Umberto Eco on Casablanca “the clichés are having a ball”

March 31, 2010

Umberto Eco on Casablanca:  this article was first published in 1994 in an article entitled “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”, which appeared in Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), pp.260- 264 (now in its sixth edition).  Click here to read the article.  What Eco writes about cliches has been much-quoted, but is worth reading:

Thus Casablanca is not just one film.  It is many films, an anthology.  Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control.  And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making.  For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it.  And so we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of “La Marseillaise.”  When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths.  Two cliches make us laugh.  A hundred cliches move us.  For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.  Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.  Something has spoken in place of the director.  If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.

Green Zone and Albert Camus

March 25, 2010

“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”

This famous 1960 quote by French writer Albert Camus came back to me again and again as I watched Green Zone, the new film about the Iraq War and the search for weapons of mass destruction.   Matt Damon plays a mid-level commander in Iraq in 2003, head of a unit searching for the WMDs.  But he soon concludes that their intelligence is bad, and rapidly gets involved in between Pentagon planners (bad guy played by Greg Kinnear) and CIA (in this movie, the good guys!  how times have changed; the CIA understands what was going on and saw the ‘real politic’). 

The film has a Chinatown-like feel – meaning the meaningless of it all (“Jake, it’s Chinatown”).  But our Damon character (Damon has quickly become possibly the best ‘thinking mans’ action hero since … Harrison Ford?) retains his humanity and ethics – and interestingly, does not condemn the military (although he appears to avoid following orders at a few points, but that’s another story).

Directed by British-born Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) in a frenetic style, this is an accomplished thriller that has relatively little mystery and few unexpected plot twists.  It works, however, because the characters – particularly but not only Damon’s – are so real and so alive.  It is also unexpectedly true – the Iraqis, amazingly enough – are all speaking Arabic (with on-screen subtitles), and the settings are so convincing (it was shot in Spain and Morocco) as to be breathtaking at times.  Is this what the “green zone” and Bagdad looked like then?  I for one, reckon it did.

But what of the politics?  Green Zone effectively illustrates (sure, it’s a movie, but …) American actions in Iraq.  And here’s the thing – it does not overplay them.  Aside from a bit of torture, we are spared the worst of the miscarriages of justice.  We Americans have a heavy burden at times.  How to love our country, but to still love justice?

The Humbling book review

March 22, 2010

Book review of “The Humbling” by Philip Roth. (Published by Random House, A$29.95)  This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 11, 2010.

In the same way that Woody Allen staked out so much of the territory of intellectual American Jewish men in film, Philip Roth has operated this way in literature, particularly in relation to sex:  what erogenous story can a Jewish-American male author write that Roth has not already claimed for his own?

In recent years, Roth’s books have fallen into one of two categories:  semi-autobiographical tales of working class New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, and present-day stories of ageing and raging men, all afflicted with various ailments of male old age (prostate cancer, depression, you name it).  In the former category sits “The Plot Against America” (2004) and “Indignation” (2008), and in the latter “Everyman” (2006) and “Exit Ghost” (2007).

Sitting firmly in the second is Roth’s latest, “The Humbling”, released late last year.  It is the story of Simon Axler, formerly a leading stage actor who in his sixties has lost all of his abilities.  The book opens thus:

He’d lost his magic.  The impulse was spent.  He’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened:  he couldn’t act.  Going onstage became agony….  He couldn’t get over to the audience.  His talent was dead.

His wife has left him.  He has no children, no family, no close friends, no local acquaintances, no life other than the theatre – which has now failed at.  But into Axler’s life unexpectedly wanders Pegeen, the forty year old lesbian daughter of old friends, and with whom Simon has a passionate late life love affair – despite his concerns about the inappropriate pairing.  The character of Pegeen is not well-drawn, but this is not her book – it is all about Axler.

At only 140 pages, “The Humbling” is a book to read in just a few hours (“an overstuffed short story”, writes Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times).  This short length – a novella, really – also makes it ideal for transformation to the screen – and Jewish director Barry Levinson is now slated to direct Al Pacino (recently seen in Australian cinemas as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”), with a script adaptation by 79 year old Buck Henry (“The Graduate”).

It is highly likely that the film version will be much better than the book, which has had a poor reception:  one of the worst in Roth’s long career.  Writing in the Observer, William Skidelsky called the book “an embarrassing failure” and “dismayingly poor”, likening it to Roth’s worst misfire “The Breast” (1972), which was a re-working of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.

Although there have been a few positive reviews, notably Jesse Kornbluth in the Huffington Post (“best book in years”), Katie Roiphe in the The New York Times wonders “How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?”

Yes, the sex is still there.  And enraging sex scenes are at least interesting scenes.  But “The Humbling” – at least for me – is a depressing book about a depressive man, with an unhappy ending to boot.  There is a great deal of similarity to two of Roth’s accomplished and popular novels – “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) and “The Human Stain” (2000), but little of the character development, surprise, creative spark and vitality of those two books.  But Roth being Roth, there is still more to look forward to:  his novel “Nemesis”, set in 1944 Newark, is the story of the impact of a polio epidemic on Jewish neighbourhoods, and is due for release later in 2010.

Best description of difference between a DVD and movies

March 2, 2010

Here is the best description I have read between watching a DVD and watching an actual movie in the cinema.  It comes from Anthony Lane’s review in the February 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker of The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948), which commenced a run at the Film Forum in New York City on February 19, 2010:

Watching The Red Shoes, whatever the quality, on the small screen is like drinking champagne, whatever the vintage, through a plastic straw.  The movie should fill one’s vision no less comprehensively than a sunset ….