Monday, May 29, 2017

Two 1940s movies with WWII vets struggling in post-war life

Title: Act of Violence (1949)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

At first, Act of Violence seems like a straightforward crime thriller set in post-war suburbia. Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) is a stalker menacing a peaceful home. He carries a gun and looks like he could use it without flinching. But Joe isn't a criminal, though he may become a murderer by the movie's end.

The man he is after is Frank Enley (Van Heflin). They served together in the war and spent time in a German POW camp. Frank now has a wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), and a baby son. He's well-respected in his community; people consider him a war hero. To Joe, Frank's cheerful, prosperous life is an injustice. Joe remembers what Frank did in the POW camp, and what his fellow POWs suffered for it. Joe is permanently injured and easily written off as crazy, but at least he survived and will now have his vengeance.

Act of Violence should be a better known movie for its strong acting, the tone of uneasiness throughout, and the difficult questions it raises. What would you do to stay alive? How do you manage to live with yourself, if you've either deliberately committed evil or made a terrible mistake? Are things you did under extraordinary circumstances reflective of your everyday character?

Joe and Frank wrestle with these questions post-war. As do the women in their lives - Edith, who learns disturbing information about her husband; Ann (Phyllis Thaxter), who as Joe's girlfriend tries to persuade him to abandon his revenge mission; and an aging prostitute, Pat (Mary Astor), who finds Frank when he's trying to hide from Joe. The movie doesn't make the mistake of turning Joe into a righteous hero and Frank into a full-fledged villain; Frank's reasons for acting as he did during the war are muddled, and Joe is so consumed by anger that he's becoming less of a person and more of a destructive force that will burn itself out.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Three visually beautiful movies

Title: 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Director: Claire Denis
Language: French (and some German)
Rating: Unrated

35 Shots of Rum keeps the dialogue sparse and lets the camera linger on people's expressions and gestures, the light and shadow surrounding them. A widower, Lionel (Alex Descas), and his college-aged daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop) share a close, affectionate relationship, but they're each facing profound changes in their life. Lionel is approaching the age of retirement and watches a former colleague struggle with finding meaning in his life now that he no longer works. Josephine, meanwhile, is in love with a neighbor. Lionel and Josephine are devoted to each other and comfortable sharing a home, but they know they won't keep living as they are indefinitely, and it's difficult to cope with.

There's a lot of visual beauty in this movie. Some of it geometric - trains traveling in the dark with their windows as squares of light, while the windows in buildings are lit rectangles. The play of light is wonderful too, like with the rails that glow in the afternoon or early evening. The combinations of color are also lovely - creams and coffee colors, grays and navy blues, with pops of red. (It reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings.)

And I like the movie's quiet emotions. The tenderness conveyed with few words between father and daughter. The regrets and disquiet, the closeness and loneliness.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Week in Seven Words #341

The express checkout machines are marvels of futility. People run their coupons back and forth to no effect, swipe cards that aren't read, feed bills that get spit out. A sign flashes. "Help is on the way," intones a ghostly female voice. Does anyone come?

As we pray on a Friday evening, an ice cream truck starts to crank out music, and we laugh.

People who are suffering don't need to hear that they should have had perfect foresight; that if only they'd acted perfectly and anticipated a dozen possible eventualities, they wouldn't be suffering.

An old fridge, speckled with mold, its belly full of warm food.

Sometimes when she talks she falls into a rhythm similar to stream-of-consciousness. It doesn't really matter who she's talking to; she just needs to empty her mind of stories and details. Sometimes she expresses a hope or wish, or she makes things up to give the impression that her days are full of excitement, accomplishments, and closeness to people.

Insults that contain a truth I'm squirming to avoid.

It hurts watching kids quickly give up on something because they're afraid of looking stupid.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Week in Seven Words #340

Playing basketball while wearing glasses.

In a sunset after a thunderstorm, the clouds have a tangerine underbelly.

His dessert is a cookie drowning in half-melted ice cream. It doesn't matter that he won't finish it. Part of the pleasure comes from chasing chunks of cookie around with his fork in the sweet puddle.

Someone who checked out the book before me penciled a warning over one of the short stories: "If after 5 pages you think this is going to change it isn't. It's like swimming in molasses and takes more from you than it gives back."

To find the speech moving, I have to forget most of what I know about the speaker. I just take in the cadence and listen to the phrases promising hope and progress. For a short while, I can believe the speech is real. The world doesn't yet intrude on its promises.

When we step outside, there's a mix of rain and blinding sunlight. The sun has set fire to the rain.

She lays out a tea service for a woman with white woolly hair and a girl with blue ribbons in her braids.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Marilynne Robinson's "Psalm 8" is a thoughtful, nourishing piece

For Deal Me In, I recently read "Psalm 8" by Marilynne Robinson.

So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all due respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us.

I was drawn to this essay because I've read the eighth psalm; I come to it from Jewish faith, and Robinson from a Christian background. I wanted to see what she had to say on it. The essay isn't entirely about the psalm, but it explores some of its themes. At one point, the psalm asks what man is exactly, to have the notice or remembrance of God. What is man to merit such attention?

("A question is more spacious than a statement," Robinson writes, "far better suited to expressing wonder.")

One reason I like this essay is that it's an intelligent, perceptive exploration of religious text and experience. I've come across writings on religion that flatten the world and make the soul shrink. This essay is full of an appreciation of mystery.

Also, there's a love of humanity in it. It's written without sentimentality but with a recognition of people's special dignity. And there's humility in it too, not exaggerated in any way, just a straightforward kind in which the mind is alive with questions that present no easy answers.

In some of her other writings, like her essay, "Darwinism," Robinson speaks out against the way people use science to try to diminish humanity; she isn't "anti-science," but writes of how science can become another ideological weapon. So can religion, but in reading Robinson's writing, religion is nothing so simple as that. And that's one reason I appreciate what I've read so far of her work. She isn't an ideologue; she doesn't want to make the world uglier by pretending everything is knowable.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Week in Seven Words #339

She's an American dating an Israeli, and she doesn't know what to make of his parents. They aren't mean to her, in fact they seem to like her, they're just... I get it. They're thoroughly Israeli. I sit with her for a while and try to help her understand.

Do I miss him? (Not really.) Should I? (Emotions aren't obligatory.)

By the bay there's a row of abandoned houses. Sand has crept in through the cracks in the boarded up windows. Each door has grown a wild beard of leaves.

There's a thick smell of paint in the corridor, and the light is cloudy with dust.

I'm not a beach person; when I take time off, I probably won't be sitting on a beach for hours. But I love the smell of sunscreen. I love the feel of sea water curling around my ankles.

They're not looking to learn, just hoping to become more certain of what they think they already know.

She's hoarse, her throat sanded away by a weeks-long cold.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Austen's Persuasion and exploration of intimacy in conversation

Something that jumped out at me while reading Jane Austen's Persuasion for the Classics Club Challenge was the exploration of intimacy in conversation.

Throughout Persuasion, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth barely speak to each other. When they do, it's pained small talk conducted in public. They have a significant shared history and much to say to each other, but they don't speak. They mostly notice each other, wordlessly. Or they hear about each other through what other people say. But there are social and personal barriers between them.

What they need isn't public conversation anyway. Conversation overheard by other people often comes across as silly, insignificant, or misguided in this book.

Look at Admiral and Sophy Croft, for instance. They're a model for happily married couples, well-matched and walking side-by-side through life (and on-board ship). Their conversations are almost never overheard publicly. You see them spending a lot of time together, heads together, but rarely does the reader hear what they say to each other. (The one significant time a conversation of theirs takes place in front of other people is when Anne briefly shares their curricle - and in that scene, the Admiral's observation about how Frederick should choose one of the Musgrove girls isn't a sensible one.) Their most meaningful exchanges are private, where even the reader can't access them.

So, Anne and Frederick aren't meant to have conversations for public consumption. But how do they get to the place where they can talk privately?

There's the letter at the end. Some say it's Frederick's letter, but really he's writing it in collaboration with Anne, based on what she's telling someone else in the room. It's a joint effort. And it's what brings down the barrier, because a letter is private, wholly, and introduces space for intimate conversation between them at last.

(That letter also makes me think of Anne drawing a bow back, throughout the book. Frederick's the arrow. She slowly brings him to a place where he can fly forward true in his intentions.)