Notable Reads: “A Divine Comedy” by Elif Batuman

This month’s Harper’s Magazine includes an in-depth, beautiful picture of the Dante Marathon of Firenze – a collective effort of Florentine Who’s Whos, international academics and common Dante enthusiasts to read aloud the entirety of La divina commedia –  as presented by Elif Batuman, “writer-in-residence at Koc University.” Batuman’s ability to place Alighieri in a sweeping historical context of medieval demonology, contemporary politics, forensic anthropology and even wine production is remarkably natural (at one point she uses the word “douchebags” to describe a subset of la commedia’s cast of characters). Attached you can find a PDF of the essay; also below, links and images to some of its most striking details.

Batuman’s “A Divine Comey” – Harper’s Magazine / September 2011

In a move Feurbachian in technique, Batuman flips the notion of figuration, “a mode of analysis originally devised to reconcile the Old and New Testaments,” into a secular humanist historical device for explaining Dante’s modern legacy. She writes, “The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus in this world.” It’s a nice way of capturing – and negating – the pull religion continues to have on thought (for many) today. Maybe you’re blessed not to have dealt with Catholics growing up, so I will remind you that their lives often are – even if it’s simply in the nagging guilt of, say, sloppy pre-marital boning (“oh my!”) – guided by the notion that their actions in this world can take meaning only in the posthumous judgment of God. Incidentally, it was just in last month’s Harper’s that Vince Passaro, in his excellent review of Scorsese’s unique voice (the working class Italian-American worldview in Hollywood), quoted “America’s last tragedian” thus:

For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects.
[“Scorsese on the Cross: America’s last tragedian” by Vince Passaro

Compare this alongside Dante’s description of Ugolino – He raised his mouth from his atrocious meal, that sinner, and wiped it on the hair of the very head he had been ravaging – and we have the graphic literary vernacular of Dante as a figura of Scorsese’s cinematic perspective.

Finally, a photo I snapped of Ugolino at New York’s Met – those arms wrapping around him? Just the kids he is alleged to have eaten in a fit of cannibalism… Dante left very little to the imagination.

From the Margins Archives – Madness and Social Withdrawal

Bananagrams, the anarchist take on speed scrabble, oftentimes ends with thematic verbal crisscrossing. I won’t argue that every letter combination expresses some form of unconscious desire, but post-mortems can render interesting stories if you “think, really think.” I’ve found that the random selection of films I’ve viewed over the last two weeks themselves crisscross with revealing thematic commonalities.

This week’s theme: madness and social withdrawal.

Not surprisingly, one of the films I watched is Word Wars (Erik Chaiken & Julian Petrillo – 2004), a documentary about the cloistered lives of hardcore Scrabble geeks. It’s not quite as compelling a look at game obsession as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon – 2007), but that’s not to argue that one covers its subject matter with more success than the other. The dueling Kong kings in Gordon’s film couldn’t be fictionalized as better opponents. Steve Wiebe – the son of Boeing engineers, down-to-earth father, science teacher and killer toy-drum-kit percussionist – represents Goodness. He’s the endearing counterpart to the Evil Billy, a God fearing patriotic sonofabitch who would stab his own grandmother for a shot at the title. For all the nerdiness of being renowned Kong contenders, the fact that both opponents have lives outside of Kong fills in the documentary with something most of audience can find familiar.

Not so for Word Wars. In this case, we’re talking a group of Maalox-chugging, Brain-booster popping, unemployed Scrabble geniuses that eat, breath and sleep anagrams. Where I left feeling amped about Wiebe’s ultimate victory over the mustachioed douche, the Scrabble guys made me feel, well… depressed (all Q without U hints notwithstanding). Chaiken and Petrillo leave us with a sense that they’ve lost touch with reality, having withdrawn into days and days of 60+ consecutive game challenges in preparation for the annual National Championship. The comparison is a stretch for many reasons, but watching the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975), you’ll likely get the same impression. Here, though, the Maysles may have documented case of serious mental disorder in the Beale sisters (especially the younger one).

New York debutantes and immediate relatives of the Jackie Onassis, the Beales are captured here reminiscing on the days of their youth and beauty. Reality doesn’t go far beyond scrap books of past social successes. The mother still sings beautifully, though she, like her daughter, has lost all interest (or perhaps even sense of) social engagement. They sit together in side-by-side beds, listening to Catholic radio or making their way through vinyl recordings of Beale the elder. The film can be touching at times, marked with the Maysles’ brilliant ability to record unique, accidental moments in the women’s lives. (A stark counterpoint ancestor to today’s reality television, where everyone knows they’re on the tube.) In short: documents of eccentricity at their finest.

The question of madness is of course central to my favorite of this week’s viewing, The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957). It deserves more than a quick comparison to Grey Gardens (if one is to be found beside mental health), but suffice it so say here that Lean’s epic account of Japanese POWs in Burma, though fictionalized, has no less of a place as a document of madness in society than the documentaries covered here. (To be “marginalized” shortly.)

[Originally posted on the now-defunct Film Margins tumblr, Winter 2010]

Repulsion – Roman Polanski (1965)

We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they’re not polite
Psycho killer qu’est-ce que c’est?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa departs from the perpendicular by about six degrees, an imperfection long-known to be the result of faulty foundations. Nonetheless beautiful, the famous bell tower is revered and held in the popular imagination as a Galilean testing site. We forgive its aberrant character in defense of its beauty. But when it falls, I’m sure we’ll act shocked.

Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, his first English-language feature, uses this conflicted attitude toward aberration’s coupling with beauty as a point of departure for a psychological character study. Carol, his subject (played by the stunning Catherine Denueve) has obviously caught a case of the bat-shits. Beyond their own selfish, personal inconvenience, neither her sister (Helen) nor her obsessively lovesick boyfriend pay any mind to Carol’s twitchy gestures, detached mumbling, spaced-out stares or otherwise schizophrenic behavior. Helen’s married lover is the only character to signal a certain amount of sympathy in so kindly recommending a shrink: She’s a bit strung up.

When Helen leaves for Pisa on holiday, Polanski’s claustrophobic and paranoiac sensibilities take charge. The film is filled with brilliant tricks of the imagination that give the audience a front seat in Carol’s tortured psyche. Certain shocking, Clouzot-esque events at conclusion were considered too gruesome for distribution outside the British soft porn industry (a quick IMDB search on “Compton Films” should help explain), though nothing here is too much for a horror-culture whose expectations are set by the Saw cycle. Polanski insisted on leaving the roots of Carol’s psychological torment ambiguous, but I’m not convinced answers matter. Polanski is less interested in proscribing individual cures than describing the broader social context behind sickness. The folks at Film Quarterly located the film inside Polanski’s satirical view – as an outsider himself in 1960s London:

[T]he film’s thematic indictment of society is made with sardonic and succinct visual ironies. The acceptance of beautiful women as physical objects of desire and the complete indifference of modern society toward the bizarre (this glamorous era of eccentricity, when odd behavior, no matter how outrageous, is considered to be “individualistic”) makes it easy for insanity to flourish, undetected by mothers, sisters, prospective lovers, and employers.

[Vol. 19, No. 3, (Spring 1966)]

Cue the reference to any number of contemporary celebrities and we have Polanski’s “evil apartments” films providing miniature studies of society writ large.