Clear as Day

September 27, 2015


See your declaration, Americans!! Do you understand your own language? Hear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4, 1776—

☞ “We hold these truths to be self evident—that ALL MEN are created EQUAL! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!!”

Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers on ourselves on our fathers and on us, men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!

Meta, meta, murder…

June 18, 2015


I just finished this book – not sure whether it’s a “crime novel” or a “mystery”.  Is there a difference?  Anyway, it was well written, very clever and suspenseful.  The characters it presented were good too.  That’s all I have to say about it, other than that the murders it describes are extremely gruesome, but I guess that’s old hat these days, what with Hannibal Lechter, Steven King, and so on.

Well, there’s this too:  the killer in the book is staging his crimes to duplicate murder scenes in books he admires.  He sees himself as some sort of artist.  One of the books, the one with the first murder scene used, is Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.  Near the end of the book, the author, the real author, not the would-be author who is murdering women, changes the name of a character so that we might think that all the time we have been reading a text written by the murderer and sent to the character in the book who is chasing him, rather than reading a book about a policeman chasing a murderer who sends him texts…  Very meta.

I started reading this sort of book sometime after I started watching film noir, a natural progression I guess.  At first, I read books that were the basis of films I’d seen, but now I’ve expanded my range a bit.  I’m not sure why they are entertaining; certainly it’s not the gore – that just adds to the suspense somehow.

In the Acknowledgements section of the book, after the end, Lemaitre praises the four novels he references in his narrative.  He notes that critics reacted very harshly to Ellis’ book, implying that they are hypocritical for wanting these novels to “exorcise our hyper-violent societies,” while not exceeding the limits of good taste.  I am not sure what he means by this other than that authors should be free to write what they like, and if critics don’t like it, but read it anyway, too bad for them.  As for “hyper-violent,” I don’t know at all what this means.  Compared to what?  Medieval towns with public executions, drawing and quartering, bear baiting in the Elizabethan age?  Mass starvation?  Slavery?  It all sounds very French-Intellectual to me:  I can just hear those academics intoning about the “violence inherent in the system,” as Monty Python put it, and so on.  I think he’s just fascinated by violence and gore, and makes a good living at it.  Better than teaching literature, which is what he used to do.

City of Fear

May 27, 2015

He’s in there somewhere!

City of Fear (1959) isn’t all that good of a movie, but it had its moments.  Vince Edwards stars as a ruthless pusher on the run after a breakout from prison.  He took a canister of powder with him that he thinks is pure heroin being used in special “junkie trials” in the infirmary, but it’s actually Cobalt-16, “the most deadly element in existence.”  The police are running a race against time to find him before the mayor of LA makes an announcement of the situation and causes full pandemonium in town.

Meeting up with his girlfriend, he explains why he had to break out, kill those guys, and make off with the “snow.”

“I’m not an animal.  I’m a person; I want things.”

Yep, the human condition.

On the run, running out of time, dying of radiation poisoning:  a nice shot juxtaposing a desperate man and better times, a la kitsch.

And maybe he is an animal after all.  A social pest…

In the end, just another specimen.  The cops look on:  “C’mon, I want to go home.”

That’s all folks.


May 20, 2015

Ombre rosse

Stagecoach (1939), considered one of the great classics of American cinema, a film that raised the Western, that most American and durable of genres, from the realm of the B-picture to movie-art, more than seventy-five years old, and I’ve just seen it.  Well, not quite – I saw the remake as a young boy, and thought it pretty dreadful.  The critics agreed.  I recall my mother telling me that it was a remake, and I resolved never to see it – bad choice.

My interest in the film was awakened when I had dinner at a fabulous little restaurant in Genoa, Italy, called Ombre Rosse.  I knew that the words meant “Red Shadow,” but I didn’t know that was the name given to the Italian release of Stagecoach, and I missed the poster near the restaurant’s door.  Inside, there was quite a lot of art of the Soviet Socialist Realist school, so I thought that this was the source of the place’s name – the shadow of the Reds…Communism, etc.  The waiter enlightened me when we chatted after I told him I liked his Dr. Strangelove T-shirt.  The red shadow is the threat of the Apaches, of course.  For Americans, “stagecoach” evokes the Old West, but for Italians, it would probably evoke a 19th century transit system, thus the change.

One thing that really intrigued me in the film was the character of the “genteel” southern gambler, Hatfield, played by John Carradine.  He’s really creepy.  Carradine was widely known for his roles in horror flicks, among other things, and he looks quite elegantly cadaverous.  He takes it upon himself as a gentleman to watch over Mrs. Mallory, travelling to rejoin her husband, a cavalry officer, and soon to give birth.  They share a southern background:  Hatfield claims to have fought in her husband’s regiment.  He even owns a silver cup of his which she recognizes to his embarassment:  he won it gambling. She looks at death’s door, and he sort of looks like he’d be willing to help her through it.


He has something of an affinity for dead, pretty women.  When they reach a rest stop, they find it destroyed by the Apaches:  Hatfield gently covers a female corpse with his coat.  I guess that’s the Wild West equivalent of throwing yours in the mud for a lady to step on to keep her feet dry.

06_1939 Stagecoach (burnt sta)

In the climactic scenes, as the coach races to escape the attacking Apache raiders, the men, all crack shots, run out of ammo.  Looks pretty grim.  Hatfield examines his revolver and finds one last bullet.  He saves it for the lovely head of Mrs. Mallory who is praying up a storm.  He really takes his role of guardian of the weaker sex quite seriously, and it’s a good thing that the other female onboard, aside from the baby, is a whore, or he would be sore pressed to dispose of them both with one bullet.  As it is, only the lady gets the bullet.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and I won’t tell how it goes, in case you haven’t seen it  already, but you can probably guess what happens, what with all those Indian bullets flying, and the US Army not too far away.


The Trains Did Not Run On Time

May 18, 2015


I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini:  A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words:  shock and astonishment.  How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions?  I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right?  Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.

I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region.  Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came.  Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true:  at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.

Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear:  What is fascism?  Or what was it?  Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power.  Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself:  he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles.  Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.

The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:

  • Use violence to extort, intimidate, and sow chaos among enemies and neutral parties.  Use it without stint, and keep an eye out for the opportunity to extract advantage.  He did not deny his penchant for violence, he celebrated it as a central principle of fascism.
  • Control the news completely:  Mussolini started his political life as a journalist and newspaper operator, and to a great extent, his reign resembled that of a ruthless media tycoon who also happened to control an army of violent thugs willing to do his bidding.
  • Divide and rule without reserve:  Eventually, the Fascist party Mussolini himself created became a potential threat to his own power.  He had no compunction at setting its members against one another to keep it as weak as he needed it.
  • Abandon consistency:  Perhaps this is the most truly astonishing part of Mussolini’s rule.  The freedom with which he would contradict himself, often within a day, was incredible.  He started as a revolutionary socialist, then he advocated corporate industrial control of society, later he went back to the socialist stance.  It all depended on who he was trying to outmaneuver at the time, and since he controlled all the press, each contradictory expression would be reconciled with his other statements by judicious “erasures” within the archives.

With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie.  Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)

His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts.  Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway.  Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful term in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack.  It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.

How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state?  The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes:  Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power.  He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty.  He was a demagogue, in other words.  And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story.  Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence.  But he was willing to live with that…  Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him.  They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor.  They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.

Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos.  As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important;  to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.


Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

MSDINCI EC015leopard

The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel vy Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.


Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

leopard (1)

Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale

Another passage to India

April 26, 2015
Screen shot 2012-04-30 at 7.53.29 PM

Beggars on the Street

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry was written in 1995, about twenty years after the period it describes, The Indira Gandhi era of The Emergency of 1975,  but perhaps not much had changed when he wrote, and even now that may be true.  I spent four or five months in India in 1979-1980, travelling very cheaply, surrounded by the types of people he describes.  That is, I was not cocooned in an air conditioned tour bus, and I ate where street workers and small businessmen ate, and sometimes they would talk with me.  Sometimes a lot…  This book brought back thoughts of that trip in vivid ways, and gave meaning to images that are still with me, and from which I have never been able to make much sense.  More on that later, perhaps.

The novel has an epigraph that is a quotation from Balzac:

Rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction.  All is true.

Many of the negative commentators on this book at Amazon (I always find the thumbs-down views of more interest than the raves) seem to want a fiction, or to want a book that is more according to their taste.  The story is almost unremittingly depressing, and I shared the feelings of many readers who commented that they found it difficult to return to it after putting it down, yet they did, as did I, because Mistry is a fine writer who draws you in with his first page.  (How DOES he do that? What is there in his craft that casts this spell; I mean, what exactly is it in his words, at the level of the sentence, as some critics say? When a book fails at this, it is easy to point out specific weaknesses, but when it succeeds, for me at least, it is like magic.) Some commentators were angry and disappointed that Mistry offers not a shred of a happy ending to redeem the horrors his characters endure.  “A fine balance” refers to the necessary attitude humans must take between hope and despair, but Mistry is definitely light on the hope side of the scales.  The only positive things about the happenings in this book are that many characters show great warmth towards one another, and some show the ability to change from indifference to love.  It is a measure of the horror of the situations he presents that even this, turning towards love, seems like a small, weak thing:  all the people who show decency are destroyed by physical mutilation, social smothering, or their own unbearable powerlessness.

To say that the plot of this book is contrived is to miss the point of it:  it is, in some sense, an extended fable.  Like Dickens, to whom Mistry is compared by some reviewers, the book is filled with coincidences that seem, on reflection, to be improbable. By the time the reader is at the end of the tale, it should be obvious that this is not through carelessness, but is deliberate.  Just as calculated is the rain of misfortune that befalls the two tailors who make their escape from rural caste violence to the city where they seek their fortune.  Could everything happen to two people that happens to them?  They seem to always be at the wrong place, at just the worst moment:  rounded up for forced work gangs by Indira Gandhi’s City Beautification project; hauled in by thugs at a forced sterilization clinic;  caught in a brutal slum clearance episode, to name a few dark spots in their story.  To readers who feel that (I am paraphrasing some comments)… Mistry just piles on misery after misery, and should have held out some positive ray of hope…nobody would keep getting dumped on that way…  I wold reply, tell that to the five-year old child born to beggars in the street who has nothing in his future but just that.  To ask for something else from the novel is to deny the reality of these people, which is exactly what Mistry wants to force us to see.  To have all these things happen to oneself, or just one that is enough to destroy you, it hardly matters which is the case.

The epigraph of the book is from Balzac; reviewers mention Dickens; and I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  It’s been so many years since I read it, perhaps I am off-base, but the relentless grinding down of the characters by uncaring social circumstances is common to both books.  And of course, there are the children of Jude’s who hang themselves “…because we are too menny,” that appear in the form of three young sisters who hang themselves with their saris.  The story of these sisters is related through an old newspaper story read by one of the characters in the epilogue to the book:  that character, one for whom we feel there is something of a chance of a decent life because of his education and his loving family, echoes the tragedy of Ana Karenina.  Whatever the literary influences acting upon Mistry, he is telling a story about India, not Europe.

When I traveled in India, I saw lots of beggars, horribly deformed.  I stepped over lots of families sleeping in the streets.  I saw a man walking along the street in a small town react with horror and fright when a field worker accidentally brushed his clothing in the street:  he immediately began to furiously brush at the fabric, peering intently at it to see if there was some stain.  He was not just worried about a laundry bill – he feared pollution.   I waited in line outside a barber’s shack to get a shave in a rural village, and watched the man’s eyes dilate with terror when a local Brahman pushed himself to the front of the line. The man was faced with a horrible dilemma; insult a white European, or the Brahman.  I just smiled and waved to set him at ease, and was eyed with contempt by the priest.  Just the teeny-tip-of-the-iceberg of the caste system in rural India.

The novel is filled with characters consumed with anxiety and feelings of disgust:  anxiety for their safety or their precarious livelihoods, and disgust for those limitless numbers of people who are worse off than they.  Usually, these characters are those with a little bit of authority or education:  business people, local functionaries, policemen, petty politicians.  Those with power use it brutally to enrich and protect themselves; their contempt acts as a spur to their actions and a justification for it, an old story.  Because the people of this strata of India often know some English, I tended to meet a lot of them.  I also met a lot who were not  brutal or totally self-serving, but who seemed consumed with anger and frustration at their situation, their powerlessness, the unfairness of it all.  To them, I was from a blessed world where people could actually do as they pleased.  And of course, compared to them, even traveling on $1.00 a day, I was vastly rich.  Often, they would beg me to help them.  It is this desperation that Mistry illuminated for me with his novel.

I have never returned to India:  I have no desire to travel there again as a tourist, but this book brought me back.


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