Voluntary Servitude

August 24, 2014

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I have been Montaigne’s Essays off and on four the last forty years or so, but I had never read a biography of the man, until I picked up Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live:  Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  It’s quite readable, and I like her thematic treatment of his life, rather than a detailed run-through of what happened where and when.  After all, Montaigne’s life was his reading and writing, or at least that was the part of his life he valued most.

Bakewell is very informative and lively on the topic of how the Hellenistic Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics provided the intellectual context for Montaigne, and his friends in the educated upper stratum of Renaissance French society.  How to live is a question that never goes out of style, and their answers still have power, especially when filtered through Montaigne’s good humor.

Quite a lot of time is spent on Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de La Boétie, his youthful best friend who died of the plague in his thirties.  He is known mostly for being the companion of Montaigne, but also, it turns out, as a great granddaddy of anarchism and libertarian thought.  He is the author of the seminal, and heretical, for the time, short piece, On Voluntary Servitude.

His thesis is quite simple:  nobody governs but with the consent of the governed.  The consent may be granted because of love, respect, or apathy, but granted it is.  How else was England able to rule the Indian sub-continent with only a few thousand troops?  Examples multiply endlessly.  The corollary is equally simple:  to defeat and dethrone a tyrant, all that is required is to refuse to provide consent.  According to La Boétie, no blood need be shed.  If people simply refuse to give what is demanded, the tyrant will fall.

Reading his essay, I am struck by the Gandhian logic of it all, but Gandhi was more realistic.  He knew that much blood might indeed be shed.  La Boétie also seems to radically underestimate fear as a motive for giving consent.  He talks as though the only reasons give consent are stupidity, lack of imagination, or corrupt ethics, i.e. benefiting from the tyranny.  Classical heroes scorned mere fear, I guess..


Pretty Poison

August 19, 2014

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I only heard about Pretty Poison (1968) from the NYTimes obituary for the director, Noel Black.  He spoke of it after it flopped and was pulled from the theatres, saying:

“Essentially, we saw it as a story with many comedic elements in a serious framework — a kind of black comedy or existential humor of which ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is a prototype,” he said. “We hoped people would take it on more than one level.”

Let’s just stay at one level, not sure if it’s high or low:  it has one of the strangest femme fatales I have ever seen in film.

Anthony Perkins plays a disturbed parolee named Dennis Pitt, a man who deals with his discomfort with the world by spinning outrageous fantasies, this time about his being a tip-top secret agent.  He spots Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) practicing with her high school marching band, goes to work on her.  She seems to be a sweet, impressionable young girl, and the whole thing seems unbelievably corny and silly for a while, as he flirts with, and then woos her with his dark persona of an international man of mystery.

He has a destructive bent, and he enlists her in his plot to sabotage a local factory.  Sue Ann knows her way around a wrench, big or small, pulls this one out of her blouse, and gets to work.

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They are discovered by a night watchman, and Sue Ann calmly bonks him on the head with her wrench.  He’s not dead, so she pushes him the water and then climbs onto him to drown him.  Ride ‘em, cowgirl!

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She explains, it’s easier this way, isn’t it?

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From here on in, we’re in Gun Crazy, Bonnie & Clyde, and yes, Dr. Strangelove territory.  Those crazy kids, but which one is really crazy?  Maybe Anthony Perkins isn’t so typecast here as we thought?

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The blue Sunbeam roadster is a nice touch.  Sue Ann’s toy.

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Nothing for it but to shoot her mother, get married, and make off to Mexico, her idea.  He isn’t quite up to killing Mom, so she does it while he’s sick in the toilet.  Some heavy handed imagery here…

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“Oh Dennis, I feel like we’re already married.  What do people do when they’ve just been married, Dennis?”

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“Oh, uh…I don’t think I can right now…”  No problem, she says.  They’ll just get rid of the body and then skedaddle.

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“Dennis, I’m so hung up on you.  I’ll always love you.”

Yes, I’m quite impressed with your capacity for loving.”

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Not Noir, but Pretty Dark

August 8, 2014

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Netflix classified The Lineup (1958) as a film noir, which it most certainly is not, but it’s pretty dark nonetheless, and a crackerjack crime film that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Great location shots in San Francisco, an excellent high-speed chase long before McQueen did Bullit, a full rogues gallery of outlaw characters, and some great dialog:  just  hold on through the pretty dull first thirty minutes of  police procedural until Eli Wallach, as hit-man Dancer, makes his entrance, and enjoy the ride.

It’s called The Lineup, because it’s based on a TV show that ran in the early fifties under that name.  The episode with an actual lineup is quite a small part of the story.  The film is an expanded treatment of one story from the series, and it’s directed by Don Siegel.  One of the posters for the film says, “Too hot for TV!

Before the credits role, we are in the action as a porter rips off a passenger’s bag, and throws it into a cab which then races away.  As they say, a chase ensues, and the cabbie, after running down a cop who dies later, is hit by a lucky shot.  The luggage contains a statuette stuffed with high-grade heroin, part of a shipment run by a secretive outfit headed by The Man.  The Man thinks things out thoroughly, and he foists junk on unwitting overseas tourists who work as his mules without their knowledge.  Once they reach the States, the gang gathers up their souvenirs in whatever way they must.

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Here, the police do their work methodically, checking in with the head of customs, whom the Lt. initially blames for the cop’s death.  After all, why didn’t they catch that heroin in the statue?  The customs man shows a map and calmly explains that there is just too much territory, too many ships for him to handle.  Pretty routine stuff, but I like the guy on the left, although I could not find his  name.

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Our first glimpse of the bad guys, Robert Keith as Julian, and Eli Wallach as Dancer.  Julian is Dancer’s handler, coaching him on ‘delivery’ verbal and ballistic.  He wants Dancer to improve his grammar so as to be able to move more easily among his victims.  Their first dialog is a discussion of the subjunctive.  Dancer is incredulous that anyone would say, “If I were…,” rather than “If I was…”  He’s not alone, but Julian is firm with him.  After the fiasco with the cabbie, The Man brought them in to clean up things.

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Julian knows that Dancer is a cold-blooded psychopath, filled with hate.  he says as much to another gang member.  Dancer later reveals that like everyone else, he had an old man once, except that he never knew him.  Is Julian his father-figure, or is there a homo-erotic attachment here..?
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Sandy is “their boy,” designated driver, except that he has a liking for drink.  Julian slaps his bottle to the ground, and calls him “Dipso” from then on.  But Sandy has a souped-up auto, and he can drive it, fast!

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The three get to know one another on their way to get initial instructions on who the marks are they have to see to retrieve the smack.  The information session is placed down by the docks.
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I love the way Siegel took advantage of the location to add this bit of action:  as the car drives up, the boat is pulling out to sea.
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One of many nice SF shots, as Dancer gets his info – he never writes anything down – from the contact.
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The one to see is a seaman on the boat who was given a hollowed out antique horse.  They are told to find him in the steamroom in the Seaman’s Club.  Two guys in a locker room…wearing hats.   Dancer is convinced that this whole job is going to be a sticky one because the first shipment went awry, while Julian insists, no, it’s going to be an easy one.  All done by 4:30pm.
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Dancer undresses to go meet the man, and Julian offers to fold his clothes.  He tells him “Go easy…,” but the contact figured out that he was being used as a mule, so he asks for a few grand to make it worth his trouble.  Did they think he would believe that line about just carrying some art to a friend in the city for a favor?  Big mistake for them, and for him too.
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Meanwhile, the police trudge on…
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…while Dancer explains the facts of life to the upstart seaman.  He does it silently, shall we say.  Their driver asks if he really had to kill the guy, and Julian responds, “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.”  Bob Dylan may have taken note.
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Next up, a set of fancy cutlery with powder stowed in the ivory handles needs to be repossessed from a rich pillar of society.  The butler is not comfortable with the story of an accidental mix up of shipments.  Dancer tries to talk his way out using his newly acquired gift for upper-class gab, but is not successful…
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Get your hands off that silverware!
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The butler runs to call the man of the house, but Dancer nails him.  It looks as if he’s shooting wild until you realize that you only see the butler in a mirror on the wall.
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Time to get out of there, and another SF location shot…
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The final mark is a woman who was on the boat with her daughter:  the stuff is stashed in the kid’s doll.  They catch up with them at the aquarium.  That Julian, he must love kids!
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Dancer does a fine job at trying, but not too hard, to pick up the woman.  She has a sad story about hoping that her divorced husband would have the decency to meet them at the dock to see his little girl, but no dice.  He’s lonely too…  He’s pretty convincing.  Good enough to get her to an accept an offer of a drive with his friends to her hotel so she doesn’t have to bother with all those packages.
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Once in the room, when mom leaves for a moment, they go for the doll, not the kind you carry around all the time.  The stuff isn’t there, and under threat of death for her mom, the kid reveals that she found the powder and used it to freshen up the doll’s face!  “That’s the most expensive face powder you could have used, kid.”
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Well, all the veils have fallen.  “Get out, now!”
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Julian does not like being told what to do by a woman, no sirree bob!
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But he’s not about to let the enraged Dancer finish the conversation by shooting the two females, although that’s what Dancer is set to do. Interesting logic here, and strangely compelling:  The Man is going to be mightily upset at getting a short shipment, and will likely conclude that Dancer and Julian did a little business of their own on the side.  That will not be good for the duo, who will be dead in short order, so Julian concludes that they must force the ladies to go with them, to meet The Man, so that he will see that their explanation, which would be hard to believe, don’t ya’ think, is for real.  It’s their only chance.
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So they all drive to the coast, to Sutro’s Maritime Museum, all that’s left of the legendary Sutro’s Baths, an early 20th century amusement center, and another great SF location.  Julian waits in the car with the ladies while Dancer goes in to meet The Man.  He is repelled by their weakness, and explains “that is why there are so few women in the crime world.  You just don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.”  He’s very thoughtful…
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Meanwhile, The Man doesn’t find his package, but sees Dancer watching him.
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Dancer sees that he sees him, and goes over to make the drop, a bit short, it’s true, and to explain the situation.
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The Man doesn’t care for explanations.  “You’re dead,” he says.  “Nobody sees me.  You’re on borrowed time now.”
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His last words – Julian likes to record the last words of their victims in a little book he carries – are “Get out!”  Then he slaps Dancer hard.
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Dancer won’t take that crap.  He pushes him off the ledge onto the rink below.  It’s a great scene.
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Sandy is a driving kind of man, and his skills are now in demand since the cops have finally caught up with the three crooks.
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The pursuit scenes through the streets of SF are surprisingly effective given that they were all done in a studio in front of a projection screen.
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Sandy can drive, but he doesn’t always go the right way.  They end up at an elevated dead end on a freeway under construction.  Love that!
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Dancer is not impressed.  “Get us out of here if you want to live!”
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Sandy does a quick turn, and complies…
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…but he gets caught in an off-ramp going nowhere, and can go no further.  Dancer conks him over the head; Julian tries to surrender, but Dancer will have none of that!
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Put those last words in your little book!
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The cops get Dancer, Mom and daughter are okay, and it’s all in a day’s work for these two unexciting guys.5


True to Life

July 24, 2014

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Frederick I. Ordway III, the science advisor to Stanley Kubrick during the making of 2001, died last week.


Bleak House: Musing on the Classes

July 23, 2014

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Chapter XXVIII, The Ironmaster, of Bleak House finds us in the company of Sir Leicester Dedlock, the gouty and unrepentantly reactionary worthy who forms one party to the interminable Chancery suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.  His character, and that of his wife, Lady Dedlock, are examples of Dicken’s unsurpassed talent for skewering social pretension, and perhaps are indicative of his feelings about British class society.  I wonder how this chapter was received by the public, popular as the book was.  Did the power-elite grumble about it as another case of some uppity middle-class gnat taking unfair potshots at one of their members?  Was it seen as inconsequential as todays sitcoms making fun of “rich people” sometimes are?

Sir Leicester learns that a tradesman, dealer in iron, wishes to speak to him about his son’s desire to become engaged to one of the household servants.  It seems that the man’s son also is standing for a seat in the House of Commons.  He and his poor relation, Volumnia, contemplate the degradation of society:

“And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions,” says Sir Leicester with stately gloom; “that I have been informed, by Mr Tulkinghorn, that Mrs Rouncewell’s son has been invited to go into Parliament.”

Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.

“Yes, indeed,” repeats Sir Leicester. “Into Parliament.”

“I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?” exclaims Volumnia.

“He is called, I believe — an — Ironmaster.” Sir Leicester says it slowly, and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a Lead-mistress; or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal.

Volumnia utters another little scream.

That’s all in good fun, but this next bit is shaper.  Sir Leicester is beset by all sorts of family parasites – even the richest of the rich have poor relations – and they must be provided for, but it is getting harder to do it.  The old landed aristocracy making way for the crass commercial elite, and upper-class entitlement is running into some roadblocks:

In any country in a wholesome state, Volumnia would be a clear case for the pension list. Efforts have been made to get her on it; and when William Buffy came in, it was fully expected that her name would be put down for a couple of hundred a-year. But William Buffy somehow discovered, contrary to all expectation, that these were not the times when it could be done; and this was the first clear indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.

There is likewise the Honourable Bob Stables, who can make warm mashes with the skill of a veterinary surgeon, and is a better shot than most gamekeepers. He has been for some time particularly desirous to serve his country in a post of good emoluments, unaccompanied by any trouble or responsibility. In a well regulated body politic, this natural desire on the part of a spirited young gentleman so highly connected, would be speedily recognized; but somehow William Buffy found when he came in, that these were not times in which he could manage that little matter, either; and this was the second indication Sir Leicester Dedlock had conveyed to him, that the country was going to pieces.

When Sir Leicester does meet with the Ironmaster, we see that he is a brisk man of business, with no nonsense or pretension, who is careful to give the lords what they consider their due respect, although he certainly is clipped about it.  Sir Leicester, for his part, can’t get over the fact that he must actually speak with this man who does not make it obvious at every moment that he considers himself a miserable inferior to his gracious lord of the manor.


The 97% Solution

July 18, 2014

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I often read that 97% of climate scientists agree with “the consensus” on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), so I decided to finally buckle down and read the article that has given the latest currency to this claim.  You can read it too, right here.  The heart of it is contained in Table No.3:

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You can see the 97.1% figure there, right in the first row.  Done deal!  But what does this really mean?  Read for yourself, but here’s a summary:

  • About 12,000 abstracts of papers on “climate” were culled from the Web, and distributed without names to twelve “citizen-science” researchers for rating.
  • About 9,000 expressed no position on AGW.
  • Of those that expressed a position, 97% “endorsed” the “consensus” view.  What does that mean?  Actually, the “endorsed” label was applied to any of three expressed positions to make the analysis simpler.  To receive that rating, the abstract had to take one of the following positions:
    • Explicitly state that humans are the primary cause of recent global warming
    • Explicitly state humans are causing global warming, or refer to anthropogenic global warming/climate change as a known fact
    • Imply humans are causing global warming. e.g., the research assumes greenhouse gas emissions cause warming without explicitly stating humans are the cause

Pretty broad array of opinion there all rolled up into that 97%, which is actually only 97% of the 1/3 that expressed a position.  Could it be that those that did not express a position, 63%, just think it’s a trivial affair, not worth discussing?    And of those that did express “affirmation,” it seems that just mentioning that CO2 does cause the earth to warm – no mention of how much, or over what period, or whether or not it is worrisome – puts you down with the “consensus” position.

So, we can state pretty definitively that those writers of published scientific papers who chose to express a view of AGW, do overwhelmingly agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that human activity – not just burning fossil fuels – is contributing to changes in the climate.  That’s a pretty safe set of propositions, but then, it is the nature of consensus to state the non-controversial.

NB:  There is absolutely no mention of the real crux of the controversy, i.e., what to make of the projections for the next fifty and one hundred years that are contained in the IPCC Assessment Reports and other publications.


Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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