Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 28, 2014

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) d. Dušan Makavejev

Exploitation style poster for theater run of WR: Mysteries of the Organism.

Movie Review
WR: Mysteries of the Organism
d. Dušan Makavejev
Criterion Collection #389

  Oh shit ANOTHER joint from my man Dušan Makavejev, director of Sweet Movie?  Hells to the yeah.   Before WR starts, a title informs you that WR won the "Luis Bunuel Price" at Cannes in 1971 and that the Luis Bunuel Prize at Cannes is something that exists.  WR: Mysteries of the Organism is not as, um, scatological as Sweet Movie- not quite the gross-out sketch humor style of Sweet Movie but, WR: Mysteries of the Organism has something resembling a coherent plot: A mixture of documentary and narrative focused on the story of Orgasm enthusiast William Reich.

  Reich was essentially hounded to death by the United States government: He died serving time in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary on a contempt of court charge, and his books were publicly burned.  Reich's enthusiasm for the Orgasm was embraced by heroes of the 60s like William Burroughs.  He was well known for his Orgone accumulator a kind of box that you would sit in.  Not clear if you were supposed to masturbate in the box or what.

  About half of the movie is a documentary type movie about Reich, the other half is  a narrative about Milena, a fiery red head living in Communist Yugoslavia and is a big fan of Reich.  Perhaps not suprisingly her voyage towards sexual self discovery ends with her head severed (by a pair of figure skates no less) by an object of her affection.

  The journey taken by left leaning women towards sexual self-discovery in European 70s art-house cinema is so prevalent that it is practically a genre unto itself. The simple fact that 100% of these films were made by men ABOUT women makes them troubling from  a contemporary feminist perspective but they are all good faith efforts whose endurance is ironically due to the inclusion of sexually explicit subject matter, novel at the time.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Growth of the Soil (1917) by Knut Hamsun

A powerful look from August Strindberg

The Growth of the Soil (1917)
by Knut Hamsun

  This actually is the second Hamsun novel on the 1001 Books list- the other is Hunger, his 1891 proto-existentialist work about a guy who is fucking starving to death in Oslo.  Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, and this book supposedly put him over the top, although I feel like when a Scandinavian wins the Nobel Prize for Literature you have to take into account that the voters are all Swedish.

 The Growth of the Soil is about the slow growth of a farming community in the foothills of Norway near the Swedish border.  The Growth of the Soil has a prosaic quality- simple people living simple lives, at least that's how it appears for a hundred or so pages before Hamsun drops a little infanticide into the mix and everything gets dark real quick.  As it turns out, infanticide is not such a big deal in Norway/Scandinavia, and the perpetrator gets out after a five year prison sentence, much the better for time behind bars (oh the Scandinavians and their social welfare ideas!)

 Gradually, Hamsun develops a second generation of character and then BOOM another infanticide.  Since I'm a fan of Icelandic author Haldor Laxness, The Growth of the Soil struck a responsive chord.  Specifically, it reminds me of Laxness' Independent People(1934-35.)  In fact, I think it's appropriate to say that Laxness must have read The Growth of the Soil and derived inspiration from it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Masculin féminin (1966) d. Jean-Luc Godard

Chantal Goya plays ye-ye girl Madeline in Masculin feminin d. Jean-Luc Godard

Movie Review
Masculin féminin (1966)
 d. Jean-Luc Godard
Criterion Collection #308

  Masculin féminin is close to what I thought I'd be watching when I decided to watch all the films in the Criterion Collection. Now that Godard's films have finally started popping up on the recommended list in Hulu Plus Criterion Collection channel, I'm finally actually watching Masculin féminin and some of the non-hits out of Godard's work.  Masculin féminin finds Godard recently infatuated with Socialist/Maoist politics but still with a film style anchoring him in the narrative mainstream and lacking the experimental, shall we say... excesses; which characterize his mid period and later work.

  The most unusual part of Masculin feminin is the casting of actor Jean-Pierre Leaud in the lead role, as the frustrated suitor of aspiring ye-ye girl Madeline (played by a darling Chantal Goya.)  Leaud is best known as Antoine Doinel from Francois Truffaut's series "Adventures of Antoine Doinel," where he plays the Truffaut-like character is five films.

  Seeing Leaud act the lead in a Godard film is intriguing- Godard's Paul is not Doinel, but he shares some "everyman" traits with the Doinel character. For example, like Doinel at the beginning of the adult films (400 Blows portrays Doinel as a child) Doinel is recently released from his Army service.  Same for Paul. Unlike Doinel, Paul is avowedly political in his own diffident, uniquely French way. He scrawls anti-Vietnam graffiti on cars owned by the US embassy, in chalk on the door of theatre restroom after he sees two men in a same-sex embrace.

  The glimpses you get of the ye-ye recording scene in Paris at the time of the film is of interest in its own right.  At one point towards the end of Masculin feminin, Madeline and Paul are together in the recording studio as she attempts to record her second record.  On the way out, she is interviewed by a member of the popular music press.

   Of course, there are also more experimental/documentary style techniques employed, in particular interviews between male and female characters, echoing the title of the film and perhaps creating a kind of duality that was central to Godard's concerns in making this particular film.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Bunner Sisters (1916)by Edith Wharton

Book Review
The Bunner Sisters (1916)
by Edith Wharton

   Turns out I'm quite a fan of Edith Wharton.  Such a fan that even her lesser hits have appeal.  The Bunner Sisters is a Wharton outlier: First, it's a novella/short story (75 pages) and not a novel.  Second, it's was written as early as 1891 but stayed unpublished till 1916- unusual for Wharton to hold onto a story for so long without publication.  Third, it's milieu is the lower class in urban New York.  Although Wharton was fond of having her central characters struggle with issues related to poverty, they typically do so in an environment where their friends o have money.  I'm thinking of Lily Bart in the excellent The House of Mirth (1905). Another good example of poor character/rich setting is the central couple of The Glimpses of the Moon (1922)

   In both those books the "poor" characters are poor because of some historical accident related to their family history but they are firmly "upper class" in terms of their tastes, demeanor and plot points.  On the other hand The Bunner Sisters are firmly working class/poor people, running a little shop in an unnamed part of New York City in the early 20th century (Mid town?)  Ann Eliza and Evelina are content more or less, living their quiet little lives until a clock, given as a birthday present from one to the other introduces Herman Ramy into their lives.   Ramy runs the shop where the clock was purchased.  He tells the sisters of his past "working for Tiffany's" in their clock and watch department until an illness forced him to lose his place.

  He wooes the eldest sister, Ann Eliza to be his wife but she turns him down for reasons that are somewhat obscure to the reader but have to do with "sacfrice" and "forebearance."  He then turns his attention to the younger sister, marries her and takes her off to St. Louis where he has found a position.  To tell more would function as a spoiler for the narrative, but suffice it to say there is a twist that is fairly unexpected for a short story written in the 19th century.

  The Bunner Sisters is a welcome change of pace within the Wharton bibliography, though I frankly question how the editors of 1001 Books can include a Wharton short story and NOT include a SINGLE short story by Anton Chekov.  What gives?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Eulenspiegel Society & Prometheus Magazine

                            The Eulenspiegel Society &  Prometheus Magazine

The Eulenspiegel Society &
Prometheus Magazine

  The Eulenspiegel Society is the oldest and largest BDSM support group in the United States, founded in 1971 as a society specifically for Masochists. Named after a character derived from German Folklore, Till Eulenspiegel.

  Their "house organ" is Prometheus Magazine.  I was in a friends apartment in New York City last Winter (2013), killing some time on the Upper East Side between a museum visit and dinner, when I saw some Prometheus magazines sitting on the coffee table of my host.   Post 50 Shades of Grey it is perhaps difficult to conceive of the BDSM community as something that is in any way transgressive or "underground" but the 70s roots of The Eulenspiegel society and their literature reflects a subculture that struggles to be fully embraced by mainstream culture.

  At the same time I think it's clear that BDSM is increasing in popularity as a result of the increase in interest in the underlying concepts of sexuality and "alternative" conceptions of sexuality.  You can see the growth of interest in sexuality and pornography from the N-gram below:

 If you narrow the same chart down to the 20th century, you can see an explosive rise in interest in sexually related terms like pornography, homosexuality and sexuality itself that largely dates from the 1970s.  If you narrow the N gram down to compare Sadism and Masochism, it is clear that the two terms basically didn't exist until the 20th century (though their roots go back to the 18th century and beyond) and then peaked in the early 1950s:

If you were to continue the chart into the next two decades, there can be no doubt of a rebound.  Thus, I think the subjects of S&M are pretty fertile artistic terrain- if only because they were at such a low point at the turn of the 21st century.

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