Les Misérables: Une tempête sous un crâne [1934)

Often when I watch films I am totally drained of energy even at the beginning.

Going into it.

And then a cinematic miracle will occasionally make me forget all about my exhaustion.

This is one of those times.

Thanks to director Raymond Bernard.

And thanks to the lead actor Harry Baur.

This is one of those films which can slip under the radar.

Mercifully, its four-hour-and-forty-minute running time is broken up into three parts.

That was, incidentally, also the mode of release in 1934.

The three parts apparently were shown in theaters by way of staggered releases (in the incredibly short time span of three weeks).

It is somewhat of an ingenious device.  I’m not familiar with another film to have received such a treatment.

This first section of Hugo’s novel is titled here Une tempête sous un crâne.

As you might expect, it is a particularly touching story.

It is certainly worth revisiting Les Misérables after seeing this first film.

The story is very heroic.  Harry Baur instills pride.  Proud to be human.

Few characters in life or fiction make such an impression.

The initial meeting with the priest is awe-inspiring.

As Jean Valjean says (in amazement), “I haven’t slept in a bed in 19 years.”

A real bed.  With sheets.  Like normal people.

Having been in jail.

His statement is a stunner.

I know that feeling.

As an artist.

I slept on a couch for years.

I slept on the floor.

We must remember that Valjean’s crime was stealing a loaf of bread.

Five years.

His four attempts to break out of jail extended his sentence by 14 years.

19 in total.

Hard labor.

All from stealing a loaf of bread.

And wanting to be free.

And then there is dear Fantine (played by Florelle).

A mother reduced to prostitution.

Sells her hair.  Sells her teeth.

All for her daughter Cosette.

It is reification in overdrive.

Finally, Fantine has nothing to sell but her body.

She has sold parts.

She stayed pure as long as she could.

She was tricked.

And an orphan to begin with.

So she ends up in a factory…playing the glass bead game…stringing cheap necklaces to keep her daughter alive.

And another pair of vultures (the Thénardiers) trick her more.

They rip her off.

Always more and more.

Just like modern life.

Modern times.

Les Temps modernes.

So we must remember Victor Hugo as an artist of conscience.

And Sartre…conscience.

Perhaps less artful.

And Barack Obama.

Completely artless, but still perhaps some conscience.

Let’s not underestimate the humanism of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program.

Sure, “the Guidance” was issued by Jeh Johnson (of Homeland Security).

Yes, the program is unlawful.

It is a new law.

That’s not the purview of the executive branch.

Yes, the plaintiffs are right in their invocation of the Take Care clause of the U.S. constitution.

But we must make sure to not misquote former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark by omitting the final words of his famous quote:

“Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws…”  Which is to say, yes:  Judge Hanen…you are right.  Greg Abbott…you are right.  Republican states…you are right.  [I am speaking, of course, about the forthcoming Supreme Court decision on immigration…United States v. Texas.]

BUT…there’s more to Tom Clark’s quote…and it is often left out.  As Paul Harvey would have said, THAT’S the rest of the story.

Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, OR WORSE, ITS DISREGARD OF THE CHARACTER OF ITS OWN EXISTENCE.

Which is to say:  the Democrats have the high moral ground here.

Let me clarify.

I hate Obama.  He’s a fake and a phony.

He had the opportunity to bring to real perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

He didn’t.

That should have been job #1 after having wrested the White House from the maniacal neocon Bush junta.

Unfortunately, at the very deepest levels it seems that cabal never left.

Obama merely carried on the War on Terror charade (even going so far as to kill a dead man…the bogus bogeyman…Osama bin Laden).

But Obama and Jeh Johnson are right about DAPA.  MORALLY right.  Which doesn’t make their actions legal.  But I applaud the current administration for OSTENSIBLY caring about the people affected…the human beings…our illegal alien brothers and sisters.  They are, first of all, humans.  If they entered this country illegally, that is a secondary consideration.  They must always remain, first and foremost, HUMANS.

Yeah, Obama and friends most likely pulled off the Sandy Hook false flag.  That’s because the administration is, in general, a bunch of scumbags.

Speaking of presidents, Donald Trump is the only real candidate left.

Sure, he needs to slap himself in the face a few times and realize that Mexicans (among other immigrants from the south) and Muslims are people.  That’s a big hurdle for the Donald.

That’s the stumbling block.

Trump is winning because he’s the only one willing to admit that he’s a jerk.

His actions say it.

Hillary?  Secret jerk.

Cruz?  Thinly-veiled jerk.

Sanders?  Well-meaning jerk.

And then there’s the other jerk.  We’ll call him nice jerk.

Trump has won the rhetoric battle.

Now he needs to dial it back a little bit and find a soul.

I know he has one…deep down in there…somewhere.

Sanders is right about Snowden.  Trump has fumbled that one a bit.

But Trump is still the only one to address 9/11 with any sort of credibility.

That is priceless.

Can Donald “Jean Valjean” Trump turn it around and really make a positive difference?

I think he can, but he has to learn the lesson of the candlesticks…the silver…and the 40 sous.

It will be a tightrope.  The master bigot will have to convince a country of bigots that our humanity impels us to a higher moral standard.

That is Victor Hugo here…applied to the here and now.

 

-PD

 

 

Taxi “Come as You Aren’t” [1978)

We tend to think the small things don’t matter.

A 30 minute TV show.

25 minus commercials.

[22 by the 1990s…a few more ads jabbed in and substance sucked out]

A television show.

But it does matter.

I’ve neglected my journey through the world of Taxi for far too long.

And coming back to it I was greeted by a delightful episode dominated by the ravishing Marilu Henner.

Again we find Judd Hirsch’s character Alex as a sort of amateur psychologist for his friends at the taxi company.

Hirsch is the one everyone comes to for advice.

Not having watched the show for awhile, I could have sworn he had a mustache.

I mean, come on…it was 1978.

The whole vibe of Alex (Hirsch) is “guy with mustache”…not in a 21st-century hipster way, but in a Bread way…soft rock…working man.

[alas, no stache]

But back to Marilu Henner.  She really owns this episode.

Andy Kaufman has a few priceless lines, but Henner is the center of attention.

As with other Taxi episodes, Hirsch is the moral compass (more or less).

It’s a very unpretentious brand of ethics.

It’s from a time when America was younger.

Each episode ends with an “Aww…” moment.

But don’t get me wrong.

The situations are believable.

It’s not realism, but it’s generally plausible.

The point of the show, however, is to make people feel good.

To make people feel better.

Is it entertainment?

Sure.

But it’s also, in its own way, a brand of homespun philosophy.

Every show is a little slice of optimism amidst the cruel world.

 

-PD

Secret Agent [1936)

If this is propaganda, it is among the most artful of all time.  For it seems to emanate from the mind of an individualist and patriot.  Alfred Hitchcock.

We get our subject material from Somerset Maugham.  Ashenden.

“The wrong man!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”  Thus laughs “the General” Peter Lorre…a sort of lovable psychopath (if such a thing is possible).  Yes, the wrong man.  It is to Hitchcock’s oeuvre what prostitution is to Jean-Luc Godard’s.  But it is a grotesque moment.  The wrong man.  In this case, it went all the way:  they killed the wrong man.  Just an innocent old man with a wife and a dog.  All in a day’s work for a covert operative…Lorre’s laughter seems to tell us.

No.  Lorre is no typical agent.  He’s a hitman.  He doesn’t mind killing.  In fact, he kind-of enjoys it.  Takes pride in his craft (as it were).  Very clean, he says…strangling, a knife…no guns…too noisy.

But let’s back up to John Gielgud.  To make a spy, you kill the man.  It is quasi-Christian.  The old is gone.  Behold, the new has come.

The perfect spy has no past.  This sort of agent wakes up to read his own obituary.  Before long, he has a new identity.

Though this film predates WWII, its subject matter of WWI is certainly infused with the building tension of a second continent-wide conflagration.

And again we witness James Bond far before Ian Fleming birthed him.  The milieu is the same.  Gielgud reports to “R”…like the “M” we would all come to know and love.  And of course Lorre…himself an M of another type (see Fritz Lang).

Trouble in the Middle East.  Why can’t it be Tahiti?  Where’s Leonard Bernstein when you need him???

“The Hairless Mexican” a.k.a. “The General” Peter Lorre…kinda like the Federal Reserve:  not Federal and no reserves.  Yes, Lorre is quite hirsute.  As for his rank, it is as dubious as his other winning personality traits.

Gielgud’s not very careful…right from the start.  I suppose they should have trained the chap in the dark arts before sending him out into the field.  At least the field is Switzerland (Allen Dulles’ future stomping grounds).

Back to our Bond parallels…the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, like Eva Green in Casino Royale, stipulates a separate-bed rule as part of her cover (Gielgud’s “wife”).  We wonder whether her character, like Hitchcock and Green’s Vesper Lynd, is of Catholic upbringing.

But for the main course…we get some rather convincing ethics from Hitchcock–a morality which we would scarcely see again in the future of film through to the 21st century.  To wit, espionage is the dirtiest of jobs.  Never mind the old trick of digging though a rubbish bin:  the whole operation is filthy and loused up with sickening concessions.  Hitchcock gets right to the point quite forthright:  murder.  Many of the darkest jobs are just that!  One can spin it anyway one wants, but it is still cold-blooded.

It’s not all fun and games, Gielgud tries to convey to Madeleine.  If you’re here for a thrill, you’d best recalibrate your perspective:  things are about to get real ugly!

It is some scary shit.  Imagine Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi collaborating with Morton Feldman for a 45 second piece.  It’s called Sonata for Corpse and Organ.  Their contact has been murdered.  The assassin pulled out all the stops.  Just after the prelude, a fugue of struggle ensued which left a button from the killer’s garments clutched in the dead organist’s hand.  We get a rich, chromatic chord until Gielgud and Lorre realize there’s far too little harmonic rhythm to this chorale.  The bloke’s been whacked (slumped upon the keys).

This button, a single-use MacGuffin, leads them to offing the wrong man.  Poor old Percy Marmont…

At this, Gielgud is ready to quit…sickened by the thought of having innocent blood on his hands.  Credit Madeleine Carroll with a nice performance…especially when she plays the straight (horrified) woman to Lorre’s laughter.

And so, again like Casino Royale, Gielgud and Carroll (madly in love) decide to dispense with the whole mission and pack it in (complete with a resignation letter to “R” from Gielgud).

I won’t give away too much.  Lorre is fantastic:  both ridiculously awkward in his humor and deft in his acting.

Unfortunately, the artfulness of the film which Hitchcock had lovingly built up is marred by a somewhat daft, abrupt ending.

Like this.

-PD