Archive for the ‘History’ Category
I’ve watched a couple of those East German films about the war now. Of the two, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case from 1961 is definitely the one worth searching out. It’s based on an incident most people read about and then instantly forget, that the Nazis staged an attack by Polish nationalists on a German radio station and then used it as a pretext for, you know, subjugating an entire damn country. It’s shot in stark B&W with a million unconventional camera angles, and it’s best described as “unstuck in time”, with flashbacks and flash-forwards taking up as much space as the present-time story. It’s also quickly paced without seeming to skimp in any way, and the acting is all fine, too. I’m running through this it’s-all-okay checklist just to say that its origins as a GDR film don’t taint it or turn it into a platform for Soviet ideology. It’s legitimately good. It has two extraordinary sequences, in fact, one in which, through a series of percussive Citizen Kane-type flashbacks, we’re marched through the experiences that mold the leader of the commando squad into a rabid monster. The best passage, however, comes when the political prisoner whom the Nazis have selected as their patsy (they dress him in a Polish army uniform, then shoot him and leave his body at the radio station) is being transported to Gleiwitz. When the car brakes at a railroad crossing, the endless train carrying German soldiers and materiel toward the border causes him to realize with dawning awareness that this ride only goes one way.
Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965) is less experimental than Gleiwitz, but it’s still odd to see a conventional Hollywood epic built around the experiences of two German boys from high school to the end of the war. It’s expansive, sexually aware (hot chicks galore in it), and well-made, but it’s a meandering and unnecessary 165 minutes long. It was a huge hit and won several festival awards, though, and both it and Gleiwitz appeared at a time when the West German studios were pumping out serious treacle, the stuff that Fassbinder, Wenders & Co would soon be rebelling against.
What’s impressive is that both films probe deeply into the lives and backgrounds of their fanatics without either rationalizing or judging them. (I mean judging them from a bullying, triumphal point of view—a totalitarian point of view. Obviously the movies are anti-Nazi, anti-murder, etc.) I’ve got a couple more of them ordered, and it looks like the filmmakers were primarily interested in understanding the process by which normal people submit to a totalitarian regime, which is of course a surprise.
The Gleiwitz Case
James Agee is remembered today for a few things: his perceptive, funny film criticism; his script for The Night of the Hunter; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his exhausting but indispensable prose poem about Alabama tenant farmers, a book which taken simply as a thing is as fundamentally an American object as a handful of dirt from the Little Bighorn battlefield or Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule; the atmospheric remembrance of his father’s sudden death in the novel A Death in the Family; and the myriad stories told by those who encountered the loquacious, footloose, irrepressible Agee in the flesh.
But he ought also to be remembered for this essay, which provides a glimpse of American daily life in a past that’s much closer than it seems. It lay in his papers, undiscovered, for almost 50 years, and it came to mind again two weeks ago after the Roberts Court decided to rip the guts out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If a look back at history doesn’t provide reason enough to sustain the VRA, what Rick Perry did less than two hours after the decision came down tore the veil off its opponents’ intentions. The gains granted by the Court to gays provided a watershed moment in America’s civil rights battle, but if Texas and other backward states are indeed allowed to roll the clock back on minorities, we’ll have taken one step forward for four or five very large steps back.
America, Look at Your Shame!
I keep remembering those photographs of the Detroit race riots which appeared in PM. Pages of them, and that typically PM headline, all over their front page.
AMERICA, LOOK AT YOUR SHAME!
That disgusted me, as their headlines so often do, but as I looked at the photographs I got a good deal of respect for the paper in spite of everything. Then I realized that with a few exceptions PM had cornered the photographs. They were unavailable to any other paper. That was as perfect, and typical a low as I had ever seen them touch. I wanted to write them. Or to do them as much damage as I possibly could. The liberals and the left. They had never shown themselves up better.
Look at your shame, indeed.
There was one in particular, that I couldn’t get out of my head; one of the less violent of them. It was the one which particularly showed that there were white people who were not only horrified by the riots but brave enough to do all they could for the Negroes. It showed two young men. They were holding up a terribly bleeding Negro man between them, and they looked at the camera as if they were at bay before a crowd of rioters, as perhaps they were not. The mixture of emotions on their faces was almost unbearable to keep looking at: almost a nausea of sympathy for the hurt man and for the whole situation; a kind of terror which all naturally unviolent people must feel in the middle of violence; absolute self-forgetfulness; a terrific, accidental look of bearing testimony—a sort of gruesome, over-realistic caricature; which was rather, really, the source of those attendant saints or angels who communicate with the world outside the picture in great paintings of crucifixions and exalted agonies
The thing that made it so particularly powerful to me was that both these young men, one of them especially, so far as you could judge by study, were of a sort which is often somewhat sneered at, by most bad people and by many pretty good ones: rather humbly “artistic,” four-effish people, of whom you might think that any emotion they felt would be tainted, at least, with fancy sentimentality.
It made me ashamed of every such reflex of easy classification and dismissal as I have ever felt—the more ashamed, because I had to wonder whether, in such a situation, I would have been capable of that self-forgetfulness and courage. It made me half-ashamed to keep looking at them, for that matter, as I had been doing again on that afternoon I am especially thinking of now. I care a great deal for such photographs; they do more, in certain ways, than any other art can. But there is also, in proportion to its best use, something criminal and indecent about the camera; and there is a great load of guilt on the eye that eats what it has predigested.
On this particular afternoon, which was the Sunday after the riots, I was up on East 92nd Street seeing a friend of mine, a photographer, and we spent quite a bit of the afternoon looking through things he clipped and a few I had brought along. I had not seen my friend at leisure for a long time and we had a particularly good afternoon of it, in which the photograph I am speaking of turned up powerfully but casually, and moved off to become a sort of tinge in the back of the mind. By the end of the afternoon I had the unusual, gay sort of good opinion of myself, my friend, photography and what my senses could enjoy, which you are liable to get out of whiskey and easy pleasure if work causes the latter to turn up seldom enough. By the time I left to go downtown for supper, I was at the high point just short of where intoxication begins to droop into clumsiness or melancholy; and the minute I was outdoors the streets, in the very beautiful late of afternoon weather, improved, that if it can be improved, with the feeling of being alone for a little while, and with the sharp, tender enjoyment of a city I am ordinarily tired in.
At 91st Street, on York Avenue, I got on an 86th Street crosstown bus and sat far forward on the right. It started nearly empty, and filled up rather quickly; I did not much notice when, or with whom, because I was looking out a great deal through the front and side windows, especially as soon as the bus swung west onto 86th Street and the street and the bus were filled with the low, bright sunlight. It was a light so gay, generous and beautiful, it was almost as if it tasted of champagne and smelled of strawberries, hay and fresh butter. What it smelled of more, of course, was carbon monoxide, which can also be a festal sort of smell, when everything is right, and was now; and the edges of the hundreds of doors and windows, along the street, were cut in a blue-gold, clean compound of sunlight, monoxide and stone. I watched all the people, puddling and straggling along the walks, and as usual, wondered which were the Hitchcock agents and which were the harmless, and what might be going on in each mind as they thought, if they did, of what was happening to Hitler and his idea and his people, over where it was dark now, and they were counting their losses in the East, and giving out modified reports in the middle, and staggering under the bombers from the west. In an easy insensitive way, I began to be very sorry for all those people caught in the hopeless middle; even for Hitler and his damned idea, so monstrous except that they already seemed so hopeless.
Around me, I realized the bus was thicker and thicker with people, some standing, some packed on the seats, all swaying, pleasant and patient-seeming in the green and gold light which filled the bus. Across the aisle were some sailors, sitting, their faces very young and very red, in their very white uniforms. Halfway back in the bus were some young soldiers; the same quality of variegated physical perfection and of almost indecent cleanness, which so few civilians ever seem to have—like so many priests, or Sunday babies, or little girls in bride-of-heaven regalia, but even more likable; dumb, very likely, cruel, very possibly, developed and perfected for something I feel no trust in; yet about the best thing that ever turns up in human life. I liked them a great deal, and all my doubts of it cleared; I might not be perfectly sure what I wanted, but I was no longer personally sorry that within a week I was coming up for induction; I was almost glad; and if I were taken, many things could be worse. One of them, very possibly, would be to come out the other end of the war, still a virginal civilian.
I liked them still better as I watched them and began to hear them. I especially noticed one quite strong young sailor, just across from me; a big boy, bigger than I am, a little; and because his eyes and his face had a good deal in them which as a child I used to fear, and have always been shy of, I now liked him particularly well. It was the sort of face which only turn up, so far as I know, in the South—heavy jaw, a slightly thin yet ornate mouth, powerful nose, blue-white, reckless, brutal eyes. I knew the voice just as well, and the special, rather crazy kind of bravery; they made me feel at once as isolated and as matchlessly at home as if I were back in the South again. Nearly all these boys, it turned out, were Southerners, the soldiers as well as the sailors, and the loud large sailor and the loudest and littlest of the soldiers were just finding this out about each other. One was from Atlanta; the other knew Atlanta very well. They began testing each other out on street names and bars, then on people, which did not go quite so well, and now and then the others chimed in with a wisecrack or an exclamation more simpleminded, They were happy as hell to run into each other like this—not even Viennese refugees can lay it on so thick, and enjoy it so much, as Southerners when they meet by surprise in an alien atmosphere. They were drunk, about as drunk as I was, and that helped; but they would have leaned on their dialects like trimming ship in a yacht-race even if they were sober. It is a very special speech, as unattractive to most Northerners as it is dear to natives, and I will not try to reproduce it here, beyond suggesting that its special broadenings, lifts, twangs and elisions, even if you didn’t know the idiom by heart, which I do, were as charming and miraculous as if, in the same New York bus, a couple of Parsees had saluted each other according to their own language and ritual.
A part of it, of course, was that they were basically insecure; it was insecurity and the southerner’s incomparable, almost pathic pride, as well as love of country and loneliness and the aching contempt for the North, which made them so spectacular, made so many Northerners on the bus look warm, cold or uneasy accordingly, and made the young sailors and soldiers begin to vocalize about the niggers on the bus and the God damned niggers in this f—ing town and the f—ing niggers all over the whole God damned f—ing Nawth. The word cut across my solar-plexus like a cold knife, and the whole bus, except for those two voices and the comments of their friends, was suddenly almost exploded by an immensely thick quietness. I glanced very quickly back; one of the soldiers met my eyes with eyes like hot iron, and two seats behind him sat a Negro (it is a word I dislike, but most of the others are still worse); sat a colored man of perhaps fifty, in nickel-rimmed glasses, a carefully starched white shirt, and a serge suit, managing so to use his eyes that you could see only the nickel rims and the lenses.
The flailing voices went on and on, more and more fanciful, naked and cruel, and though I was listening with great care for every word, and heard every word, I was also so occupied that I heard very little, and remember almost nothing, now. It was all the old, ugly routines; what we wouldn’t do to Boy son of a bitchin nigguh that tuck a seat by a white woman if we was in Atlanta; dey would; get a Nawthun nigguh down deah, you’d see what dey’d do; yaanh, reckin dey’d see thang a tyew. Three any ovem tried it, black rapin bastuhds; but there was very little of this I heard, because I was too sick to hear much, and too busy. I was trying to think what to do and what to say. I had, repeatedly, a very clear image of the moment I would get up, draw a standee aside, and hit the big young sailor who was, after all, very little bigger than me, as hard as I could on his bright, shaven jaw. I also had, repeatedly, the exact image of what would happen then. Singlehanded, that boy could tear me to pieces; what the crowd of them could do was a little beyond my imagination. I had the image of looking him in the eye; various ways, in fact, of looking him in the eye. One was the cold, controlled rage which is occasionally used to pick a fight and which my kind more occasionally uses to bring a sexual quarrel or an intellectual argument as near to nature as we are likely to go. One was the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look which is liable to compound some genuineness of feeling with plagiarisms from photographs of Lincoln and paintings of Veronica’s veil; it is occasionally used, and effective, when somebody else’s neurosis goes wild, but unless you are too good a human being to know you are using it, there is no uglier or more abject device of blackmail. One, worst of them all, was the blank eye which commits itself to nothing. But none of these, it was easy to see, were of any use unless I was ready to back them up physically, and I could hear, just as clearly as I could visualize, the phonograph-records of talk they would bring on; nigger-lover is the favorite word. I was also trying to think what to say; for I know from the past—and might have known by some of the Detroit photographs if I had thought of them just then—that their kind of talk and even action is sometimes completely quieted by the right kind of talking, and better quieted then into sullenness; quieted into deep abashment. I have a friend, a small and elderly man, who would have brought that effect almost instantly. But his size and his age would have been a part of it; still more, his perfect self-forgetfulness, his unquestioning intrepidity. I was neither small nor elderly, nor self-forgetful, nor intrepid, nor singlehearted in any one of my perceptions or emotions; I was simply fumbling at words and knowledges: Look here. What are you fighting this war about. I know how you feel, I know you’re from the South, I’m from the South myself, I know (I may be but the way I say it makes it a lie). Things are different there, and all this you see here goes against every way you believe is right. But you’ve got to get used to it. You’ve got to know it. This is one of the main things this war is about (is it? is it?). If it isn’t about this we might as well not be fighting it at all (we might as well not, indeed). You’ll ask me where I’ve got any right to tell you what you’re fighting for. I’m not even in uniform. I’m not I know but I’ll be in one soon—next week (will I? do I want to be?). But that’s not the point anyhow (this is falling apart). Anyone on this bus has got a right to know the point and to tell it to you, white or black (I sound like a Tennessee senator; race, creed and coluh), we’ve got to make this a free country where every human being can be well with every other human being, regardless of race, creed or color, we’ve got to make it a world like that. I don’t believe you mean the harm you say, honestly, but you’ve got to realize it, you might as well be fighting for Hitler as to fight for this country feeling the way you do.
It was all so much cotton-batting on my tongue. I couldn’t gather a phrase of it together and make it mean anything, even to myself. Talking to them, talking for the corroboration of most of the bus, unable to talk in my own language because my own language would mean nothing even if I could use it with enough belief to make it mean something to me. All the hopeless, bland, advertising-copy claims of the Four Freedoms was running in my head; all the undersupplying of the Chinese; all the talk of the “magnificent courage” of the Red Army, and all the Rice Krispies which took the place of a second front; all the Bryn Mawr girls, planning to police post-war Europe; all the PM articles and the Wallace speeches and the slogans; I cannot know to this day with how much justice they undermined me, and with how much cowardice. I only know I could not believe a word I said; and had images of saying it and having the hell beaten out of me, and other images of saying it with effect; and other images of a fight which could be stopped by cops who are as much a phobia to me as rats; and others of modest and of carefully worded and of modestly rhetorical statements by myself, repeated in the press; a small yet not wholly undistinguished instant in the history of the world’s long Fight for Freedom; that hit me with self-disgust like a blow in the belly; and I noticed that the big sailor was now standing, and an elderly Negro woman had his seat.
Whether he had stood rather than sit beside her, or out of an instant genuine courtesy, quickly repented, or out of mock courtesy, I could not tell from anything he was saying; and this still further perplexed me. If his motives were the first or the third, then it was more than even I could bear, not to fight him; if he had felt one moment of reflex courtesy, I felt friendliness towards him in spite of all he was now saying. I listened hard, to learn, and could not make out. One reason I could not make out was that I was also listening to the woman. She was talking very little, and crying a little, and telling him, and the whole bus, that he ought to be ashamed, talking that way. People never done him no harm. Ain’t your skin that make the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Ought to be ashamed. Just might bout’s well be Hitluh, as a white man from the South. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.
There was an immense relaxation in the quiet through the whole bus; but not in me. I caught the eye, at that moment, of a man about my age, in one of the longways seats across the aisle. He was dressed in a brown, Sunday-looking suit. He may have been a Jew, and more certainly would have described himself, without self-consciousness or satire, as “an intellectual.” We looked at each other, and a queer, sick smile took one corner of his face, and I felt in my own cheeks that tickling, uncontrollable, nauseating smile which is so liable to seize my face when I tell one close friend disastrous news of another.
I remembered the photograph in PM, and looked sternly at the floor, with my cheek twitching. That evening I told of the whole thing, as honestly as I could, to several people who were down for drinks. They were quite shocked by it, and seemed also rather favorably stirred by my honesty. That embarrassed me a good deal, but not as painfully as I wish it might have, and I found their agreement that they would have done the same almost as revolting as my own performance in the doing act, and in the telling.
So now I am telling it to you.
Talking Points Memo has a great collection of Inauguration Day photos up. Click the pix for the large version, especially “FDR 1933”.
McKinley 1897, with Grover Cleveland
West Point Cadets, Wilson 1913
Suffragette Parade, Wilson 1913
I’m a little spaced-out here this morning, and a little cranky, too, if you must know the truth—I went to bed on the early side and even slept in a bit, but I still didn’t catch up on my sleep.
I spent the last few days on the eastern side of the Sierras with my buddy Chris. Friday, on the drive into the mountains, we stopped off in the western foothills at Chinese Camp, a Gold Rush settlement that sprang up when some right-thinking Anglo miners figured life would be better if their Oriental counterparts were vamonosed to a camp all their own. The 2010 census pegged the town’s population at 126 people, and I suppose they’re there somewhere, but we didn’t see a soul. It’s mostly a gathering of decaying buildings lost in a grove of ailanthus trees: a post office, a foundry, the obligatory Odd Fellows hall, a sprawling, now overgrown hotel that looks like the stage for some overripe Tennessee Williams drama—each with its own dilapidated charm.
We spent the night in Bishop, in the Owens Valley. This is a stretch of ground I’ve long been partial to, though Bishop, at the northern end of the valley, is my least favorite part of it. Saturday morning we drove 60 miles south to Lone Pine, turned east, and followed a road from the mostly dry Owens Lake bed up into the Inyo Mountains, with the Sierras to the west and Death Valley on the east. It’s unpaved but it was recently graded, which is a good thing because it’s a hell of a winding little drive which at some places seems to shoot straight into the sky. I had no idea where we were going, but at about 9,000 feet the road widened out and maybe a dozen buildings sprang into view.
The town, in its day, was called Cerro Gordo—“fat hill”—and it was a silver and lead mining community that sprang up after the rush. In the late 1870s it boasted 4,000 people and its hillsides were crowded with structures ranging from dugouts and rock shelters to the two-story American Hotel, which actually had running water. There were brothels and saloons and the other amenities of camp life, and every day wagons loaded with silver ingots—each weighing 83 pounds—would labor down the road, heading for Los Angeles, from whence they’d be shipped back up the coast to San Francisco.
I learned all this and much, much more from a walking encyclopedia named Bob Desmarais—a slender, gravel-voiced guy who brings Levon Helm to mind. He’s the caretaker at Cerro Gordo, and he and his wife, along with a Chihuahua named Harley, are its only current inhabitants. Ms. Desmarais was away on a mail-run at the time, but Bob seemed happy to drop what he was doing and give us a tour of the grounds.
Bob and his wife hope to reopen Cerro Gordo as a going concern, but the last caretaker’s will left it tied up in probate. In the meantime Bob’s approach towards maintaining a historic ghost town has been perfectly balanced halfway beween the tack taken in Bodie, Nevada, where visitors aren’t allowed to enter any of the structures, and Aurora, California, which has been virtually plundered to the ground. (The only thing you’ll find there is thousands of rusted sardine cans.) Cerro Gordo is returning to the earth but at a managed rate, and thanks to its elevation and caretakers it’s been blissfully free of the casual scavenger. As a result, the hotel, the chapel, the barracks, and so on, all of which you can enter, are stuffed with actual goods from when the town was a going concern. It’s not just a collection of bottle caps.
That road going up had been an adventure even in Chris’ 4X4, so it’s a mystery how a wagon loaded with thousands of pounds of silver could’ve navigated it going down. The answer is simple: the mule. The poor damn mule. Mules had a hard enough life just pulling their damn loads, but to keep Mortimer Belshaw’s heavy silver wagons from splashing all over the valley floor, teams were harnessed to the rear of them, too—specialized teams that were trained to pull backward even as their hooves were inching forward. When we were driving home I saw a lone mule grazing happily in a green field, and I heard a crazy voice in my head: “My great-great-great-great grandpappy pulled silver wagons backwards so that one day I might roll in clover…”
Cerro Gordo is a fantastic day-trip if you’re ever in the area, but getting out of there is something else. As rough as the western road was going up, it’s nothing compared to the eastern road that goes down the backside of the mountain. Twisty and turny doesn’t begin to describe it, and there was one particularly nasty stretch that was six or seven miles long—an eternity when you’re moving 10 mph. Washouts made the road all but impassable in three or four places, with one in particular almost screwing us for good. Bob had said it wouldn’t be smooth sailing but he didn’t say we might get stuck 30 miles from nowhere, which is damn near what happened. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t The Wages of Fear—it was still nerve-wracking as hell.
That night we hit the Double L again. It’s just a honky-tonk on Lone Pine’s main street, but damn, it’s a good time. Friendly locals, a reed-thin bartender named Cindy who gives a wry, downturned smile when she likes something you said, a couple of decent pool tables in the back…What more can you ask for? It was Karaoke Night, so the locals were climbing onto the stage and spinning off their versions of “Cocaine” and Britney Spears songs, and I had just a damn good time shooting pool and bullshitting with people, but it was very likely our last hurrah there. The owner of the Double L sold his liquor license—sold his business essentially—to a casino that’s moving into town, so Cindy and the rest of them are going to need a new home soon. Which bites.
Anyway…I’m back. Sam, my boss, died on the Fourth of July—a fact I don’t think I’ve mentioned here—and the company hasn’t named his replacement yet. I’m getting my assignments from an attorney in Sacramento, but they’re slow in coming and I don’t have anyone acting as my supervisor in the S.F. office, so I’m just waiting for the word to come down. Sam’s boss told me the position might be moving to L.A., which, to put it mildly, would be an unhappy turn of events, but I’m not going to stress over something which: a) might not happen, and b) I can’t control anyway. My biggest bitch right now—me not being a mule and all—is that I just can’t wake up.
This somber anti-fascist tale opened 18 months before Pearl Harbor, when American isolationists, both inside and outside the movie industry, were still calling the shots. As the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust points out, Germany made up 10% of Hollywood’s foreign market, and the studio moguls—all of them Jewish—felt even more threatened by anti-Semitic currents washing through American society at the time. MGM was also the least political of the studios, so it takes something more than Louis B. Mayer’s love of glossy literary adaptations to explain why he okayed a film version of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.
The film begins on the night that Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, and goes on to cover the ensuing years, as history bears down like a freight train on two men: a soft-spoken freethinker (James Stewart) who quietly withdraws from society when his lifelong friends plunge headlong into the Nazi madness, and a Jewish professor (Frank Morgan) who is stepfather to an Aryan family that includes two sons of military age. Despite its gassy, unparseable title, The Mortal Storm avoids the stodginess and stridency of so many wartime pictures, thanks largely to its ensemble work—Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Bonita Granville help round out the cast. The Alps may be represented by obvious models and matte shots, but the characters come with detailed histories and an air of having known each other forever. And that’s something different from most films of the era: an acknowledgement that life under Hitler remained a social tapestry. Though real-life counterparts may have been few and far between, it’s important to the movie’s ethos that even the young man who has cruelly turned on his loved ones can feel a shred of self-doubt.
Frank Borzage’s years in silent cinema can be seen in his gliding camera moves (especially during an invigorating ski race), and in sequences like the one in which Stewart and Sullavan find themselves in a beerhall surrounded by monsters. When the troops break into one of their drinking songs with their arms raised in the fascist salute, the young couple warily rise to their feet with a perfect mixture of apprehension and disbelief on their faces, and the fact that they’re facing the opposite direction of everyone else seems like a poetic gesture rather than a weighted symbol.
It’s not clear when the story takes place other than sometime before the Anschluss in March 1938. In the movie’s world street-beatings and book burnings are common, and the Nazi regime’s attack on rationality is a close match for what we know was going on in those years. And though the Final Solution still lay in the future, and one might think such an apocalypse unimaginable before it occurred, the filmmakers intuited at least something of what was to come in a heart-rending farewell scene. The atmosphere is one of harrowing, mindless violence, widening fear and a deep and growing sorrow. [A note: despite the fact that Hitler’s name is tossed about along with the swastika and other Nazi trappings, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film—“non-Aryan” is the term of choice—and the setting is downplayed (though not denied). The Mortal Storm was still potent enough for Germany to ban MGM films after it appeared—a testament to the power of a movie that was being made even as its vast historical events were still unfolding.]
Tonight it was Agony, Elem Klimov’s picture about Rasputin and the Romanovs in the last year before the Revolution. Klimov made it in ’75, and even though it pulls the curtain back on plenty of Tsarist excesses, those Commie blockheads shelved it until Gorbachev came into power—presumably because he treats the Tsar and his family as people rather than as history’s garbage. The movie suffers from some of the antic stylistic excesses of the ’60s and ’70s, and sadly most of the scenes focused on Rasputin have a dated absurdist bent that grows old quickly. But when the focus is on Nicholas it’s a quieter, more naturalistic work, and a fascinating one. Anatoli Romashin, who plays Nicholas, was like Anthony Hopkins at his best: I could actually read the waves of thought washing across his face as if they were words. A great moment occurs just before we get our first good look at Rasputin, when Nicholas walks into a room where the monk is treating the hemophiliac kid (who’s otherwise not a player in the movie), and Klimov gives us individual closeups of the royal couple, showing by their responses to Rasputin’s therapy what they hold in their hearts: where Aleksandra appears relieved and a touch defensive about it, Nicholas simply looks consumed—90% weakness and 10% doubt. To keep his audience up with the historical context—1916 being a rather hectic year for the Romanov clan—Klimov relies on extensive montages made up of vintage newsreels. The battle scenes from the front have been endlessly recycled, but the 15 or 20 minutes of footage showing daily street-life and the massive demonstrations in St. Petersburg were wholly new to me. In one, taken as the Tsar’s troopers opened fire on a mob as it neared the Winter Palace, the crowd breaks into flight across a huge square. As they scramble hither and yon, so many people are in the frame that they fill every inch of the screen, and with the snow under their feet forming a natural backdrop, they look like a vast flock of birds pinwheeling across the sky. It’s astonishing.
I guess it was about three weeks ago that I watched Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent. Shepitko was Klimov’s wife—I think they met in film school—and she was killed in a car wreck while scouting locations in ’79. Both films are awfully, awfully good, but they were made 10 years apart, and in that time she moved from being a very talented student to something close to a master. Wings, which came out in ’66, carries a heavy debt to the neorealist films, particularly Umberto D.: it bears down like a magnifying glass on a middle-aged woman who was a pilot and national hero during WW II, but who in the film’s present tense has lapsed into the drab, anonymous life of an outmoded headmistress. It’s a wonderful picture, and when I say it’s gorgeously shot, I don’t just mean that it’s pretty, though it’s that, too—I mean that it’s expressive and original. But good as it is, The Ascent is a whole other deal. A metaphysical epic set on the Eastern Front, it follows the moral-cum-spiritual choices made by two Russian partisans after they’re captured by the Nazis. It has the same religious urgency that gripped Dostoevsky’s characters—you feel as if these men, when they each do what they do, understand that they’re sealing their souls for eternity, and everything comes home to roost in a long, emotionally wracking scene that’s ballsier, and more haunting, than anything in Come and See. Which, of course, is saying something.
A weird thing happened tonight, too. I took a break during Agony to get a burrito, and since I didn’t want to eat and take a doctorate course in Russian history at the same time, I threw in Plan 9 from Outer Space to tide me over. It’s a movie I actually like on its own terms, at least in places—its opening puts me in a mood not so far removed from its more reputable cousins Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls—but of course you soon start hitting those mismatched day-and-night cuts and the Lugosi impersonator and, well, it’s still fun, just in a different, more jaw-dropping way. But anyway…it took me half an hour to eat and digest my food a little, and when I turned Plan 9 off and went back to Agony, damn if it didn’t look like another Ed Wood movie. Some of that I’m sure was due to the ’70s shenanigans I mentioned above, but I’ve noticed the same thing happen other times: bad flicks bringing out what might even be nonexistent flaws in even great movies when the proximity between them gets too narrow. That’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I had some training on editing software. It’s an idea I’d love to play around with.
The NYT has audio and transcripts of 9/11 chatter up here, much of which was used in United 93. Not this portion though, which I find rather touching. The Army is looking for info from the FAA.
We’re checking to get some information from you, if we could.
O.K., what would, what do you need?
We need call sign, type aircraft.
It’s ah American 11.
Type aircraft is a, uh, 767.
And, number of souls on board, do you know that?
Uh, I don’t, know, hold on. Hey Dan, do we got souls on board, and all that information?
No. We don’t have any of that information.
You don’t have any of that? O.K.
Emile de Antonio rehashes the Army-McCarthy hearing footage, but that’s always a good time. It’s interesting to see the camera that close in on a bad liar just when his credibility is being completely ravaged in an extremely public setting, while McCarthy’s exchange with Welch about pixies and fairies (“I think he might be an expert on that”) ought to be a staple in any history of the gay rights movement. McCarthy’s increasingly desperate ploys, the moment when John McClellan decides even he’s had enough of McCarthy’s bullshit, and McCarthy’s peroration to a rapidly emptying committee chamber, with the throng paying not even a scintilla of attention to his tinny last stand—it’s a comeuppance you usually don’t see outside of Capra movies.