Thursday, July 20, 2017

"The Outstation" (1924)

Story by W. Somerset Maugham not available online.

I thought this story by W. Somerset Maugham was pretty good, though unfortunately marred by comparison with an earlier and better story in the collection with similar themes by Joseph Conrad, "An Outpost of Progress." Both are set in British colonies across the globe and involve conflicts encountered by the white men stationed there. Conrad is concerned with the violence and barbarism of colonialism, whereas Maugham appears to have more the portability of the British class system on his mind, with an exotic background that somehow forces the conflict. It's as effective in its way as the Conrad, but not as visceral. Maybe that's what I miss. Maugham's story has the more interesting characters. It's told third-person omniscient, mostly from the point of view of the ranking white man, Mr. Warburton, at a Malaysia station of a private trading company. Warburton is an effete upper-class toady, a carefully defined "snob." His new assistant, Mr. Cooper, is a blustering fellow on the rise from the working class. He is competent in his work, but rejects the dress and manner of Warburton as phony. Cooper knows well on a blunt level the injustice of the class system, but it is Warburton who is more capable of kindness to "inferiors." Cooper beats and mistreats his servants, calls them "niggers," and can't understand Warburton's objections any more than he can understand the requirement to dress for dinner. Warburton is caught by the situation, as Cooper is too good at his job to move him elsewhere and replace him. They modulate from being strained with one another, to hostile, to quarreling, and finally they stop speaking altogether. "Each lived in his own house as though the other did not exist." I don't think I'm giving too much away if I let you know that going from bad to worse is the basic narrative arc here. But here also is where the comparison with Conrad becomes apt again. Maugham continually erects a stiff upper lip British sensibility around the details that leaves things just a little more distanced than I think is called for. These characters are complex and interesting and in vital conflict with one another. I wanted it all more out in the open—or perhaps a better view of the inside—and the result of the disaffection is that the conflict feels slighted a little, as if it were something proposed as a thought experiment of some kind. Or is that just the comparison with the Conrad again?

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

It's a strange feeling to go back to something so adolescent, by definition, at a time when adolescence is far more memory than reality. It's easy enough to see why I fell in love with this book when I was 15. The language is a torrential force in its own right, that cocky, wheedling, judgmental, insecure fine whine of the teenager in living angst—the invisible, the unheard, yearning to be seen and heard. Holden Caulfield is no one I would like to know anymore (if I ever did—more like I felt I was him) (there's a telling parenthetical). When I see him in public now I go in the other direction as soon as possible. And yet it's impossible not to have at least some affection for the poor guy. Details I never noticed before: how big he is, over six foot two. How often he uses the word "really," like a tic. The book is known for its use of the word "phony" but I'd bet "really" is in there even more. I really would. That singing narrative voice was J.D. Salinger's great gift, I think, and his most famous novel is one of the best examples. I'm almost, not quite, as well-read as Holden Caulfield now, so I caught more of the literary references. The Catcher in the Rye is narrow, in a way, with its Manhattan and East Coast preoccupations. It's a novel about an upper-middle-class prep school kid who's a little high-strung. If I had only his problems I'd be doing a lot better already—it's open to that kind of class-based derision, I can see that better now. Yet it transcends prep school and Manhattan and class. Holden Caulfield gets inside your head as much as any other first-person fictional character, and he's on a profound quest too, looking for significance in a world of phony surface. He reminds us of that adolescent idealism whose momentum, if we are lucky, carries us through middle age, when all the hard realities strike. It's easy to snort over his small problems, particularly the ones he creates himself in his own fatuous stupidity, such as an encounter with a prostitute, or picking a hopeless fight with his dormitory roommate. He is on a hard downward spiral and he's taking us with him. That's the trajectory here. According to Wikipedia, The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since its publication in 1951, and is still moving 250,000 a year. Amazing. So it is off its peaks but still widely read. I'm surprised by that, honestly, because it's often dated, especially in its treatment of women and girls. But Holden Caulfield remained compelling on a recent visit, if more cringeworthy more often than I remembered, and it's still attracting new readers too, so it must be doing something right. P.S. When are we going to see the posthumous Salinger manuscripts? Come on lawyers, we're counting on you.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Close-Up (1990)

Nema-ye Nazdik, Iran, 98 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Abbas Kiarostami
Photography: Ali Reza Zarrindast
Cast: Abbas Kiarostami, Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Monoochehr Ahankhah, Mahrokh Akankhah, Hossain Farazmand, Hooshang Shamaei, Mohammad Ali Barrati, Davood Goodarzi, Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi

I debated about whether or not I should classify this critical favorite by Iranian director, writer, and editor Abbas Kiarostami as a documentary. Wikipedia calls it "docufiction," which is reasonably close to "docudrama," my first inclination. It's based on true events, with real people from the story, but the scenes are mostly (or sometimes) reenactments, cunningly devised to make points about truth and reality. Then I noticed that in the titles Kiarostami credits himself for "screenplay." Somehow, in my mind, that settled it. A screenplay signals fiction for me, whereas a simple "written by" might have still kept it plausibly in play as a documentary. It's a shady line.

And it doesn't help that the documentaries ranking highest on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (and its companion 21st-century version as well) already tend to be unusual versions of the mundane fact-based form we usually think of, even operating at highest levels (say, Frederick Wiseman). You might even want to rule them out altogether for various formal infractions. I mean, look: Man With a Movie Camera (too evangelizing), Shoah (too long), The Gleaners and I (too personal), Tie Xi Qu (also too long), and now Close-Up, which I am tentatively calling too meta or postmodern to be a documentary.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Shiloh" (1982)

Read story by Bobbie Ann Mason online.

Bobbie Ann Mason reads like another writer in the second half of the 20th century who was influenced by Raymond Carver. She does with her native Western Kentucky much as Carver did with his native Pacific Northwest. "Shiloh" is about the end of the marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean. It's filled with poignant detail and the routines of busy lives attempting not to deal with important issues. Leroy, a long-haul trucker, has recently been laid up by a serious accident on the job. Now he is afraid to drive again, but he doesn't know how to be useful. He takes up an assortment of hobbies while he convalesces, and eventually decides he wants to build a log cabin by hand for his family, almost as if that's just another hobby. Norma Jean is having none of it. She treats him as if he is going through a phase—isn't he? Her mother, Mabel, also thinks it's a ridiculous idea. She was raised in a log cabin. "It's no picnic, let me tell you," she says, trying to steer him away from the idea. Norma Jean works at the cosmetics counter in a drugstore, and spends a lot of her time exercising, trying to tone her arms. Leroy and Norma Jean had a child many years earlier who died of crib death, and no children since. Mabel wants them to visit the Shiloh battlefield nearby. Mabel went there for her honeymoon and perhaps she thinks it will do their marriage good. They finally go there for a heavily freighted and symbolic visit, the time and place Norma Jean chooses to tell Leroy she is planning to leave him. In this civil war, Leroy represents the union, and Norma Jean is seceding. Neither character is unsympathetic, though both have annoying points. The early '80s is about the time divorce was slipping into widespread acceptance, starting to become just what people did, the way staying together used to be. It's a sad scene. Marriages become the mass victims the way the soldiers were at Shiloh. There are no tears or recriminations when Norma Jean makes her announcement there. There's only a depressing sense of finality—depressing, but not consuming, because life goes on. It's too soon to want for death as the way out. There's little sense anyone in this story has changed or will change by the end. Just sad resignation, squaring shoulders, and forward into the future. It's how we live now, still.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

The latest from director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola won her a Best Director prize at this year's Cannes. It's a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name directed by Don Siegel—or, at least, it's based on the same literary property, the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. I don't know the novel, or the '71 movie, but obviously this is focused more on the women's point of view. It's a spooky Southern gothic by all the signals, or wants to be, a period piece set in Civil War Virginia full of hysterical women and violent men. I was never strongly persuaded by the story about a wounded Yankee soldier behind enemy lines. He may or may not be deserting from the war, but anyway he is injured and comes to find himself in the care of the seven Southern women and girls left eking out a life (and education) at Martha Farnsworth's boarding school for girls. It's 1864 and the fog of war is banked thick—those still at the school have lost people, or everyone. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is a no-nonsense schoolmarm and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is the last teacher left. For some reason, they don't want to turn the wounded soldier over to their own. They treat his wounds and keep him out of sight. The two single women and five adolescent girls deliver random charges of undirected sexual energy, especially with a handsome, dashing, and vulnerable soldier in the house. They are all drawn to Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in many different ways. Elle Fanning is a sexualized adolescent with a powerful crush and Oona Laurence is an endearingly sincere botany nerd. Miss Farnsworth and Edwina have their own histories and feelings about the situation. Inevitably there's some Virgin Suicides chemistry in the many scenes with the girls in groups, and in the strange group psychologies too, as strained through Tennessee Williams. The presence alone of a man among these women and girls works old-fashioned alchemy on them—they dress up a little more, sneak into the room where he rests to visit, each with her own agenda, and nervous jealous spats erupt among them. McBurney is hard to read, an Irishman recently come to America, and a substitute who accepted money to take the place of a Northerner in the war. He may or may not be a rogue, but he's certainly a man alone with women with nothing to do besides rest, recuperate, and study. He appears to have no particular loyalty, in love or war. Things in The Beguiled are generally going in one direction and then with a single incident suddenly shift to another, opening the picture and momentarily promising to take it to unexpected places. But then it shifts smoothly back to less surprising precincts. That could be a problem with the novel. Or it could be my problem with Tennessee Williams. The performances are hothouse great, with lots of skillful ensemble pieces, but I came away a little underwhelmed. I'm scoring The Beguiled as more of a miss.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Angle of Repose (1971)

Wallace Stegner's novel has a structurally complicated point of view, arcing across time and generations. I wanted to connect that with the title, but as a term "angle of repose" is less about a viewpoint and more about geology and landscape engineering. That's appropriate because the husband of the main character is a self-educated mining engineer (who also works on diversionary waterway construction, such as dams) in the 19th-century American West. The star of this show is Susan Burling Ward, who is based on the historical figure Mary Hallock Foote, an illustrator and writer who followed her civil engineering husband around the West, and sent back reports to the East. This is all news to me. The narrator is the grandson of this couple. He is also a 58-year-old academic historian confined to a wheelchair because he has lost a leg. He is working on a project based on his grandmother's letters. What I like most about Angle of Repose is the way it spins out stories of the Old West. Its particular angle of view is the self-made American man—one thing that eventually holds back Oliver Ward is that he has no formal college education—making things out of the land with his hands. Susan is even more resourceful in her way, especially working within the limitations of being a woman and an artist. The novel was published in 1971, and it's evident in some of the modern-day passages that "Women's Liberation" was still strange and unfamiliar. I didn't get the sense that Susan's role as the main character was in any way intended as a model of feminism—if anything, it's pulling in the other direction, locating her strength in her strong sense of tradition. Stegner might get a little cute with some of his conceits. The narrator is not just researching a book, but this is that book. Toward the end we see the narrator, Lyman Ward, musing over how he will title it "Angle of Repose." Ayup. It ends on a note out of a horror movie, which is as out of place as it is effectively done. I think on the whole I could have done without it. Without a doubt the best parts of the book, and most of it, take place in the distant past. The specificity of the places—Leadville, Mexico, Idaho—is vivid and wonderful. At the same time, the modern mind intrudes often on these scenes, as we are led down the garden path by the narrator into penetrating the interior lives of heroic and larger-than-life characters. The frame doesn't work, but the canvas is pretty impressive.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

I still wasn't playing CDs on computers when I bought this album new, when Prince was still going by the glyph symbol. So it took me a while to catch up with what a multimedia clusterfuck it can be. Pro tip: when prompted, choose "play audio CD" on the simplest platform available. Do not attempt to rip. Do not attempt to engage the enhanced features. Even this early in the internet era (no doubt symptomatic of his battles with Warner Bros.), Prince was asserting his copyright privileges with unrelenting aggression. The enhanced features here create a computer environment I could only get rid of via complete reboot. I suppose that could be Windows 10. But Prince never really changed that stance, which was the main reason there were so few videos to share on social media on the occasion of his death. For me, the ritual sharing of individual song videos is one of the few things I like about the internet's response to celebrity death. At any rate, there are certainly other caveats to make about this album—it rarely rises an inch or two above the absolute floor of Prince product. Recall, however, that even Prince product reliably delivers various points of pleasure, not just mere professionalism. If he is barely capable of partying like it's 1999, whose fault is that anyway? You can always go back to 1982. This is more smooth and slick, attempting (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to be radio-friendly, and with the usual interesting motley of guest appearances: Chuck D, Eve, Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, and Maceo Parker. There's also a nice cover of a great Sheryl Crow song, "Everyday Is a Winding Road," which is not the track on which Crow appears. There are a couple of hidden tracks too, though one is an ad, and generally they are problematic as well in terms of functionality. Predictably, the one that is not an ad, "Prettyman," is worth the bullshit to get to. It's just a matter of waiting. From the cover art, Prince appears to be signaling a willingness to embrace the color purple again, after The Gold Experience of four years earlier; I consider that a neutral factor overall. This may be the first Prince album I know yet with no standout tracks whatsoever (well, maybe "The Sun, the Moon and Stars" makes me go a little weak), yet I played it often when it was new and have never minded running it one more time in recent days—except for the functionality issues. And meanwhile commanding prices that start at $32 for this crappy multimedia product, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (wonderful title, by the way) really can't get to streaming venues and/or a thoroughly rethought remastering soon enough. Come on, lawyers. Get on it.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Marriage a la Mode" (1921)

Read story by Katherine Mansfield online.

Katherine Mansfield is a writer originally from New Zealand, a short story specialist later associated with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and a distinctly modern voice. This story, in which no one has pie with ice cream, probes at the dynamics of a marriage growing stale with familiarity and age. William and Isabel are approaching middle age, with two children in grade school. He commutes to a job in London that is demanding, with long hours. She has recently found new friends who are shallow and foolish but fashionable. She finds herself growing apart from him. The story turns on epiphanies occasioned by William traveling to spend a day and a night with his family and Isabel's new friends. The couple has recently moved to a larger house in the countryside, which Isabel wanted. For William it has made his commute even harder, his time with his family even more limited. He is too busy with his work to give much thought to gifts for his children on his visits, and he feels guilty. When he arrives at the station, Isabel is there to get him with her friends. On the one hand he is happy she has come for him, but on the other, she is wrapped in the armor of her friends' posturing. They are a familiar type of 20th-century European upper-class wastrel, with no concerns for anyone and happy to use all who will let them. They make charming empty statements and mostly ignore William, which goes on for most of his visit. He's so disturbed by the way he's treated that he composes a letter to Isabel on the train back to the city—a searching, heartfelt letter about the state of their marriage. When it arrives, Isabel is with her friends and reads it aloud to them. "A love-letter!" they exclaim. "But how divine!" We never hear much of the letter verbatim, we just imagine what's in it based on their reactions. While her friends are hilarious, Isabel has a strange response. At first she makes fun of it with the others—she reads it to them, after all. But then she has an attack of remorse, takes the letter to her bedroom, and reflects on its gravity. She knows it's serious. She knows she must make a decision. She intends to make the recommitment to her husband. But then her friends call to her and she quickly readjusts again. She can write to William later. "And, laughing in the new way, she ran down the stairs." I love that "the new way."

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

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Law & Order, s2 (1991-1992)

If the first season of Law & Order was a little better than I expected, the second season was a little worse. I'm sure part of it is that these episodes are so well-worn now, replayed over and over in the earliest flush that dominated the rerun circuit for many years—the way I've seen most of Law & Order. They are still working to make the pieces fit in the second season. In the first episode, Max Greevey (George Dzundza) is summarily assassinated and it's hello to Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) as the new partner for Mike Logan (Chris Noth). It's also hello to Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick), who works with Logan on his grief issues and then sticks around for another 86 episodes as the resident forensic psychology consultant. There's still a lot of churn going on, casting adjustments and other trial and error shots (prosecutors Ben Stone and Paul Robinette have a vicious tennis rivalry in one episode), but the main departure from what I expected is that the themes have shifted from the explosively topical and more into clockwork studies of the procedures, especially on the legal side. Intricacies of plea bargaining and other deal-making to work the system to mutual advantages (among at least prosecutors, defendants, victims, and the press) are often on display in the episodes of this season. For the district attorney's office, the defense attorneys, and often the criminals too, the wheeling and dealing is all part of business as usual.

Again, using New York on location as the setting is pitch-perfect—so much rich character from so many different directions. Also again—and true for most of the run of the series—the incidental casting can make for entertaining rounds of face spotting, as you never know who will show up. Some people I saw (all making good): Lewis Black as a pornographer, Allison Janney, Jerry Orbach as a defense attorney, Sam Rockwell, and Eli Wallach. Both of George Costanza's parents show up, in separate episodes (Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris). Other parts of the formula are starting to lock in. The blackout-like sequence before the titles, usually the reveal of a crime, usually ending on a snappy hard-bitten line, e.g., "Education. It's a wonderful thing." Cragen (Dann Florek), who supervises the detectives, gets lots of great lines too. Or the ritual arrest and reading of the rights at the midway point, followed by an arraignment after the break. The plots are starting to get more twisty. You're not always sure where a case is headed, or what crime the trial will end up being about, as investigations develop. They're already unafraid to go to some wild places. The topicality may be toned down, but it's still there, if not yet as crisp and sharp as it will become—or was, in the first season. The show is still in a process of becoming in this season, and has a ways to go. It's still solid TV with its ultimate strengths already self-evident: classic police procedural extending the form by wedding it to its natural mate, the courtroom drama. This season includes the first episode I ever happened to see, or the last 20 minutes of it (I had tuned in way late, flipping around the channels). It's about a serial killer (creepy James Rebhorn), with Barbara Barrie, Allen Garfield, and an outstanding performance by Rutanya Alda (The Deer Hunter, Mommie Dearest). The plot is a bit convoluted, I can see now, but with a typically riveting way of plodding forward. Strewn with great lines, as they all are. Ben Stone: "He wants a slap on the wrist." Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, yet another of the show's trademark players): "So start slapping."