Monday, October 22, 2018

A Star Is Born (2018)

I'm somewhat patchy and probably a little out of step on my Hollywood legends and iconography—I've never much liked All About Eve, for example, have little use for the Oscars ceremony or its fruits, and have seen only three of the previous four versions of A Star Is Born (counting the 1932 What Price Hollywood?—the Barbra Streisand vehicle is the one I skipped). But there is plenty of juice to this Bradley Cooper version, and I'm not just talking about the drinking. Cooper directed, cowrote, and stars in it. The meteoric rise it charts of Ally the nobody (Lady Gaga) happens with lightning speed and is truly thrilling, certainly when she takes to the big stage for the first time. When Lady Gaga opens up with that aching wailing bellowing thing she does it was all over for me—she elevates the whole thing to next realms and it's not hard to understand why Jack the country star (Cooper) has such faith in her. I had already seen bits of these sequences in the trailer, one of the very few that lit me up regularly this year on my forays out, and so the first half of A Star Is Born felt a little like the long version from the album. Really great stuff. I will also say I've never shared the antipathy toward Bradley Cooper as some kind of uniquely abhorrent pretty-boy phony. Is it something about The Hangover? Me, I can't really see much difference between Cooper and, say, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, or Brad Pitt. I liked the TV show Alias, I like Limitless quite a bit, and weak outings such as Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle just never bothered me—others are worse in those two movies alone (*cough* Robert De Niro *cough*). And Cooper is trying very hard for credibility here—it's hard to say at this point whether he is looking for Oscar gold, additional directing gigs, or what. But he is looking for something. He not only cowrote and directed this latest installment of a venerable Hollywood institution, but he also learned to play the guitar and sing country for the starring role. As Jack the country star, he is convincingly lost in himself, with a rumbling whiskey-soaked voice that feels like it already has one foot in the grave. The scenes of him before Ally, isolated in the deep shadows of limo backseats and backstage chaos, pulling on quart bottles of booze, are certain pictures of desperation. The back half of the picture, with everything going sour except Ally's career, felt more pro forma and much less convincing to me. But the breakout scenes were so amazing I could sit there in the dark still in thrall to them and feel friendly toward the picture even as the tired old story of fame and bad faith and drunkenness unreeled—some of it, such as a Grammy scene, just impossible to believe. Gaga and Cooper may not have much chemistry and Gaga especially may feel tentative and a little unsure of herself in places. Yet they are not hard at all to watch. When Gaga sings she is almost always riveting and she is often singing. Kudos to Cooper for playing the whole thing so well.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Nearest Thing to Life (2015)

James Wood's collection of four lectures, under the auspices of Brandeis University, is a wonderful exploration of the relations and interpenetrations of life and art (the nearest thing to life). A Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer, Wood brings the intimidating clarity. Like the best critics he inspires one to read further, and explore far, even as the hash of his ideas can send sparks flying. In the first piece, he starts with every kid's most annoying question—"Why?"—and spins that into a meditation on life and death. "It is our first and last question," he writes, "uttered with the same incomprehension, grief, rage, and fear at sixty as at six." He looks for answers to this lifelong irresolution in Dostoevsky, Cervantes, D.H. Lawrence, Knut Hamsun, Italo Calvino—in literature generally, when he characterizes fiction as a useful game of "not quite," a kind of rehearsal. In the next two pieces—"Serious Noticing" and "Using Everything"—he goes deeper into techniques of fiction. He lauds the well-chosen detail (using Chekhov and Henry Green as examples) to the point nearly of anthropomorphizing. "For details represent those moments in a story where form is outlived, canceled, evaded. I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them." In the last piece, Wood roots around with ideas of home and loss, and the various experiences of emigrants, exiles, and expatriates. A British citizen, Wood has lived in the US since 1995. In one telling detail (speaking of the power of the detail) he notes that his children are American. Here he focuses on work I don't know, such as W.G. Sebold's The Emigrants. One way I know I like a book of criticism is when I come away from it with lists of things to be read immediately. I got a look at Chekhov's "The Kiss" before reading Wood's discussion of it, and there are more things I hope to get to. Wood has a reputation as a memoirist or personal essayist as well as a literary critic. I can see how you get to that—he's explicit (though almost too delicate for me) about including the frame of his own life, which is inevitably how we all view both life and the nearest thing to it. Wood is just extraordinarily honest about acknowledging it. Great stuff.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

"Eutopia" (1967)

Poul Anderson's story for the Harlan Ellison collection is high on concept and low on plot interest. The concept, if I'm understanding it right, is pretty nifty, but it's still undermined by the lame story. It appears to be taking place in a reality of multiple dimensions, perhaps based on string theory, which was starting to get kicked around in the late '60s. Apparently new universes are spawned at every branch of reality that may go a different way, which effectively means they are infinite. Our home universe / reality has figured out a way to traverse and explore these other dimensions. What we find is a cacophony of human culture and scientific development, with different peoples rising to dominance. I could never tell where our hero, Iason Philippou, was located—central Europe seems most likely, though it might be North America. The region is divided into dozens or hundreds of separate small states with jealous and complicated relations. Philippou is on the run because he has committed a transgression. He excuses it to himself as a matter of ignorance about local customs. But his bad deed is actually pretty bad, kept secret until the end of the story and then revealed only obliquely. I had to look it up on the internet for further clarity. So the story is about his escape and being chased and returning home and then the reveal of his offense. But it is mostly busy with its concept, attempting to "show not tell" the details. That's the kind of thing you spend most of your time reading: "He didn't know if these words had ever been logged. Perhaps so, when white men first sailed through the Pentalimne (calling them the Five Seas) to found Ernvik where Duluth stood in America and Lykopolis in Eutopia.... But then came wars with Dakotas and Magyars." Aiyiyi—so many proper nouns, used so confusingly. For me, this is a type of science fiction writing that is mostly a chore to read—Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" is worse only because it's four times longer. The story is an uninspired framework on which to hang the drapery of concept, which can indeed be mesmerizing visions when pulled off properly. So, yeah, multiple dimensions, that torques my head right around with the possibilities—consider the wrinkling together of dimensions across the short time plane of Cubs and Indians, Trump and Clinton, Moonlight and La La Land, Patriots and Falcons. But the chase and the crime motivating it? Really? You can read that anywhere and it's better as true-crime. This should have been a novel, with adequate space to explain itself, or nothing at all.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

I only came to Carson McCullers's first novel about 10 years ago, but have read it several times now. Something about these mundane events in a small Georgia town in the 1930s is mesmerizing and keeps drawing me back. It's extraordinarily beautiful. McCullers started it when she was 20. She was 23 when it was published. Her prodigy is more one of instinct. Her aim is true. Her eye is gentle but telling, circling and unerringly tracking the interior lives of many different people: Mick Kelly, a teenaged girl who dreams of composing music. Jake Blount, an alcoholic Communist true believer. Dr. Copeland, an African American physician who seethes with racial resentment. Biff Brannon, the stoic proprietor of the New York Café, an all-night diner. And John Singer, the deaf-mute silver engraver at the town jewelry store who ties them all together. Each one is plunged into loneliness, hurting for something like soul connections. That's my term, not McCullers's. She is somehow operating on levels beyond language. That's what's most impressive about this novel, even more than how young she was when she wrote it. The most common praise I've seen is for how believable her African American characters are. Richard Wright, who published Native Son the same year, praised them as astonishing. But there are further hints of social tensions here even beyond race and class, flirting with the broader spectrum of sexuality. I sensed them in this novel before finding out more about McCullers's life, which included alcoholism and bisexuality in both she and her husband. The sexuality is mostly on the furthest sidelines of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, just a humming vibration in the background. As much as anything this novel is focused on poverty, the spiritual kind (see title) but definitely the material kind too. It's the Depression era in the South. It may go to the Jesus story and New Testament somewhat obviously, with a martyr and disciples and so on, though not to drive any point or message, let alone a religious one, but more because it is a comfortable frame, a way to understand—a common language. This is her gospel as a young woman, the gospel according to Carson McCullers. The real common language here is pain. Some terrible things happen in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and arguably the whole thing is downbeat or even depressing. Yet its view of human souls is so penetrating and astute, shot clear through, that it is almost breathtaking in places. Not everything rings fresh and true, but the things that do are often best of their kind. For example, the story of Bubber and Baby, their shared moment of fate and its aftermath. All five of the main characters are memorable and true, and so are their stories. It's amazing stuff—after Gatsby, my favorite American novel.

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)

I had to cram some attempting to get a bead on this last album from A Tribe Called Quest—the last because one of the three principals, Phife Dog, died before its release. It was also their first in 18 years. There is a whole VH1 story here—heyday in the early '90s, followed by bitterness, solo albums, public callouts on the solo albums, etc., until finally reconciliation, healing, reunion, etc. I know I'm really coming in late here. I was aware of them in the salad days but only from a distance, and among other things had to study up on The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, which sounded to me like they always did, exercises out of the De La Soul branch of hip hop. Maybe that's We Got It From Here too—you can see I don't have much perspective on all this—but to me it feels like a much richer gravy on the stovetop, a stew that worked as tonic for me toward the end of the year (released November 11, 2016). It's another one I came to first via the singles, notably "We the People...," which rings with righteous authority and plainspoken truth, wrapped up tightly with an impish spirit that sweetens it just enough. "We don't believe you," it sails in with its stutter-step rhythm, "'cause we the people," later reminding us, "When we get hungry we eat the same ... food / The ramen noodle." Then it gets down to business with the lilting, chilling chorus, which spelt out the prospects at hand: "All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go." I loved it for its clear-sighted view, and then "Dis Generation," a few months later, for that song's wonderful Musical Youth "Pass the Dutchie" sample whipped up into operatic storms. When I finally got to the album I found the usual ups, downs, and all-arounds of a one-hour 16-track long-player project. There's a raw guitar on some of the later tracks that can annoy. The songs can dither into aimlessness in spots. But more generally it's a surprisingly strong batch of good ones—often really good ones. I zeroed in on "Solid Wall of Sound" as one of the best examples of how they work with samples, a strong suit. This one is built off of two lines in Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets," a song I admit I have a weakness for. The Tribe track lives inside the lines "You're gonna hear electric music / Solid walls of sound," turning the second line into a figure that blows up and keeps blowing up to the size of a planet. It feels intuitively like zooming in on the fantasy concert itself in 1974 of Bennie and the Jets in a spaceship with a fluid camera, taking observations. "Solid wall of sound"—yes, computes. There are all kinds of surprises to this album and it seems to hold up well to lots of play too, usually as comfort.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Lord Randy, My Son" (1967)

Joe L. Hensley was proud of this story in 1967, saying in his share of the introduction and also in his afterword that it's the best he ever wrote. It's icy, clinical, and brutal. But I was also distracted by the similarity it bears to Jerome Bixby's famous 1953 story "It's a Good Life." Both are about mutant children with mysterious powers and both rely for a lot of their terrifying effect on how brutal and animal-like human beings are under the age of 5. In both cases the kid's massive powers are beyond his own development. There's more sympathy for the kid here—Randall, never Randy except in the title—but still it goes down much the same path. Randall is considered developmentally disabled by most. It's not clear how aware Randall's father Sam is of Randall's powers. The mother has already committed suicide at the time of the story, which is suggestive, though her reasons if she gave any are not told. One line makes it sound as if Randall is 11 now, but at the mental age of 3 (or at least that's what people think). He uses creative ways to slaughter people who have done wrong ("fallen into a well no one had even known existed in the corner lot"), which has its brief satisfactions. But mostly this story struck me as pointless beyond the premise. "It's a Good Life" works all the elements better. Hensley has a fierce imagination—Harlan Ellison's introduction paints him as a kind of Hunter S. Thompson type before we really knew Thompson—and he's got a handful of set pieces for this story that work pretty well. They just have nowhere to go. Randall gets a recurring line that's respectably haunting ("I am young"), but the resolution is more or less a protracted sense of ominous clouds on the horizon. Hensley could imagine how this apocalypse started but not how it ended. He leaves that to us, which can be a good device. No one can imagine the worst like a reader left to fill in the blanks. Except that here there is too much left blank and not enough for the imagination to work with.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, October 08, 2018

Searching (2018)

Searching, the feature debut by director and cowriter Aneesh Chaganty, qualifies as a stunt movie—virtually everything we see is from computer or smartphone screens. Yet even as the story grows stranger, more convoluted, and just plain improbable, it remains riveting like a great TV true-crime documentary. Margot Kim (Michelle La) is the 16-year-old only daughter of David (John Cho). Pamela, the mother, died in the past year or so and Searching comes with a very touching preamble. It's not just the Windows XP interfaces and sounds, so stand by, you might start bawling. In the real-time of the movie Pamela is seen only in photos and videos from the past, and the relationship between Margot and David has grown strained and distant. Then, overnight, Margot goes missing, leaving her laptop and only a few mysterious clues behind. When it becomes obvious to David after a day or two that no one has seen her, he contacts the police and begins to go through Margot's computer. Anyone who has ever had to troubleshoot a technical problem, or gone down any internet rabbit hole, or just had a normal day at the computer, will recognize the frenzy of search engine results, open windows, and text and video feeds David produces as he goes to work. He hacks into Margot's Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and YouCast accounts, discovering she had a life he knows little about. The visuals in Searching are nothing new, beyond the relentless commitment to showing the interface imagery of a dazzling array of real brands (except possibly YouCast, which I've never heard of, but then David had never heard of Tumblr). There are a lot of twists and turns to Searching and some sly humor too—much appreciated to puncture the tension. A few scenes Chaganty wanted to include were obviously hard to conceive in terms of getting them to a computer screen but he does the best he can. You wince along with the unlikeliness and they are mercifully short, with narrative value. I liked best the way the picture mimics or perhaps even pays homage to sources like the Disappeared TV series, or the movie Catfish (also, I understand, Unfriended and Open Windows, which I haven't seen). Chaganty was scrupulously fair about some of the reveals and plot points, although it doesn't make any of it any more likely to happen in real life. But I suspect Searching might stand up to a second look or more. John Cho (Sulu in the new Star Trek and Harold of Harold & Kumar) and Debra Messing as Detective Vick, the chief investigator working the disappearance case (so Grace of Will & Grace with a stone face and a badge), do the things they do best at TV scale. It often works up an air of real mystery as the narrative layers peel back. There are great red herrings along the way and a suitably unexpected twist ending—again, unlikely but fair. Searching is worth seeing at least once.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

And All Through the House (1994)

This odd little book was published originally as a longish story in Playboy in December 1984 and then repackaged 10 years later as this novelty gift or collector's item in a children's storybook format. There's not much to it, only 40 pages. How long is a kid's storybook? Wikipedia refers to it as a novella. Lovely scratchy illustrations by Victor Juhasz generously populate the pages. Aside from the random cover art, which can vary widely, Juhasz's illustrations are perhaps the best images we have of Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, and a few others, outside our own heads. I thought his Carella was best, and Hawes somehow seemed all wrong. It's a great story, albeit a bit of a joke with punchline. One of the enduring strengths of the 87th Precinct series was Ed McBain's sense of season and time of year, which went beyond weather reports and set pungent moods for the investigations and action. This is a good example, taking place on a snowy Christmas Eve. It's set in the precinct station house, like a Barney Miller episode or the scene in the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." One by one the detectives show up with various miscreants in tow. I started to get suspicious when one was a boy with a sheep he had stolen from the city zoo, saying he wanted to give it to his sister as a Christmas present. Yes, sure enough, spoilers spoilers spoilers before long a gritty big city nativity scene is assembled. Yes, it's ridiculous, and certainly it's muddled—are the detectives the Romans here, or what?—but it's saved by how well McBain can evoke the feeling of Christmas at a workplace. Sure, it's work, and no one wants to be there, but the pervasive spirit of the holiday can also be there, softening and making things better. McBain famously quarreled publicly (or at least in a passage in one of his novels) with Hill Street Blues about taking ideas from him but this is a lot like a Barney Miller episode, whose run had ended only a year or two earlier. "Good artists borrow, great artists steal," amirite? Merry Christmas all! For McBain fans, I can say the little book was a nice last treat for me, analogous to "Her Majesty" on Abbey Road, because it turned out (only partly by design on my part) to be the last 87th Precinct book in the series that I read. It's always possible something more from the series could surface, of course, but this was a nice way to finish.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Turin Horse (2011)

A torinói ló, Hungary / France / Switzerland / Germany / USA, 155 minutes
Directors: Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky
Writers: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Bela Tarr
Photography: Fred Kelemen
Music: Mihaly Vig
Editor: Agnes Hranitzky
Cast: Erika Bok, Janos Derzsi, Mihaly Kormos, Mihaly Raday

Together for 30 years of moviemaking, Hungarian director Bela Tarr with his life partner Agnes Hranitzky (credited on some films as editor and on others, as here, also as co-director) produced a uniquely recognizable body of work. Their movies have resemblances to and affinities with the work of other directors (Bresson, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, etc.), not to mention a host of students in their trail (Lav Diaz, Jim Jarmusch, etc.), but nothing else is much like them. They are arguably stunt movies, slow, overlong, ponderous, willfully opaque in passages. The Turin Horse, for example—which is more or less their official sign-off—comes in at a relatively trim two and a half hours and contains only 30 takes (an average of more than five minutes between cuts). I'm actually much more OK with technical cinematic tricks like that than with some of the narrative conceits they indulge, e.g., "Satan's Tango," the name and seeming motivating idea of their seven-hour-plus masterpiece. I had similar problems with the touchpoint core of The Turin Horse, which true confession I never picked up on until I read up more on the picture in recent days.

The Turin Horse opens with an incidental anecdote, related by the voiceover narrator (Mihaly Raday), about the German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche. Or at least I thought it was incidental. It's the story of the day Nietzsche snapped in Turin, Italy, when by the unsubstantiated legend he saw a horse being viciously flogged. Come to understand, the unfortunate conceit of The Turin Horse is that the horse in it—a figure in this movie reminiscent of the figure of the donkey in Au hasard Balthazar—is the very horse that Nietzsche saw in Turin. Well, OK, but it plays hell with the setting, a dry outland of eternally blowing wind and dust, out of which a random third character wanders in at one point with a largely incoherent rant but clues that we are in some kind of science fiction post-apocalyptic world like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. So it's no later than 1920 (how long do horses live anyway?) yet it is post-apocalyptic. OK, whatever! Maybe it's an alternative World War I. It's just, did it really have to be the very horse that sent MC Zarathustra around the bend?