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Friday, October 31, 2014

El Infierno

El Infierno, 2010
(Historia de México 2010)
no copyright infringement intended

Benny Garcia had left Mexico as a young fellow to find his fortune in US. What happened with Benny during his stay in US nobody told us, maybe it was good, maybe it was not so good, suffice it to say that after twenty years they deported the guy back to Mexico. To be again home after so many years had its charm, there were the guitars and sombreros, and all the good stuff, plus Benny had the gringo experience, which meant he was able to ride on both worlds. Not exactly, as the gringo experience proved kind of confusing in what he found home. His younger brother had been killed and he had to find the authors and take revenge, actually killings looked very common, the brother's girlfriend, Guadelupe by name, was making ends meet as a prostitute at Café México, her son was rising up as a loose cannon, plus Benny was irresistibly attracted by Guadelupe (who was terribly hot, no question about). Was that the hell or what?

(source: Facebook page of Enrique Martinez)
no copyright infringement intended

A childhood friend helped him adjust. The hell was rather a paradise, provided you were in the gang of Don Reyes. El Infierno was El Paradiso, more exactly El Narco (that was the definition of paradise: being in the narcotic business). All you had to do was to execute the orders of Don Reyes (including to kill now and then), and you had plenty of money, plenty of drinks, a big car, any women you wanted, the order you had them was your choice. Wasn't that splendid? Everybody,  the mayor, the police, the priest, all the others, were under the authority of Don Reyes. Well, it was also the rival gang, of Don Pancho, the two bosses were actually brothers, and the war between them had ups and downs, sometimes it was hot, with mutual killings and disfigurement of victims (fingers and/or ears cut, sometimes beheadings, stuff like that, drones weren't yet so popular), some other times the war was put on hold. All this was keeping the men in that village very busy. The kids dreamed to enter one of the two gangs,  as for the women and old men, it was another story, they weren't living in the paradise, rather in limbo, and sometimes they were unexpectedly shot for unknown reasons, because also the limbo had its rules.

And pretty soon Benny found out that the paradise was just a stage to hell, nobody could remain in the cards for too long, for each one the bell was ringing and the turn was coming to be tortured, disfigured, then killed. Hell and paradise mocking each other, playing a common black farce, for what was life other than a black farce?

The movie stirred extremely controversial reactions in Mexico, for obvious reasons. As the whole movie had not been enough, by the end Benny was shown coming to the Mexican Bicentennial celebration and killing everybody from the official tribune (Don Reyes surrounded by all authorities of the village). Thus many protested against El Infierno saying it was profoundly unjust and unfair to depict their country as a grotesque caricature. Luis Estrada (director, writer and producer) defended his movie, saying that, firstly, a caricature was just a caricature, secondly, a caricature was a very legitimate artistic approach, like all other legitimate artistic approaches, thirdly, he agreed that obviously not all Mexican society was made of drug dealers and corrupt politicians, while this Mexican society had to be aware about the serious problem of having so much criminality and corruption in their country, all these leading to the conclusion that a grotesque caricature was sometimes necessary for its cathartic effect.

I'm just wondering how would I react against a movie depicting in this way my own country. Honestly I wouldn't take it easy at all, but my reaction against it would prove the power of the message. An artist has the duty to say the truth he believes in, with all risks, even with the risk of stirring ardent passions against him. Luis Estrada is politically intense and his movies cannot be but politically intense. His extreme sarcasm calls in mind the movies of Berlanga, and generally the Spanish and Hispanic-American movies are often very tough.

I would add to all this that the value of a movie cannot stand only in what it speaks to its country; it should go beyond and transmit something universal. I think this is the case with El Infierno. It's the drama of returning to your home after many years and realizing that for everybody there you look like an ostrich joke, because that's what you are. It's the tragedy of having illusions till you realize that your life is just a black farce. It's a parable saying that our whole world became a hell in all respects.

El Infierno, 2010 - trailer
(video by elinfiernopelicula)

Kudos for the interpret of Benny (Damián Alcázar), a great actor succeeding in the impossible task of depicting credibly such a contradictory man. Perfectly natural as a profoundly nice guy, perfectly natural as a very effective killer. I'd mention here also Joaquin Cosio, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Salvador Sánchez, all of them playing also in the other movies of Luis Estrada, but all the cast was very good. And a special accolade to Elisabeth Cervantes, the interpret of Guadelupe.

Por mi madre yo soy Mexicano,
Por destino soy Americano.
Yo soy de la raza de oro.
Yo soy México Americano

Yo te comprendo el inglés,
También te hablo en castellano.
Yo soy de la raza noble.
Yo soy México Americano

Zacatecas a Minnesota,
De Tijuana a Nueva York.
Dos países son mi tierra,
Los defiendo con honor

Dos idiomas y dos países,
Dos culturas tengo yo.
En mi suerte tengo orgullo,
Porque así lo manda Dios

Por mi madre yo soy Mexicano,
Por destino soy Americano.
Yo soy de la raza de oro.
Yo soy México Americano

(Luis Estrada)


David Ensign: All Saints' Day in the Reformed Tradition

(Clarendon Presbyterian Church)
no copyright infringement intended

David Ensign, the minister at Clarendon Presbyterian Church (community inclusive, progressive, diverse): All Saints' Day has a rather different focus in the Reformed tradition. While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of ages past, the emphasis is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God. Rather than putting saints on pedestals as holy people set apart in glory, we give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of the believers in this and every age. All Saints' Day has been celebrated on November 1 since the year 835.

(Church in America)

În spaţiul românesc există douăzeci de zile de Moşi

Părintele Simion Florea Marian (1847-1907, folclorist, etnograf, preot, membru titular al Academiei Române) menţiona în lucrarea Trilogia vieţii, că pe tot parcursul anului, în spaţiul românesc există 20 de zile de Moşi. Cuvântul moşi vine de la strămoşi, şi se referă la persoanele trecute la cele veşnice. Cu apelativul moşi sunt numiţi nu doar morţii, ci şi principalele sărbători ce le sunt consacrate, precum şi pomenile făcute pentru ei. Din zilele de Moşi amintim: Moşii de primăvară (de Măcinici), Moşii de vară (sâmbăta dinaintea Rusaliilor), Moşii de toamnă (în prima sâmbătă din luna noiembrie), Moşii de iarnă (sâmbăta dinaintea Duminicii lăsatului sec de carne).

(Icon and Orthodoxy)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bert Williams, Play That Barbershop Chord (1910)

(Library of University of Colorado at Boulder)
no copyright infringement intended

This record comes from 1910: the Harlem Renaissance had still one decade or so before coming into stage, still the years around 1910 had their momentum, as they witnessed the entrance of Ragtime (associated till then with bordellos and smoked taverns) into the Harlem mainstream, with its minor key and catchy rhythm. The song of Bert Williams gives us the picture: a kinky-headed ladie they call Chocolate Sadie goes to a rathskeller where a swell colored fella named Bill Jefferson Lord plays the piano, sending the audiences into something prone to ecstasy.

She heaved a sigh
every time she could catch his eye, she'd cry,
Mr. Jefferson Lord, aw, play the barbershop chord!
It's got the soothin' harmony,
It makes an awful, awful, awful hit wit me!

Play dat strain, aw, please, play it again!
'Cause Mister when you start, the minor part,
I feel your fingers slippin' and agrippin' round my heart!
Oh Mr. Lord! Dat's it!
That's the barbershop chord!

(I'm using here info and quoting abundantly from Camille F. Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams: Burtnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star)

(Bert Williams)


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Miguel Hernández

Miguel Hernández in jail
photo from 1939
no copyright infringement intended

poet associated with the Generación del 27 and Generación del 36; born in 1910 in a poor family, spent his childhood as goat herd and farmhand; for the most part was self-taught; published his first book of poetry at 23; after the end of Spanish Civil War, as he was Republican and Communist, was sentenced to death, then the sentence was commuted to a prison term of 30 years; there produced an extraordinary amount of poetry, much of it in the form of simple songs; died in jail, in 1942 (wiki)

(Una Vida Entre Libros)


Orhan Pamuk, Ante los Ojos de Occidente

El País - El Boomeran(g)
no copyright infringement intended

A text by Orhan Pamuk about the vision of Istanbul that Western travelers have had for centuries.  He explains his love/hate relationship with Western comments and criticisms. It was published in Carta magazine:


(Una Vida Entre Libros)


Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project (1913)

Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams in the 1913 movie
no copyright infringement intended

Chaplinesque avant la lettre!
(scene from the 1913 movie with Bert Williams)
(The Guardian)
no copyright infringement intended

Often when looking for an old-old movie, I have the impression of doing some kind of archeology, or rather paleontology. It is not only the difficulty of finding a copy, or of understanding the movie from some fragments. It's also the effort to enter the universe of that bygone epoch, with mentalities so different, with names and histories that today don't tell anything anymore. Sometimes it's the language barrier. Sometimes it is also the destiny of the movie throughout the years. But never was this impression so powerful as with this movie made by Bert Williams in 1913. Imagine a new born immediately abandoned and forgotten, remained in a long lethargy, awaken and starting his life at 101 years. Because that was the case with Lime Kiln Field Day.

Like all movies of Bert Williams, it was made for the Biograph studio. It was an all-black cast, which was remarkable for those times: it is credited as the oldest surviving all-black movie. And remarkable is that it doesn't give a damn penny about all racist stereotypes of that epoch. It is a vaudeville whose personages spend some leisure time, preoccupied with dancing and romancing. Bert Williams is trying to conquer the heart of beautiful Odessa Warren Grey, which is far from simple, as there are also some rivals.

So they started to work for the movie, doing shootings on location in New York and New Jersey, but after some months the project was abandoned. The movie remained unfinished, unedited, and without a title. The footage was stored at Biograph and remained there languishing for decades. In 1939 MoMA acquired 900 negatives from the archive of Biograph. The movie of Williams was among them. It came to the attention of the curators sometime by the middle of the 2000's. The work of restoration took about ten years. Well, it needed a title, as in 1913 they left the baby unbaptized. So MoMA took care also for a name: Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. It is now compared with movies of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Here are four fragments from the movie

Some links for this movie, with stills and abundance of information:

(Bert Williams)


Monday, October 27, 2014

Bert Williams, A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

(The History Blog)
no copyright infringement intended

A Natural Born Gambler from 1916, 22 minutes long, one of the three movies having Bert Williams as director, writer and star. The cinematographer is Billy Bitzer.

A group of black gentlemen, organized in some kind of fraternity or lodge whatever, meets regularly in the back room of a bar to discuss matters of interest, their reunions ending in drinking or gambling or both. However gambling seems to be forbidden those days, so the guys have to be careful not to be discovered by the police. Among them the Honorable Bert Williams, kind of a walking delegate, which means big mouth and vague duties, always in debt and in need of money, always trying to cheat for the pleasure of game, always loosing. On the wall a torn-out image of President Lincoln, like a Deus Otiosus no longer interested in the daily operation of this rapidly decaying world, while seemingly taking pleasure in watching this very movie (he from the wall where's hanging, we from this other side of the screen). Watching this movie is like visiting a nostalgia shop: each scene looks like an incredible memorabilia.

Of course the police discovers the gamblers and brings them in front of the judge. The only one put in jail is (you gotcha) no other than our main hero (only for ten days, it's a comedy, not a drama). While in prison, he plays imaginary poker games, where he keeps on loosing: his pantomime is genial.

The movie comes with all racial stereotypes of the epoch: the rule by then was that the interpret of a black personage had to do minstreling, which meant to shoe-black his face and whiten his lips for the contrast; the intertitles followed another rule, to spell the fractured English supposed to be the blacks' parlance; and many other things like that. No wonder, the movie was made in 1916. It looks now completely anti-PC, but in those days the political correctness was just the opposite.

(Bert Williams)

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Bert Williams, Nobody

(Jas Obrecht Music Archive)
no copyright infringement intended

This song, Nobody, had such a huge success that Bert Williams would say in 1918, I could have wished both the author of the words and the assembler of the tune had been strangled or drowned or talked to death. For seven whole years I had to sing it. Month after month I tried to drop it and sing something new, but I could get nothing to replace it, and the audiences seemed to want nothing else. He was the assembler of the tune, by the way.

(Bert Williams)


Bert Williams

Bert Williams (1874-1922)
Photo-Portrait with Cigarette
no copyright infringement intended

he was the funniest man I ever saw... and the saddest man I ever met (W. C. Fields)

one of the prominent entertainers of the Vaudeville era, and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time (wiki)

when he collapsed, it was during a performance, and the audience thought it was his comic número; his last words were, it's a nice way to die; he didn't recover and soon passed away; he was 47 (wiki)

he played in three movies, all of them also directed by him, produced by Biograph, a NY film company of fame in the first two decades of the 20th century; one of these three films was long time lost, and rediscovered recently; actually I found this information today and it put me on his traces; and thus I came upon a superb vintage collection of tunes and short movies from those times, the perfumed charm that only bygones posses.

(Early Movies)


Longfellow, Paul Revere's Ride

(image shared from Association of The Paul Revere House)
no copyright infringement intended

On my first visit to Boston, I took the Freedom Trail and I walked along it. It is marked with a continuous line of bricks on the sidewalk, and links the places important in the Bostonian history of American Revolution. I arrived at the Old North Church where I was told the story of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere: from the spire of the church Revere was signaled by two lanterns that the British military were to start their march. Revere was on the opposite shore, in Charlestown, and at the view of the lanterns from the spire, got onto his horse and rode through the little towns of Middlesex warning the minutemen. I got the picture of the hystoric ride little by little, visiting the other places. I read the poem of Longfellow later.
My son lives in Lexington, and Paul Revere Road is nearby, so I walked often on it; then when going to Harvard Square, one of the places on earth I love most of all, there is the Longfellow House not far; and the Longfellow Bridge with its Salt and Pepper columns is also at hand; and also Charlestown and the Old North Church; it was by walking on these places the way I built my own American paradigm.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm

Then he said Good night! and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war:
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon, like a prison-bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street
Wanders and watches with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night-encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, All is well!
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay, --
A line of black, that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride,
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now gazed on the landscape far and near,
Then impetuous stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle-girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry-tower of the old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height,
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!

A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders, that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river-fog,
That rises when the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When be came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled,--
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard-wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,--
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere set out on his now famous ride from Boston, Massachusetts to Concord, Massachusetts. Revere was asked to make the journey by Dr. Joseph Warren of the Sons of Liberty, one of the first formal organizations of patriotic colonists. The purpose was to warn Samuel Adams, John Hancock (who were also members of the Sons of Liberty) and the other colonists that the British were preparing to march on Lexington.
Revere was taken by boat across the Charles River to Charleston, where he then borrowed a horse from a friend, Deacon John Larkin. Revere and a fellow patriot, Robert Newman, had previously arranged for signals to be given (lanterns in the tower of the North Church) so Revere would know how the British had begun their attack. This is where the famous phrase one if by land, two if by sea originated. While in Charleston, Revere and the Sons of Liberty saw that two lanterns had been hung in the North Church tower, indicating the British movement. Revere then left for Lexington.
On his way to Lexington, Revere stopped at each house to spread the word that the British troops would soon be arriving. Sometime around midnight, Revere arrived at the house of Reverend Jonas Clark, where Hancock and Adams were staying, and gave them his message. Soon after Revere’s message was delivered, another horseman sent on a different route by Dr. Warren, William Dawes, arrived. Revere and Dawes decided that they would continue on to Concord, Massachusetts, where the local militia had stockpiled weapons and other supplies for battle. Dr. Samuel Prescott, a third rider, joined Revere and Dawes.
On their way to Concord, the three were arrested by a patrol of British officers. Prescott and Dawes escaped almost immediately, but Revere was held and questioned at gunpoint. He was released after being taken to Lexington. Revere then went to the aid of Hancock and Adams, whom he helped escape the coming seige. He then went to a tavern with another man, Mr. Lowell, to retrieve a trunk of documents belonging to Hancock. At 5:00 a.m., as Revere and his associate emerged from the tavern, they saw the approaching British troops and heard the first shot of the battle fired on the Lexington Green. This gunshot of unknown origin, which caused the British troops to fire on the colonists, is known as “the shot heard round the world.”
Many believe Longfellow’s account of the Midnight Ride is inaccurate because he portrays Revere as a lone rider alerting the colonists. Longfellow also fails to mention that Revere was captured by British soldiers before he reached Concord. However, the literary creation of a folk hero named Paul Revere was inspiring to many, and the poem still reminds people of all ages what it means to be a patriot



Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Mother: Gorky's Novel and Pudovkin's Movie

Максим Го́рький, Мать, 1906
no copyright infringement intended

Каждый день над рабочей слободкой, в дымном, масляном воздухе, дрожал и ревел фабричный гудок; и, послушные зову, из маленьких серых домов выбегали на улицу угрюмые люди ...
(Every day the factory whistle bellowed forth its shrill, roaring, trembling noises into the smoke-begrimed and greasy atmosphere of the workingmen's suburb; and obedient to the summons of the power of steam, sullen people poured out of little gray houses into the street ...)

The Mother - 1936 edition
with somber faces
their muscles stiff from insufficient sleep
Illustration by Sigismund Ivanowski
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

Recently I came upon an English translation of Gorky's The Mother: an edition from 1936 illustrated by Sigismund Ivanowski (who signed here as Sigmund de Ivanowski).

I found it on the web: a copy many times read, with annotations made here and there on the pages, which gave me a secret joy, like always when I am in the presence of old copies with annotations coming from other times. Reading a book can be a challenging task sometimes, and you get the feeling that you are no more alone. And sometimes you open the book at the same page as one or other of these unknown camarades de route did.

The Mother - 1936 edition
Title Page
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

First time I read The Mother in a Romanian translation, it was about fifty five years ago. (Or more?) I was in the high school, and by that time I had already read from Gorky the first two parts of his autobiography (My Childhood and In the World). I read the third part (My Universities) several years later. My Childhood had impressed me a lot, as it was so powerfully describing the painful experiences of a child my own age. And In the World had put this author in my gallery of very good writers: a few details from that book have remained alive in my memory throughout the years. And I had been told in my classes so much about this author that the titles of his works or the names of his heroes sounded somehow familiar, all those Makar Chudra, Klim Samgin, The Artamanov Business, The Petty Bourgeois, Foma Gordeyev ... Also at a very fresh age (maybe ten or eleven) I had seen one of his plays in a screen adaptation (Vassa Zheleznova), but I was too young to understand anything from it.

So this was my Gorkyan background when I started to read The Mother. It was hailed as the book that had inaugurated the Socialist Realist style. The Communist regime was very careful in building its official history, with founding texts and exemplary heroes (no matter how much authentic and how much fake, like any history in fact: not only religions have rituals and mythic moments, sacred books and sacred forebears). Gorky was one of these exemplary heroes, and The Mother was one of those founding texts. Another exemplary hero was for instance Dimitrov, with the Leipzig Trial and everything. I remember a movie about that trial: in one of the scenes Dimitrov was shown in prison, preparing his defense, having with him only two books. The Communist Manifesto was one, and the other was The Mother (the Italians have a saying, se non è vero, è ben trovato).

Maxim Gorki, Mama
(Romanian translation)
Editura Cartea Rusă, 1952
(anticariat online)
no copyright infringement intended

The novel didn't produce a too deep impression on me. Maybe because it was so hailed, which sounded a bit suspect, especially for the teenager I was. I was curious to find out what was all that hype with the first Socialist Realist book and so on, and I followed the plot without paying too much attention to the larger portrait (I was too young to know that the beauty of a story is a devil hidden in the details). A young worker becoming a committed revolutionary in the years around the First Russian Revolution, his mother at the beginning not understanding him at all, far away from his world of ideas, gradually opening herself to the revolutionary cause and staying on his side. I recognized in one replica the thesis of Proletarian Internationalism, dear to these people believing in a World Revolution to come: in one of his mobilizing discourses, the young revolutionary was telling that there were no more different nations like French, German, Russian and so on, but exploited and exploiters. Actually I read the book without leaving it up to the end, which was a sign that it was well written.

Then all this stuff with exemplary heroes and exemplary books became to fade, even the official propaganda was moving its focus in other directions, almost nobody was willing to accept anymore suspect fairy tales and weird dogmas, and life went on anyway, with or without big words about Socialist Realism and the like. But Gorky remained a solid cultural reference, and two of his plays (The Lower Depths and Children of the Sun) kept the scene for a very long time, on one of the most prestigious theatrical institutions in Bucharest: both directed by the great man of theater who has been Liviu Ciulei.

I read over the years both from Gorky and about Gorky. Some were considering him the absolute reference: Romain Rolland once said that Panait Istrati was a Gorky balkanique; and Lu Xun was proclaimed (in an issue of Horizons) no more no less than a Chinese Gorky. I remember some enthusiastic lines written by Geo Bogza, (unfortunately I remember them very vaguely, so don't blame me if I remember them totally wrong, something kind of Gorky came in the literature bringing with him the universe of the Russian steppes, the world of wanderers and dreamers, of vagrants and small thieves, of peddlers and gipsy sorcerers - and he entered the great gate of the literature coming directly from that world, with dusty boots and hoarse voice). But this was the world from My Universities and from Stories of the Steppe, maybe there, in those books, was Gorky the greatest! And let me add to this a very personal recollection, a good friend of mine was passionate about him, and in our discussions the world of Gorkyan heroes (those wanderers and dreamers) was present quite often.

Thus, a clear, neat presence of the Gorkyan universe, Gorkyan ethos, remained in my literary horizon. Maybe Gogol and Chekhov impressed me the most in the gallery of great Russian writers, but all the others are very solid references, each in his own right.

What about, particularly, The Mother? I was having the book again in front of my eyes, after so many tens of years. On one of its pages, the stamp of the University of Michigan Library (a book that I found in the catalog of the Widener Library at Harvard changed in important ways the course of my life, but that's another story).

The Mother - 1936 edition
Stamp of University of Michigan Library
(Google Books: The Mother)
no copyright infringement intended

I started by reading the foreword. It was written by Charles Edward Russell, a man of Marxian convictions, involved as such in the political activity (like Gorky), at times at odds with the Marxian leaders and their parties (again like Gorky who had bitter divergences with Lenin at some point - actually more than once; the official Stalinist propaganda kept these divergences secret, to present an exemplary portrait without any questionable details).

The forward was written with passion and talent, while based on a strong belief in the exceptionalism of everything Russian and especially Soviet Russian (and consequently the exceptionalism of Gorky's books and especially of The Mother). Understandably, it reflected the political credo of Charles Edward Russell, which made it a hagiography. It was not what a great author and a great book deserved. So I started to read the novel, convinced that I'd found in it much more than just the exemplary Socialist book.

The Mother - 1936 edition
Foreword by Charles Edward Russell
(Google Books: The Mother)
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I was looking for some answers. A book read at different moments in one's life is each time understood differently. The universe created by the author remains the same, but at each age one looks at it with another perspective, let's say from another side, and thus, each time, the same book, the same universe, looks completely anew. Or maybe a great book teaches you at each age that lesson that's waiting for you to reach that number of years.

The Mother - 1936 edition
it seemed to Vlasova that
the officer was but waiting for her tears
Illustration by Sigismund Ivanowski
(Google Books: The Mother)
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Was it a Socialist Realist book (as it was hailed), and if so, was it suffering of the inherent limitations imposed by the party ideology? Well, even if not all books of a great writer have equal value, the signet ring is in any of them. But: was Gorky's The Mother his masterpiece or rather not in the top of his output? And: how much could we retrieve in that novel Gorky's literary universe, the unique spirit of that formidable world of the steppes? And I think all these questions could lead to a single one: what was the place of The Mother in Gorky's universe?

Socialist Realism started from the Realism of the 19th century authors with the ambition to make a step further: the Realists had shown in their works all the social injustices, without thinking at a solution. Thus it was necessary to look for a way out from these social injustices, and this way out was the Socialist revolution. We could advance here in the discussion, of course: the Socialist revolution is not the only conceivable revolution, and generally a revolution is not the only conceivable solution. Plus the Realism of the 19th century is not the only conceivable artistic style. But let's remain to the Socialist Realism, as we're talking here about Gorky. The portrait of the present couldn't be but bleak (because it was Realist), while the revolutionary perspective couldn't be but luminous (which claimed other style than the Realism). It was a mix of traditional Realism and revolutionary Romanticism. In this respect Gorky's novel was undoubtedly Socialist Realist. Was this limiting the literary value of this book? In portraying injustices and being committed to a bright future, one can be genuine or fake. And in the moment when an author has to obey to a party dogma, all chances are that the author will be fake. But the revolutionary Romanticism of Gorky was genuine: the book was written in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, and guys like Pavel Vlassov were very real, with their commitment and spirit of sacrifice.

I love more the short stories of Gorky, his universe of the Russian steppes, where life is left to flow on its own, where Gorky is rather a listener to the stories told by his heroes, and fate makes the rule, that wonderful magical realism that leads toward legend, toward what's beyond this world. So I love less The Mother, but for better or worse it's his most influential book. And (despite my preferences for the short stories of the steppes) it's very well written, I read it again without leaving the pages till the end. And this time, at my old age, I was very attentive to the details of the picture, and I enjoyed them a lot (as the Spanish saying goes, más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo, which roughly means there is nothing like the old horse for the hard road). And these details of the portrait show the great author.

The English translation was not top-quality. However the awkward solutions here and there in choosing the English words and sentences were not spoiling the whole. The portrait was so powerful that I was having the strange sensation that the words were no more that important. Like it could have been any syntactic constructions, any words, there was something beyond.

It's here superb literary skill (crafted in his young years spent on the endless steppes of Russia), but it's more. It's his empathy for what happens, the big and the small things. Each of the personages is portrayed with great finesse, and (like in his stories) left on her or his own, so for each one comes a moment that's totally unexpected. Some are ambiguous, and remain so to the end, because life is ambiguous so many times, some come with their mysteries, and keep them for themselves, because life is all mystery sometimes, and some should remain for ever untold. And all this is flowing in front of the old mother, the very simple woman caught in the whirl of the revolution, trying to understand with her mind all that, empathizing with everyone, loving dearly all these young radicals and suffering for each one.

Here is the text of the novel:


Five movies were made based on Gorky's novel: in 1920 by Aleksandr Razumnyi, in 1926 by Vsevolod Pudovkin, in 1941 by Leonid Lukov, in 1956 by Mark Donskoy (starring Aleksey Batalov as Pavel Vlassov), and in 1990 by Gleb Panfilov. Also Bertolt Brecht put the novel on stage in 1932. Hanns Eisler created, based on the novel, a cantata for chorus, solo voices and two pianos in 1935.

From all this list, undoubtedly impressive by number and persons implied, I was able to watch only the silent made in 1926 by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Politics aside, it is a masterpiece, and I intend to write here also about other of his movies. He was one of the greatest Soviet filmmakers of the 1920's avant-garde (in the same line with Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and all the others), and this movie proves it brilliantly.

Мать, film poster from 1926
(source: wikimedia)
no copyright infringement intended

Pudovkin's movie has an architecture that is radically different from that of the novel. One is talking about very recent events, the other is framing the facts and personages into a paradigm. Both are strongly motivated politically, but the two political moments are very different: the novel is made in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, it's real time life, while the movie comes in the first years of Soviet power, preoccupied to build the official history of the revolution, in other words the founding mythology. While Gorky tells us a story of life flowing naturally, with personages of flesh and bones, Pudovkin demonstrates a paradigm, deals with a myth in the making. And in any myth the facts and personages are no more just facts and personages like anything else from real life: they are prototypes aiming to convey a sense. I'll give you only one example: the bridge over the river separating factory and the neighborhood. At Gorky it's just a bridge, nothing else. At Pudovkin it is a path you take to leave your submissive life and enter the revolutionary struggle. So it becomes a prototype within a paradigm, conveying a metaphysical significance.

Gorky's novel inaugurates the Socialist Realism: it means its approach is realist to the bone, so its style is traditional (following the traditional Realism of the 19th century, that were to be observed by all Socialist Realist artists). Does also the movie belong to the Socialist Realist style? I don't think so. I would say that by the contrary it belongs hundred percent to the avant-garde of the twenties, so it rejects totally the tradition. It is a Constructivist oeuvre, calling in mind maybe the Expressionist movies made in Germany in the same epoch. These artists of the twenties, totally committed politically, while thinking to build the new society based on their radically new form of art and throwing over the board all that was old, traditional, classic, Realism included. The thirties would stop them forcefully, they would have to obey to the party dogmas or go to hell (the first circle or beyond).

Here is the movie:

(from the video above the last 7 minutes are lost. Here is another video containing these minutes)

the last part of the movie
(video by Russian Club Music Chart)

(a few words about the cast: Vera Baranovskaya made a remarkable performance in the role of the mother; she would play one year later in the following movie made by Pudovkin, The End of St. Petersburg; Nikolai Batalov (1899-1937), who played in the role of the son, was also Soldier Gusev in Aelita (a fine role in a fine movie); it seems that he was not related to Aleksey Batalov, who played Pavel Vlassov in the movie of Mark Donskoy from 1956; and last but not least, Pudovkin himself in the role of a police officer- the guy really enjoyed the negative roles)

Vera Baranovskaya (1885-1935)
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Maxim Gorky)

Vsevolod Pudovkin)

Sigismund Ivanowski)

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Three Golden Rules for the Media

(Forward Now)
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Tres grandes reglas: la teoría del marciano; soltar lastre; y no dejar cabos sueltos.

The three gold rules of writing a good column: 1. the Martian theory; 2. drop the ballast; 3. don't leave issues in limbo.

  1. if a Martian comes to Earth and knows your language and history but your recent events, he should understand your column; so if you talk about the president of your country, say at least once President X, then you can go on with Mr. X (or The President), as the Martian is already informed;
  2. don't repeat the whole blah-blah in the column; so if you said once President X, our great leader and chairman (or President X, the great deceiver, or whatever else) it's enough; you should go on simply with Mr. X, or The President (whichever comes first)
  3. if you say President X is a 6% guy, you should make clear what these 6 percent mean; they can be confidence or lack of confidence, whatever

More in today's El País:

(Una Vida Entre Libros)