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We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out. 

But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale. 

No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot? 

So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners. 

Desert Island book

The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul. 

My nominees for Desert Island Book are:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book. 

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again. 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me. 

À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty. 

Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship. 

And the award goes to:

Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry. 

Desert Island Music

This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture. 

My nominees for Desert Island Music are:

 —Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into. 

—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.” 

—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle. 

—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out. 

—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time. 

And the winner is: 

St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!

Desert Island Film

Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.

My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are: 

Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen.  I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love. 

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you. 

Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon. 

And my choice is:

Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life. 

Bonus 

I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play. 

Opera

An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite: 

Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino

Epic poem

There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year: 

The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad. 

Live theater

What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember? 

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules. 

————————————

And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

copter jesus

Film critic Pauline Kael famously called Citizen Kane “more fun than any other great movie.”

Classic film, like classic literature, sometimes has the reputation of being more “good for you” than it is fun.

Well, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita gives Kane a run for his money.

The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us nine days and eight nights in the life of tabloid celebrity journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums.

“Rarely, if ever, has a picture reflected decadence, immorality and sophistication with such depth,” Box Office magazine said when the film was released. La Dolce Vita shows up on most all-time 10-best lists, and Fellini is unquestionably one of the four greatest directors ever.

Take its famous opening scene: A helicopter carries a giant statue of Jesus over the landscape of Rome.

The scene is ambiguous. We don’t know whether Fellini is satirizing religion or if Jesus, with his arms extended, is blessing the city beneath him.

What isn’t in question is that the scene is as memorable as a catchy tune: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t get it out of your head. That’s one of the secrets of Fellini’s greatness. There’s even a word for it: Fellini-esque.

La Dolce Vita is filled with such catchy tunes. trevi fountain

There is the industrially cantilevered Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain. There is the amoral Maddelena (Anouk Aimee) whispering words of love to Marcello, three rooms away in an old castle, while another man makes love to her.

The orgy scene, with Marcello riding a starlet like a donkey. marcello riding

They all stick to the roof of your brain like peanut butter.

Or the final scene with the giant monster fish netted by fishermen, and the closing shot of the young blond girl waving with the innocence of an angel at the lost Marcello.

Fellini structured the film in a series of climactic nights each followed by a dissolving dawn. In each of the nighttime episodes, Marcello faces one of his demons — although he doesn’t recognize them as such.

In the first night, he meets his wealthy lover Maddelena at a night club. anouk

“Your problem is you have too much money,” he tells her.

“Yours is that you don’t have enough,” she responds.

They pick up a streetwalker, take her to her home and proceed to have sex on her bed while the hooker makes coffee in the kitchen.

Each night rises to a crux, a point that might waken Marcello to the aimlessness of his life, and at each sunrise, there comes not a culmination, but a dissipation of the situation — all its air is let out.

Just when Marcello is about to kiss Ekberg, standing in the water, under the spray, the water stops flowing, sunrise arrives, and the dream evaporates.

Considering that it is now one of the immortal classics, its making was less than tidy.

Fellini’s first producer, Dino de Laurentiis, found the story “incoherent, false and pessimistic” and told the director, “The public desires at least a little hope and some entertainment.”

When he was persuaded to put up some money, de Laurentiis demanded that they hire a big star, like Paul Newman, to play Marcello. They also looked at hiring Henry Fonda and Maurice Chevalier.

Fellini stuck to his guns.

The costs soared, as Fellini added and rewrote.

The real Via Veneto, where much of the story takes place, was too busy to film on, so Fellini built a studio replica. That boosted his already huge budget by 50 percent. His new producers (de Laurentiis finally backed out) consented only if Fellini gave up his percentage of the profits — a move he later regretted when La Dolce Vita turned out to be a huge international hit.

To get the performance he wanted for the sex-crazy Maddelena, he made faces and danced behind the camera as Aimee played her most serious scenes, so that her effort to keep from laughing gave him the quality he was seeking in the role.

In addition, there were 800 extras to contend with.

And Fellini added to and changed his script so often that, by the end of shooting, the copy kept by his secretary was said to be larger than Rome’s telephone book.

Fellini claimed he had enough footage filmed to make a 10-hour movie. It’s now just less than three hours.

La Dolce Vita occupies a pivotal point in the career of Fellini, between the early Neo-Realist films, such as I Vitelloni and La Strada, and his later, sometimes visionary films. In La Dolce Vita, there is a balance between the sense of external reality — Italy’s boom economy in the decade after World War II, and its forgotten underclass — and the purely subjective sense of individual psychological crisis. In some of his later films, such as Roma or Fellini Satyricon, the grotesque predominates. But at the midpoint of his career, in his two best films, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, he balances the real and the freakish like a saint balancing heaven and hell.

“I am not a man who dashes off messages,” he told an interviewer when the film opened. “I don’t have a very precise ideology. When you describe your epoch, no matter how impartially, you notice that there are emergencies, events, attitudes that strike you more than certain others and that are more important. … So you unconsciously become a moralist. If La Dolce Vita has a meaning, it came all by itself. I did not go after it.”

The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. striptease

The film ends on an ambiguous note: Marcello has given up any hope of becoming a writer and has become a publicity agent. He has lost all pride and become uncharacteristically vicious. After a night of debauchery and humiliation, a party breaks up at dawn and heads for the beach, where a giant fish has been caught by local fishermen. big fish

It is a symbol of Christianity at the end of the film, like the statue of Jesus was at the beginning. angel girl

Marcello sees, on a far part of the beach, a young girl he had met once when working on his forgotten book, a girl he once said reminded him of “one of those little angels in the churches of Umbria.” She waves to him and tries to yell something to him above the surf. He cannot hear, shrugs his shoulder and walks off. marcello gives up

The film ends with a close up of the girl, waving.

And we never know if Marcello simply cannot hear her, or instead does not want to hear her. The film — and Fellini — are equivocal.

Perhaps that is because, in the end, Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”