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.