18 December 2018

The Sail / Парус by Mikhail Lermontov / Михаил Лермонтов (1832)

A solitary sail whitens
The blue fog of the sea!..
What does it seek in distant countries?
What is forsaken in native territory?..

The waves swell and the wind screeches
While the mast lurches with a wheeze
Alas! it does not seek out happiness
And from happiness it does not flee

Beneath it, gleams a ray of bright azure
Above, a sunbeam made of gold...
And the sailrestlessentreats a storm,
As if in tempests peace is sold!

© 2018, Translated from original Russian by Valentin Katz

Белеет парус одинокой
В тумане моря голубом!.. Что ищет он в стране далекой? Что кинул он в краю родном?.. Играют волны - ветер свищет, И мачта гнется и скрыпит... Увы! он счастия не ищет И не от счастия бежит! Под ним струя светлей лазури, Над ним луч солнца золотой... А он, мятежный, просит бури, Как будто в бурях есть покой!


08 September 2018

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Hands off the loot!); Top 10 French Gangster films

French cinema has contributed some of the most audacious and groundbreaking submissions to the gangster film genre. In France, any discussion about gangster flicks starts with Jean-Pierre Melville. Obsessed with gangster movies from the golden age of Hollywood, Melville fetishized the belted trenchcoat, the fedora hat, and most importantly, the ever-present cigarette being puffed away by a laconic loner. Any film fanatic will readily tell you (even without prompting): pay attention to the details.

It's always been fascinating to me how artistic cultures look to each other for inspiration. Melville was obsessed with American culture going so far as having a custom Ford imported to France and never being seen without a Stetson hat and aviator sunglasses. His vision of American gangster movies from the '30s and '40s led him to the movingly haunting and brutally violent films he made in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. These films in turn would inspire scores of American filmmakers like Scorsese, De Palma, and Tarantino.  
Jean-Pierre Melville

10. Le Doulos/The Finger Man (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1963
This labyrinthian thriller has more twists and turns than fusilli pasta. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Silien, whose ability to navigate the den of thieves that is the Paris underworld is only exceeded by his ability to look really cool smoking and talking to women. If you can follow the plot, you're better than I, but the story isn't really the point. It's the shot composition, the grimy details, and the sordid performances.

9. Le deuxième souffle/Second Wind or Second Breath (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1966
Lino Ventura stars as Gu, a legend in the French underworld known for his cunning and loyalty. When Gu escapes from prison and heads back to Paris, it sends his rival Jo Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin) and police commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse of Les Diaboliques fame) on a mission to hunt him down. The battle of wits is masterfully presented by Melville, who doesn't rush the story and lets the characters reveal themselves gradually.

8. Mesrine (Jean-François Richet), 2008
Vincent Cassel plays notorious gangster, Jacques Mesrine, who gained a modicum of celebrity in the 1970s despite being implicated in numerous violent crimes, including murder. Mesrine became a romantic figure due to his propensity to repeatedly elude capture, each time with a new glamorous woman by his side. Originally released in two parts, the film follows Mesrine's violent journey to being named France's Public Enemy No. 1. Cassel's self-possession and effortless sexuality makes him convincing as a man adored by beautiful women despite being a bank robber perpetually on the run from the law.

7. Le Samouraï/The Godson (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1967
Having this film this low on the list will raise eyebrows, as Le Samouraï is generally considered Melville's greatest film, and by extension, the definitive French gangster film. Alain Delon stars as the title character, Jef Costello, a taciturn hitman living by a strict ascetic code. The film opens with a long take of Delon lying on the bed of his minimalist single room Paris apartment with the following made-up quote overlaid on the screen: "There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle... Perhaps..." 

A brilliant film that transcends the gangster genre and approaches something closer to Zen. The long takes for Delon's face, the howling wind, the bizarre twist ending—Melville is vibrating on another frequency here. However, on a pure enjoyment scale, it doesn't rate. Like Jef's extreme self-discipline, this is an exercise in self-neglecting. "Why Jef?" "I was paid to."

6. Dheepan (Jacques Audiard), 2015
This darkly exciting film tells the story of a Tamil Tiger, whose side just lost the Sri Lankan Civil War, escaping retribution by posing with two female refugees as his wife and daughter to secure asylum in France. Dheepan, the name of the dead man whose passport the Tamil Tiger assumed, becomes the caretaker of a rundown housing project beset by rival drug gangs. Dheepan gets drawn in to the conflict and bloody brilliance ensues. Winner of the 2015 Palme d'Or Prize at Cannes.

5. Tirez sur le pianiste /Shoot the Piano Player or Shoot the Pianist (François Truffaut), 1960
Charles Aznavour's sad eyes play perfectly for the melancholy title piano player punishing himself after his wife's suicide. As the film unfolds, it turns out the piano player isn't exactly who he says he is. Truffaut's follow-up to his seminal Les Quartes Cents Coup (The 400 Blows), this is his gift to hardcore cinephiles.

4. Pierrot le Fou/Pierrot the madman (Jean-Luc Godard), 1966
Jean-Luc Godard needs no introduction and this film is certainly one of the best from his golden period. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina are a pair of lovers on the run from the law, from gangsters, from their boring lives. Pierrot is a nickname Anna gives Jean-Paul meaning "sad clown." Breaking the fourth wall, philosophical diversions, and absurdism reign supreme. Godard gives no quarter. Also, look for the Samuel Fuller(!) cameo in the first act.

3. Le Cercle Rouge/The Red Circle (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1970
Shit's getting serious now. Melville reaches new heights with this heist picture. A truly all-star cast includes Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volontè, and André Bourvil. The aforementioned heist is presented in a half hour sequence devoid of any dialogue. This one will have you on the edge of your seat with sweaty palms.

2. Touchez Pas au Grisbi/Grisbi or Honour Among Thieves (Jacques Becker), 1954
I really love this movie. The title translates literally to "Hands off the loot!" This film introduced me to the French gangster genre when I first saw it at Charles Theater in Baltimore with my brother in 2005. Director Jacques Becker manages to successfully pull off a touching and sweet violent gangster action movie.

Jean Gabin and René Dary star as Max and Riton, two Parisian gangsters with an honorable reputation, who hijack a cache of gold bars. The problem is how to fence it without getting caught by the cops or, worse, being exposed by rival dishonorable gangsters. Jeanne Moreau co-stars as a Riton's cheating moll. Dora Doll plays Max's girl. Lino Ventura stars as Max's scheming rival.

1. Bob le flambeur/Bob the Gambler or Bob the High Roller (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1955
I have a confession to make to you, my loyal readers. This entire post was really just an excuse to talk about this movie, which is most assuredly one of my all-time favourites. This movie is so easy it practically floats. Roger Duchesne plays the titular Bob, a sauve former bank robber who now supports himself as a high-stakes gambler. His joie de vivre is only matched by his dignity and compassion. When Bob hits a bad luck streak, he must come out of retirement for one last big score. I really shouldn't say anymore. You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't watch this as soon as you can. This movie will lift you up above the milieu, guaranteed. Like the trailer correctly claims, a great film with atmosphere, and the Montmarte lifestyle. It was remade in 2002 by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief starring Nick Nolte and Emir Kusturica. 

Honorable Mention:

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution/ Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (Jean-Luc Godard), 1965
Another Godard classic but more of a science fiction film-noir. Godard is playing heavily with expectations and conventions here.

Le Professionnel / The Professional (Georges Lautner), 1981
Not really a gangster flick but still sort of lives in that world as Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a French secret government assassin who is betrayed by nefarious forces in his country. He ends imprisoned in a fictional African country. Upon escape, he returns to France lusting for revenge. Some really strange sexual scenes remind you this is a completely French production, as if you could forget. Ennio Morricone on the score. 

23 May 2018

My Life with Philip Roth

My introduction to the incomparable world of Philip Roth came as a primal nineteen year old at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2002. A junior, I along with the entire region had endured a month-long siege due to the Beltway Sniper. To boot, we were hearing loud whispers out of Washington that Bush wanted to invade Iraq. Times were tense. I refer to this period as primal for a few reasons. The first in reference to my incipience in life, at the cusp of infinite learning and knowledge. The second being that I matched a long unkempt hairstyle with a permanent bowler hat, an explicit homage to my favourite director and my favourite film at the time A Clockwork Orange, and to cap it off, I did not own any clothes that fit me. 

My roommate and childhood friend Scott burst home one day in an electrified state, "Have you read Portnoy's Complaint?" Scott had signed up for a Jewish Literature course which I inexplicably hadn't known existed. With excited haste, I heard such phrases as "fucking awesome" and "by Philip Roth" that, as an English major taking almost exclusively literature courses, and, as a Jew who beyond foolishly had convinced myself that I knew all the great Jewish writers, I began to feel a great resentment and embarrassment over such a blatant blind spot.

Killington, 2003
My literary oversight was rectified later that week, or more accurately, within the next 48 hours, because I was reading it at every free moment I had, at work, at school, walking to class, in class. People often talk about the thunderbolt they feel when first listening to The Beatles, or first reading The Great Gatsby or Slaughterhouse-Five, which I have all experienced, but reading Roth for the first time was different. It superseded thunderbolts, it was a full body paroxysm. I simply could not believe my eyes the words I was reading on the page. The transfixation began from the opening sentence, "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." The outrageous frankness and hilarious vulgarity with which Roth explores Jewish and Jewish-American identity and giddy subversion of parental and cultural influence while unbridled sexuality oozes from every pore befuddled me. How can genius this monumental truly exist?

With life's progression came my gradual embracement of the master's oeuvre. At first I gravitated towards his shorter novels and novellas, telling myself that Roth packed a more powerful punch in concentrated doses. The Breast, The Dying Animal, and The Ghost Writer, were an intense glimpse into the life of a renowned and virile public intellectual. But the deeper truth is that his longer novels are such monumentally challenging and intellectually ambitious works that I didn't have the reserve of mental fortitude to tackle them head on. Only in recent years—with a certain world weariness and wisdom that I suspect only age can provide—have I unearthed the treasures of magnum opuses such as Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. 

What Philip Roth unleashed upon the world with shocking efficacy and humour is through passionate intellectualization of perversion between consenting adults, he showed us that it can be a glorious part of the human experience. My literary friends came up with a nickname for him: The Beast. His writing is that uncompromisingly urgent. For Roth, sexuality is not just a part of our lives, it is fundamental, both a generator and extension of our joys, fears, anxieties, and triumphs.

Years ago, a close friend unironically remarked, "You're like a walking Philip Roth novel." I took it as a great compliment even though I'm fairly certain Ilya didn't necessarily mean it as one. In a 1974 essay for the New York Review of Books, Roth wrote, "Going wild in public is the last thing a Jew is expected to do." Even today, after all these years, Philip Roth still striking me like a thunderbolt: I only now finally understand all my mother's admonishments.

14 May 2018

Death of Stalin

Years after the Good Doctor of Gonzo Journalism Hunter S. Thompson famously covered George McGovern's doomed 1972 Presidential campaign, Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern's campaign manager quipped that Thompson's exhaustive book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, was the "least factual, most accurate account" of the election.
Armando Iannucci's Death Of Stalin is a devastating satire replete with the Good Doctor's defiant spirit. When reality is too brutal to grasp head on, we turn to comedy to tell the story with veracity. The film's banishment in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, attests to both Iannuci's success and to the film's unmistakable quality. Russians aren't known for their lack of sense of humour, unless it's about themselves. Despite Stalin's unprecedented death tally, the Russian authorities still consider him above outright reproach and certainly far above ridicule.

Luckily for us, Armando Iannucci has no such qualms. Iannucci masterfully pits Stalin's inner circle as a claque of incompetent vultures angling to inherit Stalin's infinite power. Imagine a Marx Brothers comedy set in Stalinist Russia, complete with an outrageous running gag involving firing squads.

Deputy Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is Stalin's favourite to succeed him, although no one knows why considering he can't avoid mentioning former party members Stalin has long since executed ("How am I supposed to remember who's alive and who's dead?"). Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is full of uproariously vulgar war stories that keep the Boss jolly, but when a joke about farmers meets with a lukewarm reception, his wife admonishes him, "No more farmer jokes!" Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov's (Michael Palin) devotion to Stalin is unyielding, and only increases after Stalin sends his wife to the gulag. But the most vicious satire is reserved for none other than NKVD Head Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who undoubtedly distinguishes himself as one of the most repulsive psychopaths in history, and has an ignominious end to match.

The incendiary script burns so hot half the jokes fly by at sputnik speed, but its farcical mania captures the incomprehensible absurdity of the depths of Stalinism and its pernicious effect on the psychology of an entire country and its long suffering people. Condemned men and women shouting "Long Live Stalin!" just as they get a bullet in the skull. It would be a lot funnier if it weren't grounded in truth.

31 March 2018

Top 10 British Gangster Movies

From the cockney accents to the sleazily inventive insults, and of course using  cunt to describe just about everyone and every thing, British Gangster Movies stand in a class all of their own. As a passionate devotee I've put together my Top 10 plus a few bonus ones. To be considered for the list, a movie's plot had to deal with the British underworld and fulfill one of the following two requirements: it must have been at least a partly British production or be directed by a British director.  Let me know what you think.

10. Performance (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg), 1970
An experimental and provocative film that really is more nonsensical than it would like to admit, this psychedelic foray is notable for starring Mick Jagger at his self-indulgent, libertine best. The Memo From Turner sequence is a memorable example of an early music video.

9. London Boulevard (William Monahan), 2010
Colin Farrell can play the hell out of a gangster role, so it's not surprising that films he's starred in appear twice on this list. With a rock soundtrack full of urgency and surprisingly edgy, by the end you'll find yourself more invested in the story than you probably ought to be. Credit that to great direction by American William Monahan.

8. Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn), 2004
Daniel Craig's audition tape for Casino Royale. The movie that put him on the proverbial map and launched a renewed James Bond franchise. Dark supporting roles from Michael Gambon and Jamie Foreman (son of real-life London gangster, Freddie Foreman) give this movie a harshness that is crucial to a great British gangster flick.

7. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie), 1998 
This uproariously funny late '90s flick is probably the British gangster movie with the most mainstream success and exposure, particularly in the US. Clever wordplay, cheeky cinematography, and, again, a soundtrack grounded in heavy classic/punk rock, make this undoubtedly the most accessible of all the British gangster movies. 

6. Gangster No. 1 (Paul McGuigan), 2000
Although I have it at six, this could easily be number one for a very simple reason. This features by far the most psychotic and outrageously dark anti-hero, played throughout the decades by Paul Bettany and the legendary Malcolm McDowell. Director Paul McGuigan took the gangster ethos to the extreme and the result is a British gangster movie purist's nightmarish dream. This should probably be ranked higher.

5. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), 2008
Full of twists and turns and the kind of macabre laughs that McDonagh has become known for, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason play two hitmen who flee to the quaint Belgian town after a bungled job. Ralph Fiennes as their unhinged boss is pure cinema magic.

4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), 2007
EP slips in on this list as a case can be made that this is more a Russian gangster movie, but it takes place exclusively in London, which by default makes it part of the London/British underworld. It's a co-British production and if that weren't enough, Director David Cronenberg is Canadian, which is part of the British Commonwealth. Finally, the disturbing nature of the material clearly puts it squarely in the British gangster movie lineage. Viggo Mortensen probably should have won an Oscar for this part.

3. Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie), 1980
Bob Hoskins stars as the head of the London underworld who is about embark on the deal of his life with his American mafia counterparts, when his entire world starts going sideways. Viciousness ensues. Notable for making the IRA and Britain's potential joining of the EEC a major part of the plot. 

2. Get Carter (Mike Hodges), 1971
The Citizen Kane of British Gangster movies. The only reason this isn't number one is because the titleholder is a personal favourite of mine. The best opening credit sequence of any picture on this list. Michael Caine is a force to be reckoned with as Jack Carter, who sniffs out something's awry when his clean-cut brother turns up dead and there's something wrong with his niece. Seedy, sooty, tawdry, you'll need a delousing after. She was only fifteen years old!

1. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer), 2000
Ben Kingsley plays the unhappiest and meanest gangster in the world as he collides with Ray Winstone, a blissfully retired ex-gangster sunbathing his days away in the Spanish desert. The verbal assault Kingsley unleashes has made this movie illegal to show publicly within a mile of schools and hospitals. Ian McShane plays Teddy Fucking Bass, Mr. Black Magic himself. Sexy Beast takes British gangster filmmaking to high art. The perfect British gangster movie. Gentlemen, you're all cunts.

* The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), 1999
Not eligible to be part of this list but notable due to Terence Stamp playing a fish out of water British gangster in '90s LA. Quite funny and touching.

** The Third Man (Carol Reed), 1949
One of the greatest films of all time but technically a film noir, not a gangster movie. Plus, the two main characters are American. Still, a true classic.

***A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), 1971
The film speaks for itself but isn't really a gangster movie. Alex and his friends aren't gangsters, they're hooligans. It's more a satire.

28 February 2017

When Facts Don't Matter, Make Them Laugh

Debates by their very nature are contentious. Political debates probably more so than most. Just tune in to a UK House of Commons debate sometime. But the current political climate in the US has devolved to a particularly low point. Families gatherings have turned into lugubrious affairs. Facebook purging, defriending those on the opposite side of the political spectrum en masse, has become the new form of sociopolitical snubbery. Our entire culture has veered sharply adversarial.  You're either with us or against us.

Especially frustrating is the apparent inconsequence of facts. It's difficult enough to persuade someone to your point of view, it's practically impossible when you can't even agree on the foundation of the topic. Debating, for instance, which smartphone is superior with someone who repudiates their very existence would be pointless. No line of argument is stirring enough to sway one way or another. So how is it that we find ourselves in this current historical moment, the era of alternative facts. How did opinion become lord over fact? How did facts become so irrelevant?

New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Kolbert recently reviewed a book, The Enigma of Reason, by two cognitive scientists who try to explain the phenomenon.  Human minds, you see, are very tricky things. Once we make a decision, usually formed by an oftentimes erroneous initial impression, we selectively gravitate to those groups whose views align with ours, amplifying the rectitude of those views while increasingly marginalizing opposing ones. It's evolutionarily advantageous. But here lies the danger of silencing opposing views. The more you're exposed to that which only supports your way of seeing things, the more hostile you become to those who don't. You're either with us or against us.

Consider our current President, who like a feudal lord, demands absolute support of his every word, action, impulse. Anything less than fawning approval is perceived as a traitorous attack. Suddenly the debate isn't a debate anymore. It's two sides speaking completely different languages. When adversaries can't even agree on basic facts (ie. whether it's raining or not), there is nothing to debate. All that's left is the hurling insults and epithets.  

Logically speaking, how to combat the repudiation of basic facts? Restating the facts won't work, that has become glaringly obvious. Name-calling won't either. The only viable tool against willful ignorance is laughter. Laughter and empathy. Laughter is the ultimate truth serum. Empathy to understand. Consider the recent Saturday Night Live skit of Melissa McCarthy impersonating White House spokesman Sean Spicer conducting a White House briefing. The genius of it: only slightly exaggerating what a typical session looks like. No restating of facts or figures. No name-calling or accusations of channeling fascist dictators. Just pure laughter. Laughter doesn't lie.

Comedy, satire, mockery. Not in bad taste or demeaning, but shining a bright risible light onto hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and insanity. Laughter is involuntary.  We can't control what we find funny. Some things just make us laugh. And laughter cuts through bullshit like a sword through tallow. 

12 September 2016

Resisting Interpellation

Since Philip Roth's sudden retirement announcement a few years ago, there has been a flurry of activity to film his literary work.  Besides Indignation, the anticipated adaptation of Roth's classic American Pastoral, directed and starring Ewan McGregor, is opening next month. Indignation, like past Roth adaptations, elides over much of the source material avoiding the pratfalls of overcomplexity. An enthralling complexity on the page, but shambolic when crammed into a two hour cinematic window. 

Philosopher Louis Althusser described the method that a society subsumes its subjects into its ideology, or the mainstream, through social interactions, institutions, and traditions, calling it interpellation. It's a language, and set gestures and rituals that signals to individuals that they are all part of the same society, a method of collective conformity. Capturing Roth's distinctive intensity, director James Schamus thoughtfully crafts a study of the consequences of resistance against being interpellated in early '50s America. Shot slowly and methodically, the film peers into the past with a comically grim lens.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, an auspiciously gifted high school scholar in postwar Newark, New Jersey. His talents win him a scholarship to a college in rural Ohio, and in a reminder of parlous times, it gets Marcus off the hook of being drafted and sent to Korea. A growing list of war dead in the close-knit Jewish communityincluding Marcus' cousinhas left his parents both unnerved and grateful their boy has seemingly been saved from a similar fate.

In spite of Marcus' prodigious talents and the praise heaped upon him, everyone in Marcus' life pushes him to belong somewhere.  His father and roommates are bewildered that a young Jewish man of such potential and promise balks at joining the campus' sole Jewish fraternity. The self-possessed dean of the college insists Marcus attend weekly chapel service, even in the face of Marcus' citations of Bertrand Russell in his spirited affirmation of atheism. 

The thing is, Marcus doesn't want to join any fraternity and mandatory attendance at a religious service goes against his entire being. In fact, Marcus is not interested in much unrelated to his literary studies and one Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), whose bare ankles and WASPy countenance Marcus first notices at the library. But even the companionship of a confidante is precarious in this world. The relationship is besieged by biting social judgements with lasting consequences.

Indignation shares many of the same themes as the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Both main characters are beset by forces way beyond their control, both insist they've done nothing wrong nor harmed anyone. But where Serious Man's Larry Gopnik is fully interpellated, belonging to the synagogue and respected in the community, Marcus Messner wants nothing to do with any of it. Marcus wants to forge his own ideology, to master his own destiny. Something '50s America was not quite ready to accept.