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A screenshot from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" of two characters arguing

Life, Death & Romance: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947)

I first heard about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir via Harry Nilsson, who appeared in the 1960s television series. Nilsson played—you got it—a singer who’d been forced to spend the night at this seaside abode due to impending rain and thunder. Such a strange concept, I thought. A ghost who haunts a woman he loves only in afterlife? I watched the episode, and aside from Nilsson’s performance, I found it dull. The show didn’t last and was cancelled after two seasons. Thus, imagine my surprise when I learned this was a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Really? They made a series from this film? How very odd.

Following recommendation, I watched it, and afterwards, I watched it again. And what a darling film this is. Love, death, longing, and romance—what else does one need? The film begins with Lucy (Gene Tierney), a widow who longs to live by the sea. Despite opposition from her in laws who want her to remain in London out of respect for her late husband, headstrong Lucy goes to purchase an abandoned cottage that is now overrun with four years’ vegetation. Gull Cottage, is what it is called, and it is supposedly haunted. In fact, no one is willing to stay there for more than a night. But upon Lucy’s visit, she falls in love with the house instantly, as though something is pulling her towards it. Oh, and what could this be other than Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison)? […]

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A stylized illustration depicting the flag of Cuba and an injured brain, for Havana syndrome

The Ghost in the Machine: From Havana (Syndrome), With Love

Imagine suffering tinnitus, visual problems, vibrations inside your skull, nausea, vertigo, insomnia, fatigue, and dizziness. You are understandably alarmed and immediately visit your doctor, who pronounces you fit and well. You get a referral to a more specialized physician, who runs quite a few very sophisticated examinations. She finally pronounces that you are in peak condition—fit and well. But the symptoms persist—excruciatingly so—to the point where you go to a renowned, top-of-the-line expert (you have excellent insurance!) and you are put through a battery of tests and procedure involving machinery you’ve only seen n sci-fi movies. After three days of expert investigation, the doctor gives you the results: You are fit and quite well, and he suggests a visit with a psychiatrist. Puzzling, frustrating and very worrying, right?

The symptoms were first reported in 2016, by U.S. and Canadian embassy staff in Havana, Cuba—thus the sexy “Havana Syndrome” moniker the media so adores. By 2017, more people, including U.S.  intelligence and military personnel, reported pain and tingling in the ears in other places, like China, New Delhi, Europe, and Washington, DC. The people in the Cuban embassy reported these debilitating neurological attacks and the Trump Administration called them “targeted attacks.” Those evil Cubans or Russians or Somebody had a secret, powerful “sonic weapon” to harm the Good Guys. Panic ensued. Fifteen Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington, and most of the U.S. staff was withdrawn from the embassy in Havana. Five years later, more than 200 U.S. Government officials were claiming the effects of what came to be known as the “Havana Syndrome.” President Biden signed a bill which compensated the victims.  The victims of an affliction which, up to now, has no known cause, but has generated a wide variety of theory and pearl-clutching speculation about not just targeted attacks, but targeted attacks by a microwave weapon wielded by hostile foreign powers—Russia, in particular. In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study of the 21 diplomats, led by Douglas H. Smith, Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. Smith and his team found signs of brain damage but no signs of impact to the patients’ skulls—a condition they called “immaculate concussion.” […]

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A shot of mother and daughter arguing in a car from Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017)

Her Identity of Place: On Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017)

When you are 18, your identity resides in the past. Where you are from, where you went to school, and who your parents are. You simply haven’t lived long enough to accumulate a string of accomplishments, nor have you had the opportunity to make enough life choices to define you. So, when you are uprooted at 18 and transplanted to a university—‘Where are you from? Where did you go to school?’—these are the questions asked. They serve as a shallow introduction—a way of establishing your place—of defining you—within these new surrounds.

Lady Bird is directed by Greta Gerwig, and I was familiar with her performance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), which is one of the most cinematically unattractive films I have ever seen. Shot in dingy black and white for no other reason than to evoke French New Wave, the film is typical Baumbach insomuch that you can almost hear him whispering, ‘This is a Noah Baumbach film. Expect it to be intellectual with lots of literary namedropping.’ His films are sciolistic in some way or other, but admittedly there was something about Frances Ha that made me enjoy it, despite its weaknesses. Perhaps that something is Greta Gerwig’s performance as the ambitious yet vulnerable Frances.

Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine, a high school senior who prefers to be called Lady Bird, rather than her birth name. The reason is never explained but we can gather that she doesn’t like her ordinary life and so this is her attempt to differentiate herself. ‘Do I look like someone from Sacramento?’ she asks. ‘I hate California.’ Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) works double shifts as a nurse and she takes her daughter’s words as a slight. ‘You have a great life,’ she informs. But Lady Bird, in midst of her longing, doesn’t see it. ‘I wish I could live through something. I want to go to the East Coast,’ she says. ‘I want to live where there are writers.’ ‘You can’t even pass your driver’s test,’ Marion reminds. (Gerwig, who is from California and attended university in New York, based Lady Bird on her own experience.) […]

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Dylan Thomas, author of "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", used this shed as a writing room.

Today’s Anthem: Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Dylan Thomas’s poem to a dying father could be well to be heard by the world today. The world may not be gentle and plenty of people are not having a good night, yet there is a discerned darkness over the land. The poet calls out for action and light. It is a spiritual matter.

In a previous essay on this site, I discussed how a namesake of Thomas, Bob Dylan, wrote “Blowing in the Wind” which became a national battle cry. Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” could have similar possibilities if the poet hadn’t died ¾ of a century ago. Without the marketing allure, the poem could most likely not be resurrected on a grand scale.

It could just be the plea to a dying man, or else a plea to all generations of today’s world. We’re talking fire here. And a good fire. Old age could be synonymous with old patterns in politics which perpetuate tired wars. Admittedly, wars are not gentle to most ways of thinking, but they are predictable and go down trodden paths. I don’t believe Dylan Thomas is telling us to take up arms; it is a metamorphosis of the soul he’s talking about. Traditionally gun battles are not of the soul. The fight should be within. Battles of the soul are not always gentle. Even Jesus overturned the money tables in the temple. […]

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A shot of a terrorist from Rainer Fassbinder's "The Third Generation"

Cops or Robbers? – On Rainer Fassbinder’s “The Third Generation” (1979)

Rainer Fassbinder is one of the critically important voices in 20th century cinema – in fact, he’s good enough to make a boy jealous. He is known not only for his rapidity in his process, but his uncanny ability to extremify the positive points of a movie while glossing over the unimportant features. Unlike his contemporaries Kubrick or Coppola, he wasn’t at all fastidious. He had a laid-back and European approach to his process, instead of the furious quasi-mysticism seen in a lot of American filmmakers operating in this period.

His films are characterised by an austere and stripped back quality to the visuals, one very much in line with the French new-wave. He is an heir-apparent of Brecht – his start in theatre gave him that edge, or innovation; he always stood out from Herzog and Wenders. He captures atmosphere through amazing attention to sound design – dialogue either blending into the overbearing noise, struggling against it, or coming through crisply from silence like the worst thing you’ve ever been told.

The visual magic of his cinema is that despite his subjects being audaciously simple, they are brought to life with a restrained formal complexity. Evidently, each film has a unique atmosphere, like a fingerprint, one established in composition and diegesis. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is domestic and melodramatic and its visuals reflect that, almost soap operatic, and paranoid. Satan’s Brew is an anti-humanist nightmare and farce, characterised by its unappealing, ugly compositions and palettes. […]

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A shot of Monica Vitti against an industrial backdrop in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert"

The Human Intrusion: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Red Desert” (1964)

Prompted by the recent death of Monica Vitti (1931 – 2022), on a day my city shut down due to inclement weather, I re-watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. Outside, the streets iced into the night and through the blinds, I noticed that the sky glowed white. I then got to thinking that the notion of human seemed absurd, as who are we to battle nature? We hunker in our houses under heavy blankets in our defense against the outside. We are newcomers to this planet, after all. We arrive and then we depart, hoping that our presence has made some sort of impact.

Red Desert might be the most (anti-)nature film ever made. Set amid the grime of industrial plants, pollution, metal wire, and murky water, only the sky and wind remain intact. But that doesn’t stop humans from polluting it. ‘Why is the smoke yellow?’ the boy asks his mother. ‘Because it is poisonous,’ she replies. Monica Vitti plays Giuliana—a young mother who is undergoing trauma from a previous accident. Her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chonetti), works at the industrial plant she visits. It is a dirty and inhospitable wasteland, where grit and grime are the norm and where colored smoke fills the sky. She visits one day while the plant workers are on strike. Upon witnessing a man eating a sandwich, she offers to buy it even though he has already bit into it. Confused and fragile, something is amiss. […]

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A picture of the universal "toxic" sign against yellow, with the "male" sign sticking out.

Masculinity And Its Discontents

The Romans had a word for it: virtus, derived from vir, “man.” A constellation of attributes, of virtues, which were perceived to be masculine strengths—originally, in the early days of the Roman Empire, the term indicated martial courage. Eventually, this idea of manliness morphed into a wider, deeper idea of what masculinity meant, such as prudence, justice, self-control, and courage; virtus came to describe a good man, one who did the right thing. During the time of the fading of the Roman elite, the upper class no longer thought themselves unmanly if they had not served in the military.

Virtus, and all it implied, was generally not applied to women, to whom the term pudicitia, “modesty” or “chastity” was given. Cicero, that redoubtable polymath (eventually beheaded by order of Marc Antony), used the term to describe his daughter as being “brave” during his absence. So, these attributes, these virtues, could be held by women—although derived from the basic masculine model. Our term “virile” and “virility” come from this root. […]

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A stylized screenshot from Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (2014)

Charlie Parker & The Drive For Greatness In Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (2014)

Few films address the drive required for artistic greatness. Rather, we are presented with notions that are nebulous—wherein so-called ‘achievements’ are validated via one’s desire to be famous. But greatness is not measured in fame. In the world of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, artistic craft exists as an objective thing, and certain musicians are notably better than others. Those who excel move on to First Chair. And those who can’t change their major to pre-med. (‘I guess he got discouraged,’ Fletcher says.) I must preface this by stating that I am not a musician, and so I am unable to comment on the accuracy and perfection of the playing therein. But I can comment on the writing, which is extremely accurate with regard to the intensity involved when one wishes to triumph. As example, when an artist strives for greatness, compromises must be made. Often, artistic achievement comes at the expense of friends, family, career and a social life.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student enrolled at Shaffer Music Conservatory. With saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955) as his hero, Andrew does not merely play the drums—he lives them. More than anything, he longs to be ‘One of the Greats.’ He desires this so much so that in an arrogant moment, he breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (whom he only seems to call when feeling good) on the basis that his drums are more important and that she would only get in the way. It is a cold move on his part but understandable, given his perspective. Paul Riser plays Andrew’s platitude-driven yet loving father who clearly does not understand him. Early in the film, the two are seated in a theatre as his father (Jim) pours Raisinets into a large tub of popcorn. ‘I don’t like the Raisinets,’ Andrew whispers, as he picks for the popcorn. ‘I just eat around them.’ Bemused, Jim looks at his son and responds, ‘I just don’t understand you.’ […]