Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (1966)

Philip K. Dick's 1966 short story provides the source material for the 1990 Schwarzenegger picture directed by Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall. Perhaps because of its brevity the story feels less Dickian than either "The Minority Report" (half again bigger) or the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (He sure could pack the words into some of these titles!) What's interesting to me is that, of the three movies that originally came of these properties, Total Recall comes closest to sustaining the way a Dick story moves. Blade Runner and Minority Report, by comparison, feel more like the work of their directors (Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, respectively) fitted out with "Dick touches." It may not really be so surprising that producer Ronald Shusett and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon had fastened on the story so long ago they purchased the rights while Dick was still alive. Shusett and O'Bannon were also principals on the original Alien movie. The Dick story is a simple riff on false memory medical procedures around which a slightly unsavory cottage industry has sprung, like tanning salons in strip malls, offering "realistic" memories of nice vacations, which is both less expensive than the cost of traveling and also saves time for convenience. The medical procedure is reminiscent of the one in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. To make this story a blockbuster movie they riffed on a theme Dick only suggests in the story, turning it into an elaborate and bewildering spy / adventure / paranoid / surreal tale that barely makes sense even when you're keeping up. Lots of things, such as the Johnny Cab, feel like Dick but are not—the Johnny Cab is also extraordinarily prescient even for 1990. This suggests to me that Shusett and O'Bannon brought a sense of Dick with remarkable clarity to the picture. It couldn't have hurt that they were able to work with one of the largest budgets yet at the time for a movie. The thing thrills with money—spectacular effects and very big explosions. Way too much violence and gore, in fact, or "action," would have to count as one of the picture's weaknesses. But a lot of thought went into spinning this little story into a full-blown feature movie that was true to Dick—"inspired by" Dick and his story, as they put it in the titles. If it veers dangerously close to meat-headed action—the money, again, which among other things paid for Arnold Schwarzenegger—it's always so full of tricks and surprises that it never really lets you go. Which is equally true for Dick literary properties, come to think of it, except the "meat-headed action," for which swap in ... I don't know. Time travel slipstream alternate-reality paradoxes? It's a good blend. Go directly to the movie.

In case it's not at the library (and in other anthologies).

Friday, July 24, 2015

12 Years a Slave (2013)

USA / UK, 134 minutes
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Photography: Sean Bobbitt
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editor: Joe Walker
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp, Deneen Tyler

It's probably worth asking why so few honest movies about American slavery have been made, but the answer is pretty easy. White people in the United States still control most such decisions and they don't like being reminded of their heritage of slavery, arguing (dancing madly) that it's in the past and more or less best forgotten (because what's to be gained by remembering?), and besides, they (those alive now) didn't have anything to do with it. In the South, they like to call it their "peculiar institution," and to this day many believe that life for slaves was soft and easy, with all expenses paid—like living on welfare. It took a black British director with the name of a Hollywood icon to make an important step toward changing this, if it's possible to change this.

As a white person, I have been duly reluctant to look at 12 Years a Slave, approaching it both times I've seen it with sinking dread. To some degree that's based on qualms about director Steve McQueen, whose well-respected Hunger left me so cold I never bothered with Shame. Mostly, of course, the resistance is about the subject matter (see title). Based on Solomon Northup's slave narrative memoir written in the 19th century, it tells the story of a talented and accomplished Northern black free man who is tricked and abducted in Washington, D.C.—yes, that Washington, D.C., the seat of all liberty—and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he experiences all we've heard about and some that perhaps we haven't. Though scrupulously accurate and with little tendency to sensationalize for cheap effect, it is harsh, explicit, and unrelenting.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Advertisements for Myself (1959)

Norman Mailer's fourth book, a collection of essays, articles, and stories, is a product of unadulterated narcissism, so purified that it somehow comes around the bend of unseemly ego and redeems itself. I encountered it first in 1975 and even then took it as a guilty pleasure, an untoward yawp, like the bellowing of an animal, and altogether too much. I kept my sessions with it private, reading it only at home and never carrying it about. But even so I read every word and I've been through it a couple more times since. It is as honest (and repulsive) about the life of a writer as anything I know, and it is often hugely entertaining. There's something about the absurd degree of Mailer's commitment, in tandem with his undeniable talent, put in the service of textbook Freudian patterns of delusional emotional need, that is impossible to look away from. The one-time literary wunderkind, after publishing his first novel The Naked and the Dead at the age of 25, is glimpsed 10 years on as a pitiful addict for human attention, very nearly a geek pure working up to biting the head off a small animal, sitting in his squalor and sculpting his own shit, seeking and rejecting approval more fiercely than ever. Advertisements has two tables of contents (the first following the chronological structure of the book, the second more of an index by literary type, whose hairs split fine), and practically every little piece is surrounded by pellet discussions that revisit his state of mind then and explore how his state of mind has changed (or not) since. "The author," he writes in explanation, "taken with an admirable desire to please his readers, has also added a set of advertisements, printed in italics, which surround all of these writings with his present tastes, preferences, apologies, prides, and occasional confessions." It sounds unbearable—some of it is, and for many all of it is, so caveats, people—yet for me it is more often exhilarating. There is nothing else quite like it. In some ways Mailer serves as a kind of inadvertent bellwether of the literary fortunes of 20th-century America. Born into a time when the novel was the most noble and status-rich aspiration for anyone with ambitions of a literary career, Mailer watched those times change in front of his eyes, even after he had played by the rules and made a precocious beachhead with that first novel. He wrote two more novels in the '50s (Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, which I've never managed to get through) before drifting into the crisis that is the prodigious wellspring of Advertisements—whither lit (and incidentally what about me me me)? In many ways the shards and fragments speak for themselves, as shards and fragments. But they can be nicely composed and artfully executed—Mailer's talent carries the day, and seeing it in such ruins is deeply unsettling and beautiful at once. I think of this still as one of his best books, certainly his first great and truly iconoclastic work, in contrast to The Naked and the Dead, which is a very good novel that owes everything to obvious suspects such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Advertisements for Myself is utterly an original. For the first time he'd finally managed that.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Bostonians (1886)

This is about as weird for Henry James as anything I've read by him yet. For one very obvious point, it is set entirely in the New World, with barely a reference to Europe. It involves a post-Civil-War Southern aristocratic gentleman, baying packs of Boston feminists, and a family of professional frauds. It is as exaggerated and distorted a view of 19th-century American society as could be constructed, I sense, based on what else I know. Once acclimated to the strange scene in this novel I found at least one unsettling bent toward my own sympathies. But James is not particularly taking a position. This is more like a Tom Wolfe novel a century too early. He is mocking and skewering it all—the level of contempt itself is bracing. Thus, for every jab I enjoyed that he took at the South in the person of Basil Ransom (whose name I kept perversely reading as Basil Rathbone), I had to wince and take issue when he attempted to make the feminists seem silly, willfully misunderstanding in order to dismiss them. By today's standards, James is the one who looks silly, with his witless intimations of lesbianism and generalized sexual frustration, or female hysteria. His hollow, belated appreciation of one of these feminists just feels insincere. In all this, there is also one of the more inane romances ever conducted via the cloak of a novel of manners. The concluding chapters dither about senselessly, with the worst symptoms of serialization in some ways. Only the throwaway very last sentence of the last paragraph finally delivers anything like a resolution. But because The Bostonians is a farce there is no resolution, nor can be. The greatest interest here for me was more historical, dredging up some sense of 1870s Boston as a focus of progressive / liberal / radical social change, analogous to San Francisco a century later. Many of the feminists' most basic priorities, such as the right to vote, seem now to have no argument whatsoever against. So it's interesting also to attempt to parse out some "common sense" view that would exclude it, which surfaces here, not just via the Southern gentleman Ransom, who himself more or less still demurs on the issue of slavery, let alone his views on women, but also embedded within the balancing tone of the third-person narrator, our authority of last resort. Interesting, but weird.

"interlocutor" count = 4 / 250 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library.