Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hell is Smaller on the Inside

It's easy enough to say it's a bad idea to ask the emperor to force a woman to marry you, particularly before you've found out whether or not she's already married. But 1953's Gate of Hell (地獄門) uses a series of tragic misunderstandings, fatally exacerbated by Heian era Japanese conventions, to tell a more fundamental story about the foolishness of killing or dying for the sake of pride.

The story follows a samurai named Morito who, during an insurrection, is commanded by the emperor to protect his sister's decoy, a young woman named Kesha played by the beautiful Machiko Kyo.

Kyo is an incredibly versatile actress. Here we do not see the angry, psychically wounded woman from Rashomon or the conniving seductress from Ugetsu Monogatari. Here, Lady Kesha is a demure woman of deliberate physical grace and deep sense of honour that compels her not to hesitate before volunteering herself for the dangerous decoy mission.

She does nothing to lead Morito on, and the two in fact speak very little. The emperor is pleased with Morito for siding with him even though Morito's brother had gone over to the enemy so before an assembly of his vassals, the emperor offers to grant Morito whatever he wishes. It's only after the emperor agrees to secure a marriage between Morito and Kesha that both men discover that Kesha is already married, and the pride of both men compels them to find a way of fulfilling Morito's wish anyway.

Morito is not portrayed as a man who would kill another to take his wife. He seems deeply embarrassed by what he's inadvertently initiated, and tells Kesha that he never would have asked the emperor for her hand had he known. But pride prevents him from backing down now and he bristles whenever he's in the presence of Wataru, Kesha's husband, who is also a samurai valuable to the emperor.

Things escalate until the movie earns its name as eventually it's not only Morito whose value system leads him to tormenting paradoxes.

I hadn't seen the movie in over ten years when I listened to an interview a couple weeks ago with Carl Dreyer who described the film as one of the first true successes in colour filmmaking. The movie had been restored in 2011--although it had been so long since I'd seen it, I do remember being distinctly bothered by the lousy print quality. This restoration is pristine and gorgeous, the palette indeed different from the typical garishness of its predecessors particularly in American cinema.

Gate of Hell's both vibrant and muted, director Teinosuke Kinugasa often using drapes and painted skies to create his compositions of colour, using light and shadows in compartmentalised living quarters to suggest pinioned egos.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When a Snake Loves a Human

We finished with Romantic Poets yesterday by looking at John Keats, who I'd been reading for five days beforehand. I was surprised to find I really like him--for some reason I expected him to be another Wordsworth, maybe because Lord Byron didn't like his work. But I like his belief in an aesthetic concept of pleasure and pain being necessary as opposing forces within art, again recalling Coleridge's idea of good poetry being composed of opposite forces. I'm not sure I can defend the "More happy love! more happy, happy love!" line from "Ode on a Grecian Urn", but that poem is otherwise a lovely rumination on the immortality of art and the beauty of the space between wanting something and the disappointment or satisfaction of getting it.

As one might predict, though, I was most drawn to "Lamia". I do have a thing for tragic snake women. Keats intriguingly refrains from siding with Lamia or Apollonius, presenting instead pure sensation and character, allowing the readers to make up their own minds, I suppose, though I don't see how anyone couldn't love Lamia. This may be the sexiest and most bad ass bit of poetry I've ever read;

Left to herself, the serpent now began
To change; her elfin blood in madness ran,
Her mouth foam'd, and the grass, therewith besprent,
Wither'd at dew so sweet and virulent;
Her eyes in torture fix'd, and anguish drear,
Hot, glaz'd, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,
Flash'd phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.
The colours all inflam'd throughout her train,
She writh'd about, convuls'd with scarlet pain:
A deep volcanian yellow took the place
Of all her milder-mooned body's grace;
And, as the lava ravishes the mead,
Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;
Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars,
Eclips'd her crescents, and lick'd up her stars:
So that, in moments few, she was undrest
Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst,
And rubious-argent: of all these bereft,
Nothing but pain and ugliness were left.
Still shone her crown; that vanish'd, also she
Melted and disappear'd as suddenly;
And in the air, her new voice luting soft,
Cried, "Lycius! gentle Lycius!"—Borne aloft
With the bright mists about the mountains hoar
These words dissolv'd: Crete's forests heard no more.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Propriety is a Foot

Don't you hate it when the cow won't get off the bed? You can buy them their own beds but they'll inevitably claim the bed their owners sleep in. "I think you mean cats," you might be saying. Normally, yes. But not in Imperial Rome! At least according to Luis Bunuel's 1930 film L'Age d'Or, which presents an illuminating rearrangement of civilisation, history, and sex.

The film opens with what seems to be a short documentary on scorpions, with footage of three scorpions fighting as a voice over narration dryly explains the deadly stinger and the scorpions' preference for living alone in the darkness under rocks. This is followed by scenes of hobos living alone on a rocky, otherwise uninhabited island, except for a group of Catholic bishops basking on the beach like seals.

It's not long before hundreds of bourgeois citizens arrive in rowboats, find the bones of the bishops and immediately build modern day Rome on the spot, driving out the hobos or "Majorcans", in the process.

Overall, the film, with a screenplay by Bunuel and Salvador Dali, sees a fundamental absurdity in both society and basic human nature. The film's version of Rome features aspects of civilisation stripped of meaningful function--as at one point a hay cart moves through a lavish dinner party.

No-one pays much notice when a fire from the kitchen erupts and kills the maid. Everyone's used to buildings being randomly demolished on Sundays. A child seems interested in what a hunter has in his satchel so the hunter makes out with the child. The film shows people barely acknowledging extreme violence or absurd juxtapositions--these things are striking to the viewer, though, since the normal psychic barriers erected between rich and poor, victim and bystander, are not present.

Before they build Rome, though, the people at the beginning of the movie make sure to pull apart a young man and woman who are vigorously making out in the mud.

Throughout the movie, the two face obstacles of conversations, police, and attractive religious sculptures of feet between themselves and consummating their mutual sexual attraction. When they finally do end up alone together, they don't quite seem to know what to do and begin chewing on each other's fingers.

From the movie emerges an image of people as absurd, habitually violent, innocent, helpless and lonely creatures.

Twitter Sonnet #481

Cough drop wrappers twist through stale grape barrels.
Spirals of pink lace dim behind the ship.
Lost lamps glimmer in a group of carols.
Withered wool in blank ink refutes worship.
Equidistant starship lights will not lie.
Shrinking singers will pin the larger ones.
I do love that Eat Drink Man Woman guy.
But Argo's gold digits crossed for cold suns.
Catgut stencilled grimace chars the flower.
The blue banding on cgi snow burns.
Protruding nerves scrape the inner tower.
The Devil's Windex keeps all that it earns.
Hyperbole is the hat of hatred.
More than the fish are fair weather sacred.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Wrong Rightness and the Right Wrongness

I must say it's fascinating that people are condemning Seth MacFarlane for intentionally saying wrong things and no-one's mentioning how the audience booed when MacFarlane alluded to the fact that Mel Gibson left a voice mail for his ex-girlfriend wishing she would be "raped by a pack of niggers." Because I guess it's only okay to make racist and misogynist statements when you clearly mean them.

I thought MacFarlane was funny. He told a lot of duds but never seemed unbalanced by them. I told my sister, "I like MacFarlane, but sometimes I don't think he has a soul." It's just eerie how completely steeled his nerves seemed. He really seemed like he did not give a fuck.

It took around twelve hours, I noticed, before opinion sites started to decide what was inexcusable about him. I didn't think the "I Saw Your Boobs" song was sexist or potentially damaging to children. It's a song about how women have boobs and guys like seeing them. What's so sexist about that?

My favourite bit, though, was the re-enactment of Robert Zemeckis' Flight with sock puppets. I was laughing so hard at that I started to tear up, and that was before I started drinking.

For some reason I came away really digging Charlize Theron. Her and Channing Tatum paying tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was pretty impressive.

I was quite pleased to be wrong about the best director winner. Ang Lee's output over the past twenty years has been generally superior to Spielberg's, though I guess I do need to see Lincoln to be fair about this. And, naturally, I was right about Argo winning best picture. Once again, Ang Lee takes home the best director Oscar while losing to an undeserving rival in the best picture category.

It was good to see Tarantino win for original screenplay and Christoph Waltz for best supporting actor.

The musical performances were among the best I've seen. Other than a typically mediocre, overly mannered performance by Barbra Streisand, all the songs were relatively good. MacFarlane can sing well enough to be funny or support dancers, Adele was nice and strong, and most of all I loved the extraordinary performance of "Goldfinger" from Shirley Bassey. Her voice sounded every bit as strong as it sounded fifty years ago.

All in all, this was the nicest time I had watching the Oscars in years. The pleasing wrongness of MacFarlane's humour kept me from wanting to throw up, and since I already knew Argo was going to receive insincere honours, I wasn't broadsided by it. I even actually kind of liked Ben Affleck's speech but, then, I was full of bourbon at that point.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Still Making Movies about Silence

I didn't even realise before I watched it that Amour starred Jean-Louis Trintignant, the same guy who played the gunslinger Silence in The Great Silence;

His performance and Emmanuelle Riva's are what mainly works about Amour. It's better than Argo but still not something I'd classify as a best picture.

It's the story of an elderly couple dealing with life after one of them, Riva, has a series of strokes that changes her from being an intelligent and spirited piano teacher to a half paralysed invalid who speaks only in gibberish.

I thought about how Hunter S. Thompson killed himself when it became clear he was entering into painful old age, and this movie certainly makes it seem like he had the right idea. The torment and humiliation these two go through is pretty heartbreaking. The story is apparently based on the actual experience of a couple related to the director.

This is the first Michael Haneke movie I've seen. I'd heard about his Funny Games, which is said to be a sort of "scared straight" film for people who enjoy torture porn, a category I fall under, but that's not the only reason I was repelled by such a belligerently puritanical motive for making a movie. But his work with Amour is competent enough.

The art direction follows the modern trend in what passes for high brow movies nowadays in its minimalism, something that always comes off as resembling a Sears catalogue to me;

Almost the whole movie takes place in the couple's apartment and I was struck by the fact that they appear to have neither a television nor a computer. Even my grandmother has an iPad now. I wonder if their existence might have been slightly less grim if they'd had Jeopardy.

They do have some nice paintings which Haneke at one point, in a sequence I rather liked, cuts to in an out of story context lingering slideshow.

It subtly puts you in the place of the two people who have no doubt spent quite a lot of time contemplating the paintings.

Haneke uses a few little manipulations that didn't seem especially interesting to me--a dream sequence where we're surprised that it is a dream sequence by a special effect, and a moment during Riva's first stroke where Trintignant leaves a tap running. I doubt there's anyone who's seen more than ten movies in their life who didn't immediately expect her to turn the water off for him when he and our POV had left the room.

Mostly, though, Haneke does a good job of staying out of the way and letting the two actors carry things, which they do ably.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

They "Really" Love You

I can't say Argo is the most overrated Oscar Best Picture nominee I've ever seen. Because I've seen the Paul Haggis version of Crash. But the fact that Argo has ended up on so many top ten lists of 2012 movies around the world is puzzling to say the least. It's not exactly a bad movie. It's an involving story, it creates some effective tension and performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin are endearing, even if they're playing stock characters. Arkin's producer character is like a far less distinct version of Dustin Hoffman's character in Wag the Dog.

The movie's like a disposable episode of a television series. Not even an above average episode, but like one that links two episodes without being entirely boring and without rocking the boat. My questioning of the film's accolades began with the first fifteen minutes, which features a series of stiff, West Wing "walk and talks", one of them ending with the predictable moment where one of the characters stops walking so we can get a close up of him reacting to a statement while the other guy is walking away. This is intercut with the U.S. embassy in Tehran being overrun by Iranian stereotypes. In fact, for a movie that largely takes place in Iran, it's notable that there's not a single full-fledged Iranian character. They're portrayed like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies.

Which may have been intentional, as is most of the rewriting of the true story at the end to create a chase sequence. The whole time, I was thinking things like, "How can they be finding a photo of this guy at the same time he's at the airport?" "Why the hell would they be chasing a jumbo jet with police cars when they can simply ground the plane with air traffic control?" The Iranians are simultaneously sleuths and berserkers, it seems. In real life, the embassy staffers smuggled out of the country by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck in the movie) had no trouble at the airport.

Mendez's idea was to pose as a film producer and extract the staffers during the Iranian hostage crisis by creating the fiction that they were a Canadian film crew. To this end, Mendez contacted makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman in the movie). So the distinctly Hollywood feel to the movie's story may have been an attempt at honouring the nature of the art form. What it results in is something that feels cheap.

I think the movie's enjoying a perfect storm of favourable Hollywood politics and left wing politics. Here's a movie that might help Jimmy Carter's (truly undeserved) rep for being weak during the hostage crisis compared to Reagan and the movie sucks Hollywood's dick by showing how a loveable producer and make up artist--as well as the whole Hollywood machine--were part of saving people's lives. And the movie's directed by its star, Ben Affleck, another thing Hollywood likes. It's all pretty sickeningly transparent, and I say that as someone who likes Hollywood, who is a liberal, and even as someone who doesn't hate Ben Affleck.

The word is that either Argo or Lincoln will win to-morrow. I haven't seen Lincoln, but Steven Spielberg has disappointed me in pretty consistently schmaltzy ways since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I'm afraid Lincoln'll be another War Horse and gods know I don't want to suffer through that again. My money's on Argo. Lincoln's nominated for so much, I bet they'll figure Spielberg's due will be given with wins in the other categories, notably director, for which Argo's not nominated.

The only other best picture nominees I've seen are Life of Pi and Django Unchained and I plan on watching Amour to-night. Django Unchained was my favourite movie of the year, but I'd be perfectly happy with Life of Pi winning. Of course I know there's not a chance in hell.

Twitter Sonnet #480

Porcupine taxed portculli hold no peace.
Bloated bulwarks weaken from much water.
Orthodontists donate Tic Tacs to beasts.
Oreo men ordered hence are fodder.
Blobfish national assailants will mass
Against measured Atlantic led lectures.
The salt water extinguished the lost bass.
While the dime shark gluts on salt free tinctures.
Action figure shamans blockade airports.
Every last severe step bulged the runway.
Ordinary phones can connect cohorts.
Annie Oakley says heaven went that way.
Raincoat cognition is naked in Spain.
Mostly sunlight blasts baldly on the plain.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Genetically Enhanced Groundhogs

I've revamped my web site, Anelnoath, for the first time since I uploaded it in 2004. I'd been planning on doing it off and on for five or six years, ever since I started scanning my drawings at higher resolution than I used to, but it always ended up requiring more work than it seemed it ought. This redesign I started putting together in December and the almost three months it took to upload was only partially due to all the other things I've been doing--I kept changing my mind on how to colour things and how to divide up the images. I'm using pngs now for images with transparent parts, though I'm still using jpgs elsewhere. I have gotten two complaints over nine years that my images tend not to be anti-aliased, but it's the sort of thing no one actually notices unless they're looking for it (most of you probably don't know what I'm talking about). But I do like the high quality image files, the pngs, better for images with transparent parts, they seem to blend with the backgrounds better than gifs. Let me know if your viewer has trouble with the pngs.

Spring comes early in Winterfell and so it's come to my chess club, too, which has been renamed The Queen Alice Chess Club (yes, I know, "It's a 'queen's' club, all right!").

Typically enough, springtime has multiplied the weasels, so I've put two on sentry duty.

In the clubhouse, I've put William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" on the wall;

I've rigged it so it opens your browser when clicked and sends you to an online copy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I've made a few other objects that send people to web pages, too, like this red king sleeping under the tree, who sends you to the appropriate chapter from Through the Looking Glass.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

War Basically

I think I may be fated never to see a Sophia Loren movie I wholly like. She's very beautiful and a good actress, but so far all her movies I've seen have only been, at best, superficially entertaining. Or, they're simply quite bad, like 1960's La Ciociara (called Two Women in English). This unfocused tale is a distractingly glossed attempt at a hard look at life for common citizens in Italy during World War II. The lack of realism in the film is particularly striking in that it was directed by Vittorio De Sica, director of the great Neorealist film Bicycle Thieves.

Comparing the two films illustrates a lot of what's wrong with La Ciociara. Both films are related to the difficulty ordinary citizens faced in Italy thanks to World War II, both begin in Rome. Bicycle Thieves stars a man who was not an actor, De Sica cast Lamberto Maggiorani in the lead role for his rough, ordinary features. Sophia Loren, meanwhile, isn't just beautiful, she has the hair, makeup and wardrobe of a movie star.

Bicycle Thieves deals with a small scale story, one man's desperate search for his bicycle, without which he can't continue to work. La Ciociara is about a woman and her daughter fleeing from the regular bombings in Rome to an idyllic Italian countryside, where they're warmly greeted by the picture of a traditional large Italian family.

Among whom is Jean-Paul Belmondo, looking rather diminished behind glasses and another unfortunate comparison is set up, as his clichéd awkward flirtations with Loren contrast with the insightful and exciting dialogue in Goddard's Breathless.

I'm not saying a war movie has to be realistic to tell a good and insightful story. But realism is what De Sica was good at, and when he tries to tackle issues like war and rape, his treatment feels frustratingly trite when it's so conservatively constructed.

Most of the film feels like a mild road comedy, with Loren as a tough talking dame always sought by the men around her leading her shy and serious young daughter about, who works at times as something like a comedic foil. The character herself is always fairly two dimensional, existing just to blush and scream when Belmondo accidentally sees her bathing or to ask her mother questions.

The broad characterisations of these two become really problematical when they're gang raped by Moroccan soldiers around fifteen minutes before the end of the film. It's sort of like seeing an episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and Little Ricky are gang raped, except in I Love Lucy one might expect to spend more time with the characters afterwards to see the psychological impact. Here, the straight laced young girl, who was always shy of boys, deals with the experience by immediately running off with a boy, coming off as a hazy conception a religious Catholic male writer might have of the effect of sexual assault on the mind of a girl. None of this is helped by the fact that Eleonora Brown, who was twelve at the time, delivers a flat, essentially typical child actor performance.

Hair, clothing, and makeup on the actresses after they've been assaulted looks more like they've participated in a fight scene on Star Trek. One could say that this is a product of the time. Japanese cinema seemed able to portray rape without burdening it with awkwardness in films like Rashomon and Life Of Oharu, but western cinema seemed to have trouble approaching the subject without a great deal of awkwardness. I think the oldest western film I can think of that approaches the subject with any kind of intelligence is 1948's Johnny Belinda, but for the most part the 1950s saw few films in the west that even directly mention the subject, which may explain why it's handled so clumsily in La Ciociara.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Things are starting to look pretty Lovecraftian in old Oblivion. A realm of Oblivion featured in Skyrim: Dragonborn, that is, which I beat a few nights ago. Yes, I did that along with all the reading, math homework, and movie watching, and other projects I've refrained from mentioning. Your life could be like this too if you didn't have a girl/boyfriend.

Segments of Dragonborn take place in the Oblivion realm of the Daedra named something like Hamious Mora. Or Hamtaro Mora. Something like that. I should look.

Hermaeus Mora. In the game Oblivion, he was a statue with tentacles and pinchers. Now he looks like this;

A pretty satisfying bit of Lovecraftia, if only he didn't sound like the big tortoise from The Neverending Story.

Anyway, his realm has really great atmosphere. It's all old books and tentacles and evil black liquid. You run into two enemies, my favourite being these magic using "seekers" who resemble Shoggoths;

And sometimes big Innsmouthian fish men crawl out of the black stuff;

They stomp their feet and black clouds and tentacles come out of the ground to strike you.

It was all so cool it made me wish it was hard. To be fair, I was using my level 64 fighter character, Brunnhilde. I read a review somewhere talking about how impossibly hard Dragonborn was for an over level 60 character and I saw the reviewer was using a magic user. Naturally. The only class in Skyrim that gets better at higher levels is the fighter. Randomly spawned monsters eventually outlevel all thief and magic skills while good old hack and slash never goes out of style.

The final boss is a guy named Miraak, who I took pleasure in starting to own before he finished his supervillain speech. He teleports about, recharging his life. Still not as hard as Ganon, of course.

Twitter Sonnet #479

Corsets clipped by clouds at dawn fall too much.
Only nerfed wrestling's served in the foam town.
The unmarried pixel's laid a spark clutch.
Life begins in a bubble dressing gown.
Reverse woven snakes stop the dreamed poet.
The stone mailbox is too cold to recall.
Sunbeams bent by wind can now quote Hamlet.
Missed vampires hide under parasol.
Potpourri pizza spoils the earl grey.
Neon rainforests encircle the dog.
Even now the airport has naught to say.
Yellow is the future's favourite new cog.
Rubber nails resemble the hard left turn.
Cats cradle clouds can watch the limestone burn.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What to Do at the Dome

I drew this before class to-day. I think it's some sort of squid building a whale decoy. Your guess is as good as mine. I started on those whale brain works, just making shapes before I decided it was going to be anything. Seems like there's more personality in that whale than would be in a decoy. Well, it is what it is, whatever . . . it is.

In British Literature class to-day I heard a long analysis, in a video from what looked like a PBS broadcast from the 80s, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" that somehow did not mention sex. I don't even see much sex in the text book's analysis or Wikipedia's. But the whole thing seems to me an obsessed thread of dream logic about sex, though I'm not sure I believe the story Coleridge put forth about the poem coming from a dream. I suspect the story about it coming from a dream was simply to divert criticism of vulgarity, which fits with the fact that he published the poem more than a decade after he wrote it, the fact that he was criticised for a lack of moral in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (he, rightly, argued in response that it actually has almost too much moral), and the fact that it was Lord Byron who finally convinced him to publish it.

Am I crazy? Too much sex on my brain? Let's look at it.

Kubla Khan
by Samuel Talor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me.
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The analysis I heard focused on Coleridge's philosophy about two concepts he sees employed by poets--imagination and fancy. Imagination, in Coleridge view, is the more creative element, that crafts the shape of the story or idea while fancy draws in strange and not necessarily immediately symbolic elements like, he quotes a line from the poet Thomas Otway, "Lutes, lobsters, seas of milk, and ships of amber." According to the guy in the video, the first stanza of "Kubla Khan" is meant to show how fancy is a mechanical element that confines the creative powers of imagination. The analysis generally put forward the idea that the poem is about poetry itself, and the guy confessed puzzlement at what he saw as a violent and troubling second stanza.

First of all, I think a lot of Coleridge's critical writing is really insightful. Particularly in his idea that poetry is composed of discordant elements ("of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order . . ."). It's a more refined version of Wordsworth's concept that we should present the familiar in a way that's surprising. Coleridge, of course, surpasses Wordsworth in knowing this need not exclude the supernatural or, the indeed, fanciful. Which is exactly what's wrong with the video's analysis--Coleridge very obviously didn't see anything wrong with the fanciful, just that it was an element different and perhaps opposite to what he called imagination. The argument doesn't hold, that the poet who thought fancy destructively mechanical would write poems about singing zombies and lesbian witches.

Though I don't think Coleridge's poetry was necessarily as strongly informed by his critical thought as some would think. And this maybe is where his laudanum addiction might come into play. I think he allowed inspiration to come through without the filter of his reason--this, I believe, would account for the contradiction of creating such a fascinating lesbian character while he expresses apparently homophobic sentiment in his Biographia Literaria.

"Kubla Khan" seems to me a perhaps unconscious attack on patriarchy, which would both exploit female sexuality while condemning it, and perhaps also the poem reflects Coleridge's fear and awe of sex.

I was rather surprised the analysis didn't mention the first thing that popped into my mind when thinking of a tyrant's "pleasure-dome"--namely, a harem. It's supported by the imagery, with a "sacred river" in "caverns measureless to man".

The lines "So twice five miles of fertile ground/With walls and towers were girdled round". Not ten miles, but twice five miles, which works with the alliteration but also helps the image of something bisected, as the river would seem to do. With the "fertile ground" the land conveyed seems to look more like a woman's body and "girdled round" suggests not only a garment but the fact that woman is contained by Kubla Khan's pleasure dome.

And we have "gardens bright with sinuous rills/Where blossomed many an incence-bearing tree". The Romantic idea of the human connexion to nature here seems like it's being used to describe women, and women as part of nature, contained within the tyrant's pleasure dome.

The second stanza, in contrast to the architectural, still quality of the first, is full of violence and seems to be about sex without empathy. The "romantic chasm" could be a vaginal image and also the pit of mental oblivion representing orgasm or the divide between sexual partners. It's a "savage place!" as well as "holy and enchanted", suggesting the finest qualities of nature used without concern. The "woman wailing for her demon-lover!" --I don't think I need say anything about that.

"A mighty fountain momently was forced:" could mean ejaculation and there's the line "chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail"--seed actually being forced out by repeated physical action.

The "Ancestral voices prophesying war!" I would say is the idea that men who take sexual pleasure without compassion for their partner will see the world as made for conquest and violence.

The final stanza, about the maid with a dulcimer, is Coleridge presenting the alternative of women at liberty to create, and how much more beautiful it is when both partners have power in the love-making.

Anyway, here are a few more of my recent doodles;

Monday, February 18, 2013

I was rather annoyed to find my text book presents only an abridged version of Lord Byron's "Don Juan" so I got the whole thing for my Kindle. I'm glad I did, or I'd have missed the dedication which contains the stanza;

And Wordsworth in a rather long Excursion
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages)
Has given a sample from the vasty version
Of his new system to perplex the sages.
'Tis poetry, at least by his assertion,
And may appear so when the Dog Star rages,
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the tower of Babel.

You know, when it's read aloud, a listener might mistake "Babel" for "babble", which would be terribly unfortunate.

I can't believe it took me this long to read Lord Byron. It turns out I thoroughly love this guy. Yesterday I read "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and "Manfred"--that latter in particular being absolutely great. I can see why Nietzsche loved it so much and it remains to-day pretty subversive--how many religious or even vaguely "spiritual" people would bristle at the idea of someone being able to choose an option that does not fit into the good or evil categories?

"Manfred" tells the story of a magician who rejects both the power of God and the power of demons when neither can restore to life his beloved Astarte. The whole work is mainly people from both sides trying to get him to cast his lot with one or the other and he continually refuses both, without hesitation, much to their consternation.

Some, I think, would argue the sorts of supernatural forces Manfred encounters would be able to resurrect Astarte, but that would be missing the point. Manfred encounters or conjures beings who are representatives of the elements, or locations, or destiny or Nemesis. The things they represent can't resurrect the dead so naturally they can't either, and it reflects the torment of Manfred as every direction in which he looks he finds only frustration of his real desire. Wordsworth might have argued you couldn't talk about that kind of terrible, fundamental truth of reality in the context of fantasy and "Manfred" shows Wordsworth would have been wrong.

I'd better get back to reading. I need to finish with both Byron and Shelley by Thursday . . .

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Venus and Her Kid

Even pre-code movies don't usually begin with a group of beautiful women naked in a river. Fewer films would have Winnie the Pooh gleefully peeping on such a group. But that's exactly what 1932's Blonde Venus does.

Sterling Holloway, famous as the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh, only has a brief appearance at the beginning of the film as part of a group of young American men vacationing in Germany who come upon the women. It's one of the beautifully shot Josef von Sternberg movies starring Marlene Dietrich, from their period of fruitful collaboration in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the plots of these movies often seeming like merely excuses for Sternberg to compose gorgeous photographs of Dietrich.

This movie is perhaps the weakest of the Dietrich/Sternberg films, being a more or less typical example of the Suffering Mother melodramas that seemed to be so popular in the 1930s, like The Sin of Madelon Claudet or Stella Dallas. The group of Americans at the beginning is led by the inexplicably distinctly English sounding Herbert Marshall, who's so wonderfully wicked in Trouble in Paradise. Here he's perhaps the weakest part of the film.

He teases Dietrich, who plays Helen, a showgirl and leader of the troupe of girls in the water, and refuses to let her have her clothes. From this we disappointingly cut to years later when the two are a married couple living in New York with their young son.

It happens that Marshall's character, Ned, contracts a form of radiation poisoning that's fatal if left untreated. Unfortunately, the family lives meagrely on Ned's income as a chemist and he can't afford the trip to Germany or the treatment he requires once he gets there. So he reluctantly permits Helen to return to the stage.

In the movie's most famous scene, Dietrich enters the club wearing a gorilla costume, and it is indeed fascinating--Dietrich actually mimics the mannerisms of a gorilla so completely, in the costume we have a sense of the nervous, dismayed and frightened creature. Then she slowly emerges as the image of a poised, self-confident and beautiful woman.

In a way, it encapsulates the film's story, which plays almost like propaganda, as Ned embodies an extreme caricature of patriarchal social philosophy.

A very young Cary Grant is in the film as a rich politician who is willing to give Helen the money she needs in exchange for sexual favours. But it's not quite as morally clear cut as one might think--in fact, Grant plays a character of more moral ambiguity than could have existed in post-code films. He seems to have genuine affection for Helen and she seems to love him more than her husband, apparently interested in staying with Ned entirely for the sake of their son. Ultimately Grant's character seems willing to help her whether she chooses him over her husband or not.

Too much of the movie is spent focused on Dietrich on the run from her husband who, upon finding out how the money that paid for his cure was acquired, wants to make sure she never sees her child again. She's hunted all over the country and the publicity forces her to quit stage work to remain in hiding and, eventually, as in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, she's forced to take up prostitution to take care of her son. It's pretty broad, tug at the heart strings stuff, though the photography of Dietrich continues to be amazing and there is one fun scene where she nearly seduces a detective who's hunting for her and doesn't recognise her when she's right in front of him.

The movie ultimately seems to reaffirm the patriarchal dichotomy, though one wonders if it wasn't because Sternberg was forced to by the studio. It was a "pre-code" film, though the Hayes code had already existed for a few years at this point. "Pre-code" generally refers to the period before 1934 when the code became law--previously, it had been regarded as rough guidelines often ignored. Perhaps, like films noir would do later, Sternberg sought to show the hypocrisy with the absurdity of the film's ending, as the idea of Helen going back to the downright tyrannically stupid Ned seems grotesque.

The more I think about it, the more the movie seems to have a curious mythological subtext. The naked women in a German river reminded me of Rhinemaidens, and the concept of Ned possessing the power of one by stealing her clothes is reminiscent of shapeshifter myths. The impression becomes even stronger with the strange gorilla routine. When one considers that Marlene Dietrich is possibly the least maternal of all actresses, one could look at the movie as a supernatural creature bound by the spell of a stupid, brutal man.

Twitter Sonnet #478

Almond milk is no substitute for hemp.
Donald Duck orange juice rains on Rapunzel.
Computers can balance the phone exempt.
Nothing brings infamy like false Hansel.
Browning crescents will candy the fabric.
Naked sleeves are redundant to the wrist.
Sunburn comes from the white drunkard's rubric.
Odourless small pixies kill with a mist.
Cocoanut skinned clouds lactate brain drops.
Thoughts precipitate the watch battery.
The tall deformed general called the cops.
Some drug dens were raided with flattery.
Elephant hats crush the mountain graphite.
Blunted pencils resent the sharper wight.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

2013 is My Soup Year

I made vegetarian French onion soup yesterday. Now I can make two whole soups. Food Network, here I come.

I pretty much followed this recipe to the letter. Of all the ones that came up on Googling, this one intrigued me most for using coffee and not using flour, which I'm afraid to mess with. I'm still not quite clear on what one does with flour.

I did make a few changes--I used provolone instead of mozzarella, I microwaved a bowl of the soup for a few seconds to melt the cheese instead of broiling it, and instead of white wine I used amontillado sherry. Some would say too much. You know who wouldn't? I think you know where this is going.

I was sorry to see Anthony Quayle as Falstaff is no longer on YouTube. I guess this guy's not so bad.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Voiceless and the Man who Exploits Them

". . . the Spaghetti Western ideal [is] that life is cheap but death is expensive--death has a price." - Quentin Tarantino

Il grande silenzio* is a 1968 Spaghetti Western whose title can be translated as The Great Silence or The Big Silence, the latter reminding one of The Big Sleep, which of course referred to death. Il grande silenzio is also about death and about how humanity has built a system to create and profit from death. It's a beautiful, brutal, and very effective film.

Tarantino listed it as a major influence in making Django Unchained, but although the bounty hunting business pays well in Il grande silenzio, it's not the path to freedom and revenge for the heroes that is in Tarantino's film.

In this case, it's the tool of the oppressor, embodied by Klaus Kinski as Loco, a sadistic man who spends the film murdering and torturing people but never breaking the law. Because the people he torments have prices on their heads.

The hero of the film, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is simply called Silence, partly because he never speaks, partly because of the fact that he brings death--he hunts bounty hunters for pay as an agent of vengeance. The film is set in Utah during the blizzard of 1899, which has forced many people to become outlaws to survive, which means decent folk now have a need for someone like Silence to protect them from someone like Loco.

As usual with Spaghetti Westerns, the wardrobe is much better than American westerns. Both Trintignant and Kinski wear scarves that look sort of like medieval coifs under their hats, adding to the impression that both are arbiters of morality of one kind or another. From his name, one might assume Silence is a manifestation of death, an impression broken somewhat when he falls from his horse at the beginning of the film. Later, we see that the reason he doesn't speak is that his throat was cut by a bounty hunter when he was a child--he's actually mute, and so we see he's not the bringer of silence but the victim of it.

It's a nice metaphor for the inability of those who are victims of the system Loco exploits to make any kind of meaningful impact upon it. Silence's technique for disposing of bounty hunters is pathetically indirect--although he's a supernaturally fast draw, like most Spaghetti Western heroes, he has to goad his target into drawing first in order to stay within the bounds of the law.

There's a sweet, effective romance subplot between Silence and the widow of one of Loco's victims, played by the beautiful Vonetta McGee, which further humanises Silence. There's a sheriff played by Frank Wolff who's horrified when Loco gleefully piles bodies on a stagecoach to take to town for collection, but the sheriff still believes in the law. Unfortunately, as Loco continually reminds everyone, the law is on his side. More importantly, the large, invisible mechanism of social contract is on his side, and the old dichotomy of the strong and the weak.

*Don't look at the Wikipedia entry for this movie if you don't want the end spoiled.