Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)

Marlon James's breakthrough third novel is actually not brief, at some 700 pages, nor is it particularly about seven killings, although I may have lost track in the blizzards of surging language and exploding violence. It's a sprawling and slippery mass. Its broad sections revolve around five separate specific dates in Jamaica and in New York City (December 2, 1976, etc.), populated by a babbling cacophony of a competing cast of characters like voices from the lake of fire: Jamaican gangsters and their women, CIA men, a rock critic who reads like a road never taken by Cameron Crowe, and many more. James, like Jonathan Lethem or Jonathan Franzen, bears certain sublimated rock critic impulses, but also like the Jonathans evinces a greater gift for fiction and novels. The narrative is rich with potent allusion. Much of the larger story revolves around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley that took place in December 1976, connecting it to the later epidemic of crack cocaine in New York in the '80s, and the shared fortunes that followed for Jamaica and the US. The first two sections of Brief History, nearly half the book, are dedicated to the day before and the day of the attempt on Marley's life. In terms of the in-your-face style of telling the story, probably the most obvious comparison is with William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. They both use short chapters written first-person by multiple characters, but Faulkner's book is compact and weak sister next to this, which is a hothouse of febrile voice, Jamaican patois, and homicidal fantasies even by the fragments. I got the sense that James wrote and wrote and wrote, then condensed and chopped, and then wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I wouldn't be surprised if the final version represents only a fraction of all that could have gone in. James here feels like Thomas Wolfe in the passionate throes of erupting great novels. A Brief History dwells in streams of consciousness, flowing deep into the heads of even incidental characters, but also feels as if it were written almost unconsciously, by a medium catching vibrations from the air. Reading it for the first time, I often lost the thread through its lush trails but it never really lets you go. It is usually deep inside heads or briskly moving the action along, and sometimes the edges blur. It's hallucinatory, with static bursts of writing as vivid as William Burroughs at his most fiendish, some of the scenes sticking with me still. James has done an impressive job of telling the story of Jamaica and the US, specifically from the '70s to the '90s, but the scope is tremendous historically and the ambition almost limitless. I can't wait to try this monster again.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Closer (1980)

I have a distinct memory of someone somewhere writing about Joy Division and, when it came to their second and last album, portentously remarking, "The only question now was, closer to what?" It's a good question, as the album came out after Ian Curtis's suicide and bore further alarming and eloquent evidence of his state of mind. In many ways the titles by themselves paint the picture (though all songs are jointly credited to Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner): "Atrocity Exhibition" (the album opener, featuring a tractor and Curtis repeating, "This is the way, step inside"). Then "Isolation," "Passover"—really, I'm just giving you the album sequence here. "Colony" is fourth. In a word association game, at this point, I would be saying "Kafka." It goes on. The prevailing vanity—it's not just Curtis, everyone is pitching in to make this work—is of the meditated gaze into the abyss (or "The Eternal," second-last song). "Closer to what?" indeed. At the same time, ever since I read some other wag asking how to pronounce the title, my brain has consistently flipped to the version with the "z" sound, as in "the last part of a performance, collection, or series" (and not "a person who is skilled at bringing a business transaction to a satisfactory conclusion"). We can make some guesses about how far these folks would have gone with Curtis—and we can make some guesses about how far Curtis could have ever gone—but somehow the history of what actually happened is about as far as I can imagine it. This feels like a signoff, a denouement, a finale—a closer, even if it's really just the end of the overture. The music and songs are dramatic but not sentimental in the same way as Unknown Pleasures. And it's not surprising that a band identity this close to the void could end up with someone swallowed into it.

Here's another weird thing for me about this album. You might think I am overly interested in morbid things, and that the death of an artist would find me plunging into the catalog, but in fact I tend to go the other way. I might spend a few days listening to music or inevitably hearing it via media in the gyrations of the moment, but generally I put things away after the event for a long time, and don't always get back to them. So it went with Closer. I finally got a copy at some point but rarely listened. I never thought it was that good, too lackluster or mannered or something, but also I felt uncomfortable listening to it. This went on so long I finally decided I must just not like it as much as Unknown Pleasures. But going back one more time turned out to be the charm as the album has finally sparked up for me pretty good. Once again it's a stacked concept product. The band is steadily improving—that's heard better on the live shows included in the later editions. Producer Martin Hannett is at the helm again and gives it a similar claustrophobic from-the-bottom-of-a-well buff. The cover art lives just as squarely in the humanities vein. Where Unknown Pleasures had looked to science, a vast universe, and the Enlightenment with its graphic representation of a pulsar, Closer ushers us into an Italian tomb, suggesting medieval darkness, with a potent grace emerging from the composition of the photo and sculptures. One album is looking up at the night sky, the other is looking into the moldy earth. One album is black, the other is white. There are a lot of binaries here—and a lot of balance as well. The vision is consistent. So is the quality. Again, it may be hard to imagine listening to them habitually, but both Unknown Pleasures and Closer are great albums.

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Separation (2011)

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran / France, 123 minutes
Director/writer: Asghar Farhadi
Photography: Mahmoud Kalari
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Cast: Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi

A Separation is a domestic drama, as sharp and edgy as it gets, about conservative religious values in conflict. It is set in modern-day theocratic Iran but could as easily, with a few changes of garb, involve Old World Roman Catholics, Pennsylvania Amish, New York City patrician liberals, Indian Hindus, or anywhere people make serious commitments to their faith and a moral life. In the framing story, Simin (Leila Hatami) has obtained a visa to leave Iran but she has only a biblical 40 days to act on it. She wants a better life for her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi)—Simin is about the only person here who approximates a liberal. Simin's husband, Nader (Payman Maadi), is sympathetic to the view but refuses to leave because his elderly father has dementia and still needs his care. ("Does he even realize you are his son?" Simin argues. "I know he is my father," Nader responds.) Termeh seems inclined to stay with Nader. The situation appears unresolvable. Simin says she will file for divorce and, as the movie begins, leaves Nader to live with her parents in the meanwhile.

Because Simin was a primary caretaker of Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi)—a hulking brute who barely speaks from inside his dim fog, a rarely sympathetic onerous responsibility made leaden flesh—now the family's life becomes even more complex. Nader finds a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to come in days to care for the old man. As it happens, Razieh is an even more conservative Muslim. And there are other complications. The job pays little and she has to commute a long way to get there. She cannot arrive early enough to see Nader before he goes to work in the morning. She has to bring her young daughter with her. She is pregnant. Nader's father has begun to soil himself and Razieh must consult religious authorities about whether it is a sin to help him clean up and change his clothes. She hides details of the job from her own husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), because she knows what his opinion would be about whether it is a sin. Things only get worse from this point. The story is tightly wound, as events transpire organically, growing into a drama so intense that the movie can dispense entirely with musical cues. The narrative carries it.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

"Evensong" (1967)

The stories in Dangerous Visions are sequenced by anthologist Harlan Ellison for reasons of his own. No alphabet or chronology need apply. In his introduction to Lester del Rey's story, Ellison explains the prominence is due to general honors that were being accorded del Rey at the time (notably at a science fiction convention in New York) and also that Ellison felt a sense of personal debt. Del Rey belongs to the midcentury group of science fiction writers, with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, but more importantly he was a highly influential editor as well. This shows perhaps most in his language—I'm thinking of Groff Conklin again, the editor whose taste in stories was impeccable, but even a paragraph of his writing could be stultifying. Del Rey's style is more to pile on paragraphs of action with explanations that are scant and slow to come. All whirl and splash but WTF is the meaning of it. In his afterword, del Rey argues it is more allegory than story. Fair enough. It is certainly heady concept. I hesitate to give it away but I'm going to. This is your spoiler alert (actually, something I read tipped me off to it ahead of time and helped my reading, so now I think I'm helping you). The story represents the end of a long law enforcement hunt and capture mission of ... God. Yes, God—that is, Yahweh, Jehovah, the OG Judeo-Christian deist, He Who created all in six days. That guy. He is taken down by Man, or the Usurpers as the apprehended fugitive God calls them in prelude to a perp walk. If you're going for dangerous visions, why not take on the major Western religions and let the blasphemy fly, amirite? Still, for everything that is dull and then for everything that is obvious about this story, it does pack a punch. Del Rey manages a decent biblical tone. "Come forth!" the mission leader tells God as he closes in. "The earth is a holy place and you cannot remain upon it. Our judgment is done and a place is prepared for you." The story is ultimately effective because the blasphemy is so complete. It works to the extent you're invested in anything out of the Abraham branch, which includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I'm not that invested. I was confirmed as a Methodist and never went back, and now think of myself as agnostic if anything. But I'm invested enough to have a sense for how deeply transgressive this story is. The only weakness, aside from the dull language, is how calculated it feels to outrage. That said, it's still a little outrageous.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, July 09, 2018

RBG (2018)

This documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg premiered earlier this year at Sundance. I saw it at a packed house in Olympia on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, with an appreciative audience who clapped and laughed at all the good parts. (This was the week before we got all the bad news from the Supreme Court. We would probably be crying this week.) RBG is a kind of hagiography, I know. How could it not be at this historical moment? Yet in many ways Ginsburg deserves the adulation. We need more heroes like her, and we could use a few more stories like hers too. The picture had utility for me, as I didn't know that much about her life. Family of immigrants, born and raised in Brooklyn, the first college graduate in her family—Ginsburg's beginnings are as humble as her intellect is formidable. She went into law because she was interested in it and then into her branch because of the discrimination she found when she tried to get a job. Her '70s career as a litigator is particularly impressive, setting out as systematically as she could in a shrewd series of cases to lay a foundation for gender equality under the law. Some of the cases are explained in detail—it's good stuff. In that period, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won five of them. From there it was on to a stellar career in the judiciary, and eventually, of course, to a Supreme Court appointment herself. Her marriage from a young age to a good man who supported her verges on unbelievable, but there it is and this is a documentary. They can't be lying, right? So good for him, good for her, good for all of us. She's a certain role model and their marriage is part of it. It was interesting to see her close friendship with Antonin Scalia—a genuine friendship from all signs, which made him momentarily more palatable. (But I was happy another person interviewed in the picture expressed amazement that she could have such a friendship because for better or worse I still have a hard time with that myself.) It was also interesting to see how Ginsburg regards her latter-day fame, an icon to many as the "Notorious RBG." Her comment about the nickname is that she thinks it makes sense. She has a lot in common with Biggie Smalls. They were both raised in Brooklyn. Applause. It's priceless, as is much of the movie too and RBG herself, in a taciturn but utterly charming kind of way. See it for your feel-goods. God knows we need them in regard to the Supreme Court right now.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Cass Timberlane (1945)

Sinclair Lewis's "novel of husbands and wives" is evidently considered minor in Lewis's canon. Wikipedia never discusses it in the article about him, only listing it with his works. I love it more than anything else I know by Lewis, though I can see it has more flaws than some of his celebrated work (Main Street and maybe Babbitt, though not the dreadful Elmer Gantry). The values and much of the detail in Cass Timberlane are dated, as is the case with most books older than 70 years. But the dynamics between lovers in relationships are drawn with clarity and an astute skepticism that comes of experience. Lewis probably started on it in earnest around the time of his second divorce in 1942. It is often bittersweet and melancholy. The main narrative involves Cass Timberlane, a judge in the fictional medium-sized town of Grand Republic, Minnesota, a prairie town that most resembles Duluth (though it is more inland and explicitly distinguished from Duluth). Timberlane is young for a judge, in his early 40s, and a red-blooded Midwestern white man of a certain type—loves to hunt and fish, etc. He falls for a young woman more than 15 years his junior, Ginny. They go around the mulberry bush, marry after about a year, and then the problems start. As a device obviously inspired by John Dos Passos, Cass Timberlane also includes recurring portraits of Grand Republic citizens under the title An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives. They are often great stand-alone pieces, acutely observed scenes of marriage and its give and take within many different couples. The novel is remarkably candid, especially the troubles between Cass and Ginny. They have a stillborn baby. Ginny is flirtatious, and attracted to other men. She is also diabetic, of all things. The sexual politics are mostly the conservative post-/pre-feminism that prevailed in the '40s. In most ways women are understood to have the disadvantage of men, but they have some ways to compensate. Something about this novel also reminds me of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, which is similarly focused on one person, but in relationship with a specific other in a domestic context. Interestingly, the marketing copy on my 1974 mass market paperback of Cass Timberlane is at pains to sell it as weirdly brawny and he-manly: "The towering classic of a man's passions," it says. "He was a man's man with a reputation as big and solid as his name." But let's not kid ourselves. This is a classic woman's story, and that's exactly what I like about it so much. Essential, really.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Back to the Future (1985)

USA, 116 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Photography: Dean Cundey
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editors: Harry Keramidas, Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Claudia Wells, Thomas F. Wilson, Huey Lewis, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan

Everything about Back to the Future is a little hectic. It was rushed to make an August release date in 1985 and when test screenings started to get standing O's it was rushed further to make an Independence Day release. It was getting standing O's in general release within some 10 weeks of the finish of shooting it. For a few months in 1985, its present-day events, dated quite precisely October 26 and November 5, were still in the future of viewers. Back to the Future turned out to be the #1 moneymaker of 1985 and now sits comfortably in IMDb's curious list of 250 Top Rated Movies, currently #43, just behind Terminator 2 and just ahead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As movie entertainment goes, it's hard to deny Back to the Future. In retrospect it offers one of the purest examples of '80s teen comedy, complete with Michael J. Fox, designer jeans, feather haircuts, pulsing Huey Lewis soundtrack, and a bunch of good jokes.

But ultimately it defies categorizing—is it science fiction, romantic comedy, coming-of-age, period piece, action / thriller / suspense, or even ... musical? It sits in my head as science fiction, because it's a time travel story, but that's more in the vein of Groundhog Day or Peggy Sue Got Married, where the fantastic events are just the given premise and everything else is more or less about people. On the other hand Back to the Future is also one of those pictures so full of movie suspense rituals you really want to scream sometimes. Oh no! Another thing went wrong! At the worst possible moment! My annoyance probably speaks to the power of the movie to make us care about its characters and believe the situation—I really want to see Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) make it from 1955 back to 1985 in those climactic scenes. Credit much of this to the screenplay by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, which is funny and well put together. As can be seen here, Zemeckis is also one of the more gifted students of Steven Spielberg, an executive producer here. The script is tight and scrupulously fair about working through the characters and their motivations. They're integrated so neatly into the events that you don't notice or can forgive the ridiculously unexplainable. Speaking of hectic, the movie hits a pace of 88 miles per hour from the start and never lets it flag or really pads out much and the time goes by like it didn't happen, even when you have to snort at some of its conceits. And you do have to snort at some of its conceits.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Dangerous Visions (1967)

Well, I enjoyed doing the long short story project completed last month—not least because I got to add some of my own horror and mystery genre choices along the way. Even the three main anthologies indulged themselves a little in that regard. But too late, I thought of science fiction, which was also a staple of early reading and ended up mostly shut out of the story project. One Kurt Vonnegut story was not enough (and Vonnegut's story isn't even such a good representation of science fiction). To rectify that, I turned to Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's landmark science fiction anthology. That was about a year ago, and just as I was preparing to start posting about it came news of Harlan Ellison's death this past June 27, 84 years old. Sad news—he was a formidable, unique, and always interesting writer, editor, and character.

Dangerous Visions is over 50 years old now, and science fiction has gone through multiple eras since. But arguably the collection still has claims on our attention—for one thing, it's the first science fiction anthology ever that was made up only of commissioned work (rather than plundering back issues of SF magazines such as Astounding Stories or Galaxy Science Fiction, which had been the norm and often still is). I remember when I came across Dangerous Visions in the early '70s the stories still had a jazzy charismatic glow of transgressive zing—"dangerous" is probably fair enough.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?! (1991)

I was sorry to hear about Cynthia Heimel's death at the age of 70 earlier this year because I'd just rescued my copy of this from a box going out the door. Purging exercises have become a regular thing for me for several years now. Heimel's book is a collection of very short pieces, most of which ran in Playboy in the late '80s and alas are not as cackling funny as I remember them. Out on the internet now Heimel is known for the titles of her books. And now I'm doing what all her reviewers do, but I'd quickly like to mention that this and Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye are my favorites. In many ways the persona that Heimel created has to be credited as a primary source for the Carrie Bradshaw character on TV's Sex and the City. I like Heimel's pondering candor about feminism, sex, and realities, but the conservative pressures of the late '80s were not easy for anyone to resist, so she is often torn in many directions as she sorts through her conflicting impulses around monogamy, family, career, and sexuality. Individual sections are devoted to "The Times," "Women," "Men," "Women and Men," and "The Writer's Life." It's not only about sex, love and relationships, but it's mostly about sex, love, and relationships. Unfortunately, it already seems a little dated if only for carrying the flag so valiantly for baby boomers. It was still arguably the flag for youth at the time, but since publication of this book the baby boomers have not acquitted themselves so well (I say this as one of them). In the leadership realm, for example, it has been Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Technically, Barack Obama is also a baby boomer, but like most of them born after 1960 he has more in common with the Gen-X crew (exemplified for me, always, in the movie Risky Business). Anyway, we're starting to know better that classifying people by such labels is divisive and we need to cut it out. I think I still felt pretty good about my generation in the late '80s too so I shouldn't hold it against her. But some of these reports, maybe even most of them, feel like details of another planet and way of life. Who are these people and what made them the way they are? For example, the two pieces about porn. In one Heimel invites a group of her guy friends over to watch porn on video. Then she does the same thing with a group of her girlfriends. My first question, which I think should be obvious, is why would anyone think watching porn is a social occasion? Even more disturbing, the guys fall in and act like it is one. They talk about it and notice points of style like it was sports. One was a self-declared blowjob connoisseur and dubbing the tapes as they watched. What in the motherfucking hell? Did such things really go on? I happen to know they are corroborated in Joe Matt's comic books but until now I had been pretty sure he was just making it all up. Live and learn. Godspeed Cynthia Heimel!

In case it's not at the library.