Paris belongs to us

A tantalizing little sequence of above-it-all from René Clair’s Paris qui dort / The Crazy Ray (1923). Entire film here. Lucky enough to have escaped the “crazy ray” of a conniving scientist who has frozen le tout Paris, the caretaker of the Eiffel Tower, four fashionable airplane passengers and their pilot cavort happily in the Trocadéro fountain and light each other’s cigarettes whilst hanging from the tower’s iron lattice. What power and liberty in the view from above, which endlessly fixes, distances and aestheticizes.


Poetry from the trenches

Going to MoMA’s current exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925” was like a French New Year’s feast with a boggled mind afterward instead of a groaning belly: there was fois gras. There were oysters. Champagne, white wine, red wine, digestif. Lobster, roast, and quail. And of course, the moelleux.

Discoveries for me were:

Josef Albers’ Gitterbild (1921), a droll and clever teaching tool that transformed wire and industrial glass samples into a modernist study of color resonance and texture,

a whole wall of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions–abstract portraits, landscapes and still lifes,

a 1979 reconstructed model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), which sat ambitiously and quite uneasily in the gallery, surrounded by other Constructivist masterworks


Suzanne Duchamp’s Solitude entonnoir (1921), which entered into melancholy conversation with all of the grinders and rotaries and mills in the work of brother Marcel (dutifully represented in painting, sculpture and cinema).

The most extraordinary, however, was an extremely rare copy of Guillame Apollinaire’s Case d’Armons (1915). Apollinaire published the (I believe) hand-bound booklet of 21 poems on graph paper with the help of two sergeant friends from the trenches during the First World War. The booklet sat in a vitrine, covered by a velvet powder blue cloth. Visitors approached and lifted the cloth, perhaps expecting to see something illicit, and were met with the incredible fragility and power of aesthetics amidst war.


I’ve been wondering why I thought Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) was so smartly wrathful, creative and magnificent and why I was so disappointed with Django Unchained (2012), the second in what one can only hope are a series of willful rewritings of history. With its wonderful acting, costuming and lighting, the film was certainly as much of a pleasure to simply look at as Inglorious Basterds was.

It wasn’t the ultra-violence that bothered me so much. In Django Unchained, the blood splooges out of Tarantino’s characters more comically than ever. Its function goes demonstrably beyond the representational.

It wasn’t the perverse gloss on slavery, which seemed to be a degradingly apt commemoration of a far more perverse economic system. (The terribly hard-to-take mandingo fighting scene also seemed to me to be a degradingly apt portrait of contemporary prizefighting).

It wasn’t the sexism–while a distinct sign of directorial laziness, it was unsurprising and tired enough to be pretty innocuous.

I suppose it was all of these things put together, but above all: Django Unchained doesn’t take the time to reflect upon itself as Inglorious Basterds did. If the leitmotif of Tarantino’s films is exquisite vengeance, his most interesting films have a key moment that calls revenge’s rewards into question. In Inglorious Basterds, this moment takes place inside and outside of the narrative at the same time: Shosanna burns the Nazis alive in a cinema, using nitrate film as fuel. Her malevolence seems to extend to the film we’re engaged in viewing, as well, asking us what any symbolic entertainment featuring good guys and bad guys can ultimately mean.

Perhaps self-reflexivity is Tarantino’s ersatz moral code. It provokes an interesting kind of doubt that gives the revenge added significance, and I couldn’t find that doubt in Django Unchained.