Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thieves Like Us (1937)

Edward Anderson's second of only two novels is a quiet and glum affair born of the Great Depression, yet proceeds in such stately and plainspoken fashion that it almost belies the variously lurid goings-on documented. Three hard-bitten jailhouse buddies—Elmo "Chicamaw" Mobley, T.W. "T-Dub" Masefield, and Bowie Bowers—bust out of an Oklahoma prison and return to the life they know, crime, setting off on a spree of bank robberies across Texas. They live high, blow the dough, and go at it again. It appears to be the way they roll. Most of the action is related from the point of view of Bowers, who during the course of the story takes up with a teen-age girl named Keechie. The couple, during periods when the gang is laying low, set up house and lead a decent, simple, and appealing way of life. At the time, Anderson was hailed as a contemporary of literary figures such as Hemingway and Faulkner, and bank robbery, of course, was all the vogue—figures such as John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde were huge folk heroes. The title derives from remarks made by the characters about bankers and other capitalists, a none too popular bunch in '30s America. If this novel lacks the complexities explored more fully by, say, Theodore Dreiser, the world that Anderson constructs (or reflects) will nonetheless be familiar to anyone who knows Dreiser or other American naturalists: the game is stacked against the little guy, routinely obliterated like an insect by circumstances, some of his own making, some not. There's no point in caring and what if there were, etc. To Anderson's credit, and perhaps the reason he won and still wins very high accolades, he never overplays his hand. The bank robbers are hardly admirable—not even Bowers, though he comes closest—but the system in which they live would never help them anyway. Anderson lets the talkiness of his characters tell this part of the story with no histrionics and always by careful, deliberate measure. There's a feeling of inexorable fate and doom closing down on practically every page even as events move along briskly, and even as pleasure, joy, and self-satisfaction are briefly found by the thieves. Although the novel has been in and out of print many times during its history, it has been made into two movies, one directed by Nicholas Ray in 1949 (called They Live by Night) and the other by Robert Altman in 1974, neither of which I have seen.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dylanesque (2007)

A welcome surprise—for me, emphatically, both a surprise and welcome. It was Bryan Ferry's first album in five years, and I had sort of lost track of him, can't even remember the last time he released a full-on covers project—the '70s? Oh, OK, I see he took a Linda Ronstadt/Rod Stewart-like flier at pop standards in '99, which obviously didn't make much impression on me. But putting the focus so squarely on Bob Dylan is the real surprise here. Arguably chutzpah, but what a choice selection it is, from all phases of the storied songwriter's fabled career, including one ("Make You Feel My Love") from 1997's Time Out of Mind, all of which works I think to justify my decades-long sense that Ferry "really meant it" when he covered "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." A lot of pre-punk glammers were Dylan fans, secretly and otherwise (David Bowie, for example, pays his backhanded tribute on Hunky Dory), and a good number of usual suspects show up here such as Brian Eno, Chris Spedding, Paul Carrack, and Robin Trower, to name four (keeping in mind that "one of these things is not like the others"). Reviews of this that I've seen are largely lukewarm, and it's true that the sound here hews closely to the Avalon style that Ferry has rarely abandoned since the early '80s. Nevertheless, it reminds me all over again what a gifted and coverable songwriter Dylan is, a fact established on the top 40 charts in the mid-'60s, with the Byrds, Turtles, Cher, and others stampeding in to get in on this action. For that alone it's worth the price of admission. But, still, it's hard to find a whole lot of clear lines and definition in this sticky bun of an album, whose songs tend to shuffle along and blur into one another—not one particularly steps forth to distinguish itself, though if I had to choose I guess I would point to the more obscure Dylan songs here such as "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" or "If Not for You." But if nothing is an outright hit, neither is anything an outright miss, and in many ways it's a pleasure simply to hear this quasi-collaboration cum tribute go down, and appreciate the fact that it exists at all.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

USA, 118 minutes
Director: John Badham
Writers: Norman Wexler, Nik Cohn
Photography: Ralf D. Bode
Music: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, David Shire
Choreography: Lester Wilson
Editor: David Rawlins
Cast: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali, Paul Pape, Donna Pescow, Bruce Ornstein, Julie Bovasso, Martin Shakar, Val Bisoglio

Dated, of course, but only because it is so '70s—or is that a tautology? It must be my way of saying "iconic," which is the burden this one has set itself and fulfilled, deliberately and practically from the start, with the posters of Farah Fawcett-Majors and Sylvester Stallone and Al Pacino in the bedroom of Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) finishing the job that the opening credits sequence previously attempted (and succeeded!) with the "Stayin' Alive" and foot walk and pizzas and layaway shirt and everything. You probably know the basics. Lower-middle-class Italian-American kids (read: hoodlums and/or at-risk youth) getting out of high school to face the big world, not yet knowing who or what they are or can be. Complications ensue, with dancing to Bee Gees songs. But does it work, and if so, does it work still? The answer, surprisingly, is yes, and yes again, for me anyway. One thing that helps is that it's more low-key than we may be conditioned for any more, surprisingly so, and at the same time probably more coarse as well. It appears to bear still a hard "R," for the nudity and the language. Gratuitous bare breasts and the word "cunt" make appearances here, and while the former was more or less SOP for the movies in the '70s the latter was not. This is no Grease camp, actually, but a rather gritty story of surviving and coming of age in Brooklyn in the '70s. And, yeah, Travolta is pretty good, both as a dancer and, even more surprising for me, as a screen actor. He is particularly good in the family scenes, where he is funny, always believable, and often touching. The dance floor, meanwhile, effectively represents the other world that everyone here yearns so incoherently for—the bobbing bodies graceful and almost stately, the music energizing still. The dances of the time do appear odd and eccentric, with copious random finger pointing, untoward squats, various crotch-pulling strolls about the floor, etc. And then all this "Latin hustle," "New York hustle," "tango hustle"—I guess maybe that was for real at the time, but it sure as hell sounds like tin-eared parody now. I only saw people flailing themselves about at the discos I went to. But then the iconography reaches out and smacks you in the face again—Tony Manero and Stephanie, his dancing partner and Brooklyn escapee role model (played by Karen Lynn Gorney), in the big studio, rehearsing, playing a number, holding hands, leaning back, spinning one another 'round. On the soundtrack: "More Than a Woman" by the Tavares. The visions of disco balls and haze and coifed, writhing bodies. Beautiful.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"When Doves Cry" (1984)

46. Prince, "When Doves Cry" (June 9, 1984, #1, 5 wks.)

Even in retrospect, something about this always felt immediately and almost viscerally inevitable, like a change in seasons and the storms it brings, the crack of a voice that has deepened, a death in the royal family. I don't think anything had ever sounded quite like this before. But for decades since, there has arguably always been something on the charts that sounds a bit like it in one way or another—the audacious stomping beats, open spaces, intermittent drilling guitar attacks, lilting keyboards, a melody that hooks instantly and a touching story at pains to make itself transparent: "How can you just leave me standing? Alone in a world that's cold (so cold) Maybe I'm just 2 demanding Maybe I'm just like my father 2 bold Maybe you're just like my mother," etc. I remember, in its time, hearing it out on the streets coming from boomboxes everywhere. Rarely has an inescapable song of the summer ever announced itself quite so inescapably. For about a month it seemed like every day people lined up everywhere to play it on boomboxes while they stood on line for tickets to Ghostbusters. "His Knee Highness," as we sometimes rudely called him, was making a move in the media war with Michael Jackson that Michael Jackson probably didn't even yet know he was involved in. Prince: with a movie of his own, starring him, that had a story, a real sad story, and what's more, a soundtrack that started off sounding this good? Jesus fucking Christ. How could he possibly miss? No one was exactly ready for it. He really blew the roof off with this one.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Come as You Are" (1992)

47. Nirvana, "Come as You Are" (April 18, 1992, #32)

Yeah, yeah, R.I.P., Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994. Get that out of the way. No, this is not the song that tore down the wall and liberated a generation. That was "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which you can remember by its vastly more iconic title. But I think that this, the second go at the top 40 and also from the Nevermind album, is probably the better song. It has the gloomy moodiness Cobain is famous for, much of it compressed into the canny, lilting melody he has concocted, which enables just the bass and a simple drum pattern and his voice to carry a lot of it, certainly all the way to the chorus, where things are suitably filled out with escalating tensions and big guitar chords and hard hit drums and so forth. What is he going on about? Something about a gun? Memory? "Memoria"? There are many syllables in the verses, almost chanted—"Come As you are As you were As I want you to be As a friend As a friend As on old enemy"—but it's also kind of hard to make out the words as he's singing. It is the point with so many Nirvana songs, the voice straining against the notes straining against the words and the tension obscured and resulting frisson, followed by release. This is one of the finest they ever did. It just soars, floats off like a hot-air balloon and twirls in kodachrome daylight, and it's so beautiful for a moment it's almost overwhelming. It was fun watching that horse get out of the barn, but gosh dang, the songs were always there too, and there are now far too few of them. If I may register that tiny and perhaps insensitive note of complaint on the matter.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Love to Love You Baby" (1975)

48. Donna Summer, "Love to Love You Baby" (Dec. 20, 1975, #2)

Before I ever found the camp values in this, let alone the musical, it seemed to me first of all shocking, raw, almost pornographic, and I couldn't believe it was on the radio, particularly the long version, which clocks in at just under 17 minutes. "Can't believe it's on the radio" is one of my favorite genres of music so naturally I was instantly intrigued. I remember visiting a friend at the time who had just moved into a basement apartment somewhere off Lyndale and Franklin in Minneapolis, all fitted out with bars on the windows, which ran along the ceiling edges. It was a studio apartment that came with a space heater in the fireplace, which glowed orange, with fake blocks of charred wood. That was rather strange for an apartment at the time. We hoofed up to a nearby liquor store and bought beer. It was winter and there was snow on the ground. It had been about a year so there was some catching up to do. At one point this song went on, the long album side. Hearing now what I was hearing then it's hard for me to figure out, beyond I guess the sexualized moaning and groaning, what was so shocking. A lot about it is conventional, formally structured, rigid in its way, almost overly so, and most of it is not particularly sexualized. But it still felt sleazy and cool at once and even as we were giggling nervously as we listened, lights down and candles burning, that's when I noticed that the apartment windows on the ceilings showcased bright blue and red neon lights from outside, further obfuscating normal bounds with the orange glow from the fireplace, as Donna Summer and her various technicians smoothly modulated through their paces, like a big float in a small town parade.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"One Nation Under a Groove" (1978)

49. Funkadelic, "One Nation Under a Groove" (Nov. 4, 1978, #28)

Damn, I was tickled to find this in my Billboard book. I didn't know it had been released as a single, let alone became a top 30 hit. I knew it rather as the best song on the album that bears the same name (that's the cover up top), a track that lasts 7:29 and could go seven times that if I had my druthers. I don't actually know what time the single came in at but it had to be less. Truth to tell, the melody here is a little slip of a thing, though elongated and with many permutations, working with the pledge of allegiance and the swearing-in oath and the hide-and-seek call and "feet, don't fail me now!" and "can I get it on the good foot?" enough to get inside your head, and throb there—which is all that George Clinton and his players ever need anyway. I like the way that Clinton's various projects often sound so laidback on the attack, hypnotizing you like a slow-tempo'd bunch of loose-wristed ol' hippies woodshedding. Then you start to notice how insistent and sinuous the rhythms are, and how wild-assed the variety of elements, the whistles, congas, fretless bass, the chick singers doing yeoman's work on the chorus, the unfolding song and all its levels as one curtain opens on another, a series of song fragments like recurring movie wipes, building to ... play all night, man. The thing is riding on a real big engine.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Night of the Jabberwock (1950)

Fredric Brown grew a checkered 20th-century career as a newspaper proofreader in Milwaukee turned into science fiction and mystery novelist after establishing himself as a story writer in the '40s and '50s pulps. He was prolific, author of dozens of stories and many novels, whose quality varies. He's always good, carefully written, but may feel rushed, working the hell out of one or two surprise tricks or snap twists, and supplementing that with broadside parody when nothing else would do—a Midwestern O. Henry by way of H.L. Mencken wishing he could be Sinclair Lewis and damn proud to speak it so proudly, yet always with a gentle, affable humor. The aliens turn out to be advertising men on the other planet, or the gladiatorial combat actually was about a corporate merger, things like that—'50s man in the gray flannel suit stuff basically straight up, with proto-Rod Serling twists when he could manage them and occasional splendid results (fans included Philip K. Dick, Ayn Rand, and Mickey Spillane, it says here). Nowhere else that I've seen did Brown get it together quite so economically and so brilliantly as in this little gem, whose surprises come regularly as the story becomes stranger. It doesn't really cheat with anything, which is just the start of what makes it so good. By its setting, it's already one of Brown's most personal novels—a quiet Midwestern town where our narrator, a newspaper publisher in his 50s who longs to break just one big story once for his weekly paper, has just put the paper to bed for the week and headed off into the night with a bottle. Right on cue, weird stuff starts happening. First there is someone pretending to be a character out of a Lewis Carroll novel waiting for him at his home with a strange request. Before our narrator can hear him out he gets a call. Something about a serious auto accident involving prominent citizens on the outskirts of town. On the way into the office, he discovers the town bank being robbed. Then gangsters, guns, eventually more Lewis Carroll, a haunted house, and murder. Things happen fast and the action is rat-a-tat precise in this short novel. Everything happens practically real-time across the space of a single night, and the whole extravagant Alice conceit is delivered on nicely, the reading experience of it like the funhouse scene in a cartoon, with trapdoors, sledgehammers, teacup cars, cigar-smoking bad guys, bizarre images in the mirror, all of it coming at you like a freight train right down the tracks on you. Really. A big ride. Suspenseful too. And the drinking is amazing. Just delightful from beginning to end.

In case it's not at the library (you better hope it is, looks like).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

These Foolish Things (1973)

Sounding as fresh today as it did practically 40 years ago, but is it a miraculous accident? I always thought there was something special about this, a kind of first-ever "tribute" album even if it is all done nominally by one artist about several others but basically the same proto-new wave idea—wackee coverz. It's the redoubtable Bryan Ferry in his first solo outing after what? A couple of Roxy Music albums? The cheek! And then to roam so wantonly and yet obviously deliberately from Bob Dylan (start with Bob Dylan) to Ketty Lester to the Crickets to Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley to Lesley Gore, and I'm still on the first side of the vinyl LP, which packs 13 songs in to a set that constantly surprises. The big showboat version here of "Don't Worry Baby" gets within shouting distance of the Beach Boys original—I would even say it's the better of the two, quite impressive. "It's My Party" is obvious camp, then and now, and yet the band and performance are extra hot somehow. And the Dylan cover I think is no send-up; whatever Bryan Ferry the singer is concerned about in this song, however he is interpreting "hard rain," he does sound like it's something he cares about. The second side arguably loses its way some, with off choices of songs if not artists: "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones, "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey/Miracles, and "You Won't See Me" by the Beatles. But it redeems itself and any outstanding doubts about the album as a whole with a gorgeous take on the title song, a Depression-era standard written by Eric Maschiwitz and Jack Strachey and recorded by Dorothy Dickson rife with lovely images: "A tinklin' piano in the next apartment / Those stumblin' words that told you what my heart meant / A fairground's painted swings" and "The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations / Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations / Oh, how the ghost of you clings." Look, I know I'm giving Bryan Ferry big, big props here on taste alone. But there are also a good many fine performances and much comical nuance surfacing along the way in this charming mess. That it sounds better than ever is only more cause to celebrate. Somebody open a bottle of champagne.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Run Lola Run (1998)

Lola rennt, Germany, 80 minutes
Director/writer: Tom Tykwer
Photography: Frank Griebe
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy
Cast: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nina Petri, Joachim Krol, Amin Rohde, Heino Ferch, Suzanne von Borsody, Lars Rudolph, Ludger Pistor

There is something tremendously exciting about the first 30 minutes or so of this one, which only seems to grow the more I see it. Probably it's something as simple as the kinetics of the running and all the physical movement, not to mention the fast cuts and active camera. But director / soundtrack man Tom Tykwer does deploy his frenetics well. "The ball is round," says a middle-aged man in an official's uniform, stepping forward from the chaos of the opening images and murmurings and ominous synthesizer chords. "The game lasts 90 minutes. That's a fact. Everything else is pure theory. Here we go!" That's the kind of brash gesture that makes this audacious meditation on time, death, love, and opportunities lost and found work as well as it does. Instantly we are plunged into a low-level crime caper in which the stakes have grown sky-high just as we arrive and we are off and, yes, literally running with titular Lola (played with neat economy in a great performance by Franka Potente). In fact, even as her first sprint takes place, the film is so impatient to move that it briefly switches to vivid, pulsating animation. Everything here comes in twos and threes, as a kind of three-part mini-Groundhog Day suite unfolds across parallel time streams. It reads like a comic book in many ways, proceeding panel by panel, set piece by set piece, with broad strokes of fulgent mise en scene. Practically every person and every event seen once will be seen again—incidental characters appear very differently as their individualized contexts are constructed and unpacked and played out repeatedly, even as the central 20-minute arc goes through its paces. Yes, true enough, so much of what you've probably read and heard is true. It's an awful lot like a music video, saturated with garish primary colors and a pulsing techno soundtrack. But even there Tykwer is perfectly willing to switch things up on us if so called for, as with the surprising and effective appearance of Dinah Washington in a very nice, quasi-sepia Bonnie & Clyde set piece. Flashy and short as this is—this game actually lasts only 80 minutes—it is also a dense and thorny thicket, with plot points unrolled and re-tweaked and running off toward horizons at a dizzying pace, making it almost too tempting, particularly by the third act, to try to stop it and rationalize it through, figure out the various implications, morals, etc.—heck, even the basic shared reality. The first third stands as the strongest, with its bag of tricks still essentially fresh and new. The second third is a delight for touching base with that again. The third act may be a bit labored and overwrought, furiously trying to connect dots I think don't necessarily need it. But put that down as a tiny complaint. It's just so much fun getting off the launching pad with this.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Genius of Love" (1982)

50. Tom Tom Club, "Genius of Love" (April 10, 1982, #31)

So the husband and wife rhythm section of Talking Heads, for whatever reasons, decides to split off on its own in 1981 for a side quickie project. Something to do with David Byrne's release schedule? It's true that the albums came slower in the '80s, and the various personality conflicts began to harden into what they appear to be today, a great chill. But whatever. They did it. It was fluffy as a pancake and ultimately, with the butter and syrup, just about as filling. But that seemed hard to believe at first. In fact, arguably, this band, this album, this song—take years to fully reveal. It does seem so aimless, doesn't it ... tuneless ... childish, all together or each track on its own, including this. Until the moment when it kicks in, and then you belong to it forever. This is the one that did something extra special right, got peeled off as a single (hey, why not?), and somehow found its way to the top 40. Lord God there is justice in this world. I guess I must be a fan because half the pleasure for me is just that they did it at all and the other half keeps uncoiling still. Longer versions better versions—there are many versions, you know that. It's so almost nothing at all, just tripping on its rhythms and sounds and bouncy beats, until like cotton candy forming on a cone the little grainy wisps repetitively begin to cling and wrap around our heads, fluffy and pretty and sweet, and we just want to hear it again. And what's the hook to all this, the secret ingredient around which it all binds? Chant with me now: "James Brown. James Brown. James Brown. James Brown." Next thing you know Afrika Bambaataa might take a notion too.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"School's Out" (1972)

51. Alice Cooper, "School's Out" (June 24, 1972, #7)

I suppose that for most of the '70s this pretty much represented summer, plain and simple and that's that. It was on the radio, it was here. Get out the shorts. A decade or so of that. Early on, this also came off a little dangerous somehow, a bit menacing or juvenile delinquent, all of that due of course to the creepy Alice Cooper image. But when you listened close, the juvenile that it's full of is on the level of school kids: "We got no class / And we got no principles / And we got no innocence / We can't even think of a line that rhymes." Oh yes they di-id, and the June chant of "no more pencils no more books" too. Twice. And clanging school bells pealing and the excited cries of youngsters in hallways erupting tell the story too. Plus, the best part, the rock band rave-up has a roguish swagger and raw driving force that is entirely charming, talking about salutes and marching and so forth. Alice Cooper's voice is the raw wound that has always served him well, leading the charge, and he's got his hands on a real live wire with this "school's out" business, which let's face it, who doesn't that get the blood pumping for, with the possible exception of parents. The thing just soars on the chorus as he and some big guitar licks playin' fool let it rip on top of a martial attack from the rhythm section. This was presumably the moment when adolescents eager for the releases of summer and hot weather lost all control and started up a whole dancing mayhem. Except I'm not sure exactly how much dancing mayhem that actual adolescents actually do. I remember keggers, for example. But you get the idea.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Tired of Waiting for You" (1965)

52. Kinks, "Tired of Waiting for You" (March 27, 1965, #6)

Here's one readymade for singing along with at the top of your lungs, at least if you're fortunate enough to have lungs in the right range and amenable mates. Just for the sake of common sense I save my bellerin' for the car when I'm by myself. It's lucky for me that this happens to be such an enduring staple on a certain persistent (not to say virulent) style of oldies programming, so I still luck onto it all the time, even on road trips. Especially on road trips. The whole little trilogy of mid-'60s hits by the Kinks, in fact, which this ended with a flourish (after "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," not that I'm trying to shoehorn in extra titles or anything) is my favorite moment of many fine and strange ones from this protean unit and its variations (notably, elsewise, "Lola," The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and the influence on the Pretenders). The impatient swagger and the impotent whining so elaborately on display here, the back-bending beats scattered across the toms with a hard turn for the bass player too, those electric guitars—there was no mistaking this for anything but Kinks music 1965 and real fine indeed. Everything about this particular model meant business, skinny ties jackets winklepicker boots snarls and all. This was still quite early in the British Invasion, a step behind the Beatles and Animals with the Stones. The reign of the Kinks may not have lasted much longer figuratively than these lovely sturdy two-and-a-half-minute rock 'em ups do literally; they wouldn't score another top 10 hit after this for more than five years. Still quite a wallop.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"We Gotta Get You a Woman" (1970)

53. Runt, "We Gotta Get You a Woman" (Dec. 26, 1970, #20)

Todd Rundgren the blue-eyed soul guy from Philadelphia always had more than the singing to make his way. In fact, his singing may have been among the least of his talents in some estimations; he dallied in the '70s and '80s with new age fusion fantasies and various metal/punk pretensions and won fans in those areas and those arenas too. But back when he was a hitmaker it was the songwriting that mostly did the work, as here with this poignant scenario, two guys talking things over in aw-shucks guys to guys manner about women, mostly a pep talk monologue, one-sided. This whole song is one-sided. Who the hell is Leroy and why should I care about whether he's gotta get a woman? All those questions are answered, most of them in the tones of Rundgren's voice, the way he shifts and sighs as he directs his speech over Leroy's shoulder and directly to us. He manages to make the song as comfy and Sunday afternoon as soft pants out of the dryer, speaking words of wisdom that we immediately recognize: "I tell you now we're going to pull you through / There's only one thing left that we can do / We gotta get you a woman / It's like nothing else to make you feel sure you're alive." Then the turn to the wryly goofy, as the music unexpectedly slows and sweetens: "Talkin' 'bout things ... about that special one / They may be stupid but they sure are fun." And, last but not least, the sudden turn to awkward inhibition as the singer suddenly gulps and sees the picture clear: "And when we're through with you / We'll get me one too." Yeah, you bet they will.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Veronica (2005)

Mary Gaitskill's second novel is vastly more skilled than her first, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (which I think is quite good even so), perhaps because it's more on a par with her highly skilled stories, collected in Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, which are amazing. Before she is anything else, Mary Gaitskill is an agonizingly precise writer, finicky but breathtakingly inspired, plunging directly into feverish scenes of wanton desperation and madness, drugs and sex and so forth. Her language is engaging yet dazzling; one often feels as though standing in a museum room empty of people, bristling with brilliant and attractive and seductive detail. The action of the plot is irreducibly simple: a woman walks up a hill in San Francisco and remembers things. Out of that, Gaitskill has hatched a world that gleams with veracity and allure and deep wells of connotation, one it's easy to lose oneself in. The woman is named Alison Owen and her walk takes place more or less in the present day. Now facing health issues related to various hazards of aging (hepatitis, in her case, along with a disability), her memories are of then and now, where she was and how she got here, from glamour days in the late '60s and '70s and into the '80s in Paris and New York and across the globe when she worked and earned prolifically as a briefly celebrated fashion model. Alison steps into her past gracefully; it is evidently a place she visits often. Her mind goes a million directions at once, constantly. She takes these walks to help her sleep at night. The titular Veronica is an old friend of hers, one who attempted to stand slightly outside of the milieu of beautiful models and drug addicts and other parasites that she (Veronica) nevertheless found endlessly stimulating. And Veronica managed to find a safe niche for herself with a good vantage, as a freelance proofreader. But alas, those times, she (Veronica) fell in love with the wrong person, acquired HIV, and succumbed early to AIDS. So she is entirely gone during Alison's walk, died years earlier, living on as so much does here almost exclusively in Alison's brooding memory. Veronica may ultimately represent a strange doppelganger for Alison, but Gaitskill patiently whittles out the shapes of her themes, the truths and the sensory details both. The memories churn inside Alison, often about Veronica, and Gaitskill renders them, and the times in which they occur, so vividly that it is uncanny. Even with almost nothing going on, this turns out to be a real page-turner.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spike (1989)

Elvis Costello's final dispatch from the '80s was every bit as sad as the two that had preceded it by three years. Sadder, if that's possible. Life must have been dealing him a lot of lemons. As it happens, it was dealing me lemons as well, so I found something here that was at once intimately familiar and yet foreign and strange, seductive and off-putting too. With this set of some 15 songs, Costello, aka God's Comic, retreated so far into his Britishness that one song, an instrumental performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band called "Stalin Malone," does not even require words. Why bother? Just cursory glances at this and other titles give hint of the agenda here: "Let Him Dangle," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "Tramp the Dirt Down," "Satellite," "Any King's Shilling," "Last Boat Leaving." Listen closely and you can hear the sound of a soul chilling to rigor. Play it in the background and—you can't. As temperate and considered as all the music stubbornly sounds on close examination, it's not music that will recede with any grace. It will only go away if you turn it off. Otherwise it is the glum world of God's Comic, where humiliation and cuckoldry are the order of the day and "despair" is just another word for nothing left to say. I think it's humorous that this was Costello's idea of putting his best foot forward for a new label, Warner Bros., having left Columbia. I guess the singles are there if you want to look—"Veronica," a Paul McCartney collaboration, which even made the U.S. top 20, his best ever on this side (and one of many interesting such collaborations Costello has taken on, starting approximately here in his long career, but not one of the better ones). For me, it's in for a penny in for a pound—if it's going to be dark, let's make it coal black, as on, for example, "Tramp the Dirt Down," which is about a visit he envisions to the grave of someone who has not yet died even now, 21 years later, Margaret Thatcher. He can't wait for her death to happen, you see. I know that feeling, or something like it, though mine are related more to localized political figures of the United States or others altogether than anything to do with British politics. In my mind, that's just there for the universality. After all, Costello takes nearly all of six minutes to consider the Thatcher graveside matter closely, which is perhaps above and beyond by anyone's measure of civility. Bitter, I'm trying to say. Very, very bitter.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Adaptation. (2002)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman
Photography: Lance Acord
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Ron Livingston, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Judy Greer, Cara Seymour, Jay Tavare, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich

Note that "Donald Kaufman" listed above as co-writer should rightly appear with the scare quotes as there is no such person and never has been. Just another trick up the lengthy and tortuous sleeves of the wily screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose third or fourth feature is notionally based on a pop science book by Susan Orlean, an expanded "New Yorker" article and popular reading club selection, The Orchid Thief, but produces with director Spike Jonze more exactly a movie about the detours that proceed from that notion. As if to demonstrate that their fingers never leave their hands, they take the most auspicious opportunities to telegraph the decision points of their story and what is to come of them. Almost immediately, for example, via the dizzying mouthpiece here, Nicolas Cage, who plays both of the Kaufman twins Charlie and Donald attempting to write the screenplay (or "adapt," as the conceit goes, the Orlean book) and announces that this won't be "an orchid heist movie" or about "changing the orchids into poppies and making it about drug running." "I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases," he goes on, "or characters learning profound life lessons, or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end." And then, at the about the two-thirds point, the frustrated Charlie Kaufman visits Mr. McKee, a well-known Los Angeles script doctor who teaches expensive public seminars on the arts of the screenplay; Charlie detests him and everything he stands for, while Donald adores him and has been finding success with his strategies and urging Charlie to study him. Now Charlie, in a neurotic burst of energy, is driven to consult with him in New York. "The last act makes a film," says the script doctor (nicely played by Brian Cox). "You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end and you've got a hit.... Find an ending. But don't cheat. And don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change and the change must come from them. Do that and you'll be fine." And so we head to the big finish of this very strange collaboration between writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. (Their first, Being John Malkovich, was about as strange.) Does it work? Please define "work" and "does." There's a lot going on—orchids, biology, a "New Yorker" article, a risky movie deal, dull lives of the professionally creative, and the history of evolution on earth—and just as obviously a lot of its antecedents can be found in various Woody Allen movies, where they are generally more charming and amusing. Nicolas Cage, if I need to tell you, makes a particularly repulsive variation—even if he leaves Woody spitting up dust in terms of acting chops. Cage's performance as twins is really quite stunning. And look who else is here: Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston, cameos, more. Bravo! To be sure, there's a good many pleasures along the way, with the sneaky-pete detective work and auto accidents and guns and drugs and sex and everything else they managed to get in, and yes, the character arcs too. Is it a little busy? Honey, do you have to ask? I haven't even got to that annoying dot in the title.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Sweet Soul Music" (1967)

54. Arthur Conley, "Sweet Soul Music" (April 1, 1967, #2)

Arthur Conley died in Ruuro, Netherlands, at the age of 57 late in 2003. A Georgia native, he scored this as a talented 21-year-old under the tutelage of Otis Redding, with whom he reworked Sam Cooke's "Yeah Man" into this lively name-checker, launching a career that would eventually take Conley to Europe permanently after 1977. With a pedigree like all that the most surprising thing, perhaps (or perhaps not), is that he stayed abroad for most of the rest of his life. His talent is scattered generously across all epochs of his work, but I don't know any better than this brisk and deftly turned example of a scenester signpost workout (triumphalist cheerleading of regionalized sets of acts, cf., also that spring as it happens, "Creeque Alley" by the Mamas & the Papas, stumping for the folkies in LA). The song puts us in the action, out at the go-go kicking up heels in the discotheque and riffing one after the other on tunes by Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and James Brown ("he's the king of 'em all, y'all"). Even just the sure way that the mimic Conley moves from character to character, staying within each for the space of a verse or even just a line or two, provides remarkable pleasure, particularly when he seems to feint, and so knowingly, at the scream styles of Wilson and Otis and James, each varying in subtle degrees. You would have to say, at the least, that Conley was an apt pupil. (You would also have to note that, recorded at Muscle Shoals, the band and the horns routinely kick ass up and down and across the less than two and a half minutes that this thing lasts.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"I Think We're Alone Now" (1967)

55. Tommy James & the Shondells, "I Think We're Alone Now" (March 11, 1967, #4)

This is a long-time favorite perhaps fallen somewhat in my estimation from overuse as much as anything. But it has been awhile since I've had even tiny fits of obsession with it. I'm living on the memories now. Yeah, the appeal is juvenile; clearly intended to be: "Children, behave," it starts. "That's what they say when we're together / And watch how you play / They don't understand." No, but pretty quickly we do: "And so we're running just as fast as we can / Holdin' onto one another's hand / Tryin' to get away / Into the night." Yes, we see! Two more crazy mixed-up kids in love with one another in a big crazy mixed-up world. A world that doesn't understand. If only it could. Just look: the driving beat, under all the teenybop foofaraw—the claptrap drumkit and wheezy organ and Tommy James's teen twang and all of it—is a human heartbeat, caught briefly in the breaks that expose the bass player. And hearing just that can have the effect, like dark drumming scenes in black and white movies, of making you want to sprint suddenly like when you were a kid and just a few doors away from your own house after dark, pick up and run as fast as you can, out of adrenaline and fear and jumping joy to have to have the power to leap to it and move like that. Tell me how sex or anyway making out with an attractive young partner at the end of that wouldn't make one's feet move all the more fleet and quickly. Then tell me this song hasn't roared through you like fire. Imagine. You might be alone now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"Rock With You" (1979)

56. Michael Jackson, "Rock With You" (Nov. 24, 1979, #1, 4 wks.)

I remember this song playing always at night and I heard it most often when I was driving. It got under my skin right away, so sinuous and groovy and focused so deceptively on its dance floor preoccupations to a degree ironically almost credible. After all, I don't want to "rock with you" on the dance floor as such. That is intended, appropriately, as the prelude. But that's how Michael Jackson did it. It was always the alluring glow of the distance that exists between the performer and the fantasy and the reality, and the potential of the glamour within those spaces. And that's all it ever has to be, just about the dance, because the dance is ultimately about everything. And that's also how Michael Jackson did it, however you tend to identify and define "how" and "did" and "it." He was a master—and here I have to give all credit to his unerring pop instincts, which he had and they were true, which ultimately helped to earn him the rather sad and misleading label of the "King of Pop," even if it was true enough in its way and in its day. Much about Michael Jackson, including this lovely interlude, seems to me now to be extraordinarily timebound, of a particular and peculiar era that is bounded on one side by various disco convulsions and on the other by hideous and notably painful media excesses. In between, this suave and confident young fellow made the case for the return to mystery wherever he could find it and make it. He sure as hell wasn't a little kid anymore. He was all growed up now, and he seemed to be onto something with both his arms around it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"I Just Want to Be Your Everything" (1977)

57. Andy Gibb, "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" (May 28, 1977, #1, 4 wks.)

The best song by Andy Gibb and with only one exception I think the best of everything from the family in toto. I mean, Barry Gibb is co-author, and it comes at arguably the height of their powers within the disco empire. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a Bee Gees song. And what a Bee Gees song. When they reach for those high notes on the chorus, feeling for the "I" in "I just want to be your everything," it feels and sounds for a moment as if it could be angels themselves, a herd of them, standing at the finish line waiting for you, cheering you on, putting down all their side bets for you. They're bringing this horse in and that horse is you. In fact, they've got the house down on it. They just want to be my everything? Uh, that's a little general, isn't it fellas? Uh, no, JPK, that seems to be exactly as intended. This bracing little piece turns its figurative face full to the sun, absorbing and casting back the light all radiant and pure and blinding, a simple and brave statement of optimism even in its embrace of an insouciant confidence, not to mention the hope it explicitly engenders. Oddly, this came at a time when the Bee Gees seemed always to surprise, following one on another a minor string of hits and, even at that very moment, in the process of parlaying a movie tie-in into a small-bore empire of its own. But that was for the future. For the time being there was this simple and expedient and supple and breathtaking declaration.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935)

Horace McCoy is another newspaperman of the Great Depression who turned to crime fiction after arriving in California, followed shortly by a career and steady work as a screenplay writer. His first novel eventually became a movie, but that wasn’t until nearly 15 years after his death. As with a surprising number of the novels that series editor Robert Polito collected for the Library of America two-volume set of crime novels, it's as inventive and sure-footed as it is dour and gritty. In this case, some typographical stunts help ground the basic setting of the novel in a courtroom at the moment sentence is pronounced, with the context gradually filled in by a series of extended flashbacks. Robert Syverten, the narrator, and the defendant, is a bit of a Jimmy Stewart character, by temperament anyway, who has shown up in Hollywood to make his fortune. He meets Gloria Beatty, a few years older and far more chewed by the Hollywood grind of the time, which feels alive with detail. Both need to make money and Gloria suggests the marathon dance, an event that fortuitously is just about to start when they meet. It's a foolish idea, of course, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and as the details of their participation slowly unfold it becomes apparent just how desperate those times and measures were. Marathon dances went on for days and weeks and months. Contestants here are allowed a 10-minute break every two hours and otherwise go around the clock; that break time must be used for eating and cleaning as well as sleeping. Contestants are required to keep moving to stay qualified, which necessitates partners taking turns sleeping on their feet while the other drags them around the floor. Periodic events such as footraces are also staged to liven it up for the sake of drawing crowds and cruelly to eliminate couples more quickly. For something that may seem from our vantage as quaint and goofy as stuffing telephone booths or swallowing goldfish, it quickly becomes evident what these things really were, and it's no wonder they were eventually outlawed. Gloria, for her part, remains resolutely a complete and relentless downer, bitter to the core—that has something to do with her eventual demise, an act perhaps more effectively framed as one of mercy than malice. The book is no marathon itself but rather another quick, pointed, and sprint-like exercise that nonetheless seems to get well under the skin of its times.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Blood & Chocolate (1986)

I said before that I have often had the feeling that Elvis Costello's two releases of this year were intended to offer a choice. If that's the case, this is mine. It's not the first but it is the last of his albums, to date, that has grabbed me immediately, and by the throat. No prep work required, no warm-up time necessary. I only needed to hear the first two minutes of "Uncomplicated" to get some sense of how much I was going to like it, and by the time I got to "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" I was already well and completely sold. There are a few arguably objective reasons to justify the choice, perhaps greatest that this proves once and for all that the Attractions are Costello's greatest accompanists. Then, too, this is more profoundly rooted in the punk-rock that provided the context for Costello's emergence in the first place. One of the most complex figures of his time and place, he has always, of course, been vastly more than a safety-pinned punk-rocker, if indeed he fits that profile at all—in terms of image and sound, the antecedents are all classic rock, Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan and the Edwardian Stones. But the fury derived from punk-rock, and few have ever done seething anger better. So if, in King of America, Costello retreated to his classicist side (which has previously served him well, perhaps best in Get Happy!! ... though perhaps served best of all in King of America), here in Blood & Chocolate he pulls to another side, the furious misanthrope—which has also previously served him well, perhaps best in This Year's Model. And, because that happens to be my favorite of all his albums, it's probably why I prefer Blood & Chocolate to King of America. Don't get me wrong. I love Get Happy!! (and King of America), and when forced to make a choice I will ultimately make the one I have already made: both. Don't give me either/or, give me "both." But across the dusty years, I have surely spent hours and hours more with Blood & Chocolate—it always waits there for me, ready to go. Push play. The band is thick and walloping and if Declan's mood is no better than on King of America, he opts here for sarcastic and bitter than for self-pitying and sullen and despondent, and that has made all the difference. Obviously these were not the best of times for him, but just as obviously he reached deep, in the case of both albums, to produce the kind of work that's worth spending a lifetime, all of a long lifetime, living with and occupying. Not every day. But there as needed.

Friday, October 08, 2010

River's Edge (1986)

USA, 99 minutes
Director: Tim Hunter
Writer: Neal Jiminez
Photography: Frederick Elmes
Cast: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Roxana Zal, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua Miller, Dennis Hopper, Josh Richman

In the mid-'80s, following a period of rehab from a well-known substance abuse problem, Dennis Hopper made a vigorous return as a screen performer. Most would agree that the best of these is Blue Velvet, which is where I'll take my stand, though others of a perhaps more conventional bent likely favor Hoosiers, which is also pretty good. River's Edge is not in the class of either but it's better than Robert Altman's execrable O.C. and Stiggs, which came out the year before (I still haven't seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which sounds like another memorable performance). The point is that just with this handful of films to go by it's not hard to make a case for Hopper's surprising range—even if he's just riffing on some variation of a demented loon (and, to be sure, that's exactly what he's not doing in Hoosiers) his performances still come with an awful lot of nuance suited to the particulars of the individual screenplays, and it doesn't seem to matter if they aren't the best screenplays. He's still obviously hard at work. In River's Edge, as a grotesque, pitiable man-child among children, Hopper tends to play it low-key. That's probably for a good reason—coherence is generally in short supply around this joint, and by and large the younger these actors are the less believable are their performances. Ione Skye is mostly competent but that leaves us otherwise with Crispin Glover (an annoying chewer of scenery here), Keanu Reeves, and Hopper to deliver the goods, and Hopper's role is relatively minor, though he raises every scene he's in a notch or two. It's actually arguable that the best performance here is turned in by a corpse, the ever tender and loving photography of which brings an unnerving and strangely unifying element to the proceedings—although even that isn't altogether original as that year also saw another movie, Stand by Me, that features a bunch of kids happening on to one. Here, of course, that corpse is the result of one of the gang of disaffected California youths on which the movie is focused killing another. He kills her, smokes a joint, goes to school and yells confessions, and then everybody shows up (at the side of a river, natch) to gawk at the corpse and act out their various designated roles of modern teen alienation and/or burgeoning maturity and engagement. It seemed edgy for its time—soundtrack by Slayer, based on an actual incident in Milpitas, and with that mesmerizing corpse—but maybe time itself has turned its back and eroded that impact. Or maybe I'm jaded now. For the most part it leaves me indifferent.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Salvador (1983)

Though this comes in at just a little over a hundred pages—less than that in the Everyman's edition—it still stands as one of Joan Didion's best nonfiction works. Taking on the task for the "New York Review of Books" of examining Reagan administration efforts in El Salvador in the early '80s, she uncovers a whole lot of ick when she turns over the rock of that particular foreign policy. Reporting from the ground (she was there during the early summer of 1982), she is uniquely suited and in particularly good position to cover the dread and horrors and various hallucinatory stresses produced by a war zone, even if it's the kind of simmering, just barely restrained war zone she encounters in that small Latin American country, about the size of Massachusetts, which suddenly loomed so large for U.S. right-wingers at the time. I should say rather especially if those are the conditions. Didion bravely tries to pick apart what the conflict is about, even as dozens of people are dying gruesome deaths every day all around her, their bodies turning up mutilated on the sides of roads and piled in mountain cul de sacs, eventually brought to overworked morgues for the frustrating and ultimately impossible work of identification and disposal. It's not safe anywhere after dark and in many places it's never safe at all, but she does what she can. She listens carefully to the public statements, interviews all the principals who will sit for her, and attempts to fit it all into the authoritative histories she has lugged along with her. But as with Vietnam—and it's no coincidence that the best companion book for this is surely Michael Herr's Dispatches—there's little sense to be made of it. It starts from the fever swamps of right-wing abstracted thought, proceeds through various shadings of the greed of war profiteers and the otherwise generally power mad, and concludes with the some of the most powerless people on the planet systematically slaughtered willy-nilly to further the aims of ... something. In the argot (down the road), "Mistakes were made." Didion, of course, who famously has no patience for such lunacy, in this case has little time for it either. She's too busy trying to keep herself alive and maintain relative sanity, and the hell with poise, as she shuttles about this menacing jungle, continually trying to find ways to make the pieces fit together. They don't, and she penetrates to that brilliantly. In the end perhaps the best she can do is headnote it with a lengthy passage from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. When that short novel stands in as your moral compass, you know there's going to be trouble.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

Saturday, October 02, 2010

King of America (1986)

I've always felt that the two 1986 albums from Elvis Costello, following a fallow period for him of a few years, represented a kind of choice. Whether he intended it that way is less clear. But in any event either one of them, let alone the two of them together, certainly represented a return to form for him in blazing fashion. This one, true to its title, harks self-consciously to his enduring American sources (even as it excoriates American culture), country and soul and rhythm and blues, along with, as Robert Christgau remarked, "a bunch of studio pros Steve Stills himself could get behind": leveraging the services of such enduring landmark figures as T-Bone Burnett, who produced, along with studio sidemen James Burton (always the first Elvis's first choice for guitar), Earl Palmer, Ray Brown, Jim Keltner, Ralph Carney, David Hidalgo, Mitchell Froom, etc., etc. An all-star cast, in other words, for cognoscenti of mid-century American popular music; you can look 'em up. Costello, for his part, parades around in the credits as Declan MacManus, his given name, as Elvis Costello, the stage name he came to realize with this that he was stuck with forever, and as the Little Hands of Concrete, Nick Lowe's nickname for him; the band is credited as The Costello Show (featuring Elvis Costello). All of which makes it fair enough to observe that, at the age of 30, MacManus / Costello / Concrete appeared to be suffering something of an identity crisis. But it's one that's resolved by the evident plunge here into the one thing that obviously bears most meaning for him, the kind of wordy, dark, and deeply felt music that has sustained him, and often the rest of us too, these many years. The mood throughout is almost somber, and often anguished, which all in itself makes it one of his bravest efforts. If I'm going to carp about anything—and I hesitate to, given how satisfying this can be, and how perfectly suited to certain temperaments of mood—it's the familiar complaint of mine that, as with much of his later material, this requires a bit more study than I care for before it starts to give up its finest treasures, i.e., "you need to listen to it a few times before you can really get into it, man." I suppose that's just me and/or my obtuseness and/or laziness, and as I say, I'm not about to deny this is one of the very best in his entire catalog, certainly top 10 ... or is, anyway, when I'm in the right mood for it, which requires some patience and prolonged exposure if I've let too much time get away from me.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Ring (2002)

USA/Japan, 115 minutes
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Ehren Kruger, Koji Suzuki, Hiroshi Takahashi
Photography: Bojan Bazelli
Cast: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Richard Lineback, Daveigh Chase, Lindsay Frost, Pauley Perrette, Brian Cox, Jane Alexander, Amber Tamblyn, Rachael Bella

The Ring is a moderately effective horror show with a nifty premise and many nice little touches, all of which it took from the Japanese original of four years earlier, Ringu, but much of which it successfully improves on. The basic idea is that there is a videotape floating around out there that comes tumbling all too easily into the lives of teens and people we know. It plays like a bizarre art-damaged film school project, but one look at it and then the phone rings, a hoarse voice whispers, "Seven days," and just like that you've got a week to live. Oh, and also your face is distorted in photos from that point forward. A vague sense of déjà vu may occur because this movie lifts liberally from disparate source material such as Videodrome (the cathode ray tube as imponderably malevolent), Eraserhead (fucked-up art film also means no good), and Scream (in the overture, which seems tempted to play it for laughs). There's even a cute and quick reference to Rear Window, and some confusing and thus distracting lifts from the TV show "Six Feet Under," which was still new at the time this was made and so maybe it's just some kind of unhappy coincidence. But that tree on top of the hill, and a close-up of rolling gurney wheels, sure look familiar. For much of the overly long middle section, it comes across like Blow-Up or I guess more like All the President's Men as our intrepid reporter hero, Rachel (Naomi Watts), sets to work in dusty libraries and dingy AV studios getting to the bottom of the mystery. It has a beautiful look, shot in dark interiors and gloomy overcast and rain, overlaid by a sickly greenish cast that evokes disease as much as the ubiquitous TV-distorted / -derived staticky fuzz that seems to permeate everything. As by the numbers as this continually drifts toward, particularly when it gets into the weeds of its plot, it nevertheless paces its many fine set pieces so you never have to wait long for the next impressive sequence, or at least small-bore shock: strange things occurring to bodies inside and out of dreams, the elements of the strange film within a film itself, and one very startling and gripping scene with a horse gone mad on an undocked ferry boat. The last 30 minutes or so go through a kind of "my sister / my daughter / my sister" gyration between happy and miserable endings, finally landing on a way to mix them both that leaves us at once relieved and a little sickened—nicely played. I can't say this gets better the more times I've seen it. I suspect this most recent may also be my last, certainly for awhile. It doesn't have that much more to yield up, though the fast-paced editing promised that it might. But the story remains an effective one, the surprises rarely cheat, and some of the things, even when you know they're coming, will still get to you—for example, the picture above. Look at it as much as you like. You're still not going to be prepared for the way you see it in the movie the first time. Hey, a spoiler that doesn't spoil. That's a pretty good sign with horror.