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Nights of Cabiria

July 5, 2011

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers. The YouTube clip shows the very end of the movie, and what I write underneath also gives away everything. Needless to say, I recommend this movie unreservedly (it is my favorite movie along with only 3 others that I can call my ‘favorite’). So watch it, then come back and read this entry.

What is it about the celebrations at the end of Fellini’s movies that are so moving? Is it, partially—precisely—that they are so unwarranted? Only after everything is lost does Fellini think the party should start.

I’ve been haunted by that image of Cabiria’s teary eyes looking into the camera right before the movie ends. It resonates so deeply. And much like the rest of the film, it touches the viewer without words, because her actions, body language, and facial expressions say more than any line of dialogue ever can.

At one point she is in a ritzy district of town and walks down a lane. Coming opposite are two tall, obviously wealthy, cultured ladies, their backs to the camera. Cabiria’s short frame is dwarfed by comparison, and on her face, an expression of ‘I’m just as good as you, I can play with the best of them’. But right after she passes them, the facade drops, and you can see on her face all her insecurities and doubts. What a great scene.

This reminds me. Somewhere I heard an interview with an actor who said his best lesson in acting came when he realized that to play a drunk person is not about falling all over the place, but instead it’s about trying your best not to fall all over the place. To show the effort in not falling… because a drunk person is all the time trying to convince people he isn’t drunk.

Likewise, how easy it is to create a character who is naive. But how much more believable it is when that character is trying her best not to be naive, to project a facade of world-weary toughness as Cabiria does. This detail is what makes her character work, what makes you believe that she can actually exist, despite her cartoony proportions.

The attention to detail here is stunning, to the subtleties of every character in the movie, and not just the main ones. In one scene, Oscar the swindler spits out a toothpick before meeting with Cabiria. In another, towards the end, he is wearing sunglasses, a sure sign that he’s ashamed of what he’s about to do.

A scene that was cut: Cabiria finds herself on the outskirts of town, among the poverty of the homeless. But Criterion included it in their version, which was a wise decision. It should never have been cut, because it lends so much more power to the movie as a whole. Here we can imagine Cabiria’s likely fate after the movie ends, after she sold her house and had been cheated out of all her money. Knowing this makes the scene so much more powerful on repeat viewings.

As are many of the foreshadowings of the movie. The push into the river at the beginning is a parallel to the movie’s final betrayal.

Likewise, will the viewer be betrayed? This is what I wonder when Guilietta Masina looks into the camera. For it is Guilietta Masina looking into the camera, and not Cabiria. Or, rather, the possibility that it is both the character and the actor in that one moment, joining the viewer in empathy, is poignant.

She has no right to be smiling here, but she does. Cabiria looks at the audience as if to say ‘It’s okay. Everything will be fine’. The gall of her to be comforting us! Meanwhile Masina is saying ‘It’s okay, it’s just a movie’. But will it be okay? Will Cabiria be okay after the end of this movie? Likewise, will we the viewers be okay out in the world once the fantasy of the movie has ended?

Some say this is a hopeful ending, but I am not so sure anymore. You can see it as naive hope in the face of the cynicism of the world.

Or maybe the ending is a dare. Maybe Fellini is daring the viewer to do exactly that: to interpret the ending as hopeful. Because to feel hopeful after what we’ve been shown is to put yourself in Cabiria’s shoes: naive and willing to imagine a better future despite all evidence to the contrary. Will we dare to take on Cabiria’s fate?


Time of the Doves

July 31, 2010

time_of_the_dovesI read this book for the Spotlight Series (which puts the spotlight on small press publishers by having bloggers read and review a book by a small press that they have chosen to feature for that month. The current spotlight is on Graywolf Press).

Time of the Doves
by Mercè Rodoreda

“And as he was talking he’d run his fingernail along the crack in the table and dig out breadcrumbs that had gotten stuck there, and it seemed strange to me that he’d do something I did sometimes but that he’d never seen me do.”

This book is about the experience of something big in the body of something small, small as a woman named Natalia. Because all big experiences, even marriage, even children, even war, even despair—because all of these big things are also little things, or it comes one little thing at a time—doves and eggs and the name Colometta or the smell of hydrochloric acid.

And though something big can be forgotten, can be silenced, can be inside deep like termites going from inside out instead of outside in, something small like blue lights or a cork or a picture of some lobsters, they stay with you in tiny shards just quiet-like. This book is about how to forget them.

“I’d learned to read and write and my mother’d gotten me used to wearing white clothes. I’d learned to read and write and I sold pastries and candy and chocolates and bonbons filled with liqueurs. And I could walk through the streets like a human being surrounded by other human beings. I’d learned to read and write and waited on people and helped them…”

All these small things are like a cork to stop up the big things but the big things get through anyway. The things not said, because it’s too painful, or simply because our narrator is not very eloquent. She’s in-eloquent not because she’s stupid but because she’s not totally aware of her feelings, at least through most of the novel. But that doesn’t mean she’s not able to move you, the reader, all the more for it.

So that’s what this book felt like—just tiny experiences that slowly build up, with a whirlwind of characters and things and thoughts all written in a style that seems slightly dizzying because the sentences are long but not complicated, they are long in the way a Frank O’Hara poem is long, where you run out of breath by the end of the sentence with that inexplicable breathless urgency.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was glad that Spotlight on Small Presses gave me the extra nudge in the rear-end to finally read this wonderful Graywolf Press book (since it was already on my “to read” list).



May 3, 2010

Reading 2666 is like trying to appreciate the Sistine Chapel from up close. I wanted constantly to step back in order to get some bigger-picture perspective, and because it is so hard to do this with a work of literature (basically you have to contain the whole thing in your mind and try to imagine it from afar) it makes certain sections (let’s say almost all of it) frustrating, or slightly unsatisfying. But by the end, you start to see some connections, though they are not simple connections. It is more like a feeling of a worldview, than any kind of easy conclusion. If there is any big picture, it is very hard to encapsulate without trying to re-tell the whole thing. Or drawing rather meaningless diagrams, as I have done below:


This makes sense to me, even though I feel like I’m still leaving out a whole bunch, and even though it might not make any sense to anyone else.

I don’t think it is a great novel, although I think its strongest point is creating an internal logic so full that it approaches madness. I think the book lacks some basic things like joy, humor (there was humor, but not the type of humor that sustains one in the act of reading), and characterization. The people in the book seem flat and do not develop; they are almost like chess pieces Bolaño uses to illustrate his points. On the plus side, the book is unlike any other book I’ve read and its strengths are very different from those that I’m used to. I feel that this is a very difficult book to think about in terms of “good” or “bad”. I honestly did not enjoy reading most of it, but I did feel compelled to continue. There is a sense that I am not immersed in the novel’s world, but am only reading a synopsis of ‘what happens’, almost like reading a list of ingredients. There is something enticing about lists to me, perhaps that’s why I kept reading.

2666 Group Read Experience:

I was excited to read 2666 partially because of the Group Read aspect.  I like that there is not one forum for discussion, but rather everyone uses their own modes (whether it be twitter, blogs, forums, GoodReads, etc.).  But while I found a lot of interesting perspectives, the book seems so open-ended that I started to not really get too much out of these perspectives, but instead felt an overwhelming sense of becoming a book-hermit.  This book especially, while going outward, has a spiraling down and inwards feeling to me, akin to becoming slightly insane and illogical.  What I didn’t expect was that I liked not explaining or reading others explanations the more I got into the book, and felt a sense of guardedness towards the experience of reading rather than an expansion outwards.  My gut feeling is that this would have been different with another book.  I can’t explain why.  I remember after finishing The Brothers Karamazov, that I wished to discuss it with people.  But with this book, I didn’t have that feeling at all.  Partly, I think any discussion of this book—which seems to have an infinite number of nodes for making connections—would be at least 80% bullshit, but maybe that’s the cynic in me speaking.


The Story of Mary Maclane“Napoleon was a man, and though sensitive, his flesh was safely covered”

Yes, but who was Mary MacLane? Mary MacLane was a truly extraordinary nineteen-year old with a “fine young body that is feminine in every fiber” and a brain that is “a conglomeration of aggressive versatility”. She is “a fantasy–absurdity–a genius!” with no parallel, “a genius, with a wondrous liver within”. But she lives in Butte Montana in 1901, and stuck there, she writes this “Portrayal” of herself, in which she is very honest (though she is also “a liar”) about her obsession with the devil, her desire for Fame and Happiness (always the Devil brings Happiness), her seventeen pictures of Napoleon that she stares at daily, her (then, and even now) unconventional views of marriage, her liver, her crush on the “anemone lady” and so on.

Mary MacLane circa 1911It may be tempting find her exaggerated way of phrasing things amusing and quirky, but they also communicate some incredible and unique insights. I do think she was a genius, in her own odd way, and I found myself agreeing to (and feeling deeply with) a lot of what she says. Her repetition bordered on poetic at times, and her mysterious use of certain phrases (her heart is always a “wooden heart” and her philosophy is always “peripatetic”, she lives in perpetual “sand and barrenness” and always the “red red line of the sky” is a symbol of Happiness to come). Mostly, she writes about how lonely she is, stuck in Butte Montana, and how she would give anything for 3 days of Happiness. For some more history on Mary MacLane’s life before and after this book, visit this website.

“But no matter how ferociously pitiable is the dried up graveyard, the sand and barrenness and the sluggish little stream have their own persistent individual damnation. The world is at least so constructed that its treasures may be damned each in a different manner and degree.” p.16


An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions Paperbook) An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

Part fiction, part non-fiction, part poetic description, part philosophy. Aira examines the depths of history, the meaning of repetition, reproductions and its role in art, compensation, and much more, and in the context of a very specific, relatable person and his predicaments. Often zooming into an idea or description with intense precision, then moving on, this book is able to contain big ideas without sounding pretentious, or bloated. In fact, the book is less than 90 pages, though it tells a story that could be told in 500 pages. It’s really some of the best writing I’ve read. Also, I had no idea it wasn’t a completely true story, because it was told as if it was pieced together from accounts and letters. But there were points where he could not have been so intimately in the character’s head. Only after I read it did I find out that this is a perfect combination of history and novelistic invention. Some excerpts:

Peaks of mica kept watch over their long marches. How could these panoramas be rendered credible? There were too many sides; the cube had extra faces. The company of volcanos gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts voluminous as oceans.
p. 14

A drove of mules the size of ants appeared in silhouette on a ridge-top path, moving at a star’s pace. The mules were driven by human intelligence and commercial interests, expertise in breeding and blood-lines. Everything was human; the farthest wilderness was steeped with sociability, and the sketches they had made, in so far as they had any value, stood as records of this permeation. The infinite orography of the Cordillera was a laboratory of forms and colors.
p. 16


Dylan’s not there–he doesn’t appear in the movie (well, except for a small clip at the end, as a shadow of himself, almost). A series of actors who “weren’t there” play him, a series of substitutions. The movie reproduces and quotes numerous other movies from other Dylan documentaries to Fellini’s 8 1/2, and in a way, referencing these highlights the fact that we weren’t there. A reference is an acknowledgement of existence, of knowledge, but also an acknowledgement of absence.

You start to realize that the actors playing him aren’t all trying to act like him. Exact replication isn’t the goal here (except for Cate Blanchett who does an excellent job). When you have a black boy play Dylan, it makes relating to him as Dylan, as “there”, that much harder, and that is part of the point of the film. Richard Gere doesn’t even TRY! He acts exactly like Richard Gere in all his other shitty movies. But it’s this quality that makes the movie unique and much more interesting than other biopics.

It shuffles between reference points as well as styles. A black and white scene reminiscent of 8 1/2 is followed by an interview with Julianne Moore in full color, reminiscent of a mockumentary. Though the film is so restlessly shuffling, it manages, amazingly, to capture something about Dylan. The nonconventional storytelling style really benefits here in being enigmatic and revealing at the same time. Who is this person? We are asked to do the other half of the work, to place ourselves there in our minds.

It’s not without fault. The performances were spotty. Some were amazing, like Cate Blanchett who was really great at her role about 90% of the time, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who gave a real standout performance here, even though she didn’t really do anything that spectacular. She was just very convincing and lovable and real. There were bad performances too, Richard Gere was awful, the black boy was good when he was playing the charismatic Dylan, but he was awful when he tried to act meditative, David Cross as Allen Ginsberg was so much of a joke that it was hard to judge how well he played the role. But in a way it doesn’t really matter, the format of the film absorbs the bad performances because the film itself draws attention to the fact that none of this is real, you’re constantly aware of the fact that this is acting, and that’s part of the point. It’s almost like an exercise, but one in which there is a little bit of heart, which is what redeems it. The incredibly generous heart of Dylan, or part of it at least, comes through all the noise and makes the film that much more convincing. He’s hiding in the film, even though he’s not there.