Favorite Films: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

The Original Footage Compared with the Restored, Colorized Image

Almost all of the motion picture film shot during the first quarter of the 20th Century was cranked by hand through the camera. Some of it was shot at 10 frames per second (fps), some at 12 fps, some at 18 fps. Projected today, the film has that herky-jerky quality that resulted in the “fractured flickers” shown on  early television. And that was only one of the differences. Much of the film was not properly exposed; it was in black and white; it was silent; much of it was multi-generational dupes; the film stock was different; and most of the film stock has not survived a century of storage in even the most optimal conditions.

Therefore it was a miracle when I saw Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which was commissioned by Britain’s Imperial War Museum. The Museum gave the New Zealand director (who gave us The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) carte blanche to take 100 hours of original World War I footage and 600 hours of interviews with survivors and make an interesting film of it.

Jackson did more than that. He had the old footage restored and brilliantly colorized. He had lip readers write down what they men were saying and commissioned actors with the exact Lancashire or Dorset or Scots dialect (based on the regimental insignia on the men’s uniforms) to create a dialog track that synced exactly with lip movements.

The End Result: Real People with Real Faces and Realistic Movements

What resulted from the efforts of Jackson and his crew was resuscitating a whole period of history almost exactly as if it were filmed today using current film-making methods. His Tommies in the trenches in France and Belgium were real people with real faces and real voices. They were not isolated by the whole iconography of silent film.

This is a film which has to be seen to be believed. The whole horror of war in the trenches is brought to life in color and sound. The film is not for everyone: There are numerous shots of bodies of the dead covered with flies, rats in the trenches, gaping wounds, and so on. This is all real war footage—not in any way Disneyfied.


Speed Bumps

A Poor Man’s Speed Bump: Just Stretch a Thick Rope Across the Road

It’s not unusual to find speed bumps or humps on suburban residential streets in the U.S., but Mexico and other Latin American countries put their speed bumps on major roads that cut through populated areas. In Mexico they were called topes; in, Guatemala, tumulos. It was in Honduras that I first encountered speed bumps that were thick ropes stretched across the highway. In the above photo, the rope is on the main street through Rio Dulce (a.k.a. Fronteras).

On the route I took from Copán, Honduras, to Rio Dulce, it seems that we went over a hundred or more speed bumps. Every community seemed to have them on the main highway from Zacapa to Puerto Barrios and the Petén.



Jungle Bus

Bathroom Break at Poptún

There I was in Rio Dulce. I spent one day on a boat ride to and from Livingston, and another day trying to get information on how to get to Flores in the Petén. One of my guidebooks named two travel agencies that were on a street just north of Bruno’s, where I was staying. I spent hours going up and down streets and not finding anything that looked like a travel agency, let alone a shuttle bus service. Besides, I had the feeling that the type of people who hung out in Rio Dulce weren’t all that interested in visiting Tikal.

Finally, I decided to take a public bus to Flores. Litegua didn’t go there. I saw no office for Dorado. Fortunately, the Fuente del Norte (FDN) office was very helpful. There was a 9:30 AM bus for Flores for only 65 quetzales ($8.30 in dollars). The bus started in Guatemala City around midnight and wound up, some fifteen hours later in Flores. Technically, it was a first class bus; but I had been warned that Fuente del Norte was less than cream of the crop.

The next morning, I showed up at the FDN office just as it was opening around 9 AM. I sat down in the waiting room. Fortunately, the bus arrived just after 9:30. Being a de paso bus (i.e., filled with passengers from earlier points on the route). Sometimes, a de paso bus arrives filled to capacity with passengers; this one had space for all the passengers who were waiting at the Rio Dulce office. Among the passengers who a British and a German couple. Other than myself, the rest of the passengers were Maya.

I had been prepared for a grueling ride, and it was that. I was wearing an adult diaper in case the ride lasted long without any restroom breaks. (Fortunately, there was a bathroom break in Poptún, midway along the route.) The ride was fiercely uncomfortable because all the bus seats appeared to be broken in different ways. And, as the bus barreled down the highway at high speed, I felt I was being shaken, not stirred.

At least the bus got me there in one piece.



The Happiness Trap

Ernest Hemingway Poses with a Water Buffalo in Africa, 1953-1954

Having just read Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, I begin to understand why he shot himself in 1961. I had not read any Hemingway for over thirty years, and I realize now there was a reason for this. There was Papa H in Africa, frequently asserting how he loved the place and the people. Yet he is envious of another member of his hunting party, Karl, who is more successful in grabbing the big trophies. Even when he kills a kudu, which he has been trying to do for the whole length of the book, he has this dialog with Pop, the leader of the group, conscious that Karl has bagged a bigger kudu:

“We have very primitive emotions,” [Pop] said. “It’s impossible not to be competitive. Spoils everything, though.”

“I’m all through with that,” said. “I’m all right again. I had quite a trip, you know.”

The only problem is that I didn’t believe him. Again and again, Hemingway is hyper-conscious of competing, of looking good in the eyes of his fellow hunters and his native assistants. He talks about Droopy, a native tracker:

M’Cola [another tracker] was not jealous of Droopy. He simply knew that Droop was a better man than he was. more of a hunter, a faster and cleaner tracker, and a great stylist in everything he did.

At another point, Papa talks of his “wanting to make a shot to impress Droopy.”

Hemingway, too, was a great stylist—in his own way. The prose of The Green Hills of Africa at times rises to the level of poetry. In this, he falls victim to the happiness trap, of always wanting to be happy, of always overcoming hurdles and progressing from one triumph to another. But life is not like that. One must appreciate the little things, to behave prayerfully and thankfully when he has taken the life of some splendid game, to grab at the moments of happiness that are fleeting and resolve to slog manfully through all the merde with which a life is interlarded.



The Flip Side

Lago de Atitlán at Night

My type of vacation is not all beer and skittles. Sometimes it’s downright anxiety provoking, especially when it comes to transportation issues. I wanted very much to see the market at Chichicastenango, but the ATITrans shuttle from Panajachel left only at 8:00 AM on Thursdays and Sundays. But I was staying at Santiago Atitlán, which is connected to Pana pretty much only via boat. (There is a road, but it is susceptible to hijacking.) I got sweats in the middle of the night worrying about whether I could make the connection.

So I arranged at the Posada de Santiago for a launch to pick me up at the hotel’s private dock at 6:00 AM, which gave me two hours to get to the ATITrans office via fast launch and tuk-tuk. The hotel assured me that the deal was done, for a mere 250 quetzales (roughly $32.00). At 5:15 AM, without my breakfast (the restaurant opened at 7:00 AM), I wended my way in the dark down the trail to the dock, which was fortunately well lit. At six sharp, I heard the launch and saw the headlights growing larger.

The ATITrans Office in Panajachel with List of Shuttle Destinations

They were right on time. We headed out before sunrise at high speed. It seemed we spent as much time in the air as on the surface of the lake. It was my bad luck that all four launch rides on the lake were on windy days with many whitecaps in evidence. But we made it to the public dock in Pana in three quarters of an hour. Fortunately, the tuk-tuks were already up and about, so I got to ATITrans with an hour to spare.

Fortunately, there was a fresh orange juice vendor setting up right across Calle Santander from me, so I had something of a breakfast after all. And in the end, I got to Chichicastenango in good time.


Henry Miller in My Life

American Writer Henry Miller (1891-1980)

I started out with Henry Miller the (forbidden) writer of erotica. There were the Tropics, Black Spring, Sous Les Toits de Paris, and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Then I started reading his nonfiction, and I began to think more of him, especially with The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), his travel classic about Greece; The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), on his pessimism about America after the War; The Time of the Assassins (1946), an essay on Arthur Rimbaud;  and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957), about his life in Big Sur. I have just finished reading Remember to Remember (1947), a sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which is mostly about artists he has met.

Henry Miller is very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of author. He can run off at the mouth for dozens of pages—but then he can zero in a key point in some Buddhist burst of contemplation. And, what I like about him, his instincts are right. His pacifist essay in this book, “Murder the Murderer,” spends some ninety pages telling us that he is against war and killing. All well and good. No burst of contemplation there, though it took balls to be a pacifist in the final days of the Second World War. But then he impales Hollywood poseurs in a brilliant spoof entitled “Astrological Fricasse,” which may be the best short work of fiction he ever wrote.

The artists Miller recommends—painters Beauford DeLaney and Abe Rattner and sculptor Beniamino Bufano—are worth closer study. It seems that public opinion has caught up with them, though they were controversial when Miller wrote his book.

I will continue to mine Miller for the occasional rich vein that one comes across with no advance warning, particularly in his nonfiction.



Two Friends of Henry Miller

Abe Rattner’s “Darkness Fell Over the Land” (1942)

I have been reading Henry Miller’s Remember to Remember (1947), his sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). Miller has always been interesting to me, even when he descends into rant, as he not infrequently does. Where the earlier book talked about places, the sequel deals mostly with people. Two painters appearing in that book are Abe Rattner (1896-1978) and Beauford Delaney (1901-1979).

As you may know, I reject the tendency of much of 20th century painting, whether here or in Europe, to go in for abstract expressionism. That might well be of interest to interior decorators, but the result of that tendency is a body of work that, of itself, strikes me as empty. Colorful, perhaps, but not so much as inviting a second glance. Art has to represent something other than mere color and form. The literary equivalent might be a selection of adverbs or prepositions without any human context.

In “A Bodhisattva Artist,” Henry Miller expresses his unbounded admiration for Rattner as a person and for his work. such as the above illustrated “Darkness Fell Over the Land,” referring to the aftermath of the crucifixion. Rattner is an artist of the sacred, somewhat like Georges Rouault, but with both a Christian and a Jewish perspective.

Beauford Delaney’s “Jazz Club” (1950)

Beauford Delaney is an African-American artist who was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and died in Paris, France. Miller got to know him in New York, and wrote an essay about the painter and his work in “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford DeLaney.” He is considered to be a representative artist of the Harlem Renaissance, though when he moved to France, he converted (alas) to abstract expressionism.

According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Delaney felt an immediate affinity with [New York’s] “multitude of people of all races – spending every night of their lives in parks and cafes” surviving on next to nothing. Their courage and shared camaraderie inspired him to feel that “somehow, someway there was something I could manage if only with some stronger force of will I could find the courage to surmount the terror and fear of this immense city and accept everything insofar as possible with some calm and determination.”

I am always interested in finding outliers to the predominant currents of art. Henry Miller, being no mean painter himself, did at times exhibit exquisite tastes.