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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.


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

  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.

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