Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Maze of Death (1968)

I struggled some with this short novel by Philip K. Dick and by the time I got to the end I think I figured out why. It's a typical Dickian scenario: a group of Americans on a desolate planet is harassed by distortions of reality. Drugs, time travel, extra dimensions, and other such factors usually account for it. Here we do not really figure out what's going on until a big reveal near the end. In its totality, the novel plays fair. Or let me put it this way. In the 30-minute span of a Twilight Zone episode it would play fair, and might even work quite well. It's a short novel and a relatively easy read, but it's heaps of weird piled on heaps of weird for no discernible reason. A group of citizens around the solar system is assembled for a mission. But communication beyond the planet is cut off before the group members can receive final instructions. Then they start to kill one another. Thus, among other things, as Wikipedia informs, this is one of Dick's darkest works, "one of the few to examine the human death instinct and capacity for murder." Well, yes, but who's to say a death is really a death in a novel by Dick, at least until we have further information (i.e., finish the book)? Maybe that's one of the prices you pay as an author for fucking with reality on a regular basis. It didn't concern me much that these characters were killing one another, because they do so in such casual and bizarre ways I basically didn't believe it, or reserved judgment. There's an interesting conceit here about the existence of God having been verified, and now reachable through appropriate channels. I liked it but it smelled awfully churchy, with analogies for Jesus and Satan and maybe the Holy Ghost too if I thought about it enough. But I don't want to think about that at all. What is the Holy Trinity doing in my science fiction novel? That's one question I have. Something is not right in this picture. Everything appears so normal and yet. And it's the usual bunch of PKD everyday people, with the usual California or Western tuning. But I didn't like the way the explanatory concept was reserved for a twist at the end. That's short story stuff. I'm not much impressed with the turn to religious ideas either. It makes me worried what the '70s will bring—remember, this is my first encounter with most of these.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Platform (2000)

Zhantai, Hong Kong / China / Japan / France, 154 minutes
Director/writer: Zhangke Jia
Photography: Nelson Lik-wai Yu
Music: Yoshihiro Hanno
Editor: Jinlei Kong
Cast: Hongwei Wong, Tao Zhao, Jing Dong Liang, Tian-yi Yang, Bo Wang

The first time I sat down to look at Platform, earlier this year, I came away with a germ of an impression that it is something on the order of an Asian Fame. My Halliwell's (2008 edition) dismisses it as mediocre, with zero stars, complaining about the overuse of long shots. Zero stars in that system is not as bad as it sounds, but it's not good. Watching Platform, I glazed over, I admit. I was watching it from the perspective of an ongoing long-term self-imposed obligation, attempting to track down and write up the highest-ranking entrants on the list of 21st-century movies at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? For the four years I have been aware of the list, it has been remarkably volatile. This is not that surprising, given the relatively small sample size and brief time to assimilate, and indeed it's one of the most interesting features of that list. It has rewritten its top 10 by half in my time of following the annual updates.

Platform has been steady at #17 since 2013. It spent 2011 and 2012 in the 40s, and before that, for the first two years of the list, it was over 100. I suspect the primary source of its high regard lies with a 2005 review by Jonathan Rosenbaum in which he labels it "one of the greatest of all Chinese films" but I can't explain how that has anything to do with the recent surges of support. I appreciate many of the disparate pieces of Platform—the burnishing of its central metaphor, the use of pop music, the sense of time and place—but for the most part I flail to find meaningful connecting points, beyond the generic anomie, which I can always get behind at least a little. I found a nice appreciation of it by Joel Bocko at the Wonders in the Dark blog. I won't be able to give it anywhere near as thoughtful of a treatment.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Oh there have to be so many ways to go with this, right? —having arrived at the fourth vowel and 15th letter of the alphabet. Coordination of the following. Considerations for the poetic "O," to which I admit I am partial, as in "O joy" (although, on conventional grounds, I really don't mind typing the H, except, you know, oh what the blasted hell is it doing there anyway). Maybe the poetic O now bears a burden of irony, but also, straight up, it's poetic. O lovely locution. O bring it on. Considerations for the orgasm, naturally. The orgasm face, to wit—the "oh face" (or is that "O face," because it's more poetical?). Considerations for Om, which rises from the belly and extends vibrations-wise into the universe. Speaking of the universe, O is among the most universal of the vowels, right? Certainly in the long version. The short version is a little more problematical, swapping around, with A, various mysterious intonations I confess I don't always hear (sometimes, both A and O, combined with U, or W, or A with itself), as in "stop," "halt," "caught," "awful," "foul," and/or "aardvark." But let that go. It's English, Jake. In O we do find one of the most beautiful letters in the perfect shape of the circle. The mystic circle. The only thing more perfect is the sphere, which O kind of approximates too. In contrast, since I brought it up, there is the masculinist upright bar of the I, and all attendant problems with ego fixation (as noted elsewhere). But among the letters there is otherwise truly no triangle, no square, no rectangle. Ironically, in some fonts the O becomes a square. That's a chortle, but more often it is the D taking the shape if any letter does. But what do I know about typefaces? I scribble in notebooks. Still, the letter O, the letter I probably, and what else? U? Here we are now at the primal levels. Does that perhaps account for why O is tucked in so relatively deep into the alphabet, all the way to the back in the second half? What is that about? Furthermore, stepping back for a little light perspective, take that third tray of letters from the alphabet the way I learned it—L, M, N, O, and P. I think there might have been a rock band called LMNOP and it's really fun to say too, or sing, as in the "ABC Song." You could almost spell out the word "lemon" if you could get that O up in front of the N. And throw in the E. Well, you know what I mean. Making lemons out of lemonade, right? Well, that's just O for you. Everywhere you want to be.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Day of the Locust (1939)

I must say it was a little distracting to return to Nathanael West's great novel for the first time since the '70s and encounter a schlubby character named Homer Simpson (he was played by Donald Sutherland in the 1975 movie directed by John Schlesinger, which is not to be missed). The mystery deepens as it appears Matt Groening has pointed to it as one source of his cartoon character's name. Yeah, right. It was also hard to get an image out of my mind from Jonathan Lethem's introduction, pointing out the vertical lines of West's Miss Lonelyhearts, set in New York City in the early '30s, and the horizontal lines of The Day of the Locust, set in Los Angeles in the late '30s. Finally, just to give some indication of how fully packed this little novel is, the biblical locust story is wrapped in to pretty much every single incident of the action, and in many ways explains everything in this strange litany of episode: the landscape is blighted and dead many different ways, not least in the psychic dimension, overrun by soulless feeding lost people, the late arrivals and still pouring in to Southern California's paradise. Between the time of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, one of the most devastating environmental disasters in American history deepened to catastrophic levels, with the advance of the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck of course has one vision of the aftermath in The Grapes of Wrath. West has another here—one that is much closer to (yet infinitely intensifies) Horace McCoy's 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a companion novel to The Day of the Locust if ever there was one. By the time the streak of violence in West's novel has erupted into a closely described cock fight and finally explodes into a riot in Hollywood for glimpses of the attending stars at a movie premiere, there is a kind of satisfaction that occurs, a fitting resolution to the burden of dread and anxiety and anomie we live with on a daily basis. It's realistic too, in terms of the beneficial side of catharsis, which after all may be unpleasant in the actual moment but ultimately cleansing, so cleansing. The Day of the Locust is packed full of random incidents, but the elements linger and cohere, chillingly, long after the book has been put down.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Advise & Consent (1962)

(requested by reader Phil)

USA, 139 minutes
Director: Otto Preminger
Writers: Allen Drury, Wendell Mayes
Photography: Sam Leavitt
Music: Jerry Fielding
Editor: Louis R. Loeffler
Cast: Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray, Henry Fonda, Lew Ayres, Edward Andrews, Burgess Meredith, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, George Grizzard, Paul Ford, Peter Lawford, Inga Swenson, Will Geer, Larry Tucker, Betty White

Advise & Consent belongs to a grand American tradition of political movies, usually set in Washington, D.C., endeavoring to explicitly show how sausage gets ground into legislation and/or policy, presented in a brisk spirit of upbeat no-nonsense and glowering knowingness. Maybe it started with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or maybe Gregory La Cava's Gabriel Over the White House, or probably way before that even. The most recent example may be Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Along the way there's Meet John Doe, A Face in the Crowd, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, All the President's Men, Wag the Dog, Charlie Wilson's War, and many others—also, on TV, The West Wing.

What likely unites them most is their smug sense of realpolitik, as they otherwise wander afield among distractions such as high drama, buffoonery, and plain old shtick. Advise & Consent revels in the amiable corruptions of its early-'60s glamour cast, found wandering the sanctified halls of D.C. power. It's solid storytelling about American political intrigues, marked by shrewd and unguessable moves from all sides. The plot twist that it turns on toward the end feels remarkably fresh and contemporary, which could be happenstance—but at least it's not the only thing that makes this picture so surprising and crackling alive.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


The letter N is a simple and solid consonant, as plain as the brown earth, representing basically only one sound and a sound that no other letter approximates or mimics. Well, oh, wait a second. There is also the "ng" formation, a kind of vocalized choking noise emulating the sounds G and N might make if they were having sex. Oh, wait, yes, note: this also applies with K, as in "thunk." Which is the sound my head makes on my desktop every time I attempt these catalogs. Because I just remembered the shenanigans N gets up to with K, G, and who knows what other letters, I can't think about it now I'm in a bit of a bad mood. I'm speaking, of course, of the so-called silent letter. Know what I mean, gnat? Can we think about this for a second? The silent letter—the silent letter? Aren't we supposed to be talking about speech here?! What are these silent letters doing all over the place?! It just makes me feel so negative. The primary sound of N is made with a vocalized pushing of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. It is similar to M, a tender grunt made with closed lips. The vocalizing enables either to be elongated at will, viz., "hmm," a feat that B, D, and other vocalized consonants can't do. But M and N are easily distinguished—one involves a compression of the lips, and the other the tongue as described above. Alphabet makers must have seen some similarity, if they put them next to one another and made their shapes so similar, even including the parallel hump shapes of the lowercases, which I neglected to mention before. The letter N is the first letter in the second half of the alphabet—and it's a long way home from here, baby. Sometimes, like a sandwich made with apostrophes, it represents "and" all on its own, e.g., "well, get in that kitchen / make some noise with the pots 'n' pans." But the letter N may be most famous now for its general air of rejection: no, non, nyet, nope, negatory, N/A, nope, nuh-uh, no way, naw I don't think so, and so forth. Compare Y. Children express negation by chanting "na-na-na" at one another. Later, as adults, they will do the same by calling one another nihilists. In scientific and mathematical formulation n is the ultimate cipher, a focal point of expression, that which we solve for. I read an article once about shopping for computers and it advised looking for the best deals at the "n - 1" level of technology, where n represented the present state of the art and "n - 1" the state of the art just before that. Some very good deals on machines there still, if you understand the market. But do I understand the market these days? I think I would have to say N.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

We never actually learn the name of the journalist who has been assigned the Miss Lonelyhearts column in Nathanael West's strange and very short novel. He is referred to only as "Miss Lonelyhearts" and thus even the narrator participates in the constant ridicule he is subjected to. It's the deepest part of the Depression and Miss Lonelyhearts just needs a job, so he has taken the gig. But he suffers sympathetically with the suffering in the letters that pour into the newspaper for him daily. That's all. He prowls the hard streets of New York City, that most modern of all metropolises, not quite yet dragging himself through Allen Ginsberg's negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, but that's where he's headed. He has to take what he can get for employment, a young man trying to establish himself, and what he gets is a basketful of pain. He suffers, not least from being the fortunate one in a sea of misery, the miserable one who knows he is fortunate. As comedy, as intended, the fundamental situation never changes. Doing nothing is impossible—Miss Lonelyhearts is too naïve and idealistic still, too young and callow—but doing anything only makes everything worse. And so it goes, occasionally "relieved" by passages from the letters he receives, reads, responds to, and ultimately flirts with oblivion to get away from. The letters bring news of humanity's sad wellsprings ongoing. Going on today still, 80+ years and counting, as they no doubt will be in 800+ years and counting, if humanity can survive its follies, which presently looks doubtful. I like the compressions of West best of all. This novel moves so quickly and at such acute angles it's easy to miss the fathomless depths it sits atop. In that way it reads to me more of a piece with the invention of pulp noir that was then taking place, with the work of William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett, combining formal structural experiments with a pebbly hard narrative stream of headlong momentum. James M. Cain did not just come out of nowhere, of course. At the same time, no one else seemed even close to West's ability to look into the abyss, suffer the psychological damage, and attempt to report back, the witness to "victims burnt at the stake, signaling through flames." Overall, the recourse to Antonin Artaud is not inapt for this dark little funny book.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Apartment (1960)

USA, 125 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Photography: Joseph LaShelle
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Joan Shawlee, Edie Adams, David Lewis, Hope Holiday

It's always struck me odd that director Billy Wilder chose to shoot Some Like it Hot in black and white, because it seems like such a natural for the vivid color treatment, especially once it gets to Florida. But I have no such problems with The Apartment. Its dreariness, even set in the heart of bustling, upscale New York City, is practically its main point—that is, right after farce. Billed as comedy, sold as comedy, often played as comedy, there's not actually much that seems funny in The Apartment, and there's probably more to it than just making adjustments for other times (which can't be entirely ruled out either). "Light-hearted" is about as far as I'm willing to go and even that is misleading.

The Apartment has a kind of half-surprising connection to It's a Wonderful Life, another peculiar comedy set during the holidays. At least, formally, they both pivot on a suicide attempt and end on a New Year's Eve bawling of "Auld Lang Syne." Jack Lemmon plays C.C. "Buddy Boy" Baxter, an accounting drone in an insurance company who lives in an apartment nearby in midtown Manhattan. Partly because he thinks it will help him get ahead, and partly because he's just a nebbish at heart, Baxter makes his apartment available to certain high-ranking players in his company for their illicit trysts. What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, September 10, 2015


I get the impression that the letter M is particularly popular among Roman numeralist mavens, especially those in the motion picture industry, who have spent something close to a century confusing us with copyright dates. Perhaps it was all worth it when the year 2000 finally arrived with that elegant formulation of "MM." Small consolation, but incidentally reminds me of the attempted promotion of M&M candies at the same time, which seemed like a natural for the new millennium but somehow never managed to take off. Maybe people just aren't that much into Roman numerals? The NFL finally figured it out with its idiotic Super Bowl numbering. As for the candy name, that finds its source in the business collaboration between Forrest Mars, Sr., who was the son of Mars candy company founder Frank C. Mars, and Bruce Murrie, who was the son of Hershey's principal William F.R. Murrie. That's an awful lot of chocolate, M, and class privilege there. M is the 13th letter of the alphabet, standing in as the termination of the first half. When I realized sometime recently that the postal abbreviation for my home state of Minnesota, MN, actually thus spans the two halves of the alphabet, it struck me as one more conceptual bifurcation of the area and my origins. MN, after all, straddles the Mississippi River at the center of the continent, and has radio stations with call letters starting with both K and W. Perhaps most obviously there is the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also, more personally, in a kind of primal ur-bifurcation, two specific western suburbs of Minneapolis: Minnetonka, which provided my family's mailing address, and Hopkins, whose schools I attended. There were clear class divisions between the traditional, garden-style suburb of Minnetonka, formerly a resort, and the small town of Hopkins, which skewed more working class, swallowed by encroaching big city growth. But that is a topic for another time, this bifurcation. We're supposed to be talking about M here. M is more or less a natural letter. Compress the lips, sound the vocal cords—what could be easier or more primal? In fact, the sound appears to be among the first grasped at all, associated with "mama," often one of the first words learned or spoken. As an aside, I have known people to train dogs to say the word. What's interesting to me in those cases is that even though the lip movements and vocal sounds are fairly good at imitating the sound of the word, it rarely registers as a dog saying a word. The intentionality or something is missing. If anything, however, that's more likely a problem with the vowel than the consonant. Those dogs are getting the letter M right. Speaking of growling, please don't remind me of the baseball team the Seattle Mariners, often commonly known as the Ms. They are hard at work competing for status as the worst team in all baseball history, and as such they are putting this letter into a terribly embarrassing predicament. Not even M, I suspect, can get behind the Ms. And I do not blame it.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Princess Casamassima (1886)

I'm really not sure what to make of this strange, overlong Henry James novel, which takes on radical 19th-century European Marxist activists in much the same way his previous novel, The Bostonians, took on radical 19th-century Massachusetts feminism. It is interesting to see James make the attempt at relevance, for lack of a better term, but ultimately they are merely Henry James novels with the topicality slathered on like frosting. The Princess Casamassima is rich with character and story but somewhat short on insight. In the end, as he must, by his own inclinations, James slip-slides into apologist for the existing order, making out the mass of activists as benighted buffoons, well-meaning but stupid, or in some cases unpleasantly cunning and a little bit psychopathic. It's interesting to see the degree to which James was aware of the world around him, even if his disdain for it is all too plain. Hopefully this is the end of such experiments and we will be returning once again shortly to interiorities. At the same time, I must say there's something very affecting about the way he chooses to resolve this one—for me it ended up being worth the slog. Much of the first half is backstory, and the thing is positively dense with characters. None of them, save the victim at its center—the humble bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson, whose story it is more than the princess, who arrives remarkably late for a title character—has any particular focus or chemistry one with another, but they are reasonably interesting studies of European types. Perhaps that is another problem with this and The Bostonians—the usual tensions between Americans and Europeans are virtually absent. Where The Bostonians takes place in America and is about Americans, in The Princess Casamassima it is all Europe—London, mainly—and Europeans. Even at this long date, my political sympathies lie to the left of James, so occasionally I grew impatient with his hard-headed "common sense" characters, who assert that focusing on poverty and human rights is a silly waste of time because shut up. And the melodramatics of the plotting here are frequently embarrassed by overly exposed joints. Still, I was impressed by the way it ends. Worth keeping around for a rainy day.

"interlocutor" count = 13 / 608 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


The letter L is impressively rational—represents one sound only (though woe to the Spanish when it is doubled), which no other letter represents. But it's interesting to me that the sound is not itself universal to all languages. At least one of the major Asian languages, Chinese or Japanese, does not use it, and attempting to teach it to adult speakers tends to produce the predictable comical results. To me, it seems a very natural sound, but when I start attempting to describe the mouth mechanics required to produce it I realize it's a bit complex after all, what with getting your tongue just so behind the front teeth. It's vocalized and it is also infinite, which we have seen so far among the consonants only with F and H, both largely unvocalized. It's easier to control the volume of the L than the surprisingly noisy hissing S. I think part of my brain is wired to appreciate the distinction between L and S because I'm abnormally sensitive to the shades of meaning between "continual" and "continuous," and have a decided preference for situations involving the former, although it's not the continuity of the sounds but the definitions that are my reason. It's like another peeve, over the word "disinterest," a similar cases of a nice connotation swamped and overrun now by bludgeoning, over-simple usage. But now we are afield of our friend the letter L. I'll tell you who else likes L and get prepared to be impressed. None other than Superman himself—yes, that's right, Kal-El of the planet Krypton, son of Jor-El and Lara. He had a thing for L the way I have a thing for K—Superman's two favorite women were Lois Lane and Lana Lang and his deadliest archenemy was Lex Luthor. Note also that his mother's name is Lara and his last name appears to be El. Now that I think about it for a second, however, why would anyone look for the sign of the L in an archenemy? Well, L is also for losers, as we all know (first finger and thumb against forehead), and Superman was usually helping some of them out, so that's probably part of the explanation too (but I'm not even sure Brainiac gets this one). I like the way L takes the 90-degree lower-left corner of a box shape, direct and no-frills, although pronunciation of the letter itself would seem to have some qualities of the frilly. Making people flip their tongues around like that. It's a good-time letter, blending seamlessly with others such as B, C, and F (and not at all, in the second position, with D, M, or N). Combining consonants with L in the first position is slightly more problematic, but done: half (oops, that's one of those mysterious "silent letters" again, isn't it? kind of like an "irrational" number), talcum (two distinct syllables there, as in "almost," so perhaps doesn't count), alms, kiln, bulb, etc. And yes, I just remembered that combining form in words like "double" and "bubble." By and large an honest workmanlike letter. Indeed, the idea of letters itself must have liked L so much that it took L for the first letter in the word "letter." LOL