Thursday, October 14, 2021

"Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" (1953)

In a way this story by Robert Aickman is dated now because it relies so much on telephone technology without features we take for granted today, such as caller ID, which alone may have destroyed hundreds of horror story premises not to mention criminal stalking activities. On the other hand Aickman's story is a nice reminder of how mysterious this connection to the outside world could feel, exploited so well in the 1948 picture Sorry, Wrong Number. And exploited so well here too. It's probably a ghost story but also reminds me in key ways of Hanns Heinz Evers's story "The Spider." Edmund St. Jude is housesitting for his girlfriend while she recuperates from TB. Already this is "strange," the term Aickman preferred for his stories. What is he doing with his place in the meanwhile? Her apartment has a telephone, which is common by 1953, but not so common that it wouldn't be unusual not to have one. Edmund here would prefer not to have one, but it's a lot of trouble to remove so he lives with it. Is it haunted or is it glitchy? First it rings a lot and won't stop until he answers it. Then the caller waits for him to say "Hello?" three times and hangs up. There's not much to be done about it. He has more strange adventures with the phone when he tries to call out. Eventually he wanders into strange conversations at the other end of the line with a woman he doesn't know. He is strangely drawn to her and soon they are declaring their love for one another. But she won't give him a number to call. He can only wait for her to call. She says he can't see her but she won't say why. It briefly enters into the early internet / late landline period when people spent hours on the phone with strangers in phone-based relationships. If this story is dated in one way, it's prescient in another. Meanwhile Edmund is so preoccupied he's letting his life go to hell. He makes a living as a translator but loses interest in his work and starts to get fired from jobs. Then he starts to get wrong-number calls for an extension 281 at a "Chromium Supergloss Corporation." He's also ignoring letters from his girlfriend now, letting them pile up. "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" (which words never occur in the story by the way) is a meditation on all the spaces a ghost might occupy in telephone technology. The woman on the phone is more or less a ghost in this story, but not exactly, much as the woman across the way in "The Spider" is a vampire, but not exactly. "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" is sadder but it has a cold core—maybe that's the point of the title. Looking it up, it appears to have something to do with the opera La boheme. Strange stuff indeed from early in the career of one of the best story writers of his time.

Robert Aickman, The Wine-Dark Sea
Story not available online.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Troubled Man (2009)

Most of the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell (the originals in Swedish) came out like clockwork in the '90s, but the last two straggled in at five-year intervals. The one before this is short (An Event in Autumn, technically a Linda Wallander novel), and the one before that, The Pyramid, was a collection of stories. Perhaps the last handful feel like Mankell might have been just slightly (or more) bored with the project. There's some of that here, perhaps inevitably, and there's some series tidying-up that feels mechanical. But it's a fairly big novel with a fairly big case, once again charged with international and historical issues, perhaps most notably with reverberations of the Cold War. By their size, complexity, and pace, the majority of Mankell's novels feel more like political thrillers than detective stories or police procedurals. There's really not much genre innovation to them, except using genre as scaffolding for larger political and social ideas. In that way, Mankell does an admirable wrap on the whole series with The Troubled Man. The case is mysterious enough to offer gratification in the resolution. It's hard to miss that Wallander and Mankell are saying a lot of goodbyes here. Wallander's ex-wife Mona (Linda's mother) shows up for the first time since Faceless Killers, I believe, the first novel in the series. Wallander's one-time girlfriend after the divorce, the Latvian Baiba Liepa, has a dramatic sequence too. Rydberg, who died in Faceless Killers, still haunts Wallander's thoughts as his mentor. Other threads from the series are dropped entirely, such as coworkers who seemed to have a future in it and some other storylines. Mankell's writing actually ranged widely beyond detective fiction, including plays, screenplays, and YA literature. He was certainly much more than a narrow genre writer. You always sense that, and his decisions are easy to trust. Sometimes he feels almost protective of Wallander's privacy, the main reason, given more than once, for withholding information. Other things here, some of the resolutions and problems that plague Wallander, feel mechanical. Here, for example, he is 60, still diabetic and battling his weight, but now he also has onset Alzheimer's. It scares me silly in a way, of course, but also feels like it's emerging unconsciously from Mankell's own anxieties and one-more-thing worries. Still, all around, it's a generous finish to a worthwhile series, the whole thing a classic of Nordic noir.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Falling Down (1993)

USA / France / UK, 113 minutes
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Ebbe Roe Smith
Photography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Music: James Newton Howard
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Frederic Forrest, Lois Smith, Raymond J. Barry

It was hard for me to get a bead on this movie when it was new. I didn't understand who it was speaking for or what it wanted to tell us. Now, in what we regard hopefully as our tentative springtime in America post-Trump era ("Alexa, what's a quote for optimism?"), a lot of things about it make more sense, such as all the "replacement theory" ideas embedded in the dialogue that I never recognized previously. Such a mix of evocative elements: Michael Douglas remains the original and possibly greatest yuppie boomer scum of all time (Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, plus I think The Game is a criminally overlooked exercise in this vein). Douglas has said he considers his performance in Falling Down to be his best, and his dad agreed too. Financing for Falling Down came from abroad as well as Hollywood—I don't know what that means, except it seems slightly early for globalism. Filming had to be stopped in spring 1992 when riots erupted in Los Angeles around the verdict in the first trial for police charged with assaulting Rodney King. Last but not least, director Joel Schumacher remains mostly a cipher for me, generally better early, as with The Lost Boys and Flatliners. But I like his taste for the sensational even if it often seems addled.

So here we are: Michael Douglas's Bill Foster wears a short-sleeved white shirt with a striped tie and clip. He carries a snappy little square attache case. His glasses are horn-rimmed. His haircut is crewcut. He works as an engineer in the defense industry in Southern California—his vanity license plate says "D-FENS." The movie starts on a bad traffic jam, a typical big city freeway crawl (see also the opening of Office Space), from which Foster finally walks away in frustration, wandering off into the "Los Angeles gangland" in search of change for a payphone. That's when all the trouble starts. Foster tells himself and others he is going home, meaning to the house where he used to live with his ex-wife and family. It's his daughter's birthday. Later we find out he has been living with his mother and lost his job a month earlier.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

"Uncle Einar" (1947)

I'm infatuated with this story by Ray Bradbury, which puts him more squarely in the realm of horror than science fiction where I usually slot him. It was published first in a Bradbury collection called Dark Carnival and later in a more famous one called The October Country and it's part of Bradbury's "Elliott Family" series. The Elliotts are a kind of Addams family—kooky, altogether ooky oddballs with strange powers. It's gentle, of course, the way Bradbury does. Besides the Addams family, the Elliotts also feel like some precursor to the X-Men with their mutant gifts and outsider status. Most of the Elliott family has more subtle powers, with mental abilities like telepathy and telekinesis. Uncle Einar's is harder to hide from the world: he has a giant pair of green wings growing on his back and he can fly. I imagine his wings as more like dinosaur wings than bird or moth, leathery and tendoned. He can't really go among humans at all and he must do most of his flying at night when he won't be seen. He also has a kind of radar that enables him to sense objects in his way as he flies around in the dark. But a terrible accident occurs one night. Something goes wrong and he collides with a high-tension tower and takes a massive jolt of electricity that knocks him out. Fortunately he lands on a farm operated by Brunilla Wexley, a single woman who will become his wife. Bradbury plainly has a lot of feeling for Uncle Einar and imbues him with much humanity—his love of flying, his sadness at being grounded, his love for his wife and eventually their children, and finally the solution they work out so he can fly safely again. At the same time, as benign as we know Uncle Einar is, it's not hard to imagine how scary it would be to see him flying at night. That's a neat trick on Bradbury's part. It's all quite vivid. I have a clear sense of Uncle Einar and Brunilla too, and like them both. I should say it's also the only Elliott Family story I've read that I like much—in general the concept is typically too cute and wholesome by half, though some of the powers are certainly interesting. This Elliott Family story comes a bit later than the first batch and in many ways feels like Uncle Einar might have been a character who nagged at Bradbury and importuned him to tell his story. It feels like a Sherwood Anderson story too with its candid treatment of socially determined grotesques and their experience of being marginalized. In fact, a lot of Bradbury stories feel like they have sources in Anderson. This is one of the best.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read story online.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Tenet (2020)

Of course I had to look up reviewers and websites I read regularly when I am confused before I could even think of trying to make sense of Christopher Nolan's giant headfuck valentine to action movies, one of the larger cultural artifacts lost in the pandemic, although likely that is temporary. A 70-mm version made the rounds last summer, but I suspect we still have to wait until after next year before it might be safe enough to see movies with crowds again so it will likely be back. I went ahead and looked at it on TV. I thought of James Bond while watching it and so did Tim Brayton at Alternate Ending, Steven Rubio at Steven Rubio's Online Life, and Brian Tellerico at RogerEbert.com. Start with that. I'm not a big fan of Bond movies but it's fair to say with Tenet that "ultimately its pleasures are the pleasures of the chase followed by the fistfight, interspersed with scenes of craftily sneaking into secure locations." That's Brayton, who by the way argues even the high concept of the movie is lucid. Everyone seems to agree on the rousing action scenes, as abstracted as they are minus lucid narrative context, but the view that this movie makes sense is more a minority one—I was lost most of the time, and Rubio and Tallerico seemed nearly as befuddled as me, not to mention hordes of commenters on the internet. The concept of Tenet (please note how it reads the same backward and forward) rests on a technology that can reverse entropy (I know: yeah, right), enabling access to a timestream that moves from future to past, instead of only past to future as we all normally experience it. What that means for the movie in practical terms is that in the big action sequences with helicopters some things are moving forward and some are moving backward (most obviously, lots of un-explosions). Nailing down the conflict in this story is a problem I'm not sure Tenet ever solves. We're told we are under attack from the future, with some chatter about the time-travel grandfather paradox, but I didn't catch much explanation beyond that so I will have to leave it at that. I'm not ready yet to resort to YouTube. Between Nolan's big budget and the amazing fat soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson there's plenty to gape at and it is often somehow even thrilling. But the ongoing lack of narrative clarity combined with the long running time was wearying. Will it make more sense another time? Maybe when the pandemic is over I can go see it in full theatrical glory and then adjourn for coffee and pie and a long conversation. I resent movies that require multiple viewings as basically incompetent on their face, but there's also a few I've grown ever more fond of after second and third and more viewings (In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr., and Yi Yi, for example). Jury's still out on this one, and not just for me. I already know it expects us to work hard.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Dhalgren (1975)

It was good to finally get to this monster after much of a lifetime circling it. It's both maddening and seductive—deliberately obtuse yet surprisingly lucid. Full of strange surprises and effects. Rampantly sexual. I usually had a good sense of what was going on—spoiler, it's all weird. I have a natural suspicion of large novels (or even short stories) that begin midsentence, and I did bog down midway and it became harder to keep going, but mostly it's a pretty good ride. The setting is a city in the Midwest, Bellona, that has been destroyed by something never explained. Not only are there inconveniences of no radio, TV, or telephones, but also basic physics of time and visual perception don't seem to be particularly reliable. The main character cannot remember his name. Clues indicate it's likely William Dhalgren. He's known among the postapocalyptic survivors as the Kid, or Kidd, or just Kid. He wanders into the city—the only way in or out is a walk across a bridge over a river—and then has strange adventures. Among other things, he fancies himself a poet after he finds a partially filled notebook. Many passages of the novel, including much of the last section, are transcriptions from the notebook. Another theme is in the title of the second-last section, "Palimpsest" (dictionary definition: "a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain"). In the '90s the novel was used as the basis for an online real-time texting destination (or "MOO," as it was called), which fit Dhalgren's whole aesthetic well. The novel is intensely textual, with bizarre interpolations of multiple sources all the way. I'm not sure you could even do a kindle version of the last section. You might be able to do a movie, with some of the memorable images and ideas it has—a second moon, a sun that threatens to swallow the sky for one day (and one day only), a gangster rig that turns into giant holographic images of dragons and other creatures. The gang is casually called "scorpions." More than anything they remind me of '80s DIY hardcore punk-rockers even though the novel came first. Maybe Jamaican rockers. Dhalgren has an amazing amount of gay and polyamorous sex for 1975 SF but it's just woven in. It might still be ahead of its time, or have finally just arrived at it.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Jo Jo Gunne (1972)

It's tempting to make big statements about Jo Jo Gunne and the romance of rock 'n' roll and all the things that should have been, commercially and otherwise. Lost now, like David Essex's "Rock On," residue from an era. I think I might have been the only person in high school who liked this album, and I was defensive enough about it that I liked it loudly and A LOT. But I haven't listened to it much in the years since, and even on this exercise didn't have the heart to look into the follow-up albums (Bite Down Hard '73 and Jumpin' the Gunne '74), especially once I realized only five of the nine songs on this debut still sound good, and some of them only in patches. Even the Wikipedia article is a little hard on them, with a vague tone of disapproval: "The fact that there was no breakout single failed to generate interest and sales for the band," it remonstrates of the later albums. "The group did not maintain the commercial momentum of their first release. They broke up in 1974." But Jo Jo Gunne, band and album named self-consciously for a lackluster Chuck Berry song about a monkey, can kick pretty hard when it does kick, saturated with a ridiculous bawdy lusty dated sexism that almost feels innocent now. They rose from the ashes of the heavy '60s-inflected band Spirit with a '70s sound equal parts glam in the tradition of Slade and old-fashioned CCR rock 'n' roll gumbo, with a sense for what might be coming in terms of pub-rock. Jo Jo Gunne should have been on Midnight Special every week. They should have been the house band the way Paul Revere & the Raiders were on Where the Action Is. The album opener "Run Run Run" reached #27 on the singles chart in June 1972 but it's not even the best song here. That is more like the epic workup of "Academy Award," five minutes of off-rhythm guitar chords and squealing flourishes, preening sexism, and a shivery-good buildup, name-checking Hedy Lamarr as it goes (inventor of Wi-Fi, unknown in 1972). I'm also fond of the good parts in "Shake That Fat," "I Make Love," and "99 Days," proud strutting cock-rock exercises when they aren't mired in dull parts. Not sure what you do with songs like that or albums like Jo Jo Gunne—there's some real inspiration here, stuff that hits home and still sounds fresh and good. But it's going on 50 years old now and often sounds it. Approach with caution. In addition, play loud.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

Film en douze tableaux, France, 85 minutes
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Marcel Sacotte, Jean-Luc Godard
Photography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Michel Legrand
Editors: Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Guillemot
Cast: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, Andre S. Labarthe, Guylaine Schlumberger

In the opening titles Vivre Sa Vie is "dedicated to B movies." It's not the first time director and cowriter Jean-Luc Godard has done it, certainly in spirit, and it's a good reminder that we are entering Jean-Luc Godard-world, where fantasy and reality are all mixed up "playfully" (and/or for reasons of budget). Reality is generally a form of fantasy (notably when machine guns and gangsters appear) but it can also be text and factual information. I learned on IMDb that the script for Vivre Sa Vie is a single page, listing the 12 episodic scenarios, and the players improvised the dialogue from there. Cultural referents include Emile Zola, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Jules and Jim playing a nearby theater (because why not?!).

Confoundingly, Godard's story of a middle-class woman who becomes a prostitute acknowledges but does not satisfy the impulse to project pathos on the story. Nana—yes, that's a big fat Zola shoutout, and she's played by JLG's beautiful wife for five years, Anna Karina—Nana is an obvious if cartoonish victim, eventually (spoiler) gunned down in the streets, in a convenient random meaningless plot development, slaughtered by two-bit movie actors in trench coats for a suitably reflexive existential-type playful bleak ending. Having executed such neat FIN we can ask what Godard may really be doing here, aside from fooling around with movie equipment.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

"The Pale Man" (1934)

Julius Long is a fairly obscure horror story writer, a lawyer from Ohio who published his handful in Weird Tales between 1933 and 1938. He died of conditions related to asthma in 1955 when he was 47 or 48 years old. In some ways this very short story, written when he was about 27, may have been a kind of vision of his own death. The first-person narrator is a low-level academic. "If only..." he laments, "I should now be a full-fledged professor instead of a broken-down assistant." He is even losing that position, likely for reasons of health, as he has been exiled to this rundown hotel in some small town on a mandatory vacation. "There is something positively gratifying about the absence of the graduate student face," he tries to console himself. He has a room in front with a view, 201—he had to haggle to get it. Way in the back is the pale man's room, 212. He arrived the same day. The pale man is more like moon-age daydream Ziggy Stardust with snow white tan. "I can not believe that he is ill," the narrator says of him, hinting the place might not exactly be a hotel, "for his paleness is not of a sickly cast, but rather wholesome in its ivory clarity." There is a sick woman in 208 or 207, however (the confusion could be a typo or it could be Long's suggestion of the narrator's mental unbalance), and she dies as the pale man moves closer to her. The pale man is steadily changing rooms in the story, like a checker piece on a board, from 212 to 211 to 210 and closer. The narrator wonders what will happen when he reaches the sick woman's room, but what happens of course is that she dies. And still the narrator does not understand who or what the pale man is. At one point the hotel manager is seen insisting the narrator leave and go to the hospital, which he refuses. That suggests his own death is not for long and it isn't. The story is almost underwhelming at first but things about it stick. "I suppose I should have guessed his identity when he skipped the three rooms the night I fell unconscious upon the floor." It stays with you.

Read story online.