Saturday, September 27, 2008

He'll Be Missed

He could eat fifty eggs.

The Man from Craigslist

Reply to:

Date: 1934

Beautiful flat for sale. Generic but roomy. Money hidden in briefcase, a few English touches. In winter one must wipe the windows clean to see out of them. Decorate it as you will. Call and ask for Georges.
  • it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

PostingID: 13473234512

Dear M. Simenon,

The flat has worked out very well. I have taken to heart your blessing to treat the flat as I wish. You have left me a simple set of rules, a list of things done and not done, and a gripping progression for every minute that I have been there. (Though, at times, when I relate it to my friends, I admit they sometimes find it obscure.) Some of my dear ones have come to live with me in this flat, and I have had a fine tall Englishwoman in with me too. Once or twice I have found it necessary to play the Hungarian drinking games of old: interminable balancing acts set, deadpan, to music. It has been much fun. Your flat, though simple, allows me to roam all over. In fact, sometimes, I think that I have experienced your flat in a way quite different from how you experienced it or intended others to experience it. But it is my way and you seem liberal enough about the prospects. I have broken down a few walls and ignored a few of the main hallways for my purposes. But one walks free and heavy here and I like it.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Waiting Game

Please forgive my scarcity; I'm busy working on extra-lucrative "hot genes," or reasonable facsimiles thereof. I'm not gone, nor have I run out of ideas for EL at the moment. Only very occupied with other things.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


One of the interesting things about the late Positif film critic Robert Benayoun's film Serious About Pleasure (1975) is how seamlessly it appears to (a) channel the modernist sound-image shenanigans of Daisies, Tati, maybe even Rivette and Resnais, and/or (b) bring to full bloom entrenched comedy "plastics" in the mode of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis. The two approaches meet in the middle, they kiss and fall in love, they hang out in this little modest, and modestly meta, comedy—which is no doubt comparable to Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses in terms of a French ménage à trois, but as I haven't seen that film, I won't be doing the one comparing.

"Jerry, deciding at the outset that every gag has, of course, been used at least once before, decides to make us guess what his gags are going to be."

—Benayoun, "Jerry Lewis: Man of the Year" (Positif, March 1963)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Firing Squad

More standard-issue words on form, politics, and cinephilia.

The first thing I noticed about Jon Jost's Sure Fire ('90) was the speech, which captures the way (some) people talk in that deep, desert, mountainous American West—something like a cross between the Midwest and a generalized Southern accent. This is the speech of long stretches of highway and mountains, of desolate rest stops, lonely big sky country. (It's the speech of the sort of fellow I imagine Emmylou Harris & Willie Nelson sing about in one of the saddest songs ever, "One Paper Kid"—or, come to think of it, the people in Mikel Rouse's new music opera Failing Kansas.) The camera doesn't show us the characters in a frontal medium shot or close-up for some time; in fact Jost shies away from close-ups and frontal shots quite a bit in this film. I would not stress the case too far, but maybe there is something to be said for a film which emphasizes environment, custom, ritual in dealing with a weirdly, pathetically charismatic hero. The great Tom Blair exerts a lot of raw personal force in a character to whom nobody who pays attention does so because they wish to.

Monologues become positively Faulknerian, and are rendered mournful not only through the content of the dialogue and the speech tones, but also through the spatial relations between characters. Blair sits and instructs his character's wife at length about what she's to do back home while he's away on business: she doesn't listen. The wives speak amidst the ruins. The scene where Tom Blair's son gets his first gun is a masterpiece of surprise & volume. And so on. I'll try to get some screencaps put up here sometime.

The quality of light in this film bathes a lot of the shots—albeit ones I saw on an old VHS—in almost startling white: the air is complicit in the drama, takes it to another world. Subsisting mostly on a diet of standard, and recent, commercial cinema in recent weeks (buoyed along only by dear Anna Faris) I was clobbered in a way comparable to that when you see a true masterpiece, or when you are very young as a cinephile and only just begin to seek out the "different" stuff, revelling in the ineffable and deep novelty of cinema that scoots around outside the comfort zone that has been established for you.

* * *

Above: an image from Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (1958)

Cinephilia is constantly (mis)understood as a pathology, but in many of the objects of cinephilia itself we see the artistic treatment of this problem. Murder by Contract's is a dehumanized hero (a compelling cipher, unlike the psychologized hero of Lerner's Studs Lonigan). The affirmation of will at the expense of life, as well as the attendant allure of such devotion (i.e., for some people) is the very material of this film, and it is not alone. The hero in Murder is well-regulated by time, appointment, duty; immune to vagaries of appetite—sexual or gastronomic. But he's not above his environment, and his code is shaped by something external to it: we could have a fun parlor game speculating about whether it's his Id, his upbringing, his class position ...

I penned that write-up of Studs Lonigan almost two years ago, and still haven't seen a third Lerner film (but I did revisit Murder by Contract).

And check out the two dissolves:

Without doing a bit of research I was positive that Martin Scorsese knew Murder by Contract well and modeled some of Taxi Driver on that film. (Even if you haven't seen Lerner's film I'll bet you thought the same thing when you saw these screengrabs above!) A single bit of googling reveals as much. It goes to show how maybe the source material of classical cinema has been frequently manipulated, misconstrued. Scorsese is sometimes thought of as a politically centrist or right-leaning filmmaker (for the Catholic content, his choice of protagonists, and/or his support of Elia Kazan, perhaps). But if he's good enough for David Ehrenstein, I'm willing to give the world's most cinephilically fascinating fast-talker the benefit of the doubt. The first step in diagnosing the politics of the film school brat generation, the 'New Hollywood' of the MPAA era's beginnings, might be to trace out not only what their films said and how they related to their moment (what Shampoo says about the Nixon era & gender roles, etc.) but also which cues the filmmakers themselves took from their famously self-aware knowledge of the cinema that preceded them.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Image of the Day

Some Words

My observation of the Spanish War and the rape of the Philippines led me to consider the character of our minor adventures in Samoa and Hawaii; and there I found the same record of chicanery and fraud, implemented by violence. In both instances the United States had acquired possession through revolutions made to order by its official agents. Then I went on to take stock of our continental adventures in the same line. I knew what imperialism meant in former times, what its springs of action were, and what its customary modes of procedure were. My classical studies had thoroughly acquainted me with these phenomena of the old days around the Mediterranean, and I had as yet seen nothing to suggest any essential difference between modern imperialism and the imperialism which I had studied and understood. Thus I was able to read between the lines of standard American historical writing, even such as was dished up for the young in our educational institutions. It was clear to me that our acquisition of Texas was a matter of sheer brigandage, and that force and fraud played approximately equal parts in our acquisition of California. I carried on my survey of American imperialism through the Mexican War, our systematic extermination of the Indians, and so on back into the colonial period; and I emerged with the conviction that at least on this one item of imperialism, our political history from first to last was utterly disgraceful.

—Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, pp. 103-104.

Hence, it should be noted that a conqueror, after seizing power, must decide about all the injuries he needs to commit, and do all of them at once, so as not to have to inflict punishments every day. Thus he will be able, by his restraint, to reassure men and win them over by benefitting them. Anyone who does not act in this way, either because he is timid or because he lacks judgement, will always be forced to stand with sword in hand. He will never be able to rely upon his subjects, for they can never feel safe with him, because of the injuried that continue to be inflicted. For injuries should be done all together so that, because they are tasted less, they will cause less resentment; benefits should be given out one by one, so that they will be savoured more. And above all a ruler must live with his subjects in such a way that no unexpected events, whether favourable or unfavourable, will make him change course. For when difficult times put you under pressure you will not have enough time to take harsh measures, and any benefits that you confer will not help you, because they will be considered to be done unwillingly, and so you will receive no credit for them.

—Machiavelli, The Prince (trans. Russell Price)

The Immigrant


I doubt I'm the first to say this. My fear about Sarah Palin, from looking at news and from commentary left and right, is not about '08, but about '12. I'm confident that McCain will lose handily in November, but the set-up for Palin now may be for Republicans what the '04 set-up was for Obama and the Democrats. And just like Obama will energize a lot of people outside the party and the older electorate, so will Palin—provided she performs well tonight at the convention. Media-savvy populism in the spectacular age: they're slowly and surely catching onto "grassroots" in ever more insidious ways.

Palin is analogous to Obama in the relationship she bears to her party: not fiercely partisan (as in occupying an established faction) so much as a wave overtaking rotted beachfront property. Same beach, same water, same stuff: yet different. She may be as easy to underestimate as Obama was; and, like him, she is probably just honest, independent, and fresh enough to capture the attention of a tectonically-shifted party base. Don't mistake me: in calling Palin honest, etc., I don't for a second hope to see her in power or the policies she'd propose enacted. If certain rumors are to be believed, she is a cutthroat politician, a very bright and crafty stateswoman (just like Obama is sharp, very sharp). But—I would propose—darlings like Obama and Palin remind viewers/voters of people they've known and admired in real life, to a greater extent than the more massaged images of Biden, the Clintons, the Bushes, McCain, Romney (he's almost like a relic: in an age of comedy & caricature his corporate-religious Aryan perfection sets up jokes well before the late night shows get to him). People still believe in the image but their hunger for "realism" is exerting gravitational pull. Perhaps we're coming full circle from the famed TV election of Kennedy versus Nixon.

The real-real people in national politics (McKinney, Kucinich, Paul) remain on the fringes. The system isn't broken, it works only too well. We're just misinformed as to what it's supposed to do ...