Monday, 30 November 2009

Umbralogy

The yearly crawl into the shadows of the winter solstice should be a sort of annual homecoming for me, for I am a winter child. I've always believed that those of us thrust into the world in the month ruled by Janus breathe into our very souls the season's privations, its thin air, its pale sunlight and its haunted silences. Perhaps this is what gives Capricorn the arid, passionless stolidity for which it is notorious. Perhaps this is also why Capricorn is said, in esoteric astrology, to be the most worldly and resilient of creatures, for the world at its coldest and most unforgiving was his first cradle, and he was nursed on long nights. Sacrifice is his godmother.

I have never strayed very far from the psychic precincts of my Janus birth; my mind is solstitial year-long, and I've been cursed with New Year's ambivalence all my life. My utopia has always been the immeasurable edge where endings and beginnings meet, where is hosted the mysterious, transcendent flowering of the new--a new made beautiful by the heavy scent of the decay it conquers. The scandal of life and death coexisting in a single moment is seductive, because it should not be--it cannot be. It is miraculous. J.R.R Tolkien called this a "eucatastrophe".

As I child, I loved to read of fallen empires and civilisations, little knowing that I would live to see my own civilisation self-administer the rites of winter. In those woeful stories, I saw a beauty that the victims of the disasters I was living vicariously could not have seen--that the Dark Ages would lighten, that the hieroglyphs would one day give up their secrets, that thousand-year tyrannies would be overthrown, that the darkness is always inside a chrysalis.

It is probably the disposition due to my love of endings and my certainty that they are seeds and not finalities that allows me to remain in profound inner communion with my own apparently vanishing culture. That communion I take so unquestionably for granted that it passes unnoticed throughout the year until it begins to knock slowly and gently at the heart as the shadows lengthen, turn, and stretch towards the Incarnation and the Passion that is its terrifyingly gorgeous after-carol.

In honour of fatally beautiful endings as we enter the season of endings, I present to you two beautifully sad filmic endings. I'm one of those odd, very odd, people who will sit through a movie, no matter how long, just to experience a breath-taking ending. There's something about such a consummation that makes me want to dwell in it, and it is precisely its refusal to be domesticated, its power to overrun me at every viewing, that perpetually renews my devotion to it.

The first is from the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Tomas and Tereza are driving away from a Czechoslovakian inn the morning after a party, finally happy with each other after years of marital discord. An emigrée friend of theirs living in California learns of their fate from a letter sent afterwards.

I saw this movie when it came out--a very strange choice for a nineteen-year-old boy (but I was a very strange nineteen-year-old boy). There weren't more than a dozen people in the theatre with me. When the house lights came up, we were all still in our seats, stunned, as if we'd been drained of blood. That was a superb feeling.

The second clip is from Terrence Malick's The New World, basically a re-telling of the Pocahontas story (for grown-ups). Malick turns her death into a magnificently elegiac summons to re-birth, one driven by Malick's brilliant use of Wagner's dizzying "Vorspiel" from Das Rheingold, creating a cathedral of sound. The truly captivating part, though, is the final silence--which really isn't one.

Enjoy.







12 comments:

Jack Mitchell said...

Beautiful, elegiac piece. I understand you've had some snow in Ottawa; none here in Toronto as yet, so that the city feels tense, impatient for an inevitable change.

Loved these two clips; I'm embarrassed that I've never seen either movie (a fault soon to be rectified). Here's another eucatastrophic and rather impressionistic ending I've always loved, the last scene in Remains of the Day:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KVVf8BHsdQ

Sir Francis said...

Jack:

Kundera hated Unbearable Lightness, as he believed his book to be unfilmable, but I think you'll love it if you're not expecting a literal rendering of the text (which, given the non-linear and multi-layered nature of the book, would have been unfilmable indeed). As for The New World, I think it's Malick's most accessible piece since Badlands--certainly more so than The Thin Red Line (which, all things considered, I actually prefer).

Yes, the ending of Remains of the Day is deeply moving, but, given that the emotional register of the film's social environment is precisely the kind of desiccated English repression I grew up in (my maternal grandfather was even a valet at Rideau Hall for a number of years), it hits rather too close to home for me to experience it as an aesthetic object; it has a "candid camera" quality to it, instead (as depressing as that sounds). It is beautiful, though, all the same.

Peter Burnet said...

Unbearable was a wonderful movie that I resolved to see a second time, but didn't. The problem the first time was that I was too... ahem...distracted by the quite uncommon and outrageous eroticism of the delectable Ms. Binoche, and therefore missed all the profundities. A bit like flipping through Anna Karenina to find the racy bits.

Remains was even better and should be compulsory viewing for anyone who considers themselves a Tory/traditionalist of any stripe. Desiccated is entirely the right word. SF, in terms of the desiccation of the modernists, have you seen Les Invasions Barbares?

Ti-Guy said...

What a nice post. Thank you, Sir Francis.

Sir Francis said...

I was too... ahem...distracted by the quite uncommon and outrageous eroticism of the delectable Ms. Binoche...

She was (and is) distracting indeed. Actually, I was even more distracted by Ms. Olin, who was literally frighteningly erotic, at least from my nineteen-year-old vantage point.

...have you seen Les Invasions Barbares?

That's been on my to-see list for years. I really need to get to that. Thanks for the spur... ;)

Sir Francis said...

Ti:

I'm glad you liked it.

When I was a kid in Pointe-Claire, our parish priest at St. John Fisher Church was a dour South African who always mentioned during his Christmas sermon that the manger was inextricably linked to the cross. It was a morbid idea that appealed to my precocious, superficial affectation of ennui, but, the older I grow, the more clearly I understand what that old spoil-sport was talking about.

Especially now, as our marketing and media machinery ever more manically slather over Christmas their confectioner's shellac of synthetic jollity and meretricious hyper-consumption, I feel the need to retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane and its "hour of shadows" (hence the title). And there am I--not a Judas kissing Christ onto a cross but a "Christian" eating and drinking to satiety whilst the homeless literally freeze to death under Ottawa's overpasses.

That’s not a happy thought, but I would rather live its emotional consequences than undergo the humiliation of feeling the same kind of Yuletide “joy” I felt when I unwrapped my Eagle Eye GIJoe with Kung-Fu grip on December 25th, 1977, a kind of joy too many adults still seem to think worthy of them.

Ti-Guy said...

I envy you. I become spiritually number with each passing day.

I spent the first half of this decade just expecting that eventually (and sooner, rather than later), important, influential people would be held to account for what they've been doing. I can see now that I was entirely mistaken. The near-total absence of fundamental justice...when it was most required...is what will define this sorry decade.

I used to embrace short periods (like a day or two a month) of introspection and melancholy as the philosophical and natural response to that. But as modern life insists that this be a permanent condition, remedied conveniently by a host of psychotropic medications which I don't need, I've just dispensed with the issue entirely by not opening myself to it at all. I haven't read a work of fiction or gone to see a decent film in over four years.

On the positive side, the response "I'm fine" to "how are you" feels less disingenuous now that it did most of my life.

Sir Francis said...

...psychotropic medications which I don't need...

That's where I envy you.

I haven't read a work of fiction or gone to see a decent film in over four years.

That's a mistake, I think. Even the most primitive society is capable of real beauty, usually resting in the gift of its misfits, outcasts and eccentrics--people who would be utterly invisible were they not allowed to toil away at tasks considered trivial by mainstream culture.

I try to be as open as possible to as much art (in the broad sense) as possible because I want to support the insurgency against banality and idiocy its makers are fighting. Sometimes that effort is pure pleasure, as when watching Malick's latest limited-run, money-losing movie; sometimes it's a chore, as when poring over the latest issue of a Canadian "little magazine" full of clumsy Tenth-Grade poetry.

When in extremis, I visit the National Gallery, which is just a few blocks away from me, to remind myself of the beauty of which societies even more brutal than mine were capable, and I leave happy.

Ti-Guy said...

It just doesn't work anymore. I find most art these days most self-centred in its detachment from or critique of what's happening in the so-called real world. And business's ability to co-opt art for its own interests has never been more developed or sophisticated. It happens almost immediately after something novel or interesting or original comes into being.

That really is just me, however. I have come to embrace classic acedia. One day after the Obamessiah (and yes, I'm calling him that from now on) decided to send 30,000 more troops to the ultimate imperial misadventure, I'm glad I did.

Sir Francis said...

I find most art these days most self-centred in its detachment from or critique of what's happening in the so-called real world.

But it's precisely because they believe that the "real" world is only so-called that those artists detach themselves from it. And it's hard not to be self-centred whilst doing such a thing, since it can be (and usually is) an act of self-preservation—one which need not be solipsistic, though, in my view.

One day after the Obamessiah (and yes, I'm calling him that from now on) decided to send 30,000 more troops to the ultimate imperial misadventure...

I never expected anything else from Obama, as I indicated at Red's place the day after his election--to much derision and denunciation of my "cynicism" from some quarters.

Too few people understand that the president of the United States is a machine, not a person, and that it is programmed to do one thing--maintain American prestige and power whilst lending the impression of being actuated by human spontaneity and liberal, internationalist philanthropy. It's an executive Darth Vader.

That said, would it help if I begged you not to call him "Obamessiah"? I would hate to see you do that to yourself... ;)

Kel Morin-Parsons said...

. . . "the arid, passionless stolidity for which [Capricorn] is notorious".

Ah, just the words any wife/former wife wants to hear.

Peter Burnet said...

My wife once lent me a book on the personalities of zodiac signs. I remember the author warning women that, if they ever burst into tears because their Capricorn husband never says he loves them, they can expect a response like: "That simply isn't true. I distinctly remember telling you I loved you the night we became engaged, and again the day little Cuthbert was born."

It's the sign that makes us Virgos seem like wild and crazy guys.