pseudopodium
. . . Charles Boyer

. . .

Although the pacing's a bit stodgy, 1936's Mayerling wins on performances, especially from the youthful-but-still-middle-aged Charles Boyer as Prince Rudolf: dissipated, undisciplined, and 100% tragically noble. I would say that Boyer was over-the-top great, but one of the reasons Boyer was always middle-aged was that he was never over-the-top. Under pressure, he just got more impacted.

Besides instigating this woman's marriage, Mayerling's other great achievement was getting me interested in the history of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. 'Cause, I've read Robert Musil and listened to Arnold Schoenberg till the cows came home, but not even the cows ever had the decency to tell me about Only Heir to Empire Dead in Double Love Suicide!, and, brother, that's what I call news.

Well, allowing some elbow room for glamor and the use of French actors, it turns out the movie actually does present the semi-official version of the story pretty accurately. Alas! for romance, it also turns out that not that many people ever believed that version of the story -- what's more likely to hit a Hapsburg: romance or assassination? -- and now it's been thoroughly disproved.

Even after learning that love means nothing, the "what happened next?" factor was still strong, especially since the next thing I found that happened next was the assassination of Prince Rudolf's mother, the Empress, less than a decade after the murder of her son. And by then we're getting close to the Great War.... Would I have to, like, go buy a book or something to work all this out?

No fear of that, because the Atlantic's already bought a book (coincidentally also from 1936) and put it up on the Web: Rebecca West's big dummy's guide to the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I remember when its posting was announced as a public service during one of the more recent genocides, but of course it took an old movie to attract my attention....

West works a well-established mainstream genre -- travel notes alternating with history lessons -- but you can't beat the combination of Balkans history and fascist-era travel for human (i.e., morbid) interest, and in its smoothly mainstream way the series builds to near hysteria by the time it reaches Sarajevo in Part 4:
'So when the poor mayor began to read his address of welcome the Archduke shouted out in a thin alto, "That's all a lot of rot. I come here to pay you a visit, and you throw bombs at me. It's an outrage." Then the Archduchess spoke to him softly, and he calmed down, and said, "Oh, well, you can go on." But at the end of the speech there was another scene, because the Archduke had not got his speech, and for a moment the secretary who had it could not be found. Then when it was brought to him he was like a madman because the manuscript was all spattered with the aide-de-camp's blood.'


At that moment the young man smashed his fist down on the table and cried into Constantine's face, 'Judas Iscariot! Judas Iscariot!'

'No,' said poor Constantine to his back, 'I am not Judas Iscariot. I have indeed never been quite sure which of the disciples I do resemble, but it is a very sweet little one, the most mignon of them all.'

Marie Vetsera
I'm a little worried about West's preoccupation with obesity, though. Would you agree with her that "Marie Vetsera was a very fat and plain little girl"? Ess, ess, Rebecca!

. . .

Thinking of Cluny Brown: Part 1

[Revised & re-assembled & relocated to Senses of Cinema,]

Responses

J.D. would lead off with "deferantial".

Under the title "between thought and expression", Josh Lukin sent:

Well, according to some taxonomies of affect, what you're crediting Boyer with *is* expression --or one of the more interesting modes thereof. As Charles Altieri said last Wednesday, one of the categories which we can use to discuss affect if we aspire to a non-cognitivist take thereon is *mood* --moods are modes of feeling where the sense of subjectivity becomes diffuse; where influence pulls against resolving action --the subject of moods, poised between the active and the passive, can be seen as a contemplative agent or as a subject so large as to lack room for action. "Moods are forms of ontological weight in which we feel our dependency on external factors and don't resist, attending to the actual possibilities of relishing our embodiment. That's good --I wish I had written it down." Now, Altieri, to my mind, was being very abstract here and could have benefited from illustrating his point with, say, something from Emerson. Instead, he used the conclusion of "The Dead" as the climax of his whole riff on affect, suggesting that Joyce creates or invites a "generous irony" in which we do not have to repudiate all the intimacies the text has offered in the way that a more bitter irony would suggest, but we can still avoid the self-congratulation (something CA evidently knows about) that accompanies settling on an ethical identity of the self. Such a position insists that the intellect attuned to the aspect of lucidity allows, after one's expectations are chastened, for us to project a wary trust and allows affect as a challenge to the structures of belief and their rules. At which point one auditor suggested that Altieri's "irony" owed more to Frye than to Wellek, and that he was engaging in some rhetorical contortions to avoid invoking the cognitivist view that he associates with Nussbaum. "As Altieri spoke, my mind kept veering of into thoughts of René Girard and Francis Barker and all the other writers who'd addressed the same subjects far more interestingly," quoth a colleague. But heuristic tools are where you find them, and I find Altieri's schtik, my colleague's critique of it, and your description of Boyer mutually illuminating,

Me too, and I expect even more illumination as I fill the opsimathic blanks represented by those names. But oh, dear, I worried about the ambiguity of "expression", and you're right, I should've worried more. When Boyer's good, he's not affectless, or inexpressive in that sense (although when you start cataloging, it is remarkable just how few configurations his facial muscles support). He's not shy. He's just inactive.

To forestall another confusion: Of course he acts, being a professional actor, but what he acts is someone who takes no action. He conveys high intelligence and high passion, those highnesses seem always to be in perfect accord, and yet they stay plunked together at the bar, commiserating and shrugging. Dedicating heart, mind, and soul to one true love, he doesn't fuck; hating his spouse, he doesn't strangle; and in a political cause well, there we have Confidential Agent and (less directly) Cluny Brown.

I think you're right to associate this ironic quality, made so attractive by Lubitsch, with Altieri's talk: he sounds smitten. But in Joycean terms it seems to me exemplified less by Gabriel's contagious swoon than by Giacomo's "Write it, damn you, write it!"; like most seductions, the results are problematic. Try challenging machine guns with affect and see how far it gets you. Heck, try challenging your boss with affect! In sneers begin life sentences.

Since, as a practical matter, narrative artists promote confusion of acting for action and affect for effect we can't be blamed much when we fall for it. But I think you're also right to suspect the motives of anyone so quick to celebrate their own enlightened generosity. That's Heaven Can Wait. We want Trouble in Paradise.

. . .

Ba-lue Guy-eed-are : Dining

We eat, we drink, we eat and drink prodigiously, with gusto, it would do your heart good to see us, you'd get bored, you'd be appalled, you'd resent me, no, this will not become a food column, albeit I am a column of food.

I will meet two obligations, that's all.

La Zucca card

1. La Zucca, Venezia

Admirers of strong flavors and grace under pressure will have no trouble finding a good time in Venice. La Zucca stood out by its lack of frenzy. Frenzy's fine, some of my best friends are frenzied, but modulation is nice, too.

Especially the kitchen wasn't frenzied, nor slow, but lent focused attention to each dish qua dish, which tells with that stuff that's not boiled dough or fried squigglies you know, vegetables.

The overall effect was very California cuisine, except with Italian produce, and except for the cost. Those familiar with the Bay Area, imagine if Alice Waters priced the way Berkeley Bowl does. As if observation and accuracy were necessities of life instead of luxuries accessible only by the wealthiest.

After we paid, our extremely efficient server (who might've owned the place) came back and gave us each a stack of business cards, I guess to hand out to our fellow movers and shakers, so here you are.

All'Allegria logo

2. All'Allegria, Udine

Udine is a good town to get out of. That's why we went there, and why we slept for three nights in a comfortably sterile and soundproof hotel on the same block as the train station and the bus station.

But on our last night, after many rebuffs, we were determined to extract some pleasure from Udine's hard nut. A kind Venetian gentleman had recommended some restaurants. With his list, we ventured forth. Then returned to the hotel rebuffed. Then ventured again.

Cranky, tired, and in my case bruised and bleeding, we made unpromising material all'Allegria. We fell into the hands of a master.

I tell you, Myrtle, it was just like meeting Charles Boyer. Solicitous without smarminess, engaged without familiarity, quick to suggest, quick to catch demurral, he seated us, he soothed us, we fascinated him, later he conveyed the chef's fascination as well. When we asked for a wine suggestion, he apologetically wondered if we'd be willing to take a fresh selection with each course; he opened, poured, discoursed, succinctly, sufficiently.

In all this, not a hint of the obsequious, only noblesse oblige. He represents the kitchen: he controls our food; we are at his mercy; he is a warm-hearted man.

I took notes, it seemed the thing to do. Prosecco to soften the edge of evening. First course: Thin slices of peppery salami, of crudo di San Daniele, of cooked prosciutto, startlingly fresh, almost milky. Second courses: Pasta e fagioli. Cjarsòns, large ravioli with a sweet-and-sour filling, covered with grated smoked ricotta, a line of ground spices on the side. Stanig Sauvignon Blanc, from Colli, full, perfumed. Third courses: Frittura mista, squid, sardines, zucchini, something crayfish-like. Frico, a sizzling slowly roasted loaf of cheese and potato, served with polenta and perfectly intense arugula. Tenuta Beltrame, a Cabernet Sauvignon from coastal Aquileia, tasting of surf, bridged the dishes; our host expressed special satisfaction in our approval, the wine was made by his best friend. Finishing with an air of vanilla and stone fruit, Malvasia di Nonino ÙE grappa.

We were by no means alone. The dining area filled with the locals who had filled the bar; next to us was a table of physicists, from Germany, from Poland, from Russia, from the UK, attempting ethnic jokes, possibly part of the conference for whose sake Udine's galleries had been closed; their voices were muffled by the womb.

King of Hosts! We were hungry, and you fed us; we were weary, and you gave us shelter; I left a tip.

Responses

wot no risi e bisi?

In northeast Italy, October's not big on fresh peas. On the other hand: mushrooms!

. . .

Charles Boyer
The Very Model of
a Public Intellectual

Thinking of Else : Confidential Agent

Behind the bright mask of 1946's Cluny Brown we find the damp inversions of 1945's Confidential Agent. Woebegone orphan Else replaces unsinkably willful Cluny as abject alterity; abovestairs, in place of cultured Betty Cream, Lauren Bacall sulks, swills, and gallumphs. The speech Margery Sharp wrote for her refugee writer "That is the trouble in Poland: there are not enough distinguished Poles to go round; everyone must do double duty" flips the defense Graham Greene wrote for his feckless musician: "We are all amateurs in our government. A blacksmith becomes a general, a college professor is our president, a composer a confidential agent. We have one strength in common, though: we believe in the better world we're fighting for." From each according to the Republic's need (insatiable); to each according to the Republic's ability (nil).

Experience precedes Innocence. This is an England where the upper-class-twit comic relief (accompanied by the love interest) gazes on approvingly while a helpless man is thrashed by a hired thug; when we visit the green and pleasant countryside, it's to incite a riot at a coal mine. Viciously lensed by James Wong Howe, undirected with dispirit by Herman Shumlin, Charles Boyer's Denard snubbed, cheated, booed, charmless, looking at times like Edmond O'Brien achieves his single onscreen triumph by slapping an immobilized old woman.

Contrary to some plot summaries, the movie's most dangerous villains are not "dedicated Fascists." One set consists of comrades who sensibly want to sell out while they still command a price. The others are mundane capitalists ("We are never rash") or everyday xenophobes (Denard's final nemesis is basically the Ale & Quail Club). They don't like his attitude; no one does. "I can't stand martyrs," declares Bacall, and "I hate melodrama," and "I told you I hate melodrama." "Sometimes it just happens that way," Denard mildly objects, moments before yet another attempt on his life.

As later in The Third Man, Greene capped his original story with an absurdly inappropriate happy ending. Shumlin lacked Carol Reed's good sense; he kept that ending. But lacking good sense, he also isolated it, squeezing it into the last sixty seconds with a tonal shift so jolting that it becomes, in a way, recoverable it feels like a shift into dreamworld, a flash of mercifully renewed fantasy, presumably during sudden and violent death, most likely while Denard's unweaponed transport was, in the true spirit of the film, struck and sinking into that better world he fought for, where there are no jobs left to botch.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.