Saturday, 16 April 2022

Miracle in Milan (1951)


Francisco Golisano in Miracle in Milan

This Italian film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, was a real oddity. Toto is an orphan found in a cabbage patch, and raised by a poor woman. Soon he is taken to an orphanage where he is educated and prepared for the world. 

All this is shown in the first five minutes of the film: a wonderful exposition, with almost no words. Then we see young Totò (played by the wonderfully innocent Francesco Golisano), aged perhaps 18, leaving the orphanage for the real world, yet quite unprepared for it, magnificently demonstrated by his greeting strangers with “good day “ as he passes them in the street, and getting a very suspicious and unwelcome response.

Then we move to the narrative proper: Totò lives in a community for the homeless, a shanty town, and becomes a kind of leader to them. His eternal optimism saves many of them from despair, and, in one case, suicide. 

So far we have a plot: the innocent, Christ-like figure, who is determinedly optimistic, so much so that he strikes up a conversation with the man who stole his bag – and ends up giving him the bag he so covets. 

At this point, we see lots of faces of the urban poor, and we feel compassion. This kind of socialist realism is seen also in Brecht and other films of the 30s and 40s, such as My Man Godfrey (1936). But at this point in the film, di Sica inevitably comes up against political reality. The shanty town is on land that is owned by someone, and that someone wants it back. Do the oppressed poor get to keep the land they occupy (which would be utopian)? Or do the landowners succeed in removing the community (which would be realistic)? De Sica opts for a third option, perhaps the easy escape. Toto acquires some magic powers via a dove given to him by his late aunt, and manages to escape on a broomstick, as do many of this associates. There is no justification for this miracle happening apart from it seeming to be a good thing. There is no other solution to the story, as far as we can see. 

Of course, a deus ex machina ending of this kind is profoundly unsettling, and makes us realise (as Douglas Sirk pointed out of plays by Euripides) how contrived and artificial is the ending. Does the ending have to be like that? Is there not a better solution – perhaps a political one? 

But by ending in this way, De Sica can have his cake and eat it. He even keeps the Catholic Church happy, since the landowners are not defeated, and the shanty town inhabitants have recourse to an other-world solution that requires only faith. So the film comes so close to political activism, and then turns away. Just as De Sica appears to have done in his subsequent career, which seems to have moved progressively away from politics and uncomfortable decisions, towards mainstream entertainment such as Matrimonio all’Italiana (1964). Wikipedia states De Sica was both a Roman Catholic and a Communist, and maintained two partners and two families for much of his life. It suggests a lack of decision-making that is apparent in Miracle in Milan. You can create a great situation, with the viewer on the edge of their seat: the honest, disposed poor, or the wealthy caricature landowner? Who is right? But then the film peters out and avoids the question.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Athens: The Benaki Museums


Cretan vessel with horsemen, 675-660 BCE

What made the Benaki museums in Athens so special? During our visit, we had time to see two of the Benaki Collections: the Benakis Museum of Greek Culture, which was the first to be opened, and the Benakis Museum of Islamic Art, one of the most recent. There are now ten museums in all, nine of them in Athens, and I don’t suppose many Athenians have seen them all. Both these museums were exceptional. 

Both, perhaps, reflect the personality of Benaki himself, although I haven’t been able to find much out about him. Antonis Benaki (1873-1954) grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, when it must have been of a great cultural melting pot. Others living in Alexandria at the time include C P Cafavy; Eric Hobsbawm was born there. The biographical sources state he moved permanently to Athens in 1926, but do not give any reason. 

However Benakis gained his education, he had a remarkable eye for beautiful objects across religions (he seems to have collected Islamic and Christian art throughout his life) and across many cultures, and seemed to be equally at home in many art forms. Both the Benaki collections we saw included a vast range of what used to be called applied arts: calligraphy, textiles, metalwork, jewellery, miniature painting, to name but a few. The settings for these works was exquisite.


The Museum of Greek Culture

The original museum (now called “The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture”) still resembles an albeit grand private house, with a series of fairly small rooms. As a result, visitors are encouraged to spend more time looking at individual objects. Different arts are mixed together, and, at least in the Greek Culture museum, many civilizations are mixed. Given that Greece did not exist as an independent country for several hundred years, the interpretation of “Greek” in the Museum of Greek Culture is (perhaps of necessity) a very wide one: this “Greek” museum includes objects from Constantinople, Egypt, and Ankara. The floor dedicated to the newly independent Greek state was unfortunately closed at the time of the visit, but the impression I got was of an impressive international eclecticism. 

Museum of Islamic Art

Interior of the Museum

The feeling of a mixture is very apparent also in the Museum of Islamic Art. The Museum lists some 17 separate dynasties through the historical period covered by the museum, which, since it ranges from the 6th to the 19th centuries, should be confusing, but I found it admirably clear, helped by some very useful maps for each room. The spacious arrangement of each room encourages browsing. 

The Egyptian room, C15-C18

Perhaps the single greatest work owned by the Islamic Museum is not a single work at all, but a reconstruction of a room in Cairo that is a composite of objects from the 15th to the 18th centuries, assembled together in what becomes wonderfully inviting space. I wanted to walk around it, sit on the cushions and entertain my guests, sipping coffee while the fountains played.   

The Islamic Museum was limited to just four rooms, arranged chronologically. Each room was wonderfully spacious, meaning the objects displayed invited full examination. Perhaps in consequence, the four big maps of the Islamic world became very intelligible. I learned more about the history of the Islamic world from this collection than from any other collection of Islamic art (not that there are many to choose from).

Can there be a faith-based museum? I would be very wary of visiting a museum of Christian art, and yet, of course, most Western galleries of art are just that. It’s difficult to think offhand of any picture in the London National Gallery that does not endorse, actively or passively, a Christian ethos. So why does the Islamic Museum work so well.


Greek coffee

Of course, I should not forget that both collections have excellent rooftop cafes, from which it is possible to get a relaxed view of the city (and Athens is not a city that invites feelings of relaxation, for the most part). Drinking Greek coffee (something that is not available from Starbucks at Athens Airport, I noticed) while being far enough away from the activity and traffic to enjoy the peace and quiet is highly recommended. The Islamic Collection had some original, tile-inspired wall decorations, that made the space even more inviting.

What kind of collection?

My initial thought was that the Benaki’s success came down to mixing cultures, in a similar way to the Sainsbury Collection in Norwich. But the goal of the two collections is fundamentally different. The Sainsbury Collection invites comparisons across thousands of years and thousands of miles, in a breath-taking and, as far as I know, unique medley of cultures. The Benaki Museums mix (say) miniatures and pottery, but remain within a single time period. Nonetheless, the result is exhilarating because both museums give the impression of a lived existence. From the dioramas, admittedly behind glass cases, at the Greek Museum to the gorgeous room displays at both collections, you feel as though you could step into another world. That effect is utterly different to, say, the Acropolis Museum, or the National Archaeological Museum; it also highly addictive.

I noted that the astonishing range of Benaki materials is even today not all on display. There are Chinese, Korean, and West African artefacts still in store. Perhaps a Sainsbury-style museum could still be a possibility.

Next time I visit Athens, I will certainly head for another couple of Benaki museums. Or perhaps just return to either of these two rooftop cafes, and dream of a cultural medley crossing many modern nation-state boundaries, a collection that celebrates beauty and craftsmanship in a spectacular way. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Hockney takes us on a tour of the Fitzwilliam


Hockney makes us look at pictures again: not just at his own pictures, but as assembled here, alongside classic art, and, whether his ideas are right or wrong, he forces us to view the familiar images differently. 

The layout is simple. Instead of a room full of Hockney works, his works, and almost as important, his comments, are distributed around the entire Fitzwilliam. Here is an artist willing to engage with the existing historical art – a brave man. He makes so many claims! For example, that the detailed topographical 18th-century works by Canaletto and relatives were probably done using an optical device to display an image on the paper or canvas. Similarly, portraits by Ingres and others used the same tools. He then openly tells you how his own works are done using the camera lucida, or the camera obscura, or simply from photographs. He appears to tear up the rules, or, more precisely, makes you think about what the rules are.

His take on perspective is marvellous: not for Hockney a slavish one-point or two-point perspective, but a painting that appears to converge on the viewer. 

His view of photography? There is nothing wrong with it, except that it has only a single viewpoint. To demonstrate his point, there is a video installation with nine screens, showing the same country road landscape. Except that as you look at the screens you realise that what you thought was nine linked images is  shot from a slightly different viewpoint.  The effect is slightly disorienting, but a remarkable comment on static viewpoints. He claims that as you move around you see a landscape from many different viewpoints, while photography can capture only one. 

Are his own works all based on mechanical devices? It would seem not. Some of this most effective works were done on an iPad, and do not appear to be based on any kind of template. They are in a simplified, caricature-like style that is very distinctive, but respectful of the landscape depicted.

Hockney is humble, which is remarkable for an artist of his stature, and you feel you are looking at the Fitzwilliam paintings with a fresh eye: Hockney’s. 

Monday, 14 March 2022

Sad Wisbech


North Brink, Wisbech

Sad Wisbech. The Saturday we visited, there were plenty of people in the town centre, but Wisbech Museum had no other visitors than us, and Peckover House, the town’s other historical attraction, had just six people for the second and final guided tour of the day. 

Peckover House is managed by the National Trust, and it seems to have fallen on hard times. There used to be a café, but that didn’t attract enough visitors, it seems. Now the café is closed, even fewer visitors arrive. There is a lovely garden, surprisingly large (it includes much of the gardens of surrounding houses), yet without a café, there isn’t a great deal to attract visitors. Our guided tour lasted an hour but I cannot say I was excited by much in the presentation or by the house. The house was left to the Trust without any contents, and in any case, it was clear the style of the house was not to the taste of the Quaker Peckover family. There was a room decorated vaguely as a  bank manager’s office, to suggest the Peckover Bank; there was the usual downstairs kitchen, where the servants lived; but I didn’t get a feel for a any of it. We were told the library was worth millions; but nothing about which books were actually in the library. You felt that, apart from the garden, the National Trust had given up with Peckover House.  

Wisbech Museum

Wisbech Museum was in a way even sadder. Last time we visited, the Museum was shut, because of roof reconstruction – thanks to a grant from English Heritage, after the Museum had been placed on an “at risk” register. But fixing the roof is only solving one of the museum’s many problems, as explained to me by one of the chatty staff, who were wonderfully informative and friendly. The museum is currently only accessible via some steps, so there is a plan to build a new access at the rear of the site. Even then, that leaves the wonderful original building from the 1840s, but that is part of the problem: the presentation of the exhibits gives the impression of a 19th-century approach. Wisbech Museum is almost entirely glass cases, with a collection covering a vast range from geology to archaeology to ethnology to the cabinet of curiosities, just like the early Ashmolean Tradescant collection, and the Oxford Pitt-Rivers collection (and it is interesting that at the Pitt-Rivers they seem to have acknowledged that the museum is such a time capsule it would be foolish to try to change it now). The collection is fascinating to observe, for me, but almost useless for educational purposes. Where do you start with a collection like this?
This lump of stone is actually a hole - read the caption

In another room, there is a library, with books from the 19th century, but again, these books are of almost no interest to young visitors (if there were any). Almost next door to the museum is a modern library building, but although the library was open, it looked deserted.

Outside the museum, there was the usual groups of drinkers on the park benches; we heard that kids had been responsible for removing all of the finials from the original metal railings outside  - so another repair expense.

As before, Wisbech parish church remained stubbornly shut.

Yet again we had seen Wisbech, but not really grasped it. Wisbech, after all, has one of the most spectacular urban sights in Britain, with North Brink. But nothing seems to remain from this era, nor from the pioneering anti-slavery and local improvement movement of the 19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place so resistant to the ghosts of the past, and without replacing it with anything positive of the present-day. Perhaps I should finally visit Great Yarmouth and compare.

Saturday, 12 March 2022

Turgenev, Spring Torrents


Cristoforo Allori, Judith and the head of Holofernes, Royal Collection: 'her hair fell in a wave like that of Allori's Judith in the Palazzo Pitti'.

This is not a review of Turgenev's Spring Torrents (1872) by a literary critic; this is written by a reader who has just completed the novel. 

I am not unfamiliar with Turgenev; I remembered his lovely Notes from a Hunter’s Album for his comprehension of the serfs, which struck me as very unusual for his time. I had read about his long-term liaison with a famous opera singer, but I did not know the details. 

So I began Spring Torrents and was captured by its seeming simplicity. I read the book with interest (to see what would happened, then bewilderment (as the book seemed to be a standard work of romantic fiction, worthy of Mills and Boon), followed by fascination as the story moved on.   

This short novel, just 163 pages in the Penguin translation by Leonard Schapiro, can conveniently be divided in two parts. In part one, the hero, Sanin, who is Russian, and aged 23, is travelling back from several months in Italy to Russia via Germany. He has a small private income, but he has exhausted his funds. He encounters a poor family who run a patisserie, and within hours, Sanin finds himself involved in a duel to defend what he perceives to be a slur on the daughter’s honour. No sooner is that trial over than he has declared his love for Gemma, the daughter and she accepts him She abandons her fiance for him, and everything seems set for them to lead a quiet and contented life of small-scale bourgeois respectability together. 

In the second part, linked only very tenuously to the first, he travels to Frankfurt to sell his estate. But the woman who has the money to buy his estate, Maria Nicolaevna, turns out to be interested in considerably more than a simple business deal. He is swept off his feet by her forthright views and invitation to intimacy, and abandons his fiance to travel with Maria to Paris, despite the fact that she is still living with her husband (it appears she simply married him for convenience). 

The whole tale is framed by the author looking back 30 years after these events took place, remembering with regret how he fell for Maria Nicolaevna, and how she soon abandoned him. We learn that he never married, and as a kind of epilogue to the novel, he discovers his former betrothed, Gemma, is happily married with five children. 

There are, of course, various ways in which a reader can interpret this tale. The translator, Leonard Schapiro, sees it in biographical terms, since Turgenev spent many years as the lover of Pauline Viardot, a famous opera singer, despite her being married to someone else. But as I know little of Turgenev’s life, let’s leave this interpretation to one side. Another interpretation is, of course, what might be expected to be the mainstream 19th-century view: a romantic liaison with a woman based simply on passion is frowned on. By this view, it is clear which of the two liaisons should be preferred by the reader. 

We have here a contrast between two women, seen from a man’s point of view. One, Gemma, is innocent, young, unworldly, and would appear to have little in common with Sanin, the hero, who is clearly well travelled and, one would assume, widely experienced, although still young, at 22. For me, the crucial pointn is that the tale shows hardly anything about Gemma’s character. We learn a lot about her beauty, but of her mind, her views, we learn next to nothing. Is there any evidence in this novel that Sanin knows her, or she him, in any detail? I don’t think so. 

The other woman, Maria Nicolaevna, is a whirlwind, a force to be reckoned with. She treats her husband with contempt, calling him “fatty”, and is similarly abrupt with other former lovers. She has a very clearly stated view of life: “Cela ne tire pas a consequence”. She succeeds in seducing Sanin, and her triumph wins her a bet she has with her husband – he is clearly reconciled to his very subordinate position in her life. 

What makes the novel fascinating is the character of Maria Nicolaevna, the strong-willed and assertive woman who demands openly what she wants, and, it would appear, usually gets it. Sanin appears to acknowledge he is not in love with her, but after a few hours in bed with her, abandons his future marriage and follows her obediently to Paris. 

How should we interpret this seemingly simple novel? Sanin, reflecting on these events many years later, and looking back as his young self, condemns Maria Nicolaevna, or at least condemns himself for getting carried away. But could he ever have been happy with Gemma? He knew nothing about her; it was an invented, one-sided relationship, he and an artificial image he had of her. 

By comparison, the novel comes to live in the description of Maria Nicolaevna and her fiery, haughty attitude to life. This is a novel that ranks very highly for eroticism (which is considerably rarer than you might imagine in the novel): the scene in the opera house where Maria Nicolaevna more or less seduces Sanin is adult in a way that Dickens, for example, could never achieve. Here is a real character, aware of and celebrating her passion, and unafraid to treat with contempt those who, she feels, do not stand up to her. However impossible it might be to live with such a woman, the depiction by Turgenev of this character was for me totally unexpected after the rather comfortable and small-scale bourgeois love affair in the first part. The novel began with a typical 19th-century novel plot: man falls for a woman about whom he knows nothing, and invests her image (largely because he knows so her so little) with such significance he is prepared to die in a duel for her. Sweet, but pointless. Compare this with his few nights of pleasure with a woman of character, of experience, who knows exactly what she wants and is not afraid to ask for it. 

The Allori picture as it appears in the Penguin edition

Footnote: Even today, in the 21st century, we are frightened by female desire. It was fascinating to notice that Sanin, in his first description of Gemma, compared her to Judith, in the depiction shown above. However, the Penguin image carefully omits the head of Holofernes; all you see is a powerful female face in half profile. Perhaps the full image might have been too off-putting for the average reader. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

The Third Man (1949)


 Much of this film is about trying to discover things. We, the viewers, never quite work out who the third man actually was? At least, I’m not sure if I ever found out, although the chances are that it was Harry Lime himself.

References to the third man resemble the references to Rosebud in Citizen Kane. In both films, Joseph Cotten plays the “normal” character, the one against which we measure all the others. He is our moral reference; if he thinks it is right, we do too.

The amazing atmosphere of the film, shot in a largely deserted Vienna, full of ruined buildings; a triumph of exaggerated angles photography with dramatic shadows (Robert Krasker). Much of the action takes place inside decayed grand palace-like buildings, which have their own evocative sense.

Locked into the film is a very demeaning female role, that of Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s girlfriend, Alice Schmidt. Throughout the film, she defends her lover and maintains a kind of “love triumphs all” attitude. It doesn’t matter what he did, I still love him. It tells you something about Green’s attitude to women to create such a role; it has not worn well since 1949, and it made me wince to see such a one-dimensional character.

Undoubtedly much of the film’s rather eerie atmosphere comes from the relentlessly upbeat and trivial zither music. It heightens the feeling of unease and uncertainty that you feel in an unfamiliar environment, rather than simply being enjoyable for its own sake.

Critics have complained that Orson Welles makes the character of Harry Lime too appealing. Perhaps the director, aware that Welles (before he became very overweight) had quite an undergraduate-like charming face, did what he could to stress the sense of menace by focusing on his shoes before we see his face. However, apart from his witty line about the Swiss and cuckoo clocks, he captured reasonably well the attitude of a man who thinks himself above the law, above usual moral principles. He was certainly more convincing than Noel Coward, apparently also considered for the part, would have been

As usual, Greene writes from a simplistic Catholic point of view. It is astonishing that a major novelist could depict such a simple world of good and evil. Joseph Cotton is good; the British forces are good; Harry Lime is evil, as are most of his cronies. If only the world were so simple. There are times when Greene seems only a slightly more elaborate version of G K Chesterton with his proselytizing Sunday-school moral lessons.  

Another weakness of the plot is that Joseph Cotten is supposed to be playing a widely read popular novelist who writes westerns. Cotton looks far too sensitive and educated to play a philistine purveyor of popular fiction, and the scene where he gives a talk on the modern novel falls very flat – because he is unaware of most classic fiction, but is expected to answer questions on it. That is the scene, incidentally, highly praised by Pierre Bayard in his How to Talk about Books you haven’t read, but only because it appealed to Bayard’s very curious fascination with such unlikely situations.

Nonetheless, despite the one-dimensional plotting and attitudes, the film remains magnificent. The locations and camerawork, the stunning images of a deserted, war-damaged Vienna at night. The empty cafes; the fairground; the dreary rooms; these are images I won’t forget in a hurry.

It seems perhaps strange that Carol Reed made only three films considered to be great  – Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and this one, all within a few years; his other credits include Oliver! and Trapeze, neither of which sound very exciting. Perhaps that is the nature of film: the perfect film does not exist, The Third Man is not a masterpiece, but we are grateful for a few unforgettable moments, perhaps a camera angle, or a human face, or some movement: not, for me, the chase scenes in the sewers of Vienna, but some of the expressions of fear on people’s faces, or the feeling of an occupying force trying valiantly but without success to control a horrific underworld of thieves and betrayal. The final scene, a tree-lined avenue with dead leaves fluttering down, and Alida Valli walking towards, and then past Joseph Cotton, is gripping.


Monday, 28 February 2022

A Hazard of New Fortunes


Business and jobs are the centre of most of our lives, and yet I can think of few, if any, novels set in a business environment before this one. W D Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes was published in 1890. 

The ostensible plot is the launch and growth of this New-York based periodical, particularly the involvement of Basil March, who becomes its editor, and moves from Boston to New York with his family for the new job. The crux of this long book is, remarkably, just one incident, during a dinner, a celebration for contributors to the literary periodical Every Other Week

At the dinner, there is a confrontation between Dryfoos, an unreformed Southerner who has financed the periodical, and Lindau, a socialist who lost an arm fighting in the Civil War. Dryfoos is the owner; Lindau a poor freelancer who lives for his principles. Both men state their political views, and feelings run high. Subsequently, the owner states he does not want Lindau to work any more for the periodical, and commands Basil March, the editor, not to employ him in the future. 

Up to this point, the novel has been what I would describe as gentle in its morals. The husband and wife Marches behave in a predictably liberal way: supporting liberal causes, but without putting themselves out very dramatically for any good cause. However, at this decisive moment in the novel, Basil March decides he cannot accept the power of money to terminate a worker’s job. He stands up to the investor Dryfoos, and states he will resign rather than terminate a worker because of their political opinions. After a slight wobble) Mrs March supports her husband. 

Howells captures very well the middle-class liberal in 19th-century America: doing their job and keeping their nose clean. They support the vague idea of justice for the workers, but at the same time, they prioritise their family and career, leaving any principles, such as supporting strikes, or standing up for work colleagues, as secondary – until this key turning point. 

The contrast of the literate and civilized Basil March, and the vulgar, insensitive Dryfoos family, who need to have a chaperone to introduce the daughters to society and teach them the basic rule of interaction, is very well done. This is one of the “hazards of new fortunes” in the title; I can see the relevance, but it doesn’t make the title any more memorable. 

What I remember of the book is a graceful, flowing style that is very easy to read, and the remarkable, way the novel deepens almost imperceptible from what appears to be a comedy of manners, not as satirical as Diary of a Nobody, but with a similar deftness of touch, to stark political and social issues: the power of money in the United States to destroy lives, jobs, and relationships. A much better piece of writing than, say, Sally Rooney’s Normal People.