Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Morris Dickstein, New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 598 pp.
How refreshing it is to encounter a treatment of Busby Berkeley’s Depression musicals as something other than escapism — as genuine engagements with their own period and audience. Part literary criticism, part film and art criticism, part history of popular as well as intellectual culture, Morris Dickstein’s magnum opus is full of sensible revisionist observations of this kind to counter received wisdom, and it’s always a pleasure to read. Even if he doesn’t always accord full justice to the ideological and ethical underpinnings of some Depression novels (I’m perhaps the only one on the planet who regards Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August, my supreme favorite, as a communist novel, at least existentially), Dickstein is almost always deepening my understanding of whatever he happens to be writing about. [9/28/09]
The following, though written five years ago, still seems relevant enough today to merit quoting. It comes from my favorite contemporary historian, Eric Hobsbawm — specifically his short book On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (New York/London: The New Press, 2008):
“Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy. I believe it indicates a growing crisis within American society, which finds expression in the most profound political and cultural division within that country since the Civil War, and a sharp geographical division between the globalized economy of the two seaboards, and the vast resentful hinterland, the culturally open big cities and the rest of the country. Today a radical right-wing regime seeks to mobilize “true Americans” against some evil outside force and against a world that does not recognize the uniqueness, the superiority, the manifest destiny of America. What we must realize is that America global policy is aimed inward, not outward, however great and ruinous its impact on the rest of the world. It is not designed to produce either empire or effective hegemony. Nor was the Donald Rumsfeld doctrine — quick wars against weak pushovers followed by quick withdrawals — designed for effective global conquest. Not that this makes it less dangerous. On the contrary. As is now evident, it spells instability, unpredictability, aggression, and unintended, almost certainly disastrous,n consequences. In effect, the most obvious danger of war today arises from the global ambitions of an uncontrollable and apparently irrational government in Washington.
“How shall we live in this dangerous, unbalanced, explosive world in the midst of major shifting of the social and political, national and international tectonic plates? As for governments, the best other states can do is to demonstrate the isolation, and therefore the limits, of actual U.S. world power by refusing, firmly but politely, to join further initiatives proposed by Washington which might lead to military action, particularly in the Middle East and Eastern Asia. To give America the best chance of learning to return from megalomania to rational foreign policy is the most immediate and urgent task of international politics. For whether we like it or not, America will remain a superpower, indeed an imperial power, even in what is evidently the era of its relative economic decline. Only, we hope, a less dangerous one.” [9/17/09]
I just saw a great film tonight for the first time, the second feature of the Belgian surrealist André Delvaux (1926-2002), known in English as One Night…A Train, with Yves Montand and Anouk Aimée,which dates from 1968. It starts off as something quite ordinary and gradually gets weirder and crazier, winding up eventually somewhere in the vicinity of both Kafka and Tarkovsky (the latter in his Stalker mode). It isn’t available commercially, but sometimes you can download it for free, and with English subtitles, from The Pirate Bay, and sometimes you can also watch the film with English subtitles on YouTube.
The film is adapted from a novella by Johan Daisne, who also wrote the source novel of Delvaux’s previous feature, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1965). I’m less fond of that film than I am of Delvaux’s second feature and his third, Rendez-vous à Bray (1971), which I recently described on this site as my favorite Belgian feature. Rendez-vous à Bray is also based on a very mysterious novella, in this case a Gothic tale by Julien Gracq set during World War 1, although it isn’t really a war film. Even though I didn’t quite warm to Delvaux’s first feature, and I still haven’t seen the three or four more features he made after Rendez-vous à Bray – none of which appears to be available anywhere, so I don’t even know how I can — there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a major filmmaker. [9/14/09] [Postscript, 2013: Most of Delvaux’s major films with the exception of Un soir…un train are now available on DVD in excellent editions, complete with English subtitles, from Cinematek; go to this link and this recent article.]