The Golden Notebook (1962)

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First time with Doris Lessing.

For the most part reads like it was written at a thousand miles an hour. Ideas and abstractions pressed through a filter of lived experience (although a central theme is the 20th Century inheritance of Dickensian “telescopic philanthropy;” Nikhil’s aversion to Levinas on the grounds that the most crucial modern ethical exchanges are conducted over massive geographical and experiential distances). Another theme is the dissolution of meaning within words, its porous packaging; this dealt with equally urgently through the wrangling with party communism and the conversational mannerisms detected with a hypersensitive diagnostic ear (occasionally cross-examined, as on RN 153 “the roles we play, the way we play parts”).

Despite the escalating and intoxicating focus on mental processes there’s a consistent eye for empirical beauty. Anna pictures her memories of “the smell of dust and the moonlight” above a friendly gesture and an “overgrateful response” as moments from a “slow-motion film.” (115) Foreshadows her later feverish dissociation and troubling capacity for schizoid self-observation, coming in the form of a projectionist replaying memories in a dream. Before this, on the downward slope – a pervert hovering nearby in the underground and by fruit stalls – she sinks into “the tart clean smell … [the] faintly hairy skins,” becomes “immune” to his gaze. (345) Experience as refuge. TGN‘s relationship to the everyday is dizzying and shocking: it’s narcotic but also a prison house. It is the everyday gothic, particularly and most acutely as a portrait of the single mother – the figure who, Saul insists, is hidden behind every locked English door – that needs to be dwelt on: it is dizzying and shocking (see 298, “the disease of women in our time”) It is a way of seeing and I want it to sink in.

A is devout in shirking self-dramatisation (135), continually checking herself (sometimes redacting herself) in a way which runs entirely counter to Knausgaard’s attempts to respect the weight of experience as it is experienced, while constantly lapsing into free writing. Two pages later she looks back on time “like beads on a string,” a “lazy memory”. Barthes’ codes; again this is undercut by the later examination of self-writing, the projectionist replaying select details to show her what she has missed. The first BN entry concludes:

I read this over today, for the first time since I wrote it. It’s full of nostalgia, every word loaded with it, although at the time I wrote it I thought I was being ‘objective’. Nostalgia for what? I don’t know. Because I’d rather die than have to live through any of that again. And the ‘Anna’ of that time is like an enemy, or like an old friend one has known too well and doesn’t want to see. (150)

TGN is not a book with crescendos (despite the protracted one at the end, I think), but one clear highlight is the end of the second section of the BN, with its heartbreaking revision of her experience (326). “I must pull myself together”.

Prologue stresses a) the central conceptual importance of splitting or disintegration, b) the formal importance of the intertwining diaries, the metafiction.

I see Ella, walking slowly about a big empty room, thinking, waiting. I, Anna, see Ella. Who is of course, Anna. But that is the point, for she is not. The moment I, Anna, write: Ella rings up Julia to announce, etc., then Ella floats away form me and becomes someone else. … (404)

I thought of Kathy Acker’s Devoured By Myths: “I wanted to explore the use of the word I, that’s the only thing I wanted to do. So I placed very direct autobiographical, just diary material, right next to fake diary material. I tried to figure out who I wasn’t.” See the nightmare on 229-30, the nightmare of identifying with the fiction.

Splitting, then: DL’s vision of the novel as “a function of the fragmented society” is ever more relevant. (75) Reportage and connection (this probably the most powerful literary statement – though it is central to the politics, as on 155). Self-division is seen as bleakly valuable in the context of constant disappointment, of “the great sin”:

It’s not a terrible thing … to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of doing something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. (242)

I read that one a few times. Of course the central accusation, Tommy’s suicide attempt – the reported trauma to rival the unspeakable one of Michael’s abandoning her – frames splitting as an accusation. (247)

Shelley’s Queen Mab in the hallucinatory flights.

I want to return; I want to psych myself up and read it all in two days.

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Lolita (1962)

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Adapting this book from such a distinctively wordy author, a book with such a quotable opening, Kubrick holds off on the narration rather ostentatiously. The first half breezes through snippets and vignettes in a way which emphasises suggestion and unspoken thoughts. The Haze household – which surely ranks as the most bewitching set here, above the briefly glittering Kane-esque clutter of Clare Quilty’s mansion – has a distinct upstairs/downstairs dynamic which evokes the Overlook: Charlotte seems largely confined to the lower half, unable to rein in the secrets and impulses which simmer behind the locked doors and drawers in the bedrooms.

Launching the film in this environment, again, points to questions of repression and secrecy. The line which kept tugging at me throughout Lolita was race. Charlotte’s opening spiel – a pitch for Humbert’s tenancy – flaunts the “Dutch and English stock” of the New Hampshire neighbourhood. She is nevertheless reliant on Louise, the peripheral figure of the black maid who leans across one shot in service and isn’t seen again. She is one of a cast of bit-part African American characters, all of which act as help, each more damaging to Humbert’s cause than the last. The comic porter at the hotel is the most obvious, refusing to keep his voice down during the slapstick routine of erecting the makeshift campbed at Lolita’s feet in which H will inevitably have to sleep. Later, at the hospital, a black nurse physically restrains H as he writhes at the discovery of his stepdaughter’s kidnapping. Their position as manual workers emphasises the way their labour, their presence, underpins and reinforces the elaborate social structures above them. They’re the clockwork behind the frontispiece, to be heard but not seen. Guilty consciences.

Charlotte – symbolic of the religiously tormented, mortally devoted, repressed and industrious middle class – takes the weight of the film’s racial critique of America: her daughter’s ironic sieg heil sticks out in this context. Opposite her is the film’s European influence, embodied most extravagantly in Peter Sellers’ psychologist persona – basically a dry run for his Nazi Strangelove with his clipped but leering anatomical obsessions (“she has got ze curvatures…”). 20th Century European racialism, a fixation for the jewish Kubrick until Schindler’s List put paid to his frustrated plans for a holocaust picture, is sublimated into a clownish act, a mask which any fool should see through (H’s earnest and concessionary responses are integral to the comedy of the scene). Charlotte’s racism, on the other hand, is never less than coldly and understatedly sinister. It’s a striking binary which I think (having not read L) plays into the theme of H’s character: that real villainy is not the kind which comes with a warning label; it’s complicated and insidious and there’s a bit of it inside everyone (Quilty obsessively and ironically labelling H as “normal”).

Elsewhere: that domestic setting really is awesome; love the vertical panning every time someone uses the stairs. C trapped in a memory palace like an unsympathetic Juliet of the Spirits. Sellers is awesome, while Sue Lyon’s performance grows and twists with the changes of scenery and season. Made a load of notes but I can’t remember what any of the rest of them mean.

Second-tier? I assumed so but I’m not sure now.

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La Verité (1960)

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Watched this one a little while back. First time with Henri-Georges Clouzot I believe. Got a bit of Roeg’s Bad Timing about it, especially with the sense that its a culture or a social bracket on trial here rather than an individual. HGC is super even-handed, though: the absolute highlight for me was Gilbert’s first, ecstatic go conducting the orchestra, feeding off Dominique’s unseen presence. Watching the bank of fiddles cut up and down in unison as the horns blare is unapologetically thrilling and a great way to divide our sympathies midway through. Bardot is pretty amazing in the smooth way she goes from defensively withholding emotion to screaming it out and back (she herself attempted suicide by the same method as her character in the year of LV‘s release). Despite a regenerative freshness attained by varying the length of the flashback cuts – inviting us to scrutinise the courtroom presentation of the past despite its apparently faithful presentation – the film tends to lose its flavour through over two-hours of often-unfortunate self-similarity, which itself can dampen each of the vignettes. Ending therefore came as a real shock: devastating last words and a seriously cruel coda with the advocates so apathetic after such impassioned performances.

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Alphaville (1965)

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The opening sequences are excellent; thinking forward to Bladerunner with the noir pastiches, then the tracking shots of sullen Caution in the hotel (terminuses, outposts, a little of Ashes and Diamonds). Then the bedroom scene is absolute gold: brash, wild, hilarious, perfect introduction to the way LC punctures this world of perverted efficiency with his ruthless, provincial, illogical violence. Some incredible camerawork here out, too, particularly in externally tracking a glass lift down a floor.

The grimness and the systemic absurdity put this in a Russian mode for me; maybe Zamyatin or Roadside Picnic. The world is, at times, as intensely refractive as Cléo de 5 a 7‘s Paris; loved watching LC track his own plot through the lobbies and dimly lit streets. At the same time, the whirring and spinning technology on show here is fascinating, humanised in its visual mechanics unlike today’s abstracted and occluded digital computing.

Then the script really bulks up, and A begins to drag its heels. There are interminable hotel scenes where the dynamics of the political setup are simplified (after some opaque narration by the central tracheotomic HAL character Alpha 60) into generic binaries of technology/humanity, rationality/sensation, trans/humanism. Begins to lose its flavour in spite of frenetic accelerations and a pulpy, destructive climax. By the time the inevitable disruptive editing effects kick in they feel like excessive seasoning.

Perhaps because I connect it most closely, as a holistic piece, to Marker’s superior La Jetée, which seems wordless in spite of its narration. Would seriously consider watching again with no sound (despite an excellently menacing score) or at least no subs.

100th note.

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Late Autumn (1960)

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Fifth time with Yasujiro Ozu after TSLSFW and Brothers And Sisters of the Toda FamilyBeautiful poster there but no idea why it emphasises the guy at the front, who must have about four scenes total; must have been a fan favourite at the time.

Probably Ozu’s fullest picture (of the above, at least) – in the first scene, disparities of gender, class, region, and (of course) generation are introduced very discreetly and succinctly. BFI guide labels this a “remake” of LS, which I think obscures the extent to which YO’s films are individual takes on the same issues – in any case, the balance here is much more level, with various groups and peripheral characters playing off each other in contrast to the centripetal LS (which is far more magnetised around Setsuko Hara). Here nostalgically meddlesome, almost mischievous men are occasionally undercut by their gossiping wives, who nevertheless very notably follow them around picking up discarded workclothes or empty bowls. Perhaps most distinctively, youth culture (or at least mid-20s) gets a fuller portrayal. While comic references to “that Presley” situate LA after the westernised explosion in youth autonomy (with some assumptions here about hemispherically comparable postwar prosperity and liberalisation), YO’s eye for behaviour and mores is most evident in the way the captivating Mariko Okada runs rings around the older group of male friends. There’s an especially poignant moment on a balcony at work (perhaps a reference to the famous TS shot) when MO’s Yuriko and Yoko Tsukasa’s Ayako question the significance of female friendship if it cannot survive marriage in a way that male relationships clearly do.

From the beginning this does feel in step with BaSotTF on account of another late arrival at a memorial service, as well as the initial impetus arising from an absent father-figure (postwar context is elucidated at the end here). The late Miwa’s associates swarm around his widow Akiko and surviving daughter Ay, explicitly taking a possessive tone on account, firstly, of fraternity, but later simply the women’s beauty. Their project is as clownish as the colluding secondary actors in FW, but they never lose this unsettling sense of intrusion; later the two husbands among them profess a wish to be widowers. The initial suggestion of Ay’s marriage is edited to emphasise her discomfort in a way sufficiently deft as to emulate the comic negotiations of LS.

For its understatement, SH’s performance here is probably my favourite of hers. While in LS she is much more reticent about her marital misgivings than YT is here, giving her the same mysterious glow as in TS, here she balances the trademark deferential passivity with reproachful engagements with Ay and more knowing, maturer conversations with the peppy MO (who I think channels the consistent dismissive pragmatism of Haruko Sugimura, of LS particularly). Occupying all the various agent and patient roles in these movements and situations, she trades the magnetically sympathetic seniority of Chishu Ryu for a versatility which reflects and enhances the film’s different social gradients.

The generational divide seems politicised. Successful professors and businessmen each, the men’s houses are as grey and uneventful as their clothing, while their friendships have become moulded around corporate interactions. Chief instigator Mamiya (Shin Saburi of Toda Family) suggests Goto as a suitor for Ay with the caveat that “he doesn’t standout” followed immediately by the recommendation “I thought of him immediately.” Ak accedes to the resultant corporatised vetting process by making symbolic gifts of her late husband’s tobacco pipes (later employed amusingly as props in a bar scene), while Taguchi later celebrates Hirayama’s proposed engagement to Ak by notifying him that “you owe us a big meal.” They seem to fit right into a city design which is YO’s most explicitly consumerist, but the urban energy is in fact provided by the outgoing youth. However, the shot of Ay’s friends hiking in sync through the hills seems like something out of a socialist propaganda film, and there’s something iconoclastic about the way Ay explicitly challenges the morals of her father’s generation (again in contrast to that reticence of SH in LS). Contributing to that fuller depiction of generational confrontation.

Full is apt but the word that came to mind while watching was Rich. However, if the remarkably rhythmic, dynamic and comprehensive LA lacks anything its the breathtaking ambient beauty of the harbour in FW, the bay in TS or the Kyoto trip in LS, or the knockout incongruity of LS‘s ending. This is very domestic, very urban, very soapy; tied-up with a bow, sidestepping the curtailed character arcs of Toda but perhaps sacrificing some degree of risk in the process. I credit it in the same way as Fanny and Alexander though, perhaps, as it seems like a summative piece, being one film which somehow nails that Ozu balance between national cross-section and human condition, the balance otherwise grandly struck by considering his films together.

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Sandra (1965)

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Second time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema. Shit French poster, I don’t care how appealing CC is – though LV is kind of asking for it with the level of sensationalism here.

It’s hard to suss this guy: a Marxist aristocrat who directed smash operas as well as probably my favourite neorealist film. Anyway, this seems worlds apart from LTT, except for continuity in the maximalist emotionality, as well as a windswept precariousness of modern man. Set largely in a town soaked in universal “provincial desparation,” according to brother Gianni, “the only town I know that’s condemned to die a disease,” the victim of actual landslides and inhumed pasts. This Stromboli connection largely takes a turn toward the latter, more symbolised aspect.

Journey from France (some Summer With Monika urban tour shots over the credits), a neutral space between the Italian S and her American husband Andrew in which they appear sedately alienated together (an opening party like the objectification in L’Eclisse). A Journey To Italy where S becomes seduced by the fossilised walls of her hometown the stale and drifting spaces of childhood home, always shot diagonally and with depth like Kane’s Xanadu. Not long before ghosts are disturbed: the maid’s face at a window like Peter in Turn of the Screw or the character from that Chris Cunningham video for Portishead.

The central ghost, most complicit in this unwanted rediscovery, is G. We meet him a scene of spectacular natural intensity, trees and hair blowing in the gale hiding S’s emotions – definitely provincial Brontë gothic. His introduction of the psychosexual angle is vintage sixties and helps complete the sense of melancholic perversion that made me think of Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone. “You’re jealous of the phantoms of this house,” S tells the increasingly spooked A; yes, he’s “frightened of everything … as though there were something between us.” Again Antonioni in the framing, with this split visually evoked through blocking and gorgeous, wide mid-range shots. S leading A through locked doors of the past, following a paper trail of forgotten childhood communications with her brother – a “morbid game.” Fractured into different wings of the home, each member of the trio is kept awake at night by spectral whistling from the town outside.

G’s input introduces two other angles which work in fascinating contrast, each frequently threatening to overbalance the other. Most divisively, he injects a few thousand kcal worth of melodrama – CC holds her own, to be sure, especially with the operatic, black-gloved reaction to her mother’s haunted piano playing (in a visit definitely parallel with Wild Strawberries). But G’s affectations of doomed romance culminates in some pretty spicy death pangs (I do wonder how much this tone could be blamed on the unfortunate dubbing with which Mubi burdened their screening).

However, this richness is incised by genuine and sypathetic tragedy. Those secret communications were under the nose of an oppressive stepfather and poisoned mother (see Elektra myth), apparently partway responsible for the denunciation and murder of the siblings’ upstanding Jewish father, at Auschwitz. Their plotting of revenge and erstwhile illicit affections are linked as impulsive responses against this embattled isolation. Down in the dripping cellars – definitely DB and Nostalghia – they wrangle with this history: “what does a child know about passion” curses G; but they “have the same memories … hear the same music.” (cf. The God Of Small Things). A, elsewhere a haplessly drowned-out voice of reason, implores S to simply forget the past upon which a future might be built – a worryingly insidious exhortation after his earlier praise of her resilience in dealing with holocaust testimony at work (I forgot what her job was).

Certainly a weird one: no-one comes out clean in the wash, with the doomed siblings both victims and schemers, balanced against the insensitive but compassionate A and the morally ambiguous but rather foul Gilardini, the step-father. The aristocratic world, of which LV himself was a scion, is corrupted and incestuous but beautifully alluring (Buñuel also in a marble hand touched by S) and under invidious threat. I thought S worked on all of its levels.

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Viridiana (1961)

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Third time with Luis Buñuel after UCA and The Exterminating Angel.

Despite finding small fault with TEA for its only patchy bizarreness, I think I prefer V for burying its surreality inside a measured and economical plot. Images here – like the frequent comparisons of feet (the uncle bashfully toeing a sandy path, later in his wife’s wedding shoes, V’s milkily seductive legs), the inevitable dogs tied to wooden carts, even the knife inside the crucifix – retain the vivid imprint of LB’s imagination but tend to illustrate rather than puncture the tale. I don’t know much about LB’s developing artistic association with Surrealism but we’re certainly a long way from his and Dali’s desire, in UCA, to stage unconnected and uninterpretable images; V weaves a rich but surprisingly understated narrative about the Catholic Church and its morality and the social dynamics of Franco’s Spain.

That said, the film is still strikingly symbolic. The uncle interprets V’s somnambulistic exchange of knitting wool for dustpan ashes as a prophecy of his death and her penitence. It seems, though, that she is repenting on his behalf: he claims to have neglected charitable impulses for fear of ridicule, so V turns his house – after his shocking, even vindictive suicide – into a shelter for the destitute. Her perceived fall from grace (“I have nothing to reproach myself for but I have changed”), after his gothically perverted advances on her innocence, compels her to abandon her convent. Yet her embrace of secularity is itself a kind of fall, as the carnivalesque cavalcade of drunkards, lepers, paupers and miscreants abuses and pollutes her almost Winstanlean utopianism.

Don’t quite know what to make of the juxtaposed crescendos of fervent ave marias and manual labouring, the latter induced by the Uncle’s son to rejuvenate the house with modern technology. There are obviously superficial comparisons of “work”, but in closeup the builders appear almost destructive, while the supplicants harmonise in an unsettlingly rapturous drone. Perhaps a suggestion of kindred reconstructive powers: spiritual and architectural regeneration for house and state.

The little girl’s presence is equally elusive and suggestive. At the beginning she’s a kind of sprite, a meddlesome presence calling both host and guest out on their dishonesty. She’s later given a kind of occult agency or precognition: her testimony to the apparition of a black bull through her closet go unheeded; after the death of the uncle, a servant confiscates her skipping rope, berating her for sacrilegious jollity under the haunted tree and warning that “If something awful happens it will be your fault.” A pauper is later seen wearing the rope as a belt – it appears that she herself has opened the door to a beast.

I liked the bit when the cat was very clearly and inelegantly chucked, from off-camera, onto the rat.

The climax is a minor masterpiece: a gradual devolution, among the guests, from a tentative investigation of the house to a riotous bacchanal. I liked the editing in TEA; here the escalations are stitched together hilariously, like the kind of through-your-fingers omnishambles I associate with Father Ted or Black Books. The Last Supper photograph is triumphant; the blind man smashing the table is heart-stopping. The way this Bakhtinian depravity melts rapidly into a second, icy-cold attempt to rape V is equally shocking – a sobering realisation. The way she is finally hung out to dry, her crown of thorns immolated and her hair let seductively loose in a suggestive concession to her rapaciously masculine cousin, constructs a fittingly brisk, uncompromising and muted conclusion.

Utterly unhackneyed, which says as much about what has come since as it does about what came before.

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