Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Heroism


In Brecht’s “Galileo” we read, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes . . . No.  Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” An amusing paradox, but coming from Brecht, a coward and opportunist, not surprising. Brecht’s personal meanness can be matched only by that of another theatrical genius, Richard Wagner, a fellow German. Isn’t it wonderful that two of the greatest wizards of the musical theater should both have been nasty Germans?

But it is perfectly understandable why Brecht considered heroes de trop. He would have preferred a country of mediocrities from which he could stand out with all his imperfections to one that had heroes to eclipse him. Look at what even one hero or heroine could do for a country—the way Joan of Arc still provides a kind of lodestar to Frenchmen (and women), fifty million of whom cannot be wrong.

Poor burned Joan—could it mean that to be a hero (or heroine) you had to die, preferably in a grandiose way, on the battlefield or at the stake? Is Lord Byron, who came to the aid of the embattled Greeks, but had to die far from the fighting, ill and in bed less heroic? And is there not something louche about Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy,” which might seem more appropriate to Stan Laurel? Ah, those British grandees, all with their homoerotic Achilles heels. Le vice anglais, as the French, homies of Verlaine and Rimbaud, would sneeringly call it.

Apropos the French, their greatest hero, greater even than Marshal Foch, was Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. His bravura, the Larousse dictionary tells us, earned him the title Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche , knight above fear and blame. Yet that was in the early sixteenth century, when knighthood was in flower, and the prevailing type of combat lent itself to heroism. Even so, Bayard was outstanding, and could only be killed from afar by a dastardly shot of harquebus. Heroism, to some extent, thrives on distance in the past and on epics such as the Iliad, which of course is fiction.

What, however, of those heroes of modern battle, Americans who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor? Surely their survival doesn’t diminish their acts of heroism. Somehow, though, medieval armor is more heroic than contemporary armament. The past, a.k.a. history, burnishes the achievement. The Roman heroes of Virgil’s day would have had scant use for Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” in which the pragmatic Swiss antihero has it all over the heroics of the swaggering Bulgarian officer, however dashing.

Without being Shavian, we tend to be suspicious of heroism. Already in 1340 the Oxford English Dictionary locates the first use of the word foolhardiness, for which Greek or Latin, I dare say, has no equivalent. “Hero worship,” too, is a modern, belittling concept, dating from the ascendancy of latterday skepticism, which views much, but not all, heroism with suspicion.

It may be that the name of Nathan Hale and his famous alleged dying words are even now drilled into our elite schoolchildren, but who, young or old, can cite the parting words of a twentieth- or twenty-first-century patriot? Or have modern heroes become tongue-tied?

Execution, to be sure, elicits heroism and heroic last utterances, but we no longer execute heroes, or, if we do, are careful not to record their final words. A Raleigh or Essex no longer ends with his head on the block, or if he does in some third-world country, no one hears, let alone records, his farewell. The gas chambers, at any rate, are not supplied with sound equipment, and death rows seem not to harbor verbal artists.

Still, best is the military death. Even if by friendly fire, as in the case of Stonewall Jackson. And we may celebrate it even if it is that of a heroic enemy, as in World War Two Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, a great German general, who, earning Hitler’s undeserved disapproval, chose to commit suicide. And perhaps the best exemplar of surviving heroism and postwar triumph is General and subsequent President Charles de Gaulle, while there are many such a questionable examples as that of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill.

Meanwhile every country seems to have its favorite hero: Andreas Hofer for Austria, Miklos Toldi for Hungary, Emperor Dusan for Serbia, Admiral Nelson for England, William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart, as in his movie by Mel Gibson) for Scotland Skanderbeg fo0r Albania, and so on. Persia’s heroes, as far as I know, were its rulers (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes), even if they were the oppressors of conquered nations. Thus it was King Leonidas of Sparta who, in 480 B.C., with a mere 300 Spartans (his allies having deserted) opposed the huge Persian army at Thermopylae for a couple of days, afterwards slaughtered along with his soldiers. He, too, has had his cinematic tribute.

Modern Persia, i.e., Iran has also occasioned heroes, mostly filmmakers who have made movies that condemned them to exile, which, to be sure is rather better than execution, only I don’t recall their names. As for pre-Revolutionary Russia, Emperor Vladimir, who defeated the Teuton knights (memorialized by Prokofiev) was its supreme hero, until the Revolution spawned several others too numerous to mention. The same must be true of various countries of the Near and Far East, as well as Africa, about which I know little or nothing.

Fame, in any case, is whimsical enough. Take the antithetical destinies of two British nurses. In World War One, the Germans executed Nurse Edith Cavell as an English spy; surviving was Nurse Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War, and the mother of modern nursing. Why does nobody remember Cavell, but  most people know who was Nightingale. Could it be merely her avian moniker?

There have been countless heroes in the various arts who resisted and overcame intense adversity. Take the great painter Vincent van Gogh, who never sold a single painting during his lifetime, save one that his brother bought for a pittance, yet Vincent persisted until his ultimate suicide. Here I must mention Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the fearless novelist steadily persecuted, and the poet Anna Akhmatova (whose ex-husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was indeed executed),  whose own poetry did not seem quite so threatening to Stalin, and who in 1960  published the ironically titled volume “Poem Without a Hero.” Her brave life was  heroic enough.

In Hungary, I note the poet Miklos Radnoti, whose collection, “Keep Marching, You Who are Condemned to Death,” speaks loud through its mere title, and the somewhat less engaged but valiantly struggling poet Janos Pilinszky. There are several Czech, Slovak and Polish writers who defied their governments, but about whose identities I leave the word to Philip Roth. I would also argue for the heroism of some sports figures, notably Arthur Ashe, and a good many others, about whom I am insufficiently knowledgeable. But I do know about writers who assumed the burden of being ahead of their time, such as Franz Kafka (although he wanted his executor, Max Brod, to destroy his manuscripts, which Brod smartly didn’t) and James Joyce (although he had the insolence of claiming it should take the reader of “Finegans Wake” as long as it took him to write it).

And now, though I clearly realize that my two tiny acts of courage do not qualify as heroism, but upon which I look back with a modicum of pride. First, as a small boy in Abbazia, an Italian resort on the Mediterranean, where my family would vacation each Easter. A little girl who had a butterfly net tried to fish with it, only to have the Adriatic wrest it from her hand. She was desolate, and I, who was smitten with her  but not yet knowing how to swim, lept into the water fully dressed to retrieve it. I did not take note of how deep the sea was there, and it did indeed reach my chin, but the girl got her net back. My parents were absent, but a friendly lady, terrified, carried me off to her hotel room for a good dressing down, both literal and figurative. I can’t remember what dry things she wrapped me in.

More recently, in middle age, my then girlfriend and I were attending one afternoon a movie near Times Square. It was called “Theatre of Blood,” and concerned an actor avenging his adverse reviews on a series of critics by murdering them. As if that were not enough, there were in that otherwise empty theater, at the other end of our long row, a black pimp with his white hooker. They were, loudly talking, having a late lunch, noisily unpacking and variously rattling their victuals. Which even at some distance was disturbing.

So I made my way halfway through the row, called to the noisemakers to desist, and returned to my seat. Next thing I knew, there was this huge, threatening black man, towering over me, and accusing me of interfering with the lunch of two hungry people. I, though shaken, kept my cool, and responded that they could eat all they want so long as it wasn’t noisy. With a final furious remark (I forget exactly what) the man went back to whence he came. To make matters worse, as we were leaving, my friend whose nickname for me was Raccoon, audibly congratulated me with “Brave coon!” I did not stop to verify any possible reaction from the pimp.

I still feel that Brecht was wrong. I still believe that acts of courage, especially those of major heroism of whatever kind, have a beneficial effect on a society, if not an entire country, this even if recognition was considerably delayed, as Shaw’s “Saint Joan” powerfully reminds us. When the heroine, now sainted, posthumously exclaims, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints [and, I would add, acknowledge Thy heroes]? How long, O Lord, how long?”

50 comments:

  1. Movies are good when it comes to heroes.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9fa3HFR02E

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    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=680NlRI3v2I

      Branagh is okay, but nothing compared to Larry. I like the direction in Ken's version though. More cinematic >> Less stagy.

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    2. I certainly agree that Olivier's Shakespeare films, though good, haven't aged well because of their stagy quality. Keith Baxter, here commenting on the decidedly un-stagy and very great CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, mentions just that at some point in this interview about working with Orson Welles.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qON_f32HQDk&t=1014s

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  2. Bernard Malamud, in his baseball novel 'The Natural' wrote that we need heroes, because without them we would not know how far we can go.

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  3. Although I love Jean Seberg as Joan, my favorite treatment of The Ark-meister is the '62 film by Robert Bresson.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eN3TvxkuMA

    I would be a terrible hero. I hate pain. I despise confrontation. Even if it's a good cause, I'd rather not get involved. I'm a coward. When I get into stressful situations I start to shake. My voice goes all weirded out. My mouth gets like cotton. I admire heroes. I'm glad we have them.

    Question, though. Are not some "heroes" the cause of a lot of strife? If it wasn't for heroes we might all be living in peace and harmony. Wasn't Hitler a "hero" to some extent? Stalin was looked upon as a "hero". Yeah, thanks but no thanks.

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    1. It's important to draw a distinction between moral courage and physical courage. We have long lived in a time when moral courage has been the only one that really counts, so don't fret over your aversion to violence. Just as well.

      In fact Hitler, according to John Keegan in Mask of Command, was a brilliantly courageous messenger in the Kaiser's army, running back and forth amid the wrecked trenches, surviving while more than 90% of his fellow messengers died. What did this courage serve? Survival and nothing more.
      People seem to admire the lousy, irresponsible pilot John McCain, who bravely toughed out prison, but when candidate Obama was racistly slandered McCain could muster no courage to defend his own honor nor that of the country. Pah!

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  4. More on this later (I'm on my phone. Can't write, letter keys too small), but something smells a little funky in the apple. John Simon in a Times Square movie theater, sitting next to pimp, and watching "Theater of Blood"??? That's absurd! But I love it! Come on!

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    2. And Diana Rigg is in the cast of 'Theatre of Blood'! The plot/blood thickens!

      Growing up in the U.S. during the V'nam War was not conducive to instilling heroism. Seeing successive Democratic and Republican administrations sacrificing 50,000+ U.S. lives (and that's just deaths, never mind the many thousands horribly crippled for life, and never mind the countless non-U.S. deaths/casualties), for a(n) _________ (fill in the adjective) goal was enough to instill in me, for better and worse, the lifelong idea that nothing is more valuable than your life and well-being; that they must be protected at almost all costs; and that 90% of everything is b.s. (and that goes double (triple?) for politics). Add on top of this a monthly diet of 'MAD' magazine, which mercilessly (and often justifiably) mocked every sacred cow in sight, and heroism is pretty darn hard to gin up.

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    3. Yep. Heroes are almost always associated with either war or religion. . .or both. Two things I have little use for. One man's Lucifer is the other's hero. And vice versa.

      Is Vincent Price an underrated actor? Let's discuss.

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    4. "Is Vincent Price an underrated actor? Let's discuss."

      He was great in 'Theatre of Blood' and 'Laura' --- those two perf's leap to mind...

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    5. I enjoyed him as 'Dr. Egghead' in the Batman series.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F825cdwotdM

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  5. Hero turns antihero then gets his comeuppance.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwnOv84Uaf4

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    1. Love me some Double H. My top 5 Hawks films:

      5) Rio Bravo
      4) His Girl Friday
      3) To Have and to Have Not
      2) Scarface
      1) The Big Sleep

      Honorable mention >> The very underrated "Man's Favorite Sport?"

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    2. Great list! But if you don’t make room for the Barrymore/Lombard TWENTIETH CENTURY, I close the iron door on you!
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewAYnbPBYxo
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lH6TuEOGx4

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    3. I've heard it's good. One problem. I haven't seen it. Same with the one about the tiger. Can't go on my official list unless I've seen it. My apologies. My "cred" is at stake.

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    4. Your HH cred is safe. TWENTIETH CENTURY has a smashing John Barrymore performance. BRINGING UP BABY has Grant and Hepburn at their delightfully charming best. But neither film rises to the comic level of HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

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  6. O, Master Simon, would that you had a loyal friend beside you to see that you do not stumble miserably into the ditch! I would be that man.
    A "black pimp with his white hooker"? And as if that is not bad enough, not three sentences later we get, "...there was this huge, threatening black man towering over me."
    And you, Mr. Simon, are the hero of this anecdote because, presumably, you are white and faced down this sinister Ofellow?

    We are in the age of Trump now. What previously was merely anachronistically forgiveable on some level is not gut-wrenchingly offensive and embarrassing. Someone, anyone -- your wife? the mailman? a huge, unthreatening black man on hand? -- must elide this sort of thing. Readers who would read and adore you would, if they see this, be peeling off in sheets.

    Please feel free to write me anytime you have a doubt (I hope that you had at least a smidgen of one before you published the above sentence). I would be honored to advise you pro bono simone.

    There is no honor in the anecdote anyway. I too am inclined to do as you would. The fact that you did not get your ass beaten down is owing to good luck and said pimp's constraint -- perhaps you were well attired, which a pimp would respect and which I know was your wont -- not any courage.

    Respectfully,
    Mark Woldin
    markwoldin@gmail.com

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    1. You forgot to mention the part about "the coon".

      That was a funny line.

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    2. Because that made sense. It's a nightmarish comedy that Mr. Simon would be known, oddly, as the racoon, and then to be called out to in a darkened movie theater at that moment had a wonderfully outlandish quality. The connection was real and reasonable.

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    3. The other story was good too. He could have drowned. I'm not sure if the terrified lady would have jumped in to save young John Simon should the tide have been a foot higher. Perhaps he could have reached out with the butterfly net and been hauled out of the treacherous sea. We'll never know. Master John dodged a bullet there in his early bloom. One thing is for sure >> he was a plucky little shit.

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    4. It's not hard to drown. Happens all the time, and when it happens it all happens quickly.

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    5. 40 years ago I was in the Navy. Picture a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Big storm. Ship's a rockin'. I was on my way to the mess deck. That's where they showed the movies at night.

      We weren't supposed to go outside the ship. Too dangerous. I decided that I wanted to take a shortcut, go outside the ship, down a ladder, and into the hatch below. It was going to save me about 15 seconds. Why not? I was halfway down the ladder and the ship rolled hard to starboard. The rungs were wet and slippery. It felt as though the back of my blue dungarees were within a foot of the churning water. I hung on, though. Barely. The ship righted, and I scuttled quickly inside the hatch. The movie that night was "Die Hard". I wanted to get a good seat.

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    6. Wow! Thank you for your service - and for surviving to tell the tale! I'm sure you don't think of yourself as a "hero" - but isn't your service in and of itself "heroic" in its very nature? I say that that as someone who can't even swim.

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    7. U.K., 'Die Hard' came out in 1988, so it must have been 30 years ago. Sorry for being pedantic....

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    8. It was 40 years ago. I must have gotten the movie mixed up. It may have been Halloween or Grease or something. The thing is, we always got first run movies even before the films opened to the general public. I loved that. I was a huge movie fan even then.

      My Naval career was not distinguished. Let's just say I got into trouble (on several occasions) while serving. I was pretty stupid back then.

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    9. Sounds like my highly undistinguished air force career.

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    10. Speaking of the military, here's a classic question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

      Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

      The right answer is:

      A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

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  7. Apologies: Meant to write "now gut-wrenchingly offensive", not "not gut-wrenchingly..." etc.

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  8. Mr. Simon wrote: "Why does nobody remember Cavell, but most people know who was Nightingale. Could it be merely her avian moniker?"

    I don't mean to cavil when I note that, whereas Cavell perhaps only did one heroic act (reiterated as part of the nature of that act), Florence Nightingale became well known (beginning in her lifetime and to this day) for a career of remarkable accomplishments spanning decades. Her serendipitously admirable name likely helped, but not as much as Mr. Simon rhetorically implies.

    Though not a retort per se, a quote by Nightingale ranks among my top ten favorite quotes of all time, on the occasion of having been solicited to help run the military hospital at the site of the Crimean War, and after she took a look at what they had going:

    "I don't know how to administer a hospital; but I DO know how NOT to administer a hospital."

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    1. Perhaps an improved adjective for Flo's moniker would have been "choral" or "melodious". They're known for their song more than their flying ability.

      "Above the antique mantel was displayed
      As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
      The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
      So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
      Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
      And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
      "Jug Jug" to dirty ears."


      "Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
      When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
      As Philomel in summer's front doth sing,
      And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:"

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    2. Nifty two-step from Eliot to Shakespeare! Beyond Philomel:

      KEATS: Ode To A Nightingale:
      “That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
      In some melodious plot
      Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
      Singest of summer in full-throated ease.”

      LINDSAY: The Chinese Nightingale:
      “Then sang the bird, so strangely gay,
      Fluttering, fluttering, ghostly and gray,
      A vague, unravelling, final tune,
      Like a long unwinding silk cocoon:
      Sang as though for the soul of him
      Who ironed away in that bower dim.”

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    3. Listen to all four minutes. It's like a little jazz concert.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INzqozVbYL8

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    4. Fascinating. Gives real meaning to the term “birdsong.”
      As long as you banish Hitchcock from your mind!

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    5. One of the greatest scenes ever put on film. I wish they had downloaded the entire thing.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0HjlCowwuM

      Notice the slight zoom-in on the broken coffee cups. The dead birds in the bedroom before we see Dan. One is still suspended "in flight" within the broken window. Then the three quick zoom-ins bringing us closer to Dan's pecked out eyeballs. Then the woman's reaction running down the hallway, dropping her purse, and after, unable to speak to the man standing there with the camera shooting them from below. I forget who plays Mitch's mother, but she does a fantastic job in that entire film.

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    6. Mitch's mother, Lydia Brenner, played by Jessica Tandy! Thanks, IMDb!

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056869/

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    7. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly? Nope!
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYEgpjzO46M

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    8. Thanks to Uncle Kirky and Joe Carlson for the nightingale references in poetry. At the risk of plummeting from the lift of High Art, I'd also mention Paul McCartney's "On the Wings of a Nightingale" (a song he wrote for the Everly Brothers).

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    9. Great call, Hesperado. Here is that song. Hope you don't mind.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKOxbA_W_5Q

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  10. No heroes here but a fun little film with Ben Kingsley showing his comic chops.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NNRouSsQug&t=2450s

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    1. Thanks so much, I'd totally missed that film, and it looks hilarious!

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  11. Excellent film. Two of our greatest actors. My favorite Caine film is 'The Man Who Would Be King' and my Kingsley would be 'Sexy Beast'
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U78bJm0ovBQ&list=RDNu_xTC5Gc2U&index=5

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmZbCwmOC6I

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    1. I recently viddied Kingsley as Ford in the BBC Shakespeare series' 'Merry Wives of Windsor' from 1984, with other great people like Prunella Scales as Mistress Page, Judy Davis as Mistress Ford, Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, even Alan Bennett as Shallow! Directed by David Jones, a/k/a David Hugh Jones---he also did the BBC series' 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre'.

      U.K., not sure if you're a Zappa fan---if so, here's a 1968 radio show in which he served as DJ:

      https://archive.org/details/C_1968_XX_XX

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  12. Heroes? Decades ago John Simon listed Andrzej Wajda’s KANAL, which dealt with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, in his list of favorite films. Below is a link to the film; below that Simon’s comments on the the film’s Criterion reissue. Any opinions on the film?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fq0eiIwrwDU
    https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1054-kanal

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    1. Gonna watch this, Joe. Get back to you.

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    2. KANAL is a stark, gripping movie. Clearly better than most WW2 films from the 1950’s. No doubt its bleak realism had tremendous impact compared to Hollywood films of the time. These are not highly trained soldiers but a makeshift resistance group that includes kids and women, all doomed from the start. They stand no chance against the Germans. Yet they fight as best they can, drink, joke, fuck, play music. The extended tracking shot at the beginning is still superb and throughout there are striking images. From a lovely young woman revealed as an amputee to an hysterical mother searching a crowd for her missing daughter to the labyrinth of sewers that turns humans into animals to the face of the dead Halinka to the final image of a hand holding a gun descending beneath a street.

      However. In his PRIVATE SCREENINGS John Simon placed KANAL on his favorites list with Chaplin, Renoir, Welles, Carne, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Clement, Antonioni - that is, with some of the greatest films made before 1960. I don’t think KANAL belongs in that company. Perhaps Simon’s eastern European roots caused him to find more in the film than the rest of us. Me, I’ll remember KANAL and the pleasure I had viewing it for the first time but will have no desire to see it again. Whereas viewing films by Chaplin, Renoir, Welles, etc., that I’ve already seen always provides me with much the same thrill the second, third, fourth time around.

      NOTE: The film is not Criterion so the subtitles are often poor and confusing.

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    3. Without intending to sound like a pearls-clutcher, I think it's rather scandalous that Criterion hasn't issued 'Kanal' yet.

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    4. NOOCHINATOR-

      I've confused you. Criterion has issued KANAL but the video I posted from YouTube isn't the Criterion issue but from another source - the video is good, the titles not so much.

      The second link above is John Simon's commentary on the Criterion issue.

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  13. Epic commute

    Forget heroes, we've got superheroes,
    Nerdy zeros who one fateful day find
    They've been picked to save their kind!
    Against the clock a race!

    Who victorious will face
    Wives and daughters, with hope suppose
    Might earn from them a little squeeze,
    After enduring more labors than Hercules!

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