strong>Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont was described by Newsday’s Gene Seymour (November 25, 2005) as being the kind of film that “should be appraised for its ability to make people’s insides all gooey and warm like cocoa and gingerbread on a cold, stormy afternoon,” noting the film’s inclination toward platitudes and homilies. His review led me to expect something much worse than I found. The film is about friendship, and friendship is often a happy accident and that is the case in this film, in which a widow who has moved into a London hotel trips on a sidewalk in front of the basement apartment in which a young writer is living. After the writer tends her leg wound and the two share tea, they begin a friendship, part of which involves a mild deception of others: when she tells her hotel comrades that she’s expecting a guest, they think it’s her never-seen grandson and she doesn’t correct their mistake and asks the writer to play along. Joan Plowright is the widow, Mrs. Palfrey, and Rupert Friend is the writer, Ludovic, and they create an intergenerational friendship in which small favors and kindnesses mean much. Joan Plowright is hopeful but honest, and nurturing without being smarmy, and Rupert Friend is caring, earthy, masculine, and sensual. (“He’s gorgeous,” a woman behind me in the theater said when he appeared on screen; and when he reappeared, she said, “He’s so cute.”) The film, written by Ruth Sacks and based on a novel by a writer named Elizabeth Taylor, was directed by Dan Ireland, and it formally introduces Rupert Friend to cinema, though I first saw him in a smaller part in Pride and Prejudice, and he was the reason I defied Seymour’s discouraging review. Friend, who reportedly studied at the Webber Douglass Academy of Dramatic Arts, gives a performance that is well-modulated: though he has a romantic aspect, he never says or does anything that indicates his relationship with the older woman might become at all inappropriate. The film also introduces Lorcan O’Toole as the widow’s real grandson, Desmond—he is Peter O’Toole’s son, who worked in the art department as a carpenter on several films; and the cast of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont also features Anna Massey as a very direct new friend of the widow, Clare Higgins as Ludovic’s mother, and Zoe Tapper as a new girlfriend of Ludovic. This is a sweet, intelligent film about a rare friendship in which an important and somewhat painful fact is not denied: loneliness, the loneliness of age, and the loneliness of a young impoverished creative life.
strong>My Beautiful Laundrette, a 1985 film written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, stars Gordon Warnecke as Omar, Roshan Seth as Papa, Saeed Jaffrey as Nasser, Rita Wolf as Tania, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Johnny. Gordon Warnecke was a real find in this film, but, of course, it was not the brown boy but the pale one who went on to fame and fortune: Daniel Day-Lewis. Warnecke and Day-Lewis play school chums, both involved to one extent or another with women, but also infatuated with each other—they’re lovers, and Omar takes over a laundry facility and gets Johnny to work for him. The film is also about Indian exile and success in Britain, and the use that’s made of women. Nasser has a superstitious Indian wife and an English woman as his mistress, and his daughter is frustrated, looking for love or purpose. The film has all the comedy and drama, all the lucid and vivacious life, one wants in a film and it also suggests the richness of a novel and the relevance of a political essay.
Written by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and directed by Louis Malle, strong>My Dinner with Andre (1981) is full of smart talk—artistic, personal, spiritual, social. Andre has made the mystical his principal interest—he’s in search of what used to be called the ineffable, a glimpse of deep connection, of unusual beauty, of primary purposes. The ordinary is not good enough—is too much drudgery, routine, social convention. One admires Andre and thinks Wally is too confined to the convenient and perfunctory, but as Andre continues it’s possible to think that what he wants is a dream that can never live—that he forgets the effort and compromise involved in human life and the need for stability and rest. However, I suspect that the people who can give up Andre’s dream may have not really needed or believed it.
The New Deal was the subject of a recent exhibit at the central library in Queens, an exhibit that featured drawings, paintings, and prints: “New Deal, New York: Prints and Paintings from the Queens Library Collection.” I was impressed—pleased by the colors and forms, and stimulated by the visions, and admiring of the craft—of Hyman Warsager’s color silkscreen showing men “Gathering Logs” (1937), with the controlled roughness of the image reminding me of Honore Daumier; Leonard Pytlak’s “Watering Time” (1937), a color woodcut featuring two people working in a greenhouse; Abraham Tobias’s “The Reader” (1937), a lithograph, with gorgeous—fine, harmonious—draftsmanship, showing someone reading; and Mabel Wellington Jack’s beautiful drawing, a lithograph, of ugly industry, “Coal Hopper at 14th Street” (1937). The roots of the New Deal are in the Great Depression. Something people know but often forget is that stocks are both forms of ownership and also gambling; and in the 1920s in the United States, people borrowed money to buy stocks, and used the stocks as collateral to buy more stocks in a time when many Americans did not have much money. It was a kind of lottery that failed when people ceased believing in it. Many people were or became unemployed, and were even starving—and both the economy and the national spirit could be said to be depressed. Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, and created programs intended to restore the country; and that included providing federal inspection and insurance for banks; ensuring public access to information about stocks being sold; creating public works programs such as repairing infrastructure—roads, parks, schools, hospitals, and airports; setting a minimum wage and facilitating the regulation of various industries regarding working conditions; providing refinance for home mortgages; establishing pensions for the elderly (social security); and ending the sale of tribal lands and returning some lands to Native Americans. The New Deal also put artists to work doing what they do—and out of that came drawing, murals, sculptures. At the Queens library, the work of artists using carving and printing to produce lithographs, silkscreens, and woodcuts were shown (October 3 through December 11, 2005), and while many of these artists are unknown they are (or were) talented; and the exhibit was an affirmation of that talent and also of rare government imagination.
Having appeared in the film The Silver Chalice in 1954 and then Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, The Hustler, Paris Blues, Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot, Fort Apache The Bronx, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, The Color of Money, Fat Man and Little Boy, Blaze, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, The Hudsucker Proxy, Nobody’s Fool, Twilight, Message in a Bottle, and Road to Perdition in 2002, Paul Newman has had one of the longest, most rewarding careers imaginable for an actor. One might look at his films and see what it is to be a modern American man.
I think the people who know nihilism best are not those who loudly say “life is meaningless,” but rather those who throw everything at it—good books, great music, hot fucks, delicious foods, gorgeous sunsets, trusting friendships, sacrificing love—and find them swallowed by despair, indifference, endless want, as if all resources were nothing at all.
strong>Nine Lives is a good, small independent film that plays like a collection of sometimes intertwined short stories. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez), it features Robin Wright Penn, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Holly Hunter, and Glenn Close, among others. Elpidia Carrillo plays a woman inmate who works hard in prison and looks forward to seeing her daughter on visiting day; and she is upset—angrily screaming—when the phone at her visiting station does not work and she cannot speak with her daughter; and Carrillo conveys the humility, circumspection, worry, turmoil, and rage of the entire situation. Carrillo has been in Spanish language films, and in Under Fire, Salvador, My Family, Bread and Roses, and Solaris. Robin Wright Penn is poignant as a married pregnant woman—first sensible, then sad and a little amused, and finally torn up—by an unexpected encounter with a former lover in an expensive grocery store. Robin Penn is a lovely actress, and her face is a great canvas for emotion, and I found her to be the most heartbreaking performer in the film. Lisa Gay Hamilton, a graduate of New York University and Julliard, appeared in Krush Groove, Twelve Monkeys, Jackie Brown, Beloved, True Crime, Ten Tiny Love Stories, and The Truth About Charlie, and in one of Nine Lives segments Hamilton plays a daughter who returns home—obviously disturbed (agitated, angry, in extreme pain, and full of memories) to confront her father; and in another segment she is a very professional nurse. Her performance as the distraught daughter suggests terrible childhood events. Sissy Spacek is in one segment a wife and mother overwhelmed by caring for her crippled husband, finding comfort in her daughter, who often acts as go-between for mother and father, and in another Spacek is a woman contemplating an affair with one of her daughter’s counselors, played by Aidan Quinn, whom I didn’t recognize at first. Amy Brenneman plays a woman attending the funeral of her former husband’s second wife, and William Fichtner plays that deaf man, still in love with his first wife (Brenneman)—they apparently had a strong sexual bond that disturbed his second wife and led to her suicide. Glenn Close in the last section is a woman whose graveyard visit and great grief inspire an understandable magical realism. All the segments are worth seeing; all suggest the possibilities in women’s lives, and the range of human experience.
Overrated White People: In my more cynical moments, I think that to get a contemporary accounting of people whose power and publicity exceed their intelligence and skill, or an accounting of people whose talents have been well-paid for but badly used without a loss of status, all one has to do is pick up an important daily newspaper in any of the nation’s—or the world’s—important cities and see who is featured in the sections devoted to business, culture, and politics. For today, my sense is that George W. Bush and his father and Ronald Reagan as well as Bill Clinton would make such a list, as would the presidents of most corporations, and The Beatles, Don DeLillo, Tom Hanks, Norman Mailer, Al Pacino, Elvis Presley, Thomas Pynchon, Madonna Ciccone Ritchie, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and William T. Vollman. Yes, they do have their uses, and I do like “All You Need Is Love” and “In My Life,” but…
I imagine that I’ll remember strong>Paradise Now for a long time. I’m not aware of anything that’s wrong with this film. It doesn’t seem like a work someone made; it seems like a reality someone discovered. Paradise Now presents Palestinian life with border guards, work conflicts, class differences, religious manipulation, ignorance, videos of political collaborators and martyrs, and the oblivion of other people living what they consider normal lives; and it features actors who are natural and very appealing. The film is about two young men—car mechanics and friends—who have agreed to be suicide bombers. It says a great deal about the film that the why of this becomes readily understandable: with the Jewish or Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the circumscription of Palestinian life, their freedom and possibilities are extremely limited. The task they undertake is for justice, but it’s a commitment they have come to because the lives they will leave behind are not themselves rewarding. We are already dead, they say more than once. Kais Nashef is Said, and Ali Suliman is Khaled. Lubna Azabal is Suha, a young woman recently befriended by Said; and the young woman is also the daughter of a local hero, and she, apparently involved in a human rights group, argues against meeting violence with violence. Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, presents the landscape in which the Palestinians are massed—its rocky hills, its trees, its poor neighborhoods—and shows some of the communal rituals—simple meals of vegetables, bread, and sauces; and smoking a water pipe. When Said comes home late, his young brother talks about how he would have been reprimanded if he’d come in that late; and when the same boy asks if his mother has used a new water filter—he says the water tasted better before—his mother tells him to turn off the radio he swallowed, meaning he’s too smart-talking. The mother (Hiam Abbass) is not young but she’s also not old and she seems, as such women often do, practical and wise (knowing but limited). Her oldest son Said does not tell her or anyone else what he plans to do. When Suha, who sees how the two friends have changed (hair cut, dressed in suits so they’ll look like Israeli settlers) she guesses their intentions and talks against such plans to Khaled, who says he prefers to die and find paradise, or to live with the paradise in his head, rather than live their terrible common reality, but she shakes Khaled’s assurance—and Khaled tries to do the same for Said. One of the fascinating things about the film is that these people do not speak of love, and yet there were times when I felt it—the love of mother and son, the love of the two male friends Said and Khaled, and the love of Said and Suha; and that’s an achievement. The film’s ending—an ending without the expected closure—is the right one.
Paris is burning? The riots in the Paris suburbs in late fall 2005 seemed to tear the veneer off of a French façade: the city and country of liberty, equality, and fraternity had failed to integrate its African, Algerian, and Muslim population, had in fact exiled them in ghettoes. When two boys, Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, fled the police and were electrocuted at an electricity station, the boys’ deaths reminded others of their own dissatisfactions—the police harassment, the difficulty in finding work and housing; and the rioting began. Each day, there was destruction, with news that hundreds of vehicles had been burned in a single night. Reporting from France (in Aulnay-Sous-Bois), Peter Ford of Christian Science Monitor (November 4, 2005) described a scene in which young people threw stones and Molotov cocktails as riot police tried to restore order; and Ford described the conditions in which many of these youths lived, conditions thus far impervious to inadequate government reach and positive impact: “In these 751 zones that the government has designated for special programs, unemployment stands at 19.6 percent—double the national average—and at more than 30 percent among 21-to-29 year-olds, according to official figures. Incomes are 75 percent below the average.” The flames of the riots were fed when the French interior minister referred to the young people as scum and vowed a merciless war against them. That was not the vision one had of a Frenchman or of France from most French films; and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate), about a man brutalized during a police interrogation and the vengeful aftermath, was one of the few French films arriving in America to suggest troubles between policemen and those corralled in certain French suburbs. Rather one thinks of French films and thinks of Claire’s Knee, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Diva, Entre Nous and other films that somehow involve pleasure. I will have to think differently.
Caryl Phillips’s novels are The Final Passage, A State of Independence, Higher Ground, Cambridge, Crossing the River, The Nature of Blood, and Dancing in the Dark. Phillips has taught in colleges in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States (he teaches at Yale now), and his non-fiction has sometimes featured international concerns: The European Tribe; The Atlantic Sound; A New World Order; and A Distant Shore. The St.Kitts-born, England-reared Oxford graduate is producing one of the oeuvres by which the times in which we live can be judged: artistically, intellectually, politically.
*Philosophy Born of Struggle: An Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917*, edited by Leonard Harris (Kendall Hunt, 1985), collected the fragments of a disbelieved, valuable tradition: the thoughts of blacks speculating about existence, knowledge, values, social relationships, and politics—philosophy. Other related books are: Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy by editor Lewis R. Gordon (Routledge, 1996), and African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations by editor George Yancy (Routledge, 1998).
Adrian Piper is a visual artist and a philosopher who has explored the most esoteric western and eastern texts, as well as high art and popular culture. Adrian Piper’s art work, marked by self-consciousness and world-awareness, has been less concerned with the creation of an object, than it has been concerned with ideas and experience—she would, upon hearing a racist remark, present a card identifying herself as black and allowing the possibility of conversation, and she also did a piece called “Funk Lessons” in which she moved beyond notions of the sensual other and introduced participants to dancing to funk music. She turned herself into an art object, walking blindfolded with ear plugs through the club Max’s Kansas City, and walking in Manhattan wearing a “Wet Paint” sign. “The demand to keep politics out of art is really a demand to keep art out of real life,” she told Maurice Berger (Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, University of Maryland, 1999; 82). Piper is skeptical of critiques of logic, objectivity, and authoritative texts: she thinks these critiques can be used to undermine claims authored by minorities. (She also sees poststructuralist discourse as having little value in producing useful analysis, but can accept it as a form of concrete poetry: that amuses me, as I recall telling someone two decades ago that I was reading Derrida’s Writing and Difference as poetry—which he assumed meant I was reading it as nonsense, while I was reading the book as experimental language use and revelation.) Much of Piper’s academic work has revolved around Kant, but she has increasingly included explorations of eastern philosophy in her teaching work.
I sometimes think of Plato (427-347, before Christ) and Socrates as having the centrality in philosophy that the Apostle Paul and Jesus have for those who believe in certain religions, and that Socrates, the pivotal figure in Plato’s dialogues, is ideal, and judge, and source. Plato had studied with Socrates, and himself would have Aristotle as a student; and Plato used the dialogues to convey what a conversation—or seminar—with Socrates was like: the defining of virtues, the questioning of assumptions, the practical illustrations. It has been noted that as Plato’s work developed he moved from using Socrates as an historical character in Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito to using him as a fictional character: possibly the same thing happened with Jesus, and the use to which his disciples put him. Plato’s Republic, in which he defines what it is to live a good life and to create a good society, and his Symposium, with love as its subject, are works of his still referred to today. Plato names as virtues courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom, and in his republic, there are different temperaments and different responsibilities: the wise rule, the courageous defend and protect, and the fit work. I have reservations about such demarcation, just as I wonder about his notion of form—is the form an idea within the reality or is the form an idea of reality?—is form an understanding or is it an unchanging essence? Yet, I find the Socratic interrogations useful and the articulation of values invigorating and the rigorous work of Plato’s texts of fundamental importance.
People who do not see very far, or think very deeply, can be snide about the importance of dignity, integrity, and intelligence; of being dependable and respectable; but for a man or people with slim prospects in an indifferent or discouraging world, these qualities cannot be assumed, they must be earned and forever after defended. Sidney Poitier embodied good character on the film screen, and he could be passionate and funny as well: and his presence gave others permission not just to dream, but to live. Poitier, his parents of the Bahamas, was born in Florida, and he moved to New York and studied with the American Negro Theatre. Poitier played Dr. Luther Brooks in No Way Out in 1950 and the next year was featured as a reverend in Cry, the Beloved Country, and as the years went by he starred in Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, Something of Value, The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, All the Young Men, A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, For Love of Ivy, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Brother John, Buck and the Preacher, A Warm December, Uptown Saturday Night, The Wilby Conspiracy, Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, Little Nikita, and The Jackal. Some of his most famous work was seen sometimes as too dignified and that may be one reason he made so many comedies in the 1970s before sitting out much of the 1980s. If his reputation were to rest on the comedies he made, he wouldn’t have much of a reputation—just as if James Baldwin’s reputation were to rest on his more demagogic statements, he wouldn’t have much of a reputation: what the audience asks for or appreciates most is often beneath the best the artist can deliver. Poitier may have learned that: his more recent films have returned him to roles of dignity—he played Thurgood Marshall in the television film Separate but Equal in 1991, and Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk, another television film, in 1997.
“To me, the political is a fundamental order of history, of thought, of everything that is done, and said. It’s the very dimension of the real. Politics, however, is something else, it’s the moment when the political changes into the same old story, the discourse of repetition…,” said Roland Barthes (“Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes,” The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus, 1985; 218).
There are few examples of achievement that seem to come as vividly with admonishment about the company a revered man may be inclined or required to keep, but Colin Powell’s appointment as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, followed by his humiliation—the disregard for his advice and position—by other members, arguably much inferior members, of the pro-war and pro-capitalism Bush administration, and finally by the president himself, is nearly tragic in its clarity. Powell, a Bronx boy of Jamaican parents, was born in 1937 and went to public schools before attending City College, and he received a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University. Colin Powell was a soldier in Vietnam, a battalion commander in Korea, and after other responsibilities, became the commander-in-chief of Forces Command. Powell became famous when he was appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in October 1989 under George H.W. Bush (he continued to serve under Bill Clinton). People believed in his personal integrity and were proud of his success. Having been to war, the four-star general was not a war-monger. Before leaving his post in 1993, he had supervised more than twenty-eight important events, including the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Operation Desert Storm. He published My American Journey in 1995, and became involved with various do-good institutions. He was nominated in December 2000 by George W. Bush for the post of secretary of state, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and sworn in on January 20, 2001; and his troubles began. Although Powell is said to have some foreign policy successes, principally in Asia, they have been overshadowed by the debacle of the current Iraq war and his involvement, a war begun with affirmations of claims of dangerous weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to be found in Iraq. In the February 19, 2004 online article “The Tragedy of Colin Powell: How the Bush presidency destroyed him,” Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote: “As George Bush’s first term nears its end, Powell’s tenure as top diplomat is approaching its nadir. On the high-profile issues of the day, he seems to have almost no influence within the administration. And his fateful briefing one year ago before the U.N. Security Council—where he attached his personal credibility to claims of Iraqi WMD—has destroyed his once-considerable standing with the Democrats, not to mention our European allies, most of the United Nations, and the media.” Kaplan also notes that when told that Bush was sleeping like a baby, Powell was quoted as saying, “I’m sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up, screaming.” Powell chose not to serve in the Bush administration upon the president’s re-election in November 2004.
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