Friday, October 22, 2021

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Denmark / Sweden / France / Netherlands / Norway / Iceland / Spain / UK, 159 minutes
Director: Lars von Trier
Writers: Lars von Trier, Peter Asmussen, David Pirie
Photography: Robby Muller
Music: Lars von Trier K-tel Collection
Editor: Anders Refn
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Adrian Rawlins, Sandra Voe, Jean-Marc Barr, Jonathan Hackett, Udo Kier

Breaking the Waves is laid out like a big fat 19th-century novel with parts and sections and chapters. It's set in the early 1970s, proclaimed both by the heavy sideburns on many of the men and by the soundtrack with Jethro Tull, Mott the Hoople, Procol Harum, Roxy Music, Rod Stewart, T. Rex, and others. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes and Emily Watson even got an Oscar nomination. It's director Lars von Trier's fourth feature-length movie, and possibly the one most responsible for setting his reputation as a transgressive bad boy of cinema, though later films have tended toward ever more fixated transgressions.

The challenges to propriety here are related to religion, mental illness, and gender roles—three of von Trier's favorite themes. Emily Watson is Bess McNeill, a young woman who lives in a small cloistered religious community in Scotland. The church is harsh and Calvinist. If you die unredeemed the funeral service includes reminders that you are now burning in hell. In Calvinism, as I understand it, only God knows whether you are redeemed, so the safe assumption seems to be that you aren't and it's appropriate to point that out as you are buried. Bess may or may not be mentally ill or developmentally challenged. It's hard to tell when the church has this much control over a person's life.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

"Canavan's Back Yard" (1958)

Joseph Payne Brennan's story is a fairy woods variation that works pretty well, predicated on a scary witch's curse, one Goodie Larkins from the witch-burning days of Salem, Massachusetts. This story is set in Connecticut but it's all New England, yes? First this backyard fascinates you, changing moods and altering perception almost like a psychedelic drug. It's just an ugly tangle of overgrown grass and brambles but both Canavan and the first-person narrator are caught gazing at it missing in action for lengths of time. When you go out to explore it you get lost, of course. Here it reminded me quite a bit of Algernon Blackwood's anti-Euclidean patch of woods in the story "Ancient Lights." "Canavan's Back Yard" is ludicrously tagged on ISFDB as a werewolf story because some sort of semi-visible ravening beast seems to be back there. Also, if you linger back there too long you apparently become a beast. These are nice details but not so necessary. My favorite part is the fascination. Brennan has a nice way of describing the uncanny shifts in perception. It starts with an overwhelming wave of emotional desolation, a really great detail, and then: "After I had stood looking out at it for a few minutes, I experienced the odd sensation that its perspectives were subtly altering.... I became convinced that it continued for an interminable distance and that if I entered it, I might walk for miles and miles before I came to the end." A backyard in a tract home in New Haven, Connecticut! The story is simple and straightforward. Canavan is a secondhand book dealer who emigrated from London and set up shop in a rental home on the outskirts of the city. The first-person narrator is his friend and neighbor who drops by frequently. After a time, he starts finding Canavan standing at a window looking out at the backyard and then it starts getting hard to get his attention. Gradually the focus of the story moves from the window of the house into the backyard and all the things that happen there. It's totally ridiculous but it's in a tradition and it's pulled off with a straight face, with some of the psychic and physical dislocations of The Blair Witch Project. I love that it is set in Connecticut. Careful that you don't ever get crosswise of Goodie Larkins.

When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Story not available online.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Army of the Dead (2021)

Things on which I am agnostic: Las Vegas, Elvis Presley, Zack Snyder, zombies. They are all reasonably charged with excess and putting them all together certainly leads to the reasonable expectation of an excess of excess. I don't appreciate any of them simply for existing—Elvis comes closest to that, and he doesn't have that much to do with Army of the Dead. He's more like window dressing to signify Vegas, him and that song. For that matter, Vegas is not really Vegas. It is a pile of rubble in this movie with a wall built around it to keep the zombies in. On the 4th of July in this movie the president is going to drop a nuclear bomb on it, wiping out pesky zombies once and for all. Great stores of cash still exist inside vaults within the old "Lost Wages" party town in the desert and a team of experts is dispatched in to retrieve as much of it as they can before the nuke hits. Army of the Dead is thus basically a heist or caper movie, is what I'm trying to say here, even within its context of intentional ludicrous excess. I happen to disapprove of tarting up the zombie mythos with things like fast zombies, but Army of the Dead has it all: fast zombies, slow zombies, even a zombie hierarchy, which looks a bit insectile with its obedience to and worship of a brainy queen with her various lieges. You still have to get them in the head. That seems to be the constant in zombie movies. I admit I appreciated the choreography of some of these fast zombie fights—the fast zombies seem to have their own way of fighting, always protecting the head. Army of the Dead is a long picture at two and a half hours but it gets down to business with few delays, spins out a number of interesting narrative threads, and generally does not overstay its welcome, allowing for repulsion factors. As for Snyder I've only seen 300 and Watchmen—I know, not even the Dawn of the Dead remake. Both 300 and Watchmen, I thought, were basically on the mediocre side of average all things considered. By reputation Snyder has done worse. I got a kick out of a lot of the parts of Army of the Dead, which is really all you can ask of today's tentpole popcorn movies, right? P.S. I also watched it at home.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Haunted (1994)

I keep meaning to address the subject of duds in story collections and anthologies. I'm so used to finding them in every one I read that I almost suspect it might be a matter of mood and/or just comes with the territory. This is the first collection I've read by Joyce Carol Oates, and it seemed to me almost perfect—nearly every story very good or better, and some, such as the title story, among the best I know. Two other collections of hers I've looked at since don't come close so maybe I had something like beginner's luck here. It does have weaker pieces, and at least one ("The Model") that doesn't seem like horror at all. Oates is very good at writing short stories and seems well aware of the range offered by horror. She includes an afterword specifically on horror that spells it out, as if she is explicitly committing to it. It feels like she can effortlessly access the fears all women know and live with and incorporate them naturally into her stories. They feature ghosts, monsters, haunted houses, serial killers, maybe even a vampire or werewolf or two. But behind all of it are the anxieties of being a woman in this society—taken for granted, fearful of violence, and struggling to be enough. It's not just sexual assault (a given in the worlds of these stories) but all the unfair and conflicting expectations to be strong, nurturing, submissive, and successful, along with the fears of failing to live up to any of these expectations. You can learn a tremendous amount from these stories, I suspect, about what it's like being a woman at the turn of the 21st century. Best of the best here include the title story, which deftly serves up a stew of simmering anxiety from haunted house to serial killer to irrational gnawing guilt and shame, followed by "The Doll," a munge of self-imposed you-can-do-it-all ambition with classic doll story elements done exceptionally well. I also liked seeing Oates dedicate the collection to editor-at-large Ellen Datlow, who I'm just coming to know via her vast production of anthologies over the past 30 years or so. Haunted is remarkably good, not least because the stories, each one, are so consistently so good.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

"Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" (1953)

In a way this story by Robert Aickman is dated now because it relies so much on telephone technology without features we take for granted today, such as caller ID, which alone may have destroyed hundreds of horror story premises not to mention criminal stalking activities. On the other hand Aickman's story is a nice reminder of how mysterious this connection to the outside world could feel, exploited so well in the 1948 picture Sorry, Wrong Number. And exploited so well here too. It's probably a ghost story but also reminds me in key ways of Hanns Heinz Evers's story "The Spider." Edmund St. Jude is housesitting for his girlfriend while she recuperates from TB. Already this is "strange," the term Aickman preferred for his stories. What is he doing with his place in the meanwhile? Her apartment has a telephone, which is common by 1953, but not so common that it wouldn't be unusual not to have one. Edmund here would prefer not to have one, but it's a lot of trouble to remove so he lives with it. Is it haunted or is it glitchy? First it rings a lot and won't stop until he answers it. Then the caller waits for him to say "Hello?" three times and hangs up. There's not much to be done about it. He has more strange adventures with the phone when he tries to call out. Eventually he wanders into strange conversations at the other end of the line with a woman he doesn't know. He is strangely drawn to her and soon they are declaring their love for one another. But she won't give him a number to call. He can only wait for her to call. She says he can't see her but she won't say why. It briefly enters into the early internet / late landline period when people spent hours on the phone with strangers in phone-based relationships. If this story is dated in one way, it's prescient in another. Meanwhile Edmund is so preoccupied he's letting his life go to hell. He makes a living as a translator but loses interest in his work and starts to get fired from jobs. Then he starts to get wrong-number calls for an extension 281 at a "Chromium Supergloss Corporation." He's also ignoring letters from his girlfriend now, letting them pile up. "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" (which words never occur in the story by the way) is a meditation on all the spaces a ghost might occupy in telephone technology. The woman on the phone is more or less a ghost in this story, but not exactly, much as the woman across the way in "The Spider" is a vampire, but not exactly. "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" is sadder but it has a cold core—maybe that's the point of the title. Looking it up, it appears to have something to do with the opera La boheme. Strange stuff indeed from early in the career of one of the best story writers of his time.

Robert Aickman, The Wine-Dark Sea
Story not available online.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Troubled Man (2009)

Most of the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell (the originals in Swedish) came out like clockwork in the '90s, but the last two straggled in at five-year intervals. The one before this is short (An Event in Autumn, technically a Linda Wallander novel), and the one before that, The Pyramid, was a collection of stories. Perhaps the last handful feel like Mankell might have been just slightly (or more) bored with the project. There's some of that here, perhaps inevitably, and there's some series tidying-up that feels mechanical. But it's a fairly big novel with a fairly big case, once again charged with international and historical issues, perhaps most notably with reverberations of the Cold War. By their size, complexity, and pace, the majority of Mankell's novels feel more like political thrillers than detective stories or police procedurals. There's really not much genre innovation to them, except using genre as scaffolding for larger political and social ideas. In that way, Mankell does an admirable wrap on the whole series with The Troubled Man. The case is mysterious enough to offer gratification in the resolution. It's hard to miss that Wallander and Mankell are saying a lot of goodbyes here. Wallander's ex-wife Mona (Linda's mother) shows up for the first time since Faceless Killers, I believe, the first novel in the series. Wallander's one-time girlfriend after the divorce, the Latvian Baiba Liepa, has a dramatic sequence too. Rydberg, who died in Faceless Killers, still haunts Wallander's thoughts as his mentor. Other threads from the series are dropped entirely, such as coworkers who seemed to have a future in it and some other storylines. Mankell's writing actually ranged widely beyond detective fiction, including plays, screenplays, and YA literature. He was certainly much more than a narrow genre writer. You always sense that, and his decisions are easy to trust. Sometimes he feels almost protective of Wallander's privacy, the main reason, given more than once, for withholding information. Other things here, some of the resolutions and problems that plague Wallander, feel mechanical. Here, for example, he is 60, still diabetic and battling his weight, but now he also has onset Alzheimer's. It scares me silly in a way, of course, but also feels like it's emerging unconsciously from Mankell's own anxieties and one-more-thing worries. Still, all around, it's a generous finish to a worthwhile series, the whole thing a classic of Nordic noir.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Falling Down (1993)

USA / France / UK, 113 minutes
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Ebbe Roe Smith
Photography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Music: James Newton Howard
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Frederic Forrest, Lois Smith, Raymond J. Barry

It was hard for me to get a bead on this movie when it was new. I didn't understand who it was speaking for or what it wanted to tell us. Now, in what we regard hopefully as our tentative springtime in America post-Trump era ("Alexa, what's a quote for optimism?"), a lot of things about it make more sense, such as all the "replacement theory" ideas embedded in the dialogue that I never recognized previously. Such a mix of evocative elements: Michael Douglas remains the original and possibly greatest yuppie boomer scum of all time (Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, plus I think The Game is a criminally overlooked exercise in this vein). Douglas has said he considers his performance in Falling Down to be his best, and his dad agreed too. Financing for Falling Down came from abroad as well as Hollywood—I don't know what that means, except it seems slightly early for globalism. Filming had to be stopped in spring 1992 when riots erupted in Los Angeles around the verdict in the first trial for police charged with assaulting Rodney King. Last but not least, director Joel Schumacher remains mostly a cipher for me, generally better early, as with The Lost Boys and Flatliners. But I like his taste for the sensational even if it often seems addled.

So here we are: Michael Douglas's Bill Foster wears a short-sleeved white shirt with a striped tie and clip. He carries a snappy little square attache case. His glasses are horn-rimmed. His haircut is crewcut. He works as an engineer in the defense industry in Southern California—his vanity license plate says "D-FENS." The movie starts on a bad traffic jam, a typical big city freeway crawl (see also the opening of Office Space), from which Foster finally walks away in frustration, wandering off into the "Los Angeles gangland" in search of change for a payphone. That's when all the trouble starts. Foster tells himself and others he is going home, meaning to the house where he used to live with his ex-wife and family. It's his daughter's birthday. Later we find out he has been living with his mother and lost his job a month earlier.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

"Uncle Einar" (1947)

I'm infatuated with this story by Ray Bradbury, which puts him more squarely in the realm of horror than science fiction where I usually slot him. It was published first in a Bradbury collection called Dark Carnival and later in a more famous one called The October Country and it's part of Bradbury's "Elliott Family" series. The Elliotts are a kind of Addams family—kooky, altogether ooky oddballs with strange powers. It's gentle, of course, the way Bradbury does. Besides the Addams family, the Elliotts also feel like some precursor to the X-Men with their mutant gifts and outsider status. Most of the Elliott family has more subtle powers, with mental abilities like telepathy and telekinesis. Uncle Einar's is harder to hide from the world: he has a giant pair of green wings growing on his back and he can fly. I imagine his wings as more like dinosaur wings than bird or moth, leathery and tendoned. He can't really go among humans at all and he must do most of his flying at night when he won't be seen. He also has a kind of radar that enables him to sense objects in his way as he flies around in the dark. But a terrible accident occurs one night. Something goes wrong and he collides with a high-tension tower and takes a massive jolt of electricity that knocks him out. Fortunately he lands on a farm operated by Brunilla Wexley, a single woman who will become his wife. Bradbury plainly has a lot of feeling for Uncle Einar and imbues him with much humanity—his love of flying, his sadness at being grounded, his love for his wife and eventually their children, and finally the solution they work out so he can fly safely again. At the same time, as benign as we know Uncle Einar is, it's not hard to imagine how scary it would be to see him flying at night. That's a neat trick on Bradbury's part. It's all quite vivid. I have a clear sense of Uncle Einar and Brunilla too, and like them both. I should say it's also the only Elliott Family story I've read that I like much—in general the concept is typically too cute and wholesome by half, though some of the powers are certainly interesting. This Elliott Family story comes a bit later than the first batch and in many ways feels like Uncle Einar might have been a character who nagged at Bradbury and importuned him to tell his story. It feels like a Sherwood Anderson story too with its candid treatment of socially determined grotesques and their experience of being marginalized. In fact, a lot of Bradbury stories feel like they have sources in Anderson. This is one of the best.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read story online.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Tenet (2020)

Of course I had to look up reviewers and websites I read regularly when I am confused before I could even think of trying to make sense of Christopher Nolan's giant headfuck valentine to action movies, one of the larger cultural artifacts lost in the pandemic, although likely that is temporary. A 70-mm version made the rounds last summer, but I suspect we still have to wait until after next year before it might be safe enough to see movies with crowds again so it will likely be back. I went ahead and looked at it on TV. I thought of James Bond while watching it and so did Tim Brayton at Alternate Ending, Steven Rubio at Steven Rubio's Online Life, and Brian Tellerico at RogerEbert.com. Start with that. I'm not a big fan of Bond movies but it's fair to say with Tenet that "ultimately its pleasures are the pleasures of the chase followed by the fistfight, interspersed with scenes of craftily sneaking into secure locations." That's Brayton, who by the way argues even the high concept of the movie is lucid. Everyone seems to agree on the rousing action scenes, as abstracted as they are minus lucid narrative context, but the view that this movie makes sense is more a minority one—I was lost most of the time, and Rubio and Tallerico seemed nearly as befuddled as me, not to mention hordes of commenters on the internet. The concept of Tenet (please note how it reads the same backward and forward) rests on a technology that can reverse entropy (I know: yeah, right), enabling access to a timestream that moves from future to past, instead of only past to future as we all normally experience it. What that means for the movie in practical terms is that in the big action sequences with helicopters some things are moving forward and some are moving backward (most obviously, lots of un-explosions). Nailing down the conflict in this story is a problem I'm not sure Tenet ever solves. We're told we are under attack from the future, with some chatter about the time-travel grandfather paradox, but I didn't catch much explanation beyond that so I will have to leave it at that. I'm not ready yet to resort to YouTube. Between Nolan's big budget and the amazing fat soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson there's plenty to gape at and it is often somehow even thrilling. But the ongoing lack of narrative clarity combined with the long running time was wearying. Will it make more sense another time? Maybe when the pandemic is over I can go see it in full theatrical glory and then adjourn for coffee and pie and a long conversation. I resent movies that require multiple viewings as basically incompetent on their face, but there's also a few I've grown ever more fond of after second and third and more viewings (In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr., and Yi Yi, for example). Jury's still out on this one, and not just for me. I already know it expects us to work hard.