Monday, August 01, 2022

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Director Questlove (of the Roots, Jimmy Fallon house band, and much more) has produced a documentary that is a kind of miracle, as was the festival it is about, a series of Harlem outdoor concerts in the summer of 1969 called the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed in glorious color and promptly put away for 50 years. “Same year as Woodstock” seems to be a common refrain for why that is, but it’s more likely another example of old-fashioned American racism. The ‘60s were receding into the ‘70s, with Richard Nixon and his henchmen running the show, launching the War on Drugs, and generally working in the interests of white supremacy. Whatever the reasons, there has been little interest in the footage all this time. That’s another miracle of this—that someone shot it at all, let alone so thoughtfully, a wonderful document of its moment. The list of artists appearing in it is so impressive I jotted them down as it went: Stevie Wonder, the Chambers Brothers, B.B. King, Herbie Mann, the 5th Dimension, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Staple Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Mahalia Jackson, Jesse Jackson with Ben Branch, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly & the Family Stone, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Dinizulu & His African Dancers and Drummers, Sonny Sharrock, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Hugh Masekela, and Nina Simone. The amount of gospel surprised me, as did the appearance by Sonny Sharrock. Some of these artists did not play their signature songs, though a fair number did. Greg Tate is a welcome presence providing context and anecdotes. A lot of the people who attended have been rounded up to recount their memories of the shows and the times. There’s an interesting point where the moon landing has happened, and all the mixed feelings about it. Security was provided by the Black Panthers with no problems—I mean, it did make me think of the Hell’s Angels doing the same for Altamont, and the gritty black & white documentary that came of that, Gimme Shelter. This is already a better counterpart to that movie than Woodstock. The mood at these shows is peaceful, celebratory, joyful. The music is amazing—my only complaint is predictable. Why isn’t this five hours long or more? Must-see.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

"Smart Sucker" (1957)

This story by Richard Wormser is laughably ridiculous and ends on a weak and unbelievable note, but it has its moments. I’m probably willing to forgive its miscues because it’s from my earliest exposures to horror literature. Wormser was a prolific genre writer but ISFDB discounts him because, presumably, most of it was detective fiction and Westerns. So I’m not sure why they list this story because it’s just a human cruelty caper, a conte cruel, in the form of a remorseless urban gang of 20somethings who hang out in an obscure bar in the bad part of town and waylay strangers. Our hero, an office supplies salesman, wanders in unaware to get out of the rain. He knew it was a sketchy situation, but no one could expect this. Probably because I’m quite certain nothing like it has ever happened. Ever. The gang in the bar is a bunch of psychotic beatnik thrill killers, more or less. The bartender appears to be part of it and closes up the joint when they head out on their extortion and robbery escapades. Why do they use such a complicated way of doing it? That’s hard to say. Maybe kicks. Because it doesn’t make much sense any other way and who knows what you can expect from a beatnik. It also makes no sense that they just let their victim go. I was fully aware at all times of how silly each separate incident is in this story. They’re strung like pearls on a choker. Wormser is a pretty good pulpy crime writer and there’s just enough cruelty to put it, maybe, in something like the class of George Hitchcock’s “Invitation to the Hunt.” Then I saw on ISFDB that “Smart Sucker” was translated into French in 1967 and it clicked. There is something Godardian about all this, like Alphaville, Pierrot le fou, Band of Outsiders, Breathless—something a little cerebral and French. Even the title phrase—“sucker,” specifically, is a key word in this story, stylized the way it is hit so hard and so often. This psycho gang looks forward to Charles Manson and all that, but the strains were already creeping into the pop culture youth scene in the ‘50s, with The Wild One and other images of juvenile delinquency, some sliding over into more psychotic precincts. That’s just how it was for nonconformists at the time to some people—if you’re psycho you gotta be French.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories My Mother Never Told Me, ed. Robert Arthur (out of print)
Story not available online.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Johnny Guitar (1954)

USA, 110 minutes
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writers: Philip Yordan, Ray Chanslor, Ben Maddow, Nicholas Ray
Photography: Harry Stradling Sr.
Music: Victor Young, Peggy Lee
Editor: Richard L. Van Enger
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Scott Brady, Ben Cooper, Royal Dano

Johnny Guitar may look easy enough to classify as genre—duh, Western—but director and cowriter Nicholas Ray’s approach transports it to some other realm that is partly overheated Sirk romance, partly psychotherapy study, and only partly Western. It has chaps and horses, yes, but also operatic psychology. It is set out West, in mining and ranching territory, and formally involves the tensions between ranchers and the coming of the railroad. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a fashionable single woman of a certain age who has set up a casino to take advantage of the railroad when it comes, catering to the farmers and the others it will bring en masse. Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) believes she is speaking for the town when she says, “You heard her tell how they're gonna run the railroad through here, bringin' thousands of new people from the east. Farmers! Dirt farmers! Squatters! They'll push us out. Is that what you're waitin' for?”

But this is not a typical Western story of ranchers and farmers and the railroad. The primary conflict is between these two women, Vienna and Emma, who are similarly attracted to bad boy men. Vienna has a thing for Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) who comes blowing into town like a tumbleweed with his guitar slung over his back and carrying no guns. When he plays his instrument, which is not often, it’s a bunch of flamenco-like fancy fretwork. Emma for her part has a crush on the so-called Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady as if cut from cardboard), whose gang is working a silver mine but they’re rough types. Everyone, including Emma, thinks they’re out abroad on the countryside robbing people. With layered psychological complexity, Vienna and Emma hate each other for what they see in the other of themselves, or some such. It’s kind of a doppelganger story.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

"Opening the Door" (1931)

In the anthology My Favorite Horror Story, “Opening the Door” is the pick of Peter Atkins, another writer I don’t know well. As Atkins points out in his lengthy introduction, the story is subtle but deeply mysterious and a little unsettling. As it happens, it involves one of the true-crime types of stories that most intrigue me: disappearances. In “Opening the Door,” a clergyman disappears for six weeks and then reappears again with no sense he’s been away. The flower he picked the day he went missing is still fresh when he’s back. The story is told by a newspaper reporter remembering strange stories he has covered. The clergyman had won some notoriety at the turn of the 20th century for newspaper pieces he wrote. They warned of the inadequacy of roadways in the transition away from horse-drawn vehicles. Strangely banal insight but there it is. Then the disappearance and reappearance happen and the newspaper reporter drops by to speak with him. They become friendly and meet again, trying to sort out what happened or what it might mean. The clergyman knows it happened when he exited the garden door at the back of his lot, which is generally unused (and which, early in the story, he cautions the reporter against using). He doesn’t know how six weeks passed. They kick around a few more things, some of them in Latin. It’s not a long story. In the end the clergyman disappears again and is never heard from after that. This is the detail that hits hardest for me, right at the end. He didn’t use the garden door this time as he was elsewhere. Wikipedia describes the story as involving “some outer faery realm,” which sounds right for the Welshman Machen and for the British Isles more generally. The versatile comedian Patton Oswalt likes this story a lot too, including it in a fancy anthology he edited, The Ghost Box, and focusing on some of the details in the story on either side of the garden door (which I’m glad he brought to my attention). “Opening the Door” is very good at being both low-key and disquieting and that’s what I like about it. Like Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and Sherdian Le Fanu, Machen balances the rational world with the potentiality for a world or worlds beyond that can’t be explained. His characters are sober and worried by their experiences. Not much happens here—mostly a matter of assembling the facts. We’re the ones left to make sense of them. In many cases, as here, the characters admit they can’t. So this is a bit like depth-charge horror. It hits later, harder. I may not like it as much as “The White People” but that’s a high bar to clear.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin H. Greenberg (out of print)

Monday, July 25, 2022

Pig (2021)

Probably you've heard by now that Nicolas Cage is relatively under control in this one, and that's true enough in some ways. He doesn't make faces (or they're well hidden by facial hair) and I don't think he shouts even once. But he's lunatic intense like he usually is. He plays a man living off the grid in the forests near Portland, Oregon, making what money he needs by using a truffle pig and selling to a broker for high-end restaurants. Then his pig is stolen and he is on a serious mission to recover her, because he loves her. In fairness, it's a pretty adorable animal and not in the picture nearly enough. But this is also where Pig starts to feel like typical histrionic Cage stuff. It turns out he is actually a famous gifted chef and his name alone can gain him entry into any room in Portland that has anything to do with the restaurant business. Also, he knows about a secret place underground in downtown Portland where men fight with bare knuckles and bet on the fights. He has all kinds of exaggerated powers of skill and sensory sensitivity, plus he can really take a beating. He claims to remember every meal he ever made and every person he ever served. He says all this with his face caked with blood as apparently there is no time to wash up with his pig missing. And/or he's just eccentric that way. He seems to be able to go everywhere looking like that, including sitting in fine restaurants, with a minimum of fuss. That felt like a reach. Then there's a story about a kind of sidekick he has, the kid he sells truffles to, who has some kind of drama going on with his father that's never quite explained but we know enough of these stories to fill in our own details if we're interested enough. I wasn't and it seemed hackneyed to me. But I got a kick out of the Portland setting and the sendup of high-end restaurant culture, and I felt for Cage's character and the loss of his animal, his familiar in the wilderness, his pet. Of course the script needs to make it clear he is not fucking the animal, because, well, you know—Cage, modern times, the usual debasements, etc. Cage is good but I wish he were good enough that it didn't have to be spelled out so explicitly, that we could just read it from his character. I had hopes Pig would be better than it is but even so I enjoyed it, with allowances for Cage's excesses. They're never that much under control.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Iron Gates (1945)

[spoilers] This is the first I’ve read of Margaret Millar and by all signs it’s not one of her best. But it’s not bad, just eccentric or maybe a bit of a failed experiment. I found it tucked into the back of one of those Alfred Hitchcock-branded anthologies of the ‘60s, Stories for Late at Night. It’s labeled (fairly) as a novel even if it is a short one, under 200 pages. It’s also listed on ISFDB, in fact the only novel there by Millar, who wrote more than two dozen in her career. ISFDB is notably finicky (if also inconsistent) about “non-genre” literature so, along with the Hitchcock placement, I half-expected something supernatural. As it turns out, not so much. The main character, Lucille, has some vivid dreams, is institutionalized, and eventually commits suicide. It turns out she is a very bad person, though I have to say she’s more likable than many others here. Millar had written a handful of novels by this point and has a good sense for putting the story together. The characters all defy expectations. Lucille is basically a psychopath—we find out that she murdered her friend with an ax so she could marry her husband, the widower. The stepchildren never liked Lucille. And they were right to feel that way. Yet they are a couple of miscreants themselves. There might be elements of psychological realism but I’m not always sure when Millar knows it. There is also a detective in a starring role, Inspector Sands, from an earlier novel, Wall of Eyes. I would call The Iron Gates workmanlike and professionally done but not very inspired. Millar has her own reputation so I’m sure there’s much better out there. I wonder how editor Robert Arthur came to include it in the Hitchcock anthology—sounds like some Southern California story. I like the themes this one takes on and the way it goes for psychological depth, but it never really builds up much steam. Lucille and the Morrow family all certainly have their problems. It uses a diary to tell a key part of the story. It worked but also felt gimmicky. But being gimmicky, as a mystery story, also makes it comforting, though it never quite jelled for me. Mixed bag.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Screamadelica (1991)

I wandered almost sideways into one of my favorite albums of 1991, pulling Primal Scream's “Come Together” single out of a newspaper office slush pile. I was attracted by the Boomer-bait of a song that might be related to the Beatles and another, “Loaded,” that might have something to do with the Velvet Underground. As it turns out the latter has something to do with a Peter Fonda / Nancy Sinatra movie directed by Roger Corman, The Wild Angels (with Bruce Dern! Diane Ladd! Michael J. Pollard!). Mudhoney got to the quoted sample first, a few years earlier on the track “In ‘n’ Out of Grace” from their Superfuzz Bigmuff EP. “Just what is it that you want to do?” a square preacher-man is heard asking. “We wanna be free!” says Fonda. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we're gonna do.” It’s a pretty good setup, whether you follow it with the sublime grunge squall of Mudhoney or the Manchester soul vamp of Primal Scream, decked out with a gleaming dense unassailable titanium bottom. That maxi-single was generous, with two versions of “Come Together” and three of “Loaded” and two other tracks besides. But even though “Come Together” and “Loaded” were the first two singles from the Screamadelica album at large, I would not call the horns and soul singer treatment of those tracks typical of the album, which I was introduced to later by an evangelist of all things UK. Not that there’s anything particularly typical to this album, which ranges far and wide. Or, as the totality of my notes on recent forays into Screamadelica put it: THIS ALBUM IS A JOURNEY.

It’s the third by Primal Scream but a stark turn into house and techno, led by Bobby Gillespie, who was the drummer for the Jesus and Mary Chain on Psychocandy. The third single, “Higher Than the Sun” (which also gets an eight-minute dub treatment toward the end of the album), is more the right speed here. It spends half its 3:38 on a spacewalk, free floating, with Gillespie taking the binky out to coo and warble awhile on cosmic matters. Then the drugs kick in at about the 1:48 mark and, true to the Spacemen 3 ambition of making music for the purpose, it warps into a squelching psychedelic recreation of unique proportions and pleasure. See you on the other side. In fact, “Higher Than the Sun” is a culmination of the album’s opening suite, four or five songs taking the time to set a mood, perhaps best captured in the title of the one that goes seven minutes, “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” There’s also a remarkably evocative cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Slip Inside This House.” Credit to producer Andrew Weatherall for much of these soundscapes, and credit to Gillespie for handing the reins over to him, though other producers are involved here as well: Hugo Nicolson, The Orb, Hypnotone, and (yes) Jimmy Miller. “Come Together” and “Loaded” ground the album in soul and “Damaged” has tentacles reaching into peak Rolling Stones, mainly by way of Jimmy Miller’s production. But Gillespie sounds amazingly at home there as well. The album, which clocks in well over an hour, returns to outer space for the finish. Is it the rave experience or intended to be? I don’t know, but I know I feel wrung out in all the best ways when I take the time to play the album all the way through. Stone classic.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Liquid Sky (1982)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Slava Tsukerman
Writers: Slave Tsukerman, Anne Carlisle, Nina V. Kerova
Photography: Yuri Neyman
Music: Brenda I. Hutchinson, Clive Smith, Slave Tsukerman
Editors: Sharyn L. Ross, Slave Tsukerman
Cast: Anne Carlisle, Paula E. Sheppard, Bob Brady, Susan Doukas, Elaine C. Grove, Stanley Knapp, Jack Adalist, Otto von Wernherr

I have to wonder what I would think of Liquid Sky now if I were seeing it for the first time. I loved it then for its New York City fashion and punk-rock swagger, its acerbic but predictable squalls against the square and the conventional, and altogether its monumental strangeness. Released in the era of Blade Runner, Diva, The Thing, and Videodrome, they are all of a piece: loud, irritating, in your face. Liquid Sky hits with a saturated keyboard soundtrack, psychedelic special effects, and a narrative that is allusive and obvious by turns like a silent picture. It’s about aliens from outer space—tiny aliens from outer space—who feed on human brain chemicals released during orgasm and heroin intoxication. Anne Carlisle plays both the lead, Margaret, and also one of her fashion rivals, Jimmy. Margaret is bisexual and involved with ‘60s hip liberal college professor and her former teacher, Owen (Bob Brady, who is also the casting director in this low-budget all-hands effort), and also with Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), a downtown performance artist and drug dealer. Margaret is from Connecticut and still trying to live it down.

No one here is very good at acting nor is director/writer/composer/editor Slava Tsukerman, a Soviet émigré, much of a hand at directing them. They’re self-conscious and hammy by turns and lots of scenes feel like first takes from different movies. Even technical issues like audio volumes are out of whack. The picture is overlong and feels bloated, clunky, and slow-moving. It has too many plot threads and too much awkward cross-cutting, and it’s often unpleasant too, with rape scenes and other spasms and eruptions of violence. The scenes with alien points of view are more often just confusing, though here is where the psychedelics kick in. The most significant detail about Liquid Sky may be that no one associated with it has gone on to anything. In 2014 Tsukerman and Carlisle announced that a sequel was in the works, but no further word since. I can’t defend the whole thing, but there are still parts of it I love.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

"Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" (1895)

Mark Twain’s full-throated takedown of the US novelist James Fenimore Cooper is often funny, but nearly as often lame. Full disclosure, I have never read any Cooper. Notable victims of Twain’s attack are The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder, from Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series of five novels. I think I share Twain’s sense of Cooper and other early American writers as soporific and a little ridiculous. But mocking old books for being stupid is not a good look and it is a well you can go to only so often. In many ways, certainly by the 1890s, it was running dry for Twain as his stock in trade. He gave the treatment to Walter Scott (many times), Jane Austen, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle, to name a few. This spittle-flecked Daffy Duck indictment of Cooper is funny and bracing, anticipating the rip-roaring style of New Journalists and rock critics, making a lot of hay from the splenetic rant. The piece lurches into a list of 18 points that doesn’t hold up under its own weight. It is fatally lazy in the section criticizing word choice, by never giving us the full sentences where these words live. Giving us 20 or 30 isolated word pairs didn’t strike me as that funny. But compare the section just before that, on Cooper’s exaggerations, which worked well because it did include passages by Cooper. My favorite riff was on twig-snapping in the woods because I remember it as a common recurring element in frontier tales I read when I was a kid. Maybe I have read Cooper! “It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around,” Twain writes. “Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.” There’s more to this rant, which hits the howling high note of anyone writing at top speed—the nice throwaway “worth four dollars a minute” is the tell in this case. But too often he stumbles again and wallows too long in some bog. His jokes miss at least as often as they hit. Still, I did laugh pretty hard more than once so “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” is probably worth checking out. You just have to put up with the mockery of someone whose own bare ass is sticking out there a lot of the time.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over. (Library of America)
Read essay online.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Forrest Gump (1994)

USA, 142 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Winston Groom, Eric Roth
Photography: Don Burgess
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field, Mykelti Williamson, Michael Conner Humphreys, Hanna Hall, Haley Joel Osment, numerous archival holograms

As of this writing, Forrest Gump ranks #11 on the IMDb Top 250 Movies list. As voted on by millions of IMDb users, it’s one of the most distinctly unusual lists for movie fans, a popularity contest like few others. Citizen Kane is humbled down at #94 and, in the #1 position (which it has held for a long time), stands The Shawshank Redemption. At this point, Forrest Gump is also one of the most successful money-makers in movie history, ranking #72 for lifetime grosses (according to Box Office Mojo). I would have been disappointed to learn all this about Forrest Gump in 1994 when I walked out of the theater after seeing it, but even the critics seem to be on board with the general assessment. The picture recently moved into the top 500 greatest movies of all time in the aggregated big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Full disclosure, Forrest Gump is a movie I despise. I threw a 4 out of 10 at it in the IMDb poll years ago and didn’t see it a second time for 28 years. (Note: As a corrective to this intemperate display, see list below.)

Compare Shawshank, which I gave a 6 for being more generally good-hearted. You may say Forrest Gump is good-hearted—certainly Tom Hanks playing the title character is known for a good-hearted persona—but honestly the point of this movie escaped me, beyond the special effects, especially when you get into the details of the screenplay. Valorizing a “simple” Southern man whose IQ is 75 is commendable in a way, but what are we supposed to get out of it? He sits on a bench in Savannah, Georgia, with his box of chocolates, telling his precious, long-winded backstory to people waiting for buses. He’s boring. They ignore him as deranged but probably (hopefully) harmless. His stories are mostly matters of luck—good and bad, it’s all the same to Gump, he just carries on. Other continuing themes involve running—literally running—and a feckless love interest kinda sorta girlfriend, Jenny (Robin Wright), who is presented as a victim of hackneyed liberal ‘60s values. I didn’t know why this movie exists at all, let alone has achieved such lasting massive popularity.