Sunday, December 04, 2022

Things Fall Apart (1958)

Chinua Achebe’s novel has become a classic look at life in Nigeria before and after the coming of colonialists. More than half of it is focused on the time just before missionaries and other conquering Europeans show up. It was not a perfect idyll and it’s easy to see many problems in that society. Our main character, Okonkwo, is a proud self-made man among his people, a championship wrestler and a warrior renowned for his kills. He has three wives and several children. He is abusive and demanding, quick to knock people around when he loses his temper (including his wives). He seems to lose his temper a lot. Yet he is also widely respected by village elders. Okonkwo’s father was weak, passing down a shameful legacy which Okonkwo transcended. One area of particular non-enlightenment in this village is with gender, as usual. Women are not treated well and it is a devastating insult for a weak man to be called “a woman.” Just when you’re starting to wonder about colonialism, the second half comes along. At the end of the first part Okonkwo commits a serious offense, and though it is an accident he is exiled from the village for seven years. During that time missionaries appear and begin to convert tribe members. The missionaries appeal first to tribal outcasts and gather influence and momentum from there. Eventually Okonkwo’s son becomes a convert, which creates rifts and tensions across the larger family. Okonkwo practically disowns him as “a woman” but these colonialists knew what they were doing, dividing to conquer. It’s really hard to watch once it starts. Okonkwo is old school and ignorant of Europeans. His solution is to fight back and make war, but by then it’s too late and only causes him more and more problems. Achebe’s writing style is simple and straightforward, almost serene. Except for the novel’s reputation I wasn’t sure where it was headed in the first half, which is a portrait of that culture’s old ways—the things that will fall apart. Seeing the way colonialism works is moving and vivid in its clarity. But the story is not just about colonialism but also a powerful character study of Okonkwo—complex, imperfect, fascinating. Okonkwo and other village figures believe they have a good deal of power, and they do within their society. But that society is under attack—the missionaries are sent in first to soften the ground—and then we see Okonkwo’s whole world systematically destroyed. Achebe’s voice is placid but what he describes is enraging. He maintains a perfect balance between the two modes until the very end. Powerful novel.

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

Thursday, December 01, 2022

“Blind Man’s Hood” (1937)

This story by John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson) is mainly a ghost story, though for some reason it also has elements of a locked-room mystery—possibly Carr’s market instinct for detective fiction kicking in. He was more generally a mystery writer. But the most effective moments in this story, which are usually matters of precise detail, make it a reasonably unsettling spook story. It’s set at Christmastime, with a young couple arriving late on Christmas Eve for a visit with the family of friends at an isolated mansion in the countryside. All the lights in the house are on and the door is ajar (in December!), but no one appears to be home. They bang on the door, then gather up their things and enter. A young woman appears who claims she didn’t hear them knocking. They don’t know her. It was immediately evident to me this was a ghost, and further small details confirm it. The corner of her eye is gray rather than pink, for example. She has a convoluted story to tell them—about why the house is empty, about the things that happened there, about betrayal and revenge of a sort. It really doesn’t make much sense but often feels ominous. This story tends to telegraph its basic plot twists and is basically a straightforward ghost story, the kind of tale told around campfires and designed chiefly to produce feelings of unease. Making sense is not a requirement of these things. The young woman ghost is toting around a kind of opaque pillowcase she says is more effective than a handkerchief for a blindfold in games of blind man’s buff (here called blind man’s bluff). She says the way to do it is by draping it over the player’s head and cinching it closed at the neck. She says it’s too easy to cheat and peek out from under a handkerchief. The game is key to the story’s climax, which is why this is all explained so early and in such detail. Actually, the whole locked-room mystery side of this story was a little bit of a hindrance to me. Things don't necessarily have to add up in a ghost story. In the best of them, blatantly impossible things with no explanation at all often make the story better. On the other hand, the best of them often work toward some kind of smash-bang surprise at the end. This one just sort of peters out. But it has the holiday spirit about it and some effective moments.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Finding Nemo (2003)

For once the celebrity voice talent in a modern animated feature—Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, some others—worked pretty well for me in Finding Nemo, although I kept hearing DeGeneres as Kristen Wiig for some reason, which may or may not speak to cross-influences there. I don’t know. Director Andrew Stanton is also surprisingly good as the voice of a surfer dude sea turtle named Crush. As with Up (or the Pixar flagship Toy Story for that matter), the main story in Finding Nemo is built to contain a lot of natural resonance and emotional touchpoints: after a family tragedy has left the fish named Marlin (Brooks) with only his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) he is unnaturally protective of Nemo, but then in another accident they are separated. The movie is about their search to reunite. Marlin is joined in his quest by Dory (DeGeneres), who has a short-term memory disorder. Nemo in turn is also disabled, with an underdeveloped fin on one side. Representation of disability is thus another strength of this picture. But also like Up for me, I was ultimately more entertained, surprised, and cheered by the comedy. The chemistry between Marlin and Dory, between Brooks and DeGeneres, is rich, sharp, funny, and executed well. Another good gag is the depiction of those airborne bottom-feeders, the seagulls, whose relentless drilling screeching is reduced here to calls of “Mine! Mine!” So Finding Nemo has a lot of good laughs and that should not be missed about it. Still, with that said, it also made me cry so mission accomplished on that front too. It is working pretty well on all its intended emotional levels. I missed Finding Nemo when it was new and by the time I was more aware of it and Pixar (let’s say around the time of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up) it looked a little too sicky-sweet sentimental for me. Yes, even for me, or so I told myself. But while Finding Nemo is indeed guilty of all these feel-good elements it is never particularly cringey. And it can also be very funny. And you know the animation is going to be first-rate. Plus the story is tender in many nice ways. Now I’m taking the position that I’m officially dubious about the 2016 sequel, Finding Dory. If that’s a good one too, somebody please let me know so I don’t have to spend the next 13 or whatever years avoiding it.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

“How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery” (1911)

This ghost story by E.F. Benson is somewhat unusual in that it ends on a happy note—uplifting even. At first, I admit I was a little disappointed somehow—E.F. is one of my favorites of his time—and I was certainly surprised. Benson is very good at ghost effects, and in a way this story is a clinic. It starts on a whimsical note with a mansion overrun by mostly friendly ghosts, all past relations of the Peveril family: the Blue Lady (Aunt Barbara), Master Anthony, Great-Great-Grandmamma Bridget. Their stories are briefly given, along with a profile of the family, which is a happy one, comfortable with their ghosts, and prone to playing pranks on guests. “But there is one ghost,” Benson writes, “at which the family never laughs.” And so to the horrendous 17th-century story of a fight for an inheritance, when brother killed brother and then burned a pair of 5-year-old twins alive in a fireplace in the long gallery of the mansion. Shortly after, a servant saw their ghosts and died 24 hours later in a horrible way. It’s like the video in the movie The Ring. If you see these ghosts of the twins, you die, often horribly. Sometimes it takes a while. Examples follow. Benson is just one of the best I’ve seen at this. One cruel relation, Mrs. Canning, a free-thinker, nonbeliever, and friend of Voltaire (excellent detail), makes a point of going to the long gallery at night until she sees them. As it happens, it’s safe while the sun is up. Then “she thought it good, poor wretch, to mock at them, telling them it was time to get back in the fire.” Her death is suitably awful. Benson is also really good at setting a pace—it’s not a fast one, generally, but it’s steady. He spends about two-thirds of this story setting up the scene promised in the title, which naturally takes place in December during the Christmas season. If it all errs too much on the side of cute—I don’t think so myself—it’s properly a gem with unstinted ghoulish details by the time we get to the story of the twins. Then it becomes a story about a guest who accidentally oversleeps her afternoon nap in the long gallery. Ruh-roh, as they say. But it all comes to a lovely ending. Kudos to everyone involved except the bad folks here, who get their just deserts.

Read story online.
Listen to story online.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Dekalog (1989)

Poland / West Germany, 572 minutes
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Writers: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Photography: Piotr Sobocinski, Witold Adamek, Jacek Blawut, Slawomir Idziak, Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz, Edward Klosinski, Dariusz Kuc, Krzysztof Pakulski, Wieslaw Zdort
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
Editor: Ewa Smal
Cast: Artur Barcis, Olgierd Lukaszewicz, Olaf Lubaszenko, Aleksander Bardini, Krystyna Janda, Piotr Machalica, Jan Tesarz, Stanislaw Gawlik, Krzysztof Kumor, Katarzyna Piwowarczyk, Maciej Szary

Maybe the best thing director and cowriter Krzysztof Kieslowski ever did—though admittedly it has stiff competition—Dekalog is more properly a TV miniseries, which aired in Poland in 1989. It consists of 10 episodes of about an hour each. Each one riffs on one of the 10 Commandments, in order. But don’t dwell too much on the biblical side of this, because apparently there are versioning problems even with the freaking 10 Commandments. In fact, most of their representations here are knotty oblique stories of moral imperatives and moral difficulties. They move slow and meditative, like a lot of European art cinema, but these characters and their situations tend to stick. The relation of each plotline to its likely respective Commandment is not always easy to make out. Though these dramas arguably weaken toward the later episodes, they are all the stuff of after-viewing pie and coffee discussion.

I should note that the cast list above only shows people who were in more than one episode, many in very minor parts, rather than the numerous stars of each, who are uniformly excellent. Among other things, Dekalog is an actor’s showcase with a lot of Polish players who are more familiar the more Polish cinema you’ve seen. I don’t have the space for them all—there are literally at least two or three great performances in each episode. Most of the people I listed above are more like the connective tissue of Dekalog, which frankly is not that strong. Glancing plot points resurface in other episodes, but they are scattered and often very slight. All the characters live in the same brutalist-style apartment complex in Warsaw. Occasionally others from another episode wander by or their story is directly if briefly retold. These stories, each one, are richly dense and it’s not hard to spend 10 days or two weeks or longer on Dekalog.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)

Ten years after Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain went ahead and wrote another novel with Tom Sawyer and Jim the slave, narrated by Huck. I didn’t even know this existed until recently. It’s very short, under 200 pages, and another parody of European romantic literature. This time the target is specifically Jules Verne, who was only seven years older than Twain and alive at the time. Full disclosure, I have never read Verne, not even when I was a kid and slogging through Robert Louis Stevenson adventure books for kids, so I can’t speak to how well Tom Sawyer Abroad works that way. It looks more to me like Twain put his favorite characters in a balloon and that was supposed to be enough. They step into the thing in a carnival passing through Missouri, it breaks loose, and here we are. It is reminiscent to me in many ways of the Wizard of Oz story too, but that came later. Twain’s balloon is a finely tuned machine, much like a steamboat. It ranges up high for cooler temperatures and can practically scud along at ground level. But it takes even Tom Sawyer some time to figure out all the controls. There’s also a mad scientist on the scene, and food and water to last for months. That’s handy, because they’re crossing the Atlantic before Tom figures out how to control the balloon. They end up over the Sahara Desert for retellings of stories from Arabian Nights along with raft loads of American innocence. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s not really, and the treatment of Jim is at least as bad as in Huck Finn. I enjoyed Tom Sawyer Abroad more than I expected but I didn’t expect much. It’s certainly for completists only. I like Huck’s voice, which is more or less Twain but with more dialect. Are we seeing Twain run out of ideas as he approaches the age of 60? Or was this the only thing he could get publishers and/or the reading public to go for? It’s his second book with “Tom Sawyer” in the title, his third book with “Abroad,” and the umpteenth parodying European literature. At least there is no plot point about babies being switched at birth. Tom Sawyer Abroad does have the virtue of being short and quick and who knows? Maybe some will like the chance to hang out more with Tom, Huck, and Jim. I’ll admit it was probably what I liked most about it. But then there’s the problem of Jim’s continuing mistreatment, which is unfortunate enough to torpedo the whole fragile vessel. File under I read it so you don’t have to.

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

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Armchair Theatre (1990)

In the ‘70s, I must say I liked Fleetwood Mac a lot more than the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO for those with no time for the syllables). But playing through Armchair Theatre lately, ELO principal Jeff Lynne’s first solo album, I kept thinking of the parallels with Lindsey Buckingham I never noticed before: Lynne is a natural pop tunesmith, with a fearlessness about going for open-hearted and unabashed heartstring sentiments, and actually a pretty good guitar-player too. He was also good in the studio, responsible for most of the ELO product and collaborating with the Move, Dave Edmunds, and others. But the Traveling Wilburys in the late ‘80s and all that followed—including this album—were a certain zenith. I’m not sure this work has ever got its full due. Not only did Lynne have a hand in producing that exquisite first Wilburys album, The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, but in the aftermath he also worked with Roy Orbison on Orbison’s much-lauded comeback album (Mystery Girl) and with Tom Petty on Petty’s best album (Full Moon Fever), plus Armchair Theatre. I thus declare Jeff Lynne, aka Otis Wilbury (or Clayton Wilbury?!), to be the most underrated Traveling Wilbury of them all. (I also know who’s the most overrated, but I won’t say.) Exhibit A is this album, which followed two years on from the frisson of that first Wilburys album. It’s a solid set and better than you probably think. The sound is fat and saturated, sweet and sauntering, with thrilling musical effects. Every track has the goods. I pulled it out of an office slush pile in 1990 and listened to it a lot, thinking it couldn’t possibly be so good. Couldn’t get anyone to bite on a review anyway. (Now that I think of it I had a lot of luck with office slush piles in that period: Full Moon Fever, Green, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, The Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra, Tokyo Rose, etc.) Those inclined to complain may note that three of the 11 tracks on Armchair Theatre are covers: “Don’t Let Go,” a rock ‘n’ roll standard first recorded by Roy Hamilton in 1958, Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” and the Tin Pan Alley standard “Stormy Weather.” But all three are worthy additions to much-covered material. Armchair Theatre is an essential part of any Wilburys collection.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Pitfall (1948)

USA, 86 minutes
Director: Andre de Toth
Writers: Jay Dratler, Karl Kamb, William Bowers, Andre de Toth
Photography: Harry J. Wild
Music: Louis Forbes
Editor: Walter Thompson
Cast: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt, Raymond Burr, Byron Barr, Ann Doran, Jimmy Hunt, John Litel

Pitfall does not rate even one star in my Halliwell’s film guide (“Modest suspenser, quite efficiently made,” it notes). But elsewhere film critic Andrew Sarris alphabetizes director Andre de Toth into his “Expressive Esoterica” list and specifically calls out Pitfall as one of his most interesting pictures. As a film noir, Pitfall assembles a lot of the basic familiar elements: a woman of undeserved reputation, her jailhouse boyfriend, a cynical insurance agent and the sinister private detective he uses, and an impossibly wholesome family out of midcentury movies and TV, featuring Jane Wyatt who would become more famous as the Mom in Father Knows Best.

Many are primarily fascinated in this movie by Lizabeth Scott, who plays Mona Stevens, the woman of reputation. Scott is a bit of a Hollywood cult figure at this point and it’s not hard to see why. She made sporadic appearances on TV shows like Burke’s Law, but her most famous roles are film noir or adjacent—Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart, Too Late for Tears with Dan Duryea, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers with Barbara Stanwyck, etc. And I like her here too—a calculated woman of mystery, Scott brings a nice girl-next-door way about her while also somehow being sultry and inviting. But what tends to keep me coming back to Pitfall is the strange, unsettling, and simmering relationship between insurance agent John Forbes (Dick Powell) and the detective he throws work to, J.B. MacDonald, or “Mac” (Raymond Burr).

Thursday, November 17, 2022

“Young Goodman Brown” (1835)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Very Important American horror story gets my goat in a way. The language can be deadly stultifying—well, I always seem to have that problem with Hawthorne, as with Dickens—and the plot points are more like blunt force objects having an allegorical go at your skull. In the end, it was all a dream but was it. With the publication date you have to wonder if it isn’t among the first to use this it-was-all-a-dream-but-was-it stunt (acknowledging I know squat about ancient literature). Obviously, first, “Young Goodman Brown” is a take on the hypocrisies of puritanism and a forthright one too. It sets up as no less than the titanic battle between Calvinism and Satanism (otherwise known as human appetite). But for all the window dressing—and, yes, it’s nice window dressing, in the American style, with macabre bonfire scenes in the autumn night of a deep New England woods. But for all that, ultimately it’s more on the order of an allegory to be ciphered than a horror story as such. All these devilish doings, the serpentine staffs and disappearing acts, etc., are just production design for a community theater story about American hypocrisy. A lot of the horror anthologies snapping it up are maybe more trying to class up their joints with a Great Author. I mean it’s a pure staple of American literature just sitting there. That’s the only way to understand it. The special effects can be delightful but also thuddingly obvious and they are patently not to be believed. That would be superstitious, the story somehow implies. Hawthorne’s wilderness is not as cool and fascinating as Algernon Blackwood’s, say, but has its own tang. There are witches with broomsticks, for example. And these names: Brown, the young good man, is married to Faith. Then there’s Satan himself, done nicely as a shape-shifter but it always feels stagy. And then, I’m cynical, but I had a hard time believing the whole blinking town including most notably church leaders would turn out to be part of a nighttime carousing mob. Beyond the credibility problem (I KNOW IT'S AN ALLEGORY) it seems to be turning cynicism unpleasantly into bitterness, next stop nihilism. If it is all a dream, Young Goodman Brown is scarred for life by it. “Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.” That’s how the story ends and it always annoys me and then haunts me.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell
My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin H. Greenberg (out of print)
Read story online.
Listen to story online.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

So in September I decided to subscribe to Disney because all signs were that a movie I wanted to look at was there (Amelie), but then when I did subscribe in October it was already gone. Why do streaming services do this peekaboo thing? Sometimes I feel like I could waste the rest of my life running down Criterion Channel “Leaving Soon” titles and still would never catch up. Attempting to make lemonade, I decided to spend my month of Disney looking at Pixar pictures I still hadn’t seen. The first and main thing about Monsters, Inc., not surprisingly, is the excellence of the animation, which is stylish and always fun. Then I noticed for once I could recognize the voices of the main characters without having to look them up. John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Billy Crystal—well, Crystal was merely vexingly familiar, and I did have to look that one up. The Monsters, Inc. premise is all pro forma but reasonably clever. There’s a place where monsters live, called Monstropolis, and the energy there is powered by children’s screams. A whole factory system has been worked up for monsters to get jobs going into children’s bedrooms at night by way of their closets, do scary things, and collect the screams. It turns out the monsters are as afraid of children as children are of them. Ultimately one little girl makes it into Monstropolis and various hijinks ensue. Among other things our main monster, Sullivan (Goodman), finds that she is too adorable to destroy (admittedly, she is quite adorable) and he works to protect her. Sullivan is a pretty good character overall, furry and blue with purple highlights, but I have to say he reminded me of Shrek from another animated movie that also came out in 2001—both the kindly affection and the ogre-like oversized body. I know animated pictures have long lead times, so I doubt anyone was copping anything off anybody else. Monsters, Inc. is the better picture if the IMDb Top 250 Movies list is anything to go by—it’s on it whereas Shrek is not, at least when I looked just now (in October). Monsters, Inc. reminded me again how starved we were for sophisticated animated pictures like this in the ‘70s, where the hardest-core among us lived off the old Disney features and Fleischer cartoons in revival houses with folding chairs. Those old Disneys are masterfully done, I can admit now, but I had a beef with Disney back then that lingers on. I prefer what came in the wake of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with the animation fully funded (unlike, say, Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby Doo, Where Are You! TV series, which is charming and everything, maybe even culturally revolutionary, but cheap). I also like scripts that are full of sly jokes for the grownups. But that is something someone who loves Daffy Duck and Bullwinkle would think. Monsters, Inc.? Yes, absolutely, if you like a cartoon show don’t miss it if you can.