Monday, October 03, 2022

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

I heard so many intriguing and contradictory things on social media for so long about this one that I finally broke down and paid the $6 for a look. A running time over two hours and certainly the title already speak to heady ambitions. A frantic pace creates the context for a premise centering unfathomable multitudes of multiverses (every decision point in every person’s life creates a new one) and that alone bears up to the hype, more or less. It’s dizzying to contemplate and much of the editing emphasizes dizzying, with flashing cuts so fast at some points I’m surprised there weren’t seizure warnings. The durable badass Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Police Story 3: Supercop) admirably, as always, carries much of the load here, amply supported by a cast of feel-good hey-that-guys: Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, and Jamie Lee Curtis, all having a ball. Note that “having a ball” does not preclude rampant scenery-chewing but this movie is so full of excess that even overacting can represent something of a break from the frenzy. My favorite parts were the fights, as among other things this is a loving parody of Hong Kong action pictures from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The martial arts come by the barrel loads, with many flavors on display from Bruce Lee kung fu forward, plus also a few instances of American-style WWE mayhem, Matrix-style turns, and even one or two Street Fighter combats. Of the opinions I saw, I’d say a bare majority perhaps was generally over the moon about EEAAO as pure adrenalized entertainment. The complainers mostly seemed to be bothered by the assault, which indeed is so relentless that eventually it verged very slightly on monotony for me. There’s a lot of high-flying concept to absorb with the bewildering multiverse setup, but it’s reasonably lucid and further fortified with TV-style family dramas embedded deep in the action. The essential narrative conflicts in this nonstop welter are between Evelyn (Yeoh) and her husband, her father, and her daughter. It’s crazy stuff but there’s plenty of room for family feels. I think that puts it more middlebrow than anything else but I also suspect EEAAO may be one someone could acquire and get in the habit of looking at often.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Crash (1973)

I struggled some with this J.G. Ballard novel, which doesn’t have much in terms of characters or story. It earns any outrageous reputation it may have for its premise, conflating sex and auto accidents, actively repulsive in its wanton fetish breeding. I thought I might have detected echoes of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Crowd,” which is similarly unnaturally fixated on auto accidents. Like the David Cronenberg movie that came of Ballard’s novel in 1996 (not to be confused with a 2004 movie of the same name), Crash the novel is weird and unsettling. But it is also now unfortunately dated in a couple ways. First the OPEC oil embargo circa 1973 changed a lot of attitudes about car culture. Then climate change has made these kinds of fetishes more taboo. When Ballard was writing he was exaggerating but it felt more in the realm of possibility. It’s much less the case now. Crash feels to me inert, wallowing in depravities and extremes of masochism, e.g., wounds are equated to sexual apertures. Male organs and the cum are flying. I’m not sure which was harder to deal with, the lugubrious pace or the endless coarse sexualizing. It feels closer in spirit to Tom Wolfe’s celebration of customized cars in the ‘60s than SF. But I do appreciate the single-mindedness here. Ballard takes his meditation on cars and sex a good distance down the road. Another nice detail is setting it in and around the airport section of London. The architecture of the setting does much to get at the themes even better than all the weird sex. It’s pavement and roadways and curling bridges and vehicles on land and in the air, all screaming machinery and petroleum. The novel is mercifully short, just over 200 pages. My copy had an introduction written by Ballard in 1974 which has some good points but also feels a little empty on science fiction. Is Crash even science fiction? It’s not much like anything else I’ve ever seen, save only perhaps the 2021 movie Titane, which is more clearly science fiction and should not be missed btw. Ballard’s near future is very near, or was in 1973, and the speculative elements are more about currents in perversion. But let’s not oversimplify trying to escape the implications. At base it’s a novel about the relationship of humans and the machines they build, intended not just as tools but literally as extensions of ourselves. Sexuality just comes along for the ride. It’s a good idea and Ballard attacks it and grinds it to dust as he goes. I never caught much momentum to the narrative, which made it sloggy. But there are some pretty big ideas in here at the same time. Don’t read this when you’re going through a breakup. That’s probably my best advice.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

USA, 96 minutes
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writers: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, Alexander Mackendrick
Photography: James Wong Howe
Music: Elmer Bernstein, Chico Hamilton Quintet
Editor: Alan Crosland Jr.
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Martin Milner, Susan Harrison, Barbara Nichols, Emile Meyer, Clifford Odets, David White, Jeff Donnell

Technically, Sweet Smell of Success probably has to count as a noir, but it’s something of a lightweight one in terms of crime. The corruption runs deep and extends into the police force too, but there’s no particular foul crime—no murders. Instead it’s all about PR and newspaper columns, publicity and celebrity and making it. It’s new enough, and my memory is long enough, that it reminds me a little of scraping out freelance work from magazines and newspapers in the ‘80s. There was a PR angle to everything entertainment journalists did then, and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco, in perhaps the biggest performance of his career, is a certain ideal of the 24/7 hustler in that world. It's not about money or even power as such there, but rather about fame, recognition, adulation, as only the entertainment industry can deliver it.

I will say my memory is not long enough to remember Walter Winchell, the model for Burt Lancaster’s role as powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, but the point is quickly understood. Hunsecker wields enough clout in his column that he can make and destroy reputations and careers. He has a faint odor too of the right-wing anticommunist polemicist / crank. In this particular case, Hunsecker has opinions about who his kid sister Susan (Susan Harrison) should and should not marry. Her beau, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner, later a cop on Adam-12), is a hotshot guitarist in a jazz group otherwise played by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. But Hunsecker thinks Dallas is beneath his sister and he applies his overbearing influence to breaking them up. There’s the story. Without any obvious motivation beyond pathology, it makes Sweet Smell of Success, as Hunsecker himself notes, basically a story about “shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun.”

Thursday, September 29, 2022

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953)

[Previous notes here.]

[spoilers] A discussion of the “anguish, mercy, charity, divine grace, and imitation of God” themes in this famous and much anthologized story by Flannery O’Connor can be found at the Wikipedia article, which also includes points about the author’s formal intent. That’s all well and good, but—though I could well be missing the point—my interest in this story has more to do with how it works as a cunning horror story. As such, it is more along the lines of the conte cruel because there is nothing supernatural or really the least bit spooky about it. Some may even want to classify it as a type of crime story. Certainly it has its improbabilities and indulgences. In the very first paragraph the unnamed grandmother, who is the main character and an exceedingly annoying person, notices a newspaper item about the “The Misfit,” a lunatic madman who has escaped from prison. Then the turning point of this story occurs when she and her family encounter him by random on the road. The family—grandmother, father, mother, two kids, and a baby—is on a road trip from Georgia to Florida but they are in a strange kind of hurry that is never explained. They might be on the run themselves. The mother has almost nothing to say. O’Connor skillfully uses misdirection to keep us from worrying these points too much in a story that moves quickly, but they register unconsciously as points of anxiety. It all feels innocent but worrisome, worrisome but innocent, something is wrong here, which sets us up for the encounter with The Misfit and his gang. But nothing can really set us up for how the encounter goes. The Misfit is already faintly ludicrous with his self-bestowed moniker—cocky and pretentious too, when he starts talking. And he is first seen, like Vladimir Putin, swaggering around bare-chested. It feels like safe literary symbolism and narrative all the way up to the point where the murders start, as the father and older son are taken off into the woods by henchmen with guns. Two shots are heard and the henchmen return with the father’s garish vacation shirt, which The Misfit casually dons. These points are made with no flourishes. These things just happen. But they are so monstrous they almost put us into shock, certainly on a first reading. It’s clear at that point what is happening and what will happen to all of them, including the grandmother. The story carries an unmistakable load of despair and meaninglessness, and it also feels just a little amused by our sickened response. It also has a lot of heavy religious themes, but they’re for digging out with more care on subsequent readings. I understand some people don’t even want to read it a second time.

Read story online. (Library of America)

Monday, September 26, 2022

Pulse (2001)

Clues on the internet suggest the original Japanese Pulse (released in Japan as Kairo) is not particularly high on the list of so-called J-Horror, where Ringu, Ju-on, and Dark Water are more the first titles to be discussed. This is despite the fact that director and writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation) made one of the earliest with 1989’s Sweet Home. Like many J-Horror pictures from the 1990s and 2000s, Pulse got a US remake a few years on, and like many it had mixed results. I’m one who will stump for the US version of The Ring over Ringu, but otherwise the Japanese originals I’ve seen tend to be noticeably better. Certainly that’s the case with Pulse, although I should probably mention my viewing of the remake was on a somewhat sketchy free youtube version with a problem print or transfer. So I was a little hesitant to pull the trigger at all on the original but then I noticed it was available on a channel I’d already signed up for. Scour those catalogs—they’re often skimpy when you look into it—and cancel subscriptions quickly is turning into a way of life. Getting to the point, the Japanese Pulse is quite good. In many ways J-Horror is all slow burn—we learn the premises through the actions and reactions of the characters and the pacing is slow, like playing a 45 at 33. But the sense of dread is somehow thick and the images are carefully conceived and rendered to support specific moods. We are given ample time for the details to sink in like dense pellets of terror and anxiety paste. Things like black stains on walls, or red tape, or the words “The Forbidden Room” on a piece of paper coming from a printer become quite unnerving. More than you might think, or maybe you have to be in the mood and I was. Times being what they were in 2001, the sounds of modem tones connecting are heard often, and in ways they are not meant to be heard. The internet is unnaturally reaching out to connect with our characters. The premise is vague, leaving us to fill in the gaps: ghosts live on the internet like people in the Superman comics live in the Phantom Zone. Do they like it there? It’s hard to say, but they seem to want the living to join them, which the living find depressing if not terrifying. Pulse is one of those movies whose first half is better than the second, which is exacerbated by a longish running time of two full hours. But in that first half it accomplishes for me everything the much more widely celebrated Ju-on couldn’t—that atmosphere of overwhelming numbing terror, like panic-bad dreams, accomplished all with ideas and imagery and not once ever with cheap jump-scare cuts or gore. Worth a look, and maybe I’m ready for another try at Ju-on.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

“Two Bottles of Relish” (1932)

I know this Lord Dunsany story is a murder mystery because it was another I found in the 65 Great Murder Mysteries anthology edited by Mary Danby, which is chock-full of murder mysteries however offbeat. In 1932 Lord Dunsany was reportedly trying to break into the murder mystery story market, but I prefer to think of “Two Bottles of Relish” as a parody of Sherlock Holmes, tacking on a gruesome and somewhat obvious twist. Dunsany is otherwise doing his basic witty, whimsical, droll, fantastic, weird thing. The story is told by Smithers (or Smethers), a traveling salesman who “pushes” Num-numo, “a relish for meats and savouries.” He needs to get his sales numbers up. Dunsany always did like a traveling salesman. (Later Smithers will mention he has no idea what savouries are.) “Two Bottles of Relish” is not exactly a locked-room situation but something like it, with the disappearance of a young woman that is probably a murder. But there is no corpse and so no evidence. Smithers tells it with a lot of digressions, with the prolix bonhomie of the salesman at his ease over cigars and brandy. There’s a long preamble about renting an apartment with the Sherlock Holmes character, an Oxford scholar. Smethers is apparently the Dr. Watson around here. The suspect, Steeger, was living with the woman at the time she disappeared along with all her money. Around that time Steeger came into an unusually large amount of money. Other seemingly random clues include that Steeger was a vegetarian—extremely suspicious in this story—and also that he chopped down all the trees on the property apparently for firewood. That seemed to me to be more suspicious than being a vegetarian but what do I know. Smethers does the investigatory footwork for his genius roommate and sleuths out this information, including that Steeger bought an unusually large supply of Num-numo relish shortly before the woman’s disappearance. The twist—I’m going to give it away now!—is that he disposed of the body by eating it. He used the trees as an excuse for purchasing an ax. He only bought vegetables from the grocer because he had a supply of meat at home, which is why he needed the extra relish. I mean, this is all patently absurd as murder mysteries go, hardly the stuff of some ultrarational detective using scientific deduction methods. But it’s a pretty good Lord Dunsany story.

65 Great Murder Mysteries, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Listen to story online.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901)

I appreciate Mark Twain’s anti-imperialist rant, which reminds me of nothing so much as the most passionate bloggers (on either side, I guess) during the Bush/Cheney era. That’s not exactly a compliment because it’s also acknowledgment of spittle-flecked incoherence and, sadly, more than anything, of powerlessness. Twain may have been able to kick up some fuss about the Boer War, Spanish-American War, etc. But it didn’t change what happened, such as the betrayals of Filipinos. Putting the best light on this piece (and on bloggers from the 2000s too) it may have had some effect on policy going forward. Certainly being right is not worth nothing. But in another era with great depredations occurring and too little to be done about it, Twain’s complaints make me sad more than anything. Terrible things had been going on already for a long time in 1901, and the US was hardly innocent of some of the worst even then. The problem is that he’s so angry he shifts often into sarcasm and invective that does not much help his case. I like this piece as an early example of the blogging style but, as with so much op-ed on outrage, the first draft should be a venting exercise and then set aside or at least carefully cherry-picked. But sometimes you’re just too mad to do even that. I write this as someone prone to such screeds myself—and publishing them too, on my blog and elsewhere if I could. What’s to be done? People are terrible. They are good too but way too often terrible. The Boxer Rebellion in China is also an event of importance in this rant. He roams about among the three—Boxer Rebellion, Boer War, Spanish-American War—and there is plenty to be outraged about, as the modern American foreign policy was beginning to take shape, among other things. There’s always plenty to be outraged about, isn’t there? I like the way this ties Twain to people like Hunter Thompson and Matt Taibbi (in his better days) as ranters of renown. But Thompson and certainly Taibbi—and a lot of those bloggers—aren’t always looking so good these days. Ineffectual, at best, or it’s tempting to look at it that way. For what it’s worth Twain was older than I am now when he wrote this. I appreciate it but have you seen the one I did about Trump and “The Snake”? Some really choice outrage there. And nothing changed. Or very little. I’ll be over here crying now.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over (Library of America).
Read essay online.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Slow Turning (1988)

The Wikipedia article for John Hiatt’s ninth album offers such a basic and even admirably composed microcosm of his career that I am taking the easy way out and quoting at length: “[Slow Turning] provided Hiatt's only significant radio hit with the title track [although it didn’t make any Billboard Top 40]. The single ‘Slow Turning’ was also featured in the 2002 motion picture drama The Rookie which starred Dennis Quaid. ‘Feels Like Rain’ was later covered by Buddy Guy on an album of the same name and was featured in the 2004 Kate Hudson movie Raising Helen. Aaron Neville also covered ‘Feels Like Rain’ on his 1991 album Warm Your Heart. ‘Drive South’ became a No. 2 country hit for Suzy Bogguss in early 1993. ‘Icy Blue Heart’ was covered by Emmylou Harris on her 1989 album Bluebird, with backing vocals by Bonnie Raitt, and was covered later by Linda Ronstadt on her 1998 album We Ran. Ilse DeLange recorded ‘It'll Come To You’ and ‘Feels Like Rain’ on her live album Dear John. During the barroom scene in the film Thelma and Louise, the band is playing ‘Tennessee Plates’ (Charlie Sexton recorded the song for the soundtrack album).” Hiatt has made a career of writing songs that others record and once in a while having small hits with his own recordings of them. The album closer on Slow Turning, “Feels Like Rain,” comes up a lot in the list above and was my favorite on recent visits, moody and beautiful and introspective. But the whole album was a pleasure for me in 1988 and it still is. The album opener “Drive South” is a great start to a road trip and the whole album is a good soundtrack for one too. Take it all the way. I used to go back and forth with a friend over which Hiatt album was best, Slow Turning or Bring the Family. I stumped for Bring the Family, and would still, but there’s no question Slow Turning is another great set and one I have ended up spending significant time with. Half the songs at least have pedigrees of being covered by artists we know, as you can see, and/or finding their way into movies we also know. Don’t be surprised. If you’re going to buy any two John Hiatt albums, make Slow Turning your second. Or let me know if you’ve got any more good ones.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Tabu (2012)

Portugal / Germany / Brazil / France / Spain, 118 minutes
Director: Miguel Gomes
Writers: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo
Photography: Rui Pocas
Music: Les Surfs, Mickey Gilley, Ramones
Editors: Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes
Cast: Teresa Madruga, Ana Moreira, Laura Soveral, Isabel Cardoso, Ivo Muller, Carloto Cotta, Henrique Espirito Santo, Miguel Gomes, Telmo Churro, Maya Kosa

I have to admit I have never entirely seen the connection (or perhaps the point of the connection) between this 21st-century Tabu by Portuguese director and cowriter Miguel Gomes and the 1931 “docufiction” by director and cowriter F.W. Murnau with producer and cowriter Robert Flaherty, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Yes, there is the seemingly unusual spelling of the title and, yes, some incidental or metaphorical (but not primary or straightforward) concerns with colonialism. Black and white was still the only way to make a movie in 1931 but Gomes also chose to shoot his Tabu that way, in silvery tones that look far more polished and nuanced.

Looking at these two movies more closely together in recent days I see there is an interesting inversion in the structures. Both are divided into halves, with two parts labeled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” but the order is reversed. Gomes starts his Tabu with the latter, “Paradise Lost,” and then presents a flashback or memory sequence of better times in the second half. And both movies, obviously, involve certain degrees of flouting norms. In the 1931 picture these norms come from native superstitions whereas in the Gomes it’s more a matter of conventional adultery. Taboos are certainly a primary theme in both. More than that, however, let alone why, I have a hard time seeing.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

“The Upper Berth” (1885)

If you read only one story by F. Marion Crawford it should be “The Screaming Skull,” of course. But why stop there? He was one of the better horror writers of his time and this seagoing tale is one of his best. It has some of the floridly overdetailed 19th-century approach, with a somewhat unnecessary frame story, but it also has the compressed and more straightforward approach of the 20th century too. The story involves a haunted stateroom in an oceangoing vessel crossing the Atlantic between Europe and North America. The storyteller is a tough bird and veteran sailor who likes the particular ship on which he travels, or did until these ghost incidents. He likes the stateroom he’s given and doesn’t want to give it up even with everyone he meets onboard telling him, with furrowed brow, that he should. On the first night he finds he is sharing the stateroom with a man who stays in the upper berth and later commits suicide by throwing himself off the boat. That makes four suicides on the last four sailings on this ship, all by people staying in that stateroom. There’s also a bad smell, strange noises, and worst of all someone (or something, oh brrr) keeps opening the porthole cover and letting in a terrible draft, not to mention seawater when the ship pitches, a notable safety hazard. So it goes—this is a ghost story and Crawford piles on with detail. He has more facility than many others for keeping things moving along. All the detail continually makes the point that it’s unpleasant more than anything to be troubled by a ghost. It’s also physically dangerous. In some ways, the teller is almost unbelievably heroic, insisting on staying in that stateroom a total of three nights, with others begging him to move to different quarters, before finally throwing it over for a loss. Among other incidents, an actual material corpse appears in the upper berth. All sensations are engaged, including tactile and olfactory. This thing is corporeal more than phantom, a nice touch. I might throw myself off a boat too if I woke up next to that. Definitely an old school tale but redeemed by Crawford’s skill.

65 Great Tales of the Supernatural, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.