Monday, June 27, 2022

The Souvenir: Part II (2021)

I see reviews of director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg's epic two-part The Souvenir (the first came out in 2019) reach for heady comparisons with filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer, both of which make sense. For the nearly four hours of The Souvenir it's arguable that nothing or very little happens, but step back and you see better how much it is charged with grief and grief's strange ways. It's autobiographical, with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) standing in for Hogg as a young woman in the '80s attending film school. Julie's mother Rosalind is played by Tilda Swinton, who is Byrne's mother in real life, and Swinton also knew Hogg at the time and was featured in the 28-minute movie, Caprice, that Hogg made for her graduating project at film school. The Souvenir is thus very much a family affair, and feels it—warm, intimate, prickly, and always interesting. The Souvenir, both parts, went by quickly for me as I found it easy to sink into the rhythms of Julie's life, her involvement with a man addicted to heroin, her understanding or lack of understanding of his addiction—she seems mostly unaware of it—and her attempt to find a catharsis or something like it in her work. The elements of Ozu and Rohmer are readily apparent, also Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, and other giants a film student would encounter and attempt to absorb, as the picture sweeps from scene to scene with confidence and quiet and evocative moments. The first part essentially covers the romance and this second part the making of her student film (here called The Souvenir, of course). Among other things, The Souvenir: Part II is one of the better movies about making a movie, hitting on financing difficulties and all the on-set troubles of a million decisions to make at once and much of the cast and crew second-guessing her, bewildered by the way the story seems to be going. I loved everything about both of these movies until we arrive, late in this picture, at a screening of the movie she made, which seemed painfully pretentious to me and packed with art picture cliches. Did Hogg intend to make it look that way? Is that how it looked to her coming back to Caprice over 30 years later? Or did it affect me that way because I was unfamiliar with Caprice? It was the most jarring part of the whole experience—looking up Caprice on the internet later, it did seem dotty with film influence but much better than my experience of The Souvenir version. Worth a look—both parts, and Caprice too.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

"The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be" (1967)

Gahan Wilson was known more for being a cartoonist than a writer, though he always traveled in fantasy and horror circles, even as a cartoonist, at which he was unique, instantly recognizable, and often great. Sometimes a good horror story is less inspired and more efficient. This one is both, and also has great extremes, rooted self-consciously in Lewis Carroll, that strange literary figure. While I am more ambivalent about Carroll’s work—reading him has always been slightly disappointing for me—Wilson clearly spent some time inhabiting it. The story is remarkable, disconcerting and unearthly. At the same time it’s also somehow very ‘60s. This drunken seaside picnic scene could be equally a sun-drenched Pepsi commercial. The best contrast in a story full of great ones might be the mysterious charisma of the two unlikely figures trudging the beach, a kind of Mutt and Jeff dressed for a Lewis Carroll masquerade. The sodden morning-after jaded ad executives and their blowsy fashionable women out of a Fellini picture—another nice ‘60s touch—simply fall in love with these two, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and will follow them anywhere. It’s chilling in its hilarious casualness. The notes of cruelty, such as the saw the Carpenter carries, are so subtle you think it might be your imagination. Other revelations of violence are shocking and grotesque and too real. The ghost of Janet Leigh in Psycho haunts this story. Wilson also might have been pulling vibrations out of the air in other ways—or perhaps John Lennon had a subscription to Playboy where this story first appeared in May 1967—because the Walrus in this story has obvious affinities with the slightly sinister Walrus in the Beatles song. The story feels like a drug trip gone wrong, more like “Helter Skelter” in that way. It would be interesting to know more about what the Beatles knew or thought about Wilson—certainly it’s likely Lennon admired him as a cartoonist, if indeed he were not emulating Wilson in certain ways. The story also has the kind of ‘60s-style downbeat ending seen in pictures like Easy Rider and Night of the Living Dead. You could almost reverse-engineer “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” out of everything we know about the ‘60s. A great one. And now that I think about it, you could probably do something equally remarkable with Dr. Seuss if you put your mind to it.

The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. Ray Russell (out of print)
The Weird, ed. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Listen to story online.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Wild Boys (1971)

Time now for the novel that is not part of any trilogy I know of but was packaged with the first two novels of a William S. Burroughs trilogy in a book called Three Novels. Go figure. This Grove Press edition, which I picked up somewhere along the line, does mention The Ticket That Exploded in an “other works” list, which is the third novel in the trilogy. But never mind, Jake. The Wild Boys, perhaps not surprisingly, is full of homoerotics, rectal mucus, and locker-room smells. And, maybe surprisingly, it’s more lucid than much of the so-called Nova (and/or Cut-Up) trilogy. I think I’m settling on the “damaged genius” narrative for Burroughs. There’s enough good writing in any one of his generally slim novels (and/or collections of stories and/or installments of larger works) that they are almost worth reading. His focus on sensory details—colors, smells, textures—makes some passages extraordinarily vivid. But many other long passages make very little sense at all. I read him in a way that I read little else: with a kind of free-floating disengagement, trying to look at every word and absorb its significance, imagining scenes when I can. If it’s not working I just take it as opaque and move along (nothing to see here, folks). I’m sure I’m missing things but I’m also sure some of these passages are merely inscrutable. They consist of words, or down to letters in some cases, but they don’t seem to mean anything. Or you fill in the gaps yourself somehow, with something, which can be interesting. I’m not saying reading Burroughs doesn’t have its pleasures but it’s often frustrating too. Tantalizing and portentous images and scenes evaporate into nothing, melting into a meaningless block of words and then the scene changes, or a new paragraph starts. Formal disengagement is almost self-protective. It’s possible that reading more closely would reveal more. It’s also possible the whole thing is a put-on. In places, The Wild Boys seems almost sentimental about its manifold sexual connections. There are some vague SF elements. Lots of scattered great paragraphs and sentences. David Bowie cited it as his favorite by Burroughs, but I would still be careful about jumping in.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Sister (1987)

Sister was long the null Sonic Youth album in my experience—the proclaimed favorite of many SY fans even today, but the one that never particularly seemed worth second listens whenever I tried it again. So this will have to be something of a mea culpa and I’ll make it quick. Maybe it was lost on me in the backward-casting incandescent glow of Daydream Nation, which brought me back to the band after writing them off years earlier as hopelessly enamored of pigfuck noise, in-your-face attitude, and little more (maybe now I have to revisit Confusion Is Sex and Bad Moon Rising again after all this time?). Plus, honestly, I don’t know how you call anything else but Daydream Nation their best. I was charmed by the loopy experimentalism of EVOL and even The Whitey Album but nothing about Sister ever particularly stuck. So I sat down with it recently for a few weeks and played it a lot and finally must agree it’s a good one. The song titles alone are remarkably evocative, these clipped and cryptic two-word constructions: “Catholic Block,” “Cotton Crown,” “Tuff Gnarl,” “White Cross” (which seems to be about low-grade speed). At one point, I couldn’t seem to get enough of the admittedly rapey “Pacific Coast Highway,” which comes roaring in like a pack of clowns in a jeep playing banjos. It’s comical and it’s menacing and it’s introspective and then it pummels on a return, with Kim Gordon playing the role of the Green River Killer (as I imagined it, suitable for the timeframe) making the pitch to “come on get in the car, let’s go for a ride somewhere.” Maybe a virtue for Sister lovers is the relative brevity of these tracks, which barely break five minutes if that, as compared to the oceanic workups of the double-LP Daydream Nation. Sister might also be the album where the attack of the strange tunings is most thoughtfully honed. From the opening “Schizophrenic” on they are in high form, moody, wounding, always slightly wrong, and feeling unique from track to track. They sound strange but you’re not always sure why. The more I hear Sister the more I realize how little it sounds like anything else except themselves in an unusually purified mode. Well, “Hot Wire My Heart” seems to preen with its influences, sounding like “Sister Ray” in the verses—is it an elliptical source of this album’s title?—and “Sweet Sweet Heart” (or something by the Vibrators from Pure Mania). It works great. The whole album is good. Don’t miss it if you can.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

"The Long Sheet" (1941)

I found this William Sansom story in the Weird anthology, where editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer compare it to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (also in the anthology). It’s a fair comparison in many ways but the author and novel it more put me in mind of were George Orwell and 1984—maybe that’s the Brit in them as Sansom also hailed from the UK. “The Long Sheet” feels more dispassionate than the Kafka as it breaks down its Sisyphean dynamic. The task assigned here, and the geometric setting, seem more perfectly absurd than the physical cruelties of “Penal Colony.” Wringing out a sheet to complete dryness is not even as possible as this story makes it sound. Sansom surely knew this, thus forcing the reader to understand it’s even worse than it seems. There actually is a narrative arc here—a climax and resolution is reached—even though it is willfully anti-rational. The story numbers the allegorical chambers it conceives 1 to 4, but describes them in this order: 3, 2, 4, 1. There’s a narrative logic to the way they build, but I don’t know why 3, for example, could not have been labeled 1. It feels like something about the power of bureaucracy and totalitarianism to confuse and exhaust with irrationality, which again feels more connected to Orwell. Each of the four chambers has a group of at least five people working on the task (wring out the sheet, at knee-high level, to complete dryness). They are also periodically harassed by things like piped-in steam. It is a miserable situation but that is more understood than felt. The one point where the Kafka story is stronger is that the intolerable absurdity is more directly felt. “The Long Sheet” resembles Germans turning techniques of mass production to death and ultimately genocide. But part of the horror here is that death does not occur. This life goes on and on. I like the story quite a bit. It may be a little too neat and tidy, but that also contributes to the chilly antiseptic air of it. It’s like a dry, anonymous report from a bureaucracy. It qualifies as weird, that slippery term, the same way the Kafka story does, because it’s such a strange thing to imagine in the first place. What society goes to the trouble of creating an installation for this work that is pointless by design, and why? How do people in that society feel about the imprisoned? Do they know at all? What do they know? “The Long Sheet” is a case study in raising more questions than it answers, with the same gray feeling of bureaucracy as Orwell. And to think, Auschwitz was not even yet a thing when this story was written and published.

The Weird, ed. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Story not available online.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb (2022)

The latest from Dorktown basically comes down to a plea to the Baseball Hall of Fame on behalf of the Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb. Dorktown principals Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein do it the way they have established they do it: lovingly curated anecdotes fortified by figurative reams of statistical veracity. Visually it's a bunch of graphs, news article excerpts, and clips from games. It's also four hours—and, as usual, over too soon. In my mind Dave Stieb, whose heyday was in the '80s and part of the '90s, was an inning-eating starter now confused in memory with Jack Morris and Dave Stewart. They pitched lots of games, won lots of games, and gave up lots of runs doing it. But Dorktown set me straight on that one—Stieb was miles ahead of Morris and Stewart on ERA alone, let alone WAR and all the fancy stats these guys produce. Stieb also appeals to Dorktown's notable appreciation for obsessed figures out of Moby-Dick, doomed to fail and living sports lives of quiet desperation. Dorktown's previous masterpieces (the Godfather I and II, respectively, of sports video journalism) address the Seattle Mariners and the Atlanta Falcons. In Stieb's case the core tale is how he never got over the hump of a championship, plus a bunch of unlikely blown no-hitters, which are actually traumatic just to hear about in detail. In 1988, the worst of it, he took back-to-back no-hitters all the way to 8-2/3 and in at least one case the hit scored off him at that point was extra-freaky.

The good news is Stieb finally did notch a no-hitter, in 1989, after flirting with it some eight or nine times. The bad news is that, for a little pile of circumstantial reasons herein recounted, Stieb never seriously made it into the conversation for the Hall of Fame. Dorktown is here to rectify that. And Captain Ahab is worth seeing for every minute. The last section, which addresses Stieb’s Hall of Fame status, reminded me of my own quarrels at large with the human impulse to honor, because I can think of very few that accomplish it without controversy or even with which I'm much in agreement, especially at the edges but also, often, on the major themes.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2018)

Michelle McNamara's true-crime book about the so-called Golden State Killer is already making it to recommendation lists of best true-crime ever. This is likely due more to circumstances above and beyond the book itself. It's a very good book, such as it is, but explicitly it's incomplete. A fair amount of its reputation has to do with the killer, who was so elusive for so long that he has at least two other police and/or media nicknames. I first learned about him in the 2000s from an episode of the A&E channel's Cold Case Files. Joseph James DeAngelo, as we finally learned was his name, was an amazingly skillful and sickeningly prolific sexual offender who finally graduated to serial killer. He was savagely cruel with a penchant for bizarre gestures. I kept him in the back of my mind and looked out for more information about him. McNamara reportedly had much the same experience, perhaps even with the same TV episode. She really went to work on it as a web sleuth in the 2010s. At some point I remember running across her blog, True Crime Diary. I read enough of it to appreciate she was on the case and that it was still unsolved. In fact, it was McNamara who gave him the “Golden State Killer” sobriquet. He had previously been known in Sacramento as the East Area Rapist and in Southern California as the Original Night Stalker. McNamara's blog was way deep in the weeds when I found it around 2013 and I didn't end up visiting often. She died in 2016 at the age of 46, while working on this book. The book is constructed from manuscript parts, notes, and other sources by true-crime writer Paul Haynes, investigative journalist Bill Jensen, and McNamara's widower Patton Oswalt. It's a work of love and done really well. It was published in February 2018. Two months later, in a dramatic turn of events, DeAngelo was finally run to ground at the age of 72. He was subsequently convicted in 2020 and sent to prison for life, which is probably not a very long sentence, but still. All the stuff that McNamara wrote here, including a long section of memoir about an unsolved murder in her Chicago neighborhood when she was growing up, are far and away the best parts of I'll Be Gone in the Dark. But the book is often fragmented. One section is a partial transcription of a day she spent with one of the cold case detectives on the case. A valiant job was done pulling this together after her death, but her touch on a final pass is missed, and inevitably, as we learn more details with time, someone is going to do a better job of telling DeAngelo’s whole story. But he may always be known casually as the Golden State Killer—the nickname McNamara gave DeAngelo before we knew his name. I'll Be Gone in the Dark is more and more a curiosity as time goes by, and an incomplete one at that, but still worth looking into.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Solaris (1972)

Solyaris, USSR, 167 minutes
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Stanislaw Lem, Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, Andrei Tarkovsky
Photography: Vadim Yusov
Music: Eduard Artemyev, J.S. Bach
Editors: Lyudmila Feyginova, Nina Marcus
Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Benionis, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Juri Jarvet, Sos Sargsyan, Vitalik Kerdimun

Solaris has always struck me as the Soviet response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the Cold War then in its high anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better period. Director and cowriter Andrei Tarkovsky reportedly liked Solaris the least of all his pictures, which would fit with being pressured into doing it (or into doing it a certain way) by Soviet elements that inevitably had a lot of control over his life and career. But I don’t know—I’m just spitballing here. Based on a novel by the Soviet science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, Solaris is heady, trippy, slow, and frequently abstracted. But it is propelled by a deeply strange premise and Tarkovsky’s usual care in putting together a movie.

A new planet has been discovered, called Solaris. It has been under study for years by Soviet scientists but remains baffling. Landing parties have disappeared, always under strange circumstances. Even the space station orbiting it seems to feel some of the effects—hallucinations, delusions, madness. More and more a majority of government decision makers argue the project should be abandoned as too dangerous and expensive. But the scientists remain fascinated and who can blame them. One theory among many is that the planet itself is a kind of giant brain, or “thinking substance.” The station was built to house a crew of 85 but it’s now down to just three and their reports are increasingly nutty. A scientist and psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Benionis), is dispatched to assess the situation, with an eye toward closing it down. What he finds there will change and destroy his life.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Best American Essays 1997

I read these annuals regularly from the '90s into the 2000s, even picking up the older editions back to the start in 1986. And it's still going—still under the oversight of Robert Atwan working with a different guest editor every year. This one is Ian Frazier, for example, who produced a collection that stood out to me as different from the rest. That's partly because it's one of the shortest of them all, with Frazier favoring quicker five-page pieces. He also favors humor more than most of the other editors in the series—humor always a tricky business in any literature. Not that there aren't serious pieces here—a shocking, oddly toned, and longer true-crime personal essay ("creative nonfiction") piece by Jo Ann Beard, a bitter story of gang violence by Debra Dickerson, an assessment by Susan Sontag of the state of cinema after a century, and more. My complaint about the series and the reason I finally abandoned it is that the "Best" came to seem suspect year in and year out, with a cast of too many returning writers. Frazier pointed it in a different and more interesting direction in 1997. Even though it has some of the usuals (Hilton Als, Richard Ford, Cynthia Ozick) there are lots of nice pieces that seem noticeably different from the usual fare. The first time I read this anthology, it was Beard's piece, "The Fourth State of Matter," that jumped out at me. It's still effective and quite well done, so vivid I still remembered it and thus the element of surprise was gone, and missed, alas. Luc Sante has an interesting piece about growing up in a bilingual household, with interesting details of his family history. I remember 1997 as a time when I was really taken with the personal essay. More of that view is ultimately what I think Frazier brought to his anthology. Frank Gannon's "Rat Patrol: A Saga" is an evocative memoir piece that morphs into a funny cautionary tale for parents. Dickerson's hard memories in "Who Shot Johnny?" are measured by personal grief. Lauren Slater's "Black Swans" traces her fascinating experiences with antidepressants. I want to say, to be clear, that all the Best American Essays annuals had redeeming and interesting essays that ranged broadly, as essays should—in tone, in theme, in language and style. The only difference here is that the proportion was higher for me, and there was not much I actively disliked, as could happen. Start here!

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Still Life (2006)

San xia hao ren, China / Hong Kong, 108 minutes
Director: Zhangke Jia
Writers: Zhangke Jia, Na Guan, Jiamin Sun
Photography: Nelson Lik-wai Yu
Music: Giong Lim
Editor: Jinlei Kong
Cast: Sanming Han, Tao Zhao, Hongwei Wang

Like the Hole album Live Through This, the deceptively bland title of this movie is open to numerous interpretations—most obviously a type of painting or photography, a description of animals holding position, and a heartening observation of the will to live. In one way or another, all those aspects are represented in Still Life. I have seen it described as a movie in which nothing happens, so caveats, but I think really what is happening may be so monumental it’s almost bigger than perception. The broad setting is China’s Three Gorges Dam in the late stages of that massive, multi-decade project. The ancient town of Fengjie, established circa 300 BCE, is slowly evacuating, preparing to be flooded and submerged in coming weeks. Two characters wander into this chaos—Sanming (Sanming Han) and Shen Hong (Tao Zhao)—and both are looking for people long absent from their lives.

It’s fair to say very little happens in this movie, at least on the surface. The two characters don’t know each other and never cross paths, though they seem to have a random connection in at least one person. Sanming is searching for a daughter he has not seen in 16 years since she was an infant and Shen Hong is looking for a husband who has been away working for two years. She has an urgent message for him. Still Life is slow and a little cryptic, never helping us much with these two and what they are about. But the feelings they raise in their determined, patient searches, plus the scope of the dam project literally consuming the town of Fengjie and everything all around us, somehow make it wholly satisfying to follow, absorb, and gawk at.