Saturday, February 24, 2007


Lauding Auden

Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of W. H. Auden. There was an afternoon festival in his honor at the WHC, but I was unable to attend due to other obligations. I feel remiss at not posting anything that day to laud Auden, but, though I recognize him as the last great poet of the modernist generation and the first -- and possibly only -- indisputably great poet born in the 20th century, yet he wasn't, isn't one of my main men. That has to do with his formalism, with his Britishness, with his idiom that is never so elusive as Eliot, nor quite as musical as Yeats, nor simply as imaginatively challenging as Stevens. Auden's "the first of those who come after" that great generation, but not freed of it, as those born in the '20s are. As the First Man of the 20th century he has my respect, but he's far too in command of himself to earn my love -- as those more doom-laden figures like Dylan Thomas, John Berryman and Robert Lowell did in my youth. My respect for Auden hinges, more than anything, on the superlative poem, "In Praise of Limestone," which is a poem to rival "Prufrock" in its sonorous assurances and idiosyncratic voice and viewpoint, if any poem is.

Impaired Lives X2

Last night the WHC screened two films brilliantly paired the way that Mouchette and The Ratcatcher were in the fall (see Dismal Lives X2): Michelangelo Antonioni's The Red Desert (1964) and Todd Haynes' Safe (1995). Both films feature female protagonists who simply can't cope any more with the lives they lead. Both women are comfortable bourgeois wives -- Monica Vitti, in Desert, is a mother; Julianne Moore, in Safe, is a stepmother. One might say that both women need a release -- but what will such release come from?

Antonioni's heroine, in Bologna, Italy, is at least willing to consider that "amour" might be the answer -- but there's no reason to evoke Emma Bovary (as Todd Field's current film Little Children does) pining for a man as a means to escape. Richard Harris is a successful business magnate, looking like a young Brando and certainly virile and sensitive-enough (on the surface) for the task. But he "doesn't help" her, she says. Yet the idea that some kind of deliverance through an affair is possible at least hovers at the edge of much of the film, though in Antonioni's world personal connection is always inadequate.

Haynes' heroine, in San Bernadino, CA, searching for an escape, seeks it in self-help constructions: Wrenwood, a special facility set up for those who suffer from our toxic environment (in all its senses). The absence of any real sexual tension in the film suggests something about how far we've come from the world of Antonioni where the fact that sex fails is still presented as a significant (if predictable) failure. For Carol White, the only answer is to live in a pristine cell that looks something like a moon-module: a forecast of how we'll live when earth becomes unlivable. But the other characters' comfortable acceptance of the comfortable lives they live (with painted-on childish simplicity) contrasts so sharply with Carol's search for an alternative that she seems demented, obsessive, sickened by her culture in some deeply psychosomatic way. When Carol, looking haggard and sallow and splotchy, faces herself in the mirror at the film's end, murmuring "I love you," the image resonates with a question: who will love us when we become unlovable (analogous to a world that is unlivable), but it also sustains Carol's hope: that learning to love herself is the answer, however New Agey (and Wrenwood is plenty New Agey) that sounds.

For Guilliana in Desert, that idea is more remote. The kind of satisfaction with herself that Carol pursues single-mindedly is not an option in this film (Antonioni doesn't "discover" CA until Zabriskie Point), and so the search for fulfilment that Guillana embarks on can lead only back to her role as mother, in some kind of wise detente with the sickening threats of the modern world. In part this is because Antonioni finds beauty even in the desolation of industrial waste and the shapes and colors of machinery. The film is a tone poem of colors and shapes and gives us a world that has at least visual interest -- a great virtue for an artist such as Antonioni and his viewers, whether or not it offers much to his heroine (is her beauty, like art itself, any consolation?).

Both Vitti and Moore are perfect in their roles. Vitti's feral eyes, so dark-rimmed, thick hair coruscating any old way, and face of a Cinquecento madonna all add up to a woman whose interior life is at odds with her appearance. Her suffering is personal and finds no means of sublimation, no matter how sublime she appears (though Antonioni seems not willing to surrender woman as madonna -- if the final scene of Vitti and the boy is deemed positive). Moore's Carol is vacuous and brittle, her suffering gives her no depth (as her disconnected parrotings in her birthday speech show), but makes her different -- even in the touchy-feelie world of Wrenwood -- and that difference makes her a sign for us all, a warning sign.

Hear my voice, hear my voice
It's saying something not very nice

--David Byrne, "Warning Sign" (1978)

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