[Poe] Christopher Isherwood on New Year’s Eve

Misfit friends ring in the New Year from a 1930s Berlin nightclub.

Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)*

[On New Year’s Eve I had supper with my landlady and the other lodgers. I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose. The place was crammed. It was difficult to say who was dancing and who was merely standing up. After hunting about for some time, I came upon Arthur in a corner. He was sitting at a table with another, rather younger gentleman who wore an eyeglass and had sleek dark hair.

“Ah, here you are, William. We were beginning to fear that you’d deserted us. May I introduce two of my most valued friends to each other? Mr. Bradshaw—Baron von Pregnitz.”

The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:

“Excuse me. Do you know Naples?”

“No. I’ve never been there.”

“Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.”

“Perhaps so,” I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink well-shaved face by means of some horrible surgical operation.

“Perhaps you were at Juan-les-Pins last year?”

“No, I’m afraid I wasn’t.”

“Yes, I see.” He smiled in polite regret. “In that case I must beg your pardon.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said. We both laughed very heartily. Arthur, evidently pleased that I was making a good impression on the Baron, laughed too. I drank a glass of champagne off at a gulp. A three-man band was playing: Gruss’ mir mein Hawai, ich bleib’ Dir treu, ich hab’ Dich gerne. The dancers, locked frigidly together, swayed in partial-paralytic rhythms under a huge sunshade suspended from the ceiling and oscillating gently through cigarette smoke and hot rising air.

“Don’t you find it a trifle stuffy in here?” Arthur asked anxiously.

In the windows were bottles filled with coloured liquids brilliantly illuminated from beneath, magenta, emerald, vermilion. They seemed to be lighting up the whole room. The cigarette smoke made my eyes smart until the tears ran down my face. The music kept dying away, then surging up fearfully loud. I passed my hand down the shiny black oil-cloth curtains in the alcove behind my chair. Oddly enough, they were quite cold. The lamps were like alpine cowbells. And there was a fluffy white monkey perched above the bar. In another moment, when I had drunk exactly the right amount of champagne, I should have a vision. I took a sip. And now, with extreme clarity, without passion or malice, I saw what Life really is. It had something, I remember, to do with the revolving sunshade. Yes, I murmured to myself, let them dance. They are dancing. I am glad.

“You know, I like this place. Extraordinarily,” I told the Baron with enthusiasm. He did not seem surprised.

Arthur was solemnly stifling a belch.

“Dear Arthur, don’t look so sad. Are you tired?”

“No, not tired, William. Only a little contemplative, perhaps. Such an occasion as this is not without its solemn aspect. You young people are quite right to enjoy yourselves. I don’t blame you for a moment. One has one’s memories.”

“Memories are the most precious things we have,” said the Baron with approval. As intoxication proceeded, his face seemed slowly to disintegrate. A rigid area of paralysis formed round the monocle. The monocle was holding his face together. He gripped it desperately with his facial muscles, cocking his disengaged eyebrow, his mouth sagging slightly at the corners, minute beads of perspiration appearing along the parting of his thin, satin-smooth dark hair. Catching my eye, he swam up towards me, to the surface of the element which seemed to separate us.

“Excuse me, please. May I ask you something?”

“By all means.”

“Have you read Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And tell me, please, how did you like it?”

“Very much indeed.”

“Then I am very glad. Yes, so did I. Very much.”

And now we were all standing up. What had happened? It was midnight. Our glasses touched.

“Cheerio,” said the Baron, with the air of one who makes a particularly felicitous quotation.

“Allow me,” said Arthur, “to wish you both every success and happiness in nineteen thirty-one. Every success…” His voice trailed off uneasily into silence. Nervously he fingered his heavy fringe of hair. A tremendous crash exploded from the band. Like a car which has slowly, laboriously reached the summit of the mountain railway, we plunged headlong downwards into the New Year.]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Christopher Isherwood will not be the overbearing subject of poe continuously, but due to my mild infatuation with his writings, there is a wide range of material from which to draw. As the Gregorian New Year is upon us, this selection is rather apt. On the first reading of Mr. Norris Changes Trains, this passage stood out. For my holiday vacation reading selection**, I had chosen to indulge the above mentioned infatuation by rereading Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and came across this familiar passage and delighted in its symmetry with the time of year and whimsical imagery.

This scene of New Year’s revelry takes place early in the novel, and we have only just met Arthur Norris, a character who develops fascinatingly throughout the narrative. This is also our first glimpse of Baron von Pregnitz, who goes by Kuno for much of the novel, and it is one of our first animal-referenced physical descriptions which Isherwood employs so well in his vivid character portraits. Kuno is fishy and suave, like a cod, often “swimming” through his surroundings. My favorite brief moment in this excerpt is,

“Catching my eye, he swam up towards me, to the surface of the element which seemed to separate us.”

The image is so simple but evocative in my mind, I can just picture the man oozing in to ask William his question. (William is in fact supposed to be Isherwood himself.) The slow degradation of their evening is also very humourous, and gives us other silly descriptions of the Baron, most amusingly in reference to that monocle! It practically holds his otherwise drooping and drunk face together. Even in a drunken stupor, Kuno can muster the strength of will to hold that glass to his eye.

As we all move into our New Year’s Eve celebrations, we can draw parallels to Isherwood’s experience described here. In a drunken moment of clarity, he realizes some sort of epiphany on the meaning of it all, only to have us realize his drunken visions are quite silly. We may have all been in a place where drink or other intoxicants deliver truth to us, no? There is the sentimentality of the New Year as well, which we sometimes feel on this auspicious time of year, just like Arthur. And we are reminded that time will keep on chugging, just like that train steaming over the hill into Isherwood’s new year. We can pause, celebrate and reflect, but that dive into the future is inevitable.

*Mr. Norris Changes Trains was published in the United States as The Last of Mr. Norris, due to a recommendation from Isherwood’s publisher, who assumed Americans would not understand the concept of changing trains, as we used the terminology to transfer trains. Isherwood tells us in one of his autobiographies that this was a grave mistake as it only led to confusion amongst his readers and a lifetime of having to clarify this point. Usually, this story is combined with Goodbye to Berlin in the collected volume commonly known as The Berlin Stories.

**In relation to my previous post, I also brought along the collected works of Paul Bowles, amongst several other items which realistically will not be read due to the rough realities of time.

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[Travelogue] Puttin’ on my readin’ dress

One of my favorite things about going on vacation is the guarantee of unfettered space in which to read. I have not yet warmed up to the eyepod, and I usually turn to reading instead of digital music as my way of passing that public transit time that comes (for some of us) with the commencement of a journey. Even in commuting, I enjoy a quick twenty-minute read (sometimes longer, depending on the whims of Muni) from whichever book I am carrying around on that particular day. The inevitable literary but noisy BART trip from San Francisco will also involve a brief but reading-accessible “Air-Bart” bus ride from the Oakland Airport BART station to the loading zone of the airport itself. For the sake of brevity, criticisms on why our system does not just connect to the airport itself will be saved for another post! Waiting around in the airport in that pre-holiday madness only serves to give us more time to chill out, and read something. With all the waiting around in the airplane and various trains, one could read a selection of different things, which begs the questions: how many books is it reasonable to bring on vacation?

I always overzealously pack more books than I seem to be able to read. But my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, as one could say. Commonly other books and magazines or newspapers are picked up along the way and supplant the originally packed materials, creating all sorts of overlapping capacities amongst the abundant resources. This holiday season, I head back into the hinterlands of suburban southern California, from where I came and will celebrate American Christmas with my family, before moving on to the greater San Diego area southwards. This will necessitate a delightful train ride with ample reading time involved, as mentioned in a post from earlier this month. The original reading intentions may be interrupted again, as it is quite something to see Los Angeles and the areas south of there from the rails than from the roaring concrete slab lined with advertisements and box stores. I think I have brought up to four or five books for a week’s vacation before, and will often read only one or two of them. It seems to be a bit of compulsion and a need for some variety when it comes down to the moment of reading. I have known friends to take many more, and burn through them in a similar vacation-relaxation-reading zone.

How many books do you take on vacation?
(polls)

This reading season, I am considering taking just two books of my own to read. It will force me to read the works of one writer in particular, something I have wanted to do but it might be intense. But it might be nice to not lug heavy paper objects up and down the state of California too, and better for my body in a wellness sense. Any of you web wanderers out there, any recommendations on readings for this holiday season? Anything we should try to pick up at our public library or nearby used-bookstore before hopping on the bus to the train to the bus to the airplane to the car to the house?

Steampunk — Howl’s Moving Castle

On Octopoe, we have explored some consumerist sides of the steampunk genre so far, via wedding cakes and then laptops. While we will revisit the idea of looking at consumer goods refashioned in a steampunk image, for now we move on to a meatier subject: how steampunk can be used in our visual media (in this instance film) to produce complex and interesting results. Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle* serves as an excellent example of imagery that could quintessentially be called steampunk expressing itself in an effectively visual medium (the anime film) while drawing some interesting correlations with the historical record. The world created in the film draws many visual cues from late Industrial Age Europe, the half century or so that lead to the First World War. The humanoid characters are represented as white, and their fashion speaks to this time period as well. An unexplained war is taking place during the story, and there are scenes imbued with nationalistic representations. Generic flags are waving proudly; troops are marching off to their honored doom. Nationalism was a strong cultural trend in these years before the early 20th century world conflicts, and inevitably helped cause them. Any sort of moving machine in the film is almost exclusively run on some sort of burned substance, producing smoke or steam. Miyazaki treads familiar themes in this film nonetheless, and the more traditional futurism of the steampunk genre is replaced by a fantastical magical element that imbues characters and objects with power. In not relying on technology, he still covers the recognizable themes of human interaction with their environment, the roles of nature and technology in that interplay between the two—distinctly through some vivid and bleak images of a war made sinister in that we never quite learn the cause or history behind it in the story.

However, no comprehensive summary will be provided here, nor will we be replete with images—it is assumed that you have seen Miyazaki’s film and remember the imagery and story (wholly or partially) or will rectify the omission in your film viewing lexicon soon, made amply easy by today’s modern technological luxuries.

There is the wizard Howl’s mobile château itself, which builds on Miyazaki’s traditional theme of nature and technology, giving us a semi-anthropomorphic-crossed-with-beetle looking castle. Powered by the fire demon Calcifer, from the outside views it seems to be belching steam or smoke of some sort from the very first frames. Clearly mechanical, but given an instant magical quality.

Miyazaki uses many fantastical and magical references in his films, but Howl’s Moving Castle is imbued with a more pedestrian stream of steampunk beyond the castle. The main character Sophie, and indeed their world, are depicted as being in an unnamed European-modeled country, as mentioned above, clearly at a stage of industrial development comparable to where Europe (industrial development came in stages at different times in different regions of the world… but generally) was at the time of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The cityscapes are filled with belching factories and crowded with European architecture. Steam trains and trolleys crisscross the landscape of the film’s visuals. There are even individual steam powered cars, piloted by lone drivers or carrying a pair. Lecherous off-duty gendarmes prey on Sophie at one point, instigating her meeting with Howl, the wizard of the title. Other than this, these soldiers wear bright, continental style military uniforms and spend the rest of their screen time cavorting in plaza-side cafés or marching as riflemen in propagandistic martial parades alongside horsed soldiers and tanks. The images of war become more gruesome, and we get more images in a blend of futuristic, magical, and early 20th century military technology inspiration.

Flight is a common theme Miyazaki plays with, and all sort of interesting creatures or things are taking to the air in his films. Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception, and we are shown some reminiscent scenes. Large airships sound a stark drone over the urban areas, dropping bombs in their wake. They are enormous, often taking the form of an aquatic bird, sometimes with fluttering insect wings. We get an ominous view of one behemoth replete with bombs, appearing almost like the eggs of some great flying mother beast who would relish nothing more than cracking their fiery innards across the industrialized landscape. Also in a more visually jarring image, some of the airships squirt out malevolent flying wizard creatures in this unsuitably organic fashion in order to attack Howl (who is flying around destroying marauding airships as a great bird-beast). We have many images of bombs being dropped, and Miyazaki does not shy from the imagery redolent of our own history.

The war of Miyazaki’s film also takes to the sea, and includes a few appearances of great, tub-shaped battleships, proudly sailing out through resplendent harbors full of sailing boats. The military vessels are bellowing smoke, covered in deadly cannons. Later one of these ships returns to the harbor of Sophie’s city, badly damaged in combat, with sailors jumping ship into the water to save their souls. And with all of these images, all that horror of war, we can sort of reflect on these steampunk inspired images: the industrialized and Europeanized backdrop, the technological devices and storyline infused with bizarre, futuristic and magical images. One can begin to appreciate Miyazaki’s interesting role as a Japanese filmmaker and the potential commentary he is making through his choices of historical and cultural representations around the rise of industrialism and nationalism, which lead to the terrible conflicts in the first half of the twentieth century, not least of all for his native Japan. As a decentralized feudal oligarchy for centuries, Japan began a rapid western-inspired modernization in 1868 with what is known as the Meiji Restoration, an event which put power in the hands of a centralized state represented by an emperor, with power resting in the hands of a new ruling elite committed to the transformation of Japan. The country rapidly became industrialized in the western sense during the following decades, and due to the geopolitical implications of such development ran into conflict with another developing industrial power, Russia. The two states squabbled over imperial rights in northeastern China, fighting over economic access to Manchuria and general capitalistic and expansionary rights in Asia in what history calls the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Japan had figured out how to play the same games as the European powers, and soundly defeated Russia and became involved in later European-based conflicts, notably expanding imperialistically at the expense of other nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan’s success caught up with her, ultimately being decimated at the hands of other industrialized powers in the competition for global hegemony that was the Second World War.

Miyazaki is no stranger to visiting the subject of war in his films, and it is interesting to consider his representations in Howl’s Moving Castle in relation to war as they mirror the historical context of the steampunk genre. While scientific advancement helped inspire the genre itself, new developments in economic systems and their technologies helped contribute to even more violent conflicts between people. We can come back to the similar questions, such as wondering about the merits of this militaristic competition based on economic systems and political beliefs that are unsound and unjust. Miyazaki, as usual, gives us a rich visual and thematic film that broaches these complex subjects.

*This article deliberately does not discuss Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle, from which Miyazaki adapted his film. His liberties with the story separate these two representations adequately, allowing us to address the film here and not Jones’ novel, a luxury discussed in this post from December 3rd.

[Poe] Jacques Prévert serves some sadness

A simple and accessible French poem stirs a bitter cup.

Excerpt from Jacques PRÉVERT, Paroles (1945)

Jacques Prévert’s brief poem is a clear and saddening glimpse of what seems to be the end of a relationship, but the whole thing is deliciously vague. Who are these two people, and what is the nature of their relationship? We know the one who leaves is a man, which we know from the subject pronoun; but the gender of the one left behind and crying is satisfyingly unclear. All we work with is a sparse series of phrases which convey simple images in a stream of consciousness, much like viewing a slideshow of photographs or watching a short film. The reader can delicately apply their own experience, their own preferences, to the particulars that Prévert omits. One might easily take a macabre delight in the simple turns of phrase that evoke such hurtful pangs, such dark little switches of recognition. After all, people in relationships of many flavors have probably parted as sadly as this, perhaps over a final cup of coffee and a farewell cigarette, or in a context similar enough to stir one’s own little cup of bitterness.

I appreciate this poem for its simplicity and accessibility. It was read aloud in a French class I participated in recently, and the little raw nerve it struck led me to investigate Jacques Prévert further, including picking up a copy of his book of poems, Paroles. At this time I connected him as the screenwriter of Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise, 1945). This multifaceted writer has also had some of his poetry set to music by various composers, or sung by contemporary vocalists such as Édith Piaf. Upon learning this fact, I imagined what sort of music might accompany Déjeuner du matin. Would a slow timbre suffice, or should the adjoining notes be as quick and cruel as the lines of the poem itself? The words in themselves are so brief and strong, what other sound could convey the same feeling? I have read the poem aloud and listened for an appropriate cue, something in the sound of the words that may give me a clue. Unfortunately my training was not in music. Needless to say, this sad little poem has helped tie together various threads of my francophone experience, on both literary and cinematic fronts. It is interesting for myself to note that Prévert had not been discovered before, in the context of a similar academic experience, of while having lived in France for a short time. It is especially silly as I have enjoyed other French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, particularly his Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) and his translations from English of the stories of the American writer Edgar Allen Poe. My recent and whimsical discovery of Prévert has helped to remind me of the richness of any language tradition, and the many depths I can still delightfully explore in French.

[Travelogue] Get on the train

When having to move from here to there with the distance not being practical for your own two feet to carry you, trains are a delightful alternative. More passive than piloting your own automobile through the cosmos of spacey drivers out on the endless roads, riding the train can lend some quiet meditative space. Unlike the droning, stale-aired tube that is modern air travel, one can often move more freely on a railed vessel, not to mention exit entirely. Waiting for the next stop is usually the best option for getting off, but if one simply must exit with haste – let us say due to being chased amidst intrigue, attempting survival in light of burning or exploding carriage, et cetera – the likelihood of landing in one piece is better when jumping from a train than an airplane. You are afforded the experience of sensing the progression in movement of your journey across the landscape when you ride a train as well. Underground lines can be a little noisy, crowded, and potentially stiflingly hot; but subways are often fast and convenient, being located in dense urban centers which suffuse them with practical use and influence over lifestyle and terrain, both in formation and identity.

It is certainly much easier to engage in conversation when riding on a train, as you are not focused on navigating your individual wheeled metal box. Riding trains in France brought many delightful encounters and different contexts in which to practice the language. I met a young woman who watched my friends and I play cards, claiming she had no idea what our game was, asking to have the rules explained and to be included on the next round. After a brief tutorial, this young lady was dealt a hand of cards, and she proceeded to trounce us all within a single round of cards, behaving most politely and modestly the entire time. We knew a ringer, and stopped playing. My friend met a charming music performer on one of our trips through France, and his promotional posters adorned our future apartment windows in Santa Cruz. The past few years I have celebrated the winter holiday season by splitting time between the Los Angeles and the San Diego areas, and I have been making an enjoyed and anticipated tradition of taking the train from Union Station. This past year I unexpectedly ran into one of my own ESL students from San Francisco in my compartment, and we ended up sitting in the same quadrant of seats and conversing about our travels.

Some very interesting written representations occur on trains, getting us into the field of travel narratives. Christopher Isherwood opens his novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains with the meeting between his neutral protagonist and the infamous Arthur Norris while they are sharing a compartment crossing Europe. Isherwood and his close friend and writing peer W.H. Auden, a poet, left a record of a very interesting conversation shared while riding a train. They had been commissioned to write a travelogue and journalistic account of the war between China and Japan during the 1930s, which gave us their combined work, Journey to a War.  We get this image of them sharing a train journey in this excerpt:

“Thrown back upon each other’s well-worn company, we got through the long hours as we could best contrive—emptying out our heads like waste-paper baskets for the least scrap of amusement or interest. We told the old anecdotes, each secretly hoping that the other would remember or invent some new detail, however palpably untrue. We improvised parodies and limericks. We lost ourselves in interminable arguments and speculations: ‘What would happen if the world ran out of oil?’ ‘What would you describe as the unhappiest day of your life?’ ‘Does a man become a different person in a different place?”

The time and space the train travel gives us is a good time for conversation, and can yield interesting material in allowing so much space for discourse as you may only have conversation or sleep between you and a long journey. The speculations above are definitely interesting. Is it not absolutely disconcerting that a pair of intellectuals were casually discussing the ramifications of reaching peak oil in the 1930s? Are we different people when we travel? Who are we when we lose the surroundings, routine and acquiantances who help define who we are in our space? It is interesting to consider the conversation above, our own social place riding on trains contemporarily, and the potential future place of trains as we attempt to mitigate the affects of climate change, let alone game changers like peak oil.

Not learning poo from history

Were not those that failed to learn from history doomed to repeat it? With Barack Obama gearing  up another American surge, this time in Afghanistan, we could afford to look at a bit of history. Let’s take a quick look at one of America’s most influential political, social and artistic predecessors: Rome.

And this is not the Rome of the modern European travel circuit, but Latin Rome that began as an Etruscan influenced city-state ruled by kings from 600-BC onwards. About a hundred years later, the city’s aristocracy established themselves via coup as those enfranchised with power and formed what we could call a republic with the lower classes (who were given nominal representation within this power sharing system). Anyone who was not a propertied male did not have much voice or agency at all. Rome went on to clash with its neighbors, conquering them militarily and savagely working away at consolidating the entire Mediterranean basin into an economic and political unit that became the dominant power in the Western world in the years around the turn of the previous millennium.

However, the original class based republic did not last. Hundreds of years into the republic the (in)famous Julius Caesar declared himself dictator in 44-BC based on his popular and military support, and was promptly stabbed to death by those same enfranchised aristocrats above (on the very floor of the Roman Senate – talk about political theater!), not keen on surrendering power to one member of their class alone. Military struggles between factions ensued, and eventually Augustus Caesar (Julius’ chosen heir) won out in 27-BC, settling on a new constitution that claimed to “restore the republic” but in fact gave the Roman people a monarchical government. Augustus was princeps (first citizen), and his successors called themselves imperator (emperor), and thus the Roman Empire germinates around this time.

America can take some strong points here for its own consciousness; examples that we could keep in mind as we evolve with the paradigm shift (which certainly will not be easy in proud and exceptionalism-minded America) that is coming with a multi-polar world of geopolitics: exampled by our intrinsic lock with China over finances, our historical/socio-cultural/militaristic ties to Europe, and dependence on (often hostile) oil-producing states.

The imperial expansion of Rome introduced the same paradox that the Athenian Greeks faced between democracy (Athens was in fact a class/gender based democracy) and the pursuit of empire and subjugated peoples. The United States soon followed Rome’s precedential path from republic to empire in picking fights with both Mexico and Spain, amongst many others from Asia to Africa throughout its short history — sometimes acquiring vast tracts of territory and population, sometimes acquiring subtler or non-existent gains; look at the mess we caused in southeast Asia. A country which cannot afford or prioritize giving its people healthcare, building decent transportation networks (let alone high-speed trains), or keeping its education system credible cannot afford to militaristically harass far flung peoples. We have and will continue to expend enormous amounts of blood and treasure on our misadventures, clearly stressing our current creaking economic system. Hundreds of years went by for the Roman Empire before they succumbed to internal and external pressures, seeing generals vie for influence through military power struggles, eventually buckling under the immigration influx of what history has branded Germanic tribes, around 400-AD.* As the United States continues to face old and new pressures, such as relative power decline, economic strain and a continued influx of large numbers of immigrants (Spanish speaking peoples mostly, coming back to reclaim much that was stolen during a mid-nineteenth century war?), it will be interesting to see what happens to this country.

And now back to Afghanistan, where we seem to be further investing ourselves in an endlessly violent quagmire. Here we are hideously not learning anything from the historical record. Our predecessors the British in the mid-1800s and the Russians in the 1980s, were two other foreign powers that tried to control Afghanistan forcibly, to disastrous results. Sinking more resources into forcing our conceptualization of the modern state onto a people who are not accustomed to it, let alone did not ask for it, is not going to work out and it serves to only weaken the United States further. It will function as one of the external pressures like those felt by Rome in its twilight period.

*For a hint of more context, this is when the beginnings of our ideas of France/French, Spain/Spanish, Italy/Italian et cetera develop in western Europe.

The book to movie cringe

To be truthful, I usually frown upon most literary narratives transitioned into film, as I feel that in their essence the two media are not capable of telling stories satisfactorily in a mutual way. Of course, each is enjoyed thoroughly by many people and independently of one another in their own contexts. Apparently having demonstrated our appetite for these adaptation films, numerous examples have been produced and actually make up a sizable portion of the overall mainstream film output. But gawd, aren’t most of them absolutely terrible?

Do you remember when they tried to make Philip Pullman’s interesting and severe His Dark Materials into a film franchise with lots of lights, money and beautiful hollywood faces? (And rightly failed to do so) Zzz. Not all productions from literature to film are so hideous. Peter Jackson allegedly scraped by with his rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings. But in the wise words of the character Val Goldman from the film The Birdcage — “Don’t add, just subtract.” — Jackson’s film seems replete with images that could have been spent on more accurately transitioning Tolkien’s detailed and simple narrative. But even the sage advice above does not always hold, demonstrated by the adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, made by Clint Eastwood, of all people. He embellished the role of The Lady Chablis, enriching and poking the story into interesting places, a rare example of a filmmaker adding some queerness to one’s work. Overall, it seems to be varied on how well the transition is made, depending on who does the work.

So I will admit that a cringe was elicited upon realization that the previously seen but unidentified film poster at the Kabuki theater* in San Francisco was in fact an advertisement for an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. My evidence was found in this article from the NY Times. My love for Isherwood’s written works led me to masochistically devour the article and rush to the web for the trailer. The former designer turned film auteur Tom Ford gives us a version featuring credible performers, if clearly altered (clear from the article and online trailer) and looking to lean towards high drama. Isherwood’s novel is subtle as it is emotional and devastating; it will be interesting to see if Mr. Ford can stew these down into a visual and moving cinematic experience without serving us something overcooked, drowned in a flavor of Ford’s own publicity and ego. I hope to be proven utterly wrong**, and see the delightful balance that can exist between two executions in form of a single original story. Here’s to optimism.

What will certainly be interesting to see is how much attention Isherwood the writer and his collective works receive in the release and attention around Ford’s film. Sometimes this can actually be the undoing of a piece of literature, at least in its mass-produced and marketed life. We have all seen the paperback transposed with movie poster at our local box bookstore. They have the ability to drain a lot of goodness from what would otherwise be a pleasant book experience, but should one complain if more people are reading said book? More people reading Isherwood’s writings is a great step in itself as they tend to be underread.

*I was there seeing another book to movie transition, the Wes Anderson directed spin on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I found to be wonderful. But I have the benefit of not having read Dahl’s original (to be rectified soon thanks to the San Francisco Public Library), so did not have to suffer the burden of comparing.

**I feel my interest in Isherwood will compel me to see Ford’s film. At least it will be worth comparing to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, which is based on Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.