Friday, October 20, 2017

Love & Mercy (2014)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner, Brian Wilson
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Beach Boys, Atticus Ross
Editor: Dino Jonsater
Cast: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks, Kenny Wormald, Jake Abel, Erin Darke, Joanna Going, Brett Davern, Max Schneider, Hal Blaine

Though director Bill Pohlad owns many impressive credits as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, and 12 Years a Slave, just to start), Love & Mercy is only his second film as a director and his first in nearly 25 years. This shows in both good and bad ways: he's bold or naive enough to try the dual casting—Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively, play Brian Wilson as a young man and as a middle-aged man—but in many ways the picture proceeds with easy TV rhythms and obvious conflicts that are often reminiscent of Lifetime movies. I enjoy Lifetime movies, but a little can go a long way and it's hard to miss how predictably they move and develop.

What sets Love & Mercy off as something more special, transcending the TV movie feel and the inherent problems of a biopic, are the studio scenes where Brian Wilson is shown inventing in real time some of the greatest pop music ever made. The best of these scenes, which are all too brief, are even better than similar scenes in Grace of My Heart (another movie about Brian Wilson but in a more fanciful context). The mid-'60s were an impossibly exciting time in pop music, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are not the only artists around which a movie like this could be built. Similar movies could—and should—be made about similar studio-bound adventures by the Beatles, Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, Frank Zappa, Shadow Morton, and many others. For now, Love & Mercy might be the best we have, for all its weaknesses and shortcomings.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"The Used-Boy Raisers" (1959)

Story by Grace Paley not available online.

This is actually the first in a series of stories by Grace Paley about Faith Darwin, who is the first-person narrator. It's an unfortunate name in many ways, but that can't be helped now. The story is a loose meditation on the trajectory of her life. It feels like feminism without the vocabulary. She is making breakfast for her two husbands. She calls her ex-husband, who is visiting, Livid, and her present husband she calls Pallid. She has two sons by Livid, whom Pallid is now raising with her. Generally her husbands at the breakfast table are sniveling about things in a bantering way, and generally she is contemptuous of them. It goes beyond her names for them. It's hard to call this a story because nothing really happens—or everything has already happened, though perhaps things may happen again in the future. It's hard to say. You can't help but think of things like, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." It's 1959 so it's early for feminism—or late, really, but you know what I mean. Yet that's the vibe. It's a short story, under 10 printed pages, but that's more than enough time with Livid and Pallid. Both have their attractive qualities, sometimes different from one another, but many more unattractive ones. The main interest for me, I think—because mostly the story annoyed me—is its incoherent articulation of what's to come. Paley seems to know change is coming, as did Sam Cooke a few years later. The situation she shows is so obviously ripe for it. Nobody is getting what they want from these relationships, evidently, and yet none of them has any idea what to do about it. Partly it's the old joke about the guy who thinks he's a chicken but his loved ones won't confront him because they need the eggs. As it happens, the whole story, with an opening line to bring it home, is about two men who are peevish about the way a woman prepared their eggs. It's a quirky read, with a spasmodic and elliptical way of moving the action and fleshing out the background. And there are apparently more stories about Faith Darwin too, with or without her husbands and children. As a stand-alone, however, I don't think this adds up to much.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984)

After going big with The Executioner's Song and then indulging himself with Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer trimmed back the metric word tonnage for this genre exercise, which at least is fun to read. It's basically hardboiled detective fiction. In this case the person doing the detecting is an amateur, Tim Madden, who is a marijuana grower and bartender. Naturally he is the prime suspect in a murder too. He is also a drunk and libertine and in general a lot like Mailer's ideal of manly. He is heartsick for a woman who has just left him and he is drinking hard. When Madden comes out of his latest blackout he finds blood all over the front seat of his car and the head of a blonde woman—only the head, no body in sight. So it goes. Crank up the lurid action and mysterious motives like a hurdy-gurdy coming to life. The setting is Provincetown in Cape Cod and there are lots of rich folks, who all seem to be terrified of being seduced by gay homosexuals. It quickly turns out to be the familiar anxiety panic states we know from previous Mailer fiction, perhaps most notably the previous book, Ancient Evenings. But this one also reminds me of an earlier novel, An American Dream, another febrile hallucination with all the Mailer trademarks. Tough Guys Don't Dance was a quickie to meet a contract, but it's clearly Mailer. Somehow so much keeps coming back to anal sex. One character here, an "Acting Chief of Police" with deep military background, is more or less officially put in charge of the homosexual panic. His fear and loathing is trembling on a hair trigger, and we all know what that means. Wait a minute—I'm not sure I do. In 1984, this kind of stuff still might have had some power to shock, and I note for the most part, without giving anything away, that the homophobes are generally on the losing side of things. Still, it's so strange that Mailer keeps coming back to this specter. It's like the gross-out effects in Frank Zappa's music—apparently baked in, and for reasons I'd rather not think about. As private eye stories go, think Ross Macdonald and the infinite complications of fracturing families. At that it's not too bad when Mailer gets out of his own way.

In 1987, a film version written and directed by Mailer came out. I remember the book but not the movie, at all, yet there it is, all legit-looking with Francis Coppola's name on it and Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini starring and music by Angelo Badalamenti. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum even includes it in his list of 1,000 favorite movies. But I had a hard time seeing past the painfully dated '80s production style. It is technically Mailer's fourth feature, but his filmmaking hand is tentative and distracted by effect, rudimentary at best using visual strategies to tell a story. I don't know his other movies. This one is professionally done, but the doomy literary pretensions are closer to Woody Allen phoning it in on a bad day than anything as raw and vital as, say, a John Cassavetes picture, which I would expect more to be Mailer's aim. Stick with the book if anything.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

L'année dernière à Marienbad, France / Italy, 94 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Photography: Sacha Vierney
Music: Francis Seyrig
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff

It's tempting to fix the blame for the admittedly art-damaged Last Year at Marienbad on Michelangelo Antonioni and L'Avventura, which was released to wide acclaim (and derision too) the year before and which the following year, 1962, would be declared in a Sight & Sound poll of critics to be the second-greatest film of all time ever made. (Cooler heads have since prevailed somewhat and the 2012 version of the poll has L'Avventura at #21.) Both pictures are similarly aimless and pointless, er, I mean, ambiguous and ethereal, but the fact is, for all its artifice, I get a kick out of Last Year at Marienbad, and have so far remained mostly resistant to L'Avventura.

I use the word "artifice"—I'll even extend that to L'Avventura (though it is actually much more naturalistic)—and not the word "pretension," which is the one many may prefer. To be sure, I see the problem. Last Year at Marienbad is full of artfully posed mannequins wearing tuxedos and gowns, floating wanly about a mysterious French chateau with surrealistic geometric gardens, a wheezing cheesy organ providing soundtrack, and with no obvious point or even discernible plot beyond the cover story of a resort vacation: "The servants were mute," we learn from the randomly murmuring and often redundant voiceover narration, which is not always that informative (unreliable narrator, thy name is Last Year at Marienbad). "The games were silent, of course. It was a place for relaxation. No business was carried out, no plots were hatched. No one even discussed any topic that might cause excitement. There were signs everywhere: 'Silence' ... 'Silence.'"

Frankly, that sounds like a nice vacation to me, but for others, particularly of a fashionable European early-1960s Heroic Era of the Art Film bent, I'm sure it signifies a certain existential hell.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Cody's Story" (1987)

Story by Robert Olmstead not available online.

An obvious source for Robert Olmstead's story of two loggers eking out a living in a long-term partnership in 20th-century American wilderness is Jack London. Most American story writers with nature themes inevitably hark to him, at least since London's time. And this story is set well after London's time. G.R. and Cody not only make use of a horse (Buck, a pretty good character in his own right), but also "a 100-horsepower fully articulated John Deere skidder equipped with grapple, winch, and arch." Whatever that is—I only know it isn't 19th-century. G.R. and Cody know the wilderness and the lumber market well enough to get by. They have been partners for years, if not decades. Now G.R. is starting to slip a little in the area of mental function. He forgets conversations and brings the same things up over and over. He's responsible for the horse, who is slipping into old age and will likely need to be dealt with soon. At the time of the action of the story, such as it is—it's more brooding backstory overall—it's winter, which means special precautions for the frigid conditions at night. They live in a horse trailer with the horse, who is also a significant source of heat. There's no mention of what it smells like. G.R. questions the precautions several times, which both annoys and alarms Cody. After the two have spent the morning cleaning and maintaining their chainsaws, Cody goes outside to hunt deer in the afternoon. He falls asleep and has a long nap. It's almost nightfall when he wakes. He slips on an icy surface and has a strange, dreamlike accident, from which he is fortunate to suffer no harm. Back at the horse trailer, G.R. again wants to know why they are taking the precautions. Cody doesn't mention the accident. In the night they wake and it is so cold they decide to huddle, sleeping next to one another for the warmth, something they do when needed and are comfortable with. It's a tender and lonesome moment when G.R. raises questions once again that he has asked multiple times. Cody's story, the title, seems to be a realization that all things pass and fall away. Everything is temporary, including their business, Buck the horse, and his long-time partner, sharing body heat with him to make it through a bad night.

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

Monday, October 09, 2017

Mother! (2017)

Truly, I have much sympathy for the people who already hate this one, who walked out, demanded their money back, picked fights with policemen, whatever it took to shake it off, and have spent their time since denigrating it in no uncertain terms in comments threads everywhere. Mother! is pretty silly stuff, and that's evidently by design—a loud existential allegorical chamber drama handclap tricked out like horror but behaving more like a dweeby bookworm accidentally dosed with hallucinogens. Come to think of it, that might be verging on SOP for director and writer Darren Aronofsky by this point. He's done some great stuff before, notably Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, but he often misses. For example, no one in Mother! has names beyond what is given in the credits: Mother, Him, Man, Woman, Younger Brother, etc. What does that tell you? (It gets worse too: Cupbearer, Damsel, Consoler, Bumbler, Philanderer, many more.) The movie's inflection points are equal parts Amityville Horror, Day of the Locust, and Fraud, er, I mean, Freud-as-shallowly-construed (Freud and mothers, you know), with a dash of Rosemary's Baby. Aronofsky has given us some silly stuff before (Pi, possibly The Fountain, parts of Noah) but this one really takes the cake. Jennifer Lawrence is a young wife living in remote isolation with a poet, Him (Javier Bardem), who is suffering from writer's block. She spends her time working on restoring the mansion. Then people start showing up, and Him invites them to stay, one and all: Man (Ed Harris), Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Herald (Kristen Wiig), many others, dozens or hundreds. This is where it reminded me of The Day of the Locust, toward the end. At many points, Mother! is above average in showing the plight of an introvert unexpectedly confronted with socially aggressive people and ambiguous situations. Mother! is often like a nightmare. But it's often like many other things too: the creative process, the Bible, climate change, the Syrian crisis, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, certain Beatles songs played backward, and of course celebrity cannibalism. Very many very big and important things. Yet when the connecting concept is finally revealed in full with the closing scenes, it's so ridiculous, this thing about a crystal, I felt my face burning with embarrassment for everyone involved, including myself for seeing it. Is Aronofsky being sarcastic about such neat and tidy resolutions overlaid with veneers of intellectual engagement (one feels philosophers or other great thinkers lurking in the wings)—or is it just stupid? Those are the kinds of unpleasant questions Mother! left me with.

Of course, I went into it as blind as I could, my usual practice, and later found out Aronofsky himself has claimed his intent was to make an explicit (if compressed) allegory of the Bible, fore and aft, meaning Old Testament and New Testament. In many ways that is picking up where Noah, his last picture, left off. I confess that Aronofsky's pictures sometimes don't fully clarify for me the first time. I don't like it and then on second viewing I do—a lot. I meant to take that second look at Mother! and get back to you. I still do. But let my reluctance give you some idea about the experience of seeing this movie. I'm in no hurry. It dripped with arch theatrical pretension and I really worry that won't change.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Sanctuary (1931)

The first and only other time I read this novel was in the '70s, so I was surprised that I noticed the difference between it and this "Corrected Text" version, which came along in 1981. Mostly what I noticed was the absence of William Faulkner's "misleading" introduction, written a year after the original publication, which he then changed his mind about and did not want included in later printings. But there it was in 1975 or so, a heaving disavowal of Sanctuary as a potboiler, "the most horrific tale I could imagine," written for the money and ultimately failing even at that. I suspect at bottom it's an issue of embarrassment—Sanctuary is a profile of a mindset of which Faulkner evidently was not entirely in control at the time of writing. The basic story is about a white college girl of 18 in Oxford, Mississippi—Temple Drake—and her coercion into prostitution. It's a solid foundation, even classic Zola style naturalism, but from that point on we are hard into Faulkner-land, and he's straining remember. The man who turns out Temple is known as Popeye. He is impotent and sickly, though lethal and dangerous. Faulkner thinks Popeye thinks he can do the job with a corncob. This is sufficiently lurid, yes, but I think we're losing track of believability, never mind taste. There is also a scene no doubt beyond lurid for its times, but far more graphic displays of it can be found by the hundreds now in the "cuckold" section of your favorite porn site. In a word: eww. But one word won't do: eww, eww, eww. Thus my fair warning to you, gentle reader, and too late now for spoiler warnings. I'm a little embarrassed myself by this overheated funk, but that's not really my main complaint. I've seen worse. At the same time, with its insistence on the poetic concrete—to the point I'm not always certain what is going on except on a base experiential level—he seems to want to have it two ways, writing a potboiler and maintaining his literary dignity. He is often examining light and shadow closely, and people and scenes slip easily into affects of oil paintings. He has a particular fascination with the texture of eyes, describing them as soft black rubber, knobby, and utterly black. In the Faulkner universe, this novel is slightly to the side. We run into a couple of the Snopes brothers, who I tend to enjoy though obviously they are a stereotype of poor white trash. I know the name Horace Benbow too—he is the attorney and knock-kneed moral compass here and has appeared elsewhere in Faulkner's work. Sanctuary is an interesting curiosity but I don't think it ranks with the best of his work. For its raw action it's not much fun to read either, though the language as always has its points.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Tusk (1979)

I had never fathomed the emptiness of this star vehicle until recent weeks. That's partly because I never owned a copy until it was years old and then never played it often. And partly because, when I decided to look into it, I went all the way with the Tusk box on Napster. All this time I've been inclined to defend Tusk based mostly on favoring two of its three singles (one very much) and also feeling some need to argue for the Buckingham-Nicks model against the ravening Peter Green hordes. Stevie Nicks made a natural companion with Christine McVie, who is as close to an original member as you can find after Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood, and Christine's brother ex-husband, John, the bass player. I'm not saying Stevie and Christine are natural companions because they are both women, but because in their outlook and mood they are equally sisters of the moon (as documented by name here in fact). If there are any further questions, Stevie Nicks is a Gemini and Christine McVie is a Cancer. They have more in common with Danny Kirwan or Bob Welch than Lindsey Buckingham, who is the real wild card here, a pop gremlin more out of the school of the Beatles, with an affinity for hooks, pop song constructions, and studio wonkery. It was natural in the late '70s that he would be drawn to New Wave. If Buckingham represented a wash of Beatles influence on the old Fleetwood Mac, New Wave was similarly a wash of Beatles influence on punk-rock. Tusk, as noted everywhere, was Fleetwood Mac's lavishly budgeted laboratory to do with as they wished, a job-well-done from the label for being so helpful in selling a kajillion records (Rumours is still in the top 10 of all-time album sellers).

I love the title song, "Tusk," which went to #8 late in 1979, and always have. It's not just the marching band, the whole thing is buggy but also tight as a drum. In fact, "Tusk" starts with, builds on, and never gets far from a basic drum pattern, on which the layers are built vertically, sliding in and out in overlays: nonsense lyrics, more percussion, the gorgeous Fleetwood Mac harmonies, and of course that marching band (the genuine USC thing). The song spins, it floats in the air, it sits down, it dances in place. It's irresistible, Buckingham's primal essay at New Wave. But inspection of the Tusk box has also convinced me that that single version is the only good one that exists (among a handful of other versions scattered over the five CDs). "Sara," the second single, was also top 10, and I liked it too, although I don't like it very much anymore—the mood of Stevie Nicks at her best is present, but slowed to a soporific crawl. You want to get this song a cup of coffee because it sounds like it's about to pass out. I'll stick with "Rhiannon," "Dreams," and even "Gypsy." The third hit from Tusk was a Christine McVie song, "Think About Me," which made it to #20 early in 1980. I'm not a fan. And the rest of the album, some 17 more tracks, moves through Buckingham New Wave experiments ("The Ledge," "Not That Funny," "I Know I'm Not Wrong") and lots of muzzy-headed buffaloing around the place from Stevie and Christine, which in spite of themselves sometimes wander into decent places, but only occasionally, such as a certain keening apotheosis in "Sisters of the Moon." For the most part Tusk is way too much work with way too little reward. Proceed to Mirage.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

"Aunt Granny Lith" (1990)

Story by Chris Offutt not available online.

Chris Offutt is a native son of Kentucky, which is a good thing because events here traffic dangerously with white trash caricatures. Casey is a moonshiner and maybe a drunk too. Beth is his third wife—his first two died of freak accidents on their wedding days. Casey is not under suspicion for anything. It's not that kind of story. It is, in fact, more the kind of story tempted to poetic flights like portentous wedding days. The deaths are symbolic of Casey's star-crossed fate and/or Beth's ability to back it off with brute strength and courage. Offutt has written that this story "is a hybrid of the Book of Ruth, an eastern European folk story, and the Eleusinian Mysteries from ancient Greece." I guess I'm happy to know it. Offutt also mentions that "two of the female names—Lil and Lith—form the name of Adam's first wife," which I found interesting because I didn't know Adam had a first wife. I read the story first without benefit of any of this, and was entertained by the febrile vibe. It opens, for example, with an energetic brawl between two women before breaking off into the extended flashback that provides most of the action. Knowing the literary sources makes me think I might get more out of it another time, but didn't inspire an immediate revisit. It's rich with detail and swift-moving events, and everything seems to add up. The stuff about Ruth and Adam only packs in more meaning. But hold on a second. Setting aside the thing about Adam having a first wife, how in the world are we supposed to take this stuff about Casey's first two wives? It's so ridiculous as to call attention to itself. Is it a comical transport? Some kind of literalism beyond my ken? As a teen and young adult I snorted at the very idea of symbolism in literature as a lot of preening mental masturbation. I'm more willing to accommodate it now (and good old ham-handed allegory too!) though I remain a little dubious. They still seem a little too easy. Of course, nothing is simple about this story, so there's that. And it's perfectly engaging on the surface, with lots of dialogue, action, and short paragraphs. Maybe I resent that it's making me work so hard after it promised so much fun. More likely, I really don't have much sense of what just happened when I read this story. At a time like this, I miss belonging to a reading group.

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