I sort of liked Terrence Mallick’s film “The Tree of Life,” although I regard it as a failed attempt to convey profound ideas. How can you not enjoy a film with such ravishing photography and a quirky, jarring editing style to evoke reminiscences of childhood? But that empathic dinosaur scene…too much.
Are we supposed to take this seriously as a depiction of the evolution of empathy in organisms? It’s just a fantasy or fairy tale representation, which is okay, but not in a film with such pretensions to deep revelations. The simplistic and incredible nature of the action is presented with state of the art animation that is jarring and discordant. Whaa…what did we just see? Did I…was that?…the shy stegosaurus of cricket creek? Ridiculous.
A lot of the flicks I watch are movies that came out when I was a kid, but that I didn’t get to see, or didn’t quite understand. I have seen Cool Hand Luke (1967) before, but my primary recollections of it are from the Mad Magazine satire, “Blue Eyed Kook” July ’68. I just watched it, and though it has its appeal, I found myself remarkable detached and uninterested in the fate of this white chain gang somewhere in the troglodyte South. What did strike me was depth of the Christ symbolism and story in the representation of Luke’s journey/Passion.
Luke is imprisoned for some drunken tomfoolery, and set to work on a road gang, mostly clearing brush. He figures as a kind of existential beat-era anti-hero, with his laconic apercus, e.g., “Sometimes having nothing is a pretty cool hand,” when he thoroughly bluffs his way to wining at poker and is anointed with his sobriquet by Dragline (George Kennedy.) He is temperamentally compelled to sass and rebel, although it comes out in bursts between periods of apparent cooperation with the “system.” In a final soliloquy in an abandoned church where he gets his death wish fulfilled, he asks God why He made him “this way.” The dialog is totally stagey and false: nobody who has his impulsive and uncooperative character is likely to have the self-awareness displayed in those last words of his.
That he has a death wish is made clear several times in the film, including one moment when he explicitly implores God to strike him down. His personal relationship with the “Old Man Upstairs” is one element of his Christ status: Like Jesus, he has a heavy burden to bear, and he does not always feel up to it. That burden is to bring light to the darkness of the prison, the uneducated, beaten-down, spiritually defeated inmates. After being initially hostile enough to him to pulverize him in a boxing match, Dragline becomes his indefatigable promoter and apostle, amplifying his message of purpose and life through his endless storytelling and myth-making. The boxing match was simply one of Luke’s trials to endure, as he establishes himself as The Messanger.
At each violent juncture in Luke’s stay in the camp, the inmates react, usually positively. They are inspired by him, and live out their hopes and aspirations through him, so much so, that Luke must admonish and rebuke them for “hanging on him.” They should “get out there,” themselves, he tells them after one failed escape attempt returns him beaten but unbowed to the camp, instead of feasting on his stories of freedom outside. Soo…why did he send them that faked photograph of himself with two women that got the men going so much? Was he mocking them? When Luke is finally reduced to a pitiable, pliable, obedient state through a night of grueling torture, the men turn on him and regard them with contempt, flicking their cigarette butts at him, and turning away, as though they could have done better. He let them down. His burden is heavy…
There’s lots of explicit christian symbolism in this film: Luke is left in a crucified posture after he ingests fifty hard boiled eggs to win a bit, a bit of (unintended?) comedy. No surprise he meets his end in an abandoned church. After all, the church, established religion, has abandoned him. As has society. After all, we are all simply alone. And we can’t even get help from one another – there’s that “failure to communicate” business.
It’s a real period piece, this film. It fits so well into the culture of anti-establishment gestures and rhetoric, the scorn, ridicule, and distrust that were heaped on previously respected institutions as a result of the 60s counterculture, and most of all, the horrible war in Vietnam. But seen at the remove of fifty-five years, it seems pretty tame. Almost innocent. Would that our problems were so clear cut and easily identified.
The only scene in this movie that stays with me as something truly impressive rather that contrived is the meeting between Luke and his dying mother. A marvelous scene, and his mother (Jo Van Fleet) was wonderfully acted.
I took a look at the new addition to the Hudson River waterfront, the Little Island, and it set me off on an extended internal riff about illusions and the artificial. Coincidentally, I finished up my little foray into the Chelsea district of Manhattan by visiting the Museum of Illusions, a sort of “chain museum,” in that it has sites in many cities. It was very well done, and a lot of fun.
As for the new park, it is certainly in the grand tradition of 18th garden follies, as the review in the NYTimes commented. The planting is lush, the views are spectacular, the engineering is amazing (although I have had a hard time finding out just exactly how those “tulip” buckets were constructed), but the whole thing is just a little bit…weird and kooky. There is a strong Disneyland feeling, and maybe that’s intentional, but the place feels like a an expensive bauble strung to the waterfront necklace of NYC. Good thing that Diller is footing the bill for maintenance for the next twenty years, because as the Times noted, it’s likely to cost a “king’s ransom.”
I suppose you could say Little Island is more E.A. Poe “Garden at Arnheim than Disneyland, but in any case, we’re firmly in the realm of the artificial. Not fake, mind you, but the product of artifice. And that’s art, with a capital, or maybe lower-case ‘A’. If it were a a little bit on the perverse side, it might have pleased Huysman’s Des Esseintes in A Rebours, but it’s definitely a family place. And after all, it’s no more ‘naturalistic’ than this favorite space for tourists the world over:
Olmsted gave us a little bit of rus in urbe, nature in the city, but in this more European section of Central Park, he leaned Continental and gave us a little bit of the (Italianate) city in nature, in the nature in the city… Yeah, it’s all how you look at it.
Not too far from this spot is what may be the most visited location in the park, Strawberry Fields, a mosaic in the pathway memorializing John Lennon, near the street entrance across from The Dakota (home of Rosemary’s Baby) where he was murdered. And we know what John Lennon said about reality…and was he just echoing something he’d read?
As I rode public transit across the GWB and downtown on the A-train, I was reading this book from the 1970s that I picked up from the NYRB:
This book is one sustained illusion, a piece of artifice that is amazing to contemplate. It is the story of an empire that existed somewhere in the near east, somewhat contemporaneously with the Roman Empire, except that the Roman Empire is never mentioned, and it seems to be the Roman Empire, except not. Maybe it’s the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the geography seems to match that better, but it really doesn’t matter, because it’s all entirely invented.
The book is a novel, an elaborate historical invention that parallels historical reality, or what we think of as historical reality, or what writers tell us, or have told us, is historical reality, and so on, and on. It is deeply and delightfully ironic and satiric, includes a raft of footnotes that are either completely invented, with authors, sources, journals, and books cited, or sometimes partially invented, and often somewhere in between, requiring a bit of research to determine just where they stand on the line between reality and illusion.
The tone of the book is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of history of the Middle Ages or the Roman and Greek periods of Western Civ that is now slightly old fashioned, that is, stuff written before 1970, say. The cover of the NYRB paperback features an engraving by Piranesi, that consumate re-inventor of the imperial past: his painstaking historical accuracy sometimes gave way to incredible flights of fancy, as in this image, and sometimes it’s not easy to tell if he is giving us reality or fancy, but of course, the reality crumbled to dust long ago.
Reading this book, I had a vague sense that I had heard it all before, and not from the history that I had read, but I didn’t identify the source of this feeling until today. It’s Star Wars! That inexhaustible film franchise is another form taken by the lure of the artificial.
In Star Wars, we have a totalized artificial history that is the mirror of The Glory of the Empire. The novel looks back in time and creates an artificial empire, the movie series looks forward. The novel creates an artificial history that mimics and borrows from actual historical reality and seems as if it could have happened just as the author wrote it. (Of course, the conceit of the novel is that he is writing it as other authors, chronicleers, wrote it, so we have texts written on top of texts…all quite in the manner of J. L. Borges.) In Star Wars, we have a fantastical future realm that lifts all the historical cliches wholesale into an imagined sci-fi future that nobody could believe is real, and that the creators don’t intend anyone to take as real: it’s fantasy for fun.
Star Wars begins from a hazily imagined pas and present, and projects into the phantastical future. What’s so disconcerting about The Glory of the Empire, is that it starts from a perfectly observed present, and imagines a past that we almost feel must have existed given what does exist now. One passage that uses this technique so well is a description of the reunion of the Emperor to-be Alexis with his mother, from whom he has been separated for twenty years. We are told of frescoes by Piero della Francesca that depict this scene – and we can almost believe they exist, especially when we read the footnotes! – and given the paintings by the master that do exist, shouldn’t these be among them? Not to mention the fact that the text goes on to tell us of the immense influence of this narrated/imagined scene on the subsequent history of western art. The passage concludes with a “quotation” from one of Proust’s novels in which a character dies on viewing the frescoe by Piero.
Personally, I have no taste for Star Wars. I prefer my fantasy, my illusions, my artifices with a heavy does of irony and satire. Why would I want to see all the cliches of politics and human folly simply reenacted with high-tech impossible gizmos? But that’s me.
Speaking of artificial islands sculpted into paradisaical gardens, is there ever anything new?
The steeply rising curve shows the number of new confirmed COVID19 cases reported each day in the United States, minus the Tri-State area of NY, NJ, and CT. The declining curve at the bottom shows the number of new cases in the Tri-State area, which was the epicenter of explosive growth in the infected case count a couple of months ago. Remember that? These curves are plotted against the axis on the left.
The black line is the number of reported deaths from COVID19 reported each day throughout the USA, and it is plotted against the right-hand axis. The Tri-State area, like most of the European Union, even Italy, which was at first Exhibit A for COVID19 disaster, has gotten a strangle hold on the virus: new cases are precipitously down, and new deaths are in the single digits. If only the rest of the country will stay away, maybe we can stay safe!
The death rate is still relatively low, but it has stopped declining, and it rising. It’s only a matter of time before the spreading virus leaves the community of those bar hopping young ‘uns and hits the more vulnerable population, pulling up the death rate. (Young people die too!)
Can Trumpy Kool-Aid drinkers ignore a death toll of more than 250,000 by election day?
These maps were taken from the NYTimes on March 24th (top), and March 22 (second image). The size of the shaded circles indicates the number of known COVID19 cases in each major infection center, and it appears, just going on the size of the circles, that things have gotten better, right? Just compare the symbols over the New York region in the map directly above to the one at the top of the post. I’m sure if Trumpy sees this, he will congratulate himself, and maybe get out his Sharpie to highlight this evidence of his wonderful leadership.
Ah…but scale is everything. Not map scale, in this case, but the symbology metric. As the number of cases in NYC grows exponentially (and that term is correct in this instance, not just hyperbole) the circular graphic would grow so large that it would extend to the edges of the image, which would make it difficult to interpret. So, it appears, the cartographers have adjusted the scale of the symbols, i.e., a given increment in the symbol radius indicates a greater number of cases today than on March 22. If you zoom into the map to read the numerical values that indicate the raw count, you can see that it has gone up significantly although the symbol size has not.
This map shows the census tracts (in black) where about 67% of the USA population lives (2010 data) overlaid onto the NYTimes map of COVID19 cases (3/22/2020). Sorry about the problem with northwest Washington state!
The implication is obvious, and should have been clear to everyone for a while now: Two thirds of the population of the USA is at immediate risk of infection from the virus. If unconstrained, that’s more than 200 million cases, with a mortality rate somewhere between 0.1% and 1.0%. That’s a lot of people at risk of death, up to two million.
Let’s hope that the increasing number of areas on lock-down slow the spread and reduce the number!
Watching Star Trek is always an exercise in déjà vu, because I was nine years old when it premiered, and because just about everything in it is borrowed from something else. Maybe the borrowings are on purpose, maybe they are just accidental in the sense that some themes are always “in the air” at certain times, but the shows are always a bricolage of themes and images. Part of the fun…
In this episode from the first season, Kirk is trapped on a planet with a lost scientist who has transformed himself into an android to preserve his mind when his body was dying of frostbite. (Mind-body issues run rampant through Star Trek). It takes a while for the doctor’s true nature to come out, but he is surrounded by androids he has constructed as part of his insane scheme to overrun the universe with superior beings, you know the drill. Andrea is one of them, clearly designed for more than protection and conquest, much to the chagrin of the doctor’s erstwhile fiancee who has joined Kirk on his search for the missing scientific hero.
Ruk, an android surviving from the old days of the planet, looks like he escaped from a local production of Pagliacci, is played by Ted Cassidy, aka Lurch, who, it happens, lived just a few minutes from where I was growing up in Woodland Hills, and whose ashes (he died prematurely) are scattered in the house’s back yard. He is easily befuddled and tricked by Kirk’s superior logical wit.
Kirk on the run, after flummoxing Ruk, makes use of a handy phallic formation for protection. You have to wonder if he’s just playing hard to get. The episode is filled with “transgressive” same-sex kissing and fondling, as is the norm for Star Trek’s intrepid exploration of racial and sexual taboos.
The android love nest gets to be too much for Andrea, who “loves” her maker, and who can’t abide rejection. Another correspondence: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers comes to mind.
Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas (hey, another correspondence!) are locked in their love-death embrace in the finale.
Not exactly clear who pulls the trigger, but it’s curtains for the two of them, the only way it could be.
A final correspondence: As Captain Kirk is being duplicated into an android Kirk, he shouts out an insulting phrase about Dr. Spock being a half-breed, knowing that the android will then repeat the sentiments when he is sent to the Enterprise to impersonate himself. Of course, Spock, receiving the insult, realizes that the “Captain” is an imposter, and takes proper action. It’s all reminiscent of the “Rolo Tomassi” sequence in L.A. Confidential, the best part of that flick, I think.
Ivan Chonkin is the hero of a trilogy of satirical novels by Vladimir Voinovich, of which I’ve read the first two, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, and The Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.
The image above shows a still from a film version of the the first novel in which Ivan, an archetypal everyman who is not too sharp, is sent by his army superiors to guard a Soviet plane that has crash landed in a rural boondocks. He is forgotten in the disaster of the opening weeks of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, but dutifully performs his mission, while taking up romantically with a single woman near whose cottage the plane is kept. Through bureaucratic confusion and a lot of Soviet-style self-serving malice, he gets classified as a deserter, and a squad is sent to fetch him for trial. He refuses to relinquish his post, fights off the troops for some time, but is eventually arrested and taken away by The Right People (the NKVD, or secret police) to the Right Place (the local prison where enemies of the state are interrogated.)
In the second book, during the “investigation” into his crimes, he is somehow connected with an aristocratic emigre family and an array of totally fictitious German spies. The NKVD puts him on trial for conspiring with the Germans in a plot to collaborate with the invasion in return for his restoration to the Tsar’s throne! During part of his interrogation, after being beaten and tortured for a while, we have this bit of wonderful dialog that is Voinovich at his best:
Chonkin’s torments ended when Major Figurin took charge of the case again. Having examined the situation, Figurin had Chonkin fed and brought tea, treated him to long cigarettes, which made Chonkin sweetly dizzy, and spoke to him nicely, man to man: “Unfortunately, Vanya, not all our workers are saints. It’s the work they do. Sometimes it makes you cruel without your knowing it. And besides, the people who end up here do not always evaluate things soberly, they don’t always have a correct sense of what is demanded of them. Let’s say we bring in a man and we say to him, ‘You are our enemy.’ He doesn’t agree, he objects, ‘No, I’m not.’ But how could that be? If we arrest a man, naturally he hates us. And if, on top of that, he considers himself innocent, then he hates us twice as much, three times as much. And if he hates us, that means he’s our enemy and that means he’s guilty. And so, Vanya, that’s why I personally consider innocent people our worst enemies.”
Vladimir Voinovich wrote these novels in the late 60s and the 70s, and he was forced into exile from the USSR in 1980. He eventually returned to Russia when Gorbachev restored his citizenship in 1990. He continued to act as a dissident under Putin until his death this year.