Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) with Wife Anna Karina

Beginning in the 1960s and extending through the early 1970s, I thought that the most exciting filmmaker in the world was Jean-Luc Godard. While I was a film student at UCLA, it seemed that two or three new titles came out every year. All of them enthralled me.

Then, something happened. When La Chinoise came out, I was sorely disappointed. Always sympathetic to revolutionaries, Godard seemed to have turned Maoist. His stars—Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anna Wiazemski—endlessly quoted from Chairman Mao’s little red book. Godard had gone doctrinaire on me. Even though I myself had flirted with the Progressive Labor Party in 1967, as a Hungarian-American I had uneasy feelings about dogmatic Communism.

La Chinoise: Way Too Dogmatic

Still, I thought that most of Godard’s films of the 1960s were exciting. At the time, all my favorite American directors were either dead or dying, and here was a young French director still in his thirties who could be relied upon to produce more masterpieces in the years to come. Alas! It was not to be. I have seen a few of his later productions, which I found not quite up to the standard Godard had set earlier in his career.

Among my favorites of his were:

  • À bout de souffle or Breathless (1960), one of the iconic films of the French New Wave
  • Vivre sa vie or My Life to Live (1962)
  • Le mépris or Contempt (1963), starring Brigitte Bardot
  • Alphaville (1965), a great combo of noir and science fiction
  • Pierrot le fou (1965)
  • Masculin féminin (1966), starring French pop star Chantal Goya
  • Made in USA (1966)
  • Weekend (1967), an apocalyptic satire of the French bourgeoisie

Many of the above films starred Godard’s wife, the lovely Anna Karina, which for me served as an added inducement to see the films.

Godard continued to make films. Between 1968 and 1972, he made political films with the Dziga Vertov Group, none of which I have seen. As late as 2022, he kept releasing films. The exhilaration of the earlier works, however, was gone. I have yet to see more than a handful of them, but I would like to at some point. Many of them are pretty obscure and hard to find.

Last year, at the age of 91, Godard found himself suffering from a series of incapacitating illnesses, such that he committed assisted suicide on September 13, which is allowed by Swiss law. It is an unfortunate end for a great artist whose work influenced my life in so many ways at a time when I was young and alienated. But then, such is life.

“Fame Is a Fickle Food …”

The Hollywood Walk of Fame

Here is a poem by Emily Dickinson on the subject of fame. It is short, but packs a punch.

Fame Is a Fickle Food

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s corn
Men eat of it and die

The End of the Beginning

My Janus-Faced January Reading Program

As I wrote in my post dated January 1 of this year, I like to devote a whole month out of each year reading authors I have never read before. As this is the last day of my Januarius Project for January 2023, I thought I’d report on the authors I have discovered.

I have read eleven books this month. Six of them turned out to be excellent:

  • Thomas Hodgkin. Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire. I. The Visigothic Invasion. The first of eight volumes and 5,000 pages on the Barbarian Invasions. Excellent scholarship and exciting even!
  • Magda Szabo. The Door. A superb Hungarian novel about a writer and her domineering housekeeper.
  • Laszló F. Földényi. Melancholy. Another Hungarian author dealing with the history of melancholy in Western literature and civilization. Not an easy book to read, but worth the effort.
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Writing Across the Landscape. Travel Journals 1960-2010. It’s always fascinating to see other places from a poet’s perspective.
  • Lucretius. The Nature of Things. An ancient Roman poet describes the science of his day—in verse. Reading Lucretius tells me we may have advanced in some respects, but not all.
  • Juan Rulfo. The Plain in Flames. Why have I not heard of this Mexican author before? Like John Webster, he could see the skull beneath the skin; and his short stories are powerful and gemlike.

The remaining five were merely really good:

  • Vilmos Kondor. Budapest Noir. A top-notch mystery set in the Budapest of the 1930s, on the track of a young woman’s murder.
  • Han Kang. The Vegetarian. A young woman goes from vegetarianism to pushing the envelope of what is human. The author is Korean.
  • Don Carpenter. Hard Rain Falling. A noir crime novel about a pool shark whose life goes from bad to worse. The beginning is particularly powerful.
  • Yu Miri. Tokyo Ueno Station. The author is a Japanese woman of Korean ancestry. A powerful look at urban homelessness in Tokyo.
  • Horacio Quiroga. 7 Best Short Stories. One for the kiddies. A Uruguayan author writes stories about the Argentinian jungle that are reminiscent of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

I can see myself reading other works by Hodgkin, Szabo, Ferlinghetti, and Rulfo in the year to come.


Cacti on the Grounds of the Sunnylands Center & Gardens

Attached to the historic Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage are extensive cactus gardens that are open to the general public five days a week. My brother Dan and I wanted to tour the estate, but it was closed for a scheduled event. Instead, we spent a couple hours seeing a film about the role of the center in world politics and walking the gardens.

Although the center has no official status, it has been the site of meetings with such figures as most of the recent U.S. Presidents, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and prominent entertainment figures such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Sammy Davis Jr.

The only recent President who did not put in an appearance there was Donald J. Trump, probably because there was some fear he would break plates and steal the silver.

On the premises of the estate at one time were paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh, Andrew Wyeth, and Monet. When Walter and Leonore Annenberg died, these paintings were donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The nine-hole golf course is still there, to be used by invited guests of the Annenberg Foundation Trust, who may stay overnight in one of a number of elegant cottages on the grounds.

The cactus gardens by themselves are a work of art, with some of the most elegant landscaping I have ever seen.

Fiercely Unhuggable

It’s Hard to Be a Tree Hugger in the Desert

This Friday, I will be driving to Palm Desert in the Coachella Valley to visit my brother and sister-in-law. Consequently, I will probably not post here again until Monday January 30—and then only if I feel up to it.

This is supposed to be a nice weekend, except for the possibility of rain on Sunday and Monday. Fortunately, I noticed this week that my right front windshield wiper was starting to fall to pieces, so I had it replaced. The driver’s side windshield wiper (which on a Subaru Forester is two inches longer than the passenger side wiper) is on order.

Usually, most Southern Californians bet that whatever rain is predicted will spend itself in the mountains and leave us high and dry. Not this year, however.

It’s always fun to spend time with Dan and Lori, and I am looking forward to it.

So hasta la vista!

Lucretius on the Nature of Things

Titus Lucretius Carus (1st Century BC)

It’s not easy to read The Nature of Things by Lucretius. Not only does he attempt to summarize the philosophy of Epicurus and the science knowledge of his day (40-55 BC), but he did in in rhymed couplets, which in this edition are translated as heptameter (“fourteeners”).

Not to worry: If you press on, you will get the gist of what Lucretius writes, and you will encounter some great passages such as this one on the role of the gods in life:

If you possess a firm grasp of these tenets, you will see
That Nature, rid of harsh taskmasters, all at once is free,
And everything she does, does on her own, so that gods play
No part. For by the holy hearts of gods, who while away
Their tranquil immortality in peace!—who can hold sway
Over the measureless universe? Who is there who can keep
Hold of the reins that curb the power of the fathomless deep?
Who can juggle all the heavens? And with celestial flame
Warm worlds to fruitfulness? And be all places at the same
Time for all eternity, to cast a shadow under
Dark banks of clouds, or quake a clear sky with the clap of thunder?
What god would send down lightning to rend his own shrines asunder?
Or withdraw to rage in desert wastes, and there let those bolts fly
That often slay the innocent and pass the guilty by?

It is a far different world than hours. Instead of the Periodical Table of the Elements, Lucretius had earth, wind, air, and fire. You can see him bending in obscure directions to explain such phenomena as magnetism, thunder, earthquakes, and plagues. Yet one could not help but admire the ingenuity of an astute observer who had no notion of Newtonian Physics, let alone Quantum Physics, yet tried his hardest to explain what he saw.

Thoughts & Prayers—Pfffft!

AK-47 Insides

After the mass killings in California this weekend—in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay—I am tempted to make an immodest proposal. Every time N number of innocent victims are killed by a shooter, the same number of NRA members (and their families) are slaughtered in the same fashion.

It would have the effect of thinning the herd.

Insofar as the Second Amendment is concerned, in exactly what way do gun buyers constitute a “well-regulated Militia”? (Answer: In no way.)

10 Years Ago in Reykjavík

I had just landed in Iceland. Because I was eight hours ahead of Pacific Time (Los Angeles), I decided to hang out at Reykjavík Harbor for several hours and go to bed around midnight Iceland time. I was met by two cute Japanese girls who were collecting funds for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), specifically to save the whales. At that time (2013), Iceland was one of two countries which hunted whales for food. The other was Japan.

In the U.S., only Native Americans are allowed to hunt whales, and the average number of kills is 300-500 Belugas and 40-70 Bowhead a year.

I was happy to contribute to the protection of the whales. And while I was in Iceland, I did not eat any whale meat, though I saw it in several markets.

Fortunately, I was able to keep my eyes open until 8 AM Los Angeles time and did not suffer from jet lag in the subsequent days. Flying back to California was, alas, a different story.

Ferlinghetti in Mexico

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

Ever since I saw him speak at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s, I have admired Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I loved his poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind. And I am fond of the books he has published under his City Lights Books imprint. I am currently reading his Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010, which also contains some poetry written during his travels, such as the following untitled piece:

La puerta escondida
	no está escondida
La puerta al invisible
	no está invisibile
The door to the invisible
	is visible
The hidden door
	is not hidden
I continually walk through it
	not seeing it
And I am what I am
And will be what I will be
Sobre las playas perdidas
	del Sur ....

The first four lines are translated in the poem. The last two lines read “On the lost beaches/Of the South.”

Flying to Florida 1959

My first flight was in the summer of 1959—to Florida of all places. Way back around 1946-47, we had all lived in Lake Worth, now a suburb of West Palm Beach. My Dad had the worst job in the world for someone with a delicate stomach: disposing of the bodies of dead alligators. My Mom worked as a checker in a supermarket. So when Mom wanted to hook up with her Florida friends a dozen or so years later, my Dad wanted no part of it.

Wait a minute! Florida in the summer? Were we out of our minds? Apparently. It was either June or July, and Mom had made a reservation at an apartment on Federal Highway in Lake Worth. So Mom, my brother (then seven years old), and me (aged fourteen) were off to Cleveland Hopkins Airport, where we boarded a prop plane similar to the one shown above and flew to Jacksonville, where we landed to embark and disembark passengers, and continued on to West Palm Beach.

That second leg of the flight was a real doozy. We were flying at low altitude through a violent thunderstorm. I saw a stewardess lose her footing and dump a tray of beverages into the laps of a row of passengers.

Then, when we finally landed in West Palm Beach and stepped out of the plane, it was as if we were hit in the face with a hot, wet towel. Cleveland in the summer was humid, but nowhere near so bad as Florida. We sort of got used to it. We even got used to seeing dead palmetto bugs as big as mice piled up along the curbs.

Bookworm that I was, even at that early age, I remember vividly that I was reading Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur, which I completed there and started reading MorrisWest’s The Shoes of the Fisherman. Good reading for a devout Catholic schoolboy, though I couldn’t stomach it today.

One interesting memory of that trip: My Mom had worked for a rich widow in Palm Beach named Mrs. Gregory. One day, we went to visit her. Mom always thought that some rich person would out of the goodness of her heart shower us with money and gifts. It never happened. Instead, we went for a ride in her chauffeured Cadillac with no air conditioning and the windows resolutely closed on a sweltering day. Afterwards, she generously offered us a glass of ice water.