Friday, September 24, 2021

Earth (1930)

Zemlya, USSR, 87 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Photography: Daniil Demutsky
Cast: Semyon Svashenko, Stepan Shkurat, Nikolai Nademsky, Yelena Maksimova

My full disclosures here have to start that sometimes the whole narrative style of another country's cinema, or silent movies, or in this case both, can throw me off. Usually, even if I'm not particularly in the mood, I can throw on whatever movie I want to review and pretty soon the thing more or less sweeps me up. Even though Earth is short and should be quick, it feels alienating, ponderous, and opaque to me. For one thing, I had a hard time just following this "masterpiece" picture by director, writer, and editor Aleksandr Dovzhenko, partly because I had (and have) only the dimmest context for the story itself, rooted in the tension between Russia and Ukraine, which I barely understand today, let alone in 1930 Soviet Union. Something about agricultural resources.

And once again we confront a picture of great reputation that comes with version problems. I started with my commercial Grapevine DVD from 2003, which is 87 minutes and has one score. Later I looked at a version on YouTube posted in 2016 that was 76 minutes and had another and much better score (note: at the moment, YouTube appears to have up to four versions). For what it's worth, the picture is listed as 75 minutes on IMDb. My sense was that the additional footage on the DVD was largely devoted to livestock shots. Among other things Earth is a movie about oxen being replaced by tractors. It is also a movie about wresting control of land from the putative owners who won't work with the collective in early Communist times. I probably should have read the Wikipedia article first (or maybe the YouTube version is really that much better), because understanding more context and paying more attention to plot-wise visuals helped on the second look at least as much as the score.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Law & Order, s7 (1996-1997)

Law & Order was well-primed for the mid-'90s surge of interest in true-crime, with the OJ Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases occurring bang-bang even as DNA and other forensic technology burgeoned. All of a sudden cases were being solved that had never been solved, innocents freed from prison, and everyone seemed to have detailed opinions about any given case. The show played to the interest simply by sticking resolutely to the formula that got it there, focusing on police and court roles in complicated cases more than characters, willy-nilly removing another mainstay the previous season in ADA Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy)—killing her off, in fact, which ended her tenure absolutely as this is one show that does not do flashbacks. She was replaced by ADA Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell), unfortunately introducing a bad habit of making that role a series of highly attractive women. ADA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) annoyingly beds them all, or so we may surmise because at least the show tends to be reasonably subtle about it. To be sure, there are character arcs happening all over the peripheries: Detective Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) is a self-righteous religious conservative going through a separation from his wife. Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) had an alcoholic relapse at the end of the previous season and now there's concern about his sobriety. Ross is divorced from her former law partner, a high-flying defense attorney who plays head games with her over custody of their daughter. One of the best episodes in this season is the finale, in which DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) has to decide whether to pull the plug on his dying wife. But the primary focus remains the twisting, turning cases that confront the principals and viewers with each episode. There's usually a murder in the first scene before the titles but it can go anywhere from there. A number of episodes are more about legal principles than guilt or innocence in the specific cases at hand. I thought the prosecutors seemed to lose more often, or at best come up with mixed results, more so than I think would be the case later in the series, when they were regular winners, the New York Yankees of New York City jurisprudence. It's actually nice to see McCoy lose a few. This season does have perhaps the nadir of the whole franchise in a three-part arc that takes the crew to Los Angeles—not a very interesting case, and little point forcing in the West Coast setting, especially across the interminable, padded-out three episodes. To be scrupulously fair, as nadirs go it's still better than the high points of many other series. As always, the show attracted a good many obvious but unfamiliar talents from within the New York theatrical world, one of its great secrets. Various up-and-comers with later careers can also be spotted here, such as Edie Falco as a defense attorney, but there didn't seem to be as many in this season. The most tantalizing who-is-that-anyway for me was Reiko Aylesworth, whose face kept bothering me for a whole episode until I later recalled through the miracle of IMDb that she was Michelle Dessler on 24. In its seventh season Law & Order is all product, a juggernaut coming into its own ratings-wise with the dread spinoffs not many years away now. As product, it is A-1.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Relic (2020)

This Australian picture is good at setting a mood and sustaining it but unfortunately can't make up its mind about two separate directions: a sensitive movie about aging and dementia on the one hand and a big ol' scary horror show on the other. Most of us already know one way or another—it's intuitive—that aging is its own horror show (like so many aspects of living as the better alternative to dying). Michael Haneke seemed almost gauche when he noticed this about aging with his gimlet eye in Amour. Relic starts with the disappearance of Edna (Robyn Nevin), who has been missing for days. People turn out to search the woods for her. She's a woman in her 80s who has been forgetful lately and it doesn't look good. Then one day after a week or so she's back again, with no explanations about where she was—won't even talk about it. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) traveled to be in on the search and now they decide to stick around. All relationships are wary, tentative, and distant, but the bonds plainly run deep too. They're not really a happy family but we know their unhappiness. And now at long last is the old lady losing it? Well, possibly, these things happen, but then instead the movie develops a fascination with the house. Noises are heard beyond the walls—literally things that go bump in the night. More and more Relic becomes a story about the irrational space inside that house—that's where Edna went, apparently, and Sam spends some time there too. There's some mumbo-jumbo backstory about an older house on the property that was destroyed but its windows kept for the present house. A mistake, possibly. Portals, in short, maybe. After a few cycles of that we land again on the angst and unease of aging and constant peekaboo about dementia—is Edna losing it or isn't she? How sad if she is! Inquiring minds want to know but Edna wants inquiring minds to leave her alone. I think, out of this elegantly mounted mess, the better movie is the one about aging and dementia, but even the horror story would be better without the aging and dementia notes. So Relic for me was not really a win-win.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," Ernest Hemingway said in 1935 (wrote, actually, in The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway went on to undercut his case by saying everything in the ostensible boy's book can be disregarded after "the [N-word] Jim is stolen from the boys." If I understand what Hemingway is complaining about here I agree with him, but I see the problem starting earlier than that, including at the start in the early chapters. Hemingway also, in a typically clod-footed way, inadvertently raises another issue, perhaps the single biggest at this point in the 21st century—the wanton use of the N-word, a much less serious problem in 1935 or 1884. It's clod-footed because, in the first place, "[N-word] Jim" is 100% Hemingway's locution. Twain never uses the term, even as first-person narrator Huck Finn. While it is possible to make a case that Twain on balance means well, and a more strained one that he is not a "real" racist, the N-word is used liberally all through this highly regarded classic of American literature. At the price of one wince per use it gets to be a pretty expensive book to read. The introduction in my Delphi kindle version says Twain's novel "is regarded as a scathing look at entrenched attitudes toward racism." Well, maybe—certainly mocking racist attitudes is part of it, though maybe more nuanced than we would like now. Huck, for example, can't believe in one scene that Tom Sawyer would sink so low as to help a runaway slave. It is gentle satire, you see, and Huck has already shown his regard for Jim (and thought poorly of himself too for helping a runaway slave). Normalized racism can come along at any time and even dominates the story. Huck is seen playing heartless tricks on Jim, taking advantage of Jim's ignorance. He means Jim no harm, perhaps, but he's quick to use his racist social advantages. Overall Twain is plainly loath to condemn racism as such, willing only to mock it when it is convenient to do so. He doesn't want to offend, and that is disheartening. The only good parts of this book as far as I'm concerned are when Huck and Jim are alone on the raft on the river together. All the rest of it is foolishness and gentle satire, sliding back and forth at its convenience across the borders of toxic racism. The first appearance of the con men "king and duke" signals the end of what's worth reading beyond historical interest. You also have to wade through some chapters in the beginning before you get to Huck and Jim on the river. Maybe a third of Huckleberry Finn is thus worth the wincing. Admittedly it's good stuff—the beauties and wonder of wilderness as only a few American writers can do (and American writers do it best), including Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack London, and others (many problematic themselves one way or another, usually). The good stuff here is right up there with the best, you just have to pick your way through a lot of crap getting in and out of it. I'm still enamored of Twain's steady-rolling voice—and Huck Finn is more likable and closer to Twain's heart than Tom Sawyer—plus the narrative predicaments here can be clever business. But content warnings to one and all are sadly now in order for Huckleberry Finn.

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

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Clear (1969)

An early expedition into fractured fickle completism on my part ended here—as I recall, I bought Clear as a used record the same day I bought the first Spirit album (also used), and I effectively bailed on Spirit here, their third album and the last produced by Lou Adler. I never got to know Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, an album I often see hailed as a high point of Spirit's catalog. OK fine, there are still some Spooky Tooth and Wishbone Ash albums I'm hoping to get to too. I finally gave Twelve Dreams a listen a few days ago and didn't find it much better than Clear, so now as then this is my proximate stopping point with Spirit. Maybe I should have tried harder. In fact, I don't think I listened to Clear much at all even back then, because it was mostly unfamiliar to me when I got to it whereas I recognized the first two quite readily—used to play them a lot. To get to the point, Clear strikes me as very generic 1969 rock. It might be better than the first three Grand Funk Railroad records but sadly not by that much. Another touchpoint might be the Savoy Brown album Looking In (which might overall be better). I like a lot of this stuff but even so these are not high compliments, and so it must be said about Spirit and Clear. It kicks off with "Dark-eyed woman on a hot summer's night" accompanied by heavy riffing and that's about where it stops too. The songwriting is just not there. It's uninspired and feels labored and obvious. They're hacking up lungs trying to pull it together. "Ground Hog," especially when it gets into its "old man winter" jive, is verging on Spinal Tap for ludicrous self-parody. "I'm Truckin'" speaks for itself. For once the extras deliver up the prize: a 1969 radio ad for the album tacked on to the end of the track "Coral." It starts with an eerily prescient (I admit) voice montage of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Then the hip doleful voice guy enters: "Many sounds don't make sense," he intones. "But one thing is clear: Spirit." Sound of belabored rock song stirring to half-life. This message approved, no doubt, by Lou Adler.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Things to Come (1936)

UK, 100 minutes
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Writer: H.G. Wells
Photography: Georges Perinal
Music: Arthur Bliss
Editors: Charles Crichton, Francis D. Lyon
Cast: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Sophie Stewart, Derrick de Marney, John Clements, George Sanders

From the distance of nearly a century, the 1930s looks like a period of constant historical reckoning. Two of the most interesting movies in 1936 and one in 1937—Modern Times, Things to Come, and Make Way for Tomorrow—thought very hard about where things were going after most of a decade in a persistent economic depression and with fascism strutting around and acting ever more aggressive. None of them really "got it right" about the future (Make Way for Tomorrow comes closest by keeping its ambition in check), but getting it right happens so rarely in futuristic tales that we can't stop talking about it when they do. Consider Network. And remember there were still phonebooths in 2001: A Space Odyssey (just as there were in 2001, though they were gone by 2010, nor have we seen anything remotely like commercial space travel, the Musk & Bezos clown shows notwithstanding).

Thus, in Things to Come, a worthy science fiction heir of Metropolis, the coming war with fascism was seen quite clearly, and it starts in 1940, which is pretty dang accurate for a UK film although maybe not that hard to predict in 1936. Director William Cameron Menzies and writer H.G. Wells work it up as a 30-year grinding death-fest that makes the Great War look like a picnic with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo. Pay attention, class! The war in Things to Come ends in the late '60s and is followed by an epidemic of "the wandering sickness," which weirdly looks like zombies without all the scabs or gore. It's certainly some kind of prescience. From that point it all becomes a figment of H.G. Wells's imagination, which was prodigious but also a little unfocused and wrong. The movie ends circa 2036 (so as yet still in the future for us) with the coming of space exploration that looks nothing like space exploration as we know it.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

"Seaton's Aunt" (1922)

Walter de la Mare has been something of an acquired taste for me—this story might be the place where I acquired it. It's good enough I'm going to go back and look at some of the others again. Nothing overtly supernatural happens, nor anything cruel beyond a certain cold haughtiness, yet it is charged with uncanny tension and malevolence. It feels in many ways like a dry run for Robert Aickman's later style of "strange" story. It halfway feels like a dream much of the time, the kind where you can't remember all the parts or how things changed. Arthur Seaton is a classmate of the first-person narrator, both of them in early adolescence at the beginning and for much of the story. Seaton is a sickly outcast at school, vaguely ethnic. The racial note is another point of unease. He is orphaned as well, and in line when he comes of age to acquire the mansion his aunt now inhabits (and has all her life). The narrator befriends Seaton out of pity as much as anything. When Seaton invites him home on a break from school he accepts for no apparent reason. Things like that just seem to happen in "strange" stories. Seaton's aunt is a woman of great appetite and poise, with a very large head and imperious manner. She needles everyone in her orbit, including our narrator the hapless houseguest, whose name she can never get right. It's Withers, which is provocative itself in this context, but she more often calls him Wither or Smithers. The story is often funny in a way but the aunt is also casually monstrous. She's terrible but it's never personal. She is like some greater being dwelling among us—amused by us. She might be using up and/or killing people but it's hard to say. There's no evidence, beyond her vaguely sinister manner and oversize head. People are dying, as they do, but it's not clear she has anything to do with it. It just feels like she does. Lots of poetical turns in the language and unsettling asides along the way, which is typical of de la Mare, who can be allusive almost unto vaporous, but here every sentence, every word practically, is effective and it leaves a chill.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell
Read story online.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Love's Forever Changes (2003)

Andrew Hultkrans's 33-1/3 book is only the second in the entire series, which is presently up to some 157 titles, so among other things it must be regarded as a pioneering effort. Hultkrans, a Brooklyn-based writer at large and one-time editor of Bookforum, focuses more on the context of Arthur Lee and Love's classic album in tumultuous late-'60s Los Angeles, basically all library-style research—lots of quotes from books, virtually none from original interviews. It's one way to do it and not a bad way either. But too often this one reads like an industrious term paper, although at least we are spared the heavy footnoting of other 33-1/3 volumes. The Love album is a famously tough nut to crack. My experience with it is much like Hultkrans: drawn to it (late) by its reputation, underwhelmed, until finally finding a way in, when it becomes indelible. Hultkrans says the only other album he's had a similar experience with is Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. That insight comes early and the good news and bad news is that it's one of the most original in the whole thing. There is definitely some kind of psychic connection between those two albums. Anyway, most of the book is focused on California in the late '60s, mostly Los Angeles, and don't think we're going to get out of this without hearing about Charles Manson. It only makes sense, even beyond time and place, because it appears someone with a glancing involvement with Love was later associated with Manson. Joan Didion naturally gets some attention too, as the reigning Los Angeles essay poet of dread, but the person Hultkrans turns to most often is political activist Todd Gitlin. I think we may have the perspective now to see that the overly familiar and much ballyhooed underside of the hippie experience—Charles Manson and Altamont, with a side dish of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—has been grossly exaggerated as equal to the values of peace, love, civil rights, and respect for the environment. Yes, stuff like the Weathermen happened. And actually a book about Forever Changes is not a bad place to bring it all up again and air it out. Even so, Arthur Lee was alive in 2003 and we miss hearing from him here, understanding that he was an exceedingly tough interview to get. It's hard to say whether that would have improved the book but it might have helped put the focus more where it belongs. It is more intensely trained on context, and in many ways unfortunately the band and the album too are relegated to the background. You can't blame Hultkrans because Forever Changes is a notoriously difficult album to nail down properly anyway. But the result in this 33-1/3 entry is a bit like the joke about losing your keys in the alley but looking for them under the streetlight because the light is better there.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Family That Plays Together (1968)

The second album by Spirit is actually the first one I purchased (circa 1971, used from the Wax Museum on Lake Street in Minneapolis for $1.90) so it's the one album of theirs that still has the most sentimental attractions for me. It also has their one and only top 40 hit in the album opener, "I Got a Line on You," which made it to #25 in March 1969. I don't remember ever hearing it on the radio, but among other things it's a big showcase for guitarist Randy California and the ongoing purity of his tone, describing the abstracted geometrical two-dimensional line they got on you. It's probably their best song. I understand now that California's instantly identifiable tone may have been an effect of double-tracking. Streaming does a disservice to the first four songs on the album, which connected seamlessly on the original vinyl but are separated on streaming like ordinary tracks with brief silences, which destroys the effect. Spirit fans should not feel singled out because even the second-side suite of Abbey Road suffers the same problem. These first four songs—"I Got a Line on You," "It Shall Be," "Poor Richard," and "Silky Sam"—seem intended to show off their musical range across a fancy 13-minute suite, with '60s three-minute pop, jazz, and "hard rock" too. Lou Adler is producing again. "Poor Richard" and "Silky Sam" are closer to precious whimsy, recalling songs (the Beatles again) like "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Rocky Raccoon." In fairness to Spirit, The Family That Plays Together came out well before Abbey Road and was coincident with the White Album. The title comes from the peculiar setup of the band—drummer Ed Cassidy (45 in 1968 and way past the legal hippie age limit of 30) was Randy California's stepfather. No word on allowance or disciplinary arrangements. The band also mostly lived together family style in a shared house in Topanga Canyon with Dr. Demento, who produced their first demos. Two other members of the original Spirit lineup—singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes—are also significant because they broke away in the early '70s to form Jo Jo Gunne, which was more of a straightforward rock act with intimations of glam and looking forward to the coming of pub-rock. In terms of songwriting, lead singer Ferguson was always fully coequal with California, both of them writing separately with contributions on some songs from other members. Although I have my nostalgic attachments to it there is some dreadful stuff on this album, like "Drunkard," which appears to be their "Eleanor Rigby" bid (again the Beatles), and "Darlin' If," which may be prescient but only for doleful rock balladry by way of John Sebastian, not really a great development. "Jewish" is so weird I don't even know what to say about it. I don't think you can call it klezmer but it does have recognizable Jewish musical stylings. It was written by California who was Jewish. I'm not sure whether he's keeping the faith or reaching for exotic novelty sounds (perhaps under influence of Demento) but it's certainly off the beaten track.