Sunday, April 21, 2019

Orphans of the Sky (1941)

Robert Heinlein uses two long stories, "Universe" and "Common Sense," to think about one of the most difficult ethical problems of long-term space travel. If it's going to take multiple generations of time to get to another solar system, which is the best we can hope for from technology then and now still, that means the people setting out originally are the only ones with the choice of being there or not. Literature is full of stories of intergenerational conflict. Start with Oedipus—or Cain. That's probably not going to change just because you think you're on the adventure of a lifetime across the galaxy. That conflict is basically at the center of the two stories that make up Orphans of the Sky, with some ingenious twists. One is that, even though the original mission was intended to take only two or three generations at most, a mutiny, followed by religiously based ignorance, has left the sojourners believing the ship itself is the entirety of the universe. There is no anywhere else. It's a big ship but I'm sure you see the problem. Also, radiation has produced mutant strains who are ostracized and whose existence fuels a lot of the religious jingoism. Heinlein may be cynical but he's even more shrewd about human psychology. He gets away with the cynicism, in many ways like Mark Twain, because of the sunny disposition of his storytelling. Heinlein lives on a wonderful midcentury American attitude of can-do. His best characters are all about getting things done. This leads to various unbelievable points, such as the finish, but the well-scrubbed straight-shooter air nonetheless buoys it. I don't always agree with the main viewpoints in lots of Heinlein's work—he's way too militarist and capital-friendly for my tastes generally and the racial and sexual ideas can stray into the rancid. But it's easy to blame some of it on "the times" and rock along with his voice. Among other things he's about the work of imagining utopias, and his particular vision is one I can't help finding attractive, built on the urgency of our longing to know more and to explore. Heinlein obviously thought long and hard about the problems of multiple-generation space exploration. He's clearly not sure it's even feasible. But the resolve to do it is felt.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Lives of Others (2006)

Das Leben der Anderen, Germany, 137 minutes
Director / writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Photography: Hagen Bogdanski
Music: Stephane Moucha, Gabriel Yared
Editor: Patricia Rommel
Cast: Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Charly Hubner, Herbert Knaup

The Lives of Others is set in 1984, which is an interesting choice for a movie made in 2006. Because the picture resonates with the totalitarian surveillance-state themes of George Orwell's 1984 novel, it feels futuristic, technocratic, and dystopian. Yet because the events occur in East Germany, a country that no longer even exists, it reminds us 1984 is in the past, inevitably casting a kind of insinuating nostalgic mist over it, even in the TV style setups it often uses, moving like a quiet BBC miniseries with lots of interior scenes. The casual propaganda-tinged statements about what's good or not good for socialism feel quaint and naïve. Yet more than anything The Lives of Others exists in the here and now of its own time, in this case the late period of the Bush/Cheney administration and its extensive rollout of a surveillance state (under which we, meaning basically the whole world, still live), reminding us that events like these are neither future nor past but vividly pressing issues of the moment.

Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a true believer and agent of Stasi, East Germany's intelligence and secret police, which the film notifies us early numbered some 100,000 direct employees and 200,000 paid informants. Its greatest preoccupation appears to be with people defecting to the West. Wiesler is so good at his work that he also teaches at university and the first thing we see is his classroom instruction on interrogation techniques, including long interviews, lie detection, sleep deprivation, deception and threats, etc. Like many in law enforcement roles, Wiesler has a mental frame that tends toward seeing criminals and criminal activity everywhere he looks. Just so, he's got a hunch that the celebrated East German writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is not the state-loving boy scout everyone thinks he is. If Wiesler can get something on him it will be good for Wiesler's boss, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), so he's given the latitude to open a full investigation—and we get a good view of what a full investigation in East Germany looked like.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

I wanted to talk about the similarities of Booth Tarkington's novel to The Great Gatsby, starting with the title, but I see I already covered it when I wrote about the Orson Welles movie. As it turns out, the movie (such as it is) is quite faithful to the book, in detail and in spirit. It's much like a standard novel of manners—it moves a lot like one of Jane Austen's—which morphs into a genuine American tragedy in the last third. George Amberson Minafer is a great American character—to paraphrase someone on someone else, born on third base but thinks he hit a triple. Actually, that's more and more true of the American moneyed class at large, or certainly their kids (see Kochs, Trumps, Bushes, Romneys). And that's exactly the point. There's an American pattern being exposed here in this great story. The first generation of Americans, hardworking and thrifty (and immigrants, note), makes a fortune by their ingenuity, work, and goodwill. The second generation appreciates the work but is more interested in appreciating the money. The third generation thinks work is beneath them. Georgie Minafer's ambition, in the movie as in the book, is to be a yachtsman. One slight advantage the movie might have on the novel is Tim Holt, who seems vividly apt as Georgie—his petulance, his stupidity, his ability to exert his will. At least I think that's the case, but because I saw the movie first it shaped my sense of these characters and I may never know for sure. Certainly I also now see Joseph Cotten for Eugene Morgan. All credit to Tarkington for the narrative. The complexities of these relationships are all his, nicely transposed to the film, especially the delicious tangle of Georgie falling for Morgan's daughter Lucy, even as Morgan and Georgie's widowed mother Isabel renew a connection from their youth. This is where it most reminded me of Jane Austen—the ways people live their lives and make mistakes and regret them. The foolish things people do and the wise things too. One aspect that comes out even more in the novel is the animal strength of Georgie. He's spoiled rotten but he's strong like a bull. The sense of his living honorably, by his own code, however demented, is also developed more in the book. His ultimate fate is somewhat ambiguous but he is shown as plainly willing to make sacrifices in order to live by what he believes is right. This takes some of the sheen off his nearly perfect despicability—makes him more sympathetic right at the last moment. It is famously a story about him receiving his comeuppance. And so he does, in large doses. It's a neat trick Tarkington leaves you with, a kind of wistful sadness about the whole affair.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

I Often Dream of Trains (1984)

When you hear all about the superiorities of analog versus digital recording, how the sound of analog is warmer, deeper, fuller, best heard on vinyl, I still don't put much credence in it. But somehow I suspect it might help explain Robyn Hitchcock's gem of a Freudian catharsis, a solo album in the Todd Rundgren and Prince sense, meaning that it's mostly just Hitchcock multi-tracking piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals. I'm skeptical about the analog/vinyl theory because, for example, I've been listening to I Often Dream of Trains on CD and other digital formats since the '90s, when my turntable went by the wayside. It always sounds warm, deep, and full. It's an album for winter, late night, a fire, a tab of acid, cocoa. The icy dignity of Hitchcock's piano chording and his high holy vocal harmonies—"Trams of Old London" so beautiful—are punctured by his typically loony word porridge, which is often less charming goofball free association and more slightly distressing vomitus from the unconscious. But wait, it's a joke, right? The uncertainty makes it work. Take "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus," an impressive gospel-grounded number that works the same anti-irony approach musically as the Velvet Underground's "Jesus," posing on the one hand as a plaintive cry to God's mercy for your future hymnal consideration. But there's something off about the words: "Dyin' of starvation in the gutter ... / Or alcoholic poisoning, in the toilet of my choice ... / Fried to death in seconds by the Russians." Eventually it works up to: "If you believe in nothing, honey, it believes in you." This rage is not exactly the anti-irony approach to gospel of the Velvets.

Another thematic element is the sound of early-'70s John Lennon ("Flavour of Night" all but a Plastic Ono Band outtake) and it can also feel like Al Stewart's id on the loose. Hitchcock's weird words must be taken as surreal. I think there's a good deal of humor to them as well but the point where they turn from jokes into something more serious, those things out of the unconscious that surrealists are forever exploring, the lines are gray and blurred. Consider "Uncorrected Personality Traits," the terrible earworm and song you are likely doomed to live with inside your head for the rest of your life, along with the 1-877-Kars4Kids radio ad. It's just Hitchcock's voice, the insanely catchy nursery rhyme melody, and Freud truisms: "Lack of involvement with the father, or over-involvement with the mother / Can result in lack of ability to relate to sexual fears, and in homosexual / ... If you give in to them / Every time they cry / They will become little tyrants / But they won't remember why / ... The spoiled baby grows into / The escapist teenager who's / The adult alcoholic who's / The middle-aged suicide (oy)." And all together one more time: "Uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child may prove to / Be ugly in a fully grown adult." I love this song and hate it and grudgingly respect it and think it's brilliant all at the same time. Some of Hitchcock's riffs on sexuality, notably transsexuals ("even Marilyn Monroe was a man"), feel at least a little problematic now, if presciently open. This also applies to "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" (why the wish? "so I could ROOT myself in the shower," though the lyric sheet says "wreck" rather than "root" ... actually I don't know what it means either way but calling attention to pretty girls in the shower for no particular reason is I guess what's worrying me). There was always a sense with Hitchcock then, which I am still willing to extend to him now, that he's more like another daffy rolling wordsmith in debt to Bob Dylan and essentially harmless. But these songs don't always feel harmless, and that's one of the album's enduring strong points.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Scarlet Street (1945)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Georges de La Fouchardiere, Andre Mouezy-Eon, Dudley Nichols
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Hans J. Salter
Editor: Arthur Hilton
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Rosalind Ivan, Arthur Loft, Samuel S. Hinds, Jess Barker

Scarlet Street is just as much a dream state film noir as The Woman in the Window, but everything is a little more frayed at the edges, beat down, wretched, and pointless. Edward G. Robinson is once again the middle-aged patsy for Joan Bennett, but instead of Richard Wanley, a professor who belongs to a private walnut-paneled club in Manhattan, he plays Christopher Cross, a humble henpecked minor clerk who thinks he's a painter. The Joan Bennett character is the same, but a few rungs down the ladder. In The Woman in the Window she was Alice Reed, a woman with no visible income. In Scarlet Street there's no question that Kitty (Bennett) is a prostitute. And she's in love ("love") with her pimp—Johnny (Dan Duryea). Duryea slaps Bennett around like last time, even more actually, but this time she's crazy mad for the guy. The most haunting line in the whole movie might be, "Jeepers, I love you, Johnny."

There's a lot of crossover between the two movies but perhaps the most intriguing is the theme of painting. In The Woman in the Window it's a painting that draws Wanley to Reed, but here painting and the world of art are much more enmeshed with everything. Cross, it turns out, is not a wannabe but actually an undiscovered genius, whose talent is unveiled within hours when Johnny lifts a few samples of his work and takes them down to Washington Square to see what he can get for them. Johnny had the impression he could get more, a lot more, but we can see what really counts is that the Most Important Art Critic in New York simply must know who this artist is (he happened to walk by Washington Square, apparently). So Johnny tells him it's Kitty. What could possibly go wrong? Spoilers, of course.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Law & Order, s5 (1994-1995)

In 1994, before cable and then streaming sent it all sprawling (disruption, baby, it's a virtue now), it was still critically important for any TV series to reach a fifth season because that opened the door to rerun syndication Valhalla, extending into perpetuity (The Simpsons, for example, is still going and so is its rerun industry, post-10th-season naysayers notwithstanding). That year, 1994, was also important in the annals of broadcast crime and true-crime because in June O.J. Simpson allegedly committed the double homicide for which he was acquitted, and the whole riveting debacle—from the slow-motion police chase on live TV to the reading of the verdict 16 months later—radically changed lots of things about crime and broadcast and celebrity. The coming of DNA evidence as indisputable arbiter was another big part of the change, resulting in a resurgence in the popular appetite for crime fare, especially true-crime fare, propelled on a daily basis in large part by the ongoing O.J. case (and then into the maw of the JonBenet Ramsey mystery, where it appears to have consumed itself in a way, though leaving an entire true-crime industry behind still visible on multiple cable channels). Law & Order was well positioned to take advantage of these currents, even as it receded some next to the flood of documentaries in the Bill Kurtis style. But that didn't matter much because now Law & Order reruns were always there waiting for you on the A&E channel when you were done with the cold-case files or whatnot.

With the arrival of Sam Waterston as ADA Jack McCoy, who would never leave the show from that point on, Law & Order took more of a cautious running-in-place kind of approach. There are still episodes in the "ripped from the headlines" mode (and always would be, at varying degrees of intensity season to season), but a couple of other themes are starting to creep more into prominence. One is a familiar conventional safe approach to a TV series, focusing on the ensemble nature of the cast and devoting time to personal character development. For example, there's an episode this season where Captain Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) shoots and kills an assailant off-hours and finds herself in deep dutch when the evidence doesn't match her story. Or, almost immediately, McCoy begins an affair with his assistant Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy). This affair is particularly weak sauce in the flagship show (though stuff like it would be more like the staple in the spinoffs), but at least it never dominates. In fact, the affair between McCoy and Kincaid was virtually invisible to me as I first encountered the show and watched it for years mostly in reruns, and it was only when I was going through this season systematically that I saw the subtle hints of chumminess between them for what they are. So lawyerly, so professional, so icky now.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)

Dave Eggers's specialty might be setting up shop in the gray areas of literature and then living there as if he were a natural. Maybe he is. His first book is a reasonably straightforward memoir, written and published in his late 20s. That's pretty young for a memoir, but Eggers already had a daunting life story to tell—both his parents died of cancer in the same year, when he was 21 and his youngest brother Toph was 8. Dave, Toph, and their sister Beth (with help from the eldest of the four siblings, Bill) moved to California and raised Toph while attempting to carry on their own young adult lives. But it probably wasn't the harrowing story that made Eggers and his book so popular in 2000. That likely had more to do with a natural talent for telling a story, filtered through a Gen X sensibility. In fact, it might be fair to call this a classic of Gen X literature, along with anything you'd care to name by Douglas Coupland, author of the term. Ironical self-consciousness is a primary feature confronting the reader. It starts with the title. Then there are elaborate instructions for how to read the book, along with sections of the book that were taken out presented with no context. Then it's on to the Acknowledgments, another lengthy section riffing on its own self-awareness and abusing book structure tics, e.g., "The author would like to acknowledge that he does not look good in red." After nearly a hundred pages, the text proper of the memoir finally begins. Two things enable Eggers to get away with all this, at least as much as he does. He doesn't always. But he is a good writer and his story has a sobering gravity that keeps it compelling. Both elements are necessary but in the end I'm more impressed with his writing. He is somehow warm and generous even as he is cold and calculating, willing to test his sincerity in the crucible of your skepticism as much as it takes. Perhaps because he is literally the first to doubt his own sincerity. He is a weird combination of genuinely modest and raging egotist. I was sad to hear his troubles did not end with those recounted in the book. A year or two after it was published his sister killed herself. He hasn't written much about his family since. The book does not live up to the title, of course, but it's good enough to pal around with the idea.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 05, 2019

The Woman in the Window (1944)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Nunnally Johnson, J.H. Wallis
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Arthur Lange, Hugo Friedhofer, Bruno Mason, Charles Maxwell
Editors: Marjorie Fowler, Gene Fowler Jr., Thomas Pratt
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Arthur Loft, Spanky McFarland, Robert Blake

The ending of The Woman in the Window was a personal brainchild of director Fritz Lang and not forced on him by any grasping or monolithic studio head. I'm about to give it away wholesale right off the bat so here's your spoiler alert, 75 years late. The ending has produced groans and derision as flawed, improbable, clichéd, whatever. It was all a dream. None of it ever happened. In DC Comics parlance, it's "An Imaginary Tale!" Sure, it's corny, especially the sitcom way it plays out in the last minutes, complete with goofy music, once Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) wakes and realizes he has somehow won a redemption, scurrying away like a reprieved rat. But my view is closer to the Halliwell's film guide, which takes it with equanimity, saying the ending "can now be seen as a decorative extra to a story which had already ended satisfactorily."

I want to go even further and call The Woman in the Window one of the better dream movies we have, certainly for the era, dreams being a narrative form that movies can somehow be particularly good at: specifically, in this case, the absurd nightmare that starts with one small wrong decision. This movie is full of those "now how did this happen?" kind of moments that populate dream states out of control, from ill preparation for critically important tests to nudity on an NBA basketball court to never being able to run away. More importantly, perhaps, after the weak efforts of Lang toward war morale messaging of his two previous movies, Ministry of Fear and Hangmen Also Die!, he shrunk the scale to make a tidy American domestic film noir drama whose ambitions generally do not go beyond causing viewers' nerve ends to shriek with practically every developing scene. The Woman in the Window is good at the dream state, that's my own contention, but everyone agrees it's good at drawing out anxiety. If like me that's your idea of entertainment, come and get it.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Us (2019)

For the third year in a row now an African-American movie has posted surprise breakout box office numbers early in the year. One was Black Panther and the other two are horror movies with extra sauce directed by Jordan Peele. If Get Out played a little safe first by going for laughs (Peele is still probably best known as a comic, after all), and then winding up the final third in all too familiar slasher style horror convention, Us is better, more ambitious, even more committed to its unique premises and piling on the conventions in layers. There are unmistakable racial glosses in both, but they are often more like recognizable universal elements contributing to the general anxiety. We're not that surprised, for example, when police are slow to respond to a 911 call from the family of four in Us (Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong'o, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex). And no, it doesn't matter that they are buppie middle class. In fact, what's more surprising is that there might actually be a reason other than racism for the slow response. Or at least, I know a reason was mentioned. But other things were mentioned that would make it seem unlikely. Us can get to be slow sledding at some points toward the end, encumbered by all its concept and hints of counter-concepts and a desire to impress. That might mean the movie is actually even better on another go. I don't know about that yet. But down on the level of the hoary old horror movie, it has plenty of good things going on, borrowing dread from classic themes of horror, notably the always strangely unnerving doppelganger threat, mixing them shrewdly with not-yet-so-classic themes of home invasion movies like Funny Games (1997 version), The Last House on the Left (2010 version), or The Strangers (2008), along with some seasonings of body horror and paranoia from The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A big neon sign early in the movie points to C.H.U.D. and there's a hazy sort of kidnapping in there too, as backstory. At a carnival. Plus '80s nostalgia. It finally all sets up a mano a mano throwdown between the family that has spent the first 20 minutes of the movie charming us silly—Us is as good on middle-class complacency as the early scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—versus their strange counterparts in the restrained red jumpsuits, which may or may not be part of a worldwide plague, like the original George Romero zombies. But that's part of the concept and there for you to figure out with loved ones later over pie and coffee. There's only so much you can do with these kinds of mysterious what-is-the-universe-anyway kinds of things. Us does most of them and does them pretty well and it knows how to scare without shock cuts (though of course it has shock cuts). Everyone is good and N'yongo is amazing, especially in the red. See it.