Sunday, December 27, 2015

Something Happened (1974)

Something Happened was a tremendously important novel for me when it was new, and I was 19. It seemed to prefigure all of life ahead of me, not just the bland and obvious events to come (career, marriage, family, etc.) but how it would feel to live them out. As much as anything it might be a reason I ended up not really living them out at all (though in many ways I was already headed in that direction). It's easier to see now why it got the lukewarm reviews it did. The climaxing event, which made me cry then, now seems unlikely and overdone. Still, the fundamentals are in place—the voice (marked by ever-lengthening and equivocating parentheticals), the family life described, the office life, the whole existential tone, remain deadly accurate and deeply disturbing. The title is best taken as an open-ended unknown and not the event of the conclusion. It's the sense we all have to one degree or another that we thought things were supposed to go a certain way, they didn't, and now we wonder why. Bob Slocum, the main character and narrator, is a midlevel executive manager at an unspecified faceless corporation (I remember many reviewers presumed it was Time, Inc.). He has an unusual background, his father dead or gone early in his life, and also an older brother. There's a good deal of specificity to his background. But it's all within the parameters of American "normal," as intended. Slocum makes many nervous little jokes, punctuated by "ha, ha." He's not that likable, but not that off-putting either, and quite a few things here are now painfully dated as well, mostly a matter of the supremacy of white men at the time it was written and published. But the end of that supremacy was also in sight then, which accounts at least in part for the gnawing and convincing sense of dread. Bob Slocum and his voice are midcentury classic American, recognizable still, as are notably the scenes of dialogue with his family and, perhaps a little less so, with his professional colleagues. The prodigious philandering is hard to believe and may be the most dated element. But who's to say? It's a mixed bag. As the follow-up to Catch-22, some 13 years later, it was inevitably going to be a disappointment, but I think it's still well worth looking into, and holds up. There are Heller partisans who claim it as his best novel, and I'm not inclined to argue against that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Blissfully Yours (2002)

Sud sanaeha, Thailand / France, 125 minutes
Director/writer: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Editor: Lee Chatametikool
Cast: Kanokporn Tongaram, Min Oo, Jenjira Pongpas, Sa-gnad Chaiyapan, Kanitpat Premkij, Jaruwan Techasatiern

Blissfully Yours is a labor of love on numerous levels, a low budget project with all hands pitching in. Even members of the cast were helping out behind the camera. It has the feeling of something carefully tended and worried over—the shots, the camera movements, the nuances of performance. At the same time, the story (such as it is) is focused on abstracts, on love, and on life, which this movie seems to assert is love's extension. Most of the movies I've seen by director and writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul tend to operate this way (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), focused on the invisible, the ineffable, the just beyond, moving with dreamy, intuitive, pastoral rhythms, an incidental penetrating sense for pop music sweetening, and gorgeous outdoors settings from deep inside disappearing Thai forests.

It's only Weerasethakul's second feature but already he is starting to play with the discontinuous two-act structure he often favors. It covers the events of a day shared by three people: Min, a young Burmese man who is in Thailand illegally, Roong, his temporary girlfriend who works in a factory, and Orn, a woman nearing 40 whose relation to them is not clear—something to do with Min's employment. It starts in a doctor's office, where Min's skin rash is being examined and treated. Roong speaks sharply to the doctor about the treatment plan, and the doctor speaks just as sharply back. Roong and Orn claim Min can't speak, but actually he doesn't want to give away his accent. Orn tries to get the doctor to sign a certificate that will enable Min to get a job, but the doctor refuses until she has seen his legal identification papers.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Spotlight (2015)

After Mystic River and The Departed, I was in no mood to expect much from another expensive, topical drama set in Boston and playing to the Oscars committees. But Spotlight is good at what it does, and just plain good too. It doesn't hurt that the braying overplayed Boston accents of those other projects are kept to a minimum. It seems like recently any movie involving political scandal gets compared with All the President's Men, but Spotlight is more like that movie than any other I've seen in some time—cool, committed, with a certain gravitas, and focused on journalists doing the right thing, tracking down an amazing story, in this case the widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy and the systematic cover-up of it by the Catholic hierarchy for years and decades—or centuries. We actually still don't know the full extent, but we know more than before the Boston Globe finally broke it in early 2002, in its "Spotlight" section, which was devoted to long-term investigative journalism. It also doesn't hurt that the cast is a walking, talking powerhouse of talent and/or fuzzy familiarity: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton (who I usually don't like), Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, and the voice of Richard Jenkins—they're all at least above average (though Ruffalo plays it with a strangely abstracted tone). It's directed by Tom McCarthy, an actor whose directing projects also include The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, which are all worth seeing. So is Spotlight. It's a message picture, obviously, with an eye on the Oscars, but like All the President's Men—which was also Oscar-bait, remember (albeit in something of a less crass time, or maybe that's me)—more decked out in the rhythms of a thriller. They don't have to bang too hard on the crime itself. The details uncovered do the work of ginning up outrage naturally, delivered as a matter of depositions and sealed court records and cagey, dancing reporter interactions. Because of the time and place and circumstances, other stories intrude, notably 9/11, a new editor at the Globe who happens to be its first Jewish editor ever, and the continuing assault on the newspaper business model by the Internet. But mostly Spotlight maintains its focus on the story, and the crimes, which are shocking. The picture is sensitive without having an agenda. In fact, it's a good deal more patient with the actions of the church and its parishioners than me. But I take that to mean it also understands better than me how central the institution is to the life of the community in Boston. That only suggests further the enormity of what the church has done, and continues to do. But that's me on the soapbox, not this movie. This is a very intense movie, and even when a cell phone went off in the seat directly behind me my head stayed in it. That's probably a pretty good recommendation by itself.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Awakening (1899)

It's not hard to figure out how Kate Chopin's short novel has earned its reputation as a landmark of feminist literature, for the timing of its publication, on the brink of the 20th century, as much as for its subject matter. The "awakening" of the title—interesting to note Chopin's original title was A Solitary Soul—is not just sexual, though it's that too, but more generally a revelation about the limited choices a woman has in society as conducted. Edna Pontellier, our hero and more or less a fine figure of Southern womanhood, is in her late 20s at the time of the story, married, the mother of two, living out the life of the genteel Southern upper middle class in and around New Orleans—a housewife, by which is meant a sanctioned kept woman. On a summer vacation she falls in love with a man not her husband, who feels the same toward her, and accordingly he flees the scene because he has no prospect to "have" her—by which is meant, explicitly, more than sex. He wants, in the parlance, her to be his. A sexual fling alone will not do. Edna can't get her head around this and therein lies the still resonant crucial conflict. Ultimately she makes herself sexually available to him, but it's not good enough. She realizes she has little choice in giving herself up to any man. They are the only terms she is offered, she comes to realize. Her only choice is which man, which she gave up anyway when she married (and certainly when she had children), and by the way it was a very limited choice in the first place. She pushes at these strictures on herself, taking up artwork and distancing herself from her children (Raoul and Etienne by name), but the strictures only tighten. I had some problems following Chopin's language and way of telling the story, which tended toward rote and droning and was often unclear about what was going on in basic terms. In that way, and only that way, it hasn't dated so well. There's a kind of inevitability to The Awakening—if Chopin hadn't done it someone else would have, and indeed the flood of novels, plays, and movies about women coming to just such epiphanies followed all through the 20th century. There are better examples, more coherent and urgent, but Chopin's occupies a unique historical vantage, not least for being so harshly reviled and shunned in its time.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Z

And in the end, the letter Z: last and least in the English language. The buzzing business of Z is common in speaking. It represents a unique sound, made more often by S (and occasionally X, as previously discussed), in many pluralizing usages (such as "usages"). Note that Z does get pride of place in the word "pluralize," or actually more like the suffix "-ize," which takes passive nouns and punches you in the face with them: visualize, fossilize, modernize. Heady stuff, Z! Yet there it languishes at the back of all the letters in all ways. In cartoons, it is tripled up (or more) to indicate sleeping, some might say snoring—some might say boredom. In recent times people have begun to talk about needing their Zs, meaning sleep or naps. It's only appropriate, as the last thing. At the end of the day, sleep is what happens. Like most of the lesser-used letters—J, Q, and such—Z has a bit of a forlorn buffoonish aspect. One is tempted to make fun of its mouth noise as something to be classified with whistles, cork-popping, and whoopee cushions. Maybe that's some association with the word "kazoo." But Z also has its cozy, lazy elements—I'm only speaking "zee" truth, as the French say. Speaking of the French, in the UK they call the letter "zed," which sounds more to me like an out-of-town relative in for a surprise visit. It's so wrong I don't even know what to do with it. I'll just leave it at that. Don't forget, in spite of its lastness and leastness, Z is still often found where the action is. Consider zero, which is probably the single most interesting number if we were going to rank them (other than numerically—and no, I'm not going to write about all the numbers, that would take too long). Z stands for zebra, which most children learn early—again, a highly insignificant fact to know at all, let alone introduce into the developing human brain. At some point in recent years Z has come to stand for zombies too, which only makes sense in this crowded and overheating world. Teach that to your children. The letter Z and its insignificance reduce us to questions like, "Hey, did you ever see Zardoz?" Yes, I did, and it was about as memorable as the letter Z. Perhaps I'm engaging in blaming the victim. Which raises the question: is Z really a victim, if it is both the least used letter and the last letter in the alphabet? Isn't it actually more like a case for once in its miserable life that the English alphabet behaves rationally? Kudos, I say. Kudos. Zebras in zoos for the children, zombies in the countryside for the rest of us, the inimitable zero, and what? We know we are reaching the end now because soon all will be zzz. By the way, I still think we should kick Q out of the alphabet. I say again, 25 is a much better number than 26. Good night, everyone.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Sherwood Anderson is a singular writer whose most famous and characteristic work is this collection (or cycle) of short stories. There's nothing else quite like it, though the list of those influenced by him is long and illustrious: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, etc.—I would push it even further into the future and include Raymond Carver too. But though you can feel the echoes in these and other writers, no one I know wrote stories like these. The closest analogue in American literature might be the Spoon River Anthology collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters. Anderson's stories have an air of discovery, even naivete, that is so unself-conscious that reading them almost feels like prying sometimes. The stories are connected by place—see title, noting that the real-life Clyde, Ohio, and not Winesburg, is the setting. They are also connected by a peripheral character who haunts the edges of most of them, a young man named George Willard. They aren't really stories at all, except in the sense of those told by firelight. They are more like meditations on and riffing off of the lives of a parade of isolated individuals who inhabit the town. "What about that Wing Biddlebaum?" someone might say in the darkness across the fire. "What about that Louise Trunnion, Seth Richmond, Wash Williams?" And Sherwood Anderson nods his head and thinks a minute and then starts to talk about each one. But it gets even more intimate than campfire stories, as Anderson probes deep for details almost not assembled, coming back to him in a jumble. Most of the stories are fragments of such recollections, sometimes amounting to nothing, sometimes amounting to a great deal. It's probably the elder George Willard who is telling these stories. It's autobiographical enough that way. But it's only incidentally about George—he's mostly just gossamer that somehow binds. The characters are stunted but that also includes George, the youth and the elder, hence it also includes Anderson himself, whether or not he understood that, which I think it's plain he didn't, even if the point of view bears some whiff of confession, judgment, and/or withering pity. The author is not exempt, whether it is George or Sherwood. Nor is the reader, of course, who may be forgiven some impatience with the simple dolts and fools who populate these stories. We are all citizens of Winesburg, Ohio, and have been from the minute we read a single one of these amazing stories.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

C'era una volta il West, Italy / USA / Spain, 175 minutes
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci
Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editor: Nino Baragli
Cast: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Keenan Wynn, Paolo Stoppa, Lionel Stander, Jack Elam, Woody Strode

I started preparing to take another look at Once Upon a Time in the West a week or two in advance, by listening to the soundtrack album. Interestingly, it is less than 40 minutes long, compared with the movie, which is nearly three hours. The music makes such an impact in the movie that I hadn't realized or thought much about all the silence in it—silence and sound effects, that is, such as the squeaking and creaking windmill that punctuates the long first scene. There's some dialogue too. But focusing on Ennio Morricone's soundtrack may be as good a way as any to ease into the glacial pace and brutal cruelties of this movie.

The narrative involves four main characters, operating and conniving in and around railroad crews laying track in the American Southwest. Indeed, so classic is this movie in its intents that Monument Valley is one of its most recognizable settings (though other scenes were shot in Italy and Spain). Each of the four characters—Frank (Henry Fonda), Harmonica (Charles Bronson), Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), and Cheyenne (Jason Robards)—comes with his or her own interlocking musical theme, which swirl together as the characters encounter one another, elevating the music to a dramatic involvement that's rarely so integrated.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Y

Y has a lot to yell about, I'd be lying if I told you any different. Yes, it has a personality crisis, but who doesn't? The fact is it's both a consonant and a vowel, though who thought this was a good idea is unclear. It is a consonant in words such as "yellow," "yuck," and "yes," where it approximates the J sound but without the tongue involved. Because of its association with yes, perhaps, it's taken as a generally upbeat noise to make, as in "yay," "yahoo," and "yippee." Interestingly, in "yay" (an "informal word"), we happen to see both functions of Y, though it is here more on the order of another blasted silent letter, inflecting the "a" to make it long. A better example is "xylophone," where it represents the long I. We don't know why, but I have to admit "why" is a much better-looking word than "whi" or "whei." Aiyiyi. Even doing this freakish double duty, Y still only manages to make #18 on the ranked list of most frequently used letters, just behind G, just ahead of P. Apparently somebody somewhere calculated it and determined that Y is more often a consonant and only "sometimes" a vowel. Or perhaps that is because its uniqueness is found in its consonant function, whereas the vowel only tends to mimic variations on E, I, and whatever it is doing in words like "joy" and "decoy." Y stands for some of the things we most treasure: yes, youth, and yesterday—even better, make that yesteryear. Also "you"—even though U certainly also has fair claim to the, er, "objectified other." The consonant Y opens naturally into loud vocal eruption from the diaphragm, heading up words such as "yell," "yelp," "yowl," "yodel," and "yargh"—not all sounds of pain, I assure you. Chronic alphabetizers know already that Y is the last sad little bump in the alphabet. Not many things begin with X or Z and Y usually matches or outdoes them in an index. Still, T and W would probably have to be counted as the last alphabetical urban outposts of any size. But Y always stubbornly makes a dent. This reminds me. Have you seen the movie Yi Yi? It's really good. The word "yawn" is associated with Y's consonant function. Maybe you're yawning now, because that's how yawns work, the more you see or hear the word (or the yawning itself) the more you want to yawn. Y obviously pairs with N. Do I have to explain that? Y / N (circle one). Y also has a profound relation (marked by decorative crossbars) to yen, the Japanese currency. I'd like to make a joke about Yugoslavia but nothing about Yugoslavia is funny. In German, by the way, J is assigned Y's consonant function, and the mouth noise is again associated with the assenting: yes and ja (or, for you Germans, yes und ja). That's Y all over for you! You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, a vowel.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Truth (2015)

It's possible that I procrastinate going out to see movies until they are almost finished commercially—it's one way to beat the crowds. The 10:35 a.m. Saturday matinee of Truth that I attended was the only showing scheduled for the day, which tells you how it was doing after two weeks. There was only one other person there besides me—a jackass, as it turned out, though mostly benign. At the end of one preview he called out, "What was the name of that one?" I looked around and that was when I realized it was just him and me. He was a few rows back. I gave it a couple seconds and then told him. "Oh yeah, that's right," he said, and it was the last time he spoke, though he had several audible reactions during the picture, guffawing and cheering. I was never tempted much to either but I thought Truth was all right. I was interested in the core story, the downfall of Dan Rather and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes in 2004 over their reporting of George W. Bush's military service record. I was hoping for more details on the mystery at its core, the provenance of certain smoking-gun documents that later turned out to be likely forgeries. In retrospect—oh hell, even then—2004 was a remarkable low point in American public life, between Rather's stumble here and the so-called swift-boating of John Kerry (not to mention Abu Ghraib or the reelection of Bush based on gay-baiting). Truth lays it out reasonably well, with some allowance for predictable Hollywood schmaltz. It's a typical enough project for Robert Redford, who surprised with a very sharp Dan Rather impersonation. It was written and directed by James Vanderbilt, his first time directing. Vanderbilt also wrote the screenplay for Zodiac, so I knew he had some taste for these kinds of tantalizing and elusive public mystery stories. The movie is marred by its overwhelming Oscar-bait impulses, which turn it into a by-the-numbers psychodrama about a fraught and complicated father-daughter relationship. It's based on Mary Mapes's account—she was effectively run out of the industry after the events depicted here—and maybe that's the way she framed the drama in her book. I don't know it. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes and she is fine, as always. But I kept thinking: enough about Mapes and her father issues. Can we get back to those documents? I also had a gnawing feeling that my viewing companion a few rows back would have more questions for me at much worse times than during the previews. Probably wisely, the movie is steadfastly agnostic on the documents and their origins. I enjoyed revisiting the mystery and kept wanting the movie to be more than a routine prestige exercise.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The Gunslinger (1982)

In a foreword to the first volume of The Dark Tower series, even Stephen King acknowledges The Gunslinger is a bit of a minor effort. "All too often I heard myself apologizing for it," he writes, "and telling people that if they persevered, they would find the story really found its voice in The Drawing of the Three [the second in the seven-volume series]." It's true enough, as far as I know. Everything in The Gunslinger appears to be elaborate foreshadowing, laying out the concept, and/or banging on symbolic notes of portent, with the familiar feature of a long walk through troubled lands. I will take the word of Stephen King (and a host of Amazon reviewers) that it's worth trying the second novel. And, to be sure, even though it's a slog, The Gunslinger is also mercifully short. I don't often go for these things. I liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when I read it a few years ago, but I was mostly indifferent to The Lord of the Rings when I read it as a teen, and otherwise I've mostly steered clear of fantasy, especially anything specifically involving the word "quest." I will admit a weakness for the Dungeons and Dragons game, at least in electronic versions, but I think that might be beside the point really, a different animal. The only thing encouraging me to stick with the series one more round is because it's Stephen King, mainly, and then because he has claimed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as a primary source. The potential for an epic fiction, by Stephen King, riffing on that movie is just too appealing. I also hope to get a sense for whether it's even necessary to read this first book at all. No Amazon reviewer that I could see even entertained the idea of skipping it, so maybe it's necessary. We are introduced to what I suspect are the main figures in Roland (aka the gunslinger), "the man in black" (who may or may not end up with a name, but doesn't have one yet here), and Jake Chambers, a young boy who becomes Roland's sidekick, Robin to his Batman. They are walking and walking and walking. There's a lot of that. There are some promising monsters in the "Slow Mutants," reminiscent of the zombie style now, tormented homicidal slow-moving creatures. I think we have seen the basic good / evil dynamic from King already in The Stand, and I'm not sure how interested I even am in that. But I'll take the advice, given the benefit of the doubt, and try the second one. See how that goes.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Hair (1979)

USA / West Germany, 121 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Gerome Ragni, James Rado, Michael Weller
Photography: Richard C. Kratina, Miroslav Ondricek, Jean Talvin
Music: Galt MacDermot
Editors: Alan Heim, Lynzee Klingman, Stanley Warnow
Cast: John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright, Cheryl Barnes, Don Dacus, Renn Woods, Miles Chapin, Melba Moore, Ronnie Dyson, Stylistics

The original Broadway stage production of Hair in the late '60s seemed—by reputation, as I've never seen that version—to be a project mainly concerned with flouting convention, also known as something like "shocking the straights." As live theater, it was thus filled with nudity, sexuality, drugs, flag and other disrespect, not really rock 'n' roll but some good songs, and, of course, long-haired hippies everywhere you look. But produced as a movie 10 years later, on the eve of the election of Ronald Reagan, it is something rather different.

For one thing, it has a great director at the helm in Milos Forman, fresh off the commercial triumph of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who had wanted to adapt Hair for years. Then somebody, presumably screenwriter Michael Weller, made up a story—a good story. It's still very much a musical, with pretty much all the same songs (and the incidental vulgarities), but now it has a certain narrative force with an allegorical tale of the hippie milieu. There's a young boy from Oklahoma, Claude Bukowski (John Savage), who is off to do his duty in Vietnam, but along the way he runs into a band of hippies headed up by George Berger (Treat Williams), which tries to get him to see their ways, because they love him.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

X

X marks the spot. Or should that be "Marx"? The first thing to understand about X, more or less, is that it's just a decoration, most of its letter functions handled quite nicely by K and S together. Or Z, in the case of Xavier who is taking xylophone lessons. But what a decoration, two bold slashes defining at their intersection the infinity of a single point. X is not often used in words, outranking only Q and Z for frequency, but what are words when the very shape of X makes it almost notorious? It is how illiterates sign their names when witnesses are available (literate themselves, one hopes, else the last will and testament begin to resemble the diagram of a football play). It's where the loot is buried on treasure maps. Triple it up and it's the hottest sex you never had. In cartoons it appears as eyeballs to indicate drunkenness or general confusion. Christians were all over the X back in their underground days, seeing it as a symbol of the cross, with "Xmas" a term of respect and convenience, and not Exhibit 999 in Fox News tales of War on Christmas. The red circle and slash has become more the marker of "get the fuck away from this," but X can work in a pinch. In late night infomercials, for example, scenes of muss and fuss are often demolished by a flashing X. It's utilitarian as hell, but speaking of hell, there's also some aura of the forbidden, even evil, about X. Yes, the porn associations, but they came later. I suspect it's what's behind all the objections to "Xmas"—the reduction of our lord and savior to the eyeballs of a drunken reprobate, the representation of an infinite singularity of nothingness. If ABC is all that is good and holy and respectable, XYZ is NOT. That makes the counterpart of the fine and upstanding letter A, which is the George Washington of the alphabet, none other than X, the thief, hiding in the cellar of the alphabet, stealing sounds that aren't even used that much anyway. It's just hanging around down there. For what purpose? What does it want? It is terrifying me. Aiee, I must flee! X somehow induces this panic terror of the unknown. X is always the mysterious factor. X is what death looks like, we somehow suspect. So you have to respect that. It chips in to the negation prefix streams of "un-" and "non-" and "dis-" with one of the most powerful, in "ex-," which of course also comes with all its own tender painful connotations. In retrospect, I'm not sure the rock band X was ever up to the great and terrible burden of the letter, but give them credit for trying. The cover of Under the Big Black Sun has always looked to me like something X itself might have designed—the letter, I mean, not the band. That's the thing about X. It's the only letter that actually might be sentient itself. Think about that the next time you're playing tic-tac-toe.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Scanner Darkly (1973)

I have to admit I was a little surprised when I reached the Author Note at the end of this novel by Philip K. Dick, which threw the whole thing into another context, or perhaps confirmed an unsettling undertow of mood and themes. There Dick tersely discusses the ravages and casualties of drug use before a list of the names of friends and loved ones and their dispositions: "Gaylene, deceased; Ray, deceased; Francy, permanent psychosis; Kathy, permanent brain damage," etc. There's even a "Phil, permanent pancreatic damage," which appears to be him. Thus it clearly has a more sober intent than usual. It is still trippy, Dick is always trippy, riffing on ideas of the bicameral brain producing separate consciousnesses coexisting within a skull. It's at least as paranoid as ever—probably more. In fact, written in the earliest years of Richard Nixon's enduring gift to us, the War on Drugs, the novel in many ways is a chronicle of paranoia exactly, with its deeply embedded network of undercover narcs. At the time it was published, 1977, we were hard at work rolling back some of those surveillance excesses, so it may have even read as exaggerated paranoia once. In our post-9/11 world it feels more like journalism than speculative fiction, and mundane journalism at that. That's just a measure of how good Dick was at imagining the future in certain ways. It is set in 1994, so the world he imagined was actually still 10 more years out, but that's a good call notwithstanding. There's a pall of depression that hangs over this, and not necessarily in a good way. The usual strong points are weak. There's a drug intriguingly called Substance D, for example, but it doesn't seem to do much more than create desperate addicts. Undercover agents wear "scramble suits" to disguise themselves from one another (to avoid blowing covers, I guess) but the description of the technology is way too complicated for the incidental role it plays in the narrative.

That's handled better in the movie directed by Richard Linklater from 2006, where it works as a pleasantly puzzling visual element. The movie loses a key thread in the story of the fanciful suggestion of a competing left-brain / right-brain foundation for mental breakdowns, but it's otherwise less gloomy than the book, energized by a madly riffing all-star cast of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder, among others, rotoscoped to good effect. The rotoscoping somehow gives it exactly the look and texture of a Dick narrative, cartoony, trembling in and out of existence, impossibly plastic. For that reason it has to be counted with the class of Dick-based movies, with Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall. I still give the edge to Total Recall, which seems to me best at capturing the core of Dick, his orchestrations of multiple realities interacting. But none of them is better at the look and feel of Dick than Linklater's picture. But it does verge on being a dreary affair—the book, I mean. There's a kind of 12-step recovery tone to that Author Note. A Scanner Darkly is weird, Dick is always weird, but it is also sad, and troubling. There's definitely a sense of soul-searching, as if Dick were losing interest in his greatest themes and capabilities even as we watch along. Addiction used to be an incidental side product of drug experience. Now it is the drug experience. From here on out, his work more and more began to entertain religious ideas I've never been able to connect with. But there's an amazing amount of his best work, most of it written in the '60s.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

La battaglia di Algeri, Italy / Algeria, 121 minutes
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Writers: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Photography: Marcello Gatti
Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
Editors: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei
Cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Tomasso Neri, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti

Don't look now, but The Battle of Algiers just got one more turn of the screw more complex with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. In this movie, as it happens, the French are not so sympathetic, and the Eiffel Tower is more a symbol of oppression than of liberated humanity. Which maybe just goes to show that the more things change the more they stay the same. A war against terrorism cannot be fought until the oppressions stop. That's a matter of common sense, or should be. Terrorism is and always has been and will be only a resort of desperate people. You can't fight a war against a tactic—that's been noted before. You have to make peace. The Battle of Algiers is what the opposite of that looks like.

It's tempting to say, for historical context, that Algeria was France's Vietnam, except Vietnam had already proved to be its Vietnam (after which it became our Vietnam). The career of France, as a colonial power, does appear a little hapless, which perhaps redounds to its credit—but don't miss the impulse in the first place. The events documented in this movie are the rump-end of 130 years of colonial occupation of Algeria by France. The Battle of Algiers is not antiwar, it is anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism. And it is especially good at observing the actions and motivations of both sides in this kind of war—the kind fought now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—as the situation escalates and spirals inevitably toward disaster. Life is cheap when you're in a revolution, or a police action. It seems to be the one thing both sides understand.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

W

Some things you should know about W: Every other letter in the English alphabet is satisfied with a single syllable as its name—sometimes a single mouth noise, as with E. That is only in the spirit after all of what a letter is. What does W do? Helps itself to not one but two extra syllables. How does it accomplish this? By looking at the letter U (of all things), puffing up its widdle chest, and saying, "I'm twice that." W is embroiled in practically every scandal of the alphabet there is. For subtlety, it participates in an odd round robin of oppositional pairings: L and R, left and right, R and W, right and wrong, W and L, wins and losses. Too subtle for you? All right. Why don't we saw away awhile on the silent letter. There it is, where it belongs, as the first letter in the word "wrong." Talk about meta. Wikipedia says words such as "wreak, wrap, wreck, and wrench" originally had the W pronounced by sly dog Angle-Saxons. It still is apparently in some Scottish dialects, woe to we all. I don't see a word in Wikipedia, by the way, about W as consonant and "sometimes" vowel. But I recall hearing that my younger siblings were taught W that way. In the wilds of the Internet I found a paragraph at dictionary.com concerning the issue. A couple of archaic Welsh words—"cwm," "crwth"—would indeed appear to be using the W exactly as a vowel, but who uses those words? By the time the short article was on "low" and "bow" it was clear someone somewhere at some point wanted to make a distinction about the direction in which the lips are traveling as they glide in and out of pursed position for W. Coming in, it appears, somehow makes it a vowel. The dictionary.com article concludes that L, M, N, and R may also be considered "sometimes" vowels in this regard, offering as examples "bottle," "bottom," "button," and "butter." So there you have it: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes L, M, N, R, W, and Y. What a world, what a world. But then I remembered the knowing way someone actually inserted W into the word "vowel" itself, and I was all right again. It's all wrong, but that's the way we do things around here. As for its utility, well, W is ranked #15 for frequency of use, just behind M, just ahead of F (a motherfucker). I'd like to propose changing the pronunciation of W to "I'm twice that," which you'll note is also three syllables, preserving its dignity. Well, it may scan a little differently, for you poets and singers, and might take some work in places. But some applications already work quite well: George I'm-twice-that Bush, for example. Walla Walla!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Walk (2015)

I need to get out more, but there's a problem. Too often I seem to find myself the grumpy old man in the midst of happy annoying people, especially at the movies. People have always talked and been annoying in movie theaters. I'm not sure exactly why it bothers me more now—maybe the freedoms of watching them at home, including the solitude and peace and quiet, the self-selected interruptions and breaks—for discussion, even, when with people—have spoiled me. Or maybe it's worse out there now—it's true we never had the screens of mobile devices to contend with, but we had smokers for years. Lighters and matches are nearly as bad as those screens for glare, not to mention the carcinogenic risks of secondhand smoke, and the stink. So I decided to embark on a "going out" project in regard to movies. This will enable me, perhaps, to keep up better, and also provide an outlet for when a movie has been affected by a poor viewing experience. I'll talk about the poor viewing experience—that will show them!

Well, as they say, "Man plans, God laughs." The Walk turned out to be only the third movie in my life I've seen in a public screening all by myself (the others are Supergirl in 1984 and Broken Arrow in 1996). It's a bit like throwing a no-hitter, it seems to happen so infrequently as to be a special occasion unto itself, but in all cases I was hedging my bets one way or another. With The Walk I saw it at a Thursday matinee, the day before it was banished from town after an ignominious and dismal two weeks, with the stink of failure on it. Good thing I was alone too, because I sat there bawling for a lot of it. No, not at Joseph Gordon-Levitt's French accent. The movie has problems like crazy, enumerated in the bad reviews. But two active powerful elements were going on for me in The Walk. The first is perhaps personal, though I know it is shared on some connecting points with millions or even billions of others—the World Trade Center Twin Towers, for better or worse, are now the worst features in a haunted, blighted landscape of memory. The image of them implies only their absence, and then the circumstances, and then the fallout, which we are still experiencing, our stupid actions in the world and the fallout. Indeed, people are so troubled by the image of the Twin Towers (though mostly not for my reasons) that it has been systematically airbrushed out of many movies and TV shows in the years since September 11, 2001. As with the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, for which The Walk is a fine complement (and an entirely different movie), a good deal of power lies in casually using exactly that image, affirming the reality that those buildings existed. It's also good at capturing a time when playful acts of anarchy could be taken as noble and beautiful in their daring.

The other point is that The Walk is directed by special effects wizard Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and the Back to the Future trilogy), and thus, paradoxically, one of the things I liked best was that I could hardly stand to look at much of the second half, turning my head, holding up my hand, looking out of the sides of my eyes or through fingers. Philippe Petit, the wire walker, walked back and forth across a line between two points at the top of the world's tallest skyscrapers. We see it in all its vivid CGI reality. It convinced me—my stomach testified to the effectiveness as much as my turned head, and my balls did too. Winds are high up there, and it's way high up there. Petit crossed that line eight times. He laid down on it. It's just tremendous what he did. It's overwhelming. Not just the physical accomplishment (by the way, he had stepped on a nail just a few weeks earlier and the wound had not entirely healed), but doing it as a gesture of beauty and grace. It's the best thing that ever happened to those buildings, we know that at least. Start with Man on Wire. Finish with The Walk. See it on the biggest screen possible. Don't look down.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Wonder Boys (1995)

Wonder Boys may or may not be typical of Michael Chabon—it's certainly different from his better known and more widely honored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which came five years later—but it is typical of a certain strain of mainstream fiction with its sources in MFA college creative writing programs. So we have a dissolute middle-aged white man who is just such an MFA professor in the process of ruining his own life. In fact, the book concerns the climax of exactly that. Our hero, Grady Tripp, is all appetite: an obese whale who spends all his waking moments smoking marijuana, whose marriage is dissolving because he is having an affair (yet another, of course), whose literary agent and publisher are hounding him for the manuscript of a novel that is overdue by years, the advance for which (of course, again) has long since been spent. All events related are in the mode of a desperate slapstick farce, as everything in this sad sack's life is conveniently coming to a head at once. We know the tales of these ne'er-do-well WASPs in academia-land well—started to see them even in the '50s. Let me be clear that I enjoyed Wonder Boys and got a big kick out of it, even as I recognize I've already said enough to steer some (or most) away by now. Enjoyed it, to be clear, even as I noted the generally hackneyed paces. Chabon brings minor new elements of interest to it, such as the descriptions of chronic marijuana use, which I think are good, as well as a more normative sense of gays. In the long run, it's homophobia that is likely to be the death of many of these exercises, so at least Chabon escapes that. Small consolation. They are so ubiquitous now they actually have genre labels and a Wikipedia page—"campus novel, also known as academic novel." Of the "significant examples" listed there (including Wonder Boys), most of those I knew are roughly contemporaneous: Changing Places by David Lodge (1975), Straight Man by Richard Russo (1997), The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000), for example. Early examples include The Masters by C. P. Snow (1951), The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy (1952), and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). It is a pretty long list, and even for someone like me who is tolerant of them, I blanch a little at the imposing volume. So I am all caveats, but that said, I did like Wonder Boys. The narrative current is strong, it is packed with rich incident and evocative detail, and it never slows. You can do worse.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Widows (1991)

Widows marks yet another turning point in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which was not his real name either). It introduces a major development with the death of Steve Carella's father. (One of these days I'm going to slip and finally make the typo of "Steve Carell," who probably should never play him in a movie.) Make that the murder of Carella's father, because I know from at least one later novel that it becomes a significant continuing thread. I think it was better when it was his wife Teddy attempting to reenter the workforce, but, well, the '90s is when we fell in love all over again with injustice, and forensics, so why not the plight of the American justice system as seen from McBain's 87th Precinct? There's only one problem: McBain's biases. Carella's father owns a bakery and is killed in an armed robbery. The stick-up men are black, and McBain saws away somewhat unpleasantly at Tawana Brawley (by name), Al Sharpton (as "The Preacher"), and the Central Park jogging case. Except, oops, what we know now compared with what McBain knew then, is that the latter was actually a case of a serial killer, who was not black, rather than a gang of black teens, out "wilding" (a made-up term). It's interesting, of course (and annoying), to encounter McBain's knowing tone of certainty—a matter of common sense, which only the naïve could deny, that this is the kind of thing black teens are up to. I know McBain's certainty comes from the same place my own acceptance of the conclusions came from, namely the false confessions. So I was as fooled as McBain, I'm not exempt, but it's his certainty itself in light of how wrong it is that gives me pause—it seems to affirm so many racist assumptions. For those reasons, I don't think I'm that interested in the storyline with Carella's father. And I'm starting to lose a little patience too for the storyline with Eileen Burke (decoy specialist, rape victim, girlfriend of Bert Kling), her therapy and recovery and so forth. I like the idea of it. I like the idea of fictional characters using psychotherapy to understand and recover from traumatic events. And I like the long, strong narrative arcs across multiple books. I'm just not convinced McBain has that much insight into Eileen Burke after all. Perhaps on balance all good, but I'm no longer sure I always trust his point of view, as the author. The main case in Widows is also pretty rote—a lawyer and his various Barbie doll sex mates are turning up dead. Whoever could it be? The 87th Precinct novels are getting to be pretty big affairs at this point in the series, 300 pages or more. But it's still a main case, and maybe one or two others. Most of the bulking up is due to the increasing focus on the personal stories, for better or worse. With Widows, I can't decide which it is, but the personal stuff is unfortunately feeling a little tired and predictable.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Lullaby (1989)

At this point, perhaps, is where I can begin to remember how I come to tire of the many, many books in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. Not that there's anything glaringly the matter with Lullaby, which might be exactly the problem. It's good enough—mostly one case, but with others percolating along as well, plus a good bit on Eileen Burke's personal life. If this were the first in the series that I'd read recently, rather than about the 31st, I might like it better. Among his many strengths, McBain is pretty good at constructing mystery story plots. This one involves the murder and rape of a babysitter (with a knife still stuck in the body, of course) and the smothering death of the infant she was sitting. The detectives look here, the detectives look there. As usual, Steve Carella has the starring role, assisted this time by Meyer Meyer. Bert Kling also appears working on a case that involves drug gang dealings, featuring Jamaican, Chinese, and Colombian warlords. And I like (cautiously) the drift of the Eileen Burke thread, as she is attempting to recover from a rape on the job, detailed in the previous novel in the series, Tricks. I will probably continue saying until I decide to stop reading him again that I've had more than enough of the knives and the raping. The thudding repetitiousness of these elements is starting to make me feel a little like a dupe. I had to give up John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels for much the same reason. The depictions of the treatment of women and the violence and cruelty just get to be too pervasive. Sure, Travis McGee and most of the 87th Precinct detectives are upstanding men who would never do such things, but it's always happening around them, which finally leads you to conclude rather unpleasantly that the element in common to all this mayhem is the author of the books. But I'm not quite there yet, and McBain's strengths still outweigh enough the flaws. I love his chatty, free-flowing language, unspooling all the events but often charming with digressions and unexpected observations. The characters are comfortable like favorite old clothes, more than 30 years into the series. I noticed with some bemusement that he happened to mention Roger Havilland in passing here, a character who was killed off when the series was still new and it was the '50s. That's some depth of continuity, man.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Heckler (1960)

The Heckler is an important volume in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain because it marks the first appearance of the Deaf Man. He is referred to here only as "the deaf man," but the ambition to make him a supervillain on the order of Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty is already there. We know that partly because one of the detectives, Bert Kling, happens to be reading a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League." That story, in turn, has explicit parallels in The Heckler, which involves a man calling two dozen owners of small businesses and threatening to kill them. After some investigation, it turns out all the businesses are adjacent to banks, jewelry stores, and other high-value targets. It's all a little complicated, an interesting if way overly busy caper scheme. Eventually it grows to ludicrous proportions, with the 87th Precinct tied up in knots with bombs, fires, and rioting mobs—an insanely imagined scene of terrorism. Our hero is Steve Carella (no Cotton Hawes in sight) and he takes some severe punishment—more grist for later developments in the series. The Heckler is a little too much in the caper mode for my taste, losing sight of its procedural moorings by the last third as it indulges an impossible level of mayhem. That's balanced a little by the Carella drama. McBain as always is a first-rate raconteur. It's a good enough read. If McBain has to go supervillain on us, I appreciate that he looks to Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes for his guideposts. It could have been Lex Luthor. "The heckler" is the term the detectives use for the threatening caller. At one point the Deaf Man uses the alias L. Sordo, for "el sordo," which is Spanish for "deaf man." That's cute. But the climax really strains credulity, involving some two dozen exploding and incendiary bombs going off in places like stadiums full of people, and other crowded places. The recent Paris attacks by comparison look more like people shooting off cap guns. I appreciate that McBain could conceive the scenario more than 50 years ago. Most people then were imagining nuclear strikes and holocausts much more than coordinated terrorist bombings. You have to give it to him on that point.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Killer's Payoff (1958)

Another early title in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—the 6th, to put a number on it—and another with an introduction written in the early '90s. Was it a matter of renewing copyrights, or perhaps a good old-fashioned PR push of some kind? I'm not sure, but they shed an interesting light as McBain used the opportunity to settle some old scores, and here he is pointed. Cotton Hawes, he of the red hair and white streak, was forced on him by the publisher. But guess who the readers turned out to love most? That's right, Mr. Bigshot Publisher, Steve Carella. Et cetera. Fair enough. McBain has a point. His heart was never in Hawes (whose name derives from Cotton Mather, by the way) and he always loved Carella. In this one, Hawes formally gets the lead in a humdrum whodunit about the murder of a blackmailer. Along the way he beds a chick or two. Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer are well to the side. The love story of Steve Carella and his wife Teddy, who is deaf, is stretched out and distorted by the odd time disconnections of the series (they are forever in their late 30s or early 40s, even as the decades pass us by), but it is the heart of the series, its main narrative arc. That makes Killer's Payoff more notable for its misfit in the series, as McBain attempted to force-fit a character for whom he had little affection. Armed with the information from the later introduction, Hawes's sexual encounters almost feel sarcastic, they are so farcically empty. Cotton Hawes "falls in love," fucks a woman, and then she is gone. That's his style. Later he thinks he might be "falling in love" with another woman. It's so mechanical as to be robotic. Another series semi-regular, Bob O'Brien, also shows up here, but he is much more knuckly and tough than the woebegone character I think he becomes. In short, Killer's Payoff is somewhat unfocused and oddly toned, with a mystery that is suited more to the cozy style than police procedural. McBain, in some conflict with his publisher, is very much still feeling his way along here. One of the lesser efforts in the series.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Killer's Choice (1957)

Another early entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, Killer's Choice is short, tight, and focused, covering two separate cases. McBain is still sorting out and trying things here. With the title, for example, he abandons the specific criminal type of the previous three (The Mugger, The Con Man, The Pusher) and embarks on a set of four which will include the word "killer" (Killer's Choice, Killer's Payoff, Lady Killer, Killer's Wedge). More significantly it's also the debut of Cotton Hawes, which, as McBain explains in an introduction written in 1991, was a requirement of the publisher. According to McBain, the publisher believed heroes had to be single (and male, of course) in order to appeal to women readers, who did not like married men. Interesting conventional wisdom. John Lennon's first marriage was kept secret during the heights of Beatlemania for similar reason, setting aside all obvious differences between rock stars and fictional homicide detectives. It has to be a '50s artifact—that thinking is retired now, right? At any rate, it explains a lot about why Hawes—he of the red hair with the white streak from a knife wound—remained generally the most uninteresting and undeveloped character for the length of the series. On autopilot, he is a competent investigator and an empty womanizer. It also explains how Steve Carella, married or no, publisher edicts or no, remained the de facto hero of the long-term series. That is, assuming a certain pugnacious stubbornness to McBain's own character, which I think is a safe assumption. In Killer's Choice, McBain is still exercising his right to kill off characters summarily. Roger "We Hardly Knew Ye Either" Havilland gets it here. The main case takes on the usual shape of a mystery story. A woman turns up dead in a liquor store and the investigation reveals she had secrets. As in life, there are mysteries everywhere. My fascination with police procedurals, in the first place, is that's the way most mysteries are solved. McBain gives himself more latitude here to dispense with red herrings and cute twists and such. The twists and turns are often more convincing when they're not cute. Publisher demands notwithstanding, McBain is starting to pick favorites among his characters, which I count as a good thing. He likes—no, he loves—Carella and Carella's wife Teddy, obviously, but Bert Kling is already getting a fair amount of play too. McBain hasn't figured out much of what he's going to do with Kling yet, but he's a person of interest. I'd call this one of the good ones from the '50s.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pusher (1956)

SPOILERS STOP READING NOW. This third book in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain is also the third book in McBain's original three-book contract. By the time he was actually writing it he already had a contract for the next three. But the road had been bumpy for a young writer, breaking in, as documented in a series of prefaces (in this case, an afterword, to avoid the spoiler) which he wrote for them in the early '90s, as they were republished with some fanfare. The forces that be at his publisher did not want him to marry off the hero, Steve Carella, for example. They thought he had to be an eligible bachelor. Later in the series—very next book, if I'm not mistaken—Cotton Hawes was introduced exactly to fill that role. For this one, McBain decided rather dramatically to kill Carella now that he had married and couldn't any longer be the hero. You catch a little whiff of tantrum in this decision. And that is what this book exists to deliver, decked out in the strange garb of murders occurring around small-scale heroin dealers. The 87's own Lieutenant Byrnes bizarrely turns up with a high school kid who's also a mainlining heroin addict. None of it makes a lot of sense, though maybe that's something to do with '50s youth and heroin addiction. It's only the scene where Steve Carella comes face-to-face with his shooter that the intensity level indicators peg the meters. It turns out it was all a misunderstanding and everybody wanted Steve Carella alive after all, not least McBain himself, who got orders from the publisher to turn the frown upside-down on the face of the would-be widow, and literally to turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy instead. Done and done—one and a half paragraphs added, as I count it, and the lifelong hero of the whole thing escapes by the skin of his teeth. In terms of whether you need to read it, well, no, not so much, unless you're intending a real deep dive into the whole series. Basically, the first six are about organizing it for long-term stability. It's fun to read the work of a writer who clearly thrives on putting himself out there in terms of making it up as he went along. Here the dramatic punch everything is calculated for is based on something that didn't happen after all—oops, do-over style. Give McBain credit though—he got much better at wounding and killing beloved characters. This is basically a trial balloon that fizzled. Even so, count me with McBain and everyone who appreciates that Steve Carella lived on.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cop Hater (1956)

Cop Hater is the first novel in what became the giant 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either). It's about what you'd expect from a hungry young writer in his late 20s with a lot of raw talent: uneven and a little crude. It's worth the visit for completists but not many others. (I would say start approximately anywhere else but here—selected by random and out of sequence. But that's just the way I've done it. Every time I have tried to read them in order I have foundered in the first handful.) The debt to Dragnet is perhaps nowhere else so clear, and the story perhaps nowhere else so shapeless. The main idea, putting the focus on an ensemble of detectives and policemen rather than a single hero, is also perhaps nowhere so abused. No fewer than three detectives appear and die: Hank Bush, David Foster, and Mike Reardon. Gone. R.I.P. We hardly knew ye. But fair enough, sanctioned by the title. We see Steve Carella for the one and only time as a single man—the story ends on his wedding with Teddy. We see Bert Kling as a patrolman and already unlucky, though not yet specifically with women. The story is structured like a mystery, which means a reveal. It feels slightly rote and mechanical, but it's also fair by the rules of these things. We might have guessed the identity of the culprit, and it could have been others as well. McBain got better at this, especially when he found other ways to approach the problem of a mystery—or, better, all but abandoned it, using it only as one more element, sometimes a minor one, along with police procedure, character development, and his seductive bantering language. Obviously McBain learned to be more sparing and deliberate with his kill-offs of continuing characters, and he was quick to feel his way into developing them across the series. He got better at everything in every way. That's the reason I point away from this. He worked at it, and got better, but the enterprise came to him in patches, fits, and false starts over many decades. He was best—most consistent, complex, conversational, rollicking—in the '80s, though there are many great novels in every decade before that. I'm just happy some acquisitions editor saw fit to keep throwing contracts at him—or maybe that was the book-buying public beating down doors. Cop Hater is a good start, but it's rough.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bugs Bunny vs. Cecil J. Turtle: The Tortoise and the Hare Trilogy (1941-1947)

Tortoise Beats Hare (1941), Tortoise Wins by a Hare (1943), Rabbit Transit (1947), USA, 22 minutes
Directors: Tex Avery, Robert Clampett, Friz Freleng
Writers: Aesop, Dave Monahan, Warren Foster, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce
Animation: Charles McKimson, Robert McKimson, Ken Champin, Gerry Chiniquy
Music: Carl W. Stalling, Milt Franklyn
Editor: Treg Brown
Cast: Mel Blanc

The World War II years marked the crucible for the Warner Brothers cartoon character Bugs Bunny. That's when he solidified into the sassy, confident rabbit we know today, picking up his Brooklyn accent, his catch phrase, his carrot, and all his winning ways. Others foolishly think they can take advantage of him—he's just a rabbit, right?—but in fact he's the unassuming wise guy who never loses—never, ever loses. He became a kind of model for America in the world during the war years and after—unassuming but skeptical and jeering, and always a winner. More than anything he was about minding his own business, and that business was about being left alone, another long-term yearning of the American soul. But when dumbass hunters, ducks, and other miscreants come along, the rabbit's only choice is to rid himself of them. And he is always successful—no one loses to Bugs Bunny. He is faster, smarter, and more funny than anyone who challenges him. That's his way.

In the Aesop fable, by comparison, it's the rabbit who is doomed to fail, and only the rabbit. So the decision to create not one but three cartoons based on the story is an interesting one. Yes, a steady wellspring of cartoon makers in the '40s were fables and fairy tales, they are scattered all through the Warner Brothers catalog, made to be seen before feature films in theaters. In fairness, Bugs does have his struggles in some cases, but he is really thrust into an impossible situation this time. The tortoise wins that race—you can look it up. But the hare, the rabbit, is—Bugs Bunny. It's the famous case of the irresistible force and the unmovable object. But three times? What punishment must Bugs endure, and how can it possibly be resolved?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

V

V is for victory. Hold your two first fingers as if holding a cigar, with the back of the hand facing forward. Turn your hand the other way and that V is for peace, according to some hippies. V is very much of everything—including less popular, as, indeed, are all the letters we are about to encounter in the lowest tray of the alphabet as I learned it, V, W, X, Y, and Z. Among them, anyway, V rates pretty well—third after W and Y for frequency of use. But let's put that in perspective. W is #15 across the entire alphabet, well out of the top 10. Y is #18. And V is #21, just behind B and ahead of K. Lowly, yes, but such fine company right there. So what if V is infrequently used? It's a fun sound to make—the sound of the kazoo, essentially, with lower lip serving as vibrating surface across which the breath and vocal cords do their jimjams. V was well suited to the motor age, notably in its well known "vroom-vroom" application. It is a thoroughly modern letter somehow. A real V8. It had to be V for Vietnam. One nice thing about these lesser-used letters is the way little complexities can rush in to fill the gaps of a paucity of use. In online chat, lowercase, V has a busy life as "very," where it is prone to the inflationary impulse that follows such compression. I think four now are as many as I've seen in standardized use in front of an N (for "nice"): vvvvn. That's very, very, very, very sincere, ty. At that point the meaning begins to drain away from V, like the meaning from a word that you repeat too many times to yourself. You start to see the resemblance that it has to a checkmark, or mountain peaks side by side. You realize it can equally validly be expressed as a precise angle, say 35 degrees. It is, after all, also the mathematical greater-than and less-than symbols swung to balance impossibly on its tip. That's V all over for you—balancing impossibly on its tip. In the hard sciences, V really has a presence, almost celebrity status, with volumes, velocity, vectors, and such. In Roman numeral cloud cuckoo land, V is the number 5. With its connection to things visual, V is important in today's entertainment industry, as in TV, DVD, VHS, VCR, etc. As we noticed before with M and N, V and W are two letters sitting next to one another in the alphabet with a resemblance, as if they were put together that way purposefully. For that matter, U, which immediately precedes V, also has something of a family resemblance. However, V is the only one balancing impossibly on its tip (singular). If I ever see you online, you will have to admit that's a vvvvg trick.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing (2004)

As much for the opportunity to acquaint myself anew with the music of Elliott Smith, I really enjoyed reading Benjamin Nugent's early biography. I don't know any other Smith bios besides the recent documentary, so I know only vaguely whether or how much some of the principals in the story may have opened up by now. Insights or comment from his family are notably absent here, and many of his girlfriends and other key figures are also missing in action. But Nugent steps away from the problem by focusing on Smith's work and development as an artist. Nugent does not shy away from what he knows of the problems—drugs, obviously, and Smith's speculations that he may have been abused as a child, which together with other factors produced a personality that tended toward isolation. As usual in these things, the greatest obvious weakness is also the greatest obvious strength—all artists require a degree of isolation. Nugent again is very good at keeping the focus on the work. He talked to many of the people who worked with Smith in the studio, and there are wonderful revelations about Smith's sources and influences. Very high at the top were the Beatles, a fact that surprised me and then didn't. Even more interesting to find out how constructed his sound was—again, it seems obvious in hindsight, but something about Smith's music projects so directly that I'd never thought about how mediated it is. The very distinctness of his sound—based in many ways on a strategy of double-tracking both the vocals and guitar—should have been my first clue. There's more lyrical analysis here, which is all good though it reminded me, by how unfamiliar these snatches could be, how little Smith's lyrics have ever mattered to me. His music is almost purely a matter of mood, a hazy counterpane for the chills, psychic and otherwise. Instead of the Beatles (and then Kinks), I realized I had long assumed his '60s guide star was Simon and Garfunkel—more fool me, perhaps. But Simon and Garfunkel were equally masters of similar moods (and better than I had remembered or expected when I came to revisit them a few years ago)—equally literate, reasonably privileged, and capable of writing about life's underbellies in detailed ways. Smith's story remains a sad one, but his music is no less stirring and brave. Nugent's book is a nice version of his life.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Stalker (1979)

USSR, 163 minutes
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy, Andrei Tarkovsky
Photography: Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy, Georgi Rerberg, Leonid Kalashnikov
Music: Eduard Artemev
Editor: Lyudmila Feyginova
Cast: Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Alisa Freyndlikh

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's attempts at science fiction tended to falter from apparent basic misunderstandings of the genre—the high concepts of these stories are presented with such a light hand they are almost impossible to discern. In Stalker, something has happened to Earth, somewhere on the Eurasian land mass. An early note tells us it's not known what it was—a meteor strike or an invasion by a superior alien civilization are the two suggestions. The result is "a miracle": the Zone. Initially, armies were sent into the Zone, but were never heard from again. Now a militarized border has been erected around its perimeter, and no one is allowed in.

"Stalkers" have to sneak in through a no man's land of tanks, barbed wire, and machine gun fire. Stalkers have specialized skills that enable them to traverse the Zone and guide people to a room, where the innermost desires of those entering it come true. Yes, you heard me right. Another way that Tarkovsky seems to misunderstand science fiction, or use it so differently as to be alien, is by turning his geographies into soft dreamy places of externalized human psychology—remember that Solaris is about a planet that vivifies the people who dwell in the unconscious of its inhabitants. Even the plot point about the room in Stalker is handled obliquely, emerging late and talked about as if we already understood. The saving grace, and the point where people may begin to feel differently, because they may see no saving grace here, is the singularity of Tarkovsky and his visions. Whether or not he is consorting successfully with science fiction, he conveys the moods well. Never mind that too close consideration of the concepts may disturb the concentration, with ridicule.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

U

I like U, even if it is a bit of an underwhelming underachiever, 21st letter of the alphabet and last true vowel (we will be dealing with "sometimes" presently). It also boasts a peculiar and unique relationship with Q, which for reasons we don't exactly understand (or maybe we do? See Q) won't leave home without it. But compare the rest of the over-muscled vowels, whose rates of usage far outpace U's: E (#1), A (#3), O (#4), I (#5), U (#13). Underachiever! No fewer than eight of the worker-bee consonants outrank it. Yet U figures prominently in what could well be the two most used words in the English language: "uh" and "um." In its short form, represented in pronunciation guides by the schwa, it could be the most frequently used of all human sounds. In terms of its shape and form, for a long time it looked like the letter V, at least if stone chiselers are to be given any credence. We know that from all the "mvsevms" and "vniversities" we still see around. You also see U in relation to radioactivity, as the symbol for both uranium and the atomic mass unit. It's another letter whose fortunes changed with the coming of mass electronic communications—aided and abetted again by the rock star Prince, who was way out in front of that stuff. Truly, I do like the use of U for "you," not least for the symmetry it represents with the egotistical I. There is something pleasingly balanced about U and I. At the same time, unfortunately, it looks illiterate to me. I don't know if I'll ever get used to it that way. U may feel differently—U might get used to it. U also figures prominently in the negating process, whose many prefixes include "un" near the head of the line. I suspect "non" may now serve the more generic role, but I remember periods when indicating the opposite of almost anything was managed by hanging an "un" out front, viz., un-American, uncola, unhappy, untoward, unfunny. Those were better days for U but it's always been just a little bit of a laggard. Its top-open curve shape is a pleasing form but the question of the tail niggles at me. It destroys the simple beauty of the curve shape yet also seems wrong without it. Even the hand-printed version of the capital. Write it out for yourself. I bet you put a tail on it, didn't U? Coming off the right side on a downstroke. It's ungainly not least because now it just looks like a mistake, the lowercase figure but too big for its size, like an adolescent enduring a growth spurt. Like most letters, U is just full of tricks. Q is not the only place where it brings the W—"quick" and "quality," yes, sure, but also consider "anguish" and "suave" (and then compare "unique" and "guard," thank you Wikipedia). Funny fellow U are—or is, I should say, to be clear. Or unclear.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Reverberator (1888)

The Reverberator is a short comic Henry James novel. It's not considered to be among his best—the tangles of sentences and monolithic paragraphs only add up to another novel of manners working the matrimonial train, with the now familiar overlay of cultural relations between the Old World and the New. Once again the scene is Europe and all of the most important characters are American. This novel has an annoying tic of making the vigorous and loutish type of Americans frequently use the word "ain't" (though I admit I'm not always sure what's intended, as sometimes some of the very best of James characters use it seemingly without irony). There's also something about Europeans draining American energy—there is sophisticated, and then there is effete. This has one of the most painfully egregious examples of effete in what appears to be our hero, one Gaston Probert, who though bearing American citizenship has never lived there. He makes a sorry, unmemorable character, but no one here is very interesting. In fact, what's most interesting about this tends also to be beside the point. "The Reverberator" is a newspaper that traffics in nascent celebrity culture, for example, such as it existed in Europe in the late 19th century. I thought that was interesting, although as a plot point it devolves into a buffoonish farce. Even more interesting was the consideration of Impressionism. The label never appears, much less any real-life artist names such as Claude Monet, but it's evident from the descriptions of the paintings (and the time period) that that is what James is talking about. Now a favorite of middlebrows on a reasonably permanent basis, with Shakespeare and Beethoven, Impressionism was still relatively new and au courant at the time James wrote this. It's hard to miss his note of dismissal—and thus perhaps, by extension, his potential dismissal of much in art that has followed for more than a century. This is not entirely surprising, as Henry James remains more or less a conservative fuddy-duddy at bottom. Yet it is interesting to see how that plays out with a style of art that has become a favorite (or certainly tolerated well) among the conservative fuddy-duddy class everywhere, who tut-tut as always about what's become of art, music, literature, politics, science, etc. In other words, Henry James in this day and age could well likely appreciate a Monet calendar as a Christmas gift. But we'll never know that for certain. It's only a thought experiment, and has nothing to do with anything in The Reverberator. It's not for James's views on art that we read him, but more for the way he catalogs and arranges modes of perceived conduct, and can do so with a kind of bewitching wordy charm. But even that's not happening so much here. It's short but only for the hardcore.

"interlocutor" count = 2 / 210 pages

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)

Canada / USA, 98 minutes, documentary
Directors: William Hechter, Peter Miller
Photography: Antonio Rossi
Editor: Amy Linton
With: Sharyn Felder, Willi Burke, Raoul Felder, Geoffrey Felder, Shirlee Hauser, Alex Halberstadt, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Dr. John, Gerry Goffin, Dion DiMucci, Ben E. King, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Dave Marsh, Joan Osborne, Lou Reed, Jimmy Scott, Marshall Chapman, Shawn Colvin

There's a certain style to A.K.A. Doc Pomus that raises it several notches above typical musical biographies. A lot of that is due to the subject at hand. Doc Pomus (born Jerome Felder) was one of the great 20th-century pop songwriters, a point on which there is wide agreement—indeed, part of the appeal of this documentary is the wide swath of people appearing to testify, who are obviously sincere. As it happens, Pomus also has an interesting biography, a lifelong New Yorker born and raised in Brooklyn, and a victim of polio since the age of 6.

By all appearances the driving force behind the picture was his daughter, Sharyn Felder, an executive producer and an interview subject herself, along with her mother, brother, uncle, and stepmother. There's no need for whitewashing anything, and it's not really a hagiography either. The regard others have for Pomus, even 20 years and more since his death in 1991, enables the film to be honest about his human weaknesses and provide a context for the music, and the joy, that he created. In the end the movie is mostly about the music, and the joy.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

T

Alphabetically, T falls at #20, but in terms of frequency of usage, it is #2, trailing only E. Among other things, that makes T the #1 consonant. But don't get too excited—as with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, T is unlikely to overtake E any time soon. E represents 12.7% of all letters used whereas T is nearly four points behind, at 9.0%. After that the bunching is tight: A, 8.2% ... O, 7.5% ... I, 7.0% ... N, 6.7% ... S, 6.3%, and so forth. Still, at #2, T has a grip on its destiny. As a thought experiment, I wonder how things would change if the definite article, "the," were changed to "xqz," made up of the three least-used letters. I suppose we'll never know because it has the drawbacks of appearing unpronounceable and also makes no etymological sense. We would never get used to it. Imagine encountering this sentence in a story: "Hey," said xqz handyman, "will you grab me xqz pliers over there, please." No. It would never do. For the most part, T operates as the so-called "voiceless alveolar stop," the noise made with the tip of the tongue against the region of the mouth back of the upper teeth. It doesn't seem to me exactly the most natural sound to make with a mouth, not like M or R or S (let alone H, a sound that adults make at the rate of 16 to 20 times per minute). This might explain why T arrives so late in the alphabet—it is dead last in Hebrew, for example. When H sidles up next to T, it's time to start lisping. Why is T given this assignment? I don't have time to go into that or into Thomas or thyme either. Sometimes when T and I appear together, they act like S and H (not to mention I and T): "purgation," "ratio," "Croatia." Nobody got time for that. For that matter, the whole TH mouth noise adventure is something of a peculiarity, unknown altogether, for example, in German, French, Persian, Japanese, and Mandarin. For those of us with a penchant for the square (not mutually exclusive with one for the curve!), T is one of the finest shapes to be found in the alphabet. So pleasing in fact that the T-square, an instrument or tool that enables drawing or testing right angles, was named for it. It stands on a single point, bearing its horizontal crossbar with equanimity and poise. In its lowercase form it takes on the look of the Christian cross and/or fishhooks, but it's still a pretty good-looking letter, simple, sturdy, evocative, eternally enduring, or suggesting such things. T is yet another one of those little letter narcissists that likes to double up and pal around with itself, doppelganger style. T is hardly the only letter that does so, but it shows an especial effrontery by doing so in the word "letter" itself. Tsk, tsk.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1970)

I think I'd be a little surprised to hear anyone name this as a favorite Philip K. Dick novel, but it's serviceable enough, with lots of familiar Dick touches: drugs, anomie, near-future totalitarianism, and reality marked as much as anything by its elasticity and fungibility. It involves a celebrity performer, a singer and TV talk-show host who inevitably put me in mind of Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin. He is fabulously wealthy and much beloved, not to mention "a six," which apparently makes him a type of superhuman. Merv Griffin as the model of a superman is likely a stretch to all (save Griffin and the fictional Cosmo Kramer) but never mind. After suffering an attack by an ex-girlfriend, our hero Jason Taverner comes to in a world that has never heard of him. What's more, he has no personal identification documents, and that makes him illegal. Getting to the bottom of this vexing mix-up provides the narrative arc. Not surprisingly, the resolution involves parallel realities accessed via experimental new drugs. A lot of the Dick novels I've been reading and writing about likely make good starting points, I think, and this is probably another. It's weird, it's mind-bending enough, and it's delivered in a deadpan American idiom that is at once homey and dissociative. He's reliable for that. He's best on drugs and mental illness, somehow getting inside the head of strange ways of perceiving, and thinking, and then, even more remarkably, smuggling that sense into the reader's head. "Trippy" really covers it. He's less good on sex—on the one hand that's good, because he's not inclined to pro forma steamy sex scenes that have cluttered up so many things the past 50 years or so. On the other hand, he's bad on sex. There's a notably repugnant incest thread in this one, made worse by strains of BDSM stereotyping, with "leather" and "bondage" and stuff. I found it off-putting, but I was also listening to Frank Zappa albums at the time for another project, a bad combination. Dick is not good on relationships either. But he's very good on loneliness, dysthymia, alienation, and the yearning to escape. He thinks of places to escape that no one before him ever had, and sometimes it seems now that's all we can think of. Read enough of his stuff and you start to understand what a stamp he made.

In case it's not at the library.