pseudopodium
Barbara Stanwyck in 'All I Desire'
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Movie Comment : All I Desire (1953)

In a post I persistently remember as "Dawn Powell for President," Roger Gathman noted Hillary Clinton's roots in conservative Chicago and asked, "But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast?"

For me, the question triggered a resurgence of survivor's guilt, resolving into the usual hysterical paralysis. But even as the Drama Queen express barreled away, another train of thought launched towards Hollywood's most peculiar specialist in Midwestern You-Can't-Go-Home-Again-or-Can-You parts: Brooklyn orphaned-and-abusively-bred Barbara Stanwyck.

Back in 1939, Remember the Night had dragged Stanwyck back to Indiana in the custody of killjoy D.A. Fred MacMurray (but this is a Mitchell Leisen picture so at least he's an attractive killjoy). There she's rejected by a shockingly real representative of the Heartland's evil-hearted 30%, meets warm welcomes from not-so-realistic representatives of the open-hearted 20%, sinks gratefully into the embrace of family and community, and is then rejected by them. Big romantic finish while the Breen Office chants "Lock Her Up!"

In All I Desire, Stanwyck's Naomi returns to Wisconsin under her own steam. This makes for a very different story, directed by a very different storyteller.

For some reason, The Film Dictionary of Received Ideas is considered particularly authoritative on "Sirk, Douglas," but Sirk was not a simplistic thinker. Instead of Sturges's-and-Leisen's rigid segregation of good and evil souls, here they're so thoroughly intermingled with the middling majority that, well, sometimes we almost can't tell them apart.

And embodiments of Naomi's original disgrace continue to walk the mean streets of Riverdale, although they seem to have slipped her mind during her busy years on the road: her extramarital lover remains a pillar of good ol' boy society and has assumed a pointedly paternal role towards her son the family's youngest child, born long after his two sisters and so closely to Naomi's escape that he may have precipitated it.

So Juliet Clark is certainly right to predict that "we can only feel relieved to be on the outside looking in" at this all-American home. But consider (as Stanwyck's character must) the alternative.

After ten years Naomi Murdoch's theatrical career has skidded midway down the music hall bill, with sour prospects ahead. (We'll never know how much talent she started with; she'd already borne three children, so she would have been trying to enter the profession at, let's say, age 28 or so?) Ostensibly, at least, she's seizing an opportunity to give her kid a thrill and pick up a little egoboo by way of a little fraudulence, after which she'll shed the pretense of stardom and return to her grind. But from the moment she struts off the train, she seems, so to speak, at home, which is to say on the stage, facing challenges, hitting her marks, sparking glee at each new win. She may not have been able to conquer Paris and London but this audience she can handle, and she'll surely find more opportunities to recite Shakespeare here than in burlesque.

The hometown hoaxer of Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero is scabied by guilt; for the con-maiden of Sturges's The Lady Eve, the allure of sincerity goes foot-in-hand with the similarly vulnerable intimacy of full-frontal lust. In Riverdale, though, all self-expression is strictly utilitarian (albeit with none-too-well-thought-out motives); Naomi's just best at it.

The unrepentant criminal of Sturges's Remember the Night and the tempted ladies of Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow and All That Heaven Allows gladly lose their burden of selves in Good Clean Fun. But at no moment in All I Desire does Stanwyck convey pleasure untinted by performance. In Double Indemnity, what men mistake for sensuality is simply Mrs. Dietrichson's delight in manipulation; Mrs. Murdoch may have encountered similar confusion and may still.

(A few critics even predict that lechery will send Naomi back to the creep she nearly killed. I can't see it. Stanwyck was a magnificently wide-ranging movie star but one thing she could never play convincingly on-screen was being pushed around. If Naomi strays again, it'll be with someone of more practical use; Colonel Underwood, maybe.)

All I Desire's' "unhappy happy ending" is not all tragic and not all sacrifice. It's the role of a lifetime.

From which I conclude that if the Democratic party had shown the good sense to nominate a HUAC-supporting union-attacking self-martyring workaholic for president and relocated her to Illinois, she might have drawn a plurality of the state's votes.

(On the other hand, the original novel, screenplay, and directorial intent had Naomi opting again for self-exile, possibly after a bridge-burning public self-exposure, presumably to expiate her sins by someday dying in the traditional gutter. So maybe it really is just a crapshoot.)

Naomi's got the situation well in hand

Responses

Josh Lukin reflects on 1952:

Your HUAC reference got me thinkin' — the candidate who was uncritical of McCarthy (see Howe, Irving, Steady Work) managed to lose in his native Illinois during the McCarthy era. To be fair, he seems to have lost everywhere except in a handful of states where his running-mate was popular. And thank Heaven he did, 'cause where would we be without the four civil libertarians Ike put on the Court, right?

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Bye, 2016; so long, all that

I loved my country my United States, headed by a well-funded and unabashedly ambitious federal government I loved my country about as much as any halfway sane person could love an unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstraction. Which seems only natural since it had rescued, fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, and boosted me and my brother after having rescued and supported our parents.

Of course (being halfway sane) I knew big government was frequently inept, hypocritical, and unjust to the point of murder. But it was also the only rival to and our only defense against the unimaginably huge and amorphous institutional abstractions of big business and big religion, both of which were at least as frequently inept, hypocritical, unjust, and murderous. And where big businesses and big churches could cheat, lie, embezzle, extort, and rape with virtual impunity, big government's pretense of public service left its miscreants nominally (and therefore sometimes actually) susceptible to public inspection and public penalty.

Even while I and my brother were swaddled by socialism, big business and big religion began negotiating an unholy alliance. As of the 1980 election, its success was no longer deniable. But I kept a sullen, resentful faith. My country had absorbed such body blows before and re-righted itself. Weren't the allegiances of evangelical with Jew around Zionism, and evangelical with Catholic around abortion, and church with plutocracy around ignorance inherently unstable?

After the 2000 election, "my country" suddenly looked less like world-as-is and more like a vulnerable blip. 2001 confirmed its vulnerability; the 2004 election guaranteed its loss. Seventy years, approximately the lifespan of the Third Republic.

You know how these things go, though. We understand our loved ones will die, and yet the day finds us unprepared. We understand that gambling is lucrative business; we noticed the casino staff repeatedly extract ever larger winnings and repeatedly produce ever colder decks. And yet when we blankly watch our chips, checks, bonds, mortgage, and IOUs squeegeed dry across the table, it's a shock.

A shock but no surprise.1 No need to waste weeks arguing over how we might have played that last card better. No infallibly winning card was left in this particular game. If we hadn't lost this deal, we would have lost the next one.

At least our razed territory holds plenty of company. Like successful totalitarians of the past, our new leaders didn't let themselves be distracted by the unpopularity of their goals; instead they focused on gaining power by any means at hand, and then guaranteeing continued power by any means at hand. This they interpret as a heroic win against overwhelmingly unfair odds by dint of their superior intelligence and talent.

They've recently attempted to adapt their self-justifications for a wider audience with spins like "saving our country from urban scum" or "defending America against California" or simply "making those fuckers squirm." And of course, as soon as their eminent domain's established they begin demolishing anything in the path of the propaganda superhighway notably the distasteful slums of reality-based journalism, education, and research. But for a brief while yet, our rulers remain a lunatic fringe who defy majority opinion on almost every policy, and we retain some belief that a democracy should at least vaguely represent its people. History suggests that's common ground enough to push from.

1   Well, one surprise, at least for me. I never anticipated Vladimir Putin as leader of a new Axis. Awfully exceptionalist of me. After "patriotism" lost any connotation of service or sacrifice (even the trivial financial sacrifice of taxes), and frankly selfish plutocrats could reach office without need of political stand-ins, who better to inspire them than the leading exponent of the globalized shakedown state? And whereas Stalin's, Hitler's, and Mussolini's attempts at foreign influence relied on native "thought-leaders" who never quite met spec, now misinformation and propaganda, like every other form of publishing, can bypass the middleman (unless, of course, the middleman is a national firewall), and Russia's greatest export, the bot-troll cyborg, can work from the comfort of home.

Responses

Thanks, Bo Diddley.

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Perpetual Copyright on Intellectual Property

The old Roman law had insisted that freed slaves should continue to render obsequiuum personal service to their masters. This law was maintained with particular vigor in the church. In the words of the fourth council of Toledo (in 633 AD), the descendants of all slaves freed by the church were expected to continue to owe “service and obedience” to the church. They did this “because the church never dies.”
- Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle:
Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD

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Open reply to a closed comment

I can be mediocre at greater length, if that'll put you at ease:

My tastes and preferred critical vocabulary overlap D'Agata's more than Deresewicz's, but taste is cheap (just look at my wardrobe) and vocabulary can be misused (just ask my editors). The, let's say, idiosyncratic D'Agata usage which bugs Deresewicz most is essay; the one which bugs me is lyric.

By the late 1970s I'd developed my own sturdy notion of "discursive lyric" from Lester Bangs and Thomas Nashe and to the amusement of my college professors. That notion describes a mode rather than defining a genre. Preoccupation with sound and structure reveals itself more or less blatantly in a subset of essays, but the impulse isn't associated with particular materials, markets, or audiences.

However that formal impulse manifests, facts are no more its enemy than words are. Like words, they inspire; they supply convenient handholds; they're a garden full of carrots and a briar patch full of paths. Fudging the facts amounts to faking the funk. When Bangs and Nashe make shit up, you know it. The sound of someone making shit up is a powerful structural device in itself, and they deploy it as such.

To quote a translation of Rancière paraphrasing Hegel which, ten hours after writing the above paragraph, I read at a bar between a library and a movie, "Art lives so long as it expresses a thought unclear to itself in a matter that resists it." Later in Dissensus, Rancière compares the stone-by-stone sentence building of Flaubert to the speaking stones of early archaeologists and geologists, and cites attacks on Flaubert's art-for-art's-sake art as degradation by the ignoble real.

Around and after Flaubert, we could easily multiply examples of artists, musicians, and writers who've borrowed the antiseptically desocialized terms of science or engineering to justify their practice. Words and colors and textures become fact-objects in themselves, and the job set the artist-scientist is to pattern those givens rather than to elevate the spirits of the powerful or keep the proles in their place.

The essays of Montaigne established an early limiting case for aestheticism/scientism by wrenching discourse itself the medium of the sermon and the political speech from its seemingly innate goal of persuasion.

To claim that lyric discursive prose forces you to ignore the enticingly resistant real in favor of off-the-Walmart-shelf whatevers is like claiming that lyric verse restricts you to vaguely maudlin epiphanies. Your craft has drifted out of the never-terribly-reliable lyric impulse and into discourse's powerful home current in this case, aiming to persuade us that an overstretched careerist is actually an irresistible su-per-ge-nius who has it... all... under... control...

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bene quod mediocres sumus

Peter Brown translates Pacianus of Barcelona's account of his flock's inadequately repentant attitude, c. 380 AD:

It is good that we are middling persons [mediocres]. It is not for us to live in houses sheathed with marble, to be weighed down with gold, in flowing silks and bright scarlet. But all the same we have our little places in gardens and by the sea-side. We have good quality wine, neat little banquets, and all that goes with a sprightly old age.
(From Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. Cf. Apollinaire.)

Responses

Our Motto!

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Unpopular Man Seeks Popular Front

Aside from primate reliables like deceit and terror, divide-and-conquer is likely repression's most well established technique. Even when you know it's coming, it just works. So I understand I understand intimately how much easier and more gratifying it is to rip into those nearest to us than to fight a united-enough front of all three branches of the federal government, most state governments, and possibly City Hall.

Sadly, there are worse things than being wrong. There are even worse things than having to work with the annoyingly smug, the fanatically muddled, and the scandalously tunnel-visioned. Among those things would be accelerated transfer of all wealth to the wealthiest, illegalized abortion, destruction of Medicare and Social Security, ramped-up voter suppression, dropping consumer and financial and environmental regulations, valorizing the therapeutic use of violence and incarceration by the inexplicably timorous powerful, increased inundation by propaganda at school and home, decreased access to real information at school and home, absolute freedom to apply bigotry in whatever fashion can be reached or bought, and the frenzied sprint between total economic and total ecological collapse, along with whatever less predictable international scrapes we're dropped into.

Those seem like plenty enough problems to occupy our minds. An embarrassment of riches. Embarrassing enough to make me want to avert my eyes. I mean, who has the time? Given a chance to study ancient Greek, I'll spend an hour looking at Mary Beard tweets.

But when you're deported or abducted to a foreign land, I suppose you have to learn the language as best you can, no matter how badly that is. And I suppose I've got to bumble and thrash more-or-less towards what might be the right direction, and try not to get in the way too much.

ALL THAT SAID, this is an unusually well-earned rant by Kurt Eichenwald: "Start with this: The DNC, just like the Republican National Committee, is an impotent organization with very little power...."

Eichenwald is a reporter who focused on the election process itself, which may be why he doesn't mention what baffled me most about anyone-but-Clintonism: Bernie Sanders's one single issue wasn't something that Sanders or any other president could do much about. Taxes are determined by Congress, not by the executive branch, and there's no other path by which our democracy can restore the necessary redistribution of wealth. So long as greedy traitors control Congress, a President Sanders or a President Clinton, just like the post-2010 President Obama, could only act as a speed bump.

A speed bump or a drunken lead foot on the gas? That seemed like a simple enough choice. I forgot how 30% of Americans drive.

Responses

well, we know how to rip into each other, and we don't know how to fight the folks we need to fight. any ideas?

And then you can hear me run through the consonant declensions. Nah, I have no ideas; I'm looking to more sensible people for those. I do have words, plenty of words, but they're all unhelpfully self-obsessed and I'd rather not share them except as needed for friendship's sake.

For friendship's sake, I'll attempt a tl;dr: Whenever I engage in anything recognizable as "political action," my misery and ineptitude are such as to constitute sabotage.

More-sensible person Josh Lukin reminisces:

I guess my only comment on 9 November would have been "Hey, Mako! What the fuck happened!"

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New from the Repress: "Oxydol Poisoning" by Earl Jackson, Jr., originally published 1995. We thank Dr. Jackson for the opportunity.

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Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are : I walk a little lame

"September Song"

- by Kurt Weill & Maxwell Anderson
for Walter Huston, Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938

But it's a long, long while from May to December
And the days grow short when you reach September
And I have lost one tooth and I walk a little lame
And I haven't got time for the waiting game

And the days turn to gold as they grow few
September, November
And these few golden days I'd spend with you
These golden days I'd spend with you

When you meet with the young men early in Spring
They court you in song and rhyme
They woo you with words and a clover ring
But if you examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing
And a plentiful waste of time of day
A plentiful waste of time

But it's a long, long while from May to December
Will the clover ring last till you reach September?
And I'm not quite equipped for the waiting game
But I have a little money and I have a little fame

And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I'd spend with you
These precious days I'd spend with you

QUESTION: In terms of the director-actor relationship, how did it feel directing your father in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? How did it feel to be directed by, say, Roman Polanski in Chinatown?

HUSTON: Well, on the set, the director is the father image. So I was my own father's father. And as I appeared in the The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I was my father also, so that made me my grandfather. It's like the play on Shakespeare in Joyce's Ulysses.

- "Dialogue on Film with John Huston",
The American Film Institute, 1984

Walter Huston's original 78 of "September Song" sold respectably in 1938 and even better in 1950. But "September Song" could only go on to become a standard for self-pitying horny old crooners by standardly shedding the toothless-and-lame money-and-fame couplets. Which, aside from its loss of Brechtian piquancy, sadly undercuts the subliminal-marketing promise behind word-choices like golden, precious, and spend.

A memory of Walter's short-term-investment pitch might have helped suggest John's casting in Chinatown:

CROSS
Evelyn! How many years have I got?

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The Great Race Theory of History

The mutations of societies from generation to generation are in the main due directly or indirectly to overpriced and tediously extended parodies.

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It's morning again in medieval France

To appreciate the significance of these changes we must evaluate the place occupied by the nobles in French society in the middle of the fourteenth century. They comprised 1.5 to 2 per cent of the population, perhaps some 40,000 to 50,000 families, or between 200,000 and 250,00 individuals. There was a strict internal hierarchy.... This in turn affected their political role and decisions.

As a social group, the nobility was more accessible than is generally believed. If an individual was no longer in a position to ‘live nobly’, he left the group; while newcomers continued to be admitted, in so far as the nobility remained the only social model for those who aspired to upward mobility.

Whatever its composition, in 1360 the nobility remained the framework within which the nation’s military, political and social affairs were still conducted. It was this framework, shaken by military defeats, political crisis and, indeed, the brutal rise of the state, that had to be strengthened in the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI. Crucial measures were taken in 1360 when John II returned from captivity, and the money for his ransom had to be found. Taken together, they formed a package with three main elements. First, there was the introduction of the franc, a strong gold coinage, which blighted the money markets but guaranteed high revenues and stable yields to those (notably lay and ecclesiastical lords), who received payments established in money of account....

Secondly, direct taxation was established, with a fiscal system that remained essentially unaltered until 1380, and then survived with various alterations and controversies. Here, the most important aspect was the nobility’s exemption from taxation. Despite both the precedent of the feudal aids, levied in four different contexts (one of which was the ransom of a lord) and the specific instructions for the collection of taxes in 1360 (‘all of the king’s subjects are bound to pay by the general custom of the kingdom’), the nobility paid nothing. Exemption was formally granted in 1363. And thirdly, there was a restriction in the number of officials in the royal administration, which symbolically halted the progress of the state.

- "France Under Charles V and Charles VI" by Françoise Autrand,
The New Cambridge Medieval History ed. Michael Jones

Responses

Meanwhile, in the French Revolution:

Sophie de Grouchy’s Letters, the preface to her translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, articulated the idea of commercial or modern citizenship with real clarity. Reversing Rousseau’s drama of alienation, she argued that as societies become more complex they amplify the capacity of individuals for empathetic understanding of one another. Their education through society in their dependence on one another allows citizens to glimpse universal rules of justice and equity. Only the rich and powerful, cocooned away from the common life of interdependence, would be insensitive to the education of a commercial society in compassion. The political consequences of inequality created the role for the state: “one of the primary goals of the laws ought to be to create and maintain an equality of wealth among the citizenry.” Her argument was not for material but moral equality. Gross material need would “render them incapable of the degree of reflection necessary for the perfection of all natural sentiments, and particularly that of humanity.”
- James Livesy, "Ch. 20: The Political Culture of the Directory" in
A Companion to the French Revolution, ed. Peter McPhee (2013)
quoting Theéorie des sentiments moraux, ou, Essai analytique, sur les principes des jugemens que portent naturellement les hommes, d’abord sur les actions des autres, et ensuite sur leurs propres actions: Suivi d’une Dissertation sur l’origine des langues; par Adam Smith; traduit de l’anglais, sur le septième et dernière édition, par S. de Grouchy Veuve Condorcet. Elle y a joint huit Lettres sur la sympathie (An VI/1798)

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .