Nowhereerewhon

From Thomas Berger’s novel Nowhere ~

“I confess I find it curious that the clergy of all people would condone the exchanging of schools and churches for cinemas.”

The priest laughed merrily. “‘Condoned’ is too mild a word, my dear fellow! We were positively ecstatic to do so. For the first time in a century we have full houses!”

“And the movies are also a substitute for school?”

He frowned. “The choice of words is not appropriate. The movies are not substitutes! If anything, church and school were the substitutes. They were poor imitations of life. Now we can see the real thing.”

“Old American films are the real thing?”

“Yes, of course,” the priest said forcefully. “The virtuous are shown to succeed, the evildoers invariably come to grief, and the general philosophy that informs every picture is that there is a common good, which is recognized by everyone — including the wicked, who of course are opposed to it, but they know what it is. Believe it or not, before the Enlightenment, Sebastiani society had no such standards or beliefs. The church had utterly different aims from the schools, and the code one learned in each was utterly confounded by one’s experience of life. And the government received no respect from anyone, which of course is still true, but now the government is intentionally performed as a farce, and is quite effective.”

“Namely, it does nothing.”

His smaile became ever more radiant. “Exactly! And are you aware of what an achievement that is? Unprecedented throughout history! Not even the Austro-Hungarians were quite able to pull that off.”

A riff on the Utopian novel, and particularly Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (try in backwards), Nowhere is intermittently amusing, although the narrator’s tendency to talk like a Rudy Vallee character in a Preston Sturges film sometimes put me off. I read the whole thing before realizing that Berger is the author of Little Big Man, which made sense: Indian society in that film is another not-quite-utopia. Haven’t read it, but I like the Arthur Penn movie very much. Weird coincidence: I discovered Berger’s connection just as Fiona plunged into one of her regular fits of obsession, this time over Penn’s film of THE MIRACLE WORKER.

11 Responses to “Nowhereerewhon”

  1. Little Big Man is a terrific book but I enjoy the film more. The Return of Little Big Man is pretty good too except that you sort of wonder why he felt he needed to go back to it, if that makes any sense.

  2. It does! Little Big Man feels complete in itself. I guess there’s always commercial reasons, of course. The narrator of Nowhere is always complaining of poverty… Nowhere is also part of a series featuring playwright/detective Russel Wren, so it seems like Berger is attracted to recurring characters.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    The Sturges connection is also there in the obvious reference to ”Sullivan’s Travels” where Church and Cinema are directly connected. Peter Bogdanovich in his Profiles of Stars uses Robert Graves’ studies of Greek Myths as a reference point saying Classical Hollywood created a 20th Century Mythology that challenges and supersedes the pantheons of Antiquity. That maybe stretching it.

    I wonder how the priest would defend the Films noir or what Sirk called “the false happy ending” namely that any decent film director always indulged in calculated acts of sabotage when shooting those “happy endings”. Or that Capra’s happy ending of It’s A Wonderful Life! is paradoxically deeply depressing at the same time as it is genuine.

    I always find Utopian fiction a turn-off. In the founding titular work by St. Thomas More which outlines a peaceful civilization, the whole conceit is that “Utopia” means “No Land” at all.

  4. The ending of It’s A Wonderful Life is the fantasy. George really did throw himself off that bridge.

    In my Church of Cinema the Pope is Arthur Freed.

  5. And THIS is High Mass!

  6. Arthur S. Says:

    He might as well have. The Bedford Falls town he lives in is rapidly changing(with all the people at war) and what he sees in the Angel vision is what will soon happen anyway. What happens in the end is something that’s never going to happen again. All these people coming in, chipping in for George and of course it’ll never happen again. It’s a last hurrah just like the end of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS about the family refraining from moving away, the kids are growing up and will grow apart and the family will break as it must.

    Arthur Freed is one of many Popes. The Current Pope Benedict of Cinema is…there are too many candidates but Mel Gibson or Michael Bay. Quentin Tarantino is the Cardinal Richelieu of the Independent Film. Classical auteurism naturally likened auteurism to canonization where cardinals analyze the merits of the candidate, a Devil’s Advocate argues against the proposal and finally the saint is anointed.

    Harry Cohn is Pope Alexander Borgia of Cinema, nasty mean in private but also did much good. The Borgia Pope relaxed anti-semitic laws in-between his Vatican orgies while Harry Cohn as vulgar as he was also befriended and helped make good movies.

  7. Weinstein for Richelieu. Tarantino as the Rochefort.

    I’m sure the San Sebastiani priest accepts the false happy endings at face value, the same as the Catholic censors of Old Hollywood. And noir films’ unhappy endings always pay lip service to conventional morality, even as the honour something more progressive. For instance, the hero dies in Criss Cross, but he’s a stick-up man, so morality is preserved. Really, we know he dies for love. The unhappy ending was the only way to tell stories about the underclass and not offend the law-and-order requirements of the censors.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    What’s truly bleak about CRISS CROSS is that at the end, the love that Burt Lancaster has for Yvonne DeCarlo leads her to consider abandoning him to die to live and what’s really shocking is that she is quite right to do it since Lancaster is a patsy easily manipulated and used by Dan Duryea who unexpectedly is shown to have truly loved Ann Dundee. The amazing complexity of character brought out in the final scene makes it for me the definitive and gloomiest noir of them all.

  9. That reminds me of those Bruce Lee films done in Hong Kong where the hero, despite going on perfectly understandable rampages of revenge decimating the villains who have murdered his girl/family/co-workers/all of the above, always has to end with him being arrested by the police to satisfy the standards of all the territories in which the film would be released!

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    You had that in Bollywood films as well. Hindi cinema always ended with this orgy of sadistic violence where the hero really beat the bad guy and the cuts would highlight the brutality but also relish in it and occassionally you’d have the heroine cheering the hero on. But then he’d go to jail, the titles would tell you he came out after five years, married the girl and lived on. Nobody bought it.

  11. It’s a form of Bokononism, really: the cheerful lie that everything works out. Nobody believes it, but many people are happy that somebody cares enough to keep propagating it.

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