaw, and also Gliwice. On our last day in Krakow I insisted that we go for a ride in a tram, as my parents hadn't yet experienced that. They agreed that it was in fact better than a taxi. It was Easter Monday, so the tram wasn't crowded and we all had seats. Actually it was one of these newfangled trams that resembles a bus in width and speed; the older ones often move with a hypnotic slowness. I remember in autumn of 2000 on a plane to Moscow I met a gentle Georgian, a former Muscovite and typically melancholy and expansive emigre intelligent on a brief visit back home, who told me he missed riding trams. At the time it seemed to me a peculiar thing to miss, and I told my wife-to-be about it with a snicker, expecting her to snicker along, but to my surprise she told me that she, too, had a deep emotional attachment to riding the tram.
"It goes so slowly," she said. I've since grown to feel almost the same way. It's not exactly, or only, the slowness-- as I've said, the newer ones move quickly-- but there definitely is something wonderfully soothing and peaceful about the tram experience. (Again, provided you get a seat.) Maybe it's the sense of being on track, tethered to something. Do they still have streetcars in San Francisco? I'd like to one day ride one and see how it compares.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Career Opportunities

If you read a lot of showbiz biographies and are a movie maniac and in general live a fabulous, glamorous life of international intrigue as I do, you learn that a lot of things in history could very nearly have turned out quite differently. And sometimes it's quite tantalizing to think about.

Can you imagine, for example, Marilyn Monroe as Cleopatra instead of Elizabeth Taylor? and directed by Alfred Hitchcock instead of Joseph L. Mankiewicz? Maybe then the film wouldn't have been such a disaster-- not that Mankiewicz and Taylor aren't great, but it would definitely have been a little weirder, and that's something. Still weirder, of course, if Peter Sellers had played Julius Caesar instead of Rex Harrison.

How about Richard Burton as Jesus in King of Kings? instead of Jeffrey Hunter (now famous chiefly for being the first actor to play Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek before the much more talented-- indeed, greatly underrated, sadly even by himself-- William Shatner took over). Can you imagine the vitriol and bile that would have spilled from Burton's lips in the driving the moneychangers from the temple scene? It would have made Burton's acidly self-pitying Hamlet, foaming at the mouth with anti-Semitism (i.e. historically accurate) Wagner, furiously excommunicating Thomas a Becket and hysterically ventilating psychiatrist in Equus seem like the mildest bunch of milquetoasts you ever saw.

Speaking of Hamlet, and Hitchcock: what about Cary Grant as Hamlet in a modern-dress Hamlet helmed by the Master? Of course North by Northwest takes its title and some of its structure and themes from the play, and Terence Rafferty has pointed out that Shakespeare's Laertes was named "Leonard" (just like Martin Landau's character, James Mason's henchman) in some alternate drafts, i.e., in "the Bad Quarto" or something. But as wonderful as NxNW is, it's tantalizing to imagine Grant doing Hamlet as Hamlet... he might just have pulled it off. (He wouldn't have been as good as Mason in A Star is Born, though... most alternate casting realities, e.g. Dennis Hopper as Travis Bickle, confirm a Hegelian view of our universe as rational and elegant.)

And, much as I love him, Laurence Olivier-- Hitchcock's first choice for Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) in Marnie and the British lawyer Keane, eventually played by Gregory Peck, in The Paradine Case-- probably wouldn't have been as bizarrely engaging, or engagingly bizarre, as Connery or Peck, even though Hitchcock later regretted both choices and Peck publicly regretted his participation in Paradine (possibly the best work of his entire career). Olivier would have been ill-suited to the part of Mark (Truffaut rightly saw a feral energy in Connery, as noted in an earlier post, that keeps the film interesting), and perhaps slightly too well-suited to the part of the square, upright barrister fallen prey to an illicit inchoate passion. (He [Olivier, not Keane] writes in his biography, after describing yet another infidelity: "I swear to you, selfishness has been like a gift with me.") Olivier as Humbert Humbert in Lolita would have been fascinating-- I've just learned that he at first accepted the part with glee, and was only later persuaded against it by his agent, i.e. no moral scruples were involved. Same story with David Niven, who I think would have been totally unsuitable. (I love Niven, but when he's doing evil and sleaze, I think Bonjour Tristesse, which shows him at the top of his craft, shows how he should do it.)

Small Man is generally very skeptical about the ornery griping and sniping at, and he has some good arguments on his side, but anyway, it's somewhat comforting, in a minor kind of way, to know that one famous casting decision that wasn't may never have even been seriously considered.

But Allen Ginsberg as Emperor of ISHKCON (International Society for Hare Krishna Consciousness), on the other hand! (He was called upon by Swami Prabhupada to be his successor once when the latter was very ill and expected soon to be dead, but, regrettably, declined.) The mind reels. By comparison Nietzsche's delirious fantasies of "Cesare Borgia as Pope!" look tame.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Bad Sushi Faces

In among the big boys of publishing, power, and politics, a moment of tender loving-kindness, or at any rate, respectful banter, between "neocon" and "lefty," beautifully described by the latter. Well Did You Evah... What A Swell Party that must have been.

Friday, March 11, 2005

When No Means Yes

Late in life, after a series of strokes, Joseph Kennedy Sr. apparently lost all faculty of speech except for the word "No," which he then had to use to express a wide spectrum of emotions, including, often, approval and enthusiasm (i.e. "Yes").

Similarly, in Polish, "No" means "Yes" (or, more accurately perhaps, "Yeah," "Uh huh," "Yep," since "Tak" is the formal "Yes"). In Russian, it means "But." (Russian "Nu" is closer to Polish "No.") "Ja," which in German means "Yes," in Russian and Polish means "I"... etc. etc. etc.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hitler, the Movie: Part 2

It's rare that I see eye to eye with pompous New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffmann, but I find almost nothing to quarrel with in his review of Downfall. (Other than the somewhat distorting tagline that the magazine attached to it.) Said review will therefore substitute for the promised discussion of said film. Alas, it's for subscribers only. Such is the way of the world. No subscription? Better go and see the movie.

I have a few observations of my own, but they're more concerned with tropes exemplified in the film than with the film itself.

It's strange, but my experience of this more or less nonfiction film suffered (or did it gain? maybe so, perversely) from the fact that I was constantly reminded of other, Hollywood or Hollywoodish films.

There was the secretary-audition scene where the prettiest one wins, as in Schindler's List.
There was the performance of children from the same family singing sweetly for guests of an evening and helping them forget about the menace of (coming/ending) war, as in The Sound of Music. (Here there are six Goebbels Family Singers, as opposed to the seven Von Trapps-- although here, if my admittedly imperfect ear did not deceive me, some of the [very sweet] singing was slightly off-tune (warming the cockles of Pauline Kael's ghost's heart, no doubt). Later we get to see them given a cyanide pill by their mother-- contradicting my presumably false memory of documentary stills in Tarkovsky's My Name Is Ivan showing the Goebbels family being shot by Allied liberators-- or did I dream that? Someone straighten me out.)
And there was the general decadent, champagne-and-vodka ambiance of some fairly lucid Nazis accepting the fact of the war being lost, as in another great Christopher Plummer movie, Triple Cross. While the one true True Believer screams defiant oaths, and a number of imbecilic swine are prepared to commit suicide (by firing on an overwhelming number of Soviet troops) in his memory after his death.

Which brings me to what may be The Heart of the Matter. The focus of sympathy in the film, other than the pretty secretary, is a member of the SS, who is also a doctor, Ernst-Gunther Schenck. He is a real-life historical figure. It is he who argues cogently against mass kamikaze suicide on behalf of a dead man, and in other situations also speaks as the voice of reason and humanism. Like Albert Speer (a more controversial figure, whom the film-- based on the writings of the somewhat Speer-worshipping historian Joachim Fest-- presents opaquely, arguably noble and humanitarian in disobeying Hitler's orders for several months, arguably slick and spineless, a master of the art of self-preservation), he is handsome (a cross between the much swooned-over Brit. Lit. professor at the school where I teach, and my friend from Boulder, the punk rock legend Rich Myers) and intelligent and, unlike Speer, he is visibly driven by a real desire to save lives rather than craven personal ambition.

Much like Yul Brynner in Triple Cross, or Marlon Brando in The Young Lions, or Karl Boehm (and, more movingly, Paul Lukas) in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or the German soldier in Vercors' Silence de la Mer, he is "The Good Nazi."

And I have to say that in the controversy over Brando's distortion of Irwin Shaw's monochrome characterization of Christian Diestl, I side with Brando. It is the actor's job to find the sympathetic side of the character he plays, just as it is the novelist's job (see Small Man's recent comment) to find some sympathy with the characters he writes about, and the fact that Shaw failed to do this did not, even considering the context, authorize him to carp about Brando's necessary, compensatory, and intelligent work.

I appreciate, as any thinking person doubtless can, the beauty of the following gesture by the very talented Daniel Olbrychski:

Outcry as Polish actor slashes Nazi portraits
Exhibition of film stills of actors in Nazi uniform is closed
By Georgina Adam
WARSAW. One of Poland's best known actors and film stars is currently under police investigation and faces a possible prison sentence for slashing a portrait of himself, in an exhibition last year in Warsaw's leading contemporary art gallery. The events happened shortly after "The Nazis" opened at the publicly funded Gallery Zachenta. The show consisted of an uncaptioned series of photographs of actors in Nazi uniform, taken from film stills without the actors' agreement, by the Polish artist Piotr Uklanski. Accompanied by TV cameramen and reporters and as the cameras rolled, the actor Daniel Olbrychski, featured in one of the portraits, entered the gallery, pulled a sword from under his greatcoat and slashed some of the exhibits, then tore the two featuring himself from the wall and left. The choice of the sword was significant: it was one used in a film about a swashbuckling Polish hero and patriot Kmicic. Mr Olbrychski later declared: "I defend the right to say that there are some frontiers of decency which were clearly overstepped in this exhibition, and I reacted violently in the hope that my gesture will highlight my objections. I did it in the spotlight of the camera and flashlights because I wanted for Poland to know about my feeling about such 'artistic practices'. Furthermore I received the agreement of other actors whose portraits were in the show, including the French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo who agreed that I should protest in their name. I can understand that there are opportunistic artists but I cannot understand why the director of such a serious institution as Zachenta has accepted this. Soon Mrs Anda Rottenberg [the director] will organise an exhibition at which she will expose the faces of known actors on lavatory paper because she considers that as we are public figures she is entitled to do so. It is unthinkable." Mrs Rottenberg riposted, "In my opinion the artist Olbrisky is suffering from a lack of popularity and therefore created an event so that he should be in the news. This was vengeance against defenceless creation," and called the police, who closed the show. The controversy continued after Poland's Minister of Culture, Kazimierz Ujazdowski, weighed in and called for it to be reopened, but on condition that it was accompanied by a commentary explaining the role of Nazism and the meaning of the exhibition. He added that national cultural institutions must not be the place of exhibitions which could be interpreted as praise for Nazism. With Poland (where painful memories of the brutal German World War II occupation are still fresh) following events day by day, a leading academic, Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, noted that, "In films Nazis are presented as impeccable. They are clean, in well-pressed uniforms; the actors associated with these roles personify the Fascist vision of superman". However, in an open letter 15 Polish artists and critics declared that, "It is in bad faith to interpret the exhibition as a glorification of Fascism; it draws attention to the undoubted fascination of cinema and mass media with Hitler's henchmen". The show has already been seen without incident in London, Berlin and Frankfurt, and some of the works have been acquired by the New York Jewish Museum. Finally, curator Adam Szymczyk, following the artist's request, decided to close the show. Uklanski had refused to make changes, explaining that, "It is a restriction of the freedom of speech when the Ministry of Culture makes decisions about the programmes in cultural institutions financed by public money, and which, in principle, are independent." (Museum Security Mailinglist Reports, December 17, 2000)

It is cheering to find, over 60 years after "Mourir pour Danzig?", the incredible Belmondo, symbol of all that is best in Frenchmen, joining forces with the inimitable Olbrychski against "The Nazis". But the fact is, as dyspeptic Brit reactionary "Paul Johnson" (the tiresomest late-vintage Albert Finney performance since "Kingsley Amis") noted in a recent, atypically lucid and cogent Spectator column inspired by the Prince Harry controversy, the Nazis' tawdry glamour, e.g. the Death's Head insignia and the sexy boots, not to mention the coveted professorship in Fascist Mysticism at Bologna, is one reason why we rate them worse than Stalin's drab functionaries. Because Arendt (and Weil)'s truth about the Banality of Evil has failed to sink in. As has the fact that many Nazi Party members were basically good people deeply committed to a destructive and genocidal and therefore, obviously, evil organization.

There was some controversy over Jack Clay's production of Richard III in the 1983 Colorado Shakespeare Festival, when I was nine years old-- fresh from my triumph as Second Non-speaking "Macduff Child" (non-speaking, but plenty of screaming) the previous year, I tried out for the part of the little Duke of York (the younger of the Little Princes in the Tower), and was rejected, to my (and my family's) bitter disappointment. That, in case you were wondering, was not the main controversy, which had to do with Clay's decision, while setting most of the action in some baroque facsimile of late medieval England, to present some of Richard's men as SS men (a Tuchmanesque "Director's Note" invoked Vietnam). When I heard that there were "Storm Troopers" in the play, I of course imagined George Lucas' sterile white plastic automatons stomping about the Mary Rippon Theater. So I was disappointed to find they were mere SS men. Which, I think, proves my point, that to a child's mind, evil is, or should be, heavy music and fantastic costumes; but to an adult, it should be about actions and consequences.

Oh, and by the way,
Happy Women's Day, everybody!

Friday, March 04, 2005

Signor Ciardi

Later in the same novel:

Signor Ciardi smiled and rubbed his stubbly cheek with a forefinger. Signor Ciardi could dress almost like a tramp, go unshaven for two or three days, and still appear a man of dignity, even of importance, because he believed himself to be one.