Month: September 2017

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Plot Versus Divine Retribution – Two Very Different Horror Classics

I’ve mentioned before, most recently here, that I had subscribed to the Easton Press Horror Classics.  This series allowed me to read a good number of works that I’d not read before (but that every horror aficionado should read).  But it also allowed me the opportunity to replace some dog-eared paperbacks with better looking books and, much more importantly, to reread some classics that I’d last perused in high school.

Easton Press Frankenstein

Our first subject today is Frankenstein.  Talk about a seminal work.  Mary Shelley‘s little ghost story written for a challenge in which she was very much the junior writer among the participating trio not only established her as the most famous of the three (I challenge even the readers of this august blog to name a work by Bryce Shelley or even by Lord Byron without Googling it–and they were much more famous than 18-year-old Mary before the publication of Frankenstein).

A blow-by-blow is unnecessary, of course, as everyone knows the story (mostly from watching the numerous film adaptations), but suffice to say that, if you haven’t reread this recently (or have–shame, shame!–only seen the films) I highly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about a guy who builds a monster; it’s a tale of suffering and penance and retribution, and ultimately about justice.  It’s more of a sad tale than a frightening one, and the structure, another thing that falls into the cracks of memory, is interesting, couched as it is in epistolary format.

Of course, this one isn’t really a horror book; it’s the very first real science fiction novel.  It explains its creature via science that still makes a certain amount of sense today, as opposed to the handwavery that was so common back then and still is today.  Even more than the pathos of the creature, that is what I like most about this book.

There’s a reason the book is a classic, and it has little to do with what makes the film a classic – they are very different experiences.

Easton Press Phantom

The second novel I reread was Gaston Leroux‘s The Phantom of the Opera, a book that became much more interesting to me once I realized that Leroux, far from being a horror writer, was actually a writer of detective fiction.

Read back-to-back with Frankenstein, the overarching impression is that the plot is much more important in the Leroux than in the Shelley.  There is little insight into the mind of the Phantom (or the other protagonists, really) other than through his actions.  The upshot, of course, is that watching any of the film adaptations, or even (shudder) the Lloyd Weber musical* gives one a reasonable approximation of what the book feels like.

This one is basically a crime novel with a horror element, and it reads that way.  And that may also be what made it so popular in the first place.

Perhaps the main takeaway from these readings is that the eternal discussion about whether a focus on plot or character make a book “better” are pretty much moot and a waste of everyone’s time.  Only the passing of the years can establish a book as a classic, and these two are basically opposite in their approach to that equation (Frankenstein drags a bit while deep thoughts are expressed, The Phantom races along) and yet both have become parts of the popular consciousness by way of literary acceptance.

Just about the only thing they have in common is a memorable and menacing, yet somewhat pathetic monster as the antagonist…  perhaps that’s the trick.

 

*Honesty compels me to admit that, while musicals in general (except for the comedies from the London stage of the twenties and thirties) should be punishable by death, The Phantom is actually bearable.  One of the few that can say that.

Interruptus

Brief Encounter Film Still

The last time we delved into British cinema, we thought we’d discovered a forgotten gem.  Now, let’s look at the flipside: the film that was highly acclaimed as a masterpiece, but which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The words “realist cinema” should always act as a warning.  It’s supposed to bring a sharper focus, convey events that might actually happen to anyone. The idea was probably to move away from what had come before, to throw out both heroic tragedy and anything that happened to exceptional people out with the bathwater.  Turns out it creates films that are tawdry and more than a bit boring.

The critics, of course, loved them.

The one we’re looking at today is called Brief Encounter.  It tells the story of a bored housewife (protip: anything that tells the story of a bored housewife will be worse, all other variables remaining constant, than anything which doesn’t) who meets a man on a train and begins a platonic relationship with him.

This had the potential to turn into something interesting, except that just when interesting was about to occur, the guy’s best friend walked in on them and they decided to go their separate ways.  In order to kill the possibility of interesting things ensuing later, the man decides to leave for South Africa.  It’s a study in frustration for both the characters and the audience.

Noel coward Brief Encounter

Yes, it deftly echoes the angst and utter meaninglessness of middle class existence (the ones from 1938 in this case)… but does little else.  That’s why critics loved it, but it left me feeling empty (your mileage may vary).

That’s not to say that it’s a bad piece of filmmaking.  It isn’t.  It wasn’t hard to watch, it was well acted and well made.  The atmosphere was extremely well created and the whole “train station in the night” is truly memorable.  The problem is that it was a realist film, which meant that, being well executed just meant that, in the end, it was a bit tawdry and disappointing.  Like life itself, something only a critic can love…

The interesting notes that accompany this one are that it was based on a Noël Coward play whose plot sounds a lot more interesting than the film.

Also, a shout out to actress Margaret Barton, only surviving member of the cast that I could find.  If you’re reading this, take heart; the acting was excellent–the concept let you guys down.

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

SciFan Magazine #9 Released

Here at Classically Educated, we have a lot of literary and cultural friends, and we’re always happy to give them a shout-out when they do something notable.  SciFan Magazine is one of them, and they’ve recently put out their ninth issue (in a world where many publications never make it past the first two or three, that is truly an achievement worth celebrating).

SciFan Magazine - Issue 9

The nice thing about SciFan is that they combine science fiction and fantasy, preferably in the same tale, which makes it a haven where readers of hard to classify tales can scratch that particular itch.

The ninth issue is particularly packed with stories and serials by Chris Nardone, Todd Sullivan, Patrick Hodges, Ken Goldman, M. C. Tuggle, Sarah L. Johnson, Mandi Jourdan, A.M. Justice, Tom Fallwell, Richard Flores IV, Fariel Shafee, Matthew McKiernan, and Stan Faryna as well as three novel previews and an interview with Andrey Vasiliev.

We think this is a good bet for our SF/F reading fans (we’re always surprised at how many we have), and one you might not have heard of before.

Enjoy!

 

Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.