Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Eric Rohmer's Superb "Summer"


Reading Richard Brody’s recent “Goings On About Town” note on Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film Summer (The New Yorker, January 9, 2017), I was reminded of another terrific commentary on that great film – Terrence Rafferty’s “Boyfriends and Girlfriends” (The New Yorker, July 25, 1988; included in his 1993 collection The Thing Happens). The piece is a review of Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends, but it also contains an excellent consideration of Summer. Rafferty writes,

In this amazing film, which followed the two weakest and most contrived of the Comedies and Proverbs, Pauline at the Beach and Full Moon in Paris, Rohmer relaxed his customary iron control over the narrative: the movie was made in an on-the-run documentary style, in 16mm and with direct sound, and the dialogue, usually chiseled and epigrammatic in his movies, was largely improvised by the actors.... In Summer he’s exploring, a little nervously, hoping that something will emerge from the mess of daily improvisation, wondering if anything will happen as he follows his restless heroine from one French vacation to another.

The heroine’s name is Delphine, described by Rafferty as a “slim, dark, delicate-featured depressive.” He continues,

Since breaking up with her boyfriend, she has become cautious, conservative, almost pathologically wary. Her response to everything is refusal: she’s a vegetarian, she flees from men who approach her, she won’t even admit, after to years, that her love affair is over. Rohmer, whose art is based on refusal – he quietly declines to indulge in the ordinary, vulgar pleasures that movies provide so easily – understands her very well. The movie has the tentative, irresolute rhythm of its heroine’s search for a place where she can feel at ease on her long French summer holiday. This woman is comically, absurdly, infuriatingly incapable of enjoying herself: she goes somewhere, gets disgusted with it, returns to Paris, takes off for some place new, and is unhappy everywhere. Her idea of vacation reading is The Idiot. She drives us crazy, but she’s in real pain, the mundane, annoying, debilitating kind that wont’s go away yet isn’t spectacular enough to win much sympathy – like a migraine. When relief comes, it’s sudden, arbitrary, a stroke of luck or grace. While Delphine is waiting for a train in Biarritz to take her back to Paris after another vacation fiasco, she decides, impulsively, to tag along with a pleasant young man on his way to the coastal town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. She surprises herself, and us, with her boldness: after all her self-imposed restrictions, this act has the force of a reckless break with her old self, or perhaps a return to a freer, more spontaneous relationship to experience. In Saint-Jean-de-Luz, she’s rewarded: watching the sun go down, she sees the green ray, which according to Verne, enables its viewer to see “clearly into his own heart and the hearts of others.” She cries “Yes!” and clutches her gentle companion. This is one of the purest moments of happiness in recent movies: we feel that Rohmer, along with his heroine, has finally found a way to release himself, to be at ease with the accidents, the scary contingencies, of the natural world.

One of the purest moments of happiness in recent movies. Twenty-nine years later, Rafferty’s assessment still holds.  

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