Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Broken Wings" (1900)

If it feels like we've been here before with Henry James, I think that's because we have: at the crucible of the choice between a life of love, warmth, and happiness, or a life of the solitude of creative work. It's a brooding story with long paragraphs. The heroes are Stuart Straith and Mrs. Harvey. She is an accomplished writer, and he is an accomplished painter. So it goes. They are meeting by random at a social occasion. They share a past—for 10 years they were close to marrying. But, well, the work—hang it all, the work. You really feel James put his heart into these situations, no doubt because as a lifelong bachelor he saw himself in them. People now tend to assume James was gay, or otherwise closeted, but as far as I know there is no Clyde Tolson companion figure shadowing him, let alone a formal life partner. James was at the work. I'm not making light of it. I respect his work ethic. This story is short enough to be a short story, but long enough to break into five sections with Roman numerals, with separate scenes in time and space. The social occasion, a party, is where these two reconnect, tentatively. It's a kind of dance they go through, seem resigned to, of advance and withdraw. They respect one another. They understand one another. In spite of which they must be apart, because—the work. In the third section they are seeing one another, bargaining within themselves as much as with each other. They confide their sideline means of income. Now we start to get the sense they may be accomplished as artists but stretching to make ends meet. Their sympathies for one another go deeper, as do ours for them. They are wonderfully tender and vulnerable with these disclosures. They have their struggles. Stuart's work doesn't seem to sell well, he has such a lot of it around his studio. But Mrs. Harvey pays him the compliment of a visit and abundant admiration for his work. In the fifth and last section, Mrs. Harvey lets Stuart visit her in her home, after some resistance. They are coming to recognize each other, perhaps imperfectly, even as they begin to realize they are alone in the world with their dreams. Who can't identify with that?

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 19 pages ("interlocutress")

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Night and the City (1950)

UK / USA, 96 minutes
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Jo Eisinger, Gerald Kersh, Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Photography: Mutz Greenbaum
Music: Franz Waxman (USA), Benjamin Frankel (UK)
Editors: Nick DeMaggio, Sidney Stone
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Marlowe, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko

Midcentury was approximately the full ripening of American film noir, that mystifying quasi-genre label that was first applied (obviously) by the French, to Hollywood movies in which black dominates white in the primitive color schema and badness dominates goodness in the narrative. Many noirs are low-budget B-movies, typical for the time, relying on basics of darkened soundstages and often talky two-shot dialogue to keep costs down. The problem now is that this general term "film noir" can be made to fit movies from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the charm is the maddening vaporous attempt to pin it down. Like pornography you know it when you see it. Night and the City, one of the great noirs or certainly one of my favorites, has many of the familiar markers: jazzy soundtrack, crazy-angled shots, black shapes dominating the frames, a preoccupation with lowlifes and crime, and perhaps the key ingredient, desperation as the air the characters breathe. It's classic noir in that the story is packed full of betrayals, treacheries nested inside treacheries. Yes, it's a woman, but Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) is hardly the usual femme fatale. She ends up impaled on her own betrayals—but she's not the only or even the chief betrayer in all the great gobs of bad faith on trade here.

In other ways, Night and the City is unusual. It's set in London, which despite its famous gloom is a little too tallyho for noir, compared with the Southern California scenes of transplanted Midwesterners we're more used to. Director Jules Dassin, a Connecticut native who ended up in New York City, was a pioneer and prime mover of noir, with The Naked City and others already to his credit. But in 1950 he was blacklisted for belonging to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Night and the City was his last Hollywood film, and even at that he was pulled off after the shooting was finished. He had nothing to do with editing or postproduction. Because of requirements of the US and worldwide markets at the time, the result, weirdly, was more or less two separate movies, with separate soundtracks and numerous differences in editing. Full disclosure: I only know the US version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Things They Carried" (1986)

Read story by Tim O'Brien online.

Tim O'Brien's story was evidently conceived as the first story in a cycle of stories going by the same name, The Things They Carried, published in 1990. Wikipedia calls it a novel, but this story reads more like a stand-alone than, for example, Dorothy Allison's "River of Names," which is also from the collection edited by Tobias Wolff. At the same time, O'Brien's story is sounding big themes, suitable for later enlargement. The art of this particular story is that it works pretty well either way—as a story, or as an overture to a novel. Literally the objects of the title are scrutinized. The small outfit of American soldiers on patrol duty in Vietnam is described as carrying rifles, radios, food, camping equipment, and other necessary (and unnecessary) items. They all carry peculiar keepsakes, letters from home and such. As a group, they "carried themselves with poise." And they carry internal burdens. The stand-alone narrative—which might well be developed further in a larger novel—is about a soldier killed by a sniper while the band is on patrol. It is a shocking incident for all, and a crisis for the leader, 24-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They respond in ways we've been trained to expect by Vietnam War stories, in this case by burning down a village. It's good powerful stuff, delivered with a sure grim tone and a lot of insight into private and personal pains. If they sometimes feel like clichés now, that's not exactly O'Brien's faults. He was among the first to use them with Going After Cacciato in 1978, before they were clichés. O'Brien feels a little in the literary war lineage of Ernest Hemingway and Normal Mailer. Cacciato was ripe with literary conceit, saturated through with O'Brien's remarkable eye for the Vietnam War experience. We know these stories so well now it's easy to miss the precision of the execution. I have a strong hunch, for example—not knowing the full-length Things They Carried—that our Lieutenant Cross is a candidate for fragging. Certainly more than one of the characters we meet in this story, not just the one killed here, will come to a sad wartime end. I'm not averse to reading more. The story is fine. But I find myself orienting the same way I do with any genre literature. On certain obvious levels you're never going to be surprised.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Since approximately Saving Private Ryan, big-name directors taking turns at World War II shows has become a bit of a rite of passage (so make that since the 50th anniversary of D-Day). A partial list would include Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), and Robert Zemeckis (Allied). Clint Eastwood made two in one year (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and even John Woo made one (Windtalkers). Still, it was surprising to me that director and writer Christopher Nolan had any interest in the subject, given the indie / superhero bent of his career. But apparently he has been nursing a screenplay for some 25 years. In many ways it shows. Dunkirk is full of a big bushel basket of ambitious everything—blood, sweat, tears, maybe one or two kitchen sinks—but it's missing one thing: narrative clarity. With all the Dark Knight business he retailed for years it might be easy to forget that Nolan is a British citizen. That's evident here, and he is obviously stirred by the British effort at Dunkirk. He pretty much assumes we care as much as he does, and that's where he's starting from. If you don't know much about Dunkirk the historical event and key battle of World War II—which I didn't, lazybones me, assuming the movie would fill me in—then you might find yourself somewhat at sea like all the imperiled people in the movie. It also doesn't help that Dunkirk is treated like one of those things so big it can only be told with the stories of multiple otherwise unconnected people. I never felt like I 100% grasped everything I was looking at—who these people were, what exactly was happening to them specifically, and what happened to my compassion. The battle scenes are tremendous, yes, particularly the aerial engagements, but tremendous battle scenes are not enough. The deaths can be horrible and there were touching displays of human kindness, but horrible deaths and touching human kindness are also not enough. The notable lack of clarity in Dunkirk, in fact, was unexpected partly because I thought one of the few worthwhile points about the otherwise incoherent mess of Interstellar was Nolan's ability to visually communicate experiences of relativity without getting that confusing. I was dubious about Dunkirk from the start, but when word of mouth got to me that it was Nolan's masterpiece I thought I had to take a look. As far as I'm concerned, The Dark Knight and then Memento are still the ones by him to beat. As World War II movies go, I think I even like Allied better, though it's not nearly as self-serious.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1772)

Slave narratives seem to vary quite a bit by size. This one is relatively short, less than 40 printed pages, but some can run to hundreds of pages. They also date all the way back to the 18th century (or further?), and North America is only one part of the picture in the larger slave trade. James Albert (as he is usually called in this narrative, a first-person memoir dictated orally) finishes his days in England, the land he dreamed of all his life, or at least after his life changed radically with his kidnapping. A couple of points are hard to miss. First, the condescension of even the kindest white people and the acceptance of blacks only in the lowest social positions. We know now that these are matters of social psychology, self-reinforcing belief systems and so forth, but still it's striking how deeply accepted it is. The good old days! Make America great again! And then, second, all the risk African Americans lived with, day to day. James Albert is carried away from his home in Africa at about the age of 15, and frequently robbed and swindled by shady unscrupulous people from that point on. But he meets many good people as well. This narrative reads as if it were intended chiefly, or at least partly, to carry the word of Jesus. James Albert claims he rejected the faith by which he was raised (in "the sun, moon and stars") even then, before he was kidnapped, choosing instead to believe in a single superior entity. Thus Christianity was a natural fit for him, goes the narrative, and really that's fine. It seems generous on his part—he knows the Bible and has obviously meditated on it and drawn strength from it. I am instinctively averse to the language of redemption through Jesus the Christ and only Jesus the Christ, even from such an unimpeachable source as this, and I had to fight that in myself a little while reading this. His time in North America was spent in the North, so no scenes of antebellum South, for which honestly I was grateful at this early point. Though this slave narrative is cluttered up too much with religion, it's a lucid and interesting story. James Albert is perfectly likable—sunny and optimistic in spite of his many setbacks. He is grateful for and remembers the good that people have done him, and he has been good to others too. It's hard not to like that. He's also sympathetic for the way he is taken advantage of and bounces back. The slave narratives and related pieces I've been reading are mostly in chronological order, so this is the earliest—but it also seems like a nice way to ease into this.

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

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Tell Mama (1968)

I'm open to the idea that Etta James may have done some bandwagon-jumping by traveling to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record her 1968 album, an album I have never been willing to get far from since formal introductions to it some 10 years ago. She had not had a hit in nearly five years, and by 1968 Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and many others had been churning them out from down that way, with memorable songs, a signature sound with spine-tingling horn charts tight as drums, and a certain mysterious admixture of pain and joy we just call soul. Like many such singers, James always had the pipes to put material over. But she didn't write her own and was thus dependent on others for the good stuff. For this project, she got that first and foremost from the one-two punch of the first two tracks on the first side of the album, which were also the A-side ("Tell Mama") and B-side ("I'd Rather Go Blind") of the first single. It took a total of five credited songwriters to create those two amazing songs, and then some dozen more for the other 10 on the original album (a 2001 CD reissue worth snagging raised the total number of tracks to 22). I'm not sure how to read this—highly discriminating and choosy, on the one hand, or on the other unable to forge a bond with a single songwriter (e.g., Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb). We can read it any way we like, however, and my main takeaway from this album remains those first two songs. In fact, you really have to wonder why "Tell Mama" b/w "I'd Rather Go Blind" is not in the discussion of greatest two-sided singles of all time, with, I don't know, "Don't Be Cruel" b/w "Hound Dog," "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever," "It's Too Late" b/w "I Feel the Earth Move," "American Woman" b/w "No Sugar Tonight," or "Back on the Chain Gang" b/w "My City Was Gone." (What's more, as with "Come Together" b/w "Something," I'm not sure why the B-side is not the A-side, but leave that aside.)

"Tell Mama" jumps on with a snappy Muscle Shoals attack that launches at 0:01 and really does not give up for all of its 2:21. The singer is a woman set up to catch the rebound on a failing relationship and she's ready with whatever it takes: sympathy, a listening ear, and the comforts only Mama can provide. Whether the poor guy is crying real tears or just busy getting off, his head is bound to rest upon that bosom on the night of this song, and the realities of the prospect are all in Etta James's voice. "I'd Rather Go Blind," then, is almost a response song, a parallel situation but a shift in the point of view. Say that the man Mama wants to comfort is more of a dog setting up a side piece, and say the woman he is cheating on is tender and good. In that case, "I'd Rather Go Blind" is her song, proceeding from darkest sources of jealous anguish (maybe even that's Mama she sees talking to her man). It's so emotionally raw and yet so tenderly in control you almost don't know what hits you. The singer's weaknesses are also her strengths—her love and her inability to let go of it, even as she dramatically rehearses loss. The very figure of speech this song goes by gives away how much pain we're talking about here, even if it fails to clarify how real or imaginary it is. She would rather give up seeing altogether than to see her man tell Mama.

Well, that's cute, as an analysis, but I'm bound to point out it doesn't work. In "Tell Mama," the singer has herself witnessed the kind of trouble the poor guy's woman is up to. She's no good. Some of the images are practically searing: "She had another man throw you outdoors / Now the same man is wearing your clothes." That's a powerful (and objective) image of humiliation, which only makes Mama more endearing and appealing within the song (even as we sense an element of calculation to her too, because after all remember she's got the poor guy in a vulnerable position). But I feel you would have to be deaf not to be able to hear "I'd Rather Go Blind." It's such a smoldering sad ballad, with an organ playing long, long notes, an electric guitar adding small-scale flourishes, and the horns punctuating, as this woman, utterly forlorn in the moment, tells her story. She sees her man talking to another woman and somehow she senses something between them. It could well be just paranoia on her part. She can't stop looking at him talking to her, and she doesn't want to, but she's afraid to see what she might see. It's a tight narrative close-up of a moment of doubt in a relationship. We have no idea where it leads. It might be a random moment come and gone or it could be more significant. It's just an ambiguous moment brilliantly caught. And then the whole rest of the album (actually including the bonus tracks on the CD version) is pretty good too. Two mountains and a bunch of foothills. Do yourself a favor and don't forget this one exists.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sanshô dayû, Japan, 124 minutes
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Ogai Mori, Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, Tamekichi Mochizuki
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Cast: Eitaro Shindo, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masao Shimizu, Akitaka Kono, Keiko Enami, Masahiko Kato

Based on a children's book published in 1915, which was in turn based on a folk tale dating back a millennium, Sansho the Bailiff is a calculating and cruel tour de force of casual human depravity. As if offering balm for its horrors, the film is silvery beautiful, with languorous elaborately framed shots like formal works of art, using a full spectrum of glowing grayscale tones. The beauty blunts only somewhat the harsh black and white realities of this story, which is less about Sansho and more about two children, Zushio and his younger sister Anju, and their parents. Even the folk tale puts Sansho in the title, however. He may be a sideline character but he represents a way of life—the strong man way, with vast wealth, slaves, concubines, and a brutal style.

That's part of Japanese history, from the country's feudal Heian period that provides the movie's setting. What's less part of Japanese history (or at least until halfway through the 20th century) also has a good deal to do with what makes Sansho the Bailiff so cunningly effective. Zushio's and Anju's father, Masauji Taira, is a kind of post-Jesus pre-Enlightenment savant. "Men are created equal," he gently impresses on Zushio. "Everyone is entitled to their happiness." Or at least the pursuit of it, I'm sure. Only two years before the release of this movie, Japan was still occupied by a culturally heavy-handed US which favored such sentiments. It's our good fortune (or maybe my American bias) that it works so well for this movie and story.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (1966)

Read story by Joyce Carol Oates online.

It's hard to imagine this strange, disturbing, and wonderfully exhausting story by Joyce Carol Oates coming from any other time than the 1960s—and it's also interesting to note, in passing, how few stories in this survey (only six of 125) are from the tumultuous period. In fact, though this story appears in two of the anthologies I'm looking at, it's the only '60s story in either of them published later than 1964. It's perfectly straightforward about what it is, a story about a girl of 15, coming into her sexuality but still easily manipulated by more experienced adults. Her name is Connie and she is just learning she can break away from her parents and conduct a life of her own. On the day of this story, she has declined to accompany her father, mother, and older sister on a daylong jaunt to the town picnic, which leaves her alone in the house, luxuriating in her freedom and solitude. But before long a car pulls up in the driveway with two strange men who want to talk to her. They are Arnold Friend, who does most of the talking, and Ellie, who listens to a transistor radio held to his ear and occasionally asks alarming questions such as, "You want me to pull out the phone?" They are obviously up to no good and they are bent on luring her out of the house and into their car for a ride. Arnold knows all kinds of things about Connie: her name, that she is alone there for the day, and other details. Very little is explained. We simply follow the strange and persevering conversation as it presses forward. Our minds begin to spin in different directions. Are they going to rape her and turn her out? Is it possible it's all innocent somehow? Except: "You want me to pull out the phone?" Oates herself seemed to have thrill killers in mind, as she said the story was inspired by an Arizona serial killer, Charles Schmid. The story is also dedicated to Bob Dylan, which Oates has said was because of his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." It's a slightly jarring element in an otherwise nearly flawless story about predators in action—based on imagination more than research, I suspect, which unmoors it slightly. Yet at the same time that makes it more fevered and unnerving. Bob Dylan may have felt right in 1966 but now I think her story belongs more to, say, Roy Orbison. (I'm sure that has everything to do with Smooth Talk, the intriguing 1985 movie version of this story, directed by Joyce Chopra, with Treat Williams and Laura Dern.) I've never got far with attempts to read Oates—I'm not even sure why exactly—but this story is great, gnawingly worrisome to read, provoking anxiety hours and days later. You want to know more about these people, not least what happened. But you never can. It's genuinely haunting.

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

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Alone Together (2011)

Sherry Turkle is an MIT professor who has spent a career examining the blurry line between humans and the machines they build. I remember that her last book on internet culture also had a keen interest in artificial intelligence (Life on the Screen, from 1995), but it was more sanguine or even optimistic about where it was all headed. Sixteen years later, she is quite evidently troubled. The book is divided into two sections, one on "sociable robots" and the other more generally on recent internet developments, notably social media. The robot section starts with two toy fads of the late '90s, Tamagotchis and Furbies, probing children age 4 to 15 about the sense they have of the aliveness of the creatures. Turkle always comes back to the strange allure of intelligent machines, acknowledging the reality of the appeal and characterizing it as a kind of projection, triggered in many different ways. Humans are hardwired to see faces, for example, reacting sympathetically and emotionally. When Turkle meets the robots Cog and Kismet, a more serious foray into robotics in the early 2000s, she feels flattered when one glances at her. Almost in spite of herself she momentarily thinks she feels some connection with it—as if it could understand her. It's also how many users describe their encounters with various robotic pets, incidentally suggesting a certain unnerving potentiality of them as caregivers and even companions. The second half, when she gets into Facebook (along with Second Life, a range of confessional sites, and more), was even more interesting. She points out how our styles of communication are changing. Suddenly, very few people enjoy sitting around talking on the phone the way they used to, and increasingly a whole generation is rejecting email too. It's more and more about "checking in" various ways, monitoring screens. Now I'm old-fashioned enough that I still like email, but I also don't like to talk on the phone. A complaint Turkle hears more than once is that it's too hard to say goodbyes and hang up. At the last minute, people don't want to let go. I know that experience. The time-shifting approach—I drop you a text or email or even voicemail (no one likes that anymore either, but I'm not sure anyone ever did) and you respond when you can or want—which is usually quickly, in this day and age, one of Turkle's points. What started as a convenience for people on the go has somehow morphed into a new paradigm of understanding time and reality. We are in this together. We can be in touch instantly. Yet we are too busy to actually spend time together. But we can be instantly available, at least for a few seconds of scant attention. We are all in this separate boat at the same time, hence the title of her book. Along the way, Turkle offers lots of provocative anecdotes and discussion, always searching for the touch points of technology and intimacy.

In case it's not at the library.