Friday, December 04, 2020

Badlands (1973)

USA, 94 minutes
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Photography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Music: George Aliceson Tipton, Mickey & Sylvia
Editors: Robert Estrin, Billy Weber
Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn

I haven't kept up much with director and writer Terrence Malick since The Tree of Life, which was way too muddled, Christianist, and overrated for me. He has been at least as productive in the past 10 years as any other stretch of his career: To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015, about a tarot card I understand), Song to Song (2017, sez "play loud" but the music is buried in the mix with everything else), and A Hidden Life (2019). Song to Song is the one I've seen, just a few weeks ago, and had a bad reaction. If you despaired of the Sean Penn sequences in The Tree of Life, that's basically all Song to Song is for over two hours. Also, in the past year or two, I paid a revisit to the 1978 Days of Heaven and came away decidedly unravished. I think in the '70s I might have even called it better than Badlands, but now I am more inclined to compare Days of Heaven unfavorably with Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

So I wasn't sure what I was going to get with a return to Malick's auspicious 1973 debut, the kinda-sorta story of Charlie Starkweather and girlfriend Carol Ann Fugate on a 1958 Midwestern killing spree, Bonnie and Clyde style, Gun Crazy style—one of the 20th century's favorite stories (Raymond Pettibon's version by way of Sonic Youth: "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road"—I know, a reference to the Moors murders, but same diff). As it turns out, I should not have worried. Badlands is as lean and effective as I remembered it, a smoldering explosive mood piece, with Martin Sheen preening as Kit, a 25-year-old James Dean lookalike lost in the backwoods sticks of South Dakota, and Sissy Spacek as 15-year-old Holly, whose voiceover narration is full of the profound stillness and wisdom of Carson McCullers characters. In its quiet unassuming way, Badlands is close to perfect.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

"Lucky's Grove" (1940)

This delightfully heavy-handed story by H. Russell Wakefield, a student of M.R. James and English folklore, is about a damned patch of land that sits in the center of a fallow growing field, left untouched. Best avoided, in fact. Our main character, Mr. Braxton, is a self-made man. He grew up on the estate as a servant and now owns it. As a boy he wandered into the grove from time to time, compelled somehow to worship a particular tree. And so he did, and does now that he has returned. The locals, meanwhile, are full of horrible tales about this so-called Lucky's Grove, tales that apparently do not come to the attention of Braxton's estate foreman, who takes the Christmas tree for that year's celebration from there. The oblivious foreman did notice that the roots of the tree were stained red as they came out of the ground. When Mr. Braxton doesn't like it, the foreman assures him he will replant it in the grove again after the holiday. Of course, bad things start to happen right away. The tree branches slap people around, for example, raising welts and wounds that become infected. The foreman grows deathly ill, no one knows why, and takes to his bed. The thermostat goes bonkers and it's always way too hot in the mansion. One of the boys makes a snowman that looks like a hideous reptilian monster. He can't say where he got the idea. All this is going on on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The extended Braxton family carries on the best they can, but things keep getting worse. I was hoping for a little more of the Algernon Blackwood lost-in-the-woods effects—Blackwood an influence with James on Wakefield—but alas no. This is one of the reasons why Wakefield comes after Blackwood and James in the scheme of things. In fact, a very good companion piece for this story is Blackwood's "Ancient Lights," also about a small blighted patch. Wakefield works skillfully within a classic style of English ghost story, from the stained roots of the violated tree to the various cruel payoffs to the existence itself of such a patch of land, respected by all who come near (except that foreman). It's reminiscent in a way of Puritan superstitions about the deep North American forests and the witches and so forth who lived there, but this is an isolated copse in a field everyone just knows to leave alone. I like the implication, never stressed, that Mr. Braxton's unlikely rise in the world has something to do with Lucky's Grove and worshiping that tree. I like the Christmas setting too, though the story veers hard away from the kind of more cozy Dickens-derived spooky stories associated with the time of year. The destruction of Braxton and his family and estate is quite complete. There'll be no plum pudding this year.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

"The Darling" (1899)

I finally got to Anton Chekhov's version of "The Darling," going about it all ass-backwards and reading the Scott Bradfield demi-homage from 1990 first, a few years back. I like the Chekhov more, perhaps needless to say, though I appreciate Bradfield's stunt work. The stories have parallels but are rather different. Chekhov is more artful and lacerating about the comic aspects of his tale and the main character's strange emptiness. Olenka starts as a young woman whose father, a retired collegiate assessor (whatever that is), is dying. Kukin is a theater manager and impresario who lives at "the lodge" with them. He's always complaining about his business. After her father's death, Olenka falls in love with him and they marry. Olenka discusses the ins and outs of theater business with everyone she meets, and they live happily ever after. Until Kukin dies rather suddenly after a few years. Olenka retires within herself and mourns for several months. Then she meets a lumber merchant, they get along very well, and they marry. Now her conversation is full of remarks like, "Timber gets dearer every year; the price rises twenty per cent." Of course this guy dies too after a few years, equally untimely. And there's another one. On a certain level the psychological realism is remarkably modern, looking forward to Woody Allen's Zelig, Jerzy Kosinki's Chauncy Gardner, and a disorder known as environmental dependency syndrome. Olenka's style is a strange mix of disappearing and consuming. She disappears into her partners yet somehow also seems to be eating them up. Or maybe it's bad luck, or perhaps it's an ironical take. We learn nothing of her mother, which suggests another untimely exit in Olenka's life, another trauma. When we meet her she is losing her father. As a woman alone in the world at the turn of the 20th century, she was dependent on a man for her survival. Women could push against that and did, currents of suffrage and feminism were in the air by then, but the baseline was still dependency on men. Olenka does not seem to push against it—except, perhaps, in a passive-aggressive way—but rather to accept it whole-heartedly. She gives herself entirely to her men. "You darling!" they say. Later in the story, when she is much older and maternal instincts have taken hold, it's a boy. All things must pass, as our strange darling Olenka learns well. The pathos of her emptiness is drawn to a tee.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Vast of Night (2019)

This endearing curiosity, which debuted at Sundance nearly two years ago and is a first effort by director, cowriter, and editor Andrew Patterson, probably needs some disclaimers to set expectations right. It contains plucky teens with a decidedly Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys vibe in a 1950s small town America trying to unravel a mystery involving UFOs. It opens and closes as a parody of The Twilight Zone¬—in the end, I took this odd frame as evidence of Patterson's ambitions to create his own franchise, which by this evidence I can only support. More than Rod Serling, The Vast of Night reminded me of a semi-obscure 2008 movie, Pontypool. They are both almost theatrical, within the relatively confined spaces of isolated radio broadcasting studios and a high-concept mystery from without, but closing in. The Vast of Night breaks rules at will but always seems to work. For example, sometimes, when people are telling stories (telling stories is ultimately the essence of the picture), visuals drop away entirely into a mostly black screen and we are simply listening to a voice in the dark. So intensely are these stories told we almost don't notice—indeed, it's some relief to have no visual distractions, the better to fill in and expand into the stories. At other times the picture shrinks and takes the shape of a TV screen. The images have a blue cast and are staticky and snowy the way TVs in the '50s could be. Though it is a movie of storytelling, like scary stories told around campfires, really there are only two long ones. But they are doozies. One is told by a late-night listener calling in to the radio station. He identifies himself as Billy (Bruce Davis, purely a voice performance). He claims to have participated in secret Area 51 types of government projects. The other is told by an old woman in her home, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who appears to be addled. Not exactly to us—we know by that point what kind of movie we're looking at, so we are more willing to give her bizarre story and conclusions more credence. But to the plucky teens hearing her out she is merely deranged. These teens—Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz)—may yet end up as a couple but they are not all the way there yet, and their connection is mostly cerebral but fruitful. They work well together. From The Twilight Zone to H.P. Lovecraft (the title serves as proximate homage) by way of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—which is the last time I saw such a stately awe-inspiring UFO in a movie—and then all the way back again in a tidy hour and a half. It's impressive—worth a look.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tropic Moon (1933)

My first venture into the work of the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon turned out not to be a detective novel at all, but rather one of his self-described roman durs, or "hard novels." And it is indeed quite hard, in terms of life conditions, with a colonial setting reminiscent by turns of Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, and The Sheltering Sky—arguably even "harder" than any of them, flat, brutal, and so compact it is always directly to the point. The literal translation of Simenon's title, Coup de Lune, is "moon burn" or "moon stroke," which are more apt. Joseph Timar is a young Frenchman, about 23, who travels to Libreville, Gabon, in Africa, on the promise of work through his connected uncle. Once there he finds the job with a logging concern is not available exactly because the man presently holding the position has promised to shoot any replacement who shows up to try to take it away from him. Timar doesn't know what to do about it so he hangs around the hotel drinking a lot and eventually starts having sex with the hotelkeeper's wife. Apparently everyone around there has her on the regular. Then she shoots a native and all the troubles turn in a new direction. In fact, there's no end to troubles in this very short and impressive novel. In his introduction to the 2005 edition (ridiculously overpriced at the moment, sorry to say), Norman Rush discusses how Simenon was more interested in the damaging effects of colonialism on conquering oppressors. All that privilege is turning these whites into monsters, Timar absolutely not excepted, though he causes more the kinds of problems we see from bumbling well-meaning nice guys. Whites are a tiny minority in Libreville. At a certain level they have to stick together. Africans are most often "a black," and just in that way Simenon shows how deeply the dehumanization has hold. Everyone here is pretty much fucked up, much of it racism and other side effects of colonialism, and things proceed from there. I had not realized before how prolific Simenon was, a member of the sparsely populated 500-novel club with Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard (I had actually not realized it about Hubbard either). The structure of Tropic Moon and the way it moves do feel as though written by someone who is comfortable writing novels, however short it might be, well under 200 pages. The composer Joseph Haydn wrote short symphonies too, but he wrote 106 of them, compared to Beethoven's nine long. All the ones I've heard are polished and satisfying. Just so, Simenon mixes and chooses and emphasizes his elements to best effect. Really great—can't wait to try another.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Bells (1979)

[Early cuts here and here.]

More than 40 years later (I happened to pick it up the day it came out), I still can't make up my mind about this curious Lou Reed album, poised before one of his best solo periods. Sometimes it feels like a brilliant experiment I can't quite fathom. Sometimes it feels like outtakes from the previous year's Street Hassle. It carries on with the "binaural" production strategy from that album, with Reed taking the sole formal producer credit this time. But the sound is lumbering and muddy, like someone spilled syrup on it. Too late I learned the supposed way to listen is on headphones, which I don't do anymore and never thought to try with this. Reed's vocals are often pitched at hysterical levels, distractingly weird, and out of step with the lyrics. Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone cobbled together a case for The Bells as a return to Velvet Underground form and Robert Christgau in the Village Voice gave it an amiable B+, but the folks throwing up reviews over at Amazon are closer to my own take for once (though I will say I like the album more than many of them). "Families" drew me in first and most enduringly with its tale of nuclear family heartache but sadly I have about used it up by now. The album kicks off pretty well with "Stupid Man"—neglectful father with regrets—though it is hampered by Reed's vocal, which sounds like a coke jag. "Disco Mystic" follows. It is neither hostile to disco nor actually disco, coming on with a walloping attack, pepper pot sax, and drowned "disco mystic" quasi-chant.

I start to lose attention with "I Want to Boogie With You," in which boogieing has never sounded so lackluster yet strangely desperate. The star of this album could well be saxophonist Marty Fogel, although on "Boogie" he sounds more like an SNL session guy. "City Lights" is a pleasant ditty that appears to be about the Chaplin movie, or maybe just Chaplin himself, or possibly something else altogether—it's cryptic. (Still, if it inspires anyone to see City Lights it has done its work. I recommend you look into it immediately.) "All Through the Night" reprises the same party background effects (with possibly the same exact recording) as "Kicks" on Coney Island Baby. It's convincing as a portrait of a New York party in the '70s but Jesus Christ Reed himself already did it. Maybe the most apt comparison I found for The Bells was to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which is similarly out of character for its artist, yet recognizably him, and much adored among a certain slice of the dedicated fans. For me, I've always been a Lust for Life partisan for Iggy in that period, and I like Street Hassle a lot more than The Bells—for the title suite alone, even if the rest of the album veers toward the weak. The problem, as M. Salmestrelli argued it in 2013 on Amazon, and I think I agree, is that it just wasn't a good period for Reed. "Lou Reed was in a very bad state by the tail end of the 70's and his music reflected it," he writes. "Aside from Metal Machine Music, the live Take No Prisoners, Growing Up In Public and Rock N Roll Heart are the worst albums in Lou Reed's career." Of course I don't agree entirely—I'm one who likes MMM and I think 1974's Sally Can't Dance (not to mention Mistrial if we're looking beyond the '70s) belongs with his worst. I will probably be puzzling out The Bells for the rest of my life. To start, why that title?

Friday, November 20, 2020

Mean Streets (1973)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
Photography: Kent L. Wakeford
Music: Martin Scorsese's vinyl collection
Editor: Sidney Levin
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Cesare Danova, David Carradine, Robert Carradine

Mean Streets is a landmark film in many ways, big and small—a powerful early picture by director and cowriter Martin Scorsese, a tale of New York street life and low-level gangsters, a sneaky coiling script, and a certain model of early jukebox movie, rolling out yet another way to do it, with The Graduate, Easy Rider, and American Graffiti advancing their own theories on the matter. And it may have been harder for me to see earlier through the welter of noise and violence, but Mean Streets is also the work of a self-conscious student of film, with self-conscious inflections as it barrels along toward the work of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut.

Mean Streets opens on a black screen and Harvey Keitel murmuring about sin and salvation (two years later Patti Smith would turn it upside down with "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" on her cover of "Gloria"). Then the drum hits and kicks from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" go off and the song blares in all majesty for the titles, playing loud. Turn it up anyway—it's still one of the most inspired and thrilling mashups of song and images ever stitched together, and it's followed not long after with a red-light barroom scene to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" that's not far behind. There are other pop music high points like these (and some opera too)—for me, notably, "Rubber Biscuit"—but within 10 minutes Mean Streets already felt vastly different from anything I'd seen before.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Lazarus" (1906)

The story of Lazarus as told by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev in the 20th century is great. It asks an obvious question no one ever seems to ask: How did the rest of his life go for Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from the dead? No doubt it was a hand-slapping moment of jubilation for Jesus and his followers and the crowd. But what about the guy stumbling out of the tomb? I think we have always presumed he would be a grateful, joyful disciple in waiting, but this story sees it in a more believable way. He is bewildered and haunted. He still bears the marks of a corpse—his face and hands are "cadaverously" blue, his belly distended ("one sensed the presence of the rank liquid of decomposition"). At gatherings, people always ask him what it's like to be dead but he never answers. He doesn't say very much in general. Before long, he's kind of unpopular, and avoided, though he's also a celebrity or at least a well-known freak. Later in the story, he is sent for by Augustus Caesar and visits Rome. He has something of a strange power, which is that anyone who looks into his eyes is permanently depressed and filled with despair. A newlywed couple he meets, for example, remain in love and stay together but are never happy again in their lives. Accordingly, in the Roman fashion, Augustus has his eyes put out and Lazarus spends the rest of his life blind. His shabby treatment, the shunning and cruelty, are nothing particularly insightful for students of human psychology, but I am stopped by this picture of Lazarus himself. He is disturbingly unforgettable, and raises many questions. Is the afterlife so terrible? What did he see? What does he know? Is it just black nothingness after all? But doesn't his resurrection itself put the lie to that? We feel certain whatever Lazarus experienced explains his psychological collapse, which is contagious as noted. It's not just eye contact. You get a hit of this despair reading the story too. It's remarkable. There's a recurring and virtually cinematic image of him as a dark silhouette against a giant red setting sun on the horizon, which he walks toward every evening. The story follows him all the way to his second death, which is anonymous and obscure. "And it came to pass that once he went out and did not come back"—nice biblical cadence there, at least partly the uncredited translator in my Big Book of Masters product. Everyone knows about the resurrection of Lazarus and no one knows anything about his second death—he disappears from the Book of John after Jesus' big mic drop, and remembering also that John is the most fanciful gospel and the only one with the story. In some ways this story looks forward to and connects quite neatly with Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary and it even looks forward to zombies a little too. Powerful story—a great one.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Roughing It (1872)

I haven't read widely in travel literature but I generally enjoy Mark Twain's forays into it. Though he can bog down in description when he huffs up too hard, he usually redeems himself with anecdotes and an easygoing rambling style—I like the rambling style, on balance. His sentences threaten to turn into mush sometimes with an excess of words, but he maintains a certain dry tone that makes the jokes work, sneaking up on you in the earnestness of their exaggerations: "The simple child of nature, yielding momentarily to sin when sorely tempted, acknowledged his error when calm reflection had shown it to him, and came forward with noble frankness and offered up his grandmother as an atoning sacrifice," and so forth. In Roughing It, Twain takes a stagecoach in about 1861 out of Missouri and into the North American Wild West. He spends a good deal of time traveling and finally lands in Nevada in the midst of mining boom times. Eventually he makes his way to San Francisco and, from there by ship, to Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. In light of renewed activity in recent years, it was interesting to read his reports of Kilauea, reminiscent for how striking across time it is of the account by Lewis and Clark of Mt. St. Helens. But Hawaii is well the dullest part of the book, with long passages of description. Much better are the sections on Nevada, where the economic mania looks a lot like our own booms and busts, built around feverish speculation. The opening sections are also fine—it's startling to see the American West without a railroad and with quite hostile Indians to contend with, and no shortage of white miscreants either. Horses were the only way to make the trip—or walking. Twain also spends some time in Salt Lake City and on Mormons, which is often interesting though his biases color the accounts. His own judgment seems to have been set by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the story of which he includes in an appendix. His encounters with Native Americans, especially the aboriginals in Hawaii, are a typical 19th-century white man's response of reflexive loathing. He can speak of them in such belittling terms that it is shocking and distracting, which is unfortunate. He's much better on the foolishness of white people, including, often, himself. Good one, mostly.

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