Francisco Goya (2 cents)

On most Monday nights, you can see a European (normally German) movie, not normally shown in this country, at the Goethe Institute in Washington.  The cost is $4.  It’s a great bargain.

This fall, the emphasis seems to be on biopics.  Last night, the movie was Goya, a 1971 film from East Germany, directed by Konrad Wolf, and starring Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis.  The films was based on a novel by Lion Feuchtwangler, German-Jewish author, published in 1951.  It told the story of Goya from his rise to the favorite court painter of the Spanish royal family, to his conversion from royal portrait artist to the radical portrayer of the victims of the Napoleanic War and the Catholic Inquisition.  While some of the events may not be totally factual (such as the relationship between the Duchess of Alba and Goya’s “Naked Maja” and “Clothed Maja”), and while any East German movie can be seen as containing a degree of propoganda (anti-royalty; anti-church), the movie keeps your attention throughout its 2+ hours.

I assume that that the film was made in Spain (although the ability of a Communist German film company to work in fascist Franco Spain is questionable, I guess), and the scenery (rural, small town, Escorial) is magnificent.  One of the most interesting aspects of the film, however, is in the casting.  If you look at a self-portrait by Goya and then look at Banionis, you see extraordinary resemblence.  Similarly, one of the most famouns of Goya’s royal oil paintings is the painting of the King Carlos IV of Spain and his family, including his wife Maria Louisa, daughter of the Duke of Parma and referred to by the proud Duchess of Alba as “the Italian”.  It is a distinctive portrait in that it did not “airbrush” the subjects, and brought a form of artistic realism to royal portraitry.  There are twelve family members in the painting, and the actors looked like each of them.  Particularly fascinating was the resemblence of the woman who portrayed Queen Maria Louisa to the woman painted by Goya.  And, of course, the Duchess of Alba did not have to look like the Naked Maja, as Goya presumably hid the identity of whomever his model was.naked-maja200px-francisco_de_goya_y_lucientes_054

This is a well reputed movie, not shown in this country until recently.

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Illuminados

Illuminados, or in English, Enlightened, is a 2007 Brazilian documentary featuring six Brazilian cinematographers talking about their art and their movies.  The movie, directed by Cristina Leal and in Portuguese (I saw it with English subtitles), is quite long, but utterly fascinating.  I had not seen any of the films discussed in the film (with scenes from each)  other than Central Station but would like to see them all, but I don’t think that the point was to advertise Brazilian cinema to Americans.

The movie is more of a teaching tool.  If I were a teacher of film, this is a movie I would want my students to see.  How do you become a cinematographer?  Who were your mentors or idols?  What films have you been proudest of?  Is cinematography an artistic or a technical job?  How does improving technology figure in?  How do you go about deciding what to do?  How do you collaborate?  And so on.

In addition to the interviews and the clips, the director has created a scene:  a woman steps from the shower, surveys her living room which appears to have been the scene of a bad scene, and she takes to the bottle.  A torn picture is on the floor, a picture of herself and a man.  She is clearly very sad and wistful.  The door opens, the man appears, they stare at each other, and they seem to reconcile.  She then has each of the six cinematographers photograph the scene in their own way, and very different ways some of them are.

If you are looking for an action picture or a romance, obviously Illuminados is not for you.  If you are interested in learning about the making of movies from a different perspective, you will not be disappointed.

The films was shown as part of the second Washington Brazilian film week festival at American University.

Constantine’s Sword Redux

Our study group read James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword a year or so ago. It is an extraordinary book, detailing the institutional anti-semitism found in the doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church over the centuries. When I learned that a movie had been made from the book, also to be called “Constantine’s Sword”, I was both amazed that such a book could become a film, and hopeful that it would be a good film that might help (and be a counter to the Mel Gibson fiasco). The movie has not yet been released, but was shown (for the first time before an audience) Monday night at the National Cathedral.

The best thing about the movie is that there is nothing offensive about it. At least not offensive to me. If I were a Catholic or an Evangelical, perhaps I would feel differently.

James Carroll puts a lot of James Carroll into his writing. About 10%, I would say, of his book Constantine’s Sword is devoted to James Carroll, and the rest to the church and its Jewish policy. In the movie, the Carroll element increases to, perhaps, 20%. While this helps set the stage, I also think that in excess it detracts from the message. The movie larger theme becomes less central.

Secondly, the movie is framed at the start and the finish by footage dealing with Evangelicals trying to convert Air Force Cadets in Colorado Springs, a interesting story in and of itself, but again detracting from the main theme. (I don’t remember this being in the book; if I could locate our copy, I’d know for sure.)

The historic story is told, but not in great depth. Had I not been basically familiar with the history, I am not sure how much I would have observed. As a movie, therefore, I was not impressed, I guess. It seemed more like a made for TV vehicle, and not the best of that genre, either.

Again, I am glad I saw it and am glad that it didn’t offend me, but I don’t think it will change the course of the world. There was a lot made of this being shown in a church for its first showing. Well, it was shown to a large group of Episcopalians, who don’t share the history of the Catholic church or the ideology of the Evangelicals. So, I don’t think they were offended, either.

A Book, a Movie, Two Sporting Events and a Record

The Book: “The Lost Gospel” by Herbert Krosney, published in 2006 by National Geographic in connection with their exhibition centered on the papyrus Coptic “Gospel of Judas Iscariot”, which was shown along with other artifacts at its museum in Washington that year. The Gospel of Judas Iscariot was found in Egypt in the early 1970s by peasants (that’s what they always call them), who knew a good thing when they saw it. But it traveled around the world looking for a permanent home (and a buyer with a lot of cash) for over a quarter of a century, being stored in odd places in Greece, Switzerland the U.S., disintegrating as it went on its way. The book itself is revolutionary in that it shows Judas not as a betrayer or Jesus, but as a co-conspirator of Jesus, fulfilling Jesus’ wish to be turned over to the authorities. (With all due respect, I always assumed that is what happened.)

The book is 15% about the document and the various interpretations of the role of Judas, and 85% about the, sometimes comical if it weren’t so important, history of this text from its discovery until it was finally provided with a home (in Egypt) and appropriate restoration and translation. The story is fascinating, and teaches you that nothing is inevitable.

But I can’t imagine who thought this book was ready for prime time. Its organization is weak, it is unbelievably repetitive, and every time a character is introduced, you have to read through his c.v. again (for some it happens almost every chapter). And there are no footnotes. I would recommend the book, but if I needed to have a book written, I would not turn to Mr. Krosney (who is described as more of a documentary film maker, anyway).

The Movie: “Nanking”, about the Japanese attack on the then Chinese capital in 1937. It is estimated that about 200,000 people died in Nanking, but that about 250,000 were saved by a bunch of British, American and German (read Nazi) foreigners living in the city, whom the Japanese were apparently hesitant to cross. Very interesting, and as depressing as watching a film about Auschwitz.

The movie itself had three components: (1) old footage, either from newsreels, official photos, or purloined photos, (2) interviews with octogenarian Japanese veterans and Chinese victims, and (3) a group of actors portraying the foreigners (none of whom are apparently alive at this point), reading from interviews or letters that were actually given or sent. There is no “script” and there is no action; the contemporary actors are all simply sitting down telling you something.

That does not make for the most clever of documentaries, but the story is so riveting, you don’t care about technique. Caps owner Ted Leonsis was the producer.

When I got home, I got curious about World War II casualties. We all know about the 6,000,000 Jews, but I thought: how many Chinese? According to Wikipedia, 20,000,000. And 23,000,000 Soviets. And over 70,000,000 altogether. (If you look at the Wikipedia site on casualties of world war ii, you will see that the deaths are divided between military and civilian, and the Jewish deaths are separated as well.

70,000,000? What goes on on this planet?

The Sporting Events: I saw both on TV. The Caps beat Boston last night 10-2 (I saw the last two periods). Why couldn’t they have done this on Saturday, when we were at the game? And I saw a Nationals/Dodgers spring training game today; Dodgers 5, Nats 3. Boy, is spring training boring. And the Nats did not look that sharp. But congratulations to Chad Cordero, who did his best in his 9th inning appearance. And Matt Chico, in his 3 innings looked poor. And there are all these guys playing who won’t make the team; they are just there. Non-roster invitees, they are called.

The Record: I have all of these autographed classical records, and I decided finally (after 5 years) to play one. I chose excerpts from La Boheme, with Carlo Bergonzi and Luci Albanese, with the orchestra conducted by Thomas Schippers. An Italian LP from the early 1970s. Boy, can those guys sing. And now, I am listening to Boris Christoff singing Moussoursky.

Quick Takes: Other Doings

1. The movie: “Mephisto”, directed by Istvan Szabo, at the National Gallery Saturday afternoon. Was it as good as “Taking Sides”, which we saw two weeks ago? Maybe it was; it was very, very good. Won the 1982 Oscar for best foreign film. Starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Hoefgen, Hamburg actor in the 1920s, whose goal is to make it big in Berlin. A member of a left wing political theater in Hamburg, he becomes, when the Nazis take over Germany, the favorite of the Nazis and the head of the Prussian State Theater. A movie about what it means to be an actor and to have theater as your life, and the important relationship between theater and politics, how your politics can director your theatrical enterprises, and how your theatrical enterprises can themselves be redirected by the politics of others. Brandauer did a fantastic job playing a role that was composed of many roles. You saw him on stage, and you saw him playing Hoefgen, a meek individual who, in his private life as well, was always playing one role or another. Based on a novel written by Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son (who committed suicide in the south of France), based on the true story of his brother in law.

2. The book. I finished The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, and recommend it extremely highly. The story of Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Essad Bey, also as Kuban Said. Jew, Moslem, author. A man of mystery, writer of best sellers in Europe during the 1920s, when many Jews were looking east to their oriental roots, and others looking to escape their Judaism through adventure, rebranding, and sometimes new faiths. Nussimbaum died of Reynaud’s Syndrome while still in his thirties in exile in Positano, where he was penniless (he was for most of his life wallowing in money, either his parents or his wife’s) and known only as “the Moslem”. Beautifully written and researched. Learn about early life in oil-rich Baku, the escape across the Caucasus when the Bolsheviks took over, Constantinople, Paris and Berlin, when they were home to Russian emigrant communities. Meet the Nabokovs, and Freud and Einstein, and George Viereck, and Werfel and Zweig, and even Joseph Stalin who, as a young man, was a friend of the Nussimbaums in Baku.

3. The game. Toronto beat the Caps 3-2 in a just awful game.

4. The restaurant. Another great meal at Jaleo (no need to repeat was has been said before; this place is very consistent)

5. The exposition. The antique flea market at the Dulles Exposition Center. Just too much stuff. So many exhibitors, packing and unpacking and setting up and packing and unpacking. Big stuff. Furniture, for example. Fragile stuff. Hundreds (no, thousands) of glass and pottery pieces. Want post cards? Probably a million there. Vintage clothes? Old kitchen supplies or hardware? So much. There was one political ephemera dealer who most have had 40,000,000,000 buttons (more or less). Where do they get it all? How much of it do they really think they can sell?

Everyone is Complaining about the Oscars

But I thought the show was quite good. I liked the understated way that John Stewart handled the hosting. I thought everyone looked very pretty. I really enjoyed 98 year old Robert Boyle’s acceptance speech at winning a lifetime award as an Art Director. His voice sounded so strong and young, and his mind appeared so clear. I was very happy that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won in the best song category. It is a very nice song, and their movie “Once” is worth seeing “Twice” or more, a beautiful movie. We hadn’t seen any of the violent movies which were nominated and won awards. I did see “La Vie en Rose” and, as much as I could listen to Piaf interminably, I didn’t like the movie at all, so the best actress award surprised me. I had hoped that Julie Christie would win for “Away from Her”, although in fact in that movie I thought that the better acting job was that of Gordon Pinsent as her husband. I hadn’t recalled ever seeing Pinsent before; a Canadian friend was very surprised at that. (And I thought that, as dementia movies go, “The Savages” was in fact better than the very good “Away from Her”).

And as to the award for best documentary, I knew nothing about “Counterfeit”, a holocaust story, but thought that Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s acceptance speech (about all the great Austrian directors and how they all had to leave Austria because they were Jewish so that it was fitting that the first Austrian film to win an Oscar was a film about the crimes of the Nazis) was extremely well slated. Of course, in that category, I was voting for “Sicko” for reasons “politicko”. (And as a add-on to the literature on health care in America, click to the right on Cousin Randy’s blog and read his piece on Turning 60).

It was a beautiful day, the air clear and crisp

So, at about 4 p.m., I decided to take the four mile walk from my house towards downtown, my goal being the Goethe Institute on 7th Street, where I would see the film “Das Schloss” (“The Castle”) by Michael Haneke (pronounced like the holiday of the Maccabees) at 6:30. The walk was beautiful and invigorating, I bought my ticket (Goethe movies are only $4) and went next door with a half hour to spare, and had a drink and their $3.99 bar food (in this case, four chicken tenders of the same type that they sold at RFK) at what may be the worst restaurant in DC (and I don’t even know its name, if it has one).

The movie stars Ulrich Muhe, known in American from the well received German movie, The Lives of Others. It is a 123 minute movie (made for German and Austrian television), and it seems like 1,230 minutes. It is a very, very slow movie.

Now, I have not read the Kafka book on which it is based, and to which it is apparently quite faithful. And one must remember that Kafka died before finishing the book, leaving ignored instructions that his works should all be destroyed upon his death, so it is unclear either that Kafka ever wanted the book published (although some think it was to be his major work), or that the published book would not have been changed in many and unknown ways. Nevertheless, here we are.

K. arrives in the village to report for his new job as a land surveyor at the castle only to find out that maybe he was never hired in the first place, or maybe he was but the castle situation changed, or maybe he just hasn’t found the people who actually hired him, or who knows what is going on? But he can’t find the right people to talk to, the villagers seem an awfully provincial group, and it never stops snowing. But he meets Frieda, the mistress of the man theoretically in charge of his position, and they decide to get married, and he gets a job as a school janitor on a temporary basis, and has two assistants, one named Arthur and one Jeremiah, but can’t tell them apart so he tells them they are both going to be called Arthur and that they are each responsible jointly for whatever he asks either to do. But one quits and the other steals Frieda from him. And it snows.

K.’s situation is not good, but he is not a very sympathetic character. And it is always snowing. And the movie doesn’t end, until it ends like the book ends and remember that the book was unf…….

Wow!

We saw two free movies today at the National Gallery of Art, part of their retrospective of Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, “Confidence” and “Taking Sides”. We missed “Budapest Stories”, which was also shown.

I had seen one other Szabo movie, “Sunshine”, the story of a Jewish fencer, as I recall, which I did not like at all.

“Confidence”, made in the 70’s, is an odd movie. It is Budapest during World War II. Our heroine’s husband is rounded up (we think he is a leftist revolutionary, or at least anti-Nazi). She was unaware of his political activity but is warned to go underground and directed to a hospital where a sympathizer gives her fake papers and a new identity, as well as the address of a safe house where she is to stay. In her new role, she is a married woman, married to a stranger, also on the lam. We never learn anything about him at all. They share a room in a house in a suburb owned by an elderly couple apparently short on cash. Whether the landlords know anything about their tenants, we don’t know.

Our heroine is shell shocked; her make believe husband is (perhaps understandably) paranoid, not knowing whom to trust (including his new fake wife). They must get used to each other; they must gain “confidence”. And, by and large, they do. In fact, they fall in love, dealing with the moral ambiguity of their strong relationships with their own missing spouses.

You can understand their situation (although you know little about why they, as individuals, are in it; no one is Jewish, for example), but their reactions don’t quite seem real. What do they do with their time? How can they remain so unknowing of each other’s prior lives? What happens at the end? The movie ends after the fake husband says he has to go now, and is seen on a peasant’s cart heading down the road. The real husband (who surfaced once during the movie) picks up his wife at the safe house where they have been staying. They hug; but her facial expression betrays the ambiguity which she feels.

It is an interesting movie, with nice cinematography and a very attractive star. But it is not a must-see movie.

“Taking Sides”, though, is a Wow! It is a somewhat fictionalized version of the American military after the end of World War II in Berlin deciding on the fate of revered Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler, who was eventually accused of various pro-Nazi acts of collaboration, but acquitted. It is the story of Major Steve Arnold, who is out to get Furtwaengler, no matter what. Arnold, played by Harvey Keitel, is over the top, extremely annoying. Whether this is the way this role should have been played is a question; but your annoyance at Keitel is so great that you become annoyed at everything, and begin to feel as unsettled as everyone did in Berlin in 1946. The actor portraying the conductor, Stellan Starsgard, and the remainder of the cast, are tremendous.

Moral ambiguity. What is the difference between operating a concentration camp and conducting an orchestra? What if you saved some Jews while you were conducting for Hitler? What if, however, you also had made a number of anti-Semitic remarks? It gets very complicated which, in fact, it was. And do you have to take sides if you are the American sent to investigate? And, if you do, do you have to do it as brashly Steve Arnold did (in one scene, his German secretary says that she has seen Gestapo interrogations that are like Arnold’s)?

This is a very powerful movie, that makes you confront the issues (including the relationship between culture and politics) while you are watching the characters do the same. Major Arnold sees no ambiguity; his German/Jewish American younger compatriot, Lt. Wills and his secretary (whose father was involved in the army plot to kill Hitler) have great respect for Furtwaengler, and none for Arnold. There are moral, and cultural, and emotional battles (all verbal) going on from every angle.

The large audience seemed to appreciate it. But I am not sure about it’s box office history. I don’t know if it ever was generally released in the United States. If so, it looks like it did not get the attention it deserved.

A Few Notes About Florida (4 cents)

First, US Air did very well. The two flights (Reagan to Ft. Lauderdale and back) left and arrived on time; the pilots seem to know what they were doing; the crew was efficient.

Second, the view from my cousin Gerry’s 7th floor apartment in the Sabal Pointe Condominium on Ocean Avenue in Boca Raton is still as nice as always. Gerry and my cousin Judy, who drove up from South Dade County, look good and we had a fantastic dinner at Trattoria Romano on Palmetto Parkway in Boca Raton. We should have eaten there each night. Basically, a crowded, upscale seafood restaurant, Edie’s snapper and my pompano were both first class +.

Third, distances are always longer than you expect on the South Florida coast. We drove Ft. Lauderdale to Boca, Boca to Jupiter, Jupiter to Palm Beach, Palm Beach to Jupiter, Jupiter to Hobe Sound, Jupiter to Palm Beach, Palm Beach to Jupiter, Jupiter to Boca, Boca to Jupiter, Jupiter to Ft. Lauderdale. Total distance (with short side trips): about 400 miles.

Fourth, the remainder of our food was mixed at best. Edie thought that our Sunday night dinner at Jaffy’s in Jupiter was top quality; my sword fish was only swo-swo. We had two Latino lunches, at Jalisco in Delray Beach, and Havana just north of Boca; both were ordinary (we had eaten at Havana a few years ago, we realized after we went into the restaurant; it was ordinary then as well). The food at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach was disappointing, as was half of the food at the Jupiter Resort and Spa (the other half was pretty good). The sandwiches we had at Harry & Natives were OK, but the atmosphere there is quirky, which is nice for a change, since everything else is so manicured. Our room at Jupiter was quite nice – they only need to add a better view.

Fourth, there really are a lot of old people in Florida. Many more, proportionately than here. I don’t like that. Even though most of them seem older than me. Being in rooms where the average age looks to be 80 does not make me think of myself as young. It makes me think that perhaps I am in a room with contemporaries.

Fifth, Florida radio is really bad. And, if they have any newspapers, other than USA Today, we sure didn’t see them.

Sixth, Edie got to tour the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach and take a walking tour of the business district. If she only had a blog………

Seventh, we went to the Nature Conservancy’s Blowing Rock Park, walked the beach, saw the sea grapes and the restoration work being done. Interesting, and very pleasant, but if you missed it, you wouldn’t have missed anything, I don’t think. Certainly not when compared to similar places we had gone to in Hawaii.

Eighth, the pharmacy business must be very big in Florida. The way we have Starbucks here, that is how they have CVS and Walgreens.

Ninth, the weather was 80+ and sunny two days, coldish (about 60) and gray one day, cool and overly windy (you could not stay outside for long) one day, and nice (but with a few showers) one day. Every day was better than any day we missed up here.

Tenth, read one book and parts of two others. The book I read was Somerset Maugham’s “The Painted Veil”. Highly recommended. The book I started and put aside was Andre Malraux’s “The Temptation of the West”. The book I started and hope to finish is Dennis Ross’ “Statecraft”.

Eleventh, saw a movie, “Atonement”. I liked the atmosphere it created and its pace; I thought it was extremely well acted. But I thought that the story line is overrated.

Twelfth, we were in Florida for a board meeting and symposium sponsored by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The symposium was fascinating; hopefully, I will find time to report on it later.