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Barges on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris ~ A Painting by Alfred Sisley

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Sisley ~ Barges on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris (1870)

Barges on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris (1870) by Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) was an Impressionist painter who spent most of his life in France while remaining a British citizen. He is known mostly for his landscape (en plein air) paintings. He painted Barges on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris in 1870. 

Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I read the Japanese novel (in English translation, of course) Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe in 1992, but had never seen the 1964 movie version of the novel until it was shown on “TCM Imports” on Sunday night. It’s a simple story with two principal characters and a handful of “villagers” that we never see for more than a minute or two at a time.

A young, child-like Japanese woman, whose name we never know, lives in a crude wooden shack at the bottom of a ravine from which there is no escape. It’s a barren, isolated place. Sand is all we ever see and the sand moves all the time (from wind and gravity), like a creepy, sinister entity, down into the ravine in which the woman lives. She must shovel the sand day and night to keep from being buried in it. (We learn after a while that her husband and daughter are both buried there.) She hoists the sand up to the villagers who sell it to be used in bricks or building materials. In return, they send her a scant amount of food and water. While most people would believe that the perpetual shoveling of sand is just another version of hell, the Japanese woman thinks of it as her life and the ravine as her home. She states at one point, “Nobody would even bother with me if it wasn’t for the sand.” She thinks it’s what she deserves.

A young man from Tokyo named Niki Jumpei is a teacher and entomologist. He is looking for a certain specimen of sand beetle and if he can find one that hasn’t been classified yet, he’ll get his name in the journals. When he misses the last bus home in the evening, he asks a villager if there is someplace nearby where he might stay for the night. The villager leads him to the ravine where the young woman lives. A rope ladder hangs there which he might easily climb down. The woman feeds him and he spends the night there. In the morning he prepares to leave but discovers that the rope ladder that he used to climb down into the ravine is gone. He is trapped in much the same way that he traps his insect specimens.

Niki Jumpei spends a lot of time calculating how he might get out of the ravine and go home, but the young woman is cheerful and unmoved. He begins to help her with the shoveling and she prepares his food. He tells himself that when he doesn’t return, the people at home will come looking for him. He tries everything he can think of to get out of the ravine, but nothing works. The one time he does get out, he loses his way, gets caught in quicksand, and the villagers find him and lower him back into the ravine.

In time, Niki Jumpei and the young woman are drawn to each other in a sexual way, as nature dictates when two heterosexual people of opposing genders are thrown together. She bathes him as he stands in the middle of the floor naked. She asks him how she compares with the girls in Tokyo. Does he have a wife? She is clearly delighted at his being there and horrified at the thought that he might get away.

For such a simple, stark story, there is a considerable amount of tension in Woman in the Dunes, accompanied by eerie (though appropriate) Japanese music and the perpetual effects of the sand closing in. What’s going to happen? Will Niki Jumpei kill the young woman? Will he be able to escape? Will he escape and take her with him? Will she finally relent and get the villagers to let him go? There are any number of possible outcomes and the way the story finally ends is something we didn’t see coming.

The “director’s cut” of Woman in the Dunes is almost two-and-a-half hours long. In Japanese with English subtitles, it’s not for everybody, of course, but it’s accessible and memorable for those willing to spend the time. Foreign movies, like grand opera, are an acquired taste. Some people will resist both as a matter of principle. It’s hard for some of us to overcome our hillbilly origins.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Nausea

Nausea ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Jean-Paul Sartre, French writer and philosopher, lived from 1905 to 1980. His philosophical novel Nausea, first published in 1938, is one of the landmark works of twentieth century French literature and Sartre’s most famous work. In it, the fictional character Antoine Roquetin (Sartre himself?) is a Parisian writer who is in the medium-sized French city that he calls “Bouville” (means “Mudtown” and is probably Le Havre), researching the life of—and writing a historical book about—an eighteenth-century aristocrat and political figure, the Marquis de Rollebon. The novel is set in 1932 when Antoine Roquetin is thirty years old.

There is really not much of a story or plot to Nausea. It is told in the form of diary entries and is mostly the stream of consciousness impressions of Roquetin as he goes about living from day to day. He observes the people around him and the things they say and do, whether he’s in a café, his hotel, the library or some other place. He anticipates reuniting with an old girlfriend from his past named Anny. He has a superficial dalliance with a waitress. He takes long walks in the fog. He contemplates, at great length, portraits hanging in the library of the city’s founding fathers. He befriends a man whom he calls the Self-Taught Man, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquetin is afflicted with a sort of moral paralysis that he calls “nausea.” It’s not a physical malady but a degeneration of the spirit. Human life to him is unnecessary. Existence is pointless and there is no God, which is the essence of the philosophy known as “existentialism.” He eventually gives up his writing and research in Bouville to return to Paris to—what?—probably just waste away. Aren’t we all going through the paces of living just so we can die? Seems that way, doesn’t it? But, wait a minute! If we were to write a song that will be remembered long after we die, or to sing that song on a recording that will be listened to for a long time to come, maybe that (or something like it) is enough is rescue us from the awful pointlessness of existence. What do you think?

Nausea is philosophical treatise disguised as fiction. It’s fitfully interesting, fascinating at times and tedious at other times. If you’re a student of French literature or a student of Sartre, it’s going to be essential reading. If you are just looking for a good “story” because you enjoy reading, Nausea probably isn’t it. Not exactly painful reading, but you’ll almost certainly be glad when you reach the last page. I think I’ll take my diary and turn it into a depressing philosophical novel. It won’t matter that it doesn’t have a story, a beginning, a middle or an end, will it? Everything is pointless, anyway.   

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Man with Six Kids Whose Wife Ran Off and Left Him

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The Man With Six Kids Whose Wife Ran Off and Left Him image x

The Man with Six Kids Whose Wife Ran Off and Left Him ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

They go to the shops on Saturday afternoon and usually end up in a bar somewhere Saturday night. Leona at one time had a husband but he left her so long ago she barely remembers. Val never married but lives with her mother, whom she loves and despises at the same time. She’s thirty-seven years old but still cherishes the illusion that someday a man will come along and want to marry her.

It’s a hot Saturday in July. Leona and Val sweat as they walk along the sidewalk, avoiding brushing shoulders with any of the other sweating strangers. A small child, three or four years old, squeals and gets a pounding from his mother, which makes him squeal even louder.

“Lord, they sure can make a big noise to be so little,” Leona laughs.

“Little son of a bitch!” Val says. “My mother would have ripped my head off if I had screamed that way in public.”

“They’re not taught to behave, the way we were.”

They stop off at the drug store to pick up Val’s mother’s pills and Leona lingers over the cosmetics counter, looking for a color of lipstick that she thinks will look good with her complexion. The salesgirl comes out from the back and watches them, so they leave the cave-like coolness of the store and go back out into the bright light.

A little farther down the street they find themselves standing in front of a movie theater. A double feature is playing tonight, but it doesn’t begin for two hours. They think they might come back and see both shows, but Leona says she can’t sit still that long on such a hot night and anyway she just isn’t in the mood for cinematic entertainment.

They go into a place called Glad Rags, a store where everything has been owned by somebody else. Leona is looking for a couple of “nice dresses,” as she says, to wear out on dates, and she doesn’t have much money. She goes to the racks of ladies’ dresses, extending all the way to the back of the store, and Val follows along behind her.

“Can I help you find something, honey?” a fat saleslady asks.

“Just looking today, honey,” Leona says.

Val smiles at the saleslady but she ignores her.

Leona picks a red cocktail dress off the rack with a glittery bodice and holds it up. “What do you think about this one, honey?” she asks Val.

“You probably shouldn’t wear that one to church, honey.” Val says.

She picks a blue chiffon and twirls around with it.

“That would have been perfect for you twenty-five years ago!” Val says.

A yellow one with puffy sleeves.

“That one looks like the bathroom curtains.”

A blue one, very immodest.

“Part of that one is missing.”

Finally she finds two that she liked: a sedate black for funerals and a medium-green for happier occasions.

She finds the fat saleslady again and says, “Where can I try these on, honey?”

“There’s a screen back there by the wall, honey. You can go behind there.”

Val sits in the chair for weary husbands and Leona takes the two dresses behind the screen. Val hears grunting and sighing and in a few minutes Leona emerges.

“I guess I’ve put on a little more weight than I thought,” she says. “Neither one of them fits.”

“How can you ever expect to find a man?” Val asks.

“Don’t worry about me, honey! A little face powder does the trick every time.”

“It’s the face powder that catches ‘em and the baking powder that keeps ‘em at home,” Val says.

Come again, honey!” the saleslady calls to them as they go out the door.

“Where to now?” Val asks.

“There’s that man I told you about,” Leona says, pointing with her nose.

“What man?”

“The one in the green pickup truck that just pulled into the parking space.”

“What about him?”

“His wife just left him and he’s got six kids.”

“Where’d she go?”

“I don’t know. Ran out on him. And now he’s got six kids to take care of on his own.”

“Too bad.”

“If it wasn’t for all those kids, I think I’d make a play for him. He’s kind of handsome, don’t you think?”

“Maybe he can get rid of the kids and clear the way for you,” Val said.

“What’s he going to do? Take ‘em out back and strangle ‘em one by one?”

“Well, no. Not that exactly. He could put them in an orphanage.”

“It doesn’t work that way, honey,” Leona said. “Once you bring ‘em into the world, they’re yours to take care of as long as you’re still aboveground.”

“Sounds awful, doesn’t it, honey?”

“Yeah, life’s a bitch.”

“The important thing is not to have ‘em in the first place and then the person you’re married to can’t run out on you and leave you holding the bag.”

“Truer words were never spoken.”

They have a sandwich and a soda at the diner and by the time they are finished the long summer twilight has begun.

They go down the stairs that connect the lower street to the upper and there come to a place called Louie’s Hot Spot. Val has never been there but Leona says it’s a lot of fun, so they go inside and sit down at a table for two.

After a couple of drinks, Val is ready to leave but Leona is obviously enjoying herself. She sways in time to the music and looks appreciatively at the men around her; if they ignore her, she doesn’t seem to mind.

Somewhere about the third drink, Leona sticks her fingernails into Val’s wrist and says, “Guess who just came in?”

“I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” Val says.

“It’s him!

“Who?”

“The man with six kids whose wife ran off and left him.”

“Well, everybody has to be someplace.”

“He just sat down at the bar. After he gets his drink, I know he’ll turn around and look to see if there’s anybody here he knows.”

“So what?”

“He’ll see me sitting here.”

“Do you owe him money?”

“No, silly! I’m going to make myself look available so he’ll ask me to dance.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“Not unless you’re about to have a seizure.”

Within five minutes, the man with six kids whose wife ran off and left him approaches the table coolly and leans down and whispers in Leona’s ear.

“Why, I’d love to!” she says, standing up.

She gives Val a secret little smile and moves to the dance floor with him.

Val moves around to the other side of the table so she can  watch. They look rather silly together, he so skinny as to hardly have any shape at all, with Leona’s belly obtruding between them. They move awkwardly in time to the music like a couple of self-conscious teens at their first dance.

“Not a pretty sight,” Val says, but not loud enough to be heard.

When the song ends, Leona glides over to the table as though she is still dancing and says to Val, “He’s asked me to go for a ride with him. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No. I don’t mind.”

“You can make it home by yourself all right?”

“I think I’ll find the way.”

“His name is Virgil Miller,” Leona says “He’s just the sweetest thing. And I think he’s kind of lonely.”

“What about the six kids?”

“They’re spending time with grandma.”

“How lucky for you!”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“If you end up murdered, we’ll know who did it. I even have his name now.”

After Leona leaves, Val finishes her drink so as not to appear rushed. If any of the men in the place take any notice of her at all, she sees no outward sign of it.

When Val gets home, her mother is wrapped up in her pink chenille bathrobe watching Have Gun, Will Travel on television. She insists that Paladin is somebody she knew during the war. Earlier in the evening she would have watched The Jackie Gleason Show and Oh! Susanna. In the morning at the breakfast table she’ll have to tell Val all about them. On Sunday she’ll be excited about The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show, not understanding why Val doesn’t want to watch with her.

“Did you get my pills?” she asks, not taking her eyes off Paladin’s face.

“Yes, mama, I got your pills,” Val says, not realizing until that moment how tired she is.

“Put them on the table where I’ll be able to see them.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Did you have a good time tonight?”

“Yes, mama. I met a handsome millionaire.”

“As handsome as Cary Grant?”

“Oh, much better looking than that!”

“Did he ask you to marry him?”

“Well, not exactly. He asked me to go to the Riviera with him, but I told him I wouldn’t be able to get away right now.”

“Too bad.”

“He had tears in his eyes. I hated to hurt him that way, but I believe in time he’ll understand.”

“They usually do.”

On the swell of dramatic music from the TV, Val goes into her bedroom and shuts the door. She changes into her pajamas, gets into bed and turns off the light. She can still hear the drone of the TV and some traffic sounds, but more than that. When she listens closely, she knows that what she hears is the sound of life passing her by.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Christina’s World ~ A Painting by Andrew Wyeth

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Andrew Wyeth ~ Christina's World

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

Christina’s World was painted by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) in 1948 and is one of the most famous American paintings of the twentieth century. It shows a young woman on a barren, treeless hillside looking up the hill toward a bleak farmhouse. It is done in a realist style called magic realism.

The Love Letter ~ A Painting by Johannes Vermeer

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Vermeer ~ The Love Letter

The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer

The great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted The Love Letter in 1666. It shows a lady with a cittern (lute) being handed a letter by a servant. The tied-up curtain in the foreground suggests that we are looking at an intensely private scene in which domestic chores are for the moment set aside. The black-and-white floor tiles give the painting the impression of depth.

The Jockey ~ A Painting by Edgar Degas

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Edgar Degas ~ The Jockey

The Jockey by Edgar Degas 

Edgar Degas, a French painter who lived from 1834 to 1917, was one of the founders of Impressionism, although he eventually preferred to think of his painting style as “realistic” rather than impressionistic. He was particularly adept at depicting movement, as can be seen in his painting The Jockey, which dates from 1887. 

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