Pechorin going places?

November 11, 2011

Pechorin is the ‘hero’ in Lermontov’s novel, A Hero in Our Time.  It’s a strange book, a series of small stories set in a shifting time-frame of multiple narratives.  We learn of Pechorin’s exploits from people who knew him and tell tales, and from lengthy excerpts from his journal, found by one of the narrators.  The setting is the Caucasus, an exotic locale where Imperial Russia meets the mysterious Orient, and seeks to subject it to military authority.  Thus, we have a mixture of Romanticism, Realism, and fictional experimentation.

I must confess, after hearing of this book for so long, I was a bit under-whelmed.  Not that I didn’t enjoy it a great deal, but I am a little jaded with the romantic-cynic-rake-Don Juan hero type.  The novelty of the style was refreshing, despite the irritating and deprecatory notes by the translator, V. Nabokov, which I couldn’t keep myself from reading.  There was something about it that was very direct and powerful:  definitely not a ‘typical set piece’ of ‘tales of the people.’

Pechorin is one of a long line of army officer rakes.  Army life, besides the effect of the pool from which it draws its recruits – often the idle sons of the rich and aristocratic – is mostly boring and routine:  the thrill of battle is sharp and infrequent.  What’s a young man to do with his time but gamble, drink, womanize, and, if the spirit is in him, engage in duels and other futile expressions of personal vanity.  Pechorin is unusual for the depth of his alienation from normal life, his lack of empathy, his egoism – perhaps narcissism is a better word – and his commitment to his sensibility.  He’d rather die in a stupid duel than compromise his ideas on life.  He is heedless of morality, lives for the moment, and cares nothing for the consequences of his actions.

Is he a Byronic hero or a ‘superfluous man’?  I tend towards the former in Pechorin’s case, but so what?  Why is a Byronic hero a positive type?  Thus my lack of enthusiasm.  No, I’m not plunking for simple, utilitarian morals and calculation, but after these egoistic, self-absorbed grand characters, Dostoyevsky’s men of humility, humiliation, and spiritual redemption are looking better and better.  On the other hand, the title, ironic as it is, indicates that Lermontov was thinking of a man and his feelings rendered superfluous by society…maybe.

The more I think about this book and the film Going Places, the more I feel that there is a connection.  Is Pechorin the spiritual ancestor of the two hoods in Blier’s film?  That doesn’t reflect badly on Lermontov at all, but it shows what we have come to.  The Byronic hero, rejecting norms, morality, the ‘superman’ has been democratized and completely watered down.  There is no comedy in A Hero; Going Places is actually funny at times, but mostly, it’s one long jeer.  In our modern urban industrial world, everyone is alienated, everyone can be a Pechorin – just take to a selfish life of crime and flick your nose at society.  More than a century of social critique and rising consumerism has reduced Lermontov’s social discomfiture and rebellion to this weak and paltry ‘rebellion’ of the lumpen


Going Places?

November 6, 2011

“Life affirming?” or simply trash?  To say that you don’t like a film like Going Places, 1974 (the original French title is slang for “testicles”) is to immediately fall into the camp of the stuffy bourgeois uptight people against whom it tried so hard to transgress.  To say that it is a meaningless exercise in superficial nihilism mixed with sentimentality is, to some critics, to offer it high praise.  What’s a crank to do?

Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere play two narcissistic, sadistic, and thoroughly macho-misogynistic hoods who rob and screw their way across southern France in this ‘existential’ road movie.  Oh, they’re not really misogynistic, because they are really happy when their sex partner (Miou-Miou) finally has an orgasm with a young ex-con.  They’re just angry that they didn’t give it to her.  Of course, this is after they abused, terrorized, and shot her earlier in the film, but she likes their style.

The two buddies love each other.  And when there are no girls around to fuck, the big one will screw the smaller one.  (One of the errors repeated in many reviews is that they do not have sex, but it’s pretty clear that they do.  And the raped one says he feels humiliated.  His buddy says it’s natural between friends.  Another error is to call Isabelle Huppert a co-star, when she’s onscreen for only a few minutes at the end.)  They force themselves on women with a mixture of brutal charm – they are handsome – and outright intimidation.  But hey, they are always laughing.

The amazing thing about this film, besides the scenery, is that it isn’t totally revolting, but then I’m not a female.  It’s very slick, beautifully shot, and the actors are great.  It’s just…er…why make this film?  Unless you really are into machismo bonding and treacly buddy sentimentality, and why is that anything but the same old, same old?  Oh yes, there’s Jeanne Moreau, tragically beautiful, making love to the two young hunks and then shooting herself in the vagina so she can have a period one last time…pretty sick, eh?  But it’s art.  There’s also a fair amount of comedy, sometimes right out of Laurel and Hardy; two guys, similarly dressed, different physiques, moving in sync.

Cars, stolen and borrowed, are a crucial prop in the movie, symbolizing bourgeois materialism and providing locomotion in this road movie.  The Citroen DS, France de luxe, is the car that starts them going and ends the film.  (The boys hate France – stealing a Citroen has got to really stick it to the buggie establishment!) Their old Citroen breaks down, and they ‘liberate’ Huppert from her stifling bourgeois family after she calls her father a stinkin’ engineer.  Ooh!  She drives away with them in Daddy’s DS, after telling the hoods that Maman has 200,000 Francs in her purse.  When she reveals to them that she’s a virgin, the two guys do her while Miou-Miou holds her head in her lap.  God, what nice guys they are.  They leave her by the side of the road because it would be kidnapping to keep her with them, despite her pleas.  Hope they left her car fare.

As they career around the mountain curves, Jean Claude (Depardieu) muses, Why not just drive until we run out of gas?  It doesn’t matter where we go.  We have the sunlight, the fresh air, we can fuck whenever we want…  Sooo existential, so absurd!  I’m just gonna run and get my copy of L’Etranger right away!