Wednesday 24 October 2018

Nabokov as a Darwin doubter

My interest in butterflies extends no more than a casual acknowledgement of their beauty when I see one, so I usually don’t feel much when reading Nabokov’s writings about butterflies, but this passage from Speak, Memory is interesting: 
“The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (“Don’t eat me–I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected”). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird’s dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid appendages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwisted wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. “Natural Selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” 
I came across this essay, which elaborates on and contextualises Nabokov’s “anti-Darwinian stance”:
There are some valid points, though the author of the essay also writes: 
“Notably, Nabokov was consistently opposed to organized religion; he was also, however, undeniably concerned with the problem of death. One might therefore contend that his skepticism of Darwinism was fostered, on some level, as a knee-jerk defense of the prospect of immortality.” 
That to me doesn’t make much sense. All (major) artists are concerned with death and the question of what happens after death, if anything. Nabokov has never struck me as being anywhere near religious (not just opposed to organised religion), nor have I ever got the impression that he believes in immortality, even if he sometimes mentions ghosts in his works. 
To be honest, I’m not even sure that Nabokov’s really anti-Darwinian, or believed in intelligent design rather than natural selection as someone else seems to suggest. Does anyone know his views? The way it appears to me is that, perhaps he was against natural selection and the theory of evolution altogether, but it’s also possible that he saw some validity in Darwin’s idea of natural selection but it couldn’t explain everything, such as the subtle mimicry in butterflies. 
Here is the final paragraph of the essay: 
“Boyd, Pyle and Zimmer all address the question of whether Nabokov, if privy to the full burden of proof now available in support of natural selection, would accept the Darwinian model as true. The general consensus is affirmative. Perhaps the next question to ask is how this conversion, by forcing a complete overhaul of Nabokov’s natural views, could have shaped his later fiction. Nabokov’s artistic precepts and staple themes are of course compelling enough to stand on their own, but one wonders to what extent a gloss of Darwinian utilitarianism might have altered the author’s basic literary sensibilities.”
Note: “the author’s basic literary sensibilities”. I don’t even know what that means.

Monday 22 October 2018

Nabokov’s prose, memory, and the sad women in Speak, Memory

The writing of Speak, Memory is wonderful, as expected, but once in a while, there’s a passage that just breaks my heart. 
“Nominally, the housekeeping was in the hands of [my mother’s] former nurse, at that time a bleary, incredibly wrinkled old woman (born a slave around 1830) with the small face of a melancholy tortoise and big shuffling feet. She wore a nunnish brown dress and gave off a slight but unforgettable smell of coffee and decay. Her dreaded congratulation on our birthdays and namedays was the serfage kiss on the shoulder. Age had developed in her a pathological stinginess, especially in regard to sugar and preserves, so that by degrees, and with the sanction of my parents, other domestic arrangements, kept secret from her, had quietly come into force. Without knowing it (the knowledge would have broken her heart), she remained dangling as it were, from her own key ring, while my mother did her best to ally with soothing words he suspicions that now and then flitted across the old woman’s weakening mind. Sole mistress of her moldy and remote little kingdom, which she thought was the real one (we would have starved had it been so), she was followed by the mocking glances of lackeys and maids as she steadily plodded through long corridors to store away half an apple or a couple of broken Petit-Beurre biscuits she had found on a plate.” 
Or this one: 
“Whenever in my dreams I see the dead, they always appear silent, bothered, strangely depressed, quite unlike their dear, bright selves. I am aware of them, without any astonishment in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, in the house of some friend of mine they never knew. They sit apart, frowning at the floor, as it death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret. It is certainly not then—not in dreams—but when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one Is looking in the right direction.” 
Speak, Memory is about Nabokov’s childhood and his life before moving to America, but it’s also about memory. 
“I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills he oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” 
And this one about Mademoiselle O: 
“Her Russian vocabulary consisted, I know, of 1 short word, the same solitary word that years later she was to take back to Switzerland. This word, which in her pronunciation may be phonetically rendered as ‘giddy-eh’ (actually it is gde with e as in ‘yet’), meant ‘Where?’ And that was a good deal. Uttered by her like the raucous cry of some lost bird, it accumulated such interrogatory force that it sufficed for all her needs. ‘Giddy-eh? Giddy-eh?’ she would wail, not only to find out her whereabouts but also to express supreme misery; the fact that she was a stranger, shipwrecked, penniless, ailing, in search of the blessed land where at last she would be understood.” 
Here is not an arrogant, sneering Nabokov, but a warm, humane Nabokov, full of love and nostalgia. The only other time I’ve encountered the warm Nabokov is in The Gift, but even then, the mockery sometimes creeps in (I’m of course excluding the chapter about Chernyshevsky).
This is perhaps the best autobiography I have ever read. 

Thursday 18 October 2018

Speak, Memory: 1st impressions

“I know […] of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the 1st time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.” 
That is a striking way to begin an autobiography. I’m reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
It is perhaps a bit early to read it, I have only read 5 novels by Nabokov so far, plus the 2 Lectures book (you need a certain understanding of Russian literature to read and appreciate The Gift, for example), but I’m familiar with some general facts of his life and his views on things, so I’m reading it anyway. 
His was an interesting life—came from an aristocratic family in Russia, spoke 3 languages, went on exile and lived in many countries, created masterpieces in both his mother tongue Russian and in English, had synesthesia, was interested in butterfly-hunting and lepidopterology, and so on. All that makes an interesting subject for a memoir, and his prose is incomparable. 
It is a great read so far. Check out this passage from chapter 2, about his mother:  
“To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. ‘Vot zapomni [now remember]’, she would say in conspiratorial tones as she drew my attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra--- a lark ascending the curds-and-whey sky of a dull spring day, heat lightning taking pictures of a distant line of trees in the night, the palette of maple leaves on brown sand, a small bird’s cuneate footprints on new snow. As if feeling that in a few years the tangible part of her world would perish, she cultivated an extraordinary consciousness of the various time marks distributed throughout our country place. She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum—the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate—and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses. Her special tags and imprints became as dear and as sacred to me as they were to her.” 
Speak, Memory is a celebration of life and the senses, and of memory.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

A rant

The news depresses me. Social media depress me. People depress me. 
I suppose that for lots of people, if having to name the kinds of people they hate, would say racists, sexists (or misogynists), homophobes, transphobes, etc. I probably wouldn’t. At the top of my list would be liars, hypocrites, misers, narcissists, and I would also say idiots and philistines. I can’t stand them—those who make generalisations and don’t care about details and individuals; who dismiss facts and figures; who think details, subtleties, and nuances are unimportant and use the word “pedantic” for those who don't; who are careless about grammar, spelling, and punctuation; who make false comparisons and equate as the same things that are superficially similar; who think art should serve a purpose or else it’s pointless; who don’t really care about art and genius; who don’t care about quality and think that those who do are pretentious and snobbish; who put people into groups and think identity is no more than race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion and think of people in terms of privilege; who don’t believe in free speech and debate; who judge others not by their words and actions, but by their skin colour, sexuality, religion, social position, and the scale of privilege; who think that because you belong to a certain group, you’re not allowed to speak of or depict anything from another group; who have double standards, and so on. 
Such people are numerous and everywhere. It’s depressing. Does nobody care about quality anymore? Does nobody care about facts? 
It’s not even about politics and what side you’re on. If there are misogynists on 1 side, the other side has misandrists. If there are racists and white supremacists on 1 side, the other side has “social justice warriors” who think you can say whatever hateful thing about white people because you can’t be racist against whites. If there are people on 1 side who don’t believe accusers and blame victims of rape and sexual assault, the other side has people who believe all survivors (which actually means believe all accusers) and go with guilty-before-proven-innocent. 
Then when some people are already firmly on their side, fully believing in their so-called cause, individuals don’t matter, details don’t matter, arguments don’t matter, even facts don’t matter. 
It’s sad and pathetic.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Updates on life and my films

1/ My short experimental film Footfalls was screened at Viet Film Fest in California last Sunday. 
It was mentioned here:

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I didn’t expect that. 

2/ Last Friday I pitched for a script called Non-person (working title), as writer-director. The script got through, so I’m directing again this year. 
I know the real world is different, so I don’t have any illusions or great expectations about the 1st few years after graduating, but it’s about 1 step at a time. And it’s going all right. 

3/ Meanwhile, other things are fine, except that politics and social media are depressing me. So I’m reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory for some consolation.

Sunday 7 October 2018

On Billy Wilder, The New French Extremity, and Hollywood vs European arthouse

I’ve just watched The Apartment the 3rd time, and I’m crazy about Billy Wilder again.

There was a time I named Billy Wilder as my no.1 favourite director, then over the past 2 years, I’ve been watching more European (art) films, especially from the 40s-60s, taking an interest in experimenting and the idea of film as dream, and moving away from classic and modern Hollywood, realism, and chronological storytelling, but Billy Wilder still has a special place in my heart. Now, watching again The Apartment, I see him as representing the best of classic Hollywood, whilst Ingmar Bergman’s the best of European arthouse—the 2 camps, so to speak. 
Let me elaborate by going slightly off-topic. The other day I came across the term New French Extremity. 
This is the definition on Wikipedia:
“New French Extremity (New French Extremism or, informally, New French Extreme) is a term coined by Artforum critic James Quandt for a collection of transgressive films by French directors at the turn of the 21st century.” 
According to James Quandt: 
“Bava as much as Bataille, Salò no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.” 
The New French Extremity has its roots in body horror and exploitation cinema. Google for images of Baise-moi, In My Skin, or Irréversible, and you’ll get the idea. 
Wikipedia also says: 
“Films belonging to the New French Extremity take a severe approach to depicting violence and sex.” 
The world of Danish director Lars von Trier is also like that, full of violence, rape, sexual humiliation, self-mutilation, hypocrisy...—he wants to break every taboo, have no limit, and depict everything on screen. 
I can’t help wondering, all this extremity—unsimulated sex scenes, violence, rape, self-mutiliation, blood…, all this ugliness, for what? 
Somehow it looks like there are 2 camps: Hollywood vs European arthouse; the Oscars vs Cannes; telling a good story (in a conventional way) vs experimenting with form and narrative. In a way, filmgoers can be put into either camp. The way I see it is that, people who choose European art films are either those who see film as art (good) or those who like avant-garde and experiments, even for the sake of experiment (bad); whereas people who choose American films are either those who see film as entertainment (bad) or those who value characters and a good story over experiment for the sake of experiment (good). 
Because of my favourite films, my own interests and tendencies, I tend to think I’m on the side of European art films, until I’m reminded that whilst there are masters such as Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Tarkovsky…, European arthouse also has lots of ugliness, lots of filth and extremity, and lots of trash. 
Billy Wilder is the reminder that in cinema, special effects get outdated, experimenting becomes boring, transgression loses it meaning, and over time a film that focuses on those things becomes worthless, whilst a film that has human characters and a good story and a heart would stand the test of time. That is why his films are never old—films such as The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, and Some Like It Hot, are still fresh today, and will still be fresh 50 years from now, because they deal with human beings and conflicts and feelings, and because he looks at people with clear eyes and doesn’t stoop to false sentimentality. 
Ingmar Bergman and Billy Wilder are the directors who touch me the most on a personal level. They have very different styles, and very different approaches to cinema and storytelling, but they both are interested in human beings and universal problems. 
Their films are never old. 


Ultimately, Bergman and Wilder may be in the same camp.
Film is their way of telling stories, expressing themselves, and dealing with human problems. 
The other camp is filmmakers who are more interested in other stuff—entertainment, special effects, experimenting, narrative, shock, whatever. To me, special effects may be fun to watch, experimenting may be interesting to see, but in the end, if there’s nothing beneath all that, who cares?

Friday 5 October 2018

Some videos about the influence of Ingmar Bergman

1/ This is a video comparing a scene from Persona and from Robert Altman’s 3 Women:
Here are all the posts I’ve written about 3 Women:

2/ The influence of Ingmar Bergman on cinema and other filmmakers doesn’t need to be said, but it’s nice to see to see clips put together like this:

Persona - After and Before from Steven Benedict on Vimeo.

My only complaint is that there are a few odd choices—some clips don’t look like a direct or even indirect influence, but more like a random similar shot. Overall, it’s nicely edited.

3/ This one is about Bergman’s influence on pop culture:

As I once read somewhere, of Bergman’s films, Persona is most written about (even called the Mount Everest of film analysis) and The Seventh Seal is most parodied.
I like that in the video, they keep Woody Allen almost entirely out of it.

4/ And this one is probably my favourite parody of The Seventh Seal: