Trash Without Sex

 
 

Stranger Than Paradise is a 1984 American absurdist/deadpan comedy film. It was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and stars jazz musician John Lurie, former Sonic Youth drummer-turned-actor Richard Edson, and Hungarian-born actress Eszter Balint. The film features a minimalist plot in which the main character, self-identified “hipster” Willie (John Lurie), has a cousin from Hungary, Eva (Eszter Balint), stay with him for ten days before going to Cleveland. Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) eventually go to Cleveland to visit Eva.

Writer and director Jim Jarmusch had initially shot his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) as his final thesis while at New York University’s film school, and spent the following four years making Stranger than Paradise. At NYU, he had studied under iconic director Nicholas Ray, who had brought him along as his personal assistant for the production of Lightning over Water, a portrait of Ray that was being filmed by Wim Wenders. It was Wenders who granted Jarmusch the leftover film stock from his subsequent film The State of Things (1982) that would enable the young director to shoot the 30-minute short subject film that would become Stranger Than Paradise. This short was released as a standalone film in 1982, and shown as “Stranger Than Paradise” at the 1983 International Film Festival Rotterdam. When it was later expanded into a three-act feature, that name was appropriated for the feature itself, and the initial segment was renamed “The New World”.

Stranger Than Paradise broke many conventions of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, and became a landmark work in modern independent film. According to Allmovie, it is “one of the most influential movies of the 1980s”, and cast “a wide shadow over the new generation of independent American filmmakers to come. It is cited for giving “an early example of the low-budget independent wave that would dominate the cinematic marketplace a decade later.” The success of the film accorded Jarmusch a certain iconic status within arthouse cinema, as an idiosyncratic and uncompromising auteur exuding the aura of urban cool embodied by downtown Manhattan. In 2002, Stranger Than Paradise was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Film critic Pauline Kael gave the film a generally positive review.

The first section is set in the bare Lower East Side apartment of Willie, who is forced to take in Eva, his 16-year-old cousin from Budapest, for ten days. The joke here is the basic joke of the whole movie. It’s in what Willie doesn’t do: he doesn’t offer her food or drink, or ask her any questions about life in Hungary or her trip; he doesn’t offer to show her the city, or even supply her with sheets for her bed. Then Eddie comes in, even further down on the lumpen scale. Willie bets on the horses; Eddie bets on dog races. Eva, who never gets to see more of New York than the drab, anonymous looking area where Willie lives, goes off to Cleveland to stay with Aunt Lotte and work at a hot-dog stand. And when Willie and Eddie go to see her, all they see is an icy wasteland – slums and desolation – and Eddie says ‘You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.’ The film has something of the same bombed-out listlessness as Paul Morrissey‘s 1970 Trash – it’s Trash without sex or transvestism. The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail. And those black-outs have something of the effect of Samuel Beckett‘s pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently.

 
 

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Essay On Proust

“The time-state of attainment eliminates so accurately the time-state of aspiration, that the actual seems the inevitable, and, all conscious intellectual effort to reconstitute the invisible and unthinkable as a reality being fruitless, we are incapable of appreciating our joy by comparing it with our sorrow.”

Samuel Beckett
Proust

 
 

Samuel Beckett. Photo by François-Marie Banier

 
 

Samuel Beckett wrote Proust in the summer of 1930, in response to a commission precipitated by Thomas MacGreevy, Charles Prentice, and Richard Aldington, during his stay at the École Normale in Paris. By the end of September, he delivered it by hand to Charles Prentice at Chatto and Windus. The book sold 2,600 copies by 1937, with the remaining 400 remaindered by 1941. In retrospect, Beckett dismissed it as written in “cheap flashy philosophical jargon.

The essay served double duty as its author’s aesthetic and epistemological manifesto, proclaiming on behalf of its ostensible subject: “We cannot know and we cannot be known.” In dense and allusive language, Beckett credited his current influences (notably Arthur Schopenhauer and Pedro Calderón de la Barca) and forecast his future preoccupations, reading them into the prose of Marcel Proust:

“The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness (an objectivation of the individual’s will, Schopenhauer would say), the pact must be continually renewed, the letter of safe-conduct brought up to date. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave-sheets serve as swaddling-clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being. (At this point, and with a heavy heart and for the satisfaction or disgruntlement of Gideans, semi and integral, I am inspired to concede a brief parenthesis to all the analogivorous, who are capable of interpreting the ‘Live dangerously,’ that victorious hiccough in vacuo, as the national anthem of the true ego exiled in habit. The Gideans advocate a habit of living—and look for an epithet. A nonsensical bastard phrase. An automatic adjustment of the human organism to the conditions of its existence has as little moral significance as the casting of a clout when May is or is not out; and the exhortation to cultivate a habit as little sense as an exhortation to cultivate a coryza.) The suffering of being: that is, the free play of every faculty. Because the pernicious devotion of habit paralyses our attention, drugs those handmaidens of perception whose co-operation is not absolutely essential.

Beckett went on to pinpoint his moral focus on the fundamental quandaries of human existence, disclaiming any involvement in social issues:

Here, as always, Proust is completely detached from all moral considerations. There is no right and wrong in Proust nor in his world. (Except possibly in those passages dealing with the war, when for a space he ceases to be an artist and raises his voice with the plebs, mob, rabble, canaille.) Tragedy is not concerned with human justice. Tragedy is the statement of an expiation, but not the miserable expiation of a codified breach of a local arrangement, organised by the knaves for the fools. The tragic figure represents the expiation of original sin, of the original and eternal sin of him and all his ‘soci malorum,’ the sin of having been born.

‘Pues el delito mayor
Del hombre es haber nacido.’

The final quotation is from Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), and ‘soci malorum’ is a quotation from Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism.

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Soci malorum, compagnon de miseres!
In all his subsequent writings, Beckett continued to endorse this hamartiological conclusion; compare “The only sin is the sin of being born,” from a 1969 interview.

The Color Schemes of a Biopic

Eiko Ishioka and Paul Schrader

 
 

By the spring of 1984 Eiko Ishioka was one of the most sought after art director/designers in Japan. She hardly needed to throw herself into what was widely expected to be a controversial film project. Moreover, she would be working with a traditional film art director, Kazuo Takenaka, whose feature credits as designer went back to 1960. Mr. Takenaka was to design the biographical parts of the film and Eiko was to design sets and costumes from the three Yukio Mishima novels chosen by Paul Schrader, in scenes that parallel key events from Mishima’s life. What could easily have been both a generational and aesthetic chasm between Eiko’s and Kazuo’s visions became, in fact, a close collaborative bridge across the film’s several styles.

The color scheme of the first novel presented itself easily enough. Eiko explained that the Golden Pavilion of the title was a legendary, but fragile wooden edifice in Kyoto, often rebuilt after periodic fires. The temple was a spiritual idea as much as a physical edifice. The gold leaf that Eiko chose to cover the set walls and floor, stretching around three curved walls and over the floor, created a limbo environment broken up by green walkways and a bamboo garden. The robes of Mizoguchi and fellow acolytes were in black.

 
 

The story begins with chapter 1, “Beauty,” where the awkward young boy grows into a man, looking to change his position as a misfit in this world and embrace love and the goodness that life has to offer, the things that are beauty personified. For this section, Schrader chooses to adapt the 1953 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the story of a Buddhist acolyte (Yasosuke Bando) with a severe stuttering problem whose “deformity” prevents him from finding love, forcing him to always remain separate. He fixates on the golden temple where he is studying and eventually becomes intent on its destruction. Turning it to rubble blots out the false promise he can never fulfill. This action actually teaches him something about beauty, about how it’s best to halt it at its apex rather than let age diminish its luster.

 
 

Kyoko’s House takes place in the 1950s, a period still very much under the cultural influence of the American Occupation. Eiko offered us a palette of 50s pastels that also featured pink and black. Think of the trope of fuzzy dice that hung from the dashboard rear view mirrors of Detroit cars, and of the stripped down aesthetic of Scandinavian interior design. John Bailey thought also of the color palette that designer Nando Scarfiotti had shown John Schlesinger for Honky-Tonk Freeway (a splayed roll of Necco wafer candies). Eiko promoted the idea of these pastel colors; she knew also the high regard that Paul had for Nando. (Bailey had by then done three films with Nando, two of them directed by Schrader.)

 
 

From there, Schrader moves to chapter 2, “Art,” where Mishima, tasting his first blush of success, begins to ponder how to resolve the false and finite nature of beauty and realize the artist’s purpose of preserving said beauty. In his novel Kyoko’s House a young actor turned body builder (Kenji Sawada) realizes that despite his personal perfection, bodies decay. Art is nice, but it requires no sacrifice. He enters into an abusive relationship with a female gangster (Setsuko Karasuma) who begins to use his body as a living sculpture. Real blood is a greater expression of true beauty and art than the false blood spilled on a theatrical stage.

 
 

Searching for a way to separate these fictional scenes of the novels from the events of the last day (since both were to be done in color) Paul, Eiko, Tom Luddy and John Bailey met with engineers from Sony who had recently developed an analog HD video system. Photographing the scenes from the novels in HD video seemed a natural way to establish a “look” different from the 35mm. color scenes of the last day. It was quickly obvious that the intense chromatic density and subtlety of Eiko’s sets and costumes would be poorly served by the limitations of this cutting edge but still embryonic  video medium. They resolved to shoot the novels on film as well—but with mostly undiffused and harder edged light to preserve the rich blacks that only film could capture, a lighting style Paul and John had chosen for American Gigolo; it was by then a retrograde style in an age of  increasing soft light. Eiko presented the physical design of the sets to them  in near schematic sketches that defined the lines and bones of the sets. The final sets proved to be every bit as reductive, even elemental, with geometric forms and saturated colors creating a stage-like theatricality as the set pieces and walls shift, even collapse.

In one scene, the light on a large Eugene Delacroix wall painting dims to reveal a Beckett-like woods outside: an unlikely mash-up, but pure Eiko. The final scene of Runaway Horses unfolds on an actual beach in pre-sunrise light. Eiko transposed blood red painted rocks from the stage set to the location in order to introduce theatrical artifice into the real world. Here, at a cliff edge, facing the rising sun, the cadet Isao commits seppuku.

 
 

Chapter 3, “Action,” where Mishima begins to question his role in the world. Words can express ideas, but like how beauty without art fades, so too do ideas go nowhere without action to back them up. The novel for this section is Runaway Horses, a later work about a young soldier (Toshiyuki Nagashima) who forms a cabal of like-minded youths to stage a revolution and restore Japan’s honor. As his plan falls apart, he tries one last action before turning his sword on himself. Here the fiction dovetails nicely with the reality, as we go into chapter 4, “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” which concerns itself entirely with Mishima’s last day on Earth, along with commentary taken from his last book of personal writing, Sun and Steel. (Again, fiction gives way to reality–though reality as seen by Yukio Mishima.)