a slight waver in confidence

A recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education contained this quote from Paul Valéry. Just what I wanted to read now that I’m beginning to look into my school options in earnest…

“Let us confess, the real object of education is the diploma. I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the deadly enemy of culture. As diplomas have become more important in our lives (and their importance has done nothing but grow as a result of economic conditions), the less has education had any real effect… the aim of education no longer being the development of the mind but the acquisition of the diploma, the required minimum becomes the goal of study.”

To be fair, these are many of my own opinions (except more eloquently expressed, of course), but it still gave me pause…

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Finding the words to say goodbye…

So to commemorate the passing of those monolithic, for-so-long-seemingly-immortal titans of 1960’s European cinema I pulled out my DVD of … Before Sunset. What? Okay, I did have the full intention of watching Antonioni’s early, lovely Cronaca di un amore, but somehow, it just didn’t seem quite right (admittedly, there were some other factors at work… as in my boyfriend and I were picking out a film to watch on the evening of our nine month anniversary), and Linklater’s film seemed to be a better choice overall.

Now anyone who is familiar with my long-standing love affair with Before Sunset is aware that each deliberately spaced viewing is always followed with a flurry of introspection and self-evaluation, and this viewing, which I calculate is my eighth, is no different. And since I somehow manage to make sure everything loops back to this film, should it come as a surprise that watching it this time around one (of many) things I was reflecting on was the remarkable cinema and art of Bergman and Antonioni? I realize it may sound absurd, but let me explain. Or at least attempt to.

One of the highlights of Before Sunset for me is the exchange between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the back of a taxi van, a sequence right around the hour mark that I dread (it’s so painful) as much as I anticipate (there’s always that simultaneous thrill of exhilaration). And it is in the back of that van, driving through Paris, that suddenly the film, which before has been a sweet but admittedly innocuous exchange between two people reuniting after an extended period of longing, suddenly takes this ferocious turn as rapture gives way to painful reality as Jesse and Celine confront their lives and unresolved connection to each other. When Celine launches into her outburst and breakdown the film breaks through into an entirely different, much higher and more poignant emotional level altogether, and the seemingly placid, semi-bourgeois surface of things are suddenly, unexpectedly stripped away and all the seething sensations of pain, fear, insecurity and god knows what else boil over into a flood of anger, hurt and resentment. And for me at least, at this moment there’s always this fleeting, unexplainable sensation as if the world itself is on the verge of breaking down entirely.

This time around, with the recent passing of Bergman haunting the edges of my mind, I couldn’t help but feel that this sequence demonstrates exactly what happens in many of Bergman’s best films—that is, that breathless moment where the whole film shifts and we’re confronted with a character’s jagged, naked emotions and almost more than the characters themselves, we as the viewers struggle to come to grips with the ramifications of this sudden outpouring of emotion. It’s rather beside the point that most of the time Bergman sets these scenes up in way that extremely indebted to theatrical conventions—certainly much less organic than the way Linklater does it—but somehow, it always manages to elicit a similar reaction in me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for art that depict obscured emotional landscapes and delves into hidden motives and masked reactions between people (in fact, I tend to prefer them), but in the case of Bergman and Before Sunset, there’s something both devastating and elating about being confronted head-on with the tempest of emotions that exist within each person—being dared, or more accurately defied to hold the stare and not turn away. I never cry—those that know me well laugh that I’m an “emotionless monster”—but it is during these brief moments that I feel tears welling up in the corner of my eyes, and even if they’re never shed (not yet, anyway) it only heightens a rare sensation for me: that something genuine is at stake.

This last viewing marked the first that I’ve ever watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset in tandem, and one of my favorite moments in the earlier film is when Jesse and Celine sit perched on some pallets in some anonymous Viennese back alley and Celine shares that she thinks the only thing that matters is the unseen space between people. Now if Sunrise can be seen as a film about filling this space with countless points of connection, Sunset depicts what happens during the scramble to bridge the empty spaces of disconnection. And that is always what Michelangelo Antonioni’s films struck me as—attempts at articulating and giving shape to the unglimpsed spaces that both connect and disconnect people. Just like Jesse and Celine, Antonioni’s characters circle endlessly around each other, they pose and posture and flail about with bits of expressions and conversation, all in the attempt to find a way bridge the emotional gaps that can sense but only barely begin to articulate.

Which is why I’ve never quite understood the (lamentably) widespread criticism that Antonioni’s cinematic vision is at its core emotionally empty; if the unseen areas of disconnect might indeed be more accurately characterized as “gaping chasms” rather then “empty spaces,” to me there’s always an underlying awareness of the sadness and profound emptiness of the situation that is simply heartbreaking. And I find a profound sadness in the fact that there always seems to be the potential that the pretty surfaces of Antonioni’s immaculately composed mise-en-scene will shatter and that finally something real and human will cut through the stifling boredom and ennui—but that is something Antonioni never allows for in his films, and I find it devastating.

So if part of me thinks that it may be silly to link these late, great auteurs rather superficially to my favorite film, when it comes down to it I think I’m just trying to articulate the fact that like Before Sunset, the films that Bergman and Antonioni made are among the few that touch me on an emotional level that few others reach. And even if I won’t say I’m heartbroken or even aghast by the news their respective passing—for both filmmakers had lived long, full, creative lives—I will take a moment to say thank you… and breath a sigh of relief that even if their creators are no longer here with us, the movies themselves will always live on. And for that I am grateful.

recent reading adventures

Still gathering some thoughts together on the one-two punch of Bergman and Antonioni…

It’s been a good while since I’ve read something that has delighted me quite so thoroughly as Jane Austen’s Emma— I was surprised how deeply satisfying it was to simply be strung along through multiple messy tangents, knowing full well from page one that by the closing paragraph all the major characters would be matched in matrimony with a tidy, symmetrical inevitableness. But if in retrospect the overarching storylines seem remarkably contrived, Austen has a remarkable, perhaps unparalleled gift for fleshing out her narrative skeleton with an insatiable eye for the subtle nuances of places, faces, social habits and posturings, obscured motives and emotions… and assembling all these things and endlessly embroidering them with unexpected little details she conjures up something remarkable, something that shouldn’t remotely resemble “real life,” but somehow, amazingly, does.

I’m not sure if Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty has the “air of the classic” that some of the quoted reviewers on the back cover trumpet, but it’s an engrossing read, if never quite as sexy as it constantly promises to be. The comparisons to Henry James are certainly apt (he is certainly invoked and quoted enough), with a striking similarity to the master’s broad expanse and meticulously analyzed social observation, and the tragic denouement, while certainly expected, still manages to pack quite a punch.

Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes is certainly as romantic and wistfully nostalgic as a great “remembering lost adolescence” novel should be, but I’ll admit I’m just a tad baffled by its reputation as one of the the great French novels. For books in a similar vein, I vastly prefer Hartley’s The Go-Between.