Letters of Transit

Prop from the Film Casablanca: The Letter of Transit

I have just finished reading a magnificent novel by Anna Seghers entitled Transit (1944). At the time it was being written—around 1942—a film entitled Casablanca was being made starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The film’s “maguffin,” as Alfred Hitchcock would have called it, are certain letters of transit that have been stolen from Nazi authorities allowing the bearer to leave Morocco for any desired destination.

Such was the film’s premise. Above is the prop used as the Letter of Transit, duly filled out in the name of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and wife. Note, however, that the issuer is the “State of France.” At the end of the film, the Laszlos fly to Lisbon from Casablanca, en route to the United States. Strictly speaking, the so-called Letter of Transit is only an exit visa and does not bear the stamp of the Portuguese consul, let alone the American one.

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Segher’s novel tells the tale of refugees from the approaching Nazi terror gathered in Marseilles, trying vainly to collect the series of official papers that would:

  1. Allow them to leave Marseilles legally. The document above appears to be an exit visa rather than a letter of transit.
  2. Pass through other countries en route to their final destination. These are the actual letters of transit, and must be stamped by the consular authorities for each country along the way.
  3. A visa allowing entry to their final destination.
  4. Tickets for transportation along each leg of the journey.

Transit follows various Europeans frantically trying to collect the necessary paperwork before any of the stamped legal papers in their possession expire, which would require them to re-start the process.

Quoted in Segher’s novel is this passage from 2 Corinthians 11:25-26:

Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often; in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren.

More Props: The Passports of Victor Laszlo (Here Misspelled) and Ilsa Lund

The hero of Transit is a German worker and prison camp escapee named Seidler who has assumed the identity of a writer named Weidel who, despairing, had committed suicide in Paris. Curiously, he has no desire to leave Marseilles, finding the city to be a destination in its own right. (It wasn’t: The Germans eventually occupied it.) He runs into Weidel’s wife, is attracted to her, and finally merely helps her to leave, deciding to stay behind:

It’s true, I realized. Everything just passes through me. And that’s why I was still roving about unharmed in a world in which I didn’t know my way well at all. Indeed, even the fit of anger that had decided my life back then in my own country was only temporary. I didn’t stay angry; I wandered around afterward, my anger gone. What I really like is what endures, that which is different from me.

I was so blown away by this book that I regard Seghers as the peer of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and behind only Franz Kafka (who wrote in German). She is probably best known for The Seventh Cross, which was filmed in 1944 by director Fred Zinnemann starring Spencer Tracy and Signe Hasso. During the Second World War, she lived in Mexico, having escaped Marseilles like some of her characters in Transit. She ended up after the war living in East Germany.

 

Westerns Then and Now

Harry Carey Jr and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

The Westerns have been with us since the very beginning of motion pictures: The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was shot in the un-Western-like setting of New Jersey. Within little more than a decade, William S. Hart was turning out reasonably good Westerns which he shot at Inceville, near Santa Ynez Canyon. And in 1917, John Ford did his first oater starring Harry Carey Sr, Straight Shooting. The remainder of the silent period saw a number of stars, including Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, with Hart and Carey continuing their careers.

It was in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach that the first great sound period for the Western began. Until his death in 1979, the Western was almost synonymous with The Duke. But there was also Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Victor Mature as Doc Holliday.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The real glory days of the Western came in the 1950s. Not only was John Ford still active, but there were great series directed by Budd Boetticher (Decision at Sundown, 1957) and starring Randolph Scott and by Anthony Mann starring Jimmy Stewart (Bend in the River, 1q952).

The great period of the Film Western was illuminated by the bit of dialog from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood lost sight of the legend. The Westerns were being demythologized by new filmmakers up from television. There were few real heroes, and a lot of scruffy, violent guys with beards. I suppose that Clint Eastwood was the new Western hero paradigm. Although I enjoyed his films, they were not up to the standard set by William S. Hart, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann.

 

Tonya Harding Revisited

Skater Tonya Harding (R) with Coach

This afternoon, I saw the Craig Gillespie film I, Tonya (2017). I remember vividly the events of 1994, when Tonya Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly conspired with lowlife friends to intimidate rival skater Nancy Kerrigan, but the intimidation turned into a physical attack in which Kerrigan’s knee was broken. Then a bunch of videos turned up on the Internet of Gillooly and Harding’s wedding night with its raucous nudity and sex play. Kerrigan was able to compete again, but Harding was banned from skating competition for the rest of her life.

The film was actually pretty good. The Australian-born Margot Robbie excelled as Tonya; and Allison Janney as her estranged mother LaVon was icily superb.

I always felt sympathy for Harding, because she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and from a dysfunctional family. Competition skating in America wants its competitors to be little suburban princesses with happy backgrounds (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof). Although she was less responsible for the nobbling of Nancy Kerrigan than her husband and his friends and associates, they wound up serving light sentences, but Tonya’s harsher sentence essentially killed her career—for the remainder of her life.

We pretend to be a democracy, but it hasn’t looked that way for some time:  Talented blue-collar girls suffer for not being little bundles of perfection. Tonya is still around, but no longer is she performing triple axels on the ice. She performed brief stints as a wrestler, a boxer, and a racer; and  (according to the film)  she constructed home decks. I wish her well.

Eleven Bogies

Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946)

Today I finally broke down and purchased a DVD of Casablanca (1942), surely one of the greatest American films ever made. It set me on a train of thought about its star, Humphrey Bogart, always one of my favorites. I thought I would give you a list of my eleven favorite Bogie films in the order they were filmed:

  1. High Sierra (1941), directed by Raoul Walsh, one of the greats. Co-starring Ida Lupino in one of her best roles.
  2. The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston. With Mary Astor. A classic.
  3. Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz. Co-starring Ingrid Bergman. One of the best-loved American films of the 1940s.
  4. To Have and Have Not (1944), directed by Howard Hawks. Co-starring Lauren Bacall. Based on the Hemingway novel.
  5. The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks. To my mind Bogie’s best starring role, with Lauren Bacall. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel.
  6. Dark Passage (1947), directed by Delmer Daves, with Lauren Bacall. Based on a great novel by David Goodis.
  7. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John Huston.
  8. Key Largo (1948), directed by John Huston. Co-starring Lauren Bacall.
  9. In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame.
  10. The African Queen (1951), directed by John Huston. Co-starring Katherine Hepburn.
  11. Beat the Devil (1953), directed by John Huston. Co-starring Jennifer Jones. A rare offbeat comedy.

Now I am going to sit down and see Casablanca again … and I will, I am sure, love it again.

 

An Afternoon in Garmonbozia

Laura Palmer Played by Sheryl Lee

Twice a year, Barnes & Noble has a 50% off sale on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blue-Rays. Today, I bought one of my favorite films from the 1990s, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), a prequel based on his two-part television series, Twin Peaks for ABC. The term “garmonbozia” is a nightmarish Black Lodge term meaning pain and suffering. In the movie, the pain and suffering relates primarily to two young women who are killed, and one who is presumably scarred for life: Laura Palmer, Theresa Banks, and Ronette Pulaski.

The so-called Black Lodge is a strange room with no windows, full-length floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes, and a zig-zag pattern in black and white on the floor. Its permanent inhabitant is Michael J. Anderson (below) as The Man from Another Place. He speaks in a strange, barely understandable dialect which was filmed speaking backwards deliberately, and then reversing the sound track. He eats garmonbozia, which looks very like creamed corn.

Michael J. Anderson as The Man from Another Place and Kyle MacLahlan as FBI Agent Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was not a popular film when released. No matter, it and the ABC TV series were at least a decade ahead of their time and are just now coming into their own. (Though, truth to tell, I loved the film when it was first released; and only now am I watching the TV series.) Both the film and the TV series are postmodern to the max and greatly influenced the development of films to follow. In an article from the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Parker wrote:

Stylistically, the most immediate posthumous effect of all this might have been the gnostic, everything-signifies vibe of The X-Files, but there are glimmering splinters of Twin Peaks in Breaking Bad’s trippy desert-sizzle; in the irruptive, disabling dreamtime of Bran Stark on Game of Thrones; and in the absurdist plot spirals, the gizmos and MacGuffins, of Lost. The Sopranos paid homage with Agent Cooper–esque fugue states and shots of trees blowing in the wind, rippling in their fullness and strangeness. And how is it finally communicated to Tony Soprano, after years of repressed suspicion, that Big Pussy—one of his most trusted sidekicks—is ratting him out to the FBI? By a talking fish, in a delirium, after some bad chicken vindaloo. It doesn’t get more Twin Peaks than that.

I have only a few more episodes of Twin Peaks to watch on DVD and then … and then … I just may pay a visit to the area. I have friends and family in the area.

 

 

Favorite Films: Stalker (Сталкер, 1979)

Dunes Near the Room That Is the Goal of Stalker

While I was visiting my bother in Palm Desert, we saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic SF novel, Roadside Picnic. He did not like the film, which took 161 minutes to traverse a field and enter a building in search of a room.When one entered the room, one supposedly got all one’s wishes satisfied. Dan was bored by the film’s length, whereas I felt the film zipped by at light speed.

There is something about slow films, such as Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Ordet, Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari. The main characteristic of these films is a movement of spirit. If you follow this development, the film’s perceived slowness is imaginary.

In Stalker, one cannot just walk across the field and into the room. The interstellar aliens that landed in what is called “The Zone” change things around such that the stalker and the men who hired him to guide them must throw steel nuts bound in rags to check out the path ahead—and under no circumstances must they return the way they came. Several times, they pass a wall of old ceramic tiles, but in each case, the terrain around it is completely different.

The Stalker’s Daughter, Called “Monkey”

I am not saying you will love the film. I certainly do. But my brother, who shares so many film tastes with me, did not.If you demand fast action, you had best stick with CGI and Marvel Comics adaptations. But if you let yourself be guided by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and follow the story line carefully, you will become one of Stalker’s fans.

Koizumi Yakumo

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)

Martine is gone, and the terrible heat of the last ten days is slowly beginning to abate. I find that I am reading more than ever. (How much more can I read than I’m reading now, I do not know. So far eighteen books this month.) The most recent is by an American who became a Japanese. I refer to Lafcadio Hearn, who went under the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo. He married a Japanese wife, raised four children with her. It appears that I have many of Hearn’s books about Japan, which were published by Charles E. Tuttle & Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in paperback editions during the 1970s.

When I was traveling to and from Dartmouth College, I took a White River Coach from Hanover to White River Junction, and from hence another White River Coach to Rutland. At Rutland, I would wait for the Vermont Transit bus that would take me to Albany, New York, where I would board the New York Central night train to Chicago, which let me off in Cleveland. There, my parents waited for me.

Because of Tuttle’s proximity, while at Dartmouth I grew interested in Japanese culture. I attended an exhibit of Sesshu Toyo’s “Long Scroll” at Hopkins Center, and saw all the Japanese films that came my way. One of the best of them is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), made the year before I graduated.

Scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965)

It is only now, more than fifty years after I graduated, that I picked up my copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) and began reading it with increasing enjoyment. The Kobayashi film took four stories from Hearn’s works, two of them from the book entitled Kwaidan. I was enthralled by Hearn’s stories, such that I can see myself picking the other Hearns off the shelf (I have almost ten of them) and reading them with intense pleasure. The book is not all ghost stories: At the end are three delightful essays about butterflies, mosquitoes, and ants as seen in Chinese and Japanese cultures.  Here is a brief excerpt from his essay on ants:

The work daily performed by these female [ant] laborers comprises road-making, bridge-building, timber-cutting, architectural construction of numberless kinds, horticulture and agriculture, the feeding and sheltering of a hundred varieties of domestic animals, the manufacture of sundry chemical products, the storage and conservation of countless food-stuffs, and the care of the children of the race. All this labor is done for the commonwealth—no citizen of which is capable even of thinking about “property,” except as a res publica;—and the sole object of the commonwealth is the nurture and training of its young,—nearly all of whom are girls. The period of infancy is long: the children remain for a great while, not only helpless, but shapeless, and withal so delicate that they must be very carefully guarded against the least change of temperature. Fortunately their nurses understand the laws of health: each thoroughly knows all that she ought to know in regard to ventilation, disinfection, drainage, moisture, and the danger of germs,—germs being as visible, perhaps, to her myopic sight as they become to our own eyes under the microscope. Indeed, all matters of hygiene are so well comprehended that no nurse ever makes a mistake about the sanitary conditions of her neighborhood.

In spite of this perpetual labor no worker remains unkempt: each is scrupulously neat, making her toilet many times a day. But as every worker is born with the most beautiful of combs and brushes attached to her wrists, no time is wasted in the toilet-room. Besides keeping themselves strictly clean, the workers must also keep their houses and gardens in faultless order, for the sake of the children. Nothing less than an earthquake, an eruption, an inundation, or a desperate war, is allowed to interrupt the daily routine of dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, and disinfecting.

For many years, much of what the West knew about Japan came from Hearn’s pen. I cannot imagine a more delightful introduction to any culture.