Touching, so touching…

December 21, 2011

When I visited Paris in the late 1970s, I made a point of seeing the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise.  The huge stone monument by the then-young Lipschitz shows an Assyrian ‘angel’ on a base that simply says “Oscar Wilde.”  At that time, the large genitals of the figure, so disquieting to the city fathers of the early 20th century, were still missing, hacked off by a vandal in the 1960s.  I was happy to read in the newspapers recently that they have been restored, at the cost of nearly 50,000 euros – that’s a set of balls!

These days, the tomb is in the news because the authorities are going to erect a glass barrier around it to prevent pilgrims from planting big greasy kisses on it.  Apparently, this became a popular custom in the 1980s, and the lower portions of the stone are covered with red lipstick marks.  Some say it’s ugly, others claim it’s causing damage to the stone as well, and thus the protective sheath around the plot.

I find it hard to believe that lipstick could do much damage to the stone, other than discoloring it, and isn’t that the sort of thing that happens to monuments over time?  St. Peter’s toe in the Vatican is almost worn away from the millions of kisses it gets.  It’s not as though it’s a delicate and fragile work such as Michelangelo’s pieta…but Wilde’s grandson is for protecting it, so I cannot protest too much.  The family wants to preserve the look of the original…

Still…from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

And now tell me,–reach me the matches, like a good boy: thanks,–tell me, what are your relations with Sibyl Vane?”

Dorian Gray leaped to his feet, with flushed cheeks and burning eyes. “Harry, Sibyl Vane is sacred!”

“It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian,” said Lord Henry, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice.


Two Criminal Tales

March 1, 2011

Le Trou, is a film from 1948 about a prison break in Paris. Goodfellas, need I say it?, is a film from 1990 about the mob in NYC.  I watched these two films over the last two days, and it was like visiting two alternate universes.

First, let me say that Le Trou (Jacques Becker) is a fantastic movie.  Spare and incredibly suspenseful, it pulls off the amazing feat of turning the hardened criminals into …not quite the good guys, but exemplars of humanity.  Homo faber, man, the maker, with incredible ingenuity, patience, and perseverance they plan their escape from a fortress in the center of the city.  Loyalty to one another is what makes them go, and betrayal stops them. The film has virtually no music score.

Goodfellas, well…it is based on fact. (In fact, both films are based on accounts of actual events.) The reason I watched the entire flick after seeing bits of it on TV, where it is played endlessly, was because of the part about the biggest heist in American history at JFK, but that is hardly treated in the film. Many say it is realistic, and Scorsesee said he wanted to show what the mob lifestyle was really like, what the violence was really like, cold, brutal, disgusting. Oh well…the millions of young men who love the film probably have a rather different take on Martin’s masterpiece.  They love it. It’s an entertainment, giving away the store by using an endless soundtrack of contemporary music.  How seriously can you take a mob movie that has Hendrix and The Stones rocking out as guys get whacked?

Nothing in Goodfellas compares to the one scene in Le trou in which the two cons peer at a Paris street from a manhole, watch a taxi drive by – freedom! – before going back inside to retrieve their comrades for the big escape.

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Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860′s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


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?


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.


When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…

   

    

Fiasco II – The horror, the horror…

October 31, 2009

The Commune - a familiar scene these days too...

I finished Zola’s novel The Debacle, and I feel as if I barely survived.  The book is absolutely harrowing in its depiction of the horror, gore, and sheer terror of war.  The graphic detail – heads blown off, entrails flying, hideous and ghoulish atrocities – are the sort of thing we expect in movies and books about war today, but in the 1890s?  I wonder if this marked a first.

Zola, of course, was known for doing his research, and he visited locations, interviewed scores of participants, and reviewed the literature.  In many ways, the book reads as an historical chronicle as much as a novel.  But it soars, or descends, into great, infernal poetry in scenes such as the days immediately after the disastrous defeats, when Jean and Maurice, solid peasant and educated bourgeois, fight for life in the great charnel house and prison that the countryside has become inside the Prussian encriclement.  The apocalypse seems to have arrived – corpses exploding and stinking, the river choked with dead men and animals, and wild herds of lost and starving cavalry horses charging madly about, destroying everything in their path in a frenzy of hunger and madness.

The deadly bitterness of occupation and civil strife are depicted as well. The murderous fury of the French against the collaborators recalls scenes I dimly remember from Marcel Ophul’s film, The Sorrow and the Pity.  (I went to see that with my parents as a kid – hardly understood any of it – but boy, did it make an impression!)  The bloodlust rises to epic stature as one woman conspires to murder the father of her child, watching as the guerillas truss him up, slit his throat, and bleed him dead like a great pig.

At the end, Maurice, now a crazed and fanatical communard, and Jean, fighting with the forces of reaction, simply because he wants everything to be gotten back in order so he can return to the land, meet again in a Paris that is recapitulating the Fall of Babylon.  An orgy of destruction, madness, and atrocious murderous rage is burning itself out.  Zola was a liberal who detested left-wing revolutionaries.  He tries to fathom in Maurice how an educated man could throw his lot in with such people as a result of the deep humiliation of the war, the frantic desire to destroy everything in the hope that something better will replace it, and the end-game of months of war, besiegement, hunger, and isolation:

Just previous to the 31st of October Maurice was more than usually a victim to this malady of distrust and barren speculation. He listened now approvingly to crude fancies that would formerly have brought a smile of contempt to his lips. Why should he not? Were not imbecility and crime abroad in the land? Was it unreasonable to look for the miraculous when his world was falling in ruins about him?

And so Maurice went on leading an idle, vagabondish sort of life, in a state of constant feverish agitation. He had ceased to be tormented by hunger; he devoured the first white bread he got with infinite gusto; but the city was a prison still: German guards were posted at the gates, and no one was allowed to pass them until he had been made to give an account of himself. There had been no resumption of social life as yet; industry and trade were at a standstill; the people lived from day to day, watching to see what would happen next, doing nothing, simply vegetating in the bright sunshine of the spring that was now coming on apace. During the siege there had been the military service to occupy men’s minds and tire their limbs, while now the entire population, isolated from all the world, had suddenly been reduced to a state of utter stagnation, mental as well as physical. He did as others did, loitering his time away from morning till night, living in an atmosphere that for months had been vitiated by the germs arising from the half-crazed mob. He read the newspapers and was an assiduous frequenter of public meetings, where he would often smile and shrug his shoulders at the rant and fustian of the speakers, but nevertheless would go away with the most ultra notions teeming in his brain, ready to engage in any desperate undertaking in the defense of what he considered truth and justice. And sitting by the window in his little bedroom, and looking out over the city, he would still beguile himself with dreams of victory; would tell himself that France and the Republic might yet be saved, so long as the treaty of peace remained unsigned.

from the Project Gutenberg text:  The Downfall

Karl Marx, and revolutionaries everywhere, revered the Commune, but the picture that Zola paints of it is of a disorganized, opportunistic, delusional, and fanatical group of die-hards who reduced the city of Paris to ashes.  Not that he thinks well of the forces of reaction either.  Ultimately, they serve the masters who brought on the entire debacle, by starting the war with Prussia.

In the end, France will have to be rebuilt, born anew, as in his great novel Germinal, through the simple and unstoppable drive to live and flourish in peace that Jean, the simple peasant, represents.


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