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Robert J. Crawford RSS Feed (Balmette Talloires, France)

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Glittering Prizes, The (1976) DVD
Glittering Prizes, The (1976) DVD
DVD ~ Various
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4.0 out of 5 stars 24 years in the lives of Britain's super-elite, February 25, 2015
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This is a wonderful, long look at the lives of a talented and ambitious group, from their time at university to mid-life (i.e. 1950s to early 70s). Though dated, the acting and writing are so absolutely superb that I believe it is worthy of the title of classic.

The principal character is Tom Conti in his prime, one of the finest if least known British actors today. He plays a secular Jew with a chip on his shoulder, who goes to Cam engaged to a childhood sweetheart (also Jewish). Always ready with a repartee at once sharp yet funny, he easily enters a group of actors who become friends for life, or so they think. He falls for a strikingly beautiful fellow student, who is critical of the theatre crowd but supportive of his artistic ambitions, and experiences his first personal tragedy.

Each episode then focuses on different members of the group, jumping ahead 5 years or so, in vivid snapshots that never feel rushed but actually add up to very complete portraits. They drift apart, some make it very big, while others find their lives stalled by alcoholism, failed relationships, and career complications, including selling out. All the time, the nucleus of their experience is having been undergraduates at Cambridge, which serves as a crucial reference point in their lives and a source of career network. It is beautiful, often sad, and always interesting. You really feel like you get to know them.

It is not perfect. Some of the scenes are too long - one is a bizarre interview with a "visionary" architect and another is a 1960s student protest bit - and some of the transformation of characters makes little sense.

Warmly recommended. If you wonder what it is like to enter the Oxbridge (or any) elite, this is the film for you.

Royal Flash
Royal Flash
DVD ~ Malcolm McDowell
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3.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre swashbuckler, February 19, 2015
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This review is from: Royal Flash (DVD)
This is a pretty silly 70s film that is improbable, over-acted, full of OK action, and pretending to get into historical details.

The main character is Flashman, who is the bully from Tom Brown's School Days. In his bumbling military career, he is lucky to be the sole survivor in a fort in Afghanistan, and is extolled as a hero when in fact he is an incompetent coward. From there, he enters into a series of misadventures with courtiers, princes, and some historical figures, such as Bismark. It is pretty fun, with sword fights, sex, and intrigue, but I never lost the feeling that it was all made up - I never got with it, suspending my disbelief even for an instant. On the positive side, McDowell, Bates, and Reed give their usual fine performances, as do Ekland and Bolkan, both in their prime. Unfortunately, the characters might be funny, but they are neither interesting nor endearing. I doubt we will watch this again.

Recommended tepidly. Rent, don't buy.

The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France - 1885 to World War I
The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France - 1885 to World War I
by Roger Shattuck
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars The French artists who finally broke the mould, February 13, 2015
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For anyone who is fascinated by the multifaceted artistic flowering in France that began in the late 19C, this book is a must read. It is about the emergence of an avant-garde, which began soon after the Impressionists and culminated later in Modernism and Surrealism. Shattuck attempts to explain this through 4 artists (Satie, Rousseau, Apollinaire, and Jarry).

I am not sure that I got it completely, but this is what I came away from after a long and enjoyful read. What the 4 artists had in common was that they created a movement that was entirely self-referential rather than embedding itself in known (or expected) forms of discipline. Each of their visions was subjective, based on their inner worlds more than observation of the outside world. Anyone who looked at, listened to, or read their work would encounter their personal vision. Each artist expressed emotion, knowledge and projection of self with its own particular beauty. What they expressed was knowable in a single instance: they did not depend on conventional processes, but each part was a whole unto itself, to the point that there wasn't a beginning and end, just the present perception of the work.

This is best exemplified, I think, in Satie's later music. In stark contrast to traditional forms, which followed an introduction, buildup, and climax, Satie strove to evoke a mood at each instant. You don't have to listen to the whole piece as it unfolds, but merge with the emotion he is expressing. Apollinaire did similar things with his poetry, Jarry with his alter-ego persona in prose, and Rousseau with his naive primitivism. If I understand it, this is similar to, but a step beyond, Impressionism, in that it is not about perception of the outside world, but a direct link to the artist's subconscious mind. The 4 artists were coeval with the Symbolists, the Cubists who emerged slightly later, and their work came to an abrupt end with WWI, during which other artists continued to work out their ideas with dadaism and other radical refinements of their original visions. From another angle, Freud was analyzing all this in a clinical perspective.

The book is uneven. There are many biographical details that I found interesting, but was not sure of their relevance to the principal arguments, which were never succinctly stated. Much of this remains unclear to me, which is perhaps not a fault of the book, but I do feel I have to seek clearer ideas of how all these movements are inter-related. It didn't help that the only artist of the 4 whose work I truly love was Satie's, and as I discovered, I like his earlier work, which is not even part of the avant-garde that Shattuck purports to explain. I never liked Rousseau's work, Apollinaire seems obscurantist to me, and Jarry I had never heard of.

Recommended. This book is not for everyone, but even non-academics who have a deep interest in the period will find it very worthwhile.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyable entry into the French literary scene at its apogee, January 30, 2015
This review is from: Violette (DVD)
This is a very interesting, true story about how a talented woman emerges as an artist. Violette is the bastard daughter of a troubled woman, on her own, impoverished, and lonely. Still she has great talent, not only for airing issues that no one has written about - bi-sexuality, lesbian love, the need for intimacy - but as a pioneer of confessional autobiography. With a great stroke of luck, she finds in mentor in Simone de Beauvoir, one of the literary stars of the post-WWII era. De Beauvoir immediately recognizes her gifts and sets about to nurture her, offering suggestions, criticism, and finally money to keep Violette going. Their relationship is extremely subtle and portrayed with a beautiful ambiguity, even mystery. I found it thoroughly engrossing and refreshingly un-Hollywood in its pacing and themes.

Beyond this seminal relationship, Violette becomes friends with some of the most fascinating literary talents of the period, including Genet and Camus. This too is handled with humor and by implication, leaving a great deal for the viewer to fill in, particularly by their knowledge of the writers and that period of French history - it stimulates a desire to learn more. De Beauvoir's sexuality is also left out, which would never have been the case in a Hollywood production.

THis is not to say that her path was easy. She remains isolated and often in despair that the way of her art is too difficult. At one point, she has a nervous breakdown and is given electroshock therapy. But de Beauvoir is always there, offering the right word at the right time, pushing her ever so slightly into some promising direction, displaying unshakeable faith in Violette's talent, and expanding her horizons when necessary, such as her suggestion to travel.

If you like modern EUropean film, this is one of the best I have seen in years. Warmly recommended.

The Weirdo Years 1981-'91
The Weirdo Years 1981-'91
by Robert R Crumb
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Crumb's genius enters a new stage, December 19, 2014
I agree with Hughe's assessment that Crumb is like a modern-day Hieronymous Bosch. He is like a focal lens for all the alienation, angst, vainglory, and hypocrisy of the age, but it is all played out in the pursuit of pleasure and status, leavened by the most hilarious cynicism and existentialism. He was the original underground comix auteur, and has evolved into one of the most interesting voices of the 1960s generation. I know his vision permeated mine as I was coming of age.

This volume contains his later work, which is often more realistic and documentary than his usual surrealistic sexcapades with human/animal hybrids or nutcase con men like Mr. Natural, though there are a few of those. I loved his autobiographical material, such as the "I'm Grateful, I'm Grateful" piece on why he loves his life, which is one of his best ever, but his stuff on blues musicians and perverts is also first rate. If anything, his graphics style has gotten even better as has the maturity of his writing. This was the time when the Zap energy was clearly on the wane, really already done. Of course, the themes remain similar: sex, lust, the emptiness of popular culture and the mainstream, and mystery of relationships. I loved every single panel. There are also many straight portraits that Crumb drew, which are wonderful.

In my opinion, this is a must have for any counter-cultural aficionado or postmodernism buff. You can read these over and over and see more and laugh each time. He proves to be as much a shaper of one's imagination as Van Gogh or Picasso.

Augustus: First Emperor of Rome
Augustus: First Emperor of Rome
by Adrian Goldsworthy
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Essential to understanding much of Western civilization, December 17, 2014
Goldsworthy is, I think, the best living writer on Rome. His books, which are at once a pleasure to read as well as at the cutting edge of current scholarship, never disappoint. In this book, he takes on the man who completed what Julius Caesar, his great uncle and adoptive father, might have had in mind (or might not have). When compared to Julius, Augustus is far less interesting in appearance: he is cautious rather than bold, not a military man of genius but a delegator, somehow just bland. Nonetheless, Augustus was a builder of institutions and a molder of society in the very deepest sense, bringing stability after nearly a century of upheaval and the author of images of power that would survive as the principal model of government until the 19 C CE. And, apparently, he died in his bed.

Augustus was born Octavian into an aristocratic family, whose mother was Julius Caesar's niece. Aside from that, there was nothing to particularly distinguish him outside of his own ambition. He was sickly and the times were in terrible upheaval: the institutions of the Republic were badly blocked, with factions able to easily veto the actions of their opponents through multiple channels; with depressing regularity, civil war broke out, decimating the ruling classes of talent. The titan of the era, of course, was Julius Caesar, who beat Pompey, Cato, and many other enemies to achieve dictatorial power. Once assassinated, Cicero and a new generation emerged to reclaim power, including Marc Antony and, at the age of 19, Octavian, who surprised everyone by being named Julius' heir and adopted son in his will (and re-named Octavius). After a long struggle, Octavius eliminated all his rivals and reigned unopposed for 40 years. While this is not by any means a boring life, Augustus attracts less scholarly and popular attention than many other figures. This, Goldsworthy proves, is a mistake.

First, Augustus effects an institutional transformation. Goldsworthy argues convincingly that this was not a visionary undertaking, but one of improvisation and expedience. Giving up completely on the power-sharing of the Republic, which had been failing in gridlock since the Gracchi brothers 100 years before, Augustus essentially monopolized power but maintained the appearance of the traditional institutions. He was "first citizen", elected often to the consulship, but preferred to play the powerbroker in the background with others as figureheads under his control.

He became, in effect, a military dictator - with control of the armed forces, which answered directly to him instead of to the Senate. In this way, he could impose order after 50 years of regular, increasingly savage, civil wars, beginning with Sulla. At his death, he had sewn the seeds of a monarchy, reversing nearly 500 years of experimentation with a republican form of government that was relatively democratic at times. He may even have believed that these changes had provided for orderly transfers of power, though as we know, this was only partially successful. Nonetheless, it provided the essential model for government all the way to the Enlightenment.

Second, he fundamentally altered the political balance in Rome. This was accomplished for the most part by proscription of everyone who opposed Augustus, starting with murder and expropriation in cahoots with Marc Antony, and later in softer versions of exile. The net effect was to wipe out almost entirely the old senatorial aristocracy, leaving more compliant descendants or new men in their place.

Third, employing his trusted and brilliant side kick, Agrippa, he mopped up a vast array of military conflicts and internal rebellions. Augustus knew he was not a great general or warrior, so he had the sense to rely on an impeccably loyal subordinate, who did not have his kind of ambition. In the end, the Empire achieved stability over a vast area, almost its maximum extent; in accordance with Augustus' policy, it should remain stable and consolidate itself rather than expand.

Fourth, he began a process of professionalization of the administration, installing bureaucrats for longer periods of time than had been possible in the Republic, which sometimes changed administrators once per year, when the new consuls took office. Aristocrats still occupied most positions, but there was a new rigor to who was allowed to serve. Heretofore, Rome had governed more as a city state, dominating the periphery with blatant corruption and nepotism. I do not mean to exaggerate, but he initiated a process that took centuries to refine and work out.

As the self-styled "father" of the country, Augustus sought to impose a kind of moral order on Rome. Aided by Maecenas, another of his loyal aides, Augustus mastered the use of propaganda for this purpose. Nonetheless, his daughter and adoptive children essentially made a mockery of, in what can only be called a personal disaster of epic proportion. It was the start of a kind of conservatism that truncated the diversity of morals and literature that characterized the Republic. While there were many official masterpieces during his reign, some believe that culture and society lost something.

Goldsworthy is conservative in the interpretations that he offers, always sticking to what is irrefutably provable and refusing to speculate on the gossip that advanced such rumors as the murderous nature of his wife, Livia, or the rivalries of his heirs. As such, we do not get any confirmation of the colorful personalities and motivations in popular fiction (e.g., I Claudius) or even in certain contemporary sources such as Suetonius. He also refuses in many instances to render judgments on what it all meant. In my view, at its worst this orientation airs on the side of the driest scholarship, making the read less fun and interesting.

I recommend this as an essential source for anyone interested in Rome, in the history of government and imperial institutions, in politics as an art form. It is as first rate as anything that Goldsworthy undertakes. The research and writing of this took at least 2 years, and it shows.

Dragonwyck DVD (1946) Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price
Dragonwyck DVD (1946) Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price
DVD ~ Gene Tierney, Vincent Price Walter Huston
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Gothic Romance by formula, December 13, 2014
This is a slow film whose plot is full of holes, the acting is mediocre except for occasional sparks, and there are unexplained, abrupt transitions that lack cogency or explanation.

You get a peasant girl, taken into a big aristocratic household, whose mysterious owner falls for her after the mysterious death of his wife. After a brief period of hope, all seems doomed to failure and a gloomy emprisoned life stretches ahead. But wait! A handsome doctor, who is also politically correct (allied as he is to the local peasant rebels), comes to save her at the last moment.

I found this stilted and utterly lacking in vitality. Not recommended.

Rachel, Rachel
Rachel, Rachel
DVD ~ Joanne Woodward
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4.0 out of 5 stars Stymied in small-town New England, late 1960s, November 27, 2014
This review is from: Rachel, Rachel (DVD)
This is a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of a lonely woman entering middle age. Loveless and inexperienced, she suffers quietly, living with a vivid imagination and keen awareness of her predicament. To her great discomfort, she loses one of her only friends to fundamental incompatibility and can find no solace. Even as she desperately reaches out to a high school acquaintance, her alienation is only too plain once the gap between their intentions and needs is exposed. It is sad and rarely funny, but always an intelligent drama.

Warmly recommended.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
DVD ~ Martin Balsam
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great drama for the middle-aged, November 22, 2014
This review is from: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (DVD)
This is an exceptional drama about a woman struggling to come to terms with the course of her life. It crackles with an intelligent and artistic energy, leavened by her sarcasm and deep sense of grief. I was utterly absorbed by it, to the point that I thought about the course of my own life and choices.

Woodward is a woman who has faced a series of disappointments, in her children, her husband, and family. With the exception of her sensitive husband, none of them appreciate her struggle with a stalled marriage and dysfunctional children. Though banal, it has an air of tragedy to it, with Woodward makes pressingly real with some of her finest acting.

Recommended warmly. This is an excellent indie film.

DVD ~ Robert Downey Jr.
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4.0 out of 5 stars nostalgic, but also evocative and moving, November 11, 2014
This review is from: 1969 (DVD)
I grew up in the 60s and think it was the last time America was truly interesting. So I love fictional takes on it. This is a very good film, with some truly fine acting. Sutherland is a sensitive boy from small-town Maryland, which the Vietnam conflict is finally beginning to penetrate. His sidekick (Downey), a lifelong neighbor from a single-parent household, is falling victim to all the worst excesses of the time - protesting, turning on, dropping out. Meanwhile, a serious young lady (a radiant Ryder in her prime) is falling for Sutherland as he tries to help her brother. Their parents are all struggling with aging and the times. Add to this Sutherland's straighter brother, who disappears in Vietnam, and you have a powerful mix.

I can't be too objective because this is so close to my own experience. With the exception of a kind of cheesy ending, I found the film moving and fairly realistic, with sprinklings of the occasional cliche. It's not Coming Home, but it is good. Recommended.

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