Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Off-Cannes Film Festival: It's Archetypal!

I used to enjoy reading mini-reviews of movies that appeared regularly in a local publication. And when I say mini, I'm serious: the reviews were only a short sentence or two. They were pithy, often witty, sometimes mean-spirited, and not to be trusted as a guide to what you should actually see. They were interesting to read merely because it was fun to see the writer sketch an entire film in a few words while turning a catchy phrase.

I thought I'd try to do the same with the movies I've watched over the last couple of weeks at home. None of these films are recent, some of them are quite old, and this is not necessarily a guide to what you should actually see. Also, I think there's plenty of meanness in the world, so I'll leave that element out. Witty is probably aiming too high, but pithy I should be able to handle, having both headline-composing and haiku-writing within my realm of experience.

I always thought it would be fun to be a film critic, and now, through the magic of blogging, I can be, even though the pay isn't much. I'm calling this "The Eclectic Minimalist's Archetypal Film Roundup." If you read anything into my choice of films, it's your own fault, because there's no premeditation involved. I just know what I like (or think I like. I'm not always right). Here's the roundup:

Garden State
Boy living in L.A. heavily medicated goes home to Jersey, meets girl, does primal scream therapy on truck in a rainstorm, self-heals in a bathtub. Reading: Persephone charms Hades clean out of the Underworld.

Man on the Train
A bank robber and retired teacher forge a friendship, sample how the other half lives, exchange notes on slippers and target-shooting.
Reading: Hermes and Hestia have tea and shoot at cans.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
Three smart-aleck comedians zoom through the canon with a heavy emphasis on the tragedies (because "they're funnier"). They're right.
Reading: Hermes, Dionysus, and Apollo start their own circus.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Man-about-town journalist suffers catastrophic stroke, is forced to live imaginatively within severe limits, aided by heroic women.
Reading: Wounded Dionysus, attended by Mnemosyne and Muses.

An American in Paris
Gene Kelly paints, sings, and dances his way into hearts of two women, loves one, takes the other to a party, fantasizes choreography to a Gershwin melody.
Reading: Hmmm . . . the Apple of Discord maybe, but there are only two goddesses, and this is Paris, so there's singing, dancing, kissing, and starving artists, but no Trojan War.

Adam's Rib
Married lawyers mix careers and love in a hectic battle of the sexes in which the winner is -- it's a draw!
Reading: Zeus is bested but turns the tables on Hera, then they go to Connecticut.

Generation X minimum-wagers get profane, play hockey on the roof, wax philosophical, attend a funeral on work time, weather bathroom death. First annoying, then wise.
Reading: Satyrs at the convenience store who sometimes channel Saturn.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Young lovers dream, meet secretly, get pregnant, and are parted in a candy-box setting where everybody (even the mailman) sings. You can't get that song out of your head for days.
Reading: Aphrodite gets walloped by Hestia, which may or may not be a good thing. You decide.

Inherit the Wind
Teacher is arrested for teaching evolution; lawyers, politicians, townspeople, demagogues jump into the fray. Sharp and surprisingly modern.
Reading: Apollo loses, but the battle lines get blurred in the melee.

Coco Before Chanel
Early life of Coco Chanel, who dreamed of success on stage, struggled in a man's world, crashed some parties, made her own clothes, and then other people's.
Reading: Artemis becomes Aphrodite. Or, Ariadne picks up her own thread, grabs needle.

Cool Hand Luke
Couldn't get disc to play.
Reading: Mercury in retrograde. A failure to communicate.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

First Day of Autumn

Last night I went to the Oktoberfest at a local church, a festival that's made a name for itself by bringing in exceptional musical performers. The last time I went was years ago, and I went there on an artist's date (I was doing the Artist's Way at the time). It was a sunny afternoon, and other than it being a pleasant day with a big crowd, booths, and bratwurst, I don't remember anything about it. This was in the days before Oktoberfest became hip by inviting big-name musicians to play in front of a crowd of beer-drinkers, kids, parishioners, college kids on dates, and hipsters.

My first impression last night was that, besides having better music, the fair has gotten more elaborate. I walked past innumerable games, bouncy houses, Cinderella castles, and other attractions for kids. Out in the open area, between the Bingo tent, the stage, and the food vendors, there was a sea of people, but no one I recognized. My dilemma beforehand had been what to wear, since the afternoon was warm but the night was going to cool off, and in the crowd you could see every possible answer to that problem as devised by other people: I saw women in sandals and women in boots, guys wearing shorts and T-shirts, denim jackets, sweaters, and blazers.

What I didn't see was anyone who looked like me, that is to say, unattached. It was definitely a family-oriented occasion. There are times you can go someplace by yourself and feel perfectly OK about it, but Christ the King's Oktoberfest isn't one of them. After a brief reconnoiter, I determined there was nothing to do except eat, drink, stand in line to eat or drink, play Bingo, or wait for the music to start.

I felt very conspicuous, just standing around (I didn't have flashbacks to the time I went to godparent training alone and received the icy stares of seven or eight married couples, all of whom were going to be parents, though it may have been in the back of my Catholic mind somewhere). I was almost on the verge of sneaking into the church to sit and look at the stained-glass windows (something I used to do in my college days) when I noticed a sign for a silent auction taking place in the church hall. I figured it would be something to do until the music started, so I went in and made the rounds of Wildcat athletics paraphernalia, game baskets, gadgets, and, on a special table in back, a slew of cakes, bundt, caramel, lemon, and iced, which diverted me for ten minutes or so.

Back outside, the musicians, Chris Hillman (of The Byrds) and Herb Pedersen (of The Desert Rose Band) were getting ready, and I was dithering about whether I even wanted to stay. Deciding it was useless to leave without sampling any of what made Oktoberfest famous, I rather indecisively took up a post at a back corner of the seated crowd. I wasn't about to sit. By that time, with the sun going down, it was getting chilly, and I decided that staying on my feet would help me stay warm and also enable a quick getaway.

The music was very good, though something a little less mellow and more rocking would have been a good excuse to move around more. As it was, I managed to bounce up and down on my heels. I never got over feeling out of place in the crowd, but a certain stubbornness prevented me from bolting, and I made it through the first set. While the sounds of mandolin and guitar drifted through the darkening air, and the odor of mustard and sausage wafted around on a stiff breeze, I reminded myself that I'm a mythologist, and that I could look at the scene with a mythologist's eye. I tried, but I have to admit drawing a bit of a blank. I knew I was at a harvest festival, but this suburban church parking lot, with its barbecue, hot dogs, bouncy castles, and soft drinks, didn't seem to have much in common with bringing in the grain. Then again, it's probably one of those things that makes more sense if you come with a crowd.

I lasted through the first performance before heading to my car. That's when a tiny burst of magic set in. I walked down the wrong street, which was OK; I felt like walking and getting some fresh air, so I took the long way around. On either side of the quiet street, warm light spilled out of houses; a half moon glowed between two rows of trees. I had a sudden, vivid memory of being out on a long-ago Halloween, roaming from house to house in the dark with a bag of candy and an even more delicious sense of license, magic, and mystery.

By the time I got home last night, it felt good to walk into the warmth of the hallway, and my apartment, which had seemed a little oppressive earlier in the day, now seemed cozy and clean and blessedly free of the odor of mustard. I celebrated surviving the Oktoberfest with hot chocolate and toast.

If there is any moral to this story, I guess it might be don't go to the Oktoberfest if what you're really in the mood for is something more mysterious. But if you do go, take a friend.

Monday, September 17, 2012

American Graffiti Meets the Amduat

When I watched American Graffiti Friday night, I tried to remember the last time I saw it. It might have been when I was in high school, and one of our teachers brought it in for a class viewing. I had also seen it at the theater when it first came out. It turns out I remembered hardly any of it. I seem to recall finding it a little slow and wondering why everyone at the time was so crazy about it. I'm not sure people still cruised when I was in high school (I was a bit out of the loop back then), but otherwise the characters seemed a lot like people I knew. They were ordinary and did ordinary teen-age things, none of which seemed all that significant.

But this time, when the credits came up, I felt slightly stunned, the way you feel when you've just seen something great and mysterious. This is not my first time to realize that a movie (or a book) changes as you change, but it was one of the most poignant instances of that experience.

A movie about a right of passage is probably going to look different once you've undergone that passage yourself, it's true, and this movie is about nothing if not the threshold between youth and adulthood. You can't be nostalgic about crossing this threshold when you haven't done it yet, and you especially can't be nostalgic if you hated your teen years to begin with and didn't give a parting glance to your own high school days.

But looking at the characters now, I relate to them in a way I didn't back then. I can understand the reluctance to leave the known for the unknown, the good, carefree times for the uncertainties of a life you have to make for yourself, and trusted comrades for a wider world that in the light of day seems more daunting than exciting. At the time I left high school, I didn't feel I was leaving any of these things, but now, having made my way this far, I understand that for people who did enjoy their youth, graduation means crossing a divide over which you can never return. In some ways, it may be an advantage to have been less than thrilled with your teen years because after that there's nowhere to go but up. If you peak in high school (like Graffiti's hot-rodding John Milner), it's an early fall from grace.

Despite being intensely ordinary, the people in the movie carry archetypes that went over my head on the first viewing. The class president, the head cheerleader, the hot-rod king -- all have experienced glory on their small stage and discover (or are about to) what it means to lose that shining moment, almost like Greek heroes just past their prime. The unbelievably fabulous soundtrack, along with Wolfman Jack's on-the-air commentary, constitutes a Greek chorus for the proceedings: the falling in and out of love, the dangers of the road, the excitement of youth and freedom. The Wolfman, now long since passed away himself, is a kind of oracle in the film, idolized by the young, steeped in mythology, and existing in his own remote cave, a small broadcast center outside of town, where Curt manages to track him down while looking for help with love and life.

Listening to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," the film's opening number, and realizing that the entire story takes place over the course of a single night, I thought about the Amduat, the Egyptian book of the underworld journey, a comparison that's probably escaped most reviewers (but one that makes Curt's initiation into the Pharaohs seem most fitting). The Amduat recapitulates the nightly journey of the sun god through the underworld, also representing the journey of the individual soul through the world of sleep and dreams and the afterlife. Like the dreamer, the sun god encounters foes, helpers, other gods, and various strange figures in his nightly journey by solar bark. Steve and Laurie, Curt, John, and Toad pass the hours of the night cruising in their cars, encountering friends, rivals, those who would harm them, mentors, and even (in Curt's case) an elusive goddess in a white Thunderbird.

In the Egyptian night journey, the twelfth and final hour holds a special significance and danger. The final moments, just before dawn and the triumphant return of the sun, are the most hazardous, since all the forces of darkness lie in wait for a final chance to throw a wrench in the works. In the movie, everything comes to a head in the climactic pre-dawn showdown on Paradise Road, with John racing to defend his status against a dangerous newcomer, Falfa. A mournful Laurie, trying to assert her independence after breaking up with Steve, is in Falfa's car. As Steve races toward the scene, the two drivers take off down a screaming straight-away at high speed, until Falfa loses control and flips his car. Laurie and Falfa escape before it blows up, but the accident seals Steve and Laurie's fate in a way neither had anticipated.

Against the backdrop of the rising sun, Steve, who had been the voice of reason when Curt expressed doubts about heading off to college, now promises a sobbing Laurie that he won't leave her. Toad is jubilant over John's unblemished record, but John, who is a few years older and sadder, tells Toad he was losing until Falfa blew a tire. Awash in hero worship, Toad can't believe it, and his enthusiasm helps John put off his growing realization of mortality until another day.

Curt, meanwhile, finally gets the call from the girl of his dreams after spending the last few hours of the night in his car, only to realize that she will remain a dream because now that it's day, he has decided to go to college after all. At the airport, it's Steve, not Curt, who remains behind.

It's as if the entire lives of the characters have been lived in a single night, as if with the sunrise, without their planning it, a line has been crossed. According to the film's epilogue, Curt goes off to become a writer, Steve becomes an insurance agent in their hometown, John is killed by a drunk driver, and Toad goes off to Vietnam, where he is eventually MIA. Dreams deferred, new beginnings, early death, the passage of time. It's strange how this movie, playful and trifling as it comes across at times, holds so much more than was apparent to me at 15.

Although I thought I had little in common with these people other than age back then, I understand all of them much better now. Curt's indecisiveness, John's awareness of aging, Carol's determination to find out where the action is, Toad's awkwardness -- all seem familiar. It took me several decades to understand this movie, and I'm beginning to see that years from now it will be different still. Besides capturing the flavor of a particular place and time, it reflects you back to yourself, however far you may have traveled on Paradise Road.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Looking With Persephone

A couple of weeks ago, I was taking an evening walk when I noticed how pleasantly cool it was. This was in the midst of a heat wave, which made exercise in the middle of the day unwise at worst and unpleasant at best. It was one of those evenings that gives you a foretaste of fall. A true summer evening, even as it cools down, retains a lazy residue of the warmth and humidity of the day. Those evenings that signal change have a completely different character, even a slight urgency. Hurry up! Time to get the harvest in and the barns filled! You'll be carving pumpkins before you know it!

At the time, I thought, "How nice this feels." Even as inveterate a fan of summer as I am can't help but be a little refreshed by the cooling and hint of change in the air that generally comes around Labor Day. This year, having been baked to a crunch during an unusually searing summer (on the Fourth of July, it seemed the height of foolishness to step outside the door without a sizable water bottle), even I say the cooling is welcome.

There have been times in the past when I didn't want summer to end, but my feelings are conflicted this year. September and October are usually very pleasant here, and the turning of the leaves can be spectacular. You're always aware, though, of November, that moody month with a split personality, out there waiting in the wings. In the best years, it's a continuation of October's glorious red and gold riot, Keats's "close-bosom friend of the maturing sun"; it may even be an Indian summer extravaganza. In the worst of times (which seems to be most of the time), it ushers in an unending series of dark, damp, and gloomy days that last, off and on, until the latter part of March.

Still, there is a certain buzz about the early and middle days of autumn. I have been reading essays lately about the association of fall with new beginnings. A Jungian writer points out that this is when school begins, older kids go off to college, and adults return to their jobs with (we hope) renewed vigor and enthusiasm for new projects that couldn't get off the ground while people were out on vacation. There is a cozy quality about fall and all of that soup-making, squash-baking, leaf-raking hearth and home activity touted by homemaker magazines and advertising campaigns for cardigans and corduroy. It's beguiling, in a way; you can still be active outside, but the inside of your home is more welcoming than it was in July, and you may actually want to be in your kitchen, making chili, pigs-in-blankets, and apple cake.

I think this emphasis on change and new beginnings is real but ironic. In nature, spring is the time of the new. Spring is when Persephone, forced underground in the autumn to spend the six dark months with Hades, comes joyously back to the earth accompanied by new flowerings, the greening of fields and trees, and the warming sun. For many of us, however, although spring is a very welcome sight, it does, in fact, signal an ending -- of the spring semester at school, of the season of serious work and deadlines, of the calendar of normal activities soon to be interrupted by summer vacations. When I was an undergraduate, I sometimes felt at a loss in the spring, viewing summer as an upheaval that required new plans to be made.

I'm different now, having reverted to my childhood mold. I always say that no matter how hot it is, I'll take a summer day over a winter one any time. Exhilarating winter days of sunshine on clean, sparkling snow are an ideal but rarely seen, but a summer day is always a summer day. Spring and fall are more ambiguous, each signaling change in its own way and each (unless we work on the land) at odds with some of our human purposes. Maybe "April is the cruelest month," if your circumstances are unlucky, as mine have sometimes been. But, all other things being equal, could it ever top the last week of November? Or the first week of January?

Even as I welcome the release from the heat, I find myself looking back over my shoulder with regret, like Persephone, at the bright skies, warm nights of fireflies and crickets, and full-leafed trees of summer now receding. Orion is rising, but Persephone is fading. Three months from now, I'll be dreaming of July. Have I ever dreamed of December?