Saturday, May 27, 2017

Yes (2009)

For maybe 20 years now I've been in a kind of limbo with the Pet Shop Boys. I suspect most people still think of them as an '80s act, if not a one-hit wonder ("West End Girls," in spite of five more hits that followed in the US and many more internationally). I traveled deep into their catalog until approximately the 1996 album Bilingual, lingering very long and very hard on the Very Relentless package. I've always had a listen since then, even following the singles and B-sides and such (even that Battleship Potemkin thing), but little has ever insinuated itself again the way the work did of a golden period from 1987 to 1994. The closest I came was probably "The Night I Fell in Love," a brilliant shot across the bow to Eminem on the 2002 album Request, which I otherwise lost track of a week or two later. This pattern applied to Yes. When it came out I said Maybe and then the whole thing slipped my mind. So this is a story of one of those happy returns, a phenomenon I think I've seen with novels more than music. I try to read it, I try to read it, I try to read it—multiple attempts across years or even decades. Then one day I pick it up again and it's the best thing I've ever read. Yes is the best Pet Shop Boys album I've heard in a long time and just now I'm thinking the best of the 21st century.

This occurred to me a couple years ago, so the judgment has also turned out to be resilient. Is it really the upbeat positive note of the title? The music certainly pursues such avenues, albeit with their usual wryly detached irony. The opener, "Love etc." sets the tone, insisting you need love. The football chants on the chorus are relentless: "you need more you need more you need more you need more." I think they would find a way to make it say "sex" if that's what they meant. "All Over the World" follows on with a gorgeous takeoff that floats above the planet and marches into dignity accompanied by alien space gun sounds. It's beautiful and full of love etc.: "Exciting and new to say I want you." "Beautiful People," next, is not about the externality, though incapable of laying it on the "inner beauty" line. Still, that's what I hear in the chorus: "I want to live like beautiful people, give like beautiful people, with like beautiful people around." That sounds clannish and like Utopia at once. "Did You See Me Coming?" works because the arrogance of the title and play of the lyrics is belied by the ripening chest swoon of the melody, which somehow grows into a terribly sweet monster of sincerity. "Vulnerable" runs in place with the theme and may sound too much like a type of Pet Shop Boy song, i.e., product. Yet, for all that, the singer (as played, as usual, by Neil Tennant) is "so vulnerable," pleading his case. "More Than a Dream" might be long, but hits sweet spots of its own within the vibe. Even at their worst, the Pet Shop Boys are always at least as good as the pop Al Stewart, a firm floor for their entire career. "Building a Wall" is another song that may feel like reworking, but the twist on Brian Wilson's "In My Room" is fine: "not so much to keep you out, more to keep me in." Then "King of Rome" is more familiar territory ("My October Symphony," "To Speak Is a Sin," "The Samurai in Autumn"), but it's very beautiful territory. I could put down roots here—maybe I have. "Pandemonium" is a rave-up, standard issue, working to stoke the mood. If I'm really into it this is usually good for a minute or two of irresistible dancing with any cat handy.

The weakest songs follow, as if Pet Shop Boys Chris Lowe and Tennant were exhausted with the good times and/or already looking ahead. "The Way It Used to Be" and "Legacy" are the only songs here that pull some shades of self-pity around themselves, prefiguring Elysium. I still try to pay track sequencing some respects. At least there's the convenience that they're easily cut off when listening straight through. Otherwise, Yes tracks 1 to 9 are just the best thing going.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Greed (1924)

USA, 129 / 239 minutes
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Writers: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Frank Norris, Joseph Farnham
Photography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds
Music: Robert Israel
Editors: Joseph Farnham, June Mathis, Glenn Morgan, Frank E. Hull, Rex Ingram, Erich von Stroheim, Grant Whytock
Cast: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Tempe Pigott, Dale Fuller, Chester Conklin, Sylvia Ashton

Life is short and the story of Greed is long—the original cut delivered by director, cowriter, and coeditor Erich von Stroheim was pretty long itself, on the order of seven to 10 hours. Accounts differ, but many agree it's one of the great lost masterpieces of cinema. Fifty years ago it was on the short list of the greatest films ever made, according to the Sight & Sound poll of 1962, after only Citizen Kane, L'Avventura (?!), and The Rules of the Game. In 1924, the studio figuratively thanked von Stroheim for his work and assigned the recut to June Mathis, who got it down to a little more than two hours. I might have something close to that version—mine, from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast, is 129 minutes. On YouTube there is access to versions (usually on dubious pay sites) running 104 minutes, 90 minutes, 83 minutes, and 60 minutes—probably others too if you dig enough. I didn't bother with them. At Amazon, the best I could find available for purchase was a single used Region 2 DVD of a 129-minute version for $30.

Greed is thus truly a lost movie at this time, and more so than others in the category such as The Magnificent Ambersons or Metropolis. Indeed, by happy circumstance, Metropolis has been nearly entirely restored since just 2010. People keep hoping a complete version of Greed will turn up too but so far it hasn't. As it happens, I also have the reconstructed version put together by producer Rick Schmidlin in 1999 for TCM, using von Stroheim's original shooting script, extant footage, and production stills. That version comes in just under four hours, which puts us closer to von Stroheim's original but still well short. Greed has only the most modest commercial value now. It flopped even its time, not least because its story is a total bummer. Certainly it's one of the harder movies even to see from the top 100 films on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Is it worth seeing? Oh geez, I knew you'd ask.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Ile Forest" (1976)

Story by Ursula K. Le Guin not available online.

This story feels more like a fairy tale than a short story, let alone science fiction. The only thing "speculative" about it is the setting, an imaginary land in Central Europe. It's told essentially first-person, although there is a frame that introduces us to the narrator. He is a doctor, and he comes to a remote village with his sister to set himself up in practice. He notices a strange and beautiful mansion in a section of forest on his arrival, one of the features that makes him want to settle there. After the doctor and his sister have been there awhile, he is called to treat the master of the mansion. The master is close to death but, with the doctor's help, survives, and they become friends. The master lives by himself. He was married once but his wife ran away with another man, and now he prefers to live by himself. But—can you guess?—in short order the master and the doctor's sister have fallen in love and are thinking of marriage. But something about the master's story of simply accepting that his wife ran away doesn't sit right with either the doctor or his sister. Getting to the bottom of the man's mysterious past is the main thrust of this story, which proceeds serenely. It feels like a fairy tale, as I say, or at least much older than the 20th century. Part of that is the imaginary setting and the way the story moves. For example, a doctor traveling and living with his sister this way seems quaint, even eccentric, but also likely more normal in times past. Then there is all the careful narrative nesting. The master's story is recounted by the doctor many years after the events described. It's not the doctor's story at all nor even his sister's, but the master's. Multiple layers have to be pulled away to get at it. Yet it doesn't feel cute or overdone for effect in any way. At points it reminded me of Bram Stoker's Dracula, at points it reminded me of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Yet there is little if anything that is supernatural or fantastic going on here. The master is left somewhat murky—I had the impression, when he was battling his illness, that he had to be an old man. Yet he is young enough or vigorous enough to attract a woman who is no older than her 30s at most. It feels in many ways like a straightforward romantic tale, yet there is something deeply disturbingly wrong about it too and I can't put my finger on exactly what that could be. A good one.

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The big ape with the soft heart is once again misunderstood in the latest King Kong chapter released earlier this year, when I was not in the mood for blockbusters. I overthought it, fretted, and put it off too long. But then one of my local multiplexes took mercy and brought it back for another week. (They also did me the favor of showing Colossal, speaking of monster movies, a decent specimen from last year with Anne Hathaway worth a look.) This King Kong story is set in 1973—it feels random, but soon enough is seen to suit the purposes of the screenplay, which among other things gives a shout-out to American military hubris and various corporate malfeasance. Samuel L. Jackson plays a disgruntled grunt who can't stand to lose. It clouds his judgment. Brie Larson (RoomThe Spectacular Now, Trainwreck) gets the Fay Wray part, updated as an award-winning photojournalist who doesn't scream. Tom Hiddleston adds class to the joint with his ripped buff. And we're back on Skull Island, where it all started and where the bugs are big and the aborigines holy. John C. Reilly plays a soldier stranded there since World War II. But never mind all that. There's one reason we're here, and yes, those battle scenes are pretty good. It's that motherfucking big ape we love. Director Jordan Vogt (lots of TV), along with a team of six screenwriters, paces the action well. As with Peter Jackson's remake 12 years ago the yuck factor can roam high. There's just no good way to squish a big bug. And the Apocalypse Now vibe never quite makes sense, but the ordnance pyrotechnics are impressive. Me, I'm more a fan of the main event, King Kong taking on all comers in no holds barred wrestling to the death. Opponents include Rodan and Mothra types. You know them. There's some of the workmanlike grace of Willis O'Brien's (and later Ray Herryhausen's) stop-motion animation in this CGI somehow, especially in the big fight scenes. The woman I bought my ticket from asked if I'd seen it before and told me to be sure to stick around for all of the credits. Do you understand the commitment that requires for a movie with this degree of special effects and also a reasonably extensive '60s music soundtrack? They went on forever. Then there was a cryptic preview for a sequel. This movie's done pretty well at the box office. It hasn't made its money back yet but my multiplex did bring it back for a week. And it's King Kong, in the era of the franchise. Expect a sequel. Equal parts Jurassic Park and Lost.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Awkward Age (1899)

Henry James's whirl at writing plays earlier in the decade has full hold in this novel and the previous one, What Maisie Knew. Both are full of scenes, with dialogue and some stage direction but very little that helps us below the surface. It is all surfaces here, and James feels almost giddy with them. We are plunged into each scene with little to help us except what the characters say, and they are often hiding things from one another, or speaking subtly. It can be maddening—who and what are these people talking about? What are the things they say supposed to mean? These questions arise continually. Gradually a story is discerned, about a young woman, Nanda, who has reached the marrying age, and so must be married. She has two eligible suitors—one she loves but he cannot make a commitment and the other who loves her. Also there's a strange old guy hanging around who once loved Nanda's grandmother, detests her mother, and now has a thing for Nanda, though no one misses the age difference problem. Anyway, there are some clues for you. Good luck. As usual, I enjoyed reading it despite my confusions and misgivings. James's duty to his craft pays off well in many ways. Most surprising was how funny he can be, casually mocking certain figures of society. The title doesn't just refer to Nanda's post-adolescent time of life, you see, but also to the broader times in general, as the 19th century was turning into the 20th. Particularly some of the sideline women characters are funny in ways that sneak up on you. Their desperate ploys to maintain poise and dignity actually warranted giggling fits hours later as they floated back to mind. There is also something of the feel of a generational stamp to The Awkward Age—the "Fin de siècle" Generation, or some such. Van, the one who can't make a commitment, even when he loves, and Mitchy, the one who goes off and marries a harridan because Nanda told him she thought they'd make a good match, are lost soul frat brothers, comfortable in tails and keeping a bright face to the painful realities. At the finish the novel attempts to strike a note of pathos, which I think might be asking too much, given the generally wicked and gossipy narrative that holds sway. At the same time it's all wound up pretty well. I liked it on balance but you have to be prepared for a certain amount of confusion—"ambiguity" is the operating conceit, and James is often laying it on with a trowel. You're going to have to live with that to get through this. No doubt all the subtle dialogue accounts for the unusually high usage of "interlocutor" in this one.

"interlocutor" count = 25 / 402 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Money, Money, Money (2001)

With this late entry in the 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain was just about out of ideas and starting to run out of luck. There's little sense he's having much fun writing this. He doesn't even seem to like Steve Carella or care about any of the others. Carella's personal thread is something about his sister and mother both remarrying. He has issues. The story is a godawful mess involving counterfeit money, vicious Mexican drug lords, and terrorism. Here's where he's running out of luck. With Money, Money, Money, written between the November 2000 Cole bombing and 9/11 in 2001, McBain is caught looking like he can't imagine very big. In fact, the terrorists here verge on clownish stereotypes. Forty years earlier, in the first appearance of the Deaf Man (The Heckler), McBain imagined something more on the scale of 9/11. Money, Money, Money was written in the tail end of that historical period when radical Islamic terrorists were underestimated, shortly before we entered the period of overestimating them. Fat Ollie Weeks has another big role here. McBain obviously enjoyed working with him, but to me he's just a bigot not redeemed by being smart. His eating is overstated and his pathetic pursuit of a creative hobby—piano playing, novel writing—is not that funny, sympathetic, or even believable. In general, Fat Ollie is not the comic relief McBain seems to think he is. McBain had lots of irons in the fire at the time, as Evan Hunter and otherwise, so I'll give him a break on a book I read so you don't have to. The cheapest available version now is the hardcover, and I was surprised to see how much "money, money, money" went into it on the original publication. The cover is green, like money, and the interior design riffs on a marking that's used to detect counterfeit $100 bills. So it appears McBain still had a respectable audience at the time. But it had to be faithful to the series by loyalty or habit.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Big Bad City (1999)

One argument against reading the novels in the 87th Precinct series out of order might be that the later ones seem weaker read in isolation, the inconsistencies more nagging. I mean, here it is nearly the 21st century and Steve Carella, who was married in a 1959 novel, is worrying over his imminent 40th birthday. How does that work? It's possible after all this time that I'm just getting a little tired of McBain. But the characters in this one struck me as notably vacant. Nobody home, except the pro forma: Steve Carella loves his deaf wife Teddy, Hal Willis is short, and Meyer Meyer's father had a strange sense of humor. Cotton Hawes was so absent I thought he might have been knocked off in one of the books I haven't read yet. Matthew Hope, private detective star of a concurrent McBain series, shows up at one point. First time I've seen that. Apparently he and Carella came to be friends. The mystery story is a little better. It's 20 years after Calypso and McBain still hasn't figured out anything convincing about the worlds of rock music, let alone hip-hop. Here it's a nun who takes a year off from her vows to sing for a rock band, during which time she gets a boob job. Interesting array of facts for a nun. Then she goes back to her order. Then, a few years later, she is murdered in a park in the 87th Precinct of McBain's stand-in for New York City, Isola (Italian for "island"). The Big Bad City might have the conclusion to the '90s thread about the murder of Carella's father, which I haven't found interesting yet. The enduring Fat Ollie Weeks has a prominent role here and as always is repulsive but entertaining but repulsive. Andy Parker's here too. There's some pointless time spent attempting to distinguish the bigotries of Fat Ollie and Parker. Since reading this one and going on to others, I've noticed how often McBain injects the term "the big bad city" into his narratives. It's one of his favorite phrases. Conveniently enough, simply reading that phrase has the virtue of covering most of the main points here.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Romance (1995)

As late entries go in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, Romance is not bad. McBain manages to pull a few things together. It's just one case, involving an actress, and from there it gets a bit meta. A play called Romance is being produced, which is about an actress who is threatened and then murdered. Shortly before opening, the lead actress of the play reports she has been receiving threatening calls. Then she is stabbed, though not killed. Then she is stabbed and killed. It turns out she was involved in the first stabbing as part of a publicity stunt. Turning up dead is another matter. The plot is not that inspired but has its points. On the personal side, this is more of a Bert Kling episode, with Steve Carella working as his partner but well off to the side. The main point here is that Kling is starting a new relationship, this time with an African American woman, Sharyn (somehow pronounced differently from "Sharon"). She is a surgeon who directs forensics work for the Isola city police. McBain has certain things on his mind here: Rodney King, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and race relations generally. Mostly it seems like a clumsy version of whitesplaining, but again, at least he's trying, and there are some interesting insights along the way. I like how he traces Kling's burgeoning racial sensitivities, as when Kling begins to notice how often white people mention that people are black, how extraneous and coded it almost always is. Kling also becomes more aware of racial compositions in public places and how they affect the way people behave. For her part, Sharyn is not sure about being involved with a white man—Kling is her first—and that's interesting too, though I don't much trust McBain speaking for her. Overall the mystery story in Romance is a little tired but the impulse to deal with race relations carries it. I'm not saying you won't wince.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man (1972)

Yes, it's true, it's another Deaf Man episode in the 87th Precinct series. It might even be the most restrained one of all. But it's still a Deaf Man episode, so what you get is an elaborate bank robbery caper accompanied by a Batman and Riddler comic book story. Like all comic book villains (and only a few real-life ones, but I digress), the Deaf Man feels the need to inform police of his plans in cryptic ways, using their blunders to help pull off his capers. Or almost pull them off, as he never quite gets away with them, much like Mr. Mxyzptlk, from over at the Superman comic books, who is forever tricked into saying his ridiculous name backward again. Speaking of ridiculous names, this time the Deaf Man is traveling under the alias Taubman, which is kinda sorta German for "deaf man." O the wily Deaf Man! One of McBain's continuing strengths is constructing plots, so at least the bank robbery is a shrewd and interesting plan, though we are never privy to the whole thing until it goes down. This makes the climax more interesting, but also lends the foreshadowing an annoying air of peekaboo. But a mystery writer's gotta do what a mystery writer's gotta do. On the personal side, this is where Bert Kling meets his beautiful model girlfriend (then wife, then ex-wife) Augusta Blair. She comes along in the B story, which is actually the more interesting case, a series of burglaries in the precinct. The burglar is leaving behind kittens, because, get it? get it? he's a cat burglar. I said it was the most interesting storyline, not joke. Although, now that I think about it, it's just dumb enough to be true. And it has a better resolution than the Deaf Man story. But right, see title, this is a Deaf Man episode. The lame clues take up most of the time, but it's better than conducting full-scale war on the city as he has in earlier episodes, so count your blessings. The Deaf Man never pulls off his crimes (though he must be getting money from somewhere to finance them) yet he is never apprehended. It's another example of egregious police failure. This is basically skippable, unless you like the Deaf Man episodes, in which case go for it.

In case it's not at the library.