Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

The-Little-Tramp-charlie-chaplin-85240_250_338

But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

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Quote 46: “…T is not too late to seek a newer world.” Tennyson

Ulysses sailing west illustration 2013 by jpbohannon

Ulysses sailing west
illustration 2013 by jpbohannon

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
from “Ulysses”

Movie Review: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, dir.)…verisimilitude in film

“Verisimilitude” is a word I know from movie criticism and from literary criticism. I define it as a strict faithfulness to the truth of reality. And it is a concept that the movie director, Richard Linklater, has striven for in his triology, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. In many ways he has succeeded.

For those who don’t know, in 1995, Linklater cast his stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the first movie, Before Sunrise, as young twenty-somethings who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna, who spend a day and night together and go their separate ways. (That the day is June 16th, the day that James Joyce met his life partner Nora Barnacle and the day that his novel Ulysses takes place is one of the many Joycean allusions in the triology.)

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke)
in Before Sunrise (1995)

To be truthful to his quest for truthfulness, Linklater nine years later, cast the same two actors to play the same characters who happen to meet again nine years later. This time Hawke’s Jesse is on a book tour in Paris when Delpy’s Celine meets him. His book–which fictionalizes the day they had spent together a decade ago–is a success. They spend this second time together walking through Paris before he must fly back to America. (Because the film takes place in mid-afternoon, Linklater only shot at that time to get the light exactly right. This is verisimilitide. )

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in  Before Sunset2004

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in
Before Sunset 2004

Now in the summer of 2013, we catch up once more with Jesse and Celine. As it is with the actors, it is with the characters–nine more years have passed for both. Now, in Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have been together for nearly a decade. They have twin girls, and Jesse’s son with his ex-wife, now a young boy going into high-school, has spent the summer with his father and his new family in Greece.

In fact, as the film begins, Jesse is dropping his son off at the airport for the return flight home. Jesse is now a very successful novelist, having written two critically and commercially acclaimed novels (both based on the events that we saw in the previous two movies.) However, he is unhappy about his distance from his son and is toying with the idea of moving his European family to Chicago to be closer to the boy.

The film is divided into three basic scenes: the trip to the airport, a dinner at the villa they are sharing, and a night at hotel together without their daughters (a gift from their friends at the villa.) In the first scene, we see Jesse struggling with saying farewell to his son, Celine announcing that she has the opportunity to change jobs, and the two bantering amicably in the car, both daughters asleep in the back seat. However, Celine does not like the idea of a move to America or the prospect of refusing the career opportunity that has just now cropped up.

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in Before Midnight (2013)

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)
in Before Midnight (2013)

The second scene is at their villa where the males sit outside discussing literature while Celine and the women prepare the dinner. It is light, gregarious, and beautiful–but you feel the emotion lying low within Celine. The dinner itself is wonderful. At turns, amusing, intelligent, and poignant, the conversation is witty and enjoyable. There is a tad of acid in some of Celine’s comments, but for the most part, it is a dinner which I very much would have liked to have joined.

As a gift, their friends have bought them a child-free night in a hotel in the local town. After dinner, the two walk into town, talk, reminisce, and plan for the future. In the lobby, Jesse is recognized and asked to sign a book. Celine is also asked, as the reader assumes (correctly) that she is the woman whom Jesse writes about. She reluctantly agrees.

The night however does not go exactly the way they had planned.

Like its predecessors, Before Midnight is wonderful because it seems real. (There’s that “verisimiltude” again.) People talk, plan, argue, hurt, and enjoy. There are no cataclysmic disasters pushing them into conflict, no terrorists to fight, no snarky humor to overcome. It is simply two people at a patch in their relationship that is proving a little rough. In their forties now (both the actors and the characters), they are looking at life differently and with more cognizance of its quick passing. If I have problem, it is that Celine’s outburst–while we anticipate its coming–still seems to come out of nowhere. But it is wonderfully honest and wonderfully real.

But, maybe that’s the truth of life–and the truth of relationships–we know little of the turmoil going on in a partner’s soul. Maybe that’s the truth of the movie.

And while Hawke and Delpy have comfortably grown into their parts for the past two decades and while the small supporting cast is more than excellent (Walter Lassally as the aging writer with whom they are staying, Xenia Kalogeropoulou as his widowed friend, and Yiannis Papadopoulos and Athina Rachel Tsangari as the couple who present them with the child-free night), it is the setting that struck me most. Filmed on the southern Peloponnesian coast, it is filled with gorgeous coastline, quaint villages, memorable sunsets, and illuminating sunlight. When I got home from the film, I spent the next two days searching real-estate in the area.

I spent two weeks there once. I wouldn’t mind spending more.

Here’s the trailer, if you want:

Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.