Sunday, August 31, 2014

Blue Nights (2011)

I like both Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking nearly as much as my favorite by Joan Didion, The White Album. It is very hard on every level, what she is doing, has done. Hard to live through it most of all. The whole story is so harrowing as to be almost too personal, too specific in all its necessary detail. First the sudden death of her husband and then the illness and subsequent death of her adopted daughter. See how quickly it becomes overloaded and tender. Is it necessary that I characterize her deceased daughter as "adopted"? It is so interesting that these things happen to Joan Didion—terrible, awful, shattering events. But interesting nonetheless. The White Album is a masterpiece of anxiety and dread which somehow feels insulated from a certain perspective, as she always maintains her cool and poise in her authorial voice, no matter what the breakdowns and gnawing cerebral fears described. Blue Nights is not so different, though the vector tends naturally more toward the internal. Joan Didion is as ruthlessly clinical in her approach to her daughter Quintana Roo, as she is to everything, going through her papers and quoting from them, attempting to understand across the great chasm between parent and child, emotional problems, potential mental health issues, and lots of good old generation gap, which happens in every family ad infinitum. Tolstoy's dictum about families always missed the fact that all families are complex combinations of the happy and unhappy, or perhaps it didn't. It is also interesting how unexposed in the end is Quintana Roo—I have little sense of her as a person, who she was, what she was about. This is partly by design I'm sure—Didion is that good—but also parents and children inevitably miss great swaths of one another's lives, often through willful intentionality but also as a function of how much time they must spend on the planet with and without the other. Quintana Roo was not even 40 when she died. So much is compressed into the strange and powerful last line of this book: "Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her."

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

USA, 83 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Photography: Daniel Pearl
Music: Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper
Editors: J. Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan, Jim Siedow, John Larroquette

(Spoilers ahead if you can call them spoilers.) I had seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre only once until recently. That was enough to convince me it was one of the scariest movies ever made. The decision to look at it again was thus soon hampered by gnawing unease and procrastination at the prospect. I realized the last movie that had given me this kind of problem was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the link is clear. Neither particularly involves the supernatural, unworldly monsters, and/or abstract forces of evil. It's just human depravity, and that's enough.

To be sure, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is fiendishly conceived and full of exaggerations for effect large and small. Based loosely on the legends of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, it seems to take a special glee in the quotidian intricacies of the butchering industry as well as solemnly nodding over tales of how Native Americans put to use every part of the whales and buffaloes they slew. So along the way we find a lot of human bones, hair, skin and such (and feathers, in a room where a live rooster squats in a cage hung from the ceiling) draped all over everything, including the faces of the killers. But the movie is also remarkably free of blood and gore, though in turn that may be offset by larger-than-usual doses of screaming, which at one point toward the end seems to go on for 25 minutes or more.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Out of Our Heads (1965)

(Misbegotten first attempt here. Main song here.)
The Rolling Stones re-discovered Chicago Blues at a time when Muddy Waters was painting ceilings for a living. (Patrick King, Amazon review, 2006)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pop. 1280 (1964)

Jim Thompson published many more novels after Pop. 1280 which I still don't know, but somehow Pop. 1280 feels like the right place for me to stop. In many ways it is the inevitable resolution to his most celebrated and best-known novel, The Killer Inside Me—and in many ways it's much better. Killer is where Thompson hatched the idea of a sociopathic sheriff of a small Texas town who spouts endless clichés and homilies even as he lives the life of a depraved libertine. But I think Pop. 1280 may be where he perfected it. Unlike Killer's Lou Ford, who is vaguely troubled by his behavior and labels it "the sickness," sheriff Nick Corey of Pop. 1280 more accepts it as a given of the human condition. Better him than anyone else, seems to be his basic credo, never doubting for a second that anyone else in his position would be anything else. There's some tendency for Thompson to compress his cynicism into glib incident, for example in the whisper campaign Corey effortlessly launches against his opponent in an upcoming election, working obvious variations on Mark Twain's wonderful story, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." And much of the shocking cruelty of Killer is underplayed in Pop. 1280 too, which I miss. But nowhere is Thompson's worldview so curdled into such an expert latticework of foul human behavior. Sheriff Corey plays it straight always, outside of this narrative, and people just step up and voluntarily treat him wrong, thinking he is a nincompoop. And so, when he takes his various revenges, we are implicated, we are nearly always at least a little on his side, satisfied when as we see him deal out their come-uppances. Even as Nick Corey's veneer of self-serving rationalization is transparent we believe enough in his justifications to minimize any moral concerns we might think to entertain as the action flashes past. Corey's own words to live by, which he repeats over and over, speak exactly to that: "I ain't sayin' you're wrong, but I cain't say you're right, either." The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 also represent a familiar dynamic in many careers of the big ones, and nearly all of them who lived long enough. First there is the moment of great discovery, the raw innovation, and later there is a grand statement consolidation of the gains. Inspiration drives the first, experience the latter. Think of Highway 61 Revisited and "Love & Theft", think of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, think of The Clash and Sandinista! These two books by Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, belong with them.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Living in Oblivion (1995)

USA, 90 minutes
Director/writer: Tom DiCillo
Photography: Frank Prinzi
Music: Jim Farmer
Editors: Dana Congdon, Camilla Toniolo
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Danielle von Zerneck, James LeGros, Peter Dinklage, Rica Martens

The title for Living in Oblivion refers to a state of working on a project, working so intensely that time, reality, and life seem to fall away, leaving a binary existence, working inside of nothing trying very hard to make something. There's a kind of creeping self-pity to it just around the edges, which comes even more sharply into focus in interviews with director and screenwriter Tom DiCillo. Yet in spite of all the booby-trap plot points that threaten to blow it to smithereens of cliché it is an exhilarating ride, one of the best movies ever made about making movies—admittedly a sketchy category, perhaps matched for tiresome potential only by novels about writing novels.

But Living in Oblivion works. And it's not just a movie about making movies, but commits many other sins as well: extended dream sequences, a wanton mix of color and black and white film stock, and for God's sake Steve Buscemi, Peter Dinklage, Catherine Keener, James LeGros, and Dermot Mulroney, an early flush-out of talent in a new post-Tarantino era. So self-conscious is this that at one critical point Quentin Tarantino is mentioned by name (a late-breaking substitution during the shooting for Oliver Stone). Living in Oblivion is thus a walking, talking compendium of every indie hipster gesture you've come to loathe—but it's so good I have to wonder if it isn't maybe one reason all these things became cliches. Who needs to bother after this?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Calypso (1979)

The 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain generally maintains a decent level of quality across the 50+ individual novels and stories that compose it. But Calypso is fairly weak sauce. The premise is promising, the main case involving multiple murders, including the death of a colorful calypso cum rock star guitar player figure. But it relies again on a villain who is insane—batty, bonkers, tetched, mad as a hatter, fruitcake, living in cloud cuckoo land, you know, out of his frickin' mind. You really need to be careful with this in any fiction, because it is license to do anything and has to be used responsibly, and that's hard. The more we find out about our dastardly one in Calypso the harder it is to believe. In fact, I stopped believing it almost right away. I still enjoyed mixing it up with the familiar characters—including yet another appearance by the notable Fat Ollie Weeks, who is much more of a regular than I had recalled—but not much is advanced there. It's focused almost entirely on the single case, but longer than many of those, and feels a bit bloated. I liked something about the idea of using calypso in the reggae era. McBain has the first victim decked out almost like Jimi Hendrix, with an act, as described, reminiscent of Bob Dylan (and/or Arthur Lee). This had to be projection on my part because nothing at all comes of any of that. Plus, thinking about it, the series city of Isola is obviously New York, and what was happening in New York at the time—some of the most significant forerunners of rap and hip hop, among other things—still had some calypso elements floating around (e.g., "The Tide Is High"). But the calypso theme dies with the victim in the first scene, that whole side of the story quickly devolving to pitiful corpses and clichés about prostitutes and small-time scamming independent record labels. Again, I never believed any of this. In fact, really, what I think this confirms is the '50s style and attitudes so deeply embedded in McBain, the impressions formed then still holding sway near the dawn of the Reagan era (and the eclipse of the reggae era). You might do worse in this series but it can't be by much.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Wait Until Dark (1967)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Frederick Knott, Robert Carrington, Jane-Howard Carrington
Photography: Charles Lang
Music: Henry Mancini
Editor: Gene Milford
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Jack Weston, Robby Benson, Julie Herrod, Samantha Jones

A star vehicle based on a stage production and arguably a by-the-numbers thriller of the day, Wait Until Dark made a lot of money but tends to get lost in the glare of an especially historic year for film, which saw releases of Bonnie and Clyde, Dont Look Back, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Play Time, among others. Those movies are a big deal. Wait Until Dark is more of a small-scale deal—a sentimental pick on my part, perhaps. It is one of the first movies I saw without parental accompaniment, a memorable experience because one of those old school gimmicks was involved: No one was allowed entrance during the last 30 minutes, at which point all the house lights of the theater were turned off (against public regulations, I might add) during a key scene.

The formidably glamorous Audrey Hepburn was already established as an archetype of the "manic pixie dream girl" and here she carries on, playing Susy Hendrix, a woman adapting to total blindness after she has recently lost her sight in a fiery car wreck. "Do I have to be the world champion blind lady?" she chirps playfully more than once, the very image of pluck. Set in downtown New York City, the movie has unmistakable connections to a contemporary TV series, That Girl. Susy's version of Ann Marie's "Donald," her husband Sam, is played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who also has a TV way about him (The F.B.I.). Director Terence Young is best known for making early James Bond pictures—Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball—and the experience serves this picture well, as it slips easily into creepy spy thriller / action mode, with eerie discordant music and a screenplay that plunges us into all kinds of mysterious ongoing nefarious activity. We barely have time to catch a breath, as the saying goes. Some potential spoilers ahead.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (2000)

If Amazon reviews and general word of mouth over more than a decade are any indication, this is widely agreed to be the least of rock critic dean Robert Christgau's consumer guide books. Everyone complains about the byzantine grading schema, with its confusing array of letter grades, stars, and symbology, among which are numerous overlaps and counterintuitive distinctions (viz., turkey v. bomb). But the main problem is elucidated by Christgau himself, in the introduction: "The factoid I latched onto, a possible fabrication that's tres poetic regardless, was that between 1988 and 1998 the number of recordings released annually increased tenfold, to something like 35,000. Even if the 35,000 included a whole lot of singles, which as near as I could tell it didn't, this would mean that there was more music recorded than there were hours in the year—quite possibly twice as much." Me, I have always pinpointed the early '90s as the time when my tastes began to diverge from Christgau, who until then had been a reliable arbiter, albeit with the usual quirks and oddities that come from such work (he presently has a mysterious problem with David Bowie, for example). Just a few years ago the difficulty was thrown into relief when I made a long-term project of picking up as much of his top 10s as I could from his annual "Dean's List," which has so far continued without interruption since 1974 (plus there's one for 1971). I already had many of the albums until approximately 2002, of course, many of them my own favorites too over the years. This was more about filling in the gaps and getting up to date. The result was a little discouraging—a sense he had become more unreliable for me. I heard a good deal of wonderful African music that was new to me, but on other fronts it felt like a kind of samey-ness had settled in at some point: Fountains of Wayne, the Mountain Goats, Randy Newman, Liz Phair, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright, even my beloved Sonic Youth, became way overrepresented in shuffle play, beyond anything that held up even to passing scrutiny, while others with some or very much merit by my lights (notably in the '90s) were slighted, misread, or entirely missing in action: Beulah, Catherine Wheel, Consolidated, House of Love, Lush, Mudhoney, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Primal Scream, Ride, and the Wedding Present. These are all matters of taste, of course, and as the old saw has it, a critic can't get to everything—especially when the new saw is that there is more music released every year than there are hours in the year. Discrimination sets in out of necessity, making matters of taste even more crucial in this line of work. That ultimately leaves this particular book at some distance from being a useful consumer guide. Christgau's writing is still in fine form when he stretches out and talks to us awhile, as in the introduction. But more often the language itself is compressed to the point of cramping and distortion, held too close to account to the grading system. I couldn't read through and through this as I had with the first two. And there's the matter of taste. My own is that this should be approached and/or used with caution.

In case it's not at the library. (Better yet, his website.)

Friday, August 08, 2014

Russian Ark (2002)

Russkiy kovcheg, Russia / Germany / Japan / Canada / Finland / Denmark, 99 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Writers: Boris Khaimsky, Anatoli Nikiforov, Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov
Photography: Tilman Buttner
Music: Sergei Yevtushenko
Editors: Stefan Ciupek, Sergey Ivanov, Betina Kuntzsch
Cast: Aleksandr Sokurov, Sergei Dreiden, Maria Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, David Giorgobiani, Alexander Chaban, Maxim Sergeyev

As much as anything it is doubtless the technical achievement of Russian Ark that has pushed it so high on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, so that's as good a place to start as any. It's impressive—one continuous single take on a steadicam, lasting over 90 minutes, and on top of that an epic costume drama with a cast of thousands. Think of all the famous long takes you know—in Touch of Evil, Goodfellas, The Player, and/or Gravity—and multiply exponentially. As a mathematical formula, it may be expressed as [Touch of Evil x 9] to the power of Barry Lyndon. I wouldn't have believed it possible myself if I hadn't spent a month one week looking it over carefully.

Russian Ark is no easy breeze of a picture, and falls easily and quickly into the look and feel of the most pretentious and aimless art film. That technical achievement is remarkably subtle, at least for someone like me who often has to have long takes pointed out, and otherwise the movie features not one but two central characters who appear to be time travelers or perhaps shape shifters of some kind, or perhaps ghosts (one is never seen—he is represented by the camera point of view), who spend the movie prowling the corridors and galleries of the magnificent Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, swapping barbs and a general air of sadness as scenes from some 300 years of Russian history materialize and play around them. Put it this way. You're unlikely to get much out of this if you don't know at least something about Russian history and probably if you aren't willing to look at it more than once. I know that's a damning review so I hasten to add: It is worth your energies. But anyone can understand why a body might not be inclined that way.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tapestry (1971)

(Somewhat addled previous review here. Somewhat more sensible review of the main song here.)

I wrote this piece for a fanzine in the '90s. The topic was something on the order of "first record," which you will see I was at pains to twist to my own ends. For better or worse I still own the album in vinyl, as described, perhaps a bit more aged now (and my turntable still needs replacing too).

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

I'm not real high on this one, for reasons perhaps good and bad both. I never formed any appreciation of Robert Louis Stevenson. That's probably a big part of it. Even as a kid I was left cold by Treasure Island. And that probably would have been that for me but for Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which included Jekyll and Hyde on short lists of essentials, along with Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. Dracula was a disappointment (the tiresome epistolary structure mostly, though it had a few chilling ideas and moments) and that was enough to put me off some of the others until now. But alas. There is a very interesting idea in the middle of Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, with its proto-Cronenberg scenarios of cooking chemicals and altered flesh—body horror—not to mention the unsettling undertow of anticipatory inchoate Freudian theory, the battle of the ego (Jekyll) and id (Hyde)—even the names are weirdly parallel, though decades early. There is a good opening scene, with Hyde making a remarkable first appearance trampling a little girl, and isolated moments, and of course it's all quite moody—London fog, dirty dark streets, the pestilential city, so on so forth. But the writing often seems disjointed, rambling, off the point or actively hiding the point. An envelope to be opened only on the death of one character contains an envelope to be opened only on the death of another. Really? There are altogether too many sealed envelopes, legal documents, street directions, letters, and notes in this short novel. I don't mind epistolary (I adore Les Liaisons Dangereuses), but at the same time, to my parochial modern ear, the narrative strategy has something of a higher bar to clear. One interesting point, in this arguably debased era of the Hulk, is that Dr. Jekyll is much the more robust, healthier, and larger of the two. Hyde is a bit of a homunculus. Otherwise his description is minimal except in terms of its effects on others, who of course are revolted and repulsed to a one. Stevenson also shows many of them mystified as to why Hyde has this effect on them, which is a nice and interesting detail, as though the revulsion were instinctual, taking place at brainstem levels beyond consciousness. I like that. But too much of this to my taste is about solving the mystery of the legal estate(s) of Jekyll and Hyde. There's something wild going on here and we're looking at dry documents.

In case it's not at the library.