Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Return of the Native (1878) by Thomas Hardy

Book Review
Return of the Native
by Thomas Hardy

    God that random post on Internet Art I did a couple weeks back is the most popular thing on this blog since I reviewed Uncle Tom's Cabin, which, of course, is the most popular post on this blog in the last four years.

  I'm going to level with everyone, I am not particularly enjoying the mid-late Victorian period in literature.  I  can appreciate the deepening moral complexity of a Thomas Hardy v. an Emily Bronte, but that doesn't make for a fun read.  Hardy is notable as writer because of his ability to bring some moral complexity to the marriage/inheritance axis of the Victorian novel.   Hardy's characters are complicated and interesting, they work in multiple dimensions.  Return of the Native is named after one of the four main characters, Clym Yeobright. Return of the Native, like many, many, many other of Hardy's novels, is set in the fictional English countryside of Wessex, which in this book is played by the Egdon Heath.   Basically, Clym Yeobright is a succesful diamond merchant living in Paris.  He returns back to Egdon Heath to visit his Mom and falls for Eustacia Vye, a pretty and vacant girl living with her grand dad near Mom's house.   Eustacia Vye is single, but is sought byDamon Wildeve, a local inn owner who is not very rich and not very classy, but who is supposed to marry Thomasin Yeobright.

  So...then... Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright end up getting married because Eustacia thinks he will "take her away from all this" but surprise: Clym wants to "go local" and become a school master.  Eustacia is not stoked but this is the 1870s and she can't do shit.  Meanwhile Clym marries Damon instead, who still wants Eustacia.

   Then... Clym gets sick because he's reading in the dark (yay 1870s!) and loses his eye sight, so he can't continue to study and is rescued to collecting moss from the floor (for fuel?)  Eustacia is even less stoked after Clym becomes a manual laborer and THEN Damon inherits a ton of money which is ironic because Eustacia specifically chose Clym because he was going to have more money.   Andddd.... Eustacia and Damon end up drowned in a river (is there any other way to die in a Victorian novel?) and Clym becomes a sad itinerant preacher and Thomasin ends up marrying the "Reddleman,"  Diggory Venn.

  The character of Diggory Venn is fascinating.  "The Reddleman" is a guy who would travel the English country side selling red dye to sheep farmers.  It was a good gig, but the "Reddleman" was a kind of English bogey man who was conjured to scare misbehaving children i.e. "The Reddleman'll come and getcha!"

  Diggory Venn is into Thomasin, so he's bummed when she marries Damon and then he gets the girl at the end.  He also plays  central role in the second act, where a misunderstanding over money between Clym, his mother and Eustacia, which ends up with the death of Clym's Mother.  This death provides the trigger for a split between both Clym and Eustacia and Damon and Thomasin and THAT ends up with Damon and Eustacia dead in a river.(of course!)

  Hardy makes observations of his characters that stand out among his contemporaries and provide a solid basis for classic status.  Here is a great passage:

    She went indoors in that peculiar state of misery which is not exactly grief, and which especially attends the dawnings of reason in the latter days of an ill-judged, transient love.  To be conscious that the end of the dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course between the beginning of  passion and its end. (pg. 116)

   That passage is prefigures the doubt and ambiguity that would later characterize the attitude known as "modernism" but in 1878.  If you've ever experienced the end of love you know how perfectly accurate Hardy is in the above passage.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Black Orpheus (1959) d. Marcel Camus

Marpressa Dawn plays Eurydice in Marcel Camus' 1959 film Black Orpheus

Movie Review
Black Orpheus (1959)
 d. Marcel Camus
Criterion Collection #48

  Black Orpheus is an outlier.  First, it's in Portuguese, but made by a French director.  Second, it's a filmic "one hit wonder" Marcel Camus never made another classic film.  Third, it won both the Palme D'Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1959 so it's not an lost masterpiece.

Breno Mello plays Orpheus in the 1959 film Black Orpheus directed by Marcel Camus
  Black Orpheus is the retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  In the original, Orpheus is a talented musician and Eurydice is his beloved.  She attracts the attention of a malveolent shepard and she dies while in flight from him, bitten by a snake.  Orpheus tracks her to the underworld and frees her once, but  violates her condition of release by looking at her before they make it back to Earth, so he loses her in the end.

  Here the action is transposed to the favela's of Rio de Janiero during Carneval.  Eurydice is a country girl who has fled into the city- scared of the man in the death costume who is stalking her.  Orpheus is a talented guitar player and leader of a significant crew for the upcoming Carneval.  When set against other foreign films of the late 50s and early 60s, Black Orpheus is a pageant for the eyes and ears.

The Carneval footage and general scenery of Brazil makes Black Orpheus worth a watch even for people who aren't into the Greek myth
       The sound track, created by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfra, is generally credited, by film scholars at least, with sparking the boom in Brazillian bossa nova that took place around the time the film was released.  I'm not sure if this is factually accurate or not, but I can certainly see why it would be true.  It's pretty incredible how a single film can start a larger cultural phenomenon, but the fact that this happens over and over again is a testament to the strength of movies as a medium

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev

Book Review
Virgin Soil
 by Ivan Turgenev
p. 1877

  Virgin Soil is Turgenev's longest novel, and it only goes roughly 300 pages.  Reading Virgin Soil after tackling other classics of the mid to late 1870s like Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, and The Hand of Ethelberta and Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy makes it well clear why Russian novelists created such a sensation in the 1870s.

  First of all, Turgenev's story about Russian intellectuals abandoning their class to "help" the working class is exciting and (relatively) novel.  Second,  Turgenev's male characters are the restrained, effete heroes of the Victorian British period novel, they are emotional, histrionic spectacular literary disasters

  Coming after Daniel Deronda, Virgin Soil was a refreshing breath of air, and I tore through it, eager to read a novel about something OTHER then the problems of the British middle and upper classes with marriages and wills.  Seriously, what happened to the novel in England that led it to get so dull and obsessed with marriage and wills.   Literally every single novel written by Eliot, Trollope, Hardy and Dickens involves some combination of an impossible/troubled  marriage or a disinherited heir or both in fact, looking back through the British novels I've read this year, the only exceptions are the so called novels of sensation, children's books, and the Russians.

  It's not that I don't appreciate a good marriage/will derived plot, but enough already.  It's been like 50 solid years of these stories and I'm yearning for a new look.  ENTER THE RUSSIANS.

   Virgin Soil also had the benefit of being timely:

In 1877 with the publication of Virgin Soil, his longest and most ambitious novel, he became world famous: a month after it was published fifty-two young men and women were arrested in Russia on charges of revolutionary conspiracy, and a shocked public in France, Britain, and America turned to the novel for enlightenment. Its effect on American readers was enormous: as powerful, in its way, as the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been. For Turgenev the novel was one more attempt to present the Russian situation with detachment, and above all he sought to show to his critics that he had not lost touch with the younger generation. (THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS)

     Seriously though give me disaffected Russian intellectuals over anxious teenage British girls any day.   The level of tediousness that creeps into mid to late Victorian novels can not be overstated.  Can not.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Most Dangerous Game

This is Zaroff the guy who was the first to say, "I hunt the most dangerous game of" in the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game
Movie Review
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
 d. Ernest B. Schoedsack & Irving Pichel
Criterion Collection #46

  The Most Dangerous Game was a welcome respite after the slow-moving, elegaic & Iranian language Taste of Cherry.  The Most Dangerous Game was the movie made by the group who would make King Kong the very next year, and even features King Kong leading lady Fay Wray playing another damsel in distress.

  Prior to watching this movie I knew of it mostly by pop culture references made in tv shows like the Simpsons.  Who can't imagine Simpsons character/Arnold Schwarzenegger parody Rainer Wolfcastle gravely intoning, "I will hunt the most dangerous" in his faux Austrian parody accent?

Fay Wray- sexy pre code babe

  But, it actually is a film- this film- and it does tell the story of an insane Russian count living in an old Portugese castle in the Pacific who does, in fact, hunt the most dangerous game... that game being man.  His foil is leading man Joel McCrea,  but it's hard too take your eyes away from Count Zaroff, who turns in a crazy Russian bad guy for the ages.  The impact is heigtened by the less-then-subtle camera techniques and a score that litereally goes bonkers every time the film makers are trying to hint at something.

  There is one scene where Zaroff is talking to Fay Wray and she is standing at the top of a lengthy stair case, and he is standing beneath, and he says something menacing, and the camera zooms in- it has to be- 50 feet, across the room to focus in on his menacing expression.  It comes off as corny in 2013, but only because filmmakers have been using the same technique for almost a hundred years.

  The action sequences have the same clumsy, stop-motion quality that they have in King Kong but it doesn't detract from an enjoyable, and brief (The Most Dangerous Game is only an hour long) viewing experience.  It's certainly more fun then Taste of Cherry.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Book Review
Daniel Deronda
by George Eliot
p. 1876

  Yeah so I figure I spent 450 minutes reading this book?  God that's like a whole day of my life.  Reading Daniel Deronda.  It clocks in at 978 pages flat.  Here's how I read this book.  I would figure out some time in the day when I would have 45 minutes available, and then i had the print size set large enough so that I could read a "page" in a few seconds, and then I would just page through like a demon until I had made it 10% down the road.  It was a joyless affair, I don't mind telling you.

  All I could think about while I was reading Daniel Deronda is that people back then must have had so much time to sit around and read books.  Seriously, who has 8 hours to read this book?  The decriptions of Daniel Deronda have described it as Eliots most "experimental" novel, and I suppose that's true by the stadards of novelistic experimentation circa 1870.  Half the book is devoted to a stadard marriage/inheritance plot involving the beautiful and shallow Gwendolen Grandcourt nee Harleth.  She is one of the more unsympathetic Victorian era heroines, someone who marries for money and then acts suprised that life isn't just a bowl of cherries afterward.  The other half involves the titular character, who is the adopted "son"of a wealthy English Baron but yearns to know about his birth parents.

  Along the way Deronda rescues Mirah Lapidoth, a young Jewess in distress, and probably the first literary Jewish heroine in British literature since Rebecca in Sir Walter Scotts's Ivanhoe half a century earlier.  It's clear that Eliot means to provide a sympathetic portrayal of Judaism but it's hard not to wince at some oc the more stereotypical descriiptions of Jews provided by Eliot.

  Over all though Daniel Deronda is simply exhausting because it's close to a thousand pages long.  Who does that?  And who reads that book in 2013?  Me I guess.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Taste of Cherry (1997) d. Abbas Kairostami

Taste of Cherry: Iranian landscape

Movie Review
Taste of Cherry (1997)
 d. Abbas Kiarostami
Criterion Collection #45

  Iran is a cultural blind-spot in the west. Even well educated American typically only know this history of Iran post Iranian Revolution.  Few know that the Farsi language is part of the Indo-European linguistic family (alongside English, Spanish, French, German, etc.) or that the first Monotheistic religion (Zoroastrianism) was the state religion of Persia when the ancient Hebrews were exiled there.  Iran is typically defined today by its religion: Shia Islam and almost never by ethnicity/language.

Mr. Badii played by Homayoun Ershadi

  Taste of Cherry actually won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1997 and the Criterion Collection edition followed shortly in 1999. Obviously, a film coming out of Iran in 1997 is going to have distribution issues, so it makes sense that this movie would basically go straight from theaters to Criterion Collection with no intermediaries.

 The story sounds like a parody of depressing indie films: Middle-aged Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives through the hilly outskirts of Tehran—searching for someone to rescue or bury him.

This is director Abbas Kiarostami shooting Taste of Cherry.

  That's it- that is the whole story.  Specifically he interacts with four people, a solider, a gatekeeper, a seminarian and a taxidermist, and tries to convince each of them to help him commit suicide by covering him with dirt after he dies.

 Although Taste of Cherry is only 90 minutes long it is a lengthy 90 minutes.  I think I stopped it a half dozen times to get up and do something.   Many of the shots are long static head shots of Mr. Badii driving, because the director was in the passenger seat shooting the film.  The lengthy conversations are interspersed with breathtaking images of Iran- I'm just assuming this movie was shot near Tehran- perhaps in an industrial suburb- rather then Tehran proper.

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