Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.

 

Farewell to Icon

On His Last Full Day

On Sunday, I drove to Altadena to visit Bill and Kathy Korn. Also to see Icon on his last full day in this life. Icon was Kathy Korn’s seeing-eye dog, who, in his thirteenth year,had developed a serious shortage of red-blood cells. He had trouble digesting food, and his breathing was alarmingly shallow.

Although I have had no pets since my elementary school days in Cleveland in the 1950s, I have always developed friendly relationships with my friends’ pets. I can have no animals in my apartment because (1) it would be a violation of my lease and (2) I am allergic—sometimes more, sometimes less.

Whenever I visited the Korns, I looked forward to Icon’s onslaught, in which recently he has been joined by Duchess, Kathy’s current seeing-eye dog. (Icon has been retired for upwards of a year.)

Icon’s “Diploma” from the Seeing-Eye Dog Program


I got a little teary-eyed as I petted Icon for the last time on Sunday evening. I mentioned that we would see each other again in the next life. Who knows?

Capitale de la Douleur

The Poet Paul Éluard’s Most Famous Collection of Poetry

Yesterday, I wrote about Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965), one of my favorites. In it, Eddie Constantine carries with him a 1926 collection of poems by Paul Éluard called Capitale de la douleur. In several of his scenes with Anna Karina, he quotes from it to remind her of concepts about love and tenderness that are forbidden in her society in Alphaville. Here is one of my favorite poems from this collection entitled “The Word”:

I am fortunate: mine is an easy beauty
I slide over the roof of the winds
I slide over the roof of the seas
I’m sentimental these days
I no longer know who’s in charge
I no longer move silk over ice
I am ill laughter and pebbles
I nakedly love whatever is most Chinese
I love what’s most naked the darting of birds
I am old but here I’m beautiful
And the shadow coming down from the depths of the windows
Every evening spares the dark heart of my eyes

Here is the same poem in the original French, where it is called “La parole”:

J’ai la beauté facile et c’est heureux
Je glisse sur les toits des vents
Je glisse sur le toit des mers
Je suis devenue sentimentale
Je ne connais plus le conducteur
Je ne bouge plus soie sur les glaces
Je suis malade fleurs et cailloux
J’aime le plus chinois aux nues
J’aime la plus nue aux écarts d’oiseau
Je suis vieille mais ici je suis belle
Et l’ombre qui descend des fenêtres profondes
Épargne chaque soir le cœur noir de mes yeux.

 

 

Morose Delectation

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in Godard’s Alphaville

I have begun my re-evaluation of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, beginning with one of my favorites, Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965). One thing hit me between the eyes right away: I am and have always been in love with Godard’s then wife and star Anna Karina. Those almond-shaped eyes! That beautiful face! For some reason, I had always assumed that she was Russian, probably because the similarity of her name to Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy heroine of the novel of the same name. Instead, she is Danish, born Hanne Karin Bayer.

Long one of my favorite Godard films, Alphaville lurches between two genres: the spy film and science fiction. The original Lemmy Caution was an FBI agent, the creation of a British novelist named Peter Cheyney. Between 1936 and 1945 he wrote ten novels starring Caution, all of which have him speaking a rural dialect in which and was always written as an’ and coming as comin’. I tried reading This Man Is Dangerous (1936), but gave up quickly. Godard took obvious liberties with the character and placed him in another galaxy far far away. Curiously, the French films based on the Lemmy Caution novels usually starred the same Eddie Constantine who played the role in Alphaville.

In the Alphaville of the future (which looks suspiciously like Paris circa 1965), a massive computer called Alpha 60 controls in detail the lives of all its denizens. As a homage to Orwell, Godard has a “Bible” in every room, which is none other than a dictionary of approved words. Words that are dropped out include such terms as “conscience,” ”love,” and “tenderness.”

Could This Be the Most Beautiful Face of the 1960s?

Lemmy Caution falls in love with Anna Karina (playing the role of Natasha Von Braun), whom he refers to as a beautiful sphinx (“Joli Sphinx,” which he repeats twice). Lemmy pulls the old Captain Kirk trick of talking the computer into destroying itself, and while the residents of Alphaville are stricken and dying, drives off with Anna Karina to the Outlands of Nueva York.

Sigh! I think I’ll see some more Godard films with Anna Karina in an act of what one of my old friends called “morose delectation.”

 

 

Frustration

Russian Writer Kirill Kobrin

There is an Italian saying which applies here: “Traddutore, traditore!” Or, in other words, to translate is to betray.

Today I finished reading the Dalkey Press Edition of Kirill Kobrin’s Eleven Prague Corpses. It was a work that hovered on the edge of brilliance. The author was even conversant with G. K. Chesterton, one of my favorite authors. The only problem was that I had a feeling that one of two things was happening:

  1. The work was badly translated from the original Russian.
  2. The author has problems following a story through to its conclusion.

I tend to think the Option 1 is the case here. Each of the eleven stories that make up this volume aroused my interest, but usually stumbled before the close. Throughout, I had this feeling that Kobrin is the kind of writer I really like, at least from what I have been able to determine.

Old Soviet Poster: “I Redeemed My Guilt Before the Motherland. There Will Be No Return to the Past.”

The above poster was from Kirill Kobrin’s Twitter feed. It caught my eye and I include it here for no particular reason except that I like it. So there!

As for following Kirill’s work in future, I am hopeful that he will take a more active role in translating his own work as he now lives in London and knows English. And presumably, his own English will improve.

I certainly hope so, as I think he has a lot to say.

 

Return to Godard (After Many Years)

Jean-Luc Godard During His “Golden Age”

From my last two years at Dartmouth to my first two or three years in Los Angeles, I thought that French film director Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest living filmmaker. Since he was still under forty, I thought he had many productive years ahead of him.

When I first came to L.A., I did not drive (that came almost twenty years later). Most of his films received their Southland premieres at the Laemmle Los Feliz Theater on Vermont, a few blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard.  It was a long bus ride involving a transfer in Beverly Hills at Santa Monica and Cañon to a bus that let me off at Santa Monica and Vermont. From there, it was almost a mile to the theater. This was at a time that I was suffering from urethral strictures that made long bus rides an ordeal for me. Several times I wound up wetting myself on the way back. That is a singularly unromantic way of paying for one’s love of art.

The last Godard film I loved was Week-end (1967). Afterwards, he continued to make films, but as a dedicated Maoist and Communist Revolutionary. We all saw signs of this coming in La Chinoise (1967), but couldn’t believe he could throw away his talent for mere propaganda.

After 1970, the only new Godard film I saw was Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), made in 2001, which I saw early this year. In the intervening years, I continued to see my Godard favorites over and over again: Le Mépris, or Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), and Alphaville (1966). This morning, I saw Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and became quite suddenly unblinkered.

Anna Karina Crying in a Movie Theater in Vivre Sa Vie

I always saw Godard as a free spirit, but now I realized that there was a formal excellence that I had not appreciated. The film stars his wife, the lovely Anna Karina, who in twelve tableaux turns to the world of prostitution, falling in with a pimp who shoots her in the end. Where one would expect such a film to be relatively devoid of emotion, Godard follows Karina during the stages of her fall with a delicacy showing how strongly he felt for her. The above photo is taken in a movie theatre, where she tears up while seing Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

As if my life were not complicated enough, I am now going to stage a multi-year re-evaluation of Godard’s work—if I am lucky to live so long! There really is something there. I’m glad it was not just a youthful infatuation.

 

Serendipity: Fury Cursing the House of Atreus

The Progeny of Tantalus, Atreus, and Thyestes Is Cursed by the Gods

I have been reading the tragedies of Seneca, where I came upon this speech by the Fury that curses the progeny of Tantalus, which includes Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Aegisthus. This occurs in the tragedy Thyestes. I cannot help relating it to the House of Trumpf in Washington.

Haughty brothers will lose their kingdoms, then be recalled from exile to rule again. The destiny of their house will swing violently back and forth between short-lived kings; the powerful will become humble, the humble powerful. Fortune will carry the kingship on a constant wave of uncertainty. When god restores to their country those exiled because of their crimes, they will return only to commit more. Everyone else will hate them as much as they hate each other. In their anger they will consider nothing off limits: brother will fear brother, father son, son father. Children will suffer wicked deaths but be born out of even greater wickedness. A hostile wife will plot against her husband. But in this wicked house adultery will be the most trivial of crimes. Righteousness, Faith, Law—all will perish. Wars will be carried across the seas; every land will be irrigated by bloodshed. Lust will exult victoriously over the mighty leaders of nations. Not even heaven will be exempt from your wickedness! Why do stars still shine in heaven’s vault? Why do their flames still feel obliged to offer their splendour to the world? No! Let there be deep night! Let day retreat from the sky! Embroil your household! Summon Hatred, Slaughter, Death! Fill the whole house with your contagion, fill it with the essence of Tantalus.

Just to refresh your memory, Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed his son Pelops and attempted to feed him to the gods. “For this he was punished with eternal thirst and hunger while residing in a pool of water and surrounded by trees with low-hanging fruits, which would recede and retreat whenever he tried to drink or eat them—the origin of our word ‘tantalize.‘” (From the Penguin edition of Seneca’s Phaedra and Other Plays.)

Why were Seneca’s tragedies so dark? He was the Emperor Nero’s adviser, which drove him to commit suicide by taking hemlock.