Monthly Archives: March 2014

Room at the Top

It’s got a modern rhythm, and in Laurence Harvey it’s got a modern performer. Sneering, antipathic, and incapable of warmth, he represents a break from the Ronald Colmans and Cary Grants and Peter Lawfords. He plays a scheming mill worker’s son who like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success can’t see past his ambition. Jack Clayton, in his directing debut after years of marvelous cinematography, shoots Harvey’s Joe against the crisp, barely urbanized backdrop of Yorkshire, and when Joe meets his fiancee’s (Heather Bean) family the Scottish accent accentuates his outsider status. Neil Paterson and Mordecai Richler’s script doesn’t show compassion for the women; the fiancee is a simp, choreographed to be as clinging and dependent and grotesque as possible; and Joe’s great romance with Alice (Simone Signoret) isn’t much different.

Although she won the Oscar, the thin-eyed Signoret isn’t good at projecting grateful ardor; the role, which calls for her to be a Frenchwoman conscious of her age and needing a fuck and sympathy, is humiliating, especially when set against a career spent playing snapping turtles who smoke too much. At times the script chokes on its explicitness. Clayton introduces Joe’s parents for the purpose of warning him to stop his gold digging. “You sure it’s the girl you want more than the brass?” his working class dad wonders. “The brass,” represented by fiancee Susan’s parents, are rather dense. As Susan’s mother Ambrosine Phillpotts plays the sort of rich bitch who like a Wodehouse aunt changes the subject to the weather or the servants when she hears an unpleasant remark (Donald Wolfit plays the father who’s got Joe figured out from the start). Joe’s fate is to end, like Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, in a puddle of dirty water. Hermione Baddeley, as Signoret’s best friend, got an supporting nod for her paroxysm of grief in the last third — the shortest Oscar-nominated performance until Beatrice Straight’s in Network (1976).

The first of the so-called British kitchen sink dramas, Room at the Top was a box office success and made Signoret and Harvey stars. Signoret proceeded to play a series of dessicated variants on their roles; so did Harvey, with the added imposition of hiding his sexuality, resulting in automaton pod-person performances. That’s why The Manchurian Candidate cast him effectively.

“She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression”

From Brad Leithauser’s appreciation of Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves (the “sort of bonding that springs from romantic love”):

The Bertie and Jeeves partnership gets better as it goes along, in part because Wodehouse learned to trust that his reader was in on the joke. Just as he gradually realized that we didn’t need to see money exchanged to understand that Jeeves finds ample rewards in caring for Bertie, Wodehouse discovered that Bertie needn’t be an absolute numbskull to make Jeeves’s braininess funny. In the last of the Jeeves novels, Bertie actually quotes poetry to Jeeves, and, though the poet in question is Ogden Nash (Jeeves responds with Herrick), the quotation itself is aptly chosen. This is a funnier Bertie than the one who isn’t sure what “plausible” or “etched” means, and who doesn’t seem to know who wrote “Macbeth.” Wodehouse came to see that Bertie could show a modicum of dash and savvy and still be a complete idiot. Even if, with a flâneur’s absorbency, Bertie has picked up a few stylish French bon mots, like preux chevalier and espièglerie, there is still plenty of room for stupidity.

I take Leithauser’s point about the indolent manner in which many of the B&J novels are constructed, the repetitions, the occasional belabored metaphors, but where would you start, and how dare you improve them?

Among British comic novelists the Evelyn Waugh of Decline and Fall and Scoop and The Loved One reigns unmatched, second only to Muriel Spark (whom I wouldn’t call a comic novelist so much as a novelist who shapes drama so that the jokes sparkle), with Kingsley Amis several steps behind and Anthony Powell even further. I’ve read about nine Wodehouse novels and confuse them. I’ve started Right Ho, Jeeves twice before realizing I’ve read it already. This is a plus.

“Climate change has already left its mark on all continents and across the oceans”

Keep building beach houses, boys and girls, because the future looks bright:

Climate change has already left its mark “on all continents and across the oceans”, damaging food crops, spreading disease, and melting glaciers, according to the leaked text of a blockbuster UN climate science report due out on Monday.

Government officials and scientists are gathered in Yokohama this week to wrangle over every line of a summary of the report before the final wording is released on Monday – the first update in seven years.

Nearly 500 people must sign off on the exact wording of the summary, including the 66 expert authors, 271 officials from 115 countries, and 57 observers.

But governments have already signed off on the critical finding that climate change is already having an effect, and that even a small amount of warming in the future could lead to “abrupt and irreversible changes”, according to documents seen by the Guardian.

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the final report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will say.

Some parts of the world could soon be at a tipping point. For others, that tipping point has already arrived. “Both warm water coral reef and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts,” the approved version of the report will say.

The Miami Herald, the McClatchy-owned local paper which still does excellent work despite declining revenue, buried this story in the twenties. What are the chances that cable news will mention it? Not when information redolent of “income equality” like this appears:

Those risks will not be borne equally, according to draft versions of the report circulated before the meeting. The poor, the young and the elderly in all countries will all be more vulnerable to climate risks.

Cold bitches: Nymphomaniac Pt. 1

Nymphomaniac opens like overwrought noir. Darkness. It cuts to water dripping from corrugated roof onto garbage cans. Eventually the camera settles, idly, on a battered Charlotte Gainsborough lying in an alley. Power chords announce the introduction of the next major character: a prim Stellan Skarsgård dressing (contrast, right?). He finds her body and nurses her to consciousness. His manner is kind but formal; there’s a sense in which if this woman doesn’t do all the talking and fast he would. Gainsborough has to listen to Skarsgård reminisce about fly fishing; the film cuts to him to the young Skarsgard baiting a hook, to a classic fishing tome, to a fly itself. When she announces, over a tea cup the size of a cloaca, “I suppose I’ll have to tell you the whole story,” I saw Skarsgård flinch, slightly. So did I.

Titling sections like chapters and returning to Skarsgard, whom we learn is named Seligman, for commentary, Nymphomaniac aims to reproduce the effect of a late twentieth century European novel written by Milan Kundera or Umberto Eco. This film though insists on the chronological trudge: childhood to young adulthood. The woman’s father is Christian Slater, a doctor with unidentified accent and a forehead as high as Everest. He loves telling her about trees: “He considered it part of my education.” As a teen she befriends B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), with whom she learns how awesome polygamous sex is. “It’s a very clear parallel to fish in the stream,” Seligman purrs (he almost needs a pipe). “The biggest fish choose the best positions.” Also: “Oral sex became the eye of the angler.” Aphoristic wisdom marks this script. “We were committed to fighting a love-fixated society,” the young woman (now played by Stacy Martin) tells Seligman. “Love is merely lust with jealously added.” On screen flashes in number form (in a handsome font) the number of times the boy humps her — very Peter Greenaway. Her confidence swollen, she and B write an anthem called “Mea Vulva,” ho ho. Someone is being set up for a fall.

Cut in two parts (the second in theaters soon and on demand now), Nymphomaniac is a Lars Von Trier film. This means a grueling time is promised, and like a CIA agent given a terrorist suspect he will keep promises if it induces psychological pain on his victims. From Emily Watson and Bjork to Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, Von Trier specializes in putting actresses through ordeals. To say, as a press release, does, that he’s “fascinated by women” is akin to the Orkin man confessing he’s fascinated by roaches. When we learn that Gainsborough is named Joe an hour into the picture, it makes sense: she’s a woman conceived by a man to act like a man. What on first impression looks like a laudable attempt to record the permutations of female sexuality curdles into punishing these women by plotting their movements on stupid virgin-whore schema. Von Trier regards Joe through the eyes of men. Although he may argue that Seligman mediates the narrative, that’s precisely the problem: Von Trier robs her of autonomy, of the right to shape her own story. We know damn well that when Seligman (Skarsgard) explains how delirium tremens works Joe will admit she suffers from a form of it. A friend in Manhattan said several people laughed in the theater after this fraught moment. It’s the only sane reaction: Von Trier shapes Gainsborough’s scenes like a sleazo luring a woman for parking lot sex after impressing her with his knowledge of Bach and polyphony.

Nymphomaniac has three extended arias: a preposterous one in which Uma Thurman plays the vengeful wife (is there another kind in Von Trier’s world?) who has some sort of breakdown in front of her children and cheating husband and Joe like Liv Ullmann in an early seventies Bergman film; the agonizing death of Slater from delirium tremens, a sequence that also includes a cut from nurses cleaning Slater’s shit-smeared ass to Joe humping an orderly on a hospital bed (not to worry: Seligman comforts her with “It is extremely common to seek sex during a crisis”); and Joe’s parrying and darting affair with Jerome, played by Shia LaBeouf. Once lovers, they reunite when she realizes she’s a secretary in his office. After an awkward elevator chat he reenacts the scene in Belle de Jour in which the trick plays a housekeeper to Catherine Deneuve’s ruthless mistress, only this time with tea and cakes. Von Trier gives him an accent too and cool hair, which helps because seven years after his breakthrough LaBeouf is as erotic as a hat rack.

There’s supposed to be more explicit material hacked from the original four-hour cut, but the scenes with the actors’ clothes on are more pornographic than the sex. Wanting to get the audience off on his erudition and distancing devices, Von Trier doesn’t make a single unpredictable move — how pornography functions, in other words. Nymphomaniac is a muddle of allusions and winks. His daring is like a child with a blanket pretending to be a ghost, such as when he films a scene of Sophie and Joe cavorting on a train to “Born to be Wild.” Movies like this and Dogville and Antichrist have shriveled the achievement of Breaking the Waves; it’s impossible to watch it now without reprimanding myself for missing how contemptuously he regards women. Even Melancholia, which had many risible moments, at least showcased actors bouncing off each other, mitigating the impact of what Von Trier had in mind for the Dunst character. “I suppose she is what you’d call a cold bitch,” Joe says about her mother, i.e. what Von Trier thinks of sexy women.

Santeria: “We’re in a transitional phase”

The Miami Herald wrote a thorough uncondescending story about santeria. From what I’ve noticed at the university and around town it flourishes; seeing middle aged men dressed in white from head to toe indicates that they’re saints or about to become saints. More and more santeria faithful are going to Nigeria for the purpose of finding their roots:

The faith evolved distinctly in Cuba, with a key break linking Catholic saints to specific orishas. The worship of those deities — not the Yoruban oracle Ifá, which dominates the modern practice in Nigeria — also took center stage. Simple practices changed in Cuba; for example, liquor made from sugarcane was added to rituals.

After the wave of immigration following the 1959 Cuba revolution, New York became America’s center of Lukumi religion. Over the next decades, Lukumi blossomed in Miami, where practitioners like Pichardo and Ramos worked to demystify the religion and shed the Catholic associations, including the name Santería.

In 1993, Pichardo and Hialeah’s Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that sanctioned the sacrifice of chickens and legally recognized the religion.

Since then, Lukumi has flourished, spawning a cottage industry selling paraphernalia and drawing increasing study from religious scholars. Miami companies manufacture everything from beads to statutes to crowns, sold at botanicas nationwide. Ramos — who recently completed his doctorate at Florida International University in the history of the religion — maintains a comprehensive website,, that offers up-to-date online seminars, literature and contacts across the country.

Notice the language of business creeping into their lingo (“We’re in a transitional phase”). I hope someone reading this can direct me to a book or article linking Cold War exile politics and santeria. I’m sure it’s there.