Sunday, June 24, 2018

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's great 19th-century tome—candidate for Great American Novel if ever there was one—turned out to be so much better and more accomplished than I expected when I finally got around to reading it. A real page-turner, in fact. Yes, it's pulpy, a series of cunningly constructed dramatic moments. Others have discussed its place with Dickens, and/or with the Bronte sisters, and still others are all over the discerning ear for dialects. That's all there. It's a great panoramic story grappling with a vital moral issue and it's never less than a good ride. But what impresses me most is hinted at in Abraham Lincoln's quip when he met Stowe in 1862: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Has any other novel ever had such an impact? Maybe I'm missing something obvious, like Bible stories, which are not exactly the same. The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22—they defined their eras to an extent but they did not start righteous wars. In slave narratives, which came before and after Uncle Tom's Cabin and provided key source material for it, I'm often impressed by the twilight legal status of slaves. They had no legal standing. None. They were property ("chattel," which in law is an item of property other than real estate)—and they were valuable property, about as much per person as a car today, give or take. They were savagely beaten and tortured as a matter of routine. The women were raped and their children were taken away from them and sold as needed to raise capital. The owner, who realized the profit, was often the father. Stowe seizes on all this to construct her wrenching stories. She also penetrates the hypocrisy of the North, equally racist but with a kinder, gentler look. Stowe is also good at drawing white Southerners who are opposed to slavery—their child-like helplessness and sadness. It was also interesting to finally encounter "Uncle Tom" himself, after a lifetime of understanding his name as an insult to African-Americans perceived as subservient or fawning toward whites. Stowe's Uncle Tom is something much different—a strong, decent, and sympathetic character. I can understand resenting or disavowing some of his actions and thoughts, especially his Christianity. But he was living in a world where slavery was the reality and had been for generations, for centuries. It's much the same way we accept capitalism now as the right and proper order, more or less. The laws support it (vigorously) and changing it could well involve violent conflict. That's Harriet Beecher Stowe's accomplishment. Imagine slavery as entrenched as bank control of our economy is now. She wrote a book—a novel—that changed that. The only question left is, where's our book like this?

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Over the years the first album by Joy Division has somehow turned as cuddly as a teddy bear or a Coke in the history of rock, which is at least as remarkable a transformation as Ozzy Osbourne reinvented as a doddering papa reality TV show star. Example: the way the (wonderful and mysterious) pulsar cover art of Unknown Pleasures has been turned into a latter-day animated meme industry unto itself, including a pair of textured Doc Martens boots (also available in Power, Corruption & Lies and Technique models). Have they listened to the album? This relatively recent turn might be a result of a 2015 Scientific American article about the album cover, but what this tells us is that even Scientific American is on to Joy Division now. Even Scientific American. The question remains. Have they heard the music? When I think of it—because I don't actually listen to Joy Division that often, full disclosure—I often remember the music as "dreary." But put it on and you'll hear it's a bit more than that. It may be entertaining—it is entertaining—but it is also unnerving, not least because since singer Ian Curtis's shocking suicide in 1980, age 23, we have had the opportunity to view it the way we perhaps should, through the lens of a troubled life. We might have guessed in the first place, after all.

In a way I think both of these responses—the ongoing trivialization of the cover art by popular culture and my impulse to label the music in memory as dreary—are symptomatic and come from approximately the same place. Really, it's just not easy to engage this music on its terms and feel the horrors of Curtis's desperation, which are so visceral and so vividly represented in sound. Because the songs, and especially the production by Martin Hannett, are so good, it's hard to square this circle. You might even feel slightly foolish, or hipster-pretentious, sitting down to listen to it intentionally. Better always to keep things like this slightly buffoonish and at a distance. But Unknown Pleasures is pretty real. Joy Division was pretty real. As we learned, it's well beyond the harmless adolescent angst that is the calling card of popular rock production (from Chuck Berry to Aerosmith and beyond) and instead well into real adolescent angst, as inflected by heartless depression.

Friday, June 22, 2018

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

USA, 120 minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Edmund Naughton, Robert Altman, Brian McKay
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: Leonard Cohen
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, William Devane, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy

DVD extras and featurettes on the 2016 Criterion edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller seem to feel a critical question about this movie is whether or not it is a Western, and if so, what kind (meaning classic versus revisionist in its many labels, anti-, acid, neo-, spaghetti, etc.). So clearing that up from my view, yes, it's a Western. It's set in the Pacific Northwest at approximately the turn of the 20th century. It's very rainy and there's a snowstorm, which is typical of the PNW, but things like ranches, Indians, horses, mountains, six-shooters, and everything you need for a Western are well known in the little burgeoning mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington—one of the best names I've ever heard for a Western town, by the way. The only thing that might be different, as director and cowriter Robert Altman joked while he was working on it, is that it's not a dusty Western.

I will also say McCabe & Mrs. Miller stands self-consciously in the shadow of directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah at least in terms of using an elaborate set piece of grotesque violence in the last third of the movie. This is seen in lots of Westerns from the late '60s and early '70s, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Billy Jack, and including obviously all of Peckinpah's and Leone's work, where it wasn't even reserved so much for the last third but could go first. Look for slo-mo and echoing sound. That's not to say that the death of the only cowboy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller isn't a shocking and effective scene. In many ways the whole movie turns on it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Oswald's Tale (1995)

I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the assassination of John Kennedy, but I sure know the rhythms of the story now. I noticed it when I read Stephen King's 11/22/63 novel a few years ago, and again as I revisited Norman Mailer's lengthy journalistic treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald, focusing on his time in Russia. Once again Mailer is working with Lawrence Schiller, his collaborator on The Executioner's Song. With the Soviet Union over and a temporary opening of Russian government in 1993, Mailer and Schiller gained access to KGB documents regarding Oswald's time living in Russia from late 1959 to 1962. They also conducted interviews with people who knew or were aware of him there. Of course the KGB monitored Oswald closely. Even now, nobody really knows what he was doing there. He might have been a crazy mixed-up guy or anything. He was followed around and bugs were placed in his living quarters. What emerges is a much better sense of this mysterious historical figure, for better or worse filtered through Mailer's novelistic instincts. I think on balance it's for the better, because approaching Oswald as a literary character does seem to yield insights into the even greater mystery of the assassination. Following his movements and public statements closely, in combination with the KGB transcripts of his domestic disputes with his Russian wife Marina (who bore him two daughters and of course moved back with him to the US), does seem to provide a clearer view of Oswald. He was unbelievably young, first—just 20 when he defected to the USSR, just 24 when he was gunned down two days after the JFK assassination. So we start from Minsk, in the first half of this book, and then travel all the familiar ways through Cuba and Dallas and New Orleans and Mexico and finally back to Dallas again. One more time we see the Montgomery Ward warehouse down the street. Somehow I know this story. I'm the right age cohort, plus osmosis. People are still trying to figure out the Jack the Ripper murders too, so there's probably little relief in sight. Mailer is persuasive—first that there is a mystery to be solved, and second that it remains less than fully explained, and finally, that Lee Harvey Oswald, followed shortly by Jack Ruby (and 38 years later by 19 terrorists), may be among the luckiest sons of bitches who ever lived in terms of doing one or two things exactly right. I don't know what happened in Dallas that day, nobody does, but following Mailer the lone assassin theory now doesn't seem any less likely than any of the others, given that nothing in this episode is likely. Mailer wants to quarrel with Gerald Posner, whose Case Closed was new at the time, and I like that. He pokes some holes in Posner's case, but it's easy to see they could well be only small holes. The mystery endures. Indeed, that's Mailer's subtitle here: An American Mystery. Worth reading for further osmosis.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Out of the Past (1947)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writers: Daniel Mainwaring, James M. Cain, Frank Fenton
Photography: Nicholas Musuraca
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: Samuel E. Beetley
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Houston, Dickie Moore

Out of the Past is a great little movie made out of many great small things, such as cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca's shimmering black and white. It's set mostly in the Lake Tahoe region of northern California and the scenery often reminds me of Ansel Adams photos: streaming showers of sunlight etching well-defined shadows, with silvery leaves rustling in the foreground and stoic gray mountain skylines beyond. Director Jacques Tourneur, whose previous work included the best of producer Val Lewton's low-key B-movie approach to horror in Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man, is just about as deceptively casual creating one of the greatest examples of film noir.

That's a pretty big statement but in fact I've been a little surprised by how much it's agreed on (here for one example is what they were saying on the Goodfella's Movie Blog eight years ago). The term for me evokes more the splashier exercises such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, or Touch of Evil, so on so forth, or the extremely low-budget pictures, viz., Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, or Detour. Don't get me wrong, I think they're great, and so is Out of the Past, but it's the one that sneaks up on me. I think of it as small, maybe even a little slick and dull, though it has all the ingredients of dangerous men and even more dangerous women, low motives and high living, jealousy, vengeance, gnawing dissatisfaction, cigarette smoke, drawn guns, and the deep shadow that goes like frosting on a cake. Out of the Past definitely has one thing that the best of film noir has and maybe a majority doesn't, which is a coherent well-oiled plot with lots of the narrative pieces working together like a machine, and no stinting on the clarity. It gets to be perfectly absorbing as it unfolds, and it's also one of those movies that gets better the more it is seen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Top 40

1. Paloma Faith, "Crybaby"
2. Brockhampton, "Gummy"
3. LCD Soundsystem, "Tonite"
4. Dej Loaf, "No Fear"
5. King Krule, "Dum Surfer"
6. Destroyer, "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood"
7. Alex Cameron, "Runnin' Out of Luck"
8. Gunn-Truscinski Duo, "Seagull for Chuck Berry"
9. Fever Ray, "This Country"
10. Serebro, "Пройдет"
11. Joy Joy, "Love & Hennessy"
12. Young M.A., "Walk"
13. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Cast, "Let's Generalize About Men"
14. Peter Perrett, "How the West Was Won"
15. Jen Cloher, "Shoegazers"
16. L.A. Witch, "Kill My Baby Tonight"
17. Meet Bros., "Roar on the Shore (Party Mix)"
18. Khalid, "8teen"
19. G-Eazy feat. A$AP Rocky & Cardi B, "No Limit"
20. Camila Cabello, "Havana"
21. Escape-ism, "Almost No One (Can Have My Love)"
22. Drake, "God's Plan"
23. cupcakKe, "Duck Duck Goose"
24. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future & James Blake, "King's Dead"
25. Funkadelic, "Music 4 My Mother (Underground Resistance Mix)"
26. Craig Finn, "God in Chicago"
27. Dessa, "Fire Drills"
28. Bettye LaVette, "Things Have Changed"
29. Chvrches, "Get Out"
30. A$AP Ferg, "Plain Jane"
31. John Prime, "Summer's End"
32. Sun-El Musician, "Bamthathile"
33. BLØF, "Zoutelande"
34. Daniel Caesar feat. Kali Uchis, "Get You"
35. Bazzi, "Mine"
36. Sofi Tukker feat. Nervo, the Knocks, Alisa & Ueno, "Best Friend"
37. Courtney Barrett, "Nameless, Faceless"
38. Middle Kids, "Mistake"
39. Janelle Monae, "Make Me Feel"
40. Beach House, "Lemon Glow"

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lean on Pete (2017)

Like Wendy and Lucy, a movie it resembles in key ways, Lean on Pete is often very hard to watch. Lean on Pete is the name of a racehorse, though after his introduction he's always called Pete. Our hero Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a 15-year-old at loose ends in his life, and he does indeed come to lean on Pete. Charley has just moved from Spokane to Portland with his father, a drunkard and womanizer who is barely employed and not yet grown up. They keep cereal in the refrigerator because of cockroaches. You hear dogs barking and people shouting from their place a lot. Charley's mother disappeared years earlier and lives on only in disconnected details when people talk about her. Charley is on his own much of the time and through happenstance lands a job working for an aging horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi). That's where he meets Lean on Pete, one of Del's horses. In one of the most skillful scenes in a movie with lots of them, Charley's first look at Pete in a race sets the terms for his desperate love of the horse. It's not a healthy relationship and takes most of the movie to start getting better. Horses in human history have represented all kinds of things, freedom, travel, desire, even death. Director Andrew Haigh has made Pete all of that here. The animal itself doesn't have as much personality as the dog Lucy or even the donkey Balthazar, who is singularly a cipher. But it is amiable, vulnerable, and Charley, who is perfectly likable himself—and heroic in his circumstances—desperately needs something in the horse. Pete is also 5 years old and getting to the end of his racing career and Del is looking to sell him. At a certain point the movie veers sharply from how I was reading it, a coming of age story, and turns into an epic odyssey, with harrowing and unexpected turns and switchbacks. One in particular stands with the most shocking things I've seen in movies. And even that is not the end of this. The cashier I bought my ticket from laughed about Lean on Pete as one of the most downbeat movies that theater had shown in some time, and it's true enough. But it's also feels true always to Charley—the movie is about him, not the horse, and it tells his whole story. The ending is actually pro forma upbeat, whatever that cashier said. But you have to take more than a few steps through hell getting there. This is a great one. Remarkable performance from Plummer, a cast that is full of surprises, and a stone hard look at life itself the way we think we know it.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

My first foray into P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories was a good time in spite of inevitable high expectations from the high praise I've been hearing on and off all my life. It's funny—actually funny. It's the second novel of the Jeeves series, but he had published dozens of short stories from that world since 1917. Bertram Wooster is the first-person narrator. Jeeves is his butler, or valet, or man. He's always there, waiting on Bertie. In this particular novel the story involves keeping the principals in two impending marriages together until they can make it to the altar. Circumstances keep mitigating against the happiness and Bertie takes it upon himself to get this thing done. In many ways, it plays like classic situation comedy—Dick Van Dyke, say—where the humor is in how everyone's elaborate patrician manners keep cocking everything up. The title is a recurring phrase used in any social situation that threatens to become awkward. "Right ho, [name]." "Right ho," the response. This is a rhythmic device that frequently becomes hilarious by its constant use. Right Ho, Jeeves also recalls the sophisticated film comedies of the era, such as The Thin Man, Fred Astaire, or Busby Berkeley musicals. Bertie has an irreverent and slangy way of slipping into a knowing, confiding tone: "Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m." (Not knowing Kipling, I imagined it as "face of the sun being more dark than the moon," but when I looked it up it's "female of the species being more deadly than the male.") At the same time, Bertie is perhaps the least self-aware person in the whole thing. His Aunt Dahlia loathes him unrelentingly, another rhythmic device that often grows hilarious. The comical climax, a gift-giving ceremony at a boy's school, is a long scene of sustained inspiration. You wonder how long Wodehouse can keep this up and then he keeps it up longer, ratchet by ratchet. Wodehouse evidently spent a lot of time figuring out the intricacies of the plot, and it shows, even as his language sparkles. This is just a big pile of fun start to finish, with a careening plot—screwball comedy is another parallel—and lots of ingenious twists all the way.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Escape Artist (1981)

Only when I started to look into it did I realize how remarkably prolific Garland Jeffreys has been. Escape Artist was his sixth album, and even with some long breaks from music along the way he's up to 15 now (the latest came out just last year, 14 Steps to Harlem, but I must confess I don't know it). Even if he is a WWII baby born to the golden era of rock star as album artist, it still seems like a lot of albums. More power to him! His biggest hit by chart performance topped out at #66 and is found on this album. But it's one of the few uninteresting things here, a cover of "96 Tears" that plays too much like the idea is to muscle up the Farfisa organ with electric guitar. But if I don't share Jeffreys's understanding of the song I think I share his appreciation. And certainly I appreciate his overriding sensibility, which is more or less a pop music standard, one heart cautiously in search of love but fully aware how life crosses us all up. Further complicated and enriched by a mixed heritage of Puerto Rican and African American. Jeffreys feels plenty comfortable reaching for fragments from reggae and dub strains, straight-up soul, new wave ditties, and the good old torch song too. He growls and broods and then his songs explode. Guitar. Power on. Escape Artist lives inside its skin so easily maybe that's the reason I think of it a little like a friend. The cover song and year of release locate it within precincts of new wave—shades of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, the Pretenders, the English Beat, and others are obvious enough here. Jeffreys is also a New Yorker (Bronx native now living in Brooklyn) so he shares certain affinities with Dion DiMucci, Felix Cavaliere, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and others too. The songs here find grooves, open up spaces for surging harmonies, electric guitar solos, and hooky little stunts, carrying on with the reckless abandon of cool inspired studio production and good songwriting, nearly all of it by Jeffreys. I think it's the openheartedness that wins me over most, still so fresh and vital. It would have fit on the soundtrack of the meteoric Vinyl TV show of a few years ago. It puts its heart on its sleeve and works out the soul and somehow it goes and keeps going on sheer nerve. The original album came with a 7" single that had four more songs, including a live version of "Christine," for a total of 14 tracks. I'm not sure why nothing else by Jeffreys has reached me quite the way Escape Artist has. It's the one that I love.