Chartres Cathedral – The Real Thing

January 16, 2011

A few months ago, I watched Orson Welles’ strange and fascinating movie, F is for Fake, a real Orson tour de force.  He gives a moving speech about art, monuments, and authorship while regarding the gothic cathedral of Chartres (watch it here).  It’s been a very long time since I stood beneath Chartres’ vaults, but I decided to do a bit of studying again since I can’t just pick up and go there.

I happened upon a wonderful book, Universe of Stone:  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, by Philip Ball.  It’s a popular treatment, but quite thorough, ranging from structural analysis of buildings to Platonic analysis of ideas.  Along the way, he is quite short with historians of architecture who show no interest in or knowledge of how a large building is made to stand up, and he is refreshingly commonsensical discussing knotty intellectual disputes such as just how much are gothic cathedrals reflections of medieval scholastic philosophy, as Erwin Panofsky said they were.

As an art history student with a passionate interest in historical architecture, I was vaguely suspicious of pronouncements on structure and aesthetics that I read – I always wondered if those writers knew whereof they spoke.  Later, after taking a degree in civil engineering, I realized my doubts had been solid.

One of the fascinating points Ball makes, partly by way of debunking the popular myth of the cathedrals as communal achievements erected on the basis of heartfelt contributions by all members of a deeply religious society, is that these amazing buildings were mostly paid for by the Church.  Yes, the kings and nobles gave some money, and local town burghers did too, but not nearly enough to pay the huge costs of building a cathedral.  Chartres, not an especially rich town, did have church institutions that were rich, rich in land.  And almost all wealth of that time was from land.  And so, the churchmen of Chartres built themselves a glorious cathedral to celebrate their faith, and their power we must suppose, and paid for it from rent on their vast holdings of land.  The land that grew the grain to make men’s bread.

Ball points out that baskets of bread are seen in many images throughout the cathedral, in stone and in stained glass.  Insofar as nearly everyone then was laboring on the land, we can say that since the wealth they created was what paid for the monument, it was a product of everyone in the society.

Incidentally, Welles makes much of the fact that Chartres, one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, is unsigned.  It’s true: we don’t know who was its master builder, but for many cathedrals, we do.  The fact that his name has been lost to us may be nothing more than the results of poor records retention.

Down by the River

October 16, 2010

Touch of Evil, 1957.  So many versions.  A good film, but calling it noir doesn’t seem to capture what it is.  It’s too idiosyncratic.  What would you expect from Orson Welles?  Maybe one of these days I’ll watch the other versions to find out just what the Studio couldn’t handle in Welles’ lost original cut.  (I watched the restored version, believed to be close to his artistic intent.)

Janet Leigh is Suzie, a blonde gringo married to Vargas (Charleton Heston), an idealistic Mexican police officer.  Together, in the course of the film over a day and a night, they cross and recross that filthy river separating the two ‘civilizations.’  Blonde, spunky, wholesome, but soo sexy.  She doesn’t know she’s being set up for a narcotics rap by the partyers next door in Motel Nowhere.

Marlene plays the another type of woman, dark, and familiar with that little touch of evil, although she mostly observes.  On meeting overweight Quinlan (Welles) for the first time in years since he last holed up in her bordello, she remarks, “I didn’t recognize you.  Better lay off those candy bars.”  Was Orson making fun of himself?

The river separates Mexico from the USA.  The river brings forgetfulness, the river is where people enter the underworld.  Hank Quinlan can’t wash the evidence of crime from his hands, not in that scummy filthy water.  It’s just dirty everywhere you look. 

In the gutter

August 13, 2010

I don’t have too much to say about the film The Third Man – it’s so good, and I have liked if for so long…well, that’s enough.  Alida Valli is the girl, Joseph Cotton is the chump who falls for her, and for a lot of other stuff too.  She’s not too happy, but she’s living on borrowed time in bombed out Vienna.  She laughs once, and it’s almost like Garbo in Ninotchka.

Orson Welles is the mystery man, and of course he plays it as nobody else could.


The climactic sequence in the sewers of Vienna is marvelous, and not just because I am fascinated by sewers.  Or…maybe this movie is why I am fascinated by sewers.

That last long walk and wait, yielding nothing but disappointment…





February 28, 2010

My first post on Kafka’s novel,  The Trial includes an image from the film adaptation by Orson Welles, showing Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, and Romy Schneider as Leni cuddling together.  Maybe it was the awful video transfer I was watching, but I couldn’t get through this movie, and I read the book twice in succession.  It’s another very faithful adaptation…again I say, perhaps too faithful.  But unlike Chabrol’s Bovary, and Heart of a Dog about which I entertained similar, but ultimately abandoned reservations, I’ll pass on this one.  Welles told Perkins that the movie should play like a black comedy, a directive very much in keeping with Kafka’s intent, I think, but the comedy doesn’t come through in what I saw here.

Romy, however, was fabulously seductive as Leni, the nurse of the imperious advocate (Welles) who terrifies his clients whom he is supposedly helping.  Like all the women in The Trial, Leni exerts a tremendous erotic pull on Joseph K, a pull which is simply “a snare” in Kafka’s universe.  A snare keeping Joseph from…what?

Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008


The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night – Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!


Give my love to the sunrise…

August 3, 2008

Elsa’s farewell to Michael – she looks glamorous even when she seems to be really dying.  How many times do you see that in an old ‘B’ movie?  This is after the famous shoot out scene in the house of mirrors, a location that reflects (no pun) the nature of Michael’s befuddled nature throughout the film.  He knows he’s been taken for a chump.  A wonderful femme fatale noir flick, and the local scenes in Frisco’s Chinatown are another entertaining piece of it.  Not to mention watching Hayworth running through the market streets in high heels and furs and speaking Chinese!  She is the Lady from Shanghai, after all.

In noir, everything is foreshadowed, pre-ordained, determined.  Michael rescues Elsa from some clumsy thugs who jump her while she’s riding in the horse drawn carriage  in which he first saw and spoke to her in Central Park.  Later, saying goodbye after declining to work on her yacht because he suddenly discovers that she’s a married woman…

…he hands her the gun he found …”Would it be this you’re lookin’ for?  You were smart to carry a gun, traveling alone in the park.  But if you knew you had the gun in your bag, why through away the bag?”

“I meant for you to find it…I don’t know how to shoot.”

“It’s easy.  You just pull the trigger.”

It’s all summed up in Michael’s monologue on sharks, inspired my Melville?  Inspiration for Spielberg’s Quint’s tale of the Indianapolis?

And of course, pull the trigger they do in the fabulous and famous shootout in the crazy mirror room of the funhouse.