Friday, January 21, 2022

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

UK / USA, 112 minutes
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, Lionel Shriver
Photography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editor: Joe Bini
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Ashley Gerasimovich, Alex Manette

I haven't yet read the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver that serves as the basis for this movie, but I'm tempted to lay off some of the topical conveniences of the story on it, most notably the red-hot theme of random massacres in US public schools. For me, even just the switch from guns to bow-and-arrows kind of misses the topical point, which is that no one has conducted their mass murder exercise yet without guns and lots of them, at least as far as I can tell. For these reasons and other points of somewhat heavy-handed artifice, We Need to Talk About Kevin is probably best taken as a horror or thriller movie, where it offers a damned good ride. It's one of those movies where everything is constantly getting worse, the people we like most are flawed and thus can't catch a break, and for our part we can't look away. The salty popcorn never tasted so delicious.

Like the most skillful genre work, We Need to Talk About Kevin relies on using things well that we already know well: the Problem Child, the Safe Suburban Home, the Oblivious Dad, the Cold Mother. We can't help having a lot of sympathy for Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a working travel journalist who finds herself pregnant by an affable dude, Franklin (John C. Reilly). She marries him and has the kid, Kevin, who is almost immediately a difficult child. Altogether it suits director and cowriter Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here, Morvern Callar), whose work is often a meditation on violence, and never mind the ludicrous.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

A Tramp Abroad (1880)

Depending on how you count them, this is Mark Twain's third or fourth travel book, in many ways a direct sequel to his first, The Innocents Abroad. Once again he is "abroad" in Europe, but this time the focus and scope are much tighter, staying close to the Alps in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. The idea, the joke, is that it's a walking tour—a tramp. But Twain and his traveling companion, Harris, more often take trains and other transportation. The caliber of the jokes gets better than that and I have to admit a lot of this book struck me as funny, sometimes in obvious ways which work anyway. I also have to admit a lot of it isn't funny. It's mostly anecdotes and stretchers, with scenery. Harris sometimes figures into them. Overall, Harris is not very useful to the narrative. At one point Twain dispatches him to a destination he claims not to want to visit himself and asks him for a full report. Harris's report is a somewhat opaque joke full of random foreign terms in unrecognizable languages like Choctaw. Really it is a chance for Twain to make fun at length of writers who use foreign terms in their work. It may (or may not) be a reasonable target, but the passage is strained and goes on trop long. A Tramp Abroad could well be another Twain I read so you don't have to. If you like his previous and better-known forays into travel literature—The Innocents Abroad and Roughing ItLife on the Mississippi is the one I'm not sure how to classify—then you might enjoy some of the best parts of A Tramp Abroad. It's patchy at best, but Twain's easy gait, studded with lots of little jokes, keeps it rolling along. I don't happen to be very interested in the Alps myself, but the mountain scenes tend to be the most interesting. It makes sense that Twain and his publisher would go for a sequel to The Innocents Abroad, given that it remained Twain's bestselling book all his life. He was nothing if not practical about the business of selling books. Still, it's dogged by the problem of most sequels, as merely a pale reproduction of the original.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre (1968)

The biggest hit these California songbirds, Harpers Bizarre, purveyors of sunshine pop, ever scored was a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Feelin' Groovy" that went top 20. It's a song I have not needed to hear for some time because oldies radio etched it into my brain as a permanent earworm. (My cats can verify as they have heard me querying them for years, "Hello lamppost, whatcha knowin'? / I come to watch your flowers growin'.") (they're the lamppost) That song is not on this album, but songs by Randy Newman, Bacharach/David, Frank Loesser, and others are, including a cover of "Battle of New Orleans." I had a hard time getting a bead on The Secret Life. It came to my attention originally on the downloading circuit and yet it is so charged up with super-sweet mainstream Broadway showtune glitz, which I normally resist, and often do here too, to tell you the truth. It's a case of cognitive dissonance all up and down the 17+ tracks. The Bacharach/David number, "Me, Japanese Boy," is one for the dustbin of history for self-evident reasons, yet it can be quite affecting. "Battle of New Orleans" was a goofy novelty hit for Johnny Horton, so Harpers Bizarre turns it into ... a Broadway showtune? In no way is "When I Was a Cowboy" a song about cowboys. These paradoxes go on and on. In my YouTube wanderings this past month I stumbled on a 1966 Andy Williams Christmas special, and suddenly this 1968 album made more sense. People used to love this corn syrup. I should also note it's somewhat spoiled by the streaming experience now, as it is another suite of songs that are supposed to flow together seamlessly but which streaming services insist on inserting silence between. The interlude pieces here are generally less than one minute, often less than 30 seconds, with lovely and surprising little turns, for example repeating a single musical figure of some kind from another song for emphasis. Alas, in the end it is all too Broadway showtune for me, in spite of favorites like "Me, Japanese Boy" and "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" (the Loessor song). YMMV. The people who loved it on the DL circuit really, really loved it.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Moonlight (2016)

[First review here.]

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Photography: James Laxton
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editors: Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland, Trevante Rhodes

My first review of Moonlight, five years ago when it was more like new, actually hits all the main points about this very potent movie. I'm revisiting it now to cover my formal reviews of the 21st-century list of best pictures at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, where it has presently ascended to #22. I remember feeling annoyed by the surge of interest in it, which seemed to me merely a token of anti-MAGA sentiment in opposition to La La Land, which was white but not actually very Trumpy (for that see The Greatest Showman from the following year, a favorite of the former president which I haven't been able to look at yet).

I admit the Oscars mix-up that year did have a Trumpy twang, not least because the US election in 2016 was itself part of a series of improbable pop culture historical events in that period which made it feel like we had been ejected into some far more unpleasant dimensional timeline. It started with the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series after more than a century, coming from behind, then the abomination of the US election results, and then the plainly freaky and traumatic Super Bowl win by the New England Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons, and finally the Oscars goof. Everyone thought it was going to be La La Land, which was at the root of what happened. But it turned out to be Moonlight, thus somehow making a serious, sensitive Black film #2 even at being #1. But enough about freaks of history. Let's talk about this movie.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

"Born of Man and Woman" (1950)

This very short story with its swaggering biblical title basically launched the career of Richard Matheson in auspicious style. It was his first publication at the age of 22, appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). It is a monster story of some kind, widely held as open to interpretation. As far as I can tell, the most conventional take is that the child in this story, who is keeping a diary, is deformed, born with congenital disabilities, and an innocent, and it is the parents who are hateful, abusive monsters. See Wikipedia, for example. Others (like me) read it as that thing in the basement is the monster. It oozes a green sticky substance and crawls across the walls and ceiling with multiple arms or legs. It sounds like a big freaking spider, though the clues are admittedly scant. I will grant there is something wrong with these parents. It would be bad enough if they had a monster kid and tried to hide it from the world, which I believe has happened at least in fiction, chaining and beating them and so forth. That's toxic but proceeds logically enough from shame. But these parents are giving cocktail parties and their idea of responsibility seems to be telling the thing in the basement to stay out of sight and don't make a sound. It's really messed up. Matheson is working a fine and ambiguous point of balance through misdirection and these vague but evocative (but vague) clues. This story packs quite a punch, done artfully enough to stand up to repeated reading. It's a kind of bridge piece from Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis looking forward to Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life." The diary structure and child's voice also look forward to Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

I will say, yes, upon reflection, a certain smug cleverness is apparent in the specific points where Matheson draws back from revealing more. But in a way that indulgence is earned too, as the story hits like someone suddenly lighting up the organ in a dark church at night with chords you can feel rumble through your body. It has a 19th-century quality in its certainty that all it has to do is tell you such things exist, "born of man and woman." And it might also be influential in another way, opening up the routes to trauma-sourced horror that comes of of parental, school, bully, police, and other societal abuses, a theme wending through Algernon and bubbling under in horror circles until emerging again with more force in midcentury. As with many stories, "Born of Man and Woman" gets away with excesses and plot holes by a combination of brevity and chutzpah. It's just crazy enough to shock and by the time you're asking questions (hey, why don't the authorities seem to know anything about this cocktail party crack house?) it's all over. I remember Matheson well from my forays into horror when I was a kid in the '60s. His very name made me nervous to see in the books I picked up. I didn't necessarily like his stories. There was always something brutal and viscerally disturbing about his stuff. That is seen here already, in his first published story, in the large amount of time spent on the beatings this creature is taking from the parents. Matheson is using it as a way to set readers on edge and gain sympathy for the monster/narrator. We're still not entirely sure what the thing telling the story is, but it appears to have real consciousness and character and we instinctively recoil at the chains and beatings—even more so when we learn it is for the sake of a cocktail party. But the monster also kills a cat, out of a fear we can understand, but still there is the death of a cat in this story, as Matheson once again balances his elements toward ambiguity. We have enough sympathy for the monster, who after all is communicating with us, that we loathe their parents for them. Still, we have seen this thing kill, and at the end of the story it's starting to lose its temper.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell
The Best of Richard Matheson, ed. Victor LaValle
Read story online.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The History of the Atlanta Falcons (2021)

The Dorktown follow-up to their massive Seattle Mariners documentary is an even longer Atlanta Falcons documentary—twice as long, in fact, closing in on seven hours. I found it just as easy and fast to watch, but it did put to the test some of my thoughts about the Mariners doc. First, yes, you probably can give this treatment to any sports franchise that's been around long enough, especially the hapless ones (and if we can vote, I'd like to see it done for the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Mets). As it happens, I have zero attachment to and little knowledge of the Falcons, thus a lot of the emotional investment I could bring with the Mariners was not here. So The History of the Atlanta Falcons is a more abstracted exercise for me. I had some interest in the degree of haplessness—frustration does tend to lead to the best sports stories. But the main point remains Dorktown's absolutely masterful deep research and, equally important, creative data presentation. They go year by year, studying management and coaching developments as well as team and player performances, and it's ultimately the statistical breakdowns that make it so riveting, along with all the familiar cliches of sports stories, which are cliches because they happen so much. They never lose sight of the stories even in the welter of statistics. Strange stuff is going on all the time in sports. Dorktown has another piece (much shorter) about how many times in baseball the ball count has been in error. They found dozens of examples—on video!—of batters who got a base on three balls or were denied it on four or struck out on two strikes. Still, as much as I look forward to Vikings and Mets histories, or whatever they're going to do next (they tease the Vikings possibility in their report of the 1999 Falcons playoff game), another important caveat here is that they should be put together by people who care a lot and have their own baggage history with the franchise. Or, I mean, maybe. I assumed Dorktown principals Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein have some long-term tie to the Pacific Northwest when I was looking at the Mariners doc. I still do, but I'm not as sure, because now I know for a fact that Bois lived a significant part of his life in Atlanta. I also noticed Bois has a version of my own problem with the Mariners. He claims to be a Kansas City Chiefs fan but he loves and hates the Falcons in obvious cringing, irrational ways. In the Mariners doc, they chided people like me who can't accept that the Mariners have still never been in a World Series (in practical terms, that means I have considered it a shitty organization for decades now). But you can feel exactly that angst coming from Bois on the issue of the Falcons winning the Super Bowl. As you likely recall, that 2017 Super Bowl was the third act in the four ominous 2016-2017 Apocalyptic-Like Bizarre Events (with the World Series, US presidential election, and Oscars ceremony). Part 7 is focused primarily on that Super Bowl, a sickening spectacle even presented mostly as graphs and charts, and it's the longest part of all, over an hour and a half. I don't feel that Super Bowl that much myself, but I can really feel Bois feeling it. I love Dorktown's stuff and can't wait for the next big one.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen (2008)

This entry by Bob Gendron in the 33-1/3 series struck me as competent nearly to a fault. Very well written, with lots of rock critic pizzazz and a familiar structure—about one-third on recording the album, one-third critical riffing track by track, and one-third general history, context, and other details. It even has some obligatory strange excesses, such as an unexpected rant about Linda Ronstadt. It was underwhelming, but so were the revisits to the album under consideration, at least at first. That surprised me a little, but eventually I found my connection to Gentlemen again, an honest, harrowing foray into the relationship wars, full of drama and thrumming anxiety. Despite recording for the Sub Pop label for a time (Gentlemen is the band's major label debut on Elektra), the Afghan Whigs never fit the grunge label well. It's true that it is rooted in loud electric guitars, but singer/songwriter/main dude Greg Dulli wrote songs that also drew on midcentury soul music for a lot of its power and polish, and his themes are complex and mature (even when describing someone who is immature). The Afghan Whigs were also a great live act I saw a few times in the early and mid-'90s. In some ways I think Gendron's competence here is evidence Gentlemen might have required something more unconventional. Or maybe it is more an album purely of its times. Or maybe I overrated the album once, or misperceived it. But no disrespect intended to Gendron just because he stayed within the lines and took a familiar route in the series for his book. I'm not even sure how to categorize the Afghan Whigs at this point, let alone evaluate. I see that Robert Christgau gave this album an A-, but didn't have very much illuminating to say beyond the obvious. Gendron does have approximately one suitcase full of good details here. More than half of Dulli's vocals were recorded in a single long night, for example, involving cocaine and a woman he met just that day. That sounds about right, both for Dulli's reputation and for his doomy charismatic stage presence. It's also interesting (after all these years) to find out how scattered some of these bands have become. One of the Whigs ended up in Minneapolis, and Dulli spent some time living in "Washington state," which I take to mean somewhere not Seattle. They were all from Cincinnati originally. One or more of them might still be there, maybe even Dulli. Album and book together are a worthy pair for fans.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (1948)

It was fun going back to one of the old Nancy Drew mysteries, which I adored when I was 8 and 9. I can't say for sure I read this one then but it's likely given the publication date. They were largely written by Mildred Benson, arguably the "real" Carolyn Keene, responsible for ghostwriting the first 23 books in the series under the Keene pen name and basically setting the whole tone. The regularity of the chapters and the cliffhangers do not work on me the same way anymore (how could they?) and thus it wasn't as enthralling. But lots of small things were nice to see again: a general wholesomeness, a quicksand episode, the copious "Tom Swifties"—people don't just "say" things, they urge and cajole and chuckle them. I was more intrigued now by Bess and George, who are cousins and Nancy's friends. All the principals are that perfect age of 18. More cynical now, I see bolts of signifiers in the cousins. Bess is frilly and feminine and George is boyish and impetuous. Bess has blonde hair, George is dark. For her part, Nancy has a boyfriend named Ned, but it's an anodyne relationship. He's mainly there for the muscle. I also liked the ghost story side of this short novel, though it's apparent from the start that Nancy and her crew keep their feet on the ground about seances and such things. The bad guys, of course, are bunco artists who are exposed in the end. They always are in Nancy Drew mysteries. Still, Benson / Keene blatantly works on having it both ways, with scenes where a ghost appears to be playing an organ and other shamelessly spooky things happen. One interesting data point is that when I was introduced to Nancy Drew mysteries they were in a public library in Vermillion, South Dakota, where my family stayed for the summer in 1963 while my Dad was taking classes at the college. When we were back home and I was visiting the Minneapolis Public Library again, I saw they did not carry them. The librarian acted funny when I asked about them. It might be my first experience with genre bias. On the other hand, the Minneapolis library was loaded up on science fiction and horror anthologies, which were at least as good.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

New Year memo

Well, so happy new year once again to everyone. Let's hope it's a good one and you are evading the coronavirus with all due diligence. We've had another year of it and looks like at least another one still. Fingers crossed. I maintain a cautious age-appropriate lifestyle, staying in a lot except for grocery expeditions and walks a few times a week. But that's just me. It might not be so bad to get it, but I'd rather not, because it could be very bad, plus I wouldn't like to pass it on to anyone else. Also, "natural immunity" is overrated. Pro tip: when you're busy doing your own research, don't listen to crackpots.

I feel fortunate this year because I was not only able to keep this blog going at a decent clip but also wrote a handful or so of short stories, two of which made it into (digital) print. I hope to keep that going this year.

Other topics, themes, and whatnot in the schedule: I'm taking a hiatus from the Movie of the Year project, due to a slight case of burnout. I've been at it one way or another for years and may get back to it, but for now I've got the years 1935 to 2016 basically covered and I'm calling it good. As always, Mondays are for new movies (or increasingly streaming options), Thursdays for horror stories, Fridays for classic movies, Saturdays for albums, and Sundays for books, stories, and other things I read.

I always feel obliged to include a list or lists in the New Year memo. I have lately fallen into a booktuber rabbit hole on YouTube, so with no further apologies here are my favorites at the moment:

1. * emmie *
2. BooksandLala
3. nicole fegan (thanx for the Mariners doc tip!)
4. rincey reads
5. Vicky's Book Nook
6. Books and Things
7. Always Doing
8. Supposedly Fun
9. Leaf by Leaf
10. Luminous Libro