Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): I am upstate, staying at the kind of house where people—mostly artists and poets and activists and performers—are always passing through, and where every few feet a new pile of books lies like a compost heap of their inner lives. I picked up a book from the top of one of these piles because it was old and slim and because I liked the title: And Really Frau Blum Would Very Much Like to Meet the Milkman, a collection of very short stories from the mid-1960s by Peter Bichsel, a Swiss writer I had never heard of, translated from German by the poet Michael Hamburger. Indeed, I almost wonder whether it destroys the magic to recommend it like this, whether my enchantment with the book is also a function of my surprise, of entering a book the way one slips directly into a strange lake, without first checking its temperature or having read its TripAdvisor page.
Either way, I was taken by these stories, which rarely go more than two-and-a-half short pages. Nearly stripped of time and place and context, they reminded me of certain descriptions of hauntings, apparitions caught in repetitive, mundane actions. The haunted ask: Why this? What has given this ascent of a staircase such emotional weight that it has become pressed in the folds of time, that it must be repeated nightly? Bichsel’s vignettes are like this. A woman receives a letter from a man—an estranged brother? a lover? a difficult friend?—that says very little, but she reads it over, it changes her mood. An old man becomes old in his habits; he turns the radio on and off, is irritated with both sound and silence. An old woman brings flowers to another old woman. A man comes to a bar each week at the same time, watches others play a card game in silence, and leaves when the game is through; when he dies, the card players aren’t sure how to remember him. A woman wonders about her milkman who comes very early in the morning and who she has never met: What do they know of one another? These slight, spare scenes somehow manage to touch the strange patterns of being alive.
(Editor’s note: I couldn’t find a copy of this book on Bookshop or almost anywhere else, except for a rare and expensive used edition linked above, which to me suggests that Arielle stumbling across it really was improbable.)
Ari M. Brostoff (senior editor): As often as possible for the past few months, I have lifted weights at the Blink Fitness down the street from my building. I am small, weak, still fairly new to changing in the men’s locker room, and using a women’s weightlifting app “ironically.” Almost everyone else in the weightlifting section of Blink is big, strong, and seems mesmerizingly able to improvise lifts, like the most talented kids at the playground. Nonetheless, in a powerful show of homosocial democracy, I am allowed to take up as much space as I need among them. It’s great. I still have some significant barriers to entry, though, like the fact that I only vaguely understand how my movements are connected to my actual muscles. When I mentioned this to my friend Dayna earlier this year—she was, at the time, showing me the more or less literal ropes at her own Planet Fitness—she told me that this knowledge would start to become embodied as I got more practiced. She also told me to watch the 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, the film that made Arnold Schwarzenneger into a household name (it’s available on YouTube). This week I finally did.
Pumping Iron, directed by the British filmmaker George Butler, is a campy introduction to the world of competitive bodybuilding—it focuses on the run-up to the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions of 1975—and it is overwhelmingly about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s insane body and his incredible skill at self-objectification. Early on, Butler asks Schwarzenegger if he visualizes himself as a piece of sculpture. Arnold replies, in his singular Austrian-at-the-beach cadence, “yeah, definitely,” then goes on to suggest that his art form is in fact the higher one: While an artist who wants to embellish a figure’s musculature can just “slap on some clay,” he is doing it “the harder way.” He goes on to explain the feeling of “the pump,” in which the act of lifting increases bloodflow to your muscles and you get “a really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode,” and then in case you didn’t get it, says, “It’s as satisfying to me as coming is, as having sex with a woman and coming,” and then in case you still didn’t get it, asks, “So, can you believe how much I am in heaven? I’m, like, getting the feeling of coming in the gym, I’m getting the feeling of coming at home, I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up . . . . So I’m coming day and night. I mean it’s terrific, right?”
Things for Arnold are terrific. He does push-ups with two blond girls astride his back. He falls asleep in the park in a cluster of bodybuilders, all barely clothed, like a pod of seals. (A running visual gag in the movie is how silly he looks every time he bothers to wear a shirt, like a Great Dane in a little sweater.) When asked about his weak points, he explains, “I have no weak points.” (He used to have some, but, he eliminated them.) His public appearances often involve little lifting but much flexing, which, if we take seriously his aspirations to being a sculpture, is actually the motion that shows him at the height of his craft: Even wearing a perfunctory Speedo, he is beyond naked, revealing parts of his body we didn’t know existed. It all gets a tad race-sciencey: The competitors who tremble before him include Mike Katz, who tells us he was called “Jewboy” growing up and became a huge jock in response; an Italian from New York with daddy issues; an Italian from Italy with mommy issues; and a Black Frenchman who doesn’t get any lines. Arnold himself is the son of an Austrian police chief (and, though the film doesn’t mention this, a former brownshirt) who spent his childhood “dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that,” and cheekily plays himself as an easygoing psychopath (to win, he explains, you just have to completely separate yourself from your feelings; hence, his decision to skip his father’s funeral because a championship was two months away). Perhaps the ultimate joke of the film is that, as “villain[ous]” as Arnold makes himself, it would feel almost perverse to root for a lesser man. It will perhaps not be too big of a spoiler to say that at the end of the movie, he wins.
Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): The Last Movie Stars is a six-part documentary series on Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and their relationship, made by Ethan Hawke and currently streaming on HBO Max. It includes clips of Newman and Woodward’s performances spanning the length of their careers, as well as from talk shows and other public appearances. But the series also includes new material in the form of interviews that Newman commissioned of everyone in his life in preparation to write a memoir. For reasons unknown, Newman ended up burning all the recordings but, thankfully for us, his partner in the project had already had them transcribed. Hawke assembles an array of actors to read the transcripts over the course of the series, with George Clooney reading for Newman and Laura Linney, who studied with Woodward, reading for her. The clips are woven in with readings from the transcripts and interviews Hawke conducts with the actors doing the readings, as well as with Newman and Woodward’s daughters.
I love movies about the movies, and I loved this series. I learned things I didn’t know about Newman and Woodward as individuals and about their relationship, and it’s fun to watch the clips of their movies over time. It’s not all joyful—the series covers Woodward’s career frustrations after having kids, Newman’s alcoholism, the loss of Newman’s son, and tests of the couple’s devotion to each other and the life they built—but it is all deeply moving. Hawke’s Zoom interviews are also an important part of the film—he is trying to understand both the project he was commissioned to make and his subjects, and his sheer love of the actors and the movies is palpable. And of course, the magnetism of Newman onscreen is inescapable.
This was also very fun to watch having recently read Isaac Butler’s The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, which I’ve previously recommended here (I also interviewed Butler about it), since Newman and Woodward cut their teeth in the Actor’s Studio alongside James Dean, Marlon Brando, and other stars of the era, all of which is covered in the book.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’d sooner have my fingernails removed with pincers and my nose cut off than be part of a reading group. And yet, Le temps perdu, Maria Alvarez’s documentary of a group of senior citizens in Buenos Aires that has been meeting for 17 years to read Proust, is a film of real charm.
The filming covers four years, from 2015 to 2019. The attendees—some regulars, some occasional, some just stopping in once—read a few pages aloud at each gathering in the Tribunales Café, right near the Teatro Colón and the city’s courthouses. The discussions are not orderly; the readers stop to comment on what they’ve read as it strikes them, agreeing or disagreeing with what Proust has written or with what someone has said or with the progress they’re making. Do people become better in old age, as it says in Le temps retrouvé, the final volume? Personal experience tells one reader that that’s simply false; another disagrees. And so it goes.
The Narrator’s lack of erotic feelings for Albertine are commented on, as well as the nature of Proust’s relationship with Albertine’s model, his chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli. Moving passages, particularly from the last volume, draw cries of awe at the author’s genius, while the way the madeleine has become a cliché is rightly bemoaned.
One of the group’s members comments on how every time he reads the full seven volumes it’s a different book, which is true of any great work of literature. But this is especially true given the scope of In Search of Lost Time. The nature of memory will matter more for some at one life stage than at another; jealousy is a burning issue when you’re young and a fading memory itself when you’re the age of the people in Le temps perdu.
Though some attendees are totally ignorant of the book (one, when told that it’s metaphorically a murder mystery, wants to know whodunnit), these elderly men and women, who have lived a long life in which they’ve seen coups, dictatorships, armed struggle, and state terror on the streets of their city, have retained their love of literature as a central element of their lives, and one they share with likeminded people.
One attendee says that she has felt every human emotion expressed in the group, and that’s more than plausible; as I’ve written before, if humanity were to disappear tomorrow, its entire emotional scale could be reconstructed from Proust’s pages.