Victor Serge Quote

“Early on, I learnt from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be. It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is by no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.”

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary


Bonus link: La La Land: A Leninist Reading”

La Jetée

La Jetée

La Jetée (1962)

Argos Films

Director: Chris Marker

Main Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jean NégroniJacques Ledoux

Chris Marker’s short sci-fi film La Jetée is one of the most remarkable in the genre.  The plot is beguiling and the form of the film itself is utterly unique.  The basic story involves a hazy childhood memory of the main character in which he was on an observation deck of an airport and remembers seeing a woman and incident involving a man, which he later realizes was the man dying.  A third world war occurs, involving nuclear weapons that produce fallout rendering the surface of the planet uninhabitable.  The survivors — presiding over a “kingdom of rats” — live in underground galleries below the destroyed remains of Paris.  Scientists conduct time travel experiments on prisoners of war.  The main character, who was a soldier during the war, travels back in time and meets the woman from his childhood memory.  Then he is sent into the future, to try to enlist their help to save humanity of the present.  People from the future eventually send him to the past to be with the woman again.  But as he runs to her, he is shot by an agent of the present day “experimentators” who followed him into the past.  He realizes that his childhood memory was of him witnessing his own death.  This time travel story became the inspiration of the later feature-length film 12 Monkeys.

The form of the film is even more remarkable than the story.  It is almost entirely made up of still photographs artistically edited together.  There is just one shot of moving film, showing the woman waking up and blinking.  A narrator provides a voice-over throughout the film.  There is also music (Euro-classical) and sound effects.  But the shots break suddenly, or other times dissolve into each other.  The narration and music and sound effects begin and end meaningfully.  All of these things are part of the montage, which is astonishingly sublime.  The gritty interpretation of the future was greatly inspiring to the so-called cyberpunk subgenre.

Marker was a a multi-media essayist.  His friend Alan Resnais had wanted him to work on something with him related to nuclear war in the late 1950s.  Marker had to back out, but Resnais project ended up being Hiroshima mon amour (1959), with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras.  But the theme of nuclear war reappears in La Jetée.

Marker’s film is a swirling vortex of regret, loss, hope, rebirth, deception, love, technological horror, and utopian harmony. A curious part of the story is the way the main character (never given a name) reaches a cautious future society that seems to be flourishing, but he does so from a dystopian present with human society at its nadir.  The question is how to break the Gordian knot in which the present seems to make the utopian future possible (The Man Who Fell to Earth would later explore similar themes).  What separates this film from so many others is that it suggests that the time travel technology is not what enables the great society of the future.  Rather, it implies that human connection is the more important aspect, even as the plot ends with the connection between the two main characters being broken with the man’s assassination.

Although often described as being about a “time loop”, the film is open to many interpretations.  Perhaps Roland Barthes’ comment a few years later in Criticism and Truth (1966) is apt: “a work is ‘eternal’ not because it imposes a single meaning on different men, but because it suggests different meanings to one man…”  One such interpretation is to look at the film from the perspective of philosopher Alain Badiou‘s concept of an “event”.  To simplify this concept, an “event” seems to exceed its causes, and becomes apparent only in hindsight as something new emerges from the multiplicity of possible meanings.  It is not unlike a point made in Jorge Luis Borges‘ essay “Kafka and His Precursors” that a great writer’s work establishes his or her precursors in a way that “modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” — an appropriate analogy here given the similarity in tone of Marker’s film and much of Franz Kafka‘s best writing.  There is also something similar in the story line of La Jetée and the later comic book series The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius, which deals with the difficulty of breaking out of repetition and fatalism, and with heroic self-sacrifice for a greater good.

This is one of the greatest sci-fi works of the 20th Century, in the same category as Lem‘s Solaris (1961), Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed (1974), Lang‘s Metropolis (1927), and such.

Get Out

Get Out

Get Out (2017)

Universal Pictures

Director: Jordan Peele

Main Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Basically a suspense/thriller/horror film with a small amount of soft sci-fi that draws plot elements from three prior films: Seconds (1966), Being John Malkovich (1999), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).  It’s good — one of the alternate endings is a bit better than the theatrical ending — but it’s not in the same league as the older films it resembles.

Thelonious Monk – It’s Monk’s Time

It's Monk's Time

Thelonious MonkIt’s Monk’s Time Columbia CS 8984 (1964)

Monk’s years on the Columbia label were mostly marked by restatements of his earlier innovations.  His prime years were mostly behind him.  It’s Monk’s Time might be my second favorite of his Columbia studio albums, after Monk’s Dream, both of which are edged out by the awesome posthumous archival live recording Live at the It Club (especially the “complete” two-disc version).  The band is in good form — Charlie Rouse has a great boisterous, stuttering solo on “Brake’s Sake” — and Monk himself is playing well — much more strongly than on his last album Criss-Cross, and with a number of thoughtful, unaccompanied segments.  This is the mature Monk, and he sounds right at home in that role.  The album is half semi-obscure Monk originals (all previously recorded) and half standards.  It makes for a good mix.  This is strangely one of the lesser-known Monk albums on Columbia, but it is actually one of his better ones on the label.

Мария Юдина [Maria Yudina] – Historical Russian Archives: Maria Yudina Edition

Historical Russian Archives: Maria Yudina Edition

Мария Юдина [Maria Yudina]Historical Russian Archives: Maria Yudina Edition Brilliant Classics 8909 (2009)

Maria Yudina was arguable the most highly regarded Soviet pianist.  There are tons of great anecdotes about her.  One of the most famous is that, as a devoted christian in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union, she wrote to Josef Stalin to say she would pray for him!  Her religious beliefs did hinder her musical career, though it was actually normal for people to criticize Stalin and her music was not a political threat to him; hence, she was spared from the great purges.  David King‘s book Red Star Over Russia details another anecdote in which he was attempting to return to the West from a research trip to the Soviet Union and was stopped at the border where photographic film he carried was discovered.  Exporting exposed film was, at that time, something subject to extreme scrutiny.  He was referred to a more senior interrogator, and he told her was researching Yudina.  The official immediately said that Yudina was her favorite musician, and ordered the border guards to let King pass, film and all, because he was researching Yudina.  Yet another notable episode, also described in King’s book, is that during the Siege of Leningrad, “the 900 Days” during which the Axis military, as part of Operation Barbarossa (the largest military offensive in human history), blockaded the city.  Isolated by the siege, and supplied only by a dangerous ice road, underwater pipeline, and occasional, dangerous flights, civilian deaths were astonishing.  Tanya Savicheva’s diary, which recorded how each of her family members starved and froze to death one by one around her, is kind of the “Diary of Anne Frank” of the siege.  Yudina was flown into Leningrad during the siege, in order to perform music so as to boost morale.  This speaks to what she meant to listeners; it was important that she be flown in (taking up space on the plane that could have been used for more supplies).  She of course suffered the deprivations of the local inhabitants while in the city.

Yudina’s playing was highly emotive and conveyed a sense of strength.  She never played to exhibit finesse for its own sake.  What is most remarkable was her versatility and her unique interpretations.  One way to describe her is as a gregarious and strong-willed counterpart to Glenn Gould.  The anecdotes recounted above each convey something about Yudina that shines right through her recordings.  She performed music by a wide variety of composers, including some notably modern compositions.  She was even in contact with Darmstadt school composers like Boulez and Stockhausen.  Recordings of her music are, unfortunately, somewhat hard to find in the West even after the overthrow of the USSR.  But this collection, for a time (it is out of print now), chipped away at that problem.

This box set encompasses many composers.  Listeners will likely favor some composers over others.  I happen to like disc 8 with Hindemith, Honegger, Shaporin, Martinů and Jolivet the best (all pieces, unsurprisingly, recorded during the Khrushchev Thaw), as well as the first disc of Bach.  There is also an intriguing disc of Prokofiev and Debussy pieces, in which the Prokofiev is played in the atmospheric, hazy style of Debussy and the Debussy is played with sharp, harsh modernist flourishes.  And all this is to fail to mention the wonderful Taneyev disc.  My least favorite here is probably the second disc of Haydn, Mozart and Mussorgsky.  She performs with string players on numerous tracks, and they are uniformly strong, often playing with a scrappy, weary tone.

It is difficult to summarize this collection, because it is so varied.  But that is really its strength.  It also is music that reveals itself more and more with repeated listening.  I previously had obtained a collection of Toscanini recordings (once it was budget priced), because a favorite high school teacher of mine used to play us Toscanini videos as part of his “culture for clods” series, and also because a stuffy old Euro-classical encyclopedia I once bought at a used book sale listed Toscanini as the “reference recording” for just about every major composition.  While much of it is good, it lacks the range and memorable performances of this Yudina collection.  Though that is partly a personal preference.  Yudina was much more of a modernist than Toscanini.  If this collection has a significant fault it is that it lacks detailed information about the the format and date of prior release for the included recordings — something that is difficult to ascertain without reading Russian — although recording dates and personnel is listed for everything.