February Ends

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O Feb, how can you end?

Is there a snowflake you can lend?

You see rain drives me round the bend

And I feel I cannot tend

To the things I need to mend.

O dear rhymer

Aren’t you an old-timer?

And a boredom-climber?

You don’t need my chill-chimer

Just read your season-primer.

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Somebody had smashed something. No one knew what it was or who had done it…

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But in their plush homes they were all wary. They didn’t want to touch anything except things like pots and pans and knives and forks but plates and cups and crockery and vases and mirrors they got phobic about.

“Hi, what about that thing that looked smashed?”

Unable to eat anything off their plates and so snacking from tins and containers and the like they were all phoning and IMing around.

“I feel crap. I feel like I’m going to break something valuable.”

“We could all meet down the all-night super to buy some paper plates.”

“What a superb idea.”

As soon as they had entered the supermarket and got to the paper-plate aisle a giant meteor crashed into the building and they were killed by falling debris.

Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de…

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Max Ophuls once said: ‘Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art.’

Synopsis: In the wealthy glamorous world of aristocratic late 19th century France a love triangle of military husband, beautiful wife and charismatic Italian diplomat turns on a mere pair of earrings and ends in tragedy. 

Famous for its swirling camera-work, its decor and the fine performances of its principle actors – Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica – Madame de is a film of circular narratives: the opening and closing scene of the Virgin’s statue in church, the volutions of ownership the earrings go through, the notions of love, friendship and companionship that each character has to consider in their encounters with one another.

The earrings of the story start with little emotional meaning for the heroine even though they were a wedding gift from her husband. By the end of the film the earrings via sale, purchase and repurchase are invested with overwhelming emotional importance for Madame de and indeed for her militaristic husband. Earlier in the story he overlooks his wife’s indiscretion of selling the earrings which she does to pay off her debts. Her husband subtly buys them off the jeweller who has notified him. The power of the male here is clear: the jeweller constantly reports to the powerful husband.

It is like the Kula often referred to in social anthropology: through exchange of shells – in this film jewelled earrings – new value is conferred. New meaning comes to items. Think of the items that gain value because they were owned by Elvis or Princess Diana.

The husband in the opening scenes is made aware by the jeweller of his wife’s sale of the earrings but to spare social scandal the husband buys them back to give as a gift to one of his paramours who is going forever (a discarded lover) to Constantinople. It is there that the Italian diplomat buys the feted earrings.

This story of romantic dalliances in the upper echelons of French society of over a century ago is also a masterful exegesis on mores of that class. Affairs are overlooked but there are boundaries and Madame de oversteps them by falling in love with the Italian diplomat. Nothing is said overtly. But the final duel is a comment that in that society words, apology and forgiveness have to give way to honour, and violence, though of the most precise kind.

Understatement in speech and action is contrasted by opulence and the passionate movements of the camera. The religious undercurrent in the film also adds profound irony and deepens the viewer’s thinking about fate, destiny and the nature of religious petition and prayers answered and unanswered.

Who might enjoy this film?

  • Filmmakers should see this film for its camerawork, the performances of the actors and the brilliant handling of a circular story.
  • Historians and social scientists, especially social anthropologists, should see this film for its understanding of the social norms and mores of a particular society, accurately portraying the ways in which allusion and trope and intimation are used. Here the question “Are you f*****g my wife?” can never be uttered. (Though the lovers do mention that nothing of this physical nature has occurred.) Though Madame de often faints under pressure, all is politeness and decorum nothing is said overtly. Perhaps this means that what people assume is charged and barbed. 

Ultimately the only resolution, the only way of saving face is by a duel with pistols.

Egon Yes on Argo

ArgoEgon

Egon Yes gives analysis of Ben Affleck’s Argo

—Fargo, did you say?

—Argo.

—Fargo’s a great film.

—No, we’re asking you about Argo. You know, the film that’s about the hostage crisis for the US embassy people in Iran circa 1980. Were you born by then?

—I think so, but I’d have to ask my mum to make sure.

—Mr Yes, would you stop pussy-footing around and get to the matter in hand?

—What was the question again? Sorry, only joshing like Brolin, ha ha! In fact let’s start there.

Synopsis: A CIA agent attempts to rescue a clutch of US embassy staff in Iran who have escaped the hostage takers in the 444-day US embassy hostage crisis in Iran. The escaped staff take refuge with the Canadian ambassador. In order to get this group out of Iran an elaborate cover is created by pretending that a science fiction film called Argo is in production and is to be filmed in locations around Iran. The time is 1979-80. Washington, Langley, Los Angeles Istanbul and Tehran are where the action takes place.

Ben Affleck, for whatever reason, chose to be the star of Argo, the film he directed. That was a mistake. Josh Brolin would have added thought and gravitas to the role. Affleck did well. But he did not do well enough because he is a kind of cardboard hero around whom the others work out their tensions and dramas. While I enjoyed watching his beard tour round a passably recreated Tehran of the time, I felt I was watching the director of the movie and not the protagonist of the story. Something was missing. Every time Affleck cogitates I could not but help think that he was thinking of what he was going to do with his camera or actors in the next scene. I felt his directorial burden, not the weight of his character’s shoulders, broad though they are. I didn’t feel the nasty brew of a hostage crisis from his character despite the smart lines that made him look like he authentically knew what he was talking about.

The inaccuracies in the film have probably been revealed like the front hair of young female Tehranis who constantly lift their ‘roosari’ head-scarves to cool their brains in a culture three millennia old at least, and almost doubled over under the weight of its learning. The main inaccuracy for me —SPOILER ALERT—is at the end of the film where the embassy escapee, given cover as part of the sci-fi film, who speaks Farsi buys time by playing spaceships and making spaceship sounds and gestures. In truth he needed two words that almost everybody would have understood: Jang-e-Setareh. To translate literally War of the Stars and to translate: Star Wars.

One of my disappointments in leaving Iran as a child was that I never got to see Star Wars. It was massive in Tehran, at least. I have never seen such four-person-wide, round-the-block queues in my life. As a result of the demand for the film, every showing was booked and we were leaving the country. We’re talking summer of ’78. By the time I was in London, Star Wars was a narrative and a game kids played. There was no DVD or NetAffliction in those days.

So Argo has deep flaws in its relation to that Star Wars moment in world history. The revolution had happened. The look feels right. But the nuances are wrong. Is the film ‘Islamophobic’? Perhaps: in the sense that Hollywood often has a black and white take on goodies and baddies and Islam and indeed ‘organized’ religion, too, is frequently bad, in Hollywood’s hedonistic and lecherous eyes. However, Argo wants to portray the bearded Iranian men as one-dimensional, humourless, lacking hospitality, a cause for hatred. The few Iranian heroes are female but whatever the case the Iranians are more cardboard than the Affleck character. There’s a lot of cardboard in this film. Alcohol is one such cardboard motif that crops up again and again as some kind of saviour. It’s a big up yours to people who believe that a lot of bad can come from that liquid.

Perhaps Affleck should have included some outtakes at the end of the film of himself stumbling around drunkenly barking incoherent orders at a poster of Jennifer Lopez. (I’m deeply sorry for trying to be funny here but I hope I’ve conveyed some idea that the alcohol motif is like the Argo joke that runs through the film, just a touch wearing. Nuance, detail, just a little bit more.)

Having made these brief observations, Argo is full of suspense (perhaps too much), nostalgia for that late 70s period and it’s very entertaining. It’s a good film with a lot going for it. If Josh Brolin had been the star it would have made the film deeper and Affleck would have had more time to concentrate on the nuances and small, important details that could have made the film much better.