Death at Our Elbow: Saint-Exupéry’s High Adventure in Literature

“They gave him a plane with an altitude limit of seventeen thousand feet; the highest Cordillera peaks are over twenty-two thousand. And Mermoz took off in search for the gaps. … Forced down at thirteen thousand feet on a plateau with sheer sides, he and his engineer searched for two days for a way down. They were trapped. So they played their last card. They launched their plane towards the void, bouncing cruelly over the uneven ground until they dropped over the cliff edge. As it fell the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz brought its nose up as it headed for a ridge, brushed up the against summit, and with water gushing out of every pipe burst by night frost, crippled after just seven minutes in the air, he saw the Chilean plain below him like a Promised Land.

The next day he went up again.” 

— Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939.

Imagine that you are flying a plane over the Sahara desert, and you crash, somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo.  You and your navigator nearly die of thirst until you are rescued by a Bedouin on a camel.  How would you write about the experience?

In the 1930s, most of North Africa and the Andes, as well as much of the Mediterranean, was without charted air routes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of the “The Little Prince”) and his flying buddies, like Mermoz, cut through the unexplored airspace of these ends of the earth. These solitary men, willing subjects in dubious and slapdash expeditions and sorties, belonged to a particular moment in modern history. They lived in an era that is just out of sight, dipped below the horizon, an era filled with experiences and dramas that must now forever be recorded in books. The travel writing at these times was still often defined by firsts, where places were yet undiscovered, and a writer could come before all others to take a stab at putting the experience to the page (nowadays, travel writers have other challenges). The settings in these stories are drawn with the glow of Nazi bombs below, or at the hands of the elements, through a vulnerability that only a pilot can know.  There is an irony though, that no matter how adventurous the life of a man or woman is, reading about it is almost always a disappointment, something like listening to someone talk about their dreams. The copious quantity of stories to tell does not guarantee that those stories will ever be told, much less told well.

It is impossible to know if Saint-Exupéry was aware of that unspoken curse that adventurers are almost always denied the tools to produce good writing, but often in Wind, Sand and Stars, we get the impression he is making an effort at literature. In North Africa and Spain, his charts were marked not only with vectors and flight ceilings, but with scribbled-in notes that told a stories, like the orange grove to watch out for at the end of the runway in Guadix, Spain, or the elderly man and his wife in Lorca who wait on their farm like a lighthouse for passing pilots in the night, or the small tributary off the Ebro river that spawns thirty species of flower and sometimes wanders across the runway there, tearing a crack in the earth that would destroy a plane’s landing gear.

In the form of a letter of admiration, Saint-Exupéry tells us about another comrade, Guillaumet, who crashed his plane in a high-altitude snow storm, and walked for days in the blizzard, where if he’d just lied down, he never would have risen again from the blanket of snow. He writes, quoting Guillaument in a letter to him, “In the snow… all you want is sleep….But I said to myself: ‘If my wife thinks I’m alive, she’ll believe I’m on my feet. My comrades believe it too….I’m a cowardly bastard if I don’t keep going.'”

Although many of the stories in Saint-Exupéry’s books spring to life from crises, they are not merely some collection of diary entries. The true driving force here is Exupéry’s ability to translate the complexities of the human experience within the absurd drama of war and the novelty of the rugged, unexplored regions of the world, and indeed within the flying machines that are thrust into both.  And we are thus fascinated by his getting on

Exupéry sets off in 1938 to fly from New York to Tierra del Fuego. He crashes in Guatemala, fracturing his skull in several places. (photo from http://www.thelittleprince.com/work/the-autor/)

with the business of living, albeit in extraordinary times.  This was the stuff of travel writing in the 1930s and 1940s, but only the good works have survived.  Today, it is more difficult to be interesting, the substance of many travel books only being the crises themselves, even worse crises that are self-inflicted, or sometimes contrived altogether. Exupéry proves his worth as a writer in many ways, and he’d probably be an excellent storyteller even in boring contexts.  To me, his work rises above other banal travelogues because he makes sure that the stories will be remembered not as sensational shock pieces (in war, perhaps so abundant as to be trite), but more so as stories with eloquence that can penetrate even the most uninterested reader, or now, the modern reader dulled by overexposure to images and information.

Flight to Arras begins with Saint-Exupéry and another pilot being briefed on a reconnaissance flight into Nazi-occupied France. It is a mission that will likely kill them. But he keeps to a rare kind of wisdom and honesty, mostly refraining from melodrama. In the book he writes with a sense of desperation and humor, in a well-chosen mix of tenses, of stress-induced quarrels with colleagues and on the checklists and practical duties that a pilot or captain does, duties done more compulsively in the midst of life-threatening danger.  He can bring the entire war to a private microcosm:

 “… the battle between the Nazi and the Occident was reduced to the scale of my job, of my manipulation of certain switches, levers, taps. This was as it should be. The sexton’s love of his God becomes a love of lighting candles.”

The honesty of his experience at first seems disarming and endearing, but in fact it only exposes a simple and powerful notion: how a man behaves when he has already accepted that he is going to die.

It is perhaps not so ironic that Exupéry probably did meet his end at the hands of a German fighter plane.  In 1998, fishermen near the island of Corsica dragged up Exupéry’s name tag in their nets.  His disappearance, a long-running mystery, happened in 1944, in airspace carpeted by Nazi radar and thick with the buzz of the Luftwaffe.  One can wonder, if in those last moments, he faced the permanence of death with the grace and clarity of his literature.

“It would be easy to write a couple of fraudulent pages out of the contrast between this shining spring day, the ripening fruit, the chicks filling plumply out in the barnyard, the rising wheat—and death at our elbow. I shall not write that couple of pages because I see no reason why the peace of a spring day should constitute a contradiction of the idea of death. Why should the sweetness of life be a matter for irony?”

— Flight to Arras, 1942.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, France, 1933. Source NY Times online Author Distributed by Agence France-Presse

The Oozing Nostalgia of Space in Solaris

img_1322Andrei Tarkovsky used images to express messages and ideas, and there have been few who have done it better.  Rather than rely so much on words, he masterfully constructs hypnotic scenes with emotional impact and real a sense of place (his 1966 Andrei Rublev is considered one of the best representations of pre-Tsarist Russia).  His 1972 Solaris, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, is probably his most accessible film, but some have complained of his characteristic, overly drawn-out takes.

The movie, about a space mission gone wrong, is set mostly on earth and in a space station, and is a sort of condemnation of human scientific advancement, however imaginatively he represents the oozing, colorful world of the planet Solaris.

If the viewer watches this film without regard to the texture of the scenes, the boredom will be excruciating.  To be fair, for most, the limit for watching a car drive through a tunnel or for staring at blades of grass swaying in the river is no more than a few seconds.  But in Tarkovsky’s insistence on portraying the real world, ordinary audience sensibilities and expectations are tested, and for the patient and observant, satisfied. And in Solaris, the contrast of space and earth proves to be extremely effective in creating a nostalgia for home.  When the tangibility of the scenes can be conveyed by simple realia — a flickering flame, falling rain, the warm glow of yellow light, the rigid mechanical feel of (now dated) spaceship panels and buttons — the emotions that are experienced in the film are heightened.  This is how Tarkovsky made a space movie that can be relatable and real, and one that survives any of those dated details of 1970s science fiction. There are too many examples to list, but the following clip is a great instance of drama heightened by way of the depth, texture and realism of the scene. Listen to the ambient sounds and the musical timing of the soundtrack.

Or the long shots in this scene, where a Pieter Brueghel painting stimulates memory of the character’s far-away earth.

Tarkovsky’s ethereal space world in Solaris is both imaginative and familiar, and demonstrates a universe within that rivals the complexity and vastness of the outward universe. But save this one for a rainy day, accompanied by a bottle of wine.

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A Death in Venice

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A film brimming with sentimentality, gorgeous long shots of an iconic city now lost, and a protagonist who has lost his dignity and health, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice also incorporates powerful music from Gustav Mahler, which is wholly moving and at times devastating.  The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel of the same name. Visconti changed the main character, Gustav, is minor ways that seem to benefit the story-telling of the media of film.  There have been mixed reviews of Visconti’s interpretation, but the film is powerful on its own, and will likely inspire a reading of the novel.

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Death in Venice, novel by German writer Thomas Mann (1921).

Filmed in foggy frames that effectively typify a hot, humid and cholera-ridden Venice, shots are sometimes jaw-dropping; scenes of strolling aristocratic women in flowing white beachwear and holding small umbrellas are reminiscent of a Sorolla painting. The juxtaposition of water and stone, the mackerel sky sunsets, the ornate Grand Hôtel des Bains, Venice once had the power of romantic overload, but a kind of Dionysian overload, connected to the passions and excess of man of which some of us welcome at times, in direct opposition to the structured restraint of  Nietzsche’s Apollo.  Fitting into this ideal at first, Gustav doesn’t seem to notice any beauty at all except for one young man, with whom he steadily becomes obsessed, and we watch his slow, inward disintegration, his panic about aging, and his idealizing erotic beauty at the expense of dignity and intellectual contemplation — Dionysis pursuing Gustav to the end.

The subplot of a cholera epidemic, hidden from public view (it seems even then Venice was concerned about the necessary evil of tourists), brilliantly works into the story of Gustav’s demise.

Grab a bottle of wine and contemplate the Platonic ideal of beauty amongst pragmatism.  For further poignant contrast, compare the cruise ship Venice of today to that of Gustav’s time.

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Godard’s Le Mèpris and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (19 81)

A smart critique of Godard’s Contempt (Le Mèpris 1964) and Beineix’s Diva from 1981. Written by Jimmy Weaver for The Seventh Art.

Click here, or the link at bottom.

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http://www.theseventhart.org/essays/The-Seventh-Art-Contempt-Le-Mepris-Diva.pdf

 

Animated Halloween Classics

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Some classic Halloween shorts, produced by some masters of animation and narration.

The Tell-Tale Heart 1953 (Edgar Allen Poe)

Animation: Ted Parmalee

Narration: James Mason

The Castle of Otranto

A mix of stop animation and live action, and a super creepy retelling of Horace Walpole’s classic by a master of weird Jan Švankmajer.

Story: Horace Walpole (1764)

The Metamporphosis of Mr. Samsa 1915 (Franz Kafka)

Another creepy classic which is strangly creepier if you don’t speak Czech. Give it a try without subtitles, if you already know the story.

Animation: Caroline Leaf (1978)

Kafka’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  A great one with Richard E. Grant. It is a Christmas story, but still creepy enough to appeal to the modern pagan in all of us.  Won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1995. In three parts…

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Story: Washington Irving (1820)

Animation: Clyde Geronimi and Jack Kinney (1949)

The Fall of the House of Usher

A more recent adaptaion of the classic Poe.

Story: Edgar Allen Poe

Animation: Andrew Brown, Jim Laing, David Sikma, Micheal Addison

Narration: Colm Golden

A Hotel in the Mountains

o-GRAND-BUDAPEST-HOTEL-POSTER-facebookThere is something about the calculation of Wes Anderson that interests me, hopefully not because of my own OCD-driven obsession with symmetry, but probably because there are genuine moments and themes that emerge, successfully, from all the apparent zaniness and hyperbole.  Often he manages to conjure meaning unexpectedly and, in retrospect, under wholly irrational circumstances.  The actions and events in Grand Budapest Hotel are often impossible, and settings are sometimes unabashedly as fake as View-Master slides, yet there is a genuine satisfaction steeped in a suspension of disbelief that all-out Jerry Lewis slapstick would never allow.  Add to that a quixotic main character, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a hotel concierge who is a silly anachronism himself (always an interesting character to me), and whose dialogue is well-crafted and at its best when it breaks from the rigid posh spewing he so earnestly tries to maintain.   Some of the funniest moments are when he is forced into tantrums or self-mockery, and the most touching moments are when he unknowingly forgets all about his superiority complex.

Admittedly, the traveler-adventurer boy in me laps up the simple nostalgia of Grand Budapest Hotel, set in an old Europe on the brink of fascist incursion and with its consistent allusions to alpine life in vaguely Eastern Bloc settings (check out these silent scenes from 1931). And I also have a soft spot for characters who childishly struggle to make the point that style and quality are important, however silly and pretentious they may come off in the end.

Some of the now standard Wes Anderson annoyances, (for some reason, when I see purposefully placed taxidermy or emulations of Bob Ross paintings, I want to stab a hipster in the beard with fork) are in danger of causing distraction by way of blatant catering to a certain demographic (the cult followers of Wes Anderson, for example). Is it really necessary to set up every scene as a curated window display? Even Stanley Kubrick must have suspected that such obsessive attention to detail could come off as little more than marginally interesting manifestations of compulsion.  And I wish he wouldn´t  be obliged to include the same faces in different clothing (Owen Wilson, Bill FanckMovie2-221x300Murray, Jason Schwartzman, etc.) whose cameos detract from the movie and seem to serve little purpose in and of themselves; that cuteness wore off three movies ago.

 But Anderson has proven that he can be effective in crafting well-adjusted nostalgia with a story driven by a narrator, a much-used formula that is so often botched by others (ehem…Woody Allen). Perhaps this will be considered an example of when a director didn´t ruin it for the rest of us once he realized he could do whatever he wanted.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Trailer.

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And some other movie bits that I´ve been stuck on lately:

A great long shot in Leos Carax´s ¨Mauvais Sang¨in which is now a nostalgic epithet of the bygone age of the radio and the joy of its unpredictability, and an expression of the dense weight of being in love and self-absorbed.

A video essay on Nagisa Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970).  An intriguing mix of the hero tragedy, photography and art, and social change and pressures, in the pervading setting of a modern city.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Video Essay)

And some groovy links for movie-goers

Cinephiliea and Beyond