Friday roundup

This week, a look forward to Saturday’s screening at Metrograph of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and a look back at the legacy of Jonathan Swift.

I leave you with Scott Joplin’s lovely 1905 “Bethena: A Concert Waltz” performed by Joshua Rifkin. Says Wikipedia:

It was the first Joplin work since his wife Freddie’s death on September 10, 1904 of pneumonia, ten weeks after their wedding. At the time the composer had significant financial problems; the work did not sell successfully at the time of publication and was soon neglected and forgotten. It was rediscovered as a result of the Joplin revival in the 1970s and has received acclaim from Joplin’s biographers and other critics. The piece combines two different styles of music, the classical waltz and the rag, and has been seen as demonstrating Joplin’s excellence as a classical composer. The work has been described as “an enchantingly beautiful piece that is among the greatest of Ragtime Waltzes,” a “masterpiece,” and “Joplin’s finest waltz.”

I will lift a glass to you at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Stay well.


January list

Detail of Charles Jervas’ portrait of Jonathan Swift (about 1718).

As we desperately look around ourselves for the causes of a world and a race that can produce the likes of Aleppo, Donald Trump, Meryl Streep, contemporary art, global warming, and TEDTalks all at the same time, even as that same race congratulates itself for its own rational enlightenment which only continues to flourish with every click of the internet, we may finally turn back to Jonathan Swift, who has been experiencing something of a renaissance, at least in certain corners of the literary world. Leo Damrosch’s fine 2013 biography will be supplemented next month by John Stubbs’ Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel (which has already received considerable praise across the pond) — two major biographies of the satirist within five years after a considerable period of neglect. Gulliver’s Travels is still the masterpiece, as my recent reading attests, but there’s much to be said for “A Tale of a Tub,” the “Battle of the Books,” “A Modest Proposal,” and several of the poems as well.

In these writings, those causes are laid out quite clearly: pride and vanity, gullibility, avarice, intellectual and political corruption, the abuse of reason and nature, arrogance, self-righteousness, factionalism, an obsession with trivia; and if these can be ameliorated somewhat (Swift was an Anglican minister, mostly conservative in his theology), they can never be eradicated. In fact, with every technological or philosophical advance in culture, these human traits seem to multiply farther and faster. Yesterday I wrote about Jean Renoir’s satire The Rules of the Game, and since its publication Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has been subjected to the same criticism by Samuel Johnson, Thackeray, and others: it has been labelled, like Renoir’s film, “depressing, morbid, immoral [and] having an undesirable influence over the young.” That doesn’t mean, for all their pessimism, that either Swift or Renoir were wrong.

“Satire is a sort of glass,” Swift wrote, “wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Swift didn’t exempt himself; indeed, it was likely his own experience and self-observation that led to some of his darker conclusions. I don’t exempt myself either. And neither, maybe, should you. It would, after all, explain a great deal.

The list:

Everybody has their reasons

Parasites: Jean Renoir as Octave and Julien Carette as Marceau in The Rules of the Game.

Jean Renoir’s 1939 satire of Europe on the eve of the Second World War, The Rules of the Game, should be on most people’s lists of the best movies ever made. A rare chance to see it in its full 35mm big-screen glory comes to Metrograph on the Lower East Side this weekend. The showing at 7.00pm on Saturday night features a discussion with cineaste Peter Bogdanovich and Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau; this showing is sold out, but two others follow on Sunday.

Renoir’s conception of society as a farcical merry-go-round of casual violence coated with a very thin but necessary veneer of manners and morals speaks to America in the 2010s as much as it did to Paris in the late 1930s. (If it speaks to us at all, that is; it was banned by the French government in 1939 as being “depressing, morbid, immoral [and] having an undesirable influence over the young.”) The Prophets Without Honor Department also reports that the film was only available in a cruelly truncated version until the late 1950s, when The Rules of the Game was finally restored to a version close to Renoir’s original intent.

Is it still depressing, morbid, and immoral? Will it still have an undesirable influence over the young? Find out this weekend. Tickets and more information about the Metrograph screenings are here.

Friday roundup

Frederick Wiseman.

The first week of the new year brought a small meditation on … well, the first week of the new year.

It closes, though, with a recommendation. Frederick Wiseman’s 40th documentary, In Jackson Heights, will receive its television premiere tonight at 9.00pm Eastern time on PBS (Channel 13 here in New York). Wiseman’s three-hour portrait of the Queens neighborhood won the 2015 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Non-Fiction Film, and if it’s anything like his previous films, it will be a fascinating portrait of a community at work, at play, and in crisis. Grab a beer tonight and settle in. The trailer is below, and more information about the film is here. Manohla Dargis reviewed the film for the New York Times upon its premiere in 2015, calling it “a movingly principled, political look at a dynamic neighborhood in which older waves of pioneers make room for new, amid creeping gentrification.”

In the meantime, I’ll raise a glass to you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

The danger of human grandeur

François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire

In going over my list of resolutions for 2017 (and it’s a pretty long one; I need a lot of work), I find very little in it that’s explicitly political. Learn the guitar, read a few more books, be more thoughtful with my family and friends, maybe get a little more involved in church activities if I have the time — but nothing about defending democracy or keeping pressure on the incoming administration. No marching, calling my Congressional representatives, or signing Facebook petitions appears on the list.

Maybe this is just the inward turn of the middle-aged family man, but I think it’s for the best. Counter-intuitively (given all the noise about participatory democracy), I believe that a civilized society begins at home: that our treatment of those closest and dearest to us, and our concern for our own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being, radiates outward into the surrounding spheres of our world, rather than the other way around. As a cynic, I at times make the usual curmudgeonly observation that things generally are worse now than they were in the past, only to be told that they’re not worse, only different. This I find unduly narrow-minded. Things can be worse and different at the same time. And that’s usually the point at which my companions excuse themselves from any further conversation with me.

So, as I concentrate on those homely bourgeois things that give me pleasure, I am reminded that Voltaire’s Candide recommends the same thing. “Human grandeur is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers,” Dr. Pangloss observed to the young Candide, and we need only turn to contemporary newspapers, television, and other invasions of the public world into our private lives to confirm the observation. Grandeur is dangerous to us in both private and public life, delusional or not. The conclusion of Voltaire’s satire goes into more detail:

During this conversation, news was spread abroad that two viziers of the bench and the mufti had just been strangled at Constantinople, and several of their friends empaled. This catastrophe made a great noise for some hours. Pangloss, Candide, and Martin, as they were returning to the little farm, met with a good-looking old man, who was taking the air at his door, under an alcove formed of the boughs of orange-trees. Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was disputative, asked him what was the name of the mufti who was lately strangled. “I cannot tell,” answered the good old man; “I never knew the name of any mufti, or vizier breathing. I am entirely ignorant of the event you speak of; I presume that in general such as are concerned in public affairs sometimes come to a miserable end; and that they deserve it: but I never inquire what is doing at Constantinople; I am contented with sending thither the produce of my garden, which I cultivate with my own hands.” After saying these words, he invited the strangers to come into his house. His two daughters and two sons presented them with divers sorts of sherbet of their own making; besides caymac, heightened with the peels of candied citrons, oranges, lemons, pineapples, pistachio nuts, and Mocha coffee unadulterated with the bad coffee of Batavia or the American islands. After which the two daughters of this good Mussulman perfumed the beards of Candide, Pangloss, and Martin.

“You must certainly have a vast estate,” said Candide to the Turk; who replied, “I have no more than twenty acres of ground, the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps off from us three great evils—idleness, vice, and want.”

Candide, as he was returning home, made profound reflections on the Turk’s discourse. “This good old man,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “appears to me to have chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honor to sup.” “Human grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers; for we find Eglon, king of Moab, was assassinated by Aod; Absalom was hanged by the hair of his head, and run through with three darts; King Nadab, son of Jeroboam, was slain by Baaza; King Ela by Zimri; Okosias by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the kings Jehooiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity: I need not tell you what was the fate of Crœsus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, and the emperor Henry IV.” “Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” “You are in the right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle.” “Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.”

The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design; and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork; Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflée, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide, “There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.” “Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us take care of our garden.”