Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Kill-Off (1957)

The Kill-Off is Jim Thompson's second bite (at least) at the As I Lay Dying apple, along with The Criminal. I associate the narrative strategy—multiple first-person stories by different characters from chapter to chapter—with the 1930 Faulkner novel, which now that I think of it has its own sources in the epistolary tradition of literature, alternating personal communications of different characters, which of course goes way back: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a very fine example, and that's from the 18th century. But taking it out of the realm of letter-writing, perhaps prompted by influences of cinema with its cut-and-paste editing, Faulkner (or someone else?) came up with something that proved popular with noir writers of the '30s and '40s, and here is Thompson doing it again. Indeed, it feels like a carefully refined approach to the strategy. No character gets more than one chapter, for example. Thompson attempts (almost comically sometimes) to strike and maintain a specific voice for each one. But his two basic modes predominate: a foul surly turn of character mood whose foundations are beyond our ken alternating with a kind of prissy (and hilarious) formality. It is the usual candy store of taboos: alcoholism, adultery, miscegenation, incest, murder, rape, de facto slavery. Too bad there's not a fetish involving kitchen sinks. A lot of The Kill-Off was not convincing to me, notably the racial situation. It's set in a New England resort town for no particular reason. Characters have names like Pete Pavlov and Marmaduke "Goofy" Gannder. Still, I have an intense curiosity about one thing: What did people spending the original 35 cents make of these novels? If I had a time machine I'd like to travel back to 1957 or 1958 and strike up a conversation with someone I saw reading it. I should say the plot for The Kill-Off is reasonably well worked out. But the cast is so uniformly grotesque it's hard to care about or even follow all that's going on. A rich old woman sucking the energy off of a much younger man, a corrupt doctor and his mysterious maid Hattie, random nightclub shenanigans, prostitutes, surly jazz players, surly carnival moguls. Where do you put your hat down? Don't forget the weird structure! As for the title, it has something to do with Pillsbury Bake-Off competitions, which were popular in the '50s.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, West Germany, 93 minutes
Director/writer: Werner Herzog
Photography: Thomas Mauch
Music: Popol Vuh
Editor: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera, Dan Ades, Edward Roland

Pretty much everything we have come to know and love about Werner Herzog's idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking is already present in his early masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God: a location fraught with peril, hardships for everyone involved, Klaus Kinski the impossible, otherworldly music from Popol Vuh, a dim and bleak view of human history, and a genius for working with what is available, including indigenous extras, a barrel of squirrel monkeys, and an idea for building a ship onto the top of a tree. The whole thing was shot using just one camera (which Herzog had stolen), and the majority of it is made up of one-take shots, which is understandable given the exigencies, but all the more remarkable for how sure and brilliantly visionary it is. Cinematographer Thomas Mauch deserves high praise, with Herzog (and Kinski), for making Aguirre unlike anything seen before or since.

By focusing on the 16th-century European mania for gold in the New World—notably the search for a legendary "El Dorado," which New World natives likely invented simply to placate the European explorers descending on them—Herzog found nearly an ideal vehicle for his ongoing meditations on human foolishness writ large. He never questioned how to go about it. Asked on the DVD commentary if he considered using studio soundstages, Herzog responds emphatically, "The story takes place in the Peruvian jungle. You have to go there. There's no alternative."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bread (1974)

I have to be resigned when I go off on binges of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain to reencountering books I have already read because I couldn't remember the title when I was swooping them up in shopping frenzies. It's too overwhelming to consider reading them in order—over 50 titles, published between 1956 and 2005, not to mention I happen to know some of the early entries are rough (because I have tried to read them in order before). So I just plunge on in when the McBain mood strikes again. Bread is where I started on my recent rounds, and ultimately this round-up project, and as it happens it's not one I had read before. It's got an intricate plot involving fraud and/or larceny of some kind and eventually multiple murders and assaults. It introduces an interesting character from another precinct who would go on to become a series semi-regular, Fat Ollie Weeks, a bone-deep racist with disconcertingly good police instincts, who among other things slips into an annoying W.C. Fields routine when he's in a good mood. I was just reading on Wikipedia how much McBain felt he owed Jack Webb and Dragnet—I don't think I had known that before, though it makes sense, and indeed (full disclosure) Jack Webb is one of my own favorite filmmakers, within and beyond the procedural subgenre. Because of the time frame when I first became acquainted with McBain I have more often associated the 87th Precinct series with Hill Street Blues, which owes it many obvious debts. But yes, now that you mention it, even that opening disclaimer McBain used at the front of all these books—"The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique"—clearly derives from Dragnet's "This is the city, Los Angeles," etc. Sometime I will have to get into the matter of police procedurals a little more, because I'm not always on board with the most popular ones in this post- / hyper-forensics period we now live in (e.g., the whole CSI franchise is lost on me). Homely true-crime TV trumps them consistently I think. But there's a lineage last seen in the Law & Order standard-bearer (less so the offshoots) that wends back through Hill Street Blues and Dragnet and finds a nice place to dwell in the majority of these great McBain novels and stories. Read 'em by the handful.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

USA, 83 minutes
Director: John McNaughton
Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Photography: Charlie Lieberman
Music: Ken Hale, Steven A. Jones, Robert McNaughton
Editor: Elena Maganini
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on the career of one of the more puzzling serial killers in the annals of crime, Henry Lee Lucas, who though he was a murderer eventually turned out to be more of a serial confessionalist than serial killer. At any rate, the picture is not any kind of documentary work, nor, according to director and co-writer John McNaughton, was it ever intended to be. Various crucial plot points, notably the presence of a camcorder, confirm that. Thus, whoever may ultimately be considered authors of this story—screenwriter Richard Fire and McNaughton, the corrupt Texas officials who brought their open cases to Lucas, or Lucas himself—it's more fiction than fact. But the story remains fascinating, and terrifying, for exactly that reason: because someone imagined it we somehow like to think a creature like him could exist. Because he could. Couldn't he?

With the possible exception of zombies, most of the monsters we associate with horror pictures find their sources in the 19th century, whether it's science gone dreadfully wrong (Frankenstein, 1818), dissociative personality disorders (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), vampires (Dracula, 1897), or even the specific shapes of all those messes with ghosts and haunted houses (various entries from Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Edgar Allen Poe). This is true as well in the case of serial killers, with Jack the Ripper (and, somewhat less, Lizzie Borden). But I get the feeling that the serial killer subgenre is slightly more disreputable among horror aficionados, perhaps because the source is factual and historical rather than literary, involving much more real trauma than imagination.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Is Your Brain on Music (2006)

As pop science books go, I think this one is pretty good. Author Daniel Levitin put in some time as a studio session player before going on to college to become a neuroscientist, which gives him something of a broader view than one normally expects, able to discuss Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, and rigorous scientific inquiry with equal facility. The results are fascinating and often illuminating. Among other things I found some support for my (slightly weird) contention that learning to sing note for note and vocal tic for vocal tic enable one to momentarily actually become that person, in a way (see posts about Buddy Holly, Prince, and Lou Reed). Music, it turns out, is not just universal and ancient among human beings but, biologically speaking, requires massively complex coordination across many different regions of the brain, which are all active all at once in the presence of music. Music becomes a kind of externalized essence of being fully alive. What's more, the unique patterns of brain activity produced in someone hearing a piece of music are virtually identical to the patterns of brain activity in the musicians playing it. This suggests a profoundly intimate connection among people that is caused by music, which certainly confirms much of my experience, particularly in live settings at shows. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of brains firing up simultaneously, in parallel, together. No wonder people get off on this stuff. Where a contrarian like me persists in seeing differences—I would like to register a minor complaint about Levitin's tastes, for example, which often seem to run to the predictable classic-rock / NPR sides of things—he much more convincingly makes the case for music as one of the most characteristically human of all activities, rivaling even language. And he flatters us by noting that very few people are anything less than expert music appreciators. As someone often flummoxed by the paucity of ability I have to sing or play instruments, but who insists on writing about music a good deal, I found that a particularly appealing point of view, incidentally helping me to explain a little better a part of myself that occasionally baffles me—this fierce clutching at music for meaning and identity. Also, he's very good on Joni Mitchell. Recommended for sure.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

A History of Violence (1997)

I guess it makes sense that my favorite part of this graphic novel is the art by Vince Locke. The story didn't much impress me in the movie version by David Cronenberg and it doesn't much here either. I understand the temptation to go to the device of New York City Italian-American organized crime as the most heinous evil the mind can conceive, but it's old now, so old. Can we please have another brand of monolithic evil please? The story here goes well over the top to a much greater degree even than the movie, into areas that are frankly unbelievable, such as holding a hostage for 20 years and torturing said hostage all that time. With blowtorches, pliers, crowbars, etc. For 20 years? Man, that's harsh. Locke's illustration style feels scratchy and sketchy and rushed, black and white, and some very serious cross-hatching, but I came to like it a great deal. On the downside, his skill level with portraiture is so weak I had a hard time separating characters from one another, which was really a critical lack at some junctures. I liked the ways he compensated it, establishing certain elements, such as cars, by their shapes, and then varying the angles of view from close-up to medium to long and back and all around, recognizable by the shape. Lots of great interiors, some really nice cityscapes, and a solid sense for propelling a story. That could as well have been writer John Wagner, of course. I don't know much about him—I was slightly familiar with Judge Dredd in the '80s, which never made much impression though I liked the premise a lot. In the nuts and bolts of this graphic novel the storytelling is perfectly fine. I'm just tired of some of the things I've already mentioned and others: the Mafia, children in danger, sadism pushed into farce, the Ethan Edwards who's got what it takes, and similar nonsense. In conclusion, I'm not sure whether or not I can recommend it, and I suppose that means I am actually not recommending it at all. But hey, YMMV.

In case it's not at the library.