on utilitarianism, quentin tarantino, john rawls, and mr blonde

Stuck in the Middle with You: Mr. Blonde and Retributive Justice

Joseph Ulatowski

If they hadn’t done what I told ’em not to do, they’d still be alive.

Mr.Blonde, Reservoir Dogs (1991)

Whoever has committed Murder, must die.

Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals (1797)

None of the memorable scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs have affected viewers so much as the one in which Mr.Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel. Some viewers have argued largely on the basis of this scene that the violence in Reservoir Dogs is entirely gratuitous and that the film is thus morally indefensible as a work of art (call this the “orthodox view”). Oliver Conolly writes:

The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs in which someone’s ear is cut off is not of any interest in terms of any insight into the psychology of the characters in the film. It is hard to see how it could interest anyone except someone with a particular interest in that particular form of torture.69

We can easily see that this must be mistaken. The fact that a person would gleefully cut off someone’s ear gives us a great deal of insight into that person’s psychology, just as the differing reactions of the other members of the gang to this action give us insights into theirs.

We may also learn something about the moral universe of the movie by thinking about the reasons given by the other characters for why Blonde’s treatment of Marvin the cop either is or isn’t a cause for concern. If we look at the perspective of the characters for whom it is not a problem, we may find that their acceptance of his brutal behavior has larger repercussions for our understanding of real-world philosophical problems. In particular, we may discover that some of the “gratuitous” attitudes toward violence displayed by these criminals are not all that different from some of the attitudes that underlie certain widely-accepted theories of justice and punishment.

In contrast to some film critics and philosophers of film, I maintain that Blonde is a far more complex character than someone who just enjoys shooting—and presumably killing—people. The naive belief that Blonde is nothing more than a psycho torturing for the fun of it stems from the critics’ assumptions about the correct theory of punishment. Given a different theory of punishment, we can make better sense of Blonde’s actions.

Let’s look at two theories of punishment: the utilitarian theory, probably held by the critics who misunderstand Blonde’s actions, and the retributive theory, which makes those actions appear more understandable.

But first, what is a theory of punishment?

Continue reading

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scenes from the writing life: clancy sigal, novelist & agent

Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures.

 

‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’ by Tom Kemper

 

A history of the rise of ‘that most despised of human specimens,’ the Hollywood agent.


By Clancy Sigal

 

Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures. Although in one form or another agents, as the middlemen brokers of human talent, have existed since the dawn of 19th century mass entertainment, they are a nearly perfect metaphor for a late-blooming capitalist economy. They don’t make anything except spit and hot air. Or, as author Tom Kemper writes, giving it an academic polish, "agents serve in the commercial fabrication of individuality," selling "personality [as] a commodity" including, especially, their own commission-hungry personalities.

 

However loftily the business of agents is described  and Kemper is fond of euphemisms like "embedded field of routine transactional and social relationships" (I think he means schmoozing) we in the movie business cannot function without a go-between as our link to the money. Indeed, as Kemper reminds us in his scholarly history of early Hollywood agentry from the 1920s into the early 1950s, one pioneer agent used to publish a "Sears catalog of stars" that listed his clients in a magazine bluntly titled "Link."

 

Kemper tells us that there was an "agent problem" right from the start. The Motion Picture Academy, itself no paragon of business ethics, accused agents of "racketeering, double-dealing, arrogance, failure to live up to obligations [and] semi-legal trickery" and that was long before CAA, UTA, Endeavor, ICM and West Coast MCA had been invented.

 

Studios and their talent suppliers, the agents, had yet to figure out a true business model of how to live with each other on the backs of the people who actually made the movies: "The skirmishes between studios and agents . . . essentially erupted over stars . . . [that were] a studio’s most visible assets." Agents connived in the most lucrative deals for their clients and themselves, and studio executives, under relentless pressure to maintain a 50-picture-a-year slate for theatrical release, connived right back. Cat and mouse, predator and prey, but which was which?

 

Even a loyal agent as I guiltily know from experience  weighs "negotiations in terms of the relationship with his client and the long-term relationship with studio executives." You walk "a fine line between representing a client’s grievances and alienating the producer." Kemper points out that "these steady relationships formed an almost conspiratorial syndicate between the agency and production executives." I like that "almost."

 

As studios matured, accommodation (and a form of industrial efficiency) came in the form of two temperamentally opposed uber-agents who ushered in the modern era. Kemper builds his book around the files and archives of neurotic, "taciturn and brutish" Myron Selznick, who pushed client Vivien Leigh into the Scarlett role in his older brother David’s "Gone With the Wind"; and the "finely tailored," dapper, graceful-in-his-skin "career engineer" Charles Feldman. The angry, insecure Myron Selznick and the socially adept Feldman pretty much monopolized Hollywood’s high-priced talent, including almost all the stars seen today on Turner Classic Movies.

 

Keep the money in mind. In one year alone, 1949, when a school teacher’s annual salary was $1,400, Feldman, with a few phone calls, earned a $250,000 commission on a single deal.

 

Like many agents at the time, including me, Myron was an alcoholic; unlike most agents, "Charlie" Feldman was legally trained and could read a contract the way Einstein read an algebraic equation (which a lot of studio agreements resembled, then as now).

 

What both men shared, Kemper underscores, was a crucial Southern California family background in the movie business. The Hollywood agency racket was a deeply tribal phenomenon. (My boss, Sam Jaffe, head of his own agency, was the brother-in-law of Paramount mogul B.P. Schulberg, and Jaffe hired relations galore who hired their sons.) For years, New York-centered agencies like the band-booking MCA and stage-and-radio power William Morris failed to gain a foothold in Hollywood because they had no blood connections here. Then, choosing their moment, they rudely bought their way into Hollywood by corporate takeovers that squashed the char- ismatic, personality-driven, "one-stop powerhouse[s]" like Feldman, Selznick (for whom contracts were "a form of trickery") and Leland Hayward.

 

Reading Kemper’s original and deeply researched study, I couldn’t help thinking of Hollywood’s golden oldie days. Then agents tended to be a colorfully mixed (mainly Jewish) bag. My colleagues were war veterans who included a furniture-removal man, a tennis bum, a secret-ops military officer, a former labor agitator, a trust fund baby rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves with some considerable wild, woolly life experience. Today’s agents go to film, business or law school and come up through the mailroom, guzzle sparkling water instead of gin and work out at the gym. They are healthier, cooler, more handsome, less emotional and less angry and much, much more innocent about life.

 

A glaring omission in Kemper’s book is the absence of any mention of Hollywood’s then-current labor racketeer troubles, violent strikes, criminal conspiracies and the blacklist in which the agents played a key, and unheroic, role. Kemper’s de-politicalization of what was, in fact, a lasting trauma for the entire industry one hopes he will remedy in a forthcoming history of talent agencies in a later period.

 

Sigal is a screenwriter, novelist and a former Hollywood agent whose firm represented, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Palance, Joseph Cotten and Peter Lorre.

 

—from the Los Angeles Times, December 24, 1009

siegfried kracauer on memory and photography

Siegfried Kracauer in 1930.


Forced to leave fascist Germany in 1933, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) began a period of exile that would last the rest of his life. It was thus in Paris and then, after 1941, in New York that he would write the works for which he is known in the Anglo-American realm: a "social biography" of Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in Paris, 1937), a study of Weimar film (From Caligari to Hitler, 1947), an aesthetics of cinema (Theory of Film, 1960) and a meditation on the philosophy of history (History: The Last Things before the Last, 1969). What Kracauer abandoned in Frankfurt and Berlin was not only his native language but also a career as one of the major cultural critics of the Weimar Republic. Trained as both an architect and a sociologist, in the mid-1920s Kracauer became one of the editors of the feuilleton (arts and culture) section of the important, left-liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, a paper in which he eventually published nearly two thousand articles on a remarkably wide range of subjects. While many of these were more or less incidental journalistic pieces, others, such as "Photography," were sustained philosophical reflections. It was in these pages that Kracauer effectively pioneered the genre of sociological film criticism, undertook a pathbreaking series of analyses of the new "employee-class" (collected in 1930 in a book entitled Die Angestellten), and published major essays on Kafka, Benjamin, Weber, Scheler, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, the genre of biography, to name just a few. Together with his friends Adorno, Benjamin, and Bloch, whose work he published regularly in the feuilleton section, Kracauer also wrote philosophical and sociological analyses of daily-life phenomena in the tradition of his teacher Georg Simmel. In these quotidian micrologies focusing, for example, on the architecture of cinema pal- aces, unemployment offices and arcades, on travel and dance troupes, best-sellers and boredom, on neon-light displays and mass sports events, Kracauer developed a genre motivated by the following programmatic insight: "One must rid oneself of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on people. They are much more deeply and continuously influenced by the tiny catastrophes which make up daily life." The publication in translation of a collection of these essays from the Weimar period entitled The Mass Ornament will finally make available this important and until recently largely unknown facet of Kracauer’s work.



. . . Memory
encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance nor the entire temporal course of an event. Compared to photography memory’s records are full of gaps. The fact that the grandmother was at one time involved in a nasty story that is being recounted time and again because one really doesn’t like to talk about it-this doesn’t mean much from the photographer’s perspective. He knows the first little wrinkles on her face and has noted every date. Memory does not pay much attention to dates; it skips years or stretches temporal distance. The selection of traits that it assembles must strike the photographer as arbitrary. The selection may have been made this way rather than another because disposition and purposes required the repression, falsification, and emphasis of certain parts of the object; a virtually endless number of reasons determines the remains to be filtered. No matter which scenes a person remembers, they all mean something that is relevant to him or her without his or her necessarily knowing what they mean. Memories are retained because of their significance for that person. Thus they are organized according to a principle that is essentially different from the organizing principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory-images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter’s perspective, memory-images appear to be fragments but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.


The meaning of memory-images is linked to their truth content. As long as they are embedded in the uncontrolled life of the drives they are inhabited by a demonic ambiguity; they are opaque like frosted glass that hardly a ray of light can penetrate. Their transparency increases to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul and limit the compulsion of nature. Truth can only be found by a liberated consciousness that assesses the demonic nature of the drives. The traits that consciousness recollects stand in a relationship to what has been perceived as true, the latter being either manifest in these traits or shut out by them. The image in which these traits are to be found is distinguished from all other memory-images, for unlike the latter it preserves not a multitude of opaque recollections but instead elements that touch upon what has been recognized as true. All memory-images are bound to be reduced to this type of image, which may rightly be called the last image, since in it alone does the unforgettable persevere. The last image of a person is that per- son’s actual "history." In this history, all characteristics and determinations that do not relate in a significant sense to the truth intended by a liberated consciousness drop out. How a person represents this history does not depend purely on his or her natural constitution nor on the pseudo-coherence of his or her individuality; thus only fragments of these assets are included in his or her history. This history is like a monogram that condenses the name into a single graphic figure that is meaningful as an ornament. Eckart’s monogram is fidelity.* Great historical figures survive in legends that, however naive they may be, strive to preserve their actual history. In authentic fairy tales, the imagination has intuitively deposited typical monograms. In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow…


* The German mythological hero, faithful protector, and counselor Eckart warns the Nibelungen at the border of the Rüdegers Mark of the threatening Hunn danger. Kracauer here plays on the association of Eckart and fidelity as manifest in Ludwig Tieck’s 1799 fable "Tannenhauser and the Faithful Eckart" and Goethe’s 1811 text entitled "The Faithful Eckart."


—from Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436.


sontag on the state of cinema, circa 2001

[petra+von+kant.jpg]
Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: You would drink too if you had to look at Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus every minute of your life.


The cinema as he [Jean-Luc Godard] knew it is over. That’s for sure—for a number of reasons, including the breakdown of the distribution system. I had to wait eight years to see Alan Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking, which I just saw at the Lincoln Center. Resnais made those films in the early ’90s, but then none of his films were distributed here in the past 10 years. We’re getting a much smaller selection here in New York, which is supposed to be a good place to see films. On the other hand, if you can tolerate the small formats—I happen to have a problem with miniaturized images—you can get the whole history of cinema and watch it over and over again. You don’t have to be dependent on the distribution system. The problems with cinema seem to me, more than anything, a cultural failure. Tastes have been corrupted, and it’s so rare to see filmmakers who have the aspiration to take on profound thoughts and feelings. There is a reason that more and more films that I like are coming from the less prosperous parts of the world, where commercial value has not completely taken over. For example, I think people have reacted so positively to Kiarostami is that he shows people who are quite innocent and not cynical, in this increasingly cynical world. In that sense, I don’t think cinema is over yet.


. . . Movies have been the love of my life. There have been many periods of my life when I’ve gone to movies every day, and sometimes I see two films a day. Bresson and Godard, and Syberberg, and more recently Sokurov, have been extremely important to me. I love Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Diehlmann, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, The American Soldier, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Berlin Alexanderplatz; Angelopoulos’s Traveling Players, Alan Renais’s Melo, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail…. I’ve learned so much from these films. And no, I haven’t said goodbye to filmmaking. I’m not interested in adapting my own books, but in something else. Yes, I want to make more films.


—from “
Against Postmodernism, etcetera: A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” Postmodern Culture, Volume 12, Number 1, September 2001

on the road with humbert and lolita

Sue Lyon as Dolores Haze in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962)

Part II of Nabokov’s Great American Novel begins with:

It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States. To any other type of tourist accommodation I soon grew to prefer the Functional Motel — clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument, reconciliation, insatiable illicit love. At first, in my dread of arousing suspicion, I would eagerly pay for both sections of one double unit, each containing a double bed. I wondered what type of foursome this arrangement was even intended for, since only a pharisaic parody of privacy could be attained by means of the incomplete partition dividing the cabin or room into two communicating love nests. By and by, the very possibilities that such honest promiscuity suggested (two young couples merrily swapping mates or a child shamming sleep to earwitness primal sonorities) made me bolder, and every now and then I would take a bed-and-cot or twin-bed cabin, a prison cell or paradise, with yellow window shades pulled down to create a morning illusion of Venice and sunshine when actually it was Pennsylvania and rain.

We came to know — nous connûmes, to use a Flaubertian intonation — the stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees, the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court, on what the Tour Book of the Automobile Association describes as "shaded" or "spacious" or "landscaped" grounds. The log kind, finished in knotty pine, reminded Lo, by its golden-brown glaze, of friend-chicken bones. We held in contempt the plain whitewashed clapboard Kabins, with their faint sewerish smell or some other gloomy self-conscious stench and

nothing to boast of (except "good beds"), and an unsmiling landlady always prepared to have her gift ("…well, I could give you…") turned down.

Nous connûmes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of their repetitious names — all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts. There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as "Children welcome, pets allowed" (You are welcome, you are allowed). The baths were mostly tiled showers, with an endless variety of spouting mechanisms, but with one definitely non-Laodicean characteristic in common, a propensity, while in use, to turn instantly beastly hot or blindingly cold upon you, depending on whether your neighbor turned on his cold or his hot to deprive you of a necessary complement in the shower you had so carefully blended. Some motels had instructions pasted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were unhygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage, beer cans, cartons, stillborn babies; others had special notices under glass, such as Things to Do (Riding: You will often see riders coming down Main Street on their way back from a romantic moonlight ride. "Often at 3 a.m.," sneered unromantic Lo).

Nous connûmes the various types of motor court operators, the reformed criminal, the retired teacher and the business flop, among the males; and the motherly, pseudo-ladylike and madamic variants among the females. And sometimes trains would cry in the monstrously hot and humid night with heartrending and ominous plangency, mingling power and hysteria in one desperate scream.

We avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones, old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the landlady’s children in all their instars. But I did surrender, now and then, to Lo’s predilection for "real" hotels. She would pick out in the book, while I petted her in the parked car in the silence of a dusk-mellowed, mysterious side-road, some highly recommended lake lodge which offered all sorts of things magnified by the flashlight she moved over them, such as congenial company, between-meals snacks, outdoor barbecues — but which in my mind conjured up odious visions of stinking high school boys in sweatshirts and an ember-red cheek pressing against hers, while poor Dr. Humbert, embracing nothing but two masculine knees, would cold-humor his piles on the damp turf. Most empty to her, too, were those "Colonial" Inns, which apart from "gracious atmosphere" and picture windows, promised "unlimited quantities of M-m-m food." Treasured recollections of my father’s palatial hotel sometimes led me to seek for its like in the strange country we traveled through. I was soon discouraged; but Lo kept following the scent of rich food ads, while I derived a not exclusively economic kick from such roadside signs as Timber Hotel, Children under 14 Free. On the other hand, I shudder when recalling that soi-disant "high-class" resort in a Midwestern state, which advertised "raid-the-icebox" midnight snacks and, intrigued by my accent, wanted to know my dead wife’s and dead mother’s maiden names. A two-days’ stay there cost me a hundred and twenty-four dollars! And do you remember, Miranda, that other "ultrasmart" robbers’ den with complimentary morning coffee and circulating ice water, and no children under sixteen (no Lolitas, of course)?


Immediately upon arrival at one of the plainer motor courts which became our habitual haunts, she would set the electric fan a-whirr, or induce me to drop a quarter into the radio, or she would read all the signs and inquire with a whine why she could not go riding up some advertised trail or swimming in that local pool of warm mineral water. Most often, in the slouching, bored way she cultivated, Lo would fall prostrate and abominably desirable into a red springchair or a green chaise longue, or a steamer chair of striped canvas with footrest and canopy, or a sling chair, or any other lawn chair under a garden umbrella on the patio, and it would take hours of blandishments, threats and promises to make her lend me for a few seconds her brown limbs in the seclusion of the five-dollar room before undertaking anything she might prefer to my poor joy.

—from Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)


“‘it was the best fokk i effer haff,’ ilsa replies”: a night at the movies with robert coover


“For taking the dross of the ordinary and spinning it into the treasure of Myth, the 1987 Rea Award for the Short Story goes to Robert Coover, a writer who has managed, willfully and even perversely, to remain his own man while offering his generous vision and versions of America.” — Rea Award Citation

           

In A Night at the Movies, his first volume of short fiction since the internationally acclaimed Pricksongs & Descants, Robert Coover presents a fiendishly clever and outrageously funny set of satires on the pictures and personalities of the big Silver Screen. Complete with previews of coming attractions, cartoons, the weekly serial, a travelogue, musical interlude, and three full-length features, here are Adventure! Comedy! Romance! Westerns! and much, much more! Expect the unexpected from that malevolent magician and pyrotechnician who has fashioned an entirely new art form out of film and fiction confirming, once again, his status as one of America’s most daring, unpredictable, and prodigiously imaginative writers. (from the jacket copy) 

You Must Remember This

 

It is dark in Rick’s apartment. Black leader dark, heavy and abstract, silent but for a faint hoarse crackle like a voiceless plaint, and brief as sleep. Then Rick opens the door and the light from the hall scissors in like a bellboy to open up space, deposit surfaces (there is a figure in the room), harbinger event (it is Ilsa). Rick follows, too preoccupied to notice: his café is closed, people have been shot, he has troubles. But then, with a stroke, he lights a small lamp (such a glow! the shadows retreat, everything retreats: where are the walls?) and there she is, facing him, holding open the drapery at the far window like the front of a nightgown, the light flickering upon her white but determined face like static. Rick pauses for a moment in astonishment. Ilsa lets the drapery and its implications drop, takes a step forward into the strangely fretted light, her eyes searching his.         
          “How did you get in?” he asks, though this is probably not the question on his mind.

          “The stairs from the street.”

          This answer seems to please him. He knows how vulnerable he is, after all, it’s the way he lives — his doors are open, his head is bare, his tuxedo jacket is snowy white — that’s not important. What matters is that by such a reply a kind of destiny is being fulfilled. Sam has a song about it. “I told you this morning you’d come around,” he says, curling his lips as if to advertise his appetite for punishment, “but this is a little ahead of schedule.” She faces him squarely, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, a sash around her waist like a gun belt, something shiny in her tensed left hand. He raises both his own as if to show they are empty: “Well, won’t you sit down?”

          His offer, whether in mockery or no, releases her. Her shoulders dip in relief, her breasts; she sweeps forward (it is only a small purse she is carrying: a toothbrush perhaps, cosmetics, her hotel key), her face softening: “Richard!” He starts back in alarm, hands moving to his hips. “I had to see you!”

          “So you use Richard again!” His snarling retreat throws up a barrier between them. She stops. He pushes his hands into his pockets as though to reach for the right riposte: “We’re back in Paris!”

          That probably wasn’t it. Their song seems to be leaking into the room from somewhere out in the night, or perhaps it has been there all the time — Sam maybe, down in the darkened bar, sending out soft percussive warnings in the manner of his African race: “Think twice, boss. Hearts fulla passion, you c’n rely. Jealousy, boss, an’ hate. Le’s go fishin’. Sam.”

          “Please!” she begs, staring at him intently, but he remains unmoved:

          “Your unexpected visit isn’t connected by any chance with the letters of transit?” He ducks his head, his upper lip swelling with bitterness and hurt. “It seems as long as I have those letters, I’ll never be lonely.”

          Yet, needless to say, he will always be lonely — in fact, this is the confession (“You can ask any price you want,” she is saying) only half-concealed in his muttered subjoinder: Rick Blaine is a loner, born and bred. Pity him. There is this lingering, almost primal image of him, sitting alone at a chessboard in his white tuxedo, smoking contemplatively in the midst of a raucous conniving crowd, a crowd he has himself assembled about him. He taps apawn, moves a white knight, fondles a tall black queen while a sardonic smile plays on his lips. He seems to be toying, self-mockingly, with Fate itself, as indifferent toward Rick Blaine (never mind that he says — as he does now, turning away from her — that “I’m the only cause I’m interested in . . .”) as toward the rest of the world. It’s all shit, so who cares?

          Ilsa is staring off into space, a space that a moment ago Rick filled. She seems to be thinking something out. The negotiations are going badly; perhaps it is this she is worried about. He has just refused her offer of “any price,” ignored her ultimatum (“You must giff me those letters!”), sneered at her husband’s heroism, and scoffed at the very cause that first brought them together in Paris. How could he do that? And now he has abruptly turned his back on her (does he think it was just sex? what has happened to him since then?) and walked away toward the balcony door, meaning, apparently, to turn her out. She takes a deep breath, presses her lips together, and, clutching her tiny purse with both hands, wheels about to pursue him: “Richard!” This has worked before, it works again: he turns to face her new approach: “We luffed each other once. . .” Her voice catches in her throat, tears come to her eyes. She is beautiful there in the slatted shadows, her hair loosening around her ears, eyes glittering, throat bare and vulnerable in the open V-neck of her ruffled blouse. She’s a good dresser. Even that little purse she squeezes: so like the other one, so lovely, hidden away. She shakes her head slightly in wistful appeal: “If those days meant. . . anything at all to you. . .”

          “I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you,” he says stonily. “It’s poor salesmanship.”

          She gasps (she didn’t bring it up: is he a madman?), tosses her head back: “Please! Please listen to me!” She closes her eyes, her lower lip pushed forward as though bruised. “If you knew what really happened, if you only knew the truth –!”

          He stands over this display, impassive as a Moorish executioner (that’s it! he’s turning into one of these bloody Arabs, she thinks). “I wouldn’t believe you, no matter what you told me,” he says. In Ethiopia, after an attempt on the life of an Italian officer, he saw 1600 Ethiopians get rounded up one night and shot in reprisal. Many were friends of his. Or clients anyway. But somehow her deceit is worse. “You’d say anything now, to get what you want.” Again he turns his back on her, strides away.

          She stares at him in shocked silence, as though all that had happened eighteen months ago in Paris were flashing suddenly before her eyes, now made ugly by some terrible revelation. An exaggerated gasp escapes her like the breaking of wind: his head snaps up and he turns sharply to the right. She chases him, dogging his heels. “You want to feel sorry for yourself, don’t you?” she cries and, surprised (he was just reaching for something on an ornamental table, the humidor perhaps), he turns back to her. “With so much at stake, all you can think off is your own feeling,” she rails. Her lips are drawn back, her breathing labored, her eyes watering in anger and frustration. “One woman has hurt you, and you take your reffenge on the rest off the world!” She is choking, she can hardly speak. Her accent seems to have got worse. “You’re a coward, und veakling, und –“

          She gasps. What is she saying? He watches her, as though faintly amused. “No, Richard, I’m sorry!” Tears are flowing in earnest now: she’s gone too far! This is the expression on her face. She’s in a corner, struggling to get out. “I’m sorry, but –” She wipes the tears from her cheek, and calls once again on her husband, that great and courageous man whom they both admire, whom the whole world admires: “– you’re our last hope! If you don’t help us, Victor Laszlo will die in Casablanca!”

          “What of it?” he says. He has been waiting for this opportunity. He plays with it now, stretching it out. He turns, reaches for a cigarette, his head haloed in the light from an arched doorway. “I’m gonna die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.” This line is meant to be amusing, but Ilsa reacts with horror. Her eyes widen. She catches her breath, turns away. He lights up, pleased with himself, takes a practiced drag, blows smoke. “Now,” he says, turning toward her, “if you’ll –“

          He pulls up short, squints: she has drawn a revolver on him. So much for toothbrushes and hotel keys. “All right. I tried to reason with you. I tried effrything. Now I want those letters.” Distantly, a melodic line suggests a fight for love and glory, an ironic case of do or die. “Get them for me.”

          “I don’t have to.” He touches his jacket. “I got ’em right here.”

          “Put them on the table.”

          He smiles and shakes his head. “No.” Smoke curls up from the cigarette he is holding at his side like the steam that enveloped the five o’clock train to Marseilles. Her eyes fill with tears. Even as she presses on (“For the last time. . .!”), she knows that “no” is final. There is, behind his ironic smile, a profound sadness, the fatalistic survivor’s wistful acknowledgment that, in the end, the fundamental things apply. Time, going by, leaves nothing behind, not even moments like this. “If Laszlo and the cause mean so much,” he says, taunting her with her own uncertainties, “you won’t stop at anything. . .”

          He seems almost to recede. The cigarette disappears, the smoke. His sorrow gives way to something not unlike eagerness. “All right, I’ll make it easier for you,” he says, and walks toward her. “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

          She seems taken aback, her eyes damp, her lips swollen and parted. Light licks at her face. He gazes steadily at her from his superior moral position, smoke drifting up from his hand once more, his white tuxedo pressed against the revolver barrel. Her eyes close as the gun lowers, and she gasps his name: “Richard!” It is like an invocation. Or a profession of faith. “I tried to stay away,” she sighs. She opens her eyes, peers up at him in abject surrender. A tear moves slowly down her cheek toward the corner of her mouth like secret writing. “I thought I would neffer see you again . . . that you were out off my life. . .” She blinks, cries out faintly — “Oh!” — and (he seems moved at last, his mask of disdain falling away like perspiration) turns away, her head wrenched to one side as though in pain.

          Stricken with sudden concern, or what looks like concern, he steps up behind her, clasping her breasts with both hands, nuzzling in her hair. “The day you left Paris. . .!” she sobs, though she seems unsure of herself. One of his hands is already down between her legs, the other inside her blouse, pulling a breast out of its brassiere cup. “If you only knew. . . what I. . .” He is moaning, licking at one ear, the hand between her legs nearly lifting her off the floor, his pelvis bumping at her buttocks. “Is this. . . right?” she gasps.

          “I – I don’t know!” he groans, massaging her breast, the nipple between two fingers. “I can’t think!”

          “But. . . you must think!” she cries, squirming her hips. Tears are streaming down her cheeks now. “For. . . for. . .”

          “What?” he gasps, tearing her blouse open, pulling on her breast as though to drag it over her shoulder where he might kiss it. Or eat it: he seems ravenous suddenly.

          “I. . . I can’t remember!” she sobs. She reaches behind to jerk at his fly (what else is she to do, for the love of Jesus?), then rips away her sash, unfastens her skirt, her fingers trembling.

          “Holy shit!” he wheezes, pushing his hand inside her girdle as her skirt falls. His cheeks too are wet with tears. “Ilsa!”

          “Richard!”

          They fall to the floor, grabbing and pulling at each other’s clothing. He’s trying to get her bra off which is tangled up now with her blouse, she’s struggling with his belt, yanking at his black pants, wrenching them open. Buttons fly, straps pop, there’s the soft unfocused rip of silk, the jingle of buckles and falling coins, grunts, gasps, whimpers of desire. He strips the tangled skein of underthings away (all these straps and stays — how does she get in and out of this crazy elastic?); she works his pants down past his bucking hips, fumbles with his shoes. “Your elbow –!”

          “Mmmff!”

          “Ah –!”

          She pulls his pants and boxer shorts off, crawls round and (he strokes her shimmering buttocks, swept by the light from the airport tower, watching her full breasts sway above him: it’s all happening so fast, he’d like to slow it down, repeat some of the better bits — that view of her rippling haunches on her hands and knees just now, for example, like a 22, his lucky number — but there’s a great urgency on them, they can’t wait) straddles him, easing him into her like a train being guided into a station. “I luff you, Richard!” she declares breathlessly, though she seems to be speaking, eyes squeezed shut and breasts heaving, not to him but to the ceiling, if there is one up there. His eyes too are closed now, his hands gripping her soft hips, pulling her down, his breath coming in short anguished snorts, his face puffy and damp with tears. There is, as always, something deeply wounded and vulnerable about the expression on his battered face, framed there against his Persian carpet: Rick Blaine, a man annealed by loneliness and betrayal, but flawed — hopelessly, it seems — by hope itself. He is, in the tragic sense, a true revolutionary: his gaping mouth bespeaks this, the spittle in the corners of his lips, his eyes, open now and staring into some infinite distance not unlike the future, his knitted brow. He heaves upward, impaling her to the very core: “Oh, Gott!” she screams, her back arching, mouth agape as though to commence “La Marseillaise.”

          Now, for a moment, they pause, feeling themselves thus conjoined, his organ luxuriating in the warm tub of her vagina, her enflamed womb closing around his pulsing penis like a mother embracing a lost child. “If you only knew. . . ,” she seems to say, though perhaps she has said this before and only now it can be heard. He fondles her breasts; she rips his shirt open, strokes his chest, leans forward to kiss his lips, his nipples. This is not Victor inside her with his long thin rapier, all too rare in its embarrassed visits; this is not Yvonne with her cunning professional muscles, her hollow airy hole. This is love in all its clammy mystery, the ultimate connection, the squishy rub of truth, flesh as a self-consuming message. This is necessity, as in woman needs man, and man must have his mate. Even their identities seem to be dissolving; they have to whisper each other’s name from time to time as though in recitative struggle against some ultimate enchantment from which there might be no return. Then slowly she begins to wriggle her hips above him, he to meet her gentle undulations with counterthrusts of his own. They hug each other close, panting, her breasts smashed against him, moving only from the waist down. She slides her thighs between his and squeezes his penis between them, as though to conceal it there, an underground member on the run, wounded but unbowed. He lifts his stockinged feet and plants them behind her knees as though in stirrups, her buttocks above pinching and opening, pinching and opening like a suction pump. And it is true about her vaunted radiance: she seems almost to glow from within, her flexing cheeks haloed in their own dazzling luster.

          “It feels so good, Richard! In there. . . I’ve been so — ah! –– so lonely. . .!”

          “Yeah, me too, kid. Ngh! Don’t talk.”

          She slips her thighs back over his and draws them up beside his waist like a child curling around her teddybear, knees against his ribs, her fanny gently bobbing on its pike like a mind caressing a cherished memory. He lies there passively for a moment, stretched out, eyes closed, accepting this warm rhythmical ablution as one might accept a nanny’s teasing bath, a mother’s care (a care, he’s often said, denied him), in all its delicious innocence — or seemingly so: in fact, his whole body is faintly atremble, as though, with great difficulty, shedding the last of its pride and bitterness, its isolate neutrality. Then slowly his own hips begin to rock convulsively under hers, his knees to rise in involuntary surrender. She tongues his ear, her buttocks thumping more vigorously now, kisses his throat, his nose, his scarred lip, then rears up, arching her back, tossing her head back (her hair is looser now, wilder, a flush has crept into the distinctive pallor of her cheeks and throat, and what was before a fierce determination is now raw intensity, what vulnerability now a slack-jawed abandon), plunging him in more deeply than ever, his own buttocks bouncing up off the floor as though trying to take off like the next flight to Lisbon — “Gott in Himmel, this is fonn!” she cries. She reaches behind her back to clutch his testicles, he clasps her hand in both of his, his thighs spread, she falls forward, they roll over, he’s pounding away now from above (he lacks her famous radiance: if anything his buttocks seem to suck in light, drawing a nostalgic murkiness around them like night fog, signaling a fundamental distance between them, and an irresistible attraction), she’s clawing at his back under the white jacket, at his hips, his thighs, her voracious nether mouth leaping up at him from below and sliding back, over and over, like a frantic greased-pole climber. Faster and faster they slap their bodies together, submitting to this fierce rhythm as though to simplify themselves, emitting grunts and whinnies and helpless little farts, no longer Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, but some nameless conjunction somewhere between them, time, space, being itself getting redefined by the rapidly narrowing focus of their incandescent passion — then suddenly Rick rears back, his face seeming to puff out like a gourd, Ilsa cries out and kicks upward, crossing her ankles over Rick’s clenched buttocks, for a moment they seem almost to float, suspended, unloosed from the earth’s gravity, and then — whumpff — they hit the floor again, their bodies continuing to hammer together, though less regularly, plunging, twitching, prolonging this exclamatory dialogue, drawing it out even as the intensity diminishes, even as it becomes more a declaration than a demand, more an inquiry than a declaration. Ilsa’s feet uncross, slide slowly to the floor. “Fooff. . . Gott!” They lie there, cheek to cheek, clutching each other tightly, gasping for breath, their thighs quivering with the last involuntary spasms, the echoey reverberations, deep in their loins, of pleasure’s fading blasts.

          “Jesus,” Rick wheezes, “I’ve been saving that one for a goddamn year and a half. . .!”

          “It was the best fokk I effer haff,” Ilsa replies with a tremulous sigh, and kisses his ear, runs her fingers in his hair. He starts to roll off her, but she clasps him closely: “No. . . wait. . .!” A deeper thicker pleasure, not so ecstatic, yet somehow more moving, seems to well up from far inside her to embrace the swollen visitor snuggled moistly in her womb, once a familiar friend, a comrade loved and trusted, now almost a stranger, like one resurrected from the dead.

          “Ah –!” he gasps. God, it’s almost like she’s milking it! Then she letsgo, surrounding him spongily with a kind of warm wet pulsating gratitude. “Ah. . .”

          He lies there between Ilsa’s damp silky thighs, feeling his weight thicken, his mind soften and spread. His will drains away as if it were some kind of morbid affection, lethargy overtaking him like an invading army. Even his jaw goes slack, his fingers (three sprawl idly on a dark-tipped breast) limp. He wears his snowy white tuxedo jacket still, his shiny black socks, which, together with the parentheses of Ilsa’s white thighs, make his melancholy buttocks — beaten in childhood, lashed at sea, run lean in union skirmishes, sunburned in Ethiopia, and shot at in Spain — look gloomier than ever, swarthy and self-pitying, agape now with a kind of heroic sadness. A violent tenderness. These buttocks are, it could be said, what the pose of isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful, and, as the prefect of police might have put it, tremendously attractive. Though his penis has slipped out of its vaginal pocket to lie limply like a fat little toe against her slowly pursing lips, she clasps him close still, clinging to something she cannot quite define, something like a spacious dream of freedom, or a monastery garden, or the discovery of electricity. “Do you have a gramophone on, Richard?”

          “What –?!” Her question has startled him. His haunches snap shut, his head rears up, snorting, he seems to be reaching for the letters of transit. “Ah. . . no. . .” He relaxes again, letting his weight fall back, though sliding one thigh over hers now, stretching his arms out as though to unkink them, turning his face away. His scrotum bulges up on her thigh like an emblem of his inner serenity and generosity, all too often concealed, much as an authentic decency might shine through a mask of cynicism and despair. He takes a deep breath. (A kiss is just a kiss is what the music is insinuating. A sigh. . . )   “That’s probably
Sam. . .”

 

—from Robert Coover’s “You Must Remember This,” in his A Night at the Movies (1987)

 

a tragedy in miniature: short fiction by stig dagerman

In culling my library over the weekend I came across an old issue of the once-great Grand Street, which had a somewhat fresher translation of Stig Dagerman’s short story “To Kill A Child” than the one in my old Quartet Encounters collection of his short stories, The Games of NightOne of Sweden’s most respected writers of the 1940s and 50s, Dagerman (October 5, 1923 – November 5, 1954) published his first novel when he was just 22 years old. His continual themes were fear and terror, guilt and loneliness. Toward the end of his life Dagerman, like so many other writers in the 1950s, railed against the onset of the dreary mono-culture:  

I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, it restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself.

 —from Dagerman’s “Do We Believe In Man?” (1950)

By the time Dagerman was 26, he’d published six books and written four full-length plays. He married the actress Anita Bjork, (she appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s “Secrets of Women).” But then Dagerman practically stopped writing, and committed suicide in 1954, at the age of 31.

In his introduction to The Games of Night, Dagerman biographer Michael Meyer states that:

Like his masters Strindberg and Kafka, he photographed his small, split world with a vivid and faithful clarity, and sometimes one is haunted by a secret and uneasy suspicion that his private vision, like Strindberg’s and Kafka’s, may in fact be nearer the truth of things than those visions of the great humanists, such as Tolstoy and Balzac, which people call universal.

Graham Greene observed that “Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.”

In his famous “To Kill A Child,” Dagerman creates an atmosphere and setting which conveys the irrevocable nature of personal tragedy. Three narrative spaces are laid out within the initial omniscient view of all three villages. The reader is alternated between the first and third, and then between the second and third. Just as the story steps through three spaces, so too do its inhabitants.  The couple in the car are moving towards the child who is moving; his parents are stationary. It is the car and child that will collide, at the foreordained crisis point in the third village. But the reader, like the characters, cannot do anything other than move forward until the inevitable occurs . . .

In 2003, a Swedish film director, Alexander Skarsgård, along with Björne Larsson, made a short film of To Kill a Child, (Att döda ett Barn), which may be viewed here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B75F1vo5864

Apparently the film was extremely well-received when it made its international premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Narration in Swedish, or some such North Germanic language). 

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To Kill A Child

By Stig Dagerman

It’s a peaceful day as sunlight settles onto the fields of the plain. Soon bells will be ringing, because today is Sunday. Between fields of rye, two children have just come upon a footpath that they have never taken before, and in the three villages along the plain, windowpanes glisten in the sun. Men shave before mirrors propped on kitchen tables, women hum as they slice up cinnamon bread for the morning meal, and children sit on kitchen floors, buttoning the fronts of their shirts. This is the pleasant morning of an evil day, because on this day a child will be killed in the third village by a cheerful man. Yet the child still sits on the kitchen floor, buttoning his shirt. And the man who is still shaving talks of the day ahead, of their rowing trip down the creek. And still humming, the woman places the freshly cut bread on a blue plate.

No shadows pass over the kitchen, and yet even now the man who will kill the child stands near a red gas pump in the first village. He’s a cheerful man, looking through the viewfinder of his camera, framing a shot of a small blue car and a young woman who stands beside it, laughing. As the woman laughs and the man snaps the charming picture, the attendant screws their gas cap on tightly. He tells them it looks like a good day for a drive. The woman gets into the car, and the man who will kill the child pulls out his wallet. He tells the attendant they’re driving to the sea. He says when they reach the sea they’ll rent a boat and row far, far out. Through her open window, the woman in the front seat hears his words. She settles back and closes her eyes. And with her eyes closed she sees the sea and the man sitting beside her in a boat. He’s not an evil man, he’s carefree and cheerful. Before he climbs into the car, he stands for a moment in front of the grille, which gleams in the sun, and he enjoys the mixed aroma of gasoline and lilacs. No shadows fall over the car, and its shiny bumper has no dents, nor is it red with blood.

 But just as the man in the first village climbs into his car and slams the door shut, and as he is reaching down to pull out the choke, the woman in the third village opens her kitchen cupboard and finds that she has no sugar. The child, who has finished buttoning his shirt and has tied his shoes, kneels on a couch and sees the stream winding between the alders, pictures the black rowboat pulled up into the tall grass of the bank. The man who will lose his child has finished shaving and is just now closing his portable mirror. Coffee cups, cinnamon bread, cream, and flies each have a place on the table. Only the sugar is missing. And so the mother tells her child to run over to the Larssons’ to borrow a little. As the child opens the door, the man calls after him, urging him to hurry, because the boat lies waiting for them on the bank of the creek, and today they will row much, much further than they ever have before. Running through the yard, the child can think of nothing else but the stream and the boat and the fish that jump from the water. And no one whispers to the child that he has only eight minutes to live and that the boat will lie where it is today and for many days to come.

It isn’t far to the Larssons’. It’s only across the road. And just as the child is crossing that road, the small blue car is speeding through the second village. It’s a tiny village, with humble red houses and newly awakened people who sit in their kitchens with raised coffee cups. They look out over their hedges and see the car rush past, a large cloud of dust rising behind it. The car moves fast, and from behind the steering wheel, the man catches glimpses of apple trees and newly tarred telephone poles slipping past like gray shadows. Summer breathes through their open windows, and as they rush out of the second village their car hugs the road, riding safely, surely, in the middle. They are alone on this road — so far. It’s a peaceful thing, to drive completely alone on a broad road. And as they move out onto the open plain, that feeling of peace settles deeper. The man is strong and contented, and with his right elbow he can feel the woman’s body. He’s not a bad man. He’s in a hurry to get to the sea. He wouldn’t hurt even the simplest creature, and yet, still, he will soon kill a child. As they rush on toward the third village, the woman again shuts her eyes, pretending those eyes will not open again until they can look on the sea. In time with the car’s gentle swaying, she dreams about the calm, lapping tide, the peaceful, mirrored surface of the sea.

Because life is constructed in such a merciless fashion, even one minute before a cheerful man kills a child he can still feel entirely at ease, and only one minute before a woman screams out in horror she can close her eyes and dream of the sea, and during the last minute of that child’s life his parents can sit in a kitchen waiting for sugar, talking casually about the child’s white teeth and the rowing trip they have planned, and that child himself can close a gate and begin to cross a road, holding in his right hand a few cubes of sugar wrapped up in white paper, and for the whole of that minute he can see nothing but a clear stream with big fish and a wide-bottomed boat with silent oars.

Afterward, everything is too late. Afterward, there is a blue car stopped sideways in the road, and a screaming woman takes her hand from her mouth, and it’s dark with blood. Afterward, a man opens a car door and tries to stand on his legs, even though he has a pit of horror within him. Afterward, a few sugar cubes are strewn meaninglessly about in the blood and gravel, and a child lies motionless on its stomach, its face pressed heavily against the road. Afterward, two pale people, who have not yet had their coffee, come running through a gate to see a sight in the road they will never forget. Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a killed child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her childacross the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once-cheerful man who has killed a child.

Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face — all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.

But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.

—translated by Steven Hartman, with Lo Dagerman, in Grand Street, No. 42 (1992)

http://www.grandstreet.com/gsissues/gs42/gs42b.html