More things in heaven and earth…

December 15, 2013

than are dreamed of in your philosophy.  That’s what Svengali keeps telling people in this movie – I guess he liked Hamlet, and he does have strange powers.

Svengali (1931) was based on the very popular late 19th century novel, Trilby, by George du Maurier that went through several incarnations on the stage and film, including a recent production not yet released.  The most famous is this one, with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh.  Of course, Svengali has become a byword for an evil charismatic figure.  His character in the novel was clearly a standard anti-semitic stereotype, and elements of that are still present in this film, although he is simply presented as an exotic and bizarre eastern-European, albeit with a Yiddish-sounding accent.

The film was made before The Code took force, so it contains a few spicy bits of dialog, as well as some daring views of Marsh.  In the image below, Svengali is riding with Tribly, whom he has abducted, and he gently covers her bare leg:  the scene gives the impression that he has sexually violated her as well as taken her away.

Trilby is an innocent cleaning girl who can’t sing a note, despite her marvelous “sounding board, and a roof of her mouth like the Pantheon.”  Under Svengali’s spell, she sings like a diva, and becomes one:  they are the toast of Europe, playing to packed houses everywhere.

Evil mad genius though he is, he falls in love with Tribly who cannot reciprocate:  she still pines for little Billee, the Englander who courted her in Paris.  Svengali asks her, what does he have that Svengali lacks, he with his silly paints?

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He hypnotizes her into feeling love for him…

It works!  She says she loves him!

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But he’s no fool.  He pushes her away…

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Her voice is only her master’s voice talking to himself.

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Tribly is pursued by Billee, which disrupts Svengali’s concerts.  He cannot maintain his spell over her when Billee is present, so his fortunes fail, and he is reduced to playing cafes in French Morocco.  Billee follows on, and Svengali confronts him.  He knows he is beaten, and the end is near.  When he dies in mid-concert, Tribly collapses onstage.  Cradled in Billee’s arms, her last word is “Svengali!…”  True love after all.

[The film is in English, but the sound was so poor, I used sub-titles.]

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EC Comics to the Rescue!

November 11, 2012

Entertainment Comics, usually called EC (comics), was a line of, you guessed it, comics, published in the 1950s by William Gaines, later publisher of Mad Magazine.  I just finished a book, Came the Dawnthat features stories from EC drawn by Wallace Wood. They fall into two categories:  horror tales, e.g. those from Tales from the Crypt; and noir-ish social tales, including straight up crime stuff, but also a lot of stories about mob violence, prejudice, and institutional corruption.  They can be surprisingly blunt and hard-hitting, and the fine upstanding citizens of the small towns and cities of American don’t come off all that well in them.

Gaines, shown below in the 50s and in the 70s, was called before the Congressional committee on juvenile delinquency to testify about his productions.  Estes Kefauver, a full-blown FDR liberal didn’t see the use of this sort of freedom of speech.  Legislative pressure and bad publicity forced him to cease publication of his lurid comics, which had been popular, but we got MAD Magazine out of the deal!  Subversive, maybe, but nobody could say it wasn’t in good taste!

The color cover below was the subject of a particularly amusing repartee between Gaines and the congressional inquisitors:  he didn’t give an inch, but the Congress was not having any of it.  He might not be a communist, but he was clearly a danger to society. I have read online that the audio recordings of the hearings are available at various websites.

Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser: Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
Bill Gaines: No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
Gaines: I don’t believe so.
Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.
Beaser: Your own good taste and saleability?
Gaines: Yes.
Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22, cover date May] This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
Gaines: A little.
Kefauver: Here is blood on the axe. I think most adults are shocked by that.

The congressional scrutiny of comics was sparked by a popular book, Seduction of the Innocentby a psychoanalyst, Frederic Wertham.  He was concerned about violence and role models for the young in our society, but just how much of a nincompoop scold, and how much of a thoughtful, but over-zealous crusader against pop entertainment he was, I’m not sure.  The little I have read of him makes him seem more complex than the anti-comics bogey man image, but that’s just Wikipedia talkin’.

The artwork and the stories have a clear relationship with the contemporary film noirs, but the highlighting of social injustice, as injustice, and not just bad luck, and often openly preaching against it, do not.  In the story on the left, a black man is framed and then killed by the chief in a faked escape attempt.  The man on the right is another corrupt chief:  he lets his men beat an innocent man to a pulp to make him confess to a hit-and-run killing he had nothing to do with.  Many of the stories have O’Henry endings:  the black man is killed just after a white man confesses to the crime; the victim of the hit-and-run was the chief’s wife, whom he murdered.

Of course, women, drawn with standard 1950s Playboy fantasy voluptuousness, play a big role in the stories.  I imagine that they kept a lot of readers reading when the social justice themes started to lose their interest, but sometimes they are just plain old noir femme fatales.  In the story below, a seventeen year old piece of  jailbait gives her lover the lowdown so he won’t blow her story about being molested by a harmless old man, killed by a mob led by her hysterical dad.

In the title story, Came the Dawn, we are led to believe that the love bunny is actually a homicidal maniac escaped from a local asylum, but we learn the truth in another one of those surprise endings.  The story does a clever reversal of sex roles, with the man seeming to be the victim and the woman the sexual predator, but she turns out to be really in love after all.

In the panels below, a handsome fellow has just firebombed the house of some Jews who dared to move onto the block, and his wife is horrified.  Worse is coming:  his mother reveals that he was adopted, and that his birth parents were Jews.  Still, that wife is quite a dish!  (The dead Jews weren’t bad looking either…)


Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

January 20, 2011

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…


There’s our man!

September 21, 2009

Paul Muni as Zola - listening at his trial

I am watching The Life of Émile Zola (1936), corny and stirring by turns, starring Paul Muni.  The movie focuses on his trial for libel that resulted from his publication of J’accuse..! his dissection of the sham conviction of Dreyfus for treason.  Virulent hatred of Jews was at the center of the case, so it’s interesting how the film treats the subject of anti-semitism.

There's our man!The words “Jew” and “anti-semitic” are never spoken in the film.  The theme is all very sotto voce.  When the general staff is looking for a fall guy to take the blame for the spying they have detected, they examine a roster of it’s members.  The religion of each is noted.  The head points to Dreyfus’s name and says, “There’s our man.”

3 JC in glory

When Zola is brought before the kangaroo court for libelling the French military, there are several long shots of the assembled dignataries and spectators. A huge painting of The Crucifixtion makes the point that church and state are not separate in France.

 The violent anti-Dreyfus mobs are shown, but there is no indication of their vicious anti-semitic bent.  Nor is the anti-clericalism of the Dreyfusards hinted.   You have to know the history to read the subtext of the film.

French anti-semitic propaganda     Republican anti-clerical poster

He Accused!

September 9, 2009

Les Halles

Émile Zola is most famous for his article, J’Accuse…!,published in 1898 on the front page of L’Aurore  (The Dawn) as an open letter to the French president.  To say the piece caused a sensation is about as vast an understatement as you can make.  I only read it in the last year or so after hearing about it forever, and it still packs quite a wallop.  It was instrumental in getting Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer framed for treason by a cabal of Jew-hating reactionaries, released from Devil’s Island and exonerated.

In The Belly of Paris, Zola is also concerned with France’s overseas penal colony, and with accusing too.  He doesn’t write with the subtle flair of Flaubert, or the locomotive-momentum of Balzac, and certainly not the suavity of Stendhal, but he has his moments!  His dogged pursuit of the telling details, the research, the clear-eyed unsentimental portrayal of all sorts of people, especially those down near the bottom of the social scale, has a cumulative power.

The Belly is a story of Les Halles, the enormous modern market built at the start of Napoleon III’s empire, in the center of Paris.  It was an architectural marvel – all iron and glass, and covering so huge an area, it was practically a neighborhood in itself.  (It was demolished about twenty years ago for a shopping mall.)  The story follows Florent, returning to Paris from the penal colony where he was sent simply for being at the wrong place during a police roundup after some revolutionary agitation.  He escapes, and makes his way back to the city, but he hardly recognizes it:  Hausmann-ization has begun!

Throughout the novel, there is the opposition of the Fat and the Thin.  One character elevates the duality to the status of a fundamental law of human history:  the Fat will always try to crush the Thin, or at least try to make them fat!  The Fat are the complacent ones, the rich and not so rich, but merely “respectable.”  They sit and fart, and eat, and smoke, and gossip, and live their suffocating respectable lives.  In the last line of the book he exclaims, “What bastards respectable people are!”  Accusing again…

Florent is thin.  Despite living with his brother in a charcuterie, he never gains weight.  His brother is rotund.  How could you not be?  Just reading the endless descriptions of food in this book, sausage, rabbit, fowl of every type, pastry, tripe – so many kinds, tongue, ham, veal, pate of this, pate of that, aspic, salted fat, dry fat, fat, fat, and more fat – the book is an encyclopedia of food preparation and cuisine – how could anyone stay thin?  But he does, and the vicious gossips of the market (all Fatsos) get him turned in to the police for a return trip to Devil’s Island.

Outside of this human polarity of fat-thin, respectable, vicious gossips vs. the loser thin types and artists is the pair of Cadine and Marjolin.  They grow up sleeping together in makeshift beds, children of the street, poor, and surrounded by mountains of food.  They live an almost animal existence, dominated by their romantic and carnal obsession with one another.  Cadine grows to a beautiful and wild young woman, while Marjolin, always simple, seems almost retarded after he suffers a serious head injury.  They carry on necking, fornicating, role playing, nuzzling, and laughing, in the piles of baskets, on the rooftops, under the streets in the dank filthy cellars while the world goes on around them.


Life and Fate

May 18, 2008

I feel comfortable calling this novel, Life and Fate, one of the greatest ever – certainly of all I’ve read.  For years, I had heard of this book, and finally I am reading it.  All 850 pages of it.  It is a monument to the disaster of the twentieth century, the century of mass murder, totalitarian rule, and ideological dementia.

That’s Vassily Grossman up there, the loyal communist who served as a war correspondent on the front lines with the Soviet Army and who wrote the first journalistic accounts – he was an eyewitness – of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  He must have seen too much, learned too much.  His novel was written in secret, published outside of the USSR – he was hounded, his typwriter and its RIBBONS confiscated.  He died not knowing if his work would see the light of day.  When he wrote this book, he had come to believe that Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were different only in name – not an idea that you could hold comfortably if you were living in Russia.

He wrote of Stalingrad – the mind boggling six month battle that broke the German war machine and sent them reeling back to Berlin.  (Here in the USA, we think of D-Day as the “mother of all battles,” but on the eastern front, they had a D-Day practically every week.)  He wrote of the civilians on their way to the gas chambers.  He wrote of decent men and women trying to serve their country and rid it of the Nazi murderers, but having to always look over their shoulder in case the NKVD was listening in on them.  That joke you told…that song you were singing..was it in the Bolshevik spirit?  You say you held off thirty German attacks here?  Then why haven’t you filed your reports?  Are you taking care to inculcate the proper class-spirit with your men?… He wrote of intellectuals trying to deal with the horror of the purges of the 1930s and of the Ukranian famine – all directed by the Supremo, Comarade Stalin.  He wrote of the Gulag.  And he wrote of the disease of anti-semitism, in Germany and in the USSR.

The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons.  Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read twice many years ago.  That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work.  The same for Vollman’s Europe Central.  Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that.  He has a style though.  He knows exactly what he is doing:  hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.