Drainage: Civilization’s Foundation

July 27, 2012

BEIJING — In the heart of the Chinese capital is the showcase neighborhood of Sanlitun, where expatriates and Chinese glitterati go to dine, drink and dance. It has gleaming curved skyscrapers, a boutique hotel where rooms list for $400 to $4,000 a night, and restaurants with cuisines like French, Persian and Mexican.

What it does not have is a modern drainage system.

Here is the fundamental text – Drainage: The Wine of Life.

And here are some other posts on various aspects of this neglected topic:  Drainage Posts.

 


Death in the Garden

July 2, 2010

Death in the Garden is a film from 1956 by Luis Bunuel.    The plot is one we have seen many times in cinema:  an unlikely group  of characters is forced to work together in order to survive in hostile circumstances, outside of the boundaries of civilization, and in the process, their personalities and the old class distinctions begin to disintegrate.  Nothing at all surprising here, and the film is, in fact, rather straightforward for those expecting a wild dash of surrealism, but that is not to say it’s boring.  No, it was a wonderful, surprising, and sometimes poignant movie.  It’s also in stunning 1950s color.

Our group comprises a rather uptight priest, a brash prostitute used to running her own show, an elderly miner, her former customer, who has decided to marry her and take her back home to France with him, the miner’s daughter, a pretty young woman who is mute, and a handsome adventurer running from the law.  They all must flee their one-horse town in the South American wilderness when the high-handed actions of the corrupt local military man provoke an armed uprising.  The miner and adventurer are falsely accused of crimes, the whore is implicated with the miner, and the priest…at first he is taken against his will, but after that, he’s a marked man too.

With the setting of the Amazonian jungle, it’s clear that The Garden refers to Eden.  The philosophical and religious themes are piled on one after another, but with delicious irony and humor – you could ignore them if you wish and just enjoy a really good adventure yarn.  Now and then, there is a touch that jumps out as distinctly Bunuel, but mostly his presence is felt in the sure direction, the interplay of image and idea, and the portrayal of human culture and norms as just this side of bizarre when seen in the context of nature’s ‘garden.’

I had never seen Simone Signoret as anything but a plump and almost matronly older figure.  Here she is in her early bombshell days:  first meeting with Chark, who is happy to pay for her company; in the jungle with the priest for company, desparately in need of a bath.

Chark kills a snake, and saves them from starvation.  Later, the priest sees the remains swarming with ants.  What would a Bunuel film be without ants?  Was the priest having a vision, or does he really see it?

We see a shot of Paris at night, cars honking, and suddenly it’s an old snapshot of Paris by the light of their jungle campfire, the film suddenly runs down and the audio stops… Reminds me of the film breaking in Bergman’s Personna-which came first?

They are saved when they come upon the wreck of an airplane that was carrying a load of rich vacationers.  Suitcases yield food, drink, fancy clothes, and even jewels!  We see a well dressed woman opening a jewel box, and then are jolted to see it is the young Maria, dressed up, searching through the luggage.  The priest tries to inject a note of law and order, but the lovely young girl is dazzled by the apples, er…jewels.

Djin, the whore, “looks like a real lady,” and makes quite an impression on Chark.  They like each other, but they have to get past the fact that she turned him in to the police for a cut of his cash.  What a bizarre shot this is – high fashion in the wilderness.

Obviously, this idea has a lot of appeal for people today.

The images below say it all:  bare skin, the jungle, raw passion, jewels, civilization stripped away…I saw the advert on a huge billboard driving home from the airport after watching the movie on my flight.  It exploits the jewels on naked-savage-skin opposition for different ends.

She’s tempted, but she’s innocent.  Two of the group survive to escape down the river in a shot that brought to mind the end of The Great Escape, when Charles Bronson floats down a stream to freedom in a small boat.


Chabrol vs. Chesterton on cavemen among us

March 7, 2010

In Error there is truth

The universe includes everything right and wrong that can be said about it, so I always pay close attention to statements that are very, very wrong.  You might learn something!  So too, with nasty and critical comments on this blog.  I have a thick skin.

I received a nasty one recently on my post deriding William F. Buckley:

Gessi Says: March 7, 2010

“But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.” And yet the author of this blog is just as arrogant in his certainties as Buckley.

Well, maybe I spoke too harshly of the recently dead, but no matter.  This jibe at my personality led me to other comments on the same post by a Libertarian Catholic blogger with whom I occasionally exchange views.  He mentioned G.K. Chesterton a lot, a man I’ve never read, and one who came up in conversation recently.  And that led me back to Chabrol, and to my lingering feeling that there was something very unsatisfying about his acclaimed film, Le boucher.

Cavemen among us

In an article by Dorian Bell, Cavemen among us*, the author connects Chabrol’s film to Zola’s novel, La bête humaine, and traces the idea that within modern “civilized” man, there lurks a primeval savage that sometimes finds its way to the surface.  This idea is very much associated with Chabrol’s film in many treatments, and Chabrol himself is quoted in the Bell article as saying, “Je me suis demande´ si l’homme était toujours “cromagnonesque.” [I asked myself, if man is always cro-magnonesque.]

Bell does a very good job of dissecting the presence of this idea in the film:  the images of flesh and meat, dialogue about butcheries, human and animal, the juxtaposition of the pre-historic cave drawings with the young children on an outing with their sophisticated teacher, etc. etc.  Unlike most critics I’ve read, he actually hits the point that Hélène is complicit with Popaul in his murders, stating (my emphasis):

Popaul’s violence seems extreme in part because it was successfully consigned to the periphery for so long.  Now it is back, borne by a returning colonial soldier whose crimes Hélène, the picture of purity, cannot bring herself to reveal. Remember that in the years leading up to Le Boucher, the state-sanctioned torture employed by France in the Algerian war had been met by many with similar silence. Complicity, like Freudian atavism, spares no one, and in the guilty figure of Hélène, Chabrol updates the thematics of atavism for the postcolonial era.

Typically, for an academic, he situates the discussion in the cross-currents of imperialism, Freudianism, and an arcane reading of la representation, but he is on to a lot of things here.  Problem is, what if you reject Freudianism?  What if you are not a Marxist?  The article assumes that these points of view are beyond question, or at least that it is not interesting to question them.  After all, how then would academics meet their quota of publications?  Alas, I wonder if Chabrol questioned them when he made this film.

Freud’s troglodytes

Underneath all this talk of atavism, primitivism, and savagery -walking through the cavemen’s haunts, Hélène asks her students on the outing, “What do we call a savage desire that has been civilized? An aspiration!”  If this were an irony, I would like it more, but I think it represents a serious attempt to make sense of civilization by Chabrol.  Why should we accept this?  Freud’s very influential but very absurd book, Civilization and It’s Discontents was surely more popular in 1970 than it is now, even in France, and it proposes the idea that civilization prospers by repressing and sublimating the savage impulses of mankind.  What is absurd is that the book was written by a man who remarked, “As a young man, I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it.” Ah, well, maybe not quite well enough, because Civilization is little but an extended daydream.

Perhaps our ancestors were just as gentle and artistic as we are?  And here we have Chesterton, who writes of the popular notion of the caveman:

So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off.

We know a lot more about pre-historic man now than we did when he wrote, and this image of the caveman lives on mostly in cartoons and satire, even to the point where it has been recycled ironically as the Geico caveman who is insulted at the prejudice directed against him, but it lives on rather untouched among many intellectuals who are more interested in culture than the science of paleolithic archaeology.  Chesterton is absolutely right – what reason do we have to think that the cavemen was a savage in temperament as well as in material circumstances?   If one is committed to the Freudian view of civilization, it’s a no brainer, but what if civilization (culture) are, as someone somewhere said, simply things to make life easier? People haven’t changed that much – we just get better at making our lives run smoothly…most of the time.  The myth of atavism is just a convenient intellectual crutch for those who would rather not think the hard questions of why we are as we are.  Not so hard, after all, because we’ve always been as we are.

Does Chabrol know what a cro-magnon man was like?  Does he care?  Or has he simply used an idea in-the-air to make a taut thriller with an intellectual gloss that dazzles lots of his followers?  Hélène’s student asks her on the outing, “What would Mr. cro-magnon do if he lived with us now?”  She answers, “I don’t know, maybe he would die...”  [Of course, how could he survive in this civilized hell-on-earth?  Really, Popaul is barely making it as it is!]  Ah, but the little girl says, “Too bad, I think he would be nice.”  We are supposed to think that is childish and cute, but perhaps she understands more than her teacher.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Darwinism and materialism were subject to so much polemical vulgarization, that the elegant refutations of them by G.K. Chesterton have no interest for me, an atheist.  We’ve moved on, or at least I have, but his dissection of the caveman myth is wonderful.  Similarly, Freud’s grand theories about sex, death, and culture, whether in his own words or those of his descendants like Herbert Marcuse, should be consigned to the realm of interesting literary ideas that have had too much influence.  Nobody but scholars of French literature puts much effort into fathoming Zola’s reconfiguration of Darwin into Le Rougon Macquart cycle.  We read the books for their literary value.  Atavism, an idea for the dustbin, along with it’s twin fantasy, the noble savage.

*Dorian Bell – Cavemen among us:  Geneaologies of atavism from Zola’s La bête humaine to Chabrol’s Le boucher.   French Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 1, 39–52


Discomfort of Strangers

January 1, 2009

venice11

Time on my hands again, and I’m watching more films I’ve had on my list.  The Comfort of Strangers, with a screenplay by Pinter, is one. Is this title a reference to “The Glass Menagerie,” the kindness of strangers..?  And why is Venice so popular a setting for ominous, creepy stories?  I’m thinking of Mann’s Death in Venice, Roeg’s film, Don’t Look Now, as well as this one.  I’m sure there are others.  Is it a northern European thing?  The seedy useless relic of a defunct empire as symbol of the hollowness and decay of all that is orderly and civilized?  I don’t buy it.

Comfort was, I think, a ridiculous film, saved only by the scenery and the sheer over-the-top quality of Christopher Walken’s performance.  It relies on the old standby of modern entertainment that lacks character motivation, the psychopath.  Any soap opera or TV movie can be made dramatic as long as there’s a killer maniac on the loose, especially if he’s charming.  We don’t deal with Satan anymore, so we have to make do with people twisted by their sadistic upbringing in our dramas.

This film reminds me of Straw Dogs by Peckinpah, another story of male softness and civilized courtesy overwhelmed by the brutal “reality” of life beneath the veneer of culture.  It’s a pretty tired idea, and I wonder why it appeals to writers.  My guess is that it says more about the insecurities of the artist than about the cultural standards it seeks to upset and question.  Showing a wily and unstoppable murderer preying upon innocent tourists brings a frisson, but I found Colin’s character totally unbelievable.  I would expect that any man who appears as he did in the film would not have let Robert punch him in the stomach, and then go to dinner with him.  Are we supposed to believe that he was such a wimp that he wouldn’t even demand of his girfriend that they leave immediately?  I don’t think so…


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