I think the voices aren’t in my head because if they were I think I might have some control, although to be honest I have lost track of the dimensions of my skull, which anyway I have never seen. It is very difficult to explain the way a thought can sometimes stretch and break open into a sound, or somehow multiply into two, three simultaneous thoughts which really look more like a shape than anything which one voice could use. My lifelong habit of working things out in imaginary conversations with friends and heroes fails at this point and really I am left to myself, although sometimes others remain but are not interested in listening. They speak sharply and with dramatic dynamics, sometimes pitching up to a violent frenzy of feedback which ultimately pops physically in my ears. But then they are still behind some cloth, or whispering, and I hear nothing recognizable. When they walk it is behind me at night and in silence, although they are careful to tap their heels audibly and crush leaves. This is not imagined, because once when I described it H said, “yes, I know about the footsteps.” Or sometimes sound plays tricks as well; in the cities, walking by the hard base of towers where the young move in laughing packs, and I hear only what fits between a few cement squares. The words echo unconvincingly, I am really not sure they were speaking at all, and here sound becomes thought. Eventually I try to sleep. This takes time because until I am unable to open my eyes they won’t close. Tonight I hide in the park behind a tree where the roots dip into shadow against a wood fence. I am stretched into my sky blue sleeping bag which unfortunately reflects the street lamps. Above me branches are sharp and naked against the light pollution. This always hurts because once when I lost my mind I was looking out the window of my apartment and the winter branch silhouettes were so bad and frightening and even the music did not make them less frightening, and it really hurt my eyes and skin to know they were out there growing. I paced and held my arms in themselves, I pressed my back against the wall and sank, but even though I was shocked I did it slowly because I did not want to wake the girls because I knew that they would try to comfort me but would find out that they couldn’t, which would be too much to know. I press my sleeping bag hard against my clenched eyes and don’t make a sound. My chest is tight which makes me laugh at myself and I think of other places I have slept. Or lain awake, for instance in the little bed in T’s room, almost falling onto the floor because K jealously demanded to sleep between us. I felt my arms and back bruised and satisfied, tasted flakes of blood under my nervous fingernails. I was winedrunk and nervous and achingly satisfied, and embarrassed because the smell of his breath meant she could feel me against the small of her naked spine. I was watchful in the dark of their practiced position; they seemed together in sleep. She could no longer feel me and I was wakeful. I slipped self-consciously out of the sheets and into my pants, first backwards then forwards. Downstairs I must have closed the front door slowly and quietly because the house was a wooden cavern built to spread music. I walked and faster, under and away, the street lamps and the familiar block. Breathing quickly now I felt sixteen, and feeling that they saw this I wondered, why would they take me in? Who are they? And the wine went to my legs and the grass looked impossibly bright and real in the night, so I lied down in someone’s lawn and stretched out happily. A hot white lights up my eyes, and before they open I know that I am awake and that the police have come. They open and I am right. What’s up man? I manage gruffly. Where are you from, kid? His voice is a real growl and his eyes look joyful. New York. Immediately I recognize a mistake. Oh yeah? I don’t know how it works in New York, but in Berkeley, all the parks close at ten pm. I rub my eyes and sigh expressively. So find somewhere else to sleep or come back at six. He’s already walking away when I ask, Any suggestions? No, he turns and laughs, probably a sidewalk somewhere.
Monthly Archives: October 2015
Paprika (2006) : The Dreams that Destroyed Tokyo
The late Satoshi Kon may be the only film director who could’ve made a satisfying film of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m not sure whether Kon was familiar with Pynchon. Pynchon’s sensibilities, his fascination with “low” culture and the overlapping spaces of paranoia and erotic fantasy, his love of kaleidoscopic set-pieces, would have meshed perfectly with Kon’s, and animation would’ve allowed for more of the visual lushness in his prose to come through than did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious but visually dull Inherent Vice.
But Kon made Paprika and died soon after. Paprika is his greatest work and what the French would call a testament film. Adapting Yasutaka Tsutsui’s hallucinatory science fiction novel of the same name, Kon comes to the culmination of the themes that ran through his work from his first film Perfect Blue to his thirteen episode anthology anime Paranoia Agent, to which Paprika could be considered a companion piece. The imagination branches out into the world of the tangible; we’re left in the dark as to which actually takes primacy and even more in the dark as to which one should.
The film follows the intrigue surrounding a device being tested for use in psychotherapy called the DC Mini. The DC Mini attaches to the patient’s scalp and allows the therapist to view their dreams on a laptop monitor and to enter and manage them. However, the device soon reveals itself to have mysterious side effects; therapists at the lab start going mad; entering and exiting the dreams becomes more difficult. It’s discovered that one of the prototypes has been stolen by a “dream terrorist”. The chairman of the foundation, the device’s tubby inventor, and a young therapist named Chiba Atsuko who also moonlights as the alluring and mysterious “Paprika” in peoples’ dreams, all attempt to find the culprit who’s tampering with the dreams; meanwhile the dream parade starts marching into the reality.
Political action is so commonly referenced in terms of the presence or absence of sleep-there’s “unrest” among certain elements, political “awakenings”, “restlessness in the streets”, “I have a dream”, “wake up sheeple” (this one counts double due to the conscious or unconscious double entendre of the counted sheep), “the American dream”. Taking this into account, the concept of a dream terrorist seems less like a genre conceit than a literalization of something that was so close to the surface it was perhaps resting on top of it; the opposite of a subtext, a supra-text. Because of this the film doesn’t need a specific political context and accordingly doesn’t provide one.
In fact, it seems to evade a specificity of context. For a film focused on therapists and dreams there’s little to no Freud or Lacan present. As a parable about man’s relationship with technology it takes perhaps a wiser course in evading the gritty particulars but embracing the overwhelming lack of sense in dreams; at times it seems like Inception would have outright plagiarized this film but for Nolan’s boring literalism and general lack of imaginative powers. Inception laid out clear “levels” to dreams, most of which looked like cut screens from action video games; Nolan’s “dream” space makes too much rational sense to convincingly be such and mistakes “cleverness” for insight. Kon makes no such mistakes. Kon lets dreams be nonsense, the unbecome not quite becoming; there are few to no expository scenes of pseudo-scientific explanation or underlining to say “this is what I’m doing here, gee isn’t it cool.”
The DC-Mini is a cinematic device and the film is pretty clear about its being such. It doesn’t really care about creating a coherent internal logic for the machine. It’s positioned it as a poetic metaphor through which to explore the nature of the internet and the cinema. The content of the dreams that run rampant throughout Tokyo look like a bunch of discarded childrens’ toys that had been jammed into a closet.
Before the dreams escape to wreak havoc on Tokyo, when they’re contained in the patients’ mind and projected back on the monitor attached to the DC-mini, they look like the way children watch movies; the bits and pieces of genre frameworks made the fodder of fantastic self-projection feeling itself out. The fantasies have a reality to them; if we exist in a consensus reality, well, a consensus is a thing that can wander pretty far into the fantastic. “Consensus” gets top billing in that phrase for a reason.
The first of these dream sequences, the one that opens the film, is that of a police detective. It ends with a slowed down shot of a person being shot in a hallway. As a viewer trained by years of TV and movies, we expect this to be revealed as a tragic event in the man’s past; a person he wrongfully killed or maybe a partner gunned down during a stakeout. It turns out it’s in fact a scene from a film the man started shooting when he was much younger and in college; this is the stuff of his nightmares, the punctuation that gives form to his regret. The element of the autobiographical in the face of Kon’s end lends a certain poignant quality.
Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992)
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms has always been one of my favorite novels. I’ve read it 9 times, twice on a Greyhound bus going across country from New York to Seattle. I’ve listened to two different audio book versions, twice. I’ve see the film made in 1932 with Adolph Menjou and Gary Cooper. I can quote long passages from the text from memory, especially the last 100 pages, which might be the greatest sustained, poetic narrative in American fiction.
Until I saw the “faux autobiography” Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, it never occurred to me that A Farewell to Arms had a gay subtext. Now that I’ve watched Mark Rappaport’s analysis of the 1957 film, which starred Rock Hudson as Lieutenant Henry, and Vittorio De Sica as Major Rinaldi, it seems obvious, almost as inevitable as the ending of a great mystery novel. Of course Rinaldi was nursing a homosexual crush on Lieutenant Henry. Of course their frat boy banter had a gay subtext. How could I have been so blind?
There are two explanations. The first one is that I’m a moron. While that’s certainly reasonable, and I’ve been called a moron many times over the course of my life, I think Mark Rappaport hits on a better one. Americans, especially straight American men, have taught themselves not to see the obvious. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, which stars Eric Farr, who, not incidentally, looks nothing like Rock Hudson, puts us squarely into the mind of a closeted gay man. We see the world as Rock Hudson, or any pre-Stonewall gay man, would have seen it. We examine Hudson’s films, the interaction between Hudson and his co-stars, looking for subtle clues that there might be something going on beneath the surface, learning the signals that closeted gay men used to send each other to indicate they were part of the same club.
Some actors, and their characters, are more deeply buried in the closet than others.
Even as a child, for example, I knew that there was a gay subtext to most of Tony Randall’s performances. That Randall himself was straight takes nothing away from the idea that the classic TV show The Odd Couple was about a gay couple. Looking at Rappaport’s fictionalized Rock Hudson go over one after another of his films with Randall as his co-star is an education about how gay men were represented on TV, and in the movies.
Then there were Hudson’s performances opposite more stereotypically “manly” actors.
It never would have occurred to me that Hudson probably saw the 1969 film The Undefeated as an opportunity to hit on, and simultaneously mock, the cartoonishly heterosexual John Wayne. Rappaport is such a close observer of Hudson’s films, the body language between their characters, the glances held just a bit too long, the double entendres, that he makes the buried subtext obvious. He lets us in on the jokes that Hudson played on his audiences, even as he hated himself for not coming out of the closet until the very end.
If it only stopped there, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies would be film criticism, not art. I think it goes further. I don’t know if the narration that Rappaport gives Eric Farr is based on anything Hudson actually wrote, or if it’s purely fictional. The effect, however, is to seduce the viewer, not only into looking for clues closeted gay men used to send one another, but into seeing the world as a gay man. The young Rock Hudson was so ridiculously good-looking, Rappaport’s film almost makes me sorry that I’m straight. No woman could have had that kind of godlike physical beauty, certainly not any of Hudson’s female co-stars.
Most importantly, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies conjures up the innocence of boyhood. Listening to Hudson talk about his early gay crush on the actor Jon Hall in the 1937 film The Hurricane, his initial motivation to become an actor, and then recount his disillusionment as Hall loses the beauty of his youth in his later films, is heartbreaking. What would we all be like, both gay and straight, if society didn’t warp us, didn’t make us feel ashamed of our sexuality at such an early age?
On the Millennial Pledge
Sorting through a pile of LPs the other day I came across the first album by 60s American pop-music Frankensteins The Monkees. I threw it on the turntable. I’d heard most of the songs before, but something that hadn’t struck me before in the self-titled theme to their TV program struck me this time around-what I suppose could be called the hippie minstrel element. Every lyric is saying “we’re young but we’re not threatening and especially not political.”
Particularly striking is this stanza:
We’re just tryin’ to be friendly
Come and watch us sing and play
We’re the young generation
And we’ve got something to say
What is striking here is of course not the pedestrian lyrics themselves but the suggested elision. It’s claimed there’s something they have to say then nothing of any consequence is said. Their political neutrality, the pledge of allegiance to the standards and practices of the TV station, is referred to through the subtle employment of the word “restless” earlier in the song.
We don’t have time to get restless
There’s always something new
They’re not the “angry young man”. They’re not angry at all, and especially not at you. Like the rest of the things in the television set, they desperately want you to like them. The extent to which they actually represented the youth culture of the 1960s is negligible beyond the fact that some of them wore jeans. Still, the Monkees as a commercial product existed in the time period along with many other examples of hippie minstrel and must have done so for a reason. The misreading came from somewhere.
The archetypes we see in these hippie or beatnik minstrel artifacts are given to the internal contradiction of any sort of caricature-the thing is shown as not being dangerous for fear that it is in fact dangerous; nervous reassurances by the older folks making the commercial culture that the young people aren’t to be taken seriously but also the need to pump their heads full of stereotyped “moderate” declawed versions of themselves or “dangerous threatening” versions as seen in various motorcycle movies. That this would seem to mirror the similar dichotomy of the “black friend”/”angry black man” cliches from the mass culture of the same time period doesn’t suggest anything besides a narrow common origin of the two phenomena: the aging generation, disproportionately in the positions of power, who get to control what go through the big megaphones that define what cultural products we end up getting bombarded with.
The younger generation scares the older generation until the process repeats. This makes sense. The younger generation are actually there to take your jobs. No matter what you do, we will end up replacing you.
An LA Times columnist went viral this week. His name is Chris Erskine and the column in question is a piece of writing so monumentally bad it inspires. But first, who is Chris Erskine?
The strained smile, the creepy mustache, the blue glowing light presumably leading to the afterlife behind his back. It’s hard to imagine this man was ever less than 50 years old. What look was aspired to here? My mind searches for a specific person on whom Erskine could’ve modeled himself. But all that comes up when I brainstorm is the Jungian archetype of middle aged white irrelevance.
A quick look through his earlier columns confirms that middle aged irrelevance is his brand, and that the “Millennial Pledge” for which he’s taken so much flack is in fact the pinnacle of strivings. His writing is a combination of lazy sentimentality and cliches mangled or otherwise. Like most humor writing in newspapers. There’s nothing exceptional whatsoever about it. On the subject of parenting, Erskine drops lines like:
“Just give them a ton of love — the best bubble wrap.
And let them chase the moon.”
No self-respecting writer would let their name be attached to lines like that. Certainly not on a weekly basis. And that’s the point. Erskine might be the voice of his generation.
What is interesting in this whole thing is that Erskine has pulled off the trick of becoming momentarily relevant for being the hyperreal summoning of all that is mediocre and irrelevant. The incoherence of his suggested things millennials pledge to do points to the fact that there is no single monolithic “millennial” identity.
The overwhelmingly favored tone of the viral is the exceptional mediocre. In the face of a lack of large unified targets to attack, the person who can come to embody an abstract strain of something hated will pull in the attention and hate clicks. Erskine, by virtue of his socks-with-sandals obliviousness, is a troll par excellence. The LA Times gets traffic, and I’m sure Erskine isn’t losing any sleep over this.
Erskine’s name may as well be Kenneth Goldsmith. Or Thomas Friedman. The mediocrity industry rolls on…
The Corn Palace
I spent all of last summer on the road, living out of a 1995 Toyota Avalon I bought from a friend’s mother, sleeping on the couches of accommodating relatives, friends, friends of friends, preternaturally Christian strangers, and on the front seats of the 1995 Toyota Avalon I bought from a friend’s mother.
The car was precarious. I got it for $500 and immediately took to making the joke in stand-up routines: “I’ve got a car. A 1995 Toyota Avalon. I got it for 500 bucks because it’s old enough where I can legally be inside of it.” But it made the loop, from upstate NY through the south, up from Texas to Seattle then back across the top.
It wasn’t until I was in Portland Oregon staying with a medical marijuana proprietor that I first heard about The Corn Palace.
While feeding his chickens, Frank and Frank Jr., our host described his own cross country voyage in the opposite direction.
“When you’re going across I-90, there’re all these signs for ‘The Corn Palace’. There really isn’t much else out there. Like some of the rest stops don’t even have gas stations at that point and so I’m looking at it and…I don’t know what the fuck a corn palace is but…you don’t even get radio stations most of the time driving that stretch, so we’re looking at these signs and we’re all excited to get to the Corn Palace. There’re SO MANY SIGNS, And you get there and…it’s just a buncha dead corn glued to a building. There’s fucking nothing! Nothing there.”
My traveling companion and I took notes, certain wherever this Corn Palace was we would finally find America with the big A.
The Corn Palace, or rather THE WORLD’S ONLY CORN PALACE!, was first constructed in 1892 in Mitchell, South Dakota, a small town mostly known for having the world’s only Corn Palace. At the time before the original Corn Palace’s construction Mitchell was known for…well…if I had to guess, probably nothing. By 1905, the presence of the Corn Palace had expanded the small city’s imperial ambitions and a motion was filed to challenge Pierre for the title of capitol city of South Dakota. To butter up whatever committee decides what the capitol of South Dakota is, the Corn Palace was rebuilt in 1905. This campaign failed. I haven’t seen the current state capitol building of South Dakota and therefore can’t say with confidence whether this was for the better. For reasons I don’t have the J-stor access to discern, the Corn Palace was again rebuilt in 1921. The distinctive minarets were added in 1937. Until this year, 2015, they were made out of giant chunks of styrofoam,
The aggressive tone with which Mitchell insists there is no other Corn Palace stinks of a cover-up. What happens if someone, somewhere, builds another Corn Palace? What if there was another Corn Palace but the city of Mitchell contracted Pinkertons to take it out quietly? There may entire abandoned ruins that, once upon a time, had dead corn glued to the side of them. Our knowledge of indigenous American cultures is spotty at best.
It was several weeks before I reached the Palace. When I pulled off I-90 it was clear I’d found the right place. Everything that could have the word Corn Palace tacked in front of it did. I’m not sure of what else the local economy consisted. Perhaps the Corn Palace was sufficient. It seemed so. Towns have been built on the basis of far less.
I approached Mitchell under dulled clouds, the whole of the scene behind a grey film. Past the dumb ceramic cow, past several unremarkable intersections, sat the Palace. It was under renovation. The town mascot, an anthropomorphized ear of corn roughly a head taller than the author named “Cornelius” stood still in the square near the gift shop as though waiting for a dueling partner.
In the gift shop window, the ghosts of tackiness and corn, past, present and future, overlaid. The place by the side of the big road where their portmanteau and heir, his Corniness was born…
I walked the streets slowly. I looked at the Palace in the distance. The Palace was under renovation. The peak season for corn-centered novelty tourism had passed. I saw one of the missing styrofoam minarets on a patch of grass. My phone was dead so I couldn’t get a picture.
Despite its tackiness a certain trepidation still held me entering the Palace interior. I was unsure of guards or, worse, an admissions charge. It started raining. I had no other option. A guy in a mesh baseball cap sat next to a clear plastic box that took donations at the door. The inside of the world’s only Corn Palace:
Through the back doors of the basketball court is a hallway that leads to where the city council has their meetings and the city government offices are.
Later that night I stopped by a local bar and got talking with one of the natives. She’d lived there her whole life. It showed. As I sipped cheap beer she regaled me with the full details of the political intrigue involving the Palace at the exact moment I was there. I remember little; just the way she insisted I’d come at the wrong time, the way she looked up and calmly smiled like Teresa of Avila describing the grandeur of the Palace when it wasn’t under renovation, the picture she showed on her cell phone of the Mayor standing next to Cornelius that left no doubt which of the two of them held the actual political power in Mitchell.
I slept in my car in the Palace parking lot that night as the clouds culminated in violent rains. I started the drive to Madison the following afternoon.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Mädchen in Uniform, a surviving document of Weimar Germany’s gay rights movement, is a film made almost entirely by women. Based on a play by the German-Hungarian writer Christa Winsloe, it was directed by Leontine Sagan, and stars an all female cast. Almost banned and heavily censored in the United States until the 1970s, Mädchen in Uniform would probably qualify as a lost film. It was re-released in the United States in a low-quality VHS edition in 1978, and was shown in feminist groups in the 1970s and 1980s, but nobody really knows how much of the film is missing from its surviving 83 minutes. The only reason I know about it at all is because it was mentioned, but not shown, in a history class I took at Rutgers as an undergraduate in the 1980s. So when I noticed it on YouTube, I decided to watch it before Google took it down. It seems almost impossible to get anywhere else in the United States, although it is available as a Region 2 DVD in Europe.
Having watched Mädchen in Uniform twice, I can say without hesitation that it fully deserves its status as a “cult film.” Its not only a surviving document of the gay rights movement in late-Weimar Germany. It’s a great anti-authoritarian work of art, probably even better than Jean Vigo’s similar, but much more widely known Zero for Conduct. Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck, its two stars, deserve to be better remembered, especially Thiele, whose career was effectively destroyed because of her refusal to make propaganda for Joseph Goebbels. Sadly, both women were 23-years-old in 1931, just coming into their prime the year before the Nazis took power. If it were more widely viewed, Mädchen in Uniform might even be controversial today. In an age of “sex panic,” where corporatist, neoliberal universities like Harvard and Northwestern ban sexual relations, even between consenting adults, a college professor without tenure might think twice before showing it to his or her undergraduates.
Mädchen in Uniform it set at a boarding school for the daughters of Prussian army officers. As you can probably imagine, it’s not exactly a “progressive” institution. On the contrary, it’s more like a prison. Upon arrival, the girls are required to turn in their money and civilian clothes, which are replaced by striped uniforms. Mail is heavily censored. The girls are always hungry. The headmistress, a grimly authoritarian, middle-aged woman named Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden, believes that deprivation builds character. “You are the daughters of German soldiers,” she tells her students. “I hope someday that you will be the mothers of German soldiers.” Any resemblance to the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology of the Nazis was, I’m sure, purely intentional. Winsloe and Sagan, one of whom was Jewish, and both of whom were gay, wisely left Germany after Hitler was appointed Chancellor.
If Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden represents the “bad cop,” then you can’t have a “bad cop” without a “good cop.” As the American film-critic B. Ruby Rich, who’s written what might be the only comprehensive study of Mädchen in Uniform, has pointed out, the young, beautiful, but stern Fräulein von Bernburg, a popular teacher played by Dorothea Wieck, is as important to maintaining the authoritarian power structure as the headmistress. If Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden creates a sense of emotional neediness by keeping the girls hungry and confiscating their personal possessions, then Fräulein von Bernburg exploits their emotional neediness by giving just a little back every day, a goodnight kiss on the forehead before they go to bed, a hand-me-down article of clothing, an occasionally wink at some petty gesture of rebellion, like love letters or photos of movie stars on the inside door of a locker. There is nothing explicitly sexual about Fräulein von Bernburg domination of the girls under her charge, but the sexual undercurrents are obvious to everybody but herself, for Fräulein von Bernburg is deeply in the closet.
The school is thrown into an uproar by the arrival of Manuela von Meinhardis, Hertha Thiele. Manuela is a charismatic, yet emotionally needy rebel, an adolescent girl with “no filters.” When she’s told to “curtsy” to the headmistress’s assistant, she shakes her hand instead. She impulsively blurts out “why” whenever she’s told about some arbitrary regulation. She’s a free-spirit and a natural actress. The other girls, especially Ilse von Westhagen, the school’s most vocal malcontent, are immediately to Manuela, who is the disruptive influence they’ve all been waiting for. Manuela is also quite openly gay, making no secret of her raging crush on Fräulein von Bernburg from the first moment she arrives.
Mädchen in Uniform is one movie where the worn-out cinematic technique of “shot reverse shot” works perfectly. The contrast between Thiele and Wieck is illuminating. Even though both actresses are 23, Wieck looks 35 and Thiele looks 14. Wieck is lordly and aristocratic, cold, Prussian, yet dominatingly beautiful with her black hair and chiseled features. Thiele is needy, vulnerable, devouring, a revolutionary, disruptive force underneath the blond school-girl. While Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg are both individuals, it’s hard to miss the symbolism. Manuela is the German people under Wiemar, starved, defeated, needy. The headmistress von Nordeck zur Nidden is the old imperial order, the Prussian aristocracy. Fräulein von Bernburg is Adolf Hitler, the new charismatic leader, ready to step into the power-vacuum created by fall of the German monarchy.
The climax, and utopian moment, of Mädchen in Uniform comes after Manuela dazzles the assembled students and teachers as the star of the school play, a German knockoff of Romeo and Juliet. The kitchen staff, in celebration, spike the punch with alcohol, a well-intentioned, if misguided gesture on their part. Manuela loses all control, continuing her performance after the play is over, loudly declaiming her love for Fräulein von Bernburg in the presence of all the students and teachers, and, most importantly, the head mistress. If this were a boy’s school, the headmaster would probably just get a few of the older boys to beat up the troublesome rebel, and make him learn his place, but it’s a girl’s school. So the headmistress orders the teachers, and the other girls, to “shun” Manuela, not to speak to her, or associate with her in any way, a cruel punishment that drives the poor girl to the brink of suicide.
But the revolutionary moment has come. The other girls refuse to obey. Sisterhood is indeed powerful. After Manuela climbs up 8 flights of stairs, and threatens to jump to her death, her fellow students run after her and pull her back from the brink. What’s more, Fräulein von Bernburg, realizing that she’s almost caused a 14-year-old girl to kill herself, resigns her position. She loudly denounces the headmistress in front of the entire student body, giving up her emotional control over the girls, even as she admits to herself that she’s gay. The twisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden walks off into the darkness, her reign of terror at an end. Outside we hear the sound of bugles and marching, the men we never see in the film, reminding us, as B. Ruby Rich points out, that the rebels of Mädchen in Uniform have won a battle, but not the war.
A final note: Joseph Goebbels never outrightly banned Mädchen in Uniform, but he did demand that the film be edited to include an “unhappy ending,” Manuela’s suicide. Much of the film stock was destroyed anyway. What’s left of it largely survives today because Eleanor Roosevelt, yes that Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke up for its artistic merit and prevented it from being banned in the United States. Whatever that says about Mrs. Roosevelt’s own sexual orientation will, of course, remain in the realm of pure speculation.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)
Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about the German occupation of France is a vivid, yet subtle dramatization of passive resistance in a time of political rot.
For me, one scene in particular stands out.
Julien Quentin, a loosely fictionalized Malle, is a student at a Catholic boarding-school, where Père Jean, the headmaster, is hiding three Jewish boys from the Nazis. When his mother, an attractive, stylish, upper-class woman, invites Julian and and his old brother François out to a chic restaurant for dinner, they bring along Jean Bonnet, Julian’s best friend. Bonnet, who’s one of the best students at the school, a gifted mathematician and music student, is also one of the three Jewish boys Père Jean is hiding from the Gestapo. Julian knows that Bonnet’s real name is Jean Kippelstein. François and Madame Quentin, both polite, respectable, civilized anti-Semites, do not. Since both of them think Bonnet is a Protestant, they freely express their opinions about Jews. Jews are okay, for example, if they’re from the right-class, and have the right-education, but not if they’re socialists. Then they should be sent to Moscow, or, in the case of the ex-President Léon Blum, hanged.
For Jean Kippelstein, it’s no big deal. He’s used to it. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about what he’s hearing. For Julien Quentin, on the other hand, while it’s not the first time he’s come into contact with bigotry, it’s the first time he’s conscious of bigotry as bigotry. At the table next to the Quentins is a group of German army officers. One of them, a tall Prussian, obviously a “gentleman,” has noticed Madame Quentin. They’re from the same class. He probably speaks enough French to have understood her “moderate” right-wing views about Jews, and about socialism. He seems determined to impress the attractive woman under his country’s military occupation, to prove to her that not all Germans are barbarians. At yet another table, there is an elderly man, also very obviously a “gentleman,” and, to judge by the deference the waiters pay him, a regular customer who tips well.
“Was everything all right Mr. Meyer?”
“Thank you. The rabbit was tolerable.”
When the camera pans back over to Madam Quentin and the three boys, Madame Quentin orders fish, only to be told that fish hasn’t been available for months. Mr. Meyer isn’t eating rabbit because he thinks it’s a delicacy, but because it’s the only thing on the menu. The ruling classes of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have cut off their nose to spite their face. Even the best restaurants in Paris have to make do with what the kitchen staff can scrounge up in the woods. Only Julian and Jean Bonnet really notice. François, and all of the adults, whether German or French, are too preoccupied with maintaining at least a pantomime of “civilized” life, which, in their case, means keeping class distinctions exactly the way they were before the war, to notice the absurdity of their lives. “There will be no communist revolution after this world war is over,” their behavior seems to say.
Just then, two thuggish looking men in black berets, not Germans, but French, fascist collaborators, enter the restaurant and start asking the customers for their papers. When they discover that “Mr. Meyer” is Jewish, they single him out for special harassment. I suppose the idea that a Jew would be out and about in Paris in January of 1944 is a bit of poetic license on Louis Malle’s part, but dramatically it works. Madame Quentin, who only shortly before had expressed anti-Semitic views, is horrified that Mr. Meyer has to undergo so much humiliation at the hands of a pair of low-class Vichy thugs. The tall German officer, noticing that a “lady” is in so much distress, gets up and approaches the two French collaborators. “Get out,” he says, towering over them. They leave. He looks over at Madame Quentin. She nods, and he goes back to his table.
“Do you see?” Madame Quentin says to the three boys. “Some of them are decent.”
In other words, it’s not anti-Semitism that bothers Madame Quentin. It’s the wrong kind of anti-Semitism. This thinking is by no means confined to the French. In the United States, she would be a polite, suburban, middle-class WASP who “doesn’t like to talk about politics or religion.” Nor is deference for hierarchy and class confined to apolitical, casual bigots. Père Jean, the headmaster at Quentin’s school, a fictionalized version of Père Jacques, a member of the French Resistance who was sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp for hiding Jews, is no apolitical bigot. On the contrary, if Père Jacques wasn’t a hero, nobody is.
“The Gestapo discovered Father Jacques’ activities and seized the friar and the three Jewish students on January 15, 1944. Weil, his mother, and sister were arrested at their home that same day. On February 3, 1944, German authorities deported the boys and the Weil family to Auschwitz, where they perished.
Père Jacques was imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps, eventually arriving at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. There he found ways of raising the morale of his despairing compatriots. When all the priests at Gusen were moved to the Dachau concentration camp – reputedly less severe than Mauthausen – Jacques veiled his priestly identity and was the only priest for 20,000 prisoners at Gusen. He learned enough Polish to minister to the Polish prisoners, who called him Père Zak. Though he grew progressively weaker, he remained one of the Resistance leaders still active in the camp, gaining the respect of all its inmates.
He and the other inmates of the camps were liberated by American troops at Mauthausen in early May 1945. Suffering from tuberculosis and weighing only 75 pounds, he died in a hospital in Linz in Upper Austria, several weeks later.”
The societal rot that caused the French upper-class to sell their country out to the Nazis — “Better Adolf Hitler than Léon Blum” – is present, even in the heroic Père Jean. When Joseph, a bitter, resentful, lower-class boy who works in the school kitchen, is caught stealing supplies to sell on the black market, Père Jean quickly fires him and throws him out into the street. By contrast, he doesn’t expel any of the upper-class boys who traded with Joseph, who were equally guilty. “You’d be in serious trouble if I didn’t know who your mother was,” he tells Julien. While I’m not sure how much of this is true, and how much of it is poetic license by Louis Malle, it works dramatically. Respect for hierarchy and class can poison even the most radical organization. There’s a reason Occupy Wall Street tried to govern by consensus, why they prevented even a Civil Rights hero like John Lewis from cutting the speaker’s line at the General Assembly in Atlanta.
Père Jean’s elitism signs Jean Kippelstein’s death warrant, and his own. With nowhere else to go, Joseph goes to the only people who will have him, the Germans. He has become one of those low-class Vichy collaberators who hassled Mr. Meyer at the restaurant. The next day, a Gestapo officer named Dr. Muller shows up with a group of soldiers, hunting for Jews. Mulller is no cartoon villain. On the contrary, he’s another “gentleman” just like the German officer in the restaurant. He has no desire to oppress French people, he argues. Quite the contrary, he just wants to help the French with their “Jewish problem,” protect them from foreigners who have taken advantage of their lack of discipline. Just to show what a nice guy he is, he orders his men to release a group of children who have come to the school to take communion, even as he’s sending Père Jean, Kippelstein, and three other boys to their death. Julian Quentin, who had accidentally betrayed his friend Jean with a fearful glance, can only watch on in mute horror. It would be the decisive moment in his, and in Louis Malle’s life.
“Bonnet, Negus and Dupre died at Auschwitz; Father Jean at Mauthausen. The school reopened its doors in October. More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”
On Driving Through Old Niskayuna
Slowly we roll where the things supposed to happen already did.
Past the houses where these people, these people who built the town, had their children, their hobbies, lived humbly, died quietly.
This late, this dark, no one walks the streets.
So the skeletons waltz with an old man’s memory to share a private love self-conscious at its exclusion.
The past opaque, the details numerous; they huddle to warm each other and I am an outsider.
Forgotten Gems: John Fahey’s “Charley Patton”
If he’d never picked up a guitar, John Fahey probably could’ve been a great writer. He probably wished this was the case. His first book proper, an unusual and quite entertaining memoir, was titled unambiguously How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.
However, before he wrote this, Fahey was a masters student at UCLA. And like Harry Smith, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and others, canvassing black neighborhoods door to door asking residents if they had any old 78rpm “Race Records” they’d be willing to part with. Interestingly Fahey was good friends with Barry Hansen, the man who eventually became known to insomniacs with radios as Dr. Demento.
It was during this period that Fahey produced, for my money, his best piece of writing: his masters thesis on king of the delta blues Charley Patton. This masters thesis has since been unearthed and published in paperback.
Charley Patton was possibly the wildest of the old blues guys, though details are scarce. Nobody knows when Patton was born. Fahey tracks down people including siblings and women Patton was supposedly married to and none of them remember much of anything besides that Patton drank a lot and played the guitar like he was possessed. Decades and decades before Jimi Hendrix, Patton would dance around his guitar as played it, play it behind his back, and do all sorts of other tricks while gigging with medicine shows. Patton had several wives of questionable legitimacy-when Fahey mentions them in the text the word “wife” is always in quotation marks. He drank a lot, caroused, and for the most part never the left the state of Mississippi.
According to legend, Patton died when his throat was slit with a broken bottle by a jealous woman. Fahey uncovers the even stranger truth-Patton’s final “wife” and frequent performing and recording partner Bertha Lee, did in fact slash Patton’s throat with a bottle, but Patton survived and the two were still a couple when Patton died from a heart condition couple months later.
Of course, any facts uncovered in the book are questionable; though Fahey takes the necessary steps and tracks down the people who were left who knew the man, Patton seemed destined from the beginning to exist as an enigma. Paramount sometimes wouldn’t even bother putting Patton’s name on advertisements for his 78s and just called him “The Masked Marvel”. The question of Patton’s race and parentage has never been satisfactorily resolved. Whoever his ancestors were, they managed to get Patton in the right place at the right time so he could help birth the blues.
The awkwardness of the graduate school thesis form works to Fahey’s advantage. Fahey’s never really took academic writing very seriously. His early albums all had liner notes detailing the fictional history of a blues player who never existed named Blind Joe Death. When Fahey first released his own material he would supposedly press it on 78s under that name and hide them in record store and Salvation Army bins hoping to trick some unsuspecting musicologist into “discovering” Blind Joe Death. The last chapter of Charley Patton, on Patton’s lyrics, a subject neither Patton nor Fahey seemed to care about, becomes a masterpiece of brutal absurdist humor disguised as academic dryness for this reason. Fahey plays it so straight that it can’t help but come off as ridiculous. He’s trolling his thesis adviser, and this leads to passages like this one, on the use of interjections in Patton’s 78s:
Patton uses the words ‘Lord’, ‘Lordy’, and ‘babe’, ‘baby’ in most cases for metrical reasons to fill in a portion of the melody. An outstanding example of this is in ‘Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’, in which ‘Lordy’ or ‘Lord’ occurs 28 times. In no case is either of these words essential to or even a rational part of the text. In ‘It Won’t Be Long’ there are 14 occurrences of ‘baby’. This word is not essential to the text. In fact, the use of it in this song creates confusion by giving the impression that the singer is speaking to someone. But the stanzas indicate that he is not.
Technically accurate and exact, in Fahey’s voice it almost becomes too dry and loops around back to where it seems more like he’s hiding something. A put-on that never actually appears is felt like a phantom limb. The resultant tension produces hilarity like this chart detailing discordance and assonance between the content of what Patton is singing and the the melodic approaches taken to the material:
The descriptions of Patton’s sometimes less than coherent felt jumbling of learned verses and folk chestnuts seem to prefigure the emergence of hip hop freestyles. The record company would call the probably sloshed Patton into the recording studio and Patton would shout and growl whatever verses came to mind and sometimes intersperse spoken vamping over a fairly repetitive musical figure and somehow magic happens.
A short entertaining and thorough read for any fans of the blues or fingerstyle guitar.