Friday, April 28, 2017

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu, Romania, 153 minutes
Director: Cristi Puiu
Writers: Cristi Puiu, Razvan Radulescu
Photography: Andrei Butica, Oleg Mutu
Music: Margareta Paslaru
Editor: Dana Bunescu
Cast: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Bogdan Dumitrache, Mihai Bratila, Monica Barladeanu, Mimi Branescu, Rodica Lazar, Adrian Titieni, Clare Voda

With the strange and powerful Death of Mr. Lazarescu, you almost have to start by talking about what it's not. It's not a whodunit mystery even though the form of the title is straight out of that genre. It's certainly not a comedy, wry, black, or otherwise, although it appears that's what a marketing person decided was the way to sell it. "The most acclaimed comedy of the year," the cover of my DVD package ridiculously blares. "A black comedy with serious side effects." The movie is also not really any indictment of a healthcare system, though it's easier to see how someone could make that mistake. The Romanian healthcare system does not exactly come off like an innocent bystander here, but the more closely you pay attention to the circumstances and context the less clear it becomes who if anyone is at fault. If anything, it's an indictment of life and death, like the old joke about the restaurant with bad food and small portions.

But I repeat, it's not a comedy (except, maybe, a version of the "man plans, God laughs" jibe). But the package messaging alarmed me that I had misremembered the movie, which left me floored the first time I saw it. So this time I started with the extras, where I was relieved to find an uncomfortable director and cowriter Cristi Puiu nervously walking that one back in an interview, along with other misconceptions. In fact, I like very much Puiu's own term for what he's trying to do here: the "cinema of testimony." It's good because perhaps the nearest relative to this movie is a documentary, Frederick Wiseman's Near Death. It's equally as clinical, but Puiu's fictional element brings a wholly more satisfying pathos and symmetry to it, which almost feels classical in its simple structure. After talking about everything that it is not, it's time to talk about what The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is. See title.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Girl" (1978)

Read story by Jamaica Kincaid online.

Jamaica Kincaid's story is short enough to qualify as a "short short"—only two printed pages. One paragraph and a single long sentence, in fact, with its many clauses separated by semicolons. It is thus a kind of stunt, or experimental, whereas I think of short shorts as coming with some kind of hard twist against expectations. "Girl" has no surprises after you figure out what's going on. It is fragments of a lifelong dialogue between a mother and a daughter, with the mother doing all the talking: " ... this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father's khaki shirt so that it doesn't have a crease; ... " And so on. It was published in the New Yorker in the '70s and bears the preoccupation of the time with feminism, exploring the ways that women themselves train each other into the various social expectations of their gender that have become so toxic and stifling. The mother may be wrong in her values but she is not unsympathetic. The implicit theme of sexuality comes up frequently in this strangely formal harangue, in the form of blatant slut-shaming, as we call it now. Despite the harsh tone, a bond plainly exists between the mother and the daughter, and large portions of this story, perhaps most of it, are fierce love. Yet the overt messages are so destructive, so soul-inhibiting, it's hard to see around them. The structure of the single long sentence with handfuls of semicolons implies a litany that went on for years, went on forever. It's all the mother, except for the title, which gives us the point of view and subtly reminds us that the harangue is directed at a person who is impossibly vulnerable, a child. The brevity of this story, and its bludgeoning punch, help us feel the rage that motivates it. It also explores the rage, which is almost intimidating, the result of a lifetime of growing up with lies, distortions, and oppression. The mother reminds me, in this day and age, of nothing so much as Fox News zombies, made angry by the lies fed them and yet beaten down themselves by a lifetime of unfair struggle against forces simply more powerful, who dictate the terms of reality to them, over and over, until they repeat them as if they are common sense. We're all in this boat now, it sometimes seems, a fact seen better, in the '70s, by women, gays, and people of color. Kincaid's story strikes very hard.

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Case for Christ (2017)

I assumed from the title that this was going to be one of those politically driven hatchet-job documentaries like Obama's America and other projects from professional dingbats like Dinesh D'Souza. It is actually something much better (or worse, I suppose, depending on your view): a fictional narrative treatment of the "based on TRUE events" journey of a man and his wife from skeptics to Christianity. It's part of the new "faith-based" Christian market which tends to make a point of blowing up around Easter. Last year it was more of God's Not Dead and Miracles From HeavenThe Shack came out last month. Needless to say, perhaps, The Case for Christ is a fraud made by smug people who are not above distorting the terms of their argument with bluster, if nothing else, for their own advantage. Their idea of proof is to describe flogging in detail—the Mel Gibson argument for faith. I understand they're saving souls and that makes everything fair, so whatever. You buys yer ticket and you takes yer chances. What I found more interesting is the view back that it projects of "worldly" people—self-proclaimed atheists, strutting rationalists, and readers of Voltaire. It's a glimpse into what we look like to them from their world, where they see themselves as persecuted at every step. Christians, of course, are not persecuted at every step, certainly not in the US, where they wield an extraordinary amount of power and always have since the earliest genocides of Native Americans. Churches don't pay taxes. Start with that. Yet the victim theme is prominent and inescapable here, as Leslie Strobel (Erika Christensen) has a conversion experience and embraces sweet Jesus, figuratively leaving behind her husband Lee (Mike Vogel) as she becomes more involved with a church. Lee has a job at the Chicago Tribune as an award-winning journalist and plays chess with his intellectual mentor. He can't believe the way his wife has chosen to fly off to Cloud Cuckoo Land, leaving him behind to fume as the scorned skeptic. For him it's a personal humiliation. But as an award-winning journalist he's also in the perfect position to investigate the veracity of the Christian church's most fundamental claim: that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. In his spare time Lee also gets a crime case wrong, but that's all part of the story of his hubris too.

Another interesting point for me is that The Case for Christ is set in 1980 and has a lot of obvious affection for period detail. In fact, the production design is generally one of the best parts of it. The clothes, hair styles, cars, and many other things look right, without too much caricaturing. This incidentally suggests that 1980, also known as the dawning of the Age of Reagan, may have a hallowed place in the hearts of our persecuted Christians. I'm really not trying to sound snarky like the Lee Strobel character here. I see the problem—it's another one of those Chinese finger-puzzlers besetting the country in general, in which the harder one side attempts to convince the other, the more the other resists. Lee Strobel is not sympathetic in this movie. He loses even me at times with his moronic arrogance, and I know I'm basically on his side. By which, to be clear, I do not mean I am in favor of persecuting Christians. For better or worse, Christian ideas, such as about abortion, often define our most sensitive fault lines as a society. I thought there were good things about this movie. It's a pretty good portrait of a 30something couple just starting a family. The glow of the honeymoon is still on them. This could be their first real crisis and it feels authentic. We're not talking sophisticated drama, but it's at least as good as most Lifetime movies or even an Anne Tyler novel, which I count in its favor. There are bona fide stars on hand too (if past their use-by dates), like Faye Dunaway and Robert Forster, along with lots of hey-I-know-it faces, like Rose from Lost as the gentle Alfie or Commissioner Burrell from The Wire as a gritty city editor. The Case for Christ is also racist, I'm sorry to say, but at least trying not to be, sort of like when Donald Trump coos to African Americans about "the inner cities" and not having anything to lose. But the heart of this movie is in a decent place, even on race. It did not win me over—I did not expect it to. But they're getting better at making these things more entertaining. So God bless them. It was the most interesting new movie I've seen in a few weeks.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"An Invitation to the Hunt" (1960)

George Hitchcock, author of the short story "An Invitation to the Hunt," is no relation to Alfred, though I discovered the story originally in one of Alfred's story collections. George is listed in Wikipedia as an actor, poet, playwright, teacher, labor activist, publisher, and painter (though not to be confused with George Hitchcock the Rhode Island artist). He was the editorial and publishing force behind Kayak, a poetry magazine based in San Francisco and then a book publisher, putting work into print by Margaret Atwood, Robert Bly, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, and many others. He died in 2010 at the age of 96.

Though "An Invitation to the Hunt" has many elements of genre commercial product, it was published first in a literary magazine called the San Francisco Review, which also published Albert Camus, Cynthia Ozick, and others. (Note: much of this from internet sources.) So the story appears to come with a certain literary pedigree. This is also apparent in the quality of its language and its precision. Still, in many ways it's also typical of the rote shock twist endings popular in mystery, science fiction, and other short stories and TV shows at the time. "An Invitation to the Hunt" is now obscure. It's not online and can only be found in a few out-of-print anthologies, with titles that give you the drift: When Evil Wakes, Realms of Darkness, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories My Mother Never Told Me. That's most of what I know about this story and author.

For this piece, it's obviously necessary to give away the ending, so if that's a problem you can come on back and revisit this piece a few weeks from now or whenever you like after you read the story. I'll be here.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Music Complete (2015)

Caveats mea culpa: It's possible I have lost all ability to judge New Order releases after 1989's Technique. It and everything before, including especially the anthology Substance, are more or less fine. Everything after goes on a case-by-case basis, but my problem is I'm not sure I can discern any logic on my part beyond whim or mood. Republic was a disappointment, with only one or two good songs, but Get Ready was a happy and durable surprise, though not enough to keep me on the breadcrumb trail. I don't really know the intervening sirens albums—Waiting for the Sirens' Call from 2005 and Lost Sirens from 2013. Meanwhile, I also have a lot of regard for some of the solo forays, notably Electronic and the Other Two. Somehow Music Complete won me over right away. I've played it a lot and not just because of Iggy Pop's typically moving plaint on one song, "Stray Dog." I'm not sure an Iggy appearance has ever hurt a 21st-century album, except for his own. Is it the music I like on Music Complete, or is it the idea of liking the music, the idea that the band is still up to it at all? Dare I say, it's because the songs are better than usual? Does it even matter? Questions, questions. And then I'm just as sure I'm only overthinking when the Music Complete starts to play. The warmth that New Order uncovered in themselves ages ago as always serves to temper the chilled rhythms and grooves. There's a buoyant mood and energy to this set. It's a natural. Every play turns up a little more, the songs move this way and that as you get to know them, and you remember the melodies later, they haunt your brain—all the usual recognizable effects of good pop music. Take "Tutti Frutti" as a case study. Little Richard has nothing to do with it, but it does feature Elly Jackson of La Roux. The melody is sweet and poignant on the verses, with a soaring chorus. Yet I know it's familiar too—I suspect if I wanted to dig for it, I might find something quite a bit like it on an earlier song. Maybe you know it? In that way, then, it may objectively be characterized as derivative and fading. But I have never heard it that way—"Tutti Frutti," for one, is a tender, beautiful song as it stands. So is "Nothing But a Fool." The knack for a groove is not lost either, as heard especially on "People on the High Line," "The Game," and "Superheated."  Iggy and Jackson are not the only guests here—"Singularity" and "Unlearn This Hatred" are collaborations with Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands, and Brandon Flowers of the Killers appears on "Superheated." There are extended versions and remixes of all these songs too, no surprise, but so far I think the originals remain the best. I'd say Music Complete is a good one.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Viridiana (1961)

Spain / Mexico, 90 minutes
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel, Benito Perez Galdos
Photography: Jose F. Aguayo
Music: Bach, Mozart, Handel, Gustavo Pittaluga
Editor: Pedro del Rey
Cast: Silvia Panal, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Jose Calvo, Margarita Lozano, Jose Manuel Martin, Victoria Zinny

I was a little surprised when I realized this is the first movie by director and cowriter Luis Buñuel I've encountered yet on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? I've had mixed feelings about the work of the Spanish Surrealist provocateur ever since a 16-mm version of the 16-minute film Un Chien Andalou more or less blew my mind when I saw it in high school at 16. Later viewings of some of his others, including Viridiana, have often occasioned a bewildered confusion that feels like disappointment. Do I have to read a book to get this? Now I wonder if something similar might be going on with critics at large, just by the patterns in the TSPDT list. Buñuel actually has no fewer than seven titles in the top 200, more than any other director at the moment (Alfred Hitchcock is closest with six) but also with the slowest start: Viridiana is presently the highest at only #81, followed by L'Age d'Or at #118, Los Olvidados at #124, Un Chien Andalou at #135, The Exterminating Angel at #143, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at #152, and Belle de Jour at #197.

When I looked up ranking histories I saw a similar pattern, a kind of generalized slow-motion fall from favor. L'Age d'Or, for example (the one that made me wonder if I should have read a book first), has previously spent time in the top 100, as high as #72, but with overall steady drops. Un Chien Andalou is an exception, with a somewhat erratic journey higher starting at #198—a few years ago it jumped from #165 to #117, though it has fallen off of that recently. Viridiana, in fact, is the only permanent resident to this point in the top 100, reaching as high as #68. That would appear to make it, then, the aggregated consensus choice as Buñuel's best. But we have some idea of how aggregated consensus works, highlighting odd choices (Hitchcock's Vertigo is a similar case), especially when votes are split. In historical terms, Viridiana is actually something more like a comeback picture, making a big splash at Cannes and reminding people how good Buñuel could be as a filmmaker. In turn, that opened doors to contracts and at least two much better pictures by my lights, Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"The Metamorphosis" (1915)

Read story by Franz Kafka online.

Franz Kafka's long story is impossible to categorize. It's hardly science fiction, and while it is a fantasy it's not exactly in the fantasy genre either. Here's what we know: Gregor Samsa is a traveling salesman who lives at home and is the main support for his parents and younger sister. One morning he wakes up and finds he has become a giant insect (or something, depending on translation and/or connotation, see also the Guardian article below). There is no explanation for this, let alone theoretical basis. It simply happens. Samsa is humiliated and mortified, and his family is horrified and repulsed. It's not a comic tale even if its premise is a little comical (or grotesquely horrific, depending on your inclination). In fact, it's the pathos in this story that always kills me. It's one of the saddest stories I've ever read. Kafka is particularly good here at thinking his way into an insect's view. His description of the insect's legs, how they are useless when it is on its back but perfectly functional when it is flat to the floor right side up, feels right, even the (slightly disgusting) joy and pleasure he describes at being able to move (from everything in the story, dung beetles seem most likely to provide the right image). Similarly, Gregor learns he can climb on the walls and ceiling (not really sure about the physics of this, but anyway), and he enjoys these feelings too, though the sticky pads at the end of his legs leave stains. Yuck and more yuck: cheese going bad is his favorite food. He doesn't care for anything fresh. So that's all good and creepy, but this story works best when it focuses on the anguish. In one scene, crudely trying to control Gregor's movements, his father throws apples at him. One of them lodges in Gregor's back. It's a fatal wound but does not kill him immediately. His sister feeds and cares for him, but she is repulsed like the others. He tries to hide out of sight to spare her when she's in his room. We also see evidence of the family's financial troubles. The father has to go back to work in his old age. They must take in boarders, who are understandably upset when they learn about Gregor. The stress on the family is killing them. They stop believing the large insect is Gregor, exactly, but they can't let go of it either, and so they enter a limbo of pain and confusion. The ending is as sad as all of it—more so. It's hard to know what to do with this story, except to check in on it regularly and maybe cry a little bit.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir

Guardian: "Kafka's Metamorphosis and its mutations in translation"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Fight (1975)

This is my first time reading Norman Mailer's account of the "Rumble in the Jungle" championship boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. At the time it came out my interest in boxing was less than zero. That goes for bullfighting too, which comes up now and then here. I've always appreciated Muhammad Ali as a public figure, perhaps more for his stance on the Vietnam War but his athletic accomplishments speak for themselves. Many years after the 1974 fight and this book, the wonderful documentary When We Were Kings alerted me finally to the event and all it entailed. Now, as many years after that, I finally get to the Mailer account and find him remarkably dead-on. One of the first scenes here shows Ali training for the fight by working on taking blows while positioned on the ropes. Mailer compares the strategy to chess, and maybe so, but Ali was working on many levels, not least the brute physical. His plan to wear Foreman out was a good one, if dangerous, and it worked. Ali demonstrated that winning could also be a matter of enduring, as much as dominating. Mailer was an ardent and knowledgeable fan of boxing and he's really good on the fight itself. It was also an interesting geopolitical event, taking place in Kinshasa, the largest and capital city of what's now the Republic of the Congo. The movie is much better on some elements of the big show's ambience, especially on the music performed in connection—James Brown, Manu Dibango, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Spinners, Bill Withers, and many more performed. But Mailer's account is much more knowledgeable about the main event. And the movie is pretty knowledgeable. Of course, Mailer being Mailer, he has to tell us personal anecdotes like how he took a walk on the unrailed parapet outside the window of his 7th-floor hotel room (reminiscent of scenes from his 1965 novel An American Dream). Norman! Get back in here! At any rate, it's a good account and argument for Ali's place in history. Ali conducted his fights on many levels, starting long before he stepped into the ring. He was smart and very brave. And he was a great fighter. Mailer's appreciation for the aesthetics of punching is almost infectious, although, me being me, I can't help thinking about concussions, brain damage, and such. But I appreciate what's at stake here too, on a primal level: two great warriors at battle. Only one can win, and all that. The great sports moment. Mailer does a fine job here of telling the story.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Risky Business (1983)

USA, 99 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Brickman
Photography: Bruce Surtees, Reynaldo Villalobos
Music: Tangerine Dream
Editor: Richard Chew
Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca de Mornay, Joe Pantoliano, Bronson Pinchot, Curtis Armstrong, Nicholas Pryor, Janet Carroll, Richard Masur

My Halliwell's film guide—the strange 2008 edition with Spiderman on the cover—briskly dismisses Risky Business, which it ranks as mediocre, with zero stars: "Would-be outrageous teenage comedy which is pretty well made but soon wears out its welcome." On the other hand, I still remember the byword of a friend on Risky Business at the time: "the thinking man's mindless entertainment." I have always loved it, for bad reasons and good. Lust for Rebecca de Mornay covers most of the bad reasons. But that grudging "pretty well made" from Halliwell's is damn well faint praise for a screenplay this carefully constructed, and so strewn with great lines from scene to scene, with s convincing coming-of-age story along for the ride. Coming of age? In certain lights, Risky Business looks like a journey to wisdom.

The whole thing is premised on something we all know: the utility and the danger of saying, "What the fuck." That's the core of director and writer Paul Brickman's picture, around which he has packed a good many elements, only some of which work though all are at least intriguing: Tom Cruise, Tangerine Dream, Chicagoland, an artsy-fartsy glass egg, Bob Seger, and the Porsche auto brand, to name a few that occur immediately. Tom Cruise plays Joel Goodsen (an easy entry in the obvious name sweepstakes even if it's misspelled), who is an upper-middle-class white boy and high school senior consumed by anxiety about his future. He just doesn't want to make a mistake. He's so afraid of making a mistake that he tries as much as possible to do nothing at all, because he calculates that doing things is when problems start.