Monday, April 25, 2011


Why Bertrand Tavernier is not considered up there with the world’s greatest filmmakers is a mystery to me. It must have something to do with the vagaries of distribution, the absence of hype, the obtuseness of reviewers and audiences, perhaps even of festival directors and museum curators.

His oeuvre is varied and extensive, his scope prodigious and vision acute. Google him and you’ll get at least some sense of his achievement, which began spectacularly with The Clockmaker and has continued through his most recent offering, The Princess of Montpensier, for which, as usual, Tavernier collaborated on the screenplay.

The film is based on the first novel by Madame de La Fayette (1662), whose later La Princesse de Cleves (1678) is the first authentic French novel, a psychological masterpiece filmed more than once. Her initial fiction, La Princesse de Montpensier, though not quite so remarkable, provided Tavernier with a more than serviceable story for a major film.

In the history-film genre, Tavernier accomplishes something few if any directors have managed so well: shooting not just a plot, but also a sense of what ordinary life in a given period—in this case 17th-century France—was like. As in W. H. Auden’s famous poem about the Dutch painting of the fall of Icarus (which shows everyday life going on in other parts of the canvas), Tavernier gives us humdrum and humble activities behind or alongside of the main action, making that very action more embedded in reality, more believable.

Nor is Tavernier loath to repeat things that bear repetition, such as horses ridden by various riders at breakneck speed on diverse occasions that punctuate the film, having the same validity as reckless car rides running through movies about today’s life. It immerses us more thoroughly in the era in question.

Though this is not meant to be a movie review—and isn’t—some Tavernier strengths must be stressed. So the fine performances in even minor parts, though I will mention only one of the major ones: Lambert Wilson, splendid as the Comte de Chabannes, the Princess’s tutor in the remote castle to which her husband confined her, ostensibly as protection from the raging religious wars. Although noble and wise, circumspect in handling with philosophical detachment the Princess’s various involvements (or avoidance thereof) with aristocrats and royalty, Chabannes himself eventually succumbs to his pupil’s charms in heartbreakingly moving scenes.

Again, although this is a story of romantic passions, we get no gratuitous dabbling in sex. There is, remarkably, only one rather discreet bedroom scene, yet all that needs to be shown about the sundry amours is magisterially conveyed. And, as usual in Tavernier’s films, cinematography, editing, music, camera placement and movement are exemplarily managed. Best of all, though the director is clearly in constant charge, his control is not ostentatiously foisted on the viewer, but chastely subsumed by the action.

Tavernier has turned seventy, but The Princess of Montpensier  is informed as much by youthful zest as by mature judgment. And though it is a work of fiction, we feel that no documentary could have conjured up historic reality with greater accuracy and suasion.

Speaking of princesses, here comes the wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, his commoner bride. Of course a royal wedding is of some interest, especially when the bride is not of royal or even blue blood—a pure case of romantic love rather than political expediency, more like a fairy tale in fact.

Even so, isn’t all this frantic American media coverage indicative of something beyond the obvious? Does it not mean that a democratic republic leaves its beneficiaries famished for something more regal? Does it not play out almost as soul-satisfyingly as the legend of King Copetua and the Beggar Maid? Is it not as if a Hollywood happy ending were turning real, the very thing that encourages hopefulness in the drabbest of lives? Not that we can all turn into Prince William or Kate Middleton, but that we live in a world in which, amid economic crises and fighting all over the map, romance of this kind is still possible?

I myself am fascinated by reading that Kate becomes empowered by marriage to choose whether to become princess or duchess. Princess is manifestly grander, but duchess allows for more freedom. This is the kind of dilemma dreams are made of—isn’t a current movie (which I haven’t seen) entitled Win Win?

Be it mentioned here that Englishwomen are not, by and large, noted for their comeliness. It took a great deal of questionable taste or stubborn make believe to consider Princess Di, let alone Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, pretty, to say nothing of beautiful. Conversely, Kate does look undeniably good.

So this is the new TV reality show, with American networks fiercely outbidding one another to engage photogenic Englishwomen capable of reporting on the royal wedding. If there is this much hullabaloo about their mere nuptials, just think what it will be like when the couple get lost somewhere in the jungle with no one around  to rescue them except the television crew.

Friday, April 8, 2011

False Analogy

This week’s sermon is chiefly about false analogy, one of the major ills that plague (not plagues—the subject is plural, ills) our once reasonably healthy English.

Is anything more parlous than the state of our beloved mother tongue? Well, not mine actually, but at any rate stepmother tongue. It may be a kind of haughtiness, but I wince whenever I encounter an offense against grammar, spelling or pronunciation. If only it weren’t considered bad manners to correct someone else’s speech or writing, things would still be bearable; but nowadays, instead of thanks, you might get a punch in the nose.

Offenses are sprouting all over, but one of the most flagrant is the matter of “lie” and “lay.” True, this is an instance where language seems intent on tripping you up. We have not only the infinitives, lay and lie, to contend with, but also the past tense, lay. Laid and lain likewise challenge the standard lack of discrimination. Lie is in bad odor, too, because of its homonym, meaning to tell untruths, which we don’t want to do. To speak incorrectly, however, we don’t seem to mind at all.

The problem is false analogy. It is assumed that if something horizontalized is laid down, something that is horizontal, therefore, lays. Not so! And then there is also the sexual meaning, as in getting laid.

You might feel encouraged by hearing our generally ignorant television newscasters talk of bodies laying in the streets, that, at least after a nasty bombing, some recreational copulation proved restorative and thrived. And why not? Now that countless folks are unappetizingly stuffing themselves from food cartons on buses and subways, should not public fornication be just as acceptable and widespread?

Another, scarcely less glaringly faulty analogy is common as dirt everywhere, notably on TV: “groceries” pronounced, as if it were spelled “grocieries,” as grosheries.  The poor misguided souls may even think they’re being refined, just as some deviants do when they say “with Bill and I” for “with Bill and me.” Genteelism, the great Fowler called it: saying something that sounds genteel (I) rather than common (me), but happening to be incorrect.

Still, where did the mispronunciation “grosheries” come from? False analogy with hosiery and glacier, which have an ie where groceries has a mere e. Similarly mistaken, based on misspelling, are the not uncommon “grievious” and “mischievious,” derived by false analogy from words like devious and previous, which have an i before the o.

Similarly false analogy obtains also in writing. Does a week go by in which you don’t read  about someone “wracking” his brains about something?  Now clearly the verb is meant to refer to self-torture, to being stretched on the rack. But because another bad thing, being shipwrecked or otherwise wrecked, has that w in front of the r, onto “racked” goes that initial w.

What it has to do with is parallelism, symmetry, yes, analogy. If being healthy is good, then the answer to “How are you?” may just as well (note: not just as good) be “I’m good.” But good is a moral value, or a matter of mood (a good feeling), or a practical matter (a flashlight is good for the household); it has nothing to do with wellness, i.e., health. You are well, in good health, and let someone else who respects you say that you are good. But, you may wonder, can’t “I am good” become accepted through popular parlance? Perhaps so, eventually, but not yet.

Much the same, by the way, applies to “great.” You are not “doing great,” however successful you are. You are only great if you are God, or if you are a leader of men and  boastful about it. Otherwise, you reserve great for other people and their achievements.

Yes, good usage is a tricky thing, like navigating in shallow waters or among coral reefs. Notice:  “among” rather than “between” when referring to more than two, the “tween” clearly coming from twain, which designates a pair. But because so much happens between two people or occurs between two latitudes or lies between two objects, between has become incorrectly preferred to among even where several or many are involved.

But let’s get back to more saliently false analogy. Because “consists of” is correct, it is assumed that “comprised of” must be too. Not so. Comprise, like comprehend or embrace, means for something bigger to include more than one smaller ones. So a standard tool box may comprise a hammer, tongs, a file, various screwdrivers etc. So,too, a string quartet comprises four instrumentalists; but eleven players do not comprise a soccer team, though it does comprise them. “Comprises” is often wrong; “comprised of” always. Would you say “included of”?

It would be nice if correct usage were always logical, as it sometimes is. Careful speakers will not say “Everyone must buy their tickets” but “buy his or her ticket,” or, risking fisheyes from feminists, simply “his ticket.” Yet this fine distinction between singular and plural has pretty much gone by the board. But then, grammar need not be, often isn’t, logical. If “other than” is correct, why isn’t “different than,” which seems to be derived from it? It simply is “different from,” only in England, sometimes, “different to,” albeit, I believe, frowned upon.

So rules require memorization. But what if you ignore them? Will you be punished or ostracized if you say grosheries or grievious

Good English is like good manners: not essential but estimable, and hence highly desirable. Wouldn’t you rather be polite and well thought of by properly brought up, educated people? A mere minority, you say? Certainly, but when all other minorities are respected and deferred to, why should one minority be an exception? In this matter, analogy is more than justified.