Monday, September 01, 2014

Behold a Pale Horse: Take II

I. Fred Zinnemann's Behold a Pale Horse (1964) -- continued.

There are aspects of this obliquely plotted film that remind me of the Coen Brothers (compare 2007's No Country for Old Men, for instance).

At one point in the movie, I expected the main protagonist to swoop in like James Bond or a Clint Eastwood character, having everything figured out - but no! 

At another point, I projected an easy ending like that of Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) -- but no! 

II. Lourdes. Insert Catholicism and "magical thinking." 

Not only is this a key element in Behold a Pale Horse, but here, too, an important aspect of the Spanish Civil War is evoked. The unwieldy coalition fighting against Franco's Nationalists to preserve the Republic included anarchist elements that turned violently on people of the cloth. The number of priests and nuns murdered during the war came to about 7,000, if memory serves. A blot on the Republican side that might have been avoided through more skillful efforts at winning over priests and nuns rather than killing them.

III. Civil Wars and Memory.

The inclusion of a padre as a major character in the midst of fratricidal conflict reminds me very much of The Fratricides, a novel about the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) by Nikos Kazantzakis published in English in 1964 (translated by Athena Gianakas Dallas). Kazantzakis, better known perhaps for Zorba the  Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, covers some of the same issues as seen in Behold a Pale Horse -- a film which is itself based on Emeric Pressburger's 1961 novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday.

The thing about civil wars is -- every inhabited place seems to have to endure at least one of them, they are vicious, and most notably -- they never seem to come to complete resolution or reckoning in memory or history. Civil wars go on and on for decades and centuries, morphing into other outlets that oftentimes include renewed flashes of violence.

Take the American Civil War (1861-1865) -- there are people living in the USA today who say they would join the Confederacy even now. Why? Because slavery was abolished? Because they claim the right of individual states to decide whether something like slavery -- or anything else at all -- should be abolished or changed, rather than a national government? That's what they say in the 21st century.

Take the Greek Civil War. The average Greek (if there is such a person) seems to wonder now, what was it about? What was the point of all that viciousness in the late 1940s, even after WWII? "I don't know. It's confusing." 

And finally for now, take the Spanish Civil War. What if, instead of bloody violence, calmer people had worked out a compromise, helped foster the working classes and living conditions for most people in general rather than prop up mostly the rich and powerful, what if Spanish society had evolved a rational separation of Church and State, offered something hopeful to all elements of that society? What might have happened over time is what is happening over time, despite the civil war, and despite economic setbacks. And so, what was the point of all the death and destruction?  Ask Spanish people today, see what they say. 

What do you say?

Today's Rune: Harvest/Signals. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Behold a Pale Horse: Take I

Now that fifty years have passed since it was first lost in the shuffle of the Cold War, let's consider Fred Zinnemann's Behold a Pale Horse (1964).

It's in black and white.

It's based on a novel that is in turn based on historical events.

Zinnemann (1907-1997) is better known by the arc of his entire movie career, with films such as High Noon (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), A Man for All Seasons (1966) and The Day of the Jackal (1973).  

Anthony Quinn plays Captain Viñolas -- "the villain" -- but with Zorba the Greek (1964) in the pipeline, he seems to enjoy the part with his usual gusto. Gregory Peck, fresh off his role as the strong, saintly Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), here plays a much more ambiguous "anti-hero," a Spanish anarchist named Artíguez. Omar Sharif plays the youngest of the trio, Padre Francisco-- sandwiched between his epic roles in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965).   
Behold a Pale Horse is even-handed and raises several questions about morality and ethics on all sides, but was banned outright in Spain by the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (1892-1975), el Caudillo de la Guerra de Liberación contra el Comunismo y sus Cómplices. Since the governments of Spain and the USA had signed the Pact of Madrid in 1953, Franco had enough leverage to throw cultural roadblocks against Behold a Pale Horse, even in North America. And so it has largely been forgotten. Fifty years later -- no longer! Lest we forget, the First Amendment is #1 for a reason.

Today's Rune: Separation (Reversed). 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Juan Gris (1887-1927)

"Juan Gris has long been seen as the third member of a prodigious trinity that produced the very best Cubist painting. First came [Pablo] Picasso and [Georges] Braque and then -- following in their footsteps -- came the modest, disciplined Gris." ~ Juan Gris, text by Rafael Jackson Martin, translated by Sue Brownbridge (Madrid: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2005), page 5. 
Juan Gris just happened to be born at the same place that mi madre and I used as a base for cultural operations in Spain earlier this summer: Hotel Europa, Calle Carmen, 4 (just off the Puerta del Sol). What good luck! We had no idea until we arrived. The plaque above is mounted outside by the café


EN ESTA CASA
NACIO
EL PINTOR MADRILEÑO
JOSÉ VICTORIANO GONZÁLEZ
JUAN GRIS
1887-1927
Vue sur la baie / View Across the Bay (1921), lobby of Hotel Europa in Madrid, June 2014. How cool is that? Original can be seen at the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris. However, more than two dozen of Gris' works are in Rooms 208 and 210 at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Calle Santa Isabel, 52, Madrid. Link here.
In addition to his often colorful Cubist work, Juan Gris did illustrations, sketches, portraits (as above of his friend, the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro) and so on. Some of his work is still floating around the world on the open market, or remains hidden. Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-O) purchased at least one work; another sold on auction in February 2014 for the equivalent of more than $56 million dollars. Check out the link to Christie's Sale 1505, Lot 9, here. Probably needless to say, Gris saw nothing like this kind of cash flow in his own lifetime, and he died at age forty between the World Wars, before the Spanish Civil War.   

Today's Rune: Separation (Reversed). 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Modigliani II

If I had to compress Anette Kruszynski's colorful Amedeo Modigliani: Portraits and Nudes into a few lines (2007 edition -- bearing the cover subtitle in reverse), I'd start with these:

"Modigliani painted human beings" (page 6).

Quoting Modigliani, from a letter to a friend:

"Your real duty is to save your dream . . . Every obstacle we overcome marks an increase in our willpower and produces the necessary and progressive renovation of our aspiration. You must hold sacred . . . all that may exalt and excite your intelligence. Seek to provoke and multiply all such stimulating forces . . ."  (page 16). Words to live by -- where possible. 

And finally: "[Modigliani's] art was the point of impact between his conservative, middle-class origins and the world whose social and political framework had . . . disintegrated" (page 110). Nicely put. 

For more, see: Anette Kruszynski, Amedeo Modigliani: Portraits and Nudes. Munich: Prestel, 2007. Originally published in 1996. Translated by John Brownjohn, with copy-editing by Anne Heritage. An assortment of individual paintings are discussed, as well as their context.

Today's Rune: Flow. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Modigliani and Braque

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Georges Braque (1882-1963): a study in contrasts, and yet . . . this world may be big enough for both. 

Alex Danchev, in Georges Braque: A  Life (New York: Arcade, 2005), gives us a fresh perspective from Braque's point of view, filling in gaps as he goes.

On the mischievous side, Danchev delights in poking fun at Braque's fellow artist, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), but this effort sometimes inspires the opposite of the intended effect: making Picasso seem at times more vibrant by default.
One of Braque's existential turning points came with the Great War of 1914-1918. He went off to the French Army, was promoted to sub-lieutenant in November 1914. He was badly wounded in the head and "left for dead" in no man's land during a horrendous assault on German trenches near Vimy Ridge in May 1915. He barely survived, and it took a substantial period of recovery before he could resume painting. (See Danchev, Georges Braque, especially pages 122-126). 
"Modi" Modigliani, an Italian national with Sephardic ancestry, had no interest in getting into the war, and while living in France, he didn't have to. He also had serious health issues (tuberculosis being the most salient), not made any better by his wild Bohemian lifestyle. Though he succumbed in 1920 at age 35, he survived the Great War. However: 

'Many of Modi's friends -- the writers Salmon, Apollinaire and Cendrars; the artists Gaudier, Derain, Vlaminck, Zadkine, Kisling and Soutine -- joined the army, and most of them went straight into combat . . . The Delta artists Maurice Drouard and Henri Doucet, Gaudier and Apollinaire, the Italian Umberto Boccioni, the Germans Franz Marc and August Macke were all killed in the war.'  ~ Jeffrey Meyers, Modigliani: A Life. Duckworth Overlook, 2008; first published in 2006, page 131.

Picasso, a Spanish national, also refrained from diving into the Great War (Spain remained neutral during the conflict). But still, from his point of view, too, everything changed in the 1914-1918 years, including his friendship with Braque. As he rather wickedly put it: "On 2 August 1914 I took Braque and [André] Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again" (quoted in Danchev, Georges Braque, page 121).   

Today's Rune: Growth. (Source for sketch at top of post: "A Modigliani 005 Wiki Commons Baster78 uploaded 2006").  

Friday, August 22, 2014

Leslie Gourse: Billie Holiday

The first time I heard a Billie Holiday vocal track out somewhere in a public space, I was instantly enthralled. It's been the same ever since. Can't remember whether it was a restaurant or what, but my ears swam toward her sound as fast as they could.

Lately I finished reading a nifty little biography on Holiday (1915-1959) that seemed a bit different. How so? The words are crisp and simple, yet the subject matter remains rich and complex. This works, the tension between delivery mode and content. The book? Leslie Gourse's Billie Holiday: The Tragedy and Triumph of Lady Day (Franklin Watts, 1995). I finally figured out that this particular book ("An Impact Biography") is deliberately written for a grade 7 to 9 reading level. But Gourse doesn't sugarcoat, and so we learn both of music and performance in detail, but also of paternal neglect, her hard-working, sometimes needy mother, mean relatives, societal racism, prostitution, a parade of men of all stripes, heroin, marijuana, police harassment (cruel and unnecessary in all cases), alcohol (nasty doses of gin stick to mind) and death at age 44. Not to despair, we also learn of good friends, supporters, admirers and fellow musicians, too -- and her music that endures.  
About Billie Holiday's vocal delivery, Gourse notes: "The power of her unique storytelling ability came from her feeling and . . . embellishment of the melodies . . . Most of all, her sound [is] earthy, musical and a little strange." (Billie Holiday: The Tragedy and Triumph of Lady Day, page 37).

In another deeply considered meditation on Billie Holiday, Angela Davis observes that:  "With the incomparable instrument of her voice, Holiday could completely divert a song from its composer's original and often sentimental and vapid intent. She was able to set in profound motion deeply disturbing disjunctions between overt statements and their aesthetic meanings. (Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, photo caption between pages 140 and 141).

A salute to Billie Holiday and the people who dig her.

Today's Rune: Partnership. 
  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jem Cohen: Museum Hours (Take II)

In plainer English than the previous post, the set-up for Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is this: Anne (Mary Margaret O-Hara) borrows money to travel from Montreal, Canada, to Vienna, Austria, to hold vigil over her cousin, who is in a coma; there are apparently no other available relatives or friends who can fulfill this responsibility.

On a tight budget, Anne finds a tiny room to stay in, and she wanders into the Kunsthistorisches [Art History] Museum, where she is helped by Johann (Bobby Sommer), a compassionate museum guard. During her extended stay, they come to learn more about each other, sharing a connection as they explore the museum and various spots in Vienna.

That's the basic set-up. Simple idea, quiet unfolding, thoughtful movie. A keeper.

Today's Rune:  Flow.