Thursday, May 25, 2017

The River

Although The River (1951; dir. Jean Renoir) was filmed entirely on location, in color, in India, an unusual feat for the time, the problems of the British family at its center have little to do with India. The film follows the activities of family members and the fascination of three young women with a wounded war veteran who has come to live with his cousin. We see many scenes of Indian life, of workers carrying bundles of the Ute processed in a nearby factory, of people going about their daily business, of festivals and celebrations. But these are more a backdrop than they are contributing factors to the British family. Renoir moves back and forth among various family members almost with dispassion, yet as the film moves forward the humanness of its characters, and his sympathy for them, grows increasingly apparent.

We must give artistic films the benefit of their own premises. This is early post-colonial India. The family apparently lives in easy harmony with its Indian neighbors. They still enjoy certain imperial benefits and privilege. But their world is changing, and they have adopted or absorbed certain Indian values and beliefs. A nearby British man, married to an Indian woman now dead, is the father of a half-Indian girl educated in British schools who has decided to live in India as an Indian woman. The British family members, especially the children, appear to see no Other in the Indian Other—there is no visible wall between them—though it may be more visible to the Indians themselves. The family members have also lost some of their distinctive British character—though they are still distinctively British. An Indian governess and a guard help manage daily affairs of the family. The father works, and the mother is apparently always in the process of bearing children—she has five daughters and a son and is pregnant with a sixth child. She is a literal symbol of fecundity, or birth and rebirth, but she is more significantly a mother, a woman, a human being.

Although Renoir strives to portray India with accuracy and detail, he does so from a western point of view. He needs the British family to serve as his mediator. He tells their story, after all. Without them, what story would he know to tell?

The film flows with a strangely ritualistic, spiritual rhythm. Even as one child dies, another is born. The river and its symbolism of continuity and rebirth flows on. This film evokes emotion and human understanding without sentimentality.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


In the tradition set by director Godfrey Reggio in the documentaries Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002), Ron Fricke, the director of Samsara (2011), uses photos and film taken over a period of five years to comment on the human condition.  Drawing mostly from cultures and people from various parts of Asia and Africa, to a lesser extent from Europe and the Americas, he shows people engaged in a array of activities: eating, dancing, childrearing, worship, walking along streets. The film is an assemblage of images (though assemblage suggest a three-dimensional structure, which we don’t have here) or montage (which implies an array of images we view all at once, which we cannot do here): the film gives us a series of images in linear order, and any order we find in them comes from our ability to look for echoes, repetitions, interactions among the images. We notice images showing women in various roles of subordination, in service to men.  We notice many images of poverty, interspersed with some images of wealth and affluence. We are given a sense that humans across the world in one way or the other face parallel burdens and obstacles, and that economic disparities, violence, and war (all emphasized as we near the film’s conclusion) are counterbalanced by images of worship, access to a so-called higher truth.  A particularly painful series of clips show chickens, steers, and pigs being fed, slaughtered, dismembered, and prepared for market in a massive industrial factory setting. The music for this film varies between spiritual music sung by choir-like voices and vaguely New Ageish music.  Samsara lacked the movement, energy, and hypnotic effect of Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisqatsi.  If the conditions shared by the human race are supposed to be a source of hope and support, as this film would have it, I felt only hopelessness.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion

Joan Didion has a fine eye for detail.  It was one of the prime features of her collections of essays, especially Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.  It’s in evidence in her latest book, South and West: From a Notebook (Knopf, 2017), which is mostly about her one-month trip through the deep South in 1970.  This is not a formally completed book.  It’s a collection of notes Didion took on her trip, as well as notes she took while covering the Patti Hearst trial in 1975 (she mentions Hearst twice—her notes are mostly about her own family history).  I assume that Didion edited these notes prior to their publication, but she seems to have left them as they mostly were when she wrote them.  Didion found the South she was looking for in 1970—a conservative backwater of swampy decay and middle- and upper-class white Southerners trying to frame themselves as progressives when in fact they were still on the defensive against the civil rights movement.  Such a South did exist in 1970.  It exists, to a lesser but still significant extent, now.  Didion interviews (or attempted to interview) a number of Southerners during her trip, including the owner of a cosmetology school, a white owner of an-black format radio station, Hodding Carter, Walker Percy (briefly), and others.  She allows her subjects to talk, and some of them talk at length.  Didion was on the lookout in 1970 for a South not yet accepting of the many social changes that had come.  She found what she was looking for, a South that ignored or did not know about such literary figures as Willie Morris and Faulkner, that prided itself on beliefs and habits that set it apart from the rest of the nation.  We don’t get the big-city South here, mostly the small towns and purlieus.

We learn from Didion’s notes how uncomfortable many Southerners were in 1970 with their changing social situation.  It’s interesting to read these notes from the perspective of the forty-seven years that have passed.  They don’t seem dated.

Although this may not be a “finished” book, it contains keen insights, beautifully turned phrases and details, an unsettling sense of reality and unreality.   Didion is a fine writer whom I admire, but she’s always writing from within her own emotional and intellectual environment.  When she writes about the mood or atmosphere of a place, she is really writing about the inside of her own head.  It’s a cocoon, the cocoon of her consciousness, her self-consciousness.  It’s what made Slouching towards Bethlehem such a good book, and it’s a primary characteristic of her work.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick

James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (2016) examines the history of the concept of time travel in popular literature and thought.  With a few exceptions, H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine introduced the concept of travel through time to the modern world.  Gleick discusses Wells’ novel in a perceptive way—he takes Wells seriously and sees the novel as a visionary work—even though Wells himself lost interest in the idea of time travel later in life, even though time travel itself (with minor caveats) is a physical impossibility. Gleick considers why time travel as a concept did not enter our thinking until late in the 19th century: the impact of scientific thinking had a major influence on its appearance. He discusses the proliferation of time travel novels after The Time Machine and the importance of the concept in modern culture: films, television, literature. He is comprehensive in approach: that is, he explores every conceivable facet of his subject (at least I couldn’t think of any he’d missed). In the end, his book is as much a philosophical work as it is a discussion of history. Our preoccupation with travel through time reflects our preoccupation with death, our wish to escape or at least delay it. Gleick discusses how the idea of time travel raises the question of what time is, of how and whether it can be measured, of whether it has any meaning, of whether it even exists. The book is eminently readable and interesting.  It doesn’t bog down in technical language. Time travel offers Gleick the opportunity to engage in an interesting meditation on important aspects of the state of our culture.