Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang [2014)

I bet you thought I stopped writing about film, right?

ūüôā

Me too.

Sometimes.

I think…

“Am I still a film critic?”

With all this Trump this and Trump that.

With these tableaux.

This lazy poetry.

But I am back with an actual film.

And it is a masterpiece.

But I don’t know what to call it!!!

It’s a Chinese film.

Sort of.

But not really.

Because it’s by a Brazilian film director.

But not just any Brazilian film director.

Someday I will get around to reviewing one of the best exemplars of¬†na√Įvet√© ever made.

Yes, one of the best FILMS ever made.

Central do Brasil.

Central Station.

A formative episode in my filmic life.

But back to this Chinese film directed by a Brazilian.

I didn’t even get to his name yet ūüôā

Walter Salles!

Yes…two masterpieces are enough to make an auteur!!

But we can’t use the Chinese title here.

For the film.

Under consideration.

Because that would be disingenuous (and we will get to Trump).

[Or we will try.]

{so much…stuff…in the world}

Let’s paint the picture…

Three Gorges…no.

We must wait.

Central Station was a fiction film.

A beautiful masterpiece which stretches even up into the sert√£o.

But¬†Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang¬†is a documentary…about a guy from Fenyang…named Jia Zhangke.

Messrs. Baggini and Fosl (Julian and Peter) would call that a “spectacularly uninformative sentence”.

And Kant, the less-colorful–less-candid “analytic proposition”.

But we hit an impasse.

The film I am reviewing is so little-known (apparently) that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Worse, it has a strange, butchered title on iMDB.

There it is called Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles.

Hmmm…

I must admit:  it appears some people in marketing over at Kino Lorber are dicking around.

But we press on…

Just who the fuck is Jia Zhangke?  And why should you care about him?

Well, first: ¬†he’s a film director.

And second: ¬†he’s as good as Jean-Luc Godard.

Did I just say that???

Yes.

I just put someone on an equal level with my favorite director of all time.

What’s more, a Chinese guy you’ve probably never heard of.

Of whom.

And what about this Fenyang business?

Well, let’s get out our maps.

First, we must find Shaanxi Province.

Northern China.

The capital is Xi’an.

But we must get to the more obscure.

Fenyang.

Home of our subject auteur:  Jia Zhangke.

So we don’t exactly know the title…here to there…from this platform to the next.

But we will say this.

If you are in the U.S., this film is currently streaming on Netflix under the title Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Or something like that.

This is the confusion of a lack of standardization.

Where’s ISO when you need them…or Zamenhof!

Ok…so why should you watch a 105 minute documentary about a filmmaker of whom you have likely never heard?

Because Walter Salles compels you.

He says, “Watch my story… ¬†Pay attention to this little self-deprecating Chinese man. ¬†He’s a cinematic genius.”

Wouldn’t it be great if all artisans and artists helped each other out in such a way?

A filmmaker, age 57, decides to make a film about another filmmaker, age 46.

Actually, that is quite an honor.

That an older filmmaker would help in the career of the younger one.

So we heartily praise Salles for his mise-en-scène as well as his morals.

But then we hit another impasse.

Because words cannot express the brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s grasp on cinematic language.

And so, why should you watch this film?  I ask again.

Because it gives you an introduction (not dumbed down in any way) to the works of a contemporary film artist who is leading the cinematic medium into this new century.

Likewise, it gives you an introduction to Chinese film at the same time.

These aren’t kung fu flicks (for the most part).

These are art films.

Similar to Breathless

Born of the French New Wave.

But also born of Raj Kapoor.

Indeed, as a young boy…Jia Zhangke remembered an early film which extolled thieves. ¬†And it was this Indian film shown in China. ¬†And the Chinese kids remembered the melismatic melodies for decades…to rip off a shred and a few threads of a melody which bound them as enfants terribles.

Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang is a bit like Cinema Paradiso.

The big director returns home.

And there’s a sadness.

Maybe you can see your childhood home.

And hit the wall one more time.

You can imagine the family bed and the father’s desk was there.

And the books on shelves along here.

So many books.

That there is a sadness of being from Fenyang.

I feel it being from San Antonio.

And Jia Zhangke, all throughout this film, ideates thoughts which have now and then wisped in and out of my dreams.

Jia is very calm.  Thoughtful.  Serene.

A true artist.

And as he talks about the process of creation, I find him to be an exceptionally dedicated artist.

We hear about Xiao Wu (1997).

Pickpocket.  Starring Wang Hongwei.

I mean, this bloke…Wang… ¬†His clothes hang on him in almost a magical way.

He’s a good-for-nothing bum in the Chaplin mold, but still puffing away like Belmondo in¬†Breathless.

But Jia was right.

It’s the gait.

The way Wang Hongwei walks.

Body language.

Brilliant!

And the shots we see of Platform are really moving.

It’s like being from a place like Kiruna, Sweden.

Gotta get there by train.

Up past the Arctic Circle.

And the kids…they don’t have a lot of entertainment.

Maybe even the sight of a train.

But in China…………….far more vast.

These remote places.

Like the Three Gorges area where Jia made Dong and also Still Life.

But the joke’s on me.

Because the whole world knows Jia Zhangke.

The whole world of cinema.

And me, with my insular approach, not so much.

Because Jia won the Palme d’Or in both…wait.

We have the wrong envelope.

Ok…so maybe he’s not that well know.

His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, but no hardware yet.

With the exception of his Golden Lion from Venice.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that he’s making great films.

What matters is that he has the potential to best us all.

This was a very moving film for me.

Because it speaks to the obstacles of life.

Of the unhappiness.

Of the solitude which must be for creations to ferment properly.

To mix metaphors, we need the darkness in which to screen our masterpieces of light.

We cannot screen them in a glass house…at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, this film will give you invaluable insights into the recent history and current state of China.

All the people on Weibo (like Twitter).

The market system which has been kicking ass since the 1990s.

And crucial periods such as 1976-1989.

The restructuring period right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

WE NOW JOIN PAULY DEATHWISH NEWS NETWORK…IN PROGRESS: “…

Xi Jinping.  His father purged in 1963.  His father jailed in 1968.  Xi was sent without his father to work in Shaanxi Province in 1969.  [The remote province from which film director Jia Zhangke hails.]

This was a time of immense violence in China.  Being purged.  Being jailed.  Being sent to the countryside to work and be re-educated.  All of this was suffused with violence.

So when President Xi got the message from President Trump himself that the U.S. had just launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria minutes earlier, President Xi was met with the shock of surrealism…a perfect steak…beautiful ladies…the glitz and glamour of Mar-a-Lago…and the throat punch of an actual tiger. ¬†No paper.

“Get North Korea in line, and fast!” ¬†Would have been the message.

So that, in these times, to truly appreciate that which is unfolding around us, we need directors like Jia Zhangke.

These are our new philosophers.  Our new poets.

Thinking about social media.

Fooling around with it.

Inventing new artistic forms.

And finding new types of loneliness.

And desperation.

Jia came from a very poor area.

He loved his family very much.

The Chinese don’t like violence.

We Americans don’t like violence.

See this film.

Then get back to me on¬†Dereliction of Duty¬†ūüôā

-PD

Seymour: An Introduction [2014)

Big gigantic balls.

It took Ethan Hawke.

Whom I formerly mistook for a hack.

To not even dabble in détournement.

But rather.

Straight-up.

Call it.

Seymour:  An Introduction

After Salinger.

But let me dispel all uncertainly early on.

This film, directed by Ethan Hawke, is a masterpiece.

The premise seemed interesting.

On Netflix.

“This should,” I thought, “be an easy one to jettison after a few painful minutes of shabby¬†mise-en-sc√®ne…[after ignoring it on my ‘list’ for quite some time]”

And though there is no Liszt (ha!), Ethan Hawke tells one of the most touching stories I’ve ever seen.

Yes, that is the correct verbiage.

In the synesthesia of cinema.

It is the story of Seymour Bernstein (and not, as the title might lead one to believe, that of Seymour Glass).

Seymour did not become the supernova which his fellow Bernstein (Leonard) became.

No, Seymour Bernstein stepped away from the stage early.

As in, curtailed his career.

As a performer.

A pianist.

[but always a son–a man]

And so what makes Ethan Hawke’s film particularly special for me is the synergy created from two colliding ideas of great power: ¬†music and anxiety.

Ah, to perform…

It’s hard (really, very fucking hard) for me to recall the good times which make me sad.

Those would be my four short years as a professional music performer.

[three of which coincided with a parallel mini-career as a studio (recording) musician]

Why did I step away?

To paraphrase Bogart in The Big Sleep, I must rank pretty high on insubordination.

I’m a rebel.

And though I pray that I never follow in the darker footsteps of Phil Spector, I was very much in what one would term popular or pop music.

But it wasn’t from a lack of training.

My bachelor’s degree, from an esteemed institution, is almost exclusively due to courses in Western classical music.

Though I am but an amateur pianist compared to Mr. Bernstein, I have a deep appreciation for what he is doing all throughout this film.

As a trained music theorist (my specialization).

And a trained composer (the activity to which I dedicated the bulk of my undergraduate hours).

But there is something more.

Seymour:  An Introduction is very much about hard work.

About craft.

What I’m doing right now.

What you are reading.

It is my craft.

Now.

Music has flown…like a fleeting bird.

And I have had to transpose my urge to create from “EveryGoodBoyDoesFine” by way of copious vicissitudes to “PleaseExcuseMyDearAuntSally” and other far-afield mnemonic devices.

Yes, dear friends…I identify with Ethan Hawke’s struggle.

And it is painful to watch him.

But he has redeemed himself with this film.

Through great doubt we travel…

What the fuck am I doing in business school?

Does my acting mean anything whatsoever to ME anymore?

To weave it, my problems were/are different than those of Mr. Hawke.

He is standing on the stage…[places, everyone]…on the X where I wish I was.

Directing a film.

You need a producer.

An “executive” producer.

You need a law firm.

Legal counsel.

[for all those archival clips you want to interpolate]

Yes…there is a long list of credited individuals at the culmination of¬†Seymour: ¬†An Introduction.

It doesn’t just say “Ethan Hawke”.

Those are the realities of film.

Godard has illustrated it as a process of check-writing.

$50 here.  [more like]  $3,000 here.

And again.  And again.

But it is obvious this was a project of love for Ethan Hawke.

And it worked.

Mr. Bernstein is 89 and still (apparently) teaches at NYU.

And what a gifted soul!

Ah…

This documentary reminded me of so many beautiful, important things!

It all moves too fast…

The pictures with Nadia Boulanger…

But Korea sticks.

At the front lines.

As jaw-dropping as Messiaen in his prison camp.

But let me speak to the choir now…

Friends of Deutsche Grammophon et al..

It’s important.

That extra dot.

To point out.

No pun intended.

A service.

PRACTICE in front of your audience (Warhol advised).

Dear Messrs,

[and scholarly, epicurean (?) womenfolk]

We have, in these minutes, footage of the great Glenn Gould.

We learn the chair.

How low.

Carry out folded.

Like a shabby parcel of manuscripts.

But Mr. Bernstein gives us the cinderblocks.

And while it is scary (Glenn Gould) in its proficiency.

The ear of God.

We get an even greater surprise.

Yes, most startling.

Clifford Curzon.

And the passion of a boy from Islington.

Precision.

Snap!

Unfurling arpeggios effortlessly.

While the baritone fingers surface the melody.

Just breathing above the water’s surface.

Curzon.

Those glasses.

We fall in love.

1977.

Year after I was born.

By 17 days.

Seymour Bernstein’s eight-year career was over.

As a public performer.

Debuting with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (!) a Brazilian piano concerto in world premiere (the 2nd by Villa-Lobos).

1969-1977

Double my career ūüôā

[in more ways than one, I’m sure]

But as an astute student in the film observes, it was many thousands of hours (of practice and other dedicatory acts) to get to that point.

Mr. Bernstein didn’t sit down with the CSO and sightread the Villa-Lobos concerto.

It wasn’t his first time playing.

And so it comes back to work.

And anxiety.

& music.

Seymour Bernstein:  God bless you for knowing the quadrivium.

That MUSIC was one of the four higher liberal arts.

For the ancient Greeks.

Along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

What isn’t mentioned is that in which I am currently dabbling.

[dabbling my ass off]

The trivium.

Those “lower” three of the liberal arts.

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

And the liberal arts…in opposition to the practical arts.

[the latter being such as medicine…or architecture]

{Footnotes to be provided when hell freezes over}

And so I heartily recommend you watch this documentary.

Appreciate the importance of music.

See Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac.

[he will laugh!]

Because God gives back.

Even though Mr. Bernstein doesn’t believe.

It makes no difference to me.

I am but human.

And I have a right.

To believe.

In God.

In music.

He just disappeared.

One last concert.

At the YMCA.

Knowing when to end.

When the notes fade.

And if on a good piano,

they almost seem to swell first.

As if by magic…

-PD

Amadeus [1984)

In these waning hours of Christmas, I give you…

a fucking masterpiece.

Indeed, I regret that I cannot express myself at this time without resort to expletive, but this film by¬†MiloŇ° Forman is truly bone-chilling.

And it is especially so for me:  a former composer.

Oh, there is always still time.

To set pencil to paper (or pen, if [like Mozart], you make no mistakes).

And so we shall take under consideration the director’s cut of Amadeus¬†as our subject.

This later, R-rated version is from 2002 and adds 20 minutes to this magnum opus.

Yes, dear friends…we shall consider many things.

The uncanny embodiment of Tom Hulce.

The deft, dastardly thespian skills of F. Murray Abraham.

And even the indispensably aghast facial expressions of Richard Frank.

You might wonder why I have chosen this film to honor God on this day rather than a movie like Ernest Saves Christmas.

I will let you ponder that one for a moment.

But in the meanwhile, we shall press onwards with the young Salieri.

Please remember the pious of Western classical music.

J.S. Bach.

Antonio Vivaldi.

Haydn.  Handel.

Ok, perhaps not so much the latter.

Because he too, like Mozart, was a man of the world.

Of the earth.

A joyful sinner.

A composer with a dirty mouth.

Yes, there are miracles in this film.

Too many to count.

Salieri’s father choking on a fishbone.

For starters.

But let us consider the whole city of Vienna a miracle on assumption.

Wien.

A city in which one could dial the number 1507 and receive an A (435 Hz) with which to tune an instrument.

We have long appreciated this bit of trivia from scholar Norman Lloyd.

It has always endeared Vienna to our hearts.

A place where [it must] music flows through every pipe and connects the city in divine harmony.

But that time period for which we yearn…that “common practice” period is just the era in which Mozart is plopped down with his hilarious little giggle.

Jeffrey Jones is magnificent as the judicious statesman the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.

Which brings us back to Christmas.

A child was born.  To a woman by the Holy Spirit.

Yet the child had an earthly father:  Joseph II (not to be confused with the Old Testament Joseph).

Mozart was a child.

Childish.

A hellion.

Yet I would choose him over Shakespeare and Einstein when it comes to true genius.

I had heard it.

With my own ears.

In my days of getting my bachelor’s of music in music theory and composition.

I had heard that Symphony #39.  I played it.

I was inside the music.

And it is like none other.

I had discovered the ingenious counterpoint in Mozart’s Symphony #41.

What lightness!  What architecture!

What a vision of the beyond…

It takes memory to succeed.

And we guard our memories.

But it takes observation to create memories.

An eye.  An ear (in the case of Mozart).

Yes, Mozart’s prowess for hearing something once and then playing it back or either writing out all the parts (if a mixed ensemble) is legendary.

His fame grew with these stunts.

His novelty tours with father Leopold and sister Nannerl (not pictured).

I had at least one Harvard/Stanford-trained Dr. of music warn me about the historical inaccuracies in this film.

But this is Hollywood.

Of course there will be changes.

And yet, it is an incredibly moving picture.

To borrow a programmatic description from Richard Strauss, this film becomes (for much of it) a symphonia domestica.

Which, let me just say, happens to grace us with the presence of genius beauty:  Elizabeth Berridge.

But always in life (even into the bubble of music) creeps in business.

Economics.

Finances.

Debt.

Mozart was gifted with a once-in-humanity talent, yet he did not have the self-marketing skills to always position his talent at the best place in the market.

Meanwhile, Signor Salieri activates a little psychological warfare (captured by¬†Forman’s camera lit by little gaslights all around…).

And so it is machinations versus manifestations of God’s glory.

The story is rich.

That a composer might write his own Requiem mass…and that the writing of that mass might just kill him.

We know how cursed the 9th symphony became after Beethoven (Bruckner,¬†DvoŇô√°k, Mahler, Schubert…).

Musicians are subject to powerful forces which attack their necessary imaginations.

Superstitions.

Salieri’s character proves that those closest to us are not necessarily to be trusted. ¬†His disingenuous psyop has Mozart working himself to death.

And that is a scary thing.

To push and push and push.

And yet, who will be remembered?

The expert in psychological warfare?

Or the symphonist?

Times have changed, but it is still the creator who has the benefit of creating goods.

Super-warriors aren’t even creating bads. ¬†They are creating nothing.

But, it might be argued, that they are doing the most good in this world which no longer appreciates the music of its heritage.

Yes, European classical music is on life-support.

But we return to Mozart, who is in not-much-better condition.

Part of me longs for the treatment of Ingmar Bergman in his underappreciated film version of Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute in Swedish).

But¬†MiloŇ° Forman does everything else right.

The scene in which Mozart and Salieri are working on the Requiem is masterful!

And still…Mozart doesn’t realize that his greatest enemy is posing as a friend to help him compose his own death from exhaustion.

It’s only when they’re throwing the lime on you that you get real perspective.

But by that point, you’re wrapped up.

It is thus a fitting Christmas story…that hatred and jealously are futile.

And that a naive genius had the keys to the musical kingdom.

For his 35 short years on Earth.

Perhaps Mozart was not a pious man, but Salieri (who burned his own crucifix in the fireplace) consistently recognized the voice of God in Mozart’s music.

I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season and that your hearts will be filled with melodies which could make the heavens weep.

-PD

The Princess Bride [1987)

In this world, we look for goodness.

And we think back.

Buttercup.

The name is not quite right.

But Robin Wright is perfect.

To conjure memories of wonder.

Rapunzel.

La fille aux cheveux de lin.

Ahh, yes…

We are getting closer.

Sick.  Bedridden.

Fever dreams of distant possibilities.

And Secretary of Defense, William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

The kissing had to be cut out.

The censors, you understand.

And perhaps we have saved these kisses for the finish line.

As you wish.  As you like it.

Have it your way.  I love you.

But enter from offstage the Dread Pirate Pico de Gallo.

Lisping speech impediments abound.

Wallace Shawn in The Seventh Seal.

And the sartorial strap of André the Giant.

Grenoble.

We are getting closer.

We learn that Saul Berenson is a very good actor.

Mandy Patinkin.

Hound Dog Taylor didn’t need no bass.

Enter from orchestra pit Johnny Cash.

When you are tumbling in love…weightless…in an orchard of God’s making.

Abloom.  In Stockholm.

Pretexts. ¬†False flags. ¬†It’s all here.

But Rob Reiner insists on cinema.

From the quicksand.

Don’t believe in yourself.

To his credit.

Tesla.

But this one goes to 50.

Years.

Off your life.

Two skinned appendages.  Comes with the package.

Houellebecq quote.  Creeley.

Could have sworn Mel Smith was Viv Savage (David Kaff).

Hyperlinks to Rare Bird (Charisma, Polydor).

Abandon all hope…in the hand of Dante.

The cries of the innocent.

Clouds of blood.

Slaying the witch.

On live television.

Strategic management from Stephen Hawking.

Weekend at Bernie’s.

Professional courtesy.

The only good thing Billy Crystal ever did.

Revenge.

Daniel Craig in writer’s strike watching¬†The Princess Bride.

Voilá Quantum of Solace.

And Tosca.

Rachmaninov would live again…after the first symphony…in the¬†Symphonic Dances…quoting himself…like John Fogerty…but just momentarily…to remember…conquering a state…percussing an albino…leaping from a cliff…holding up the memory of the dead…and thick glasses…on a young boy…this string quartet is for you.

“Feel sick and dirty/More dead than alive”

No Houellebecq.

“I could sleep for a thousand years…Different colors made of tears”

I was friends with André.  And he with me.

Horse pills.

Bo Diddley.

Diddley bow.

Primal scream.

The holocaust cloak in Histoire(s) du cinéma.

“Look out honey ’cause I’m using technology”

Mawwiage.

Abdomen smited.

Come too far.

Not limousine liberal.

Stand down.

“She’ll be driving six white horses when she comes”

Leaves two.

Hello lady!

Honor thy father and mother.

 

-PD

 

Chronique d’un √©t√© [1961)

Capture capture capture.

Always capture the emotion of what you’ve just seen.

You have to take a piss?

It can wait.

[ok, sometimes it can’t]

But here it must wait.

Because Chronicle of a Summer is beyond the level of masterpiece.

For so long, I wanted to see a film of Jean Rouch.

Et voil√†…ici!

Joined by another genius = Edgar Morin.

Where Nuit et brouillard fails, Chronique d’un √©t√© succeeds.

The reality (yes) of the Holocaust is in Marceline.

Marceline who does not want to sleep with an African.

Marceline with the concentration camp tattoo.

Marceline and her memories of her dear papa.

In this moment, the Holocaust becomes true.

We believe it…because it is not the same bullshit propaganda we have heard a million times.

Propaganda meant to amplify a truth can actually succeed (fail) in negating a truth.

Such is with the Holocaust.

It is where Spielberg fails with Schindler’s List.

It’s the Titanic of Holocaust historiography.

Titanic might be a good film (I believe it is), but it is certainly not cinema.

It is popcorn viewing.

That’s what Spielberg (of Jaws) did with the Jews.

He knew no other way.

He made a pop song out of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Not even that.

Worse.

But Rouch (rouxsch) and Morin (more on, not moron) do the opposite.

Here we see all the techniques which would dominate the work of Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.

And Godard has admitted the debt to Rouch.

Ethnography.

What is that?

Ethnic and graphs?

Might be some false cognation in there.

But yes:  this is a film from the social sciences.

Morin, the sociologist.

Rouch, the anthropologist (always mentioned as an “ethnographic filmmaker”).

It you want to see a film that doesn’t suck, see this one.

It has everything.

But it is not forced.

It is Paris, but it is also Africa (C√īte d’Ivoire, Belgian Congo, colonial Algeria, jungles, leaves over the “sex” [genitals]).

Yet, all of this is merely talked about.

We are taken there by dialogue.  Language.

Immigrants.  Africans.

High and low.

A Renault factory.  Saint-Tropez.

Up and down.

Youth happy because the sun is shining and they are young.

Elderly who have lost their spouses or siblings.

Down and up.

Immigrants from Italy.  Depression.  REAL FUCKING DEPRESSION.

But beauty.  La bohème.  Attic apartments.

Bullfighting.  Rock climbing.  Bananas.

Fruit and //furniture forgeries.

Cooked books.  Accounting irregularities.

Leisure.  The revolution of doing nothing. [or at least something surreal]

You can’t just buy one book and expect to have it tell you “how the French think”.

No, my friends…

You must work at it.

You must study for years.  Study a culture.

And that’s what I’ve done with the French.¬† Because I love them.

 

-PD

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 12 [1976)

Wikipedia generally gives a nice overview of some of these early Saturday Night Live episodes, but not in this case.

Even so, that’s alright.

We’ll make do.

It might be enough to focus on the divide between droll host Dick Cavett (his pitch for “his” Nebraska Pimp book as part of “Looks on Books” kinda sums it up) and impassioned musical guest Jimmy Cliff.

Cavett is that sort of personality that everyone likes.  Always a warm smile.  A wry smile, perhaps.  A smart guy, but not too smart.  Cavett was, in some ways, in the exact middle of the cultural road.

He was just hip enough to be marginally “with it” in a revolutionary era (witness the Weekend Update attempts to cover “war-torn” Luanda, Angola) steaming with frustration.

And so the natural way to play off his image is to have him do risqu√© things.¬† For example, the skit “Our Town” substitutes New York City for the Grover’s Corners of playwright Thornton Wilder.

Cavett describes the more prurient details of NYC.  At one point, it is fairly obvious that he is describing the old Times Square full of sex shops and massage parlors.  As always, the exercise of watching this show gives us an opportunity to reflect on days gone by.  For example, this must have been around the time of a sanitation workers strike in the Big Apple.

[Speaking of Big Apple, the home movie sent in by someone (whose name I have forgotten) makes nice use of apples (and plums) as actors in a stop-motion Super-8 experiment.]

But yes…Dick Cavett is kind of like a bathroom sanitizer.¬† You’re glad he’s there (when the place is sullied), but he is generally harmless and flavorless.

What is staggering about this episode is that I remember a friend from college who (on second thought) reminds me quite a bit of Cavett.  The craziest part is that Jimmy Cliff does a song in this episode which played a part in my college days (funny enough, in relation to the aforementioned gentleman).

It’s funny how the mundane can make us sentimental.¬† However, Jimmy Cliff is not at all himself mundane on the song in question:¬† “Many Rivers to Cross”.

Jimmy Cliff couldn’t be more different in persona from Dick Cavett.¬† Cliff delivers the first great, desperate performance in SNL history.¬† Sure, Simon & Garfunkel were great in the early season, but they were pretty…composed…easily poised.

On “Many Rivers to Cross” Jimmy Cliff sings like his life depends on it.¬† The guitars are out of tune.¬† The drummer is barely in control of the song.¬† A bongo player (who alternates on timbales…with brushes) adds a bit of flavor.¬† The SNL horns (Howard Shore’s band) add some nice stabs and swells of excitement.

But it is Jimmy Cliff.  Singing right in tune.  Dead serious.  Pinging each note in absolute perfection.

Closing his eyes.¬† Lifting his head back.¬† Singing so the veins bulge out in his neck.¬† …ending the performance out of breath.

Cliff absolutely deserved to perform the three songs he did on this episode.¬† However, neither of the other two match the intensity of “Many Rivers to Cross”.

And so it takes me back.

These memories I mentioned.¬† They’re important to me.

If I’d only chosen to have my taxes done by H. & L. Brock…I coulda been a contenda.

How do we become losers?

Is it from the very first hand we’re dealt?

Some things feel like a lost cause.

Life is unkind.  Sometimes.

But what I want to know is…will it pay off?

Jimmy Cliff was ready when the opportunity arose.

How significant was this performance for the acceptance of reggae in America?

It doesn’t matter.

Those questions don’t matter.

What matters is what each one of us feels…in little moments of reflection.

I’d like to think that I’d belt it out just like Jimmy Cliff.

That’s when you give it all you have.

It’s when your passion raises you head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s a passion.¬† A hunger.¬† Of going from nothing to something.

I think quite a few of us feel like nothings.

It’s all we ever get to be.

We’re behind.

I can only speak for myself.

No wife.  No kids.

In school for the millionth time.

And my dreams seem light years away…in the rearview mirror.

Will I find them again down the road?

Is this a loop?  A mere episode?

 

-PD

 

Smultronstället [1957)

At some point during the viewing of this film I turned 39 years old.  That is significant because there is a moment in this masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman at which a character is described precisely as 38 years old.

And so a mostly unimportant question arises:  was I 38 or 39 when I heard that line?

To be sure, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Wild Strawberries, but seeing it on the cusp of my birthday as the world spits me back into the cosmic cuspidor makes a poignant movie absolutely devastating.

You must understand, by “devastating”…I don’t necessarily mean bad.¬† In my film lexicon I reserve the word devastating for films which reduce me to a weeping mess.¬† This, now, is one such film.

My memory of it was as a sweet film…wild strawberries…youthful love…summertime.¬† And indeed, all of those things are there.¬† But this film is more than just na√Įvet√©.¬† This film is about aging.¬† Old age.

I would never have made the connection, but Smultronst√§llet bridges the gap (somewhat) between its comrades in simpatico:¬† Umberto D. (1952) and The Death of Mr. LńÉzńÉrescu (2005).¬† In the former, Carlo Battisti set the gold standard for this micro-genre.¬† He was 69 when he portrayed the titular Umberto Domenico Ferrari.¬† In the latter, Ioan Fiscuteanu brought a razor-sharp accuracy to the likewise titular character Dante Remus LńÉzńÉrescu while being, himself, 68 years old.

And that brings us to the famed silent-film director Victor Sj√∂str√∂m.¬† For Bergman’s Smultronst√§llet, Sj√∂str√∂m was invited aboard as an actor (in the lead role of Isak Borg).¬† Sj√∂str√∂m was, almost exactly with the two previous actors mentioned, 68 years old when he assumed this immortal role.

But there is something which Ingmar Bergman did (thanks to the magic of Sj√∂str√∂m’s performance) which is unique in this film.¬† Beyond the surrealism befitting of de Chirico, beyond the hint of road movie panache which predated √Ä Bout de souffle, Bergman keyed in on an absolutely defining characteristic of old age (for many):¬† loneliness.

I recognize it because it is an absolutely defining characteristic of my own life.¬† Sometimes I wonder if anyone out there is as lonely as me.¬† I send out my signal.¬† I comb through the tags.¬† “Lonely” is a young person’s emotion.¬† “Loneliness” is a lifelong complex.¬† An articulate, stark reality.

And how does it happen?

Well, you will just have to see this film.  Really, there are few movies I could more strongly recommend than Wild Strawberries.  Everyone will see it differently.  For me it brings back memories of Sweden (and even Denmark [though I should probably wait for Dreyer before admitting that]).  Girls named Kaaren and Anna and Saaarah (ok, maybe not that many As).

That is the route of this unlikely road movie.¬† What could have been…¬† What might have been~~

Sometimes a dream rights our ship.¬† But these bad dreams…we are one credit hour short, she doesn’t remember us, we’ve forgotten the first rule of being a doctor…

In our wisdom we will think of the good times.¬† For me, it is as hard as breathing.¬† I don’t breathe well.¬† I think too much.¬† About it.¬† Everything.

Wisdom lets us go back to our old neighborhood…our old play friends…some ball in the street.¬† We must have some good memories somewhere.¬† Psychology urges this.¬† A safe place.¬† A mental image.¬† A way to calm down.

In the fray of life this often isn’t practical.¬† Indeed, we forget everything.¬† Is there or isn’t there a God?¬† I would say yes, but I’m not going to arm-wrestle you over it.

That is a bit of wisdom.  You can go home again.

 

-PD