Friday, February 15, 2019

Experimenter (2015)

The Stanley Milgram Story, USA, 98 minutes
Director / writer: Michael Almereyda
Photography: Ryan Samul
Music: Bryan Senti
Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, John Palladino, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram is best-known today for practically the first serious experiment he ever conducted, examining obedience to authority, and especially for the ethical controversy that followed and still dogs the results. Director and writer Michael Almereyda defines his movie almost self-consciously as a biopic, however eccentric, however experimental, but like Milgram himself he is forced to return again and again to the obedience experiment and controversy. Milgram, who died in 1984 at the age of 51, researched far more widely than just that one experiment. One of the pleasures of Experimenter is its depiction and discussion of those experiments, ingenious attempts to uncover the warp and woof of human personality and social interaction: the small-world experiment (which gave us the term and concept "six degrees of separation"), the lost letter experiment, the looking up experiment, the familiar stranger experiment, and others.

But the obedience trials are what Milgram remains known for, and indeed that is likely the most profound and important experiment he ever conceived, if only because the results were so depressingly surprising to everyone. The experiment is a bit complicated, because it involves deception of the test subject (the source of the ethical controversy). Experimenter makes its first order of business a detailed enactment of that test procedure. A subject is told he or she will take the "teacher" role in a learning experiment that involves inducing increasingly more intense electrical shocks to the "learner" when the learner gives a wrong answer to a question. The learner is actually a confederate of the experimenters, sitting in another room out of sight of the teacher, playing a tape recording of himself groaning in pain as the shocks become stronger. When the subject shows reluctance to continue, the authority figure, another confederate of Milgram's pretending to be the learning experiment test administrator, tells the subject that the test must go on and he the administrator will take all responsibility. The subjects, presumably thus relieved of the responsibility, continued administering shocks all the way to the highest levels in 60% to 70% of the trials. Later tests in the 2000s replicated these results.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Test to Destruction" (1967)

Keith Laumer's long, action-packed, and confusing story features an alien technology that can tune into and manipulate a person's interior thoughts. Our hero, Mallory, is some kind of revolutionary who is run to ground by human agents in the first part of the story. His captors immediately begin torturing him for information. At that point, a passing alien spaceship picks up the activity as their probes detect the strength of Mallory's resistance, which impresses them. The torture device appears to be human in origin. "It creates conditions within the subject's neural system conducive to total recall, and at the same time amplifies the subvocalizations that accompany all highly cerebral activity. The subject is also rendered amenable to verbal cuing," explains the human torture master. The short version is that it induces vivid nightmares with a traumatizing personal edge. So we go through a few nightmares—not bad, they're pretty horrible. Meanwhile the aliens hovering overhead are fascinated by Mallory's resistance. They've never seen anything like it. It's not entirely clear, but appears they actually begin to step in with their own technology to amplify the torture. They want to understand the limits of this strange new phenomenon via "test to destruction"—i.e., increase intensity by degrees and make a note of when and how the mental resistance finally yields. It's all cold and clinical, as the point seems to be that science is an unfeeling thing. That might be fair enough when you consider things like the cold clinical approach taken for animal testing. People say things like "I'd rather save people with cancer than animals in cages." I probably would too, for that matter, but think how it would sound coming from the aliens. So we get a hit of double-bleak in this story: first, as humans, we are still busy with rancorous infighting and torture. And second, the first encounter with intellectually sophisticated aliens from outer space—a momentous occasion in any civilization's history, one would think—turns out to be as hapless subjects in the noble pursuit of higher knowledge. That is some biting bitter cynicism so kudos to Laumer on that score. I also appreciated that for once religion is left out of it. In his introduction to the story, series editor Harlan Ellison praises Laumer for managing his heavy concept within the frame of "the time-honored form of the chase-action-adventure." I'm much less impressed with that side—paradoxically perhaps, the more action, as here, the more boring it tends to be for me—but I like the mordant existential view quite a bit.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

For better or worse, Portnoy's Complaint is one more artifact from the 20th century that can trace its existence back in essential ways to Hugh Hefner, with certain strains of sexism—and plain ignorance—that never did find a way to accommodate feminism (let alone LGBTQ). "Portnoy's complaint," presented comically as a medical diagnosis to open the novel, is what we would consider today just one more type of compulsive sexual disorder, among those still considered relatively minor (and so of course comically humiliating) only because they don't usually lead to active criminal behavior, and people don't end up required to register as sex offenders everywhere they go for the rest of their lives. I'm not saying the novel isn't funny—it often is and it's always fun to read—but it is already painfully dated, in many ways: its understanding of masturbation disorders, its cheap and obvious turns to Freud and psychotherapy, its juvenile preoccupation with sex, and its aggressive sexism. Philip Roth's barbaric yawp of a career break is best taken as a ride on a roaring and unhinged ranting voice, held in check only for the sake of clarity, which is scrupulously maintained. It's a bravura performance, if you can get past the conceits. It's formally about sexual frustration but also about the frustration of being culturally uprooted in the world, as a Jew. It's also a formal complaint about the human condition, notably mothers (castrating, of course). "THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER I'VE MET," is the name of the first chapter, meaning himself, Alexander Portnoy the narrator. (Portnoy's father is pretty unforgettable too, plagued by chronic constipation and his tedious career as an insurance salesman.) Portnoy's Complaint is a pure distillation of Roth's silken, pulsing voice, which only got better, modulated for better effect, as the march of his novels went steadily forward over the decades. It was the flashpoint for his career, and as with other celebrities at the time—the Beatles, say, or Mia Farrow—he struggled for many years to escape his own long shadow. For most of the '70s he was little more than the guy who wrote the sensational book about some schmuck who masturbated all the time. Over at Modern Library, in 1998, they seemed to think it's the best thing he ever did, but actually, persistence paid off for Roth and he went on to write much greater novels than this odd and only semi-charming novelty. So don't believe the hype, start with American Pastoral—in memory, Sabbath's Theater is my favorite, but I still mean to get back to it as I recall it as devastating too—and if you come to Portnoy's Complaint with low expectations you might even have a nice surprise in store.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Piano (1993)

New Zealand / Australia / France, 121 minutes
Director / writer: Jane Campion
Photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Michael Nyman
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, Ian Mune

The Piano is as close as director and writer Jane Campion has ever got to the mainstream, with the possible exception of her adaptation of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. It boasts a cast of bona fide Hollywood Oscar hunters, with three actual Oscars won plus nominations for five others, and a decent box office performance for an art film. And make no mistake, The Piano is an art film, with extraordinarily beautiful cinematography, rich with unexpected color and shadows, expert framing, blocking, and camera setups, and a story that feels like a fairy tale parable in its details and like a hallucinatory nightmare in its twists and turns. The Piano looks in one direction to movies such as Nicolas Roeg's mysterious Walkabout, also set Down Under and plumbing the spiritual depths and agonies of a world of empire and aborigines. It looks in another direction to pictures about surviving the isolated wilderness, to Aguirre, the Wrath of God and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Revenant, and no stinting on the rain, mud, and general misery.

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is a young Scotswoman who has been mute since the age of 6, as she relates to us early in voiceover: "The voice you hear is not my speaking voice—but my mind's voice. I have not spoken since I was 6 years old. No one knows why—not even me." In other words, please accept this premise on its face. Fortunately, the voiceover device is used sparingly, only at the beginning and end of the picture, and we are otherwise quickly swept up into events that distract us from problems of believability. Hunter's fiercely imagined passion of Ada for music and playing her piano is startling, both in its extremes and in its ability to convince. It's the mid-19th century, and Ada has been promised in marriage by her father to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a pioneer in the New World of New Zealand who wants a helpmeet on his frontier adventures—someone normal, we can tell instantly. What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, February 07, 2019

"Judas" (1967)

By the title of John Brunner's story it's apparent it's another from the Dangerous Visions collection edited by Harlan Ellison that looks to religion for its dangerousness (as opposed to just danger). It also works a familiar Pygmalion theme. Humans build robots that are superior in every way and go on to declare themselves gods. Humans respond by worshiping them. TV's Battlestar Galactica had a lot of this. Take the robotics out and the story even looks forward a little to The Planet of the Apes. Brunner is a transitional British science fiction writer, starting up in the '50s with Golden Age influences but slipping into New Wave themes in the '60s. His beat was more or less environmental dystopia, and he also had a literary bent. Ellison mentions Brunner's "straight novels" and Wikipedia talks about the influence of John Dos Passos. So "Judas" is well-written, that devastating insult. But it doesn't feel very inspired. But let's look again for a minute at the impulse to religiosity. It might be easy to forget that my distance from it puts me in a tiny minority in the world even today. Most people on this planet believe strongly in higher powers intervening regularly in all our daily affairs. I would not classify myself as outright nonbeliever, but at best I'm tepid. So maybe the insistence on religion by all these science fiction writers in 1967 is more on the order of a warning from them to us, a reminder to their natural audience that religion is an element of danger, if not the danger itself. I'm more open to that idea now, in this day and age, 50 years on. I'm not always so sure of the insights but I appreciate they could be signaling through flames. Brunner's vision of a robot-worshiping religion most obviously apes Christianity. In fact, I thought it was Christianity at first, but the details are off. Instead of a cross, for example, the primary iconic symbol is a wheel. That subtly nagging disharmony with Christianity is probably the best element about this story, which involves a confrontation between a human and robot god and which is so overdetermined it has no space to breathe. As well-written as it is, it's equally suffocating.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Revolution in the Head (1994)

It's no exaggeration to call Ian MacDonald's work here monumental, cataloging practically every Beatles recording that matters while arguing persuasively for the profound consequence of both the '60s and the Beatles. The argument is first sounded in the overture and frame of the opening essay, "Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade," claiming a distinct Before & After in terms of the Beatles, the '60s, and—well, MacDonald wants to make it big—so let's say world history ... make that human evolution. MacDonald is not sure how big it is, he still can't see all the edges, but he knows it's big. Yet he keeps it grounded in the concrete at the same time—the Beatles were revolutionary for the chords and chord changes they used in their music, for their innovations in verse-chorus-bridge song structures, for finding ways (usually with George Martin) to bend a sound studio (usually Abbey Road) to their will. MacDonald skillfully shapes his many judgments and arguments, and it's fun to walk down memory lane with him too, song by song. He reminded me how earthshakingly good "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was in 1964. I have always been partial to 1965 in the Beatles trajectory, especially the US version of Rubber Soul, but I see better now how Revolver—UK version, please—is the real pinnacle. MacDonald redeemed "Penny Lane" for me. He incidentally affirmed my sense that "She's Leaving Home" ranks with the best of a certain type of '60s sad pop song, with Glen Campbell's "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" and Mary Hopkin's "Those Were the Days." He even redeemed Sgt. Pepper a little for me, though I still think it's a weak album. But in terms of what might have been! MacDonald casually mentions the industry convention in 1967 that singles already released were considered a cheat to include on new albums. Thus, in my speculations, if Sgt. Pepper could have been conceived to include "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" it might have been as great an album as Revolver. MacDonald is also very busy, in the original 1994 edition of this book and the two that followed, one of them posthumous, about the work of restoring Paul McCartney's standing in the project, especially vis a vis John Lennon. Sometimes MacDonald comes down a little too overcompensatingly partisan for me—I don't like "Honey Pie" or "Martha My Dear" or "The Long and Winding Road" nearly as much as he does. But it's still a useful corrective to the long-term Lennon overvaluations, which I suspect mainly came of cementing in views with the grief at the time of his death. MacDonald may have made me like one of my favorites, Abbey Road, a little less, because the circumstances of its recording are so sad and disturbing. Small price to pay. Bravo to this book, excellent in every way.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Recognition" (1967)

J.G. Ballard's story probably has to count as one of the best in the Dangerous Visions collection, if only because it's so artfully done in terms of setting and maintaining a mood (not to mention Ballard's subsequent reputation). But ultimately I think it fails by being a little too smugly ambiguous. It's summer solstice time and a small town in the vague country is visited by both a traveling fair and a circus. The circus arrives after the fair and must set up on "waste ground." It's a small circus, with some half-dozen cages occupied by animals we never see. It arrives late in the day, sets up, and people are told it is leaving in the morning. Most of the townspeople go to the fair and only a few visit the circus. Not many even know it's there. Those who do can't quite make out the animals, and occasionally a maddeningly familiar smell is in the air. At the end of the story our first-person narrator has had "the recognition" of what that smell is and what that circus is all about. It might be gauche to say, but I wish Ballard had spelled it out a little more, so I could have a recognition too. Still, there's a wonderfully mordant air about this one. Ballard really captures the fascinating sense of so many carnival scenes (and/or elements such as clowns) as sick, wrong, mysteriously depraved. Really this story is hardly science fiction at all but feels more like something on the order of a fairy tale. For what it's worth, Ursula K. Le Guin and to a lesser extent Ray Bradbury were also good at pulling this off. Checking in with the internet, I found a plurality agreed with me the story is slightly underdone. Others had ridiculously easy answers ("the smell is humanity," whatever that means). Still others pointed out details that seem significant. At least one of the cages, for example, locks from the inside. This could well be a story that improves with careful rereading, or discussion. And that's fine—even makes the case for Ballard as transcending his home genre, which is a case often made for him. I haven't read much of him beyond this and the novel Crash but I'm starting to think I need to read a little more. Still, even taking it just in terms of what's in the story, it seems designed to annoy. The narrator is so pleased with himself that he calls the story "The Recognition" and then declines to name whatever it is he recognized. Sure, right, I get it, "the smell is humanity"—but does that mean like outhouses, or body odor, or cooking food, or plain old spiritual malaise? Or what? And what is inside those blasted cages? This is arguably a strange and unfortunate case of not telling and not showing, but somehow it's still a pretty good story.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, January 27, 2019

"The Altar of the Dead" (1895)

Henry James addresses an interesting life condition in this story—the deaths of friends. There is a typical James plot to go along with that, with the usual odd and suggestive ambiguities. But I wish he'd stayed with the friends a little more, and the sense of loss. James was in his early 50s when he wrote it, and our hero, George Stransom, is 55. His most painful loss was a fiancée, but there are many other friends as well, including one, Acton Hague, who offended Stransom so deeply he never forgave him. One day, mulling these matters the way James characters will, Stransom wanders into an unfamiliar church, has a strange inspiration, and wins permission from the church to dedicate one of their candlelit alcoves to his friends—all except Hague. Soon enough a woman is involved, who often sits in silence with Stransom at his altar of the dead. Years go by. Slowly Stransom and the woman warm to one another and finally speak and find personal connections. By an amazing coincidence (what a small town London can be), it turns out the woman not only knew Hague but he was important to her. She beseeches Stransom to add a candle for Hague, but Stransom can't do it. The never-specified wrong was too great. In the end, the story and Stransom bend toward forgiveness, but it's left fraught and ambiguous. Because the sin is never specified the situation becomes overly abstract. Sin is sin and forgiveness is supposed to be absolute, but really there's more nuance to it. It's hard to feel too much for or against Stransom without knowing the reason for his break with Hague. But I did like the sense of watching and even standing vigil as friends (and family, not discussed here) inevitably begin to die. The story has some access to the experience of living on with friends even after they have died. For example, a friend of mine died in June 2001, and I often wonder how he would have reacted to 9/11 and all its aftermath. But that kind of thing is not for James. The closest he gets is the loss of Stransom's fiancée, which is so much more intense than a pal they're barely even comparable. But it's a nice idea, and the scenes at the altar of the dead are notably beautiful.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 36 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Friday, January 25, 2019

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

[Original 2010 Movie of the Year ballot here.]

USA / UK / Canada / Japan, 112 minutes
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright, Bryan Lee O'Malley
Photography: Bill Pope
Music: Sex Bob-Omb, Beck, Nigel Godrich, Broken Social Scene, etc.
Editors: Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons

Set in hipster precincts of wintertime Toronto, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie that obviously feels free to dress up any old way it likes, cycling through its modes like wardrobe changes: romantic comedy, teen sex farce, indie rock band bio, quest or journey tale, superhero comic book fare, and, perhaps most oddly of all, video game set piece. Director and cowriter Edgar Wright is the kind of filmmaker in love with making movies for the pure fun of it and it's almost always infectious. His shameless genre slumming, which reminds me of Joe Dante in its pure glee, has already produced a number of great pictures and maybe one or two interesting failures: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver, The World's End. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be the best thing he's done yet (I know I might get some argument on that) but Wright is still young and not close yet to being finished, whatever it is exactly he's doing.

A frequent complaint about Scott Pilgrim is Michael Cera in the lead role—with Jesse Eisenberg, Cera was the quintessential millennial pincushion target of 2010. Born on TV's Arrested Development, Cera established himself in the movies in such exercises as Superbad and Juno. He's starting to age out now, basically always playing the same guy, a gentle, daffy, ineffectual mumbling model of sensitive male youth—Woody Allen as undriven by sexual compulsion. Or, put it this way, Cera may be possessed of toxic masculinity (it shows up in Pilgrim a couple of times unexpectedly) but he has the sense to feel actual remorse about it. Scott Pilgrim's task here is to dump his rebound "fake high-school girlfriend," Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), in pursuit of dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—and defeat Flowers's seven evil exes in battle. Presumably the reason Pilgrim is up for it at all is because he has spent his life playing video games.