“Eveline,” “On Raglan Road,” and the Paralysis of Moving On
I suppose it’s quite appropriate that my first write-up in over a year deals with one’s inability to do. It’s not for a lack of ideas that I haven’t written in while, no. It’s the inherent vulnerability to writing, even if it is only for myself, because in the act of self-expression, people address (and in most cases challenge) the status quo of how they fit into the world around them. It can be uncomfortable, and maybe even painful.
James Joyce’s short story from Dubliners, “Eveline,” and the song “On Raglan Road” by…well…The Dubliners do not surprisingly deal with similar themes. In my experience, Dublin artists have a distinct voice. One that speaks to the city’s tumultuous history. One that’s trapped somewhere in the fog between joy and lament. These two pieces, I believe, speak to each other, telling two sides of the same story. And in this shared story, happiness is at stake. The tragedy of it all, however, is that the two protagonists’ common happiness is irreconcilable with the hindering weight of change.
The title character of “Eveline” has an opportunity to go off to the far-away city of Buenos Aires with her love, a “very kind, manly, open-hearted” sailor named Frank. It’s a journey that promises change for the better, a new life. However, for the majority of the story, Eveline sits motionless in a chair, thinking of her life up to that particular point. As she glances around the space in her home, “wondering where all the dust came from,” she traces her memories from a somewhat happy childhood to her mother’s death to her father’s decline into an abusive alcoholism. Eveline is clearly aware that going with Frank is the right choice, but the room in which she sits effects a strange, almost constrictive nostalgia upon her. Her memories, though many of them are filled with suffering, threaten to keep her in that chair. But “she stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her.” So, Eveline moves from the chair and heads to the docks. When she arrives, Frank calls out to her, begging her to come with him, but Eveline can’t go. She can’t move on. As Frank continues his plea, Eveline’s “eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”
“On Raglan Road” offers the other perspective of this story, one that could easily be attached to Frank. Whereas Eveline was afraid of what change may bring, the narrator of this song (or Frank) places too much hope in our capacity to change. Despite knowing “that her hair would weave a snare that [he] might one day rue,” Frank chases after the impossible love. In every way imaginable, he tries to hold onto this dark-haired girl, giving her “gifts of the mind,” “secret signs,” and “poems to say.” Yet he knows it’s doomed. And instead of at the docks, “On a quiet street where old ghosts meet, [he] sees her walking now, away from [him] so hurriedly.”
What troubles me about this shared story is that, whether one fears change or hopes for change, he/she will be stuck in a destructive paralysis either way. I find myself paradoxically exhibiting both of these feelings, afraid of change, but desperately yearning for it, too. Do I also remain stuck? Or in being pulled both ways, am I able to move on?
Perhaps the most famous words in “Eveline” are some of her mother’s final ravings before her untimely death. “[Eveline] trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence: ‘Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!’” Insofar as it pertains to Eveline’s fate, James Joyce brilliantly made this phrase mean everything and nothing at the same time. “Derevaun Seraun” can be thought of as a rough translation of an old Irish-Gaelic saying meaning, “The end of pleasure is pain.” However, since the translation is so rough, it could mean nothing at all. I suppose I see this as Joyce asking us a question. Whether we want things to stay the same, or if we romantically seek newness and love, do we or do we not find meaning to those words? Maybe the best way to answer it—so as not to sit permanently, motionless in a chair—is to not answer at all.
It’s been quite some time since my last post, this past December in fact. Things just never really slow down, I guess. Anyways, although it’s been a couple months since I’ve seen The Illusionist, I haven’t quite been able to shake it. As time’s gone on, and life’s gone on, the film’s aged and become tremendously more resonant for me. On an aesthetic level, the images in the film (depicting a 1950s France, England, and Scotland) are just so damn beautiful, they’re almost impossible to forget. But on a thematic level, Tati’s confessional (I’d call it that) has lingered in the back of my consciousness. Perhaps now, despite great efforts against it, I too am forced to come face to face with the same realities Tati did in writing this film: magic isn’t real.
Most cinephiles have in some way or another heard of the French filmmaker, Jacques Tati. He’s most famous for his Monsieur Hulot films, such as Mon Oncle and Trafic, but his career, spanning from the 1950s through the 1970s, went well beyond that. In fact, several critics now consider him one of the best directors of all time. His style is definitely an acquired taste: very quirky, using many comedic techniques from the silent film era, perhaps (as I’ve called him in one my essays) a “benevolent pantomime.” However, it’s unfair not to at least appreciate the choreography of his films, and the beautiful and alive “tableuax vivants” in which he sets it.
Tati died in 1982, so obviously he didn’t direct this film. However, Sylvain Chomet, director of the critically-acclaimed The Triplets of Belleville, desperately wanted to take on this script that Tati wrote all the way back in 1956. The story goes that Tati found this script far too personal, far too painful to make as it not only dealt with the dying art of the physical stage-style performances, but also his failed reconciliation with his first-born child, whom he abandoned earlier in his life.
The basic plot of the film follows a magician struggling to find work. In a small Scottish village, he comes across a young, orphaned girl who is mesmerized by his humble magic tricks. He decides to care for her and take her under his wing, and together, they move to Edinburgh. As the months go by, the magician has an increasingly difficult time of maintaining the illusion of magic for her. At both a physical and financial expense, he works tirelessly to preserve this faith and innocence she still possesses. However, his shows gather smaller and smaller crowds, the money goes away, and the girl eventually grows up. The magician is left with no audience, no one to believe in what he represents.
For me (and perhaps this is getting a little too personal…but oh well, about 1.5 people read this blog), The Illusionist is about the dying breaths of romanticism, the last gasps of a world in which we can still be awed. As I get older, and my dreams are bottlenecked more and more into something that would have been unrecognizable to the child-version of myself, I too am grappling with this notion, wondering if magic is dead.
God, I hope not.
Seeing Black Swan tonight reminded me that Darren Aronofsky makes visceral, violent, and almost hard-to-watch films. But they’re always deeply, deeply affecting. He doesn’t hold back the punches and isn’t afraid to scoop out our most hidden vulnerabilities from the bottom-most part of our being…only to put it painfully and grotesquely on display.
Some have called it a darker version of The Red Shoes, as they both involved the destructiveness inherent to the obsession that ballet requires. But I think Black Swan goes further and can be mapped onto a broader human context. Nina (played by Portman, who, in my opinion, deserves at least an Oscar nomination) is a precise and ambitious ballet dancer. However, because of her utter devotion to her art, she has a stunted youth and innocence, trapped in a virginal childhood. The director (played brilliantly by Victor Cassel) of the ballet for which she hopes to star in, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, rewards her talents and cast her as the Swan Princess, which requires of her to both play the innocent, pure White Swan and the sensual, depraved Black Swan. He notices that while she can play the White Swan perfectly, she’s not quite at the point where she can lose herself as to really be the Black Swan. Nina’s obsession for perfection takes over, and she has to tap into a darker version of herself (represented by her dancing rival, Lily, played by Kunis). A paradoxical self-destructive process towards perfection ensues.
It took this film for me to finally pick up on the common denominator beneath all of Aronofsky’s films: working towards an ideal destroys you. In the case of this film, Nina’s attempt to be the perfect Swan Queen not only corrodes her psyche, but Aronofsky has her (to the point of motif) bleed and seep and ooze out the darkness that develops inside of her…eventually to become a grotesque and tragic perversity. Then, thinking of Aronofsky’s other films…in his first big feature, Pi, the central character finds the perfect number, or, the coefficient that can explain everything. Wielding it, however, ultimately drives him insane. In Requiem for a Dream, in the attempt to remove oneself from the harshness of reality in pursuit of, well, dreams…again, the main characters are only left to decay. With The Fountain, we trace a man’s pursuit of the Fountain of Youth through three different characters across 1000 years. When on the fringe of finally tapping the fountain, he’s suspended and blinded into nothingness. Finally, in Aronofsky’s more recent film, The Wrestler, Randy the wrestler completely subjects himself to the demands of his fleeting fans, taking punches he shouldn’t, bleeding all over the place, and pushing his body to the limit. Much like Nina, he wants to be the perfect performer and transcend his everyday life in which he can’t find a place. But also like Nina, this attempt at an ideal is a vicious process of attrition.
Sorry for the long, pretentiously sonorous write-up, but I found Black Swan to be an extremely powerful film. I felt the urge to write quickly and thoroughly on it. I highly recommend that you check it out.
P.S. - I can’t wait to see what Aronofsky is going to do with The Wolverine.
“Dreams of Hallstatt”
It’s been over a year and half now since Jay and I visited the small town of Hallstatt, Austria. It’s never quite left my mind though, and quite recently, I’ve been pining for a trip back.
In the planning stages of our grand Europe tour, Jay and I knew the big cities we wanted to hit…Paris, London, Prague, etc. We also knew that we wanted to see some of the Europe that often doesn’t make the standard itinerary. The first we knew of Hallstatt was only through a picture we had seen in some random book. At that point, we didn’t know the country in which it was, or even the town’s name. In fact, it took us a few months of diligent Google searching (during our lecture classes) to finally find where the town was and how to get there. In a way, since we had to “discover” Hallstatt, it made the city and our experience there more of our own.
Hallstatt is my favorite place in the world. Though there’s no cavernous gothic church from the 1100s, no home-turned-museum of a famous impressionist painter, or anything of typical European tourist fare…Hallstatt has an impossible, lovely stillness to it. The town is trapped in the middle of 7000-foot-high mountains and edged by a large lake, making it relatively inaccessible. It’s as if Hallstatt has existed for the last 2800 years in a pocket impenetrable by the withering wind of time.
It was a place in which I felt a tremendous sense of peace; a place in which I was unequivocally happy.
Good Old War’s “Coney Island” and thesixtyone.com
It’s hard to come across good, new music nowadays. Thesixtyone is much-needed means of remedy. This relatively unheard of site offers a delightful cache of relatively unheard of music, ranging from classical piano played by a thirteen-year-old virtuoso to electronic gangster rap. It’s interactive in that you can “heart” the songs and increase the likelihood of its being played for other listeners. You can also make playlists, go on music “quests,” read fun facts regarding the band, check tour dates, and even download the song in many instances. The site’s a blast.
It’s at this site, in fact, that I discovered this band, Good Old War, and their song, “Coney Island.” They’re kind of mix between The Everly Brothers and Simon and Gafunkel, grounded in a The Starting Line sound. They’ve become one of my most-listened-to bands in the last few weeks….all thanks to thesixtyone.com.
“A Wagner Matinée” (above picture is that of the Boston Opera House)
I came across this story for the first time last month. I had never read Willa Cather before, but I had heard of the potency with which she could write about frontier life. In this story, she uses images of the frontier to represent the emotional desolation into which we sometimes lead ourselves. However, what I particularly liked about this story was not Cather’s use of those images (though they were profoundly effective), but the narrative she offers of one who was lost in this desolation returning to that which she loved at a more youthful age:
“When the violins drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, my Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat-sleeve. Then it was that I first realized that for her this singing of basses and stinging frenzy of lighter strings broke a silence of thirty years, the inconceivable silence of the plains. With the battle between the two motifs, with the bitter frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat.”
Though some may take this story as an expression of the irrecoverability of our youthful fervor, I interpreted it more brightly. I believe Cather beautifully describes how, though we may not know it, passing on our passions (here realized through the arts) to others often has extremely positive externalities. Despite whatever hells we may have created for ourselves, sharing that which we at one point loved can be a vehicle by which to save another.
“Before This Time” by Ollabelle
My friend Mark put this song on a mix CD (what music hasn’t he shown me first?) for our Lollapallooza trip a few weeks ago. I immediately fell in love with this percussion-driven, beautifully visceral gospel song, couched in lyrics that demand an awakening. Too often I drown myself in music colored with disillusionment, cynicism, or hopelessness. So the pulse and forward momentum of this song was perhaps a perfect musical remedy for me.
After listening to “Before This Time,” I read a little bit about Ollabelle (named after the folk singer, Ola Belle Reed). The woman’s voice you hear in the song is that of Amy Helm’s, the daughter of Levon Helm, the drummer of one of my recently favorite groups, The Band. Also including five other members from a variety of musical backgrounds, Ollabelle draws upon the influences of gospel, folk, bluegrass, and country to create a rich, full, transcendent sound. This particular song, for example, mimics the sound of the gospel group, The Georgia Sea Island Singers.
If you haven’t listened to Ollabelle before, I highly recommend it. They have two albums out right now, a self-titled (on which this song can be found) and Riverside Battle Songs. It seems as if they don’t perform too often, however, they are playing in Durham, NC at The American Beauty Project on October 15th. I think I might make the trip.
“Danse Macabre” and The Devil’s Chord
As to further the already pretentious tone to my blog, I figured…why not post a piece of classical music?
I’d actually never heard this song until last month. My friend David brilliantly envisioned a way in which to fit this song (which was rearranged by his cousin, Philip) within a particular sequence of the film we made for the 48 Hour Festival in Nashville this summer. I’ve come to fall in love with the beautiful, gothic-y dissonance of it; it’s got kind of a pervasive, grotesque carnival sound. I did a little research, (by research, I mean Wikipedia) and this song is one of many works of art pertaining to the Dance of Death (or, Danse Macabre in French) allegory, which began in the late-medieval period. As the plague was still a force to be reckoned with in Europe at this time, death obviously occupied and haunted the minds of every citizen. As I said, The Dance of Death was an allegory (typically including the figures of a pope, emperor, king, child, and laborer) reminding people that death, no matter your station, would some day come upon you. In the act of some personification of Death (as seen in the artwork of this post….an Alfred Rethel drawing, also called Danse Macabre) summoning the newly dead into eternity, people were to be reminded of the fleeting, withering nature of our worldly existence.
This specific piece was written by French composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, in 1872. It originally had a vocal line to it, but Saint-Saëns replaced it two years later with a solo violin. The song begins with a gentle D played twelve times, only to be invaded by the E-flat and A tritone, also known as “The Devil’s Chord.” The harshness of this chord signals Death’s (or the devil’s) arrival to lure the souls away from this world. This tritone was even at one point banned by the Catholic church who found it too dissonant, too fierce, to the point where they thought it would jolt the congregation out of proper worship.
Anyways, I hope you enjoy the song.
In light of the recent news (http://brucespringsteen.net/news/index.html), I felt compelled to post the song after which the box-set is named…”The Promise.”
Easily one of my top-five favorite Springsteen songs, “The Promise” attempts to negotiate a romanticism, born of hope and dreams, with the fierce nature of the immediate world around us. I would argue that it’s representative of Springsteen’s whole body of work. Here’s a quote regarding this idea from my friend Mark’s Tumblr page…which you should definitely check out…frequently (http://allthethingsiwishiwrote.tumblr.com/).
“I’m a romantic. To me, the idea of a romantic is someone who sees the reality, lives the reality every day, but knows about the possibilities too. You can’t lose sight of the dreams.” - Bruce Springsteen
"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway
Click on the above title to access the story.
It had been a while since I read this short story (since high school). In fact, I haven’t read any Hemingway short stories in the past five years. But I recently came across this particular story and was jolted by its power and resonance. Hemingway’s economy of words prose-style works just as well, if not better in the short story format relative to his novels…evoking a series of potent images and feelings.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” for me, is perhaps one of the most poignant, sad…. and true vignettes I’ve ever read.
Note: The painting I’ve attached to this post is one of the most well-recognized American paintings, but it’s also one of my favorites: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. I believe it’s a nice visual match to Hemingway’s story, offering some similar themes.