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Kong over city

The original King Kong, released in 1933, is a movie classic in spite of itself.

Few movies have dug themselves deeper into the public subconscious, yet, by any objective standard, few movies are as badly made: Its writing is infantile, its acting wooden. Even the special effects, so innovative in the day, are now the f/x equivalent of a stagecoach.

King Kong may be the worst-made great movie of all time.

Just consider such dialogue as: “I’ve never known it to fail. Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and — bang — he cracks up and goes sappy.”

It can make you cringe.

Yet the film does keep us transfixed: It may be a badly written film on purely cinematic terms, but it’s a great movie nonetheless. Great enough to be No. 43 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time.

And the fact we’re still watching the original, now on DVD — to say nothing of remaking it over and over — proves that the first giant-monkey movie had legs like few others. One wonders whether Peter Jackson’s slicker 2005 version will last as long or be as deeply loved.

The foggy gray and dangling lianas are the inner tangles of our brains, in 1933.

The foggy gray and dangling lianas are the inner tangles of our brains, in 1933.

in 2005, there is a clarity to the visuals that diminish the Longinian sublime. Better? Maybe.

in 2005, there is a clarity to the visuals that diminish the Longinian sublime. Better? Maybe.

 

The answer will come not from how well the film is made, nor how good its acting is or its special effects, but rather from whether the film engages us on a subconscious level: What is the movie really about?

The original Kong has supported as many interpretations as it has had viewers. The movie itself makes a case for its being a modern Beauty and the Beast.

“That’s it. Play up that angle,” moviemaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) tells reporters in the original film. “Beauty and the Beast. Kong could have stayed safe where we’d never have got him, but he couldn’t stay away from Beauty. That’s your story, boys.”

But that’s only one subtext.

For many young men who first saw the film on TV when they were adolescents, Kong is the personification of their own inchoate and newly hairy urges and unrequited loves. Kong as the great id.

To paraphrase Walt Kelly: We have seen King Kong and he is us.

There is also the Christ image of Kong onstage, crucified and manacled.

But there are other meanings: For some, the movie is an allegory of slavery. The powerful king of the island trapped and brought to the New World in chains.

Kong first look

For another camp — at least many years ago in the American South — Kong was a depiction of the threat to White womanhood by what they called the unbridled “Negro lust.”

(There is much that is racist in the film, and much to cringe over, with the minstrel-show islanders with their coconut brassieres and bone-tied hairdos. We have to overlook a lot to enjoy the film now.)

Yet, we do enjoy the film. If Kong survives in our collective consciousness, it’s because of these more dreamlike realities, these irrational and atavistic persistences, and not because of its scant dramaturgical elegances.

It speaks to our unconscious. Not our rational selves, but our dream selves.

Kong speaks to us as myth.

“Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!”

The impresario stands onstage in front of the giant ape. The poor beast, in his “chrome steel” chains, is both humiliated and confused.

It is the fulcrum — the central point of the original movie between two unbalanced halves: the first in the jungle and the second, shorter half in the city.

Two opposed halves with their different mythologies. Two different versions of nature that have been in conflict throughout history.

One myth of nature is that of violence and survival. Nature, red in tooth and claw, where men venture at their peril. This is nature as the Big Thing, inside of which humankind is the little thing. Nature that inspires fear. Jaws.

Kong on beach

But at odds with this, in the old King Kong, is Rousseau’s vision of nature as innocent and pure, caught in a world made corrupt by the machinations of human beings. In this version, nature is the source of the unsullied good; human society the source of all that is evil.

Kong is paradoxically both these visions at once: the powerful force of nature, but also the innocent caught in a world not of his making.

It is not likely that Kong’s original makers, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Ernest Shoedsack or Willis O’Brien, ever had anything so profound in mind. They almost certainly just wanted to make a “swell picture” that would scare the willies out of us and make lots of money for RKO.

But art is often better than its makers intended, and Kong is Exhibit A.

This conflicted myth is the central power of the movie. The film manages to fuse both visions of man and nature into a single tragic image.

King Kong didn’t invent the basic plot: The silent film Lost World set the paradigm. But it, with its great unthinking dinosaur captured and brought to London, doesn’t give its beast the humanity that Kong gave the great ape.

And the many followups, from The Giant Behemoth (ever seen a small behemoth?) or Gorgo don’t maintain the wattage of their ancestor. The bottom of the barrel may be Reptilicus.

No, wait. That honor goes to the Dino De Laurentiis abomination, the 1976 remake of King Kong. The less said of it, the better.

Jackson’s remake is infinitely more cinematic than either the original or the De Laurentiis monster, and Naomi Watts, in particular, is no-contest a better actress than Fay Wray. The newest film has its points. But it is too knowing, and can never quite scratch the mythological itch that Cooper and Schoedsack did.

Godzilla

The only respectable colleague of the 1933 King Kong is the Japanese version of Godzilla (Gojira), which hits those low, plummy mythological notes, and maybe hits them a little closer to home, especially for those Japanese civilians who lived through the Second World War. As metaphor, Godzilla, with its brilliant, depressed score by Akira Ifukube, is as direct as parable. Everyone should see the original, sans Raymond Burr.

The two films, Kong and Godzilla, show the power that may reside in popular entertainment that embodies deep myth. Modern filmmakers have it all over for style. But style isn’t what ultimately counts. Even badly made films can hit the bullseye. For that, the original is still king, and no pretender can claim the throne.

 

Barbarella group

Forty-five years  ago, Jane Fonda  got naked in outer space.

That zero-G striptease is all that most people know about Barbarella,  a movie that opened in October 1968  and was seen at the time as the worst kind of cheese.

“A mix of poor special effects and the Marquis de Sade,” one reviewer said.

And that is the reputation it has been saddled with ever since.

But the movie, directed by French Svengali Roger Vadim  and made for a pittance, has an odd staying power: Many of its scenes are memorable the way a Mozart melody is. Whether it is Pygar the blind angel, the eye-patch Evil Queen — the “Great Tyrant” —  or the psychedelic “Mathmos”  — a kind of molten id-lava that flows under the city — the film sticks in the mind like a particularly disturbing dream.

English and original French comic book versions of "Barbarella" with scene from film.

English and original French comic book versions of “Barbarella” with scene from film.

“A dream we dreamt with our eyes open,” as Fellini  says.

If you look at it purely objectively, Barbarella is a really bad movie. The dialog is campy. The acting is either wooden or, if you are feeling generous, stylized. The plot wouldn’t hold a Flash Gordon  serial together.

The costumes are polyester and scanty. Even the sets are comically shoddy: Barbarella’s space ship is covered up the walls with orange shag carpeting and even the exteriors, like the Forests and Lakes of Weir,  or the Labyrinth of the City of Evil,  have the claustrophobia of a cheap soundstage. Special effects are not much more advanced than a lava lamp.

The Mathmos

The Mathmos

Yet, none of that ultimately matters. Like a small cache of sister films, Barbarella transcends its tawdry birth because it gives us dream-memorable scenes. The parts are greater than the whole.

“A film is a ribbon of dreams,” Orson Welles  said. “The camera … is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret.”

One shouldn’t be too portentous about such things, but the history of cinema is littered with bad movies that are too memorable to die. Like advertising jingles you can’t stop hearing in your head, they just stick.

Think of King Kong (1933).  Its acting is wooden, its writing jejune, yet it is one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. On any objective level, the movie is awful – every time Bruce Cabot  opens his mouth, you cringe – yet those scenes with the big monkey have buried themselves in our collective unconscious. The movie is great not because it is a finished work of art, but because it connects directly to our psyches like a dream you can’t understand, but know is meaningful.

The majority of great bad movies are science fiction or horror films. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all fear has a more driven imagination than hope.

It is what makes 1950s’ monster films such an instantly recognizable genre.

Our fear of nuclear annihilation is given vent in fighting giant ants, spiders or iguanas; our fear of the Soviet Union shows in the number of Martian invaders.

But the list isn’t limited to Them!The Angry Red PlanetThe Crawling Eye  or Things to Come. For it isn’t only a B-movie thing. Mainstream Hollywood schlock can lodge in our collective brains, too, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes  or the spinning head of Linda Blair,  spewing invective and vomit in The Exorcist.

The value of such films is not in their thin plots and narrative contrivances, but in those brief scenes that traumatize us. They are straight from our id and are burned into our memory like a cattle brand.

Think of Freddie Krueger  pushing the girl around the ceiling in Nightmare on Elm Street,  or the flaming Plymouth chasing the teenager down the road in Christine.

Or Rae Dawn Chong  teaching the missionary position to the Neanderthal in Quest for Fire.

All of them have left the confines of their movies to become part of our common mythic inheritance.

Barbarella is full of such mental peanut butter to stick to the roof of our brains. Before Barbarella, did you know that angels built nests? That flying manta rays could pull sleds? That you could be killed by a mechanically induced excess of pleasure? That the mathmos could rise and devour us all in a colorful burp of lava lamp?

 

Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) tries to kill Barbarella in the "Excessive Machine."

Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) tries to kill Barbarella in the “Excessive Machine.”

Despite its candy-color design scheme and its stretched polyethylene see-through sets, Barbarella overflows with unforgettable detail. But that isn’t all it has.

Barbarella has one claim to uniqueness. It is a camp film all the way.

Writer Susan Sontag defined camp in a famous 1964 essay as a style that emphasizes artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess, among other things.

You couldn’t find a better description of Barbarella.

More important, she said, “You can’t do camp on purpose.” It cannot be made to order; it bubbles up from the sincerity of lesser talent. Camp cannot know it is camp.

Yet Barbarella may be the exception that proves the rule. By all appearances, it was meant to be read as camp, and yet, it still functions well as camp, unlike all the other films from the era that tried so hard to be hip and with-it, but now only seem as dated as bell bottoms.

The reason must be found with its maker, Roger Vadim.  A minor-league filmmaker, Vadim was the creator of Brigitte Bardot,  whose most famous film, And God Created Woman (1956),  managed to transform her into a “sex kitten,” the neotonic French Marilyn Monroe. Vadim’s Bardot films are filled with memorable scenes, mostly coy and erotic, but none rises to the level of great cinema. When he was done with her, he tried his star-making power on Jane Fonda;  he also married her. Their films together, including her 1964  remake of the great Arthur Schnitzler  play, La Ronde,  were entertaining, but mediocre at best.

But sometimes, when you put a mediocre mind to work on a mediocre idea, something clicks. With Barbarella, Vadim could create a camp world sincerely, because he believed in it, but without the self-consciousness that ruins most trendy films of the time. His esthetic level and the camp level meet perfectly, with neither aspiration nor condescension to upset the balance.

Perhaps that is why the proposed remake of Barbarella, by super-hip cinemaker  Robert Rodriguez,  went nowhere. Rodriguez is too knowing a filmmaker. Barbarella works on the thin, slippery edge between sincerity and irony, a place too small for a large talent like Rodriguez to find foothold.

Worse, he proposed to use Rose McGowan in the title role, and she is prima facie the wrong actress to play the part: too smart, too sophisticated, too knowing. All wrong.

Other actresses run up the flagpole include Scarlett Johansen, Carey Mulligan and Anne Hathaway. You have to scratch your heads.

When Rodriguez gave up on it, the rights were bought by Dino de Laurentiis, before his death in 2010. His widow is now set to produce the new version. The de Laurentiis name on a film is the kiss of death. Remember King Kong of 1976?

Fay Wray (1933) and Jessica Lange (1976), best forgotten.

Fay Wray (1933) and Jessica Lange (1976), best forgotten.

The new Barbarella would ostensibly be a TV series, perhaps for French TV, perhaps in English.

Don’t hold your breath. Like the original King Kong, it was done right the first time.

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

I had always assumed that as I got older, I would eventually turn conservative. It seemed as inevitable as wrinkles, paunch and hair loss.

Radicalism, after all, is an affliction of the young: Too little life experience to know that existence cannot be better than it is; too full of oneself to recognize the limitations of our agency in making the world a different and better place; too full of books and pretty thoughts to realize that theory always falls short of the unpredictable and slippery ice of life.

And the harrumph of the jowly elder speaks of long life lived through disappointment and lowered expectations. The reality bulldozes the hope. A sense of realism settles in like joint pain.

It’s how all those New Deal liberals turned into Bush-era Neo-Cons.

So, I waited to become a curmudgeon, to become my own father. I knew it was coming; I expected it. But over six decades, it hasn’t happened.

I blame conservatives for this.

What was once an intellectual movement, even cosmopolitan in its outlook, with its elders educated at Yale, and able to pun in Latin, has decayed into a kind of anti-intellectual populism built on a foundation of bumper stickers. You elect someone you’d like to have a beer with; you get your political endorsement from an unlicensed plumber.

I do not suspect that Sarah Palin or Todd Akin has ever read Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss or even heard of them. So, I roll my eyes heavenward, twiddle my thumbs, whistle unobtrusively and back slowly away. I cannot sign on.

What has replaced the ideas is a low, rumbling fear of the rest of the world. One thinks of a badger hunkering in its burrow baring its teeth at any by-passers.

badger

The issues that engage conservatism may change over time and circumstance. But at bottom, what is unchanging is its fear of change. Doesn’t matter if it’s our fear of losing our capitalism to a supposed creeping socialism, or Russia’s fear of losing its Communism to creeping oligarchic anarchy. Hardline conservatives everywhere want to keep what they have.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., that means holding down the 15th place in the United Nation’s Human Development Index (a sort of standard-of-living measurement). If we were not so stubborn, we might learn from others, even those that conservatives fear despite their higher standards of living: Scandinavia, France, Canada.

That fear of others is diametrically opposed to the lessons I have learned in my six decades of life: Instead, I’ve discovered that intelligence and ignorance – and virtue – are pretty well equally salted across the globe. America has no monopoly on any of it.

“We’re Number One!” It’s one of the silliest things I’ve heard.

The U.S. is only 16th in its poverty rate, 17th in literacy, 30th in life expectancy, 33rd in infant mortality, and does not even make the list of top-20 nations in student performance in math, science or reading. Yeah, let’s keep on doing more of that.

Worse, you cannot forget that in the past, conservatives defended some pretty indefensible things, like segregation and the Vietnam War. The current fear of gays, or women in the military, or immigrants is just more of the same. Anti-science, anti-education, anti-evolution. “Whatever it is,” sang Rufus T. Firefly, “I’m against it.”

Outside this sad history of bigotry, I had once come to believe the possibility that conservatives had a firmer grasp on fiscal matters than their opposites. I knew I didn’t understand money – other than earning it and spending it – but I assumed someone did.

Perhaps I was wrong. It has been conservatives Reagan and Bush who blasted the roof off the federal deficit. It was the supposedly liberal Clinton who balanced the budget.

Now, conservatives seem to think the answer to anything is tax cuts. Economy good: reason to cut taxes; economy bad: reason to cut taxes. I scratch my head. I’m looking for complex answers to complex problems, not simple-minded and self-interested cure-alls.

Taxes may be a necessary evil, but conservatives have forgotten the “necessary” part of it. After all, when you live in a country club, you have to pay the dues. Fear of taxes is our national neurosis.

Then, too, I once believed that the conservative view of national defense was more realistic than the “ban-the-bomb” attitude of the anti-war demonstrators (of which I was one in the ’60s).

I know that there are people out there, across oceans, who would like to harm us, either from zealotry or rising national interest. The world is certainly nasty, brutal and doing its best to make our life short.

But, the conservative suspicion of other peoples’ motives and other nations’ motives was once based on a belief that human nature was self-interested, and that others’ interests may be inimical to our own. It was a question of survival. If we were smart, we could use their self interest to further our own. But that would require learning something about them, and what their interests are.

Nowadays, too often the conservative sees the world through Manichean lenses: Our American motives are good, even altruistic; “they” are all evil. White hats, black hats. “Axis of evil.” Such miserable lack of self-awareness is never a good way to build policy. And worse, it is patently sentimental. Sentimentality used to be a vice of the liberals.

Teddy Roosevelt – America’s arch-colonialist and hardly a darling of the Left – said “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Conservatives seem to have forgotten the “speak softly” part, and prefer a great deal of unproductive saber rattling. We really don’t have to do that: The world knows we have the bombs and airplanes. It is our trump card, and shouldn’t be our opening gambit.

And the conservative’s insistence on self-reliance also used to ring true, although the actions of their avatars – Republicans in government – give lie to their convictions as they seem to believe in self-reliance for the poor and government hand-outs for cronies.

I should make it clear, though, that I am not making my point against Republicans, per se. Party politics has almost nothing to do with political philosophy; it is a dog-eat-dog struggle for raw, bloody-clawed power. Either party will toss its convictions into the fire in a wink if it thinks it can gain an advantage over its opponent. One thinks of a scrum of sled dogs snarling in the snow over a chunk of meat.

This partisan game of “king of the hill” is so discouraging that Americans of all stripes now throw up their hands in disgust.

So, it isn’t just Republicans. It is conservatism. There is its undercurrent of tribalism that is ugly and intolerant. People who don’t look like us, or share our beliefs, or worship our god, are proscribed.

The world is full of different kinds of people, and most have something to offer. It would be better to learn from them. As China and India gain on us, we can see they learned a lot by watching us.

And finally, the anti-environmentalism of lumpen conservatives makes me wonder. They seem to think it is a fight between endangered snails and The American Way of Life. Somehow they forget that the first conservationists were conservatives.

One hears the argument that global warming isn’t real, and forgets that it hardly matters: Civilized people don’t shit in their own nests. It shouldn’t take environmental Armageddon to make you realize it isn’t good to pump your waste into the water and air. It should be common sense.

Oh, there is something small and parochial about contemporary conservatism; it should be large and worldly. As I age, I hope I’ve grown; modern conservatism seems to have regressed into a kind of infantilism.

Please, conservatives, show me where I’m wrong, so I can sign up. Harrumph.

accordion lady

Time, said Alfred Hitchcock, was meant to be stretched and squeezed like an accordion. Sometimes, you need to cover a lot of ground quickly; sometimes you need to slow the ticking clock to drag out the tension.

Joan Fontaine is eating dinner with her wealthy family in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and she is called to the phone. She rises slowly and anxiously and walks through a door, down an endless hall and off screen to the right, and we follow her with our eyes, a long, slow aggravating wait with suspense for the possibly distressing news the call will bring.

It’s a typical moment in a movie by the master of suspense. What happens next may be even more typical for Hitchcock. After the suspense is drained, Fontaine puts the phone down, takes two steps toward us and eases quickly back into her seat.

joan fontaine

What happened to the hallway? The door? The slow steps?

It’s the time accordion. Hitchcock was its virtuoso.

Movies and time:

One small experimental film I’ve seen takes 90 minutes to cover the events of 10 minutes. Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life apparently covers 12 billion years in its two hours.

But time, in America, is money, and we have little of it to waste: We want our rewards now. We don’t want to work for it; we don’t want to linger.

One-Hour Photo? Takes too long. Digital is instant.

Minute Rice? Who has the time? You can buy a pre-made pilaf at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Instant tea? Why, when you can buy it in a bottle?

Let’s face it: Do you actually have the time to read this story?

Or are you conference-calling on the cellphone while driving 75 mph down the freeway on your way to drop off a package at FedEx?

In America today, not only has time speeded up, but we demand it be so.

There is little patience for anything slow. Especially in our movies. Fast editing, short, punchy dialog, and lots of things blowing up, without too much exposition in between the ignitions. Fuses, thus, must be short: We cannot wait for the boom.

I remember coming out of one recent art film and overhearing a fellow audience member saying, “I just spent the last two weeks at the theater watching that movie. Maybe it was two hours that just seemed like two weeks.”

But people go to the movies for different reasons. If it’s action you want, or a good plot, Hollywood has a vast menu of tapas, quick hits. Even most Indie films — the butt of many a complaint about sluggishness in film — move like arrows through the air compared to some of filmdom’s real glaciers.

There are films – and filmmakers – who do their best to slow the viewer down, make him pause and ponder, to consider the smaller issues, or the details that normally go past us unnoticed. They are the Bruckner symphonies of the cinema.

They want to to notice what’s hanging on the walls of the bedroom, what the weather is like outside the window, what emotional color the lighting is.

Such art movies are aimed at a different audience from those usually found at the multiplex. Such films are difficult. Some are nearly unwatchable.

But they are great art nonetheless, and true classics.

Those of us who appreciate glaciers on film don’t just want to “get” the story, to move the plot along, but rather, we want to live in the world the filmmaker has created, so savor its flavors, scents and sensations. We engage with that world even as we compare it with our own to find the congruences and divagations. Some of the greatest films ever made are long, slow and trying.

Here is my list of the Top 5 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Films:

 

La belle Noiseuse

La belle Noiseuse

Number 5: La Belle Noiseuse (1991)  – Director Jacques Rivette  spends a good deal of this 4-hour  film showing us an artist drawing. He’s drawing a naked Emmanuelle Béart,  so it’s not all tough going, but we watch endless moments of pen-scrawl on paper as the fictional artist who is the film’s hero, tries to recapture his earlier genius.

The Sorrow and the Pity

The Sorrow and the Pity

No. 4: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)  – This is four hours plus  of talking heads, discussing the collaboration with the Nazi government during the Vichy years of France, and the excuses otherwise good people make for acceding to evil. By director Marcel Ophuls.

 

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

No. 3: Andrei Rublev (1969)  – Spend 3 ½ hours  in medieval Russia with Andrei Tarkovsky’s  truly glacial moodpiece about a 15th-century  monk and artist who created religious ikons.  Utterly hypnotic, it is also opaque: We don’t always know what’s going on, but it is almost mystical.

 

L'Avventura

L’Avventura

No. 2: L’Avventura (1960)  – A young woman goes missing on a rocky island in the Mediterranean in Michelangelo Antonioni’s  ur-existentialist rumination, and her lover and her friend spend the rest of the film looking for her. Hint: They never find her. One of the most beautiful films of all times, it also drives many viewers crazy with impatience.

 

And the No. 1 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Film of all time:

 

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)  – The poster child for artsy-fartsy films, Alain Resnais  notorious L’Année dernière è Marienbad  is the most self-conscious film of all time. You never know – and never find out – exactly what is happening, or if it is happening, or if it happened, or maybe it will happen. This is the supreme test of the artfilm lover. You have to check to make sure you are still breathing by the end.

 

Of course, there are lots of candidates for such a list. If we forgot your “favorite,” well, here are a bunch more of the movies that give art film a bad name. Nevertheless, they are all great films. Just not for the multiplex.

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Renais)

Heart of Glass (1976, Werner Herzog)  (He actually had the actors hypnotized for their performances)

Woman of the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

Solaris (1972, Tarkovsky)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodore Dreyer)

Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

Arabian Nights (1974, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Zabriskie Point (1970, Antonioni)

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Mallick)

The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway)  (Actually, anything by Greenaway counts. He’s the current king of the pretentious.)

 

Pillow Book

Pillow Book

You probably have your own nominees: But for this list, it only counts if you also think they are great films: Bad tedium remains bad tedium.

Pointe du Raz, Brittany

Pointe du Raz, Brittany

Finistère. The end of the world. It is one of my favorite places, wherever it can be found.

La fin de la terre.

Today’s finistère is the western end of Brittany, at the Pointe du Raz. The rocks dip down to the surf, the ocean rises over them and washes off in a white foam. Off a mile into the water, several large rocks stick up – large enough to call islands, and three lighthouses rise, each further away from the shore; the middle one seems to grow out of the surf itself, with hardly enough rock to form a foundation.

There is a permanent mist in the air, graying the far cliffs and dimming the contrast. The plateau above the rocks is a heath covered with thistle, nettle and teazel. Low grasses blow in the constant wind. Seabirds circle overhead and insects buzz in the undergrowth. Heath flowers, tiny and bright – blue, yellow, white – are so insignificant, you have to be looking for them to find them. But when you do, they burst in your eye like the sweet, acid first bite of a piece of fruit.

I love these places where the earth ends, where the rock weathers, the tideline is speckled white with barnacles and black with kelp. It doesn’t matter much whether it is here in Brittany, Land’s End in Cornwall or the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans clash.

Though they don’t bear the name, the same rocks and tide can be had at Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula or Schoodic Point in Maine.

Schoodic Point, Maine

Schoodic Point, Maine

Cape Hatteras in North Carolina doesn’t have the rocks, but it has the storms, the pounding waves and a similar sense of being where the planet gives out.

That is the main point: That there is some place that the banality gives way to the immensity, that the office cubicles and mowed front lawns are forgotten behind us as we front a broad, tide-swept unknown.

The grayer the better, the masses of swirling whites of seafoam against the black shadows in the water and the gray clouds overhead swifting in the wind.

Here, the elements are butting heads like rutting rams. Some fights reach a conclusion, a winner is named, a peace concluded. But this is perpetual. The fight is the goal, not the means.

You stand, even in summer, with a brisk wind making your face numb with cold and the horizon is nothing by the limit of your own perception.

Finistère. The end of the world, where the old maps say monsters must live. Where fishermen bob in boats while pulling in nets of sardines or mackerel, where the houses are plain except for their blue window shutters, where no trees grow, where the sky is never static, but always blown across with grizzle, mizzle and chapping cold.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

When we find ourselves repeating the patterns of suburban living, barely noticing the stars at night, or the sunrise in the morning, it is good to shake ourselves clean where nothing matters as real except the climate, the weather, the rocks, the seawater and the air.

Lincoln seated

What we know best of Abraham Lincoln is his face. Gaunt and furrowed, with hollow cheeks, dark, shadowed eyes and a cowlick in his hair, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with a comb.

It may be partly that we know him from black-and-white photographs, but it is a gray face that already seems to be cut from stone. It is a monumental face.

It is also an ambiguous face. Perhaps because of the longer exposures needed to make those portrait photos in the 1860s, his expression is blank. We don’t have images of Lincoln smiling or talking. He is always sitting still, waiting for Matthew Brady to say, “OK, thank you, Mr. President. We are done.” And he can then relax, stretch his long legs and perhaps crack a joke. “Mr. Brady, it reminds me of the one about …”

But the static pose means we look at the face and read into it what we want: fatigue, care, wisdom, faith, despair, grief or distraction. Maybe just boredom.

Lincoln 1865

And it isn’t only in the photographs that Lincoln is more mirror than figure. Everything in his life is ambiguous, and lets us find the Lincoln that reflects the image of ourselves. What we know best is his face, but it tells us the least.

Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it.”

The words are from Library of America’s Lincoln Anthology, a collection of writings about our 16th president edited by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. It contains a century and a half of writing, from the recollections of his contemporaries to recent ruminations and lucubrations by writers such as Gore Vidal and Garry Wills. Each has his own Lincoln.

In it, you can read the shifting versions of the man. For some he is the preserver of freedom, for others he is a bloody tyrant. Some saw a sober man of deep reflection, others a jokester who would jibe at the most inappropriate moments. Some saw him as a statesman, others as an opportunistic politician.

For some he was a pious Christian; for others, he was an atheist.

You can find proof of any of these views in the more than 10,000 books that have been written about him.

Did he prosecute the Civil War to end slavery or to preserve the Union? There is evidence for all these Lincolns, and more.

Recent books have suggested everything from a closeted gay Lincoln to one afflicted with one or another form of undiagnosed genetic neurological infirmity.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the problem better than Lincoln’s attitude toward race. His early writings can be hard to read nowadays, from a post-Obama perspective: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And I … am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he said in a speech in 1858. He was an avid user of the N-word, hardly excused by the fact that almost everyone did back then.

Yet freed slave Frederick Douglass, who frequently held Lincoln’s feet to the fire over slavery, after meeting him in 1863 wrote in his autobiography that Lincoln was “the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.”

“He was big enough to be inconsistent,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1922. “Cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man – a big, inconsistent, brave man.”

There are three explanations for Lincoln’s inconsistencies.

The first and easiest is that he was a politician and said to people what they wanted to hear. This is certainly true in many cases.

The second is that his views changed over time, and that what he said in 1858 cannot accurately reflect what he believed in 1863. This is also true. Few presidents show so much growth in office as Lincoln.

But the third is more important: He was simply a complex man. He seemed able to hold opposing points of view in mind at the single moment.

Unlike many later presidents, who grasp unwaveringly to their ideologies, Lincoln approached the world as a multifarious and varied place in which a single point of view cannot encompass. It allowed him a pragmatic flexibility.

One of the lies of history is that it follows a script. We tend to see history as a story with a beginning, middle and end. We know how the Civil War turned out. But in the midst of it, no one knew how it would turn out, and Lincoln faced new problems every day and no single policy would work in every case.

And every day presented choices that could lead to an infinity of results: Behind every door, a dozen more waited to be opened.

“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he said in 1864. His genius – his political and moral genius – it to have been a great surfer of events, turning this way or that to maintain his balance and herd those events toward the general goal he held firm to.

“My policy is to have no policy,” he once said.

It is what made him the right man for the job in 1860: An abolitionist could not be elected; a Southern sympathizer would only have prolonged the agony, like his predecessor, James Buchanan. Lincoln’s steadfastness of purpose was matched with a flexibility that many saw as being unprincipled. Yet, that flexibility is what worked.

“The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance their worth,” Du Bois wrote.

“I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

LINCOLN

patroclus and achilles

Why should the first book written in the Western tradition still be the best book ever written in the Western tradition?

I’m talking, of course, of the Iliad, a book so beautiful, so profound, and so inclusive, as to remain unsurpassed by Tolstoy, Proust or even Dave Barry.

I try to reread it at least once a year, and in different translations. It never fails to delight me. More, it never fails to move me deeply.

For the ancient Greeks, Homer was as close as they had to a bible. It seemed to them everything one needed to know was included in the two books he is credited with writing, and the hymns he is supposed to have composed.

It reminds one of Caliph Omar, blamed by some for burning the great library of Alexandria, who supposedly said that the library was not needed, because everything we need to know is in the Koran, and if the books in the library contradict the Koran, they should be destroyed, and if they agree with the Koran, they are superfluous.

Clearly, not everything is in the Iliad: It is a little thin on women, for instance. The Odyssey does better by that count. But it is astonishing how much actually is included.

And what is also astonishing is how clear-eyed Homer is: How unblinking in the face of both good and evil. It is all there, and narrated with hardly a nod to one side or the other. This is the world that is, not the world as we should like it to be.

There is, it is true, a good deal of the Hellenic world view that is foreign to us today, but that hardly matters. The book seems modern anyway, even cinematic. (Not that any movies made of the Trojan war are anything but embarrassing — blame that on Hollywood, not on Homer.)

He writes like a movie camera: Written details play in our minds as if we were seeing them on a screen.

In Homer’s Iliad, when the Trojan warrior Hector has killed one of his Achaean (Greek) enemies, he “planted a heel against Patroclus’ chest, wrenched his bronze spear from the wound, kicked him over flat on his back.”

That’s cinematic.

Critic Roger Ebert talks about a movie cliche he calls the “fruit cart,” when a falling kung-fu fighter or a careening car knocks over a table or fruit cart and spills produce all over the screen.

Odysseus killing the suitors, by John Flaxman

Odysseus killing the suitors, by John Flaxman

In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero comes home to find his estate infested with villains. He kills them all, starting with the head bad-guy.

“Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat with the arrow’s point stabbing clean through to the nape of the neck and out the other side. Antinous pitched to the side, his cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life blood came spurting from his nostrils in thick red jets. His foot jerked forward and kicked the table and food showered across the floor, bread and meat soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.”

Fruit cart!

It is especially in the area of graphic violence that Homer anticipates Hollywood.

There was a time in movies when the bad guy got shot, grabbed his chest and keeled over. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde turned death by gunshot into a slow-motion ballet of bodies jerked like marionettes punctuated by squibs popping like bubble wrap.

Since then, Hollywood has upped the ante, and the ballet of graphic gore has gotten more sophisticated, more precise and more messy. No one can be shot nowadays without a shower of blood spattering the wall behind him like spray paint.

In just 20 lines of the Iliad, Homer kills off half a dozen heroes in bloody style. Here’s a sampling:

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

“Idomoneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth, the spearpoint raking through, up under the brain to split his glistening skull, teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids with a gush of red and both nostrils spurting, mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood. He was a corpse as he hit the ground.”

Tarantino is playing catch up.

But it isn’t merely in gore that Homer is realistic. He describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

Something else that should be said is that Homer survives translation. There are many great poets who live so completely in their native soil, they cannot be shipped overseas without loss of savor. Goethe in his mother tongue is the great poet; Goethe in English seems like the bearer of bromides and platitudes. Horace cannot survive the journey from Latin to English without sounding rather like Polonius.

But Homer works whether in a straight interlinear or in Pope’s heroic couplets or in Stephen Mitchell’s newest colloquial English translation. The power of Homer is in his sweep, not in his preciosity.

Pope Iliad

It is what Longinus praised in his On the Sublime.

He even works in the quaint antique style of George Chapman. In fact, Chapman is a great treat for someone who loves the Queen’s English.

Outside the King James Bible, there is probably no English translation of anything more famous than Chapman’s Homer.

But it is famous for being praised in John Keats’ sonnet, rather than for itself. Hardly anyone alive has actually read Chapman.

Chapman issued his translations, first of the Iliad and then of the Odyssey, from 1598 through 1615, overlapping the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. Like that Bible, it is written in a knotty Elizabethan-Jacobean style, when English was first stretching its muscles and testing its power. It is profligate in its verbal extravagance.

Keats wrote that Chapman speaks out “loud and bold,” and he certainly does.

 

“The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way

Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay; 

That wandered wonderous far when he the town

Of sacred Troy had sacked and shivered down.”

 

I love that: “sacked and shivered down.”

Of course, you lose something to gain something. Chapman’s word inversions, to fit his meter, make the words sound as archaic as the more obscure parts of King James, and can interfere with understanding the sense. You keep having to stop and reparse the sentence to understand just what he means to say.

On the other hand, there is a strength and nobility to the stylized expression.

Modern translations, even as wonderful as the recent one by Robert Fagles (which I recommend to first-time readers over Chapman), may be clearer, and it has its own felicities, but it doesn’t give us anything as palpable as that shivering city: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

The course between elevated style and easy comprehension has to be charted by each of Homer’s translators. Do you try to make him into an adventure novel, like W.H.D. Rouse, or do you look for the astonishing words that make poetry?

The opening of the Iliad has a line about how the anger of Achilles has caused the death of many men. An interlinear and literal translation says that the hero “prematurely sent many brave souls of heroes to Hades and made them prey to dogs and to all birds of prey.”

It is a grim image, of corpses littering the battlefield and being chewed on by animals.

Samuel Butler translates the same passage as “pushing brave men under the sod, feeding young men to dogs and to vultures.”

Alexander Pope, in one of the most enduring translations, gives that as:

 

“The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”

 

The text most often taught in colleges is Richmond Lattimore’s. He gives that same passage as:

 

“hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls

of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting

of dogs, of all birds.”

 

The American poet Robert Lowell has it:

 

“threw so many huge souls into hell,

heroes who spilled their lives as food for dogs and darting birds.”

 

So you can see there is quite a wide latitude of possibility in translation, to make the sense clear and to make the imagery potent.

Here is Chapman’s opening:

Chapman's Iliad

To give a sense how Chapman fits into all this, we should look at the opening of Book XI of the Odyssey.

It tells about Odysseus (Chapman uses the Latin version of the name, Ulysses) and his men setting off from the island of the witch-goddess Circe.

A.T. Murray’s nearly literal translation for the Loeb Library offers:

 

“But when we had come down to the ship and to the sea, first of all we drew the ship down to the bright sea, and set the mast and sail in the black ship, and took the sheep and put them aboard, and ourselves embarked, sorrowing, and shedding big tears.”

 

It is a passage translated by T. E. Lawrence — yes, that is Lawrence of Arabia — as:

 

“At length we were at the shore where we lay the ship. Promptly we launched her into the divine sea, stepped the mast, made sail and went: not forgetting the sheep, though our hearts were very low and big tears rained down from our eyes.”

 

Pope lets these words fly quick and smooth:

 

“Now to the shores we bend, a mournful train,

Climb the tall bark, and launch into the main:

At once the mast we rear, at once unbind 

The spacious sheet, and stretch it to the wind;

Then pale and pensive stand, with cares oppressed, 

And solemn horror saddens every breast.”

 

Pope has expanded the passage to make it fly gracefully. Chapman goes the other way, with his crabbed, organ-tone Elizabethan style:

 

“Arrived now at our ship, we launched, and set

Our mast up, put forth sail, and in did get

Our late-got Cattle. Up our sails, we went,

My wayward fellows mourning now the event.”

 

Over and over, in Chapman, you come across the gnarly masticated consonants that act as rocks in the clear stream of vowels. Reading him can be like walking barefoot on gravel.

But at its best, it makes you taste each word as you utter it. You cannot speed-read the poetry: You must measure each syllable.

There are parts where Chapman seems to be on auto pilot, and when his poetry ventures into the banal, but at his best Chapman gives us a view of Homer as sublime, the version of Homer that Longinus praised, as being bigger and more awesome than our ordinary course of experience.

Oh, but what might have been. There is a passage of Homer that accomplishes what Chapman did, only more so, and with a sweeping poetic power that no one has ever matched.

One wishes, though, that Ezra Pound had finished a full translation of Homer. That cranky, crazy, fraudulent genius has given us the best, most noble, most poetic, and at the same time most comprehensible translation of parts of the Odyssey in his opening section of The Cantos.

It has the best of Chapman and the best of Pope, with a 20th Century irony and an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that dances and sings. How I wish he hadn’t gone all loony and filled his Cantos with Chinese and economics and instead have spent that same time giving us all of Homer.

 

“And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

heavy with weeping.”

 

Well, if we can’t have a full Pound, Chapman will more than suffice.

Homer bust