Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Rules of the Game" (1989)

Read story by Amy Tan online.

It has been a long time since I read Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, which I recall as mostly a single long piece—actually, I remembered it as a memoir. But the real distinction appears to be between novel and collection of stories, in which case I remember it as a novel. But this is in a story anthology and apparently taken as a stand-alone, so OK. It's about a girl who learns at a young age that she has a gift for chess, and how that complicates her relationship with her mother, and her understanding of life as the daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants growing up in San Francisco. I'm not sure how I would take "Rules of the Game" without knowing about The Joy Luck Club, but it felt to me like a fragment from something larger. The bigger point is the girl's relationship with her mother, which is touched on here but more peripherally. The story is told first-person by the daughter as a grown woman, and it's particularly good on the reveries of going deeply into a game. When a person has a knack for something, often the most important things occurring in the head, or the brain, don't translate well verbally. There's a learning process happening, but it's very hard to describe, and almost has to be approached indirectly. Here that is evoked wonderfully in the names of chess strategies she learns from an older Chinese man: the Double Attack From East and West Shores ... Throwing Stones on the Drowning Man ... the Sudden Meeting of the Clan ... the Surprise From the Sleeping General, and more. Tan's language is always clear and propulsive, a pleasure to read. But I recall the relationship with the narrator's mother as infinitely more developed than what's here, and even in stunted form it's by far the most interesting element in this story. But the story also has many other good points. The way Tan renders the mother's dialect is wonderful, sharp and evocative. The narrator's Americanized voice makes a good contrast. There's nothing so new or innovative about the story it tells of the rifts between generations in a family of immigrants. But it's done so well I want more—not least, because I know there is more. My recommendation is that you just go read The Joy Luck Club.

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)

There's a wash of nostalgia in The Shape of Water that's applied so liberally by director and cowriter Guillermo del Toro that it's almost too much—but I think it's also a lot of what won me over. I went into it hoping for a monster movie that would make me cry, and that's more or less what I got. I knew I loved Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, which is somehow almost 10 years old now. Not surprisingly, she is great here too. Del Toro conceived the role of Elisa Esposito with her in mind. Elisa is mute but not deaf, an orphan who was found by a river. She works as a janitor. Hawkins studied film players such as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and Audrey Hepburn for the part, and she brings a tremendous amount of poise and power to the role and the movie. On certain obvious levels, The Shape of Water is pure movie entertainment hokum, maybe even a little more than I bargained for—closer to Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast than Universal's Creature From the Black Lagoon, and even closer to the musical Wizard of Oz, with its emotional whiplash, yearning desires for home, and song and dance numbers. The Shape of Water is set at the height of the Cold War—approximately 1960, as both Mr. Ed and Dobie Gillis make cameo appearances on various TV consoles in various living rooms. That period detail felt a little rancid to me, with the flashy Cadillacs, beehive hairdos, comfy diners, retro bigotry and such. But del Toro mostly buries it in shadows, with a lot of the movie taking place in a harsh underground facility or shabby apartments. It looks more like Being John Malkovich than Mad Men.

And the most affecting hits of nostalgia lean all the way back to the '30s and '40s. Elisa plays Benny Goodman records for the monster, for example. The monster is an amphibious human-sized creature captured by the American military somewhere in South America (presumably near Black Lagoon, wink wink)—the only name we hear for him is "the asset." The American military being what it is in Hollywood movies, they don't know what they have so they proceed to torture it to see what that gets them. Russians are also nosing around—part of the Cold War theme, with the subterfuge eventually turning into useful plot points. Michael Shannon once again plays an extremely bad guy and he's as good at it as ever. But he's very evil. And Elisa is very angelic. Then you remember: it's a fairy tale movie. It has excesses and actually they run in both directions. It's awfully saccharine awfully often—the monster is beautiful, so much so that at one point he causes a distracted driving accident. Much of that is the giant soulful eyes, but some is the tender rubbery lips of Mick Jagger. Otherwise it is scaly, gray, and sopping wet. The love story that develops between the monster and Elisa is gentle and beautiful, if you're in the mood for that kind of thing. If you're not, remember, Michael Shannon is coming for everything you love and that dude is just bad. We see a few of the terrible things he does. So there is often suspense and high tension around every corner. The Shape of Water sets a moderate pace and keeps it up all the way, with a nice batch of players. Besides Hawkins and Shannon, it also has roles for Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. Doug Jones wears the fish suit. Among other things The Shape of Water is a useful reminder that fairy tales are not always for children. It even spends some time on racial issues—and not metaphorically related to the monster. It's pretty good.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (2014)

I'm still keeping an open mind about the 33-1/3 series, which has spawned so many tempting and intriguing album / author combinations over the years, though too often they seem to be disappointments. I suspect they are hampered as much by the series premise as anything. It looks like such a fundamentally sound idea—one writer, one album, one short book—but the execution can get hairy. How are you supposed to spend your 30,000 or whatever words—on details of production, cultural context, pure critique, gossip, memoir, social theory? With library research or interviews and original research or both or neither? Gina Arnold's return to rock criticism after a hiatus of a decade or so for family and graduate school has to be one of the better titles in the series, simply going by the fact that it's one of the few I wanted to start (for me so far the hard part) and then one I was happy to read to the finish.

Arnold remembers Liz Phair's seminal debut album, Exile in Guyville, and the early-'90s times out of which it came. She lays out how "Guyville" was an actual hipster neighborhood in Chicago, Wicker Park by formal name, ruled by an indie-rock ethos that was largely gendered, and male. Arnold is best when she's getting into these issues and fiercely defending Liz Phair and the album. She tends to cast a rosy eye on the times, and more generally the people surrounding the commercial emergence and fallout of Nirvana, which she alternates with something like rage about the manipulation of indie-rock by the music industry, single-mindedly focused as always on moving units. She more than owns any role she had in an empty commercial process and her sense of shame. In many ways this book feels like an attempt to make amends—to us, and to herself.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

When Your Heartstrings Break (1999)

Standing tall in the shadows of Neutral Milk Hotel and Guided by Voices, Beulah was built from the inside out, starting with the two principals, Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan, who by reputation never liked each other much, once again suggesting that shared musical taste does not always make for good friends. Guitarist, singer, and chief songwriter Kurosky met guitarist, singer, and trumpeter Swan when they worked together in a San Francisco office. Temps, I presume. Keyboardists, bass players, and drummers came and went. The band's association with the Elephant 6 collective came and went. Some good reviews, a little bit of fame, and road life came and went. Four albums and some singles—they never charted. They fought a lot. It didn't really work out. But I love this second album and like a lot of the rest. There is something pop-timeless and pop-ancient about When Your Heartstrings Break: it could almost be an album by icons such as the Beatles, Big Star, Squeeze, or the dBs, or certainly the aforementioned lo-fi paragons. Though Kurosky has all the songwriting credit, Swan is listed with Steve LaFollette as producer, which in some ways feels like the same kind of ruse the Coen brothers have been running for years, trading off directing, writing, and producing honors. Beulah has the feel of another unusual collaboration, like the aforementioned pop paragons, which is borne out by at least one anecdote at Wikipedia, where Kurosky is seen mailing demos from Japan (for a different album) to each of the band members and asking for their individual input, apparently collating it all later. That's not what happened with this album, but even so each song here feels like an individualized insulated little suite, embracing in a way Phil Spector's old idea about the tiny kingdoms of pop, tarted up ingeniously with inspired bridges, sudden attacks of breathless horns and strings, canny use of their trumpet, guitars, keyboards, and whatnot, plus all kinds of shifts in tonal texture and of course those lonesome boy vocals and harmonies, which ache. True to the indie ethos, they play it ironic and distanced, and to tell you the truth I'm not even sure what most of these songs are about. But there is such a beautiful sweet sadness in these oblique articulations. Later we found out Kurosky was diagnosed bipolar and everything made more sense—certainly the strife and maybe some of the music's oddness. But When Your Heartstrings Break is way more than that. It's made of many parts we already know and it's almost 20 years old. But it's still new.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Body Double (1984)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Robert J. Avrech, Brian De Palma
Photography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editors: Gerald B. Greenberg, Bill Pankow
Cast: Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton, Melanie Griffith, Guy Boyd, Dennis Franz

Body Double has so many of the trademark preoccupations of director and cowriter Brian De Palma—liquid camera movement, swooning music, Playboy-style erotics, the ecosystem of cheesy low-budget moviemaking, and more than anything a fixation on Alfred Hitchcock movies—that it almost seems like it could be reverse-engineered out of them. In many ways it was, by De Palma himself. Yet, as a certain type of "watch what happens" picture, it stays interesting even when it's not making any sense, which is most of the time. Does that mean making sense is overrated? As a partisan of coherent narrative, I don't think so. I saw Body Double when it was new, though not since, and coming back was impressed all over with those preoccupations. All these years later it's still no problem watching Body Double through, though it still rarely adds up.

It's Los Angeles. A struggling young actor, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), has just caught his girlfriend having sex with another man in their bed. Now he is at loose ends, angry, humiliated, and heartbroken, staying with friends, trying not to drink too much, and looking for work, anything, to take his mind off it. One thing leads to another and soon he finds himself with a nice housesitting gig by way of a friend of a friend, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry). The place is an amazing artifact of wealth, a saucer-shaped glass structure, like the cap of the Seattle Space Needle, propped against the side of a hill high above Los Angeles, with a view of everything. That includes a beautiful woman, seen through a spyglass telescope, who performs a striptease masturbation scene every night, "like clockwork," according to Sam, who makes sure to point that out to Jake before leaving.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

"Helping" (1987)

Read story by Robert Stone online.

Robert Stone's story is an absurdist and vaguely comical tale of an alcoholic relapse. It's gnawing at something deeper, but I'm not sure I know what that is any better than the two central characters, Chas Elliott and his wife Grace. He is a social worker giving in to burnout. She is a Child Protective Services lawyer. She wants to help but needs the layer of legal formalities to shield her from raw human drama. Chas is also a Vietnam veteran. At this point, I'm tired of Vietnam veterans and recovering alcoholic stories. I appreciate that the focus here is on the relapse, as that is one of the hardest and most mysterious sides of addiction and recovery. But I don't think it has much more to offer than the usual self-dramatizations. There are some exchanges between Chas and Grace that are bitter and caustic, but not particularly believable. They seem too disconnected from their evident rage, too poised and cool and articulate. The drama of alcoholism was popular and widely embraced in the '80s. We saw another example in a story earlier in this collection, Richard Bausch's "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona," which I didn't find much more convincing than this. Partly it's the literary aspects, so deliberately thought through, such as the many meanings and tones of the one-word title in the Stone story (or the parallel ambiguities of using "in" instead of "to" in the Bausch). Am I saying they're too good to be good? Well, yes, in a way. The drama in "Helping" is strange and hard to understand from the outside looking in, which is where Stone puts us. The attitudes of Chas—you can't understand if you're not a Vietnam veteran and/or recovering alcoholic—are difficult to separate from Stone's, if indeed they are different at all. They probably are. The two novels by Stone that I know—Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise—are very good as I recall. And "Helping" is obviously worked over and thought through to an admirable degree. I'm just not sure that the drama of alcoholism (which more and more seems to me related to narcissistic disorders) offers enough to support the long and artful exercise of this story.

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

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Gone to New York (2005)

This collection of pieces by Ian Frazier looks a little like one of his collections of humorous pieces. Most come from the New Yorker and most are very short, under five printed pages. But the themes and style are more like his travel books, focused on his adopted home of New York City. He moved there in the '70s to work for the New Yorker and has lived there ever since, making it his base. He has lived in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and suburban New Jersey. He pokes at New York life in ways no one else ever seems to but that are perfectly characteristic of him. He researches how the Holland Tunnel was built in one of the longer pieces, for example, and piles on with unusual detail. In another piece, a short one, he collects comments left by people signing the registration book at a Brooklyn art museum. One continuing theme is funny in a droll New York kind of way, and that is his obsession with cleaning out plastic bags that collect in the highest branches of trees. He and a friend even design and patent a device, the "bag snagger," which they take on day trips around the city to clean. He says it replaced golf for them. Jamaica Kincaid writes an affectionate foreword—I'm not sure why, but it cheers me to find they are friends—and along the way asks perhaps the most salient question about Ian Frazier. "I asked myself, How did he do that? And that thought has never stopped occurring to me; to this day, when I read something new that he has written, I think, How did he do that?" It's true, and in addition he makes whatever it is look easy. One thing I admire and even envy is his prodigious reporting capability, which only means his willingness to sit and talk to people, ask questions, listen to the answers, and then report them out in his light and easy-rolling essays that nonetheless stay with you. And even though I have read his amazing family history more than once (Family), I don't think I ever realized before how proud he is to be from Ohio. He's careful to make sure we understand New York City—which he doesn't even love as much as Russia or the American Great Plains, let alone Ohio—is only his adopted home. It's not his real home. He's just been living there for a while. Maybe that explains why this is his slenderest travel volume. Certainly worth a look.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

"Flight" (1938)

Read story by John Steinbeck online.

John Steinbeck's story involves a lot of elements familiar to his work, including a setting in Monterey, California, and a poor Hispanic family, living and working on a farm, eking out an existence. The father is dead and there are three children. The oldest is Pepe, at 19, who seems friendly and open and is described as lazy. He loves the switchblade knife his mother gave him as a keepsake of his father. In the story, she sends him to town for supplies, but when he returns he is in trouble. A confrontation occurred and he has killed someone. Now he must flee into the mountains. But he is ill-prepared for the flight, as the story now veers into man vs. nature business for most of its bulk, good stuff if not much new. It quickly becomes apparent this is going to be a doomed enterprise. There's little social commentary beyond the basic premise of the family's impoverishment. The story supplies concrete details of the trail, the escape, and what happens, as Pepe begins to lose everything piece by piece: the knife, the horse, his hat, the rifle he brought with him, and finally water. He's not prepared for any of it and his end is a sad one, but Steinbeck doesn't spend much time on that. He was a natural storyteller, able to move his narratives with physical description, and this story is a fine example. It's rarely surprising but always vivid and engaging, the kind of thing Jack London was also good at, including making its social points in quietly effective ways. Pepe's troubles have little to do with his ethnicity, but it's also obvious his ethnicity never makes anything easier. Early in the story we learn how his father died, and we meet his younger sister and brother, who are 12 and 14, and it's hard to see rosy futures for any of them, but that is never dwelt on. We are simply privy to this one terrible episode in their lives, reminiscent of the scene in a song by Neil Young, "Powderfinger." It's sad and terrible but feels eternal, like a biblical parable. Your heart can't help but go out to the good nature and stupidity of this typical 19-year-old, who believes he is an adult but is not. So it goes. This is a good one.

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Faces Places (2017)

This documentary is a collaboration between Agnes Varda and JR, who travel the French countryside in a van that looks like a camera, taking pictures of people and plastering the results giant size on the sides of buildings. Both have established careers as photographers, though Varda's name is likely more associated with filmmaking because she was a key figure in the French New Wave of the late '50s and early '60s with such films as Cleo From 5 to 7. Lately she is better known for documentaries such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnes. They are personal, quirky, and charming, and so is Faces Places, which might be my favorite of the three. It's a real collaboration too, as the van, the plastering aesthetic, and a lot of the ideas are JR's. We see them working out some of them here. With over 50 years' difference in their ages, the first surprise in a picture full of them is the kind of working chemistry they establish and maintain. Their sensibilities are well matched. JR's work shades over into realms of graffiti and even vandalism—he's a bit of a French Banksy. He takes the streets as the ultimate art gallery and he likes to work big. His van not only looks like a camera but has a photo booth in the back that churns out prints bigger than life. Cool Aunt Agnes Varda has an appreciation for JR's outlaw instinct but her own is more toward humanity and the pure pleasures of art, which rarely fail this movie. She just wishes JR would take off his shades once in a while. Faces Places is warm, generous, tender, insightful, and often very funny. They go to villages and make portraits of miners, farmers, goats, baristas, the wives of dockworkers, a postman, and more. They find an abandoned village, throw a picnic party, and cover the decaying buildings with faces. They have a sad encounter with Varda's long-time friend and colleague, Jean-Luc Godard. In one sequence they look for a place for an old photograph of Varda's and finally find it on a bunker that has fallen from a cliff onto a beach. The result is beautiful but the next day the elements of wind and tide have completely erased it. But that never stops them, or even discourages them much, and that commitment to the work, doing it and moving on to the next thing, may be the most moving element here. Although it could be the palpable connection they share. Or any of a number of brilliant images and many of the people they meet. It's hard to say because there are so many good things about this movie.