Friday, December 02, 2016

Patty Hearst (1988)

UK / USA, 108 minutes
Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Patricia Hearst, Alvin Moscow, Nicholas Kazan
Photography: Bojan Bazelli
Music: Scott Johnson
Editor: Michael R. Miller
Cast: Natasha Richardson, Ving Rhames, William Forsythe, Frances Fisher, Jodi Long, Peter Kowanko, Tom O'Rourke, Gerald Gordon

The Patty Hearst story is always going to be interesting, like the Jonbenet Ramsey murder, JFK assassination, and Lizzie Borden crimes, because of a continuing sense we still don't even know exactly what happened—that it might be impossible to know, it's so slathered over now with distortions of celebrity and passing time. The crusading prosecutor in director and cowriter Paul Schrader's formally fictional treatment of Patty Hearst puts it this way: "America wants to know. Did she or didn't she? Was she or wasn't she?" The scene is a conference between lawyers, late in the movie, after the fugitive Patty Hearst has been run to ground with the remaining members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a year and a half after the kidnapping.

F. Lee Bailey and his team, representing Hearst, cannot believe prosecutors are thinking of taking the case to trial, arguing it would be an open-and-shut case of coercion in a military setting. After Bailey realizes they are serious he makes the speech that defines the problem of Patty Hearst: "How are you gonna get a fair jury? In the '60s, every parent sent their nice normal kid off to college, and bingo! It was like the kid got kidnapped by the counterculture. Turned into a commie and said screw you to society and his parents. Lived in a commune and had free sex with Negroes and homosexuals. They think Patty did the same thing." To which the crusading prosecutor (Tom O'Rourke) responds: "Didn't she?"

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"The Lover of Horses" (1986)

Read story by Tess Gallagher online.

Tess Gallagher's story is less a narrative than a brooding meditation on death—well, on life too. The life and death belong primarily to the lover of horses of the title, the first-person narrator's great-grandfather, by reputation a horse "whisperer." But it's also about her father, related to her great-grandfather only by marriage. As she sees it, they share a similar experience, swept up by life, chosen by something outside of and greater than themselves. "[H]e was in all likelihood a man who had been stolen by a horse," she writes of her great-grandfather's abandonment of his family at the age of 52 to join a circus. Thus, she reasons, the impulse to make oneself an outsider was not just an influence but a positive factor in all their decisions. In the case of her father the lack of bloodlines might make it something of a stretch, but OK. Her father loved to play cards, or more accurately gamble. Near the end of his life, in his 70s, he finds a game and has an extraordinary run of luck. It is a high point of his life, and highly meaningful—or anyway that's how his daughter, the first-person narrator, sees it. On some level it's rationalizing, but the story seems to believe it and even manages to dignify it, like a good Joni Mitchell song. Gallagher was more a writer of poetry, and in many ways that's how this story feels. Everything is pointed toward an idea that, at least in some cases, things choose us and not the other way round, as we usually see them. Horses chose her great-grandfather, gambling chose her father, presumably writing, or maybe love for her father or family, has chosen this writer. I'm not sure there's much ambiguity here, except perhaps that grief has affected her, distorted her view, which seems unlikely. And I'm not sure there's much more to the story than that. It seems slight in some ways—the easy argument is that these men are failures. But the narrator wants us to look beyond that. For example, at the joy of her father finally encountering his long-sought streak of good luck. She wants us to see joy where we might be inclined to see obsession, or something similarly unhealthy. Maybe so, maybe so. But hard to say.

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"A Romantic Weekend" (1988)

Story by Mary Gaitskill not available online.

This story comes from Mary Gaitskill's first collection, Bad Behavior, and it's more overt about the sexual kink she often writes about, BDSM, a complicated acronym you should look up for further tediously detailed discussion. Told third-person omniscient, "A Romantic Weekend" goes inside the heads of both its characters, an unnamed man who calls himself a sadist, and Beth, his mistress for the time being (he is married), who calls herself a masochist. Among other things, the story has a firm grip on the terrible foibles of these relationships, which come of projection, incoherence, and other poor interpersonal skills. "What do you want to do?" Beth asks the man during their all-night flight on the weekend trip in question. "I can't just come out and tell you," he says. "It would ruin it." And therein lies a primary rub of sexual relationships, not just BDSM. We want our partners to just know. Explaining things spoils it all. At the same time, the reports Gaitskill makes from inside the man's head point to what Beth finally realizes. He is a dangerous moron. He wants to beat her, torture her—he feels like an overprivileged 14-year-old. He doesn't appear to derive any pleasure, for the most part, and what he consciously seeks is closer to a porny fantasy of snuff: "With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his." This is a remarkable formulation of at least one projected mindset of the sadist, or top, or dom, but it's off. (All definitions are off a little in this realm.) The story seems to be straining after something much more dangerous as well, the mindset of a serial killer say, or at least sociopath. But this character's translation of it, perhaps exactly because of the malevolence, is also infantile and silly, closer to the kind of dominating that literally an infant would exert (see also: Donald Trump), which in turn is based on the humoring goodwill of its caretaker. You see how quickly it becomes so complicated. The man in this story is mostly unpleasant, particularly in his actions, and it's not long before he has completely alienated Beth. In fairness, Beth has some strange ideas herself about masochism (as do we all, ultimately, and the other way too). Neither one of these characters is very good at this. The story is not so much about BDSM but more about the treacheries of forging sexual relationships, the many places where compromise fatally undermines them. The problem of stating needs becomes an endless tiresome matter of negotiation, which ruins it. All the ways that sex comes up short, and love with it. It's not bad, but I think Gaitskill has done better elsewhere.

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Rock Springs" (1982)

Read story by Richard Ford online.

Richard Ford's excellent and well-known short story is right out of the Raymond Carver school of damaged lives from the white underclass. It's told first-person by Earl Middleton of Kalispell, Montana, who has decided to move his family, such as it is—his daughter Cheryl, their dog Little Duke, and Edna, who is separated from a violent husband and has been with Earl for eight months. Earl happens to be looking at serious jail time for passing bad checks and needs to get out of the state. Though an edge of desperation is always in his voice, he tries to front an optimistic attitude. He steals a cranberry-colored Mercedes Benz from an ophthalmologist and plans (dreams) of a luxury ride all the way to Florida. But about 30 miles outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming, an engine warning light starts to show on the dashboard. The car is disabled even before they reach the town, and Earl has to come up with a Plan B. For the most part the story goes rollicking along as a kind of unusual road trip adventure. Edna and Cheryl are often bored, restless, and peevish. Yet there's a sense of inevitable ongoing collapse, even as Earl soldiers on. The fights between Earl and Cheryl are about old things. Those between Earl and Edna are about old things getting fitted to new partners. When Edna complains about how much danger they are in, Earl offers to buy her a bus ticket back to Kalispell. Later, when Edna tries to take him up on the offer, it's as if the floor (the flimsy floor) of Earl's life has vanished under his feet. He tries to keep it all elaborately upbeat, but he is seething with resentment, stung to his core. The ending is a wonderful model of ambiguity. Earl can't sleep, and leaves the motel room to prowl the parking lot, obviously thinking of stealing a car. But then what? Will he abandon his daughter, who is no older than 10? It seems likely. We realize at that moment that we really don't know Earl well. We know he is a criminal, without compunction, and we have seen how hard he works to keep himself on an even keel for the sake of others. We sense the furies underneath that—we sense that he is dangerous. But we have no idea where the lines and triggers are, what could happen. Along the way, the symbology is rich and strange: a terrible story of a monkey, a gold mine company town setting, and the desperate sweaty voice of Earl, with a great big have a good day smile on his puss. Chilling and pathetic at once, perhaps even reminiscent a little of Jim Thompson.

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

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

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I was impressed with Hailee Steinfeld when she was not even 14 in the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. She reared back and let the 19th-century dialogue fly like she'd been raised on a wagon train and a homestead, with iron in her spine. Haven't seen much of her since—she had a part in John Carney's Begin Again. Now it's more than five years later and she's still not even 21. And The Edge of Seventeen is depending on her for everything—it's basically a one-woman show, though with ample support. She plays Nadine, an introvert outcast in high school with a popular older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). In all the world she has only one friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend since 2nd grade, who wouldn't you know it ends up falling in bed and then falling in love with Darian. Insert sibling rivalry template. Also their father died in a terrible accident several years earlier during a Billy Joel song. Adolescence remains approximately the most narcissistic period in any person's life, and that's the steady refrain here, with a side of real calamities. Nadine's fits of pique grow old, I have to say, and so does her sad sack family (Kyra Sedgwick is their mother with barely a grip). Steinfeld spends a lot of time pouting and fuming. As usual with teen fare, the movie picks up when the soundtrack plays and/or during party scenes. But in the last third it turned out director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig actually has a pretty good grip on the storytelling, and slowly but surely the movie brought me around. Scenes of awkwardness were convincing, long and deeply awkward. Banter is deployed as a desperate attempt at being normal. It reminded me a little of Ghost World, which has a similarly disaffected teen lead who is also alienating herself from the people she needs most, and ultimately comes to learn her lesson. Nadine also learns the lessons she needs to learn in The Edge of Seventeen: accept people for who they are, give them a break, reach out for happiness once in a while, you know, the regular drill. And stop thinking about Donald Trump so much. She has a few potential love interests, appropriate and otherwise, including a grizzled Woody Harrelson as Mr. Bruner, a hip older teacher with a natural rapport, Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), a hot guy with a cool car (or is that the other way around?) who works at the pet store, and Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), who steals a couple of scenes as a cartoonist classmate even more introverted than Nadine. Szeto is one of the best parts. The story follows familiar beats of teen comedy and coming-of-age drama, and it ended up winning me over. Nice one.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Winter Dreams" (1922)

Read story by F. Scott Fitzgerald online.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published this story in 1922 and it's standard fare in many ways, more in the vein of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, though it is also considered a foundational story for The Great Gatsby. A young man from Minnesota—"Black Bear Lake," as opposed to the White Bear Lake which actually exists there—goes East for an Ivy League education, returns home, sets up in business, and eventually moves to New York City. Dexter Green is his name. Getting rich is his game. The woman he falls for, Judy Jones, is a kind of early pastiche of Daisy Buchanan and especially Jordan Baker, both in The Great Gatsby—beautiful, and careless. Dexter falls in love with her almost at first sight, when she is 11 and he is just a few years older. Not much happens beyond random lifelong encounters between them, though it is marked by Fitzgerald's gift for wonderfully extravagant language. Describing a summer evening scene by a lake, for example, he writes, "Then the moon held a finger to her lips and the lake became a clear pool, pale and quiet." Lines like that are one of the main reasons it's so difficult to make a movie of his work. He casts spells that only words can. Meanwhile, Dexter is busy getting rich and Judy is busy breaking hearts. That's what we do in a Fitzgerald story. It's also apparent from this story and the way it moves, again, why Fitzgerald had such a hard time accepting the realities of America and the world in the Great Depression '30s. He preferred the middle-class greed fantasies of the '20s, the "roaring" '20s, which he had a hand in inventing and mythologizing. So the people in this story golf and belong to country clubs, spend summers at lakes sailing, and in general extol the virtues of wealth (I use the word "virtues" ironically). Fitzgerald's characters are more or less innocents, these men falling in love with jaunty chicks. But it's a very white world and I'm not talking about the snow. It's a world scrubbed free of common troubles of the masses, a world of rank privilege. The justification, which he doesn't really even bother with, is "the human condition," people forever unsatisfied and into mischief. I'm prone to forgive Fitzgerald some because he could be such a peculiarly good writer. Even the names he comes up with are just wonderful: Dexter Green, who loves money, and first earned it as a golf caddy at the country club. Judy Jones (much later, Judy Simms). T.A. Hendrick. Mr. Hart and Mr. Sandoval (golfers). Krimslich (Dexter's mother's maiden name). Irene Scheerer (Dexter's fiancée). As for the title, it seems beside the point, in many ways. But I suppose it's an allusion to the ideal Fitzgerald had of the experience of growing up in the Midwest, dreaming to get money, a specific experience shared by Dexter Green and Jay Gatsby. For fans only.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Barn Burning" (1939)

Read story by William Faulkner online.

This story sees William Faulkner in good form on the Snopes family. It's told third-person from the point of view of a young Snopes boy, who is ludicrously named Colonel Sartoris, though everyone calls him "Sarty." Sarty is only 10 or 11 years old, but he is regularly amazed and aghast at the behavior of his father, Abner. Abner Snopes is proud, filled with rage, and self-destructive. He perversely refuses to cooperate with anyone on anything, even friends or neighbors, even on things like building fences to enclose his animals. When these friends and neighbors object, and then impose penalties to counter his irresponsibility and offset the cost of their troubles, Abner gets mad and takes revenge, burning down their barns and such. Then the family has to move again. Abner Snopes is a classic Faulkner character—poor, white, ignorant, unyielding, and boiling with rage. Already Sarty can remember moving nearly a dozen times. Abner is described more than once as looking as if he were cut from tin, a familiar Faulkner formulation: " ... he could see his father against the stars but without face or depth—a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat." The story starts with a legal case against Snopes that can't be proved, but he and his family are run out of the area—once more Sarty has to move. At the new place, Abner immediately makes more trouble with his new landlord. The story is half shocking treachery and half pure comedy, as Abner alienates all people he suspects thinks they are better than him. In this case the victim is Major de Spain, also seen previously in Faulkner's work. The Snopes stories, in fact, are some of Faulkner's funniest, though the grim razor edges of violence and seething anger are never far. I'll also point out this story is a reasonably straightforward narrative. You always know what's going on and it has a lot of momentum. The ending, an epic confrontation between Abner and de Spain, is not entirely clear, but it's likely that's clarified elsewhere in the Faulkner canon. And if it's not, it's possible to make the note of ambiguity work too, so all good, right? The important part of the story to me is the unearthly unrelenting powerful physical presence of Abner. His anger can be felt palpably, yet even at his most threatening he is also an unmistakable comic element, a kind of downhome version of Tony Soprano, bumptiously cracking hilarious and maiming and murdering people. Remarkable balancing act and a good story.

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

"A Poetics for Bullies" (1964)

Story by Stanley Elkin not available online.

Stanley Elkin might appear to be 50 years or more ahead of our current preoccupations with bullying. But I'm not so sure. The first-person narrator is named Push, and he is a self-declared bully. He contrasts himself with bullies who beat up their victims, claiming they are more "athletes" than bullies. His style is mocking and tormenting through trickery, and he throws out a handful of his favorites at one point, most of which I happen to remember well from growing up, usually on the receiving end: making a match burn twice, the Gestapo joke, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Hard. That's all good, and Push often reminded me uncomfortably of people I have known—even been. Then into this fiefdom one day comes a tall and patrician boy named John Williams, who is unafraid of Push. In turn, that makes Push a little afraid of him, or something. This is our central conflict, and I thought it was weak after how vividly Push had introduced himself. Williams is a world traveler, and probably rich. He has many fascinating stories to tell. All the kids love him, and his behavior helps to make them less afraid of Push. In turn, Push becomes even more intimidated by Williams. I didn't like this turn in the story—it turns it into a type of practical moral illustration. Push is a coward even though he denies it specifically early on, attacking the idea that all bullies are cowards. Yet in the end he is plainly a coward. I do agree with the cliché all bullies are cowards, but that's beside the point. I don't need to have it diagrammed for me. Besides, Push is more of a winning character than repulsive. He's charming, funny, well spoken. He's a bully but somehow that's forgivable. Maybe he doesn't seem so bad, or maybe it's the radiance of his self-awareness. Williams somehow has supernatural powers to intimidate Push, but we have to accept it as a given. We don't feel his powers much, though he does tell interesting stories and is somehow ingratiating. But that's not enough. From perfect self-awareness to almost no self-awareness is an unexplained sea change for Push in this short story. I don't believe it, and I don't think I understand the point. I like Push but I don't mind seeing a bully lose, so I think my stubborn loyalty to him suggests Elkin might be hedging his bets on making Push so bad. He's more like rapscallion, and that keeps him sympathetic enough, and that's what I don't get. Please don't tell me this is about bullies being redeemable. Next you'll be talking about racism against whites.

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

WALL-E (2008)

USA, 98 minutes
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon
Production design: Ralph Eggleston
Art direction: Bert Berry
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Stephen Schaffer
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Kim Kopf, Garrett Palmer

As I got ready to look at WALL-E again for the first time practically since it was new, I was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling: nostalgia for the era of Barack Obama. Strictly speaking, of course, the Obama era is not over quite yet. And, for that matter, released on June 27, 2008, the movie isn't even technically of the Obama era anyway. But the spirit is there, the sense we can come together, acknowledge and address our common problems, and solve them, however illusory or delusional that may now appear to be. The sense that the problems we have brought on ourselves are ridiculous and should be resolved immediately because they can be.

The reason for my reaction is obvious. In fact, the Obama era is ending, and we appear to be embarking on a period that's going to make Bush/Cheney look like a Sunday ride to the hounds. WALL-E, an animated cartoon movie rated G ("nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children"), operates from the premise that our unsustainable lifestyle has finally caught up with us as a species. Earth is no longer habitable—plant life is extinct, only adorable cockroaches are left, and the surface is piled high with trash. Human beings have been hurled into space on a five-year luxury cruise (with corporate sponsorship from the ubiquitous BNL, or Buy 'n' Large) while robots are left behind to clean up the mess and monitor for signs of returning life. In other words, it's a neoliberal nightmare.