More and Zen

October 17, 2010

I have been hearing about the new movie, The Social Network, from all over the place.  My first question was simple:  How the heck does Facebook make money, anyway?  Again, the answer is simple – advertisements.  My next question was simple too:  Who cares?  Obviously, a lot of people.

I have a Facebook account, but I rarely use it.  I got it to keep up with my daughter when she was abroad.  I’ve read a lot of critical raves about the movie.  Joe Nocera’s in the NYTimes Business section was the most interesting:  he felt it was an excellent study of an important personality-type in our culture – the entrepreneur.  I get that, but I’m so un-entrepreneurial, that I have little interest in it.

On another planet, I have been reading an old book lately called How to Want What You Have.  It’s by a psychologist who approaches life from a Zen-Cognitive point of view, and it’s very down to earth.  I find that it encapsulates a lot of what I have been thinking for years.  One of the central, and novel ideas he proposes is that it is instinctual for humans to always want MORE.  He says spiritual-meditative-ethical discipline as going against the human grain, but he believes it is necessary because our evolved instinctual drives are out of synch with our culturally evolved existence.  The Buddha and innumerable religious thinkers agree.  I don’t know if his Darwinian take is valid, and I don’t even think it’s necessary, but that’s where he starts.

What brings me to Facebook & How to Want… is that they seem diametrically opposed.  Facebook is all about more, more MORE.  More “friends,” more “celebrity”, more chatter, more pictures, more connections…shading off into my own blog obsession with the number of hits to my site (down lately!)  Zen is all about letting go of more, more, More!

One thing about discussions of Internet “culture” in journalism that strikes me often is the constant failure to evaluate.  Journalism is all about filling columns and tickling readers to come back to read more.  Heavy questions are a turn off.  So in the New Yorker review of the new film, the author writes that Facebook recognizes that “we all treat each other now as packets” of information, not individuals.  Is this…dare I ask it, good?  Okay, it is a fact, it is popular, it might be fun, not everyone is obsessed by it, so…beyond the fact that it made some people fabulously rich, why care???


Eugénie Grandet

February 10, 2010

This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet.  He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name.  His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality.  Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.

Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy.  Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle.  He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies.  But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love.  To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.

Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold.  Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water.  The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie.  Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned.  Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience.  Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity.  Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young.  Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!

Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master.  It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression.  Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings.  He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph.  He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry.  The symbolism is obvious.

Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold.  He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings.  He asks now and then to view the coins with her -”Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.”  His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman.  The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself.    There is nothing else for Old Grandet.  Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines.  At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money.  Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.”  Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives.  It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.

When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins.  Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away.  Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure.  Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the  loan of her coins.  Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust?  Looking is worse than touching.”

Ah, yes, the looking!  His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism.  This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill.  His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual?  The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men.  When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles:  “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold.  You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.

Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin.  Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.


Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron.  It’s the same story!  Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work.  The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.

The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters.  He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment.  Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues.  The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.

Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank.  Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along.  They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt.  The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable. 

Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard!  Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her.  Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many?  Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force. 

At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things.  Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer:  money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE.  It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life.  What an interesting combination of ideas!

Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie?  [conclusion of L'Argent]

My very inexpert translation:

Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth.  And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love.  Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money?  Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?


Money!

January 12, 2010

L’argent (Money), the 18th in Zola’s massive chronicle of France under the Second  Empire, finds Saccard scrambling to get back in the game, trying to put behind him the disasters that came after The Kill.  His is a world of financial chicanery – let’s say outright fraud – practiced on a colosal scale, pretty much in the open and with the benevolent neglect of Napoleon III’s ministers, of which Saccard’s brother is one.  As with Sebastian Melmotte and Bernard Madoff, the intent is to generate enthusiasm for a stock issue, hysteria if possible, rake in the cash, and put it away before the great crash comes.  Sound familiar..?

Saccard waxes grandiloquent as he allays the moral scruples of the adorable sister of the engineer whose great plans for the East he wishes to employ as the basis for his giant house of cards.  She is upset that he isn’t following the financial code to the letter.  She fears for the “little people” who will be crushed by his scheme, but after all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right?  In the passage below – no English version on the web – he gives vent to his empassioned devotion to the cause of money, as opposed to the Old Economy of landed wealth. 

«Mais, madame, personne ne vit plus de la terre…. L’ancienne fortune domaniale est une forme caduque de la richesse, qui a cessé d’avoir sa raison d’être. Elle était la stagnation même de l’argent, dont nous avons décuplé la valeur, en le jetant dans la circulation, et par le papier-monnaie, et par les titres de toutes sortes, commerciaux et financiers. C’est ainsi que le monde va être renouvelé, car rien n’était possible sans l’argent, l’argent liquide qui coule, qui pénètre partout, ni les applications de la science, ni la paix finale, universelle…. Oh! la fortune domaniale! elle est allée rejoindre les pataches. On meurt avec un million de terres, on vit avec le quart de ce capital placé dans de bonnes affaires, à quinze, vingt et même trente pour cent.»  L’argent

My inexpert translation here:

But, Madame, nobody lives on land anymore!…The ancient estates are an obsolete form of wealth that have lost their reason for being.  They just let wealth stagnate, the weath which we throw into circulation with paper money and with all those commercial bits of paper that financiers create.  This is how the world will be renewed, but it isn’t possible without money, liquid money that flows about and penetrates everywhere – not the application of science nor universal peace!  Oh, those old landed estates!  They’ve gone the way of stagecoaches.  A person dies with a million in land, but with just a quarter of that, placed to good use, at fifteen or twenty-five percent, he lives!

Saccard is also a jew-hater.  Zola treats us to an internal monologue in which he retails all the usual negative stereotypes of Jewish money-men that rattle around Saccard’s brain.  It’s an amusing irony because those qualities are precisely the ones that define Saccard himself, while the successful Jews he meets, and resents, are portrayed, at least in the beginning, as gentle and reasonable people.


Wild Abandon!

December 24, 2009

Zola as prefiguring film noir – now there’s a thought.  And if you think his writing is limited to depressing catalogues of social realities, remember, he can be damn funny too, in a dark, satiric way:

He was a man of superb stature, with the white, pensive face of a great statesman,  and since he was a marvelously good listener, with a deep gaze and a  majestic calm in his expression, it was possible to believe that he was engaged in a prodigious inner labor of comprehension and deduction.  Of course, his mind was completely empty.  Yet he had a disturbing effect on people, who had no idea whether they were dealing with a superior man or an imbecile.  [One of the fellows madly on the make, in The Kill]

And the city as one giant bubbling pot of money and flesh:  what does The Naked City have that Zola lacks?

Meanwhile, the Saccards’ fortune seemed to have reached its apogee.  It blazed like a gigantic bonfire in the middle of Paris.  It was the hour when the hounds were ardently devouring their share of the spoils [La curée, translated as The Kill] …The appetites that had been unleashed at last found contentment in the impudence of triumph, in the din of crumbling neighborhoods, and fortunes built in six months.  The city had become a orgy of millions and women.  Vice, come from on high, flowed through the gutters, spread across ornamental basins, and spurted skyward in public fountains, only to fall again upon the roofs in a fine driving rain.  And at night, when one crossed the bridges, the Seine seemed to carry off all the refuse of the sleeping city: crumbs fallen from tables, lace bows left lying on divans, hairpieces forgotten in cabs, banknotes slipped out of bodices – everything that brutal desire and immediate gratification of instinct shattered and soiled and then tossed into the street.  Then in the capital’s feverish sleep, better even than its breathless daylight quest, one sensed the mental derangement, the gilded voluptuous nightmare of a city driven mad by its gold and its flesh. Violins sang until midnight.  The windows went dark, and shadows fell upon the city.  It was a like a colossal alcove in which the last candle had been blown out, the last vestige of modesty extinguished.  In the depths of the darkness, there was now only a great gurgle of frenetic and weary love, while the Tuileries, at the water’s edge, reached out its arms as if to embrace the vast blackness.

Not quite a new story for Paris.


A really fatal woman!

September 18, 2009

too_late

The Big Heat was enjoyable for its enveloping atmosphere of corruption and the psychological tension in Bannion, the hero.  Too Late for Tears [YouTube clip]is a treat because it features the most thoroughly characterized and completely evil femme fatale that I’ve ever seen in noir.  She is played by Lizabeth Scott, who had a string of such roles.  She looks mean, even when she’s trying to be nice, and she has a voice even more husky than Kathleen Turner’s.

This movie wastes no time – the first scene has Scott and her husband driving to a dinner party when she starts complaining that she doesn’t want to go because the hosts will look down on her, they’re so snooty.  She finally grabs the wheel in an attempt to force her husband to turn around and go home, and he skids to a stop.  A car drives by and hurls a leather satchel into their back seat.  It’s filled with cash.  There you have it – her deep-seated psychological unease about her social position, her violence and impulsivity, and a pile of money to set them ablaze.

After evading the crook who tries to catch up with them to retrieve what was supposed to have been given to him, the couple fights about what to do with the money.  He wants to give it to the police – she wants to keep it, spend it!  They compromise, and he deposits it in a locker at the train station, hoping she’ll calm down and give in.

Nothin’ doing!  She starts spending money on luxuries, and hiding them in the kitchen cabinets.  Minks, dresses, accessories.  When he gets a call from his banker about the state of his checking account, he confronts her.  She reveals her deeply wounded childhood:  “We were poor.  Not hungry poor.  Middle-class poor!”  (That’s worse!)  People always looking down at them because they couldn’t keep up.  It’s what drives her, but hubby is a little too simple to see what a beast he has by the tail.  Dan Duryea, the crook who finally catches up with her to demand his blackmail loot, is smarter.  He gives her the nickname, Tiger,  and he finds out he has her by the tail, and only barely.  Her lust for loot is terrifying.

Finally, near the end, she makes off for Mexico with the cash.  Hubby and the crook have been dealt with.  We see her checking in at a fancy hotel, and her delight at finally reaching the sphere where she belongs is almost girlish.  She is having the time of her life.  Crime really pays!  Funny, it’s rare in films that you ever see the bad guys enjoying their ill gotten gains.  Of course, her high time doesn’t last long.


The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse)

June 30, 2009

Black Sheep fisherwoman

One of my favorite novels, and certainly at the top of my Balzac list, is this story of a titanic battle over a family fortune in the provincial town of Issoudun.  The French title can be translated as The Fisherwoman, and that is how Flore Brazier, the character is known in town.  More precisely, la rabouilleuse means a girl who assists a fisherman by using a stick to disturb the water in a stream so that the fish flee right into the nets.  This is how the young Flore was employed by her guardian when she enters the story.

I don’t know why the book is called The Black Sheep in English.  It leaves open the question of just who is the black sheep:  Phillipe Brideau – the brutal, callous, murderous, thieving, totally dishonorable former soldier of the Imperial Guard; or his brother, Joseph Brideau – a sincere, talented, hardworking, but impoverished artist living in a crassly materialistic milieu that considers painting a career for failures, no matter how brilliant the practitioner.  Flore, on the other hand, is the point about which much of the action revolves.

A child of stunning beauty, even in the abject rags of rural poverty in which she lives, Flore is ‘rescued’ from her fate by Old Rouget who happens upon her on a ride.  His intentions in bringing her to his house are anything but honorable, but Balzac, as always, is tactful in his Olympian manner.  He sees all, but needn’t tell all.  The old man dies, and the girl, grown to a fabulously beautiful young woman proceeds to dominate his imbecile of a son.  He is totally in thrall to her sexual  power, and she sets up a comfy menage a trois by bringing Maxence, a local reprobrate of a magnitude to equal Phillipe, as her live-in lover.  Together, they scheme to get the dolt of a son to sign over his enormous fortune, accumulated by his hard nosed miser dad, to them.  Sex is the lubricant that keeps their machinations going.

Well, the field of battle is set for the confrontation between Flore-Maxence and Phillipe.  It turns out that Phillipe’s mother is the dolt’s aunt, so she has an interest in the family stash, although her brother, the dead Rouget, always claimed, without evidence, that she was illegitimate, and he didn’t speak to her for the thirty years she lived in Paris.  Money, family, sex, city vs. country…everything!

Phillipe turns hero as he comes to Issoudoun to find a way to eliminate the influence of Flore and Maxence over his rich and stupid uncle.  The town isn’t big enough for the two villainous rascals.  One will have to go, and it will have to be in a box.  And so it happens…

The suspense is great, the absolutely devilish brilliance with which Phillipe outwits and crushes the gold digger crew, and his subsequent destruction as he pursues his true corrupt nature, now with piles of cash to back him, is amazing.  The mother is without a clue, nearly to the end, believing Phillipe to be her “good” son, and Joseph to be an ineffectual, if loyal boy, even as Phillipe robs her blind.  The action  and grasping morality of the characters is breathtaking in its brutality.


Hey, Bernie!

December 20, 2008

madoff625dec16

Am I alone if finding the Madoff  affair a bit, well…humorous?  C’mon, lots of rich people who still don’t have enough and are seduced by something too good to be true.  A modern retelling of the Goose & the Golden Egg fairy tale?  There’s a reason they’re called fairy tales!

What a character!  So low-key.  As one friend said, he’d rather spend time on the Riviera than going to society parties.  Well, so would I!  Just a nice Jewish boy who did well by doing good.  Did really well.  The New York Times has so many references to the “clubby world of Jewish philanthrophy” it might make even a Jew-hater feel sorry for those rich Hebrews who were taken!

Let’s revisit some old stereotypes:  the smart Jew – he’s smart.  What about those rich Jews he fleeced – weren’t they smart too?  And is everyone else so dumb?  Those French investigators from a major bank spent three days with Bernie’s crew and concluded that something was rotten in Madoff land – they didn’t bite!  The greedy Jew – guess he was greedy too, but who isn’t on Wall Street?  Isn’t that the biggest lie of all, that Wall Street “wizards” are smart, not just plain avaricious?  The smart, virtuous Jewish immigrant who works his way up the American ladder to fame and fortune?  Well, he was raised on Long Island, but still…

And reverberating through all the stories in the press is the unspoken refrain, “Hey Bernie, we hardly knew ya!”  How long was he doing this?  He must have started off legit or he’d never have gotten his foot in the door of those country clubs.  I guess part of the appeal of this is the story of a regular guy who made good, but was an impostor!  Don’t we all dream of faking our way to riches and fame, at least once in a while?  He did it!  A bizarre and dark twist on the old assimilation-outsider-immigrant American dream too.

And the humor?  Well, to me, a Ponzi scheme has its own intrinisic comedy.  Shovel out the money as the new money comes in, but the pile grows bigger.  It’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, can’t you see it?  Marx Brothers finance!  And then it tumbles down and everyone asks, “How could it happen?”  It’s classic.

Well, maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but I can’t suppress a chuckle.  That Bernie!  What a character, oy!


Three more…Boccaccio ’70

November 30, 2008

Here are the other three stories from Boccaccio ’70 that accompany the subject of my last post. With the exception of the Fellini-Temptation story, they all deal with the oppressed, prostituted status of women in one way or another. And, of course, one could argue, as do many, that being a sex symbol in advertising is yet another form of selling oneself along with a product, like milk…

Another theme is money, from the low to the high rent realms.  Money and the struggle for a good life, money as an obstacle to true love, money, money, money…

vlcsnap-796606 The first story, Renzo and Luciana, is, I think, the least interesting, being a mix of social realism and comedy, rather weak comedy.  A pretty girl (Marisa Solinas)in the office of a factory wants to marry an office boy there, but there is a rule against married women working there, so they hide it.  She receives the unwelcome attentions of a foolish and slightly effeminate manager who thinks of himself as a higher type, but loves to lord it over his “harem” of secretaries.  In the end, she liberates herself by quitting with her clandestine husband, earning severance bonuses for them both.

vlcsnap-794574The second story is Fellini’s, followed by Visconti’s The Job, with Romy Schneider.  Beginning as farcial treatment of an aristocratic playboy trying to tamp down a scandal about his lastest publicized romps with high-priced callgirls, it turns devastatingly sad.  His gorgeous wife (a marriage of convenience..? arranged “so their property could marry?”) announces she is going to get a job like normal middle class people.  When in teasing her husband she finds that he (who normally won’t bother looking at her) is excited about having sex with her if she makes him pay her for it, she realizes what sort of job it is to which she has condemned herself.

vlcsnap-795455Yeah, that’s Sophia Loren in the final story, The Raffle, and of course, she’s the prize.  Her carnival associates use her as a money maker with a side-game on the national lottery, and the local yokels are going crazy.  She manages to keep her dignity, even before it all turns out harmlessly because the winner is the most sexually timid man in town.

Watching these beautiful women in these stories I was struck by their acting, yes, their acting!  Do such actresses still exist, or is that movie makers have so much lower expectations and demands these days?  Or is it just that watching old films takes one to a different cultural context, so everything seems fresh and novel, like traveling?


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