July 28, 2005

1. Movies

I recently saw a movie called Metropolitan, made by Whit Stillman, an independent director. The dialogue is excellent — as witty and profound as you’ll find. But the movie lacks power, dramatic power; there are no deep passions. And because it emphasizes conversation, you may ask yourself later, “Why did I watch the movie? Why didn’t I read the script instead?”

I also saw a movie called Billy Elliot. I’m sure many of you have seen it already because it was released five years ago, and it’s very popular. I enjoyed it, my wife (a connoisseur of movies) enjoyed it, and even my 7-year-old daughter enjoyed it. It’s about a boy who grows up in a family of coalminers and boxers, and becomes a dancer — much to the chagrin of his family.

When the movie was over, however, the spell was broken, and I began wondering, “What’s really in this movie? Aren’t the characters flat and two-dimensional compared to the characters one meets in good literary works? Although this might be the best movie I’ve ever seen, doesn’t it fall far short of the best literary works? Doesn’t it fail to explore the depths of the soul, and settle instead for crude contrasts (such as the contrast between the macho father and the delicate boy, and the contrast between the upper-crust ballet school and the working-class mining family)? Wouldn’t it be rather dull if watched a second time — unlike a literary work that improves on a second reading? And wouldn’t it be useless to read critical essays about the movie, unlike a literary work, which can be explored by numerous interesting essays?” If I’m right, if even a good movie falls far short of the best literary works, then perhaps the potential exists for creating movies that are far better than what we regard as top-notch movies.

I shared these thoughts with a Phlit subscriber, Sherry Tak, who responded thus:

I would not discount the art of film without having at least tasted the works of the following directors. I don’t want to describe their films too much, fearing it may change the expectation of a viewer, and alter their initial viewing:
Luis Bunuela Spanish/French director who I believe is still unsurpassed. Like seeing a great painting that brings you to your knees. (I personally have never been brought to my knees by a painting, but if it was like a Bunuel film, I possibly could be made to sit down on a nearby bench and request a glass of water.) I have yet to see a Bunuel film that is bad or mediocre. “Exterminating Angel”, “Simon of the Desert”, “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, “Viridiana.” The list goes on and on.
Werner Herzogthe German director. Imagine a football-field-sized room marked “crap”. Then imagine a tiny, cramped closet next to it marked “the good stuff.” His films (ignoring “The Invincible”) are in the tiny room, not the large one. Responsible for “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, “The Engima (Mystery) of Kaspar Hauser”, “Signs of Life”, “Cobra Verde,” “Stroszek”, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”, etc. Would not be surprised if he were the greatest director alive today. [Update 2022: I saw Herzog’s Heart of Glass (1976), but didn’t like it. Rather dismal and depressing.]
Wong Kar WaiI have not seen better movies from East Asia (and practically almost anywhere else) than those from Wong Kar Wai (specifically “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels”.)
The best American movies I’ve seen are Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ’66”, Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” and “The Last Movie”, and a documentary called “The Cruise.” Whit Stillman is not what I’d consider a “pivotal” director, but he’s one of the best dialogue-centric directors alive.

Before we leave the subject of movies, I’d like to mention that Roland Emmerich — director of The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, etc. — is starting work on a movie about the 17th Earl of Oxford, better known by his pen-name, William Shakespeare. (I believe that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. I refer to the poet sometimes as “Shakespeare,” sometimes as “the Earl of Oxford,” sometimes as “Oxford.” If I want to refer to the man from Stratford — the man whom the academic establishment credits with writing Shakespeare’s works — I speak of “the Stratford man.”)

2. Etc.

A. If one grows up in a warm home, surrounded by parental love, the outside world seems shockingly different. In the outside world, you find yourself dealing with people who don’t like you, and whom you don’t like, yet somehow you must deal with them, and carry on the battle of life. One might even say that it’s an advantage to grow up in a cold home, or a broken home, because then the outside world doesn’t seem shockingly different.

B. I recently discussed Jung with a graduate student at Boston University. He said that people didn’t think much of Jung, he was anti-Semitic. Jung anti-Semitic! Jung, many of whose closest disciples were Jewish! Jung, who wasn’t involved in politics, and doesn’t write about politics! Nowadays, every thinker must pass a Political Correctness Test, and if there’s any hint that they aren’t Politically Correct, they flunk the test. No matter how important and original a writer is, what matters most is whether he’s politically correct.

Our book group recently read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in the Norton Critical Edition. Many fine essays have been written about this novella (as often happens, I preferred the essays to the work itself). But in the latest Norton edition, many essays have been deleted, to make room for essays that discuss whether Conrad was a racist and other political subjects. So I urged people in the group to go back to the earlier Norton editions, the editions that were made before culture was politicized.

C. A Jung website: www.cgjungpage.org.

D. Americans recently learned the identity of “Deep Throat,” the mysterious figure who provided information to the journalists who broke the Watergate story. Deep Throat was a high-ranking FBI agent, Mark Felt, who had been passed over for promotion to FBI chief. Felt wanted to strike back at President Nixon, who had passed him over, and perhaps he wanted to strike back at L. Patrick Gray, who had been given the position that Felt coveted. Felt reminds me of Iago, who was also passed over for promotion, and who also got revenge for this slight. (I discussed Iago in an earlier issue.)

“I think he fooled me...” Gray said in a recent interview, “by being the perfect example of the FBI agent that he was. He did his job well, he did it thoroughly, and I trusted him all along, and... I can’t begin to tell you how deep was my shock and my grief when I found that it was Mark Felt. He was a smooth operator, and I can’t understand how Mark could have let himself do to me what he did when I trusted him so implicitly. He told me time and again he was not Deep Throat.”1

E. I recently saw a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream at a small theater in the Providence area. People who direct Shakespeare plays want to make them appealing to the general public, so they often abridge them and modernize them. But if a Shakespeare play is altered too much, one starts to wonder, “is this a Shakespeare play?” The performance that I saw deleted the most famous speech in the play:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The director was so intent on making the play funny and amusing, that he deleted some of the most characteristic Shakespearean touches.

F. I also saw a play called The Beard of Avon, a comedy that deals with the question, “Who was ‘Shakespeare’? Who really wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare?” Since I’m interested in this question, I thought I would enjoy The Beard of Avon. I didn’t. In fact, I loathed it. It didn’t do justice to the Oxford theory: a brochure said that 12 of Shakespeare’s plays were written after Oxford had died — a ridiculous claim that only an enemy of the Oxford theory would make. The director of the play said that, whoever wrote Shakespeare’s works was struggling to make a living — like any playwright at any time. In fact, the opposite is true: Shakespeare was born into the elite, didn’t struggle to make a living, and didn’t try to make money by writing plays.

Nothing that I saw in The Beard of Avon indicated that the author or the director understood who Shakespeare was, or wanted to make an effort to understand. Rather, they wanted to achieve popularity by ridiculing the whole question of Shakespeare’s identity. They ridiculed the Stratford man and the Earl of Oxford. And just for good measure, they ridiculed the Earl of Southampton, too. Instead of trying to understand who these people really were, they strove for cheap laughs by making a host of vulgar jokes, sexual innuendoes, etc. I left at intermission, disgusted.

I was reminded of Amadeus, the movie about Mozart. Amadeus made Mozart ridiculous, just as The Beard of Avon made Shakespeare ridiculous. Our society is fond of making Great Men ridiculous. The low road to popularity is to mock greatness in order to make people feel better about themselves, in order to make people feel that there’s no such thing as greatness, there’s nothing that they should look up to or strive for. They can be satisfied with themselves just as they are.

Perhaps people are drawn to the Stratford theory because they feel closer to the Stratford man than to the Earl of Oxford. They can relate to the middle-class businessman, the “maltster and money-lender” (as Joyce called him), but they can’t relate to the high-ranking nobleman, who challenged all and sundry to single combat, who killed a man with his sword, etc. They can’t relate to William Shakespeare, the author of Hamlet, but they can relate to the Stratford imposter, they can relate to the man who could barely sign his own name.

© L. James Hammond 2005
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1. ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos back