Friday, December 15, 2017

On the Town (1949)

USA, 98 minutes
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerome Robbins
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Alice Pearce, Florence Bates, Tom Dugan, Judy Holliday

With my ongoing Movie of the Year project now drifting into the '40s (and the '30s, and yes eventually even into the '20s), I'm finding myself with more catch-up to do—hence the longer periods between write-ups—and also some interesting and even surprising shifts in taste. A lot of movies were made everywhere then, especially in Hollywood, where these are the glory years. Yet except for a designated golden few from each year they are generally harder to track down and see. Netflix—whose DVD service has begun to fail in recent years anyway, and now appears to be shifting into attrition mode as subscribers shrink to minuscule numbers (they've never had anything like the DVD archive on streaming)—simply won't serve any longer as a single primary source. And YouTube may yet emerge as a reliable online repository. I've also developed other new sources such as Amazon Video and Warner Archive.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the last year has been a newfound taste for musicals—and film noir, and woman's pictures, and pirate movies, and others. But the biggest change is musicals. I haven't seen that many because in times past I couldn't turn away from them fast enough on TV and it was rare when anyone could talk me into looking at one all the way through. Of course, everyone knows Singin' in the Rain by now, currently the #12 greatest movie of all time according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? and safely one of the designated goldens for 1952. Maybe they also know On the Town (and even Take Me Out to the Ball Game, also from 1949). But they're new to me and I still can't resist the absurd comical heights they reach with their calculated fits of joy and tap dancing, these flights of pure physical pleasure. When people talk about the difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the former being more athletic, the latter more suave, that's true enough. But that difference is also more directly a function of emotional engagement. While Fred Astaire stays busy brushing lint from his tux, making dry witty remarks, and chuckling uneasily, Gene Kelly made a career out of wearing his stupid old American heart on his sleeve.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

Story by Philip Roth not available online.

Philip Roth's comic anecdote came early in his career, published when he was 25, with themes and elements that have appeared in most of his work, notably the spectacle of Jews and Christians attempting to live together in New Jersey. It's skillfully done and a pleasure to read—he would get even better at language that is seductively easy to read, but he's already good here. The main charge of the story, however, strikes me as its most dated element now, which is the humiliation of forcing Jews to pray like Christians. Oscar "Ozzie" Freedman, who is 13 or 14, accomplishes this by threatening to jump to his death. It's all tied up with a poem by Andrew Marvell and biblical prophecy. In fact, if I understand things correctly, the parties most likely to be offended are the Catholics (using the term "in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants"), who might be inclined to see the actions of the Jews as mockery, if not indeed profanity. All of this is occasioned by Ozzie feeling the rabbi won't engage with him intellectually when he starts asking the kinds of questions people are always asking about religions. In this case, after the rabbi scoffs at the notion of a virgin birth, Ozzie wants to know why, if God is all-powerful, He couldn't impregnate a woman if He wanted to. The charge of the story is the profanity of the central event, or maybe I mean blasphemy. Threatening to jump from the synagogue roof, Ozzie forces the Jews witnessing the event, including especially the rabbi who won't take his questions seriously, to get on their knees and pray for the love of Jesus the Son of God. Ironically, the story has probably been losing power ever since it was published. It might have some charge to today's evangelicals, who might take it as some sign of formal End Times. I like to think that's an intellectual minority, but I probably have it exactly wrong. Anyway, I'm pretty sure none of them reads Philip Roth, let alone one of his early short stories. Roth is much more a novelist and I'm not even sure he's written that many short stories. So at best I'm going to have to file this under interesting (and entertaining) curiosity.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Top 40

1. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk, "I Feel It Coming"
2. Skillet, "Back From the Dead"
3. Rihanna, "Love On the Brain"
4. Future, "Selfish"
5. Kamasi Washington, "Truth"
6. New Pornographers, "Whiteout Conditions"
7. Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
8. Romeo Santos, "Heroe Favorito"
9. Luis Fonsi feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito (Remix)"
10. Kendrick Lamar feat. Zacari, "LOVE."
11. Maxwell, "Gods"
12. Future, "Mask Off"
13. Kevin Ross, "Long Song Away"
14. Keith Urban feat. Carrie Underwood, "The Fighter"
15. Tamar Braxton, "My Man"
16. Portugal. The Man, "Feel It Still"
17. Carl Craig, "Rock'n Latex"
18. Tiga, "Nonstop"
19. Treponem Pal, "Planet Claire"
20. Candi Carpenter, "Burn the Bed"
21. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
22. Selena Gomez, "Fetish"
23. Miley Cyrus, "Malibu"
24. Childish Gambino, "Redbone"
25. Playboi Carti, "Magnolia"
26. LP, "Up Against You"
27. Joey Bada$$, "For My People"
28. Hailee Steinfeld, "Most Girls"
29. Strand of Oaks, "Hard Love"
30. Real Estate, "Darling"
31. Cardi B, "Bodak Yellow"
32. Lilly Hiatt, "Trinity Lane"
33. War on Drugs, "Up All Night"
34. Waxahatchee, "No Question"
35. Bleachers, "Don't Take the Money"
36. National, "The System Only Dreams in Darkness"
37. Kesha, "Praying"
38. Smiley, "Rara"
39. Wolf Alice, "Don't Delete the Kisses"
40. Kesha, "Woman"

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nothing But Murder (1946)

This collection came late in the career of the amateur criminalist and essayist William Roughead, who lived and worked in Scotland as an attorney. Scads of his crime case studies were published for entertainment purposes from 1901 until past his death in 1952. This book came shortly after World War II, but the pieces are older, published for the first time in the US here and intended for an American market. Typically enough they're pretty good. Roughead has an interesting taste for crime, though he indulges a macabre aesthetic that can be too wryly cute by half. So it stumbles out of the gate with the silly overture of an imagined congress of notorious criminals judging one another on just such grounds. It's hollow graveyard laughter, attempting distance from the motivations that drive the project (whatever those motivations are exactly ... I can get a bit coy around the point myself). It's better when he gets down to the details of cases because he picks interesting ones. The first is about a group of stowaway boys who were forced to leave the ship and walk barefoot across an ice sheet back to shore. Two drowned in the process. Roughead's basic strategy is to lay out the facts of the case as brought to trial by the police and used by prosecutors, and then go to the trial transcript. Thus it shifts radically and can take some getting used to, but ultimately it makes these proceedings all the more vivid, reading the words of the witnesses. The longest piece here, "Locusta in Scotland," presents a history of poisoning in Scotland, from the 16th century to the 1920s. The cases become monotonous, but more interesting is the history of the crime, from the earliest determinations that it is indeed a crime through the various advances in detection and understanding symptoms. A separate essay details a case of poisoning in 1613 that peels away layer after layer of court intrigue under King James VI and I (the Bible rewrite guy). Frankly I got lost in that one, but it sounded like a lot of dirty business all the way around. Roughead's work is best approached on literary terms, rather than purely informational, because he has an eccentric vocabulary, he can really take his time getting to the point, and he's capable of paragraphs that run longer than a page (or two). I liked the first half of Nothing But Murder more than the second, but I suspect that's a matter of fatigue as much as anything. He's charming and digressive and often a pleasure. It doesn't matter if the crimes are 20th-century vintage or ancient, it's all still crime—that eternal human impulse. It's weirdly comforting in some way to read these pieces, as if the unflappable Roughead has set out to explain the boogie man once and for all. About time someone did.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sans Soleil (1983)

France, 100 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/music/editor: Chris Marker
With: Alexandra Stewart, Arielle Dombasle, Kim Novak, James Stewart, Deep Purple

I wouldn't exactly call Sans Soleil a difficult picture, but no documentary so preoccupied with memory, veracity, and the general problem of inattentiveness is ever going to be easy. Typically, the documentaries that make it into the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? usually seem to have something a little extreme about them. Man With a Movie Camera is extremely exuberant, and Close-Up is extremely weird (and I think we decided it wasn't a documentary anyway). Shoah is extremely long. Sans Soleil is extremely opaque—or make that gnomic, cryptic, elliptical, or make that just personal, deeply. So personal it's hard to parse, as intended. "Sans soleil" is French for "sunless," meaning darkness, like fading memory. It's a one-man show of a veritable stream of consciousness free associating for 100 minutes, and if you can't make out a point, there's your point: sunless.

That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Once past the expectation of narrative (leaping eagerly at scraps and anecdotes for the through thread), once over impatience to get on with it (very important), once you remember (again) you're looking at a movie, then it can be surprising, beautiful, witty, acerbic, very sharp, in small delicious bites. The one man is filmmaker Chris Marker, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. He even wrote and/or performed much of the soundtrack. Marker traveled the world widely and filmed wherever he went. He had a gifted eye and a formidable intellect. The images are the best part of Sans Soleil, compelling, seductive, random, strained through filters and effects. They almost seem to edit themselves, while the words attempt to keep up. These images include film shot by others, such as a horrific scene of a giraffe being hunted and killed, or scenes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo (in fact, Marker's critical treatment of Vertigo is one of the best parts in a movie pebbly full of very good very small parts). In short, Sans Soleil is a compressed history of the eye of Chris Marker, as he recalls it, in parts.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

"Walking Out" (1980)

Read story by David Quammen online.

David Quammen's remarkable story is another fine entry in the man vs. nature type of adventure story. In fact, it reminds me of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" because it's a similar premise: a wintry scene in the woods threatens death if the protagonists aren't both smart and careful. Published much later in the century, Quammen's story also has a father-and-son element that is more typical of post-'60s generation gap dynamics. The main character is the 11-year-old boy David who is visiting his father in Montana. The parents are divorced, somewhat acrimoniously we understand from scattered clues, another familiar postwar element. The story is not attempting to invent anything new. It's just using what it has. So the father, who appears to have reinvented himself as a mountain man after the failed marriage, is pitifully needy for his son's approval, even as he overcompensates trying to impress him with his skills. For his part, the boy has little interest in being an outdoorsman. Off they go on a moose hunt, and it is isolated enough that they have to worry about things like bears and getting lost. On the last day of their brief foray into the woods, bad luck strikes. An unseasonal snowfall makes everything treacherous, and then some bad accidents happen. Now, severely injured and possibly bleeding out, they must get out of the woods and find help. Though the story goes to a basically unbelievable place in the end it is riveting all the way there. It's on the long side for a story, and it starts slow, but it holds interest first as a study of a father and son estranged against their will by circumstances, and then, once the snow falls, as a crackling adventure story. The language describing events as they happen is powerful and straightforward, but it's also good on what the boy is going through, and on what he sees his father going through. The point of view is the boy's, fading to omniscience for the details beyond his understanding. We are never inside the head of the father yet we come to know him well—even understanding him better than the boy, through his words and actions. The ending is a little overdetermined, and frankly hard to believe, with mishandled emphases. But you might disagree, and it hardly means getting there isn't worth the ride. This is a good one.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Monday, December 04, 2017

Lady Bird (2017)

I admit I've been suspicious of Greta Gerwig's long-trending indie queen popularity. She has appeared in movies I count among my favorites, notably Damsels in Distress, where she acquits herself well. Acquits herself well? She's one of the best parts if not practically carrying it. But she has also appeared in movies I'm less inclined to favor, such as Greenberg or Frances Ha, which already have imposing reputations but mostly looked like mannered indie-level exercises to me. She usually seems to be playing a version of the same character—a person slightly off, the kind people say marches to the beat of another drummer. That personality is still felt acutely in Lady Bird, Gerwig's directing debut and third or fourth screenplay. In fact, in many ways, Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Brooklyn)—taking the title role as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson—often seems to be doing a straight-up impersonation of Gerwig to put some of these scenes over. But that's about the end of any carping on my part. This is otherwise a tremendously heartening movie in so many good ways. It's a tender coming-of-age story, with obvious autobiographical details: set in Sacramento, in the early 2000s, Lady Bird's mother is a nurse and her father is a computer programmer struggling to survive in an industry prone to youth movements. Lady Bird, who turns 18 during the six or eight months of this story, is hungry for life and experience, ashamed of her family's modest means, compulsively trying to make it with cool kids, and committing her share of mistakes. At the heart of Lady Bird is a story of a difficult mother/daughter relationship, marked by fierce love and even fiercer alienation. Laurie Metcalf plays her mother, Marion, and she is fine. There's no shortage of quirky situations and hipster affectation on display here—among other things, Gerwig has a rock critic's taste and sense for ironically programming the soundtracks of lives—but what I like best are the scenes between people, between family and friends. They are sharply observed, develop at their own pace, almost always ring true, and they can leave you wrung out more than once in a reasonably short movie. All things considered, this is an exciting directing debut.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In my typical poky way, it took me awhile to get to Naomi Klein's slashing political / economic analysis of global neoliberalism across the second half of the 20th century, and by the time I did it all might have been obviated anyway by a turn toward nativist (I use the term ironically) authoritarianism in the US, a turn that suddenly makes neoliberalism look not so bad. That's one of their tricks, because neoliberalism is actually pretty bad. At some point in the past 50 years our wealthy friends and neighbors appear to have decided Keynesianism was a problem—probably because it worked, in terms of leveling and providing economic opportunity for more folks. Neoliberalism, in its conception, bases most of its hoodoo on the mystical magical wisdom of "The Market," and makes those folks work a lot harder and longer—generations and centuries—before it does much good, if it ever does. But at least The Shock Doctrine is still a good read, if you don't mind getting mad every day.

Maybe the biggest jolt is how Klein keeps finding ways to light up the word "shock." She goes all the way back to the coming of electroshock therapy (EST) after World War II, a treatment regime designed to atomize one personality and replace it with another (subsequently discredited though EST has been somewhat recredited in recent years, as the understanding of its effects has changed). Klein's poetic riffing on the point might even seem fanciful, at least until she starts to lay out the kinds of systematic torture practiced under Augusto Pinochet and other dictators in South America in the '70s. Partly what's so horrifying is that they were all doing the same things—the levels of centralization suggested by that are chilling and, yes, shocking. And much of it involved electricity.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"The Valiant Woman" (1947)

Story by J.F. Powers not available online.

This story by J.F. Powers is something more than an anecdote, but mostly it feels cute, focused on the relationship between a Catholic priest and his housekeeper. It proceeds from a church-approved view of priests as somewhat bumbling and inept in everyday things, implying they are distracted by their higher callings. It's a precious view of priests, especially the way it plays out in the story. The housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner, is a shrewish type in her late 30s or early 40s, who is subtly taking control of Father Firman's social life. The dynamic, of course, is the work husband and wife, two people who work together and, though they are often married to others and not having an affair, behave at work like a married couple. The dynamic between them in this story is well-known among Father Firman's community of priests and church workers. Father Nulty, who visits him on his birthday, teases him by humming "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine." Father Firman and Mrs. Stoner have an unhealthy and unpleasant relationship, but it's played off as comical, which is why I keep coming back to the word "cute." Powers has the dynamic right, I think. They play cards at night after any visitors have left, and it's a painful ritual of passive-aggressive confrontation. On the night of the story, Mrs. Stoner wins—it seems as if she might win more often than not. Father Firman appears powerless to do anything to mitigate her ever-encroaching control. She is young enough that she could well outlive him. This could go on for the rest of his life. He is obviously miserable with it. But the tone of this story is more or less that it's funny—unfortunate, yes, perhaps even deplorable, but ultimately the stuff of laughter. I'm not convinced Powers is able to get past a certain Catholic fatalism because ultimately it seems to champion a kind of unyielding stoicism about circumstance, which I'm not sure often goes to good places, as a general rule. This is Catholicism before Vatican II so it's very old school. For the most part it feels unquestioning of precepts we are very skeptical about now. It's an interesting curiosity, but not much to it beyond that.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine