Saturday, August 19, 2017

Super (2016)

It's been all product from the Pet Shop Boys for some time now, delivered with a certain regularity and antecedents that are familiar and obvious, not to say comforting (though they are). The dance grooves, the disco conflagrations, are lush and steady if not quite fresh. The songwriting draws on old wells. "Twenty-something," for example, spends its minutes remembering earlier lives as "Young Offender" and other Dorian Grays between I don't have the energy to recollect. The best song here is "The Pop Kids," a nostalgia exercise but with a buzzing edge. It went to #1 on the US Dance Club chart, which is good enough for me and my Bobby McGee. The song hits certain exuberant high notes of pop fealty just vague enough to project anything onto: "They called us the pop kids / 'Cos we loved the pop hits ... Telling everyone we knew / That rock was overrated ... We stayed out 'til late / Five nights a week / And felt so chic." Well, who can't relate to that? And yet, in spite of my better instincts, I dwelt more repetitiously and obsessively on the insane bouncy-ball dynamic of "Groovy," which term they drolly use as a noun ("you're such a ..."). This wasn't exactly the usual infatuation for a beloved new tune on my part but rather something nagging me about it. It worries me and makes me nervous, like when you regret you wanted to watch the horror movie now starting. First a grand joke, and then you end up wondering if you are the butt. The dumbing down feels ferocious and caustic, like some kind of putdown I can't begin to understand. Why? At this point, to be clear, with Behavior and Very and Actually and "Left to My Own Devices" locked in the catalog for decades, the work of the Pet Shop boys is arguably done and they are welcome to feast on the scraps of recalled leftovers and I'm happy to join them. "Groovy" has certain affinities with other B-sides that've come along ("The Sound of the Atom Splitting," say)—and, oh but of course, with "Young Offender" and "Twenty-something" thematically. It also features live audience sound effects, so maybe "Groovy" is their final word on "rock was overrated." Except, I can guarantee you, based on all the reworking of their songs for quite some time now, I'm sure it won't actually be their final word. If pressed, I'm still calling that good news.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

USA, 92 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Edmund H. North, Harry Bates
Photography: Leo Tover
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: William Reynolds
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin

In the old movie business parlance (pre-'60s), a B movie was a low-budget shorter feature, often in a genre style, intended for the back half of double features. The A movie was the main attraction. It was full of stars and class and intended to win awards or make big box office or both. I would have guessed that The Day the Earth Stood Still, a science fiction picture with a theremin soundtrack I have been watching all my life, was a B movie, but no. It had a budget. The special effects are restrained, even primitive, but they are effective. The director is Robert Wise, a student of Orson Welles, whose career spanned The Magnificent Ambersons and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music between. Patricia Neal, an intriguing versatile cross between a character player and a leading lady, had a career starting to bust out all over. And the score is by Bernard Herrmann, a rising A player, who was among the first to use the theremin for the movies, followed shortly by thousands of B movie science fiction for the rest of the decade. In fact, the spooky electronic instrument was almost exclusively associated with science fiction movies until Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys tore it away for their own purposes. Pere Ubu returned the favor decades later but that's all another subject for another day. With everything else, The Day the Earth Stood Still is basically patient zero for science fiction theremin movies.

Reportedly Wise was interested in this project because he was a believer in UFOs. Indeed, the picture rings with its message, an uplifting one even, a fervent belief in a kind of idealized United Nations vision and proto hippie yearning for peaceful coexistence. These are the things I like about the movie myself—with my appreciation for Star Trek, it's possible that I just like a good stirring liberal skit. But actually there's a good deal of art and old-fashioned craft to this movie. At the same time, it reminds me a little of a friend I spoke to once who was "against" UFOs. It wasn't that he didn't believe they existed, but rather that he didn't believe aliens from other planets deserved the degradation of associating with humanity.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853)

Read story by Herman Melville online.

I had forgotten that Herman Melville gave his classic short story the subtitle "A Story of Wall-Street." At first this confused me, thinking of the modern version with skyscrapers and superfast computers. But I think a fair translation of the subtitle is actually more like "A Story of Temping." That's the dynamic it has always had for me (at least, after I'd spent some time temping and then circled back to the story) and ultimately it makes sense of what's often taken as a mystifying or even whimsical and certainly odd little tale. A scrivener in the 19th century was a low-level clerk doing the work of a photocopy machine much more slowly. A photocopy machine might be the best way to think of Bartleby, whose famous calling card is "I would prefer not to." The phrase smacks of countless fits of pique I've seen in office temp workers, including myself a few times, not to mention photocopy machines. You are often right up-close and personal with the absurd in such positions. This is also a situation comedy episode of deference and circumspection beyond reason. Melville's story describes the point at which Bartleby may be said to have snapped, though it is a gentle and barely audible sound, and then the aftermath. The narrator is a principal at the law firm where Bartleby was employed. One day he imperiously calls Bartleby into his office to assist him with proofreading a document (accomplished by one person reading the original aloud while the other scans along on the copy). The abrupt interruption is just one of those indignities of the office day—in 1853 when Melville wrote this story as much as in the 1990s when I toiled as a scrivener (then called "word processor"), and no doubt today as well. No doubt. It's the way office life and work goes. People melt down and blow up and leave behind shrapnel in the form of anecdotes told over and over. In this story it is Bartleby's dogged refusal to work again, with his simple affirmation, "I would prefer not to." This is not an isolated case. I knew a temp who was habitually late to his job—the front-line receptionist for a work group, who spent his long days answering calls and taking messages. One day the entire group was scheduled for a daylong morale-building field trip event. But they couldn't leave the building until Michael (the Bartleby in this story) arrived to "hold the fort down" all day by himself. The group manager was a tiny woman in her '50s who dressed very smartly and liked things to run efficiently. She was furious he was late and dressed him down in front of everyone. He waited for her to leave an opening, probably a question of some kind, to which he replied in a stage voice projected to the rear of the group, "Oh shut up you old cunt, I'm here now." Needless to say he was fired on the spot. Perhaps he works now in the same dead letter office where Bartleby finally arrived. Ah Michael! Ah humanity!

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (Library of America)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Detroit (2017)

It's hard to deny the sheer force of the latest movie from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a scathing horrorshow treatment of one incident in one "long hot summer" in one American city in the '60s. It's 1967 and it's Detroit, but it's also 2017 and Black Lives Matter. The movie is historical but the prism is today. Bigelow and Boal, who previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, focus here on a long and harrowing scene of police brutality and fatal misdeeds during a field investigation inside a residence motel. Meanwhile, outside, there's a riot goin' on, literally. The scene in the motel sustains a remarkable amount of intensity and it goes on for a long time. The movie left me well wrung out. The true facts of the case on which it's based are somewhat murky. The officers were acquitted at trial, but that was a matter of legal technicalities, wrongfully taken confessions or some such. No one doubts their guilt for at least three murders. But not all the details of that night are understood or agreed on, so Bigelow and Boal have made choices to address gaps and conflicts in the story. The results may be controversial but we know police behave this way. The details serve a greater truth. So I was basically OK with these scenes, above and beyond the discomfort of witnessing them. But along about 40 minutes into the mayhem I started to notice that the movie seemed to be making another point: torture does not work. Of course, that reminded me of their last picture, Zero Dark Thirty, which was controversial not only because it showed torture working, but did so within the frame that it was part of a greater truth—awful things happen in the fog of war, and how can anyone be held morally accountable if the results are what we want? (This is also known as "history is written by the victors.") (except in the case of the Confederate South, see also Charlottesville) On the torture issue, Detroit goes the other direction, not that I want to imply it's some kind of shell game. If I went into the movie less inclined to give Bigelow and Boal the benefit of the doubt, the effect of Detroit, as I said, is hard to deny. It's vivid, intense, and searing, which are also generally the hallmarks of Bigelow's pictures, certainly since she came into her own with The Hurt Locker. But Detroit is also heavy-handed and clankingly obvious—you can argue that's because it has to be, because it reflects a reality too long unacknowledged, even now. Fair warning. It is a blunt force object and it's coming at your face. Yet as I mull over the experience of this movie, I keep remembering things like how the bad cops are implicitly portrayed as isolated bad apples. People higher up the chain are onto them but haven't been able to get them yet. My impression of reality is more that a lot of those people up the chain are just bad apples that got promoted. Once again, see also Charlottesville.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Manchild in the Promised Land (1965)

Claude Brown grew up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. He survived it and his story is in this book. His survival is due chiefly, but not only, to his instinctive aversion for heroin, which he calls a plague for that part of New York City in those years. He published this memoir when he was 28, in 1965. By then he had worked as a cosmetics salesman, a jazz pianist, and other assorted jobs. He left Harlem and lived in Greenwich Village for a few years after he was 17. He also survived because he had the wisdom to stop doing crime after he turned 16. Before that he dealt reefer, pulled con jobs, fought a lot in gangs, and was generally a part of street culture. He died in 2002, at the age of 74. He only wrote one more book but also went on to get a college degree and work all his life as a community organizer and public speaker. Brown's voice is his own but his narrative skills are mostly limited to anecdotes, which don't always connect up well. He has many stories about his mother and father, his two sisters, and especially his youngest brother, nicknamed Pimp from an early age. But there's no consistent through-line or development, beyond escape and/or survival. Maybe that's enough—it certainly was for me when I first read this in the '80s. The stories are even more cloudy regarding his pals through the years, because there are so many names and generally not enough information to sort them. I knew I was in trouble when one character was named Danny and another Dunny, and sure enough, I never quite got them straight. Still, Brown obviously has a lot of heart to make it through everything he does. Many others didn't. He has lots of interesting points about street slang and street life of the times, and lots of intriguing encounters with people and with racism too, of course. I was glad to find out he lived a long and productive life beyond this memoir. He has interesting views of the times too, such as the rise of Black Muslims in the '50s. There is also a Christian sect called Coptics, with roots in African and black culture. "Black" itself was a relatively new term at the time of this book and Brown regards it with some skepticism. He doesn't like "Negro" either but seems most comfortable with "colored." So there's also a lot of innate interest here related to the times it chronicles. My old paperback of it sold it as "A Modern Classic of the Black Experience," but at this point it's actually much older.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, Thailand / UK / France / Germany / Spain / Netherlands, 114 minutes
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writers: Phra Sripariyattiweti, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Music: Penguin Villa
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong

It's official. According to the rankings of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, the critics (generic plural) are kookoo for the baffling Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. They just can't agree on which of his movies they like best. Tropical Malady remains the perennial and/or aggregated consensus favorite, presently at #9, its highest position ever. Blissfully Yours, an earlier picture, has followed a more erratic path, entering the list some years ago in the mid-200s, falling off it entirely for a year, and then spiking to the top 20 for a few years before drifting down. Last year it went from #23 to #71.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives not only has the best title but was also the first movie I happened to see by Weerasethakul, and maybe for that reason it's my favorite. As much as I can say I have a favorite. Certainly the first thing you see from such a strange sensibility is often the one that sticks with you hardest (looking at you, Eraserhead). The best parts of Uncle Boonmee are funny, spooky, beautiful, and startlingly matter-of-fact about the loopy spirituality (recalling that "loopy," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder). Its nighttime jungle scenes are gorgeous, shadowy, confounding, pad-footed, eerie—for many scenes, even sitting in a theater, you have to let your eyes adjust to the day for night filter to make out the cryptic images, shapes, and movements. The critics have kept it solidly in the top 40 on the list since shortly after its release, and last year it moved from #38 to #18. I like it, so I'm happy for its good fortunes this way, but these movies by Weerasethakul are not easy.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"The Story of a Scar" (1973)

Story by James Alan McPherson not available online.

This story by James Alan McPherson has a bit of a tricky setup in its frame. Told first-person and set in a doctor's waiting room, the story's narrator is the listener more than the teller. The other person in the waiting room is a woman with a dramatic scar across her face. Somewhat rudely, because the two are strangers, the narrator asks her how she got it. In fact, he asks her a couple of times before she responds. Then she unloads it on him, brooking no interruption. It's a story that pulls against expectations, a romantic dispute between two men with her in the middle. It's a little horrifying but never less than interesting. Many obvious expectations are thwarted along the way. I liked this story—it flies once the narrative momentum sets in, which is early. But it has elements that confuse me. I don't know what to make of the narrator. By story's end his intention seems to be to take advantage of her sexually. She recognizes something creepy in him. "Black guys like you with them funny eyeglasses are a real trip," she says early. "You got to know everything. You sit in corners and watch people." Her sense of him seems confirmed at the end, after her story is finished. The violence and abuse in her story is harrowing. The narrator momentarily sounds like he wants to get away from her as fast as he can. But then: "And then I remembered the most important question, without which the entire exchange would have been wasted. I turned to the woman, now drawn together in the red plastic chair, as if struggling to sleep in a cold bed. 'Sister,' I said, careful to maintain a casual air. 'Sister ... what is your name?'" This finish is the least ambiguous evidence there's something off about him, but it's not isolated. His abrupt focus on the scar is almost insolent, as well as his own story that he is at the clinic to treat a broken nose caused by an accident during sex—insolent and unsettling. He gives away these things about himself, but not much about what he wants, or expects to get. Maybe she's right and he wants to sit in corners and know everything. Whatever it is he takes it as understood. But it's not, exactly. And that leaves me feeling somehow not comfortable with where we are left. I understand that makes this an effective story—and it is, in more ways than one—but it left me with more anxiety than I bargained for. It just doesn't turn out any specific way. It leaves you hanging.

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Blankets (2003)

Craig Thompson's graphic novel was highly regarded on its release—Time magazine named it the best of its kind that year—and it holds up pretty well. Set in Wisconsin and Michigan, it's a coming-of-age memoir of a poignant high school period, remembered almost 10 years later. Graphic novels often seem to lend themselves well to memoir, partly perhaps because drawing styles are inevitably personal, like autographs. (This still doesn't explain Harvey Pekar, who wrote the scripts for his comic book memoirs and then dragooned other artists into illustrating them.) Blankets has some interesting and unexpected features. Both Thompson and Raina, the girl he briefly falls for, come from conservative Christian milieus. Thompson appears to have left it behind since. But he remembers when things like Bible verses mattered as much as anything else in life, if not more. At the same time, Bible verses were competing for his attention with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Bjork. He always wanted to draw, and the art here is always good, often inspired. The title plays on blankets of snow, a blanket that Raina makes for him, and the blankets he shared with his younger brother Phil, with whom he slept for years growing up. In many ways, the story is as much about Phil as Raina. Thompson's love affair is one of those strange high school things. They meet in a church camp. They live in separate states. They exchange letters. Infatuation grows. She invites him to visit for two weeks and tender young teen love follows. They're both Christians, both underage, both under the watchful eye of all available adults. It's never a story of sexual awakening because it couldn't be. As it happens, Raina's parents are divorcing. Her father has recently moved to his own apartment. This is a terrible calamity for the Christian family, and that's what Raina is reaching out of. So, unsurprisingly, the love affair is doomed. But getting there is a nice story—too candid in some places, too precious in others, but mostly a swift and compelling tale of recognizable people with recognizable problems, making their way by their best lights. Graphic novels like this make me think I really need to look at more of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

File Under: Easy Listening (1994)

During the great grunge apotheosis of 1994 I seemed to be spending most of my time listening to the Pet Shop Boys, for what that's worth, to accompany all the crises of the time, personal and otherwise. But the noisy rock albums were well piled around as well. How could they not be? If I never quite caught all the way up with F.U.E.L. (and/or FU:EL, the alternative titles for this alternative album by one of alternative's favorite sons, Bob Mould), I plead undue fascination with the Sugar EP of the year before when I was in the mood for Mould blasts, Beaster, plus my certain (if passing) exhaustion at that point with aural sludge. Checking in with the internet now, I see the album is regarded in some quarters as the single best by Sugar, with hosannas for the scrubbed cudgel of Mould's production and the surprising tunefulness at the center of the welter, a well-known Mould feature. I mean, wasn't he a key part of inventing exactly thatt? Some hailed FU:EL as a rare species of true power pop. Others noted Mould's appreciation of My Bloody Valentine's dynamics of pummeling attack and winsome melodies. (In turn, MBV have to be counted as acolytes of Husker Du in the first place.) I pass these points along by way of context and general interest. Sometimes, for me, the much vaunted tunefulness here is little more than a kind of sing-songy monotony ("Your Favorite Thing," "Gee Angel," "Believe What You're Saying"). But I can't deny how often it works on me even so, especially with regular exposure, as things in this set continually reveal themselves—in the guitar play, in the hooks, in the mix, in the words, in whatever worked. Take the lift from David Bowie's "Heroes" for "What You Want It to Be," for example (sans Fripp's part unfortunately), which once recognized is almost as audacious and shocking as it is apt. Because actually it is apt—Bowie and the hulking grungers (and the hardcorers before them) were equally outsider freaks, and the best understood the point of melody. But also, however you want to argue it, there's nothing new going on here either—nothing new to power pop, or to Bob Mould, or even to putting pretty music inside roaring music. In that way, F.U.E.L. is a little conservative, more a summation than innovation, which you probably already knew. It's worth spending time with too, if you didn't.