Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is an exhilarating mash of religion, hallucinatory drugs, and tried and true science fiction concepts. In the 21st century, planet Earth is so overheated it is dangerous to go outside for any period of time without protection. The United Nations is a totalitarian if somewhat benign world government, conscripting individuals from the heaving planet and forcibly resettling them on other orbiting bodies in the solar system. (As a side note, I think it's interesting that even as late as the '60s Venus was still considered potentially habitable.) The conditions on those colonies are dreary and harsh. UN authorities mostly look the other way on a rampant abuse of drugs there to cope. The most popular drug among colonists is CAN-D, which appears to enable a consciousness to inhabit miniature landscapes kept like dollhouses or model railroad dioramas, which users build and collect details for like a hobby, nostalgic comfort regions where they may dwell as long as the drug lasts, a few hours at a time. Meanwhile, our hero Palmer Eldritch has returned from a mission beyond the solar system with a mysterious new drug, CHEW-Z ("Be choosy, chew CHEW-Z" is the advertising tagline planned for its marketing launch). Its effects are similar to CAN-D, but much more powerful, and sinister. The range of issues Dick attempts is ambitious: religion, politics, and drugs, to name the most obvious. He is best at narrating the drug experiences, keeping us on track through bizarre, ever-unfolding terrains of experience. It always feels like at least a solid head trip mind fuck, and surprisingly often like a hallucinogenic drug experience. These episodes are weird, funny, scary, often quite lucid, and convincing. Dick constantly threatens to go obvious with the religious themes but then tends to hold back at the last minute, which at once affirms the dignity, power, and danger of religion. And the dystopian science / political vision of humanity's impulse at large to control and overrun is what grounds it all in given reality. His sure hand at managing these elements makes the case, as they say, for Dick as unimaginably far ahead of his times—consider the global warming detail alone. In that regard, and also on the drugs and corporatism, he's still well ahead of even our own times, more than 50 years later. Recommended.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Satantango (1994)

(Requested by reader Phil.)

Satan's Tango, Hungary / Germany / Switzerland, 420 minutes
Director: Bela Tarr
Writers: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Mihaly Vig, Peter Dobai, Barna Mihok, Bela Tarr
Photography: Gabor Medvigy
Music: Mihaly Vig
Editor: Agnes Hranitzky
Cast: Peter Berling, Janos Derzsi, Miklos Szekely B., Erzsebet Gaal, Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath, Laszlo feLugossy, Eva Almassy Albert, Erika Bok

Fair warning and common sense alert: It takes some mental preparation and internal letting go to get inside and all the way through this picture—Satantango is not a movie to see on a whim. For one thing, it just doesn't behave much like many other films, except perhaps parts of the rest of Hungarian director and co-writer Bela Tarr's catalog, which is infrequent yet can be equally prolific, lean, and densely massive. The pamphlet that comes with the Facets DVD box bears the important message, "A Cinema of Patience." Take note. Coming in 1994 out of a former Soviet satellite state, that sentiment bears the weight of multiple connotations about this film, and a dreadful burden.

At seven hours, the running time likely remains the most salient feature of Satantango, certainly the primary factor one must negotiate. The movie comes with its own sense of time. It's not just slow, with its long meditative takes, but it also forces accommodation of time in new and strange ways. The narrative—not easy to make out (partly exactly because it is so long and slow), and which is perhaps best taken as extended post-Soviet phantasmagoria—tends to stop, retreat, and loop back on itself, creating knots. Meanwhile, long lines and vectors of themes and plot points cross each other at angles acute and obtuse. An eerie synthesizer keyboard soundtrack sounds like the organ in Sunset Blvd. The tone is deadening somber, but it is also an absurdist black comedy, and often very funny. Satantango is playful as only a bludgeoning seven-hour tour de force of long slow takes can be. It is equally often harrowing and desolate, and always deliciously paranoid. It contains depictions of human cruelty you may never forget. It is fantastical and naturalistic at once.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Call of the Wild (1903)

Have to say that I have really come to appreciate this Yukon by way of West Coast tale of the big dog Buck and his destiny—or make that "destiny," as some little use of scare quotes is appropriate under the circumstances. There's some wrong-ways understanding of evolution and a whole lotta anthropomorphizin'  goin' on. And though it is a story about a dog, and thus emotion bait for a certain strain of animal lover that includes me, it is also much more than a story about a dog. All human frailties are on display—greed, lust, cruelty, gluttony, etc., etc.—and the animals don't always come off looking so good either. Events unfold in this short novel with the feel of raw life, and are often vividly felt. But until the very end, after all the humans have left, and only after they have left, it's the humans' world and the dogs just live in it. That's a reasonable point of view. Yet even as the softening humanizing goes on, there is also a very effective kneecap-high point of view of the necessarily subservient dog, surviving. All the people who cross Buck's path, essentially random names and voices and behavior, come to define themselves within view of him. Buck is also an interesting case because he is a bit of a superhero and yet remains sympathetic. The noble beast and all that of course open to clichéd familiarity, but Jack London somehow makes it work. In many ways the huffing guff about ancient memories awaked and whatnot actually works for the sake of the dog—who, one senses, wants it made clear that he's not the one going on in such veins, it's rather the author of the tome. Thus we are put so far into the dog's head. Another thing London is good at is animalness, as when he describes Buck enjoying the sensation of warm blood on his gums from fresh kill. Yeah, must say—sounds like animal stuff to me!

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-1917)

I really enjoyed this series of lectures designed to explicate the theory of psychoanalysis and discuss research supporting it. With World War I raging in the background (referred to more than once) and the field of psychoanalysis essentially still in its infancy—or at least very much a work in progress—Herr Doktor Sigmund Freud lays it out. He starts with parapraxes, now known more commonly as "Freudian slips," moves on to dreams, and finally enters into neurotic theory, where it gets a little confusing and heavy on jargon. It's dated insofar as the social norms it assumes so unquestioningly, especially on gender / sexuality issues—he's only a notch above primitive 20th century as often as not, and some wincing should be expected. It is vividly not dated, however, in the grindingly convincing case it makes for an unconscious in conflict with a conscious, a dynamic that defines critical ways we experience reality as basically about the sexual imperative encountering the rational, civilizing imperative. He's very shrewd to argue the case for parapraxes first. He finds examples, in Shakespeare no less, where it is obvious that the phenomenon of self-defeating slips of the tongue, misplaced important objects such as keys, and inexplicable "forgetting" are not just well-known commonplaces of experience, but have also been understood for centuries for what they so often seem to be, evidence of a will in conflict with itself somehow. In Shakespeare, Hamlet misremembers and then corrects himself about how long his father has been dead. A more prosaic example is the joke about the letter home that begins, "Dead Mom and Dad." Freud is so convincing on his elucidation of these dynamics that later, in the last third, when the issues are harder to follow and I more often started to snort and shake my damn head over the fanciful interpretations erupting, it still seemed plausible. In fact, I had to wonder whether my response did not indicate some message in all that mess that I was resisting. Perhaps so. But no, I think it's just heavy on jargon and too many theoretical points (and underpinnings) still in play at the time. It's still a little doughy, or tacky, not even in the oven properly yet. But the lectures are energized by the consideration of exciting and revolutionary ideas. He definitely seems to be on to something. Plus Freud is a very good writer, that's apparent even through the translation of lecture notes.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Stand (1994)

USA, 366 minutes, ABC TV miniseries
Director: Mick Garris
Writer: Stephen King
Photography: Edward J. Pei
Music: W.G. Snuffy Walden
Editor: Patrick McMahon
Cast: Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Jamey Sheridan, Laura San Giacomo, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Rob Lowe, Miguel Ferrer, Ray Walston, Corin Nemec, Matt Frewer, Adam Storke, Kellie Overbey, Bill Fagerbakke, Rick Aviles, Stephen King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Landis, Sam Raimi, Ed Harris

Stephen King's heavy participation in this TV miniseries, which aired on ABC during the sweeps month of May 1994 (and won some Emmy Awards and nominations), complicates any assessment. He makes about three cameos too many, gets a credit as executive producer, and most importantly owns sole credit for the script. It seems safe to assume King had sufficient clout by 1994 to get his way—or maybe not. Not always sure how these things work. But the miniseries bears his imprimatur. He approved this message. Too bad, because it's weak sauce compared to the original novel (which I know only in its first-published shorter form). We're talking about a six-hour production here. If nothing else, for once and for all, this should retire the debate on the natural narrative scope of feature movies, which is much closer to short stories than novels. Let alone a mammoth novel such as The Stand. Let alone any fiction so explicitly grounded in the voice of the author. I don't think I had actually realized until now how important King's distinctive voice is to what he does. Somehow it makes all the disjointed claptrap that occupies these six hours cohere and work. This miniseries is to King's novel as David Lynch's Dune is to Frank Herbert's. The good points: the continuity of King, a lot of goodwill, a decent cast, a reasonable budget. Sure, more money might have helped. It never feels remotely like the end of the world, for one problem (whereas feeling exactly like the end of the world is one of the novel's great strengths). But special effects is not the problem. The relative compression of the miniseries ("compression," recalling that it is six hours) paradoxically just exposes all the flaws of the novel. It's the titanic showdown we know between Good and Evil—a ground that is terribly fraught with pitfalls already, yet managed well in the novel—suddenly reduced to a series of skits and dramatic reenactments of famous scenes from the novel. Sometimes things seem to be here just so we can hear the line, or see the visual. The rock 'n' roll soundtrack is lame too. The dynamic finally is on the order of Bugs Bunny (aka Good) and Daffy Duck (aka Evil). We know who wins that one. And we know who wins this one. Because that's the other thing—I can't see it makes any sense without bringing familiarity with the novel to it. All that said, if it's OK with King, and with at least a plurality of his fans (as judged by comments on, and skipping that nothing should ever be judged by comments on, then who am I? Inevitably, in today's moviemaking climate, another film version of The Stand is in the works—sounds like King will have less involvement, though his status as 800-lb. gorilla has to be more imposing than ever. If it makes any difference. Whatever. I can't help thinking it's bound to look approximately as meager as this. For me, the whole thing is a no-brainer. Read the book.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop (1986)

This treatment of the UK's early-'80s resurgence in pop music—known in the US as the "second British invasion"—encompasses so-called New Pop, focusing mostly on Culture Club, but also Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and many others. It's written by Dave Rimmer, then of Smash Hits. Interesting trivia: another Smash Hits editor, Neil Tennant, served as agent in getting the book deal. I should explain my use of scare quotes and "so-called," because it largely explains my indifference to the book and its many insights. British pop of the early '80s wasn't that important to me. I loved (and still do) ABC, the Human League, and Culture Club, but have little use for Adam & the Ants, Duran Duran, and most of the others, with occasional exceptions for specific songs. I was convinced by my experience of it in the '70s (later confirmed in books such as Fredric Dannen's Hit Men) that pop radio had essentially become a fraud, controlled and manipulated by corporate interests. The "second British invasion" seems to me still little more than stuffing the charts in an attempt to recreate more lucrative times. The mass of "New Pop" does not stand up to the mass of the '60s British pop, nor are its highs comparable to the earlier highs. It doesn't mean there wasn't great music in the '80s too, and I was grateful Rimmer's focus was Culture Club when it could have been Duran Duran. At the same time Rimmer is explicitly constrained by his relationship with Boy George O'Dowd, Jon Moss, and the others, and altogether too focused on his "New Pop" thesis, supported by too much extraneous chart analysis, to get to the real story there, as I see it, which is the person and the persona of O'Dowd. O'Dowd's affair with Moss remains a tantalizing mystery and I get the feeling it's the best way in to the Culture Club story. There's no way Rimmer was going to write that story in 1986—not without a lot of unpleasant fallout likely—and it really was never what he intended. Just so, from my view, I think the title needs to be adjusted slightly: Like 1968 Never Happened.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Confidence (1879)

It was interesting to me to read that Henry James took a dim view of Washington Square, the novel that followed Confidence, and also later in his career extensively reworked The American (to its detriment, according to an evident majority), which came before. Confidence he left as is. It is routinely damned with the faint praise that it is "light," and that's one way of putting it. It's muddled more than anything. It seems to be about friendship but ultimately in such a slight way that the theme feels more tried on for size. It includes one of James's more enigmatic female leads in Angela Vivian, the pensive woman of good character who suffers one way or another. We get powerful intimations of something mysterious about her in the vivid opening scene, but it never amounts to much. The tiny universe in this short novel of six or seven characters moving about the globe separately and together feels unusually constricted this time. They simply can't get away from one another, no matter how far they go, in one after another coincidental meetings in strange and/or exotic places. I like to think James more or less stood by the text of Confidence because he might have got something right in Angela Vivian, some ideal of a perfectly mysterious and mysteriously perfect woman. He seems to be fascinated by the strangeness of her, which comes through in flashes. It's a certain level of manner and mood objectified for the luster of its surfaces. Yes, she is indeed seductively fascinating, until the moment willy-nilly she turns conventional and the way too late-breaking conflict is tied with a bow. Curtain. No, he couldn't have been too proud of or happy with that—I speculate—but perhaps he felt hitting those high notes justified it. I don't know. Angela Vivian is a wonderful character until the conventional ending is called for. Nothing is ever really explained about her, which is frustrating. But is that frustration maybe even intentional? After all, every mystery loses its allure the minute any of it is explained. That's something any dime-store stage magician can tell you. Still, I'm left curiously unsatisfied, even if that's how I'm supposed to be left.

"interlocutor" count = 1/228 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)