The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Morning for the Osone Family (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  2. Peewee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton)
  3. La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer)
  4. Inside Out (Pete Docter)
  5. Frozen (Chris Buck/Jennifer Lee)
  6. Le Beau Serge (Claude Chabrol)
  7. Swing Time (George Stevens)
  8. The Curse of  the Jade Scorpion (Woody Allen)
  9. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)
  10. Bolshoi Babylon (Nick Read/Mark Franchetti)

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1- Watching Morning for the Osone Family drives home the point that the Japanese did way more than the Germans did in engaging their collective guilt right after WWII.  It is astounding to realize that it came out in 1946, which means that production must have started not long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I realize all films that came out at this time had to be approved by the American occupying forces.  Still, I can’t think of a single German film that indicts the Nazi past the way this film indicts the way the militarists ‘mislead’ Japan.

2- Watching La Collectionneuse  made me want to yell ‘Shut up!’ continuously at the screen. These young, self-important and pretty shallow young and beautiful French people never stop talking. I think maybe 30 years ago, I would have found it sophisticated.  Today, it grates.

3- Le Beau Serge is often cited as the first film of the French New Wave. I’m not sure how they determine that, but it is quite downbeat. On the bright side, it doesn’t have all that annoying youthful exuberance one expects from the nouvelle vague. For that reason, it felt as if belonged to an earlier era. In fact, it seemed very Italian neo-realist.  I guess I don’t care much for the genre.

4- I watched Inside Out and Frozen to get an idea of what the Disney experience as well as the ‘children’s entertainment’ experience is like nowadays. By the time I was adolescent, ‘Disney’ had become a synonym for wholesome, safe and, perhaps, saccharine. One could have reverence for the great animated classics like Snow White and Pinocchio, but subsequent stuff was decidedly uncool and perhaps out-of-date. I did watch Beauty and the Beast when it came out and found it beautiful and sensed a conscious effort on the part of the writers to strengthen the character of the female lead, a laudable trope which continues to today in Disney films, despite the nauseating and quite dangerous proliferation of the ‘Disney Princesses’. What seems to have happened over the years is that sweetness and innocence, for better or worse, is completely gone. Sweet and good heroines who heal the world through kindness have been replaced by sassy young women. I’m not complaining. I just note a trend. Also, a lot of the humor is weighed down with double-entendres which would have been shocking thirty years ago and would have set Walt spinning in his grave.    I think what it comes down to is that these pictures seem pitched more to the adults taking their kids to the movies than to the kids themselves. But, because the kids are exposed to the more adult humor, the become prematurely worldly.  There is a hipness and cynicism that seems out of place in entertainment aimed at pre-teens.  I guess I don’t know enough pre-teens to verify if this is true or not.  Frozen was very satisfying entertainment. Inside Out made me quite uncomfortable.    Anyone care to comment?

5- Is there anything today that compares to Swing Time?  Don’t worry.  I am not lamenting for a golden age that has passed by.  What I am saying is that surely with the resources studios have, a new film that is as thoroughly entertaining and classy as Swing Time could be produced.  Smart adult dialogue, amazing songs, entrancing dance numbers, intoxicating costumes and sets.  And all of it fun.  Nothing deep at all here, except for the level of artistry.  The story, like most of the Astaire/Rodgers stories, is so flimsy that it barely supports the weight of the enterprise. But everything else is of such high quality.  Even the comic relief couple of Victor Moore and Helen Broderick blow most contemporary comedians out of the water.  Trust me, I am not being Miniver Cheevy. I don’t want a retread of Swing Time for 2015.  I want something new, but providing equal satisfaction.

6- The Curse of  the Jade Scorpion was not as bad as I hoped it would be.  I had come to expect any ‘recent’ Woody Allen movie, i.e., anything after Hannah and her Sisters, to be insufferably creepy and sloppily executed.  Well, this was an adequate, slight entertainment, neither profound nor offensive.  It reminded me of a Warner Brothers comedy from the 30s that my cable guide would rate two stars.  The big flaw is the casting of Woody Allen in the central role, a flaw he is the first to acknowledge.  He looks old and tired and not a romantic hero (ok, romantic schlepp) by any stretch of the imagination.  Yet, it did entertain. Doesn’t it seem like there are thousands of Woody Allen films that you never heard of?

7-  I want to say that I love The Grand Illusion, but it always makes me feel like I am taking medicine.  I know it is good for me.  Rules of the Game is much more to my aesthetic taste.  Movies about equality and brotherhood so rarely work.

 

 


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Is He Really Writing About This ?!?!?!

I hope that my previous posts wherein I rhapsodize about Bergman, Ozu, Paradjanov and the like, will lend some gravitas to what I am about to say: The Muppet Show is a work of genius.  I thoroughly enjoyed the old show when it was on back in the 70s.  It was sweet, funny and clever.

The current reboot is something else again.  The very flexible premise is that Kermit the Frog is the producer of Miss Piggy’s talk show, Up Late With Miss Piggy:

Up_Late_backlotThis simple concept allows the writers to create a huge cast of characters working behind the scenes of the show. There are something like fifteen to twenty characters with unique personalities and back-stories that get built upon, week after week.  The other joy of this concept is that it allows for all kinds of guest stars who are ostensibly appearing on Up Late.  Recently, Miss Piggy was lamenting to Kermit that her show was not high-brow enough, and she wanted to start interviewing not just celebrities but serious writers.  Kermit books Reza Aslan (yes, Reza Aslan!), with predictably disastrous results.  Miss Piggy interviews Reza Aslan

The multi-layered dialogue in the behind-the-scenes segments of the show and the complex interpersonal relations of the crew remind one of nothing less than Robert Altman’s Nashville. Anyone who knows me understands that I would not say this lightly.

And the writing is brilliant, all the more because each line of dialogue deepens our understanding of the characters and their relation to each other.
And it is devastatingly hilarious. On one episode Miss Piggy is flying into one of her apocalyptic diva fits because someone has replaced her normal Sharpie pen with a thin-tip Sharpie.  She is raising holy hell backstage and at one point she screams into the camera, ‘ I am signing autographs here. I am not writing a bible on a grain of rice.’  I had to roll the recording back twice. I couldn’t believe it. It is that smart. And hilarious.

In the same episode, the crew figures that Miss Piggy needs a handsome new celebrity boyfriend to walk with her down the red carpet at the People’s Choice Awards, and hopefully fall in love with her and get her out of everyone’s hair.  Yvonne, the devious receptionist suggests Josh Groban.  She says he is famous, talented and gives her ‘the feels’.  The Latin Lover shrimp, Don Pepe declares that Josh gives him ‘the feels’ as well.  When he stuns the crew into silence with this remark (Don Pepe is a notorious ladykiller), he looks at them and says, ‘What? He is a handsome man and gender is fluid’.  Really, it is that smart.

It will be back with new episodes in February.  No need to thank me.

 


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A Jew’s Response to Wagner

I was talking with some people about the classical music we liked. I mentioned that I loved Wagner and Mahler. One of the people got very indignant and told me, in a huff, ‘Well, I had relatives who died in the Holocaust, so I refuse to listen to Wagner and Mahler!’ I explained that Mahler was born a Jew, but he was having none of it. He was ready to boycott all German music and no one was going to stop him. As a Jewish Wagner lover, I have often encountered this kind of emotional response.

I believe it is quite appropriate for Jews, or any sensitive human being for that matter, to be repulsed by the darker aspects of Wagner’s personality. He was unfaithful to his wives, traitorous to his patrons and exploitative of his acolytes. And, of course, he was anti-Semitic.

 

But so was Chopin and Tchaikovsky, and they remain among the most beloved and most played of composers.   In a letter to a friend describing the scene at a train station, Tchaikovsky writes that there was:

 

‘… mass of dirty Yids with that poisonous atmosphere which accompanies them everywhere.’

 

However, I am sure my friend would not have said that he couldn’t listen to The Nutcracker because of what happened to his relatives in World War II.

 

There is no more beloved English language author than Charles Dickens. Yet his description of Fagin, master thief and corrupter of youth in Oliver Twist is certainly unambiguous in the way that Jew is to be regarded:

 

In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantelshelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging.

So, not only is he a filthy Jew, but a bad one, as well (note the sausages!) Fagin is repeatedly referred to as ‘The Jew’. His morals are slippery at best, criminal at worst. Upon publication of Oliver Twist, London’s Jewish leaders visited Dickens. They explained that, given his phenomenal popularity, any anti-Semitic portrayals in his books would be a disaster for the community. Dickens later made amends in his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend¸ with the character of a toy seller whose goodness is as cloying as Fagin’s evil is repugnant. Despite this, it seems that Dickens remained a true Victorian his whole life, asserting a superiority of the white race. Yet, there is no popular outcry for the boycott of Dickens’ novels.

 

The fact that Wagner’s music was very popular during the Third Reich seems a specious argument for boycotting it. Wagner was dead for fifty years by the time Hitler grabbed power. We don’t stop reading the Bible because certain fringe groups have perverted its use, justifying everything from slavery to the subjugation of women.

So why the outcry against Wagner? Wagner is to blame here. It was not enough for him to make anti-Semitic remarks to friends. Given his enormous ego, this would not have been enough. He needed the big gesture. He needed to publish.

When Wagner was struggling to get his works before the public, the German and French music scenes were dominated by Jews. In Germany, Felix Mendelssohn was recognized as the greatest composer until his early death in 1847. In Paris, the world capital of opera at the time, the leading composers were Giacomo Meyerbeer and Fromental Halevy. Meyerbeer, despite his enormous success, was very generous to the new generation of composers. He was instrumental in helping mount the first production of Wagner’s early, very Meyerbeerian opera Rienzi. He also assisted in the premiere of Wagner’s first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman. Ever one to bite the hand that fed him, Wagner repaid this kindness in 1850 with a vitriolic pamphlet called Judentum und die Musik (Judaism and Musik).

 

Early on, Wagner was determined to create ‘the music of the future’. There would be a complete reform of opera, a return to the model of Greek Tragedy.   He would create what he termed Gesamtkunstwerk – a complete work of art. Lyrics, music, acting, staging would all be of equal importance. A new musical language would be created to produce this new art. Tonality would be stretched to its limits when the drama necessitated it. Instead of arias and separate numbers that would stop and start the action, Wagner would create an endless flow of melody, based on motifs for major characters and concepts, that would propel the work forward and integrate it into a unified whole. And, importantly, this music of the future would grow out of what is essentially great, which in his terms was essentially German art.

The problem for Wagner was that no one was listening. People loved the elegance of Mendelssohn’s music and the spectacular crowd-pleasing operas of Meyerbeer. In retaliation, he published Judentum und die Musik.

 

The premise of the pamphlet was as follows: Jews are incapable of creating great art that will resonate with the world because they have lived so long outside of the mainstream of society. They cannot tap into the universal consciousness that makes great art. This is Wagner’s veiled way of pointing out the superficiality of the music of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.

 

It is true that up until the 1800s Jews were segregated and not allowed to be part of mainstream culture, but the thesis Wagner puts forward seems to me to be shaky at best. A Beethoven doesn’t arise just because countless generations of his forebears lived in the mainstream of history. A genius like Beethoven arises through a sensitivity to the art of his or her time. This can happen whether one is living in a Jewish ghetto with limited exposure, or in Vienna the center of the musical world of Beethoven’s day.   What Wagner is doing with the pamphlet is informing the public on why their taste is wrong.   Guess whose art will correct this?

 

It seems to me that Wagner’s anti-Semitic diatribes are motivated by petty, personal grievances. Not that this excuses it by any means, but perhaps it puts it in some perspective.

 

So, reducing his anti-Semitism to the petty, personal beef is, what we are left with is the music. In the end, this is all that should really matter. As music lovers, we need to know, and I would say revere Wagner’s music. Wagner completed the work started with the titanic compositions of Beethoven. He pushed the envelope of music theory leading directly to the twelve-tone revolution of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern of the Second Viennese School. His expansion of what the orchestra was capable of, sonically and emotionally, paved the way for the genius of Gustav Mahler. All music after Wagner was either a rhapsodic embrace of his sound world, or a vehement rejection of it. We owe the works of Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss to the former, and the works of Debussy and Brahms to the latter. Listen to Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk to hear a devastating send-up of Tristan und Isolde.

 

Just as he assimilated all music that came before him in his operas, Wagner distilled the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as the revolutionary works of Bakunin into his works. In fact, one could argue that Wagner’s operas are the doors through which the art which preceded him passes into the modern age. Everything is there. Everything, except anti-Semitism.

 

George Bernard Shaw wrote a book called The Perfect Wagnerite, in which he set out to prove that The Ring of the Nibelung was a vindication of the theories of socialism. German nationalists saw the works as the exaltation of ‘holy German art’.   The 19th century romantics championed the works as the expression of a reality beyond our experience. It is all there. The only thing we can’t find in it is anti-Semitism.

 

Perhaps no work since Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and certainly no work since, has had the seismic effect of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The opening chord alone, the so-called Tristan chord, plunges the listener into tonal chaos. The tension and yearning for some home key is not resolved until the very end of this five-hour work. The agony of the music, the frustration caused by the flowing into and out of conventional tonality, is not just a gimmick. It is what is Wagner needed to describe the tortured lives of his two lovers. It serves the work, but at the same time changed the course of Western music forever by obliterating the constraints of major and minor keys. An argument can be made that all modern music can trace its genes back to the four notes that start the prelude of Tristan und Isolde.

 

It is not my place to force anyone to like or even listen to the music of Richard Wagner. But I feel it is my place to say that if you are not familiar with the work, then you are missing one of the cornerstones of Western civilization. It is as simple as that. With the ten music dramas of his maturity Wagner changed the course of modern culture. One cannot be a complete humanist without knowing this body of work. Not knowing it inevitably diminishes one’s understanding of art and probably what made the modern world modern.

 


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Classic or Dated?

What makes something seem ‘dated’ and something else from the same period seem ‘classic’?

There seems to be two trajectories when considering how this distinction applies to film: a film can either live beyond its time and involve us intellectually and emotionally today, or it becomes an artifact or, better said, a relic of its time which offers us nothing much besides historical interest at best, or kitsch factor at worst.

As an example of the latter, consider beach movies of the early Sixties.  Hollywood producers were convinced by this point that there was a huge youth audience that would go to see any crap they put up on the screen as long as it was marketed as hip, a little sexy, groovy and intended for ‘today’s youth’.  The genre collapsed under its own stupidity, but not before polluting the annals of film history with scads of moronic movies. Watching these films today or, better said, trying to watch these films today, is a tedious exercise.  The plots are non-existent.  The songs are trivial. The attempts to cash in on events of the day (free love, women’s equality) seem to be cynical attempts to give the films the illusion of being more than money magnets. The way in which ‘serious’ topics are grafted on to the trivial proceedings erase any chance of these pictures as being anything more than forgettable efforts.

By contrast, consider Roger Corman’s  A Bucket of Blood. This is not a great film or even a good film. In many ways, it might have the feel of one of those beach films, but with a critical difference.

A Bucket of  Blood takes place in a Beatnik café filled with all the types you would expect: pontificating poets, girls advocating free love, bikers enjoying illicit drugs, etc.  It is all depicted with a cartoonish veneer so we know not to take these types too seriously.  The story focuses on the hapless waiter of the café who is dazzled by these cool cats and is dying to be taken seriously by them.  Through plot machinations too silly to explain here, the waiter creates sculptures that bring him renown and finally garner him the respect of the beatniks that he has so longed for.  The only problem is that these sculptures are created by covering dead things with clay: first, his landlady’s cat which he accidentally kills, then a fink from the café who is blackmailing him…..you get the picture.

Calling this film a classic would be stretching the term, but it certainly dates better than any Annette Funicello epic.  The reason, I suggest, is because while it is set in a specific time and era,  the main thrust of the picture is not to depict Beatnik culture, but to have us commiserate with this the outsider – a classic film trope dating back to Chaplin.  The fact that there is a more universal theme immediately give it a longevity that the kids on the beach will never have. A Bucket of Blood is no Tokyo Story, but it neither tries to be and can’t be judged by that standard.  But you can certainly watch it and not feel that 90 minutes of your life were totally squandered. Just a little squandered.

By contrast, consider another youth epic : Rebel Without A Cause. This film crashes and burns for exactly the opposite reason the Annette movies do.  It is so freighted with ponderous observations about the root cause of the troubled lives of ‘today’s youth’, that, for me at least, it collapses into hilarity. The overacting of James Dean and the earnestness with which these spoiled kids’ petulance is dealt with makes the film ponderous to watch.  The great Martin Seay described this beautifully. During Dean’s legendary and hilarious ‘You’re tearing my apart’ scenery-chewing extravaganza, Martin imagines Jim Backus in the background thinking to himself ‘Hmm….I wonder if it’s too late to sign-up for that castaway gig?’

It gives such concrete reasons for the disaffectedness of the teenagers,  it must by necessity date. Psychological theories go in and out of favor and the pat solutions give make the film almost irrelevant today.

By contrast, Simon Oakland’s neat psychological explanation of Norman Bates’ motivations at the end of Psycho is so tongue-in-cheek that it can never date.

I would love to continue this topic.  What ‘classic’ films do you feel have dated and are no longer deserving of that ranking?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Bolivia (Adrián Caetano )
  2. Utamaro and his Five Women (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  3. Volver (Pedro Almodóvar)
  4. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols)
  5. Brooklyn (John Crowley)
  6. Suddenly (Lewis Allen)
  7. Shadow Of A Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
  8. Talk To Her (Pedro Almodóvar)
  9. The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)
  10. The Phantom of the Opera (Joel Schumacher)

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1- Volver and Talk To Her are the greatest of the films I’ve seen by Almodóvar.  Both represent the best of this unique director: Volver is the best of his outrageous high-comedy films, and Talk To Her is the masterpiece of his ‘this is magnificent, but it is making me very uncomfortable’ films. I would watch Volver any time.  I would have to psych myself up to rewatch Talk To Her anytime soon.

2- Word is that Hitchcock was most proud of Shadow of a Doubt.  It is near perfect in tone.  The oscillation between humor and pathos is so deft. The performances are the greatest of any Hitchcock film.  The subterranean emotions shared by Charley and Uncle Charley rival that which we experience in Vertigo.

3- The Sweet Smell of Success and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf both are exemplars of a type of film prevalent in the late 50s and early 60s. Cruel, voyeuristic, these films make the film viewer go through hell and when they are both over, you wonder what the point of it all was.   It struck me that a good parallel to The Sweet Smell of Success would be Citizen Kane. Kane is a roman a clef for the life of William Randolph Hearst, where The Sweet Smell of Success is a thinly veiled depiction of Walter Winchell.  Both Winchell and Hearst are forgotten now. Kane thrives despite the fact that its origin is no longer part of the public conscience –  the jigsaw puzzle heart of the film make it transcendent. The Sweet Smell of Success dates badly and loses its impact since not knowing who Winchell was seems to be critical to the film.

4- Thank you Hulu for helping me to dive even deeper into Japanese film.  Utamaro and his Five Women  is now one of my favorite Mizoguchi films

5- I loved the novel Brooklyn. I am from Brooklyn. And I was so happy to see both the novel and the borough of my youth depicted so beautifully in this lovely film. But what is it will the slightly jittery camera that we see in every film and TV show lately?


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
  2. Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. A Bucket Of Blood (Roger Corman)
  4. The Heart of New York (Mervyn Leroy)
  5. The Flowers Of Saint Francis (Roberto Rossellini)
  6. And Then There Were None (Rene Clair)
  7. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton)
  8. Mother (Mikio Naruse)
  9. Her Cardboard Lover (George Cukor)
  10. The Mask of Fu Manchu (Charles Brabin/Charles Vidor)

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1- Can we admit that some of Hitchcock’s films are stinkers? Spellbound is really over the top, but not in a good way.  The dialogue is embarrassing, the pop psychology is dumb.  Can I blame this film on David O. Selznick’s meddling?  The theme music is gorgeous, of course, but it is applied to the film with a sledgehammer.

2- The Heart of New York is an interesting curiousity.  It tells the tale of a feckless Jewish inventor on the Lower East Side whose pipe dreams are driving his family crazy, until he hits it big and they become rich and move to Park Avenue – except the inventor who stays behind in the family tenement which he makes over into a mansion for his loyal friends.  Why aren’t the stereotypical yiddishisms and whining offensive to me? I don’t know.  They should be, but I found the whole business kind of sweet, minor but sweet.

3- I’ll have more to say about A Bucket of Blood in an upcoming blog piece about why some films are dated and some last.  A Bucket of Blood seems like it should be incredibly dated – most of it takes place in a Beatnik health food café for goodness sake! But it does last.  Stay tuned to find out.

4- The more I see The Flowers of Saint Francis the more I know it is a miraculous film. Sweetness, goodness and faith – real faith and not ostentatious faith. This film makes me understand things in ways that Bresson’s tortured souls do not.

5- Beetlejuice is perfect.  There. I’ve said it.

6- I had never seen The Mask of Fu Manchu but knew of its reputation for stereotyping and perpetuation of the ‘Yellow menace’ myth.  Yes.  It is blatantly racist. It even features a slinky, young Myrna Loy in ‘yellow face’ playing Mr. Manchu’s overheated, sadistic daughter.   However, I wondered when I watched it if Fu’s harangues about getting revenge on the white race couldn’t be read nowadays as some sort of post-colonial heroism.  Just a thought…..don’t hit me.