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illusions

Another classic but lesser-known Billy Wilder film, 'A Foreign Affair' (1948) was criticized when it came out for "moral bankruptcy", but seeing it today it's the film's compassion and humanity that stand out. As a screenwriter and director, Wilder had great wisdom in showing his characters' greed, hypocrisy and corruption without judgment, except to joke about it in a refreshingly irreverent way.

In this case, Wilder creates a comedy set in the ruins of post-WWII Berlin, in a country full of "open graves and closed hearts". The film was largely shot on location, showing just how extensive the devastation of the city really was. It provides a fitting backdrop to the story, a romantic comedy with an undertone of post-war cynicism and moral ambiguity. As always, the plot is beautifully crafted, and the dialogue is incredibly sharp and witty ("Let's go up to my apartment. It's only a few ruins away from here.").

Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair

The iconic Marlene Dietrich stars as a German nightclub singer (what else?), a survivor who used to hang out in high Nazi circles and is now equally comfortable among American officers. (When asked about her dubious past, she replies that for women politics are like fashion.) Among the film's highlights are her performances of 'Black Market', 'In the Ruins of Berlin', and the haunting 'Illusions', which perfectly sums up the weariness of a war survivor.

Want to buy some illusions,
Slightly used, second hand?
They were lovely illusions,
Reaching high, built on sand.
They had a touch of paradise,
A spell you can't explain:
For in this crazy paradise,
You are in love with pain.

Want to buy some illusions,
Slightly used, just like new?
Such romantic illusions -
And they're all about you.
I sell them all for a penny,
They make pretty souvenirs.
Take my lovely illusions -
Some for laughs, some for tears.

Watch the scene.

See also this 1948 New York Times review.

the game of war

For those with enough time on their hands: check out Guy Debord's 'The Game of War', now made into a computer game by RSG under the title 'Kriegspiel' (beta version; requires Java).

Leader of the French Situationists and writer of books like 'Society of the Spectacle', Debord also spent years developing a strategy game, a few sets of which were produced in 1978. His chess-like game was inspired, not by radical Marxist politics, but by 19th century warfare, Von Clausewitz' theories and Napoleon's campaigns.

This Kriegspiel, or war game, brings into play the operations of two armies of equal strength, each seeking, through manoeuvre and battle, the destruction of its adversary. Each is at the same time obliged to protect, within the territory it occupies, the resources needed for effective campaigning, and to keep its lines of communication open.

Via Cabinet (tnx Stefan!)

to the lighthouse

Virginia Woolf's fifth novel 'To the Lighthouse', published in 1927, is one of her most experimentally modernist works. The book's genius is hard to summarize, except by saying that reading it is a uniquely immersive experience. To ask what the novel is about is not an easy question either. Putting it philosophically, 'To the Lighthouse' may be said to be about the time and space between people. Bear with me while I try and explain...

On the surface, 'To the Lighthouse' is a portrait of the Ramsay family during a summer stay on the Isle of Skye. At the center is Mrs Ramsay, mother of eight children, famed for her beauty and with a dominant, radiant character that holds the whole family together, along with a number of guests. Her husband, Mr Ramsay, an eccentric scholar searching for abstract truth, is her opposite in many ways, but also her complement. Among the Ramsay's guests are an angry young academic, an old poet with laudanum stains in his beard, and a young, independent woman aspiring to be a painter.

However, there is not much story to speak of: very little 'happens' in the book, nor is there much dialogue. The novel 'takes place' almost entirely inside people's heads, shifting from one character to another and describing their thoughts and perceptions. Without guidance from an objective, omniscient narrator, this multiple stream of consciousness may seem daunting, but its effect is to bring the book's characters to life 'from the inside' in a way that few conventional stories ever manage.

Proust and Joyce pioneered stream of consciousness writing, but Woolf perfected it, and only Beckett, in his monologues, ever rivalled her in conveying so vividly and realistically the hermetic realm of thoughts, emotions and impressions, both trivial and profound, sometimes only half-formulated, going on inside people's heads at any moment.

Continue reading the full post ยป

the last concern

Sequence

To sleep, with the moon in one eye and the sun in the other,
Love in your mouth, a lovely bird in your hair,
Adorned like the fields, the woods, the routes, the sea,
Around the whole world so lovely and adorned.

Flee across the landscape
Through branches of smoke and all the fruits of the wind,
Stone legs with sand stockings,
Held by the waist, all the river's muscles,
And the last concern on a face transformed.

(Translated by Mary Ann Caws and Patricia Terry.)

Paul Éluard's 1926 volume 'La Capitale de la Douleur' ('The Capital of Pain', or 'The Capital of Sorrow', depending on the translation of 'douleur') is considered one of the central texts of Surrealist poetry. It was also a source of inspiration for the film 'Alphaville' (see earlier post), which quotes extensively from it.

Éluard, a central figure in the Parisian Surrealist movement, wrote an incredible amount of poetry (see his bibliography), characterized by a great intensity and immediacy - though often bizarre and obscure as well. Like with other Surrealist art, his poetry is perhaps best experienced as a series of dream images to get lost in. As Éluard wrote in another poem: "I had my landscape and lost myself there."

A number of Éluard's poems translated in English can be found here. And one of his poems translated by Samuel Beckett here.

See also these portraits of Éluard by Dalí and Picasso.

too bad

Jammer

"Jammer" / "Too bad"

glass & zoo

Surprisingly little of the work of Bert Haanstra, the old Dutch master of poetic documentaries, is available online. There is a collected works DVD box, but why isn't there a website showing - at least - his shorter work? From their descriptions they all sound very interesting, films like 'Panta Rhei', 'Rembrandt, Painter of Man', 'Cité Idéale' (his collaboration with Lewis Mumford) or even his commissioned work for Shell.

Fortunately, two of his short documentary gems show up on youTube: 'Glass' (1958) and 'Zoo' (1961; cut up in two parts).

Both are awesome examples of a genre that hardly exists anymore: the wordless documentary, using purely visual observation, in this case perfectly edited to a jazzy score. The former makes glass blowers look like jazz musicians, and in the latter the difference between zoo visitors and residents is comically blurred...

rififi

Rififi is French slang for 'trouble', 'brawl' or 'rough-and-tumble'. The word was made popular by the 1955 film 'Rififi', or in full 'Du Rififi chez les Hommes', based on the novel by Auguste Le Breton and directed by Jules Dassin. François Truffaut commented that "out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I have ever seen." Indeed, 'Rififi' is the archetypical heist film, realistic and intelligent, and hugely influential from the French Nouvelle Vague all the way to Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs'.

The film's production history is interesting: American director Dassin had already made a number of noir films in the US when he was forced in exile from Hollywood during the Communist blacklist years. He settled in France, where - still obstructed by Hollywood's long arm - he managed to get 'Rififi' made on a tight budget without any stars. Ironically, the distinctive tough and seedy atmosphere (including a lot of abuse of women and drugs) that makes 'Rififi' still gripping today probably would have been way too controversial for '50s Hollywood.

Rififi - 1

The story is set in the underworld of Paris, where Tony le Stephanois, just released from prison with a tuberculous cough, is persuaded to do a major jewelry store heist with three colleagues: Jo le Suédois (Joe the Swede), Mario Farrati and César le Milanais (played by Dassin), the suave safecracker who's flown in from Italy for the job. In a classic three act setup, the story follows the extensive preparations for the heist, the successful burglary itself, and the aftermath, when the whole plan goes awry. As befits a film noir, there's no getting away clean - it always ends in blood...

'Rififi' owes much of its fame to the heist scene: a breathtaking half hour long (!) sequence in which the four break into the jewelry store. The whole burglary is executed in utter silence - without any music - and every step of the operation is shown in detail, building up an absolutely nervewrecking suspense. The scene also creates a great respect for the professional skills of these crooks: as one newspaper headline puts it, they pull off the "most daring coup since the Rape of the Sabines!"

However, after the heist the plan starts to unravel. One of them, César, is careless and unwittingly betrays them to a rivalling gang. In the ensuing 'rififi' over the money, one by one they are all killed. (To compare: this would be the point where 'Reservoir Dogs' started, focusing on the same theme of distrust and human weakness.)

Rififi - 2

The final scene is another piece of great filmmaking. Tony, the last survivor, shot in the gut and dying, is driving his godson and the money back to safety. The scene somehow manages to convey simultaneously the giddy exhilaration of the child riding in an open car through Paris, and the exhausted, almost hallucinatory attempt of Tony to stay on the road. Here Tony's perseverence attains a tragic quality that most later film noirs could only make into pastiches or caricatures.

It looks like a Hollywood remake is on the way. (It would be interesting to know what Dassin, who recently died, would have thought of that.) Be sure to watch the original before it comes out!