In the 1977 Luis Bunuel picture, That Obscure Object of Desire, fifty-something Mathieu (Fernando Rey) is crazy about, and forever frustrated by, a much younger woman, Conchita (alternately played by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina).
It has been declared, and might be widely believed, that this film concerns the uselessness of logic in our lives. I rather doubt it, for if that is the meaning, Object is a poor film for demonstrating such a thing. Consider the scene where Mathieu sees a woman holding in a baby’s blanket not an infant but a piglet! To my mind, what Bunuel is giving us is faulty absurdism and no-account surrealism.
The film’s action is punctuated by deadly terrorist acts, and here there could be a grave “message” about how people inescapably want sex and get death, especially in our absurd and agitated times. It is less digestible, though, that women in That Obscure Object of Desire are flat-out weird—Conchita is, and so is her mother—even psychotically so.
Refusing to sleep with Mathieu, Conchita nevertheless strips for him, the result being that both Bouquet and Molina expose their beautiful breasts. They do so rather excessively, but then Bunuel is a creep in this film.
(In French with English subtitles)
Joseph Dorman‘s Arguing the World (1998) is a dandy documentary about those who constitute what we universally call the New York Intellectuals, who reached adulthood during the early years of the 20th century. The men featured are Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol.
Because their families were poor, these four gents could and did receive a free education at New York’s City College, albeit they primarily educated themselves there since so many of the profs were mediocre. A politically radical quartet they became: they were Jews at a time when, the film explains, young Jews were frequently attracted to socialism. But, except for Howe, they didn’t stay radical. Their fondness for socialism could not translate into the pro-Communism and even pro-Stalinism that other lefty intellectuals were espousing. Dorman traces the responses and attitudes of the men to such successive events as the McCarthy hearings, the rise of the New Left, and the Vietnam War protests.
The Partisan Review crowd—this is what they were; they wrote articles for that particular liberal publication. Diana Trilling appears in the film and says the members of this crowd didn’t know how to behave—“they knew how to think, not how to behave”—but to their credit Bell, et al. found they could not wholly disdain the thinking of the “vulgar” Joe McCarthy.
For his part, Irving Howe calls McCarthy a thug. A socialist to the end, Howe was also an excellent literary critic, a fact which doesn’t interest Dorman. What does interest him is that in the Fifties Howe criticized the other Intellectuals for making peace with the status quo, for “conformity,” for renouncing social radicalism. Irving Kristol wants to know whether Howe was accusing him of “conforming” to the commonly held view that America is a good country, for, after all, Kristol had always had that opinion.
A few years ago I discovered that Kristol commented in a mid-1970s essay of his on how liberalism inevitably makes “a mess of things” before the people vote it out. Clearly the former radical became anti-Left, and, in point of fact, a conservative. All four of the men, however, had to encounter the anti-anti-Communism of student rebels of the 1960s, since all four were professors. Nathan Glazer thought the students were “wrecking the university,” and Bell saw Tom Hayden as “the Richard Nixon of the Left.” They deplored the New Left’s intellectual superficiality, although in fairness they were offended by the thinking of inexperienced young people, folks no blinder, perhaps, than the Intellectuals themselves when they were young. Even so, something necessary goes on here. Dorman interviews the radical Hayden and Todd Gitlin, now middle-aged, and as James Bowman has written, “[Both] those gentlemen together with others of their persuasion are brought before the camera to display for us those endearing qualities which have done so much to create the present state of intellectual totalitarianism that prevails in American academic and intellectual life” (JamesBowman.net). Yep, that’s today’s academic life for you. Not nearly as worthy as this documentary.
The letters in the subdued religious film, The Letters (2015), by William Rieard, are those of Mother Teresa, and they incite a discussion between Teresa’s spiritual director and a priest from the Vatican. Coinciding with this is a dramatization of the nun’s work with the impoverished of Calcutta and her efforts to establish a new Catholic congregation, the Missionaries of Charity.
Mother Teresa eventually believed that God was not “in” her, that He had in fact abandoned her. Judging from what’s in this film—how accurate is it?—it is impossible to maintain that she did not know, and experience, God. And yet . . . what is the truth? Celeste van Exem, the spiritual director (played by Max von Sydow), suggests that the distress Teresa felt was an essential element in her ministry, but is this really true? . . . In any case, it must be admitted that van Exem’s words are an example of the movie’s unexceptional dialogue. It is pleasant, though, to watch the acting of von Sydow and Juliet Stevenson (Teresa)—among others, for sure—but aesthetically unworthy that, as one Serena Donadoni put it, “What’s missing is [Teresa’s] own anguished voice from the letters.”