It was T. S. Eliot’s first published poem. Written when he was only in his early 20s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” rode the crest of the wave of literary Modernism, predated World War I, and presaged an age of indecision and anxiety. The poem is the dramatic interior monologue of the title character, a middle-aged man whose passivity and ambivalence are threaded with artistic allusions, epigrammatic observations, and meditations on the nature of time, the fraudulence of relationships, and the risks of eating a peach. Should Prufrock dare disturb the universe? Should we?
Wes & Erin continue their discussion of “Apocalypse Now.” Wes apologizes for asking Erin to watch something so disturbing, and we further discuss dueling conceptions of the arts, one Platonic and the other Aristotelian. We agree that “Apocalypse Now,” despite being challenging, is an aesthetic masterpiece. What about the narrative? Wes argues that it is very close to not having enough of an arc. What it does most successfully is to convey a kind of surreal, psychedelic mood, one that is meant to capture the insanity of the Vietnam War (and perhaps war in general), and so constitutes its critique. We end by reminiscing about watching “Notting Hill” together. But we fail to talk about an obvious hypothetical ….
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore doesn’t flinch for enemy fire, loves the smell of napalm in the morning, and would literally kill for good surfing and a beachside barbecue. His attempts to recreate home within the theater of war render him the perfect foil to a certain upriver madman, who seems intent on making high culture serve the purposes of primitive horror. And yet Kurtz is ready to argue that it is his methods that are more sound, just because they embrace their ruthlessness more honestly, in contrast to the impotent half-measures of an imperial power that can rationalize its atrocities as collateral damage in the service of a larger humanitarian goal. Which approach should evoke more horror? Wes & Erin analyze Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”
On his journey to the heart of the Congo, Marlow learns of a famed ivory trader named Kurtz— a remarkable man; a “universal genius;” a painter, poet, and musician; a man whose success in his trade has been unparalleled, but whose “unsound methods” have put him at odds with local bureaucrats. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, he hears firsthand the trader’s essential characteristic: a deep and commanding voice which, combined with his methods, has earned him disciples and inspired local tribes to worship him as a god. But what message does Kurtz speak into the terrible silence of the African wilderness? And what deficiency, as Marlow calls it, might be hiding beneath his eloquence? Wes & Erin analyze Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness.
Two women—one a straight-laced waitress, the other a naive housewife—leave town for a quiet weekend getaway. But after a deadly encounter with a rapist, the two become unlikely…and then increasingly confident…outlaws. Though a kindly police officer tries to convince the women to turn themselves in, their refusal to surrender to a future scripted by forces more powerful than themselves drives them to a shocking and iconic ending. Is their fate triumphant or tragic? Wes & Erin analyze Ridley Scott’s 1991 film, Thelma & Louise.
In Chekhov’s stories, beautiful natural surroundings are often a setting for unnatural lives and ugly social conditions. This sets the stage for a reflection on the relationship between physical and spiritual needs. His story “The Student” suggests that material deprivation–whether it is the exhaustion of the apostle Peter or the poverty of the Russian peasant–can undermine the capacity for fidelity and cultivation. In “A Medical Case,” a young heiress is made physically ill by her guilty awareness of oppressive conditions in her family’s factories. Can art, science, and faith truly redeem the individual human spirit without first transforming its social environment?
In this story, there are two sisters: one introverted, frail, and bookish; the other dominant, opinionated, and politically active. In meeting them, an accomplished artist seems to be confronted with a dilemma. Should art subordinate itself to the project of creating a just society? Or should it focus on serving more spiritual needs? These questions make Chekhov’s “The House with the Mezzanine” an interesting meditation on the relationship between politics and the arts, and whether the windows of our proverbial dwellings are best used to illuminate a new path forward, or to articulate the beauty of the world as it is.
Dmitri Gurov does not take love seriously. His wife annoys him, long-term relationships scare him, and his love life consists of brief affairs with women he meets at vacation resorts. In Anna, he finds someone who appears to be the usual victim—traveling alone, tired of her husband, and unlikely to make any effective demands for intimacy, something that seems to be revealed in the diminutive portability of her traveling companion. This time, however, he has met a match too powerful for his predatory ambitions. When is love’s bite bigger than its bark? Wes & Erin discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Little Dog.”
Out of the darkness of the opening frames comes a supplicant— Buonasera the undertaker. He pleads for the justice that the American legal system denied him. As the camera draws back, we see the outline of a face, a hand… Don Corleone holds court at the confluence of loyalty and duress, generosity and calculation, power and fragility. It is not money, but friendship that he asks of Buonasera. Within and without the world of the film, can one consider Don Corleone a great man? Or does his moral code, like his favor, always hide a transaction? Wes & Erin give their analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film, “The Godfather.”
Wes & Erin continue their discussion of Annie Hall; Wes pines to revisit his many unwritten essays, including the one about love and nostalgia in Woody Allen films. We discuss whether Mike Nichols used crack, and the way Google’s algorithms mercilessly hunt Wes down to forcibly dose him with information about the director, all because of a few searches. Wes couldn’t get through Clue, but that may be due to the variability of his many movie moods, and in any case Erin’s Madeline Kahn impression captures a redeeming attitude. We discuss My Favorite Wife (my favorite life?). >> More
Alvy Singer is not, he tells us, a depressive character. It’s just that as a child he always worried that the expanding universe would one day break apart; and as an adult that romantic relationships must always fall apart. With Annie Hall, he thought he had finally found something that would last, in part because she could — like the audiences of Woody Allen — endure and make sense of his fragmented neuroticism: by finding it, on occasion, funny, or endearing, or even informative. While Annie’s patient, quirky fatalism does not prevent her from outgrowing Alvy and leaving him behind, the nostalgic and wistful frame of Allen’s film does have something to say about what helps keep love alive, and people connected.
On the moors of medieval Scotland, three witches hail the nobleman Macbeth as the future king—despite the fact that King Duncan is very much alive, and Macbeth is not in line to the throne. At the suggestion of power, Macbeth’s mind leaps to murder. Later, he fancies he sees a floating dagger leading him to Duncan, and after more bloodshed, believes he is haunted by the ghost of a friend. Is Macbeth merely a victim of divination, goaded by suggestion and his own imagination? To what extent is every ambition an imaginative act—and perhaps a form of prophecy? Wes & Erin discuss the Scottish Play: Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, “Macbeth.”
W. H. Auden hated this poem. He called it the most dishonest he had ever written, and eventually had it excluded from collections of his poetry. And yet it quickly became one of his most popular poems. And after the attacks of September 11, it was published in several national newspapers and widely discussed. This might seem to be a strange result, given that the poem is not a call-to-arms, but an invitation to self-critique. What explains the enduring appeal of Auden’s September 1, 1939? Was he right to repudiate it? Wes & Erin discuss.
As war loomed in Europe, the poet W.H. Auden left Britain for the United States. One of the poems he wrote just before leaving is about the nature of human suffering—or as Auden puts it, the “human position” of suffering: for the most part, it happens invisibly, and the procession of ordinary life leaves it unacknowledged. Yet, the representation and transcendence of suffering are tasks important both to religion and the arts. Is suffering’s “human position” something that can be redeemed? Wes and Erin discuss Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts.
It’s a romance that begins with a divorce. Lucy and Jerry Warriner suspect each other of affairs, so they file suit, battle for custody of their dog, see other people, and generally go wild. Despite the spectre of infidelities— real or imagined— Lucy and Jerry learn a surprising truth: that the only person they enjoy “fooling around with” is their spouse. How are all relationships a kind of performance? And how might finding a mate mean finding not just a co-star, but one’s best audience? Wes and Erin discuss the 1937 classic comedy of remarriage, “The Awful Truth.”
Hedda Gabler is not a fan of specialization: not in the professor she has married, and his esoteric scholarly interests; not in domesticity, and the specialized affections required by marriage and motherhood; not in any lover’s infatuated specialization in her; and perhaps not in the form of specialization arguably required by life itself, with its finite and confining possibilities. Is there any way, short of suicide, to transcend such limits? Wes & Erin discuss Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
Bill Budd is a beautiful man. Not just good looking, but exquisitely good natured, something that costs him no effort and has required no instruction. And yet it is ultimately his beautiful soul and good nature that get Billy killed. Wes & Erin discuss Herman Melville’s final and unfinished work of fiction, and whether a good heart and good intentions are more important than obedience to authority and adherence to civilized norms.
Wes & Erin continue their discussion of “The Great Gatsby”; the ongoing development of our approach to the discussions; Arnold Rothstein and the fixing of the 1919 World Series; Fitzgerald’s neighbors on Long Island, including Ring Lardner and Ed Wynn; the contemporary feel of the novel; the NYC movie-making scene in the early 20th century; Marilynne Robinson; and possibilities for the next episode, where because of a weird time warp we talk as if “A Woman Under the Influence” will follow “The Great Gatsby” when it has always already preceded it.
We all know this story, in part because it captures a period that will always have a special place in the American imagination. Prosperous and boozy, the Jazz Age seemed like one great party, held to celebrate the end of a terrible world war; the liberating promise of newly ubiquitous technologies, including electricity, the telephone, and the automobile; and a certain image of success as carefree, inexhaustibly gratifying, and available to all who try. And yet perhaps this fantasy is rooted in disillusionment, and a denial of inescapable social realities, including the impossibility of genuine social mobility. What do we mean when we talk about the American Dream? Is it realistic? Wes & Erin discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
John Cassavetes is known today as the father of American independent film, a pioneering writer, director, editor, actor who managed to make movies on his own terms, and has since inspired two generations of filmmakers. In his own day, however, he couldn’t catch a break–unappreciated and unseen by most of the public, lambasted by critics. But what contemporaries didn’t understand about Cassavetes’s movies may actually be his message. What can he teach us about authenticity and the ways in which we confront and avoid our own emotions? Wes & Erin discuss Cassavetes’s best-known film, 1974’s “A Woman Under the Influence.”