An unexpected gift arrives in the mail: a subtitled preview of Peter von Bagh’s fabulous and rather Markeresque documentary (2008)—a lovely city symphony which is also a history of Helsinki (and incidentally, Finland, Finnish cinema, and Finnish pop music) recounted with film clips and paintings by three voices (two male, one of them von Bagh’s, and one female—each one reciting what seems to be a slightly different style of poetic and essayistic discourse). There are no chapter divisions on this DVD, and the continuity is more often geographical than chronological, although there’s also a lot of leaping about spatially as well as temporally. At separate stages we’re introduced to the best-ever Finnish camera movement and the best Finnish musical, are invited to browse diverse neighborhoods and eras (and to ponder contrasts in populations and divorce rates), and are finally forced to admit that a surprising amount of very striking film footage has emerged from this country and city.
Peter von Bagh—prolific film critic, film historian, and professor, onetime director of the Finnish Film Archive and current artistic director of two unique film festivals, the Midnight Sun Film Festival (held in Sodankylä, above the Arctic Circle, during what amounts to one very long day in the summer, when there’s no night) and Il Cinema Ritrovato (held soon afterwards, in Bologna)—is the man who convinced me to purchase my first multiregional VCR in the early 80s. So he has a lot to answer for, including my DVD column in Cinema Scope—the most recent of which I’ve just turned in. I’m sorry that my online Finnish isn’t good enough to fathom when (or if) it might be possible for you to order Helsinki, Ikuisesti on a commercial disc or see it at a festival; but you should watch out for it whenever or however it comes your way. [2/20/09]
DREAMS FROM MY FATHER: A STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE by Barack Obama (New York: Three Rivers Press) 1995, 480 pp.
This book, which I’m still reading (I’m in its final section, about Kenya), is considerably more powerful, both as writing and as autobiography, than Obama’s follow-up book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. For me the most striking episode so far occurs in New York, and, significantly enough, it occurs at the movies. (Most of the gist of this episode can be found on pp. 123-125, towards the end of the first of the book’s three main sections, “Origins”.)
During a visit from Obama’s (white) mother, she finds an ad for a downtown revival of Black Orpheus in the Village Voice, which she describes as the first foreign film she ever saw, when she was 16 and in Chicago and “thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” She and Obama and his sister Maya go to the revival house in a cab (the cab is a typically telling novelistic detail), and halfway through the picture Obama finds himself seething at what he finds racist and paternalistic in this white, French depiction of black and brown Brazilians in the Rio favelas during Carnival–which he describes as “the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages” [in Heart of Darkness]. Then he gradually comes to the realization that this romantic fantasy–”warm, sensual, exotic, different”–must have played some role in what later led his mother to fall in love with his black African father. [2/17/09]
A reorganized and self-regulated Hollywood bounced back in 1935, but times were different then. Movies were America’s universal culture. Now, they’re not even close. Like then, the technology is changing—-but in a far different way. Movies are expendable. Folks will give up $12 tickets, cancel Netflix, and cut cable to save their high-speed Internet connection. With the president’s fireside chats posted online, the new Hoovervilles will certainly have broadband. Is there a downsized future for Katzenberg’s product? As one bankrupt mogul said to another, “YouTube?!”–J. Hoberman, “Why Hard Times Won’t Mean Good Times at the Movies Again,” The Village Voice, February 3, 2009
Average number of hours of television watched per week by Americans aged 43 to 61: 19 Average number watched by those aged 26 to 42 and those aged 14 to 25, respectively: 15, 11–”Harper’s Index”, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009 [2/13/09]
Political incorrectness has a lot to do with what still gives this novel much of its shocking power: the fact that Richard Wright refuses to make Bigger Thomas sympathetic or his crimes in any way excusable, even though he understands perfectly and very cogently how and why this character can murder as readily as he does— not only a white philanthropist’s daughter, whom he accidentally smothers, but also Bigger’s own girlfriend, whom he kills with a brick quite deliberately, almost immediately after they have sex. Recently reading this 1940 Chicago novel for the second time, I was reminded of both Dostoevsky and Camus (even though, novelistically speaking, Wright is miles ahead of L’Étranger). There’s something schizophrenic as well as dialectical about the way Wright can grasp the thought processes of his primitive young hero and then can offer a lengthy intellectual discourse about those processes. Eventually the communist discourse and arguments in the book’s second half drown out Bigger’s identity, but the way Bigger himself is allowed to dominate the discourse in the first half is the book’s unambiguous and terrifying triumph.
I wonder how the Welles stage adaptation handled this duality–especially with the plot handled in flashback, from the vantage point of the trial, and without an intermission. (See the two photos below with Canada Lee; I believe he’s standing with Ray Collins, who played Bigger’s defense lawyer, in the first.) This was Welles’s first major creative work after Citizen Kane, put together over seven weeks while waiting for that film to be released; it was his last successful stage production, and Simon Callow notes that it was on Broadway during the same season as Arsenic and Old Lace, Lady in the Dark, Johnny Belinda, Pal Joey, The Corn is Green, and The Man Who Came to Dinner.) John Houseman in his autobiographical Run-through offers us a detailed account of how he and Wright brought the play back to the terms of the novel after Paul Green’s inflections led it astray, but apart from this and Callow’s even more detailed account of the production in Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu, we don’t have very much in print about it. [2/10/09]
Early this year, I received a phone call from Béla Tarr, asking me if I could write a page about Sátántangó (1994) for a Hungarian newspaper to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Here’s what I sent him. —J.R.
Sátántangó at 15
Congratulations to Sátántangó on its 15th anniversary. Now that it’s a teenager, I’m happy that English-speaking fans can finally, at long last, look forward to an English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel. As a member of PEN, I was invited last year to suggest literary works for English translation. After I proposed Sátántangó and they published my response, I received a note from Barbara Epler of New Directions: “We are waiting on the delivery of its translation by the great George Szirtes, eagerly waiting, and will publish it as soon as we can. (We already have his translations of László’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War.)” So once it appears, I’ll no longer have to depend on the French translation by Joëlle Dufeuilly (2000) published by Gallimard, which I’ve owned for many years.
The film finally became available here last year on DVD from Facets Video, helping to demonstrate how much cinema as a “language” is more easily translatable than literature. For many years, Béla and I have had a running debate about the relation of the film (and, by implication, the novel) to my favorite novel in any language, William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), which also focuses largely on the simultaneous events of a single day in a depressed, flat rural area as seen through the consciousness of several alienated characters-—alienated from themselves as well as from one another—including a fallen patriarch who observes all the others called Reverend Hightower (a name and figure that already anticipates some of the structure and vision of The Man from London), and who might have served as his community’s conscience if they all hadn’t deteriorated into an apocalyptic, post-ethical stupor. Béla doesn’t see any connection because he doesn’t care for the Hungarian translations of Faulkner, and it’s true that one could also trace many of Faulkner’s methods to those of Joseph Conrad. But I also can readily acknowledge that the sarcastic wit of the story is quintessentially that of Eastern Europe.
—Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago