Thursday, June 24, 2021

"They Bite" (1943)

Anthony Boucher's moody classic WWII-era horror / Western story has a desert setting and unsettling spy overtones. It's fast and effective with lots of surprises, but I think what I like best is its working knowledge of terrifying true-crime cases, such as the Bender family in Kansas circa the early 1870s. These fiends set up as an inn for westering pioneers and murdered an unknown number but at least 11. The motive was robbery but they were notable butchers. Boucher even throws in a preening name-check of William Roughead and one of his classic case write-ups about a 16th-century murder by poisoning within the royal family of Scotland, nothing to do with anything here but fun to see. The Benders were human beings in real life but not exactly in this story, which says they moved west and become the Carkers, long slender brown weird immortal monsters that strike swift and sure. Interesting theory. Yes, they bite. They're never seen except in reaches of peripheral vision, fleetingly. "They Bite" takes place in a desert town in the West called Oasis. Our hero is a regular white guy but also a spy for Axis powers. He's there checking out the doings at a nearby military airfield. He has an old friend who blackmails him when he figures out what's going on. Our hero is not a good man. Outside of town are abandoned adobe dwellings where no one lives anymore, except the Carkers. Carkers is a good word—you sort of have to clear your throat or bark like an animal to get it out. Boucher's descriptions are more dancing and allusive about them than concrete for most of the story, a nice use of misdirection until we finally come face to face with one. There's also a mysterious grizzled old miner guy who won't say any more about them than the title of the story. The reader is allowed to imagine them and then compare notes with the shuddering reality at the end, as the story explodes to its inevitable conclusion. This subtle approach to exposing monsters as such is reminiscent of the original 1942 Cat People and other movie productions where the viewer is asked to do a lot of the work of imagining the menace. "They Bite" does not particularly rise to the level of jolting fear but instead is better, much better, at gnawing tension, with a nice blast at the end. Considering that our good guy is actually a bad guy—you'll see more about why—you might say it's a happy ending. Either way a stone classic.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Clock Winder (1972)

I want to call Anne Tyler's fourth novel a gothic. There's an unkempt mansion, deaths and suicide, mental illness, and generally some sharp edges. It's her first to use Baltimore as a key setting, though it's not the only setting here. Tyler's college town of Raleigh, North Carolina, is important too. It might be the first actual Anne Tyler novel, the end of a long four-novel formative period—she sounds a little embarrassed by the early ones now. The Clock Winder is uneven and has some gaps arguably, but I like the grotesque Emerson family. The novel's main character is Elizabeth, the handyman to whom the Emersons offer a home. She is competent where they are not, and a certain type of hippie lost soul. The family matriarch, Mrs. Emerson, is the other important character here, a woman capable of deep commitment to her shallowness. She can't understand why her seven children have turned out the way they have (eight if you count an early death). As the novel begins Mrs. Emerson has recently become a widow. Elizabeth walks by and offers to help her move some furniture she is struggling with, and just like that, Anne Tyler style, they fall together. Elizabeth moves in as the house handyman and though she is disaffected and remote she soon enough bears emotional responsibility for these oddballs. In a way I like these earlier grotesques from Tyler, before she learned to sand off some of the edges for warmer, more quirky characters. I like how you can see her feeling her way toward that even as her sense of the world is more stark. Some of the Emersons are better than others, and the worst can be very bad, positively dangerous. They're not really such harmless kooks—I like that. I like Elizabeth a lot too, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a shallow wife. Elizabeth is a reflexive truth seeker. She connects and disconnects very easily. She's super-competent in a low-key way in the context of the Emersons, but believes she is otherwise a perennial screw-up, awkwardly wrecking everything she touches. The feeling of competence the Emersons give her is what attracts Elizabeth to them. I can understand calling The Clock Winder flawed, but I also thought it was interesting and unpredictable all the way through. Tyler is obviously a good storyteller before she is anything else. And I like her own fondness for grotesques, who try her patience as much as they charm her. They are an essential part of life to her.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

Gram Parsons spent six months with the Byrds before moving on, but he left a big mark with this short album—11 tracks, 32 minutes. Ambitious Roger McGuinn intended it originally as a double-LP survey of American popular music across the 20th century, following the heady psychedelic Notorious Byrd Brothers. But under Parsons's messy influence they decided to make it country. Indeed, it's considered the first country-rock album by many although I've never quite figured out how "rock" figures into much of it. It sounds like country tinged with folk to me mostly, and in the wrong mood I can hear it as a parade of creaking cliches. At least they're good enough they never sound like wannabes, which is impressive and likely more the result of the Nashville session cats they rounded up. It was a hectic time for these folks. Look at the tight timelines in 1968: January, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is released; February, Parsons joins the band; March, recording of Sweetheart of the Rodeo begins; August, it's released and Parsons has already left the band. Part of his short time was further clouded by the prospect of a lawsuit from his former label (headed by Lee Hazlewood), which contended he was still under contract to them. Talk about rolling stones: on to the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and iconic death at the age of 26. Sweetheart of the Rodeo reflects some of Parsons's, McGuinn's, and the band's (not to mention the world's) turmoil, mostly in the roiling murder ballad and tormented soul undertones of the material, in the dim forlorn sadness of these old songs themselves, accorded utmost respect but with some inevitable roughing up here and there. The range of songwriters is impressive: Bob Dylan of course, the band's brand, but also the Louvin brothers, William Bell (!), Woody Guthrie, and Merle Haggard, plus a couple of originals by Parsons. It's not a typical Byrds album by any means but it's the one I seem to return to the most—bearing in mind I've got mostly a lifelong blind spot for the band and I'm pretty weak on country too. In the late '90s a friend was excited about Wilco and had an idea he was digging country-rock and was curious about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a name-check in the write-ups. Good thing it's so short! Playing it for him confirmed my notion there's virtually no "rock" to this album at all. He was clearly turned off and seemed to be looking for a way to leave the room. Rock was absolutely dominating in Wilco, needless to say, with country waving a begging bowl. It was a comical episode but clarified for me that Sweetheart of the Rodeo 1) is not really a rock LP, 2) is not really a Byrds LP (or a Gram Parsons, for that matter), and 3) can easily be taken as a citadel of country cliches. The more I listen the more I think what I'm attracted to is the combination of those Nashville session players (notably pedal steel guitar players Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness) and the inspired taste of the Byrds principals in their song choices. Also, they can sing. This is one really everyone needs to hear at least once—for my friend back in the '90s, I helped him get his out of the way.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

UK, 163 minutes
Directors/writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Photography: Georges Perinal
Music: Allan Gray
Editor: John Seabourne Sr.
Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Albert Lieven, Arthur Wonter, A.E. Matthews, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Ian Fleming

Things I didn't know: "Colonel Blimp" was a British political cartoon that began in the 1930s. The character was an ancient harrumphing military veteran with a walrus mustache, potbelly, and reliably fatuous opinions on issues of the day, which he brayed from the comfort of Turkish baths. So that explains why this UK Archers production has no one named Blimp in it (I don't believe the word or name even occurs across this lengthy picture). What's more, the character who is obviously set up as his type, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey with literally a stiff upper lip—you'll learn why, and also why the mustache), is still in good health at the end of the movie and quite alive.

This epic, lively, and colorful picture came out in the depths of World War II. The death it seems to be talking about is more of a Colonel Blimp-like idea: faith in German honor. A lot of people had a hard time shaking that off. It's one reason the Nazis were so effective. Only a few years before, French director Jean Renoir was celebrating the class solidarity of aristocrats across national lines in La Grande Illusion, showing the respect and decent treatment officers accorded one another even in P.O.W. camps. That's the world Colonel Blimp knew, and it's the world Clive Candy knows too, a veteran of the Boer Wars and the Great War and in the present day with duties in the Home Guard, protecting against the air raids of 1940. His best friend in all the world is the German Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who Candy must face in a duel of honor before they find their way to fast friendship.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Overall I liked this documentary—it's alarmist about social media in a way that may feel overdone, yet I don't think it is. Social media, as innocuous as it seems from day to day, very likely represents a grave threat to the social order. We have seen plenty of evidence of that in the past 10 years or so and it is not getting better. The Social Dilemma also suggests the solutions are within reach, such as a point one of these Silicon Valley talking head experts makes about the heavy regulation of Saturday morning television, a known time period dominated by children watching. With the move to online social media, however, there was no parallel regulation. The example used is YouTube Kids, a Google site that promises all kinds of parental controls. But in many of these cases the reality is that the kids are way more savvy than their parents, plus on a general note it's never been a good idea to ask corporations to regulate themselves. The fact that there is no political will to push through these necessary regulatory controls is where I think the alarmism of this picture is most well-placed. I always want to point to Reagan retiring the FCC Fairness Doctrine in the '80s as the start of most of our current political problems. Probably I just need to point to Reagan himself and the modern Republican Party, which are forces that social media, notably Facebook, is actively aiding and abetting because doing so is making them billionaires. The experts assembled are knowledgeable, many having basically invented social media in the first place, and they are worried. One of the most interesting factoids here is that most of them strictly control the exposure of social media to their own children. Unfortunately, the picture—still worth seeing and by everyone—undermines itself too often by turning to the tools of docudrama, with trite little illustrative reenactments and skits that are too condescending. I got used to reenactments in true-crime TV, where they are common, but they are always a little awkward and with an air of phoniness. They remind me of the skit in Woody Allen's Love and Death that was presented to soldiers on the eve of battle in the Napoleonic Wars, warning about the dangers of syphilis. I admit one continuing skit here—with AI personified as three people discussing what to present a specific user next in a feed—was actually helpful to me in understanding the concept, which I have a very hard time getting my head around, of someone like me being the product that is sold to others in the social media chain of being ("if you're not paying for the product you are the product"). The skits still felt a little dumb, unconvincing, and overplayed. That might be just my experience but it isn't, as a discussion earlier this year among Phil Dellio, Steven Rubio, and Scott Woods makes clear. But I still think everyone needs to take a look at The Social Dilemma. And then DELETE ALL YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS. I say this as a rank hypocrite who spends too much time on Twitter every day, and Next Door some days, but please, do as I say. Look at this documentary.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Before the Frost (2002)

Definitely some new wrinkles to the Kurt Wallander story in this later Henning Mankell novel—most notably that it features Wallander's daughter Linda, who has become a police officer after spending her 20s figuring things out. In fact, it's more her novel than Kurt's, intended as the first of a trilogy. It was never finished because Mankell was too distraught after the actress playing her in a TV production committed suicide. This reminds me I should check in with some of the Wallander TV and movie versions one of these times. Kenneth Branagh plays him in one. As always, Mankell's plotting is solid, but Before the Frost still feels a little underbaked somehow. Mankell scheduled the climax of the action here for September 8, 2001—yeah, he generally has his stories all charted out on timelines. Then he appeared to feel the need to acknowledge 9/11. His bad people this time around are radicalized Christians—including a survivor of Jonestown, in an audacious stroke typical of Mankell. This guy is the mastermind, utilizing all the lessons he learned from Jim Jones. Using radicalized Christians as a plot point might have felt awkward for Mankell in the immediate aftermath of a new level of radicalized Muslim strikes. But I'm glad he stayed the course. Radicalized Christians are at least as much trouble. Part of the feeling of lack of development in this one is likely due to the planned trilogy never being finished. These events all take place just before Linda starts her police career, and there's also a new love interest for her (reportedly from another non-Wallander novel by the busy Mankell). Before the Frost more seems to be exploring the relationship between Kurt and Linda, parent and grown child, complicated further because Linda is an only child of divorced parents. The fights between Kurt and Linda are abrupt and absurdly brutal. Also, at least one character, Ann-Britt Hoglund, is suddenly almost unrecognizable. She's remarkably cold to Linda. What happened here? I thought Hoglund was one of the most interesting side characters in the Kurt Wallander series. Other detectives seem slightly different too, but it's more in line with Linda's point of view. Another weak element is that one of Linda's closest childhood friends is a pathological liar and this comes as news to Linda. You'd think she'd have noticed by now. Interesting curiosity in the Wallander series anyway.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

"A Case of Eavesdropping" (1900)

Here's another good ghost story by Algernon Blackwood, an early one. I'm starting to think I like his ghost stories even more than the ineffable weird stuff like "The Willows," which is the usual story designated to represent him in anthologies. With the ghost story so much is already given yet there are so many variations and Blackwood was canny about working them. This is more like a haunted house tale, set in an empty rooming-house in exotic New York City. Note that traveling Englishman Blackwood is good at many things but a New York dialect does not seem to be among them. Or maybe that's really how flinty Yankee landladies talked at the turn of the 20th century. It's bizarre. The rooming-house is empty because it's haunted but our man, Jim Shorthouse, doesn't know that when he takes the room. He's an itinerant ne'er-do-well working the nightshift as a reporter. Think Weegee even if Weegee is a later era. Shorthouse, by the way, would be seen contending with another haunted house in another Blackwood story six years later, "The Empty House." What's particularly good in this one are the special effects, even though even then they were likely well-known: heavy footsteps on the stairs, pounding on the door, voices heard from another room in tense exchange. All this is in the middle of the night, of course, which is approximately when you should be reading it. Simple things like footsteps stopping outside the door just completely give me the willies here. Blackwood holds it there for several beats before the knocking starts. Scary! It's not actually our man's door, as it turns out, but the door of an adjoining room with a flimsy partition between. This is what enables Shorthouse to overhear the strange, confusing, and terrible exchange between a father and son. Another nice effect, later, toward the end, is when Shorthouse feels himself sickening in his bed and weakening, unable to move, as he hears the voices next door speaking quite clearly. The landlady knows the place is haunted and she's used to it. She just wishes these tenants passing through would get used to it too and stay. Somehow she makes it all worse—maybe it's the alien dialect too but she is a wonderful element. Staying is not in the cards for Shorthouse, however. He is bound to bug out, if he can, shortly after the impressive crescendo scene. Great ghost story—it works on me every time.

Read story online.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

A Complete Lowlife (2001)

Writer and illustrator Ed Brubaker has gone on to bigger things with DC Comics and Marvel since this interesting little indie project. Full disclosure, I don't know any of that but I picked up on this back then as a partisan of Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, Joe Matt, and all their comics-as-autobiography followers. So this "complete" Lowlife amounts to a handful of stories that appeared across a series of five comic books with two publishers. They are plainly in the vein of Pekar—Brubaker acknowledges him in an introduction—telling true stories of youth, petty crime, boredom, drug use, and immature relationships. My poor old tired eyes had some problems with some of the tiny hand printing, but most of these stories were entertaining and full of pathos. The characters are the usual motley assortment of obsessive fan types, celebrating cool but kind of nerdy. There's a great anecdote in one story about a job he takes at a collectors' bookstore, where he learns about the trade, sees others ripping the owner off, and starts ripping him off too. He feels shame about it but is defensive too, and then his feelings are hurt when he learns the owner knew about it all the time and now scorns him. At one time I might have liked the girlfriend stories best but now they just make me sad. Brubaker's stories might suffer a little because he is withholding detail, but there's a pretty fine balance when it comes to lacerating self-confession. Brubaker has some reasonably ugly stories to tell about himself, but even across the space of this series, which started and ended in the '90s, he seems to have turned out all right. One thing you can't miss is that eventually he abandoned the memoir mode and went more or less directly to superheroes. He's won a lot of awards too so he must be pretty good. He's a writer now almost exclusively and his interests are in the noir style and hard-boiled detective fiction. Just in 2019 he won an Eisner Award for "Best Graphic Album – New" for a project called My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, which is apparently a rehab story. It's not that hard to see how he got there from here. But my heart is closer to here—closer to these obsessive semi-narcissistic nerds working out their personal problems as they grow up, more often than not ineptly. I think Brubaker is also a pretty good illustrator, though on the simple and primitive side. I can see why he chose to work with others later but I like the unadorned style of this whole project.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Phantom Thread (2017)

USA / UK, 130 minutes
Director/writer/photography: Paul Thomas Anderson
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Phantom Thread is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie about a very fine dressmaker and fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is living, working, and fussing in postwar midcentury London with his sister and manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville). It's a quiet, elegant picture, and boomers particularly are likely to find ecstasies of nostalgia in the period work, though much of it is interiors and costumes, with some cars, servants, and the usual exquisite manners. I took it in 2017, and in many ways still, as artifact of the same Anglophile impulse that has made people big fans of Downton Abbey, The Crown, and other such productions adoring of all things British. I admit I didn't give Phantom Thread much of a chance.

On a second look, it seems more remarkably eccentric, with a strangely perverse love story, a bit like Punch-Drunk Love. The rowdy Adam Sandler has been replaced by the suave consummate Laurence Olivier of our very own era. I'm not sure that works either but it's more interesting than I originally gave the movie credit for. Emily Watson and Vicky Krieps play similarly robotic, vaguely alien yet lovely creatures, which probably tells us more about PTA than about either story. I'm taking the title of Phantom Thread to mean the tenuous connections between people more than anything about sewing and needles, and I'm starting to think Anderson is more like a novelist taking it directly to film.