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Tuesday
Nov142017

Closer

In the course of this film, the youngest of the four protagonists – and the one supposedly least wise about the world – describes an exhibition as "a collection of sad strangers photographed beautifully, which leads the glamorous patrons who attend these types of exhibitions to think the world is happy." Admittedly,  she uses a term far less flattering than "patron," but her insight amidst a nonstop stream of semi-profound statements and banal truths has a broader horizon that is hardly matched. Is the world really a miserable place, and artists (especially photographers and filmmakers, who make more direct use of their subjects) simply exploiters of the downtrodden to make themselves feel better about their privileges? This line of thinking has long been the battle cry of those who rail against art as superfluous and reduce the world to a compost of primal needs and disorders, bereft of any spirituality, any beauty, or anything more elevated than their own graying heads (this wretched lot knows who they are and should stay clear of these pages). But this is not exactly what the above quote means; or at least, it is not all it means. It also indicates that the artist and pessimist will never share the same tramcar much less the same soul. To achieve great art means believing in art, and believing in something inessential to the lusty cravings and itches of terrestrial existence means hoping that time will redeem your labor and crown it with immortality. Or perhaps we should just make do with aphorisms such as "you've got to respect the fish. We were all fish once," as another of our protagonists avers (somehow, this same character will later announce that, "without the truth, we are nothing but animals")? Like the title suggests, an examination of the film should not dawdle on the surface.

Our characters are four, a love trapezoid that provides gender balance: Dan Woolf (Jude Law), a failed writer and obituarist; Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman), a lost soul and waitress with a sordid past; Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts), a professional photographer; and Larry Grey (Clive Owen), a dermatologist. Both the women in our quartet are American, while both men are British, and the action takes place on the men's home turf. Unlike the all-too-popular hyperlink films in which the lives of strangers are interwoven by only showing us certain segments of their interaction, our protagonists are bracing themselves from the very beginning for a four-way head-on collision. Appropriately, Dan meets Alice when the latter is almost run over by a London motorist (a sure sign of an American), and when he takes her to the hospital unnecessarily, the cab driver asks him whether the young, bleeding woman he's holding in his arms is his, to which he replies in the affirmative. They begin a long relationship despite their age difference (about ten years or so; the actors themselves are nine years apart), lack of common interests, and general discrepancy in culture. That last assertion might seem a bit snobbish on my part, yet it is owing precisely to that unbridgeable gap that Dan finds himself attracted to Anna, who possesses the quiet, introspective tendencies of someone dedicated first and foremost to an art form. There is also the matter of Alice's previous line of work, which involved very little clothing, a fire pole, and dim lighting – an early admission that guides Dan's hand, so to speak. She's a stripper, the opposite of what we want in a woman, the opposite of art, because we want to earn every naked woman we see because we are ourselves, and not because we happen to own multicolored papers with holograms and famous dead people that can be traded, at our whims, for almost anything in the world. Even if Alice were not embroiled in something more debauched than stripping, the seed has been planted in Dan's idealist mind: my girlfriend is, was, or could very well become a prostitute, and he immediately looks for something purer among the pagan hordes.   

When he goes for a photo shoot to Anna's – Anna wants to take pictures of more ordinary people, perhaps hinting to Dan where he stands – they end up molesting one another, although Anna is obviously not interested and coming off a separation from her first husband. This indifference may not be obvious to a first-time viewer, but repeated examinations of Closer leave no doubt. Anna wants to be desired by Dan; she wants a nice, unsuccessful person to make her feel better about her burgeoning career (she is a few years older than the obituarist); but most of all, she wants someone who understands that artists can be the most gracious and the most selfish people in the world, oftentimes within the same mortal form. Dan, of course, is attracted to her creative mystique, her sullen devotion to her trade, and her mature acceptance of why life can be so painful. They do not advance past that first, teenagerish session, but as the months accumulate, Dan cannot let go of what he is missing with Anna because he is missing so much in Alice. Finally, via "the internet, the first great democratic medium" (Anna's bold words), Dan attaches Anna to the fourth point on our compass, Larry, a self-proclaimed "clinical observer of the human carnival." Despite his good looks and career, Larry cannot seem to find any happiness among all the young women who would stab their sister in the sternum to go out with a handsome dermatologist, not to mention the non-comedogenic advice that such a relationship would yield. The vulgar chatroom scene in which Larry is cajoled by "Anna" to meet her at an aquarium the next day will tell you everything you need to know about why Larry is alone. In any case, they meet, awkwardly, and – unbeknownst to a horrified Dan – start to date. Four months into their relationship, Anna has her exhibition, where Alice and Larry and Dan all converge, especially around the large picture of Alice in which she is noticeably teary-eyed, and which provokes the bitter quotation that began this review.

Even if you are unfamiliar with Patrick Marber's original staging, it is obvious that Closer was initially a play: there are, apart from a few quick moments, only four characters and they all talk far too much. This is the opposite of an adaptation of a novel, where quotations from the book are so decontextualized as to seem either utterly pretentious or utterly nonsensical (one particularly egregious offender is this film). Yet chatty plays are naturally inferior products because all of us have contexts when we talk to anyone, even to strangers; in fact, it is these contexts that lead to the majority of misunderstandings between people who have never spoken to each other before and, in all likelihood, will never converse again. The acting in Closer fluctuates from very good to phenomenal (Owen, who played the Dan Woolf character in the original play, is particularly superb), and carries a rather plain story to the precipice of excellence, contorting, along the way, banal truths into actual tidbits of insight about our four creatures. Dan goes back to the exhibition that fateful evening because he can't stay away from someone with equal artistic tendencies ("I haven't even seen you for a year," Anna claims coyly); Larry, on the other hand, is a physical beast, a man of science whose specialization is quite literally the surface of us all. The mismatching is fantastic, because it is exactly how so many couples operate, identifying something that doesn't belong to them as something that they desperately need. Even the music when partners are swapped is telling: Larry enters to something industrial in a club that screams carnality, while Anna and Dan meet at a rendition of this famous opera (inducing some critics to think that the opera and our film have some parallels, which might be pushing it a bit). The ending contains a couple of nice twists, and is relieved from one inevitability by the insistence of the male characters, in typical gender tendency, on knowing details that they probably shouldn't know. What type of details, you may ask? The details that allow you to hate or love someone so intensely that it devours your consciousness. And some people should really learn that asking questions ultimately leads to unpleasant truths. Maybe that's why animals usually look so happy.     

Saturday
Oct072017

The Wrong Shape

That there is more than one concept of the abstract and eternal among the peoples of our lonely planet is as natural as the multiplicity of language or national hymn. We may be conditioned to some degree by the culture in which we become independent adults, and it would be dreadfully tedious to have only culture, one language, and, for that matter, one anthem. Yet the enlightened few among us understand that some basic human morals do not and cannot mutate, and are certainly not relative to the realm in which they reign (this universalism is perhaps most pithily summarized in the watchword, "peace and prosperity," although there is much more to life than peace and prosperity). When a difference in faith is involved, the bridges over the rivers that split cities and countries and families are based on what that deity desires for us and how he manifests and cloaks that desire – if those two verbs somehow do not become interchangeable. For those, however, who worship something evil – even if that evil is themselves – little can be done. Which brings us to this odd tale.  

The time and place are late nineteenth Victorian England, where a small priest native to those isles and a hulking Frenchman take their rest somewhat outside of London:

Certain of the great roads going north out of London continue far into the country a sort of attenuated and interrupted spectre of a street, with great gaps in the building, but preserving the line. Here will be a group of shops, followed by a fenced field or paddock, and then a famous public-house, and then perhaps a market garden or a nursery garden, and then one large private house, and then another field and another inn, and so on. If anyone walks along one of these roads he will pass a house which will probably catch his eye, though he may not be able to explain its attraction. It is a long, low house, running parallel with the road, painted mostly white and pale green, with a veranda and sun-blinds, and porches capped with those quaint sort of cupolas like wooden umbrellas that one sees in some old-fashioned houses. In fact, it is an old-fashioned house, very English and very suburban in the good old wealthy Clapham sense. And yet the house has a look of having been built chiefly for the hot weather. Looking at its white paint and sun-blinds one thinks vaguely of pugarees and even of palm trees. I cannot trace the feeling to its root; perhaps the place was built by an Anglo-Indian.

It is the last word that should most concern us, because it aptly describes the house's owner, the celebrated poet Leonard Quinton. Quinton himself was never one of those tanned, gruff, alcoholically violent military officers who spent the majority of their careers quelling the indigenous urges of the Indian subcontinent – quite the opposite. In shape and habit Quinton has much of the Romantic poet who seeks communion with the feelings that surge within against any wilfulness he might exert. If he were a child, and many Romantic poets certainly begin and end as children, he would draw. He would take the nearest blank slate and infuse the entire spectrum of colors into one picture because colors do not mean night, death, or the white shroud of morbidity; over time, he would select his favorites and make them the markers of his world (personally, I have always had a fondness for purple or lilac).

Understandably then were so many Romantic poets attracted to the Orient. Raised in the austere blandness of Protestant Northern Europe, they sought refuge in the mad medley of Islamic and other Eastern tinctures. Some would even argue – and this argument is still relevant today, given the splotches that inhabit many a modern museum – that it is typical of the less developed artistic mind to prefer the onrush of color to that of substance, the bedlam of every permutation of the earth's light to the crystal clarity of, say, an icon. Quinton proves himself to be no exception:

He was a man who drank and bathed in colours, who indulged his lust for colour somewhat to the neglect of form even of good form. This it was that had turned his genius so wholly to eastern art and imagery; to those bewildering carpets or blinding embroideries in which all the colours seem fallen into a fortunate chaos, having nothing to typify or to teach. He had attempted, not perhaps with complete artistic success, but with acknowledged imagination and invention, to compose epics and love stories reflecting the riot of violent and even cruel colour; tales of tropical heavens of burning gold or blood-red copper; of eastern heroes who rode with twelve-turbaned mitres upon elephants painted purple or peacock green; of gigantic jewels that a hundred negroes could not carry, but which burned with ancient and strange-hued fires. 

The scene depicted may remind the reader of this nightmare of a novel, the only difference being that Beckford's work actually makes its way into hell – but I digress. What is most mystifying amidst this tale of mystification is its title. The wrong shape may indeed refer to the chaos detected amidst the dazzling array of oils and threads, yet it also something else. When the poet's body is discovered next to a cryptic note ("I die by my own hand; yet I die murdered!"), the sermon paper on which his last scanned line is written has an edge snipped off to give it an irregular shape. The wrong shape? Well, the family friend and doctor attending Quinton seems to think so; it would probably behoove us to solicit opinions from the fakir Quinton employs, his drunken and impecunious brother-in-law, the poet's long-suffering wife (a "handsome, hard-working, and indeed, overworked woman"), or perhaps even Father Brown and his chum Flambeau. None of them agrees on who Quinton really was, a genius poisoned like this poet and this English philhellene by eastern flowers, or a decadent and jaded aesthete who had elements of both the Romantic and the fraud. Perhaps that's why it has long been a conceit of detective novels to study not only the scene and method of the crime, but also the victim, because apart from random acts of madness, it is the victim's personality that will explain who could not bear to see him live. And some souls have far too much personality for their own good.      

Sunday
Sep172017

Greenmantle

Whatever their creed, all artists of high caliber at one point or another dream themselves immortal. The reason for such ambition is not unlike the immortality we convey in the perpetuation of our species, in watching another life grow and blossom and in turn give life to yet a third generation. There are many among us whose greatest hopes rest in what they can offer their children in terms of a better world, and no "art-for-art's sake" pundit should ever dare to berate them for such selflessness. Nevertheless the artistic soul is necessarily a soul cloven in two equal parts. He wishes himself and his offspring – we must feel sad for those who believe that partaking in parenthood might rob him of artistic accomplishment – only the best and easiest life, and still knows that an existence without damage or dismay will likely yield a plain golden field no different from anyone else's. With such fears in mind, some artists seek out conflict or, in the very least, do not avoid it even from an early age because they believe these problems will ultimately resonate in greater accuracy as to the soul's agonies. How fruitful are these attempts? Judgment will be individual, but happy lives may produce wonders just as unhappy lives may spread their bitterness to every inch of their canvasses. Perhaps the best alternative is merely to allow your own soul in all its intricate contours to shade your page. A good introduction to this once-famous novel.   

The war that Richard Hannay began in this novel has now spiraled towards its close, but his taste for danger has not ebbed. As he would confess towards the conclusion of his adventure, dodging bombs and wounded men felt very much like a homecoming, which should tell us that we are not dealing with an ordinary foot soldier: 

I never could stand London during the war. It seemed to have lost its bearings and broken out into all manner of badges and uniforms which did not fit in with my notion of it. One felt the war more in its streets than in the field, or rather one felt the confusion of war without feeling the purpose.

There are few pithier commentaries about the miserable unknowability of wartime than this. In short order Hannay is accorded the unenviable mission of deciphering and halting one of the most preposterous schemes ever devised in early spy fiction (overtaken, I suspect, by some of our current potboilers, but here I profess my supreme ignorance). A scan of Greenmantle reviews will undoubtedly summon a handful that dub this plot – involving jihads, Moslem messiahs, and an unbelievable cast of polyglots – prescient given the battles currently being fought in certain parts of the globe. Such research betrays, however, a profound misunderstanding of what was then and what is now. While green might be the appropriate color for such a mutiny, the methods and principles that Buchan employs are the fanciful poppycock of the conspiracist. And indeed, by the time we actually get some return on our expectations of the figure whose advent shall change the course of a waning war, even Hannay admits that the whole thing could hardly have worked in the fashion the heroes had predicted.

Heroes? Quite a few, as it were. As opposed to his very solo adventure in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hannay this time is leagued with a band of multinational allies: Peter Pienaar, the old veld-hunter who is extremely good at everything the citified could never imagine doing; Blenkiron, a massive American ostensibly modeled on this non-American author and imbued with the latter's serene confidence and faith; and Sandy, The Honourable Ludovick Gustavus Arbuthnot, who despite being a skinny Scottish aristocrat, can pass on any given day for a native-born Turk. This fact merits a brief aside: while Blenkiron has some command of foreign languages but generally likes to prattle in his rather comically transliterated native tongue, Hannay and his cohorts, as well as a couple of their marplots, switch among languages with almost supernatural skill. One such person is the rather wicked German Colonel von Stumm. Graced with linguistic prowess and incomparable physical strength, Stumm's other interests dawn on Hannay when the Englishman is whisked off to the Colonel's private quarters:

That room took my breath away, it was so unexpected. In place of the grim bareness of downstairs here was a place all luxury and color and light. It was very large, but low in the ceiling, and the walls were full of little recesses with statues in them. A thick grey carpet of velvet pile covered the floor, and the chairs were low and soft and upholstered like a lady's boudoir. A pleasant fire burned on the hearth and there was a flavor of scent in the air, something like incense or burnt sandalwood. A French clock on the mantelpiece told me that it was ten minutes past eight. Everywhere on little tables and in cabinets was a profusion of knickknacks, and there was some beautiful embroidery framed on screens. At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing-room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a fashion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things; it was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army. The room seemed a horribly unwholesome place, and I was more than ever afraid of Stumm. 

There are some unpleasant adjectives that would accompany this passage into contemporary print, and there is some irony in the fact that stumm is German for "mute" or "silent", but this is all quite beside the point. No one is spared in Buchan's nasty survey of oneupmanship, perhaps because he realizes that it is precisely these types of stakes that bring out the worst in every sort of man. Although the single soldier regardless of country is a titan among cowards, war is consistently depicted as evil and idiotic. Hannay assumes a series of identities and rambles through the last months of Kaiserist Germany at almost breakneck speed, all the while encountering beautiful patches of simple life that remind him that we are all subject to a mutual covenant. The finest scene enlists the kindness of an impoverished woman and her small children, for whom an almost deliriously feverish Hannay carves from wood "the first toys ... they ever possessed." And these breaks in the action are extremely effective in that we forget about the allegedly global implications of the Greenmantle conspiracy and enjoy the minutia of the daily existence we hope it never assails – even the "woman's drawing-room" that so happens to belong to a German colonel.

I suppose we don't read Buchan anymore because his world is no longer ours. Spies and secret wars have been replaced by unmanned technologies, as well as by a noble aversion to conflict that has thankfully resulted in no large-scale battles in recent memory (the local and civil wars, alas, have been accumulating). We may smile at some of the conclusions reached in Greenmantle, and shake our heads at the ethnic categorizations, but the violence of the language is undeniably crisp. Small observations such as "I put on my most Bible face," "Narrow, twisted streets, choked with soldiers," and "Stumm and his doings seemed to have been shot back to a lumber-room of my brain and the door locked," mingle with passionate descriptions of prior years spent in Africa. This was a life Hannay wishes he had never abandoned because that world, despite its mesmerizing unfairness, still possessed the hope that soughs through so many underdeveloped areas, namely of beginning a new and grand existence far from the hum of men. Life among the wild of the veld may not appeal to all of us, although Hannay thinks that is only because of our own churlish disavowal of the distant and unexplored. "To be able to laugh and to be merciful," he says once, "are the only things that make man better than the beasts."  Those, and one other thing which Hannay knows is the result of both mercy and laughter.

Saturday
Aug122017

Blok, "Как сон, уходит летний день"

A work ("A summer's day like sleep departs") by this Russian poet. You can read the original here.

A summer's day like sleep departs; 
And summer's eve is but a dream.   
My pensiveness is cloaked in steam,       
That slothful haze of hamlets far. 

And so I breathe, think, and stay strong: 
By wondrous, blood-rimmed western shelf; 
This hour I love like sleep itself, 
No force remains to fear its song. 

And at this hour before your prow, 
I dwell amidst a sad soul's ash.
As thund'rous song and fear will clash 
Beneath the raging waves of cloud.

Sunday
Jul302017

Beyond the Wall of Sleep

An old rule about short fiction asserts that a story should not quote its title because it will have a false clang (even more true of a film as those being filmed should not be aware that they have an audience). While numerous great works defy such wisdom – those whose main character gets top billing do not really count in this regard – the sentiment contains more than a few kernels of truth. Philosophy, as many who don't understand a lick of it have said, is a pursuit of the rich. The put-upon, the oppressed, and the marginalized have no time for the distant diatribes of the ivory tower. How could the meaning of the universe or even simply earthbound life resonate with those who struggle for daily necessities? Yet in stories of horror, incorporating the title verbatim into the narrative does not result in a wooden echo, but an omen. It becomes a chant, a legend, a premonition of unspeakable evil prophesied in riddles and warnings which any normal, reasonable mind would interpret as unbesought mercy. And despite all good sense to the contrary, we see another learned man lured into the fantastic in this story.

Our narrator identifies himself only as an intern in "the state psychopathic institution," the state in question being New York since we will be patrolling these mountains. Literary doctors always need literary patients, otherwise they cease to be of any interest at all, and our narrator's subject was foisted upon him by chance itself:

His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts .... This man, a vagabond, hunter, and trapper, had always been strange in the eyes of his primitive associates. He had habitually slept at night beyond the ordinary time, and upon waking would often talk of unknown things in a manner so bizarre as to inspire fear even in the hearts of an unimaginative populace. Not that his form of language was at all unusual, for he never spoke save in the debased patois of his environment; but the tone and tenor of his utterances were of such mysterious wildness, that none might listen without apprehension. He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did.

As well it should be forgotten, since Slater will commit a hideous crime against a man called Slader, a likely cousin amidst all this "degeneracy," and leave behind "an unrecognisable pulp-like thing." Acquitted of murder on grounds of insanity, Slater, an illiterate who "had apparently never heard a legend or fairy tale," will come under the examination of our fascinated narrator. Fascinated by what, you ask? By the fact that Slater's visions imply an ocular homologue of glossolalia, of sights his dim realm could not possibly know. Our intern explains:

The man himself was pitiably inferior in mentality and language alike; but his glowing, titanic visions, though described in a barbarous and disjointed jargon, were assuredly things which only a superior or even exceptional brain could conceive. How, I often asked myself, could the stolid imagination of a Catskill degenerate conjure up sights whose very possession argued a lurking spark of genius? How could any backwoods dullard have gained so much as an idea of those glittering realms of supernal radiance and space about which Slater ranted in his furious delirium? More and more I inclined to the belief that in the pitiful personality who cringed before me lay the disordered nucleus of something beyond my comprehension; something infinitely beyond the comprehension of my more experienced but less imaginative medical and scientific colleagues.

Experience has a rather unfortunate tendency to diminish imagination, and not only that of otherwise blithe and hopeful scientists. One wonders whether our intern would have been so keen on learning the secrets housed in Joe Slater's terrestrial form had his fellow boffins been more receptive to those "great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys." He does not relent in his aims, which means that he will have his chance alone with his "barbarian" of a patient, should that really be Joe Slater behind those blue eyes. 

Lovecraft was a stylist of indefinite genius often waylaid by his own nightmares and henchmen. And while the detail he lends his descriptions bespeaks the idolater, it is perhaps even more impressive that no one could ever deem his krakens and godlets familiar. How can prose convey the eerie sensations that linger in the crevasses of a sleep-flushed brain, how can wickedness in its most awesome manifestations possibly jostle our spines? The monsters of most horror tales are but ghoulish parodies of homines sapientes: it is through our own reflections, our solipsistic urgings, that we imagine life corrupted and distorted. But what if we heard a voice insist, Watch me in the sky beside the Daemon-Star, what then? Would we, akin to our ever-curious narrator, be so inclined as to gaze upon the firmament in search of signs and wonders? Not if our idea of fun is a "plain tale of science," and our reaction merely a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. 

Monday
Jul172017

In a Better World

Translations of foreign film titles are rarely felicitous, but few seem as ill-chosen as the English rechristening of this film. Properly, the Danish Hævnen would be rendered as "an act of vengeance," or simply "revenge," not only a far more appropriate name given the plot, but also a more personal one conveying the basic moral premise of individual responsibility and individual consequences. Before a viewer is provided the opportunity to make up his own mind, however, the English variant implies that responsibility is shifted from individuals to circumstances, to a malefic world at large. This impression is rectified by the film's events, but not without some of the characters evincing a few doubts of their own. And especially dubious are two twelve-year-old schoolmates, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard).

As is common in such friendships, Christian and Elias are bound together by each other's weaknesses. Christian is the newest student, obviously from a family of affluence as his last institution of learning was a London boarding school, but he is also, we learn early on, a victim of a great tragedy. Elias is a half-Swede whose father is conspicuously absent, although far from vanished. That Christian's father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) chooses to move back to Denmark in the wake of his wife's final battle with brain cancer may strike the viewer as unusual, given that Christian probably has more family memories in his native land than abroad. That said, adjusting to a different environment remains one of the most proven methods of coping with loss (another method, working day and night with little concern for one's well-being, is the strategy adopted by Claus). This leaves Christian the time, resources, and lack of supervision he requires to wreak havoc upon the world that swallowed up his mother. His first step in avenging her is to defend Elias from a bully, a three-vignette sequence that yields a bloody nose, a brutal beating, the repeated intervention of the local police, and a weird and somewhat unconvincing truce. A more captious critic than I might object that the school bully, an Aryan thug by the name of Sofus, quits our view a little too quickly, having served only to solder together our two young protagonists. But the theme of bullying and vengeance is taken up anew with the appearance of Elias's father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt).

The lone Swede amidst a passel of Hamlet's countrymen, Anton literally speaks his own language and is understood more or less completely. And while it is widely known that Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes have mutually intelligible tongues, the distinctions can (and, in our case, will) be used against the outsider. For a number of reasons, Anton emerges as the film's compass: he is the father of Elias and a smaller boy, Morten (whose name is tattooed above his heart); he is estranged from his wife (Trine Dyrholm), who cannot forget a past indiscretion; and, least importantly for our purposes even if, at first, quite the opposite may seem true, Anton spends half the year as a doctor in a never-identified African country (the local language and difficulties suggest Sudan). Africa in its most miserable regions has a tendency to render upper middle-class domestic disputes and coming-of-age stories woefully trivial, precisely the problem when the movie is not really about Africa, but about two boys in Denmark. Most lamentable about the half-dozen glimpses into a realm where few Europeans would be brave enough to test their moral fortitude is that the out-of-Africa quandaries eerily parallel the Scandinavian. As these scenes are discrete from the Danish episodes, the discerning viewer may secretly hope that Africa only exists in Anton's mind as a memory or wild dream of his conscience (alas, one vignette ensures us that this cannot be so). Predictably, therefore, Anton's healing of victims of hideous crimes, some of them the age of his own children, have drawn both the most praise and the most ire from critics, the latter of whom view the whole exercise as manipulative – but such an assertion misses the point. All cinema, even documentary, is manipulative: however nominally objective the director may be, you are simply never privy to the whole picture. This criticism is better directed at the non-diagetic music, which is most always cloying and which regrettably megaphones just when we need no reminder of the emotions we are supposed to feel at that very moment.

We have forgotten, in all this politically correct brouhaha, our unfledged heroes and their tribulations, but that's just as well. We know that the boys will embroil themselves in more than just a fistfight; we also know that they will lie both to one another and their parents as they deepen their hole with the keenest of spades. What we do not know and, indeed, herein lies the charm of such melodramatic machinations, is what if anything will be the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in a world that could and should be better, we are inclined to believe that people get away with much more than we could ever imagine. In a Better World clearly knows right from wrong (all too clearly, I fear, for many critics who likely gorge themselves on films they deem "morally ambiguous"), and what happens when the boys elect to avenge a perceived affront against one of their fathers concludes plausibly, if not necessarily as one might expect. This formula, if that is really the fairest term, has been previously employed by the director, with varied results. Bier's most famous film likewise urges the viewer to connect two very different worlds, yet does not end in atonement or even peace, but in a feeling that almost any emotion would be permissible, so wicked was the experience of one of the characters abroad (while this film, also about a Scandinavian doing wonderful things for the impoverished in a foreign country, is far more effective because the abroad is intrinsically tied to the plot). Nevertheless, as in all Bier productions, the acting is splendid (Dyrholm and Rygaard are particularly outstanding), and we are compelled to watch because these young boys are granted vivacity, fear, a sense of humor, purposefulness, and enough intelligence to be held accountable for their choices; at several junctures in the film, I distinctly felt I was observing sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds. So when Claus confesses something very controversial to his son, and gets punched and insulted for his efforts, we understand why Christian has little if no compunction for his misdeeds and why, for him, the world could not be any worse. And we pity him just as much as any little boy anywhere who has been deprived of that most basic children's need, parental love. We just hope he knows that adulthood might show him how many other deprivations exist on this earth. 

Tuesday
Jul042017

The Catcher in the Rye

If I were of a certain bent, it would behoove me to inquire with strict scientific objectivity, of course as to whether any other species apart from our own pass through that troubled period of alienation we conveniently dismiss as teenagery. Do penguins and goats suffer as much as the average privileged adolescent who cannot seem to handle the shift from doted-upon scion to responsible adult? What then of the changes chemical changes, everything we do is a symphony of chemicals that we incur as hormones detonate our every limb? How are we to survive this onslaught? Perhaps we can learn from less evolved monsters, and the measures taken against such rebellion and if you subscribe to the nonsense proponed in these last few sentences, please stop here. Go away. Don't come back. These pages are not for you. If, however, you believe that alienation is a specific phase in the development of a creative soul and is re-experienced then defeated as that same creative soul soars above the daily hypocrisy, hatred, and greed that preside over lesser minds, read on. For one such creative soul is the narrator of this iconic novel.  

Our seventeen-year-old protagonist is one of the most beloved in American literature, and it is of rather amazing coincidence that his name was not derived from the stars of this film. The name, Holden Caulfield, is sufficiently pompous and upper class that we know we are dealing with someone of extreme privilege, even if he doesn't seem to care much about what has been given to him in life ("Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad"), simply what has been taken away. He has an older brother, D.B., who is "prostituting" himself as a hack in Hollywood, a younger, highly precocious sister, Phoebe, who corrects a quote of his at a very critical juncture, and another younger brother, Allie, who died recently of leukemia. It is this last sibling and his wretched fate that shape Holden, inasmuch as teenagers can be sustainably molded by external events. Holden does not use his brother as an excuse; in fact, fairly the opposite occurs.  Holden's poor work ethic, general antisociality, and anger directed at the "phony" people around him (a word used dozens of times in the novel), are all typical teenage angsts, especially when the adolescent in question has a very sharp mind and a sensitive spirit to guide it. All these fears could have been discounted by an emphasis on Allie's death, but Holden only has good memories of his brother and does not wish to make him a martyr. He describes his brother's intellect ("He was terrifically intelligent"), his red hair (in a magnificent passage: "He was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off that's the kind of red hair he had"), and Allie's odd predilection for writing poems on the inside of his baseball glove the confluence of two typical strands of boyhood and, indeed, of manhood. Holden fails his way out of one expensive all-boys school after another and, as our story opens, has just been told just before that most giving time of the year in the Western world that he will not be invited back to Pencey Prep.

Apart from his family members, few if any persons have made an impact on his life. He has a ladykiller roommate, Stradlater, and a pimply, hopelessly mistrustful suitemate, Ackley. Both of these boys cannot be as real as Holden because Holden is their narrator and understands them as the sum of their flaws. In any case, both represent the stereotypes and stock confrontations to which a teenager must quickly accustom himself. Very early on comes the lone scene with Spencer, a pedantic old teacher complete with blanket, robe, and "Vicks nose drops"; his approach to Holden's expulsion is akin to a convalescent's raised brow and a tut-tut, a method that will be contrasted much later on with the sanguine wit of another professor, Mr. Antolini. But what really drives the vast majority of young men his age? That would be the fairer sex, and we have a lot of young ladies in The Catcher in the Rye: Sally Hayes, a former love interest who generates the fabulous observation, "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody"; three thirtyish women from Seattle, who are available for perhaps someone a bit older and suaver than Holden ("I thought the two ugly ones ... were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them.  You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn't blame them"); and a prostitute named Sunny, who is assigned to Holden's hotel room by the lift operator and seems almost her customer's age. His observation of Sunny could be the novel's most telling:

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell I don't know why exactly.

We, however, do know. We know that Holden Caulfield is a sensitive and thoughtful young man who does not force himself upon women like the rakish Stradlater (who apparently takes neither "no" nor "please, don't" for an answer). Although Holden has had "quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity," he "keeps stopping" whenever he is asked, by a girl who values her reputation, not to advance any further. Which makes his claims to being a sex maniac true: he obsesses with something he has never had, but has no real physical courage to get it, perhaps because he fears it will underwhelm him. 

Proof positive resides in the heroine of the novel, the heroine who is permanently absent, the subject of memory and rumors, Jane Gallagher. Jane is many things to Holden; some say she is his imagined soulmate; others may claim, with a great deal of insight into teenage boys, that what teenage boys need is someone to idealize, to talk about, to desire from afar, the classic princesse lointaine of the romantic poet. If you do not have an ideal woman as a romantic poet, then you are not a romantic poet, or at least not one anyone would ever bother about; precisely the same can be said for a teenage boy. So Jane, someone he once comforted and ended up kissing "all over .... her whole face except her mouth and all," becomes what Holden needs to sustain himself against the inevitable disappointment that is teenagery. Her quirk may be the checkers reference that does not impress Stradlater, who much to Holden's chagrin has a date with Jane at the beginning of the book, but another character trait is far more essential to understanding her:

Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they'd bore you or something. Jane was different. We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.

This passage may be read several different ways, but the strict literal reading is what should be encouraged. I do not spoil anything of the novel by admitting that we never get to meet Jane, because that would violate her status and all those dramatic conventions we hold dear. Jane must remain apart; too much of her would show Holden what he most fears: that she is no different from any other girl.

What happens next is not predictable, not episodic, and, above all, not crude or vulgar. It is simply what adolescence comprises for a boy: a schedule imposed from without; a series of meaningless meetings with people who know more than you do about life or, in the case of some coevals, pretend that they do; and frustration with your lack of control, your inefficacy, your inability to be taken seriously even though you'll have the rest of your life never to be taken unseriously again. To ban this book, as it so often has been banned, is to eliminate all the madness of adolescence, the wildness that may not mean as much now but was our world then. There are undoubtedly more detailed works about being a teenager, but one would be hard pressed to come up with one that better captures its trials. The voice that Salinger chooses for this journey is so remarkable and original, we are stunned to look back on the novel and find the grating slang of the nineteen forties, utterly authentic, one presumes, at the time and now, in no small irony, utterly outdated or "phony" if compared to the current generation's lingo and buzz words. Every so often Holden makes grammatical errors (notice his idiosyncratic usage of "on account of" and "hell") and spells dialogue phonetically, which is the commonest fault of young writers aiming for authenticity, but the key word is still "phony." Being a teenager, in our modern age at least, means being neither fish nor fowl. It is not a real existence, clearly defined as a child's innocence or an adult's sober perception of life's vicissitudes and tragedies. For that reason alone, more wisdom and self-awareness can be found in The Catcher in the Rye than in all the combined works of all the so-called existentialists, who are, anyway, simply adolescents trapped in adult bodies. And why haven't we explained our work's mysterious title? Now that would be a lousy thing to give away and all.

Sunday
Jun252017

The Fugitive

We have heard so often the story of the innocent man framed that it has become less of a fictional cliché and more of a reminder of our own first disobedience. Such a scenario is carved into the underpinnings of our nightmares, of how life can be snatched up and mutilated beyond recognition (some critics would love to emphasize our own repressed guilt in these instances, but most people's guilt is manifest and petty). What could be worse than being accused and convicted of a crime one did not commit? Loving the victim of that crime and knowing the true culprit perhaps, which brings us to this masterful film.

We know the accused will be Chicago physician Richard Kimble (a still-spry Harrison Ford). Kimble has everything that an average soul could want: he is cultured, financially successful, kind-hearted, attractive, and married to a ravishing beauty appropriately named Helen (Sela Ward); in other words, for the conventions of tragedy, he fits the bill quite well. We would not feel any sympathy towards a person of his privileges if he lost little, or if the person in question had nothing to lose at all. It is therefore appalling to watch our poor doctor enter his lovely home late one evening and find Helen bludgeoned and bloody beside a frightful-looking character (Andreas Katsulas), who in the ensuing tussle is revealed to have only one arm. One supposes it is important to have Kimble ostensibly exculpated from the very beginning so as to increase his pathos, although it hardly remains beyond plot twists to have had him order a killing anonymously. This latter option seems less likely when a filthy wealth of evidence, including life insurance benefits, points towards only one man. Kimble is arrested, tried, and sentenced to die by lethal injection with great alacrity, precisely because the sequence seems like a dream whose details could not possibly coincide with the real world. Throughout the entire proceedings Kimble retains a look of costive disbelief reflecting what he thinks of human justice; and as a man of science, he must know that law and its derivative vocations are as flawed and prone to misinterpretation as any lab test or vial. That he decides to operate outside the law is somewhat owing to happenstance: traveling on one of those prison buses that always seem to provoke mayhem, an aborted escape by another prisoner gives him his freedom − if being a hunted death row fugitive in a Chicago winter can be somehow considered liberty.   

On Kimble's trail comes the eminently cocksure U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones at his very best), who as a film character will resemble an artful codger or two from our own existence. Jones at the time of filming was in his mid-forties, four years younger than Ford. Yet his demeanor is distinctly one of a much older man who has seen and done everything necessary to prove that he is always right. Gerard does have less hair and more wrinkles than his co-star, as well as much less of a need to be in top running condition, but this palpable difference in generations extends into the strategies employed. Being an inveterate rule-follower, Gerard assumes that all success feeds off discipline, this deduction being especially applicable to a man devoted to the rules of nature and medicine. While police procedurals will regularly contrast those who think inside the box and those for whom volatile shapes would be the only means of caging their inventions, Gerard is not mistaken. What he simply does not understand, however, is the degree of indignation that Kimble feels (never mind that he spends most of the film under the presumption that Kimble was rightfully incarcerated). Why he does not know the greater limits of human emotion is not touched upon by the script; perhaps he has never been married or lost a loved one; perhaps he has always managed to treat life's vicissitudes as the function of his decision-making. At times we sense that Gerard would hardly be above gunning down his quarry at the slightest violation of his methods. 

This fundamental ignorance generates the tension required to elevate The Fugitive from the typical feline-rodent event to something grand and unnerving. The film has been compared by some critics to opera, and the comparison stands. The frost-ridden forests and icy pathways imbue the setting with a certain Wagnerian appeal, and the film's unusual length, often cited as its only flaw, actually aids in our concept of time: we cannot glance at our watches and estimate the next shootout, or even whether that shootout will ever occur. This lack of predictability coupled with Gerard's scene-stealing presence suggest that while we suspect Kimble will be ultimately acquitted, we cannot be assured that it will happen while he is still alive. As opera, we have a great hero, a terrible and earth-shattering crime, an unknown villain (one-armed men usually do not make good kingpins), and an ambiguous character who may act in the service of evil while attempting to do good − or exactly the reverse. There are many nice touches to the film, including a much-lauded vignette in which Kimble's Hippocratic oath trumps his own will to survive, but a few questions persist. Doesn't Kimble's flight argue culpability? Was it necessary to kill Helen when Kimble could easily have been out of town for business reasons? Couldn't there be a less conspicuous person to carry out an assassination than someone utilizing a state-of-the-art and not inexpensive prosthetic limb? Not that we are given too many chances to catch our breath and ponder such trivialities.

Friday
Jun162017

Brother

At several junctures in this film we are shown an electric streetcar with no sides, a hollow prism offering a glance at the skyline and sunsets of Russia's most beautiful city. That our streetcar is both transparent and unadulterated may be obvious; but it also masks desires. We are in what is called New Russia, where many have little, few have plenty, and a certain stratum has decided to take what they can before Death casts its shroud. And where does Death lurk? At almost every corner, in almost every alley, but not, most importantly, in every human soul.

Our first scene is like no other: a voluptuous blonde stands against a wall with her black dress peeling off her very white skin. Above her hovers a camera and we understand that what we are watching is counterfeit, synthetic, abstract, someone's concept of what reality should but never could resemble. We then espy a young man who seems to float into the picture asking a crew member what song is playing in the background. He is immediately spotted and berated by the head of security, a bored director contemplates momentarily whether he could use the impending brawl in his film, and as we fade to black our security chief is bounding bloody-minded through the crowd. 

The next vignette has our fellow seated in the local police station. He identifies himself as Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), twenty-two years of age, appropriately residing at the itinerant address of 22 Station Street, and a recent discharge from the Russian army. His wounds are visible but are nothing compared to what he inflicted on his assailant. Danila is offered a job which he politely refuses with a smirk, and as he leaves the police chief comments to a colleague and cold window pane that he was once his father's classmate. The same father who died at forty in a prison after repeated burglary convictions. Danila makes his way home to his mother, who laments in that strange way mothers have of trying to motivate their children that Danila "will croak in prison like [his] good-for-nothing father." Her "only hope" is apparently "little Viktor in Petersburg." This Viktor is hardly little. At least ten years older than his brother, he replaced Danila's father, who died when the boy was only seven, and what he has done with his life in the Venice of the North has not been revealed to anyone at this point; in fact, not even the film's title has been mentioned. The mother insists that Danila peruse once again the photo album she keeps of her beloved Viktor, shown aging into a bald, menacing figure, although Danila has no interest. Yet when his mother recommends a fraternal reunion in Petersburg, he is surprisingly receptive. Perhaps because he knows what his brother actually does for a living – and at this point we get our title and an introduction to a very different world.

We then find Viktor (Viktor Sukharukov), easily identifiable from the photographs, deep in one of those hard-boiled dialogues that involve money, death, or often both. His interlocutor (Sergei Murzin) is an odd, round-headed gentleman (nicknamed "Roundhead" throughout the film) who likes to talk in rhymes and has made his offer at fifteen thousand dollars and one week's preparation "to get a Chechen." Viktor brazenly dismisses this sum and wants twenty, half up front, and twice the time to track his quarry, to which the Roundhead readily agrees, although if we know anything about men of his stamp, quick assent normally indicates ulterior motives – in this case, an added assignment for his two flunkies. At another location in the same magical city, Danila detrains. He walks past one of Petersburg's most famous monuments and pauses, continues his walk around the city freezing, smoking and, most of all, observing. Why would an ostensibly impecunious young man not go directly to his brother's warm apartment? Because Danila has a plan that may or may not include his brother, but which definitely renders his repeated claims to only having served "in headquarters" more than a little dubious.    

This amazing survey is accomplished in about ten minutes of laconic screen time. The vignettes are always curt, almost like the pictures in the album Danila has been force-fed time and again, and perhaps for that reason is he the only one who anticipates the moves of others. He befriends an impoverished German (Yuri Kuznestov) whose penury has not diminished his philosophy, a junkie called Kat, and Sveta, a married thirtysomething woman who happens to be the driver of the aforementioned sideless streetcar. It is among these three characters as well as the morally vapid Viktor that Danila ricochets, and in time we detect the outline of his schemes. Blood is spilled, of course, but literally just off-screen – behind a wall or door, under a bed, from a distance – and Danila makes enough racist comments to disrupt an open-minded person's idea of justice. We are not dealing with a good human being but a criminal with a moral code; unusual surely, though no reason to cheer. Around him Danila sees the more conventional forms of revolution – drugs, long hair, loud music – but prefers his conservative do and this band on his omnipresent discman (which comes in handy in a later scene), and doesn't have any real taste for drugs, alcohol, or the deadening throb of disco bars. As a revolutionary he is most unconventional, which easily makes him the most radical figure in what would otherwise have become a straightforward tale. 

What distinguishes Brother from similar films is the deceptive innocuousness of its fairy tale surroundings and its protagonist, who despite his deep voice and playboy stare does some very adult things in a childish way. There is a hint of something greater at play than man versus man: it devolves into an entire city pockmarked by violent crime against one soul at once above and below the law. A familiar story, but told with such gusto and attention to detail (note how Sveta looks at Danila as he watches a pirated copy of a concert) that we cannot help but wonder whether the German is right when he says of Petersburg, "the city is a horrific force," and "the strong come here and become weak because the city swallows up our strength." And only once do we hear Danila justify his hell-bent tactics, to the German naturally, who can judge him without fear of retaliation. Not that retaliation could really motivate a clerk from headquarters. 

Saturday
Jun102017

Ein Brudermord

A very short story ("A fratricide") by this Czech writer.  You can read the original here.

It has been proven that the murder occurred in the following manner:

At around nine o'clock on a clear, moonlit night, Schmar, the murderer, positioned himself on that precise street corner where Wese, the victim, had to turn from the street where his office was located onto the street on which he lived.

Cold, all-penetrating night air.  Yet Schmar had on only a thin blue coat; what is more, the coat was unbuttoned.  He felt no cold; he was also always in motion.  He held his murder weapon, half bayonet, half kitchen knife, wholly exposed in his clenched fist, then ran it against the brick of the cobblestones until it gave out sparks.  Perhaps he regretted his actions; to make up for the damage, he stroked the blade like a violin bow over the soles of his boot while he, standing on one leg, bent over listening at once to the sound of the knife on his boot and the sound of the fateful alleyway.

Why did private citizen Pallas, watching from his window on the second floor nearby, tolerate all this?  Human nature, that's why!  Shaking his head with his collar turned up and his robe belted around his wide frame, he looked down.  

And five houses down, diagonally across from her, Mrs. Wese, her fox fur over her nightdress, looked here and there for her husband, who today had been delayed for an unusually long time.

Finally the door bell in front of Wese's office rang – too loud for a door bell – all through the city and up to the heavens.  And Wese, that diligent night worker, stepped out of his building and into the street, still invisible, only announced by the clock; and the cobblestones counted his placid steps.

Pallas bent out even further; he did not want to miss a thing.  Mrs. Wese closed up, calmed by the clock rattling her window.  Schmar, however, kneeled down; since he momentarily had no other bare spots, he pressed only his face and hands against the stones; where everything freezes, Schmar glows.

Wese was standing just on the dividing line between the streets, supporting himself with only his stick. 

A whim.  The night sky seduced him, that dark blue and gold.  Absent-mindedly he gazed upon these colors and stroked the hair beneath his propped-up hat: nothing over there conspired to hint at his immediate future, everything remained in its senseless, inscrutable place.  That Wese proceeded was in and of itself very reasonable, but he proceeded into Schmar's knife.  

"Wese!" screamed Schmar, standing on his toes, his arm stretched out, the knife sharply drawn down.  "Wese!  Julia waits in vain!" and Schmar stabbed him on the left side of the neck, then the right side of the neck, then deeply in his stomach.  Wese emitted a sound similar to that of water rats when sliced open.

"Done!" said Schmar, and then threw the knife, the superfluous, bloody ballast, towards the nearest house's façade.  "The bliss of murder!  Winged relief by the spilling of another's blood!  Wese, you old night shade, friend, drinking chum, you ooze upon the dark streets.  Why aren't you simply a bubble stuffed with blood so that I could sit on you and you would completely and utterly disappear?  Not everything has been accomplished; not all budding hopes ripened.  Your heavy remains lie here, already inaccessible to any approach.  What is, in so doing, that silent question that you ask?"   

Pallas, choking on all the toxins in his body, stood at his double-wing door as it sprang out.  "Schmar!  Schmar!  I saw everything, I missed nothing!"  Pallas and Schmar sized each other up, which satisfied Pallas.  But Schmar could not be satisfied.  

Followed by a crowd of people at the sides of both men, Mrs. Wese hurried over with a face aged violently from the horror.  Her fur opened and she tripped over Wese because her nightshirt-covered body belonged to him; the fur coat that covered the married couple like the grass plot of a grave, however, belonged to the crowd.

Schmar, stifling his last qualm, pressed his mouth into the shoulder of the police constable leading him ever so gently away.

Saturday
May272017

A Night Out

What constitutes our evening pleasures very much depends, one may conclude, on how we whittle away the daytime. I have always been partial to reading, writing, and cinema; but not always exclusively partial. That is to say, when I was younger and untethered to a wonderful life of responsibilities, I felt the urge – as all young people do regardless of stock or situation – to drift into the world and let the world drift into me. This drifting may assume the form of walking about a modern metropolis in search of whatever that city may offer its wanderers. It may also involve more organized pursuits, to wit, meeting and carousing with those ephemeral beings we call friends. Now I am all for friends. But true friends are very few and stand like cracked, sturdy buildings throughout our sunsets in the same reliable position, waiting simply to be remembered and reapproached. As life takes its course much of our interaction with these persons, whom we have chosen and who have chosen us, lives off the fumes of a glorious common past. Gone are the days of plenty, or perhaps, the days of prophecy. Which brings us to a work about an old theme from this collection.

Our protagonist is Albert Stokes, a "young man of twenty-eight," to identify him, I suppose, against a much more mature man of the same age. Stokes lives with his widowed mother as well as with the ghosts of his father and a grandmother who still claims a room in the Stokes family basement. Since our title implies an exception, we are not surprised to learn that Albert doesn't really do nights out and his mother becomes staggeringly disappointed when he reminds her of his plans for that evening ("We were going to have a game of cards, it's Friday night, what about a game of rummy?"). Thankfully, dear Mrs. Stokes proves to be far from senile, her grip on reality confirmed by a lengthy soliloquy towards the play's end, even if reality for her consists of unswerving bilocation in her past and her son's present. An old chestnut, surely; but it would hardly be hyperbole to observe that Albert, a shy squirrel, is buried under a mound of chestnuts. Before he even appears for his nocturnal summoning, two colleagues, Kedge and Seeley, dissect him through the unfortunate lens of a recent intercompany soccer match:

Seeley: Sure. He was a very smart ballplayer, Foxall. But what did Albert do? He played his normal game. He let him come. He waited for him. And Connor's not as clever as Foxall.

Kedge: He's clever though.

Seeley: Gawd blimey, I know he's clever, but he's not as clever as Foxall, is he?

Kedge: The trouble is, with Connor, he's fast too, isn't he?

Seeley: But if Albert had played his normal game! He played a game foreign to him.

Kedge: How many'd Connor get?

Seeley: He made three and scored two.

Since I adhere to a strict non-disclosure policy, it should be noted that soccer is the least of Albert's shortcomings, even if it remains, to the casual observer at least, the most glaring. We can also add that Albert is not very good at any games, sporting or otherwise.

These wistful asides usher in the second act and the most important event of all, at least in the synthetic company atmosphere that obliges colleagues to behave like relatives (as relatives at family gatherings are forced to behave like passionate lovers) and celebrate someone and something for which they couldn't care less. The celebrated is old Mr. Ryan, finally booted – that is to say, finally retiring of his own free will. He does not seem as if he has made any recent contributions. As the young people feed and flock in different arrangements, old Mr. Ryan has nothing to do or say apart from being celebrated, which in this case renders his sendoff hardly distinguishable from the unveiling of an obscure statue. The party proceeds as these things often do, as a horrific waste of youth on youth – and Albert's youth has been lavishly wasted. The lack of excitement in an exciting world (ten years or so after the war and England, Europe, and the globe all chirp in a lilac cluster) impends over poor Albert in the form of the mounting personal distaste one colleague feels for him, and the result in its abject unfairness and ridiculous violence will inevitably remind the reader of middle school cruelty. And what if middle school was not a cruel time? Some, I suppose, can make that claim, especially if they were on the giving end of the stick. But Albert has always taken what life has chosen to foist upon him, even when it has shown itself to be a rather vile overlord. And when he leaves as pariahs usually leave – parting a crowd who jeers him on – his real night out at last begins.  

Pinter's theater has a polished consistency to it that is often the mark of first-rate writers, so he always seems to be talking about the same thing. Gathering his picture cards around a single fireplace would be unjust, but we can safely conclude that betrayal, in its myriad guises, has always been one of his – and drama's – most lethal weapons because it is hard by other means to generate tension among people you can see and hear agreeing on every atom in this universe. The most talked about parts of A Night Out, a lesser-known but tidy masterpiece, will always be the third act. Two very loquacious women – the first, dear Mrs. Stokes in a summary of all her deeds and desires, the second, there and on these pages anonymous – assault Albert with everything their minds and tongues can conspire to emit within the façade of social decency. It is to Pinter's credit that Mrs. Stokes comes off as the wiser of the two; it is to our discredit that we seriously feared she might not. We have other fears, naturally, some propelled into dark channels by what we do not really glimpse in Albert, that ticking bomb of male anxiety, here to mean his inability to make any sort of decision because a decision may have a consequence, and people like Albert have never dealt well with consequences. Perhaps that's why he ultimately has to take time into his own hands. 

Sunday
May212017

Nine O'Clock

I die at a time when the people have lost their reason; you will die on the day when they recover it.

Since earliest childhood I have heard plenty about the event that would change all events, the first wave of tyrants destroyed (to be replaced by an even greater despot, a dull subject permanently banished from these pages), the first mass uprising that would have made Spartacus proud. If my tone smacks of irreverence, it is because I have never been an admirer of revolution, bloodhot or otherwise; changes in my universe occur slowly and precisely without recourse to upheaval or war chants. But for the more callow among those of Romantic bent, the last eleven years of eighteenth-century French history represent a watershed in our view of the world and its dividends. Gone are the remorseless monarchs, the meddling clergy, the fiefdoms frozen in eternal hardscrabble stasis; in their stead have come happy, peaceful democracies whose main aim has been to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. Alas, while a narrow handful of such nations do exist, the majority are still mired in that grim morass of greed and power that has plagued every community since scribes and their cuneiform contrived a record of human drama. The French Revolution has come and gone, but we may still detect our proclivity for its success, our wish to see the rich choke on the cakes they so preferred to plainest rye. Which brings us to a quiet tale of injustice.

Our heroes are none; instead, we will have twenty-one martyrs for a cause that remains unestablished, the removal of one government unstinting in its waste for another government unstinting in its vengeance. The year and month, you see, are 1793 and June, and the time has come for something more than theoretical freedoms. The victims will be damned because "they were not, as a party, true to their own convictions"; and they will fall "before worse men, because those men were in earnest." Of course, when your solution to four out of every five problems are mayhem and murder, it becomes quite easy to be earnest about them. Much more difficult is the nuanced detection of human or national desires, which incites one of the condemned men to the magnificent pronouncement that begins this review. As the twenty-one face their last terrestrial night with the conviviality of the plague-ridden in this film, one pale soul withdraws from the commotion, a Girondist by the name of Duprat:

He was a younger man than the majority of his brethren, and was personally remarkable by his pale, handsome, melancholy face, and his reserved yet gentle manners. Throughout the evening, he had spoken but rarely; there was something of the silence and serenity of a martyr in his demeanour. That he feared death as little as any of his companions was plainly visible in his bright, steady eye; in his unchanging complexion; in his firm, calm voice, when he occasionally addressed those who happened to be near him. But he was evidently out of place at the banquet; his temperament was reflective, his disposition serious; feasts were at no time a sphere in which he was calculated to shine.

Soon Duprat finds a willing interlocutor, one of the partisans who will endure the most unfortunate punishment of witnessing his friends' demise on the mill of silence, and answers the only lingering question among the carousers: the exact time of their deaths. Duprat makes the incredible claim that he knows precisely when his time will come (he does not speak for others), and bases that prognosis on an odd family history which cannot be provided at length. It involves his widower father and a gentle youth, his younger brother Alfred, both of whom no longer walk among the living.  

Unlike Duprat, Alfred had not seen much success in school and had accordingly diminished his father's expectations. When, in his teenage years, Alfred finally exhibited an interest in a subject, his father was more than a little disappointed to learn the object of his scholarship: astrology, "the most obsolete of obsolete sciences, the old, abandoned delusion of divination by stars!" Content at least that his younger son would not be utterly idle, the father had left him to his own devices. Until one day when Duprat came upon his sibling in their father's den:

One day – my brother being then sixteen years of age – I happened to go into my father's study, during his absence, and found Alfred there, standing close to a window, which looked into the garden. I walked up to him, and observed a curious expression of vacancy and rigidity in his face, especially in his eyes. Although I knew him to be subject to what are called fits of absence, I still thought it rather extraordinary that he never moved, and never noticed me when I was close to him. I took his hand, and asked if he was unwell. His flesh felt quite cold; neither my touch nor my voice produced the smallest sensation in him. Almost at the same moment when I noticed this, I happened to be looking accidentally towards the garden. There was my father walking along one of the paths, and there, by his side, walking with him, was another Alfred! – Another, yet exactly the same as the Alfred by whose side I was standing, whose hand I still held in mine!

Bilocation not ranking among the virtues of human existence, we may wonder long and hard at this scene, disordered in mind as it may appear, and retreat to logic's dark little corner and swinging overhead bulb. Then again, we may consider the apparition of one and another Alfred as some index of calamity. That this end shall come at a certain hour should surprise us as much as it now surprises the condemned Duprat.     

Those of us who still patronize this author's works know something good when we've found it. I am no Collins completist, yet his books resemble the finest of gourmet dishes: one only needs a few bites to determine their succulence. Beneath lesser hands, the structure and inevitability of Nine O'Clock might feel contrived and unsuspenseful, although as we know from many a thriller, great tension need not lie in the outcome, but in the choices that spell a tragic character's doom. Collins has a talent that cannot be learned or inherited: the gift of atmosphere, of so empathizing with a reader's whims as to predict his turns before the reader himself has pathed them. Even if the reader may not want to know the very last page he will enjoy.