It wasn't long ago that I eagerly looked forward to the arrival of each week's New Yorker in my mailbox. Now that I've been a subscriber for a little over a year, I experience a sinking feeling every week as I lug yet another installment of intellectualism upstairs, where it's doomed to join its neglected brethren in a backlog the size of which induces in me a Dostoyevskian feeling of guilt. Each day of my currently overfull and overharried life, I find myself thinking, at least once, "Shouldn't I set aside just fifteen minutes to lessen my New Yorker load?" As I drift off to sleep at night, those alternately ironic and charming covers emerge from the depths of my consciousness to haunt me- how dare I sleep when there's reading, important, quality reading, reading I've asked for and actively subscribed to, awaiting its due attention?
The wicker "magazine rack" containing my exponentially expanding, Blob-like collection of what must now be considered back issues has become like a sullen, wronged spouse. "I do have a life outside of you, you know," I think at it. And then, in melodramatic exasperation, "What do you want from me?"
I have to confess that I've recently begun indulging in the luxuriantly adulterous habit of "skipping." This consists of going back and reading only the pieces of glaring interest to me (catching up with Madeleine L'Engle, for example, or Anthony Lane on the Ingmar Bergman retrospective, or any short story by Alice Munro) before tossing it back into a pile from which it will maybe never escape to the light of day again (sorry, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Updike, Roz Chast, and Ian Frazier; you?ll have to wait!). This shameful practice can be likened to biting the top off of a filled muffin, sucking the center out, and throwing the rest away; horribly piggish, yet I have the feeling that almost anyone could relate.
The rather neurotic desire to be a Cultured and Literate Person is something I've always been afflicted with, which is sort of paradoxical when I consider that my desperate, sweaty, worried approach to the enterprise hardly fits the intellectual image, and it's unlikely to go away anytime soon. Having been deprived of the kind of childhood that comes with a baseline awareness of and appreciation for literature, music, cinema- all arts fine and popular- and lively discussion thereof, however, I've known for a long time that I'm doomed to overcompensate forever. Sometimes it's a blessing, preventing my tendency to backslide into complacency, but it can also be a monkey on my back. "He fills his head with culture/He gives himself an ulcer," goes the old Gang of Four lyric, and I'm afraid I know all too well what they're talking about, although I sort of resent the implication that the feeling comes from being a self-indulgent bourgeois zombie (I'm at least fairly certain I'm not a zombie). "At home he feels like a tourist," indeed.
-Speaking of tourism, a recent trip to Vancouver, B.C. has only added fuel to my blazing fantasies of becoming a Canadian citizen (they have their origin in the current state of this country, where President Kerry has actually come to sound like a sweet relief instead of the standard-lowering settling tactic it really is). We were there only two nights, but what a pleasure of a city. With its clean, green beauty, pedestrian-friendliness, excellent and efficient public transit (please, god, let Seattle's debacle of a monorail project miraculously end in something as exemplary as the Vancouver SkyTrain!), its general feeling of optimism and an urban plannning job well done, it was much more like Portland times ten than anything resembling poor, disheveled old Seattle.
We journeyed a couple of scenic miles outside the downtown core to something called the Bloedel Conservatory, a little piece of jungle contained inside a dome-shaped greenhouse that in turn contained inside Queen Elizabeth Park. It was full of strange birds, mostly parrots with the Dickensian-eccentric personalities, which was actually pretty fun, although probably not for the exact reasons intended by whoever runs the show.
We rode Amtrak up, checked into the beautiful Georgian Court Hotel just a couple of blocks outside the heart of downtown, and spent the first afternoon just exploring. We ended up having a cheap little outdoor lunch, where we were chatted up by a very friendly young woman about our age who was sitting at the next table over. We asked her what she?d recommend an outsider do in Vancouver, and then she said, in an oddly significant tone, "Well, have you guys been to Davie Street? Davie Street is pretty cool." Come to discover that Davie Street is to Vancouver what Capitol Hill is to Seattle, or the spot where Stark meets Burnside has been to Portland. Basically, what the girl was saying was, "I think you two very obviously gay fellows would have a swell time amongst your own kind." Normally, I would've bristled at least a little upon this kind of ghettoization, but it was obviously well-intentioned and harmless; aiding my magnanimity was our discovery of a fantastic Greek (ha ha) cuisina down there, as well as an all-desserts restaurant where I inhaled a huge slice of memorably dense cheesecake. I don't care in the least about house music or the ability to be walked around on a leather collar in public without anyone blinking an eye, but I absolutely feel at home in any neighborhood that offers good, plentiful spanakopita and cheesecake.
The cultural highlights of the trip were the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery and a brief but very enjoyable visit to the the Coliseum-like Vancouver Public Library (I?m pictured in front of both). The Warhol stuff ranged from early, charming, very minor drawings to the famous Campbell's Soup cans and celebrity portraits to some rather disturbing (because of the artist's apparent pokerfaced impassivity), politically loaded stuff- an electric chair series, Chairman Mao, hammers and sickles, a car crash, the mourning Jackie O. The presentation included an impressive yet accessible amount of context and explanation. Also of great interest was the very contemporary "From Baja to Vancouver" West Coast-themed exhibit, which included several entries from public-participatory projects initiated by Portland?s own Miranda July as part of her "Learning to Love You More" series.
Before and after the extremely touristy Granville Island, we had lovely green oases in Stanley Park on the one side of the harbour (spelled the Canadian way) and Vanier Park on the other; Granville lies directly in between and is the kind of place that offers an abundance of cotton candy and not much else. The parks and the harbo(u)r are gorgeous, though; it was a long walk, but with the sun shining above us and the harbor breezes easing the heat, we were able to stay upright until taking a ferry back across the harbor.
Prior to seeing it up close and personal, I'd always (mistakenly, as it turns out) associated Vancouver with hippies, heroin addicts, and my brother getting beat up at a seedy waterfront bar somewhere. There were definitely more than a few homeless people and panhandlers to be met on Vancouver's streets of gold, but in the same numbers and of the same ultimately harmless variety as those in Seattle and Portland; otherwise, I recalled that my brother may not have the most tact or the best instincts for watering holes, realized that there wasn't a stray needle or tie-dye T-shirt to be seen anywhere, and found that my heart had been completely won over by the disarming pleasantness and cosmopolitanism of this vibrant yet soothing place; it can have me back anytime.
I lately seem to have this greedy thing for experiencing films in groups; whether by the typical same-director association (Bresson's A Man Escaped and Lancelot du Lac, Kurosawa's Stray Dog, The Lower Depths, and Rhapsody in August) or the more unusual organization by theme (L.A. noir: The Grifters led to Chinatown led to L.A. Confidential and, if I only had sufficient leisure time, could've led back to Kiss Me Deadly, In a Lonely Place, and The Big Sleep).
-The Kurosawas were a treat. Because of a bias that has everything to do with my own personality and predilections and nothing whatsoever to do with the quality or worth of the films themselves, I?ve always needed to muster more focus for his samurai films than his less famous but, to me, equal if not superior contemporary/dramatic films. My entire Kurosawa triple-bill consisted more or less exclusively of the latter variety.
Stray Dog, from 1949, is like a feature-length exploration of what happens to the cop in Magnolia after he loses his gun; it's only loosely a police story and much more about the vulnerability of and, more significantly, the entire desperate postwar milieu of Japanese society. As in The Lower Depths, the "bad guy" is discovered to be not innately bad at all; there is, in the satisfying moral grayness, a certain peaceful resignation, a resignation without despair.
The Lower Depths is mentioned in Susan Sontag's essay "Theatre and Film" as an example of a film mistakenly considered "play-like" (or "stagebound") simply because its setting is confined and it is a more or less faithful transcription of the play upon which it's based (Maxim Gorky's play, in this case). But Kurosawa is incapable of being uncinematic; his film of the play utilizes the camera and, especially, the editing room almost as effectively as Dreyer did in his excellent, "stagebound" Gertrud (another example invoked by Sontag).
The play itself involves the desperate lives and corroding faith of a true underclass of people (it's telling that the first thing we see in the film is Buddhist monks, a sort of underclass themselves, dumping trash over the wall onto the literal hole-in-the-ground shanty in which our motley crew resides- the difference is respectability, or lack thereof). Their worldly condition acts on each of the group- a prostitute, a dying woman and her all too pragmatic husband, a thief, a wise old man, an alcoholic actor, etc., as well as a landlord, his scheming wife, and her scapegoated, Cinderella-like sister- in different ways, briefly bringing out the best in some and consistently bringing out the worst in most. The salient quality of the character's words and actions is their insistence on undermining any little scrap of faith or hope they can sniff out in one another; it's part compassion, keeping everything earthbound in order to stave off the despair that comes with faith and hope disappointed, and part viciousness- if I can't find any hope, you can't have any, either. The last line, in both the way it's spoken and the way it's edited, with a sharp cut to black, is like something from a Neil LaBute movie; funny, harsh, and terminal in more than just the temporal sense.
The earlier Jean Renoir-directed Lower Depths, included in the two-disc set along with the Kurosawa, is a minor but wonderful French-pastoral example of the great auteur's always self-effacing but total and ingenious control of the medium (a particularly memorable composition contains a meditation upon the predictable and finally unimportant reversals of human fortune as a protagonist lazily watches a snail traverse his hand). Compared with Kurosawa's version, it has almost nothing to do with the Gorky play, with the text apparently used as a creative springboard only. It's more Renoir's than it is Gorky's, which is hardly a complaint.
Rhapsody in August, released in 1991, revisits the postwar theme of Stray Dog some 50 years on. It was the next to last film the master directed, and its every frame indicates that it's from an entirely different, post-Ran phase in Kurosawa's career. There is a lushness that makes his earlier work seem businesslike and a certain sentimentality that makes his earlier work seem harder-boiled. Four modern-day Japanese children- a young woman and her cousins- visit their grandmother in the country and discover through her that there is a great raw nerve of wrenching loss, sadness, and equivocal, muted hostility surrounding Hiroshima that is apparently lost on the younger, more ambitious and much more Westernized generations of Japanese (the generation between the grandmother and the children, with their social-climbing, status-conscious sycophancy, to an even further degree). It's slightly familiar generation-gap stuff, but the resplendent style Kurosawa developed in his golden years brings out a certain profundity, or at least edification; he's even able to make Richard Gere, in a tiny but pivotal role, look good.
-The Grifters. Stephen Frears is possessed of a style that is, in its own way, as artificial as Brian de Palma's, but since his subject matter often (as in My Beautiful Launderette) seems significantly less well-suited to unreality than de Palma's cartoon sex-murders, it's sometimes been difficult for me to get beyond. What begins in The Grifters as a strange, almost theatrical self-consciousness becomes by the end very resonant. The three characters- the mother on the make (Anjelica Huston), the dame on the make (Annette Bening), and the shockingly vulnerable con man caught in between (John Cusack) are anachronisms, seemingly transported intact from the movies they imagine they live in, which adds a tremendous amount of pathos. This device worked very well, with Elliott Gould as the anachronism, in Altman's The Long Goodbye (my favorite, after 3 Women, from that overrated but interesting art-curmudgeon).
Chinatown and L.A. Confidential are both engrossing, stylish, remarkably well-made glimpses into the pitch-black shade of those L.A. palms that don't quite offer the extra layer The Grifters does; there's really nothing new I can say about either of them, but of course anyone who's see them will be able to picture how well they go with Frears's film. All this thinking about these specific kinds of characters trawling the underbelly of that particular city has me all ready to pull my Raymond Chandler paperbacks off the shelf and finally read them, which I've so far failed to do. But wait! What about all of those New Yorkers?
-While I'm on the whole L.A. trip, the best pieces in Joan Didion's After Henry- the last collection of her nonfiction heretofore unread by yours truly- are, as usual, the ones about L.A. "Los Angeles Days," a long piece about the 1988 writer's strike, is classic Didion- thorough, thoughtful, and uniquely observant abrasion without aggression, also proof that she is much better as a critic (her rare stabs at actual film critique display the same powers of observation, but she has little appreciation for the more plastic elements of the medium, and I find much to argue with in her opinions). "Times Mirror Square" gets to the bottom of 1989's controversial change-ups at the Los Angeles Times, exploring that institution's immense role in the shaping of the city, and there's even a piece called "L.A. Noir" chronicling a lackluster murder trial granted sudden luster and much hype upon the negligible involvement of Robert Evans (it came to be called "The Cotton Club Case").
My favorites, though, are "Sentimental Journeys" and "Girl of the Golden West." "Girl" is Didion's take on the Patty Hearst saga at the time Hearst published her autobiography. Didion sees the case with a calm- you could, as always, say cold- clarity: "She was never an idealist, and this pleased no one. She was tainted by survival. She came back from the other side with a story no one wanted to hear, a dispiriting account of a situation in which delusion and incompetence were pitted against delusion and incompetence of another kind..." and I think I detected a trace of ambivalent admiration from Didion, who knows something about telling stories about delusion and incompetence that no one wants to hear. "Journeys" recounts the Central Park rape case of the late eighties and the reactions of New York's people and press to explore what in Didion's eyes had become America's first third-world city. It's nice to see her turning her expert bullshit detector/mythology- and self-delusion-deflater toward the East and finding it suffering from no more or fewer self-delusions than the Western mythologies of her home turf, although she unmistakably feels New York much less livable because of them. Almost any other intellectual of her caliber and fame would probably feel obliged to reverse the coasts in what amounts to ranking them in this way, but Didion has always sat slightly askew on the shelf where we keep our intellectuals, which is part of what makes her viewpoint so interesting and noteworthy.
-My Bresson double feature, like the Kurosawa-fest, provided a glimpse into two distinct creative phases. A Man Escaped, from 1957, was his follow-up to Diary of a Country Priest and immediate predecessor to his stylistic breakthrough, 1959's Pickpocket. Here, the precision and deliberation, the evenness of tempo and the removal of the extraneous that he'd made a huge step toward with Country Priest, is more fully developed.
The setting is a French prison during the German occupation of World War II, and the plot is really no more or less than that of a jailbreak. But that "transcendental style" Paul Schrader wrote about transforms our hero's tiny, lonely quest into something so tense it defies logic. There is no psychology, there is no acting as such (Bresson always preferred to work with nonprofessionals); there are no building blocks of characterization and variation of event- at least none that we can see. As always in Bresson, the form and content are in sublime harmony; both mean, to the filmmaker's perception and, because of his skill, to the viewer's as well, the systematic removal of anything that could distract from the task at hand, which in this case is that prison break. There is a religious analogy that could (and very often is) taken from this recurrent analogy, but Bresson's sensibility is decidedly non-denominational, expansive, and somehow entirely compatible with (and can even be thought of as actively reinvigorating) secular aesthetics and humanism.
Lancelot of the Lake arrived in 1974, on the other side of another Bresson milestone of austerity, 1966's Au Hasard Balthazar. It's the part of Sir Lancelot's story- the end, the failure, the betrayal- that involves all sacrifice and no glory; hence, it's perfect for Bresson. Lancelot is torn between his duty to King Arthur and his love for Gweneviere, which gives us an analogy for the Vietnam War era during which the film was made as well as the usual religious analogy (here, Lancelot's love for Gweneviere is his true vocation, the vocation he resists, the thing he is, in fact, fatally distracted from).
-Over the couple of months since the release of Morrissey's You Are the Quarry album, I've been roused time and again by the anthemic "You Know I Couldn?t Last," which features what may be the man's most impassioned, soulful vocal performance on record to date as he lyrically burns every bridge- music scene, fans, media, former associates- known to pop stardom and insouciantly Dustbusts any ashes that might be left over. A recent Morrissey/Smiths tribute issue of Mojo (which over the past few years has become a rare U.K. music mag to provide all-around quality of information and reportage rather than the usual and rather more disposable up-to-the-minuteness of most of the Limey Pop Press) reveals that the key to the song's title lies on the last page of the Warhol star/transsexual Candy Darling's published diary, My Face for the World to See (Darling, née James Lawrence Slatterly, died in 1974). Having already been enamored of this particular Warholian through her appearance as the cover star of The Smiths' own "Sheila Take a Bow" single and Stephen Dorff's brilliant portrayal in I Shot Andy Warhol, I purchased a copy of the book immediately upon its late-nineties republication.
When I learned of this lyrical tribute (or thievery: "Talent borrows, genius steals," the singer famously wrote, and god knows where he might have stolen that from), I pulled my copy off my bookshelf, blew away the dust, and located the tidbit. It is, in fact, from Darling's deathbed letter, which is no less beautifully written, in the funny but finally very sad Wildean way, than the rest of the book: "I know I could've been a star but I decided I I didn't want it... I'm better off now... I love you... I am sorry... Did you know I couldn't last I always knew it. I wish I could meet you all again. Goodbye for now. Love always."
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