WINSOR MCCAY AND THE CINEMA

The
influence that went on, back and forth, between the cinema and other
visual arts has often been noticed but rarely studied in detail. 
Writers on cinema have produced tome after tome about the influence of the
stage and literature on movies, but the visual side of things has
rarely been subjected to rigorous investigation.

Partly this is because the two principal visual influences on movies,
comic strips and Victorian academic painting, have had little prestige
in the scholarly culture, and partly it's because these two forms have
been hard to study themselves.  First-rate reproductions of even
the most important comic strips have been difficult to come by, and
Victorian academic painting tends to languish in storage in museums, to
make room in the galleries for the junk creations of “modern art”.

With respect to comic strips, things are changing.  Splendid reproductions of seminal strips like Popeye, Gasoline Alley and Terry and the Pirates
are becoming available in ongoing series, and Winsor McCay is getting
spectacular treatment in large over-sized volumes which do full justice
to his amazing visions. (See here and here.)

New revelations about the connection between comic strips and movies should
follow.  Here's a brief slideshow (via Boing Boing) created by a critic at the Boston Globe
which surveys some of the most obvious ways Winsor McCay's work has
influenced the iconography of movies.  It's based on observations in a new collection of McCay's strip Dream Of the Rarebit Fiend.  More complex issues of
narrative technique and composition will surely come to the fore in the
future.  [McCay created some of the earliest animated cartoons, so
his influence on film animation has long been appreciated, but his
influence on movies in general was far more comprehensive, as the
slideshow suggests.]

If you want to contemplate the connection between cinema and Victorian
academic painting you will just have to settle at present for my
passing observations in the essays collected here.

D-DAY

This picture has an aura and authority that may become harder and harder to
appreciate.  It was taken by Robert Capa, who went into Omaha Beach
with the first wave on D-Day, 6 June 1944.  Omaha Beach was, as it turned
out, the most hellish sector of the invasion, where the most casualties
occurred.  Even before that became known, Capa would certainly
have been aware that he was risking his life to record the moment on
film, that there was a good chance he’d never return from France, even
if he managed to get ashore there.  But he knew how important the
invasion was — what a visual record of it would mean to everyone
praying for its success, and to future generations.

In modern warfare, there would probably be video cameras attached to
the landing craft, capable of transmitting live images to a command
center somewhere, but in Capa’s time a real live human being needed to
be there with a camera to bring back pictures of the assault.  A
life had to be put on the line for it.

Capa could assume, too, that his pictures would have a built-in
authority as proof of his witness.  Today, in the era of
Photoshop, when photographs can be faked almost beyond detection, the
photographic medium has lost some of this authority.  We have to
think retrospectively to summon up what the image above and the one below meant to Capa and his contemporaries.

There was a tragic but somehow fitting end to Capa’s experiences at
Omaha Beach.  He survived but most of the photographs he took did
not.  A nervous lab assistant back in England tried to dry Capa’s
rolls of 35mm film too quickly — and all but eleven of the images were
destroyed.  But this just served to make those eleven images more
precious — to remind us of all that was lost on D-Day, all the lives
of young American soldiers that ended on the invasion beaches.

The eleven images that do survive are miraculous things.  It’s
like having photographs of the last day at Thermopylae, of the battle
on Bunker Hill, of the furthest advance of Pickett’s charge.  The visual
records of future wars will be more extensive and more useful to
military planners, but they won’t have quite the human dimension, the
spiritual dimension, of Capa’s pictures.  They may make us shudder but they won’t make us cry — as Capa’s do, or should.

MA VIE

Here's a poem in French by Henri Michaux, Ma Vie:



Tu t'en vas sans moi, ma vie.

Tu roules.

Et moi j'attends encore de faire un pas.

Tu portes ailleurs la bataille.

Tu me désertes ainsi.

Je ne t'ai jamais suivie.

Je ne vois pas clair dans tes offres.

Le petit peu que je veux, jamais tu ne l'apportes.

A cause de ce manque, j'aspire à tant.

A tant de choses, à presque l'infini…

A cause de ce peu qui manque, que jamais tu n'apportes.

Here's a rough translation:

You're going away without me, my life.
You're rolling on.
And I'm still waiting to make my first move.
You've taken the battle elsewhere.
You've deserted me.
I never followed you.
I've never seen anything in what you offer.
The little I want you never bring me.
Because of this I want so much –
So many things, almost everything . . .
Just because of this pittance I lack, that you never bring me.

A NEW CREHORE

This new painting, Deja Vu Waltz,
by Amy Crehore was just completed for a show at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa
Monica, California, opening on 17 November.  If I were in the Los Angeles area I'd rush
right out to see it.  It's awesome.

The devil would like to turn all this gossamer sensuality into
something else, but he can't — he's under severe restraint.  The
naughty dream will just go on and on.

THE WAR

Reading Hitler's War,
David Irving's massive, exhaustive study of WWII as seen from Hitler's
perspective, is riveting but spiritually exhausting.  We will
never have a more sympathetic portrayal of Hitler and his motives, at
least not one consistent with the purely factual record, but what vapid
company the Führer turns out to be.  Even the glamor of evil can't
redeem him and his henchmen from their utter banality, from the sheer
colossal mind-numbing stupidity of their fear of and paranoia about “world
Jewry”.  As they grow in power their puny souls seem smaller and
smaller — consistent with the bunch of clever, fanatical, provincial
hacks they were.  It will be to Germany's eternal shame that it
consented to be led in momentous times by such mediocre shadows of men.

A useful specific for the soul-sickness induced by Irving's book is Ken Burn's 15-hour documentary The War
It's not without its passages of moral self-congratulation, but its
greatest value lies in its willingness to confront the darkness that
the war summoned up in the victors, especially in the young men who had
to fight it on the front lines.  In the filmed interviews, the American combat
survivors — old men looking back on the war after more than half a
century — still tremble when they recall what they had to do, still seem
mystified that they could do it.

Like the Germans and the Japanese, the good guys in this war learned to
kill without mercy — even to kill defenseless civilians and unarmed
prisoners.  And sometimes they experienced an exhilaration in
killing.  The experience shook their souls and by the evidence
they never really got over it.  The fact that they won a “good
war”, or a “necessary war” as one of them prefers to call it, didn't
heal the wounds within.

Hitler, and the Japanese warlords, sought to glorify the merciless
killing of war — sought to embrace it as a given of nature.  The
soldiers of the great democracies may have recognized it as a given of
nature, but their refusal to glorify it, to accept it willingly as a part of who
they were, even in a just cause, makes for a startling contrast to
the supposed “realism” of a man like Hitler.  It gives the heart a
little breathing space in a heartless world.

GLORIA SWANSON'S SADIE THOMPSON


In
1947, an old, bitter, alcoholic has-been named D. W. Griffith
complained to a journalist that movies had lost something — “the
beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful
blowing on the blossoms in the trees” is how he summed it up. It's sort
of an odd thing to say, since movies never stopped moving, and when
there are trees on screen you can often see the wind moving their
leaves.



But of
course Griffith was talking about something more profound — harking
back to his own heyday as a filmmaker, when those moving blossoms were
not just a grace note, an accident of location, which might possibly
affect the taking of live sound, but in some real sense what movies
were about . . . movement, the illusion of movement in space, the
transformation of that illusory space, drawing us into it
imaginatively, investing it with emotional drama.



Griffith
was bemoaning the loss of the discursive style of cinematic narrative,
in which the accumulation of passages of plastic transformation were
not simply the accouterments of style but the very method of
storytelling, of emotional communication, in film. He was bemoaning the
terrible efficiency of the studio method, in which those moving
blossoms became incidental decoration, garlands gracing the elegant,
ruthless machinery of narrative exposition.



Those
of us who love Westerns love them in part because the Western genre
alone for many years after the coming of sound preserved that
discursive style — in which they way people and horses and things
moved and penetrated and transformed the spaces of a room or a street
or a landscape carried the burden of the drama, the narrative
exposition being pretty much formulaic and predictable.



Raoul
Walsh, a Griffith protege, became a brilliant craftsman of the studio
style in the sound era, with an eye for plastic values which lifts most
of his work above the ordinary. But not far above the ordinary. His
Sadie Thompson, from 1928, is a masterpiece, however — and a film
that in many ways defines the crossroads movies had come to in
Hollywood on the eve of sound.

Sadie
Thompson
is a very slick film, of great narrative economy — a studio
picture in that sense. But in scene after scene the narrative momentum
is suspended dreamily as we are invited to appreciate, to inhabit
intimate spaces and moments — to linger in them languorously. Swanson
plays a hardboiled dame, but we can sense the girlishness and innocence
that has survived her smarmy past — and Walsh takes time to let us
inside that quality of hers . . . not with a line of thought-balloon
dialogue, but in a rapturously lit scene at her window with O'Hara, in
which the way she looks at him illuminates her face from within,
absolutely breaks your heart. It's like a movie within a movie, and
when you're watching it, it seems as though this is what the whole
story is about.



Walsh
doesn't have a soundtrack to deliver the incessant noise of rain, so he
lingers on moments of transition between the wet outdoors and the dry
interiors, physical business with umbrellas and ponchos and damp
clothes. He luxuriates in exploring the fabulously atmospheric and
spatially intriguing inn set designed by William Cameron Menzies. He
rarely moves the camera, but when he does it has an emotional purpose
– Sadie being drawn into the interior of the island after she gets off
the ship, surrounded by the marines, O'Hara trying to carry her away
from Davidson and his creepy spell.



One of
the most powerful moments is also one of the most subtle. Just before
the climax, Davidson looks down at the redeemed Sadie, slumped in a
wicker chair. She's removed her make-up and straightened out her hair,
but still looks beautiful, in a severe way. Then Walsh pans down very
slightly from a close-up of Swanson's face — just enough to let us see
her upper chest moving as she breathes. There's no skin — we don't
even see the curve of her breast under her dress — but the very
subtlety of the shift of attention is wildly suggestive and erotic. We
know exactly what Davidson is thinking.



Lionel
Barrymore, as Davidson, looking gaunt and somewhat terrifying, plays an
extreme character, but his performance is beautifully nuanced,
particularly at the beginning. We feel the sensual pleasure he takes in
tormenting sinners, which prepares us for his surrender to another kind
of sensuality at the end. It's far more effective than Walter Huston's
more tasteful and buttoned-up take on the character in the 1932 sound
remake.



The simplicity and reserve of Walsh's performance as O'Hara (above) serves the role well — he used his very inexperience as an
actor to sell O'Hara's shy, straightforward decency.



Swanson
is brilliant — and brilliantly inconsistent. Her tough-girl swagger is
charming, and not entirely convincing, which makes her sweetness with
O'Hara, her innocent faith in his love, believable, and her sudden
breakdown in front of Davidson plausible as well . . . she was never as
hard and self-possessed as she seemed to be, and her first look into
the face of irrecoverable loss unhinges her completely. Joan Crawford's
Sadie in the 1932 remake is a one-note impersonation by comparison, and
could have been played almost as well by a man in drag, which is what
Crawford sometimes suggests.



It's a shame the last reel of the film has been lost — though the reconstruction of it on the Kino release is well-done
and as satisfying as possible under the circumstances.



It's a wonderful movie, with a foot in two different eras of Hollywood filmmaking, but with its heart and soul in Griffith's.

A SHAKESPEARE SONG FOR TODAY

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers meeting–
Every wise man's son doth know.

What is love? 'tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,–
Then come kiss me, Sweet and twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure.

It's from Twelfth Night.




Trip no further, pretty sweeting,


Journeys end in lovers meeting . . .

Are there any lovelier lines in all of English poetry?

What I like about them most is that they combine the lover's faith with the storyteller's faith.

The reference to singing both high and low is apparently mildly obscene, but I'll leave the details of it to your imagination.

The carpe diem message of the
song is not unusual, but the gossamer delicacy of the tone is
rare.  As I've suggested before, A. E. Housman got it down pretty
well:

Clay lies still but blood's a rover,
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad, when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

HITLER'S WAR

Early
in his career the brilliant but unbalanced British historian David
Irving became convinced that most of the history of WWII as written by
the victors was suspect — infected with a mythology of moral
superiority which wasn't always supported by the actual documentation
available.  He set about to correct this.

Irving became an indefatigable researcher, particularly in the German
archives whose contents few historians had mastered.  His sense of
sympathy for the Nazi regime also encouraged many German survivors of
the war, or their heirs, to make available to him private documents
which had not been available to other historians.

The result of this was, eventually, an extraordinary book, Hitler's War,
which the great military historian John Keegan has called one of the
essential works of WWII historiography.  It is, Keegan says, like
the memoir Hitler never wrote.

The book takes us through the war from inside Hitler's headquarters,
and from Hitler's perspective.  It doesn't minimize Hitler's
bloodthirsty ruthlessness, but it offers many instances of the
bloodthirsty ruthlessness of his enemies — the sorts of things that
Hitler might have used to justify his actions in his own mind.

The detail in the book is mind-boggling — it's almost a week by week
record of Hitler's habits, movements, decisions, moods.  It's like
viewing all the events of The Lord Of the Rings from inside Mordor.

It can't be said that the book gets us inside Hitler himself, inside
the man.  Even his closest associates would admit in later years
that they never managed to do that.  He remains an enigma — a
hollow human being.  That may have been one source of his power — he
was a vessel in which the mighty currents of history, both good and evil,
could collect.  But the book does bring us into his uncanny
presence.

Irving takes care to point out that no hard documentary evidence
exists that Hitler knew of or approved the Final Solution of the
“Jewish problem” as it developed in the last years of the war.  Irving uses this gap in the record to
argue that Hitler was in fact unaware of what Himmler was really doing
out in the field.  Even Keegan admits that the proposition is
illogical — but for Irving, apparently, it was an important one. 
It allowed him to see Hitler as a brilliant monster, along the lines of
Napoleon, say, but not as a demon in human form.

This desire to see Hitler as less than purely evil was, as it turned out, the seed of something darker in Irving,
which has gradually marginalized him as a historian and as a man. 
His sympathy for right-wing neo-Nazi movements and his personal racial
prejudice came to the fore.  He eventually decided that the
Holocaust, as it's generally understood, did not exist — that the
Final Solution was not a Nazi policy but a series of ad-hoc actions by
local commanders in the final months before Germany's defeat.
  (In the most recent edition of Hitler's War,
from 2002, Irving has amended the text to reflect his later views of
the Holocaust — so it's worth tracking down an earlier edition if you
plan to read it.)



By allying himself with the lunatic fringe of Holocaust deniers and
neo-Nazis, Irving has become something of a joke, a very unpleasant
joke — and yet . . . the core of his achievement remains.  The
massive research supporting Hitler's War,
the vast accumulation of detail in it, is indispensable stuff, even
though it may be presented in the service of unacceptable attitudes and
prejudices.  You simply cannot understand WWII without
reading it.

[For Irving's perspective on all this you can visit his web site here.]

JACKSON'S END

Stonewall
Jackson is buried in Lexington, Virginia, near the Virginia Military
Institute, where he taught before the Civil War.  But his arm,
which he lost at Chancellorsville, where he received the wounds that
killed him, is buried near that battlefield.

When Jackson's shattered arm was cut off after the battle it was
thrown onto a pile of amputated limbs, as was customary, but his
chaplain decided to retrieve it and he took it to the nearby farm of a
relative, who buried it in the family plot.  Eventually a small
stone marker was erected over its final resting place.

The grave can be visited today, but it's not easy.  When I toured
the Chancellorsville battlefield two summers ago, with some relatives,
we had to park at a gate about a mile from the cemetery and walk to the
grave.  My eighty year-old mom was along, and she made the trek
with the rest of us, in the hot Virginia sun.

The cemetery was beautiful — a small fenced-in plot on a knoll
overlooking cornfields, shaded by old trees.  There was no
particular emotion associated with visiting the site.  An arm is a
tool.  It was like visiting the grave of Stonewall Jackson's
sword.  It was the walk with family that was moving — and
surreal, like the Civil War itself.  We Americans are going to
take up arms and kill each other in great numbers, they said back
then.  We are going to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Stonewall
Jackson's arm, we said generations later.  Somehow it all made
sense.  I kept thinking of Jackson's famous last words:

Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.

There are some mysterious, unexplainable journeys that just have to be made.

LOUP GRILLÉ AU FENOUIL

Loup grillé au fenouil, translated precisely from the French, means wolf
grilled with fennel. Those familiar with Mediterranean cooking will
recognize, however, that the wolf, the loup, referred to here is loup
de mer
, the wolf of the sea, or sea bass. Sea bass grilled with fennel
is one of the glories of southern French cuisine.


I first encountered it in one of the restaurants facing onto the harbor
of Villefranche, a small town just east of Nice — a restaurant called
Mère Germaine. There are several restaurants just like it facing the
harbor, and loup grillé au fenouil is not prepared better in Mère
Germaine than in any of the others, but Mère Germaine is where I first
had it, and so that must remain the center of my nostalgia for the
dish.

It has certainly never tasted better anywhere else — except perhaps on a
terrace barbecue in Seattle once. A friend living there had discovered
wild fennel growing near him in a vacant lot, and used its seeds to
season the fish, its stalks to fuel the fire beneath, resulting in a
wholly satisfying sensory experience.

Nostalgia is a potent spur to culinary ambition. One day while peeking into
the tiny seafood selection at my local supermarket I noticed a
tempting fillet of Chilean sea bass. I bought it, along with some dried
fennel seeds from the spice racks, and decided to see how close I could
come to recapturing the taste of those long ago nights on the Côte
d’Azur.


I coated a small pan with olive oil, salted and peppered the bottom of
the pan, then covered it with fennel seeds.  I placed the fillet of sea
bass in the pan and made two slits in the fillet. I coated the top of
the fillet with olive oil, salted and peppered it, and covered it with
fennel seeds, filling up the slits with extra seeds.


I set it under the broiler in my oven until the fennel seeds
were brown and thoroughly roasted, at which point the fish was cooked through but still moist.


I ate it with a respectable Chardonnay from the Coppola vineyards, and the
wine was fine, but a drier one would have suited the taste of the fish
better. The taste of the fish was miraculous — light but flavorful –
and the toasted fennel seeds gave a pleasant reminder of the dish as
it’s prepared on the shores of the Mediterranean.


It was not by any means loup grillé au fenouil as you’d encounter it there, cooked on a real charcoal fire, seasoned with fresh fennel. But it was poignantly close.