Monday, June 17, 2019

Gozzoli, Etc.

I’ve always been fond of tiny triumphs that seem to come out of nowhere to score surprise effects. Let me evoke three such incidents.

One long ago day some of us were cruising the labyrinthine Metropolitan Museum, when a modest-sized painting loomed by itself ahead of us, whereupon I suddenly exclaimed “That is a Benazzo Gozzoli!” That proved right, which amazed my companions, and me even more.

First, at that time, I knew nothing about Gozzoli, as I more or less still don’t. Second, I had never even had a college Renaissance art course. Third, Renaissance paintings have much in common, and there was no way in which that minor effort by a minor painter stood out in the least. Fourth, I made that identification from some distance, and, fifth, on the run, which tends to blur things. Sixth, there was no earthly reason for my making that or any unsolicited call in the first place. My friends, in any case, were duly impressed by my accurately attributing a lesser work, and must have thought I knew quite a lot about Renaissance painting. Even now, I only wish I did.

This does, however, bring to memory a much later event, when the Times’s chief art critic,  John Canaday, who liked me and published some of my stuff about art and movies, wanted to take me on permanently. This, however, required the approval of the hated and dreaded powerful Sunday editor, Lester  Markel, who had allegedly caused the suicide of one or two subordinates. Wanting to check up on my qualifications, he pointed to an art work on his wall and asked me to identify it. Heaven only knows out of what dark substratum I summoned “Early Raphael sanguine, Portrait of a Man,” and, hang it, I somehow managed to hit it right. But that job I never got, as a phone call from the monster’s secretary, a couple of weeks later, informed me. I guess that was because, in our conversation, the monster asked me what I could tell him about the rivalry between the Met and MoMA, as to which could snatch up some available modern art works, a subject about which I had scant knowledge and less interest.

And then there was that dinner party with friends where the conversation turned to the then very popular movie, Akira Kurosawa’s  “Rashomon.” I volunteered that the film was based on a fiction by the prematurely deceased, highly gifted Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which I hadn’t read yet. What impressed the person who spoke  Japanese was not so much that I knew the movie’s provenance, but that in pronouncing Akutagawa I almost elided the U, as, apparently, Japanese speakers do. But this had nothing to do with my knowledge of anything, only with the unstressed U making pronunciation of the long name easier.

However, let not the foregoing be viewed as intended self-praise.  In fact, I admit to being on occasion mulishly impervious to justifiable correction. Let me cite a prize example of it, going back many years, when my Polish American friend Stanislas  Wellisz and I used to converse in French so as to avoid forgetting it. At that time,
my French was less good than that of Stash, my not yet having assimilated  the wit of Sacha Guitry and Jean Renoir on film, and, in literature, such giants as Jules Renard and Guillaume A[pollinaire for charm, Alphonse Allais and Georges Feydeau for wit, and Jean Giraudoux and Anatole France for elegance.

Thus I foolishly insisted on rendering “It rains” as “Ça pleut,” and Stash exasperatedly correcting me with “Il pleut.” I don’t recall how many times I resisted his correction, driving him up the wall, until I finally complied. To this day, I may be prone to similar obstinacy without the benefit of a like tutor. Absolutely nobody could lessen my admiration for Jacques Prévert in the unlikely case it were needed by that wonderful artist. There are cases where obstinacy is justified.


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  2. Everyone's had correct guesses from minimal clues. I recall tuning in one afternoon in the early '80s to a classical music station and hearing a familiar Handel melody, but played in a modern style and done to suggest suspense. I figured, "This must be film music." What film? So few prominent films then had been set in the 18th century that I immediately thought of "Barry Lyndon", which I had not seen then. I was right--it was from the duel scene. Another time on the same classical station a piece was announced as being the theme from the motion picture "Time Forward". Had never heard of that title. The frenetic pace, repetitiveness, and high-treble acoustics had me guessing: Soviet Russia. Right again; it was by then used as the opening jingle for the Vremya newscast.

  3. Ça pleut. Jacques Prévert. It can be done, Dr. Simon. If yours is a Windows-based device, you can add foreign characters by opening the "Character Map". Open the Start Menu, choose the folder "Accessories", then choose the folder "System Tools". Open Character Map and feast your eyes.

  4. I've spent a few hours reading translations of Prevert. I understand that most of the time translations of poetry don't do it justice, and this must be the case for Jacques Prevert. I don't see what all the fuss is about. Take, for example, the poem "Brunch."

    He put the coffee
    In the cup
    He put the milk
    In the cup of coffee
    He put the sugar
    In the cafe au lait
    With the little spoon
    He stirred
    He drank the coffee
    And he set down the cup
    Without speaking to me
    He lit
    A cigarette
    He made rings
    With the smoke
    He put the ashes
    In the ashtray
    Without speaking to me
    Without looking at me
    He got up
    He put
    His hat on his head
    He put
    His raincoat on
    Because it was raining
    And he left
    In the rain
    Without a word
    Without looking at me
    And me I put my head in my hand
    And I cried.

    I thought about posting several like this, but I won't. Most are fairly pedestrian. Here are some translations. Maybe someone can explain why I'm wrong. I probably am.

    Another note. I've watched "Day for Night" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" this week.

    "Close" is not as good as I remembered. The first time I saw it I was high and it was on the big screen. Sci-fi on television isn't as good. I liked Dreyfuss, though. He's good in just about everything. Why cast Truffaut when he can't speak English? You have to invent a character just to translate Truffaut's dialog. He wasn't a very good actor anyway. Pretty dumb.

    Truffaut's acting wasn't very good in "Day for Night," either. A lackluster film. The film has several cornball ideas, like the kid stealing the movie posters in Truffant's "dreams." He switches from black-and-white to color for no reason. They have a dude (with wig) act as a stuntman for a woman. They didn't have female stuntwomen in the '70s? The kid from 400 Blows is terrible in the film. The "movie" they're making looks even worse than the actual movie Truffaut is making and this has a disastrous effect on the entire rigamarole of screen time. Side note > the 70's clothing is preposterous. It seemed Truffaut was trying to make his version of "8 1/2" but it was no bueno, Baby. Thumbs down. Way down.

    1. "Brunch" in English loses the poetry of the original, but it is still a touching vignette. In English the word "put" moves through it, like jabs, all the way to the putting of the psychically bruised head in the hand. So there it gains something in translation.

      Reminds me of the song "I'm Gonna Be Strong" by Gene Pitney.

      I see there are several short films on youtube based on the poem. Seems to have made an impression.

      Have you seen "Children of Paradise," Pops? Of course another film I ran to on the basis of John Simon's raves, and was not disappointed.

    2. Scotty, thanks. I may have been too hard on Jack. I like this poem. "Place du Carrousel"

      Link >

      I have not seen "Children." His masterpiece, I've heard. I found it on Criterion, but the subscription is pretty high (10.99 a month). I don't know, I might get it.

      Pitney is underrated. I like that song.

  5. I was in Shanghai in 1991, chatting in a bar with a twenty-something Chinese kid in a suit who was absolutely giddy with the new freedoms, and cocky, like one of Tom Wolfe's Masters of the Universe. He said to me, "Do you know there is a Western symphony based on Chinese poetry?" I said, "Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde." He said, "Very good!" I whispered a silent "whew!"

  6. Mr. Simon, This morning I got a comment on my blog that asked me if I was your "evil twin." Now I can enter my house justified. Thank you for a lifetime of fearless opinions.

  7. I got my eye on this guy, Boss.

    (rhyme intended)

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