Bin Laden’s Sunset, Elegant Hedgehogs


Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard"

Film Friday

Before I turn to today’s subject, I want to commend Maurine Dowd, who once again has brilliantly used a movie to illuminate a current event.  Dowd could be a regular contributor to Better Living through Beowulf given her regular invocation of films and novels.   Last week I ran with her comparison of Obama to Godfather Michael Corleone in the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  In her most recent column, she compares Bin Laden to  Norma Desmond, the over-the-hill star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. As Dowd describes it, Bin Laden’s glory (9-11) days are behind him and he has been waiting for his Cecil B. DeMille close-up ever since.  One can imagine him arguing that he never became small–the times did.  Here’s Dowd:

[T]he similarities were striking. The faded murderous glamour queen and faded murderous terror king relied on drivers to negotiate their relations with the world. Married multiple times, they were both ensconced with lovers half their age in high-priced villas that shut out the world, vainly looking at old videos of themselves and primping, hoping for spectacular comebacks that would wow their fans.

Instead, Justice pounded up the stairs.

Maybe it’s because I watched the videos of Osama bin Laden released by the Obama administration while staying at the Sunset Tower Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. But seeing him holed up in his room, looking pathetic with white beard and blankie, gazing at himself on screen in his heyday, Osama was oh so Norma Desmond (with a dash of Woody Allen in “Bananas”).“I am big,” he might have sneered. “It’s the thumb drives that got small.”

Now back to our regular programming.

In my book discussion group last night, we discussed French author Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Renee, one of the novel’s two protagonists, is a French concierge who outwardly appears to fit the stereotype but who secretly is a cultured autodidact who loves literature, painting, music and film. A prickly hedgehog exterior hides an elegant interior.  For instance, she loves the films of Yosujiro Ozu, a Japanese director that not many Americans know, and in many ways the novel has borrowed from Ozu’s meditative, still-life style.

She does only love high culture, however.  She will wax enthusiastic about an action thriller like Hunt for Red October, the last film she saw with her husband before he died:

For anyone who wants to understand the art of storytelling, this film should suffice; one wonders why universities persist in teaching narrative principles on the basis of Propp, Greimas or other such punishing curricula, instead of investing in a projection room.  Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers.

I’ll talk more about Elegance of the Hedgehog next week as it pertains to literature.  For the moment, however, I’ll just post a passage that describes the eclectic artistic tastes of many contemporary scholars.  It describes my own eclectic film tastes as well:

[T]his morning on France Inter Radio I learned that this contamination of my aspiration to high culture by my penchant for lower forms of culture does not necessarily represent the indelible mark of my lowly origins or of my solitary striving for enlightenment but is, rather, a contemporary characteristic of the dominant intellectual class.  How did I come to know this?  From the mouth of a sociologist, and I would have loved to have known if he himself would have known that a concierge in Scholl clogs had just made him into a holy icon.  As part of a study on the evolution of the cultural practices of intellectuals who had once been immersed in highbrow culture from dawn to dusk but who were now mainstays of syncretism in whom the borders between high and low culture were irreversibly blurred, my sociologist described a classics professor who, once upon a time, would have listened to Bach, read Mauriac, and watched art-house films, but nowadays listened to Handel and MC Solaar, read Flaubert and John Le Carre, went to see Visconti and the latest Die Hard, and ate hamburgers at lunch and asahimi in the evening.

That’s a pretty good picture of postmodernism.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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