Monthly Archives: February 2009


An unexpected gift arrives in the mail: a subtitled preview of Peter von Bagh’s fabulous and rather Markeresque documentary (2008)—a lovely city symphony which is also a history of Helsinki (and incidentally, Finland, Finnish cinema, and Finnish pop music) recounted with film clips and paintings by three voices (two male, one of them von Bagh’s, and one female—each one reciting what seems to be a slightly different style of poetic and essayistic discourse). There are no chapter divisions on this DVD, and the continuity is more often geographical than chronological, although there’s also a lot of leaping about spatially as well as temporally. At separate stages we’re introduced to the best-ever Finnish camera movement and the best Finnish musical, are invited to browse diverse neighborhoods and eras (and to ponder contrasts in populations and divorce rates), and are finally forced to admit that a surprising amount of very striking film footage has emerged from this country and city.

Peter von Bagh—prolific film critic, film historian, and professor, onetime director of the Finnish Film Archive and current artistic director of two unique film festivals, the Midnight Sun Film Festival (held in Sodankylä, above the Arctic Circle, during what amounts to one very long day in the summer, when there’s no night) and Il Cinema Ritrovato (held soon afterwards, in Bologna)—is the man who convinced me to purchase my first multiregional VCR in the early 80s.… Read more »


DREAMS FROM MY FATHER:  A STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE by Barack Obama (New York: Three Rivers Press) 1995, 480 pp.

This book, which I’m still reading (I’m in its final section, about Kenya), is considerably more powerful, both as writing and as autobiography, than Obama’s follow-up book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. For me the most striking episode so far occurs in New York, and, significantly enough, it occurs at the movies. (Most of the gist of this episode can be found on pp. 123-125, towards the end of the first of the book’s three main sections, “Origins”.)

During a visit from Obama’s (white) mother, she finds an ad for a downtown revival of Black Orpheus in the Village Voice, which she describes as the first foreign film she ever saw, when she was 16 and in Chicago and “thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” She and Obama and his sister Maya go to the revival house in a cab (the cab is a typically telling novelistic detail), and halfway through the picture Obama finds himself seething at what he finds racist and paternalistic in this white, French depiction of black and brown Brazilians in the Rio favelas during Carnival — which he describes as “the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages” [in Heart of Darkness].… Read more »

One Observation and Three Figures

A reorganized and self-regulated Hollywood bounced back in 1935, but times were different then. Movies were America’s universal culture. Now, they’re not even close. Like then, the technology is changing—-but in a far different way. Movies are expendable. Folks will give up $12 tickets, cancel Netflix, and cut cable to save their high-speed Internet connection. With the president’s fireside chats posted online, the new Hoovervilles will certainly have broadband. Is there a downsized future for Katzenberg’s product? As one bankrupt mogul said to another, “YouTube?!”–J. Hoberman, “Why Hard Times Won’t Mean Good Times at the Movies Again,” The Village Voice, February 3, 2009

Average number of hours of television watched per week by Americans aged 43 to 61: 19 Average number watched by those aged 26 to 42 and those aged 14 to 25, respectively: 15, 11–”Harper’s Index”, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009 [2/13/09]

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NATIVE SON (novel and play)

Political incorrectness has a lot to do with what still gives this novel much of its shocking power: the fact that Richard Wright refuses to make Bigger Thomas sympathetic or his crimes in any way excusable, even though he understands perfectly and very cogently how and why this character can murder as readily as he does— not only a white philanthropist’s daughter, whom he accidentally smothers, but also Bigger’s own girlfriend, whom he kills with a brick quite deliberately, almost immediately after they have sex. Recently reading this 1940 Chicago novel for the second time, I was reminded of both Dostoevsky and Camus (even though, novelistically speaking, Wright is miles ahead of L’Étranger). There’s something schizophrenic as well as dialectical about the way Wright can  grasp the thought processes of his primitive young hero and then can offer a lengthy intellectual discourse about those processes. Eventually the communist discourse and arguments in the book’s second half drown out Bigger’s identity, but the way Bigger himself is allowed to dominate the discourse in the first half is the book’s unambiguous and terrifying triumph.… Read more »

NOT ENOUGH AIR (an amazing play)

I urge any Chicagoans reading this post to rush out and see this local stage production (and world premiere), the most exciting piece of theater I’ve ever seen in this city. But I’m sorry to say that the only illustration I can access on the Internet and reproduce here is the above image, which is what’s used in the ads. [Postscript, 2/9: Lara Goetsch, TimeLine's director of marketing and communications, has subsequently sent me four of her own photos of the production; my two favorites are reproduced below.] This isn’t bad when it comes to dealing thematically with Masha Obolensky’s play (which is about the creative processes involved in playwriting—specifically, about the processes by which real-life playwright Sophie Treadwell turned the 1927 murder case and execution of Ruth Snyder into a very successful expressionist play, Machinal, produced on Broadway with Zita Johann and Clark Gable in 1928), which bears a certain relationship to David Cronenberg’s film of Naked Lunch. (Admittedly, Cronenberg’s politically incorrect and highly idiosyncratic adaptation of William S, Burroughs is a far cry from Obolensky’s feminist play when it comes to comes to sexual politics; but even so, what this play and this film does with typewriters as pivotal props in relation to transformations between real life and fiction does seem comparable.)

In terms of lighting, direction, and ensemble acting—which includes overlapping dialogue and various cinematic devices such as freeze-frames and various onstage approximations of montage, lap dissolves, and superimpositions—this production by the TimeLine Theatre Company frequently calls to my mind various Orson Welles theater productions of the 30s, 40s, and 50s that I’ve read about but never seen, especially when it comes to using the viewer’s imagination as a central ingredient in the staging.… Read more »


It’s been about 45 years since I last saw Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned (1964). I’m sure it already looked like a savage social satire when I was 21 or so, but one additional meaning it’s picked up in the interim is the devastating putdown it offers of The Godfather and its first sequel years before either one was made. (The second-best putdown—Coppola’s own The Godfather: Part III—would come much later.)

If memory serves, Germi’s earlier Divorce, Italian Style (1961) is funnier, largely because it’s less overflowing with bile than Seduced and Abandoned—and also no doubt because it has Mastroianni. But even so, I’m not at all surprised that Manny Farber would describe Divorce as an “unfunny farce”. What probably distinguishes Germi (1914-1974) most sharply from a Farber favorite like Preston Sturges (1898-1959) is the latter’s affection for even his dumbest and crassest characters, little of which Germi appears to permit himself. The hypocrisy of most of the small-town Sicilians in Seduced and Abandoned is too consistent and unvarying to allow for much indulgence, much less love or amusement. Even the title victim, played by Stefania Sandrelli, ultimately becomes a bit dehumanized by all the free-floating scorn, which eventually devolves into a kind of nightmare horror show, almost on the order of something like Rosemary’s Baby.… Read more »