The smell crosses the line

Hi, folks,

Here are some of the things I read, listened, or watched this past week. For more about this project & my previous posts on it, go here: Week 1


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Week 2 – King

Short story: “Living on the Box”, by Penelope Gilliatt (New Yorker, 1966. Also: What’s It Like Out?, 1990)

The story centres on a nature poet and his wife, living in isolation on the Northumbrian moors. We follow their daily routine in a fragmented way, and the story starts with a biblical tone: “The poet, feeling stale, thought the world stale and began to abuse it. Since he lived in isolation, being a nature poet and finding contact with people a digression from his work, the only object of abuse that was readily available to him was his wife. During the twelve years of their life together, he had tutored her carefully in monkishness. As part of the training he spoke to her rarely. To rail at her meant opening a conversation, and this involved preposterous changes in his day.”

I love the strange, sideways approach Gilliatt takes to explore the chaos and neglect that lie behind the poet’s pompous sense of himself: he tries to imbue his poetry with the order and moral quality that he is never able never provide to his wife – who, in turn, is the only person who can see through his pomposity (and his dependence on her). I also like how the author combines seemingly unrelated images so as to convey a sense of dread and an undercurrent of abuse, but with an acid, dark sense of humour: “She started to weep, with her long brown hair falling over her face. ‘Don’t. You look like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel with a cold’; he said thinly.

When the BBC requests a long TV interview with the poet, and he later watches it on a hotel room together with his wife and child, he is able to have a glimpse of himself as seen from the outside, while his wife finally decides to leave him: “At the door she suddenly grinned at him, and when she had gone the grin seemed to him still to be hanging in the air, like the Cheshire cat’s.”

I like the randomness of the scenes in the story, as well as its underlying cruelty: “He was the only person she had ever known whose humour seemed entirely immobile. It expressed no wish, no venom, no energy in any direction. But to complain that its effect was therefore paralyzingly glum would no more have occurred to her as fair than to complain that it made her feel fat.”

We don’t know why she endured him, we don’t know why she leaves him at the moment she does. The story is made of a collage of slightly absurd scenes that go nowhere, and nothing makes much sense: the only thing clear to us is the chaos underlying the poet’s illusion of order.

This story was adapted for television in 1968, directed by Mamoun Hassan (IMDb)

My rating: ★★★★★

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Essay: “A rainha das faculdades” (‘Queen of faculties’), by Charles Baudelaire, tr. Lívia Cristina Gomes (La Reine des Facultés, in Œuvres complètes. v. 2. Curiosités esthétiques, 1868, pp. 263-269. Also: Caderno de Leituras n. 84)

As part of the collection “Salon of 1859”, this essay was the third of the ten letters written by Charles Baudelaire to the director of the Revue Française, Jean Morel. Here, the poet attempts to explore the idea that imagination is the main driving force of art, “the queen of truth,” ” related to infinity.”

He opposes the idea that art is (or should be) a copy of nature. He counters this idea by asking whether its proponents are really sure of the existence of outer nature, and whether they are really sure of knowing all nature, all that is contained within it. “I find it pointless and tedious merely to represent what it is, because nothing that is really satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fantasy to some positive commonplace.” (my translation)

Baudelaire argues that it is a sign of lack of imagination to say that the true artist must only paint what he sees and feels, otherwise he would be lying: differently, for Baudelaire, art is no less true and real for being the product of imagination. “A mysterious faculty is this queen of faculties! She touches all the others; she excites them, sends them into combat. She sometimes even resembles the others, to the point of being confused with them – yet, she is always herself, and the men on whom she does not act are easily recognized for I know not which curse that withers their work as the Gospel’s fig tree”. (my translation)

Imagination, for him, comprises the faculties of analysis, synthesis, and sensibility, but goes beyond them. “It is the imagination that taught men the moral meaning of colour, contour, sound, and perfume. She created, at the beginning of the world, analogy and metaphor. She has broken down all creation and, with the materials picked up and arranged according to rules whose origin is to be found deep within the soul, she creates the world anew, and produces the sensation of the absolutely new”.

And, because imagination created the world, she rules over it: “Imagination is the queen of truth, and the possible is one of the provinces of truth. She is positively related to infinity. Without her, it is as if all other faculties, whether solid or sharp, did not exist (…)”.

Baudelaire argues further, that morality and virtue are nothing without imagination: “What is virtue without imagination? The same as virtue without godliness, virtue without heaven; something difficult, cruel, sterilizing (…) The strongest thing about battles with the ideal is a beautiful imagination that has a huge arsenal of observations. Imagination, thanks to its remedial nature, contains a critical spirit.”.

My rating: ★★★★☆

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Essay: “O governo da imaginação” (‘Rule of imagination’), by Charles Baudelaire, tr. Lívia Cristina Gomes (Le gouvernement de l’imagination, in Œuvres complètes. v. 2. Curiosités esthétiques, 1868, pp. 269-276. Also: Caderno de Leituras n. 94)

Also part of the collection “Salon of 1859”, this essay was the fourth of the ten letters written by Charles Baudelaire to the director of the Revue Française, Jean Morel. Here, the poet attempts to further explore the idea of imagination, and chooses painting as a point of departure for his investigation on a method for art.

According to Baudelaire, since the world was created by imagination, it is also governed by it. Mentioning a conversation he had had with an unnamed painter, the poet argues that “nature is just a dictionary”: the place from which we take all the elements that make up a sentence, a narrative, or a work of art. “Those who lack imagination just copy the dictionary. This results in a great vice, the vice of banality.”

All realms of art are just humble servants of an unique and superior faculty: the inspiration, the conception of a work of art, which is like a dream that can be captured either in a detailed, or in an impressionistic way. “When a very detailed execution is required, then the language of the dream must be clearly translated; when the execution is very quick, it’s because nothing must be lost of the extraordinary impression that accompanies the conception”.

Just as a dream must be placed in its own atmosphere, the conception, made into composition, must move in its own milieu: “A good painting, faithful and equal to the dream that has engendered it, must be created as a world in itself. Such as creation, as we see it, is the result of several creations of which the preceding ones are always supplemented by the following ones – so a harmoniously created painting consists of a series of overlapping paintings, in which each new layer gives more reality to the dream, and makes it climb a step toward perfection”.

Rather than limiting the artist, for Baudelaire, such a method of creation in different stages would help to bring forth originality. He expresses his aesthetic ideas in the following sentence: “The whole visible universe is but a cabinet of images and signs to which the imagination will give a place and a relative value; it is a kind of nutrient that the imagination must digest and transform. All the faculties of the human soul must be subordinate to the imagination, which summons them all at the same time. Just as knowing the dictionary well does not necessarily imply knowledge of the art of composition, and just as the art of composition itself does not imply universal imagination, a good painter may not be a great painter. But a great painter is necessarily a good painter, because the universal imagination contains the intelligence of all means and the desire to acquire them”.

According to Baudelaire, artists can be divided into very distinct fields: one that calls itself realistic, which wants to represent things as they are; and one that can be called imaginative, which wants to enlighten things with spirit and project their reflection on other spirits.

To the imaginative and realistic fields, Baudelaire adds “a class of men, timid and submissive, who pride themselves on obeying a code of false dignity”: while realists aim at representing nature, and imaginative artists aim at painting nature’s souls, the third field is comprised by men who “conform to rules of pure convention, completely arbitrary, not drawn from the human soul, and simply imposed by the routine of a celebrated studio. In this very large, but so uninteresting class we have the false connoisseurs of the ancient, the false connoisseurs of style, and, in a word, all the men who, by their powerlessness, elevated the cliché to the honours of style.”

My rating: ★★★☆☆

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Album: Ghost Glacier, by Breathe Owl Breathe (2008)

 

  • Dreamy, narrative-laden songs with dark emotional undercurrents.
  • Length: 42:42
  • My rating: ★★★★★
  • Favourite songs: All of them? If I have to choose, for now: Boat, Photos Upon Pianos, Playing Dead, Twilight
  • Lyrics:

“Do you remember when we were dancing
On a boat, on the sea
And it would tip, and we weren’t scared
Were we?

Do you remember then sailing?
We were dancing
And I would rock to and fro
You’d sway

Then you went over
And I went under
And we had to kick
Those arms and legs

And you were laughing
And you said

What if the sound waves to you
Bye bye for now
And leaves you
I see you

Hiding gold
Seek your soul
I don’t know
If I got one to hold
But I hope so

What if the sound waves to you
Bye bye for now
Still leaving you
I see you

Do you remember when?” (Boat)


“Take a breath from your treasure chest
Do you know how long you slept?
My lips are chapped and the compass is cracked
And I don’t want to use the treasure map for a blanket
Let the northern wind tuck you in
Like a sea turtle you flew away in the water
The seaweed below resembles the forest of fire
Still you froze

The night was black like an eye patch
If the stars were scars God was playing with matches
How many heart beats does it take to reach the water’s edge?
Oh, the heart is a vessel or the heart is a treasure
You’re capsized or you’re buried alive
Call out for rescue

Don’t you keep it all inside
What you got to hide?
I can’t hear my heart beating
I can’t heart my heart beating over these thoughts at night
And it sounds like twilight for those listening
For those listening” (Twlight)


“Here comes the scary part
I dare you to walk through the woods
make your way towards the grave that’s her’s
whisper poems of hers
verse by verse” (Sylvia Plath)


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Film: Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho (2019, IMDb)

We follow the Kims, a working-class family who scheme to work for a wealthy one, the Parks. The plot is full of twists and turns (and deus ex machina moments) which play with a multitude of genres, such as thriller, horror, drama, tragedy, and (dark) comedy.

The Kims are a family of four – mother, father, daughter, and son – who live in a semi-basement apartment in South Korea. They don’t have jobs, their apartment is infested by cockroaches, they have to leech wi-fi from the neighbours – in short, they are struggling to make ends meet.

However, when the son’s rich friend gifts him with a collector’s rock and offers him a position as a tutor of the Parks’ daughter, the Kims’ life takes an unexpected turn for the better: thanks to their machinations (and their survivor instincts), all the members of the family, one by one, manage to get hired for different positions at the wealthy Parks’ home, pretending not to know each other. The stone, according to a Korean tradition, can bring wealth to the Kims – but it will also bring their downfall.

In the opening scene, when the father decides to leave the windows open during a fumigation that is taking place in the street, we have a glimpse at the elements that will give the film its structure: as the poisonous smoke clouds up the family’s apartment, we can almost feel the stifling atmosphere, the suffocation, the imprisonment, the lack of fresh air which mirrors the Kims’ lack of better alternatives.

And we can feel the bad smell. If great cinema is the art of conveying meaning and feeling through image, sound, and movement, then Bong Joon Ho goes one step further in Parasite, and manages to convey smell. We cannot help but to root for the Kims, as they start to take over the Parks’ household – but, at the same time, we can also have a sense that something smells fishy in the whole situation.

If it is true that the Kims infiltrate the Parks’ home like tenacious parasites, it is also true that the Parks also start to leech on the Kims’ lives. To make matters more complicated, we find out that there is something going on in the Parks’ basement, and it has a violence that cannot be contained. Who is the parasite of whom in the story?

Smell and suffocation prompted the story forward from the first scene, and it’s smell and suffocation that will break the Kims’ ingenious scheme. The first cracks, in fact, happen early on, in the scene where the Parks’ eight-year-old son complains that their employees all smell the same. Later, Mr. Park will remark about Mr. Kim: “The smell crosses the line.”

If smell is the Kims’ Achilles’ heel, it is also the Parks, as an embodiment of their obliviousness. After the apocalyptic scene where the Kims find their basement apartment flooding and try to salvage their goods in the midst of a clogged toilet regurgitating sewage, Mrs. Park cluelessly gives thanks to the heavy rains that allowed for a sunny morning in her son’s stupid birthday party. Obliviousness is her moment of hubris, and we know that it can only be followed by some form of downfall.

No matter how much one tries to create a divide between them and us, the very act of establishing limits already hints at the fact that they will eventually get crossed. Smell crosses the line: it is an embodiment of what divides and what is shared, of social class and intimacy. Smell gets everywhere, it sweeps through the scenes like fear, humiliation, and shame. It violates.

Bong Joon Ho once commented about Parasite: “There are people who are fighting hard to change society. I like those people, and I’m always rooting for them, but making the audience feel something naked and raw is one of the greatest powers of cinema. (…) I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here. It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality. That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.” (Source)

Much like the smell it conveys through its cinematic techniques, Bong Joon Ho’s film also brings about a subtle but nonetheless ruthless form of violation: it crosses the line between screen and audience. It is angry, cruel, and cynical. It collapses its structures. Like smell, something we cannot touch, bringing about a collision of worlds. Like art, it unsettles, like a parasite. It violates.

  • My rating: ★★★★★
  • Running time: 132 minutes
  • Favourite scenes: the opening scene, the flooding of the apartment, and the moment where Mr. Kim exacts retribution at the party (and the dogs in this scene are like the cherry on the top!).

That’s all for now, folks. What are you reading and listening this week? Tell me about it.

Yours truly,

J.


“Fifty Days At Iliam. The Fire That Consumes All Before It”. Cy Twombly. 1978

2 thoughts on “The smell crosses the line

  1. Bong Joon Ho is one of my favourite filmmakers and I can’t wait to see Parasite – although I have to, as it isn’t out here until February. And I am off to Spotify to listen to Breathe Owl Breathe straight away as it sounds right up my street!

    Like

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