A beautifully limned and muscular Fascism

Finally saw The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie last night. Maggie Smith, gorgeous locations, etc. It seemed a rather nothing story about an incredibly irritating Scottish teacher and her perfect little students. La creme de la creme she called them. She worshipped beauty, art, perfection, punctuality.

It began to get more interesting. A few plot twists and character revelations developed–-lust, weirdness, disturbing intimations of a warped sexuality. Then slowly she revealed a fascination for fascism. First in hints. A mention of Mussolini. A true Roman she told her students. The romantic definition of hero, the Shining Hero, something long since lost to us viewers in war and compromise and threats of nuclear annihilation. Finally she revealed herself as an out and out Fascist sympathizer. She showed the class slides of a holiday in Rome, a plaza full of uniformed Fascisti. She mixed with them, she said. They had excited her. She nearly panted at the memory. She remembered exactly what she’d been wearing. Somehow her own perfect attire had matched their perfect uniforms. That startled me. Fashion and fascism. How her personal Romantic ideal and the massed Fascist Ideal blended perfectly. Their muscularity and her femininity. Her sex, their power. Etc, etc.

Come the Spanish Civil War the man of the hour became Franco. Oh she could go on about Franco. Near to swooning. I felt an automatic revulsion. We forget now that as many westerners supported the Nationalists as supported the Republicans, people like Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Salvador Dali, Wyndham Lewis and (of course) Ezra Pound. Even Gertrude Stein. Miss Brodie’s sympathies would not have been so shocking back then. Perhaps not really shocking at all. No more shocking than those enraptured by Stalin, perhaps even less so. Communists promised revolution and purges. Il Duce promised order. Brodie, we are told (by one of her skeptical students), was quite vocal about her sympathies. It became part of her curriculum. The humanities and fascism blending seamlessly. Her creme de la creme becoming perfect little fascists, she hoped.

They didn’t, except for the simple, suggestible one who, swept up in Miss Brodie’s excitement, made for Spain to join her brother fighting for the Nationalists. The poor thing was machine gunned at the French border. Miss Brodie showed little remorse, as the girl had died for the cause, for the new order. A silly eighteen year old girl meeting a glorious death. A heroic death. Hints of ancient Greece. You and I know it was a squalid ugly death, terrifying, an utter waste. In my head I heard her screams. Miss Brodie’s other students, the poor girl’s friends, knew better as well. (Indeed we find out later that the dead girl’s brother was fighting for the Republicans, something that had never occured to Miss Brodie.)

By this point the movie had slowly, subtly turned creepy, a fascinating look into just how high minded intellectuals bought into the Fascist ideology. How Mussolini and then Hitler had so many admirers in England, in Europe, throughout the Western world. And just how insidious a thing it was, this fascism, how it could mix with art and poetry and perfection, co-opt Romantic ideals, send middle class kids off in shiny uniforms to conquer and gas and execute and massacre without compunction, leaving tidy notes of how many were killed that day, how many men, women and children, and the inventory of what they left behind, hats, hair, overcoats, gold teeth.

We think of Nazis as brownshirted thugs, but the SS took the best and the brightest. There were more brilliant minds in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt than ever joined the German resistance, many times more. Fascism in all its forms–-Italian, German, Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, English, all of it–-was fundamentally an intellectual movement. A middle class movement, rooted in universities. Indeed, deep down it had begun in poetry and art. Italians shocked into a new reality, hard and unyielding, by the lunacy of the Great War. As the old world destroyed itself then, empires fell, monarchs executed, tradition and history tossed out the window, the world seemed  divided between the deary proletarian future of Bolshevism or the beautifully limned and muscular Fascism. I can’t fathom the appeal at all, that thing that sent chills up young fascist spine, made the hair stand up on their arms, rushed the blood to the brain and loins. But you can see it in Miss Brodie, in her prime, remembering the musk of young rippling fascists on parade and taking unsaid fantasies with her to bed that night on a Roman holiday.

It took total annihilation to rid the world of Fascism. We lopped them off like a gangrenous limb. We hung the thugs and the intellectuals by the neck until dead or pulled their lifeless heads out of their kitchen ovens. We shot down Hitler Youth in their suicidal charges. We jailed nazi functionaries for years and put Ezra Pound in a cage. The trials were endless and humiliating, The denazification more so. Hitler shot himself in his bunker to avoid Mussolini’s fate dangling from a meat hook. Only Franco, smart enough to stay out of the War, survived the collapse of fascism, isolated and silent. Fascism as a living, growing ideology was dead.

Or so we thought. Some Nazis escaped and helped keep the idea alive in South America. Peron seemed fascinated by fascist demagoguery, Pinochet goose stepped with the best of them. But that was a more Latin American thing, more Franco than Italian, devoid of Nazi racial theory and efficiency, their armies incapable of anything but parades, torture and repression. But it’s the idea of fascism that remained in Europe. Some strangely replicating meme that grew from the wreckage of fascist empires. That weird, warped romance, the thuggish hero, the big black shiny boots. The websites full of hate and purity and uniforms and alternative history, A reich that will rise again. There aren’t many of these new fascists–they’ve come nowhere near to seizing power anywhere–but they are there, vocal and obvious and scary. In milder form they’ve influenced elections in France. In savage form they’ve made headlines in Greece. They’ve infected football crowds in Italy and even, shockingly, held rallies in Moscow complete with placards of Adolf Hitler himself. I ask myself just how warped a Russian must be to idolize the very man who tried to exterminate them.

Now we’re told that nazi sympathizers pitched in and helped depose the old communist regime in Ukraine, much to the delight of Russian propagandists. If so, that would be the first constructive thing that fascists have done since their post war re-emergence. And what does that mean? I wonder if we’ll ever rid ourselves of the romance of fascism, if it will ever go away. Will it take a generation or centuries? Perhaps, like cancer, it’s built into the very DNA of European civilization, and it will never go away. Perhaps it will even come into intellectual fashion again, with Miss Jean Brodies teaching it to the creme de la creme.

Oh, the movie. It was good. It really was. I thought I was going to hate it, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Maggie Smith was splendid, of course. So were several of the girls. And the artist, though his lechery has not aged well since 1969. The scenery was gorgeous. And if the dialog was oh so precious in too many places, perhaps it might not be to a viewer in Great Britain. At least I told myself so. And yes, it’s utterly ridiculous to reduce a movie review to a tangent on fascism. There was much more going on. I certainly missed the point of the story. But I hadn’t really. It’s just that it was Miss Brodie the fascist that bothered me as I watched the movie. And still bothered me this morning as I drank coffee and listened to the rain, bothered me enough to write this. What an oddly horrible world it must have been where teachers taught fascism with art and etiquette and knew in their hearts they were right.

(Originally posted in 2016 on BricksPicks.com as “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”.)

Thoughts on a few seconds of The Third Man

Interesting bit in The Third Man that few probably pick upon anymore…after Holley Martins (Joseph Cotten) first meets Baron Kurtz, they go walking down the sidewalk together. Kurtz has vaguely Mediterranean features and it dawned on me that the character might be Jewish. It had never occurred to me before because Austria had been thoroughly Judenrein by an especially efficient Nazi administration. Apparently this Kurtz would have been one of those who had either survived the death camps or been in hiding in Vienna for six long years. Now he was making his living in a vaguely Fagin sort of way, Graham Greene falling back on an old and cringeworthy English literary trope. Then again, perhaps I was imagining all this. Perhaps Kurtz represented some sort of Austro-Hungarian Balkan-Mediterranean blend. After all the Hapsburg empire, though officially German speaking (outside of Hungary, but that’s another story), had been a swirl of ethnicities, never been even close to the Germanic stereotype. If you listen you can even hear bits of Italian in the German dialogue, unthinkable in Berlin. Now we watch Baron Kurtz and the Joseph Cotten character walk down the street. An Austrian policeman on his beat walks toward them, still with a Gestapo-ish hint of a Hitler mustache. The cop pays no attention to either of them, and Holley, with his American film noir disrespect for cops (I hate coppers, as Cagney seemed to always say), pays no attention to the cop. Kurtz does, however. He looks up, sees the cop, and with the alacrity of experience steps out into the street. The cop passes and Kurtz gets back on the sidewalk. What might be taken for a little common sense courtesy had, I’m sure, a much darker meaning. Nazi law forbade Jews to walk on sidewalks. Jews on sidewalks were beaten. In Riga they were killed on the spot. I saw that microcosmic scene within a scene, those few steps, and knew that Kurtz was Jewish. Sometimes a few seconds of film illuminate vast crimes and unspeakable tragedies, throwing shadows you never noticed before.

Originally posted on BricksPicks.com in 2018

Edheduanna

My king, something has been created that no one has created before.” So wrote Enheduanna, an Akkadian priestess of the 23rd century BC, in her collection of Sumerian hymns, Exaltation of Inana. Much of it has survived, in fragments, and there are several English translations, yet in each her poetry comes through. Enheduanna was a gifted writer, a great writer, in a written language not yet designed for florid prose. Nor was cuneiform just something one could dash off quick thoughts with. But she managed both, in beauty and verbosity, and her works were held in esteem long past her lifetime for a thousand or more years. She was the first, it seems, who showed the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent just what a truly beautiful thing the written word could be:

On the wide and silent plain, darkening the bright daylight, she turns midday into darkness. People look upon each other in anger, they look for combat. Their shouting disturbs the plain, it weighs on the pasture and the waste land. Her howling is like Iškur’s and makes the flesh of all the lands tremble. No one can oppose her murderous battle — who rivals her? No one can look at her fierce fighting, the speeding carnage. Engulfing water, raging, sweeping over the earth, she leaves nothing behind.

At her loud cries, the gods of the Land become scared. Her roaring makes the lesser gods tremble like reeds. At her rumbling, they hide all together. Without Inana the god An makes no decisions, the god Enlil determines no destinies. Who defies the mistress who is supreme over land between the mountains? Cities reduced to ruin mounds and haunted places, shrines become wasteland. 

A deluge. An earthquake. A windstorm. A total eclipse. Four thousand years later you can still sense the awe and terror. Enheduanna looked upon the ruins of ancient cities, already dead two thousand years, and pictured a goddess’s wrath. Even in her time the plains of Mesopotamia were littered with vanished civilizations. Without history, each would have been evidence of some unforgiven sacrilege. Hubris, perhaps, or worshipping the wrong gods. The result is always the same. Ruin mounds and haunted places, she writes, and shrines become wasteland. That, as they say, is some writing.

A votive disc of Edheduanna, carved in her lifetime. She is at center.A votive disc of Edheduanna, carved in her lifetime. She is at center.

Originally posted on BricksPicks.com in 2016.

Citizen Khan

Watched Tartars last night. It’s one of those sword and sandals epics, 1961, with an all-Italian cast and crew and extras. Well, the director was American, or maybe English, and had actually done a classic or two, of which this was not one. I recorded it solely for the leads. Incredibly Italian looking Victor Mature was the Viking chief Giuseppe the Red, though the only thing Viking about him was, well, nothing actually. Surrounded by extras with wigs plucked from the reject pile in a broom factory, he struts around in moccasins and short shorts, giving commands. An’ I told you ya gotta…, gesturing frantically, wassamattayou? Well maybe not wassamattayou.

Here come the Tartars, aka the Mongols, who look just like the Vikings, oddly enough, but for the black wigs. Their citizen Khan is Orson Welles, yes that Orson Welles, squeezed so tight into Mongol armor he looks set to explode. He had make-up do him up so he does look creepily like, if not Genghis himself, then his son and successor Ogodei, who fat and merry and alcoholic as he was, conquered more of the world and killed more people than the Black Plague. You’ve never heard of him, though, because he died just as the Mongol armies were to about to reduce Western civilization to smoking ruins and pyramids of skulls, the way he’d left the Middle East, from which it never recovered. But the invasion was postponed until a new khan was chosen and by then the Mongols were more interested in China than Europe. Talk about luck.

Anyway, Orson Welles had himself made up to look remarkably like the portraits of Ogodei, and rendered his silly assed lines with terrifying enunciation and sneers of cold command and you realized that Orson Welles simply couldn’t act bad, no matter how lousy the movie. And this movie was lousy. Victor Mature throws himself into it too, and if all the rest of the cast had drowned in a tragic boating accident on whatever Yugoslavian river the Viking ships were floating on, it would have been a fun flick, just Orson and Victor Mature. Alas, two actors do not a historical epic make, and certainly not a sword and sandals action flick, so we get to see some feeble battle scenes and goofball catapult hi jinx, and unseen frantic steppe lust as well as an ugly off screen rape. Khans will be khans. The actresses all have those oddly blank and vaguely emotive expressions you see in European films back then and are impossible for an American to tell if it’s some sort of Bergmanesque understatement or just lousy acting. My guess is lousy acting. If only Europeans would smile. Sophia Loren smiled. Marcelo Mastroianni never smiled. Neither are in this movie however. But if Victor Mature could be a Viking, Sophia Loren would make a terrific Viking Queen. Marriage Norwegian Style.

I had completely lost track of the plot, if there was one, about a third of the way in, a manly Viking display by Victor Mature faded and suddenly we’re in Orson Khan’s stately pleasure dome watching one heck of a dance, hints of Bob Fosse, people leaping about swishing scary swords and culminating in a man and woman rolling across the floor in choreographed coital ecstasy. The dance ends in more leaping and sword swishing and the dancers freeze. Orson Khan glowers, his thoughts a menacing mystery. Rosebud indeed.

Then I switched it off.

(Originally posted on BricksPicks.com in 2019)

The Lion in Winter

[Just found this, a pretty rough first draft from a while back, but I’ll post it as is.]

A Lion In Winter would be a lot less Lion In Winter without all that beautiful English, which in all likelihood none of the characters personally could actually speak much of, if any. Rather all the soliloquies would have been intoned in a variety of the French languages at the time. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in Norman (which was the language of the English royal court till Henry IV was raised speaking English a couple centuries later). Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke Poitevin, and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I in Occitan. I’ve no idea what form of French Geoffrey connived and young John sniveled in. Philip II, I assume, was speaking what eventually became standard French though doubtless he could make himself understood in a variety of the regional Frenches of the north, though perhaps Richard I’s Occitan would have been a stretch. I’m not sure what language mistress Alais did her sulking in, she was raised everywhere by everybody. Any of the above, I suppose, and as she’d been spent some of her childhood in England she probably picked up some English from the household help. In what tongue the various characters would have sniped, raged, conspired and hit on each other is anybody’s guess. Various of the Frenches, mostly, though Henry II and Eleanor both were fully conversant and literate in the Medieval Latin of the time (which is considerably closer to the Latin of the Catholic mass than the Latin of Caesar’s Commentaries), which would have been useful in front of the children. Qui auditunt quod stupri nocte?

Despite the characters enunciating some of the most glorious English you will ever hear on film—“he came down from the north with a mind like Ariistotle and a form like mortal sin; we shattered the Commandments on the spot”—it’s unlikely that any of the characters could utter more than a smattering of English. Enough on some rare trip across the Channel to order some peasants this way or that, or curse like in Beowulf, or say something filthy to a maid in the market. Otherwise the only character in the whole of the film that could actually be fluent in English would have been William Marshall, who spends the movie scurrying about obeying Peter O’Toole or arresting people. He’s the character you forget. O’Toole’s Henry II, though, is unforgettable. “I hope we never die!” he bellows at the close as only Peter O’Toole can bellow. “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” Alas, there wasn’t, he was gone soon enough, as was Eleanor. Indeed as was every man of royal blood in the story, beginning with Geoffrey, trampled to death at a jousting tournament. It’s William Marshall who came close to never dying, by medieval standards anyway, outliving Henry and his wife and sons by decades. He died in his bed at 72 and was buried with honor in London, the mass said in Latin, the eulogies in French, the throng of onlookers murmuring in English.

It would be two centuries before an English king could bellow at his wife and sons in the same language as Chaucer, another couple centuries till an English speaker could rage like Lawrence Olivier’s Richard II raged three centuries after that, and it’d be deep into the twentieth century before they could bellow like they bellowed in A Lion In Winter, a high medieval Francophone drama spoken in twentieth century English.

(Previously posted on BricksPicks.com)

Pillboxes

Has Trump ever seen all those zany pillboxes Enver Hoxha left scattered about Albania like a zillion mushrooms after a spring rain? There’s a couple hundred thousand of them, laid about in madcap fashion. They’re scattered across pasture land blocking each other’s field of fire. They’re in long lines just perfect for target practice. They’re set at the water’s edge, awash in the tide. The Albanians poured more concrete making those than would be in a dozen of Trump’s walls and they’re even more useless. He’d be mad with envy at the profligacy of it all. We need a zillion pillboxes, he’d say. The best pillboxes. Or maybe we can buy Albania’s. Maybe we can buy Albania. Maybe we can conquer Albania. Mussolini did.

The smell of dead potato

[Found this forgotten in the drafts folder from 2018.]

Was at Ralphs and checked out the poor people veggie bin and there were three big bundles of potatoes at 99 cents each. My Irish German heart was set aflutter and I bought all three and once home dropped them into the tuber bag with the sweet potatoes and rutabaga and onions of every color. There they sat.

A day or two later I noticed a smell. I took out the garbage. Still the smell. Took out the bag full of recyclables. Still the smell. Searched every corner and crevice of the kitchen with the broom. Sniffed the garbage disposal. Nope. Sniffed myself. Nope, just a manly deodorant. The next day the odor had grown stronger and more fetid and propinquitous. Ah ha, the paper bag root cellar where I’d put the new potatoes. Sure enough, the smell emanated from it.

I reached in and removed one of the potato bundles. They were small and red and white and blue (well, purple) and smelled like potato. The next bag was full of big honking spud beasts, huge Idaho potatoid monstrosities that taste absolutely delicious baked and topped with low fat sour cream and chopped green onions (my brunch). They too smelled like potatoes. Then the next bundle, much like the first but with the faint odor of aged brick cheese, like the time we opened a block of very aged brick cheese at a party at our place and the guests mutinied, but not then but two weeks later when either the reek or the memory of the reek lingered. That smell. I laid the bundle on the counter and carefully snipped open the netting which contained it. Then ever so gingerly I picked up each potato, sniffed it, and put it down.

Finally I got to the bottom of the pile of potatoes. There in the middle was a mid sized white potato with a sickly pallor and swollen appearance. I lightly touched it and poof! it popped open and the room was fragrant with rotten potato. It was an eye watering reek. I pulled open the windows and then took the offending spud outside and threw it into the planter. Instant mulch.

Amazing how bad that rotten potato stench is. Not sure what causes it, is it the result of the fungus digesting (so to speak) the innards of the potato, or more likely the bacteria that accompanies the fungus? Doubtless I could spend the day looking this up on Google, but I won’t. (I did later, though. It’s the bacteria.) But I did remember how Irishmen digging up their fields in the 1840’s found row after row of shriveled, mushy, foul smelling potatoes, each rotten with fungus. Doubtless they smelled like this, rank as the ripest foulest cheese, and as the potato famine spread you would have smelled that same dead potato reek across the whole island (but especially in the Gaelic speaking west and south) as peasants desperately dug up every plant looking for a potato their family could eat. A million Irishmen died in the famine that followed and the smell of dead potatoes mingled everywhere with the smell of dead people into a sickly perfume till even the roses smelled of death.

Her Majesty’s dictator legibus scribundis et rei publicae constituendae

I haven’t seen this pointed out yet, but the reason that prime minister Boris Johnson was able to suspend Parliament legally is because Great Britain is a monarchy. It’s a parliamentary monarchy, sure, but it is first and foremost a monarchy and if the monarch says sure, suspend parliament, then that is the law. The vaunted unwritten constitution of Great Britain essentially delineates what powers the democratically elected legislature has and what vestiges of absolute power are still retained by the monarchy. You just saw one. The right to suspend democratic rule.

Were Britain a constitutional republic the queen would be a tourist attraction and nothing more. But she has far more powers than the subjects—that is what they are, legally—either own up to or are aware of. And now her subjects in Great Britain are painfully aware of the scale of those powers. Why Great Britain and the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand persist in remaining officially subjects of the monarchy defies my understanding. Tradition, apparently.

And while I’m not sure how much of a bearing this had on the origins of the parliamentary rule in Britain, there’s always been distant echoes of the Roman Republic in British politics, structural echoes, as if the institutions were shaped with Roman history in mind. Certainly the scholars and aristocrats of Renaissance and Enlightenment England were steeped in Roman history, and in the original Latin. And is it a coincidence that the Roman constitution, also unwritten, allowed for the Roman legislature to be suspended in times of emergency and a dictator appointed? Results of such dictatorships were mixed for the Romans, and such appointed dictators helped hurry along the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. Within a few generations any pretense to democracy was shed and Romans lived under totalitarian rule. And when fascism was born in Italy after the cataclysm of the World War One it saw itself as the rebirth of Roman dictatorship and absolute rule. Mussolini fancied himself the new Caesar. He wasn’t. But ancient Rome is like a template for Europe. Or templates. There’s a Roman era for everything. But I digress.

Is Britain now finding itself in a political situation which has its roots in using parts of the Roman constitution as a model for Britain’s own? I don’t know, I just wonder, but when I heard the news that the Queen had agreed to allow the suspension of Parliament, I immediately thought of two things: the Queen nullifying an election in Australia in 1975 because she didn’t like the result, making a travesty of the democratic process, and I thought of Sulla, appointed dictator legible faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa, that is Dictator for the making of laws and the settling of the constitution. That was in 82 BC. He retired after a year of furious change and reorganization. He fixed what was broken. Yet he set a precedent for Julius Caesar, and The Roman Republic lasted only another 37 years, when it replaced by an emperor to vast popular acclaim. Democracy died then, stone cold dead, not to revive for a thousand years.

We certainly have our own problems here is the US, but the worst of them—our president—can be taken care of by a regularly scheduled election. President Trump, were he capable of understanding the analogy, would see himself as the American Sulla, as would his followers, were they capable of understanding the analogy themselves. But unlike Sulla he flounders, a wannabe strongman but hopelessly incompetent. A buffoon. There’s no place in the American political system for a Sulla, and quite deliberately so. The men who drew up the constitution were as aware of Sulla as is Boris Johnson, who studied the classics at Oxford and can doubtless quote Roman histories in the original Latin. It’s hard to see how he doesn’t see Sulla as a role model here. The comparisons are too close. The vaunted British unwritten constitution has the influences of Roman constitutional law laced deeply within it, and that right now doesn’t seem like a good thing. It’s made this moment possible. It makes this new English Sulla possible. That can’t happen here without the US constitution being chucked out completely. But in Great Britain, as in the Roman Republic, it is laid out in the constitution itself. It is perfectly constitutional.

Has this been a profound moment in English history? Has something fundamental been shaken loose? Will there be other Sullas, ones who won’t step down after a year? Who can say. That’s a Rubicon to be crossed anon, if ever.

Scraps

Scraps of a photo album with no one left to tell who these people are or why their pictures were pasted into a scrapbook. Like this photo. Maybe I have an uncle in there. Maybe my Dad. I can only assume it’s a bunch of immigrant’s kids in Flint, Michigan from about the Great Depression. Maybe a little before. Poor people from all over Europe, a polyglot of casts offs shook loose from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Who knows how many languages were spoken at home. The Slovenian German my dad’s family spoke was gibberish to Germans from Germany. My grandfather forbad it and from then on it was only proper German if he was within earshot. And don’t be caught speaking English in the house.