Smashing things up in John Boorman’s 1987 *Hope and Glory*

We watched John Boorman’s wonderful 1987 Hope and Glory, which I somehow had never managed to see. Based on Boorman’s experiences as a kid during the Blitz in London, it’s about 8 y.o Bill Rowan and his family, mostly told from Bill’s POV. Dad goes off to war in 1939, leaving mom at home with Bill and his younger and older sister, dodging bombs & shrapnel, constantly having to wake up in the middle of the night to cower in the bomb shelter, but managing to have quite a lot of fun.

Pauline Kael commented of the film, “It’s hard to believe that a great comedy could be made of the Blitz but John Boorman has done it.” It’s filled with amazingly vivid, funny depictions of the young kids running riot amid the rubble of their neighborhood. A group of the younger boys, unsupervised, form a gang dedicated to smashing whatever has been left undestroyed. This scene shows Bill’s induction (he has to utter the phrase, “Bugger off you bloody sod”).  At 3:10 in this clip the cherubic gang leader tells Bill, “OK, you’re in… Let’s smash things up!” Cut to joyful jazz music as they go nuts in the incredibly dangerous-looking ruins of a house they’ve adopted as headquarters. Talk about free-range kids. (Kael observes of the film, “the war has its horrors, but it also destroys much of what the genteel poor like Grace Rowan (Sarah Miles) have barely been able to acknowledge they wanted destroyed.”)

In its representation of anarchic kids’ exuberant destruction, this reminds me of the incredible Holloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Also of Deputy and the other rock-throwing “hideous small boys,” who “don’t have an object,” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Durdles and Jasper …are also addressed by some half-dozen other hideous small boys—whether twopenny lodgers or followers or hangers-on of such, who knows!—who, as if attracted by some carrion-scent of Deputy in the air, start into the moonlight, as vultures might gather in the desert, and instantly fall to stoning him and one another.

‘Stop, you young brutes,’ cries Jasper angrily, ‘and let us go by!’

This remonstrance being received with yells and flying stones, according to a custom of late years comfortably established among the police regulations of our English communities, where Christians are stoned on all sides, as if the days of Saint Stephen were revived, Durdles remarks of the young savages, with some point, that ‘they haven’t got an object,’ and leads the way down the lane.

Traumatizing the Kids w/ Late Hitchcock

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from Morenoirposters.com

I may have traumatized the kids with my Family Movie Night selection, Hitchcock’s 1964 Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery film, Marnie.  This was made a year after The Birds (also with Hedren, of course) and contains some elements recognizable from that, as well as from Psycho (twisted secret related to mommy) and Vertigo (ice-cool blond in uncanny duplicate).

It seems that some make claims for Marnie as a late, under-recognized German-Expressionist-styled minor Hitch masterpiece but I would not go that far; for the first 45 minutes or so I loved it but by the end I found it too long and very creepy– partly but not only in the right ways. Hedren plays Marnie, a cool blond kleptomaniac (Grace Kelly turned down the role) who ends up more or less blackmailed into marriage by Connery’s character. There’s something wrong with Marnie; she can’t stop compulsively stealing, and she can’t bear to be touched by a man (not that Hitchcock allows her to stay celibate).

Finally we get a return to/ reenactment of her primal scene, involving her creepy mother (shades of Psycho here), and an exorcism of her demons that reveals the source of her phobic reaction to certain stimuli, including the color red (gee what could that be about?) and the sound of knocking on the door.

Slight spoilers from here on: in the big reveal, as I sat there with my 10-year-olds, it was seeming conceivable that it would turn out that the movie’s repressed secret was that the 6-year old Marnie had been forced to prostitute herself to her mother’s clients.  Now that would have been maybe a 2000s David Lynch movie, not a 1960s Hitchcock movie… But you could tell that Hitchcock would’ve loved to do it that way if he felt he could have gotten away with it.

Re: Marnie’s line in the poster, “I’m just some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped,” Connery’s character alludes early on to a jaguarundi he captured and raised as a pet, but disappointingly, this is last we hear about it; I was hoping for a noir Bringing Up Baby angle there.

Trigger warnings for jaguarundi, horseback accidents, fireplace pokers, wet phallic tree branches crashing through windows, marital rape, and childhood quasi-molestation scenes.

Pere Ubu in Bloomington, Rodriguez, and the Sorites Paradox

We saw that documentary Searching for Sugar Man the other night.  An amazing story and a fun movie, although I actually found it just slightly manipulative.

Here a summary from Rolling Stone:

The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the almost unbelievable story of a Mexican-American songwriter whose two early Seventies albums bombed in America, but who wound up finding a huge audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a legend there until a group of fans found him on the Internet and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts.

Rodriguez is an incredibly appealing character… so peaceful, zen, sort of ego-less, at least apparently.  After his career tanked (or went nowhere) after recording a couple albums in the early 1970s, he started doing construction work in Detroit, ran for city council, and lived a thoughtfully progressive, low-income life until (we’re told) he was re-discovered in the late 1990s.  The Rolling Stone piece buttresses my my sense that the documentary has its manipulative side, though.

By the late 1970s, Australian concert promoters tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit. He arrived in Australia with his two teenage daughters for a 15-date tour in early 1979. “He was just stunned by what we put together for him,” promoter Michael Coppel told Billboard at the time. “He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs.” He played to 15,000 people in Sydney, almost as many fans as Rod Stewart drew a few weeks earlier.

The movie does not mention this at all, and implies strongly that from the moment Rodriguez’s American career failed, he lived in total obscurity until the events of the 1990s chronicled in the movie, when a couple of South African fans and journalists tracked him down.  This Australian late 1970s interlude totally messes up the narrative.  And that was my larger problem, that the movie so clearly arranges the story for absolute maximum surprise and sentiment, in ways that occasionally felt a little untrustworthy to me.

Anyway, though, it’s certainly a fascinating story.  Even if it sometimes puts its thumb on the scales, it does underline the ways that the rise of the internet absolutely transformed the meaning of fame and stardom.  So incredible that Rodriguez could be a superstar in South Africa in the 70s and 80s, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and viewed as a musical icon, while living in obscure ignorance in Detroit.  We all lived in comparatively isolated pockets back then, and values, reputations, and images could remain bottled up, not communicating at all with the rest of the world.

I thought about Rodriguez when I saw Pere Ubu play at the Bishop Bar in Bloomington a week ago.  Pere Ubu meant a lot to me in the 1980s when I was in high school and college — I ranked them with Television, the Talking Heads, Blondie and so on as among the greatest and most important post-punk/ late 1970s groups.  (Strange to think about how recent that was then!) “Non-Alignment Pact,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance” were some of the best, weirdest, most gnarly post-punk non-hits of that era, led by the lumbering, broodingly intellectual, Boris Karloffian David Thomas, one of the most eccentric frontmen in rock and roll history.  The Modern Dance (1978) and Dub Housing (1979) are both incredible albums — the latter especially is a bizarrely compelling synth-punk, Cold War masterpiece I still feel I’ve never gotten to the bottom of.

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So, I went to see them in 2013, 35 years (!) after their first album, at this little Bloomington club, not really knowing what to expect (although I also saw some version of the group in maybe 2000 in Chicago).  Certain ontological questions are raised by this kind of performance.  Is this Pere Ubu?  Or a single band member with a capable backup band doing cover versions of old Pere Ubu songs?  David Thomas is the only original member.  But is the concept of an “original member” even relevant?  What if the transition occurs slowly, with band members dropping out and getting replaced gradually over time, à la the Ramones?

The problem is a version of the so-called “sorites paradox” or the philosophical problem of the “heap”:

The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.

When does Pere Ubu become not Pere Ubu?  The simplest way to think about this might be in terms of minimum number of original band members.  Can it still be the Pixies without Kim Deal?  But then, is it still the Beatles without Pete Best?  It can’t simply be a matter of numbers– I suppose one would need to measure from some moment of peak achievement or success.

Anyway.  There couldn’t have been more than 50 or so people at the Bishop which did not feel quite right for such an incredibly important band in the history of modern rock and roll.  David Thomas is a creaky, slow-moving dude now who performed seated from a chair, possibly out of medical necessity.  He was very cranky and sarcastic, mostly in a witty way; I was occasionally scared he’d say something awful or disturbing (as when he engaged a young woman in front in an extended, not entirely consensual dialogue about her love life), but he never really did.  He talked a lot about “the ladies” in a mordantly amusing way.  Best line was something like, “look around you.  For every woman you see at a Pere Ubu show, know that there will be five other kinds of people there.  And for every 58-year old, balding, ponytailed dude you see, there will be five other people who didn’t come to the show.”

They or he did “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance,” “Street Waves,” and “Heaven.”  (No “Non-Alignment Pact” or “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”)

I kind of felt as if David Thomas were Rodriguez, stuck in a world in which he’s in disguise as an unknown obscurity.

I don’t know if this was really Pere Ubu, but it was great to hear those songs.

[cp my experience seeing Jonathan Richman, also at the Bishop– Richman is a somewhat comparable figure to Thomas in certain ways.]

Watching Hitchcock’s Classic Thriller Sextet on Family Movie Night

Well, actually just a third of it to date: The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps in the Criterion Collection reissues over the last two weekends.

Between 1934 and 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made six films in England that stand collectively as the highlight of his British period. Dubbed Hitch’s “classic thriller sextet” by theorists and critics, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (’35), Secret Agent (’36), Sabotage (also ’36), Young and Innocent (or The Girl was Young Indeed, 1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) all contain thematic and visual elements that he would later implement in his Hollywood films.

Cinefile.

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Both are fantastic, but my nod goes to The Lady Vanishes even if the BFI list of the top hundred British films ranks it at #35 as opposed to #4 for The 39 Steps. My memories of it were so vague, and I am wondering how much of this relates to the likelihood that I previously watched a lousy public-domain video version; this is a recent, deluxe, beautiful Criterion two-disk version.  If you have not seen it in years, I highly recommend checking it out.  Comedy, chills, and chuckles are delivered in profusion as per the poster. I did not even have any memory of the not-so-brief beginning part of the movie that takes places off the train, in an inn in the nameless and oddly-imaginary Eastern European (?) country.  My most vivid recollection was the hauntingly uncanny moment when the writing in condensation on the train’s window, “Miss Froy,” re-emerges. The part of the movie where Margaret Lockwood can’t get anyone on the train to admit that her seatmate Miss Froy ever even existed is classic Hitchcock in its frightening atmosphere of sudden, inexplicable conspiracy.

Interestingly, in both movies a crucial plot point depends on the recollection & memorization of a certain tune or snatch of music.  The 39 Steps begins and ends in a music hall, and I think it “re-mediates” music-hall entertainment, in certain respects — i.e. it references and re-frames music-hall as a pre-existing representational code. In The 39 Steps the memorization of the tune is central to the plot and frames the entire story; in The Lady Vanishes it’s also important, albeit (as is typical of the movie) given a light spin: Michael Redgrave is some kind of musical ethnographer who, at the onset, is gathering examples of traditional native dance and music, so he is confident that he can easily memorize the crucial message encoded in the tune.  He actually loses the tune, but it turns out all right even so.

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Some of the original taglines from The 39 Steps:

It’s Great…It’s Grand…It’s Glorious!
Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him
The MAN who put the MAN in roMANce.
A hundred steps ahead of any picture this year
The Most Charming Brute Who Ever Scorned A Lady
Fated to be Mated with the One Man She Hated
She Hated to be Mastered… But She Learned to Like it from the Man who put the MAN in roMANce [!!!]
Its gender politics are creepy in not-atypical Hitchcockian style (much more so than The Lady Vanishes), with a plot contrivance handcuffing Robert Donat to Madeleine Carroll and requiring him to knock and drag her around quite a bit. One senses some disgust at the female body and perhaps a suppressed desire to stab it in the back with a kitchen knife. I was glad the kids had gone to bed by the time I watched excerpts from the famous Francois Truffaut interview with Hitchcock in which he drawls about his favored archetypical Blonde: “we want her to be a lady in the drawing-room and a whore in the bedroom.”  Subtle, Hitch!

Taylor Mead’s Ass!

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I love New York Times obituaries.

In September 1963, Mr. Mead accompanied Warhol on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles. The entourage filmed scenes for what would become, in 1964, Mr. Mead’s first film for Warhol, “Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of.”

Mr. Mead played Tarzan, edited the film and handled the sound. On screen, his sarong kept falling off while climbing trees, prompting a critic to say that he really did not want to see any more two-hour films of Mr. Mead’s derrière.

Warhol wrote a letter to The Village Voice saying that after searching “the vast Warhol archives,” he could find no two-hour film of Mr. Mead’s behind. “We are rectifying this undersight,” he said, and soon made what would become a little-seen cult classic, the title describing in three words precisely what the critic did not want to see (though the coarser Anglo-Saxon term was used instead of the French).

I kind of like the way the NYT has maintained a regime of prudery and delicacy that requires this kind of work-around.  The Times music listings for the band [Pissed Jeans] they call “****** Jeans” are always amusing: “His band, from Philadelphia, has a name that lies just on the other side of what’s printable here; it describes a basic bladder-related humiliation, something that happens to the drunk or scared or infantile.”  OK, that’s actually just kind of silly.

Check out the piece on the man J. Hoberman called “the first underground movie star.” Also, here is the IMDb listing for Warhol’s 1965 film, and its more-detailed Wikipedia entry.

*Amour* and *I Married You for Happiness*

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Coincidentally (I think) I happened to be reading Lily Tuck’s novel I Married You For Happiness when I saw Michael Haneke’s Amour at the IU Cinema– both of which are about an elderly, long-married spouse’s response to the death of his/her partner.  You probably know about Amour.  The donnée of Tuck’s novel is a bit different; at its onset, the narrator Nina is at the bedside of her husband, who after going upstairs to take a quick nap, has died suddenly; the novel plays out in that night, as she stays by his corpse, thinking back over memories from their marriage.  As its title suggests, I Married You For Happiness is less about the death than about the marriage, and I found it to be a moving and engaging portrait of a not-untroubled long-term relationship as it spools out over decades.  They meet at a cafe in Paris where she is reading an avant-garde French novel by Natalie Saurraute (which hints at Tuck’s aesthetic program). Theirs is a C.P. Snow two-cultures kind of marriage, she a painter, he a mathematician, and one of its concerns is the way two people with different ways of thinking, kinds of mind, and perspectives can form a life together.  In this it reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s portrait of a somewhat incompatible yin/yang marriage in the Ramsays:

Whenever she "thought of his work" she always saw clearly before 
her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him 
what his father's books were about. "Subject and object and the 
nature of reality," Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, 
she had no notion what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table then," 
he told her, "when you're not there."

So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay's work, 
a scrubbed kitchen table.

Nina is a bit Mrs Ramsay-like in her bemused attitude to her abstractly-thinking husband’s worldview.  Although in other ways she, as an artist, more resembles Mrs. Ramsay’s protege Lily, the painter (Lily Tuck/ Lily Briscoe?).

I am a longtime Haneke fan (I’ve seen most of his films, I think — my favorite is probably Caché; I can never bring myself to watch either version of Funny Games), and I found Amour brilliant and/but hard to watch in some respects.  I read one review that asserted that it is “not a depressing movie” and in fact that it would be a good choice for a couple to go see on Valentine’s Day.  It’s true that it’s a notably realist and unsentimental depiction of long-term commitment– one that considers what the phrase “’till death do us part” might really mean in practice.  Not sure I’d really recommend it for date night, though.  One friend saw it at a different showing at the IU Cinema during which she reports various audience members were crying, one woman doing so throughout the entire film and, at one climactic moment (you can probably guess which if you’ve seen it), shouting out loudly “no!”  My friend says she actually kind of wished she’d seen it on DVD at home, as the emotion in the audience was a bit overpowering.