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auteurs du cinéma

It's almost synchronicitous, two of the greatest masters of European 'auteur cinema' passing away on the same day. Both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni embodied the idea - originally proposed by François Truffaut in the Cahiers du Cinéma - of the film director as a lone visionary with an unmistakable, signature style.

Both Bergman and Antonioni produced highly personal and philosophical films. Perhaps they had an existentialist world view in common, but otherwise they were indeed singular auteurs, Bergman with his bleak soul- and God-searching, and Antonioni with his minimalist framing and mise-en-scene.

Having seen embarrassingly few of their many films, it would be more fitting if this were a tributary to-watch list. Still, when thinking of what I have seen of them, there are some memorable, even archetypical images that come to mind.

With Bergman, there is of course the famous chess game on the beach with Death, from 'The Seventh Seal' (watch the scene here). But even more memorable is a scene from 'The Virgin Spring' (of which I remember nothing except that particular scene), a single long shot showing a man (Max von Sydow) wrestling with a tree.

The Virgin Spring

Thinking of Antonioni, the most iconic image may just be the poster for 'Blow-up' (based on a story by Julio Cortázar), his highly influential, endlessly interpreted, theorized and schematized film about the nature of images. This image captures not only the image-obsession but also the great '60s London atmosphere.


barbaric yawp

To quote some more from Walt Whitman's endlessly quotable 'Song of Myself' (see previous post):

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The second line was immortalized in Peter Weir's 'Dead Poets Society', where Keating (Robin Williams) uses it to help one of his students, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), over his shyness, culminating in an impromptu poem with Whitman as a "sweaty-toothed madman." (Watch the whole scene here.)

Whitman is quoted at length in the film ("Uncle Walt again!"), besides Thoreau, Frost and others. In fact, 'Dead Poets Society' can be viewed as rekindling the American Transcendentalist ideas (see also previous post) of individuality, nonconformity and carpe diem in the context of a 1950's prep school, evoking the same culture stifled by tradition that the 19th century poets found themselves rebelling against.

In line with its Romantic philosophy, nature plays a subtle but significant role in the film. Taking place over the course of a fall semester, the story's drama is reflected in the beautiful cinematography of the changing seasons, from Indian summer to harsh winter. The cave where the members of the Dead Poets Society convene is off-campus, tucked away in the woods and bringing to mind Thoreau's famous statement from 'Walden': "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately..." And the play one of the characters, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), performs in is 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', where Perry plays Puck, "that shrewd and knavish sprite" living in the forest.

For an in-depth study of the conflict of Romantic and Realist philosophy in 'Dead Poets Society', see 'Death of a Romantic'.

what is the grass?

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

This is but a short excerpt from 'Song of Myself', the famous and in some ways central poem in Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'. As with the rest of the volume, which Whitman kept revising and expanding throughout his life (there is not really a definitive edition), 'Song of Myself' evolved after the first edition (1855), where it appeared untitled.

With its delightful freeform optimism, the poem exemplifies what has been called American Transcendentalism, a mid-19th century literary and cultural movement glorifying nature and personal spirituality in a kind of marriage of Kantian philosophy, Eastern mysticism (particularly the 'Bhagavad Gita') and American individualism. Besides Whitman, Thoreau ('Walden') and Emerson ('Nature') were prominent transcendalists.

The theme of grass as a symbol for the cycle of life, death and rebirth recurs throughout, structuring the poem's sweeping, lyrical imagery. It also lends extra depth to the volume's title, which I had always taken to be just an understated description of its contents (poems as leaves of grass).

Compare the beginning and ending of the poem, which sum up the poet's changing attitude to life and accordingly provide different answers to the question of what the grass is. It starts:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

And ends some 1300 lines later with:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Read the entire 'Song of Myself' and the rest of 'Leaves of Grass' at Wikisource. See also this web study text of 'Song of Myself'.

stand-in stunt

Interesting revelation last week: turns out the book 'Stand-in' (reviewed here) was not written by Sieger Sloot at all but by Ernest van der Kwast. A textbook example of life imitating art, the book being about an actor standing in for writers. Actor Sloot simply stood in for writer Van der Kwast for a year.

Naturally this raises all sorts of questions on the nature of authorship and authenticity. Some of these are addressed in Van der Kwast's essay 'Being Arnon Grunberg' (in Dutch).

The story is complicated by the fact that the real motive behind the stunt was to imitate Arnon Grunberg, who has created alter egos before (Marek van der Jagt). When this failed to be picked up by critics (and really, the book is not all that Grunbergian), what remained was merely the stand-in stunt.

Ironically, the one difference between life and art, which makes comparisons with art forger Geert Jan Jansen or 'Being John Malkovich' fall rather short, is that the book's protagonist stands in for famous, household names. Whereas in reality, I doubt the average reader will care much whether 'Stand-in' is a Sloot or a Van der Kwast...

future shock

Alvin Toffler's 'Future Shock' (1970), precursor to 'The Third Wave', described the effects of accelerated technological and social change in late 20st century societies. Thus, "future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time." One of its symptoms is information overload (a term coined by Toffler in this book).

As an indication of the amount of change we've been subjected to since that time, watch this documentary (1972, by Alexander Grasshoff) based on the book. Besides great '70s visuals and soundtrack, the film is narrated by Orson Welles with much world-weary nostalgia.