Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal). I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture. This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did. The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later. As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me. Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.
Autumn Sonata (C). I have a shelf full of classics by the Criterion Collection, and it is high time I got more use out of them. So I pulled down this one, which is now the first Ingmar Bergman movie I have ever seen. It was a good choice for a cold, grey January morning. Autumn Sonata is a claustrophobic little family drama centering on the painful relationship between a woman and her grown daughter. Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight), appearing in her last theatrical release, plays the mother, Charlotte. She’s a world-class concert pianist, and it doesn’t take us long to figure out that her art always took precedence over her husband, her daughters, and pretty much everything else. Liv Ullman (Lost Horizon) plays her daughter, Eva, who is married to a minister in a small rural town. Charlotte and Eva haven’t seen each other in seven years, and when Charlotte accepts Eva’s invitation to come visit it doesn’t take too long before the two are hurting each other all over again. It’s a very talky movie, with some long monologues and lots of extreme close-ups. I didn’t love it, but it was worth seeing. The Criterion Collection version I own is a two-DVD set that include a three-and-a-half-hour “making of” documentary on disc two. I’m not sure I’m ever going to get around to watching all the bonus content….
The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2010; trans. 2015). This is a big old novel about life in post-Stalinist Russia. I liked it. At first, the book is a cohesive story about three boys who befriend each other around the time of Stalin’s death in 1956 and the teacher who inspires them to love Russian literature. But after a few chapters the novel gets fragmentary, jumping around in time and sometimes following other seemingly minor characters on long (but interesting) tangents. Many of the characters are involved in one kind of dissent or another, and the danger of exposure, arrest, and imprisonment is always right around the corner. I haven’t read that many Russian novels, but the characters in them always seem fascinatingly larger than life to me, especially in their passions and appetites. I read this 500+ page novel in fits and starts over a few weeks, so I was often confused about who the various characters were, but I don’t think it diminished my enjoyment of the story very much.
The 39 Steps (B). Well, I intended to see a movie at the theater today, but I got some bad information from the internet and wound up seeing nothing. So I decided to get some use out of my DVD collection and pulled down The Criterion Collection edition of this 1935 Hitchcock thriller. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) stars as Hannay, an ordinary Londoner caught up in a web of intrigue when he takes a beautiful woman back to his flat one evening and she turns out to be a spy—and gets herself murdered that very night! Suddenly, Hanney is on the run—wanted by the police on suspicion of murder and by sinister spies who are trying to steal British military secrets. On a train to Scotland he has a meet-cute with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, Secret Agent), and they later team up to try to foil the foreign plot. The film is not terribly suspenseful but has some pleasant romantic-comedy aspects to it. And at 86 minutes, it’s quite efficient. I didn’t watch all the extras that Criterion packed onto the disc, but a short feature about Hitchcock’s film career in England before moving to Hollywood was interesting, and a critic’s discussion of The 39 Steps itself was also interesting and entertaining.
Their Finest (B+). It doesn’t have the grabbiest title, but this picture by Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) is my favorite of the year so far. The year is 1940, and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) has moved from Wales to London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But his dour art isn’t selling, so Catrin gets a job as a screenwriter on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. She clashes with the obnoxious head screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), learns to massage the bruised ego of past-his-prime movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, I Capture the Castle), and generally gets a crash course in the trials and tribulations of moviemaking. Jeremy Irons (Appaloosa) pops up unexpectedly as a pompous war minister. The sexism of the era is conveyed effectively without being overdone. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the movie.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (B-). Somehow I missed this 2014 black & white foreign-language vampire flick during its original release, but happily a friend invited me to a special showing last night at the Alamo Drafthouse. (Actually I tried to talk her into seeing Logan instead, but she wasn’t having it. She’s been a big vampire fan ever since New Moon.) It’s a weird movie, but interesting. Our hero is some ordinary guy living in a bleak industrial town called Bad City. His father is a junkie, and a drug dealer takes our hero’s beloved car because dad can’t pay his debts. Then the drug dealer abuses a prostitute who works for him. This draws the ire of our vampire (Sheila Vand, Argo), an ordinary-seeming woman who ghosts around town at night and can sprout fangs in a jiffy. Later she menaces a little boy and takes his skateboard. After that she meets our hero after he has gone to a costume party (as Dracula!), and instead of making a meal out of him she actually seems to start liking him. But you’re never really sure if she’s eventually going to chomp on him or not; her affect is pretty flat. More stuff happens after that, in a slow, moody, artsy kind of way. It held my interest.
(I’m categorizing it as a foreign film because it’s in Farsi, but I have read that it was actually shot in California. The director, Ana Lily Amirpour, is Iranian-American.)
This was my first trip to an Alamo Drafthouse, and it was a pretty interesting experience. We got to our theater pretty early, and before getting to the real previews they showed a bunch of film clips and trailers from cheesy old horror movies back-to-back. It was fine to set the mood, I guess, but it made conversation difficult. I got food, which I seldom do at movie theaters, and got a mediocre Royale Burger with Cheese and some cold fries out of the deal. The seats were comfy, though.