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


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 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 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.