Tuesday, November 29, 2011



Moby-Dick is considered by many to be the Great American Novel. The story follows a wandering sailor named Ishmael on his voyage on the whaling ship which is commanded by the fanatical Captain Ahab. The voyage has one purpose for Ahab, and that is to find and kill the ferocious white sperm whale named Moby-Dick, who had destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg in a previous encounter. Moby-Dick employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous themes including class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. The narrative uses objective description, reflections, and Shakespearean literary devices, such as stage directions, extended soliloquies, and asides. The book is not only a great narrative, but is full of enriched and beautiful language. Melville wrote it with inspiration and an exhilarating energy. In a way, Moby-Dick is the first modern novel as it uses sermons, essay-like descriptions of whaling, and multiple points of view of narration to create a work that  portrays the destructiveness of obsession and how it leads to a malignant evil. 


Notes is considered by many to be the first existentialist novel, and is a grand look at the human condition from the perspective of a man living on the fringes of society. It takes the form of an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator, who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. Part One is a monologue from the underground man's diary. Part Two describes certain events that are simultaneously destroying and renewing the underground man, who acts as an unreliable narrator. The book presents a portrait of humanity that is irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative, and believes that human needs can never be satisfied, even through technological progress. Dostoyevsky would go on to write other great novels including Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). 


Huck Finn is about the search for freedom and makes a strong statement about racism in American society. The story centers around a young boy (Huck Finn) who is abused and incarcerated by his drunkard father. Huck escapes, fakes his death, and embarks on a journey down the Mississippi, where he meets an escaped slave named Jim. Jim is trying to find his way to freedom by getting to Ohio. At first, Huck is conflicted but as he gets to know Jim, he changes his opinion about people, slavery, and life in general. The book has been criticized by some for its use of racial slurs and racial stereotypes, but in the end the book humanizes Jim and the novel is critical of racism and slavery. Through his first person narration from Huck's point of view, Twain places Huck in an outside position where he can view the paradoxes and hypocrisies of American culture, while presenting a story that is also at times satirical and humorous.


Heart of Darkness centers around the story of Charles Marlow, who narrates the book and takes an assignment from a Belgian trading company as a river-boat captain in Africa. Marlow encounters darkness in many forms including that of Belgian colonialism.
He encounters the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the treatment of African natives, and the darkness within every human being for committing acts of evil. Marlow is transporting ivory, but his mission is also to return Kurtz, another ivory trader to civilization. The journey up the river becomes a metaphor for life in general, and the symbolic story expands on the struggle between good and evil, not only between people, but within the soul of the individual. 


The Metamorphosis is a novella by Franz Kafka that centers around the character of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, who wakes up to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect-like creature. The book is about the oppression of work and family and how we can become dehumanized, alienated, and completely disjointed from society. Gregor's family is dependent on him to make money for their survival and the story deals with their reaction to his transformation. They eventually see him as a burden. The novella rejects the idea that everything has meaning and purpose. Sometimes things happen in life that cannot be explained.


Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, June 16, 1904. The title alludes to Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, and presents a series of parallels between characters and events in Homer's poem and Joyce's novel. The single-day story is told in 18 episodes and contains 265,000 words in a labyrinth text. Joyce uses stream-of-consciousness, careful structuring, and experimental prose - full of puns, parodies, and allusions, with rich characterization and broad humor. Ulysses is considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century.


Mrs. Dalloway details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway in post-WWI England. The novel covers the story of Clarissa's preparation for a party that she will host. The book takes an interior perspective and travels forwards and back in time and in and out of character's minds. The action all takes place in a single day, but there are flashbacks to events in the past. The Novel is an example of free indirect discourse storytelling, where every scene tracks the momentary thoughts of a particular character. Besides Clarissa the other major character in the novel is Septimus Warren Smith, who suffers from shell shock and hallucinations from his war experiences which eventually leads to his tragic demise. Woolf, through the narrative is critical of the treatment of mental illness and depression by the medical establishment and society. Virginia Woolf suffered from depression herself and committed suicide in 1941.


The Great Gatsby is portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess. The book deals with the American obsession with money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. The Great Gatsby is about the rise to glory and the eventual fall from grace, and depicts the dark side of the American dream. The novel is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway who is objective, charming, and genuinely decent. The characters eventually collide into a tragic climax that reveals the hypocrisy of the rich and the falseness of an undeserved love. The strength of the novel is with the lyrical prose Fitzgerald employs to illuminate these themes. 


The Sun Also Rises tells the story of a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. On the surface the book is a love story between Jake Barnes, who is impotent because of a war wound, and a promiscuous divorcee Brett Ashley. Brett's affair with another character Robert Cohn upsets Jake.  He loses his good reputation with the Spaniards in Pamplona when Brett has an affair with the 19-year old matador Romero. The novel is based on Hemingway's own experiences. He also presents the notion that the Lost Generation, considered to be decadent and damaged by WWI, was actually resilient and strong. The Sun Also Rises uses Hemingway's clean, clear, paired-down prose to investigate the themes of love, death, rebirth, and the nature of masculinity.


The Sound and The Fury centers around the Compson family, former Southern aristocrats who are struggling to deal with the dissolution of their family and its reputation. The novel employs various literary and structural techniques that were considered ground breaking at the time. It is separated into four sections. The first section is written from the perspective of Benjy Compson, who has severe mental handicaps, and is characterized by a disjointed narrative style with many chronological leaps. The second section focuses on Quentin Compson, the older brother, and the events leading up to his suicide. The third section takes the point of view of Jason, who is Quentin's cynical younger brother. The last section takes a third person point of view and primarily focuses on Dilsey, one of the Compson's black servants, although Faulkner presents glimpses of the thoughts and deeds of everyone in the family. The four parts relate many of the same episodes from different points of view and from different times. The narrators are not always trustworthy or reliable. The Sound and The Fury uses an experimental narrative style to depict the descent of an American family.


Henry Miller exploded existing literary forms by combining autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism into an expressive fiction that was based on his own experiences. His works were controversial for the unashamed and detailed depictions of sex, and his work was banned in the United States and other countries for being obscene until 1961. Tropic of Cancer is set in Paris and centers around Miller's life as a struggling writer. Some of the chapters follow a narrative and there are references to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces. Other chapters are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections, and the book being in the first person, does not have a linear organization, but fluctuates between the past and the present. The central character who pulls us through the book suffers from hunger, homelessness, loneliness, and despair, and can be abhorrent at times, yet ecstatic with life at others. There are explicit passages of his sexual encounters, but overall the book acts as an immersive meditation on the human condition.


The Stranger is an example of existentialist literature and exhibited Camus' belief in the absurdity of man's existence. The book tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who senselessly kills an Arab man and his subsequent arrest and trial for the crime. Part One begins with Meursault being informed of his mother's death and going to her funeral. He doesn't show any of the expected emotions of grief and doesn't express his feelings in the narrative. Meursault is an ordinary, middle-class man, but what sets him apart from humanity is his indifference and lack of empathy for just about anything whether it be the abuse of a woman, the abuse of a dog, or even the death of his own mother. In Part Two, Camus describes Meursault's incarceration and trial for the murder, but Meursault expresses neither guilt or regret. As the trial evolves, all of the above details are brought out as evidence for Meursault's guilt. Is he on trial for the murder?...or for his indifference and actions surrounding his mother's death? Near the end of the book he meets with the chaplain, but rejects his opportunity to turn to God. The chaplain persists and finally Meursault becomes angry, with a climactic outburst about the meaninglessness of existence and the universe's indifference towards humankind. In the end Meursault accepts his fate and acknowledges his mortality and responsibility for his own actions.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011



The Battleship Potemkin is a masterpiece of early cinema and one of the greatest films of all time. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein who was a major figure in the development of film language with his emphasis on montage which used an editing technique of quick cutting between shots to establish an emotional impact on the viewer. The film presents the story of the mutiny that occurred in 1905, when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime. The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema. The Tsar's Cossacks march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a machine-like fashion, firing into the crowds. The victims include the family of an old woman, a young boy with his mother, a young schoolgirl, and a woman pushing a baby carriage. As she falls to the ground the carriage moves away rolling down the steps with the baby inside in the middle of the chaos. This scene also includes the famous close-up of the woman screaming as she is shot in the eye through her glasses. Eisenstein uses his montage technique here to its full effect creating a stunning sequence of great emotional depth. I did a full post on Potemkin and Eisenstein on May 13, 2011.


One of the great silent films, The Passion of Joan of Arc chronicles her captivity by the English and depicts her trial, imprisonment, torture, and execution. The film is full of amazing close-ups of both the men who are her judges and of Joan herself played by Renee Jeanne Falconetti. Falconetti sets the bar for the emotional impact of the close up.  The film is told through the expressions on her face as she is suffering and being persecuted. The film also featured a performance by the French playwright, poet, actor, and theater director Antonin Artaud. Passion was directed by the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. His films were about faith and spiritualism and he made several strong works including Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).


L'Age d'or began as a second collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali after their first film Un Chien Andalou. After a falling out it was completed by Bunuel. It is a surrealist work that is a scathing attack on bourgeois society and the Roman Catholic Church. The film consists of a series of interlinked vignettes about a couple who are passionately in love, but cannot consummate their passion because they are constantly thwarted by family, the Church, and society in general. There are violent expressive religious scenes and shocking sexual images as well, such as a young woman performing fellatio on the toe of a statue. There are also excerpts of a short science film about a scorpion cut into the film. It is a strange and unique piece of cinema. Bunuel went on to make many extradordinary films usually with a surreal aspect to them. They include Los Olivados (1950), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

M - FRITZ LANG (1931)

M was the great German director Fritz Lang's first sound film. Before this he had made a dozen silent films including Metropolis (1927) which is universally accepted as a silent masterpiece and one of the first science fiction films. M is firmly grounded in reality as it tells the story of a child murderer played by Peter Lorre. Lang makes use of shadows in the portrayal of the murderer and he is also identified by his whistling which makes sound have a major impact in the technique of the film. In a great early scene, Lang depicts a murder off-screen by a series of shots. Lorre's character befriends a little girl named Elsie who is playing with a ball. He buys her a balloon from a blind man on the street. Tension builds as her mother calls her name and waits for her to return. There is no on-screen violence, but we see Elsie's ball rolling away and her child-shaped balloon getting ensnared into wires until it floats away. M also deals with the panic of the society, the frustration of the police, and the rise of mob justice in the face of a series of horrible crimes. He also made another excellent film the next year called The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Lang eventually came to America where he made several excellent Hollywood films including the film noir classics Scarlet Street (1945) and The Big Heat (1953).


Grand Illusion directed by Jean Renoir tells the story of a small group of French officers who are prisoners during World War I, and are plotting an escape. The film has a humanist approach to its characters and gets into the class relations of the officers. Jean Gabin plays the lead role of the working class officer who along with another soldier eventually escapes. They take refuge with a German woman who could do them in but chooses not to betray them. In a highly emotional scene they finally find their way into freedom. Grand Illusion makes a strong statement about the futility of war. Jean Renoir was the son of the impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir. Other notable films include The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), The Rules of the Game (1939), Diary of a Chambermaid (1945), and French Cancan (1955).


Also known as The Bicycle Thief, is a major example of Italian neo-realism and directed by Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of a poor man who searches the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle that he needs in order to work and make a living for his family. The story is realistic, humanist, fundamental, and universal in its depiction of the frustrations and loneliness of man in the social complexity of the world. De Sica's style was the opposite of Eisenstein's in that he believed in long takes and a slowly moving camera that he felt depicted the world in a more realistic way. Other important films by De Sica were Shoeshine (1946), Umberto D. (1952), and Two Women (1961).


Rashomon was a Japanese crime mystery that introduced Western audiences to Japanese cinema and to the great director Akira Kurosawa. After the death of a samurai who was travelling through a forest with his wife, the survivor's are brought into court to tell their stories. Each account of what happened differs from character to character, showing the illusiveness of truth and memory. Kurosawa's interest in silent film and modern art can be seen in the look and style of the film. The film is shot into the sun, and there is a symbolic use of light. The cinematic compositions enhance the relationship between the characters. This all makes for a strong, beautiful and thought provoking film that is about life, death, truth, lies, and guilt. Other major films include Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961), and Ran (1985). 


Tokyo Story is a simple and beautiful film that tells the story of an elderly couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children. The film contrasts the behavior of their biological children, who are too busy to pay them much attention, and their daughter-in-law, who treats them with kindness and respect. Noriko, their widowed daughter-in-law is played by the beautiful Setsuko Hara who goes out of the way to entertain them. When they return home, the mother becomes ill leading to a bittersweet ending that shows great humanity between Noriko and her father-in-law. Ozu had a methodical style and pacing with beautiful compositions that displayed an awareness of the impermanence of things. Other important films by Ozu include Early Spring (1956), Equinox Flower (1958), Floating Weeds (1959), Late Autumn (1960), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962).


La Strada (The Road) is a neo-realistic classic by Federico Fellini. It tells the story of a naive young woman played by Giulietta Masina and her abuse at the hands of a brutish man played by Anthony Quinn. She has been sold to him by her mother and goes on the road with him as part of his itinerant show. After a series of events her spirit is broken by the cruelty she experiences. Masina, who was Fellini's wife, also starred in Nights of Cabiria in 1957. In this film she plays a feisty and naive prostitute in a downtrodden section of Rome. She searches for her chance at a better life, even though she is frequently mistreated, but through it all still maintains a positive view of life. After his neo-realist period Fellini would start to experiment with surrealism and absurdity in his films. This would start with La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), and become more extreme with Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Satyricon (1969). He also made a wonderful film based on his childhood - Amarcord in 1974. 


The Seventh Seal was the film that brought Ingmar Bergman international acclaim as a great filmmaker. Set during the Black Death, it tells of the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death, who has come to take his life. In Bergman's films the characters struggle with the possibility of faith in a world that seems cruel, random, and meaningless. Most of his early films are shot in beautiful black and white with a wonderful play of light and shadow. They include Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), and his trilogy Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter LIght (1962), and The Silence (1963). Bergman took a more experimental approach with Persona (1966) which starred Bibi Andersson and LIv Ullmann. Later Bergman started shooting in color and made the harrowing Cries and Whispers (1972), and the epic narrative Fanny and Alexander (1982).


The 400 Blows is one of the defining films of the French New Wave and covers the story of the adolescent Antoine Doinel (Jeanne-Pierre Leaud) and the problems he has conforming to the rules of society, school, and family. He is misunderstood and after a series of minor infractions he delves into a life of petty crime which leads him to be taken to an observation center for troubled youth. As the film evolves we find out other secrets about his early life and relationship to his parents. The film directed by Francois Truffaut is semi-autobiographical and deals with the social stigma of being an illegitamate child. Truffaut went on to make many excellent films until his early death in 1984. Those films include Shoot The Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1962), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and The Last Metro (1980).


Breathless was Godard's first feature length film, and along with The 400 Blows and Hiroshima, Mon Amour brought the French New Wave into international consciousness. It starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg and used a bold visual style by mixing longer takes with quick cutting, and used jump cuts that broke the traditional film continuity. Godard wanted the viewer to be aware that they were watching a film, or an artistic constuction, but Breathless along with other of his earlier films still had a loose story structure and provided many pleasurable moments. Michel (Belmondo) is a petty criminal who models himself after Humphrey Bogart. He steals a car in Marseille and shoots a policeman who follows him on a country road. He goes to Paris and turns to his American girlfriend Patricia (Seberg), a student and aspiring journalist. She hides him in her apartment while he tries to seduce her, but the police move in, leading to the film's conclusion. Breathless is one of cinema's major works because it took the language of film and exploded it with a variety of radical new techniques, that included hand-held camera work, off-beat editing, and allusions to popular culture and references to art and film history. Godard is still making films today and they continue to experiment with film technique and comment on contemporary culture. On August 5, 2011, I did a post where I covered Godard's entire career.


L'Avventura was the first of a trilogy of films by the Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni about the relationships between men and women. L'Avventura has a careful pacing, beautiful visual compositions, and uses an unusual narrative structure that subverted film conventions. It stars the beautiful Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti who develop a troubled relationship after her friend and his lover disappears. Most films would solve the mystery of the missing woman, but Antonioni leaves it open and concentrates on the emptiness of modern existence. The other films in the trilogy were La Notte (1961), and Eclipse (1962). He continued to make films for many years that always dealt with the theme of an illusive reality and the alienating effect of modern technology. Antonioni made many films for years to come including Red Desert (1964), Blow-Up (1966), and The Passenger (1975).


Robert Bresson was known for his spiritual, ascetic style and told stories about people who are trapped and suffering within social conventions. Au Hasard Balthazar follows Marie, a shy farm girl and her beloved donkey Balthazar, through many years. As Marie grows up the pair become separated and the film traces their fates as they live parallel existences taking abuse in many forms from the people they encounter. Bresson made several black and white films where his stories are revealed through his methodical neo-realist style that express a spiritual and humanist quality. Other wonderful and beautiful works include Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and Mouchette (1967).


Le Samourai is a minimalist crime thriller that follows a French perfectionist hitman played by Alain Delon. He adheres to a strict code of duty and lives in an apartment where everything is arranged precisely. He keeps a little bird in a gray cage in the middle of the room. He goes about his tasks like clockwork, and has no criminal record, because of his methodical way of working, including the construction of elaborate alibis. After being hired to kill a nightclub owner, the zen hitman is pursued by both the police and other criminals. The film also has a nice turn by the black model/actress Caty Rosier who plays a beautiful nightclub singer and witnesses the hit. Melville directs with beautiful, well composed, cool, and desaturated shots that reflect the spare quiet quality of the film. Other great films by Melville are Bob, The Gambler (1955) and Army of Darkness (1969).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Romare Bearden was an African-American artist and writer who lived in Harlem in New York City. He studied at the Art Students League under the German artist George Grosz in 1936 and 1937. At this time his paintings were often of scenes of the American South, and he was influenced by the Mexican muralists, especially Rivera and Orozco.

After a period of abstract painting, Bearden came to a crossroads where he stuggled with his background as as student of literature and artistic traditions, and the reality of being black in America where one had to deal with real concrete experiences. 

During the 1960s civil rights movement, Bearden started to experiment with collage. His work became more representational and more overtly socially conscious. He used glossy photographic clippings from magazines, and combined this with paper color fields and painted elements. This style incorporated a modernity into his work, while at the same time making statements about the African-American experience.

HIs themes were universal as he took imagery from everyday life and melded this with his own personal experiences, and themes of classical literature, religion, myth, and music.

Romare Bearden through the cut-up collage technique created a body of work that was both powerful and original.