Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pier Paolo Pasolini: Il Decameron / The Decameron (1971)

Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Decameron / The Decameron (1971) presents a choice selection from the massive 100-story tome of the same title written by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) between 1348 and 1353. I came to The Decameron via Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), which appears to have been influenced by it in several tales. Not only are these not obscure texts, both are enduring world-class cultural treasures. 
Pasolini dives in, creating a vibrant movie version that combines the visuals of painters (as noted in an accompanying documentary in the Criterion Collection DVD set, especially Giotto and Bruegel), regional folk music and local actors. This is the first part of Pasolini's Trilogy of Life

Pasolini (1922-1975) is described in the same Criterion documentary as a "gay Catholic Marxist artist" with an interesting worldview, indeed. 

With his version of The Decameron, Pasolini selects a representative mix of Boccaccio's comical and tragic tales, some ribald and bawdy, a few scary and all both medieval and timeless. They range from grave-robbing, seduction, hypocrisy and ill intent to the most life affirming of activities, working within and around the social mores of the day. There's much to learn from this consciousness-raising film, and a lot more to write about. 

Today's Rune: The Mystery Rune. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Dan Trachtenberg: '10 Cloverfield Lane' (2016)

Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick.
Jack jumped over
The candlestick.

Jack jumped high,
Jack jumped low,
Jack jumped over
And burned his toe.

Dan Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) buzzes along with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as protagonist and John Goodman as antagonist in a cool, intelligent indie-style film, just my cup of coffee. Situated somewhere in the same universe as those crazy tales from the Coen Brothers as well as that of The Americans, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, the first season of True Detective and even Twin Peaks, it considers the kaleidoscopic possibilities of good, evil and also, from a human perspective, dimensions that may be indecipherable. 

"Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you." (The Big Lebowski). 
10 Cloverfield Lane has more than a passing connection to the Coen Brothers: Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars in the latest season of Fargo and John Goodman has appeared in five Coen films (six including his voice as an announcer).

There is a distinction in magnitude between premeditated mass evil, seemingly random evil, and situational evil. However, for anyone on the receiving end of evil (or even just a hungry bear), these distinctions may be moot. The key is in how one responds -- having to make existential choices, large or small, in the face of it. See Flannery O'Connor for more on that score. In all such cases, this is compelling stuff.

Today's Rune: Protection.  

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Volker Schlöndorff's Adaptation of 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Volker Schlöndorff's 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) was filmed at Duke University (pictured above) and elsewhere around Durham (one scene looks like the rail line behind Brightleaf Mall, a cluster of converted tobacco warehouses), Raleigh and the mountains of North Carolina. It's colorful, harrowing in parts and yet also salted occasionally with wry, dark humor. 
Volker Schlöndorff focuses consistently on such themes as explored in The Handmaid's Tale. His Der junge Törless / Young Törless (1966) is concerned with how social psychology works as a psychic battleground between mass contagion and individual choice. His other movies, all exacting, include Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975),  Der Fangschuß / Coup de grâce (1976),  Die Blechtrommel / The Tin Drum (1979), Un amour de Swann / Swann in Love (1984) and Diplomatie / Diplomacy (2014). 
Schlöndorff takes a few liberties with The Handmaid's Tale (1990), but the gist remains. Fascism or plain old authoritarianism, patriarchy melded with pseudo-religious ideology, cults of macho personality -- gang's all here. In 2017, one can see variants of the same in Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, Boko Haram, Orthodox Conservative Christianity and Judaism, Putin, Duterte, Trump, Erdoğan, and so on -- enemies all to cosmopolitan egalitarianism, equality and diversity, and thereby enemies all to my own sensibilities. 

Today's Rune: Fertility. 

Monday, July 03, 2017

Elizabeth Lunday: 'Secret Lives of Great Artists' (2008)

While at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, picked up a copy of Elizabeth Lunday's wildly entertaining Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008), illustrated by Mario Zucca. Finished a first go-through in Amsterdam and will keep it as a gateway to more fun down the road. 

Lunday romps through the arcs and ripples of some thirty-seven artists, ranging from Jan van Eyck (circa 1385-1441) to Andy Warhol (1928-1987).  Most of them, by the middling standards of today's bland social conformity and Trumpian stoogery, come off as right eccentrics. Many were free-wheeling Bohemians at heart, while some -- like Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) -- were downright bizarro. 
On my first reading, I found satisfying every jot and tittle of Secret Lives of Great Artists. Perhaps you will, too. A lot of readers will be familiar with at least some of the art made by these folks, by some of the artists, and by many of both. 

As Lunday notes of Edvard Munch's The Scream (Der Schrei der Natur, 1893): "It's probably a safe bet Munch had no idea this image would live on in popular culture, appearing on coffee mugs, in slasher films, and on episodes of The Simpsons." (page 174). By the way, there are four versions of The Scream. Can you dig? 

Today's Rune: Partnership. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Philadelphia in Transit to Amsterdam, June 2017

Philadelphia's Chinatown at Friendship Gate, 10th and Arch Street. About the size of Greektown in Detroit, there's been an Asian core magnet here for something like 150 years. This is close to the Reading Market and the Convention Center. 
Moriarty's Irish Pub & Restaurant, 1116 Walnut Street (at Quince, from which point this side shot was taken). The building is 187 years old (built in 1830). Incidentally, Moriarty is one of my ancestral names. 

Sometime after I moved from my tiny 12th and Spruce garret apartment, Amy Winehouse ducked into Moriarty's for a drink. That would have been something to behold! 
1218 Spruce Street, built in or around 1840. Now the Philadelphia Bridal Company, in the 1990s this was Nga Mai's Café Diva. I lived across the street at 1225 Spruce, drank a lot of coffee here, and also I occasionally covered for Nga, or played chess. Not sure why there's a large "PODS" unit in front -- an alien sleeping unit, perhaps?
Reflecting pool on the grounds of the Barnes Foundation at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This is a stellar art museum. Its holdings were relocated from Lower Merion (a Philadelphia suburb on the Main Line) to here in 2012. 

Note: images taken with a mobile phone, nothing fancy. 

Today's Rune: Initiation.     

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Savage War (2016)

Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The authors provide a refreshing overview of the American Civil War through the lens of military history. They consider generalship, logistics, historical context and continued relevance. A few snippets are in order.

"Of all the generals in the war [Ulysses S.] Grant is both the most interesting and the most difficult to discern, because behind his mask of simplicity lay an understanding of war that few generals in history have equaled." (page 534).  

A Savage War highlights Grant's success in the Western Theatre, as well as ideas he put forth that would probably have shortened the war, had they been approved. For example, he wished to send forces to seize Mobile, Alabama, and Raleigh, North Carolina, much sooner than finally authorized. It also emphasizes the dramatic Union successes in the coordinated 1865 campaigns, usually overlooked or underplayed by those with Confederate sympathies.  

A Savage War also takes a sophisticated approach to General Joseph Eggleston Johnston, "the great puzzle among the Confederate commanders." (page 539).  
"[O]nly Johnston seems to have had some glimmerings that defensive operations offered up substantial possibilities of success at the strategic level." (page 547). And: "In the end Johnston proved the greatest master of defensive warfare -- but that skill put him out of touch with the larger culture of Southern white society." (page 540). 

There's much more ground to cover -- perhaps starting in a future post. Bottom line: if you want to catch a glimpse into modern (and timeless) military thinking as reflected through the American Civil War, A Savage War is worthy of your attention. The American Civil War reminds us that Americans, when driven into a frenzy, are quite adept at killing each other, and they (aka we) always have been. 

Today's Rune: Possessions. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

James Baldwin and Raoul Peck: 'I Am Not Your Negro' (2016)

James Baldwin's words, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, directed by Raoul Peck and intermixed with intense archival footage, underscore the importance and relevance of I Am Not Your Negro (2016) in the 21st century. 

Very little has been resolved since Baldwin (1924-1987) drafted Remember This House (just published in 2017) in the decade prior to his death. 

Through consideration of the outstanding lives and violent deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Baldwin expounds upon race and identity in the United States to great effect.

A couple of snippets, as narrated by Jackson:  "In the years in Paris, I had never been homesick for anything American. Neither . . . hot dogs, baseball, majorettes, [Hollywood] movies, nor the Empire State Building, nor Coney Island, nor the Statue of Liberty, nor the daily news, nor Times Square. All of these things had passed out of me. They might never have existed, and it made absolutely no difference to me if I never saw them again. But I missed my brothers and sisters, and my mother. They made a difference. I wanted to be able to see them, and to see their children."

"To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free. It is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave."

The cadences of Baldwin's sentences stick with me. He is still right: the USA will not be anywhere near true to its ideals until a critical and diverse mass of its people can be honest about race and history. 

It's easy to see in other countries -- such as when the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge -- and outright assaults -- anyone who even suggests that previous Turkish governments directed genocide against Turkey's Armenians (1914-1923); while any neutral observer would also see that frank acknowledgement is a surer way forward toward conciliation than denial. Yet as long as a significant subset of white America refuses to accept a fuller history of the United States, screeching the same kind of belligerent denials as come from the Turkish government; and, perhaps, also out of an ugly stubbornness; so long as this contra attitude persists, we shall remain stuck in limbo.   

Today's Rune: Protection.