Friday, January 19, 2018

Matinee (1993)

USA, 99 minutes
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: Jerico, Charles S. Haas
Photography: John Hora
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editor: Marshall Harvey
Cast: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Mark McCracken, William Schallert, Simon Fenton, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Omri Katz, James Villemarie, Dick Miller, John Sayles, Robert Picardo, Naomi Watts, Kevin McCarthy, Jesse White

Director Joe Dante's affectionate treatment of midcentury science fiction monster movies and the industry that spawned them is a mixed bag. It probably has too much nostalgia by rote and certainly way too much inadvertent '90s period detail, such as the boys' variously feathered haircuts. Officially the time setting is 1962. In fact, it's even more precise than that: October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But some fine Cadillacs in restoration do little to overcome those haircuts, let alone the ways of interacting. But never mind. John Goodman takes the reins as Lawrence Woolsey, a swaggering producer of shock cinema in the mold of William Castle, though he's also something of an Alfred Hitchcock wannabe. In Matinee, Woolsey is opening a new picture in a small Florida coastal town.

Castle, of course, was the man responsible in the late '50s and early '60s for gimmicky horror movies such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts. They were released with arcane come-ons such as "Emergo," "Percepto," and "Illusion-O," which amounted to rigging the actual theaters where they played with things like joy buzzers under seats, or pulleys and ropes overhead for floating skeletons at strategic points. Castle concocted brilliant and hilarious gimmicks like distributing $1,000 life insurance policies to attendees, in case they died of fright. He also produced (and even made a cameo appearance in) Rosemary's Baby. In many ways, you're likely in for more entertainment with a good biography of Castle than this movie, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth checking out.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Lawns" (1984)

Read story by Mona Simpson online.

Mona Simpson's story turns out to be about a searing topical social issue at least as much as fictional technique, perhaps because the subject matter—incest—is so alarmingly vivid ("prejudicial," they would say in a courtroom). I can't tell from a quick perusal of Simpson's Wikipedia biography how much this might be rooted in real-life events. Not much, I suspect, though it was interesting to find out she and Steve Jobs were full siblings, unknown to anyone until both were full-grown. The first half of "Lawns," in fact, before the reveals start coming big time, is much more like a Carver episode. Jenny, the first-person narrator, is a high-strung chattering college girl, who seems a little neurotic but reasonably normal, even as she opens the story with various tell-tale symptoms. She's a kleptomaniac, working in the student post office part-time, stealing letters, cash, and cookies. It's bad enough that university officials have opened an investigation. Jenny knows she probably won't get caught if she stops now and never admits it to anyone. She is also a high achiever, attending Berkeley and making high marks. Gradually, her strange relationship with her father starts to clarify. It's masked by the chaotic times in her life, leaving home for the first time for college, by her mother's strange character, and more than anything by Jenny's continual minimizing and denying. As the details come out in the second half it's heartbreaking and sickening at once. It looks like an epiphany story but doesn't exactly behave like one, which creates a powerful tension. The plot hinges on her steps to detach permanently from her father, by going public and telling everyone. She loses a boyfriend, though her roommate steps up in significant ways. Her relationship with her mother undergoes the biggest change, in seemingly positive directions. Among other things, the news instantly ends that marriage. But Jenny is only starting to grasp the realities. There's so much we can see that she can't, and most of it hurts. We wouldn't be inclined to attempt to clue her in even if she existed in real life and were a friend. She still has so far to go. So this story is actually very powerful and well done. Yet the Lifetime movie flavor of it—or perhaps just the issue of incest itself—also works to undermine it a little. On one level it feels absurdly easy to reach for it to pump up the drama. On another level the story feels perfectly true to that issue and to reality both. Yet the extremity feels just a little reached for as a matter of effect. Dorothy Allison's "River of Dreams," from earlier in this volume, makes an interesting companion piece perhaps.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Florida Project (2017)

Following my usual procedures—call it laziness if you must—I went into The Florida Project blind. I had seen director and cowriter Sean Baker's Tangerine but didn't make the association until I looked it up later. The Florida Project is similarly colorful, though less of that is in-camera (in-phone, to be precise) and more of it is by way of the painted landscape of a motel and strip mall district in central Florida's Orlando. It's a thoroughly professional production this time, more or less. The seamy Orlando neighborhood abuts and serves the tourist trade at Disney World—preys on it actually, more like, because there's a lot of poverty and desperation at the shitty little purple motel that provides the place setting. Also like Tangerine you spend a lot of the movie wondering where it's headed, because it doesn't seem to be headed anywhere. But Baker coaches a memorable performance out of the 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, the overly sugared-up daughter of Halley (Bria Vinaite), a part-time prostitute and full-time hustler, who is probably not even 25 yet. Yes, it's America's famous shithole underside, in the stinking flesh—American poverty porn (American Honey had some of it too, and Spring Breakers and Harmony Korine more generally reek of it). Halley is foul-mouthed and self-destructive—at strategic points she reminded me uncannily of Courtney Love. Willem Dafoe, the only recognizable star here, has a role as the motel manager and brings a kind of useful stillness and gravity to the picture. But Moonee and the kids she hangs out with and serves as a bad influence on—Scootie, Jancy, some anonymous others—are the main characters here. They hang out and make a lot of trouble, with limited adult supervision. They vandalize, shoplift, and commit other petty crimes—one, at least, an incidental plot point, is much more than petty. They screech a lot. They can be extraordinarily cruel to one another and especially to adults. For about the first hour of the movie I hated them and it. But then their very pure kidness started to come out and win me over—the flashes of vulnerability, and clarity, the highs of hilarity, the insane mood swings. The gnawing fear of abandonment. The ravages of sugar. I ended up liking Moonee and this movie very much as it wound inexorably toward an obvious fate. As if to counteract that, The Florida Project serves up a stunningly pointless finish. You might have thought you can see what's coming, but you can't. I respect Baker for trying it, but it's so jarring and discontinuous that the movie would probably have been a little better if he had just sucked it up and finished it off conventionally. I give Baker full credit for Prince's performance—it's coached and rehearsed to some degree, and likely required a lot of patience to get, but it's remarkable and the best thing about the movie.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Wings of the Dove (1902)

After the miserable experience I had with The Sacred Fount, I was prepared for the worst with the last three (and generally most acclaimed) of Henry James's novels. But I should have remembered things are acclaimed for a reason, because I enjoyed The Wings of the Dove quite a bit. Yes, the sentences are long and the abstractions, not to mention the vague pronouns, piled high. It requires some patience. The most interesting character in the whole thing, and arguably the main character, Kate Croy, is also one of his best, even though she is kept mostly on the sidelines and out of sight. But she is responsible for the main plot, a complicated scheme about (what else?) marriage and money. There are points to groan over. As often with James, neither the characters nor the motivations seem quite recognizable as human, but more like fevered figments of James's hot stove brain. Yet the monstrousness of what he imagines them doing is hard to deny. It sets you back. I saw the 1997 film version when it was new, but it's little help. This is not a novel easily filmed. The dithering, smeary, precisely imprecise language is ultimately what makes it. Our narrator—clearly possessed of a sensibility, and perhaps an agenda, hiding some things from us as he reveals others—is perpetually forestalled in explicating concrete action, constantly checking himself and adjusting for nuance. James returns here, in sideways fashion, to his earliest themes, as Europeans are once again trifling with the naivete of Americans. What's maddening is how elusive the action seems, constantly raising the question of whether James has really settled on the single and best way to tell this story. It's quite arguable that he has not. So much happens offstage, for example, that could be emphasized differently or more strongly. That applies equally to the action we do see. It feels like an implicit declaration that reality is impossible to know. We have the facts of this story, a sense of intrigue among fewer than a dozen people, and a sense of how we might feel about them, but very little is certain. Almost nothing, in fact. There is so much more we could know. Yet the ending also feels satisfactory—there's a certain symmetry to the actions and all the ambiguity. James seems to be operating on a whole new level here. Is it perhaps some perspicacious new editor and/or publisher? I couldn't help noticing that the "interlocutor" level in these major novels drops off dramatically (the preferred tic for the usage largely become "companion," which I didn't count). If there is something clumsy in the insights, descriptions, and most obviously in the language, it also feels measured and careful. James seems to be doing exactly what he intends here, and there is a strong sense of clarity to the confident way it moves. In some ways, it feels like you could spend a lifetime reading it, or did.

"interlocutor" count = 4 / 608 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Malibu (2016)

Approximately the fourth album by Anderson .Paak (also known as Breezy Lovejoy, which does nothing to explain the dot in his present stage name), Malibu won a small host of honorifics last year: a ranking appearance in the annual Pazz & Jop poll of critics (#11), a nomination for a Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy (rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?), and repository of four singles ("The Season/Carry Me," "Am I Wrong," "Room in Here," and "Come Down"). None of them charted, but the sleek uptempo "Come Down" is what drew me here in the first place. .Paak has a well-worn voice that sounds comfortably stretched thin with exhaustion, and a rolling huffing way of building up to irresistible pop speed. It never gets much better than "Come Down," but "Come Down" was good enough to carry interest in the whole thing for a while. As so often for me these days, the skits, found sound, and other chatter that can clutter the spaces between tracks throws the momentum off. They are rarely that clever, usually stinking of inside jokes. I love "Come Down" but I'm sick to death of the eight seconds at the end given over to some educational film narrator sounding square ("before Vietnam, when boys were long and hair was short, the center of the surfing world was a place called Malibu"). But .Paak's album is otherwise supremely generous, clocking in at over an hour with 16 full-length tracks and plenty of good ones. The skits in this case are attached to the tracks rather than standing on their own, a certain concession to shuffle and/or streaming format, I'm sure, though irritating in its own way. In a couple of cases they seem intended to connect songs, which of course fails on shuffle. Who listens to albums these days in the given track sequence? I do, for these reviews (you're welcome), but otherwise I don't much. I've been on majority shuffle play for some time now, and I suspect many others are too. Malibu has some swell songs—I count all four singles at least good, plus the sexxee Marvin Gaye parody "Water Fall (Interluuube)," and also "Your Prime," "Celebrate" (which feels like a Sly Stone song, maybe a little too much), and "The Dreamer." I'm sure I'm going on about the skits too much, and Anderson .Paak just happens to be my convenient venting place. But the only hope to make sense of them is by listening to this album in sequence, and it's just not strong enough as a whole to bear the scrutiny. Put the eight songs I've named into a playlist, or listen to the album a few times and pick out your own favorites. Some of them you'll want to return to again and again. The album itself, maybe not so much.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"The Eighty-Yard Run" (1941)

Read story by Irwin Shaw online.

Irwin Shaw's story is a case of fairly conventional midcentury white man's anxiety about failure. It's skillfully done, switching point of view between settings 15 years apart, but the basic idea seems to be how tragic it is that a white man has failed. The fact that his wife becomes successful after he has failed only makes his failure worse. You might want to argue that using football is verging on cliché but I will agree with you only on the general point about sports, because how often does football show up in literary efforts so artfully described? Not often. And the title event is not without its twist of irony. The central memory and high point in the life of Christian Darling (another one for the what-a-name file) actually occurs in a practice session, not even a real game, let alone at a crucial game point. It's even likely he has always exaggerated how good the run was, and still does. But it cemented his place on the starting team, he believes. He was soon overshadowed by others and by his own lackluster performance. The 15 years in question, by the way, span 1925, when he dazzled himself in a scrimmage, and 1940, when he is a much diminished 35-year-old. He lived high off his potential at first, marrying the daughter of a rich man who set them up. That took some of the sting off the football mediocrity. But then the Depression came and all was ruination. This story was written before Pearl Harbor—the basic arc here is about the '20s and '30s. After the stock market crash, after his father-in-law kills himself, Darling becomes a mumbling incompetent. His wife steps up and begins a successful career in publishing as a literary editor. The story is just full of clichés, but what's interesting about them is how they capture a sense of US life that would change radically with World War II. It captures that moment before Pearl Harbor in almost perfect amber. Among other things, football would go on to become the favorite sport in the US and a generator of grotesque levels of revenue. But that's far in the future for 1940, when it's still kind of a gentleman ruffian's unusual hobby, more like, say, rugby is considered today. I don't feel much sympathy for Christian Darling. I wish there were more here about his wife, Louise. I wish the whole thing were about her and told from her point of view. But you can't have everything. And it's a really nicely turned story, no matter how silly or strange some of its ideas may be, which is nothing to take for granted.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Vinegar Girl (2016)

This is the first I've heard of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, published by Penguin Random House under the Hogarth Press imprint, which was originally founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The idea for the series is to let contemporary novelists give their fictional takes on Shakespeare plays. Eight books total, launched in October 2015, and they are still rolling out. Others feature Margaret Atwood riffing on The Tempest and Jeanette Winterson on The Winter's Tale. Anne Tyler here takes on The Taming of the Shrew. There's actually a compatibility between the two I hadn't anticipated. Not that I know the Shakespeare that well, but it's not hard to see his narrative bones constituting a handy frame on which Tyler can drape her modern-day chatterboxes. I think Petruchio's personality may have shifted some in the Russian immigrant Pyotr, but Kate is a pretty straight translation: an independent-minded woman caught in various social snares, and so perpetually aggrieved—"the shrew." It feels like Tyler is having a lot of fun with this and enjoying herself more than she has in a while, and that's infectious. Already it's one of her funniest—Shakespeare gets credit too, as they are usually his situations, notwithstanding that it takes place in Baltimore and involves elderly people incapable of mastering today's technology. The love affair—or "like affair" might be the better term for once—between Pyotr and Kate is the heartbeat of the whole thing, advancing from awkward arranged marriage to a satisfying happy ending that proceeds directly from the characters of the principals, who are equally likable, together or apart. The 29-year-old Kate is a perfect image of women in the 21st century and the choices they face. Some of the changes in her relationship with Pyotr feel like they come too fast. But they are never inexplicable, often quite to be expected, and it doesn't hurt to know the action is backstopped by the immortal bard himself. Whatever the causes, Tyler feels more liberated to work and indulge her own strengths, the usual vexing and comical issues of intimate family interdependencies, with plenty of sweet sweet pathos on the side. The rumors surrounding her last novel, that it was her last and now she would retire, appear to be overstated. I don't want to be greedy or anything, but here's hoping there's a little more where this came from.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975)

Belgium / France, 201 minutes
Director/writer: Chantal Akerman
Photography: Babbette Mangoit
Editor: Patricia Canino
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jan Decorte

It's appropriate, predictable, and a little depressing that the one appearance of a woman director in the top 100 movies of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (presently barely making it in at all at #98) would be a landmark of feminist culture. The only other two movies directed by women in all of the top 300 (for a total representative ratio of 1.0%) are Beau Travail by Claire Denis at #155 and The Piano by Jane Campion at #211. Thus, with The Piano similarly defined by its feminist preoccupations, we might estimate that the only way 67% of movies made by women can be taken seriously is by bearing these themes, which are also certain commercial death. So it's another one of those traps—the kind that perpetually keep the people in power in power. Like credit in finance. Like patience in racial politics.

So it's not surprising that Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig in a bravura one-woman show), whose name and street address provide the title of this very long and slow movie, ultimately has to be taken as an angry woman. It's mostly hard to see, however, as she spends most of her time alone at home ostentatiously wearing a placid exterior with a housecoat, skirt, cardigan sweater, and low heels. She's a single mother raising a son of about 15. She was widowed six years earlier and now appears to be supporting herself as a prostitute in the afternoons. This is established in the first 30 minutes. In the scenes with men she is shown from the neck to the knees in profile, her head cut off by the frame. These scenes are as routinized as practically everything else in the picture. But they turn out to be only a small part, at least in terms of onscreen minutes.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"The Barber's Unhappiness" (1999)

Read story by George Saunders online.

George Saunders's story is overwhelmed by a voice, which in turn has been overwhelmed by life and circumstances. The voice belongs to the barber of the title, who believes he should be married and living a conventional life. But it doesn't appear to be something he actually wants. He is like a character from Seinfeld, absurdly criticizing his prospects, which are mostly fantasies anyway that play through his head, apparently unceasingly. He sees a woman, spins a fantasy of wooing and winning her, and then spins further fantasies of the fights and troubles they would have, and from there flies into brief rages about women, and life, and circumstances. The barber is practically the only real person in the whole story. That's not entirely true. He meets people in a remedial driving course he has been required to attend for legal reasons. Details are not necessary in a mind so full of itself. Solipsism, thy name is this barber. Yet, again like those characters from Seinfeld, it's hard not to like this guy—or, at least, the rolling energies of his voice: "He ogled old women and pregnant women and women whose photographs were passing on the sides of buses and, this morning, a woman with close-cropped black hair and tear-stained cheeks, who wouldn't be half bad if she'd just make an effort, clean up a little and invest in some decent clothes, some white tights and a short skirt maybe, knee boots and a cowboy hat and a cigarillo, say, and he pictured her kneeling on a crude Mexican sofa, in a little mud hut, daring him to take her, and soon they'd screwed themselves into some sort of beanfield while some gaucho guys played soft guitars, although actually he'd better put the gaucho guys behind some trees or a rock wall so they wouldn't get all hot and bothered from watching the screwing and swoop down and stab him and have their way with Miss Hacienda as he bled to death, and come to think of it, forget the gauchos altogether, he'd just put some soft guitars on the stereo in the hut and leave the door open, although actually what was a stereo doing in a Mexican hut? Were there outlets?" That's from the first paragraph. It goes on like that awhile—a jumble of unpacked Freudian impulses that veer in all directions, with little to no evident self-consciousness. It's often very funny, sometimes a little poignant, and just a little exhausting. But I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Pastoralia by George Saunders