Ebertfest 2015 (Thus Far)

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It’s good to be back in Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest. This is my third year going and it’s wonderful to meet up with the same people, volunteers, staff, other guests in attendance. It has a very homey atmosphere, a family atmosphere. Mum and I have been having a great time, going to films, talking about films, and then crashing in our hotel room at night. We are in love with our room and the two of us basically never want to leave. We may never come home.

Seen thus far:

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Goodbye to Language, (2014, d. Jean-luc Godard). I had already seen it, but that was in a press screening that had kind of a reverent silent atmosphere. Seeing this film in a gigantic PACKED theatre was an entirely different experience. It felt like a whole other film. It is funny, playful, profound, provocative, and uses the 3D in really interesting ways (unlike anything else I’ve seen in 3D). What was also surprising to me watching it in that environment was how clear, ultimately, it really is. The structure is broken-up and fragmented, scenes are cut off, the sound is uneven (on purpose), every image is futzed with in some way … but there really is a story there, and it’s really a quite simple one. A couple trying to work things out. I would imagine that seeing it in 2D would really lessen the experience (unlike a lot of other 3D films where they really only use the 3D to make explosions “come at you” and things “lunge” at you). But here? The 3D is woven into the storytelling, it’s another tool of the trade – like music and color and editing – and it’s integral to how the whole thing works. I loved it. Mum loved it too. Actress Héloïse Godet was in attendance as a guest. Some special moments: While up on the stage, she took a photograph of all of us in that massive theatre to send to Jean-luc Godard. Adorable. She told some great stories, about Godard’s playfulness, his inventiveness with 3D, his sense of experimentation and openness.

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, d. Roy Andersson). I had never seen a Roy Andersson film. I will rectify that now. You wouldn’t think that a film with such a title would be an uproarious experience. Or maybe you would. The first 20 minutes had the audience (Mum and I included) rolling in the aisles. I was CRYING. (Nothing like the sound of 1400 people bursting into laughter at the same moment.) There is a radical tone-shift in the final 15 minutes, but on the whole, the thing – made up of self-contained vignettes that build on one another, talk to one another, and feature recurring cast members in different situations – was a fascinating experience. Producer Johan Carlsson had come all the way from Sweden to be with us. I had met him at breakfast that morning and he, as Andersson’s regular partner and collaborator, had a lot to say about Andersson’s process, how they work (I was amazed to learn that every single thing we saw was a set, built in their own studios. My God!) What a bizarre movie. It’s rare to say “You’ve never seen anything like it” and mean it. In the case of Pigeon it applies.

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Moving Midway (d. Godfrey Cheshire). The hit of the festival, thus far. Directed by Godfrey Cheshire, a film critic for Rogerebert.com (with a long career behind him at the New York Press and other venues), made a movie about the tumultuous process of moving his family’s ancestral home, Midway Plantation, to a new location. It involved running huge steel beams beneath the old house (built in 1848), and lifting it up. There was a Fitzcarraldo element to all of it. The image of this huge house being pulled along on the edge of a massive rock quarry is totally surreal. The process of moving the house is documented in full, but the film is really an examination of race, life in the South (told by Southerners, not an “outside” perspective, which often gets it wrong), and the “plantation myth” and its importance to American culture, black and white. It’s an extraordinary film. SEE IT, if you haven’t already.

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The End of the Tour (2015, d. James Ponsoldt) Ponsoldt, a Georgia native, is a regular guest at Ebertfest. Two years ago, his wonderful film Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, screened here. You should also try and see his first film, Smashed. The End of the Tour, based on the book by David Lipsky, is about Lipsky’s weekend-experience interviewing David Foster Wallace at the end of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace was 34, Lipsky (also a novelist) was 30. I have not read Lipsky’s book, but the film takes place over the course of a couple of days as Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) travels to Bloomington, Illinois to interview Wallace, who had just exploded on the literary scene with his 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest, wiping out the competition in one fell swoop. Lipsky was enamored of Wallace, and also intimidated and envious. All of that comes across in the film which is basically a two-hander (most of Ponsoldt’s films amount to two-handers.) Jason Segel plays David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky. Both Jason Segel and director James Ponsoldt were in attendance for the screening. The movie hasn’t even opened yet! Keep your eyes peeled for it.

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Ebertfest director Nate Kohn, Jason Segel, James Ponsoldt, Ebert.com managing editor Brian Tallerico, onstage after the screening of “The End of the Tour”

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Tribeca Film Festval 2015: Gored and Among the Believers

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Two more interesting documentaries playing at Tribeca:

Gored, about Antonio Barrera, who has the distinction (?) of being the “most gored” matador in history – and Among the Believers, a complex and intricate documentary about the controversial (to put it mildly) Red Mosque in Pakistan. The directors got incredible access, interviews with students at the mosque, and the leader of the mosque (who has since been placed under house arrest).

My reviews of Gored and Among the Believers are here.

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Tribeca Film Festival 2015: In Transit (Albert Maysles’ final film)

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Pioneering documentary film-maker Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, and the list goes on from that stunning standpoint) died just last month. He has two films coming out posthumously, one being Iris, about Iris Apfel, the style maven with the enormous glasses, and In Transit (in which he worked with four other directors), about travel on the passenger train line The Empire Builder (a busy train route that goes across the American plains and into the Pacific Northwest.)

It’s playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen thus far.

My review of In Transit is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Tribeca Film Festival 2015

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The two festivals overlap every year, but thankfully Tribeca runs for a couple of weeks, and Ebertfest is just four jam-packed days. I’ve “covered” both before and it made me feel like I was breaking the spacetime continuum. I was literally in two places at once. Anyway, the same will be true this year as well! I’ll be reviewing stuff for Rogerebert.com. The Tribeca Film Festival starts officially tomorrow and runs until the end of April. I have been going to pre-festival screenings for two weeks, and there is still much more to see in the press & industry screenings that happen during the festival.

I went downtown to the Tribeca offices today to pick up my press badge. I had some serious writing I had to do this morning, in a short amount of time, and it had to be done before I left town for Ebertfest. I needed to concentrate and limit my distractions, so I went and found a bench on the Hudson River waterfront, it was a cool grey morning, and sat there with a cup of Dunkin Donuts, and wrote like a maniac for two hours straight – long-hand!, got done what I needed to get done, and then was first in line when the Press Lounge opened its doors.

As I walked across the overpass to get to the Tribeca offices, I happened to catch the moment in the photo above. It was just too perfect. Thank goodness I love movies because I think I’ve seen 40 in the last two weeks alone. And the month is only half over.

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Ebertfest 2015

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My hair is huge, my hair is ablaze, and I am ready for Ebertfest 2015.

The lineup of films and guests is awesome. I’ll be participating in one of the panels (“Challenging Stigma Through the Arts”), as well as presenting/participating in the QAs onstage for two of the films being shown: Girlhood, directed by Céline Sciamma (so excellent, my review here), as well as a sad beautiful film called The Motel Life (starring Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch) – my review here. Stephen Dorff and co-director Alan Polsky will be in attendance as guests. Very exciting! Lineup of Ebertfest guests here The list of critics attending Ebertfest is extensive. It’s going to be a great time. My mother and I fly out to Illinois tomorrow.

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“There fell upon the ear the most terrible noise that human beings ever listened to – the cries of hundreds of people struggling in the icy cold water, crying for help with a cry we knew could not be answered.”

– Ruth, “Titanic” survivor

On the night of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic of the White Star Line hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, killing 1,517 people, due to not enough lifeboats for all the passengers (and numerous other perfect-storm conditions).

For me, it is not so much the sinking of the ship that is the horrifying thing to contemplate (although that is definitely awful). It is the aftermath (described so vividly in the title of this post by “Ruth”): 1,500 people thrashing about in freezing ocean, miles and miles from anywhere, with lifeboats full (or half-full) of people bobbing nearby, listening to the sounds of the death throes.

Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about Titanic called “The Convergence of the Twain”. The title alone brings a chill of dread.

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The Titanic

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The iceberg

The Convergence of the Twain
by Thomas Hardy

I
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”…

VI
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII
Prepared a sinister mate
For her – so gaily great –
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX
Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

X
Or sign that they were bent
by paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

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And The Self-Styled Siren outdoes herself with a post on The Titanic, in three movies.

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The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010); directed by Andrei Ujică

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Of all the Eastern Bloc countries that gained independence after the spectacular fall of the Soviet Union, only in Romania were the former Communist leaders yanked down off the throne and killed. All the other leaders slunk away, unharmed. But in Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were arrested, interrogated, and executed via firing squad. It is indicative of the level of brutality of the Ceaușescu regime, and his old-fashioned brand of Stalinism. Romania was one of the most repressive regimes in the entire Soviet imperium. The personality cult of Ceaușescu reached North Korea levels. Even Stalin didn’t go that far. Ceaușescu’s secret police were among the most ferocious, the most feared. Romania was a poor country and Ceaușescu was a peasant who rose through the ranks of the Communist party, and became General Secretary upon the death of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965. He ruled until 1989, when he (and his wife, equally monstrous – maybe even more so) were arrested and shot.

The Romanian New Wave of cinema is one of the most exciting cinematic communities in the world. One of the common themes is a nation and its people dealing with the wreckage of the Ceaușescu regime, even so many years later. A country doesn’t recover from a dictator like that overnight. For other nations, like Czechoslovakia, for example, it was an easier transition. Their revolution was, famously, referred to as “velvet”, for its nonviolence. Vaclav Havel became President, a dissident playwright, one of the people. But Czechoslovakia had always been more open than Romania, more rebellious. Interestingly enough, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to put down the rebellion, Ceaușescu rallied his country around the Czechs. It was appalling that a member of the Warsaw Treaty would invade a country under that same treaty. Ceaușescu often displeased the Kremlin with his independent stance. I wonder, too, if even they – with their KGB and strong state apparatus, saw the celebrations in Ceaușescu’s honor (overwhelmingly sycophantish) and thought, “Now, now, Ceaușescu, you’re going too far.”

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Andrei Ujică’s documentary, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu, is a fascinating examination of this hated and feared individual, told only in extant footage (newsreels, home movies), with no voiceover. Many of the clips have no sound, so you watch the behavior unfold in silence. The footage is only his many public appearances: speeches at the various Congresses (with his unimpressive hammering-it-home delivery, and his flailing arm), trips to inspect factories and state-run grocery stores (all the workers standing at attention as he passes), state dinners, trips abroad (to China, to North Korea, to England, to Hollywood, even), a vast life organized around his public role as beloved father of Romania.

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The documentary is three hours long. The overall effect of three hours of public appearances is both deadening and fascinating. Consider the title of the film. It is the “autobiography” of this man. We get no personal revelations, we rarely see him speaking off the cuff, we get a lot of footage of him and his wife (always at his side), shaking hands with workers, clapping as some over-the-top parade in praise of him goes by … To a public man like Ceaușescu, the accumulation of public appearances through almost 30 years of his life as a leader, IS his autobiography.

The documentary starts with the state funeral of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, and ends with grainy video footage of a freaked-out Ceaușescu and his wife, being interrogated by an angry off-camera voice in December of 1989.

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Ceaușescu cannot understand the reality of what has occurred, having lived in a bubble of his own personality cult for so long. He refuses to answer questions. When his wife tries to speak (she seems angrier and more contemptuous than he does), he quiets her. They are trapped. No one mourned Ceaușescu. In the early days, the 60s, and 70s, the parades and events created to honor him were well-organized and frenzied. Crowds of people cheering and roaring “spontaneously”. By the 1980s, the public appearances you see in the film are more ragged around the edges. You can clock people in the crowds clapping unenthusiastically, going through the motions. And Ceaușescu himself seems increasingly unhappy (although he never really seemed happy). But the vast theatre of Love he had created for himself, the pageantry and parades and ovations … it’s empty. He knows it. People will never clap for him enough to satisfy him. And if they clap for him and don’t mean it, then what the hell has his life meant? All of that is evident on his face.

There is a fascinating clip from one of the Congresses, where a colleague gets up in that giant hall, and makes a speech criticizing Ceaușescu for somehow doctoring the voting system so that he will stay General Secretary, overriding other possible candidates. The man is heckled and booed, and when Ceaușescu takes over the meeting again, the ovation is so uproarious that nobody can speak for five minutes. There are stories of the ovations that Stalin used to receive: huge crowds in smoky halls, clapping for 10, 15 minutes, clapping so hard their palms bled. They clapped not because they loved him so much and wanted to clap for that long, but because each individual in that hall was terrified of being the first one to stop clapping. That’s what you sense in those ovations in The Autobiography too.

There is extraordinary footage (not included in the film for some reason) of Ceaușescu’s final speech, given from the balcony of one of the government buildings in Bucharest. It was December 21, 1989, and violence had broken out in Timisoara. The troops had been called in to crush it. Revolution was sweeping through the country. Despite the control of the press, Romanians were hearing what was happening in their fellow Communist countries over the radio. Protests started breaking out. Unlike Czechoslovakia, there was no real history of open dissent in Romania (a measure of how repressive the regime really was). In December of 1989 it exploded, and in the middle of all of that, Ceaușescu walked out onto that balcony with his wife and made a speech. It is a terrible speech. (It’s on Youtube in its entirety.) At a certain point, the crowd in the square below (all holding flags and banners and signs proclaiming their love for him) gets too rowdy for him to control. He is actually heckled and booed. You can feel his confusion and panic. He is completely out of touch. He tries to Shush the crowd, over and over again, haranguing them to be quiet. They refuse. Elena gets in on the act, yelling into the microphone for everyone to be quiet. You can hear Ceaușescu say to her at one point, “Shut up!” Incredible footage. In a desperate moment, he yells out to the crowd that just that morning “they” (meaning the Guys in Power) have decided to raise the minimum wage a little bit. They also will raise the amount for pensions. (It’s queasily ironic that in a Communist country, a worker’s paradise, allegedly, his last-ditch effort to get the crowd on his side is to throw money at them. Sounds pretty darn capitalist there, Nic.) There are some cheers of approval in the crowd, but the scene is so chaotic that the sense of unity is completely absent. The whole point in having a crowd (in Ceaușescu’s view) was to have them all move as one, marching past his balcony, the individual obliterated. That crowd in the square below in December of 1989 had become a huge fractured group of angry individuals. He and Elena basically slink off the balcony, terrified and confused. They were airlifted out of there by helicopter. The writing was on the wall. They had only a couple of days left to live.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu does not provide any new information to those who remember these events. What it does do is reveal the self-perception of one of the world’s most repressive absurd dictators. And it does so through showing, in intimate detail (the footage is absolutely extraordinary), his public appearances, his speeches, shaking hands, kissing children, sitting with Mao Tse-tung, watching the changing of the guard with Queen Elizabeth, shaking hands with Reagan, shaking hands with Gorbachev (Ceaușescu’s behavior is eloquent: he looks at Gorbachev with a mixture of contempt and fear), strolling through grocery stores and squeezing the roles of bread on display, commenting to his aide, “The bread is better in the capital,” making a speech to a Writer’s Union saying that “abstract” art is fine, but writers needed to be writing socialist revolutionary poetry as well (he was completely uneducated, and it shows) … It’s boring, it’s maddening, it’s a completely empty life filled with bureaucracy and pageantry. With pictures of him hanging everywhere. Just like he liked it.

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If you have three hours free, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu is a hell of an experience.

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Ricky Nelson and James Burton

James Burton, of course, is known for being Elvis’ guitarist throughout the 1970s, but he played with everyone, most notably Ricky Nelson. Listen to some of that old Ricky Nelson stuff. Listen to Burton’s guitar solos. Astonishing stuff. Completely contemporary, thrilling stuff. James Burton is still alive. Me and Charley went to go see him in 2013, and it was such a memorable awesome night. Burton played with legends. Burton is a legend. I went on a bit of a Ricky Nelson/James Burton tear yesterday and found a couple of clips.

The first one is from 1958, from Ozzie and Harriet. Ricky and James sit down and play acoustic guitars together, an extended duet. Wonderful!

The second clip is from when James Burton played with The Nelson Brothers (Matthew and Gunnar Nelson), sons of Ricky Nelson. They play a really fun Ricky Nelson song, “It’s Late,” (listen to how strong the 1950s are in the lyrics! The couple stayed out too late, and they will be in big trouble!).

Ricky Nelson’s original is a lot of fun.

The contemporary version, with Nelson’s sons and James Burton, is awesome as well.

Zoom in on what James Burton is doing on that guitar in that last clip. Goosebumps.

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The Books: Aspects of the Novel: ‘Prophecy,’ by E.M. Forster

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Aspects of the Novel, a series of lectures by E.M. Forster.

These were a series of lectures given by E.M. Forster on “aspects of the novel” in 1927. Forster thought there were 7 aspects to any good novel: Story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm. He wanted to examine these “aspects” outside of chronology, to try and seek out connections between authors and books that may not be evident if you only look at things on a timeline. There is so much compartmentalization in the teaching of literature, and it’s gotten even more exaggerated now, where entire departments in universities are devoted to one grouping or another: women’s literature, minority literature, lesbian literature, etc. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. In many ways, it is a positive development. Voices have been ignored due to the predominance of the accepted canon. There is redress in these types of studies. The giant names overshadow all else, and so sometimes it is good to get those giant names out of the way to see what the landscape was without them. There were all kinds of people writing all kinds of things in all eras. What was going on with them? The danger in that approach, when taken too far, is that you lose sight of the whole. And the “whole” – which includes the “canon” (the ‘dead white male’ brigade) – is what helps form culture, trends of thought, style, the whole shebang. It’s like a jazz musician or a modern dancer: the best of these know the classical forms inside and out, and it is only because of that that they are able to “riff” and “go off”. They are reacting to the classical structures. Their deviations can only be fully understood when you know the old-fashioned forms. The same is true with literature. Much of literature reacts to each other. It’s unavoidable. This is what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” It’s interesting, if you read interviews with current-day Irish authors, James Joyce inevitably comes up. Or Yeats, but mostly Joyce. They are writing in a landscape rich with writers, rich with an intellectual and literary tradition, and they have the monolithic reputation of Joyce looming over their landscape. They may resent him for that, they may love him for that, the responses vary, but he DEMANDS a response. Much of literature post-Ulysses was a reaction to it. It’s kind of like Elvis. Elvis came out of the swamp of mixed-influences in the Memphis world: black gospel, white gospel, rhythm and blues, country music. He was imitating the black singers he admired, the guys who played on Beale Street, or sang in their church choirs. He felt the connection with his own white tradition there, that there was something to be mixed up, that he could sing that way too. Elvis’ influence was so predominant that even just a year later everyone who was coming up was imitating Elvis. And while many of these performers were wonderful, you can hear that the sound thins out, becomes generic. Their focus is on one figure (Elvis), and Elvis’ focus was on … everyone. Elvis’ influence in music was like Joyce’s. He was the game-changer. Country music was practically destroyed by Elvis inadvertently. It took them 15 years to re-discover their own identity after he dominated their charts. The powers-that-be in Nashville finally came to the decision to leave him OFF their charts – because there was no way they could compete. To go back to Ireland: Irish writers have to deal with the Elvis-like figure of Joyce. Still. To this day.

Forster gave these lectures in 1927, in the midst of the full-flowering of the modernists. T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, the whole lot. Ulysses was still banned in most places. The 19th century was still very close. (T.S. Eliot, famously, said after he finished Ulysses, “James Joyce has killed the 19th century.”) Talk about your anxiety of influence! The 19th century featured such minor writers as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Herman Melville, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy … These people changed our conception of literature. These people created the modern novel. So Forster is speaking from the midst of a world that was not only acknowledging all that, but wanting to break free of it as well. The influence of, say, Dickens, is so overwhelming that it may make a writer want to put down his pen forever!

One of the “aspects” Forster discussed in a lecture was the aspect of “prophecy.” In his other lectures, about story and characters … the references run rampant because there are so many examples. All novels have story and characters. But, in his estimation, there was this thing called “prophecy,” a unique aspect, and only a couple of authors “had it.” Here is how Forster puts it:

His theme is the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going to “say” anything about the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock.

Forster elaborates (and this will be key in the excerpt below):

Prophecy – in our sense – is a tone of voice … We shall have to attend to the novelist’s state of mind and to the actual words he uses; we shall neglect as far as we can the problems of common sense. As far as we can: for all novels contain tables and chairs, and most readers of fiction look for them first. Before we condemn him for affectation and distortion we must realize his view-point. He is not looking at the tables and chairs at all, and that is why they are out of focus.

In speaking of Dostoevsky in this same lecture (and Forster considered Dostoevsky to be one of the “prophets,” as he defined it):

Mitya is a round character, but he is capable of extension. He does not conceal anything (mysticism), he does not mean anything (symbolism), he is merely Dmitri Karamazov, but to be merely a person in Dostoevsky is to join up with all the other people far back. Consequently the tremendous current suddenly flows – for me in those closing words: “I’ve had a good dream, gentleman.” Have I had that good dream too? No, Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical – the sensation of sinking into a tremendous globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.

And that experience that Forster describes, that reading experience, is what he calls “prophecy.”

I love his observation about these “prophetic books”:

Anyhow, it characterizes these novels and gives them what is always provocative in a work of art: roughness of surface. While they pass under our eyes they are full of dents and grooves and lumps and spikes which draw from us little cries of approval and disapproval. When they have past, the roughness is forgotten, they become as smooth as the moon.

Forster does not see these “prophets” as philosophers. Many novelists whom he does not classify as “prophetic” are philosophers, and they have a philosophy, very clear in the reading of their books. Henry James comes to mind. Thomas Hardy comes to mind. George Eliot comes to mind. Forster believes that the prophets do not think all that much about the meaning of things, at least not in the way that other novelists do. They are not concerned with meaning, or self-reflection, or self-examination. They are not concerned with the inner workings of the human mind. They are concerned with the universal. They actually have a perception OF the universal – which very few people have, and many novelists strain for that universal feeling – but in the prophet there is no strain.

I admit that this is not something I had considered, but it is really fun to wrestle with Forster’s thoughts. Ideas are there to be taken on, try them on for size, really sit with them, you’re not going to lose yourself entirely, or be dominated or whatever. This is the rigor of intellectual conversation, this is how it goes, and it’s bracing.

Forster has given the matter much thought. In his mind, with all of the books he has read and all the preparation he had done for the lectures, he only came up with four authors who could be classed as “prophets” as he defines the term: Dostoevsky, Melville, Emily Bronte and D.H. Lawrence.

He goes into each one, providing examples, and it’s all just fascinating. I admit to not having read much D.H. Lawrence beyond his poetry (which I really enjoy), and Lady Chatterlye’s Lover. His prose never really did it for me, but it was years ago that I tried to read him. Perhaps it’s time for a re-visit. After all, I found Moby Dick a crushing bore in high school and now I count it as one of my favorite books of all time. (Speaking of which, Forster’s words on Moby Dick, which will make up part of the excerpt today, is my favorite thing I’ve come across about that book. Camille Paglia’s chapter on Moby Dick in Sexual Personae is also well worth seeking out, but Forster, for me, NAILS the truly strange out-of-time bold and radical feeling of that book. It’s not “ahead of its time.” It is timeless.) Forster is also brilliant on Withering Heights, but I’ll just excerpt the Moby Dick section.

I have read and re-read Moby Dick. I succumb to it. It demands that you succumb. It is an extremely bossy book that way, similar to Ulysses. If you do not succumb, the book will not crack open to you. It will seem impenetrable. The sections on whaling, descriptions of the different parts of the whale, they go on for three pages, it’s a cetological lecture, and then in the final paragraph – WHOOSH. Melville whips back the curtain and shows you the whole universe. It happens repeatedly. It takes my breath away. My favorite example comes from the chapter about blubber. Melville tells us all about blubber: why the whale needs it, how it operates, what it provides the whale. And then …

A word or two more concerning this matter of the skin or blubber of the whale. It has already been said, that it is stript from him in long pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most sea-terms, this one is very happy and significant. For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the north, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then – except after explanation – that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own!

That, my friends, is the voice of a prophet.

On to the excerpt.

Excerpt from Aspects of the Novel: ‘Prophecy,’ by E.M. Forster

Moby Dick is an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon was we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important. Narrowed and hardened into words the spiritual theme of Moby Dick is as follows: a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. The White Whale is evil, and Captain Ahab is warped by constant pursuit until his knight-errantry turns into revenge. These are words – a symbol for the book if we want one – but they do not carry as much further than the acceptance of the book as a yarn – perhaps they carry us backwards, for they may mislead us into harmonizing the incidents, and so losing their roughness and richness. The idea of a contest we may retain: all action is a battle, the only happiness is peace. But contest between what? We get false if we say that it is between good and evil or between two unreconciled evils. The essential in Moby Dick, its prophetic song, flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words. Even at the end, when the ship has gone down with the bird of heaven pinned to its mast, and the empty coffin, bouncing up from the vortex, has carried Ishmael back to the world – even then we cannot catch the words of the song. There has been stress, with intervals: but no explicable solution, certainly no reaching back into universal pity and love; no “Gentlemen, I’ve had a good dream.”

The extraordinary nature of the book appears in one of its early incidents – the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.

The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher “kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” Then he works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace.

Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight – top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patron to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath – O Father! – chiefly known to me by thy rod – mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee: for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

I believe it is not a coincidence that the last ship we encounter at the end of the book before the final catastrophe should be called the Delight; a vessel of ill omen who has herself encountered Moby Dick and been shattered by him. But what the connection was in the prophet’s mind I cannot say, nor could he tell us.

Immediately after the sermon, Ishmael makes a passionate alliance with the cannibal Queequeg, and it looks for a moment that the book is to be a saga of blood-brotherhood. But human relationships mean little to Melville, and after a grotesque and violent entry, Queequeg is almost forgotten. Almost – not quite. Towards the end he falls ill and a coffin is made for him which he does not occupy, as he recovers. It is this coffin, serving as a life-buoy, that saves Ishmael from the final whirlpool, and this again is no coincidence, but an unformulated connection that sprang up in Melville’s mind. Moby Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem. It is wrong to turn the Delight or the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is correct, it silences the book. Nothing can be stated about Moby Dick except that it is a contest. The rest is song.

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 15: “Tall Tales”

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Directed by Bradford May
Written by John Shiban

When something works, it just works. And when it works once, hopefully it works repeatedly. I’ve read Jane Eyre probably 20 times. It always works. I’ve seen What’s Up, Doc? probably 200 times. It is never not funny. I cherish those things I can “visit” over and over again, the things that never disappoint, that always entertain, and that get more entertaining WITH repetition.

Now the question of WHY these things work all the time is up for grabs, and there are multiple factors going into it. I love discussing the “why” of the thing, although sometimes you just pop in Bringing Up Baby because you need to roll around laughing and you don’t worry about why it’s so funny. But the nuts-and-bolts architecture is fascinating to me.

Where does magic come from? in other words.

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