Raphael Magarik (contributing writer): I’ve been on a Willa Cather kick all summer. I can’t exactly say why, never having previously been enchanted by lyrical descriptions of the American West, and yet I’ve waded through innumerable Nebraska sunsets and undulating wheatfields. Perhaps the best of her books I’ve read is the 1925 novel The Professor’s House, which centers on Godfrey St. Peter, an American historian in the midwestern college town of Hamilton, who has recently finished his magnum opus and is now working on a midlife crisis. In the novel’s present, St. Peter pines for his prize student, the suggestively named Tom Outland. Engaged to marry St. Peter’s daughter, Outland tragically died in World War I, leaving behind a potentially lucrative aeronautic invention. Much to St. Peter’s dismay, an opportunistic, war-profiteering Jew, Louie Marsellus, swooped in and snatched up Outland’s beloved, his patent, and his legacy. In an extended flashback, Outland recounts his discovery of an abandoned, Indigenous cave city in the American Southwest—a melancholy lost world, which anticipates his own demise and usurpation.
Quite unlike the novels that made Cather famous—nostalgic Georgics about blond pioneers exploiting the fecundity of the Great Plains—The Professor’s House is a weird experiment with Henry James’s “international theme,” in which callow, youthful Americans encounter their ancient, sophisticated predecessors in Europe. Thus we learn that St. Peters, who researches Spanish conquistadors, studied abroad in France; in the present, Marsellus wants to take the family on a European Grand Tour. James was cultivating, however ambivalently, a worldly cosmopolitanism. By contrast, Cather is haunted by the deep, reactionary fear that the violent colonial destruction of Native American culture is now being visited on White America through the milder, more civilized channels of Jewish mercantilism. A good portion of my pleasure in The Professor’s House is either narcissistic (I too am a midwestern professor, slightly adrift after completing a book manuscript) or masochistic (I have a sweet tooth for genteel literary antisemitism). Your mileage may vary.
In the old joke, a Jew prefers Nazi newspapers to Yiddish ones, because he likes to read about how powerful and successful the Jews are. Perhaps I find myself similarly flattered by Cather’s paleo-conservative dread of a Jewish modernity. But I am also tickled by the countercurrents and ironies. After learning that his homoerotic, anarchist-leaning companion Roddy has sold off the Indigenous antiquities Outland took to be a national treasure, for instance, he angrily tells Roddy, “You’ve gone and sold your country’s secrets, like [Alfred] Dreyfus.” Well, by 1925, everyone knew Captain Dreyfus had been framed, rendering retrospectively absurd Outland’s accusation of racial betrayal. (Although Cather was definitely personally conservative, in this scene, I suspect that she is playfully retrojecting Sacco and Vanzetti, the falsely convicted anarchists of the 1920s, several decades back, thus midrashically entwining these Jewish and radical martyrs.) Even if Cather’s antisemitic nostalgia makes for despicable politics, it furnishes a good theory of the novel. The Professor’s House is far more playful, vertiginous, and, well, modern than most of her writing—in large part because it is usefully contaminated by Jewishness.
Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): Did you love the “plasticky” world-building of Barbie but no other aspect of the film? I have a recommendation for you: Jacques Tati’s Oscar-winning 1958 feature, Mon Oncle. Best known for its biting commentary on the social and material alienation that American consumerism brought to Europe after World War II, Mon Oncle is also a brilliantly designed slapstick comedy—one that tries to hone a theory of plastic as a transcendental signifier.
The thesis of Mon Oncle is fairly simple: the socially enmeshed life one finds in a small town is more humane, more straightforward, and generally less anxiety-inducing than the isolated, bourgeois existence that became popular alongside the boom of consumer culture. But as the film’s visual gags become more complicated, more absurd, and more self-assured, it furthers what is now a familiar argument in genuinely engrossing, amusing ways. The majority of the film’s action takes place at Villa Arpel, a gated home equipped with everything you’ve never needed: uncomfortable, angular furniture, kitchen appliances inspired by a trip to the dentist’s office, massive his-and-hers portholes in the master bedroom. There, a family of apparently very stylish taste resides, entertaining and impressing fellow suburbanites while trying to master their unintuitive environment. In one touching and unbelievable moment, Madame Arpel installs a motion-activated garage door for her husband, but there’s one snag: there’s no sensor inside. When Monsieur Arpel parks his brand new Cadillac in the garage and promptly gets trapped inside, the maid who is “scared of electricity” must be enticed to wave her hand across the console to let the couple out.
Tati, who trained as a mime, plays the silent and hapless titular uncle, Monsieur Hulot, who hopscotches between the earth-toned small town where he lives and the sharp, playfully hostile suburban villa. Despite his idiosyncratic, overwrought gestures, Hulot works as the comedy’s straight man, routinely trying to follow the logic of this built environment to conform to, well, common sense. While his sister dazzles the other wives in the neighborhood with her short-circuiting, hands-free steak cooker, Hulot flips furniture on its side to lie more comfortably, walks only on the awkwardly-placed stones on the lawn (until he mistakenly steps on a few plastic water lilies in the astroturf’s inset pool), and upon realizing the homeware in the kitchen is plastic, tries to bounce it (shattering a few hidden crystal water glasses in the process). You can imagine the misdirection that ensues when the Arpels’ bourgeois neighbors come to dine alongside Hulot and the manually-operated fish-shaped fountain.
The film functionally seals the world of the villa off from the world of the town, so as to shock the viewer when the two are reconciled, or placed in a single system. The camera never follows anyone the entire distance between the villa and the town where people live, eat, and drink communally. A few workmen come to the Arpel villa, and Hulot ferries his young nephew back and forth between suburb and school (a relationship that serves as the emotional core of the film), but the real invasion of the fabricated sphere into the “authentic” comes in the third act, when we see the plastic produced. It’s hard to say which mechanical process is interrupted while Hulot is asleep at his desk, but it’s bad: suddenly, the plastic hose comes out of the machine baubled and creased, giving the impression of a long chain of hotdog links. The workers, decked out in bug-man-looking suits, scramble to dispose of the fucked up product and hide the voluminous mass from a client touring the facility. In a few sequences of collective, fluid movement, the workers dash around in the background shots as the plastic factory’s top bosses chat and schmooze; the workers load the plastic onto a horse-drawn cart, drive it to some marshy, overgrown part of town, and attempt to dump the refuse. A few scenes later, a man tries to “rescue” the tubing, thinking it to be a body, only for the workers to jeer at him for being so foolish as to offer a human reading of an artificial situation.
By setting up an arcane world of consumption, then showcasing its heretofore hidden production, Mon Oncle provides a kind of interpretive key to Barbie. If you’re curious about a critique of the beginnings of a material culture that dominates our lives today—and enjoy a good visual pun—you can watch Mon Oncle on Vimeo.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I haven’t expected much from Czech cinema since 1968—the last gasp of the Czech New Wave, before it was crushed by Soviet tanks. So I went into Jiří Havelka’s Owners, a 2019 film just released in the US, expecting little more than a diverting yet inconsequential 90 minutes. But as it turns out, Owners is a delight. This comedy, which takes place almost entirely at a meeting of those who own apartments in a building that has seen better days, is a curious and successful gamble. Despite its overall light tone, it owes much to Sidney Lumet’s great 1957 jury room drama, 12 Angry Men. Like the jurors in that classic, the apartment owners are trapped: The group’s regulations, strictly enforced by one of the members, state that once someone has signed the attendance sheet, they’re stuck until the meeting’s end. As in Lumet’s film, captivity brings out the characters’ real natures, with all their foibles and failings; its revelation of racism, homophobia, and human pettiness is almost on the level of Radu Jude’s 2021 excoriation of today’s Romania, Bad Luck Banging.
In this scathing picture of the post-communist Czech Republic, solidarity means nothing to anyone. When the owners discuss installing an elevator, the woman who owns the first-floor apartment is against it—after all, she doesn’t need it—and since any decision requires unanimity, there will be no elevator; a similar spirit of selfishness marks discussions about sharing the cost of water, or electricity in the common areas. While Havelka presents the country’s communist past through the figure of an unrepentant but disagreeable communist, who constantly reminisces about how much better things were in his day, the hopelessness of the present is expressed through two smarmy businessmen—the twin sons of a recently deceased tenant, just back from their offices in Russia and America—whose relative charm seduces the other meanspirited, backbiting owners, whom they will inevitably betray. In the film’s vision, communism was a failure, but capitalism is the breeding ground of the greedy. Still, for all the seriousness of its message, Owners is a genuinely funny film, uproarious in its mockery of its characters—hustlers and drunks, opportunists and fools—and the society they have created.