07 December 2008

On being well read

"You read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost"
- from Dangling Conversation by Simon and Garfunkel
A close friend of mine recently lamented to me that her reading habits have created a great divide between herself and those surrounding her. As a great reader, she found that in general company her mind was too absorbed with the world of ideas and not enough with pop culture and fads so that she simply had problems relating to people. As she said it: "When I try to express what I'm interested in, it's just not cool".

At first I thought she was giving herself a backhanded compliment, but eventually decided she was in earnest. In fact she has probably made me much more conscious of the situation which in the past I couldn't care less about. No matter how raunchy or fascinating the topic, unless it is written by Kerouac or Nick Cave, it's not cool.

Autodidacticism seems to be the answer, however the dream of building on the canon of knowledge seems dead in the void of pop culture that is labelled as, like, so post-modern. Whatever happened to music like Joni Mitchell where one heard echoes of Sylvia Plath, in Van Morrison traces of James Joyce, and strains of Mark Twain ran through Randy Newman. The 60s period even produced its own pop answer to Eliot's "Waste Land" in Don McLean's symbol-laden, end-of-the-rock-era-lament "American Pie."

Today on college campuses, monolithic musical taste no longer prevails. Instead of alluding to literary pillars like Dickinson and Frost, the artier bands' favorite points of reference tend to be television shows, Dadaist movies and obscure pop tunes.

One of the things that attracted me to my friend in the first place was her love of reading widely and with deep contemplation. Seriously, is she so alone in our generation? For me reading broadly is a brilliant pastime. I love meeting people who can easily switch from discussion about socio-economics and Renaissance sexuality to chatter about celebrities and classic fashion.

Anyone, at any age or eminence, who considers their education to be finished at school is an idiot. I actually don't need to talk to everyone about books. I have a close friend who I only speak with on frivolities. Instead together we take great pleasure in discussing how things are, an almost hedonistic love of the world as it is, or was, or should be. And this is often perfectly wonderful.

07 October 2008

Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

Yesterday I watched all 659 minutes of the original BBC Brideshead Revisited. Incredible.

I simply couldn't resist indulging in watching these characters after my sister described them to me in great detail at dinner. How can one not be enthralled with a young Lord Sebastian Flyte, an Oxford undergraduate who takes to late night parties and gambling, always bringing along his teddy-bear Aloysius who he threatens to spank when he misbehaves?

I would love to speak in their vernacular today. I also had to stop myself from pausing the film every few minutes so as to take snapshots of its delicate frames:

16 September 2008

The art of being yourself

"Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd."
- Edith Sitwell (1887 - 1964)

There is no counting the publications today devoted to "How-to" directives for forming our characters - rules for dressing right and eating right and speaking right and rightly getting ahead in the world. Just follow these rules and you too can join a standardized populace in one great grey goo of bumpless similarity.

I think the time is at hand for our finding, in a flash of ancient glory revived, the art of being ourselves. All you can do by listening to rules and sedulously conforming your life to them is the hideous art of how to be nobody at all.
  • Thomas Edison slept 4 hours a day, instead of the recommended 8
  • Charles Waterson, english naturalist, slept in a tree occassionally because he felt it gave him the right tuning for feeling like a piece of God's creation
  • Henry Ward Beecher used words in an unconventional way, and this made him the greatest orator of his day. He said: "If the English language gets in my way, God help it"
  • Charles Darwin hated social encounters so much that he often became ill. He therefore stuck to himself and came up with the Theory of Evolution.
There is and always will be the threat that we are thought for, rules, regulated, pushed around, made into things. There is only one weapon against that, which is the Dionysian self!

My favourite outsiders:

{Diana Vreeland}

30 August 2008

Paris Chic: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

I've just delighted in reading Vanity Fair's article on Carla Bruni, wife to French president Nicolas Sarkozy. For many it's seems strange that this archetype of French bohemian chic has become Madame Sarkozy and married into the very heart of the French establishment. She has been labelled the new Jackie O, but whether the American First Lady’s passion for ballet compares with Carla warbling “You are my dope” on her new album is open to debate.

The presence of this Italian heiress/90s supermodel/folk songwriter at the Élysée Palace in Paris has created scandalous uproar in French society. Carla was born an Italian - apparently contemptuous of traditional bourgeois morality. Furthermore, in the past the eligible women for political leaders fell into two categories: wife or mistress. The more controversial creatures fell into the latter category. It is wonderful to see the shackles of the past have been shattered, because today the likes of Diane de Poitiers, or trilling Madame de Pompadour wouldn't have to lurk in the background. Gone are the days of the passive and pleasing Madame de Gaulle. Carla embodies a gloriously post-modern phenomenon: First Lady as über mannequin/mythic sexual adventuress. Glorious.

It's hard to ignore her intriguing past. Famous men were desperate to be with Carla. Some succeeded. Eric Clapton wrote in his memoirs about falling madly in love with Carla and how he begged Mick Jagger not to steal her. Mick did anyway, and become her on-off lover for years. Meanwhile, Carla has other romances including several American billionaires, famous French philosophers and also the former French Socialist prime minister.

She told one reporter:
"I bore myself silly with monogamy. I prefer polygamy and polyandry."
And she herself once declared:
“There are two kinds of women – those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.”
Is that were Sarkozy comes into the picture?

There still lingers a public dislike President Sarkozy for the moment, as claims rise that he cares more for billionaires and celebrities than running the country. On the other hand, I admire his courage for saying au revoir to the rules of French establishment. Obviously there is more to this situation than meets the eye, more than the cynical headline "Feline man-tamer conquers President Bling-Bling". Maybe there's an element of dare I say love? How very French.

After all, she is adorable with those high cheekbones, porcelain skin and feline gaze. Her music is superb and rather infectious. Her lyrics draw on reference to Keats, Dickinson, Auden and Dorothy Parker. She is educated and thoughtful, and once in the late 90s when asked to outline her philosophical beliefs, she stated that she's an agnostic, a Nietzchean materialist who believes in free will rather than destiny. At the time she was with French philosopher and father of her child Raphaél Enthoven. She added:
"I think the intellect must consider the instincts. In our impulses, there are things we'd rather not have: we'd rather not be envious, or jealous, or dominate others, or take everything. But for me, the natural human instinct is an impulse towards possession, an animal impulse. And I think there are lots of supposedly intellectual people who never consider this point, because they don't want to recognise it in themselves. And in that case, they're not so intelligent after all. Me, I've got lots of low impulses. Lots! Like everybody. You have to accept the difficulties, the suffering of life."

Indeed, Carla has lived many lives. It has been said that:
“She’s a kind of alpha female. She was never a courtesan like Pamela Harriman—she was more like a female Don Juan.”
Easily said when Pamela Harriman had to deal with the reality of harsh critics, while Don Juan was protected in the whimsical life of fiction.

Carla Bruni is no stranger to privilege. In the opening scene of her sister Valeria’s semi-autobiographical film, It’s Easier for a Camel … , the female protagonist goes to church to confess, “I am rich—I am very, very rich.” Carla is the heiress of an Italian tyre-manufacturing company. As well as being a staunch capitalist, her father Alberto Bruni-Tedeschi was also a dodecaphonic composer and fervent art collector. He bought houses to fill them up with treasures, in Paris, Rambouillet, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Cap Nègre and Rome. Her extroverted mother Marisa was a concert pianist. The family moved to Paris in the 70s for security reasons, after a surge in kidnappings of wealthy industrialists and their heirs.

Later Carla went to a Swiss finishing school before returning to Paris to study architecture. Longing for independence from her parents, she then traded up for a meteoric career in front of the camera. The rest is history.

I think that she is definitely a positive addition to Élysée Palace. Karl Lagerfeld has said:
“She’s imaginative, clever, educated. She knows how to behave”
Designer Jean Paul Gaultier agrees:
“She’s clever, super well educated, and very focused. She is like the heroine of a book or a movie.”
One can't deny that the French first lady seems to have handled the situation with as much style as she has in her wardrobe.

29 August 2008

Monkey Poo Fights

Robert Frost's epitaph reads: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

I've always loved this lesser-known poem by Robert Frost, which I actually found on a piece of scrap paper at my school library when I was 15...

28 August 2008

Film | O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2000 | 106min | Colour | USA Crime-Adventure-Comedy

Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey", set in the deep south during the 1930's. In it, three escaped convicts search for hidden treasure while a relentless lawman pursues them.

Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen
Homer (poem The Odyssey)

George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Del Peentecost, Michael Badalucco, J. R. Horne, Brian Reddy, Wayne Duvall, Ed Gale, Ray McKinnon, Danial von Bargen

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (sceenplay), Roger Deakins (photography)

Joel Coen nomination (Golden Palm)

A folksy, screwball, picaresque comedy. A wild romp in the deep south, like Prozac to the great depression. It's the bombastic result of crossing Three Stooges with the Greek poet Homer. The film is surprisingly light for the Coen Brothers, closer to the farcical Hudsucker Proxy rather than the heavy Miller's Crossing and Fargo.

The three men shuffle down the dusty road.

The hell it ain't square one! Ain't
no one gonna pick up three filthy
unshaved hitchhikers, and one of 'em
a know-it-all that can't keep his
trap shut!

Pete, the personal rancor reflected
in that remark I don't intend to
dignify with comment, but I would
like to address your general attitude
of hopeless negativism. Consider the
lilies a the goddamn field, or-hell!-
take a look at Delmar here as your
paradigm a hope.

Yeah, look at me.

George Clooney plays a wonderfully exaggerated, over-articulate and vain ex-convict called Ulysses Everett McGill. Being Clooney he's somehow likable and naturally enchanting, even with his toothy grin. Plus the twerps he travels with are completely lovable rather than annoying as I at first expected them to be. They're warm-hearted and thoughtful in their simplicity, especially the cretinous Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), my favourite. Even with their gaping mouths and lost eyes, they are completely essential to the film's depth.

"Sing in me O Muse...”, the line at the beginning of the film, is the first line of the Odyssey.

The Coen Brothers' interpretation of "The Odyssey" is inventive, outlandish, and risky because of the story's core jaggedness and difficulty to shape into a whole. Lots of action and fast-cuts, the movie progresses quickly as a collection of whimsical and high-stake situations. Although the plot feels slightly spasmodic, it's saved by the dialogue and hilarious characters and oddities. Quite simply, it's clever, clever writing. I've included a lot of quotes along with some shots below. I also love the constant mythological and historical parallels.

Director of photography Roger Deakins' sun-baked, dirty-ochre cinematography is impeccable. A similar sparseness was created in No Country for Old Men. I love the contrast of the dry land with the deep blue sky.

And of course the film was greatly enriched by its extraordinary bluegrass soundtrack and would be nothing without it -- entertainment and atmosphere plus plus. Overall, downright bona fide.

  • Was one of the first major features to use digital answer printing, where the entire original film print was scanned into digital format, manipulated, and then reprinted on film stock. This changed the colour design, as the directors and cinematographer Roger Deakins wanted to create a dustbowl effect to convey depression-era 1930s South, with sepia and brown tones. It's possible to compare the original footage with the outcome by looking at the trailer, produced before digital manipulation.
  • The title is taken from the title of the film the director wants to make in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941).
  • Although Homer is given a co-writing credit on the film, the Coen Brothers claim never to have read The Odyssey and are familiar with it only through cultural osmosis and film adaptations. I find this hard to believe given the depth of their adaptation.
Below I have included more information on the adaptation, sceen shots and quotes.

See more...
The names of George Clooney and Holly Hunter's characters are Ulysses and Penelope. The Latin equivalent of the Greek name Odysseus is Ulysses.

They catch a ride on a hand-pumped railway that is being operated by a blind prophet, who tells them that they will not find the treasure they seek. The prophet character in the Odyssey was Teiresias, whom Odysseus consulted in the underworld when he needed information on how to get home again.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses angers the god Poseidon with pride, and is thus sent on his journey. His travels come to an end when he shows humility. Everett similarly scoffs at the baptisms of Pete and Delmar, and soon finds many obstacles in his path homeward. His trek also ends when he humbles himself. Not ironically, water is involved at both points - the baptisms and the flooding - since Poseidon was the god of the waters. Near the end, Odysseus nearly drowned, but clings to a piece of wood. At the end, Everett's line, "Finding one little ring, in the middle of all that water, is one hell of a heroic task," is a reference to the legend of Theseus, who had to find a golden ring at the bottom of the ocean to prove he was the son of Poseidon.

Most obviously there were the three girls by the river as the Sirens. Also, one-eyed Big Dan as the Cyclops (blinded with a burning pole), and Ulysses' wife marrying someone else when he comes home. Further, the changing of one of Ulysses' companions into an animal, and killing of the cattle of Helios by the "fools" in the Odyssey is mirrored by Baby Face Nelson shooting the cows.

The movie theatre scene is like the trip through the Underworld and the Baptists are like the Lotus-eaters.

Every time Ulysses falls asleep something bad happens, just like Everett always has to wake with a start. The song which plays throughout the movie is called "Man of Constant Sorrow", Odysseus means "man who is in constant pain and sorrow".

The Ku Klux Klan has a rank of Grand (or Exalted) Cyclops. Much like the KKK scene, Odysseus and his men hide from the Cyclops by dressing as sheep. Also, Odysseus and Everett both reveal themselves by performing an act no one else could: Odysseus strings a special bow and fires it through seven rings; Everett sings "Man of Constant Sorrow" as only the leader of the Soggy Bottom Boys can.

Say, uh, any a you boys smithies?
Or, if not smithies per se, were you
otherwise trained in the metallurgic
arts before straitened circumstances
forced you into a life of aimlesswanderin'?

You work for the railroad, grandpa?

I work for no man.

Got a name, do ya?

I have no name.

Well, that right there may be why
you've had difficulty finding gainful
employment. Ya see, in the mart of
competitive commerce, the-

You men from the bank?

Come on, boys! I'm gonna R-U-N-N-O-F-T!

You should be in bed, little fella.

Well that's it boys, I been redeemed!
The preacher warshed away all my
sins and transgressions. It's the
straight-and-narrow from here on out
and heaven everlasting's my reward!

Reference | The character of Tommy Johnson is based on famed blues guitarist of the same name who, according to folk legend, sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his prodigious talent. Robert Johnson, another bluesman and a contemporary of Tommy's (but no relation), borrowed the legend and wrote a song about it (and so the soul-selling legend was subsequently, wrongly, attributed to Robert Johnson).
I had to be at that crossroads las'
midnight to sell mah soul to the

Well ain't it a small world,
spiritually speakin'! Pete and Delmar
just been baptized and saved! I guess
I'm the only one here who remains

What'd the devil give you for your
soul, Tommy?

He taught me to play this guitar
real good.

Delmar is horrified:

Oh, son! For that you traded your
everlastin' soul?!

Tommy shrugs.

I wudden usin' it.

I always wondered-what's the devil
look like?

Well, of course there's all manner
of lesser imps'n demons, Pete, but
the Great Satan hisself is red and
scaly with a bifurcated tail and
carries a hayfork.

What're you gonna do with your share
of the treasure, Pete?

Go out west somewhere, open a fine
restaurant. I'm gonna be the maider
dee. Greet all the swells, go to
work ever' day in a bowtie and tuxedo,
an' all the staff'll all say Yassir
and Nawsir and in a Jiffy Pete...

He gives his coffee a thoughtful swish and murmurs:

An' all my meals for free...

What about you, Delmar? What're you
wonna do with your share a that dough?

Visit those foreclosin' sonofaguns
down at the Indianola Savings and
Loan and slap that cash down on the
barrelhead and buy back the family
farm. Hell, you ain't no kind of man
if you ain't got land.

Symbolism | Sheriff Cooley, who fits Tommy Johnson's earlier description of the Devil exactly: "He's white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He likes to travel around with a mean old hound." Fantastic symbolism in this shot.

Shots | Camera shakes beautifully in the car scene.
Friend, some of your folding money
has come unstowed.


George Nelson, cackling wildly, fires into the air
as his car recedes.

Acting | George Clooney plays such a vain charmer - even as he enters into a bank to rob it, he carefully places his cap on his head and smiles at onlookers for a millisecond of the farce. What a

Reference | The historical Baby Face Nelson was a gangster named Lester M. Gillis (a.k.a. George Nelson, "Big George" Nelson, Lester Giles, Alex Gillis, etc.) who was known for his hot temper and itchy trigger finger. He was killed in Barrington, Illinois, in November of 1934 - three years before the setting of the film.

Casting | Look at the casting of the old lady who mumbles at George Nelson. Priceless!

Oh mercy, yes. You gotta beat that

Makes me laugh every time.

Sound | Effectively changes voice emphasis when shot focuses on different singers

Caintcha see it Everett! Them sigh-
reens did this to Pete! They loved
him up an' turned him into a horney-

Reference | When Ulysses first meets Big Dan in the restaurant there is a statue of Homer in the background.

Cutting | Often uses diagonal, circles, or very slow disolve.

We thought you was a toad!

Reference | The scene where Ulysses, Pete and Delmar come upon the KKK meeting is a reference to the scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) when the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion sneak up on the Witch's castle. The chanting and formation marching of the Witch's guards are mimicked by the KKK members. Infiltration is achieved in both films by overpowering three guards and KKK members respectively and donning their garb.

I'm the only damn daddy you got! I'm
the damn paterfamilias!

Yeah, but you ain't bona fide!

The Anatagonist | Not a big fan of Sheriff Cooley. Sure, he provided an occasional overarching enemy that we knew the protagonist would eventually face, but he was far too ambiguous. However, this might just be a reaction to the character, rather than a criticism of the film.

Crane shot | As Everett drops to his knees to pray, the camera adopts a high-angle position above him then pulls back and upward, as if his appeal to the almighty has taken flight.