Thursday, December 14, 2017

Flash of Light, Fog of War: Japanese Military Prints, 1894-1905 (Part I)

Bradley M. Bailey, Flash of Light, Fog of War: Japanese Military Prints, 1894-1905. Chapel Hill: Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017.

In the late 1800s, Japan industrialized rapidly and, through war, took on two major powers: China and Russia. One of its prizes was the Korean Peninsula. 

Given that these same powers are still connected in the latest Korean conflict, the rise of Japan as a major military power is highly relevant -- as was its total destruction as a military power by 1945. 
Japan wasn't the only nation playing jingoist games at the time of the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. Besides Western European powers and their own imperial wars, the United States of America initiated the Spanish-American War, resulting in a number of intended and unintended consequences. 

Outside of Africa, Spain's old empire was virtually demolished -- leading eventually to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. 

Also as a result of the Spanish-American War, the US seized Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines and annexed Hawaii at the same time. The US became a world naval power, steaming toward conflict with Japan. The poor, innocent US that never does wrong and only fights to defend itself! 

As for a Korean nuclear war in the 21st century, the verdict is still out -- but the surprise should be not at all, given the history of the last 125 years. 

Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Cherchez la guerre / Look for the War.

Today's Rune: Initiation. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Shawn Levy: 'Dolce Vita Confidential' (2016)

Shawn Levy's Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) takes us on a wild Italian ride from about the end of World War Two until the mid-1960s. 

Barely five or ten years after the war, economic activity "mushroomed . . . recasting Italy from the buffoonish ally of Nazi Germany into a hive of style, culture, fine craft, genteel living, and even heavy industry."  (pages 195-196). During that time, it became one of the hippest places in the world to experience firsthand. 

There are so many characters in Dolce Vita Confidential, some large and some small, that one cannot help being drawn in. 

Consider Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, Marquis of Portago (aka Fon de Portago), a Spaniard by lineage and sometime race-car driver, and his philosophy of life:

"'I want to live to be 105 . . . I'm enchanted with life. But no matter how long I live, I still won't have time for all the things I want to do. I won't hear all the music I want to hear, I won't be able to read all the books I want to read, I won't have all the women I want to have. I won't be able to do a twentieth of the things I want to do. And besides just the doing, I insist on getting something out of it.'" (page 214).

In 1957, the Fon was killed in a racing accident while driving a Ferrari -- along with a slew of others -- at age twenty-eight.

In addition to memorable stories about film directors, actors, designers, photographers, expatriates, and trouble-makers, Dolce Vita Confidential includes very helpful endnotes, bibliography and list of films from the period, making it a nifty reference work as well as a tasty treat. 

Today's Rune:  Breakthrough. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Henry Fielding: 'The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling' (1749), Part IV

Tom Jones & the Landlord. Rowlandson etching (1792). The Met

Henry Fielding (1707-1754), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. London: Andrew Millar, 1749. 

We now continue exploring Fielding's window into another world and how it reflects back on ours. 

Some things were different in the 1740s then they are in present-day English-speaking countries. Examples follow.

[The novel is divided into eighteen "books" (sections), each with its own chapter numbers starting with "i." References will be made to book number followed by chapter number; parenthetical page numbers correspond to the Modern Library edition published in 1985.]

Suicides were then considered demons or something like that and their bodies treated accordingly.

Sophia has no interest in marrying Mr. Blifil: "'rather than submit to be the Wife of that contemptible Wretch, I would plunge a Dagger into my Heart,'" she says to Mrs. Honour.

Mrs. Honour is aghast at the idea: 

"'O lud, Ma'am . . . I am sure you frighten me out of my Wits now. Let me beseech your La'ship not to suffer such wicked Thoughts to come into your Head. O lud . . . consider -- that to be denied Christian Burial, and to have your Corpse buried in the Highway, and a stake drove through you, as Farmer Halfpenny was served at Ox-Cross, and, to be sure, his Ghost hath walked there ever since; for several People have seen him. To be sure it can be nothing but the Devil which can put such wicked Thoughts into the Head of any body . . .'" (VII: vii) (pages 349-350).

Vagrants and Paupers could be thrown in jail or impressed (drafted by force) into the Royal Navy -- one of the rationales later given for fighting the War of 1812.

Soldiers could lodge at taverns and other public places, or even in homes, without having to receive permission. (Hence the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

On the Other Hand: some things probably haven't changed (before or since):  “For when a Lady hath once taken a Resolution to run to a Lover, or to run away from him, all Obstacles are considered as Trifles.” (VII: viii) (page 352).

The Tar's Triumph, or Bawdy House Battery (1749). British Museum.
A Mix of Then and Now: here, I've heard every one of the following words used in today's 21st century world except for "quotha" and (unless as a joke) "forsooth," including, of course, "Trumpery" and the emphatic phrasing, "let me tell you that:" 

"'Hoity! toity!' cries Honour, 'Madam is in her Airs, I protest, Mrs. Honour forsooth! sure Madam . . . Ashamed to walk with me, quotha!'"

"'In the Country indeed one is obliged to take up with all kind of Trumpery, but in Town I visit none but the Women of Quality . . .'" (VII: viii) (page 355).

"'Hussy,' replied the Lady, 'I will make such a saucy Trollop as yourself, know that I am not a proper Subject of your Discourse . . .'"

"Thank Heaven, good Servants need not want Places; and if you turn away all who do not think you handsome, you will want servants very soon, let me tell you that.'"  (VIII: ix) (page 356). 

Today's Rune: Flow. 

Friday, December 08, 2017

Robert M. Young: '¡Alambrista!' (1977, 2004, 2012)

Robert M. Young's ¡Alambrista! ["tightrope walker" aka "The Illegal"] (1977, 2004, 2012), originally shot on a shoestring budget and later re-edited by the director, follows young and inexperienced Alberto (Domingo Ambriz) as he crosses into the USA from Mexico, seeking work in order to help provide for his wife and new child back home. His adventures, sometimes humorous, are more often harrowing, for all the while he is being hunted.

¡Alambrista! is similar to Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette / Bicycle Thieves (1948), but the issues at hand are more open-ended. 

Very little, it seems, has changed in the American desire for migrant labor as of the early 21st century, nor in rough, chaotic conditions for those who are able to make the initial crossing to fill demand.  
"Much like the Italian neorealists, Young discovered the effectiveness of using documentary techniques to tell fictional stories. But the Italians—De Sica, Rossellini, and Visconti, for instance—were experienced narrative filmmakers who appropriated documentary techniques to lend a sense of authenticity and immediacy to their contemporary tales of ordinary people. Young was coming from the opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum.
Steeped in the documentary tradition of journalistic objectivity, he wrestled with a paradox then slowly dawning on him: fiction could be truer than reportage."  

Charles Ramírez Berg, "¡Alambrista!: Inside the Undocumented Experience," The Criterion Collection (2012). Here's a link to Berg's full essay.

Another great film, proving yet again that a big budget is not necessary to make effective movies.

Today's Rune: The Mystery Rune.   

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Vittorio De Sica: 'Ladri di biciclette' / 'Bicycle Thieves' (1948)

Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di biciclette / Bicycle Thieves (1948), sometimes called The Bicycle Thief, has a simple, powerful plot. 

In the wake of the downfall of Mussolini-style fascism and the end of the Second World War, people in Rome are trying to make ends meet. 

The spotlight turns to one family, a man, a woman, a young son and a baby. The man-husband-father finds a job, but it's one that requires a working bicycle for transportation. He takes the job, and with the help of is wife, retrieves his bike from a pawn shop. Now, said bike must be guarded carefully, because practically everyone is desperate and might steal it. 

And yet, despite precautions, the bike is stolen. This is the set-up for the film: if the bike isn't found by the next work day -- or a replacement found -- the job will be lost.

The resulting drama is surprisingly gripping, as the man's good-natured son tags along. It's a very effective structure, still used -- as in  Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's Deux jours, une nuit / Two Days, One Night (2014), starring Marion Cotillard.

Bicycle Thieves elicited (and still does) international empathy and sympathy for regular Italians, and (hopefully) for other people recovering from major trauma, too. Life is tough for these survivors -- though Italy, as one can see in this and other films of the period, is not as devastated as, say, its former Axis ally countries, Germany and Japan. 
Bicycle Thieves is rated very highly in the annals of moviemaking. To me, it distinguishes itself from, say, the novel (by Luigi Bartolini) on which it's based, because it so effectively develops the story in a way that maximizes visuals, sounds, and motion -- the art of the cinema. 

This film and several others somewhat like it are part of "Italian Neorealism," down-to-earth tales set in the immediate post-war years (and even during the war), lasting from about 1943 until about 1952. Why "Neorealism?" Because it is sort of a sequel to "Social Realism" as in writings by Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Maxim Gorky (1868-1936). As conditions improved, the desire to make or see such "blues" films largely tapered off. But they are great works of art and wonders to behold.

Today's Rune: Wholeness.  

Monday, December 04, 2017

Esprit d'escalier: Stairs and Stairways to Heaven, Hell and Somewhere in Between

Markus Sebastian Braun, editor. Stairs: Architectural Details. Translated by Alice Bayandin. [Berlin]: Verlagshaus Braun, 2008. 

Stairs, stairways and stairway wit are among the ten thousand things that fascinate me. The more I see, the more I want to see. This book gives colorful photographic examples from twenty-one European cities. I've been to eleven of these cities so far: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Zurich. I'm planning to see another one in 2018.
Stairs frequently show up in art; if designed and made well, the stairways themselves are art. Here's Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2  / Nu descendant un escalier, no 2 (1912). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Scandalous!
What would Billy Wilder'Sunset Boulevard (1950) be without its grand staircase? (This, by the way, is a favorite movie of both Clint Eastwood and Donald Trump).
Mikio Naruse's When A Woman Ascends The Stairs / 女が階段を上る時 (1960) makes this a central metaphor in a person's life. Fabbles! 
Let's not forget the importance of stairways in William Friedkin's hugely popular film, The Exorcist (1973). 

There are so many good examples of stairs in artscapes, this barely touches the first step. Thanks to esprit d'escalier, I'll think of a dozen more right after posting this -- maybe for another post. 

Do stairways conjure up anything for you?  

Today's Rune: Fertility. 

Friday, December 01, 2017

Henry Fielding: 'The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling' (1749), Part III

Pietro Longhi, Il rinoceronte (1751). 

Henry Fielding (1707-1754), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. London: Andrew Millar, 1749. 

We now toggle back to Fielding's ideas and use of language. 

[The novel is divided into eighteen "books" (sections), each with its own chapter numbers starting with "i." References will be made to book number followed by chapter number; parenthetical page numbers correspond to the Modern Library edition published in 1985. For Part I, here's a magical link. Likewise, a hyperlink to Part II].

"The wise Man gratifies every Appetite and every Passion, while the Fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one." (VI: iv) (page 282). Obviously not a Puritan, Fielding pokes fun at the latest (in the 1740s) Protestant sectarian fad in England -- the Methodists.
Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1750).  
Upon "kicking" or "kissing ass" -- Fielding's take from the 1740s. Little has changed in this regard, despite the passage of 268+ years.

For instance, in 1984, George Herbert Walker Bush was asked, regarding a debate with Geraldine Ferraro the night before,

"Vice President Bush, did you say: 

'I kicked a little ass last night'? " . . . 

Q: Your quote, correct me if I'm wrong, is: "I kicked ass last night." 

[Bush]: "Very close -- I think that's it." 

(Source: Dale Russakoff, "Bush's 'Kick' Makes Waves," Washington Post, October 14, 1984. Link to article here). 

By now, we're far more familiar with Bush, Senior's antics regarding grabbing buttocks, rather than his kicking them. But I digress. Back to the 1740s.

'Allusions to this Part are . . . often made for the sake of the Jest. And here, I believe, the Wit is generally misunderstood.  In Reality, it lies in desiring another to kiss your Ass for having just threatened to kick his: For I have observed very accurately, that no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this Part in another.

It may likewise seem surprising, that in the many thousand kind Invitations of this Sort, which every one who hath conversed with Country Gentlemen, must have heard, no one, I believe, hath ever seen a single Instance where the Desire hath been complied with. A great Instance of their Want of Politeness: For in Town, nothing can be more common than for the finest Gentlemen to perform this Ceremony every Day to their Superiors, without having that Favour once requested by them.'  (VI: ix) (page 303).

Finally, for this post, another expression still used in the 21st century: "a fine Kettle of Fish." (VI: x) (page 305).  I heard someone say this not too long ago, in fact. How about you?

Today's Rune: Signals.