Spanish Canadian working in the UK. Former film journalist. Lecturer in Film Studies. Podcast with Michael Glass on cinema at https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/ and also a series of conversations with artists and intellectuals on their work at https://josearroyoinconversationwith.com/
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A good book on an extraordinary woman. Mary Rodgers had great success as the composer of Once Upon a Mattress, the Broadway musical that made Carol Burnett a star, as the writer of the best-selling Freaky Friday novels, and as screenwriter of the film adaptation, then re-made almost generationally: my favourite is the Lindsey Lohan/ Jamie Lee Curtis version. Those two properties alone were so successful that they ended up requiring a management company and – as she bemoans – too much of her time. The success however was not enough to overcome her sense that she isn’t good enough, not compared to her father (Richard Rodgers), her son (Adam Guetell) or the love of her life (Stephen Sondheim). And if that’s how you want to measure your worth, one can see her point. But it’s an impossible measure. Aside from her work, she also had seven children, six of whom lived to contented and successful adulthoods, and who – to her surprise – seem to love a mother who never thought she was good enough in that area either. Not being good enough is one of the themes of this book. But it’s all relative. Mary Rodgers comes across as one of those fast, wise-cracking, chain-smoking mid-century East-coast women who seem to type a novel with one hand, sock a mugger with the other, all while hosting a cocktail party glittering with the wittiest repartee to be had amongst Manhattan’s best and brightest, all of whom were close intimate friends and appear here: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Burnett, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Hal Prince, John Kander, Mary Martin, Judy Holliday, etc etc
An insightful conversation on a film that’s difficult to grasp in terms of plot but which nonetheless offers us enough to have returned twice more to see it. In the podcast, we discuss the famous 59 minute tracking shot, how the film shifts gears narratively and stylistically; how the first half may deal with memory and the second with dreams; we talk of the film’s texture, how sound often works against image and how the images themselves are precise and controlled; we relate the film to noir (time, rain, vamps, fedoras, its evocation of BLADE RUNNER). We relate the film to the work of Jia Zhang Ke and Tsiai Ming Lang; and we talk of how it’s a film that may leave audiences initially puzzled but that seems to grow in their estimation as discussion unfolds. All this, and much, much more.
A thoughtful, exploratory discussion of a landmark gangster film, a story about America made by one of Italy’s greatest directors. We discuss how the film might have re-defined the gangster genre; the film’s aesthetic and how particular choices serve expression, we talk of the violence in the film and the charges that it might be misogynist; the distinctions between script and mise-en-scène; what the film shows and the film’s pov on those actions; the relative lack of dialogue and the focus on faces; we discuss the significance of the closing shot…and much much more, not least Robert De Niro’s extraordinary performance.
PSA A Bigger Splash is on Netflix. I remember how alluring the ads were upon its release. But I was too young to see it then and sadly never got to before yesterday. It’s a very daring film for its time, very open about David Hockney’s break-up with Peter Schlesinger, lots of nudity, awkward sex, art-making, parties, even a drag Ms. World contest; a force field evoking the complex emotions that are enacted between that which is said and that which is felt. It’s full of sadness and longing, lots of young men in their prime frolicking together — eros made flesh — and how break-ups affect many more people than those directly involved. It’s also an essay film on a landmark painting, the creation of which, results in the emotional exorcism Hockney needs to keep on keeping on. I wish I’d seen it when younger.
Don’t Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde’s second feature as director, after Booksmart, which we loved, is an irredeemable mess of a psychological thriller. We pick through its carcass in an attempt to figure out which bit of it we liked the least.
We continue to think aloud about Pedró Almodovar, this time focussing on Matador. Richard is ill so I am joined by Harry Russell to discuss the film. Some of the topics touched upon are the themes of sex and death, Spanish-ness and bullfighting, camp, masculinity, the classical structuring of the plot, the glossy production values, and why — whilst it is hugely entertaining — it might yet not be up to the heights of Almodóvar’s other work.
Almost a quarter century after its first release, Lock. Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) remains immensely stylish and entertaining, a landmark film that drew on the tradition of the British gangster film and succeeded in changing the genre’s direction. Whether Guy Ritchie is underrated is a thread that underpins the podcast. Jack Brazil and José Arroyo also discuss the film’s style; the cadence, pace and editing with which movement and action are constructed and conveyed; we talk about its playful experimental tone; how it succeeds as comedy, and how Ritchie’s eye for casting launched one of the most important careers in the action genre for decades to come: that of Jason Statham, whose first film this is…. all that, and much much more
Finished watching Entrevías/ WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS on Netflix, which is not quite good but entertaining enough to watch to the end. It’s not quite good because the melodrama – necessary for the plot – is not understandable except as the actions of not very intelligent people. You know it’s going to lead to trouble, you know they need to do that for the plot to advance, but you also can’t believe anyone with brains would actually do something that dumb – even if they are in love. What is interesting about it is that it’s set in a rough neighbourhood in Madrid, and the drama plays out intergenerational narratives of class, race, and law within the family; with a particular social past as context and desire –for love AND money — as a driving force. There are many similarities to how these themes –capitalist dreams in subaltern milieus — get played out in the UK or the US but also different enough for the comparison to raise interesting questions. Thanks to Stephen Marsh for the recommendation.
The greatest work of the first phase of Almodóvar’s career; the first to be released in the US; the second for the Tesauro S.A. Production Company. In this podcast we discuss the film in relation to his three previous features, to Eloy de la Iglesias’ ‘quinqui’ films dealing with working class kids encountering the wave of drugs then flooding into Spain, to Italian neo-realism, and to camp. We praise Carmen Maura, note the first of appearance of Almodóvar’s mother in his work; and remark on the many reasons why it would be extremely difficult to make this film today. We discuss the continuing send-up of advertisements, the sophistication of the camera placement, the ways the film might be considered post-modern, the mixture of genres, the citations of a history of cinema, though style but also through explicit referencing (Kazan’s SPLENDOUR IN THE GRASS) ….and much more.
If you’re tired of the endless Royal coverage on TV – and who isn’t? – I recommend the documentary series by Ethan Hawke on Joanne Woodward/Paul Newman. At the beginning I thought it would be a bit of a wankfest, with Hawke and his celebrity friends gushing as only actors on other actors can do. But it becomes more and more interesting as it unfurls. Newman’s affair with Woodward began whilst he was still married. This adulterous affair lasted for five years before he divorced and could marry Woodward, the length of time a shock to some of his children even now. He was in sexual thrall to Woodward, who taught him. He was always very handsome but initially not very good (and the documentary shows us how this is so). There are marvellous clips, including a lot of home movies. Newman taped a series of interviews, the base of a potential biography that never happened. He burned the tapes but his co-writer kept transcripts (voiced by George Clooney) which are the basis of the narrative. What is the series about Hawke asks? Are they favouring Newman at the expense of Woodward? What does it mean for your star to fade as your husband’s keeps rising? Where they good parents? What did their children think? A show on stardom, celebrity, acting, citizenship, families…and, perhaps more than anything, about marriage. Hawke’s questioning – initially an irritation – becomes more and more appealing – open, searching, self-reflexive, revealing complexities. The title is the type of absurd hype I thought the series itself would peddle…but doesn’t. One of the best celebrity documentaries I’ve seen. On Now TV.
The absence of presence that is Idris Elba, who we’d like to like one day, stars in Beast, a Jurassic Park knock-off that pitches him against both his distant daughter and an excessively affectionate lion. It’s a film that Mike enjoyed unironically but can’t claim to find much quality in; José, showing off, provides a coherent response, seeing the film’s weaknesses and having no fun.
It’s a mechanical film in more ways than one. The character relationships crash inelegantly into place, the action hasn’t met an idea from a better film that it didn’t try to copy – and the seats share the load, tilting and rumbling along with the images. For reasons beyond our understanding, our local Cineworld offered Beast only in 4DX, the theme park-style augmented exhibition format that purports to enhance the cinematic experience through practical effects such as moving seats, wind, and strobe lighting. It’s a technology that José despises to its core, arguing that it betrays a lack of trust in the film’s own ability to excite its audience, while Mike, who is in his thirties, likes filling himself up with fizzy liquid and sugar and being shaken around all afternoon.
Still, no amount of physical animation can either distract from or add to the vacuum of cinematic substance that is Idris Elba, Beast‘s central problem and central lack. It makes for a film you won’t regret ignoring.
Whilst everyone’s wasting their breath over the various demerits of the new LORD OF THE RINGS or GAME OF THRONES TV shows, the best TV show I’ve seen this season is tucked away in Walter Presents on All 4: REDEMPTION (IO TE CERCHERÒ) is a noir/ crime thriller/ family melodrama about a disgraced cop, Valerio (Alessandro Gassman), fired from the force for corruption and cocaine possession, now pumping gas at a petrol station, who is told that his estranged son – a social rights activist working with migrants — has committed suicide. But, as his former lover tells him, things don’t add up. He’s finally convinced of foul play, and as he sets out to find out the truth about his son’s death, he finally gets to know his son as a human being and not just as an extension of himself. The more he digs, the more corruption he finds: African migrants cheated out of their council homes by gangs, drug enforcers in the service of ‘respectable’ serviceman laundering money through off-shore accounts, and a police force in the service of Big Business. Everyone’s implicated and his search finally leads him to his own family. A very moving thriller with lots of social commentary but fundamentally about families – biological and otherwise – father-son relationships…and the importance of justice. The setting is Rome, the look is noir, sometimes tinged with the duller hues of neon. What holds it all together is Gassman, in an extraordinary performance, mostly minimalist: a still face with eyes that don’t dare move much for fear of betraying what he really feels; a halo of sadness around his face; a tall, thin, wiry body, trained, moving fluidly and capable of quick bursts of violence; and an awkwardness and emotional restraint with the people he loves that also burst forth out of his isolation and into moments of great tenderness. Highly recommend.
Yesterday I finished reading the sixth of Ben Pastor’s Martin Bora detective novels, THE HORSEMAN’S SONG. I wanted to highlight this one because it might interest some of you. It’s a ‘flashback’ novel, set three years before the beginning of WWII, the setting of the rest of the novels in the series, with a younger Bora as a volunteer for the Nationalists and assigned to Teruel. It’s also the only one of the novels so far where a historical figure plays a major part in the novel. In this case the crime Bora is solving is that of the murder of Federico García Lorca, which in a fictional flight of fancy, takes place in Teruel, not, as history would have it, in Granada. There’s lots of expected homophobia amongst the characters — the homosexuals murdered in the novel are shot in the crotch — there’s a doubling with Bora on one side and a world-weary American counterpart — Phillip Walton — on the other. They’re structural opposites: Bora a German Baron from Leipzig, Phillip a working class, world weary roué from Eden, Vermont; both in thrall of the same woman, Remedios. One can see why this would interest Fredric Jameson enough to write on it*: two idealists trying to battle for a utopian ideal but landing on different sides (one of the things that makes this series so interesting is that the hero is a German but not Nazi officer, who has nonetheless sworn fealty to Hitler). There’s also a very good depiction Teruel becoming ‘Teruel’, and a really interesting use of Lorca’s poetry throughout (it’s where the novel gets its title). It also features quite a lot of steamy if tactful sex scenes from Bora’s point of view — thus Maria Verbena Volpi, writing as Ben Pastor, creating a male point of view on sex with a woman. I found it all really interesting, and all his books are page-turners. I’ve clearly been obsessed. It’s been almost six of these novels in the last week.
. The photograph illustrating THE HORSEMAN’S SONG is a very famous one by another mythic figure — Robert Capa.
*Fredric Jameson, ‘War as a Rhizome: Fredric Jameson on Ben Pastor’s Martin Bora Novels’, London Review of Books, vol 44, no. 15, 4 August 2022, pp. 15-18
If you speak Spanish, an excellent discussion of Lorca’s death featuring Lorca’s biographer Ian Gibson may be seen here and is very interesting to compare to the novel’s plot:
In our third podcast on Almodóvar’s work we discuss his third film, ENTRE TINIEBLAS/ DARK HABITS (1983), the first film he did for a commercial production company, Tesauro SA. A very funny and subversive film, the plot revolves around a bolero singer (Cristina S. Pascual) whose boyfriend has overdosed on heroin and who finds shelter in the convent of The Humble Redeemers. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a heroin addict who’s in love with her; Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) takes acid to aid her visions; Sister Lost (Carmen Maura) has a fetish for cleanliness and a tiger for a pet; Sister Rat (Chus Lampreave) is a best selling writer of trash novels based on the lives of the young girls who pass by the convent, though her sister (Eva Siva) is stealing her credit and her money; Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) is in love with her confessor, who really wants to be a fashion designer. The film is a combination of noir, nun film, melodrama and musical all tied together by camp. Even Tarzan makes a coded appearance. It’s a film that would be very difficult if not impossible to make today. We discuss it’s context, boleros, camp, Almodóvar’s skill with actors, the chicas Almodóvar, a largely feminine space where men in drag nonetheless feature… and much more. A modest box office hit but his greatest success to that point and proof of his developing skills in mise-en-scène.
Yesterday I finished reading Ben Pastor’s Lumen, which I highly recommend. I got turned onto Ben Pastor by Fredric Jameson’s recent article on genre in the London Review. I only skimmed Jameson and felt I didn’t want to put the work of understanding into it until I read at least one of the novels he used as a basis for the argument; and I’m very glad I did.
Lumen is set in occupied Poland in 1940. Mother Kazimierza, who is said to perform miracles, is shot dead in the convent garden whilst praying. A German General had just been to see her, there were Polish workmen working in the convent that day, some of which might have been partisans; also, none of the nuns liked her. Yet, no one seems to have a clear motive. The murder of someone many consider a saint is so explosive in a recently occupied Catholic country that Wahrmacht Captain Martin Bora is sent to investigate. He’s a highly educated upper-class Catholic, methodical, disciplined, madly in love with his wife and a lover of music. Father Malecki, a working class American from Chicago of Polish origin, who’d been sent to Cracow by the Vatican to investigate Mother Kazimierza’s miracles, will reluctantly join forces with Bora. The US is still neutral and Malecki is not as vulnerable as all the other locals, religious or not, who are constantly being rounded up on the edges of the narrative.
The Holocaust in process is ever present – Auschwitz is not far – but is kept largely on the margins: Bora is billeted in the former home of a Jewish playwright, Bora and Retz, his heavy-drinking womanizer of a room-mate go shopping for shoes in the Cracow ghetto; a nun of Jewish origin gets carted off on Christmas day…and so on.
Bora is solving a crime, he is making judgments and attributing guilt in a context where all of these things are constantly being muddied up, shifting, where training, loyalties and reason confront ethics and morality; where military hierarchies, precedent and law rub up against justice. The furnaces of Auschwitz are burning, a people are illegally occupied, the SS are reported by Bora to be breaking international conventions, the Russians are committing more atrocities on shared front lines. What are justice, guilt, conscience, morality and ethics in this context? Indeed, when is a crime a crime?
A brilliant detective novel, which I’m perhaps making seem more grim than it reads. The plot is so taut and the writing so efficient that one is completely immersed in the characters and the crime. I’m now on the second one.
Ben Pastor is the pseudonym of Maria Verbena Volpi, which adds yet another interesting twist.
I finally got around to seeing the Andy Warhol Diaries on Netflix, which I’m finding fascinating. Warhol is accused of being banal, superficial, celebrity sucking, money hungry; the work damned for being the campily desirious doodlings of a superficial homosexual etc. Each of those characteristics with a basis individually but collectively at odds with each other. There’ a moment at a gallery opening where a well-dressed clearly well-heeled lady looks with a combination of scorn and disgust at one of the ‘Sex Parts’ paintings he did with Victor Hugo that I think encapsulates these contradictions. How can something so dangerous be banal? What’s the connection between the explicit and rapacious sexuality in those paintings and the celebrity commissions? Wouldn’t such work – so clearly homosexual – affect the year’s taking? He was putting on display what others in this period – Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg — were being more ‘polite’ about; and people were scorning and fleeing. And isn’t highlighting the forbidden and expressing it through camp in itself explosive in this period, the opposite of the banal? The form of the series is fascinating as well, the editing, the voicing, the wonderful home footage. The whole Jed Johnston saga was very affecting. But it’s the unapologetic queerness of the work in mid-century America that really strikes a chord and seems a key.
I love reading short essay books like Vicente Monroy’s CONTRA LA CINEFILIA: HISTORIA DE UN ROMANCE EXAGERADO/ Against Cinephilia: A History of an Exaggerated Romance. If they’re halfway intelligent and informed, and Monroy’s is much better than that, you find yourself arguing with them, sharpening your own thinking and maybe even learning something new.
That said, I found myself arguing with Monroy more than with many others in this genre. There is already quite an extensive literature on cinephelia, one he doesn’t draw on but for a brief mention of a Christian Keathley essay. Here cinephilia is an exaggerated love for cinema that makes those who suffer from it ill, makes them hide from the world under the guise of understanding it; and prevents them from acting in the world. But cinephilia has histories, plural. The accounts I heard from Réal La Rochelle in Quebec, Victor Perkins in the UK or Jorge Iglesias in Cuba, all dealing with the 50s and sixties have different practices, different canons, different outputs. Love of cinema is all they share. Plus that cinephilia was different than that of the 20s or that of the 80s. A sharper definition, an attempt at historicising, a delineation of different effects and outputs (the founding of magazines, cinémathèques, the founding of archives etc.) would have considerably changed the pamphlet’s main argument.
I bought this book because it was in Spanish and because I was interested in cinephilia in Spain or at least from a Spanish perspective. But this books speaks of a larger cultural colonisation. It’s all the same anecdotes (about Bazin, Cahiers du cinema, Goddard & Rohmer, Moullet’s assertion that morality in film was a question of travelling shots, and Jacques Rivette’s denunciation of Pontecorpovo’s KAPO on those grounds) that fanboys world-wide share as a a history and frame of reference but at the expense of the local. Laura Mulvey’s famous essay is trotted out to speak about gender bias. Victore Erice is brought in to question whether cinema is dead, and that’s about it: if there are other Spanish critics or theorists mentioned I missed them. Certainly, one gets no sense of the histories or effects of cinephilia in a specifically Spanish context (even the differences between cinephilia in Barcelona in Madrid in the sixties might have been illuminating).
Monroy is not responsible for the other thing that bothered me in the book, they’re widespread, though he does uncritically reproduce them. The first is what I think of as a kind of self-serving bad faith around cinema as experience. Friends who are devotees of Merleau-Ponty and who are happy to quote Vivien Sobchack on film nonetheless refuse to acknowledge that where and how they watch a movie affects their experience of it (and thus also understanding and evaluation). So here, Monroy talks about going to the Filmoteca in Madrid to see Renoir’s The River and the transformative effect it had on him; then how he tried to repeat it with less and less success as the years went by. He also mentions that during the next 12 years he saw films in his laptop because he could find a better range of films there than was offered on Madrid screens. Yet, he doesn’t make the connection between seeing films on a big screen, in the dark, with others…and that transformative experience. Related to this is a kind of bewilderment that so many cinephiles give so much importance to that moment when one steps outside the cinema Yet, if the experience of watching a film in a cinema is immersive then that moment when one steps out is important because that’s the moment where one stops feeling or absorbing and can start thinking and making sense (this is really why I could never get on with Bordwell’s argument on Making Meaning. Personally I get too involved to make the kind of inferences he thinks viewers make, plus desire, and colour, and other kinds of visual excitement interfere with reason). So, it strikes me that the whole argument suffers from a lack of definition of terms, what is cinema and when; what is film-viewing and when; what are the discourses around all of that and when?
The last thing I want to mention – and perhaps a proof that the Cinefilia Monroy is so much against is not worth the fight – is that this is a book about Cinefilia that doesn’t really bother with films. There’s an international canon of references here, which is really to say mainly French (Bazin, Deleuze, the Cahier Boys, Barthes, Serge Daney, Bellour, Metz, Rancière) but whereas most of them expressed their cinephilia with a discussion of films, Monroy turns to theory to argue against it. Another trend in which films themselves seem to matter less and less even to Film Theorists and Film Historians.
I just finished reading ‘Fabiógrafía’. Who could resist the title? Or for that matter the subject? Fabio is the Fanny who lit up so many early Almodóvar films (PEPI, LABYRINTH, even LAW OF DESIRE) enlivening General Erection Contests or Killer Driller porno shoots with her gender-bending freshness, candour, intelligence, bravery and wit. I thought that like, so many in the Movida, she’d died in the nineties of either AIDS or heroin. But no, here she is telling us her story, and tarnishing her legend in the process of gilding it.
The story is told by Fabio but written up by Marío Vaquerízo, Alaska’s husband, who keeps bragging that he’s got a degree in journalism but constantly demonstrates how little he learned from it.
He certainly doesn’t question anything Fabio/Fanny says (did all teenagers really go live on their own at 17 in Spain in the 70s? If not, what was it that drove him to leave his family home in Ciudad Pegaso , the factory town he grew up in on the outskirts of Madrid? His sexuality?). Nor does he contextualise; and so he allows quite a lot of corkers to get through. Did people really enjoy a lot more sexual freedom under Franco? If Fanny says so it must be true. She tells us all about her drug taking, the various people she lived with, her relationships with various artists around the Movida, and whether and how they got along with each other; how her collaborations with Almodóvar in the films, records, comic books, and live shows came about and how it came apart (she got hooked on heroine and became unreliable). But she tells us the facts, not the processes that led to them nor how she felt about any of it.
Everyone was great, everything was fun; 90% of the book takes us to the late 80s….and then people start to dies and her career goes down the tubes…and the book quickly comes to a close. We get little about any of this. In fact we get little about her feelings; if it wasn’t fun, it doesn’t really get discussed in Fanny’s universe. So we know she put her parents through hell, went in and out of re-hab, has three incurable chronic diseases (but which ones?). She’s re-found God and attends mass regularly; she’s become a right-winger who’s carried the flag in the monument to Franco and Fascism that is ‘El valle de los caídos/ The Valley of the Fallen’. She’s gone back to painting not very good pictures which everyone tells her are great. Self-analysis is clearly not her thing. Like in Lana Turner’s autobiography however, we do get an account of practically every outfit she ever wore, where she bought it, how she put it together and whether it was Bowie, Iggy, the Velvets or the New York Dolls who influenced it. So it wasn’t a total loss. But it makes for sad reading, particularly since one suspects 80s Fanny would have seen present-day Fabio as her worst nightmare.
Half-way through Andrew Hussey’s extraordinary SPEAKING EAST: THE STRANGE AND ENCHANTED LIFE OF ISIDORE ISOU, Isou, barely 20, has yet to arrive in Paris, the city where he would found LETTRISM, become a left bank avant-garde celebrity, and live in for the rest of his life.
In those first twenty years, his family left his hometown of Botosani for Bucharest due to waves of pogroms in northern Romania. As a teenager, he became a ‘huligan’, derived from hooligan but commonly used in Romania to describe a ‘generation of young intellectuals who deliberately taunted and terrorized the older literary generation, and who declared that they hated anybody not born in the twentieth century’(p.39). At first glance, not that different than a later generation’s not trusting anyone over thirty. But the huligani have a more violent and destructive edge. In Micea Eliade’s novel HULIGANII, ‘they all dream of committing suicide, drink heavily, rape each other or are simply bored and sadistic. Life is pointless, art an illusion, philosophy is a dead-end and the civilisation that made them is about to fall’ (p.40).
Isou would see many of his Huligani friends join the fascist Legionnaires of the Iron Guard. Isou was not yet sixteen when he was almost killed by this group during the pogrom of January 1941, some of the blackest moments in story of the Jews in Romania. During the rest of the war – much of it spent in forced labour, witnessing friends and neighbours beaten, tortured and killed — his biggest fear was ending up a nameless corpse, lost to history. He tried escaping to Palestine and failed; he made another arduous trip to the Hungarian border, and also failed; he tried to get to Turkey and that also failed. Each of these attempts involved extraordinary adventures and hardship. He finally succeeds in getting papers falsely attesting that he was a displaced French Jew, papers that would succeed in getting him to Paris. On his way there, and once again in Budapest, he’s feeling up a girl in a cinema where the first images of the liberation of Buchenwald are screened. The girl, still excited, tells him, ‘don’t stop. It’s only Yids. They brought it on themselves’.
What’s extraordinary about the first 125 pages of this book is not only a vivid evocation of Jewish cultures in Romania between the wars and how this intersected with the main intellectual currents in the country at large but also a teenager’s sexual and intellectual awakening at this intersection confronted with socially sanctioned violence and murder directed at him and all those he loves. And all of this before turning twenty.
According to Andrew Hysset ‘When he arrived in Paris in 1945, Isou began his career at the very height of avant-garde fashion. He was charismatic and good-looking, and he quickly gathered a pack of well-read young hooligans as followers. The new gang of lettristes was soon notorious for their punch-ups, their weird, threatening poetry, their girls and their arrogance. …The look was sexy and defiant: pure rock ‘n roll avant la lettre. Isou’s reputation was boosted by the fact that he was soon published by Gallimard (pp. 13-14).
Hussey convincingly argues that ‘lettrisme – was –or is the missing link between Dada, Surrealism and Situationism ‘(p.15). Tristan Tzara (an invented name meaning ‘sad country’ in Romanian) was an influence, as were Bréton and Buñuel; and Guy Debord, initially a disciple of Isou, would become his bitterest enemy; quite a distinction for someone who felt as victimised, misunderstood and oppressed as Isou.
According to Hysset, ‘Dadaism was conceived as a negation of the entire system of moral values underpinning Western thought. It opposed reason order, meaning and hierarchies in equal measure. …. In his Dada Manifesto of 1918 Tristan Tzara spoke directly to a generation of young men and women who had grown up despising everything around them, to all those who had lost faith in their homeland and its civilization: ‘No pity,’ he declared; ‘After the carnage we are left with the hope of a purified humanity…there’s great destructive…work to be done…..Dadaists and lettristes belong to the same family; they speak the same language in every sense,. There is however, one singular and crucial difference that separates them. The Dadaists had seen the massacres of the First World War. Isou had seen the Holocaust’ (p.13)
But what is lettrisme? For Isou it was a whole philosophical system; a way of understanding the entire world. Lettrisme had begun as a response to the lies and propaganda that Isou had met head-on as a young Jew in the Holocaust of Nazi-occupied Romania. If the world had to be remade, then a new language had to be developed, and what better way than noise without direct referent? It was a form of psychic self-defence, opposing the ‘controlling powers’ of so-called objective reality with a reassertion of subjective ‘poetic’ reality. It soon became something else, something more: a complete system within a system that married avant-gardism and Jewish belief. (p. 298). In poetry it took the form of letters or sounds devoid of semantic content. ‘The key to understanding lettriste poetry was to remake the world in its own image rather than simply reflecting the world as beautiful or ugly, good or bad. When men (and women) had discovered this, that they too could themselves be creators, their own creations, they would discover that they could walk with God as ‘the companion of Creations.’
The best description of lettrist poetry I’ve come across is from The Allan Ginsburg Project: ‘the Lettrist thing was to make use… not make use of mere sounds, but separate poems out into letters and letter-by-letter the poem should be composed – and so some Lettrist poems had no meaning at all – it was just pure sounds made by vowels and letters)…’. Ginsburg situates it within the work of e e cummings, Artaud, and Concrete Poetry. ‘cummings by isolating letters and words is a Lettrist. Antonin Artaud, to some extent, is a Lettrist, because certain of his poems are punctuated by sounds, shrieks, cries. People who write on typewriters and make designs of the page – like a swan – like John Hollander – that could be a variety of Lettrist, more like concrete poetry, as it’s called. Lettrist poetry led into concrete poetry where the page was a painting, and that comes out of Apollinaire. …But Lettrism itself is an interesting school. What it was was it went back to Kabbalah. In cabalistic studies the ancient Hebrew lore and practice was that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as some of you know already but for those who don’t, each letter had an assigned number, so that if you had a word, you’d then figure out the numerological meaning of the word, and so it was a mixture of the sound of the alphabet, and then the numerology of it, and correspondences between the aggregate of the numbers contained in the word and celestial phenomena, or recurrent mathematical or arithmetical or human numbered things, like six senses, or the number of hairs on the head, (or the number of God, for instance, is the magic number).
Isou saw himself as a chosen one, a half-divinity, and so did those who gathered around him. He was the young one with the answers. He hated Sartre for his bourgeois complacency; hated all the Resistants for their self-glorification; and with all the wrath and moral righteousness of a survivor of the Holocaust. He defended Céline for being honest about his anti-Semitism. He gloried in scandal, moral outrage, and was not above using violence as a means to be heard. By the 26th of January 1947, Isou was being covered in The New York Times, where John Lackey Brown wrote, ‘A band, led by a 21-year-old Romanian whose pen name is Isidore Isou, has created ‘lettrism’. The lettrists, determined to do Dada and the Surrealists one better, aim at the renovation of poetry not only by the invention of new words but of new letters.’ Brown then noted drily that so far they had invented 18 of them.
You can see some of Isou’s appeal here, in Le desordre, a film by Jacques Bartier. It’s St. Germain-de-Prés in 1946. Juliette Gréco sings. Boris Vian and Kosma play. Simone de Beauvoir, Alexandre Astruc, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau and many others appear, even Orson Welles, who seems to be everywhere when it’s most salient. George Pomerand, Isou’s greatest disciple, appears chasing after Cocteau, burning art, and spouting Lettrist poetry (at around the 14 min. mark). Not great quality but rather fascinating.
You can see further examples of what Isou was trying to propagate and the way he did so in his own film, Traité de bavé et d’eternité. See how he riles against the pigs in the opening credits.
Soon, however, he got old. He thought he would live forever but had already outlived the very premise of a lettrisme so focused on youth violently providing the answers to the problems of the culture. He quietly converted to Catholicism so he could marry the woman he loved; a lifelong complicit partnership that produced a daughter, though the marriage itself was of short duration. Isou was selfish and impossible.
He made a living writing porn. Huyssen depicts Isou as totally accepting of sexuality as fluid, with an aim at pleasing women, and with extraordinary self confidence at dong so. IN his early years upon his first arrival in Paris he’d sold himself to women who could afford him. He also supplemented his living painting, and had a fair degree of success with it.
He missed the events of May 68 because he had a psychotic episode, was interned in a psychiatric ward and given electro-shock therapy. He would be in and out of mental hospitals for the rest of his life. The events of May 68 that he was so angry at missing are nonetheless something he and lettrisme would subsequently be credited with predicting.
What Hussey makes clear in the book is Isou’s sense of his own exceptionalism, his anger, his willingness to risk fights, physical and otherwise, all stem from his experience at suffering pogroms, at having survived being Jewish at a time of Holocaust. Even when meeting an old friend after forty years, when they discussed all the people they had known, neither could mention what each had witnessed the other had suffered and endured during this period. It was too horrible, still too powerful. A condition of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that had conditioned their lives and that was to drive one of them into a deep mental illness.
Some of this was released in his constant obsession with sex and pornography (he was a prolific writer of it); some released in his art and politics. But much remain internalised and psychically damaging. Isou however was against any type of talking cures, as the dark recesses of the mind; the things that might drive you mad; or nonetheless also the found of creativity, of new thinking and of art. Thus to suffer and drive forward, something I somehow think in keeping with his own stance in relation to Zionism; rather than retreat into a safe space, which he saw as in itself a kind of defeat, albeit perhaps necessary; his preference was for remaking the whole world as jewish (partly through lettrism). For Isou, every poet was a Yid because, after the Holocaust, all poetry had to be written from the position of the other. A fascinating life.
In the conclusion of the book Hussey writes how he titled the book Speaking East because he wanted to draw attention to the centrality of Eastern Europe’s influence on main strands of European thought, that much of what we think of as ‘component parts of Western modernity – Dada, Surrealism and especially Letterism/ lettrism have their origins in Eastern Europe’ (p.298). In this – as in much else – he has clearly succeeded. It’s a stimulating page-turner of a biography.
We discuss Almodóvar’s second feature, Labyrinth of Passion, where Almodóvar himself appears both as director and rock star in minor roles. We talk about its convoluted plot, its verbal and visual campyness, its anti-authoritarian stance and its status as a youth film. We note how even in his second film, there are evident connections with his first film (not least in the recurring cast) and plot strands that will re-appear subsequently (the airport scene in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). We talk about it (briefly) as a document of its time, particularly in relation to the Nueva Movida Madrileña. The plot is straight out of Hello magazine; the idea that sex, drugs and art are a fun path without pitfalls to liberation is straight out of underground comics. Richard Lester’s cinema is a clear influence. Fanny McNamara steals the show. We could have talked for a lot longer.