Posts Tagged ‘ Miles Davis ’

Coltrane at 90

If you live to be old enough, it will happen to you. One day, you will find out that someone you spend nearly every day with turns out to have a 90th anniversary, and you are not ready to celebrate it. That happened today: John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967) turned 90 before I was ready. I can only promise that 10 years from now I’ll have a proper tribute for the big one. Until then, let me curate a sample without commentary:

With Dizzy Gillespie:

“A Night in Tunesia”

Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) John Coltrane (tenor sax) Milt Jackson (vibes) Billy Taylor (piano) Percy Heath (bass) Art Blakey (drums)

With Miles Davis:

“It Could Happen to You”

Miles Davis (trumpet) John Coltrane (tenor sax) Red Garland (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Philly Joe Jones (drums); May 11, 1956:

With Thelonious Monk:

“Well, You Needn’t”

Ray Copeland (trumpet) Gigi Gryce (alto sax) John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax) Thelonious Monk (piano) Wilbur Ware (bass) Art Blakey (drums); June 26, 1957

With Lee Morgan:

“Blue Train”

Lee Morgan (trumpet) Curtis Fuller (trombone) John Coltrane (tenor sax) Kenny Drew (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Philly Joe Jones (drums); September 15, 1957

With Tommy Flanagan:

“Giant Steps”

John Coltrane (tenor sax) Tommy Flanagan (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Art Taylor (drums); May 5, 1959

With Miles Davis:

“Round Midnight”

Miles Davis (trumpet) John Coltrane (tenor sax) Wynton Kelly (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Jimmy Cobb (drums); April 8, 1960

With Don Cherry:

“Bemsha Swing”

Don Cherry (cornet) John Coltrane (soprano, tenor sax) Percy Heath (bass) Ed Blackwell (drums); July 8, 1960

With the original quartet:

“Central Park West”

John Coltrane (soprano, tenor sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Steve Davis (bass) Elvin Jones (drums); October 24, 1960

“Every Time We Say Goodbye”

(same personnel); October 26, 1960

With Eric Dolphy:

“India”

Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet) John Coltrane (soprano sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison, Reggie Workman (bass) Elvin Jones (drums) Ahmed Abdul-Malik (oud)

“Chasin’ Another Trane”

Eric Dolphy (alto sax) John Coltrane (tenor sax) Reggie Workman (bass) Roy Haynes (drums) on the first two choruses only: McCoy Tyner (piano)’: November 2, 1961

“I Want to Talk About You”

John Coltrane (soprano, tenor sax) Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet, flute) McCoy Tyner (piano) Reggie Workman (bass) Elvin Jones (drums); November 18, 1961

With the “classic” quartet:

“Soul Eyes”

John Coltrane (soprano sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Elvin Jones (drums); April 11, 1962

With Duke Ellington:

“In a Sentimental Mood”:

John Coltrane (tenor, soprano sax) Duke Ellington (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Sam Woodyard (drums); September 26, 1962

With the “new” quartet:

:”After the Rain”

John Coltrane (soprano, tenor sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Roy Haynes (drums); April 29, 1963

With Johnny Hartman:

“My One and Only Love”

John Coltrane (tenor sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Elvin Jones (drums) Johnny Hartman (vocals); March 7, 1963

A Love Supreme:

“Psalm”

John Coltrane (tenor sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Elvin Jones (drums); December 9, 1964

With Pharoah Sanders:

“Evolution”

Donald Garrett (bass clarinet, bass) Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax) John Coltrane (tenor, soprano sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Elvin Jones (drums); September 30, 1965

“Kulu Se Mama”

John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Donald Garrett (bass, bass clarinet) Frank Butler, Elvin Jones (drums) Juno Lewis (vocals, percussion); October 14, 1065

If you would like to celebrate this birthday all day, listen to WKCR’s birthday celebration on iTunes.

Love in the Time of Amnesia

Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais

Poster for the 4K version of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, released by Rialto.

Poster for the 4K version of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, released by Rialto Pictures.

The New York Film Forum last week screened the newly restored digital version of the daring 1959 fictional film debut of Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour. It’s hard to believe that a 55-year old film was an official selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, but during that half century, the film has been more talked about than seen.

Rialto Pictures has made a new 4K restoration, and the film is scheduled for a national run (opening October 24 in San Diego; October 31 in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, November 14 in Philadelphia; November 28 in Santa Fe and December 5 in Portland, with additional dates in other places). It is worth seeing this “file” (a term I suppose is more accurate than “print”; for that matter “film” itself is an anachronism) and especially in a darkened theater on a screen where the grey tone palette works better than from a television or computer screen. But mainly you should see it in a theater because it is one of a handful of films that define cinema as an art form and therefore deserves more formal attention than a home entertainment unit requires.

Cinema, especially the dominant form, American commercial movies, has become so routinized that seeing it used for something other than a vehicle for stars, who are there mainly for close face shots or action sequences, is somewhat jarring. Movies did not start out that way, and some especially thoughtful film makers have suggested other uses, but commercial reality, the conservative bias of financiers or some other causes seem to cause the form to constantly revert to this “normal.” Resnais several times offered an alternative to this normal, the first time being Hiroshima mon amour. Resnais, however, was not a likely candidate for so doing and the project, as an innovative art film came about almost as an afterthought. Let’s first look at what the movie is.

SHE: Like you, I have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone.

SHE: Like you, I have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone.”

Hiroshima mon amour is unabashedly a formal art film which announced its experimental techniques explicitly and dared the audience to rebel against the new language it was trying to form. It largely escaped popular rejection, I suspect because its foreboding background (the atomic devastation of a Japanese city) persuaded much of the public against seeing it at all. The film, however, is not really about (or, maybe better stated, not really much about) the horrors of August 6, 1945. Indeed, it is much easier to understand that fact now, half a century later. This is because in 1959 atomic (and by then thermonuclear) destruction was not only a real possibility, it was something that everyone lived with as best he could. Having lived through that era, I almost said I can remember the fear. But of course this movie is about how we never remember anything. Even those things that seem so centrally important, so key to all of human existence, will pass away from our consciousness as we adjust to the newest sensations. Those not alive in 1959 will probably have a hard time believing that we who were actually contemplated nuclear annihilation all the time. Not only did we know that our leaders and enemies held human survival no higher than about 4 on a list of things they felt important, but we also knew that we were helpless to do anything about it.

On the steps outside Sumitomo Hiroshima Bank, Kamiya-Cho, 850 feet from the epicenter on August 6, Mitsuno Ochi (1903-August 6, 1945) sat with one leg crossed over another. In a moment she evaporated, leaving only a shadow. (United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) photo, December 31, 1945. National Archives.)

On the steps outside Sumitomo Hiroshima Bank, Kamiya-Cho, 850 feet from the epicenter on August 6, Mitsuno Ochi (1903-August 6, 1945) sat with one leg crossed over another. In a moment she evaporated, leaving only a shadow. (United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) photo, December 31, 1945. National Archives.)

But here we are now, a half century later. The possibility of nuclear annihilation is not appreciably decreased; perhaps it has increased since no one seems to be worried about it. Yet the reason that no one seems worried about it is because we simply could not continue to remember what it was like. That is the central premise of the film: we are unable to remember. We are unable to remember, try as we might, the things important to the planet, our species, ourselves. It doesn’t matter about what. In Hiroshima, there was something that happened that was so breath-taking, so horrible, so contingent, so unlikely, that it should give us all pause to think. Here is one of the many things that in an instant that day happened that August 6: A small woman was sitting on the steps of a bank, an ordinary bank, 850 feet from the bomb. Within .0001 second, she was incinerated with heat of 1,700° C and left nothing but her shadow (the shadow of the oxidized organic matter that comprised her) on the inorganic rock stairs.

Memory of shadows and stone

Like you, I too have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot.

Even that shadow, however, began to fade. To preserve it, the area was first enclosed in fence and then in glass, but eventually the bank was torn down and the stones donated to the Hiroshima Peace Museum in 1971. It is this incident that the movie, briefly, refers to with the visual of the fenced off stones and the oblique reference by SHE:

“I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone. For my part, I struggled with all my might, every day, against the horror of no longer understanding at all the reason for remembering. Like you, I forgot.”

Tour guide

A guide recalling memory for tourists in a bus labelled in English “Atomic Tours” in Peace Square.

The first 20 minutes of the film is a set piece. It is designed to explain the theme—forgetting. It is much like an extended version of the prologues of Elizabethan plays or the prolegomena of complex philosophical arguments or the introductory chorus of a Greek tragedy. It focuses on the Hiroshima devastation as an event that ought to be remembered. And SHE (played by Emmanuelle Riva, most recently an Oscar nominee, at age 84, for her role in Michael Haneke’s Amour) is the one insisting on the need to remember. She describes the hospital, the museum, the relics, the consequences and the statistics, all to show that we must never forget. HE (played by Eiji Okada, probably best known to Americans for playing opposite Marlon Brando in The Ugly American), her new one-off lover, denies all of her facts and even her ability to recall (“You did not see the hospital in Hiroshima. You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” “You made it all up.” “No, you don’t have a memory”). The task of maintaining memory has been handed over to museums and strangely upbeat tour directors. Perhaps they exist so we can dispense with the need to remember, so we can put them somewhere, not quite forgotten, but so that we don’t have to have them present at all times.

This extended introduction has a number of interesting techniques but before we look at them, consider that the introduction is designed not to set us up for an examination of what happened in Hiroshima in 1945, but what happened there in 1957 (the fictional “present” according to the scenario by Marguerite Duras) and how that evoked another repressed memory that took place in Nevers, France in 1944 and 1945. What the movie is about is how SHE deals with a central pain in her own life—the memory of a love once had and then lost, in an instant, and the knowledge that losing the pain means losing that love, and even more, that all love ever will always be lost and forgotten.

Field hospital with burn victims in the museum's

Field hospital with burn victims in the museum’s “false documentary” of the aftermath.

The visual composition of the film is likewise broken in two parts: the introductory section and the story proper. The introduction is made up of scenes of present-day (i.e., 1957) Hiroshima, archival footage of the aftermath of the bomb and pseudo-documentary said to have been made by the museum to portray what happened. SHE assures us that “[t]he films [by the museum] have been made as authentically as possible. The illusion, it’s quite simple, the illusion is so perfect that the tourists cry. One can always scoff, but what else can a tourist do, really, but cry?”

Museum scene

At the museum only legs are seen.

Resnais quite skillfully cuts the scenes of the “documentary” introduction. The montage is a visual poem just as much as the narration by SHE is a literary one. The scenes quite seamlessly follow, and comment on, the narration without drawing attention to themselves. The use of the “pseudo documentary” footage raises the question (which SHE alludes to) of the purpose of re-enactments and “movie history.” The scenes have a visual logic that makes one follow almost inevitably, ineluctably, from the last. Although some of the pictures of the victims are quite shocking, the visual pacing is so modulated that rather than exploitative they appear reverential or at least contemplative. All of this you would have expected, because Resnais at the time was an experienced documentary film maker. Indeed, the project when originally proposed to Resnais was conceived of as a documentary. Strangely enough, given that the film became a meditation on how we need markers to preserve our memory and the premise that the event at Hiroshima is paradigmatic subject for memorial, Resnais concluded he could not make a compelling documentary. So he sought for a screenwriter to make a fictional screenplay. He was eventually led to Marguerite Duras. Duras was in her mid-40s, had published novels for 15 years but only recently began experimenting with narrative form with the publication of her very popular novel Moderato Cantabile. That novel bears some similarities with her screenplay for Hiroshima, mon Amour (as well as her approach for her next several novels): The story arises from a “banal” situation, the development proceeds with a formal pace, characters go nameless, dialogue is often stylized and declamatory.

Radiation and hair loss

Victimized in so many ways.

Unlike other French directors of the New Wave, Resnais did not act the role of the auteur, possibly because he had never directed a feature film before. Instead he followed somewhat slavishly the scenario provided by Duras. Resnais evidently saw his role as simply bringing about the visual realization of Duras’s conception. Resnais was so adverse to making any change to the text that when Duras suggests that he chose among alternative dialogues, Resnais refused to decide and instead used all the alternatives. The scenario by Duras even has detailed descriptions of the appearance and personalities of the two main characters, almost like casting direction, and so casting and to some extent directing was taken from Resnais.

Four students await together a fraternal and legendary death.

“Four students await together a fraternal and legendary death.”

Thus in some sense the film is Duras’s work even more so than the 1971 film version of Macbeth was a work of Shakespeare (because Polanski was more than willing to tamper with the text). This view shows us how to consider the work: It is first and foremost a literary work. The introduction is a lyrical exordium by SHE in which she attempts to fix in her memory the things she needs to remember of Hiroshima. HE keeps interrupting to note that there is nothing to remember, but she continues enumerating until she begins musing on forgetting as a phenomenon. This leads her naturally to the conclusion that all of this will happen again. It is said with neither trepidation nor anguish, just matter-of-factly. And the consequences don’t have to be spelled out. Only a reference is made to the children who will once again die.

But then the ode on the desolation of Hiroshima abruptly ends, and the introduction moves on to the main story. This is how Duras directs that transition in her screenplay:

Banal Streets

Is it banal to convince ourselves of the significance of now?

“(The incantatory tone ceases. The streets of Hiroshima, more streets. Bridges. Covered lanes. Streets. Suburbs. Railroad tracks. Suburbs. Universal banality.)

“SHE: . . . I meet you.

“I remember you.

“Who are you?

“You destroy me.

“You’re so good for me.”

And so begins the story proper, which Duras in her synopsis says is a “banal tale, one that happens thousands of times every day. The Japanese is married, has children. So is the French woman, who also has two children. Theirs is a one night affair.”

The scene cuts to a darkened hotel room where SHE and HE are lying in an embrace. (There is never mention of the characters’ names.) SHE admires his beautiful skin, and HE begins laughing “ecstatically” (as Duras puts it). There is no self-consciousness when they laugh about and admire their taught skin even in Hiroshima, where skin was melted and where even today in 1957 the museum exhibits “[h]uman skin floating, surviving, still in the bloom of its agony” (as SHE had already said in her declamation). But the business of love puts aside such painful remembrances, even transforms them, just as the opening shot, which appears as two bodies writhing in dust or ash turns out to be two lovers covered in sweat. Even “banal” love displaces the business of remembering, even important things.

Riva, a thousand women

HE spends the movie trying to find the one among the thousand women.

Banal affairs, of course, have no literary, as opposed to prurient, interest. But Resnais has no interest even in titillation, so the focus on the affair is on the significance of this chance relation to the characters. As for HE, the film gives almost no insight. We know he is an architect and has some undefined interest in politics (probably vaguely liberal), and given how he constantly corrects SHE (that she doesn’t remember, there is no need to remember, indeed there is nothing to remember) we infer that he is a modern man of the world, who probably does not want to be reminded of the days of the war and relative responsibility. As Duras specifies in her characterization of him, he comes across as highly Westernized. He speaks flawless French, and his manner is such that it causes SHE to ask him if he is “completely Japanese.” (He assures her he is.) He was not in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but his family was. After a moment’s hesitation, he agrees with SHE that he was “lucky” to be fighting the war at the time. He tells us later he is happily married to a beautiful wife (who is away for several days in the mountains) and is a father. Beyond that, we know nothing essential about him. We don’t even know how they met. We see that he acts urbanely the morning after; perhaps this is a habit with him.

It is SHE that the film examines. When we meet her still in bed, she is not the person we expect from her declamations. She playfully deflects his arch regret that he knows nothing about her by coyly treating it as a compliment. She jokes about her doubtful morals: “Being doubtful about the morals of other people.” Her banter is of such a different character from the introductory opera (as Duras calls it) that it is striking when HE tells her that his family lived in Hiroshima on that fateful day, she does not ask him what happened to them. Perhaps, we think, she picks up men regularly, but she assures him it is not often: “But it happens. I have a weakness for men.”

Flashback

The death of first love still haunts her.

Yet not all is playfulness. In the morning, while he is still asleep, she sees his hand twitch. Momentarily (by means of a cross-cut), we see her recall something—first a still hand, then a dead man with a girl embracing him. The moment passes, and HE awakes. But there is something to her past. She tells him that she came from Nevers, but will never return. She refuses to explain.

HE develops a need to see her again, not so much fascinated by her past, but rather aroused when he sees her in a Red Cross nurse’s uniform. (Duras writes in her synopsis: “He’s like everyone else, like all men, exactly, and in travesty there is an erotic factor that intrigues all men. The eternal nurse of an eternal war . . .”) She must, however, be off to finish the film she is acting in. It is a movie about “Peace.” (“Not at all a ridiculous film,” Duras observes, “but just another film.”) She refuses his request to see him again, even knowing that she is to leave Hiroshima the next day, and leaves him standing on the street when she goes off in a cab.

He tracks her down that afternoon when she is finished filming her part. He starts up again with talk of Nevers and her leaving. The final part of the filming is of a large public demonstration against the Bomb. The two watch, and SHE is even moved when she sees the emotionless girls in the procession. (In retrospect we can wonder if her identification is more with their youth and innocence than with the cause they go through the motions of supporting.) HE abruptly tells her that she will come with him; she does not resist.

Embrace

Young, ill-advised love in war time.

They go to his house, where they make love again. During this time, he probes her on her life at Nevers. She tells him the story, which explains both her casual approach to men and her inability to commit. During the war she had fallen in love with a German officer. She was ardently in love with him—she was 18 and the German had promised to marry her and take her to Bavaria. The movie shows scenes of the young lovers, principally her racing toward him.

“SHE: At first we met in barns. Then among the ruins. And then in rooms. Like anywhere else.

. . .

“SHE: And then he was dead.”

HE keeps asking questions, probing her. She resists, wants to know why he is interested in this one, rather than the others.

They realize that they have very little time together once night begins to fall, but it’s too long for a good-bye.

“HE (very calmly): All we can do now is to kill the time left before your departure. Still sixteen hours before your plane leaves.

“SHE (terribly upset, distressed): That’s a terribly long time . . .

“HE (gently): No. You mustn’t be afraid.”

With that, the fourth scene begins, and it is really the heart of the story. It is here during a night of drinking that SHE tells of the horror that the death of her first lover entailed. And HE guessed right that “[i[t was there … that you must have begun to be what you are today.”

The scene in which SHE wept over her dying lover (introduced as the cross-cut early on) would be the source all her grief since. Not only did she lose her first and most unsullied love, but she was also exposed as one who “aided” the enemy. The pent-up anger from the occupation would fall on her head, as well as her family’s. Her father had to close his pharmacy from the disgrace. It must have been especially difficult for her mother, who Duras tells us, “was either Jewish [or separated from her husband.]” The affair with the Nazi soldier had to burn her deeply. Nevertheless, she “treats her child with rough tenderness. But an infinite tenderness. She hasn’t given up hope for her daughter.” (The fact that Duras goes to such length to provide background never disclosed to the audience shows how even she conceives of the project as a literary, rather than a cinematic one.)

Hair shearing

SHE: “They shave my head carefully.They think it’s their duty to do a good job shaving the women’s heads.”

The town humiliates her by shaving her head. But she is too stunned by his death to notice: “I’m much too busy suffering. … All I hear is the sound of the scissors on my head.” Her loss of hair reminds us of the women of Hiroshima: “Anonymous heads of hair that the women of Hiroshima, when they awoke in the morning, discovered had fallen out.” She returned home, but could not live with people, and her parents led her into a cellar, where she lived, a madwoman, scratching the walls and screaming. In time her sanity returned, and she was let out. Her mother gave her money, and she bicycled to Paris, where the talk was of Hiroshima. Her hair was long enough now for her to join the crowds.

Love's forgetfulness

HE has accepted that this is simply one of similar adventures that will recur “from sheer habit.”

This story, told in flashbacks, not quite coherently, with much emotion, in a bar with night falling, draws them together. HE is exhilarated when he finds out that she has never told another man this story, not even her husband. It is a mark of their love. But what is the significance now?

“HE: In a few years, when I’ll have forgotten you, and when other such adventures, from sheer habit, will happen to me, I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this adventure as of the horror of oblivion. I already know it.”

Amnesia again

She is old enough now to know that forgetting is inescapable.

The final scene involves the desolation of their parting. SHE must violently wretch herself from him, and HE, despite his knowledge that he will forget her, for these last hours must stalk her forlornly. He follows her to her room, through the city, to a railroad station, to another bar where another man talks to her (she does not listen), and finally back to her room. Although he had asks her to stay, she refuses and he does not press her. Duras suggests that they have something beyond love. “A hopeless love, killed like the Nevers love. Therefore already relegated to oblivion. Therefore eternal.” SHE finally names him: “Hiroshima, that’s your name.” And the film ends.

So what is to be made of this? At the time, we know, the most advanced French directors, such as Louis Malle and François Truffaut, considered that Hiroshima mon amour not only pointed the way of the future, but also was already well ahead of its time. This is no small praise given that Truffaut the same year released The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), generally considered the herald of the French New Wave, and Malle the year before released The Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), itself displaying new narrative devices and advanced cutting and other editing techniques. But they regarded Resnais’s work qualitatively different from theirs. Since then it has firmly occupied center stage in France’s view of its own contribution to world cinema. Does it deserve the accolades and if so, for what reason?

Like love, protest is both ineffective and impermanent. But in the face of enormity, what else can be done?

Like love, protest is both ineffective and impermanent. But in the face of enormity, what else can be done?

First, I think it’s necessary to strip away some of the excess acclaim for truly undeserved aspects (knowing that a highly acclaimed work usually sweeps in its wake total approbation rather than critical thinking). The aspect that deserves the least amount of praise, in my view, is the music by Giovanni Fusco. I have never understood why so many big time directors, such as Antonioni, Viktor Tourjansky and Costa-Gavras, used Fusco to write scores for their films. The characteristic method of Fusco was to parody or mimic an established style, vaguely sounding like a known composer. The music is generally overly loud and often vulgar. It always draws attention to itself to the detriment of a particular scene. In the first part, during the opening credits and the “opera,” Fusco attempts an experimental style. Duras thought it sounded like Stravinsky, which the flute part suggests, but I think he was attempting to mimic the piano music of the early twentieth century Viennese composers. The problem is that the twentieth century modernists hated repetition more than anything. And yet the “experimental theme” is so short that when reverted to its repetitiveness became monotonous (indeed it sounds like it is mocking what is seen on the screen). Other than that short piano-flute-horns theme, the rest of the music is cloying program music. Listen to the music when SHE is watching HE sleep in the second scene. The rather insipid theme (to suggest how happy and sated she is as she walks in her Japanese robe) turns dark in such a manipulative way that the entire scene loses both the surprise of the cross-cut and any semblance of subtlety. The final scenes at the bars and through the city are as bland as any background music in any film. (The lack of imagination of the score in this movie is in stark contrast to another French film of that year, Black Orpheus (Orfeu negro), which won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year. Even Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows the year before experimented with the improvisational, admittedly American, music of Miles Davis.)

The second aspect to discount is the editing and technical features. While Resnais masterly cuts the documentary footage in the “opera” section to create a well paced visual to match the poetic declamation, there was nothing experimental about it. Moreover, the use of the cross-cut to suggest flashback goes back to silent films. The opening scene where the apparently dust-covered writhing bodies turn out to be sweat-covered lovers is clever but the symbolism is not sustained in the movie. As for the shots in “present time,” they are mainly facial close-ups unremarkable, and even old-fashioned, for 1959. Resnais boasted at the time that he had “decimated” time in the movie. I really do not see what he was referring to. In fact, many more and more innovative ways of compressing time, experiencing flashbacks, comparing present to past and other narrative tricks with time were used in Citizen Kane almost two decades before.

“They look at each other without seeing each other. Forever.”

Yet one still comes away with the impression that there was something imaginative and “advanced” about the film. I think that goes to its literary quality, and specifically the genre of literature it flirted with. The experiments of the Nouveau Roman had been around for five years (although the term was only coined in 1957), but no one had tried to duplicate the effort on film. The literary movement was intended to carry to their logical conclusion the experiments of many decades. Instead of eliminating only plot, character, thematic development and other things that were typically associated with prose fiction one-by-one, the new French movement intended to eliminate it all and at once. The most influential of these novelists was Alain Robbe-Grillet who by 1957 had written several novels in this style, one of which achieved popularity (Le Voyeur). In these novels the approach was something like the following generalization: Take a narration by a narrator that may or may not be involved in the subject of the narration and his narrative may or may not be reliable. Reduce the narration to its simplest elements, and like the technique of Cubists, reassemble the narrative in a formal, “geometric” way with repetitions and repetitions with variations that sometimes lead to a surprise (or prefigured) ending or other times leave the reader unsure about major elements including the role of the narrator.

Marguerite Duras never fully immersed herself in this movement. Her extensive background notes and expositions in her scenario showed that she was not wholly weaned from traditional narrative techniques, particularly character delineation. Nevertheless, the story is stripped to the minimum of the moment (if not to its essentials), and this affair becomes the means of understanding that affair. And if there is a lesson, it is that the unfailing contingency prevents our desires from realization.

Over the years much has been made of this film. One of the consequences of this nouveau roman-literary approach is that it contains sufficient “space” for critics (particularly academic ones) to fill the void with ideas that have only the vaguest relation to the work. This is particularly true of this film, where Resnais had not yet learned to substitute allusion and repetition for the narrative elements he had stripped out of it. That would come in his next project Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad), where he would involve himself in the writing, together with Robbe-Grillet himself. That film would push Resnais’ experimental vision to about the limit he could take it. In that movie he would also eliminate all the traces of sentimentality contained in Hiroshima mon amour, making it a more purely intellectual experience than this film. I suspect, however, that of the two this film will remain the more popular because it attempts to reach a moral, albeit an unhappy and inconclusive one. In the end, the movie must be judged on the “truth” of this moral conclusion, and not the experimental technique used to propel the story.

Note

Translated quotes from the film in the text are from Hiroshima mon amour. Text by Marguerite Duras for the film by Alain Resnais; translated by Richard Seaver (NY: Grove Wiedenfeld: © 1961).

Scenes from the film above are from the Janus Films version (with English subtitles), credited as follows: Argos Films, Como Films, Daiei Motion Picture et Pathe Overseas Productions. The print does not credit the English translator.

The new Rialto Pictures restoration is both warmer and sharper visually than the screen captures in this post. Its English subtitles are also translated differently than either of the two previous versions.

John Wooden (1910-2010)

Athletes litter the field of pop culture as much as actors and singers or pop musicians. Their bursts of fame are generally much shorter than the others, however, because their playing careers are much shorter, owing to “the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet would put it. Nevertheless, the sports themselves and occasionally players have entered American high-brow culture fairly regularly.

Of the popular professional American sports, baseball and boxing attract the most interest among literary types. Henry Kissinger, always one to ensure his comments are self-referential and self-aggrandizing, once said that he enjoyed baseball because it was “so cerebral.” The English Department of Middle Tennessee State University recently (March 26, 2010) held its 15th “Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference.” This year’s event boasted as its most famous guest Ferguson Jenkins, a Hall of Fame pitcher, who I saw on many occasions and continue to believe that playing for the Cubs prevented him from achieving the fame that he was due.

Aside from Ring Lardner (who began as a sports writer), numerous top flight writers wrote about baseball: Bernard Malamud’s The Natural follows the intersection of two all-American types: the athletic prodigy and the serial killer; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby reveals who was behind baseball’s darkest moment; Don DeLillo’s Underworld follows the post-game history of the ball “shot ’round the world,” and so forth. Ball Four by former pitcher Jim Bouton, otherwise unknown in literary culture, was included in the 1995-96 exhibit by the New York Public Library of the Books of the Century. (Granted it was in the category of “Popular Culture and Mass Entertainment.” But then so was Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Capote’s In Cold Blood and Stoker’s Dracula.) It did not hurt Bouton’s reception by New York institutions that he was once a New York Yankee and “enhanced” Mickey Mantle’s reputation, of course. But the book would deserve commendation for no other reason than eliciting the remark that it was “detrimental to baseball” from the execrable Bowie Kuhn, who himself was detrimental not only to baseball but to the legal profession, from which he finally fled to sink his fortune into a homestead in Florida to protect his wealth from his firm’s bankruptcy creditors, after the massive, phony billing scheme sent his partner Harvey Myerson to jail.

Boxing always attracted a darker literary sensibility. Less like the chirpy “boys of summer” spirit, boxing reflects the point of view of the great American creation the noir (which shows its serious artistic pretensions by its French name): the lone male, equipped only with his brains and fists, must wage a brutal battle (in fact battle after battle) against a force intending to destroy him, in a war that he will ultimately lose. It is no coincidence that Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade, was himself a boxer. But so were the other über-males of American literature Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. (In one of the oddest stories of ex-patriot American literati in Paris, Hemingway tells in A Moveable Feast of trying to teach Ezra Pound to box.) In a different field, über-male Miles Davis, who also liked to box, recorded an improvised fusion-jazz set as a background to a film on legendary boxer Jack Johnson, which he later released as an album tribute to the boxer. (Norman Mailer, who liked to portray himself as an über-male, also liked to portray himself as a boxer.) In fact, Joyce Carol Oates called boxing “a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity ….” Rod Stirling repeatedly used boxing as a metaphor for loss (but not loss of the “religion of masculinity”), not only in his Requiem for a Heavyweight but also in short stories and “Twilight Zone” episodes. And of course if anyone ever personified the liberal intellectual’s view of existential manhood in the 60s-70s, it was Muhammad Ali.

All of this is an unnecessary introduction to John Wooden, who died June 4, 2010, well into his 99th year. Basketball, at which he excelled as player in high school and college and as a coach, is not susceptible to literary treatment, at least not the way baseball or boxing is. It has none of the individual moments of personal glory of baseball or the existential maleness of boxing. Nor does it (or any other sport) participate in the kind of sickly nostalgia or forced feyness in which many of baseball’s custodians hold that sport. Basketball is a team sport too fast paced and interrupted to have a narrative feel to it. While celebrities arise from basketball, often they become pop figures because of the visual appeal of their craft (Michael Jordan, Julius Erving) or the bizarreness of their behavior (Dennis Rodman). Nevertheless, Wooden is something of an iconic figure, and if basketball is to have a culture icon, it probably should be Wooden.

Wooden’s character belongs to a pre-high definition TV era, and he certainly did not appreciate the bizarre. He had the dignified character of a Joe DiMaggio or Bill Bradley. Wooden was perhaps the most reserved of the three. He had all the trappings of a very socially conservative life-style. He was married for 53 years and remained devoted to the same woman after her death. Each month he would visit the grave and write a letter to her. Their first meeting at a carnival while still in high school and their much later “honeymoon” at a Mills Brothers concert in Indianapolis add to the charm of the relationship. He was a high school and college athlete, became a teacher and coach, and clawed his way up the field of college coaching. He served in the Navy during World War II and achieved the rank of lieutenant. After the war he took the coaching job at UCLA because he had “given his word,” even though he had hoped to become coach of Minnesota, which delayed making its offer (until after Wooden agreed with UCLA) only because of inclement weather. He was an avowed Christian but modest in his outward display. (“If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”) Christianity Today claimed that he read the Bible every day and that he held Abraham Lincoln as his role model. His life seemed the very epitome of a kind of Midwestern virtue that we only now are reminded of by the occasional Gary Cooper movie.

Wooden was born in the center of Indiana, Hall, grew up on a farm in Centerton (a dirt poor one judging by pictures of his family when he was small), but according to the timeline on his official website (sponsored by McDonald’s), in 1924 “hard-times force Wooden family off the farm and to nearby Martinsville, Indiana; pop. 4,800.” Wooden’s father would take a job at one of the sanitariums that Martinsville sported. Martinsville had a number of spas and sanitariums owing to the local mineral waters, which made it somewhat of a destination for the wealthy and sickly. At one of these sanitariums in 1890 Albert Merritt once worked as a porter. Merritt was the son of slaves who founded the Martinsville Boys Club and is now claimed to be “beloved” by the town. But by 1924 Martinsville no longer had a racial climate that allowed someone like Merritt to ply his good works. Racism, the virulent kind, blossomed like a noxious weed in the 1920s. David Curtis Stephenson, who had moved to Indiana from Oklahoma in 1920, having lost his bid for a Democratic nomination to run for Congress, channeled his political ambitions into the internal political workings of the Ku Klux Klan, backing Hiram Wesley Evans’s successful effort to unseat William J. Simmons as the Klan’s Imperial Wizard. For his efforts Stephenson was appointed Grand Dragon of the northern states. This appointment paid immediate benefits in Indiana. Klan membership dramatically increased. Martinsville became known as a “sunset town,” meaning that any blacks in town after dark were considered open targets. In October 1923 a Klan rally was held at the courthouse in Martinsville, drawing Klansmen from surrounding towns and as far away as Indianapolis. The crowd was described as “imposing,” and carried banners reading “White Supremacy,” “Protect Womanhood,” “Free public schools,” and “Pure Americanism.” Stephenson switched to the Republican party, and he assisted his favorite, Edward L. Jackson, to become Governor of Indiana. Jackson, although a corrupt buffoon, would further entrench the Klan into Indiana politics by, among other things, appointing reputed Klansman Arthur Robinson Senator over progressive scholar and former Senator Albert Beveridge (the biographer of John Marshall). Both Stephenson and Jackson suffered monumental falls by the end of the 1920s, Stephenson was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1925 for the abduction, forced intoxication, rape and felony murder of a school teacher (whom Jackson introduced Stephenson to). Jackson, who was fearful of pardoning Stephenson, suffered the retribution of the Grand Dragon who expected no less. Stephenson knew where many of Jackson’s bodies were buried, and bribery charges against Jackson followed. Although he would escape conviction, Jackson left office a disgraced man in 1929. Martinsville continued the focus of racial hatred, spitefulness and crimes up to today. The town is still best known for the murder in 1968 of a black woman attacked with a screwdriver while she was selling encyclopedias door to door. In 1990 the town had no blacks counted in the census. Even the local black internist was too afraid to check the box for “African Americans.” By 2002 the local Chamber of Commerce had hired a “diversity consultant” purportedly to “undertake a county-wide initiative to address what I like to call making everyone feel welcome here” according to the Chamber’s president.

This was where Wooden spent his high school years and where he met his wife. While in high school he sent the Martinsville Artesians to the state championships in each of the three years between 1926-1928, winning the title in 1927. (Wooden was captain of the 1928 team that lost in the final game. Wooden said that losing as defending champions “still hurts.”) The team, of course, was all white.

Despite all of this (or maybe because all of this) Wooden referred to himself as a “liberal Democrat.” It is true that at one time, as Edmund Wilson pointed out, everyone was a liberal. That time seems far away just now; yet, it wasn’t more than a lifetime ago. But given that Wooden captions one of the photos in the “Scrapbook” of his official website with the statement “I’ve got the Bruins in my blood, but I’m a Hoosier at heart,” his affiliation with the Democrats seems unexpected at best. Going back to the days of William McKinley, Indiana rarely voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee (voting against FDR twice and Wilson for re-election). And when they voted for a Democratic, it was usually one of the unreconstructed Neanderthal type, such as Senator Samuel Ralston, anti-Catholic Klan favorite who died in office in 1925. Wooden’s un-Hoosier broadmindedness was of an entirely different cast and showed itself in the same way that his Christianity did—modestly, without fanfare but resolutely nonetheless. Perhaps it was from his father that he maintained a sense of social justice in the midst of the muck. He said that when he “graduated” elementary school in Centerton, his father gave him a paper with the following 7 instructions on it:

1. Be true to yourself.
2. Help others.
3. Make each day your masterpiece.
4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
5. Make friendship a fine art.
6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

He claimed that he kept the paper his whole life. He certainly developed an instinct for aphorisms. And as far as we can tell from his decisions, he seems to have followed them. And at least once it had some visible effects.

After World War II Wooden took a job as teacher and coach at Indiana Teacher’s College (now Indiana State University, where Larry Bird would play 30 years later). In 1947, his first year, he coached the Sycamores to an invitation to the NAIB (now the NAIA) tournament to be held in Kansas City. Wooden refused the invitation because of the tournament’s whites-only rule —Indiana Teachers College had one black backup player, Clarence Walker. Walker played only limited minutes, but as his son later told the story, for Wooden it was a question of team. Walker was a member of the team, and either the team played or it didn’t. “They wouldn’t permit a colored boy to play in the tournament and I had one on my team—Clarence Walker out of East Chicago,” Wooden said later. “While he wasn’t one that got to play very much at all, he still was a member of my team and I wouldn’t take the team without him.”

The next year the Sycamores were again invited to the NAIB tournament but this year the tournament committee changed the rules to permit black players. They informed Wooden that Walker would still be prohibited from staying at the segregated hotels or eating at the white-only eating places in Kansas City, but he would be allowed in the tournament. Wooden again refused. Something about these decisions suggests an intentional stand by Wooden to make a point, because in the regular season Walker had to suffer the indignities and worse of segregated Indiana. There were places he could not play, yet the team continued to play in Kentucky and Virginia. On campus he had to live in the back dorm, and when he went to away games he often had to use a separate locker room. Whatever the reason for the refusal, under pressure from the college president and persuasion from the NAACP, Wooden eventually relented. Walker stayed at the home of an African American minister in Kansas City. Indiana Teachers College made the finals but lost to Louisville. The game was historic in a couple of senses. It was the first collegiate championship game (outside New York at least) in which a black played. It was Wooden’s only loss as a coach in a championship game, and it was his last game in the NAIB. Although he coached for only 2 years in the league, he entered the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2009, largely due to his stand in favor of Clarence Walker. The tournament itself was not a dramatic moment in the history of the civil rights movement. Kansas City’s black newspaper The Call said that “no expressions of disapproval were heard” from the fans. Walker was not a star by any means; he scored only 8 points the entire week of games.

Clarence Walker would become a high school teacher and coach, put his three kids through college and even become the President of the Board of Commissioners of Lake County, Indiana. His children tell of how Walker spoke of Wooden and his teammates who supported the decisions. He also impressed on them how Wooden had enough pull to be able to find a black preacher in Kansas City who would take Walker in. Wooden himself said that when a couple of years later an “all colored team” won the tournament, he received hate letters blaming him for the result.

Wooden would go on to coach Lew Alcindor, Jamaal (then Jackson) Wilkes, among others. And in all cases he seems to have cemented feelings of great warmth and respect. Wooden has written a handful of books over the past decade, all in the inspirational/admonitory style that would become a genre of “sports leadership” books. The genre would make considerable money for coaches such as Pat Riley and Bill Parcells, who were able to fill some of the demand by the sports-hero-worshiping management world willing to spend for the maxims of “strong” leaders. Wooden himself has left a legacy of aphorisms about the concept of team, the power of self-respect, and the value of principle. Perhaps these sayings are no more useful than the hollow words of numerous others from high school coaches fantasizing about the big time to professionals whose main interest is maximizing income from sponsors and the lecture circuit. But if an editor were interested in trying to rekindle interest in the collection of aphorisms as an artform, he’d be well-advised to consider Wooden, whose own sayings seem to have been percolating in some deep recesses of the soul and not merely the best received on a corporate leadership circuit.