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A stylized shot from Jean-Pierre Melville's "Leon Morin, Priest"

Thwarting Desires: On Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

So what’s the deal with the priest?

Much has been said of the eponymous clergyman’s moral intrigue. His façade of almost cocksure piety, the intellectual judo he engages in his apologetics, and his verging-on-predatory manipulation of the young women in his parish. Jean-Pierre Melville doesn’t give much reason to doubt the “purity” of his intentions: he never sleeps with the women, but nonetheless seems aware of their admiration and does not discourage their private meetings with him. He is a handsome young man, and in a town seemingly bereft of such, is it any wonder many of the women flock to him? For some of them, sex isn’t even what’s desired: solely his presence, for a good deal of the husbands have run off to the forest to join the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation, and Léon Morin seems all-too-willing to simply utilize the possibility of sexual transgression (to sleep with a priest!) in order to create a captive audience. But an audience for what? And is there something deeper going on, something Morin himself would be loath to uncover?

For Barny (played by the incandescent Emmanuelle Riva), sex is what’s desired. It represents a culmination of sorts, for her. Bereft of God (she is a communist), widowed (her Jewish husband has died in the war), and sexually open (she crushes on one of her coworkers at the relocated wartime correspondence school, a beautiful secretary named Sabine), Barny does not seem so much repressed as she does availed of good options. This is an important point to make, as “repressed” is a loaded word, and it might be tempting to locate the source of Barny’s frustration in her, manifesting out of some unhealthy psychological baggage, as opposed to the machinations of the clergyman. There is nothing in Léon Morin, Priest to indicate that Barny, a bright, attractive and thoroughly secularized young woman, possesses any thorny complexes concerning her sexual desires – she even seems to dismissively analyze her feelings for Sabine as pure idealization, purging any kind of homoerotic transgression from their loaded exchange of gazes. Originally from Paris, and with her daughter in someone else’s care (in fear of the girl’s Jewish lineage making her a target for Nazi deportation), she lives alone, with mostly female company, and the men who work alongside her too old for serious consideration. The occupying soldiers (first Italians, then the Germans) are the enemy: in Jean-Pierre Melville’s world, to sleep with them would be a sin far greater than religious conversion, and is thus never an option. Sure, there’s stoppage, of a kind, but Barny seems – above all else – to be bored out of her mind, resulting in her intellectual prank on the clergy at St. Bernard’s. […]

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A stylized shot of Gene Hackman from The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola

Fastidious Vice: On Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola gained his reputation through fastidiousness and dedication. Hearts of Darkness, the explosive behind-the-scenes documentary made partly in parallel and then in retrospect with Apocalypse Now, portrays a director with vision, but one wrestling with his own ego, pretentiousness and darker nature. His obsessive tendencies towards filmmaking are evident in a lot of his earlier works, culminating in Apocalypse Now, after which his filmog descends into nothing but laissez-faire mediocrity and stunning failure. This dramatic rise and fall could, and has been, attributed to the nightmarish production of the aforementioned Conrad reinterpretation.

The Conversation is an achievement foremost as a work of character insight, with Gene Hackman delivering a formidable performance as Harry Caul. Caul is an engineer who considers himself an artisan. His field is surveillance – specifically, the recording of dialogue between guilty parties. We open with him organising an impressive feat of monitoring on a young couple in a bustling city square, who seem to be concerned that the woman’s jealous and influential husband will off them if he ever finds out about their infidelity. The contract is for said jealous husband. Through using a sniper-scope and directional microphone, and several actors and hidden bugs, Harry manages to capture the damning evidence. […]

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A stylized photo of Quinn, one of the more famous transgender athletes

Transgender Athletes: Society Swimming in Deep Water

Lia Thomas is a record-breaker. The University of Pennsylvania swimmer dominated the 500m prelims, and then finals, at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron in December. She broke the Ivy League record and set two school records in a pair of freestyle events. In one of the events she won, she was thirty-eight seconds faster than the woman who came in second. As swim times are measured, that is equivalent to a geologic age. Some, however, are not pleased by this chain of events, since just two years ago, Lia Thomas was Will Thomas, who was swimming for the men’s team.

If there is one thing everyone should have learned by now, it is that the issue of transgender athletes competing on women’s teams, in women’s divisions, is confusing, exasperating, unsettled, and produces multiple Everests of commentary, pro and con. And the rules of all this are not very clear—or if they are, they seem to address the core issue of fairness, but not resolve any of the issues tangential to it. Lia Thomas is following the rules set out by the NCAA, but are those rules fair? And what IS fairness for this issue? So far, the majority of the discussions center around the material aspects of this issue: testosterone and its effects on the body, and who has enough or not enough. So the various controlling agencies have been forced to find some way to decide an issue—and they’re trying to do it with rules. […]

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Stylized portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh.

Low to the Ground: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

It’s not often that one encounters a novel constructed in verse. Of course, there have been many written over centuries, but they have also been labeled epic. They are often long, arduous and the protagonist undergoes numerous adventures, fights, defeats, and battles. Homer comes to mind. Virgil. The Epic of Gilgamesh. These verses are important works written by men. So, who is this Elizabeth Barrett Browning to attempt her own version of it? Are there any battles in Aurora Leigh? Not unless one considers her battle of self. Any great adventures? Not unless one thinks this when to traveling to London, Paris, or Florence. Any lands get overtaken? No. Are there any serfs in need of social justice at least? Alas, no. (Tolstoy is crying behind his ivory tower.) So, what is this novel in verse about exactly? Well, a young woman in search of finding her creative talent, a young woman feeling out of place, a passionate, emotional individual in search of someone to love. What is more important—to create or to love? Is there a place that occupies both? This is Aurora Leigh.

Already one can see how her novel/poem (I will from here on out refer to Aurora Leigh as a poem) was not taken seriously. Sure, there are some nice turns of phrases, but women don’t have the intellect or creativity to reach the highs men can. So, this is just a nice little poem she wrote as a distraction whilst cooking for Bobby and in no way does she rank alongside her more respected husband. Should you choose to quote me reader, I ask that you do not take what I just wrote out of context. Women have much to fight against. It’s not easy to feel second rate, or to not be taken seriously simply because of one’s gender. Partially the bias is due to her choice of subject matter (easily labeled ‘women’s topics’ in its time) but let’s be honest—had she written an epic in the more classic sense, that is, more in line with Homer, she would have been ridiculed. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh

This Verse In Fire Forever: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

Coming only a year after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it might be tempting to think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s over 10,000-lines-long novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh (1856) as a dated artifact at its very incipience. Yes, it is true that Whitman’s book (published in many different versions, one could argue that the work is one long text, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems) broke open the way for poetic modernity at its fullest and was utterly unlike anything else of its time. Browning’s poem-novel appears archaic, by comparison; almost a product of the preceding century. The same goes, somewhat, for its concerns: considered by many to be a foundational feminist text, and chock-full of progressive ideas (some of which are counter-balanced or ridiculed, to be sure) about womanhood and society-at-large, they seem positively timid beside Whitman’s radical and bawdy openness. Eros, logos, and pathos merged in one barbaric yawp, drowning out the almost courtly deliberations in Aurora Leigh. And forget Whitman: in many scholarly circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has yet to escape her husband’s shadow, in terms of literary achievement.

So, where, exactly, should Aurora Leigh reside in the vaunted Western Canon? After all, the late Harold Bloom hyperventilates over Robert Browning’s merely solid “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” but barely deigns to touch the work of his equally celebrated wife. But is this really the proper way to go about critical analysis? Sure, the temptation to knock Mrs. Browning down a few pegs for even daring to challenge her male “betters” persists – but is this temptation even worthy of serious consideration? […]

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A screenshot from Journey to the Beginning of Time by Karel Zemen

Art of Observational Narrative: Karel Zemen’s “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955)

There are many ways which narrative can thrive within storytelling. This sometimes can pose difficulty for certain American audiences who have been brought up on the Hollywood kind—plot first and character later. Thus, anything that falls outside this realm is labeled ‘boring’ or ‘slow-moving’. (Just think back to when Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life. The movie theatre I attended had to include a sign explaining to audiences that this was the work of an ‘auteur’, as a means of preventing walkouts.) Forget Tarkovsky or Antonioni. These are, in fact, filmmakers that one needs to work up to in order to appreciate. It also requires an open mind, but that is another essay.

Karel Zemen’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a Czech film that explores the wonderment of childhood through observation. Four young boys decide that they want to witness the world back in its prehistoric days, and so they take their logbook and their canoe wherein they quickly find themselves among floating chunks of ice amid the Ice Age. They spot a slew of creatures and even find a trilobite. Immediately, I was reminded of my own childhood wherein I set out one day to find ‘fossils.’ (I didn’t find shit.) But how fun would be if I had? The film uses almost cartoon-like imagery and puppetry, which adds to the childlike excitement and mystery. This is a children’s film and a highly intelligent one, at that.

So what of the narrative, then? Much occurs via observation—we are along for the ride. In fact, I can think of no other idiom to better describe this film. The boys adhere to their logbook, they bicker, they bond. Creatures appear and disappear and we are able to uncover both the era in which they enter as well as the species, thanks to their logbook. (Bison, mammoths, brontosaurus and flamingos are among some.) A paleontologist was hired for guidance and so the detailed accuracy is important, as the audience will come to trust the film’s expertise. Dream-like and fictional, the surrounds successfully appear as artifice and this works. We become part of their imagined world. […]

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A painting of a condemned Socrates, a historical gadfly.

Gadfly – Any Takers?

The dangerous man was on trial for impiety and corruption of the youth of the city, but he was calm even though he was facing a penalty of death. The charges were spurious, as the real reason he stood in the dock was that he was a gadfly, an irritant to the power and control of authority and he WAS dangerous—dangerous to the established order, the mores, the context of the society:

“And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the god, or lightly reject his favor by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the god; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires it to be stirred into life.”

So proclaimed Socrates in Plato’s “Apology”. He would be just one of a few of his breed to question the State and its citizens’ apathetic and lethargic approach to life and living. As he famously remarked in this dialogue, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The most important qualification for being a gadfly is being an impartial searcher for truth. One is not a gadfly if one simply criticizes and denigrates someone from “the other side.” A gadfly might, indeed, have certain political or social or cultural preferences, but that does not prevent the gadfly from critiquing “his or her own.” One cannot wear any label of identity, declare some “written in cement” position, have a rigid point of view, live in one’s own little box—and be considered a true gadfly. The TV shows, podcasts, news “specials” and the like do not even come close to this standard, as they are merely iterations on a theme: I am on THIS  side, the side of Good, Truth and Inerrancy; the Other side is Evil, always wrong, and needs elimination from public discourse. Other than Socrates, one good example is I.F. Stone. […]

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A stylized depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ done in colored lights

Jesus Is Born: The Christmas Story As Art

Luke 2:1 – 24 is the prophet Luke’s story about the advent of Christmas. But much more than just a factual account it is a story told artfully. This is especially true if we are talking about the King James version of the Bible.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Thus begins the story. It’s not, ‘Caesar decided to tax the folks.’ Luke sets the scene for a magnificent story to follow. Yes, it’s factual, but choosing those words, “all the world should be taxed” is a grandiose scheme by a king. What could top it? And we know what will outshine it.

In short order we are introduced to two of the major players, Joseph, a descendant of King David, and Mary, his betrothed who is with child. Our attention to Caesar is immediately upstaged by these two partially because King David plays a major role in the Old Testament and it has been prophesized that from his lineage a Savior will come. Luke calls Mary “his espoused wife” to flavor a nuance of the Virgin Birth. Expectations abound.

“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Hear the music of that. Something as everyday as childbirth is elevated to a major accomplishment. It is recognized that most people who are reading this account, are at least vaguely familiar with the story, but reading lines like that are a shot in the arm especially for believers. […]