"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 31, 2012

"Clara Militch" (After Death) by Ivan Turgenev (Best Novellas)

Clara Militch (also called After Death; 1883) is one of the late stories of Ivan Turgenev, in fact his "swang song" (see my other posts about the stories of Turgenev: Early Stories) and a mix of two of the themes that fascinated him: love and the unconsciousness - in this, he was a forerunner of Arthur Schnitzler.

Clara Militch tells the story of the 27-year-old Muscovite Aratov, an independent scientist (read: university drop-out) who leads a secluded life together with his overprotective aunt. Then, one day, a friend named Kupfer, who is his only contact with the outside world, after some effort entices him to visit a charity concert, where the promising young singer and actress Clara Militch will perform the Love Letter part from Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin. Unlike the rest of the audience, Aratov is not impressed by her performance and is not interested in being introduced to her, despite the fact that during her recitation the interestingly dark woman kept staring at him.
She was a girl of nineteen, tall, rather broad-shouldered, but well-built. A dark face, of a half-Jewish half-gipsy type, small black eyes under thick brows almost meeting in the middle, a straight, slightly turned-up nose, delicate lips with a beautiful but decided curve, an immense mass of black hair, heavy even in appearance, a low brow still as marble, tiny ears ... the whole face dreamy, almost sullen. A nature passionate, wilful — hardly good-tempered, hardly very clever, but gifted — was expressed in every feature.
In fact, Clara was modeled on opera singer Pauline Viardot, Turgenev's own life-long love, whom he met first in 1843 in St. Petersburg.

The next day Aratov receives an anonymous letter, asking him to come to a rendez-vous, a request to which he reluctantly complies. As suspected, he meets Clara, who declares her love for him, but unsocial Aratov only answers in broad platitudes, with an aloofness that makes Clara walk away in anger and disappointment:
‘I am ready to listen to you,’ he began again, ‘and shall be very glad if I can be of use to you in any way ... though I am, I confess, surprised ... considering the retired life I lead....’
At these last words of his, Clara suddenly turned to him, and he beheld such a terrified, such a deeply-wounded face, with such large bright tears in the eyes, such a pained expression about the parted lips, and this face was so lovely, that he involuntarily faltered, and himself felt something akin to terror and pity and softening.
‘Ah, why ... why are you like that?’ she said, with an irresistibly genuine and truthful force, and how movingly her voice rang out! ‘Could my turning to you be offensive to you?... is it possible you have understood nothing?... Ah, yes! you have understood nothing, you did not understand what I said to you, God knows what you have been imagining about me, you have not even dreamed what it cost me — to write to you!... You thought of nothing but yourself, your own dignity, your peace of mind!... But is it likely I’ ... (she squeezed her hands raised to her lips so hard, that the fingers gave a distinct crack).... ‘As though I made any sort of demands of you, as though explanations were necessary first....
“My dear madam,... I am, I confess, surprised,... if I can be of any use” ... Ah! I am mad!— I was mistaken in you — in your face!... when I saw you the first time ...! Here ... you stand.... If only one word. What, not one word?’
She ceased.... Her face suddenly flushed, and as suddenly took a wrathful and insolent expression. ‘Mercy! how idiotic this is!’ she cried suddenly, with a shrill laugh. ‘How idiotic our meeting is! What a fool I am!... and you too.... Ugh!’
She gave a contemptuous wave of her hand, as though motioning him out of her road, and passing him, ran quickly out of the boulevard, and vanished.
Three months later, Aratov happens to see an obituary in the newspaper informing him that Clara Militch has taken poison while on stage - allegedly out of unrequited love. Now Aratov starts thinking much about Clara, he tries to figure out the reasons for her drastic act, and she appears in a sort of prophetic dream telling him to visit her hometown.

By the way, this incident was based on a real event, which took place in 1881 and was reported in the papers: a certain scientist had fallen in love with a famous Russian actress, after she had very theatrically committed suicide on the stage and died in front of the spectators!

Aratov decides to visit Clara's home town Kasan. He speaks with Clara's sister, who gives him her portrait and also lends him Clara's diary. The diary confirms his worst fears: it was his rebuff that caused her to take her own life. As soon as Aratov has returned to Moscow, Clara starts to haunt him, inspiring remorse as well as passion. Now, posthumously, he starts loving her and ends up in the power of the dead. Here is how she haunts him:
And now he began to speak, not loudly, but with solemn deliberation, as though he were uttering an incantation.
‘Clara,’ he began, ‘if you are truly here, if you see me, if you hear me — show yourself!... If the power which I feel over me is truly your power, show yourself! If you understand how bitterly I repent that I did not understand you, that I repelled you — show yourself! If what I have heard was truly your voice; if the feeling overmastering me is love; if you are now convinced that I love you, I, who till now have neither loved nor known any woman; if you know that since your death I have come to love you passionately, inconsolably; if you do not want me to go mad,— show yourself, Clara!’
Aratov had hardly uttered this last word, when all at once he felt that some one was swiftly approaching him from behind — as that day on the boulevard — and laying a hand on his shoulder. He turned round, and saw no one. But the sense of her presence had grown so distinct, so unmistakable, that once more he looked hurriedly about him....
What was that? On an easy-chair, two paces from him, sat a woman, all in black. Her head was turned away, as in the stereoscope.... It was she! It was Clara! But what a stern, sad face!
Aratov slowly sank on his knees. Yes; he was right, then. He felt neither fear nor delight, not even astonishment.... His heart even began to beat more quietly. He had one sense, one feeling, ‘Ah! at last! at last!’
‘Clara,’ he began, in a faint but steady voice, ‘why do you not look at me? I know that it is you ... but I may fancy my imagination has created an image like that one ... ‘— he pointed towards the stereoscope —‘prove to me that it is you.... Turn to me, look at me, Clara!’
Clara’s hand slowly rose ... and fell again.
‘Clara! Clara! turn to me!’
And Clara’s head slowly turned, her closed lids opened, and her dark eyes fastened upon Aratov.
He fell back a little, and uttered a single, long-drawn-out, trembling ‘Ah!’
Clara gazed fixedly at him ... but her eyes, her features, retained their former mournfully stern, almost displeased expression. With just that expression on her face she had come on to the platform on the day of the literary matinée, before she caught sight of Aratov. And, just as then, she suddenly flushed, her face brightened, her eyes kindled, and a joyful, triumphant smile parted her lips....
‘I have come!’ cried Aratov. ‘You have conquered.... Take me! I am yours, and you are mine!’
He flew to her; he tried to kiss those smiling, triumphant lips, and he kissed them. He felt their burning touch: he even felt the moist chill of her teeth: and a cry of triumph rang through the half-dark room.
Finally, Aratov starts longing for death, in order to be reunited with Clara, with whom he is madly in love after death. He dies with a happy smile on his face.

Of course we should not infer from this story that Turgenev really believed in "ghosts." He didn't, as he explained himself, his interest was in dreams and the unconscious. Turgenev clearly leaves his readers the possibility of a rational explanation for a number of seemingly inexplicable events. Out of guilt, or regret because it is too late, Aratov imagines Clara's presence and becomes increasingly mentally unstable. In the end, this leads to his own death.

The passion is as palpable as in Turgenev's other love stories, but there are new elements as well. Besides the already mentioned interest in dreams and the unconscious, that is satire: take for example the way the charity concert is described, with its inept performers. It can even be doubted that Clara, aged 19, is such a great artist - she only performs in provincial theaters. She also seems to mix up literature and life, for at the rendez-vous with Aratov, she in fact reenacts the Love Letter scene from Yevgeny Onegin. Her "love suicide" seems just such a literary cliché.

But given the fact that Clara was modeled on Turgenev's own Pauline Viardot, is it wrong to assume that the writer, in the last year before his death, was perhaps also dreaming of a future union with his great love? (That means Turgenev had to wait a bit for he died in 1883 and Viardot lived until 1910!)
Clara Militch was filmed in 1915 by the famous early Russian director Yevgeny Bauer under the title After Death. (By the way, why have so few of Turgenev's stories been filmed?).
Article (PDF): After Death, the Movie (1915) - Ivan Turgenev, Evgenii Bauer and the Aesthetics of Morbidity by Otto Boele (Leiden University). I am indebted to several ideas from this enlightening article.
Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

July 29, 2012

Bach Cantatas (41): Trinity VIII

The eighth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of warning against false prophets and hypocrites.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
Romans 8:12–17, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God"
Matthew 7:15–23, Sermon on the Mount: warning of false prophets

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Cantatas:
  • Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, BWV 136, 18 June 1723

    1. Chorus: Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Ach, daß der Fluch, so dort die Erde schlägt
    3. Aria (alto, oboe d'amore): Es kömmt ein Tag
    4. Recitativo (bass): Die Himmel selber sind nicht rein
    5. Aria (tenor, bass, violins): Uns treffen zwar der Sünden Flecken
    6. Chorale (violin): Dein Blut, der edle Saft


    ("Examine me, God, and determine my heart") The opening chorus (with horn) has an almost otherworldly beauty. The meandering theme may be symbolic for the text focusing on the words "searching" and "determining." The festive character of the movement is however at odds with the almost penitential tone of the text. The alto aria has an interesting line for the oboe d'amore. Despite the "cool" walking bass, the text pictures the trembling of the hypocrites at the Last Judgement. The bass recitative emphasizes the liturgical theme of the cantata: the exhortation to beware of false prophets. The duet for tenor and bass ("Indeed the stains of sin cling to us") is accompanied by insistent violins and emphasizes that the fall of Adam and original sin can only be washed away by the "mighty river of blood" of Jesus' wounds. Rather heavy Lutheran theology! A harmonization of "Auf meinen lieben Gott" provides a solemn ending for the work. (***)

  • Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, BWV 178, 30 July 1724

    Chor: Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält
    Choral und Rezitativ A: Was Menschenkraft und -witz anfäht
    Arie B: Gleichwie die wilden Meereswellen
    Choral T: Sie stellen uns wie Ketzern nach
    Choral und Rezitativ B T A: Auf sperren sie den Rachen weit
    Arie T: Schweig, schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!
    Choral: Die Feind sind all in deiner Hand


    ("If the Lord himself had not been on our side") Again a chorale cantata "per omnes verses" that literally uses the text of six numbers of the eponymous hymn by Justus Jonas (1524) - one of four that Bach wrote in this ancient style. The text treats of God's support in times of human conflict. The opening chorus presents the hypothetical situation that God would desert his followers and leave them at the mercy of "raging foes," the phrases of the chorus set in simple block form symbolic for the stability of God, the unsettled and "wild" phrases depicting the raging foes. The chorale with interpolations by the alto soloist's commentary is another example of the ancient style. The energetic bass aria is the musical highlight of the cantata. It is a simile aria comparing a soul disturbed by the wrath of an enemy to a storm-tossed ship at sea. Bach fully uses this opportunity for word painting! Next the tenor sings another hymn verse, this time with an ostinato accompaniment of oboes d'amore. A chorale setting for full chorus plus one more interpolated chorale (now by bass, tenor and alto) is then followed by a second tenor aria. The text here speaks of "frenzied reason," which is transformed into a stormy seascape, with a disjointed rhythm, until the call "be silent!" comes. The cantata closes with a chorale setting that brings back stability with its block-like evocation of the power of God. (***)

  • Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45, 11 August 1726

    Part I
    1. Coro: Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Der Höchste läßt mich seinen Willen wissen
    3. Aria (tenor): Weiß ich Gottes Rechte
    Part II
    4. Arioso (bass): Es werden viele zu mir sagen an jenem Tage
    5. Aria (alto): Wer Gott bekennt aus wahrem Herzensgrund
    6. Recitativo (alto): So wird denn Herz und Mund selbst von mir Richter sein
    7. Chorale: Gib, daß ich tu mit Fleiß


    ("He hath shewed thee, o man, what is good") A powerfully declamatory work of which the text focuses on Micah 6:8, which reminds man of his duty towards God. The cantata starts with a very fine fugal choral movement with an energetic orchestral introduction. There are frequent repetitions of "Es ist dir gesagt," a quote from Micah, one of the twelve minor prophets. This is top-drawer Bach, a magnificent concertante piece! The tenor aria has an attractive melody, although the text is a stern exhortation to prepare for the day of reckoning: "Misery and shame threatens your trespass!" The second half of the cantata starts with Christ’s ferocious words to the hypocrites from Matthew, conceived as a vividly dramatic arioso for bass. There is a crackling energy in the string parts to support the fierce denunciation. The wonderful alto aria is accompanied by a trio sonata with an irresistible flute that is almost independent of the voice line. It is perhaps a bit too friendly considering the text: "Whoever acknowledges God from the true depths of his heart, God will also acknowledge. For he must burn forever, who only with his mouth calls Him Lord." After another recitative, the cantata ends with a rich harmonization of “O Gott, du frommer Gott.” (***)
(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

July 28, 2012

"The Metamorphosis" (Die Verwandlung) by Franz Kafka (Best Novellas)

Although most of his work was published posthumously, often in an unfinished state, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was such a genius that Nabokov called him one of the "greatest writers of the 20th c." Besides that, he has also inspired the rather useful term "Kafkaesque."

One of Kafka's most typical, most "Kafkaesque" works is the novella The Metamorphosis, in German called Die Verwandlung, one of the works Kafka did actually finish. It was written in 1912 and published in 1915.

The story is simple: a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, one morning wakes up in his bed at home - where he lives with his parents and sister, whom he in fact supports with his job - and finds that he has been transformed into a monstrous insect-like creature. The story never explains the why or how, but just gives this as a fact. The insect was, according to lepidopterist Nabokov, not a cockroach, but a big beetle, about three feet tall. Only half-awake, Gregor realizes his plight with a childish acceptance:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.
“What’s happened to me?” he thought. It wasn’t a dream.

The novella is divided into three chapters. The first chapter tells about the initial reactions, of Gregor himself, who has to get used to his insect state and learn to use his six small legs (and not stand erect like a human, which is now painful), of his deeply shocked family, and the head clerk of the company where he works. In fact, his fear of being late for work is greater than his shock of having been transformed into an insect. We are clearly dealing with strict and rule-based German-type culture here (although the setting is Prague, where Kafka was born and lived). Gregor may loose his job if he is late and that would be awful as he supports his whole family, even paying off his father's debts. But who else, from another culture, would worry about being late for work when one woke up as a beetle?

The family members, by the way, are true vulgarians, utter philistines in the Flaubertian sense. They are parasites exploiting Gregor, and he may well have grown his insect shield as protection against them. Their low nature is also shown when after the transformation, they soon return to normal daily life, shutting the bug up in his bedroom, instead of screaming for help (additionally, their attitude may be inspired by social shame).

The second part relates how a certain modus vivendi is found, as Gregor gets used to his insect body and his family feeds him (mainly the wrong things, but they don't care) and removes furniture from his room so that he can freely move around and climb the walls. But they don't want to see his ugly form, he is confined to his room, and usually hides under the sofa when his sister enters with his food, to spare her sensibilities (in contrast to the sweetly human insect Gregor, his "beloved sister" is not considerate at all, but increasingly antagonistic and cruel); his brutish father chases him back by throwing apples at him when he once comes out. The family members also have to take jobs for they can no longer sponge off the successful son. And in the third part this situation breaks down, and the family disintegrates, as three lucrative boarders, students, give notice because of Gregor's presence. The family, with the sister in the lead, wants to get rid of him, so he decides to die (he is already dying from starvation and the wound caused by one of the apples thrown at him) - to their great relief. Now they can look towards a new future, especially for the daughter, who seems sexually liberated by the death of her verminous brother.

The strictness of society is also clear in the way the family tries to keep appearances up to the outside, and the lack of love on the inside. They feed Gregor perfunctorily, but there is no attempt at communication with him, even not by the women. The father positively hates him. This reminded me of Effi Briest by Fontane (see my post about this novel), written two decades earlier, where Effi is not only kicked out of her home by her own husband after a six year old affair comes out, but where also her parents refuse to recognize her any longer.

Kafka has been interpreted in various heavy handed ways - for example, the absurdity in his works has been seen as emblematic of existentialism - so I was surprised to find that The Metamorphosis is in fact full of humor - it is quite joyful - and also infused by a spirit of conscious subversion: Kafka satirizes the strict rules of society, the way people try to keep up appearances to the very last, the coldness of the family that lives off the son but shuts him out after his misfortune and finally is glad he is dead... One could even see Gregor's transformation into an insect as symbolic of a nasty, terminal illness - and the cold way society treats people who have been thus stricken. Or as Nabokov says: "In [...] Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans—and dies in despair. "

One final word about translating Die Verwandlung: Kafka writes a beautiful, idiomatic German, with long meandering sentences, so try to read it in the original of you can. Like Flaubert, whom he admired, Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion of the author's private sentiments. It is very difficult to translate this style, and even individual words give problems. For example, Gregor has been transformed in what in German is called an "Ungeziefer," which not just an "insect" but has the connotation of "unclean."

Audiobook English and German.
Text of a Lecture on The Metamorphosis by Vladimir Nabokov (from The Kafka Project). Strongly recommended.
The Kafka project, an essential website with original texts (based on Kafka's manuscripts), translations, articles and essays plus Kafka's biography.
Christopher Plummer has made an interesting movie: The Metamorphosis - A Study: Nabokov on Kafka
Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

July 27, 2012

" Antony and Cleopatra" by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra tells the story of Mark Antony, one of the three rulers (Second Triumvirate, 43-33 BCE) of the late Roman Republic, who begins an affair with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, and is caught between desire and duty. The major antagonist for both of them is Octavius Caesar, one of Antony's fellow triumviri and the future first emperor of Rome. Shakespeare used the Lives of Plutarch as his major source, even quoting literally from the English translation.

Before turning to the play, I read the Life of Antony, and so recalled why many of the Latin texts I translated in Grammar School were so boring: it is nothing but war and fighting - in every paragraph a different war, be it an uprising, a border war, a rebellion or a conquest of new territory. And the fighting is continued inside Rome where the politicians are continually at each other's throats. Losers are executed, so politics is a job with a high death-rate, in fact comparable to the wars fought by the generals.

This brush with my own past, reminded me of the fact that my knowledge of ancient history had gotten rather dusty, so I turned to Wikipedia for an update on the two protagonists.

Cleopatra is by far the most interesting character of the two - Mark Antony was a rather flawed person: a good professional soldier, who in the field shared various hardships with his men, but who away from the battle field was a boozer and womanizer, and unable to discipline himself. He married twice, with women wiser than he was, but these were political marriages that probably didn't really interest him. And then comes Cleopatra...


I was tempted to pull out Edward Said-type cliches about a Western man from a "hard" culture falling in love with a seductively "soft" Eastern woman... but Cleopatra's ancestors were of Greek origin. And there is nothing soft about her - she impresses me as a great schemer and manipulator, in other words, an expert politician. After all, as pharaoh (scheming against her brothers with whom she one after the other had to share the throne and the bed) she consummated a liaison with none other than the great Julius Caesar. He was 52, she 21. She bore Caesar a son and convinced him to abandon his original plans to annex Egypt, instead having him back-up her claim to the throne. When Cleopatra visited Rome in 46 BCE, she stayed in one of Caesar's country houses. Their relationship was obvious to the outside world, and a scandal as Caesar was already married. The Roman dictator even erected a golden statue of Cleopatra as Isis in the temple of Venus Genetrix at the Forum in Rome. After Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE, she aligned with Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar's heir, Caesar Octavianus (the later Emperor Augustus). She bore Antony twins. After losing the Battle of Actium to Octavian's forces, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra later followed suit, according to tradition killing herself by means of an asp bite on August 12, 30 B.C.E. In the end, she had made the wrong bet and lost the power game. Now Egypt lost its pharaohs and became a Roman province.

That is all from history, in which I interpret Cleopatra as a great politician. She was hungry for power and got what she wanted, for almost two decades - keeping Egypt independent. Antony I see as a typical soldier, weak in politics and on top of that, unable to keep himself in check at decisive moments in his life. He was too much heart and too little head. (It is unimaginable that the historical Cleopatra loved such a man - she rather used him -, and her suicide therefore must have been out of spite that she had lost her crown, rather than a love suicide.)

Now back to Shakespeare. Antony and Cleopatra is a complex historical play built on opposition. Throughout the play, the following oppositions are emphasized, subverted, and commented on:
  • Between the protagonists, Antony and Cleopatra, who struggle to have power over each other.
    Manipulation and the quest for power are very prominent themes in the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Both use language to undermine the power of the other and to heighten their own sense of power. Cleopatra dominates Anthony by making herself "difficult to get." She also pesters him about his wife (without giving him a chance to say something back) to make him feel guilty towards her.  
  • Between masculinity and femininity
    These are attributes of respectively, Antony and Cleopatra, and of Rome and Egypt. However, as has been seen by more critical readings in the 20th c., gender expectations are also converted: Antony is feminine, especially compared to Octavius, and Cleopatra is masculine in her expert play for power and independence from Rome.
  • Between pragmatic, austere Rome and sensual, imaginative Egypt (Alexandria)
    Rome has been characterized as a male world, presided over by the austere Caesar, and Egypt as a female domain, embodied by a Cleopatra who is seen to be as abundant and changeable as the Nile
  • Between reason and emotion
    This contrast is especially seen between Octavius Caesar, who is cold and rational, and Antony, who is all heart, all emotion. Octavius is disciplined, while Antony can't keep himself in check.
As is clear from the above, the first three of these dichotomies overlap. Such characterizations have been challenged by feminist critique and by Edgar Said, but Shakespeare lived around 1600 and he was hardly one of our modern, emancipated and politically correct men. However, as he was a great artist, the oppositions in the play are complex and never simply black and white.


On top of that, the role of Cleopatra is one of the most complex female roles in Shakespeare's work.
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies." 
She is frequently vain and histrionic, - the first act almost reads like a comic quarrel between two not-so-young, jaded lovers. But at the same time, Shakespeare's efforts invest both her and Antony with tragic grandeur. By the way, Cleopatra is the most important character of the two - she gets a whole act more in the play after the death of Antony. In contemporary criticism she is seen as a character that confuses or deconstructs gender rather than as a character that embodies the feminine. In her relationship with Antony, Cleopatra even takes on the role of male aggressor.

As for Antony, Shakespeare depicts his love for Cleopatra as his greatest flaw, for it makes him forget his duties and loose the political game.
"He fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or / Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there / A man who is the abstract of all faults / That all men follow." 
In the past, this was wrongly interpreted in a sexist way: the great manly soldier has been incapacitated by a bad woman. He has been caught in "the trap of the East." Rather, as in modern re-interpretations of Cleopatra, we should see Antony as the Roman soldier characterized by a certain effeminacy, in other words, here, too, gender is confused.


Resources:
Text of the play
Librivox recording
Plutarch's Life of Antony
Article by Joyce Carol Oates
I have used ideas from the Wikipedia article on Antony and Cleopatra

July 26, 2012

"A Country Excursion" by Guy de Maupassant (Book Reviews)

A Country Excursion by Guy de Maupassant (1881) tells how a Parisien shop-owner takes his family consisting of his aged mother, his wife, their daughter and the shop assistant who is engaged to his daughter, for a day of relaxation to the countryside. They stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant along the Seine, where they meet two young men who take an interest in the mother and the daughter and scheme to get the two women off alone with them. They offer to row them along the river in their skiffs, while they divert the shop keeper and his shop assistant, who are anyway sleepy after a copious lunch, by lending them fishing poles.

The young man (Henri) who is with the daughter (Henriette) rows to a secluded spot on an island in the river which he refers to as his "private office". Henriette wants to hear a nightingale, and sits listening in rapt romantic attention. She allows Henri to touch her a bit, but when he gets serious and kisses her, she refuses and immediately returns to the skiff. At the same time, she hears her mother laughing - apparently she is enjoying herself. Both ladies are rowed back and the company parts to return to Paris.

Two months later, Henri happens to visit the shop in Paris. He learns with some regret that Henriette has already married the assistant shopkeeper. The wife asks how his friend is - she would like to meet him again as they had such a good time. Later again, Henri visits his "private office" on the small island in the river and is surprised to find Henriette and her husband there. Henriette looks rather sad and tells him the spot is a special memory for her. Then her rather brutish husband wakes up and they leave.

There the story ends. What is left unsaid is, that both woman are trapped in loveless marriages. The mother (who is only thirty-six) has accepted this state of affairs but takes her pleasure when chance offers it - she obviously allowed her young man to make love to her on the island. At that time the daughter was not yet married and still harbored romantic notions. But one year into her marriage with a man she did not choose herself, she has already lost her ideals and thinks with sadness about a missed chance - she might have been happier married to Henri. A beautiful, whimsical story.

Tolstoy, in his essay The Works of Guy de Maupassant, has trashed the French author in general for lacking "a correct, that is, a moral relation to the subject" and he has singled out A Country Excursion for special bile:
"Particularly striking was that lack of distinction between bad and good in the story Une Partie de Campagne, in which, in the form of a most clever and amusing jest, he gives a detailed account of how two gentlemen with bared arms, rowing in a boat, simultaneously tempted, the one an old mother, and the other a young maiden, her daughter. The author's sympathy is during the whole time obviously to such an extent on the side of the two rascals, that he ignores, or, rather, does not see what the tempted mother, the girl, the father, and the young man, evidently the fiance of the daughter, must have suffered, and so we not only get a shocking description of a disgusting crime in the form of an amusing jest, but the event itself is described falsely, because only the most insignificant side of the subject, the pleasure afforded to the rascals, is described."
Supermoralist Tolstoy (who in later life became a religious nutcase) has completely misunderstood De Maupassant, or he willfully falsifies the story! In the first place, the author's sympathy is wholly with the women and in the second place, no "crime" takes place: the mother (young, and not old as Tolstoy wants) enjoys her fling with a muscled younger man and the daughter later regrets a missed chance... Of course, adultery was considered very scandalous in the 19th c., but De Maupassant is no moralist and he describes life as it was, not how it should be. He does not kill off his protagonists for adultery, as Tolstoy did with Anna Karenina.

The story was filmed in 1936 by famous director Jean Renoir as a 40 minute featurette called Partie de campagne (English title: "A Day in the Country"). It is one of the best lyrical movies ever made, where the countryside is presented as both idyllic and sensuous, and which is full of regrets and happy memories of a beautiful picnic day. Interestingly, Guy de Maupassant had been a friend of Renoir's father, the renowned painter Auguste Renoir.

Maupassantiana (French)
De Maupassant at IntraTextWorks (French)

July 25, 2012

Classic Cult Films (Movie Reviews)

Here are ten great cult films from the "classical era," from the 1920s to 1960s (see my previous post about cult films for a definition of the genre).
  • A Page of Madness (1926) by Kinugasa Teinosuke and with Inoue Masao and Nakagawa Yoshie. Rather exhausting avant-garde film by a young Japanese director from the 1920s, showing that Japan was at the forefront of modernism in both art and film. Famous modernist author and future Nobel-Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari wrote one of the scripts for the film. The film is set in a mental asylum, where a man who feels responsible for the schizophrenic condition of his wife has taken menial employment, and contains a barrage of startling imagery and haunting dreamlike visuals. Any cinematic device known at the time is used. One haunting scene occurs when the male patients of the asylum are aroused by the dance of "the wife" and cause a riot; they are then given Noh masks to make them peaceful. (7)  
  • L'Age d'Or ("The Golden Age," 1930) by Luis Bunuel and with Gaston Modot, Lya Lys and Caridad de Laberdesque. Although the earlier Un Chien Andalou starts with a famous sequence in which an eyeball is sliced open in merciless close-up (a scene that still has people fainting), it is only 15 minutes long and therefore L'Age d'Or is Bunuel's first proper feature film. It has also more plot, wedged in between a mock documentary about scorpions (= human society?) and an homage to De Sade's Salo, with Jesus as main reveler and ending in a shot of a cross decorated with female scalps. A man and a woman are passionately in love with one another, but their attempts to consummate that passion are constantly thwarted by the Church and bourgeois society. The atheistic humanist Bunuel fought a lifelong rebellion against the Catholic Church that had shaped life in his Spanish home village of Calenda with a heavy hand. The film consists mainly of a string of loose scenes and gags: four bishop are found mummified on a rocky island; a young woman discovers a cow in her bed; and during a reception, a cart full of workers crosses the living-room. The feelings of the continually interrupted lovers find an outlet in Bunuelesque fetishism when the woman finally seeks satisfaction by sucking the marble toes of a statue - sex is both terrifying and hilarious. Bunuel's surrealist masterpiece L'Age D'Or is nonsensical, erotic, and offensive. At the premiere in Paris in 1930, the film caused a riot as the outraged audience trashed the theater. Until the early 1980s, the film was banned in many countries. (9)
  • Le Sang d'un Poete ("The Blood of a Poet," 1930) by Jean Cocteau and with Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller and Pauline Carton. Although a complete novice as far as film was concerned, in 1930 French poet and playwright Cocteau received a million francs from his patron le Vicomte de Noailles to make any film as he pleased (the Vicomte had also sponsored L'Age D'Or). That became the present one, four poetic episodes about an artist: (1) An artist sketches a face of which the mouth comes alive. When he wipes it off, it sticks to his hand. Finally he manages to wipe it off on the face of a female statue. (2) The statue can now speak and urges the artist to pass through a mirror. This leads him to a hallway in a hotel where he peeps through the key locks into various rooms, seeing weird goings-on (a little girl being whipped and later walking on the ceiling; a hermaphrodite). He returns and smashes the statue. (3) Boys have a snow fight. A young boy dies because one of the balls contains a stone. (4) The statue is now a woman who plays cards with the artist. Under their table lies the body of the dead boy, which is reclaimed by his guardian angel. The artist looses the game and shoots himself. People watching from a balcony applaud. Not surprisingly, Cocteau's film shared in the scandal of Bunuel's work. The scene in which the sponsoring Vicomte appeared as one of the viewers on the balcony had to be reshot as he could not be seen to applaud a suicide. By the way, Cocteau only used non-professional protagonists, often other artists. Criterion essay by Cocteau. (8)
  • Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning and with Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams and Olga Baclanova. This film became a virtual career-ender for director Tod Browning of Dracula-fame. The film is set in the circus milieu which at that time still had an "attraction" of people with various medical disorders: from persons suffering from dwarfism to microcephalics and a man without limbs. The point of this enthralling film is that the physically fit people around these physically challenged ones are the true "freaks," for they prove to be morally flawed, while the "sideshow attractions" all possess a marvelous humanity. Shocking is of course that no make-up or effects are used: these are indeed people who have strangely deformed heads or lack limbs. A trapeze artist marries her colleague who is a dwarf, tearing him away from his equally small-sized but wise girlfriend. Of course the trapeze woman has another guy on the sly, a sort of bodybuilder. Together they have hatched the plan to poison the dwarf and steal his fortune. But they have forgotten about the wonderful solidarity among her new husband's colleagues, who enact a terribly revenge... Browning filmed the story at a quick pace and without sentimentality, melodrama or exaggeration. It goes without saying this film could only be made in the Precode period. The film upset contemporary audiences and was banned for decades in some countries, but found lasting fame as a midnight cult item. (8.5)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) by James Whale and with Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive. Sequel to the 1931 iconic movie, surpassing it in artistry thanks to its satiric elements as well as having more depth and emotion - it rises above being a mere horror pic. Besides stalking the countryside and killing those who don't like him, the Monster speaks in this film ("Drink!" Good!"), and even smokes a cigar. He also likes violin music. But above all, he desperately wants a friend... In the end, the sinister and campy Dr. Pretorius manages to convince the unwilling Dr Frankenstein to join forces and concoct a female partner for the monster. Her creation is a delicious set piece with the usual thunder and lightning. The Female Monster is played by Elsa Lanchester (who was married to Charles Laughton) in all too short screen time, but she makes the most of it. She has a terrible electroshock hairdo (a la Nefertete) and hisses like an angry swan, but what is worse, she doesn't want to be "friends" with Boris Karloff! Guess what happens next... This is a B-movie that got the A-treatment, true Hollywood Pop Gothic, but above all, as director Whale had free reign, he could impose his stylish vision on the material and make the only sequel in film history that surpasses the original. (8.5)
  • La Belle et la Bete (1946) by Jean Cocteau and with Jean Marais, Josette Day and Mila Parély.  The one and only "Beauty and the Beast," and not for children, as it concerns those obscure matters we secretly fear and desire - like a true fairy tale. The Beast is, of course, the potential Beast in us all, something which was very obvious immediately after the cruelties of WWII. Belle lives with her father, two snotty sisters, and a renegade brother, whose handsome but fickle friend wants to marry her. But she can't think about marriage as her father needs her - she runs the whole household as her sisters are too lazy to do anything. On the way back from a business trip (the family fortune is threatened) the father happens upon the Beast's castle. He plucks a rose for Belle in the garden and is taken prisoner and told he most die - unless he will send one of his daughters instead. Belle is the only sister who dares take up the challenge and she starts living with the Beast in his castle. She gradually discovers that the Beast is human, sympathetic, and superior to humans. Cocteau uses haunting images and Freudian symbols. The castle is the wet dream of a Gothic Dali - the candelabra in the entrance hall are held by living human arms and the statues along the walls are alive, their eyes follow those who pass by. Cocteau had the friend, the Beast and the prince into whom the Beast is finally transformed all played by the same actor (Jean Marais) to show "the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man." But as the Beast was so superior, Cocteau says that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: “And they had many children.” Criterion essay one and two. (9)  
  • Gojira ("Godzilla," 1954) by Honda Ishiro and with Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata and Akira Takarada. Special effects by Tsuburaya Eiji, music by Ifukube Akira. Due to nuclear testing, a monster reptile with radioactive breath is revived. It goes on land in Japan and starts destroying Tokyo in a mad stomping rampage. Who can stop it? Together with King Kong, this is the iconic monster movie. Born from Japanese memories of WWII when almost all cities were destroyed by fire bombing plus renewed Cold War fear of the atomic bomb in the only country to have suffered two nuclear attacks. Filmed in a dry documentary style. It is just a man in a rubber suit trashing a small mock-up of Tokyo, but thanks to the moody black-and-white it works. Gojira grew into a large franchise with increasingly low and childish production values - in fact, this is the only film worth watching from the whole Toho "kaiju" (monster film) stable. Go for the original Japanese, not the mutilated 1956 U.S. release. (8)
  • Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) by Ed D. Wood and with Gregory Walcott, Tom Keene and Mona McKinnon. This has been called the "worst movie ever made," "so bad it is good again" - such movies were a staple of the midnight cult circuit where they led to unintended laughs. Not only the acting in Plan 9 is inapt - with one guy reading from the script hidden in his lap - but also the direction mixes up day and night. Moreover there was zero money, so the background often is just a curtain (also in the cockpit of a plane!). Wood wanted to use Bela Lugosi and had shot some footage of him, when the actor died - the director used the footage he had and supplemented it by having an acquaintance walk around with his face covered by a cape. A truly posthumous role for man who made Dracula famous! The story is a serious one turned silly: a more advanced ;civilization is worried about mankind possessing nuclear weapons while still in a mentally infantile stage of development. They want to prevent humans from developing the next big weapon that might destroy "the universe," so they have several plans to contact and warn mankind - Plan Number 9 involves the use of zombies (of all things), but I must say that the zombies are rather attractive, especially the female vampire. The question remains: may we use a film that was meant seriously for unabashed guffaws? (6)
  • Last Year at Marienbad (1962) by Alain Resnais and with Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi and Sacha Pitoëff. A mesmerizing, ambiguous film that defies interpretation: a man and a woman visiting a Baroque castle annex luxury hotel may or may not have met last year at Marienbad. The man tries to persuade the (married) woman to run away with him. Through enigmatic flashbacks and disorientating shifts of time and location, the film explores the relationships between the two characters in a dreamlike atmosphere. Conversations and events are repeated in several locations inside the castle and in the park that surrounds it. There are numerous tracking shots of the castle's corridors, with voice-overs that have an almost hypnotic quality. In the end, it is best the leave the riddle as it is and enjoy the mysterious atmosphere. (9)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George A. Romero and with Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea and Karl Hardman. The iconic zombie film and perhaps the best horror movie ever created; an independently made cult film. The radiation from a fallen satellite may be the cause that the recently deceased rise from their graves and as cannibals hunt for the flesh of the living. A group of people is trapped in an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, and beleaguered by a whole army of zombies. The human conflict ;within this group is also flashing up - one guy is an incredible egoistic jerk, others have caught the zombie virus. The film is not an ordinary horror flick for giggles and halfhearted screams, but packs a hard-hitting, cruel punch. Nobody escapes. A girl kills her mother, a boy and his girlfriend die in a fiery car crash after which the zombies enjoy the barbecue. And the African-American hero of the film is shot between the eyes when he thinks the police have come to free him and waves at them from the window - the redneck cops take him for a zombie (but the motive could well be much worse than that). The film is a mirror of the tensions in American society in 1968, both racial conflict and the Vietnam War - it has been called "subversive on many levels."  Romero also revolutionized the horror genre and was an important influence on "slasher films" from the 70s and 80s. And he demonstrated you can make a great film on a tiny budget (pace Ed Wood). The movie is in the Public Domain. (9)

July 24, 2012

"The Maison Tellier" by Guy de Maupassant (Book Review)

The Maison Tellier was written in 1881 by Guy de Maupassant, the French master of the short story. It is set in an environment often visited by De Maupassant, that of prostitutes. The story is about a group of women working in a small brothel in a French provincial town, where this type of business is accepted as perfectly normal. It even performs an important and necessary social and psychological function among the men of the town. The business is run by Madame Tellier, who inherited it. Downstairs is a common room for the blue collar clients, served by two of the girls and a bouncer, and upstairs is a salon where the fine gentlemen of the town - including a judge and the local doctor - gather around Madame Tellier herself and the best three of her girls.

One Saturday evening, the establishment is inexplicably closed, what leads to heated arguments among the gentlemen of the town - they almost quarrel. Some are especially disappointed as the Saturday evening was the only time they could get away from their family. Among the "blue collars" the sexual frustration is even greater, and leads to a fist fight. The closing of the brothel for just one night upsets the whole social order of the small town.

What has happened? Madame Tellier has received an invitation to come to the First Communion celebration of her niece Constance, whose godmother she is. Constance is the only daughter of her brother, a carpenter living in a small village, a full day trip by train away. She ends up deciding to close down her house and take all the ladies with her to the communion. On Saturday night they will lodge at her brother's house and they will return later on the Sunday, after lunch.

That is the setting, which is contained in the first part of the story. The second part gives a humorous description of the train journey - they meet a merchant selling garters and he gives them away for free when he is allowed to fit them with his own hands to their legs - and of the stay in the countryside. In their colorful finery, they attract a lot of attention, but nobody in the village suspects their occupation. During the communion, one of the prostitutes starts crying, others follow and finally the whole church is snickering. The priest sees that as a sign of divine inspiration - while in reality it was from regret at seeing such a pure young virgin...

During the lunch, wine flows freely and the brother makes an impulsive though goodhearted pass at one of the ladies, but Madame Tellier allows no such folly. They travel back and in the evening again open the Maison Tellier, to the great relief of the almost desperate male population of the town, who come in great numbers and keep partying until deep in the night.

This story has been beautifully filmed by Max Ophuls in Le Plaisir. This is a film about three stories of De Maupassant, besides the present one also The Mask and The Model. Among these, The Maison Tellier is the most important, taking up about half of the film. Ophuls follows De Maupassant closely as the storyline is concerned, but changes many details. For one thing, he looks with a gentle sense of humor at the prostitutes, while De Maupassant wrote in a more satirical vein. Ophuls is full of sympathy for other human beings, especially unhappy ones. His is a poetic and sumptuous treatment of the story, full of kindness.

French original.


July 22, 2012

Bach Cantatas (40): Trinity VII

The seventh Sunday after Trinity treats the theme that God can satisfy the hunger of all living creatures; but also that earthly deprivation is a necessary step towards heavenly rewards.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday. A fourth possible one, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54, has been discussed for Oculi.

Readings:
Romans 6:19–23, "The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life"
Mark 8:1–9, "The Feeding of the 4000"

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Cantatas:
  • BWV 186 Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht (Leipzig, 1723)

    1. Chorus: Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht
    2. Recitativo (bass): Die Knechtsgestalt, die Not, der Mangel
    3. Aria (bass): Bist du, der mir helfen soll
    4. Recitativo (tenor): Ach, daß ein Christ so sehr
    5. Aria (tenor, oboe and violins): Mein Heiland läßt sich merken
    6. Chorale: Ob sichs anließ, als wollt er nicht
    after the sermon:
    7. Recitativo (tenor): Es ist die Welt die große Wüstenei
    8. Aria (soprano, violins): Die Armen will der Herr umarmen
    9. Recitativo (alto): Nun mag die Welt mit ihrer Lust vergehen
    10. Aria (soprano, alto, violins, oboes and taille): Laß, Seele, kein Leiden
    11. Chorale: Die Hoffnung wart' der rechten Zeit


    ("Do not be vexed, O soul") Reworking and expansion of a (now lost) Advent cantata written in Weimar. The text alludes to Jesus' feeding of the four thousand, and dwells on the theme of hunger as a symbol of acceptance of earthly deprivation in the hope of heavenly rewards. The somber opening chorus centers on the word “Ärgre,” “to vex.” The bass has an energetic aria, the tenor aria which follows is accompanied by violin and oboe. The sixth movement is an upbeat chorale, “Es is das Heil.” In the second part, after a long accompanied recitative for the bass, there is a beautiful aria for soprano, with a chromatic and tortured harmony. The duet for soprano and alto is sophisticated and skips energetically along - it certainly is the musical highlight of this somewhat "mixed bag" cantata. The work closes with the same chorale that concluded part one. (**)

  • BWV 107 Was willst du dich betrüben (Leipzig, 1724)

    Coro: Was willst du dich betrüben
    Recitativo (bass): Denn Gott verlässet keinen
    Aria (bass): Auf ihn magst du es wagen
    Aria (tenor): Wenn auch gleich aus der Höllen
    Aria (soprano): Er richts zu seinen Ehren
    Aria (tenor): Drum ich mich ihm ergebe
    Chorale: Herr, gib, daß ich dein Ehre


    ("Why do you want to distress yourself") Chorale cantata set "per omnes versus" on "Was willst du dich betrüben, o meine liebe Seel" by Johann Heermann (1630). The use of the choral text for all musical numbers in the cantata was old-fashioned - Bach used it only in four cantatas. The text does not literally refer to the reading, but has certain themes in common, such as trust in God, even when facing adversaries including the devil. In the ephemeral opening chorus the instrumental accompaniment is emphasized rather than the voices; after a recitative by bass, there are four arias in a row: for bass, tenor, soprano and again tenor. The bass aria (with strings) depicts a "hunting scene," playing on the double meaning of the German word "erjagen" ("to achieve," but also "to hunt for"). The first tenor aria is accompanied by a snaking bass line that clearly symbolizes Satan slithering out of the depths. The mellifluous soprano aria has a lovely oboe d'amore accompaniment and the last one for tenor a lighthearted unisono flute accompaniment. The cantata closes with a beautiful siciliano setting of the chorale. (***)

  • BWV 187 Es wartet alles auf dich (Leipzig, 1726)

    Part I
    1. Chorus: Es wartet alles auf dich
    2. Recitativo (bass): Was Kreaturen hält, das große Rund der Welt
    3. Aria (alto, oboe): Du, Herr, du krönst allein das Jahr
    Part II
    4. Aria (bass, violins): Darum sollt ihr nicht sorgen
    5. Aria (soprano, oboe): Gott versorget alles Leben
    6. Recitativo (soprano, strings): Halt ich nur fest an ihm
    7. Chorale: Gott hat die Erde zugericht


    ("Everything waits for You") The text of this cantata focuses on the power of the Lord to appease the hunger of all creatures. The expansive and complex opening chorus is based on Psalm 104:27–28, directly related to the reading. The alto aria praises God as the sustainer of life; it is accompanied by the full orchestra in a dance-like rhythm. Part two is opened by a striding bass aria as Vox Christi - with an obbligato of all of the violins - on Matthew 6:31–32 from the Sermon on the Mount. The ensuing soprano aria is the musical highlight of the cantata, with a falling octave that pictures God's forgiveness. The interplay of the voice with the accompanying oboe is very interesting. The cantata is closed by verses 4 and 6 of Hans Vogel's chorale "Singen wir aus Herzensgrund" (1563). Bach parodied the music of this cantata in his g minor Mass BWV 235. (****)

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

July 21, 2012

"The Duel" by Anton Chekhov (Best Novellas)

Anton Chekhov wrote The Duel in 1891. It is a novella about a catharsis, about a life-changing experience.

The story is set in the hot and humid Caucasus, in a seaside town on the Black Sea, among the small Russian community of officials and administrators living away from Russia itself. The town is a sort of "colonial" backwater.

The story has two elements. One is the relation between Ivan Andreich Laevsky and Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, lovers who have run away to the Caucasus. Nadyezhda is Laevsky's married mistress - she has run away from her husband and the two are trying to build up a new existence in this faraway place. They can't marry because a separation was legally impossible in those days. Of course, their relation sets tongues wagging among the community - the majority of the residents shun their improper courtship. On top of that, Laevsky no longer loves Nadyezhda, as he confides to his friend Samoylenko, a jovial doctor. He doesn't even tell her the news that her husband has recently died, so they could marry. Laevsky has a weak character: he drinks, gambles, and lacks direction. He is the type of the "superfluous man" and only perfunctorily performs his duties as a minor bureaucrat. As he neglects Nadyezhda, she has grown bored and has started flirting rather dangerously with other men.

The second element is the hate relation between Laevsky and the scientist Von Koren. Von Koren is a follower of social-Darwinism and the philosophy of Nietzsche - he feels that Laevsky's slovenly lifestyle is worthless. In fact, Von Koren feels killing Laevsky would be beneficial to society, an act of natural selection. Here he shows himself a gruesome predecessor of the 20th c. Nazis. Von Koren's dislike builds until he formally challenges Laevsky to a pistol duel. Chekhov has made the feelings of hatred between these two men, the rigid disciplinarian and the apathetic immoralist, very tangible.

The tension of the novella steadily increases until finally the duel takes place. Neither men is slain, but Laevsky has been grazed by Von Koren's bullet. His near-death experience leads to a psychological catharsis and leads him back to Nadyezhda. He realizes she is all he has... He marries her and starts working seriously to pay off his debts as well.

Typical for Chekhov, there are no clear heroes and villains in this novella, all characters are flawed, if not distasteful - but isn't that like real life? There is nothing human about the cold and hard Von Koren. Laevsky suffers from his apathy, Nadyezhda wastes her life in vain flirting. The town doctor, Samoylenko is good-hearted but useless, and so on.

Also typical for Chekhov, there is no clear plot - again, as in real life. There are no clear judgments either - Chekhov is not a preacher - he said it is the task of the artist to raise questions, not to answer them. And so it is - that is why The Duel is a masterwork that will continue ringing in your head for a long time. (9)

Chekhov stories.
The Duel was filmed in 2010 by Dover Kosashvili and with Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott and Tobias Menzies.

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

July 20, 2012

Best Science Fiction Films (Movie Reviews)

Science fiction films don't need an introduction, let alone definition, as the genre has existed for as long as there are feature films: in 1902 already, Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon amazed audiences with its trick photography effects. The next major example came from Germany in 1927: Metropolis by Fritz Lang. While during the 1930s, 40s and 50s the genre consisted mainly of low-budget B-movies aimed at children (although there are a couple of good noir films as well), a  landmark came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In France, too, some good and serious films were made in the 60s. From the late 1970s on, following in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, big-budget science fiction films packed with special effects became popular. The 1980s and 1990s were a golden time for SF films. In the present century, the genre has gradually become lost in "computer game" films only after visual effects.

I discuss ten of my favorite films from the late 1950s on, leaving out subgenres as monster films and disaster films, which can better stand on their own.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) by Don Siegel and with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter and Larry Gates. A small-town doctor discovers that due to an extra-terrestrial invasion the population of his local community is being replaced by alien clones devoid of any emotion or individuality. The film has been interpreted as an indictment of both Communism and McCarthyism, but the director said he meant it more broadly: "I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow..." (quoted from Wikipedia). How scary it is to loose one's personality and humanity, is made vividly clear by Don Siegel. This is not only a great and concise scifi film, but also one of the best noir films ever made. Criterion essay. (9)
  • The Blob (1958) by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and with Steve Mcqueen and Naeta Corsaut. Independent production. An alien resembling a giant amoeba-like blob of jelly lands on earth from outer space and terrorizes a small community. The locals refuse to listen to a group of teenagers who have witnessed the blob's destructive power. In the meantime, the Thing just keeps growing, by ingesting more and more inhabitants, turning red by their blood. The lethal lump can't be killed, but finally a solution is found. Campy fun (with a tongue-in-cheek opening song by Burt Bacharach), typical of 1950s schlock sci-fi. Or is there something deeper as well - is the blob's hungry mass perhaps symbolic of the fast growth of consumerism in the 50s? Criterion essay one and two.  (7) 
  • Alphaville (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard and with Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina and Akim Tamiroff. A trenchcoat-wearing secret agent with a characteristic weathered visage has been sent to the space city of Alphaville, the capital of a technocratic dictatorship, to find a missing person and free the city from its tyrannical ruler, an evil scientist who has outlawed love and self-expression and rules with the help of a supercomputer, Alpha 60 (the terribly croaking speech synthesizer with which this computer "speaks" is the only defect in the film).. In this weird world women are bar-coded (many of them work as "Seductress Third Class"), and dictionaries are bibles but words as "conscience" or "tenderness" are banned and crossed out. People who don't fit in are executed via a pool-side ceremony - female swimmers pull the bodies out of the water. A combination of dystopian science fiction with film noir that foregoes special effects or elaborate sets, but has been shot at night in the Parisian suburbs. “What transforms darkness into light?” “La poèsie.” Criterion essay. (8.5)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois Truffaut and with Oskar Werner, Julie Christie and Cyril Cusack. After the novel by Ray Bradbury. In an oppressive future, books have been banned by a government fearing an independent-thinking public. People are drugged into compliance and get their (dis-) information from wall-length television screens. Books are destroyed by groups of firemen with flamethrowers. The film tells the story of one such fireman, who begins to question his task when he falls in love with an unconventional neighboring girl who secretly reads books. In the end, both escape to the countryside where they find groups of Book People trying to keep the cultural tradition alive. In the beautiful climax we see the Book People walk through a snowy countryside reciting the poetry and prose they've memorized. An indictment of all forms of tyranny over the human mind. (8.5)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick and with Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester. Iconic "cult film," in which traditional narrative has been replaced by a purely cinematic audiovisual spectacle. The Dawn of Man opening sequence is very impressive: a group of early humans learns how to use a bone as a weapon and so take the next evolutionary step; when hurled into the air, the bone changes into an earth orbiting satellite. The film tells about the appearance of a mysterious black monolith on the moon that has apparently been influencing human evolution (it is perhaps a token sent by a more advanced civilization). The monolith emits a signal that points at Jupiter so a group of astronauts, led by the "infallible," intelligent computer H.A.L. 9000, is sent on a secret mission to the giant planet. The psychedelic light-show at the end of the film is perhaps a curio from the bygone 1960s, but the "star child" idea - the astronaut regressing into a fetus staring from afar at the earth - is very beautiful - it signifies a new beginning for mankind. The pioneering special effects found throughout remain impressive and 2001 has been called a "creative Big Bang" by other film makers. This is a film of pure, nonverbal beauty. (9)
  • Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott and with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt. Scifi horror with impressive images based upon the work of Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger, who also cooperated on the film and won an Academy award for his design. A highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature stalks and one by one kills the crew of a spaceship. The bio-mechanical monster with its elongated head and mouth full of steel teeth (and second mouth inside the first one) is the most frightening thing to appear in the history of film. Initially, just out of its egg, it hugs the face of one of the crew members, and then hides inside his body, suddenly bursting forth from his chest. A complicating factor is that one of the crew members is a crypto-robot, working against the others to save the monster and bring it back to earth. A film that will have you on the edge of your seat! (9)
  • Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott and with Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer. After a story by Philip K. Dick. Beautifully filmed images of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles overpopulated by Asians, in a retro-fitted style, but the story, a clichéd detective yarn, is a bit of a letdown. A "Blade Runner" (a futuristic, burnt out Philip Marlowe) has to track down and kill ("retire") a small group of rebel android "replicants." These are organic robots meant to do hard work in space and forbidden to visit the earth. As a safety measure, they only have a lifespan of four years - now four of them have come down to earth and are looking for the corporate head that created them in order to force him to let them live longer. That makes them very human, for what is after all the difference of a few score years? The leader of the replicants also saves the life of the detective, but his kindness only serves to offset the cruelty of the blade runner who coldly exterminates them - including two women. The film rightly puts in doubt whether he is really human. An excellent neo-noir (at a nicely slow pace) with a well-deserved cult status. (8)
  • The Fly (1986) by David Cronenberg and with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. A remake of the 1958 film The Fly, of which it retains only the basic premise of a scientist accidentally merging with a housefly during a teleportation experiment. The first half of the film lets us get acquainted with the scientist and a female journalist he has picked up at a party - when asked for something personal to be used in a demonstration of teleportation, she removes one of her stockings. They agree that she will document his experiments and write a book about it, and become lovers on the side. The accident with the fly happens when the scientist is in a jealous rage because his reporter-cum-girlfriend has left to straighten things out with a former partner. After that the film zooms in on the slow transformation and progressive decomposition of the human body and what it does to the owner. This has been interpreted as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s, but it can also be seen as symbolic for illness and old age in general.  On top of everything, the girlfriend discovers she is pregnant and thinks with dread about the monster that may be gestating in her womb... Great special effects, with Academy Award-winning makeup. (9)
  • Total Recall (1990) by Paul Verhoeven and with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Tricotin, Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick. In 2084, a construction worker visits a memory-implant travel service to transport him to Mars for an adventure trip. After arriving at Mars, he realizes that his life on earth was in fact a set of artificial memories, implanted by his enemies to take him out of action. In reality, he is a secret agent fighting against the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen. What follows is series of breath-taking, tense action sequences. As Cohaagen controls the Mars population by manipulating the supply of oxygen, his power can be neutralized by restarting an oxygen generator, that will create a normal atmosphere on Mars. Complex and visually mesmerizing, with wonderful make-up effects - and Schwarzenegger for once is not a macho type, but just a confused guy, allowing him the opportunity to really act. There are also some interesting mutants in Venusville, the red light district on Mars. (8)
  • The Cell (2000) by Tarsem Singh and with Penelope Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D'Onofrio. A mixture of science fiction with a psychological thriller about a serial murderer a la Hannibal Lecter. A psychotherapist is adept at an experimental treatment which allows her mind to literally enter the mind of her patients. She is persuaded by an FBI agent to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim - who over a 40 hour period is slowly being drowned in a glass tank ("the cell"). In a race against time, the psychotherapist has to explore the twisted mind of the killer to get the information she needs, but his damaged personality poses a threat to her own life and sanity. Great visuals, and beautiful costumes by Eiko Ishioka of "Dracula" fame. Despite the pyrotechnics, this is a film that cares about its characters, and that poses important questions, as: how can an ordinary child become such an inhuman monster? (8)
  • Solaris (2002) by Steven Soderbergh and with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. Based on the novel by Stanislav Lem and the 1972 legendary movie by Tarkovsky. A psychological drama in the guise of a scifi film. A troubled psychologist is sent to investigate the crew of an isolated research station orbiting a bizarre planet, whose ocean functions as a huge, fluid-like brain.This "brain" may be responsible for the mental disruptions the crew members experience - it apparently gives life to the contents of the unconscious mind. In the station, the psychologist meets his deceased wife, with whom he had a passionate relationship before she committed suicide. It is of course not really his wife - she is an amalgam of his memories of her that have taken physical shape. But our memories of even those closest to us are never the complete, other person - we always know others only partially, and on top of that, through our own prejudices. The wife is suicidal, she complains, because that is how her husband views her. While we see his previous life with his wife on earth via flashbacks, the psychologist struggles with his memories and his feelings of regret and tries to find an opportunity for a second chance. Not a special effects extravaganza, but rather a sharp and incisive exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious. (9)