Sunday, March 23, 2014

After Dark, My Sweet (1955)

I probably shouldn't complain about the novel that 35 years later became the movie that became a keystone in the revitalization of Jim Thompson's reputation. It's vintage Thompson: a drifter and ex-boxer at the center of it, falling in with and in love with a mercurial lush, whose moods switch around like the cat who thinks it wants to be outside, and she's mean when she's in a foul mood, which is often. There's also a grinning avuncular con man out of Sinclair Lewis, another familiar figure in Thompson novels, who's half Foghorn Leghorn comic relief and half deadly plot point. And what in the world are these three nogoodniks up to? Restaging the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping basically. So there are lots of interesting elements to the mix. I like seeing Thompson feel his way around the pathology of a kidnapper. Another area that looked promising, the relationship of the criminals to the boy they kidnap, only goes to predictable places after all. It feels like at some point he decided nothing about these things was much interesting. On the matter of plot construction it's reasonably sturdy, setting up and knocking down the various pins of a crime caper noir and pretty much keeping it all together for that. It's something he'd been trying for since at least A Swell-Looking Babe, and here he manages it pretty neatly. But with the parts working together like a machine the result is somehow robotic. The types are too set-in, especially Faye, the love interest / lush. Her mood swings, often conveniently serving some narrative purpose, feel mechanical, although, as always, few do mean quite as well as Thompson so perhaps it balances out. But it's not particularly believable as random behavior. Or this: our hero Collie has a history in mental institutions, to no discernible purpose other than to provide a vulnerability others can exploit. Frankly, I'm a little tired of mental institutions and the abuses thereof in Jim Thompson novels. There I said it. After Dark, My Sweet is regarded highly by many fans of Thompson—on short lists of the best, even. I'm not so convinced of that, but I don't think it's one you can skip either.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Game (1997)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writers: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris
Photography: Harris Savides
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: James Haygood
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Anna Katarina, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Daniel Schorr, Spike Jonze

In the '90s, as director David Fincher worked on branching away from the music videos (notably with Madonna) that helped make him, he drifted a lot into tricksy and self-consciously "dark" projects—Fight Club, which I don't like, may be most famous, but Alien 3, Se7en, and The Game all fit the profile too. Though later, especially with Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher found more useful ways to sublimate the impulse, much of that early work is burdened by relentless piling on with excess of excess.

That's true enough of The Game, which presents us a thriller wrapped around a puzzle box inside of a new-age bubble (which Todd Haynes had exploited far better in Safe). But the big concept of The Game remains irresistible: a company named Consumer Recreation Services sells a mysterious product known as "the game." Conrad Van Orton (Sean Penn) gives one to his brother Nicholas (Michael Douglas) for his birthday. The result is a pretty wild ride, especially the first time the movie is seen. Trying to be very careful with spoilers on this one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Roxy Music, "Mother of Pearl" (1973)


This wonderful rambling exercise runs nearly seven minutes, splitting into unrelated parts, with a furious rocking overture that devolves into an atmospheric and wheedling showcase for a Bryan Ferry stream of consciousness. It builds to a glorious climax before finally ending on a whimper. The slow-burn churn remains one of the great Roxy Music moments from their early period, following the departure of Brian Eno—it's a fact that Roxy Music has undergone quite a number of convulsive changes. To show what a good sport he is, Eno has identified Stranded, the home of "Mother of Pearl," as the band's best album. "Mother of Pearl" is about as good as it gets, among other things presenting a nice profile of Bryan Ferry's superficial yet penetrating artsy playboy aesthetic abstracted—brooding, comical, ultra-poised all at once. Ferry is so convincing, in fact, that I have to wonder if he was wearing a dinner jacket in the studio when this was recorded. Now I'm not sure I agree with Eno that Stranded is Roxy's best album (I'm still partial to the severe cabaret that makes up Country Life), but it sure as hell is good and this song is too. Let's peer in a moment at what's on Ferry's mind, as the tumbling weird words make this as much as anything: "Then I step back thinking / Of life's inner meaning / And my latest fling … If you're looking for love / In a looking glass world / It's pretty hard to find … Thus: even Zarathustra / Another-time-loser / Could believe in you / With every goddess a letdown / Every idol a bring down / It gets you down … Take refuge in pleasure / Just give me your future / We'll forget your past." Sounds like love!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hail to the Chief (1973)

Apparently everyone felt entitled to write novels about Richard Nixon along about the time Nixon started his second term, or anyway Ed McBain did. He is the author of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, and this, in that context, is his Nixon novel. Hail to the Chief strains after a Vietnam allegory (as opposed to Watergate, for which it might have been a bit early) and it mars the procedural. It's the usual fun visit with the 87th Precinct characters, the usual procedural basics, and it's not bad as political satire. It's broad as the side of a barn—the main gang leader in this garbled tale of an urban gang war, for example, is named Randall M. Nesbitt (note initials) and frequently refers to himself as "the president." What's that two-by-four imprint on your face? I surmised all this as I went—I have to think it's the first thing people knew about it going in, especially back in the day. But I happened to be blissfully ignorant at first. Though something wasn't quite right, it still mostly worked like the usual 87th Precinct tale for me. It starts with the investigation of a notably brutal mass murder, and—no surprise—as long as it stays close to the investigation it does OK. The gangs are where it falls apart, especially the whole crew headed up by Nesbitt, the "Yankee Rebels." There are pretty good passages about how best intentions ("stopping this war") can quickly escalate violence with good old unintended consequences. On the other hand, on another level, I appreciate the scorn McBain obviously has for Nixon's foreign policy and general manner (via Henry Kissinger), and also that it's focused on Vietnam more than Watergate. That's kind of different and refreshing. But it's not why I read 87th Precinct novels. But I'm glad McBain got it out of his system—come to think of it, a lot of the books in the series are him getting something out of his system, and his willingness to experiment and try things is what keeps the series fresh, a good match for his natural storytelling style. This one features Steve Carella (long since the main "hero") with Bert Kling. Kling's personal story is advanced with a proposal of marriage to model Augusta Blair. For the most part Hail to the Chief is a lot of puffed-up buffoonery about three gangs at war (white, black, and Hispanic) and a lot of really foolish slaying—which is nice to see made so explicitly foolish. But this is one for fans more hardcore than me.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Metropolis (1927)

Germany, 148 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Photography: Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann
Music: Gottfried Huppertz
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp

You don't have to look hard to find the science fiction film heirs of Metropolis—some of the biggest and best. The architecture of Blade Runner (not to mention a female robot under the control of an industrialist), all the underground scenes in The Matrix franchise, and the fundamental narrative orientation of Avatar, to mention three easy examples, still fall under the shadow of Metropolis. There's even a shot that looks like a scene from Jailhouse Rock. It's no coincidence they are decades out from Metropolis—the impact is that profound. In fact, Avatar, which followed by 82 years, makes a particularly good comparison—expensive, arguably bloated, with a stupid-simple message no one can disagree with, and otherwise a sumptuous, disconnected visual feast—an experience.

The key difference, of course, is the amount of control the filmmakers had over their final products. In the case of Metropolis, it turned out director Fritz Lang had almost none. Lang's original cut, which ran to some two and a half hours, was summarily chopped down to around two hours for American release. After the film bombed—it was one of the most expensive movies ever made to that point, with tens of thousands of extras and many elaborate costumes and special effects, but on release it made back only a fraction of its cost (in Weimar Germany, remember)—it went down the memory hole, incidentally setting the model for failure that Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, and many others would later follow. No one was particularly interested in film preservation in 1927 and that is ultimately how, long story as short as possible, I have come to own versions that are 82 minutes, 115 minutes, and 148 minutes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Doors, "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" (1971)


I'm not sure I would call the very last album by the Doors, L.A. Woman, their best—for one thing, I'm nearly as tired of "Riders on the Storm" as I am of its peers "Stairway to Heaven" and "Maggie May." But I rank it pretty high. I liked this blues direction they were falling all over. It is also home to this strange and wonderful song, which raves and thunders, looking directly into the future (if not the sun) at psychobilly, the Burning Man festival, and other human impulses. A methodical pounding rhythm section provides the foundation for Jim Morrison's heavily reverbed vocal, as he sing-tells tales of goings-on in the wilderness at night. Or the evolution of the blues. Or something. The mood is stark and dramatic and effective. The song has hold of a mighty current. Catharsis, purgation, revelry, ecstasy—all these things quiver behind and within it, underscored by the vivid lyrical scenes, the back beats cool and slow with plenty of precision, the Negroes in the forest brightly feathered, the friends we have gathered together on a thin raft. Yes, it veers dangerously close to sing-songy nursery rhyme children's music at points (it's not much of a melody for sure, and "the loss of God" is pure cheese as phrased), but it's fantastical and alive. Music for visions. Note: Texas radio and big beats are touched on here but there is nothing specifically about any white Anglo-Saxon Protestants that I can detect, except by implication insofar as they populate regions under discussion (Texas and Virginia). Inspirational line: "Out here on the perimeter there are no stars / Out here we is stoned—immaculate."

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Moveable Feast (1964/2009)

In 1975, I might have liked A Moveable Feast best of all the books by Ernest Hemingway I read. But among people I knew who disliked him it was singled out for additional revilement for its various self-aggrandizing qualities. So I wasn't sure what to expect many years later, and after disappointments with revisits to two of his more highly regarded novels. As it turns out, my interest in memoir trumped my growing suspicions that Ernest Hemingway is a charlatan, and I enjoyed it as much I had the first time. It's Hemingway's usual wooden-block alternations between description and dialogue, and his usual stoic nonsense, but it's also gossipy and fun, sometimes malicious (notably his acid treatment of Ford Madox Ford, which is cruel). On that score, Hemingway's description alone of a conversation he overheard between Gertrude Stein and, presumably, Alice B. Toklas, makes the book. His memories of F. Scott Fitzgerald are good too, providing views new for me into Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Hemingway's admiration for The Great Gatsby is so sincere and unqualified—he also praises Tender Is the Night, but I have the impression he was almost in awe of Gatsby. I like how Hemingway judges Fitzgerald as a writer, which in turn makes him willing to put himself through the agonies he describes, trying to be Fitzgerald's friend (and remembering always that the first presumption with Hemingway should probably include acknowledging the usual, and obvious, self-aggrandizement, which is real). I also like everything about Ezra Pound here, starting with his very appearance at all. Mostly he comes across as a kind of well-dressed, well-mannered beatnik, which is interesting. Even more interesting, Hemingway omits any discussion at all of Pound's World War II adventures on the side of the Italian Fascists and the consequences suffered.

On the other hand, noting the multiple dates of publication (and also that Ernest Hemingway died in 1961), I think it has to be said that A Moveable Feast is now officially a mess. Hemingway never felt he had it done before he died, and the first edition was the result of his fourth wife Mary's compositing among the fragments. The latest version from 2009, "The Restored Edition," was composited by Sean Hemingway, Ernest's grandson by his second wife, Pauline; among other things, Sean and his father (another of Ernest's sons) felt Pauline was not treated fairly in the first edition. In fact, the memoir mostly features Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, though there is some discussion (briefer and more elliptical in "The Restored Edition") of their breakup and of Pauline. I'm not about to get into the middle of such internecine conflict. Both editions are essentially the same book, and they are both very good. There might be more material in the latter edition, and I particularly liked the Fragments section appended at the end, where you get a nice feel for how Hemingway worked, like watching multiple takes of the same scene from a movie one after the other. The best way to read A Moveable Feast now just might be to read them both (though note: the earlier one appears to be a little harder to acquire, which is probably only going to get worse).

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

La maman et la putain, France, 210 minutes
Director/writer: Jean Eustache
Photography: Pierre Lhomme
Editors: Denise de Casabianca, Jean Eustache
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Francoise Lebrun, Bernadette Lafont, Isabelle Weingarten, Jacques Renard, Jean Eustache

For practically everyone involved in The Mother and the Whore, certainly director and writer Jean Eustache (who committed suicide in 1981), Paris May 1968 was obviously a critically formative time and place to be alive, aware, and active, whether politically motivated or otherwise. The events of that time are rarely referred to even passingly in this overlong movie of three and a half hours, but they shadow everything. Or something does—a sense of profound shared experience, even a devastating one, lies back of everything witnessed in this picture, which alternates blindly, like a beast, between public and private spheres, with a common mode of abject failure.

Is it important to share feelings about that time and place, or even to know and understand them? I don't think so. I saw The Mother and the Whore first in 1975, knowing very little of its background and sources, and it completely thrilled me. It appeared then like nothing so much as a very odd (and charming) epic of desultory chat and small-scale relationship hiccups, which is what it remains at its best. It only unfolds and opens from there. The more you know about the historical context the more appeal it has, perhaps, but it remains alluring and resolutely human, as in the good-humored way it keeps showing how profound the inconsequential points we make in conversation are. But the conversational points are not what's important. The connection is. And here we see, the modern condition, characters attempting again and again to connect, and failing.

Monday, March 03, 2014


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)—I think I might have been a little lost coming in for the third movie in a trilogy without seeing the others, plus it's also the first picture I've seen by director and co-writer Andrzej Wajda  Dense and complex, acutely observed, following various players in Poland on the day World War II ended and the next day, an interesting mix of the dread of Nazis and another kind of dread of the Russians.
Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader (2012)—Gallant cheerleader vs. Goofus cheerleader. Who will win? Because actually this movie has two 50-foot cheerleaders. In fairness, only Goofus cheerleader actually attacks anything.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)— Comical. The hands—watch for the hands. What they had money for. IMDb description: "When an abused socialite grows to giant size because of an alien encounter and an aborted murder attempt, she goes after her cheating husband with revenge on her mind."
Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds (1995)—Just a little bit bigger and just a little bit sillier than Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (above).
Ballast (2008)—Nicely done indie with a sharply observed story about a fractured family attempting to make it through crisis in the Mississippi Delta area. Directed and written by Lance Hammer, who seems to otherwise have only to his name some special effects credits on Batman & Robin, Batman Forever, and Practical Magic. Have seen none of them, but Ballast is definitely recommended.
Children of Men (2006)—Can really hit its stride, usually in terms of the action. There's a great ambush scene early, for example. But I wasn't convinced the premise was thought through enough—the reach of this picture far exceeds its grasp. Then again, taking on the depiction of a world more than a decade down the road from the end of all human fertility tends to beggar imagination in the first place.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Monster of Florence: A True Story (2008)

I was mostly disappointed by the report of this true-crime case, not so much because it hasn't been solved yet as because such an extraordinary level of seeming ineptitude has been associated with it. "The Monster of Florence" was a serial killer who operated in and around Florence, Italy, starting as early as 1961 or as late as 1974 (depending on various theories) and stopping in 1985. The killer preyed on couples in isolated lovers'-lane settings, killing quickly with the same gun, and then taking time for horrific mutilations of the women victims. There was never evidence of his own sexual gratification in any of the murders. It's something of Italy's Zodiac killer. Who he was, why he did it, and why he stopped—even whether it was a man—are largely unknown. For this book, American writer Douglas Preston, who has authored a good many fiction and nonfiction books, teamed with veteran Italian crime journalist Mario Spezi, one of Europe's foremost "Monstrologists," to get to the bottom of it, 15 years after the last murders. It's a case full of dead ends. More than that, it's a case full of good old-fashioned official corruption. And as soon as that becomes evident the whole story becomes at once more important to tell and considerably less interesting, just more bad-faith government actors. As events proceed, both Preston and Spezi, who have naturally enough been critical of the maze that the official investigation amounts to, come to find themselves subject to investigation, and jail. By the time we are at the second half of the book the original case is all but lost in the confusion. Italian authorities attempt to get away with more than one Baghdad Bob type of stunt. Preston, again naturally enough, loses interest in much of anything else after he has been indicted on various trumped-up charges, and Spezi is actually incarcerated. There was one interesting detail, but it has nothing to do with the Monster of Florence. One of the worst of the Italian officials in this case was also involved in bringing murder charges against Amanda Knox, which helped clarify my take on that case a little. Otherwise all you really learn here, sadly, is that official corruption exists, and it scares the hell out of writers with comfortable lives. Speaking strictly for myself, I already knew that much.

In case it's not at the library.