Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is subtitled a “Story of Wall St.,” yet there is almost nothing in it of the bustle of city life, and entirely nothing in it of the hustle of the trading floor. The story’s walls block out the streets, serving on the one hand as a container for a colorful assortment of human Xerox machines, on the other as a blank projection screen for the reveries of a man who seems to quietly rebel against the very concept of imitation. Can we continue to live and work, if we strongly prefer to do nothing that is derivative? What happens to our aspirations, if we come to fully appreciate the gravity of fate? Could we continue to tell our own stories, if we were liberated from all idiosyncrasies of character? Wes & Erin analyze.
The story begins and ends with two variations on the meaning of the title. On the one hand, to give another turn of the screw is to ratchet up the horror of a good ghost story, in this case by involving children in it. On the other, it’s to treat the cause of that horror as if it were just another of life’s many obstacles, to be overcome both by screwing one’s courage to the sticking place, and by suppressing awareness of what is revoltingly unnatural in it. Whose screw turns out to be looser—the audience that enjoys such stories (and sometimes believes them), or the teller who manufactures them? Wes & Erin analyze Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.”
Gone with the Wind— adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film in American history— has undergone several critical reappraisals in the 82 years since its production and release. Certainly the film romanticizes the Antebellum South and the Confederacy while glossing over the evils of slavery and stereotyping many of its black characters. Yet it may also provide a sharp critique or even satirization of its white characters— the ambivalent, arrogant, and deluded plantation owners who fail to acknowledge that their so-called “fairy-tale kingdoms” are built on the backs of slaves. What can we make of Rhett Butler’s characterization of the Confederate “Cause” as the “Cause of Living in the Past”? And why does even the modern, adaptable Scarlett O’Hara remain in thrall to a childhood dream that, like the “gallantry” of the Old South, was nothing more than a fantasy? Wes & Erin anazlye.
In the transition from stage to screen, “A Streetcar Named Desire” retained its long-running Broadway cast with a single exception: the role of Blanche Dubois, which passed from Jessica Tandy to Vivien Leigh. Like Blanche, Leigh was the odd woman out. A symbol of the glories of the studio system, married to the symbol of English stage acting, her classical training ran contrary to that of her Method-trained co-stars. Thus to the clash of wills between Blanche and Stanley Kowalski was added a clash of acting styles— and the struggle between the death of Old Hollywood and the birth of Brando and the New. Which principle— Blanche’s fantasy or Stanley’s realism— makes for superior art? Can the conflict between magic and truth ever be resolved? And is all realism a form of cruelty? Wes & Erin discuss Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The Wizard of Oz is supposed by the land’s inhabitants to be its most powerful magician. But far from having any actual power, he is not even native to the place in which real magic is in plentiful supply. Oddly, this supernatural world seems to be secretly governed by mundane sleight of hand, and growing up, for Dorothy, involves uncovering the flimsy basis of adult authority. Which magic is more potent: the childish imagination, or the symbolic power of grown-ups to educate it? Wes & Erin analyze the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Wes & Erin continue their analysis of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In Part 1, they covered roughly the first third of the poem. In Part 2, they begin with a discussion of Prufrock’s coffee spoons, and then continue on to: his allusions to John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet; the disjointed portrait of his probable love interest; and the twinning of aging and fantasy in the final stanzas.
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?
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.”
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.