endless cyclicality

What a sly, slippery film O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica) (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2011) is–it really should be a minor, forgettable trifle, dangling as it is on the most delicately trivial of plots.  Which in itself is rather odd, because as the oldest working filmmaker–“nearly as old as cinema itself,” as Manohla Dargis nicely puts it–de Oliveira has certainly reached a point where he has every reason to make films of sweeping statements and impressive ruminations, with a gravity and sense of significance befitting his most distinguished age of 102.

But he seems adamant in his resistance to playing “grand old man of the cinema,” and rather than weighing down his films with plot and narrative instead opts for a silly little scrap of a story–a young man who becomes bewitched by a beautiful dead woman he was asked to photograph–and then patiently observes as this situation plays itself out within the hermetic little Portuguese farm community in which it takes place.

And it is from this deliberate, confident patience which suddenly imbues the film with an unexpected gravity… I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there was a moment during the film when it suddenly hit me that this was very clearly the work of an individual who has literally experienced an entire century, and who is aware of dimensions of time and history others are not privy to.  Subtly and effortlessly de Oliveria conveys both the ebb and flow of entire eras (traditions quickly passing into oblivion) and the smaller cycles within them that compose the every day (noisy trucks passing under a window each morning at dawn), of the way different generations interact with each other and the ways that they talk past each other, and finally, of the way that history is inscribed onto the surface of spaces and objects and how they remain while human lives cycle around them endlessly.

And, on a more personal note, there’s also a layer of poignance and resonance for me when watching de Oliveira’s films of sensing my own family history surfacing on the screen: my family roots also lie in rural Porto of the north, and at unexpected moments–in the walk of an old woman, the swing of a grape hoe, or, most particularly, the traditional songs–I can almost sense, for just a split-second, my family mythologies come to life before my eyes.  And for me, that is much more magical than the appearances of the ghostly specter of the title.

A masterful film by a true master of cinema, though blink for a moment, and you might not recognize it.



An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec

An experiment, and one ultimately doomed to failure; its failure, however, is also its greatest strength.  It’s essentially an extended list of details (“some cars dive into the parking lot./ an 86 [bus] passes by.  A 70 passes by,” etc, etc), something that would seem to make for a rather dull read.

But I found it one of the most invigorating reading experiences I’ve had in a long while.  Not particularly, I admit, because of the text itself, but in the way that it suddenly made me breathlessly attuned to my surroundings, conscious of the tiny details of a particular time and a particular space that are easily (usually?) overlooked, ignored.  I read this slenderest of texts as I sat at the small table in the front bay windows of a cafe I discovered last week and have returned to several times since, looking out on a side street that heretofore had seemed tranquil and practically empty (at least by San Francisco standards), but as I read it suddenly seemed bristling with activity, and I became hyper-aware of the pedestrians criss-crossing my direct field of vision, casually walking dogs, pushing strollers or talking on phones, of the wind occasionally causing the overhanging expanses of tree leaves to shudder uncontrollably, of the slightest glimpse of figures appearing in windows of the facing row of houses…

And for that all-too-brief hour or so, the “infraordinary”—Perec’s term for “the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of lives”—suddenly seemed quite extraordinary.

I didn’t think of taking a photo myself, but I’m glad someone else did!  I was at the table on the opposite window, however, and when I’ve been there there hasn’t been so much activity outside… I have no idea what the white stuff is on the window though.  Photo by sparkle glowplug, found on flickr.

Review crossposted at Goodreads

marilyn monroe (finally) speaks for herself

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, eds.

To be honest, I had never noticed how prominently books feature in Marilyn Monroe iconography, but now that it’s been pointed out, it’s almost impossible to miss.

Apparently, this was no accident, for as Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment ask in their introduction to this volume, do we know of any other actresses from the period who “sometimes took pains to be photographed reading or holding a book?”  And this wasn’t merely a ploy to counter a fast-crystalizing reputation as an airhead, a dumb blonde, a beautiful face with nothing substantial behind it.  As Buchtal and Comment note, Monroe was “passionately fond of literature.”

And what did she read?  Oh, just UlyssesSwann’s Way.  Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  The personal library she left behind included titles by Milton, Flaubert, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Beckett. Never graduating from high school and embarrassed of the fact, as a blossoming starlet she began taking night classes at UCLA in literature and art history (attested to in detailed notes on Italian Renaissance art included in this volume).  She cultivated friendships with Sandburg, Edith Sitwell, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, to say nothing of her famous marriage to one of America’s foremost playwrights which would certainly have exposed her to the mid-century intelligentsia and literati.

In the decades since her death, it has become widely accepted to think of “Marilyn Monroe” in terms of a binary: Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker.  The luscious blonde sex goddess/the emotionally and mentally fragile woman behind the glamour and wide smile and come-hither gaze.  But with this collection, bringing together a recently unearthed assortment of journals, notes and letters, upsets that binary.  Certainly not the Marilyn of the silver screen, not quite the tragic, victimized off-screen Norma Jeane, a complex woman instead emerges: one who certainly was beautiful, glamorous, and sexy, one who was also emotionally scarred from a traumatic childhood, but one who was also curious and creative and introspective and literary.  A woman who actively pursued a creative and artistic life.  A woman who was by no means “just a dumb blonde.”

It’s not that I read every line of this book; in fact, after a while I read very little, instead opting to look at the carefully reproduced pages, studying the erratic handwriting, scattershot layout and curious spelling mistakes (Marilyn probably had some form of dyslexia).  It’s not that the poetry is good, and is probably of interest mostly to those willing to dutifully scour it for clues to her psyche and psychological makeup (I am definitely not one of those people).  To be honest, most of this is the type of scrawling that should be read by nobody but its creator; coming from different circumstances, this is not stuff that would be fit to publish.  But, of course, legends and icons are a different situation altogether.

Because really the quality, even the content itself is beside the point: this is Marilyn/Norma Jeane in her own words, speaking for herself.  And it’s been a long time coming.


Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind

Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind’s short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own.  Because, well, this text is just weird.  Really, really weird.

The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical “family” of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments.  By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind’s detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their “tastefully” lascivious plotlines and elements.  The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.

If this sounds like boarding school erotica–if not actual pornography–countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. “if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck.  Gertrud always smiled when she beat us”).  Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with “hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe” (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator’s remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they “had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves.”  Umm, yeah.  Creepy.

But just when one has pretty much written off Mine-Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently its main female dancer trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the “heavy bolt” that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond.  While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.

This squares with Wedekind’s reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years).  And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision.  It’s an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that’s what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.

Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place.  As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film.  Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind’s novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released).  As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.

Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I’m writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example.  And now I can.

Memories of a Movie:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads