VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Seduced and Abandoned (1964) d. Pietro Germi

Stefania Sandrelli plays Agnese Ascalone in Seduced and Abandoned,directed by Pietro Germi

Movie Review
Seduced and Abandoned (1964)
d. Pietro Germi
Criterion Collection #350

  Italian film maker Pietro Germi is best known state-side for Divorce Italian Style (1961), which actually won an Academy Award in 1962 for best original screen play.  Both Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned are scathing satires of the male chauvinism of Sicily circa early 1960.  This is a world where marrying the 16 year old you rape and impregnated is a get out of jail free card.  The satire is mean and pointed, the characters almost universally unsympathetic.

   Like Luis Bunuel, Germi is not portraying his particular social milieu with affection. A major plot point of Seduced and Abandoned is that Peppino Califano, the seducer, doesn't want to marry Agnese, the 16 year old he seduced and impregnated because he has a right to marry a virgin.  After the initial discovery that Agnese is not only NOT a virgin but also pregnant, family patriarch Vincenzo (Don Vincenzo) swings into action, taking a number of comical steps to ensure the honor of his family.

   Over the two hours of the film, Vincenzo slaps his pregnant teenage daughter around, repeatedly, calls her a whore, locks her in a spare bedroom and refuses to let her out of the house, etc. etc. etc.  After initially bullying Peppino's family into agreeing to marry Agnese, there are a serious of set-backs largely centered around Peppino's unwillingness to marry "that whore."  He is abetted by his parents.  One critical scene features Peppino asking his Dad whether he would have married his mother if she had fucked him before marriage.  His response is the summary of the attitude of the characters of the film, "A man has a right to ask, a woman has a duty to refuse."

  It's clear that Germi despises the attitudes on display as much as a film maker like Bunuel, or for someone closer to home, John Waters.  The idea of this film as a comedy may sound strange to those more comfortable with the American comedy-industrial complex, but if you enjoy Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen you should be basically on comfortable ground.

    

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Greeks and Their Eastern Neighbors / Studies in the relations between Greece and the countries of the Near East in the 8th & 7th centuries B.C. by T. J. Dunbabin

Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson wears the skin of the Nemean lion in the big budget Hollywood film Hercules this summer.  This was a myth lifted whole-cloth from the East by Greek poets.



The Greeks and Their Eastern Neighbors:
Studies in the relations between Greece and the countries of the Near East in the 8th & 7th centuries B.C. (1957)
by T. J. Dunbabin
with a foreword by Sir John Beazley
Edited by John Boardman
Ares Publishing Facsimile Edition

   This title from my 229-book-long Amazon Wish List was added on July 6th, 2009- that is almost five years ago.  The Wish List dates all the way back to 2005, but I only have one book from 2005, two from 2007, two from 2008- the list doesn't really get started till 2009.  The subject of what, if any, influence the Near East exercised on the development of Greek civilization is important, but it is easy to see why several generations of Western historians have been not so interested in the subject.  First, there is the difficulty of doing archaeological work in countries like Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Between two World Wars, the Cold War and the present situation getting on the ground has been hard.  Second, there is the ideological bias of the west that sees Greece as being separate and apart (and superior) to the civilizations of the Near East. Finally there are issue with learning anything about the time period between 1200 B.C. and 700 B.C., a 1st Millenium B.C. "dark age" brought about by the depredations of the "Sea People."

   Add to that the fact that Dunbabin himself died before he could even complete this book, meaning it's been published as an incomplete text and essentially consists of transcripts of lectures he gave on the subject of the relationship of Greek civilization to the civilizations of the East.  Once you get beyond the "Greece was different" ideology, the case linking East to West is straight forward.  Dunbabin's case is based on a combination of archaeological evidence (finding Eastern pottery in the West and vice versa) and cultural evidence (the Eastern derivation of Greek mythological narratives like the perils of Hercules, and creatures like Griffin's and the Centaur.  An especially compelling point regards the motif of Hercules and his slaying of the lion: Lions were nowhere near Greece in the 8th and 7th century BC, but they were present in the hunting gardens of the Assyrian king, and any first hand observation of a lion by a Greek poet of the 7th century BC is ridiculously unlikely.

   Dunbabin also provides a good overview of two lesser known Greek-related civilizations of the near east- the Lydians and the Phygians.  Note for readers: this book is only 80 pages long.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Plumed Serpent (1926) by D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence: Seven titles in the 1001 Books Project

Book Review
The Plumed Serpent (1926)
 by  D.H. Lawrence

  Soooo many D.H. Lawrence books within the 1001 Books project.   You've got: The Rainbow (1915) , Sons and Lovers (1913), Lady Chatterley’s Lover(1928), Aaron's Rod, The Fox (1922) and Women in Love.  Including The Plumed Serpent that is seven titles.  The Plumed Serpent is his second to last novel on the list chronologically speaking,  The Plumed Serpent ranks a distant second to Lady Chatterley's Lover in terms of the D.H. Lawrence controversy index.

  Personally, I found the quasi-fascism and dubious racialism of The Plumed Serpent much more troubling than the bourgeois sexuality of Lady Chatterley's Lover.  The Plumed Serpent is also Lawrence's "colonial" novel, with the setting firmly in Mexico (but with a seeming hat tip to the landscape of New Mexico.)  Lawrence, of course, was an earlier settler in the Taos area, with his own "Lawrence Ranch" during the time he wrote The Plumed Serpent.

  Kate Leslie, the once widowed, once divorced, Irish divorcee is the protagonist.  She starts out among expatriate society around Mexico City but finds the company boohhrringg.  For lack of something better to do, she drifts out to a rural area where she has heard rumors that "the old gods are coming back."  Once there, she befriends local landowning Patron Don Ramon and Don Ciripano, a Mexican general.  They are not so subtlety trying to revive the "old religion" becoming Gods in the process.

  It was hard not to read The Plumed Serpent as an anticipation of "magical realism,"  though I feel like the fascistic/racist elements in Lawrences' imagined religious revival of Aztec deities.  There is a LOT of speculation about the importance of "the blood" and frankly Nietzschian soliloquies on the part of the would-be deities.  It was the kind of literary radicalism that is peculiar to the 20s, after World War I forced artists to question the existing world but before World War II made theories based on blood and race forbidden to intellectuals.

  Another observation about The Plumed Serpent is that it is twice the length of any of his prior Novels.  Some of his titles have been less than 100 pages, The Plumed Serpent was 433 pages in the Vantage Paperback edition I read.  With more generous margins it would have easily topped 500 pages.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014) by Peter Kosmin


Map of the Seleucid Empire in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey

Book Review:
The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014)
 by Peter Kosmin
Published April 2014
Harvard University Press
(BUY IT)

  I was in THE Harvard University book store in Boston a couple weeks ago and saw The Land of the Elephant Kings by Peter Kosmin sitting on the shelf.  I don't mind confessing that I got pretty excited, but then picked up the slimmish volume and saw that the price was fifty bucks.   Fifty bucks for an academic history of Seleucid Empire?  I'm interested, but not fifty bucks interested.  Returning to Southern California, I didn't forget about The Land of the Elephant Kings, rather I used the Inter Library Loan function at the San Diego Public Library to request it from the UCSD library.

   As far as I know this is the first book length treatment of the Seleucid Empire in the modern era (I'm just guessing) so despite some substantial issues with readability, The Land of the Elephant Kings is a must for anyone who is seriously trying to get a grip on the history of the pre-Islamic Middle East.   The Seleucid's were a dynasty that emerged in the aftermath of the untimely death of Alexander the Great.  Selecus I Nicator was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, and his dynasty controlled the empire shown above from roughly 305 B.C. to 65 B.C., collapsing via excessive dynastic struggle.

   The Seleucids have not been a favorite of modern historians, who prefer either the pre-Alexander empires or the post-Islamic period. The Seleucids were essentially foreign occupiers, and they didn't introduce a religion, nor did they represent any kind of "new era."  All of this is freely admitted by Kosmin, who also repeatedly states that there is not much information of any kind to be found anywhere about the Seleucids.  This gives The Land of the Elephant Kings both a fragmentary and elliptical feel, like a coloring book only half colored in.

   The Land of the Elephant Kings is not a conventional narrative history, rather Kosmin embraces the "spatial turn" in social sciences, wherein historians use the metaphor of space to describe the behaviors of less conventional states and empires in history.  Historically, The Seleucids were typically discounted as being a "weak" empire with little or no state structure, and the main thrust of Kosmin's argument is to demonstrate that in their own way the Seleucid monarchs were most active.

  Mainly he does this by drawing on archaeology to point out how many colonies they founded.  The Seleucids were nuts for founding colonies, and they put dozens down, many of them in the area of Syria.  He also makes the case that the Selecuids were constantly "on the go" travelling in and around their Empire in a constant attempt to put down rebellions and "show the flag" to their vassals. Additionally, the made one limited but important contribution to wider world culture, being the first Kings to refer to time via their own era, judging each year as being part of the "Seleucid Era."  This was picked up by Christians and other Near Eastern cultures and is responsible for our own use of "B.C." and "A.D." today.

  Unfortunately there is little in The Land of the Elephant Kings to appeal to a non-specialists.  That's a pity considering the paucity of other books on this same subject, but fully understandable considering the limitations of source material.  Perhaps this book will serve as a stimulus for further advances in Seleucid studies.

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction by Jonathan Sterne

His Masters Voice: original painting.  Is the talk sitting on his dead masters coffin?  That is the argument of Jonathan Sterne


The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction
by Jonathan Sterne
Duke University press, 2003

   This is another title from the depths of my Amazon Wish List- circa.... 2006?  Eight years since I wanted to read this book?  Sounds about right.  The Audible Past is interesting, but only to academics or would be academics.  Sterne has many interesting points to make about the cultural origins of sound reproduction, but he often couches his prose in the post-modern cultural theory that is the bane of turn of the century cultural academics.  His subject sits at the intersection of cultural studies and the history of technology, so some jargon is to be expected.

  Sterne has two main points to make: First, that the origins of sound reproduction extend back in time beyond the 20th century.  His main examples are the development of the stethoscope and telegraph in the 19th century.  Here he seems to be combating the idea that sound reproduction somehow sprang fully formed from Bell and his telephone, with the phonograph being the important successor technology.

   His second point is that there were a variety of different purposes for sound reproduction in the beginning of the phonograph era, and the idea of reproducing music on vinyl disc was not the first, second or third choice.  He delves into the example of using the phonograph to record the voices of dead people, and the idea that it would be primarily used as a substitute for stenographers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Schizopolis (1996) d. Steven Soderbergh


Movie Review
Schizopolis (1996)
d. Steven Soderbergh
Criterion Collection #199

  So like, lesser films of greater film makers- that is a big Criterion Collection category, presumably because they are available and lack prior DVD editions.  Schizopolis was made during Soderburgh's self imposed Hollywood exile after his break-out film Sex, Lies & Videotape, before he settled into the type of guy who could drop 100,000,000 grossing pictures in back-to-back years.  Schizopolis actually stars Soderburgh himself in a double role.  The phenomenon of doubling is seemingly at the center of 400 years of narrative story telling- the popular "early" example is Doctor Jeckl and Mr. Hyde but there were doubles long before that.

  Soderburgh plays Fletcher Munson, a speech writer for a Scientology type religion/marketing outfit.  his double is a dentist, Dr. Jeffrey Korshek.  There are long periods where one or both of the characters speak in an un subtitled foreign language.  An early scene between Munson and his wife is conducted entirely in generic descriptions of verbal interactions, "Unenthusiastic greeting. Terse description of day at work, etc." spoken by both characters.

    Soderburgh adds extra edge by casting his soon-to-be-ex wife as the love interest of both characters.  Schizopolis is kind of funny the way Godard is kind of funny, not very.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sanders of the River (1935) d. Zoltán Korda

Paul Robeson playing "Bosambo" in the regrettable Sanders of the River


Sanders of the River (1935)
d. Zoltán Korda
Criterion Collection #372
From Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist boxed set, Criterion Collection #369

  Included in the excellent boxed set, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, Sanders of the River is not what you would call a career highlight.  In fact, the description on the Criterion Collection site calls Sanders of the River, "deeply embarrassing" to Robeson- as in- he was deeply embarrassed by the resulting film, which can only be called a "glorification of the British Empire" while simultaneously being deeply insulting to Africans.  I suppose there is some value to Sanders of the River as the first film that Robeson made after departing the United States for England, but as a watchable film? Negatory.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes

Black Bess: popular penny dreadful.

Book Review
The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s
by Winifred Hughes
Princeton University Press 1981

  I have a list of a few hundred books on my Amazon wish list, all books that were too expensive to acquire when I was interested.  Thought I might use my new library card to address that situation.  The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s has been on the list for half a decade- it is out of print and will run you at least 30 bucks on Amazon.  The hardcover edition I checked out from the San Diego Public Library will run you one hundred and twenty.  Hard to believe it has gone out of print like that- but the Amazon.com says that there is a new paperback edition coming out next month.

  In the 1001 Books project, the Sensation Novels of the 1860s are represented by two titles, both by Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone and The Woman in White.   According to Hughes, The Woman in White is the quintessential Sensation Novel, and The Moonstone is the main link between the sensation novel and it's successors: the detective novel and the thriller.   The Sensation novel is significant because it happened at a time when the over-all Audience for novels expanded greatly as a result of increases in the literacy rate.  The Sensation Novel was preceded by the Penny Dreadful, shorter descriptions of horrific "real life" events in fictionalized form.

   In addition Hughes runs through some of the lesser remembered exponents of the genre with separate chapters on Charles Reade and a shared chapter on M.E. Braddon (female author) and Mrs. Henry Wood.  To Hughes, the primary characteristic of the Sensation Novels of the 1860s is the melding of "Romantic fantasy" with "realism."   The Sensation Novel was also notable in how it evoked a tremendously serious (and negative) response, largely because they were so popular with Audiences.  This critical dynamic of "highbrow" critics looking down on "lowbrow" popular arts would hold for two generations, virtually unopposed until after the first World War. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The People of Hemsö (1887) by August Strindberg

A poweful look from August Strindberg


The People of Hemsö (1887)
by August Strindberg
Norvik Press 2013
Translation by Peter Graves

  Here is another tough book to track down. Twenty dollars for the just published translation by Peter Graves, and not held by San Diego Public Library- had to get it sent from the UCSD library. I think I was musing on this subject earlier- which is that faking that you have read all 1001 Books to Read Before You Die would be pretty easy with an internet connection, so I feel compelled to offer the details surrounding by acquisition and intake of each volume, lest a question be raised about whether I actually completed the task. Unlike Strindberg's first novel, The Red Room, the roman a clef about Stockholm bohemian life, The People of Hemsö is a "proper" novel, about the wholly fictional lives of a group of rural Swedes living on a combination farm/fishery on an isolated fjord.

 A main difference between Strindberg and other early Scandanvian novels like Gösta Berling’s Saga  by Selma Lagerlöf (1890) and The Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun is that Strindberg's third person perspective is less straight forward, less "mythic" than the voice adopted by Lagerlof and Hamsun. Strindberg holds himself back from fully embracing the characters or their concerns, putting The People of Hemso between satire and realism.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Elena and Her Men (1956) d. Jean Renoir

Ingrid Bergman in Elena and Her Men (1956) d. Jean Renoir

Movie Review
Elena and Her Men (1956)
 d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #244

   Another popular category within the Criterion Collection is the lighter works of directors who are generally considered to be "serious" types. Elena and Her Men, a romantic comedy starring Ingrid Bergman as a Polish Princess, fits neatly into this category.  Set after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Bergman's Princess Elena Sorokowska is the object of affection for multiple men.  You've got Henri de Chevincourt, a quiet but influential aristocrat who prefers to stay out of the limelight, then you've got General Rollan, who is being pushed by his supporters to assume dictatorial powers in the aftermath of a border dispute over a "captured" French observation balloon.

 I don't think Elena and Her Men is supposed to be anything other than light comedy, but a movie about a potential dictator in the aftermath of World War II seems like a strange choice for a romantic comedy.  Throughout the film, Bergman is pushed to use her influence with the General to get him to become Dictator, but ultimately she tells him to follow his heart and helps him escape his fate by means of kissing his romantic revival (she makes out with the revival in front of the assembled masses while the General slips out the front door.)

 For me, 85% of the pleasure of watching this movie came from Bergman's performance and 15% from the post-Franco-Prussian War milieu.  Renoir does a stylish, professional job executing his task, but I can see why the New Wave critics might have found films like this wanting.

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