To Reach the Unknown

“I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet…”

Arthur Rimbaud

 

Front cover for Patti Smith’s Peace and Noise. Photo by Oliver Ray, 1997

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To Raise Hell

 

Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) is a 1959 French drama film, the debut by director François Truffaut; it stars Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, and Claire Maurier. One of the defining films of the French New Wave, it displays many of the characteristic traits of the movement. Written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy, the film is about Antoine Doinel, a misunderstood adolescent in Paris who is thought by his parents and teachers to be a troublemaker. Filmed on location in Paris and Honfleur, it is the first in a series of five films in which Léaud plays the semi-autobiographical character.

Besides being a character study, the film is an exposé of the injustices of the treatment of juvenile offenders in France at the time.

Truffaut made four other films with Léaud depicting Antoine at later stages of his life. He meets his first love, Colette, in Antoine and Colette, which was Truffaut’s contribution to the 1962 anthology Love at Twenty. He falls in love with Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) in Stolen Kisses. He marries Christine in Bed and Board, but the couple have separated in Love on the Run.

 

 

The semi-autobiographical film reflects events of Truffaut’s and his friends’ lives. In style, it expresses Truffaut’s personal history of French film, with references to other works—most notably a scene borrowed wholesale from Jean Vigo‘s Zéro de conduite. Truffaut dedicated the film to the man who became his spiritual father, André Bazin, who died just as the film was about to be shot.

Filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Jean Cocteau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Richard Lester and Norman Jewison have cited The 400 Blows as one of their favorite movies. Kurosawa called it “one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen”.

The English title is a straight translation of the French but misses its meaning, as the French title refers to the idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell”. And that’s precisely what the main character does. On the first prints in the United States, subtitler and dubber Noelle Gilmore gave the film the title Wild Oats, but the distributor did not like that and reverted it to The 400 Blows. Before seeing it, some people thought the film covered the topic of corporal punishment.

 

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.

 
 

Kind of Twisted and Memorable Characters

Illustration by John Tenniel

 
 

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are fictional characters in an English nursery rhyme and in Lewis Carroll‘s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Their names may have originally come from an epigram written by poet John Byrom. The nursery rhyme has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19800. The names have since become synonymous in western popular culture slang for any two people who look and act in identical ways, generally in a derogatory context.

Carroll, having introduced two fat little men named Tweedledum and Tweedledee, quotes the nursery rhyme, which the two brothers then go on to enact. They agree to have a battle, but never have one. When they see a monstrous black crow swooping down, they take to their heels. The Tweedle brothers never contradict each other, even when one of them, according to the rhyme, “agrees to have a battle”. Rather, they complement each other’s words. This fact has led Tenniel to assume that they are twins, and Martin Gardner goes so far as to claim that Carroll intended them to be enantiomorphs — three-dimensional mirror images. Evidence for these assumptions cannot be found in any of Lewis Carroll’s writings.

The words “Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee” make their first appearance in print in “one of the most celebrated and most frequently quoted (and sometimes misquoted) epigrams”, satirising the disagreements between George Frideric Händel and Giovanni Bononcini, written by John Byrom (1692–1763):

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be’
Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

Although Byrom is clearly the author of the epigram, the last two lines have also been attributed to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. While the familiar form of the rhyme was not printed until around 1805, when it appeared in Original Ditties for the Nursery, it is possible that Byrom was drawing on an existing rhyme.

 
 

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum features as the opening song on Bob Dylan‘s 2001 album Love and Theft.

 
 

The track includes many references to parades in Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where participants are masked, and “determined to go all the way” of the parade route, in spite of being intoxicated. “It rolls in like a storm, drums galloping over the horizon into ear shot, guitar riffs slicing with terse dexterity while a tale about a pair of vagabonds unfolds,” writes Kot. “It ends in death, and sets the stage for an album populated by rogues, con men, outcasts, gamblers, gunfighters and desperados, many of them with nothing to lose, some of them out of their minds, all of them quintessentially American.

They’re the kind of twisted, instantly memorable characters one meets in John Ford‘s westerns, Jack Kerouac‘s road novels, but, most of all, in the blues and country songs of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. This is a tour of American music—jump blues, slow blues, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley ballads, Country Swing—that evokes the sprawl, fatalism and subversive humor of Dylan’s sacred text, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the pre-rock voicings of Hank Williams, Charley Patton and Johnnie Ray, among others, and the ultradry humor of Groucho Marx.