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February 2010
 
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Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 06:34 am
On the roof of the world

I've been watching two film fictions set in the Himalayas. Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) was the most expensive film of its day, and popularised the idea of Shangri-La, a sheltered valley established centuries ago by (Christian) monks from Belgium, and entirely cut off from both the storms raging around it and the rest of the world (which, in 1937, had storms of its own to contend with).



Shangri-La is a utopian community ruled by the Golden Mean (moderation in all things, including moderation), in which people live vastly expanded lifespans. The architecture has a League of Nations feel to it, a series of conference centres balanced amongst vineyards and stepped orchards. Shangri-La is like Summerisle without the human sacrifice. Sections of the film have gone missing, and have been replaced with slide sequences which add to the strangeness, giving the film levels of ostranenie normally found only in art video.



My other Himalayan excursion was filmed just ten years later, in colour. Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) is a much richer world, visually. Again we're in a Christian environment, this time a nunnery perched high in the mountains. Black Narcissus is one of the most beautiful films ever made, with its rich early colour photography. It concerns human sensuality tugging at the respectable habits of life in a religious retreat, and sublimation being defeated by the arrival of spring, the incursions of various impudently sexy outsiders, and the gorgeous Himalayan scenery itself.

25CommentReplyFlag

stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 07:40 am (UTC)

good


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shadowshark
shadowshark
ShadowShark
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 08:05 am (UTC)

This is very weird! I know plenty of other clickopera readers have posted about this sort of thing in the past, but I literally /just/ finished watching Lost Horizon three minutes ago, and had to sign on to hear something intelligent. That was really one of the worst movies I've ever seen. 'Oh, all that wickedness and badness outside, poo poo!' I have always loved Dostoevsky's rebuttal to that sort of crap in Notes From the Underground, where the underground man says that even if they built such a perfect glass palace, he would spit on it, just because he could.
PS - You'd better have a good reason for posting such a short entry... even your 'oh I really should be writing my novel' entries were longer. Hope you're okay!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 12:51 pm (UTC)

I wonder if 12 year-old boys who break public telephones "just because they can" are also inspired by Dostoyevsky? Or perhaps the Marquis de Sade, who said he would reach up and extinguish the sun if he were able?

I enjoyed the lack of cynicism. The spiritual authorities in Shangri-La turned out to have been telling the truth about the incredible longevity of the place. It would have been easy to make them into evil kidnappers. Instead, Conway performs amazing feats trying to relocate Shangri-La, and the message is that believing in something gives us enormous power. It's an anti-nihilism message. The suggestion is that Conway finds Shangri-La again, but that isn't necessary; all he needs is to believe in it, and he will be a stronger man.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 01:23 pm (UTC)

That's not really "Dostoyevsky's rebuttal" as much as it's something uttered by a character in a story who is very plainly sick and antisocial.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 07:11 pm (UTC)

a lovely quote LW ..I would steal it and use it for my own instant gratification if I didn't already know how to extinguish the sun..

happy new year to you and your nearest and dearest..I always enjoy reading your insightful comments on Click Opera.

maf


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shadowshark
shadowshark
ShadowShark
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)

Oh, very clever, yes. I didn't put my argument together very well (I think of livejournal comments as more like text messages than critical footnotes), but if you've seen the movie, then maybe you'll understand these problems I have with the movie: 1, that the idea of paradise is just to find a slice of English-speaking European architecture in the middle of 'nowhere,'
2, that the Belgian monk is not motivated by a love of humanity, but by a dislike of it. He lamented man's "vulgar passions" and started Shangri-la to preserve Europe's treasure and culture against the doom that was rushing in towards it. A quote from him:
"Look at the world today! Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is, what blindness, what unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality."
Don't you find that the least bit infantile? I'm not saying anti-nihilism is infantile, but this is not that. It's a self-righteous youth marking his territory with dislike of people masked as belief in them.
3, what I meant in bringing up the Dostoevsky quote what not a cynical 'damn him for trying!' It's the point that people aren't meant for a Shangri-la, and unerring kindness toward one another, and that you can't damn them all for having yin along with yang.
4, the whole subplot of George and the Russian woman is very poorly put together--he's just in hysterics throughout the whole movie, an explanation for his dislike of Shangri-la is never given, and he melodramatically throws himself over a cliff at the end with little real cause. Maybe you and Nick like that harsh, Old Testament-esque moral stance, but I don't!
The screenplay is here if you want it: http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Lost-Horizon.html


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Thu, Jan. 1st, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)
Spitting on

Ah Eugene have done with virtues! Among the sacrifices that can be made to those counterfeit divinities, is there one worth an instant of all the pleasures one tastes in outraging them. Come, my sweet virtue is but a chimera whose worship consists exclusively in perpetual immolation's, unnumbered rebellions against the temperaments inspirations. Can such impulse be natural? (Marquis de Sade, 1792.)


Is there room for order and faith?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 12:34 pm (UTC)

Where's the analysis and its application to our current socio-economic model, highlighting the Kingdom of Bhutan?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 12:54 pm (UTC)

The Kingdom of Bhutan certainly models itself a bit on Shangri-La. And now there's a Chinese city which has changed its name to Shangri-La to boost its tourist numbers.


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 01:34 pm (UTC)

I haven't seen the Capra film, but it sounds interesting and I will track it down.
I've commented here before on how I am hugely fond of certain Powell and Pressburger, even their more propagandist war films have a particular humanist slant; like many films of the time, they do however tend to reinforce the class system and glorify the officer-class.
Black Narcissus does indeed look wonderful, hard to believe that gorgeous Himalayan scenery was created entirely in Pinewood Studios and in a Sussex garden.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 01:50 pm (UTC)

To save the treasures and history of humanity for the future… the reason why Shangri-La exists. Its interesting how echoes of myth can shadow our modern hopes and dreams. On the roof of the world, at the ends of the earth, and now with the cusp of the new year; what are some of your projections for 2009?


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merrow_sea
merrow_sea
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)

I just recently watched Black Narcissus again for its strange lushness and painfully contained passions. I'm currently re-reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. It believably conveys the grit and poverty and simplicity, the Lamas and bandits of high altitude Central Asia circa the 1970's. Some wit once said the Kingdom of Mustang is an ancient society racing pell-mell into the 16th Century.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC)

I think I might have mentioned this before, but David Farrar (the male lead actor in Black Narcissus) was my great-uncle. It's amazing how the reputation of Black Narcissus has grown over the last 10 years. I remember in the 80's that my mum wanted to get a VHS copy of the film and had real difficulty, and about 8 years ago I could only find a DVD copy in the U.S., but since it was digitally remastered a couple of years ago, it's been shown on Film Four in the U.K a couple of times a month, and my friend said that he watched a BluRay copy recently. It's still an amazing film. You could freeze-frame any scene and it looks like an amazing painting.

On another subject, I 've just started reading Luke Haines book 'Bad Vibes'. So far, it's very enjoyable and yes you do get a mention as a great Scottish songwriter.


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drywbach
:-Þ
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)

Beautiful, strange film, "Black Narcissus". I watched it back-to-back with "The Haunting" over Christmas. I'd never thought of the two movies in the same breath, but it's interesting to juxtapose them as you start looking for similarities. So... they're both woman meets house stories. Specifically repressed woman meets house-with-a-past stories.

A creepy bit (could be a misreading, born of watching the two films together, but anyway...) was when they cited Dean and the ascetic guy as examples of the two ways to survive the place (ignore it or give yourself up to it), but didn't say which was which. Shivers!


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 05:04 pm (UTC)

the horse thief http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Horse_Thief is the best himalayas movie ever made ( and it's got just the right bit of dostoievski in it too )


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 06:49 pm (UTC)


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 05:37 pm (UTC)

We're invited to Sunshine and Naoko's place in deepest Neukolln, but are still deciding whether to brave the fireworks. Hisae has a particular terror of Berlin on New Year's Eve, and even just going round the corner is a big trauma for her. So we might just stay home and watch 夕凪の街、桜の国 and eat the food some friends kindly brought around (the same ones having the party, actually).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)

Actually, that's too traumatic too -- it's a film about Hiroshima. So we're watching Gedo Senki: Tales from Undersea, a film by Miyazaki's son.

We are preternaturally quiet people.


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funazushi
funazushi
funazushi
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 07:11 pm (UTC)

You're not watching 紅白?


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robincarmody
robincarmody
Wed, Dec. 31st, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)

It took a long time for Powell and Pressburger's reputation to reach the heights it has now - in the 60s and 70s, and even the 80s, their works were comparatively obscure (and in several cases the complete films weren't in circulation). When Raymond Durgnat devoted a whole chapter to them in 'A Mirror for England' (1970) it was really a manifesto for rediscovery. The films had reasonable reviews when they were first released, but a lot of Britcrits were naturally baffled by them because they were *pure cinema*, not bound by the literary or documentary traditions. Stylistically, they are not of their own time but either of a time far later or (more likely) a time that never really was, though it could and should have been.

Interesting to read thomascott's comment. Powell's original idea for 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' was for the film to *unequivocally* debunk and denounce the old military elite and their ways - his plan was to have Laurence Olivier as Clive Candy, who would have been portrayed much less sympathetically. But when the Fleet Air Arm refused to release Olivier, the role went to Roger Livesey who portrayed him as a much more likeable old buffer, which indeed led left-wing critics at the time to denounce the film for being too sympathetic to Blimpishness (while right-wingers criticised it for its positive portrayal of a German character). Personally, I like its ambiguity.

A personal favourite reading of 'Black Narcissus', which was released in the year of Indian independence, is as a farewell to the Empire and an admission that it was time for Britain to let go, something the British found even harder to grasp over the following decade than they found the idea of pure cinema.


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brack6
brack6
brack6
Sun, Jan. 4th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
lost horizon spoilers

I downloaded this after I read about it and watched it with my roommate who's a big film geek. I thought it was pretty great, precisely because Shangri-La was so unbelieveable. The movie seemed first and foremost to be kind of an action flick. There was a great sense of unrest throughout the whole movie, even in the supposedly hyper-peaceful Shangri-La. I think a good example of that was the love-interest who was supposedly 80 years old and said she was 20. She wanted to get out, after all, and her reasons were never explained. I think it was a good example of the kind of flaws almost any uptopian ideals will have.

I was also surprised when it seemed to be more about eternal life as the greatest accomplishment of Shangri-La rather than the peaceful lifestyle or untied non-capitalistic economy. I thought that was Shangri-La's greatest flaw, made it into a sort of search for the Sorcerer's stone (eternal life and gold both).

Anyway, thanks for putting me onto this film, I thought it was definitely worth watching. I friended you by the way. I've watched your blog under a few different names, and now I have a new one so I'm watching it under this way as well. Cheers.

-Stephen


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jan. 4th, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
Re: lost horizon spoilers

Welcome to Blog-ri-la, Stephen! I started this blog in 1884, but the air here is very pure and I don't look my age.


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brack6
brack6
brack6
Mon, Jan. 5th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)
Re: lost horizon spoilers

A-ha! Between the crutch and the missing leg I knew there was something strange about you!


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jan. 5th, 2009 08:57 am (UTC)
Last Spring

Haha, funny! Jen and I watched both movies last spring as Berlin was un-thawing. Big fan of both films, but Lost Horizon really stuck with me for weeks. While Frank Capra is known for being an idealist, I was really shocked by just how brazenly idealistic this film really is! It's the sort of idealism you find in poetry students in high-school. While i's inherently flawed, it's refreshing to witness too. Makes you proud to be alive.


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emiliazeny
emiliazeny
Thu, Nov. 18th, 2010 07:06 am (UTC)
Bhutan has its own glory which is century years old

Bhutan is the place that could fill a thousand holiday albums, with its
unimaginable beauty, peace, and harmony. Its history and culture has its own glory which is century years old.

Bhutan tours holidays


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