Friday, April 20, 2018

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

USA, 78 minutes, documentary
Director: Jeff Margolis
Writers: Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney
Photography: Tom Schamp
Editors: Daniel J. Johnson, Ken Johnson, Steve Livingston

I'm filing this under "documentary," which I guess is what you do with concert movies, but I was struck in poring over IMDb.com by how difficult it is to find in Richard Pryor's profile. He's not considered an actor in it—fair enough. Nor is he director or producer (at least of this one). It's there in the jumble under "Self," along with his awards hosting and talk show appearances. The quickest way to it and other similar stand-up documentaries is probably under writer—again, fair enough, but not all of his writing credits are for movies like this, so it's another jumble. I'd like to see a list of all his stand-up comedy movies in one place, please. For that matter, it's not listed at all in the Halliwell's film guide and it's old enough and was popular enough that it should be—at least, that's the way I remember it. In fact, I remember it was considered a kind of watershed milestone for stand-up comedy at the time, because Pryor deals so frankly not just with racial issues, as he always did, but also with the legal and health troubles related to his notorious drug use at the time. What I remember about it most is how funny it was. People talk about "laughing till it hurts" but that was actually my experience. I saw it repeatedly and pretty much always laughed until I couldn't stand it. All these years later, sure, it's dated. How could it not be? I still laugh but now it's more like smiling, and not till it hurts anymore. Some of the material has inevitably gone rancid—the attitudes toward gays and women can notably induce cringing and/or despair. It's no longer the single most amazing object of stand-up comedy I've ever seen, though I'd have to think about what betters it.

Partly because of this milder response, it's actually easier now to pick out how he does it, as it's often still effective. It relies on the dynamics of improv comedy, which is the most immediate and "hottest" type of comedy, where you and a performer feel most in synch. Pryor probably used some kind of "set list" of topics, and had already developed most of it to some extent, but there's a sense he might do anything as each one comes up. His chanting riffing and nervous stage prowling somehow create a world where the most ridiculous things happen vividly—a doleful German Shepherd briefly extends sympathies on a sad occasion before warning he will be on Pryor's ass again the next day, or a man suddenly finds himself caught in an extremely long and slow-moving line for death by way of sex, or demonstrations of racial differences are made by reactions to encountering a snake. Pryor also has a square, instantly recognizable white-guy voice that is good for laughs just in itself, and he knows it. It's still always funny. I loved this movie but full disclosure I never did make it to any of the follow-ups (Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip from 1982, and I thought there were others but I don't recognize them now by title). IMDb accurately but misleadingly calls Richard Pryor: Live in Concert his second filmed stand-up performance. When I tracked down the 1971 nightclub set that preceded it I saw it had actually been commercially released only in 1981, doubtless springboarding off the success of this. If you saw Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and enjoyed it in about 1979 you will probably still have a good deal of affection for it. If you never did, it might be a crapshoot now. I have no idea how it plays. From my view, the case for Richard Pryor as a remarkable original still finds some of its best evidence right here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Harrison Bergeron" (1961)

Read story by Kurt Vonnegut online.

The premise of Kurt Vonnegut's story is a type of Devastating Wry Dystopic Satire that feels typical to me of its New Frontier times. It riffs on a straw man, an argument I don't think anyone is making or has ever made. Setting that aside, it's a great example of what a sharp and chiseled writer Vonnegut could be. In the future of this story people have gone mad for equality. Society has evolved a counterbalancing system wherein the most gifted are formally handicapped. Strong people are burdened with extra weight. Smart people are fixed with buzzers that sound off in their ears every 20 seconds to interrupt concentration. And so forth. As a view of coming attractions I do think it's unlikely. As a joke, however, Vonnegut has a few good ways to work it. It's a very short story with lots of dialogue, which enables it to establish rhythms that start to work almost musically and can be funny. It's also comical to see such mediocrity as the accepted norm. In this world excellence is an affront of arrogance. George and Hazel Bergeronn are parents of the anti-equality revolutionary Harrison, a Nietzschean superman if ever there was one. George and Hazel are watching a ballet performance on TV. But the dancers are not very good. George and two of the ballerinas have ear buzzers, which are synchronized. George and Hazel have an absent-minded conversation. One of George's best recurring lines is "Um." So the comedy is pretty rich and it's fun to read. But put it down a second and think about it and it starts to be annoying. Perhaps it's the mood I'm in at the moment, but it's hitting me as another privileged indictment of "identity politics." The year this was published the Civil Rights movement was on the rise, and a renewal of feminism just over the horizon. "Harrison Bergeron" can too easily be read as mocking such movements by willfully misunderstanding them. No one who wants to protect civil rights is trying to take anything but unfair opportunity away from anybody. The issue is equality of opportunity and fair treatment, not literal equality. This was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Make of that what you will. It's still fun to read. Set a timer on a buzzer so you don't have to think about it too long.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Possessed (2010)

Elif Batuman, raised in New Jersey as a second-generation US daughter of Turkish parents, makes a lot of things sound like fun in her book you wouldn't necessarily think are fun, like learning Russian as an adult in order to study Russian literature. Actually, she doesn't pull any punches there—it sounds really hard. She details her adventures and travels making her way through graduate school. Yes, that's right, graduate school. Her passions are so infectious they transcend the more typically unpleasant hothouse cloisters of academe. She has her eye on the prize always. She loves Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes—they are critical markers into her fascination with Russian lit. She's skeptical of postmodern literary theory and today's MFA story writers, but she'll use theory in a pinch and her fondest desire is to write a novel, which actually came to fruition—The Idiot, published last year. One interesting and perhaps obvious point she raises is about the camps of division between those who prefer Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I don't think I had thought of as such before but makes perfect sense in a Beatles / Stones sort of way. She declares herself Tolstoyan and has no hesitation. I might be more Dostoevskian—the four sick men of Europe and all that—but I'm less certain. Still, Dostoevsky gets at least as much attention in this story plus the title reference to boot (and then again in her novel, which I don't know). Chekhov gets his too, and Pushkin, Turgenev, practically the whole gang. The subtitle has it about right: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It's lively and chatty, veering off into memoir territory with a good deal of charm, though it always snaps back to Russian literature again. Batuman is full of provocative ideas, explicating streams of literature, such as the heirs of Don Quixote, conscious and otherwise, and she's read so much it overwhelms me even to think about. It's a great big fun time.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997)

I'm trying to remember how Cornershop's rare stew of pop music and electronica inside the context of British-South Asian culture made its way into my home. Rock critic Robert Christgau gave it an A so that might be it—I remember I found it in a used record store in Vancouver. When I Was Born for the 7th Time is the band's third album. I tried a couple of others but they didn't nearly hit the same sweet spot for me. Coming back to it many years later I still like it quite a bit, but Christgau's assessment of a void at its center may be true enough, a point I hadn't noticed as much in the earlier throes. I've never been that impressed with the cover of "Norwegian Wood," except as gesture—I'm an originalist on that particular song. But it's interesting, again as Christgau points out, how it has to be taken as a kind of moebius strip reclamation project "for the land of the sitar." Which, to be clear, and strictly speaking, is not the land of Cornershop's nearly last man standing chief singer / songwriter / guitarist Tjinder Singh. He's a British citizen, born in Wolverhampton (I can't speak to whether it was actually for the seventh time). So maybe it's curious then, or maybe no surprise at all, that my favorite track on recent visits has been "Good to Be on the Road Back Home," which I had assumed until this minute was a cover of a country classic but is actually a Singh original. Obviously, on some level, it is working in the shadow of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" (and Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and others). It's a great song and a great production, but in many ways what makes it is the guest vocalist, Paula Frazer (straight outta alt-country San Francisco), who somehow elevates it to impossible heights. "Make way for a lady," as Singh introduces her. But make no mistake—the album is a heady, nearly dizzying pastiche of styles (in fact, there's not much more country). Let it play and they will come to you. Its real calling card is the song "Brimful of Asha," an ode to the 45 single, which became a #1 hit in the UK after Norman Cook (better known as Fatboy Slim) gave it a remix. It comes on with acoustic chords and rhythm courtesy of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," hunching and lurching with Singh's glottal Indian tones swallowing the mic, and working up to its grand sentiment: "Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, everybody needs a bosom / Mine's on the 45." Fatboy Slim took it and revved up the tempo, decked it out with more electronica flourishes, and the rest is history. Either version is fine by me but I know the original on the album better. Lots of surprises on this one and still pretty good. Inspirational line (from "What Is Happening?"): "Turkey gravy."

Friday, April 13, 2018

No Country for Old Men (2007)

USA, 122 minutes
Directors/editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Cormac McCarthy
Photography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald, Tess Harper, Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt, Beth Grant, Kathy Lamkiri

It's hard to know what to do with the Coen brothers' 14th or so film, except to look at it and peel back layers. Based on a literary property of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, who of course is on the short list of most highly regarded living authors, it seems to throw a wall of unceasing violence in your face practically from start to finish. You may be too shocked from a first viewing ever to look again, but if you do you're likely to see something else entirely. On one of the DVD featurettes, people try to name the genre. Everyone lands on horror but no one thinks the label fits exactly. Other types mentioned include noir, period piece, road movie, crime, chase, western, even comedy. The latter was from Tommy Lee Jones, who didn't look like he believed it himself—maybe it's something about the Coens' popular association with irreverent mockery? Kelly Macdonald probably gets it right when she calls it a Coen brothers film: "They're their own genre."

I'm tempted to throw in superhero, because its remarkable villain Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem with a haircut no one ever forgets) is so vastly bigger than life. But it never gives off the recognizable superhero vibe currently infecting so much entertainment these days—Get Out, for example, or Breaking Bad. It's everywhere right now. Even Chigurh's coin-flipping thing, which I believe is something a Batman villain did in the '30s, is not overplayed here. In fact, No Country for Old Men strikes me as the most Hitchcockian film that codirectors and cowriters Ethan Coen and Joel Coen have made, a story based essentially and almost purely on schlepping the McGuffin around. Once inured to the violence you can see that for what it is, short bursts of set pieces that are actually quite artfully done, and mercifully short. Most of the shock of the violence has to do with the assorted weird ways that Chigurh kills people, along with his chilling efficiency. The arcs and shape of the narrative are almost purely physical, with people on the move and busy doing things. Dialogue is minimal, and there are long periods without it. In terms of Alfred Hitchcock, it reminds me perhaps most of Vertigo, but the trailing action is literally doubled.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

"Dog Heaven" (1989)

Read story by Stephanie Vaughn online.

Stephanie Vaughn's story is more along the lines of a reminiscence, but she makes it work by paradoxical yet resonant language and a fearless use of baldly sentimental figures. It's called "Dog Heaven" because a dog who is dead at the time of writing figures prominently. It's a childhood memory so obviously there are children too. The unnamed first-person narrator remembers 25 years earlier when she was in 7th grade. Her best friend is a boy named Sparky. They learn how to induce fainting as a game. They run for student government positions. It takes place on a military base in the '60s, when nuclear war was a fevered worry. The dog is named Duke and he's a big friendly guy, and smart too. I like the way Vaughn describes his barking, as during one of their fainting games: "Whenever I knocked out, I came to on the grass with the dog barking, yelping, crouching, crying for help. 'Wake up! Wake up!' he seemed to say. 'Do you know your name? Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!'" Vaughn somehow establishes an ironic distance yet indulges things like putting words in the mouths of animals. And somehow it works. My first time reading it I was mostly interested in the dog story, and found the strange locutions more something to push through. "Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again," the story starts. Going back through it again, they became more the points to linger on. We saw in Tess Gallagher's "The Lover of Horses" the idea that destiny chooses us, not the other way round, and there's a similar inside-out take going on here. The narrator is like a dream that her memories have. The memories are real. She is ethereal. Something like that. This works most for me with the dog, where the emotional pull is hardest. But I played a fainting game like she describes when I was in 7th grade too. And I know the sense of chapters in life now disappeared, but whose memories still haunt. I think that's something like what she is getting at here. It's remarkable for me how the story seems to unfold and deepen further every time I go through it.

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

Monday, April 09, 2018

Thoroughbreds (2017)

A film festival favorite last year, Thoroughbreds is a first feature for director and writer Cory Finley. It's a pretty good thriller, a kind of cunning mashup of Mean Girls and the Tuesday Weld movie Pretty Poison, though often just a little too busy being cold, with a slow-developing tempo and confounding mannequin performances. Olivia Cooke as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily are often making do with just youth and portentous lines from the script—Finley's inexperience shows in his ability to do some things much better than others. What he does best is set a doomy romantic desperate suicidal mood. Amanda and Lily are natives of Westchester, Connecticut, daughters of money. One is clinical and claims she has no feelings. The other harbors homicidal rage (somewhat justified). They were friends in grade school, now they are high school age and encountering problems in life. One just got kicked out of Andover. The other slaughtered her horse. The mother of one enlists the other by way of money to reconnect, under the pretense of tutoring. Both of their mothers are sad and fearful women. Amanda and Lily get together, open their books, trade barbs, say portentous things, brush one another off, and then see each other again. Gradually a murder plot develops. Anton Yelchin makes an appearance, his last, and does a lot to propel things along. He plays a low-level drug dealer who is pathetically delusional and soon he is entrapped in the murder scheme. It's good to see him any time we can because he was always so good. But the main weight of this show is carried by Cooke and Taylor-Joy. They're not always entirely believable, but they both evince uniquely effective, and different, ways to make your skin crawl. At just over 90 minutes, Thoroughbreds is organized like a novel, with chapters, and packed with lots of twists and turns and some nicely conceived scenes. The resolution felt random to me, like late rounds of a musical chairs game. It's not entirely clear who is a victim and who is not, or maybe I don't want to believe what the movie presented me. I can't think of a better way to end it myself, so whatever. The thing about thrillers is they are movies whose best parts are usually in the middle, and often not at the end. Thoroughbreds has a pretty good middle.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Invisible Man (1952)

This great American novel, the only one Ralph Ellison published while he was alive, is conceived in such scope and detail it's clear he must have argued a lot with himself about the details. Obviously, for example, he decided not to use the definite article ("The") for the title, presumably to universalize the central tenet (or perhaps thinking he could avoid confusion with H.G. Wells's 19th-century horror tale). And he did not insert a comma between the two words, which would have emphasized his motivating idea with a pivot to hipster dialect. As much as anything, the struggle Ellison lays out in the totality of his amazing episodic saga, full of fancies and bold conceits and simply one of the best American novels that exists, is the matter of looking to win the simple respect of being seen. The presidency of Barack Obama and what came after are urgent reminders that the racial problems we refuse to face today we have always refused to face. And until the majority can look at the minority (however you slice and dice, by race, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, sexual orientation) and see them—a prospect that could still be unlikely today, more than 60 years after the publication of this book, which was nearly a hundred years after the Civil War—then the problems we have always had will continue. Some aspects of Invisible Man may seem out of date now, such as the lengthy episodes with the Communist Party, but if they are dated they are nonetheless good history, and certainly illustrative of dynamics still at play. Ellison's panorama is sweeping. It starts in the South, where Negroes are omnipresent but institutionally shackled, and travels to the North, where official policy is to keep blacks out of sight. In either case, the vertiginous sense of invisibility is produced for its objects, who are people. If it feels dated in some places, it still makes its way to moments that feel ripped from today's headlines, such as many of the encounters with police. And it's never less than dazzling, with its clarion language, headlong narrative momentum, and many cunning tricks. It is always operating poetically at multiple levels, with surging power. It's never mired by literary baggage but the baggage is there to be unpacked, on practically every page. The first-person narrator and our epic hero is unnamed, of course. One of his early experiences in the North is a job in a factory that specializes in a paint so bright it seems to glow, called "Optic White." By the general reaction to him of his all white coworkers it's evident he's a token hire. His first task is the final step in the process of making "Optic White" paint: 10 drops, no more and no fewer, of a mysterious liquid black substance. Oh there's black and white all over Invisible Man—it's what it's self-consciously made of. At the same time, in the factory, Ellison is also drawing a portrait of a nearly totalitarian war industry—which indeed prevailed openly in World War II and after, was characterized in 1961 by President Eisenhower as the "military-industrial complex," and is more virulent now than ever. So it's not just race that Ellison is on about, but also American power and corruption, the Communist movement, crony capitalism, and much more. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

"The Christian Roommates" (1964)

Read story by John Updike online.

John Updike's story is a slice of life out of the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s. It's charming and a pleasure to read—published originally in the New Yorker—but just to be clear, it's a slice of life out of the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s. The two main characters are Orson Ziegler, a premed student from South Dakota, and Harry Palamountain, who goes by Hub. They are called the Christian roommates the way other pairs are called the Jewish roommates, the Negro roommates, the writer roommates, and so on. Not all the labels fit these late adolescents perfectly. Ziegler is a conventional rock-ribbed Republican protestant. Hub is interested in religion and philosophy, but he's hardly hemmed in by any one sect or creed, or even Christianity. He practices something he calls "Yoga," and also meditates, prays, and elaborately attempts to stay open to all things. The story was published before hippies, but Hub is in line with certain strains of Thoreau by way of the beats. There are nearly a dozen characters here and the best part of the story is its strong sense for that age of stepping out on your own. Some of these guys—they are all guys—don't even last the first year. Others stay together as roommates all the way. At the end of the story we get little bios of how things turned out, like the end of American Graffiti: "Fitch returned, made up the lost credits, and eventually graduated magna cum in History and Lit. He now teaches in a Quaker prep school. Silverstein is a biochemist, Koshland is a lawyer," etc. I'm a little surprised I haven't read more Updike—his natural chatty style is the kind of thing that can appeal to me (Salinger, Roth, etc.). But then I look at the privilege on display here and I remember. The only way this works is to accept its class-bound terms. The third-person narrator is basically above it, comfortable in the class that intimidates all these boys one way or another. And yet this narrator has little to say about class formally. That would be gauche, I guess. Even within its narrow constraints—the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s—there is easily recognized human behavior in this story, which works to redeem the patronizing superiority at least a little.

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