Leonard Quart: Transcending fatigue



The last week or two I’ve been feeling my age -- fatigue, arthritic back pain, a slight fever, and legs that feel like I’m lugging lead weights whenever I do much walking. Today, my hypochondriac sense of turning into a physical wreck was topped off when an old homeless man walking with a cane passed by me, and called me "pops." In addition, I stopped writing, feeling unsure that I had anything left to say, or if I did, that I could give the words some arresting shape. Luckily, it was only a moment, and today the words and sentences, both the awkward and dull and the graceful and pointed ones, have begun to pour out.

Not writing, I spent the week doing a number of activities that demanded little energy, but gave me much to reflect on. I took a closer look at the photos of London on my computer desktop taken on my last trip in May.

Obviously, I’m no master of composition and light and shadow like the great English photographer Bill Brandt. I’m just an amateur who takes photos of London to remember aspects of the city that I love, and in a few, I’m able to suggest the essence of its neighborhoods. I scan a photo I took of the Five Star, 100-year-old Ritz hotel, and I can instantly sense the luxuriant desolation of present-day Mayfair, and my photos of Brixton’s outdoor markets and arcades convey something of its working class African and Caribbean dynamism.

Most important to me personally are the photos I took of once-arty Hampstead’s leafy streets, charming narrow lanes, and Fenton House, a 17th century merchant’s house with a walled garden. (I lived happily there with my family for long periods.) And the many photos I took of Hampstead’s grand open space, the Heath, with its duck and swimming ponds, Parliament Hill’s striking views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and central London, its emerald green meadows, its manicured running track and cricket ground, and its small, labyrinthine wooded areas always renew my profound feelings for the city. Looking at them, I tend to well up with nostalgia (sometimes to excess) for those past times.

I have also read an odd, truly original book, Ben Katchor’s set of 159 color and black and white panels, "Hand-Drying in America" (Pantheon). The cartoon strips are not really narratives, but dry, semi-surreal takes on a strange mixture of topics, ranging from newsstands, door frames, and the unused space under our beds, to remote controls, window sill pillows, and the history of the oversized magazine. The panels feel slightly off-kilter, like dreams emerging from the everyday, the mundane touched with the mysterious. It’s a book worth dipping into.

At the same time, I viewed a new controversial Polish film, "Aftermath," that will open In New York early November. It’s a tightly paced, vivid work, but its prime value lies in its historical and political significance, and the power of its vision. "Aftermath" is the first Polish fictional film that deals with the complicity of some Poles in the killing of Jews during WW II.

That took great courage in a country where the dominant narrative has led Poles to see themselves as "innocent’’ victims of the Nazis, with more than 20 percent of the country’s population destroyed during the war and a large number dying in the 63-day Warsaw uprising against the Nazi occupation in 1944. Denial and repression of the anti-Semitic past have generally been the norm in Poland.

However, this film doesn’t fudge or rationalize the complex truth about Polish-Jewish relationships. The film’s courageous producer stated: "It’s our moral duty to make this film. It’s a topic we have always avoided." And when it came out in Poland, nationalists claimed it misrepresented the country’s history and was part of a Jewish conspiracy to defame Poland’s reputation. At the same time, the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda endorsed it, and large film audiences were stunned into silence as the final credits rolled on the screen.

Anti-Semitism has not magically disappeared in Poland. But the fact that a Polish film that is willing to convey some of the ugly truth about Polish behavior towards the Jews during the Nazi occupation got shown in Poland is clearly a positive step.

Finally, I attended the overflowing funeral service of a brilliant New York intellectual, Marshall Berman, whose major work was "All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity." He was not an intimate friend, but a man I knew for over 50 years. What the speakers at the service conveyed -- the rabbi, sons, relatives, and friends -- was that the lumbering, bearded, unconventional Berman was one of a kind. He was a compassionate man who had the will to survive personal tragedies and physical ailments and continue to celebrate teaching, hip-hop, Marx the humanist and romantic, graffiti artists, and New York City to the last day of his life.

I shared Marshall’s ecstatic love for New York ("the air of the city makes one free"), and his feeling for the street’s role in urban life. And I share as a fellow Bronxite his indelible memories of how Robert Moses’ monster -- the Cross Bronx Expressway -- ruthlessly cut through our neighborhoods.

Marshall was a man who passionately affirmed daily life as well as the world of ideas, which he never pursued to serve his career, but treated as the deepest part of his being. Marshall deserved a funeral service that was an outpouring of love, and that’s what he received.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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