Friday, July 15, 2011

Of sundry things

My mind is filled with ideas and facts from the various movies I have recently seen and the things I have read, so the best way to make sense of them is to record them and see what they mean, if anything. Writing is, after all, a way of ordering and making things clear to ourselves.

First, I was struck by the fact that while we in the U.S. were celebrating our independence day on July 4, in Bavaria, the former crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire died at 98, a member of the oldest and grandest of the European royal families, going back to the 6th century: Otto von Habsburg.

Actually, he had seventeen first names (Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Ludwig, etc., enough to put the British royals to shame--they have only four names). But if I had all those first names, why would I choose to be called Otto? I guess choice had nothing to do with it.

Despite the breakup of his father's empire in 1918, considerable dislocation and danger as the old world gave birth to the 20th century, Otto seemed to have had a good and happy life, making a notable contribution to the world, working for the birth of the European Union and, as a faithful Catholic, for ecumencial dialogue with non-Christians. His son Karl inherits his father's superannuated titles.

The European past reminds me of Woody Allen's tribute to Paris in the twenties, Midnight in Paris, a totally enjoyable movie involving a writer who so desperately wants to go back in time that he is able to do so. The movie assumes that we know something about the many expatriates he meets, writers and artists who then worked in Paris, like Gertude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, and of course, Hemingway, who here is parodied rather crudely (compared to the clever immpersonation of Dali by Adrian Brody).

The movie we saw last night was a much darker product: from Britain in 1949, based on a D. H. Lawrence story, "The Rocking-Horse Winner," a superb production in black and white. Not knowing the story, but knowing something of Lawrence, I was not surprised to find that the young boy who develops a knack for winning at the races does so to please his mother, in a version of the Oedipus complex. It's a shame she does not deserve his devotion.

The cold, materialistic mother, who has been spending money with abandon, whose husband does not satisfy her emotionally or financially, is chilling, as is the tragic conclusion, which came as a shock. As a result, I went to bed so full of the film's images in my head that I woke up thinking about them. This is one of several post-war British films, little known to me, that we are discovering thanks to Netflix and Turner Classic Movies.

I didn't finish the recent memoir by Stephen Fry (The Fry Chronicles), whom I admire as an actor (he was Jeeves in "Jeeves and Wooster"). He uses as his epigraph: "Work is more fun than fun," a quote by Noel Coward. I suppose Coward and Fry with their various talents and careers in show business (writing, acting) embody the truth of this axiom, but Fry is brutally candid about the various demons he has battled, as only a 21st century author would be.

In a noteworthy comment on the first page, Fry says, "Wanting to be liked is a very unlikeable characteristic." He doesn't like it in himself and goes into great detail to show why. Since he writes in a style that only a witty Brit could pull off, Fry is able to make his confessions interesting and entertaining--at least in the chapters I actually read.

If there is anything common in these random comments, I guess it is my interest in the past. Even Fry, though younger than I, conjures up an earlier era because of the roles he has played. As Eliot (T. S., who also makes a cameo "appearance" in Woody's Allen's flick) said, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

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