Bonfire Of The Unworthies: The Novel, “Paris in the Present Tense”

The new novel by Mark Helprin, Paris in the Present Tense (2017), has the French city as its setting and Frenchman Jules Lacour, a Jewish cello player and teacher, as its protagonist.  Among the incidents in 74-year-old Jules’s life are his falling in love with Elodie, a far younger woman, his being stiffed by an American corporation after writing some ad music for it, and—most important—his unexpected killing in Paris of two Arab anti-Semites.  They were badly beating a man in a yarmulke.

In large measure the book is about Western culture, in both Paris and the U.S., being assailed by those who could never understand such things as Jules’s unending loyalty to his wife Jacqueline, who died of cancer during his absence:  Jules has chosen to remain a widower.  These are the Americans who in their ignorance “have never heard of anything” (not De Gaulle, not Winslow Homer, etc.), the knavish fools in big business, and of course the French anti-Semites.  They could probably never love the serious music that Jules loves, albeit it is this and the cellist’s love for women that easily transcend sad politics.  In fact, Jules’s love for women—there are two of them and, although he doesn’t know it, they love him—can be sad enough.

It is curious that all these elements coalesce to brilliantly demonstrate something Margaret Thatcher said:  “the facts of life are conservative.”  Thus action must be taken against the young Arabs who are battering a Jew.  Thus, in addition, our Jewish hero believes in God.  The facts of life are conservative, but they can also be liberal, as when Jules faces corporate unfairness.  But it is only Jules himself, and not other people, who are affected by this, and he keeps proving he is concerned about others.  He avoids self-absorption.  Self-absorption is hardly a trait that leads a man to calmly admit, “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t.”  He sees the facts of life requiring this.

Decent Stuff: “3:10 to Yuma”

Cover of "3:10 to Yuma (Special Edition)&...

Cover of 3:10 to Yuma (Special Edition)

A big sky above a stagecoach moving across the plain in a true long shot—now this is a title sequence for a Western—and this particular Western is the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957), not the Aughts remake.  This is the good one, adeptly directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford as the robber-killer who must be escorted to the 3:10 train to judgment-seat Yuma.

The man escorting him is a financially strapped rancher (Van Heflin), doing it for money.  The train can be caught in tiny Contention City, appropriately named because, for sure, contention is coming from reprobate underlings who wish to rescue Ford. . . Arising in the film is an interesting interaction between lawful people (Heflin and many others) and unlawful people.  They’re thrown together enough that Ford necessarily eats dinner at Heflin’s home and gets intimate with the female bartender (Felicia Farr) oblivious to the robber-killer’s awful doings.

Adapting an Elmore Leonard story, Halsted Welles did some bang-up writing, despite the limited realism.  At the end it is VERY limited, and all in all Ford’s character receives a bit more sympathy than he deserves.  But what a decent Western this is!



“Belle de Jour” Means Daytime Beauty

Cover of "Martin Scorsese presents Luis B...

Cover via Amazon

Luis Bunuel‘s Belle de Jour (1967) is so bad it’s riveting.

A French woman (Catherine Deneuve) happily married but sexually unresponsive to her husband gradually becomes, of all things, a daytime prostitute at a brothel.  Repelling kinkiness is shown, but there is also Bunuel’s usual surrealism which, at the end, causes the film to scurry away from, well, real life.  From human catastrophe.

In Belle, at bottom, Senor B. likes neither people nor traditional Western morality (it’s so bourgeois).  Practically the only good thing about the film is Catherine Deneuve’s marvelous beauty.  I’m glad her character is a daytime beauty, a belle de jour, since she’s so easy to see that way.

(In French with English subtitles)


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