One of the pleasures of watching Jaromil Jireš’s gleefully gothic and priapic 1970 film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders now is seeing it through a bifocal lens: as the lyrical product of filmmakers who dodged certain limits on their freedom of expression, and as a semi-obscure cult film appreciated more wryly in the West.
How solitary and resolute you look in the morning. A stoic in your cotton sleeve. Do you dream of walking out rain or shine a truffle balanced on your sternum and overtaking me on the sidewalk? Or is that a smile …
In an afterword to his recent book Walking, Thomas Struth writes that he took the photographs “by rubbing my shoulders and my senses against ordinary, everyday architecture again.” This seems to acknowledge the project’s departure from the monumental rhetoric of his current show at the Metropolitan Museum, where twenty-five photographs are assembled in a kind of “greatest hits” homage.
It’s not hard to see why Pauline Kael loved Barbara Stanwyck, calling her “an amazing vernacular actress,” a phrase that might just as aptly describe Kael’s style on the page. She was drawn to comedy because it always finds shortcuts to the awful truth. Most heroines of the screwball Thirties radiate a brashness and candor that can seem a blueprint for Kael’s critical persona.
“What you have to do is create a character,” Buster Keaton once said. “Then the character just does his best, and there’s your comedy. No begging.” He embodied this attitude so entirely in his silent films that you can’t watch him without feeling won over, a partisan of the nonpartisan side.
In his poem “Some General Instructions,” which The New York Review published in 1975, Kenneth Koch offered advice on how to live. “Be careful not to set fire/To a friend’s house.” “When taking pills, be sure/You know what they are.” “To ‘cure’ a dead octopus/You hold it by one leg and bang it against a rock.” But quoting bits of the poem seems a falsification, because its true effects are cumulative—it is 233 lines long, a punch-drunk sort of length, as if its principal message were that one should never, in this life, worry about going over quota—and much of its alternating lyricism and irony depend on the coloring that each line receives from its placement above or below another. Koch stuck to ordinary language—the dangerously trite language of self-help manuals—and somehow walked the knife’s edge between wicked parody and an honest urgency that acknowledged the reader’s need to know how to exist in the world. “Think of what you feel/Secretly, and how music has imitated that. Make a moue.” Besides which, he was not afraid of humor—not just as an ornament, but as the engine driving serious self-examination, which is another way of saying that this extravagantly long poem is an enactment of stylistic humility. It never claims to know more than just what is contained in each line—for example, how to cure an octopus.