Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mujhe Jeene Do

Reading about Bandits reminded me of this old childhood favourite Mujhe Jeene Do, (literally, "Let me Live" or "Cry for Life" as IMDB has it) the 1963 film with Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in the main roles. Sunil Dutt plays perhaps the most handsome dacoit in the history of films and will fit Hobsbawm's definition of a "social bandit" very well.

This film used to haunt me for a long time, specially this song which I found on youtube. I, of course, didn't really understand it completely at that time (and it is good that the kid in the song can't understand anything either.) No subtitles though, but in essence the song is about her hopelessness and despair about her son's future even as she wishes for him to grow up. Another beautiful song from the film here. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote the lyrics and the music was by Jaidev.

Eric Hobsbawm: Bandits

Eric Hobsbawm is widely regarded as the greatest historian of our time, even by those who don't particularly share his political views. (He has remained an unreconstructed Marxist.) I had earlier read his highly despairing account of the world affairs in the twentienth century, called The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century. The subtitle of the book is a reference to his earlier much more celebrated work of nineteenth century history in three volumes (a "long" century in comparison) which I haven't read.

I picked this particular book on a lark since the subject seemed like something that interested me. I did find it very interesting and worthwhile but found it very heavy-going as well. Actually for a book by a Marxist historian the book is surprisingly jargon-free and totally non-theoretical. Instead it is full of anecdotes, excerpts from folk lores, ballads and other forms of oral history. Hobsbawm in his afterword explains that many of his critics took issue with this approach which he then tries to defend while still conceding that some of these criticisms are valid and that the book was originally meant to open up a new area of social research and study rather than making a final statement on the subject. In the preface he talks about the origins of the book. While doing his work on social history of forms of rebellions in primitive, pre-industrial and peasant societies he found out that most of these rebels were highly similar to each other in most respects, regardless of cultural or geographical background. Some of these ideas went into his essay "The Social Bandit" which formed the first chapter of his book "Primitive Rebels." This essay proved to be highly influential and since he himself got further interested in the subject, taking the help from other local scholarly works, he expanded on his original thesis and the result is this book.

He first of all defines what he means by "a social bandit" - "peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case men to be admired, helped and supported." He is not interested in urban criminals, in fact he is not interested in criminals at all and he takes pains to separate the two. In brief it is the word "social" that is important. The social bandit is actually rebelling against the structures which bind the peasant societies while ordinary criminals are mostly asocial misfits, often working from purely individualistic motives. This also makes him disregard and disassociate from the anarchists. He says: "’The idea’ of anarchism was their motive: that totally uncompromising and lunatic dream which we all share, but which few except Spaniards ever tried to act upon, at the cost of total defeat and impotence for their labour movement.”

After having defined the scope of the study he then goes on a world tour and finds out that regardless of geographical, historical or cultural background there are remarkable parallels which exist in these "primitive forms of social protest". So we learn about the long and complicated history of Brazillian Cangaceiros, Balkan Haiduks, bandits from Catalonia and Sicily, even Indian dacoits, though he touches this last topic only very briefly. His main area of expertise seems to be the Latin American society and he really knows a great deal about it. Most of it was quite overwhelming to me and I did skip some sections of the book. He also talks about more individual figures, including those whose historicity is in dispute like Robin Hood or Schiller's play on the subject and other more real ones, like Salvatore Giuliano, Pancho Villa (featured on the cover of the book above), the Brazillian bandit-hero Lampiao and many others whose names I hadn't heard before.

As anybody who has even a small interest in the subject (from the movies at least) already knows it is the myth of the bandit that becomes more important than the real man himself, with his common human frailties. It is the mythical image which comes across and is celebrated in ballads and folk-lores and not the real human being. And it is this mythical image itself that serves as a revolutionary prototype. Hobsbawm also talks of this process and need for mythification in detail with copious examples.

Finally a few words of praise for the prose style of the book. As I said earlier it is entirely devoid of theoretical jargons and though heavy-going overall and densely packed with facts and information, it is still eminently readable. One nice sample passage here:

The second reason why bandits become revolutionaries is inherent in the peasant society. Even those who accept exploitation, oppression, and subjection as the norm of human life dream of a world without them: a world of equality, brotherhood and freedom, a totally new world without evil. Rarely is this more than a dream. Rarely is it more than an apocalyptic expectation, though in many societies the millenial dream persists: the Just emperor will one day appear, the Queen of the south seas will one day land (as in the Javanese version of this submerged hope), and all will be changed and perfect. Yet there are moments when the apocalypse seems imminent; when the entire structure of the state and existing society whose total end the apocalypse symbolises and predicts, actually looks about to collapse in ruins, and the tiny light of hope turns into the light of possible sunrise.

In short a very interesting overview and an introduction to the subject, quite worthwhile if one is interested in the subject.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

David Lynch & Postmodernism

I was reading Midnight Movies co-authored by Jim Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. I will probably have more to say about it sometime later. For now something that got me into thinking. This is from the afterword which they wrote on occasion of the 20th anniversary of its publication.

JR: I have to admit that I'm a Twin Peaks addict myself. But there's more commercial than artistic logic in the way Lynch's career has developed. He's gone from making introverted movies to making extroverted ones--a downhill path culminating in Wild at Heart. Blue Velvet was the turning point, the transformation of unconscious camp into conscious camp. I tend to think that some of film's kitschier ideas--the robins as harbingers of love, for example--were sincere. But when these notions were seen as funny, Lynch began using them more systematically, with a certain calculation. By the time you get to Wild at Heart, the whole notion of sincerity seems to exist between quotation marks. The citation of Elvis and The Wizard of Oz are substitutes for feeling and imagination.

JH: Another way of positioning himself in the American mainstream.

JR: It's also postmodernism--the placing of everything between quotation marks. Postmodernism is not only our dominant culture now, but in some ways, it's our only culture. You might say that as auteurism turned junk into art, postmodernism turns art into junk. Even when an original artist like Lynch appears, it's not long before he starts quoting himself, using his work in a postmodernist way. Agent Cooper's dream in Twin Peaks is like recycled, simplified Eraserhead. Lynch's development parallels the go-for-broke ecological and economic philosophy of Reagan years. You burn up the ground under your feet and you basically use up whatever you've got.


Another article which discusses postmodernism in the context of Blue Velvet here.

As I was reading the essay on Eraserhead and the subsequent dialogue I found myself disagreeing with what Rosenbaum says. The postmodernism in Lynch is not just empty play of signs and signifiers but as he himself concedes, talking about the scene with the robins in Blue Velvet, there is an element of sincerity in those hyper-real and apparently kitschy images as well. The way he achieves this delicate balance is exactly what makes his films so different and unique and it is present in every one of his films Blue Velvet onwards. He is particularly harsh on Wild at Heart but even there while it is obvious that the characters of Sailor and Lula are not really characters but archetypes, totally artificial mixture of bricolage from American popular culture-scape, their feelings for each other do come across as genuine and sincere. Rosenbaum's criticism will be more valid for directors like Tarantino who are truly postmodernist, in the sense that their films are nothing but intertextuality and pastiche, and in the end resulting in arid wastelands of meaningless images, signs which point only to other signs, refusing to tie them back to anything outside the film itself and I can understand if someone sees it as a cultural crisis.

Some other recent films which strike this balance successfully are Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. I love them both.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Fallen Idol

Because of the dominance of auteur-based film histories the collaborative nature of cinema is sometimes overlooked. It becomes specially apparent when one follows the career of British director Carol Reed. After making a trio of brilliant films in the late forties with producer Alexander Korda, writer Graham Greene with contributions from cinematographer Robert Krasker, culminating in the uber-classic and a huge personal favourite The Third Man, his career faltered. He did make Oliver! which won a few Oscars but as compared to these earlier films it hasn't aged well. I recently saw The Fallen Idol which is perhaps not in the same league as The Third Man but that is only because its canvas is much too small and not because of anything lacking on the part of writer-director.

It is based on a short story by Graham Greene called The Basement Room. In his preface to the story Greene says that unlike The Third Man it was not written for film and that's one of the many reasons why he himself prefers it. The basic story is the same. An eight year old kid named Philip, son of the French ambassador in England, is in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Baines who work as the butler and housekeeper at the embassy, which also doubles as the ambassador residence. Philip is very friendly with the butler Baines who entertains and fascinates him with his exploits in Africa and in general humours all his wishes (like having a pet snake for a friend.) Mrs. Baines however is a strict disciplinarian and as a result is hated by Philip. The fact that she doesn't quite like his friend MacGregor (that's the name of the snake) makes things even worse. Soon we learn of an extra marital affair, marital discord and an accidental death (or murder?) all seen through the eyes of Philip who tries to understand what is happening in his own way. The book ends with Philip unwittingly betraying his friend to the police while the film has an extended final act which Greene says was added entirely by Reed in accordance with his own wishes. Of course it succeeds brilliantly. It is brilliantly shot and edited sequence with lots of glances, witty dialogues and evocative scene compositions.

Like The Third Man this film is full of low angle shots too but unlike in that film here it is used not to capture a feeling of disorientation and menace but rather to show everything from the point of view of the kid. The kid is in every frame of the film and we see everything through his eyes. The main interest of the film lies in the contrast between what is really happening and how it is being interpreted by the Philip. The film succeeds because it manages to capture this contrast so well. The kid who is played by an English kid who was raised in France (he breaks into a fluent French at a few places in the film) is totally unpredictable. In most of the scenes it feels like he is just having some fun on the set, not really interested in any self-conscious "acting." It is again to Reed's mastery that he uses the naturalness of the boy and weaves it into his story so well.

Graham Greene's story is worth reading too though unlike him I prefer his Third Man more (more on that later). He is particularly generous in his praise for Reed in the preface. About the two films he says:

Of one thing about both these films I have complete certainty, that their success is due to Carol Reed, the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy, the extraordinary feeling for the right face for the right part, the exactitude of cutting, and not least important the power of sympathizing with an author's worries and an ability to guide him.

Some quotes from reviews and a fine poster of the film here. A review by Jim Hoberman and another article on the criterion site.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Black Mass Reviews

Two reviews of John Gray's Black Mass, a book that I am eager to read, from New York and LA Times.

In the long run, Gray suggests, people are as helpless to control their destinies as pigeons. Thus Western politics (as practiced since Louis XVI lost his head) is vanity. "Good politics," he writes, "is shabby and makeshift, but at the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias. With the Left moribund, the Right has become the home to the utopian imagination. Global communism has been followed by global capitalism. The two visions of the future have much in common. Both are hideous and fortunately chimerical." The best that we can hope for is government that manages the tragic contingencies of life.

I have read his Straw Dogs and his essay collection Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions and both are absolutely fantastic. I am sure professional philosophers will have problems with his barbed commentaries and simplifications, but it is still a very sobering account of the way we live now and what future may hold for us. It is also a great introduction to the misanthropic and anti-humanist strain of western philosophy. Also, I have linked to Terry Eagleton's review of Straw Dogs before but I am linking it again. It is one of the funniest reviews I have ever read.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

I have seen some bleak and despairing films in my life but nothing like Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Of course the length of the film is a major contributing factor too. After spending nine hours watching the wrenching spectacle of pain, suffering and hopelessness I am still only just above the half-way mark. I was trying to watch it as a movie and not as a TV series which I now gather is absolutely not advisable. It is better to watch one hour episode at a time and wait for it to settle before you begin the next episode.

I was reading the novel by Alfred Doblin in parallel too and it is bleak as hell as well. Not a great idea to spend the holidays I tell you. Unless contemplating the senseless cruelty and mercilessness inherent in the plan of the universe is your idea of a good time-pass. The book is actually very inventive. It contains very innovative use of monologues, montage and collage. I will probably continue when I feel a little better.

Here is an excerpt from where I stopped reading. The passage is noticeably "cinematic" as is most of the book since it is designed as a work of collage - a sequence of interior monologues interspersed with facts and figures from the real external world. At the same time Fassbinder's treatment of this passage is quite "literary". We see a montage of still images while the voice-over reads the same exact passage in a totally objective voice drenched of all emotion. Anyway here it is:

A big, white steer is driven into the slaughter-hall. Here there is no vapor, no pen like they have for the swarming pigs. The big strong animal, the steer, steps in alone, between the drivers through the gate. The blood bespattered hall lies open before it with the chopped-up bones, and the halves and quarters hanging about. The big steer as a broad forehead. With sticks and thrusts it is driven up to the butcher. In order to make it stand still, he gives it a slight blow on the hind leg with the flat part of the hatchet. One of the drivers seizes it from below around the neck. The animal stands for a moment, the yields, with a curious ease, as if it agreed and was willing, after having seen everything and understood that this is its fate, and that it cannot do anything against it. Perhaps it thinks the gesture of the driver is a caress, it looks so friendly. The animal follows the tug of the driver's arms, turns its head obliquely to one side, mouth upward.

But then the butcher stands behind it with his hammer uplifted. Don't look around! The hammer lifted by the strong man with both his fists is behind you, above you, and then: zoom, down it comes! The muscular force of a strong man like an iron wedge in its neck! And a second later-the hammer has not yet lifted-the animal's four legs give a spring, the whole heavy body seems to fly up with a jerk. And then as though it had no legs, the beast, the heavy body, falls down on the floor with a thud, onto its rigidly cramped legs, lies like this for a moment, drops on its side. The executioner walks around the animal from left to right, cracks it over the head, and on the temples, with another mercifully stunning blow: you will not wake up again.

There is more but I will spare it...

Two films by Powell & Pressburger

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: I was surprised to learn that it had troubles with the censors when it was released in England in 1943. The central character was actually based a series of cartoon sketches and it is certainly possible that the tone was satiric and mocking in the cartoons because the film is completely different. It is obvious from the first scene itself that Powell and Pressburger see the central figure with admiration, awe, even reverence and even if they are poking fun it is always done with good humour and a feeling of sadness that the age of Colonel Blimps has passed away for good. The film also features the Austrian born actor Anton Walbrook in the supporting role of a German army officer who is also a very good friend of General Candy. In fact he almost steals the show in one scene in which he gives a speech about Germany between the wars and why he loves England. It is one long unbroken monologue in close-up and it is absolutely mesmerising and very moving. The film was also the debut of Deborah Kerr who died recently. She plays three different roles and is great as well.

The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer plays a ballerina who gets to dance in a ballet adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Red Shoes about a girl who can't stop dancing after wearing her red shoes as if the shoes have taken over her life. After performing in The Red Shoes ballet her life begins to imitate the story as she is asked to choose between life and art. Anton Walbrook is fantastic here too as the impresario of the Ballet company who is contemptuous of people who trade art for "doubtful comforts of human love" and thinks that in the end "life is important." The film contains a long ballet sequence which gets a little too far in trying to be inventive but it is still mesmerising in the way it captures the subjective experience of the dancer herself. So in the end we are not looking at the dancer from the outside but actually seeing through her. The only complaint I had with the film was that the film devotes more time and attention to the Anton Walbrook character and less to the dancer herself, specially in the last act which felt a bit hurried, specially in the context of the ending (which I must say took me by surprise, I was expecting another cliched airport/train station ending scene that filmmakers all over the world are so fond of).

Pasolini Retrospective

A mini-retrospective of Pasolini's films is on at the film society of the Lincoln center. An Article from The New York Times by A O Scott.

Another article about a Max Ophuls retrospective here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Salvatore Giuliano

Salvatore Giuliano was a charismatic and much mythologised Sicilian bandit but those who come to Francesco Rosi's 1962 film about him looking for biographical information or learning about his adventures and exploits would be in for a serious disappointment. Even though the whole film is about him, Giuliano himself appears in the film only as a corpse! Elsewhere he is always in the shadows. Rosi deliberately leaves out any scope for psychologising or individual myth making. His concerns are far removed from that. He knows that it is not individuals and their inner life that count in modern-day politics but rather the complex and ever-shifting web of ties, affiliations and allegiances and it is these that his investigative camera tries to explore and unravel.

The film mostly skips the early life and career of Giuliano as a famed Outlaw and Sicilian separatist. It was only after his involvement in the massacre of group of peasants and workers participating in May day celebration at Porta Della Ginestra that the authorities really tried hard to get him. According to Rosi the police made his deputy kill him after persuading him that he will get a pardon from the state but later they not only rescinded on their offer but also denied any involvement. He also hints about a possible cover-up about Giuliano's relations with the members of right wing political party and possible motives behind the massacre, though none of it is spelled very clearly. Like almost all of the Italian filmmakers of his and the earlier generation Rosi was a committed leftist too. Much of the later film takes place in the courthouse, it was all a little too complex to follow. The film's structure itself is quite complex, it jumps back and forth in time with shifting points of view and many different characters.

The film was shot in real location. Many people who lived there and who knew Giuliano acted in the film. Some of them were even the survivors or the witness of the massacre. The reconstruction of the scene was reportedly so authentic that people who were supposed to be acting panicked, destroying some camera equipments in the process. A few words also about the cinematography. Every movie-buff (I mean the apartment-bound types) is familiar with Sicialian landscapes but you haven't really seen it unless you have seen the landscapes as photographed in this film. The cinematographer of the film was the great Gianni Di Venanzo whose filmography includes such classics as Fellini's 8 1/2 and L'Eclisse by Antonioni. The sun-drenched rocky landscape is put to an extremely evocative use. It is even better than The Godfather or L'Avventura.

In short a bit confusing and difficult to follow at times but still a remarkable and often startling work of political filmmaking. Also important since it influenced so many other great films - most significantly perhaps The Battle of Algiers which takes a similarly depersonalized and quasi-documentarian approach to political filmmaking. Good introductory articles from The New York Times and The Guardian

Excerpts from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Two excerpts from Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. First about "a death of one's own" and the second about poetry and experience. The opening paragraph of the book was featured in the post on German Literature Quiz (number 9)

And when I think about the others I have seen or heard of: it is always the same. They all had a death of their own. Those men who carried it in their armour, inside themselves, like a prisoner; those women who grew very old and small, and then on an enormous bed, as if on the stage of a theatre, in front of the whole family and the assembled servants and dogs, discreetly and with the greatest dignity passed away. The children too, even the very small ones, didn't have just any child's death; they gathered themselves and died what they already were and what they would have become.

And what a melancholy beauty this gave to women when they were pregnant and stood there, with their slender hands instinctively resting on their large bellies, in which there were two fruits: a child and a death. Didn't the dense, almost nourishing smile on their emptied faces come from their sometimes feeling that both were growing inside them?


Ah, but poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simple emotions (one has emotions early enough)--they are experiences. For the sake of a simple poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighbourhoods, to unexpected encounters and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else--); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,--and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very well blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves-only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Two "Outlaws on the Run" films

I love "Outlaws on the Run" films, but then everybody does. Thought I will mention a few things about two of the finest of the genre which I saw recently.

You Live Only Once (Fritz Lang, 1938): Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney star as the doomed and ill-fated couple on the run from the law in this Fritz Lang film. Fonda has just been out of the jail and is trying to get straight but the society won't let him live a normal life. Once a criminal, always a criminal - that's what they believe in. Things soon get from bad to worse and when he finds himself implicated in a bank robbery it looks like he is fated for the electric chair. They both manage to escape but only for a while.

Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney are both astonishing in this film. Fonda would famously play a very similar role in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. As for Sylvia Sydney it looked like she just walked out of the sets of Fritz Lang's earlier film Fury in which she was fantastic as well. Or perhaps it was just her natural state of being, ever so toremented and ever so hopeless and innocent. (As per Wikipedia she was known as "the face of depression"). Just by their look and manners they look so innocent and their relationship so tender that from the first frame itself you know that there is absolutely no hope for them. Still you keep hoping for them even when Lang twists and turns the knife. There is a scene in which the newspaperman has already printed two different versions of the story ahead of what the court decides on. One in which Fonda is declared innocent and one in which he is found guilty, either way his fate is already sealed. There is also a twist because we don't know in the beginning if he really did commit the robbery. The revelation towards the end makes the story even more poignant and brutal. A masterpiece which hasn't aged a bit.

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948): The young teenage couple played by Farley Granger (who will be familiar to Hitchcock fans) and Cathy O'Donnell are even more innocent and naive and their relationship even more romantic and tender (in one scene they decide to learn how to kiss together!). Ray would probably make the same point in his iconic Rebels Without a Cause too but his pessimistic romanticism is evident in this film too, which was actually his debut as a film director. The two characters who are given such names as Bowie and Keechie are both filmed in such a way that you know that they don't really belong in this world of adults (like James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebels). Keechie's idea of "a good woman" however may trouble the feminists. (A good woman is like a good dog, she says, loyal even to the very end.) It does underscore her other-worldliness and naivete and also makes for ironic counterpoint in the light of ending and also the presence of the other femme fatale whose loyalty to her man exacts a terrible price on the innocent victims.

I have been meaning to rewatch Bonnie and Clyde for sometime now. I loved it when I first saw it but probably I will be less enthusiastic now. Also worth pointing out that these two films were loved by the French film critics, particularly Godard whose film Pierrot le Fou is a kind of homage to these films and the genre in general.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Albert's Path

"Albert's path is a strange and difficult one"

Here's Albert's entry into Twin Peaks and more here.

Meanwhile David Lynch has got himself into some trouble in Germany. I so wish he were spending more of his time and energy making films.

Todd Haynes: Safe

“You know our couch? Our beautiful couch?…Totally toxic.”

That's Julianne Moore explaining how she got "environmental sickness" in Todd Haynes' amazing and brilliant 1995 film Safe. I had read about it before and wanted to see it for quite some time but didn't really come to it thinking it to be another one of those "art films" exploring "the sick soul of the suburbs" and the ennui of materialist-consumerist life in modern day America. Well it definitely is all that but it is also very intelligent, very sensitive, even horrifying and disturbing in ways unlike other films of the genre (like American Beauty for example which pales very badly in comparison to this).

The first part of the film is part Stepford Wives and part Antonioni's Red Desert. Julianne Moore plays a vacuous hausfrau in an affluent southern californian neighbourhood who is really deep into her empty and shallow lifestyle. She screams in horror when she sees that the couch that was delivered to her is of the "wrong" colour. She has sex as if it were just another part of her job. It makes one think about Marx's theory of alienating labour. As it happens one day she just can't take it anymore, it is as if her body and mind rebel against the status quo and seemingly she develops symptoms and allergies to all kinds of household things. Things get much worse when she finds herself in a new age "holistic" treatment centre peddling self-love and dime-a-dozen platitudes as a cure-all.

The second half of the film set in the treatment retreat lacks the visual panache of the scenes set in the apartments (which in their shot compositions reminded me of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle which is a much more good-humoured critique of the same modern living) but it more than makes up for it with its scathingly satirical bite. All the talk of self-love gets even more disturbing after Haynes tells us (in the commentary) that he first read about it a book about AIDS. The author was advising people suffering from AIDS that if they loved themselves enough they wouldn't have gotten sick. The last scene with Julianne Moore in her "igloo" saying "I love you, I really love you" to the mirror is one of the most disturbing scenes I have seen in recent American movies.

In short a masterpiece, must-watch. A long essay on the film here which looks good. Haven't read it yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is the only novel written by Rilke. Actually calling it a novel will actually be a little confusing. The keyword here is "notebooks" which defines the structural principle behind this prose work. It is not even a diary though it does start off as if it were a set of diary entries - a set of disjointed entries capturing experiences, thoughts and moods of the central character. Malte Laurids Brigge is an aspiring poet from Denmark who is living in Paris. The initial section of the book records his impressions of the city life which he find unrelentingly grim. Indeed some of the passages are the best I have read about the urban misery and the sense of desolation felt by individuals who find themselves adrift in large, indifferent and inhuman cosmopolis. Like all young poets Brigge also worries about the kind of relationship an ideal poet should have with the reality and the world around him. How should one balance the need for solitude and yet be able to immerse oneself in the world in order to gain experience so that it can be transformed into poetry - in other words how to manage the apparent conflict between "absolute inwardness" and being receptive to the outside material world.

This part of the book where Brigge muses about these things is the most interesting and the easiest to read. Unfortunately this covers only a brief section of the book. In much of the later parts of the book Malte Writes about his family history bringing in narratives and stories from Nordic history and mythologies. I was somewhat lost after a while and couldn't really follow what was going on. The book had a lot of extensive notes towards the end but I was too tired to look everything up. Still it is far from being a tedious read. The prose style is always remarkable, full of unexpected comparisons and startling thoughts which will throw even the most indifferent and bored reader off-kilter and make him sit back and take notice. Most of these thoughts are about Death which is a recurring motif and a running theme throughout the book. Brigge has a whole new and complete theory of death. I will post an extract about it later. His conception of death is somewhat pseudo-mystical in the sense the he sees it as an integral part of life itself and not a negation. The emphasis is on the concept of an individual and personal death. The book contains quite a few examples of people struggling to come to terms with their and other people's deaths. Some are full of fear and completely unprepared while others accept death as completely natural and unique. Brigge doesn't approve one over the another. I think the point is that in the end what counts is the "personal" and "unique" death and Brigge thinks that every person should be entitled to it. What he disapproves is the impersonal and mass deaths in the public hospitals and the kind of death poor and destitute people submit to.

In short a very challenging and difficult book and like most challenging and difficult books, very rewarding too. First fifty or so pages are outstanding in whichever way one looks at it, absolutely must read for anybody interested in Rilke's poetry or in anybody's poetry for that matter. Reading the rest and making sense of it will take quite an effort however. I was looking for some nice essays, reviews or reading guides about the book on the internet but couldn't find any. Very disappointing.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cat People

I had heard and read about Cat People so many times but never got a chance to see it until yesterday. This is really a very beautiful film. There are few things I love more, specially in a black and white film, than the dark moving shadows and the abstract patterns they make. This film is full of such effects. After seeing it the first thing that comes to mind is that why they chose this particular title for the film? It is not hard to guess though. The studio executives at the RKO hoping to revive their fortunes came up with such lurid and sensational titles and handed them over to Val Lewton who was in-charge of the horror unit at the studio. It was he brought in the best talents together in every single department and left a personal imprint on the whole film. That's what makes him one of the rare auteur-producers in the history of cinema.

It is again not hard to imagine why someone would have wanted to make The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to the original predecessor. A sufficiently lurid title to match the original. However in style and overall effect it goes a few steps even further than the original. Though a bit low on chills, it is a highly evocative tale of the inner life of small girl haunted by loneliness and her own over-active imagination. No curse here, and no cat people monsters either. There is only poetry in its images.

An excellent and in-depth article about Lewton's career here. Reviews and information about some of his other films here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Imre Kertesz: Liquidation

Liquidation is just over a hundred pages long but is quite densely packed with ideas. The (occasional) narrator of the novel Kingbitter, who works as an editor in a publishing house, is wrestling with a manuscript of a play titled Liquidation by his writer friend "B." who was born in Auschwitz and who committed suicide a few years ago. Oddly enough the play seems to presage the events following B.'s death, specially about how his close friends struggle to come to terms with his literary legacy. Moreover Kingbitter is also convinced and is obsessed by what he thinks an unfinished novel that B. must have left in care with his estranged wife Judith. This quest brings Kingbitter closer to Judith. In the later section of the novel Judith recounts how her relationship with B. fell apart. This section will be familiar to those who have read Kaddish for an Unborn Child. In fact Kertesz repeats a lot of things from the earlier book here too.

The book as I said is quite densely packed with ideas, most of them about the philosophical interpretation of life post-Holocaust - act of living as a pusillanimous capitulation and suicide as a heroic rebellion ("Taking one's own life amounts to outwitting those who stand on guard"). As this press release about the nobel prize says:

In thinking like this, the author concurs with a philosophical tradition in which life and human spirit are enemies. ... He completes his implacable existential analysis by depicting love as the highest stage of conformism, total capitulation to the desire to exist at any cost. For Kert├ęsz the spiritual dimension of man lies in his inability to adapt to life. Individual experience seems useless as soon as it is considered in the light of the needs and interests of the human collective.

B.'s bleak pronouncements are not always without humour however. In one of the passages he rages against the artists and painters which reminds one of Reger in Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters. ("If people had understood the greatness of those works, they would have destroyed them long ago.[...] Fortunately, people have lost their flair for greatness and only their flair for murder has persisted.") Kertesz has translated Thomas Bernhard among many other Germanic writers into Hungarian and this passage in particular seemed like an obvious homage.

In the book Kertesz also gets into the nature of literary and intellectual life in communist Hungary with state subsidization of literature in return of which the state demands complete submission to its dictates concerning artistic matters. State subsidization of literature is state liquidation of literature, B. says at one place. Of course post-communist Hungary is not any better either with all the non-profitable publishing houses being closed down, including the one where Kingbitter works. Reading about the many writers living under the communist Eastern Europe makes one really sad and melancholic, specially in the way all their hopes for a new life and a new world, and healing the scars of the destruction and inhumanity of the world war were so quickly dashed by the authoritarian and mendacious tyrannies that followed soon after. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz tells some of these stories in his The Captive Mind. Kertesz himself has lived in Berlin for a long period and worked as a literary journalist and translator there. It is there too that he has a bigger literary following than even his own country.

In the end the book is a little "unsatisfying" leaving you with a sense of incompleteness as if you have read only some disjointed jottings and fragments. Of course it is intentionally so. Writing a conventional, "satisfying" will actually be contrary and will defeath what is actually the central point of the book. I didn't find any good review on the net. Here is one with links to many other reviews.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Greek Love

Haven't finished reading the whole thing but it looks interesting. An essay in the Guardian review about Homosexuality in Greek culture.

It is a very complicated subject actually. Some time back I read this wonderful essay by Daniel Mendelsohn in Lingua Franca about a legal countroversy surrounding an interpretation of a Greek word in Plato. Basically two classical scholars of a conservative bent had accused Martha Nussbaum of perjury claiming that she had deliberately and knowingly mislaid the court when she agreed to be an expert witness on a case in Colorado about legalization of homosexuality. Really a must read essay.

Summer with Monika

Jim Hoberman and Manohla Dargis on the delightful early film by Ingmar Bergman Summer with Monika.

"When the film first opened in America, it played in art houses and grindhouses, raising temperatures as “Summer With Monika” and “Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl.” It’s possible that many viewers (including the young Woody Allen) saw a shortened version that was peddled on the exploitation circuit as “A Picture for Wide Screens and Broad Minds.” (That may explain why this paper didn’t review it.) It’s unclear which “Monika” was seized in 1956 by the Los Angeles vice squad, which declared it indecent. A representative for the theater explained that it was an “art type.” Well, of course."

I first saw it at a mini Bergman retrospective in Bangalore. I don't know whose idea was it to screen it back to back with Cries and Whispers. First fantasize about Harriet Andersson's body and then soon get to hear her screams of death-agony. I could hardly walk after the screening. (Earlier in the day there was The Virgin Spring.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An Extract from Niels Lyhne

A passage from Jens Peter Jacobsen's Niels Lyhne, of which I wrote about earlier and which can be read in entirety in an older translation here.

The context is not really necessary. It is a simple declaration and then rejection of love. A bit high-flown but that's what makes it so interesting:


Bigum came a few steps nearer and handed her the hat. "Miss Lyhne," she said, "you think--you must not think--I beg you to let me speak; that is--I am not saying anything, but be patient with me!--I love you, Miss Lyhne, unutterably, unutterably, beyond all words I love you. Oh, if language held a word that combined the cringing admiration of the slave, the ecstatic smile of the martyr, and the gnawing homesickness of the exile, with that word I could tell you my love. Oh, listen to me, do not thrust me away yet! Do not think that I am insulting you with an insane hope! I know how insignificant I seem in your eyes, how clumsy and repulsive, yes, repulsive. I am not forgetting that I am poor,--you must know it,--so poor that I have to let my mother live in a charitable institution, and I can't help it, can't help it. I am so miserably poor. Yes, Miss Lyhne, I am only a poor servant in your brother's house, and yet there is a world where I am ruler, powerful, proud, rich, with the crown of victory, noble by virtue of the passion that drove Prometheus to steal the fire from the heaven of the gods. There I am brother to all the great in spirit, whom the earth has borne, and who bear the earth. I understand them as none but equals understand one another; no flight that they have flown is too high for the strength of my wings. Do you understand me? Do you believe me? Oh, don't believe me! It isn't true, I am nothing but the Kobold figure you see before you. It is all past; for this terrible madness of love has paralyzed my wings, the eyes of my spirit have lost their sight, my heart is dried up, my soul is drained to bloodless poltroonery. Oh, save me from myself, Miss Lyhne, don't turn away in scorn! Weep over me, weep, it is Rome burning!"

He had fallen to his knees on the steps, wringing his hands. His face was blanched and distorted, his teeth were clinched in agony, his eyes drowned in tears; his whole body shook under the suppressed sobs that were heard only as a gasping for breath.

"Control yourself, Mr. Bigum," she said in a slightly too compassionate tone. "Control yourself, don't give way so, be a man! Please get up and go down into the garden a little while and try to pull yourself together."

"And you can't love me at all!" groaned Mr, Bigum almost inaudibly. "Oh, it's terrible! There is not a thing in my soul that I wouldn't murder and degrade if I could win you thereby. No, no, even if any one offered me madness and I could possess you in my hallucinations, possess you, then I would say: Take my brain, tear down its wonderful structure with rude hands, break all the fine threads that bind my spirit to the resplendent triumphal chariot of the human mind, and let me sink in the mire of the physical, under the wheels of the chariot, and let others follow the shining paths that lead to the light! Do you understand me? Can you comprehend that even if your love came to me robbed of its glory, debased, befouled, as a caricature of love, as a diseased phantom, I would receive it kneeling as if it were the Sacred Host? But the best in me is useless, the worst in me is useless, too. I cry to the sun, but it does not shine; to the statue, but it does not answer--answer! . . . What is there to answer except that I suffer? No, these unutterable torments that rend my whole being down to its deepest roots, this anguish is nothing to you but an impertinence. You feel nothing but a little cold offence; in your heart you laugh scornfully at the poor tutor and his impossible passion."

"You do me an injustice, Mr. Bigum," said Edele, rising, while Mr. Bigum rose too. "I am not laughing. You ask me if there is no hope, and I answer: No, there is no hope. That is surely nothing to laugh at. But there is one thing I want to say to you. From the first moment you began to think of me, you must have known what my answer would be, and you did know it, did you not? You knew it all the time, and yet you have been lashing all your thoughts and desires on toward the goal which you knew you could not reach. I am not offended by your love, Mr. Bigum, but I condemn it. You have done what so many people do: they close their eyes to the realities and stop their ears when life cries 'No' to their wishes. They want to forget the deep chasm fate has placed between them and the object of their ardent longing. They want their dream to be fulfilled. But life takes no account of dreams. There isn't a single obstacle that can be dreamed out of the world, and in the end we lie there crying at the edge of the chasm, which hasn't changed and is just where it always was. But we have changed, for we have let our dreams goad all our thoughts and spur all our longings to the very highest tension. The chasm is no narrower, and everything in us cries out with longing to reach the other side, but no, always no, never anything else. If we had only kept a watch on ourselves in time! But now it is too late, now we are unhappy."

She paused almost as if she woke from a trance. Her voice had been quiet, groping, as if she were speaking to herself, but now it hardened into a cold aloofness.

"I cannot help you, Mr. Bigum. You are nothing to me of what you wish to be. If that makes you unhappy, you must be unhappy; if you suffer, you must suffer-there are always some who have to suffer. If you make a human being your god and the ruler of your fate, you must bow to the will of divinity, but it is never wise to make yourself gods, or to give your soul over to another; for there are gods who will not step down from their pedestals. Be sensible, Mr. Bigum! Your god is so small and so little worth your worship; turn from it and be happy with one of the daughters of the land."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Alberto Moravia: Conjugal Love

Alberto Moravia's Conjugal Love suffers a little in comparison to his Contempt which essentially tackles the same subject at a somewhat greater length and in more detail. This is not to say that this book is any bad, indeed from every possible standard it is quite accomplished. Like Contempt it is narrated by a young struggling writer who is trying to understand the nature of love and marriage and also trying hard to come to terms with his own self-worth as a writer. Like Contempt, its central subject is the disease of hyper self-consciousness too - hyper-rationalistic and analytic way of looking at everything, the mania for understanding every nuance of a feeling, to discover the meaning of every gesture, looking at everything as if everything were a sign and then despairing over one's failure to do so or finding emptiness where one suspected there must be something.

The basic story of the novel is the stuff of farce. The narrator whisks off himself with his wife to a villa in Tuscany thinking that isolation will perhaps inspire him to write the masterpiece that is inside him. But when no such inspiration comes over him, he suspects the reason might be the way he has been dissipating his energies in the carnal affairs. He decides to abstain from sex and soon enough his creative juices start flowing or at least that's what he feels initially. Things get more complicated because of the presence of a libertine and portly barber (yes, a barber) in the house.

Although the basic plot summary sounds funny, the book is quite sombre and melancholy in tone. The narrator longs for a life driven by instinct, full of spontaneity and passion, a life in which actions and gestures are driven by genuine feelings and not by conscious calculation. These are the traits which attracts him to his wife and it is this fundamental difference in the ways of looking at the world, (which I suspect Moravia thinks is representative of the two genders) that makes the analysis of this "conjugal love" so much interesting. The book is actually quite funny too, in its own dry and pedantic way. The way he obsesses about every detail of his own feelings, his rationalizations, the maniacal analysis of ordinary situations making them more complex than they actually are, all again in the service of self-denials and rationalizations - these are all funny to read but in the end a bit discomforting too (specially if you share his sensibilities and proclivities).

A review with links to other reviews here. Earlier post on Contempt here.

In Praise of New York Sun

When more and more mainstream newspapers are limiting their books coverage to only "topical" books, that is when they are not cutting down the review pages, it is gratifying to see the book review section of a paper like New York Sun. I have enthused about the reviews and essays of Adam Kirsch before who is regular reviewer there but in general their books coverage and the reviews are extremely good.

Of the recent reviews, the ones which particularly interested me:

A review of a biography of Proust's mother.

Adam Kirsch on a new work of cultural history of Modernism by Peter Gay.

And another review of Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz's A Kind Of Testament. I haven't been able to make much progress with his Ferdydurke. Not a fault of the book, I have been quite busy and distracted lately and the book is quite dense and requires a lot concentration.

Knut Hamsun Review

In New York Sun a review of a new translation of Knut Hamsun's novel Growth of the Soil. I have only read his Hunger which is one of my all time favourite books. The title of the review is nice - "A Norwegian Dostoyevsky, Gone to Seed." Quite appropriate actually. Hunger mostly reads like a more abstracted and concentrated version of the initial sections of Crime and Punishment. It is harrowing, but also funny and beautifully written.

A more detailed review by James Wood here.

Pietro Germi Retrospective

A bit late in mentioning it here but the retrospective of Italian director Pietro Germi's films is still on at the film forum. More details here. I have seen only two of his films, Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned, both comic-satiric masterpieces. Divorce gets a special two weeks extended run. Brief note about it in the village voice here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Niels Lyhne

At first glance Niels Lyhne, the nineteenth century Danish novel by Jens Peter Jacobsen, feels like a Scandinavian version of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Actually the book's blurb has a quote from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who calls "the Werther of our generation". The book's fan club has a very impressive membership actually. Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Henrik Ibsen all have some very nice things to say about it. The most moved of the lot is perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke who repeatedly mentions Jacobsen and his books including Niels Lyhne in his Letters to Young Poet.

Of all my books there are only a few that are indispensable to me. Two of them are constantly at my fingertips wherever I may be. They are here with me now: the Bible and the books of the great Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobsen. ... If I were obliged to tell you who taught me to experience something of the essence of creativity, the depth of it and its enduring quality, there are only two names that I can name: that of Jacobsen, the very greatest of writers and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor. No one among all artists living today compares with them.

Actually it was in was in Rilke's book that I had first heard of Niels Lyhne. I had then forgotten about it until I found it mentioned again on the complete review blog. I don't want to make any remarks about Rilke but I felt his "Letters" were a bit simplistic and sentimental and his idea of "Poet" with a capital "P" a bit wearisome. I had the same feeling when I started this book but soon it won me over. The story is very loosely constructed. It is written as a conventional Bildungsroman, as a series of episodes in the life of Niels Lyhne charting the progressive growth of his disbelief and disillusionment with everything. Most of these episodes are about his relationship with women, all of them ending in failures and sadness. What makes it really worth reading are the parenthetical asides and also long monologues spoken by various characters on a variety of topics, romanticism, atheism, nature of creativity, life of an artist with its constant waiting for a moment of inspiration full of doubts and self-torture and most important of all, what it really means to live a life of the spirit in this world.

I will copy a few extracts from the book some other time. There are a lot of readily quotable passages in the book. A longer review here. I like the cover of the penguin edition very much. The featured painting is by Edvard Munch. It is called Melancholy.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Peter Nadas Profile

In the new york times a profile of Hungarian novelist Peter Nadas whose collection of essays and stories Fire and Knowledge has just come out in English.

Americans tend to be amnesiacs. Europeans, however, worry history, and no writer in Europe today has dealt more eloquently with the obligations and moral conundrums of memory, private and collective, than the Hungarian novelist and essayist Peter Nadas. Berlin, it happens, is where he came years ago to work on what turned into “A Book of Memories,” which, when the Hungarian censors finally consented in 1986 to let it be published, invited comparison to Proust and Thomas Mann, and caused Susan Sontag, after its translation into English 11 years later, to call it “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.”

Also an old article about his mammoth masterpiece A Book of Memories . I haven't read it but it is on my to-read list. The article also has this amusing insight:
The eroticism of ''A Book of Memories'' was one of the reasons, along with stylistic echoes of Thomas Mann, that the novel was such a success in Germany, he said.

For German readers, who admire him so much that almost all his short stories, theater pieces, post-1989 nonfiction essays and an autobiographical explanation of how he wrote ''A Book of Memories'' have been translated, the eroticism represented a welcome counterpoint.

''German literature,'' he said, ''is a very clever literature, but in it, humans don't exist from the chest down.''

Monday, November 05, 2007


For the individual, life is made easier through capitulation to the collective with which he identifies. He is spared the cognition of his impotence; within the circle of their own company, the few become many. It is this act - not unfocussed thinking - which is resignation. [...]

In contrast, the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give up. Furthermore, thinking is not the spiritual reproduction of that which already exists. As long as thinking is not interrupted it has a firm grasp upon possibility. Its insatiable quality, the resistance against petty satiety, rejects the foolish wisdom of resignation.

- From 'Resignation' by Theodor Adorno. Also collected in The Culture Industry.


I love that phrase: "terrorized into action" and also the sentence that follows.

Feeling a bit low these days. My head is full of gloomy thoughts. May be it is just seasonal. I was watching Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage yesterday. I had seen the film version before, this time I saw the five hour TV version. There are some essential monologues and pivotal scenes which are missing from the theatrical version which makes it mandatory. I didn't feel the same about Fanny and Alexander. TV version is preferable but not irreplacable.

I was also reading August Strindberg's play The Dance of Death dealing with the same subject but which is even gloomier than Bergman though it is somewhat salvaged by the grotesque humour. This is basically an Actors' play. I would have loved to see Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play Edgar and Alice on stage, which they did a few years ago in New York.


For some Misanthropy, Scandinavian style, an extract from a brief essay by Strindberg titled "I":

What are other people to me? What do I know of their ability to see, to divine, to judge? They can lie and make mistakes, which is exactly what they do, since they are my natural enemies, just as I am theirs: we are all enemies, rivals for the air we breathe, for the pasture-land we graze, for the female we impregnate, for the honour we scorn.

Other people! I detest them as they hate me!

I have passed life's meridian, and when I cast a glance behind me I frequently see myself as the hunter, but even more frequently as the rabbit, since I was brought up in the religion of the rabbits. When I was young I believed that I laboured for others, I was always ready to blame myself and admit that others were right, while no one made any effort on my behalf and the universe yielded nothing to me. I had deposited bits of my self now here, now there, in God's bosom, in my frieds's souls, in my wives', in my children's; and they all went their way, each bearing their own piece and leaving nothing behind for me of their own impoverished selves.

Morally I had become bankrupt but, on the point of making off with myself, I collected the rags of my soul together and forged a skeleton of iron, which I coated with fireclay. And in the furnace of suffering and disappointment I burned my image so that it became hard as a rock.

And my nearest and dearest, the one who lit the pyre, who pilfered my children's bread, who threw me into prison, cried out: 'He doesn't love those closest to him, he writes without sympathy (for us), he hates people!'

Agreed! I hate with the sound and robust hatred of the strong, whose eye is sharpened by hatred, while in their impotent rage the weak are blinded by stagnation of the blood. I may be enraged, but I don't see red where something is green; I may be furious, but I can distinguish friend from foe.


Adorno, Bergman, Strindberg... sufficient gloom for the day!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What have you done to Solange?

It is a bit late for a post on a horror film but it's been a lean few weeks here at dispatches lately. So better late than never since I wanted to mention this excellent horror film I saw some time back anyway. I am not really a big fan of Italian giallo films though I must say I have seen only a few so far, all by Dario Argento actually. Suspiria annoyed me a little and I was irritated by the gore and the sheer nastiness of Tenebre. His earlier films The Bird with a Crystal Plumage and Deep Red are comparatively subdued when it comes to gratuitous gore, may be that's why I liked them a bit more. Still, I am surprised by how seriously he is taken by many viewers, not just gorehounds and horror-geeks but also serious film critics, specially those of the psychoanalytical bend.

What have you done to Solange? ticks off all the genre trademarks. Lots of gratuitous nudity, a stylish black-gloved killer with a sharp knife dispatching one pretty girl after another in increasingly nasty ways, a music score that will get inside your skin and haunt you long after you have finished watching the film, very stylish cinematography with lots of pans and zooms and of course, last but not the least, bad dubbing into English. (Don't worry about getting the original copy, the original Italian dubbing is generally weird too, that's part of the package I think.)

Even by the normal giallo standards the basic plot of Solange is quite sordid and sensationalist. The story is set in an all-girls high school in London. Enrico Rossini, a young and handsome (and hirsute) Italian teacher of Gymnastics is having an extra-marital affair with one of his teenaged pupils named Elizabeth. One day when they are out canoodling on a drifting boat in a lake, Elizabeth sees a shining knife and a girl running away from it. She is not sure if it was real or just some hallucination but soon enough we get to know a girl has really been murdered near that very spot. Soon some more girls die by the hands of the black-gloved all in a similar horrible fashion that I don't want to mention here (fortunately we are spared the graphic details). When Elizabeth is also found murdered, after being drowned in her bathtub, Enrico himself takes on the task of finding out who the killer is. Interestingly the name of Solange is not even mentioned till the very end of the film and it is only in the final reels we get the answer posed in the title of the film and it is very horrible. Solange herself appears and though she has only a few scenes she has a haunting presence, she is almost like a ghost.

The main point of contention with these films is of course the violence shown against women. On top of that often it is highly sexualised in nature. The killer wields his weapon as a kind-of phallic substitute and in this film quite literally so (yes it is very horrible). Though in a few films of Argento viewer's expectations are confounded when the killer is revealed to be a woman (I won't reveal which ones.) What I think makes these films different is the ambivalence with which they tackle sexuality and representation of gender. On one hand the camera never misses a chance to zoom in on an exposed breast and on the other hand it also betrays a reactionary attitude of a male sexual panic about the perceived horrors of female sexual liberation. In one of the scenes in Solange Enrico mournfully muses about "these young girls, who are not even sixteen and are surrounded by secret boyfriends, orgies and lesbian games." This is the same guy who is himself having a secret affair with one such girl. Is it hypocrisy of the film or a genuine naivete and ambivalence? One's appreciation of this film will depend on how you see this.

What particularly interested me and what distinguishes it from Argento's giallo is that the killings are not used merely as an excuse to devise and design elaborate set-pieces but rather they are deeply linked to the main story and its themes and characters. Even though it is only in the end that we realize the real purpose and the horrible meaning behind the peculiar way of killing, throughout the film the scenes are edited in such a way to add some really interesting layers and meanings to what could have been a straightforward brutal scene. Sometimes it is cut to Elizabeth having hallucinations about a knife when she is actually in bed with Enrico resulting in some kind of a premature end to their lovemaking. At other times she wakes from her horrible dreams with what seems like orgasmic shrieks giving the killings a really perverse and interesting spin. When the killer spares her the brutal method he uses for other girls, we are not surprised to learn that she was actually a virgin (in a technical sense of course). All this is actually a red herring but then may be not. You have to see yourself to find the solution of the mystery.

The other important factor which contributes to the film's success is the score by Ennio Morricone, specially the mournful main theme which plays in the title sequence which shows the girls riding their bicycles as if mourning and lamenting the loss of a prelapsarian innocence and pre-sexual idyll, longing for an age when young girls used to be innocent. This is a sleazy film no-doubt but also a great film. Some may find its hypocrisy dishonest and others a sign of innocent and ambivalent naivete but I am sure no one will find it dull. This may be a bit too horrifying for young girls but otherwise highly recommended. (I think in a way it can also be used as a good propaganda film by pro-abstinence groups :))

I will suggest not to read too much about the film but some stills and more details for those who are more interested here and here. Trailer of the film here.

Some Advice from The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton on a few possible ways to "assuage those ardent flames of love"...


Cure of Love-Melancholy, by Labour, Diet, Physic, Fasting, &c.

Because poor people fare coarsely, work hard, go woolward and bare. Non habet unde suum paupertas pascat amorem. Guianerius therefore prescribes his patient to go with hair-cloth next his skin, to go barefooted, and barelegged in cold weather, to whip himself now and then, as monks do, but above all to fast. Not with sweet wine, mutton and pottage, as many of those tender-bellies do, howsoever they put on Lenten faces, and whatsoever they pretend, but from all manner of meat. Fasting is an all-sufficient remedy of itself; for, as Jason Pratensis holds, the bodies of such persons that feed liberally, and live at ease, are full of bad spirits and devils, devilish thoughts; no better physic for such parties, than to fast. Hildesheim, spice l. 2. to this of hunger, adds, often baths, much exercise and sweat, but hunger and fasting he prescribes before the rest. And 'tis indeed our Saviour's oracle, This kind of devil is not cast out but by fasting and prayer, which makes the fathers so immoderate in commendation of fasting. As hunger, saith Ambrose, is a friend of virginity, so is it an enemy to lasciviousness, but fullness overthrows chastity, and fostereth all manner of provocations. If thine horse be too lusty, Hierome adviseth thee to take away some of his provender; by this means those Pauls, Hilaries, Anthonies, and famous anchorites, subdued the lusts of the flesh; by this means Hilarion made his ass, as he called his own body, leave kicking, (so Hierome relates of him in his life) when the devil tempted him to any such foul offence. By this means those Indian Brahmins kept themselves continent: they lay upon the ground covered with skins, as the red-shanks do on heather, and dieted themselves sparingly on one dish, which Guianerius would have all young men put in practice, and if that will not serve, Gordonius would have them soundly whipped, or, to cool their courage, kept in prison, and there fed with bread and water till they acknowledge their error, and become of another mind. If imprisonment and hunger will not take them down, according to the directions of that Theban Crates, time must wear it out; if time will not, the last refuge is a halter. But this, you will say, is comically spoken. Howsoever, fasting, by all means, must be still used; and as they must refrain from such meats formerly mentioned, which cause venery, or provoke lust, so they must use an opposite diet. Wine must be altogether avoided of the younger sort. So Plato prescribes, and would have the magistrates themselves abstain from it, for example's sake, highly commending the Carthaginians for their temperance in this kind. And 'twas a good edict, a commendable thing, so that it were not done for some sinister respect, as those old Egyptians abstained from wine, because some fabulous poets had given out, wine sprang first from the blood of the giants, or out of superstition, as our modern Turks, but for temperance, it being animae virus et vitiorum fomes, a plague itself, if immoderately taken. Women of old for that cause, in hot countries, were forbid the use of it; as severely punished for drinking of wine as for adultery; and young folks, as Leonicus hath recorded, Var. hist. l. 3. cap. 87, 88. out of Athenaeus and others, and is still practised in Italy, and some other countries of Europe and Asia, as Claudius Minoes hath well illustrated in his Comment on the 23. Emblem of Alciat. So choice is to be made of other diet.

Nec minus erucas aptum est vitare salaces,
Et quicquid veneri corpora nostra parat.

Eringos are not good for to be taken,
And all lascivious meats must be forsaken.

Those opposite meats which ought to be used are cucumbers, melons, purslane, water-lilies, rue, woodbine, ammi, lettuce, which Lemnius so much commends, lib. 2, cap. 42. and Mizaldus hort. med. to this purpose; vitex, or agnus castus before the rest, which, saith Magninus, hath a wonderful virtue in it. Those Athenian women, in their solemn feasts called Thesmopheries, were to abstain nine days from the company of men, during which time, saith Aelian, they laid a certain herb, named hanea, in their beds, which assuaged those ardent flames of love, and freed them from the torments of that violent passion. See more in Porta, Matthiolus, Crescentius lib. 5. &c., and what every herbalist almost and physician hath written, cap. de Satyriasi et Priapismo; Rhasis amongst the rest. In some cases again, if they be much dejected, and brought low in body, and now ready to despair through anguish, grief, and too sensible a feeling of their misery, a cup of wine and full diet is not amiss, and as Valescus adviseth, cum alia honesta venerem saepe exercendo, which Langius epist. med. lib. 1. epist. 24. approves out of Rhasis (ad assiduationem coitus invitat] and Guianerius seconds it, cap. 16. tract. 16. as a very profitable remedy.