Friday, March 11, 2005


Robert Frost, The Gift Outright.

End a weary era with Robert Frost. "The Gift Outright" comes from his 1942 collection, A Witness Tree, and was recorded sometime around 1949-50. It's the poem Frost read at John Kennedy's inaugural in 1961, after Frost had trouble reading the poem he had composed for the day, he gave up and recited "Gift Outright" from memory.

"She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people...

..To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become

I've always liked the last two lines--America started out "unstoried, artless, unenhanced," and would only become more so. Frost could be magnificently cynical at times.

Say that a latter-day Rip van Winkle had gone to sleep one summer evening in 1940, listening to a Dodgers game on the radio, and had woken up in the summer of 1949. After shaving off his beard, telling his terrified wife he was awake and reading a few papers, our modern Rip would have been stunned to see how much he had become a stranger in his own home.

He had gone to sleep in a quiet, isolationist place, which had seemed safely preserved from the fighting in Europe, and he had awoken in a country that had fought and helped win a massive global war--a war that seems by '49, however, as just the prelude to something even more grim and catastrophic. The U.S. had signed a treaty that spring that had committed it to defending a dozen European countries by force from aggressors. So the next time the fighting starts, we'll be right in there with it, Rip thinks. That's why they still haven't stopped the draft, though the war's been over for years.

Ah well, turn on the radio. But Glenn Miller is dead, and they're not playing Benny Goodman anymore.

His wife, once she recovered from the shock of his recovery, keeps telling him they need to move. The neighborhood's not what it was. The streetcars have all gone, the tracks torn up (he reads in the paper, on the back pages, that GM and the oil companies got fined for something to do with that), and the city's thinking of running a new highway through the old downtown area. It's just as well--the movie theater's run down and the dime stores are closing.

If he hadn't been lying in bed all those years, his wife reminds him, if he had fought in the war like everyone else, he could have qualified for all those cheap mortgages. She wants to move out maybe to New Jersey, where they're building a new turnpike, or out on Long Island. Long Island? There's nothing there but cows, cornfields and places for rich people to anchor their yachts. Who'd want to move there, Rip thinks.

And there's something new in the living room, a little box where you can actually see the radio programs and newsmen and watch the ball games. So our Rip sits down to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play. At least, he thinks, some things will never change.

Films of '49:
As I've said before, the quality of the movies made this year is unnerving.

Banshun (Late Spring). The great wave of Japanese films begins; for me this, even more than "Tokyo Story", is Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece.
They Live By Night. Just incredible. Remade by Robert Altman as "Thieves Like Us."
The Third Man.
Gun Crazy. "I want action!" In which a gun-loving weirdo meets the lust of his life in Peggy Cummins' outrageous femme fatale. Studded with brilliant scenes--such as a one-take uncut shot of a bank robbery seen from the back seat of the robbers' car, and filmed at a real bank in front of unsuspecting customers.
Nora Inu (Stray Dog). Just the start of Kurosawa's golden era.
Kind Hearts and Coronets. Mass murder has never seemed so justified, nor so dignified. Alec Guinness plays eight roles, making each one a brilliant character study.
Le Sang des BĂȘtes (Blood of the Beasts). On a quiet workday morning Parisians go about their business, while in the slaughterhouses on the edge of the city, a horse is shot in the head, and calves, tied down to crates, are decapitated, their blood washed into drains by workers yawning and smoking cigarettes. Truly horrific to the point of being almost unwatchable--a film that makes the entire slasher genre seem a bit ridiculous.
Whisky Galore! During the war, a whiskey-starved island in the Outer Hebrides is handed a gift from God--a crashed ship with 50,000 cases on board.
The Heiress. Yes, it's classic Hollywood, so we get Olivia de Havilland as the allegedly plain Catherine Sloper. Yes, it's classic Hollywood, so you get incredible sets, glorious tracking shots, Montgomery Clift perfectly cast, and a story told with such economy and grace it seems like a lost art.
The Small Back Room. The Archers' final bow--a tense, desperate, brilliant little film.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
White Heat. Top of the world.

Hope everyone has enjoyed the trip.

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