In my absolute favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year, the mysterious Señor C has no doubts about calling his collection of fragments an thoughts Strong Opinions. “The book itself is the brainchild of a publisher in Germany,” he explains to Anya, his soon-to-be-typist. “Its title will be Strong Opinions. The plan is for six contributors from various countries to say their say on any subjects they choose, the more contentious the better. Six eminent writers pronounce what is wrong with today’s world.”

But as the book progresses, Señor C finds his hard and firmly-fixed opinions wavering slightly (is it the influence of Anya? A softening ‘woman’s touch’? Does he really believe what he says, does he really have the right to ‘pronounce’ on anything?), and even the editor himself vacillates about the title — “He is still wavering between calling these little excursions Meinungen or AnsichtenMeinungen are opinions, he says, but opinions subject to fluctuations of mood. The Meinungen I held yesterday are not necessarily the Meinungen I hold today. Ansichten, by contrast, are firmer, more thought out. In our last communication he was tending to prefer Meinungen. Six different writers, six different personalities, he says: how can we be sure how firmly wedded each writer is to his opinions? Best to leave the question open.”

Words like Meinungen and Ansichten that trickle down to us English-speakers from other tongues are wonderful, because they’re layered with shades of meaning in a single compressed word — whereas English often tends to need two, three, four words to express the same thing. Strong opinions; soft opinions — in the final analysis, the book does not offer a judgement on which might be preferable from an ethical standpoint. (After all, when did Coetzee’s books ever offer an answer? But there’s a clue in that itself; their very refusal to decide one way or the other seems to me a way of saying that soft opinions are better in a world where nobody can really speak with authority.)

What Coetzee has never shied from saying unequivocally, however, is that strong or soft or hard or weak, opinions have a right to be held and freely expressed. In 1996 a selection of essays and interviews was published called Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, in which Coetzee examined the nature of censorship, the ethics of ‘giving offense’, the effect of censorship on art and writing, and so on and so forth. Growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa meant knowing all too well what it means to live under apparatuses that stifle expression and regulate thought. In the very first essay of the book (‘Taking Offense’), Coetzee romps through the various forms censorship can take (regulation for moral, religious, or political reasons; internalized censorship, institutionalized censorship) and the psychology behind ‘offending’ and ‘censoring’ respectively. Taking offense always has powerlessness at the heart of the matter, because censorship – not believing in the inherent power of certain representations to win out over others – springs out of the need to limit what is represented — and therein is its de facto admission of doubt. But there is one particularly interesting point at which Coetzee looks at Mill – and draws an important distinction:

To Mill, freedom of speech includes immunity from censorship, specifically from prepublication censorship, but also freedom from societal pressures, “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Mill conflates censorship with social pressures (sometimes called censure) in ways I am reluctant to follow. Censure, as Frederick Schauer points out, is not strictly speaking a free-speech issue. Social intolerance is different in kind from official sanctions back by the force of law: people have a choice not to follow orthodoxy. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, J. M. Coetzee

He does not pursue this line of examination further in his essay; but I think I will, here, because it’s important right now more than ever in the wake of what happened in Paris last week, and in light of the way the world has reacted.

The shootings were rightly met with unequivocal condemnation and horror: to be gunned down like that because you took up a pen, a pencil, to draw some pictures — well, if it was not true and horrible, then it would have been unthinkable and ludicrous. That it was an attempt to silence and censor taken to its very fanatical extreme is also undeniable, and the event has rightly become a reiterated defence of an intrinsic and basic freedom that I believe in, the freedom of speech. I say all this now because words (like any representation) are vulnerable things, perpetually exposed to the possibility of misunderstandings, misreadings, misinterpretations, and can cause a great deal of anger in their own way; it’s important to be absolutely clear that the shootings were terrible, that the shooters were terrible, and that the deaths of 17 people is incredibly tragic (any death is and it’s no different in this case).

But a rejection of censorship does not constitute an inability to censure and question and doubt (I prefer soft opinions myself, both to hold and in others), and this is what interests me now; a society that defends so loudly the right for anybody to hold and express any opinion, any thing, should be the very last to stop thinking about what the opinions themselves really mean.

To me, Coetzee’s words above on the distinction between ‘censor’ and ‘censure’ echo those of Teju Cole published in the New Yorker just last week, in what I thought was one of the best pieces on the whole Charlie Hebdo situation ever written; Cole writes about ‘Unmournable Bodies‘ in the context of very mournable ones, and in the aftermath of a veritable media frenzy over the attacks; he says,

But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.

On the one hand, I see the media frenzy as understandable — I can even empathize with it. In an age where the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” has been repeatedly disproven and holds not much currency, the events in Paris came as a stark reminder that pens and pencils – though not, ultimately, any defence against guns – have not lost all their potency. There is a perverse kind of reaffirmation for those who write, draw, create and comment in all this – our words do matter; they do have power; and ideally, let’s use that power to do good and make the world a better place. (Generally this has always been the idea; no writer or artist has ever sat down with pen in hand to consciously try and make the world a worse place, regardless of how divorced the effects may be from the intent.) A slew of cartoons came out after the incident depicting pens and pencils doing all sorts of glorious things — from resisting to tyranny to creating harmony; terrorists cower in fear at the sight of a small pencil. Of course they are meant to highlight the ridiculousness of what happened, and of those who held the guns — how can you possibly kill for something like this? — but at the same time there’s no looking at any of these without remembering the above-mentioned idiom.

Title page of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'

Title page of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

But on the other hand, Cole’s piece was a refreshing and welcome reminder that rejecting censorship and defending free speech does not mean we have to celebrate all that is said and done in the name of free speech. Papers such as the New York Times and the Guardian have taken a beating over the past week for refusing to publish some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves — they have been called ‘cowardly’ and accused of failing to safeguard free speech. But such accusations are mistaken, and stem from that confused idea that we have to echo the views of others in order to defend their right to hold them; this is not true. The NY Times and the Guardian can very well defend the right to free speech while disclaiming their willingness to depict some of the things Charlie Hebdo did. In doing so they’re simply reiterating that they do not hold such views; not that others should not. This is a point everyone should be questioning: of course anybody can hold and express whatever they want, but can’t we query and critique those views too?

Although Charlie Hebdo calls itself a ‘satirical’ magazine, I saw some of the ‘contentious’ cartoons they had published and saw nothing satirical about them; they are acts of defiance plain and simple – we will draw this in defiance of your injunction not to draw this. That is worthy of defending in itself, of course, in the name of free speech; but it is not tantamount to constituting a constructive social critique of anything. If reading piles of 18th century satirical fiction and treatises on the nature and purpose of satire has taught me anything, then that is what satire does — and the 18th century is not a bad place to look to if we want to remind ourselves of satire’s function in society and the media; Swift and Pope are not bad masters to learn from. “Satire is a sort of glass…” Swift began once — and it is crucial to remember this. Satire deals with the real and the current; it magnifies real absurdities and so of course there is mockery — but there is also an urging towards some sort of political or social change. Without this key ingredient, what intends to be ‘satire’ becomes simply mockery, and while we can defend anyone’s right to mock in a free society, I would value the two things somewhat different. It is important to remember the distinction between the two (satire and mockery) for this reason alone.

Am I Charlie? No — for one, the battle for free speech – though it seems axiomatic in most developed Western societies — is actually very far from won, either in those places very explicit about their control of the press and media or not (and this is true even of the ‘developed Western societies’; I can say there might certainly be degrees of freedom around speech, but is it absolute anywhere? I’m not sure!). For another, I don’t know if I’d particularly like to be — satire I can get behind; but mockery? It’s not for me. It can be for others; mockery is certainly not to be censored (as nothing should be), but it’s not beyond censure in its own way.

Alvin Lustig's original dustjacket cover for West's 'Miss Lonelyhearts'.

Alvin Lustig’s original dustjacket cover for West’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ (1933).

The world is all abuzz because of the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – & why not? One of the world’s best-loved novels, and it promises to be a grand spectacle if nothing else: a cast of stars so big & bright mine eyes dazzle; a soundtrack of songs so anachronistic and out-of-place and kitsch you wonder if it’s a stroke of modernizing genius, or the contrivance of a mind confused beyond redemption. Either way, this particular juror has to reserve judgement until 16th May. The point really is that everybody’s currently a-flutter over Mr. Fitzgerald, because there’s really nothing like a hyped-up Hollywood blockbuster to make folks scramble to their book collections in search of dusty, well-thumbed tomes. And in a slightly related coincidence, I recently read one Mr. Nathanael West for the first time, whom Fitzgerald once called “a potential leader in the field of prose fiction”. They were good friends, Fitzgerald & Nathanael West: they were both brilliant writers mucking it out as screenwriters in shallow Hollywood (which they both despised), slaving away under tyrannous studio heads to churn out sub-standard treatments, script revisions, etc etc. Dreams of bringing literature in all its glory to screen dashed; but never mind, they had the last laugh after all, when they put Hollywood in their books & poked fun at it. More bizarrely, Fitzgerald and West both died within hours of each other; in fact, the rumour-mill has often asked (but has it ever answered?) whether Nathanael West crashed his car that day because he was so distraught at learning that his good friend F. Scott had passed away the night before.

Nathanael West: literary legend or underrated genius? I can’t decide on this one. He strikes me as belonging tragically to the latter category, but his long list of famous fans and the extensive biographies/critical studies almost suggest the opposite – from Dorothy Parker to W. H. Auden to…er…Johnny Depp? (Yes!)…to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West has been duly admired. “Wildly funny, desperately sad, brutal and kind, furious and patient, there was no other like Nathanael West”, said Dorothy Parker, which is high praise indeed from this woman of biting words. Auden perhaps was less enamoured – he didn’t like the hollow, satirized religiosity of Miss Lonelyhearts, and so refuses to see West as satirical (“Satire presupposes conscience & reason as judges between the true and the false, the moral and the immoral…but for West these faculties themselves are the creators of unreality…”). But he engaged with West deeply enough to coin a whole malady out of the man: ‘West’s disease’, “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of wishes into desires”. A sad view of the man & his work indeed – wishful but without enough gumption to actually desire and long (there’s something more invested and caring and serious about desire as opposed to wishing); thwarted and otherwise than what one wants to be, because one has to be so in order to be wishful in the first place. But hey, despite all this, I’m still going to go out on a limb and say that West is overshadowed and underdogged; when one thinks of great American literature from the ’30s, one does not necessarily hear West’s name listed, though it should be. Perhaps it was his misfortune to have his star out-shone by those of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and other Americans-in-Paris types, all burning through and out at the same time.


Sadly I can't find the original source for this image, despite running loads of reverse-image searches. Either way this image was found here:

(Sadly I can’t find the original source for this image & if it’s in the public domain etc, despite running loads of reverse-image searches. Either way this image was found here. If this is a villainous act of appropriation & infringement, do let me know.)

When one is enamoured of a certain period or place, it makes sense to obsess over it through as many mediums (media?) as possible. So my current mania for classic Hollywood film & particularly the ‘Golden Age’ (the ’30s!) led me to Nathanael West, supreme critic and satirist (they say) of all that was simultaneously glitzy & glamorous & seedy & ugly & godawful about LA, Hollywood, and the movies. After all, the screen was a sanitised and falsified representation of what this world was really all about   – you only see the beautiful and the successful, the made-its and sometimes the has-beens. The literary types of the age knew this; “This may come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn,” Dorothy Parker once said, a dose of her typical searing, wise-cracking wit (Mr. Goldwyn is the ‘G’ in MGM), “but in all history which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.” (We could tell saccharine Disney the same thing!). It’s this curious mixture – of utmost pessimism & cynicism, alongside that biting, dancing wit which makes you laugh in spite of yourself & in spite of all the doom & gloom – that strikes me as the hallmark of these writers, West and Parker and more besides I’m sure.

I began with The Day of the Locust (1939) – it worried me, having more than a slight resemblance to that famous Heinlein sci-fi novel, The Day of the Triffids. And I don’t like sci-fi…West didn’t sound like the kind of guy to write about a dystopian LA overrun by a locust invasion, & yet…the discomfort stuck. Fortunately the novel is not really about locusts (save metaphorically), and it isn’t sci-fi. It’s about a graduate from the Yale School of Fine Art (Tod Hackett) trying to make it in Hollywood, learning about costume and set design. This contrasts oddly with his fine art sensibilities; his is a world of “Goya & Daumier”, and yet his setting is that of a godawful LA, where the streets are filled with people whose “clothing [is] somber and badly cut, brought from mail-order houses” and the houses (built in Spanish, Mediterranean, Japanese, Egyptian, Tudor styles) are ugly beyond kitsch. No little social circle of artistic intellectuals surrounds Tod either; his companions are a ‘fake’ wannabe actress (Faye Greener) whom he’s violently (and I mean, really violently) attracted to; a violent, vicious, sleazy dwarf; a successful screenwriter who enjoys frequenting brothels to watch blue movies (I guess the standard A-list fare gets boring after a while); Faye’s sick-but-still-wantingtobe ex-vaudeville father; and a host of others (brutal cowboys & their Mexican friends, and the quiet, scared, unprepared Homer Simpson*). Silver screen fame & fortune is on almost everybody’s minds; little else defines them.

Glamour? Nope. Disillusionment and seediness a-plenty? Yep. It isn’t a world of romance or love as you’d traditionally know it – Faye Greener, for one, puts “love on a special plane, where a man without money or looks couldn’t move”. (Ah, the shallow trappings we try so hard to dissociate from ‘love’ & ‘romance’ etc – but Faye is disarmingly honest at least.) (Now I hate to reference Green Day in anything I write, but…) West literally gives us a Sunset Boulevard of broken dreams, the ugly behind-the-scenes of decaying hucksters and talentless but beautiful starlet-wannabes, of the disillusioned and overworked and insatiably restless masses (the ‘locusts’ of the title, one can only assume), and of the ruthless and violent. Tod Hackett and Homer Simpson are the odd ones out – Tod because he’s clever enough to stand at a distance and watch, and Homer because he might be the only person in the novel without an ounce of violence in him. (He sits on his porch and watches a lizard creep after flies, & Homer is “on the side of the flies.” “Occasionally the lizard would miscalculate. When that happened, Homer would laugh happily.”) He’s sweet and the most sympathetic of all the characters (insofar as West allows this…there’s an odd sort of psychological closed-offness about all his characters, and even when we’re looking through their eyes and reading things alongside them, we never really do feel like we know them). No place in this sunny, sweaty rat-race for folks like Homer, though, and he’s the ultimate victim of various sorts of torment. There is room, even in West’s alienating (and alienated?) portrayal of a wicked, whimsical world for sadness – either the sordid is the sad, or West suggests that there is room for sadness of almost classical proportions even amidst all the sordidness. And so we watch, confused, as just another movie-premiere in Hollywood descends into violent anarchy and chaos.

‘Watch’ is not a bad verb to apply to West’s novel; one of the most interesting questions that came up when I was doing a film studies module was whether or not, and if so how, the birth of cinema changed the way we conceive of narrative in literature.  How cinema changed books, in essence, and our relationship to language. Maybe West has an answer to offer in both The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts: the moving image is a form in love with the surface, amply attested to by old films’ adoration of the facial close-up, and sometimes it almost says that this surface is enough. Reading West often feels like an exercise in the sufficiency of the superficial – it is so difficult to scrabble into his words for a deeper psyche, motive, meaning, or message. In a letter to Edmund Wilson he writes:

I forget the broad sweep, the big canvas, the shot-gun adjectives, the important people, the significant ideas, the lessons to be taught, the epic Thomas Wolfe, the realistic James Farrell……I’ve never had the same publisher twice – once bitten etc. – because there is nothing to root for in my books & what is even worse, no rooters.

This last line stumped me a bit: does he mean ‘to root’ as in ‘to dig’, or ‘root for’ as in ‘to cheer on’? I’m going to go with former meaning, but whichever interpretation you favour, it still holds true. There is nothing to root for (& indeed, there are no rooters). This is perhaps the biggest difference between West and his more famous contemporaries (Fitzgerald & Hemingway et al) – where they offer the comfort of depth and meaning (whatever those two words mean and entail; another debate in itself), West refuses. Maybe West just doesn’t care; maybe West is nihilistic to the point of thinking there’s nothing to root for. One of Miss Lonelyhearts’ suffering readers, an old cripple who has spent all his life working at reading gas-meters and is perpetually harried and worried and cheated-on by his wife, writes him a letter:

I am a cripple 41 yrs of age which I have been all my life and I have never let myself get blue until lately when I have been feeling lousy all the time on account of not getting anywhere and asking myself what is it all for. You have a education so I figured may be you no.


It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.

This is West’s million-dollar question: what is the whole stinking business for. And this is the question he repeatedly fails – or refuses – to answer. Perhaps the whole stinking business is for nothing at all, and how do you put that down in words? Mr. Doyle’s question is the same one that the masses at the movie-premiere in The Day of the Locust have in the back of their minds, probably – what is the point, what else is there, what’s this all for, what’s it all been for all these years anyhow?

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks & counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine & oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there?

Their boredom becomes more & more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked & burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds & bodies. They have been cheated & betrayed. They have slaved & saved for nothing.

These parts of the novels are excruciating, because they’re so painfully true for so many people I’m sure. (Maybe not the specifics of going to California à la Joni Mitchell, but the boredom & the violence & all that. That is what the movies & newspapers feed us, with ever-increasing greatness of CGI and whatnot; & probably a lot of life is whittled away by 9 – 5 working hour slots. Oddly coincides with the sentiments behind this Vampire Weekend song I’ve been listening to lately.)

Alvin Lustig cover for 'The Day of the Locust'. Lustig's work is REALLY amazing, so everyone should go check out more of his stuff on his website.

Alvin Lustig cover for ‘The Day of the Locust’. Lustig’s work is REALLY amazing, so everyone should go check out more of his stuff on his website.

For a pretty short novella, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) packs a punch; it rips down everything. It rips down God (Miss Lonelyhearts’ religious hysteria is of no use to him in his growing madness, just as his repeated religious lectures are no good to the suffering readers of his column); it rips down love & sex (the former seems impossible and the latter is unfulfilling in all its various forms); it even rips down artistic idealism, which is pretty uncharacteristic of authors – artistic idealism is ripe & all-sustaining throughout college, West says, but then really boils down to a bunch of horrible, bored, miserable guys casually discussing gang-rape in a bar while getting drunk:

At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money & fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.

There’s no floating log for this drowning man, the obsessive-compulsive sympathetic post-religious Miss Lonelyhearts, to cling on to. Everything is meaningless; nothing is sustaining. It’s all deeply sordid and deeply sad once again (reading the letters Miss Lonelyhearts gets and answers on a daily basis is harrowing enough for a one-time reader; little wonder he breaks down horribly!).

But I don’t mean to make West sound like a vale of tears, because he’s not. Deeply pessimistic, horribly cynical, filling his novels with misfits and misanthropes and madmen – yes, he is and does all that. But he’s also terribly funny at parts (albeit in dark, sarcastic, deadpan ways). It probably fits perfectly under the rubric of ‘black comedy’: isn’t there something wildly wrong and mildly amusing, after all, about the fact that ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ (the only name we ever know this strange protagonist by) is always accompanied by a masculine pronoun or possessive? It jars. Or what about that ridiculous chain of biographies-of-biographers in The Dream Life of Balso Snell, where Miss McGeeney writes the biography of one Mr. Samuel Perkins (biographer of E. F. Fitzgerald, biographer of D. B. Hobson, biographer of Boswell, biographer of…well, Johnson!). And Miss McGeeney is undertaking this loopy biography in the hopes that – well, “…someone must surely take the hint & write the life of Miss McGeeney, the woman who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of Boswell.” But naturally.

To cut what could otherwise go on for a long, long time slightly shorter – Nathanael West is wonderful.  It’s heartbreaking to think that he died so young & in such horrible circumstances (he was only 37); if he had lived longer, I suspect he would have only grown and grown and grown to write even more amazing books, and that he would have found the fame he so richly deserved (& didn’t quite get) during his lifetime. To compare West & Fitzgerald is perhaps an exercise in futility, but it’s one worth carrying out anyways – not so much to decide on the relative merits of each (they’re both wonderful and amazing), but rather to see why it might be that where Fitzgerald went down in canonical history, West has lingered around on its edges like one of his outcast misfit characters.

Fitzgerald’s novels sort of strike me as the literary equivalent of Hollywood: all glamour and sheen and sanitised philosophizing (though whether Hollywood had much philosophizing back then is another question and not for me to answer; sat in the future, I’m definitely less critical of films from that era than West or Fitzgerald were – in fact, I love them. But.) Even in Tender is the Night, a book so monstrously soul-addling that it kept me in despair and frenzy for days on end, there is a sort of glossing over of certain things the book describes: Nicole’s schizophrenia, for instance, or her incestuous experience with her father. All is obtuse, refracted by words, vague. And when things get refracted by words too well, they’re almost aestheticized beyond being able to impress their full horror on the reader. One has to scratch and scratch to figure out what’s actually happening sometimes (what does Nicole do in the bathroom that so horrifies the house-guests?!) – but scratch one can, and does. And no matter how cruel the ‘careless’ Toms & Daisies of the world, who “smashed up things & creatures & then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”, The Great Gatsby is still a book almost inseparable from the gloss of 1920s New York glamour and wealth and privilege. It’s a book that chokes on and at it, but sometimes to do even so much you go too far into the very things you reject. (Can there be any wonder, then, that Baz Luhrmann has seemingly gone in for overwhelming spectacles & eye-blinding glitter-glitz? Nah – because Fitzgerald does that to people. He submerges them in so much atmospheric redolence & gentle whiffs of ‘beauty’ & ‘prettiness’ – the prose, the picture, the people – everything! – that it’s easy to forget all the many things he’s actually saying.)

Then you have West: West offers the reader no moral and no meaning: there’s almost no solution, and his novella resolutions are famously…unresolved. Perhaps it’s a symptom of his own inability to let us readers root, or to let his confused wanderer characters root. There are no villains that he tells us about – everyone just is. Lonelyhearts and lonely-hearts, Shrikes and messiahs, artists and actresses and hucksters and pimps. That’s all. And his worlds are ugly – if The Great Gatsby is sordid in its liaisons and adultery, it hasn’t got a thing on West’s LA or even West’s suffering column-reading New York. Cruelty and violence abound – & unlike Fitzgerald, West has no qualms about calling it out for what it is: violence. This isn’t carelessness – it’s violence and it’s cruelty. It’s simply sordid; there’s no glossing or glitzing or glamorizing, indeed there can’t be, since West’s project even more so than Fitzgerald’s was to rip down all that was phony and fake about the worlds he lived and moved in. (In a way I can’t quite explain, West strikes me as amazingly American in his writing: he has that incredible ability to fuse humour and horror the way writers like Joseph Heller & John Irving do; in his almost-vicious depiction of and exposé of the fake tinsel that adorns Los Angeles, he seems like the literary forefather to J. D. Salinger and his ‘phonies’. When I say ‘amazingly American’ I don’t mean to state the obvious; I mean that I can almost see a literary lineage that emerges from West and his style down to these other guys.) West’s characters are imagistically obtuse: we see them, we see their hands trembling or convulsing uncontrollably, but we never know them. And at the end of West’s novels, we’re left spluttering like Mr. Doyle at Delehanty’s: but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.

Perhaps that’s where the final knock comes. No matter how critical Fitzgerald is, he gives us a moral compass to read (& perhaps even live) by; no matter how cruel his Toms & Daisies, he gives us a beautiful book, with luscious sentences and glamorous 1920s visuals. With West there is no comfort – nobody in West’s novels can find it, though so many are looking (& even they’re satisfied with platitudes sometimes, but we know better, living inside Miss Lonelyhearts’ head). With West there is no beauty: words aren’t refracting all the unpleasantness or all the suffering, but are brought (like Miss Lonelyhearts’ daily handwritten letters) irremediably in the tongue of suffering itself; broken down, misspelt, misshapen little letters. There is something more timeless and more universal, I feel, about West – something uncircumscribed by the moment or place in which his stuff was written. But it’s just too sad, and sometimes just too grittily sordid to be as glibly digestible as Fitzgerald.

Related Links

* Homer Simpson from The Simpsons….totally sort of named after West’s character! Having that sort of allusion really puts a whole different spin on The Simpsons for me now, though. Is Homer really a misunderstood, gentle, kindly, non-violent man who is the victim of a vicious and mind-numbed society!? Ahhhhh!!!

** Those intrigued by Nathanael West are pretty much in luck, because the splendid Project Gutenberg has actually got the whole text of Miss Lonelyhearts up over here. Happy reading!

*** I also have a new little side-blog now, where I spam quotes & links & videos & songs extensively without (sometimes!) dropping even a word from my own big mouth about it. (So basically it’s like a Tumblr but it’s not.) I put up a massive quotes bank from West’s The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts there, so anybody interested in more pearls of Westian wisdom can check it out here.


The aforementioned ‘Men’.

In a post-religious world, where all-guiding tenets have lost their charm (& widespread power, too), the words “crime & punishment” are almost inseparable from each other: they almost always work in semantic and syntactic tandem. Where there is crime, the law & justice conspire together to say, there must rightfully also be punishment. And where there is punishment, there must surely have been a crime. This much was axiomatic even long before Dostoevsky articulated and elucidated it with his famous novel. Sinners are nowadays ‘criminals’, and they can no longer look to the skies for redemption or forgiveness (God seems almost gentle in the facility with which he can bestow them). Rather, state and society have taken upon themselves the burden of dispensing both – in the form of jailterms & prison-cells, electric-chairs & straitjackets.

Do your time, we are told (for ‘time’, somehow, becomes the currency in which we buy these things), and maybe 20, 40, 70 years hence you can go back to the world and begin anew. Anew, and better. That’s the hope, anyways. (Sometimes, ‘time’ is no good, hardly a fair exchange given the scale of the crime – for how can time, even all of it in the world, bring the dead back to life? And what solace can one man’s time provide to those left behind grieving? In such cases, only life will do. Maybe misery and penury and suffering in life impelled you to the crime, but now you’ve forfeited your right even to that miserable thing. And so quickly, painlessly, it’s extinguished – minimal fuss, and in the long run, perhaps cheaper for the state, too.)

Crime, & punishment. Somewhere in between those two vicious extremities (for though punishment may be just, it has to hurt at least a little, else it’s powerless to affect) come the chase, à la film noir & detective novels. Then the confession, drawn out sometimes in excruciating degrees (though for a reader or a cinema audience, so very delightfully suspenseful and thrilling). Sometimes there’s even repentance – for even suspense thrillers have a vague memory, sometimes, of how confessions began: before there were policemen and private, peering eyes, there was the all-seeing eye of God, and there were priests. But these days, the setting of such dramas is no longer the church or the confessional booth: it’s an interrogation room, where good & bad cops abound alternately; sometimes, it’s a courtroom, where lawyers inquire. Very human (& wigged!) judges or juries stand in for an all-knowing God. Not pretending, this time, to be all-knowing (maybe that’s where religion made a colossal mistake; people value their privacy, and God can be a nuisance sometimes) – but no less powerful or authoritative for all that.

Courtroom dramas in film have more often than not concerned themselves largely with the ‘crime’, the question of guilt – they’re little more than ‘whodunnits’, in this respect. Only with a few more lawyers than you’d otherwise have (and fewer Raymond Chandler-esque sleuths). Witness for the Prosecution (1957) springs to mind – Billy Wilder’s scriptwriting/directorial brilliance meets Agatha Christie’s genius for intrigue, suspense, and table-turning dénouements; add brilliant performances from Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton to the mix, and you have a rip-roaring winner of a film. But great as it is, the film does only this – concern itself with questions of guilty or not guilty, and if the latter, well then, who dunnit???


In the same year as Witness for the Prosecution, 1957, another ‘courtroom drama’ came out. It wasn’t a blockbuster hit like the former – despite a great critical reception (it was nominated for three Academy Awards, while Witness got six nominations), it fell flat financially. People put this down to any number of things – the fact that it was a low-budget production with only one ‘big’ Hollywood name to glamorize it (Henry Fonda); the fact that it was stark and minimalist, using largely only one set throughout and shot in black & white, at a time when technicolour was exploding and enthralling. It was only many years later that this film garnered the recognition it so rightly deserves (but it garnered well – it’s now considered one of the finest films ever made, ranking 6th on IMDB’s Top 250 and highly on numerous other AFI/critical lists).

To call ‘12 Angry Men‘ a ‘courtroom drama’ is technically inaccurate – surprisingly (to me, anyways), most of the film takes place not in the courtroom itself, but in the jurors’ private room. (Only about 2-3 minutes of the total film take place outside of this room, and only about 1 minute or so at the beginning is in the courtroom itself… its subversion of generic expectations begins with the set!). In this room, 12 men – some of them very angry ones indeed, as the title suggests! – have to decide upon a verdict for a trial they have just witnessed in the criminal court. Guilty, or not guilty? But the film is not so much an odyssey through suspense & titillation for the audience as it is a meditation: an examination of prejudice, personality, vendetta, doubt when they are all elements in the juridical process, aspects that contribute towards that fateful decision. (In this case, the defendant will get the death penalty if he is found guilty.)

There are safeguards built into the juridical process, of course, to prevent against the personal and the facile: “This is the remarkable thing about democracy,” says Juror #11 at one point. “That we are…notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by it.” The jury is made up of 12 anonymous strangers; we never learn their names (until the very end, where we learn two), they do not know each other, and they do not know the defendant. This is the ideal of impartiality. Not only this, but their decision as a jury has to be unanimous – 12 votes, no less, either way. Otherwise it will be a ‘hung jury’, and the trial will have to take place again.

The case seems pretty straightforward – to borrow a cliché and quote Juror #3 (I think?), an ‘open & shut’ one. The jurors smoke, chatter, joke, but are ready to go straight to the business of voting within a few minutes of entering the room. 11 vote guilty; 1 man, irritatingly, prolongs the debate by voting ‘not guilty’. Henry Fonda’s beautiful, benign, beloved face positively radiates with goodness (for of course it is Fonda, Juror #8, who votes ‘not guilty’ – “It’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first”). The audience can pretty much see where this will go: one of two ways. Either Fonda, the lone hold-out, convinces the other eleven that he is right, or they convince him. And either way, the plot has to be damn good (the first route is hard, and the second too easy), and Juror #8 an orator of magnificent proportions. But our expectations are quickly disappointed: Juror #8 has no definite idea about the boy’s innocence. “I don’t know,” he says, or, “I’m not sure.” No Marc Antony he, here to turn the auditors’ ears to his point of view in one fell swoop.

Henry Fonda winning hearts (& verdicts).

Henry Fonda winning hearts (& verdicts).

To cut 96 minutes of running time very, very short indeed: ultimately, Juror #8 does manage to convince his audience one and all to change their votes to ‘not guilty’. What makes this film so fascinating is that he does it not by proving the defendant’s innocence, but by invoking the premise of ‘reasonable doubt’. The audience leaves the movie not knowing, ultimately, whether the defendant is worthy of this verdict – but the film tells us not to care too much about that. Where there is doubt, there cannot be death. Err always on the side of innocence (& life), if you must. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like such a big deal; after all, the film fundamentally only expounds that very old tenet, harking back to the Romans (“Ei incumbit probitio qui dicit, non qui negat” – “The burden of proof lies with [he] who declares, not [he] who denies”). Expressed more pithily these days as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

It sure sounds easy enough – after all, we all know it, don’t we? But the film delineates beautifully how distorted even such a constitutional tenet can become in practice, even unintentionally. How oh-so-much harder it is to stick to in our quest for justice or legal integrity, easy though it is to espouse, learn, recite. We perhaps don’t even realise that we violate it. The twelve jurors are simply human – they’re the same mixture of good and bad and kind and patient and impatient, prejudiced, bitter, shy, overly-rational, overly-emotional that you’d get with any random selection of twelve people in a room. (Here’s a fun fact for everybody: Juror #2, the shyest and meekest of them all, is actually played by the actor who voices Piglet in Winnie the Pooh! I knew I loved him from the get-go, and now I know why!)

The three jurors who complicate Juror #8’s particular quest for justice, however, are jurors #3 (the angriest man of them all, & the last one to change his vote); #4 (a calm, highly rational, analytical man – if this film can be understood as depicting types, then he’s your scientific-objective man par none); and #10 (“a pushy & loud-mouthed bigot”, Wikipedia summarizes quickly and perfectly; he is the bigot in the room). Juror #4’s scientific objective stance is undermined when he is reminded of the fact that even men of science, who want to look only at the facts as clearly as possible, might miss some of the facts and so draw false conclusions. Juror #10 is perhaps the most horrifying of all – he’s a bigot. He prefaces most of his observations about the defendant with the generalizing phrase “these people” (followed usually by an unflattering characteristic of aforementioned people). One of the movies most beautiful scenes comes in the middle of a long, bigoted rant from Juror #10 – as #10 delivers his monologue of hate and stereotypes, slowly, one by one, the other jurors rise from the table in silent protest and mutiny, and stand mostly with their faces to the wall. It’s a real splendid tableau from Sidney Lumet – astonishing, powerful, and emphatic in what the film rejects. It’s probably one of the movie’s most memorable visual moments. (To watch the scene, clicky here! It’s almost difficult to believe that this is Sidney Lumet’s first feature film, because it is so very brilliant even from a technical/directorial point of view.) Says Juror #10, in perfect earnestness:

Look, you know how these people lie, it’s born in them! I mean, what the heck? I don’t have to tell you – they don’t know what the truth is. And lemme tell ya, they don’t need any real big reason to kill somebody either.

So many things about this moment: a blatant, explicit example of prejudice – the film in no way wants to make this subtle, and why should it? It’s familiar enough rhetoric to everybody. The ‘these’ and ‘them’ at whom the prejudice is directed is also by & large open-ended, which makes it a critique of all prejudice and classifications. The audience knows very little about the defendant: he’s 18 years old, on trial for parricide, and he’s from the slums. He’s uneducated, or foreign (“don’t even speak good English” says one juror; the irony isn’t, of course, lost on his immigrant neighbour). Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, suggests that the defendant “looks ‘ethnic'” – “he could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican”. Juror #10’s prejudice could be based on anything: a class prejudice, perhaps, or a race prejudice, or against immigrants. Anything, but it doesn’t matter: it is Prejudice with a capital P. The universal archetype of all prejudice, everywhere. And the movie is about justice for every man (everyman), an ideal that is not to be distorted or thwarted by any myopic understanding of social groups.

Brilliant tableau. Juror #10 is baffled by what's going on around him.

Brilliant tableau. Juror #10 is baffled by what’s going on around him.

Juror #3 is the hardest juror to win over – he is the last to change his vote, and the moment is a climactic one. His problem isn’t even as easy to dismiss as prejudice can be (Juror #10 is told in no uncertain to shut up and not speak again); his ‘guilty’ vote stems from the personal. The defendant is on trial for parricide, and Juror #3 has been struck by, and is now estranged from, his own beloved son. It seems he wants to condemn all sons for his own problems; at the very least, he definitely wants this one, another ungrateful one like his. Perhaps he is yet another embodiment of that horror of parricide that stories have been fascinated with from the ancient Greeks till now – a vague but emphatic and persistent horror. The history of literature, for one, is strewn with the bodies of dead fathers; from Oedipus to Karamazov, the same horror emerges. Parricide everyone agrees is fundamentally murder, another homicide, and yet why does it always feel like something peculiarly more, something fundamentally more unnatural? Remember the Defense Attorney’s speech, which comes at the famous Karamazov trial; the whole trial section of the book (The Brothers Karamazov) is amongst the best things ever written, one of the most beautiful, poignant, and elucidating sections in all of literature. All that, and brilliantly tense and dramatic too. The Defense Attorney on parricide and fathers is worth quoting at length:

“It is not only the totality of the facts that ruins my client, gentlemen of the jury,” he exclaimed, “no, my client is ruined, in reality, by just one fact: the corpse of his old father! Were it simply a homicide, you, too, would reject the accusation, in view of the insignificant, the unsubstantiated, the fantastic nature of the facts when they are each examined separately and not in their totality; at least you would hesitate to ruin a man’s destiny merely because of your prejudice against him, which, alas, he has so richly deserved! But here we have not simply a homicide, but a parricide!…

…Yes, it is a horrible thing to shed a father’s blood – his blood who begot me, his blood who loved me, his life’s blood who did not spare himself for me, who from childhood ached with my aches, who all his life suffered for my happiness and lived only in my joys, my successes! Oh, to kill such a father – who could even dream of it. Gentlemen of the jury, what is a father, a real father, what does this great word mean, what terribly great idea is contained in this appellation?” – The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The key of course is in “such a father” – for this is the Defense Attorney speaking. He goes on to make his defense around the fact that Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov (the murder victim) was not “such a father” as he had described. “[S]ome fathers are like a calamity,” he points out; Karamazov (Sr.) was one such. This speech is precisely what Fonda needs, in 12 Angry Men, to deliver to Juror #3; the drama of the thing lies in the fact that the boy’s defense lawyers are, unfortunately, not very good – he lucked out in a way even Dmitri Karamazov didn’t. This important speech goes unsaid, though its sentiments perhaps not unlearned. (I really do wonder how indebted to Dostoevsky Reginald Rose was….!). As Juror #3 finally breaks down at the end and chokes out his verdict of ‘not guilty’, perhaps he too acknowledges that some fathers can be calamities. This time, wondering about himself.

This post began with Dostoevsky, and it seems like a good idea to end with Dostoevsky too. In narratives of suspense, thrill, investigation, the pressure point always falls on the ‘crime’ of ‘crime & punishment’: perhaps as consumers of movies and books and TV shows, it’s because we have an insatiable curiousity, an unquenchable urge to know (whodunnit?). So very often movies and books end with the revelation (think Agatha Christie, of whom I am a great devotee!); the gory rest is silence. We know punishment will follow once the criminal has been caught or ascertained; every one of us does, but we don’t care to see the punishment or think about it. What is extraordinary about 12 Angry Men is that it forces us to think about the punishment first, and about the crime later (if at all). To quote brilliant, wonderful Ebert again, “[the film] is not about solving a crime. It is about sending a man to his death.” It’s not a plea to end all punishment, of course, but it is a valuable reminder that nowadays crimes & punishments are meted out in the human, not heavenly, sphere. Judges, juries, even witnesses are not all-seeing, all-knowing beings; worse, they have their own problems and prejudices to deal with. They are fallible and myopic, because people are. “You’re talking about a matter of seconds! Nobody can be that accurate!” cries out Juror #3 at one point in exasperation. “But testimony that can put a boy into the electric-chair should be that accurate,” replies Juror #8. Whether you read into this movie a critique of the death-penalty (because after all, surely all human testimony can be subject to reasonable doubt?) or whether you merely read into it a demand for greater care and consideration in deciding upon verdicts… it’s a lesson worth remembering. And this film is worth watching. And boy oh boy, it’s slightly corny to say it, but personally, I think it’s life-changing.

Some interesting links for folks:

The entirety of this film is available to watch, for free, on Youtube.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film is excellent (because he was wonderful and amazing!), and also has some interesting points in it about Lumet’s camera techniques.

An essay on the movie by Thane Rosenbaum, for the Criterion Collection.

And finally, the screenplay for the movie from Screenplay Explorer. (Note: it was a TV drama first, & I’m not entirely sure whether this is the script for the TV version or the movie version.)

"You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?"

“You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”

I grew up on a literary diet of dubious nutritious value: I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley Twins series (& like most things of dubious nutritious value, they tasted very good!). Till this very day, my bookshelf boasts a fair few of these thin paperback books (they came in so many bright colours!) — I haven’t read them in about eight years at least (maybe more), I think, but I was such good friends with some of these books that they are (hey Dylan!) practically “written in my soul”.

Out of the many hundred SVT books there are and that I’ve read, there was one which was my absolute favourite: it was called A Christmas Without Elizabeth, and came with the dramatic tagline, “What if Elizabeth had never been born?”. Elizabeth takes some money that Jessica and her Unicorns are going to use to throw a Christmas party, and gives it to a homeless family so that they can have a home for Christmas. They promise to pay it back before Jessica requires it, but fail to do so. Jess is furious when she finds out that the money is gone (as are the terrifying Unicorns, Lila Fowler & all – remember them, SVT fans?). A dramatic confrontation ends with Jessica uttering these monstrous words, words that no twin should ever say to another: “I wish you weren’t my sister, Elizabeth. I wish — I wish I’d never had a twin!” BOOM. Elizabeth runs away weeping to the mall and commits the cardinal sin of wishing she had never been born at all, whereupon she’s taken in tow by a sort of scruffy hippie angel called Laura, who decides to show her a Sweet Valley without Elizabeth. Thereby, of course, reinstating Elizabeth’s faith in herself and reiterating the necessity & importance of…er…appreciating what a wonderful life it is we all lead (but mostly that Elizabeth has led). Sound familiar, yet? Laura waxes lyrical, somewhere in the middle of the book, on a philsophy-cum-scientific theory about the ‘Sweater Effect’ that takes place in a world without somebody: “You change one thing and an endless number of other changes have to be made….You know how it is – you start yanking just one little loose thread on the sleeve of your sweater and pretty soon you can unravel the whole thing.” I don’t know if this still holds true of the high-tech (no doubt) sweaters in our day and age, but basically – I grew up believing in the Sweater Effect, & in the efficacy and necessity of little things. Just in case the sweater unravelled without one of ’em… Obviously the book has a happy ending – Elizabeth realises how many lives she’s changed/saved, and everyone else realises that Elizabeth has done a Good Deed and not stolen the party money for herself, and they use that money to throw her a big party at the end. Cool huh.

I read this book obsessively years ago, and thought it was an astonishingly amazing narrative/plot – SVT plots were usually OK, but this one was my absolute favourite. To re-imagine a world without you, & how different it could be! Amazing!

But sometime last year, I clocked onto the whole truth: the whole caboodle came from that strange movie people are so obsessed towards the end of December – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). A lot of things became clearer then; primarily,  it explained that I’d been living in a veritable cave for most of my life. Because everyone knew (& most loved) Jimmy Stewart, and largely thanks to this film. My epiphany last month (that James Stewart existed, & that he made awesome movies/was an amazing actor) was in actuality a very tragic and belated non-revelation after all. And as I went hurtling on with my James Stewart film-marathon (this past month), I realised that there was no avoiding it – I had to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, and I couldn’t wait till December to do so. I knew it would make me weep like a fool; even the SVT book did, & I had reason to believe that It’s A Wonderful Life was even better than that. This movie tops lists compiled about ‘Peoples’ Favourite Christmas Movies’ almost every year (& has done for a few decades now, in both the US and UK); it has an 8.7 rating on IMDB (where the ratings are actually pretty trustworthy, most of the time); it’s #29 on the IMDB Top 250 (again, a good list!). The hype was up, & I was pretty scared. I don’t like watching movies that make me cry, because they’re usually pretty soul-destroying experiences.


(I’ve been snapping up a lot of these movie stills/Old Hollywood photos from Tumblr, randomly, so in case I violate any awful laws pertaining to what I can/cannot use on this blog, please contact me & I’ll remove it ASAP. I’m not very sure how many of these things are considered to be in the ‘public domain’…)

Well, & so too was this an utterly soul-destroying experience. I can safely say now – thank god for never, ever watching it on Christmas day! Christmas in my house is pretty boring (in that it passes by without comment, mostly, and is different to no other day except in that we all have holidays and lots of shops are shut), but to watch this then would make it downright bleak. And as for watching it repeatedly every year – No. Way. It sent me to bed with a migraine & a death-wish, that’s how sad it made me. It baffles me that it’s considered so widely an incredibly uplifting movie – I guess I can sort of see why, with the whole easy Christian consolation thing at the end (“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends!”) – but to accept that still doesn’t redress the fact that George Bailey’s life is a seemingly-endless series of thwarted dreams, hopes, and ambitions. In so thinking, I realised that it was fundamentally selfish and awful of me to think this way, favouring the personal over the communal and the superficial (holidays!) over the meaningful (friends! love!) etc etc, but I can’t help it. I honestly do feel this way. 

So many things to say about this movie – I’m going to dispense with the plot summary, because quite frankly, the SVT book copies it almost wholly (plus/minus a few modern references and romantic subplots), & also, I’m sure everybody knows. If you don’t, like Gandalf I must say to you, you shall not pass…go watch the movie.

I’ve been blitzing through the James Stewart cannon in largely (though not wholly) chronological order, so my run through specifically Stewart-Capra films began with You Can’t Take It With You (1938), went on to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), & finally came to rest here, with It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Between the first two films and this one came the war (in which J-Stew fought with great distinction & bravery, or so we are told, & in which Capra also enlisted, though neither of them was required to, I think, or even – in Jimmy’s case – met the requisite physical specs demanded of combatants!). This was the first film Capra and Stewart made after the war, and it was the last film of their grand eight-year, three-film collaboration. As such I was curious to see if it represented a sort of zenith in their work with each other, a culmination of things that had been growing very perceptibly from film to film (the difference in quality – both directorial and acting! – between You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith, for example, is immense).

Frank Capra & Jimmy Stewart = just chillin'. On some set or another (I think...of 'It's A Wonderful Life', but could be 'Mr. Smith'). An amazing partnership.

Frank Capra & Jimmy Stewart = just chillin’. On some set or another (I think…of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, but could be ‘Mr. Smith’). An amazing partnership.

Capra, who had churned out a whopping two to three films per year throughout the 1930s (& scooped up three Best Director Oscars in the space of five years – wheeeewf!), only made five more films after this one. I don’t know exactly what happened there, and how much of it was precipitated by the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life, believe it or not, was a  loss-making movie for Capra, though not quite a flop either. (Saddens me incredibly, because I think Capra was a brilliant director – he should have made many, many more wonderful movies; it would have been nice to see, perhaps, more worldly-wise cynicism from him in later films.) Nonetheless, I can see some sort of continuity between this film & Capra’s earlier films – notably You Can’t Take It With You (1938), which deals with almost exactly the same themes and dishes out (almost) the exact same moral sentiments. Lionel Barrymore (who plays a brilliantly evil Mr. Potter/banker in IAWL) played the eccentric hero-sage in YCTIWY (phewf: long title!!), the one who rejects the wretched world of corporate finance & banking in order to live a life of whate’er you please — doing good & having fun. Says Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff (Barrymore) to the pompous, evil, greedy banker that is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), in a speech worthy of Occupy Wall Street itself…

Scum, are we? What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. You’re poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I’ll guarantee at least they’ve got some friends. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call ’em, you’ll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend.

The film (itself actually based on a play) gets its title from the Bible –  “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (I Timothy 6:7) – and this is deftly adapted to modern parlance, and then brilliantly delivered by Barrymore in a great ‘showdown’ scene in a jail cell. (Long story…)

Maybe it’ll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.

Such ideas are echoed, though perhaps not as precisely articulated, in IAWL – only this time, James Stewart has to deliver them to Lionel Barrymore: “You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?”. (I find this contextual reversal quite ironic/amusing; Stewart is pretty insipid in YCTIWY, both as a character and consequently, perhaps, as an actor – it’s all the more amazing for me to compare these two films, only eight years apart. How much Stewart has grown as an actor – !!! It’s blinding! But this will be raved about later. Conversely, I must add, Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter is not as interesting a banker-villain as Edward Arnold’s Mr. Kirby is — Barrymore is an incredible actor — THOSE EYES!! — but the character lacks three-dimensionality; he’s too flatly villainous, with no compunctions or motives.) Banker-villain movies from the ’30s & ’40s are quite amusing to me, because… well. We’ve got our banker-villains too, haven’t we?! Seems like nothing has changed. (Only, where’s our Grandpa Vanderhoff, our George Bailey?)

This is the moral premise behind the whole 1946 film too: it’s why George Bailey ‘wins’ at the end (so to speak); it’s why we rejoice (so to speak). Bailey doesn’t have money, but he has friends, we think – oh hurray! For some reason, I buy this sentiment entirely as presented in YCTIWY – but I can’t fully buy it  in IAWL. Maybe the sufferings of George Bailey are just too much, and too dark, for it to be elided or forgotten with such a pithy, clichéd consolation at the end. Now, that’s something that can be said about how subtly but radically Capra’s directorial Weltenschauung had shifted: there’s suicides, evictions, poverty, broken love-affairs, embarrassments, humiliations, & moral guilt a-plenty in You Can’t Take It With You, but never, never, never does it ever feel as dark or as solemn as It’s A Wonderful Life contrives to do. Perhaps that’s why the fairy-tale ending works there but not here. (Mr. Smith comes somewhere in between, where it still works, albeit with qualifications.)  I can’t really pinpoint why: is it because the darkness in IAWL is so psychological & personal, whereas in YCTIWY it’s more of a narrative necessity? But then, too, Capra films are always geared towards tugging the heartstrings & unclogging the tear-ducts — maybe he just does it really well in IAWL. Unlike Lubitsch, who seems to entrap everything that’s ‘human’ or ‘Life’ about life in almost ineffable ways (so “light & airy” – Kael? – as to almost pass unremarked), Capra invests everything with overmuch tangibility/intensity – he practically slugs you in the face with emotion (and moral sentiment!) in a scene every five minutes. From childhood romances & ambitions to a more adolescent courting, to marriage & children & jobs & dreams  – all this big, heavyweight stuff is in IAWL; the narrative is basically a series of moments centered around these! In that famous Lubitsch-Stewart Christmas tale (underrated in comparison to IAWL), you need to really strain to catch such moments amidst the department-store hustle & bustle (they’re probably somewhere in between fetching things from the stockroom & wondering about bonuses). You don’t need to exert yourself so much with Capra; he gives it to you pretty eagerly. (This comparison is not meant to elevate Lubitsch over Capra or vice versa: I just find they have two very different, but equally wonderful/enjoyable, styles, & since there’s a small confluence in that they both worked with Jimmy Stewart on Christmas classics, I thought I’d mention it.)

A horrible darkness in the man's heart! :'(

A horrible darkness in the man’s heart! :'(

Oh boy. Where to begin with how amazing Jimmy Stewart is in this movie? Three spectacular scenes from IAWL I need to single out: the scene in Mary Hatch’s drawing room (before they answer the phone call), where you can see that George Bailey isn’t as ‘nice’ as he used to be but instead a bit more cynical & impatient, oh-so-subtly; the phone call scene (has any scene ever been invested with more electricity, eroticism, and tension than this one????); and the small scene towards the end, where George Bailey is thrusting newspapers proclaiming good news about his brother onto unwilling by-standers. This last one is absolutely heartbreaking; dunno how anyone knows how to bring out “Middle-aged man who used to have hopes & dreams but who’s lived out none of them, instead just sort of subsisting in the same town for decades while watching everyone around him leave and do stuff, & now he’s just a middle-aged man with not much to say whom people are just sort of tolerating” in your character’s stroll through town with a newspaper, but that’s everything Stewart manages to convey in that small scene. It’s heartbreaking!

Now, in the great Jimmy Stewart film marathon (no pun intended….) I’ve been doing over the past month, I’ve by & large stuck to his early, pre-war work. It began with The Philadelphia Story (1940), where my side-note gushings over how great he is in it slowly blossomed into a kind of creepy obsessiveness about him/his life/photographs of him on Tumblr/his movies. Oh my god, I thought in my third re-watching of TPShe’s actually pretty fucking brilliant. Suddenly the movie wasn’t all about Hepburn & Grant. So then I started hunting down this & that with James Stewart in it. I had seen Vertigo and Rear Window (my favourite Hitchcock film) a few years ago, but I (insane & embarrassing admissions upcoming) [a] never really noticed Jimmy Stewart as ‘brilliant’/otherwise while watching them [b] didn’t know he was ‘Jimmy Stewart’ [c] actually, I think, didn’t even realise it was the same actor in both (I watched them some time apart/ago, and my powers of memory are evidently pathetic).   In my defence, I was young and stupid. So as far as I’m considered, this grand marathon begins with his (Oscar-winning) drunken, cynical-but-still-innocent, really, Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story.

George Bailey is probably as plum a role as any actor can get – the sheer range of emotions alone that it requires of you is incredible (as any proper ‘life story’ must require, I suppose). But having said that, what makes the movie something slightly more than just sweet (or saccharine – a favourite word o’ mine when it comes to Capra, since his films do veer so very dangerously close to it! Watching ‘The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life‘, I was introduced to the word “Capracorn” – summarizes everything beautifully!), and slightly more than just fairy-tale-esque, is James Stewart. (Allegedly the script of IAWL was initially intended for Cary Grant — I cannot even imagine, love Grant though I do.) The whole horror of the film is entirely lost if one sees George Bailey simply as a “good man” – the way you could say, maybe, that Mr. Smith is, or the way Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff is in You Can’t Take It With You. For the film to reach the extremes of darkness that it does, it’s very important that George Bailey be a good man and more – rather, a man who’s good but at the expense of his own desires & ambition. And it’s quite important too that that sacrifice is a painful one. There are countless scenes in the film where James Stewart shows precisely this, and without words even – this is way beyond the script or the dialogue. When his face falls upon learning that his brother has been offered a job by his wife’s father – or when he enters the dilapidated ‘honeymoon’ house on 320 Sycamore Street for the first time (having postponed his glorious honeymoon, having given away all his money to save Bailey Building & Loan — yet he doesn’t say a word throughout this scene). I already mentioned the drawing-room scene & the walk through town scene. His face at the bar, when he’s getting drunk at Martini’s. These scenes are incredible; I don’t know how anybody gets so much expressed, leaving virtually everything unsaid. There’s something incredible about the way Stewart uses his eyes and eyebrows; raising his brows ever so slightly, maybe half a centimetre, less? – & he speaks worlds.

Look at this fantastically crazed expression!

Look at this fantastically crazed expression!

In reviewing a Jimmy Stewart biography, Geoffrey O’ Brien writes (NYRB, so might be behind a paywall):

He had preserved into middle age just enough of the boyishness and naive enthusiasm that animated his pre-war performances in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) to keep that earlier impression alive for his longtime fans. It was only gradually that one registered just how completely the war years, when he was a bomber pilot, had altered him, within & without. Yet despite how much he may have changed, some part of him managed still to embody the ideal of the small-town boy.

I agree with most of this analysis wholeheartedly – only I take exception with the words “only gradually”. It’s almost impossible, for me, to reconcile his performance as George Bailey with his pre-war performances – and this transition hardly feels gradual (although within the scope of the film itself, Bailey’s transformation from young noble idealist to bitter middle-aged man is pretty gradual, yes). No way — I mean, no way. True, the majority of roles Stewart played in pre-war years were ‘nice’ ones — not too much darkness, sometimes not any; the most they ever brought out of Stewart was a laughter-inducing sort of cynicism à la Philadelphia Story or Shop Around the Corner. (In After the Thin Man, one of Stewart’s earliest ‘big’ roles, he does have a pretty sinister piece to play – but it is so relatively small & muted a part, it seems like a strange narrative aberration rather than something you can take seriously as a facet of this actor.) This film, IAWL, makes it worse because it does its level best to remind you of precisely that gawky awkward pre-war Jimmy – the entire first part of the movie plays off precisely the early Jimmy persona he had crafted & done so well. And ultimately the whole pathos of the thing rests, to some extent, on the fact that you’re watching not just George Bailey but Jimmy Stewart (!!), “Aw shucks”, small-town boy, break down on screen in a way you could never even have conceived of in, say, 1940. “Yet,” continues O’Brien later on in the same piece, “undoubtedly, to revisit the pre-war Stewart in light of his later career is to be startled by a fresh-faced charm, almost eerily unmarked by experience, which was never to be seen again.” No; never. It stopped right there with It’s A Wonderful Life — whether because of the war (perhaps he was really changed inside), or because of this movie (maybe it forced him to discover new dimensions to his acting), who is to say? After IAWL came the famed Hitchcock-Stewart films (dark), the Mann-Stewart films (dark), and odd one or two’s like Harvey (1950; profoundly tragic in some undefinable way) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962; dark). Perhaps it was not just Stewart, though — after all, the screwball era was pretty much over too by 1946, and even if Stewart isn’t known as a ‘screwball comedy’ legend, I think it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that his pre-war films certainly channel the madcap, light-hearted, footloose/fancy-free ethos of that genre. Perhaps what changed with the war was the sort of glorious, happy simplicity that people could depict in films or enjoy at the movies. So people start tapping into the darker recesses of human nature – and that’s when you get the James Stewart of Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window; the Cary Grant of Notorious.

What he used to be :-(

A hint of the 1930s Jimmy here!

It almost feels as if Capra was drawing things out of Stewart with each further film they made together, and in IAWL it really does reach a certain zenith: if Mr. Smith is merely disillusioned, George Bailey is brought to the very brink of life & despair. Capra first put that mild-mannered, ‘fresh-faced’ (yep – he was!) stringbeanish sort of fellow in You Can’t Take It With You, in what can only be called a fairly characterless supporting role – the real star of the show is Lionel Barrymore. Then Mr. Smith: so much more full-bodied, and a brilliant filibuster scene for Stewart where he really comes into his own, for the first time perhaps, as an actor. And then this. Capra drew something out of Stewart for the very first time in this film — & god knows what! — that people like Hitchcock and Mann then pounced on. They wanted precisely this sort of darkness, this sort of psychological two-facedness (which Hitchcock utilizes somewhat in Rope (1948), though I still feel Stewart is miscast in it — the Stewart of Rope is not the Stewart of Vertigo, who is still ten years away at this point; & that’s the sort of Stewart Hitchcock probably needed). I know I keep waffling on about ‘darkness’ without being able to say precisely what it is: it’s the anger with which Bailey flips out at Uncle Billy, the look on his face as he waits for his clothes to dry after saving Clarence, the way he weeps on the bridge, the way he shouts on the phone. All of this I guess. Darkness. The look on his face as he considers the thought that he’s worth more dead than alive.

Let me live, is it?

(They sure had good make-up artists, it must be said.)

* * *

Before it was a wonderful life for James Stewart, though, it was a wonderful world. Not many people seem to have heard of It’s A Wonderful World (1939), a film directed by W. S. Van Dyke and co-starring Claudette Colbert (who is great!). W. S. Van Dyke had previously cast Jimmy as the villain in After the Thin Man (1936) — now, he’s no villain here, but he’s certainly not the most palatable hero either. Among some of his more awful deeds are lines like, “I’ve thought to myself, `Well now, this, this just can’t be—that all dames are dumb and all men ain’t,’ but that’s the way it seemed to me…I don’t know, I always figured they all ended at the neck…” (feminist film critics – take note), & a terrible sock in the face for Claudette Colbert when she gets to be a little too annoying. As a side-note, it’s fascinating how licentious old films are in some respects: copious smoking, for one, as if any scene in which an actor’s hands were idle were sinful somehow (all of them!); drunk driving (IAWL The Philadelphia Story!); casual violence against women, usually manifested as a slug in the mug (It’s A Wonderful WorldThe Philadelphia Story).

Claudette trying to worm her way out of trouble. But Jimmy ain't impressed. No sirree.

(Claudette trying to worm her way out of trouble; Jimmy ain’t impressed, though. Nope. Isn’t that just about the best unimpressed face you’ve ever seen?)

It’s A Wonderful World (1939) isn’t a blindingly brilliant film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s damn good fun, and everyone should give it go for this reason alone. (All I ask of my films is that they be fun, fun fun fun! And this one is.) Stewart plays a horribly cynical, misogynistic (see above), mercenary little private detective, whose client has just been framed for murder. The promise of riches if he can discover the real killer and get his (very wealthy) client off the electric chair seduces him into a series of adventures, mostly alongside poor Claudette Colbert. Colbert plays a poetess, who goes (bizarrely) from loathing & fearing Stewart (who, to be fair, does threaten and abduct her, in addition to stealing her car) to clinging onto him relentlessly. He does his level best to rid himself of her through interminable meanness & ploys, but she won’t have any of that — and it’s just as well, since she pretty much saves him (repeatedly), his client, his promised reward, and captures the real criminals. Not bad for a dame, huh! All’s well that ends well.

It’s a sweet film, and nothing exemplifies better the stark differences in Stewart’s pre- & post-war careers than the differences between the way you’ll see him here and the way you’ll see him in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s not, strictly-speaking, a ‘nice’, goofy, romantic lead in this film, but he’s so very…well, “fresh-faced”, even in his unpalatable meanness! It’s interesting that W. S. Van Dyke (a director I don’t know anything about!) cast him in two unflattering roles in the ’30s (Van Dyke also directed After the Thin Man, in which Stewart plays — cover your eyes if you haven’t watched/don’t like spoilers! — a murderer!). Perhaps Van Dyke prepared Stewart for Capra who prepared him for Hitchock….??? Exciting chain of influences. Now I haven’t watched all of the pre-war stuff, but I’m fairly sure that these Van Dyke roles were amongst the ‘worst’ Stewart got in those days. And it’s pretty telling that in this movie Guy Johnson isn’t really a ‘bad’ guy; bad-tempered and money-grubbing, sure, but still fundamentally lovable/attractive, as indeed Colbert finds him. (There’s a few sly directorial nods to Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) in this film, which also starred Colbert.)

It’s A Wonderful World (1939) & It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – only seven years between them, but oh, nothing shows just how different Stewart was in 1946 than juxtaposing these two films. (You could probably do it with many of his pre-war films, but these two have similar names, so….obviously you should do it with them). It’s practically like two different actors; & when you realise it’s not, well then, you realise that he’s just a very, very, very good actor. Thank you Margaret Sullavan, for giving the world Jimmy Stewart.

VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION — Geek chic. Who wears it better: Cary Grant as science nerd in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Jimmy Stewart as Boy Scout in It’s A Wonderful World (1939)


 VS geekchic

Now Jimmy’s grand & all… but I… I think I’ve got to go with Cary Grant! Jimmy wins a little prize for more ludicrous facial expressions though. And also for having his eyes preposterously magnified behind those lenses.

Mr. Smith in Washington - complete with Lonely Planet-esque travel guide!

Mr. Smith in Washington – complete with Lonely Planet-esque travel guide! “Hey, this place only has a three-star review….”

Somewhere in the horrible and vast history of colonialism and imperialism in Latin America, there was a word – a Dutch word, vrijbuiter. It meant ‘pirate, privateer, robber’. From this word slowly were born other words (for after all, one of the most enduring elements of imperialism in our world today is the fragments of language it left lying around; the illegitimate children of unhappy encounters, ‘verandah‘ and ‘catamaran’ and ‘cooties‘ and ‘mulligatawny‘ soup) – the English word freebooter, for example, and the Spanish filibustero and the French flibustier. In all three cases it meant the same thing – freebooter, n., a pirate or lawless adventurer. A strange word (most are if you stare at them long enough!), & stranger still that it should have somehow made its way into American English (first in the 19th century, to describe Americans who ‘fomented insurrections’ in Latin America), then straight into the House of Representatives, before finally finding a seemingly-permanent home in the Senate.

The filibuster probably needs no introduction for those who happen to have even a passing interest (and shouldn’t everyone?) in American politics; it has been in the news pretty recently, too. Rand Paul took some headlines earlier this month, with his good ol’-fashioned, Mr. Smith-style (& many newspapers casually dropped this name in their coverage of the Paul filibuster!) thirteen-hour rant on the issue of drones. For those who don’t know what it is — well, firstly, watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonand secondly, it’s a a mode of parliamentary ‘debate’ (in a manner of speaking; debates, I always was led to believe, should allow for more sides than one). In the Senate, with which filibusters are most commonly associated these days, it allows a senator – or a series of them – to keep talking, basically, in order to prevent/delay a measure from being voted on. (This is my very rudimentary understanding of it: corrections are always welcome if in my idiocy I’m misleading people. Please do tell me!)

These days, the filibuster is seen as a means to ‘obstruct’ & ‘delay’ (to quote the headline of this piece on Rand Paul – pithy summary!), to prevent certain issues coming to a vote, certain policies from seeing the light of day. The filibuster today is an emblem of partisan politics and policy-making paralysis: nobody knows where exactly the filibuster came from, except linguistically, and nobody really likes it. But everybody wields the filibuster anyways – Democrats, Republicans, you-name-its. The Senate cots are rolled out (yes – the Senate really does have a storeroom full of cots!); voices grow hoarse; and people wait for rights or welfare schemes or key government offices to be filled.

And now some people are calling for an insurrection against the filibustero itself.

Poster for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939).

Poster for ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is considered one of world’s finest ‘whistleblowing’ films, and also one of James Stewart‘s and Frank Capra’s finest, respectively. Now, seriously political films can be dry and flat except for the very politically-involved of us, because the nuances (read: various clauses) of constitutions and jargon and bureaucracy any faithful depiction of political issues must convey is – well, boring. Or so I thought, sceptically, as I decided to give Mr. Smith a go for myself. (Violating in the process, may I add, various injunctions I had placed on myself to not watch anything but romantic comedy.)

Well. But. I was blown away. The Capra-Stewart director-actor duo is, of course, well-known to everybody, because everybody in the whole wide Christmas-loving world has seen It’s A Wonderful Life (1948) except me (I am like the Grinch of movie-goers!). Mr. Smith, too, is considered a classic, though perhaps it’s more niche in its appeal – no doubt many people out there, like me, don’t find the sound of a ‘political’ or ‘whistleblower’ film particularly appealing. But let me say here and now – it can be, if it’s done right, and Capra does. Because he always does (except, perhaps, when he made Arsenic and Old Lace, but… even the great do misstep…)

The plot in (not-so-)brief: the Senator of an unnamed state has just passed away, which causes no small consternation amongst the political figures who have to pick a new Senator; this includes the state’s governor, Hubert Hopper; the other Senator, Joseph Paine (played exquisitely by Claude Rains); and the corrupt rich man who’s really running the show, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). These guys are about to push a bill through the Senate which is in actuality a means to graft, something to do with dam-building (they’ve bought all the land the dam is going to be built on, secretly, under various names: if the government approves the dam, presumably they sell the land to the government and make a windfall). In order to push it through properly, though, they need a Senator who is in on it with them, or at the very least, extremely pliant. But the Governor’s in a spot, between a rock and a hard place, between his people (who want a reformer!) and his financiers (who want someone crooked enough to help them with their upcoming bill-vote). In a quirky turn of events, inspired by a dinner-table argument with his very young but astonishingly politically-acute children, the Governor picks a candidate: Jefferson Smith, a gawky young guy whose sole claim to fame is that he’s the head of the local Boy Rangers, and the kids love him. (Obviously, this Mr. “Aw shucks!” is played by Jimmy Stewart…)


Having ‘fun’ with the press, you might say.

The Governor is well-pleased with his choice: not only are the people happy, because Jefferson Smith is universally beloved, but the political shadows around him are also mollified by the fact that Mr. Smith seems incredibly dumb and idealistic. He won’t notice a thing, they think, so long as we keep him happy. This is the context in which Mr. Smith goes, famously, to Washington – his raptures over the capital are incredibly funny, and his fanatic reverence and obsession for things like the Lincoln Memorial only confirm his innocence to the political big-wigs. They figure if they keep him sightseeing and busy with idealistic, naïve endeavours, he won’t be any threat to them whatsoever. It is in view of this that Senator Paine makes the ‘kindly’ suggestion that Mr. Smith write a bill to put forward to the Senate (a sort of “run along and play with a toy!” type of encouragement) – it’ll keep him occupied, after all, and maybe he won’t pay attention to the whole dam(n) business upcoming. [As a side note: Senator Paine and Mr. Smith’s father were very good friends in the past, both idealists and reformers together – only their paths have diverged very starkly. Mr. Smith’s father was shot in the back for his activism (“Dad always used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes…”), and Senator Paine is here now as we see him: with forsaken ideals, the only-sometimes unwilling scion of a corrupt political machine.]

So with the help of Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) – cynical, beautiful, and utterly disillusioned by everything after a few years working in Washington – Mr. Smith begins drafting a bill. Saunders is his secretary but also sort of a mother-figure to this clueless creature running around Washington rhapsodizing about the beautiful prairies; she’s a perfect sarcastic, worldly-wise, wry contrast to him. At first she despises him, unable to believe that such naivety and idiocy could actually come to Washington – in the guise of a Senator, no less! – but then she’s slowly won over by his idealism, charms (who wouldn’t be won over by Jimmy Stewart’s charms?), and general all-around goodness. (Mr. Smith himself is a hat-fumbling mess over one sirenesque Susan Paine, the shallow and superficial daughter of Senator Paine. This sad side-fact leads to a very funny and very dark episode of drunkenness for our dear Clarissa. Brilliantly executed, of course.)  Saunders helps him draft the bill (one might even say – she drafts it for him, since Mr. Smith, sort of like me and possibly you, knows next to nothing about how bills are drafted and got into/passed in Senate….), but she is worried when she learns that his bill will bring him up against the exact men who are trying to keep him distracted: he wants to run a big Boy Rangers camp (for the “boys of America!”) in the fields surrounding the river… that is, in precisely the land earmarked for a dam. And unlike Mr. Smith, Clarissa knows all about the graft.

Well, Mr. Smith gets tumbled up into Senate and then trampled down very speedily. When his bill first hits the floor, the corrupt political machine panics and threatens Mr. Smith – take that bill back, and support ours, or else…. But Mr. Smith, like his daddy before him, is an idealist, remember – a fighter of lost and dying causes. He refuses. The very effective political machinery of the villainous Jim Taylor goes speedily into action: they falsify, forge, and lie their way into assassinating Mr. Smith’s newborn political reputation/career. Right from forged land-sale contracts to lying witnesses, they contrive to prove almost irrefutably that Mr. Smith is attempting graft – they claim he has bought all the land by the river, and is trying to con money out of the government and the boys of America through his Boy Ranger camp scheme. The poor jumped-up Boy Ranger has absolutely no defence to offer in the face of all this counterfeit evidence: just his word. And his word is more or less meaningless by this point. This is sort of the moment of Aristotleian anagnorisis, the point at which Mr. Smith moves from ignorance and idealism into an soul-shattering knowledge and understanding of precisely what sort of political world he has been trying to function within: this is not, he realizes, the beautiful world in which ideals of liberté and égalité are inscribed on stone walls (as they are around Lincoln in the Memorial). No, this is Jim Taylor’s world and Jim Taylor’s Washington – Abe is just a statue in a darkened room. The Senator Paines & co. of the world are no Abe Lincolns, & nor can Jefferson Smith be. Or so it seems.

Dreamy-eyed visions of the great American Constitution.

Dreamy-eyed visions, once-held, of the great American Constitution… Which unfortunately soon turns to despondency and grief (beautifully relayed, courtesy of Frank Capra’s directorial skill & Jimmy Stewart’s gorgeously expressive face.)

vlcsnap-00065 vlcsnap-00064 vlcsnap-00063

It’s in the dark and shadow-filled Lincoln Memorial that a grieving Mr. Smith is tracked down by Clarissa Saunders, who sails into the empty Memorial like a knight in shining armour to resuscitate his faith, courage, and idealism. (Let me just add a worshipful line or two, at this point, at how utterly beautiful black and white films can be when the light and shadows are worked properly. To use colour like a Tarantino or Wes Anderson – to use light and shadow like a Fellini or a Capra – this should be any director or cinematographer’s dream. This scene between Saunders and Smith is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and not just because it’s sweet & sad & heartfelt – the lighting is wonderful; their arrangement, with Stewart facing the camera and Jean Arthur seen side-face, is lovely. A little anecdote I read mentioned that Arthur was filmed on the left side of her face because they thought, at the studio, that her facial profile from the left was the prettiest angle they could get of her…. They were strange in those days.)


Saunders strikes the despondent Smith where it’ll affect him most — she brings up Abe:

“Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines; so did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against ’em didn’t stop those men – they were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that, you know that Jeff! You can’t quit now! Not you. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington, that kind just throw big shadows, that’s all….You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man; you had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain decent everyday common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah. So could the whole cock-eyed world, a lot of it.” 

(I haven’t seen Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln yet, but I think it would probably bear witness to the verity of these words…everyone has their Taylors & Paines. No easy prey is liberté.) Clarissa works her magic, and off they go to plot the grand overthrow.

Mr. Smith brought apples and a flask for his filibuster. Now that's what I call 'well-prepared'.

Mr. Smith brought apples and a flask in for his filibuster. Now that’s what I call ‘well-prepared’.

Which takes the form, you will all be most delighted to know, of a filibuster. Yep. Mr. Smith is about to stripped of his status as Senator, but before that can happen, he cunningly takes the floor and this time – wiser, older, harder – refuses to yield the floor to anybody. He filibusters that poor Senate out of composure, patience, and sleep. “In other words, I’ve got a piece to speak, and blow hot or cold, I intend to speak it.” For this is Clarissa’s grand plan: keep him talking until he either convinces the Senate or delays the vote on Senator Paine’s bill for as long as possible. Now, believe you me, it’s probably not easy to film a filibuster and keep it exciting (certainly if you’re going to stick to the verity of time, documentary-style, and capture every minute of it). Fortunately Capra is making a movie and not a news-reel, so he can splice in and out of the filibuster as necessary. The filibuster is, by turns, heartbreaking, tear-inducing, laughter-inducing, sweet, funny, romantic (yesLove amidst a filibuster can, apparently, happen – & it looks and feels damn good, too!). What follows is almost dizzyingly exciting and wonderful: a passionate filibuster delivered by Mr. Smith, in the hopes that it will reach his home-state and be broadcast far and wide, fomenting insurrection (to go back to linguistic roots!) against the corruption of Paine & Taylor – while simultaneously, Jim Taylor and his machinery work very hard and very brutally (physical violence against little children!) to stop the people from hearing anything that is said by Mr. Smith in the Senate. Unfortunately, again, the Taylor machine seems to win (as people who control all the newspapers can contrive to do) – a climactic moment, after something like eighteen hours (?) of filibuster (Mr. Smith is now hoarse, unshaven and ashen-faced; Jimmy Stewart’s disgustingly-slicked back hair falls handsomely unkempt around his forehead). The people of Mr. Smith’s state send baskets of letters in to Senate, pleading with Mr. Smith to — stop. To give up. Please. (They have been kept from hearing what he’s really been saying, and are fed vast quantities of Taylor-manufactured propaganda instead.) Will he? No. One last roar from Mr. Smith – the filibuster finale – before he keels over in a faint:

You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.

God. Cinematically, dramatically, emotionally – it’s brilliant. This entire chunk of filibuster scene might just be one of the best things in movie history ever. We’ve almost given up – here is our hero, Mr. Smith, fainted, and he was going to win the day over the crooks with his beautiful heartfelt filibuster. Well: Capra makes us hopeful, and then he takes us to brink of despair, and then he quickly (thankfully!) pulls us back. For all this has been too much for Senator Paine who was, after all, once an idealist and defender of lost causes himself. He breaks down, tries to shoot himself but is stopped and dragged into the Senate where he screams out the truth – yes, yes, it was graft, they framed Mr. Smith. Clarissa jubilates in the viewing stands. The slowly-reviving Mr. Smith is helped out of the chamber as the President of the Senate heaves a happy sigh of relief; the twinkle in his eye, if it ever left, is restored fully. (Sadly, there is no finale kiss between Clarissa & Mr. Smith – many a movie-goer besides me laments this, no doubt; Capra & co. scrapped plans to film a jubilant return to Mr. Smith’s hometown for Saunders & Smith on a flotilla, though snippets of this can be seen in the film’s trailer apparently.) The End.

Letters & letters, letting Mr. Smith down. His lost cause exposed.

Letters & letters, letting Mr. Smith down. His lost cause exposed.

* * *


photo (3)

I’ve started taking notes on index cards around movies I watch – quick, pithy (yes – I really can do this, sometimes!), and first-impression notes as they hit me in post-movie waves. So here’s my bit on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and because I can’t resist, I will extend + add some thoughts in lengthier form after):

“Heartwarming & brilliant movie – has the standard Frank Capra moral-sentimental fare, but transposed into a dark and disillusioning political setting. Widely considered James Stewart’s ‘breakthrough’ role, I think, and rightly so (he was nominated for an Oscar but lost; always considered his win the very next year, for The Philadelphia Story, as being a make-up Oscar for this one – not so sure – I think he’s fantastic in TPS as well!)

Film was banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, and Franco’s Spain – also managed to irritate the US Congress. The bannings alone tell you this film gets something right – its depiction of idealism and heroism in the face of disillusionment are wonderful without being clichéd, heartwarming without being saccharine.

Stellar performances all around: James Stewart at his most endearing, combining his trademark “Aw shucks!” nervousness with the steely nerve we see often in later films – also at his most devilishly handsome during the filibuster, I have to add. Capra had worked with Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor) before, in You Can’t Take It With You (1938) – he clearly liked them, and he certainly brings out the best in them. For Jean Arthur, as with Stewart, this is a fine role – ought to have been her ‘breakthrough’ role too, because she is singularly amazing – full of wit, life, cynicism, love – everything. Much fuller than the character she played in You Can’t Take It With You, & quite frankly Stewart wouldn’t be half as effective without her. Sadly her career sort of petered out, it seems?, in the 1940s. A great shame: I think she’s one of the best, most intelligent, and most likeable actresses from this golden Hollywood era. A Hepburn with less bite and more humanity. Arnold – plays villains very well, as we saw in YCTIWY, but this role is more two-dimensional – no room for introspection and capitulation. That is the province here of Claude Rains, who is STELLAR: debonair always, evil & human by turns, every inch the conflicted senator who has forsaken his ideals but remembers them.

A brilliant unusual take on the filibuster, especially for us today who tend to see it as a boring, rather villainous ploy for partisan politics. Capra blends political commentary with refreshing idealism, cynicism, disillusionment, and heroism…brilliantly! Astonishing how full-bodied the movie is: always room for humour and love, even amidst a filibuster. Extraordinary.

Jean Arthur being crazy + wonderful.

Jean Arthur being crazy + wonderful. (And me, committing the cardinal sin of putting GIFs into a post! I’m really sorry – it was too good not to.)

I mean it when I say that this movie contrives, somehow, to present all this overwhelming idealism about liberty and freedom etc. without ever becoming too trite or clichéd. It surprises me, because I’m pretty sceptical about things like that – after all, it seems more than a little obsolete that some guy should bang on about that lady atop the Capitol dome or deliver lines – infinitely quotable but how meaningful? – like, “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books…Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak.” It gets the cynic suspicious, to put it mildly. But oh god – in a world full of deconstructions and relativisms and dead fathers and dead authors and dead moral authority – it’s sort of nice to have someone affirm something simple like that. Something simple and – I am almost convinced in saying – something true like that. (Because it probably is true, that liberty is good when enacted and no use when stuffed into books alone.) And Jimmy Stewart really does say it all very disarmingly, as he flips between reading the Constitution of the United States very ‘slowly’ (time-wasting) to cracking cute little jokes in the middle of filibustering (“I just wanted to see if you all still had faces!”). No silver-tongued devil he, glibly gabbing his way to victory: no, this is Stephen Leacock’s innocent American alright (the one who goes “Heck, b’gosh, b’gum, yuck, yuck”), only he’s been plucked straight out of his happy innocence and placed on a hero’s pedestal, and worse, asked to deliver a filibuster from that perch. It’s that awkwardness and the shy, sort-of-apologetic-but-steely-despite-it-all aura that James Stewart is so well-known for: that’s what saves the words he utters from sounding like the worst excesses of saccharine, irrelevant tripe. He sounds so honest and earnest — we’d be cads not to believe him. So we do.

Liberty! Liberty!

How can you not believe a man who gazes at you thus, with his hand on the Constitution, no less?

The film also presents a pretty sweet vision of the filibuster’s nobility, ascribing to it a constitutional basis in free speech and freedom of expression etc etc. that I think… is actually historically inaccurate/false. Nothing I have read about the filibuster to date suggests that it stems from any such Constitution-inspired idealism. Says a news reporter in the middle of the exciting filibuster segment:

Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home: DEMOCRACY IN ACTION.

It’s a really sweet idea: almost begs us to put aside our own biases and partisan prejudices for a second, and appreciate the filibuster for being simply that – the manifestation, above all, of a right to speak. Whether you’re right or wrong, Republican or Democrat. It almost seems to be, the way Capra frames it and describes it, the ultimate expression of democracy’s finest principle.

But it would be a big mistake to come away from this movie with a rosy, idealized vision/understanding of what the filibuster is in practice – both today and historically. I get the impression that what Capra depicts is the filibuster-as-saviour in its most extreme manifestation and employment: the minority being the lone figure of Mr. Smith (versus a big, bad, or at least deeply misled political world). I suppose, too, that in essence this is what the filibuster is – a means for the minority to whittle down or complicate any facile passing of bills, laws, motions (whatever it is they do!) by the majority. To protect the minority from being trampled by a majority herd-rush towards legislation, I guess.

In a brilliantly enlightening piece in the New York Review of Books on precisely why reform is needed so desperately in the Senate around the filibuster & questions of supramajority vs. simple-majority (Greek to me!),  Michael Tomasky lays bare a possible historical foundation for this ‘safeguard’ towards compromise and against rash legislation (“the famous statement of George Washington, who explained to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate would ‘cool’ the inflamed passions of any given moment as a saucer cools hot tea” – I never ever suspected that saucers cooled hot tea…well, well!), and also the downside of this minority safeguard in practice – it has the potential to become “minority rule”. Worth quoting a bit more from Tomasky:

Minorities rarely pay a political price for threatening to filibuster. The obscure motion procedure is so arcane, so hidden from the view of all but the most initiated observers, that the public usually has no idea whom to blame for gridlock. When, for example, important executive branch positions go unfilled, average citizens tend to assume that the president simply hasn’t gotten round to appointing someone, whereas the truth is likely to be that the appointment was made months ago but has been languishing in the Senate….

Let’s be clear: the filibuster is a lifeline for the embattled Mr. Smith alright, but I don’t think there’s been a Mr. Smith sort of fellow in the Senate yet. Being pragmatic and realistic, the ‘minority’ is not one lone man vs. the world but rather the minority party or, at the very least, a minority of senators who disagree with and therefore try to prevent certain actions supported by the majority. Tomasky points out (& since I was so ready to believe good things about the filibuster in the aftermath of Mr. Smith, this was sort of depressing to know) that filibusters had been used to delay civil rights laws, including anti-lynching laws (!!!!!): “…typically, filibusters have put off for decades actions the nation should have taken years before – civil rights, notably, including anti-lynching laws.” So. Very. Grim. Also add to these facts the one that tells us the filibuster has been wielded more often over the past decade than ever before in American history – 8% of bills in the 1960s were threatened with filibustering, whereas in our decade, Tomasky points out it is close to 70%. This is political paralysis and deadlock, right there. 

Not being a political scientist, I don’t want to delve too deep into the pros & cons of the filibuster: I simply don’t know. But suffice to say that Mr. Smith does present a very rosy, inspiring view of the filibuster, for whatever reason – either because it makes for a good bit of dialogue/drama, or because the film is kind of old and maybe they actually thought this back then? – but it isn’t quite right. (I’ve heard that political scientists get screenings of Mr. Smith in their classrooms — the lucky things! Everyone should watch this movie, political scientist or not – we all have to live in this absurdly political and scientific world, don’t we?)

Last (at last!) words on this gem: the President of the Senate (played by Harry Carey) is a delightful character. One of those people with a half-hidden but almost-always-present wry smile on their face, and with twinkling eyes. Jean Arthur is brilliant beyond words: I adore her, and think she’s one of the most underrated gems of this Hollywood era. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to think of her career dying down so quickly – and why? In this respect she reminds me a little of Margaret Sullavan, another titan who tragically didn’t work the silver screen to her full potential. Capra is breathtakingly wonderful – I’ve heard It’s A Wonderful Life is a grand old film, and I will watch it soon (I have been avoiding it because I know it will bring out the salt water, and I’m not always OK to handle the psychological breakdowns a moving film can incite!), to see how this Capra/Stewart partnership develops and culminates if nothing else. Lastly, I think it’s fantastic that a movie can be both political and about politics, heavily so, and yet still have space for romance and humour and the more ordinary aspects of human life and relationships, if you will. Like the letter Clarissa sends Mr. Smith in the middle of the filibuster (see screencaps below), or that scene where Mr. Smith is overcome by a most painful, bashful clumsiness in the presence of the beautiful Susan Paine, and drops his hat repeatedly. Slightly slapstick, but so sweet, and never out of place. The film never focuses on the political at the expense of the human — and perhaps that’s the whole point of Mr. Smith’s speech, and of the film itself. Never the political at the expense of the human, because the political has to be, above all, human. Whatever that might mean – makes sense in my head… 

The film, by the by, is available for free and in its glorious entirety on Youtube, and possibly on other sites as well. So if you got this far and haven’t watched the film – well, I’m sorry for the spoilers, but – go watch it now!

A tiny bit of cinematic/suspenseful glory for both the audience & Mr. the finger.

A tiny bit of cinematic/suspenseful glory for both the audience & Mr. Smith… the finger.

He moves the finger. The audience sighs, collectively: yes. Finally.

He moves his finger. The audience sighs, collectively: yes. Finally.

So long folks, & thanks for all the fish.

So long folks, & thanks for all the fish. (And geez, this guy – look at this. It’s genius. He’s a bloody amazing actor….)

"This is the story of Matuschek & Company - of Mr. Matuschek and the people who work for him. It is just around the corner from Andrassy Street - on Balta Street, in Budapest, Hungary."

“This is the story of Matuschek & Company – of Mr. Matuschek and the people who work for him. It is just around the corner from Andrassy Street – on Balta Street, in Budapest, Hungary.” – Opening intertitle

It was sometime in the mid-nineteenth century that department stores sprang into being, and by the end of it they were in the common parlance of most city-dwellers. I’d like to think – and many people who’ve studied the subject properly do imply – that department stores were as much an aesthetic phenomenon as they were a socioeconomic one. Cities meant crowds, and as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935, when seen through a crowd “the city was now a landscape, now a room. And both of these went into the construction of the department store, which made use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods.” Pleasurable gazing & the masses: a perfect union of aesthetic desire and capitalism. Windows are arranged beautifully (to catch the eyes of passers-by, and when the eye is caught, who knows but something else may be, too?); interiors suggest the sort of luxury that every busy-bee middle-class home aspires towards; and dolled-up mannequins present astounding ideals of beauty (just like the movies!). Windows and arrangement were (and still are, surely!) incredibly important – with department stores, it was not a question of snagging customers by getting them to deliberate the utility or functionality or basic necessity of things. No: the beautiful does the trick, brings them right into the store. A surface-oriented, purely visual sort of culture, and we’re back in Holly Golightly’s shallow – but comforting! – world.

What was that she said? Just get in a cab and go to Tiffany’s: “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.”

This beautiful interior set pretty much made me believe Holly Golightly.

This beautiful interior set pretty much made me believe Holly Golightly.

* * *

More than anybody – yes, even more than Holly Golightly! – Ernst Lubitsch really makes the department store seem beautiful, and not just in a visual sense. Oh no: Lubitsch’s department store is more than just visual allure (although it is beautiful); it’s also a space in which the larger dramas of human life play themselves out, almost ineffably, amidst the wallets and cigarettes boxes and men’s travelling-bags that make up the fine and quotidian stuff of life itself.

His 1940 film ‘The Shop Around the Corner‘ is centered around this mercantile-but-beautiful environment, the department store. Under the fearsome direction of one Mr. Hugo Matuschek, and in the confines of that little shop around the corner (‘Matuschek & Co.’), are the dreams, fears, hopes, and aspirations of a few employees lived out. The protagonists of this little tale are Alfred Kralik (played by the wonderful, splendid, beautiful James Stewart!), “first salesman” of the store, and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan – who is also splendid and beautiful), the store’s most recent addition. Alongside them is the sweet Pirovitch, who in modern parlance could be called Kralik’s ever-dependable ‘wingman’; the egotistical, trouble-stirring, womanizing Mr. Vadas; and a few others besides.

The narrative begins with two threads – the personal and the professional (don’t they all, for everyone?). Mr. Kralik is looking to enlarge his mind – to “study something about art, and literature, and history; how people live in Brazil!” – but unfortunately his pittance of a salary doesn’t allow him to buy an encyclopaedia. But every cloud does indeed have a silver lining; he comes across a ‘lonely-hearts’ ad. in the paper, and lo and behold! A meeting of true minds is imminent, for there is “modern girl”, wishing to “correspond on cultural subjects”. Anonymously. With “intelligent, sympathetic young man.” Who could it be but Mr. Kralik? And so a little epistolary love-affair begins; names are not known and faces are not seen, but it is considered by both parties to be a wonderful ‘meeting of true minds’, as it were. The prospect of a face-to-face meeting causes Mr. Kralik some worry; ideals, fine minds, and ‘cultural subjects’ are all very well, but what if she thinks he’s ugly? Or what if he thinks she’s ugly? Or what if she’s so beautiful that he is terrified of her? (What I love about this is that they are all very real fears….for lots of people, I guess, and regardless of era or place!).

Kralik spillin' the beans about his love-life to supportive wingman Pirovitch.

Kralik spillin’ the beans about his love-life to supportive wingman Pirovitch.

Around the time Mr. Kralik’s romantic woes are playing themselves out in loving little letters, Matuschek & Co. acquires a new employee: the smart and sassy Klara Novak, who impresses her way into a job despite Mr. Matuschek’s initial unwillingness. Thanks to her, Mr. Kralik’s professional life is also undergoing some turmoil; she works under him, but she doesn’t respect him – worse, she gives impersonations of him as being bow-legged in the locker room!  Resentment and insulting jibes sums up their relationships just about well – but oh! (The romantic-at-heart movie-goer knows it for what it really is, though: chemistry, pure and simple.)

Never start the working day without a good quarrel!

Never start the working day without a good quarrel!

You’ve probably figured it all out by now – Klara Novak is Mr. Kralik’s “dear Friend”, and he hers, and yet they blissfully spend all their non-epistolary time despising one another. It all comes to a head one action-packed night at Matuschek & Co.: Kralik loses his job (another manifestation of Mr. Matuschek’s inexplicable hatred for him all of a sudden – which we then learn is because Mr. Matuschek’s wife is having an affair with one of his employees, and Mr. M. suspects the poetry-spouting Kralik); and the fateful meeting between the two pen-pals is also scheduled for that night.

Mr. Kralik’s had a bad day, but it gets a whole lot worse when a sneak peek through the café window shows him that his ‘dear Friend’ of Letterbox 237 – who is to be identified by her copy of Anna Karenina and a red carnation for a bookmark – is none other than the rude Miss Novak herself! He gamely goes to chat with her without betraying his true identity as her correspondent, but is soon brutalized into further sorrow by her choice insults: “You, an insignificant little clerk!” she cries, jabbing where it hurts most – he’s not even that, anymore. (He provides his fair share of meanness, playing on Klara’s fears that her date might not show up, or worse, show up but secretly leave because of her being visually unsatisfactory – “…you’re cold & snippy like an old maid, and you’ll have a tough time getting a man to fall in love with you!”). Oof. Klara is heartbroken at being (as she believes) stood-up. Mr. Kralik has some assessing to do: does he like Klara? And could Klara, who sees him as mercantile and materialistic, ever like him if she knew the truth? (For who can forget that unforgettable jibe in the café, Klara to Kralik: “I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.”)

But this is a romantic comedy (though not a screwball comedy, I’d venture), so naturally all is well in the end: Mr. Matuschek discovers that his wife’s lover is actually the wretched Mr. Vadas, who is then speedily sacked by the new manager of the store, Kralik himself. Kralik and Klara improve their quotidian/professional relationship, and – of course – there is a beautiful, chiaroscuro-filled dénouement in which Kralik reveals that he is her dear Friend, and that he is not bow-legged. Cue  kiss. Cue The End.

* * *

Pauline Kael, who writes some damned fine and interesting stuff regardless of whether you generally agree with her or not, has this to say about ‘The Shop Around the Corner’:

Close to perfection–one of the most beautifully acted and paced romantic comedies ever made in this country…. in no other movie has this kind of love-hate been made so convincing. 

Peter Bogdanovich, whose blog at indiwire I just stumbled across, is even more effusive in his praise; he says (upon re-watching the movie; it’s a brilliant idea/mode of viewing, as a side note, to look at the evolution of your own reaction to a movie)*:

…Exceptional* through the roof, please! This is one of the greatest of American films: an absolute masterpiece of wit, humanity understood and defined. Each character is vividly brought to life with compassion and love; it makes you laugh, and it can make you cry. It is essentially a celebration of “average” people….

Phwoar! High praise indeed! But I agree: it is close to perfection, and not just because of its acting or the pace of the romance. No; what I love most about this movie is how atmospheric it is; I can’t quite pin down where it comes from, either – is it aesthetic? (Yes!) Is it emotional? (Yes!) Is it narrative? (Yes!). Well, whatever its source, this film is steeped in atmosphere; one overwhelmingly of warmth. This film has that rare, ineffable quality of being somewhat shallow, one might say (or superficial), even as it contrives to encapsulate the weightier aspects of life and emotion. (There are a few movies like this – that you love immensely, that you feel are important somehow, and that are still incredibly light. Like a soufflé – soufflé movies, let us call them. When Harry Met Sally springs to mind as being of this ilk; and hey, maybe that’s not entirely a coincidence – if the plot of ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ sounds eerily familiar to you, you might have met it in its modern incarnation: You’ve Got Mail, written and directed, I believe, by Nora Ephron.) Perhaps this quality in the film can be put down to Lubitsch’s incredible ability to collapse content into form, for after all, Kralik and Klara are perpetually struggling to maintain a balance between their ‘weighty’ ideals (culture; knowledge; a fine mind) and more superficial (and importantly, perhaps, visual) concerns (about their looks, and about their status in life – humble shop clerks!). It’s interesting too how painful it is for both Klara and Kralik to be reduced to the superficial – they don’t want to entrap the eye like an alluring window-arrangement (although this matters a little bit, too and humanly so!); they want to be understood. In a society of window-shoppers, human relationships have to struggle painfully against the disinterested-but-assessing gaze, fight fiercely against the mistaken visual paradigm that sees things only as they are, not for what they are.

vlcsnap-00197 vlcsnap-00198

In the event of the film itself, it is inside a department store, of all the superficial and materialistic places in the world, that people are having their hearts broken, their livelihoods taken away or being scrutinized sympathetically. The arranging of the window display catalyzes the breakdown of a friendship (it leads to Kralik’s firing); breaking Christmas sales records and receiving bonuses establishes a familial warmth and camaraderie within the store that’s wonderfully cheerful. It is inside a department store, after-hours, that we see the heartbroken Mr. Matuschek (hitherto only known as the kindly, somewhat-bumbling, sometimes-stern boss of the place) lament his wife’s infidelity – “Twenty-two years we’ve been married…well…she just didn’t want to grow old with me,” – and attempt suicide. And of course, inside the department store, after the lights go out, we see the culmination of a very sweet and delicate love affair. Amidst the Ochi Tchornya cigarette boxes! (About which, might I add, James Stewart/Kralik was entirely right – the idea of listening to that tinkling music every time you want a cigarette is horrendous!). But perhaps it’s these very things – the big, heavyweight, abstract things we often think about in capitalized form: Love, Betrayal, Friendship, etc. – that infuse their surroundings with the endearing and beloved atmosphere we come to regard them with. Perhaps we come to the realisation, along with Klara, that our lives and loves don’t play themselves out in grandiose settings, really; they play out in more ordinary spaces, and more ordinary contexts. Not at the comedie Française, but in the little shop around the corner.

Breathtaking shot - for me, this is the single most romantic shot in all of cinematic history. Am I crazy?

Breathtaking shot – I think this is the single most romantic shot in all of cinematic history. Am I crazy?

But the film’s astonishing loveliness comes down, above all, to Ernst Lubitsch. Not because of James Stewart or Margaret Sullavan, although both are wonderful in it and have an incredible on-screen chemistry (still not as good, for me, as Hepburn/Grant!). It’s funny, because a month or so ago when I embarked on my great movie education, I didn’t really like Lubitsch films (I found ‘Ninotchka’ a bit painful, not sure why, and ‘Trouble in Paradise’ was nice but it was an early – 1932 – talkie, and boy it  shows). But the time, as Hepburn sort of once said, to make up your mind about movie directors is never. Rightly so.

The majority of the movie is filmed inside the tiny set of the department store: except for the small sections at the café where Klara and Kralik meet and at the hospital where Kralik and Matuschek meet, everything else more or less takes place inside (or just outside) the store. In a poorly directed film this would be claustrophobic, mundane, stifling – utterly horrible. But as the film is – one hardly notices. A wonderful essay I found on the theme of ‘ordinariness’ in ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, by George Toles, points out that

Lubitsch supplies us with frequent, vivid, window and doorway glimpses of authentic darkness lying just beyond the Shop’s comfortable, warmly-lit settings. These brief, startling crossings of the shadow line place the entire action of the film within arm’s length of the kind of suffering for which there is no remedy, and perhaps no available speech.

Perhaps it sounds hyperbolic – but it is true. One could almost say that Lubitsch inverts the conventional direction of the metropolitan gaze: instead of looking into shops through windows, we are looking out of them. And the world outside seems almost scary; often dark, sometimes very palpably cold. The world outside is where Kralik goes when he is fired, and it is from where he watches Klara at the café table as she waits – almost by association, it’s not a nice place to be in. The realm of joblessness and lovelessness. It is also the space from which the sadder, kinder, but now also lonelier Mr. Matuschek, post-recovery and post-marital dissolution, watches his store as it goes through the routine Christmas Eve shopping-frenzy. The realm of wifelessness, friendlessness, purposelessness. And we know, as we watch others looking in, that these are the ‘lonely-hearts’; Lubitsch invests these shots (such brilliance!!!) with an amazing pathos and poignancy. Honestly. Mr. Matuschek in the snow, watching his store from the outside, almost drives me to tears; Kralik assessing Klara from the outside as she waits nervously for dear Friend to show up is breathtakingly romantic, though still tinged with a strange sort of sadness. Sidewalk-gazers are sad waifs; the flâneur doesn’t seem like such an enviable figure after all. The whole film takes place in a sort of dream-world – as somebody put it, “…Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom” – in Kael’s ‘Dream City’, perhaps? No Cary Grant here, but you do have a lovely little Hungarian department store (a set resplendent with old-world charm, delightful hints of Europhilia) in which almost everyone speaks with a distinct American accent. A Hungarian store on Balta Street where, for God’s sake, people talk like Jimmy Stewart. If this happened in most films today, I would choke on my popcorn and die out of sheer indignation and rage  – but in this film, it hardly seems to matter at all. Everything about it is so ethereal, so other-worldly in its beauty and sadness both; it hardly matters. The more I think I about it, the harder it is to think of a single film today which might have such a quality – situated, sure, but barely tied to its place and context. Films today are so firmly contextualized, right from the little subtitle that says something like “Paris, July 2012” to…well, everything. Verisimilitude and context are the order of the day, today.


I’ve filled this post with enough screencaps to have practically shown you guys the whole movie, but you must forgive me for three more. (That it is so screencap-heavy attests to how incredible Lubitsch’s direction and cinematography are: when I hear the words “visual pleasure”, I don’t think of Laura Mulvey anymore, but this film.) Two of them come from possibly the most breathtakingly beautiful scene – purely in terms of visuals and emotions – in all of cinema. Klara has not only been stood-up by her mysterious lover, but he has stopped writing to her: letterbox 237 lies cold & empty. All her hopes and all her heartbreak are captured, incredibly, in the frame-space of one tiny mailbox. (Sullavan’s ability to put so much pathetic emotion into half her face, might I add, is equally incredible.) The other one is a little snippet of Lubitsch-brilliance; instead of showing us the lovers’ faces when the truth is outed at last, he goes back to that little café jibe about bowlegged Kralik. ‘Would you mind showing me your legs now?’ asks Klara; Kralik obliges (and the infamously awful – read ‘The Philadelphia Story’ anecdotes – Jimmy Stewart legs see the light of screen at last!). (Worth adding: even Sullavan/Stewart legs have great chemistry in the same frame. Why didn’t those two get married?!?!?). Flowery adoration and love-making is all very well if you’re in the comedie Française, but Kralik and Klara, after all, are in humbler and more prosaic settings – and there is just the smallest possibility that the handsome lover will, after all, be bowlegged. Klara just wants to be sure.

Letterbox 237 - empty!

Letterbox 237 – empty!

Klara - heartbroken!

Klara – heartbroken!

The legs!

The legs!

Samson Raphaelson, the screenplay adapter behind ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ and one of Lubitsch’s most prolific and loved collaborators, recounts this exchange with Lubitsch in a May 1981 piece in the New Yorker. It is sweet and fearful – and rather sad. (Lubitsch says…)

“A movie – any movie, good or bad – ends up in a tin can in a warehouse; in ten years it’s dust….You’re smart [to Samson, who was a playwright] that you stick with the theatre, Sam. What college teaches movies? But drama is literature. Your plays are published. Someday a student gets around to you – you have a fighting chance.”

Thank God, is all I can say, that Lubitch’s dark prophecy – of being forgotten, his movies unwatched and unappraised – did not come to pass. Thank God that a director with a vision as wonderful, as warming, and as beautiful as Lubitsch’s does get his due, his “fighting chance”. And thank god for some things that technology brought out of dusty tin cans, and to lonelyhearts in the ilk of Klara and Kralik everywhere.**

*The reference to Peter Bogdanovich’s blog was added on Wednesday 27th March 2013, as an edit.

** This reference to Raphaelson’s New Yorker piece was added on Wednesday 27th March 2013, as an edit. Felt I had to :-)

The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee

Warning: This post will involve both spoilers and some pretentious philosophizing, so if either of things tend to make you ill, reading further is not advised. 

The Childhood of Jesus
by J. M. Coetzee
Random House

Coetzee’s latest book, The Childhood of Jesus (what a tantalizing name!), came out just last week, on the 7th of March. Now the problem with reading too many dead authors is that you never have the glee and fun of looking forward to a new book, and you can seldom experience the adrenaline rush of running to the bookstore ASAP to acquire a just-released title. I’m happy to say that for the first time in many many years, I’ve now had this adrenaline rush. But what did surprise me was that this book – by a double-Booker winner, by a Nobel-winner, no less! – came out in relatively muted circumstances. No fanfare, no mass media coverage. No reviews in the NYRB or LRB or New York Times yet. I could only find reviews in British publications, and those too had to be specifically hunted down, didn’t seem to have many readers, and sometimes were downright mocking.

Maybe this is because this book could be considered, as a commenter in The Guardian put beautifully, “minor Coetzee”. I like the idea of ‘minor Coetzee’ and ‘major Coetzee’, as if his novels were symphonies of a sort, playing at different pitches of value and importance. But is it ‘minor Coetzee’? I’m not sure. It’s definitely not his ‘best’ work (both subjectively and technically speaking) – as an allegory-parable, it’s not quite Waiting for the Barbarians or Life and Times of Michael K. As a philosophical interrogation of different things… well, I still prefer Diary of a Bad Year. As ‘political commentary’ (a tricky description to apply to any Coetzee book – but there you are – stuff like Disgrace and Age of Iron are more easily, more discernibly ‘about’ South Africa than others) – nope, it’s not. At least not explicitly. But there’s no doubt that within the wider Coetzee-oeuvre, it’s an important and valuable culmination of ideas and questions that Coetzee has been steadily interrogating for the past few years. Perhaps in this sense, it’ll be of more interest to the academic world than it will to the general public. (Cough cough.)

A brief summary of the plot: A man named Símon and a young boy called David arrive in a Spanish-speaking town called Novilla (armed with nothing more than a rudimentary beginner’s Spanish, which nonetheless seems good enough to conduct lengthy philosophical discussions in!), after having spent some time being processed in a ‘camp’. Símon is emphatically not David’s father, and they are looking for his “real” mother (Símon is sure that he’ll ‘know her when he sees her’, intuitively, despite the fact that her name is not known to him or the boy, and despite the fact that neither of them knows what she actually looks like). They settle down into their life in the weird Novilla – a place and whose people Símon finds deeply unfulfilling, sexually and otherwise. “Complacent” might be a good word to describe this town and the people in it; “apathetic” might be another (though ever-so-slightly off the mark, I guess). Nobody desires anything, and life just goes on. Various encounters later, Símon and David meet a lady playing tennis with her two brothers, and (surrealism ahoy!) Símon is sure that he has seen David’s mother. “Will you take him as your son?” he asks Inés. Not adoption; no, as her ‘real’ child. Bizarre though the request is, she accepts. The rest of the novel details their interactions – David, Inés, and Símon’s – and the development of the child. He’s a rather naughty one, and gets into trouble at school; when they try and place in his a school for “special” children, Punto Arenas, David runs away after a short while and the over-protective (?) Inés decides she would rather run away from Novilla, and start a ‘new life’, than risk having her son taken away by the authorities again. So Inés, Símon, and David escape in a car to a ‘new life’. This is more or less how the novel ends.

Not that anybody could – or should – go into a Coetzee novel expecting easy hand-outs in the sense of narrative or thematic resolution, but even with that in mind this book is extremely reserved and guarded about what it is trying to say, or show, or mean. It’s called The Childhood of Jesus, alright, but it defies even an attempt to read it as any sort of straightforward allegory about the origins of Christianity. (Although I can’t discount the possibility that Coetzee is implying, with his tongue firmly in cheek and a twinkle in his famously-untwinkling eyes, that Jesus was perhaps nothing more than petulant little boy who refused to adhere to the established systems around him!). The title definitely exists outside the world of the novel, which makes it all the more fascinating – because, of course, when you pick up a book called The Childhood of Jesus, you somehow keep trying to read the narrative that follows in light of that external knowledge (“This is about Jesus, somehow!”). And with more than a little mischief, Coetzee deflects (or at the very least, thoroughly complicates) all attempts to do so.

Both David and Símon are hugely interesting – and difficult, always! – characters. Símon is a man of needs and desires, constantly yearning for the something more of life, whether it be in his sexual relations or in the work that he does (stevedoring – carrying bags of grain off cargo ships) – I think it’s a feeling we can all probably empathize with. Can’t there be something more meaningful, more relevant for me to be doing than this? But this persistent yearning after some sort of feeling, or sensation, or meaning-to-life that Símon can neither name nor articulate coherently is at odds with the way of life and the way of thinking people have in Novilla. As Elena (a secondary character) firmly tells Símon one day, “This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing, is a way of thinking we are well rid of, in my opinion. Nothing is missing.” I don’t quite know enough philosophy to understand precisely what this exemplifies, but no doubt there is an interrogation of Platonism here – Novilla might very well be Plato’s cave, as all aspects of life there seem to strike Símon as nothing more than (unsatisfactory) shadows on the wall. (David later watches a TV show about Mickey Mouse and Plato, which sounds like a damned fine show…) Símon is constantly reaching for something beyond the image; the real, one might almost say, just like he tries to reach David’s ‘real’ mother. (Weirdly, her ‘realness’ as David’s mother ultimately doesn’t matter; in performance she is accepted. I wonder what Coetzee means by that?)

A happy confluence: sometimes you’re reading about something else, but what you find there is illuminating and deeply pertinent to something entirely unrelated. When I was reading about screwball comedies, I came across this from the philosopher Stanley Cavell, and it seems to sum up the distinction between Símon and the rest of the Novillans pretty perfectly (next blogpost, or, alternatively, a PhD. thesis: On the intricate relationship between the works of J. M. Coetzee and 1930s romantic comedy films. You heard it here first!):

Put otherwise, the achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs.

If Símon belongs to former camp (those who believe that happiness/fulfillment lies in a somehow-deeper satisfaction of needs and desires), then Elena and Álvaro belong to the latter camp (it’s not that needs need satisfaction, but rather that your understanding of those needs requires transforming – needs are not everything, they’re not even anything). There is only what is, and to yearn after the what-isn’t – the ineffable realm of ideas and something-more – is futile and rather strange to Novillans. At the free education Institute in Novilla, people are again concerned only with the philosophical questions of the real and the qualities that make ’em – the chairness of chairs, and the pooness of poo (an exchange in which Símon is unclogging the toilet in Inés & David’s apartment throws up lines like “Toilets are just toilets, but poo is not just poo…There are certain things that are not just themselves, not all the time. Poo is one of them.”) (As some reviewers have pointed out, this book is surprisingly – and weirdly – humorous. Not in any conventional sense, but certainly in some sort of bizarre, muted, ironic sense.)

But then it’s difficult to pinpoint Símon as an idealist, too – because when David decides to live in his own world, literally rejecting the systems of rationalization (mathematics) and communication (language) that make up ‘reality’, Símon is not impressed. “Because that is the way the world is,” becomes an almost-constant refrain in his lectures to David. To me this almost seems slightly at odds with Símon’s earlier insistence on the something more, and his didacticism towards David echoes that which he himself earlier received. In David, Coetzee’s recent preoccupation with systems of rationality and communication as arbitrary (? – or at the very least, artificial systems of imposition) comes to the fore. Two exchanges between Símon and David:

“I know all the numbers. Do you want to hear them? I know 134 and I know 7 and I know” – he draws a deep breath – “4623551 and I know 888 and I know 92 and I know -“

“Stop! That’s not knowing the numbers, David. Knowing the numbers means being able to count. It means knowing the order of the numbers – which numbers come before and which come after….”

* * *

“…You can look at the page and move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading. For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page. You have to give up your fantasies. You have to stop being silly.”

Símon propounds an almost-fatalistic adherence to the way things are (bizarrely: isn’t that Elena and Álvaro were trying to tell him earlier?), and this embodies the education system that David soon enters, too. These exchanges between David and Símon reminded me of one of my favourite parts from my favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year. It’s one of the essays that the mysterious Señor C of the novel writes, “18. On Zeno”, which begins with a description of how we can teach children to count (relevant!). More generally, it is a meditation on the nature of numbers, and the writer of the essay makes particular reference to a little philosophical fable by Jorge Luis Borges,

…about a man to whom the counting rule, and indeed the even more fundamental rules that allow us to encompass the world in language, are simply alien.

Borges’ kabbalistic, Kantian fable brings it home to us that the order we see in the universe may not reside in the universe at all, but in the paradigms of thought we bring to it. The mathematics which we have invented (in some accounts) or discovered (in others), which we believe or hope to be a key to the structure of the universe, may well equally be a private language – private to human beings with human brains – in which we doodle on the walls of our cave.

I do not know that Coetzee ever resolved (or resolves) – either in Diary of a Bad Year or in The Childhood of Jesus – this question that is posed first by Señor C, and then exemplified in the battle, almost, between Símon (and almost all of Novilla) and David. Is this order, the purest form of which is manifested in mathematics, something invented (and therefore artificial, arbitrary) or discovered (and therefore inherent)? Does it matter, if either way we’re going to have to live with it “because that is the way the world is”? Who is right (if anyone), David or Símon? Are they even really at odds? And what does this have to do with Jesus, really? My favourite review of the book, in the New Statesman, links these questions further to Elizabeth Costello, and Elizabeth Costello’s brief digression (?) on Srinivasa Ramanujan, “widely thought of as one of the greatest intuitive mathematicians of our time” (in Costello’s words). It’s worth reading that review to get a clearer sense of how Costello’s brief digression on Ramanujan could be linked to The Childhood of Jesus, and further, how it perhaps functions along with it as a questioning of rationality and reason as the be-all and end-all. As indeed it often seems to be….

Snippet from 'Diary of a Bad Year' - quoting from Borges.

Snippet from ‘Diary of a Bad Year’ – quoting from Borges.

There are probably a million more things that could be said about The Childhood of Jesus than I have traced out here, but I didn’t really want to write an(other) essay on it (ha! Not so sure I succeeded, though!). Either way, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t really understand it – but then, I don’t think there’s any Coetzee novel or essay I can say I’ve properly understood, so that’s nothing new. The plot is sparse, and it’s all the more to its credit then that it still manages to be extremely interesting. The way the characters speak is a little stilted and artificial – inevitable, I suppose, when almost every conversation seems to have some philosophical underpinning – and some reviewers have pointed this out critically, but I don’t think it matters. Nobody reads Coetzee for realism/naturalism, of dialect or otherwise, and as such, these criticisms are largely immaterial. More than it is a novel of technical brilliance, this is a novel of ideas (Símon would be pleased), and although it’s Coetzee’s first allegorical(ish)/parable-esque narrative in a long time (his most recent works have been things like Diary of a Bad Year, Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello – none of which are quite like some of his earlier works, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and TImes of Michael K.), I do believe it’s an explicit continuation of issues Coetzee has interrogated, briefly or otherwise, in his recent works. It’ll be extremely interesting to revisit works like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year properly and delineate exactly what preoccupations Coetzee carries forth with him into this book – equally, I think its best qualities are probably going to be lost on people who don’t look at it within this context of oeuvre.

It’s a good book. Not his best (whichever rubric you use to determine the ‘best’), but a good one. Coetzee devotees will enjoy it, though I’m not sure about others; it might strike some people as a bit stuffy. I’m going to be scratching my head over it for a while, and I’m sure others will too. I hope it gets more coverage than it has done so far, because the silence that seems to surround it is both unwarranted and surprising.