Monday, March 28, 2016

The Witch (2015)

As the lights went down for yet another weekday matinee movie screened exclusively for me, myself, and I, and as the images of pilgrims came out of the shadows to start the picture, I found myself wondering about the subcategory of witch movies within the broader horror ghetto. Whenever the deep forest environs of The Witch came to the fore—as important an element here as any—I was reminded immediately and repeatedly of The Blair Witch Project, and never of The Wizard of Oz, both of which appeared frequently in the lists I googled up later. Director and writer Robert Eggers is a relatively untried production designer with an abiding interest in fairy tales and the fantastic. The Witch comes with a gaudy subtitle—"A New-England Folktale"—that gives away the preoccupations with both the fantastic and the factually accurate. Set in 1630s Massachusetts wilderness, it pieces its story and even dialogue from period documents. It's soon established, for purposes of the movie, that at least one witch is real. A goat and other satanic appurtenances are also involved. In the story, a family of pilgrims—husband, wife, and their five children—chooses exile over murky disputed points of religion with a larger group. In this context, choosing exile can also be understood as a sin of pride. The family finds a patch of open land near a forest and begins to farm it. They caution one another never to enter the woods, it's a family rule, but of course at different times many of them saunter right in. The scenes inside the forest are gloomy, foreboding, and beautiful, and again, they hark to similar scenes in Blair Witch (albeit with steadicam this time). The father may or may not be a religious intellectual powerhouse, but he's otherwise inept. He can't farm and he can't hunt. The mother is exhausted and close to breaking down emotionally. All they have is work ethic. Of their children, the oldest girl and oldest boy are beginning to feel their sexuality. A boy and girl set of twins are somehow off. And last there's a newborn, Sam.

After some weeks or months there, calamity begins to descend on them. That's the arc here. No point going into specifics, you can see yourself, except to note that it's a very steady drumbeat of disaster. The period detail, the costuming and so forth, feels totally authentic, which is probably no surprise in a movie directed by a production designer. The language is formal English, with the odd locutions of the 17th century, many a "thee" and "thou" for example. I think what works best are the scenes obviously informed by the documentary "evidence": recorded legends, eyewitness accounts, and so forth. To be clear, certainly it's doubtful they ever happened. Those making testimony against witches all too often had ulterior motives or didn't like women or both. Still, it's a certain window into a contemporaneous view of what we now regard as superstition. The family members simply take it as given that they are locked in battle with dark forces, a remarkable view itself now. They instantly respond in kind, with prayers and supplications and such, on their knees, huddled in a circle. In one scene, the twins suddenly forget the words to the Lord's Prayer mid-session, and then go mute. Very close attention turns to one of the family's goats (as well it should). The Witch is reasonably spooky and shivery, and almost always restrained and quiet, though it gets to some pretty nasty places. At still another point, the oldest boy is in the woods by himself, breaking the family rule, and the witch appears to him as a beautiful, beautiful woman. She beckons him to come closer, come closer, and he does, he does. His whole trip only goes stranger from there. As with "standing in the corner" in Blair Witch, this is what's so scary about witches in the woods. You're liable to run into something that gets you in its power and tells you to do things, and you do them. Even when it's not in your best interest. The Witch is really pretty good.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"River of Names" (1988)

Read story by Dorothy Allison online.

This story feels less like a conventional story and more like a conventional, if allusive and powerful, overture to a memoir. The title is not misleading, as the first-person narrator broods and remembers, recalling isolated incidents and people from her family of origin. There are a lot of names here. Impoverished white Southerners, they are—Allison reportedly was motivated to this and the larger work it's part of, a collection of stories called Trash, by disparaging remarks she found in a review of a book by a writer she admired. They are telling tales from lives of horror stories: incest, abuse, drunkenness, and way too many children. We know these elements well, not least in part because of work such as this, which stood up and insisted on the existence of reality. That was necessary once—it's always necessary, but was much more urgent even 30 years ago (though in this election year, it must be said, it could once again become urgent). Another element in this story, which was first drafted many years before it was published in 1988, is Allison declaring her lesbian sexuality, which is accomplished by shifts in the narrative to an ongoing intimate conversation with her partner Jesse about her past. Jesse has enjoyed a more privileged life, and is just slightly callous about the narrator's experience. The narrator is never named, which also contributes to the feeling of a memoir, where such information is a given (and not a device). The open declaration of her sexuality feels a little dated too. We know better, not well enough yet but better, that these things happen: both the abuses, and the grappling with sexuality. In the '80s, they were still very nearly taboo topics, so Allison's story was doing other work, attempting to break down barriers that have to be broken down. More than anything the story makes me sad, for the events and vulnerabilities disclosed in the narrative, and for the necessity of such a blunt approach. You can feel Allison, the writer, struggling to redeem herself through the shame of her experience. The shame is what's felt most viscerally here. The experiences were horrible and had to be horrible to live through—that's there in the severity and multiplicity of the horrible events she recounts, or refers to, and all those many names. Allison is glancing and flitting across the surface of a vast ocean of pain. And there's so much surface to it, stretching all the way to the horizon, the myriads of detail, she's not even concerned much yet with the depths that must lie below. It's a fathomless story this set of fragments implies, a place that can drown you.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Trash by Dorothy Allison

Saturday, March 26, 2016

All That Noise (1990)

The Darkside is not to be confused with a more recent act, DARKSIDE, which is more like electronica and operates out of New York. The band that made this album was a British act, or recording project more like, spun out of the Spacemen 3 complex. It's a bit murky who is involved and to what degrees—for the band generally, Wikipedia offers the names Pete Bain, Sterling Roswell, Nick Haydn, Craig Wagstaff, and Kevin Cowen. My copy of the CD shows a photo of three guys, unidentified. Much of the credit, for songwriting, personnel, production, and even design, simply goes to "The Darkside." If forced to categorize, I'm happiest with labels such as psychedelia, space-rock, or drone-rock, though it also bears some relation to shoegaze. And you might as well categorize it, because it is fairly derivative, with roots in '60s garage and/or various psychedelic high points and obscurities, filtered through infinitely slowing tempos and an ethos they inherited naturally of "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to." The various touchstones can be sensed in the titles: "Guitar Voodoo" (the long opener, which harks at once to both Jimi Hendrix and Shake Some Action), "She Don't Come," "Soul Deep," "Love in a Burning Universe," and of course the title song—which don't believe the hype, this is actually quite gentle music. The songs are primitive, real simple simon met a pie man, involving rudimentary hooks with electric guitar, bass, drumkit, occasional keyboard, and subtle studio witchery. The main point is the mood first, which is somber, quivering toward ecstasy, and then second all the power of the electric guitar inflecting it. The moods are deepened with thoughtfully blistering breaks and textures, stinging little solos, wah-wah notes, tender moues of feedback to affirm points. The singer is flat and restrained but gets the job done nonetheless, sounding slightly put out, which also suits the mood. Indeed, there's a muffled, breathless quality to the whole thing—it sounds as if it were recorded in a chamber from which half the oxygen had been pumped out. This is all by way of elucidating the likely reasons it flopped commercially and remains something of an obscurity. But as an owner since it was practically new (though no longer recalling the circumstances of acquiring it), I have to say it has amazingly enduring charms. The songwriting understands pop fundamentals just enough and the players never forget the power of the studio and electric guitar. Its sweet sounds fill a room so nicely for the 40 minutes it lasts that I often play it back to back.

Friday, March 25, 2016

True Romance (1993)

USA / France, 120 minutes
Director: Tony Scott
Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Photography: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editors: Michael Tronick, Christian Wagner
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Conchata Ferrell, Michael Rapaport, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore

As a matter of pure coincidence, I happened to run across a listicle on the Internet this morning when I sat down to write, The 15 Best Movies About Lovers on the Run. It not only put True Romance at the tippy-toppest of the heap but also included most of the other titles I'd thought to jot down while looking at it again recently: Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Something Wild, Wild at Heart. The only one from my notes not on that writer's list was After Hours, which after all is not so much lovers on the run as man in over his head. A man in over his head is often a natural feature of lovers-on-the-run movies, including True Romance. A man in over his head, but in this case a man rising to the occasion, and in more than easy comical ways.

The listicle writer was also extremely positive about Quentin Tarantino's script, calling it "the purest, coolest, and most honest thing Tarantino has ever written." After Jackie Brown, which I think wins even just on those three specifics, I'm inclined to agree. True Romance is a beautiful underclass Elvis and Marilyn story about a girl from Tallahassee, Florida, and a comic book store clerk from Detroit whose faith in love carries the day. Already Tarantino's greatest strengths are on display, in the way the dialogue rolls, in the way the characters intermesh, and yes, in the way the violence explodes.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"A Tragedy of Error" (1864)

This story by Henry James has a few points of interest. Perhaps most significantly, it's his first story published, when he was 21—published without attribution, however, which may be the reason it was "lost" and then "rediscovered" in the 1950s. It's relatively primitive, but easily enough recognized as James. More interesting still, it's a kind of mystery or even horror story, and quite frank about the sins and transgressions it recounts. A woman has taken a lover while her husband is away at sea—more than a lover, a man she has fallen in love with, and wants to be with. As the story begins, she has learned that her husband is returning—indeed, will be back the very next day. She visits the docks of the unnamed French seaport where the story is set (it might be Le Havre) and finds a ruffian, whom she engages to murder her husband. As it turns out, and as you might easily have guessed—yes, I'm giving it all away now—through strained but believable enough confusions, the man murdered is her lover. Oops. That's about it. The longest scene covers making contact and closing the deal with the ruffian. The murder happens off stage, perhaps even soon after the last events of the story. There's a kind of doomed fatality to it that we know, penalty for indulged sexuality. It's even a bit of a cliche, and may have been then too. It's never graphic, but it's not coy either, and in that way strikes me as more candid than typical of its Victorian times about such behaviors. At the same time, all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed in terms of who gets punished: only the guilty, and all of the guilty. As usual in a moral universe, the innocents are spared, if not rewarded. It's recognizably James in its language, but even more in the perverse way it riffs on conventions of the novel of manners, focused on the ends of marriage. But not ends of marriage this way. It's less often the case that adultery and murder plots are injected at all in those stories, let alone made the subject. In that way it's nothing like a story of courtship and much closer to instructive morality. But the artful way it depends on misunderstandings and miscommunications is pure manners. Plus, even though James was only 21 when this was published, there is already an unmistakable urbanity to his voice. Interesting curiosity.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 32 pages

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Big Country (1958)

USA, 165 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder, Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler, Donald Hamilton
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Jerome Moross
Editors: Robert Belcher, John Faure
Cast: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya, Chuck Connors

The Big Country seems expressly designed to live up to the "big" in its title—a tale of pioneering ranchers in the West, the movie is nearly three hours long, shot on California locations that convincingly enough look like the Great Plains and "Big Sky" country, with a handful of stars and even an Academy Award for one of them (Burl Ives, who is very good). The theme music by Jerome Moross is epic, memorably sounding like Marlboro cigarettes and those "beef, it's what's for dinner" TV commercials. The story revolves around a long-standing dispute between two families that is turning into a depraved blood feud. Into this mess comes a man of strength and peace.

That's Gregory Peck, as James McKay, come West to marry his college sweetheart, Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker). McKay is actually much more than he appears to be, representing a certain ideal of unpretentious masculinity also seen in John Wayne's performance in The Quiet Man, or later from Peck again in To Kill a Mockingbird. These men abhor displays of dominance as exhibitionistic and unseemly. They have the strength of their self-awareness and don't need to prove things unnecessarily. This confuses people with bullying temperaments, which is approximately where we arrive at what I like best about The Big Country. Pat's family, the Terrills, and the clan they war with, the Hannasseys, tend to see McKay as an Eastern dude, a coward and embarrassment, a troublesome annoyance they have to mind and keep out of scrapes. They don't think he understands "reality." But it's Gregory Peck, folks. You know who's going to end up schooling who here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Deadpool (2016)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Shortly after the Avengers movie (is it really already four years?), I decided superhero movies were not for me. I loved comic books when I was a kid and I probably would love these blockbuster franchises too, maybe. Also Harry Potter, while I'm at it. Where's my second childhood?! My point is, I went to Deadpool based on word of mouth, and also because it was a big hit so I was curious. And found that, except for a bad case of having its cake and eating it too, it's a likable enough warm and fuzzy acerbic black comedy. Yes, the main target is easy: superhero movies. I don't know the Deadpool comic book at all, but this movie is two things: funny and action-packed. I suspect, on the latter point, it's nothing special these days. The Avengers was full of these balletic fight scenes. Still, Deadpool seemed entirely sufficient to me, and I was downright impressed with the freewheeling POV and the way it slows, speeds, or even stops the action at will. Cool beans. But it's best, I must say, at skewering the enterprise. Deadpool is a superhero—or, well, he's a mutant, so we are in the X-Menny corner of the Marvel universe. Some of their names are dropped, but the only two who appear—Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (yes, that's what she goes by)—are more like mutant back-benchers. Deadpool is a little bit nutty and a little bit sadistic. This is his origin story, so you'll find out all about that. In fact, it's a point of honor to him that he's not a hero, by his own repeated declaration. Whatever. He wears a costume so that answers that question, although, in fairness, in his case it looks like for once the costume helps more than hinders, and there are reasons for things like it being red (although I don't understand the eye holes). His mutant "power" is that nothing ever kills him, along with possessing a real sharp set of reflexes. Obviously immortality comes in handy, and there are larger questions beyond if someone ever has a mind. It's a Frankenstein movie in many ways, though more often playing by familiar superhero movie rules, which it calls attention to, all brat style, as it goes. As for the origin, it's the usual radioactive spider kind of deal, but there are some surprises, such as a type of torture that takes waterboarding to its next logical level. Yes, I should warn, there's torture, but it's more militarist, in the James Bond / Cold War vein, helmed by a mad scientist—more efficient, less pornographic. There's some pathos here too, as the love story is reasonably tender and believable. But more than anything it's funny, sending up the whole gig even as it indulges it shamelessly. Definitely worth a look.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967)

Here's another Norman Mailer novel that stopped me at the front porch for years, and which I have still managed to get all the way through only once, even though it's a bit of a shorty. For some reason, perhaps because it comes near the first flowering of Mailer the journalist, I always expect some deadly earnest Socratic dialogue between a father and son on the eve of the son's shipping out to war. Where would I get that idea? Could it be the title? Instead it is something much more like the movie Vanishing Point relocated to a bear hunt in backcountry Alaska. It is obviously rooted in William Faulkner's novella The Bear, both in its overt story and its use of same to illustrate wider ideas and principles. But it's The Bear as narrated by an overprivileged '60s teen. The language is almost unbearable—this jivey, punning, slangy onslaught that, while often clever, just smells of painful put-on now. He's not William Burroughs, not even close, although I'd expect to find that marijuana had quite a bit to do with this book. Mailer always struggled for adequate distance from his ego and it's constantly a problem here. It's not the jabbering 16-year-old narrator D.J. who dominates this screed, as he should, but rather you keep sensing Mailer himself peeking out from behind his narrator with a big grin and thumbs-up, reminding you how clever he is. And yes, he's clever to a very fine point here. It's carefully audacious, his specialty. The license he takes with his characters' names alone is often greatly entertaining. And I always appreciate anyone taking on corporatism as acidly as Mailer can, even though it's an easy target. Indeed, Why Are We in Vietnam? could well be one of his greatest moments for that. You realize as you read that it could have been called Why We Are in Vietnam rather than the interrogative. But then the flaws intrude again in the composition of the story. It's more of a metaphorical polemic than a proper novel. It's Mailer the literary pugilist and he wants to have a fight, so he casts a play in order to make the insult and throw down the gauntlet, as it were. Why Are We in Vietnam? is one of a kind, I'll give it that. Vanishing Point the movie picked it up from here five years later and the rest is the dustbin of history.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Black Messiah (2014)

I'm very fond of this loose tribute to early-'70s funk and soul (think Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, and Miles Davis), though it raises a few perplexing questions. Not the least of which, for example: isn't D'Angelo known for his singing? At best, that's swallowed in the mix here. I'm not saying that's a bad thing—the groove in service to the mood is the main point and little gets in the way. Some other time for the sultry torch songs, seems to be the idea (yet perhaps inevitably strains of that show up when you're not looking). The band is very sharp, intuitively in touch with itself. But much of it is D'Angelo overdubbing himself in the studio, so "intuitively in touch with itself" should not be so surprising. In that case, the surprise is how loose and spontaneous the "band" sounds, raving it up in the studio. Another question: why the long spaces between albums? Black Messiah is only D'Angelo's third album in 20 years, which may be the most remarkable and perplexing point of all. But we mostly know the answers there. He was working on the album for much of the time since his last one, Voodoo, in 2000. Many well documented personal problems intervened, which may explain in part the sadness that broods over this set. Again, the apt and familiar comparisons are to Sly circa There's a Riot Goin' On and Marvin circa What's Going On. The historical parallels between the times are almost irresistible: a seeming huge step forward, the civil rights advances for Sly and Marvin, election and reelection of the first African-American president for D'Angelo, followed by numerous setbacks. Bewilderment and loss are the order of the day. That's not all there is to Black Messiah, of course, which is often as uplifting as it is melancholy, working on a rich stew of funk, gospel, and African-American pride. But the result is just a little bit of a muddle—I have to admit I haven't bothered to parse the lyrics at all. Every time I try to concentrate on them I'm somehow too easily distracted by other things—the friendly swagger of the groove, the odd textures, or maybe by something I'm reading on the Internet. The album wavers in and out of attention, never entirely commanding it. I still can't make up my mind if it's objectively good or bad (in any and all senses, I suppose) or what, but I play it a lot and expect I will for awhile.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Rock Critic Murders (1987)

This hard-boiled detective novel is a little bit more, and a little bit less, than you might think. Jesse Sublett is a lifelong denizen of Austin, Texas, a bass player, songwriter, and founding member of the Skunks. In the '80s, he established himself as a writer—journalist, essayist, and crime fiction novelist. Here he is working self-consciously in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Our intrepid gumshoe hero is a bass player working a day job in a collection agency as a skiptracer—delicious jargon abounds all through. His name is Martin Fender, and if that makes you groan, note that the drummer in the band is named Billy Ludwig. The band is getting back together for a reunion gig, but the star guitar player and heart and soul of the band, KC, is kind of depressed. Then he turns up dead of a suicide. Then so do a couple of local rock critics. It spools on from there: there's a hot chick redhead who is nothing but trouble, a missing kilo of cocaine, a shady real estate deal, sinister Mexicans. It's regionalized to the environs of Austin, and has no new ideas about the hard-boiled dick tale. But Sublett has got the midnight noir deadpan down pretty well, and that carries it. For me it started off a lot better than it ended, which is often the case with hard-boiled detective fiction. What intrigued me, of course, was the rock critic thread, and it is a rich one, unfortunately seen only in glimpses. I wish there'd been more of these guys. The first time two of them show up, just before they are murdered (gone too soon, alas), is a window into a certain point of view. One is grossly fat, patronizing, and full of himself. The other is a nervous runt. Their utter uselessness as human beings is only underlined by their garish exit. Later, outside a nightclub, a few more rock critics are seen, and they could well be as loathsome as the victims, but unfortunately they fall back into the shade too quickly. I wanted more rock critics! It does feel like there is some obscure score settling going on here, as Fender's contempt for them is utter and total. Fender (and Sublett) are coming at it from the musicians' side, so there is a lot of nice detail about studios, band rehearsals, nightclub management, and general touring and performing experience. Sublett has gone on to write more novels in a series featuring Fender— Tough Baby, Boiled in Concrete—plus some true-crime and what looks to be a very interesting personal story in a memoir, Never the Same Again. So I came for the rock critics, but maybe I'll end up staying for something else.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Smultronstället, Sweden, 91 minutes
Director/writer: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Gunnar Fischer
Music: Erik Nordgren, Gute Loven
Editor: Oscar Rosander
Cast: Victor Sjostrom, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, Naima Wifstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gertrud Fridh, Gunnel Brostrom, Gunnar Sjoberg

Wild Strawberries was one of the first art films I saw and thus remains one I still like, as it has many impressive tricks and stunts for the novice. Truthfully, since then, I have been around the block a couple of times about it. The bold, high-contrast black and white simplicity of the look, the general dour cast of mind, and the overbearing symbolism in the dream sequences were exciting as signifiers of high A - R - T. Later they seemed pretentious and trite for the same reasons. Now it all has a nostalgic glow—quaint, out of touch, overdone, perhaps, but very charming in places and often searing in its insights. And if it seems hackneyed, well, that might just be an indication of its influence.

Even if you've never seen it, it probably feels familiar within minutes. It has been parodied nearly as much as director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman's other film of that year, The Seventh Seal. Victor Sjostrom plays Isak Borg, an accomplished doctor and researcher who has reached the age of 78. The film mostly takes place on a single day, a June 1—a day of long light in Sweden, as spring slips into summer—when Isak is scheduled to receive an honorary degree from a prestigious university for his life's work. The night before, he can't sleep. He has a dream that looks to us now like an epitome of art film dream clichés—clocks with no hands, his own body spilling out of a coffin, etc. But it sets a mood, almost first thing in the movie, and begins to soften us for the strange, deliberate, Brechtian way that fantasies, dreams, and memories mix and comingle in this picture, existing side by side across time and space. See also Woody Allen's Another Woman, which lifts the stream of consciousness device whole and recontextualizes it nicely.