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Who needs Rosebud? We’ve Got Nazis!

Orson Welles in The Stranger

When Orson Welles set out to direct The Stranger (1946), he did so under unfavorable conditions.  Saddled with a well-deserved reputation for being constitutionally unable to complete films on time or anywhere near the budget, he simply agreed to everything and got down to it.

How much of the result was actually his fault is open to discussion, but the bottom line is that, though this film has a certain Wellesian nightmare quality, it is far removed from his more atmospheric work.  It’s definitely not terrible, but there’s a reason Citizen Kane is a household name and this one isn’t.

Let’s start with the good.  The tension in this film is constant and constantly ratchets.  It is mainly driven by concern for the wellbeing of the young bride and her family as opposed to any sense of mystery as to what is really going on.

And therein lies my major complaint about this movie: there’s no mystery, about whether the protagonist is the bad guy or not.  That’s pretty much cleared up in the first five minutes of the movie (contrast that with the Rosebud mystery), so we’re pretty much left with a melodrama of a thriller.  That’s fine for some audiences, I suppose, but one expects better of Welles.

The Stranger DVD cover

Perhaps what got this film its place on the 1001 movies list (apart from the name of its director) is that it was the first hollywood film to use images of the Holocaust at a time when many Americans were either unaware of what had transpired, or simply didn’t believe it.  They are strong scenes which, perhaps, have lost a little bit of the effect on modern audiences that they would certainly have had on period viewers–making the job of reviewing it just a tad more difficult.

So, even though it’s certainly not a bad movie, it certainly wasn’t the best thing Welles produced, but as a document of its time… definitely worth watching.

Our unusual note returns today with the fact that one of the actors went on to play Mayor Linseed in the 1960s Batman series.  Not sure what that might mean, but it has to mean something, right?

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Three Unconventional Roads To Wodehouse

Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster.  That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations.  Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.

But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman.  No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).

People often scoff at that, of course.  A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed?  Blasphemy.  My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence that is more than five or six words long.  If you know anything about literature or writing, the odds are that you will have to concede the point.  He is consistently that good.

The above means that it’s a bit of a tragedy that casual readers don’t always go beyond Jeeves and Wooster so, in order to address that failing, we present three other good Wodehouse books (and discuss the three very different editions we read).  Think of it as a Classically Educated public service (you can thank us by buying our mug)!

The Girl in Blue.  PG Wodehouse.  Paperback

The first is The Girl in Blue.  This is a fairly typical standalone Wodehouse novel, and is a good non-Jeeves primer.  As you can see from the cover illustration of the version we read, a policeman ends up in a pond.  This is a recurring theme in Wodehouse, and upon reflection, we feel that if it were only a recurring theme in other types of literature as well, the world would be a better place.  Of course, star-crossed lovers feature as well, another central tenet of the canon.  If you’re going to start, and have already read the Jeeves books, this is a good place to begin.

Mr Mulliiner Speaking PG Wodehouse

Unlike the above novel, which is unrelated to other Wodehouse tales the Mr Mulliner stories are linked together in various books.  The one we’ll be discussing here is entitled Mr. Mulliner Speaking, and is sheer happiness.  Mr. Mulliner is an older and wiser character, so he is usually above Wodehousian shenanigans but, to the eternal entertainment of his drinking buddies, he has a number of young, nearly brain-dead, relations who get themselves into ridiculous situations.  They always work out for the best, of course, but the way they do reminds us that in Wodehouse, as in life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  And few journeys are more rewarding.

We read this one in the original hardcover from 1929 (pictured above), and it was fun to experience it as pre-war readers would have.  But even though these are plentiful and affordable, there’s no real need to track one down, as 1929 is reasonably modern, so the book is just a book, not some artifact.

 

Utterly Uncle Fred PG Wodehouse

Finally, we reach the main course, a volume entitled Utterly Uncle Fred, which is quite possibly, the perfect Wodehouse.  The reason is that Uncle Fred is, perhaps, the most demented character in his oeuvre.  Age has not made this one wise, not in the least.  Instead, it sharpened his sense of chaos.  Of course, he is a kindly old man despite the propensity for landing his nephew in the soup, and his ability to get everyone in trouble is matched only by his knack for pulling them back out.  Once again, it’s the journey, not the destination that makes this book.

The book above is an omnibus edition (one of the nicest things about Wodehouse is the number of collections you can buy) containing three novels and one story, so it’s a meaty proposition.  We’d recommend buying it even if you’ve never read a line of Wodehouse in your life… but most people are too cautious with their money to do so, perhaps start with one of the other two.

Or just read some Jeeves and Wooster.  I’ve never heard of anyone going wrong with that!

BTW, apart from mugs, we also have a Facebook page.  You can like it if you like it!

The Connection Between Fairies and the Dead

Today marks the return of guest columnist Richard H. Fay, a man who exemplifies the polymath spirit of Classically Educated by being an artist, a poet and also, as he proves below and in his previous post for us, an expert on very different aspects of history.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store. Best of all is that this is only the first article in a weekly series, which we’ll be running over the next couple of months!

The Fairy Queen

At first glance, there may seem to be few links between the frolicking fairies and the souls of the dead. However, if one delves deeper into traditional fairy lore, one finds that the fairy realm and the realm of the dead overlapped. A handful of fairy types functioned as harbingers of death or summoners of dying souls. On occasion, fairies would intermingle with the human dead. At times, the spirits of deceased mortals gathered in fairy places or even behaved rather like fairy folk. Lost human souls, especially those of children who had died prior to undergoing the Christian rite of baptism, might take fairy form and join the ranks of the fays.

Some denizens of the fairy realm had links to the realm of the dead by heralding the approach of death or summoning the spirit of a dying human to the otherworld. The keening fairy woman known as the banshee foretold the forthcoming demise of Irish mortals of Milesian descent, humans of heroic lineage whose surnames started with ” Ó” or “Mac”(White, 2005). A glimpse of the Highland Bodach Glas, the Dark Grey Man, signalled impending doom (Briggs, 1976). The gruesome-looking dullahan would ride the countryside on his thundering black steed and then stop to hold his severed head aloft to summon the soul of whoever was about to die (Curran, 1998). The mine-dwelling wichtlein of Germany warned miners of imminent death or disaster by raising a din as if they were hard at work (Sikes, 2002). Dunters or powries, noisome resident spirits of Border fortresses who sounded as if they were beating flax or milling grain in a quern, would raise a louder ruckus if death or disaster drew near (Briggs, 1976).

According to tales from Ireland and its remote western isles, at certain times human souls who had departed their mortal shells would accompany the fairies in their preternatural revelries. During dark celebrations held on the night of October the Thirty-First, fairies reeled hand-in-hand with the risen dead (White, 2005). A man of Ireland’s western islands named Hugh King discovered that his deceased friends and dead acquaintances, clad in their long funeral shrouds, danced at the fairy fair held on November Eve (Wilde, 1887). Out late one November night, an Inishark woman sighted revenants garbed in white mingled amongst a great gathering of cavorting fairies (Wilde, 1887). A grief stricken lass from the same isle spied her late lover gambolling with the fairies atop their hill when she peered through a ring of herbs given to her by a lady in white (Wilde, 1887). A shepherdess who encountered a group of festive fays met a pale young man; a man she knew had drowned the previous winter (Wilde, 1887). In a tale found in different locales across Ireland, a man witnessed deceased acquaintances riding with the fays when he tried unsuccessfully to rescue his dead wife from a fairy procession (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). The Irish fairy monarch Finvara was also King of the Dead and ruled over a host of departed mortals (Briggs, 1978).

Faerie

Some stories of earthbound souls blurred the line between fairy and ghost. Noisy spectres of those who had once been human would haunt fairy raths with their clanking and creaking (White, 2005). The Northumberland bogy called Dunnie, a shape-shifting prankster who liked to adopt the guise of a horse or donkey to play practical jokes on Hazelrigg farmers, had been a plundering Border reiver in life (Briggs, 1976). The Irish Phooka of Kildare, who appeared as an ass and performed the toilsome tasks of a household fairy, identified itself as the spirit of an indolent scullion (Briggs, 1978). The English Cauld Lad of Hilton, a brownie-like entity that the servants of Hilton Hall expelled in the traditional fashion of laying brownies by leaving him a gift of a new cloak and hood, was said to be the ghost of a murdered servant boy (Keightley, 1978). The Cauld Lad of Gilsland, reputed to be the restless soul of a neglected boy who died of hypothermia, acted like a banshee and foretold death by shivering and moaning at the bedside of one about to die (Rose, 1998).

In perhaps the most direct link between fairies and the dead, certain types of fay were considered to be human spirits endowed with fairy powers. The sluagh of the Scottish Highlands, dark entities that winged to and fro across the midnight sky and forced hapless mortals to join in malicious mischief, were said to be the Host of the Unforgiven Dead (Briggs, 1976). The bean-nighe, who portended doom by washing blood-stained clothes in the forlorn streams of both and Ireland and Scotland, was believed to be the restless shade of a mother who had perished during childbirth (Briggs, 1976). Cornish tin-miners claimed that their helpful mine fairies known as knockers had once been Jews who had toiled in the mines in ancient times (Briggs, 1976). The Welsh commonly considered their Tylwyth Teg to be the spirits of departed humans neither entirely evil nor completely good, spirits consigned to reside in this world’s hidden places until Judgement Day (Sikes, 2002). The samovily, a fatally seductive southern Slavonic water fairy, was thought to be either a human bride who had lost her life on the night of her nuptials or a deceased mortal girl who had never been baptised (Franklin, 2002). The beautiful vily of Slavonic lore danced in circles and possessed powers of enchantment and shape-shifting just like their Fair Folk kin of Western Europe, but some accounts insisted that these alluring beings were the ghosts of prideful maids or unbaptized youngsters (Franklin, 2002).

In a recurring theme in fairy lore, the souls of departed human children who never entered the Christian fold could become mischievous and even malevolent members of the fairy realm. The sheerie, luminous Irish sprites who used maleficent magic to lead wayfarers astray, were thought to be the bitter spirits of unbaptized babes (Curran, 1998). According to Devonshire lore, their own diminutive mischief-making pixies shared similar origins (Keightley, 1978). The potentially deadly tarans who roamed Scottish forests and the nocturnal spunkies who misled wanderers in Somerset were also believed to be the souls of children who never underwent the ritual of baptism (Franklin, 2002). The same explanation was applied to the origins of numerous will-o’-the-wisps such as Pinket, a will-o’-the-wisp who haunted Worcestershire (Franklin, 2002).

Though some people insist that “ghosts are not fairies” (White, 2005), certain aspects of fairy folklore suggest that wayward human souls did, at times, acquire a fairy existence. The connection went beyond mere association. Ghostly entities such as the Phooka of Kildare, Dunnie of Northumberland, and the Cauld Lad of Hilton appeared to possess fairy-like attributes and exhibit fairy-like behaviour. Fairy folk such as the sheerie, the sluagh, and the samovily had once been human. Fairies not only foretold the coming of death and consorted with the dead, sometimes, they were the dead.

(Article originally published in Disturbed Digest, Issue #4, March 2014.)

 

References

Briggs, K. (1976). An encyclopedia of fairies, hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: Fairy lore and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Curran, B. (1998). A field guide to Irish fairies. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Franklin, A. (2002). The illustrated encyclopaedia of fairies. London, England: Vega.

Keightly, T. (1978). The world guide to gnomes, fairies, elves, and other little people. New York, NY: Avenel Books.

Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.

Rose, C. (1998). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Sikes, W. (2002). British goblins: Welsh folklore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions. Doylestown, PA: Wildside Press.

White, C. (2005). A history of Irish fairies. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Wilde, Lady F. S. (1887). Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Co.

A Strong Case for the Best Western Ever

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp

It’s not as famous today as it was back then, and it doesn’t star John Wayne, which has worked against it.  On top of that, it is extremely liberal with the facts (read: it would have been easier just to base it on a work of fiction with no real names) and it starts with a cliché (which never actually happened in real life, so could have been avoided without loss).

And yet, My Darling Clementine (1946) is, by far, the best western I’ve ever seen.

Why?  Well, maybe it’s just the fact that it wasn’t a noir film or something from the Italian neorealist school that made me enjoy it as much as I did, but, more probably, it was the interplay of the male and female characters–there are about six different storylines woven into this one–and the development of the town around them that makes the film so watchable.  It develops the central theme (the events around the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday) while showing the rich tapestry of the developing west around it.

From about fifteen minutes in until the end, the movie becomes much more sophisticated and interesting than the Western norm and Henry Fonda gives a different take on Wyatt Earp than what you’re expecting.  When you read about it like that, it’s a recipe for disaster, but it’s a tribute to director John Ford that it comes together as well as it does.

So we’ll recommend this one highly, not just to people who are looking for a good shoot-’em-up (there’s plenty of that, thankfully) but also to those who enjoy a film with surprising depth.

The only people we emphatically wouldn’t recommend it to  are those who are obsessive about the history of the American West, unless you can turn that part of you off.  In the first few minutes of the film, James Earp whom in real life, survived until 1926, is killed.  And it’s all downhill, accuracy-wise, from there!

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 2

For Part I of this series, see here.

Dozois Year's Best 30

As lovers of all literary forms, from Romance to the classics, we don’t turn our noses up at anything, mainly because we know that everything is interesting in its way.

But not everyone shares our eclectic preferences or polymath tendencies.  For decades, the literary establishment considered Science Fiction writing to be little more than a lowbrow diversion suitable for children and the lower classes.  The pre-pulp and pulp eras of the genre are probably the most illustrative of the times when that attitude was prevalent.

After WWII, however, the tide shifted and the stereotypical science fiction fan was a pimply male who was better in the classroom than on the playing fields of the world.  Fans of SF clustered together and fandom–a pioneer that showed today’s myriad fan communities the way forward–was born.  The fiction, of course, was still dismissed as something that was fine for teenage boys: you know, rocketships and robots and that sort of thing.

Both of these stereotypes over-generalized, of course.  The literature being published in the pulps was often excellent… and the postwar fans were not all pimpled nerds.  Having said that, there were arguments that upheld both of those assumptions, and no one was particularly concerned with debunking the prejudice except for SF fans themselves, and no one really cared what they thought.

In the sixties, those postwar teens had become adults, and deeply resented the ghettoization of their beloved genre.  They set fingers to typewriters to prove that SF could be grown up as well, and proceeded to bombard the world with reams of mostly-forgotten prose (Dune being the major exception) that proved that the genre could do character-driven stories, stream-of-consciousness, literary sexuality, drug-addled confusion, angsty existentialism and pop psychology just as well as the literati of the day.  It was the New Wave.

Luckily for the genre, that particular tendency soon died out and SF went back to its roots in the seventies. After the new wave, the genre was more mature and held a much higher profile (more thanks to Star Wars that anything the New Wave did for it), but it was still easily recognizable as the genre which had been born in the pulps and not some weird thing that Andy Warhol would have written had he been a writer.

The eighties, which we discussed here continued the pendular swing towards action-driven SF, but the pendulum swung back decisively in the nineties.

With a few honorable exceptions, the more visible genre is now dominated by character-driven, agenda-driven literary fiction, and is bitterly split roughly along political party lines in the US.  At the risk of over-generalizing, Democrats seem to appreciate the high-quality writing of the genre the way it is, and are at the helm of many of the established magazines and also at least one of the major houses while Republicans find the current iteration of SF to be mind-numbingly dull and overly focused on politics over substance (this is the essence of the famous Sad Puppies schism).  They are also the core audience of one of the publishing houses.

Other than the two we’ve mentioned, the rest of the houses don’t actually care about the color of the politics if they think they can sell the book, so there is more literary diversity on the bookshelves than in the magazine spectrum but, as the talent in SF is supposed to come up from the magazine world, even the big houses’ output does tend to skew a little to the left.

So why am I rehashing and oversimplifying the history of the SF genre?  Easy, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies.  Though I’m still a couple of years behind, I recently read #29 and #30.

A quick note for those new to the genre: Dozois, a former editor of Asimov’s is the current taste-maker of the SF genre.  Vastly experienced, he is hugely respected in the field and can be essential in making (or ignoring) promising young writers.  He specializes in the short form, which means that he can turn an obscure story in a mag into a famous piece just by including it and praising it in one of his anthologies.

Anyhow, Dozois’ taste has evolved over the years, perhaps matching, perhaps leading, the genre’s swing towards more literary sensibility and political activeness and less entertainment.  The two or three Year’s Best books before #29 had been pretty dull and more concerned with diversity of voices than diversity of content, broken only by the occasional Alastair Reynolds tale (Reynolds is always high-concept fun and I honestly think he doesn’t care about politics at all… at least that’s the impression I get from his fiction).

Dozois Year's Best 29

And #29 was just another one of these.  Kind of a slog.  Some good stories and some great writing in there, but not enough to become a memorable collection.  Sort of another grey monument to the “diversity” era of SF.  The worst of it is that the individual stories are all generally good.  The problem is that, when taken together, they put the problems of the genre into sharp focus.  No one seems to want to deviate from the norm and after two dozen tales, it does get monotonous.

Number 30… gives me hope.  There seemed to be less grey porridge in there, and a few more tales that march to their own drummer.  Reynolds, of course, but also a brilliant one by Stephen Popkes.  It just seemed… better than any of the prior ones, perhaps a sign that, after a couple of decades, the pendulum is swinging back towards the sense of wonder that has been lacking in the genre for so long.  (or it might have been the fact that they re-used the cover art from Foundation and Earth, and this colored my thinking!)

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Of course, this might just be a flash in the pan.  Both of these came before the Puppies controversy.  That ended with the establishment simply retrenching and covering up their ears, trying to yell louder than the opposition–as it does in every walk of life–and widening the gap.  Time will tell if Dozois took the same line.  Our review of the anthos from the next few years should answer that.  Stay tuned!

Painting with all the colours of the wind, USN airships created tragic landscapes.

Today marks the return of our most prolific contributor: Stacy Danielle Stephens.  She’s the author of our beloved article on the Hindenburg and this time, she’s discussing airships built in the US.

Wreckage of USS Shenandoah Viewed By Locals in 1925

Launched in August, 1923, USS Shenandoah was moored at Lakehurst on January 16th, 1924, awaiting the approach of bad weather, to test how well it could tolerate high winds. The crew and command staff soon realized this was a bad idea; the ship was preparing to cast off and flee the storm when a 78mph wind removed the covering of a tail fin, rolled the ship, then tore it loose from the mast, rupturing the first forward gas cell and perforating the second. The ship departed Lakehurst backwards, helpless in the wind. The crew spent the next nine hours regaining control and making emergency repairs midair and returning to Lakehurst early the next morning.

Shorter airship mounts with Breakaway Mast

In response to this incident, the USN changed to shorter masts with breakaway mounts.

On September 2, 1925, USS Shenandoah departed Lakehurst for St Louis, the first leg of a midwestern promotional tour. Early the next morning, over southeastern Ohio, the ship encountered violently shifting lateral winds amid a strong updraft. The crew could not control the ship, which rose until decreased external pressure ruptured a gas cell, causing a brief rapid dive until the updraft lifted the ship again, repeating the process several times until the ship broke apart. While the bulk of the ship came down at once, the bow remained aloft, and crewmen there were able to later bring it down like a simple balloon.

Uss Los Angeles Airship Over Manhattan

USS Los Angeles over Manhattan; date uncertain.

Launched in 1924, USS Los Angeles was the only USN rigid airship to be formally decommissioned, in 1932.

On August 25th, 1927, while moored at the mast in Lakehurst, USS Los Angeles was pushed to eighty-five degrees from horizontal. There were no injuries to the crew, and minimal damage to the ship. This was the nearest USS Los Angeles ever came to disaster. It flew longer and farther than all other USN rigid airships combined, and never caused even a single death or serious injury. Perhaps not coincidentally, it had been built in Germany.

USS Los Angeles over Philadelphia with USS Akron in the distance

USS Akron over Philadelphia, PA, with USS Los Angeles in the distance, circa 1931-2

Launched in 1931, USS Akron was first damaged by wind in February, 1932, coming out of the hangar at Lakehurst. A tail fin was smashed, and some landing-rope fittings torn loose.

On May 11, 1932, during a failed landing attempt at an underequiped and inadequately staffed field, two men were killed and another injured after the mooring line severed. They held onto their ropes, and were carried up with the ship as the wind took it away. A fourth man who hadn’t released his rope had the presence of mind to secure himself to his rope, and wait there until the crew pulled him aboard.

Just after midnight, April 4, 1934, USS Akron encountered a violent storm east of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was blown tail-first into the sea. 73 of the 76 men aboard were killed.

USS Macon over New York City

USS Macon over New York City, 1933

Launched in 1933, USS Macon successfully demonstrated the usefulness of an airship, when operating with small fixed-wing aircraft and a surface task force, in performing recon, but also highlighted the vulnerability of airships in these same circumstances. Lessons learned from Shenandoah’s misfortunes had been applied to the Macon’s design, as well as its operations, but it, too, was caught in a storm, off Point Sur, California, on February 12, 1935, and was brought down by it. By this time, life boats and life jackets were standard equipment on USN airships, and only two of the crew were lost.

…and Other Times in English

We’d already done a review of one film adaptation of James Cain’s seminal novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, but that one had been in Italian.  The Hollywood version was actually the third to appear, after the Italian version and one in French.

Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Why?  Well, like much else that was wrong with cinema in the 1940s, the Hays Code was to blame.  The self-righteous thought police was hard at work back then attempting to control what people did and thought (plus ça change…) with the effect that filmmakers were loathe to do anything that might offend the censors.

If you ever wondered why people who broke the law–even the romantic, sympathetic ones–never got away with it it was because one of the articles of the code expressly forbade that.

If you wondered why kisses never lasted more than three seconds… ditto.

The main question, of course, is: in the golden era of film noir–a genre whose success depends on the basest of human emotions: lust, betrayal, greed–did the limitations on the films make them less than they could have been or did they have the opposite effect and force the directors to go above and beyond to get around the limits?  We’ll never know, but the films that have come to us make me think the second is more likely,

Eventually, however, the studio moguls decided that, though the book’s subject matter was quite sordid, it was no worse than much of the rest of the genre, so they went ahead and filmed it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice Movie Poster

This one is, perhaps, a slightly more faithful adaptation of the book than Ossessione, but the two are, of course essentially the same.  The main difference is in the visuals.  For some reason, the sense that the Italian version gives is that most of the action takes place during the daytime, while the American one is much darker and more nocturnal, probably because that was the predominant aesthetic of the genre, or maybe it was a conscious effort to separate the two.

Whatever the cause, it works.  The film is a moody take on an already dark subject.

There isn’t really much more to say about it without rehashing the plot or repeating what other critics have said.  My own recommendation is to watch them both.  I think the Italian version is better at creating believable sexual tension between the characters–and, unhindered by the Code, at showing it–while the American version shines in the legal aspects and nighttime scenes.

Both are worth a look.

Beyond a Few Statues

Statue of Lenin Dropped

If you were alive in 1989, then you remember the end of socialism.  Millions of people decided that individual freedoms were more important than collective security and, defying humorless men with guns, brought down nearly every government in Eastern Europe.

One of the lasting images burned into the retinas of those of us glued to CNN was that of statues of socialist leaders being pulled down all across the region.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  The destruction of a few statues was not enough to destroy the idea of socialism, and, twenty years later, the world is awash with left-leaning ideas that cover the spectrum from slight sacrifices in personal freedom in the name of more equality for vulnerable populations to full-blown communism.  Socialism clearly isn’t dead.

Why?  Well, because the statues weren’t socialism, and neither was the Berlin Wall.  Socialism is a collection of ideas about how society should be structured in order to achieve a certain number of goals.  These ideas range from making capitalism a little more “fair” to doing away with the capitalist system altogether.

And these ideas don’t live in statues.  Statues are about power, but ideas live in books.  That’s why socialism didn’t die when everyone thought it had: those books stayed on the shelves and eventually a new generation of activists and scholars rediscovered them.

The above seemed a timely reminiscence, as today’s review is about Gone with the Wind.  The book, not the movie.

Why timely?  Because, as I write, there has been a very recent series of high-profile removals of Confederate statues from public spaces in the US, mainly of General Lee.  These removals took place in a highly polarized climate, but were undeniably driven by a large number of people (although they were probably also opposed by an equal number… as one can imagine, reliable numbers in today’s media climate are hard to come by).  Protesters and counter-protesters clashed, with violent and even tragic results.

Perhaps the problem is that both sides seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1989.  No one cared about the statues until they became front page news; they were just part of the urban landscape, and I’d have been willing to bet that most could not have told you who the guy on the horse was until everything hit the fan.

But the ideas?  They exist.  In the case of the Confederacy there is a structured case for why it existed: broadsides, pamphlets, letters and even the constitution are in university archives.  But these documents are not the ones that keep the idea of the Old South alive for its proponents.  Popular media does that job.

Perhaps the most virulent example of propaganda in that respect is a film: Birth of a Nation.  It tells the story from the Southern side, and no matter where your sympathies lie, you end up feeling strongly for the characters.  Yes, time has passed it by and the premise of the “Ride of the Klan” is cartoonish and grotesque, but the film is very well done all the same.  In fact, it is considered one of the true greats of early film.

More subtle is Judge Priest, where folksy Will Rogers shows us how it’s done without beating anyone over the head with it.

Gone with the Wind Paperback

There are countless other examples, mainly from the twenties and thirties when mass media was working up some serious steam, but the biggest seller of the idea of the Old South was clearly Gone with the Wind.

The film… was just a Hollywood blockbuster, and not really a propaganda piece (despite never questioning the nobility of the Confederate cause), but I’d argue that the book is the Old South’s Communist Manifesto.  It’s impossible to read this brick and not feel truly moved by the plight of every single Southern character (except Scarlett–she’s unbearable), and feel a deep sense of loss for a way of life that ended in blood and fire.

I don’t read books with an eye to the politics, which meant that I approached this simply as a book (and a romance at that), which meant that, until I sat down to write this review, was only concerned with the story itself and the plight of the characters.  The fact that it also contains a good blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the war made it doubly interesting for anyone who enjoys history (and if you’ve read our manifesto, you know we do).

By the end of the book, I felt truly sorry for what the characters had to live through… and also pined for the society that existed at the beginning of the book.  Granted, it only takes a little bit of analysis to recall that the gentrified lifestyle existed on the back of a slave economy but I postulate that most casual readers will not do the exercise of analyzing this and will walk away with a deep sense of loss.

I’ll go one step further: I will categorically bet that no one who picks up this book purely for pleasure will do this analysis.  The people who are sensitive to the issues it raises will either avoid it or read it for study purposes, not for fun.

Perfect propaganda.

So what to do with it?  It’s still selling very well, so it’s not going to go out of print anytime soon (and the Kindle is bringing it to a completely new audience).

So, ban it?  Burn it?  Try to pressure the publisher into canceling the next huge print run?

Or perhaps just accept that ideas can’t–and shouldn’t–be killed?

Whatever happens, it should be an interesting battle to watch.

 

 

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.