Sunday, June 29, 2014

Serenade (1937)

James M. Cain's Serenade was written right after The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and it definitely has a lot of their brisk, hard-boiled forward momentum. And despite its many strange elements it is still, more than anything, a crime novel in a decided noir style, recognizably Cain. Yet it is ultimately served well by the strange elements: an Aztec-Mexican prostitute, a shrewd and talented American opera singer, and various lurid mid-century details of drunkenness and debauchery, notably a crazed power-mad homosexual stereotype who arrives late. At which point it heads off directly into the macabre and the caricatured with just about enough unholy zeal to get it across the finish line. Until then, and after a brief prologue in a purple Mexico, it tends to be most interesting when it is about the career of the opera singer, John Sharp, who is on the comeback trail. Sharp talks and behaves more like an automaton, as he wheels and deals with figures of great power in the entertainment / culture industries of the '30s in Hollywood and New York, which is frankly weird. But if the tone is slightly jarring, the details are always interesting, based on Cain's own keen appreciation for the world of opera. The whole thing is way overheated from start to finish, larded up with arguably too many caricatures. But I thought it was remarkably sensitive to Juana, the Aztec-Mexican prostitute, who plays hard against expectations and has a lot of complexity behind her accent, frequently observing that things seem "fonny." Serenade goes over the top at its climax, in a scene that very much surprised me, and clarified the love relationship between the principals. I guess it might suffer overall in some of its extremes when you reflect on it, but the inflamed language and incident pretty much had me all the way. I also liked and was surprised by some of the ways Cain treats homosexuality here, though of course it had to be explicitly licensed by the theatrical opera settings. In the '30s, evidently, everyone understands that's where you find "them," and "they" are all here: transvestites, lesbians, and gays, oh my. But behind that a remarkable clarity sometimes peers out, which I like about Serenade quite a bit. "There's nothing to tell," Sharp says when he is finally confessing his gay affair of years earlier to Juana. "Every man has got five per cent of that in him, if he meets the one person that'll bring it out, and I did, that's all."

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Play Time (1967)

France / Italy, 124 minutes
Director: Jacques Tati
Writers: Art Buchwald, Jacques Lagrange, Jacques Tati
Photography: Jean Badal, Andreas Winding
Music: Francis Lemarque
Editor: Gerard Pollicand
Cast: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Jacqueline Lecomte, Henri Piccoli, Michel Francini, Georges Montant

With Play Time, we find yet another highly lauded movie from the big list at They Shoot Pictures Don't They? with yet another unfortunate air of failure (thinking also of Vertigo, Metropolis, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.). Director and co-writer Jacques Tati bankrupted himself on the most expensive movie ever made in France to that point, and then it never came close to making back its money. It's not hard to see where it went. The picture is shot in 70 mm (which is how it should properly be seen, though I haven't managed it myself yet) and features giant complicated sets, so imposing that collectively they came to be known as "Tativille" during the shoot.

Full disclosure: The first time I saw Play Time it left me cold—I knew my TV screen was too small and blurry to really do it justice but it seemed so aimless and dry I couldn't imagine a big size rescuing it. But maybe this is a movie that should always get a second chance, because the next time, more recently, I was charmed, often floored, and even laughing aloud at some of the goings-on. Until that point I had classified it as a comedy that was humorous and light-hearted but not actually funny. Now I see it as almost mordant, so dim is its view of the modern condition (for lack of a better phrase), and often wickedly funny in that context.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rubber Soul (1965)

(Previous cryptic comments on UK version here.)

Another way to divide my narrow little world: those who believe Rubber Soul properly kicks off with "Drive My Car," as found on the UK version, and those who believe it starts with "I've Just Seen a Face," on the US. Neither song appears on the other version, which is part of what makes this debate so intractable. And each song frames what follows differently, though the great majority of what follows is nearly identical, only shuffled about a bit and with a few additions or deletions. Suffice to say: the lean studied exuberance of "Face" leads off an album I like quite a bit more than the one that starts with a honking shambolic limo fantasy. Earlier this year the collective marketing geniuses behind 50 years of united Beatles mess finally closed one circle and released some 13 US versions of Beatles albums on CD (with the inevitable box set of all of them), for which I was humbly grateful, welcoming back an old friend. (I recently learned the hard way that trying to work with the tags and labels of digital music is harder and less rewarding than you would think.) The distinction between the two versions has turned out to be critically important to me. In fact, when it comes to the UK versions, I think I even understand better the other side of another issue that divides my world, preferring Revolver to Rubber Soul. But Rubber Soul—the US version—is one of the first albums I really knew and it has always been a good deal more than a collection of songs. For me, for various reasons, it feels like no less than the Beatles at their absolute best, inventing a kind of chamber pop music full of moods and shadings, inventive yet simple, charming but never shallow, insinuating itself well into the grains of my life, and forever listenable.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Getaway (1958)

With The Getaway Jim Thompson struck on a strategy that served him very well, producing one of his best—one of my favorites by him certainly. A slight shift in point of view, and a couple of fiendishly conceived plot points, seem to clear away all the static and clutter of the previous few novels. It's kind of amazing because pretty much all the usual is in there—drunks, sadists, harpies, felons, etc.—but utterly revitalized. Instead of focusing on the tiresome intricacies of a caper, that's taken as a given, and the action, as the title suggests, is all on the aftermath, a series of snafus and unfortunate incidents following a swift and easy takedown of a small-town bank. Instead of trying to make something unlikely work (my usual problem with caper and heist stories) Thompson turns his attention to something all too familiar: how things can go terribly wrong. The story proceeds like one of those dream nightmares where the predicament constantly worsens—focusing on the chaos rather than the order, Thompson's strongest point by miles. Then he indulges himself with two separate scenarios of profound claustrophobia, as vividly realized as anything he ever wrote. The first, particularly, which involves a cramped cave space reached underwater, is right over the top. I groaned when I came to it again because it was instantly as potent and disturbing as the first time I read it. I had to put the book down and pace my apartment awhile to restore a sense of freedom of motion. Thompson absolutely robs me of it in that section. The Getaway goes on the short list for me of his best.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

USA, 91 minutes
Director/writer: Wes Craven
Photography: Jacques Haitkin
Music: Charles Bernstein
Editors: Patrick McMahon, Rick Shaine
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri

I'm very fond of A Nightmare on Elm Street because it's approximately where I decided to give the horror / creepshow genre one more chance. They just kept scaring me too bad. And Nightmare is truly a full-on scare fest, with cunning shock cuts, gore, and a premise that insidiously gets under your skin. But it's also an '80s movie, complete with cheesy synthesizer soundtrack, and a critical moment (in the wake of The Evil Dead) when horror became self-conscious and started to riff and goof and deconstruct, playing for laughs when it chose. The sing-songy nursery rhyme chanted by anonymous children here (a somewhat tired trope of the genre by then) is turned subtly toward explication and a kind of self-mocking: "One, two, Freddy's coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six, grab your crucifix / Seven, eight, stay up late / Nine, ten, never sleep again."

Freddy, of course, is Fred Krueger, the monster figure child molester at the center of this. The backstory is silly and preposterous, evidently only to be related in filthy cellars. Even within this movie, let alone the entire franchise that followed, our boogeyman with the Wolverine blades in the red and green sweater is more super villain than proper monster (and morphing slowly but surely into stand-up comic), which makes him ultimately a bit dull or worse. But here's how it works. Fred Krueger attacks his victims from inside their dreams—hence "stay up late" and "never sleep again" in the nursery rhyme. And for most of its length Nightmare is really pretty good on the insanities of dream world logic. The best dream scenes here, such as one in the high school, feel convincingly weird (and threatening) as only dreams can.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976)

This is one of the short, sharply focused novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. It advances a couple of the continuing threads in the series—the detective Bert Kling's bad luck with beautiful women, which from certain angles represents an almost comic pratfall element (though grim), and the persistent noxiousness of Fat Ollie Weeks—although it depends on accepting that what happens here happens to happen randomly to our familiar cast of characters. A psychotic stalker, who is "insane," kidnaps Bert Kling's wife (a model) on the day of their marriage. But it's not for ransom. He just wants to keep her and do as he will with her as long as he can. So there is no ransom demand, the cops have no idea where to look, etc. Enter police procedure. You can probably see where it's not easy to pick out the comical element in the Bert Kling thread, because the things that happen to his various women are horrific. More interesting to me, on my recent pass through a bunch of McBains, is Fat Ollie Weeks, who I don't recall encountering much before. I like that he's such a good cop—dogged, creative, with great instincts. I'm less interested in the way he is also a reprehensible human being, and the somewhat trite conflict therein. Mostly I just love watching him figure stuff out. In many ways he's the hero here, showing up and injecting himself into a case the 87th Precinct detectives are obviously taking way too personally to think clearly. That almost has to be Fat Ollie's role to make the big story work, but at least McBain avoids making it a heartwarming moment. Better that Fat Ollie remains basically an asshole. I would really hate to see him reforming much, though I believe he starts softening on some of his racism toward the end of the series, when the books are not as good. But it's not entirely believable at that point. Anyway, this one's a dandy McBain shorty.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Gimme Shelter (1970)

USA, 91 minutes, documentary
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Photography: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Gary Weis
Music: Rolling Stones
Editors: Joanne Burke, Robert Farren, Ellen Giffard, Kent McKinney
With: Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Tina Turner, Hell's Angels, Melvin Belli, Meredith Hunter

In late 1969, the Maysles brothers (Albert and David), with Charlotte Zwerin, had already made their reputation as iconoclastic documentary filmmakers on the strength of their extraordinary Salesman from 1968 and other projects. The Rolling Stones, just then about to assume the mantle of greatest rock 'n' roll band in all history, had returned to touring after an interruption of a few years that was due to drug busts, turmoil inside the band, and other breakdowns. Also, Woodstock had just happened. Thus, the elements were in place for a first-rate and very interesting concert film. Then events stepped in to help make sure it couldn't be anything else. The more you look at Gimme Shelter now, the more eerie and weird and unfortunate it all seems, which the movie exploits almost perfectly with its dense atmosphere of dread.

The two sides were remarkably in synch from the start. The Maysles team only knew they wanted to make something "more than" a concert film. Mick Jagger, speaking for the band, kept laying down terms the Maysles were already abiding by or happy to comply with: no acting, no recreations of scenes, no voiceover narration, and none of "that Pennebaker shit." So far so good,  except the Maysles knew the last one might be a problem, depending on what Jagger meant by it. They kept nodding their heads and saying no problem, and they kept shooting.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Green Hills of Africa (1935)

I recently read Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway for the first time, but I think I recall my parents might have owned a hardcover copy of it. The illustrations in my paperback—called "decorations"—struck familiar chords anyway. I had the impression it was a novel, but it's actually nonfiction, a travel adventure dressed up in some of the clothes of fiction such as the usual Hemingway alternation between description and dialogue. A brief Foreword condescendingly and somewhat pretentiously implies he is working the territory we now call "creative nonfiction," the "nonfiction novel," and/or "new journalism." To be fair, Hemingway was there long before Truman Capote or Norman Mailer. It's possible to make the case for Green Hills as a species of novel, but chiefly it bears comparison to a Hemingway novel, which does reduce its innovation quotient somewhat. My favorite parts were when he talked about, or showed people talking about, reading and literature. Some of the hunting scenes were good too. But as usual Hemingway's awfully huge ego squats in the middle of everything like an overweight gorilla, and stinks up the joint a little. We are made privy to his petty jealousies over the hunting successes of another, perfectly likable man. Hemingway's squeeze on this safari, unbearably referred to as "P.O.M." (we find out what it stands for at the end, but I've forgotten and looking for it is somehow altogether too depressing), is a case study in what has been called—just as unbearably, I admit—"codependency." It's a creepshow. Now I know I've been complaining a lot about Hemingway's stoic, long-suffering shtick, and I suppose I should be happy he is exposing himself warts and all here. But I'm not. And why? Because he seems determined to depict these character flaws as unchangeable facts of life that must be borne under, delving into overly detailed rationalizations. It's the abuser cycle of eruption and contrition, with no sense that it can be dealt with and changed, or even that it's particularly a problem to be addressed, except confessionally. So we are back to the stoic and long-suffering. Even so, if one can look away from that (and you see it's hard for me), there are many lovely passages here, and I certainly enjoyed it more than my recent revisits to the two more celebrated novels.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Tree of Life (2011)

USA, 139 minutes
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Fiona Shaw, Tye Sheridan

The Tree of Life is not a very old movie but it has already won an outsize following among critics and other cineastes, whose open-throated clamor for it (encountered everywhere in the second half of 2011) helped enable it to enter at #6 on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? In fact, the biggest surprise for me about the update to that list which came earlier this year was that The Tree of Life did not push on even higher from there. I still think it could be the one to knock off In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr., and/or Yi Yi, which have owned the 1-2-3 since I've been aware of the list.

But that's horserace talk and beside the point, of course. On many levels it's easy to see how contemporary critics could isolate The Tree of Life for high praise: it's written and directed by the redoubtable Terrence Malick, it's quite stunningly beautiful, and it traffics in a kind of gauzy, ineffable spirituality with Christian overlay that really seems to get people where they live, uplifting like a Sunday service.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1942)

Don't let anyone tell you Nebraska does not have a place in the literary history of America, producing at least two fine writers in Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. Sandoz is the author of this excellent biography of the Lakota legend, along with a shelf on the American West, including novels and straightforward histories alike. Crazy Horse is admirably detailed and even more admirably sensitive to the legend, legacy, and enduring influence of the colossal figure, one of the most important of the 19th century and in all American history. Sandoz is a great writer, straightforward, unadorned, and evocative, and has even further bona fides in that obviously the Great Plains of North America run deeply in her blood—she bears a wistful affection for the harsh geography and the cultures it has nurtured, a flinty realistic approach to ordering the facts, and a profound respect for the Lakota (also known as Sioux). This all serves her quite well in her genuine appreciation for a figure who remains powerful and mysterious well more than a century past his death. Much like the white man's George Washington, Crazy Horse is a historical figure who is known generally by a great many far and wide—but push deeper and he only becomes strange and inscrutable. We know basic things about Crazy Horse. He is considered a great leader by all, a brave, shrewd, and cunning warrior. He never allowed his photograph to be taken. He was instrumental in defeating Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. And he was ultimately betrayed into an ignominious death in an isolated outpost. Sandoz details all this painstakingly but with lucid and penetrating style. Her work feels authoritative at every step and she has great sympathy for the tragedy of the story, which nonetheless never gets in the way of her telling it. Obviously Crazy Horse was no more successful at stemming tides of history than any other Native American to date, a continuing tragedy. But something about Crazy Horse remains uniquely vital, moving, and significant. It can't be any surprise, for example, that he has inspired one of the greatest monuments ever created, still in progress, set in the Black Hills, intended partly to eclipse Mount Rushmore itself. I haven't read other biographies of Crazy Horse, partly because Sandoz's book seems so definitive in both its meticulous research (extraordinarily thorough), and partly because the story is so sad and infuriating. It's a story you don't want to miss—really—and this is a very fine place to get it.

In case it's not at the library.